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The DVD Wrapup: Into the Woods, Unbroken, Errol Morris, Michael Almereyda, Mr. Bean and More

Friday, March 27th, 2015

Into the Woods: Blu-ray
It’s no secret that the Disney empire owes a great debt of gratitude — if not any licensing fees or screen credits – to the Brothers Grimm, whose many wonderful stories the company has cherry-picked for movies, television shows, Broadway, amusement parks, plush  toys and costumes. If proceeds from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs allowed Uncle Walt to create Disney Studios in Burbank, the success of Cinderella, 13 years later, probably saved it from financial ruin. Any concern that Disney’s new, live-action Cinderella would fail to maintain the worldwide momentum generated by Maleficent, Alice in Wonderland and, yes, even, Oz the Great and Powerful was quashed 24 hours into its huge opening weekend. And, while both of Disney’s adaptations owe more to Charles Perrault’s 1697 “Cendrillon” than to the Grimms’ 1812 “Aschenputtel,” the latter’s version is the one that informs Anna Kendrick’s performance in Into the Woods. Just as Walt Disney felt it necessary to brighten the darkness that informed the source material, so as to appeal to family audiences and not scare the crap out of the kiddies, the studio worked closely with director Rob Marshall, writer James Lapine and composer Stephen Sondheim to modify the stage musical to fit MPAA guidelines for a PG rating and lop off a half-hour in the process. The excisions didn’t please all critics, but the author and composer haven’t wasted their time whining about the trims or bemoaning the elimination of several new and old songs. Even so, I do think that some parents will find the PG to be a tad on the generous side for young viewers and anyone still inclined to sneak out of the family room in anticipation of the flying-monkey scene in The Wizard of Oz.

In this allegorical mashup of “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Cinderella,” “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Rapunzel,” the woods truly are something to dread. Colleen Atwood’s Oscar-nominated production design adds an aura of menace that nicely complements Meryl Streep’s in-your-face approach to the Witch. At a sometimes complex and challenging 125 minutes – the musical was, after all, inspired by Bruno Bettelheim’s “The Uses of Enchantment” — I suspect that most pre-teens will find Into the Woods to be too long a slog, anyway. Nor will the young’uns benefit much by being made aware of the dangers that lurk in the woods or that facing them is a rite of passage they’ll eventually have to pass or fail. In this regard, the PG rating may actually have caused older teens and young adults to bypass the movie, assuming it to be too diluted, which it’s not. Besides Streep, the terrific ensemble cast includes Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, Mackenzie Mauzy, Billy Magnussen and Johnny Depp. Their voices may not be equal, but the acting is well up to par. Commentary is provided by Marshall and producer John DeLuca. Featurettes add “Streep Sings Sondheim,” with the deleted song “She’ll Be Back”; “There’s Something About the Woods,” in which cast and crew discuss the role of the forest in the musical; “The Cast as Good as Gold,” in which Marshall and the cast provide an overview of the casting process, embracing rehearsals, creating a company of actors and developing chemistry between the players; the four-part making-of documentary, “Deeper Into the Woods”; and 54-minute “Music & Lyrics,” with interactive features.

Unbroken: Blu-ray
It’s taken nearly 70 years for Hollywood to finally make a movie about Louis “Louie” Zamperini, a record-setting distance runner, who, during World War II, survived two near-fatal plane crashes, 47 harrowing days on a life raft and more than two tortuous years in Japanese POW camps. Before making good on promise he made to God while battling hunger, thirst, sunstroke, dive bombers and sharks on the raft, Zamperini also would be required to defeat alcoholism, PTSD and dreadful nightmares that usually ended with him strangling his Japanese captors. With the encouragement of his wife and assistance of evangelical crusader Billy Graham, the onetime Torrance juvenile delinquent learned to forgive the men who resented his modicum of fame and punished him with incessant beatings in front of his fellow POWs. Once he defeated his own demons, Zamperini was finally in a position to help teens desperate for the kind of break he received when he was in danger of becoming a ward of the state. Zamperini would stay physically active until his death last year, at 97, and even ran a leg in the Olympic Torch Relay for the Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, not far from the POW camp in which he fully expected to be murdered in the immediate wake of the armistice. That’s not a movie … that’s a mini-series. Maybe so, but it would take Universal another half-century to find someone able to figure out a way to turn the second half of this exemplary life story – the rights to which it had purchased in the late-1950s – into something someone would pay to see. In fact, it was director/producer Angelina Jolie who convinced the studio to invest in what many people, at various times, considered to be a no-brainer.

It wasn’t until the release of Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling biography, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption,” that a workable framework for the picture revealed itself. Once that happened, Jolie was able to benefit from a screenplay credited to the Coen Brothers, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson, Roger Deakins’s Oscar-nominated cinematography and a physically taxing performance by Brit newcomer Jack O’Connell. Considering how much of the action in Unbroken is confined to smallish spaces and close-up renditions of beatings, Jolie does a nice job keeping the 137-minute movie from feeling oppressively claustrophobic or voyeuristic. She also asks us to consider the nature of heroism in war. After all, the most heroic thing Zamperini did in the war was survive. He defied his captors simply by being able to endure the punishment and refusing to participate in Japanese propaganda broadcasts. He agreed to make one benign broadcast, primarily as a way to inform family members that he wasn’t dead. Unbeknownst to Zamperini, his status had been downgraded from MIA to KIA and the Japanese wanted to embarrass the U.S. for the unintended mistake. Once that became clear, he was sent back to prison and punished even more for his effrontery. The most curious decision made by the creative team was to end the story with the prisoners’ return home, compacting the rest of the history lesson into several provocative postscripts. In an act of Christian charity that almost defies explanation, Zamperini would return to Japan twice to personally forgive his captors, the most vile of whom escaped prosecution. That wretched man, known to the prisoners as “The Bird,” refused to meet with his onetime punching bag or express remorse he didn’t feel was warranted.  The Blu-ray/DVD bonus package corrects the problem by adding such informative featurettes as “Inside Unbroken: Fifty Years in the Making,” “Inside Unbroken: The Fight of a Storyteller–Director Angelina Jolie,” “Inside Unbroken: The Hardiest Generation,” “The Real Louis Zamperini,” “Louis’ Path to Forgiveness,” a cast-and-crew concert, “Prison Camp Theater: Cinderella” and deleted scenes.

Gates of Heaven/Vernon, Florida: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Another Girl Another Planet + 3 Others
Long before Errol Morris became recognized internationally for plumbing the dark depths of sociopathic secretaries of defense and a prominent Holocaust denier, he was best known for his unconventional profiles of unsung Americans and being denied an Oscar nomination for The Thin Blue Line. In that exhaustively researched documentary, Morris not only was able to get a man falsely convicted of capital murder released from prison, but he also convinced the actual perpetrator to recant his previous testimony at a hearing prompted by new evidence uncovered in the film. In the suspect wisdom of the academy’s documentary committee, The Thin Blue Line was deemed to be a work of fiction because some of its content was scripted. Twenty-four years before The Theory of Everything, Morris had introduced Stephen Hawkings and his struggle with ALS to the world in A Brief History of Time. It wasn’t until Robert S. McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld agreed to sit before Morris’ Interrotron and be interviewed for The Fog of War and The Unknown Known that he received the credit he had long been due. Newly restored by Criterion Collection, Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida are the films that established Morris’ reputation as a chronicler of the weird side of the American dream. So atypical were these documentaries that, at first glance, they could be seen as ridiculing the people being interviewed for their presumed eccentricities. After a short while, however, it became abundantly clear that Morris was far more interested in learning what made these largely unchampioned Americans tick, before the homogenization of the country was complete.

Morris made Gates of Heaven after noticing an article in a newspaper about how the owner of a northern California pet cemetery was being forced to relocate his business to a place where encroaching suburbanization wasn’t so dramatic and his neighbors weren’t so squeamish. He rushed to the San Jose area to capture the forced exhumation on film, not yet aware of the fact that the real story belonged to the people who saw a future in this business – inspired by their love for a lost pet – and those who found necessary closure in their cemeteries. As is so often the case, subjects that seemed freakish in the not-so-distant past now are commonplace. In the mid-1970s, however, anyone willing to spend hard-earned money on a final resting place for their pets left themselves open to derision by wise-ass elitists and talk-show hosts. By finding the humanity in these sometimes desperate people, Morris practically created a new subgenre of documentary making. The genesis of Vernon, Florida came from a failed effort to verify an urban legend, spread through the insurance industry, about a patch of rural Florida, dubbed “Nub City,” where an extraordinary number of residents maimed themselves to collect settlements. After learning how violently opposed these folks would be to appearing on screen, Morris broadened his approach to the citizenry of Vernon, where an ability to tell goofy stories appeared to come with the territory. Once again, he was able to make something very special out of what most people would consider to be practically nothing. He accomplished this by recording their stories without prejudice or clever camera tricks. The Blu-ray adds new interviews with Morris, an essay by critic Eric Hynes and “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe,” a delightful 20-minute film by Les Blank, featuring Herzog fulfilling a bet intended to inspire Morris to complete his first feature.

It’s always fun to discover the roots of an exceptional artist and follow them to see where they led. Michael Almereyda has been one of the mainstays of the independent-film scene since the early 1990s, with the kooky family/disaster dramedy, Twister. His later credits would include Nadja (1994), Hamlet (2000), Happy Here and Now (2002) and Cymbeline (2014). The release of Another Girl Another Planet + 3 Others is a reflection of a more experimental period, when he employed a process called Pixelvision in a series of short films. When blown up to 16mm, the visual effect is akin to watching a 1950s anthology series on a crappy old Philco or surveying a Pointillist painting through fogged-up glasses. In the 56-minute Another Girl Another Planet (1992), the process is used as a tribute to French New Wave romanticism, albeit one set in a pre-gentrification East Village pad. Two hipsters compete for the affections of some of the same women, but, mostly, it’s their bromance that informs the story. One common theme is an affection for an ancient Dave Fleischer cartoon, “Dancing on the Moon,” which adds an air of fantasy to the drama. It isn’t the easiest film to watch, however, considering the Pixelvision conceit. The other three films are “Aliens,” in which two boys discuss their favorite movies and the nature of passive resistance, while playing a video game; “At Sundance,” a group portrait of then-aspiring filmmakers attending the 1995 Sundance Film Festival, among them Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Todd Haynes, Greg Araki, Abel Ferrara, Atom Egoyan, James Gray, Robert Redford and Haskell Wexler; and “The Rocking Horse Winner,” a Los Angeles-based adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence story about luck, loss and the need for more money.

Wolfy: The Incredible Secret
Considering how many UK films are nominated annually for Academy Awards, it should come as no surprise to learn how much weight BAFTA nominations carry among Oscar voters. The awards ceremony is shown here on a same-day basis on BBC America. Like the BAFTA gala, the awarding of France’s Cesar trophies can be accessed live over the Internet, but they carry far less weight. Typically, it takes a lot longer time for the winning films, if not the internationally popular actors, to find traction on our shores. Even when dubbed into English, most Cesar-winning animated features can only be seen here on DVD/Blu-ray/VOD. Apart from a couple of festival appearances, that’s what happened with the 2013 Cesar winner and Oscar nominee, Ernest & Celestine, and 2014 topper, Wolfy: The Incredible Secret. This year’s champ, Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants, enters the same marketplace on May 26, with Richard Dreyfuss providing the English narration. Once again, better late than never. Wolfy: The Incredible Secret (a.k.a., “Loulou, l’incroyable secret”) overflows with anthropomorphic animals that the kids should love, while also delivering a more pointed message about totalitarianism for adults to savor. Now in their teens, a wolf and a rabbit who’ve been lifelong friends, decide that it’s time to venture forth from the Land of the Rabbits to find Loulou’s birth mother, somewhere in Wolfenberg.  Once there, Tom’s long ears make him an easy target for the carnivores gathered in the principality for the Meat-Eater’s Festival. If the herbivores are able to avoid being eaten by the celebrants, Loulou might learn the “incredible secret” behind how he came to be raised as an orphan in a distinctly foreign land. Eric Omond’s story has been described as an anti-fascist allegory, reflecting much of the sad history of Europe in the 20th Century. There’s no reason to think, however, that young viewers will be traumatized by the message or archetypal characters.

Gone With the Pope: Blu-ray
Rabid Grannies: Blu-ray
From Asia With Lust, Volume 1: Camp/Hitch-Hike
The Clones
The Sins of Dracula
This is an especially good week for those of us who enjoy combing the sands of cinematic time for discarded treasures. Can two weeks have passed since re-introducing Duke Mitchell’s gangland epic, Massacre Mafia Style, to aficionados of movies that are so bad, they’re good? Curiously, yes. Uncompleted in Mitchell’s cigarette-shortened lifetime, Gone With the Pope, truly has to be seen to be believed. Here, Mitchell plays a just-paroled gangster, Paul, with a ridiculous scheme to kidnap the pope and hold him for ransom, to be paid by hundreds of millions of Catholics willing to cough up $1 each for his release. Paul and a few other ex-cons have traveled to Italy from L.A. on a yacht borrowed from his recently widowed girlfriend. Without a Swiss Guardsman in sight, the pontiff is forced to change places with a look-alike kidnaper and return to the boat in a borrowed Maserati. While rolling along on the high seas, the pope demonstrates why crime is no match for the cross. The clever ending more than makes up for the bizarre shenanigans that led up to it. Shot in 1975, Gone With the Pope sat on a shelf gathering dust until 1995, when it was discovered by Mitchell’s son, Jeffrey. Sage Stallone and Bob Murawski, of Grindhouse Releasing, vowed to take over the project, which wasn’t completed until 2010. It took that long because Mitchell preferred writing out scenes in a notebook, on cocktail napkins, envelopes and other scraps of paper, instead of a script. Because five reels of the rough-cut film were missing and never found, restorers were required to go through the negatives to find missing material. In one of the interviews conducted for the Blu-ray release, cinematographer Peter Santoro admits to being shocked by the erratic quality of his work. In addition to the almost miraculous 2K restoration, the bonus material includes three audio options mixed by Emmy Award-winner Marti Humphrey; interviews with co-stars Jim LoBianco and John Murgia, editors Bob Leighton and Robert Florio, and legendary exploitation producer/director Matt Cimber; footage from the 2010 Hollywood world premiere; deleted scenes and bloopers; liner notes by horror novelist John Skipp; still galleries; and the theatrical trailer. Also interesting is a long clip with the vintage Las Vegas lounge act featured in the movie. Today, the same kind of act can only be found in Branson.

Even though it carries the Troma banner, the aggressively toxic Rabid Grannies is a 1988 Belgian horror film directed by one-timer Emmanuel Kervyn. When it was acquired for VHS release by Troma, it bore the more accurate title, “Les mémés cannibals,” as none of the characters actually carry rabies. Since nothing else in the movie makes logical sense, either, the inconsistent title is easily ignored. As the story goes, two ancient sisters – more likely spinsters, than grannies — have invited family members to what could be their last birthday celebration. The single uninvited nephew counters their slight by sending a gift that reflects his satanic leanings. It doesn’t take long before the old crones are overcome by the demonic spell and begin to turn on their younger relatives. It may not be pretty, but it’s not supposed to be.  Strangely, the Blu-ray presentation isn’t any better. The “producer’s cut” edition restores much of the gore deleted for the original VHS and DVD releases. They’re repeated in the deleted scenes.  Another discrepancy involves the run time of Rabid Grannies. If you believe the package, it’s 90 minutes. Your watch will disagree by roughly 22 minutes. In this case, at least, horror completists probably will agree that shorter is better. The combo DVD/BD package adds deleted scenes, an interview with the producer, the featurette, “What the Hell Happened to You?” and the usual array of tantalizing Troma trailers.

The company’s also represented by the first two selections in Troma Team’s From Asia With Lust series. Camp and Hitch-Hike are rape-revenge thrillers – something of a Japanese specialty – with a hearty helping of psychological torture thrown in for good measure. And, while the violence and nudity isn’t nearly as gratuitous as that found in the films in Impulse Pictures’ Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection, rape is never easy to watch … or shouldn’t be. In Camp, estranged sisters Akane and Kozue find themselves trapped in a vacant dormitory after their car is disabled in an accident. A Good Samaritan’s promise of shelter turns into a nightmare when confronted by five sadists, who torture one of them to death. Out of nowhere a mysterious female vigilante arrives to level the playing field.

In Hitch-Hike, a pretty young woman is driving around the Japanese countryside with her beer-swilling brute of a husband, when she’s forced to stop by a hitch-hiker lying in the middle of the road. The husband takes pity on the young man, who he believes to be an angler, but realizes his mistake when the punk asks if he can share his wife, as well as his beer. When a serious rift between her two passengers erupts, Saeko is given the choice of cheering for her tormentor or a criminal on the lam. Both titles represent a departure from Troma tradition.

With such inviting micro-budget films as Creature From the Hillbilly Lagoon, Splatter Disco, Atomic Brain Invasion and Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead to his credit, exploitation auteur Richard Griffin is a writer/director horror buffs count on to deliver the goods. One way to save precious time and money is to spoof recognizable genre and subgenre conventions, while continuing to exploit violence, gore and nudity. Then, all one has to do is make the concoction entertaining. The Sins of Dracula will be familiar to Christians who came of age during the 1970-80s and were required to watch cheaply made movies intended to scare the devil out of them. If such studio chillers as The Omen and The Exorcist weren’t sufficiently scary to convince evangelical youth not to stray from the path of righteousness, I don’t know how such humorless, do-it-yourself morality plays could be expected to save souls. Working from a screenplay by Michael Varrati, Griffin describes what happens when Billy (Jamie Dufault), the star of his church choir, decides to expand his audience by joining a local theater company. Little does he know that the secular troupe is actually a front for a saatanic cult and he’ll be exposed to every delicious temptation the devil has to offer a young virgin. The DVD adds two audio commentaries and the bonus short films “They Stole the Pope’s Blood!” and “Los Pantalones Contra Dracula.”

In 1973, 23 years before Dolly the Sheep was born in Scotland, American audiences were introduced to some of the ethical dilemmas surrounding the relatively unknown scientific process that would become known as cloning. The Clones, a paranoid sci-fi thriller by Lamar Card, Paul Hunt and co-writer Steve Fisher, is credited with adding the word “clone” to the cinematic lexicon. It has since come to represent an entire sub-genre of horror and science-fiction flicks. The Clones caused a ripple of excitement, by demonstrating how the process could be used by the forces of evil to create a parallel scientific brain trust, which could be manipulated to perform tasks repugnant to those with ethical qualms over certain military and corporate research. Here, a scientist (Michael Greene) discovers that he’s been cloned as part of a government plot to wage meteorological warfare on its enemies. On a more personal level, the scientist discovers that his clone has begun to insinuate himself into the life of his girlfriend. It isn’t until the two men decide to work together that The Clones dissolves into a standard chase-and-escape flick.

A MusiCares Tribute to Paul McCartney: BluRay
There was a time, not so long ago, when it was said that more teens and young adults knew Paul McCartney as a member of Wings than as a Beatle. Now that Wings is little more than a mainstay of classic-rock radio, Sir Paul’s association with the Fab Four has been cemented more by Cirque du Soleil’s tribute show, “Love,” than any wide-scale re-release of the group’s albums. The Beatles’ great music isn’t likely to go away any time soon, of course, but every new generation of listeners is entitled to worship their own heroes and enjoy something that reflects their collective mindset. It explains why the audience gathered at the ceremony honoring McCartney as the 2012 MusiCares Person of the Year looked as if they’d escaped from a Cialis commercial. The fact is, however, the Blu-ray edition of “A MusiCares Tribute to Paul McCartney” really rocks and the geezers who donated a couple hundred bucks, at least, to attend the concert lip-synch to the music and dance as if they were kids, again. Fittingly, perhaps, the show opens with an energetic performance of “Get Back”/“Hello Goodbye”/“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by the cast of “Love.” Besides McCartney, himself, the lineup includes Alicia Keys, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Duane Eddy, Norah Jones, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Sergio Mendes, Coldplay, James Taylor, Diana Krall, Dave Grohl and Joe Walsh.

The Sure Thing: 30th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Between This Is Spinal Tap and a string of hits that began with Stand by Me, Rob Reiner directed the appealing coming-of-sexual-age rom-com, A Sure Thing, which several critics described as an updated teen version of It Happened One Night. In the roles originated by Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert stood John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga in their first lead roles. Students at the same northeastern college, “Gib” and Alison are a mismatched pair from the word, “Go.” Over Christmas break, they’re inadvertently paired in the same share-a-ride to Los Angeles, along with a pair of show-tune-singing squares. When they’re forced to get out of the car and hitch their way west, the Colbert and Gable comparisons become unavoidable. Turns out, Gib is on his way to Malibu, where an old high school buddy has arranged a blind date with a “sure thing” played by Nicollette Sheridan, who, physically and intellectually, is the polar opposite of Alison. For her part, Alison plans to spend the break with her longtime boyfriend, who, likewise, is the polar opposite of Gib. You can guess the rest. The Sure Thing did pretty good business upon its release, but, 30 years later, it really shows its age. Nonetheless, seeing such now-famous actors as Tim Robbins and Anthony Edwards in their early roles is always fun. (There’s also a reminder of how much we miss Lisa Jane Persky, who’s busy doing other things.) The Blu-ray package repurposes the featurettes, “Road to The Sure Thing,” “Casting The Sure Thing,” “Reading The Sure Thing” and “Dressing The Sure Thing,” as well  as commentary with Reiner.

TV-to-DVD
Mr. Bean: The Whole Bean: The Re-mastered 25th Anniversary Edition
PBS: A Path Appears
PBS: Nova: Sunken Ship Rescue
PBS: Frontline: Gunned Down
Twelve years ago, “Mr. Bean: The Whole Bean” was released into DVD at a price north of $150, but missing such popular sketches as “Turkey Weight,” “Armchair Sale,” “Marching” and “Playing With Matches.” Neither was the audio/video presentation up to then-current standards. The good news is that Shout Factory has given all 14 episodes of the beyond-quirky series, which aired here on PBS and HBO, a dandy facelift; added the missing scenes; and sent it out at the very reasonable price of about $20. It also picks up the bonus features from the 2003 release. For those new to the indefatigable character, invented by Rowan Atkinson while studying for his master’s degree, Mr. Bean combines elements of Jacques Tati with the great slapstick comedians from the silent era. He also reminds me a bit of Pee-wee Herman, “Monty Python” and Mr. Magoo. As silly as it is, the material holds up pretty well after 25 years, especially such recurring gags as run-ins between Mr. Bean’s 1976 British Leyland Mini 1000 and the unseen driver of a light blue Reliant Regal Supervan III. (Yes, it’s a real car.) It’s the kind of timeless entertainment that kids can watch with their parents – dads, especially – as a double-feature with the Three Stooges.

Anyone moved by the book or television series based on Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” will want to catch, if they haven’t already, the companion piece, “A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity.” The special presentation of PBS’ “Independent Lens” supplements research gleaned from the book with contributions by actor/advocates who traveled with the authors to Colombia, Haiti, Kenya and places throughout the United States where women and children suffer the greatest need. They include Malin Akerman, Mia Farrow, Ronan Farrow, Jennifer Garner, Regina Hall, Ashley Judd, Blake Lively, Eva Longoria, and Alfre Woodard. None of the celebrities appear to be slumming – literally – or just along for the p.r. value. Their presence truly does appear to make a positive impression on the people we meet. The series is broken into three chapters: “Sex Trafficking in the USA,” “Breaking the Cycle of Poverty” and “Violence and Solutions.” They explore the roots of gender inequality, the devastating impact of poverty and the ripple effects that follow, including prostitution, teen pregnancy, gender-based violence and child slavery.

The “Nova” presentation “Sunken Ship Rescue” takes us back to the scene of the Costa Concordia disaster, off Isola del Giglio, Tuscany, on January 13, 2012. The giant cruise ship, which was twice as large as the Titanic, capsized after hitting an obstruction in the water just off the coast. Thirty-two lives were lost, not including the diver killed during the salvage mission. The half-sunken ship posed a grave danger to the fragile underwater environment, as well as the waters that could be polluted by toxins if it split apart or fell to a greater depth. “Nova” producers joined the team of more than 500 divers and engineers, working around the clock, as part of the biggest and likely most expensive ship recovery project in history. “Sunken Ship Rescue” is a truly fascinating report and you don’t have to be an engineer to understand it.

The “Frontline” investigation, “Gunned Down,” provides a necessary reminder of how powerless our congressional leaders become whenever lobbyists for the National Rifle Association – or anyone else with deep pockets — begin to wave hundred-dollar bills under their snouts. Its producers examine how the NRA has expanded its clout on Capitol Hill, even after the first President Bush was moved to renounce his membership in the organization and the death toll of innocent bystanders began to go through the roof. It didn’t matter to these bought-and-sold greed-heads that children were being murdered in schools and polls showed public support for some form of gun control or protection from depraved owners of assault rifles. It’s as depressing and hopeless a show as we’re likely to see on PBS in a long time. It would be interesting to see what might happen if the Koch Brothers suddenly began supporting gun-control activists. Republican lawmakers and many Democrats would spin themselves into butter figuring out whose money carries the most weight.

The DVD Wrapup: Top Five, Soft Skin, Disorder, Mondovino, Troop Beverly Hills and more

Thursday, March 19th, 2015

Top Five: Blu-ray
If Chris Rock’s film career isn’t nearly as celebrated as those of Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy – standup giants before turning to feature films – it isn’t because the movies he’s in don’t make money. Most of them, especially the animated features to which he adds his distinctive voice, do well enough at the box-office to think that they probably did even better on DVD.  It’s likely that Rock was responsible for selling as many tickets as Adam Sandler to the critically reviled, yet financially successful Grown Ups and Grown Ups 2. Nothing could have saved Pootie Tang, but no remembers that it was written and directed by pre-fame Louis C.K. It’s also likely that Down to Earth, the Weitz’ inexplicably unfunny adaptation of Heaven Can Wait, would have gone straight down the toilet if it weren’t Rock. As a leading man in movies, unlike the comedy circuit, Rock has found it more difficult asserting himself physically than Pryor and Murphy ever did. Such a thing shouldn’t matter, of course, but it does. As a standup, he stalks the stage like a cheetah waiting for his prey to separate itself from the pack. On film, that predatory instinct has been largely diluted.  At a thin 5-foot-10, he looks small. Size didn’t matter in 2 Days in New York, Juliet Delpy’s sequel to 2 Days in Paris, in which he played a mild-mannered radio host whose home is invaded by family of French loonies. It was a very different role for him, but he looked comfortable in his character’s skin.

As writer/director/star of Top Five, Rock appears to have distilled all of his experiences as an entertainer into a character, Andre Allen, who has lost touch with the people who influenced him on the way to stardom. Growing up in the projects, Allen was surrounded by people whose attitudes and idiosyncrasies served him well in the standup arena, but weren’t going to follow him to Hollywood, where he starred in a series of Hammy the Bear action comedies. Fearing that he might become too identified with the crime-fighting bear to be considered in other roles, Allen decided to do something completely different. It’s during the course of promoting, “Uprize!,” a biopic about a leader of the Haitian slave revolt, that he makes time to reconnect not only with family and friends, but also his bedrock sense of humor. The press-tour ordeal has already provided fertile ground for, among others, Woody Allen and British screenwriter Richard Curtis (Notting Hill). The roundtable interviews, talk-show appearances and other mind-numbing demands are enough to make a stage actor or comic consider returning to something more rewarding, even if the money isn’t as good. One of the things star do when they want to alter their public persona is agree to spend several hours in the company of a reporter for the New York Times Magazine. At first, Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) seems a bit star-struck by Allen, who points her in the direction of the kinds of questions she should be asking. But, being beautiful and down-to-earth, she eventually makes Allen reconsider his commitment to his materialistic fiancé (Gabrielle Union), who’s planning a wedding to rival Kanye and what’s-her-name. What eases the character’s transition from self-pity to self-revelation most, however, are the musicians and comedians – Jerry Seinfeld, Cedric the Entertainer, Tracy Morgan, DMX, Whoopie Goldberg and Adam Sandler, prominent among them – who provide a mirror and needed perspective for Allen. His reunion with hard-to-impress folks back in the ’hood is, at once, hilarious and heartwarming. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Rock and actor JB Smoove; the backgrounder, “It’s Never Just a Movie: Chris Rock and ‘Top Five’”; behind-the-scenes footage, combined with interviews; “Top Five Andre Allen Standup Outtakes”; “Top Five Moments You Didn’t See in the Film” and more deleted scenes; “Andre Raps”; “First Day Your Movie Comes Out”; and “These Shoes.”

The Soft Skin: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Viewed from a distance of 50 years, it seems inconceivable that François Truffaut’s The Soft Skin — newly restored by Criterion Collection — might have been booed at a Cannes screening or that it might have been one of the films close friend Jean-Luc Godard later would condemn as being irrelevant bourgeois distractions. Such were the passions of French intellectuals and cineastes in the latter half of the 1960s, when revolution was in the air and filmmakers were expected to toe one political line or another. Instead of addressing the concerns of workers and students, as Godard felt he should be doing, Truffaut made films that addressed the moral and ethical inconsistencies of people whose sins were more counter-revolutionary in nature and occasionally needed a good spanking, too. In 1964, Truffaut was consumed with researching and conducting interviews for “Hitchcock,” which would be published three years later. The Soft Skin may not have been the direct homage to Alfred Hitchcock that was The Bride Wore Black, but it quietly reflected things he learned at the foot of the master during their sessions. Viewers already vaguely familiar with The Soft Skin might consider skipping ahead to the bonus package and checking out the featurettes “Monsieur Truffaut Meets Mr. Hitchcock” and “The Complexity of Influence” before watching the main attraction. The Soft Skin is a romantic drama that’s anything but benign. After all, even in mid-‘60s France, cheating on one’s spouse must have been viewed as being, if not criminal, then, at least, sinful. And, as we’ve witnessed in any number of Hitchcock thrillers, crimes big and small can have ramifications well beyond the intention or execution of the deceit.

Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly) is a well-known writer, whose income largely depends on traveling to far-flung locales to lecture on Balzac and other novelists. He’s been married to the still-stunning Franca (Nelly Benedetti) for many years, without noticeable complications, and they have a delightful daughter, Sabine, around 10. On a trip to Lisbon, Pierre encounters the gorgeous air hostess, Nicole (Catherine Deneuve’s sister, Françoise Dorléac), who flatters him with her knowledge of his work and willingness to ignore his drab appearance and inflated vanity. After some unconsummated flirtations, Pierre and Nicole begin what they anticipate will be a long-term love affair.  He isn’t anxious to inform Franca about his plans and Nicole is so self-conscious about the illicitness of the affair that she’s even reluctant to give her security guard permission to let him upstairs. It’s on a business trip to Reims, with Nicole, that things really get complicated for Pierre, and his disregard for his lover’s feelings reveals him to be just another frightened middle-class adulterer. Even though he remains blissfully unaware of the ripples emanating from the stone he’s thrown into calm surface of his life, it isn’t difficult to see the advancing storm clouds. The Soft Skin may not be on top of many critics’ lists of Truffaut must-sees, but, 50 years later, it’s a movie that deserves to be re-considered and relished, if only for its ability to tell an old story in a relatively new way. The new high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, is enhanced by commentary with screenwriter Jean-Louis Richard and scholar Serge Toubiana; a fresh video essay by filmmaker and critic Kent Jones; the documentary by film historian Robert Fischer and 1965 interview with Truffaut; and an essay by critic Molly Haskell.

Disorder
Nothing screams disorder and chaos quite as loudly as a truckload of pigs accidentally discharged onto a major thoroughfare in rush hour. What makes such madness unbearable, apart from the horrendous squealing that comes whenever one of the pigs is trapped, is watching as some of the beasts pass out from heatstroke and die in plain sight of passersby. As horrendous as this seemingly not-unusual event appears to be, it’s only one of several such disturbances documented in Huang Weikai’s alarming guerrilla documentary, Disorder. Imagine if dozens of amateur filmmakers were encouraged to forgo taking selfies for a few days and, instead, use their cellphone cameras to capture examples of social dysfunction in Los Angeles or New York and upload them to a common website, available to anyone with a computer. While the footage might look similar to that on display in Disorder, it couldn’t possibly be more disheartening. Disorder is the product of a widespread project conducted by underground videographers to demonstrate what really happens in the streets of major Chinese cities when the whole world isn’t paying attention to the Olympics, mating pandas and martial-arts epics. Naturally, the unauthorized shooting and exhibition of such films is banned by the government

A pedestrian stages an accident in the middle of a busy street, then attempts to negotiate a deal with the nearly helpless motorist, before being dragged – literally – to a waiting ambulance, more than 50 feet away. A businessman who’s been waiting for an insurance settlement for three years – during which he’s lost the business – threatens to jump off a high bridge into the Pearl River if he isn’t allowed to speak with the police captain who assured him everything will work out fine. A group of politicians make a statement about the strength of their dedication to Chinese citizenry, by mimicking 73-year-old Chairman Mao’s hour-long swim in the Yangtze. Meanwhile, under a bridge over the same sickeningly polluted river, a desperate man sloshes around a garbage-strewn backwater to net fish. Others wade through flooded streets in sandals, courting disease and typhus from rusty nails. A grocery store is looted after being abandoned by its owner, when police find severed bear paws in a freezer and endangered anteaters in a cage. Laundry is hung on electrical and telephone wires. Laborers are ordered to continue construction even after finding cultural assets at a work site. Policemen beat people and lock them up in squad cars, awaiting paramedics, and a crowd gathers around a baby found deserted in an empty lot. In fact, crowds gather everywhere something unusual happens in Disorder.

Also included in the package is Huang’s earlier documentary on a group of Guangzhou buskers, who attempt to make a living playing music under an acoustically advantageous underpass. The focus is on a long-haired singer-songwriter, whose music wouldn’t be out of place in any college-town café in the west, but we also see musicians on traditional instruments, as well. Such harmless activity is outlawed and anyone caught without a recognized ID will be jailed or ordered to leave the city, where economic opportunity is practically non-existent. The outrages on display aren’t exclusive to the People’s Republic, of course. The things we witness in Disorder probably happen routinely around the world, in one form or another. What is different in China, perhaps, is the potential for revolt and anarchy, which can only grow greater as the disparity in incomes becomes more obvious and corruption escalates. Today’s digital technology assures that the cameras capturing the next Tiananmen Square won’t be those solely belonging to CNN and the BBC.

Muck: Blu-ray
Mark of the Devil: Blu-Ray
A Cry From Within
Late Phases: Night of the Lone Wolf: Blu-ray
It takes chutzpah for a first-time writer/director/producer to begin preparations for a prequel and sequel before critics and genre buffs have even had a chance to go ape over the original … or not. After all, the only two things to recommend Muck ahead of its release on DVD are the presence of genuine genre legend Kane Hodder (Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, Hatchet) and 2012 Playboy Playmate of the Year Jaclyn Swedberg. Without knowing anything else about Muck, buffs who live to discover the next great horror franchise know intuitively that the gigantic Hodder will be responsible for the untimely deaths of several yuppies in the wrong place at the wrong time and Swedberg’s surgically enhanced boobs will be put on display, at least once.  Even though filmmaker Steve Wolsh absolutely delivers on the promise of mucho splatter and T&A, it’s the complete lack of a discernible storyline that has kept website pundits from singing its praises. As the picture opens, we watch a group of college-age tourists – one in her skivvies – splashing their way through a muddy Cape Cod marsh, attempting to escape a bunch of albino zombies whose graves they’ve disturbed. They may think they’re home free when a vacant summer home peeks through the evening fog, but their terror has only just begun. One of the guys volunteers to drive into town to summon help. When he pulls into the nearest bar, however, he’s distracted by several actual Miss Cape Cod winners – no kidding – who spend an inordinate amount of time exchanging lingerie in the ladies room.  When the doofus finally remembers why he drove into town in the first place, he packs a couple of the beauties into his SUV, along with several bottles of booze, and returns to the house, where his friends are waging a bloody battle with the less-than-invincible attackers. That’s about it, really. What makes Muck interesting for cognoscenti, however, are the setting – rural Cape Cod, entirely at night – and the fact that it’s the first horror film ever shot and released in 4K/Ultra HD. As someone who recently purchased a 4K/HD television set, I can attest to the unique texture of the visual presentation.

For some buffs, simply reading the names Herbert Lom, Reggie Nalder, Herbert Fux and Udo Kier in the same sentence is sufficient cause for celebration. When they appeared together in Mark of the Devil, Lom was between installments in the Pink Panther series, as Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus, while Kier was a strikingly handsome 25-year-old newcomer. The other two actors had faces that could stop a clock. In this nicely restored Blu-ray edition from Arrow/MVD, they are witch finders in early 18th Century Austria. Despite its connection to the Vatican, the profession lends itself to the easy framing of buxom barmaids who refuse to go along with older men’s advances. When this happens, the women are tortured until they admit their heresy or burned at the stake for the amusement of the locals. Unlike Lom’s hypocritical arbiter of demonic possession, Kier’s apprentice doesn’t buy into the ritual sadism that is part of parcel of the job. The lunacy of religious fanaticism is effectively depicted by co-writer/directors Michael Armstrong and Adrian Hoven and the cruelty on display made Mark of the Devil a prime example of British exploitation films of the period. The torture and rape sequences still pack a punch, while the gorgeous Austrian setting serves as a counterbalance to the man-made ugliness. Upon the movie’s release, promotional barf bags were handed out to paying customers.

Anyone looking for an old-school haunted-house thriller – one not dependent on CGI and special-makeup effects – could do a lot worse than Deborah Twiss’ A Cry From Within (a.k.a., “Sebastien”). After experiencing a miscarriage, Cecile (Twill) and her therapist husband Jonathan (Eric Roberts), decide that the time is right for a change of scenery. So, along with their two young kids, they load up their station wagon and head for rural Upstate New York. Conveniently, the car breaks down just down the road from a large brick home soon to be vacated by a nasty invalid and her fed-up daughter (Pat Patterson, Cathy Moriarty). No sooner do the newcomers move into the house than it becomes abundantly clear the owners forgot to mention the abused souls and ghosts with whom they shared the residence. At first, it’s the kids who are confronted by something resembling a deformed child or large doll. It, then, makes its presence known to the grown-ups. Fortunately, a priest who grew up in the same house arrives to make sense of the haunting. Dealing with the ramifications is something else, entirely. Nothing terribly complicated occurs in A Cry From Within, but Twiss and co-director Zach Miller do a nice job using the house’s architecture to build suspense and accelerate movement.

If you can imagine a cross between Wait Until Dark, An American Werewolf in London and Taxi Driver, you’ll have a head-start on what happens in Adrián García Bogliano’s first English-language thriller, Late Phases: Night of the Lone Wolf. Nick Damici (Stakeland) plays Ambrose, a blind Vietnam vet who’s been given one final mission in life. At the behest of his son, Ambrose reluctantly agrees to move into a suburban retirement community, populated by seniors who fail to recognize the connection between full moons and the mutilation of pets and other violent crimes. Bogliano wastes no time introducing viewers to the hairy antagonists, which might as well have been branded RB, for effects master Rick Baker. In the 30 days between full moons, the blind vet insinuates himself into the lives of his neighbors, while also single-handedly digging a grave his service dog, which was killed trying to protect him from the beast. In one of several inside gags and winks at genre tropes, the locals are played by such venerable character actors as Tina Louise, Rutanya Alda, Tom Noonan, Larry Fessenden, Karen Lynn Gorney and Al Sapienza. If Eric Stolze’s screenplay doesn’t always find the right connection between traditional horror and inky black comedy, there are enough surprises to warrant a recommendation. The Blu-ray featurettes do a nice job explaining how the prosthetics and makeup effects were rendered.

Don’t Go in the Woods: Blu-ray
Hellhole
The Muthers
Even at 82 minutes, Don’t Go in the Woods is one of those movies that feel as if they’re never going to end. Ineptly made and amateurishly acted, the 1982 non-thriller nonetheless has one very good thing going for it and it isn’t copious nudity. That’s noteworthy only because director James Bryan (a.k.a., Morris Deal) began his career making soft-core flicks and ended it in the hard-core arena. Instead of some much-needed T&A, Bryan does a real nice job capturing the summertime beauty of the mountains above Salt Lake City. Even though he used leftover scraps of other people’s film stock, the cinematography holds up really well after being restored in 2k from the original 35mm negative. Sadly, the same can’t be said about Garth Eliassen’s screenplay, whose many potholes are filled in with gallons of blood that looks even more fake in Blu-ray. On this particular weekend in the woods, several different groups of campers have their vacations spoiled by a psycho mountain man (Tom Drury), who looks as if he might have been raised by feral pigs. Don’t Go in the Woods is one of the few splatter/slasher films in which most of the victims are executed using pointed sticks, machetes and a club that wouldn’t have been out of place in a “B.C.” cartoon. Do I need to continue? Suffice it to say that the movie has attained something of a cult following and easily qualifies as a movie that’s so bad it demands to be seen. The Vinegar Syndrome package is almost three times longer than the movie itself, consisting of three – count ’em, three – commentary tracks; a reunion featurette that doubles as a backgrounder; clips from the promotional tour; a half-hour piece shot at a 2006 autograph-signing party; production stills; press artwork; and a copy of the script.

The name, Cirio H. Santiago, will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Mark Hartley’s hilarious documentary on the joys of making exploitation movies in the Philippines, Machete Maidens Unleashed!, or is otherwise conversant with the history of Roger Corman’s more far-flung partnerships. Back in the 1970s, Santiago’s operation was the go-to place for quick-and-dirty genre flicks that promised skin, sadism, violence, corruption and poorly dubbed dialogue. Santiago had easy access to U.S. and Philippines Army military equipment, minimum-wage actors and production assistants. When in doubt, Corman would put one of his film-school hotshots on a plane to Manila, where they’d pick up all the bargain-basement tricks they’d need for the rest of their careers. The Muthers combines Blaxploitation and kick-ass action with key elements of the pirate and women-in-prison subgenres. Among the familiar American stars are former beauty queen and future sportscaster Jayne Kennedy, Rosanne Katon (“She Devils in Chains”), Jeannie Bell (“Mean Streets”) and Trina Parks (“Darktown Strutters”). They take time off from being pirates to save a “soul sistah” from the clutches of vicious white slavers. It has been restored in 2k from the 35mm negative. In Santiago’s even more twisted Hellhole, virgins from around the Philippines are kidnaped and shipped to a plantation belonging to a slick gangster. If the virgins don’t cooperate, or the boss gets tired of them, he throws them into a dungeon.

Troop Beverly Hills: Blu-ray
Upon its release in 1989, Troop Beverly Hills probably was perceived as being an ironic early-teen comedy, not unlike Paul Mazursky’s far more grown-up Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Paul Bartel’s Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, and in the same satiric spirit as TV’s “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Aaron Spelling’s epochal “Beverly Hills, 90210” was still a year away, with “Melrose Place,” “The O.C.,” “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and “Gossip Girl” still years away.  If one were able to stretch their imaginations to fit the absurdities of life in and adjacent to the 90210 zip code, it’s even possible to see Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring as an unlikely sequel to Troop Beverly Hills. Based on a semi-autobiographical story by producer Ava Ostern Fries, the comedy broadly imagines what would constitute a troop of Wilderness Girls, whose personalities would mirror the neuroses and egos of their rich parents and whose idea of roughing it would be having to share a bathroom on a campout at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Shelley Long, who was a hot commodity at the time, was an excellent choice to play the spoiled Beverly Hills housewife, Phyllis, roped into taking over her daughter Hannah’s troop of spoiled pre-pubescent brats. The thoroughly frivolous Phyllis has something to prove to her husband (Craig T. Nelson) and it arrives in the form of the girl’s annual cookie drive. You can guess the rest. What’s most fun about the movie are the young actors cast as the scouts — Carla Gugino, Kellie Martin, Jenny Lewis, Tori Spelling – and cameo appearances by Edd “Kookie” Byrnes, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, Cheech Marin and Pia  Zadora. Betty Thomas, Mary Gross and Stephanie Beacham played key adult roles. If the sum of the individual parts don’t equal a great comedy, it remains sufficiently entertaining for the original target demographic. The nicely transferred Blu-ray edition adds fresh interviews with Shelley Long and Ava Ostern Fries; and deleted scenes.

TV-to-DVD
Mondovino: The Complete Series
Maude: The Complete Series
PBS: American Experience: The Forgotten Plague
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Ben Franklin’s Bones
PBS: Nova: Big Bang Machine
If I had known that a 135-minute theatrical version of the newly released 600-minute “Mondovino: The Complete Series” already exists, I might have been able to prevent nearly eight hours of my life from disappearing before my eyes. That isn’t to say that I wasn’t fascinated by much of the information collected by writer, director, documentarian, sommelier, polyglot and bon vivant Jonathan Nossiter, only that my interest in fine wine is limited to what’s actually contained inside bottles shared by wealthier friends over dinner and what can be gleaned from routine visits to Napa/Sonoma. I’ve learned the difference between very good wines and those of lesser status and occasionally can discern the various flavors, textures and tastes. What I’m fare less interested in are the lifestyles of fabulously wealthy producers and their almost incestuous relationship to each other. I suspect I’m not alone in that regard – some critics felt the theatrical version was a tad long, as well – but, for those who can’t get enough of all thing oenophilic, the series should be a 10-hour slice of heaven on Earth. While the opening chapters of the documentary lack context, “Mondovino” can be appreciated for chronicling the growing impact of globalization on the world’s most important wine regions in the early 2000s. In that sense, it can be seen as an elaborate game of “Five Degrees of Robert Modavi.” Although comparatively new to the game, Mondavi brought his distinctly American economic and marketing genius to an industry that was dominated by Europeans able to trace the pedigree of their soil and vines through hundreds of years of production. At the same time as the Mondovis’ nouveau-riche neighbors were exalting in their ability to spread the gospel of boutique vineyards to nouveau-riche consumers, the company was buying up ancient patches in France and Italy, while also cultivating relationships with the moguls of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Florence and Tuscany. Nossiter also discusses at length the immense role played by such influential consultants as Michel Rolland; critic Robert Parker and Wine Spectator magazine; and proponents of New Oak casks and microbiology. In the final chapter, we meet growers in places no one could have guessed would support vineyards.

Based solely on the evidence presented in Shout Factory’s “Maude: The Complete Series,” I’d have to think that the ground-breaking series today would face an uphill battle finding a slot on the prime-time schedules of the broadcast networks. What was merely deemed controversial in the early 1970s, today is both controversial and politically incorrect. I don’t think that series creator Norman Lear ceased being funny or prescient when the clock turned 12 on the Reagan era, but something changed in America that would discourage networks from adding topicality to sitcoms and challenging their audiences’ preconceptions and prejudices. As leftover radicals, hippies and liberals from the early 1970s began to understand how much fun it can be to be rich and reactionary – or, at least, addicted to cocaine – Lear’s progressive attitude no longer attracted viewers to the commercials that interrupted entertainment programing. HBO, Showtime and other cable services eventually would fill the void, but the broadcast networks decided that it was easier to take the low road than create sitcoms that might step on someone’s toe. “Maude,” of course, began as a spinoff from “All in the Family,” itself an adaptation of the British sitcom, “Till Death Us Do Part.” As portrayed with enormous gusto by Bea Arthur, Maude was a cousin to Edith Bunker and constant burr under the saddle of Archie. Her performances in the episodes included in the new DVD package were far too dynamic for Lear to ignore, so he built a family around Maude and gave her a soapbox for her not always consistent liberality. (In one early episode, the thought of allowing her adult daughter, Carol, to sleep in the same room as her visiting boyfriend causes an emotional, intellectual and feminist conundrum for Maude.) The addition of Bill Macy, Adrienne Barbeau, Conrad Bain and Rue McClanahan to the lineup helped dial down some of the stridency of Maude’s views and voice. Besides clearing a path for “Roseanne” and “Murphy Brown,” “Maude” also allowed the protagonists of “30 Rock” and “Veep” to be less aggressively feminist, but no less caustic or attentive to issues of importance to women.

Although the current debate over vaccinating children against killer diseases isn’t mentioned in PBS’ timely “American Experience: The Forgotten Plague,” it can hardly be ignored. By the dawn of the 19th Century, tuberculosis was blamed for killing one in seven of all the people who had ever lived. It took a while for the infectious disease to strike Americans in great numbers, but, once it did, it ignored all socio-economic boundaries and ravaged entire communities without mercy. It’s still with us, but the exhaustive search for a cure and means of detection finally paid off in 1946, when the development of the antibiotic streptomycin began being used to curtail TB’s insidious spread. “The Forgotten Plague” provides a valuable reminder as to how swiftly such a disease can spread through a population unprepared to put up defenses against it. It also uses archival photos to show how  some victims were able to find relief in the mountains and rural areas that then included pre-smog L.A. Based, in part, on Sheila Rothman’s “Living in the Shadow of Death,” the show is narrated by Michael Murphy.

Fans of “CSI,” “NCIS” and the many forensics shows currently dominating various cable networks, are missing a sure bet if they’re not watching PBS’ fascinating “Secrets of the Dead,” of which “Ben Franklin’s Bones” is merely the latest offering. Two centuries after American diplomat and Founding Father Benjamin Franklin gave up his London home, at 36 Craven Street, construction workers were shocked by the discovery of more than 1,200 bones, from at least 10 bodies, buried in the basement. Police were called in to determinate what might have occurred at the four-story Georgian townhouse, where Franklin lived and worked for nearly 20 years. Modern forensics techniques were able to clear Franklin of anything more felonious than facilitating the unauthorized medical studies of a close friend, whose illegal activities probably grave-robbing and soliciting the purchase of fresh cadavers. Narrated by Jay O. Sanders, the show also offers the insight of Her Majesty’s Coroner for the central London Borough of Westminster, Dr. Paul Knapman; archaeologist Dr. Simon Hillson, of University College London; and Dr. Marcia Balisciano, director of Benjamin Franklin House.

Even after watching the articulately rendered “Nova” episode “Big Bang Machine,” I probably don’t understand anything more about the Higgs boson — an elementary particle in the Standard Model of particle physics – than causal viewers of CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory.” I do, however, know now that both “boson” and a “bosun” can safely be used in Scrabble, if not on the high seas or a gathering of physicists. The show’s producers take us to the European Organization for Nuclear Research’s truly amazing underground laboratory, where the world’s largest and most powerful particle collider is located. Located 100 metres underground, it also is considered to be the world’s largest and likely most expensive machine. I’m still not sure what the many scientists stationed there will do when they’ve made sense of the God Particle – create a parallel universe, perhaps – but anyone interested in such things should find the show exciting to watch.

Hollywood Chaos
An impressively attractive cast of young African-American actors is wasted in Hollywood Chaos, a movie whose only groundings in reality are provided by the fashion design and musical soundtracks. It isn’t their fault that director Abel Vang and writer Angela Marie Hutchinson have created a movie about contemporary Hollywood that bears no relationship to anyone or anything in contemporary Hollywood. When a naïve entertainment reporter (Vanessa Simmons) is assigned to produce a special segment, exposing the decadent lifestyles of her celebrity friends, she is torn between accelerating her career and preserving their images. While the television newsmagazine appears to be modeled after “60 Minutes,” the reporter displays none of the ethical standards demanded of a serious journalist. If she worked on “ET” or “Extra,” she’d be encouraged, instead, to fawn over her subjects and ignore all of their peccadillos. Too many of these urban melodramas treat their audiences as if they were too unsophisticated to handle actual stories about blacks in show business – Top Five, for example – and they prefer to be represented by archetypes and clichés.

The DVD Wrapup: Liberator, Watchers of the Sky, R100, Code Black, Red Road, Red Tent and more

Thursday, March 12th, 2015

The Liberator: Blu-ray
Turn: The Complete First Series: Blu-ray
Because American students have never been required to be proficient in the history of the Americas south of the Alamo, the vast region continues to be something of a mystery to us. After learning how the conquistadors demolished and/or converted the indigenous population and sent their treasures back to Spain to fill the depleted coffers of the monarchy, we were left only with misconceptions. It took the martyrdom of Che Guevara, fear of communism and outrages of fascism to rekindle our interest in the affairs of South and Central America. The scourge of cocaine, black-tar heroin and illegal immigrants added a sense of urgency heretofore unwarranted. Affordable airfares and improved tourist accommodations have done more to educate Americans about the new realities of life in the western hemisphere than all of the textbooks that ignored imperialism and CIA meddling in national politics. Among the handful of things we think are true about Spain’s legacy in the New World are legends surrounding the spread of syphilis and deification of Simon Bolivar. Contrary to popular belief, yet confirmed by considerable scientific research, Spanish soldiers weren’t responsible for bringing the STDs with them on the Niña, Pinta and the Santa Maria. Apparently, syphilis was here all along and the natives used herbal remedies to combat it, if such a thing was even possible. Also left largely unchallenged is the notion that Simon Bolivar was “the George Washington of South America.” While it’s true that Bolivar was a great military leader and crusader for personal freedom, he left the door open for despotic rule by home-grown dictators. And, while director Alberto Arvelo and writer Timothy J. Sexton’s soaring historical epic, The Liberator, introduces us to a flesh-and-blood Bolivar distinctly more realistically drawn that the man found in our textbooks, it still leaves plenty of questions about his vision for a unified South America unanswered.

Even so, The Liberator is as entertaining as any recent movie in which most of the male characters wear impractical uniforms and brandish swords. As the man known far and wide as El Libertador, Edgar Ramirez’ portrayal is spot-on. After revealing Bolivar’s aristocratic Creole roots and European education, Arvelo demonstrates how he was able to use the teachings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson to inspire a popular uprising would spread from Venezuela to Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, northern Peru (Bolivia) and northwest Brazil. The Caracas-born director avoids the common trap of relying on polemics to advance the narrative, leaving ample time to remind viewers of Venezuela’s natural beauty and other sources of pride for its citizens. Especially well dramatized is Bolivar’s long march through the frozen Andes, into Colombia, where his outnumbered army could regroup and find inspiration from other entrenched freedom fighters. Things do get complicated, however, when the war for independence ends and the liberated states are asked to accept Bolivar as a president for life and, in 1830, a hand-picked successor. By contrast, George Washington only reluctantly served a second term as president of the United States and it was left to the American citizenry – white property owners, at least – to decide the length of his incumbency and successor. The Liberator doesn’t ignore Bolivar’s divisive positions, which included freedom for all races, but, by the time they’re advanced, viewers will have come to regard his detractors as counter-revolutionaries. (The movie opens with a failed 1828 assassination attempt, thwarted only by the quick thinking of his mistress.) Finally, Arvelo and Sexton advance the theory that Bolivar wasn’t a victim of tuberculosis, as recorded, but was kidnaped and murdered before he could return to Venezuela from Gran Colombia (or, perhaps, to exile in Europe). It isn’t a new theory, but one discredited in a recent investigation by the Venezuelan government and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ speculative novel, “The General in His Labyrinth.” The conceit is explained in interviews included in the lengthy making-of featurette, which also includes an introduction by Venezuelan composer Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His score for The Liberator adds greatly to its significance and power.

It can be persuasively argued, I think, that Hollywood has had better luck dramatizing the Crusades and extinction of the dinosaurs than anything particularly enlightening about the Revolutionary War. The 2008 HBO mini-series, “John Adams,” stands out from a small crowd of competitors that typically includes The Patriot, 1776, The Devil’s Disciple, Revolution, Drums Along the Mohawk, a couple of obscure TV movies and Disney’s fondly recalled Johnny Tremain and The Swamp Fox.” Curiously, George Washington has rarely been portrayed as anything more than a caricature, based on famous paintings, or a secular saint. Although he only appears in half of the 10 episodes of the thrilling AMC mini-series, “Turn: Washington’s Spies,” the general is shown to be a flesh-and-blood leader of men and a brilliant strategist. Despite its title, the first season of the mini-series doesn’t begin and end with Washington inventing the nation’s first espionage network. It opens on a failing cabbage farm on Long Island, not far from a fishing and trading village controlled by the British. The citizens of Setauket haven’t been especially mistreated by the Redcoats, who see it as a relatively comfortable place to sit out what they expect to be a short war. Nonetheless, a couple of the more brutish officers spark an incident that reverberates throughout the inaugural season. Jamie Bell stars as Abe Woodhull, the apolitical farmer, who, in smuggling vegetables to the rebels across Long Island Sound, reluctantly is enlisted into a silent conspiracy for which he’s uniquely suited. His loyalist father is the town magistrate and a businessman who regularly travels to New York to sell goods to the British. Once enlisted by the rebels into the Culper Ring, Abe delivers information so valuable that it can’t help but impress Washington, then headquartered in New Jersey. That may oversimplify the narrative, but it’s all one really needs to know before getting hooked. In addition to the brave farmer, there are numerous heroes and villains for viewers to admire or despise. The history is sound and the soap-opera elements are compelling. The Blu-ray package adds, “The History of Turn: Washington’s Spies,” “From Art to Image” and 25 minutes of deleted scenes.

Watchers of the Sky
Sadly, “genocide,” a word only coined 70 years ago, has become so much a part of our vocabulary that it might as well belong to the ages. Certainly, the crime it describes is nothing new. As chronicled in Edet Belzberg’s haunting documentary Watchers of the Sky, it was the Polish-Jewish lawyer and linguist Raphael Lemkin, who, saw the need for a legally recognized term to describe the mass atrocities committed against races of people – based on religion, traditions, color or caste — in the minority of a country. His concern was prompted by the simple question, posed by the slaughter of Turkey’s Armenian population and prosecution of a survivor who assassinated an Ottoman pasha-in-exile responsible for it, “Why is a man punished when he kills another man? Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of an individual?” In minimalizing the Nazi invasion of Poland and the mass murder of its people, Adolph Hitler said, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Among the issues facing prosecutors at the Nuremberg tribunals was the lack of international law even describing what specifically constituted genocide, other than the catch-all “war crimes,” “crimes against humanity” and “crimes against peace.” It exists today primarily through Lemkin’s determination to push through the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December, 1948, as General Assembly Resolution 260.  It wasn’t until 1988 that the United States would finally agree to ratify the convention. Fifty years passed, as well, before anyone would be convicted of genocide (Rwandan mayor Jean-Paul Akayesu) and another nine before a state (Serbia) was to be found in breach of the convention. The fact that the president of oil-rich Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, one of the premier monsters of our time, has been able to escape prosecution at International Criminal Court, attests to the difficulty in getting co-religionist leaders and trading partners to cooperate in the interest of world peace and ethical unity. Also prominent in Watchers of the Sky are, Benjamin Ferencz, chief prosecutor in the Einsatzgruppen trial at Nuremberg; Luis Moreno Ocampo, first prosecutor of the International Criminal Court; Emmanuel Uwurukundo, head of operations for UN refugee camps in Chad; and Samantha Power, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “A Problem from Hell,” was the film’s prime source of information.

Massacre Mafia Style: Blu-ray
Based solely on the evidence presented in the bonus material contained in Grindhouse Releasing’s Massacre Mafia Style package, the life of Italian-American actor and nightclub singer Duke Mitchell (, Dominic Miceli) is a biopic waiting to happen. Because he died in 1981, at 55, Millennials and Boomers can be excused for never having heard of him. Before and during the Rat Pack era, Mitchell was a popular enough entertainer to be accorded the nickname, Mr. Palm Springs and Unofficial Mayor of Palm Springs. Before going solo and eventually providing the singing voice of Fred Flintstone, he was best known for impersonating Dean Martin opposite Sammy Petrillo’s Jerry Lewis in a popular nightclub act. It was on that mob-controlled circuit that Mitchell encountered the underworld characters who would influence Massacre Mafia Style and whose stories informed “The most violent movie ever made.” Nearly 40 years later, it remains as pure an example of grindhouse exploitation as any of the Italian poliziotteschi gangster films it resembles.  Working with a budget that may have equaled the proceeds from a tip jar on a piano in a Palms Springs lounge, he made Massacre Mafia Style (a.k.a., “The Executioner” or “Like Father, Like Son”) at the twilight of the Blaxploitation era. In it, Mitchell plays Mimi Miceli, the son of a powerful mob boss, who, after being expelled to Sicily from the U.S., loses control of his “family.” After learning the ropes, Mimi returns to America with a plan to make Hollywood the center of the underworld, from racketeering and prostitution to controlling how movies are made. Naturally, Mimi and his old partner in crime, Jolly (Vic Caesar), meet resistance from the incumbent gangsters. In scenes reminiscent of the bloody day of reckoning at the end of The Godfather, they almost manage to eliminate the opposition … “almost,” being the key word.

Even if the hi-def resolution of the Blu-ray restoration makes it extremely clear that the blood and special makeup effects are fake as all get-out, viewers with a low tolerance for screen violence may have a difficult time stomaching Massacre Mafia Style. What’s also great about the GR package is the extensive bonus package, which overflows with Mitchell’s excellent singing and name-dropping interviews with friends, relatives and admirers. Among those providing testimony here are “exploitation king” Matt Cimber and son Jeffrey Mitchell, a fine singer and guitar player, who, as a boy, became a key part of the act and commuted from southern California to wherever his dad was crooning on weekends. Besides the documentary, “Like Father, Like Son” and more than an hour of home movies –accompanied by songs performed by the Mitchells — the two-disc set contains film- and discographies, photo galleries, a bunch of truly wild Grindhouse previews, the full-length, “Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla,” a 1952 film that introduced the comedy team of Mitchell and Petrillo; “An Impressionistic Tribute to Jimmy Durante,” a television special featuring Mitchell, made up as the great entertainer, sharing songs and thoughts with an audience; and a 12-page booklet containing liner notes by cult-movie specialist David Szulkin. Mitchell’s only other directorial effort, Gone With the Pope, which he finished shooting in 1976, but wasn’t fully assembled and restored until 2010. It arrives on Blu-ray on March 24.

R100
The Pet: Special Director’s Cut
Both of these films have their roots in the BDSM underworld, if only at the margins of genre fantasy. Neither owes anything to the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey or 9½ Weeks. Before R100, Hitoshi Matsumoto and Mitsuyoshi Takasu collaborated on such strange Japanese films as Saya-zamurai, Symbol and Big Man Japan. Their latest provocation is a transgressive satire on the emptiness of life as a Japanese salaryman. In it, a sales clerk in the bedding department of a large store decides that the only way to add some meaning or excitement to his mundane life is to sign a year-long contract with a company that supplies dominatrices to its clients. Instead of meeting the leather-clad women in hotel rooms, they appear at unexpected times and in places the client can’t predict. For instance, he might be in a restaurant enjoying some sushi and sashimi, when, out of nowhere, a black patent-leather shoe, with a 6-inch heel, stomps his food and moshes it to the consistency of a pancake. Or, he’ll be walking home after work when the same woman – or one very much like her – kicks him down a flight of stairs. He digs it, but it definitely leaves bruises. It’s only until he’s unexpectedly confronted at work, home or at the hospital, where his wife lies comatose in a bed, that he tries to get out of his contract. First, though, he must deal with “CEO,” a blond westerner (Lindsay Kay Hayward) who stands 6-foot-8 in her fishnets and could play Brünnhilde in anyone’s “Ring” cycle. Even for fans of unusual Asian fare, R100 will require some time to digest. They’ll probably find the inky black comedy, as well as the uneasy laughter it prompts, well worth the effort.

The Pet is another story, altogether. First released in 2006, D. Stevens’ BDSM fantasy depicts consensual relationships between young women in desperate need of money and middle-aged men of means, looking for something, well, different. The women agree to behave exactly like house pets might, sans clothing, and for long periods of time. The protagonist here, Mary/GG (Andrea Edmondson), sleeps in a triangular cage, eats from a bowl, defecates on the floor or outdoors, and fetches sticks for exercise. She isn’t beaten or mistreated any more than the average house pet and, generally speaking, live in the lap of luxury. The conceit here is that money, when combined with extreme need, will make people agree to do strange things, even push aside the humiliation that comes with such sport. What separates a true professional from a part-timer, however, is the love for the game that comes with real submission. The drama escalates when the dapper owner of Mary/GG realizes that he’s being played by a higher force, who’s less interested in her as a companion than a commodity. We’re told that such relationships occur in real life and maybe they do. (The Master, here, can’t bear to replace his longtime pet with another canine, and occasionally beds women who don’t wear a leash.) That doesn’t make the movie any easier to stomach, let alone enjoy. If it weren’t for the release of “Fifty Shades,” it might not have been re-released in a “special edition.”

The Breakfast Club: 30th Anniversary Edition
My Girl: Blu-ray
My goodness, it only feels as if 4½ years have passed since Universal released the 25th anniversary edition of John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club. Time certainly flies by in this crazy business. I suppose that there will come a time when Hughes’ depictions of teen life in the 1980s don’t resonate with any current generation of teenagers, but, really, how much has changed in the suburban landscape in the past 30 years? Will naughty boys and girls not be assigned to detention periods? Will the caste system and archetypes of high school life disappear? Will teachers not be burdened with such bureaucratic obligations as baby-sitting miscreants on their hours or days off? Probably not, but, even if they did, you’d have another 30-40 years of the same shenanigans that inform The Breakfast Club. Hughes’ best films – and this is right up there with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and 16 Candles – began to appear just as Hollywood only suspected the future of the industry lay in teens and young adults comfortable in the multiplex setting. His movies never pandered to the growing suburban-teen demographic or neutralized the off-campus fun simply to mollify parents or studio executives. I don’t remember any furor caused by the scene in which the students shared a joint in the library, but, at the time, I’m sure it raised more than a few eyebrows. The MPAA hasn’t changed its outdated standards much in 30 years, either, so it’s likely that the movie would still go out with an “R” rating. If ever a PG-16 or PG-17 status would have been warranted, it would have been for Breakfast Club. The “30th Anniversary Edition” is enhanced by a fresh digital face peel and a new trivia track. It retains bonus features from the “25th Anniversary” package.

More than a few parents in 1991 misidentified My Girl as being a product of Hughes’ movie factory in the northern suburbs of Chicago. It was widely reported that Macaulay Culkin, who’d just busted out in Home Alone, would share his first on-screen kiss with newcomer Anna Chlumsky (“Veep”) and the movie would be rated PG-13, which differentiated it from Disney pre-teen fodder. Chlumsky plays the precocious 11-year-old, Vada Margaret Sultenfuss, who grows up in an apartment above her father’s funeral parlor and blames herself for mother’s death. Culkin plays the allergy-ridden Thomas J. Sennett, who digs her despite her sometimes off-putting behavior. In time, Vada will have to deal with the cruelest form of tragedy, as well as the sense of loss that comes when her father (Dan Aykroyd) puts aside his grief long enough to fall for his new makeup artist (Jamie Lee Curtis). If that makes My Girl sound too heavy for adolescents, know that Howard Zieff (Private Benjamin) and Laurice Elehwany (The Amazing Panda Adventure) maintain a firm balance between drama and comedy. Besides, the movie represented one of the rare coming-of-age pictures targeted at girls. The Blu-ray adds Elehwany’s commentary, “A Day on the Set” and original behind-the-scenes featurette.

White Haired Witch: Blu-ray
Not all historical epics from China require a working knowledge of the country’s long history and transitions from one dynasty to another. Some, however, do benefit from a quick perusal of reviews from knowledgeable Pacific Rim critics – try IMDB.com’s external reviews listings – while others can be enjoyed with the same suspension of historical disbelief required of Hollywood Westerns. Zhang Zhiliang’s White Haired Witch (a.k.a., “The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom”) is the latest adaptation of Liang Yusheng’s wuxia novel, which was serialized in a Hong Kong newspaper between August, 1957, and December, 1958. Each time it’s been reborn, the story’s been modified to accentuate different aspects of the mythology. From what I can gather, White Haired Witch was widely criticized for attempting to do too much in one adaptation and, as such, was compared unfavorably, to Ronny Yu’s 1993 epic The Bride With White Hair. Set in the twilight of the Ming Dynasty, the Imperial court is plagued by corruption and tyranny.  Machiavellian plotters conspire to unseat the Emperor, who would be succeeded by an easily manipulated child. In star-crossed lovers Lian Nishang (Fan Bingbing) and Zhuo Yihang (Huang Xiaoming), they have ready-made dupes to serve to those wondering who is responsible for this crime and the subsequent murder of a popular general. Bingbing also plays the titular protagonist, Jade Rackshasa, whose memory will be corrupted to pit her against Zhou. There’s plenty enough action here to satisfy martial-arts enthusiasts, as well as some wonderful production-design work. Sometimes, it’s all too obvious that White Haired Witch was shot to be exhibited in 3D IMAX, which required choices that don’t translate naturally into 2D. Sharp-eyed viewers might also be able to pick up on the scenes shot after Xiaoming broke his foot in a wire stunt. It also required taking certain shortcuts to avoid expensive production delays. The Blu-ray adds an extensive making-of featurette, during which a producer explains how a financial backed asked him to use the accident to justify making a “B”-quality movie from an “A”-level budget, perhaps to sock away a little extra on the side. It’s easy to read the frustration on his face.

Code Black
There are times when the number of hospital shows on television is so great that it’s impossible to separate the fictional stories from the documentary series. “ER” wasn’t the first series that depicted what happens in big-city emergency rooms, but it was among the first to use advanced technology to capture the often frenetic pace of treatment and range of emotions registered by doctors, nurses, patients, loved ones and paramedics. The chaos was necessarily balanced by soap-opera throughlines, involving romance, addictions, career advancement and extreme behavior. It became, of course, one of the most popular and honored shows on network television. Code Black borrows several of the story-telling and production techniques that made “ER” so entertaining, but in the service of non-fiction. Because it was shot by intern Ryan McGarry, while he was interning, the documentary is several degrees more intimate than almost every other hospital show. The term, “code black,” refers to the periods when nurses, doctors, receptions and janitors are completely slammed by the number of patients being treated and waiting for treatment at Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center. The craziness is compounded by hospital, city and state regulators and bean-counters, who require mountains of paperwork. Code Black is an amazing production, which, of course, already has been picked up by CBS. How they’ll be able to improve on reality is anyone’s guess.

Grace.
If the subject of substance abuse and recovery weren’t already so familiar, Heath Jones and Cindy Joy Coggins’ extremely compelling drama, Grace, might have found a lot more traction than it did in the pre-DVD marketplace. Set and shot in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, Grace looks good and is populated by characters and actors with whom we don’t mind sharing 95 minutes of our time. It’s no fault of the filmmakers that the narrative’s flow could be predicted after being introduced to Gracie Turner (Annika Marks), lying face down in the sand with no memory of how she got there or that she’s demolished her car in the process. After resisting arrest in barroom scuffle, Gracie is given a choice of spending several months in jail for repeated offenses or agreeing to attend 90 AA meetings in 90 days. Among the fellow alcoholics who will figure in her life for at least the next three months are a kind café owner (Sharon Lawrence), who gives her a job, clothes and shelter; a handsome surfer dude (Chase Mowen) and his closest friends; and several women who used alcohol to soften the blows of abusive relationships. As played by Marks, Grace is an especially hard nut to crack. She refuses to admit that she’s lost control of her life and continues to blame her father for the death of her alcoholic mother. She was subconsciously drawn to New Smyrna Beach — 1,600 miles from her New York home — because of a photograph she carries of a family vacation there when she was a child. Although Grace remembers it as being the last happy time she spent with her mother, it isn’t until she completely gives in to sobriety that the fog begins to clear around recollections of the woman’s suicidal behavior and misdirected outbursts of anger. The more we get to know about the other characters, of course, the thicker the plot becomes. Even with the large number of things working in Grace’s favor, I suspect that it will have a difficult time finding its intended demographic target: teens and young adults – women, especially – who have been led to believe that substance abuse is a problem limited to men and women who share their parents’ age and social brackets. The DVD adds deleted and extended scenes, as well as alternate openings and closings.

Stop Pepper Palmer
Beyond a plot that defies logic, Stop Pepper Palmer is a comedy with no more than a couple of cheap laughs and acting that gives lackluster new meaning. As for the story, co-directors Lonzo Liggins and Danny James demand that we forget for a minute that Salt Lake City has a NBA team and Utah is home to several fine universities. Apparently, there are only three black men living in the state and even fewer African-American women of dating age. When a “new” woman arrives in town from a city with a bona-fide ghetto, the slackers come to believe they might be “too white” to capture her fancy. To rectify that sad situation, the guys hire a world-famous lothario named Pepper Palmer, who presumably is from Cleveland and looks and talks as if he’s studied ancient VCR copies of “Soul Train” and Jimmie Walker on “Good Times.” If filmmakers were fined every time they used a racial stereotype or clichéd depiction of a minority character, Stop Pepper Palmer’s budget would be right up there with most other Hollywood comedies, instead of looking as if it were financed with the proceeds of recycled bottles and aluminum. There’s a decently handled plot twist near the end of the film, but nothing that couldn’t be seen coming when Pepper Palmer enters the narrative.

TV-to-DVD
Syfy: Dark Haul: Blu-ray
While there’s some debate over whether the seventh son of a seventh son is likely to grow up to become an angel or devil, it’s almost certain that no good can come from being the 13th child of a 13th child. Or, so we’re led to believe in the Syfy-original movie Dark Haul (a.k.a., “Monster Truck”), during which just such a creature is born half-human and half-beast. The only thing worse for the unfortunate parents would be for the fruits of their loins to be twins … in this case, a half-human girl with a tail and a winged beast with the power to induce hallucinatory visions. Born in 1735, the offspring have been kept under wraps all this time by a cabal of devil-worshippers known as “Keepers.” When their secret threatens to unravel, the Keepers lease a semi-trailer to carry the beasts to a safer harbor. Traffic conditions being what they are off the Interstate highways, it isn’t long before they break out of their cages and threaten to fulfill their apocalyptic prophesy. As Syfy movies go, Dark Haul isn’t as conspicuously ridiculous as most of the network’s hybrid-monster thrillers or meteorological disasters. The special-effects are adequate and the actors don’t embarrass themselves. They include Tom Sizemore, Evalena Marie, Rick Ravanello, Kevin Shea, Anthony Del Negro and Adrienne LaValley. First-timers Daniel Wise and Ben Crane are responsible for the direction and screenplay.

Sundance: The Red Road
Lifetime: The Red Tent
Nickelodeon: Hey Dude: The Complete SeriesFireball XL5: The Complete Series
Pee-wee’s Playhouse: Seasons 3, 4 & 5: Special Edition
PBS: Nature: Penguin Post Office
Nickelodeon: Legend of Korra: Book Four: Balance: Blu-ray
The Sundance mini-series, “The Red Road,” looks as if it could have been set anywhere in the U.S. or Canada where a community of indigenous Americans abuts a town primarily populated with residents of a more European persuasion. While life is, for the most part, peaceful and absent controversy, there are times when long-held prejudices and rivalries collide with the implications of newly signed treaties and cold economic realities. European-Americans will always resent efforts to restore land they argue was stolen fairly and squarely from the original inhabiitants. The Lenape of Pennsylvania, western Connecticut and northern New Jersey were among the first tribes displaced by English and Dutch settlers. Unlike other tribes, the primary governing group of remaining Lenapes have refused to square the raw deal they received by opening a casino within spitting distance of New York City and northern New Jersey. The scenic rural location, when viewed alongside the economic disparity between Indians and Anglo residents, provides a compelling setting for mystery, violence and intrigue.  The protagonists are a local cop, Harold (Martin Henderson), who grew up in the area and is familiar with most of Lenapes living just outside the town, and a charismatic hell-raiser of multiracial background, Phillip (Jason Momoa), newly paroled from prison.  In addition to his official duties, Harold’s mind is consumed with problems relating to his mentally fragile wife, Jean (Julianne Nicholson), and two rapidly maturing daughters. Phillip appears to have resumed control of tribal vice and rackets, but, in the interim, outside criminal elements have entered the picture. There are other complications, of course, some of which involve secrets in Jean and Phillip’s past. “The Red Road” takes a bit more time to get rolling than other modern-crime mini-series on cable, but, by the fourth episode, most viewers will be hooked.

Not being a biblical scholar, I went into Lifetime’s “The Red Tent” as blind as anyone unfamiliar with the nuances and subtexts of Old Testament drama. It didn’t take me long, however, to begin to wonder how kosher this adaptation of Anita Diamant’s 1997 best-seller might be. In the novel, the red tent is a place in the family compound where menstruating women are quartered for seven days, or until they’re no longer “unclean.” Women also gave birth in the tent, surrounded by other female members of the tribe. Scholars appear to be undecided as to whether this segregation was punishment ordained by God, via tribal elders, or an opportunity for kindred women and girls to chill out for week and free themselves from the men in their lives and their superstitions. Here, Diamant favors the latter explanation. It is from the wisdom exchanged under the red tent that Dinah — daughter of Jacob and sister of Joseph – learned the skills of midwifery, for which she would become known throughout the course of the two-part mini-series. Upon closer examination, I learned that Dinah is considered to be a relatively insignificant figure in bible history, but one whose presence caused significant things to happen. Instead of being raped by a Shalem, the prince of Shechem, as the bible argues, here Dinah and the prince experience love at the first sight and, on second sight, sexual bliss. When the king goes to Jacob to seal the deal with a “bride price,” the sons misinterpret the sexual liaison and demand that all of the men in Shechem be circumcised. If it appears, even today, to be a drastic price to pay for forgiving the consummation of an unofficial marriage, consider that Dinah’s brothers Simon and Levi use the men’s extreme pain to advance their murderous plan for revenge. Jacob berates his sons for their unapproved act, but is willing to sacrifice Dinah’s love for the sake of his sons’ lives. For attempting to stop the massacre, Joseph (of amazing Technicolor dream coat fame) is beaten, buggered and sold into slavery in Egypt.  The second half of the four-hour production involves Dinah’s life after giving birth to the prince’s son and subsequently being banished from the palace by her mother-in-law. Joseph, too, will make an encore appearance. Allowing Dinah tell her own story not only opens up the biblical narrative to include a woman’s point of view, but it also plays right into the wheelhouse of the Lifetime audience. Rebecca Ferguson (“The White Queen”) does a nice job as Dinah, who is required to age more than 20 years during the course of the mini-series. Minnie Driver and Debra Winger play Leah and Rebecca, respectively. The set arrives with bonus making-of material.

Nickelodeon’s second original live-action television series, “Hey Dude” was, by definition, one of the very few cable shows aimed directly at ‘tween audiences. Watching it 25 years later isn’t nearly as painful an experience as other such targeted fare, if only because it was shot near Tucson, on a dude ranch that’s still in business. Even better, there’s no laugh track. Populated with youthful characters who one might expect to grow up have sitcoms of their own, “Hey Dude” sometimes feels as if it’s an entry point for kids who soon will grow into avid fans of utterly predictable prime-time network shows. Typically, though, its diverse cast and non-stereotypical plots hold up pretty well. Apparently, the primary reason for the show’s cancellation was the network’s decision to move its productions to Florida, and there’s no way Orlando can approximate the Sonoran Desert.

Fireball XL5: The Complete Series” is the latest installment in Shout Factory’s wonderfully nostalgic “The Gerry Anderson Collection.” As only the third Anderson project to employ Supermarionation puppetry, “Fireball XL5” looks primitive even by the standards established two years later in “Stingray.” It was the last of the series to be filmed in black-and-white – making the wires even more visible – as well as the last in which the marionette characters didn’t have interchangeable heads, allowing a variety of expressions. Under the command of the rugged Captain Steve Zodiac, the fleet’s flagship Fireball XL5 investigates the deepest corners of Galactic Sector 25 in search of faraway planets, alien life and adventure. His crew includes the glamorous Venus, a doctor of space medicine and dead-ringer for Zsa Zsa Gabor; middle-aged navigator and engineer, Professor Matthew Matic; and co-pilot Robert, a transparent anthropomorphic robot. Among the new extras are commentary with director Alan Patillo and voice artist David Graham, and the documentary, “The Noble Art of Fireball XL5.”

The only problem with “Pee-wee’s Playhouse: Seasons 3, 4 & 5: Special Edition” is that, unlike Shout Factory’s “Complete Series” collection, it only arrives on DVD. That won’t matter much to viewers unaccustomed to hi-def playback, as the production values and color are both fine. The episodes have been re-mastered from the original film elements, as well. Besides the final 23 shows, the package includes “Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special” and new interviews with members of the cast and crew. Jasper: Journey to the End of the World

If there’s any unwritten of wildlife programming, it would appear to be: when in doubt, play the penguin card. With its variety of flightless birds, crystalline waters and extreme weather, Antarctica is a one-stop destination for the production of such appealing, cross-demographic shows as PBS’ “Nature: Penguin Post Office.” It tells the story of the 3,000-strong Gentoo colony that lives in the shadow of the British post office on the peninsula, 700 miles south of Argentina and Chile. Unlike other feathered species, the Gentoo display a rather sophisticated approach to mating. It includes building rock nests, stone theft, promiscuity, punishment for cheating and a breeding ritual right out of the “Kama Sutra.” The producer have some fun with the tourists, who also arrive in the summer, sometimes at a rate of two shiploads a day. Given the lack of accommodations available to visitors, it’s almost as they’re accorded a couple of hours on shore, a period roughly divided between staring at the Gentoo, from a distance of no less than 15 feet; kayaking among the ice floes; and writing wish-you-were here postcards to friends back home. The post office handles between 50,000-80,000 of them each year. On a cautionary note: parents should know ahead of time that breeding scenes might be too explicit for younger children, as might examples of the attacks on eggs and chicks by predatory birds and excremental habits the producers found interesting. More suitable for the youngest viewers, if decidedly more fanciful, is the animated German export, Jasper: Journey to the End of the World. In it, a pair of penguin brothers team up with a 9-year-old girl to upend a scheme by an evil doctor to steal some rare parrot eggs.

The fourth season of Nickelodeon’s hit animated season, “The Legend of Korra,” wraps up the 52-episode cycle that began after “Avatar: The Last Airbender” ended its three-year run on the network. It’s the kind of show that geeks take very seriously for its artistic value, complex characters and addressing all sorts of sociopolitical issues, while being appreciated by parents and kids for its sheer entertainment value. “Balance” picks up three years after the events of the third season, “Change,” as Korra slowly recovers from the injuries incurred in the fight with Zaheer. Meanwhile, things are getting nasty at the new, totalitarian Earth Empire, where loyalties have been severely tested and unrest reigns. I can’t imagine how difficult it might be to jump into the series in mid-run, but I’d advise against it. The color palette is brilliant, especially in Blu-ray, and the it adds commentary for all 13 episodes; a poster by co-creator Bryan Konietzko; “Kuvira vs. Prince Wu”; “Republic City Hustle: Part 1, 2, and 3”; a New York Comic-Con featurette; and “The Making of a Legend: The Untold Story: Part II.” Also new from Nickelodeon this week are new compilations of episodes from “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Retreat” and “Blue’s Clues: Get Clued Into School Pack.”

The DVD Wrapup: Better Angels, Humbling, Tinker Bell, Blacula, Outlander and more

Friday, March 6th, 2015

The Better Angels
Growing up in the Midwest, one of the things I enjoyed doing on a summer weekend was hopping in a bus with other Boy Scouts for the sole purpose of hiking 10-25 miles over uneven terrain to claim a medallion commemorating one historic site or another. One of destinations was the site of Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace, on what was then the 348-acre Sinking Spring Farm, nearly equidistant between Louisville and Bowling, Green. The log cabin replicated there couldn’t possibly have been more modest or representative of a farming family’s life in the early 1800s. The Lincolns would move to southern Indiana, where the future president lived and toiled from ages 7 to 21. Despite writer-director A.J. Edwards’ decision to shot his debut feature, The Better Angels, on location in Upstate New York’s wonderfully scenic Mohonk Preserve and Ashokan outdoor education center, it’s easy to believe it was shot in the forested hills and valleys along the Ohio River Valley. At first glance of the trailer, I wondered when Terrence Malick had the time to squeeze in another project between To the Wonder and Knight of Cups. As if anticipating such a question, his participation as producer/presenter is prominently mentioned on the trailer and poster for the movie. That Edwards has worked almost exclusively with Malick in his brief career explains why The Better Angels looks like a kid brother to The New Land. The story of Lincoln’s early formative years is told through vignettes, poetically shot in ethereal black-and-white by relative newcomer Matthew J. Lloyd. Young Abe is played by first-timer Braydon Denney, who wasn’t given much dialogue to memorize but makes up for the lack of oratory by closely resembling rocker Jacob Dylan. Neither was square-jawed Jacob Clarke given much to say as the stern and unforgiving Tom Lincoln. One suspects, however, that few words were wasted between pioneer sons and fathers exhausted from hard days in the fields.

Instead, by all historic accounts, it was Tom Lincoln’s two wives, Nancy (Brit Marling) and Sarah (Diane Kruger), who made sure that the boy would largely be spared the rod after doing something, however minor, to earn his dad’s anger. Likewise, they both encouraged Abraham’s interest in reading and early desire to become something other than an inheritor of the family farm. Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s sad demise comes fairly early, after an outbreak of a sickness caused by drinking the milk of cows that had ingested a toxic weed. Tom soon would return to Kentucky for the sole purpose of proposing to Sarah Bush Johnston, a widow with three children, whose family he had known for many years. He brought them all to his farm in Indiana, where Sarah became a welcome stepmother to his two children. In The Better Angels, Kruger portrays her as being more free-spirited and inquisitive than either Nancy or Tom, as well as someone willing to go behind her husband’s back to provide her stepson with educational material. The movie ends almost at the point where other biopics of the 16th President might begin. That Edwards doesn’t embellish Lincoln’s story with miraculous moments of inspiration or a convenient encounter with an influential pedagogue. The closest we come to such an occurrence is when Abraham is passed in the woods by a bounty hunter escorting a chain gang of escaped slaves south to their owners. No lightbulbs go off over his head, but it’s obvious an impression was left on him. Fans of Malick’s movies should find a lot to enjoy here.

The Humbling: Blu-ray
It’s difficult to imagination that any film starring Al Pacino, directed by Barry Levinson and adapted by Buck Henry, from a novel by Philip Roth, couldn’t find distribution outside the festival circuit and a couple of big-city art houses. Thirty years ago, such a thing would be unthinkable. Pacino was coming off Scarface; Levinson had just hit a home run with The Natural; Henry had adapted his screenplay for Protocol from a story by Charles Shyer, Nancy Meyers and Harvey Miller; and Roth’s “The Anatomy Lesson” was vying for year-end literary awards. Also working in favor of The Humbling are co-stars Greta Gerwig, Kyra Sedgwick, Charles Grodin, Dianne Wiest and Nina Arianda. Pacino plays Simon Axler, a major Broadway star whose diminishing physical and mental health has prompted him to question if there’s any reason left for him to live. At the height of his doldrums, Axler is paid a visit by the daughter of longtime close friends. Gerwig is almost unrecognizable as professor Pegeen Stapleford, a lesbian willing to backslide for the sake of hooking up with a man she’s fancied since childhood. Their affair becomes seriously complicated when her parents accuse Axler of betraying their trust – and worse — and Pegeen’s previous lovers test her newfound bi-sexuality. Actually, for all of Pegeen’s neuroses, she feels no compunction to be confined by a label. More a product of the 20th Century sexual conventions, Axler isn’t interested in sharing her with others, unless it’s in a fantasy three-way with an Asian-American woman attracted to Pegeen. A few of Roth’s other subplots are compacted into the flow of the film’s 112-length, along with some genuine surprises. The Blu-ray adds a short background featurette.

Tinker Bell and the Legend of the Neverbeast: Blu-ray
It took Disney more than 50 years to give Tinker Belle, one of the company’s greatest assets, a feature-film franchise of her own and, even then, the DVD-original “Tinker Bell” almost didn’t get made. When Pixar executives John Lasseter and Ed Catmull assumed control of Walt Disney Feature Animation, in 2006, they demanded wholesale changes in the project, which was considered to be 80 percent completed. It would be the fairy’s first speaking role in a Disney adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” and, although company fortunes weren’t riding on it, the straight-to-video market had become an important source of revenue. As if propelled by pixie dust, the series took off immediately. Tinker Bell and the Legend of the NeverBeast is the sixth feature-length film, with Mae Whitman voicing the character in all of them. In it, Tinker Bell and the “animal fairy,” Fawn, come across a strange and ferocious animal believed to be mythical. Co-writer/director Steve Loder tore the page out of “Aesop’s Fables,” upon which “Androcles and the Lion” was printed, by having Fawn pull a thorn from the Neverbeast’s paw. Nevertheless, the other residents of Pixie Hollow believe that it still is a threat to their gentle community, not unlike the one posed by local birds of prey and various supernatural phenomena. There’s no reason to think this entry in the series won’t be as successful as previous installments, especially with the younger set. The Blu-ray adds deleted and unfinished scenes, as well as several background and making-of featurettes.

Big Muddy
Here’s yet another very deserving film, whose only real flaw appears to be that it was made in Canada, by Canadians, if not exclusively for Canadians. At a time when festival favorites produced in the United States aren’t even ensured theatrical distribution, despite the presence of familiar Hollywood actors, Jefferson Moneo’s excellent “prairie noir,” Big Muddy, was going to face an uphill climb from the get-go. Filmed in Moneo’s native Saskatchewan, it bears comparison in some ways to Badlands and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. In it, Nadia Litz plays a woman, Martha, who became estranged from her father (Stephen McHattie) when she left the family farm in search of the fast lane in a slow town. Her taste for outlaws left her with a husband in prison and a bun in the oven. Nearly two decades later, Martha has retained enough of her youthful good looks to set up drunks for her new boyfriend to roll outside bars. Somehow, though, she was able to raise a son, Andy (Justin Kelly), who’s led what passes for a normal life, despite her. Things will change when the father he believes to be dead escapes from prison and his mother and her boyfriend inadvertently involve him in a scheme to rip off the region’s leading crime boss. When it goes terribly wrong, mother and son retreat to the home in which she grew up and is no longer welcome. With the escaped murderer and enraged gangster making a beeline to the farm, Andy’s transition from boyhood to manhood will be reduced from years to hours. It may not be the most complicated of scenarios, but the high-lonesome setting adds something distinctly different to the drama. McHattie, who will forever be confused with Lance Henriksen, is the rock around which all of the film’s turmoil flows.

Believe Me: Blu-ray
To Write Love on Her Arms
As I’ve noted previously, faith-based films have begun to arrive in all shapes and sizes. And, while certain themes prevail, faith and redemption remain high on the list of priorities. Equal parts satire and cautionary tale, Will Bakke’s Believe Me is the rare Christian title that encourages laughter, contemplation and curiosity. His protagonist, Sam (Alex Russell), is a modern-day Elmer Gantry who preys on college-age students who accept as fact that Jesus is the answer to all of their questions, however mundane. He takes advantage of the fact that the only thing that separates Christian rock from AC/DC is the emphasis on Christ and God in the lyrics and absence of marijuana smoke in the air. When Sam learns from his adviser (Nick Offerman) that he’s $9,000 short on his senior-year tuition bill, he enlists three of his frat buddies in a scheme to convince church-goers that God has called on him to dig wells in drought-plagued villages in Africa. Naturally, while he’s at it, Sam would be spreading the gospel to the spiritually deprived natives. Even people who haven’t been washed in the blood of the lamb understand that bringing clean water to impoverished villages is a worthwhile cause to support. Corporations are digging wells in Africa, as well, but only so they can measure usage and charge by the gallon. What Sam and his pals lack in the predatory polish of the talk-show preachers on the Trinity Broadcasting Network – or, in their day, fire-breathing Pentecostals Marjoe Gortner and Sam Kinison — they more than make up for in mock sincerity and youthful pizazz. It catches the eye of a promotor of arena-size revival meetings (Christopher McDonald), which combine witnessing, prayer and rock music. The tour manager is a cute and chronically upbeat blond, Callie (Johanna Braddy), who falls for Sam and his message. For a change, the only member of the tent show who smells a rat is the comparatively unkempt band leader and Callie’s former paramour (Zachary Knighton). Slowly, too, Sam’s partners begin to get queasy over making promises to audiences they have no intention of fulfilling. Will the Holy Ghost reveal itself in time to rescue the sinners? Stay tuned.

Strictly speaking, To Write Love on Her Arms isn’t a movie that fits neatly alongside such niche titles as Believe Me or God Is Not Dead! But, since most 12-step recovery programs are faith-based in one way or another, it delivers a similar message. It dramatizes the true-life story that inspired the non-profit organization of the same title and the Internet- and concert-based movement designed to present hope for young people struggling with addiction, depression, self-injury and thoughts of suicide. Kat Dennings plays Renee Yohe, who, as a girl growing up in the danker quarters of Orlando, used alcohol, drugs and “cutting” to deal with her demons. Fortunately, when she hit rock bottom, a small group of much-abused friends was there to point her in the direction of recovery. Before Renee could enter the preferred rehab center, however, she was required to abstain from cocaine and booze for five days. It was during this period that she met Jamie Tworkowski (Chad Michael Murray), who became Renee’s confidante and related her struggle to thousands of other young people via his blog. By the time she leaves the residential program, To Write Love on Her Arms has grown into a movement of evangelical proportions, funded by T-shirt sales and concerts. The newfound attention may have thrown Renee for a loop, but, eventually, she would be able to take charge of her own life. Dennings is extremely convincing as Renee, who shares most of the self-destructive traits as movie addicts from Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, in Days of Wine and Roses, to Maggie Gyllenhaal, in Sherrybaby, among any  other characters.  The DVD adds deleted scenes, a making-of featurette and material on the organization.

Let’s Kill Ward’s Wife: Blu-ray
Here’s a black comedy for those still waiting for a sequel to Throw Momma from the Train and triquel to Weekend at Bernie’s. You know who you are. Writer/director/producer/co-star Scott Foley’s Let’s Kill Ward’s Wife has fun with the idea that one of the wives in a group of four yuppie couples is so obnoxious — especially to her overmatched husband, Ward (Donald Faison) – that they’ve begun to toy with the idea of getting rid of her, entirely. Just when it appears as if they’ve come to their senses, Ward’s wife does something so mean to him that they decide to go ahead with their plans. In fact, she makes it easy for them. As we’ve seen in dozens of other such “comedies,” however, murder is easy … getting rid of the body parts is hard. Even more difficult is squeezing laughs from the process. Foley gets some decent support from Patrick Wilson, Amy Acker, Nicolette Sheridan, Ava Carpinello, James Carpinello and Dagmara Dominczyk. The Blu-ray comes with outtakes.

Day of the Gun
Whether or not Westerns are an endangered genre – or simply in danger of being usurped by revisionist ideas – is a question that’s been open to debate for decades, now. Certainly, the traditional Hollywood concept of the Western has been relegated to the niches of cable television and straight-to-video services. More often than not, these films promote the idea that the western expansion was undertaken solely for the benefit of families and WASP ideals. And, maybe it was. White-hatted cowboys, lawmen and preachers were pitted against black-hatted outlaws, hired guns and gamblers. In a nod to the populist instincts of screenwriters and directors, it was the greed of mine owners, land barons and railroad moguls that often served as a catalyst for violence. Westerns made in the second half of the 20th Century described a moral landscape constructed of shades of gray and bright red blood. Day of the Gun is targeted at that most elusive of demographics, the family audience once owned by prime-time network television series, such as “Bonanza” or “The Big Valley.” It’s the latest release by writer/director Wayne Shipley, who specializes in tales of the Old West, especially those presumably still told in Montana.

Day of the Gun is an extreme example of the do-it-yourself Western, shot on the cheap but conforming to themes as old as the movies themselves. Set in 1890s Montana, it chronicles a conflict between the widowed rancher Maggie Carter and cattle baron Cyrus McCall, enflamed by the drip-drip-drip loss of cattle to rustlers. Because some of the missing cattle end up on Carter land, McCall decides to put up a barbed-wire fence. As any genre buff worth his snuff knows, separating ranches of the time with barbed wire was anathema to the notion of open ranges and unimpeded grazing. Maggie considers this to be an affront to the memory of her late husband and a challenge to her position as a woman in a man’s world. One thing leads to another and the range war devolves into a personal vendetta, complicated by a romance that can’t be contained by a fence, the death of son and arrival of a shady gunman played by Eric Roberts. Sadly, because Roberts is the closest thing to a well-rounded actor in Day of the Gun, it frequently resembles the musical production in Waiting for Guffman. Neither does it help matters when footage shot in the mountains is combined with material shot at Shipley’s Maryland farm, representing the village of Singletree. The DVD adds “Tales of the Wild West: Gunfight at Osage Station” and “Tales of the Wild West: The Day the Aces Got Trumped.”

Exterminators of the Year 3000: Blu-ray
Blacula/Scream Blacula Scream: Blu-ray
In anticipation of the release, this May, of Mad Max: Fury Road and Shout Factory’s nearly simultaneous Blu-ray upgrade of the original Mad Max, it’s perhaps worth noting S!F’s re-release of Exterminators of the Year 3000. George Miller’s post-apocalyptic action-adventures Mad Max and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior had already taken the world by storm, adding “dystopian” to the lexicon of film buffs barely able to spell it correctly. Giuliano Carnimeo’s Exterminators of the Year 3000 is so closely matched to Mad Max that a co-scripting crediting for Miller would have been an appropriate tip of the hat to the source material. Once again, humanity’s post-apocalyptic future is threatened by nuclear waste, shortages of gas and water, and an overabundance of leather-clad hooligans. While Exterminators of the Year 3000 won’t make anyone forget Mad Max and the many films that have followed in its trash-strewn wake, it could whet fans’ appetites for a bountiful month of May. The Blu-ray adds commentary and an interview with actor Robert Iannucci.

By the time Blacula and Scream Blacula Scream were released in the early 1970s, such Blaxploitation classics as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Cotton Comes to Harlem, Shaft, Super Fly, Across 110th Street, Black Mama White Mama and The Legend of Nigger Charley already had made a big impact in the urban marketplace. Blacula may have performed well at the box office, but it remains far too tame and unoriginal to be remembered with any great fondness. Neither does it help all that much that Pam Grier was talked into joining William Marshall’s ageless African Prince Mamuwalde in the sequel as the successor to voodoo queen, Mama Loa. Why waste such formidable talent on PG horror flicks? The new Shout!Factory upgrades are more interesting for their curiosity value than anything else, even the period costume designs and music. Two decades later, Wes Craven and Eddie Murphy would attempt to revive the subgenre with Vampire in Brooklyn, neither audiences nor critics embraced what should have been a no-brainer.

A Darker Fifty Shades: The Fetish Set
Safeword
Now that Fifty Shades of Grey has begun to show signs of drifting into the ancillary sunset, its success is likely to spawn a few more rip-offs before plans for the second and third chapters in the trilogy are finalized. A Darker Fifty Shades: The Fetish Set began its cinematic life simply as “The Fetish Set,” with its primary attraction being cult favorite Bill Oberst Jr. (Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies) in the role, of course, of a sadistic serial killer. Scream queen Sarah Nicklin (The Disco Exorcist) would also have been expected to attract fans to Shane Wheeler’s debut picture. While several non-trendy fetishes are briefly explored here, the emphasis is on what happens when things veer wildly off-course. Oberst doesn’t show up until A Darker Fifty Shades is already halfway through its frequently ponderous 81-minute length. By then, the four women invited to attend a fetish convention in south Texas – or Las Vegas, it’s hard to tell – have killed a man they believe to have raped one of them, but, in fact, didn’t.  Oberst’s badly disfigured character, The Wolf, then decides to demonstrate for them the difference between pretend fetishes and sociopathic behavior. A not terribly illuminating commentary track is provided by Nicklin, along with four incomprehensible shorts.

Chris Soth’s first directorial effort, SafeWord, also deals with S&M, fetishes and obsessive behavior, but in a way more closely related to films in the torture-porn genre. Tall and willowy, Stephanie Edmonds (“Greek”) plays a young woman haunted by no small degree of psycho-sexual trauma in her past. Compounding that misery, Sabina is drugged by tennis companion and delivered to the dungeon of a man who most assuredly is a sadist. Somehow, half-naked, she manages to escape her captor, only to be picked up by a trio of people who take her to a fetish party where the guests are only slightly less crazy than the first guy. There’s a method to Soth’s madness here, but it only will become clear toward the tail end of the movie. For that happen, viewers will be required to endure some fairly blood-curdling stuff.

TV-to-DVD
Outlander: Season One: Volume One: Blu-ray
Da Vinci’s Demons: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
Doctor Who: Last Christmas: Blu-ray
PBS: Nazi Megaweapons: Series Two
PBS: Tales From the Royal Bedchamber
PBS: The Queen’s Garden
Nickelodeon: Bubble Guppies: Fin-Tastic Collection
Nickelodeon: Paw Patrol: Marshall and Chase on the Case
The Beginner’s Bible
Despite the fact that I can access the Starz channel on my cable system, I was taken completely by surprise by the British-American mini-series, “Outlander.” Based on a series of novels by Diana Gabaldon, it is a historical drama that combines bodice-ripping romance, time-travel, fantasy, spectacular scenery and period violence, all in the service of an increasingly enthralling eight-episode whole. The hypnotically beautiful Irish actress and model Caitriona Balfe plays Claire Randall, a World War II combat nurse, who hopes to reconnect emotionally with her husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies), on a long-delayed honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands. While in Inverness, Frank spends some time researching his family history, in particular his ancestor Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall. Inspired by a local legend, they eavesdrop on a re-enactment of Druid ritual, which takes place among a set of standing stones on the hill of Craigh na Dun. The next morning, Claire returns to the ancient site, only to be transported back 250 years back in time, just before the calamitous Battle of Culloden. Still dressed in modern clothes, Claire is rescued from the grips of a Redcoat officer – who looks suspiciously like her husband – by a Scotsman of the Mackenzie clan. Still confused, Claire is transported to the Highlander camp and later to the clan’s ancestral home at Castle Leoch. By this time, however, she’d endeared herself to the rebels by re-setting the dislocated elbow of the handsome warrior, Jamie Fraser, and treating his bullet wound. The laird of the castle immediately suspects their guest of being an English spy, but is impressed by medical skills some people mistake as sorcery. Meanwhile, Frank is concerned that his wife might have met with foul play and demands action of the local police force. Although such disappearances have happened in the past, the locals are reluctant to inform Frank of them. As the mini-series unspools, Claire can’t help but get more deeply involved in the hostilities between the clansmen and Redcoats, only occasionally hinting that she might be able to warn them of their fate. What distinguishes “Outlander” is its attention to period detail, historical settings and soap-opera intrigue. As is the case in other premium-cable offerings, it’s also pretty sexy. “Volume 2” of the series’ first season will launch in April, so there’s plenty of time to catch up with it, without binging, like I did. The making-of featurettes add a great deal to the enjoyment of “Outlander.”

Much of the same applies to the Starz/BBC Worldwide collaboration, “Da Vinci’s Demons,” another historical fantasy series, this time set largely, but not exclusively in Renaissance Florence and Rome. In the second season, Leonardo is detoured from his search for the Book of Leaves by an unplanned journey to the New World. It’s just as well, because Florence has been tossed upside down by the usual political, religious and financial turmoil. For her part, Lucrezia ventures to Constantinople, where the Ottoman aggressors and possibly the truth behind the Book of Leaves may lurk. The series’ third season also returns this spring.

Nobody does Christmas like the “Doctor Who” crew and the 2014 presentation, “Doctor Who: Last Christmas” only adds more of the same sci-fi action. As befits the end of Peter Capaldi’s highly successful first season as the Doctor, the special offers an entertaining blend of humor, suspense, horror and intrigue. Lead writer and executive producer Steven Moffat summed up the story: “Well obviously, as everyone knows from the end of Death in Heaven (season finale), it’s the ultimate meeting of Christmas heroes: Santa Claus meets Doctor Who. The buddy movie you’ve always wanted. The Christmas element is covered in the fairly notable form of Santa Claus and the elves and their sleigh. But the rest of it is very much Doctor Who: scary, in a polar ice cap base, scientists under threat. I keep describing it as Miracle on 34th Street meets Alien.” Nick Frost stars as Santa Claus. The Blu-ray adds commentary from director Paul Wilmhurst and producer Paul Frift, as well as a 10-minute behind-the-scenes making of featurette that includes interviews with Capaldi, Frost, Moffat and Jenna Coleman.

Just when you think you’ve learned all there is to know – or care to know – about a terrible conflagration that ended 70 years ago, it seems as if PBS comes up with a documentary series that sheds new light on the struggle to free Europe from fascism. Nazi Megaweapons describes just what the Allied forces were up against, besides hundreds of thousands of soldiers and officers dedicated to serving Adolph Hitler. Not only had the Fuhrer convinced average citizens to embrace his mad dream, but he also was able to draw on the collective knowledge of a body of scientists, architects, academics, physicians and sociopaths perhaps unparalleled in world history. That the U.S. was willing to spare the lives and exploit the unique talents of Nazi masterminds in the new war against communism attests to their proficiency in developing the machinery of death. In the second season of “Nazi Megaweapons,” we not only meet the engineers who designed Germany’s fortifications and infrastructure, but also learn how they sparked a technological revolution that changed warfare forever. If there is one word to sum up all six episodes, it would be “concrete.” From the construction of the Siegfried Line to the building of launching pads for V1 rockets – “the world’s first Cruise missiles” – the tonnage, alone, is almost beyond comprehension. And, because concrete is so difficult to destroy, the show’s producers were able to locate some of the most noteworthy structures, many of which remain hidden from the public, throughout Europe. The topics include, the role architecture played in the formation of the SS; Hitler’s secret headquarters, the Wolf’s Lair; the development of gigantic warships; and science behind Japan’s kamikaze strategy and Germany’s aborted suicide attacks.

Near the end of The Theory of Everything, after Stephen Hawking is honored by Queen Elizabeth, the family is invited to spend some time in the Buckingham Palace Gardens. Unlike the White House’s Rose Garden, the private garden at Buckingham Palace covers more than 40 acres, and includes a helicopter landing area, a lake, a tennis court and 2½ miles of gravel pathways. The producers of PBS’ “The Queen’s Garden” were accorded unprecedented access to the urban oasis, which has been part of British history for five years. The show follows the garden’s transformation across all four seasons, uncovering rare flowers specially bred for the queen, wildlife captured using hidden cameras, a vast lake with an island in the middle where the royal bees make honey and a huge marble urn that once belonged to Napoleon.

Likewise, “Tales From the Royal Bedchamber” pulls back the curtains on an aspect of history previously dramatized only in movies and literature. The bedchamber once was a place where courtiers and dignitaries would attend royal marriage ceremonies and observe royal births, in order to verify the baby’s gender. Even the process of creating royal babies often took place in a semi-public context to prove an heir’s legitimacy. Historian Dr. Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, is our guide, explaining the increasingly lavish design of Royal State beds and the huge expense which went into them. In fact, she observes, the rise and fall of their magnificent beds reflect the changing fortunes of the monarchy, itself.

Nickelodeon’s latest compilations of episodes from its popular kids’ menu include “Bubble Guppies: Fin-Tastic Collection” and “Paw Patrol: Marshall and Chase on the Case.” In addition to the select episodes, the sets offer special activities for pre-schoolers.

The Beginners Bible” may not advance the state of the art of animation, but parents looking for a simple way to introduce the pre-schoolers to lessons from the bible, without scaring the bejeezus out of the wee lads and lassies. The three 25-30-minute chapters cover “The Nativity,” “The Story of Easter” and “The Story of Moses.”

Forty Years From Yesterday
In movies, scenes of death and grieving are most frequently used to tear at the guts of viewers and provide them with a reason for investing in what’s happening to fictional characters. Just as the movies mimic life, however, audiences adopt the exaggerated dramatizations of rituals of everyday life, including the weeping and wailing associated with wakes, funerals and burials. Robert Machoian and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck’s Forty Years From Yesterday could hardly be more different in tone and scale. Quiet as a funeral director’s condolences to a loved one, it follows one man’s excruciating discovery of his longtime wife’s unexpected death and the ordeal of having to cope with it in the days and hours leading up to and immediately following her funeral. This is accomplished without mournful orchestral music, melodramatic outbursts from friends and next of kin or the platitudes of clergy. It’s as if a documentary crew had been standing at the ready outside the bedroom of the woman who died and had planted unobtrusive cameras in strategic locations around the house. The film opens as the husband prepares for his morning jog and picks up when he returns, only to discover the passing of his wife. No longer spree and ready to tackle the day, he can barely put one foot ahead of the other or acknowledge the presence of visitors. It’s a remarkable performance. The DVD adds the short film that inspired the feature and a piece left on the cutting-room floor, featuring only the two cemetery workers who prepare the grave.

The Eternal Return of Antonis
Very few Greek films find their way to American art houses and the ones that do are as different from other European exports as feta is to cheddar. Elina Psykou’s debut feature, The Eternal Return of Antonis, is no exception to the rule. Antonis Paraskevas is a well-known television personality, who maintains his popularity by acting the clown on screen or personal appearances at beauty shows. In a bizarre exercise in hubris, Antonis stages his own kidnapping to gain sympathy and attention from an audience that may no longer exist. By hiding in an abandoned seaside hotel, outside a tiny village, he’s able to monitor television reports and newspaper coverage. In solitude, Antonis is left with his hallucinations, paranoia and delusions of grandeur. Imagine Al Rocker in the same situation and you’ll get the picture. The DVD includes an interview with Psykou, who explains how difficult it is to find financing in a country that is an economic basket case.

Victori: The Truth Just Can’t Be One Thing
The lives and works of history’s greatest artists have provided the fodder for countless movies and documentaries. In the last half-century, alone, the titles have ranged from The Agony and the Ecstasy to Tim Burton’s Big Eyes. Forgers have also been the subject of fine films, most recently, The Best Offer. Stories about unconventional, controversial and oppressively commercial artists are left to “60 Minutes” and such niche documentaries as Cutie and the Boxer, Banksy Does New York, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and Waste Land. Michael Melamedoff’s Victori: The Truth Just Can’t Be One Thing profiles Victor Victori, a Korean-America whose “multiplist” style has inspired U.S. presidents and countless patrons of galleries in shopping malls and starving-artist sales. The documentary also spends a great deal of time with Victori’s son, who quit his job as a financial adviser to manage his father’s career.

The DVD Wrapup: Whiplash, The Connection, Fellini, Godard, Ozu, Gene Autry and more

Thursday, February 26th, 2015

Whiplash: Blu-ray
What R. Lee Ermey was to Full Metal Jacket, J.K. Simmons is to Whiplash. If Miles Teller’s drumming dynamo, Andrew, more closely resembles Matthew Modine’s “Joker” than Vincent D’Onofrio’s “Private Pyle,” it’s only because he’s cognizant of the fact that a drumstick, however well-aimed, is no match for a M14 when it comes to taking out tyrants. And, while the former drill instructor was denied even so much as a nomination, Simmons was rightly awarded the industry’s top honor for his portrayal of the shockingly homophobic sadist, Fletcher. (If these two characters can be believed, gay men have no place in the Marine Corps or a college jazz orchestra.) Writer/director Damien Chazelle’s sophomore feature hits all of the right notes as a crowd-pleasing demonstration of how obsessive behavior needn’t get in the way of terrifically entertaining drum solos, at least. As Whiplash opens, Fletcher discovers Andrew banging away in a rehearsal room at an elite conservatory in New York. Sensing something special in the Buddy Rich-wannabe, he invites the underclassman to join the band representing the school in tournaments. It doesn’t take long, however, for Fletcher to turn Andrew into his personal punching bag.

Fletcher’s outbursts of rage over the imperceptible imperfection of his hand-picked drummer recall Gunnery Sgt. Hartman’s verbal and physical abuse of the clearly imperfect Pyle, who had no business being drafted in the first place. The ferocity of his final response to Hartman’s training methodology is comparable — in a non-violent way – to that demonstrated in Andrew’s amazing drum solo. Chazelle does manage to sneak in some family drama and romance, but it doesn’t last long enough to drown out the music, uninterrupted by the instructor’s impatience. As high as the compositions soar in concert, viewers are left with the question that crosses all borders of professional pursuit. Can the techniques employed by an instructor committed to keeping his troops alive in combat be justified when dealing with musicians, physicists or athletes? (Former Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight, whose tendency to publicly humiliate his star players finally cost him his job, just as easily could have served as a model for Simmons.) Fletcher was driven to discover and mold the rare student who might, under his tutelage, grow up to become the next Charlie Parker. In Andrew, he found the one drummer in a million willing to go the same distance to achieve something resembling perfection. That so many people have turned away from jazz in the last 50 years may be the saddest irony of all.  The Blu-ray presentation does a nice job capturing the excitement of the film’s soundtrack and formidable lighting challenges. It adds a lengthy featurette on the art and eccentricities of drumming, based on testimony from leading rock and R&B drummers; the short film that convinced investors to take a chance on a feature; commentary with Simmons and Chazelle; a revealing deleted scene; and a panel discussion from the Toronto International Film Festival.

In the Land of the Head Hunters: Blu-ray
The Connection: Blu-ray
Anyone who’s perused Edward S. Curtis’ photographs of Native American life and culture at the beginning of the 20th Century already understands the sadness and shame that comes with being an unwitting accomplice to genocide. Curtis’ first portrait of a Native American — Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle – was shot in 1895, five years after the Wounded Knee Massacre and end of the 60-year-long American Indian Wars and forced removal of tribes from their longtime homes. Hence, all of the photographs of Indians in warrior dress and paint were necessarily staged, so future generations of Americans could respect the “mode of life of one of the great races of mankind … at once, or the opportunity will be lost.” Blessedly, this harmless ruse allowed him to record traditional customs and rituals that survived the scourge of Manifest Destiny. It wasn’t until the 1970s, however, that Curtis’ work garnered the respect and praise it so richly deserved. It took the release of Milestone’s impeccably restored The Land of the Head Hunters for me to learn that, beginning in 1906, he also captured aspects of the Indian experience on film. Six years later, Curtis would embark on the creation of a theatrical film to dramatize events that occurred before any Europeans had made their way to the shores of British Columbia. He chose the Kwakiutl tribe of the Queen Charlotte Strait region of the province’s Central Coast of British Columbia, Canada, to re-create that sliver of aboriginal history. (Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North wouldn’t be released until 1922.) The story is comprised of a melodramatic love triangle; a series of deadly skirmishes between clans; and depictions of Kwakwakawakw ceremonial rituals. The protagonist, Motana, falls in love with the woman of his dreams, Naida, while on a vision quest. Any possible relationship is complicated by the fact that Naida already is committed to a sorcerer. The war for her hand threatens the stability of the coastal region, immediately preceding the advance of a Canadian expeditionary forces from Vancouver. Given the standards and technology of the time, “Headhunters” holds ups as well as any film from 1914 and the restoration is nothing short of remarkable. The two-disc Blu-ray package also includes the original musical score; the less-complete 1973 restoration, In the Land of the War Canoes; making-of documentaries from 1979 and 2014; commentary; post-screening Q&As; a photo gallery; and interviews with descendants of the people who acted, danced, sang and helped shoot the film.

With the release of Shirley Clarke’s The Connection, Milestone belatedly adds Volume One to its five-year Project Shirley series already represented by Portrait of Jason and Ornette: Made in America. Released in 1962, it is an adaptation of Jack Gelber’s stage play, in which a group of junkies wait impatiently in a flophouse/studio for the pusherman to arrive with their “shit.” (It’s that word, used several times, completely within context, which censors originally cited for banning the film from exhibition.) The jazz musicians, at least, have their music to keep them occupied during the seemingly endless wait, during which they jab, parry and exchange pointed observations about their habits, mostly. The hipster vernacular alternates between being amusing, scary and painfully repetitive, just as such dialogue might be in real life. Then, once Cowboy finally arrives, their initial flush of excitement steadily devolves into emotional vacancy. Because the cast of The Connection was augmented by such venerable musicians as Jackie McLean and Freddie Redd — both of whom had lost their cabaret cards due to drug charges – everything here rings sadly true. If it frequently feels claustrophobic, imagine how the characters feel as their pain and anxiety kick into gear. There’s no guarantee that fans of Whiplash will find something valuable here, but, at some point in their careers, the musicians we meet there will be tempted to take chemical shortcuts to creativity. If nothing else, The Connection reminds us of the fragility of life for professional musicians, with or without a college degree. Again, the Milestone restoration is terrific, and the presentation is enhanced by “home movies”; a “conversation” with art director Albert Brenner; a behind-the-scenes featurette; the 27-minute “Connecting with Freddie Redd”; a 1959 radio interview; and a pair of 1964 marketing songs: “Who Killed Cock Robin” and “I’m in Love.”

Traitors
Set both in Tangier and Ketama, the hashish capital of Morocco, Traitors is one of the most unusual and compelling crime thrillers I’ve seen in quite a while. Writer/director Sean Gullette might not agree with my comparison of his multi-faceted story to something as generic as a “crime thriller,” but it shouldn’t be construed as a dismissal. Chaimae Ben Acha (Malak) plays Malika, the leader of an all-woman punk band, Traitors, which immediately recalls Russia’s anti-establishment Pussy Riot. Because Morocco is more secular than other Arab countries, the band members can get away with playing their rebellious music in the streets, thanks to a generator and loudspeaker mounted on their ancient VW bus. Dressing in punk attire, however, will always cause parents and on-lookers to look askance at the notion of such personal freedom. Struggling to pay for the material needed to make a music video and demo tape – as well as help her mother beat an eviction notice – Malika attends to the occasional car in the shop of her gambling-addicted dad. One day, she fixes the Mercedes of a man for whom cost is little object. After a coincidental encounter in the street soon thereafter, the well-dressed man offers her a job that involves driving a nice car from Point A to Point B and back again. Seemingly, the only caveat is that Malika agree to buy some conservative western-style clothes and obey the speed limit. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that her mission to Ketema involves hashish and convincing guards at one or two security points that she’s a mere tourists attracted to the mountain greenery. Unlike so many other young women currently imprisoned in Third World prisons for believing the promises of a persuasive stranger, she’s able to suss out the extent to which she’s already committed from her assigned traveling companion. The conclusion to Gullette’s drama may come off as being too pat or contrived for some viewers, but it didn’t bother me. Even if Traitors is his first venture into feature directing, Gullette’s longtime association with Darren Aronofsky pays dividends here. The DVD adds a making-of featurette and the original short film from which the feature grew.

Love Me
Like Traitors, Maryna Gorbach and Mehmet Bahadir Er’s Love Me is being distributed by the outstanding DVD-of-the-month service, Film Movement. Set in Istanbul and Kiev, it chronicles what very well be a typical pre-wedding ritual for Turkish men about to be married. Although he seems resigned to follow tradition by marrying a woman he’s never met, Cemal (Ushan Çakir) agrees to travel to the Ukraine, where prostitution and go-go dancing appear to be something of a cottage industry. If Cemal isn’t movie-star handsome by Hollywood standards, he stands out from the pack of horny Turks assembled by his uncle, who organizes such junkets. It partially explains why the drop-dead gorgeous Sasha (Viktoria Spesivtseva) picks him out of the litter to substitute for her Russian sugar daddy. Apparently, Sasha desperately wants a baby, which is the one thing the married prick won’t give her, despite his many promises and excuses. She already has all of the creature comforts a modern woman might need, including a luxury apartment, where she takes Cemal for a quickie. All he understands is that he’s going to get laid, as advertised, so when Sasha’s personal life begins to spin out of control on his nickel, he can’t do much more than jump into the passenger seat of her Land Rover and go along for the ride. As could easily be predicted, the language barrier starts coming down when they have to collaborate on finding Sasha’s easily confused grandmother and he gets hauled into jail for smacking an abusive husband, whose wife doesn’t actually desire his help. Eventually, Cemal will reunite with his traveling companions, but not before he and Sasha develop feelings for each other. You might think you know where this trail is leading, but the filmmakers keep their intentions under wraps to the end. Their relationship reminds me a bit of the one that developed between a Swedish psychiatrist’s American wife (Susan Anspach) and a handsome Yugoslavian laborer in Dusan Makavejev’s Montenegro.  The Film Movement package adds biographical information and an 18-minute documentary, “The Queen,” in which a pretty Argentinian girl is caught between her mother and aunt’s desire for her to become a pageant queen and her own ambitions in the world of sports.

Fellini Satyricon: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Every Man for Himself: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
An Autumn Afternoon: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
I think it’s accurate to say that Jean-Luc Godard and Federico Fellini both earned the right to be considered cultural icons, way back in the wild and woolly days of 1960s cinema. Fellini began his career as a writer of slight entertainments to avoid the draft in World War II. After the liberation, he would collaborate on the Neorealism classics Rome: Open City and Paisan, with Roberto Rossellini. It wasn’t until the 1960s, however, that critics would apply the term “Felliniesque” to films that abandoned traditional narrative techniques and replaced them with imagery and characters inspired by dreams, memories, fantasies, desires and the Jungian concept of the “collective unconscious.” In 1964, Fellini took LSD under the supervision of a psychoanalyst. That experience, in addition to his approval of the Flower Power and sexual-liberation movements, would directly influence Fellini Satyricon, making it a staple of the midnight-movie circuit for years to come. After watching the new 4K digital restoration of Satyricon from Criterion Collection, I wonder how many bad trips can be attributed to false expectations by hippies anticipating a phantasmagoria of images, colors, sounds and naked boys and girls. What they got, instead, was a frequently violent, sexually licentious and aggressively freakish interpretation of Petronius’ satire, written during the reign of a tyrant who more closely resembled Richard Nixon than the Dalai Lama. And, yet, watching Satyricon in 2015, free of inebriants and hallucinogens, is rewarding in ways unimaginable when reduced to viewing a 16mm copy of the film projected against a white wall in the basement of a dormitory. The Blu-ray’s bonus package is reason enough for taking a trip down memory lane with the dynamic pansexual duo, Encolpius and Ascyltus. It includes a commentary track re-constructed from Eileen Lanouette Hughes’s memoir “On the Set of ‘Fellini Satyricon’: A Behind-the-Scenes Diary”; “Ciao, Federico!,” Gideon Bachmann’s hour-long documentary shot on the set of “Satyricon”; other archival interviews with Fellini; new interviews with cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno and photographer Mary Ellen Mark; a fresh documentary about Fellini’s adaptation of Petronius’s work, featuring interviews with classicists Luca Canali, a consultant on the film, and Joanna Paul; “Felliniana,” a presentation of “Satyricon” ephemera from the collection of Don Young; and an essay by critic Michael Wood.

The ink had hardly dried on calendars marking the arrival of the 1960s, when Godard’s debut feature, Breathless, effectively rewrote the rules that had governed filmmaking for almost a half-century. For many audience members, too, the experimentation on display in Breathless foreshadowed a long series of liberating experiences to come over the next decade.  Now sooner had audiences begun to embrace the ideas forwarded by the French New Wave, however, than Godard began venturing off on tangents that would mystify critics and viewers, alike. That his films espoused radical political views wasn’t especially unusual or disconcerting in the wake of France’s humiliation at Dien Bien Phu and subsequent dismantling of the Geneva Accords, or the country’s pullback from Algeria. Popular resistance movements against colonial rule coincided with the escalation of U.S. influence in Southeast Asia. In Europe, especially, workers and intellectuals formed alliances – temporary, as they might have been – to challenge regimes that protected industrialists and bankers. La Chinoise and Week End not only anticipated the calamitous events of 1968, but they provided rallying cries for students now conditioned to accept radical experimentation in the arts. By 1970, however, Godard was already off and running on a series of experimental films that defied most notions of narrative flow and coherent thought processing. If his politics would continue to confuse and alienate viewers throughout the immediate post-Vietnam era, his tinkering with form and technique had begun to bear fruit. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Every Man for Himself, a 1980 film that signaled to buffs that Godard was willing to harness some of his more radical notions for the sake of telling a straight story. Based on a script by Jean-Claude Carrière (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) and Anne-Marie Miéville (Ici et ailleurs), Every Man for Himself examined the psycho-sexual dynamics of three men and women (Jacques Dutronc, Nathalie Baye, Isabelle Huppert) living in the French-speaking cantons of Switzerland. The intimacy and intensity of some of their interaction is amplified by the unexpected use of slow motion and seemingly random jumps from indoor to outdoor locations. Even Godard pointed to Every Man for Himself as a being a “second debut.” Thirty-five years later, his Goodbye to Language 3D — that’s right, 3D – would win top honors at Cannes and in the annual vote of the National Society of Film Critics, USA. Besides the high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, the Criterion package adds “Le scenario,” a short video created by Godard to secure financing for Every Man for Himself; a new video essay by critic Colin MacCabe; fresh interviews with Isabelle Huppert and producer Marin Karmitz; archival interviews with Nathalie Baye, cinematographers Renato Berta and William Lubtchansky, and composer Gabriel Yared; two fascinating back-to-back appearances by Godard, in 1980, on “The Dick Cavett Show”; “Godard 1980,” a short film by Jon Jost, Donald Ranvaud, and Peter Wollen; and an essay by critic Amy Taubin

Criterion completes its all-star directorial trifecta with the release of Yasujiro Ozu’s final film, An Autumn Afternon (a.k.a. “The Taste of Sake). Typically, the 1962 drama requires nearly as much patience on the part of viewers to savor as it took Ozu to compose the remarkably compelling static-camera images in the film. The deceptively simple story, which takes place at the beginning of Japan’s post-war boom, examines the subtle changes in middle-class life that were occurring at the same time at home. A World War II veteran and factory boss (Chishu Ryu) lives with his grown daughter and teenage son in the modest house they once shared with his wife. Because Michiko (Shima Iwashita) seems conte to wait patiently for him to stumble home drunk, after work, Shuhei is able to ignore the fact that she yearns for an adult life of her own. The widower has grown so comfortable and complacent that it takes his secretary and a friend with a much-younger wife to remind him that Michiko, should be relieved of her obligations long enough to find a husband. Actually, her father sees it as his duty to find a man worthy of her hand – in his opinion, of course – and negotiate the terms of their marriage. It breaks her heart to learn that he’s spent so much time focusing on his work and carousing that he’s postponed approaching the perfect candidate once too often. She pretends to take it in stride, but it’s obvious that she belongs to the last generation of women likely to stay home and let their parents make important decisions for them. As is the case with most of Ozu’s films, viewers are given plenty of time to soak in the details of his characters’ homes, offices, haunts and, even, their hallways. An Autumn Afternoon might not conform to everyone’s idea of entertainment, but those who value such intricate attention to details should savor Ozu’s swan song. The newly restored Blu-ray adds commentary with film scholar David Bordwell, author of “Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema”; excerpts from “Yasujiro Ozu and ‘The Taste of Sake,’” a 1978 French television program, featuring critics Michel Ciment and Georges Perec; and essays by critic Geoff Andrew and scholar Donald Richie.

Dragonheart 3: The Sorcerer’s Curse: Blu-ray
I wonder how much the success of DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon franchise influenced Universal to order a prequel to the 1996 live-action Dragonheart and 2000 DVD-original Dragonheart: A New Beginning. Fifteen years is a long time for fans to wait for new installments, so someone there must have been paying attention to box-office trends. I don’t suppose that the rise in LARP and “cosplay” activities dissuaded anyone from making the move, either. In Dragonheart 3: The Sorcerer’s Curse, aspiring knight Gareth (Julian Morris) goes in search of an expired comet rumored to contain gold. He is shocked to instead find the dragon, Drago (voiced by Ben KIngsley), and a nest of pulsating eggs. The introduction of dragons into the kingdom could upset the balance of power, so, in fact, they are worth their weight in gold. Gareth and Drago’s bond is tested both by an evil sorcerer and a corrupt military leader (Jonjo O’Neill) also covetous of the eggs. In Gareth’s corner is a band of outlaws, led by the strikingly redheaded archer, Rhonu (Tamzin Merchant), who could pass for Jessica Chastain’s feisty younger sister. Despite what must have been a lean budget, the special effects and CGI work should be able to distract viewers from the wobbly aspects of the story. The Blu-ray adds “Bringing Drago to Life,” which focuses on Kingsley’s voice work.

VANish: Blu-ray
We’re told upfront here that freshman writer/direct/producer/co-star Bryan Bockbrader learned how to turn his ideas into low-budget films from reading Robert Rodriguez’ “Rebel Without a Crew.” In it, the Texas tornado recounts his struggle to make El Mariachi, a film that has inspired aspiring filmmakers now for more than 20 years. VANish, then, is a kidnapping thriller that promises enough violence, bloodshed and sordid humor to satisfy any fanboy. I don’t know if Bockbrader was aware of “The Ransom of Red Chief” before he sat down to write the screenplay, but his troublesome female hostage Emma (Maiara Walsh) shares many qualities with O. Henry’s Andy Dorset. The doofuses who kidnap the adult daughter of a much-feared drug dealer, Carlos (Danny Trejo), haven’t allowed for the possibility that Emma is estranged from her father for a very good reason and it isn’t likely he’d agree with anyone attempting to extort money from him. That the gangster so quickly accedes to the kidnapers’ demands should have raised a red flag that could be seen from anywhere within 50 miles of the Cajon Pass. It allows Emma the time to play games of her own with the men, who are no match for the charms of such a gorgeous femme fatale. If VANish isn’t terribly different from a dozen other movies about kidnappings gone bad – my favorite is Ruthless People – its primary conceit of being shot almost entirely within the confines of the van works very well. The supplements include commentary with Bockbrader and actor Adam Guthrie; alternate endings; and a blooper reel.

Exposed
Like an extended segment of the HBO documentary series “Real Sex,” Beth B’s Exposed introduces us to eight men and women – not all of whom limit their gender identities to the top two choices – have tailored traditional burlesque to fit their peculiar talents and physical limitations. Although none is likely to make anyone forget Gypsy Rose Lee or, for that matter, Pinky Lee, the expressive freedom provided by burlesque is a perfect fit for today’s underground crowd. The artists represented here – Bunny Love, Dirty Martini, the World Famous *Bob*, Bambi the Mermaid and Tigger!, among them — combine politics, satire and physical comedy to challenge our notions of gender identity, disability and sexuality. New York-based Beth B followed the performers around for several years, employing a “fly on the wall” camera technique. Exposed includes material collected during rehearsals, backstage preparations, private struggles and triumphs, and on stage.

Venus Flytrap
Demon Queen
New Year’s Evil: Blu-ray
There’s no horror quite like the horror that was shot on video in the 1980s for distribution on VHS cassettes to genre obsessives. For the most part, these movies were made on the cheap, employing do-it-yourself special effects and actors who owe the director a favor … or four. If most were borderline-hideous, there was no escaping the likelihood that the filmmakers had a blast making them. The less one expected from SOV titles, the more unlikely they were to be disappointed after renting them during two-for-the-price-of-one midweek specials. In an ironic twist to the ongoing digital revolution, several distribution companies have begun to specialize in obscure horror films from the ’80s and ’90s, some of whose directors and stars have achieved a modicum of fame. (Check out the documentaries, SOV: The True Independents and Adjust Your Tracking, for the full breakdown on the creation and collecting of VHS releases.) Niche distributor Massacre Video’s latest offerings could hardly be more representative of the SOV phenomenon.  Venus Flytrap has far less to do with murderous vegetation than a confrontation between a trio of 1950s-style party-crashers and a quartet of preppy nerds, who turn the tables on them. In addition to plenty of T&A and gore, T. Michael’s one-and-only picture explores some of the homo-erotic undercurrents in genre fiction. Re-mastered from the video original, it also features interviews with producer Kevin M. Glover and actor Steve Malis; four pages of liner notes; commentary; and irresistibly insane trailers for Mr. No Legs (a.k.a., “The Amazing Mr. No Legs”), Nutbag: 10 Days in the Life of a Serial Killer and Six-Pack That Bitch.

Donald Farmer is an example of a filmmaker who began his career in the SOV arena and has survived long enough to give the world such millennial treats as Red Lips: Eat the Living, Chainsaw Cheerleaders and the upcoming Shark Exorcist. Massacre is also guilty of releasing his debut feature, Demon Queen, a simple tale about a man-eating succubus, who embodies the relationship between sex and violence in such flicks. The demon is played by Mary Fanaro, who would quickly forsake the genre and find steady work as the guest hottie in several popular TV shows. The special features here include a lengthy interview with Farmer, a stills gallery and liner notes.

New Year’s Evil isn’t very exciting, even if it contains all of the elements that worked in other holiday-themed slasher products. Released in 1980, its most compelling asset remains the presence of Roz Kelly — Pinky Tuscadero on “Happy Days” — as Diane “Blaze”, Sullivan, the host of a nationally televised countdown show on New Year’s Eve. As the dropping of the ball in Times Square approaches, Blaze begins receiving calls from a fiend planning to kill someone at midnight in each of America’s time zones. She, of course, will serve as the last victim. The punk-rock soundtrack isn’t bad, even if the story doesn’t measure up to other classics of the subgenre. The Shout Factory Blu-ray adds “The Making of ‘New Year’s Evil’,” featuring new interviews with actors Kip Niven, Grant Cramer and Taaffe O’Connell, and director of photography Thomas Ackerman.

Give Me Shelter
Irreplaceable
It is a sad truth in our society that otherwise educated Americans, at least, will listen to a celebrity’s opinions on a controversial subject before seeking out the facts for themselves from more scholarly sources. It explains why nearly every charitable infomercial on late-night television features a familiar actor (Sally Struthers) or singer (Sarah McLachlan) as the public face of its mission. The same applies for those non-profits fortunate enough to land an A-lister as their spokesperson. The awareness-raising documentary Give Me Shelter overflows will celebrity testimonials, on subjects ranging from puppy mills to the confinement of circus and aquarium animals. Other topics include seal clubbings, fur fashions, the international exotic-animal trade, commercial zoos and hunting reserves, the slaughter of unwanted horses and pets, shark finning and the destruction of wildlife habitats. They are interspersed with the testimony of anti-cruelty activists. It would be difficult to find any meaningful counterpoints to any of the arguments presented in Give Me Shelter, considering that the harm being done to wild and domesticated animals is indefensible. Even so, it should be incumbent on documentary makers to offer an explanation as to why these industries continue to thrive and how their lobbyists are able to convince legislators to enact laws to prevent such questionable practices. The evidence is out there, waiting to be exposed. In addition to stock footage of endangered species and tortured animals, I would have liked to see the names and photos of politicians and corporate executives who enable those profiting from such abusive behavior. Revealing the companies that are the worst offenders for the purposes of boycotts and write-in campaigns would also have been valuable. Write-in campaigns are ignored by politicians and encouraging viewers, who aren’t members of SAG, to invest a fortune on a trip to Africa, instead of a world-class zoo or national park, probably was the least helpful advice provided. Where Give Me Shelter would be most effective, I think, is in screenings before elementary-school students and other groups of young people whose minds need to be opened to uncomfortable truths. The film was produced and co-written by model/actress/activist Katie Cleary, of Peace 4 Animals, and directed by Kristin Rizzo. Among the celebrity spokespeople are Tippi Hedren, Alison Eastwood, Michael Vartan, Esai Morales, Charlotte Ross, Elaine Hendrix, Jill Wagner, Robert Davi, Kristen Renton, Carole Davis and Richard O’Barry.

In Irreplaceable, host Tim Sisarich wanders the world in search of answers to such universal questions as “What is family?” and “Does ‘family’ still matter in today’s society?” Unremarkably, the only people interviewed on screen represent positions largely advocated by spokespersons and academics associated with evangelical Christianity. As former executive director of Focus on the Family New Zealand, Sisarich probably didn’t have to leave Wellington to gather the opinions or address the same half-truths, deliberate misreadings of data, polarized opinions and outright propaganda as he did by traveling the globe. By blaming such conservative bogeymen as feminism, the sexual revolution, no-fault divorce, liberal education, lack of paternal oversight and China’s one-baby law, Sisarich begs more questions than he answers. The only counterbalance to his remarks is derived from interviews with men and women on the street who see nothing wrong with pre-marital sex, divorce and aborting fetuses with known birth defects.  Even Doctor Phil would have been able to present a more authoritative opinion than random pedestrians in Chicago and London or professional right-winger Michael Medved. He might have learned how difficult it is to point fingers at the precise cause of troubled marriages or blame absentee fathers – like his own – for the growing prison population and other societal ills. None of this is to say that the deeply earnest Sisarich doesn’t make indisputably legitimate points in Irreplaceable or is bombastic in his approach to key issues. By all indications, he’s a gentle soul and seeker of embraceable truths. I do think, however, that the Parable of the Prodigal Son isn’t the cure-all lesson he makes it ought to be and, by limiting the definition of “family” to those of the traditional hetero-nuclear variety, he shortchanges Christ’s message in the New Testament. It’s as if Sisarich consciously avoided locating alternative families that work wonderfully. The DVD adds a panel discussion that followed nationwide screening last year.

Gene Autry Movie Collection 9
The latest collection of fully restored movies from Gene Autry’s personal archives contains such Depression-era favorites as Comin’ Round the Mountain (1936), Git Along Little Dogies (1937), Man From Music Mountain (1938) and Mountain Rhythm (1939). As befit their place on the lineups of Saturday-matinee fare, they all roll in at just short of an hour and combined Western action with singing and comedy. Before moving his bedroll and guitar to the wide-open spaces of television, Autry starred in 89 such films, none of which would make anyone forget John Ford or John Wayne, but made a lot of people happy. All of the selections here contain several songs, which, like those in Elvis Presley movies, alternated between being delightful and eminently forgettable. The bonus material includes segments from Autry’s radio shows and interstitial interview sessions from the TV days.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: The Italian Americans
PBS: Shakespeare Uncovered: Series 2
PBS: American Masters: August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand
PBS: Return to the Wild: The True and Iconic Story of Chris McCandless’ Solo Trek to Alaska
Smithsonian: Mass Extinction: Life at the Brink
Hub: My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: Adventures of the Cutie Mark Crusaders
Currently playing on a PBS affiliate near you is the four-part mini-series, “The Italian Americans.” As is the current practice at the network, it’s simultaneously being made available on DVD. If the history related here by writer/producer John Maggio and narrator Stanley Tucci falls short of being revelatory, it’s only because so many fine Italian-American filmmakers have already accomplished the same thing in their movies. Even so, the sheer volume of archival photographs, news articles and film clips collected for this project adds a layer of authenticity that would be difficult for Hollywood costume and production designers to re-create. The least known of the stories told here involve the horrifying resistance Italian immigrants faced as they struggled simply to earn their keep and bring their families over from the “old country.” Too many of the descendants of this country’s founding fathers treated immigrants from southern Europe, Mexico and China as if the Bill of Rights only applied to WASPs. Like the Chinese and Irish who were invited the United States to risk their lives building the transcontinental railroad, they all were expected to perform dangerous work for menial wages and smile when their pockets were being picked by their landlords, bosses, bankers and hooligans of their own race. When the laborers decided to protect themselves by organizing unions, the army was called out to break up the demonstrations and protect the scabs and factory owners. Neither was lynching limited to African-Americans. If the rank-and-file eventually came to believe that the Cosa Nostra afforded them more protection than the police, who could blame them? The racism and bigotry that greeted Sicilians, especially, carried over from their experiences back home, where they were treated like second- and third-class citizens in their own country. The other thing made abundantly clear in the documentary series is how successful Italian-Americans were in overcoming bigotry and excelling in business, sports, education and show business. They fought for their new country, even as relatives back home declared war on us. That, however, is the story of America as it pertains to every new immigrant group, unless the newcomers bring enough money with them to do an end run around the bastards who would prefer to keep them down. If the undocumented workers attempting to enter the U.S. today were carrying as much money as those from the Middle East, China and Russia, we’d roll a red carpet over the border crossings, instead building walls. Among those bearing witness in the “The Italian Americans” are Tony Bennett, Nancy Pelosi, Gay Talese and John Turturro.

The working principle informing both seasons of the informative and entertaining BBC/PBS mini-series “Shakespeare Uncovered” is that behind every Shakespeare play is an equally stimulating creation story. University students pay good money to learn the same things taught here by A-list actors, renowned scholars and dramaturges, and those whose career highlights have included performing the Bard’s works. Adding greatly to the appeal of the presentation are film clips from vintage plays, movies and television specials. This season’s lineup includes “Taming of the Shrew, with Morgan Freeman; “Romeo and Juliet,” with Joseph Fiennes; “Othello,” with David Harewood; “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” with Hugh Bonneville; “Antony and Cleopatra,” with Kim Cattrall; and “King Lear,” with Christopher Plummer.

August Wilson inarguably was one of the greatest American playwrights of our time. His 10-play cycle, chronicling each decade of the African-American experience in the 20th Century, included the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fences” and Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Piano Lesson.” His life story is nearly as fascinating as those told in his theatrical pieces. The “American Masters” presentation, “August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand,” honors the 70th anniversary of Wilson’s birth and the 10th anniversary of his untimely death. The producers enjoyed unprecedented access to Wilson’s theatrical archives and rarely seen interviews. Among the film and theater luminaries who appear in it are Viola Davis, Charles Dutton, Laurence Fishburne, James Earl Jones, Suzan-Lori Parks and Phylicia Rashad.

Seven years after Sean Penn’s adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s best-selling book was released, PBS’ “Return to the Wild: The Chris McCandless Story” advances the harrowing story by adding the testimony of the young man’s sisters. After holding back on their recollections of Chris’ troubled upbringing, they finally decided to visit the bus in which he died and indict their parents for the mental and physical cruelty that contributed to his decision to escape society as he knew it. New interviews and never before released letters probe the mystery behind the best-selling book and movie “Into the Wild.”

In the Smithsonian presentation, “Mass Extinction: Life at the Brink,” learned geologists offer new explanations for two of our planet’s mass extinctions of animals and vegetation: the “K/T Extinction,” which wiped out the dinosaurs, and “The Great Dying,” which obliterated nearly 90 percent of all other living things. In addition to the 6-mile-wide asteroid that destroyed the existing ecological balance, there were massive volcanic eruptions that altered the chemistry of the atmosphere and ocean. The experts advance some pretty drastic predictions about how global warming might have a similar impact on our planet

According to Brony lore, the acquisition of a “cutie mark” is an important coming-of-age moment for any Equestrian pony. They’re awarded only after a pony discovers a unique characteristic about themselves, setting them apart from all other steeds. The latest “My Little Pony” compilation “Friendship Is Magic: Adventures of the Cutie Mark Crusaders” features fillies Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo, who try to earn their marks through ziplining. The other episodes are “The Cutie Pox,” “Flight to the Finish,” “Twilight Time” and “Pinkie Pride,” with guest star “Weird Al” Yankovic.

The DVD Wrapup: Theory of Everything, Princess Kayuga, Big Hero 6, The Chair, Fear Clinic, Skating to New York, Brotherhood of Blades, Captain Scarlett … More

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015

The Theory of Everything: Blu-ray
Having already won top honors in BAFTA, Golden Globes and SAG competition, Eddie Redmayne is as close to a mortal lock for a rare Grand Slam of acting awards as these things get. If that turns out to be the case, some observers surely will argue that portraying a famously disabled genius in The Theory of Everything gave him an edge he needed in the voting. It’s a popular theory, but how does it square with truth? Certainly, it didn’t hurt Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, Tom Hanks in Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, Al Pacino in The Scent of a Woman, Jon Voight in Coming Home, Cliff Robertson in Charly and Harold Russell in The Best Years of Our Lives. It didn’t, however, guarantee top honors for Sean Penn in I Am Sam, Javier Bardem in Before Night Falls, John Hurt in The Elephant Man, Elizabeth Hartman in A Patch of Blue and Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July. Neither do excellent portrayals of disabled characters ensure nominations: John Hawkes performance in The Sessions went unrecognized, as did Mathieu Amalric in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Eric Stoltz in Mask and The Waterdance. The list goes on. All of this is a long way of saying that there’s no such thing as a mortal lock at the Academy Awards ceremony, unless one also factors in sympathy votes, overdue honors and previous slights, and the willingness of academy members to actually see all of the nominated pictures. However, were it to leak out that 73-year-old Stephen Hawking had agreed to hand out the Oscar for Best Actor or Best Picture, I’d probably agree that the fix was in. Otherwise, I wouldn’t bet against Michael Keaton pulling a mild upset.

Unlike so many of the physically or mentally challenged people whose trials and triumphs have formed the basis for movies and television shows, Hawking qualifies as a true 21st Century celebrity. If fewer than 1 percent of all viewers understand what he’s taught us about theoretical physics and cosmology, the great majority will have some knowledge of his work through his best-selling books, “A Brief History of Time” and “The Universe in a Nutshell”; appearances on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “The Simpsons,” “Futurama,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Doctor Who,” “60 Minutes,” “Monty Python,” “TEDtalks,” “David Blaine: Real or Magic” and as a synthesized voice of a Pink Floyd album; several television documentaries; and his advocacy for the rights of disabled people. If Hawking hasn’t been awarded a Nobel Prize, it’s primarily because his theories remain years away from being proven or disproven. Our familiarity with Hawking served as both an asset and potential landmine for Redmayne, in that audiences would necessarily judge his physical characterization of a man with a crippling form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, every bit as much as his acting within that limitation. In both cases, the 33-year-old Londoner excels.

All that said, it should be noted that un-nominated director James Marsh (Man on Wire) and nominated writer Anthony McCarten (Death of a Superhero) based their adaptation on Jane Hawking’s bittersweet 1999 memoir, “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen.” As such, the film is far less a biopic than the chronicle of a romance that lasted for more than 30 years, from their days at college, through their divorce in 1995 and reconciliation eight years later. How many of us knew that Hawking was married once, let alone twice? Because Jane met Stephen as students at Cambridge, before his diagnosis of motor-neuron disease, the challenges they would face as lovers, newlyweds, parents, patient/caregiver, and somewhat jaded middle-aged adults are shared candidly on the screen. Several detours are made to lecture halls and workshops, so as to provide basic insight into his ideas and methodology, but most of the drama comes from watching the fissures grow between them. Can we blame Jane for seeking the emotional support a choir director when her husband begins to withdraw from her?  Conversely, how are we to feel about Stephen’s lascivious attachment to the dominatrix masquerading as his nurse and traveling companion (Maxine Peake)? The 800-pound gorilla in the Hawkings’ marriage, and throughout the 123-minute course of The Theory of Everything, is the existence of God. Jane and her mother-in-law (Emily Watson) are believers, while Stephen is of the atheistic persuasion. He leaves just enough wiggle-room in his writings to appease them, by allowing for a deity’s role as a trigger mechanism for the Big Bang. He never appears to be sold on the prospect of divine intervention, though. And, yet, how was Hawking, given little hope of surviving past 25, able not only to survive the killer disease another 50 years, but contribute so much to science under such unbearable conditions? Many agnostics, even, would consider this to be the kind of miracle that argues for God’s existence. One way or another, it does seem as if someone’s been looking out for Mr. Hawking. The Blu-ray presentation brings out the best in Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Oscar-nominated musical score, as well as Benoît Delhomme’s lovely cinematography. It comes with several deleted scene, Marsh’s commentary and the featurette, “Becoming the Hawkings.”

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya: Blu-ray
Big Hero 6: Blu-ray
Gladiators of Rome
The same people who’ll want to catch up on The Theory of Everything before filling out their Oscar pools are advised to watch The Tale of The Princess Kaguya, which must be considered a leading candidate in the wide-open animated-feature category. Japan’s Studio Ghibili has been a finalist four times since 2001, winning one Academy Award in the category, for Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. It likely would have garnered even more nods if the animation wing hadn’t limited itself to only three nominees in 8 of the last 14 competitions. With Miyazaki retired, it became incumbent on the marginally less-revered and far less prolific studio co-founder, 78-year-old Isao Takahata, to carry the baton, if only for another year. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is based on the 10th Century Japanese folktale, “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.” When a tiny wood sprite is discovered inside a shining stalk of bamboo, the elderly woodsman and his wife take it to be their blessed obligation to accept the challenge of raising her, as a newly morphed infant. The rapidly growing “Princess” – or “Li’l Bamboo,” as she’s known to her friends – appears to love being a country girl, with free run of the forest and fields. Later, when the woodcutter finds gold dust and exquisite silks in the forest, he feels it necessary to move to the imperial capital, where Princess can realize her promise and he might realize his fortune. Princess, though, stubbornly refuses to make things easy for her wealthy suitors or anyone else in the city. In this way, the movie doesn’t resemble any fairy tale with which we’ve become accustomed. What distinguishes Takahata’s film from previous Ghibili releases is an artistic style that’s simple, yet elegant style, like the ancient scrolls and watercolors he’s studied for most of his life. If, at 137 minutes, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya will tax the patience of children and many adults, it’s well worth the effort to see it through to the blissful ending. As usual, the Blu-ray arrives with a feature-length documentary, “Isao Takahata and His Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” as well as the peculiarly Japanese featurette, “Announcement of the Completion of the Film.”

Also very much in the running is the delightfully inventive action comedy, Big Hero 6, from the resurgent Walt Disney Animation Studios (not to be confused with Pixar/Disney). Among the company’s recent successes are Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph and Tangled, all pictures enhanced by cutting-edge animation techniques, Disney-esque narratives, gender-conscious protagonists and sequel-ready financial strategy. That Big Hero 6 opens in an only slightly futuristic Pacific Rim city, San Fransokyo, perhaps is an indication of the company’s intention to convince international geekdom that Disney embraces the reality of our cyber-destiny. Or, not. Although the movie teaches sound lessons about family, loss and perseverance in the face of adversity, its most marketable character offers plenty of comic relief. Baymax is a personal-companion robot shaped like a giant inflatable snowman. It was invented by the brother of Big Hero 6’s human protagonist, Hiro Hamada, a teenage robotics prodigy who will need all the help he can get when the older sibling is killed in an explosion at a trade show. It’s there that a sinister industrialist steals the prototype of a rapidly multiplying miniature robot, no larger than Tylenol capsule, which could be used for good, evil or the amusement of consumers. The fluidity of the tiny machines is as entertaining to observe as the sequences in which Baymax attempts to find its bearings, as would a human toddler given its first soccer ball to kick around. Inspired by an obscure Marvel Comics superhero team of the same name, Hiro is joined by a half-dozen other friends who possess individual superpowers. They remind me of the characters in the ancient video game Mega Man. Once the action kicks in, it rarely stops. Don Hall and Chris Williams’ film is accompanied by “Feast,” an amusing animated short that documents the life of a Boston Terrier from the viewpoint of his ravenous appetite, as well as “The Origin of ‘Big Hero 6’”; “Big Animator 6: The Characters Behind the Characters”; deleted and unfinished scenes, with introductions by the directors.

The Italian import, Gladiators of Rome, may not be playing in the same league as Princess Kaguya, Big Hero 6 and the other Oscar nominees, but neither is the animated feature from Paramount so obviously foreign that American youngsters can’t relate to it. If it had been released here in 2001, instead of 2014, writer/director Iginio Straffi (“Winx Club”) might have been considered a contender in the inaugural Best Animated Feature Oscar category, won by Shrek, over Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and Monsters, Inc. If nothing else, Ridley Scott’s Best Picture-winning Gladiator would have been fresh in the minds of voters. That’s only to say, though, that animation has come a long way in the last 15 years. Here, Timo is adopted by the head of a Roman gladiator school, after his mother is killed in the Vesuvius eruption of 79 AD. The boy appears to be destined for big things in the arena, until he’s separated from his playmate, Lucilla, causing the oversized lunk to descend into an eight-year funk. When Lucilla returns from boarding school in Greece, she’s already committed to a cocky aristocrat. It will take some help from the gods for Timo to prove he’s worthy of Lucilla’s hand … but, guess what. Gladiators of Rome should appeal to kids whose appreciation of the animation art doesn’t begin and end with Pixar or Ghibili. There’s plenty of bloodless gladiatorial action on display, but only after the characters are established and stakes of winning made clear through Straffi’s smart and humorous script. For once, too, the women characters are portrayed as something other than tyrannical princesses and topless slaves.

Skating to New York
Starz!: The Chair: The Complete First Season
Sometimes, mainstream critics miss the point of certain genres of film entirely. The coming-of-age adventure, Skating to New York, is a perfect example. At a time when there a so few non-exploitative stories being written for teenage boys, especially, here’s one that was blown out of the water before it had a chance to swim … or, here, to skate. Even a single negative review by a third- or fourth-string critic at a major publication can be enough for a distributor to relegate a potential “crowd-pleaser” to straight-to-VOD/DVD status. It’s no secret that marketing costs have skyrocketed to the point where independent studios and distributors, especially, will always err on the side of caution. After watching this delightful saga of five boys attempting to leave a small mark on the world, I wondered if the 1986 coming-of-age hit, Stand by Me, might today be given an opportunity to prove itself theatrically. Having Rob Reiner and/or Stephen King’s name attached to a project doesn’t guarantee anything more than a limited release, if that. I’m certainly not trying to persuade anyone that veteran cinematographer Charles Minsky’s directorial debut can stand up to comparison to Reiner’s gem, only that it deserves a fair shot in DVD and Blu-ray.

Adapted from a novella by Edmond Stevens and screenplay by sports specialist Monte Merrick (Mr. Baseball, 8 Seconds), Skating to New York couldn’t have been released on DVD/Blu-ray at a more appropriate time. With most of the northeastern states enduring deep-freeze conditions, the movie recalls a similarly vicious cold snap, when Lake Ontario was sufficiently frozen over to prompt the boys – whose egos are bruised by a recent beating they took at the local hockey arena – to prove their mettle by making the 25-mile trek on the coldest day of the year. As anyone who lives along the shores of the Great Lakes knows, it’s impossible to anticipate what to expect on such a journey, and the kids encounter large snow drifts, uneven and broken surface ice, crevasses that extend for miles and freak weather conditions. In one scary scene, the boys take temporary refuge in a trailer inexplicably abandoned in the middle of the lake. Just as they’re getting comfortable, a gust of wind rips the to[ of the trailer from its fragile mooring. Soon thereafter, they ask a passing pickup driver to help their friend, who’s fallen through the ice and needs to get to a hospital before hypothermia sets in. Anyone who’s seen Frozen River will anticipate exactly what a wild-eyed guy in a Hawaiian shirt is doing in the middle of a frozen lake on such a day, and it has nothing to do with hockey. Although an unlikely domestic subplot threatens to knock the narrative of its tracks, Minsky recovers in time to save the picture. Also worth noting is how well the Blu-ray presentation looks, given an overwhelmingly bleak icescape that you’d think would defy Canadian shooter François Dagenais’ attempts to make it look beautiful. Well Go USA, a company that specializes in martial-arts and other genre fare, deserves a lot of credit for taking a chance on a film like Skating to New York.

The harsh realities of making films in off-Hollywood situations are made abundantly clear in Starz Media’s “The Chair,” a 667-minute-long making-of featurette for the cable network’s “original filmmaking experiment.” From Chris Moore, the executive producer of Good Will Hunting and Project Greenlight, which it resembles, “The Chair” follows two novice directors through the process of bringing their first feature to the screen. The directors have been assigned the same original screenplay, written by actor-turned-filmmaker, Dan Schoffer, which they must craft as their own film, to be shot in Pittsburgh on shoestring budgets. It is a feature-length coming-of-age comedy that describes the first homecoming on Thanksgiving weekend by a handful of college freshman. It’s not the most original setup for a first film, but, sometimes, that’s the best way to go. In this case, however, the finished products — Shane Dawson’s Not Cool and Anna Martemucci’s Hollidaysburg — could hardly be more different. The Starz mini-series documents the never-easy creation, marketing and theatrical release from pre-production to preview screenings. The film audiences liked most would be awarded $250,000.

Of the two, Hollidaysburg is the more conventional, in that the characters look as if they might exist in the real world and the weekend’s touchstone events will be familiar to anyone who’s found that first trip home to be alternately awkward, nostalgic and painful. Martemucci plays a supporting role in the picture, as do other members of the creative team. As YouTube superstar, Dawson brings far more of his own outrageous personality to Not Cool and, as such, he’s decided that no one else could do justice to the lead role. Anyone who’s seen Aussie comedian Chris Lilley on HBO’s “Summer Heights High” will recognize what Dawson brings to his movie as a director, co-writer and actor. Because he isn’t afraid to push the limits on racial and sexual stereotypes or scatological humor, that decision often works to the detriment of the film. Finished versions of Not Cool and Hollidaysburg are included in “The Chair” package, so they can be seen by curious viewers of the mini-series. The cruelest lesson for everyone involved comes from seeing how shattering it can be for someone who’s invested so much of their time, sweat and tears into a movie to realize that not everyone fell in love with their movies. (Anticipating rage issues, Dawson refused to read the notes from preview screenings.) On the plus side, the participants make great use of Pittsburgh as a setting and both pictures have at least one redeeming feature. In Not Cool, it’s the sit-com ready co-star Michelle Veintimilla and, in Hollidaysburg, it’s handsome male lead, Tobin Mitnick. The jury’s still out on the directors.

No Tears for the Dead: Blu-ray
Brotherhood of Blades: Blu-ray
Fans of no-frills action flicks from Korea and Hong Kong should find something to sink their teeth into in Lee Jeong-beom’s ruthless follow-up to 2010’s The Man From Nowhere. In that movie, a despondent government operative finds redemption in the eyes of a little girl whose drug-addicted mother was killed attempting to betray the mob. In No Tears for the Dead, assassin Gon (Jang Dong-gun) was orphaned as a boy when his drug-addicted mother committed suicide on a trip together through the American Southwest. Raised by strangers to become exactly what he became, the amorphous psychological blob that passes for Gon’s conscience is tripped after a little girl is accidently killed in a shootout. In a cruel twist, Gon’s employers decide that the victim’s mother was too far involved in her dead husband’s crooked business to allow her to live. Normally, this wouldn’t present a problem, but, the more he observes the grieving woman (Kim Min-hee), the greater his guilt feelings grow. When Gon fails to perform his task, he becomes the target of his employers and various other triad and gangland elements. Frankly, after about an hour, I lost track of who was trying to kill whom and what they’d done to deserve such shabby treatment. (It pays to memorize the facial hair and other distinguishing characteristics of the characters in Korean shoot-’em-ups, as there will come a point when they become indistinguishable from the each other.) If there’s very little emotional release in No Tears for the Dead, there are plenty of action sequences seemingly influenced by such western masters as Michael Mann, Luc Bresson and the late Tony Scott. The excellent Blu-ray adds director’s commentary, deleted scenes, action highlights, a behind-the-scenes featurette and interviews.

Because Brotherhood of Blades is a story of deceit, deception and backstabbing, it’s comes as no surprising that the historical epic might leave viewers bamboozled for long stretches of time. And, don’t even get me started on power-hungry enuchs – enuchs? — whose place in Chinese courts was different than in most other countries. Set in the late Ming Dynasty, around 1627, an incoming emperor decides that it’s in his best interests to rid the palace and countryside of a eunuch sect that had dominated the imperial secret police. Like so many J. Edgar Hoovers, the eunuchs were in a position to blackmail nearly everyone in the palace, except monarchs that came from outside the realm. Three brothers, all members of the deadly Jinyiwei Secret Police of the Imperial Guard, are assigned the task of killing the corrupt and powerful Wei, one of the last of the eunuch potentates, and his followers. Desperate to raise the money to buy the freedom of his favorite prostitute, one of the brothers is bribed by Wei to stage his death. This deception leads to other, even more dire consequences for the special police, whose newfound notoriety has made them the target of nearly everyone hoping to eliminate competition for the emperor’s favor. Brotherhood of Blades overflows with sword, knife and spear play, much of which was choreographed without the benefits of wires. It more than makes up for the frequently confusing subplots and array of momentarily significant characters. Typically, the set designs are nothing short of spectacular, as well.

The Lookalike: Blu-ray
Gillian Jacobs hasn’t let any grass grow under her feet since “Community” ended its run on NBC last year. (It begins a 13-episode Season Six next month on Yahoo’s streaming service.) In the otherwise unappealing crime thriller, The Lookalike, she plays a drug addict being played for a sucker, both by police (Gina Gershon) and sibling drug dealers (John Corbett, Jerry O Connell), who want to feed her to a sadistic crime boss (John Hurt). Actually, the kingpin wants to work his sadistic magic on a different young woman, but her inconvenient death forces the dealers to scramble, by tarting up Joyce’s unfortunate Lacey. That’s only the primary through-line, however. Subplots include one involving a pretty, deaf amputee; a debt owed to Luis Guzman (never a good thing); a pissed-off Steven Bauer; playground basketball; and one of the dealers’ desire to use money from the scam to start a cooking show on cable TV. That’s far too much stuff for director Richard Gray and writer Michele Davis-Gray’s story to contain comfortably. The Blu-ray includes deleted scenes and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Fear Clinic: Blu-ray
Malignant
The Phantom of the Opera: Blu-ray
Foreclosure
Animal: Blu-ray
According to legend, the Six Degrees of Separation exercise was originally proposed by Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy, in 1929, and popularized 60 years later in a play by John Guare. For some reason, I was under the mistaken impression that Six Degrees of Separation was inspired by Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, but apparently that isn’t the case.  An offshoot of the so-called “small-world experiment,” it suggests that modern human society is based on a shrinking network characterized by as few as six short path-lengths. The Internet has simplified the exercise, by allowing people with no known relationship to each other to suddenly appear as “friends” on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. What started as a parlor game has spread like cholera in a Third World swamp, infecting computers, phones and tablets at an alarming rate. This week, it’s possible to play a little game we’ll call Two Degrees of Brad Dourif – or Two Degrees of Robert Englund, if you prefer – in which viewers are connected to the genre legends through Dourif’s daughter, Fiona, who appears alongside Englund in the nifty mad-scientist thriller, Fear Clinic. In Robert Hall and Aaron Drane’s expansion of a FEARNET.com series from 2009, Englund is given an opportunity to demonstrate his chops in ways that haven’t been available to him in years. Five young adults travel to a special clinic run by the infamous Dr. Andover (Englund) to treat their phobias, which isn’t to say that he actually finds cures for them. Fiona Dourif plays one of the survivors who returns to the clinic after their phobias begin to re-emerge. Andover now uses a “fear chamber” to animate his patients’ fears in the form of terrifying hallucinations. The problem is that some of the fears are caused by very real threats to their personal safety.  Robert Englund isn’t quite old enough to have posed for Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” but there are moments in Fear Clinic that he looks the part, at least. Fiona’s dance card has been growing since breaking into the business in 2005, and she now has several projects in various stages of development.

In the oddly paced Malignant, Brad Dourif plays a scientist of dubious reputation who wears a long black western slicker and makes house calls. Referred to only as The Man, the scientist has begun focusing his attention on a young man, Allex (Gary Cairns), who lost his wife in a drunken driving accident and now seems intent on using the same poison to kill himself. One night, after blacking out from too much booze, Allex wakes up to find a wound in his chest stitched up and no way to know what happened to him. The Man explains that he’s now part of an experiment that requires him to stay sober – and not ask questions about the stitches – or else he’ll face the consequences. After visiting his doctor and carousing in a bar, The Man shows Allex a video in which he murders a woman he met in his drunken stupor. He’s told that even more dire things will happen in his name if he doesn’t take the cure. Dourif convinces us, if not Allex, that sobriety is a better alternative to terror.

The other Englund entry in this week’s selection is a Blu-ray version of The Phantom of the Opera, which is probably significantly more recommendable in 2015 than it was in 1989, only a year after the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical opened on Broadway. The stench of exploitation must have reeked from the marketing material, especially considering the release coincided with one of Menahem Golan’s many bouts with bankruptcy at Cannon and 21st Century Films. There wasn’t even enough money to stage the chandelier scene, which has become a staple in the nearly 50 adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s novel. I doubt that this “Phantom” did much to refill Golan’s coffers, either. Twenty-five years later, however, it holds up remarkably well, thanks to the introduction of more true horror than any of the remakes since the Lon Chaney/Mary Philbin version in 1925. This is accomplished through advances in the art of special-makeup-effects, which began to come of age with the slasher/splatter flicks of the early ’80s. Moreover, the producers lucked out being able to re-purpose sets and locations from a picture that just completed shooting in Budapest, whose infrastructure probably resembled that of 19th Century Paris. The Blu-ray adds the 38-minute “Behind the Mask: The Making of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’” and commentary with director Dwight H. Little and Englund.

If it weren’t for the presence of Michael Imperioli, I can’t imagine how Foreclosure could have scared up the money to get made, let along distributed. It’s a ghost story that gives viewers almost no credit for having the patience to wait for a ghost story to unfold at a normal pace or recognize when something as important as a geographical setting makes no sense. Imperioli plays Bill, a guy who looks as if he hasn’t been employed in quite a while and may have given up the job search entirely. Along with his teenage son and crusty old father-in-law, who looks as if he’s decided not to shave or comb his hair until he’s given a damn good reason to do so, Bill has inherited the rundown home of an uncle who has just committed suicide there. The house is in a neighborhood so devoid of life and color that it could only be situated in Detroit, Flint or Atlantic City. The literature says that Foreclosure was shot in Queens, but I doubt it. No matter, it’s clearly north of the Mason-Dixon Line. That’s why I found it surprising that the house was haunted by the ghost of a black boy who lived in the neighborhood and was lynched for addressing a white woman in a way deemed improper. Now, while I don’t doubt that lynchings have occurred in New York or Michigan, it’s unlikely that the circumstances would be similar to the ones described by the black cop who opened the house to Bill. Even so, the walls are festooned with Civil War memorabilia, presumably owned by an ancestor of his father-in-law. (The old man is even suspicious of Bill’s Greek heritage.) While snooping, the boy, Steven, (Spencer List), uncovers other more disturbing artifacts from his distant Confederate past. One thing leads very quickly to another and, before long, the haunted house gets the better of its new inhabitants, as it had Uncle Cal. Finally, Foreclosure delivers only the cheapest of thrills on a premise that might have had a better chance of succeeding had it been set closer to where most of the non-fictional lynchings took place and Civil War re-enactors still prefer to represent the losing side.

Not long after the first camper gets mauled in Animal, I wondered if it might be the latest in a long line of straight-to-Syfy originals. It had a certain half-baked quality that suggested the creature-feature was made on a budget even Roger Corman would find stingy, but might entertain 14-year-old boys ready to open their hearts to genre fiction. Instead of being destined for multiple showings on Syfy, though, Animal was affiliated with its sister network, Chiller, with an assist on the production end from Drew Barrymore’s Flower Films. The idea here is that there are places in North America where amazing creatures have lived largely undetected since the beginning of time. Native American legends are full of such demons, some resembling Sasquatch and Bigfoot. Animal’s first narrative disconnect comes in knowing that the monster’s first contact with the campers comes within walking distance of a road leading to a modern cabin. The creature resembles a giant baby robin with the razor-sharp teeth of a goliath tiger fish or the Alien monster. Not content to track, capture and devour a single victim every few days, or so, like most predators, this one is so insatiable that every forest north of the Mexican border should have been de-populated by the time Europeans first crossed the Mississippi River. After outrunning a couple of the slower campers, the monster lays siege to the cabin, in which several others are “hiding.” Among them are characters played by the always welcome Joey Lauren Adams, Elizabeth Gillies, Paul Iacono, Eve Jeffers, Thorsten Kaye, Amaury Nolasco, Keke Palmer, Jeremy Sumpter and Parker Young. Animal is gory, without being particularly frightening, and exceedingly loud.

Love at First Bite/Once Bitten: Blu-ray
Vampire’s Kiss/High Spirits: Blu-ray
If there’s one thing these vintage double-features from Shout Factory share, besides vampires and ghosts, it is casts that are remarkable for their credentials in non-genre fare. The titles don’t hold up very well after 30 years, or so, out of the spotlight, except for the fun that comes with seeing familiar faces in campy situations. In Love at First Bite (1979), George Hamilton proved to be an inspired choice to play Count Dracula, who moves to New York after being forced out of his castle to make room for an Olympic training facility. It’s the beginning of the city’s hard-core disco period and he’s immediately drawn to a fashion model, played Susan Saint James. It also includes Richard Benjamin, Arte Johnson, Dick Shawn and Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford from the “The Jeffersons.” Unlike other vampire protagonists, Hamilton wouldn’t be caught undead without his trademark tan. Once Bitten (1985) is noteworthy for providing Jim Carrey with his first lead role in a movie someone might have wanted to see. He plays a fresh-faced teenager who attracts the attention of a ridiculously sexy vampire countess (Lauren Hutton). Unlike most of her peers, she prefers the blood of male virgins to that of, say, hobos or prostitutes. Carrey is allowed to show off some of the comic chops he would display on “In Living Color.”

The second double-feature opens with the irresistible Nicolas Cage vehicle, Vampire’s Kiss (1988), which he made after raising his profile in Peggy Sue Got Married, Raising Arizona and Moonstruck. In it, Cage plays a cutthroat business executive and passionate partier, who believes that he’s been turned into a vampire by Jennifer Beals. For some reason, she appears to be wearing blackface makeup – or is it the effects of high resolution — and her nipple patches are clearly visible in the bedroom scenes. Once his character is bitten, Cage kicks his performance into manic overdrive. It’s the kind of show that’s provided impressionists material for decades to come. It would be funnier if his fellow actors didn’t look so frightened by his improvisational antics. Also appearing are Maria Conchita Alonso, Elizabeth Ashley, Kasi Lemmons, John Michael Higgins, David Hyde Pierce and older brother, Marc Cage. I recommend listening to the commentary track, during which Cage and director Robert Bierman recall how crazy things became in his early post-Method period.

I had forgotten that Neil Jordan had written and directed High Spirits (1988), after impressing critics and audiences with The Company of Wolves and Mona Lisa. What prompted him to try his hand at a dopey supernatural farce is beyond me, but he claims the studio mangled his final cut. Maybe so, but I can’t see how he could have made something worthwhile from material that might have been better served as dinner-theater entertainment on a tour of Irish castles. That said, however, the presence of Peter O’Toole, Daryl Hannah, Steve Guttenberg, Beverly D’Angelo, Jennifer Tilly, Peter Gallagher and Liam Neeson enhances a story in which ancient spirits interact romantically with tourists hoping to commune with the supernatural world.

Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons: The Complete Series
Power Rangers: Super Sentai Zyuranger: The Complete Series
Peanuts Movies: Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown
Apparently, the 1967 British Supermarionation series, “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons,” has no known connection to the seminal Tex-Mich punk band “? and the Mysterions,” which recorded “96 Tears” at least a year earlier. The Detroit-area band’s name can be traced, instead, to the Japanese sci-fi classic, The Mysterians, which finally made it to these shores in 1959. As usual, Shout Factory/Timeless Media has done a spectacular job restoring this relic of a bygone age. It is being released as the second entry in Shout’s Gerry Anderson Collection, which began in January with “Stingray: The Complete Series: 50th Anniversary Edition” and will be followed this spring by “Fireball XL5: The Complete Series” and “Joe 90: The Complete Series.” Those too young to recall Supermarionation can catch up to it here or by seeking out Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s highly satirical Team America: World Police, which was released at a time Americans were beginning to question President Bush’s obsession with Iraq. The threat to world peace in “Captain Scarlet” is a technically advanced, if completely invisible Martian force, the Mysterons, that possesses the ability to re-create the exact likeness of any object or person they destroy. Naturally, their primary target is Captain Scarlet. When that fails, Scarlet is imbued with the special power of retro-metabolism – self-resuscitation — allowing him to continue in his quest to protect the Earth from any attack. Set nearly 100 years into the then-future, Anderson’s concept isn’t any sillier than those predicted by other sci-fi masters. It’s the characters, themselves, who are the freakiest elements in the city. They resemble Barbie and Ken, dolled up in military-issue jump suits and equipped with ray-guns and explosives. One of the key characters speaks in a voice that is distinctly that of Cary Grant. The package arrives with a new interview with Anderson; commentary on two episodes; and three background featurettes.

Having been quite a bit too old to be a fan of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” in the show’s mid-1990s heyday, it’s difficult for me to form an accurate appraisal as to how it might differ from its hyperkinetic Japanese predecessor, “Super Sentai Zyuranger.” According to legend, five young warriors from an ancient civilization of dinosaur-evolved humans have been awakened from a 170-million-year sleep, simultaneously with the release of their sworn enemy, Bandora the Witch, from a magic container on Planet Nemesis. In order to combat Bandora, the squad of acrobatic crime-fighters summons the support of dinosaurs in their family lineage (a.k.a., Guardian Beasts). Typically, everything about the show is wildly exaggerated, fueled by adrenaline and seemingly made as inexpensively as possible. I can see where kids would fall in love with it. The complete-series set, which contains 1020 minutes of material, is being released by Shout, with a pair of featurettes and a panel discussion from the 2014 Power Morphican. Like “Captain Scarlet,” girl viewers are accorded more than the usual number of female role models.

With a new feature-length, CGI-animated Peanuts Movie scheduled for release in time for Thanksgiving, there’s still plenty of time for parents and children to reacquaint themselves with all of Charles Schultz’ beloved creations, in all of their various media incarnations. Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown, the third of four feature-length films released theatrically, is making its DVD debut this week, with “Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!!)” following suit in October. (“A Boy Named Charlie Brown” and “Snoopy, Come Home” have been on DVD for some time now.) Here, the gang is vacationing at a wilderness camp, where Charlie is required to stand up to a group of bullies. And, no, Peppermint Patty isn’t one of them.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Earth: A New Wild: Blu-ray
PBS: Nova: Surviving Ebola
PBS: American Experience: Klansville U.S.A.
CNN: The Sixties
Nickelodeon Favorites: Springtime Adventures
Chuggington: Turbo Charged Chugger
Carol Burnett Show: Together Again
The working principle behind PBS’ terrific nature series, “Earth: A New Wild,” is that most documentaries extolling the preciousness of our environment ignore the proximity of everyday human activity to the wildlife being featured. We already have a good fix on the damage that’s been done to the environment and the efforts being made to contain it. Likewise, such David Attenborough-hosted series as “Planet Earth,” “Life,” “Blue Planet” and “Frozen Planet” have convinced us that wildlife removed from the wild are prisoners. Hosted by conservation scientist Dr. M. Sanjayan, “Earth: A New Wild” visits dozens of habitats where the borders between wildlife and humans have disappeared and mutual encroachment is threatening the balance that’s sustained life on Earth for millennia. He doesn’t advocate radical fixes for long-gestating problems or demand reparations from the worst offenders. Instead, Sanjayan follows the food chain for various species from its approximate inception to the place where the soiled environment began to turn on them and their freedom became threatened. By finding the last place where a semblance of balance existed, Sanjayan is able to demonstrate how it might be restored. In the segment devoted to sea life, he interviews people who’ve identified core issues – shoreline erosion, poaching, overgrazing, the proliferation of predators and scavengers, chemical depletion – and demonstrates how they are using modern technology to gradually reverse the process. He also visits far-flung places where elephants, tigers and even raccoons have begun to retaliate against their closest human neighbors and where commerce has made natural habitats too financially valuable for humans to resist exploitation. At a time when so many of us have begun to assume that the planet is on an irreversible path to destruction, it’s nice to meet people who have found logical and not overwhelmingly expensive or controversial ways to stem the tide. Need I mention how beautiful everything looks on Blu-ray?

“Nova” producers and reporters have an uncanny tendency to appear at the right time, at the right place for the purpose of making sense of natural and manmade disasters, epidemics and major scientific achievements. In the case of “Surviving Ebola,” PBS viewers were able to witness the monumental battle to contain the vicious disease not only as it happened, but also before the deaths stopped. Indeed, some of the aid workers interviewed for this episode would die before the production process was completed. The “Nova” team traveled to the African “hot zone,” even as the death count was rising, and medical labs where scientists were racing to test vaccines. “Surviving Ebola” also provides chilling first-hand testimony from those who caught and survived the epidemic.

Among other important things, the “American Experience” presentation “Klansville U.S.A.” reminds us of the resiliency of racism. We’re shown how it can lie dormant for long periods of time, then reappears when the body is least able to combat it. Such was the case with the North Carolina chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, which was able to resurrect itself at least twice and, perhaps, three times, since the Reconstruction period so hideously depicted in The Birth of a Nation.  It wasn’t until the 1954 Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education was rendered that rabble-rousers like Bob Jones were able to convince poor white folks that their “way of life” was being threatened by their equally poor and desperate black neighbors, the liberal media and, of courses, Jews. It wasn’t until a black woman was murdered by an unrepentant Klansmen that President Johnson openly declared war on the organization and J. Edger Hoover was nudged out of his deep sleep long enough to sicc his agents on the leadership, through informers and close readings of the leaders’ checkbooks. North Carolina was chosen as the focus of this documentary seemingly for three reasons: its reputation as the South’s most progressive state; Jones’ ability to organize the largest Klan group in the country; and, believe it or not, the false image of Southern justice burnished weekly by the enormously popular “The Andy Griffith Show.” Sadly, the DVD doesn’t include a bonus feature on how the Tea Party has been able to convince ignorant North Carolinians to vote for candidates, who, a half-century ago, might have kept a white robe and pointed hood in their closets.

Of all of the decades in recorded history, the one that doesn’t require being replayed repeatedly is the 1960s. As epochal as those 10 years may have been, they’ve been analyzed, reanalyzed, dramatized, labeled, exulted, dismissed, praised, ridiculed and documented ad nauseam for as long as the children and grandchildren of the Baby Boomers have been alive. There are several legitimate reasons for this overabundance of information, opinion and recollections, as well a few that that can be boiled down to nostalgia and narcissism. First, the ability of the media to cover several major events simultaneously, while collecting great volumes of video evidence for posterity, had never been greater, 2) so many of those events were far too momentous for future historians to minimalize, rationalize or ignore; 3) never were more young men and women affected by the same political, cultural and economic upheavals, and 4) we’ll never know how our democracy may have fared if Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and John and Robert Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated. It’s also true that Baby Boomers never tire of watching themselves on television. Books and movies that have attempted to encapsulate the decade’s myriad pros and cons haven’t been nearly as successful – or accurate — as such documentary series as CNN’s “The Sixties.” Executive produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman (“John Adams,” “The Pacific”) and produced by Mark Herzog (“Gettysburg”), the 10-part series touches all of the key touchstone events and movements of the decade, without adding much of anything new to viewers who experienced them first hand. (A segment on resistance to contraception and the treatment of homosexuals isn’t bad, though.) I do think, however, that younger generations of Americans will be surprised at how quickly and greatly the times they were a changin’. Patient viewers will even be able to watch the birth of the modern Republican Party, in the nomination of conservative Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential race. Today, the Arizona senator would be condemned as a moderate by the right wing of his own party.

It’s been a busy couple of weeks at Nickelodeon/Paramount, as well, with a quartet of compilations from the network’s most popular kids’ shows. They include “Nickelodeon Favorites: Springtime,” with seasonally relevant episodes already featured in “Wallykazam,” “Bubble Guppies,” “Team Umizoomi,” “Dora the Explorer,” “Blue’s Clues” and “Wonder Pets.” There also are separate collections: “Dora and Friends,” “Max & Ruby: Sweet Siblings” and “Blaze and the Monster Machines: Blaze of Glory.”

Chuggington: Turbo Charged Chugger” is comprised of six episodes from the show’s tenure on Disney Junior, plus the “Badge Quest” episode, “No Time to Waste”; character montages of Asher and Payce; and coloring and activity pages. Here, Wilson and the Chug Patrollers attempt a daring bridge rescue; Brewster helps the Chuggineers build a new station; Koko tries to break her Chug-A-Sonic record; the Speed Fleet competes in the Track Dash; and everybody learns how to use the Piggy-Back Wagon.

Few television shows embodied the variety-show format as well as “The Carol Burnett Show,” which ran from 1967 to 1978. Besides a core cast of multitalented performers — Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner and, later, Tim Conway and Dick Van Dyke – two or three guest stars were brought in each week to participate in comedy skits, dance routines and sing songs, from show tunes to ballads. It’s easy to forget how much entertainment was packed into each week’s show. This three-show package features Ruth Buzzi, Richard Crenna, Roddy McDowall, Ken Berry and Gloria Swanson.

The DVD Wrapup: Kink, Maison Close, Dragon 2, Nekromantik 2 and more

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

Kink
Maison Close: Season 1: Blu-ray
Not having read the book upon which Fifty Shades of Grey was based, I won’t hazard a guess as to whether the movie is any more faithful to the source material than Adrian Lyne’s 9½ Weeks was to Elizabeth McNeill’s slim novel. Most agreed, however, that, while undeniably erotic, it was to BDSM what Diet Coke is to a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew. As is the case today with the pre-Valentine’s Day buildup to Fifty Shades, the media behaved like a pack of randy frat boys in anticipation of the release of Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger’s excursion into softcore sex, which mostly made the world safe for Showtime’s “Red Shoes Diaries” and HBO’s “Real Sex.” Now, as then, reporters have begged their editors to be allowed to bring a professional dominatrix with them to a screening of Fifty Shades of Grey, merely to have her point out the differences between R-rated BDSM and the real deal, readily available on niche websites. As a public service to viewers who might be sufficiently titillated by what Christian Grey does to the virgin English-lit-major, Anastasia Steele, I suggest they work their way up the ladder to the revelatory documentary, Kink, by first checking out Luis Buñuel’s Belle de jour, Barbet Schroeder’s Maîtresse, Just Jaeckin’s Histoire d’O and Radley Metzger’s The Image, all of which are more artistic and couples-friendly than the horizon of hardcore and gonzo stuff on the Internet.

Produced by the tireless James Franco and helmed by Christina Doros, who shot Franco’s last two directorial efforts, As I Lay Dying and Child of God, Kink describes one of the major success stories in pornography, accomplished at a time when the industry was undergoing a serious period of adjustment. Kink.com was launched in 1997 by bondage enthusiast, Peter Asworth, a PhD student who foresaw a brighter future in “subjecting beautiful, willing women to strict bondage,” and filming them for Kink.com’s first site, Hogtied. Its success would lead to an expansion into other BDSM, LGBT and fetish material, ranging from rope work to water sports. Ten years later, the company acquired the long-vacant San Francisco National Guard Armory and Arsenal, located at 14th and Mission streets, for the purposes of creating a one-stop, all-purpose production facility. Looking very much like an ancient Moorish fortress, the landmark structure is listed on the national register of historic places and, yes, tours can be arranged. What happens on the sets, stages and communal areas inside the nearly 200,000-square-foot studio is another story, altogether. Voros escorts us through the nooks and crannies of Armory Studios, alongside Asworth, several different staff directors and editors, freelance actors, technicians and administrative personnel. Nothing is left to chance and the sex – simultaneously agonizing and orgasmic — is as consensual, authentic and as safe as hard-core action gets, given the nature of the fetishes and frequent use of power tools and metal chains. If the participants are acting for pay, it’s entirely possible that they might be doing similar things for fun in the privacy of their homes. The folks at Kink.com hope the film will “demystify the BDSM lifestyle, and to serve as an example and an educational resource for the BDSM community.” Much of what’s shown, however, is not for the faint of heart or Anastasia Steele wannabes.

Likewise, Music Box Films, the distributors of  French television mini-series “Maison Close” would love for fans of “Fifty Shades” to insert this sexy primetime soap into their DVD players, sometime before or after they purchase their first matching set of riding crops and ball-gags. The story takes place in a plush government-authorized bordello, following the Franco-Prussian War and in the bloody aftermath of the Paris Commune. Inside “le Paradis,” the well-heeled customers range from military officers to opportunists armed with well-rehearsed lies and hidden daggers. The prostitutes are flirtatious, gorgeous and willing to put up with a lot of crap from some pretty hideous men. In return, they’re accorded a meager income, fine clothing, clean sheets and regular meals. Most are thankful that fate led them to the doors of the Paradis, instead of forcing them to work off their debts and opiate addictions in another dead-end brothel. Still, there’s no confusing these birds in a gilded cage with the wives of the aristocrats they service.

Although all of the actors have moments to shine, the first-season episodes focus on the travails of the three working girls who’ve got the most to lose if their closest male companions decide to burst their bubbles. The owner, Madam Hortense (Valérie Karsenti), is deeply in debt to her duplicitous brother at the same time as she’s being blackmailed by a thug she hired to commit a violent act. She’s also conspiring to prevent her duplicitous lover, Vera, from escaping the nest. In her mid-30s, Vera (Anne Charrier) can see that she’ll soon be heading for her last lineup, unless her benefactor makes good on his promises or she succumbs to Hortense’s desires. Naïve and innocent Rose (Jemima West) comes to Paris in search of her mother, who disappeared into the demi-monde when she was a child and may have served a tour of duty at the brothel. Her hopes are dashed when she’s forced to pay off an expensive meal, to which she was invited, by selling her virginity to the highest bidder or face debtor’s prison. Her fiancée, a farmer, abandons her in Paris when he learns she may already be tarnished. Of all the women, Rose may be the most shrewd and able to con men into seeing things her way. Working in favor of the eight-part series is the fact that not all of the men are jerks and some of the prostitutes, at least, can’t be said to have a heart of gold. There’s nudity, of course, but not as much as you might think there would be from a French export. The musical soundtrack, which sometimes skips 140 years into the future, may seem too jarring to bear for some viewers. Anyone who saw and admired Bertrand Bonello’s House of Tolerance, also set in an elegant Paris brothel, should also find much to enjoy in “Maison Close.”

How to Train Your Dragon 2
101 Dalmatians: Diamond Edition
Given the controversy surrounding the so-called snub of The LEGO Movie by Academy voters in both the Best Animated Feature and Best Picture categories, it’s a good time to offer some perspective by briefly looking back at the history of animation in such beauty contests. All of this year’s nominees are worthy candidates, so it would be a shame if an invisible asterisk was attached to the winner, be it front-runner How to Train Your Dragon 2 or any of the four other nominees. I just caught up with the DVD to Dean DeBlois’ wonderful adventure and wouldn’t be at all surprised – or terribly disappointed, either — if it came out on top at the February 22 ceremony. (The other candidates will have arrived on DVD and Blu-ray within a few weeks’ time.) It wasn’t until 2001 that the Academy created a separate category for Best Animated Feature, previously arguing there generally weren’t enough serious candidates to justify such an honor. Ten years earlier, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast had become the first animated film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Historically, animation was acknowledged in the categories of Best Short Subject, Cartoons, and in the music-related races. Disney was, however, accorded honorary awards for Snow White and Fantasia. Newly re-released in a sparkling Diamond Edition, the studio’s 101 Dalmatians won the 1962 BAFTA award for best animated feature, albeit against the six-minute “The Do-It-Yourself Cartoon Kit” and long-forgotten “For Better … for Worse.” BAFTA had created a separate category for animated films in 1955 – Lady and the Tramp was nominated in 1956 – while the Golden Globes only joined the club in 2007. Curiously, perhaps, the first Annie Award for Best Animated Feature was introduced in 1992, to Beauty and the Beast. It came fully 20 years after the organization began to “celebrate lifetime or career contributions to animation” by individuals.

Based on Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel, “The Hundred and One Dalmatians,” the original Disney animated classic has been re-purposed so many times that those familiar only with Glenn Close’s terrifically evil Cruella de Vil in the live-action re-make, or the subsequent ABC series and made-for-video “101 Dalmatians II: Patch’s London Adventure,” may be surprised by what they find in the Diamond Edition. Adults who can still recall the first time they watched 101 Dalmatians – and begged their parents for a puppy just like them, except for the “hidden Mickey” spot patterns – will find, as well, that movie hasn’t lost any of its appeal over the course of the last 45 years. If the story of the dogs’ emotionally charged rescue is well-known and fondly remembered, what may be even more amazing is its place in Disney history. After Sleeping Beauty failed to recoup its production budget in its first go-round at the box office, in 1959, Uncle Walt was faced with the possibility of laying off his “nine old men,” killing the animation operation and focusing on television, live-action movies and the amusement park. The cost of repeatedly drawing and re-drawing more than hundred spotted dogs would have been prohibitive, if it weren’t for Ub Iwerks’ idea to use a specially modified Xerox copier to transfer artists’ drawings directly to animation cels. And, while the boss wasn’t exactly thrilled with the characters’ “ragged” borders, the savings allowed him to fight another day. The highlight of the Blu-ray feature package is the complete animated short, “The Further Adventures of Thunderbolt,” which extends the version that keeps the puppies transfixed in the movie; “The Best Doggoned Dog in the World,” from “The Wonderful World of Disney,” circa 1961, presented in its entirety and in high definition; fresh interviews with studio veterans; the kid-friendly “Dalmatians 101,” hosted by Cameron Boyce, of “Jessie”; and vintage making-of material from previous editions.

The perfectly delightful How to Train Your Dragon 2 extends the DreamWorks 3D trilogy, adapted from the 2003 book by British children’s author Cressida Cowell. It has spawned several animated shorts and a TV series and it one of the few franchise properties keeping the studio afloat. The sequel picks up five years after the events of the first film, with Hiccup and his friends now able to take advantage of the peace between humans and dragons. Not content to fritter away their time racing around Berk, Hiccup and Toothless explore unmapped territories beyond the island. The discovery of a secret ice cave reveals hundreds of wild dragons, previously unidentified by Viking zoologists. Hiccup also encounters his long-lost mother, Valka, who disappeared years earlier and has spent the interim rescuing endangered dragons from hunters. Through Valka, he is able to warn his father, Stoick the Vast, of a demonic plot devised by the evil warlord and dragon hunter, Drago Bludvist, and his ally, the gigantic Alpha dragon called Bewilderbeast. The Blu-ray adds the 25-minute prequel short, “Dawn of the Dragon”; “Fishlegs’ Dragon Stats,” with separately accessible files on the various classes of dragons; “Drago’s War Machines,” which chronicles Drago’s weapons of mass destruction; “Berk’s Dragon World,” in which Hiccup shows Mom around the island; “Hiccup’s Inventions in Flight,” with separately accessible files on such elements as Hiccup’s prosthetic leg; deleted scenes; an informative commentary track; the nearly hour-long “Where No One Goes: The Making of ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’”; and a stills gallery.

Syncopation: Blu-ray
The wonderfully entertaining and totally unexpected 1942 musical, Syncopation, purports to tell the history of syncopated music – a fancy name for jazz – from Congo Square in New Orleans (and, by extension, Africa) to juke joints and swing-era ballrooms around the country and world, with stops in between for ragtime, Dixieland, the blues, boogie-woogie and Chicago jazz. While even Hollywood’s most inventive revisionists wouldn’t dare ignore the role of black musicians in the birth and growth of jazz, the primary emphasis here is on the evolution of white swing from roots that can be directly traced to Storyville, the red-light district that spawned King Oliver, Kid Ory and Louis Armstrong. Once the story strays too far from the Crescent City, the narrative begins to lose its hold on racial authenticity by introducing an on-again/off-again romance between Dixieland trumpet player Jackie Cooper and transplanted socialite Bonita Granville, an amateur “stride” piano player. Granville’s character, Kit, was introduced to New Orleans jazz by the young trumpet-playing son of her “mammy” (an uncredited Jack Thompson), who, we’re happy to believe, would grow up to become the musician known far and wide as Satchmo, Pops, Louie or “This is Louis, Dolly.” The subversive underpinnings of jazz are demonstrated in the shuttering of Storyville’s brothels and ragtime joints – forcing the musicians upriver to Memphis, St. Louis and Chicago – and police raids on integrated swing clubs. It doesn’t take long before some of William Dieterle’s questionable portrayals of African-American characters — especially at early revival meetings — begins to wear thin. Considering Hollywood’s history in such matters, however, it’s a wonder the musicians weren’t played by white actors in blackface. The Swing Era superstars who provide most of the music on and off-screen — Benny Goodman, Charlie Barnet, Gene Krupa, Harry James — are the genuine article, though. Syncopation is one movie guaranteed to have viewers tapping their feet, if not actually cutting a rug to the music. As if to compensate for the movie’s most glaring deficiency, the folks at the Cohen Film Collection have compiled and restored more than 100 minutes’ worth of supplements, featuring historic performances by Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, Hoagy Carmichael, Artie Shaw, Jack Teagarden, Fredi Washington and Cuban band leader Don Azpiazú. We’ve already seen some, if not all of these amazing performances, but in abridged versions and not in mint condition. Anyone interested in the history of American music should rush out and grab a copy of Syncopation, if only for the musical extras. Also included are a re-release trailer and a liner notes leaflet.

In Your Eyes
Someday, someone is going to give Zoe Kazan a role in a movie that delivers on the promise she evidenced in the offbeat rom-coms, Ruby Sparks and What If, and less visible roles in Meek’s Cutoff, The Pretty One, Some Girl(s) and Revolutionary Road. Besides being genetically predisposed to being a fine actor, Kazan has one of those strangely alluring faces that defy easy description. As hard as she and co-star Michael Stahl-David struggle to help audiences make sense of the Joss Whedon-written In Your Eyes, they couldn’t possibly have saved it from its pretentiously supernatural premise. It doesn’t help that director Brin Hill, working off of a 23-year-old script by the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel” and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” appears to have thrown up his hands in the middle of production and surrendered to its inconsistencies. Despite the fact that protagonists Rebecca and Dylan have grown into adulthood 2,000 away from each other, they’ve shared a telepathic bond that began in childhood. In the opening scene, Dylan is knocked for a loop in a New Mexico classroom when he internalizes Rebecca’s painful encounter with a tree, while sledding in New England. As they approach their 30s, with most of their early hopes and dreams already exhausted, Rebecca and Dylan not only are able to anticipate such traumatic moments, by also to see through each other’s eyes and telecommunicate verbally. In one amusing sequence, Rebecca helps Dylan through an awkward dinner date with a potential girlfriend. When her overbearing husband (Mark Feuerstein) interrupts the telepathic long-distance call, Dylan makes a fool of himself by practically turning the kitchen in his trailer into an inferno. Later, when Rebecca is discovered talking to Dylan – sans phone — her naturally disconcerted spouse has her institutionalized. Sensing that she’ll be turned into a pill-addicted vegetable causes Dylan to steal a car in New Mexico and, seemingly overnight, make his way to a place in New Hampshire he’s never been. He accomplishes this feat with no money and a small army of cops on his trail. It’s not the worst premise for a movie I’ve ever heard – it might have worked as a story arc on “Buffy” – but too many questions are left unanswered throughout the course of its 106 minutes.

Nekromantik 2: Blu-ray
Cosplay Fetish Battle Drones
John Waters, a filmmaker whose judgment on cinematic depravity can be trusted implicitly, is said to have proclaimed Jorg Buttgereit’s Nekromantik, “the first-ever erotic film for necrophiliacs.” The seizure of its even more appalling 1991 sequel, Nekromantik 2, 12 days after its release in Munich, marked the first time since World War II that a movie had been confiscated and banned from exhibition. Naturally, the notoriety helped turn what would have been limited to genre-specific curiosities into instant cult classics. Indeed, there are several scenes in Nekromantik 2 that make Divine’s infamous dog-poop snack in Pink Flamingos seem as refreshing as a spoonful of palate-cleansing sorbet. In it, Monika (Monika M.) succeeds in digging up the decaying corpse of a suicide victim, Rob, an act that was anticipated at the end of Nekromantik. After dragging Rob home and cleaning him up, Monika attempts to make love to the gelatinous blob, but, as is the case in so many fruitless relationships, his inability to perform gets in the way of true love. Instead, she befriends a young man, Mark (Mark Reeder), who makes a living dubbing the grunts and groans in sex films. Eventually, she gets around to simultaneously consummating her relationship with both men. It’s not a pretty sight, but horror buffs able to stomach such abnormal behavior – if such a thing even exists, anymore – should find the humor in it. The uncut and uncensored Cult Epics presentation on Blu-ray looks and sounds far better than it has any right to be, considering the source material was made for Pfennigs on 16mm stock. On a more positive note, the evocative musical score — performed in concert as one of the bonus features — takes a rather more empathetic approach to the source material. The Blu-ray also includes a new Introduction by Buttgereit; commentary by Buttgereit, co-author Franz Rodenkirchen, and actors Monika M. and Reeder; a making-of short; still gallery; and the shorts, “Half Girl Lemmy, I’m A Feminist” and, unbelievably, “A Moment of Silence at the Grave of Ed Gein.”

If you’re the kind of film geek who can’t wait to watch movies derided by mainstream critics for being an insult to their or their readers’ intelligence, I suggest making a beeline for Cosplay Fetish Battle Drones (a.k.a., “Struggled Reagans”). Not only does it appear to have been made by a motley crew of film-school students wasted on medical-grade marijuana or vintage Owsley LSD, but it also demands that viewers be every bit as stoned to make sense of it. This doesn’t automatically make it a bad movie, just one that requires more work on the part of the viewer than one usually invests in anything short of a tax return. After suffering some seriously traumatic events – being raped by a Persian cucumber, an obsession with the BTK Killer – a half-dozen college age students develop a “tumor in the collective unconscious.” To combat the tumor and various psycho-sexual demons, these “struggled Reagans” morph into tokusatsu characters that suspiciously resemble the Mighty Morphine Power Rangers.  All of this is explained in the interviews included in the bonus features, but it’s possible that first-time writer/director Gregg Golding is simply making it up as he goes along.

On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter
With the possible exception of NFL Films founder Ed Sabol, who died earlier this week at 98, no one has had a greater impact on the way sports documentaries are made and exhibited than Bruce Brown.  After spending 10 years churning out movies for consumption by over-stoked surfers, Brown was able to simultaneously exalt and transcend the subgenre in The Endless Summer. It captured the imagination of a generation of young Americans, just beginning to exert their independence, wanderlust and love of natural beauty already threatened by industrial rot and wasteful consumers. Not only was he able to document what made surfers a breed apart from other Americans — athletes, hot-rodders, Beach Boy wannabes — but he also walked the walk by traveling to places few people had seen, let alone surfed, and interviewing who enjoyed the sport without ever seeing a “Gidget” movie. His search for the perfect wouldn’t end there, however. In 1971, Brown applied the same “Why do they do it?” formula to On Any Sunday, a documentary about motorcycle racers and off-track enthusiasts who bore no resemblance to the Hell’s Angels and largely did their thing out of the media spotlight. Both films captured the imagination of viewers, whether they lived in such year-round playgrounds as Malibu, Baja, Hawaii and Tahiti or meteorologically temperamental spots like Quebec, Terre Haute, Salt Lake City and the Austrian Alps. In 1994, Brown collaborated with his son, Dana, on The Endless Summer II, which revisited many of the same people and places introduced in the 1966 original. Dana would go on to direct the surf epic, Step Into Liquid, and documentary on the grueling Baja 1000 off-road competition, Dust to Glory. His On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter is harder to nail down thematically, except that it, likewise, is dedicated to two-wheeled racing and the people who risk life and limb doing it. If anything, motorcycling racing has expanded to an even greater degree than surfing. Brown doesn’t limit himself to any single event or tour, but keeps an eye on several recurring competitors. His emphasis is on how much racing has grown as a family-oriented obsession, with toddlers following in the tire tracks of their parents and grandparents, and handicapped racers competing alongside men and women of all ages without physical limitations. Again, there’s no mention of outlaw bikers, Sturgis, Dykes on Bikes or other non-competitive sectors of the motorcycle universe. The exceptions are represented by the unbelievably chaotic motorbike traffic in Vietnam and a doctor in the African bush who visits villages only accessible by off-road bikes. Like Steve McQueen in the original “Sunday,” Mickey Rourke, Scott Caan and Bo Derek make unobtrusive cameos here. It’s almost needless to mention that On Any Sunday works as well as a travelogue –as a sports documentary.

The Song
Although The Song fits comfortably within the borders of the faith-based genre, it benefits from a significantly harder narrative edge the previous Dove-approved fare and an ecumenical soundtrack not necessarily intended exclusively for airplay on Christian-rock stations. The story itself is practically as old as the hills of Kentucky, where much of the drama purportedly takes place. Wickedly handsome, if hideously bearded Nashville musician Alan Powell plays Jed King, the son of a deceased country-music legend who appears to have modeled his off-stage behavior on Hank Williams Sr. Time passes, as it is wont to do, and Jed seems determined not to live the kind of debauched life that inspired tens of thousands of country songs, before the Grand Ol’ Opry morphed into Opryland and country stations began catering to the SUV and Miller Lite crowd. It isn’t until he meets Rose (Ali Faulkner), the virginal daughter of an overprotective vineyard owner near the town of Sharon – yes, a living and breathing Rose of Sharon — that he’s inspired to write songs with something resembling a radio-ready bite. Almost as soon as Jed convinces Rose to marry him, he’s required to go on the road to support his songs. He’d love for her to join him on tour, but she’s not inclined to leave her elderly father alone on the farm, where Jed has built the foundation for a chapel.

Still, it appears as if their marriage was sanctioned in heaven. Times passes and Rose is given another good excuse not to join her husband on tour, in the presence of a son. Just as hard-core bible stories tend to resemble old-school country songs, Rose’s continued absence opens the door for the story’s femme fatale, Shelby (Caitlin Nicol-Thomas), to enter the picture, both on and off stage. The more Jed battles temptation, the less he feels the magnetic pull of Rose’s love. Not only is Shelby incredibly hot, but she’s on the verge of rock stardom, herself. Considering how much of the screenplay relies on the Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes, anyone with a passing knowledge of the Old Testament should be able to predict what happens in the final third of The Song.  At 116 minutes, any movie this predictable is likely to overstay its welcome by 15 minutes, at least, and that’s exactly what happens here. Then, there are the endless, forced biblical references … what’s the deal with a vineyard in Kentucky, anyway? As a movie capable of crossing-over from the faith-based ghetto, though, it comes as close as any non-historical story I’ve seen. The DVD adds director’s commentary, meet-the-cast interviews and featurettes “King Solomon on Screen,” “Author Kyle Idleman on Love, Sex & Marriage” and “Metaphors & Poetry: Themes of ‘The Song’.” Someday, someone’s going to nail this whole faith-based thing and it won’t come a moment too soon.

The DVD Wrapup: Nightcrawler, John Wick, Eleanor Rigby, Dear White People, Overnighters and more

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

Nightcrawler: Blu-ray
If all that writer/director Dan Gilroy was attempting to do in Nightcrawler was, as he’s previously stated, shape an indictment of local television news and viewers who’ve sanctioned “If it bleeds, it leads” reporting, he’d be selling his movie terribly short. As a working principle, “If it bleeds, it leads” has informed news broadcasts for more than 30 years and now covers brush and warehouse fires, far-flung meteorological events, car crashes and Kardashian sightings. Like the “happy talk” format, which encouraged anchors to chat amiably between often-violent violent clips, its influence has lessened, but not entirely disappeared. What’s new and different in Nightcrawler, which satisfies as both a thriller and media commentary, is its ability to identify the virus that not only is killing local news coverage, but also our country’s once-exceptional network broadcasts, newspapers, newsmagazines and radio: greed. Ever since media executives began to put the concerns of Wall Street financiers ahead of those voiced by viewers and community leaders, news-gathering budgets have been slashed to the bone, as has the space accorded anything except weather reports and freakish video clips from around the world. Such bottom-feeders as TMZ and PerezHilton.com have usurped the place once held in newsrooms by the AP and UPI. With their fixation on celebrity chefs, self-promoting movie stars, fashion shows, stacked weather babes and outdated traffic updates, the morning news shows are even less relevant. That, too, qualifies as old news, however. It’s the impact mercenary videographers and the stalkarazzi have had on the industry that Nightcrawler captures so well. In a taped interview, Gilroy points out that the famous New York tabloid photographer Weegee is the great-granddaddy of the freelance “nightcrawler” played here with feral ferocity by Jake Gyllenhaal and, by extension, his mentor Bill Paxton and their financial enabler, Renee Russo.  Without freelancers, newspapers and television stations would have missed out on some of the most important events of our time.

Ironically, mainstream news operations now may have become as reliant on so-called citizen journalists as they’ve been on paid freelancers, for the last 30 years, at least. Hi-tech cellphones deliver photographs, videos and “tweets” with the speed of the Internet and the only payment these volunteers usually require is a shout-out from the anchors. The heyday of the “nightcrawler” may, in fact, be coming to end. This not said, however, to denigrate or marginalize Gilroy’s terrifically entertaining film in any way. By ignoring his direction, as well as the contributions made by Gyllenhaal, Russo and cinematographer Robert Elswit, Academy members have already accomplished that dubious task. Gilroy may be a finalist in the best-original-script category, but that’s as much a door prize as a tribute to an otherwise overlooked picture. In Gyllenhaal’s sociopathic Louis Bloom, Gilroy has crafted a character as recognizable in certain media circles as Budd Schulberg’s Machiavellian Sammy Glick was in the Hollywood described in “What Makes Sammy Run?” Bloom’s take-no-prisoners ascent from common thief to potential news executive is as disturbing as it is exciting to watch. Gyllenhaal, who shed 20 pounds for the role, reportedly based his portrayal on the coyotes who come out at night and feed on the poodles and bunnies of suburbanites. Los Angeles, which is a target-rich environment for predators, plays as crucial a role here as it did in L.A. Confidential, Chinatown and The Day of the Locust. (If pressed, I could probably argue that, as Bloom’s mentor, Paxson is playing Oedipus to Russo’s Jocasta in the classic Greek tragedy.) I wonder how the actual L.A. news anchors and reporters cast as themselves in Nightcrawlers have been able to justify their place in the meat-grinder after watching themselves being characterized as stooges by Gilroy. (“A gig’s a gig,” comes to mind.) As Bloom’s intern, Riz Ahmed also deserved consideration for a best-supporting-actor nod. The splendid Blu-ray presentation adds with commentary with writer/director Gilroy, producer Tony Gilroy and editor John Gilroy and the far-too-short, “If It Bleeds, It Leads.”

 
John Wick: Blu-ray
Just when one expects a crappy, nonsensical action flick to emerge from the opening credits to John Wick – the movie and character played by Keanu Reeves – the movie grabs us by our lapels and drags us along with it on a nearly indescribably violent slide into one man’s personal hell. In their first turn as co-director/producers, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch have invested everything they’ve learned as stunt performers, martial-arts specialists and fight choreographers into a movie that owes more than a little bit to such masters as Luc Besson, Sam Peckinpah, Jackie Chan, John Woo, James McTeigue, Frank Miller and the Wachowskis. They’ve also collaborated previously with martial-arts enthusiast Reeves on the Matrix trilogy, Constantine, Man of Tai Chi and 47 Ronin. If he isn’t likely to make anyone forget the Hong Kong giants anytime soon, it can be said of Reeves, at least, that he takes the fighting disciplines seriously and learned well from his teachers. John Wick operates on a pretty simple premise: the protagonist is a legendary assassin-for-hire, whose retirement is spoiled, first, by the death of his wife and, later, by a stupid mistake made by the son of a powerful Russian crime boss (Alfie Allen and Michael Nyqvist, respectively). The repentant father asks Wick to forgive his lunkhead son, who wasn’t aware of the man’s reputation, but the kid went beyond the pale by stealing the despondent hitman’s beloved 429 Boss Mustang muscle car and slaughtering the puppy bequeathed to him by his dying wife (Bridget Moynahan). With no good reason to live, Wick unearths the weapons he’d buried five years earlier and dedicates himself to killing the punk. Even though the old mobster is disgusted by his son’s actions, blood ties demand that he surround him with a small army of bodyguards and mercenaries, including those nicely played by Willem Dafoe and Adrianne Palicki. After an estimated 120 men and women are killed in action – 80-some credited to Wick – viewers are left with the quaint notion that a brotherhood of professional killers not only lurks in the shadows of society, but it also maintains something resembling a pecking order and code of behavior. The higher the bounty, of course, the less likely it is that the code will be honored. And, so, like the opponents in hyper-violent arcade games, the combatants keep on coming until no one is left. The harder they come, the harder they fall … one and all. Not that it matters much, but it should be noted that screenwriter Derek Kolstad (One in the Chamber) provided the framework in which the state-of-the-art stunt work and effects could flourish. The Blu-ray adds commentary and several worthwhile featurettes:  “Don’t F*#% With John Wick,” “Calling in the Cavalry,” “Destiny of a Collective,” “The Assassin’s Code” “The Red Circle” and “N.Y.C. Noir.”

Dracula Untold: Blu-ray
Boiled to its essence, Dracula Untold revisits the “origin story” laid out in Bram Stoker’s novel, but it also puts a heroic human face on the drama. The action-packed movie is set in Transylvania, circa 1462, just as an uneasy peace between Vlad Tepes III (Luke Evans), the prince of Wallachia, and Ottoman warlord Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper), is about to unravel into chaos. To save his family and kingdom. Vlad the Impaler enters into a Faustian agreement with the cave-dwelling Master Vampire (Charles Dance), in which the prince trades his soul for the power to hold back the Turks, if only temporarily. Although CGI-enhanced battles and special effects dominate the film, there’s enough actual history in Gary Shore’s story to keep Dracula Untold from devolving into unabashed fantasy. As even a quick perusal of the Wikipedia site dedicated to the legend will attest, the truth is every bit as fascinating as Stoker’s mythology. In 1931, Universal Pictures laid the foundation for nearly all of the “Dracula” adaptations to follow it, by focusing on the horror in the Transylvanian count’s madness. By introducing the Master Vampire at this auspicious period in the kingdom’s history, freshmen screenwriters Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless build a bridge spanning the deep past to the eternal future. As such, Dracula Untold is a welcome addition to the canon.  What was left largely unsaid in reviews for the film’s theatrical release is that Universal was using it to kick off a “shared universe” with reimagined adaptations of The Mummy, The Wolfman and Frankenstein.

Unlike the horror classics, however, the studio is promoting all new entries into its “monster-verse” franchise as action-adventures to square with other studios’ comic-book and superhero series. Indeed, the filmmakers’ greatest conceit in Dracula Untold is to portray Prince Vlad as a ferocious warrior, who sacrifices his soul to become a superhero capable of turning back the Turkish tide. Does it work? Sometimes, but, at a surprisingly brisk 92 minutes, the action necessarily detracts from the history, diluting the myth to attract young viewers. Neither is the overall experience enhanced by Vlad’s newfound aversion to light, which required cinematographer John Schwartzman (The Amazing Spider-Man) to perform under less than ideal circumstances. Even in Blu-ray, the darkness will test the home theaters of most viewers. The worthwhile bonus package adds featurettes, “Luke Evans: Creating a Legend,” “Day in the Life: Luke Evans,” “Dracula Retold,” “Slaying 1000” and the interactive “Land of Dracula”; an alternate opening and deleted scenes with optional commentary by Shore and production designer François Audouy; and Shore and Audouy’s commentary on the feature.

Alexander and the Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day: Blu-ray
Any resemblance between Steve Carrell’s Oscar-nominated performance in Foxcatcher and his turn as a 21st Century Disney dad in Alexander and the Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is purely coincidental. The same could be said about Jennifer Garner and her against-type role in Dallas Buyers Club, although she wasn’t required to navigate her way around a humungous prosthetic schnozzola opposite Matthew McConaughey. It isn’t every actor who could leapfrog between roles in farcical family comedies and serious life-and-death dramas, but Carrell and Garner make it look easy. So does director Miguel Arteta, who began his career with such edgy arthouse fare as Star Maps, Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl, and has also helmed some of the top shows on television.  Based on an oft-adapted book by Judith Viorst, “Alexander …” describes a cursed day in the life of the Cooper family, somewhere in suburbia, during which everyone in the family is required to experience what life is like for the klutzy Alexander (Ed Oxenbould) on a 24/7 basis. After everyone in the family wakes up late, misfortune follows them to a job interview, a book reading with Dick Van Dyke, junior prom, an amateur production of “Peter Pan” and Australian-themed birthday party. As silly as “Alexander …” is, it’s every bit as much fun to watch. It would be a mistake, however, for kids enchanted by Carrell here to check out his unnerving performance as a psycho amateur-wrestling fanatic in Foxcatcher.  The Blu-ray adds several light-hearted behind-the-scenes featurettes.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby
The title of Ned Benson’s ambitious debut feature begs the question as to how many children of Baby Boomers are saddled with names inspired directly by rock-’n’-roll songs popular when their parents were too stoned to comprehend the full meaning of the lyrics. Given what happens to the female protagonist during the course of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, she probably would have preferred to be named after anyone in the Beatles repertory, except the desperately lonely and sadly forsaken Rigby. It isn’t clear if the Eleanor Rigby played by Jessica Chastain here was traumatized by listening to Beatle records in her youth, but she’s an unholy mess. Benson’s project initially was shot and shown as a two-part movie, following a couple played by Chastain and James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain, whose story is told from both of their points of view. Now, while 200 minutes of sometimes repetitive narrative might be OK for the festival crowd, a condensed version of the he-said/she-said drama would be easier to sell the general public already attracted to its stars and a stellar supporting cast that includes Nina Arianda, Viola Davis, Bill Hader, Ciaran Hinds, Isabelle Huppert, William Hurt and Jess Wexler. As it breaks down in the 123-minute version, Eleanor and Connor (McAvoy) once were happily married, with all of the usual hopes and dreams shared by members of the Millennial Generation. All we’re led to believe is that something tragic happened between them, destroying the marriage and causing Eleanor to have a nervous breakdown. After she’s released from a medical facility, Eleanor is encouraged by her psychiatrist father (Hurt) to take courses at a local university from a colleague (Davis), who may be as unstable her students. The school’s location is close enough to a restaurant run by Connor for Benson to arrange for uncomfortable encounters with people from her past. Can this marriage be saved? Do we care? Chastain and McEvoy work very hard to make us care for these attractive young people, both of whom were dealt bad hands early on in life. Not everyone will want to invest two hours of their own lives into other people’s misery, though, no matter how good the acting may be.

Once Upon a Time Veronica
If you’ve ever wondered what’s ever become of the Girl From Ipanema, check out Marcelo Gomes’ Once Upon a Time Veronica (a.k.a., “Once Upon a Time Was I, Veronica”) for one possible answer. Considering that it’s been 50 years since the Getz/Gilberto hit introduced bossa nova to American ears, however, a better question might be: what ever happened to the granddaughter of the Girl From Ipanema? She might very well have been raised in the northeastern port city of Recife, where she took full advantage of the sandy beaches and unusually large number of medical schools and hospitals. Certainly, Veronica wasn’t going to wait around for someone to discover her as she strolls along the sand, write a song about her and invite her to model swimwear for Sports Illustrated, as her mother might have done back in the day. Even though Veronica has spent the last 10 years of her life studying to be a doctor, it hasn’t prevented her from occasionally joining her friends in naked romps in the ocean, which rarely registers anything cooler than 70 degrees.

Nothing could have adequately prepared her for the greeting she would receive on her first posting, a hospital that focuses on the mental problems of Recife’s working poor. Besides the fact that the lines outside her office are endless and many of the patients couldn’t be less appreciative of her efforts to help them, her bosses have demanded that she follow procedures to the letter and avoid engaging the patients in anything more therapeutic than writing prescriptions. At the same time, she’s being forced to vacate the ocean-view apartment she shares with her sickly father and move to someplace far less cheery. A voice deep within her is also demanding of Veronica that she get married while her music-loving dad can still enjoy the ceremony, if nothing else. While she wouldn’t have any problem finding a handsome and responsible young man with whom to play house, Veronica knows it would put a crimp in her after-hours lifestyle. In discovering that the solution to one dilemma only leads to another more taxing problem, Veronica is in pretty good company. Millions of women have asked themselves the same question posed by Peggy Lee in “Is That All There Is?,” a song released not long after “The Girl From Ipanema.” It’s how Gomes dramatizes his protagonist’s not terribly unusual issues on film that makes Once Upon a Time Veronica something unique, different and inarguably compelling. Without Hermila Guedes’ flawless performance in the lead role and Mauro Pinheiro Jr.’s evocative cinematography, however, it might not have amounted to anything at all. Guedes was terrific in Karim Aïnouz’ Love for Sale – also set in Brazil’s Northeast – which found a little bit of traction here in 2006.

Dear White People
Although Justin Simien’s campus-set dramedy owes an obvious debt of gratitude to Spike Lee, Dear White People is fresh enough to stand on its own two feet this many years removed from when Half-Pint and Mars Blackmon stalked the Earth. Even in 1986 dollars, Simien probably didn’t have as much money as Spike was able to squeeze out for his first feature, She’s Gotta Have It, let alone for his follow-up, School Daze, which Dear White People resembles thematically. Nearly 30 years after Half-Pint found himself caught between the “jigaboos” and “wannabees” of Mission College, things don’t seem to have advanced much in the world of academia. The students still don’t think the administration is addressing their concerns and status, among the black kids, at least, is still defined by hair styles and the darkness of one’s skin. The white and Asian students at Simien’s prestigious Winchester University don’t seem overly concerned about how the African-Americans are handling their issues, as long as they aren’t perceived as being racist or exclusionist, which they aren’t. Unlike the students at all-black Mission, the kids at Winchester aren’t weighted down by such pressing concerns as their university’s investments in companies that do business with South Africa. Theoretically, they’re able to bask in the lingering afterglow of President Obama’s “post-racial” America. Even so, there’s no escaping the basic bullshit that permeates campus politics, participation in clubs and other extracurricular activities. The students all seem to be privileged in one way or another and any acrimony between them is limited to housing issues and cafeteria menus. One possible explanation for this is the increasing number of students of multiracial backgrounds, who have struggling with identity issues far as long as they’ve known that there’s something different about them. Likewise, black students who grew up in well-off households and attended private schools are hung up on identity issues, as are the kids whose sexual identities remain in flux. Fortunately, Simien is able to use humor to navigate most of the shoals, sometimes through the school’s social-media network and the “Dear White People” podcast.

Simien’s greatest achievement here is patiently creating a scenario in which the best intentions of two of the lead African-American characters are subverted by the willingness of thoughtless students to act in really stupid ways. In an effort to curry favor with the staff of the school’s humor magazine, an aspiring black writer, not unlike Half-Pint, invites students to a party for which they’re required to dress in costumes that wouldn’t be out of place at a Pimp N’ Ho Costume Ball in Las Vegas. It would be nice to think that such hideous concepts have gone the way of toga parties, but, too often, headlines will be made by students who can’t resist the temptation to take selfies of themselves in blackface and afro wigs. In fact, the invitation for the party in Dear White People is almost verbatim to one send out alerting students to a “Compton Cookout,” at the University of California, San Diego. Again, it’s hard for me to believe that today’s young adults might be so insensitive, but, even in “post-racial American,” shit happens. If it weren’t for the ability of such fine young actors as Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Kyle Gallner, Teyonah Parris, Brandon Bell, Malcolm Barrett, Brittany Curran, Justin Dobies and Marque Richardson to make us believe that their characters credibly represent a sliver of academia, at least, Dear White People would have fallen flat on its face. Instead, we want to like them very much. The bonus featurettes explain the arduous process of making Simien’s dream come true and, as such, should be considered to be must viewing for aspiring filmmakers everywhere.

The Overnighters
If there’s anything this country needs more than a law prohibiting the Kardashian family from ever again appearing on television or the cover of a magazine, it’s an industry that will create tens of thousands of new jobs that don’t require years of training or education. Ideally, these jobs wouldn’t come at the expense of our environment or any tainting of the landscape. Too often, though, prosperity now comes to places singularly unable to cope with the influx of out-of-town workers and the heavy equipment necessary to extract treasures from deep below the surface of the earth. Jesse Moss’ heart-breaking documentary, The Overnighters, describes what continues to happen in one small North Dakota city, which has become a mecca for tens of thousands of unemployed laborers hoping to find economic salvation extracting oil from the newly discovered Bakken Shale formation. Almost overnight, Williston filled to overflowing with men from all backgrounds – along with dozens of itinerant strippers, we’re told – few of whom would be able to afford the inflated costs for scarce housing units, unless they landed a better-than-decent job. So-called “men’s camps” sprung up like mushrooms after a prairie rain, but the continuing influx of people looking for work overflowed into the city proper. Seemingly, the oil companies hadn’t seen fit to construct even the most rudimentary places for the migrants to eat, sleep and take the occasional dump. Even with the formaldehyde fumes, FEMA trailers would have made nice places to crash, but those in the area were reserved for victims of recent flooding. At Williston’s Concordia Lutheran Church, Pastor Jay Reinke considered it to be his Christian duty to open the doors of his congregation each night to men – as well as a small handful of women — happy merely to find space on the floor to sleep, as well as a warm meal in the morning for nourishment.

There was nothing even remotely fancy in the arrangements and Reinke also saw to it that certain rules were followed to maintain order inside the church and the parking lot, where people slept in their cars. Neither did he require the men to sing for their supper or recite hosannas to their benefactor, here and in heaven. The fact that some of the overnighters had served time in prison didn’t disturb Reinke as much as it did a rabble-rousing reporter, who felt it his duty to inform readers of the offenses committed by some of the people who spent the night at Concordia. It hardly requires any work to raises the hackles of citizens whose NIMBY mentality allows them to profit from the fruits of prosperity while decrying the inconveniences that accompany it. Sensing an opportunity to capitalize on the uproar, local politicians courted voters by making it impossible for Reinke to offer help and hope to his part-time flock and prohibiting workers from living in their RVs. The Overnighters would be a compelling documentary, even if it had ended with the fateful city-council meeting that revealed the true colors of Williston residents who wouldn’t recognize Jesus Christ if he stopped them on the street and asked for a hand-out. Moss’ film is further distinguished by its willingness to chronicle the journeys taken by several of the unemployed workers who would find temporary shelter in the church and expose Reinke to the scrutiny the church’s neighbors reserved for the overnighters. Because almost everyone we meet in the documentary withers in the heat of the lights shone on them, The Overnighters ultimately turns into an American tragedy. Is it any wonder, then, that it was ignored by the folks who nominate documentaries at the Motion Picture Academy, even after being widely acclaimed by critics and festival audiences?

Video Games: The Movie
For those folks who have no knowledge of video-game history before Nintendo and Sega players became as common in American households as microwave ovens, Video Games: The Movie might come as something of a revelation. Anyone who can remember dropping quarters into the Pong machine, however, probably already knows the history of the multibillion-dollar industry ad nausem and won’t be impressed by the recollections of such celebrity geeks as Zach Braff, Chris Hardwick, Wil Wheaton, Donald Faison Alison Haislip, Clare Grant and Sean Astin. Those who would rather watch than play, however, will be rewarded with some entertaining visuals, if nothing else.

Boys
It was a long time coming, but niche storytellers from Europe have begun to find an audience among Americans drawn to gay- and lesbian-themed films with a different perspective on things. I’ve recently reviewed movies from Germany, Poland and France that, while still interested in the coming-out process, aren’t fixated on the sturm-und-drang drama once associated with it. Unlike the early work of niche North American filmmakers, these exports are enhanced by mainstream production values and actors who don’t look as if they just stepped off the stage of a dinner-theater production. (No offense intended, but it wasn’t so long ago that actors looking for careers in movies and television played LGBT character at their peril.) Coming into the game after the hard ground has been broken here, at least, has also freed filmmakers from relying on explicit sex scenes to draw attention to their products. For many years, Wolfe Video has been the leading distributor of Queer Cinema titles in North America and, as such, has enjoyed a leg up on other companies attempting to serve the niche demographic. Its latest release, Boys, exemplifies just how far the genre and Wolfe have come in the 30 years since it began as a consumer mail-order distributor for lesbian VHS videos. Mischa Kamp’s tender boy-meets-boy romance originated on Dutch television, but, even at a brisk 78 minutes, has found a ready audience on international festival circuit. And, while it’s been a long time since I’ve heard anyone use the term “puppy love,” that’s exactly what 15-year-old Sieger (Gijs Blom) and his track-squad teammate, Marc (Ko Zandvliet), experience during a near-idyllic summer break in the lovely Utrechtse Heuvelrug region of the Netherlands. They are among a mixed group of friends who have begun to assert their independence at home and in social situations, seemingly for the first time. The kids are as unsure of themselves in matters of romance as fawns that stray too far from their mother in the forest. Practically at the same time as Sieger is sharing a first awkward kiss with a pretty blond girl, who would seem to be a perfect match for him, his feelings for the handsome and athletic Marc begin to emerge. Surprisingly, perhaps, Sieger takes both experiences in stride. If anything, he’s more concerned with the disintegration of his older brother’s relationship with his father than any post-pubescent awakening of his own. Not everything goes smoothly for Sieger, of course, but what doesn’t is handled with respect for the teenagers involved and at an unforced pace. And, in case you’re wondering, the romantic encounters here are practically as chaste as those between Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello in the days of Beach Blanket Bingo.

Coffee Town
One of the things that the people who run Internet entertainment websites understand that most of their forebears in the mainstream media have yet to grasp is the increasingly short attention spans of the people who visit them. “Webisodes” average between 5 and 10 minutes and the emphasis is almost always on comedy, sci-fi, horror and music. Many well-known television actors have used the Internet as a way to express themselves creatively, without having to answer to skittish producers and network censors, and it’s no longer unusual for a YouTube hit to transition to cable television, exposing audiences to entertainers struggling make names for themselves in comedy clubs and bit parts on sitcoms and soaps. In its first foray into feature films, CollegeHumor.com has taken an idea that might have trouble filling a 22-episode commitment on broadcast television and added more than an hour of padding to what essentially is a workplace sitcom. That the workplace is a Starbucks-like coffee shop, which provides free wireless access to its customers, including a cheapskate website manager for an electronics company, makes Coffee Town worth a quick look. The story revolves around Will (Glenn Howerton), an underachiever who turns the café into his office, with all of his telecommunications needs met by its wireless service, his laptop and cellphone. Like all other workplace sitcoms, Will interacts with a steady stream of oddball characters and even is required to deal with a boss of sorts, in the easily perturbed barista (Josh Groban).  If he can’t employ logic to stop Will from freeloading, the least the barista can do is purposely screw up his coffee orders and bogart the hottie regulars.  When corporate executives arrive to consider the possibility of turning the shop into a showcase for the franchise, Will and his friends (Steve Little, Ben Schwartz, Adrianne Palicki) decide that such a move would crimp their style. They come up with a far-fetched scheme to dissuade the home office from upgrading their hangout, once and for all. Coffee Town was written and directed by Brad Copeland, whose dialogue previously was delivered by characters on “Arrested Development,” “My Name is Earl” and “Grounded for Life.” Anyone familiar with those shows will know what to expect from Coffee Town.

Starry Eyes
Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard: Blu-ray
Among the many things in life that qualify as being beyond parody, it’s the seriousness attached to the process of making movies in the Hollywood tradition. Everything from the way a director choses to call “action” and “cut,” to the interviews actors give to justify their participation in bad movies, is rendered with a level of gravitas usually reserved for funeral orations. If it weren’t for the ridiculous amounts of money at stake at every step on the filmmaking ladder, the people whose names appear in the credit rolls would be ridden out of town on a rail after each stinker. In their second feature as co-writer/directors, Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer demonstrate a keen eye for the absurdity of making movies the way they were taught in film school. Even if viewers aren’t privy to every insider gag, however, Starry Eyes works pretty well as hard-core, gut-spewing horror. Alex Essoe probably didn’t have to stretch too far to come up with her portrayal of an actress/waitress who divides her time slinging hash in a mini-skirt and auditioning before neo-Nazi casting directors. Sarah has friends, but none that wouldn’t slit her throat to steal a paying gig from her … any paying gig. Long story short, when Sarah finally does land a job, it requires her to sell her soul and body to a producer whose mansion also provides direct access to the gates of hell. In this way, at least, Starry Eyes might remind horror buffs of Rosemary’s Baby, Hellraiser and Kenneth Anger’s Magick Lantern Cycle. The DVD adds commentary with writer-directors Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch, and producer Travis Stevens; deleted scenes; a Jonathan Snipes music video; Alex Essoe’s audition video; and a behind-the-scenes photo gallery.

Because Harrison Smith’s Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard is set in a rural town, whose feeble fences offer only a temporary barrier to the zombie apocalypse, many potential viewers  will automatically dismiss it as a “The Walking Dead” rip-off. They wouldn’t be far from wrong. Only loyal fans of Billy Zane are likely to find any payoff to their investment in time. Here, he plays a hardened military veteran limited to training a squadron of teenagers with paint-ball weapons in their defense of their town. They’ll need every live bullet they can spare to hold back an advancing horde of garden-variety zombies. Beyond that, there’s almost nothing to recommend Zombie Killers to anyone besides sub-genre obsessives. The Blu-rays adds the featurettes, “Bloodbath & Beyond,” “The Look of Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard” and “Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard: Behind the Scenes.”

TV-to-DVD
PBS: The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross/Black in Latin America
PBS: Hitmakers: The changing face of the music business
A Moveable Feast with Fine Cooking: Season 2
The Bob Newhart Show: Season Five/The Final Season
The Wonder Years: Season Two
Like a December without Santa Claus, it simply wouldn’t be Black History Month without a contribution from Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. PBS has done us all a favor, then, by combining his documentary mini-series “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” and “Black in Latin America into a virtual double-feature that delivers sometimes disturbing historical and cultural lessons in the least painful way possible. While any discussion of slavery and repression would necessarily be hard to digest, Gates’ mini-series are sweetened by regular infusions of music, art and literature, along with demonstrations of heroism and achievement. Considering on how little most of us know about the intricacies of African-American history, north and south of the equator, both DVDs can be considered essential viewing. If we’ve learned anything from the protests prompted from the recent police shootings of unarmed black youths, we still have a long way to go before achieving racial harmony here. In the chapter dedicated to the Afro-Cuban experience, Gates appears to have anticipated the recent thaw in relations between the U.S. and Cuba, by explaining why many blacks there wouldn’t welcome a return to pre-revolution status quo and the overt racism of Euro-Cubans. His discussion of the differences that continue to divide Haiti and the Dominican Republic – independent nations that share the same land mass – is equally fascinating.

Now that the hype surrounding the Grammy Awards has ground to halt, perhaps it’s a good time to peek behind the wizard’s curtain and see who’s pulling the strings in a rapidly evolving industry. PBS’ “Hitmakers: The Changing Face of the Music Business describes the “seismic transformation” of an industry that had grown fat and lazy, by exploiting it artists and ripping off consumers, who, until recently, had few other ways to acquire music than pay full-freight for over-priced albums. The digital revolution changed all that by allowing the creators to cut out the middle-men and distribute their own music. This was especially helpful to emerging acts that could attract attention without also scoring a top-40 hit or sell their souls to afford a promotional tour. Consumers benefitted from lower prices and easily transportable playback equipment, with playlists of hundreds of titles. Among the artists represented here are Lorde, Melissa Etheridge, Questlove, Sharon Jones, Steve Aoki, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, who perform and discuss their personal history, emergence as stars and perceptions of the business side of things. Key music-label mavericks, historians and journalists also have been called to the witness stand.

In the second go-round of “A Moveable Feast With Fine Cooking: Season 2,” such celebrity chefs as Susan Feniger, Mary Sue Milliken, Donald Link and Marco Canora invite viewers to join them, along with a few foodie friends, in the preparation and enjoyment of meals unique to their regions and products of local purveyors. The settings include a California avocado grove, a Southern plantation, a lakeside retreat and bustling kitchen in New York’s Little Italy. Printable recipes for such delights as Spiced Chicken with Papaya-Mango Salsa, Grated Carrot Salad with Raisins, Lamb Sausage Patties with Avocado Relish, Grilled Pork loin with Peaches, Coffee Creme Brulée are included.

The folks at Shout Factory continue to parcel out individual-season DVDs previously packaged in complete-season boxed sets. The fifth and sixth seasons of “The Bob Newhart Show” are newly available to fans who preferred the a la carte approach, as is “The Wonder Years: Season Two.” “Hart to Hart: The Complete Fourth Season” arrives next week.

The DVD Wrapup: The Judge, Downton Abbey, My Old Lady, Green Prince, Bird People and more

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

The Judge: Blu-ray
As is the case with marathon runs, where finishing is reward enough for making the effort to compete, movies that require viewers to break through an imaginary “wall” at the two-hour barrier ought to offer something more gratifying than a cliché ending or the opportunity to find the name of a friend or relative in the closing credits. Like distance runners, theater and cinema audiences have their limits.  Timing in at a less-than-brisk 141 minutes, David Dobkin’s The Judge could easily have lost 21 minutes of extra baggage and still left us with fond memories of watching old pros Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall deliver the goods in an otherwise engaging legal/family drama. Downey, who, lest we forget is pushing 50, plays an ethically challenged Chicago lawyer willing only to sacrifice about 48 hours of his precious time to travel to southern Indiana for his mother’s funeral. It’s Hank Palmer’s first trip home in nearly two decades and he’s dreading every minute of it. Although he loved his mother, Hank didn’t at all enjoy being batted around emotionally by his father, the right honorable Judge Joseph Palmer. Picking Duvall to play the hidebound character probably was the easiest decision Dobkin had to make throughout the entire production process. (The only question surrounding the casting of Downey pertained to his nearly decade-long absence from films that weren’t targeted directly at the action crowd.) We immediately suspect that the old man’s prickly relationship to his son probably drove Hank to become a prominent big-city defense attorney, but there’s very little love lost between them during the mourning period. Among other things, Palmer blames Hank’s reckless behavior as a teenager for extinguishing any chance his brother, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), might have had to play in the Major Leagues. (A much-younger brother, Dale, is developmentally disabled, but not lacking in certain skill sets.) Hank’s plan to quickly pay his respects and split back to Chicago, where his marriage is collapsing and he’s in the middle of a big trial, is stymied when his father is charged with murder in a fatal automobile accident.

Because the judge had a well-known history with the victim and they were seen together immediately before the accident in a store selling booze, it looked like an open-and-shut case for the prosecution. Given the distance between them, it isn’t surprising that Hank and his father would both resist compromising on how to handle the defense. Dax Shepard plays the buffoonish homegrown lawyer the judge chooses to defend him. Once Hank sees him in action, however, he cancels his return flight and insists on giving the his dad a fighting chance for acquittal, even if it means exploiting loopholes and challenging the competency of local law-enforcement officials. It’s the kind of defense his father probably wouldn’t have tolerated in his courtroom and his wet-behind-the-ears co-counsel certainly couldn’t pull off on his own. The prosecutor played by Billy Bob Thornton would have eaten him for breakfast and still have an appetite for humiliating Judge Palmer. His formidable presence not only guarantees a battle royal in the courtroom, but it also lessens the likelihood of a cut-and-dried Hollywood ending. (Ken Howard is good as a no-nonsense judge from northern Indiana imported to keep the lawyers from hitting below the belt.) As if anticipating the necessity for some rom-com relief, Vera Farmiga and Leighton Meester are introduced to the story as Hank’s jilted high-school sweetheart and her hot-to-trot 20ish-year-old daughter, who, guess what, wants to become a lawyer. As much as I like Farmiga, the sordid possibilities inherent in such a storyline detract mightily from everything else happening in the picture. Downey and Duvall may only be dredging up ghosts of characters they’ve played in countless previous movies, but that’s enough to recommend The Judge to their fans and courtroom drama buffs. Anyone else who tags along for the ride – and pleasant scenery – shouldn’t be too disappointed, either. The fine Blu-ray presentation adds Dobkin’s commentary and a pair of featurettes, “Inside ‘The Judge’” and “Getting Deep With Dax Shepard.”

Masterpiece: Downton Abbey Season 5: Blu-ray
With “Downton Abbey” already halfway through its highly anticipated fifth season on PBS, I can find no good reason to spoil any more surprises than those its creator, Julien Fellowes, already has revealed. What I can say, however, is that it would be unwise for anyone disappointed by last season’s events to give up on the entire mini-series. It’s rebounded very well. The fifth-season opener advances the story only about six months past Rose’s “coming out” at Buckingham Palace, in July 1923, and as the election of a new Labor Party government has begun to give commoners some hope of improving their lot in life. His Lordship and the rest of the Crawleys are still attempting to grasp what the transition will mean for their traditional livelihood and lifestyle, but, it would be difficult for the family to avoid change entirely. They need only to listen to the new wireless radio introduced to the household by Rose to learn how quickly things are moving on the political and social fronts. Some members of the service staff, including mousy scullery maid Daisy Robinson, have begun to consider what life might be like independent of the Crawleys. Love, treachery and revolution also are in the air. What I can reveal about the plotlines this year is that they tackle such extremely weighty issues as religious prejudice, the broader implications of the Tsar’s overthrow and sexual liberation, such as it was in the 1920s. Moreover, anyone who considers Maggie Smith’s Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, to be the second coming of Cruella de Ville may be surprised to see her out-bitched by at least three of the other women characters. And, speaking of ghosts, faithful followers of the series already know that the pursuit of Green’s killer has been re-ignited by London police, some of whom appear to have taken up residence at the Downton Abbey. The 93-minute season final is extremely eventful, even by Fellowes’ lofty standards, and beautifully executed by cast and crew.  Much of the fun comes during a family outing to spectacular Alnwick Castle, in Northumberland. The Blu-ray represents the original UK version of the series and adds the featurettes, “Behind the Scenes: Day 100,” “Roaring Twenties” and “A Day With Lady Rose.”

My Old Lady: Blu-ray
I’m probably not the only person who thinks of Kevin Kline as a comic actor, first, and, then, as a performer capable of eliciting responses other than laughter on stage and screen. If his career has stalled a bit lately, it’s only because Hollywood screenwriters have stopped making the kind of comedies in which Kline once sparkled. Watching him labor alongside Diane Keaton in the lamentable canine dramedy, Darling Companion, and in the AARP adaptation of The HangoverLast Resort, was borderline unbearable. (His turn as Errol Flynn in The Last of Robin Hood, which was accorded only a limited release, will arrive on DVD in March.) Israel Horovitz’ adaptation of his stageplay, My Old Lady, wasn’t widely shown here, either, but it contains some of Kline’s best work in years. As it opens, he teases us with a whimsical look at his character’s search through Paris for the home he has just inherited from his estranged father. His character, Mathias Gold, discovers to his chagrin that it is already occupied by an elderly tenant, Mathilde (Maggie Smith), who’s legally entitled to live there as long she lives and isn’t at all ready to die. Until then, she allows Gold to pay her rent for a room that’s cluttered with stuffed animal heads and shotguns. Also living in the spacious house, which surely will be worth a fortune someday, is Mathilde’s middle-age daughter, Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas). She meets Gold in comic fashion when she forgets to lock the door to the only bathroom on the second floor.  So far, so good. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the movie is little more than a stage-bound pity party, in which Mathias grows increasingly angrier at his deceased father’s treatment of his American family and, not to be outdone, Chloe finds a few bones to pick with her mother. It should come as no surprise, whatsoever, that Mathilde once figured romantically in the life of Gold’s father, and was deceived by him about key elements of his “other” life. As the story progresses, even more shocking secrets will be revealed, none of which viewers will find particularly amusing. Almost as if on schedule, though, things turn full-circle in the movie equivalent of the third act. If there’s one thing first-time director Horovitz gets right cinematically it is the Paris setting, which avoids the tourist spots and shows us how some of the natives life. The Blu-ray adds a Q&A with the filmmaker and star, conducted after a New York screening.

The Color of Time
Now that James Brown has taken his act to the Pearly Gates Amphitheater, the title of Hardest Working Man in Show Business belongs to James Franco. I can’t think of another A-list actor who’s appeared in a more diverse and challenging array of movies or has portrayed such a bewildering range of characters. Following hot on the heels of The Interview debacle comes another of his explorations into 20th Century American poets, this time Pulitzer Prize-winner C.K. Williams. The Color of Time looks back at Williams’ life and influences through 11 poems written for his magnum opus, “Tar.” This time, however, Franco shares the role of Williams with Henry Hopper, Jordan March and Zachary Unger, representing various stages of the poet’s literary and sexual development. Also playing key roles are Mila Kunis, Jessica Chastain, Zach Braff and Bruce Campbell. More noteworthy, perhaps, are the 12 NYU film students who wrote and directed the biographical vignettes. While Williams’ life story isn’t nearly as compelling as those interpreted previously by Franco in bios of Hart Crane, Allen Ginsberg and James Dean, the student filmmakers make it look special, at least, through Impressionistic cinematography and creative editing. The musical score by Garth Neustadter and Daniel Wohl also adds greatly to the final product.

Days and Nights
Christian Camargo’s debut as a director and writer, Days and Nights, was inspired directly by Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” Anyone familiar with that widely performed work will easily recognize the Chekhovian elements that inform the film and know that several of the fine actors cast here have performed in plays and movies credited to Russian dramatists. Chekhov’s name may not carry the same weight on a marquee – or DVD box cover – as Shakespeare, for example, but he’s far from an unknown quantity, even in the American hinterlands. And, yet, as far as I can discern, there’s only one reference to Chekhov and “The Seagull” on the jacket and it’s in small type. It’s fair to ask, then, why Camargo would go to the trouble of adapting a play by an internationally renowned writer and risk the possibility that audiences might not be able to put 2 and 2 together. I don’t have an answer to that question, except to speculate that it might pertain to the vagaries of public-domain and copyright statutes. Beyond contemporizing the setting, Days and Nights doesn’t appear to take any serious liberties with the basic story of “The Seagull” and the actors’ passionate feelings toward the play are evident in the interviews contained in the bonus package. The fact is, however, that potential viewers unfamiliar with Chekhov probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between Days and Nights and a dozen other movies in which dysfunctional families gather for one last reunion in a vacation home in a spectacular setting. In fact, it was only a month ago that I reviewed Last Weekend, with Patricia Clarkson playing the matriarch of a family about to spend their final summer on the shores of Lake Tahoe.

Here, Allison Janney plays the fading actress who returns to the family dacha on a pristine lake, somewhere a couple of hours north of Manhattan. She’s in the company of her boy-toy, Peter (Carmago), a filmmaker who can’t be counted on to keep his paws off the blond muse (Juliet Rylance) of her suicidal son, Eric (Ben Whishlaw). Clearly fragile, Eric is an avant-garde multi-media artist, whose latest work will be previewed for the family that night in a makeshift outdoor theater.  Among the other characters gathered for the weekend are Elizabeth’s nutty older brother (William Hurt), the family doctor (Jean Reno), the estate’s custodian (Russell Means), its careless caretaker (Michael Nyqvist), his flighty wife (Cherry Jones), their temperamental daughter (Katie Holmes) and her ornithologist husband (Mark Rylance). In the role of Chekhov’s titular seagull is a bald eagle, whose nest is being studied at unusually close range by the nerdy naturalist. Ninety-three minutes isn’t nearly enough time to sort out the many ticks and torments of this collection of eccentrics and, finally, only Eric’s troubled soul is mined with any precision. Still, Chekhov completists and fans of the actors might find something to enjoy here. The DVD adds several deleted scenes, interviews and a making-of piece.

Bird People
Divided roughly into two very different halves, Bird People, is a story about a Silicon Valley engineer and mousy French student, who share nothing except one night under the same roof in an airport-adjacent Paris hotel. He’s waiting to board a plane for Dubai, where he’ll be expected to rescue his company’s French business partners, while she’s working part-time at the generic hotel as a maid. Josh Charles (“The Good Wife”) plays the American husband and father, who, rather abruptly, decides that his job sucks and the future holds nothing but middle-class angst, leading to post-retirement despair. His Gary Newman decides then and there to split the scene, leaving his employer and co-workers fumbling to repair any damage to the project. Neither does he endear himself to us by informing his wife (Radha Mitchell) of his decision via Skype. It might be the first time in movie history that we feel as bad about a corporation being jilted as the feelings of an abandoned wife and child. It’s a dick move, no matter how much we can relate to the events that led to Newman’s hotel-room epiphany. Anaïs Demoustier’s Audrey, on the other hand, is someone with whom we sympathize almost immediately. Any way you cut it, cleaning up after expense-account transients is a shit gig and we really hope she’ll realize her dreams – whatever they might be – before she becomes stuck in the same rut as the man whose room she’s just cleaned. It’s in Audrey’s half of Pascale Ferran and Guillaume Bréaud’s story that Bird People really takes off into something special. Let’s just say that it merges both words in the title, in a magically realistic way, and leave it at that. If the ending doesn’t leave you smiling, you might want to check your pulse.

Bad Turn Worse
Crime-fiction aficionados can quote chapter and verse when it comes to parsing the differences between sub-genres and their tropes, conventions and idiosyncracies. While it’s easy to distinguish between whodunits, procedurals, locked-doors and cozies, the lines separating noir, pulps and hard-boiled fiction are less easily defined. Lately, films based on graphic novels have merged all three elements, often to very entertaining effect. As newcomers to the genre work their way through the literally canon, there’s a point where they’ll be required – based solely on the sheer volume of available titles – to focus on a particular subgenre, theme or character profile. Those who choose the kind of writing that would lead directly to such film noir classics as The Maltese FalconThe Postman Always Rings Twice and The Big Sleep will necessarily begin their journey with authors who attempted to make a living writing for pulp magazines and paperback originals. Before the heyday of the pulps, of course, the foundation was laid by the penny dreadfuls and dime novels of the 19th Century, but that’s another story. Among the most influential authors who emerged from the pulp boom of the 1920s and ’30s are, of course, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, David Goodis and John D. MacDonald. Before Elmore Leonard became of the bard of late-20th Century crime writing, he and Louis L’Amour dominated the Western subgenre. All of today’s high-tech, mega-budget sci-fi pictures owe a debt of gratitude to authors who produced speculative fiction for magazines, just as today’s generation of superhero flicks couldn’t exist without characters whose bloodlines can be traced to the 1930s.

Although his name doesn’t appear in the credits, Jim Thompson’s fingerprints are all over Dutch Southern’s debut screenplay, Bad Turn Worse (a.k.a., “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”). Moreover, he does the right thing by crediting a key piece of dialogue directly to the author, and that’s something not all screenwriters would bother to do. Had Thompson not been mentioned by name, however, it still would be difficult for viewers not to compare Simon and Zeke Hawkins’ film to such Thompson adaptations as The GriftersAfter Dark, My SweetThe GetawayThis World, Then the FireworksCoup de torchon and The Killer Inside Me, or Dennis Hopper’s neat take on Charles Williams’ The Hot Spot. Of all the post-pulp writers, Thompson probably faced the most potholes on the road to something resembling recognition by someone other than critics. These included his longtime addiction to alcohol. His stories are frequently told from the twisted and not always reliable point of view of the book’s antagonist or anti-hero, who frequently is portrayed as a drunk, as well. Unlike noir, the violence in his books isn’t necessarily relegated to the dark corners of a shadowy world. Indeed, true to his roots, it frequently plays out in the sunbaked towns of Texas and Oklahoma, among rough-hewn men and women with no particular code of honor.  Bad Turn Worse is set in just such a sleepy town in southeast Texas, where cotton at one time was king and hardly anyone leaves for very long. As the picture opens, a pretty blond mystery enthusiast, Sue (Mackenzie Davis), and her anxious-to-please boyfriend’s best pal, Bobby (Jeremy Allen White) – both of whom are headed for college in the fall – are engaged in a conversation in a local diner.

It’s over biscuits and gravy that Sue anticipates all of the nasty things to follow in the movie, by quoting Thompson to Bobby: “There are 32 ways to write a story, and I’ve used every one, but there is only one plot: things are not what they seem.” She’s about to cut her ties to her not terribly bright boyfriend, B.J. (Logan Huffman), but keeps stringing him along. Even so, B.J. gives them a going-away party on the Gulf Coast with the money he’s just stolen from the safe of his boss, Giff. It would have been one thing if the money had only belonged to Giff (Mark Pellegrino), but the safe contained three stacks of bills being laundered by the region’s leading hoodlum (William Devane). When the trio is made aware of the possible ramifications of B.J.’s larcenous act, he convinces them to join him in a scheme to cover up his blunder. From this point on, nothing goes as planned for anyone involved and several backs are left with knives sticking out of them. If the denouement depends too much on gunplay and an unlikely chase through a cotton gin, Bad Turn Worse already has benefitted greatly from Southern’s hard-edged dialogue and the Hawkins’ unforgiving portrait of a dead-end town. (In this way, at least, comparisons can be drawn to The Last Picture Show.) As anxiously as I await the second season of HBO’s not completely dissimilar “True Detective,” I’m that interested in seeing what these guys will do for an encore.

Bombshell Bloodbath
God knows, we don’t need to see any more zombies stumble their way across our television screens. As DIY horror goes, however, Brett Mullen and Sky Tilley’s debut feature, Bombshell Bloodbath, is better than most such efforts. If they’ve bitten off more than they can chew, at least they’ve created something that shows they’ve been influenced by something other than Night of the Living Dead and Day of the Dead. In fact, their greatest inspiration appears to have come from Italian horror masters Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento. Even so, the confusion of ideas begins with the title, Bombshell Bloodbath, which, while catchy, lacks precision.  Neither does the film stick to any one horror subgenre, as it leapfrogs over a line of scenarios populated with mad scientists, grave-robbers, flesh-eaters and strippers. After the death of his wife, Doctor Carter (Rob Springer) quits his job at the CDC to concoct a serum to bring her back to life. With a scarcity of undead guinea pigs available to him, Carter decides to visit the local cemetery for specimens larger than lab rats. Eventually, Carter develops a serum that appears to work, although the revived corpses have an insatiable appetite for human flesh. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the plague’s first appearance outside the doctor’s underground laboratory occurs in a strip club, which sounds more titillating than it actually is. When Carter’s daughter, Cara (Alex Elliott), gets wind of the plan, she attempts to convince the doctor that the potential for disaster is greater than anyone’s need to raise the dead. Meanwhile, he feeds other detractors to the zombies he keeps locked up in a cage. Having avoided one scrape with un-death, Cara is mankind’s only hope against the killer virus. Yeah, it’s a mess, but the special makeup effects are pretty convincing.

The Green Prince: Blu-ray
Most news emanating from the Middle East these days points to a future that is bereft of hope for a lasting peace. The Arab Spring has devolved into an Arab nightmare, while the unending tit-for-tat belligerency along Israel’s borders threatens to suck the rest of the planet into its black hole. For every step forward taken by reasonable people of all religious backgrounds, fanatics and fundamentalists have forced three in the opposite direction. The recent Israeli mini-series, “Prisoners of War” – the model for Showtime’s “Homeland” – found a huge audience willing to ponder what’s real and what’s not in a fictional hostage drama and prisoner trade. The Green Prince tells the real-life story of a young Palestinian man whose personal dilemma rivals that of the Israeli and Arab who purportedly betrayed their countries in “Prisoners of War.” The documentary demonstrates how difficult it is for writers of fiction to trump scenarios based directly on actual events and procedures. As the oldest son of the founder of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, Mosab Hassan Yousef naturally was a person of interest to Israeli security forces. Like his father, Mosab believed deeply in the Palestinian cause and accepted the fiery rhetoric as the truth.

After making the mistake of attempting to smuggle guns into his homeland, Mosab was arrested, imprisoned without trial, interrogated, tortured and left without a clue as to when he may be charged or released. Unbeknownst to Mosab, he also had been identified – based solely on one agent’s intuition — as someone who could be convinced that saving the lives of innocent people was more important than blowing them up for the gratification of terrorist leaders and murderous mullahs. It was a longshot, but one worth taking by an agent for the Israeli equivalent of the FBI. Upon his release, the hostilities would escalate to the point where his father was being forced to get directly involved in the enlisting of suicide bombers. Mosab also sensed that paranoiacs within Hamas would kill his father, rather than allow him to draw the line at one particular terrorist strategy. Indeed, one of Mosab’s demands was that Israeli security forces arrest his father before he could sent out suicide bombers of his own creation. There were other considerations that played into the young man’s decision, including being molested by one of his father’s trusted aides, but Mosab genuinely believed his actions could curb violence on both sides of the Palestinian struggle.

As his mission got increasingly more dangerous and the chances of being discovered increased, Mosab’s Shin Bet handler Gonen Ben Yitzhak became steadily more willing to protect this lonely and justifiably frightened teenager from going off the deep end and blowing his cover. After Gonen was unceremoniously dropped from his job at Shin Bet, Mosab refused to work with any other agent, fearing he would be hung out to dry for any number of reasons. He asked to be given the wherewithal to move to the United States, where he could put his personal shame and horror behind him. After converting to Christianity here, Mosab wrote an autobiographical book, in which he laid out his role in the charade and how his actions ultimately saved the lives of many people in Israel, including Palestinians who might simply have been on the wrong bus on the wrong time. Despite all of this, he was blacklisted by our Homeland Security Agency and ordered to be deported to somewhere he couldn’t be protected. It was at this point that Gonen decided to repay his country’s debt of gratitude to Mosab, by outing himself as a former security official and openly defending his friend’s decision to seek sanctuary in the U.S. Even though the The Green Prince is a documentary, it plays like a television drama. For both Mosab and Gonen, the ramifications of their actions guarantee that their story will only end when they die or are assassinated. The bonus material includes extended interviews and news coverage of Mosab’s coming-out.

Jean De Florette/Manon of the Spring: Blu-ray
Henry V: Blu-ray
Distilled to its essence, Claude Berri’s Jean De Florette and Manon of the Spring form an epic family drama that, like all great mini-series and prime-time soaps, is driven by compelling characters, memorable settings and such motivational factors as greed, survival, revenge and fate.  The presence of Yves Montand, Gérard Depardieu, Daniel Auteuil and Emmanuelle Béart, along with a record-high budget for a French film, assured viewers that the virtual double-feature would be first-class all the way. Shot back-to-back in 1985, over a period of seven months, the four-hour-long experience captivated audiences around the world and turned Provence into a prime tourist destination for years to come. The story itself, however, isn’t nearly as easy to reduce to a few sentences. It opens in the immediate aftermath of World War I, when a soldier returns to the mountainous region and convinces his uncle to go into a business that requires a steady supply of fresh water. When their neighbor refuses to sell his property to them, an argument ensues that ultimately will cause the death of the neighbor and a mystery surrounding the life-giving spring on his property. When “the hunchback” Jean Cadoret (Depardieu) inherits the property from his mother, Florette, he becomes the unwitting target of a plot by Cesar Soubeyran (Montand), who will stop at nothing to gain the seemingly “worthless” land. Manon of the Spring picks up a decade after the calamitous events at the end of Jean De Florette. Jean’s daughter, Manon (Beart), has grown into a stunningly beautiful young woman, who could have posed as the poster child for flower power 40 years ahead of the Haight-Ashbury. She seems content to shepherd her goats around the property, until she discovers the truth behind her father’s demise and the conspiracy to steal her property. She also takes an interest in a teacher (Hippolyte Girardot) she discovers wandering around her property and who treats her as a something other than a simple peasant. It almost goes without saying that Manon will find a way to avenge the damage done to her family by the neighbors and superstitious townsfolk. Don’t worry, there are several more secrets to be revealed in these splendidly acted and photographed films.

Also from Shout Factory comes Kenneth Branagh’s directorial debut, William Shakespeare’s Henry V, in which he simultaneously delivers a bravura performance as the titular King of England. The famously undisciplined prince now wears the crown and will be given the opportunity to prove his competence in combat, as a motivator of men and as head of state. Branagh seems to be enjoying himself here, leading his countrymen into bloody battle against France and as a director called upon to open up the historical drama as a vehicle for entertainment. The cast includes Robbie Coltrane, Paul Scofield, Judi Dench, Geraldine McEwan, Ian Holm, Derek Jacobi, Simon Shepherd, Emma Thompson and a very young Christian Bale. None of these three titles offer bonus features, besides the requisite trailers.

Dick: The Documentary
I don’t know if it’s accurate to say that most men have a love-hate relationship with their penis, but, generally speaking, it’s not something we’re comfortable discussing either in public or private. It is what it is and the word, itself, can discourage meaningful conversation. It helps explain why there are so many euphemisms, nicknames and slang descriptions associated with the appendage, which, as we are asked to observe in Dick: The Documentary, come in a multitude of sizes, shapes and colors and frequently are bent, folded and mutilated for purposes other than pro-creation of the species and elimination of liquid toxins from the  body. In 2008, filmmaker Brian Fender posted an ad on Craigslist to solicit volunteers willing to strip down and reveal themselves physically and emotionally through personal stories about their penis. The result is a cross-section of American manhood from monks to transsexuals, ex-marines to artists, cut and uncut, gay and straight, all ranging from 21 to 80 and with one thing in common, at least. Nothing here is especially revelatory and, once viewers get over their uneasiness with staring at the naked torso of so many headless bodies, what’s learned is pretty mundane. If nothing else, though, the witnesses prove that men have nothing to fear in revealing long-withheld opinions on their gender-distinguishing member and childhood taboos should be checked at the door of puberty. It’s also clear, however, that ancient Greek sculptors knew where to draw the line on depictions of male nudity. Not all dicks are a work of art, and most of our bodies don’t lend themselves to subjective contemplation. Still, there’s nothing down there about which anyone should be embarrassed or ashamed to reveal. That includes masturbation, an act of physical gratification that isn’t limited to teenage boys or actors in porn flicks. In fact, its commonality might come as a surprise to some men. Remember the Dylan line about how “even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked”? If Fender wanted to do us all a great service, Fender could make a sequel in which all of world’s male leaders agree to pull down their pants and discuss what their penis means to them. I can’t think of a better way to put all of them on an equal footing.

TV-to-DVD
Cartoon Network: Regular Show: Mordecai Pack
PBS: Arthur’s Fountain Abbey
PBS: Suze Orman’s Financial Solutions for You
Mama’s Family: Mama’s Favorites
Not being well-versed in the intricacies of the animation dodge, I’m not sure what to make of this factoid concerning the production of Cartoon Network’s “Regular Show.” Apparently, each new 11-minute episode of the consistently popular and inventive series takes about nine months to complete … nine months. This, despite a creative team of three dozen people and a cast of characters that could fit into a VW mini-van. For the uninitiated, J.G. Quintel’s brainstorm revolves around two 23-year-old friends, Mordecai and Rigby –a blue jay and raccoon, respectively – who are employed as groundskeepers at a park, but expend most of their energy coming up with schemes to simultaneously avoid work and relieve boredom. One of their bosses, Benson, is a gumball machine, while the other, Pops, is a human lollipop. Their co-workers include a yeti; an overweight green man, Muscle Man; and Hi-Five Ghost. It’s a far cry from “Tom & Jerry” and “Popeye the Sailor Man,” but, upon its arrival in 2010 alongside “Adventure Time,” it fit neatly within the cartoon zeitgeist of the still-new century. What isn’t nearly as easy to explain is the sporadic release pattern of its DVDs and Blu-rays. Now in its sixth season on the cable network, only three complete-season sets have been made available. Instead, there are seven themed “packs” – here, “Regular Show: Mordecai Pack” – comprised of 12-16 individual episodes. Somehow, there are “nine seasons” of already aired shows available on PPV. The set adds audio commentaries and deleted scenes.

The American/Canadian co-production, “Arthur,” is based on the best-selling children’s books by Marc Brown. It follows the adventures of an anthropomorphic 8-year-old aardvark, Arthur Read, who lives with his family and friends in the suburb, Elwood City. It’s family friendly, but in a much more traditional way than “Regular Show.” In “Arthur’s Fountain Abbey,” the characters follow the roots of their family trees to some surprising revelations. Other episodes include “Arthur Calls It,” “Feeling Flush” and “Family Fortune,” all of which feature several teachable moments.

The latest DVD from the nearly ubiquitous author, financial advisor, motivational speaker and television host Suze Orman focuses on helping individual viewers “feel secure” about their investments, thereby avoiding the stressful repercussions of impersonal planning. The Chicago native and onetime restaurateur takes an expansive view of personal economics in “Suze Orman’s Financial Solutions for You.” Her advice is based not just on numbers, but on a “critical understanding of ourselves and our emotional needs.” It fits neatly within the sphere dominated by other self-help and motivational speakers on PBS and late-night infomercials. I’m pretty sure, however, that making sound business decisions requires something more than a television.

The parade of DVD packages excised from Time Life Entertainment’s recently released “Mama’s Family: The Complete Collection” continues apace with “Mama’s Family: Mama’s Favorites – Season 4” and “Mama’s Family: The Complete Sixth Season” (February 10). The a la carte approach doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s an affordable alternative to ordering the whole enchilada at a list of price of $199.98. The product speaks for itself.

The DVD Wrapup: Boxtrolls, Lucy, Zero Theorem, Rudderless, Maddin, Sturges, Rohmer, Narwhals and more

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

The Boxtrolls: Blu-ray 2D/3D
Of all the branches of the Motion Picture Academy, it’s the ones representing animated films and documentaries that routinely produce the greatest howlers on the day nominations are announced. It’s not even close. In a year when The LEGO Movie and Life Itself could have just as easily rounded out the Best Picture category at 10 nominees – the full academy dissed audiences and filmmakers worldwide by limiting itself to eight finalists – the elimination of those fine films by their respective branches gave viewers two very good reasons to skip this year’s ceremony. I mean, why reward incompetency and elitism with Nielsen ratings? This isn’t to imply that the movies that did make the cut weren’t worthy of being invited to the party, just that whomever wins the Oscar in those categories will, like Roger Maris, forever have to live with an asterisk next to their names. The five films nominated as this year’s Best Animated Feature are excellent entertainments, if not the critical and commercial success that “LEGO” became, and all will have entered the Blu-ray market by March 17. So, you be the judge.

Alternately dark and delightful, The Boxtrolls has to be considered one of the favorites. I was extremely impressed by the stop-action animation employed by Laika — the studio also behind ParaNorman, Coraline and Slacker Cats — which mimics 3D, even in its 2D iteration. Co-directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, in collaboration with co-screenwriters Irena Brignull and Adam Pava, were able mine the source material, “Here Be Monsters” by Alan Snow, in a way that maintains its appeal to kids and makes fans of adults. Mischievous and resourceful, the Boxtrolls live beneath the streets of the class-conscious town of Cheesebridge – think, 1850s London — whose elite citizens put more value in a well-aged brie than educating the children of its less-prosperous citizens. It’s no coincidence that the Boxtrolls are treated like gypsies, another ethnic group nearly obliterated by the Nazis. We know that the Boxtrolls come out at night to scavenge material that can be used to support their community, but Cheesebridgians have been taught that they kidnap children and property, as well. (The same ages-old knock on Gypsies.) They’ve hired the villainous Archibald Snatcher (voiced by Ben Kingsley) to devise a plan to eradicate the Boxtrolls. A human boy raised underground, Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), joins forces with the daughter (Elle Fanning) of an aboveground politician, to keep the nearly defenseless Boxtrolls from being snatched up by Snatcher. Among the other voice actors are Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan, James Urbaniak, Toni Collette, Simon Pegg and Laraine Newman. The excellent bonus package adds the informative and entertaining “Dare to be Square: Behind the Scenes of the Boxtrolls”; commentary by directors Stacchi and Annable; production featurettes; and preliminary animatic sequences, with commentary by Stacchi and Annable.

Lucy: Blu-ray
Like Luc Besson, the man responsible for Lucy, we’ve all heard the one about how humans only access 10-15 percent of their brain, leaving the rest of its computing capacity to wither on the vine. Judging by recent sci-fi products we’ve all seen, it’s a myth perpetrated by writers whenever they run out of other ideas to exploit. I doubt, however, that it’s possible Besson, who’s written and directed such diverse entertainments as The Big Blue, La Femme Nikita, The Professional, Angel-A, The Fifth Element and The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, will ever run out of ideas for movies … especially, those capable of attracting such bombshell actresses as Anne Parillaud, Milla Jovovich, Marion Cotillard, Rie Rasmussen and Michelle Pfeiffer. Even so, he clearly thought it might be fun to pull this chestnut out of the fire and write a scientifically incomprehensible thriller that survives primarily on its violence, car chases and Scarlett Johansson in a form-fitting T-shirt. There are, of course, worse reasons to rent a DVD.

Here, Johansson plays the title character, who, after agreeing to do a favor for a lamebrain boyfriend, is recruited by a ruthless gang of Korean drug traffickers who’ve come up with the next-generation Ecstasy. The problem is that a bag containing the substance, which was sewn into a cavity in her abdomen during a blackout, ruptures on her way to Paris. Somehow, the drug causes a chemical reaction in her brain that turns her into a hyper-violent mega-genius. And, that’s just for starters. After consulting with a recognized expert on brain stuff (Morgan Freeman, naturally), Lucy begins to systematically experience what it might be like to use an incrementally greater percentage of her brain capacity. By the time she gets to 100 percent, Lucy literally re-creates the time-travel sequence in The Tree of Life, with a side trip to visit her Australopithecus afarensis namesake. (What, you thought that might have coincidental?) In the meantime, Lucy is required to save the world from the new miracle club drug, bags of which are still being harvested from the bodies of other unsuspecting travelers. If that makes Lucy sound bat-shit crazy, well, it didn’t stop international audiences from buying into it. It looks and sounds excellent in Blu-ray, with a pair of featurettes, “The Evolution of Lucy” and “Cerebral Capacity: The True Science of Lucy.”

The Zero Theorem: Blu-ray
Although Terrence Malick has begun to churn out films at a pace that mimics Woody Allen, there was a time when each new picture was greeted with the anticipation once reserved for Stanley Kubrick and Jacques Tati. The same, I think, can be said about Terry Gilliam, who’s directed only 12 feature-length movies since Monty Python’s Flying Circus pulled up its stakes 40 years ago. Clearly, though, it takes more time to create such wondrously imaginative and grandly ambitious films as Brazil, Twelve Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and, now, The Zero Theorem, than, say, repeated sequels to Taken, Grown Ups and Spider-Man. (It would be worth the price of an ArcLight ticket, though, to see what he could do with a comic-book superhero.) It’s safe to say, as well, that Gilliam’s unique view of the world is no longer shared by the majority of mainstream viewers and, as such, his movies struggle for distribution, even on the arthouse circuit. Gilliam didn’t write The Zero Theorem, but there’s no mistaking his stamp on the futuristic, if not-entirely-dystopic sci-fi phantasmagoria, which seems to extend ideas explored in Brazil and Twelve Monkeys.

The primary difference between those esteemed movies and this one is a color scheme that might have been influenced by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Fat Tuesday on Bourbon Street. Christopher Waltz plays a tormented computer genius, Qohen Leth, who’s been hired by Management (Matt Damon) to discover the meaning of life. It’s the kind of assignment that anyone as fragile as “entity crunching” Leth probably shouldn’t take on, but I doubt if he had any choice in the matter. His computer models offer a seemingly infinitesimal array of choices and Management’s deadline is completely unreasonable. He reluctantly accepts the help of Management’s cocky teenage son, Bob (Lucas Hedges), who provides a video-gamers sense of play and patience to the task, which combines existential philosophy with steam-punk technology. Yeah, pretty dense stuff. What distinguishes Zero Theorem from hundreds of other movies released in any given year are the amazingly creative costumes and imaginative set designs, all done on the cheap with such found materials as plastic shower curtains and a Soviet-era blast furnace. If the Academy had looked beyond this year’s usual suspects, they might have given Zero Theorem a shot in these departments, at least. Needless to say, Waltz makes the part of Qohen Leth his own and Hedges (Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel) continues to impress. Also good are David Thewlis, as Leth’s busy-body supervisor; Melanie Thierry, as his cyber-wet dream; and Tilda Swinton, Peter Stormare, Sanjeev Bhaskar and Ben Whishaw as actual and virtual doctors and shrinks. Gilliam fans will find the making-off featurettes to be essential viewing, as they help explain many of his directorial choices and limitations. Separate takes on the visual effects, costumes and sets are very interesting.

The Pirates: Blu-ray
In what may be best described as an action comedy in the tradition of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, The Pirates merges Korean dynastic legend with the biblical story of Jonah, the adventures of Pinocchio and Gepetto, and Free Willy.  On the eve of the founding of the Joseon Dynasty, privateers often engaged in sea battles with the imperial forces of Korea and Japan. Outwardly, the pirates who here control the seas off Korea look as if they might have felt right at home on the Barbary Coast or alongside the fortune hunters plying the Caribbean and eastern Atlantic Ocean. As this story goes, however, when pirates attack the ship bearing goods and treasures to Korea’s new imperial court, the Emperor’s Royal Seal is flung overboard and swallowed by a whale. When the sailors realize the importance of the lost seal – no official business can be completed without its imprint – they antagonize the whale to the point that the leviathan breaks one of the vessels in half, causing a severed mast to imbed itself in its midsection. By putting a handsome bounty on the seal’s return, the emperor inspires every gang of thieves, thugs, pirates and government agents to take to the seas and join in the hunt, even those landlubbers who’ve closest encounter with a large body of a water is their annual soak in a bathtub. Because their idea of a really big fish is the occasional beached shark, the testimony of lady swashbuckler Yeo-wol (Son Ye-jin) is essential. Having gotten up close and personal with the beast, she can identify it not only from the mast, but also wounds to its head. As one of Korea’s most expensive movies in recent years, and with 130 minutes to fill, director Lee Seok-hoon (Dancing Queen) was able to afford several comic set pieces to complement the battles on sea and land. Even so, anyone expecting the thrills, chills and special effects that can be manufactured on a $250 million budget – the price tag on POTC: On Stranger Tides – is likely to be unimpressed with The Pirates. Based solely on a dollar-for-dollar comparison, however, the Korean export holds up pretty well.

Rudderless
William H. Macy has played enough offbeat and quirky characters in his career to feel comfortable directing those played other fine actors and written with an eye toward extracting an array of emotions from viewers. Rudderless is far easier to watch than summarize, without spoiling the surprise that smacks viewers in the chops about half-way through the narrative. Without giving away anything crucial, Billy Crudup plays a former high-profile ad executive, Sam, whose life, career and marriage are upended by the sudden, unexpected death of his college-age son. Like so many other movie fathers in similar straits, Sam is required to experience all of the usual stages of grief and a few more, besides. He abandons his comfortable suburban home to move onto a sailboat on a large inland lake – Rudderless was shot in Oklahoma, but it feels like New England – where he can drown his sorrow and grow a beard to hide his tears. His wife (Felicity Huffman) is crushed, as well, but blessedly has other ways to cope with her son’s loss. While perusing the young man’s papers and books, Sam is surprised to find lyrics and demo tapes he probably was too busy to appreciate when his son was alive. They encourage him to pick up his guitar and perform a song or two at an open-mike night at a local pub. They pique the interest of a young musician, Quentin (Anton Yelchin), who begs Sam to perform in a makeshift band. Not only does this make him the college town’s oldest singer-songwriter, if, in fact, he had written the songs, but the anonymous curator of his son’s legacy. More than that, I shall not reveal. Macy, who has a small role in the picture, walks a very thin line here. So much is left unrevealed for so long that we’re sent reeling, along with most of the characters we’ve grown to like, when Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison’s screenplay pulls the screenplay out from under all of us. It was very brave decision on their part to play their hand so strongly and not everyone will appreciate having the ante raised on them so abruptly. Crudup, who’s largely disappeared from view on the big screen in the last 15 years, is quite good here, as is Yelchin in a portrayal that mimics Jeremy Davies at his most frenetic. Selena Gomez is mostly just along for the ride. Eef Barzelay’s songs fit into the mix as well as any I’ve heard in a while.

May in the Summer: Blu-ray
So few of the movies that are set in the Middle East deal with contemporary issues unrelated to war, terrorism and oil that it’s easy to be taken off-guard by one that isn’t about any of those things and, moreover, doesn’t ask us to feel sorry for women required to wear head-to-toe clothing or accept being subjugated by their husbands. In fact, apart from its Jordanian location, May in the Summer probably could have been shot in any big city in which ethnic minorities maintain traditional standards and challenges to the status quo are discouraged. Shot in the unrelenting sunshine of Holy Land-adjacent Amman, Cherien Dabis’ follow-up to her 2009 Palestinian/American dramedy Amreeka tells the story of a relationship between a Jordanian/American/Christian novelist and Jordanian/Muslim professor that thrived while both lived and worked in the United States, but begins to wither almost as soon as her plane takes off from JFK. Among other things, May Brennan (Dabis) has become estranged from her born-again Christian mother, Nadine (Hiam Abbass), who’s dead-set against any marriage to a Muslim, even one as educated, secular and cosmopolitan as her fiancé, Ziad. As plans for the Muslim wedding progress, the divide grows wider between mother and daughter. Nadine’s threat to boycott the wedding is taken quite seriously, as is her disdain for May’s father, Edward (Bill Pullman), a philandering diplomat now married to an Indian beauty half his age. May and her two sisters, Yasmine and Dalia (Nadine Malouf, Alia Shawkat), aren’t that thrilled with the old man, either, but their mother’s angst has grown tiresome. In her struggle to come to a well-reasoned decision, May consults friends whose advise includes taking trips into the desert and sea, where she reconnects with her bloodlines. Some viewers will consider the ending to be all too conveniently drawn, but it fits the parameters of such a hybrid production just fine. Anyone who hasn’t taken the opportunity to enjoy the work of Hiam Abbass, an Israeli Arab, in The Syrian Bride, Lemon Tree, Amreeka, The Visitor and Inheritance should certainly give May in the Summer a look in DVD or Blu-ray.

In the House of Flies
Attack of the Morningside Monster
If you only intend to see one more movie about a couple trapped in cramped basement by an off-stage psychopath, In the House of Flies would be among the titles to consider first. Gabriel Carrer and Angus McLellan’s extremely claustrophobic thriller is sufficiently creepy to satisfy one’s lust for such things for another decade, at least. It is set in June, 1988, before the age of omnipresent cellphones and other wireless technology. Otherwise, the unseen tormenter (voiced by Henry Rollins) wouldn’t feel compelled to communicate with his prisoners via a dial-up telephone and GPS technology would be available to the filmmakers as an easy way to end the victims’ misery. As it is, young lovers Heather (Lindsay Smith) and Steve (Ryan Kotack) have only been afforded four locked suitcases, the phone and all the bugs and rats they can catch and devour. After taunting the couple, their captor makes them answer ridiculous questions and torture themselves physically and psychologically. Worse, they’re denied food and water for several days, exacerbating an already impossible situation. As is usually the case in such horror flicks, claustrophobia can only be realized on screen if the cinematography and architecture appear to be closing in on the victims and viewers, alike. This is what happens here.

Given how little money likely was spent on the direct-to-DVD Attack of the Morningside Monster, it holds up pretty well as the story of a small-town serial killer, with a background in South American cannibal cults and the medicinal properties of marijuana. After a dried-up corpse is discovered in a New Jersey forest, a cloaked fiend in a jeweled mask goes on a killing spree based on the deployment of medieval weaponry and disembowelment. All of the victims are connected by marijuana in one way or another, whether it pertains to sales, consumption or law-enforcement. Determining what the mask and evil symbols left behind have to do with the killings constitutes most of the intrigue in Chris Ethridge and writer Jayson Palmer’s feature debut. It is, however, the acting of such genre veterans Nicholas Brendon, Tiffany Shepis, Amber Chaney, Catherine Taber, Robert Pralgo and Mike Stanley that sells it.

By the Gun
In 2008, an inauspicious indie about a female trucker, in the unlikely presence of Michelle Monaghan, caught the attention of critics, festival organizers and DVD renters. Trucker was written and directed by first-timer James Mottern, whose next picture, By the Gun, would take a more conventional tack. In it, a new-school Boston gangster, Nick (Ben Barnes), hopes to make his bones without actually getting his hands dirty. That, of course, is left to his nasty companion, who serves as his enforcer and advisor. Nick’s godfather is played by Harvey Keitel, as good a choice as any living actor. He encourages Nick to apologize for an insult made by his cousin to the daughter of a more established hoodlum. Naturally, when Nick meets the girl (Leighton Meester), things get complicated for the rising gangster. And, when things get complicated in gangster flicks, they also get violent. It isn’t the most compelling mob picture I’ve ever seen, but the presence of Keitel and the diminutive Toby Jones, as another unlikely bad guy, are enough to recommend By the Gun.

On Golden Pond
It wouldn’t be accurate to say that no one produces movies likes On Golden Pond, anymore. The Brits make them all the time: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Calendar Girls, Le Week-End, anything that stars Bill Nighy, Dame Judi Dench, Maggie Smith or Vanessa Redgrave. Michael Haneke’s Amour was nominated for the 2012 Best Picture prize, but had to settle for Best Foreign Language Film; at 71, Catherine Deneuve is still the best thing in any movie that bears her name; Sarah Polley’s Away From Her could hardly be more Canadian; and the gay-seniors themed Love Is Strange and Beginners were independently produced. The New Orleans-set Fred &Elsa, which starred Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer, couldn’t find wide theatrical distribution and was required to debut on VOD outlets. When On Golden Pond was released in 1981, major studios frequently made movies that starred veteran actors – Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, George Burns and Walter Mathau – for general audiences and Academy Award glory. Of course, On Golden Pond also had the distinction of featuring Fonda’s controversial daughter, Jane, as his character’s daughter. Adapted by Ernest Thompson from his own stageplay, Mark Rydell’s film is sappy, sentimental and funny in all of the usual places reserved for those qualities on stage and in the movies. Even so, it was the chemistry between the cast members that kept emotions from overflowing like lava from Henry and Kate’s cabin and into placid Golden Pond. It helped mightily that 14-year-old Doug McKeon was there, as the resentful son of Jane’s boyfriend (Dabney Coleman), to keep the snarky dialogue and unsettled family business from getting ugly. Billy Williams’ Academy Award-nominated cinematography gave us sound reasons to believe that a place called Golden Pond (a.k.a., Squam Lake) exists, if not in New Hampshire then in the hearts of moviegoers looking for a three-hankie experience. The lovely Blu-ray adds the vintage featurettes “Reflections on Golden Pond” and “A Woman of Substance: Katharine Hepburn Remembered” and commentary with director Rydell.

The Great Chicken Wing Hunt
If there’s anything Americans enjoy more than gorging on bar food, it’s thumbing their noses at alarmist nutritionists who never tire of pointing out the links between spicy appetizers, cheap tap beer, cigarettes and gastroesophageal reflux disease, a.k.a. GERD, acid reflux and heartburn. Several recent medical studies have argued persuasively that GERD is a growing cause of adenocarcinoma of the esophagus. Apparently, the chronic reflux of acid causes changes in the cells lining the lower esophagus — changes that are referred to as Barrett’s esophagus — that ultimately lead them to become cancerous. GERD also appears to affect hypothyroidism and hiatal hernias and damage tooth enamel. If there’s a correlation between Buffalo chicken wings, invented in the 1960s in Upstate New York, and an estimated 600 percent increase in such cancers over the past few decades, no one has yet seen fit to put warning labels on the ultra-spicy, deep-fried and inarguably addictive little boogers. Bon appetite. I only mention this because of what I witnessed in the entertaining DIY documentary, The Great Chicken Wing Hunt. In it, American ex-patriot Matt Reynolds returns to his homeland with a Czech film crew to document the origins of the accidental appetizer, in the kitchen of a blue-collar tavern in Buffalo, the Anchor Inn. That accomplished, Reynolds embarks on a 2,627-mile search for the ultimate chicken wing or, more precisely, the red-hot sauce that causes men, women and children to weep in joy and agony simultaneously. A winner was declared, alright, but not before the team sampled 284 different varieties of wings and the Czech crew threatened to mutiny over the lack of variety in their diets and pressure to finish the film before Reynolds’ money ran out. Despite the presence of some appallingly unhealthy Americans, The Great Chicken Wing Hunt is fun to watch. Some viewers might find it to be mouth-watering, as well. The DVD adds commentary, a pair of Q&A sessions after festival screenings, an update on the key participants and visit to Lebowski Fest New York, three acoustic folk songs by Al Caster and an up-close look at the scorecard used in the hunt.

My Winnipeg: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The Palm Beach Story: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Eric Rohmer’s Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle
Any freshman film student should be able to make a passable feature-length documentary about their home town, if, for example, they hail from New York, L.A., San Francisco, Seattle, New Orleans or, even, Milwaukee, Las Vegas, Portland and Austin. More difficult would be a portrait of, say, Omaha, Pierre or Hobbs, New Mexico. Try Winnipeg, Manitoba, a city of some 700,000 souls, whose primary claim to fame is that it not only is located at the confluence of the Assiniboine and Red rivers, but also at the geographical center of North America. Otherwise, according to native Winnipegger Guy Maddin – and author of My Winnipeg — there’s hockey, several indoor swimming pools for year-round aquatics, trainspotting and dressing to stay warm in the seemingly endless winter. Conveniently, Winnipeg has also provided a lifelong home for the documentarian extraordinaire (Brand Upon the Brain), whose quirky and thoroughly unique films have fascinated non-fiction buffs for three decades. Criterion Collection’s re-release of his “docu-fantasia,” My Winnipeg, blends fact, legend and myth in the service of a fractured love letter to “the heart of the heart of the continent.” He leaves it to viewers to guess where the truth ends and fantasy begins. (Is Winnipeg’s population especially prone to sleepwalking, for example, and what’s the deal with the racehorses forever frozen in the river?) Film students would do well to peruse this and other of Maddin’s docs, which argue strongly for the proposition that no detail is too small to be maximized in a portrait of something you love. The newly restored and upgraded Blu-ray presentation adds an entertaining conversation between Maddin and art critic Robert Enright; “‘My Winnipeg’ Live in Toronto,” a 2008 featurette; cine-essays by Maddin on Winnipegiana; three Maddin shorts, with introductions by the director; a deleted scene; and an essay by critic Wayne Koestenbaum.

If all one knows about mid-20th Century writer/director Preston Sturges is that his name frequently comes up in discussions of classic black-and-white comedies on TMC, a screening of The Palm Beach Story should prove revelatory. I’d somehow managed to miss watching it until now and was reminded favorably of the Thin Man series, Some Like It Hot and It Happened One Night, and not just for the delightful presence of Claudette Colbert. In it, Colbert and Joel McCrea (Sullivan’s Travels) play Tom and Gerry, a New York couple whose marriage appears to have run its course. Nearly broke, Tom doesn’t buy Gerry’s story about being handed a pile of money by a wrinkled old sausage tycoon, with no strings attached. Neither does he believe that she’s headed for Florida, in a train overflowing with drunken millionaires, to help solve their financial problems. One of the millionaires, played wonderfully by Rudy Vallee, is every bit as generous as the Texas sausage king, but younger and far more handsome. Things only get crazier when Tom is introduced to the millionaire as Gerry’s architect brother and he is encouraged to woo his sister, the oft-married Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor), and join the family business. Sturges’ trademark blend of physical comedy and verbal repartee must have given the bluenoses at the Hays Office apoplexy. Criterion Collection’s 4K digital restoration of this uproarious film adds new interviews with writer and film historian James Harvey and comedian Bill Hader; “Safeguarding Military Information,” a 1942 World War II propaganda short written by Sturges; the Screen Guild Theater radio adaptation of the film from March 1943; and an essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek.

Like most of Eric Rohmer’s work, Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle has been characterized as deceptively simple, by admirers, and, by detractors, as just plain simple. He is known for his themed “tales,” vignettes about manners and morality, and behavior dictated by the seasons. Rohmer finds great meaning in barely seen movements, intimate exchanges and seemingly meaningless interactions between lovers and friends, neighbors and strangers. An action director, he’s not. “Four Adventures” tells the story of two young women – one from the city and the other a country girl – who meet on an ordinary late-summer day in rural France under less than unusual circumstances. Although they have very little else in common, Mirabelle admires Reinette’s ability to fix a flat bicycle tire and her profound appreciation of country life. She’s also impressed by Reinette’s paintings, which are considered good enough to have earned her a scholarship at a Paris conservatory. For her part, Reinette is in desperate need of a guide to big-city life. They almost immediately agree to become roommates when Reinette moves to Paris. And, therein, lies four tales: “L’heure bleue”/“The blue hour”; “Le garçon de café”/“The coffee-shop’s waiter”; “Le mendiant, la kleptomane et l’arnaqueuse”/“The beggar, the kleptomaniac and the swindler”; and “La vente du tableau/“Selling the painting.” Witty, touching and surprising, they can be enjoyed either a la carte or as a full meal.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Nature: Invasion of the Killer Whales
Welcome Back, Kotter: The Complete Second Season
After watching this sadly convincing “Nature” episode, “Invasion of the Killer Whales,” even diehard climate-change deniers might find it difficult to blame the slaughter of narwhals – described by Jules Verne as “unicorns of the sea” – on something other than global warming. If the Arctic ice pack weren’t shrinking so drastically, orcas and human predators would be unable to access this vulnerable creature in its normally protected habitat. It’s that simple. In the company of native Inuit hunters, the “Nature” team monitors the erosion of the ice pack, which also provides a seasonal home for seals and polar bears and a barrier to the migrations of the killer whales. The narwhals aren’t entirely defenseless, but a single sword-like tusk is easy pickings for one of the fastest and most efficient killing machines on the planet. And, once a pod of orcas registers the fact that the narwhal’s traditional habitat has been breached, there’s no stopping them from making the 8-week, 2,500-mile journey in subsequent years. When the narwhals disappear or find a place to hide, the marauders set their sights on the seals also hunted by polar bears and Inuits. The show provides a rather basic lesson in Ecology 101, but one that needs to be pressed before the entire icepack disappears. As bleak as the rugged Arctic terrain sometimes looks, the camera crew here finds ways to make it beautiful in Blu-ray.

By Season Two of “Welcome Back, Kotter,” the ABC sitcom was a bona fide hit. Fears that American teens would begin to imitate the antics of the Sweathogs en masse dissipated and the show’s marketing machine toiled in high gear (lunch boxes, action figures, an “Up Your Nose With a Rubber Hose” board game). During the course of these 23 episodes: Barbarino (John Travolta) replaces Horshack (Ron Palillo) in a school production of “Cyrano de Bergerac”; Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) becomes a smash on the radio; and the gang pitches in to help Juan Luis Pedro Felipo de Huevos Epstein (Robert Hegyes) quit smoking. Among the guest stars are Dinah Manoff, Valerie Curtin, John Astin, George Carlin and Fred Grandy. Typically, Mr. Kotter (Gabe Kaplan) finds himself in predicaments not easily solved through normal channels.

Air Supply: Live In Hong Kong: Blu-ray
After 39 years of continuous music making, Australian soft-rock pioneer Air Supply is still touring the world, from the Indian-casino circuit in North America to Singapore’s Max Pavilion, Kuala Lumpur’s Mega Arena and Shanghai’s Love Space. Apparently, no venue is too monumental for this extremely durable ensemble. “Air Supply: Live In Hong Kong” is the band’s first concert film in high definition, which, in fact, does make a difference. The 2013 recording’s playlist featured 16 hits songs, including “Even the Nights Are Better,” “Every Woman in the World,” “Here I Am,” “Lost in Love,” “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” and “All Out Of Love.”

The DVD Wrapup: The Skin, Men Women & Children, Petra Von Kant, Jewel in Crown and more

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

The Skin
At first glance, the stern faces of Marcello Mastroianni, Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale on the cover of Cohen Media’s Blu-ray edition of The Skin made me wonder how come I was unaware of a World War II movie in which all three had appeared. Even after a second, third and fourth glance, I still couldn’t figure out what happened. Released in many key markets during the early 1980s, its presence went largely unobserved in the U.S. and England. Even at the ripe old age of 69, Lancaster was working at the top of his game. He’d just starred in such excellent non-studio pictures as Atlantic City and Go Tell the Spartans, with Local Hero and The Osterman Weekend soon the come. (He had already endeared himself to Italian audiences with 1900, The Leopard and Conversation Piece.) Mastroianni was as popular in the U.S. as he was anywhere outside of Italy and, even at 43, Cardinale’s name was synonymous with sex and femininity, even without appearing topless or fully nude. Because the male leads staring out at us from the cover are wearing the uniforms of their respective countries in World War II, potential viewers could safely assume that The Skin promised some action at the expense of the retreating Nazis. Moreover, director Liliana Cavani had made a big splash a few years earlier with the controversial “porno-gothic” – Pauline Kael’s words – The Night Porter. And, yet, in the ensuing 30-some years since its Italian debut, The Skin has only been shown here at a couple of film festivals. Based on a post-WWII novel (“La pelle”) by the celebrated journalist, dramatist and diplomat Curzio Malaparte, The Skin opens on a high note with the liberation of Naples by Allied troops led by Lieutenant General Mark Clark (or Mark Cork, as the subtitles insist).

Things soon take a Fellini-esque turn when we’re introduced to the character Malaparte (Mastroianni), who looks as if he might have been on his way to the Venice Film Festival, despite having been imprisoned by the Fascist government. Malaparte escorts Clark to his spectacular home on the Isle of Capri, where the famously strong-willed officer basks in the glory of the successful invasion and the fashionable Principessa Consuelo Caracciolo (Cardinale) holds court as if the German occupation had been a malicious rumor, instead of cruel reality. Malaparte will serve as Clark’s guide to Naples, an ancient city that has seen more than its fair share of foreign invaders – the Brits and Yanks only being the latest — and had just helped convince the Nazis to pull back with an insurrection of its own. Nonetheless, the Germans had left the city in dire straits in terms of lack of food, provisions and infrastructure. Here’s where we start to see how American and British distributors might have had a problem with The Skin. What Malaparte chooses to show Clark can be seen in sharp contrast to the greetings Allied troops would receive in Paris and Rome. Because Naples never was much of an industrial center, its populace had little means to support itself after the liberation. In a very real sense, our troops were greeted as consumers first and liberators, second. Most of the men who remained in the city would be assimilated into the Allied thrust north, but, as was the case in Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22, many of the women made money servicing Allied troops, who lined up for blocks for their turns. These scenes are, at once, hilarious and horrifying.

Perhaps the most disturbing scene in Mike Nichol’s adaptation of Catch-22 is the delayed revelation of the irreparable damage done to the guts of an airman wounded during the course of a mission. In The Skin, the nightmare vision is repeated a half-dozen times and it’s not limited to one victim. At a dinner hosted by Naples’ aristocracy, none of whom appear to have missed a step during the occupation, a visiting American dignitary is treated with a freakish seafood delicacy that, until that afternoon, resided in the city’s aquarium. If it doesn’t cause viewers to hit the fast-forward button on their remotes, it’s only because they’ve anticipated the grotesque sight and already puts their hands over their eyes. But, wait, there’s more! In an interview included in the Blu-ray package, Cavani points out a coincidence that isn’t as obvious as you’d think it might be, “Once again, Mostroianni is entrusted with explaining Italy to the world and Naples is like no other city in Italy,” she says, “If the Americans had landed in Milan, it would have been a completely different story.” Blessed with terrific performances by Lancaster, Mastroianni and Cardinale, The Skin describes the carnage of war from the sanitized point of view to which we’re accustomed. It’s certainly not for everyone, however. Even some WWII completists will find it shocking.

Men, Women & Children: Blu-ray
When writer/director Jason Reitman decided to join the movie racket, it quickly became obvious that he wouldn’t be content merely to follow in the footsteps of his father, Ivan, one of the most successful filmmakers of his generation. Such singular entertainments as Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult and Labor Day could hardly be more different from Reitman pere‘s early successes, Meatballs, Stripes, Ghostbusters and Twins. If there was a critical niche for issue-oriented dramedies, Reitman fils‘ pictures would have fit right into it. Instead of depending on his own material, he’s collaborated with such noteworthy writers as Christopher Buckley, Diablo Cody (twice), Walter Kirn, Joyce Maynard and, here, novelist Chad Kultgen and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary, Chloe). A movie that comments on the tyranny of social media, while also speculating on its implications for our children and country, would easily appear to be in Reitman’s strike zone. If Men, Women & Children only results in a long foul ball, at least he deserves credit for taking a crack at such a swiftly evolving topic. What began as a service to link horny Ivy League frat boys to sorority girls and townies responsive to their sterling pedigrees – see The Social Media – has evolved into an insidiously invasive network of sites exploiting our appetite for trivial chit-chat, unreliable gossip, pornography, anonymous bullying and unwelcome huckstering by leach capitalists. By adding a cosmic dimension to the movie’s narrative, however, Reitman anticipates a capitulation to technology that may be more illusory than revelatory. In the tradition of Crash and Short Cuts, “MW&C” merges several interrelated stories in the service of a story that basically argues that we’ve become willing slaves to wireless devices that eliminate the need for face-to-face interaction and anything more human than a widely grinning emoticon.

In “MW&C,” we’re introduced to a high school athlete who’s given up football for social video gaming; a married couple that seeks the companionship they’ve lost in dating websites; a failed actress who creates a pay-site to draw attention to her sexy teen daughter; an anorexic cheerleader obsessed with losing her virginity; a manic mom who monitors her daughter’s every step via digital surveillance techniques; and a lonely teenage boy and girl trapped in a web of missed signals and false information. These desperate middle-class characters, who bounce into and away from each other throughout the film, are well-played by such fine actors as Jennifer Garner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Judy Greer, Dean Norris, Dennis Haybert, J.K. Simmons, a nicely restrained Adam Sandler and a dozen talented teens. The trouble, I think, begins with Emma Thompson’s disembodied narrative, which minimizes everything before us by recalling Carl Sagan’s portentous observations about the triviality of human concerns in an indescribably large and apathetic universe. It’s not as if we needed Sagan’s words to remind us of our relative insignificance in the universe and probably could have been excised completely without viewers missing a single nuance. If an automobile is going to careen off a busy street and crush a random pedestrian, it really doesn’t matter how minute our planet looks from the far reaches of the Milky Way. Even so, Men, Women & Children is the rare film teenagers could watch with their parents and not feel ambushed or demeaned. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, including an entire storyline that didn’t make the cut; a featurette that describes how the computer/human interfaces were accomplished; and a superficial discussion of some of the ideas forwarded in the film.

Once Upon a Time in Shanghai: Blu-ray
The Sword of Doom: Blu-ray
The more familiar a viewer is with the evolution of Hong Kong’s martial-arts industry, the more, I suspect, they’ll find to enjoy in Once Upon a Time in Shanghai. Yeah, I know, the title itself, which has been used at least three times in the last 25 years, has been rendered meaningless since the conceit was introduced by Sergio Leone in 1968. Given the number of films in which country boys are forced to use their fists of fury to survive in the mean streets of pre-occupation Shanghai, the title probably could have been attached to a dozen other movies, just as well. In this instance, however, familiarity breeds entertainment. That’s because director Wong Ching-Po elected to surround rising superstars Philip Ng and the American-born Andy On with such familiar genre elders as Fung Hark-On, Yuen Cheung-Yan, Sammo Hung and Chen Kuan-Tai, who played protagonist Ma Yung-Chen in the Shaw Brothers 1972 Boxer From Shantung. (Takeshi Kaneshiro played the same character in Corey Yuen’s Hero.) In Once Upon a Time in Shanghai, country boy Ma has pledged to his mother that he won’t use his powerful right hand to advance his pursuit of prosperity in Shanghai, which is controlled by gangs and smugglers, and the Japanese threat hangs in the air. Friends from the village are able to find work for Ma as a laborer, but it isn’t until he impresses the mob boss Long Qi (On) that he can legitimately dream of reaping his fortune. Their stand against the heroin trade and collaboration with the enemy puts them in direct opposition to the long-established leaders of the Axe Fraternity, who become incensed when shipments are interrupted by the upstarts. Hung plays Master Tai, a venerable community leader who consuls Ma and Qi. All most viewers will want to know going into the movie, however, is if it kicks ass. With Yuen Cheung-Yan and Yuen Woo-ping (The Grandmaster, Kung Fu Hustle) in charge of choreographing the ferocious action sequences, that question borders on the rhetorical. Michelle Hu plays the love interest in the rags-to-riches story. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and English dub track.

Comparisons between American film noir and Japanese crime stories of the 1960s have repeatedly been made, but Kihachi Okamoto’s “The Sword of Doom” is nihilistic enough to suggest that Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark or Humphrey Bogart might be lingering somewhere in the shadows, waiting to make an appearance. Upon its release in 1966, The Sword of Doom divided fans and critics accustomed to stories that articulated the bushido code and had easily identifiable heroes and villains. In this way, it paralleled the rise in popularity of spaghetti and revisionist Westerns, which questioned traditional values attached to white-hatted cowboys and black-hatted outlaws, while also challenging the goals of manifest destiny. Okamoto’s masterpiece doesn’t go quite that far, but, set during the turbulent final days of shogunate rule in Japan, there is an element of prophesy to the story. (It had been intended as the first chapter in a trilogy, so who knows where Okamoto’s vision might have taken us.) Tatsuya Nakadai (Harakiri) plays the truly sociopathic swordsman Ryunosuke, whose sudden outbursts of violence aren’t limited to rival samurai drawn to his ruthless reputation. As the killer approaches his first victim – an elderly man, separated from his granddaughter on a hike over the mountains — it’s easy to confuse Ryunosuke with some kind of avenging angel. He wears a long black robe and conical straw hat that covers his eyes.

Like any gunslinger on the American frontier, the lightning-fast swordsman draws first and leaves any remaining questions for the townsfolk to answer. He’s cruel to the women in his orbit and lacks respect for all except one samurai peer. That honor belongs to Toshiro Mifune, whose Toranosuke Shimada runs a school for advanced practitioners of the art and represents the integrity of the bushido warrior. He tells his students, “The sword is the soul … evil mind, evil sword.” When Ryunosuke is challenged by a brave student, the fights are more often than not limited to a single thrust and response that’s too quick to see. Sword of Doom also features a pair of elaborately choreographed set pieces, in which the anti-hero is required to take on dozens of opponents simultaneously. As preposterous as they are, the fights are wonderfully entertaining. Shinobu Hashimoto’s screenplay was based on Nakazato Kaizan’s 41-volume historical novel, which encompassed 1,533 chapters and more than 5.5 million Japanese characters. Considered to be one of the longest novels or serializations in any language, it also spawned a dozen other Japanese movies. The Criterion Collection restoration accentuates the brilliant black-and-white cinematography of Hiroshi Murai and adds a comprehensive audio commentary with film historian Stephen Prince and essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien.

Rye Coalition: The Story of the Hard Luck 5
Thanks, in large part, to the proliferation and affordability of hand-held video cameras, documentaries about the rise and fall of regionally popular rock bands have emerged as something of a cottage industry. The musicians love the attention, while the filmmakers tend to be fans eager for access to their faves. Jenni Matz’s Rye Coalition: The Story of the Hard Luck 5 shares many attributes with previous rock-docs, including home movies, early concert footage and authorized access to the musicians on tour and in the studio. Like most rock enthusiasts of a certain age, the mere fact that the New Jersey “emo” pioneers even existed came as news to me. Apparently, the “emo” distinction put Rye Coalition in the same mid-1990s company with Shellac, Sunny Day Real Estate, Jawbreaker and Karp. It took several years of hard traveling before the band’s indie albums became noticed by such high-profile producers as Steve Albini and they were asked to open for Mars Volta, Queens of the Stone Age and Foo Fighters. Dave Grohl even agreed to produce their first album for Dreamworks Records. Alas, it was a dream destined not to come true. Like the lads in the band, Matz began her journey as a New Jersey teen. She would borrow cameras from the AV department of her school to capture Rye Coalition on stage, where loyal fans were as much of the show as the instruments. It wouldn’t be until the band reunited for 2011 performance that Matz would be able to tie up the loose ends and reclaim the on-hold project. A successful Kickstarter campaign afforded her the three years needed to trim 2½ hours from her first cut. Apart from the band’s longtime fans, musicians in need of a reality check are the likely audience to benefit from Rye Coalition: The Story of the Hard Luck 5.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Fitzcarraldo: Blu-ray
Looking back to the early 1970s, when the works of Rainer Werner Fassbinder first found their way to these shores, it’s easy to see how mainstream American audiences – such as they might have been — might have been dismayed by what they saw. The leading light in the New German Cinema movement, he was influenced as much by French auteur Jean-Luc Godard as German playwright Berthold Brecht. His early work in experimental theater, which began during a particularly turbulent period in the then-divided country’s history, informed the films he would produce in rapid-fire order until his untimely death in 1982, at 37. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, newly restored in 4K Blu-ray by Criterion Collection, represents the period in which Fassbinder became heavily influenced by the Hollywood melodramas of German émigré Douglas Sirk. Made within the strict guidelines of the Production Code, such entertainments as All That Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life successfully depicted various kinds of middle-class repression and exploitation. No such restrictions were placed on Fassbinder’s works. Margit Carstensen plays the titular protagonist, a high-strung fashion designer whose failed marriages left giant chips on her shoulders. Petra enjoys beating up on her obedient and largely mute assistant/slave, Marlene (Irm Hermann), as they prepare for an upcoming presentation. The balance in their understated S&M relationship is disrupted when a young model, Karin (Hanna Schygulla), visits Petra’s claustrophobic Bremen apartment and immediately seduces the older woman. The balance will shift twice more, at least, during the course of the film, whose setting varies only in the positioning of Michael Ballhaus’ camera. Ultimately, Petra will remind us of fallen star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Historians have pointed out that Petra’s love affair with Karin recalls Fassbinder’s own obsession with a young actor, but that information isn’t essential for any appreciation of the film. His biography is definitely worth checking out, however, if at some other time. The new digital restoration was supervised by DP Ballhaus, who must have been pleased to see his original color palette brought back to life on the Blu-ray. Other bonus features include revealing new interviews with Ballhaus and actors Eva Mattes, Katrin Schaake, Carstensen, and Schygulla; another new interview, with film scholar Jane Shattuc about Fassbinder; the featurette, “Role Play: Women on Fassbinder,” a 1992 German television documentary by Thomas Honickel featuring interviews with Carstensen, Schygulla, and actors Irm Hermann and Rosel Zech; a fresh English subtitle translation; an essay by critic Peter Matthews”

One of the highlights of the 2014 release schedule was Shout Factory’s near-definitive “Herzog: The Collection,” which included 16 films by fellow New German Cinema pioneer, Warner Herzog.  Fitzcarraldo was one of the titles whose first arrival on Blu-ray came in the collection, which ranged in price from about $100 to $159.99. Its arrival in a separate hi-def package has to come as good news for those with the patience to wait a few months, although buffs should find the collection to be well worth the expense. Fitzcarraldo, of course, chronicles one very wealthy man’s obsession with bringing high culture to the barely tamed jungles of the Amazon basin. His seemingly impossible dream requires the conveyance of a large steamboat from one river to another, over a high hill cleared of its vegetation. The scheme is every bit as crazy as it sounds, but the lumber magnate almost pulls it off. It comes at the expense of a tribe of Indians transfixed by the recorded voice of Enrico Caruso and, perhaps, the sheer audacity of Fitzcarraldo’s dream. Klaus Kinski gives an unforgettable performance as the would-be rubber baron Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, who was based on Peruvian Carlos Fitzcarrald. Herzog’s mad vision and stormy relationship with Kinski resulted in Les Blank’s fascinating documentary, Burden of Dreams.

Two Mothers
Although plenty of movies about the challenges of single-parenthood and infertility have been produced, it hasn’t been until recently that same-gender parenthood, sperm/egg donation and the rights of children conceived artificially have been addressed by mainstream filmmakers. That’s probably a good thing, though, because the studios find it difficult to deal with such issues without falling back on comedy, farce or pathos. In Delivery Man, Ken Scott’s adaptation of his French-language hit, Starbuck, Vince Vaughn plays a man in his 40s whose sperm co-produced hundreds of children now in their 20s. (It’s happened more often than anyone would care to think.) In The Back-Up Plan and The Switch, Jennifer Lopez and Jennifer Aniston, respectively, portray straight women so anxious to conceive a child that they’ll risk using the sperm of a man who, when he isn’t donating blood, supports himself by selling his sperm. The Kids Are All Right takes a more serious tack, as it describes how a lesbian couple played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore react to their teenage children’s desire to include their genetic father (Mark Ruffalo) in their lives. Lisa Cholodenko’s much-admired film also deals with the fallout of their decision on the women’s already shaky relationship. If Cholodenko had been involved in the creation of Two Mothers, it could very well be described as a prequel to The Kids Are All All Right.

In Anne Zohra Berrached’s extremely relevant drama, a pair of thirty-something German women have reached the point in their committed lesbian relationship that they want to raise a child. While Germany has yet to legalize same-sex marriages, it does recognize “registered life partnerships.” Not completely understanding the bureaucratic distinction between the two, Katja (Sabine Wolf) and Isa (Karina Plachetka) think that conceiving a child via an anonymous sperm donor will be a piece of cake. Instead, it’s the kind of chore one would avoid, if possible. That’s because the government appears to have gone out of its way to prevent gays and lesbians from taking the easiest route to parenthood. After a long, frustrating effort to find a doctor willing to help them conceive, they almost go broke financing a year’s worth of fruitless inseminations. After insisting that they wouldn’t have any formal contact with a donor, they settle on finding one who would agree to their terms and not charge them the going rate for frozen sperm. We know that Katja and Isa are deeply in love and devoted to each other, but the introduction of a male into their relationship, however briefly and strategically, skews the balance between them. At one point, Katja feels so dissociated from the conception process, she feels it necessary to remind Isa, “I want to be the daddy.” The 75-minute Two Mothers ends before we’re given any hints as to the future of the relationship. And, that’s probably for the better, too. Berrached based her story on the experiences shared by lesbian couples in Germany – duly credited at film’s end — and doctors who were required to stop short of actually helping them conceive.

PBS: To Catch a Comet
Capricorn One: Blu-ray
Supernova: Blu-ray
From very far away, a comet heading towards our solar system is difficult to distinguish from a billion other pinpoints of light in the heavens. The larger ones grow ever more visible as they approach our sun, but still resemble stars with tails. Up close, as we witness in PBS’ “To Catch a Comet,” the comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko (67P) is a dead ringer for a jagged and misshapen kidney stone I once passed. That’s just a personal observation, not to be confused with the completely painless scientific data and imagery introduced in the documentary. Astronomers have dreamed of landing on the surface of a comet ever since they were able to identify it as something other than a ball of toxic gas and burning rock. The European Space Agency’s decade-long Rosetta mission probably would have remained an impossible dream if it weren’t for the probes sent to observe Halley’s Comet in its 1986 visit. They were able to provide the first observational data on the structure of a comet nucleus and the mechanism of coma and tail formation. Apparently, the events described in Michael Bay’s “Armageddon” never actually took place, so “To Catch a Comet” also serves as a necessary corrective for sci-fi obsessives. Although the Rosetta mission didn’t inspire the same hyperbolic headlines the manned lunar landing and robotic exploration of the Martian surface – Euros never get the same respect as NASA and the Russkies – its success in orbiting a comet in full flight is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Among its many impressive accomplishments was the ability of Rosetta — a spacecraft the size of a car – to awaken after a 10-year hibernation, in time to pull off the maneuvers necessary to get up-close and personal with the 2.5-mile-wide 67P. It is hoped that the data collected will reveal clues as to the origins of life on Earth and other cosmic mysteries.

When Neil Armstrong planted his bootprint on the surface of the moon, somehow it wasn’t sufficiently realistic to convince everyone back on Earth that the whole thing wasn’t being staged on a soundstage on a military base. It’s probably safe to say that many people doubt the veracity of the Mars mission and Rosetta’s accomplishments, as well. And, who’s to blame them? Can curing cancer be that much more difficult than intercepting a comet or asteroid in space? Six years after NASA stopped sending men to the moon, Peter Hyams’ Capricorn One gave skeptics even more ammunition in their crusade to discredit Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind.” In it, NASA’s first manned flight to Mars is deemed unsafe and secretly scrubbed on the launch pad. The mission has been hyped to the point where any mishap would be disastrous not only for the astronauts on board the spacecraft, but also the future of the space agency and morale of several generations of Americans. Instead, astronauts played by Sam Waterston, James Brolin and O.J. Simpson are rushed from the launch pad to that clandestine soundstage on a remote military base, where they will simulate the landing. The trickier part will be hiding the ruse from a self-appointed journalistic watchdog (Elliot Gould) and prevent the astronauts from escaping the desert facility and blowing the whistle on a plot that would require their deaths. Adding to the paranoid fun are appearances by Telly Savalas, Hal Holbrook, Karen Black and David Huddleston.

There are long stretches of Supernova when the prevailing blue-and-black color scheme makes it impossible to distinguish who’s doing what to whom. It’s so dark, in fact, a shadowy outline of an undressed Robin Tunney was used to double for a nude facsimile of Angela Bassett’s character. I only know that because I watched the making-of featurette, which amusingly describes how many things can go wrong on a major studio project when the bean-counters take over from the movie guys. The mess is so bad that the estimable Walter Hill demanded his name be dropped and even the last-minute assistance of Francis Ford Coppola couldn’t put Humpty-Dumpty back together. Among the crew members on a medical craft, heading for deep space on a rescue mission, are astronauts played by James Spader, Lou Diamond Phillips, Robert Forster, Peter Facinelli, Tunney and Bassett. Out of nowhere a shrill cry for help “pierces the void.” When the crew responds to “a shrill cry that pierces the void,” they are greeted by an alien creature that puts them on beeline to an exploding star that threatens all life on Earth … or, something like that. Like I said, the best part is the 25-minute post-mortem, but the Blu-ray also adds deleted scenes and an alternate ending.

Who Killed Alex Spourdalakis?
This alarming documentary chronicles the events that led to the 2013 murder of a severely autistic Chicago teen, who, for most of his life, had suffered from painful rashes, stomach lesions, intestinal ailments and uncontrollable fits. The trouble began when he was a child and the medical treatment he received for a seemingly unrelated problem to his autism exasperated a different pre-existing condition. After a short period of normalcy, brought on by a radical change in medication and return to personal care, the symptoms returned. When this happened, Alex Spourdalakis was put on the same regimen as the one that caused the rashes and pain years earlier. In Who Killed Alex Spourdalakis?, we’re told that this included powerful psychiatric and psychotropic drugs designed to treat his unmanageable behavior, first, instead of medications designed specifically to treat the medical condition that wasn’t getting any better. After Dorothy took her soon to New York to consult a doctor more in tune to gastro-intestinal diseases, his condition again improved. The cycle would repeat itself when Alex was taken to a Chicago hospital that followed procedure by treated the symptoms of autisms before considering any fresh attack of the gastro-intestinal problem. When the 250-pound teenager’s condition worsened and his violent outbursts became more than hospital staff could handle, he was strapped to his bedframe 24-hours a day. Finally, when his insurance carrier refused to pay for any more hospitalizations, Alex was sent home to be with his mother, Dorothy Spourdalakis, and caregiver, Jolanta Agata Skordzka, who couldn’t control him, either.

At wit’s end and nowhere to turn, presumably, the women conspired to kill Alex and follow suit by unsuccessfully taking their own lives. (A pet cat also was sacrificed.) Today, they are cooling their heels in a Chicago jail, awaiting trial. Coincidentally, the controversial former surgeon and medical research, Andrew Wakefield, had been following Alex’s plight for a reality-TV series on autism. Thus, the amount of original material included in the DVD. He was not, however, privy to the plans for Alex’s cruel euthanasia. “WKAS?” makes an extremely convincing case that medical science and Big Pharma failed Alex, thereby putting his mother in the untenable position of killing Alex “for his own good.” Their defense attorney likely will argue temporary insanity, a possibility than angers some activists who believe they gave up too soon and took the convenient way out of their troubles. I certainly don’t know what I would have done in the same situation or who I would have believed. The boy’s pain is palpable and hospital reps haven’t been allowed to present their side, ahead of the trial. The film’s biggest weakness, though, is that it refuses to show its entire hand when called. Its detractors believe that producers Age of Autism and Wakefield are playing fast and loose with the facts, by pushing an anti-vaccine agenda and other pseudo-scientific theories without revealing them as such. Without coming out and admitting their biases, the filmmakers are counting on viewers to base their opinions solely on the emotional tug of Alex’s pitiable condition and his killers’ current ordeal. This is an important issue and I encourage anyone planning to watch the movie to also search the Internet for opposing positions.

TV-to-DVd
The Facts Of Life: The Complete Series
PBS: Masterpiece: The Jewel in the Crown
Stingray: The Complete Series; 50th Anniversary Edition
Syfy: Zodiac: Signs of the Apocalypse
PBS: Nature: A Sloth Named Velcro
NYPD Blue: Season 08
Nickelodeon: Dora the Explorer: Dora’s Mermaid Adventures Collection
To paraphrase George Santayana, “Those TV critics who cannot remember past sitcoms are condemned to repeat viewing when complete-series boxes are released on DVD.” Among the comedies I failed to watch the first time through and am was required to check out now in DVD are “The Wonder Years,” “WKRP in Cincinnati,” “Welcome Back, Kotter,” “The Jeffersons,” “Saved by the Bell” and “Mister Ed,” as well as a few that I could re-watch another dozen times, like “The Phil Silvers Show” “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” and “The Bob Newhart Show,” among countless other titles. Shout Factory’s nicely restored “The Facts of Life: The Complete Series” falls in the former category, as would that other beloved teen sitcom, “Saved by the Bell.” And, no, I couldn’t possibly watch every single episode contained in every complete-series package and still have time to review anything else. I do know where to find them, however, whenever I’m in the mood for a golden oldie. Like many early DVD and VHS collections, early “The Facts of Life” releases suffered from a shortage of originally licensed music and absence of material trimmed the specifications of syndication interests. Shout Factory and a handful of other distributors have refused to take shortcuts, however. The new boxed set of 27 discs contains something like 99 percent of all previously substituted songs and the audio/visual quality has been returned to tip-top shape, as well. Longtime fans will recall that the series began its network life on NBC as a 1979 spinoff from “Diff’rent Strokes,” where Charlotte Rea originated housekeeper Edna Garrett. After teasing the spinoff series as part of “Diff’rent Strokes” seasonal run, Garrett found new work as a housemother in a prestigious boarding school. Occasionally interspersed with the laughs usually associated with the adolescence of ruling-class kids, the show tackled such non-exclusive issues as weight concerns, depression and loneliness, drugs, alcohol, dating, physical handicaps and sexual awakenings. All were handled in good taste, of course.  It’s always fun to see such future stars as Mindy Cohn, Lisa Whelchel, Kim Fields, Nancy McKeon, Molly Ringwald, Geri Jewell, Pamela Adlon, Jamie Gertz and, lest we forget, George Clooney, get a leg up in a vintage series. In addition to all 201 episodes of the show, the “Facts of Life” package includes the “Diff’rent Strokes” episode in which Mrs. Garrett and the girls of Eastlake Academy were introduced; the TV movies, “The Facts of Life Goes To Paris” and “The Facts of Life Down Under”; featurettes “Remembering ‘The Facts of Life’” and “After the Facts”; a “Know the Facts” trivia game; and the 2014 “Cast Reunion at the Paley Center.”

I probably was working on the night shift in 1984 when PBS affiliates here began running Granada Television’s “The Jewel in the Crown,” one of the great mini-series of all time. At the time, however, I might have been intimidated by the thought of watching 778 minutes of any British historical epic. Last week, though, I eagerly watched all 14 episodes in two sittings. The re-mastered anniversary edition of the landmark mini-series is based on Paul Scott’s “Raj Quartet,” which began as Japanese troops were poised to invade India in WWII and Mahatma Gandhi was rallying his followers in the struggle to end British rule. After a young London-educated Indian, Hari Kumar (Art Malik), strikes up a romance with a young English woman, Daphne Manners (Susan Wooldridge), he framed as being a subversive by the local British police superintendent Ronald Merrick (Tim Piggott-Smith). Their star-crossed affair and Merrick’s brutal repression of it sows seeds that continue to grow throughout the entire series, although in fits and spurts. Subsequent episodes take us back and forth from the front lines in Burma, to the far more placid summer retreats in the shadow of the Himalayas for the bitchy wives of wealthy Brit officers and diplomats. It’s from their viewpoint, mostly, that we’re exposed to developments in the struggle for independence and partition of Hindus and Muslims. The one constant is Merrick’s despicable police supervisor and intelligence officer, who would rather let innocent Indians rot in prison than admit his mistakes. The soapy aspects of the story are eclipsed by the compelling historical drama and political intrigue that impacts all of the characters. All of the exterior settings were shot in Kashmir, Mysore, Simla and Udaipur, India, albeit on 16mm film. The intricacies of the story compensate for any visual limitations. The package adds introductions and postscripts by “Masterpiece” host Alastair Cooke, as well as commentary on four episodes.

In all of the hysteria surrounding the aborted release of The Interview, some theaters considered substituting that controversial comedy with the even more subversive, Team America: World Police, a 2004 movie by “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Paramount decided that this wasn’t a good idea, though, and vetoed the idea. Lest we forget, Instead of employing Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s borderline-creepy Supermarionation technique, as was featured in “Thunderbirds” and “Stingray,” Stone and Parker dubbed their version of the puppetry technique, “Supercrappymation.” Unlike the characters we meet in Stingray: The Complete Series; 50th Anniversary Edition,” the marionettes in “Team America” were manipulated by puppeteers who couldn’t be bothered with erasing the wires. Unlike “Thunderbirds,” “Stingray” was largely set in an underwater environment, where the forces of good and evil fought for planetary dominance. As flagship of the World Aquanaut Security Patrol (W.A.S.P.), Stingray is the world’s most sophisticated submarine, capable of speeds of over 600 knots. It is piloted by the square-jawed Captain Troy Tempest (Don Mason), who appeared in all 39 episodes. The enemy submarines look very much like the segmented fish trinkets sold in Greek souvenir shops and which are covered in mother of pearl. The DVD package adds audio commentary on select episodes, a Gerry Anderson biography, a making-of featurette, “The Thing About Stingray,” and a production-stills gallery.

Zodiac: Signs of the Apocalypse” is the kind of made-for-TV movie that would be out of place on any other network than Syfy. When a mysterious planet crosses in front of the sun, a series of zodiac-linked catastrophes begin to occur around the world. Naturally, when a pair of cutie-pie archeologists (Emily Holmes, Andrea Brooks) discover a stone-carved “astrology board” in a cave in Peru, authorities call upon the last surviving expert in such things (Joel Gretsch) to decipher the symbols and attempt to get ahead of the impending natural disasters. As with too many other Syfy Originals, the CGI and special effects are of the bargain-basement variety and government officials are more dunderheaded than the characters who have spent their lives buying into conspiracy theories. Everybody’s favorite mad scientist, Christopher Lloyd, is on hand to ensure scientific authenticity and few good laughs.

The latest selection from PBS’ “Nature” series is the strangely engrossing “A Sloth Named Velcro,” in which we’re introduced to a species that appears to have defied the laws of evolution and managed to survive, anyway. Reasonably graceful in its navigation of the trees that comprise the Panamanian rain forest’s canopy, sloths more closely resemble a hairy blob with claws when forced to cross a road at ground level. This inability to get out of the way of speeding vehicles has caused them to be endangered in parts of the country where humans are encroaching on natural habitats. Panama has worked hard to protect sloths and other animals that can’t always take care of themselves, especially in places where the expansion of the canal has cut into the wilderness. Our host, Ana Salceda, is a Spanish print and television journalist who moved to Panama 15 years ago to explore the rain forests of Central America. At the time, Salceda couldn’t have imagined that she would become the primary caregiver for a tiny orphaned sloth, which she named Velcro. For nearly two years, the pair would be inseparable. Here, she returns to the reserve to monitor Velcro’s progress. Even by the high standards set by “Nature,” “A Sloth Named Velcro” is bizarre … but, in a very entertaining, family-friendly way.

Season Eight of “NYPD Blue” finds the detectives of the 15th Squad working out issues from the second half of Season Seven, including Diane Russell being hassled by smarmy undercover narcotics agent Harry Denby (Scott Cohen), and Andy Sipowicz’ concern over the health of his son. Andrea Thompson’s last appearance as the troubled Jill Kirkendall has already come and gone and Garcelle Beauvais’ first appearance as A.D.A Valerie Heywood is looming on the horizon. Later in the season, James MacDaniel will hand the baton of command over to Esai Morales, who is forced to proof himself worthy in the eyes of the men and women. Odds are Rick Schroder and Kim Delaney won’t make it to the end of the season, either.

Nickelodeon’s latest themed collection, “Dora the Explorer: Dora’s Mermaid Adventures,” is comprised of seven seafaring episodes of the popular kids’ show. Here, in a two-DVD set, Dora and Sea Monkey Boots are on a double-length adventure to save Mermaid Kingdome. Bonus features include a pair of music videos, “Clean-Up Song” and “Yo Gabba Gabba.”

The Claire Sinclair Show
Bettie Page is such a singular figure in post-World War II history, anyone woman who attempts to copy here look, personality and style is asking for trouble. Gretchen Mol came real close to capturing Page’s spirit, in The Notorious Bettie Page, but Playboy pin-up model Claire Sinclair could be Bettie’s kid sister and she knows it. In the Erotica Channel’s “The Claire Sinclair Show,” she not only is given an opportunity to pimp her line of Bettie Page-inspired fashions, but also her new show in Las Vegas. She interviews herself on a split-screen stage, explaining when and where her career path began to cross that left behind by Page, long before her death in 2008. Later in the DVD, she interviews Bunny Yeager and models for the near-legendary photographer’s last session. (She would pass away soon after, at 85, on May 25, 2014.) The problem with the DVD is that it looks as if it could have been shot by semi-talented chimpanzees. As cute and bubbly as the ex-Playmate of the Year is here, the production values are that much cheesier.

The DVD Wrapup: Boyhood, Horns, Salvo, Dark Valley, Happy End, 88, Boys From Brazil, Dark Sails, SpongeBob… More

Thursday, January 8th, 2015

Boyhood: Blu-ray
As anyone who follows the gossip and speculation proffered in advance of the Oscar, Golden Globe and critics’ awards ceremonies already knows, Richard Linklater’s immensely ambitious family drama, Boyhood, is the favorite for many of the top honors bestowed on directors, writers, actors, cinematographers and producers. It not only deserves all of the considerations it receives, but also as large an audience upon its home-video release as possible. While I tend not to mention producers in these brief reviews – mostly because I have no clear idea of what most of them do to affect the final product — the eight men and women who worked alongside Linklater during the course of Boyhood’s 12-year gestation period deserve some applause, too. They didn’t simply show up to participate in the making-of featurette attached to the Blu-ray, anointing themselves as essential to the creative process as everyone else involved, which too often is the case in supplement materials. Without their patience, devotion and negotiating skills, Linklater might not have been free to complete the fragile, if modestly budgeted project as desired, let alone focus on School of Rock, Before Sunset, Before Midnight, Fast Food Nation, A Scanner Darkly and Bernie in the interim. Because Boyhood was shot over 45 days from May, 2002, to August, 2013, and contracts lasting more than seven years are illegal, any number of things could have prevented one or more of the key actors from going the distance. The parents of Ellar Coltrane, who, during the course of the 165-minute narrative we watch growing from boyhood to early manhood with his character, Mason, might have decided to move from Austin to Anchorage. Early on, Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei, actually did ask to be relieved of her duties as Mason’s older sister, Samantha, but changed her mind. If Linklater had died during the 12-year shoot, co-star Ethan Hawke had already agreed to take over the directorial duties, but what the other cast members follow his lead? Conversely, if the writer/director had simply tired of the exercise, how could the producers have honored their commitments to backers, cast and crew members? Blessedly, none of those things happened.

Once completed, Boyhood gathered early momentum by wowing audiences at Sundance, Berlin and SXSW, before scoring impressive numbers worldwide during its summer rollout. (This is one awards-caliber picture that wouldn’t have benefitted from a post-Thanksgiving release.) And, no, viewers and critics weren’t merely impressed by the project’s fascinating backstory. The film also features brilliantly convincing performances by Hawke and Patricia Arquette, as Mason and Samantha’s cordially estranged parents; Marco Perella and Brad Hawkins, as the children’s imperfect stepfathers; Jenni Tooley, as their seemingly flawless stepmother; Richard Robichaux and Tom McTigue, as role models who saw the potential in Mason Jr. that he tried hard to deny; Zoe Graham, his first heartbreaker; and step-grandparents Karen Jones and Richard Andrew Jones, whose deep Texas roots gave Mason Jr. a new perspective on things. Through contributions large and small, happy and sad, these actors provide a highly realistic context for at least one American boy’s life in the early 21st Century. The brilliant thing about Linklater’s vision is that nothing in the story seems forced or gratuitous, including the various inevitable introductions to inebriants, sexual awakenings and traumas that come with living in dysfunctional environments. Boyhood isn’t a morality play and Mason wasn’t drawn to represent Everyboy. Anyone who can’t enjoy a movie unless there’s a car chase, alien presence or shower scene may, instead, want to sample other titles in the New Releases/Best-Sellers section of their favorite video store. More contemplative sorts should find this surprising artistic success to be nothing short of revelatory. The Blu-ray arrives with an essential making-of featurette, interviews and a festival Q&A. I suspect that, before too long, a more complete package will be made available.

Horns: Blu-ray
A teenage boy and his girlfriend have a nasty little argument in a diner over the future of their relationship, which, at the point we meet them in Horns, has come to a crossroads. She doesn’t think that he’s sufficiently experienced in the ways of love to be considering a permanent arrangement, while he’s rarin’ to go. To the numb the pain caused by her words, Ig Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) proceeds to get blind drunk, leaving Merrin Williams (Juno Temple) behind to find a ride home by herself. Or, do he? When, Merrin is discovered the next day, beaten to death in a B.C. rain forest, Ig immediately becomes the prime suspect. Strangely, no one in the small logging community, including Ig’s parents, believes that he is innocent. And, while viewers of such mysteries have been trained to be suspicious of pat conclusions derived in a film’s 20 minutes, the horns that begin to sprout on Ig’s head make us doubt our doubts. They emerge as tiny spikes, but quickly grow into horns that any mangy old billy goat – or Satan wannabe – would be proud to wear. He soon realizes that their power somehow drives people to confess their sins and give in to their most selfish and unspeakable impulses. If Ig hopes to clear his name, he’ll have to use his horns to butt through the gates of hell, itself, to reveal the truth behind Merrin’s ugly demise.

Adapted from a best-selling novel by Stephen King’s son, Joseph (aka Joe Hill), Horns adopts a similar approach to supernaturally inspired young-adult fiction as the Twilight series. In the place of bushy-coated wolves and impossibly hot vampires, Horns offers serpents and a citizenry overflowing with hypocrites and creeps. Horror veteran Alexandre Aja, whose credits include The Hills Have Eyes, Mirrors and High Tension, effectively milks Keith Bunin’s icy screenplay for all it’s worth, pretty much keeping us guessing for 90 of Horn’s over-generous 120-minute length, at least. If it didn’t do particularly well at the box office, it may be because Dimension Films didn’t have faith in the impish Radcliffe’s ability to sell such a tortured protagonist to legions of “Harry Potter” fans. Max Minghella, Joe Anderson, Kelli Garner, James Remar, Kathleen Quinlan, Heather Graham and David Morse take their assignments seriously, though, and the beautiful Canadian scenery is nicely rendered in Blu-ray by Frederick Elmes. It comes with a pretty good making-of featurette.

The Strange Little Cat
As a close reading of the leaked Sony e-mail exchanges recently demonstrated, some Hollywood executives, at least, are beyond shame or worthy of pity. Of course, we didn’t need contraband correspondence to tell us how cynical and entitled they feel about their jobs and the general state of the industry. Their contempt for their employees and the public is hidden in plain sight in megaplexes and on television screens around the world. Because the Motion Picture Academy appears to encourage such behavior, it would interesting to see what happened if, one year, the entertainment media elected to focus more attention on the Independent Spirit Awards or BAFTA than the Oscars. ABC and AMPAS simply wouldn’t allowed such a thing to happen, of course, but, in the best of all possible worlds, dreams can come true. It appears, however, that some film festivals and critics’ groups have recognized the problem and are beginning to reward outstanding films and filmmakers that don’t have a chance in hell of being recognized by mass audiences in the U.S. Among the honors Ramon Zürcher’s beguiling The Strange Little Cat received during its festival run were Best Picture Not Released in 2013, from the International Cinephile Society, and a third-place nod in the Village Voice Film Poll as Best Undistributed Film. Being able to acknowledge small gems that fell between the cracks before arriving in DVD or VOD is one of the most satisfying things about reviewing independent, foreign and documentary products. Not only are they frequently more entertaining than the big-budget pictures studios send out between January and November each year, but audiences outside L.A. and New York should have just as much access to arthouse fare as those able to take advantage of limited releases and awards-qualifying runs. That’s why video-on-demand and other streaming services are so crucial to the advancement of the art.

Ramon Zürcher’s debut film, The Strange Little Cat, is a perfect example of a top-drawer entertainment that deserved a shot at arthouse exposure, at least, but could benefit mightily from access to niche VOD, PPV and DVD outlets. Although the point-of-view is that of a single largely stationary camera, it almost feels as if the lens is embedded in the eyes of the family cat. Like a seemingly bored feline that’s coolly and objectively absorbing everything in its field of vision – a family at the dinner table, a moth orbiting a light, the plumber rubbing up against the mother when he thinks no one is looking, a girl who wails whenever an appliance is turned on – the camera serves as a silent witness to the truth. In The Strange Little Cat, what’s captured are the activities – bizarre and otherwise – of the inhabitants of a cramped Berlin flat. At first, the family doesn’t look or act much differently than tens of thousands of others in the German capital. Eventually, though, their conversations and behavior suggest the water supply has been tainted by mind-altering drugs. And, no, the titular tabby isn’t any stranger than anyone else in the picture, only more observant and blasé. The Strange Little Cat is also informed by sounds that emanate just beyond the borders of the photographic frame, as well as random movements made by those within it. If these things don’t make sense when introduced, wait a couple of minutes and certain patterns will emerge … some leading nowhere, others to madness. Anyone who has displayed the patience necessary to watch Chantal Akerman’s far less crowded, but similarly hypnotic Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles will already be conversant with Zurcher’s strategy here. (Akerman’s study of a widowed housewife, single mother and part-time prostitute, living in a tidy Brussels apartment, runs two hours longer than The Strange Little Cat, but is well worth the effort to find.) He also has borrowed some ideas from the playful mind of Jacques Tati. The DVD adds a short introduction to the film by the writer/director/editor/co-producer and a post-screening Q&A with other participants. In it, Zurcher explains how the movie fulfilled a film-school assignment, in which students were required to adapt a story written by on Franz Kafka, in this case, “Metamorphosis.”

Salvo
Among the many wonderful things about The Godfather trilogy were the transitions that occurred when the various Corleones traveled to Italy, either to show of the clan, settle an old score or seek refuge from storms overseas. The skies above Sicily, the architecture, the clothes, the food … everything looked different from the family’s blustery and gray new home in New York. The sun over Las Vegas may have felt as intense as that shining on the island, but everything else was artificial. The make-believe blood spilled in the streets of the New World looked as red on the screen as that shed by rival gangster in the Old Country, but commerce trumped ancient vendettas as the cause. Most telling, perhaps, was what happened just before Frankie Pentangeli was to testify against Michael Corleone before a Senate committee. The look on his face when he recognized his brother, Vincenzo, being escorted into the gallery by Michael and Tom Hagen, said more about the omertà code of silence than anything written by Mario Puzo in the source novel. After “Frankie Five Angels” recanted everything he had told Senate investigators, Vincenzo probably wanted nothing more than to return to their “two-mule” hometown in Sicily. Salvo and other Italian-made gangster movies set in Palermo, Naples (Gomorrah) and tiny villages in the interior where blood feuds never end describe a far different looking criminal operation than the one rhapsodized over in such American films as Mean Streets, Casino, Goodfellas and “The Sopranos.” The ruthless young men to whom we’re introduced in Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s outstanding drama, Salvo, radiate a feral intensity unmatched in American gangland entertainments. There’s nothing cool, slick or cultured about the monsters we meet killing time on street corners in their natural habitat. The Ronettes and Rolling Stones don’t share space on juke boxes with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and local favorites. If there’s honor among thieves in the movies set in Italy, it doesn’t include the murders of women and children.

As Salvo opens, the ambush of a greasy mob boss is thwarted by his titular bodyguard. Salvo (Saleh Bakri), who also serves as assassin and chauffeur, immediately takes off after the culprits, killing one and climbing over a wall to run down another. Before being executed, the wounded hoodlum is given the choice of being tortured until he gives up the name of the man who approved the hit or being spared that agony by coughing it up immediately. Either way, he’s going die, so maintaining the code of silence is more of a quaint custom than a cold reality. After sneaking into the house of the rival gangster, Salvo discovers the man’s sister hiding in the shadows. Rita (Sara Serraiocco) is blind and as frightened about her own fate as that of her brother, which has been written in stone. Although Salvo has no problem dispatching with her brother, something inexplicable happens to him while determining what to do with the young woman. He recognizes in her the same overwhelming sense of solitude and hopelessness that has begun to eat at him. At first, Rita refuses to accept this act of untypical charity from her brother’s killer and is especially unhappy about being chained to a wall in an abandoned warehouse, while Salvo lies to his boss about killing her. It doesn’t take long before the gangster learns that he’s been betrayed by his bodyguard. By siccing a gang of young toughs on Salvo, viewers are assured of a exciting showdown, as well as an even greater test of his newfound kindness. Nothing good could come of revealing how the rest of the movie shakes down, except to say that it is of a piece of what preceded it. What impressed me most about Salvo, though, is Daniele Ciprì’s splendid noir-inspired cinematography. It sets a tone that ultimately puts to rest any notion there’s anything resembling honor among thieves in Palmero or, for that matter, New York. Neither does an operatic score accompany the mindless violence that’s held Sicily captive for as long as anyone can remember, as was the case in Godfather III. The Film Movement DVD adds a lengthy interview with the filmmakers and lead actress, as well as the very different short film, “Rita,” upon which Salvo is based.

The Dark Valley
I don’t expect anyone to believe me when I say that the best Western I’ve seen in the last couple of years is a German/Austrian co-production, set deep in the Alps and featuring characters that wouldn’t be out of place in a Western by Clint Eastwood or Monte Hellman. Sergio Leone’s influence is apparent, as well, but more as an interpreter of classic genre tropes and conventions. In The Dark Valley, Andreas Prochaska’s adaptation of a novel by Thomas Willmann, an American photographer, Greider (Sam Riley), rides his horse into an isolated valley just days before the winter snows will close the mountain passes. As we learn in the narration supplied by the film’s key female character, Luzi (Paula Beer), the small town and its surroundings are controlled by a family of overbearing thugs who believe that they also own the people who live there. Greider isn’t exactly encouraged to spend the winter in the village, but, because he carries a sack full of gold coins, the Brenners volunteer one of the families to make him feel welcome in every possible way. Once Greider deploys his daguerreotype camera, however, the locals’ unfamiliarity with photography makes him something of a curiosity. Only Luzi wonders why this photographer rarely carries his camera when out on his treks through valley. The mystery he carries on his shoulders like a thick wooden yoke ultimately will be revealed when Luzi’s honor is threatened by the Brenners on her wedding night. (Anyone familiar with the medieval rite, jus primae noctis, will have a headstart on this point going into the story.) After that issue is resolved the mysterious stranger is able to go about his own business with the Brenners. One excellent use of the film’s alpine setting comes during a long scene in while logs from the top of a mountain are sent sliding down the steep incline on an icy flume, not unlike Disney’s Splash Mountain or toboggan races at the Winter Olympics. Anyone who claims to be a Western buff owes it to themselves to check out The Dark Valley. It comes with deleted scenes and an extensive background featurette.

Happy End
I suppose that it’s only natural for reviewers to compare any movie in which a pair of women – lovers or otherwise – hop in a car for a therapeutic road trip to Thelma & Louise. A similar sort of pigeon-holing began after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid added “buddy film” to the critical lexicon. Alas, only a few of them stood up to the test when matched against “T&L” and “BC/SK.” It’s fair to compare the Dutch/German road drama Happy End to “T&L,” at least, because the female buddies — Lucca (Sinha Gierke) and Valerie (Verena Wustkamp) – commit crimes and defy authority during their mission of charity for a deceased friend. During the 86-minute course of Petra Clever’s debut feature, they also become lovers, although much is left to the imagination in that regard. While Happy End would logically be listed in any catologue’s Gay & Lesbian sections, its pleasures are universal. It is far more centered on the importance of loyalty and the lengths some people go to make good on promises we make to friends. Lucca meets Valerie while fulfilling a community-service commitment incurred in a rather innocuous act of politically motivated vandalism. Lucca isn’t happy to learn that she’ll be working off her penalty at a hospice facility, but, as an aspiring lawyer, she knows what’s required to clean her slate. Valerie’s role in the hospice is more undefined. We do know that Valerie has a special fondness for an elderly patient, Herma, whose son, she believes, will go against her stated desires for a final resting place immediately after she dies. Lucca gets a better, if still incomplete idea of what makes Valerie tick after she’s invited to hear her sing torch songs in a nightclub favored by lesbians. It isn’t clear if the decidedly more mousy law student has tested the waters of girl-girl sex, but Valerie’s sultry performance and slinky stage persona definitely light a fire under her. Cut to the chase: immediately after Herma’s body is cremated, Valerie coaxes Lucca to steal the urn that contains her ashes. Hermes’ son had other plans for his mother, none of them approved while she was sufficiently lucid to know what she was being told to sign. And, so the adventure begins, with L&V being chased through the Netherlands and into a scenic patch of German soil by police, Herma’s son and granddaughter, and Lucca’s over-protective father. There’s other secrets, to be sure, but there’s nothing to be gained by revealing them here. I found Happy End to be extremely well-made and surprisingly entertaining, especially for a foreign indie whose reach could easily be relegated to niche audiences.

88
The Canadian writing/directing/acting team of April Mullen and Tim Doiron have collaborated on such low-budget genre fare as Dead Before Dawn 3D, GravyTrain and Rock, Paper, Scissors: The Way of the Tosser. They share the distinction of having created the first fully Canadian stereoscopic 3D film and, because none of the other titles appear to have been accorded serious North American distribution, simply seem to make movies for the fun of it. Certainly, it isn’t to garner critical recognition or even stretch the boundaries of exploitation flicks. Their fourth project, 88, isn’t likely to win any awards or make much money, but it should please fans of gratuitous violence, lurid sensuality and overripe lighting and set design. Katharine Isabelle, who may be the most sexually alluring actress never to have disrobed on screen, plays a young woman, Gwen, who shows up at a roadside diner in the desert with no idea where she is or how she got there. To her astonishment, her purse contains more than a dozen jaw-breakers and a recently fired handgun. Gwen has sketchy memories of witnessing the deaths of several men, including her lover, and near-miss escapes from a gang of criminals and posse of cops.

Mullen’s conceit is to split Gwen’s search for the truth between two separate timelines and keep viewers as clueless as the girl. The co-writer/co-star/director clearly was influenced by Pulp Fiction and other non-linear thrillers in the creation of 88. The ageless Christopher Lloyd and veteran character actor Michael Ironside are the only two immediately recognizable actors, one playing the sleazoid patriarch of a motley gang of miscreants and the other a dogged sheriff. The real star of the show, however, is Isabelle. Her screen presence is every bit as formidable as Alexandra Daddario, Eva Amurri Martino and Emily Ratajkowski, a trio of ingénues whose breasts recently became overnight sensations. Sure, Isabelle has found steady work on TV, the movies and on stage since she was a wee lass of 8 years old (Cousins), but her visibility derives from being featured in the three Ginger Snaps films and recurring roles in “Hannibal” and “Being Human.” I have to wonder if her seeming unwillingness to disrobe for the camera has anything to do with her career not exploding on cue, like it might have if she appeared semi-naked on an HBO series or danced in a Robin Thicke video. Coincidentally, perhaps, Mullen shares certain physical attributes with Isabelle, as well as similar resumes and seeming reluctance to bear all. Her forte may be exploitation fare, but 88 demonstrates as much flair as any such film churned out by the more privileged gender. Curious and curiouser.

The Boys From Brazil: Blu-ray
As long as movies are made, there will always be a place for Nazi “Angel of Death” Josef Mengele. His penchant for cruelty and conducting evil experiments on human beings was only half of this loathsome geneticist’s story. The second half is still playing out, 30 years after his death was “confirmed” by American forensics experts. Speculation remains rife, even as reports of the deaths of long-hunted war criminals — Alois Brunner, among them – are being confirmed and the secret policies that allowed them to escape prosecution are being revealed in piecemeal fashion. Before the full extent of Mengele’s atrocities was formally documented, Mengele managed to slip through the hands of Allied police agencies several times. Once he reached Argentina, in 1949, using a fake Italian passport, he was protected by Nazi sympathizers and family members there and in Europe. Mengele was able to work and acquire property in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil, sometimes in his own name. By 1985, generally accepted as the year Mengele died, an entire industry had been founded, based on doubt over all things related to the international search for Nazi war criminals. The longer rumors circulated, the longer conspiracy theorists were allow to prosper. By this time, of course, Hollywood had already produced two crowd-pleasing thrillers based primarily on speculation about the ability of elderly Nazis to effect change from thinly camouflaged sanctuaries in South America. Ironically, while Laurence Olivier played an escaped war criminal – a sadistic dentist – in Marathon Man, two years later, in The Boys From Brazil, he would play a dogged Nazi hunter. As it opens, Jewish sleuth Ezra Lieberman, widely discredited as a wolf-crier, learns of a mysterious plot involving 95 clones of Adolph Hitler. It’s so outlandish that even those actively making plans for a Fourth Reich decide that Mengele (Gregory Peck) had finally gone off the deep end. Once Lieberman’s source is murdered, however, the conspiracy begins to fall into place. U.S. audiences were more willing to buy into such a plot than the chief Fourth Reich promoter (James Mason) and his minions. Even if I still don’t completely understand the endgame strategy, the sight of the now-teenage boys – germinated deep in the Amazon Basin — are creepy enough to induce nightmares.

TV-to-DVD
Starz!: Black Sails: Season 1: Blu-ray
PBS: Masterpiece: The Manners of Downton Abbey: Blu-ray
PBS: Navy SEALs: Their Untold Story
PBS: Rickover: The Birth of Nuclear Power
PBS: Sacred Journeys With Bruce Feiler
PBS: Sweet Revenge: Turning the Tables on Processed Food
Nickelodeon: SpongeBob SquarePants: The Pilot and the SquareShorts: A Mini-Movie
There’s nothing like a good pirate story to get the juices flowing and that includes the ones told recently in Captain Phillips; the Danish thriller, A Hijacking; and documentary Stolen Seas. With a fifth installment of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean in its pre-production stage, it’s a good time to catch up with the Starz network’s racy and raucous mini-series, “Black Sails,” soon entering its second season. It takes place during the so-called Golden Age of Piracy, 20 years prior to events described in Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic “Treasure Island.” While focusing on the tales of Captain Flint, the activities of real-life buccaneers Charles Vane, Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny and Benjamin Hornigold are also monitored. The series is set on New Providence Island, which, in 1715, was largely populated by pirates, prostitutes, thieves, fortune seekers, fortune tellers and shoulder-ready parrots. It also was the perfect staging area for pirates to threaten maritime trade in the region. The numero uno target of the many pirates gathered on the island is the galleon Urca d’Lima, which, when it sails, will be loaded with all manner of New World treasures. What caught the public’s attention, at least in the series’ early episodes, was the combination of action and sex, of which there was plenty. I imagine that the story-telling aspects of the series will be pushed in the upcoming Season Two. The Blu-ray is enhanced by several short features: “Black Sails: An Inside Look,” “Dressed to Kill,” “Pirate Camp,” “Folklore Is Finished,” “A Place in History” and “Building the Behemoth.”

Each new season, the producers’ of “Downton Abbey” offer its fans what the merchants and restaurateurs of New Orleans call a lagniappe … a small gift accorded customers in addition to what they’ve already purchased. This year’s gift arrives in the form of “Masterpiece: The Manners of Downton Abbey,” which resembles the kinds of featurettes that accompany esteemed films released by Criterion Collection, RaroVideo and other distributors of high-end fare. In it, we follow the show’s historic adviser, Alastair Bruce, as he makes his rounds on and off the various lavish sets of the production. In Hollywood, such consultants are treated with the same respect accorded the employees of the catering company. Bruce wields a lot of power from his viewing platform on “Downton Abbey.” It’s his job to make sure that everything portrayed on the show is the real deal, right down to the place settings at formal dinners and the body language of the next generation of lords and ladies. Loyal followers of the show will eat it up and ask for more … and they get it in a bonus delete scene.

After SEAL Team Six was credited with taking down Osama Bin Laden in a surprise attack on his Pakistani compound, the venerable naval unit emerged from the fog of military secrecy usually associated with such operations. Bin Laden’s notoriety, in combination with our country’s overwhelming need to close one chapter on the war on terrorism, at least, ensured that the team’s profile would be raised to unprecedented heights. Not surprisingly, perhaps, individual members uncharacteristically would capitalize on the mission’s success by breaking the unit’s omerta and dilute the experience for many Americans. PBS’ “Navy SEALs: Their Untold Story” gives those warriors their due, but focuses more on a legacy that extends back to World War II, when “frogmen” were accorded the responsibility of blowing up underwater obstacles to landing craft prior to invasions. As scuba gear, sonar and intelligence-gathering technology grew more sophisticated, the frogmen of the Navy’s first special warfare units would became increasingly amphibious. (It is an acronym for Sea, Air and Land). Viewers might be surprised to learn that the name, SEAL Team Six, only represented the fighting units for about seven years, between the taking of U.S. hostages in Tehran and the emergence of the less sexy title United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or DEVGRU. Even the name, SEAL Team Six, is shrouded in secrecy. In fact, it was hoped that Soviet intelligence gatherers would invest an inordinate amount of time investigating the roles played by SEAL Teams 1-5, which didn’t exist. Gary Sinise narrates this comprehensive history lesson, which doesn’t ignore the occasional blemish on its reputation.

Patriots come in all shapes, sizes, colors, religious and political beliefs. You can pin an American flag medallion on a sow’s ear, but that doesn’t make it any more or less patriotic than the pig in the next pen. Ever since the Vietnam War, Republicans have cornered the fake-patriotism market, simply by adding an American flag to their clothing and chastising those who don’t follow suit. Among the many interesting things we learn in PBS’ “Rickover: The Birth of Nuclear Power” is how the military-industry complex – President Eisenhower’s words, not mine – labored so mightily to discredit Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, who routinely blew the whistle on cost overruns, overbilling and inefficient management of nuclear plants from the 1960s to the 1980s. If it weren’t for his allies in Congress – back, when it still worked – his voice would have been silenced at the dawn of the nuclear age, instead of its doldrums. When few thought it possible, then-Captain Rickover determined to harness the power of the atom to drive the first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, whose trip under the polar ice pack was one of the great adventure stories of the 1950s. Later, Rickover built the world’s first nuclear aircraft carrier and the first commercial nuclear power plant at Shippingport, Pa. In “Rickover: The Birth of Nuclear Power,” we’re given ample evidence as to how this prickly patriot became one of the most vilified public officials in the halls of Congress, the Pentagon and White House, where corruption is delivered in red, white and blue envelopes. He was able to back up his angry assertions of malfeasance with facts, science and results. While the near-miss calamity at Three Mile Island effectively put a stop sign on the approval of new corporately backed nuclear plants, Rickover’s nuclear-powered fleets scored near-perfect safety records. Besides painting a portrait of one of the great military leaders of the 20th Century, the documentary provides a primer on nuclear power and how it was shaped by the Cold War, military-industrial complex and environmentalists unwilling to buy into the lies exposed at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. I’m no expert on such things, but the range of opinions forwarded in interviews and dramatizations — Tim Blake Nelson, plays the feisty admiral – seems to be fair and balanced.

If there’s one subject that PBS has covered like a blanket in the last 10 years, it’s the world’s prominent religions and why they matter in the 21st Century. It even stood up to the wrath of conservative Christians by airing a three-part series on the disappearance of religious faith, a.k.a., atheism. Mostly, though, we’ve meet true believers who understand the importance of tolerance and diversity in their beliefs. PBS’ “Sacred Journeys With Bruce Feiler” adds a different spin to the formula by putting a tight focus on the estimated 200 million people who cement their relationship with God in pilgrimages to holy places of their religion … or, increasingly, someone else’s. In the six-part series, we join pilgrimages to Lourdes, Jerusalem, Mecca, the Japanese island of Shikoku, the River Ganges and Osogbo, in Southern Nigeria. We arrive at Lourdes during the week set aside for men and women injured or traumatized by war. In Jerusalem, we spend less time on the differences separating Christians, Jews and Muslims than on the similarities that ought to serve to unite them. On Shikoku, believers of all backgrounds attempt the coast-hugging, 750-mile pilgrimage to 88 temples associated with the 8th Century priest Kūkai. These beautifully photographed journeys are sure to inspire viewers of faith, of course, but also tourists looking for someplace interesting to visit. Noticeably absent are the wild-eyed fanatics of all religious persuasions who murder in the name of God, subjugate women, pray for the Apocalypse and blaspheme God’s holy name by their mere existence and that’s probably a good thing.

Shown on many PBS affiliates, “Sweet Revenge: Turning the Tables on Processed Food” delivers its warnings on the hazards of sugar-dependency much in the same way as Ron Popeil has sold gimmicks and gadgets to the rubes for nearly 60 years. Indeed, based on their rapt attention to Professor Robert Lustig’s every word, the audience for this lecture could have been left over from a demonstration of the Showtime Rotisserie. The message is sound, however. Robert Lustig is professor of pediatric endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco, and a warrior in the fight against the shocking proliferation of childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes, processed food, fructose and industry propaganda. He’s not the first such crusader, but likely the most successful in delivering his message. In the early 1970s, John Yudkin and William Duffy raised the red flag against sugar “addiction” in “Pure, White and Deadly” and “Sugar Blues,” respectively. Lustig has acknowledged the importance of those books, which were loudly derided by sugar interests as being alarmist and misleading, and his ability to take advantage of modern media platforms to counter industry arguments. One of Lustig’s most convincing arguments comes in a discussion about the inability of popular diet and low-fat products to quell the advance of obesity, diabetes and other concerns. The answer’s been right before our faces, all along.

Although the countdown to the February 6 release in 3D of The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water officially began at last summer’s San Diego Comic-Con International, fans are only now being rewarded for their patience with the re-release of vintage “SpongeBob” DVDs, give-aways and such functions as Monday’s “The SpongeBob Day of Positivity.” On February 3, the video game “SpongeBob HeroPants” will be released, as well. The movie, which combines live-action and traditional animation, describes what happens when SpongeBob and his pals embark on an on-shore quest to recover the secret recipe for Krabby Patties, stolen by Burger-Beard the Pirate (Antonio Banderas). Available this week is “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Pilot, a Mini Movie & the SquareShorts,” a collection of classic SpongeBob material that includes the original pilot episode; the mini-movie, “Truth or Square”; and more than 40 shorts, such as “SpongeBob’s Legendary Dance Party,” “Sandy’s Camera” and “Jellyfishing Safety Tips.” A trio of previously released compilations arrives next week in a single “Triple Pack”: “Heroes of Bikini Bottom,” “10 Happiest Moments” and “Legends of Bikini Bottom.” Original bonus features have been retained, as well.

The DVD Wrapup: Binoche, Coogan, Lewis, Clarkson, Mamet, Maclaine & Plummer and More

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

1,000 Times Good Night
Women have become such an essential part of the workforce that it’s almost impossible to recall the time — not so long ago — when the struggle for equal rights, pay and opportunities seemed as unwinnable as, say, the election of an African-American president. Just as unforeseeable in post-WWII America was a time when mothers of newborns would be welcomed back to the workplace, especially if they expected paid medical leave and a return to their previous positions. Erik Poppe’s emotionally charged drama, 1,000 Times Good Night, dramatizes one extremely talented woman’s challenge when forced to allocate quality time between her career and family. It does so without resorting to polemics or demanding we choose sides. Neither does Poppe cushion the debate for mainstream audiences by merging satire with star power, as was the case with the delightfully subversive Nine to Five. This isn’t to say that Oscar-winner Juliette Binoche isn’t a formidable talent, only that she’s never carried the same weight at the box off as Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton in their prime. In 1,000 Times Good Night, Binoche plays one of the world’s top photojournalists, no matter the gender or ethnic background. Rebecca specializes in covering wars and all kinds of other disasters. When we’re introduced to her, she’s covering something only a hugely courageous woman would be allowed to shoot: the final personal, religious and tactical preparations of female suicide bomber. A slight miscalculation on her part lands several bystanders in a morgue and Rebecca in an intensive-care unit of a Middle Eastern hospital. No one in the west was clamoring for her to bear witness to the rituals of murderous jihadists, but Rebecca felt it necessary to capture the depth of commitment on the part of women in a struggle that so far has done nothing but marginalize them. She also knows that the stakes have been raised for any woman stationed in the war zone, whether she’s in uniform or carrying a camera. As the need for covering such topics as the persecution of women in male-dominated societies, ritual rape and genital mutilation has grown, the potential risk for women journalists given access to the victims has risen in kind. In the last year, alone, two women photojournalists were listed among the KIAs in Afghanistan and the Central African Republic.

Rebecca has faced great physical danger in previous assignments, of course, but her near-death experience in the wake of the female-jihadist story prompted her husband and two daughters, back home in Ireland, to draw a line in the sand. Severely shaken, as well, she senses that this might be a good time for her to play it safe for a while. After vowing to quit intentionally putting her life in jeopardy, Rebecca accepts an assignment to shoot a refugee camp in a war-torn corner of Africa. Because she is convinced of the improbability of any harm coming to her in a United Nations-protected area, her husband (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) reluctantly agrees to allow their oldest daughter tag along as part of an elaborate high school project. To the surprise of absolutely no one watching the movie, heavily armed militants attack the camp just as they’re wrapping up the assignment. Instead of high-tailing it out of the camp, Rebecca angers Steph (Lauryn Canny) at the UN guide by demanding that she be allowed to document the atrocities certain to occur in the camp. Although she manages to avoid being killed, Steph has been completely traumatized by her mother’s refusal to take shelter. Things turn even colder back home when Rebecca’s asked to reshoot some of the material leading to the suicide of the female jihadi. For a while, she holds to the promise she makes to her family, but ultimately it’s compromised by her addiction to adrenalin and adherence to the code of the photojournalist’s road. This time, however, she knows that she can’t survive with her heart divided by distance and devotion to duty. She has to decide, one way or another, where her allegiance lies. Thousands of women in the military face similar dilemmas every day. What distinguishes Poppe’s film from such movies as Liza Johnson and Linda Cardellini’s similarly devastating Return is the tight focus on the children. They are as much a victim in their mom’s wars as the children left behind by the suicide bomber. It should go without saying, by now, that Binoche is terrific as Rebecca, never overplaying her hand or being anything less than credible as a photographer and mother. If academy members don’t check out her performance before voting, they’ll be doing everyone who takes the Oscars seriously a disservice. The DVD adds an interesting making-of featurette.

Trip Italy Still2The Trip to Italy: Blu-ray
The short version of this review reads thusly: anyone who fell in love with Michael Winterbottom’s wonderfully offbeat buddy/road comedy, The Trip, should relish the opportunity to follow Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in the equally delicious sequel, The Trip to Italy. I doubt, however, that anyone unfamiliar with or unimpressed by The Trip — or the not-for-everyone Coogan, for that matter – will have their minds changed by what happens to them in Italy. In the original, Coogan was asked by the Observer to visit some of Britain’s highest-rated and most scenic restaurants for its Sunday supplement. When his American girlfriend decides not to join him on the road trip, he invites his best friend and fellow UK television personality along for the road trip. Despite the posh destinations, Coogan and Brydon frequently bicker over uncomfortable accommodations, sexual peccadillos and the accuracy of their impressions of famous actors. The do exactly the same thing in The Trip to Italy, which, if anything, provides even more spectacular backdrops for their dining, squabbling and tourism. Even more so than the first go-round, the humor is dependent on their takes on dialogue made famous by such stars as Diane Keaton and Woody Allen, Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando, Hugh Grant, Al Pacino, Anthony Hopkins, Humphrey Bogart and, once again, Michael Caine. They visit houses that once provided shelter to Lord Byron, Keats and Percy Shelley; the ruins of Pompeii; a catacomb; the Amalfi Coast and island of Capri; and the kitchens of six of the country’s finest restaurants. It’s worth knowing that Winterbottom stitched together both six-episode BBC mini-series to create the slightly shorter feature-length films for distribution in the U.S. The Blu-ray presentation takes full advantage of the scenery, while the deleted scenes add to the fun.

Kelly & Cal
Juliette Lewis hits all of the right chords in this bittersweet drama about a former Riot Grrrl rocker who can’t quite adjust to married life in the suburbs, a constantly crying baby, a largely absentee husband and meddling in-laws. At 43, Lewis still looks young enough to portray both a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown and a retired punk-rocker still comfortable with an electric guitar in her hands. (She’s spent much of the last 10 years recording and touring in her own band and performing as a solo act.) In Kelly & Cal, her character finds a kindred spirit in a wheelchair-bound 17-year-old neighbor (Jonny Weston). After a completely awkward first meeting, Kelly and Cal find enough in common to overcome his cynicism and her disillusionment with adult life. If the movie moves forward in a predictably portentous fashion, first-time director Jen McGowan and writer Amy Lowe Starbin are able to avoid the pitfalls that come with dramatizing such perilous relationships. Parallels can be drawn between the baby’s stroller and Cal’s wheelchair, but why bother? Kelly & Cal is a story that turns on the curative power of friendship and overcoming the rough patches that lie in the way of emotional rescue. Josh Hopkins (“Cougar Town”) does a nice job as Kelly’s inattentive husband, as do Cybill Shepherd, Lucy Owens and Margaret Colin as the other women in their lives. The DVD adds a short making-of featurette.

Last Weekend
In lieu of finding anything better to write about a movie, critics frequently say they’d gladly pay for the privilege of watching the lead actor read the phone book. In the exasperating family drama, Last Weekend, Patricia Clarkson isn’t required to do much more than that, but, as usual, she excels at it. Whether her performance, alone, is worth the price of admission – another bone we like to throw at undecided readers – is clearly in the eye of the beholder. Clarkson’s many admirers probably will find much to admire in Tom Dolby and Tom Williams’s debut feature. In Last Weekend, she plays the matriarch of a nouveau-riche family that has spent the last 30, or so, summers in Lake Tahoe, just down the road from the Corleone estate. With their three sons scattered to the winds, Celia and her husband (Chris Mulkey) have decided that it might be time to sell the property in one of the world’s most desirable places to vacation, live or retire. It seems unnecessary to make such a rash decision, especially when the rental market is so lucrative, but such are the whims of rich people. Clarkson’s Celia Green is the kind of woman who’s obsessed with controlling every aspect of her family’s life, right down to the carbon emissions expended on delivering her groceries to her favorite gourmet shops. She collects Indian baskets and other expensive tchotchkes to remind her of the important events in her life, including the birthdays of her unappreciative children. On what could be the family’s weekend together in the summer home, Celia’s uptight behavior alienates everyone, including two of her son’s girlfriends, a boyfriend, invited guests and neighbors, who can’t comprehend the decision to leave paradise, either. After all, once the kids begin to have children of their own, what better place could there be for grandparents to dote on them? That is only one of the vexing questions raised in Last Weekend. Another would be why all of the other family members are nothing more than caricatures and not very appealing ones at that. It’s a swell house, however, and Lake Tahoe always provides a fine backdrop for family psychodrama. Not given much to do are supporting characters played by Sheila Kelley, Mary Kay Place and Judith Light.

Two-Bit Waltz
After Francis Ford Coppola threw his 19-year-old daughter Sofia under a bus, by casting her as Mary Corleone in The Godfather: Part III, it took almost a full decade before she would re-emerge triumphant as a writer/director of The Virgin Suicides. Three years later, Lost in Translation would prove that Coppola’s talent was best placed behind the camera and the success of her first feature was no fluke. I couldn’t help but recall Sofia Coppola’s journey while watching Clara Mamet’s freshman film, Two-Bit Waltz, a seemingly autobiographical dramedy that prompts as many winces as it does anything else. I don’t think the multi-hyphenate daughter of David Mamet and Rebecca Pidgeon, and half-sister of Zosia Mamet (“Girls”), had to be pushed by her parents, or anyone else, to test the waters of show business at an early age. As the story goes, Clara became legally emancipated at 15, in order to leave school a year later to pursue a career as a playwright and actress. She started auditioning for acting parts when she was 14, but, frustrated by her lack of progress, began creating roles for herself on paper. In the meantime, Clara joined the cast of the ABC sitcom “The Neighbors.”  She not only wrote and directed the feature-length Two-Bit Waltz, but she also stars as the wildly eccentric protagonist, Maude, a high school senior who wouldn’t be out of place in a Wes Anderson film.

Maude openly smokes cigars on campus, if only to piss off the school’s administrators, and imagines herself surrounded by students wearing elephant-head masks, tutus and scuba equipment. Pidgeon plays her screen mother, the kind of overly theatrical parent who wears costumes around the house and probably dreams of playing Norma Desmond in a Broadway revival of the “Sunset Boulevard.” After Maude is rejected by her first lover, Maude considers suicide. It isn’t until she turns down a $5 million inheritance, by refusing to commit to the pursuit of a college degree, that we become convinced that her idiosyncratic behavior is more self-destructive than rebellious or hopelessly naive. It’s almost as if Mamet is making a prep-school version of Rebel Without a Cause. Mostly, we’re left feeling that Maude’s in need of a good spanking and Mamet might have been better advised to stay in school, instead of settling for a 44-episode stint in a sitcom about aliens in our midst. Still, Two-Bit Waltz is far from the worst movie I’ve seen this year, by a first-timer or anyone else, and Mamet doesn’t embarrass herself in the lead role. Instead of wearing three hats on her next project, though, she really ought to reduce her responsibilities to one or two. A supporting cast that also includes Jared Gilman, David Paymer and William H. Macy also helps keep the film from careening into the fourth wall. The DVD adds a making-of piece with interviews that border on the reverential.

Elsa & Fred: Blu-ray
Faithfully adapted from the 2005 Spanish/Argentinian rom-com of the same title, Elsa & Fred tells the story of a November-December romance between serendipitously placed neighbors that unspools almost exactly as you think it might, even with no knowledge of Marcos Carnevale’s film. Perfectly cast as the titular protagonists, originated by Manuel Alexandre and China Zorrilla, are the eternally youthful octogenarians Christopher Plumer and Shirley Maclaine, who meet cute in an apartment building they share in the Garden District of New Orleans. A busybody, Elsa has resided in this lovely neighborhood for many years, while Fred is not at all happy about having been re-located there by his daughter and son-in-law, Lydia and Jack (Marcia Gay Harden, Chris Noth). While they are upstairs unpacking boxes, Elsa backs into the front bumper of the expensive car belonging to Jack. After she fails in her effort to convince Fred’s grandson to pretend he didn’t witness the accident, Elsa’s son Raymond (Scott Bakula) writes a check to cover the damages. She comes up with an elaborate lie to explain why her new neighbor might consider not accepting the payment and he agrees to tear up the check, if only to get rid of her. In an act of kismet common to Hollywood movies, Fred is forced to ask Elsa for help when he can’t control a raging leak in his sink. Even before the water on the floor of the kitchen can dry, the distance between evaporates. In getting to know each other, Elsa describes her longtime desire to re-create the scene in La Dolce Vita, in which Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroiani wade in the waters of the Trevi Fountain. Even though Fred has never lacked for money, we’re led to believe that his late sourpuss of a wife failed to inspire any desire for such trysts in him. Impediments to their blossoming friendship occur at regular intervals from this point on, but none so serious as to disrupt the flow of the film’s natural trajectory. This, in large part, can be attributed to the contributions of Michael Radford and Anna Pavignano, who, in 1994, collaborated on the Oscar-nominated Il Postino: The Postman. The Blu-ray adds a decent making-of featurette. Anyone who enjoys Elsa & Fred really ought renting the 2005 original, as well as Federico Fellini’s 1986 Ginger & Fred, with Giulietta Masina and Mastroiani in only slightly different roles.

Traffickers: Blu-ray
The medical art of organ transplantation has come a long way since the first edition of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was published anonymously in London in 1818. For many years, the early resurrectionists shared with surgeons and anatomy professors a willingness to reward grave robbers for providing the cadavers needed for training purposes, education and experimentation. This occurred primarily in times when there weren’t enough criminals awaiting execution to keep up with demand. With each new advance in surgical science, the number of potential transplant recipients grew exponentially, while the availability of fresh corpses declined. Today, of course, there’s so much demand for organs from live donors that criminals have organized to provide them to the highest bidders. They frequently are supplied by people living in poverty, with an extra kidney or lung to spare, or unsuspecting innocents who wake up in a bathtub full of ice with a crudely sewn-together scar on their abdomen. In Kim Hong Sun’s debut feature, Traffickers, unsuspecting donors are lured on board a ship travelling between South Korea and China and, then, relieved of their organs by an alcoholic surgeon who wouldn’t be allowed within 20 feet of an operating theater on dry land. The protagonist of the story here is a thief who’s gotten on the wrong side of a Korean crime boss and is ordered to forgo his plans for retirement to compensate the organization for money stolen in a previous deal. It isn’t until he realizes that one of the potential beneficiaries is the father of a woman he loves from afar that he agrees to take the assignment. Needless to say, the process doesn’t go quite as smoothly as planned. In fact, it leads to a high-seas race against the clock, during which several other lives are threatened. Because Traffickers opens with a flashback and somewhat complicated return to the present, it took a while for me to sort out the players and get a handle on the serpentine plot. Adding to my confusion was the absence of a character with whom to identify, with the exception of the poor souls awaiting their fates on gurneys. Once the fog clears, however, it isn’t at all difficult to get wrapped up in the drama.

Reach Me: Blu-ray
Such intricately woven ensemble flicks as Short Cuts, Magnolia and Crash can only reveal so many loose threads, before viewers begin pulling at them and the tapestry either unravels or becomes even more compelling, through the strength of its individual parts. The threads holding John Herzfeld’s Reach Me together are so thin as to threaten the stability of the picture from beginning to end. Herzeld employed the same narrative gimmick, if to greater success, in the often wickedly funny 1995 dramedy, 2 Days in the Valley. Despite a similarly attractive cast of veteran actors, Reach Me’s connective tissue is too weak to sustain the conceit beyond the mere fact of their presence. The thing all of the characters share is an obsession with a motivational book, written by an anonymous, publicity-shy author known only as Teddy (Tom Berenger). “Reach Me” basically advises readers to take complete control of their lives, using a form of self-hypnosis to conquer their fears and addictions. Sylvester Stallone plays an editor/painter who assigns journalist Roger (Kevin Connolly) to find Teddy and explain to readers what inspired him to write the book. Among the other people we meet are a recently paroled prison inmate (Kyra Sedgwick), an ex-con hip-hop mogul (Nelly), an actor (Cary Elwes) and a trigger-happy undercover cop (Thomas Jane). Also determined to confront the author are characters played by Kelsey Grammer, Lauren Cohan, Ryan Kwanten, Tom Sizemore, Danny Trejo and Danny Aiello, who also starred in 2 Days in the Valley. In a scene that recalls the climax to The Day of the Locust, their disparate lives will collide at a coming-out party for the reclusive author in the working-class beach community of El Segundo. The problem, of course, is that we never learn enough about the book’s message to understand why it might have a greater influence on the thinly drawn characters than dozens of other self-help books available to them.

Dark Mountain
Wax
Coyote
APP
Hi-8: Horror Independent Eight
It takes something special for me to recommend a found-footage film, especially those that still take their cues from The Blair Witch Project. The story behind Tara Anaïse’s freshman feature, Dark Mountain, isn’t any fresher or more exciting than a dozen other films in which a group of aspiring documentary makers invades the wilderness to get to bottom of a local legend or pop-culture myth. What it does have going for it, however, are spectacular desert scenery and parallel legends involving a fascinating Old West mystery. Ever since reports of the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine began spreading around the world in the 1890s, treasure hunters have combed Arizona’s Superstition Mountains to find a hole in the ground that might lead them to a fortune in gold once mined by the German immigrant Jacob Waltz. Because a few of the tens of thousands of would-be prospectors have died in pursuit of the gold, rumors of a curse on intruders have merged with an Apache belief that a larger hole leads to the lower world, or hell. In 1977, historian Byrd Granger identified 62 variants of the Lost Dutchman mystery, several of which are discussed in interviews with local desert rats in Dark Mountain’s first reel. Their curiosities whet, three Los Angeles filmmakers then set out to document their search for the mine. We already know that none of them will return to claim the camera and cell phones that were recovered along the western edge of LaBarge Canyon and which reconstruct of their last days. So, that part of the mystery is already solved. As for the rest of it, we’ve all watched enough found footage to predict with no small degree of precision when to brace ourselves for jump-scares, mysterious lights in the sky and sudden noises. Nothing particularly new is to be found here, except several good reasons to visit the Superstitions on a weekend trip. The DVD arrives with three separate commentary tracks and extended interviews.

It’s unfortunate that plans for a spinoff of the Night at the Museum franchise were put on ice after the untimely death of Robin Williams. If the producers would consider extending the concept into R-rated territory, a template has already been laid by Víctor Matellano’s truly ooky horror flick, Wax, which extends the conceit to wax museums. Shot largely in actual wax museums in Barcelona and Madrid, Wax combines elements of the 1953 House of Wax and the 1933 Mystery of the Wax Museum, if not particularly the 2005 remake, with Paris Hilton. Here, an eager-beaver reporter (Jimmy Shaw) is hired by a TV producer (Geraldine Chaplin) to spend a night in Barcelona’s reportedly haunted Museu de cera. The hauntings appear to have been generated by the infamous cannibal surgeon, Dr. Knox (Jack Taylor), who, when he isn’t impersonating Vincent Price upstairs, is slicing and dicing naked women in the basement. Adding an extra layer of terror to the proceedings is the fact that the reporter, Mike, already has a sad history with the evil doctor. Hidden cameras allow us to monitor Mike’s adventure, as well as examples of the doctor’s skills at torture porn. Spanish horror is as good as any being made in the world right now and, if Wax is a grade or two below prime, there’s still plenty in it to enjoy.

Among the methods our government-sanctioned sadists employed to torture prisoners they believed to be holding back information on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden was to deprive them of weeks of sleep … repeat, weeks of sleep. College students have been known to stay up for days at a time, while studying for various board exams or to catch up on textbooks they neglected to read earlier in the semester. Helping them to endure the ordeal, of course, were pots full of hot coffee, piles of amphetamines and the occasional hot shoulder. Presumably, the only relief afforded those believed to be terrorists was the cold shock of a water-boarding session. In his sophomore feature, Coyote, Trevor Juenger (Hermetica) offers several very good reasons for us not to trust confessions and other information gleaned from victims of sleep deprivation, at least. Genre favorite Bill Oberst Jr. (“Criminal Minds”) plays a St. Louis man who moves furniture by day and sits at a typewriter each night, futilely trying to overcome his insomnia long enough to refresh his overstressed mind. What happens, instead, is that Bill goes completely and, perhaps, irretrievably mad. If his hallucinations could be harnessed or recorded, they’d probably result in an award-winning work of fiction. Imagine a combination of James “Buffalo Bill” Gumb, Travis Bickle and Norman Bates and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Bill becomes after only a couple weeks without sleep. Only those viewers ready for intense psycho-drama should attempt Coyote, let alone jump into it head-first.

When Stephen Hawking recently observed, “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” he was merely adding his imprimatur to a theory already advanced by several esteemed masters of science-fiction. Today, a new generation of engineers, computer geeks and theoretical physicists is making possible what those writers could only imagination. If the development and subsequent abuse of nuclear energy provide any lessons for mankind, today, it’s that technology and humanity sometimes make for strange bedfellows. From the Netherlands comes APP, an ambitious cyber-thriller that imagines what could happen when a piece of truly diabolic software – as opposed to generic malware — infects the computers and smartphones of unsuspecting consumers, revealing deeply hidden secrets and providing a catalyst for disaster. Here, the ex-boyfriend of a lackadaisical student at the University of Amsterdam downloads his latest experimental app on her cellphone, while she’s otherwise engaged at a party. When Anna attempts to delete the app, which, among other things, sends inappropriate photos of a friend to all of her contacts, it triggers terrible accidents and acts of violence. The question then becomes, how does one kill an artificially intelligent menace that doesn’t want to die? The DVD arrives with instructions that allow viewers to download sonic technology that triggers additional content during the movie, enhancing the viewing experience in real-time. The fact that I couldn’t get it to work should not reflect on the app’s usefulness to those who are more adept at such things. Bonus features include director commentary and a special FX featurette.

Anthologies aren’t for everyone, but, for those who do enjoy them, there’s no shortage of options on film, television, records and in books. There’s hardly a major director who hasn’t contributed a short film to a collection focusing on such themes as love and romance, popular destinations, great authors, wartime experiences, works of art, horror, sci-fi and popular culture. The stories collected in Hi-8: Horror Independent Eight share something relatively unique: a collective memory of the micro-budgeted films shot on video in the 1980s and released almost exclusively on cassette. At first, these crudely made products occupied the shelves reserved for direct-to-video releases and, if a filmmaker was very fortunate, cult titles. It took some time before genre buffs recognized that creativity wasn’t limited to artists able to afford studio-quality equipment, talent and distribution. Flash-forward to the dawn of the digital era and the same sorts of filmmakers who could only afford to make movies on VHS cassettes would take advantage of the even more reasonably priced equipment and software that could be transferred via thumb-drives, uploads and streaming. These economies tended to dilute the stigma attached to straight-to-video titles, while also allowing their creators to add commentaries, making-of features and deleted scenes, just like the big boys and girls. The DIY movement effectively replicated the spirit and experimental tone of the early direct-to-video pioneers, while adding a gloss that sometimes could mask the do-it-yourself methodology and credit-card productions. The indie-horror filmmakers represented in Hi-8 were challenged to return to their analog roots, without sacrificing any of their storytelling chops and evolved themes. Among the directors and writers on tap here are Tim Ritter, Brad Sykes, Donald Farmer, Todd Sheets, Chris Seaver, Ron Bonk and Marcus Koch. Even if going retro doesn’t quite fit the DVD format, there’s plenty of fun to be had here by sentimental genre buffs.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Frontline: The Rise of the ISIS
PBS: American Experience: Cold War Roadshow
PBS: Moveable Feast With Fine Cooking, Season 1
PBS: American Experience: Ripley: Believe It or Not
Discovery/Science: Survivorman Season 5: Blue Ray
When the existence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was first revealed by seemingly clueless media outlets, people around the world wondered how its presence could have caught the intelligence community so far off-guard. We live in a time, after all, when the NSA is capable of monitoring the electronic correspondence of tens of millions of American citizens, most as harmless to the interests of our democracy as kittens on sale at a flea market. Our President also has led us to believe that a cabal of North Korean hackers has been able to bring a giant international conglomerate – Sony – to its knees and threaten protections assured filmmakers by the Constitution. And, yet, no one seemed able to anticipate the blitzkrieg of second-hand tanks, ATVs and combat-ready pickup trucks that devoured large sections of Syria and western Iraq, almost in a single gulp. The startling “Frontline” documentary “The Rise of ISIS” explains not only how the collection of Islamic extremists became a major force so quickly, but also why policymakers missed the many signs that just such an alliance even existed. Although the rebellion against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad provided a staging ground for the coalition of Al Qaeda fighters, Baathist loyalists and disaffected Islamic fundamentalists from an estimated 80 countries, the seeds were sown in the immediate wake of the Allies’ occupation of Iraq, when the Bush/Cheney team totally screwed up the country’s transition from Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship to a democracy that only theoretically would include the country’s Shia and Sunni populations. If nothing else, we should have known that Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would take advantage of the American withdrawal to crush his Sunni opponents, thus assuring ISIS would find popular support in western Iraq. If it weren’t for the terrible images of genocidal attacks and mass executions – including the beheadings of Western journalists and relief workers by ISIS’s presumably large lunatic fringe – it’s entirely possible that President Obama would not have gotten the support even to form an alliance of countries willing to bomb ISIS targets. Because the documentary doesn’t leave much room for optimism, some viewers will come away from it thinking that the threat of potentially devastating civil war between Sunni and Shia forces would be the only solution to the problem.

The “American Experience” presentation, “Cold War Roadshow,” takes us on a strangely nostalgic trip back to a time when the Cold War threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction was the only thing that thwarted the reality of mutually assured nuclear destruction. As unforgettable as Nikita Khrushchev’s exhibition of shoe-banging rhetoric at the UN, in 1960, it’s just as easy to forget the Soviet leader’s far more amiable tour of the United States, which took place a year earlier. By then, Khrushchev had already begun to reverse draconian policies instituted by Josef Stalin and there was reason to hope that serious talks designed to reduce both nations’ nuclear arsenals could take place during the amazing 13-day visit. The eastern swing of the tour was characterized largely by the determination of law-enforcement agencies to keep him from being assassinated by right-wing extremists. Khrushchev became frustrated by his inability to connect with everyday Americans and break away from an itinerary that would put a child with ADD to sleep. As the tour moved west, he was able to visit farms, factories and even a supermarket, places where his ready smile and goofy jokes convinced many Americans that this cartoonish figure might be human, after all. In Los Angeles, the Soviet premier was famously denied permission to visit Disneyland, supposedly over security concerns. The openly hostile mayor of Los Angeles, Norris Poulson, made light of the situation, which Khrushchev didn’t think was very funny. The mayor further antagonized him by hammering on his “we will bury you” proclamation, which Khrushchev thought he had thoroughly explained already several times on the tour. One of the things that comes across in the documentary is that the Soviet leader represented a nation of blue-collar and agricultural workers as fearful of being enslaved by greedy, war-mongering capitalists as Americans feared losing their personal freedoms under communism. Today, under Putin, they fear the same thing.

PBS’ “Moveable Feast With Fine Cooking” is hosted by Pete Evans, Australia’s top celebrity chef. The show’s reason for being, I think, is to show how great meals come together, from the sourcing and gathering of products to their preparation and appreciation of them by foodies invited to share in the feasts. Evans collaborates with such talented chefs as Jacques Pepin, Marcus Samuelsson, Susan Feniger, Mary Sue Milliken, Donald Link, Marco Canora and Tom Douglas on dishes that, we’re told, can be re-created in the kitchens of average viewers. As the “moveable feast” progresses from the waters off Seattle and vineyards of northern California, to a Manhattan rooftop and forests of Maine, we’re encouraged to connect interactively with the show’s producers and staff of Fine Cooking. Among the printable recipes are those for Spicy Thai Coconut Sauce, Balinese Chicken, Lobster Chowder, Fennel-Parmesan Fritters, Roasted Carrot Salad, Lemongrass Panna Cotta, Spiced Chicken with Papaya-Mango Salsa, Grated Carrot Salad with Raisins, Lamb Sausage Patties with Avocado Relish, Grilled Pork loin with Peaches and Coffee Creme Brulée.

Older-timers watching the “American Experience” presentation “Ripley: Believe It or Not” are likely to feel twinges of nostalgia for the glory years of newspapers, when information wasn’t bought and sold like any other commodity on the Chicago Board of Trade. Younger viewers should find it instructive as a history lesson in how their grandparents and great-grandparent learned about the world’s wonders in the days before radio, television and the Internet. What began as a weekly illustrated feature about great athletic feats in the sports pages of major New York newspapers, soon spread around the world via syndication, radio shows, television and every subsequent “new media” platform. A chain of “odditoriums” – museums of curiosities – still operate in numerous tourist destinations, some including sideshows with human attractions that more sensitive types might consider to be freakish. Besides being informative, the PBS profile of LeRoy Robert Ripley is genuinely entertaining. The show’s producers had plenty of archival material from which to choose, including audio and video footage from Ripley’s broadcast from Ground Zero of the recently ravaged Hiroshima.

The Canadian-produced adventure series, “Survivorman,” is to CBS’ “Survivor” what collegiate wrestling is to the WWE. Instead of participating in games, challenges and back-stabbing, host Les Stroud uses survival skills acquired through years of strenuous wilderness activities to stay alive and more or less healthy, alone, for up to 10 days in truly remote locations. Stroud’s conceit, honed in his previous show, “Stranded,” is to limit his carry-in inventory to little or no food, water or equipment. Each location is scouted extensively by Stroud and his team, who consult with survival specialists and natives of each new area. More to the point, he performs the filming himself.  In Season Five, we join Stroud on his visits to the jungles of Grenada, uninhabited Frigate Island, Tierra del Fuego, Ontario’s Temagami range, Tofino, Wabakimi, Nordegg and Alberta’s Radium Springs, where Stroud takes his shot at finding Bigfoot.

Positive Force: More Than a Witness; 30 Years of Punk Politics in Action
The public image of the punk-rock movement has changed very little since the Sex Pistols added safety pins, garishly colored hair and spittle to the jeans, leather and T-shirts preferred by the Stooges, Ramones and the CBGB crowd. As much as the Pistols espoused the nihilistic and anarchic sentiments of disaffected UK youth, they had been manufactured with as much attention to detail as the Monkees. Finally, though, the Pistols musical legacy was dwarfed by the band’s influence on rock-’n’-roll fashion and the introduction of pogoing. Like spiked hair and random piercings, though, punk music has withstood the onslaught of time and trends that followed the death of Syd Vicious. To survive, groups were required to adjust to the realities of a marketplace still dominated by the major labels, but vulnerable to guerrilla attacks by savvy start-ups working from a completely different business model. Robin Bell’s borderline-schizophrenic documentary, Positive Force: More Than a Witness: 30 Years of Punk Politics in Action, describes what happened when several prominent punk-rock groups extended their stage personae to include traditional grass-roots activism and communal lifestyles. Positive Force emerged in 1984, in Nevada, as activists linked arms with local punk bands to use the money raised in benefit concerts to finance the organization’s charitable and self-help activities. The movement spread across the country, with varying degrees of success. Bell’s focus here is directly on the only still-active branch of Positive Force, in Washington, D.C. The film mixes archival concert footage of performances by such bands as Fugazi, Bikini Kill, Nation of Ulysses and Anti-Flag, with new interviews of Positive Force co-founder Mark Andersen and supporters Ian MacKaye, Ted Leo, Riot Grrrl co-founder Allison Wolfe and other musicians. Through them, we meet Washington residents who participate in PF programs and the distribution of food. Some of them admit to being leery of the group members, whose hair styles and accessories were completely foreign to them. The DVD, which serves equally well as a call to renewed action, adds several interesting featurettes, “Wake Up! A Profile of Positive Force DC”; “Green Hair, Grey Hair,” an award-winning short documentary that spotlights the unlikely alliance between inner-city seniors and young punk rockers, fostered by PF’s work with the We Are Family senior outreach network; “Punks, Votes, Riots,” with bonus performances by Fugazi, Seven Seconds, Chumbawamba, Anti-Flag, Soulside, The Evens and Beefeater.

Female Gaze: Contemporary Films by Women
Beyond Borders: Stories of Interfaith Friendship
Faces of Israel: New Israeli Cinema
Shalom Sesame
Film Movement began its corporate life in 2003 as a movie-of-the-month club, not unlike the Book of the Month Club, except for a smaller list of titles. The subscriber-based service sent out one DVD each month, usually several months ahead of the movie being released to the general public. In addition to an award-winning indie film from a major festival, each DVD contained a short film that’s related to the feature thematically, as well as bios and interviews. Not surprisingly, the first couple of years’ worth of titles were something of a mixed bag, in terms of origin, subject matter and quality. I liked the idea of showcasing arthouse films that weren’t likely to find distribution in a crowded U.S. American marketplace, but, frankly, didn’t give it much of a chance of success. Eleven years later, the company has expanded its monthly inventory of releases, added boxed sets to the retail menu, entered the theatrical market (1,000 Times Good Night, A Life in Dirty Movies) and begun to exploit different online delivery systems. Film Movement has released more than 200 feature films and shorts from 37 countries on six continents, including top prize winners from Sundance, Cannes, Venice, Toronto, Berlin, Tribeca, SXSW and other prestigious festivals.
As qualified women writers and directors continue to struggle in the United States, it’s nice to know that their numbers continue to swell internationally and in the independent marketplace. No better example of this is available than Female Gaze: Contemporary Films by Women, a collection of seven excellent films from the Film Movement catalog. They include Olivia Spencer’s family drama Arcadia; Claudia Llosa’s MadeinUSA, about a 14-year-old Peruvian villager, Madeinusa, who’s last chance for freedom could lie in the incarceration of an innocent outsider; Pelin Esmer’s Watchtower, in which the fates of two troubled young adults meet at an emotional crossroads in Turkey; Ela Their’s Foreign Letters, a dramedy about the bond that develops between a 12-year-old immigrant from Israel and a Vietnamese refugee her age; Valérie Donzelli’s quirky romantic comedy, Queen of Hearts, about one woman’s desperate search for love; Inch’ Allah Dimanche, Yamina Benguigui’s moving portrait of an Algerian woman’s experiences as an immigrant in a racially divided France; and The Forest for the Trees, German writer/director Maren Ade’s story about a young teacher from the countryside, whose ideals are tested in her first job at a city high school.

Beyond Borders: Stories of Interfaith Friendship and Faces of Israel: New Israeli Cinema offer glimpses into life in Israel and Palestine, at a time when hardliners on both sides of the West Bank “security fence” refuse to give peace a chance. The former contains three award-winning features — Diane Crespo and Stefan Schaefer’s Arranged, Thierry Brnisti’s A Bottle in the Gaza Sea and Foreign Letters — that “support the belief that discrimination and fear of the other can be resolved through individual emotional connections.” The latter provides a representative sample of the best work coming out of Israel, highlighting the various themes and issues that are intrinsic to its national cinema. They include Campfire, by Joseph Cedar; For My Father, by Dror Zahavi; The Human Resources Manager, Eran Riklis; and Seven Minutes in Heaven, by Omri Givon. As usual, the DVDs arrive with excellent short films and other features.

Now seen in nearly 150 countries, “Sesame Street” has probably done more for American diplomacy than any single Secretary of State since 1969, when the show launched here on PBS. Not all of the editions look or sound the same as the American original, of course, but, then, our “Sesame Street” has undergone several radical changes, as well, mostly in the interests of political correctness and current theories of child psychology. The dozen DVDs that comprise “Shalom Sesame” (a.k.a., “Rechov Sumsum”), from SISU Home Entertainment, make a very good case for the belief that children from both Jewish and Arab backgrounds are more likely to suggest democratic solutions to resolving conflict – talking, instead of using force – than their parents and grandparents. The shows, from the 2010-11 season, follow Grover and celebrity host Anneliese van der Pol (“That’s So Raven”) as they travel to Israel in this co-production by Sesame Workshop Channel HOP! Each of the 30-minute, live-action and animated DVDs focus on storylines drawn from Jewish cultural traditions, highlighting lessons on Hebrew letters and words, unique sites in Israel and Jewish values. Among the show’s guests are Jake Gyllenhaal, Debra Messing, Matisyahu, Eva Longoria, Christina Applegate, Greg Kinnear and Debi Mazar.

The DVD Wrapup: Woody’s Magic, Where I Leave You, Stonehearst Asylum, TMNT, Iguana, Altina, Ed Woods Porn, Doby Gillis … More

Friday, December 19th, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight: Blu-ray
After holding his own against big summer blockbusters with such small gems as Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine and To Rome With Love, Woody Allen delivered a light summer confection that had no chance against Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Guardians of the Galaxy or, even, the instantly forgettable Let’s Be Cops. Considering that most actors probably agree to forgo their usual salaries to be directed by Allen, and foreign revenues are still being counted, it’s possible that Magic in the Moonlight will make enough money to keep the air-conditioners humming at Sony Pictures Classics … until the North Koreans turn them off. Set in Europe between the world wars, the breezy rom-com stars Colin Firth as a hoity-toity British illusionist, who performs under the stage name Wei Ling Soo, and an American psychic played by Emma Stone. When he isn’t making elephants disappear, Firth’s Stanley Crawford endeavors to debunk the charlatans who prey on tycoons desperate to communicate with deceased relatives. At about the same time, Harry Houdini had committed himself to the same cause. When he’s alerted to the seemingly nefarious activities of Stone’s Sophie Baker, Stanley accepts an invitation to spend the summer in a swank villa on the French Riviera proving she’s a fraud. He certainly doesn’t expect to be bowled over by the American’s sparkling personality and irresistible flirtations. Given Allen’s gift for setting such tender traps, however … well, c’est la vie. Unfortunately, that’s about all that happens in the movie. What makes Magic in the Moonlight compelling, though, is his crew’s attention to period detail and ability to merge the magician’s art with the unpredictability of romance … especially when it comes to men and women working opposite sides of a grift. The scenery’s pretty swell, too. Lowering one’s expectations should contribute to making Magic in the Moonlight an easy way to pass a winter’s night. The Blu-ray adds some rather perfunctory interview clips, none of them with Allen.

This Is Where I Leave You: Blu-ray
Whether they are set over a holiday weekend, at a wedding or a funeral, all family-reunion dramedies are essentially the same. Typically the actors look as if they’re from completely different families and no one is allowed to be completely happy in their marriages, jobs or dotage. If things start out well for the characters, the movie will end in chaos … and vice versa. No matter how much the family members bicker and swap insults, they inevitably end up putting aside their differences for the good of la familia. No matter the family’s religious persuasion, half of the characters will be played by actors of noticeably different faiths. It also is written in stone, somewhere, a family’s matriarch or patriarch is borderline crazy or died in some embarrassing way. There’s always room for sentimentality, but too much can spoil the broth. In Shawn Levy’s generally agreeable, if completely implausible This Is Where I Leave You, the matriarch of a non-observant Jewish family (Jane Fonda) insists that her four grown children, along with their respective spouses and kids, co-exist under the same roof while they sit shiva for their dearly departed father. It doesn’t matter to her that there aren’t enough bedrooms to accommodate all of the family members or that religion never played a big role in their lives. It was their father’s last wish and they’d satisfy it or die trying. And, of course, the siblings played by Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver and Corey Stall, in collusion with in-laws, current and former lovers, Rose Byrne, Kathryn Hahn, Connie Britton, Timothy Olyphant and Dax Shepard, practically kill each other off before half the movie is over. If Fonda’s early contributions are limited to a few fake-boob gags – the focus of the studio’s marketing campaign – rest assured she gets the last laugh. I think that This Is Where I Leave You could have been funnier and far more credible if some of the childish horseplay was toned down. But, since Jonathan Tropper’s screenplay was adapted from his own semi-autographical novel, maybe the Altmans are dead ringers for his own family from which he emerged. The Blu-ray adds a deleted scene and the featurettes, “The Gospel According to Rabbi Boner,” which discusses the film’s one very funny running joke, “Points of Departure” and “The Narritive Voice.

Stonehearst Asylum: Blu-ray
Paul Anderson’s credits include such dandy thrillers as Session 9, The Machinist and The Call, and episodes of “Boardwalk Empire,” “The Killing,” “Treme” and “The Wire.” Even so, his latest feature, Stonehearst Asylum, was accorded a pitifully limited release and it received decidedly mixed reviews. I don’t have any problem recommending the gothic horror to folks whose only opportunity to see it would be on the small screen, though. Based on the 1844 Edgar Allen Poe short story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” its cast includes such high-profile actors Jim Sturgess, Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson and Kate Beckinsale. Its chilly Bulgarian locations tingle the spine and the titular institution has “Bedlam” written all over it. Even better is a story – adapted by Joe Gangemi (Wind Chill) – that will keep viewers guessing from start to finish. There’s no way to synopsize what happens in Stonehearst Asylum without spoiling one or two of the key surprises. Even to suggest that the loonies often appear to have taken over the asylum gives away too much information. Sturgess (Across the Universe) plays recent medical-school graduate Edward Newgate, who, one winter’s day, arrives at the gates of Stonehearst Asylum, a giant facility roughly located in the middle of nowhere. In search of an apprenticeship, Newgate is warmly welcomed by Dr. Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley), who can’t recall receiving the letter the young man insists he sent, but is in desperate need of an assistant. Newgate is immediately is drawn to a cultivated young pianist, Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), who the audience has already met in a lab demonstration at the medical college. It doesn’t take him long to discover the dungeon in which less-well-attended patients are being kept in medieval conditions. The more Newgate learns about Dr. Lamb’s psychiatric methodology, the more horrified he becomes. Likewise, the more questions he asks, the more confused he is about what’s happening around him. And, like I said, none of it gets sorted out until near the end of the final reel. That’s OK, too.

 
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: 3D/2D Blu-ray
It’s highly unlikely that any negative criticism of the Michael Bay-produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot by anyone older than 12 or not affiliated with a geek website will be read by anyone who paid good money to see the movie. And, not surprisingly, plenty of high-minded negativity was hurled at the reptilian crusaders. (Yeah, I thought turtles were amphibians, too.) Why mainstream publications continue to send out their frontline critics to pass judgment on such frivolous fare is beyond me. They might as well assign the review to the religion writer or a guy from the IT department. Yes, by any critical standard, “TMNT” stinks. By the only measure that matters in Hollywood, however, Jonathan Liebesman’s live-action, CGI-heavy picture has to be considered wildly successful. It may not have threatened to break the 10-figure barrier worldwide in its theatrical run, but, with a $65.6 million first weekend take here, it now ranks fourth all-time in the month of August … more in one weekend than the 2007 animated Turtles movie earned in its entire run. Its tiny little turtle legs eventually would carry it to a $477.2 return in total global box-office. What’s it about? Who cares? An evil force known as Shredder threatens to take control of New York City. It’s so dastardly, we’re told, that it prompts four unlikely brothers to rise from the sewers and “discover their destiny” as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (I guess that makes it an origin story.) Exciting computer-generated action ensues. Among the recognizable human actors are Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Danny Woodburn, Tony Shaloub and Whoopi Goldberg. But, really, they’re just along for the ride. More to the point, the Blu-ray offers fans an exceptional audio/visual experience, even those whose home-theater systems aren’t blessed with immersive Dolby Atmos technology, designed to amp up any action picture. The featurettes include the making-of “Digital Reality”; “In Your Face! The Turtles in 3D”; the franchise backgrounder, “It Ain’t Easy Being Green”; a zoological backgrounder, “Evolutionary Mash-Up”; “Turtle Rock,” on the recording of the score; a 46-second extended ending; and music video of “Shell Shocked,” by Juicy J, Moxie, Ty dolla $ign and Wiz Khalifa. While supplies last, packages for purchase include face masks in four different colors.

Iguana: Blu-ray
A couple of weeks ago, we discussed here the Criterion Collection release of Monte Hellman’s long neglected Westerns, “Ride in the Whirlwind” and “The Shooting.” Unbeknownst to me, RaroVideo/Kino had just sent out a Blu-ray edition of Hellman’s even more rarely screened, Iguana. Adapted from Alberto Vazquez-Figueroa’s 1982 novel of the same title, describes what happens when a grotesquely disfigured harpooner takes revenge on the sailors who mistreated him on a 19th Century whaling ship. After escaping from the ship, Oberlus (a.k.a., Iguana), finds refuge on a deserted island in the middle of a watery nowhere. Before long, Iguana anoints himself ruler of the island and declares war on anyone who threatens him. When a group of sailors attempts to capture him, he turns the tables by taking them prisoner and demanding they pledge allegiance to him or face the bloody consequences. He also takes into custody the feisty daughter of a neighboring potentate. Oberlus loses most of our sympathy when he rapes the attractive young woman. After she gets pregnant, his behavior gets increasingly more bizarre. The island setting, with its subterranean cave system, is ideal for this kind of madness, though. The sea and shoreline are almost indescribably beautiful – thanks, in large part, to Spanish cinematographer Josep M. Civit — while the volcanic terrain could hardly be more forbidding. Within this environmental context, Hellman is able to milk Iguana’s various existential struggles for all they’re worth. Budget constraints clearly prevented Hellman from taking Iguana to the next level of creativity and thematic considerations convinced distributors not to accord it any more than extremely limited exposure. Nonetheless, adventurous filmgoers should find something in Iguana to like, if only the candid 20-minute interview with the sadly marginalized filmmaker.

Lord of Illusions: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
You Can’t Kill Stephen King
At the Devil’s Door: Blu-ray
Cam2Cam
Cruel Tango
Mother’s Milk­­­­
Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead: Blu-ray
Welcome to My Darkside: Women in Horror
Clive Barker’s name on any entertainment platform practically guarantees that genre buffs will pay attention to whatever is being exhibited or contained therein. It also ensures that no small amount of dread, menace and gore will be on the menu, as well. In 1995, Lord of Illusions was released into theaters in a version 10 minutes, or so, shorter than Barker would have preferred. It was far from a disaster, but as director, screenwriter and adapter of his own story, “The Last Illusion,” he didn’t hesitate taking the opportunity to replace the missing ingredients, even 20 years later. (The new Scream Factory edition includes both versions.) I’m glad he made the effort. Barker employs his hard-bitten literary creation, Harry D’Amour (Scott Bakula), to introduce a horrific clash between practitioners of stage magic and “magik” of the occult. Thirteen years before he enters the case on behalf of the wife of a David Copperfield-like performer, the lair of a cult leader and his acolytes is neutralized by former followers who believe that he’s gone over the edge of sanity. (Indeed, he uses a chained mandrill, of all possible primates, to frighten a kidnapped girl.) As Lord of Illusions progresses, D’Amour allows himself to be sucked into the philosophical divide separating the forces of good and evil. Famke Janssen, in only her second theatrical role, makes it easy for D’Amour to think that risking his life might be a good way to earn a paycheck. I didn’t bother to learn how much difference the additional 10 minutes made to the film, but I found Lord of Illusions sufficiently scary to satisfy my taste in horror for a while. Fans almost certainly will want to sample the bonus features, which add even more unseen footage; Barker’s commentary; the original making-of featurette; a fresh interview with storyboard artist Martin Mercer; and a photo gallery.

And, speaking of marquee attractions, it would nigh on impossible to beat Stephen King. He’s so prolific that once, in reaction to an accusation by his publisher that he’s overworked and, by inference, overexposed, the author created an entirely new pseudonym to override the complaint. His tireless devotion to duty – or his own ego, one — is why so many people love him, however. He’s so devoted to his craft and, by inference, his readers, that he couldn’t bear the thought of not working. In the often very decent indie thriller, You Can’t Kill Stephen King, a group of college-age friends decides it might be fun to check out the master’s home turf, on a lake in Maine. In real life or the movies, this mixed bag of transient readers – including one who is intimate with all the details of King’s life and fiction – probably wouldn’t be the first or last such group to do so. They mean no harm and expect no trouble. Instead, their lives quickly become nothing but not trouble, all of it resembling storylines, characters and crimes committed in King’s books. As such, the more trivia one knows about King, the more likely viewers it is that they’ll enjoy this decidedly low-budget indie, as well as more forgiving of the flaws that are attendant to low-budget fare. Beyond that, any summarization of the storyline would require one long spoiler. As such, that’s all I care to say on the subject, except to say that I was surprised by how much I liked You Can’t Kill Stephen King.

In some states, real-estate agents are required by law to inform potential home buyers of any serious crimes that might have taken place in a property. I’m not sure if the law covers houses believed to be possessed by demons, but, I’m guessing, it doesn’t. Like the Lutzes of Amityville, N.Y., however, some bargain hunters aren’t in any hurry to look a gift horse in the mouth, even after being warned that it might bite. At the Devil’s Door isn’t all that different from dozens of other haunted-house movies that followed in the wake of The Amityville Horror. Sophomore writer/director Nicholas McCarthy (The Pact) begins his story in the bright sunlight of the California desert, before jumping several years into the future in a far darker suburban milieu, where a young real estate agent, Leigh (Catalina Sandino Moreno), is commissioned to sell a house with a checkered past. Before long, she is confronted by the creepy runaway daughter – she wears a red raincoat with the hood pulled over her face — of the couple selling the property. When Leigh tries to help the girl, she antagonizes a supernatural force that soon pulls Leigh’s artist sister, Vera (Naya Rivera), into its web with her. If At the Devil’s Door is derivative, at least it is populated with attractive actors and can boast of some neat set pieces. It arrives with commentary, a making-of featurette and deleted scenes.

The best thing that can be said about Joel Soisson’s techno-horror thriller, Cam2Cam, is that its Bangkok setting is almost worth the price of a rental. The worst thing to be said, I think, is that it wastes the setting by cluttering the scenery with a story that defies easy comprehension. It opens with the murder of two young women on opposite ends of an Internet chat site. One lures the other into a trap that involves removing prominent items of clothing, while an ax-yielding fiend stalks both of them. (Sounds impossible, but stay tuned.) After taking out one woman, he breaks into the second victim’s apartment to complete the daily double. The next thing we know, another young American not only is checking into the same transient hotel in Bangkok that the murder occurred, but also the more bloody of the two rooms. Practically overnight, Allie Westbrook (Tammin Sursok, of “Dirty Little Liars”) becomes the target of the same deadly scam. Fortunately for viewers, an interesting tour of Bangkok at night is included in the movie.

The Italian import Cruel Tango also employs a techno-horror device in the service of a gory murder mystery. A masked killer is terrorizing a village in southern Italy, confounding police and showing no signs of satisfying his mad hunger. When a local blogger discovers a musical connection between the killer and the victims, naturally he becomes the prime suspect in the eyes of the police. Once again, the unusual location makes Salvatore Metastasio’s giallo-inspired thriller something out of the ordinary.

Looking for something really twisted? Edward Pionke’s Mother’s Milk tells the story of a mousy statistics professor, who, after a devastating childhood trauma, developed an unnatural craving for breast milk. Instead of surfing the Internet to find a wet nurse in need of a few extra bucks – all fetishes are served online – he kidnaps a babysitter he incorrectly assumes to be lactating. He chains her to a bed in his basement, where the polite pervert hopes to win her over with his gourmet cooking. To avoid being harmed, the abductee feigns interest in her captor to the point where she allows herself to be impregnated. Pionke allows us to ponder her true intentions.

In return for giving the world the goofy 2009 Nazi-zombie flick, Dead Snow – budgeted at a cool $800,000 — Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Wirkola was awarded the keys to Paramount/MTV/MGM’s $50-million Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, which starred Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Peter Stormare and Famke Janssen. Despite being trashed by mainstream critics, the film broke even in the U.S. and made enough money overseas to warrant a sequel. Wirkola’s Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead picks up where the original ended, in a Norwegian village besieged by Gestapo forces who had remained buried in the frozen slopes until a group of skiers accidentally awakened them. In their vacant minds, something reminded the storm-troopers of their mission to punish locals who had resisted Adolph Hitler’s charms. This time, a trio of American zombie chasers – led by Martin Starr, of “Silicon Valley” — joins Martin (Vegar Hoel), the only survivor from the original’s siege. To prevent being contaminated, he had chopped his arm off, but wakes up in a hospital with the zombie leader’s limb sewn onto his stump. If the splatter quotient is extremely high in Dead Snow 2, viewers can take solace in knowing that it’s all in the name good clean-as-the-driven-snow fun.

Welcome to My Darkside: Women in Horror is little more than a bargain-basement rehashing of themes already covered in the documentaries Screaming in High Heels: The Rise & Fall of the Scream Queen Era and Invasion of the Scream Queens. The primary difference is in the quality of the movies and actresses chosen to represent the genre. Only the most adventurous of genre buffs will recognize the women interviewed and films that went directly to PPV or DVD. As such, the quality of the anecdotes and personal data leaves plenty to be desired. Among those interviewed are Michelle Tomlinson (The Cellar Door), Brooke Lewis (Slime City Massacre), Lynn Lowry (The Crazies), Adrienne King (Friday the 13th), Dana Pike and Darla Enlow (The Stitcher), Michelle Fatale (The Cleaner) and hostess Miss Misery (Movie Massacre).

186 Dollars to Freedom
I don’t know how many Americans were dissuaded from attempting to smuggle drugs out of Turkey or Thailand by Midnight Express and Brokedown Palace. Maybe none, maybe a bunch. Like Alan Parker and Oliver Stone’s films, 186 Dollars to Freedom is based on a book written by the survivor of a rather harsh prison ordeal, this one in Peru, in 1980. Unlike “Midnight Express,” however, the protagonist, Wayne Montgomery (John Robinson), was framed on false charges of carrying two kilos of cocaine in his knapsack. An avid surfer, he had traveled there to take advantage of the waves, but needed to make money to stay in the country by teaching. Corrupt police officials hoped that his family would pay what amounted to a ransom for his freedom. Instead, he refused to tell them that his parents lived in Beverly Hills or how to contact them. Wayne would share space in Lima’s infamous El Sexto prison, along with all manner of common criminals, political prisoners and foreigners in the same boat as him. Writer/director Camilo Vila is most effective in creating a prison environment as frightening as it is filthy. His tendency to over-emphasize the brutality of the prison guards, however, made 186 Dollars to Freedom exceedingly difficult to sit through at times. One needn’t have his nose pushed into a pile of dog shit to recognize the smell, after all. An interview with the man who endured the punishment, some 30-plus years ago, appears in a bonus featurette to add some needed context to the harrowing film.

Altina
Edith Wharton: The Sense of Harmony
Not many of us have lived the kind of life that would justify the creation of a documentary as compelling as Altina. If we had, it would be nice to know it was being made by an adoring grandchild, such as Peter Sanders (The Disappeared). Altina Schinasi was born in 1907, in New York City, a decedent of Sephardic Jews from Asia Minor and daughter of a self-made tobacco tycoon. Altina wanted for nothing, except, perhaps, her father’s unconditional love. Lacking that, however, Altina used her outgoing personality and innate creative drive to achieve success as a painter, sculptor, muralist, Oscar-nominated filmmaker (George Grosz’ Interregnum), entrepreneur, designer, humanitarian and activist. Outside of her circle of friends and lovers, she was best known for designing the Harlequin eyeglass frame. Anyone who’s seen one of her whimsical “chair-acter” sculptures — which combine the function of a seat with the form of the sitter – isn’t likely to forget the experience, either. Altina also neatly captures the eccentric nature of Schinasi’s love life, which included four husbands and God knows how many lovers. Wealth allowed her the freedom to pursue her various passions, but it was her drive and courage that encouraged her to take the necessary first steps. If Altina stops short of being inspirational, it’s only because few of us possess the wherewithal to follow the same footsteps. The DVD includes additional interviews and a gallery.

If one doesn’t look too closely at their resumes, Altina Schinasi and American novelist Edith Wharton would appear to have been cut from the same cloth. Elizabeth Lennard’s scholarly bio-doc Edith Wharton: The Sense of Harmony paints a portrait of a woman born into wealth, whose literary talent revealed itself at an early age and allowed her to inform “The Age of Innocence,” “The House of Mirth,” “Ethan Frome” and “The Custom of the Country” with the kind of details that other writers of the Gilded Age must have envied. Wharton was the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Yale, win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and report from the front lines of World War I.  She also was a talented designer, a tireless traveler and a passionate philanthropist. The DVD contains interviews with such biographers as Louis Auchincloss, R.W.B. Lewis and Eleanor Dwight, as well as writer Colin Clark and historian Sir Steven Runciman, and the only known film footage of Wharton in existence.

Jay Johnson: The Two & Only!
If, like me, you dread the thought of being invited to a showcase of local ventriloquists, but are willing to admit, later, that they enjoyed the show, Jay Johnson: The Two & Only! may be the Christmas gift you didn’t know you planned to give. If Johnson’s name is vaguely familiar, it’s probably because of his starring role in the zany ABC sitcom, “Soap.” In it, he played Chuck and Bob Campbell, a ventriloquist and his “friend,” who served as the yin to other’s yang … or, if you will, the pepper to his salt. His Tony Award-winning show is equal parts autobiographical and a historical guide to ventriloquism, both delightfully rendered. Johnson invites several of his favorite props – dummies, puppets, dolls, characters, whatever — on stage to help him recall key moments in his life and career. His recollections of his relationship to mentor and friend Arthur Sieving, who created “Bob,” is especially affecting. Apart from a couple of naughty words, “Two & Only” easily qualifies as family entertainment.

My Uncle Rafael
If you loved My Big Fat Greek Wedding, there’s a better than a fighting chance that you’ll get a kick out of My Uncle Rafael. Like Mia Vardalos’ surprise hit, Vahik Pirhamzei’s movie started its life as a stage play and quirky celebration of his ethnic heritage. Much of My Uncle Rafael is set in a family-run café that serves Armenian delicacies, in addition to buckets of coffee. It’s in Glendale, which has a large Armenian-immigrant population, but also supports a mix of cultures. In a forced contrivance, the deceptively wise Uncle Rafael (Pirhamzei) is hired by the producer of a reality-based show to mediate the many problems dividing a split-pair of a dysfunctional American families. All of the characters are exaggerated in one way or another – Rafael’s prosthetic makeup borders on the grotesque – but only one of them could be considered to be a villain, of sorts. What saves My Uncle Rafael is a veteran team of comic actors that viewers will recognize from such shows as “Happily Divorced,” “Inside Amy Schumer,” “Yes, Dear,” “Suburgatory” and “The Carrie Diaries.” The Armenian actors may be far less recognizable, but no less talented. Despite the success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the reluctance to cast overtly ethnic-looking actors is pathetic. (Despite the fact that Pirhamzei has portrayed more than 20 characters in his live comedy-variety shows — and performed in Farsi, Armenian, English and German – his list of film credits wouldn’t exhaust the fingers on a single hand.) The DVD adds deleted scenes and a backgrounder.

Ever After (Reloaded)
If nothing else, Fernando A. Mico deserves credit for putting his fingerprints on every single frame of his debut film, from the opening credits to the last lines of the closing reel. His name appears in 11 of 12 categories on the IMDB.com listings for the martial-arts actioner, Ever After (Reloaded), from writer, director and actor to miscellaneous crew, cinematographer and special effects. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the working definition of a DIY (do-it-yourself) filmmaker. It almost doesn’t matter that Ever After isn’t very good. Mico deserves kudos merely for being able to finish the damn thing, without running out of hats to wear or committing suicide. It should go without saying that Miko stars as Miko, a “lone assassin in the tradition of Clint Eastwood and Bruce Lee … with a score to settle.” Just as Miko takes money from rival crime bosses to kill each other’s subordinates, he’s chased across America by street-level cops, FBI agents and, even, his sensei. A couple of the fight scenes work OK, but everything else is almost necessarily underwhelming. Having lived in a few glass houses, myself, I’m not about to throw stones at anyone who attempts to do something as daunting as making a feature film all by himself.

Ed Wood’s Dirty Movies
Come Play With Me
Pacific Banana
Blue Movie
Sweet & Perverse Milly
Here’s a DVD few people saw coming and, yes, there’s still time to stuff tuff one into a loved one’s stocking … preferably, black thigh-highs. To coin a phrase originated by the folks at Budweiser, “When you say, Ed Wood’s Dirty Movies, you’ve said it all!” Twelve years after the most justifiably reviled director in the history of the medium committed Plan 9 from Outer Space to film, Wood turned to hard-core features under the pseudonym, Richard Trent. By the time Deep Throat introduced facials, anal and giant cocks to mainstream audiences, under the guise of “porno chic,” Wood’s The Young Marrieds had successfully merged an identifiable narrative with explicit sex. If it isn’t very good, remember that Deep Throat wasn’t all that terrific, either. In The Young Marrieds, an uptight suburban housewife and her frustrated husband are introduced to the sexual-liberation movement by friends who have quietly embraced swinging. By the end of the movie, the character played by Alice Friedland is in control of her own orgasm and digging something she once dreaded, showing emotion while having sex. Right on, Ed. The appropriately titled Nympho Cycler features a wacky cameo by Wood, in a bathtub, while Shot on Location takes an inside-Hollywood approach to voluntary and forced sex. The trailer package is a blast, as well.

The late British sex star Mary Millington has been compared to Linda Lovelace, if only because of her appeal defied any attempt to ghettoize porn in the 1970s. For my money, though, the petite blond bombshell had more in common with Marilyn Monroe, both physically and in the details of her sad demise. Released in 1977, Come Play With Me is a soft-core comedy that more closely resembles “Benny Hill” with nudity than Deep Throat or Behind the Green Door. Basically, it’s a crime caper that takes place largely in a rural retreat/brothel. A pair of forgers take refuge from a crime boss at the health farm at the same time as a busload of punters arrive for some sexual healing. There’s plenty of nudity, but not much in the way of hard-core action. This distinction helped Come Play With Me set box-office records by running 201 weeks at the Moulin Cinema in London’s West End. The DVD adds background featurettes on Millington, who had become a household name before British cops and tax collectors pushed her into a corner from which there was no escape.

In 1981, the Australian sexploitation comedy, Pacific Banana, took flight. Reminiscent of the raunchy “Carry On …” series and Aussie sex comedy, Alvin Purple, it describes what happens when a hapless pilot – he sneezes whenever he is aroused, causing him to lose his erection – accepts a job in the cockpit of a Banana Airlines island-hopper. His co-pilot is a male slut who frequently forgets to turn off the intercom when he brags about his conquests. The equally horny air hostesses and tour director take it upon themselves to cure the pilot of his sneezing malady, which finally is resolved with a touch of true romance. The movie may be outdated, but the scenery isn’t bad.

While we’re on the subject of how different nations responded to the call of the so-called Golden Age of Porn, it’s worth noting RaroVideo’s upgrade of Alberto Cavallone’s 1978 Blue Movie. Just as an Italian sports car can be differentiated from those manufactured anywhere else in the world, its genre cinema stands out like a screaming-neon sign, at night, on a two-lane highway in the desert. Everything is done with a sense of style and overstatement that could have pushed a film in the direction of an arthouse or triple-bill at the local drive-in theater. Blue Movie tells two interrelated stories, both involving extremely attractive men and women and abusive sexual relations. In the first, a young woman is kidnapped and taken to abandoned Etruscan ruins in the forest, where she manages to escape her captors before being raped. Her clothes torn and tattered, Silvia (Dirce Funari) flags down a passing motorist, who offers her a place in his photography studio to nurse her wounds. After a traumatizing stint covering the war in Vietnam, Claudio (Claude Maran) can’t help but contrast the degradation of mankind and dehumanization of contemporary culture in his fashion photography. When he isn’t shooting supermodels in overtly sexual positions, he’s arranging and photographing discarded pop cans as if they were high-fashion models. As this is an Italian film, Silvia can’t help but be attracted to the deeply troubled, if bewitchingly attractive Claudio, who keeps his model, Daniela (Danielle Dugas), locked in a room. Before long, Silvia becomes troubled by recollections of the attempted rape and escape from masked assailants. She responds by allowing herself to be turned into just another aluminum can, crushed and posed at Claudio’s whim. The sex scenes in Blue Movie are more graphic than one usually encounters in giallo and somewhat more disturbing. This was as much a commercial consideration on the producers’ part as an artistic decision made by Cavallone. This isn’t an easy movie to grasp intellectually, but an informative 40-minute featurette goes a long way toward clarifying what happened to Blue Movie in its journey to limited release. It adds some interesting interviews, not only with the director and his associates, but also the male lead, Claude Maran. The disc also includes a few minutes of deleted material shot in super-8, most of which is fairly explicit in nature and not all of which Cavallone recalls shooting. A color booklet of liner notes from Davide Pulici provides further information on the film and its director.

In One 7 Movies’ Sweet & Perverse Milly, the formidable Italian sex goddess Milly D’Abbraccio essentially plays her on-screen alter ego, this time as a lusty and pleasure-loving woman who’s tired of the men in Italy. On a lark, she decides to take her manhunt crusade to the U.S., where she engages in trysts with several studs who look suspiciously Italianate. It’s a very goofy film, noteworthy primarily for the presence of the voluptuous D’Abbraccio, who, before going into hard-core, won the 1978 Miss Teenager Italy pageant. She would attempt a career in the non-porn world of entertainment, but found greater success and visibility in the sex trade. Like Cicciolina, she would cap her career by running for political offices in Rome and Monza. “S&P Milly” was directed by Christopher Clark, under the supervision of American maestro Gerard Damiano.

Mentor
Southern Baptist Sissies
[Safe]: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Big Gay Love
Typically, if five students at a high school in an affluent community came down with the same disease simultaneously or, perhaps, even had their cars robbed in the parking lot in the same week, parents would be passing around petitions and demanding explanations from the principal, vice principal, homeroom teachers, hall monitors and janitors. If the situation continued, lawsuits would be filed against school personnel and the school board. In many districts, a football coach whose team loses five games in succession will be fired or brought before a PTA tribunal. By contrast, in Mentor, Ohio, the suicide deaths of five students – two of them, at least, to an epidemic of bullying – caused a wall of silence to be raised around the offices of several school officials, but no formal actions to curb the scourge. It’s possible that one or two of them showed some concern, unofficially, but the refusal to discuss the matter extended to the producers of the horrific documentary, Mentor. One would think that the mass slaughter of children at Columbine at other schools would have convinced the administrators of Mentor’s school to investigate reported incidents of bullying, but, according to the people who were willing to be interviewed by Alix Lambert (The Mark of Cain) for this upsetting film, the most anyone did was destroy files documenting the many times victim Sladjana Vidovic reported the abuse before committing suicide. In 2006 and 2010, Mentor was selected as one of America’s Top 100 Cities to Live, so it’s unlikely that any freakish environmental accident many have triggered the rash of bullying or that the kids who committed suicide were influenced by ties to gangs or drug cartels. Apparently, Sladjana’s crime was being born in Bosnia and given refugee status, along with her parents and sister, in the U.S. after the war erupted in the early 1990s. Then, too, kids in the cool clique appear to have resented her struggles with the language and difficulty of pronouncing her name, not that any of them were required to do so. She did the right thing, by reporting the bullying to her parents, who, although not fluid in English, repeatedly pursued their daughter’s complaints with school officials. One of the taunts, of course, questioned her sexual identity, not that it would have made any difference, either. The other teenager to whom we’re introduced is Eric Mohat, an enthusiastic member of the school’s stage choir – think, “Glee” – but singularly unable to defend himself against the jock elite. Eric suffered in near silence, before taking one of the bully’s advice and committing suicide. With only a few weeks to go until the end of classes and a competition in Hawaii just around the corner, the boy’s parents had no reason to fear such a dire solution to his problems. Mentor doesn’t dwell on the other suicides, except to imply that they didn’t cause a ripple of concern among school officials, either.

Bullying and suicide both figure prominently in Del Shores’ alternately hilarious and deflating Southern Baptist Sissies, a 2000 stage play (with songs) that describes the hell of growing up LGBT in a town dominated by bigots and people too weak to stand up to blow-hard Christian ministers. Having survived the experience and prospered in a land far, far away from the militantly right-wing hamlets of central Texas, Shores has been able to look back in fear, loathing and laughter. A natural-born storyteller, Shores has served as writer/producer of such TV shows as “Sordid Lives,” “Queer as Folk” and “Dharma & Greg.” The potential audience for Southern Baptist Sissies, which is filmed as a theatrical piece, shouldn’t feel limited to one particular group, gay or straight. The DVD adds music videos for show-stoppers, “Stained Glass Window” and “Pass Me Not”; a behind-the-scenes featurette; and cast interviews.

If only for the radiant presence of Julianne Moore and its suburban setting, Todd Haynes’ 1995 allegorical drama, [Safe] will remind viewers of Far From Home, his 2002 adaptation of Douglas Sirk’s  All That Heaven Allows. Both deal with issues that were kept hidden from view in polite society, but served as ticking time bombs in the lives of the protagonists. In [Safe], Moore plays the wife of a successful, if annoyingly aloof businessman, whose primary concern is maintaining a lifestyle worthy of his station in life. Carol seems satisfied in her role as a presentable wife and someone who makes sure their home is up-to-date, according to the magazines she reads. One day, out of the blue, Carol begins to display symptoms of an illness that could be a simple as an allergy or as potentially fatal as leukemia. After running a series of tests, her doctors conclude that she has developed an allergy that can be triggered by anything from fumes from a newly woven carpet to the food she consumes and air she breathes. Perplexed, Carol takes the advice of an ad she sees, advertising a health retreat far from the noxious atmosphere of the San Fernando Valley. Once there, she’s surrounded by people diagnosed with ailments similar to the one torturing her. The spiritual leader of the retreat, who’s HIV-positive, preaches the gospel of self-awareness, self-blame and self-help. Never having to take her life and environment at anything except face value, Carol feels as abandoned at the retreat as at home in the suburbs. The ending has stuck in the craw of some viewers, who apparently expected more of a statement on AIDS and others, who felt Haynes left too much open to question. Twenty years after the fact, the ending seems perfectly fine to me and, as Haynes indicates in his comments in the Blu-ray package, an inescapable commentary on society’s early response to AIDS. Also included in the new 4K digital restoration are commentary, featuring Haynes, Moore, and producer Christine Vachon; a new conversation between Haynes and Moore; Haynes’s “The Suicide,” a 1978 short film from his high school years; a new interview with Vachon; and an essay by critic Dennis Lim.

Big Gay Love explores the America’s physically obsessed culture, especially in the gay community, where maintaining a youthful glow and buff physique can mean the difference between hope and despair. Jonathan Lisecki (Gayby) plays the self-conscious protagonist, Bob, whose only hurdle to happiness is a body that only a bear could love. Alas, that’s not Bob’s scene. When the smart, sensitive and handsome chef Andy (Nicholas Brendon) shows an interest in the party planner, Bob talks himself out of accepting that such a cool guy could be his “big gay love.” Frankly, we have to be convinced that Andy’s intentions are true, as well. The rest of the movie is consumed with the kinds of things that would happen in any rom-com, straight or LGBT, under similar circumstances. If Bob’s self-loathing is almost too much to bear at times, Ringo Le’s picture is saved by some clever writing and a cast that isn’t nearly obsessed with their flaws.

TV-to-DVD
The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis: The Final Season
Comedy Central: Kroll Show: Seasons One & Two
Nickelodeon: CatDog: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
Masterpiece Mystery: Inspector Lewis: Series 7
PBS: Makers: Women Who Make America, Volume 2
Mind of a Chef: Magnus Nilsson – Season 3
Barney Miller: The Complete Sixth Season
Hart to Hart: The Complete Third Season
Nickelodeon: Legend of Korra: Book Three: Change
Drawing With Mark: Take Flight/As The Wheels Turn
Visit Sheila Kuehl’s website and you’ll notice at the bottom of her biography that “in her youth, she was known for her portrayal of the irrepressible Zelda Gilroy in the television series, ‘The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.’” The rest of the page is devoted to the years she’s spent since then as a legislator, public servant, educator, lawyer and activist. No one’s gotten around to adding Kuehl’s new job as Los Angeles County supervisor, a position she assumed after beating Kennedy kinsman Bobby Shriver in a high-profile campaign. I only mention this as an introduction to the new DVD collection, “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis: The Final Season,” in which Zelda played a prominent role. Among other things, this is the season Dobie finally is required to make up his mind about marrying Zelda or continue being flummoxed by women who mistakenly believe that he’ll someday come into big money. Bobby Diamond joined the team as Dobie’s frisky young cousin and co-conspirator with Maynard on a variety of silly schemes. Other weird Gillis relatives show up in the fourth season, as well. Among the guest stars are the Lettermen, Ellen Burstyn, Robby the Robot and Tuesday Weld, who returns for a final turn as Thalia Menninger. It’s a fine end to a landmark series.

Nick Kroll is an extremely funny guy, who’s been kicking around Hollywood for almost 20 years as a writer and performer in comedy clubs and television. Although he may be better known for his podcasts and sketch work on various Internet series, the Westchester County native has raised his profile considerably of late as Rodney Ruxin on “The League” and with recurring roles on Adult Swim’s “Childrens Hospital,” the NBC sitcom, “Parks and Recreation” and as a regular on the “Funny or Die” website. On Comedy Central’s anarchic “Kroll Show,” he takes on several very different personalities each week, including the sleazy Bobby Bottleservice. Practically every sketch comic in the business has shown up on the show, at least once, during its first two seasons.

Imagine Laurel & Hardy or Abbott & Costello as conjoined twins and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the dynamic at work in the brash Nickelodeon series, “CatDog,” which enjoyed a four-season run between 1998 and 2005. Instead of being joined side-by-side or back-to-back, the protagonists of the animated series resemble a sausage with the two heads and dual personalities, one of a cat and the other of a dog. At the time of the show’s arrival on the cable network, Nickelodeon had yet to commit fully to the kind of offbeat cartoons it’s now famous for producing. The success of “CatDog” convinced it to push forward on the burgeoning format. Shout! Factory has released “CatDog: The Complete Series” for DVD. The studio also plans to offer the item a couple of months early, exclusively through one well-known chain of brick-and-mortar department stores, for the very passionate fans out there. The set will cost $39.99 SRP, and can be pre-ordered right now from Amazon at a discounted cost of $27.99, and delivered right to your door in time for Christmas! Package art hasn’t been finalized yet, but stay tuned. Our thanks to longtime reader Shira Schweitzer for tipping us off about this item!

The busy little bees who toil in the service of PBS have been particularly active this month. Among the DVDs and Blu-rays newly available is “Masterpiece Mystery: Inspector Lewis: Series 7,” which includes three complete episodes of the ITV/PBS presentation: “The Greater Good,” “The Lions of Nemea” and “Beyond Good & Evil.” Oxford crime-solvers Kevin Whately and Laurence Fox have been reunited after Lewis’ brief retirement and none too soon, as one of his first successful cases as a detective-inspector has been re-opened for appeal.

The format for the second go-round of “Makers: Women Who Make America” has changed to focus on individual fields in which women have had a profound impact on how things are run and done. “Women in Comedy” and “Women in Hollywood” are already so well-trod that comedian Joy Behar quipped for the camera, “This is the last documentary I want to see about women in comedy.” Me, too. Less obvious are chapters devoted to women in Politics/Business/War/Space. Here, the women we meet have faced far different, but equally difficult challenges on their way through the glass ceiling.

The latest edition of Anthony Bourdain’s “The Mind of a Chef” is especially delicious, as it delivers both as a foodie guide to Scandinavian cuisine and luscious travelogue for adventurous diners. The mini-series’ epicenter is the kitchen at Magnus Nilsson’s Fäviken, where simple cooking methods and local ingredients are favored. Nilsson also is our guide on a camping trip, a visit to his native village, the Faroe Island and onto the Atlantic Ocean fisheries, with a side trip to the restaurants of Paris in which he learned his craft.

Also on tap this month are “Finding Your Roots: Season 2,” with such celebrity guests as Stephen King, Gloria Reuben, Courtney B. Vance, Derek Jeter, Billie Jean King, Rebecca Lobo; Ken Burns, Anderson Cooper, Ben Affleck, Khandi Alexander, Tom Colicchio, Carole King, Tina Fey, David Sedaris and George Stephanopoulos; and the “Nova” presentations “First Man on the Moon,” which ought to be watched alongside “Women in Space,” and “Bigger Than T. Rex,” about the mystery surrounding Spinosaurus, the prehistoric world’s largest predator.

Besides “Dobie Gillis,” Shout! Factory has sent out seasonal packages of the police squad-room sitcom “Barney Miller” (No. 6) and glamorous detective drama “Hart to Hart” (No. 3), in which Robert Wagner, Stefanie Powers and Lionel Stander effectively updated “The Thin Man” movies and series. Both are relatively timeless.

Legend of Korra: Book Three: Change” returns the animated series to Earth Kingdom, one of the four major nations in the setting of the series. Air-benders are re-introduced into the narrative, alongside Lin Beifong, Zuko, the Red Lotus anarchists and Zaheer, who wants to overthrow the world’s governments and the Avatar. I don’t think that the children’s instructional series, “Drawing With Mark,” is running on any television network currently, but, for those who want to bring out the artist in their kids, Shelter Island has released “Take Flight” and ”As the Wheels Turn,” as a combo.

DVD Gift Guide II: Guardians of the Galaxy, Wonder Years, Jacques Tati, Spielberg, Red Skelton and More

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy: 3D/2D Blu-ray
Although technically not a season-specific package or special compilation, the highly anticipated release of Guardians of the Galaxy should prove to be a welcome discovery under the Christmas tree of any multiplex habitué. By expanding Marvel’s Cinematic Universe to Deep Space, James Gunn’s surprise summer blockbuster captivated superhero junkies in what typically is the slowest month of summer. It also caught the fancy of critics and international audiences, thus assuring a sequel and animated series for television. Unless one already is conversant in Marvel mythology, it would take a doctorate in advanced comic-book studies to fully grasp what happens in Guardians of the Galaxy. Indeed, the film’s trivia page on IMDB.com is among its longest and most complex on the site. But, what sold audiences on the $177-million film in the first place? Could it simply come down to the presence of rootin’-tootin’ Rocket Raccoon and his kinship to the Beatles’ Rocky Raccoon? (Bradley Cooper based his CGI-enhanced characterization on Joe Pesci, in Goodfellas.) What Guardians of the Galaxy does very well is tell a smart and amusing sci-fi story, while pushing the limits of existing technology. Gun, who cut his teeth as a writer in the toxin-spewing factories of Tromaville, further displayed his talent for creating wacky characters in Super, The Specials and Scooby-Doo. Even so, handing him the keys to such an expensive ship couldn’t have been an easy decision. Among other things, Guardians of the Galaxy begs the question as to what J.J. Abrams and James Cameron might have up their sleeves in Star Wars VII and Avatar 2 to advance the state of the art.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is a half-human/half-alien bad boy, who after being orphaned and kidnaped as a youth by space outlaws, gets his revenge as an adult by stealing a widely coveted orb from his captors. It sets off a high-risk game of hot potato, with the fate of the cosmos left in the hands of the winner. Quill loses the orb to a green-skinned assassin, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket Raccoon, Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) and the tree-like humanoid, Groot (Vin Diesel), who will pool their talents as the Guardians. The rest of the story plays out in helter-skelter fashion against a cosmic backdrop that should remind viewers of the Space Mountain ride at Disneyland. Curiously, the action is frequently interrupted, none too elegantly, by pop songs that were popular in the 1970-80s, such as “Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” “Hooked on a Feeling,” “Go All the Way” and “Spirit in the Sky.” These are the songs that would have remained fresh in Quill’s memory, even after growing up in a distant galaxy. Inexplicably, the soundtrack albums spun off Guardians of the Galaxy quickly soared to No. 1. Also adding to the picture’s heart, humor and humanity are performances by Glenn Close, Michael Rooker, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly and Benicio Del Toro. I haven’t seen the 3D edition of “GOTG,” but others have vouched for its excellence. The overall color scheme is dark and ominous, with occasional flashes of brilliant colors in the battle scenes. The larger the viewing monitor, I suspect, the better the visual experience. Cheesy pop tunes aside, the audio presentation demands to be cranked up to the max. The bonus package adds a pretty good commentary, with Gunn; “Guide to the Galaxy With James Gunn,” in which the director and his 8-bit avatar break down key scenes; four minutes’ worth of deleted and extended scenes; a gag reel of equal length; a brief special-effects explainer; and a sneak preview of Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.

The Wonder Years: Complete Series Collection: Metal Locker Box Set
Midnight Special: The Complete Collector’s Edition
Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever
The folks at StarVista/Time Life tend not to wait for the holidays to fire their big guns. If the direct-marketing approach to sales isn’t conducive to haggling or deep discounting, several packaging options are available to buyers at various price points. Needless to say, some homework is necessary to determine what already may be readily available, uncollected, and which box gives you the best bang for your bucks. For collectors of such specialty collections as “The Wonder Years: Complete Series Collection: Metal Locker Box Set,” for example, there’s a huge difference what’s first and what’s best. Several video iterations of the show have been made available over the years since it left the air in 1993, even on VHS. Fans quickly would discover, however, that packages were incomplete in key ways. Instead of paying expensive license fees for songs on the original musical soundtracks, distributors replaced them with generic selections or copy-cat versions. Casual fans and those too young to have watched the show in the 1980s wouldn’t have noticed the substitutions, but viewers who grew up on the show recognized the missing ingredient immediately. The good news here comes in knowing that StarVista/Time Life was able to secure the rights to roughly 95 percent of the more than 300 songs featured in the original broadcasts. A couple of no-frills versions of the complete DVD set were released in October and duly noted in this space. We waited to discuss the “Metal Locker Box Set,” because, at $249.95, it seemed more appropriate as a gift idea. Besides containing the115 episodes on 26 DVDs, the miniature locker is crammed with a pair of “notebooks” with detailed episode information, production photos and 15 hours of bonus features on the discs. For $299.95, however, fans not only get the miniature locker and its contents, but also “The Wonder Years’ Experience,” with a Kennedy Junior High gym bag, Wildcats T-shirt and tube socks, pennant and patch, buttons and soundtrack CD. Add another $150, or so, and you’ll get the limited “Signature Edition,” for which Fred Savage, Danica McKellar, Olivia d’Abo and Alley Mills autographed a yearbook

The elaborate television special, “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever,” debuted on NBC on May 16, 1983, providing music lovers an opportunity to relive the Detroit label’s glory years and get a preview of things to come, including 24-year-old Michael Jackson’s world premiere of the moonwalk. Beyond that, the show featured reunions by the Miracles, the Supremes and the Jackson 5; the first battle of the bands between the Temptations and Four Tops; and an appearance by Richard Pryor. The six-disc set features a version of the “Motown 25” concert that adds 20 minutes of material not seen in the original broadcast. In addition, a bonus package adds never-before-seen rehearsal footage with Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder; roundtable discussions with Smokey Robinson, Otis Williams (Temptations) and Duke Fakir (Four Tops); more than 25 exclusive interviews with key production members and performers; newly-produced featurettes; a “Motown 25” program; and an exclusive booklet about the show and artists. But, wait, there’s more! For another $80, you can purchase the same package, plus eight CDs from the “Motown Collection.”

There’s been no scarcity of DVDs dedicated to “The Midnight Special,” one of the shows that revolutionized the way music was presented on television in the early 1970s. While “American Bandstand” and “Soul Train” catered to teenage audiences, Burt Sugarman’s “Midnight Special” and “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” played to the late-night, early-adult demographic that was turned off by lip-synching to pre-recorded songs and dance contests. Neither were these shows limited to the rock or pop acts favored by white, suburban listeners. They represented a cross-section of the music industry, which had yet to be completely coopted by greedy label executives and cocaine cowboys. This purity of vision wouldn’t, couldn’t last, of course, but, for a few years, at least, it was worth the effort to come home early from the bars. One of the things that distinguished “Midnight Special” from “Rock Concert” was the considerable presence of Wolfman Jack, the legendary border-radio DJ who had recently been immortalized in American Graffiti. After a few years, even his act would be diluted by the mainstream instincts of the producers. Watch these DVDs chronologically and it’s easy to see how the marketing strategy evolved from one in which the labels had no interest in showcasing their acts for free, to one that allowed them to dictate terms and access. When the producers decided to give up on their edict forbidding singers to lip-synch their songs, it was a clear sign that the show had lost its edge. Still, there are plenty of things here worth watching. “The Midnight Special Collector’s Edition” comes in two different editions. For $119.96, you get 16 hours of music on 11 DVDs, including a collector’s box, 32-page booklet and bonus comedy disc. For another $100, the package grows to 36 hours of music and interviews, on 20 DVDs. You can do the math as well as I can. Here’s a pretty representative selection of artists who appeared between 1973 and 1981: AC/DC, Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, The Bee Gees, The Kinks, Earth, Wind & Fire, Electric Light Orchestra, The Cars, Fleetwood Mac, Gordon Lightfoot, Heart, Sammy Hagar, Helen Reddy, Jim Croce, John Denver, Golden Earring, KC and the Sunshine Band, Ted Nugent, Linda Ronstadt, Marvin Gaye, Robert Palmer, Captain & Tennille, Peter Frampton, REO Speedwagon, Steely Dan, The Doobie Brothers, The Hollies, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, The Village People and Eddie Money.

The Complete Jacques Tati: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Steven Spielberg: Director’s Collection
La dolce vita: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Extended Edition: Blu-ray
As difficult as it might be to imagine gifting a fan of mainstream films with a collection of comedies by a French filmmaker and actor, I have no qualms about suggesting you stock up on Criterion Collection’s The Complete Jacques Tati for stocking stuffing. Funny is funny and one needn’t be fluent in French – or a film scholar — to dig Tati’s many talents. He can be fairly compared to Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and other great Hollywood actors of the silent era, as well as Marcel Marceau and, yes, Jerry Lewis. His alter ego, Monsieur Hulot, with his trademark raincoat, umbrella and pipe, is simply one of the most recognizable comic characters in the world. As nimble as a dancer and blessed with an ability to communicate through the most subtle gestures and sound effects, Tati used Hulot to comment on such broad topics as Western society’s obsession with material goods and gadgets, the dehumanization of French workers by big business and modern architecture, conformist trends, France’s caste system and the tyranny of space-age technology and design. And, viewers didn’t need a billboard or subtitles to guess what was on Hulot’s mind. Tati’s influence on such terrific physical actors as Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), Steve Martin, Robin Williams and, perhaps, Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, can’t be denied. The generous “Complete Jacques Tati” includes digitally restored editions of all six of Tati’s feature films: Jour de fête, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Mon oncle, Trafic, his masterpiece, PlayTime and Parade, and all seven of his short films. Among the other delicious treats are two alternate versions of Jour de fête (“The School for Postmen”); original 1953 theatrical-release version of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday; the version of Mon oncle that Tati created for English-language audiences; comedian Terry Jones’ introductions to three of the films; archival interviews with Tati; a booklet featuring essays by critics David Cairns, James Quandt, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Kristin Rossand; and “In the Footsteps of Monsieur Hulot,” a 1989 documentary about the universally loved character. There are several more featurettes, but you get the picture.

Because Universal released Steven Spielberg Director’s Collection in October and most collectors already own half of the titles included therein on Blu-ray, great discounts are available on the set. Needless to say, newcomers to Blu-ray will benefit most from upgrading to Jaws, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park and The Lost World: Jurassic Park, while more ardent fans will appreciate the opportunity to finally get hi-def versions of the made-for-TV Duel, Spielberg’s first theatrical release The Sugarland Express, his nostalgic Always and much-maligned 1941, which, at its best, compares favorably to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Any glaring omissions are the result of distribution and production deals with studios other than Universal. I suspect that Schindler’s List’s absence can be explained by the set’s tone, which emphasizes entertainment over heart-wrenching drama. The still-exciting Duel is represented here by the 89-minute, 1.85:1 aspect ratio version intended for theatrical release and it includes several must-watch background featurettes. Sugarland Express established Spielberg as an up-and-coming master of action and Goldie Hawn as a versatile lead actress. (Ben Johnson’s presence helped lend an air of Lone Star authenticity to the 27-year-old director’s feature debut.)  The outrageous based-on-actual-paranoia comedy, 1941, is included on Blu-ray in both its 119-minute theatrical version and the 146-minute extended cut, which first appeared on Universal’s 1996 Signature Laserdisc. The essential featurette, “The Making of 1941,” is only five minutes shorter than the extended cut and is nearly as entertaining. Always is Spielberg’s remake of Victor Fleming’s 1943 wartime rom/com/dram, A Guy Named Joe, updated with a group of contemporary daredevil pilots called “Fire Eaters.” It stars Richard Dreyfuss, John Goodman and Holly Hunter.

At first glance, Criterion Collection’s 4K digital restoration of La dolce vita may seem to be too obvious a gift for the film buff in your family. Fact is, though, every repeat viewing of Federico Fellini’s masterpiece reveals something new and wonderful about the film and its influence on every subsequent generation of directors. By introducing the as-yet-unnamed phenomenon, paparazzo, to the popular culture – the word, Fellini said, “suggests to me a buzzing insect, hovering, darting, stinging” – while also decrying the vacuity of celebrity worship, La dolce vita many be more relevant today than it was in 1960. Fellini favorite Marcello Mastroianni is our guide to this world, as well as the wonders of the Eternal City as a whole. His dispassionate portrayal of a reporter who chronicled the empty pursuits of the international haute bourgeoisie – a.k.a., jet set – made him an international star and sex symbol. (The same thing happened to Jean-Paul Belmondo, whose breakthrough role in Breathless also came in 1960.) The Blu-ray upgrade wouldn’t be nearly as valuable if it weren’t for Criterion’s typically excellent package of supplemental features. Among them are “The Eye & the Beholder,” a visual essay that focuses on the framing and camera movement in La Dolce Vita, with visual comparisons between different sequences from it and similarly framed sequences from such classics as The 400 Blows and Breathless; a 1965 interview, conducted by Irving R. Levine for NBC News, in which Fellini explains what inspired him to become a director and discusses his experience as a journalist; a video interview with film scholar David Forgacs, who discusses the socio-political climate in Italy in 1960; an interview with Lina Wertmuller (All Screwed Up, Swept Away), who began her career as an assistant director on , talks about Fellini’s relationship with actors Mastroianni, Giulietta Masina and Anita Ekberg; and an archival audio interview with Mastroianni.

With The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies about to complete Peter Jackson’s association/obsession with J.R.R. Tolkien, there’s still time to catch up with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Extended Edition. As is typically the case with modern epics, it extends the action and story that was so judiciously edited by Jackson and Jabez Olssen to fit the confines of the theatrical release. In addition to 25 minutes of new footage, the extended package adds more than 13 hours of extensive special features, without sacrificing any of the original’s audio/visual clarity. It’s worth debating the legitimacy of such extended editions when looking at a film’s place in history. Would there be any value in having a director’s cut of Gone With the Wind or Casablanca extant … or an extended “Mona Lisa,” on a larger canvas? What does it say about the editing process that a director now knows that he’s not necessarily constrained by the usual deadlines and can save some of the best stuff for later? Moreover, have directors begun to look at their pictures through the same lens as those double-dipping executives responsible for marketing a picture … not once, but twice? These considerations shouldn’t dissuade anyone from enjoying these “extended editions.” Right now, consumers are the only ones who seem to care about such questions.

TV-to-DVD
Secret Agent a.k.a. Danger Man: The Complete Series
The Red Skeleton Show: The Early Years: 1951-1955
Sgt. Bilko: The Phil Silvers Show: The Complete Series
The Bob Newhart Show: The Complete Series
The Jeffersons: The Complete Series
Mister Ed: The Complete Series
Reno 911!: The Complete Series
Danny Phantom: The Complete Series
PBS: Secrets of Iconic British Estates
BBC: Doctor Who: The Complete Eighth Season: Blu-ray
Mr. Magoo: The Theatrical Collection
In the prologue to each episode of the Cold War espionage series, “Secret Agent”/“Danger Man,” Patrick McGoohan explains: “Every government has its secret service branch. America, CIA; France, Deuxième Bureau; England, MI5; NATO also has its own. A messy job? Well, that’s when they usually call on me or someone like me. Oh, yes, my name is Drake … John Drake.” If it makes you think immediately of James Bond, it’s no accident or rip-off. Ian Fleming’s greatest literary creation was on everyone’s lips in the early 1960s and the author was involved in the early discussions about the storylines and character. Like Bond, Drake seemed more comfortable in a tuxedo than trench coat and frequently could be found in the most exotic locations on the planet. Because the original batch of 39 episodes were limited to a half-hour, little time is wasted on anything except action and resolution. Drake displays only a passing interest in the women he rescues from danger or is assigned to eliminate, and gadgets are introduced more or less organically during the course of the narrative. If the shows look primitive today, or even by the standards established, six years later, by “Mission: Impossible,” they’re still fun to watch, especially while binging. The series began on British television, before being picked up here in 1961 by CBS. The first two seasons would be followed by a two-year hiatus, after which an hour-long iteration was introduced. The extra time allowed for more of everything, including plot and character development and endings that weren’t tailored to accommodate time constraints. The series still had some gas in the tank when it ended abruptly in 1967, with two color episodes, but McGoohan decided to redirect his focus on “The Prisoner.” The box includes all 86 episodes, which have held up pretty well in the interim, and an interview with the star’s daughter.

Among the many remarkable things about the great comic actor Red Skelton was a resume that read like a history of American entertainment in the 20th Century. Even before breaking into burlesque and vaudeville, the son of a onetime circus clown had performed in a medicine show and on a riverboat. He would remain active long enough to make several HBO specials in the early 1980s, including “Freddie the Freeloader’s Christmas Dinner.” In between, the Vincennes, Indiana, native became one of the consummate stars of stage, screen, nightclubs, radio and television, all at times when those mediums were becoming dominant platforms for entertainment. He also painted well enough to sell his portraits of clowns at prices into the six figures. His unequaled skill at creating memorable characters – often with the mere flick of his hat — are on full display in the 11-disc, 2,400-minute Shout! Factory/Timeless Media package, The Red Skelton Show: The Early Years: 1951-1955. Also evident in each show is a talent for mime that put him in the same company of his friend Marcel Marceau and Jacques Tati. He would work regularly on television until 1971, when the geniuses at CBS deemed him to be too square for their target demographic, and a series of half-hour shows for NBC proved short-lived. (CBS mainstays Jackie Gleason and Ed Sullivan were also axed, along with “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Hee Haw,” “Green Acres” and “Mayberry RFD.”) Technically, the shows included in the boxed set reflect the period of their creation in a medium still in its infancy. The dancing and singing are super corny, and the star’s tendency to crack up at his own jokes are as much a part of the fun as anything else. His weekly pledges to maintain a wholesome product, at a time when other nightclub comics were making their livings working “blue,” seem especially quaint. The material, while not exactly fresh, remains delightful. The 90-episode collection is a perfect showcase for such classic characters as Clem Kadiddlehopper, Cauliflower McPugg, Willie Lump Lump and Freddie the Freeloader. Due to the fact that Skelton refused to have any of his shows put into syndication – even threatening to have them burned after his death — most of the episodes have gone unseen since their original air date. Among the bonus features are “America’s Clown: An Intimate Biography of Red Skelton,” a dress rehearsal and special bonus episode of “Deadeye From Mars” and “The Look Magazine Movie Awards.”

No matter how many times I watch the episodes contained in “Sgt. Bilko/The Phil Silvers Show: The Complete Series,” I can’t help but break out in laughter, frequently at gags I’ve enjoyed previously. Even though it ran from 1955-1959, these reruns could be shown in prime-time today and still draw more laughs than 90 percent of all network sitcoms. Running the motor pool at Fort Baxter, the cagey Bilko always had an ace up his sleeve and a scheme in his head. Silvers’ oversize personality dominated each episode, of course, but plenty of good material was left for the wonderful supporting cast. The Shout! package adds the “lost” audition show, original network opening and cast commercials, a photo gallery, commentaries with Allan Melvin, George Kennedy, Mickey Freeman, Larry Storch and Dick Van Dyke, “Lucy and the Efficiency Expert” (from “The Lucy Show”), episode introductions by Allan Melvin (Cpl. Henshaw), a promo for “The New Phil Silvers Show,” “Harry, the Good Neighbor” from “The New Phil Silvers Show,” interviews with Silvers, footage from the 1959 TV special “Keep in Step,” the cast of the show on Broadway, Phil Silvers and Jack Benny on “The Dick Cavett Show” and new interviews with Cathy, Tracey and Nancey Silvers

As is amply demonstrated in Shout! Factory’s The Bob Newhart Show: The Complete Series,” CBS wasn’t entirely misguided in its decision to jettison its top-rated variety shows. In a couple of years, the network would dominate Saturday nights, with such game-changing sitcoms as “All in the Family,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Maude” and, later, spinoffs of those shows. “The Bob Newhart Show,” which ran from 1972-78, centers around Chicago psychologist Robert Hartley, both in his office and high-rise apartment building. Each week, Hartley traded deadpan jabs with one of the most superb supporting casts in the history of the medium: sexy Suzanne Pleshette played his often sarcastic wife, Emily; Bill Daily’s inept neighbor, airline navigator Howard Borden, dropped in on the couple like Kramer did, in “Seinfeld”; wise-cracking orthodontist Jerry Robinson (Peter Bonerz), shared the office suite with Hartley, as well as a joke-loving receptionist, Carol Kester (Marcia Wallace); and, as his regular patients, there were mean-spirited and neurotic Elliot Carlin (Jack Riley), the milquetoast Marine veteran Emil Peterson (John Fiedler) and shy, reserved Lillian Bakerman (Florida Friebus), an elderly lady who spends most of her sessions knitting. Through great writing, each of these characters gave Hartley/Newhart a run for his money as protagonist of his own show. The casting and writing process is described in one of the 19-disc set’s excellent bonus featurettes, “Group Therapy,” with Bonerz, Jack Riley, Bill Daily and director/producer Michael Zinberg. Also included are “P.I.L.O.T. #1,” the unaired version of show’s very different pilot episode; “The Bob Newhart Show 19th Anniversary” special; audio commentaries with Peter Bonerz, Fred Willard, Jim Burrows, Suzanne Pleshette, Tom Poston and Jack Riley; a gag reel; and a 40-page collectible booklet.

Television was extremely incestuous in the 1970s. Like the characters on “Maude,” those on “The Jeffersons” began life on “All in the Family” … or, at least, in the fertile mind of developer/writer Norman Lear. (“Maude,” in turn, introduced characters that would populate “Good Times.”) As evidenced in the 33-disc, 4,400 minute set from Shout!, “The Jeffersons,” was one of the most successful series of all time, not just of the spinoff variety. Until they moved on up to the East Side, George and “Weezy” Jefferson were the mirror image of Archie and Edith Bunker, in nearly every way possible. If Archie had struck gold as a dry-cleaning magnate, instead of his Queens neighbor, he’d probably have remained the same irascible bigot as George. Even so, the primary difference between the two sitcoms is the reduction in emphasis on politics and other topical issues in “The Jeffersons.” The boxed set includes “Movin’ On Up: The Jeffersons Featurette”; the “All in the Family” episode in which the Jeffersons depart for Manhattan; “Whose Side Are You On?,” a never-before-released episode of Marla Gibbs’ spinoff series, “Checking In”; the first episode of the 1984 TV series, “E/R,” starring Elliott Gould and featuring Sherman Hemsley; and a 48-page booklet, with an essay from Tom Shales.

Here’s something that’s only taken me a half-century to learn. The famously ridiculous CBS comedy, “Mr. Ed,” was inspired by children’s author Walter R. Brooks and his short story, “The Talking Horse,” in the September 18, 1937, issue of Liberty magazine. Like almost everyone else on the planet, I assumed it was an adaptation of “Francis the Talking Mule,” which, itself, may have been influenced as much by the talking animals in Brooks’ “Freddy the Pig,” as David Stern III’s experiences in the army. In fact, “Mr. Ed” producer/director Arthur Lubin had helmed a half-dozen “Francis” movies, before being introduced to Brooks’ books by his secretary. Or, so the story goes. “Mister Ed: The Complete Series” presents all 6 seasons and 143 episodes of the beloved show, which, the jacket blurb argues, “remains as hilarious and socially relevant today as it did in its original airing.” OK. Kids should like it, though.

For my money, Comedy Central’s “Reno 911!” was one of the most hilarious, irreverent and politically incorrect television shows of the last 20 years. Blessed with a stellar cast of improvisational actors from MTV’s sketch-comedy show, “The State,” “Reno 911!” lampooned the long-running Fox series, “Cops,” and any number of self-righteous shows, like “Dragnet” and “CHiPs.” It overflows with jokes about race, sexual orientation, substance abuse, rape, pedophilia and mental disorders. Moreover, the deputies were singularly unable to prevent crimes from happening or arrest perpetrators at any point in the process. Although it may not seem so funny, now that the schism between police and minorities has broken wide open, binge-viewing “Reno 911!” may actually serve as a tension reliever.

Danny Phantom: The Complete Series” contains all 52 episodes from the hit Nickelodeon series, which ran from April 3, 2004, to August 24, 2007. Creator Butch Hartman also developed “The Fairly OddParents” and “T.U.F.F. Puppy” for the cable network. In the tradition of other deceptively cool animated series targeted at kids but embraced by hipsters, “Danny Phantom” starred an otherwise ordinary 14-year-old with extraordinary powers inherited from his eccentric ghost-hunting parents. After an accident with an unpredictable portal between the human world and the supernatural “Ghost Zone,” he becomes half-ghost and half-mortal … not that he wants anyone to know what happened.

Now that all of the hullaballoo over the 50th anniversary of “Doctor Who” has dissipated into the ozone and the baton has been handed off to Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor, fans can get back to the business of enjoying one of the most inventive shows on the air. They can do so by picking up all 602 minutes of BBC Home Entertainment’s “Doctor Who: The Complete Eighth Season.” Capaldi didn’t waste any time establishing his presence as the protagonist, while, simultaneously, imbuing the character with qualities and frailties handed down from all of his predecessors. Special features include exclusive footage from London post-premiere Q&A with Capaldi, Jenna Coleman and Steven Moffat; commentaries on “Into the Dalek,” “Robot of Sherwood,” “The Caretaker” and “Kill the Moon”; 12 behind-the-scenes featurettes; specials “The Ultimate Time Lord” and “The Ultimate Companion” (with Fifth Doctor Peter Davison) and Doctor Who: Earth Conquest,” chronicling the worldwide tour; a tour of the TARDIS; “Doctor Who: Deep Breath Live Pre-Show” and “After Who Live,” hosted by comedian/superfan Chris Hardwick; and the music video, “Don’t Stop Me Now.”

With the fifth season of “Downton Abbey” looming on the horizon and reruns from previous stanzas in heavy rotation on PBS affiliates, what could be a better time to gift a DVD that provides “an intimate guide to several of Britain’s most stunning historic houses.” “Secrets of Iconic British Estates” is a compilation of four separate PBS specials. Highclere Castle is not only is the setting for “Downton Abbey,” but a direct link to the curse of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Hampton Court Palace is famous as a King Henry VIII’s party palace. Althorp is both the childhood home and final resting place of Diana, Princess of Wales, and Chatsworth recalls the scandalous behavior of 18th Century duchess, Georgiana Cavendish. “Secrets of the Manor House” explores the realities of “upstairs-downstairs” life and what it was like behind the “green baize door” in Britain’s grandest estates. The package adds a fully illustrated hardcover book.

The 53 animated shorts that comprise “Mr. Magoo: The Theatrical Collection” were produced for theaters, from 1949-1959, but most ended up on television, anyway. By the mid-1970s, exhibitors had stopped showing cartoons ahead of features and they were relegated to endless reruns on television or matinee marathons. Made-for-television cartoons would lack the same production values as those created for the big screen. A fourth disc here is devoted to the feature-length “1001 Arabian Nights.” Not included, thank goodness, is the 1997 live-action feature starring Leslie Nielsen as McGoo. It probably would have flopped, even if it hadn’t been the target of protests by the National Federation of the Blind and other humorless support groups. Quincy Magoo’s gift was being able to avoid disaster while resolutely refusing to admit his profound nearsightedness. The bonus materials add an interview with Leonard Maltin; a Magoo documentary, featuring historians Gerry Beck and Darrel Van Citters; “A Princess for Magoo,” an early black-and-white TV teaser for the upcoming film with Jim Backus, voice of Mr. Magoo, as host.

James Brown: Live at the Boston Garden: April 5, 1968: Extended Edition
Footage from this amazing concert, staged at the height of discontent over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., hasn’t been difficult to find on the Internet, on a previous Shout Factory disc or as part of the WGBH documentary, “The Politics of Soul.” The event has deservedly earned a place in the history of the civil-rights movement and biography of a quintessentially American entertainer. Even within the R&B Pantheon of the post-WWII era, Brown stands out as a uniquely talented performer. On the night after MLK’s death, Brown was scheduled to perform a concert at the Boston Garden. After much debate, city officials decided that more damage could result in canceling the sold-out event than in letting it continue as planned and arranging for concert footage to be repeatedly shown during the night on WGBH. Despite being one of the nation’s most racially divided cities, the arrangement was partially responsible, at least, for preventing Boston from being torn in half by violence. Knowing precisely what was at stake, Brown gave the performance of anyone’s lifetime, while also serving as a disciple of the kind of non-violent activism as the slain civil-rights leader. Don’t believe me? Watch what happens in the extended edition of James Brown: Live at the Boston Garden: April 5, 1968 when a large group of concertgoers storms the stage and is quickly confronted by Brown’s bodyguards and Boston police.

Instead of allowing the club-wielding cops to begin busting heads, the Godfather of Soul quietly motions for them to hold still as he successfully convinces the youths to return to their seats. What could have become an incredibly ugly incident, with ramifications beyond the walls of the Garden, was quelled without violence. When a similar disruption occurred at Altamont, a year later, no amount of pleading by Mick Jagger or Marty Balin could prevent Hell’s Angels thugs from beating up hippies and killing a young black man, who foolishly pulled a knife within a few feet of the stage. I’ve never seen Brown perform better on film and for as long a period a time. (His T.A.M.I. Show performance was far shorter, though no less electric.) The new DVD from Shout Factory is interesting, as well, for showing the entire concert, including supporting entertainers who performed as part of the revue, including Famous Flames co-founder Bobby Byrd. The acoustic quality isn’t up to par, but it’s compensated for by some spectacular black-and-white cinematography. This would make a great double-feature with “Talk to Me,” in which Washington, D.C., disc jockey Petey Greene (Don Cheadle) personally convinced thousands of rioting listeners to return home.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Turkey Day Collection: XXXI
As is often the case in this space, the distance separating the sublime and the ridiculous can be very small, indeed. I missed the holiday Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Turkey Day Collection was intended to commemorate, but, since almost all of the movies shown in these re-releases are turkeys, time was hardly of the essence. The connective tissue in XXXI is represented by the supplementary material that accompanied the annual MST3K Thanksgiving marathons served up on Comedy Central. Because the show debuted on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1988, the extended programming effectively killed three Butterballs with one stone: celebrate an anniversary and holiday, while also eating up broadcast time on a day better known for its football games and parades. In addition to the vintage holiday material, the “limited-edition collector’s tin” includes lobby cards and newly shot Thanksgiving intros by Joel Hodgson. Not that it matters all that much, but the movies contained therein are Jungle Goddess, with George Reeves, Wanda McKay and Smoki Whitfield, as Oolonga the witch doctor; The Painted Hills, in which Lassie plays Shep; The Screaming Skull, in which a mentally retarded gardener is suspected of siccing demons from hell on the emotionally fragile second wife of his employer; and the killer-worm thriller Squirm, also recently given a facelift by Scream Factory.

Dolphin Tale 3D/Dolphin Tale 2: Blu-Ray
As an actor (Never Cry Wolf), writer (The Snow Walker) and director (Dolphin Tale), Charles Martin Smith has proven himself to be a filmmaker who understands how to make crowd-pleasing movies about survival in nature and man’s relationship to animals. Anyone who loves outdoor adventures and hasn’t seen Carroll Ballard’s 1983 adaptation of Farley Mowat’s book, in which Martin starred and wrote the narrative, really owes it to themselves to check out the chillingly beautiful Never Cry Wolf. You won’t have keep a sweater handy while watching the excellent Blu-ray editions of Dolphin Tale 3D or Dolphin Tale 2, as both are set at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, an animal-rescue facility in Clearwater, Florida. The sequel, which just as easily could be titled, “Dolphin Tale 2: Winter Sing the Blues,” describes what happens when the prosthetically enhanced dolphin seemingly loses the will to live after the death of his surrogate mother. No one, including youthful caretakers Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) and Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), are able to lift his spirits. Meanwhile, marine biologist/administrator Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.) is being pressured to comply with regulations requiring dolphins to be paired or returned to the wild. Also returning for the sequel are Morgan Freeman, Kris Kristofferson and Ashley Judd. There are no bogeymen or bad guys in the Dolphin Tale duo. Haskett doesn’t dispute the regulations and none of the animals are mistreated. With the filmmakers’ emphasis on education and rehabilitation, both easily qualify as movies suitable for family viewing. Dolphin Tale 3D picks up the bonus package from the original Blu-ray release, while the sequel adds eight new featurettes.

The DVD Wrapup: Penance, 100 Foot Walk, Copenhagen and more

Thursday, December 4th, 2014

Penance: Blu-ray
Anyone who simply can’t wait for every new season of shows like “True Detective,” “American Horror Story” and “The Killing” ought to check out the sensational Japanese mini-series, “Penance,” which has finally arrived here on DVD/Blu-ray. Shown in New York last spring as a single five-hour movie, it is best suited for the small screen in series form. Easily translatable, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find it adapted for American television someday, just as the creepy French mini-series “Les revenants” was shown intact on Sundance and re-imagined for American audiences by ABC as “The Returned.” (An A&E version, “They Came Back,” may also be in the works.) In the hands of Japanese master of menace Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Tokyo Sonata, Pulse), “Penance” spreads its quietly ominous narrative over 15 years and 5 chapters, each representing a specific player in the mystery surrounding the brutal murder of a schoolgirl. Even though four friends were with the victim, Emili, when she volunteered to help a stranger on a job site, each professes that they are too traumatized to remember his face or any other evidence that could lead police to a suspect. After several months pass, Emili’s mother, Asako (Kyoko Koizumi), invites the girls to what would have been a birthday party for their friend. Instead, Asako lays a massive guilt trip on each one of them, demanding that they continue to search their minds or suffer the consequences of her curse, re-defined here as a “penance.” Indistinguishable from each other as children, the girls grow up to become unique individuals, who lost their small-town innocence long ago. Today, there only common trait is a seriously damaged psyche. The final wrap-up episode came as a disappointment to some critics, but I didn’t have any problems with it. On American television, it would have ended with a cliffhanger, in anticipation of a second season. In Japan, however, where so many people had already read Kanae Minato’s novel, a resolution was essential. As the primary character not required to age dramatically over a 15-year period, Koizumi’s Asako easily makes the girls – and viewers – believe that they are truly cursed and likely doomed. Although her emotional evolution is muted throughout most of the first four episodes, the volcano we always know is there finally explodes in the finale, revealing secrets that make the girls’ forgetfulness seem insignificant. As much of cliché as it is to compare Kurosawa’s style to Hitchcock, there’s no mistaking the sense of dread that rumbles just below the surface of the story. Akiko Ashizawa’s alternately bland and bright cinematography, in conjunction with Yusuke Hayashi’s eclectic choice of musical cues, also alert viewers to changes in the film’s climate. The Blu-ray adds interviews of a promotional nature with cast and director.

The Hundred-Foot Journey: Blu-ray
If a movie in which food preparation plays a prominent role in the narrative fails to make viewers hungry for something more substantial than popcorn, no amount of romantic and dramatic angles are going to make it work, either. The Hundred-Foot Journey excels not only as movie that will whet the appetites of foodies, it also tells a story that will leave many viewers smiling through their tears. Released quietly during the doldrums of August, Lasse Hallstrom and Steven Knight’s adaptation of Richard C. Morais’ book takes a familiar premise – two very different restaurants, 100 feet apart, compete for dominance and prestige in a mecca for sophisticated dining – and turns it into something fresh and delicious. It also leaves room for commentary on two of today’s most universally contentious social issues: unfettered immigration and racial intolerance. Even in a cast largely populated with appealing young actors, veterans Helen Mirren and Om Puri dominate this tale of two cuisines. Puri plays restaurateur Papa, the patriarch of a family that barely escaped mindless political violence in India, only to confront it once again in the French countryside. Mirren’s Madame Mallory represents everything that makes France, at once, the world’s most fascinating and oppressively self-centered culture. A curious twist of fate inspires Papa to open an Indian restaurant across the street from Mallory’s temple of haute cuisine in a quaint village in southern France. Apart from the unexpected competition, Mallory objects to the loud Indian music, garish lighting and pungent aromas that distract her customers as soon as they park their cars for the evening. Not surprisingly, their relationship will evolve for the better over the course of the movie. Less certain is the budding cross-cultural romance between Papa’s gastronomically gifted son, Hassan (Manish Dayal), and a pretty young trainee in Mallory’s kitchen, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon). Things get especially interesting when Hassan develops a talent for French cooking that even cuts through Mallory’s prejudices. And, yes, it will cause her to readjust her attitude to fusion cooking and spices foreign to her kitchen. As Hallstrom demonstrated in Chocolat, which, in 2001, was nominated for five Academy Awards, he is comfortable around food and romance. As it turns out, Steven Speilberg, Oprah Winfrey and longtime documentarian Julia Blake also were in his corner. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle) does a nice job capturing both the beauty of the French countryside and intricacies of kitchens representing opposite cultures. The Blu-ray bonus package is best when it focuses on the food preparation and less good when Oprah and Steven go all gooey on us about re-teaming on The Hundred-Foot Journey.

Copenhagen
Winner of the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival, Mark Raso’s Copenhagen is an easy film to admire but much more difficult to enjoy. That’s because it forces viewers to confront a societal taboo so engrained in us that our discomfort constantly is at war with the pleasure of watching a young filmmaker succeed so well in his first feature. There’s no way to avoid spoilers in any review of Copenhagen, as an acceptance of its primary conceit is necessary to dilute the shock and indignation it carries. In his late 20s, immature William (Gethin Anthony) is traveling through Europe with a couple of friends who barely tolerate his wisecracks and shitty attitude, which includes pretending to be Canadian to avoid being treated like an American by haters. (Back in my hitchhiking days, I would meet Yanks who sewed red maple leaf patches on their backpacks to catch rides from motorists who likely would bypass Americans.) No sooner do they arrive at their primary destination of Copenhagen than William’s juvenile attitude causes his friends to split to London, leaving him without an interpreter or bedmate. He needs help to locate his paternal grandfather and deliver a letter written in Danish by his father before his recent death. After fruitless efforts to find an interpreter, William manages to find assistance from a waitress who he’d earlier insulted. Apart from bearing a remarkable resemblance to Emily Van Camp, Effy (Frederikke Dahl Hansen) is so forgiving and helpful that William’s obnoxious exterior begins to melt before our eyes. Effy’s funny, informed and flirty in a city that rewards all three traits. Their neuroses complement each other, as well. It isn’t easy tracing the grandfather’s location – he was ostracized for being Nazi sympathizer – but she manages to accomplish the task in an afternoon. When William asks her how she became so adept at tracing roots, Effy says that she learned it as part of a class project. Clearly smitten, William is stunned to discover that she’s “almost 15” and not the college-age student she led him to believe she was. Viewers will already have sensed that she’s not old enough to be a graduate student, but we’re nearly as caught off-guard by the reality of the true age gap. Indeed, we began to hope they would hook up and take us on lovely tour through Copenhagen and share their experiences with us. Instead, as Effy continues to pursue a relationship with William, we naturally become concerned that we’re going to become accomplices in a criminal act. Blessedly, though, Raso steers the drama straight down the middle of the ethical highway and, even after causing us to question the right of minors to ruin their lives, frees us from any culpability in the matter. There’s plenty more to Copenhagen than Effy and William’s forbidden love, including the unfinished business with his grandfather. Raso handles this essential aspect of the story very well, too.

Apaches
To Kill a Man
In one very specific way, Thierry de Peretti’s debut feature, Apaches, reminds me of Peter Yates and Steve Tesich’s Oscar-winning Breaking Away, a terrifically entertaining slice of Americana set around the Little 500 bicycle race held annually in Bloomington, Indiana. As screenwriter and IU graduate, Tesich built his story about non-violent class warfare around his own observations of how townies (“cutters”) were looked down upon by college students, while a visiting team of Italian racers did its best to humiliate a local rider (Dennis Christopher) who worshipped all things Italian. To make his point even clearer, Tesich conjured a doomed romance between the ambitious townie and a sorority girl, who believed his lies about being European and punished him with a slap when she finally tumbled to the truth. The locals get even with everyone by winning the Little 500 against racers with far more sophisticated equipment and financial backing. While nothing as melodramatic happens in Apaches, Peretti’s description of a similar class struggle in his native Corsica should resonate with anyone who’s been bullied or made to feel inferior by people with more wealth and power. His Corsica is divided into three groups: permanent residents of the island, who trace their European roots back hundreds of years; working-class Arabs, attempting to eke out a living performing manual labor sustained by the tourist economy; and thousands of seasonal residents and tourists, who lay out in the sun all day and hit the discos at night. Even the dreaded Corsican mafia comes into play in Apaches. When they aren’t working at construction sites owned by a local mobster, Aziz (Aziz El Hadachi) and his father tend to the vacant homes of part-time residents, mostly from France. Before the season officially begins, Aziz invites some friends to enjoy the pool at one of the nicer houses. Unbeknownst to him, the girl he’s trying to impress has invited male friends of her own to the impromptu party. Not surprisingly, perhaps, they run roughshod over the property and steal personal items belonging to the owners. Not wanting to look cowardly in front of the fickle Jezebel, Aziz grabs a beat-up old hi-fi and a few albums she fancies. It doesn’t take long for the owners and Aziz’ father to size up the situation and threaten their jobs. The boy cops to the petty theft and returns the less expensive items to the owners. Sensing that this will put an end to the incident, Aziz is surprised to learn that an expensive shotgun also remains missing and the Corsican developer is embarrassed by the theft of such a valuable item. It’s likely that an Arab friend and his Corsican pals have already determined the gun’s value and aren’t likely to release it to save the ass of the lowest man on the island’s totem pole. Things reach a boiling point when rumors begin to fly about the mob inciting violence among the guest workers. The rest of Apaches is taken up with the eternal question of whether the guilty party will do the right thing and help pull Aziz and his father out of their jam or they’ll turn them into convenient scapegoats. De Peretti does a nice job building the tension to a fever pitch and clearly delineating the forces at play here. More than anything else, though, he succeeds at his stated mission of showcasing Corsica as a multifaceted and attractive place to stage a movie. The bonus features include a short film a young Gypsy musician facing an ethical dilemma, a director’s statement and biography.

Also from Film Movement comes To Kill a Man, a story about a hard-working Chilean groundskeeper, Jorge (Daniel Candia), whose family has become the primary target for a neighborhood bully and his Neanderthal friends. Stationing themselves at a neighborhood crossroads, the gang members make it impossible for Jorge to avoid confrontations. Unwilling to settle for cash, they even steal his diabetes-testing equipment. When Jorge’s son confronts the ringleader at home, he is made to pay for his effrontery by being shot. When Jorge decides to take his complaints to the local constabulary, he’s greeted with the usual litany of platitudes and delayed justice. Even after Kalule (Daniel Antivilo) is convicted of attempted murder, he’s given less than a two-year sentence and a free pass to begin menacing the neighbors while on parole. After his daughter is attacked by the gang, Jorge is once again rebuffed by authorities. It’s at this point that the mild-mannered laborer decides to exact his own justice. Instead of bringing relief, Jorge’s actions cause him great emotional distress. It’s a feeling hardened criminals and lazy bureaucrats hardly ever experience. Alejandro Fernández Almendras is one of several young Chilean filmmakers who’ve begun to make their presence known on the international stage. The country’s blend of cultures and topography informs their movies in ways that defy easy description. In To Kill a Man, Almendras makes it easy for us to empathize with Jorge’s dilemma, while also knowing that there’s no way for him to avoid prosecution. The contrast between the forests, gardens and coastline that Jorge tends every day and the dreary blue-collar neighborhood to which he returns each night is depicted in painterly shades and colors by cinematographer Inti Briones (The Loneliest Planet), who also frames his subject to accentuate an absolute sense of isolation. The DVD adds the short film, “Our Blood” and a discussion with the filmmaker.

Docs on DVD
Pay 2 Play: Democracy’s High Stakes
There’s No Place Like Utopia
Fifi Howls From Happiness
Sand Wars
The Dark Matter of Love
Kids for Cash
Fagbug Nation
Three theories persist as to why Americans don’t practice what they preach when it comes to democracy: 1) the one-person/one-vote system works so well that no amount of absenteeism at the polls could screw it up, 2) the system is so hopelessly broken that a single vote couldn’t possibly fix it, and 3) Democrat or Republican, the candidates feed from the same trough laid out by corporate lobbyists and, a half-hour after they settle into their offices, they’re too compromised to act independently. Even if there’s at least a smidgen of truth in all three excuses, it’s no reason for any American to ignore the one duty we share as citizens. John Ennis’ alarming documentary, Pay 2 Play: Democracy’s High Stakes, can be interpreted as both an excuse for never again voting in state and national elections and a call to arms for reform. Ennis says that it was his intention to use the film to make the world a better place for his newborn daughter to live. Clearly, the pay-to-play system rewards the candidate with the most financial backing. A majority of Supreme Court justices saw nothing wrong with this practice and cleared the way for even more abuses by political PACs. As soon as they got the green light, the nation’s wealthiest citizens raced to pour money into races whose outcome could benefit them financially, no matter the state they live. Ennis isn’t the only journalist or filmmaker to blow the whistle on the pay-to-play system, of course, but his documentary lays it out in terms that should make all Americans angry enough to vote. Besides breaking down several individual contests and chronicling the rise of the People Power movement, Ennis uses the “secret history” of Monopoly to demonstrate how Rich Uncle Pennybags and his billionaire buddies fixed the game. Such devices, alongside interviews with familiar observers and participants, make the political-science lesson easy to digest. Pay-2-Play could easily be accused of being biased against conservatives, PAC organizers and incumbents, but how many outlaws have ever stepped up to justify their crimes?

Never one to turn down an opportunity to play the devil’s advocate, literally, Joel Gilbert’s films reside on the other end of the political spectrum. It’s where President Obama is viewed as the Antichrist’s handmaiden and the twin boogeymen of communism and socialism continue to present a greater threat to freedom than any terrorist organization or greedy banker. Essentially, There’s No Place Like Utopia equates Obama’s campaign promises to the rhetoric of Stalin, Castro, Chairman Mao, Bill Ayres and Bernardine Dohrn. Jesse Jackson and the Wizard of Oz, all of whom promised things they couldn’t deliver and brainwashed poor folks into believing paradise was right around the corner. It’s a legitimate complaint, but since when has any politician of either party made good on their promises? When he isn’t making documentaries about music icons Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, Gilbert panders to American right-wingers willing to buy tickets to such fantasies as Dreams from My Real Father, Atomic Jihad: Ahmadinejad’s Coming War and Obama’s Politics of Defeat and Farewell Israel: Bush, Iran, and the Revolt of Islam. (Yes, the film declares, President W was duped into fighting the wrong war after 9/11.) In There’s No Place Like Utopia, Gilbert even goes so far as to introduce us to a rabid right-wing veteran of the Vietnam fracas, so unhappy with Obama that he flies the American flies upside-down outside his Denver home. As evidence that the country is in distress, he argues that the high school he attended is now predominantly Hispanic and, as such, they’re the future of the Democratic Party. He further indicts illegal immigrants, African-American welfare mothers and potheads who voted to legalize marijuana in his beloved Colorado. Gilbert fails to quiz the pinhead on the percentage of Hispanic men and women – some admittedly fighting in return for citizenship – are in the Middle East defending his First Amendment right to slander other Americans, or what his neighbors think of his show of defiance. The filmmaker, of course, is entitled to his views, as are the unvarnished racists and political opportunists he uses to counter the Obama supporters we meet who believe they were sold a bill of goods. He blames Obama and other Democrats – a.k.a., socialists – for the destruction of Detroit neighborhoods that have been slums since Americans wised up and started buying Japanese and German cars that resisted the scourge of planned obsolescence … another corporate mandate endorsed by Wall Street, not the Kremlin. What he also fails to mention is that international communism has been totally rejected by all but a tiny segment of the American left and no one has tried to deny the horror perpetrated on the Chinese people during the Cultural Revolution. Unless I missed it, Gilbert doesn’t mention the Republican-led stalemate in Congress, the Koch brothers’ purchase of the Supreme Court majority, the predatory capitalists who brought the world’s economy to its knees and escaped prosecution. Nor does he find room to applaud Obama’s rescue of the auto industry, which was opposed by Mitt Romney, or interview liberals and leftists angered by the President’s reluctance to delivery on such promises as the lifting of our embargo on Cuba, the closing of our Guantanamo gulag and curbing domestic intelligence gathering. The question that There’s No Place Like Utopia truly begs, however, is, If the Democrats lose the White House in 2016, how long will it take Republicans to blame Obama for their failure to fix the country by 2020? To be fair, I did enjoy Gilbert’s mockumentary, Elvis Found Alive.

Fifi Howls From Happiness is a fascinating title for a bio-doc about an important 20th Century artist whose name might even elude scholars who’ve memorized the floor plans of the MOCA, Louvre, Prado and Rijksmuseum. An openly gay man at a time and in places that were resolutely intolerant of sexual diversity, Bahman Mohassess was a Modernist painter, sculptor, translator, theatre director and translator of literary works. The turmoil that consumed Iran throughout most of the second half of the 20th Century overshadowed the attention finally being paid to his work by fellow artists and critics. Certainly, he’s the rare artist to have had commissioned work rejected by the Shah and Islamic censors. It also led to Mohassess’ decision to leave the country twice, for the intellectual sanctuary provided by Rome’s Hotel Sacconi. Mitra Farahani’s heartfelt and consistently entertaining film captures the outspoken and occasionally dictatorial artist during the last two years of his life, balancing strongly held convictions with dissections of his distinctively abstract work. (“I will tell you my life story, so that every idiot doesn’t write my biography the way it suits him,” he says, after telling Farahani what to shoot and how to do it.)  If Mohassess’ work isn’t as familiar to us as Iranian writers and filmmakers who faced similarly harsh restrictions under the Shah and his fundamentalist successors, it’s because the media has given itself over to moving images and pop music. The Impressionists still draw crowds, but only if they’ve achieved celebrity status. Mohassess’ paintings and sculptures are outwardly aggressive and genuinely disturbing. With their faceless heads and bodies missing limbs, feet and hands, they convey a dystopian vision of life in a world devoid of beauty and emotional release. (“But I am only one John the Baptist preaching alone in the desert,” he argues. “It will make no difference.”) Not only was his work banned from display by the ayatollahs and Revolutionary Guard, and frequently destroyed, Mohassess limited his own reach by ruining his painting before censors or sympathetic collectors could get to them. Also intriguing are the director’s exchanges with her subject, who often was as prickly as a porcupine. The DVD also includes footage from Ahmad Faroughi’s 1967 documentary, The Eye That Hears, which found him at work in his studio.

As if environmentalists needed another rallying cry, Sand Wars provides them with one that no one saw coming. Apparently, the demand for one of the world’s most prevalent resources, sand, has reached the point where three-quarters of all beaches are in decline and could disappear as victims of erosion or “sand mafia” groups that plunder shores and rivers for this highly prized commodity. Who knew? Among other places writer/director Denis Delestrac visits is Dubai, where hundreds of tons of imported sand has been used to build foundations for decorative islands and housing projects, as well as its growing inventory of thoroughfares, luxury hotels and shopping malls. Wait, what? At first, second and third glance, exporting sand to Dubai has to be the 2014 version of bringing coal to Newcastle, except for the fact that drifting desert sand isn’t of the same consistency – too smooth and circular — of ordinary grains of sand, which, under a microscope more closely resemble kidney stones. This, of course, raises the question as to what could happen to plundered shores and dredged rivers that now lack the protections required to withstand storms. If nothing else, Sand Wars should give viewers ample time to begin hoarding the stuff.

As states struggle to make ends meet, many have turned to for-profit prisons as a way to cut costs and relieve themselves of the burden of housing prisoners and funding pension funds for guards. In solving one problem, though, they’ve created an industry that is far less interested in rehabilitation and cutting recidivism than simply warehousing human beings for profit. Robert Mays’ sobering Kids for Cash dissects one horrendous case of injustice and corruption triggered by greed and readily available candidates for incarceration. In the wake of the shootings at Columbine High School, a small town in Pennsylvania elected a judge who pledged to throw the book at first-time offenders for crimes that normally would call for a few hours of public service. Naturally, a dangerously distressed electorate embraced the candidate and his hang-’em-high approach to reform, at least until their own kids were squeezed through the judicial sausage maker. In all, more than 3,000 juveniles were ripped from their families and imprisoned, sometimes for years over, what many people believed to be petty crimes. It wasn’t until a single parent sought justice outside the county that the extent of the corruption was revealed. Besides forcing defendants to waive their right to legal representation and open themselves to summary justice, the judge and his pimp received millions of dollars in payments from privately owned juvenile detention centers that profited from keeping their cells occupied. May interviews several of the youths whose lives were unalterably changed by being confined as if they were hardened criminals. Tough love is one thing, fascism-for-profit is quite another. May’s exhaustive report also includes interviews with the judges involved, child advocates, parents and local residents. The only thing missing is a clear and decisive indictment of the for-profit prison system, itself, and investors whose tacit support of such corruption encouraged bad behavior from judges who absolutely knew that what they were doing was wrong. I can’t imagine that the two judges, well into their 60s, thrown into prison for long periods of time, were alone or unique. It’s a system that encourages and rewards bad judgment, but rarely pays the price for its crimes. That’s because conservative politicians that have taken money and generic legislation from the powerful, if secretive American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – partially funded by the Koch brothers – have committed themselves to privatizing state prison space and keeping them filled with third-strike and non-violent offenders.

When the Iron Curtain collapsed, many childless American couples took advantage of the chaos by hiring insiders to arrange adoptions. Streamlining the process appeared to be – and, in many cases, has been – a win/win/win situation for the kids, adoptive parents and cost-conscious bureaucrats, alike. Given that most of the adoption agencies in Eastern Europe were hell holes of Dickensian proportion, few of us looked beyond the kindness and generosity of men and women willing to pay untold thousands of dollars for the opportunity to be parents. A closer look revealed such abuses as Romanian adoption agencies clearing their dormitories of children who inherited AIDS from their birth parents and adoptive parents who had similarly sinister agendas of their own. That not much has been reported on the fate of children raised an ocean away from their homelands leads me to believe that the adoptions worked more often than they failed. The three orphans we meet in The Dark Matter of Love are among the last group awarded to American couples before Vladimir Putin outlawed the practice, in reaction to travel and financial restrictions imposed by President Obama. Sarah McCarthy’s occasionally agonizing documentary follows the upper-middle-class Diaz family—mother Cheryl, father Claudio and 14-year-old Cami—to Russia to pick up 11-year-old Masha and 5-year-old twins, Marcel and Vadim. If such a decision has an ominous ring to it, especially since none of the Diazes spoke Russian, it will only take a few weeks of filming for McCarthy to demonstrate how short-sided they were. Anyone who’s raised twins or triplets probably would have advised against it. Based solely on their behavior in front of the camera, Marcel and Vadim appear to have spent their time in the orphanage studying the antics of the Katzenjammer Kids, Dennis the Menace and Pippi Longstocking. Masha’s moods change from light to dark in an instant and Cami begins to feel as if she’s an outsider in her own home. Neither does it help matters when the parents insist upon changing their given forenames to ones that begin with a “C,” so that everyone in the Diaz family can share the same monogrammed towel or enforce some goofball tradition. The kids probably would have been a bit easier to handle on an individual basis and someone had bothered to learn some rudimentary Russian. Even so, Cheryl and Claudio clearly went into this thing with the best of intentions and can be forgiven for calling in the Marines. Conveniently, a pair of developmental psychologists have been researching scientific ways to instill love into children who may never have experienced such feelings. Mostly, this involves studying tapes of the Diaz’ group dynamics; coaxing responses from the parents, whose marriage is endangered; and comparing the kids’ behavior to previously recorded experiments, including those with monkeys and owls. Just as the Mom, Dad and Babs are about to reach wits’ end, Masha discovers something within herself that positively affects all of the Diazes. If The Dark Matter of Love leaves more than a few questions unanswered, it also succeeds in shining a light on a difficult situation faced by thousands of American couples.

If homophobic vandals hadn’t defaced Erin Davies’ VW Beetle with anti-gay slurs, she probably wouldn’t have thought to tour North America in an effort to shine a light on the harassment experienced everyday by people whose most grievous sin may have been putting a rainbow sticker on their car, as she had just done. That tour resulted in the 2009 documentary, Fagbug, inspired by one of the epithets scribbled on the car. The sequel, Fagbug Nation, adds two more states to the ledger: Hawaii and Alaska. This time, instead of keeping the toxic graffiti intact, Davies decided to turn her vehicle into one large rainbow sticker, with “fagbug” and a now-mandatory Web address stenciled on its side. It isn’t intended as a provocation, as much as it is a statement that approximates the old battle cry, “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.” As such, the film is loaded with testimonials from fellow travelers, as to how they view such issues as same-sex marriage and sharing sleeping bags. To get back and forth from the 49th and 50th states, Davies was required to put her car on 5 boats and fly on 14 planes. Viewers already sold on the notion of gender equality and tired of rhetoric, however low key, may find Fagbug Nation to be more entertaining as a travelogue than an issue-oriented doc. Everyone, though, can enjoy the beautiful scenery, interesting layovers and examples of how much has changed between tours.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: American Masters: Bing Crosby: Rediscovered
PBS: Robin Williams Remembered: A Pioneers of Television Special
PBS: Austin City Limits Celebrates 40 Years
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Resurrecting Richard III
FX: Justified: Season 5: Blu-ray
NBC: Quincy, M.E.: Season 7
Hallmark: When Calls the Heart: Television Movie Collection
Hallmark: Oh Christmas Tree!
For the greater part of the 20th Century, Bing Crosby was one of the most popular, innovative and commercially successful entertainers in the world. His work crossed platforms that weren’t even invented when he began his professional career in Spokane and quickly earned a place behind the microphone of Paul Whiteman’s dance band, in Chicago. A half-billion records later, Crosby would be recognized not only for his distinctive bass-baritone voice and jazzy vocal mannerisms, but also for countless appearances on radio, television, stages and in films that ranged from slapstick comedy to award-winning dramas. He logged more miles on USO tours than any entertainer, with the possible exception of Bob Hope. His version of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” has sold more than 50 copies, making it the best-selling single of all time and forever providing atheists with a vehicle to celebrate the season, if not the holiday. It was especially popular among soldiers and support personnel stationed overseas in World War II. And, yet, in its wisdom, PBS decided to title this “American Masters” episode, “Bing Crosby: Rediscovered.” How can someone whose great body of work has never disappeared be in need of rediscovery? I think it can be fairly argued that, by the time of his death in 1977, the American entertainment industry had successfully cleansed the airwaves and movie theaters of anything it deemed to be from a previous geologic age. The old-timers would show up on “The Tonight Show” occasionally to swap stories with Johnny Carson, or sponsor a golf tournament, but Crosby seemed satisfied to spend his time attending to his almost shockingly young wife and second-generation family, and golfing. Even so, television had an insatiable appetite for comedies and Baby Boomers were fed a steady diet of Hope/Crosby “Road” pictures. Thanks to cable’s TMC channel and the almost constant re-release of re-mastered CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays, featuring more than a half-century’s worth of standards, Crosby is less in need of resurrection today than any time in the last 40 years.  If anyone under, say, 50 does want to learn more about Der Bingle’s life and times, “Rediscovered” would be a very good place to start. The producers appear to have been able to raid the vaults belonging to Hollywood studios, record labels and entertainment-industry archivists at will and tap the memories of dozens of family members, musicians and historians. And as is typical of the “American Masters” series, no one pretends that the subject went through life without acquiring unattractive blemishes and hitting some potholes along the way. Among the contributors are Tony Bennett and Michael Feinstein, record producer Ken Barnes and biographer Gary Giddins. Writers Buz Kohan and Larry Grossman share the story behind Crosby’s Christmas special duet with David Bowie. Previously recorded interviews also add to the fun. The show’s soundtrack album features songs heard in the documentary, including 16 previously unreleased recordings.

Once again, I’m not sure that the title of PBS’ “Robin Williams Remembered: A Pioneers of Television Special” quite fits the package. Williams’ contributions to television were dwarfed by his accomplishments in movies and comedy venues. Before his death, Williams had been interviewed at length by producers of PBS’ “Pioneers of Television” for use in several different themed episodes. In them, he recalled the comedians who influenced his work and how sitcoms have evolved over the course of the last half-century. With that wide-ranging interview in hand, it wasn’t difficult for the producers of “Remembered” to collect clips from his many movies, television and stage appearances to accompany the unseen material. In the month between Williams’ suicide and the show’s airing, they also collected old and new interviews with his “Mork & Mindy” co-star Pam Dawber, Penny Marshall, Jonathan Winters, Henry Winkler, Yakov Smirnoff, Whoopi Goldberg, Jimmie Walker, Louie Anderson, Paul Rodriguez, Rick Overton, Blake Clark, Pauly Shore and comedy producer George Schlatter. Williams had already spilled the beans on his own missteps in life, so there aren’t many surprises here. Still, the show’s reaction to sad news – it aired a month after his death — doesn’t ever look rushed, forced or exploitative.

Forty years ago, a camera-shy Willie Nelson agreed to perform live for the pilot episode of “Austin City Limits.” He appears again in PBS’ “Austin City Limits Celebrates 40 Years,” alongside a dozen or so artists who hadn’t born when “Phases and Stages” and “Red-Haired Stranger” blew a hole in the wall separating country music from the rock establishment, as well as the one between Outlaw Country and the Nashville plutocrats. When “ACL” was picked up by PBS and its affiliates, two years later, the show favored the music and artists specific to Texas. It has since opened its gates to a wide cross-section of musical acts, sometimes quite a distance from the limits of Austin. Hosted by Oscar-winning actor/musician Jeff Bridges and Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Sheryl Crow, the show features performances by Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Joe Ely, Lyle Lovett, Foo Fighters, Jimmie Vaughan, Alabama Shakes, Buddy Guy, Kris Kristofferson, Lyle Lovett and names known only in households of the Texas capital. The DVD adds bonus tracks from the concert.

So much history has been made in England that it isn’t difficult to find human remains and artifacts associated with great conquering forces within a few scratches of the earth’s surface. In 2011, a group of amateur historians discovered the skeletal remains of King Richard III buried under a parking lot in Leicester. The “Secrets of the Dead” episode, “Resurrecting Richard III,” describes what happened after the remarkable discovery was made. After assuring themselves that the bones were, indeed, of royal lineage, researchers reassembled the loose bones to conduct a forensics autopsy, with special attention paid to the extreme curvature of his spine. The foremost question in their minds was how effective a warrior could the king have been with such a deformity. Pretty well, apparently.

As longtime fans of FX’s critically acclaimed “Justified” await its sixth and final season, the release of the collection of Season Five episodes provides distracted viewers with a last chance to catch up to the storyline, which extends from Detroit to Mexico. This go-round, Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) is confronted by the extended family of Crowes and criminals in cahoots with Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), who’s also pre-occupied with efforts to free his imprisoned fiancée, Ava (Joelle Carter). The season is dedicated to the memory of novelist Elmore Leonard, who died August 20, 2013, and whose short story “Fire in the Hole” inspired the television adaptation. “Justified” has produced some the most memorably grotesque criminals in television history and, this season, added a wonderful turn by sexy Alicia Witt as the Crowe family’s brightest light … and, yes, I realize this isn’t saying much. The set adds making-of material and deleted scenes.

If there’s one thing that forensics examiners have going for them in the furtherance of their craft, it’s the unquenchable need for some Americans to commit murder. On television, the men and women who pursue the truth in such matters enjoy the benefit of their audience’s insatiable curiosity about how one might commit the perfect crime and get away with it. Fortunately, today, state-of-the-art forensics technology allows human investigators to discover clues that would have gone unnoticed by their predecessors. Watch “Quincy, M.E.,” back-to-back with episodes of “CSI,” “NCIS” and “L&O” and it’s easy to see how much progress has been made. I wonder how many of people were influenced to join the profession, by watching Jack Klugman and absorbing some of the passion demonstrated by Quincy in his weekly quest for the truth. The new collection of shows on DVD represents Season Seven, which began to air in October, 1981. Some of the cases involved such evergreen murders as fraternity hazing, toxic waste, gun control, drunk driving, refinery emissions and lack of access to trauma centers. Guest appearances by Mimi Rogers, Tyne Daly, Jonathan Frakes, Dixie Carter, Conchata Ferrell, Clu Gulager, Colleen Dewhurst, Michael Constantine, Diana Muldaur and Anita Gillette

Hallmark’s “When Calls the Heart” tells the story of Elizabeth Thatcher, played by several different actresses, a cultured young teacher from the city who receives her first classroom assignment in a small coal-mining town in the Canadian boonies, circa 1910. Her arrival is complicated by a recent mining disaster, during which Abigail Stanton (Lori Loughlin) and a dozen other women lost their husbands. As much as this tests their faith, the women must go on with their lives, if only for the sake of the children. The made-for-TV movies collected in the new compilation were adapted from Janette Oke’s “Canadian West Book Series.” The titles in the four-disc set are “Lost & Found,” “A Telling Silence,” “The Dance,” “Second Chances,” “Change of Heart” and “Rules of Engagement,” plus the original 2013 made-for-TV movie “When Calls The Heart.”

In the Hallmark film, “Oh Christmas Tree!” (a.k.a., “Fir Crazy”), the newly unemployed Elise (Sarah Lancaster) is forced to return home to work on the family tree farm in the run-up to Christmas. She thought that part of her life was over and isn’t looking forward to another working holiday. Things get even more complicated when a local Scrooge conspires with city officials to close the farm and develop the property. One of the farm’s repeat customers, Darren (Eric Johnson), convinces Elise to fight the power and save the family business.

Tales From the Crypt/Vault of Horror: Blu-ray
Martial Arts Double Feature: Kung Fu Girl/Whiplash
Legacy of Rage
Both of these wrap-around anthologies are based on stories culled from comic books published in the early 1950s by EC Comics. The company’s place in history was assured when its anthologies came under attack from parents, clergy, schoolteachers and politicians who blamed them for contributing to illiteracy and juvenile delinquency. This led directly to congressional hearings and the imposition of a highly restrictive Comics Code. Rather than buck the tide of conservative hysteria, publisher William Gaines chose to focus, instead, on his truly subversive and wonderfully funny Mad magazine. Tales From the Crypt and The Vault of Horror were only two of EC’s extremely popular horror titles. (Weird Science, which focused on science-fiction stories, also was adapted for film and television.)  In Freddie Francis’ 1972 Tales From the Crypt, five unrelated travelers find themselves trapped in a series of catacombs, which lead to the lair of the crypt-keeper, Sir Ralph Richardson. From him, black-hearted characters played by Joan Collins, Peter Cushing, Patrick Magee, Ian Hendry and Barbara Murray, among others, have their worst aspects exposed before their date with destiny. In the still-terrifying “Blind Alley” segment, Magee rallies a group of sightless men against the despotic supervisor of their residence (Nigel Patrick), who’s been summoned by the crypt-keeper.

Roy Ward Baker’s even more graphic sequel, Vault of Horror, is presented by Scream Factory with and without the trims that allowed it to be released PG. Here, five hotel guests step into an elevator, which leads them into an inescapable underground vault. Each guest is required to share a gruesome tale of an encounter with death and how their actions may have precipitated the outcomes. The A-list case of British actors includes Tom Baker (the fourth Doctor Who), Denholm Elliott, Curt Jurgens, Terry-Thomas, Daniel and Anna Massey, Glynis Johns and Michael Craig.

Shout Factory’s new martial-arts double-feature, Whiplash/Kung Fu Girl, takes us back to the glory years of Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest production company. Both pictures feature outstanding fighting action by Pei-Pei Cheng. I don’t think the plots would mean anything to anyone outside of the screenwriters’ immediate families, but the movies have been restored to the point where they can be enjoyed without experiencing terminal eyestrain. Pei-Pei’s career highlight may have been appearing in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in 2000, but she’s hardly had any time off since beginning her movie career in 1964.

Bruce Lee’s only son, Brandon, gets top billing in this uncharacteristically dull martial-arts picture from 1986. He was 21 at time and clearly not ready for prime time. Eight years later, just as he was approaching stardom, Lee would be killed in a freak on-set accident. In Legacy of Rage, his character is framed in the murder of a cop and forced to spend the next eight years in jail. As the title suggests, Lee’s Brandon spent most of his time in stir planning his revenge. There’s only one good fighting scene in the whole movie, so anyone not a Lee completist is advised to use caution.

The DVD Wrapup: Monte Hellman, Les Blank, Dirty Movies, Lines of Wellington, Drunk History and more

Friday, November 28th, 2014

The Shooting/Ride in the Whirlwind: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Les Blank: Always for Pleasure: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Traditionally, the one sure way to kill a genre film’s commercial appeal is for a critic to label it “existential” or “experimental” or compare it to the films of Michelangelo Antonioni and the novels of Albert Camus. This was especially true in the 1960s. No matter how much a Western or road picture was embraced by intellectuals, if it didn’t draw a crowd to the drive-in or local Bijou, no amount of arthouse revenues could save it or advance the career of the artiste. Monte Hellman broke into the movie business in 1959 with a string of genre films made under the Corman banner: Beast From Haunted Cave, The Terror and a pair of back-to-back collaborations with Jack Nicholson, Back Door to Hell and Flight to Fury and The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind. Five years would pass before Universal attempted to tap into the counterculture market with his “existential road movie,” Two-Lane Blacktop – also available on Blu-ray through Criterion – which featured curiously blank performances by musicians Dennis Wilson and James Taylor and a truly great one by Warren Oates, which would be honored by the New York Film Critics Circle. Forty years later, this unqualified financial disaster would enter the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, where The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind someday may find themselves, as well.

In The Shooting, Nicholson and Oates play prominent roles, alongside Millie Perkins (The Diary of Anne Frank) and Will Hutchins (“Sugarfoot”). Oates and Hutchins play a couple of likeable saddle tramps who get roped into a revenge scheme by a mysterious dark-eyed stranger (Perkins) and a slick gunfighter (Nicholson). Needless to say, things don’t go as planned. In an even less complicated setup, “Whirlwind” chronicles what happens when three decent cowboys are mistaken for members of an outlaw gang and pursued by a rope-happy posse, unlikely to parse the difference. Neither of the movies fit the Western template created decades earlier by Hollywood myth mongers, even if there’s plenty of shooting and the scenery wouldn’t be out of place in a John Ford classic. Besides Nicholson and Perkins, “Whirlwind” stars Cameron Mitchell and Harry Dean Stanton, in his first credited movie role. His presence, as “Blind Dick,” is worth the price of admission, alone. The Blu-ray package features new 4K digital restorations of both films, supervised by Hellman, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks; commentaries on both films, featuring Hellman and film historians Bill Krohn and Blake Lucas; conversations between Hellman and actors John Hackett, B. J. Merholz, Perkins and Stanton, assistant director Gary Kurtz and chief wrangler Calvin Johnson; a new conversation between Hutchins and film programmer Jake Perlin; a new video essay on Oates, by critic Kim Morgan; and a print essay by critic Michael Atkinson.

Like most people who cherish movies that challenge the imagination, I’ve spent several hours watching and re-watching Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Les Blank’s companion documentary, Burden of Dreams, both filmed under the most arduous of conditions in the Amazon rainforest.  Watch them alongside of Apocalypse Now and you may not step foot in another boat. It took me a while to catch up with Blank’s Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, in which the German filmmaker makes good on a bet he made with then-upcoming documentarian Erol Morris. But, once again, worth the effort. Criterion’s three-disc collection, Les Blank: Always for Pleasure, couldn’t be more fun to watch. I’d call it “binge-worthy,” except for the fact that viewers will want to linger over the short films and sample the featurettes that accompany them. Blank’s documentaries may have been the first to routinely merge regional pastimes and tastes, while telling stories that celebrated distinctly American culture. Several of the titles here are set in and around the bayous that extend from Texas to New Orleans. At the time these films were made, Cajon country may as well have existed on the moon. What’s remarkable about them is the purity of Blank’s vision. Just as Alan Lomax’s field recordings captured the music of Southern blues and folk music, at the source, Blank’s films introduced the rest of America to Cajun and Creole culture, 20 years before they were discovered by Paul Simon and the producers of The Big Easy. America was a much smaller place before satellite dishes turned our nation into one large shopping mall and the blackened-redfish craze nearly made the once-multitudinous specious extinct. Like a good gumbo, Blank’s films merged what he considered to be the essentials of any culture — food, music and dance – into something uniquely appealing and completely irresistible. Among the subjects covered here are bluesmen Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb, cowboy artists, polka fanaticism, hillbilly pickers, Clifton Chernier, flower power, gap-toothed women and Afro-Cuban drummers. The Blu-ray package adds new 2K digital restorations of all 14 films, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks; an excerpt from Les Blank: A Quiet Revelation, an upcoming documentary by Gina Leibrecht; new interviews with Blank’s sons, Harrod and Beau, documentary subject Gerald Gaxiola, filmmakers Skip Gerson, Maureen Gosling, Taylor Hackford, Tom Luddy, and Chris Simon and chef Alice Waters; several additional shorter short films; and an essay by film scholar Andrew Horton.

The Giver: Blu-Ray
Compared to what we see every day on the evening news reports, the totalitarian post-apocalyptical society imagined in The Giver doesn’t look half-bad. In a world where cops are given free license to murder unarmed teenagers, Ebola claims the poorest of the poor and fundamentalist Muslims behead harmless aid workers for no comprehensible reason, it’s difficult to get too worked up about a group of survivors who prefer colorlessly obedient lifestyle to barely contained chaos. If I didn’t know better, I’d think author Lois Lowry modeled her 1994 Newbery Medal-winning novel on what America might be like under a Mormon dictatorship: incredibly boring and colorless, but more or less peaceful. Anyone who didn’t dig it, could find refuge in Canada or Mexico. As in Divergent, all the young people we meet in The Giver are required to accept pre-ordained career postings and raise their own children to be obedient citizens of the state. Once again, given the choice between accepting such strictly enforced restrictions and living in fear of chronic unemployment and unaffordable health care, how many Americans would raise an objection? If it weren’t for the vows of pre-marital chastity that come with the territory, the choice would be a no-brainer. There’s always a rub, isn’t there? In fact, though, by medically inducing memory loss, the Council of Elders of the Communities – a blandly designed city/state built on a mesa, not unlike the Hopi pueblos of northeastern Arizona – have diluted post-pubescent “stirrings” to near non-existence. In the two decades since “The Given” became a best-seller, the possibility that teen libidos could be controlled by an authoritarian government probably gave its young-adult readers the best of all possible reasons to question authority. Their parents and grandparents were taught similar lessons in “Animal Farm” and “1984.”

Upon his coming-of-age, the story’s protagonist, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), is assigned the responsibility of being the community’s one and only Receiver of Memory. Although it contradicts the whole point of maintaining a memory-starved society, Jonas is thus required to absorb the knowledge of things past as interpreted by the incumbent Giver (Jeff Bridges). This not only includes everything that led to “The Ruin,” but also the subversive powers associated with kissing and falling in love. Meryl Streep’s imperious Chief Elder has already seen one Receiver of Memory fly the coop after studying under the Giver, so she wants him to keep Jason on a tighter leash. The curious thing about knowledge, of course, is that a little bit only makes one hungry for more. In The Giver, the only place to find such truths is in the land beyond the mesa, from which no one returns. To its credit, the movie isn’t nearly as violent as Divergent, The Hunger Games and other dystopian thrillers. In its absence, director Phillip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence) is able to demonstrate how Jason’s inability to limit his gift of curiosity to conversations with his mentor causes seeds of dissent to grow, even in the infertile imaginations of his friends. Bridges, who’s nurtured this project for almost 20 years, is always a joy to watch on screen. As Chief Elder, Streep is only asked to look alternately stern and distressed, and she does it well. Scientology survivor Katie Holmes plays Jason’s mom, while, as his dad, Alexander Skarsgård is given a bit more substantial to do. The Blu-ray adds footage from an elaborate press conference, staged for foreign reporters; highlights from the original script reading, 20 years ago, featuring Lloyd Bridges and other family members; “Making ‘The Giver’: From Page to Screen,” which chronicles the challenges of getting the story made into a movie; an extended take on “Jonas’ harrowing journey”; “Ordinary Human,” with OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, on his contributions to the soundtrack; author Lois Lowry discusses life events that shaped the story and things she would have changed in the original work; and a “Study Guide,” for viewers who want to experience the film interactively.

What If: Blu-ray
If there’s nothing new about the romantic entanglements in Michael Dowse’s adaptation of the play, “Toothpaste and Cigars,” the chemistry between actors Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan makes it fresh enough to savor. Free to portray contemporary adults after a decade working on Harry Potter’s farm, Radcliffe plays a medical school dropout, Wallace, broken-hearted over the loss of his girlfriend to an anatomy teacher. No sooner does he vow to swear off dating for a year than he meets a woman, Chantry, at a party that bores the hell out of both of them. In movie shorthand, that’s equivalent of saying they’re perfect for each other and, by all rights, should find someplace close to talk and have sex. Because What If is only 10 minutes old at this point, however, something immediately comes between them to squeeze another hour-and-a-half out of the proceedings. In this case, Chantry already has a live-in boyfriend, Ben (Rafe Spall), who’s kind of a dick but too familiar to take a chance on leaving for an unemployed guy she met at a party. Now, one thing leads to another and Wallace and Chantry become best friends and confidantes. When his goofball roommate, Allan (Adam Driver), decides that it’s time settle down with his similarly eccentric girlfriend, Nicole (Mackenzie Davis), they commit themselves to making Wallace and Chantry grasp what’s already obvious to everyone else around them. Things get even more complicated when Ben takes a job in Ireland and Chantry decides to give the benefit of a doubt. Being a Canadian/Irish co-production, What If doesn’t always play out as expected. Even so, no one should expect the same sort of fully developed British rom-coms as Love Actually and Notting Hill. Some folks might recognize Dowse’s name from such offbeat indies as It’s All Gone Pete Tong, Fubar and Goon. The Blu-ray package adds deleted scenes and several making-of and background featurettes.

A Free Bird
All slacker comedies share certain attributes and archetypes, not the least of which are the consumption of vast quantities of marijuana and beer and minute amount of time reserved for finding jobs or cleaning the basement. The characters we’ve met in such movies as Up in Smoke, Half-Baked, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Pineapple Express, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle and Friday have come in all shapes, sizes and ethnic backgrounds. If any single group is underrepresented, however, it’s rednecks and hillbillies. Brad Pitt, James Franco and Nicolas Cage have all portrayed lower-caste characters, who might have been raised in a trailer courts by alcoholic parents, but, generally speaking, they’re reserved for the kinds of horror flicks in which tourists are turned into sausage or threatened with power tools. Independently made on what must have been a miniscule budget, A Free Bird is a comedy made by rednecks, about rednecks, for the amusement of rednecks and set on Florida’s Redneck Riviera. J.T. Broadrick (Russell Durham Comegys) is a rock-star handsome slacker, who’s dumb as bag of rocks and can’t hold on to even the simplest of jobs. Before being fired for stealing eggs from the salad bar at the Panama City Steak House, he somehow managed to set fire to the cigarette shack at which he worked. When asked to fill out a form listing his skills for job placement, J.T. can’t come up with anything. An ex-con buddy suggests that they break into the steakhouse at night and raid the meat locker. If the four men enlisted for the job pooled all of their brain cells, the collective intelligence wouldn’t amount to that of one chipmunk collecting acorns for winter. How dumb are they? Well, how about storing all of the boxes of stolen meat in an unrefrigerated van and, instead of handing it off immediately to a fence, getting blind drunk in a strip club? They’re awakened the next day by the sound of dogs barking wildly outside the van, where the blood leaking from the boxes is dripping through the rear doors and onto the pavement. Despite the fact that J.T. is cheating on his endlessly patient girlfriend, Tammy (Karen-Eileen Gordon), with a waitress named Ladonna, she adheres to the advice of her namesake, Tammy Wynette, by standing by her man. In only his first film, writer/director/editor/producer Gregg Russell somehow manages to maintain a firm grasp on the frequently flimsy narrative and imbue A Free Bird – a reference to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s redneck anthem – with a professional sheen most freshman projects can’t afford.

Rhymes for Young Ghouls
I thought about including Jeff Barnaby’s impressive debut feature, Rhymes for Young Ghouls, on the list of slacker and stoner movies representing different ethnic backgrounds, but what began as a comedy soon evolved into a creepy First Nation revenge/horror flick. This isn’t to suggest that it is devoid of humor or that the characters aren’t in the same league as Bill & Ted, Harold & Kumar and Jay & Silent Bob, because most of the Red Crow Mi’gMaqs we meet are world-class stoners. In fact, the funniest line of dialogue hat I’ve heard this month belongs to Aila (Devery Jacobs), the pot-dealing protagonist, when addressing two of her flunky couriers: “You’re the two dumbest Indians since Bugs Bunny put on a headdress.” In fact, though, Barnaby’s story plays out against the background of a 1976 Canadian-government edict requiring Aboriginal children under the age of 16 to attend residential schools, where they’re force-fed the ways, language and distorted history of what they consider to be a foreign nation. This wouldn’t be so completely onerous if it weren’t for the fact that native children weren’t allowed to speak to each in their native tongue, given Anglicized names, forcibly shorn of their long hair and braids, required to embrace Christianity and deny their own religious rituals. Cases of sexual, physical and mental abuse at the boarding houses in Canada, the U.S. and Australia have been well documented and subsequently elicited the apologies of government and church leaders.

In “Rhymes,” a brutal and corrupt Indian agent, Popper (Mark Antony Krupa), makes life miserable for everyone on the rez, especially the kids forcibly removed from their modest homes. When Aila’s father, Joseph (Glen Gould) is released from prison, Popper recognizes him as a potential threat to his authority. This includes extracting bribes from Aila and administering regular beat-downs on anyone he thinks deserves one. He refuses to believe that Joseph saw the light in stir and is as disturbed by the rampant drug dealing and alcoholism ravaging the community as anyone else. What he can’t abide, however, is the routine harassment, brutality and payoffs demanded by the agent. Joseph’s return sets up an inevitable series of showdowns with Popper, as well as an uprising by the young people still carrying the scars of institutionalized torture at the school. What makes “Rhymes” especially interesting is the integration of Aboriginal mysticism into the story, including the occasional resurrection of unsettled spirits of ancestors, who, having been buried in a mass grave, wander the reservation at night like so many zombies. It was well-received on the festival circuit, but, as far as I can tell, received no distribution in the U.S., even in communities with significant Native American populations. It’s definitely worth finding. The Blu-ray adds a very good making-of featurette.

A Life in Dirty Movies
When the history of 42nd Street and the sexploitation industry is finally written, Joe Sarno’s name will stand tall as an example of a filmmaker who, for years, bucked the tides of convention and sleaze, but finally succumbed to the realities of the marketplace. Throughout the 1960s, Sarno produced dozens of pulpy features that bridged the gap between Russ Meyer’s nudie-cuties and the soft-corn porn of Radley Metzger. In such pre-porn classics as Sin in the Suburbs (1964), Moonlighting Wives (1966), The Bed and How to Make It! (1966) and Inga (1968), he employed psycho-sexual dramatics to sell stories that addressed the erosion of sexual mores and taboos of the times. While these films clearly exploited the female form, Sarno was practically alone in his insistence that women are capable of enjoying sex every bit as much as his male characters. It seems to be a rather obvious point, a half-century after the fact, but it was the rare filmmaker who treated female orgasms as something other than a rumor. As difficult as it might be to imagine, then and now, some people mentioned Sarno’s name in the same breath as Ingmar Bergman and other Euros. After all, Swedish audiences had fallen in love with newly legitimized sex films and actors didn’t seem to mind taking off their clothes. One of things we learn in Wiktor Ericsson’s admiring bio-doc, A Life in Dirty Movies, is that Bergman once toyed with the idea of collaborating on an adult picture with Sarno, Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa. Even if only half-true, it makes for a delightful anecdote. The documentary also succeeds as a more or less traditional love story. Sarno and Peggy Steffans, his wife and collaborator, maintained a marriage of 40 years amidst countless distractions, temptations and obstacles. Among the roadblocks was Peggy’s wealthy, if imperious mother, who disapproved of Sarno’s business, personality, age difference and previous marriage. One way they overcame mom’s resistance was to spend extended vacations each year in Sweden and cultivate friendships with artists who didn’t equate sex with scandal. It’s appears to have been one of those unlikely couplings, in which the words “husband” and “wife” couldn’t adequately characterize their relationship. Sarno’s greatest challenge would come when audiences abandoned soft-core and sexploitation films for those that left nothing to the imagination. Running out of money finally convinced him to push his qualms aside and make hard-core films under assumed names. Some of them were quite good, in fact. Except in discussions in featurettes included in the bonus package, A Life in Dirty Movies doesn’t linger very long on this phase of Sarno’s career. Because Ericsson was accorded extensive access to the couple in the last years of his life together, the Swedish filmmaker was able to capture the delight in Joe and Peggy’s faces in advance of career retrospectives at the New York Underground Film Festival, the Torino Film Festival, Cinémathèque Française and the Andy Warhol Museum. It also chronicles his failed efforts to complete one last film before his death, at 89, in 2010. The DVD adds additional interview material and sequences from Fabodjantan and Young Playthings.

Touch of the Light
If this uplifting Taiwanese drama about a blind piano prodigy isn’t as rousing a success as Taylor Hackford’s Ray, the story it tells offers many subtle charms of its own. Touch of the Light extends director Chang Jung-chi and writer Nyssa Li’s 2008 award-winning short film on the same musician, Huang Yu-Siang, who plays himself here, as well. It’s a simple story, really. Siang was born to a rural family that found it extremely difficult to raise a handicapped son on the parents’ meager earnings. Even so, the boy’s natural curiosity and latent talent pulled him along, until he was able to attend a university dedicated to the arts. Other challenges would await him in the sighted world, but, again, his determination to succeed made his musicianship the least of his problems. Indeed, once Siang finds his footing among his fellow students, Li’s story expands to take on the issues facing a young working-class woman, Jie (Sandrine Pinna), who desperately wants to become a dancer, but is held back by her own lack of self-confidence, resources and personal issues. After a chance meeting, Jie follows Siang around the city on his daily rounds, which includes instilling a love of music among blind children. By this time, viewers will begin to wonder if their mutual admiration society allows for romance. They won’t find it overly taxing to stick around to discover what happens in that department.

Lines of Wellington
Americans have enough trouble keeping track of their own wars, without also having to recall the details of the conflicts that have enflamed Europe throughout its post-Roman history. If it weren’t for HBO and Showtime, we’d be hard-pressed to understand the forces that shaped the continent going into the world wars, upon which most of us have a pretty good handle. The Napoleonic Wars ring a bell, but only to the extent that they informed the phrase, “met his Waterloo” (also a song by Abba), and gave us the “1812 Overture,” which Americans have appropriated to commemorate our own War of 1812. It explains why stateside distributors gave a pass to the epic historical drama, Lines of Wellington, which was begun by Chilean director Raúl Ruiz and completed by his widow Valeria Sarmiento. The star-studded Franco/Portuguese production, also cut for use as a television mini-series in some markets, opens with the Battle of Bussaco and extends through the retreat of French Marshal Masséna from the Lines of Torres Vedras, thus relieving Portugal from the threat of occupation. The title refers to the line of defense built by Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, whose brilliant strategizing confounded the larger French force and assured his place in British military history. While most of Lines of Wellington’s accurate, it includes several historical groaners. Among them, it repeats the likely apocryphal story of the creation of the first Beef Wellington. That duty fell to John Malkovich, an internationally renowned American actor who seemingly was born to mock the massive pomposity of European aristocracy. While there are several battle scenes shown in the film, the emphasis is on the toll paid by the poor folks caught between the constantly changing front lines, along with various camp followers, ordinary soldiers and royals too lazy to get out of their own way. Refugees streamed toward Lisbon as the sides advanced or they were displaced by Wellington’s scorched-earth policy in his strategic retreats. Fans of historical epics should find plenty to enjoy throughout the 152-minute length of Lines of Wellington. Others, not so much. The Portuguese locations add to the fun, as do virtual cameos by such prominent European actors as Mathieu Amalric, Elsa Zylberstein, Vincent Perez, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Michel Piccoli and Chiara Mastroianni. The DVD arrives with a separate disc dedicated to a making-of featurette.

Twink
What’s the T?
Snails in the Rain
The Third One
Before some people hit rock bottom, they’re given an opportunity to tell their stories. These usually take the form of cautionary tales, but, sometimes, the forums provide one last opportunity to show off before an audience. In Twink, washed-up gay-porn star Kayden Daydream (a.k.a., Quinn) is motivated chiefly to give the middle finger to the world one last time. Before he does so, however, Kayden describes the highs and lows of the skin trade in frightening detail. He gleefully pushed the limits of debauchery and unnecessary risk. The arena in which he practiced his craft was one that fetishized youth and discarded its stars when they passed a certain age or lost their looks. Not one to be easily dismissed, Kayden greased his slide by allowing drugs and alcohol to numb his mind and body to physical and emotional pain. In his painfully transgressive and confrontational interview with the unseen documentarian, Kayden demands of the audience that it wallow in the muck of his life and listen to the contradictions and lies he’s told himself hundreds of times. His slovenly existence tells us that the presence of the filmmaker has only forestalled the inevitable for a little while. It’s a harrowing thing to watch, but I think Twink probably would work better on stage, where its rawness could have more direct impact on the audience. It’s hard to fault Wade Radford’s interpretation of such an unpleasant character, though, because Kayden truly is repelling. Co-director Jason Impey has collaborated with Radford on such micro-budgeted gay-punk films as Boys Behind Bars, Lustful Desires, Tub Boy and Sex, Lies & Depravity and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a loyal following.

The sight of transgender actors and characters on television is becoming less of a novelty – or provocation — with every new cable-TV series intent on pushing the envelope or drawing attention to itself. Laverne Cox plays Sophia on Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black.” Chaz Bono strutted his stuff on “Dancing With the Stars.” “Ru Paul’s Drag Race” is practically mainstream. ABC’s “Ugly Betty” and “Dirty Sexy Money” featured transgender actors in the same season. And, Unique Adams joined the “Glee” club. They’re not alone. Cecilio Asuncion’s 2012 documentary, What’s the T?, explores the challenges, successes and daily lives of five attractive trans-gender women who represent the “new normality,” of LGBT life in some parts of the U.S. By now, it almost seems boring.

After watching documentaries and contemporary dramas about how swell it is to be gay and Israeli in Tel Aviv – gay and Palestinian is a different story – I found Snails in the Rain to be oddly anachronistic. But, then, I missed the part where viewers are made aware of the 1989 setting. That we’re still getting stories about how difficult it is to come out of the closet, especially in one of the world’s most un-closeted cities, also was disconcerting. Boaz (Yoav Reuveni) is a linguistics student awaiting word on a grant that would allow him and his girlfriend Noa (Moran Rosenblatt) to move to Jerusalem, where his cloying mother would find it more difficult to hassle them. It isn’t until Boaz begins getting unsigned mash notes from another man that he begins to question how straight and dedicated to Noa he really is. It also reminds him of his time in the army, which, according to some movies I’ve seen, may be the single most inclusive gay bar in Israel. This new-found uncertainty bothers Boaz so terribly that he begins to turn his angst on Noa, who doesn’t deserve his shit. When we finally arrive at an answer as to who’s sending the letters, even more questions are raised. But, that’s 1989 for you.

At 70 minutes, The Third One barely has enough time to tell a story worth hearing. As it is, though, I don’t think Argentinian writer/director Rodrigo Guerrero had much of an idea where he wanted to go with his sophomore film, anyway. It opens with 22-year-old Fede (Emiliano Dionisi) cruising various Internet chatrooms to find an interesting hookup. He accepts an invitation from a gay couple, presumably in their 40s, for dinner at their nicely appointed pad. Once dinner is cleared, the trio spends the next half-hour getting even better acquainted. The next morning finds Fede in his class at the university daydreaming about night things. That’s it. This one is only for people who enjoy eavesdropping on other people’s conversations.

TV-to-DVD
Comedy Central: Drunk History Seasons 1 & 2
PBS: Rise of the Black Pharaohs
PBS: Nova: First Air War
PBS: Nova: Ben Franklin’s Balloon
If there weren’t so darn many channels on TV and the Internet had yet to been invented, some people might consider a show such as Comedy Central’s “Drunk History” to be a sinfully frivolous waste of time … or whisky. As it is, the “Funny or Die” offshoot has developed a loyal audience of viewers in the key demographic that the broadcast networks might envy. If “Dancing With the Stars” can thrive, after all, why not “Drinking With the Stars.” The web series, which was created by Derek Waters and Jeremy Konner in 2007, features well-known actors re-enacting various historical events as related by a guest narrator, who’s several sheets to wind. No matter how badly the narrators misconstrue the anecdotes they’ve been asked to interpret, the actors are obliged to repeat them verbatim – slurred words, cussing, burps and all — often to hilarious effect. You can even try it at home, like Mad-libs. Typically, the chapters focus on cities where auspicious events have taken place or such broad topics as “American Music,” “First Ladies” and “Sports Heroes.” Among the celebrities on display are Jenny Slate, Luke and Owen Wilson, Alfred Molina, Kristen Wiig, Michael Cera, Connie Britton, Winona Ryder, Bob Odenkirk, Juno Temple, Paget Brewster, John Lithgow and Emily Deschanel.

It’s a function of institutional racism that the accomplishments of non-white cultures have, until lately, been minimalized or doubted by archeologists and historians. Certainly, that’s the case in pre-colonization Africa, where great tribes ruled vast sections of the continent and the victors of terrible wars drew borders that reflected reality on the ground, not European politics. Around 800 BC, Kush, a little-known subject state of Egypt, rose up and conquered the Egyptians, enthroned its own pharaohs and ruled over the empire of King Tut for nearly 100 years. Even when surrounded by evidence, archaeologists refused to believe that dark-skinned Africans could have risen so high. Today, in the heart of Sudan, archeologists Geoff Emberling and Tim Kendall are bringing the truth about the “black pharaohs” to life. In PBS’ “Rise of the Black Pharaohs” viewers are invited to investigate a royal tomb located beneath an ancient Kush pyramid and climb a stone pillar sacred to both Kushites and Egyptians. It’s an amazing story.

Far better known, but no less interesting, is the “Nova” presentation, “First Air War,” which not only dramatizes the rise of the biplane as a crucial element to modern warfare, but also employs history re-creators to demonstrate how the machines evolved to reflect the lessons learned in battle. When World War I began, in 1914, the air forces of the opposing nations consisted of handfuls of rickety biplanes from which pilots occasionally took pot shots at one another with rifles. By the war’s end, the essential blueprint of the modern fighter had emerged. “Nova” producers join members of New Zealand’s Vintage Aviator club, as they reveal the secrets of classic World War I fighters, such as the SE5A and Albatros DV.

Also from “Nova,” “Ben Franklin’s Balloon” corrects the notion that human flight first became a reality when the Wright brothers lifted off at Kitty Hawk. In fact, 120 years earlier, the Montgolfier brothers built a hot-air balloon that thrilled French witnesses with its ability to soar 3,000 feet into the clouds. If it weren’t for Benjamin Franklin, who was serving in Paris as our ambassador to France, Americans might still believe that the first such balloon trip here was the first one anywhere. Instead, Franklin’s dispatches piqued the imaginations of his readers across the Atlantic. “Nova” re-creates key flights of manned and unmanned vessels, which were constructed of cotton and paper and propelled by the gases released by burning hay. Joining the team is a descendant of the Montgolfiers.

The DVD Wrapup: Into the Storm, Automata, Wind Rises, Summer’s Tale, Brazilian Western, Alive Within, I Am Ali, Worricker, Monkey Shines and more

Friday, November 21st, 2014

Into the Storm: Blu-ray
I can’t remember when storm chasing became a staple of reality television, but, just as miniature cameras have allowed NASCAR fans up-close-and-personal views of violent crashes, the prospect of watching daredevil scientists getting devoured by an EF5 tornado was a guaranteed hit. While we were blessedly spared slo-mo footage of “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin’s death-by-stingray, photos of the research vehicle crushed by powerful tornados, last year, told us all needed to know about the final moments of veteran chasers Carl Young, Tim Samaras and his son, Jim. For those unable to visualize the potential consequences of pitting technological prowess against Mother Nature’s fury, I suggest picking up a copy of Into the Storm. I wonder what the ratings for Syfy’s Sharknado were in Tornado Alley. I can’t imagine anyone who’s lost a home to a twister seeing anything funny in it, but that’s just me. Anthony C. Ferrante and John Swetnam’s mega-disaster thriller isn’t devoid of some whoppers of its own. The genre lends itself to hyperbole and wild sight gags. I recall interviewing director Jan de Bont before the 1996 release of Twister and the excitement caused by the inclusion of a befuddled cow sucked into the vortex, accompanied by the digitally distorted sounds of lions and camels. Four years later, I was able to eavesdrop on the CGI wizards at Industrial Light & Magic, as they were putting the finishing touches on The Perfect Storm, and visit the giant tank at Warner Bros. where some of the more intimate scenes were shot. News footage from actual Nor’easters wasn’t sufficiently frightening, so computer graphics were added to jack up the intensity to nightmarish proportions. I don’t think anyone minded. Much has happened in the ensuing 13 years to raise the bar on the replication of meteorological carnage. Many of the images included in Into the Storm came from material captured by storm chasers and news reports, including coverage of the EF5 tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma, only 10 days before the deaths of Young and the Samaras. Other images were digitally integrated into scenes of powerful multi-vortex tornados and a “fire whirl” threatening the citizens of fictional Silverton. If some of those images force viewers to suspend their disbelief to record levels, it’s only because mind-blowing storm footage is readily available on the Internet and it’s free. What the estimated $50-million budget couldn’t sustain, however, was an A-list cast and a story that doesn’t borrow from nearly every other disaster movie ever made. Although not made for cable, Into the Storm occasionally looks as if it were. The first cliché requires there to be a clash between a daredevil storm chaser (Matt Walsh) and a data-obsessed, if beautiful scientist (Sarah Wayne Callies), who bears the brunt of the team’s yearlong drought in recordable storms. When their Moby Dick arrives in the form of an off-the charts tornado cluster, the team must choose between keeping the cameras rolling from the safety of their heavily fortified vehicle or sounding the alarm in Silverton, whose citizens have gotten accustomed to withstanding lesser storms. In a convenient win-win solution to their dilemma, the pros are able to collaborate with local amateurs, who, of course, have been risking their own lives to capture potentially valuable footage on their cellphones. When a teacher at the town’s endangered high school learns that his son, with whom he’s just argued, natch, and his hottie girlfriend, might be playing hooky in an abandoned warehouse, another improbable obstacle is added. Again, it’s nothing anyone hasn’t seen before, but the race against time adds a tick-tock element one expects from these things. The Perfect Storm’s screenwriter William D. Wittliff, working from Sebastian Junger’s book, couldn’t have invented anything more dramatic than what happened to those fishermen that day and the A-list cast did the rest. The Blu-ray package adds such interesting background featurettes as “Into the Storm: Tornado Files,” “Titus: The Ultimate Storm-Chasing Vehicle” and “Fake Storms: Real Conditions,” which demonstrates how the real and digital images were merged.

Automata: Blu-ray
Everywhen
In a movie that suffers by comparison to Blade Runner, Antonio Banderas plays a character who too closely resembles Harrison Ford’s replicant hunter, Rick Deckard. Where Ridley Scott used constant rain to emphasize how shitty things had become in Philip K. Dick’s toxic vision of noir L.A., Gabe Ibáñez’ Automata maintains its prevailing climate of dread by visualizing a planet scorched by endless radioactive sunshine. Given all the fear-mongering surrounding the climate-change debate, it’s easy to buy into cinematographer Alejandro Martínez’ hellishly unsparing landscape. Unfortunately, it’s the only aspect of Automata that really feels new and different. As such, it will be of more interest to post-apocalyptic completists than the mainstream critics who were almost unanimously unimpressed by it. They didn’t hate it, exactly, but neither did they find anything in it to love, as some niche bloggers did. Banderas may be more convincing than Tom Cruise in these sorts of futuristic thrillers, but, having enjoyed so much of his work with Pedro Almodóvar, I couldn’t avoid the feeling he would be better served elsewhere. Fellow Almodovar favorite Javier Bardem also lent his disembodied voice to Automata’s Blue Robot, so, if nothing else, Ibáñez must have felt buoyed by the support of his fellow Spaniards in only his second feature. The brief presence of Banderas’ wife, Melanie Griffith, as a “sexbot” tech and voice of one of her creations, Cleo Robot, is easier to explain. In 2044, the Earth’s surface is so radioactive that 99.7 percent of the population has been wiped out and most of the survivors exist behind walls built by robot drones. Banderas plays Jacq Vaucan, an agent for ROC Robotics, which has been entrusted with the responsibility of preventing the increasingly devious cyborgs from abusing the three protocols carved in stone by Isaac Asimov: 1) a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; 2) a robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law, and 3) a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. They also appear to be breaking the protocols by altering and repairing themselves. It had to happen sooner or later, so ROC Robotics pays dearly to eliminate any threats to humans. Unlike too many of his fellow “insurance agents” and police, Vaucan exhibits more than an ounce of sympathy for those robots talented enough to improve their lot on Earth. It makes him a target for destruction, as well. When Vaucan disappears into the desert with Cleo, his supervisors kidnap his wife and newborn child. Incredibly, they run him down at a factory/hospital run by rogue robots. The ensuing standoff feels rushed and unnecessarily illogical. Robert Forster and Dylan McDermott add a touch of class in supporting roles. The Blu-ray adds a short making-of piece.

Norwegian import Everywhen is set 30 more years into the future than Automata, in a country where the threat to humanity doesn’t involve robots or radioactive sand. Somehow, though, another 3 billion people have suddenly disappeared from the face of the Earth. At a time when teleporting is a common means of transportation, 17-year-old Ian Finch (Harald Evjan Furuholmen) wills himself into the alternative universe he believes his missing brother, Dylan, can be found. The problem for Ian is that no one there wants Dylan to be found. Like his protagonist, co-writer/director Jarand Breian Herdal is a mere lad of 17. The movie, itself, isn’t all that exciting, but it did get some play in Norway. Considering Herdal had only about $10,000 to spend – maybe, he stole his parents’ credit cards – it doesn’t look bad, either. A short making-of film accompanies this DVD, as well.

The Wind Rises: Blu-ray
Princess Mononoke: Blu-ray
Kiki’s Delivery Service: Blu-ray
Ever since Western film critics and animation buffs helped convince Walt Disney Company to showcase the work of Hayao Miyazaki, by distributing titles from Studio Ghibli outside Japan, niche audiences here have applauded his takes on mankind’s struggle to balance nature and technology, the strength and wisdom of his female characters, and maintaining a pacifist stance in world enamored of war. They also have admired the ways fantasy and supernatural themes are integrated into manga-influenced stories of almost breathtaking visual beauty. Knowing Americans’ genetic predisposition to not reward movies that carry subtitles, Disney has arranged for casts of prominent voice actors to mute any objections to them. (It does the same thing in other markets.) Last year, Miyazaki stunned the industry by announcing his retirement after the completion of The Wind Rises, newly released here in Blu-ray alongside previous masterworks Princess Mononoke and Kiki’s Delivery Service. If all one knew about The Wind Rises before watching it at home or in a theater is that it either won or was nominated Best Animated Feature in every major critics’ poll or awards competition in which it was represented, they’re likely to be nonplussed by its subject matter. Although hugely popular in Japan, the film was the subject of political debate from both ends of the spectrum. If Miyazaki were more widely recognized in the U.S., The Wind Rises may have sparked an even greater controversy here. That’s because Miyazaki chose to illustrate the life story of Jiro Horikoshi, a man most Americans wouldn’t recognize as being Japan’s most prominent designer of military aircraft. His most notorious creation was the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter, which, of course, inflicted the greatest amount of death and destruction during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Hardly a subject to keep turnstiles spinning at U.S. multiplexes. Even those familiar with Horikoshi and his seemingly contradictory lack of sympathy for Japanese imperialism, however, might look askance at a screenplay that completely misrepresents his marriage and pre-war timeline, invents characters out of whole cloth, and even imagines a cigarette habit that didn’t exist.

What is indisputable is the engineer’s lifelong passion for flight and ability to see beauty in machines that almost surely would be used in war. As if to counter potential controversy, Miyazaki imbues his protagonist with the gift of visual prophesy. The widespread flames caused by a large earthquake pre-sage the firebombing of Tokyo, while, later, in a dream, Horikoshi and his imaginary Italian mentor, stroll through a field littered with the metal carcasses of Zeros. Even so, Horikoshi clearly compromises his repugnance for the Japanese cause by accepting the challenge of designing something that combines form and function in a way that corrupts artistic vision. “All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful,” he says. It’s a trade-off too few designers and artists of all backgrounds have been able to resist. Even so, unless one has skipped ahead to the interviews contained in the bonus package, it would be difficult to understand precisely what the filmmaker is trying to say about Horikoshi’s dreams and capitulation. If I’ve thrown in a few too many spoilers here, it’s only because this wonderful film can be interpreted in so many different ways, not all of them entirely accurate. The splendid Blu-ray package, which Americans can enjoy with or without subtitles, includes the making-of featurette “The Wind Rises: Behind the Microphone,” storyboards, Japanese trailers and TV spots and lengthy Q&A press conference that accompanied the announcement of the completion of the film.

While viewers interested enough in Miyazaki’s career to seek out The Wind Rises in its Blu-ray debut likely already have enjoyed DVD versions of Princess Mononoke and Kiki’s Delivery Service, most will want to compare them to the hi-def experience, anyway. They won’t be disappointed. I would caution newcomers against starting at the end of the master’s list of credits, though, as his best-known films are significantly different in tone and style than The Wind Rises. Released in Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong in 1997, American audiences didn’t get a look at Princess Mononoke until two years later, after Disney/Miramax was able to add an all-star English-language soundtrack and arrange for the filmmaker’s first press tour here. In it, Miyazaki pits Lady Eboshi’s expansionist clan of humans against the forest’s animal spirits led by Princess Mononoke, who was raised by wolves. The film wasn’t nearly as big a hit on this side of the Pacific as it was elsewhere, but its spectacular beauty, complex anime and engrossing narrative got the ball rolling for the release of previously undistributed titles and re-release of movies butchered by less conscientious handlers. The bonus material includes “Princess Mononoke in the USA,” on Miyazaki’s promotional tour; voice actors Jada Pinkett Smith, Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thornton, Gillian Anderson and Billy Crudup discuss their contributions; original Japanese storyboards; and marketing material.

Shown in Japan in 1989, Kiki’s Delivery Service arrived here on video in 1998 through Buena Vista Home Entertainment. The first attempt at dubbing English dialogue, employing American idioms and sound effects, disappointed many viewers who were already aware of Miyazaki’s work. It was given a second vocal makeover five years later on DVD. In it, Kiki is a 13-year-old apprentice witch on a worldwide mission to prove herself worthy of promotion to full-time status. Along with her black cat, Jiji, Kiki creates a successful high-flying delivery service, via broomstick. In addition to 10 carryover featurettes, the Blu-ray add “Ursula’s Painting,” a musical montage of images created by junior high school students and used by Director Miyazaki for the film.

A Five Star Life
It’s no secret anymore that women executives attempting to break through the glass ceiling are being asked to make sacrifices and lifestyle compromises that men in the same positions either take for granted or don’t have to sweat. Among them are traveling to places that make them feel uneasy and putting off having a family. Neither do indiscretions caused by loneliness necessarily cause men to be categorized as promiscuous or soiled, merely horny or desperate. If the hospitality industry has finally come to its senses and begun catering to single business travelers – some of the best hotels in Las Vegas no longer require guests to walk through casinos to get to their elevator or breathe air polluted by cigarette smoke and crude language – it’s because making such concessions pays off in repeat visits and referrals. In Maria Sole Tognazzi’s A Five Star Life, we’re introduced to a woman of a certain age who’s been able to navigate those shoals and come out the other end mostly unscathed. Margherita Buy was a natural choice to play Irene, an impeccably fashionable and dedicated executive at a company that owns some of the most prestigious hotels in the world. If Irene were working at a newspaper, her title would be “hotel critic.” Because she reports to men responsible for maintaining the company’s value to shareholders, instead of a crusty editor, her opinions carry much weight within the chain, from top to bottom.

If anything, Irene is far pickier than any critic. She checks in under assumed names and carries a corporate credit card not in her real name. She grades every person with whom she comes in contact, from concierge to pool attendants, and doesn’t eat anything she won’t critique when she gets back to her room. Irene puts on white gloves to check for dust on ledges and shelves, then sticks a thermometer into a bottle of room-service wine to make sure it’s ready to serve. Fortunately for Irene and viewers, the hotels she’s assigned to survey are in such places as Gstaad, Paris, Tuscany, Brindisi, Marrakech, Berlin and Shanghai. It’s an amazing job, even if it does keep her away from home for weeks at a time. Once there, she spends almost all of her time with her sister Silvia (Fabrizia Sacchi), two lively young nieces, and occasional lover, Andrea (Stefano Accorsi), who’s recently impregnated a woman who works for both of them. (It’s possible he’s more of a sperm donor than live-at-home dad.) Like many other overworked executives, regardless of gender or ethnicity, Irene doesn’t waste a great deal of time worrying about what might have been. That is, until she chances upon a woman (Lesley Manville) whose take on life prompts her to do just that. This turning point is handled by Tognazzi with great skill, without polemics, recriminations or cliché. Minus the fireworks, A Five Star Life may be too restrained and subtle to suit general audiences, but there’s no denying the integrity of Buy’s performance and relevance of the message.

A Summer’s Tale
In Bloom
It’s always a thrill when a new distributor joins the marketplace, pledging to bring “the best in world cinema to film enthusiasts across the United States,” and then delivers on that promise. Considering how few of the world’s great movies find their way into theaters here, the addition of one more company serving the arthouse crowd is welcome news, indeed. Founded in 2013 as an expansion of its short-film distribution wing, The World According to Shorts, Big World Pictures has just released into DVD Eric Rohmer’s 1996 romantic comedy, A Summer’s Tale, and Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross’ intense Georgian coming-of-age drama, In Bloom. Originally premiering in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival, A Summer’s Tale is the third film in his Four Seasons film cycle and the only one to never before receive U.S. theatrical distribution, until this past summer. This typically light entertainment follows a young college graduate, Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud), who plans to meet his girlfriend for a three-week vacation in a lovely seaside town in Bretagne. Instead, he’s left to his own devices while she cruelly keeps him hanging. Not long after his arrival, Gaspard makes the acquaintance of Margot (Amanda Langlet, who, 13 years earlier, starred in Rohmer’s Pauline at the Beach), a waitress at a restaurant owned by her mother. Like Gaspard, Margot is a recent college graduate waiting for her boyfriend to arrive. A frisky young woman, she recognizes something in him the audience has yet to perceive. He’s naïve to the point of being clueless when it comes to women and prefers to memorize sea shanties than try to figure out his feelings toward Margot, her friend, Solène (Gwenaëlle Simon) and his absurdly flighty girlfriend. Rohmer doesn’t mind that we fall in love with Margot, who seems so naturally right for Gaspard, but he prefers to treat as a best friend. Finally, we don’t know if we should feel sympathy for the young man or frustrated to the point of exhaustion by him. It’s not an atypical reaction to characters drawn by Rohmer, whose movies read more like novellas than romantic comedies. Naturally, he and cinematographer Diane Baratier takes great advantage of the wonderful seaside setting.

The Soviet Union may have collapsed a quarter-century ago, but it remains unclear if the early promise caused by the raising of the Iron Curtain was a mirage or if the new democracies can withstand the forces of repression and toxic nationalism. The strife-torn Georgia of 1992 described in In Bloom reminds us of the recent horror in Ukraine, especially in the lives of people caught in the crossfire between loyalist forces and rebels supported by Vladimir Putin’s neo-fascist regime in Russia. No sooner had Georgia declared its independence from the Soviet Union than people throughout the embattled region found themselves immersed in a war on the Black Sea coast in Abkhazia and widespread vigilantism. In Bloom is set in the capital city of Tbilisi, while, relatively distant from the war, nonetheless was impacted by food shortages, sectarian violence and crime. We’re introduced to 14-year-old Eka and Natia, inseparable friends who might not look out of place hanging out at a mall anywhere in the world. They love music, steal cigarettes from their parents, flirt with cute guys and aren’t keen on doing homework. What we’ll learn about them, as well, is how their futures are clouded by being raised in dysfunctional families in a dysfunctional country. At a time when girls their age should be preparing for college or careers, Eka and Natia must deal with deeply entrenched male chauvinism, the scourge of alcoholism among loved ones, thuggish behavior by their peers and the ever-present danger of rape and “bride-nappings.” At a certain point in the narrative, a gun is given to one of the girls by a would-be boyfriend who fears that she may soon need it to fend off unwanted suitors or her abusive father. When she decides that her friend may need the gun more than she does, the film’s dynamic changes dramatically. Can seemingly hopeless situations be improved through violence, however justified, or must it always makes things worse? The answer to this question will determine if Eka and Natia’s coming of age will bring something besides more misery.

Brazilian Western: Blu-ray
If you can, imagine how a merging of the Jamaican gangsta’ classic The Harder They Come and the Beatles’ folk-rock ballad “Rocky Raccoon” might come off on the big screen. I’m pretty sure it would look very much like Brazilian Western, a terrific Third World oater that has been shamefully ignored by U.S. distributors. Similarly overlooked upon its release in 1972, The Harder They Come’s infectious blend of music, romance and outlaw heroics eventually turned Perry Henzell’s film into a midnight-movie sensation. Its soundtrack album became a starter-kit for newcomers to reggae, as well. Paul McCartney has characterized “Rocky Raccoon” as being a tongue-in-cheek spoof of the folk/troubadour tradition and a “freewheeling ramble” about a hopelessly overmatched gunfighter in the Old West. It was recorded in 1968, almost as an afterthought for inclusion on the Beatles’ White Album. Like Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come,” “Rocky Raccoon” remains one of the most memorable songs of the period. René Sampaio’s Brazilian Western was adapted directly from a catchy nine-minute-long heroic ballad, “Faroeste Caboclo,” written by the late Renato Russo in 1979 and recorded by the folk-rock group Legiao Urbana in 1987. Just as the song anticipated the period of social and political upheaval that followed the end of the dictatorship, in 1985, Brazilian Western looks back at the same period and, beyond that, to the creation of the country’s ultra-modern capital of Brasilia.

Like Cliff’s Ivanhoe Martin, Joao de Santo Cristo (Fabrício Boliveira) was born in the backcountry and moved to the capital as an adult looking for work and recognition. Unlike Ivan, Joao arrived in Brasilia an already fully blown outlaw. He had bided his time until his impoverished mother died, before confronting the military policeman who murdered his father in cold blood. By the time he got out of prison, the dictators were gone and Brasilia was a hotbed of activity, both for the well-off children of the new ruling class and the noticeably poorer and blacker children of the laborers who built the city’s space-age buildings. Not able to make a decent living as a carpenter, he turns to a cousin, Pablo (César Troncoso), who controls the vice in shantytown and wants his cousin to sell marijuana to the rich kids across town. What Pedro neglects to mention is that his territory already is serviced by a “playboy” hoodlum, Jeremias (César Troncoso), who has bought off the local police for protection. No sooner has Joao set up shop in his new territory than he is rousted by the cops. He makes his escape by climbing into the second-story window of the daughter of a state senator. It doesn’t take much convincing for Maria Lúcia (Isis Valverde) to provide shelter for the intruder. An architectural student at the university, she’s bored and a bit self-conscious about her station in life. Intrigued, Isis offers to introduce Joao to her friends, who are impressed by the quality of his weed. Not surprisingly, the rest of the movie is taken up with Jeremias’ obsession with getting rid of Joao and Pablo and re-connecting with Maria Lucia. If you are conversant in Portuguese, it’s all there in the song. If not, you won’t regret sticking with Brazilian Western to its exciting end. You’ll want to check out the making-of featurette, too.

Docs on DVD
Alive Inside: Blu-ray
I Am Ali: Blu-ray
Legends of the Knight
Freeload
Master of the Universe
Slow Food Story
Although billions of dollars have been raised in the search for a cure – or, even, a few solid clues – for memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease and certain other neurological ailments, it wasn’t until early last month that the success of a non-drug program was reported. The study, a joint project between the Easton Center at UCLA and Buck Institute for Research on Aging, claims that 9 out of 10 volunteer patients had their symptoms reversed after participating in a 36-point program. If the report didn’t set off fireworks at the Alzheimer Association, it’s because of the small number of patients involved. Still, as it pertains to progressive memory loss and dementia, the report represented the first positive step forward in years. Michael Rossato-Bennett’s uplifting documentary on the illness, Alive Inside, has been on the festival hustings ever since winning the prestigious Audience Award at this year’s Sundance soiree, so it doesn’t include any information from the UCLA study. What it does offer in the way of good news is physical evidence of the curative powers of music. Since daily brain stimulation is among the suggested activities in UCLA’s 36-point program, the therapy supported by Dan Cohen’s non-profit organization, Music & Memory, already is in line with those findings. And, a great number of success stories have been recorded. M&M teaches elder-care professionals how to set up personalized music playlists, delivered on iPods and other digital devices, for those in their care. These musical favorites tap deep memories not lost to dementia and can enable residents to feel like themselves again, to converse, socialize and stay in the present. That’s the sales pitch, anyway. What’s remarkable about Alive Inside are the clips of patients literally “coming alive” when the music begins to flow through the headphones. One man’s eyes nearly pop out their sockets, while other patients begin discussing their memories of hearing a song for the first time or moving their feet to the beat. The only thing I’ve seen that’s comparable is footage of the re-awakened patients of neurologist Oliver Sacks, whose work and book inspired the movie Awakenings. As the author of “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain,” Sack appears as a witness here alongside musician Bobby McFerrin. Among Cohen’s concerns is the industry’s reliance on mind-numbing pharmaceuticals to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, in lieu of a cure. He also points out the need for volunteers and contributions to expand M&M’s reach. If he’s looking for used iPods and MP3 players, he should screen Alive Inside at high schools across the country. I wouldn’t be surprised if the kids ripped the headphones from their ears and lobbed their players toward the stage.

There came a point in Clare Lewins’ extremely compelling bio-doc I Am Ali when I thought I might not have tuned into the Internet on the day that Muhammad Ali died and missed the flood of eulogies and tributes that would surely follow such a sad event. It is exactly the kind of documentary everyone of great substance should be rewarded with before they die and are unable to appreciate the sincerity of the kind thoughts shared with viewers. The great heavyweight boxer is not lacking in filmed testimonials and considerations on his impact on the sport and history. Footage from his fights is available for purchase, rental and downloads, as are several excellent feature films and documentaries. What makes I Am Ali different from those properties is its tight focus on how his life affected those of friends, family members, opponents and complete strangers. Especially touching are the taped recordings of phone calls and other conversations he had with his young children and, later, their recollections of those conversations and what kind of father he was to them. As loved as Ali is around the world, there were times in his life and marriages when he was less than a perfect role model. Those moments aren’t examined in any depth, but neither are they ignored. I Am Ali is informed, as well, by home movies, musical selections and archival footage of training sessions, fights and public appearances. What’s revealed is a portrait of Ali as a fighter, lover, brother, father and friend.

At about this time, last year, San Francisco caught Batman fever and it quickly spread through the media across the country and world. When the Make a Wish Foundation asked the city to allow a 5-year-old boy with leukemia to play the Caped Crusader for a day, Bay Area residents did everything in their power to make it happen. In doing so, they also brought smiles to the faces of people whose only recollection of the character may be that of Adam West in a gray or lavender body suit, depending on their TVs. Christian Bale, who’s played the last three big-screen Batmans, has also gone out of his way to make the dreams of kids with terminal diseases come true. Other aspiring superheroes have been accorded similar treatment in other cities. Brett Culp’s Legends of the Knight was completed before San Francisco opened its Golden Gate to Batkid Miles Scott – currently in remission — but it was able to include footage of a Maryland Batman imitator getting a pass from a traffic cop, so he could be on time for a visit to Georgetown Hospital. It didn’t stop them from asking him to pose for pictures in his Lamborghini Batmobile. Everyone needs a hero … super or otherwise. That’s pretty much the point of Culp’s documentary, which interviews everyone from lifelong fans and comic-book artists, to kids who’ve been bullied and others with birth defects. We meet Batman imitators who spend their weekends brightening the days of sick children and give crime-stopper advice at schools. While not the most polished doc you’ll see this year, Legends of the Knight makes up for it by being inspirational and entertaining.

Although the number of genuine hobos presumably gets smaller every year, the annual National Hobo Convention took place last August, as usual, in Britt, Iowa. It would have been a perfect place to screen Freeload, but apparently there wasn’t any room left between the Toilet Bowl Races, Cow Chip Chucking Contest and Hobo Cemetery Tour. Basically, Daniel Skaggs’ provocative film asks us to consider what it means to be a hobo at a time when such words as freeloader, bum, tramp, vagabond, slacker and homeless person have been accorded new politically correct meanings. Skaggs spent 18 months documenting how contemporary hobos survive, look, dress, find food to eat, places to bathe and escape being arrested for vagrancy, theft and trespassing. None of the young people we meet bear any resemblance to Red Skelton’s Freddy the Freeloader or legendary circus clown Emmit Kelly; warble “Big Rock Candy Mountain” and “Hobo Bill” over campfires in the “jungle”; leave visible signs behind to alert fellow bindle-stiffs; live by any set ethical code; or use the boxcars to commute to labor camps. Not surprisingly, perhaps, all of the guys have odd nicknames, crudely drawn tattoos and clothing so dirty it could test the limits of a commercial washer and dryer. In these ways, of course, they could just as easily pass for rock stars or skateboarding champions. Some of the hobos we meet have tried and failed to meet the standards of square society, while others have decided that encumbrances of any kind are out of the question. When one of the guys earns an actual paycheck, he shows it off as if it were a four-leaf clover on St. Patrick’s Day. Another highlight comes when one young man panhandles enough money to buy a live lobster, which his dog almost immediately steals and tries unsuccessfully to devour. Most potential viewers, I think, would find Freeload far more aggravating than energizing or educational. The music fits the theme, however.

In Marc Bauder’s Master of the Universe (“Der Banker: Master of the Universe”), a leading German investment banker, Rainer Voss, spends a lot of time standing alone in an abandoned office suite overlooking Frankfurt’s financial district of Frankfurt. When he isn’t pointing out the headquarters of companies that didn’t survive the economic collapse, Voss directs our attention to the logos of international conglomerates most viewers wouldn’t recognize, even if they were German. The deserted meeting room serves both as metaphor and warning to those who don’t listen carefully to Voss’ advice and repeat the same sins that caused the depression. He spends a great deal of time repeating things we’ve already heard about financial instruments, regulatory agencies that don’t regulate and the psychology of corporate executives too caught up in the game to realize they’ve sold their souls to the devil. When they’re gone, he argues, their replacements will likely steer their companies on same course. What Voss doesn’t do is offer a convincing argument as to why those responsible for the collapse – himself included – shouldn’t be sent to prison and forced to work in the laundry for an eternity.

Stefano Sardo’s Slow Food Story describes what happens when a bunch of Italian leftists tire of living like the proletariat and jump head first into a movement that allows them to eat really good food, drink expensive wine and share them in convivial surroundings with former comrades. It puts a tight focus on Carlo Petrini, a charismatic fellow who’s managed to franchise his anti-fast-food movement — the ArciGola Gastronomic Association, later shortened to Slow Food – to like-minded gourmands around the planet. I’m not sure how it warrants a feature-length documentary, in that Petrini is preaching to a choir that began turning to organic, vegan and other healthy foods in the 1960s and continues to do so, today. Likewise, its message isn’t likely to reach people who can’t or won’t afford anything but processed goods and products that hide the bad ingredients in small type in the box containing nutritional information. His followers readily acknowledge that artisanal and naturally grown food isn’t cheap, only that the people who grow it deserve the additional bread. With McDonald’s and other fast-food chains racing around like free-range chickens with their heads cut off to create new products for health-conscious patrons to embrace, maybe the Slow Food movement is an idea whose time has come. As long as Honey Boo Boo and Mama June are rewarded handsomely for eating like pigs at a trough, however, it’s unlikely that American tummies will be ready for reform.

As the Light Goes Out: Blu-ray
Knowing that Kwok Chi-kin’s As the Light Goes Out is an action movie from Hong Kong won’t help western fans of the subgenre make the right decisionwhen it pops up on their list of suggested titles from Netflix or Amazon. That’s because the movie harkens more to Irwin Allen’s The Towering Inferno and Ron Howard’s Backdraft than anything associated with John Woo or Chow Yun-Fat. And, I suppose, there are plenty of folks out there who’ve been longing to see a good movie, however soapy about firefighters. It’s Christmas Eve in Hong Kong, and while the residents prepare to celebrate, the firefighters of Pillar Point Division (Nicholas Tse, Shawn Yue, Andy On) are dispatched to a warehouse fire. Next thing they know, a larger section of the city is plunged into darkness and flames are nearing a power plant supplying natural gas. It raises the overall degree of difficulty to unprecedented levels. The action scenes are both terrifically entertaining and serve to dilute the melodrama. The Towering Inferno had plenty of action, too, but what really sold the picture was an all-star cast that included Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Richard Chamberlain, Jennifer Jones and, wait for it, O.J. Simpson. As the Light Goes Out suffers a bit by featuring a roster of actors with which most of us are unfamiliar. Those who are should have a good time, though. Pay attention for a cameo by Jackie Chan, as himself.

Not Another Celebrity Movie
Emilio Ferrari isn’t a name that immediately comes up when you plug “quality cinema” into a search engine. It’s also true, however, that he’s written, directed and produced far more movies than any critic I know, so it’s fair to ask who’s more deserving of your trust when it comes to evaluating cheap-and-dirty comedies. The only way I can answer that question is by suggesting that Not Another Celebrity Movie isn’t nearly as bad a parody as it could be and, in some quarters, might actually qualify as a guilty pleasure. Its conceit, as spelled out on the DVD cover, involved hiring a couple of dozen celebrity look-alikes and inserting them into a spoof of both iterations of Ocean’s Eleven. If he’s thrown in a few ringers – Justin Bieber, Charlie Sheen, Lady Gaga, Angelina Jolie, Donald Trump, Usher, Johnny Depp and Paris Hilton, among them – well, as the argument goes, the more the merrier. The story, which is absurdly convoluted, boils down to Sheen (Dave Burleigh) being so addled that he becomes convinced that his DNA is running through the veins of Justin Bieber (Dannielle Owens-Reid). The only way he can be sure he’s Bieb’s daddy, however, is to meet face-to-face with the ill-mannered entertainer and trace their respective roots. Because none of the people minding Bieber’s affairs want that to happen, Sheen is required to pull together a team of rascals like those in  “Ocean’s” series and stage a kidnapping in Las Vegas. I’ve seen worse look-alikes than the ones gathered here, but the only person who comes closest is former porn star Bree Olson, who plays herself as one Sheen’s former live-in “angels.”

Horror roundup
Monkey Shines/The Dark Half: Blu-ray
Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings: Blu-ray
Rise of the Black Bat
The Thing on the Door Step
The best of this week’s bunch of horror flicks fall into the category of golden oldies. It is the Shout Factory double-feature, Monkey Shines and The Dark Half, both of which are zombie-free adaptations of novels by master of the undead, George A. Romero. Based on a scary little story by Michael Stewart, the 1988 Monkey Shines demonstrates what can happen when a service animal gets too attached to its quadriplegic owner and becomes jealous of anyone who comes between them. In this case, it’s a very clever and possibly telepathic primate named Ella (Boo). The monkey and the onetime athlete she serves, Alan (Jason Beghe), become fast friends, which can’t be said of Ella’s relationship with his former girlfriend and doctor, her trainer and Alan’s lover, his speed-freak brother and busybody mother and another doctor, who sees a cure where others don’t. At some point, Alan comes to understand that Ella’s a very naughty and destructive little helper, but is physically unable to put an end to her game. Butchered by the studio and panned by critics, Romero’s first commercial endeavor was a huge disappointment to him and horror buffs. Today, by comparison to most other horror flicks, Monkey Shines holds up very well. So does The Dark Half, which, four years later, was similarly manhandled by the financially troubled Orion Pictures. It was adapted from a Stephen King novel that eerily reflected the writer’s own tortured state of mind in the early-1990s. Timothy Hutton plays King’s surrogate in the story, the novelist Thad Beaumont. As a boy, after suffering seizures, an operation on Thad’s brain revealed traces of a growth that proved to be a twin brother that never developed. As a seizure-free adult, Thad has become a novelist who writes serious books in his own name and pulp fiction under a pseudonym, George Stark. Guess which books sell better. King’s personal demons manifest themselves through Stark, both in the book and movie. Don’t worry, it’s all explained in the almost feature-length interviews with Romero in the bonus package. Like Ella, Stark is a truly nasty fellow who, like Ella, starts killing people when he feels threatened. Then, there’s the matter of a mega-flock of sparrows that began to appear during Thad’s brain surgery and return with his doppelganger. Once again, Romero was disappointed with the final product, but, in fact, it’s pretty good. The Blu-ray package adds making-of featurettes with both movies, deleted scenes, alternate endings, behind-the-scenes footage and other treats.

Also returning from the same period is the direct-to-video Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings, which bears almost no qualitative resemblance to the 1988 Pumpkinhead, which served as Stan Winston’s directorial debut. Where the original was conceived as an inky-black fairytale, the “sequel” might as well have been written by crayon and directed with boxing gloves affixed to director Jeff Burr’s hands. Moreover, where Pumpkinhead was distinguished by another fine performance by Lance Henriksen, “Blood Wings” scrounged a few cheap headlines by hiring President Clinton’s doofus brother, Roger, to play Mayor Bubba. Otherwise, it’s just another revenge picture in which teens get their comeuppance for testing the credibility of rural mythology. The Blu-ray adds commentary and a lengthy interview with Burr; “Recreating the Monster,” with special-effects specialists Greg Nicotero, Gino Crognale and Mark McCracken; and behind-the-scenes footage.

Under-baked to the point of being inedible, Rise of the Black Bat (“The Black Bat Rises”) would have no reason to exist if it weren’t for the very interesting story that inspired it. In 1933, the short-lived Black Bat Detective Mysteries introduced a crime-fighting superhero, who, six years later, would be fleshed out in Black Book Detective as a cowled crusader, not unlike the Bat-man, who also was introduced to comic-book readers in 1939. Apart from the color of their respective outfits, the characters could be mistaken for brothers. The second incarnation of Black Bat appeared in print intermittently from 1939 to 1953. His alter ego is District Attorney Anthony Quinn, who was blinded by acid thrown at him by a gangster’s henchman. A cornea-grafting procedure restores his eyesight, while also heightening other senses, but it leave him unable to operate freely in the light of day. Sometime in the next dozen years, the publishers of Black Bat and Batman came to an agreement that clearly benefitted the latter. Quinn would be killed off in 2011, so that a third series, Legacy of the Black Bat, could begin. For better or worse, Scott Patrick and Trevor Payor’s Rise of the Black Bat resuscitates Tony Quinn in the person of Jody Haucke (Thunderstorm: The Return of Thor). The narrative approximates the second series’ origin story. Even at 80 minutes, though, the film contains more padding than a Miss America pageant and a credits list that reportedly includes fake names — jumbled references to DC superheroes – to make the crew appear to be larger than it was.

Hardly any other authors have had their work translated into film more times than H.P. Lovecraft. Ironically, when the Providence native died in 1937, he was virtually unknown and penniless. If he had lived to the ripe old age of 124, Lovecraft would probably be as rich and famous as Steven King, who considers him to be “the 20th Century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.” In a bizarre corollary, it seems that the best adaptations have been created by filmmakers of limited means and an absent a great deal of studio interference. Released originally in 2003, but displaying a fresh polish by Leomark Studios, The Thing on the Doorstep benefits from imaginatively stylish video cinematography and loving treatment of the source material by director Eric Morgret and writer K.L.Young. It is the story of mysterious hypnotist Asenath Waite and the young man she enchants, Edward Derby, as well as the friend who has to kill him after unspeakable things happen. The film won Best Feature at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival and the prestigious H.P. Lovecraft Award at the Rhode Island International Horror Film Festival.

The volume of new horror releases really picked up after Halloween. Most of them, however, clearly have been undone by miniscule budgets, inexperienced actors and ineffective special effects. All deliver buckets of blood and gore, gratuitous nudity and violence against women, and lighting effects some might find irritating.

Isis Rising: Curse of the Lady Mummy employs the myth of Isis and Osiris as a starting point for a silly story about what happens when a six college students are assigned the task of deciphering hieroglyphics on a slab of stone acquired by a local museum. In their curiosity, they awaken the ancient spirit of Isis and her wrath is unleashed on the group.

In Collar, a disheveled derelict with a reputation of satanic violence tortures women, including a cop, who he restrains with a dog leash and bludgeons. Other things happen, but most of the film takes place in places yet to be hooked up to the electrical grid.

Skinless becomes a race against time for a terminally ill medical researcher, who formulates what could be a cure for cancer but may not live to participate in clinical trials. After he decides to make himself a human guinea pig, things get really strange. Tumors mutate into monstrous forms and cause the researcher to go violently mad.

The Killer 4 Pack is grab bag of stomach-churning films that, for all I know, might have been entered into a student film festival and compiled for a song. The best of the quartet is The Day of the Dead, which links Mexican religious rituals to a series of gruesome murders in Chicago. In Jezebeth, a Goth gal discovers a 19th Century diary that provides her with all the information she needs to summon a demon. Once again, in Carnage: The Legend of Quiltface, students accidentally put themselves in harm’s way by wandering into the desert for a photography assignment. In it, the skin on the head of psycho-killer, Quiltface, has been stitched together from parts of several other faces. In Hellweek: Grindhouse Edition, rush week is ruined when students decide to stage a hazing ritual in an abandoned warehouse that serves as a flophouse for a band of homicidal maniacs.

PBS: Masterpiece: Worricker: Turks & Caicos/Salting the Battlefield/Blu-ray
PBS: Nature: Animal Misfits

When last we saw British secret agent Johnny Worricker (Bill Nighy) in November, 2011, on “Masterpiece Contemporary,” writer/director David Hare was still hoping that ratings for “Page Eight” would allow for two more installments of a planned trilogy. And, here they are, back-to-back … not exactly like clockwork, but welcome nonetheless. As a rule, whenever a BBC spy thriller arrives on our shores for airing on PBS, I wait for the UK version to arrive almost simultaneously on DVD/Blu-ray. Too often, they’re trimmed to make room for Pledge Month (Pledge Year?) pitches. “Turks & Caicos” and “Salting the Battlefield” tie up loose strings from “Page Eight,” at the end of which Worricker went on the lam with top-secret information about Britain’s tacit approval of CIA rendition centers and the torture of prisoners. The mini-series catches up with him as he’s laying low in Turks & Caicos, celebrating each new dawn that he’s still alive. In “Part Two,” he’s recognized by a CIA operative played very coolly by    Christopher Walken, who claims to be in the islands for a conference on the global financial crisis. Of course, they’re not. In fact, their business ties in with Johnny’s last case and both MI5 and the CIA want to keep things from leaking to the press. Rachel Weisz no longer is in the picture, but a very adult looking Winona Ryder does a nice job as someone who could break the case wide open. Walken and Nighy are terrific in a game of Spy vs. Spy that sees them working together and against each other, almost simultaneously. “Salting the Battlefield” opens with Johnny and ex-lover Margot Tyrell (Helena Bonham Carter) bouncing around Germany, attempting to avoid capture by MI5 operatives. But Worricker knows his only chance of resolving his problems is to return home and confront his nemesis, Prime Minister, Alec Beasley (Ralph Fiennes), before going to the press. As is usually the case, nothing is what it appears to be and the spooks threaten to kill Johnny’s adult daughter (Felicity Jones). Fiennes could hardly be more convincing as a world leader on the hot seat and, therefore, extremely dangerous. A backgrounder is included in the Blu-ray.

The latest release from PBS’ “Nature” series, “Animal Misfits,” provides great fun for the whole family, by spotlighting animals that appear to have defied the laws of evolution and creationism by surviving extinction, despite themselves. Or, to put it another way: they zigged, when the rest of their species zagged. Some are thriving, while others are endangered. Among the oddball subjects are
the giant panda, mudskipper, big-headed mole and woolly bear caterpillar.

Billy Joel: Live at Shea Stadium: Blu-ray
Built in 1964, Shea Stadium was the home of the New York Mets for 45 years … most of them near the bottom of the National League. In some circles, then, it might be best remembered for staging the Beatles’ first stadium concert, on August 15, 1965. It was a show that lots of people attended, but no one heard, because of the screaming fans. Since then, the multiuse facility has provided a stage for most of the major bands while on tour. Oh, yeah, the Mets also won two World Series there. “The Last Play at Shea,” was staged on July 16 and July 18, 2008, before a combined 110,000 fans. Besides Billy Joel, who many consider to be the house act at the venue, it contains 150 minutes of his biggest hits and performances with special guests Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, Garth Brooks, John Mayer, John Mellencamp, Steven Tyler and Roger Daltrey. The final section of Shea Stadium was torn down in 2009.

The DVD Wrapup: Mood Indigo, Jersey Boys, Tammy, Happy Christmas, Land Ho!, I Am Yours, Demons, Ornette/Jason, S.O.B., Compleat and more

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

Mood Indigo: Blu-ray

Imagine a collaboration between Jacques Tati, Pee-wee Herman and Giacomo Puccini and it might resemble Michel Gondry’s newest romantic fantasy, Mood Indigo, not that he needs much help in that department. Based on French novelist Boris Vian’s 1947 cult novel, “Froth on the Daydream” (L’Écume des jours), Gondry’s wholly inventive and almost overwhelmingly whimsical film is largely set in the custom-made home of a rich young man, whose every wish can be afforded by money and an abundance of imagination. If “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” were to return to television tomorrow, it might look very much like the domicile shared by Colin (Romain Duris) and his magician-chef, Nicolas (Omar Sy). A piano is mechanized to create cocktails (pianocktails), according to the music being made on it; when a door needs to be opened, a cockroach-shaped doorbell crawls from its post on the wall, ringing madly, until it’s smashed to smithereens by whatever blunt instrument is handy; Nicolas’ fanciful dishes are created with the consul of his mentor, who appears to live inside a television monitor; and a mousy humanoid happily performs countless chores only someone his size can accomplish. It isn’t until Colin’s best friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh), a zealous admirers of the incomprehensible existentialist Jean-Sol Partre, reveals his devotion to a new American girlfriend that Colin realizes how starved for love he is. For the first time in a long while, he allows himself to attend a party seemingly populated with women invited for his consideration.
After stumbling over his jokey introduction to Chloé (Audrey Tautou), they connect while dancing rubber-leggedly to the music of Duke Ellington … hence the title. They soon fall deeply in love and, a few months later, enjoy as romantic a honeymoon as anyone could imagination, The spell is broken when Chloe develops a persistent cough, amazingly caused by the spore of a waterlily that’s begun to grow in one of her lungs and is expanding with cancerous dispatch. Her doctor recommends suffocating the waterlily with less-invasive flowers and swallowing chromium BBs that are as animated as Mexican jumping beans. Nothing works, however. As her body weakens, Colin’s once-endless supply of cash is exhausted by medical expenses and his support of Chick’s’s addiction to Parte’s books and memorabilia. Even more tellingly, the movie’s color scheme has begun to devolve from nearly psychedelic brilliance to funereal monochromatic hues. The magic has disappeared and what’s left is our anticipation of a “La Boheme” ending. A 94-minute version of Mood Indigo, which was released into U. S. festivals and theaters, was greeted with a small handful of awards but decidedly mixed reviews. The art direction was praised for its imaginative approach to the assignment, while also being slammed for overshadowing the actors and story with gimmickry. I beg to differ. Drafthouse has included the original 125-minute version of the movie, as well as the theatrical cut. Adventurous viewers, who don’t mind lumped together as cultists, should fall in love with the longer version, especially in Blu-ray.
 
Jersey Boys: Blu-ray
As often as the children of Baby Boomers have heard the tedious story of how the British Invasion changed the American musical scene in the mid-1960s, it’s impossible for them to fully appreciate how quickly the revolution for the ears of teenage listeners had been fought, won and ultimately coopted. Everyone knows about the radical de-greasing of hairdos and how the British bands effectively reintroduced American R&B and blues to white Americans. Long forgotten, I think, is how dramatically “Meet the Beatles” caused the industry to grow from a singles-based, radio- and jukebox-driven business to one in which every song on an album could become a hit and royalties would no longer be shared with music publishers representing as many as a dozen different songwriters. David Chase’s autobiographical Not Fade Away nicely captured the transition period, when smoky mob-run nightclubs gave way to stadium concerts and the Rolling Stones would trump the Beatles by convincing young musicians that they could wear whatever the hell they wanted on stage and, while they’re at it, forgo matching haircuts and suits. The Beach Boys, Four Seasons and soul groups based in Detroit, Philadelphia and Memphis would survive the barrage by producing singles people wanted to here on radio, record and on “American Bandstand.” If the Beach Boys would soon begin challenging the Beatles on their own terms, the Four Seasons remained essentially what they were, all along: a doo-op ensemble blessed with exceedingly lyrics and instrumentation. Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s long-lasting smash “jukebox musical” dramatizes aspects of the band’s history that mostly serve as background for the unspooling of individual songs in the live show.
In the film, the songs are subordinate to the band’s messy history, which largely pertains to internecine conflicts and the role played by the New Jersey mob in its evolution. Eastwood does what he can to make it interesting, but, when it comes to organized crime, Martin Scorsese manages to say the same thing in far less time. (The Copacabana scene in Goodfellas reveals as much about the ties that link the Mafia and show business as anything in Jersey Boys… and Joe Pesci figures in both movies.) Anyone who loves the stage musical is likely to miss the intimacy that comes with experiencing the almost spiritual interaction between actors and a live audience predisposed to love a show. On the plus side, most of the primary actors here also starred in productions of the 10-year-old musical and they bring similar intensity to their roles. The last five minutes of the movie and first five minutes of the closing credits, actually do replicate the theatrical experience, and are well worth the wait. Christopher Walken, as mob patron Gyp DeCarlo, is always fun to watch. The Blu-ray presentation is excellent, both from a visual and aural standpoint, and adds featurettes, “From Broadway to the Big Screen,” “Too Good To Be True” and “‘Oh, What a Night’ to Remember.”
 
Tammy: Extended Cut: Blu-ray
I think that true-blue fans of Melissa McCarthy will cut Tammy much more slack than it deserves, which, I suppose, is as it should be. Those unfamiliar with McCarthy’s likeable TV persona and key roles in The HeatIdentity Thief and Bridesmaids likely will be left wondering what all the fuss is about, however. It’s as if Tammy’s director-co-writer-co-producer-husband Ben Falcone encouraged her to channel Roseanne at her most self-indulgent and chew as much scenery as should could stomach, in lieu of craft-services fare. As first-time writer-directors, McCarthy and Falcone bit off way more than they could chew and it appears there was no one in a position of authority to tell them when something wasn’t funny. Admittedly, Tammy appears to have made some money for its investors, if not nearly as much as recent pictures in which she and Falcone weren’t required to carry the load all by themselves. As we meet McCarthy’s character, she’s about to crash her car into a very belligerent deer and after being roughed up by the bruised beast, lose her job at a fast-food dump for being even later and more disheveled than usual. Upon arriving home early, Tammy interrupts her husband (Nat Faxon) enjoying a romantic meal with their neighbor (Toni Collette). Thinking that a change of scenery might help, Tammy unsuccessfully attempts to borrow her mom’s car for a trip to Niagara Falls. Instead, she gets her diabetic, booze-hound grandmother (Susan Sarandon) to accompany her on the road trip. Naturally, it’s impossible not to flash back to Thelma and Louise, especially when Grandma Pearl’s antics land her in jail and Tammy is required to rob a pie shop to come up with the bail money.
As is too often the case, anyone who’s seen commercials or trailers for the movie already knows what happens. Blessedly, things pick up when they pay a visit to Cousin Lenore (Kathy Bates) and her longtime lover, Susanne (Sandra Oh), at their beautiful lake home. It gives Tammy an opportunity to inject some homophobic shtick into the narrative, even if it’s not remotely amusing. As the interaction between Bates, Sarandon and Oh takes center stage, McCarthy is allowed to share the spotlight and make Tammy less of a gargoyle. It also allows room for the some romantic subplots to blossom. Like Collette and Faxon, such fine actors as Allison Janney, Mark Duplass, Dan Aykroyd and Gary Cole are pretty much limited to extended cameos. Even so, I’m anxious to see how McCarthy fares alongside Bill Murray, Naomi Watts and Terrence Howard in Theodore Melfi’s St. Vincent. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “Tammy’s Road Trip Checklist,” which is mostly comprised of vacation footage; a gag reel; deleted scenes; alternate takes; and an extended cut with four more minutes of what I imagine to be more vulgar language and coarse material than that already contained in the R-rated theatrical edition.

The One I Love: Blu-ray
Happy Christmas
Even if Mark Duplass has finally managed to escape the mumblecore pigeonhole, I’ve lumped The One I Love together with Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas because they probably share a fan base interested in all of the films and TV shows in which they’re involved. While very different, both of these dramedies are typically offbeat and feature excellent performances by familiar actors. In director Charlie McDowell and writer Justin Lader’s feature debut, The One I Love, Duplass plays Ethan, whose marriage to Sophie (Elizabeth Moss) has pretty much run its course and all that’s left is the bickering. Even so, they agree to meet with a therapist whose methodology is unconventional, as best. (McDowell’s stepfather, Ted Danson, lent his name and body to the project as the couple’s therapist.) Ethan and Sophie agree to take him up on his offer of a free weekend at his country cottage, in exchange for their best efforts to solve their festering antagonism. And, thanks to some fine wine and pot, things do work out well on their first night away from home. No sooner does the sun come up on Day 2, however, than the couple is thrust into a scenario one can only get to by taking the off-ramp to “The Twilight Zone.” It takes us by surprise as much as it does Ethan and Sophie. I won’t spoil the surprise any more than I already have, except to say that Duplass and Moss pull it off with aplomb and viewers are advised to pay close attention to their every move.

By contrast, Happy Christmas rips an entire chapter from the mumblecore playbook and it, too, should make Swanberg’s followers happy. As usual, the actors appear to be working more from an outline than a script and their motivation derives from shared memories of hanging out with close friends before they were kind of rich and almost famous. Anna Kendrick, the Millennial Generation’s Sandra Bullock, plays Swanberg’s younger sister, Jenny, who, after ending a relationship, comes to Chicago to live with Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and Jeff (Swanberg) to help take care of their child, Jude. It doesn’t take long before it becomes clear that Jenny and her best friend, Carson (Lena Dunham), need a babysitter as much as Jude. One of the distinguishing characteristics of mumblecore is dialogue that takes us in different directions than we think things are headed. Jenny is irresponsible to the point of being a potential hazard to the family’s well-being and Kelly always seems on the verge of throwing her out on her ear. Jenny, though, is able to endear herself to Kelly by insisting that she join the girls in a toke or sip … ditto, with brother Jeff, who’s even more malleable than his wife. With the incredibly cute and animated Jude already walking, Kelly has begun to feel uneasy about staying home and “only” being a mom. Apparently, before becoming pregnant, she had written a best-selling book and it is about to be made into a movie. Jenny and Carson convince Kelly of therapeutic value of writing a romance novel at the film’s unoccupied production office and getting back in the saddle. To save time, everyone will contribute story ideas and share in the writing process. Not surprisingly, perhaps, this gives the gals a legitimate reason to get wasted in the afternoon, a condition that also leads to complications. It’s all very loosey-goosey. My biggest problem with Happy Christmas came in Kendrick’s seeming inability to improvise without adding one “like” and “you know,” at least, to virtually every sentence of dialogue. Even if it was intentional, it’s annoying as hell. Otherwise, fans of the subgenre will want to add it to their collection.

Tru Love
Although there’s plenty enough going on between the three troubled women at the center of Kate Johnston and Shauna MacDonald’s romantic drama, Tru Love, the city of Toronto and its bitter winter cold nearly steal the show from them. Normally, movies set in big American cities during January and February are shot somewhere else, using snow-making machines and CGI “breath fog” to create the illusion of discomfort. Canadian filmmakers, though, don’t seem to mind shooting during the harsh winters in the Great White NorthThe Sweet HereafterAway From Her and Affliction all benefited by conditions that tested the actors as much as the characters they portrayed. If Tru Love isn’t in the same league as those fine movies, its wintery setting accurately conveys the chilly vibes shared by the women at the corners of the film’s stormy triangle. Co-writer/co-director MacDonald plays Tru, a 37-year-old lesbian who’s notorious for her flighty approach to relationships and can’t seem to keep a job, either. She has plenty of time on her hands, then, when her busy friend Suzanne (Christine Horne) asks her to entertain her 60-year-old mother, Alice (Kate Trotter), while she’s in town. Given only that much information and a screen capture of the still-vivacious Trotter, most people familiar with queer cinema should be able to figure out what’s going to happen during the picture’s 94-minute length and why. And, yes, that familiarity is Tru Love’s greatest flaw. The whole MILF, FILF and gender-neutral cougar thing has nearly eliminated the whole May-December stigma. What is surprising is the filmmaker’s decision to keep almost all of the sex – graphic and implied — behind closed doors. The screenwriters and actors have no trouble convincing us that none of the characters are celibate, however, and the visual abstinence saves Tru Love from overstaying its welcome. As Tru and Alice’s friendship evolves, they’re also required to deal with Suzanne’s toxic attitude toward their friendship. And, of course, many of the movie’s happiest and most emotionally draining moments play out in sub-freezing conditions outdoors. The abrupt ending may not sit well with all viewers, but it’s probably the only way the filmmakers could go without turning Tru Love into a mini-series on the Logo TV network.

Land Ho!: Blu-ray
The performances in this quirky buddy/road picture are so naturalistic that there were times when I thought Land Ho! might be some sort of docu-drama or parody of Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan’s “Trip” movies … not that they were sufficiently popular in the U.S. to spoof. Aussie transplant Paul Eenhoorn plays the low-key Colin, who’s living the suddenly-single life in rural Kentucky. His traveling companion, Mitch, is portrayed with bombastic good-ol’-boy charm by Earl Lynn Nelson, an actual oculoplastic surgeon who’s only appeared in two movies, both directed by his cousin Martha Stephens. Eenhoorn has the kind of face that could belong to a friendly neighbor or the star of an indie film you might have seen at a festival, but can’t remember where or when. (He was terrific as a Christian social worker in This Is Martin Bonner, by the way.) Judging from interviews included in the Blu-ray, it’s possible that Nelson simply was encouraged to stand in front of a camera and act as if it wasn’t there. As such, his Mitch is a loud, profane and unreconstructed male chauvinist, who’s never encountered a woman he hasn’t mentally undressed and graded on a 1-to-10 scale. It takes a while to get used to such old-school sexism, but Mitch is pretty harmless.

Colin and Mitch, who, in real life, might only have met in line at the DMV, were married to sisters who’ve long since have gone their separate ways from them. One day, Mitch shows up on Colin’s doorstep, demanding that he accept his offer of a free ticket to Iceland for an excellent adventure. Iceland is a country of great natural beauty and they can only be fully appreciated four or five months of the year. Otherwise, the country’s residents mostly spend their time canning fish, lounging in the thermal baths and getting drunk. (I spent a couple of days there in February and didn’t see the sun, let alone a dormant volcano.) Mitch and Colin must have been real rascals when they were young, because they still enjoy the occasional joint, wallowing in hot springs and hitting on women old enough to be their granddaughters. They must represent a rare species in Iceland, because no one seems to mind their mid-20th Century manners and leering eyes. After exhausting the tourist attractions in Reykjavik, Mitch rents a tricked-out SUV for a road trip along Iceland’s scenic Golden Circle Route. It provides plenty of opportunities to reflect on their lives, but even more to flake off and have a good time. Co-written and co-directed by Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz, Land Ho! is the perfect movie to show anyone who believes that life as they know it will end when their first Social Security check is electronically deposited in their bank account. The Reykjavik Tourist Bureau owes them a debt of gratitude, as well.

I Am Yours
At 5-foot-2, Amrita Acharia seems too delicate to carry the burdens placed on her character’s shoulders in the emotionally draining Norwegian export, I Am Yours. And, yes, that’s exactly what she’s required to do in actor-turned-writer/director Iram Haq’s debut feature, which was Norway’s official entry in the 2014 Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language category. She plays Mina, the single mother of 6-year-old Felix, an extremely affectionate boy who shares time with his father and mother, both of whom are on cordial terms and deeply love him. The product of a traditional Pakistani immigrant family, Mina is an aspiring actress who enjoys a good time and is no rush to get re-married simply to please her parents and their conservative friends. It isn’t until she meets Jesper, a seemingly together Swedish film director, that she begins to think that she might be ready to settle down again. Jesper invites Mina to join him for an extended stay in Stockholm, during which Felix manages to inadvertently extinguish all of the flames of desire that spontaneously erupt between them. He’s a nice guy, but not nearly as ready to balance his burgeoning career with a passionate girlfriend and her love-starved child as he thought. No sooner does Jesper distance himself from their long-distance relationship than Mina’s parents accuse of her prostituting herself in the eyes the Pakistani community and causing them to be shunned. More a character portrait than narrative drama, I Am Yours compels us to invest our sympathies with a woman who could easily be dismissed as someone who made her bed and now must sleep in it. Acharia demands that we consider Mina on her own terms, as a free-spirited woman trapped between disparate cultures, yet willing to sacrifice everything for Felix. Forceful, yet completely realistic, her performance is as powerful as any I’ve seen in a long time. (If the producers of “The Good Wife” need a replacement for Archie Panjabi next season, they need look no further than Acharia.) As usual, the Film Movement package includes a bonus short film, “The Amber Amulet.”

S.O.B.: Summer of Blood
Neither parody nor thriller, S.O.B.: Summer of Blood is a frequently hilarious comedy in which the primary characters just happen to be vampires. Chief among them is Erik Sparrow, a slovenly 40-year-old windbag who is every woman’s worst fear when set up on a blind date. Self-centered, misogynistic, racist, commitment-phobic and inarguably stupid, Erik is played with extraordinary self-restraint by writer/director/editor/producer Onur Tukel (Ding-a-ling-Less), who looks as if he came in last place in a Jerry Garcia look-alike contest. In Tukel’s most outlandish conceit, Erik turns down a proposal of marriage from his girlfriend, Jody (Anna Margaret Hollyman), a perfectly normal young woman who’s inexplicably put up with his baloney for several years. His response to her offer is so thoughtlessly distasteful that it breaks whatever spell she’s been under since meeting him. Erik’s luck finally runs out at work, as well. Here, at least, his boorish behavior probably would have been tolerated by his superiors, if he wasn’t also the company’s worst sales rep. You get the picture. He tries to get back on track by joining a dating service, but his mojo only goes so far with the potential candidates. One night, while walking around Brooklyn’s desolate warehouse district a handsome young man, Gavin (Dustin Guy Defa), comes out of nowhere to strike up a conversation with him. Instead of being solicited for a blow job, Erik is bitten on the neck and turned into a vampire. Not everyone is cut out to be a member of the undead fraternity, but Eric takes to it like a duck to water.

All of a sudden, the same women who ridiculed Erik’s lack of sexual prowess – not to mention his stupid observations about life — can’t get enough of his ferocious libido. He’s still full of b.s. and deficient in penile department, but somehow it no longer matters. The only problem for Erik is the intense pain he feels when he’s in need of fresh human blood. Eventually, though, even Jody comes around. On another one of his midnight creeps, Erik encounters Gavin while he’s draining the blood from some other unsuspecting guy. After taking up Gavin’s offer to share his meal, Erik gets to ask him some questions about the vampire life. Tukel takes a bit of risk here by introducing discussions about God and the power of prayer. It comes up again later, when Jody decides that she doesn’t want Erik catting around after she dies and demands he give her eternal life. If that qualifies as too much information, it’s worth noting that a dozen spoilers wouldn’t ruin this surprise indie comedy. Genre buffs won’t be disappointed by any lack of blood and gore, as there’s plenty of that, too. The DVD adds a few deleted scenes, commentary and a short making-of featurette.

Post-Halloween Horror
Demons/Demons 2: Blu-ray
Dolls: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Nekromantik: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Crimson Winter: Blu-ray
The Doctor and the Devils: Blu-ray
The House at the End of Time
Like fine wine, Italian genre flicks, tend to get better with age. It took a while for American audiences to warm to what were then considered to be cheesy odes to classic Hollywood drive-in and matinee fare. Even after the cognoscenti put their seal of approval on “spaghetti” Westerns, however, there was no guarantee anyone would take a shine to Italy’s horror, crime and splatter thrillers. Indeed, in the 1990s, Italians gave up on them completely. VHS and, later, DVD and Blu-ray allowed us to take a closer look at what made them special to such advocates as Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and the editors of niche magazines – now, websites – targeted at buffs. In Synapse’s welcome re-introduction of Demons and Demons 2, we’re given an opportunity to see what maestros Dario Argento, Dardano Sacchetti and third-generation director Lamberto Bava could do when provided access to some of most popular heavy-metal music and special-effects wizardry on the planet. The only real difference between the two films is the setting. The former takes place almost entirely in a cursed movie theater in then-West Berlin, while the latter was filmed largely in a cursed apartment building in Hamburg and Rome. Playing somewhere in the background of both pictures is a black-and-white horror movie, in which a group of juvenile delinquents raid Nostradamus’s long-sealed tomb, thereby opening the gates of hell for demons to escape. One of the people invited to the Metropole screening in Demons is infected with the same plague when she brushes against a prop used in the movie being shown. In Demons 2, the curse is passed along to guests at a birthday party through a television showing the same picture. One bite leads to another and, before long, panic ensues within the closed spaces, as the uninfected rush to escape. If Luis Bunuel had remade The Exterminating Angel as a giallo, it might look something like Demons and Demons 2. If neither movie is considered to be among Bava, Argento and Sacchetti’s best, they both remain fun to watch. The soundtracks include songs by Billy Idol, Scorpions, Motley Crue, Accept, Saxon, the Smiths, The Cult, Dead Can Dance, Art of Noise and Peter Murphy, as well as music composed by Brazilian composer and Argento favorite Claudio Simonetti. The sequel also boasts 11-year-old Asia Argento in her first film appearance.

Two years before Child’s Play would do for dolls what Magic did for ventriloquist dummies, Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) had already created his nightmare version of “The Nutcracker,” in which dozens of dolls and puppets run amok on unsuspecting houseguests. Scream Factory has released Dolls in a “Collector’s Edition,” which possibly is more entertaining to watch today than it was in 1986. The story itself is almost as old as time. One stormy night in the moors of England, the car rented by three American tourists breaks down outside a house that, in another tale, might have been built from gingerbread. A cute little girl is trapped in the vehicle along with her neglectful father and evil stepmother, when a giant toy bear makes a hallucinatory appearance before her eyes. The trio and three other stranded Americans are offered shelter in the house, which is owned by an outwardly friendly toymaker and his wife. The girl takes an immediate liking to the man and woman, who give her a jester doll to carry around with her. Her parents and two of the other American girls aren’t nearly as congenial. Sure enough, at the appointed hour, their lack of proper gratitude is met with the enmity of dozens of creatively murderous toys. Gordon probably could have done a lot more interesting things with Dolls, had he been accorded a larger budget and more time. As it is, however, the attack of the killer dolls is worth the price of a rental, alone. The nicely re-mastered Blu-ray adds commentary tracks Gordon and writer Ed Maha, and cast members Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Stephen Lee, Carrie Lorraine and Ian Patrick Williams; the excellent 38-minute “Toys of Terror: The Making of Dolls”; a film-to-storyboard comparison; and a stills gallery.

Even 27 years after it was banned in its home country of Germany, Jorg Buttgereit’s scabrous Nekromantik retains its ability to shock and offend. Look up “not for the faint of heart” in certain dictionaries and you might find a link to the page on Amazon on which the Blu-ray edition is being hawked. Bernd Daktari Lorenz (Bikes & Bras) plays a street-cleaner working with a team that goes around mopping up scenes of vehicular carnage. Occasionally, Robert will bring home souvenirs from his day on the job to share with his girlfriend, Betty (Beatrice Manowski). She’s one person who isn’t afraid to demonstrate her necrophilic proclivities on a partially eroded corpse. And, yes, you have to see it to believe it. After Betty leaves Robert for greener graveyards, the poor sap’s condition deteriorates to the point where he’ll shtup anything that once possessed a pulse. For her part, Betty can’t help but wonder how she’ll satisfy her perverse desires after she wears out her current skeletal flame. Along with the visual atrocities, Nekromantik also provides several good laughs. I doubt very much that Buttgereit could ever have imagined seeing his bad-taste epic transferred from its original Super 8mm to high definition and accompanied by a half-dozen bonus features, including his debut short film, “Hot Love.” Other material includes a 2013 Q&A with Buttgereit at the American Cinematheque; commentary with co-author Franz Rodenkirchen; a making-of featurette; stills gallery; and original trailers.

Bryan Ferriter’s very curious vampire adventure/romance, Crimson Winter, appears to have borrowed liberally from “Romeo & Juliet,” LARP and cosplay re-creations. Ferriter serves double-duty as Elric, a centuries-old British vampire who falls in love with a human (Kailey Michael Portsmouth), thereby turning against his own family and causing him to be banished to a cave in Montana or thereabouts. A couple of centuries later, Elric and his loyalists have raised an undead army capable of taking on the ruling family. To sustain themselves, the vampires drain the blood of animals inhabiting the northern Rockies. A research team of students goes into the mountains to evaluate the complaints of local sportsmen, discovering evidence of an ancient curse and putting themselves between the hunters and the feuding vampires. Except for a few instances of medieval combat, hardly anyone in the movie seems to be in any hurry to accomplish anything. William Piotrowski’s symphonic orchestrations and ambient soundscapes add a touch of class to the proceedings.

Despite its all-star roster, The Doctor and the Devils takes a tantalizing story of Gothic madness and turns it into a series of character sketches, none of which are as horrifying as the historical figures who perpetrated the crimes on which the movie is based. Notorious throughout the UK, the Burke and Hare murders (a.k.a., West Port murders) took place in Edinburgh, in 1828. When anatomy professor Doctor Robert Knox ran out of fresh bodies for dissection during his lectures – it was a bad year for hangings, apparently — Irish immigrants William Burke and William Hare decided to dig up already buried corpses to see if they could make a living wage off them. Knox’s rejection prompted the sots to bring in the freshest possible cadavers the only way they could … killing specimens, themselves. Historians put the actual toll at 17, before they were arrested and one of four co-conspirators was convicted, hung and handed over to the college for dissection. Knox wasn’t put on trial, except in the form of an official inquiry by his peers. The crimes, first described in Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story “The Body Snatcher,” have been dramatized in a couple dozen movies, including The Body SnatcherMystery and Imagination: The Body SnatcherEl quinto jinete: El ladrón de cadavers, the 2004 “Doctor Who” audio drama “Medicinal Purposes” and John Landis’ Burke and Hare. Ronald Harwood re-wrote Dylan Thomas’ 1953 screenplay for The Doctor and the Devils, which would star Timothy Dalton, Jonathan Pryce, Twiggy, Julian Sands, Stephen Rea and Patrick Stewart. The Blu-ray adds commentary with author and film historian Steve Haberman and interviews with executive producer Mel Brooks, producers Jonathan Sanger and Randy Auerbach.

When it comes to tailoring a punishment to fit the crime, Alejandro Hidalgo’s The House at the End of Time may have just set a new standard. As the story goes, Venezuelan mom Dulce is accused of murdering her husband and two children in their home. We already know that she’s probably innocent of any crime, but the evidence pointed in her direction, nonetheless. Thirty years later, a condition of her parole demands she return to the scene of the murders and confront the demons that almost surely remain in residence therein. Hidalgo flashes backward and forward to establish the circumstances that led to broader horrors of the day, focusing on the children and their playmates. By taking us out of the house, the Venezuelan filmmaker risks distracting us from what’s happened there in the past or soon will happen. It doesn’t always work, but film’s foundation, like that of the house, is solid.

Nothing Bad Can Happen: Blu-ray
Katrin Gebbe’s extremely disturbing and excruciatingly brutal Nothing Bad Can Happen would be unbearable to sit through if it weren’t for the fact that it’s supposedly based on an actual event and less directly inspired by Dostoyefsky’s “The Idiot.” In a very real sense, it describes what might happen when New Testament beliefs clash with traditional psycho-sexual German fascism. A cherubic blond stranger, Tore (Julius Feldmeier), arrives in Hamburg with a desire to become part of a family of committed Christian youths, the Jesus Freaks. They celebrate Christ not only in words and deeds, but also aggressive faith-based rock ’n’ roll. During one of the group’s raves, Tore falls to the floor writhing either from the Holy Ghost or epilepsy, depending on where one stands on Christian phenomenon. After “healing” a stalled pickup truck belonging to a local family, Tore is invited to join them as a permanent guest. It doesn’t take long for the father, Benno, to show his true colors and those of his equally cruel wife. Once they realize that Tore actually subscribes to Jesus’ turn-the-other-cheek philosophy they test the young man’s faith with alarming resolve. In turn, Tore has committed himself to the belief that his mission on Earth is to save this family from itself, employing Christian values. If it weren’t for his close relationship with teenage Sanny (Swantje Kohlhof), Tore probably wouldn’t have survived past the second reel. It would be difficult to come up with a more unrelievedly forceful feature debut than Nothing Bad Can Happen. Gebbe elicits amazing performances from actors who probably weren’t completely comfortable in their portrayals of extreme behavior and injects mercifully kind and gentle moments amongst the horror. The DVD adds a pair of interesting background featurettes.

Documentaries-to-DVD
Ornette: Made in America: Project Shirley, Volume Three: Blu-ray
Portrait of Jason: Project Shirley, Volume Two: Blu Ray
Part of what made the 1960s so special, even before the tumult of the anti-war movement and countercultural revolution, was the experimental imperative that informed the arts in the first half of the decade. No two artists were more representative of the period than avant-garde jazz musician and composer Ornette Coleman and independent filmmaker Shirley Clarke. Ornette: Made in America represents a collaboration that took nearly 20 years to finish and waited another 30 years for it to be properly revived and appreciated. Clarke’s background as a modern dancer has served her well in projects involving jazz musicians, the drug subculture, beat writers and outsiders of various stripes. It comes in especially handy in the bio-doc of a musician who literally threw out the rulebook in composition and free musical expression. When the filming began, in the late 1960s, it featured Ornette, his then-young son, Denardo, and frequent collaborator, Charlie Haden. It was picked up, again, years later, with Coleman’s performance of “Skies of America,” with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra at his hometown’s Convention Center. It’s an unlikely partnership, but one that works wonderfully for both the artist and the orchestra. In between, Clarke emulates his freeform style by mixing excerpts from performances, interviews, experimental music videos and re-enactments of Coleman’s childhood. The witness list includes original footage of William S. Burroughs, Buckminster Fuller, Ed Blackwell, Robert Palmer, George Russell, John Rockwell, Don Cherry and a much older Denardo Coleman. It’s worth noting that, while Clarke and most of Coleman’s contemporaries are no longer with us, the 84-year-old multi-instrumentalist is still making music … fully 45 years after he was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame. The Blu-ray adds two lengthy interviews with Clarke and a chat with Denardo.

Also from Milestone’s Project Shirley series is Portrait of Jason, Clarke’s interview with a black homosexual hepcat and “stone whore” in pre-Stonewall America, when everything and everyone was on the down-low. Filmed in one 12-hour stretch in a room at the Chelsea Hotel, it’s a 90-minute monologue fueled by alcohol and marijuana by Jason Holliday (né Aron Payne), who appears to be rehearsing for the one-man cabaret show he’s always intended to do. He’s hip, funny, a natural raconteur and not remotely modest or reserved. The longer the film shoot extends, however, the drunker he gets. The inebriants allow Holliday to cut through the layers of his outwardly tough hide, revealing emotions that aren’t always that amusing. Clarke and her then-boyfriend Carl Lee prod their subject with questions about race, hustling and family background they know will elicit such raw responses. They also call him on some of his exaggerations and inconsistencies. By this time in her career, Clarke had cultivated a self-image of being an outsider to mainstream culture, but an insider to the underground subculture. Here, though, she sometimes doesn’t fight fair. The problem is, no one born into vast wealth in New York is a complete outsider. As long as the silver spoon with which they born remains handy, it doesn’t matter how many drugs one has done, the number of jazz musicians they know and protest rallies they attend. The stench of entitlement is always palpable. (This aspect of Clarke’s personality is far more evident in the bonus films, interviews and featurettes, and doesn’t make her docs any less worthwhile.) Nonetheless, anyone willing to share anecdotes about his friendships with Miles Davis, Carmen McRae and other artists, as does Jason, is someone worth watching on film. Among the bonus features are discussions of the discovery and restoration process undertaken by Milestone. It’s truly remarkable.

Tosca’s Kiss
In 2012, Dustin Hoffman directed Quartet, a comedy adapted by Ronald Harwood from his own stageplay. It was set in a retirement home for retired opera singers and musicians. Every year, they celebrate Giuseppe Verdi’s birthday by performing a concert to raise funds for their home. This year’s concert is threatened, however, by the arrival of a diva (Maggie Smith) who plays the diva card when asked to reprise her role in a once-popular quartet. It’s a cool premise and modestly budgeted movies aimed at the oldest and most intellectually curious demographic, such as QuartetThe Best Exotic Marigold HotelCalendar Girls and Saving Grace, tend to make lots of money when worldwide revenues are combined. Based on the similarities between Quartet and the 1984 documentary Tosca’s Kiss, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Harwood borrowed the idea from Daniel Schmid’s film, especially since the DVD re-release from Icarus is being “presented” by Hoffman. For those keeping score at home, both are wonderful films. In 1896, the great Italian composer founded Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, saying, “Of all my works, that which pleases me the most is the Casa that I had built in Milan to shelter elderly singers who have not been favored by fortune or who, when they were young, did not have the virtue of saving their money.” I don’t know exactly how many people were living there when Schmid was shooting there, but the ones we meet are in pretty good shape, considering; impeccably dressed; feisty, especially when upstaged; frequently playful; blessed with surprisingly sound memories; and immensely appreciative of the man whose music they once made a living performing. It’s a treat watching Sara Scuderi re-enact Tosca’s deadly kiss-off of Scarpia on a chance meeting with heroic tenor Leonida Bellon outside a phone booth in the hotel, then perform “’O sole mio” with the same world-class ham. Likewise, when we eavesdrop on 80-year-old Giuseppe Manacchini as he reminisces with his wife, who played opposite him a half-century ago in ”La Traviata” and ”La Forza del Destino,” over a trunk full of costumes he once took to Rio de Janeiro, where he sang “Rigoletto.” Verdi’s copyrights expired in the early 1960s, but the passion for beautiful on display in Tosca’s Kiss is eternal.

The Magic of Heineken
As authorized corporate biographies go, The Magic of Heineken is better than most. It helps, of course, that the subject matter – the last 150 years in the life of one the world’s great brands – is familiar to anyone who’s enjoyed the product or pondered which imported beer to buy at a fancy bar or restaurant. The Heineken story is told in fresh and vintage film clips, interviews, tours of family breweries in 13 different countries and visualizations staged with stop-action puppetry. And, while it doesn’t appear to whitewash any corporate blemishes, the film clearly is friendly to family members and current executives. Especially interesting is the material regarding Freddy Heineken, who, apart from being kidnapped by amateur criminals, managed to regain family ownership of the company after it was sold in the wake of World War II. He also engineered the company’s international expansion. It currently owns a worldwide portfolio of over 170 beer brands, mainly pale lager, and is the third largest brewing conglomerate.

Scarred But Smarter: The Life ’N’ Times of Drivin’’N’ Cryin’
By now, documentaries about rock bands are about as unusual as flies at a picnic and some have been every bit as annoying. Lately, though, I’ve come across dozens of films – most from England, for some reason – that expand upon everything we’ve come to know about our favorite bands and contextualize their importance within various trends and genres. For the most part, they’re of the unauthorized variety. This means that the primary musicians don’t participate in interviews and the musical clips are limited to public-record and fair-use performances and music videos. Scarred But Smarter: The Life ’N’ Times of Drivin’’N’ Cryin’ is different in that the individual band members have been making music for 30 years, under one banner or another, and aren’t reluctant to dish. Since emerging from Georgia’s rich musical soil, D’N’C has entertained tens of thousands of fans drawn to its unvarnished hard-rocking Southern sound. Director Eric Von Haessler has been one of those who’s occasionally wondered why the band hasn’t been able to parlay that loyalty into stadium tours and villas in France. The answer hardly qualifies as a mystery. Like too many other groups, their road was littered with bad business decisions, studio weasels, personal squabbles and, of course, drugs and booze. Among the musicians who contribute their opinions are fellow fans Peter Buck, Darius Rucker, Ed Roland, Ty Pennington and Jason Isbell, alongside those of past and present band members. Besides serving as cautionary tale, the documentary is informed by music that’s loud, kickin’, has stood the test of time and, in my opinion, sounds better in bars than large venues.

James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge: Special Collector’s Edition: 3D Blu-ray
In the 19th Century, the huge disparity in wealth and poverty allowed for the privileged members of society to explore unknown – to western interests, of course – parts of our world, usually under the auspices of geographic organizations, commercial interests and governments interests. It led to the accumulation of colonies and creation of highly accurate maps for navigation, exploitation and war. Blessedly, men of science and academia were encouraged to tag alone to record natural phenomena and collect specimens of animals and plants. If the explorers also plundered the occasional archeological or geological treasure, well, so be it. How else to convince the public to purchase newspapers, fund museums and beg for more adventures that ultimately would benefit the captains of industry? After World War II, such explorations became too expensive to mount. Instead, the U.S. and Soviet Union took up the slack by competing against each other for military supremacy on Earth and in space. As far as I know, NASA was the only entity to also be interested in supporting commercial and academic research. Today, we may have come full circle on the question of who should support costly scientific expeditions once deemed essential for national pride, if nothing else. Last week’s crash of the Virgin Galactic may have pushed back the deadline for Richard Branson’s first attempt at space tourism another couple of years, at least. This week’s release of James Cameron Deepsea Challenge on Blu-ray 3D/Blu-ray/DVD offers another example of how rich people can do things our government no longer is capable of supporting, without offending taxpayers and contrarian legislators. If Branson, Cameron and Oprah Winfrey were ever to pool their money to finance a personal excursion to Mars, they’d be there in time for next November’s sweeps period. Subscribers to National Geographic and the OWN network probably wouldn’t mind throwing in a few bucks or contribute to a Kickstarter campaign. In a very real sense, the huge international success enjoyed by Cameron’s Titanic and Avatar has allowed him to visit the actual site of the Titanic’s final resting place, as well as that of the German battleship Bismarck and, now, the deepest point on Earth. The documentary chronicles Cameron’s solo dive to the depths of the Mariana Trench, nearly seven miles beneath the ocean’s surface, piloting a submersible he designed in collaboration with his team of technicians and scientists. Built in Sydney by the research and design company Acheron Project, the Deepsea Challenger carried scientific sampling equipment and high-definition 3-D cameras. Remarkably, such an expedition hasn’t been attempted since 1960, when the Bathyscaphe Trieste accomplished the same feat, but without the advanced technology available to Cameron. (Don Walsh, who co-piloted the Trieste, was on board the support vessel when the dive occurred.) The equipment trove includes the Rolex watch, “worn” on the submersible’s robotic arm, which measured the length of the dive and is given a prominent cameo in the film. What Cameron was able to photograph on the ocean’s floor might remind viewers of the desolate moonscape that greeted our astronauts on their missions. He did bring back images of a new species of sea cucumber, squid worm and giant single-celled amoeba, as well as some shrimp-like critters caught in a trip while devouring a baited chicken. Cameron is a gracious host throughout James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge, even as he approaches what unquestionably is an incredibly dangerous series of dives in the unproven submersible. I can’t imagine what the movie looks like in high-def 3D, but if anyone can make it work, it’s Cameron. The set includes a couple of short featurettes.

Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story
One of the things we learn in Lady Valor is that 13 nations not named the United States of America allow transgender women or men serve their country in their armed forces. Not knowingly, anyway. Although the documentary maintains a tight focus on former U.S. Navy SEAL Christopher Beck – or as Beck currently prefers, Kristin – Lady Valor also introduces us to a couple dozen other trans-women who’ve worn the uniform of their chosen branch of the military as men. Beck served for 20 years in the U.S. Navy SEALs before her transition, and took part in 13 deployments, including seven involving combat. Beck was a member of the United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), a special counter-terrorism unit popularly called SEAL Team Six. You know, the same guys who took out Osama Bin Laden. He received multiple military awards and decorations, including a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. A year and a half after retirement, in 2011, Beck came out publicly through LinkedIn and confirmed her true identity on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360.” In what she now considers to be an ill-advised decision, Beck once wore a dress to her job at the Pentagon. She desperately wanted to be recognized not only as a trans-woman, but as a warrior who could hold her own in combat with anyone else on Earth. Regretfully, her decision caught many friends and family member by surprise. As the documentary demonstrates, not everyone took the news as graciously as other people, including his former wife and two sons. Still, Beck is no shrinking violet in her private or professional life. She’s still a crack shot, even in modest heels, and enjoys killing clay pigeons with his dad and siblings. She’s still called upon to train security personnel and shows up at reunions. Beck says that she was able to camouflage her true sexual identity in the service, primarily because she was stationed half a world away from home and was preoccupied with other matters. Once home, Beck was stunned by the ferocity of the anti-LGBT vitriol being spewed in the debate over same-sex marriage, as well as the lack of follow-through on hate crimes and bullying. Beck’s CNN appearance received plenty of attention throughout the media and LGBT community – as did the release of his book, “Warrior Princess,” co-written with Anne Speckhard, a psychologist at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. It arrived at a time, we’re told, that some people in the Pentagon are re-considering its policy toward trans-gender men and women willing to die for a country, which, in large part, despises them.

I Am Santa Claus
The photo of wild-man pro wrestler Mick Foley that dominates the cover of I Am Santa Claus would lead one to believe that the movie contained inside the box is strictly of the horror persuasion. Although there are moments when Tommy Avallone’s documentary on the nation’s “Christmas community” that qualify as cringe-worthy, most of it is strangely uplifting. The original one-sheet poster that accompanied I Am Santa Claus featured a white-haired and -bearded geezer with a pot belly looking into a mirror and the image of a proper Saint Nick reflecting back at him. That is what the film is all about, really. In it, five men who live their lives as if every day were Christmas are profiled both as Santas and seemingly normal human beings. Besides co-producer Foley, there’s a gay “bear” Santa, BBQ-king Santa, trailer-park Santa and a full-time, mall-hopping Santa. As members of Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, Fraternal Order of Real-Bearded Santas or International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, they believe themselves to be trustees of the Christmas spirit year-round and preservation of the character’s traditional image. A sidebar featurette displays a different side of the bearded brotherhood, however, showing the organized Santas to be every bit as petty and power-crazed as anyone else. Morgan Spurlock’s imprimatur on the DVD as presenter serves the same purpose as the old Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

TV-to-DVD
Disney Channel: Star Wars: The Clone Wars: The Lost Missions: Blu-ray
Disney Channel/XD: Phineas & Ferb: Star Wars
PBS: Mystery of Agatha Christie With David Suchet
PBS: Ice Warriors: USA Sled Hockey
PBS: Art 21: Art in the Twenty-First Century: Season 7
ION: A Star for Christmas
Two years ago, when Walt Disney Co. purchased Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion, it didn’t take an MBA to understand what synergies and efficiencies could be expected from the new enterprise or its kinship to the earlier $4 billion acquisition of Marvel Entertainment. If anything, the nearly endless possibilities for crossover projects and merchandising scared the crap out of fundamentalist fans of all three entities. Those not nearly as concerned by the partnerships can now point to two new DVD/Blu-rays as proof that nothing truly awful will come of them. All eyes will be on next year’s release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the first entry in a new trilogy. The made-for-cable “Star Wars: The Clone Wars: The Lost Missions” is the by-product of the Lucasfilm acquisition, in that the titles pick up where previous Cartoon Network installments ended. Although I’m no expert on the subject, the 13 new episodes – already shown on Netflix — amplify on events that occurred between “Episode II” and “Episode III.” The biggest plus, perhaps, is the clarity and pop of the Blu-ray presentation in 1080p HD with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio and 5.1 Dolby Digital audio. Also fresh is a 16-minute documentary celebrating the entire “Clone Wars” series.

The hour-long crossover episode, “Phineas & Ferb: Star Wars,” was shown on Disney Channel and sister network Disney XD in July and represents a clearer vision of the company’s synergistic future, as did last summer’s “Phineas and Ferb: Mission Marvel.” What some might consider to be sacrilege, others will see as harmless fun. While playing fast and loose with some “Star Wars” iconography – “A couple of summers ago in a galaxy far, far away, Phineas and Ferb are happily basking in the glow of Tatooine’s twin suns …” – the themes and characterizations remain faithful to Lucasfilm mythology. Gags have been written to entertain both P&F fans and longtime “Star Wars” addicts. Here, plans for the Death Star accidentally fall into their hands, thrusting them (and Agent P) into a galactic rebellion and an epic struggle of good vs. evil. The rest of the package is taken up with episodes from Season 4.

In the 1985 made-for-TV movie, “Thirteen at Dinner,” David Suchet played Inspector Japp to Peter Ustinov’s Hercule Poirot. Four years later, Suchet would be handed the keys to Agatha Christie’s first and, perhaps, most enduring protagonist, for the next 25 years on ITV and PBS’ “Mystery!” The first thing he did was dismiss any thought of portraying the Belgian detective as being anything different than what’s described in her novels and short stories. “All I did was to start to read Agatha Christie’s novels,” Suchet has explained. “I wanted to be the Poirot that she would be proud of. So, out went the funny costume designs and the huge moustaches, and in went everything that she had written: the morning suits, the little gifts of vases of flowers … the perfect moustache.” In “Mystery of Agatha Christie With David Suchet,” the 68-year-old Londoner returns the favor by setting the record straight on the author’s fascinating personal and literary history. Instead of simply serving as narrator, he travels throughout England and on to Istanbul touring her home; interviewing descendants, scholars and historians; and reading from original source material not available to the public. The bio-doc also recalls how the death of her beloved mother, when combined with fatigue and her husband’s infidelity, may have led to her greatest work of non-fiction: the mystery of her staged disappearance in 1926. A visit to a garden dedicated to toxic plants and flowers leads to a discussion of how she turned a WWI stint as an apothecary’s assistant into as passion for poison as a literary device.

I’ve seen plenty of documentaries about the inspirational struggles of athletes with physical and mental disabilities. In 2005, Murderball opened my eyes to the ferocity of sports played by wheelchair-borne rugby players. PBS’ “Team Ice Warriors: USA Sled Hockey” chronicles the journey taken by the U.S. Paralympic sled-hockey team in their pursuit of gold at the Sochi Paralympics. The sport actually has been referred to as “Murderball on blades.” The participants sit low on sharp metal runners and small saddle-like seats. Their balance is further tested by having to move the puck with their sticks and propel themselves with serrated ice picks. Military veterans play alongside teenagers, with experienced players guiding the rookies. Also showcased are their emotional stories of injury and resilience, their hard work in training camps and elite international competitions, and their personal challenges on the ice and at home. The game, itself, isn’t for the faint of heart. Close relatives and friends, especially, cringe every time they hear the sound of metal hitting metal, knowing that another injury could cost them another limb or cause a concussion.

In the seventh season of PBS’ Peabody Award-winning series “Art 21: Art in the Twenty-First Century,” we’re once again taken behind the scenes of 12 artists’ studios, homes and communities to provide intimate access to their lives, creative processes and sources of inspiration. As such, we follow the international roster of artists to such locations as diverse as a New York City public housing development, a military testing facility in the Nevada desert, a jazz festival in Sweden, a ceramics factory in Germany and an activist neighborhood in Mexico. Among other things, the provocative discussions demand we consider the profound relevance of art to our everyday lives and role of museums in society, besides as places with walls upon which paintings are hung. The featured artists are Thomas Hirschhorn, Graciela Iturbide, Leonardo Drew, Elliott Hundley, Arlene Shechet, Trevor Paglen, Wolfgang Laib, Tania Bruguera, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Katharina Grosse, Joan Jonas and Omer Fast.

A couple of weeks ago, we watched “A Belle for Christmas,” in which the title character is a fluffy white puppy, In the 2012 made-for-cable holiday movie, “A Star for Christmas,” that person literally is a star of the Hollywood variety. Alex (Corey Sevier) is in a small town prepping for an “action” version of “The Christmas Carol,” when he meets and falls in love with the owner of a cupcake shop, Cassie (Briana Evigan), who’s oblivious to his fame. Chaos ensues when their respective exes get wind of their budding relationship. They must be running out of ideas for seasonal movies.

The Compleat Al
UHF: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
It says a lot about the nature of pop and rock music that in the nearly 40 years Weird Al Yankovic has been recording song parodies, he’s never run out of source material or inspiration. It says a lot about Yankovic that every five years, or so, his act attracts a new sub-generation of fans, without losing their parents’ loyalty in the process. The songs may not remain the same, but the laughter does. Weird Al’s every bit as busy today as he’s been since making his presence known via “The Dr. Demento’s Radio Show” in 1976 and, unlike his heroes Tom Lehrer, Stan Freberg, Spike Jones, Allan Sherman, Shel Silverstein, Frank Zappa and Frankie Yankovic (no relation), he even has a bobble-head doll. The good news this week is the first release into DVD of The Compleat Al, a semi-autobiographical mockumentary that follows Yankovic’s roots back from childhood to 1985, and the arrival on Blu-ray of the feature-length video, UHF: 25th Anniversary Edition. The former contains bits from “AL-TV,” footage from his trip to Japan and a funny take on his mission to receive permission from Michael Jackson for “Eat It.” And, what Weird Al collection would be “compleat” without such music videos as “Ricky,” “I Love Rocky Road,” “I Lost on Jeopardy,” “This Is the Life,” “Like a Surgeon,” “One More Minute” and “Dare to Be Stupid.” The very goofy 1989 comedy UHF holds up pretty well, considering how many of the topical references border on the prehistoric. Among the movies and TV shows that might have inspired Yankovic here are Network, FM, WKRP in Cincinnati and NewsRadio, even though the influence of Mad magazine, Monty Python and the Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker parodies is traceable, as well. Yankovic plays George Newman, a daydreaming doofus who stumbles into a job as manager of a small TV station that’s losing money and routinely posts negative ratings numbers. Much to the irritation of a rival programmers, such shows as “Stanley Spadowski’s Clubhouse,” “The Wonderful World of Phlegm,” “Wheel of Fish” and “Raul’s Wild Kingdom” put Channel 62 back on the map. Ample support is provided by Michael Richards, Kevin McCarthy, Fran Drescher, Gedde Watanabe, Victoria Jackson, Billy Barty, David Proval, Anthony Geary, Trinidad Silva and Emo Philips.

The Slave: Blu-ray
Red Nights
42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection Vol. 5
With the film adaptation of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey lurking just around the corner – Valentine’s Day, indeed! – it’s no wonder that specialty distributor Mondo Macabro decided to get out ahead of the bondage craze with its re-release of the Pasquale Festa Campanile’s 1969 soft-core semi-classic, The Slave (a.k.a., “Check to the Queen”). Not having read the novel, I can’t imagine “Fifty Shades” turning out any more prurient than “,” which promised a lot more S&M than it actually delivered. A stroll down mammary lane, as gossip columnist Earl Wilson once referred to these sorts of teasers, might be in order. Among the off-mainstream places to stop would be Just Jaeckin’s Story of O, Radley Metzger’s The Image, Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter, Takashi Ishii’s Flower & Snake, Louis Buneul’s Belle de Jour, various adaptations of the novel “Venus in Furs,” Steven Shainberg’s Secretary. They feature beautiful women, handsome men, grand homes and lots of leather accessories. The Slave pre-dates all of these, except “Belle de Jour.” It stars the Gina Lollobrigida look-alike Rosanna Schiaffino and lovely French actress Haydee Politoff, whose career swiftly went from starring in Eric Rohmer’s The Collector to key roles in such exploitation flicks as Count Dracula’s Great Love and The Virgin of Bali. Here, Politoff is the rich, young countess, Silvia, who’s so bored with her life that she agrees to become a human house pet for the star actress, Margaret, played by Schiaffino. As such, Silvia is required to call the older woman, Mistress, and obey her every whim without question. Except for the countess’ lurid daydreams, the sex is tame even by the standards of the day. Typically, though, the Italian crew invested the film in a delicious array of high-fashion costumes, expensive sets and a then-groovy score by Piero Piccioni. The Blu-ray features a shiny new transfer from the original negative, interviews with critic Roberto Curti and Justin Harries, interactive filmographies, deleted scenes and the always wonderful Mondo Macabro previews.

There’s more than a little bit of S&M in Red Nights, an erotic thriller that will remind buffs of Italian giallo, with its eye-piercing color scheme and assortment of femme fatales and damsels in distress. Set in Hong Kong, it opens with a startling display of shrink-wrap asphyxiation that is, at once, hyper-sexy and all too realistic. Carrie Ng returned from a layoff of seven years to play Carrie Chan, who, when she isn’t suffocating her girlfriends, is a death-dealing collector of ancient Chinese art. Here, she has her eye on a jade skull that once belonged to an emperor reputed to be a master of torture. An elixir contained in the skull is said to paralyze its victim’s limbs, while increasing the sensitivity of their nerve endings tenfold. In the right hands, it can heighten sexual arousal to a fever pitch. An overdose can result in an unbearably slow and painful death. And, yes, whoever possesses the elixir – now hidden within a large imperial seal – also is in possession of the curse that comes with it. Here, that would be a lethal French courier, Catherine (Frédérique Bel), who constantly is being tested by Chan and emissaries of other collectors, perhaps because she’s blond. All of this death and deception plays out against a backdrop provided by the always photogenic Hong Kong streets and skyline. The DVD includes the featurette, “The Making of Red Nights: Carrie’s Story”; co-writers/directors Julien Carbon and Laurent Courtiaud’s short film, “Betrayal: The Prequel to Red Nights”; and a photo gallery.

The fifth entry in Impulse Pictures’ “42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection” brings the series closer to day when feature-length porn flicks would render quick-and-dirty loops superfluous. They contain a tad more narrative than previous specimens and the actors are becoming more familiar. Among the stars of these 15 loops are Susan Nero, Lili Marlene, Lisa DeLeeuw, and Annie Sprinkle. It adds liner notes by Robin Bougie.

The DVD Wrapup: Maleficent, Planes 2, Hercules, Franco X 2, Begin Again, LFO, Vanishing, Coffee in Berlin, Miss Marple, Pemberley, Running From Crazy … More

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

Maleficent: Blu-ray
Planes: Fire & Rescue: Blu-ray
The great thing about owning the rights to one of the American cinema’s most cherished works is the ability to borrow from it to the point of re-invention. The privilege can be abused, of course, especially if the re-adaptation is made by lesser talents than those responsible for the original. Maleficent, Disney’s decidedly revisionist take on its 1959 animated classic, Sleeping Beauty, and, by extension, Charles Perrault’s 1697 “La Belle au bois dormant,” demonstrates how to honor the original by giving audiences something fresh and tasty on which to chew. Angelina Jolie was the only viable choice to play the woman considered to be Disney’s most enchantingly wicked character. The media has worked long and hard to turn Jolie into real-life version of Maleficent, simply for stealing the oh-so-vulnerable Brad Pitt from Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows, Jennifer Aniston, and creating the kind of atypical family unit that reporters have always been too square to understand. Here, Maleficent is given a personality makeover matched only by Ebenezer Scrooge after his come-to-Jesus moment in “A Christmas Carol.” The origin story written for her by Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast) offers several very good reasons for the character to make the leap from being a pixie with a decidedly sunny disposition to the evil fairy godmother who places an ill-considered curse on Aurora (Elle Fanning). She is driven to cruelty by a king’s greedy desire to control the enchanted forest beyond the moors and painful amputation of her wings. Even after the curse is placed, Maleficent discovers her love for Aurora and conspires to negate it by bringing her “one true love” to her bedside. Neither is Aurora’s father, King Stefan (Sharlto Copley), absolved of his role in Maleficent’s fall from grace. As portrayed here, he’s a power-mad son of a bitch, who, after the death of his wife, grows more paranoid with each passing day. If the story deviates from the Disney original thematically, it faithfully replicates some of Snow White’s most exciting and beautiful set pieces, using advanced CGI technology. The dragon battle, which was scary enough the first time, is even more convincing in enhanced live-action cinematography. That’s one very good reason why parents shouldn’t consider Maleficent to be a harmless substitute for a babysitter. Like the fight in the animated original, it could put toddlers off their feed for days. Otherwise, freshman director Robert Stromberg hasn’t left much room for crusty old purist to complain. It’s likely, though, that most viewers will be disappointed by the undernourished bonus package, which includes deleted scenes and only a few short background pieces. I’m even more surprised by the absence of a music video of Lana Del Rey’s moody re-interpretation of “”Once Upon a Dream,” which accompanies the closing credits.

Although Cars was made by Disney/Pixar and Planes by second-string DisneyToon/Prana Studios, the animated features bore a distinctly familial resemblance to each other. Both were inspired by an original story by John Lasseter and populated with motorized vehicles of the anthropomorphic persuasion. Their sequels were released theatrically, as well. Tellingly, though, it took an additional five years for Cars 2 to open, in 2011, while only a year passed between Planes: Fire & Rescue and its predecessor. Cars 2 reportedly benefitted from a borderline-obscene $200-million budget — $80 million more than that reserved for the original – while each of the movies in the Planes series had to make do on $50 million. From a kid’s point-of-view, I think, the differences can only be seen in the details and scope of the story. The world-famous air racer Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) returns here, but for a much different purpose. When Dusty’s equipment fails to live up to the standards of more modern racers, he makes an equally risky career choice. This time, it involves using his speed and maneuverability in the service of aerial firefighting, a cause that becomes more important with every passing year of our current drought. Naturally, Dusty’s self-confidence exceeds his ability to perform at the level required of his peers in the Piston Peak National Park fire-fighting squad. (We’re reminded of the recent fires in Yosemite by the flames and smoke rising from the background drawings.) The comeuppance he receives at the wings of his elders in the corps is a common occurrence in Disney movies, as is the willingness of the upstart to put his pride aside long enough to learn from his mistakes. The Blu-ray package adds three animated shorts, “Vitaminamulch: Air Spectacular,” “Dipper” and “Smoke Jumpers”; deleted scenes; the featurettes “Air Attack: Firefighters From the Sky” and “Welcome to Piston Peak!”; the music video, “Still I Fly,” by Spencer Lee; and “CHoPs TV Promo,” a TV commercial for the “CHiPs” parody “CHoPs.” (Erik Estrada provides the voice for Nick ‘Loop’n’ Lopez.)  Due to a lack of proper equipment, I wasn’t able to review the 3D edition.

Hercules: Extended Version: Blu-ray
In a very real sense, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was born to someday play Hercules. He admits as much in his introductory comments included in the Blu-ray bonus package to Brett Ratner’s Hercules. For his part, Ratner recalls creating a sword-and-sandals “Hercules vs. Superman” comic book when he was a kid. As such, their version of the Hercules legend owes more to Steve Reeves, Lou Ferrigno, Mickey Hargitay, Reg Park, Alan Steel, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kevin Sorbo – lest we forget, Tiny Sandford, Samson Burker and Rock Stevens – than Greek and Roman mythology. It was adapted from Radical Studios’ “Hercules: Thracian Wars,” a comics series by writer Scott Moore and illustrator Admira Wijaya. After Hercules completed his 12 labors, he had plenty of time on his hands to begin a second career as a mercenary. The Thracian King (John Hurt) summons the son of Zeus and his six battle-worn companions – think, the X-Men in leather skivvies — to mold the Thracian army into a “kick-ass” (Ratner’s words) killing machine. Unfortunately, the muscle-bound demi-god is unable to see the deception through the glare of Cotys’ gold. After Hercules successfully tests his Thracian charges in battle against an army of truly grotesque barbarians, Cotys and his devious henchman Sitacles (Peter Mullan) demand they help take on a larger force from Thebes. Once that’s accomplished, Hercules and his gang of outcast soldiers-of-fortune are taken captive by their employers. Not for long, however.

No one’s ever accused Ratner of skimping on his production values and gotten away with it. Between production costs and marketing expenses, Hercules probably cost more than all of the other Hercules movies combined. That list includes Renny Harlin’s quick-and-dirty Legend of Hercules, which opened in January, immediately flopped and possibly poisoned the well for Ratner’s far more entertaining version. Although Hercules underperformed here, foreign audiences may have pumped enough money into the overall gross to get it close to even. There’s no reason to think that Johnson’s many fans and action junkies won’t embrace the unrated “extended” version, which offers an extra four minutes of mayhem that might have been trimmed to ensure a PG-13 rating. The Blu-ray package adds Ratner and producer Beau Flynn’s observations on sword-and-sandal epics and previous “Hercules” pictures; the introduction by Ratner and Johnson, several worthwhile, if short making-of featurettes; and additional material deleted from the theatrical cut. Due to lack of equipment, I wasn’t able to review the 3D edition.

 
Child of God: Blu-ray
Good People: Blu-ray
If James Franco had grown up in New York, instead of Palo Alto, and looked more like John Turturro (no offense intended) than James Dean, he might be taken more serious as an artist than he sometimes is. If he cared about his image in certain quarters, he might also have resisted the temptation to appear in soap operas, stoner comedies and action epics at the same time as he was turning in award-quality performances in both high- and low-profile indies. Somehow, too, Franco has found the time to attend prestigious graduate schools, teach, write prose and poetry, draw and sculpt, direct and produce films, long and short. It’s as if he were gunning for the Renaissance Man of the Year award. Still, I can’t think of a single actor of his generation who’s displayed more range, courage and ambition than Franco has since unceremoniously breaking into the business in 1997. Actually, it was only when Franco, now 36, agreed to co-host the 2011 Academy Awards ceremony, with Anne Hathaway, that he met the limits of his ambition. That debacle was soon forgotten, however. Child of God and Good People provide good examples of projects that might never have been noticed if it weren’t for his participation in them. His adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s grisly 1973 novel is cut from the same cloth as Franco’s previous literary adaptations:  Howl (Allen Ginsberg), Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner), and The Broken Tower (Hart Crane). Set in rural Tennessee in the 1960s, Child of God describes one dangerously violent hillbilly’s descent into hell after his home and property are repossessed and put up for auction. Now homeless and clearly insane, Lester Ballard (Scott Haze) goes completely feral. He wanders around the countryside, looking for opportunities to avenge the perceived injustice, and sleeps in the same cave in which he stashes the victims of his bloodlust. Tim Blake Nelson and Jim Parrack play the good-ol’-boy lawmen who cut Ballard the slack he needed to haunt the local lovers’ lane and claim more victims, while Franco has a small role as the leader of a vigilante mob. Child of God is not an easy movie to digest, as much for stomach-churning depictions of Ballard’s animal instincts as any acts of violence perpetrated by him. As co-writer/director, Franco keeps a firm grip on the throttle of what could easily have been a runaway train. Haze’s performance could hardly be more convincingly ferocious. That he wasn’t nominated for an Indie Spirit Award, at least, is a mystery. The same goes for frequent Franco collaborator Christina Voros’ splendid cinematography.

Franco plays a decidedly different character in this all-too-familiar British crime thriller, this time by the promising Danish director Henrik Ruben Genz (Terribly Happy). Good People pairs Franco and Kate Hudson as a young American couple, Tom and Anna Wright, living in a decrepit London flat for no discernable reason, except that they’re short of cash while he’s renovating a home outside London. After their downstairs neighbor dies, Tom discovers a cache of pound notes – he misses the briefcase with the morphine ampoules – stashed above the false ceiling. News of the man’s death travels quickly beyond the walls of the basement, bringing the Wrights’ moment of bliss to an abrupt conclusion. In short order, they’re visited separately by two vicious hoodlums laying claim to the money and a cop fixated on closing the books on the unsolved heist of a drug lord’s stash. The only way the Wrights are going to avoid torture and a slow, painful death is by handing over the money to someone and getting out of the way when the bullets start flying. The overriding question, of course, is which of the competing tough guys they should trust most with their fates. Even if the climatic confrontation in Tom’s booby-trapped construction site is well choreographed and fun to watch, I couldn’t help flashing on other movies that ended in the same way. Fans of the Franco and Hudson shouldn’t mind the familiarity, though. Also prominent in the picture are Anna Friel, Tom Sizemore, Omar Sy, Diarmaid Murtagh and Sam Spruell.

Deliver Us From Evil: Blu-ray
The Taking of Deborah Logan
When I say that the closing credits are the best part of Deliver Us From Evil, I’m not being facetious or attempting to condemn it with faint praise. If anything, they’re too short. As strange as it sounds, director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) has crafted a based-on-a-true-story thriller that manages to merge the police-procedural and demon-possession subgenres. If it’s more intriguing than frightening, well, at least it looks good and the special effects are pretty decent. Deliver Us From Evil combines several cases investigated by NYPD detective Ralph Sarchie – portrayed here by Eric Bana – when he was assigned to a notoriously rough precinct in the South Bronx. While there, Sarchie came to believe that the brutality of the crimes he witnessed and depravity of the perpetrators could only be caused by demonic possession. To get to the root cause of the crimes, he decided to work alongside priests trained in the rite of exorcism, even after he left the department. The composite priest who collaborates with Sarchie here is played with credible spiritual intensity by Edgar Ramirez. The devil finds its way to the South Bronx in the flesh-and-blood vessel provided by a marine who was among a three-man team ordered to search for insurgents in an ancient tomb. Instead of WMDs or Saddam Hussein, they opened the door for a spirit that had been entombed inside for centuries. Once home, the cursed jarhead (Sean Harris) can’t help but terrorize the families of his fellow marines, first, and then anyone who gets in his way. The final showdown between the priest and devil won’t make anyone forget The Exorcist, but it’s pretty good. The aforementioned closing credits combine images ripped the film with a driving rendition of the Doors’ “Break on Through (to the Other Side),” effectively creating an audio/visual tone that suggests Hieronymus Bosch.  A deeply earnest Sarchie figures prominently in the featurettes included in the bonus package. Olivia Munn play’s the cop’s freaked-out wife to no great affect, while comedian Joel McHale adds a diverting twist to what could have been a stereotypically subordinate role as his partner.

As if Alzheimer s Disease weren’t bad enough, the titular protagonist of The Taking of Deborah Logan is required to cope with demonic possession, as well. Veteran soap-opera star Jill Larson (“All My Children”) effectively portrays a woman who’s naturally confused by her increasingly noticeable loss of memory and inability to perform simple tasks. She’s even better when the real shit comes down, causing her to act like a madwoman with super strength and a terrible self-destructive streak. The story is framed by the activities of a film crew documenting her decline and how it affects members of her family. Anne Ramsay, who’s been around the block a few times herself, plays Deborah’s adult daughter and target for most of her mother’s anger and frustration. There’s no telling how long she will have absorb the abuse, before making the difficult choice between moving in with mom or finding a comfortable place for her to live out her days. Finally, though, whatever it is that’s causing her mom’s condition to metastasize into something far more ugly than Alzheimer’s makes that decision for her. As unlikely as the source of her troubles might sound, it makes perfect sense within the context of the film within a film. There’s even something of a happy ending. As first features tend to go, Adam Robitel has outdone himself on what must have been a miniscule budget.

Begin Again: Blu-ray
Even if the only thing one knew about Begin Again before renting the offbeat romantic comedy was that it starred Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo and Adam Levine, it wouldn’t take fans of Once more than a half-hour to figure out that it was written and directed by John Carrey. While far from being a carbon copy of that delightful sleeper hit, Begin Again captures the same casually romantic vibe and music-conquers-all credo. Knightley plays the mousy English girlfriend of a groovy singer-songwriter about to sell his soul to the devil for a shot at rock stardom. Gretta becomes expendable when Dave (Levine) falls for an Asian-American hottie he meets at the introductory meeting with executives of his new label. It shouldn’t have come as a great shock to anyone who’s grown up on MTV, but Getta is nonetheless devastated. In a flash back to Once, she runs into an old friend (James Corden) busking in the park and he invites her to crash at his pad. To help chase away her blues, Steve asks Gretta to join him on stage at a local club on open-mic night. Coincidentally, it’s the same night that a failed record producer is drinking himself into oblivion at the bar. Despite her less than dynamic stage presence, Dan (Mark Ruffalo) recognizes something in Gretta’s lyrics that makes him think she can rescue his career. So, while Dave is on the road becoming the next John Mayer, Gretta is allowing herself to be molded into something resembling Fionna Apple or Aimee Mann. Dan comes up with the idea of saving money he doesn’t have by bringing in student musicians and recording her songs in distinctly New York locations, hoping they might provide unique aural ambiences. To this pull off the conceit, he solicits the help of characters played be Mos Def and CeeLo Green. Another evolving storyline involves Dan’s former wife (Catherine Keener) and their rebellious teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), who still aren’t sure he’s worthy of their trust. What’s nice about Carrey’s approach to storytelling is that it ignores the kind of clichés that could have turned Begin Again into just another movie with music. He doesn’t artificially inject turmoil or boogeymen into places where genuine emotions work just as well. Nor does he feel obligated to tie up the loose ends in brightly colored bows. The cast cooperates by turning in naturally understated performances. The music isn’t bad, either.

LFO
A post-graduate degree from MIT or Cal Tech isn’t necessary to fully enjoy LFO, a darkly funny mad-scientist thriller from Sweden, but those who’ve earned one likely would enjoy it more than those of us whose knowledge of sonic theory is limited to turning on a radio. Knowing the difference between analog and digital technology – traditional television vs. HDTV, for example – would probably suffice, however. Writer/director/composer Antonio Tublen tapped Patrik Karlson to play the nerdy protagonist, Robert Nord, a disheveled fellow who works out his many frustrations by fiddling with old-fashioned audio equipment in the basement of his non-descript suburban home. We learn soon enough that Robert is pre-occupied with the death of his unfaithful wife and young son in a suspicious automobile accident. In fact, the only thing accidental about the crash was the child unexpectedly being in the car with his mother. Her very lifelike ghost haunts him to the point where he’s forced to experiment with “low frequency oscillation,” hoping to come up with a sound or rhythmic pulse that might allow him to remain refreshed, even without much sleep. With the help of some Internet buddies, he does just that. Further experimentation reveals a frequency that allows him to hypnotize people and control their behavior. Robert tests his discovery on his new neighbors, a young couple having marital problems. The more successful he is – he wears noise-baffling earphones – the greater his curiosity becomes. When his experimentation takes a turn for the perverse, it’s easy to see how this mild-mannered geek could easily evolve into a monster with his fingers on the button of a terrible psychological weapon. LFO doesn’t have to beat us over the head with images of mass destruction, triggered, in part, by someone’s benign ingenuity. The people who invented the Mac and PC may not have foreseen the dangers posed today by hackers, perverts and government intelligence agencies, either, but such abuses were inevitable. When Robert goes bad, we can’t say that we didn’t know it what was coming. If you dig LFO, check out Peter Strickland’s much creepier Berberian Sound System.

Moebius: Blu-ray
When talented directors really want their audience to pay attention to their message – whatever it might be – the most direct route is through violence that borders on the unbearable. Sex that some people consider to be unspeakably perverse works as well, but the titillation factor is always there to distract us from the terror. Likewise, many viewers found the first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan to be too horrifying to endure, even if its depiction of the D-Day invasion was completely accurate and essential to Steven Spielberg’s vision. For male viewers, at least, nothing is quite as terrifying as watching an enraged spouse, holding a razor-sharp knife within six inches of the protagonist’s scrotum. Korean writer/director Kim Ki-duk, whose resume includes such challenging dramas as Bad Boy, 3-Iron, The Bow and Pieta hasn’t won the admiration of critics and festivals audiences by pulling his punches. In Moebius, Kim comes close to delivering a knock-out blow before 10 minutes have elapsed. It isn’t until the closing credits roll that he stops battering us with images of extreme behavior. Having learned of her husband’s infidelity in a misdirected phone call, Lee Eun-woo’s unnamed character attempts to rob her husband of his masculinity. When he deflects the attack, she inexplicably castrates their son and disappears from the narrative for a while. Lee returns in the double-role of her husband’s mistress – yes, it helps to pay strict attention to what’s happening here – a shopkeeper who has troubles of her own with local street punks. Most of the movie is taken up with how the father and son cope with the terrible act. The boy’s shame is compounded by the bullying he endures from the same gang members, while the father’s guilt feelings from escaping the attack repulse his son. The only thing that brings them together is the father’s discovery of a technique that uses extreme self-abuse to induce sexual gratification. (“Cutters” are wimps, by comparison.) Things get even weirder from there. If any of this sounds enticing, you should know that Moebius is an extremely well made film and several critics were able to find inky-black comedy in it. I’m sure that Kim’s intentions can best be measured by considering the different definitions of the title, although I felt a bit too used up to try.

The Vanishing: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Siddharth
Whenever the parents of a missing child are interviewed on television, viewers share their horror by trying to imagine the worst of all possible resolutions. Has this example of extreme empathy always been the case or did the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby forever eliminate our ability to be optimistic about such disappearances? Or, perhaps, is it that every newly reported case and attendant prayer vigil are accorded wall-to-wall coverage on the all-news networks and we’re hypnotized by the mass sharing of hope and dread. The Vanishing and Siddharth are movies from two very different parts of the world that demonstrate how a talented filmmaker can turn any notions of hope into horror. Based on a novel Tim Krabbé, The Vanishing describes what happens when a squabbling Dutch couple’s vacation is ruined by the disappearance and presumed kidnaping of the sexy Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) from a rest stop in France. After finally coming to the conclusion that his companion isn’t coming back with snacks, Rex (Gene Bervoets) immediately makes all of the Stations of the Cross in his search for clues and possible witnesses. The police don’t think he’s crazy, but the passage of time makes it increasingly less likely that something will materialize. It’s no mystery to us who abducted Saskia, but director George Sluizer is in no hurry to enlighten us as to the fiend’s motivations or if she’s dead or alive. It isn’t until three years later that the kidnapper, Ray (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), begins to taunt her still-obsessed and desperately searching boyfriend by inviting him to meet in villages not far from the highway. As The Vanishing evolves, it becomes clear that Ray is a sociopath incapable of empathy or anything else resembling genuine emotion. His blank personality becomes the most troubling aspect of the movie. Unlike a psychopath who get his kicks from dressing up like clown and luring his victims to a place where they can be tortured, killed and buried – and, when caught, insist that he’s innocent – the sociopathic is only interested in keeping the victims in play. He knows that Rex can’t be free of anxiety until he learns the truth about Saskia’s disappearance and the perpetrator derives his kicks by revealing only one harrowing detail at a time. We can’t turn away from the truth any more than Rex can stop asking questions. The supplemental features on the digitally restored disc include an original trailer for the film; new video interviews with the Dutch director, who died last month, and Johanna ter Steege; and a leaflet with an essay by critic Scott Foundas. Left pretty much unmentioned is Sluizer’s regrettable American remake, which was released four years later and starred Jeff Bridges, Keifer Sutherland and Sandra Bullock. The same critics who loved the original hated the remake.

If Siddharth is more terrifying than The Vanishing, it’s because the missing character is a child and the terrible things that can happen to a young boy in India seem even crueler to us than death. It became impossible for me to keep the awful cliché about the cheapness of life in impoverished countries from popping into my head while watching Richie Mehta’s heartbreaking drama. But, in effect, that’s exactly what the father, Mehendra (Rajesh Tailang) is told by almost everyone he meets on his search for 12-year-old Siddharth. Against his wife’s wishes for the boy to attend school, Mehendra had allowed the boy to work in a factory in a faraway town where children with small fingers apparently are in high demand. Halfway through his temporary assignment, Siddharth leaves the factory to collect food and vanishes into thin air. His parents aren’t informed of his disappearance until a week later and all inquiries by phone are greeted with an annoyed dismissal of what might have happened to him. Mehendra barely makes a living as a “chain-wallah” – a zipper repairman — soliciting business in the teeming streets of Delhi with a megaphone. It ain’t much, but having a job that’s slightly better than nothing is a better option than watching your family starve to death. The local police do their best to help Mehendra, but, absent any photograph of Siddharth, their task is virtually impossible. Friends and in-laws happily lend him the money to travel to the city where he is son was working, but the owner’s best advice is “have another son and leave me alone.” A fellow worker points him to a place called Dongril, where runaways are sent, but no one he meets has heard of it. At a children’s shelter, he’s matter-of-factly told, “There are so many missing children this time of year. It’s a big business. It feeds the organ trade, sex trade, child labor.” No one even bothers with the useless platitude, “Don’t worry, he’ll turn up sooner or later.” Not being conversant with the Internet, it isn’t until he reaches Mumbai that a woman he meets pulls out her cellphone and does a Google search for him. Yup, there it is. Mehta shot Siddharth on location in Dehli and Mumbai, using “real” people as background characters and places not on the tourist map for scenery. It’s a remarkable movie, accessible to anyone with a heart. The DVD includes a lengthy making-of featurette, as well as piece on the creation of the musical soundtrack.

The Reckoning
Apparently, the first place Australian politicians look when they need to make budget cuts is its film industry, which lives and dies by the generosity of taxpayers. That it took another big hit recently comes as especially bad news for fans of crime thrillers and horror, for which the resident filmmakers excel. The most remarkable thing about The Reckoning for non-Aussies is a cast that includes Jonathan LaPaglia and Luke Hemsworth, whose brothers Anthony and Chris are far better known to American audiences. LaPaglia plays a Perth police detective whose partner has been killed and the only clue to the assailant is contained on video chip he snatches from the cop’s coat. It appears to link the victim to an unsolved hit-and-run case a year earlier that left a young woman dead. Several more people die in the course of the investigation, each crime scene producing another video chip. In the meantime, the teenagers who made the videos have disappeared, as well. John V. Soto’s film combines elements of both the police-procedural and found-footage subgenres to good, if not surprising effect. Fans of Australian movies might also find it noteworthy that The Reckoning is the third project in which top-shelf actresses Viva Bianca and Hannah Mangan Lawrence have been paired. Anyone who has enjoyed their work in X: Night of Vengeance and Spartacus isn’t likely to forget them.

Free Fall: Blu-ray
Tacoma-native Jenny Butler has come a relatively long way since starring in the 2010 remake of I Spit on Your Grave and 2008 Syfy epic Flu Bird Horror (a.k.a., “Flu Birds”). She did a nice job in the Majorca-set psycho-thriller, The Stranger Within, opposite William Baldwin and Estella Warren, so, someday, one of her movies might go straight-to-theaters, instead of straight-to-DVD. In Free Fall, she plays a lithe and athletic corporate executive who gets ready for a hard 10 or 11 hours at work by practicing her kick-boxing skills at the gym … you know the type. Upon arriving at work, Jane learns that her mentor just committed suicide by jumping out of a window in the high-rise building. Without missing a beat, her boss (Malcolm McDowell) anoints Jane the man’s successor, complete with a corner office. While boxing up his property, she discovers a thumb drive containing enough evidence of corruption to send her boss to prison. Her naiveté prompts her to confide in the nervous fellow in another glass-walled office. He feigns interests, even as he alerts the boss’ ruthless henchman, Frank (D.B. Sweeney), of Jane’s discovery. As night falls on the nearly empty office building, Frank arrives to collect the evidence or, failing that, throw her out of the same window as her mentor. The game of cat-and-mouse game that follows mostly takes place in an elevator shaft, where Jane is stuck between floors inside the car and Frank is trying to shoot her from above. Yes, it’s ridiculous, but watching Jane writhe around the compartment in a tight, nearly-inappropriate-for-work skirt – dodging bullets and climbing the walls – is worth the price of rental. After doing this for about 45-minutes, she manages to escape from the hatch and battle her assailant on his own turf and her own terms. Conveniently, she’s better with her fists and feet, than he is with a handgun and silencer. How McDowell is roped into appearing in so many straight-to-DVD movies is a bigger mystery than anything in Free Fall.

A Coffee in Berlin: Blu-ray
Whoever coined the phrase, “Momma said there’d be days like this,” couldn’t possibly have anticipated Jan-Ole Gerster’s freshman feature, A Coffee in Berlin. In it, everything that could go wrong in the daily routine of an unambitious law-school dropout goes delightfully haywire. It begins for Niko (Tom Schilling) when his inability to commit to anything finally convinces his girlfriend that their relationship has hit a dead end. Everything he does from that point on, including ordering an ordinary cup of black coffee, ends in some kind of mini-disaster. His father has chosen this particular day to cut him off from the family teat and an encounter with a formerly fat high-school classmate turns into nightmare. Because Gerster’s approach is more Woody Allen than Three Stooges, his breezy depiction of Niko’s misfortunes frequently borders on the whimsical. As the nearly affectless young man slowly but surely comes to the realization that he’s lost control of his life, we weigh our sympathy with antipathy for such an unmotivated waste of God-given talent. Even better is the filmmaker’s willingness to take us along on Niko’s veritable tour of Berlin, which remains one the most diverse and intriguing places on the planet. No city looks more natural in black-and-white than Berlin, which probably continues to be a world capital for political and artistic extremism. When Niko comes to the conclusion of his day in a tavern that wouldn’t be out of place in a novel by Charles Bukowski, we feel the weight of a century of bad Germanic mojo crashing down on his shoulders. A lively jazz soundtrack by the Major Minors is another highlight of A Coffee in Berlin (a.k.a., “Oh Boy”). Comedies from Germany don’t come along all that often, so you have to grab the good ones when you can.

One Day Pina Asked …
Shown on Belgian television in 1983 as “On Tour With Pina Bausch,” this tantalizing meeting of exceedingly innovative and experimental minds didn’t find its way to New York until 1989, before disappearing into the ether. Chantal Akerman had followed choreographer Pina Bausch and her Tanzteater Wuppertal around Europe for five weeks and One Day Pina Asked … captures her approach to dance not only on stage but also in intimidate glances behind the curtain and interviews. Contemporary dance has never been everyone’s cup of tea, but its devotees are loyal and enthusiastic. This performance film serves as a wonderful celebration of the creative process in two collaborative arts and artists who prefer to work outside the mainstream. In 2009, Bausch would begin working with German filmmaker Wim Wenders on the 3D documentary, Pina. Distraught after Bausch’s death early in the production process, Wenders had to be coaxed into completing the project by her dancers. The film, which debuted at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival, did surprisingly well in its U.S. run. Among the works represented in One Day Pina Asked … are excerpts from “Come Dance with Me,” “Carnations,” “Walzer” and “1980.”

Satellite
Like a lightweight version of Breathless or Badlands, Jeff Winner’s Satellite follows a pair of New York yuppies as they extend their meet-cute moment into a long weekend of committing several petty crimes and, later, one serious theft that provides the story’s narrative backbone. Possibly made as long ago as 2003, but only shown three years later at a film festival, Satellite wasn’t able to able to parley positive reviews in the New York Times and Slant into a limited or straight-to-DVD release. Or, maybe it was the scathing Village Voice review that sealed its fate. In any case, Karl Geary and Stephanie Szostak play Kevin and Ro, successful young urban professionals who, bump into each other in a bar and immediately fall in love. After staring at the stars from a rooftop for a couple of hours, they simultaneously reveal a desire for doing something more dramatic in life than getting an annual 4 percent raise. After taking an early powder from an important meeting at his marketing firm, Kevin decides to act out a fantasy that might have originated at a revival-house showing of the aforementioned films by Terrence Malick and Jean-Luc Godard. After rushing to rescue Ro from a really bad morning at her advertising agency, the couple hops a train for Upstate New York, where his relatives live. Among other things, they steal a motorcycle and go on spree that results in Ro actualizing a latent shoplifting fetish. A fit of jealousy on Ro’s part nearly derails the whole adventure, but they end up quitting their jobs and sampling the kind of Bohemian lifestyle that rarely works without patrons, trust funds or health insurance, none of which they possess. The greater crime, which shall remain unspoiled, provides Satellite with a neatly contrived ending. On the plus side, Winner’s film makes terrific use of its New York settings and a budget that probably was afforded by maxed-out credit cards. I’m surprised that the French-born Szostak, especially, hasn’t enjoyed a more fulfilling career than bit parts in movies and a lead role in a failed USA sitcom. Ditto, the Dublin native, Geary. Despite his early promise, Winner hasn’t done anything IMDB-worthy in the meantime.

The Last Sentence
The recent death of the Washington Post’s longtime newsroom leader, Ben Bradlee, prompted some of us in the newspaper game to wonder if the era of the uncompromising and occasionally even heroic editor-in-chief had come and gone in his lifetime. Before World War II, newspapers were frequently looked upon as ancillary wings of a political party or philosophy. When the scourge of segregation and Jim Crow politics could no longer be ignored, some editors realized that the time to speak out had come and pushed not only for expanded coverage of the civil-rights protests, but also editorialize against institutional racism. The practice of “speaking truth to power” was extended to include impartial coverage of the anti-war, women’s liberation and black-power movements, and the writing of forceful editorials defending human rights and protecting the Constitution from corruption and overreaching public officials. Today, of course, only a small handful of American newspapers take stands on anything more controversial than urging people to vote every so often. There’s no reason for anyone outside of Europe to recognize the name, Torgny Segerstedt, but neither is there a good reason for allowing that unfamiliarity to prevent film and history buffs from seeing Jan Troell’s moving tribute to the Swedish journalist, The Last Sentence.

The editor of the Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning (GHT) was one of very few people in power, who, in 1933, took Adolf Hitler seriously enough to consider how his political ascension might impact Europe and its people. The Nazi Party had just become the largest elected party in the German Reichstag and Hitler was duly appointed chancellor. Rather than dismiss this funny-looking man as a tinhorn, single-term politician, Segerstedt (Jesper Christensen) understood Hitler’s potential for becoming a threat not only to German Jews and the country’s democracy, but also to countries that couldn’t defend themselves against a superior military force or then-popular fascist beliefs. He knew that his editorials had ruffled feathers in Germany when Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering sent a telegram to the Swedish prime minister declaring that any more such editorials would upend Germany’s “good will” toward Sweden. The newspaper, including Norwegian illustrator Ragnvald Blix, would continue beating the anti-Nazi drum for the next 12 years, even after Sweden officially declared its neutrality and Germany honored it, very conditionally. If government censors demanded the removal of an article or editorial, the space was simply left blank. The message wasn’t lost on readers.

Troell is something of a one-man band, in that he frequently serves as director, cinematographer, editor and writer. He specializes in historical dramas, such as The Emigrants, The New Land, Zandy’s Bride and, most recently, Everlasting Moments. Working from a biography by Kenne Fant and screenplay by Klaus Rifbjerg, Troell was able to add two other significant through-lines in his profile of the crusading editor. The most prominent chronicles Segerstedt’s marriage to Puste Segerstedt (Ulla Skoog) and their less-than-secret relationship with close friends Maja and Axel Forssman (Pernilla August, Bjorn Granath), who, respectively, were his mistress and publisher. As difficult as the affair was to pull off logistically, it was further complicated by Segerstedt’s deep theological roots, which caused him great emotional turmoil, even to the point of being visited by ghosts. Throw in the period-evoking black-and-white images and protagonist’s ever-dour demeanor and there are times in The Last Sentence when I thought I might have stepped into an Ingmar Bergman retrospective. At 126 minutes, the Swedish-language picture won’t be many Americans’ cup of tea. For those whose curiosity is piqued by the description here, however, The Last Sentence should prove extremely satisfying. The DVD includes an interesting making-of featurette by Troell’s daughter, Johanna.

Premature
If Paul and Chris Weitz had come up with idea that led to Groundhog Day, instead of Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis, American Pie might have looked a lot like Premature … only funnier. It’s possible that writer/director Dan Beers (FCU: Fact Checkers Unit) hadn’t seen those pictures before sitting down to pen Premature, but only if he’d been in a North Korea prison for the last 20 years. Given only this much information about Beers’ debut feature, most regular filmgoers could figure out that a high school boy about to lose his virginity is forced to relive the portion of his day that doesn’t include sealing the deal, over and over and over, again. Once the initial shock over his daily predicament wears off, Rob (John Karna), takes a page from Bill Murray’s book by slowly, but surely working out a strategy that will satisfy his carnal urges and put an end to his problems. Complicating Rob’s dilemma is the appointment he needs to keep with the recruiter from his parents’ alma mater and a jones he has for one of his teachers, who is far too sexy to be teaching post-pubescent children. But, that’s off the point. Unlike Murray’s weatherman and his alarm clock, Rob’s day begins with his mom walking in on him immediately after he experiences a wet dream. Eventually, he figures out that when things begin to go sideways in his day, all he has to do come within a few short strokes of ejaculating and a new one begins. Fortunately, too, Rob’s parents are as understanding of their son’s need to “relieve” himself occasionally as was Jim’s dad, immortalized by Eugene Levy, in American Pie. Beers isn’t yet in the same league as Ramis or the Weitzes, and may never be, so viewers shouldn’t be too disappointed if Premature falls short of their films. What it does have going for it is a cast whose enthusiasm, across the board, radiates from the screen. Stereotypical teen characters don’t get in the way of the kids we’re encouraged to like and the adults aren’t cut from cardboard. The DVD adds several interviews, an alternate ending and commentary.

Real Heroes
Parodies of reality-television shows are about as common these days as found-footage thrillers and Groundhog Day clones (see Premature review, above). Most will be of interest only to friends and families of the cast and crew. Some, however, are spunky enough to fight their way through the crowd and find an audience drawn to campy low-budget comedies. If Keith Hartman’s Real Heroes is guilty of anything, it’s stealing the template previously cut for “Big Brother,” “The Real World” and “Bad Girls Club,” all of which have become parodies of themselves, by now. I’m not sure if Hartman is as interested in skewering the reality genre here, as he is commenting on a culture that’s more obsessed with comic-book superheroes than fighting for affordable health care or putting crooked bankers and politicians in jail. With all of the Marvel and DC characters already booked for projects of their own, Real Heroes arranged an open call for Los Angeles-area residents who have convinced themselves that they’re superheroes and embody noble characteristics 24/7. The producers of the show hope to enlist a cross-section of “actors,” so as to attract an audience not limited to straight white men and women, between 24 and 45. Among the finalists are Sable, a single mom trying to juggle crime fighting, a moody teenage daughter and a waitressing job; Big Shot and Blue Arrow, macho marksmen struggling with their recent breakup; Malibu Action Girl, a spoiled African-American whose Daddy buys her all the weapons and action figures she wants; Psychic Sam, who somehow knows exactly when to dodge bullets and arrows; Water Warrior, a buff beach boy who’s rarely without his tiny goldfish bowl; and Rick & Josh, former teen superheroes trying to put their past behind them. To help entice viewers, Sable’s daughter is reluctantly recruited to play a superhero named Vixen, who fights evil alongside her mom but is more interested sparking with a female fan. The longer the characters remain in the headquarters dormitory, the more entertaining they become. Their superpowers are tested when a Nazi SS zombie and his truly bizarre female posse invade the property, revealing a spinoff project, “Real Villains.” Yes, Real Heroes is every bit as silly and anarchic as it sounds, but in a way that only low-budget DIY flicks can be. The inclusion of comic-book bumpers between scenes helps take the pressure off of the characters and there are plenty of bonus features to keep fans happy.

Documentaries
Mona Lisa Is Missing
OK, students, raise your hand if you can tell me who, in 1911, stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. No one. OK, how many of you know that it was stolen? (Hint: it wasn’t Marlon Brandon’s mob boss, Carmine Sabatini, as alleged in The Freshman.) No problem. Until he was 25, neither did the writer/director of the delightful investigative documentary, Mona Lisa Is Missing. Joe Medeiros, a comedy writer on Jay Leno’s staff, knew a good story when he heard one, though, and began to research what might have been the crime of the century, if it weren’t for Bruno Richard Hauptmann and O.J. Simpson. Then, as now, the Mona Lisa (a.k.a., La Gioconda) was the most famous painting in the world and likely the most valuable. The theft made headlines around the planet and gargantuan rewards were offered … no questions asked. Because they were known to have purchased artifacts stolen from the museum by a friend, artist Pablo Picasso and poet Guillaume Apollinaire were, briefly, considered prime suspects. As became clear two years later, the real culprit was quite a bit less interesting than Apollinaire, Picasso or Brando. After learning of the theft, Madeiros decided to learn as much as he could about Vincenzo Peruggia, the Italian immigrant who was responsible for the heist. He was working inside the Louvre as a laborer at the time and simply took advantage of a scarcity of staff on the museum’s closed day. Rather than lay out the entire caper here, I recommend taking advantage of Medeiros’ thorough research and pick up a copy of Mona Lisa Is Missing. He was even able to enlist Peruggia’s daughter, Celestina, and grandchildren Silvio and Graziella, in his quest. The documentary benefits mightily from the filmmaker’s visits to Paris, Florence and Peruggia’s quaint hometown of Dumenza, as well as court transcripts and competing theories on the theft. The DVD adds deleted scenes, outtakes, commentary and a dozen featurettes, which, in all, are longer than the film, itself.

Who Shot My Father?
Zubin and I
One reason that political and military thrillers are so popular, I think, is a shared belief that almost nothing our government tells us about affairs of state is completely true … truthy, maybe, but not the truth. Aaron Sorkin pretty much nailed it in his screenplay for A Few Good Men, when Jack Nicholson’s Col. Nathan R. Jessup tells Tom Cruise’s Lt. Daniel Kaffee, “You can’t handle the truth!” Forty-one years after Israeli Air Force Attaché Colonel Joe Alon was murdered on the driveway of his suburban Maryland home, his orphaned daughters have yet to be told the truth about the case, which was pretty much closed before it even began, here and in Israel, Frustrated, angry and disillusioned, they finally decided to collect as much information as is currently available and interview as many people who might know something pertinent to the aborted investigation for the emotionally charged documentary, Who Shot My Father? Alon was a true Israeli hero who helped write the playbook on desert aerial warfare. If he had a noticeable fault, it was that he drank too much and it loosened his lips. Among the likely suspects are Black October operatives, Israeli or American intelligence agents, a jealous husband and organized crime under the auspices of any of the above interests. No murder weapon was left behind and no one took credit for the attack. Key evidence disappeared from FBI files and records made available to the women under the FOIA were redacted to the point of being worthless. Henry Kissinger’s fingerprints are all over place, as well. That theory is almost too far out to believe, unless one recalls other horrors he perpetrated in the name of freedom and democracy. An American investigator has offered a counter-theory to the murder, involving an unnamed Palestinian assassin, but Alon’s daughters don’t give it much credence here. After 40 years, it’s time for the game of spy-versus-spy to end and the truth to be revealed. I think we can handle it.

Also from niche distributor SISU Home Entertainment comes Zubin Mehta: Zubin and I, Ori Sevan’s labor-of-love profile of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s widely acclaimed Music Director for Life. Sevan is best known here as co-creator of the original Israeli version of “In Treatment” and as a witness, if you will, in the animated post-war documentary Waltz With Bashir. “In Treatment” was the first original TV drama series from Israel to ever be sold for re-make in the U.S. – HBO – and it’s since been re-made in more than 20 countries. Zubin and I was made in 2010 as part of the HOT cable network’s “Israeli Culture Heroes” series, whose mission it is to examine its prominent subjects from a fresh angle. Mehta has conducted and performed with some of the world’s most renowned orchestras and served as music director for both the Los Angeles and New York Philharmonics. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra appointed Mehta its music advisor, in 1969; music director, in 1977; and Music Director for Life, in 1981. Sivan’s 2001 “Behind the Strings” was based on interviews with his grandmother, Klari Sarvash, the first and longtime harpist of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Although Mehta took over after she retired, Sarvash is an influential presence in Zubin and I. In it, Sevan spends time with the maestro driving around Tel Aviv and chatting before rehearsals. He also joins the orchestra on a tour of his hometown of Mumbai – then, Bombay — and sits with Mehta for two more formal interviews, during which he discusses his musical roots and his deep connection to Israel.

Running From Crazy
In 1988, a smallish independent drama, The Suicide Club, snuck in and out of theaters, without making much of an impression on audiences or critics. That it starred Mariel Hemingway, whose grandfather had famously killed himself two decades earlier, was an irony not lost on those who may have considered seeing the movie. At the time, six members of the Hemingway clan had taken their own lives. Margaux, would die soon thereafter from a drug overdose and their oldest sister, Joan “Muffet” Hemingway, still live in a group home near the family compound in Idaho. Unlike the so-called Kennedy curse, which is a media fabrication but mentioned here, anyway, the Hemingway curse is traceable to a propensity for mental illness and alcoholism, either one of which could lead to severe depression and suicide. Coping with the family curse, while working hard to keep herself and her daughters from becoming its next victim, is the subject of Mariel’s punishingly reflective, Running From Crazy. At 100 minutes, Running From Crazy naturally spends a great deal of time examining the highs and lows of growing up among people who knew something was wrong with them, but might not have wanted or been able to change the direction of their lives. She’s candid about her personal issues and downright bubbly about her efforts to educate people suffering from similar problems and promoting a pro-active approach to physical and mental health. It was directed by two-time Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple, with Oprah Winfrey serving as the executive producer and audience wrangler.

Bound by Flesh
Modern medicine and the widespread availability of abortions have combined to nearly eliminate the supply of talent to midway attractions and niche “museums” that once flourished by showcasing freaks of nature. Even well into the last century, however, these shows remained extremely popular. Some of the unfortunate performers, at least, became rich and famous, while those who didn’t prosper helped make a fortune for someone else. Had they been born 100 years later than they were, conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton would not have been sold to an abusive tavern owner for exhibition in a back room or be forced to sit back and watch as the only career they ever had went out of vogue. Because they shared no major organs, it’s likely that they would have undergone a relatively safe procedure to separate them soon after birth. Of course, had the girls survived the then-risky operation, they wouldn’t have performed alongside such major stars as Bob Hope and Charlie Chaplin; made and blown a fortune while touring the globe; appeared in Todd Browning’s cult classic, Freaks, in non-exploitative roles; or had their stories told on screen and stage. Indeed, as we learn in Leslie Zemeckis’ fascinating bio-doc, Bound by Flesh, when Daisy and Violet were offered an opportunity to be separated under safe conditions, they turned it down. There’s much more to Zemeckis’ impeccably researched film, including how their real or bogus attempts to be legitimately married were thwarted by self-righteous officials, and how a North Carolina town came to adopt the sisters when they were ripped off and abandoned by their tour manager. The film is informed by much archival material, interviews and newsreel footage that demonstrates some of the talents they acquired along the way. As such, Bound by Flesh also stands as a modern history of traveling carnivals, sideshows, burlesque, vaudeville and American attitudes toward people with serious birth defects. (One thing for sure, the era of the sideshow “tattooed lady” is long gone. You can find as many outrageously inked women in a Hollywood supermarket today than there were in the entire history of freak shows.)

TV-to-DVD
BBC/A&E: Miss Marple: Volume One: Blu-ray
Masterpiece Mystery: Death Comes to Pemberley: Blu-ray
PBS: How We Got to Now With Steven Johnson
(Impractical) Jokers: The Complete Second Season
The Exes: Seasons 1 & 2
In 1986, when British audiences tuned into the BBC to watch “Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple,” starring the estimable Joan Hickson, they were well aware of two things. One, that the author had once personally encouraged the actor to pursue playing “my dear Miss Marple.” And, second, that fellow fan Queen Elizabeth II would almost certainly be watching the same episode of the mystery series as they were. (In 1987, HRM would award Hixson the Order of the British Empire.) The newly re-mastered Blu-ray collection is comprised of “Murder at the Vicarage,” “The Body in the Library,” “The Moving Finger” and “A Murder is Announced.” All four stories were shot entirely on location and feature appearances by Cheryl Campbell, Samantha Bond, Sylvia Syms and Ralph Michael. This being the first volume, viewers can expect several more hi-def collections to pop up in the foreseeable future.

Currently showing on many PBS affiliates is the “Masterpiece Mystery” production of “Death Comes to Pemberley,” based on P.D. James’ sequel to Jane Austen’s beloved “Pride and Prejudice.” The sparkling new Blu-ray disc contains the original UK cut of the three-part series, which makes good use of several Yorkshire landmarks, including Castle Howard, Hardcastle Crags, Chatsworth House, Stang End Cottage, St. William’s College and Derbyshire’s Chatsworth House. The story picks up six years after Austen’s novel left off. Not everything is copacetic in the opulent estate of Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Darcy (Matthew Rhys, Anna Maxwell Martin), but an uneasy peace pervades on the eve of the family’s annual Lady Anne ball. Early arriving guests are relaxing after dinner when a carriage comes rushing up the entrance to the mansion with a hysterical Lydia Bennett screaming all the way. The best friend of Fitzwilliam’s nemesis, George Wickham (Matthew Goode), was shot and killed when an argument spilled from the carriage into the woods, but it isn’t clear if the handsome rogue was responsible for it. In addition to this mystery, we’re also treated to one of a marital variety when Georgiana Darcy is ordered by her brother to choose between love and family obligation on the way to the altar. It’s a lot of fun, but anyone unfamiliar with “Pride and Prejudice” is strongly advised to watch one of the many film adaptations or spend a couple of days reading the novel before jumping head-first into it.

The conceit behind PBS’s enlightening “How We Got to Now With Steven Johnson” is that ideas, discoveries and happy accidents, no matter how seemingly insignificant at the time of their appearance, are like acorns that grow into mighty oaks and are recycled throughout the greater eco-system by researchers and consumers, alike. The titles of the first six hour-long episodes – “Clean,” “Time,” “Glass,” “Light,” “Cold,” “Sound” — only tease what will be revealed by the host. Unlike almost everyone else in PBS’ educational series, Johnson is an American author who focuses on popular science and media theory. The series is adapted from his ninth book, “How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World.” Employing a casual homespun approach to complex subject matter, Johnson pretty much serves the show as a human Internet search engine. In effect, all he does is put a concept into the subject line and hits enter. Then, he sorts through myriad links and finds the ones that will take him from Point A to Point Z, with stops on every letter in between. For instance, “Clean” takes us from the creation of Chicago’s sewer system, the first urban system in America, to the growth of household cleaning products like Clorox and the hyper-sanitized plants where microchips are made. In some parts of the world, water remains as hazardous to drink as it was in the Windy City, when raw sewage clogged the Chicago River and flowed into Lake Michigan. Reversing the river’s eastward flow would inevitably lead to the massive Deep Tunnel project, which effectively does the same thing, except at a far greater volume. Among PBS’s other DVD offerings this week are “Cook’s Country: Season 7,” with terrific new takes on time-tested recipes and tips from host Christopher Kimball and the chefs from America’s Test Kitchen, and “Craft in America: Service.” Now in its sixth season, it is the story of craft and the military, from the origins of the Army Arts and Crafts Program and the G.I. Bill to contemporary soldiers and veterans. Among other things, it demonstrates how a no-nonsense approach to cooking the American repertoire has turned bad grub into great food.

For some reason, “(Impractical) Jokers: The Complete Second Season” appears on the heels of last month’s third-season finale, instead of as a teaser for a new stanza of fresh programming. The popular Tru TV show combines traditional hidden-camera conceits with practical jokes of a most sophomoric variety, in that they’re intended to embarrass the perpetrator as much as the victims. Here, however, the prankster is at the mercy of pals, who are gathered behind the hidden camera pulling his strings. Each cast-member is given a shot at getting his target to participate in the gag before he breaks character with hysterical laughter. If you’ve ever enjoyed watching an innocent bystander slipping on a banana peel or attempting to pick up a dollar bill affixed to a sidewalk, this is the show for you. While some of the reactions to the gags are undeniably humorous, the effect is overwhelmed by the braying laughter of the three guys feeding lines to their friend via microphone (with an earpiece).

Until 2010, the folks at TV Land appeared content to repackage repeats of classic and far-less-than-classic shows from the annals of television history. Many of the titles had been shown so often that it was the rare viewer who hadn’t already memorized the dialogue. As the TV-to-DVD business began to hit its stride, with complete-series packages, the need for such a cable service diminished greatly. When its first

foray into original scripted programming struck gold with “Hot in Cleveland,” its formula was borrowed to create other new shows. All feature stars from a landmark series, who appeal most to Baby Boomer audiences and are paired with attractive unknowns. Among the re-tread actors are Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, Wendie Malick, Betty White, Fran Drescher, George Segal, Jessica Walter, Rhea Perlman, Kirstie Alley, Michael Richards and Cedric the Entertainer. Not all of the shows found an audience, but several are enjoying long runs. “The Exes was built around such known factors as Kristen Johnston (“3d Rock From the Sun”), Wayne Knight (“Seinfeld”) and Donald Faison (“Scrubs”) and relative unknowns David Alan Basche and Kelly Stables. In it, a divorce attorney (Johnston) allows three of her male clients to share a large apartment in the New York flat that she owns. They, of course, possess wildly divergent personalities and quirks, but share an interest in getting back into the dating game. Their attorney is so busy with her work that she neglects her sex life. When this happens, she remedies the situation by binging with her perky blond assistant (Stables), who is 4-11 to her boss’ 6-foot, out of heels. Besides this running sight gag, a steady stream of one-show bimbettes flows through the guys’ apartment, where the men continually display the deficiencies that led to their divorces in the first place. Frankly, I was surprised by how entertaining it is. NBC should be so lucky to have TV Land’s lineup.

Holiday TV-to-DVD
A Belle for Christmas
Cartoon Network: Holiday Collection
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer: 50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition
A King Family Christmas: Classic Television Specials, Volume 2
Coincidentally or otherwise, Dean Cain and Kristy Swanson have appeared together recently in several made-for-TV and direct-to-DVD movies, usually of the PG, family-friendly variety. Swanson has also co-starred with Charlie Sheen three times, although I don’t see any connection there with Cain, whose fans include followers of “Lois & Clark,” “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!,” “Bloopers” and the faith-based blockbuster, God’s Not Dead. A Belle for Christmas is the latest in a series of canine-centric movies in which Cain has appeared, sometimes with Swanson. Here, he plays a recent widower and father of two precocious pre-teens, who fall in love with the idea of adopting a puppy for Christmas. Swanson plays the woman, a voluptuous baker, who wants to fill his ex-wife’s shoes – and steal her jewelry – for the holidays. Her Achilles heel is being allergic to dogs, especially this one. Her true colors are revealed when she dog-naps Belle and makes up a story for the man who runs the local dog pound. Needless to say, the kids stay two steps ahead of their dad throughout most of A Belle for Christmas and a merry one is had by all … except the woman who would have been the wicked stepmother. That’s one stereotype, at least, that will never disappear. Haylie Duff also plays a strategic role in the story, as the manager of a dog-rescue shelter and a potential love interest to Cain if there’s a sequel.

Anyone who cares to measure the distance between holiday specials, then and now, can do so in “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer: 50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition” and “Cartoon Network: Holiday Collection.” Although it may look primitive to older viewers, even in its Blu-ray iteration, it’s worth remembering that the stop-motion animation on display in the former set the standard for an entire generation of filmmakers to come. Burl Ives narrates as Sam the Snowman, telling and singing the story of a rejected reindeer who overcomes prejudice and, once again, saves Christmas. Even if the hi-def presentation reveals some of the seams in the creation process, it isn’t likely that kids will notice anything but the time-honored characters. The Cartoon Network package advances the clock on the evolution of animation 50 years forward, with shows and characters that are on the cutting edge of hip family entertainment. The DVD is comprised of two “Adventure Time” episodes and an episode each of “Regular Show” and “The Amazing World of Gumball.” The bonus material adds the non-holiday-specific “Money Broom Wizard” episode of “Clarence” and a “Steven Universe” episode called “Together Breakfast.”

Just as telling are the holiday presentations resurrected for “A King Family Christmas: Classic Television Specials, Volume 2.” The two-DVD set contains their syndicated Thanksgiving and Christmas specials from 1967; a reunion Christmas special in 1974; and a sentimental retrospective made for PBS in 2009. For better or worse, the King clan and Up With People pretty much represented the kind of super-sanitized fare that passed for family entertainment in the 1960-70s. Eventually, Up With People would be unmasked for its cult-like practices, but the King Family and its occasional spinoff acts still attract viewers. Except for the Lawrence Welk reruns on PBS, there’s nothing quite like the spirited musical performances and dance routines contributed to the popular culture by the Kings. The DVD adds two bonus Christmas episodes from the 1965 series, “The King Family Show.”