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

Thursday, October 1st, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 24th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Are Kings
Theresa Is a Mother

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The DVD Wrapup: Boulevard, D Train, Gemma Bovary, Good Kill, Felt, Aquarius, Haven and more

Friday, September 4th, 2015

Boulevard: Blu-ray
The D Train: Blu-ray
For most of the last 20 years of Robin Williams’ life and career, his most objective fans came to agree with critics that his best work could be found in dramas and comedies in which he wasn’t required to act like a tragic clown or impersonate a cocaine-fueled Mork From Ork on talk shows. The Academy Award Williams received for his supporting role in Good Will Hunting was as much an acknowledgment of his ability to play against type as it was a reward for legitimately excellent work. (Burt Reynolds’ nomination for Boogie Nights, also in 1998, was considered in much the same light.) It would be followed by a series of roles in the movies and on television in which he played sociopaths and loners we couldn’t help but pity. With the exception of the Night at the Museum installments, few of his later movies attracted large audiences. Although serious personal problems and depression would finally take their toll on Williams, he was always a welcome guest on talk shows and supporting actor in other actors’ star vehicles. Depending on whom one believes, Boulevard was Williams’ final film. In it, he plays 60-year-old bank employee, Nolan Mack, whose low-key attention to detail at work belies an extremely messy private life. Just as Nolan’s about to be promoted to the position he probably deserved 20 years earlier, he finds himself in the kind of situation that could nullify all of the respect he’d earned in the interim, and possibly destroy his sexless marriage to Joy (Kathy Baker). One night, after making an excuse for leaving home, Nolan finds himself on a street where elderly johns cruise for barely legal male prostitutes. Accidentally on purpose, he picks up a handsome trick and takes him to a no-tell motel. Instead of having sex, Nolan only asks of Leo (Roberto Aguire) that he take off a few articles of clothing and share some therapeutic small talk. It’s at this moment that the closet in which he’s been living for an undetermined amount of time crashes in on the unprepossessing loan officer, threatening to crush Joy and alienate him from his closest friend (Bob Odenkirk). Although we’re given hope that Nolan’s fatherly advice and kindness will sink in, it’s likely that Leo will amount to a lost cause. Still, even in an 88-minute drama, there’s usually room for a miracle. In a very real sense, director Dito Montiel (A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints) and writer Douglas Soesbe (The Wrong Woman) have created a story whose closet-case dynamic lost its currency years ago, thanks to the evolution of Queer Cinema and the persistence of such indie distributors as Wolfe. Joy certainly suspected that her husband’s emotional absence at home was caused by something resembling a confusion of sexual identity and not from a lack of love for her. His closest male friend, a professor, is an understanding fellow, who wouldn’t have cared if Nolan had suddenly announced that he was grandmaster of this year’s Gay Pride Parade on Ork. Given time, the bank executive who recommended him for promotion, no matter his engrained mid-South prejudices, probably would have found more important things to worry about, as well. These glaring miscues, aside, Williams delivers an emotionally charged performance that nearly overcomes the anachronisms.

Ever since Jack Black broke into the spotlight some 15 years ago in HBO’s “Tenacious D: The Complete Master Works,” High Fidelity and Shallow Hal, the likable musician/actor has worked feverishly to remain in its direct glare. At 5-foot-6, it hasn’t always been easy to remain visible, but, in Hollywood, being short isn’t always the liability it is in, say, the NBA. Based on his oversized screen persona, alone, however, Black might have found a way to play in the same backcourt as “Spud” Webb or “Muggsy” Bogues, who are as short or shorter. Even without taking his lucrative voiceover work into consideration, it’s possible that, by now, he may have reached the point of overexposure and it’s beginning to backfire on him. His work alongside old pal Tim Robbins in HBO’s diplomatic sitcom, “The Brink,” demonstrates just how good he can be when the comic load is distributed equally. Robin Williams, Jim Carey and Bill Murray discovered at crucial turning points in their careers how difficult it can be to break out of the class-clown mold when your fans aren’t ready for it. Like Boulevard, the creation and release of The D Train might have made sense in the early- to mid-1990s, when Kevin Kline and Tom Selleck shocked moviegoers with a surprise kiss, in In & Out. Frank Oz and Paul Rudnick’s comedy was targeted for consumption by mainstream audiences who weren’t used to seeing gay characters that weren’t sexual predators, closet cases or AIDS casualties. It struck a chord with gay and straight audiences, in the same way as Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul’s The D Train might have, if it had come out in 1997. As it is, it grossed a pathetic $447,524 when it opened on last May on 1,009 screens. Black plays Daniel Landsman, the chairman of his high school class’ 20th reunion; husband to Stacey (the similarly ubiquitous Kathryn Hahn); and father to a teenage son who’s confused by the first unmistakable pangs of post-pubescent lust. In a truly unbelievable setup, Daniel convinces his boss (Jeffrey Tambor) at a computer business to take him along to Los Angeles on a sales trip, during which he hopes to convince a popular former classmate, Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), to come home for the reunion.

Having seen him on a national commercial as a spokes-model for a sunscreen manufacturer, Daniel assumes incorrectly that Oliver is swimming in money and will only need a bit of coaxing to be the reunion’s star attraction. Although they exist on opposite ends of the charisma spectrum, Oliver agrees to let Daniel’s company bankroll a night on the town. After experiencing Hollywood night life at its most decadent, he remains sufficiently star struck to readily accept the non-star’s hotel room overture. When morning arrives, they agree to treat the incident as if it were something as common as visit to the Chinese Theater and Walk of Fame. It begs a couple of questions that won’t be answered conclusively until moments before the closing credits roll and we’ve already endured the sight of Daniel making a complete fool of himself in spasms of unrequited jealousy. As great a comic actor as he is, though, Black is only able to keep the gag funny for a couple of minutes, before it collapses of its own weight. Except for a wickedly funny scene in which Oliver gives Daniel’s 14-year-son hideously bad advice on dating protocol, the cast of very good actor could sue Mogel and Paul for lack of creative support.

Gemma Bovery: Blu-ray
It seems like only yesterday when I reviewed the latest film adaptation of “Madame Bovary,” and, yet, it’s almost been a full month. Fortunately, almost all of the movies made from the malleable Flaubert classic have been extremely easy on the eyes, lush with beautiful French scenery and attractive actors playing interesting characters. Based on a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds, Gemma Bovary takes an altogether different approach to the same time-honored material. Set in a quaint village in Normandy, Anne Fontaine’s adaptation opens by introducing us to Martin, an obsessive Flaubert reader who left Paris seven years earlier with his wife to take over his father’s bakery. The hangdog romantic, Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini), can’t believe his good fortune when an English couple, Charlie and Gemma Bovery (Jason Flemyng, Gemma Arterton), moves into the vacant yuppie-bait property across the street from him. More closely resembling Roberto Benigni than Marcello Mastroianni, Jobert hopes to enchant Gemma with the heavenly aroma of baked goods. In his mind, it would make good on prophesy that he’s chosen to read into “Madame Bovary.” Every bit the friendly neighbor, Gemma allows Martin to get close enough to her to become intoxicated with her femininity, without also encouraging him to act on it. Like Emma, Gemma eases her boredom with her husband’s mundane pursuit of antiquities repair by entering into liaisons with younger, more delicious looking locals. Martin observes her pursuits from afar, knowing that something untoward is going to happen to someone very soon. Gemma Bovary may end in tragedy, but it retains enough of its graphic-novel edge to also provide some laughs and erotic sparks before the story is wrapped up in a satisfyingly literary fashion. The handsome Blu-ray presentation adds “In the Footsteps of Emma: The Making of ‘Gemma Bovery’”; “Master Class With Director Anne Fontaine”; and “From Page to Screen Graphic Novel Gallery.”

Good Kill: Blu-ray
The greatest philosophical debate of the 20th  Century involved the morality of dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when it might have been possible to negotiate a solution that didn’t require an invasion of the Japanese mainland, conceivably resulting in even more deaths, including those of Allied troops. From what we know now about the resolve of Japanese leaders to commit their countrymen to mass hara-kiri, rather than submit to unconditional surrender, that theory probably was accurate. It was the simultaneous invasion of Manchuria by 1.6 million Soviet troops and legitimate fear of a divided Japan that more likely sealed deal for the Allies. Then, too, evidence of the bombs’ ferocity might have convinced Stalin not risk a third world war by taking advantage of an Allied invasion of Japan to claim disputed territory nearer its borders. The term “collateral damage” wouldn’t come into favor militarily until the Vietnam War, when the Pentagon was required by the media to address criticism of the inordinate number of deaths and injuries to non-combatant adults and children. Publication of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel “Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death,” and its subsequent adaptation into film, provided a disturbing reminder to Americans that the mass slaughter of innocents wasn’t limited to Hiroshima and Nagasaki or, for that matter, to German death camps and Japanese P.O.W. facilities. After limiting media access to the front lines of the first Gulf War, Pentagon spokesmen tantalized reporters and producers with images of precision-guided munitions getting the job done without endangering civilians. By buying into the concept of a “The Nintendo War,” the media was conned into ignoring collateral damage caused to people who had the misfortune of living near targets deemed strategic by the architects of Operations Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom. In fact, the number of pin-point attacks was dwarfed by the use of traditional “dumb bombs,” cluster bombs and daisy-cutters. The use of combat drones in our continuing “war on terrorism” once again demands that we question why advanced weaponry hasn’t been able to reduce collateral damage and the accidental targeting of innocents. Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill penetrating drama does exact that.

By setting his vastly under-distributed film in Nevada, thousands of miles from the killing fields of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, Niccol demands of viewers that they consider aspects of the war left untouched in American Sniper, Lone Survivor and the post-torture sequences in Zero Dark Thirty. Those more or less conventional boots-on-the-ground thrillers did well at the box office, unlike Good Kill, whose paltry $316,472 return from 143 screens came despite excellent reviews and similar number of confirmed kills to enemy combatants. Ethan Hawke plays Major Thomas Egan, an Air Force fighter pilot assigned to Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle duty when demand for manned-aircraft missions dropped. Along with his veteran commander (Bruce Greenwood) and three other “pilots” – recruited because of their joystick skills, playing video games – Egan’s base of operation is an air-conditioned railroad freight container, filled with high-tech communications equipment and video monitors carrying images captured in real time by armed drones. The first kills we witness are of known terrorists, either outside buildings or in vehicles. None of the pilots are portrayed as being particularly bloodthirsty, even with their high-fives and “good kill” salutations. They try to avoid collateral damage and sound the alarm if a civilian enters the picture in the 8-10 seconds it takes to squeeze the trigger and observe the explosion caused by a precisely aimed missile. Forsaking their own comfort and sleep, the team provides cover for a patrol of soldiers in dire need of some shuteye halfway around the world. As soon as each shift is over, Egan hops into his muscle car and heads into Las Vegas for a beer or two. Rarely does he head straight home to his wife (January Jones) and kids. We’re given no reason to question the team’s devotion to duty or ethical integrity.

Niccol does a nice job establishing the juxtaposition between what the pilots do all day – or, to be more specific, where their attention is focused – and everyday life in a city, state and country whose citizens may assume that drones are controlled from ships or bases closer to the action. The media seems to pay attention only reporting the assassination of a U.S.-raised terrorist leader or the collateral damage includes children. It isn’t until the unit’s command is transferred to the CIA, in the form of the disembodied voice of Peter Coyote. Langley, as he’s known to unit members, demands in no uncertain terms that they now locate the targets he identifies and eliminate them with extreme prejudice. If non-combatants are in the vicinity when the terrorist is incinerated, it will be left to Allah to sort out the bodies. Neither is he concerned about how such an escalation might impact the team’s morale, religious beliefs and ethical code. It gets worse when Langley decides to borrow a page from the Iraqi insurgents’ handbook by ordering second attacks on targets where bodies are still being pulled from the rubble. While this goes against everything Egan and Airman Vera Suarez (Zoe Kravitz) entered the program to accomplish, their partners take the time-honored just-following-orders approach to collateral damage. Not surprisingly, by the time the movie’s dramatic ending rolls around, the collateral damage will include team members and their loved ones. Finally, the drone jockeys of Good Kill and Chris Kyle, in American Sniper, ask the same questions of themselves about their role in the war and the toll they’ve paid in a war that no longer has much to do with the events of 9/11. The Blu-ray includes “‘Good Kill’: Behind the Scenes.” Given recent events in ISIS-controlled Syria, I was left wondering why a well-directed drone – or three – couldn’t have prevented the destruction of ancient ruins at Palmyra.

Broken Horses
It isn’t often that a filmmaker as esteemed as Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) turns up in a trailer to introduce a picture made by a virtually unknown writer-director representing a cinema as foreign to Americans as Bollywood. Her he is, however, on one of the promotional pieces that pops up on the page for Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s contemporary noir Western, Broken Horses. And, while the sub-genre’s trademark singing and dancing are nowhere to be found, the multilayered storytelling and fantasy elements are there in abundance. So, too, are the parched landscapes and otherworldly vistas that so distinguished the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s. What’s missing in Chopra’s first English-language, quasi-Hollywood venture is the narrative logic that American audiences come to expect from traditional Westerns and, therein, lies the rub. Anton Yelchin plays Jacob, a cherubic young man who left the badlands along the lawless U.S./Mexican border years earlier to pursue a career as a classical violinist in New York City. Now, Jacob has returned to his hometown to alert his simple-minded brother, Buddy (Chris Marquette), of his impending marriage, an event the younger sibling has anticipated in his mind since they were separated. The difference between the two brothers is as ludicrous as it profound. Ever since he was conned into settling a score for a local crime boss, Julius Hench (Vincent D’Onofrio), Buddy has been intermittently employed as an assassin for cross-border entrepreneurs. No sooner does Jacob show up at the house built for him by his brother than Julius devises a scheme to dispose of a powerful Mexican rival. And, yes, it requires Buddy’s assistance. A seemingly simple executive gets infinitely more complicated by the unexpected appearance of Jacob’s porcelain-doll fiancé, Vittoria (María Valverde), who hasn’t heard from him about an important job offer for several days. Besides making Buddy giddy with happiness, Vittoria’s surprise visit gives the ruthless Julius a bit more leverage to use against the brothers if they decide to split for New York. Broken Horses is best when Chopra focuses on the atmospherics, attitude and bad-ass action. I still don’t completely understand what compelled Cuaron to testify in behalf of Broken Horses, but neither do I have any reason to doubt his sincerity. A making-of featurette explains how Chopra was able add a taste of Bollywood to the production, without spoiling the neo-Western broth. If nothing else, it’s nice to watch D’Onofrio chewing up the scenery, again.

The Chambermaid
The Lesson
Film Movement delivers again, with a pair of obscure new releases from Europe that showcase independent filmmaking at its most inventive and unexpected. Typically, any film with “chambermaid” in the title is going to be full of kinky sex involving women in sexy uniforms, not at all suited for household chores, and the occasional whip. There’s some of that in Ingo Haeb’s inventively kinky, if inarguably strange The Chambermaid (a.k.a., “The Chambermaid Lynn”), in which Vicky Krieps plays a decidedly plain-looking and excruciatingly shy maid in a German hotel frequented by business travelers. Lynn has mental problems of undetermined origin that prevented her from working for a while. She owes her return to the job to a supervisor, who only expects the occasional snog. In return, he gets the services of one of the most thorough and competent maids imaginable. Lynn even has time left over from her chores to try on the lingerie of female guests and hide under the beds of gentlemen when one returns earlier than expected. It’s a habit she adopts for personal amusement during her free time, as well. One day, while prone under king-size mattress, a male guest returns with a dominatrix, Chiara (Lena Lauzemis). Her androgynous look, even in the reflection provided by a mirror, so enchants the maid that she calls a number left behind in the room and books a date. The bond that develops between these two very different women is based on mutual need, as well as the emptiness at the core of their respective professions. Needless to say, The Chambermaid isn’t for everyone, if only because the pacing is resolutely patient and the sexuality isn’t intended for the titillation of male viewers. As gimmicks go, however, it’s not bad. As usual, the Film Movement package includes an interesting short film.

From Bulgaria comes Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov’s fable about what happens when a corrupted seed is planted in fertile ground and it grows into a tree that’s never as sturdy as it seems. In The Lesson, an extremely fragile looking teacher, Nadezhda (Margita Gosheva), starts her day with one small problem to mend, but, by its end, her dilemma has become something far more vexing. One of her pupils has stolen money from the knapsack of another child, but no one will ‘fess up to it. Nade will continue to test the students’ integrity, even as she’s required to deal with a financial mess of great significance caused by her irresponsible husband. Without her knowledge, he’s used money intended to pay the mortgage to buy and repair a bus he hopes to turn over for quick cash, if only he weren’t such a lousy mechanic. In fact, he’s missed enough payments to put the house in immediate risk of foreclosure. To come up with the money, Nade eventually will be reduced to begging, borrowing and, if necessary, stealing it. Meanwhile, a trap she’s set to reveal the thief among her students backfires on her, just as her plans to save her home begins to crumble at the most inconvenient time possible. It is well worth the investment in time it takes to discover if justice is served, in both cases, without thoroughly corrupting Neda.

Wolf Warrior: Blu-ray
Redeemer: Blu-ray
It takes a while before Wolf Warrior reveals itself to be the kind of post-Rambo recruitment tool for Special Forces wannabes as such film franchises as Delta Force, Sniper and Missing in Action. The rub here, however, comes in knowing that any recruiting to be done after watching Wolf Warrior will already have been done in China, where it was a big hit. American audiences must decide how good they’ll feel after cheering on a crack unit of People’s Liberation Army commandoes as they defend the PRC against a team of foreign mercenaries, led by a Brit with the unlikely name of Tom Cat. In his second test as a director, Beijing-born action star Wu Jing (Legendary Assassin) has assigned himself to the role of marksman Sergeant Leng Feng. Feng was jailed for disobeying an order in an operation designed to eliminate a drug lord hiding in a Southeast Asian jungle. While the mission was successful, Feng was thrown in jail for disobeying an order. When the drug lord’s successors unwisely decide to take their revenge during a training exercise, Feng is freed from prison to join the elite Wolf Warriors, a unit even CGI-animated wolves are given reason to dread. In an interesting twist, Yu Nan (The Expendables 2) plays the formidable female captain of the unit, who corresponds with her fighters via headphones from her all-seeing monitors at headquarters. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with modern Chinese cinema that there’s action aplenty – choreographed by Nicky Li Chung Chi (Rush Hour) – mostly of the jungle warfare variety, yet little need to justify narrative inconsistencies. Also noteworthy is the show of force put on by the Chinese military in support of the production. The Blu-ray offers the usual array of making-of assets.

From Chile, the 88-minute-long action flick Redeemer took me back to the early days of the Hong Kong martial-arts boom, when all an audience required of a movie was a hero, an evil crimelord and a small army of nunchaku-waving stiffs for the protagonist to destroy before eliminating the threat to mankind. In a sense, that’s all that has ever been required of a chop-socky picture in the post-Bruce Lee era. Somewhere along the way, however, audiences began to demand higher production values and technological proficiency, recognizable storylines, more charismatic protagonists and contemporary settings. Co-written and directed by genre specialist Ernesto Díaz Espinoza (Mandrill), all we’re given in the no-budget Redeemer is a human killing machine turned God-fearing vigilante, Pardo (Marko Zaror); a ruthless gringo druglord (Noah Segan); and a dozen or so cartel stooges for Pardo to demolish before eliminating the threat to mankind. The sole concession to plot embellishment is Pardo’s demand that his potential victims seek redemption before the lord to prevent their demise. They never do, though. That’s it. On the plus side, Zaror (Machete Kills) performs as advertised and the action is non-stop. There also are a few deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.

Unless one is familiar with performance art as a medium for self-expression, most of what passes for it in Felt will look pretty ridiculous. Inspired by the costume art and personal experiences of Amy Everson, Jason Banker’s follow-up to the award-winning Toad Road decries the horror genre’s “rape culture” and reliance on rape/revenge flicks. Playing a version of herself, Everson is struggling to cope not only with past sexual trauma, but also what she considers to be the daily aggressions of a male-dominated society. Amy wears a felt costume that makes her look like a robot in pajamas and a hoodie, except for the exaggerated male genitalia protruding from its fly. (There are other, less bizarre costumes, but none so on-the-nose as a militantly “feminist” statement.) Even Amy’s friends recognize how close to the edge she’s come, as she seeks shelter in the forest and appears to have found companionship with someone (Kentucker Audley), who theoretically, at least, represents the rape culture. Even as we wish them both the best, Amy goes off the deep end for good. Felt is as disturbing a movie as I’ve come across in a long time and I’ve seen a lot of straight-to-DVD, do-it-yourself genre flicks. This one, however, is informed by the personal life of a well-regarded experimental artist and up-and-coming writer/director. It’s possible that Felt was a homework assignment from Everson’s shrink.

Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World   
The name, H.R. Giger, might not ring a bell for newcomers to the horror/sci-fi genre, but it’s the rare buff who hasn’t come face-to-face with one or more of his horror-erotic nightmares. Before his death last year, at 74, the Swiss artist was known in and outside the genre for his surrealistic paintings, censored album covers and the creatures borrowed by Ridley Scott for the Alien franchise. His self-described “biomechanical” style often merged guns and other weaponry with the sex/birth/death cycle of humans and other of his humanoid creatures. Although he fits squarely within the borders of 20th Century surrealism, Belinda Sallin’s terrific documentary portrait, Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World, explores the influence this one-off artist had on rock musicians, production designers, sculptors, interior decorators, video game creators and tattoo artists throughout a career that rocked the counterculture in the same way that Ralph Steadman’s ink-blotch sketches did through exposure in Rolling Stone magazine. Because he suffered from night terrors, he kept an artist’s pad near his bed to illustrate his nightmares, at least one of which is said to have influenced the monsters in Aliens. Giger wasn’t strictly a recluse, but he feared flying and rarely left Switzerland. Sallin was able to spend a considerable amount of time inside Giger’s home, which could fill a season’s worth “Hoarders” episodes, and his fanciful mountain retreat. We meet friends, lovers and curators, along with the occasional death-metal musician whose body has been transformed into a living canvas for Giger’s art.

The Editor: Blu-ray
Morituris: Legions of the Dead: Blu-ray
Army of Frankensteins
Lost After Dark: Blu-ray
Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume 1
It isn’t as easy to parody a genre of films that so frequently appeared to be playing fast and loose with its own tropes and conventions. At first glance, the giallo titles exported from Italy in the 1970-80s would seem to be as easy to tweak as American beach-party and creature features from the 1960s. The degree of difficulty associated with sending up such grandmasters as Dario Bava and Dario Argento has kept a flood of imitators from inundating the straight-to-DVD market. It takes real skill to keep a gag fresh for a minimum of 90 minutes. Even then, a working knowledge of giallo – now made easier to achieve through streaming sites – is required to recognize the references when they appear on screen. Even though Astron-6’s latest “homage to obscure VHS movies of the ’80s” tais one of the few I’ve seen that accurately captures the full flavor, as well as the nuances, of giallo, I think that The Editor can stand on its own merits as a horror flick not limited to one subgenre. There are enough nods to memorable horror movies (“The Crawling Hand”) and episodes of classic TV anthology series – “Night Gallery,” “The Twilight Zone,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Boris Karloff’s Thriller,” “The Outer Limits” – to keep American buffs happy. Here, co-writer/director Adam Brooks plays Rey Ciso, once acknowledged to be the greatest film editor in the business. Since a terrible accident left him with four wooden fingers on his right hand, Ciso’s been reduced to cutting bottom-of-the-barrel genre fare. The real fun for viewers involves separating the grisly murders that occur on screen, with those that happen off screen, and others perpetrated in classic giallos. The list of likely culprits begins with the bitter wooden-fingered editor, but includes nearly everyone who could be seen in a frame from the movies he cut. In addition to the members of the Astron-6 repertory company, The Editor features dead-on performances by Udu Kier (Blood for Dracula), Paz de la Huerta (Nurse 3D), Laurence R. Harvey (The Human Centipede II: Full Sequence) Tristan Risk (House of Manson), Samantha Hill (Bad Meat) and Brent Neale (Father’s Day). The Blu-ray adds commentary with Brooks and fellow Astron-6 stalwarts Connor Sweeney and Matt Kennedy; deleted scenes; the “Making Movies Used to Be Fun” featurette, with some funny interviews with the stars; music and poster featurettes; and an Astron-6 film festival introduction.

Even if Raffaele Picchio’s morbidly audacious Morituris: Legions of the Dead isn’t a homage to giallo, or a parody, it owes its very being to such past masters of extreme Italian horror and violent crime as Lucio Fulci and Fernando Di Leo. Based on a horrifying rape, torture and murder (dubbed “Massacro del Circeo”) that stunned the nation in 1975, Morituris describes what happens when two pretty Romanian girls accept a ride to a rave from three charming sociopaths. They think nothing of stopping in the dead of night for pit stop in a forest, where the guys immediately begin to torture and rape them. It is the same place where, years earlier, a family stopped for a picnic – observed through found film footage shown in the opening scene – but, instead, became the victims of a mysterious slaughter. If they had been able to read the Latin etchings on the stones scattered around the picnic ground, they might have realized they were trespassing on an ancient grave yard and split immediately thereafter. Arriving at night, the trio of sadists couldn’t see the stones scattered around them. Such trespassing pisses off the zombie gladiators who also inhabit the dense forest. What follows is as nasty a depiction of ritualistic carnage as I’ve seen in a long time and it’s guaranteed to offend a large percentage of its target audience. Anyone not disturbed by the final scene ought to check himself into a facility for mental health before he hurts someone. Think I’m kidding? Check out the trailers on the Internet.

Miguel Ángel Vivas’s Extinction puts an entirely different spin on the zombie-apocalypse genre, by staging it somewhere in the land of the frozen tundra, where the undead have adapted to the environment in the same way as Arctic foxes and polar bears. Somehow, they’re also several times more active than their counterparts in more temperate climes. Patrick (Matthew Fox), Jack (Jeffrey Donovan) and his daughter Lu (Quinn McColgan) have outlasted the first zombie takeover by shutting themselves off in the snowbound town of Harmony. The two men have maintained a serious grudge against each other for nine years, so their homes are separated by tall chain fences and a road to nowhere. The fences are designed to keep the zombies from climbing over or digging under them. After an absence of several years of activity, during which the creatures evolved at an abnormally rapid pace, they’ve returned to Harmony to finish the job. And, yes, I know that zombies aren’t known for their evolutionary capabilities. Neither are the undead known for adapting to the dominant hue of their environment, unless there are chameleon zombies. For the most part, though. Because their eyesight hasn’t kept up with their senses of touch and sound, the humans have at least one chink in their armor to exploit. Alerted to other survivors by short-wave radio, they discover a young woman (Clara Lago) who’s been hiding out for years, as well. Her appearance encourages them to break free from Harmony and explore the southern regions. It’s easier said than done.

Ryan Bellgardt’s truly crazy Army of Frankensteins also an adds an interesting new twist to an ancient trope, by pitting squadrons of the mad doctor’s monsters against each other in the American Civil War.  Given that the first edition of Mary Shelley’s incredibly influential novel was published in 1818, anonymously, I suppose it might have been possible for Victor Frankenstein to have mass produced a sufficient number of his “modern Prometheus” to fill a battlefield an ocean’s distance from his German laboratory. Stranger things have happened, I suppose. Anticipating skepticism on the part of viewers, Bellgardt conceived a scenario in which his 21st Century protagonist, Alan Jones (Jordan Farris), finds himself in the laboratory of a mad scientist attempting to re-animate the original creature. This time, though, the experimentation creates a hole in the time/space continuum, through which “an army’s worth of the infamous creatures from hundreds of parallel universes” converge on opposite sides a Civil War battlefield. Jones’ excellent adventure isn’t confined to the frontlines, though, and room is made for more melodramatic material on the fringes. I wondering if Bellgardt was thinking of Back to the Future when he sat down to write Army of Frankensteins. If so, he succeeds in re-creating a similar story without the advantage of a studio budget and fully equipped makeup-effects department.

Lost After Dark is for diehard fans of 1970-80s slasher films in which a reasonably diverse group of teenagers is preyed upon by a depraved freak of nature. The cast of characters here includes Adrienne (Kendra Timmins), a straight-A student; her quarterback crush, Sean (Justin Kelly); her all-American best friend, Jamier (Elise Gatien); Goth girl, Marilyn (Eve Harlow); bitchy blond, Heather (Lanie McAuley) and her douche-y boyfriend, Johnny (Alexander Calvert); token black dude, Wes (Stephan James); sex-starved fatso stoner, Tobe (Jesse Camacho); the ex-marine vice principal, Mr. C (Robert Patrick); and cannibal hillbilly killer, Junior Joad (Mark Wiebe). Anything I missed? Oh, yeah, in order to fumble their way into the legendary fiend’s killing ground, one of the teens hotwires a school bus. I don’t know if cinematographer Curtis Petersen was required to use a camera that hasn’t been cleaned since 1984 – the year Lost After Dark is set — but much of what happens in it is too dark to discern, even on Blu-ray. The smaller the screen, the less likely it will be to see. So, I don’t advise downloading it to one’s iPhone or Android.

Some collectors of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” compilations will have their prayers answered with the re-release of the turkeys and bonus material contained in “Volume 1.” The movies embody the spirit of the original “MST3K” mission, which was to determine the feasibility of using really bad B-movies against an enemy force. To do so, Dr. Clayton Forrester and Dr. Laurence Erhardt, launch Joel Robinson, a janitor working for Gizmonic Institute, into space and force him to watch such movies as Catalina Caper, The Creeping Terror, Bloodlust and The Skydivers. None of the titles has any redeeming social or artistic value, except for showcasing some momentarily popular dances performed by young adult women in bikinis. While the movies and interstitial entertainment in “Volume 1” aren’t connected in linear order, they all come from the archives of Crown International Pictures, whose story is told in the bonus material. The only title here that comes close to having historical value is Catalina Caper, in which some college guys, including Tommy Kirk (The Shaggy Dog), set off from San Pedro to enjoy a bit of island sunshine, scuba diving, and beach “bunnies,” while another boy’s con-artist parents scheme to sell a stolen scroll. Lyle Waggoner also plays a prominent role, as do Little Richard, The Cascades, and Carol Connors, who provide musical diversions.

The Harvest: Blu-ray
Backcountry: Blu-ray
It’s been a long time between feature films for John McNaughton, who, 30 years ago, made one of the most notorious movies in the history of any genre. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is still a movie that, once seen, could influence a young filmmaker’s career. He’s directed some excellent films and television shows since then — Mad Dog and Glory, Normal Life, Wild Things, five episodes of “Homicide: Life on the Street” – but, somewhere along the line, he must have stepped on someone’s toes. As is amply demonstrated in The Harvest, McNaughton still knows how to make a movie that keeps audiences on the edge of their collective seats. And, he manages to do so based on a slow-burn formula that puts a great deal of weight on the actors to keep viewers hanging on for the big reveal. Here, that responsibility falls largely on the broad shoulders of Samantha Morton, Michael Shannon, Natasha Calis and Charlie Tahan, with an assist from Peter Fonda and Leslie Lyles. Morton and Shannon portray the parents of Andy, a bed-ridden boy who dreams of someday being able to play baseball. His mother maintains a nearly constant vigil to ensure Andy has no contact with the outside world, no matter if it’s in the human or bacterial form. Along comes a slightly older new neighbor, Maryann, who lives with her grandparents and feels as trapped in her loneliness as Andy is in his. After secretly insinuating herself into the boy’s life and opening up his horizons a bit, his mother forbids her to come in contact with him. What could possibly be the reason for smothering her son to such a degree? All is revealed in the final reel, when everything we think we know about the family is turned upside down. The Harvest may not equal “Henry” as stomach-churning entertainment, but it would be difficult to find parents as creepy as those played by Morton and Shannon. Commentary is provided by McNaughton and producer Steven A. Jones

Adam MacDonald’s debut feature, Backcountry, keeps viewers waiting for nearly 50 of its 92 minutes to reveal the catalyst for the encroaching dread felt by a pair of weekend campers who think they know where they’re going, but are actually quite lost in the Canadian wilderness. Of course, a quick glance at the cover will reveal the nature of the beast stalking Alex (Jeff Roop) and Jenn (Missy Peregrym). Wisely, though, MacDonald wastes little time convincing us that dangers of a more human variety lurk in the darkness. There’s no need to betray any more of the plot, which picks up a lot of steam in a short time. The Scream Factory Blu-ray adds commentary with MacDonald, Peregrym and Roop; a behind-the-scenes featurette; and stills gallery.

The Dempsey Sisters
Urban rom/dram/com specialist Roger Melvin’s latest feel-good movie for African-American audiences – mostly of the female persuasion – is the Dove-approved Dempsey Sisters. It tells the story of a group talented siblings (and an in-law) who share the same dream of success, but lack the confidence to pull it off. Denyce Lawton, Teairra Mari and Cymphonique Miller play Deena, Sheena and Tina, singing sisters who are pushed by circumstances to finally stop sweating the small stuff and get their act together, literally. Fortuitously, older brother Thad (Antwon Tanner) returns to the familial fold in time to supply the push. First, though, he must find a way to convince the ladies that his new wife (Valarie Pettiford) isn’t trying to get between them and Thad. By the time the melodrama begins to get too thick, the movie’s musical motor kicks in.

7 Minutes: Blu-ray
There’s an entire sub-genre of crime pictures dedicated to thrillers in which wannabe outlaws are so inept that you wonder how they found their way out of their mother’s birth canal, without choking on the crack smoke or drowning in spilled vodka. There’s no reason to trace the lineage beyond Reservoir Dogs and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, because Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie practically wrote the book on wildly dysfunctional criminals. The art of merging comedy, drama, music and time-shifting was something new in the 1990s, but its freshness wouldn’t last for long. When the formula works, however, as it almost does in 7 Minutes, it’s possible to enjoy even the dumbest of dumb-criminal flicks, despite themselves. First-time writer/director Jay Martin appears to have been blessed with an innate sense of pacing, because 7 Minutes never stops moving. It may not always know where it’s going, but, because we already know that the heist is going to end badly, the details don’t much matter. It doesn’t take long for a twentysomething ex-con to be talked into joining his high school buddies in a get-rich-quick drug deal. The trouble begins when the driver mistakes the patrol car in his rear-view mirror for a clear-and-present danger, instead of a mode of transportation for a cop looking for a place to eat. Fearing that the bag full of MDHD they’re carrying would buy him a one-way ticket back to prison, he decides to flush it down a toilet. Knowing that the drug dealer isn’t likely to forgive a $48,000 debt, they now must figure out a way to come up with the bread in 72 hours. We know from Minute One that the place they pick to rob is a bank whose manager will almost immediately recognize the face behind one of the masks. Luke Mitchell, Jason Ritter and Zane Holtz are credible as the would-be robbers, as is a double-crosser played by Kevin Gage. Kris Kristofferson is mentioned in the list of credits, even though his contribution amounts to about three minutes of hard glaring at the released con.

It took three first-time writers to device a script that overflows with ambition, but lacks anything resembling a coherent plot. Checkmate is the kind action-for-action’s-sake thriller that inspires viewers to believe they could write and direct a better version of the same movie with their hands tied behind their backs. Only one in 10,000 probably could accomplish such a thing, but most amateur critics would have no trouble spotting the holes through which they could drive a fleet of trucks. Because Checkmate isn’t the first rodeo for director Timothy Bass Woodward Jr. (SWAT: Unit 887), we can only guess at the reasons he didn’t spot them, himself. All of the characters are linked in one way or another to a bank heist taking place in an enormous bank in downtown Somewhere USA. As near as I can figure, two separate gangs have descended on the bank at precisely the same time. One of the gang leaders is a loudmouthed bigot, who appears to be overdosing on steroids before our eyes, while the other is a black guy who thinks his ass is being covered by a van full of doofuses with automatic weapons. (One stands on top of a building, shooting at police, without even once seeking cover.) His treatment of the hostages, including a pregnant Mischa Barton, would embarrass even Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, who ran with Ma Barker and, while in prison, taught Charles Manson how to play the guitar. The cops are alerted to the robbery almost before the crooks can figure out what the other gang is doing there. Meanwhile, what’s happening downtown appears to have some strategic relationship to a chess game being played in a nearby vault between Lucifer (Vinnie Jones) and the Hebrew God, Elohim (Danny Glover), who’s accompanied by a hot female samurai. I kid you, not. Also participating are Sean Astin, Michael Pare, Johnny Messner, Katrina Law, Willa Ford, Antwon Tanner and David Chisum.

NBC: Aquarius: Blu-ray
Spike TV: I Am Dale Earnhardt
BBC: Atlantis: Season Two Part Two: Blu-ray
Haven: Season 5, Vol. 1: Blu-ray
Hallmark: When Calls The Heart: Heart And Home
Hill Street Blues: Season Six
Nickelodeon: Out of the Vault Halloween Collection
While binging on NBC’s curiously addictive “Aquarius: The Complete First Season” on Blu-ray, I frequently wondered if the officials at Corcoran State Prison – Charles Manson’s longtime home — had allowed inmates to watch the show when it aired this summer. The opportunity to see how the facility’s most notorious resident ended up in stir probably would have kept the inmates quiet for an hour or so. Now that’s it’s available in an uncensored version, with extended episodes, it’s a question that begs to be asked once again. (Unlike the vast majority of “uncensored” TV series transferred to video, “Aquarius” adds partial, unblurred nudity and coarse language. None of it is any more gratuitous than the average episode of “Masters of Sex” on Showtime.) The first-season episodes follow Manson and his Family members as they begin to lay down their roots in Los Angeles, circa 1967, two years before the killing spree that led to life sentences for several of the characters we meet here. The hyper-charismatic career criminal has already accumulated a harem of starry-eyed flower children and posse of violence-prone men. The show also posits that Manson had extended his grasp into the corporate offices of L.A., by doing dirty work for hypocritical executives, some of whom are linked to Richard Nixon’s comeback campaign. Manson, who started his criminal life as a pimp, traded the sexual favors of his followers for entrée into the city’s pop-music establishment. He was every bit as obsessed with becoming a rock superstar as the Family members are devoted to helping Manson succeed. If that was all “Aquarius” was about, it would have become tiresome after the first episode. Instead, writer John McNamara (“In Plain Sight”) hooks us by showing us how the daughter of wealthy Republican parents. Emma Karn (Emma Dumont), allows herself to become one of Charlie’s most fervent devotees. Frantic, Emma’s mother calls on an old lover, homicide detective Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny), to help track her down. In turn, Hodiak is allowed to recruit a shaggy undercover cop, Brian Shafe (Grey Damon) to shine light into corners unavailable to the flat-topped detective. Through Hodiak and Shafe, viewers are provided a first-hand look at a LAPD, which, at the time, was a proto-fascist force of militaristic bigots. Shafe is far more liberal on most issues than Hodiak, who’s only slightly more progressive than the rest of force. Of course, he’s also a borderline alcoholic. In 1967, Los Angeles was a metropolis coming apart at its seams, with its segregated police force the largest target available to activists. The storylines also work in well-considered looks at the Vietnam War, the peace movement and Black Panthers. Not all of it will ring true to Boomers who witnessed the turmoil at ground level, but, by and large, the clichés, archetypes and stereotypical portrayals are close enough to pass muster. The summer startup series already has been renewed for a second season. The Blu-ray adds the backgrounder, “First Look: Aquarius,” and webisodes.

The Spike TV bio-doc, “I Am Dale Earnhardt” may not qualify as a warts-and-all portrait of a man who truly was a racing legend, but it digs far enough below the surface of that legend to demonstrate what made him someone NASCAR fans either loved or loathed. Not only was he the son of one of the original good-ol’-boy drivers, but he left behind a son to carry on the racing line. Known as the

“The Intimidator” for reasons even a Prius owner could understand, it was just this all-or-nothing attitude that made a valuable commodity for sponsors and souvenir hawkers, alike. That fact that Earnhardt died with his boots on, as it were, on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 seemed only appropriate for some who lived so close to the edge. The DVD adds plenty of short featurettes culled from the NASCAR-produced film.

I don’t know how the BBC determined it would divide the second season of its popular fantasy/adventure series into two parts and not consider the second half of the second season worthy of being designated Season Three. The halves were separated by four months, while the 13 episodes that comprised Season One of “Atlantis” were shown back-to-back. So it is that “Atlantis: Season Two Part Two” contains the same number of episodes – six – in “Atlantis: Season Two Part One.” The pricing doesn’t favor the consumer, but what else is new? As the stanza begins, Pasiphae is determined to stop Jason’s wedding to Ariadne, no matter the cost. With Jason’s execution imminent, Hercules mounts an escape attempt, which, itself, is less than successful. Can Atlantis be saved? Probably not, because a Season Three isn’t likely to be green-lit.

Likewise, for no discernable reason, Season Five of Syfy’s supernatural soap opera, “Haven,” has been divided into two separate halves. The second and probably final series of episodes begins in October. Inspired by one of the million stories written by Stephen King, “Haven” is populated with characters who either struggle with supernatural afflictions or protect the town from the effects of those afflictions. Like “Dallas,” “Beverly Hills 90210” and every other prime-time soap worth its salt, the complexity of the storylines grows exponentially with each successive year. The supernatural elements, when combined with traditional issues involving relationships, crime, personal conflicts and health, almost demand binge viewing of previous seasons. Emily Rose, Lucas Bryant and Eric Balfour lead an attractive cast.

The latest episode culled from Hallmark’s frontier drama, “When Calls the Heart,” is “Heart and Home.” In it, Jack and Elizabeth rush back to Hamilton after learning that his brother, Tom, was involved in an automobile accident, with sister, Julie. Hidden details of that relationship put Jack and Elizabeth at odds with their families and with each other. Their trip is further complicated when Tom and Julie attempt to run off together (via train this time) and Elizabeth’s father asks the Mountie to find Julie.

In the sixth season of “Hill Street Blues,” Patsy Mayo (Mimi Kuzyk), Det. Harry Garibaldi (Ken Olin), Lt. Ray Calletano (René Enríquez), Fay Furillo (Barbara Bosson) and Officer Leo Schnitz (Robert Hirschfeld) were all phased out at the start of the season, and Joe Coffey (Ed Marinaro) left near the end. The sole addition was Lt. Norman Buntz, played Dennis Franz, who had played a different character, Det. Sal Benedetto, in several episodes of Season Three. Peter Jurasik played a new recurring character, Sid the Snitch, who was often teamed with Buntz. Careful observers might notice the impact of new show-runners.

Ready or not, the Halloween DVD season has begun in earnest, with Nickelodeon’s “Out of the Vault: Halloween” the first collection of themed content out of the gate. It features 16 vintage Nicktoons episodes, pulled from five different series. The running time is a generous 3½ hours.

Sexual Assault at a Hotel
42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection Vol. 12
The latest package of vintage porn from Image includes the latest installment in a series of 8mm shorts, re-mastered from original film prints, and featuring such rising stars as Desiree Cousteau, Amber Hunt, Sharon Kane and Hershel Savage. 42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection Vol. 12 adds several color loops, bringing us to the point where features are eclipsing the peep shows for business. Liner notes are provided by  Cinema Sewer editor Robin Bougie.

As more women and coupes became drawn to adult films, rape fantasies quickly disappeared from the menu of themes being rented at the local video store. Movies that would be considered degrading to American women remained a staple of Japanese erotica for a much longer time. Sexual Assault at a Hotel is representative of the subgenre in that painfully shy college student is sexually awakened through a series of assaults with the kind of men who grope women on crowded Tokyo subway trains and get their kicks sneaking up on women and pulling up their skirts. Liner notes from Japanese film scholar Jasper Sharp attempt to explain the fetish for Western audiences.

The DVD Wrapup: Welcome to NYC, Falling Star, Elena, Riot Club, Runner, Citizenfour, Clive Barker, Walking Dead, Gene Autry … More

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

Welcome to New York: Blu-ray
The ancient Greeks had a word for the willingness of some men to risk everything for the momentary pleasure that comes with testing the limits of their influence: hubris. Today, the same condition is usually attributed to powerful men in far less literary terms. When Bill Clinton tempted fate by allowing himself to be fellated by an intern in the Oval Office, then lied about it in a statement read to the American public, he tarnished his reputation, ruined that of a short-sighted young woman, helped George W. Bush defeat Al Gore and, likewise, may have ruined any chance for his wife to succeed him in the White House. If that’s a staggering price to pay for momentary release, there still are few Democrats around who believe that Clinton was set up by a right-wing temptress and merely acted as any man would in similar circumstances. Men born with the hubris gene, maybe. The same blindness toward foreseeable consequences certainly applied to former IMF chief and presumptive French presidential candidate Dominique Strauss-Kahn when he was arrested in the sexual assault of a maid in a pricy Manhattan hotel. Although the case would be dismissed for lack of credible evidence, the man labeled “le grand séducteur” by a Gallic newspaper would resign from his post, lose his wealthy and influential wife to divorce, and be accused of rape and “aggravated pimping” in unrelated investigations. In what might be considered a happy ending by some observers, the chambermaid, Nafissatou Diallo, agreed to a nearly $1.5 million settlement in the case. She used it to open an African-cuisine restaurant in the Bronx, while the so-called “Metternich with a BlackBerry” returned to corporate banking, advising countries on financial strategies and appearing on TV as an expert on various subjects. He may never become president of France, but neither is he reluctant to appear in public with his latest conquest in tow.


One thing DSK almost certainly won’t be able to live down is the damning portrayal of his behavior in Abel Ferrara’s caustic dramatization of the same sad event, Welcome to New York. Although the character’s name has been changed simply to Devereaux, there’s no mistaking who Gérard Depardieu is channeling. The great French actor and onetime Oscar nominee (Cyrano de Bergerac) has come under heavy criticism of late for renouncing his citizenship and cozying up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Still, there’s no denying the sheer audacity of his performance here. DSK may never be mistaken for Arnold Schwarzenegger, another politician who couldn’t control his impulses, but even he must have been embarrassed by the sight of an actor who looks as if he’d been mainlining foie gras and guzzling Big Gulps to bring up his weight. My first thought, upon seeing Devereaux naked among a bevy of clearly expensive prostitutes, is that Depardieu had modeled the character after Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now or a sumo wrestler, one. The scene begs the question as to how much money a beautiful woman – any woman – might require to pull back the rolls of fat hiding his penis and servicing him to the best of her ability. Clearly, a lot. It’s also possible that such a man might resort to overpowering a woman who refused to warm to his advances, especially if she was in no position to defend herself physically or legally. (DSK admits only to have pleasured himself, allegedly with the maid’s approval, and leaving semen on her uniform.) We’ll never the truth, even if Welcome to New York makes a logical case for a forced attack having taken place that day.

Jacqueline Bisset is excellent as Simone, an elegant, long-suffering wife clearly modeled after French journalist and heiress Anne Sinclair. Her tolerance of DSK’s dalliances is explained by her now-dashed expectation of becoming the First Lady of France. It’s a wonderful supporting performance that shouldn’t be forgotten in the year-end awards voting. Also worth noting is Ferrara’s attention to the trappings both of great wealth and the humiliation that derives from a vain man having to share a holding cell with less fortunate souls at Rikers Island.  Ferrara has always had a firm handle on stories set in New York and “Welcome” is no different. Here, though, we see the city through a prism of unlimited wealth, privilege and pro-rated justice. It isn’t any prettier than the one we visited in Bad Lieutenant, Ms. 45 and King of New York, just substantially slicker.

Falling Star
In the days before the trans-Atlantic telegraphic cable was laid, it must have been hell for State Department employees to keep track of the affairs of European royalty and their plans for mischief. Even the most buzz-worthy court gossip took nearly two weeks to make it from Europe to the United States. By the time a rumor found its way into the New York Times or Washington Post, it may already have been proven false or tarnished the reputation of a highly placed ally. Falling Star (“Stella Cadente”) takes place at about the same time as a second trans-Atlantic cable was approaching the shores of Portugal. The reign in Spain was being contested by various factions and all bets were off as to how long any successor to the crown would be able to hold power. After the abdication of Isabella II, in 1870, the Turin-born Amadeo of Savoy was elected king by the legislative court. No sooner had he been crowned, however, than Amadeo I lost his most powerful backer and, with him, any hope of resolving the problems caused by growing republicanism, Carlist rebellions in the north, the Cuban independence movement, interparty disputes, the interference of fugitive governments and various assassination attempts. Instead of bucking the rising tide of discontent, Amadeo abdicated his position only three years after reluctantly accepting the crown, declaring that the Spanish people were ungovernable. The First Spanish Republic was declared and abandoned in an even shorter period of time.

Luis Miñarro’s Falling Star accomplishes something remarkable by turning three years of one man’s boredom and ineffective rule into a strangely entertaining and borderline surrealistic period dramedy. Although far from being as nutty as the George III described in The Madness of King George, Amadeo I apparently had more than his fair share of idiosyncrasies and unfulfilled desires. Safely ensconced in a bunker-like compound in the countryside (Castel del Monte, in Italy’s Apulia region), he occupies his time with the pursuit of wine, fruit, sex and beauty. Without the distractions afforded by sycophantic courtiers, Amadeo I gets involved in the affairs of his servants. When the Queen Consort finally arrives from Italy, she finds the atmosphere to be even more oppressive than he did. After his abdication, they return to Italy, where he resumed the title of Duke of Acosta and became a footnote in European history. So, how does a filmmaker take three years of futility and mold it into something entertaining, at least for Spanish and Italian audiences? Miñarro patiently paints a portrait of an educated aristocrat imprisoned through an accident of birthright. Once we’re able to accept Amadeo as a human being more interested in music, food, art and education, than power and war, it’s easier to empathize with his peculiar position. The second half of Falling Star is enlivened by the relief that comes with a complete surrender to reality, peacefully erotic interludes and unexpected flashes of surrealistic comedy. Falling Star benefits, as well, from spectacular production values and lush period flourishes, as well as some wonderful work by the relatively unknown Catalonian actor, Àlex Brendemühl. It’s an eccentric movie, to be sure, but it should appeal to adventurous viewers.

The Riot Club
After leaving the Dogme95 movement behind for less structured pastures, Copenhagen native Lone Scherfig took on several well-regarded English-language projects, including Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, An Education, One Day and, her latest, The Riot Club. (The popular romantic dramedy, Italian for Beginners, was made in Denmark, partially according to Dogme guidelines.) Although her name may not be well-known yet in Hollywood circles – she directed a couple of episodes of ABC’s “The Astronaut Wives Club” — Scherfig definitely has a strong grasp on British society. Based on the stage play “Posh,” The Riot Club is a seriocomic indictment of the all-male dining societies at Oxford and other restrictive educational institutions in England. The one dissected by Scherfig and playwright/screenwriter Laura Wade is inspired by Oxford’s Bullingdon Club, which dates back to the late 1700s and is well known for its wealthy membership, raucous traditions and powerful alumni. The faux Riot Club probably bears resemblance to Yale’s Skull and Bones society, but is less secretive and protective of its public image. After informing us of the club’s origins, we are fast-forwarded to the present-day, as classes are about to begin and incoming freshman are scouted for the various clubs and organizations. At first, the Riot Club resembles any number of fraternities that discourage studying when so much fun can be had getting drunk, taking advantage of easily impressed women and flaunting their families’ wealth. Even the hazing of new recruits doesn’t seem particularly noteworthy, at a time when pledges risk their lives drinking to excess and being shackled to trees, naked, in the dead of winter. Most telling is the annual dinner at a local pub where run-of-the-mill debauchery is superseded by the club’s tradition of “posh hooliganism,” sense of entitlement and misogyny.

Apparently, the proud proprietors of the establishments chosen for the ritual trashing are expected to accept sums of money above remuneration for damages, so they won’t call for the prosecution of the students. Here, though, a senior member’s ego is damaged when the chef’s coup de grace – a ten-bird roast – is discovered to contain only nine winged fowls. Insult is added to injury when a local prostitute refuses to service the whole club on the dining table and disrespects them for being mere twits and perverts. Things go bonkers from there for everyone whose parents can’t be counted on to pay for repairs or bribe the local constabulary. It’s an ugly scene, even by the standards established in Animal House, where, at least, the bad boys were caricatures of familiar archetypes and no one got hurt. As such, some American viewers will miss the boys-will-be-boys bravado of homegrown frat-party fare, no matter the cold reality of the rash of hazing accidents. The Riot Club carries with it the queasiness that comes with knowing that privilege is power, especially as it radiates from elite institutions in western democracies. If anything, the ensemble cast too effectively portrays the onerous nature of some exclusive eating and social clubs. And, Wade’s final appraisal of the situation is depressingly ironic, considering that current leaders of Britain were revealed as Bullingdom alums. Actual British aristocracy is served here by the presence of Max Irons, son of Jeremy Irons and Sinéad Cusack; Harry Lloyd, great-great-great-grandson of author Charles Dickens; Freddie Fox, son of Edward Fox and Joanna David; and Ben Schnetzer, Son of actors Stephen Schnetzer and Nancy Snyder.

Elena: Blu-ray
Inspired, perhaps, by the attention paid to Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Oscar-nominated drama, Leviathan, Zeitgeist Films has re-released the Russian filmmaker’s previous widely lauded, Elena, in Blu-ray. Although the crime at the heart of the story knows no boundaries, Zvyagintsev and his frequent co-writer Oleg Negin found a distinctly Russian way to tell it. The country still hasn’t come to grips with the economic disparity that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, so the characters here seem to be highly credible representatives of the new society. Remarried spouses Vladimir and Elena live in a posh neighborhood in central Moscow. From opposite ends of the economic spectrum, they met when she was hired to nurse him back to health from a heart attack. In or near their 60s, it isn’t clear how Vladimir amassed his money, but it probably isn’t from organized crime or oligarchical corruption. Her son is an unemployed lay-about with a teenage bonehead of his own, a newborn child and another on the way. The family lives in a cramped Soviet-era apartment, surviving largely on leftovers and spare change delivered on a regular basis by Elena. Vladimir not only opposes his wife’s unconditional charity, but he remains estranged from his own daughter for reasons pertaining to her free-wheeling lifestyle. When Vladimir suffers another heart attack, while swimming at his health club, Elena arranges for a father-daughter reunion. To her great surprise, the rapprochement results in her husband deciding to give the young woman the bulk of his estate. Disappointed that she won’t be able to pull her son out of the depths of his unforced despair, Elena decides to act before the die is cast. Again, the crime she plots isn’t particularly Russian in design – no toxic borsht or vodka, for example – but her mindset is born of an economic reality specific to Eastern bloc states. As is made readily apparent in the interviews that accompany Elena and Leviathan, Zvyagintsev is an extremely cerebral filmmaker and no detail is too small for him to take for granted. It gives his movies a distinctly literary tone increasingly absent in similarly designed dramas made in the U.S. The Philip Glass soundtrack and atmospheric cinematography add to the story’s air of impending menace. Besides a 30-minute interview with Zvyagintsev, the Blu-ray package adds a 39-minute making-of featurette; a video on the poster-printing process; and 20-page booklet.

After the Ball
A contemporized amalgam of “Cinderella,” “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Twelfth Night,” the Montreal-set fairy tale, After the Ball, is a not-bad idea that might have been wonderful if it had been appropriated by the folks at the Disney Channel. And, that shouldn’t be taken as a knock on director Sean Garrity (My Awkward Sexual Adventure) or writers Jason Sherman (“The Best Laid Plans”) and Kate Melville (“Degrassi: The Next Generation”), because what’s missing is the verve, musicality and frills that can only be afforded on budgets that make room for them. What distinguishes After the Ball from such Disney products as “High School Musical” and “Descendant,” though, is a willingness to bend gender borders and allow for several openly gay characters, without also calling attention to their presence. Portia Doubleday, who could be Amanda Seyfried’s slightly younger sister, plays the dual role of aspiring designer Kate/Nate. After returning to Canada from fashion school, the daughter of fading fashion magnate Lee Kassell (Chris Noth), she takes him up on his offer to join the family business. Alas, Kate is given the Cinderella treatment by her evil stepmother (Lauren Holly) and sinister stepsisters (Natalie Krill, Anna Hopkins), who have other plans for the business.

Forced out of her rightful spot in her father’s factory, Kate is encouraged by her aunt and partner at their second-hand boutique (Mimy Kuzyk, Carlo Rota) to infiltrate Kassell under the guise of the up-and-coming designer, Nate, and impress the tuxedo slippers off of her dad incognito. Everything works according to plan until the grand ball at which Nate’s fashions are to be showcased and the stepsisters revealed as frauds. Sadly, fate intervenes as it did in “Cinderella.” Enter Prince Charming, in the form of Kassell’s shoe specialist, Daniel (Marc-Andre Grondin), who had fallen for Kate before she disappeared, but now is intrigued by Nate. It’s a mess of Shakespearian proportions, crossed with some Grimms-ian wickedness thrown in for good measure. While After the Ball received a G-rating from the Canadian ratings board, its American distributors elected to release it on DVD unrated. If there’s nothing here a preteen girl isn’t used to seeing every day on cable television, the homophobia of MPAA censors is legendary … so, why take on a chance? The DVD adds a behind-the-scenes featurette that should appeal to teen viewers drawn to the fashion backdrop.

The Runner
In his debut as writer/director, veteran producer Austin Stark has created a political drama set against a backdrop supplied by the horrific 2010 BP oil spill and informed by several decades’ worth of inventively crooked elected officials in Louisiana. When it comes to corruption and greed, Louisiana politicians make the Chicago Democratic machine look like a toy truck. For all of the time he’s spent in New Orleans, Nicolas Cage was an appropriate choice to play an ambitious U.S. representative from the City That Care Forgot. Corruption is woven into the fabric of city every bit as prominently as threads connecting food, music and voodoo. In the wake of the gulf oil spill, Cage’s Colin Price has become an advocate for the men and women who subsequently lost their jobs, homes or way of life to the disaster. They’ve yet to be made whole again through financial settlements negotiated with the companies responsible for the disaster. When news of his affair with the African-American wife of an out-of-work fisherman is leaked to the press, Price’s reputation and career are thrown into a seemingly irreversible tailspin. Besides threatening his marriage to a beautiful, politically savvy wife (Connie Nielsen), it causes him to cash in his AA chip.

Meanwhile, Price’s famously crooked father (Peter Fonda) is dying a slow painful death before his eyes. Before they became estranged, Rayne Price taught his son everything he needed to know about old-school Louisiana politics and the best places in New Orleans to get blind drunk and avoid the scourge of moralistic reporters. While resisting most of the temptations his father embraced, Colin’s succumbed a few of his own making.  Just as his career has begun to circle the bowl, however, the leading Senate candidate is caught on camera doing something even Big Easy voters find more reprehensible than stealing from the kitty or common adultery. While reconsidering his decision to drop out of the race for the Senate seat, Colin enters into another liaison with a married woman, this one a political aide (Sarah Paulson) who is every bit as reckless as he is. Through his now-estranged wife, he’s also presented with an offer from a moneybags lobbyist (Bryan Batt) that could put him back on his feet politically, but make him beholden to Satan’s business interests on Earth. Runner, so named because Price also enjoys jogging, falls just short of capturing the same tantalizing flavors of New Orleans life that informed Jim McBride’s gumbo-infused 1986 crime story, The Big Easy. Moreover, Stark plays the ending with such a straight face, it’s difficult to discern with any precision the degree to which his protagonist has compromised his integrity, or if he’s merely in it for the long con.

Citizenfour: Blu-ray
It’s been more than two years since government intelligence analyst Edward Snowden decided to blow the whistle on the National Security Agency, by stealing reams of classified data, splitting for Hong Kong and handing the documents over to journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill. After stories based on the material began to appear in the Guardian, Washington Post, Der Spiegel and the New York Times and his cover was blown, Snowden was charged with espionage by the U.S. Department of Justice. Because he could only find refuge in Moscow, Snowden remains Public Enemy No. 1 in the eyes of many Americans, including the President of the United States. While it’s possible that just as many people consider his whistle-blowing to be an act of courage and heroism, the debate over the government’s intelligence-gathering procedures has become a campaign issue. So have calls for clemency and demands that Snowden be tried for treason. What we do know is NSA secrets contained in the stolen documents continue to make headlines – AT&T’s cozy deal with the agency — and Oliver Stone’s dramatization of the same events documented in Poitras’ Citizenfour will reignite the controversy in the weeks leading to its Christmas Day release. Citizenfour, which was deservedly honored with an Academy Award as Best Documentary/Feature, arrives in DVD/Blu-ray nearly a year after it debuted at the New York Film Festival and six months after it was shown on HBO. In April, Snowden was grilled by satirist John Oliver, again for HBO. Although Poitras’ tick-tock doc has already proven that the facts could very well be as thrilling as Stone’s dramatization, I wonder how much more of Snowden viewers will pay to see. As spies go, the 32-year-old North Carolina native is less charismatic even than Boris Badenov. What elevates the Blu-ray edition are three deleted scenes; a “TimesTalks” sit-down with Poitras, Greenwald, Snowden (via live video) and media reporter David Carr, who died shortly after the discussion; a Film Society of Lincoln Center Q&A with Poitras and film journalist Dennis Lim; and “The Program,” a short op-ed documentary concerning government spying with former U.S. intelligence officer William Binney.

Clive Barker’s Origins: Salome/The Forbidden
Clive Barker Presents Jojo Baby: Without the Mask
There’s a very good reason why the earliest works of accomplished artists, writers and filmmakers are relegated to garages, attics and storage lockers. Some reveal flashes of genius to come, but, like correspondence, require context, patience and the occasional footnote to understand. Still, obsessive fans rarely object to wading through piles of dross to discover the occasional glint of gold. “Clive Barker’s Origins,” from Seraphim/MVD, offers two interesting samples of the Liverpool-native’s work more than a decade removed from the publication of his 1986 novella, “The Hellbound Heart,” and his 1987 feature adaptation of it, ”Hellraiser.” The 20-minute “Salome” (1973) re-creates the dance performed by the biblical seductress – as interpreted in Oscar Wilde’s play — but in negative black-and-white and with the addition of a naked male. At 36 minutes, “The Forbidden” (1978) far more clearly reveals Barker’s horror roots, including the origins of Pinhead’s frightening facial ornamentation. Indeed, friend and frequent collaborator Doug Bradley appears in both shorts and the Hellraiser series, as Pinhead. Vintage interviews complete the package.

Also on tap this week is Clive Barker Presents: Jojo Baby, a fascinating documentary on the life, lifestyle and work of Chicago outsider artist, costume designer and doll maker, Jojo Baby. Directed by Dana Buning and Mark Danforth, but co-executive produced by Barker, Jojo Baby: Without the Mask introduces us to the veteran Chicago scenester and local gay icon, whose personal story is as emotionally compelling as his art is fun to survey. Jojo’s love for dolls and makeup design began as a child, inspired by his aunt’s collection and eavesdropping on his mother’s Avon parties. This did not play well with his macho father, who made it clear that homosexuals weren’t welcome in his house. His brothers were much kinder and supportive of him. His most direct influence was Greer Lankton, the late transsexual artist who worked in Andy Warhol’s Factory and for Jim Henson and the Muppets, creating Big Bird in the movie Follow That Bird. As it is, Jojo’s creations wouldn’t be out of place in the planned sequel to Beetlejuice, if Tim Burton runs out of ideas. The filmmakers take full advantage of the beyond-cramped apartment that doubles as Jojo’s bedroom, museum and workspace.

Art = (Love)²
The jacket blurb alerts us to filmmaker’s presumption that Dean and Isabella are the quintessential New York City couple, if only because he’s a promising abstractionist painter who resembles Nick Cave on a bad hair day, while she’s a brilliant, if manic-depressive mathematician who’s given up taking her meds. From the middle distance, both would seem to qualify as the kind of insufferable hipsters who purchase their clothes at vintage clothes stores and save their trust-fund allowances for overpriced cocktails in trendy bars in the Meatpacking District. I jest … Dean and Isabella probably could maintain their chosen personae in any big city with a prominent university and affordable lofts, but New York is as good a setting as any for a hipster murder mystery … or was it suicide? As Mumtaz Hussain’s debut feature opens, Dean (Nate Dushku) is pinned against the wall of his loft, still nearly comatose over the recent death of his girlfriend. Despite being impossibly smart, cute and effervescent, Isabella (Lindsay Goranson) – think Zooey Deschanel, on a much smaller budget – appears to have been driven to suicide by a chemical imbalance in her system. Dean is the only person who doesn’t buy the suicide verdict, insisting that she’d been in unusually good spirits lately, in anticipation of a major breakthrough on a perplexing math equation. Indeed, Isabella would use math equations to keep Dean focused on improving his work. Hence, the unusual title, Art = (Love)².  Dean decides to launch his own investigation of her untimely death after receiving what he believes to be artistic math equations from beyond the grave. The clues lead from the Soho gallery district to the ivy-covered walls of Columbia. Actually, Hussain and Monica Mehta’s story isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds and the paintings on display –influenced by slain Pakistani artist Zahoor ul Akhlaq — are more accomplished than the art we see in most movies.

Clean Break
What happens when stereotypes collide? It depends on who’s setting the wheels in motion. In this case, it’s promising Canadian newcomers, director Tricia Lee and her writing partner, Corey Brown (Silent Retreat). In one corner of the quasi-horror cautionary tale, Clean Break, are handsome party animals Cam Dawson (Samy Osman) and his two roommates, Scott and Dan. In the other stands the prim-and-proper Tracy (Tianna Nori), a blond who is immediately remindful of a knife-wielding Amy Schumer. The guys’ love-’em-and-leave-’em approach to dating is anathema to the psycho bitch, who thinks one-night stands criminally exploit women. Tired of playing wingman for his more sexist friends, Cam is happy to hook up with the refreshingly upfront and resolute Tracy. Push comes to shove, however, when Scott and Dan attempt to assert their boorish behavior and chauvinistic guidelines on their new den mother. Having already witnessed Tracy in vigilante action, we are far less surprised by her reaction to her new roommates’ edicts than they’re likely to be, once she starts imposing her will on the boys. Although watching Schumer take them to the woodshed would have been a real treat, Nori is plenty scary.

Female Pervert
Caveat emptor: any similarities between Jiyoung Lee’s mumblecore-y Female Pervert and Susan Streitfeld’s aggressively perverse Female Perversions begins and ends with the fact that the protagonists are female. The cover art might suggest otherwise, but it isn’t likely audiences for the two indies could mistake Jennifer Kim’s sexually curious video-game designer, Phoebe, for Tilda Swinton’s almost feral lawyer, Eve Stephens. Phoebe has the unfortunate tendency to date men (OK, nerds) who are easily intimidated by a woman who is several times more adventurous and knowledgeable about sex than they are at this stage in their adulthoods. She seeks the advice of a therapist and joins a Haruki Murakami book club, if only to meet men and women whose IQs are within spitting distance of her own. They are, but, at a time when everyone’s boundaries are blurred to some degree, it’s still difficult finding a guy who won’t be offended by being encouraged to use a dildo to play a solo on her Theremin … or laugh off the occasional fart while giving Phoebe a massage. And, it should be noted, that’s the extent of her perversity, although who knows what could have grown from a simpatico relationship? There’s isn’t any nudity, either. It’s a character study not unlike the one that plays out on “Girls,” or in any movie starring Greta Gerwig, when things get messy and no one is quite sure how to handle it.

Metamorphosis/Beyond Darkness: Blu-ray
Easy Money/Men at Work: Blu-ray
At first glance, the only tissue connecting this double-feature from Scream Factory is that belonging to Gene Lebrock, an actor who, from a distance of 25 years, could pass for Tom Cruise, Christian Bale or Peter Facinelli. His film career may not have been long or particularly distinguished, but he’ll always have this upgraded Blu-ray package to remind him of his glory days. At second and third glance, however, horror buffs will realize that these seemingly American products are the work of Italians in American clothing and some of the cheesier giallo traits apply. On the plus side, soft-core sex symbol Laura M. Gemser appears in distinctly different capacities in both pictures. In George Eastman/Luigi Montefiori’s Metamorphosis Lebrock plays a mad geneticist whose search for anti-aging serum goes completely haywire. After becoming a target for ridicule by his tenured peers, the scientist turns on them in the most peculiar way. Some viewers will find the highlight of Metamorphosis to be the skin-tastic presence of redheaded beauty Catherine Baranov — in her first and only film role – and Gemser’s turn as a prostitute. In a surprise turn, she is awarded credit for being costume designer in both Metamorphosis and the markedly more coherent thriller, Beyond Darkness. In Clyde Anderson/Claudio Fragasso’s portal-to-hell freak-out, Lebrock (as LeBrock) plays Father Peter, a priest who can’t seem to decide whether he’s Roman Catholic or Episcopalian. If Catholic, Father Peter is the rare priest who has a family and chooses not to live among his peers in a rectory. The house to which his family is drawn is inconveniently situated on an off-ramp from the highway to hell, assuring that they won’t get a moment’s peace until an exorcism is completed. Maybe Father Peter wasn’t paying attention when his real-estate agent was laying out the pluses and minuses of home ownership. Anyway, it’s probably worth noting that Fragasso, as Drake Floyd this time, wrote and directed Troll 2.

This week’s other double-feature package from Shout Factory combines two gimmicky comedies that demand very little from viewers, except about 95 minutes of their time. Released three years after Rodney Dangerfield’s unforgettable feature debut in Caddyshack, Easy Money imagines the constantly disrespected comedian as a baby photographer addicted to most of the vices available to a middle-age schlub in the early 1980s. When his mother-in-law (Geraldine Fitzgerald) passes away, Monty stands to inherit several million dollars, but only if can refrain from his bad habits for a year. Naturally, temptation looms around every corner. The stellar supporting cast includes Joe Pesci, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan, Taylor Negron and Jeffrey Jones. The gag behind Men at Work is the casting of Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez as slacker garbage collectors with more on their minds than sanitation engineering. The discovery of a familiar-looking corpse on their route has them scrambling for their lives. Estevez wrote and directed the movie. Also on hand are Leslie Hope and Keith David.

The Walking Dead: The Complete Fifth Season: Blu-ray
Gene Autry Collection 11
PBS: American Masters: Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women
PBS: Operation Wild
CW: Teen Titans Go! Season Two Part Two
Nickelodeon Favorites: Puppy Palooza
Apparently there’s no shortage of zombies these days, because, in addition to the debut of “Fear the Living Dead,” the second season of “From Dusk till Dawn: The Series” begins this week on Robert Rodriguez’ El Rey network, and the “Maron”  episode, “Talking Dead,” was shown Sunday night of FX. The CW’s “iZombie,” is between seasons, but in reruns. And, if that abundance of riches weren’t sufficient cause for undead joy, BBC America counterprogrammed with Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later. There’s probably more, but who’s counting … right? I am, I guess. So, let’s not forget the release of “The Walking Dead: The Complete Fifth Season” on Blu-ray/DVD, ahead of its season debut, October 11, on AMC. Fans of the series who haven’t already copied the episodes for further perusal probably await these expanded seasonal recaps as much for their convenience as the generous menu of bonus material. Audio commentaries on select episodes appear on four of the five discs, with the fifth one adding featurettes and deleted scenes. Among those participating in the discussions are executive producers Scott M. Gimple, Gale Anne Hurd, Greg Nicotero and Tom Luse,; actors Melissa McBride, Steven Yeun, Lauren Cohan, Michael Cudlitz, Norman Redus, Sonequa Martin-Green, Danai Gurira, Josh McDermitt, Christian Serratos and Alanna Masterson; and director Julius Ramsay. “Inside ‘The Walking Dead’” is comprised of detailed plot recaps and character explorations for each episode, while “The Making of ‘The Walking Dead’” offers a more technical look at the making of each episode. “The Making of Alexandria” provides a closer look at building the location and its purpose in the season. There are “Journey” sketches for Beth, Bob, Noah and Tyrese, and “Day in the Life” segments on Michael Cudlit and Josh McDermitt; “Rotters in the Flesh” examines some of the nastiest practical effects seen in season five; several deleted scenes; and UV digital capability.

If Western gunslingers measured success by the notches on the handles of their guns, singing cowboys tend to be gauged by the number of stars they have on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Gene Autry is the only entertainer with stars representing all five categories honored by the presenters. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans have five between them, with Dick Foran, Rex Allen, Ken Maynard, Tex Ritter, the Sons of the Pioneers, one each. John Wayne, who began his career as Singin’ Sandy Saunders, is included, but not in the musician’s category. (It should be noted that these stars were bestowed before every Tom, Dick and Mary could afford to buy one, which is how it’s currently done.)  I mention this because it’s time for “Gene Autry Collection 11,” from Shout! Factory/Timeless Media, to be released. As the star of 89 feature films, Gene brought music, comedy and action to each of his roles. All of the movies in the collections have been fully restored, uncut, from Autry’s personal archives. The new additions are “The Singing Cowboy” (1936), “Guns and Guitars” (1936), “Round-Up Time in Texas” (1937) and “Springtime in the Rockies” (1937). Special features include excerpts from “The Gene Autry Melody Ranch Radio Show”; a photo gallery, with publicity stills, poster art and lobby cards; trivia and movie facts; and, my favorite, interstitial chats between Gene Autry and Pat Buttram, at the Melody Ranch Theater.

PBS is re-releasing its DVD of the popular “American Masters” chapter, “Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women,” which originally was shown on PBS affiliates in 2009. As the first film biography of the beloved author of what have been widely dismissed as children’s novels, it surprised many viewers with its forthright account of a life and career that was far more multi-faceted than could be surmised by her public image as a New England spinster. Director Nancy Porter worked off a script based on Harriet Reisen’s acclaimed biography of the same title. In large part, it was crafted from quotes found in the writings of Alcott and others. The author is played by Elizabeth Marvel (“House of Cards”) and Emily Sarah Stikeman, and Jane Alexander also appears.

Besides demonstrating how some large animals are accorded better health care than most human beings under similar circumstances, the three-part PBS series “Operation Wild” describes the heroic efforts made by veterinary teams as they undertake groundbreaking medical rescues around the globe. We already know how newspapers and local TV news shows salivate over dental procedures performed on zoo animals with cavities or in need of a root canal, but these procedures are far more complex and extraordinary. Among other operations shown here are the application of a prosthetic tail on a dolphin, a new technique to deter poachers from attacking rhinos, brain surgery on a moon bear, restoration of the eyesight of a blind orangutan and giving an X-ray to a wounded elephant.

For the kids, new DVD packages include, the second part of the second season of The CW’s “Teen Titans Go! House Pests,” during which our “hyperactive heroes are back for another round of mischief, mayhem and messy food adventures.” Robin, Cyborg, Raven, Starfire and Beast Boy save the world without disrupting their pizza eating, videogame playing and watching TV. The latest compilation of themed entertainment from “Nickelodeon Favorites” is “Puppy Palooza.” The canine-centric selections are from “PAW Patrol,” “Bubble Guppies,” “Dora the Explorer,” “Team Umizoomi,” “Blue’s Clues” and

“Mutt & Stuff.” The third volume of fables from “The Beginner’s Bible” series is enhanced by full animation, original songs and a theme song by Kathie Lee Gifford. The non-denominational stories this time are “The Story of Jesus and His Miracles,” “The Story of the Good Samaritan” and “The Story of the Prodigal Son.”

The DVD Wrapup: 100-Year-Old Man, Strangerland, La Grande Bouffe, Troma’s War, Hackers, The Rebel, 17 and more

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared: Blu-ray
If Forrest Gump had an uncle living in Sweden, he might have provided the inspiration for novelist Jonas Jonasson and filmmaker Felix Herngren’s hilarious geezer comedy, The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. The similarities between the film’s titular protagonist, a half-wit pyromaniac named Allan (Robert Gustafsson), and Tom Hanks’ most beloved character can hardly be disputed. That he also bears certain cursory resemblances to Leonard Zelig only adds to the fun. Allan is about to celebrate his 100th birthday when he takes his revenge against a fox that’s raided his henhouse and killed his beloved cat, Molotov. For reverting to his deterrent of choice, dynamite, Allan has been sentenced to live out his days in a retirement home. Sufficiently cogent to understand the ramifications of such confinement – however mild and well-intentioned it may be – Allan slips out of a window, while the attendants are planning his birthday party, and disappears. At the town’s bus station, an outlaw biker asks the old man to watch his suitcase while he uses the severely cramped men’s room. Instead, the thoroughly confused centenarian walks off with it, along with the fortune in currency being smuggled inside, and takes it on a magical mystery tour. Because all of this takes place in movie’s first 15 minutes, the summation shouldn’t be construed as a spoiler.

As the felonious owners of the suitcase continue their search throughout Scandinavia, co-writer/director Herngren employs flashbacks to fill us in on Allan’s Gump-ian odyssey. We learn that his love of explosives carried him from various childhood mishaps to the Spanish Civil War, where he accidentally saved the life of Generalissimo Franco; the Manhattan Project and a fortuitous meeting with Robert Oppenheimer; lunch with Vice President Harry S Truman on the day FDR died; a post-war sit-down with Stalin; an escape from the Gulag in the company of Albert Einstein’s brother, Herbert; and to Ronald Reagan, whose declining condition has made him as intellectually befuddled as Allan. Believe me, there’s plenty more to enjoy, even knowing these events ahead of time. Swedes may not be known for their uproarious senses of humor, but it’s worth knowing that Herngren also co-created, with John Nordling, the TV comedy, “Ulveson & Herngren.” After it became a hit in Europe, FX adapted the nutty buddy comedy for consumption by American audiences, as “The Comedians,” starring Billy Crystal and Josh Gad, who combined to make it one of the must-see shows of the spring. Although “The 100 Year-Old Man …” arrives with a R rating, it can safely be ignored by parents with kids who can’t recognize cuss words in Swedish. Censors in most other countries found it sufficiently tame for pre-teen viewers. The Blu-ray arrives with a lengthy making-of featurette and interviews.

Strangerland: Blu-ray
I wonder if any travel agency in Australia has come up with an itinerary for tourists interested in personally reliving scenes from their favorite Aussie thrillers. The locations might include Lake Jindabyne and the Snowy Mountains, Alice Springs, Kangaroo Island, Kakadu National Park, the Kimberly Ranges, Kununarra, Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree Rainforest, the actual rabbit-proof fence, Hanging Rock, Avalon and Bondi beaches, Uluru/Ayres Rock, Sydney’s King’s Cross red-light district or, for the kiddies, the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary and Hartley’s Crocodile Adventure. In person, they must be even more unnerving than they are in the movies. Australian filmmakers maintain a special relationship to the continent’s wildly diverse landscapes and freely exploit the settings as if they were characters, not merely backdrops. I don’t know if John Ford ever visited Australia, but some of the locations might have reminded him favorably of Monument Valley. Kim Farrant’s debut feature, Strangerland, stars Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes as a middle-class couple forced to move to the Outback for an unspecified sexual indiscretion on the part of Matthew’s wife, Catherine. Their children are supremely unimpressed by the diversions provided by the sleepy town of Nathgari, whose primary attractions include the occasion sandstorm and some starkly beautiful wastelands. Their teenage son Tommy goes on nightly walkabouts, while, at 15, Lily has decided that promiscuity might be her only option to boredom. One night, with a towering red-dust cloud approaching, both of the kids simply vanish into the bush. Recriminations fly, but, as one Aboriginal woman observes, “Sometimes, people just disappear.” The locals, a naturally suspicious lot, put aside their gossip and Foster’s cans long enough to conduct a manhunt, but, it isn’t until a few days later that Tommy’s reappearance adds even more mystery to the skepticism. His refusal to talk doesn’t help the search for his sister, either. While Matthew treats the disappearance as only one more nail in the cross he’s been forced to bear, Catherine goes bat-shit crazy, as if the ghosts of the ancient desert took over her fragile psyche and refused to let her go. Caught in the middle of the fray is the local sheriff, David (Hugo Weaving), who appears to be stuck in Nathgari, paying penance for sins of his own making. While Kidman is excellent as the beyond-frazzled Catherine, it’s the unforgiving desert and hypnotic sunsets that make Strangerland special.

La Grande Bouffe: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Released several years after the Beatles included “Piggies” on “The White Album,” yet only a few months ahead of Mel Brooks’ famously scatological Blazing Saddles, the existential French-Italian comedy, La Grande Bouffe, probably would seem out of place in any other time period in recent history. Since then, only Monty Python has used bodily functions and gluttony as effectively in the pursuit of laughs and social commentary. Just as George Harrison skewered conspicuous consumption in “Piggies,” Marco Ferreri uses La Grande Bouffe to comment on the ennui experienced by successful bourgeois males after reaching the pinnacle of their professions at an early age and alienation that can only be trumped by bonding sessions with the best friends. It stars Marcello Mastroianni, Ugo Tognazzi, Michel Piccoli and Philippe Noiret as an Alitalia pilot, restaurateur, television producer and judge, respectively. By all outward appearances, they’re living the good life, but the thrill is gone. They gather in a splendid, if largely unused Paris home for a bacchanal of truly epic proportions. The menu could hardly be more mouth-watering or rich in artery-clogging products. Each plateful equals the annual caloric intake of a small country and those plates keep coming throughout their stay.

It doesn’t take long before Marcello, the increasingly impotent aviator, suggests that the weekend’s missing ingredient is female companionship … the most convivial that money can buy. Also joining them is a somewhat plump school teacher (Andréa Ferréol), whose classes frequently use the unoccupied backyard of the mansion for poetry lessons. For a while, at least, Andrea stands in direct contrast to the prostitutes, who look as if they just returned from Frederic’s of Hollywood fire sale, and a surrogate mother for the men. As the glutinous orgy of suicidal behavior escalates, however, she decides to indulge vices of her own. When the three prostitutes decide that too much is more than enough for them, Andrea is flattered by Ugo’s proposal of marriage – he’s still living his horny nanny – and his willingness to share her motherly love with them. After gorging on such irresistible gastronomic treats, of course, even the strongest constitutions have to be relieved and the men are more than willing to come to aid of a constipated friend. The audible passing of gas will reach operatic proportions, while other involuntary digestive functions veer toward the explosive. It makes the campfire scene in Blazing Saddles look like an Emily Post etiquette seminar. Although most of Ferreri’s cinematic provocations are available in DVD, it does take a bit of work to find them. The only other one I’ve seen is Tales of Ordinary Madness, an excellent interpretation of stories written by Charles Bukowski, starring Ben Gazzara, Susan Tyrell and Ornella Muti. Arrow Video’s expansive Blu-ray package adds several vintage featurettes here, including enlightening interviews with Ferreri, who counts among his influences Tex Avery, Luis Buñuel and Tod Browning, and the key actors; a visual essay by Italian film scholar Pasquale Iannone; select scene commentary by Iannone; and extracts from the television series “Couleurs autour d’un festival.”

5 to 7
Sometimes, there’s only a very thin line separating “chick flicks” from the cinematic wet dreams of male screenwriters. Typically, it manifests itself in romantic fantasies in which as yet fully formed young men are allowed the privilege of sharing time with women so far out of their league they don’t even play in the same ball parks. Such unlikely liaisons aren’t to be confused with cheerleaders and wealthy women falling for bad boys or Cinderellas escaping their dust bins to find Prince Charming. Victor Levin’s lushly mounted romantic drama, 5 to 7, describes a scenario in which a struggling young writer, Brian (Anton Yelchin), hooks up with a glamorous French woman, Arielle (Bérénice Marlohe), who, while 10 years older than he is, looks as if she was still getting carded at wine bars. Smokers at a time when such species are endangered, Brian and Arielle meet cute in the streets of Manhattan when she’s in need of a light. He enchants her with his glib anecdotes and bon mots, while she’s drop dead gorgeous and hungry for the attention of someone resembling a slobbering puppy dog. The one condition she sets is that their trysts can only take place between the hours of 5 and 7 p.m., in a hotel room he wouldn’t be able to afford for another 10 years, at least. The story might have been slightly more plausible if Arielle were more obviously needy and her husband, Valery (Lambert Wilson), was more of a dick. Yes, he’s having an affair with his assistant, Jane (Olivia Thirlby), but it’s the kind of thing we’re told a French wife expects of her husband. That Brian and Jane would make a far more appropriate couple is almost too obvious to mention. Naturally, things gets complicated when the young writer begins to get greedy for Arielle’s time. At one point, Levin actually expects us to believe that the privileged mother of two would consider giving it all up for an unproven quantity who lives in a crummy studio apartment. A cottage in Nyack, maybe, but obviously not a dump with a mattress on the floor. Even so, Levin’s experience as a writer and producer on such smart television shows as “Mad Men,” “Mad About You,” “Devious Maids” and “Survivor’s Remorse” helps add a reasonably credible ending to a writer’s wet dream. New York looks great and the addition of Glenn Close and Frank Langella in crucial supporting roles keeps the story from collapsing like a soufflé.

Lambert & Stamp: Blu-ray
Revenge of the Mekons
Rockumentaries have come dime-a-dozen for a long time, now. The truly revelatory ones, however, are worth their weight in gold records. Although you might not recognize the names in the title,Lambert & Stamp, there’s no mistaking the marquee attraction here: The Who. Sure, it’s one of those bands that needs no introduction, but what James D. Cooper’s film does so well is dig up the roots and expose them for all the world to see. Unlike Mick and Keith, the band members weren’t childhood friends who reunited at a Dartford railway station and formed a blues band, nor did they cut their teeth in the rough-and-ready bars in Hamburg’s red-light districts. Closer to Svengali than Brian Epstein, Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert literally created the Who out of a desire to make a movie about a rock-‘n’-roll band they discovered and managed to success. This wasn’t an early attempt to invent an earlier pre-fab Monkees, but an electric light that went on over the heads of two unlikely entrepreneurs. Their talent was knowing when to talk and when to listen, to both their instincts and other people’s opinions. Even when the Who was struggling to release a hit, they were savvy enough to build an independent label around such unsigned acts as Jimi Hendrix, Arthur Brown and Thunderclap Newman. The sensation that became “Tommy” proved to be a turning point for the parallel marriages between the Who and Lambert and Stamp and the team of Lambert & Stamp. Cooper’s years-long quest for answers bore fruit in the form of fresh and vintage interviews, archival clips and photos, terrific anecdotes and other evidence of a band’s evolution. With their background in film, Lambert and Stamp’s personal library was a great source of material, as well. Lambert & Stamp will satisfy the appetite of Who fans, while also providing a great deal of enjoyment for anyone still interested enough in the 1960s to devote 117 more minutes of their time – not counting bonus features – to relive the decade.

The Mekons hasn’t been around nearly as long as the Who, but, with nearly 40 years of rocking good music under its collective belts, the art/punk/country ensemble deserves our respect simply for hanging in there. Born amid the angry anti-Thatcher labor turmoil, in Leeds, the Mekons embodies the old cliché of being “the best band no one has heard of.” That’s because the raucous group of socially and politically astute musicians/artists has been uncompromising in its approach to business, marketing and its public image. This stance may have endeared the group to critics and loyalists, but it didn’t sell many records. If I were to compare the Mekons to any band young people might recognize today, I’d cite the indie sensation, Arcade Fire. Looking back to the 1960s, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the members were influenced, themselves, by the Incredible String Band, Pentangle, Fairport Convention and Holy Modal Rounders. Critics, some of whom appear in Joe Angio’s lively Revenge of the Mekons, were the band’s earliest champions, and fans always flocked to their live performances, as well. A peculiar inability to sell records has haunted the Mekons for most of the last 40 years, however. Angio paints a complete portrait of the men and women who’ve persevered, through interviews and testimonials from such longtime fans as author Jonathan Franzen, film director Mary Harron, comedian/musician Fred Armisen and critics/authors Greg Kot and Greil Marcus. The highly entertaining  DVD adds performance footage, interviews and backgrounders.

Blood Cells
Until I sampled Joseph Bull and Luke Seomore’s dour Blood Cells and read some of the reaction to it, I hadn’t found a reason to add the word, “miserabilism,” to my personal lexicon. Apparently, one of its definitions pertains to a particularly gloomy British film sub-set, which approximates spending a rainy fall fortnight in a Midlands bar full of unemployed coal miners. Blood Cells opens with a scene straight out of Hud. A family farmer has been forced to eliminate his cows, because of the discovery of hoof-and-mouth disease in the herd. He has elected to personally shoot the last cow, after leading it to a burning pit, and his despondency can’t be disguised. Flash to a young man, whose relationship to the tragic event has yet to be made clear. All we know about Adam (Barry Ward) is that he’s been ordered to return home for the baptism of his brother’s child. If he doesn’t, after 10 years absence, he’ll finally be persona non grata at any family function. This warning appears to be taken seriously by Adam, who has been drifting aimlessly around England and Scotland, getting drunk and living off the fat of the land. His journey home allows him to revisit old friends, some of whom aren’t all that keen to see him. Adam doesn’t look any worse for the wear of being on the road, but it’s clear that he’s as drawn to booze as a moth to flame. As we continue to learn more about his grief, we begin to doubt whether he’ll make it to the baptism and in what shape he’ll be in when he gets there. Because the filmmakers don’t rely on dialogue to tell their story, much is required of viewers in terms of patience and empathy. It may not be an easy movie to watch, but art house audiences should find it worth the effort of finding.

Troma’s War: Blu-ray
Extreme Jukebox: Blu-ray
Kung-Fu & Titties
Flesh and Bullets
Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things
As co-director Lloyd Kaufman explains in his commentary, Troma’s War was made in response to then-President Reagan’s fondness for using the military to solve problems that might otherwise be negotiated through diplomacy. The production company Kaufman co-founded with Michael Herz (co-director here, as well) has never been reluctant to comment on political and environmental issues from the corroded points of view of the citizens and mutants of Tromaville. This film would be a departure, in terms of scope and budget, however. Moreover, its logistics appear to have been mapped out well in advance of the start of production and the screenplay wasn’t written in crayon. In fact, it almost makes complete narrative sense. Made in 1988, five years after Reagan’s invasion of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada, Troma’s War today resembles a nutty merger of Platoon, Rambo and the TV series, Lost. It opens in the immediate aftermath of plane crash on an island, somewhere near Cuba. The surviving passengers resemble a broad cross-section of Tromaville residents, all of whose mettle will be tested when confronted by heavily armed militias of terrorists secretly preparing for an invasion of the United States. The Kaufman-esque twist comes in the revelation that the invasion is being funded by wealthy American capitalists in need of an excuse for declaring martial law and taking over the government. Amazingly, the passengers are well up to the task of defending themselves against the terrorists. Apart from the occasional grotesque terrorist, the characters are deceptively ordinary, even by the Troma standards. As such, the hand-to-hand combat is as ridiculously hilarious as it is merely ridiculous. Kaufman alludes to the possibility that several gratuitous touches were edited from Troma’s War, simply to appease the bluenoses of the MPAA ratings board. He acknowledges that some of the trims may have been warranted, while others cost the production dearly. It seems OK to me, fitting somewhere between such Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker parodies as Police Squad! and Airplane!, and any one of a dozen comedies starring Seth Rogen, James Franco and Jonah Hill. Besides commentary, the Blu-ray package adds several fan-friendly making-of featurettes, a kill-o-meter, interviews and reunion footage.

Recently imported from Italy by Troma Entertainment, Alberto Bogo and Andrea Lionetti’s Extreme Jukebox fits easily among the company’s list of domestic titles. Billed as the “First Horror Rock-Metal Comedy in the World,” it combines elements of traditional giallo with such America genre fare as Class of Nuke ‘Em High, Rock and Roll High School and The Lords of Salem. Although the story defies easy synopsis, Extreme Jukebox is set in the Italian rock-’n’-roll mecca of Nova Springs, where glam-rocker Jessie Cake and his groupie girlfriend, Chloe, discover a mysterious LP in the abandoned estate of legendary 1980s superstar David Crystal. The album unleashes the bloodthirsty spirit of the Killer of the Woods and flesh-and-blood maniac Naughty Rocky Boy, whose weapon of choice is his six-string ax. Look for Italian heavy-metal pioneer Pino Scotto, as Father Zappa. The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes documentary, a slide show and other featurettes.

Any movie that dares brand itself Kung-Fu & Titties – no matter how blatantly exploitative and accurate must live up/down to that billing or forever rest in obscurity. Joseph McConnell’s action comedy is just sleazy enough to qualify as low camp and, well, the titties speak for themselves. Sean Monlar plays Richard Titties, an inept martial-arts enthusiast who couldn’t fight his way out of paper bag, even if a hole had been torn into the middle of it. One day, he’s transported to a planet in an alternate dimension, where his girlfriend, Cynthia (Seregon O’Dassey), is being held by a breast-obsessed madman, Zeefros (John Archer Lundgren), who believes that he’s captured Richard’s B-movie-star sister, Raine (Raine Brown). Richard’s mission to rescue his girlfriend includes Raine, a guy in a gorilla suit and other bizarre characters. Anyone not expecting miracles might get a kick out of McConnell’s bosomy comedy.

Flesh and Bullets may sound like just another way of saying Kung-Fu & Titties, but, in this case, anyway, it’s skin-meister Carlos Tobalina’s way of saying Strangers on a Train. The only similarity between Tobablina and Alfred Hitchcock, however, is that they both made a movie in which two strangers agree to solve each other’s most nagging problem by eliminating it. Instead of the lounge car on a train, the encounter between hoodlums in Flesh and Bullets takes place in a Las Vegas bar. After singing the blues over cocktails, they agree to kill each other’s ex-wives. Maybe you can guess the rest. The only thing that distinguishes Flesh and Bullets from hundreds of other crummy B- and C-movies whose best-laid plans go astray is a cast that includes Yvonne De Carlo, Aldo Ray, Cesar Romero and Cornel Wilde in blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em roles. The presence of porn stars Mai Lin, Sharon Kelly and Bill Margold suggests that Tobalina had other plans for the movie, but, for some reason, most of the skin was left on the cutting-room floor.

It’s the rare film whose commentary is as devoid of praise or historical background as the track that accompanies Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things. In it, cult filmmaker David DeCoteau and film historian Nathaniel Thompson appear to be guessing in the dark as to the film’s origins, distribution and subsequent disappearance. Fortunately, the movie is so uniquely strange and disturbing that it’s possible to simply make things up and sound convincing. That’s largely because writer/director Thomas Casey accomplished precious little before “Sometimes …” and nothing after its release in 1971. It’s almost as if Edward D. Wood Jr. had decided to re-emerge from retirement to anonymously produce a sequel to Glen and Glenda. Here, two criminals who bear a striking resemblance to Andy Kaufman are on the lam in southern Florida, after committing a dastardly crime in Baltimore. The ringleader, Paul (Abe Zwick), pretends to be his child-like accomplice Stanley’s estranged Aunt Martha. Although neighbors are willing to buy into Paul’s matronly drag disguise, Stanley (Wayne Crawford) can’t reconcile his attraction to girls his age with a revulsion for heterosexual foreplay. Whenever a hottie begins to rub his junk, Stanley cries out for Aunt Martha, who quickly dispatches the temptress with a sharp or blunt instrument. Typically, this is followed by Stanley crawling into bed with Paul. Not surprisingly, there’s nothing remotely erotic in these homoerotic interludes. With a new 2K scan and restoration from a rare 35mm theatrical print, Vinegar Syndrome lavished more TLC on “Sometimes … “ than anyone involved in its production.

Uncertain Terms
When a 30-year-old handyman from Brooklyn volunteers to move into his aunt’s group home for pregnant teenagers for a couple of weeks’ worth of repair work, it’s amazing how little time it takes for the girls to sense his distress over a failing marriage. Newcomer David Dahlbom plays Robbie, who, after learning that his wife has been cheating on him, travels south for some emotional rehab. The furthest thing from his mind is getting involved in a potentially reckless relationship. Between his wife’s incessant phone calls, demanding that he return to her clutches, and the hormonal magnetism of the girls, however, Robbie can’t help but melt into the arms of the damsel in most dire distress. The waif-like redhead Nina (India Menuez) doesn’t pursue Robbie as aggressively as some of the other girls, but neither does she discourage him from rescuing her from her undependable boyfriend, Chase (Casey Drogin), whose demands are become increasingly annoying. Although things are never easy for Aunt Clara, as she attempts to instill adult values into their unformed heads, Robbie’s obvious concern for Nina’s dilemma throws the house’s delicate balance out of whack. Unlike viewers, however, Clara’s the last person to notice it. Uncertain Terms is a sharply observed indie drama that never condescends to viewers or the teenage characters, some of whom may never recover from the first great mistake they’ve made in life. Nonetheless, the rural setting allows them a few months of peace to contemplate their futures and all of the men, like Chase and Robbie, who’ll cause tremors in their lives. Besides Menuez, the actors I expect to see in bigger roles down the road are Tallie Medel, Hannah Gross, Gina Piersanti and Adinah Dancyger.

Z-Storm: Blu-ray
As Americans have learned to their dismay in the nearly eight years since the collapse of this country’s economy, it’s far easier to detect corruption, greed and ineptitude in our financial institutions than to do anything about it legally. The Wall Street establishment has so intimidated the power elite in Washington that it’s decided to do nothing to prevent another calamity or punish those responsible for the first one. The same thing has been said about the military-industrial complex and organized crime, however, and what do we have to show for it: fictional dramas, in which the villains lose and the good guys win. David Lam and Wong Ho Wa’s slick procedural, Z-Storm, may take place in Hong Kong, but Americans can watch it and wish it applied to Wall Street, where organized crime is as entrenched as it is in Sicily. Here, Independent Commission Against Corruption agent William Luk (Louis Koo) has been given less than a week to prove that a large multinational corporation has been involved in a series of illegal operations. The corruption extends beyond the glass towers of the financial district and into the hallways of government and investigative units of the police department. In addition to powerful friends in official capacities, the crooks have expensive prostitutes and families that expect to enjoy comfortable lifestyles. Because Hong Kong is a wired society, the investigators are able to exploit their network of computers, cameras and surveillance equipment to find cracks in the system. When muscle comes into play, as it must in all Hong Kong action flicks, it’s there, too. The Blu-ray adds an extensive making-of featurette.

No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie
Sir Ivan: I Am Peaceman
I’ve seen enough movies about average citizens who’ve deluded themselves into thinking they’re superheroes to expect different endings from new ones in the multiplexes. Wear a hood, go to jail, is what I say. So, it was with no small degree of trepidation that I approached these two films in which men don capes to do good deeds. I was pleasantly surprised by No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie and Sir Ivan: I Am Peaceman, for very different reasons. In the former, John Maucere plays a caped character of his own creation, SuperDeafy, whose television show is targeted directly at hearing-impaired kids in need of a role model. The show is full of slapstick humor and life lessons designed to empower kids who might feel out of place at school or have been bullied by fully able peers. Unlike Maucere and co-star Marlee Matlin, Tony Kane continues to struggle as an actor when he takes off his SuperDeafy outfit. Even so, he’s a hero to 8-year-old Jacob (Zane Hencker) who’s caught in a tug of war between his father, who wants him to learn lip-reading exclusively, and his mother, who favors early instruction in American Sign Language. And, while the school he attends provides special classes for deaf students, Jacob’s father wants him to remain in a class full of unimpaired students. It’s a dilemma for all parents faced with making the same choice, but, here, director Troy Kotsur makes it clear that Jacob isn’t benefitting a fig by being in the class with hearing kids. Ultimately, SuperDeafy does ride to Jacob’s rescue, but not before learning things about himself with which he hadn’t previously reckoned. What’s unique about “SuperDeafy” is the distinction it holds as the first SAG commercial feature film executive produced by deaf filmmakers and helmed by a deaf director. Many of the actors are hearing impaired and the film will be 100 percent open-captioned at every screening. One of its delights derives from the eclectic visual presentation, which includes comic-book graphics and brilliant colors. The package adds informative background information.

At first glance, Sir Ivan: I Am Peaceman introduces viewers to a far more problematic superhero, Peaceman, a character who combines the sartorial eccentricities of Liberace and Tony Manero, with the singing chops of William Shatner. After leaving the banking business established by his late father, a Holocaust survivor, Sir Ivan (a.k.a., Ivan L. Wilzig) was left with more than enough money to pursue his dreams of becoming a recording artist, philanthropist, peace activist and world-class party monster. He’s appeared as himself on several reality and lifestyle shows, but, unlike Donald Trump, hasn’t used his wealth and outsized personality as a battering ram against regular folks. Jim Brown’s bio-doc takes Sir Ivan at face value, allowing him to demonstrate limited skills as a singer and greater appeal as a person who puts his money where his mouth is by creating a non-profit organization that targets hatred, violence, bullying and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s enough to make us forgive him his 15,000-square-foot medieval-style estate and party palace in the Hamptons. The documentary alludes to kinkier pursuits, but puts them aside after introducing us to his mother, Naomi Wilzig, and her World Erotic Art Museum, in Miami’s South Beach. The DVD adds more interviews and several music videos.

Hackers: 20th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Nomads: Blu-ray
Ejecta: Blu-ray
Twenty years may not seem like a long time in the realm of collector’s edition DVDs, but, in Internet years, it might as well be an eternity. Iain Softley’s Hackers, like Steven Lisberger’s even earlier TRON, dealt with issues that have always defied easy interpretation on film. In the 1980-90s, they pertained largely to recreational hackers and cyberpunks and were far easier to visualize than explain. Absent advanced CGI technology, however, filmmakers lagged behind the ability of game designers to share their ideas. Critics weren’t especially kind to either picture, but, fact is, many of them had yet to make the transition from typewriter to home computer or play Nintendo games with their kids. While TRON was several years ahead of its time and Jeff Bridges already was an established star, Hackers’ leads Angelina Jolie and Jonny Lee Miller were practically unknown and, as yet, unmarried. The rest of the cast was similarly fresh-faced, radically groomed and propelled by skateboards. At 11, Miller’s Dade “Zero Cool” Murphy was arrested and charged with crashing 1,507 computer systems in a single day and causing a huge drop in the New York Stock Exchange. Once he turned 18, Murphy was free to return to his PC and focus on cutting-edge cyber-technology. After impressing fellow computer-club students at his New York high school, he competes against Jolie’s Kate “Acid Burn” Libby on her favorite video game. After she finally forgives him, the gang will unknowingly tap into a high-tech embezzling scheme, masked by a computer virus with the potential to destroy the world’s ecosystem. Attacked from both sides of the law, they must scramble to save themselves and the world. The Blu-ray includes “The Keyboard Cowboys: A Look Back at ‘Hackers,’” an hour-long retrospective that details not just the background of the film but also the hacker culture of the 1990s. Among the interview subjects are Matthew Lillard, Fisher Stevens, Penn Jillette and Softley.

From 1986 (and Shout Factory) comes Nomads, a convoluted sci-fi horror flick about a mysterious bug carried to Los Angeles by French anthropologist Jean-Charles Pommier (Pierce Brosnan), after he discovered evidence of an ancient nomadic tribe. As if that weren’t enough of a burden for one man to carry, Pommier and his stunning wife (Anna Maria Monticelli) move into a house in which a murder recently occurred and has become a playhouse for a Manson-like gang of freaks (Adam Ant, Mary Woronov). The even more stunning Lesley-Anne Down plays the ridiculously named emergency-room doctor Eileen Flax who is attacked by being attacked by Pommier after he’s brought into the ER, frothing from the mouth. But, wait, there’s more. This is a very silly movie, co-written and directed by John McTiernan, whose next three projects would be Predator, Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October. If nothing else, he keeps the story from petering-out before hitting the 90-minute barrier. It adds interviews with Down and composer Bill Conti.

Julian Richings, who might be familiar from appearances on “Supernatural” and “Orphan Black,” has one of those faces that could raise goose pimples on a statue. It is the single best thing in Ejecta, a 2014 alien-invasion thriller that demands of Richings that he look completely freaked out for long periods of time. His character, William Cassidy, has experienced decades of frightening extraterrestrial encounters, but the latest one is a real doozy. On the evening of a massive solar flare, Cassidy invites paranormal researcher Joe Sullivan (Adam Seybold) to his secluded home in the woods for the big show. Beyond that, your guess is as good as mine as to what Ejecta is about.

The Rebel: The Complete Series: The Collector’s Edition
Hell on Wheels: The Complete Fourth Season: Blu-ray
PBS: Frontline: Secrets & Politics & Torture
GMC TV: The Love Letter
Welcome Back, Kotter: The Final Season
Rookie Blue: Season 5-Volume 1
Lovers of classic TV Westerns will be ecstatic to learn of the release of “The Rebel: The Complete Series,” on DVD, from Timeless Media Group. Like so many of the other shows on ABC, it featured a charismatic protagonist with a backstory as interesting as any of the occasional characters written into the show. As portrayed by Nick Adams, Johnny Yuma is a former Confederate soldier haunted by what he saw in the war and in constant search of inner peace and justice. A native Texan, Yuma continues to wear his rebel cap and is armed with both a revolver and sawed-off shotgun. It’s instantly memorable theme song was sung and recorded by Johnny Cash. If “The Rebel” has gotten lost in the sands of time, it’s only because of Adams’ resemblance to Steve McQueen, who played an ex-Confederate bounty hunter in the post-war west on CBS’ “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” His Josh Randall carried a shortened Winchester Model 1892 carbine — the “Mare’s Leg” — in a holster patterned after “gunslinger” rigs then popular in movies and television. The shows ran nearly concurrently for three years, from 1959-1961. Where Steve McQueen’s career skyrocketed after his show ended, however, Adams’ lapsed into a series of failed projects and goofy genre flicks. After running around Hollywood with best friends James Dean, Elvis Presley and Dennis Hopper, Adams would be required to stand up to rumors about his sexuality and choice of inebriants. His death, in 1968, would be ruled an accidental suicide, caused by a lethal pharmaceutical cocktail, by coroner to the stars Dr. Thomas Noguchi. Regardless of Adams’ personal drama, “The Rebel” holds up as well as any of the classic Westerns on DVD. The storylines deal with issues related to the war and settlement of the west, in part, by mindless bigots, greedy ranchers and robber barons, and corrupt politicians and sheriffs. If it weren’t for guys like Johnny Yuma and Josh Randall, the homesteaders and immigrants wouldn’t have stood a chance of survival. Typically, the episodes featured guest stars whose careers as supporting actors were already established or soon would blossom on the large and small screens. Among them are Jack Elam, Agnes Moorehead, Dan Blocker, Soupy Sales, Robert Vaughn and Leonard Nimoy. The generous boxed set includes “Looking Back at ‘The Rebel,’” with series writer and producer A.J. Fenady; “Nick Adams Remembered,” an interview with his children, Allyson and Jeb Stuart Adams; the pilot for A.J. Fenady’s proposed companion series, “The Yank”; commercials featuring Adams; and a production-stills gallery.

There is a point in most documentaries focusing on different aspects of the American Dream when viewers are required to accept some ugly truths about themselves or accuse the filmmakers of distorting their concept of reality. Because of its increasing reliance of contributions by corporate donations, PBS has become surprisingly cautious in its final approval of documentaries that could offend conservative supporters, including conservative firebrand David Koch. Peter Davis’ idea for a series of six films to be shown under the collective title of ”Middletown” was conceived at about the same time that President Reagan was slashing the federal government’s contributions to public television. In addition to viewer annoyance over incessant begathons, during “pledge months,” the network was forced to enter into what some pundits considered to be pacts with corporate devils. The controversy has never been resolved, despite the furor that erupts whenever claims of censorship are raised. In the case of “Middletown,” five of the six documentaries aired on PBS affiliates in 1982. Set in Muncie, Indiana, the series was divided into segments meant to demonstrate how the times had or hadn’t changed since the city was labelled Middletown in a 1920s’ survey, as well as the challenges Muncie was facing as it looked into the future. The episodes examined a mayoral campaign; a prominent high school basketball rivalry; local religious activities; the struggles of a large family in operating the local Shakey’s pizza parlor; remarriage between divorcees; and the everyday lives of high school students. It was the latter segment, “Seventeen,” that stuck in the craw of programming executives who decided not to air it. Shot in the cinéma vérité format, Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines’ contribution was subsequently shown at a handful of festivals before being shelved for some 30 years. Frankly, I was surprised by how much of “Seventeen” could still be considered shocking, especially to parents of kids in public high schools. The film’s focus on an interracial group of students whose classroom demeanor may best be described as surly and spend most of their time outside of school smoking, doping, drinking, flirting and busting their parents’ balls. These are the children of a society starting to turn to seed, thanks to the migration of jobs out of Muncie and overall coarsening of discourse in America. And, some of the parents were as much to blame for the bad behavior as the kids themselves. I can’t tell if the kids we meet in “Seventeen” actually were representative of the student body – they likely weren’t the worst of the lot – and the school was made to look like a prison or dungeon. It could have stood as a call to action, then, if aired, and remains so today.

If “The Rebel” stands as a prime example of a classic TV Western, AMC’s popular Western saga, “Hell on Wheels,” is fully representative of today’s expansive oaters. With the series’ fifth and final season in full gear, there isn’t much to add on the subject, except to say that there’s never a bad time to begin binging on good shows. In the fourth stanza, conflict arises between the government and businesses, ranchers, homesteaders and the railroad, as all of those interests compete with one another for control of Cheyenne, Wyoming. In 1867, it was the most important railroad hub for builders and investors and, where there was money to be made on rails, there was corruption and crime. Meanwhile, the Union Pacific Railroad continues its expansion westward apace and series protagonist Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) is adjusting to being a husband and new father. The Blu-ray offers several good making-of featurettes and interviews.

Reverberations from the release last December of the Senate’s bipartisan Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program can still be felt around Washington, and well they should be. The “Frontline” investigation, “Secrets & Politics & Torture,” not only examines the findings of the study, but it also questions why the intelligence community wanted to suppress its release. It opens with a look at how the CIA sold a bill of goods to the filmmakers responsible for Zero Dark Thirty, promoting its own version of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and attack on his Pakistani hideout. Believing they had been handed a scoop, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal took the bait, by creating a scenario that appears to support the agency’s use of torture to collect evidence on his whereabouts. Left undiscussed was how little credence was given the information collected through clearly illegal methodology – outside the White House, anyway – and the lengths it went to hide the truth from lawmakers, media and the public. It’s a shocking tale, but not one unfamiliar to people who read newspapers and keep abreast of such things. How odious the public and politicians still consider torture and subterfuge to be remains another question altogether.

The made-for-GMC movie, “The Love Letter,” would fit neatly on Lifetime, if it had decided to cater to African-American women, instead of women at large. It’s a pleasant enough diversion, but is so familiar as to be completely predictable and irrelevant. The very good looking Parker (Keshia Knight Pulliam) and Aaron (Romeo Miller) have been inseparable since childhood and, perhaps, really are too close to each other to each other to consider marriage. On the other hand, it isn’t likely that either of them will find someone better suited for a walk to the altar. To Parker’s quiet dismay, Aaron has decided to marry a woman with whom he appears to be perfectly compatible, even if she’s portrayed as being a tad materialistic. She suspects that Aaron’s heart isn’t completely invested in the marriage, but doesn’t know what to do with her doubts. Parker decides to pen an anonymous letter to her own advice column, asking readers for advice. There’s no need to waste much time guessing.

In the fourth and final season of ABC’s “Welcome Back, Kotter,” Gabe’s promotion to the vice-principal’s office gives the Sweathogs false hope that they’ll be able to escalate their misadventures and get away with them. Disappointed by their new reality, Horshack, Epstein and Washington drop out of school. The VP then asks Barbarino, now working as an orderly, to convince them to go back to school. Buchanan High gets a new student from New Orleans, Beau DeLabarre, who uses his southern charm to hit on several girls, including Juan’s girlfriend, who feels obligated to seek revenge in kind. Rumors of marriage swirl throughout the season. The rest, for John Travolta, at least, is history.

ABC’s surprise summertime mainstay, “Rookie Blue,” entered Season Five with officers Sam Swarek and Chloe Price in the hospital, having been shot in the line of duty. Meanwhile, new cops are put through their paces and criminals continue to test the efficacy of their training. It would be a police show on ABC if there weren’t strained and steamy romantic entanglements, blown covers and life-and-death situations. Be aware that the DVD has been broken into “volumes.” FYI: Season Six is already in the books.

The Seventh Dwarf
It’s incredible what one can learn by simply paying attention to the details. For instance, I’ve been completely unaware of the fact that the Seven Dwarfs haven’t always gone by the monikers, Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy and Dopey. Because the story’s in the public domain, screenwriters can call them whatever they want and the characters will have to answer to their new names, like puppies with amnesia. In The Seventh Dwarf, the latest animated feature imported by Shout Factory, the youngest dwarf is named Bobo and he’s responsible for pricking Princess Rose with a cursed needle and sending the kingdom into a century-long bummer. It happens on the eve of Rose’s 18th birthday, when several legendary fairytale characters have gathered at Fantabularasa Castle. The dwarfs must rectify the mistake by standing up to a fiery dragon and outwit the jealous, scheming and evil witch, Dellamorta.

The DVD Wrapup: Chris Farley, Match, Treatment, Blues Cruise, Reminiscence, Soaked in Bleach, Police Story 6, Fury, Israeli Passion … More  

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

I Am Chris Farley: Blu-ray
A more appropriate title for Brent Hodge, Derik Murray and writer Steve Burgess’ sadly nostalgic bio-doc, I Am Chris Farley, might have been, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Goofball,” as it precisely describes the rise and fall of an attention-starved child of the American Midwest. The Madison, Wisconsin, native somehow knew from an early age that being fat, reckless and funny opened doors closed to kids who merely were overweight and willing to make themselves the butt of other people’s jokes. As the middle child in a large family, he had to earn the attention given him at the dinner table – or in the backyard, playground or football field – if he was going to ever find a stage large enough to fit his giant talent. It’s not an unusual story, really … Bill Murray grew up similarly, in the Chicago suburbs, for example. Murray, like Farley’s idol, John Belushi, laid a path for guys like him – including several brothers — to follow to stardom. Psychiatrists may have a word for such traditions, but I don’t know what it is. I Am Chris Farley offers a congenial forum for dozens of friends, family members and peers to testify on what it was like to grow up and work alongside this human dynamo for as long as he was put upon this Earth to entertain us. Growing up in comfortable surroundings in a leafy Madison neighborhood in the 1970s meant that there would be no shortage of photographs and home movies available to the filmmakers or, for that matter, archival material from school plays, amateur groups, Second City and “Saturday Night Live.” Farley was the kind of natural-born ham, who, when a laugh was needed, would “drop trou” or run around naked to lighten the mood, and his brothers often followed suit. Although it hardly seemed possible at the time, he possessed the capacity for out-Belushi-ing Belushi in skits that required volcanic bursts of energy and great athleticism. Even so, Farley is remembered here as much for his humility, loyalty to friends, dedication to his craft and outsized personality as his notoriously self-destructive tendencies. It’s almost as if the filmmakers were warned by the witnesses that they wouldn’t participate if they delved too deeply into Farley’s worst trait, even 17 years after he died.

Left unanswered are such questions as how Farley could have been allowed to die in nearly the same way as his hero, Belushi? We know that friends cared enough about him to make sure he attempted to clean up in several prominent rehab facilities and they encouraged him to lose some of the weight he carried like a ticking time bomb. Given these warning signs, though, how could Farley ever be left alone long enough to call his drug dealer, hire a prostitute or order a tub full of ribs and chicken? On the night he died, a buddy hired an “exotic dancer,” Heidi Hauser, to keep him company in his final hours. Instead of calling paramedics when he passed out from a lethal cocktail that included morphine and cocaine, Hauser reportedly took his picture and split the scene. Those ghastly images are still floating around the Internet. There are tasteful ways to deal with such negative aspects of a celebrity’s life and remain true to the spirit of the filmmakers’ approach to the subject. Fellow recovering addicts, including his drug counselor Dallas Taylor (who died in L.A. last January, at 66), have already gone on record about Farley’s inability to deal with his demons. In I Am Chris Farley, however, these cautionary touches sit there like the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the living room. Nonetheless, everything else about the comedian’s life is fully and fairly represented, as are his uproarious appearances on “SNL,” the Letterman show and his movies. Among those contributing anecdotes and observations are Christina Applegate, Tom Arnold, Dan Aykroyd, Bo Derek, Pat Finn, Jon Lovitz, Lorne Michaels, Jay Mohr, Mike Myers, Bob Odenkirk, Bob Saget, Adam Sandler, Will Sasso, Molly Shannon, David Spade, Brian Stack and Fred Wolf. The Blu-ray adds extended interviews with family members.

American playwright, screenwriter and film director Stephen Belber has adapted his Tony Award-nominated play, Match, into a dramatic comedy that doesn’t benefit a bit from being opened up for the big screen. Patrick Stewart is excellent as a Manhattan ballet instructor, who has agreed to be interviewed by Seattle graduate student (Carla Gugino) about his life in dance. A child of the 1960s, Tobi has spent most of the last 40-plus years on the road, touring with the Caracas Ballet and teaching gifted students at Julliard. He has plenty of amusing tales to tell about the good old days and his role in them. Gugino’s Lisa Davis isn’t terribly convincing as a PhD candidate, but she’s a good listener and wholly sympathetic character, largely because her homophobic cop husband, Mike (Matthew Lillard), is such a homophobic jerk. Since his primary function in the film’s early stages is holding a tape recorder for Lisa and occasionally interrupting the flow of the interview, his rude behavior makes us wonder what purpose he’s supposed to serve. It doesn’t take long to figure out that Mike has an ulterior motive for his presence and Lisa is enabling his bad behavior by asking questions that have little to do with her stated purpose. Viewers won’t have any trouble guessing what the couple is attempting to discover and why Mike, at least, is being such a prick. It isn’t until Tobi demands that he leave the apartment that Stewart and Gugino can get down to the serious business of entertaining us with a conversation that elicits a wide range of emotions. A trick ending helps get us past the homophobic slurs and bitterness aimed at Tobi, but, I wonder, how many viewers will make it past the first 45 minutes of vitriol.

The Treatment: Blu-ray
Americans who bemoan the violence that’s made some parts of our great cities as dangerous as Kabul and Baghdad often cite more favorable crime statistics in Japan and Europe to make their case for tougher gun laws. These comparisons are fairly made, even if they don’t necessarily apply to the movies imported here from around the world. Finding handguns doesn’t appear to be any problem for hoodlums in even the most desirous of tourist destinations and organized crime knows no borders. And, when it comes to sexual offenses, it seems as if the smaller the country, the more hideous the crime. Stockholm might as well be Prohibition-era Chicago for all of the murders that have occurred there in movies and television series over the last 10 years or so.  As adapted by Belgian director Hans Herbots, Mo Hayder’s 2001 novel, The Treatment is as dark and nasty as Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy.” Its protagonist, Police Inspector Nick Cafmeyer, is investigating a case involving a mother and father who have been bound and beaten and had their young son taken from them. He discovers that there have been similar cases, which remain open. Other parents have been forced by a psychopath to harm their own children, who then vanish. Cafmeyer’s fever-pitch police work is informed by the unsolved disappearance, many years earlier, of his 9-year old bother. The false leads and dead ends are as creepy as the trail that ultimately leads to the final solution.

Deep Sea Blues: Blu-ray
I don’t know if the number of jazz, folk and blues festivals now equals that of film festivals, but it has to be close. Cannes, Locarno, Venice and Berlin opened the flood gates for hundreds of others around the world. Before Woodstock, Monterey and Newport, you could count the number of popular and niche music festivals on one hand. Only a few years later … the deluge. I don’t know how entertainment bookers feel about having to compete with other cities to fill their bills, but audiences and musicians aren’t complaining. The latest twist on the theme is re-creating the atmosphere of such star-studded festivals on board tourist vessels. There also are themed cruises to accommodate classic-movie buffs, mystery lovers, bikers, nudists, gamers and, of course, singles. Cruise ships have always provided entertainment for their passengers, whether it’s comedians, bands, jugglers or full-blown revues. The idea behind blues cruises is to attract as many fans of the genre as possible and giving them exactly what they want to see and hear for several days at a time. (Polka, classical, rock, oldies and reggae tours are also available.) If things work out as planned, the passengers and musicians share an experience that can’t be duplicated on land. Even when director Robert Mugge drifts dangerously close to the shoals of infomercial territory, Deep Sea Blues provides two hours of terrific R&B and blues performances and jams on several different stages, during the 2007 Caribbean cruise. Also offered are pro-am jams, workshops, autograph sessions, industry panels, theme nights and culinary events. As enormous as the cruise ships are, they frequently are completely sold out. Now, I can see why. The bonus material adds “All Jams on Deck” skips the hard sell to focus on acts that performed on the 2010 Blues Cruise to the Mexican Riviera, featuring Elvin Bishop, Marcia Ball, Tommy Castro, Johnny & Edgar Winter, Kim Wilson, Lee Oskar, Commander Cody, Coco Montoya, Lowrider Band, Larry McCray, Rick Estrin, Jimmy Thackery and Rev. Billy C. Wirtz, among others.

From MVD Visual come performance-oriented DVDs, “Club Millennium,” “R&B Special Edition” and “Yelawolf & DJ Paul,” shot in and around clubs in Knoxville, Tennessee. In addition to the musicians on stage, the cameras capture audience members shaking their tail feathers, popping their bottles and engaging in the occasional gang fight.

Soaked In Bleach
If there’s one thing made clear in this investigative documentary, it’s that next-of-kin should be very careful about the private dicks they hire to search for clues in the disappearance of a loved one. Courtney Love’s choice of Los Angeles P.I. Tom Grant mere hours before Kurt Cobain’s lifeless body was found in the greenhouse of their Seattle home has, 20 years later, resulted in Benjamin Statler’s Soaked in Bleach, a documentary that implicates the Hole founder in his death. More to the point, Grant indicts the Seattle Police Department for rushing to its judgment of suicide and not pursing leads that might have led to a reopening of the case in the years since April 5, 1994. The entertainment media relied on single-source gossip for their coverage of Cobain’s demise, only adding to the confusion surrounding the events that led to it. Once suicide has officially been named as the cause of death, apparently, police investigators in Seattle waste little time closing their books on a case, especially when the involve a 27-year-old rocker with track marks on his arm. And, while Grant’s largely circumstantial argument sounds compelling enough on film, his assertion that the Nirvana frontman had turned a corner on his depression would hardly be sufficient cause for reopening the case. Statler has rounded up a convincing number of police and forensics experts to back up Grant’s concerns and utilizes dramatizations to amplify their concerns. Cobain’s alleged suicide note and correspondence with Love and close friends also is scrutinized. Rumors about Love’s involvement in her husband’s death have been floating around for most of the last 20 years, without finding much traction. She doesn’t have many allies among Nirvana fans, but that, in itself, isn’t something prosecutors tend to take into account, these days, either.

Reminiscence: The Beginning
The People Under the Stairs: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
At their core, Christopher Nolan’s mega-budget sci-fi adventure, Interstellar, and Akçay Karaazmak’s micro-budget sci-fi/horror thriller, Reminiscence: The Beginning, concern the same things: the vagaries of time and space. Because the former is set largely in an unexplored recess of our solar system and the latter takes place on a deserted beach in Turkey’s Cesme Peninsula, you’d think the two movies would be worlds apart. Here, though, a Slovakian physicist, Miska (Michaela Rexova), has travelled to the rocky shore of the Aegean Sea with her boyfriend to determine if her calculations have led them to exact place, where, every six years, intersections in planetary coordinates create the conditions necessary for temporary gravity fields to open a gateway to a black hole. It sounds complicated, but Miska is able to explain it to Akcay (Karaazmak) using sand, a stick and several small stones. If her theory still doesn’t appear to hold water, viewers can simply sit back and wait for the interstellar bogeymen to appear to them as “shadows” in time. The same thing happens to clueless Americans, whenever they pitch their tents on ancient Native American burial grounds or buy a house built over the portals of hell. No sooner do Miska and Akcay settle in than very strange things begin to happen around and to them. Doppelgangers appear out of thin air to menace the couple, then vanish as quickly and mysteriously as they arrived. Some resemble Death, in The Seventh Seal, while other appear to have escaped from a splatter flick. While not terribly frightening or gory, Reminiscence: The Beginning is undeniably creepy. There isn’t a single aspect of the production upon which Karaazmak’s fingerprints can’t be found and the cast is comprised exclusively of beginners. His score and cinematography, especially, appear to have been informed by multiple trips on psilocybin mushrooms, whose hallucinatory properties can produce dramatic sensory effects. The visual effect is almost impossible to describe precisely, but anyone who’s opened those particular doors of perception will recognize the territory. Karaazmak’s gift is being able to re-create the experience, without attempting to make those scenes resemble an acid test. The things that go bump in the night also are pretty scary.

Even if mainstream and genre critics weren’t terribly impressed by Wes Craven’s 1991 freak show, The People Under the Stairs, it paid handsome returns for Universal in its theatrical run, while performing extremely well in VHS. I’m not sure what demographic Craven was targeting with this fairly tame genre flick, whose protagonist is a 13-year-old African-American boy. Because I don’t think the R rating would hold up under scrutiny today, it’s possible that Craven’s original intention was for The People Under the Stairs to be something of a starter kit for teens and pre-teens just beginning to taste the pleasures of horror. (A freakier version of The Borrowers, perhaps.) In a scenario that fits our time all too well, a mystery surrounds a tightly locked house owned by the Robesons, landlords who aren’t at all disturbed by their reputation for cheating their renters. Facing eviction, tenants Leroy (Ving Rhames), Spenser (Jeremy Roberts) and the boy, Fool (Brandon Adams), break into the house, quickly learning some of its secrets. The larger mystery, as the title suggests, lies under the floorboards and within its walls. Of the three, only Fool survives the first break-in, returning home with several gold coins that might be part of a greater fortune hidden in the basement, along with the Robesons’ prisoners. Some of them are children and teenagers (A.J. Langer, Sean Whalen), while others appear to have been locked up since the house was built. (Craven based the story on an actual break-in and similar discovery of captives.) Everett McGill and Wendy Robie are the personification of evil, itself, as the seriously twisted Robesons. In addition to the excellently choreographed action scenes, Craven lightens the moods every so often with his own brand of dark humor. The special Blu-ray edition from Scream Factory adds plenty of bonus features sure to be of interest to Craven loyalists. They include separate commentary tracks with Craven and actors Brandon Adams, A.J. Langer, Sean Whalen and Yan Burg; revealing interviews with Wendy Robie, special make-up effects artists Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger and Robert Kurtzman, director of photography Sandi Sissel, and composer Don Peake; behind-the-scenes footage; a vintage making-of featurette; and stills galleries.

Police Story: Lockdown: Blu-ray
Fans of Jackie Chan who’ve already enjoyed five previous iterations of the “Police Story” series will be the ones most drawn to Police Story: Lockdown, in which the Hong Kong superstar, now 61, plays one of his trademark characters, perhaps for the final time. As happens to many movie cops as they reach retirement age, Police Captain Zhong Wen (Chan) has become estranged from his daughter, Miao (Jing Tian). For most of her life, Miao has played second fiddle to his dedication to police work. On this night, Zhong hopes to rekindle their relationship, while also meeting her fiancé, nightclub owner Wu Jiang (Liu Ye). His club is a splashy joint that comes complete with go-go dancers, fancy lighting and furniture, expensive drinks and a cross-section of the city’s rich, corrupt and trendy elite. Wu has other things on his mind than getting acquainted with his future father-in-law, however. They share a bit of ancient history, which has been festering within the young man for years. After some light fish-out-of-water levity, Zhong and Miao are among a crowd of club patrons rounded up and held captive by Wu and his fellow gangsters. One of their demands is to have an elderly crime boss (Zhou Xiaoou) released from prison and brought to the nightclub to face the music. “Lockdown” ends with an extended chase and shootout scene that should satisfy old and young fans of Chan, alike. The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes featurette, cast interviews and an English-dub track.

Pre-Code Double Feature: Secret Sinners/Beauty Parlor
Every so often, TCM devotes an evening’s entertainment to movies made before the Production Code was instituted to pre-empt plans by puritanical lawmakers to impose censorial restrictions on Hollywood studios. The titles programmed by the cable network tend to feature well-known stars – John Wayne, Barbara Stanwyck, Pat O’Brien, Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow, among them – while such outlets as Alpha Home Entertainment package films in the public domain. If the technical presentation sometimes isn’t up to par, at least the price is right. The Hays Office originally was originally created to alleviate concerns over violence in the first wave of gangster movies, but it also eliminated storylines in which premarital sex, prostitution, infidelity, suicide and bedroom etiquette were prominent. It worked swell, didn’t it? Whatever sinful behavior is on display in Alpha’s “Pre-Code Double Feature: Secret Sinners/Beauty Parlor” is so slight as to be invisible to modern eyes. Still, after 1934, it’s likely that these movies wouldn’t pass muster in Hollywood. In Secret Sinners, an innocent young woman, Sue (Sue Carol), loses her job as a maid for socializing while at work. A more worldly acquaintance (Cecilia Parker) is able to find her a job as a chorus girl in burlesque. By then-current standards, she might as well have taken up residence in a brothel. The poor girl is snatched from the line by the club’s playboy owner (Jack Mulhall), who neglects to tell her that he’s already married. When his wife figures out what’s going on behind her back, she raises her price for a divorce from $500,000 to everything he owns. More to the point, however, is the devastating impact the ruse has on the defenseless chorus girl and her self-respect. Feeling tainted and depressed, she decides to run away and find a sugar daddy. With its nightclub setting, Secret Sinners offers some diverting music and dance interludes.

In Beauty Parlor, sexy manicurists are confronted daily by elderly male customers, all of whom look as if they might have been the inspiration for Mr. Monopoly. The lechers may lack the qualities the women normally look for in a husband, but, at the time, good-looking young men with money were tough to find. It was also possible that the geezers would expire before the end of the Depression and they’d be left with sufficient money to afford the guy of their dreams. To this end, some of the women also agree to serve as paid escorts, while off the job. When one of them (Joyce Compton) is arrested on an extortion beef, her roommate (Barbara Kent) raises the bail by agreeing to marry a client, who has more integrity than anyone gives him credit for having. A more age-appropriate suitor (John Harron) hangs around, just in case the opportunity arises to ruin the old-timer’s fun. Beauty Parlor offers plenty of sharp dialogue, especially from the manicurists, and no small amount of humor. This can be attributed to director Richard Thorpe, whose career extended from 1923 to 1967, and writer Guy Trosper. They would team again 25 years later on Jailhouse Rock.

Israeli Passion/Nights of Tel Aviv
Because most of the news reports out of Israel concern war, terrorism and a national  psyche scarred by violence, it’s possible for American audiences to imagine a cinema obsessed with the same terrible things. The good folks from Sisu Home Entertainment have worked hard to dispel us of that notion, by distributing DVDs that reflect a broad variety of interests and themes. The names of the principle actors may not ring a bell, but some of them will be familiar from their work in American and European movies. The “Israeli Passion” collection contains four recent movies that merge comedy and drama, while commenting on modern love, jealousy, religion and crime: Belly Dancer (2006); Zur Hadasim (1999); Jewish Vendetta (1997); and Avanim (2004). The compilation, Nights of Tel Aviv, should be of special interest to crime buffs, no matter their native tongue. It is comprised of three detective stories wholly or partially set in Tel Aviv. The noir-tinged dramas are The Investigation Must Go On (2000), The 5-Minute Walk (2001) and Sherman in Winter (2001).

Fury, Volumes 1-5
WE: Kendra on Top: The Explosive Third Season
Maude: The Complete Second Season
The Jeffersons: Season Eight
Nickelodeon: Blaze and the Monster Machines: High-Speed Adventures
PBS: Super Why: Cinderella & Other Fairytale Adventures
Ask any Baby Boomer boy to name the TV shows that influenced him as a child and he’s likely to include the Saturday-morning standby, “Fury,” which followed “Howdy Doody” and “Andy’s Gang” on NBC. As “the story of a horse … and a boy who loves him,” it was a contemporary Western that gave kids credit for being able to learn valuable life lessons from non-animated parents, strangers and pets. Occasionally, they would bring desperadoes to justice, as well. These were live-action shows, shot on location, and featuring adult characters who served as mentors, role models and pals. “Fury” resembled “Lassie” and “Rin-Tin-Tin,” in that the animal protagonist collaborated with the adult and child stars to solve problems and risk their necks for those in need of assistance. In the pilot episode, we’re introduced to the orphan, Joey (Bobby Diamond), who is taken in by recent widower, Jim Newton (Peter Graves), after an altercation with another boy in a nearby city. Fury is the wild black stallion on Jim’s ranch that none of his wranglers can tame. When Fury is injured by another rancher, Joey runs away to help the wounded stallion. Jim and his friend, Helen (Ann Robinson,) find them in the nick of time to save Fury’s life. Jim adopts Joey as his son, and so begins a lifetime of adventure for Fury at the Broken Wheel Ranch. Also prominent in the show were William Fawcett, as ranch hand Pete Wilkey, and Roger Mobley as Homer “Packy” Lambert. The show ran from 1955 to 1960, the same year “Howdy Doody” was canceled.

If any human being was destined to live out her natural life in front of a television camera, it’s Kendra Wilkinson. Apparently born without the gene that controls one’s sense of shame, Kendra is still known best as one of three twentysomething concubines, who lived with octogenarian Hugh Hefner in the Playboy Mansion and made E’s “The Girls Next Door” a huge hit. As sordid as the arrangement seemed at the time, anyone who’s had the privilege of attending a party at the Holmby Hills pleasure palace might have accepted the same invitation as Holly, Bridget and Kendra. All of the “girls” benefited from the popularity of that show in the furtherance of their careers, but it was Wilkinson who completely sold out to the gods of reality television. After successfully launching several reality shows of her own and appearing on other people’s programs, Wilkinson moved to WE TV’s “Kendra on Top,” which resembles a 1960s sitcom, as conceived by the Marquis de Sade. In it, she is the mother of two small children and wife to former NFL player Hank Baskett, a nice enough fellow who always seems intimidated by his loud and brassy wife. Season Three opens only days before Kendra will deliver her second child, a daughter, Alijah Mary Baskett, and news of the most unsettling variety reaches her via the tabloid press. Hank is being accused of escaping the show’s omnipresent cameras in the clutches of transsexual model, Ava Sabrina London. Naturally, she’s devastated by the accusations. Worse, Baskett is laying low in New Mexico with Hank Jr., seemingly with no intention of explaining himself to her. Just as Kendra’s wounds appear to be healing, however, the meathead decides to confide in his male friends, rather than open up to her. In most ways, these episodes are like watching a train wreck in a nudist colony … as uncomfortable as the damage makes us, it’s impossible to take our eyes off of it. The only truly poignant moment in a season full of embarrassing moments comes when Kendra returns to the Playboy Mansion to visit Hef, who’s wearing his trademark captain’s cap and pajamas. His advice about second chances gives Kendra the courage not only to reconsider her feelings for Hank, but to find her long-estranged father and ask him why he deserted his family. A new season begins in two weeks.

Among the things that set Norman Lear’s sitcoms apart from most others was his refusal to fall back on the tropes and conventions that have fueled the genre since the 1950s. A simple perusal of episode synopses reveals a wide and varied array of conflicts and gags. As Season Two of “Maude” opens, Walter (Bill Macy) is forced to deal with his growing problems with alcohol and violence toward his wife (Bea Arthur). Other storylines involve the departure of Maude’s housekeeper, Florida (Esther Rolle), her decision to get a face-lift; Vivian’s divorce and subsequent manhunt; Carol’s attitudes toward dating test her mother’s liberality; Maude takes a job in real estate; and the lead-up to Viv and Arthur’s nuptials. By Season Eight, “The Jeffersons” had grown into a juggernaut that showed no sign of slowing down. This time around, George’s misadventures include facing off with a street gang, taking charm lessons, erecting a museum to himself and attempting to fix Lionel and Jenny’s marriage. The search for a maid to replace Florence keeps Louise busy, as do reports that indicate her father may not be dead, after all. The ensemble cast, led by Sherman Hemsley, Isabel Sanford, Marla Gibbs, Roxie Roker and Franklin Cover, remains as sharp as ever.

Nickelodeon’s “Blaze and the Monster Machines: High-Speed Adventures” contains four episodes from the first season, “Bouncy Tires,” “Stuntmania,” ”Epic Sail” and “Team Truck Challenge.” Sometimes, it’s difficult to discern whether this show is more interested in telling CGI-enhanced stories or selling monster-truck toys. Another DVD aimed at the youngest of viewers is PBS’ “Super Why: Cinderella & Other Fairytale Adventures.” “Super Why” introduces letters, spelling and reading to children whose interest in such things is beginning to emerge. In addition to the stories, the DVD provides interactive material for kids who want to extend the experience.

The DVD Wrapup: Madame Bovary, Adult Beginners, Descendants, Salvation, Wyrmwood, Seashore, Snow Girl, Flamenco, Bilko … More

Friday, August 7th, 2015

Madame Bovary: Blu-ray
Among the distinguished women who’ve portrayed Emma Bovary on film over the last 80 years are Isabelle Huppert, Frances O’Connor, Carla Gravina, Jennifer Jones, Pola Negri, Lila Lee and, if you count David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter, Sarah, Miles. There have been more, of course, but these are the most recognizable actresses. Like the Olympics and presidential elections, a new adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s debut novel comes around every four years, or so, whether the public is clamoring for one, or not. In Sophie Barthes’ lushly mounted Madame Bovery, 25-year-old Aussie Mia Wasikowska (The Kids Are All Right) convincingly plays the disillusioned wife of a country doctor (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) whose unmet expectations and boredom are sated by material pleasures they can’t afford. If there isn’t anything wrong with the approach taken by Barthes (Cold Souls), its bourgeois trappings and rural splendor are all too familiar in a marketplace filled with period adaptations of classic novels, however tragic and sexy. What could be more contemporary than a story about a woman so disgusted by her husband’s lack of financial drive that she decides to take matters into her own hands … and his credit cards? Given the media’s obsession with celebrities and their closets full of designer fashions, how could a modern Emma Bovary resist the temptation of looking, acting and partying like a Kardashian? Greedy enablers, like Rhys Ifans’ unctuous Monsieur Lheureux in Madame Bovary, can found everywhere these days, especially on such fashion-lust shows as “Project Runway,” “The Rachel Zoe Project” and red-carpet coverage leading to the Oscars, Emmys and Grammy awards ceremonies. (Or, the Home Shopping Network and QVC for a low-rent remake of “Madame Bovary” for shut-ins.) It wouldn’t take long for a spouse – gay, straight or indifferent – to drive a successful lawyer, doctor or athlete into bankruptcy these days. A fresh take on the story wouldn’t have hurt. Also on hand in Barthes’ Madame Bovary are Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Laura Carmichael (“Downton Abbey”), Logan Marshall-Greenand (“Dark Blue”) Paul Giamatti (Sideways).

Adult Beginners: Blu-ray
Like so many other comedies featuring actors, writers and directors who’ve graduated from such sketch-comedy mills as National Lampoon, Second City, the Groundlings, “SNL” and Upright Citizens Brigade, Ross Katz’ intermittently funny,  yet heart-warming Adult Beginners appears to have been inspired by an existing character or improvisational conceit. It worked in such extended-skit movies as The Blues Brothers and Wayne’s World, but fell flat in a dozen other “SNL” offshoots. The Nick Kroll we meet at the beginning of Adult Beginners isn’t at all dissimilar to the characters he’s invented previously in “The League,” “Kroll Show” and “Parks and Recreation.” Kroll’s Jake is an arrogant hipster entrepreneur accustomed to living large and partying like it was still 1999. When the bottom falls out of one of his investment schemes, he becomes persona non grata with everyone who put money into it. Jake has nowhere to turn, except the sister he hasn’t seen in three years. Justine (Rose Byrne), Danny (Bobby Cannavale) and their 3-year-old son, Teddy, live in the suburbs in a too-small home and with another baby in the oven. After a few months of lounging around on the couch and feeling sorry for himself, Jake is asked to act as a nanny for Teddy. He’s a handful, but no worse than most of the other kids left in the hands of male adults in such comedies. And, of course, Jake quickly learns the benefits of showing up at the local playground with child in tow and a tale of woe to tell the husband-less mommies. Writers Jeff Cox and Liz Flahive do a reasonably good job avoiding most time-worn clichés of the sub-genre, so Jake’s maturation process isn’t as predictable as it could have been. Credit, there, belongs to the seasoned supporting cast and such occasional drop-ins as Joel McHale, Paula Garcés, Caitlin FitzGerald, Mike Birbiglia, Jason Mantzoukas and Bobby Moynihan. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

Every Secret Thing
Sometimes, even the certified best novels fail to make the transition from page to screen. Of all the hundreds of mysteries published each year and dozens optioned for possible production, only a handful are fully adapted and made available for viewing. Best-selling author Laura Lippman has written dozens of novels and short stories. I don’t know how many have been optioned, but only one has been successfully translated into a feature film, Every Secret Thing. Besides making book-sellers and critics happy, the 2004 novel was accorded top honors in genre competition. Its success allowed Lippman to quit her day job at the Baltimore Sun. Alas, the difficulties inherent in attempting to stuff 400-plus pages of a novel into a 93-minute R-rated thriller are readily apparent in Every Secret Thing. Although the story’s skeleton holds up pretty well, a whole lot of good stuff gets lost along the way, including the original scene of the crimes, Baltimore. In Oscar-nominated documentarian Amy Berg’s first feature film, the action has been transferred to a more generic city in Upstate New York. Two creepy 11-year-old girls are convicted of kidnapping and murdering an infant they’d snatched from a stroller on a porch. Seven years later, skinny blond Ronnie (Dakota Fanning) and seriously overweight Alice (Danielle Macdonald) are released from their juvenile-detention facilities, far from rehabilitated and wholly unprepared for a world full of harmful temptations. Sure enough, not long after the girls, now 18, get back home, a child goes missing. Based on similarities in the kidnappings, Ronnie and Alice are quickly visited by dogged police detective Nancy Porter (Elizabeth Banks). As drawn by screenwriter Nicole Holofcenor, both of them are potentially guilty and wholly unworthy of our sympathy. As portrayed by Diane Lane, Alice’s crazy mother could be every bit as guilty of something, anything, as her daughter. The boyfriend of the newly kidnapped girl’s mother (Common) also is grilled by the cops, but, because we already know he’s only guilty of being a belligerent jerk, his presence mostly is a diversion. Even so, Every Secret Thing can be recommended for the quality of the acting and sustained aura of menace. Banks’ character, especially, would be a welcome addition to a series of her own.

Hot on the heels of Disney Channel’s vibrant time-travel musical, “Teen Beach 2,” comes “Descendants,” a clever merger of classic fairytale characters and the cable network’s fabulously successful “High School Musical” franchise, right down to director/choreographer Kenny Ortega. Here, the live-action offspring of several famous Disney villains, including Maleficent (Kristen Chenoweth), Evil Queen, Jafar and Cruella De Vil, are cleared to leave Isle of the Lost for the first time, to attend prep school in idyllic Auradon, with the children of beloved Disney heroes. Their parents include Belle, Beast, Snow White and Prince Charming. While the kids from Isle of the Lost have been instructed to corrupt the squeaky-clean preppies in Auradon, it’s likely that good ultimately will triumph over evil, as it always does in suburbs of the Magic Kingdom. After watching a few of these extravaganzas, it’s impossible not to be impressed with the production values invested by the studio into what’s basically a made-for-TV (and DVD) project and the stunning level of teen talent on display. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Disney has a robotics factory hidden somewhere in the swamps of Orlando, where fresh-faced actors are created to fit the needs of the Disney Channel. Before they leave the plant, the singing and dancing cyborgs are programed to smile, even under duress, and sublimate their natural sexual urges, lest they follow in the tarnished footsteps of Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Demi Lovato, Vanessa Hudgens and Lindsay Lohan. The stars here include Dove Cameron, Booboo Stewart, Cameron Boyce and Sofia Carson. The DVD adds a backstage featurette, bloopers and “eMal.”

Brother’s Keeper
Any Day
Just when you think that faith-based filmmakers have begun to treat their audiences with the same level of respect as their mainstream peers, along comes a Brother’s Keeper to dissuade you of that notion. I’ve rarely encountered a movie that plays as fast and loose with internal logic and narrative integrity as co-directors T.J. Amato and Josh Mills and writer Briana Hartman’s debut feature. What seems to have been ignored by the filmmakers is that Christian audiences occasionally turn off Pat Robertson long enough to watch the many legal shows on networks programmed by unsaved TV executives. A casual perusal of “Perry Mason” reruns should have told them that our legal system, while imperfect, doesn’t work the way it does in Brother’s Keeper, even to accommodate the lesson in John 15:13 and Ephesians 4:32 . (That last bit constitutes a spoiler, if such things matter to you.) Identical blond twins Andy and Pete Goodwynn (Alex and Graham Miller) have been dealt a really crappy hand in life, losing their mother and father to violence at an early age. One walked the straight-and-narrow path in 1950s Georgia, while the other has yet to find one he cared to follow. With high school graduation near, Pete plans to marry the love of his life, Maggie (Mackenzie Mauzy), and head off to the seminary to become a preacher. Alex is the quintessential greaser, right down to his leather jacket and cigarettes. On prom night, the son of the town’s most prominent asshole, er, citizen (Ray Wise), rapes and murders Maggie in the bathroom of the high school. Only minutes later, Pete is seen running from the bathroom after Gordon (Daniel Samonas), who viewers know is responsible for the killing.

During the chase, the guilty teen trips and hits his head on a log. Knowing that Pete looks dirty as sin in the killing, Andy demands that he be allowed to take the rap until the truth is discovered by police and the court. Instead of going along with the ruse, Pete later feels compelled to confess to the thoroughly corrupt police chief (Michael Rooker) and city officials, including the part about who really belongs in jail. So, while Pete changes places with his brother, Gordon’s powerful father conspires with the judge and sheriff to make sure the jury only hears perjured testimony from unreliable witnesses. While Pete is being railroaded to the electric chair, apparently minus appeals to higher courts, Andy decides to find Jesus for himself in the seminary and Gordon stews in his own juices, afraid to defy his father by admitting his guilt. Anyone who’s managed to stay with Brother’s Keeper this long wouldn’t have to be a bible scholar – or  the world’s worst lawyer – to guess what happens in the next hour, or so. Having already suspended my disbelief to its maximum level, I was surprised to find myself as moved by the overall experience as I was. I do know it had more to do with the ability of the Miller twins to make the plight of the Goodwyn twins credible than any sudden concession to logic. Maybe I just needed to be reminded that it takes more than a bad script to ruin good Scripture.

The similarly faith-based Any Day borrows from the familiar story of an ex-boxer struggling for redemption after being imprisoned for killing a man with his fists. Although a manslaughter plea probably could have saved Vian McLean (Sean Bean) several of the 12 years he spent in jail, he probably needed the time to dry out from a severe alcohol problem. Upon his return to civilization, Vian is reluctantly given shelter by his sister, Bethley (Kate Walsh), who demands he remain sober while he’s under her roof. His case is helped by the immediate bond he establishes with his nephew, Jimmy, who’s not only missing a father figure in his life, but also is tired of getting bullied at school. The only place in town that Vian can find work is in a restaurant run by a guy (Tom Arnold) who’s faced many of the same hurdles, before turning to AA. After a few weeks of good behavior, Tommy helps Vian strike up a conversation with a pretty woman, Jolene (Eva Longoria), he meets in a supermarket. After much coaxing, they begin dating. The problem, of course, is that Vian exaggerates the minimum-wage position he holds at the restaurant, while leaving out his place of residence for the last dozen years. This is only one of the roadblocks he will face before something resembling a true miracle occurs. That it is revealed in a scenario that might have been borrowed from a dime-store religious calendar is one of things for which critics blasted Any Day upon its limited release. Working in its favor are the fine performances writer/director Rustam Branaman elicits from his cast, especially Walsh, who’s already proven that she’s as comfortable playing working stiffs as more glamorous types.

The Salvation: Blu-ray
It probably wouldn’t be fair to describe Kristian Levring and Anders Thomas Jensen’s The Salvation as a modern spaghetti Western, made in South Africa by Danes, but, really, therein lies its considerable charm. The presence of Mads Mikkelsen (“Hannibal”) and Eva Green (“Penny Dreadful”), alone, would be enough to recommend a movie, let alone one that should also remind viewers of any number of Clint Eastwood’s Westerns. As a conscious throwback to the dawn of the “existential Western,” Levring has added more than 60 genre references – ranging from the obvious to the obscure — to The Salvation. Going back and finding them is almost as diverting as it was attempting to figure out where the movie had been shot, during the first time through it. If not Andalusia or Monument Valley, where? Mikkelson plays Jon Jensen, a former soldier, who, after fighting in the German-Danish conflict, travelled to America with his brother, Peter (Mikael Persbrandt), to find peace and prosperity. Typically, Scandinavian immigrants in movies never make it past Minnesota, but, here, Jon and Peter scratch out a meager living by hunting and farming. As the movie opens, Jon has come to town to pick up his wife and young son, who he hasn’t seen for several years. Not unexpectedly, tragedy strikes on the stagecoach ride back home. The rest of The Salvation plays out as two-pronged search for revenge. After Jon tracks down the men who killed his family, the brother of one of the killers holds the residents of a small town hostage until they turn the Dane over to him.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan does a nice job as Henry Delarue, the truly evil leader of a band of outlaws hired to scare off the settlers. Not anticipating that anyone would miss the men he killed, Jon rides into town with his brother on their way to a new start, further west. Even after listening to Jon’s story, the residents don’t hesitate turning him over to the man who’s been terrorizing them. There’s no reason to spoil the rest of the story, so let’s leave it at that. Even if little new ground is broken in The Salvation, Levring, a veteran of the Dogme95 movement, is able to draw on his lifelong love of the genre to make it look like the real deal and keep the action fast-paced. His frequent collaborator, cinematographer Jens Schlosser, also has an excellent handle on what the American west is supposed to look like, no matter where it isn’t. So, where does Green fit in all of this? After being kidnapped by Indians and having her tongue cut out – a grotesque Western cliche, if there ever was one – she marries the sleazebag killed by Jon in the first reel. With his brother dead, Delarue considers his sister-in-law to be fair game as a lover, partner in the land scheme and punching bag. The Blu-ray adds copious interviews and a making-of featurette.

Inner Demons
Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead: Blu-ray
The Last Survivors: Blu-ray
In a rare example of shoo-what-you-know, the director of Inner Demons borrows here from his experience in the reality-television game to make a thriller that exploits well-worn genre tropes and conventions. Seth Grossman uses what he learned producing three episodes of “Intervention” and a few more of “Hollywood Hillbillies,” “On the Rocks” and “Kiss & Tell,” to make a thriller about the demonic possession of a teenager featured in a rehab show.  When the daughter of religious parents transforms from straight-A student into heroin addict almost overnight, they agree to allow a reality TV show crew to stage an intervention and document her recovery. Newcomer Lara Vosburgh delivers a credible performance who self-medicates her inner pain with hard drugs and, at the same time, affects the look and behavior of an aggressively unpleasant Goth girl. Apparently, the demon that’s invaded Carson’s body isn’t at all pleased about being revealed as the kind of monster who picks on little girls, simply because they study the bible, so it takes every opportunity to ruin the show and her family. Things get pretty crazy, but most of the scary stuff gets diluted along the way by our overexposure to found-footage flicks and “reality” shows that require a couple dozen writers to invent the truthful encounters, as is the case with “Intervention.” If nothing else, though, Inner Demons demonstrates how little progress has been made in the exorcism business in the 43 years since a mere mortal was able to free little Regan from her demons in The Exorcist with little more than a crucifix and holy water. Still, fans of the demonic-possession subgenre should find something here to enjoy.

It shouldn’t have taken two directors four years to make what essentially is “Mad Max vs. the Zombies.” The long-awaited fourth chapter in that franchise cost 10 times as much money to make as the first three chapters, combined, and, while fun to watch, “Fury Road” barely carried its weight at the international box office. Kiah and Tristan Roache-Turner’s Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead is a throwback to the glory days of Ozploitation in all of the best ways possible, including a miniscule budget pushed to the limit to produce maximum results. If, at times, it sometimes resembles a parody or homage to the current zombie-apocalypse craze, all the better. Barry (Jay Gallagher) is a talented mechanic and family man whose life is torn apart after his sister, Brooke (Bianca Bradey), is kidnapped by a team of gas-mask wearing soldiers. She’s taken to a warehouse and experimented on by a psychotic, disco-dancing doctor. Also imprisoned are zombies captured to determine if their high-octane emissions can be refined, like gasoline, to service a fuel-starved nation. The costumes and vehicles look as if cut from the same templates as the ones used for “Beyond Thunderdome.” Fans of ultraviolence and gory makeup effects won’t be disappointed. The Blu-ray adds a lengthy making-of featurette, which explains how a genre flick can take four years to make … and not look like crap.

It’s possible that Thomas S. Hammock and Jacob Forman’s intention in making The Last Survivors (a.k.a., “The Well”) was to exploit the current drought impacting the Southwest for the purpose of creating a dystopian thriller. The setting is near-future Oregon, which usually is swimming in water, but, in 10 years, conceivably could resemble Mojave Desert. Indeed, that’s where The Last Survivors was shot by Seamus Tierney (The Narrows), who deserves kudos for capturing both the harsh reality of a rain-starved terrain and the stark beauty of the California desert. The conceit here is that 17-year-old Kendal (Haley Lu Richardson) is waiting out the apocalypse in the ruins of the same juvenile facility she was raised. It is the site of one of the few wells containing a smidgen of potable water and it’s supporting a small community of survivors. When a greedy water baron lays claim to what little of the precious resource remains underground, Kendal must decide whether to run and hide or resist the corporate takeover. The Last Survivors can be recommended for its unique look, if not the improbable teenager-saves-the-world angle.

Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon’s coming-of-sexual-age drama is so subtle that’s difficult to tell what we’re supposed to make of it. Knowing that Seashore is based on memories shared by  the filmmakers when they were in their teens helps viewers understand why emotional fireworks are less essential to the story than quiet reflections on a time when everyone’s confused about everything. Martin and Tomaz (Mateus Almada, Maurício Barcellos) rekindle their childhood friendship on a weekend trip to the seaside town in southern Brazil where they were raised. Martin is expected to sort out a family inheritance matter, but the filmmakers’ are more focused on how sexuality inserts itself into the lives of teenagers, when left to their own devices and confronted with having to choose between same- and opposite-sex romances. In lieu of action sequences and raw sexual encounters, Seashore is carried on the backs of young actors whose lack of professional experience is more of an asset than a detriment to the proceedings. The temperamental skies of winter on the shore also contribute to the movie’s tone.

Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal: Blu-ray
Black & White: The Dawn of Assault: Blu-ray
It’s difficult to determine how much a movie that required an estimated $30 million to make in China would cost if it had been produced by a Hollywood studio. My guess: a lot. Co-directed by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Peter Pau (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Tianyu Zhao (The Law of Attraction), the CGI-enhanced romantic fantasy adventure Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal may, indeed, be a harbinger of expensive things to come from mainland studios. Shown in 3D and released in time for Chinese New Year, the movie reportedly pulled in more than $53 million in the first two weeks of its domestic release, a number that reflects a growing acceptance of home-made entertainments for mixed-age audiences. The goal, I imagine, is to eventually churn out the kind of non-political pictures that can compete in the international marketplace, if only in the potentially lucrative Asian diaspora. As the legend goes, once every millennium – on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month — it becomes possible for beings from Heaven, Earth and Hell to cross between the realms. Without going into too great detail, an emissary from the Jade Emperor sends his disciple, Zhong Kui (Chen Kun), a former scholar turned demon hunter, on a mission to hell. He is able to steal the Dark Crystal, a powerful force that acts as a safeguard for the integrity of the realms. Enraged, the Demon King sends Snow Girl (Li Bingbing) to Earth to get it back. She arrives with a group of other demons, masquerading as a female entertainment troupe visiting the city of Hu. It doesn’t take long for Zhong Kui to recognize Snow Girl as the mysterious woman with whom he had an intense love story three years earlier. It sets off a battle royal for control of the realms, as well as hope for renewed, if unnatural love between a demon and demon hunter. Although the filmmakers sometimes fail to maintain the equilibrium between action and romance, fantasy and reality, the problem isn’t one that prevents viewers from enjoying the spectacle. The excellent Blu-ray presentation adds a making-of featurette, along with pieces on musical soundtrack and visual effects.

The impact of American blockbusters on the Chinese/Taiwanese cinema is obvious, as well, in Black & White: The Dawn of Assault, an urban buddy film so packed with action that it’s hardly worth the effort it would take to find a coherent story within its 142-minute length. If Bruce Willis popped up somewhere in the middle of a car chase or helicopter gag, it would have come as almost no surprise to me. Released in 2012, “Black & White” actually serves as a feature-length prequel to a Taiwanese television series of the same title and sub-genre. It only lasted a single 24-episode season, but has inspired not only this prequel, but a sequel, to boot. Western audiences can jump into it without fear of having to do any homework on the series. In it, daredevil cop Ying Xiong (Mark Chao) is on the outs with his superiors for participating in yet another dangerous high-speed chase through Harbor City that ends in explosive fashion. So frequent are these occurrences that Xiong is suspended and ordered to undergo psychological evaluations. When he’s implicated in an unsuccessful diamond deal with a terrorist cell, Xiong is required to team with ready-to-retire gangster, Xu, played by popular mainland character actor Huang Bo. They find an ally in the mysterious hacker, Ning Feng (Angelababy) and are chased by a government agent (Alex To). Co-writer/director Tsai Yueh-Hsun also adds an appealing group of oddball characters to supplement the many lavish set pieces.

Flamenco, Flamenco
I Dream of Wires
Before the demise of variety shows on network television, it wasn’t unusual to turn on “Ed Sullivan,”  “The Tonight Show” or any number of entertainment specials and find a tango or flamenco artist, such as Jose Greco or Juan Carlos Copes on the night’s bill. In 1969, Greco opened for Frank Sinatra at Caesars Palace, while Copes was featured in a Broadway dance revue in the early 1960s. In his 1980s’ “Flamenco Trilogy” (Blood Wedding, Carmen, El Amor Brujo), Carlos Saura provided audiences here with examples of a dance form not limited to clicking heels and clapped hands. Shortly thereafter, the Gipsy Kings introduced the rumba/salsa/flamenco hybrid, popular in Catalonia, to American audiences who enjoyed the offshoot’s pop flavor. Tango got a boost in 1985 when the French dance show “Tango Argentino” transferred to Broadway, revealing its many artistic facets and musical influences. Such films as Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson (1997), Saura’s Tango (1998) and Robert Duvall’s Assassination Tango (2002) kept the flame burning here by adding dramatic narratives to what already was a sexually charged and borderline violent atmosphere. The travel industry has since made it easy for aficionados to chase their passion for tango and flamenco to Argentina and Spain, without going broke. Beginners need look any further than Saura’s beautifully mounted odes to the countries’ native dance, art and music, Tango and Flamenco, Flamenco. Unabashedly sensual, flamenco has never looked as compelling as it does in Saura’s cross-generational exploration of the dance form’s evolution, influences, tradition and future. Exquisitely photographed by three-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now), the 21 short musical and dance numbers were shot at the Seville Expo ’92 pavilion against a lush background of paintings by such artists as Picasso, Goya and Klimt. The performers range in age from pre-teen to 79-year-old singing legend, Maria Bala. Saura and Storaro even find new ways to make dueling pianos exciting. The sparkling DVD adds a worthwhile background featurette.

I think it’s safe to assume that, at 107 minutes, I Dream of Wires, will be at least 47 minutes too long, even for fans of electronic dance music and other synthesized sounds. Narrated as if it were an AT&T infomercial, Robert Fantinatto’s exhaustively researched documentary chronicles the rise, fall and return to popularity of a musical genre that requires copious amounts of Ecstasy to enjoy. That isn’t to say, however, that techies won’t get hard listening to the engineers rhapsodize over the relative merits analog and digital equipment and resurgence of high-end modular synthesizers favor by a new generation of plugged-in musicians. Fantinatto’s gathered an impressive list of witnesses on the subject, including Trent Reznor, Gary Numan, Flood, Carl Craig, Morton Subotnick, John Foxx, Vincent Clarke, James Holden and Factory Floor. Prohibitive licensing fees probably prevented the filmmaker from adding more melodious examples of genre fare, which is a shame.

She Loves Me Not
In Brian Jun and Jack Sanderson’s underwhelming three-chapter drama, She Loves Me Not, Cary Elwes plays an novelist whose acute alcoholism is complicated by a severe case of narcissism. Through most of the movie, it’s a near-lethal combination for the writer and viewers, alike. We meet Elwes’ Brady Olinson as he’s bouncing along the rock bottom of his career. He’s living with one of his students (Briana Evigan), an aspiring novelist who puts up with Olinson’s self-destructive behavior because he allows her to sleep around, a bit, and it might pay off in the form of blurb on the jacket of her first novel. The sting that comes with knowing Olinson’s been in no hurry to read the manuscript is mollified by sharing his mansion, which overlooks the Mississippi River. Because Brady tends to pass out before climbing the stairs to bed, their sex life isn’t anything to write a novel about. More frustrated than cruel, Charlotte finally decides to push Olinson toward some kind of recovery by inviting her current lover home and doing the deed upstairs, while he’s stewing in his own juices. In the second chapter, Charlotte is long gone, but not at all forgotten. If Brady’s still a bad drunk, at least he can fall back on the profits from his new book, which his publisher is sure will be a best-seller. To that end, he’s been assigned a publicist (Caitlin Keats) who’s also expected to keep him sober long enough to make it through each day’s cycle of interviews. In the final vignette, Olinson’s been clean for several years, but is no less obnoxious to the women in his life. Here, they’re represented by his real estate agent (Joey Lauren Adams) and a potential buyer (Lisa Edelman), with whom he’s more interested in seducing than forging a deal. She Loves Me Not’s two biggest problems are that it’s defeated by its own conceit and we’re aren’t given an opportunity to know the writer before we’re expected to dislike him. The late, great and eternally spooky Karen Black shows up in the center segment completely without warning or any reason to be there, except to work her Karen Black magic. By trimming some fat and adding some narrative muscle, the filmmakers could have done away with the forced chapter format and strung together a more coherent story.

PBS: Frontline: Outbreak
Hallmark: When Calls the Heart: Heart of the Family
BET: Chocolate City
Sgt. Bilko: The Phil Silvers Show: The Third Season
BBC: Last Tango in Halifax Season 3
Dora the Explorer: Dora’s Double Length Adventures
In a tidy coincidence, the release of the “Frontline” report “Outbreak” on DVD coincides with news out of Africa that a potentially “game-changing” vaccine has been successfully tested in Guinea and its use could soon be expanded to Ebola patients in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Although the number of newly reported cases has decreased to nearly zero in these countries, medical teams on the ground know that “nearly zero” isn’t good enough, when dealing with a disease than can spread like wildfire if unchecked. Not only does “Outbreak” trace the spread of Ebola from its origin in a bat-infested tree, but it also exposes tragic missteps in the response to the epidemic. Because the sick and dying weren’t as visible from Day One as the victims of a giant tsunami or earthquake, local and national officials had virtually no idea how to handle one case, let alone hundreds at a time, and the World Health Organization dragged its feet in declaring an international health emergency. It allowed time for uninformed residents to fall back on witchcraft and mob rule. President Obama’s decision to send American troops to help contain the mobility of victims and establish clinics proved to be a turning point in the crusade, but, by then, thousands of people had died and no vaccine was in sight. It’s a scary report, but one that needs to be heeded at a time when news of potential epidemics has begun to arrive at regular intervals.

I don’t know about you, but every time a uniformed member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police appears in a movie or television show, my mind flashes back to Dudley Do-Right on “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.” The ever-upright nimrod is in constant pursuit of his nemesis, Snidely Whiplash, and hyper-alert to the perils of his personal damsel in distress, Nell Fenwick. Not that I’m the target viewer for Hallmark’s Dove-approved series, “When Calls the Heart,” I still can’t help but be taken aback whenever Daniel Lissing arrives in Hope Valley, as Jack Thornton, in his blazing red jacket. That’s just me, however. In “Heart of the Family,” Elizabeth (Erin Krakow) returns home and immediately volunteers to look after a neighbor’s rural homestead and his two children. After Jack agrees to lend a hand, they wind up chatting by the fire, which is as close to sex as anything that transpires on Hallmark. Meanwhile, in Hamilton, Bill Avery (Jack Wagner) sets about busting a counterfeiting ring wide, an endeavor that surprisingly leads him to Hope Valley. Elizabeth is even more surprised to see her former suitor, Charles Kensington.

If there’s a harder working multi-hyphenate in the urban-entertainment scene than Jean-Claude La Marre, I haven’t found one. He makes Tyler Perry look lazy. He didn’t have to look very far to find the inspiration for Chocolate City, which has been airing on BET lately. Allusions to Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike are made loud and clear throughout the movie, which is also about the trials, tribulations and reward that derive from well-endowed males sticking their junk in the faces of women with dollar bills in their hands. La Marre needn’t have been so persistent. Anyone who subscribed to HBO in the late-1990s could watch black male strippers strut their stuff before a crowd of rabid women, in its “Real Sex” documentary series. It was a wild scene, natural for exploitation as a feature film. Besides a bigger budget and more familiar stars, the difference between Magic Mike and Chocolate City is the amount of time spent in church. Afro-centric genre films almost always make room for faith-based storylines and, here, a cash-strapped college student (Robert Ri’chard) is forced to choose between hurting the feelings of his religious mother (Vivica A. Fox) and girlfriend (Imani Hakim) or making the money needed to dig his mom out of hock and getting married. His dilemma is compounded when other dancers at the club get jealous of his money-making prowess. The dancing is good, anyway, and, for what it’s worth, Carmen Electra plays the club’s DJ.

I’m already on record as saying that “Sgt. Bilko: The Phil Silvers Show,” which ran on CBS from 1955 to 1959, remains one of the four or five funniest and most influential comedies in the history of television. It captured three straight Emmy Awards as Best Comedy series, with Silvers winning one Best Actor trophy out of four nominations. The setting for Bilko’s schemes has yet to shift from Fort Baxter to Camp Fremont in California, but, otherwise, things remain largely the same. Guest stars in Season Three include Dick Van Dyke, Margaret Hamilton, Kay Kendall, George Kennedy, Gretchen Wyler, Barbara Barrie, Phil Rizzuto, Gil McDougald, Yogi Berra, Red Barber and Whitey Ford.

Proof that elderly Americans have yet to give up on broadcast television can be found television can be found in the surprising success of the BBC export, “Last Tango in Halifax,” which airs here on PBS affiliates. Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid play widowed septuagenarians, Alan and Celia, childhood sweethearts who have been apart for 60 years. After being reunited via Facebook by their grandchildren, they meet, fall in love and plan to marry. Reid and Jacobi enjoyed having the chance to play out a love story between older people. As delightful as their relationship is, there’s plenty of room left over for drama within the extended family. Loyal followers of BBC dramas and prime-time soaps also will recognize such recurring stars as Sarah Lancashire, Nicola Walker, Nina Sosanya, Tony Gardner, Ronni Ancona, Dean Andrews, Sacha Dhawan and Josh Bolt. A fourth season is in the works.

New from Nickelodeon, “Dora the Explorer: Dora’s Double Length Adventures” features three double-length episodes, focusing on Dora and Boots as they encounter pirates, fairytale characters and a dancing elf. The three-disc set includes more than four hours of adventures and special features. In “Dora & Friends: Doggie Day,” Dora and her friends have committed themselves to helping their puppy friend Cusco reunite with his brothers before Doggie Adoption Day. The DVD adds three bonus episodes, representing Dora’s journeys to Magic Land, Opera Land and Fairytale Puppet World.

Sweet Trash/The Hang Up
My Sinful Life/Las Vegas Girls
Avon Triple Feature: Savage Sadists/Den of Dominance/Daughters of Discipline
As we occasionally make the trek down Mammary Lane – last week we focused on a DVD release of stag films and a series of Japanese “pink” flicks from the 1960s –invariably arriving at the point where the full impact of Deep Throat’s release becomes even more apparent than it already is. I don’t know where Vinegar Syndrome dug up the latest additions to its Drive-In Collection — Sweet Trash and The Hang Up, both from 1970 – but they appear to provide a missing link between early Russ Meyer and narrative soft-core porn. Their director, John Hayes, was a writer, director, editor, producer and occasional actor, whose 1958 short, “The Kiss,” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. He would soon become a prolific purveyor of exploitation fare, occasionally starring his then girlfriend, Rue McClanahan, before she was discovered by sitcom pioneer Norman Lear, in the 1970s. Sweet Trash and The Hang Up featured full-frontal female nudity and simulated sex to attract grindhouse audiences and plots that may have been rejected by the Mickey Spillane School of Fiction. In Sweet Trash, an alcoholic longshoreman, deep in debt to the mob, is forced into an increasingly debauched nightmare as he tries to avoid the thugs out to get him. The Hang Up opens with a bust at an L.A. drag bar, complete with brawny cops in drag. The actors might very well have been recruited from a local burlesque house.

My Sinful Life and Las Vegas Girls are noteworthy, if at all, as twin 1983 releases by porn auteur Carlos Tobalina, although they look as if they were shot in the same warehouse as the previous two VS releases from 1970. In the former, Danielle plays a young woman who learns the sensual arts from her adopted parents and takes the knowledge to college, where she finds work in a brothel. Las Vegas Girls follows private eyes Karen Hall and Dan Boulder, as they search for a runaway teen from Texas who left her oil baron father and gold digger mother to turn tricks. William Margold hosts a swingers party in a casino penthouse that might as well be in Boise. Vinegar Syndrome has given both sets 2k restorations, sourced from original 35mm camera negatives.

Another porn auteur, Phil Prince (a.k.a. Phil Prinz), labored primarily for New York underground studio, Avon Productions. Newly restored by VS from rare 16mm vault materials and collected on DVD for the first time are Savage Sadists, Den of Dominance and Daughters of Discipline. They’re strictly for collectors of hard-to-find films of the whips/chains/leather persuasion.

The DVD Wrapup: Unfriended, Water Diviner, Reckless, Life on the Reef, Lost Soul and more

Friday, July 31st, 2015

Unfriended: Blu-ray
Facebook has become such an unavoidable force in our culture that the mere threat of being “unfriended” by a fellow user now carries the same stigma as a church member being shunned for breaking a commandment. The act of eliminating a relative or acquaintance from one’s list of “friends” is not undertaken lightly. The finality, alone, can be deeply traumatic. With that in mind, it’s worth knowing that Levan Gabriadze’s clever thriller, Unfriended, originally was titled “Cybernatural,” which isn’t nearly as to-the-point. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram represent different things to different people, especially teens trying to out-hip their computer-savvy parents. Beyond the hundreds of millions of cutesy-poo photographs of children, cats and dogs that clog social media are the occasional attacks on individuals deemed worthy of being harassed by pinhead bullies. And, as we’ve learned to our collective shame, with bullying comes the occasional suicide. If the chatroom and webcam users in Unfriended belong to a more generic Internet community than Facebook, there are more similarities here than differences. In it, a typical group of young computer-literate pals is interacting in a chatroom, when their conversation is interrupted by the supernatural presence of Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), who committed suicide after being cyber-bullied. No one knows how or why their chat is being disrupted or who else might have something to gain from taunting the others. Before long, however, dark secrets are revealed and actual friendships are being pushed to the breaking point. But Unfriended isn’t for the casual users of the Internet. The multi-image presentation, which is extremely sophisticated, requires far more work on the part of the viewer than the typical narrative feature. The more experience one has in the world of cyber-communication, the scarier Unfriended will be.

The Water Diviner: Blu-ray
No fan of historically based movies needs to be reminded of the debates that typically follow the first screenings of films that dare play fast-and-loose with the facts. Typically, a very good story is capable of overcoming the negative effects of creative license, but not always. What solid narratives and good intentions can’t do, however, is make survivors of wartime tragedies ignore the reality of battles fought in vain. Neither can they appease viewers whose contrarian interpretations of historical events are dismissed as irrelevant to the story. Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner is precisely the kind of film that opened itself up to criticism for reasons other than its ability to entertain. As formulated by veteran Aussie television writer/producer Andrew Knight and scholar Andrew Anastasios, the movie basically picks up where Peter Weir’s 1981 Gallipoli ended, with the Ottoman defenders celebrating the retreat of Anzac troops after eight months of carnage. Flash back a bit to pre-war Australia, where hard-scrabble farmer Joshua Conner (Crowe) has divined the presence of water below the surface of an arid patch of unpromising land. The discovery allows Conner and his wife, Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie), to carve a successful living from an unlikely corner of the country, while raising three rough-and-tumble sons. When the lads hear the call of duty from war-torn Europe, they, in concert with thousands of other young Aussie and Kiwi males, volunteer to assist the Brits in eliminating Johnny Turk and his German friends from the equation. Their ill-advised mission was to take the beach at Gallipoli and advance on the ridges above, where the Ottomans could survey their every move. The Anzac troops fought valiantly, but, as we’re reminded in the movie by an enemy officer, would come up just short of victory. What they didn’t know was the defenders had been reduced to bayonets and had been ordered to die, rather than surrender or fall back from their trenches.  One more thrust might have sealed the deal for the allies.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. When the smoke cleared at Lone Pine, all three of Connor and Eliza’s inseparable sons would be declared missing and presumed dead. In all, more than 10,000 in the Anzac units, 56,000-68,000 Turks and 43,000 British and French troops were slaughtered. Tens of thousands more men, on both sides, would succumb to disease. Back on the farm, four years later, Eliza dealt with her grief by committing suicide. Conner vowed to honor her wish that the boys’ remains be returned home to lie beside her on consecrated ground. He’s convinced himself that his skills as a diviner will be welcomed by the British forces attempting to find and identify the long-buried corpses, so they can be laid in a common grave. After the armistice, Turkish officers were required to join the effort by pointing out the exact positions where the fighting took place. It’s at this point where fact forms an uneasy alliance with fiction. In Anastasios’ research of the Imperial War Graves unit, he came upon this brief notation in a soldier’s diary, “One old chap managed to get here from Australia, looking for his son’s grave. We did what we could for him and sent him on his way.” Unable to trace the background of the “old chap,” the co-writers based Crowe’s farmer on a relative with a talent for divining. From there, they added a friendship based on mutual respect between Connor and the Turkish Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan) and, after he returns to Istanbul, a complicated relationship between a beautiful Turkish war widow, Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), and her precocious pre-teen son. Connor’s friendship with the Turk officer leads to him joining Hasan in the burgeoning nationalist movement and adventures fighting Greek insurgents. An even more unlikely, if emotionally compelling scenario develops when Connor’s “visions” lead him to a Sufi monastery that once had served as POW facility. Sure, it sounds preposterous, but no more so than a hundred other wartime dramas we’ve all seen.

What the filmmakers failed to take into account, however, is historical context and the unfortunate timing of the U.S. and European release on April 24, 2015. Apart from insinuating that Greek guerrilla fighters are little more than a fictional hybrid of the Taliban and the James-Younger Gang – instead of longtime victims of Ottoman repression and brutality – there’s the omission of any mention of the Armenian Genocide. While it can be argued the systematic murder of 1.5 million people had next to nothing to do with Gallipoli – except for some Turks’ specious assertion that Armenians spied for the allies — there’s no ignoring the fact that the centennial of the failed invasion coincided with the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. By extension, it’s possible to believe that some of the same nationalist characters befriended by Connor participated in the slaughter. Worse, the arrival of The Water Diviner coincided, as well, with well-attended demonstrations across the country, marking that anniversary. Activists didn’t waste any time making the connection for anyone unaware of the significance of the date for Armenians, Australians and New Zealanders, alike, as well as those countries forced to fight for their independence from the Ottoman Empire. The Water Diviner was condemned for “whitewashing” Turkey’s role in this horrifying series of events, but I see it more as an oversight typical of a commercial imperative that doesn’t allow for details that get in the way of narrative flow. If only the histories of wars and genocide were sufficiently elastic to accommodate ignorance and lack of foresight. In its favor, The Water Diviner recently won three Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Erdogan) and Best Costume Design. It had received five additional nominations, for Best Lead Actor (Crowe), Best Supporting Actress (McKenzie), Best Original Screenplay, Best Production Design and Best Editing. Featurettes include “The Making of ‘The Water Diviner’” and “The Battle of Gallipoli.”

House on the Hill
The first thing to know about Joram Lürsen’s claustrophobic Dutch thriller, Reckless, is that it is nearly a direct remake of the well-received 2009 British export, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, which was given a limited release in the U.S. before finding its natural audience on DVD. The second thing to know is that both are worth the effort of finding. Like J Blakeson’s original, Reckless describes what happens when the adult daughter of a rich industrialist is kidnapped and held for ransom in a sound-insulated room in a high-rise apartment whose only amenity is a new bed and mattress. Thrown on the bed and forcibly stripped naked, before being given new coveralls, Laura Temming (Sarah Chronis) is blindfolded, handcuffed to the frame and required to relieve herself in plastic bottles in her captors’ presence. It’s nasty, alright, but secrets lie behind the men’s ski masks that separate this kidnapping from the one chronicled recently in the not completely dissimilar Kidnapping Mr. Heineken and The Heineken Kidnapping.

By contrast, Jeff Frentzen’s directorial debut, House on the Hill, amounts to nothing more than a series of re-creations of kidnappings, robberies, rapes, mutilations and murders that were recorded in northern California in the early-1980s. Ex-Marines Leonard Lake and Charles Ng were responsible for the deaths of between 11 to 25 men, women and children in a non-descript cottage and unattached torture chamber in the Sierra Nevada foothills. While Lake was able to avoid prosecution by ingesting cyanide pills after being arrested on an unrelated charge, in 1985, Ng has remained on Death Row at San Quentin since 1999. Because House on the Hill offers little in the way of new information on this case or serial killers in general – except, perhaps, maddening video clips of Lake explaining his motivations – it is nothing more than torture porn in docu-drama disguise.

The Color Out of Space: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
First released in Europe in 2010, Huan Vu’s adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s popular 1927 short story, “The Color Out of Space” is finally being made available to sci-fi/horror enthusiasts here in Blu-ray/DVD. Previously interpreted as Die, Monster, Die! (1965) and The Curse (1987), the German-language The Color Out of Space benefits from being shot in ominous shades of black, white, gray and, finally, lavender. The story involves an American man’s search for his father, 30 years after he disappeared in the Swabian-Franconian Forest in immediate aftermath of World War II. Before the war, a meteorite had crashed near the remote farm of the Gärtener family. Scientists came and went, stymied by the rock’s ability to retain intense heat while also shrinking. No sooner was a specimen collected than it disappeared. The first manifestation of something weird occurring at the farm came in the form of larger-than-normal fruit – tasteless to the point of being inedible – and gigantic flying insects. Then, individual members of the Gärtener family began to go mad or decompose prematurely. With nothing left to study, the scientists disappeared, leaving behind a mystery and a legend that endured after the war and to the 1970s, when the flooding of the valley began behind the creation of a dam. It is at this point in the narrative that Jonathan Davis (Ingo Heise) begins gathering the clues that could lead to discovering the fate of his father (Patrick Pierce). Although only one of the locals is particularly interested in helping Jonathan, the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place. A possible answer blossoms before our eyes. The Blu-ray adds a variety of Lovecraft audiobooks, limited-edition newspaper reproduction, a “lost” scene” and three featurettes.

3 Hearts: Blu-ray
Among the more timeless properties in the Hollywood repertoire is Leo McCarey’s Love Affair, which, since its debut in 1939, has been translated in full or in part into McCarey’s own re-do, An Affair to Remember (1957), Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Glenn Gordon Caron’s Love Affair (1994), the Bollywood remake, Mann (1999), a pair of “Lux Radio Theater” broadcasts, with Irene Dunne, and last year’s melancholic French twist, 3 Hearts. In the Gallic version, director/co-writer Benoît Jacquot (Farewell, My Queen) adds a new player to the game, stretching the time-lapse romance to form a triangle. In a town outside Lyons, Marc (Benoît Poelvoorde) misses his train back to Paris, allowing a chance meeting with a fellow chain-smoker, Sylvie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). It’s one of those chance encounters we all wish would happen to us on a rainy night in a strange town. The next morning, Marc and Sylvie make plans to meet a week later at the Tuileries Gardens. Naturally, fate intervenes … this time in the form of an anxiety attack disguised as a stroke. Lacking the foresight to have exchanged e-mails, our star-crossed lovers miss what could be their last opportunity for eternal bliss. But, wait, there’s more. A couple of years later, Marc meets and falls in love with Sophie (Chiara Mastroianni), who, unbeknownst to him, is Sylvie’s needy sister. At this point in the story, it’s only logical to foresee an awkward reunion at Marc and Sophie’s nuptials, but Jacquot finds convenient ways to postpone the inevitable. Even then, Jacquot manages to keep us guessing, if not laughing. His ace in the hole is Catherine Deneuve, who, as usual, shines in the role of Sophie and Sylvie’s nurturing mother, adding something warm and wonderful to every scene in which she appears.

And, while we’re on the subject of star-crossed lovers, fans of rom/dram/coms might consider Justin Long and Emmy Rossum’s affair to remember in Comet.  They meet while waiting in line for the gates of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery to open in anticipation of a late-night viewing of a meteor shower. (It’s actually a popular spot for Angelenos to gather for open-air screenings of classic movies.) Long’s character, Sam, takes the opportunity to hit on Rossum’s Kimberley, even though she’s in the company of a hunky guy capable of snapping him in two with his thighs. Over the course of the next 90 minutes, Esmail flashes backwards and forward several times to show difficult it will be for Sam and Kimberley to maintain anything resembling a meaningful longterm relationship. The only problem that viewers familiar with Long and Rossum’s work are likely to have with Comet is a script that fails to add punctuation marks to Sam’s endless self-absorbed chatter. Otherwise, it’s cute enough to sustain the interest of romantically inclined renters.

Ghost Town: Blu-ray
Future Justice
Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau: Blu-ray
Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXXIII
More an example of what can happen when genres collide than a movie that can stand on its own merits after a 25-year absence, Ghost Town begs the question as to how John Wayne might have fared in a horror movie directed by John Ford or Sergio Leone. This isn’t to suggest that the low-budget Empire Pictures production has anything in common with those giants than a southwestern setting, only that it made me wonder how they would have prevented the zombie apocalypse. Here, a beautiful blond bride (Catherine Hickland) avoids lifelong commitment by escaping into the desert in her convertible and disappearing into a cloud of dust. When hunky Deputy Sheriff Langley (Franc Luz) follows her tracks into the desert, he encounters a phantom horseman (Jimmie F. Skaggs) who lures him into a ghost town, populated by real ghosts. It’s an idea, like so many others, that would have fit more appropriately in an hour-long episode of “The Twilight Zone,” but, at 85 minutes, is stretched to its breaking point. Nonetheless, genre completists and Empire buffs should be able to find something here to justify their interest.

Not to be outdone by tales of the Himalayan Yeti, North American Sasquatch, Scotland’s Nessie and Mexican Chupacabra, Australia’s Aboriginals came up with a famously elusive cryptid of their own, naming it Yowie. It is this hairy beast that in Travis Bain’s Throwback attacks separate pairs of treasure hunters, a couple hundred years apart, when they drift into its densely forested habitat in far northern Queensland. And, as if Yowie weren’t a sufficiently ominous predator, the writer/director has added a park ranger named Rhiannon (Melanie Serafin) and a wild-eyed ex-homicide detective, McNab, played by action veteran Vernon Wells (The Road Warrior). Reportedly made on a budget of only $200,000, Throwback easily earns its Ozploitation stripes.

Richard Griffin, who’s given us such unforgettable horror films as Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead, Accidental Incest and The Disco Exorcist, enters the world of post-apocalyptic sci-fi with Future Justice. It is a movie that borrows from Escape From New York, The Chronicles of Riddick and a half-dozen cheapo exploitation flicks from the 1980s. Here, intergalactic super-villain Python Diamond is being transported to Earth from Saturn’s prison moon, Titan, under the watch of an inept quintet of police escorts. What the flight crew doesn’t learn until it’s too late is that Earth has been decimated by a cataclysmic nuclear war. Conveniently, not everyone on Earth has been killed. Their search for survivors leads to a group of scientists hiding in a warehouse and several gangs of marauding thugs, fully capable of wreaking havoc over the provisions contained in the bunker. Also troublesome is the faceless monster lurking in the shadows. It’s pretty goofy, but in a fun, bargain-basement, DIY sort of way. The DVD adds a commentary track and the short film, “Mutants of the Apocalypse.”

Once upon a time in Hollywood, an overoptimistic studio executive gave the green light to yet another adaptation of H.G. Wells’ visionary novel “The Island of Doctor Moreau,” which used vivisection as a launching pad for a condemnation of unchecked scientific experimentation and cruelty to animals. Advances in special makeup effects would allow for hybrid beasts more closely resembling those envisioned by Wells and the production wouldn’t be limited to a soundstage. In South African writer/director Richard Stanley (Hardware, Dust Devil), New Line executives felt as if they had the right man in place to create a wildly imaginative picture and bring it in on budget, even with the participation of such notoriously difficult actors as Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer in tow. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. Everything that could go wrong with the movie actually did go wrong, and it was going wrong half a world away from southern California. Released 20 years after the fact, David Gregory’s Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau makes Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse look like a behind-the-scenes featurette for HBO. The often inadvertently hilarious documentary features never-before-seen footage, new interviews with actors Fairuza Balk and Rob Morrow, studio executives, crew members and recollections of the famously reclusive and roundly vilified Stanley. Gregory also takes a film crew and survivor of the production to the location, which has nearly returned to its original rain-forest roots.

The latest compilation of cinematic atrocities from the annals of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” – numero XXXIII – is comprised of Daddy-O (1958), with future gangster auteur Dick Contino; Bert I. Gordon’s creature-feature Earth vs. the Spider (1958); the juvenile-delinquent non-epic Teen-Age Crime Wave (1955); and Agent for H.A.R.M., with the odd couple of Wendell Corey and international sex star Barbara Bouchet. Beyond the informed commentary of the Satellite of Love crew, the set includes the featurettes “Beatnick Blues: Investigating Daddy-O,” “This Movie Has Legs: Looking Back at ‘Earth vs. the Spider’,” “Film It Again, Sam: The Katzman Chronicles,” “Tommy Cook: From Jungle Boy to Teenage Jungle” and “Peter Mark Richman: In H.A.R.M.’s Way”; MST Hour Wraps; theatrical trailers; and four mini-posters by Steve Vance.

Aftermass: Bicycling in a Post-Critical Mass Portland
Built on Narrow Land
Nice Bombs
Our Daily Poison
Anyone familiar with the archetypal weirdos created by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein for their dead-on IFC satire, “Portlandia,” will recognize all of the people we meet in Aftermass: Bicycling in a Post-Critical Mass Portland, except the neo-fascist cops who equate riding bicycles to promoting Bolshevism. An exaggeration? Not according to the evidence presented in Joe Biel’s curious documentary, which chronicles the rise of “bicycle culture” from the early 1970s to the late 1990s and resistance to it by the right-wing police department. I remember visiting Portland during this period and enjoying the overriding sense of liberation and personal freedom I experienced there. The city reflected through Biel’s lens more closely resembles East Berlin or Warsaw, during the Cold War. “Aftermass” is described as being the first feature documentary to explore the events, people, politics and social changes that led to Portland becoming the first major bicycle city in the United States. It accomplishes this by putting a tight focus on the then-grassroots movement Critical Mass, whose membership does, indeed, resemble the characters in “Portlandia,” right down to a bike-riding mayor and annoying anarchists. The organization was the subject of illegal spying by the police Red Squad and citations registered against its members ranged from expensive traffic citations to busted heads and confiscated equipment. Once the number of dedicated bicyclists actually did reach critical mass, however, they were able to take control of the ballot box and force city officials – many of whom rode bicycles to work or for recreation – to stop kowtowing to the ridiculously powerful police hierarchy. Today, Portland is a bikers’ paradise, with hundreds of miles of paths and roadways dedicated to commuters and other enthusiasts. Bonus features include 21 additional short bicycle films, 18 deleted scenes, 1,000 legal documents to peruse and a downloadable soundtrack.

I doubt that many Americans would mind terribly if Cape Cod were to be cleared of its semi-permanent residents and their land was returned to its original inhabitants, the Wampanoag Indians. In exchange for helping the Pilgrims, whose arrival pre-dated that of the Kennedys by roughly 300 years, the Native American tribe was given a steady diet of small pox and other diseases, enslavement and expulsion, anti-colonial wars and crappy land deals. Today, it’s known primarily as a playground for the rich and famous and mecca for Jaws fanatics. Malachi Connolly’s debut documentary, Built on Narrow Land, is a film that looks at a moment in Cape Cod history when the spirit of European modern architecture inspired a group of bohemian designers — professionals and amateurs both–to build houses that married principles of the Bauhaus to the centuries-old local architecture of seaside New England. As long as eastern Cape Cod was largely free of tourists and developers, the homes existed as fully functional seasonal dwellings that confused Modernist ideas with those of trailer-park designers. Not all of the homes held up in the punishing Cape Cod winters, but others have supported tourism and semi-permanent residency until today. In 1961, President Kennedy signed legislation establishing the Cape Cod National Seashore, which gave National Park Service jurisdiction over the fate of the remaining landmark houses. Besides offering a fascinating discussion on the history and cultural importance of the homes, Connolly interviews relatives of the Bauhaus crowd, temporary residents of the homes and people who understand the politics and peccadilloes of Cape Code’s permanent residents. The musical score is provided by Josephine Wiggs, of the Breeders.

Released tentatively into theaters and festivals in 2007, Nice Bombs offers a slightly dated, but still relevant look at post-invasion Baghdad, this time through the eyes of men, women and children who lived through the violent overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the Baathist Party. Chicago-based filmmaker and newly naturalized American citizen Usama Alshaibi (Profane, American Arab) used the occasion of the newly elected government to return to Iraq with his father and American wife. The family had left the country after his educator father refused to join the Baathist party and his mother settled in Iowa. They had plenty of relatives left in the capital, so an open-arms welcome was guaranteed. What wasn’t known ahead of time was how they would be greeted by folks in the street, who, by now, had gotten tired of the continued American presence and resultant insurgency. Alshaibi borrowed the title from something his cousin said after hearing an explosion outside the home. “It’s a bomb. A ‘nice bomb,’” he enigmatically explains. In 2003, any bomb or missile that didn’t hit one’s own home could be considered to be a “nice bomb.” Not surprisingly, perhaps, the people we meet here are the ones caught between the occupation forces and the insurgents, who aren’t clearly identified. One relative complains that an American patrol wouldn’t allow him to return home, even though he was standing 30 meters from his front door. At the same time, Alshaibi also reminds us of the toll paid by innocent victims of the mosque and market bombings. We meet relatives, friends and American contractors, all of whom have weapons secreted in their homes, and children with firm opinions on who’s to blame for their continued misery. By the time Alshaibi has returned to Iraq’s border with Jordan, we’ve been introduced to enough perfectly hospitable, if completely disillusioned Iraqis to wince when an American border guard asks the filmmaker why the citizenry isn’t more appreciative of this country’s sacrifices and continuing occupation. (Someone was buying the Cheney-Bush propaganda, anyway.) The DVD adds several deleted scenes, three of Alshaibi’s shorts and commentary.

Our Daily Poison is a cautionary documentary about food sourcing that would be far more alarming if we hadn’t heard it all before now. Produced by the French investigative documentarian Marie-Monique Robin, it describes how several already notorious multinational agricultural interests have been allowed to “poison” the European food chain in the name of increased production and higher profits. To make her case, Robin points to World Health Organization data that shows the incidence of cancer in developed countries has doubled over the last 30 years, with the increase in leukemia and brain tumors in children up around 2 percent per year. Similar trends for neurological diseases, auto-immune disorders and reproduction dysfunctions have also been recorded. Robin has scoured the archives of the United States Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority, and talked her way into secret meetings, to show how little oversight is provided by the agencies assigned to regulate abusers of our trust. Indeed, she argues, some 100,000 chemical molecules have invaded our environment, primarily our food, since the end of the Second World War.

PBS: Life on the Reef: Blu-ray
Syfy: Helix: Season 2: Blu-ray
Justice League: Gods and Monsters: Blu-ray
Mama’s Family: Mama’s Favorites: Season 6
Currently playing on PBS affiliates, the Blu-ray iteration of “Life on the Reef” examines life on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef over the course of a year. Where previous documentaries have focused on environmental issues and sharks, the three hours allotted “Life on the Reef” allows for a comprehensive study of the ebb and flow of events that impact life on and around Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, a rigidly protected region east of Queensland. A year on the reef covers myriad reproduction cycles, migrations, meteorological events and prime scientific opportunities. Also covered are the impact of shipping routes on the reef, poaching and interaction between human residents and sea life. Not surprisingly, the Blu-ray presentation is consistently spectacular.

The Syfy series “Helix” lasted all of two seasons, which, in hindsight, is a year longer than most new shows are accorded, even on cable. A stylish hybrid of The Thing and any number of rampant-virus thrillers, it probably did well enough for first-timer Cameron Porsandeh to expect another assignment in the near future. Season One kept the CDC crew in “Thing” territory for all 13 episodes, so a thaw was in order. This time around, Dr. Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell) and his team travel to the mysterious and remote wooded island of St. Germain, where a deadly new virus presents a different sort of threat, as do members of a well-entrenched religious community. When Dr. Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsky) travels to the same island, she is captured by a stranger who repeatedly asks her, “Do you know the way to San Jose?” Later it is revealed that Julia is on St. Germain 30 years in the future, and she is shown Farragut’s grave near the ruins of the base.  The Blu-ray adds several deleted scenes and outtakes.

Released as a direct-to-video and digital-download project from Warner Home Video, Justice League: Gods and Monsters is an animated superhero film that appears to have been influenced greatly by the popularity of DC Comics’ occasional Bizarro World storylines. Here, though, Superman is the son of Zod, not Jor-El; Batman is Kirk Langstrom, a genetically altered vampire-like creature with super strength and a thirst for blood; Wonder Woman is scorned Princess Bekka, granddaughter of New God Highfather; and the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman and Martian Manhunter are nowhere to be found. Justice League fans should appreciate the break from form and bright animation.

The new Star Vista/Time collection, “Mama’s Family: Mama’s Favorites: Season 6,” includes such episodes such as “Mama Fights Back,” as she chews out K-Ray radio’s consumer watchdog on the air and promptly gets hired as his replacement. In “The Big Nap,” after watching TV detective movies for a week, Mama dreams she’s a film-noir private eye. In “Pinup Mama,” Bubba creates a flier for a senior mixer using a photo of mama’s head on a young model’s bikini-clad body. In the series finale, “Bye Bye Baby,” Vint and Naomi move from Mama’s basement with their new addition.

Sleazy Stags, American Style
The difference between a stag film and a loop, as pertains to the underground porn industry pre-“Deep Throat,” was largely a function of exhibition opportunities. Generally speaking, loops were single-reel productions that could be appreciated by patrons of adult bookstores and peep shows on a pay-per-minute basis, one movie per booth. Once they were purchased under-the-counter or through mail-order sources, the films could be shown on 8mm projectors – typically reserved for home movies of the period – or commercial 16mm machines at “smokers,” stag and bachelor parties, garages and basements. By the 1970s, the “stags” no longer featured men in masks giving lonely women what they wanted sexually, but dared not admit desiring. Male actors no longer kept their socks on during sex, although garter belts and stocking were optional for women. With the advent of home-video players and late-night “skinemax” offerings on cable TV, the stags and loops became obsolete and were discarded, put into storage or lost. Sleazy Stags, American Style, from After Hours Cinema, contains more than three hours of these films – which make the Bettie Page fetish flicks look like Boogie Nights — many available for the first time on home video. They’ve been restored as well as possible, but are of mostly historical interest to collectors. There aren’t as many still-familiar actors anonymously participating in these films, either, as has been the case with loop collections from Impulse Pictures. Still, the mostly generic faces of hippies in need of fast cash weren’t the drawing card, anyway. The trailer reel is almost as good as the stags, themselves.

The DVD Wrapup: What We Do In Shadows, Resnaisx2, Marfa Girl, and more

Friday, July 24th, 2015

What We Do in the Shadows: Blu-ray
Mockumentaries and genre spoofs come and go, these days. Such hit-and-run parodies as Vampires Suck, Date Movie, The Starving Games and Meet the Spartans take the scattershot approach, riding the success of one hit picture to take none-too-subtle potshots at a dozen other movies. The best, including Airplane!, This Is Spinal Tap and Best in Show, are in no hurry to tip the gag to viewers who aren’t in on the gag from the get-go. Zombie, vampire and alien-intruder movies rely so heavily on genre tropes, conventions and clichés that it’s sometimes difficult to discern the line separating satire from homage. The sub-genre can be traced all the way back to Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein, in 1948, or, perhaps, seven years earlier, in Hold That Ghost. Among the luminaries who milked mirth from monsters in the 1960-70s were Roman Polanski (The Fearless Vampire Killers), Mel Brooks (Young Frankenstein) and Stan Dragoti (Love at First Bite). Cult favorite Udo Kier, who’d already played Count Dracula and Baron Frankenstein under Andy Warhol’s banner, added a certain amount of credibility to Charles Matton’s 1976 curiosity, Spermula. A couple of decades later, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright would kick off another round of genre parodies, with the smart and wickedly funny Shaun of the Dead. Jonathan Levine would allow for the possibility of romance and redemption among the undead, in Warm Bodies, while Cockneys vs. Zombies added a unique regional flare to the splatter-fest trend. Otherwise, a lot of very amusing titles have been wasted on comedies that would have benefitted from more money and more laughs.

One needn’t have been a zealous fan of “Flight of the Conchords” and Eagle vs Shark, or even a vampire completist, to be drawn to What We Do in the Shadows. Those who are, however, probably will get a real kick out of this razor-sharp genre parody from New Zealand. The largely improvised mockumentary defies the odds by doing an end-run around the Scary Movie and Scream franchises and adding a supernatural spin to such bros-will-be-bros pictures as Swingers and Saturday Night Fever. It is the conceit of co-writers-directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi that a group of vampire roommates in contemporary Wellington permit a camera crew full access to their weeks-long preparation for the annual Unholy Masquerade. It is a formal bash, where the vampires party with the city’s zombies, banshees and other mutants. Like an upside-down version of MTV’s “The Real World,” the apartment they share is an unholy mess, with dirty dishes filling every flat surface and dried-up blood soiling the pots and pans in the kitchen. They might have acquired their fashion sense directly from George Bryan “Beau” Brummel or Oscar Wilde. The bloodshed, of which there’s plenty, is at once delightfully gratuitous and borderline gut-churning. More than anything else, however, What We Do in the Shadows provides lots of good R-rated fun for genre nuts. Rhys Darby, who played the singers’ hapless agent in “Flight of the Conchords,” is a key part of the cast, as are as several Kiwi actors from Eagle vs. Shark. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Clement and Waititi, promo clips, deleted scenes, in-character interviews and clips, a background featurette and poster gallery.

Love Unto Death/Life Is a Bed of Roses: Blu-ray
Anyone who’s taken an Introduction to European Cinema course in college can attest to the head-scratching that followed screenings of Alain Resnais’ arthouse classics, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, as well as the anxiety caused by having to write papers on them. Some of the confusion came from Resnais’ work being lumped together with other examples of the French New Wave, which emerged coincidental to his move from documentaries (Night and Fog) to fiction. In exploring the relationship between consciousness, memory and the imagination, Resnais frequently disregarded conventional notions of narrative and story development. The elliptical framing could be as perplexing and inexplicable as any viewer’s personal recollection of a dream or nightmare. Because Resnais frequently collaborated with such accomplished French authors and left-wing scenarists as Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Gruault, Henri Laboritand, David Mercer, Jean Cayrol, Jorge Semprún, Jacques Sternberg and Chris Marker, it was particularly difficult for Americans to determine where the writers’ contributions ended and the director’s began. Even those early arthouse buffs who fell in love with Breathless and The 400 Blows felt intimated by the intellectualism that informed Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad.  I wonder how many of the students who gave up on Resnais in college have returned to those films in retrospectives or on Blu-ray and attempted to reinterpret them from the point of view of an adult. With all of the informative bonus features and first-person recollections now available to viewers, there’s no telling what they might take from these beautifully crafted landmark films. I’m happy that I made the effort, even if some of the mysteries remain unsolved, and have gone to tackle works from later creative periods.

Cohen Media’s winning streak continues with remastered editions of films Resnais directed back-to-back in the mid-1980s, featuring popular European actors who appear in both pictures. Released in 1983, Life Is a Bed of Roses could hardly be more French and, therefore, more foreign to American eyes … although a Wes Anderson remake wouldn’t be completely out of the question. As such, brushing up on the intellectual fantasy before diving into the deep end only makes sense and shouldn’t be construed as cheating. In it, Resnais and Gruault (The Story of Adele H, My American Uncle) pay tribute to three important French filmmakers — Georges Méliès, Marcel L’Herbier and Eric Rohmer – by interweaving three stories from different eras around a cotton-candy castle in the Ardennes. In an extended period of peace before the outbreak of World War I, the fabulously wealthy Count Michel Forbek (Ruggero Raimondi) announces plans to build a Disneyland-like complex for the exclusive pleasure of his family and friends. What doesn’t go according to this powerful man’s plans are the decision by his intended queen of the realm (Fanny Ardant) to marry another of their friends (Pierre Arditi). If that rejection wasn’t enough to dissuade Forbek, the Kaiser’s intentions to invade France were. Years later, the count invites friends who survived the war to the castle for a utopian interlude complete with flowing robes, love potions and pre-hippy philosophy. That it stands alone on the property doesn’t make the castle any less interesting. Skipping ahead, once again, this time to the 1980s, the castle has been converted to a school dedicated to the theory that children can learn everything they’ll need to know in life through free play and curiosity. A conference of progressive educators has been convened to toss around ideas, but none of the guests are willing to concede that their ideas are anything but sacrosanct. Educators are like that. Other bonds are established, however, through the promise of romance and Philippe-Gérard’s evocative soundtrack.

Resnais and Gruault find an interesting way to use the music of composer Hans Werner Henze, as well, in Love Unto Death, a drama as emotionally wrenching as its companion piece is fantastical. In what is essentially a four-character chamber piece, Henze’s music serves as fifth voice. Simon, an archaeologist, and Elisabeth, a botanist, are deeply in love, despite being together only a short time. Out of the blue, Simon suffers a heart attack and is declared dead. Just as the doctor is about to leave the home they share, Simon rallies to the point where he refuses further treatment. As it turns out, their closest friends, Judith (Ardant) and Jerome (Andre Dussolier), are Lutheran clerics. They respond to their friend’s near-death with compassion, of course, but also great curiosity. He remembers key elements of his aborted journey to the afterlife, after all, and, even though he’s an atheist, was profoundly moved by the experience. Judith and Jerome had recently lost a parishioner to suicide and had yet to come to grips with their inability to prevent it. Naturally, much soul-searching follows their discussions over the dinner table and in private. Simon, whose career-long obsession has been the disposal of refuse in primitive communities, rightly wonders if anyone will give a damn about the subject when he dies. And, if not, what then was the point of being alive? Elisabeth refuses to listen to any of this post-traumatic philosophizing. She can’t imagine living without her lover and a visit to the archeological dig only adds to their confusion about how Simon ought to proceed, given the fragility of his heart. The snowy interstitials and musical interludes give viewers something else to consider. Clearly, Love Unto Death is the furthest thing from a comedy. Still, the subject is something familiar to all of us, in one way or another, and the occasion of a short-lived miracle offers a perfect forum for such exchanges of thoughts and fears. Commentary is provided on both films by Wade Major and Andy Klein.

Marfa Girl
A couple of years ago, “60 Minutes” correspondent Morley Safer paid a visit to tiny Marfa, Texas, which inexplicably has become a mecca for artists and other hipster visionaries, despite being located in the middle of cow country, 200 miles away from the nearest airport. In his introduction, Safer surmised, “Marfa lives on, is even thriving: its renaissance spurred by the arrival of a host of young, cutting edge artists. Mixing cowboys and culture might seem like a bad idea, but it’s made Marfa a capital of quirkiness … and it’s produced a harmony as sweet as the country music that fills the air.” When cutting-edge filmmaker Larry Clark traveled deep into the heart of Texas to make Marfa Girl, he probably ate in the same restaurants as Safer mentioned and, perhaps, visited a gallery or two. You won’t find them in his film. Although one of the young women we meet is a promising artist, she largely functions here as an extreme example of an innocent child corrupted by her hippie parents’ radical incorporation of free love into their child-rearing regimen. For decades, now, Clark has specialized in photographing and filming teenagers and young adults who live on the fringes of mainstream society. His first movie, Kids, documented a day in the life of a group of aimless New York City teenagers, with nothing better to do than cop drugs, skate, drink, smoke and have unprotected sex. The difference between the kids in Marfa Girl and those in Kids is that, no matter how burned out the New York teens were at such an early point in their lives, they were surrounded by people who had overcome similar circumstances and succeeded on their own terms. The list includes writer Harmony Korine, who was a 19-year-old street kid when he met Clark. In Marfa, the characters might never have met anyone who achieved anything greater than landing a job at the local diner and made a career of it … that, or the military.

We’re introduced to Adam (Adam Mediano) on the eve of his 16th birthday, as he’s being picked up on curfew violation by a brutal Border Patrol agent. (The city doesn’t appear to have a police force of its own and isn’t close to the nearest border.) The cop has it out for Adam, in large part because any infraction gives him an excuse for returning the boy home to his parrot-obsessed mother, who brings out the most vile sexual fantasies in him. Adam’s birthday gifts arrive in the form of an erotic paddling from a hugely pregnant teacher, several joints and sex with a neighbor who aspires to be a stripper. His more age-appropriate girlfriend gives him the same present. If this is an unusual coming-of-age ritual for Lone Star teens, no one in Adam’s crowd seems surprised by it. In a funny exchange, the boy and the slightly older artist (Drake Burnette) are strolling along a dusty path when she asks if he is aware of the sexual properties of the clitoris. He responds, “Only from what I’ve seen on ‘South Park.’” This leads to a rather detailed explanation of how the female sex organ works and ought to be pleasured. Any modicum of blissful sexual innocence remaining in the teens is lost within the next several hours by the actions of the porn-addicted patrolman. If viewers already familiar with such Clark works as Bully, Ken Park, Wassup Rockers and the The Smell of Us aren’t shocked by the ending of Marfa Girl, it’s only because it’s of a piece with those titles. And, where Kids was correctly perceived to be a cautionary tale, Marfa Girl’s power to shock will likely be limited to the parents of children approaching high school age. As usual, the most powerful performances are delivered by first-time actors. Clearly, this is not Morley Safer’s Marfa, Texas.

Red Knot
Not long after the introduction of the birth-control pill and publication of Masters and Johnson’s “Human Sexual Response,” it stopped being unusual for men and women to cohabitate before entering into marriage. Such arrangements allowed them time to check each other out before committing to matrimony, one way or the other. Parents raised their eyebrows, but it was difficult to argue the logic of sampling the goods before making a commitment. The widespread availability of contraception devices allowed couples the time to get to know each other, before having to focus all of their attention on a third member of the family. If the divorce rate continued to rise into the early 1980s, it was for reasons unrelated to shacking up ahead of nuptials. Many analysts are convinced that the overall rate has declined since its high and it may now be below 50 percent, if not by much. I don’t know if the couple we meet in Scott Cohen’s tense relationship drama, Red Knot, lived together before getting married and setting off on a disastrous honeymoon excursion, literally to the end of the earth. The characters played by Olivia Thirlby (Just Before I Go) and Vincent Kartheiser (“Mad Men”) seem very happy to be together in the opening minutes of Cohen’s debut film. If Chloe would have preferred a cruise to Tahiti or the Cayman Islands, instead of Peter’s destination of choice, Antarctica, she tries her best not to let her disappointment show. The tiny cabins and bunk beds afforded passengers on the Red Knot may not have been measured with the needs of honeymooners in mind, but they give it the old college try, anyway.

Even before they reach Antarctica, though, Olivia begins to feel as if Peter is paying more attention to the scientists aboard the ship than to her. It’s so subtle that Peter, like many men in the same position, is unable to notice any changes in his behavior or any of the fissures growing between them. Neither do we, really. A professional decision impulsively made by Peter causes Olivia to go off like an M-80 in the hands of a careless teenage boy. Within moments, it seems, she’s flirted her way into the good graces of the handsome Captain Emerson (Billy Campbell), who finds her a more accommodating cabin. If Emerson has reasons of his own for spending months at a time at sea, Cohen wisely avoids the temptation to turn Red Knot into an R-rated episode of “The Love Boat.” The truly big chill is felt every time the Red Knot cuts through the ice pack and passages between the snow-covered mountains that tower over the ship.  Cohen and cinematographer Michael Simmonds (The Lunchbox) capture aspects of the continent I haven’t seen in the many recent documentaries about penguins and the year-round population of scientists and support crews. The scenery is utterly spectacular and the skies above couldn’t be more ominous. Blessedly free of clichés and easy answers, Red Knot describes exactly what can happen when a marriage hits an iceberg.

Cemetery Without Crosses: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Two-thirds Spaghetti Western and a third Escargot Western, Cemetery Without Crosses (a.k.a., “The Rope and the Colt”) is that rare blend of French and Italian sensitivities that honors the mythology of American West without also smearing the boot prints of Sergio Leone or John Ford. Multi-hyphenate filmmaker and star Robert Hossein gives credit where it’s due, however, by dedicating his terrifically entertaining Western to Leone, under whom he served in Once Upon a Time in the West. Favorable comparisons to the “Dollars Trilogy” can be made, though, in the majestic Andalusian exteriors, spare sets and costume designs, and no-nonsense protagonist. Those distinctively haunting Ennio Morricone musical cues may be missing in Cemetery Without Crosses, but Andre Hossein’s score and Scott Walker’s theme song easily bridge the gap. Although not quite as menacing as the anti-heroes and villains in Leone’s films, Bob Hussein is very good as the gun-slinger, Manuel, whose good friend is hung at the gate of his modest homestead after being caught in the middle of a feud between two rival families. (I can’t understand why anyone would choose to farm patches of desert that even cacti avoid for lack of water, but it didn’t seem to bother Ford or Leone.) The man’s stunningly beautiful widow, Maria (Michèle Mercier), finds Manuel in a creaky ghost town not far from the homestead. She pleads with him to avenge her husband’s death at the hands of the Rogers clan, but he is non-committal in the kind of way that tells us he’s already bought into it. After gunning down a bunch of Caine family ruffians in the saloon/brothel, Manuel is able to insinuate himself into the good graces of the Rogers clan, where his plan includes kidnaping Old Man Rogers’ daughter and turning her over to Maria for nefarious purposes of her own. The French touches can be found in Hossein’s treatment of the female characters, who are given more to do here than in most oaters. The action in Cemetery Without Crosses isn’t of the non-stop variety, but, when it erupts, it’s pretty entertaining. Hossein shares writing credit for the film with Claude Desailly and Dario Argento, although the extent of the giallo specialist’s contributions are in doubt. Arrow Video’s 2K restoration is typically first-rate, adding the all-new featurette “Remembering Sergio,” vintage interviews with cast and crew and Hossein, trailers, a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by James Flames, and an illustrated collector’s booklet containing new writing by Ginette Vincendeau and Rob Young.

Beyond Zero: 1914-1918
In last week’s column, I looked at the mini-series “Crimson Field” and 1979 remake of “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Avant-garde filmmaker Bill Morrison’s Beyond Zero: 1914-1918 is the third winner in this World War I trifecta. Like his Decasia, The Great Flood and Just Ancient Loops, Beyond Zero combines rare archival material and contemporary music. In this case, the seriously distressed 35mm nitrate footage was shot on and around battlefields of the First World War. It is accompanied by the Kronos Quartet, performing a score created by Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov. For those unfamiliar with Morrison’s work, watching largely eroded film stock accompanied by music can have the same effect as a good old-fashioned light show at the Fillmore in the 1960s. The images that find their way through the damage often takes the form of ghosts from the far past. Here, they include recruiting rallies, planes flying in formation, tanks crushing everything in their path, troops advancing from the trenches and, my favorite, a dog standing guard over a dead or wounded soldier lying in a farm field, barking to alert stretcher bearers of his master’s location. It’s a truly remarkable document and, at 39 minutes, not at all taxing on the eye. The DVD adds footage of the Kronos Quartet performing in front of a large screen showing the film.

Gangs of Wasseypur: Blu-ray
The easiest way to describe Anurag Kashyap’s gangland saga, Gangs of Wasseypur, is to boil it down to a cross between The Godfather trilogy and an atypically violent Bollywood movie. Like Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia epic, Gangs Of Wasseypur chronicles the a multigenerational rivalry between two families whose mafia lineage begins with the divvying of spoils at the end of British rule in India’s coal-rich Dhanbad district and extends to the bloody settling of long-held debts in 2009. The influence of Bollywood can be seen in the complicated romantic entanglements and a soundtrack that includes 25 popular and traditional songs. One family is controlled by the cunning politician Ramadhir Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia), who exploits his constituents while also promising them protection from the descendants of the notorious train robber, Shahid Khan (Jaideep Ahlawat). Singh’s muscle is provided by the city’s Qureshi Muslims, a sub-caste of animal butchers known to punish their enemies in the same manner as they prepare meat for their customers. The patriarch of the Khan family went from robbing trains to taking over the coal mines handed over to rich Indian businessman by the British, before leaving Dodge. From there, corruption would flow through his son, Shahid Khan (Manoj Bajpai) and his five sons from two concurrent wives. If Shahid’s son had been a Corleone, he’d be Sonny, while Singh’s son more closely resembles Fredo. The wives may know what’s expected of them in such a male-dominated environment, but they can be as cold and calculating as Connie Corleone Rizzi in Godfather III. Culled from the ranks of supermodels and stars of regional Indian cinemas, Huma Qureshi, Richa Chadda, Reema Sen and Anurita Jha are as talented as they ethereally beautiful in the Bollywood tradition. The biggest drawback for American viewers will be the film’s five-hour length. Naturally divided into two parts of equal lengths, it can be further subdivided by viewers, as if it were a mini-series. Kashyap is also responsible for the gritty coming-of-age story, That Girl in Yellow Boots, in which a half-Indian Brit is lured to the less glamorous precincts of Mumbai by a letter sent by her estranged father. It’s considered to be a prime example of the burgeoning Indian indie movement.

The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie: Blu-ray
Anyone privy to the press releases sent out regularly by Troma Entertainment’s marketing staff knows that company co-founder Lloyd Kaufman has kept busy over the past few years basking in the glory of finally being recognized as one of the most distinctive and influential filmmakers in the horror genre and a true pop-cultural icon. Like John Waters, he travels around the world accepting lifetime achievement awards, holding seminars and retrospectives, and conducting master classes. He also finds the time to direct or co-direct a picture each year, make cameos in other people’s movies, write the occasional book and oversee the distribution of non-Troma originals. Shot and released almost concurrently, in 1989, with The Toxic Avenger Part II, Toxic Avenger III: The Last Temptation of Toxie finds Our Hero back in Tromaville, after his sojourn to Japan. He returns to a town virtually free of crime. So, after taking on the censorial owners of chain video stores, he has next to nothing to do. Desperate to raise money for the experimental surgery that could restore his blind fiancée’s eyesight (Phoebe Legere), Toxie accepts a lucrative job with the evil multinational conglomerate, Apocalypse Inc. (a.k.a., the Devil). His greatest challenge, though, may be avoiding being called “yuppie scum” by Tromaville hipsters. Blu-ray exclusives add a new Introduction by Kaufman; “American Cinematheque Honors 40 Years of Troma” and “TroMoMA”; “Make Your Own Damn Horror Film!,” featuring Kane Hodder and Bill Mosley; “Rabid Grannies! The Informercial!”; LK “Pests” promo video; Troma YouTube “Halloween” and Troma trailers.The vintage DVD material adds commentaries by Kaufman and actor Joe Flieshaker; “Satanic Memories”; interviews; “Confessions of a Snake Lady”; a Toxic posters compilation; and “Lord Fartacus Cult.”

Lost for Words
Although almost nothing rings true in Stanley J. Orzel’s cross-cultural romance, the contemporary Hong Kong setting comes close to making Lost for Words recommendable to fans of star-crossed love stories. An American IT specialist, Michael (Sean Faris), fresh from an eventful stint in the Marines and bad breakup with his girlfriend back in the states, falls in love with an up-and-coming ballerina, Anna (Grace Huang), from mainland China. After a couple of chance encounters, they agree to meet for impromptu language lessons. These lead to sight-seeing dates, during which they discuss their impressions on the shape of clouds and exchange other tentative pre-sex chatter. One cliché follows another – a harpsichord even accompanies a rainy-night stroll on the waterfront – until they hit something resembling an insurmountable roadblock. It would be easy enough to pick apart Orzel’s unabashedly old-fashioned depiction of modern romance, if that’s all there was to Lost for Words. Instead, he takes us to places in Hong Kong, far from the hustle and bustle of the markets, street vendors and bars already surveyed by John Woo and Tsui Hark, among others. As for being an ex-Marine, there are times when Faris barely looks old enough to have gotten out of high school. It might have made more sense if Michael’s background was something substantially less butch. But, since I’m not the intended audience for Lost for Words, I probably should remain neutral on the casting. I will say, though, that Anna’s sarcastic roommate, Mei Mei (Joman Chiang) adds some much-need spice to the dialogue.

Nickelodeon: Let’s Learn: Kindness
PBS: Mia & Me: Friends to the Rescue
Good manners, forgiveness, friendship and teamwork are the lessons being taught in Nickelodeon’s newest DVD, “Let’s Learn: Kindness.” It features six “super-polite episodes” of the network’s popular franchises, “Wallykazam!,” “Bubble Guppies,” “Dora the Explorer,” “Team Umizoomi,” “Blue’s Clues” and “Ni Hao, Kai-lan.” It contains 140 minutes of social-skills fun, plus a bonus educational worksheet for on-the-go learning.

The CGI-animated “Mia & Me: Friends to the Rescue” follows 12-year-old orphan Mia, as she discovers a portal to the magical land of Centopia, where teamwork is required to save it from the evil Queen Panthea.  In this three stories the fantasy world’s unicorns require the help of Mia and her friends among the flying elves, dragons, and other amazing creatures. The stories are “Trumptus Lost,” “The Golden Sun” and “Onchao’s Oasis.”

The DVD Wrapup: Salt of the Earth, Ex Machina, It Follows, Goodbye to All That, Black Stallion and more

Friday, July 17th, 2015

The Salt of the Earth: Blug-ray
Dozens of compelling stories are told in Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado’s brilliant, Oscar-nominated documentary, The Salt of the Earth, which chronicles the life and career of “social photographer” and environmentalist Sebastiao Salgado. Arguably, his most famous photo was taken at the site of Brazil’s Serra Pelada gold rush, which occurred in the early-1980s and petered out pretty quickly after that. From a distance, the open-pit mine resembles a giant toy ant farm carved into a hillside, revealing terraces, tunnels and precarious paths crawling with activity. Look closer and you’ll see that, instead of ants, tens of thousands of mud-covered human beings are clinging to hundreds of crudely made wooden ladders, carrying packs on their backs filled with what they hope and pray to be paydirt. Anyone unfamiliar with the Serra Pelada lode might assume that the photograph had been taken in the late 1800s and the men with packs on their backs were slaves. In fact, they were prospectors from all walks of life, driven by news that gold-yielding ore was being extracted from the pit without the benefit of tools or heavy equipment. If the gravel in any of those backpacks contained gold, a percentage of its value would go to the miner who carried it all the way to the surface. If the California and Klondike gold rushes could have been reduced to a single hole in the ground, it might have resembled the chaos generated by the discovery of a 6-gram nugget on the banks of the river on Genésio Ferreira da Silva’s remote farm, 270 miles south of the mouth of the Amazon River. Once seen, these photographs can never be forgotten. The same can be said of the hundreds of black-and-white images Salgado brought back from forced migrations of refugees in war zones around the world. These displaced men, women and children knew the closest thing to a pot of gold at the end of their rainbow would be relief from carnage, drought, hunger, cholera, brutality and despair.

For more than two decades, Salgado found subjects for his photojournalism all over South and Central America; Ethiopia, Rwanda, Mali, Congo and the Sudan; the Krajina region of Croatia and into Bosnia; among the impoverished ship dissemblers in India and Bangladesh; the victims of land mines in Cambodia; the sabotaged oil fields of Kuwait; and Third World nations supplying tea leaves and other commodities to First World consumers. After witnessing the horrors perpetrated on non-combatants in central Africa by machete-wielding tribesmen and soldiers armed with automatic weapons, Salgado arrived at his breaking point. He returned to his homes in Paris and Brazil, determined to devote a far greater amount of his personal time to wife/editor Laila and his sons, to whom he was a stranger. By this time, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado was old enough to accompany his father on his journeys to record the lives of lost tribes in New Guinea and deeper into the Brazilian rain forest than the gold mine. Juliano and Wenders had planned to make separate documentaries on Salgado’s career, but, after much disagreement and rancor, settled on a single format in which both men provided narration. In addition to the dozens of black-and-white photographs, Salt of the Earth contains color film footage taken during Salgado’s shoots.

The color cinematography is especially effective in the final third of the film, which documents the family’s remarkable success in breathing no life into the blighted farm of his grandfather where Salgado spent much of his childhood. The farm had once been a part of the Atlantic rain-forest system, but, after the trees were cut and sold, erosion turned the property into a death zone. Laila suggested they attempt to reclaim the land by planting indigenous trees and finding ways to conserve what little water found there. After several re-plantings, the roots took hold and a thriving forest was reborn. Thus began the Instituto Terra, which is dedicated to a mission of reforestation, conservation and environmental education. The Blu-ray presentation often borders on the spectacular, with every shade of black, white, silver and gray strikingly represented in hi-def. Also included are commentary with Wenders and Julian Ribeiro Salgado; a recollection of the highs and lows of their collaboration; and deleted scenes. A similar pose is struck in Salt of the Earth, Herbert J. Biberman’s 1954 dramatization of the 1951 strike against the Empire Zinc Mine in Grant County, New Mexico. In docu-drama fashion, it deals with the prejudice against the Mexican-American workers, who struck to attain wage parity with Anglo workers in other mines and to be treated with dignity by the bosses. It also emphasized the strength of the women in the community, who may have been even more committed to the strike than their husbands, brothers and fathers. Salt of the Earth was made by filmmakers blacklisted in Hollywood – the director served six months in prison for refusing to testify before the HUAC inquisitors – and predictably condemned as left-wing propaganda by right-wing politicians and commentators, and many weak-kneed liberals, as well. It wasn’t made by Salgado, but the depictions of mistreatment, manipulation and racial prejudice would have been in his strike zone. It’s well worth finding.

Ex Machina: Blu-ray
It is a function of the male computer geek’s discomfort in the company of strong and sexually affirmative women that so many sci-fi movies depict the search for a sexually compliant, anatomically correct and subtlely subservient female android, instead of a more gender-neutral robot design. Male screenwriters are fond of fembots, as well, but most would settle for a life-size sex doll or Fleshlight that was cast from the naughty bits of their favorite porn star. The theme can be traced at least as far back as the “Twilight Zone” episodes “I Sing the Body Electric” and “The Lonely”; the “Star Trek” episode, “Requiem for Methuselah”; TV’s “Bionic Woman”; the replicant babes in Blade Runner; the cyber-actress protagonist of S1m0ne; and the Japanese porn anime, Imma Youjo: The Erotic Temptress 2: The Perfect Love Doll. There are others, but you get the picture. There isn’t a less-than-gorgeous female character in any of them. The same holds true for Alex Garland’s highly ambitious digital wet dream, Ex Machina, which advances the sub-genre by setting it in an idyllic retreat, owned by a reclusive cyber-billionaire, and infusing his megalomaniacal vision with ideas inspired by Greek and Roman tragedies and mythology, the Old Testament, the Bhagavad Gita, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Titian, Mary Shelly, crappy 1970s disco and Depeche Mode. Ex Machina is the kind of super-smart movie that should carry footnotes at the bottom of the screen. In it, a 26-year-old coder, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), wins a competition to spend a week with his company’s CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who spends his free time punching a heavy bag, drinking vodka and harassing his super-sexy cyber-maid. It’s the kind of macho activity one has come to expect from the Silicon Valley billionaires who’ve overcome years of bullying by purchasing sports franchises and raising the price of beer and nachos to unconscionable levels. It doesn’t take Caleb very long to realize that he could have left the sun screen at home, because his room is a concrete-and-glass cell monitored by cameras and absent windows to enjoy the scenery.

Although it’s never made precisely clear as to what Caleb has been brought to the compound to do, in lieu of enjoying the scenery and stroke his boss’ ego. If the earlier model cyborg, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), resembles every yuppie male’s idea of how an Asian girlfriend should look and behave, the more fully evolved fembot, Ava (Alicia Vikander), is such a dish that she looks great, even with her mechanical skeleton in full view. Vikander is 26, but, in a pinch, could pass for 14. It begs the question as to whether Nathan might be considered flaunting the laws governing sex with minors, simply by making Ava an android. Ava and Caleb hit it off immediately, despite being separated by a wall of glass. She becomes his sole confidante when he begins to doubt Nathan’s motivations and sanity. Her reasoned responses reveal evidence of artificial intelligence and a desire for independence. So far, at least, Nathan has been cunning enough to keep his guests under permanent lockdown. Part of his reason for bringing Caleb to the compound, I suspect, is to see if his programming expertise can detect holes in the system. His endgame remains murky throughout most of Ex Machina, though. Garland’s philosophical conceits should play better with hard-core sci-fi fans than those attracted to shape-shifting aliens and Nazis from outer space. There’s some relatively artistic nudity, but nothing that can’t be enjoyed out of context at Mr. Skin. More compelling, I think, is the Norwegian setting, which comes complete with cascading waterfalls, placid meadows and plush valleys. The Blu-ray package adds a 40-minute making-of featurette, post-screening Q&A and background vignettes.

Goodbye to All That
Anyone attracted to the offbeat relationship drama, Goodbye to All That, by Paul Schneider’s name on the DVD jacket probably won’t be surprised when the “Parks and Recreation” semi-regular steals their hearts. What’s unusual is how far first-time director Angus MacLachlan requires Melanie Lynskey (“Two and a Half Men”) to play against type in her portrayal of a stone-cold bitch, who demands a divorce but refuses to tell her perplexed husband, Otto, what he did wrong or what she wants, instead of him. Lynskey has previously portrayed women who’ve begun to question their marriages – most recently, “Together” – but we have a pretty good idea of makes them tick. Here, she’s a real shrew, whose screen time is pretty much limited to chilly handoffs of their daughter, Edie (Audrey P. Scott), on the custody shifts. Otto is a perfectly average suburban guy, who loves to jog and occasionally pushes the limits of personal safety in his outdoors activities. After he breaks his leg in an accident while speeding through the woods in an ATV, Otto also is required to find a new home for himself and enough space for Edie to pretend she’s a queen of the realm. One Sunday, out of the blue, Edie demands that her still-despondent dad take her to church. It marks a turning point in the narrative that changes almost everything that’s come before and gives meaning to the title, Goodbye to All That, if not in the way some church visits change people. Almost immediately, divorced women in the congregation begin contacting him to see if he’s ready to start dating again. What they’re really asking is if he’s willing to sate their appetites for sex. Thus inspired, Otto also tries his luck with an Internet dating service and an invitation to a reunion of summer-camp pals. Everywhere he turns, he’s greeted by women with minds of their own when it comes to sex and personal fulfilment. They know what they want from him and aren’t afraid to take it in ways that range from romantic to hilarious. In this area, Lynskey’s sour personality is easily compensated for by the lively performances of Anna Camp, Heather Graham, Heather Lawless, Ashley Hinshaw and Amy Sedaris. This entirely satisfying turn of events is in line with what we liked in MacLachlan’s 20005 Junebug, a fish-out-of-water comedy that opened many academy members’ eyes to the emerging talent that was Amy Adams. Goodbye to All That was launched on the festival circuit and VOD outlets, but deserves a better shot on DVD.

It Follows: Blu-ray
If you want to know what gets the juices of horror buffs flowing, check out David Robert Mitchell’s demonic-possession thriller, It Follows, which arrives on Blu-ray in the wake of his previous well-respected indie, The Myth of the American Sleepover. These days, it’s rare to find a low-budget picture that’s capable of breaking through the pack and impressing critics who can be brutal to newcomers. Besides the almost universally laudatory reviews, It Follows may be the only DVD/Blu-ray whose commentary track is supplied entirely by Internet opinion-makers capable of making or breaking a new release. For 100 minutes, these bloggers mostly geek out on a movie that satisfies their passion for a picture that offers substantially more than one-dimensional monsters, serial slashers, special makeup effects and gratuitous gore. (Gratuitous nudity is always welcome, though.) Mitchell also provides plenty of references to past genre classics, without beating audiences over the head with stale tropes, clichés and stereotypes. In fact, the demon in It Follows is more of a specter than a tangible threat to the residents of a quiet town in suburban Detroit. Mitchell took a chance by basing the picture’s central conceit – when teenagers lose their virginity, it opens the door for all sorts of monstrous possibilities, even death – that was put on the shelf after the Scream and Scary Movie franchises batted it around like a ping-pong ball. Here, the punishment for taking advantage of free love is less tangible than a masked fiend with a butcher knife in Lovers Lane. While 19-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe) is home from college, she caps a date by having sex with a young man who passes along a STD that can’t be cured with a shot of penicillin. It is a hand-me-down curse that unleashes a shape-shifting stalker on whoever is the current carrier. The demon is invisible to all of Jay’s friends, even as it brushes against them on its way to the pretty blond. Jay knows what has to be done to get rid of the curse, but doesn’t want to put any of her male friends in harm’s way. Things get really weird when the demon takes the form of her late father, who throws electric appliances at her when she’s in a public swimming pool … and, no, he isn’t trying to electrocute her. It was at this point that things stopped making sense to me. Even so, Mitchell’s patience keeps the pacing tight throughout the story and a palpable degree of tension is added by the eccentric musical soundtrack provided by the composer Disasterpeace, who is interviewed in the bonus package.

An Honest Liar
In the 1990s, after over-exposure on cable television killed the comedy-club boom, magicians, escape artists and illusionists picked up the baton and ran with it for a while. Soon, nearly resort in Las Vegas featured an in-house magician and magic shop. Entire multimillion-dollar shows – EFX at the MGM Grand, for example – combined magic, music and dance. It was a heady time for the artists, but, again, television helped kill the goose that laid the golden egg. One controversial Fox show even went so far as to hire the Masked Magician to reveal the secrets behind the classic tricks and illusions. Again, however, it was over-exposure that spoiled the game for everyone else. If one magician was going to make an elephant/helicopter/truck disappear into thin air, someone else was going to upstage him the next week by making the Statue of Liberty vanish or by appearing to be cut in half by a “death saw.” Today, about a dozen magicians, illusionists and mentalists are capable of headlining their own shows in Las Vegas, with Penn & Teller, David Copperfield, Mac King and Criss Angel being the most prominent. In the fascinating documentary, An Honest Liar, we’re re-introduced to Randall James Hamilton Zwinge (a.k.a., The Amazing Randi), who’s spent most of his retirement challenging psychics, faith healers and occultists to come clean or be revealed as frauds out to extract donations from gullible believers. By portraying themselves as the real deal, instead of as fellow magicians or illusionists, Randi deemed them worthy of exposure. Offended by the popularity and public effrontery of Uri Geller, he even went so far as to arrange for one of his mind-bending gags to be debunked before millions of viewers on “The Tonight Show.” Geller was baffled when the objects that typically moved at his command didn’t behave as planned. Amateur magician Johnny Carson was so impressed that he made Randi a frequent guest. In the 1980s, Randi took on such faith healers as Peter Popoff and João Teixeira de Faria (a.k.a., João de Deus). At the ripe old age of 86, Randi isn’t at all reluctant to open up the books on his own accomplishments and reveal such personal details as his marriage to ex-con painter Deyvi Orangel Peña Arteaga (a.k.a., José Alvarez), after exiting the closet in 2010. An Honest Liar includes testimonials by Penn Jillette, Adam Savage, Bill Nye, Alice Cooper, Banachek and Jamy Ian Swiss. The DVD adds deleted scenes and extended interviews.

Dawn Patrol
Watching Rita Wilson guzzle beer, chain-smoke marijuana and slander Mexican immigrants in Dawn Patrol, I experienced the same hollow feeling as when I first saw Katey Sagal play the white-trash biker moll in “Sons of Anarchy.” After a couple of episodes of the long-running series, though, Sagal’s presence made sense within the context of the narrative and her anti-heroic character. As matriarch of a clan of SoCal surf Nazis, Wilson simply looks as if she stepped into the wrong movie and wasn’t about to turn down a payday. Surf movies come and go, of course, but only a few have stuck to the wall. Big Wednesday, Break Point, Blue Crush and Chasing Mavericks extended the Endless Summer mythos to include coming-of-age dramas, existentialist quandaries, serious criminality and romantic melodramas. Working from a screenplay by Rachel Long and Brian Pittman (A Haunting at Silver Falls), Daniel Petrie Jr. has crafted a story of revenge, misplaced clan loyalties and good-old-fashioned bigotry from an ugly incident in which a sun-bathing beach bimbo deliberately sets off a race war that’s supposed to link metaphorically to the war in Afghanistan, but doesn’t. The story is told from the point of view of John (Scott Eastwood), a surfer who comes unglued after his headstrong brother is killed by someone everyone assumes to be the Mexican who diddled his slutty girlfriend … and, no, there’s really not a better way to describe the character played by Kim Matula (“The Bold and the Beautiful”). Tensions between various ethnic groups began to rise when speculators and developers deemed the Ventura County beach communities to be ripe for exploitation. Until then, they had provided the foundation for working-class homeowners to feel as good about themselves as the millionaires who call Malibu home. But, contractors looking to boost profit margins by hiring undocumented workers and laid-off residents found it impossible to maintain their way of life. Property values skyrocketed, even as some neighborhoods began to look like beach-adjacent slums. About to have their home foreclosed on, John is taunted into retaliating against the Mexican interlopers by his embittered parents, played with no degree of subtlety of finesse by Wilson and Jeff Fahey. Assumptions that seemed sound one minute were turned inside-out the next by the facts. It’s all supposed to remind us of a Greek or Shakespearian tragedy, but it’s buried so deep in the sand that it gets bogged down in melodrama. Petrie’s first two writing credits were The Big Easy and Beverly Hills Cop, both home runs. Dawn Patrol is his first feature as a director since 1994, when he gave us In the Army Now, with Pauly Shore and Andy Dick. Hollywood’s a bitch.

Here Is Your Life: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The Black Stallion Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Anyone as impressed by Richard Linklater’s Boyhood as the folks who helped it secure six Academy Award nominations and a Supporting Actress statuette for Patricia Arquette might consider extending the experience by picking up Jan Troell’s debut feature, Here Is Your Life. Based on a series of semi-autobiographical novels by Nobel Prize-winner Eyvind Johnson, it describes a teenager’s coming-of-age at a pivotal time in the history of Sweden and Europe. While the rest of the continent was engaged in a horrific conflagration, Sweden remained neutral. It explains how 14-year-old Olof Persson (Eddie Axberg) wasn’t sent to the front after being forced to leave his impoverished foster family and fend for himself. He could have returned home to his natural parents, but the burden of having another mouth to feed would have made things tougher for his siblings. Unlike Mason, the young protagonist of Boyhood, Olof can’t afford the luxury of attending school or partaking in extracurricular activities. He understands his lot in life and, for now, anyway, it means taking jobs intended for grown men and learning by doing. He finds one in the remote northern part of the country as a logger, risking his life as part of a gang whose duties include breaking up logjams on a roiling river. Because the men share a secluded shack, Olof is privy to the stories laborers swap after a hard day of work and several shots of vodka. Not at all cocky, Olof is as attentive to his co-workers’ eccentricities as he is to the rigors of logging. Next, he finds slightly less dangerous work in a sawmill and brick kiln.

His first job in a community setting comes when he’s hired by the owner of a primitive theater that offers silent movies and concert recitals. When he isn’t posting announcements on the sides of buildings, selling tickets and hawking candy, Olof uses the time left over to flirt with local girls and read books. It is here, as well, that he’s introduced to the differences between working stiffs and white-collar businessmen and entrepreneurs. The disparities are such that he’s inspired to consider joining the burgeoning international worker’s movement. When Olof gets hired away from the theater by a traveling projectionist, who works the carnival circuit, he is introduced to entirely different class of people. Better yet, he’s introduced to the joys of sex by a fortune-teller, who treats him like a boy toy. At 169 minutes, Here Is Your Life is only slightly longer than Boyhood. It provides plenty of space for the vignettes to play out naturally and take full advantage of the film’s historically accurate settings and Sweden’s natural beauty, very little of which is lost in Troell’s evocative cinematography. Given that this was his first theatrical venture, it isn’t surprising to discern the influence of Ingmar Bergman. By the end of the first half of the film, however, what we’re watching is all Troell.  He would go on to make such period gems as Everlasting Moments, Hamsun, Zandy’s Bride, The New Land and The Emigrants. The Blu-ray benefits from a new 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; an introduction by filmmaker Mike Leigh; a new conversation between Troell and film historian Peter Cowie; interviews with actor Eddie Axberg and producer/screenwriter Bengt Forslund; the short film, “Interlude in Marshland,” which preceded Here Is Your Life, starring Max von Sydow; and an essay by film scholar Mark Le Fanu.

Carroll Ballard’s wonderful family adventure, The Black Stallion, is often included in lists of the most beautifully photographed movies ever made. It shouldn’t come as any surprise, then, to learn that Caleb Deschanel’s work was ignored when the Oscar nominations were announced in the Best Cinematography category, ahead of the 1980 awards ceremony. Back then, being snubbed by your peers was part of the hazing ritual for freshmen in the tech categories. The Criterion Collection’s new 4K digital transfer, supervised by Deschanel, attests to the film’s rich cinematic legacy. (In 2002, The Black Stallion was accorded the honor of being named to the National Film Registry.) In Walter Farley’s classic children’s novel, a determined American boy and magnificent Arabian horse survive a disaster at sea, only to be tested once again after washing ashore a deserted island off North Africa. The only way to get through their mutual ordeal is by learning to trust each other. Once they’re rescued and returned to Alec’s hometown, a dilemma arises as to where one puts a magnificent steed accustomed to roaming freely and answering only to single voice. It comes to a head after the Black stallion bolts from the house’s backyard and is almost killed in a frantic tour of the city. It ends at farm owned by a former jockey, expertly played by Mickey Rooney. The film’s basic color scheme and visual context has changed dramatically by now, allowing for a dramatic test of equine heroism and stamina in a championship race. Hollywood legend has it that, upon viewing The Black Stallion for the first time, a studio executive asked rhetorically, “What is this, some kind of an art film for kids?” The easy answer to that question was then and still is, “Yes.” Ballard’s masterpiece would go unreleased for two years, until executive producer Francis Ford Coppola made sure that justice was served. Sadly, it’s a common tale, oft told. The Blu-ray adds a 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack; five career-making short films by Ballard, with introductions by the director; a conversation between Ballard and film critic Scott Foundas; a new interview with Deschanel; a piece featuring photographer Mary Ellen Mark, discussing her images from the film’s set; and an essay by critic Michael Sragow.

Some Call It Loving: Blu-ray
Scratch the surface of an interesting, if long-neglected picture newly re-released on Blu-ray/DVD and you’re likely to uncover a story that puts a completely new spin on what you’ve just seen. Such is the case with the Vinegar Syndrome/Etiquette Pictures’ oddity, Some Call It Loving, a kinky soft-core fantasy made a year before Emmanuelle tested the limits of the old X-rating. In an unusual twist of fate, the actor who played the protagonist of James B. Harris’ film – Zalman King – would, 20 years later, successfully test the limits of cable television, with Showtime’s couples-friendly, “Red Shoes Diary.” He also collaborated with director Adrian Lyne on the S&M-lite feature, 9½ Weeks. Here, King plays a handsome jazz musician, who impulsively decides to buy the Sleeping Beauty attraction from a traveling carnival. Somehow, Robert senses correctly that the beautiful young woman, Jennifer (Tisa Farrow), really is in a deep trance and isn’t faking it for the rubes. He brings her comatose body to the secluded mansion he shares with a pair of women (Carol White, Veronica Anderson), who, likewise, get their kicks from role-playing games and other fetishes. Robert is able to awaken his new playmate with a kiss and taste of the potion given him by the sideshow barker. At first, he attempts to isolate Jennifer from the sex play, but, like the perfect fembot in Ex Machina, she develops a mind of her own.

In a completely detached sidebar, Richard performs at a nearly empty jazz club with his band. One of the habitués is a strung-out junkie and alcoholic played by Richard Pryor, who was nearly penniless at the time, but would soon emerge as an A-list actor, as well as a star comedian. The character presages the introduction of Mudbone in his albums and standup routines, a year later. Although the story, inspired by John Collier’s short story “Sleeping Beauty,” is more of a curiosity than anything else, the movie is enhanced by Mario Tosi’s gorgeous cinematography, sumptuous art direction of Rodger Maus and Ray Storey, and eerie score by Richard Hazard. Because Harris produced Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory,” “Lolita” and “The Killing,” some critics have suggested that Some Call It Loving may have influenced the look of Eyes Wide Shut. It’s more likely that Harris borrowed ideas generated by Radley Metzger in such arthouse erotica as The Lickerish Quartet and Camille 2000. The dandy Etiquette Pictures Blu-ray benefits from a 2K restoration from the 35mm camera negative; a six-page booklet, with an essay by Kevin John Bozelka; commentary by Harris and Sam Prime; “Some Call It History,” in which Harris recounts his early years in the Korean War, where he met Kubrick; “A Dream So Real,” a conversation with Tosi, who shares his thoughts on career choices; and outtakes, with commentary.

Singularity Principle
Of all the fascinating ideas put forward in Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic, Interstellar, the most complex and compelling was the concept of a parallel universe, accessible through wormholes discovered in our solar system. Not having a degree in the sciences, that’s as far as I’m willing to go when attempting to synopsize movies whose plots are based on astrophysics. If anything, the pure science and mathematics that inform the low-budget sci-fi thriller, Singularity Principle, are even more intricate and, therefore, far more baffling than anything in most genre titles. This likely is because it was co-written, co-produced and co-directed (all with Austin Hines) by physicist Dr. David Robert Deranian and no one falls more in love with their chalk work than an academic. As such, Deranian boasts of “paying particular attention to accurate scientific detail and using the fascinating science of parallel universes to bring audiences a story that will both illuminate and entertain.” Well, one out of two isn’t bad. Singularity Principle opens with the disappearance of a noted scientist, Professor Jack Brenner (John Diehl), during an unauthorized parallel-universe experiment. It sets off all sorts of bells and whistles at a “clandestine black-ops agency,” which, of course, is anxious to learn how it might be able to exploit the data or fears that Brenner’s parallel universe might be found in Russia or China. Although there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with emphasizing science over fiction in these sorts of movies, there’s something to be said for fudging the details to expand the audience. Science nerds should be able to find something in Singularity Principle to stimulate their intellects and imagination, though.

The Stray Cat Rock Collection: Blu-ray
The Outing/The Godsend: Blu-ray
Cellar Dweller/Catacombs: Blu-ray
Japanese exploitation movies of the 1950-70s frequently borrowed from conventions and tropes established by filmmakers toiling in the fields that belonged to Samuel Z. Arkoff and Roger Corman. Pick a subgenre that drew crowds here and Japanese filmmakers paid homage to it by copying its conceits and putting them through a blender of home-grown eccentricities. The five films in the Stray Cat Rock series, newly collected by Arrow Films, merge several themes crucial to post-war B-movies in the United States, along with stylized violence, gratuitous nudity, psychedelic rock music and fetishized vehicles, ranging from rice-burner motorcycles (no Harleys to be seen) and Jeeps leftover from the occupation, to gas-guzzling Detroit products, dune buggies and the occasional bicycle. The Japanese were especially fixated on juvenile delinquents, most of whom appear to have taken their cues from Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild One and West Side Story. In the Stray Cat Rock pictures, though, most of the girls look as if they were just as influenced sartorially by Sandra Dee and Annette Funicello, even when waving knives at each other. There’s also room for a butch gang-banger to kick ass and take names when the boys join the fray. Among the constants are the lovely-but-deadly Meiko Kaji, Tatsuya Fuji and Bunjaku Han. The limited Blu-ray set from Arrow contains upgraded versions of Delinquent Girl Boss, Wild Jumbo, Sex Hunter, Machine Animal and Beat ’71; new English subtitle translations; interviews with director Yasuharu Hasebe and actors Tatsuya Fuji and Yoshio Harada, star of Beat ’71; original trailers; a collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the films by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp; and original mono audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-rays).

Unlike other double-features released by Scream Factory, this week’s offerings likely will be of interest specifically to 1980s completists and other people with niche tastes. Otherwise, the only things they have in common are a few momentary thrills and short titles. The Outing combines two time-honored tropes: the evil genie released from his lamp and the frightful night spent in a haunted museum. Even Ben Stiller wouldn’t have been able to save this one, though. In The Godsend, a very strange woman with alabaster skin leaves her newborn baby with an unsuspecting family that’s kind enough to take the wee lass in. Before long, she’s proven herself to be quite the little vixen.

Cellar Dweller’s crime is that it takes a perfectly good idea for a short film and almost ruins it by stretching it to a turgid 77 minutes. Twenty-five years after a comic-book artist is killed by one of the monsters he’s created on paper, a fan (Debrah Farantino) returns to the scene of the crime to investigate what happened and what can be salvaged from the panels he left behind in the basement. With the punchline revealed in the first five minutes, all that’s left is the blood-letting. There are two things to recommend Catacombs to horror fans, 1) the exterior scenes were shot at a historic monastery in the mountains surrounding Terni, Umbria, and 2) a scene in which a life-size Christ literally comes down from a cross, pulls a stake from his foot and attacks a priest. Actually, it’s the work of a satanic spirit imprisoned in the catacombs of the church since the Inquisition.

The Legend of the Lone Ranger: Blu-ray
All Quiet on the Western Front: The Uncut Edition: Blu-ray
Released 35 years before Donald Trump and other Republican nitwits declared illegal immigration to be the greatest threat to our democracy since the War of 1812, Hollywood tackled the problem with compassion, without also minimizing of the scale of the situation. Sadly, though, we no longer can count on the services of Charles Bronson (Borderline) and Telly Savalas (Border Cop) to jump in and solve the current quagmire. The latter was committed to DVD in 2003, while the former is new to disc this week. Bronson stars as Jeb Maynard, a steely U.S. Border Patrol officer stationed between San Diego and Calexico. Things heat up fast after his friend and partner (Wilford Brimley) is murdered by a vicious “coyote” – a white one, this time, played by Ed Harris, in his first credited role in a feature – along with a child who’s just made the crossing. An investigation takes Maynard to Tijuana, with the mother of the dead boy, so he can make the trek through the border as if he were sneaking into the country. The trail leads to a major grower in the Imperial Valley and a corrupt businessman in San Diego. I doubt that a border agent would be allowed to show as much compassion as Maynard, today, because of the political ramifications of being such behavior. Borderline may have its limitations as a product of its time and a rather obvious vehicle for Bronson, who was a huge star in 1980, but it’s well made and the based-on-fact story is reasonably entertaining.

After watching the 1981 box-office bomb The Legend of the Lone Ranger, it was only natural that I would compare it not only to the original TV show, but also to the 2013 box-office bomb, which starred Johnny Depp and someone named Armie Hammer. While neither measures up to the hit Western series, I enjoyed the earlier adaptation quite a bit more than the $216-million The Lone Ranger, which took huge liberties with the mythology. The biggest problem with “The Legend” wasn’t what ended up on the screen, but how it got there. For one thing, Klinton Spilsbury apparently was chosen to appeal to the teenage-girl demographic, not fans of classic oaters. Besides looking like a refugee from a boy band, Spilsbury wasn’t much of an actor. Compounding the problem was the treatment shown to Clayton Moore – the much-loved creator of the character on television – by one of the producers, who also owned the rights to the Lone Ranger brand. Moore was prohibited from appearing in public in costume, so he elected, instead, to wear oversized sunglasses. All that aside, “The Legend” stuck far closer to the origin story, with a surprisingly dapper Christopher Lloyd as the head of the treasonous Cavendish Gang and Jason Robards having a whale of a time as Ulysses S. Grant. Plus, Merle Haggard provides the original songs.

Forty-nine years and three major wars passed between Louis Milestone’s Academy Award-winning adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s great anti-war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, and the 1979 made-for-television remake, starring Richard Thomas, Ian Holm and Ernest Borgnine. The new Blu-ray iteration of the latter adds nearly a half-hour to the original running time. There’s no need to compare the two versions too closely, as they’re both products of their time and medium of choice. The Delbert Mann-directed production had to accommodate commercial breaks and more expository narration than was required in the early talkie. There’s also the matter of the flat American and English accents of the German soldiers. It’s difficult to ignore completely, but, given time, other things vie for our attention, including the emphatic anti-war message. The timing is interesting, though, as it arrives on the heels of the Criterion Collection edition of The Bridge, Bernhard Wicki’s semi-autobiographical drama about a close-knit group of German teenagers drafted into the German army in the closing weeks of World War II. The young men in both movies are, at first, buoyed by patriotism sparked by misleading government propaganda and love of the Fatherland. No sooner do they leave basic training than they’re thrown into the hellfire of a conflagration for which there’s no chance for victory and leaders who should have been sent to the frontlines before anyone else.

BBC/PBS: The Crimson Field: Blu-ray
PlayStation: Powers: Season 1: Blu-ray
PBS: American Masters: American Ballet Theatre: A History
BBC/PBS: Tales From the Royal Wardrobe
WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete Third Season
Nickelodeon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Return to NYC
It’s probably unfair to compare the compelling BBC/PBS mini-series “The Crimson Field” to a “M*A*S*H” without the laughs, but, then, how better to describe a wartime drama that combines testy nurse/doctor relationships with realistic portrayals of operating-theater horrors and triumphs. If World War I failed miserably as a “war to end all wars,” it helped improve the care and treatment of wounded and traumatized soldiers in future wars. The unprecedented volume of incoming patients and increased degree of difficulty in treating wounds, toxic gases and emotional disorders forced caregivers to rethink their approaches to healing. The International Red Cross had been founded only 50 years before the start of the war and nothing that had come before had prepared Red Cross workers and volunteers for the sheer enormity of their mission. In previous wars, the same wounds might have gone untreated except for the application of a surgical saw and unsanitary rags. In the “crimson fields” of France, the agency also was responsible for POWs and mail delivery, as well as other services. The mini-series’ soap-opera through-lines emerged from the close proximity of doctors, nurses and patients and intensity of the shared experience in a post-Victorian environment. In the absence of a steady rain of bullets and mortars, hospital personnel face were required to navigate divisions related to class distinctions, religious conventions and reservations concerning advanced treatments. Because the tented field hospital in “The Crimson Field” serves as a buffer between the battlefield and homefront, relatives of the wounded men were allowed to visit them. For those unprepared to deal with the severity of the wounds suffered by their loved ones, the shock of recognition could be frightening. Just as the unlikely hit series “Call the Midwife” took a while for Americans to embrace, “The Crimson Field” grows on you. That can be credited to the excellent writing and such familiar actors as Oona Chaplin, Hermione Norris, Suranne Jones, Kevin Doyle, Kerry Fox, Jeremy Swift and Alex Wyndham. The BBC cut of the series allows for a bit more realistic approach to the material than that allowed by PBS censors.

Even those viewers who can’t get enough of shows about superheroes and other supernatural shenanigans may be unaware of “Powers,” an original series available only via PlayStation platforms. Based on the graphic novel by Michael Avon Oeming and Brian Michael Bendis, it demands that we consider the ramifications of a world in which superheroes, supervillains and uniquely gifted mutants are as prevalent as, say, Starbucks. Powers-deficient humans would be defenseless against the bad apples, if it weren’t for the brave men and women of the Powers Division. It is represented primarily by homicide detectives Christian Walker (Sharlto Copley) and Deena Pilgrim (Susan Heyward). Not being an aficionado, much of the mythology flew right over my head. Still, it’s the gamers who subscribe to the PlayStation Network who will make the final determination on “Powers” when it comes to ratings and renewals. There’s no reason to think it won’t have a bright future in the niche market.

Except for the occasional defection, hit movie revealing backstage intrigue or Kirov sighting, news from the world of ballet is practically non-existent in the mainstream media. That changed recently when Misty Copeland became the first African-American woman to be promoted to principal dancer in the American Ballet Theater’s 75-year history. Her personal story is so compelling that “60 Minutes” devoted an entire segment to it. While she’s a prominent dancer in Ric Burns’ “American Masters: American Ballet Theatre: A History,” her appearances and opinions are threads in a tapestry whose creation began in pre-Soviet Russia and is still being woven. Anyone who thinks that Burns’ documentaries begin to look the same after a while should be surprised by what they see here. In addition to the archival material and talking heads, the show features some of the most elegantly photographed dance scenes and intimate interactions between performers I’ve ever seen. Burns was accorded unprecedented access to the company, including dramatic live performances, grueling rehearsals and tight focuses on Copeland, Gillian Murphy and other young stars following in the footsteps of Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine, Agnes de Mille, Antony Tudor and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

In BBC/PBS’ “Tales From the Royal Wardrobe,” the affable British historian and TV host, Dr. Lucy Worsley, is in fine form as she explores the sartorial tastes of kings and queens from Elizabeth I to the present Queen Elizabeth II. Rather than simply precede over a series of photographs, sketches and newsreel footage, Worsley explains how the royal wardrobe is a carefully orchestrated piece of theater, managed by the royals themselves to control the right image and project the right message to their subjects. This extends to a time when wealth dictated what courtiers could and couldn’t wear to events and actual documents that laid out the guideline. She also models the extravagant fashions worn by queens and princesses, with special attention paid to the impracticality of their architecture. Fans of period programming on the BBC will find the show to be particularly entertaining and informative.

Also available from the same source are “Doctor Who: The Daleks,” which recalls the many the confrontations between the mutant creatures and the Doctor and his companions. The three-part documentary series, “BBC’s Shark,” goes up-close-and-personal with 30 species of the legendary predator, with footage from dozens of habitats worldwide, There is even a shark that walks on land.

From Shout comes “WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete Third Season,” a compilation of all 22 episodes from the show’s penultimate season. It was at this point of its run that CBS began to treat the series like a pawn on its chessboard, by moving it around the schedule without concern for viewers or narrative continuity. Even the actors were at a loss as to when it would air. Most of original musical licenses have been renewed for DVD, but not all of them.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Return to NYC” is a single–disc release from Nickelodeon, comprised of seven “central” episodes from Season Three. The Turtles’ mission is to retake New York, save their Sensei, search for Karai and team–up with the Mighty Mutanimals for a rescue mission into Dimension X.

The DVD Wrapup: Woman in Gold, Clouds of Sils Maria, Human Capital, House of Cards and more

Friday, July 10th, 2015

Woman in Gold: Blu-ray
Shortly after Iraqi troops were driven from Kuwait in 1991, then-Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz announced that hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of looted property would be returned to the emirate. The plunder included civilian jetliners, gold and currency taken from a Central Bank vault, computers, furniture and priceless museum pieces. Restitution for property stolen from private citizens and businesses, including dealers of luxury cars, wasn’t directly addressed in announcement, but several billion dollars in reparations have reportedly been paid. Although required to pay reparations for the destruction it caused in World War II, Germany has largely been allowed to weasel out of repaying its debts to countries it once occupied. That includes Greece, whose crippled economy could benefit from having its IOU honored by the same country that’s demanding it now repay money owed to the European Union. Germany paid considerable reparations to Israel and World Jewish Congress in the name of the millions of Jews murdered, displaced, plundered and forced into slave labor before and during the war. Decades would pass, however, before life-insurance companies agreed that policies written for people who would die in the death camp were valid and payments should be made to their heirs. Whether it’s great works of art extorted as part of the early immigration process or gold teeth yanked from the mouths of doomed prisoners, the Gestapo and its minions were crooks before they became war criminals. And, while it’s impossible to precisely identify the owners of the silver and gold items melted down to support the war effort, determining the provenance of paintings, sculptures and other object art would seem to be a far easier task. It came down to a question of how one lawyer defined theft and what his opponent described as barter.

The David vs. Goliath legal struggle dramatized in Woman in Gold should disabuse viewers of any notion that the war in Europe ended with Adolph and Eva’s suicide in the bunker. The bloodletting may have stopped, but some parties refuse to admit defeat. When it comes to reuniting survivors with treasures stolen or extorted from family members, the battles being fought are deeply personal and the good guys don’t always win. Fifty years after VE day, the full scope of this particular debate was revealed in Lynn H. Nicholas’s “The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War” and revisited a dozen years later in Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham’s documentary adaptation, The Rape of Europa. In Woman in Gold, director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) and freshman writer Alexi Kaye Campbell move from the general to the specific, focusing on one elderly woman’s effort to recover what everyone outside Austria felt she was owed. Los Angeles attorney E. Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) had convinced L.A. shopkeeper Maria Altmann (Tatiana Maslany/Helen Mirren) to stake her claim to one of the most celebrated paintings of all time, the famously gold-leafed portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer. It was the more famous of Gustav Klimt’s two portraits of the Viennese heiress and patron of the arts that had been hanging in the state-owned Belvedere Palace gallery since the end of the war. It and other family treasures had been confiscated when the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938. No fan of what he termed “degenerate art,” Hitler allowed Austrian Gallery officials to take possession of the family’s Klimt paintings, which, otherwise, might have become kindling in a Nazi bonfire. As a concession to home-grown anti-Semitism, the curators changed “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (1907) to “Woman in Gold,” in order to disguise its provenance and mask the fact that the model was a prominent Viennese Jew.

Curtis uses flashbacks to depict Altmann’s vivid recollections of family life before and directly after the Anschluss, and the difference couldn’t be more striking. Even 50 years later, when Altmann reluctantly returns to Vienna with Schoenberg for court hearing, it’s clear that modern Austrian officials are far more willing to fight attempts to surrender the paintings than their ancestors were in protecting their borders and Jewish residents from the Gestapo and Wehrmacht. Indeed, as the legal process evolves, Altmann’s tentative resolve in pursuing Schoenberg’s faltering case – inspired by the investigative reporting of Viennese journalist and editor Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl) — is continually renewed by the dismissive attitude displayed by the museum officials and the lack of remorse or guilt feelings shown her by almost everybody she meets in Vienna. For his part, Schoenberg’s determination is re-enforced by what he learns about his composer grandfather’s close relationship with his client’s parents and aunt, and how his own life was changed by the Holocaust. (In fact, he is the grandson of two Austrian composers, Arnold Schoenberg and Eric Zeisl, both of whom successfully immigrated to the United States, escaping almost certain death.) Mirren, as usual, is spell-binding as Altmann. If there are times when Reynolds comes across as being too young for the part of Schoenberg, the facts validate his characterization. Campbell’s screenplay could be nitpicked for certain concessions to poetic license, but, if anything, the larger story could never fit within a 109-minute format. For example, Altmann’s status as a simple Los Angeles shopkeeper doesn’t begin to describe her post-war life in America. The Blu-ray adds “The Making of ‘Woman in Gold’”; feature commentary with Curtis and producer David M. Thompson; a trailer for the documentary, “Stealing Klimt”; and press conference at New York’s Neue Galerie, after the painting was purchased by Ronald Lauder and put on display there.

Clouds of Sils Maria
I wonder if Meryl Streep gets depressed when she isn’t nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress. Maybe she feels relieved, knowing that she can avoid the annual crush of parties, press conferences and all of the ass kissing that comes with each and every nomination. Maybe, someday, Streep will be allowed the privilege of being chosen alongside one or both of her acting daughters, Grace and Mamie Gummer, or simply cheer them on from the sidelines. Streep doesn’t appear in Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas’ brilliant drama about actors and acting. If any actress deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Streep, it’s Juliet Binoche, who not only stars in Clouds of Sils Maria, but also delivers one of the great performances of her career. It’s entirely possible that more people witnessed her work in last year’s international blockbuster, Godzilla, than in all of the nine films for which she received Cesar nominations, combined. You can probably add the box-office tallies from her English-language successes, Chocolat and The English Patient. In an interview, Binoche said that she agreed to co-star alongside the giant fire-breathing dragon to believably deliver a line from the Clouds of Sils Maria about acting in blockbusters. Binoche was the perfect choice to play an English-speaking actress, Maria Enders, who, almost by chance, finds herself in a revival of the play that launched her career 20 years earlier. It was written by a famously elusive playwright, for whom she’s traveling to Zurich to accept an award as the movie opens. Not at all sure that she wants to perform a task even the playwright has refused to do, Maria finds herself enmeshed in an even greater drama when she’s told on the train that he’s died. Naturally, the news causes a flood of memories to come crushing down on her.

At the ceremony, Maria is paired with the same pompous actor (Hanns Zischler) who had sweet-talked her into bed during run of the play and would love to stage a romantic encore in Zurich. Maria knows that if she accepts the role of the older woman in the play, it will mean acknowledging that, henceforth, her characters will always be women of a certain age. Stepping into her previous role in the play is a young American actress (Chloë Grace Moretz), possibly modeled after Britney Spears at her most reckless. In a shattering scene near the end of the film, Maria suggests a slight change in the brat’s portrayal of her character, but is rebuffed. You can almost feel the air escaping from the hole in Maria’s ego as she realizes that she’s about to pass the torch to a younger and, perhaps, less capable generation of actors. In a very real sense, she represents every living actor who has or is about to pass the same threshold, feeling they still can get away with playing Hamlet and Ophelia, instead of Claudius and Gertrude. Also very good here is Kristen Stewart, as Maria’s loyal personal assistant and trusted confidante. The generation-gap isn’t nearly as noticeable in their relationship, until she begins revealing personal tastes that are more pop-cultural than sophisticated. Stewart renders the ambiguity stamped on her character’s personality so well that she was honored with a César, making her the first American actress to win one. (Adrien Brody is still the only American male to win one, for his work in The Pianist.) Sadly, the DVD doesn’t contain any bonus features.

Human Capital  
Although there’s nothing insignificant about the accident that kicks things off in Paolo Virzì’s constantly evolving drama, Human Capital, it mostly serves as the point around which more interesting things revolve. In fact, viewers are encouraged to hold the collision between a bicycle and SUV, on a winding downhill road on an inclement Christmas Eve, in abeyance until we get a better handle on the kind of people we’re dealing with here. The family that lives on the top of the hill, overlooking the Lombardy countryside, imaginations itself to be above the laws of man and economics. Already wealthy by anyone’s standards, hedge-fund magnate Giovanni Bernaschi (Fabrizio Gifuni) can’t pass up a dishonest deal when it presents itself to him. In a boastful mood, Bernaschi might even tip a less fortunate tennis partner to a deal from which he could benefit … or not, depending on how the cards fall. The one thing the two men have in common, besides tennis, are a son and daughter who are dating each other. Massimiliano Bernaschi (Guglielmo Pinelli) is a bright and handsome young man who appears ready to step into his father’s shoes as a world-class prick, but uses alcohol as a crutch to get there. Massimiliano’s girlfriend, Serena (Matilde Gioli) has been severely damaged by the loss of her mother and what she inaccurately perceives to be the encroachment of her pregnant stepmother, a genuinely nice doctor (Valeria Golino). Her father, Dino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio), is the poor sap who believes he can buy a ticket to financial independence by playing tennis with his filthy-rich friend. Clouding Serena’s crystal ball is the sudden arrival of a bad-boy classmate, Luca (Giovanni Anzaldo), who attracts her attention with his sketches and hard-luck story.

By far the most interesting character here is Giovanni’s wife and Massimiliano’s mother, Carla, played by the always watchable Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, whose sister, Carla Bruni, is married to former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Once an aspiring actor, she sold her creative soul for a luxurious, if totally compromised life in the mansion on the hill. With Massimiliano ready to leave home for college and Giovanni willing to reward her for 18 years of never appearing or acting less than the perfect upper-class wife, she asks him to buy her an abandoned entertainment complex that would otherwise be turned into a shopping mall. It isn’t until she discovers that the other man she needs to complete her dream of owning a theater is as big a piece of crap as every other male who’s feigned interest in her ambitions, but only to get into her knickers. It’s at this point that Virzi decides to deploy a dogged cop to re-emphasize the bicycle accident and challenge his characters to rise above the messes in which he’s put them. Or, rather, the dilemmas to which they were led in the Connecticut-set novel by Stephen Amidon. The adaptation by Virzì, Francesco Bruni and Francesco Piccolo (The First Beautiful Thing) makes it feel if Amidon intended for his story to be transplanted to Italy in the first place. Human Capital should appeal to arthouse audiences who don’t mind a little class-conscious intrigue with their whodunit. The DVD adds a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, and a music video.

Deli Man: Blu-ray
Anyone who watches Erik Anjou’s mouth-watering documentary Deli Man and feels inclined to board the next plane to New York City, just to savor a mountainous pastrami sandwich at the Carnegie Deli, probably ought to check out the restaurant’s website before booking a flight. Tempted thusly, I was disheartened to learn that the Midtown landmark is, as of this writing, closed temporarily for repairs, possibly related to legal problems caused by the discovery of a tapped gas line. The Carnegie is far from the only deli worth sampling while in New York, but, as is emphasized in the film, it represents a dying breed of restaurants that reflect nearly 130 years of Jewish culture in America. By the time this culinary theme park opened in 1937 – a half-century after Katz’s Delicatessen was founded on the Lower East Side – there were more than 1,500 kosher delis in New York, alone. Competition from supermarkets, specialty shops and changing urban tastes have reduced that number significantly, even as the search for the perfect pastrami sandwich has expanded to include Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Las Vegas and Houston, of all places. Among the restaurateurs we meet in Deli Man is Ziggy Gruber, a third-generation New York “deliman,” who began learning the business as a boy from his Hungarian-immigrant grandfather and brought authentic New York deli to Texas, across the street from Houston’s Galleria, in 1999. Consistently rated one of the top dining destinations in the city, Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen, resembles a museum exhibit as much as it does a restaurant. According to Gruber, the number of delis has plummeted from a high of 2,000 in New York, alone, to 120 in North America, although that figure may not include all of the deli food trucks that have begun to attract customers in urban areas. Among the other people Anjou calls as witnesses are entertainers and lifelong deli habitués as Larry King, Jerry Stiller, Fyvush Finkel, Freddie Roman and Alan Dershowitz, who add some spice to the testimony. The Blu-ray adds extended interviews.

Goldberg & Eisenberg
Holocaust Genocide & Survival
Stories of a Young Nation
Israeli writer/director Oren Carmi’s debut feature, Goldberg & Eisenberg, may sound like a sequel to Deli Man, but the only thing the two films share are kosher roots. It is, in fact, the rare Israeli export: a horror film … and a good one, at that. Set in Tel Aviv, “G&E” is built around an antagonist who should be as familiar to American audiences as the dangerously loud and angry guy next-door, who can’t be bothered with shushing his incessantly barking dog or the crazy panhandler who decides that you’re his new best friend and imminently worth stalking. Most of us would consider such plagues to be part and parcel of living in a big city and dismiss them as a momentary nuisance. When condensed into 90 minutes of paranoid psychodrama, however, these annoyances open the door to a Son of Sam scenario. Goldberg (Yitzhak Laor) is a desperately lonely computer programmer, who spends his free time scouring the Internet for potential girlfriends. One night, while walking his dog in the park, the harmless nebbish encounters the slovenly piece of human garbage, Eisenberg (Yahav Gal), who insinuates himself into Goldberg’s life with dirty jokes and feeble attempts at conversation. Naturally, what begins as an uncomfortable encounter in a dark and largely unpopulated park, evolves into a serious introduction to pure evil. It spills over into Goldberg’s private life, to the point where Eisenberg demands to be included in his dates as a spectator and is willing to torture animals to demonstrate how far he’ll go to maintain his enemy’s attention. As if Eisenberg weren’t sufficiently grating, Carmi allows unseen dogs to bark continually through the Tel Aviv night and give one of his characters a cellphone with barking ringtone. Neither does Carmi feel it necessary to explain the presence of Eisenberg’s occasional neo-Nazi companions and police completely unsympathetic to Goldberg’s plight. Far from perfect, “G&E” takes a while to catch hold, but, once it does, you’re hooked. Israelis generally have more horrifying things to consider than things that go bump in the night on the big screen, but, “G&E” and such genre pieces as Big Bad Wolves, Rabies and the first Israeli zombie flick, Cannon Fodder, have added something new to the menu.

Horror may have taken a while to reach Israel, but the national cinema began in Palestine during the silent era and got a boost in 1954 when the Knesset passed the Law for the Encouragement of Israeli Films. Since then, Israel has been nominated for more Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category than any other country in the Middle East, which may or may not constitute a big deal. Sisu Home Entertainment offers an expanding catalog of features, documentaries and cultural films that speak to the Jewish experience in Israeli and abroad. The first new compilation, “Stories of a Young Nation,” includes four surprisingly entertaining films – Newland, Over the Ocean, There Was No War in ’72 and The Flying Camel – that tell the personal stories of individuals and families sharing the growth pangs of a country that had yet to come of age. Made in the 1990s, all of these films have a distinct period feel and merge drama, comedy and romance. The second collection, “Holocaust: Genocide & Survival,” offers three very different documentaries about pretty much the same thing. Produced by MTV, I’m Still Here employs an emotional montage of sound and images, with music by Moby and readings by celebrities, from the diaries of young people who lived during the holocaust. Out of Europe: Escaping The Holocaust follows one fortunate family’s survival route from Belgium to America. Last Stop Kew Gardens: You Can Go Home Again tells the story of a post-Holocaust “immigrant village” in New York that gave birth to stars of film, TV, and comedy, as well as prominent members of the philanthropic, business and literary communities.

The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe: Blu-ray
In 1973, the notion of Americans embracing a French comedy was pretty far-fetched. That Man From Rio and Up to His Ears had already revealed the funny side of Jean-Paul Belmondo, while King of Hearts demonstrated that college audiences could fall just as much in love with a quietly subversive Gallic comedy as more intellectual works by Godard, Truffaut and Resnais. The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe’s arrival on these shores signaled a couple of positive things: 1) That French filmmakers had actually learned something about story telling from watching all of those Jerry Lewis movies, and 2) someone other than Philippe de Broca could make Americans laugh. Yves Robert earned the director’s credit on “Tall Blond Man,” sharing the writing honors with Francis Veber, whose influence on Hollywood was a story yet to be written. In it, Pierre Richard plays a gawky concert violinist, randomly selected by a French secret-service agent to play the decoy in a plot to expose a double-crosser within the agency. When he’s “tagged” by the agent at Orly Airport, François Perrin is inexplicably wearing one black shoe and one brown one. If it isn’t terribly relevant to the narrative, the gag makes a terrific title. What Francois doesn’t know is that the duped agents will be following his every step, bugging his apartment, listening to his phone calls and attempting to steal what they believe to be foreign intelligence. In his case, at least, ignorance is bliss, especially when a blond bombshell (Mireille Darc) hired by Francois’ pursuers pretends to fall in love with him.  As silly as the setup is, the Cohen Media Blu-ray edition of “Tall Blond Man” also serves as an easy way to kill a couple of hours in front of the tube. Two years later, Robert and Veber would reteam on The Return of the Tall Blond Man. In 1985, Tom Hanks starred as the peculiarly shoed violinist in the Americanized, The Man with One Red Shoe. Veber’s work would further inspire Hollywood remakes in the form of The Toy, with Jackie Gleason and Richard Pryor; The Birdcage, from La Cage aux Folles; Billy Wilder’s final picture, Buddy, Buddy, from A Pain in the Ass; Three Fugitives, from The Fugitives; Pure Luck, from La Chevre; Father’s Day, with Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, from Les Compères; and Dinner for Schmucks, from Le Diner de Cons. His other, strictly American titles include My Father the Hero, The Valet and Partners, a gay buddy-cop film starring Ryan O’Neal and John Hurt. If very few of these Hollywood remakes – some re-written and directed by Veber, himself – could hold a candle to the originals, the filmmaker cashed the studio checks, anyway. By the way, the stunning Guy Laroche “ass-crack” dress in “Tall Blond Man” was re-worn by Lori Singer in the remake and, since then, dozens of actresses – including Hilary Swank at the 2005 Academy Awards — hoping to make a lasting impression on the red carpet. Now, that’s entertainment.

Belle and Sebastian
Underdog Kids
As long as someone, somewhere is producing movies as spectacularly beautiful and terrifically entertaining as Belle & Sebastian, no one can say that the family audience is being ignored. And, by family, I mean everyone from grade-schoolers to grandparents. Kids can enjoy it as a boy-and-his-dog buddy adventure, while older viewers will recognize elements of “Heidi” and Jack London’s “White Fang” and “The Call of the Wild.” If Lassie were a Great Pyrenees, instead of a collie, her adventures could be factored into the equation, as well. Based on characters from a French TV series in the late 1960s, created by Cecile Aubry, “B&S” is set high the French Alps, on the border of Switzerland, in World War II. The landscape is foreboding enough to discourage the Nazi occupation force from drifting too far from the villages below. If nothing else, it gives hope to Jewish refugees and French resistance fighters that they might be able to avoid capture, if and when they decide to risk their lives on a perpetually snow-covered pass. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. When we meet him, Sebastian (Félix Bossuetis) is a 6-year-old on a mission. Hunters and herders have determined that Pyrenean Mountain Dog, Belle, is a demon determined to deny them of their livelihoods. Sebastian knows that the gigantic white dog is innocent of the crimes attributed to it, but can’t prove that wolves or poachers are responsible for killing the sheep and goats. Sebastian has convinced himself that America lies over the highest pass, because that’s where his mother was heading when she left the village. As unlikely as that may be, it gives the boy hope for his own future, away from his aged grandfather. He knows, however, that, before he can escape to America, he has to clear Belle’s name and prevent the Germans from learning their plans. This, of course, is easier said than done. Writer/director Nicolas Vanier has worked the terrain previously, in the documentaries The Last Trapper, L’enfant des neiges and Siberian Odyssey, and the wolf vs. reindeer drama, Loup. Clearly, French cinematographer Eric Guichard is comfortable at high altitudes, as well. The DVD adds an interesting, if chilly making-of featurette.

Phillip Rhee’s awkwardly titled Underdog Kids may not be able to boast of having the same universal appeal as “B&S,” but, considering the growing number of young Americans enrolled in karate classes at the local strip mall, there’s no reason it shouldn’t find an enthusiastic audience. Writer/director/producer Rhee plays Jimmy “The Lightning Bolt” Lee, a former MMA champion whose career suddenly ended when a car crash caused serious damage to his body. Still widely respected in the sport and his old stomping grounds, Lee reluctantly agrees to do a favor for his mentor (Max Gail), whose inner-city dojo is populated with youngsters who make the Little Rascals look like model citizens. They’ve already driven off several less patient teachers, but are won over by Lee’s reputation, patience and willingness to meet them half-way. Lee’s goal is to have the kids ready in time for a citywide competition against far more experienced and sartorially advantaged teams. The group from Beverly Hills, of course, takes Lee’s team the least seriously of all the competitors. It’s led by an old rival
(Patrick Fabian), anxious to humiliate Lee. Rhee is well-known in martial-arts circles as the producer/director/star of Best of the Best franchise and, although his resume has a 17-year hole in it, adds an air of authority to the over-familiar proceedings. His screenplay contains more than enough humor to keep young viewers interested between the fight segments. I wonder, though, if Rhee might be working towards a black belt in fart jokes. If so, he’s got a ways to go.

Merchants of Doubt: Blu-ray
The Drop Box
As Abraham Lincoln reputedly once opined, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” And, yet, that’s exactly what every one of the 717 Republican candidates for the presidency are attempting to do as the primary season kicks into high gear. Democrats aren’t immune to exaggerating the truth, but there aren’t nearly as many liberal candidates to fact-check the things that come out of their mouths. Neither, can they afford to hire the same professional liars, think-tank charlatans and right-wing flunkies (a.k.a., spin-doctors) provided the GOP by the Koch brothers and special-interest groups financed by major conglomerates and their lobbyists. Robert Kenner’s depressingly astute documentary, Merchants of Doubt, based on Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s book of the same title, describes just how easy it’s become to hijack the facts behind such scientifically verified threats as toxic waste, pollution, genetically modified food products, climate change and second-hand smoke from cigarettes. Essentially, their job is to plant a seed of doubt in the minds of chronically skeptical Americans every time a piece of progressive legislation is proposed in Congress or state legislatures.  They, then, are able to offer the services of well-coached “experts” to Fox News, talk-show hosts and assemblages of paranoid citizens, willing accuse everyone not in favor of poisoning our planet in the name of predatory capitalism of being a communist or un-American. These personable conmen, whose credentials are easily impeachable, also delight in ridiculing high-profile environmental advocates — including Al Gore and, now, Pope Francis – and shifting the argument away from the facts. Wisconsin, once one of the most environmentally secure states in the union, currently is being sold piecemeal to corporate interests aligned with the Kochs, who invested mightily in Governor Scott Walker’s recall and re-election races. His entire presidential campaign strategy has been built around lies, half-truths and demonstrable inaccuracies. The rest of the field isn’t much better. But, if you don’t believe me, lesson to the testimony of such conservative free thinkers as Matthew Crawford, Michael Shermer and former U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis, who put their careers at risk when they questioned right-wing doctrine. Kenner is able to keep the discussion lively by comparing the doubt-meisters to magicians and other purveyors of hocus-pocus. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Kenner; a post-screening Q&A at the TIFF; and the featurette, “Unlikely Voices,” in which conservative leaders, Debbie Dooley, George Shultz and Swiss Re, promote environmental causes.

Images of newborn babies being abandoned in the dead of night at the doorsteps of convents, churches, nursing homes, orphanages and, perhaps, even the odd brothel, have been repeated countless times over the last 100-plus years of movie making. For a while there in the 1980-90s, depictions of high school girls leaving unwanted or already dead babies in dumpsters became prevalent in the media. It’s nothing new … Moses was a foundling, too. Brian Ivie’s inspirational documentary, The Drop Box, describes how South Korean pastor Lee Jong-rak became a guardian and surrogate father to hundreds of disabled, discarded and unloved children left at his residence by a parent who had run out of the time, money or ability to care for them. Women who had babies out of wedlock faced social stigmas, as well. After word spread about Lee and his wife’s acts of Christian generosity — “every human life is sacred and worthy of love,” he explains – they were flooded with children left at Seoul’s Joosarang church, sometimes without the protection necessary to survive the night. To prevent such tragedies, Lee devised a sturdy “baby box,” with a light, padding and a doorbell to announce the arrival of another wee newcomer. Without making the Lees look like saints or zealots, The Drop Box explains how they have been able to accommodate the influx of babies, which increased significantly after South Korea instituted its new Special Adoption Law, in 2012. It stipulates that infants can’t be put up for adoption without their births being registered with the government. It also requires that mothers remain with their newborns for a minimum of seven days before putting them up for adoption. This was done, in large part, to stem the flow of newborns to adoptive parents overseas. (Abortions are illegal in South Korea, but readily available if certain conditions are met.) I should be noted that The Drop Box is being distributed by the evangelical Christian organization Focus on the Family, which has never been reluctant to solicit donations to support its ultra-conservative agenda, which doesn’t include non-traditional families and adoptions by opposite-sex couples. The DVD adds a making-of featurette, post-screening interviews and some faith-based promotional material.

The Lovers: Blu-ray
In 1985 and 1987, Roland Joffé was justifiably nominated for Academy Awards as Best Director for The Killing Fields and still vastly underseen The Mission. Depending on one’s point of view, the native Londoner has either been paying for that temerity ever since or has been waiting for an equivalent screenplay to prove the nominations weren’t flukes. Every subsequent Joffe production has been measured against those two fine films and, for a hundred different reasons, has failed to meet the test. The Lovers, a time-traveler romance, was greeted by critics with sharpened knives and practically no expectations of brilliance. And, it didn’t disappoint. Josh Hartnett (“Penny Dreadful”) stars as present-day marine archaeologist Jay Fennel, who, following a diving accident while rescuing his wife, is left in a deep coma. While unconscious, his imagination takes him back to colonial India, where he’s a Scotsman fighting to preserve British rule. In this previous incarnation, James Stewart is a Scotsman in the British army, assigned to protect a local warrior queen, Tulaja (Bipasha Basu). The object that connects Jay to James is an enchanted ring, created centuries earlier in India and discovered in the wreck of the ship that trapped his wife, Laura (Tamsin Egerton). So, the question we’re left to ponder is whether Jay/James will return to the present and return to the sea or remain hooked to a breathing apparatus and live in the past. The other option, of course, is that Laura pulls the plug and Jay gets a one-way ticket to purgatory. Apart from some lovely cinematography, the time spent in India mostly serves to bog down the narrative, which possibly could have benefited from the erotic vision of Mira Nair (Kama Sutra). It was an R-rated picture already, so a little skin wouldn’t have hurt anything. As it is, Basu’s Bollywood roots too clearly show through the beautiful costumes and gold jewelry. Nonetheless, fans of epic romances may find something here to like.

All American Bully
Tiger Orange
The change in title from “The Innocent,” back in 2011, to the more topical, All American Bully, tells me that this indie message film went through some serious changes from inception to its straight-to-DVD release. So do the cast members in the dust-covered interviews contained in the bonus package and misleading image on the cover. It suggests that the movie contained therein is about an attack on a school by a pistol-packing mass murderer, instead of the bullying of three geeky teenagers by the same armed assailant. I only mention this because bullies are more often the targets of crazed mass-murders than the perpetrators, who prefer to pick on people half their size and unable to defend themselves. The point lost in the cover and change in title is that the damage done by bullies can sometimes by negated by the same geeks, who can turn the tables on their tormentors by deploying social media and other computer-generated weaponry from the comfort of their laptops. It’s a risky business, to be sure, but revenge movies are all about taking chances. Here a gang of bullies, led by a Fonzie clone (Daren Ackerman), delight in torturing three students who couldn’t do any harm to them if they were armed with Kalashnikovs and RPGs. For kicks, they force one on the teens to admit to being a “fag” before they kick the crap out of him, for reasons known only to bullies. A film of the so-called confession is uploaded to social media, giving the other students something to giggle over the next day in school. The humiliated boy, who can barely walk from bruises inflicted on him during the beating, has no choice but to consider suicide. Or, does he? What happens next will make fans of such things feel sorry for the bully and reconsider their attitude toward cyber-revenge. It doesn’t take long for writer/director Jason Hawkins to redirect or sympathies, again, in a narrative meltdown that defines the word, “overwrought,” and really only serves to put an end to the madness. There’s a rather extensive interview session included in the bonus, in which cast members are asked to relate their experiences with bullying (mostly, none) and what lessons are to be taken from All American Bully. Sadly, they aren’t asked about the most interesting questions raised by Hawkins in his screenplay: What happens when the bullied become the bullies? Is turn-about fair play or just another moral quagmire? Can the people who monitor social networks be charged with aiding and abetting criminal acts if they don’t treat bullying in the same way as ludicrously banned images of mothers nursing their babies?

Reunions of estranged siblings rarely fail to produce emotional fireworks, especially when one of them was left behind to mind the store or care for a loved one. Once the hugging ends, the recriminations begin … that sort of thing. In Wade Gasque’s debut feature, Tiger Orange, that scenario is complicated by the fact that brothers Chet (Mark Strano) and Todd (Frankie Valenti, a.k.a. Johnny Hazzard) are gay, one overtly so and the other still with one leg in the closet. Todd decided to escape small-town boredom and bullies by splitting for L.A. the minute he turned 18, while Chet stayed behind to run the family store and savor the simple pleasures rejected by his brother. The fact that Todd didn’t bother to attend their dad’s funeral becomes a sticking point when he comes home from Los Angeles with no job, no money and his bad-boy attitude intact. The rest of Tiger Orange plays out according to mainstream form and with more talk about sex than depictions of it. Despite its familiarity, the film is easy to enjoy and the production values are well above average.

All the Wrong Reasons
There are a couple of good reasons to pick up All the Wrong Reasons, but fans of “Glee” won’t be required to look for anything beyond the presence of Cory Montieth, who died of a drug overdose before the film could find distribution in the U.S. While it found some traction in the Great White North, most stateside companies are reluctant to send out a marginal product starring a recently deceased star, lest they be accused of exploiting that actor’s fame. Montieth’s name did nothing to boast sales of McCanick, a police drama that debuted at the same 2013 Toronto International Film Festival before a limited release into theaters here six months later and unceremonious dumping into the DVD/Blu-ray marketplace two months after that. Montieth doesn’t enjoy the support of David Morse and Ciaran Hinds in Gia Milani’s debut feature, All the Wrong Reasons, but, at least, he is far more visible in it. His character, James Ascher, manages a discount department store well enough to qualify for a transfer to the company’s Toronto headquarters. His wife, Kate (Karine Vanasse), plays close attention to the security cameras, albeit primarily as a form of therapy to take her mind off her sister’s suicide and her near-paralyzing battle with PTSD. Unfortunately, for James, her ailment prevents her from engaging in physical contact with other human beings, including sexual contact with him. After a year, Kate’s condition has finally touched his last nerve, leaving him vulnerable to the advances of an opportunistic single mother, Nicole (Emily Hampshire), who sees in her boss an answer to her financial problems. Also thrown into the mix is a disabled firefighter, Simon (Kevin Zegers), who takes a security job at the store while waiting to be re-qualified for work in the department.  Like Kate, Simon has become dependent on prescription drugs. Given just that much information, most viewers could correctly predict what transpires in the ensuing 118 minutes of screen time. Of these characters, Montieth’s probably is the most underwritten and, as such, least credible. The others are much more interesting, if only because they’re able to pull off the comic elements with less visible sweat.

Der Todesking (The Death King): Blu-ray
The Pact 2: Blu-ray
Alien Outpost: Blu-ray
Dark Summer: Blu-ray
When critics conclude their review of a particularly offensive or disturbing movie by pointing out that it isn’t for everyone, it’s something like saying, “enter at your own risk.” Let’s skip the niceties by cautioning, up-front, that Jorg Buttgereit’s Der Todesking (“The Death King”) may not be for anyone, let alone everyone, not even those hard-core horror buffs who made it through Nekromantik, Nekromantik 2 and, yes, even Cannibal Holocaust unscathed. Cult Epics is presenting Der Todesking as the third release in its Corpse Fucking Art series. Sandwiched between the Nekromantik duo, it is a seven-story anthology in which all of the stories are connected by a chain letter sent to unrelated people who either are contemplating suicide or have become obsessed with death. The letter serves as a catalyst for whatever atrocity is likely to follow and the interstitial image separating the chapters is a gradually decaying corpse. Buttgereit doesn’t take the gag so far as to insinuate that the body is real, but try telling that to your stomach. That said, however, anyone who did make it through the Nekromantiks without serious brain damage probably won’t be able to resist picking up this almost ridiculously complete Blu-ray package. If Germany had the won the war, films like these would be packaged in double features with Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda classic, Triumph of the Will. Available for the first time in hi-def, Der Todesking goes out uncut and uncensored in a new HD transfer (taken from the original 16mm negative) and with the filmmaker’s making-of “shockumentary,” “Corpse Fucking Art”; a new introduction by Jorg Buttgereit; audio commentary by Buttgereit and co-author Franz Rodenkirchen; another making-of featurette; a still photo gallery; the original musical soundtrack; trailers; and a silver-embossed 25th Anniversary slipcover and “Corpse Fucking Art” postcard.

Just because a no-budget genre flick makes a ton of money on its own merits doesn’t mean that its sequel will work as well, given a similar budget, creative team and largely new cast. All it really means is that you might be able to fool enough fans of the earlier picture in its first week of release to turn a profit, before genre completists spread the word of the sequels’ inadequacies. That used to work better when distributors were able to hide a movie from critics until opening weekend, knowing that few people bothered to pick up the Monday papers. Today, of course, it’s impossible to hide a movie for more than a few hours, even if it’s released straight into video, thanks to the immediacy of the blogosphere and irrelevancy of mainstream critics when it comes to genre pictures. In the case of The Pact 2, returnees include Caity Lotz, Haley Hudson and Mark Steger. Writer/director Nicholas McCarthy is gone entirely, replaced by the unheralded tag team of Dallas Richard Hallam and Patrick Horvath serving in both capacities. New to the cast are Camilla Luddington (“Grey’s Anatomy”), who cleans up crime scenes for a living; Scott Michael Foster, as her cop boyfriend; Patrick Fischler (“Once Upon a Time”), as an FBI profiler; and Amy Pietz (“Caroline in the City”). The primary question to be answered is whether the Judas Killer has returned or a copycat is following in his bloody footsteps. After a few early scares, Pact 2 resorts to being a slasher flick, which completely defeats the purpose of a sequel to a movie that worked so well as a supernatural thriller.

Alien Outpost (a.k.a., “Outpost 37”) is a very bizarre, if not particularly successful attempt to merge such modern war documentaries as Restrepo and Occupation: Dreamland with Transformers: Dark of the Moon and War of the Worlds. Ten years after an alien invasion is thwarted, robotic survivors join Taliban fighters in an attack on the remote Outpost 37, where an international team of elite warriors may be the only thing keeping Earth from being recaptured by the aliens. We witness the action and casual interplay between the soldiers through the lens of a camera wielded by embedded documentarians. It’s not the worst idea in the world, but the presence of Islamic insurgents within the context of a nearly inexplicable alien attack is jarring.  Alien Outpost was co-written and directed by Jabbar Raisani, whose list of credits is topped by “Game of Thrones,” for which he toiled as visual-effects supervisor.

It would be difficult for anyone who’s seen Disturbia not to flash back to that suburban thriller while watching Dark Summer, if only because teenage protagonist Daniel Williamson (Keir Gilchrist) is under house arrest for cyber-stalking a classmate, Mona (Grace Phipps), but can’t resist the temptation to cause further mischief. The always wonderful Peter Stormare plays the probation officer who warns the boy against using his computer, inviting friends to the house and testing the limits of his ankle bracelet. Naturally, Daniel ignores all three orders. Long story short, he’s contacted by Mona through some kind of haunted social medium and the house becomes a cage, allowing ghosts and other demons to terrorize the kids, who, by now, include Maestro Harrell (“Suburgatory”) and Stella Maeve (“Chicago P.D.”). Things get pretty messy.  The Blu-ray adds commentary with director Paul Solet; several making-of featurettes; interviews; and a long and entertaining conversation with Stormare. Among the things I learned was that the native Swede was discovered by Ingmar Bergman and has a list of stage, TV and theater credits longer than most actors’ right arms.

PBS: Poldark: Blu-ray
Netflix: House of Cards: Volume Three: Blu-ray
Syfy: Bitten: The Complete Second Season
Disney Channel: Teen Beach 2
Barney Miller: The Final Season
Nature: Animal Childhood
Nickelodeon: Bunch of Playdates
Given the need for the BBC and “Masterpiece Theater” to have a ready alternative for “Downton Abbey” when it finishes its next and final season – and something for its mammoth fan base to savor until then, as well – it probably was inevitable that comparisons to “Poldark” would be encouraged, if only as a marketing gimmick. The 1975-77 adaptation of Winston Graham’s 12 novels had provided a huge boost for public television at a time when it was emerging from its “educational TV” pigeonhole, so it wouldn’t require much of a learning curve on the audience’s part. Instead of the more than 25 hours of precious airtime required to absorb the original series, the new one would only take eight hours to cover the first two books. “Poldark” must have done well enough in its British run, at least, because it’s already been renewed for a second stanza. Not having seen the original adaptation or particularly interested in making comparisons to “Downton Abbey,” I went into Season One without prejudice. Being a sucker for spectacular hi-def cinematography, “Poldark” made a quick positive impression with its sparkling shots of the Cornwall coastline and the lush green blanket of grass and crops that extends from its majestic cliffs to the terraced hills. The series’ titular protagonist (hunky Aidan Turner) returns to Cornwell after being wounded in a guerrilla ambush in the American Revolution. A nobleman before leaving for the war, Poldark became increasingly dubious of his country’s colonial policy while being shot at by the highly motivated Yanks. It doesn’t take long for him to figure out that he’s come back to a changed country. His father died in the interim, penniless, and his stingy uncle, Charles (the late Warren Clarke), has no interest in releasing Poldark from debts left behind in his wake. The family home has nearly been destroyed by neglect and their mine presumably has been played out. The servants are surly and the mineworkers are famished. Worse, considering the story’s soapy foundation, his onetime lover Elizabeth (Heida Reed) accepted rumors of his death as fact and agreed to marry his twit cousin, Francis (Kyle Soller). Elizabeth claims to be happy with Francis, but has reserved her right to flirt with her devilishly handsome old flame. Into this emotional quagmire arrives the redheaded runaway Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson), who he accepts as a servant and his personal Eliza Doolittle reclamation project. And, that’s only in the first episode. There’s plenty more intrigue, back-stabbing and scurrilous gossip to come. I don’t think many fans of “Masterpiece” will be disappointed by “Poldark,” which is related to “Downton Abbey” only by English blood. The Blu-ray adds three featurettes of varying value.

When Emmy nominations are announced next week, Netflix’s superb political thriller “House of Cards” is lead-pipe cinch to walk away with a whole bunch of them. Predicting whether any of the finalists will come out on top on September 20 is a far more difficult assignment, but I’d be surprised and disappointed if Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright weren’t nominated, at least.  Frankly, I’m not sure if episodes representing Season Two or Season Three were eligible for consideration – Emmy guidelines are only slightly less Byzantine than those governing induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame – and it probably wouldn’t matter either way. The Blu-ray/DVD release of “House of Cards: Volume Three” should provide all the evidence anyone needs to how far the producers and writers are willing to push the dramatic envelope. Unlike the original British series from which it was adapted, the Netflix series threw in some subplots this year that are on a par with Joseph Kennedy conspiring with the Mafia to get his son elected president or candidates Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan collaborating with the governments of North Vietnam and Iran to defeat Hubert Humphrey and Jimmy Carter, respectively. Strange, but true. Season Three picks up with President Francis Underwood’s loyal aide Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) awakening from the coma into which he slipped after being hit over the head by a rock wielded by Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan), the sex worker who could bring down Underwood’s fledgling administration. Meanwhile, Francis’ plummeting popularity is threatening his first official run for the office and his enemies are taking their animus out on the world’s sexiest First Lady, who is anxious to become our ambassador to the UN. Also threatening to upend the president are a truly evil Putin clone (Lars Mikkelsen) and computer hacker Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson), who is beginning to resemble fugitive American whistleblower Edward Snowden. And, that’s just for starters. The Blu-ray adds a comprehensive behind-the-scenes featurette and a closer look at the shocking goings-on later in the season in New Mexico. This is can’t-miss stuff, folks.

Syfy has gained a great deal of notoriety lately for its roster of original sci-fi/horror flicks, which range from cultishly laughable to just plain laughable. If they’re the public face of the cable network, it’s the company’s ability to cherry-pick highly entertaining, millennial-skewing co-productions from Canada and England that is getting serious attention from adult viewers and critics. Based on Kelley Armstrong’s “Women of the Otherworld” series of novels, “Bitten” straddles a line that roughly divides “Twilight” and “True Blood.” Filmed in the lush Ontario countryside, “Bitten” isn’t solely targeted at teenagers with a taste for forbidden love. The witches and werewolves are slightly older, just as beautiful, but reveal a tad more skin and skivvies by Victoria’s Secret. Not being a premium cable network, however, Syfy is unable to go toe-to-toe with HBO’s “True Blood,” when it comes to nudity and supernatural sex. Still, “Bitten” is extremely well made and there’s no scrimping on the story-telling. Laura Vandervoort plays the ass-kicking Elena Michaels, presumably the world’s only female werewolf, She/it has a human boyfriend, but can’t resist the pull of the “pack” and her ex-finance, who is responsible for sharpening her fangs. A third season of episodes begins shooting this summer.

The Disney Channel’s original movies Teen Beach Movie and Teen Beach 2 are a throwback to the beach-blanket movies that practically defined 1960s youth culture before Brian Wilson discovered acid and hot rods gave way to VW vans with “Flower Power” decals. Sad to say, however, they made me wonder how many of these kids are going to end up scandalized by their own inability to handle success. The mere thought of Annette Funicello sending out a nude selfie of herself on the Internet – however appealing that might be to a generation of Boomer males – made me consider going to confession. The fact is, however, Annette was 21 when Beach Party was released, and Frankie Avalon was 24. Sandra Dee was 17 when she became Moondoggy’s groupie, four years earlier, in the first Gidget. I don’t remember much singing and dancing in the fact-based story. ”Teen Beach 2” is set at the end of summer, just in time for one more beach bash before school starts and some of the kids, at least, have to start thinking about college. The producers must have really loved the “West Side Story” time-warp theme in the first movie, because the process is reversed in the sequel. The music and dancing infinitely more polished than in the days of Beach Blanket Bingo, when a bunch of guys with bushy blond hairdos played songs that made the dudes and dudettes twist the night away.

The Shout! Factory compilation, “Barney Miller: The Final Season,” wraps up eight seasons in the sitcom-y lives and exploits of everyone’s favorite Greenwich Village police squad. Characters played by  Hal Linden, Max Gail, Ron Glass, Steve Landesberg, Ron Carey, and James Gregory made it all the way to the 22nd episode finale, along with several of the more popular miscreants who shared space in the decrepit squad room. (Jack Soo died after the fifth season, while Abe Vigoda’s “Fish” retired as of the fourth season.) Naturally, the final episodes played to the tear ducts of loyal viewers. The show’s serio-comic approach to police work and insistence on character diversity would be emulated in such influential shows as “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue,” which advanced the genre by leaving the squad rooms for location shoots.

For parents who worry about the entertainment choices they make for their toddlers, pre-schoolers and kindergarteners, and don’t use DVDs solely as unpaid babysitters, it’s never easy to determine precisely when a child is ready to leave behind such compilations as Nickelodeon’s animated “Bunch of Playdates” and pick up a live-action title like Nature’s “Animal Childhood.” Nickelodeon’s three-disc collection offers seven hours of educational and musical fun, in 18 hours of material from “Dora the Explorer,” “Team Umizoomi,” “Bubble Guppies,” “Go, Diego, Go!,” “The Wonder Pets!,” “Ni Hao, Kai-Lan,” “The Fresh Beat Band” and “Blue’s Room.” The cover of the “Nature” presentation promises all sorts of cute-and-cuddly stories about how baby animals make their presences known in the world for the first time and either learn from their parents how to survive in the cold, cruel world or evolve in non-nuclear arrangements. It’s a wonderfully conceived and produced show that parents can enjoy with their kids. As is the case in such cherished Disney movies as Bambi and Old Yeller, however, there are moments when baby animals are shown struggling for their lives in what might otherwise be considered to be learning situations. Here, in addition to the usual stragglers targeted by predatory lions, hyenas and wolves, there’s a wee elephant whose mother can’t prevent him from being swept away in a rain-swollen river. It might be too much for a sensitive child to bear … or parent.

The DVD Wrapup: Danny Collins, Get Hard, Decline of Western Civilization, Downtown 81 and more

Friday, July 3rd, 2015

Danny Collins: Blu-ray
There are moments in Dan Fogelman’s wildly uneven rock-‘n’-roll fantasy, Danny Collins, that suggest the author was raised on classic-rock radio and his titular protagonist (Al Pacino) was modeled less after Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger or Rod Steward, than Neil Diamond, Billy Joel or a post-Wings Paul McCartney. That much is clear when Collins arrives on stage for the first time, looking as if he might rip into “Born in the U.S.A.,” “Katmandu” or “Maggie May,” but, instead, delivers what amounts to Diamond’s between-innings anthem, “Sweet Caroline.” Not that there’s anything wrong with the Fenway Park favorite. It just sounds out of place when sung by a wrung-out, blurry-eyed geezer, whose “Elvis scarves” are older than everyone in his band. Collins has been so strung out for so long that he hasn’t written a new song in 30 years and can’t readily recall the details of two of his marriages. As the inspired-by-a-true-story story goes, Collins’ longtime manager (Christopher Plummer) uncovers a 40-year-old letter written to his client by John Lennon, but intercepted by the Rolling Stone reporter who conducted the interview that caught the Beatle’s eye. In it, Collins was given some positive career advice and invited to visit him and Yoko when he was in the neighborhood. Being a huge fan of Lennon, there’s no telling how Collins’ career path might have changed had he been aware of the letter. (In fact, throughout much of the 1970s, the drunk-and-disorderly Lennon was in no shape to offer advice – solid or otherwise – to any up-and-coming musician.) Like Scrooge, after his cathartic journey into the future with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, Collins is inspired by the letter not only to clean up his act, but also make a pilgrimage to New Jersey to make nice with his bitterly estranged son, Tom Donnelly (Bobby Cannavale), incredulous daughter-in-law, Samantha (Jennifer Garner), and super-cute granddaughter, Hope (Giselle Eisenberg).

Even if Tom and Samantha want nothing to do with the genuinely repentant Collins, he eventually weasels his way into the family’s good graces by enlisting Hope in his campaign. Not surprisingly, the toddler reacts favorably to a tour bus full of toys and some playful piano tickling. At the same time, Collins is wooing the manager of the mid-range motel in which he’s staying. Annette Bening is uncharacteristically schoolmarish as the no-nonsense, nose-to-the-grindstone Mary Sinclair, who, at first, easily resists the Pacino-ish charms of the reformed musician, but eventually succumbs to his charms. As the author of Last Vegas, The Guilt Trip and Tangled, Fogelman knows exactly which buttons to push to keep the emotional roller-coaster rolling for 106 minutes. All of the actors, especially Pacino, deliver performances sufficiently likeable to bridge the gaps between fantasy, reality and schmaltz. His appearances in such largely unseen indies as Manglehorn, The Humbling, Salome, Stand Up Guys and The Son of No One Pacino have given DVD renters a great return on their investment. But, they mostly reminded us of earlier work and such memorable characters as Sonny (Dog Day Afternoon), John Milton (The Devil’s Advocate) and Lefty (Donnie Brasco). As long as his hair doesn’t fall out completely, he’ll always look younger than his 75 years and still make a credible date for female characters a decade or two younger than him. Bening may even remind some viewers here of Diane Keaton’s Kay, in the Godfather trilogy. A couple other things should be mentioned in any discussion of Danny Collins: 1) The Lennon-dominated soundtrack is so appealing that it completely overshadows the original music by Ryan Adam and Theodore Shapiro, and 2) onerously obtrusive product placement disturbs the rhythm of nearly every scene in which a name brand is dropped or logo added in the background. The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes featurette and gallery of faux “Danny Collins album covers” through the years.

Get Hard: Unrated: Blu-ray
Far be it from me to recommend marketing strategy to a major studio, but the next time Will Ferrell is cast in an odd-couple, Mutt-and-Jeff or fish-out-of-water comedy, some thought should be given to the less-is-more theory as it pertains to publicity. Whether he’s promoting a Major League Baseball tie-in or sequel to an earlier blockbuster, Ferrell defines the word, “overexposed,” and like Sasha Baron Cohen, he tends to appear in character. Talk-show hosts and their audiences eat it up, as do the entertainment “news” shows, but it’s only fun in small does. More problematic, however, is the over-familiarity that comes with oft-repeated production anecdotes, video clips and character sketches, leaving practically nothing to the imagination. His many cameo appearances in the movies, television shows and websites of fellow comedians – along with such vanity projects as the Lifetime movie, “A Deadly Adoption,” with Kristen Wiig – have made him a ubiquitous media personality. Like a good soldier, Ferrell pulled out all of the stops for Get Hard, as did his nearly inescapable co-star Kevin Hart. Considering his long and arduous trek to the A-list, no one can blame Hart for milking his 15 minutes of fame. By contrast, Ferrell has been in the spotlight for so long, he’d probably go through withdrawal if denied it.

Because Hart and Ferrell are two of the most popular actors on the planet right now, I would think that Warner Bros. expected more than $105 million in worldwide box-office revenues. (The marketing campaign, alone, probably cost WB more than the estimated production budget of $40 million.) Get Hard was funny enough to please fans of both actors, but not nearly enough to ignite the same kind of cross-over business as such kindred comedies as Trading Places and Stir Crazy, which it resembles. Outside of England and Canada, however, I doubt that many overseas viewers fully grasped the central gag. Here, Ferrell plays a successful hedge-fund manager, James King, who’s been set up as the patsy by his future father-in-law (Craig T. Nelson) to take the fall for a highly lucrative, if thoroughly illegal investment scheme. In a true stretch of current reality, James is put on trial and convicted of fraud. Sentenced to several years at San Quentin, James has been allowed 30 days to get his affairs in order before surrendering to prison officials. This scenario is so preposterous as to beg unintentional laughter. After all, how many financiers have been found guilty of anything since 2008 and, of that handful, how many were required to do hard time? For all of his crimes, Bernie Madoff is being allowed to spend the rest of days in a medium-security prison.

James’ fear of being beaten, killed or raped by hardened San Quentin cons, who can smell a fresh fish from across the San Francisco Bay, isn’t really all that preposterous. In Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, a convicted coke dealer played by Ed Norton voluntarily takes a beating from a pal, so as to make himself less susceptible to rape in prison. Unwilling to take such drastic measures, James recruits the only African-American he knows, Darnell (Kevin Hart), to prepare him for the experience. What he doesn’t know is that Darnell has always been an upstanding, law-abiding citizen and doesn’t know any more about how to survive prison than Woody Allen in Take the Money and Run. Not wishing to disappoint a valuable customer in his car-wash customer, Darnell makes a futile attempt to toughen James up by enlisting some local hoodlums to give James a tutorial in survival. In an effort to play to the cheap seats, co-writer/director Etan Cohen has Darnell take James to a restaurant popular with gay men for brunch. He reacts accordingly, even if the paying customers don’t. This may be Cohen’s first directorial credit, but he’s collaborated on such features as Men in Black 3, Idiocracy, Tropic Thunder and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, so he knows how to use broad material to make people laugh. Ferrell and Hart’s fans should enjoy the seven minutes of fresh material added to what already was a R-rated picture. The Blu-ray package includes both versions of Get Hard; deleted scenes and gag reel; and several comic featurettes, including “The Kevin Hart Workout,” “A Date with John Mayer,” “Will Ferrell, Gangsta” and “Twerking 101.”

The Decline Of Western Civilization Collection: Blu-ray
Downtown 81
At a time when punk and heavy metal were being dismissed as the bastard stepchildren of rock ’n’ roll, Penelope Spheeris took the music seriously enough to showcase them as evolving art forms and accord the musicians the same respect shown any other chart-topping performer. The rock-media mainstream had yet to embrace the artists and record labels weren’t anxious to back unproven commodities whose uncouth manners and angry lyrics could backfire on them. Released in 1981, The Decline of Western Civilization focused on the burgeoning punk-rock scene in Los Angeles, especially as it migrated from temporary homes on the Sunset Strip, Chinatown and concrete bunkers in the beach communities. The American punk crowd had never been beholden on British acts, except for fashion tips, so it didn’t miss a beat when Sid Vicious died of a heroin overdose in February, 1979.  Spheeris’ ability to locate its beating heart was, perhaps, its greatest accomplishment. A minimalist affair from Day One, she captured the organic, if frequently mock-violent relationship between the musicians and fans, for whom safety pin jewelry and Mohawk hairdos weren’t reserved for special occasions. Like punk, heavy metal music existed as an identifiable subgenre for nearly 20 years before Spheeris made The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. Iggy and the Stooges, the MC5 and hundreds of garage-rock aficionados had opened the door for Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, T-Rex and, by extension, the Sex Pistols. They’ve never really gone away, either.

One thing that Spheeris was able to discern rather quickly was how punks and metal musicians defined success and accepted their place as outsiders and provocateurs. By this time, of course, most mainstream bands and performers had been seduced by gigantic contracts and the mountains of cocaine that were delivered to their homes whenever they were running low. The desperation voiced by X in early songs “The Unheard Music,” “The New World” and “I Must Think Bad Thoughts” lamented the status of L.A. punk bands, while refusing to give an inch to convention or cooptation. You could ride skateboards or mosh to punk and metal, but the likelihood of Michelob or Coors licensing a song for a commercial was nil. This, of course, made it easy to spit on the trappings of lifestyle conformity and adopt a nihilistic stance. By contrast, the heavy-metal musicians we meet in the sequel are direct descendants of the glam-rock pioneers, right down to the high-heel boots, makeup and bouffant hair styles for men. That much would disappear, at least, as the Beavis and Butt-heads of the world embraced a decidedly more proletarian vibe to the movement. In 1987, though, the androgynous look still appealed to groupies – it even survived the satirical lashing administered by This Is Spinal Tap – and, without them, the pursuit of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll would be meaningless. A few years later, “The Osbournes” and Ozzfest would bring heavy metal into the mainstream, but not nearly to the same extent as the Eagles or Fleetwood Mac. Among the still-popular musicians we meet as hairy young adults in “The Metal Years” are Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Alice Cooper, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Lemmy, Bret Michaels and several other unabashedly hedonistic musicians and groupies.

Judged solely as documentaries, the first two segments of The Decline of Western Civilization hold up very well as windows into a world that was far more shocking three decades ago than it is now. They have inspired scores of filmmakers to follow suit. That isn’t the case with The Decline of Western Civilization Part III, a disturbing film in which you can actually watch the chickens of a crippled society come home to roost. It is much less about the evolution of hard-corps music and rabid fan base, circa 1998, than a delayed sequel to Spheeris’ 1983 culture-clash drama, Suburbia. In 1998, the streets, alleys and abandoned houses of Hollywood were home to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of homeless youth commonly dismissed as “gutter punks.” Their self-destructive nihilism echoes the nearly indecipherable lyrics hurled at us in “Part I” by the Germs, Black Flag, X, Fear and Circle Jerks. In 1998 and, maybe, still today, these kids had to panhandle, steal or sell their blood to purchase tickets to see their favorite bands in a club. Mostly, though, if they couldn’t sneak into a club, why bother? In the absence of their parents and siblings, the teenagers we meet have formed families of their own, but without any of the safety nets provided by society or relatives. Just as Hollywood has changed in the interim, we’re left to wonder how these young people have fared since then. All three films are collected in this long-awaited Shout Factory box, which is enhanced by new 2K scans supervised by Spheeris; commentary by Dave Grohl; vintage interviews with the director; never-before-seen original footage of performances and interviews; theatrical trailers; and a 40-page booklet, featuring rare stills and text by Domenic Priore.

At the exact same time as Spheeris was surveying the L.A. punk scene for the first installment of “TDOWC,” Edo Bertoglio and Glenn O’Brien collected snapshots of Manhattan’s East Village and Lower East Side for Downtown 81 (originally, “New York Beat Movie”). Although these neighborhoods resembled “Dresden after the war,” a closer examination of the shaded corners, blank walls, basements, studios and dive bars revealed a veritable ant hill of cultural activity by artists and musicians of all stripe. O’Brien recalls how Downtown 81 was first envisioned as a New Wave fairytale, but exists today more as a documentary about a city and scene that no longer exist. In it, the camera follows then-undiscovered street-artist Jean Michel Basquiat from a hospital bed, to his locked apartment, to underground recording studios and fashion fittings, CBGB and the Mudd Club and other landmarks of the hipster diaspora. He’s in a desperate search for the $500 required to reclaim access to his studio/home. Although Basquiat had yet to become a cause célèbre in the art world, he was already known in some quarters as a graffiti artist and scenester. O’Brien had served as the first editor of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, before launching the public-access sensation, “TV Party,” which was to the New York underground scene what “Soul Train” was to R&B and hip-hop.

Among the people who make cameos or perform here are Debbie Harry, Eszter Balint (Stranger Than Paradise), James White and the Blacks, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Plastics, Fab 5 Freddy, Vincent Gallo, Maripol, Debi Mazar, Coati Mundi, Chris Stein and Elliott Murphy. They all fit into the underground scene organically, but aren’t asked to impersonate themselves. Basquiat’s desperate search for bread adds an urgent pace and tempo that would have been missing in a documentary. Today, however, Downtown 81 can be viewed as a funky travelogue of a section of New York absent AIDS, gentrification, drug rehab, crack, media vultures and inflated egos spawned by fame. That’s all gone now. By contrast, Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard have remained pretty much the same, although noticeably cleaner and safer. Production hassles resulted in Downtown 81 being held captive in an Italian warehouse for 20 years before its limited debut in 2001. Despite the fact that the dialogue track was lost, the restored edition looks and sounds better than ever. A second disc adds fresh interviews and the recollections of O’Brien, Maripol and Fab Five Freddy; vintage video clips; and a gallery.

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter: Blu-ray
If the Coen Brothers had made a feature-length sequel to Fargo, instead of merely lending their names and suggestions to the creators of the FX series, “Fargo,” as executive-producers, it might have looked a lot like Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. Just as Fargo had convinced viewers that the inspiration for the movie came from an actual event in the criminal history of Nordic Minnesota, David and Nathan Zellner based their film on an urban legend – or, in this case, a North Woods legend – that proved too good to be completely accurate. In it, a young Japanese office worker, played by Rinko Kikuchi (Babel), discovers a VHS cassette of Fargo hidden under a rock, while on dreamlike stroll on a misty beach. The tape has been degraded to the point where the video images appear scrambled and barely intelligible. The one thing Kumiko is able to discern is the scene in which a battered and bloody Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) buries a suitcase full of money in the snow, along a long fence line that parallels the wind-swept highway. Already emotionally damaged by the barely veiled threats of her horny boss, Kumiko imagines the video images to be gifts from God, directing her to an actual hidden treasure. After measuring the distances between the fence posts that lead invariably to Fargo, North Dakota – actually, Bemidji, Minnesota, home to Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox – she hops on a plane to the Twin Cities, absent any of the provisions one would need to spend more than 10 minutes outside in the middle of winter.  And, that includes enough money to afford lunch, a motel room, parka or translation app for a cellphone.

Despite looking like a discarded piece of Kleenex on the side of the road, Kumiko gets rides, food and unheeded advice from cops and other strangers. In an effort to convince her that Fargo is a work of fiction, a policeman who shares several Minnesota-nice traits with Marge Gunderson, searches high and wide for a sushi restaurant, where the owners might be able to serve as interpreters. The closest they come is an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. After mistaking the cop’s kindness for love, Kumiko begins to lose hope of locating her treasure. The Zellners are content here to follow the same roadmap laid by north-country mythologists intent on expanding the tourist trade already generated by the many quirky events described in Coens’ fish story. Since the ending is essentially the same, viewers should resist the temptation to conduct an Internet search for the woman who inspired the story, Takako Konishi. It can wait. Kikuchi’s portrayal of the painfully withdrawn and utterly colorless Kumiko stands out from everything else in Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, except an evocative score by the Octopus Project and the brilliant cinematography by Sean Porter (It Felt Like Love), which makes the forbidding Minnesota winter look every bit as cold as it is, but more beautiful than anyone living south of the Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport could ever imagine. The DVD adds commentary with writer/director David Zellner, writer/producer Nathan Zellner and producer Chris Ohlson, as well as deleted and alternate scenes.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Of Girls and Horses
If the name of Czech filmmaker Jaromil Jireš doesn’t ring a bell, it’s probably because he elected to continue working in the nation of his birth after the Warsaw Pact nations crushed the reforms brought about by Prague Spring, as well as the spirit of filmmakers associated with the Czechoslovak New Wave. He wasn’t soft on communism, by any means, but, by choosing not to follow Miloš Forman, Ján Kadár, Vojtěch Jasný and Jan Němec into self-exile in the West, he was required to abide by government censorship and soften his political edge. It’s difficult to imagine how the delightfully surrealistic and overtly erotic Valerie and Her Week of Wonders slipped past the eyes of humorless censors long enough to be shown in a handful of foreign venues. Between the late 1970s and its release on DVD in 2004, however, the movie mostly disappeared from view anywhere. And, yet, its influence likely extended to English writer Angela Carter, whose screenplay for Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984) echoed similar themes. It’s also possible that “Valerie” caught the eye of Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose surrealistic The Holy Mountain and El Topo captured the imagination of arthouse audiences and acid heads in the 1970s. “Valerie” is a period piece based on a Gothic fantasy by Vítezslav Nezval. In it, the first period of a charming 13-year-old (Jaroslava Schallerova) triggers a series of hallucinatory events that mirror the sexual confusion and disturbing urges that are synonymous with the arrival of puberty in many unsuspecting girls and boys. In Valerie’s case, the passage is tipped when earrings left to her by her mother are stolen while she’s sleeping in a gazebo — either by the malevolent Weasel or benevolent Eagle — and replaced the next morning while lounging in a pool with three giddy blonds. The arrival of a carnival only serves to confuse an already bewildering situation, complicated by the appearance of vampires, witches, wicked priests and twisted relatives. As perplexing as these daydreams and nightmares may be, Jireš (The Joke) cloaks them in a phantasmagoria of colors and distinct cinematic textures. At a brisk 73 minutes, “Valerie” comes and goes like a fractured dream on a restless night. Anyone in the mood for more New Wave challenges ought to check out Vera Chytilová’s Daisies “Criterion’s Eclipse Series 32: Pearls of the Czech New Wave.” The Blu-ray features a new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; three of JIres’ early shorts, “Uncle,” “Footprints” and “The Hall of Lost Steps”; a new interview with Czechoslovak film scholar Peter Hames; earlier interviews with actors Jaroslava Schallerová and Jan Klusák; an alternate 2007 psych-folk soundtrack by the Valerie Project; and an essay by critic Jana Prikryl.

With a title that will come dangerously close to being misunderstood by people with porn on their brains, Monika Treut’s Of Girls and Horses reminds me more of a Germanic The Horse Whisperer than the lesbian coming-of-age drama it also resembles. In fact, the attachment between girls and horses here closely corresponds to the opinion shared by Peggy Orenstein, author of “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” that women “identify with their strength … and are a source of power and motion and transformation.” I wouldn’t know, but it makes sense within the context of the movie. Alex (Ceci Chuh) is a self-destructive 16-year-old, who has finally gotten on the last nerve of her adoptive mother and is sent to a farm in northern Germany to work with horses as an intern. Given her pissy moods and generally downbeat attitude toward life, we aren’t given much reason to hope for Alex’s reform. If she rebels against the entry-level chores she’s assigned, her next step is reform school or prison. Like Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer, the farm’s resident trainer, Tina (Vanida Karun), senses an immediate attraction between the city girl and horses. Even so, Alex is always one step away from messing up. Her biggest challenge comes when an upper-class girl, Kathy (Alissa Wilms), arrives with her magnificent Thoroughbred and practically lives in the same stall with him. In a departure from form, Treut doesn’t require her characters to become mortal enemies, whose differences suddenly narrow after a cathartic event. Their differences do narrow, but naturally and over time. Most of the tension comes when Tina’s relationship with her lover in Hamburg (Ellen Grell) becomes complicated and she begins to take it out on Alex. Instead, that tension brings the teenagers together amid the gorgeous rolling hills of northern Germany.

Soldate Jeanette
Chantal Akerman, From Here
Marcel Ophuls & Jean-Luc Godard: The Meeting in St-Gervais
It isn’t often these days that one comes across such an unrepentant art film as Austrian writer/director Daniel Hoesl’s debut feature, Soldate Jeannette (“Soldier Jane”). Appealing primarily to the nichiest of niche audiences, it wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in Palm Spring for distribution outside the festival circuit or feminist film clubs. That it is the product of something called the European Film Conspiracy recalls a time when radicalism in film mirrored the rebellions in the streets. Jean-Luc Godard led the way in Europe, making movies that no longer told stories but embraced political movements for which creative freedom was anathema. In the U.S., John Cassavetes experimented with form and function, limiting politics to the diplomacy practiced by men and women over the kitchen table and in bed. These films weren’t made for those people who frequented the local Bijou to be entertained or relieved of their cares for 90-plus minutes. They were intended to challenge, provoke and enflame us. The best were puzzles for the mind, while the worst were masturbatory wastes of our times. Soldate Jeannette seems to combine elements of Godard’s work with the spirit Cassavetes’ collaborations with Gena Rowlands. Johanna Orsini-Rosenberg is the woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown here, a middle-age Viennese resident of haute-bourgeois persuasion. Jane’s boredom with her lifestyle is manifested by her refusal to pay rent, embezzle money from her family’s trust fund and discard expensive clothing she’d purchased only moments earlier. When she finally decides to forgo her yoga and self-defense classes, Jane buys fancy boots and camping equipment and heads for the Alps. To keep her warm the first night, Jane burns thousands of dollars’ worth of Euros. After sharing her body with strangers for a place to sleep, she takes up residence in a communal farm and slaughter house that might have seemed ideal in the 1960s, but, today, remains a bastion for male entitlement. Newly emboldened by her own quest for freedom, Jane takes it upon herself to rescue a younger woman of less privileged background. Nothing is resolved, but, as a character study, it held my attention. The DVD adds interviews with Orsini-Rosenberg and Hoesl, as well as a couple of shorts.

In a bit of a coincidence, Godard and Belgian filmmaker Chantal Ackerman are referenced in Soldate Jeanette in the same week as films about them are being released by Icarus. Both will be of interest almost exclusively to arthouse buffs and Francophiles. Chantal Akerman, From Here is a wide-ranging interview rendered almost useless by a gimmick employed by the filmmaker to re-create one of Akerman’s artistic conceits. A stationary camera points into a boardroom or dining room, from outside a door in the hallway, allowing for a view of a seated Ackerman and whoever else might pass before the lens. The anonymous interviewer is hidden behind a wall thick enough to muffle his questions and push some of her answers well out of context. It helps, somewhat, that the discussion is primarily in English.

The title, Marcel Ophuls & Jean-Luc Godard: The Meeting in St-Gervais, makes the event related here sound as if it might have been a championship fight promoted by Don King. Instead, this too-brief meeting of the minds, recorded in 2009, only skims the surface of careers that literally changed the face of the international cinema. Neither Godard, 79, nor Ophuls, 82, was ready to retire, even if both men would have been put out to pasture long ago in Hollywood. The conversation, which took place before a small audience of admirers, is lively and the recollections are frequently profound. Especially compelling are the directors’ recollections of growing up under the cloud of World War II.

The best reason for picking up Simon Blake’s slow-burn thriller, Still, is an electrifying performance by Aiden Gillen, a Dublin-born actor who specializes in mesmerizing performances. If his face is familiar, it’s because he played an ambitious Baltimore politician in “The Wire” and Lord Petyr Baelish in “Game of Thrones.” No one does intense with more intensity than Gillen. Here, he plays a London photographer who’s yet to recover from the death of his teenage son in a hit-and-run accident a year earlier and divorce from a wife who once properly fit him like a glove. For no good reason, Tom Carver has become the target of teenage punks, who object to his kindness to a boy too weak to protect himself against the bullies. It takes a long time for Carver to turn into Charles Bronson in Death Wish, but, once he’s pushed beyond his limit, the explosion can be heard from miles away. Anyone anticipating a clichéd ending, though, will be pleasantly surprised. Gillen gets more than ample support from tough-as-nails Sonny Green, Jonathan Slinger, Elodie Yung and Amanda Mealing.

Charlie Levi’s first and only feature, Childless, deals with the grief associated with the unexpected loss of a child, as well, but in very different ways. Having sat on a shelf gathering dust since at least 2009, the intense drama practically dares us to empathize with the four adults closest to the teenage girl, who’s probably getting far more attention in death than she ever did while alive. As played very well by Barbara Hershey, Joe Mantegna, Diane Venora and James Naughton, the middle-class Angelinos prepare for the funeral by wallowing in self-pity and hurling accusations and recriminations at each other and the camera, not only for the conditions that prompted Katherine (Natalie Dreyfuss) to take her life, but also the fissures in their own marriages and those of peripheral relations. If Levi leaves the door open for reconciliation, it’s only over Katherine’s cold dead body. Edward Albee might have been able to make these people interesting, if not exactly sympathetic, but Childless could never be mistaken for a sequel to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Even so, it’s always fun to watch actors of this stature at work in something other than TV crime series and horror flicks. The DVD adds a not particularly enlightening making-of featurette.

I Am Evel Knievel: Blu-ray
As difficult as it is to believe in 2015, there was a time not so long ago when a daredevil with the unlikely name of Evel Knievel held the world in the palm in his hand, simply for his willingness to risk life and limb by jumping his Harley-Davidson over several dozen automobiles, buses, tanks filled with shark and crates containing snakes. Mostly, though, Kneivel is remembered for crashing his bike in ways that can be only described as spectacular. It begged the question as to whether fans paid to see him complete the jumps or die trying. Knievel was a master showman in an era when simply showing up wasn’t enough to please an audience. By the time he announced his intentions to jump the Grand Canyon, but had to settle for a failed attempt to bridge the Snake River, there was nowhere to go but Hollywood. That proved to be as big a flop as the Snake River debacle. Among those testifying in Knievel’s defense are celebrities Matthew McConaughey, Michelle Rodriguez, Kid Rock, Guy Fieri, Robbie Maddison; daredevils Spanky Spangler and Mike Vallely; Willie G. Davidson, of Harley-Davidson; comedian Bob Einstein (a.k.a., Super Dave Osborne); racing promoters Chris and J.C. Agajanian; and family members, including sons Kelly and Robbie, and former wives Linda Knievel and Krystal Kennedy-Knievel. Not surprisingly, footage of his successful jumps isn’t nearly as captivating as the film taken of Kneivel hideously rolling head over heels on the forgiving concrete, breaking a new bone with each bounce. Derik Murray and David Ray’s I Am Evel Knievel exceeded my meager expectations, at least, reminding me of a time when a man could become a hero simply by putting on a red, white and blue jump suit and putting his reputation on the line for a few thousand paying customers. Or, was that Elvis? The Blu-ray adds plenty of like-minded bonus features.

Contamination: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Jester’s Supper
Lilith, a Vampire Who Comes Back
Ghosthouse/Witchery: Blu-ray
If genre buffs have learned anything from the ongoing digital revolution, it’s that you can’t keep a good “video nasty” down … or any other long-buried exploitation flick, for that matter. Contamination, newly re-released into Blu-ray by Arrow Films, is a perfect example of the zombie-fication of sleazeball cinema. The video-nasty designation was applied to DVDs of questionable taste by Britain’s National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association and endorsed by the Director of Public Prosecutions, which released a list of 72 films the office believed to violate the Obscene Publications Act of 1959. For it to be enforceable, the legislation needed to be updated to take into account then-current technology. The Video Recordings Act of 1984 didn’t prevent these films from being shown elsewhere or to re-edited and re-submitted. It did, however, serve to elevate the value of bootleg copies in Britain and raise the profile of movies otherwise destined for drive-ins and grindhouses. Noteworthy primarily as a late example of Euro-horror, Contamination borrows key elements from Alien — football-sized eggs and alien “chest bursters” — and relocates them to a ghost steamer speeding toward the docks of New York. No stranger to the international exploitation game, Luigi Cozzi (a.k.a., Lewis Coates) decided that the easiest way to distinguish his film from Ridley Scott’s landmark thriller was to raise the ante on gore, while the cheapest way was to eliminate the spaceship and hire a lower-profile star than Sigourney Weaver. Here, police investigators led by Lieutenant Tony Aris (Marino Mase) are startled to find a cargo containing strange, oversized eggs and the bloody remains of the humans on board. It doesn’t take long before some of the government inspectors to become infected and, when the eggs explode inside the victims’ Hazmat gear, it approximates what might happen if a turtle was cooked in a microwave oven. The investigation leads military personnel headed by Colonel Stella Holmes (Louise Marleau) and former astronaut Ian Hubbard (Ian McCulloch) to a Colombian coffee farm, where the eggs are being manufactured by a one-eyed Martian brought back by a space mission. I kid you, not. If Contamination isn’t a world-beater cinematically, Arrow’s hi-def restoration makes the 95 minutes pass by quickly. It includes an amusing Q&A session with Cozzi and McCulloch and separate interview with the director; an archive making-of documentary with behind-the-scenes footage; a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gary Pullin; a collector’s booklet with new writing on the film, illustrations and original stills and posters; “Sound of the Cyclops,” in which Goblin keyboardist Maurizio Guarini discusses the creation of the score; and commentary with Fangoria editor Chris Alexander.

It’s impossible to predict what a package from One 7 Movies might contain when it arrives in the mail, as the films in its catalog range from vintage porn to obscure foreign horror titles. Made in 1942, in Mussolini-controlled Italy, The Jester’s Supper (a.k.a., “The Dinner of Practical Jokes”) is a rather primitive period piece set in Florence at the time of Lorenzo de Medici. The city is run by a ruthless pair of aristocrat brothers who specialize in playing cruel pranks on their enemies. When one of the victims decides to retaliate, things escalate in unexpected ways. One of them involves the sexual attack on a young woman favored in the Chiaramantesi household by street rabble. None of this would be of current interest if it weren’t for the fact that leading lady Clara Calamai made history by allowing her blouse to be ripped off, revealing the first naked breasts in the Italian sound cinema. The Jester’s Supper isn’t likely to be shown on TMC, but it’s readily available on the Internet.

It isn’t likely that Lilith, a Vampire Who Comes Back will log much air time here, either, but, as curiosities go, it isn’t bad. The conceit, which begins on the jacket of the DVD, requires horror fans to buy into a movie made in 2008 to look and sound like Nosferatu, Vampyr or Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages. And, that it does. The difference between “Lilith” and Shadow of the Vampire, the 2000 John Malkovich vehicle, is that its historically based story is far more interesting. Gianni Virgadaula’s original intention with “Lilith “was to make a 17-minute short that combined elements of the vampire, werewolf and haunted castle subgenres. At 81 minutes, the only thing missing is a compelling story.

The latest double-feature from Scream Factory would be noteworthy mostly for the pairing of David Hasselhoff and Linda Blair in Witchery, virtually guaranteeing a celebration of cheesy cinema. Ghosthouse, which offers no such star power, was made specifically to fool Italian audiences into thinking they were watching a Sam Raimi movie. Doesn’t sound promising, but, guess what, they’re both pretty good. The credit belongs to directors Fabrizio Laurenti and Umberto Lenzi, respectively, embellishing American drive-in tropes with the garish gore-for-gore’s-sake excesses of Euro-horror. There’s isn’t much more to say about movies, except that one features an evil clown doll and the other … well, when you say, Hasseloff and Blair, you’ve said it all.

Annika Bengtzon Crime Reporter: Paradise & Deadline
Maria Wern: Episodes 8 & 9
BBC: Planet Ant
1913: Seeds of Conflict
If the only thing aspiring mystery buffs know about Scandinavian writers is Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium trilogy,” which opened with “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” they owe it to themselves to widen their horizons with the many fine crime novels exported to the U.S. before and after that media sensation crashed upon our shores. For those of us allergic to ink and paper, however, the good news is that many of the best series have been translated into movies and television shows, now available here on Blu-ray and DVD. And, yes, they’re imminently binge-worthy. They include, of course, the Swedish/Danish- and English-language translation of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series; Nicholas Winding Refn’s “The Pusher Trilogy”; “The Bridge,” which made the transition from Copenhagen/Malmo to Juarez/El Paso; the Martin Beck mystery series, adapted from the novels of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo; the “Easy Money Trilogy,” inspired by the novels of Jens Lapidus; and, from Norway, “A Somewhat Gentle Man,” with Stellan Skarsgård. The unsinkable Netflix/AMC series, “The Killing,” is a direct translation of the popular Scandinavian series “Forbrydelsen” (a.k.a., “The Crime”).

American crime series require of their women protagonists that they be drop-dead gorgeous, sexually active or sexually ambiguous, sharpshooters, feisty and either constantly worried about their children or worried that the expiration date on their eggs is drawing near. As compelling as some of the characters have become, it’s the rare female cop, medical examiner, judge or legislator who isn’t required to defer to a male superior. In the episodic Danish political drama, “Borgen,” currently shown on PBS outlets, Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) unexpectedly becomes the first woman Prime Minister of Denmark. The job comes with a target on her back for all manner of corrupt politicians, business executives and special interests to take aim, while also worrying about a distressed daughter and failed marriage.  Newly available through MHz Newtorks are chapters from the excellent Swedish series, “Annika Bengtzon Crime Reporter: Paradise & Deadline” and “Maria Wern: Episodes 8 & 9,” neither of which, as far as I can tell, have appeared on America television. Helena Bergström stars as crime reporter Bengtzon in two feature-length films, adapted from Liza Marklund’s best-selling literary series. The abrasive Bengtzon not only is required to investigate crimes, but combat virulent strains of male chauvinism rarely seen any more in films. In “Paradise,” a murder in Stockholm’s harbor leads her to widespread conspiracy involving a government-funded women’s shelter. In “Deadline,” she leads her paper’s investigation into a series of bombings, apparently targeting organizers of the country’s Olympics committee. Eva Röse returns as police inspector Maria Wern in two new movies based on the crime novels by Swedish author Anna Jansson. After the death of her husband, Maria moves to the picturesque Swedish island of Gotland with her two children. Wern is more agreeable than Bengtzon, but no less dedicated to solving crimes, especially the kind of murders one wouldn’t think possible in such an ideal location.

Perhaps you’ve heard a variation of the time-honored riddle, “What are the only things that would survive a nuclear bomb?” One answer suggests, “Cockroaches and a fruit cake. And the cockroaches would starve.” After watching the BBC’s amazing scientific report, “Planet Ant,” I’d be willing to wager that ants not only would be able to survive the blast, but they’d also figure out what to do with the leftover fruit cakes. We’ve all owned an Ant Farm, accidentally disturbed a colony of red ants or been tested on the information gleaned from an educational documentary in school. “Planet Ant” uses state-of-the-art technology to delve even deeper into the miracles of the ant realm, including how they appear to solve mathematical problems that defeat modern computers.

Given the likelihood that war is a more likely prospect in the Middle East than peace and cooler heads will never prevail, now would be a good time to take a step backward, back to a time when a palpable degree of harmony did exist in the region. PBS’ eye-opening “1913: Seeds of Conflict” examines a critical yet overlooked moment of transformation in Palestine, long before the Balfour Declaration and British Mandate, which was never going to work as intended. That’s because no one anticipated how events in other parts of the world, as well as intra-faith divisions, would impact the Jews, Arabs and Christians already co-existing at the fragile crossroads of three of the world’s great religions.

The DVD Wrapup: Timbuktu, The Bridge, Pit Stop, Dog Soldiers and more

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

Timbuktu: Blu-ray
Any religion that allows itself to be shanghaied by criminals, thugs or perverts probably ought to think about making its core beliefs more specific and membership requirements more rigid. If a faith’s most sacred texts can be so easily misinterpreted that co-religionists can’t even agree on its position on murder in the name of God, it will take something more powerful than assault rifles to open the gates of heaven to them. Or, maybe the priests, rabbis and mullahs entrusted with interpreting scripture are too personally invested in conflict to come together for the sake of peace. Bob Dylan probably could have written a dozen more verses to “With God on Our Side” and still not captured the insanity that began with Cain and Abel and continues today. This terrible reality was all I could think about while watching Abderrahmane Sissako’s extraordinary depiction of life at the crossroads of sanity and madness, Timbuktu. Islam was introduced to West Africa in the 11th Century and, since then, it has been the predominant religion of Mali, of which Timbuktu remains a regional capital. Mali’s been down on its luck economically for a long time, thanks, in large part, to a lingering drought, severe heat and uncertain political leadership. At one time, though, Timbuktu was a crossroads trading center, as well as a magnet for Islamic scholars and repository for religious texts and manuscripts. Despite its multiethnic population, religion wasn’t a divisive force in the region until recently. Sissako’s Oscar-nominated film depicts the relatively brief period when jihadists affiliated with Al Qaeda (and/or ISIS) were able to take advantage of a split between Tuareg secessionists and Islamic radicals to take control of Timbuktu from the fractured Malian military. Among the first things they did was impose Sharia law and destroy libraries containing centuries-old religious texts, including cherished editions of the Koran.

Timbuktu puts a tight focus on Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) a cattle herder; his wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki); his pre-pubescent daughter, Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed); and Issan (Mehdi AG Mohamed), a shepherd boy, who is like their own son in the shrinking tent community outside Timbuktu. Their lifestyle is as uncluttered and traditional as the Bedouin, who once crisscrossed the southern Sahara. Kidane shares the waters of a nearby lake with a fisherman from a different ethnic background, but also living in the dunes. One day, a cow breaks away from the herd, destroying a section of the fisherman’s nets. He retaliates by immediately killing the cow — Issan’s favorite – and cursing the boy. When Kidane confronts the belligerent fisherman, the pistol he’s carrying to intimidate the man accidentally discharges, killing him. This sets off a series of events that puts Kidane in direct contact with the jihadists and their alternately severe and absurd interpretations of Sharia law. It outlaws music, dance, laughter, cigarettes and, even, the bare hands of women selling messy products in the market, while authorizing stoning adulterers to death, lashing outlawed musicians and accepting bribes and granting favors. Kidane’s biggest problem is his inability to come up with the compensation – 40 cows – ordered by the court, which includes a man who’s itching to steal the herdsman’s wife. If this was all Sissako gave us to ponder in Timbuktu, it would be an unbearable experience. Instead, he lightens the overall tone by demonstrating the determination of residents to get around the rules, even under the watchful eyes of the fanatics. After soccer balls are banned, for example, kids make do by staging realistic games, albeit with an imaginary ball. At the same time, bored jihadists are shown killing time by discussing the stars of European soccer leagues and their favorite teams. There are other amusing examples of resistance, but they’re far outweighed by the cruelty of the Sharia jurists, especially to women. Timbuktu benefits greatly from the wonderfully evocative cinematography of Sofian El Fani (Blue Is the Warmest Color), which shifts nimbly from the sunbaked dunes and courtyards at high noon, to the velvety-black sky that shrouds the desert at night. The Blu-ray adds thought-provoking interviews with the filmmaker.

Stop the Pounding Heart
As difficult as it may be for liberals to believe that the Republican presidential candidates actually believe the outrageous crap they spew everywhere they go on the campaign trail, it’s just that easy to believe that Democrats have never gone very far out of their way to understand what makes so many voters buy into the button-pushing rhetoric of Tea Party-approved politicians. Considering that Texas is ground zero for the lunatic fringe of the GOP, along with Florida, it might be enlightening for supporters of Hillary and Bernie to pay a visit to territory claimed by Ted Cruz and Rick Perry. Or, they could start by watching the engrossing docu-drama Stop the Pounding Heart, which constitutes the third chapter in Italian filmmaker Roberto Minervini’s “Texas Trilogy,” along with The Passage and Low Tide. In it, we’re introduced to the Carlsons, a large family living on a goat farm in East Texas according to precepts set down in the bible. While their faith is grounded on fundamentalist beliefs, they appear to have formed their own opinions on what’s important in life, based on personal experience … good and bad. While the Carlsons don’t seem to be particularly interested in what’s going in Washington, they’re exactly the kind of people Cruz and Perry claim to represent.

Leeanne and Tim Carlson have decided that their 12 children will be sheltered from the world in which they grew up through home-schooling and strict interpretations of scripture. The central focus of Minervini’s no-frills film is Sara, an intentionally plain teenager who has only recently begun to doubt her mother’s daily testimonials to chastity, devotion to God and subservience to the man in her life. Sara’s closest male friend, Colby, is an aspiring rodeo rider who appears to have divided most of his formative years falling off mechanical bulls and getting tattooed. His father found religion after succumbing to hard drugs and, like the Carlsons, has retreated from the world at large to protect his family from the same fate. Through Colby, we’re also introduced to Texas gun culture, which is as much a part of growing up in the Big Thicket as, well, falling off mechanical bulls and getting tattooed. Watching Colby’s very pregnant sister taking target practice may be unnerving for some viewers, but she appears to be having a lot more fun on the firing range than she will be a couple weeks later delivering her baby in the living room of her home. Minervini’s presence doesn’t appear to have unnerved his subjects, although you never know how things actually went down off-screen. We’re aren’t encouraged to draw conclusions, one way or the other, besides those that arise naturally from witnessing the quality of Sara’s homeschooling, whose curriculum appears to include milking the goats and cows. It’s also possible to wonder how she’ll find an appropriate life partner when she isn’t allowed to date or mingle with infidels. In some way, Stop the Pounding Heart is the antithesis of such redneck reality shows as “Duck Dynasty” and the one with Honey Boo-Boo. As unfamiliar as the Carlsons may be to those of us who live in Blue State America, in the rural South they’re as common as kudzu, if far less insidious. Their faith is in a God who speaks to them in mysterious ways, not the Republican Party.

The Bridge: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Along with the hellish images collected from World War II death camps, some of the most penetrating photographs sent back to America in 1945 were of the German boys and elderly POW’s captured as the Allies began their final drive to Berlin. These weren’t the faces of heroes or battle-hardened soldiers. These were the victims of Adolph Hitler’s refusal to end the madness and save Europe from further carnage. Many of the raw recruits – the youngest ones, especially — were so brainwashed by Nazi propaganda they actually believed their participation could turn the tide, bringing about the final victory promised them since the invasion of Poland. Bernhard Wicki’s remarkable anti-war drama, The Bridge, was based on Gregor Dorfmeister’s autobiographical novel, published in 1959 under a pseudonym. Dorfmeister was one of several high school buddies drafted into the Wehrmacht and, days later, assigned to defend a bridge over a river near their homes. It was of almost no strategic value – except to facilitate the desertion of veteran officers and escape of wounded troops – but their lack of adequate training caused one of their more realistic superiors to place them as far out of harm’s way as possible. What the officer didn’t take into account, however, was the boys’ faith in Der Fuhrer evolved from their participation in Hitler Youth programs that promoted devotion to the Fatherland as much as physical strength and stamina. What their elders saw as lost cause, the boys assumed was a path to glory. Wicki gives viewers plenty of time to get to know them as everyday teenagers, preoccupied with their studies, girlfriends, causing mischief and performing chores for their families, many of which were missing an adult male authority figure. Each is allowed individual character traits and dreams of a productive future in Third Reich. Roughly halfway through the 103-minute film, they are sent to the bridge and ordered to dig in and hold the position. A flyover by P-51 Mustang provided the first hard evidence that Hitler hadn’t levelled with them.

Their fate is sealed when their commanding officer is attacked in the streets of town by a pair of marauding SS troopers and killed before he can order his charges to surrender in the face of superior fire power. Before the American tanks arrive, the boys kill a couple of hours horsing around on the bridge, as if they were in a pretend war. It doesn’t take long after Mustang strike for the distant rumble of advancing tanks can be discerned in the near distance. Still, armed with grenade launchers and machine guns, they stand their ground. Instead of taking flight, the boys give the advancing patrol all they can handle. At first, this inspires a palpable sense of pride, even the occasional smile after killing a GI. Stunned by the presence of boys in Wehrmacht uniforms, one of the Americans actually pleads with them to surrender. Instead, he’s cut down by a sniper. The resulting firefight eventually separates the boys from the men, leaving only one of them to relate this story of quixotic patriotism to Germans still reluctant to admit their culpability in the war. (The skirmish turned out to be such an insignificant event, it didn’t even rate a footnote in official records or, until the book became a best-seller, a plaque at the bridge.) Based on facts and unsparingly honest in its depiction of war, The Bridge is a powerful drama no matter on which side of the Siegfried Line one sits. According to director Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum), it directly influenced members of the New German Cinema, who grew up watching movies that ignored the Nazis’ culpability in the war and atrocities that no one wanted to admit happened. The Criterion Collection 2K digital restoration makes the black-and-white film feel as if it were made yesterday and includes a remarkable bonus package distinguished by refreshingly candid new interviews with Dorfmeister and Schlondorff; a 1989 television profile of Wicki, who had spent 10 months in a concentration camp; an excerpt from a 2007 documentary by his wife, Elisabeth Wicki-Endriss, featuring test-reel footage from the shoot; and an by critic Terrence Rafferty.

Survivor: Blu-ray
You know that things have changed when three of the top action stars in the world are a former supermodel, a late-blooming Irish thespian and a graduate of the WWE acting academy. Had Liam Neeson and Dwayne Johnson appeared alongside Milla Jovovich in James McTeigue’s tick-tock, cat-and-mouse thriller, Survivor, it’s still conceivable that it would have sunk like a stone at the box office. At least, it would have enjoyed something better than a kiss-off VOD release. As it is, Jovovich is accompanied by such capable actors as Pierce Brosnan, Dylan McDermott, Angela Bassett and Robert Forster, none of whom can be accused of phoning in their performances. No, the blame here falls directly on an incoherent screenplay by freshman scripter Philip Shelby and the quizzically haphazard direction by McTeigue (V for Vendetta). The picture opens in Afghanistan, where two members of an American helicopter crew have been shot down and captured by Taliban insurgents, hoping to trade one of them for a lucrative ransom. The other survivor, who’s black, is summarily executed, ostensibly because he wouldn’t be worth as much money to the kidnapers. Really? Just as quickly as this scenario is introduced, it’s put aside and ignored by McTeigue and Shelby. Flash forward and geographically sideways, to London, where the hunt for terrorists continues apace. Jovovich plays an American Foreign Service Officer, Kate Abbott, working with British security officials to ferret out potential troublemakers employing ever-more-sophisticated techniques to bypass airport checkpoints. As someone who lost several close friends in the 9/11 attacks, Kate is determined to find the terrorists before they get to the U.S. Shockingly, the first person (Roger Rees) who raises a red flag at Heathrow is allowed to pass through a checkpoint by a seemingly jaded U.S. official, Bill Talbot (Forster). What an American is doing at Heathrow, determining who’s allowed into England, is anyone’s guess.

Naturally, the first thing the mad scientist does is hook up with a crazed watchmaker (Moore), who’s considered to be the most notorious mercenary assassin on the planet. The scientist delivers a gaseous weapon of mass destruction to the watchmaker – a sharpshooter – who’s created a delivery system to be tested in London, but activated in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Conveniently, Kate recognizes a criminal conspiracy when she sees one and, after doing a Google search on the scientist, becomes the target of turncoat American agents, British cops and whoever it was who hired Nash, the watchmaker. Instead of eliminating Kate in a restaurant explosion, Nash succeeds in blowing up all of her co-workers. No one at the embassy believes her story, so, when she’s photographed fleeing the scene of Talbot’s accidental killing – shades of North by Northwest – an hour-long chase ensues. It ends, of course, on a tall building overlooking Times Square at its most crowded. At a brisk 96 minutes, Survivor appears to have jettisoned logic and common sense in the service of the Kate’s one-woman crusade to halt an attack designed to kill more innocent Americans than those murdered on 9/11. Viewers shouldn’t be forced to accept such lapses in logic, simply to get through to what promises to be an explosive climax. Nu Image Films decided to cut its losses by opening it in only a handful of theaters, simultaneously with a VOD release on iTunes, On Demand and, for free, via the new Hoopla app, which is supported by public libraries in a way I don’t quite understand. (The same teaser approach was employed with Kristin Wiig’s Welcome to Me.) The Blu-ray arrives with deleted scenes and a short behind-the-scenes featurette.

Dog Soldiers: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Meet Me There
Crypt of the Living Dead/House of the Living Dead:  Limited Edition: Blu-ray
In 2002, when Dog Soldiers was first released in England, the werewolf subgenre was experiencing a bit of a resurgence, thanks mostly to the Canadian teen-exploitation flick, Ginger Snaps, which overcame a slow start by building buzz in the VHS, DVD and cable after-markets. Werewolves would resurface once again, thanks to such TV and movie franchises as “True Blood,” “The Twilight Saga,” “Underworld,” “Being Human,” “Teen Wolf” and “Supernatural.” All of these titles owe more to John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London and Joe Dante’s The Howling – both released in 1981 – than any of the Universal horror classics, with the possible exception of Werewolf of London, which inspired a great song by Warren Zevon. Credit is due, as well, to Rick Baker, Rob Bottin and Stan Winston, whose innovations in the creation of special makeup effects allowed for more frightening transformations and sexier monsters. Virtually ignored here on its release, Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers should be must-viewing for those who consider themselves aficionados of modern horror. Being of British persuasion, its closest relative probably is Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, which combined gory effects and smart humor in the service of movie that could be enjoyed as a thriller and/or parody of genre tropes and clichés. If the gags and references in Dog Soldiers are harder for non-buffs to recognize, it’s compensated for by the imaginative deployment of special effects. As was the case with Ginger Snaps, the filmmakers chose not use to rely on CGI effects, preferring prosthetics and makeup for the action sequences. By comparison, the story is simplicity, itself. Members of an elite unit of the British army’s Special Forces is transported by helicopter into a remote corner of the Scottish Highlands. All they are told is that it’s a survival-training assignment and the idea is to avoid detection by other units. When the soldiers come across the gruesome remains of a platoon previously inserted into the area, it becomes abundantly clear that other forces are at work here and their behavior is lycanthropic. Thanks to the well-timed appearance of an animal-behavior expert (Emma Cleasby), the soldiers are able to find shelter in the nearest cottage, which is 50 miles from anywhere else and beyond the reach of cellphone signals. What happens next could very well be taken as a supernatural homage to Assault on Precinct 13. Also along for the ride are Kevin McKidd, Sean Pertwee, Liam Cunningham, Thomas Lockyer and Darren Morfitt. The new 2K-scan HD transfer was supervised and approved by Marshall, who also provides commentary. The bonus package includes a new making-of featurette, with cast members, producers, special-effects artist Bob Keen, special effects supervisor/creature designer Dave Bonneywell, production designer Simon Bowles and director of photography Sam McCurdy; a fresh look at the model of the sets created by Bowles; a pair of still galleries; and Marshall’s short film, “Combat.”

Austin-based director Lex Lybrand opens the smart and creepy Meet Me There with a death scene so poetic that it makes you wonder how he’s going to top it over the course of the next 90 minutes or if he’s even going to try. His patience — and our’s — will be rewarded in this regard, but not before we’re introduced to a backwoods community of in-bred characters who make every day seem like Halloween.   Hipster-chick Ada (Lisa Friedrich) has been seeing a shrink to make sense of her inability to relate sexually to her boyfriend, Calvin (Micheal Foulk). On her recommendation, they embark on a journey of discovery to her tiny hometown in the middle of Nowhere U.S.A. Ada’s sure that her aunt will give them a place to stay, but it’s the only indication that something resembling rural hospitality exists here. Indeed, once Ada realizes what caused her to leave the town in the first place – blotting out all memories of it – Lybrand kicks the real gothic horror show into gear, finally ending in the same place as it began. Filmed on a budget that probably was close to non-existent, Meet Me There had me on the edge of my seat for most of its run-time. But, then, I’m of the opinion that the true monsters among us don’t telegraph their bloodlust with sharpened teeth, skull tattoos and stormtrooper boots. That’s for amateurs. One look at Preacher – created by Dustin Runnels (WWE’s Goldust) – and you know that God has abandoned his church. Bonus features include interview with Runnels and Jill Thompson (“Scary Godmother”), who plays Aunt Lindsay.

In Cross, Daniel Yee Heng Chan Leung (Trilogy) takes a slightly different approach to the Angel of Mercy trope, which typically demands that a sociopathic nurse or doctor play God in determining how long a terminally ill patient should live. Simon Yam (Ip Man) plays a man so traumatized by the suicide of his wife that he decides to provide his lethal services to anyone contemplating taking their own life at the risk of eliminating any chance they’ll go to heaven. To provide such a service, Leonard contracts with people he encounters on a website dedicated to assisting people on suicide watch. He has a plan for the disposition of the money, as well, but it’s too far-fetched to mention. With the death toll mounting to alarming heights in Hong Kong, police psychologist Cheung (Kenny Wong) is assigned to the case, whose trail leads him to the same online web forum. Unlike Leonard, Cheung is less interested in saving eternal souls than closing the loophole he provides them. It’s up to viewers to decide who stands on higher ground.

Vinegar Syndrome is a Bridgeport-based distribution company and film archive dedicated to the preservation, restoration and release of the exploitation titles in its library. It’s one of several such businesses that have kept the DVD/Blu-ray trade from stagnating in recent years. This week’s double-feature is pretty representative of VS’ stated mission. A strictly limited edition of Crypt of the Living Dead and House of the Living Dead takes buffs back to the early 1970s, when such drive-in fare was ignored by teenage lovers and beer-swilling jocks. Made in Spain and shipped to the U.S. as “Hannah, Queen of the Vampires,” Crypt of the Living Dead stars Andrew Prine as a young American engineer who travels to the spooky island where his scientist father was crushed by the crypt of a vampire queen. In investigating the incident, the engineers inadvertently opens the door to the undead beauty’s savage soul. The bonus film, House of the Living Dead, has been shown here as “Curse of the Dead,” “Doctor Maniac” and “Kill, Baby, Kill.” It takes place on a colonial vineyard outside Capetown, South Africa, where a mad scientist plots to steal people’s souls and place them into jars for eternity. The only person standing in his way is buxom blond Shirley Anne Field, who previously had appeared in such fine British films as Peeping Tom, Alfie, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Entertainer and could later be seen in My Beautiful Laundrette and Shag. It’s kind of like discovering Jayne Mansfield in a crowd scene in Citizen Kane. The films have been restored in 2k from 35mm negatives.

Adventures Into the Woods: The Sexy Musical
About 10 years ago, semi-retired porn superstar Veronica Hart directed Misty Beethoven: The Musical!, a XXX feature adapted from one of the most popular adult titles of all time, The Opening of Misty Beethoven. Like the 1976 Radley Metzger (as Henry Paris) original, “MB:TM” was informed by the George Bernard Shaw play “Pygmalion” and Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady.” As conceits go, Hart’s hard-core musical comedy was right up there with turning John Waters’ edgy comedy about sex and race in 1960s Baltimore, “Hairspray,” into a rather tame Broadway musical. Still, it gave actors an opportunity to show off other assets than those best savored in the boudoir. It also produced a soundtrack album. Rolfe Kanefsky’s much softer Adventures Into the Woods: The Sexy Musical contains 12 original songs performed by actors known mostly to late-night viewers of Cinemax. I suspect that Kanefsky originally intended for Adventures Into the Woods to be an extension of the “Emmanuelle” franchise, as he had previously directed and written a half-dozen movies exploiting the classic character.

Once again, Kanefsky enlists Allie Haze, the prolific star of soft- and hard-core vehicles – including parodies of movies and TV shows — to portray Emmanuelle. During a science experiment, Emmanuelle falls through a wormhole and winds up in a forest not unlike the one Anna Kendrick, Daniel Huttlestone, James Corden, Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep traversed in Rob Marshall’s adaptation of James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s hit Broadway musical, “Into the Woods.” Apparently, the forest falls within the boundaries of Wonderland and, during Emmanuelle’s journey home, she’ll encounter Alice, the Big Bad Wolf, Humpty Dumpty, Snow White, the Evil Queen, Little Bo Peep, Little Miss Muffett, the Mad Hatter and characters from “The Wizard of Oz,” all played by porn actors and scream queens. Apart from the fact that nothing particularly remarkable occurs during the 100-minute length of Adventures Into the Woods: The Sexy Musical, it strains credulity to think that anyone attracted to “Into the Woods” would make a beeline for “The Sexy Musical.” Adding “Emmanuelle” to the title might have encouraged fans of that franchise to take a chance on something very different in the genre. And, there is plenty of full-frontal, if not particularly gynecological nudity to distract viewers not interested in the songs. The DVD adds extended musical numbers and deleted scenes.

Spike Island
Few regional music scenes have been captured as intimately and with as much passion as the one associated with Manchester, England. Among the groups that emerged from the industrial center in the 1960s were the Hollies, Herman’s Hermits, Wayne Fontana and The Mindbenders, Freddie and the Dreamers and an early incarnation of the Bee Gees. They would be followed in the 1970-80s by the Smiths, the Buzzcocks, 10cc, the Fall, Joy Division and its successor group New Order, Oasis, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets, James and the Stone Roses. In 2002, Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People chronicled the city’s music scene from the now-legendary June 4, 1976, Sex Pistol concert at Lesser Free Trade Hall, to the juncture of post-punk, electronic dance music, Factory Records, the Hacienda nightclub and emergence of ecstasy in the late 1980s. Five years later, Anton Corbijn’s Control dramatized the tortuous rise and tragic fall of Joy Division vocalist Ian Curtis. In Spike Island, director Mat Whitecross (Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll) and writer/co-star Chris Coghill use the occasion of a 1990 Stone Roses’ outdoor concert at Manchester’s Spike Island to tell a coming-of-age story about a group of five aspiring musicians determined to deliver a demo tape to the headliners. The concert has been described as a “Woodstock for the baggy movement” – neo-psychedelia and acid house-influenced guitar music – that attracted most of its 27,000 paid attendees from Manchester. The guys aren’t able to purchase tickets or sneak over a tall fence, but the music can be heard well enough on the lawn behind the barrier, where hundreds more young men and women are holding their own party. The event serves as a watershed moment for the lads, who, almost overnight, will be required to leave high school behind and assume responsibilities associated with adulthood. Who knows, they might yet become pop stars. Besides some petty linguistic and cultural differences, there’s no reason why Spike Island shouldn’t appeal to American audiences. Included in the cast are Elliott Tittensor, Nico Mirallegro, Jordan Murphy, Adam Long, Oliver Heald, Emilia Clarke, Lesley Manville and Matthew McNulty, who might be familiar to fans of BBC America and “Masterpiece Theater.”

Pit Stop: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Looking back through the fog of pop-cultural history, it’s easy to think that California car culture was fairly represented by such music groups as the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean, and in movies like American Graffiti, Eat My Dust, Gone In 60 Seconds, Vanishing Point, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, The Gumball Rally and, to some extent, Bullitt. Arthur Ripley’s Thunder Road focused on moonshine running and rarely played north of the Mason-Dixon Line, while White Lightning and other high-octane Burt Reynolds’ epics also represented the South. I can’t recall a movie in which demolition derbies played a central role and, until very recently, I hadn’t seen a movie set in the world of Figure-8 racing. It was the kind of roughhouse activity reserved mostly for fairs and ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” In 1969, the erroneously titled “Pit Stop” introduced Figure-8 racing to drive-in audiences around the country, before disappearing for 30-40 years. Made in black-and-white on a budget that even impressed the famously frugal Roger Corman, Jack Hill’s follow-up to Spider Baby and Mondo Keyhole easily qualifies as one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen. And, I couldn’t get enough of it.

Arrow Video’s “2-Disc Director Approved Authorized Special Edition” clearly belongs to a period of time when the price of a gallon a gas was about the same as that for a gallon of Coca-Cola. There were enough pre-WWII cars still around to turn into hot rods and any decent mechanic could spend an afternoon in a junk yard and leave with everything he needs to make a serviceable stock car. In the interviews included in the sterling Blu-ray package, Hill says that he intended to make “an arthouse movie about stock-car racing.” If it doesn’t quite reach that pinnacle, at least it’s supremely entertaining. Richard Davalos plays street racer Rick Bowman, who, after getting in trouble with the law, is challenged by a local promoter (Brian Donlevy) to become a champion Figure-8 racer. At first, he considers the sport to be too crazy even for his low-brow tastes. When the region’s top driver (Sid Haig) disses him in front of a crowd of gearheads that he takes the bait and, by the way, his girlfriend (Beverly Washburn). Eventually, their rivalry will take them to an oval racetrack, but not before Hill takes us to the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area for a bit of dune-buggy racing. The real topper, though, is watching Ellen Burstyn playing a red-hot grease monkey. Two years later, she would be nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress in The Last Picture Show. The Blu-ray arrives with an original trailer; commentary with Hill; interview with Corman and Haig; a restoration demonstration; and a collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by critic Glenn Kenny and musicologist and writer Gray Newell on the film’s soundtrack.

BBC America: Ripper Street: Season Three: Blu-ray
Comedy Central: Workaholics: Season Five: Blu-ray
PBS: Caring for Mom and Dad
It’s interesting how things work on television these days. Take the terrific period crime series, “Ripper Street,” for example. Filmed in Dublin and set in post-Jack the Ripper London, the show’s first two seasons aired on the BBC and BBC America. When the BBC decided to stop funding it, 40,000 fans signed an online petition to bring it back for a third stanza. The production company cut a deal with Amazon UK to stream “Ripper Street,” beginning last November. Those same episodes, give or take a trim for commercials or occasional nudity, were shown here on BBC America. Its third-season run ended last week. The really good news is that Amazon UK has renewed the series for a fourth and fifth season. Creator and lead writer Richard Warlow said he has plans to follow Whitechapel’s H Division “right through to the end of the Victorian age itself,” while star Matthew Macfadyen, responded to the news by saying that he’s looking forward to “embarking on another dose of ‘Ripper Street’: blood and guts, pocket watches and Victorian head-gear, wonderfully dark, moving and mysterious story lines.” The eight-episode third season picks up in 1894, with a train accident in Whitechapel that kills 55 civilians. An investigation reveals that the derailment was initiated by Long Susan and her attorney as part of a scheme to access bearer bonds to finance the gentrification of Whitechapel. Detective Inspector Edmund Reid also learns that his long-lost daughter, Matilda, is alive and not a drowning victim.

Back in April, 2011, the odds against the protagonists of Comedy Central’s “Workaholics” holding any job for five years were prohibitive, against. The same probably could be said about the show, in which slacker best friends and roommates Anders Holmvik, Adam DeMamp and Blake Henderson – Anders Holm, Adam DeVine, Blake Anderson, respectively — try their level best to keep their jobs while avoiding work. It’s a conceit that can get old pretty fast on television, especially as it deals with individuals no one would want to count on at work or date your daughter. It also requires great patience and better timing from the actors playing opposite the stars. I don’t know how much the series’ creators owe to Mike Judge, but the easiest way to describe “Workaholics” is to call it a hybrid of his “Office Space” and “Beavis and Butt-Head,” if those two wonderful characters ever got it together long enough to find a job. The fifth-season Blu-ray adds bloopers, deleted and expanded scenes, a Season Five “trailer” and a few other short featurettes.

With Obamacare surviving another challenge in the Supreme Court and Republican politicians still pledging to kill it, without having a backup plan of their own, PBS’ one-hour special report, “Caring for Mom and Dad,” couldn’t be more topical. According to narrator Meryl Streep, 75 million baby boomers are entering their retirement years at a rate of 10,000 a day. The question then becomes, who will care for this aging population when they can no longer care for themselves? The easy answer would be the children of the baby boomers, but there’s no assurance they’ll have enough money to handle the load, either. No one in Washington appears ready to deal with the loss of jobs by middle-age, middle-class Americans, either. Because much of the information shared in “Caring for Mom and Dad” is anecdotal, the show poses more questions than it answers. Maybe Streep could be asked to moderate one of the presidential debates and attempt to get solid responses from candidates, who, thanks to their government sponsored benefits package, will never be required to face the same health-care dilemmas as their constituents.

The DVD Wrapup: Welcome to Me, Wild Tales, Gett, Bob Hope and more

Thursday, June 18th, 2015

Welcome to Me: Blu-ray
Since leaving “Saturday Night Live” and starring in the barely seen Hateship Loveship, Kristen Wiig has appeared in movies that, had they made it that far, might have found an audience among arthouse regulars, if not fans of the show, her 2011 breakout hit Bridesmaids or any of the animated features to which she’s lent her voice. That’s not a knock on the wonderfully gifted actor, merely an observation based on box-office data. On “SNL,” Wiig never hesitated to take her characters into places that were equal parts funny and disturbing, and she was rarely less than brilliant. For all sorts of reasons, that same vibe has yet to translate to theatrical audiences, accustomed to more fully fleshed out characters, perhaps, or a more precise seriocomic blend sustained over time. With “Ghostbusters” and “Zoolander 2” on tap for 2016, however, Wiig may very well realize her destiny as a major player on the big screen. In Shira Piven and writer Eliot Laurence’s Welcome to Me, it can be argued that her seriously bipolar Alice Klieg might have worked better as a recurring character on “SNL” or “Funny or Die” than as the protagonist of a feature-length film that may best be described as a comic psychodrama. Kleig has been “off her meds” for quite some time when she wins the Powerball lottery, making her filthy rich, if not an iota less mentally troubled. We know this because, when interviewed on local television about winning the grand prize, she takes the opportunity to suggest how it might affect her masturbatory habits. When she learns that this was trimmed from the news reports, Kleig takes it as a personal affront.

In response, she pays a visit to a Palm Desert studio that produces the kind of infomercials that over-populate late-night television, but somehow find viewers with money to burn. It’s one of the channels she watches when Oprah Winfrey isn’t on the air or she’s tired of reruns on OWN. Now blessed with F-U money, Kleigh asks station executives how much it would cost to have her own show. As nutty as the proposal sounds, the executives are just that desperate for bread and can’t wait to take her money. She uses the show, “Welcome to Me,” to realize personal fantasies – being wheeled onto the set on swan chairs – and settling scores with people who done her wrong in childhood. She also offers cooking tips – meatloaf cake, for example – and other lifestyle suggestions. There’s no way that Wiig and a cast that includes James Marsden, Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Linda Cardellini and Wes Bentley could make such a setup anything but funny … for a while. It’s when Kleig, a onetime veterinary assistant, becomes an advocate for neutering dogs and, then, begins demonstrating the procedure for her viewers, the producers begin to sense her financial contributions may not be worth the hassle of lawsuits or the disgust of other paying customers. Any doubts that Wiig might not be able to accurately depict her character’s tortured mental state disappeared when leaked photos of a stark-naked Wiig, walking through a crowded Palms Spring casino, began to appear on celebrity-skin websites. It’s a brave performance and Wiig is excellent throughout Welcome to Me. How far her fans are willing to accompany Kleig into her journey into madness is open to question. The Blu-ray adds a short making-of featurette.

Wild Tales: Blu-ray
Anthology films rarely are accorded the respect they deserve by audiences and festival juries, if only because the vignettes tend not to be of equal quality and they frequently have different pedigrees. Critics weigh each segment as an independent entity, while viewers pick favorites. The stories of Raymond Carver have been interpreted in dozens of different ways – Short Cuts, Birdman, Jindabyne – but typically expanded to feature length. If the overriding theme of Damien Szifron’s Wild Tales may be revenge, each entry exists independently from the others. If it hadn’t been nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Foreign Language Film, each of the stories could theoretically have been entered individually in the Best Live Action Short category and picked as a finalist. It’s entirely possible that voters were attracted to the film by Pedro Almodovar’s name on the list of producers and the presence of the great Argentinian actor, Ricardo Darín (The Secret in Their Eyes, Nine Queens). Comparisons to Quentin Tarantino’s work probably didn’t hurt, either, although one now should take such endorsements advisedly. Unlike most anthologies, all six of the segments in Wild Tales were written and directed by the same person, Szifron, and none was genre-specific. The revenge is served cold and hot, comic and tragic. To explain them in any more detail risks spoiling the surprises, which are immediately remindful of really good episodes of “The Twilight Zone.” It’s most apparent in In “Pasternak,” in which a casual conversation between a music critic and a model, eventually reveals a connection between all of the passengers in the cabin and a man named Gabriel Pasternak, who quietly arranged for their tickets. From just that much information, you might be able to guess what happens next, but why spoil the fun? In “Bombita,” Darin plays a demolitions expert, who innocently becomes trapped in a web woven by corrupt city officials and bureaucrats. After his career and personal life are nearly ruined, he becomes a people’s hero by sticking it to the “man” in the only way left to him. None of the short films overstays its welcome and each makes good on its promise of delivering poetic justice. The excellent Blu-ray presentation adds the 25-minute featurette, “Wild Shooting: Creating the Film” and short Q&A with Szifrón conducted after a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem: Blu-ray
It may come as a surprise, even to daytime television junkies, that the longest running courtroom show of all time is the syndicated “Divorce Court.” With the show’s 35th season now completed, it leads the second-ranked “The People’s Court” by five years, although “Divorce Court” hasn’t been in constant distribution since its debut in 1957 and its format was changed to substitute real couples for actors. Because the litigants have already filed for divorce and must abide by the ruling of a former judge, the original soap-opera nature of the episodes was eliminated. I doubt very much that the Roman Catholic Church looks favorably on such desolations, but, thanks to Martin Luther and Henry VIII, “Divorce Court” never seems to have run out of cases. I don’t know if a version of the show can be found on Israeli or Iranian television, either. Anyone who’s seen Cyrus Nowrasteh’s shocking 2008 drama, The Stoning of Soraya M., Asghar Farhadi’s heartbreaking, A Separation (2011), or Asghar Farhadi’s The Past (2013) already knows where a woman stands in the dissolution of her marriage under Islamic law. In “Soraya M.,” a husband uses false accusations of adultery to prevent his wife from getting in the way of his plans to take a 14-year-old bride. In the other two films, women are required to put their lives on hold, sometimes for years, while waiting for their husbands to agree to a divorce. As Israel’s official submission to this year’s Academy Awards, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem demonstrates, once again, how thin a line divides the laws of Islam and Judaism, at least when it pertains to keeping women from exercising their human rights. Essentially a courtroom drama, sibling filmmakers Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz chronicle the final stages of a marriage they began to follow in 2004, in To Take a Wife, and, four years later, in 7 Days, neither of which are readily available in the U.S. It isn’t necessary to have seen the previous two installments in the trilogy to appreciate “Gett,” however. It’s enough to know that child-bride Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) has regretted agreeing to marry the older, ultra-Orthodox Elisha Amsalem (Simon Abkarian), through all three installments of the saga.

A year before initiating divorce proceedings, Viviane left Elisha to live with her sister. Their adult children are on their own and Viviane had been chafing under her husband’s conservative yoke for many years. We will learn that neither party has committed adultery – his lawyer will imply she’s a slut for sitting in an outdoor café with her lawyer – and physical violence isn’t an issue. Elisha, though, is a ninja when it comes to passive-aggressive behavior and controls everything from who is allowed to visit their home to rejecting her request to have a family car. For every restriction he imposes on Viviane, Elisha is able to quote scripture to substantiate his objection. For a divorce to be considered legal under Jewish law, a man must grant his wife a religious divorce — a gett — of his own free will. She may receive a civil divorce, but cannot remarry within her religion and that’s some serious shit in Israel. Even if Elisha hasn’t initiated sex with Viviane in years and he doesn’t approve of her behavior, he has refused to appear before sessions of the rabbinical court, even after being so ordered. After three years of this nonsense, Elisha is forced to attend sessions and provide witnesses who will attest to his character and lie about what they know of their marriage. Viviane is also instructed to bring witnesses before the tribunal, but their testimony –and appearance — is put under much greater scrutiny than that of the male witnesses. This frustrating process continues for another two years, even as Elisha appears to acquiesce to the gett, before rescinding his approval moments later. Finally, it becomes clear that Elisha’s overriding demand is that Viviane not have sexual relations with another men, ever. It’s a maddening 115 minutes of drama –almost entirely shot in the cramped courtroom or the hallways where negotiations happen — relieved by some fabulous acting and evocative cinematography. The runtime allows for  the Elkabetz’ to give all parties, including the rabbis, ample time to state their cases, even if I think any TV judge worth his or her salt would have settled the litigation in a half-hour, including commercials. The Blu-ray adds an excellent making-of featurette.

Spirited Away: Blu-ray
The Cat Returns: Blu-ray
Curious George 3: Back to the Jungle
Now that Japanese animation genius Hayao Miyazaki has retired and shows no sign of picking up his pen, again, every new Blu-ray of past classics deserves to be treated as an unexpected gift from a relative overseas … or Disney studios in Burbank, one. I don’t know how many more Studio Ghibli titles Disney has salted away in its vaults, but hi-def is definitely the ideal way to watch these fine movies. Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001) and Hiroyuki Morita’s The Cat Returns (2002) share several fantastical story points, including young female protagonists who find themselves trapped in fairytale land far away from their parents and must call on powers they didn’t know they had to get home. In Spirited Away, Chihiro and her parents take a wrong turn on their way to their new house, ending up at a tunnel leading to a failed theme park, which, at night, comes alive with a wild array of spirits. Instead of turning around and getting back on the right track, the intruders stick around long enough to sample some of the treats left out for the nightly bacchanal. The ethereal regulars don’t take kindly to the newcomers, turning mom and dad into pigs to be fattened for slaughter. Chihiro is left with the task of insinuating herself into the royal bathhouse – a thinly disguised brothel in the Japanese edition – and convince the sorceress (Suzanne Pleshette) to spare her parents. Fortunately, she’s able to convince a spirit boy (Jason Marsden) to be her guide to this realm of soiled demons, spirits, and evil gods.

In The Cat Returns, the precocious schoolgirl Haru saves the life of an unusual cat, unexpectedly setting off a series of events that could lead to her hand being awarded to the King of the Cats’ son, Prince Lune, in marriage. Most cats would consider this to be quite an honor, but, Haru has little interest in being turned into a kitten queen. In this fantasy world, dominated by all manner of felines, Haru (voiced by Anne Hathaway) will encounter political intrigue and a magical maze designed to test her ability to avoid danger. Once again, the female protagonist is supported by a gallant spirit, a.k.a., the Baron (Cary Elwes). Fifty minutes shorter than Spirited Away, The Cat Returns was originally intended for airing on television. It is, nonetheless, delightful. Much of the credit for that belongs to a voicing cast – added for the Blu-ray release — that also includes Judy Greer, Kristen Bell, Rene Auberjonois, Andy Richter, Peter Boyle, Elliot Gould, Tim Curry and Erin Chambers. Blu-ray features includes an introduction by John Lasseter, original Japanese storyboards, voicing featurettes and other making-of material. As the Blu-ray offerings dwindle down to a precious few, it will be interesting to see if Disney changes its mind about releasing Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday (1991). In it, a 27-year-old office worker travels to the countryside, while reminiscing about her childhood in Tokyo. Although Disney owns the rights to the coming-of-age movie, it has refused to release it on DVD/Blu-ray because it contains a reference to menstruation and Miyazaki won’t allow any editing or censorship. Maybe, Disney could release the film on its Buena Vista label, which isn’t afraid of adult material … even if it pertains to a naturally occurring physical transition experienced by roughly 51 percent of the world’s population.

Moving, now, from the sublime to the ridiculous – or merely very silly – we have Curious George 3: Back to the Jungle, the second sequel to the 2006 theatrical release that featured the voices of Will Ferrell, Drew Barrymore, Eugene Levy, Joan Plowright and, of course, Clint Howard. The only carryover actor is Frank Welker, who’s voiced more animal characters than even his agent can count, by now. If anyone has earned the right to have a star purchased for him on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – perhaps, alongside Mel Blanc – it is Welker. He deserves it far more than restaurateur to the stars Bobby Flay, who was so honored on June 2. All of this is a long way of saying that the new addition to the “Curious George” saga, which began in 1941 after his creators escaped the Nazis, it should appeal primarily to kids still unable to ride a bicycle without safety wheels. Here, the little rascal has been asked to take part in a space mission, which inadvertently ends in a crash-landing in Africa. In addition to Welker, guest voicers include Angela Bassett, John Goodman and franchise veteran Jeff Bennett, as the Man in the Yellow Hat. The DVD adds sing-along videos.

Tentacles/Reptilicus: Blu-ray
Anyone who cares enough about cinematic schlock to trace the roots of such upcoming Syfy creature features as “Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!” need not look any further than this twin-spin package of Tentacles and Reptilicus. Released in 1977, the former offers a rare example of a Eurotrash movie that was made in America, directed by a Greek and features a multinational cast of actors, some of whom actually qualify as stars. Besides Oscar-winners John Huston, Shelley Winters, and Henry Fonda, it includes Delia Boccardo, Cesare Danova, Claude Akins, Bo Hopkins, Marc Fiorini, Franco Diogene and Sherry Buchanan. Clearly intended to exploit whatever juice was left over from Jaws (1975), Ovidio G. Assonitis’ rubbery opus follows the same blueprint as the one drawn by Steven Spielberg. This time, however, the great white shark is a dopey giant octopus and the threatened beach community is on the left coast. Just when all SoCal life appears doomed, an employee of Marineland of the Pacific – now, a Donald Trump golf course – remembers that the killer whales he trains are the natural enemy of octopi and they might hold the key to salvation. Not before some Euro-babes are scared out of their bikinis, of course. Fonda spends most of his time on screen, standing in a booth barking orders into a phone. Huston, only three years removed from his great performance in Chinatown, plays a dogged reporter at a seaside rag. At this point in her career, Winters pretty much accepted any role thrown her way. If the movie made any money at all, it’s only because nothing, besides the actors, required more than credit card to create and one good weekend on the drive-in circuit would put it into the black.

Released in 1961, after the first tsunami of Japanese sci-fi/horror flicks hit our shores, Reptilicus is the real deal: a movie so bad that it borders on being a masterpiece of lame intentions. Besides being the first and only monster movie made in Denmark, it was the brainchild of the legendary schlockmeister Sidney W. Pink, who had already given the world Bwana Devil, I Was a Burlesque Queen, Flame Over Vietnam and The Angry Red Planet. While drilling for copper in a remote Danish location, the carcass of a prehistoric beast is hauled to the surface and delivered to a lab somewhere within shouting distance of Tivoli Gardens. When someone accidentally turns off the air-conditioning in the laboratory, the monster’s disparate parts are re-generated. After escaping from the lab, it grows to the size of Godzilla and demonstrates that it carries the same fire-breathing gene as the monster that terrorized Tokyo. Naturally, NATO troops are called in to eliminate the menace with weapons left over from World War II. M-1s and bazookas didn’t work against Godzilla in Japan and they don’t work in Denmark, either, but for a different reason. As the Scandinavian scientists and their buxom-blond assistants predict, every time an appendage is blown off the monster, it regenerates into an entirely new beast. The greatest minds in northern Europe are required to devise a plan to kill the monster and save the population, without damaging the herring and lutefisk industries. Supposedly shot in Pathécolor, it looks as if the negative spent too much time in the rinse cycle. Reptilicus is just that wonderful.

The Happiness of the Katakuris: Blu-ray
The prolific Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike isn’t at all reluctant to put his loyal viewers through wringers, squeezing every ounce of sweat out of them and testing their ability to withstand outrageously graphic depictions of violence and perverse sexuality. Miike’s movies may not be for the faint of heart, but his fan base now extends around the world. Not all of the movies make it past national boards of censorship intact, however. A year before the release of the deceptively merry family musical, The Happiness of the Katakuris, the promoters of Ichi the Killer raised eyebrows by handing out branded barf bags to critics at the Toronto Film Festival. Judging simply from the cover art of The Happiness of the Katakuris, one might think the movie was a Japanese version of The Sound of Music. The alpine backdrop and happy faces of the multigenerational Katakuri family recall a romp through the edelweiss in pre-Anschluss Salzburg, far more than what we know of rural Japan. Based on Korean filmmaker Jee-woon Kim’s spooky feature debut, The Quiet Family, the dream of the Katakuris is to use the patriarch’s unemployment settlement to rehab an abandoned lodge situated on a former garbage dump near the base of Mount Fuji and turn it into a jolly B&B. The White Lover’s Inn is strategically located near the path of a road being built to the resort district. Their timing is a shade off, however, as the highway may not be finished before the Katakuris go bankrupt from lack of business. Still, the family is able to unite behind their dream and wait patiently for the first customers to check in and spread the word on the Japanese equivalent of Yelp.

The first guest, a television personality, uses his room to commit suicide. The next, a Sumo wrestler, suffers a fatal heart attack while humping his girlfriend, causing the wee thing to suffocate. The bodies are buried in a makeshift plot on the hillside, so as not to draw attention to what some might consider to be a curse. No sooner do relatives begin missing the now-dead tourists than the Katakuris are notified of the impending extension of the road, which is expected to run through the growing pile of corpses. It’s not an uncommon dilemma for murderous fiends to face in horror movies, but rarely to people who are simply are victims of circumstance. In Miike’s hands, the original solution to their problem naturally evolves into something far more ghastly. The result is a surreal horror-comedy, distinguished by claymation sequences, musical and dance numbers, a karaoke sing-along scene, and dream sequences. For good measure, Miike throws in the threat of a volcano erupting and literally melting the mountainside. The Happiness of the Katakuris was one of eight movies churned out by Miike in 2001, so he might fairly be accused here of overextending his reach creatively. There’s no question it divided critics and his fan base at the time. I enjoyed it as a warped, digital-age parody of Rodgers & Hammerstein and Gilbert & Sullivan. There are several spectacularly grotesque images, including the face of the poor girl crushed by the Sumo wrestler in flagrante delicto. Its farcical tone does make it seem more of novelty than the fully developed horror story we normally would expect from Miike. As usual, now, with Arrow Blu-ray releases, this one is backed by several entertaining making-of featurettes, interview sessions, commentary and booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Johnny Mains and a re-printed interview with Miike conducted by Sean Axmaker, illustrated with original stills. The hi-def cinematography enhances the presentation in all the right ways.

Bob Hope: Entertaining the Troops
A more precise title for this trip down Memory Lane probably would have been “Hollywood Goes to War: Entertaining the Troops.” Bob Hope may be the first name that comes to mind in any discussion of morale-boosting missions overseas in times of war, but the 90-minute “Bob Hope: Entertaining the Troops” takes a far more expansive look at such activities in World War II. It opens with the newsreel footage of the Hollywood Canteen, bond rallies and the successful mobilization of nearly every A-, B- and C-list actor, radio star and musician who hadn’t already been drafted or volunteered two weeks after Pearl Harbor. It was ends with a wonderful 1987 reunion interview with Hope and the nucleus of his touring troupe, Frances Langford, dancer Patty Thomas and musician Tony Romano. (Jerry Colonna had died a year earlier.) Their anecdotes are pretty entertaining. Director Robert Mugge also includes footage of such familiar participants in the USO tours as Bing Crosby, Jack Benny, Dorothy Lamour, the Andrews Sisters, Abbott and Costello, Lena Horne, Carole Landis, Dinah Shore, Danny Kaye, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Larry Adler, Kay Kaiser, Cass Daley, Irving Berlin and Mel Blanc. There’s a discussion of the role played by pin-up models and cartoon characters in the war effort, as well. Hope would continue to perform before our troops in and out of war zones until 1990. Although such tours hit a bump in the road during the Vietnam War, which a lot of our troops didn’t find particularly amusing, he would set an example for the current generation of entertainers, whose contributions often go unheralded. The bonus package adds extended footage of the reunion interview.

All Yours
As much as the queer cinema has matured, moving well beyond the tortured coming-out clichés that dominated earlier specimens, it’s still rare to come across a film that can compete on even terms with other indies in festival competitions not limited to LGBT themes. Although limited commercially by a few scenes of hard-core sex, All Yours is enhanced by the kind of production values expected of any other foreign export. The acting is terrific and the direction never calls undue attention to itself as a movie targeted at a niche audience. I think that writer/director David Lambert (Beyond the Walls) was gratified by the fact that his picture wasn’t ghettoized in festivals, even if it probably will be in video outlets, if only for the sake of easy categorization. Nahuel Pérez Biscayart (“Epitafios”) plays the Argentine protagonist, Lucas, who supports himself by performing sex-on-demand for an international audience of gay men – presumably – through his website. One of those gentlemen, Henry (Jean-Michel Balthazar), a corpulent baker in a small Belgian town, pays for Lucas’ flight to Europe. He does so even though he knows almost nothing about the young man beyond what he can intuit from the website. Henry expects Lucas to service him sexually in return for the price of the ticket, but he also demands of the increasingly perplexed lad that he work in the bakery for his room and board. There was no disguising the unhappiness on Lucas’ face when he’s greeted by Henry at the airport. Neither does the language divide do them any favors or the lack of a separate bedroom in Henry’s apartment. Imagine Laurel and Hardy trying to sleep comfortably in a double bed.

On the plus side, Henry can be a jolly fellow when things are going right and no one in town appears to view their relationship with distain, open or otherwise. Already working in the bakery is a pretty single mother, Audrey (Monia Chokri), who makes fast friends with Lucas. She doesn’t have to steal money from the till to afford a glass of beer at the local pub, however, or a jacket for the cold fall air. Their friendship is largely based on the fact that they’re two lonely people, living in a small town and working for a man who needs them more than they need him. Even after making her acutely aware of the nature of his former job, they get close enough to each other one night to have sex. It doesn’t preclude Lucas from servicing Henry or making a few bucks on the side at a gay dungeon in a nearby town, but the atmosphere inside the bakery becomes decidedly lighter. It’s when Lucas begins showing signs of a flu-like condition that things get complicated in the triangle. Once again, Lambert, manages to steer the narrative away from the maudlin and toward something reasonably unexpected and uncompromised. The DVD package adds the short film, “Live a Bit Longer,” that inspired the feature, All Yours.

PBS: Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist
PBS: Inside the Court of Henry VIII
PBS: Nature: Animal Homes
Before Lance Armstrong broke the hearts of millions of Americans by finally admitting to something everyone in competitive cycling already took for granted, the charismatic Italian racer Marco Pantani carried the cross for athletes whose integrity was being tarnished by sketchy accusations of doping and using performance-enhancement drugs. A likeable young man from a humble background, he was nicknamed “The Pirate” for wearing a scarf over his bald head, sporting an earring and boldly attacking the leaders on hill climbs. In 1998, three years after colliding with a car head-on during the Milano–Torino race, Pantani became the first Italian since Felice Gimondi, in 1965, to win the Tour de France. He would go on to become only the seventh rider in history to achieve the Giro d’Italia/Tour de France double. Seventeen years later, he remains the last rider to win the Giro and the Tour in the same year. Naturally, as had always been the case with competitive cycling, such success caused him to be accused of cheating. (The same thing happened to sluggers Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark Maguire as they broke records once considered to be unreachable.) In the late 1990s, testing wasn’t nearly as sophisticated as it would become in the Armstrong era and the specifications for doping were vague. Even though Pantani had never tested positive during his career, he would be yanked from the 1999 Giro for a slightly elevated haematocrit reading. He would be exonerated three years later, but, by then, the damage was done. Pantani had gone into a deep depression and self-medicated himself with cocaine. In February, 2004, at the age of 34, he was discovered dead in a seedy Rimini hotel, from acute cocaine poisoning. First released into theaters, then shown on PBS outlets, “Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist” is a powerful documentary about a sport that may not recover quickly from the Armstrong travesty. More than anything else, however, James Erskine’s film demonstrates why Europeans are nuts for cycling and why the people in charge of the sport should have done something definitive about such serious issues decades earlier. It’s also a beautiful film from a scenic perspective. (Imagine holding the World Series in Aspen every year or the Super Bowl overlooking the ocean in Big Sur.) The DVD adds lots more material, including footage of a downhill run at speed.

Of all of the recent TV mini-series and movies based on King Henry VIII, PBS’ 60-minute-long documentary “Inside the Court of Henry VIII” may be the most informative and historically valid of them all … unless, of course, one requires the presence of naked royals in their history lessons. Among other things, it benefits from expert testimony from scholars and settings that may actually have Tudor ghosts residing in them. It doesn’t ignore any of the wives or conspiracy theories that haunted Henry throughout his reign, but adds context and perspective that got lost in more exaggerated accounts. Moreover, the scholars are perfectly willing to point out the man’s positive points. A little nudity wouldn’t have hurt, however.

Sometimes, the simplest ideas make for the most interesting documentaries. The PBS series “Nature” proves this point on an almost monthly basis. How much more basic could a film titled “Animal Homes” possibly be? Didn’t we all learn everything we need to know about bird nests, beaver dams and other animal habitats in 3rd Grade? Basically, yes, but elementary school teachers didn’t have the same access we all do now to reference material that allows interior shots of these habitats and computer representations of the architecture. It’s truly amazing and an important reminder of what gets lost when habitats are destroyed and species are threatened by pollution and reckless exploitation of the land. Ecologist Chris Morgan serves as guide and “real estate agent,” evaluating and deconstructing animal homes, their material, location, neighborhoods and aesthetics.

The DVD Wrapup: Camp X-Ray, Free the Nipple, Giuseppe Andrews, Pillow Book and more

Thursday, June 11th, 2015

Camp X-Ray: Blu-ray
If only for laughs, I would love to see all 9,000-and-counting Republican presidential candidates, as well as the handful of Democratic hopefuls, debate their nonexistent plans for Guantanamo Bay and the prisoners – a.k.a., detainees – still being held on our Cuban base. Despite a campaign pledge to close the detention center, President Obama has had no better luck dealing with the controversial facility than his predecessor, George W. Bush. If nothing else, the population has dwindled from 800, at its height, to the current number, 122. Fifty-seven detainees have been approved for overseas transfer, most nearly five years ago, but the impossible dream of bipartisan support for anything in Washington has stymied all progress on the issue. If the candidates say anything except, “I don’t know,” feel free not to believe anything else they might propose, because none has a single clue. After all, where would we stash any or all of the ISIS leaders we might capture? That Peter Sattler’s provocative drama, Camp X-Ray, was greeted with a collective yawn by most mainstream distributors, as well by potential viewers in the very few markets in which it opened, testifies to how little Americans care about their country’s indefensible stance on holding enemy combatants indefinitely, without charges or trials. (By contrast, American Sniper, which did offer an alternative to taking prisoners, became a huge hit. In April, reports of the cancellation of screenings at a couple major universities got the folks at Fox News all riled up.) After more than a decade of obfuscation, we’re still stuck in the “Out of sight, out of mind” and “Not in my back yard” stage of the debate. If Camp X-Ray doesn’t really attempt to answer any of these questions, it convincingly demonstrates how the presumed terrorists aren’t the only people trapped behind overlapping coils of razor wire, inside cages and forsaken of all hope for reform. In a very real sense, too, American taxpayers are being held hostage by the muddled intentions and political shenanigans of representatives who prefer inaction to compromise.

Kristen Stewart is very good here as Cole, a fledgling MP who volunteered to serve her country by “doing something important,” instead of sitting around after her high school graduation and waiting for someone to offer her a job that might pay more than minimum wage. Her first yearlong posting is Guantanamo Bay, where, as her commanding officer insinuates, once-gung-ho soldiers, marines and sailors are left to stagnate and no one, including the bad guys, wants to be. (At least, the guards get to go home when their year is over and enjoy the weekly barbecue and boat ride.) Cole’s assignment is to walk up and down the hallway of her unit – about 10 cells — peeking through the thin vertical windows on the doors every five minutes, mostly to make sure the men aren’t doing anything to harm themselves or are planting booby traps. The monitoring process recalls the non-stop pacing of animals driven insane inside their impossibly cramped cages at ancient zoos. Mostly, the detainees stare back at the MPs and, when motivated, taunt them with insults, tirades and declarations of their innocense. The guards retaliate by pulling the offender out of his cell, strapping him to wheelchair, putting a mask over his head and finding an out-of-the way place to stick them. The punishment extends to sleep-deprivation and moving him from cell to cell without warning. This is what happens to Ali (Payman Maadi), a non-fundamentalist detainee who was arrested in Germany and may or may not be guilty of plotting against the U.S. To break the tedium after eight years, Ali tests each new MP with personalized tirades and insults. The guards are warned not to engage the prisoners or reveal any personal information to them, but Cole can’t help herself from responding to his chatter. Ali rewards her naiveté with a dreaded “shit cocktail after she makes the mistake of extending her arm through the small opening used to exchange plates and books. As part of the extraction team, Cole is further punished for her good intentions with an elbow to the jaw. Because this is a movie and not real life, Ali and Cole ultimately will come to the conclusion that, given the alternatives, it’s better to find some common ground and it’s in the books she delivers to the cells of those who request one. The upside for Cole is having someone to converse with who’s more interesting and thoughtful than her fellow MPs, who are portrayed as unabashed patriots, good ol’ guys and gals, and potential rapists, when overserved at the weekly rave-ups. How this squares with reality is anyone’s guess. Ali, at least, supplements his reading of the Quran with “Harry Potter” –the most popular book in the facility, according to Sattler’s research – and other books and periodicals. He considers it to be another form of torture that only the first two of the seven fantasy novels are available to him and it’s difficult to argue the point, considering he may not actually be guilty of any crime. Camp X-Ray doesn’t take the prisoner/guard relationship, however constricted, into places most of us would find uncomfortable, not to mention unrealistic. Sattler prefers to demonstrate how ignoring the dictates of the Geneva Convention might not be in the best interests of the United States and one or two of the detainees, at least, might benefit from being treated as something other than guilty. The Blu-ray adds an informative and thoughtful making-of featurette.

Free the Nipple
More a mockumentary or work of reality-based fiction than a pure documentary, Lina Esco’s provocatively titled Free the Nipple tells the story of an actual socio-political movement that could easily be mistaken for a publicity stunt. Last summer, when such celebrities as Miley Cyrus, Rumer Willis, Nico Tortorella, Lydia Hearst, Cara Delevingne and Chelsea Handler were dropping their tops for the paparazzi, it seemed to be a little bit of both. These attractive people and other, less-known activists, volunteered their bosoms to promote the logic of according women the same right to go topless in public places as men. This would apply as much to exhibitionists as breast-feeding moms, and in Times Square as much as the beach at Coney Island. If religious hang-ups and aesthetics considerations – blubbery bellies being as offensive to some of us, as naked sunbathers are to bible-bangers – a goodly percentage of Americans probably could agree that nipples should be as legal as marijuana, at least. Esco’s film, in which actors play characters based on real people, does a nice job describing how such movements can sprout from grass roots, but only if liberally sprinkled with tax-free donations and graced with the bright rays of media attention. As anyone who’s ever attempted to raise money for such causes can attest, the task is easier to promote than to accomplish. Begging for money from friends, relatives and corporations is a humbling experience. Conducting bake sales and peddling magazines are far easier. Conveniently, engaging the mainstream and social media something of a cake walk for Free the Nipple proponents. All they had to do was position protesters within 100 yards of a phalanx of armor-plated cops and cartoonish images of New York City cops struggling to arrest topless young women would travel around the world in a relative heartbeat. (If Pussy Riot had been named the Russian Bangles, instead, how much news coverage would their arrests have garnered?) The more persuasive point being made by Esco is how hypocritical it is to treat partial nudity as somehow more harmful than America’s fetishistic obsession with graphic violence. This hypocrisy has been debated feverishly for decades, already, by critics of the MPAA ratings system. Then, too, women have been attempting to de-stigmatize breast-feeding in public and de-criminalize semi-nude sun-bathing for several decades. What’s new is the attention-grabbing name, Free the Nipple, and willingness of celebrities to put their breasts where their mouth is. They’re aren’t advocating for an end to war, but who cares? Putting an end to hypocrisy would be a grand achievement, too. I do think, however, that within two weeks of freeing women’s nipples, an equal number of activists would come out of the woodwork to demand that men not be allowed to ogle them on street corners or at the beach. The First Amendment is funny that way. Among the actors who portray activists here are Casey LaBow, Monique Coleman, Zach Grenier, Griffin Newman and Lola Kirke. [

Project Almanac: Blu-ray
Back to the Jurassic: Blu-ray
Aspiring novelists are routinely encouraged to “write what you know” and, I suppose, the same advice applies for first-time screenwriters. Although no one has actually experienced time-travel, enough movies have employed it as a central conceit to make one think it’s as common as catching a bus in Chicago. The 1914 short, “A Christmas Carol,” likely was the first to demonstrate the adaptability of the concept. Remarkably, it would take another 35 years for H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” to be adapted for the screen, in a BBC teleplay. For his first feature, the clever teen adventure Project Almanac, Dean Israelite elected to add found-footage to the mix. It’s appropriate that Israelite and screenwriters Jason Pagan and Andrew Deutschman, also freshmen, consciously acknowledge such predecessors as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Back to the Future, Back to the Future: Part II, Chronicle, Time Cop and, in a cute classroom riff, Groundhog Day. Non-nerd David (Jonny Weston) has just fulfilled a lifetime dream, by getting accepted into M.I.T. The bad news is that he won’t be able to attend the premier college, unless he can come up with a sufficiently impressive science project to change the minds of the scholarship committee. A possible solution might lie hidden among the papers of David’s father, a brilliant scientist who died after a party for his son’s seventh birthday. In the attic, his sister discovers an old camcorder with footage shot at the very same event. On close examination, David and his geek posse are stunned to discover David’s current likeness reflected in a mirror. The anomaly ultimately leads them to a long-ignored workshop in the basement of the house, where plans for a “temporal displacement device,” batteries and other gadgets and gizmos have been gathering dust for a decade. It sets off a chain of events that includes all of the usual time-travel hijinks, while adding the geek pipedream of having the school’s superhot queen bee, Jessie (Sofia Black-D’Elia), fall for him. (In a concession to reality, David’s actually handsome and athletic.) Ultimately, the fun stuff that can be accomplished through knowing the future – lottery numbers, test questions – turns ugly. Rod Serling cautioned us against toying with past events in at least three separate “Twilight Zone” episodes. Without such deterrents as someone worse than Hitler taking power in Germany after he’s assassinated by a time-traveler, we’d all have a time machine in our garage … right? It’s likely that teens will warm to Project Almanac (a.k.a., “Welcome to Yesterday”) more readily than adults, even on Blu-ray, if only because it isn’t in the same league as Peggy Sue Got Married and Back to the Future. Sharp viewers might notice producer Michael Bay’s fingerprints on the film, as executive producer. The Blu-ray adds an alternate opening; deleted scenes; and a pair of alternate endings.

The animated feature, Back to the Jurassic, is based on very similar premise. First a caveat, however: it is a retitled, repackaged and re-released version of the 2012 Dino Time (a.k.a., “Dino Mom”), with the sole addition being an upgrade to Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D. Why the distributors felt it necessary to pull the wool over the eyes of parents looking for an innocuous time-killer is beyond me, but it’s become increasingly prevalent gimmick in the children’s market. Of course, there’s nothing mysterious about the timing of the release. With the PG-13 Jurassic World opening on Friday, Back to the Jurassic offers a PG option – inflated, considering the harmless family-friendly material – for parents being badgered by their children captivated Universal’s ubiquitous marketing campaign. Just for the record, then, three children accidentally get a time-machine to work, while playing in the workshop of a scientific-minded parent. It transports them from a futuristic Jurassic theme park, 65 million years back in time, to the real deal. Once there, the kids are adopted by a doting dinosaur mom Tyra (Melanie Griffith) and a rambunctious dinosaur named Dodger (Rob Schneider). Rival predators (William and Stephen Baldwin) stand between the time-travelers and home.

Comeback Dad
Some movies about personal redemption pile up the melodrama so high that viewers hagve tough time waiting for the protagonist to be cut the slack he needs to escape his dilemma and maintain our interest. Comeback Dad is just such a movie.  In it, the always excellent Charles S. Dutton plays a broken-down piano player who’s trying to re-connect with the daughter he lost when he decided to entrust his future to several thousand bottles of booze.  When we meet Othell, he looks like just another down-and-out guy desperately seeking a soft touch to finance his next meal. In fact, he’s stalking the young man he thinks holds the key for a reunion with, Nima (Tatyana Ali), whose hate for the old man knows no boundaries. If Othell can somehow convince her fiancé of his sobriety and willingness to repent, maybe he’ll carry the message to Nima, who’s inherited his musical genes. Not knowing the whole story, Spence (Brad James), misjudges Nima’s deep disgust for her father, who complicates matters by showing up out of the blue at a restaurant and the home of his ex-wife. Even if we’re convinced of Othell’s determination to stay clean, director Russ Parr (Hear No Evil) and debuting screenwriter Kimberly Walker continue to dig new potholes for him to escape and us to endure. Things don’t get any easier for him when Nima agrees to attend a reunion celebrating the 80th birthday of the family matriarch. No sooner have his siblings gathered for dinner than it takes on the appearance of an encounter group at a rehab clinic. In between verbal exchanges, it’s clear to see that Othell’s problem began with his father’s discouragement of his career in jazz. Everyone else in the family followed the party line by going into the law or medicine, but, by following his heart, Othell actually accomplished what his siblings were afraid to do. So, by succumbing to alcohol to ease the pain, he had confirmed his family’s worst expectations and given them reason to gloat. In effect, Nima would become collateral damage in a war they couldn’t control. One what think that the filmmakers could have eased up on the clutch at this point, but there are a few more secrets and missed opportunities to reveal before Comeback Dad hits the 90-minute mark. And, while Dutton is up for the task, only a student of Tennessee Williams or August Wilson could keep things on the right track dramatically. I doubt very much if this is what the producers had in mind, however.

The Australian prison drama, Healing, also chronicles the redemption process through time, trials and self-discovery. Here, however, co-writer/director Craig Monahan gives the protagonist more opportunities to succeed than fail. After 18 years in prison, convicted murderer Viktor Khadem (Don Hany) is transferred to a low-security facility for short-timers. Khadem is fortunate that penal authorities in Victoria have established a program dedicated to rehabilitation over lifelong isolation and punishment. In an American prison, especially one of those for-profit deals, he’d still be cooling his heels. The conceit that drives Healing is that these are broken men, whose only chance of becoming fully rehabilitated is by finding something other than their tarnished souls to save. Here, a program has been instituted for select inmates to work with seriously injured eagles, falcons and owls, so they can be re-introduced to the wild. Not all of the prisoners take advantage of the program and a few even work out their frustrations by trying to sabotage it. Khadem’s crew has its ups and downs, but the time spent with the birds – in the aviary and in the field – is impossible not to admire and enjoy. The men’s personal trials – not unlike those of Othell in Comeback Dad — are also depicted with honesty and compassion. If the denouement borders on the sappy, the movie’s already earned the right to pull at the heartstrings one last time. Sadly, American prisons haven’t been in the rehabilitation business for a long time. It costs too much money to implement and maintain, and the public hasn’t demonstrated any passion for anything expect punishing and isolating convicted criminals. Lately, though, some American prisons have adopted programs in which hard-core prisoners endeavor to turn traumatized pit bulls and military dogs into service animals. My guess is that the dogs have a far better chance of earning their freedom than their trainers. The DVD adds deleted scenes and a making-of featurette. As usual, anyone who only knows Australia from its lovely coast and brutal Outback might be surprised by the visual splendor of Victoria’s interior.

Giuseppe Makes A Movie: Blu-ray
The DIY movement probably can be traced back to the earliest shorts of Kenneth Anger and John Waters, who then were considered to be underground filmmakers. With such seriously weird titles as “Senators in Bondage,”  “Kustom Kar Kommandos,” “Invocation of My Demon Brother” and, by way of Baltimore, “Hag in a Black Leather Jacket,” “Eat Your Makeup” and “The Diane Linkletter Story,” there was no mistaking their budgetary restraints or target audiences. The introduction of Super 8 technology in the mid-1960s gave impetus to a movement that would facilitate the production of experimental and underground productions, while also encouraging thousands of Baby Boomers to try their luck at film school. Ultimately Super 8 and 16mm cameras would give way to hand-held camcorders, palm-corders, handy-cams and cell-phones. The success of Kevin Smith’s Clerks, Richard Linklater’s Slackers and Harmony Korine’s Gummo laid the groundwork for the guys we met in the 1999 documentary, American Movie, which chronicled the tortuous creation of “Coven,” a horror short that was as home-made as a movie could be at the time. Milwaukee native Mark Borchardt hoped that the proceeds from “Coven” would help finance a longer project, “Northwestern.” That didn’t work out as planned, but Borchardt is still active in the industry – more or less, anyway – and the doc’s director, Chris Smith, has gone on to make Home Movie, The Yes Men and terrific coming-of-age drama, The Pool. Thanks to YouTube, shorts and music videos that were dying on the vine suddenly were being seen and critiqued by like-minded viewers. Today, distributers of truly niche programming are risking the few bucks they have on quick-and-dirty DVDs and POV opportunities. The trickle of do-it-yourself titles as grown to a something resembling a stream, if not yet a river. I was immediately reminded of American Movie while watching Adam Rifkin’s documentary/profile, “Giuseppe Makes a Movie.”

At 36, Giuseppe Andrews has already experienced the kind of roller-coaster career few people in Hollywood could easily endure. It didn’t really kick in until he and his father had traded down from a trailer park to a van and were cast in an infomercial. His first credit was earned at 10, as Joey Andrews, in Randal Kleiser’s Getting It Right. He would go on to such entertainments as “Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place,” Detroit Rock City, Independence Day and music videos backing the Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979” and “Perfect.” In 1999, Andrews decided to become his own boss by making more than 30 long-form and short movies that easily fit the DIY mold. Rifkin’s doc chronicles the making of the nano-budget “Garbanzo Gas” and “Shlong Oysters,” whose casts include alcoholics and drug addicts, trash-talking senior citizens, ex-strippers, dumpster divers, skate-punks, a former backup guitarist for the Bee Gees and some characters Diane Arbus might have approached with caution. The funny thing is that Andrews somehow manages to elicit half-way decent performances from his motley repertory company and his direction is equal to a lot of things I see on DVD each week. The stories, which most other filmmakers wouldn’t pick up with tweezers, should appeal to fans of Waters, Korine, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and early Werner Herzog. In some ways, they resemble bargain-basement adaptations of Marat/Sade, M and The Beggar’s Opera. That Andrews is able to maintain a straight face and deliver his own lines amid the chaos demonstrates how good an actor he still is. The second disc adds commentary, deleted scenes, the full “Garbanzo Gas,” interviews with the now-Austin-based auteur and “Trailer Town” star Bill Nowlin, and the proposed pilot of a delightfully demented TV sitcom, “5TH Wheel.”

Society: Blu-ray
Spider Baby: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Not having been much of a horror aficionado in the glory days of the 1980s, I missed a lot of entertaining movies that only now are being in resurrected in Blu-ray and given the kind of attention once reserved for bona-fide classics in disrepair. Released in 1989, Society is unlike any horror flick I’ve ever seen, before or since. Tangentially related to the Re-Animator franchise, Society isn’t so much scary as it is a nightmare come to life through the magic  of special effects. Greeted with enthusiasm overseas, but devastated by the mainstream American critics who previewed it at the Cannes market, Brian Yuzna’s directorial debut pretty much got lost in the pack of genre titles that flooded the theatrical and VHS arena at the time. Thanks to a marvelous restoration and repackaging by Arrow Film & Video, Society is finally being made available to the ever-expanding audience for quality horror. It does take its time setting us for the truly stunning ending, however. Soap-opera heartthrob Billy Warlock stars as the handsome and socially active Bill Whitney. Despite his family’s wealth, Bill is made to feel like a second-class citizen at his Beverly Hills private school by the ruling clique. (In the interviews included here, Yuzna freely acknowledges his desire to make a quasi-political statement about life in Reagan-era America, when simply being rich was never enough.) As the story evolves, Bill becomes convinced not only that his life is in danger, but also that his parents and sister may be holding back family secrets from him. And, of course, he’s right. When he finally catches the eye of the clique’s resident seductress, Clarissa Carlyn (Devin DeVasquez), things get even more confusing for the poor lad. It doesn’t help that someone appears to be playing mind games with his fragile psyche, by faking the deaths of classmates. An unexpected invitation to the home of one of Beverly Hills’ most prominent families gives Bill some pause, but not enough to stand up Clarissa. No sooner does Bill get two feet inside the door than Society turns into an extended orgy of special-effects-driven perversity. It’s here that Japanese “surrealistic makeup designer and creator” Screaming Mad George (Bride of Re-Animator) jumps into the driver’s seat, deploying a “shunt” effect that allows for the liquefaction and reshaping of the characters’ skin. It truly has to be seen to be believed. In his interview, Mad George describes how was able to re-create surrealistic images from the work of Salvador Dali and apply them to the makeup effects in Society. Anyone who’s gotten this far into the Blu-ray package likely will want to re-watch the orgy scene, at least one more time. Besides Yuzna’s commentary, there are several other interviews and Q&A’s, a Mad George music video and collectors’ booklet.

Also from Arrow comes Spider Baby, a rare example of a creature feature that works both as comedy and horror. Finished in 1964, but not released until 1967, the black-and-white thriller looks as if it might have been shot as an episode of “Thriller,” “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” or “Night Gallery.” It could also be mistaken for a very special episode of “The Addams Family,” with Morticia, Gomez and the clan housesitting for their country cousins in the “Psycho” mansion on the Universal backlot. It really is that kind of movie. In fact, the mansion is inhabited by a mentally regressive family of deviants whose eating habits were more influenced by rats, arachnids and other killer insects than Emily Post. Retired Wolf Man Lon Chaney Jr. plays the loyal chauffeur and conscientious baby-sitter to the seriously in-bred man-child, Ralph (Sid Haig), and a pair of Lolita-wannabes, Elizabeth and Virginia Merrye (Beverly Washburn, Jill Banner). Chaney also sings the movie’s theme song, which plays over the “Pink Panther”-inspired opening credits. Into this toxic environment arrives distant relatives and their lawyer (Carol Ohmart, Mary Mitchel, Quinn K. Redeker ), who hope to dispossess the family of its home. Needless to say, the interlopers weren’t prepared for what they found. None of this would have worked as well as it does if the actors hadn’t taken the tongue-in-cheek material as professionally as they did and first-time director Jack Hill (Switchblade  Sisters, The Big Bird Cage) wasn’t a natural in the exploitation game. The great African-American comic actor, Mantan Moreland, makes a wonderful addition as the first victim. The other crazy thing to know about Spider Baby is how it was handled once it made it to the screen. Its working title, “Cannibal Orgy or the Maddest Story Ever Told,” is alluded to in the clever theme song to Spider Baby, which also was sent to drive-in theaters as The Liver Eaters. It was the same movie, but held two places on the marquee, as if to prove that patrons don’t pay attention to the second-half of a double feature. The sterling Blu-ray upgrade adds enjoyable audio commentary, with Hill and Haig; a panel discussion with cast and crew members, recorded in September 2012; the featurettes, “The Hatching of Spider Baby,” “Spider Stravinsky: The Cinema Sounds of Ronald Stein” and “The Merrye House Revisited”; an alternate opening title sequence; an extended scene; original trailer; gallery of behind-the-scenes images; “The Host,” Jack Hill’s 1960 short film featuring Haig in his first starring role; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys; and a booklet, with essays by artist and writer Stephen R. Bissette, and an extensive article re-printed from FilmFax magazine.

Who knows how many of today’s straight-to-DVD movies will stand the test of time and find new audiences decades after their initial release? Some of today’s crop of genre filmmakers almost surely will be asked to look back on their early films in featurettes recorded 20 years from now for Blu-ray or whatever new format is being foisted on consumers. If Jared Black hits the jackpot somewhere down the road, I have no idea what he’ll have to say about Delirium, a psycho-thriller about a young girl who returns home after a year away from her family. No one knows what happened to Emily or who might have been responsible for her disappearance, but her biological father has decided to launch a messy custody war against the girl’s mother and stepfather. Since returning home, Emily has had a difficult time sleeping, because of something she suspects is living in the attic. There’s evil afoot here, but’s so ill-defined as to be more peculiar than frightening. My problems with Delirium include not being able to keep track of the shifts in time or quickly determine the motivations of any of the key characters. Some of the atmospherics are pretty good, however.

The Pillow Book: Blu-ray
Has anyone in the DVD/Blu-ray/LaserDisc industry endeavored to determine how the bonus features included on most discs today are used by consumers? Deleted, extended and alternative scenes are the easiest to sample, of course, and probably widely viewed. Too often, though, the interviews and background featurettes are nothing more than Electronic Press Kits, as intellectually compelling as a promotional appearance on a late-night talk show by a film’s most attractive star. Original trailers attached to classic movies can be amusing, whereas the inclusion of trailers on discs of recently released titles qualifies only as filler. But, what about the commentaries, which require one repeated viewing, at least, and, as such, may be too daunting for casual fans? Too often, a certain lack of enthusiasm can be detected in the voices of the participants. The laws dictating hubris also apply for directors, producers and stars who want us to believe that the bomb we’ve just witnessed is far more worthy of praise than the opinions already proffered by critics and lack of box-office interest. On some soundtracks, too, it’s only too clear that the participants aren’t sharing the same viewing experience or are reading from a prepared text. Some of these are useful, while others are complete waste of time. It’s a mixed bag, to be sure. If any movie I’ve seen lately demands a second viewing, with accompanying commentary, it is Film Movement’s Blu-ray re-release of Peter Greenaway’s mesmerizing The Pillow Book. Greenaway has consistently proven to be one of the modern cinema’s most intellectually challenging practitioners and I simply couldn’t wait to check out the commentary track to check if my observations jibbed with his intentions. I found the experience to be extremely enlightening.  (I also recommend checking out Ray Pride’s vintage interview with the Wales native elsewhere on the MCN website.) Although the 73-year-old painter-turned-filmmaker clearly is reading from text or speaking extemporaneously – he doesn’t comment on the scenes in front of us and the track ends halfway through the movie – his passion for the medium is never less than palpable. For those of us who hadn’t revisited The Pillow Book since its initial release, the discussion of his influences and intentions is must-viewing.

Greenaway’s Pillow Book is adapted from an ancient Japanese diary – observations, advice and, perhaps, the first “listicles” — by royal courtesan Sei Shōnagon around the year 1000 during the middle Heian period. Here, the female protagonist, Nagiko (Vivian Wu), writes her musings on her skin and that of acquaintances, including the western translator, Jerome (Ewan McGregor). Because she uses the entire body as parchment, Pillow Book caused a sensation upon its release in 1996 for its graphic male and female nudity and other visual conceits. Nagiko is the daughter of a master calligrapher, who would write poetry on her face on each new birthday. By the time she reached adulthood, her attention was divided between calligraphy, fashion and modeling. Her skin-texts are exquisitely rendered and, then, photographed by a close friend for inclusion in a book. The most likely publisher, an old family nemesis, refuses to endorse the concept until Jerome allows himself to be sexually compromised, as had Nagiko’s father, years earlier. It isn’t long before the publisher recognizes his place in the through-line and becomes obsessed with seeing how the story plays out on the various skin-palettes sent to him. But, again, therein lies a peculiarly Greenaway-esque twist.

Like the European Impressionists and artisans so influenced by cultural exchanges with Japanese artists in the 19th Century, Greenaway sees calligraphy as “illustrated text” and as much a part of a Japanese painter’s vision as the image, itself. This speaks not only to the differences in the way art is considered by Eastern and Western observers, but also in what the writer/director says is the text-vs.-image conundrum that’s challenged filmmakers for more than a century. The cinema may, indeed, by a visual medium, but, he argues, the overwhelming majority of stories told are adapted from books, magazine, newspapers and other print media. In this way, movies have been required to abide by rules established in 18th- and 19th-century literature. Historically, Eastern artists have intended for their art to be read and seen, simultaneously. As one student is advised here, “The word for rain should fall like rain … the word for smoke should drift like smoke.” When exposed to traditional paintings and scrolls, westerners, myself included, absorbed the calligraphy as we might a caption on a photograph in a newspaper. Our unfamiliarity with the language prevents us from celebrating the organic marriage of text and image. In his commentary, Greenaway allows that digital and green-screen technology now allows for just artistry and understanding. In 1996, he exploited the technology available to him to stimulate and engage viewers from several points of view and entry points. Today, those same techniques border on the primitive. Even so, Greenaway’s painterly eye and keen sense of composition turned The Picture Book into something that addressed the future, as much as it embraced the present and past. As such, it’s the rare movie that can be savored on a frame-by-frame basis or enjoyed without distractions as a testament to Blu-ray technology.

Starz: Survivor’s Remorse: The Complete First Season
Thunderbirds: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
Nickelodeon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Hart to Hart: The Final Season
The Facts of Life: Season Six
BBC: Last of the Summer Wine: Vintage 2004
The Beginner’s Bible: Volume 2
The Starz mini-series “Survivor’s Remorse” is interesting for a couple of reasons: 1) it attempts to do for a basketball superstar and his posse what “Entourage” did for a bunch of contemporary Hollywood brat packers, and 2) contains no actual footage of basketball being played other than on a playground, once. In the six-episode half-hour sitcom, Jessie T. Usher (When the Game Stands Tall) portrays Boston-raised phenom Cam Calloway, who’s just been signed to his first huge free-agent contract by the Atlanta Hawks. Calloway was raised in the ghetto, where he partook in all the usual temptations presented to a teenager, and he’s constantly reminded of his questionable behavior by old cronies perfectly willing to blackmail him. As an adult, however, Cam’s evolved into something of an innocent in a world perfectly willing to exploit his talent and charisma for personal gain, while he still has some exploitable talent left in him. His posse is comprised of family members who range from his ghetto-fabulous mom to a lesbian sister who hits on every woman within six feet of her. They probably could have used a remedial course in real-world etiquette and tact before following Cam to Atlanta, but where would be the fun in that? The first season concerned itself with Cam and his posse’s introduction to Atlanta society, as well as near-misses with reporters anxious to tear his still-developing reputation to shreds. Not being of the African-American persuasion, I couldn’t say with any authority if the humor might be considered racist by black viewers. Things have changed since “Sanford and Son” and “Good Times,” after all. A white guy, Mike O’Malley (“Glee”), created the series, but, with LeBron James listed as one of several exec-producers, my bet would be that the scripts are closely perused before they’re aired. And, much of the writing is quite good. It will be interesting to see the direction “Survivor’s Remorse” takes in its 10-episode second-season run, which begins in the fall. The supporting cast includes Mike Epps, RonReaco Lee, Erica Ash, Teyonah Parris and Tichina Arnold.

The folks at Shout! Factory/Timeless Media have finally come to the point in the release of vintage titles from “The Gerry Anderson Collection” that Blu-ray has become a desirable option. The upgrade may have been prompted, though, by last year’s release of the feature-length Thunderbirds Are Go/Thunderbird 6 combo in hi-def by Twilight Time. Aired in 1965-66, “Thunderbirds” fits in the canon between “Stingray” and “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons,” already available in DVD. The stars of this Supermarionation interplanetary adventure belong to the wealthy Tracy family, circa 2065, whose base is a high-tech paradise that includes a space station to monitor the problems of Earth and its inhabitants. Available to them is a fleet of flying and “swimming” vessels, knowns as Thunderbirds. The exploits of the International Rescue team are collected in “Thunderbirds: The Complete Series,” which also arrives with the “Launching Thunderbirds” documentary and a vintage publicity brochure available in PDF format, accessible from a Blu-ray drive.

Nickelodeon has given fans of the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” franchise something more to live for, in three new compilations from 2013 story arcs: “NYC Showdown,” “The Search for Splinter” and “Pulverizer Power.” As usual, with these kids-oriented collections, check the episode titles before ordering, as some are repeats.

Among other new golden-oldie collections this week are “Hart To Hart: The Final Season” and “The Facts of Life: Season Six,” both from Shout! Factory. BBC Home Entertainment’s “Last of the Summer Wine: Vintage 2004” represents the 26th season of the world’s longest running sitcom. Meanwhile, the second chapter in StarVista’s “Beginner’s Bible” kiddies’ series adds animated interpretations of “Noah’s Ark,” “David & Goliath” and “The Creation.”

The DVD Wrapup: McFarland USA, Scarecrows, Mickey Rourke, Justified, Rectify and more

Thursday, June 4th, 2015

McFarland, USA Blu-ray
There is a subgenre of sports movies in which hard-scrabble groups of young athletes defeat immense odds by becoming champions. Typically, they represent one ethnic-minority group or another, but it can be stretched to include a movie like Miracle, the dramatic story of the 1980 U.S. ice-hockey team’s amazing triumph over the dominant Soviet team or, even, Stand and Deliver, about Jaime Escalante’s determination to turn potential dropouts into competitive math wizards. Recently, too, we’ve seen inspirational stories about the first group of poor Mexican kids to win the Little League World Series (The Perfect Game) and Hispanic students from Texas who pit their robotic creations against those from a team from MIT. In basketball, there’s Hoosiers, in which a group of farm kids from a tiny Indiana school, conquered an Indianapolis team led by Oscar Robertson and perennial powerhouse Muncie Central, and Glory Road, in which five African-American players started for the first time in a NCAA championship game upset Kentucky’s all-white squad, coached by the “legendary” Adolph Rupp. All such films take liberties with the facts, if simply to boost dramatic effect or condense the disparate elements, but the climaxes can hardly be fudged.

Kiwi filmmaker Niki Caro’s McFarland, USA is the latest entry in the subgenre. Kevin Costner is typically effective as the high school football coach who’s fired for throwing a shoe at the starting quarterback – the wiseass deserved worse – and forced to look for work elsewhere. He finds it in a predominantly Mexican-American school in the Central Valley of California. As beneficiaries of the unionization of farm workers, led by Cesar Chavez, the families no longer are migratory and some have found ways to control their own livelihoods.  They are still poor, however, and many of their kids are required to split their days between work in the fields and school, with little or no hope of going on to college. As depicted here, Jim White (a.k.a., Coach Blanco) and his family are dismayed by their first impressions of McFarland, which they find to be as boring as it is impoverished. As an assistant to the school’s bone-headed football coach, White witnesses abuses that appear to be taken for granted by the principal. Long story short, White volunteers to create the school’s first cross-country team, based simply on watching a few of the boys running around during gym class or in the fields. Conveniently, California had just agreed to fund off-brand sports in minority-heavy schools and organize an inaugural statewide meet in cross-country. You can probably guess the outcome of McFarland, USA from that much information, alone.

What wouldn’t be obvious, though, are the many fresh twists added by Caro (Whale Rider, North Country, A Heavenly Vintage) to avoid clichés and invent dramatic confrontations where none actually existed. The rapport between White, his wife (Maria Bello) and daughters, and the students and their parents isn’t always ideal, but it feels genuine and the bad times are frequently relieved with humor. Moreover, Mexican-American family life is depicted in a straight-forward fashion that doesn’t ignore the strains caused by living with belts constantly tightened, while accentuating the positive aspects of life in a close-knit ethnic community. Being 1987, the inexperienced and poorly equipped Cougars are easy targets for the racist taunts of runners from Palo Alto and other all-white teams. Once the meets start, however, the cheap shots end. As anyone who’s driven north or south on I-5 can attest, the terrain in around McFarland doesn’t lend itself to picture-postcard sentimentality, but what beauty does exist is nicely captured by Terry Stacey and Adam Arkapaw. The Blu-ray adds deleted and extended scenes; the music video, “Juntos,” by Juanes; and featurettes “McFarland Reflections” and “Inspiring McFarland,” which describes how the miracle continues, today.

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water: Blu-ray
I wonder if sales of marijuana – medical and otherwise – were up in the week preceding the theatrical release of The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water. I’m old enough to remember when the Beatles’ animated musical, The Yellow Submarine, opened to audiences of older teens and young adults, who were stewed to the gills on pot and psychedelics. It wasn’t the kind of movie intended specifically to blow the minds of its audience, but its animators probably weren’t discouraged from paying special attention to themes, shapes and colors that catered to altered states. Launched in 1999, “SpongeBob SquarePants” is an animated television series created by marine biologist and animator Stephen Hillenburg for Nickelodeon. The series chronicles the adventures of the title charac6ter and his various friends in the underwater city of Bikini Bottom. While there isn’t an obvious link between “SpongeBob” and “Yellow Submarine,” they’d make a dandy double feature at Sea World or on the flat-screen TV of your local dispensary of legal marijuana. Perhaps, it’s worth noting here that the ticket-counters at Box Office Mojo estimate that the audience for “Sponge Out of Water,” which combines live-action segments and animation, was 53 percent male and 60 percent under the age of 25. My guess is that most of those viewers under 25 grew up watching “SpongeBob SquarePants,” first as wide-eyed kids, but, then, as teens and young adults able to parse the hip double-entendres and cross-generational sight gags. Consequently, the movie outperformed estimates by posting $53.3 million in revenues over its opening weekend, on its way to a pre-video haul of $163 million at the domestic box office and another $148.6 million overseas.

Not surprisingly, the movie’s central conflict involves the theft of the secret Krabby Patty formula, not by Plankton, as could be expected, but a real-life pirate, Burger Beard (Antonio Banderas), who wants to convert his amphibious vessel into a food truck. Absent the recipe, Bikini Bottom is threatened with becoming a ghost town. It causes SpongeBob and Plankton to put aside their differences long enough to recover the recipe and put Bikini Bottom back on the underwater map. This brief synapsis in no way does justice to the crazy stuff that happens between the theft and recovery of the recipe or of the delightfully drawn characters and backdrops and zippy musical interludes. The retention of original cast members Tom Kenny, Clancy Brown, Bill Fagerbakke, Rodger Bumpass, Doug Lawrence, Carolyn Lawrence and Paul Harrison Tibbitt ensured, as well, that 16 years of fandom wouldn’t be disappointed by a possible introduction of promotable guest voices and cameos. The Blu-ray looks terrific, in or out of 3D, and the bonus features go a long way toward explaining how the movie and TV episodes come together, especially the voicing of characters. The featurettes are divided into four segments, “On the Surface,” “Underwater Awesomeness,” “Bikini Bottom Boogie” and “Deleted/Extended/Alternate/Test Scenes.” All add value to the total package, without spoiling any of the fun.

The Taking of Tiger Mountain: Blu-ray
In 1966, any progress China was making in the creation of the ideal socialist state, whose leaders were answerable only to “the people,” was thwarted by the paranoid delusions of 72-year-old Chairman Mao Zedong and the so-called Gang of Four. The intended goal of the Cultural Revolution was to purge the country of what a handful of Communist Party zealots considered to be revisionist elements determined to restore capitalism and bourgeois values to the Peoples Republic. They established the militant Red Guards to root out individuals hey determined to be less than committed to armed struggle and the elevation of what party leaders determined to be proletarian values. Anyone whose job required a modicum of intellectual thought or clean hands, even, could be sent to the boonies to work on communal farms, quarries or re-education camps. One byproduct of the Cultural Revolution was the banning of all plays and ballets that didn’t glorify the accomplishments of the Peoples Liberation Army or promote revolutionary change. When all was said and done, Mao’s widely despised wife, Jiang Qing, approved the creation of six model operas and two ballets, including Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, based on a novel by Qu Bo. It chronicled an actual battle in the Chinese Civil War, between a squadron of Peoples Liberation Army soldiers and a gang of bandits and brigands terrorizing villages in the mountains of northeastern China. The play was adapted into a rousingly patriotic movie in 1970 and, again, last year, as an action adventure by the estimable Tsui Hark. Shot in winter in the same mountains, “Tiger Mountain” stars Tony Ka Fai Leung as a ruthless bandit whose fortress sits beneath the summit of Tiger Mountain. Zhang Hanyu plays the spy sent to destroy the gang from the inside. To divert the warlord, Lord Hawk, a map to a treasure left behind by Japanese troops is fabricated. The Vietnamese native, Hark, is renowned for his Hong Kong action pictures and his brilliantly staged fight scenes are wonderfully entertaining. While the PLA soldiers, including a gung-ho woman warrior, wear drab standard-issue military uniforms and winter gear, Lord Hawk and his officers are decked out in all manner of fashionable furs and trinkets. (“Game of Thrones” appears to be referenced in the costumes.)  The mountainous backdrops couldn’t be any more formidable, either. Viewers may require a scorecard to keep track of the many different characters and storylines. There’s also a contemporary framing device, intended, I suppose, to appeal to viewers who may never have been required to memorize the Little Red Book of quotations from Chairman Mao. Western audiences may not grasp the conceit, but fans of modern Chinese epics won’t have any trouble getting past it. The Blu-ray captures the grandeur of the setting, as well as the winter chill, while adding interviews with cast and crew.

Scarecrows: Blu-ray
I wonder how many farmers still use scarecrows to ward off birds and other critters anxious to ravage their fields before crops have had an opportunity to take hold. While watching McFarland, USA, which is set in California’s agricultural belt, I didn’t notice a single burlap sack, stuffed with hay to resemble a ragamuffin’s torso. Of course, I didn’t see any hot-air balloons, tin men or yellow-brick roads, either. Neither, does William Wesley’s 1988 chiller, Scarecrows, take place near Kansas, Oz or anywhere else corn is grown in large quantities. Those geographical lapses aside, the movie makes the most of what little the filmmakers were given and the ability of cinematographer of Peter Deming (My Cousin Vinny, Mulholland Dr.) to allow us to make sense of a movie that takes place almost entirely in the dark, hundreds of miles from the nearest scarecrow. In it, a group of five former commandoes steals $3 million from Camp Pendleton, the sprawling Marine base between San Diego and Los Angeles. To make their escape, the heavily armed men and a woman force the pilot of a small propeller plane to take them to Mexico, which isn’t more than 50 miles south, as the crow flies. To ensure the pilot’s cooperation, the crooks also take his teenage daughter hostage.

Somewhere along the way, one of the commandoes grabs the money and parachutes from the plane, landing in a cornfield. Now, unless the pilot decided make a detour over the Imperial Valley, a hundred miles east of Camp Pendleton, it isn’t likely that much in the way of corn was being grown in the desert south of Mexicali. It’s where the Colorado River goes to die, after all.  In fact, Scarecrows was filmed in Florida, where there probably are several large fields of corn. Nonetheless, the commandos are able to use their search-and-destroy skills to locate the cornfield and abandoned farmhouse, around which a fierce firefight will take place. The scarecrows may not be armed with automatic weapons, but, with Satan on their side, aren’t about to let the invaders have free access to their cursed cornfield. Given the movie’s age and limited resources, Scarecrows offers a decent viewing experience for genre buffs with Blu-ray equipment. The set adds commentaries with Wesley and producer Cami Winikoff, and with Deming, co-screenwriter Richard Jefferies and composer Terry Plumeri; the featurettes, “The Last Straw,” – an interview with special makeup-effects creator Norman Cabrera, and “Cornfield Commando,” an interview with actor Ted Vernon; original storyboards; and a still gallery.

In the curiously titled Asmodexia, an itinerant exorcist pastor, Eloy (Lluís Marco), roams around the outskirts of Barcelona with his supernaturally blessed/cursed granddaughter, Alba (Clàudia Pons), curing souls possessed by the Evil One. Unlike most exorcist-themed movies, Marc Carreté’s first feature treats demonic possession as if it were a plague that attacks the soul and makes its victims resemble zombies. They exist in catacomb-like basements, some of which recall Mayan tombs with their scattered iconography and foreboding architecture. We know that there’s something special about Alba because we were there at her birth and observed the spiritual cleansing that followed her untidy delivery. At the time, Eloy was involved with a quasi-hippy religious sect. Being in a pretty bad place, the survivors welcome the return of Eloy and the girl, who might turn out to be a reasonable facsimile of the messiah. Another hint that things aren’t quite right in Catalonia is a December heat wave that has residents turning on their air conditioners and heading for the beach. Most of what’s scary in Asmodexia derives from the special makeup-effects work done by Monica Murguia and bleached-out cinematography of Xavi Garriga, in his feature debut. “Asmodexia” is a word invented by the director to make viewers think of diseases as yet unnamed. While not particularly gory or frightening, at 81 minutes, it never wears out its welcome.

The Legend of Longwood
This charming Dove-approved fantasy/adventure describes what happens when a 12-year-old American girl, Mickey (Lucy Morton), is forced to leave everything and everyone she knows in New York and adjust to life in rural Ireland. Her mother’s dragged Mickey and her little brother to the Emerald Isle to start a new life in a run-down mill she’s inherited in the tiny town of Longwood. It doesn’t take Mickey long to figure out that destiny has summoned her back to Ireland to fulfill a role in The Legend of Longwood. The village is haunted by the specter of the Black Knight, whose sad story involves having his baby daughter taken from him 300 years in the past. Mickey loves horses, so her attitude brightens when she discovers a castle with a small stable of magnificent white horses. If she can harness the most stubborn of the steeds, Mickey and a newfound friend might be able to lift the Black Knight’s curse. Directed by Irish filmmaker Lisa Mulcahy, my enjoyment of The Legend of Longwood was enhanced greatly by the beautiful scenery.

Eat With Me
Low-budget indie films tend to need all the help they can get when it comes to finding financing, distribution and an audience. It’s with that reality in mind that I tend to forgive niche distributors from putting pictures of well-known actors on the cover of movies in which they may only appear for a few minutes. Danny Trejo and Michael Madsen are famous for lending their brands to action flicks that might not find viewers, otherwise. Robert Englund provides the same service for producers of horror movies. George Takei may, indeed, be the most prominent actor in freshman writer/director David Au’s appealing fairytale romance, Eat With Me, but his photo on the DVD’s cover makes it look as if he plays a more prominent role than almost anyone else. Takei’s cameos come at pivotal points in the narrative, but anyone who chose that time to get a free refill of popcorn wouldn’t know he’d come and gone. On DVD, at least, hitting the pause button is a far better option. Eat With Me opens with Emma (Sharon Omi) realizing that her marriage to the inconsiderate Ray (Ken Narasaki) has run its course and she’s in desperate need of R&R. The closest escape route takes her to her son’s loft apartment in Los Angeles. Elliot (Teddy Chen Culver), who’s taken over the lease at his late uncle’s failing restaurant, isn’t exactly sure what to make of his mother’s arrival, which has come straight out of the blue. In the past, Emma has shown herself to be uncomfortable with the possibility of Elliot being gay, but it’s more of a hang-up for her than it is for him. Coincidental to mom’s arrival, Elliot is dealing with commitment issues with the men in his life, as well as eviction notices at the restaurant. The inconvenience of his mother’s presence is greatly alleviated by a neighbor (Nicole Sullivan) who practically adopts Emma, allowing her to hang out in her spacious apartment during a dance class and sharing a dose of Ecstasy after she mistakes it for aspirin. Still, when mom catches junior asleep in bed with his hunky musician boyfriend, she realizes that she’s still not ready to accept reality. Enter George Takei, as George, the wise gay stranger she meets in the park. You can probably already guess what happens from here, but the focus on food as the great equalizer keeps thing from bogging down in clichés.

The Pope of Greenwich Village/Desperate Hours: Blu-ray
The crime dramas that comprise this bi-polar double feature from Shout!Factory are notable primarily for the presence of future Best Actor-nominee Mickey Rourke, as well as the direct and indirect influence of Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter). Ever since his breakout performances in Diner and Body Heat, Rourke has confounded critics and viewers with his determination to play different variations of his eccentric self, instead of fully rounded and imaginatively realized characters. He looked and feIt right at home in the lead roles of Barfly and The Wrestler, and, in between, was extremely well utilized in brief supporting roles. As a romantic lead, however, Rourke was pushing his luck. His stylish wiseguy, Charlie, in The Pope of Greenwich Village simultaneously recalls Harvey Keitel’s similarly anal Charlie, in Mean Streets, and the greaseball arbitrager, John, in 9½ Weeks. They all dress as if they were about to attend a mafia funeral and care more about ruining the polish on their shoes than being punched in the face. Based on an excellent first novel and screenplay by Vincent Patrick, The Pope of Greenwich Village leads the protagonists into “Of Mice and Men” territory, this time in Manhattan’s Little Italy. Eric Roberts, already a known quantity from Star 80, plays Charlie’s borderline-moronic cousin, Paulie, whose criminal pipedreams always come back to haunt him.

After Paulie gets Charlie fired from his job as maître d’ of a mob-owned restaurant, Paulie lets him in on his plans for a $15,000 racehorse and a break-in at a warehouse, where a safe is stuffed with money. Paulie’s already enlisted a veteran safecracker (Kenneth McMillan), who’s always one eggroll away from a heart attack.  The problem is that the money belongs to a mobster known throughout Greenwich Village as Bed Bug Eddie (Burt Young) and a crooked cop is accidentally killed during the commission of the crime. It only takes about 10 seconds for Eddie’s men to narrow down the list of usual suspects to Paulie, who can’t wait to turn on the safecracker, but keeps his cousin’s name out of it for as long as he can. In another conceit that would carry over to 9½ Weeks, Rourke’s chain-smoking hustler has been awarded a beautiful blond girlfriend, this time in the form of a dance teacher played by Daryl Hannah. As 31-year-old mobster-themed movies go, The Pope of Greenwich Village remains surprisingly entertaining, thanks, in large part, to its New York locations. The Cimino connection can made from reports that the Deer Hunter director had been approached to direct the movie, but declined, only to agree to fill in for Stuart Rosenberg (Brubaker) on a few scenes when he fell ill. Geraldine Page delivered a splendid blink-and-you’ll-miss-it performance as a nicotine-addicted mother of the corrupt cop, who’s confronted by his cronies looking for incriminating tapes. The Blu-ray arrives with some EPK interviews.

In 1990, Cimino directed Rourke in the risible hostage drama, Desperate Hours. Joseph Hayes’ hit play and novel had been re-adapted several times since 1995, when “The Desperate Hours” won a Tony as Best Play. I haven’t seen any of the other film re-makes, but I can’t imagine them being as ridiculous as the one crafted from a screenplay by Hayes, Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal (The Jewel of the Nile). By opening Desperate Hours up from its stage iteration, the filmmakers were given far too much freedom to mess up what basically was a pretty intimate drama. The nonsense starts early, as Kelly Lynch is speeding through the Utah desert in a Ferrari, before stopping at a rest stop alongside a gorgeous mountain lake. Nancy is dressed to kill in a slinky business suit, black thigh-high stockings and spikey heels. The next thing we know, she’s climbed a steep rocky hill – in her heels – and arrived at the exact spot on the highway, where, inexplicably, there’s a bus stop. The bus must have been prompt, because Nancy – a lawyer – gets to the courthouse in time to argue for the early parole of Michael Bosworth (Rourke), who pretends not to want her help, but gets it anyway in the form of a dainty little handgun attached to her garter, which is within easy reach of Mickey’s shackled hands. As intricately choreographed as his delivery to the courtroom was by sheriff’s deputies, it’s just that easy for Mickey to escape. From there, Mickey’s hustled to the Ferrari by his brother (Elias Koteas) and a nutcase played by David Morse. Almost all of the rest of the picture takes place inside a suburban house near Salt Lake City, inhabited by Mimi Rogers, Anthony Hopkins and their two children. If there’s a connection between that family and Mickey or Nancy, I missed it. Meanwhile, a FBI unit led by a strangely coiffed Lindsay Crouse has taken over the hostage siege, again, for no clear reason. Things don’t get any more logical or coherent as Desperate Hours unspools. What makes it watchable, though, are nearly over-the-top performances by Hopkins and Rourke, who appears to have been channeling Roy “Mad Dog” Earle (High Sierra), Cody Jarret (White Heat) and Sonny, in Mad Dog Afternoon. In Cimino’s hands, Desperate Hours is never less than so bad, it’s good.

FX: Justified: The Final Season: Blu-ray
Sundance: Rectify: The Complete Second Season
Lifetime: With This Ring
Nickelodeon: Dora the Explorer
“Mad Men” and “Late Show with David Letterman” weren’t the only noteworthy television series that ended their natural lives in 2015. Also saying goodbye were “Parks and Recreation,” “Parenthood,” “Glee,” “Two and a Half Men,” “Cougar Town” and, soon, “Nurse Jackie” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” Among the shows I will miss the most is FX’s “Justified,” which was based on Elmore Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole” and never wavered from the master’s ability to create sleazeball villains, conflicted heroes and memorable dialogue. Leonard must have really cherished his creation, Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Oliphant), as he also made the Stetson-wearing, Glock-toting lawman the protagonist of the novels “Pronto” and “Riding the Rap.” In those books, Givens is assigned to Miami Beach, where he set some kind of record for the justified shootings of dangerous criminals. In “Fire in the Hole,” Leonard had Givens transferred to his boyhood home of Harlan County, Kentucky, as a round-about punishment for provoking a Western-style shootout with an enemy on a hotel deck in Miami. It effectively reunites Givens with his old mining buddy, Boyd Crowder, now the leader of a white supremacist group, his ex-wife, Winona, and Boyd’s sister-in-law, Ava Crowder. In a dandy bit of narrative symmetry, all four of those characters also play crucial roles in the powerful and violent sixth season. It opens with the remaining members of the Crowe and Crowder clans up to their old tricks and Raylan attempting to talk Ava into testifying against the duplicitous Boyd.  For her part, Winona has split for Florida with baby, Wila, awaiting Raylan’s final decision about hanging up his holster and coming to live with them. It remains an open question for the next 13 episodes. Among the actors making their first appearances here are Mary Steenburgen, Sam Elliott, Garret Dillahunt, Jeff Fahey and Jake Busey. Jamie Davies returns as the incarcerated Dickie Bennett, as does Patton Oswald as the hapless Constable Bob Sweeney. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and featurettes, “Hollywood to Harlan,” “Directing the Show: Adam Arkin” and “Dutch Speaks,” a vintage interview with Elmore Leonard about his thoughts on “Justified.”

In its first two years on Sundance, critics have made “Rectify” one of the most honored shows on television. Besides being named to 10 different top-10 lists, twice, the series was awarded with a 2014 Peabody Award. The committee called it, “A powerful, subtle dramatic series about a death-row inmate released after nearly two decades thanks to new DNA evidence, it ponders whether what’s been lost can ever be repaid, not just to him but to everyone he and his alleged crimes touched.” At a time when more and more prisoners are being vindicated for crimes they never committed and another state, Nebraska, has decided that no more possibly innocent inmates should die, it’s no small issue. While the media is always at the prison gates to document their release, next to nothing is said concerning the officially guiltless ex-cons’ re-entry into society. No matter how much microscopic DNA is collected, some folks will refuse to accept the fact that our system of justice is imperfect. Indeed, the second season picks up with Daniel (Aden Young) in the hospital, comatose, after taking a beating from hooded thugs seeking to avenge something he didn’t do. In his dream state, Daniel imagines being back on death row with his best friend – executed before he was freed – and a convict who tormented them. Finally out of his coma and released to the care of his family in Paulie, Georgia, Daniel is far from normal. The search for his attackers intensifies, with the most obvious suspect being the slain teenager’s brother.  Seemingly with plans of his own for the man, Daniel refuses to bring charges against him. And, of course, things get stranger and more complex until season’s end. The third stanza begins on July 9.

Halfway through Nzingha Stewart’s romantic fantasy, “With This Ring,” I began to wonder why it looked so much like a Liftetime original movie. If anything, with its entirely African-American cast and “Real Housewives of Atlanta” attitude, I thought it might be a movie that ends up on BET or Starz, between “Power” and “Survivor’s Remorse.” First instincts almost always being right, however, I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that “With This Ring” was, in fact, a Lifetime movie, one of only a few made to attract so-called middle-class urban audiences. While attending a friend’s New Year’s Eve wedding, three thirtysomething women make a vow not to be single by the time the bride’s first anniversary rolls around. Besides being attractive and sufficiently wealthy to afford homes that wouldn’t be out of place on any of the “Housewives” series, the women have jobs on the upper-rung of the entertainment industry. And, yet, they’re desperate enough to land husbands they’d settle for second- or third-best, simply to make good on a silly vow. Regina Hall, Jill Scott and Eve portray an up-and-coming talent agent, popular gossip columnist and between-gigs actress, respectively, all facing challenges common to single African-American women of a certain age. The gossip columnist enjoys a friendly relationship with the father of her young son, but, until she took the vow, treated him as if he were a business associate. Just as is the case in most afternoon and prime-time soap operas, there are few allowances for reality when it comes to fashions, décor, nightclubs and parties. All of the characters, including the extras, look as if they could star in their own series, as well. This includes Brooklyn Sudano, NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, Stephen Bishop, Jason George and Brian White. “With This Ring” was adapted from
“The Vow” by Denene Millner, Angela Burt-Murray and Mitzi Miller, and should appeal to women –mostly – who enjoyed “Waiting to Exhale,” “Jumping the Broom,” “Think Like A Man” and “Baggage Claim.”

Like the above-mentioned series, Nickelodeon’s formidable “Dora the Explorer” has slipped off into the sunset to make room for the spin-off series “Dora and Friends: Into the City!” and a slightly more mature female protagonist. New friends have been introduced and the destinations are more urban in nature. In fact, though, the change was initiated in 2011, with “Dora’s Explorer Girls: Our First Concert,” in which Dora and her friends get five tickets to see Shakira in concert but lose them among the charitable donations to the show. It forces them to go on a desperate search through Puerto Verde for the valuable ducats. The “Big Little Movies” collection adds “Dora the Explorer: Dora Saves Fairytale Land,” which debuts on DVD before its TV premiere. In this extended adventure, Dora and Boots must travel deep into the Never-to-be-Seen-Again Forest to the Sparkling Lake in order to bring magic back to Fairytale Land. In this offering, the younger iteration of the extremely popular character prevails. In “Big Little Movies: Umi Space Heroes,” the Team Umizoomi crew goes into action to save the moon after the Trouble Makers blow it into four pieces. Their intergalactic adventure requires them to use their math and problem-solving skills. They’re joined by the compilations, “Max & Ruby: Sharing & Caring” and “Bubble Guppies: The Puppy & the Ring.”

The DVD Wrapup: Magician: Orson Welles, The Confession and more

Friday, May 29th, 2015

Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles: Blu-ray
I think that it can be argued persuasively that a week in the life of Orson Welles, whose centennial we celebrate this month, was more intrinsically interesting than two years in the lives of everyone who’s made the cover of People, US Weekly, the Enquirer, Life & Style, OK!, In Touch and Star, at least since Kim met Kanye. I was reminded of this while watching Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles, Chuck Workman’s glowing biopic of one of the greatest artists and celebrities at a time when simply being young, attractive and rich wasn’t sufficient cause for worship by the media. If Workman’s film doesn’t add much to what most of us already know about Welles, or have gleaned from his still fascinating films, “Magician” is worth it for the archival material chronicling his rise to prominence with the Mercury Theater. It’s also informed by the testimony of filmmakers, actors, critics, relatives, lovers and, even, restaurateur-to-the-stars Wolfgang Puck, who’s probably still holding Welles’ IOUs from their days at Ma Maison. And, what would any Welles documentary be without the recollections of Peter Bogdanovich and Henry Jaglom? Ironically, for at least one generation of TV viewers, the man who gave us “Citizen Kane” will still be remembered most vividly as a talk-show raconteur, pitchman for Paul Masson, golden throated narrator of cartoons and documentary series, and occasional guest roaster on “Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts.” As someone who actually could read the names and address off a phone book and make them sound like Shakespeare, Welles was as much fun to watch as anyone else who sat beside Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin, back in the glory years. And, yes, he also was a heck of a magician. Typically, Welles was able to convince Bogdanovich that no less an illusionist than Harry Houdini taught him his first tricks, in the 1920s. Whether or not this qualifies as one of his whoppers, it’s a great story and usually that’s enough for a genuine celebrity. The Cohen Media Blu-ray adds an interview with Workman.

The Confession: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The Merchant of Four Seasons: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
I wonder how the work of the Greek director Costa-Gavras would have been judged in the late-1960s and ’70s if The Confession had preceded Z into theaters around the world, instead of the other way around. As powerful a statement against fascism and right-wing barbarism as Z was, it also was criticized in some quarters for being anti-American and promoting political division in Greece. That’s because the film’s co-protagonist (Yves Montand) – patterned after anti-war activist Grigoris Lambrakis — was a prominent spokesman for a pacifist group opposed to the government of an unnamed European country, unmistakably Hellenic. After speaking at a rally, Deputy Z is killed in an attack by thugs hanging off the back of a small truck. Responding to the protests of enraged pro-democratic crowds, the government covered up the attack by saying the he died from wounds suffered in a collision with drunk driver. A typically routine investigation, led by an uncharacteristically skeptical magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant), determines that the deputy’s death had been orchestrated and carried out by security forces employed by the conservative government. By the time Z opened theatrically, in 1969, people already protesting the war in Vietnam, nuclear proliferation, racism and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia were able to embrace an anti-Hollywood movie that appeared to confirm their views about America’s role in propping up totalitarian regimes in the Third World countries. Z ends by reminding viewers that democracy and civil liberties were casualties in the struggle for peace and the men responsible for Deputy Z’s death received slaps on the wrists. Of course, this mirrored events in Greece after a repressive military junta replaced the conservative government. Costa-Gavras would return to similar themes, only this time from a South American perspective, in Missing and State of Siege.

Released in 1970, The Confession attacks oppression and treachery from a completely different ideological direction. This time, however, Montand portrays the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of Czechoslovakia at a time when the Soviet Union was tightening its grip on all of the Iron Curtain countries. One day, after work, Gerard (London) notices that he’s being followed by carloads of brutes who look as if their other job was breaking bones for the Teamsters Union. Normally, given their standing in the Czech Communist Party, Gerard and his wife, Lise (Simone Signoret), would be among the last people in line to be purged for their political activities. In fact, their credentials could be considered to be little short of impeccable. Even so, in the early ’50s, an increasingly paranoid Stalin demanded action against potential advocate for reform and the first place his puppets looked was in the direction of high-ranking Jews, or anyone who might have spent time in the West fighting with the International Brigades on the loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War and had joined the French Resistance after escaping the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and Hungary. As an enthusiastic party member in his early 20s, London had the distinction of being sent from Moscow to Spain to spy for the Soviet Union and, after retreating to France, being arrested with his pregnant wife and sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp. Having managed to somehow escape death in the camps, the Londons took up residence in Switzerland, until being lured back to Czechoslovakia, where he quickly moved up the political ladder. In 1951, he was arrested but not charged for unnamed abuses of power and party privileges. For almost a year, London was kept in isolation and tortured to within an inch of his sanity, through sleep deprivation, constant harassment and cruel prison conditions. His inquisitors demanded that he confess to participating in a Trotskyite-Titoite-Zionist conspiracy, as well as numerous anti-Soviet crimes, along with 13 other party leaders. Tellingly, 11 of the 14 co-defendants in the Slánský show trial were Jewish and 11 would be executed after admitting to trumped-up offenses. (Surviving the death camp as communist and a Jew had already raised bushy eyebrows in Moscow and Prague.) Like Gerard, London would escape the hangman’s noose, but be sentenced to several years of hard labor. To avoid harsher punishment and confirm he had been “re-habilitated,” London would testify in the show trials of other Czech and Slovak officials. By the time he was released, Stalin was dead and his iron grip relaxed. It wasn’t until the violent Soviet quashing of Hungarian revolt, in 1956, and Prague Spring, of 1968, that the Londons fully acknowledged the rotten odor emanating from the Kremlin and he decided to write his memoirs, “On Trial.”

Based on a screenplay by Jorge Semprún Maura, whose own story mirrored that of London, Costa-Gavras’ depiction of the months-long torture experienced by Gerard not only is extremely difficult to watch, but also eerily reminiscent of what we’ve learned about the treatment accorded Islamic prisoners by CIA officials and untrained National Guard sadists. For some viewers, the show trial accorded the doomed Czech officials resembled the show trial of the Chicago 8, before it was reduced to a Yippie carnival and repudiation of Chicago Machine politics. Before his death, in 1986, London continued to say that his memoirs shouldn’t be construed as being anti-communist, just anti-totalitarian and anti-fascist. Costa-Gavras makes the same point about The Confession. If Z hadn’t preceded it, however, the Young Republicans of 1969 might have trashed his reputation by using it as a recruiting tool for the Nixon Youth. The new 2K digital transfer, supervised by Costa-Gavras, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, adds several featurettes that add perspective to London’s thrilling story and the difficulty of maintaining one’s belief system in the early years of the Cold War, never knowing who to trust or believe. Other featurettes include “You Speak of Prague: The Second Trial of Artur London,” a 21-minute documentary by Chris Marker, shot on the set of The Confession; a new interview with the film’s editor, Françoise Bonnot; a conversation between director Costa-Gavras and programmer and scholar Peter von Bagh, from the 1988 Midnight Sun Film Festival; “Portrait London,” a 1981 interview with Artur and Lise London; an interview with actor Yves Montand, from 1970; a new interview with John Michalczyk, author of “Costa-Gavras: The Political Fiction Film”; and an essay by film scholar Dina Iordanova.

In the stage and cinema works of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, it wasn’t always easy for postwar German audiences to differentiate between social satire, parody and provocation. The same holds true for his legacy on film, outside Germany. In a career that lasted 16 years, he was responsible for writing, directing and acting in nearly 50 movies, shorts and TV mini-series, as well as continuing to create Brechtian theater pieces. After beginning his career in the late 1960s making films that ranged from experimental to difficult, Fassbinder would turn to the Hollywood melodramas of German émigré Douglas Sirk for creative inspiration. While he continued to explore the role of the outsider in society, as well as the interplay of racism, sexual orientation, politics, class and family dynamics, his movies became noticeably more accessible to mainstream audiences on the international stage. The Merchant of Four Seasons was the first movie to benefit from his exposure to Sirk’s themes, which, of course, had been muted by Production Code restrictions. Set in the late-1950s, before Germany’s economic miracle, it tells the story of a lumpen loser, Hans (Hans Hirschmüller), whose every attempt to improve his lot in life is thwarted by acts of sheer stupidity, the bullying of his impossible-to-satisfy mother, alcohol abuse and post-war malaise. After being kicked off the police force and leaving the foreign legion, Hans humiliates his family by settling for a job peddling produce from a pushcart in the courtyards of tenement buildings. His wife Irm (Irm Hermann) sometimes tags along, but that ends when Hans reacts to her interrupting him at a tavern with a beating in front of their daughter. When she leaves and threatens divorces, Hans is stricken with a heart attack. It prevents him from engaging in the physical aspects of the job, but triggers an impulse in the reunited couple to expand the business by hiring others to do the heavy lifting. With Irm’s assistance and support, the business begins to thrive. And, while it raises his family’s opinion of him, the idle time also causes his mind to wander back to the real turning point in his life. He saw a bright future for himself, which wasn’t shared by his beautiful girlfriend’s father, who couldn’t allow his daughter to accept life with a peddler. Sensing that things aren’t likely to get any better for him, Hans decides to share his misery with as many friends and family members as possible. The Merchant of Four Seasons has been given a new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; commentary with filmmaker Wim Wenders; new interviews with actors Hermann and Hirschmüller, and film scholar Eric Rentschler; and an essay by film scholar Thomas Elsaesser.

So Bright Is the View
In the long wake of the collapse of the Ceauçescu regime, a new Romanian cinema emerged from the rubble, marked by sardonic humor and bleak recollections of life in a land that time and the faint promise of Marxism forgot. It took a while for the concept of creative freedom to catch hold, especially among older citizens conditioned to mistrust Western philosophies and bourgeois intellectuals. Several Romanian films screened at Cannes in the 1990s, but it wasn’t until the 2000s that the world stood up and took notice of such pictures as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, California Dreamin’, Tales from the Golden Age, Police, Adjective, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu and Tuesday, After Christmas. If these titles rarely played outside art houses and festivals – beyond Bucharest, anyway – commercial filmmakers from outside Eastern Europe beat a path to Romania for its diverse locations, historical architecture, crack crews and inexpensive overhead, as well as its symbolic relation to the Draculian legend. In Joël and Michaël Florescu’s downbeat contemporary drama, So Bright Is the View, Estera (Bianca Valea) is a middle-class resident of the capital, caught between the prospect of moving to one of two New Jerusalems – a promised job in America or Israel, where her mother pretends to be thriving – or by maintaining a lackluster career as a drone in a tech company. As those options effectively dwindle from three to none, Estera can’t help but feel as if her strings are being pulled by a God who disapproves of hubris, however humble. As difficult as it is to watch this appealing young woman’s bubbles being burst before our eyes, it’s worth remembering that Estera’s fate is being by shared hundreds of thousands of recent university graduates here, who’ve learned the hard way that the mortgage on their American Dream is held by insanely greedy bankers and politicians too compromised to approve the reforms that would lift the burden of college loans off their shoulders. The Florescus allow the pregnant Estera’s more down-to-earth boyfriend to assure her that, no matter what happens to them, their child will participate in the  rebuilding a country that has natural beauty and seasonal change going for it, at least. That’s if Estera doesn’t go ahead with her plans to abort the baby, of course. In a country with as many qualified actors and as much behind-the-camera talent as Romania, it’s interesting that only one actor, Ovidiu Niculescu, has more than one feature credit on their resume. If nothing else, this seems to indicate that the fledgling Romanian Independent Film Collective is off to a bright start of its own. The group’s mission statement asserts that the organization is “comprised of young writers, photographers, actors, editors and film technicians who join together for the advancement and enrichment of cinema and cinematic media as art and expression in Romania. It is an anti-bureaucratic, anti-exploitative, democratic and free association of members.” Good luck, on that.

The True Cost
When it comes to decrying the terrible injustices endured by the world’s poorest and least protected workers – too many of whom are paid pennies to manufacture clothes that range in price from expensive to bargain-basement — there are several ways to grab the attention of consumers, corporate executives and lawmakers. One way is to sneak hidden cameras into sweatshops as a direct challenge to the lies advanced by industry spokespersons every time a building occupied by hundreds of sewing-machine operators collapses, trapping them in the rubble or killing them outright. Instead of accepting the blame and facing the consequences, company executives claim they weren’t aware that their legitimate Asian sub-contractors would then sub-contract the work to disreputable interests so far removed from the chain of accountability they probably can’t imagine why anyone would care. By now, too, consumers have grown so tired of being told that the problem wouldn’t exist if there were no demand for inexpensive clothes, they’ve stopped listening. Last month, the wonderfully caustic HBO satirist John Oliver trashed the fashion industry and its media lapdogs for blindly encouraging consumers to participate in Black Friday madness and buy clothes on sale at prices that they must have been sewn by children or indentured servants. The True Cost is a 92-minute documentary that takes us from the shaming of Nike in the early 1990s for subcontracting with sweatshop operators, to the devastating building collapse in Bangladesh and fires at factories in Pakistan, killing a combined total of 1,386 people and injuring 3,115 others. It also shoves our noses into even less-accountable operations in India, where freelancers dump chemicals used in the treatment of leather directly into ditches and tributaries of great rivers in which children play, animals feed and water for all sorts of other purposes is taken. Blessedly, director Andrew Morgan and producer Michael Ross have been able to identify enough forces for good in the overall garment industry — Stella McCartney, Livia Firth, Vandana Shiva, among them — to suggest that someone, somewhere is aware of the problem and is taking steps toward reform. All of the documentaries in the world wouldn’t provide enough impetus for change, however, if consumers weren’t as anxious as they are to seize on bargains promoted on television shows like “The View” and “Today”; in glossy magazines and red-carpet shout-outs; on billboards looming over such high-traffic thoroughfares as Times Square and the Sunset Strip; and local TV newscasts that count down the seconds to the opening of Walmart stores on the day after Thanksgiving.

Smoking Laws
First released in the UK in 2011, but reportedly made three years earlier, Matthew Ehlers’ once-observant indie dramedy Smoking Laws recalls a time, not so long ago, when office workers addicted to nicotine would cluster outside the doors of their buildings puffing away as if they were outlaws waiting for a train. In Chicago, at least, that meant braving temperatures that ranged from a dry 20-below-zero to 95-above, with an equal percentage of humidity in the air. I don’t know if these informal gatherings of like-minded smokers still exist, especially since many building owners, insurance companies, middle-management executives and chronic whiners now insist on enforcing a 30-foot perimeter around each entrance for such activities. For a time, this left taverns, restaurant patios and casinos as the only areas open to smokers accustomed to engaging friends and new acquaintances over drinks and snacks. Predictably, anti-smoking activists then were able to convince regulators to prohibit smoking in bars and some non-Indian casinos. It didn’t break my heart, but, occasionally, more customers could be found outside the tavern than inside, spending money. Smoking Laws depicts how the patrons of one fictional establishment adjusted to such a ban – a half-dozen years ago, anyway — by taking their kibitzing, bickering, cell calling and hooking up just outside the doors to the bar or kitchen. The story is told from the point of view of the bar’s manager, who not only has to focus on all of his customers’ satisfaction, but also the workplace dramas of his employees. Smoking Laws probably could have been funnier and more trenchant, given more money and talent. More to the point, how interesting are the people around you who still smoke?

Gun Woman: Blu-ray
Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf: Blu-ray
Cannibal Ferox: Deluxe Edition: Blu-ray
Island of Death: Blu-ray
From Asia With Lust Volume 2: Lipstick/Weekend
Just when you think you’ve seen it all and nothing new can sneak up on you, the mailman drops off a few packages containing movies so bizarre they restore your faith in the medium to shock, disturb and entertain in almost equal measure. This week, already, I’ve watched four such films on Blu-ray, all from different distributors and three different countries. Two are the product of the same fertile mind. Born in Tokyo and educated in Fresno, Kurando Mitsutake brings a distinct Pacific Rim sensibility to Gun Woman and Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf, a pair of bloody soft-core Eastern Westerns shot in and around Agua Dolce, Lone Pine and Death Valley, California. In both, too, blind or half-blind Japanese protagonists dedicate themselves to avenging the rape and murder of a spouse to a crazed pervert. I don’t know if Mitsutake was more influenced by Quentin Tarantino, George Romero, Sergio Leone or Beat Takeshi, but their fingerprints are all over his movies. (He directly credits Tomisabura Wakayama, Shintaro Katsu, Kihachi Okamoto and Sergio Corbucci in final roll.) The almost entirely gratuitous nudity harkens to the “pink” era in Japanese cinema and possibly Russ Meyer. In Samurai Avenger, released in 2009, Mitsutake assumed the lead role of Blind Wolf, a master swordsman required to run a gauntlet of seven assassins before he can get to the monster who killed his wife and daughter and forced him to blind himself with a dull stick. That’s all the information most potential viewers would need before taking a shot on “Samurai Avenger” on disc. Everything else can be learned in the 90-minute making-of featurette.

By contrast to the almost primitive special makeup effects in Samurai Avenger, Gun Woman looks as if Mitsutake was handed a hundred-million-dollars and told to make sure every cent of it finds its way to the screen.  While it’s more likely that he was allotted only a small fraction of that amount, Gun Woman looks that much more accomplished a picture. It, too, opens with a violent rape, murder and disfigurement, this time inside the home of a prominent Japanese doctor. To avenge the crime, the ruthless half-blind Mastermind (Kairi Narita) recruits a destitute street urchin (Asami) with nothing to lose – except, perhaps, her life – if the mission fails. After extensive training with guns, swords, knives and kung fu, Mayumi is ready to infiltrate the previously impenetrable desert bunker of the necrophilic fiend who murdered her mentor’s wife. Knowing that Mayumi will have to be naked and in a trance-like state to gain entry into the killer’s lair, the Mastermind stuffs parts of her handgun just under the skin of her chest and shows her how to rip out the sutures when she awakens from her trance. Adding to the degree of difficulty is the necessity of her being completely nude on her mission and, bless her, during the long and arduous training sessions. It’s amazing, really, and, after about 15 minutes, as erotic as separating recyclable items. At 5-foot-3, the plucky Asami is well known in Japan as a star in adult-video industry. By now, though, she’s probably a better fighter naked than the WWE Divas are in tights and sports bras. The only question that lingers throughout Gun Woman is how Mayumi is going to be able to rip the parts of the pistol from her surgically altered body, re-assemble them, take out the target’s well-armed bodyguards, execute the killer and get to a waiting ambulance, before all of her blood drains from her wounds. The Mastermind calculates his student will have 23 minutes, on the outside, to do it. If this scenario sounds too ridiculous to be taken even remotely seriously, you haven’t seen enough Japanese genre flicks. Admittedly, Gun Woman frequently goes beyond the pale, but Mitsutake pulls off the crazy stuff with aplomb. As is made clear in the making-of featurettes and commentaries included in both Blu-ray packages, working alongside Mitsutake is truly a singular sensation.

Moving a bit further back in time, Cannibal Ferox asks us to take at face value the boast made on its cover: “The most violent film ever made.” It inspired me to look up the definition of “Ferox,” as a way of anticipating what could possibly make Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox more violent than Ruggero Deodato’s infamous Cannibal Holocaust, which I’d just reviewed on Blu-ray. As the Latin word for “fierce,” “ferox” already had been affixed to the scientific names of several nasty species: a ferocious line of brown trout, long-snouted lancefish, lizardfish, sand shark, a soft-shelled turtle, the carnivorous fossa of Madagascar and several notoriously hazardous plants and trees. At first glance, the title, Cannibal Ferox, would appear to be needlessly redundant — cannibalism, by its very nature, being an act of violence — but the original title, Make Them Die Slowly, probably could have been confused with any number of torture-porn specimens and more than a few Westerns. Lenzi had gotten the cannibal craze rolling in 1972 with Man From the Deep River (a.k.a., “Sacrifice!”), which cross-pollinated Elliot Silverstein’s controversial Western, A Man Called Horse, with Mondo Cane. In 1980, he moved the flesh-eating scenario from Thailand to New Guinea in Eaten Alive! (a.k.a., “Doomed to Die”). Like “Holocaust,” “Ferox” opened in Manhattan but quickly found itself in a remote port on the Colombian side of the Amazon River. In the picture, as in real life, Leticia is used as stepping-off point for traders, hunters, explorers and drug traffickers. Here, a group of gringos from New York – one of whom appears to be hiding out from mobsters – is on a dual mission, involving research into the possibility of cannibalism in deep-forest tribes and the black market for precious gems. The subtext, of course, is that so-called civilized people will instinctively revert to crude primal instincts as soon as the safety nets and security blankets of contemporary society are removed. In doing so, the camera is attentive to tribal customs guaranteed to shock first-world viewers, including the on-screen butchering of decidedly non-animatronic creatures, rape, primitive torture practices and prevalent nudity. While Cannibal Holocaust’s most lasting gift to the international cinema was introducing the found-footage conceit, “Ferox” doesn’t break any new ground, beyond adding a few new torture methods to the repertoire. Grindhouse’s 2K, restoration is accompanied by deleted and banned scenes; a re-mix of the musical score; a surprisingly candid commentary with Lenzi and star John Morghen; interviews with Lenzi, stars Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Danilo Mattei and Zora Kerowa, and special effects master Gino DeRossi; original Italian, German and U.S. theatrical trailers; a gallery of stills and poster art; a booklet containing liner notes by 42nd Street historian Bill Landis and director Eli Roth; and a bonus CD with an original soundtrack album by Budy-Maglione, newly re-mastered in 24 bit/96khz sound from the original studio master tapes.

Like Grindhouse, Arrow Video delights in breathing new life into exploitation flicks that long ago were given up for dead. Cannibal Ferox and Nico Mastorakis’ similarly unappetizing Island of Death have plenty of things in common, including material their creators’ refuse to defend in newly recorded interviews. Nearly 40 years after it debuted in Greece, Mastorakis admits to having been inspired to make Island of Death (one of its many different aliases) by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s performance at the international box office. The Athens TV personality vowed to make a movie even more violent and sexually perverse than Tobe Hooper’s splatter classic for the same reason as Hollywood hacks churn out crappy sequels to crappy movies: drachmas. That said, it’s not for nothing that Island of Death and Cannibal Ferox became hot properties on the underground cassette exchange. Here, the carnage occurs on the famously sunny Greek island of Mykonos, known for its party-hearty nightlife and quaint laid-back village vibes. At first glance, Christopher and Celia (Robert Behling, Jane Lyle) seem no different than tens of thousands of other tourists who arrive by boat every day, between May and September. Within hours, though, they’re back to committing the crimes that put them on the lam in the first place. In addition to the hyper-violent murders he commits, Christopher finds plenty of opportunities to spice his sex life with bestiality, water sports and incest. Blond bombshell Celia isn’t averse to using her charms to arrange hookups for Christopher, photograph his crimes and fake an interest in girl-girl action when its suits him. Inconveniently, they aren’t alone on the island when it comes to acting out their worst instincts. Among the writer/director’s more interesting artistic conceits was setting some of the bloodiest violence in broad daylight and in direct contrast to the vividly white buildings and turquoise sea. The other thing the Arrow package shares with the Grindhouse title is a bonus package that vastly overcompensates for the bad taste left by the movies. Mastorakis doesn’t hesitate to remind us of grindhouse credits that include Death Has Blue Eyes, Terminal Exposure and Death Street USA, along with such quasi-mainstream efforts as Blind Date (Kirstie Alley, Joseph Bottoms), Hired to Kill (Oliver Reed, George Kennedy) and the Next One (Keir Dullea, Adrienne Barbeau). In addition to a lengthy interview and verbal self-portrait, Mastorakis returns to the island to show us how little things have changed since the mid-1970s.

Rape/revenge fantasies have been a staple of Japanese exploitation fare for most of the last 50 years. Sexual violence also was exploited in such Western hits as Death Wish, Billy Jack, Straw Dogs, Mad Max and, yes, Deliverance. In these films, the rapes of female characters (and one hapless male) are avenged by men who take the law into their own hands. In Japan, however, it’s generally left to the women and her friends to exact revenge. That’s because, until recently, women had more to lose by admitting to being raped – and, effectively, devalued in a male-dominated society — than the men who forced themselves on them. (Murder was, of course, a far rarer occurrence in Japan.) According to UK film historian Colette Balmain, in the Introduction to her book, “Japanese Horror Film,” “Rape in Japanese society has not been considered a crime until recently. This attitude lies in the Japanese ideal of female obedience and submission that sees the woman as to be blamed for the violent expression of male desire. … Rape becomes a sexless act of cruelty committed on the woman’s body, whose main role is to re-establish the power relationship (domination-submission) between men and women.” It explains why police and the courts aren’t key forces for justice in such films as Lipstick and Weekend from Troma Entertainment’s tellingly titled From Asia With Lust series. Here, however, female protagonists are allowed not only to resist violent advances and groping by men, but also to feel newly empowered by exacting their own justice. The presence in both movies of “adult superstar” Miyuki Yokoyama adds a level of titillation that helps viewers overlook the criminal nature of vigilantism and suggests that it takes a more hardened or even more worldly sort of female protagonist than those women who have had to accept being groped on crowded subway trains and buses as just another manifestation of the male prerogative. It shines a different light on how we, in the West, view exploitation films from other cultures.

Sword of Vengeance: Blu-ray
First-time director Jim Weedon’s Sword of Vengeance may be set in the north of England in the 11th Century, but, if you alter the accents and re-conceptualize the clothing worn by the Saxon and Norman warriors, what’s left is a samurai revenge flick. That the mysterious warrior who rides in to save the peasants also resembles Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s “man with no name” trilogy gives Sword of Vengeance another handle for American audiences to grasp. Hunky Stanley Weber (“Borgia”) plays Shadow Walker, a freedman with a grudge against the Norman family exploiting local farmers in the name of power, greed and a reign of terror referred to as the Harrowing. The Saxon peasants won’t learn until much later what exactly the stranger has against the powerful warlord, but it’s enough to know that he’s on their side. It’s fun to watch Shadow Walker shape the farmers – men, women and children — into a formidable fighting force, capable of using military and guerrilla tactics that might still work today. As a member of the creative team responsible for the Viking actioners, Hammer of the Gods and Valhalla Rising, writer/producer Matthew Read probably could craft a terrific period video game out of expertise on the subject. As it is, Sword of Vengeance is less interested in creating a historical drama than a royal rumble in the mud, with pissed-off peasants dressed to kill and seemingly invincible Norman soldiers in uniforms from the Darth Vader Collection. Visually, the foreboding skies and murky surfaces give Weedon’s film a graphic-novel texture that should delight young men and boys addicted to heavy-metal action. Those looking for a lesson in ancient British history, however, may want to stick to PBS and the BBC. The Blu-ray adds interviews with Weedon and producers Rupert Preston and Huberta Von Liel, and a short behind-the-scenes featurette.

Let Us Prey: Blu-ray
I have to assume that Irish director Brian O’Malley and co-writer David Cairns intentionally chose “p-r-e-y,” instead of “p-r-a-y,” for the title of their first feature. Book publishers play fast and loose with homonyms and homophones all the time, if only to catch the eye of grammarians, copy editors and English teachers, all of whom are considered to be primary consumers of mysteries. With thousands of virtually indistinguishable thrillers, chillers and whodunits released each years, anything that draws attention to a title can help boost sales. The same applies in the DVD arena. Let Us Prey needs all the help it can get to reach an audience of paying customers, not because it isn’t very good, but because it’s just one more tree in a large and dense forest. O’Malley admits to owing a debt of gratitude to John Carpenter, whose Assault on Precinct 13 is indirectly referenced in Let Us Prey. Steve Lynch’s evocative musical soundtrack also reflects Carpenter’s style. Here, Pollyanna McIntosh is convincing as a rookie cop, Rachel Heggie, whose first assignment is in a small town jail staffed by police jaded by time and experience. Rachel’s determination to play by the rules is tested on the night shift by both her fellow cops and the prisoners. In fact, the prisoner named Six (Liam Cunningham) is holding everyone in the building hostage. He had been arrested earlier in the evening, less as a suspect in a killing than for a being a mysterious stranger in a small town and somehow surviving a head-on collision with a speeding automobile. The driver of the car is cooling his heels in a cell next to Six and a couple of men booked on serious charges. In addition to being able to make wooden matches levitate, Six is able to get inside the heads of everyone in the building and torture them with memories of their misdeeds and wicked fantasies. Rachel, alone, appears to be without blemish, but her connection with Six is even more profound. The resulting mayhem is predictably gory and explosive, but not without a certain visual aesthetic.

Madman: Blu-ray
The Food of the Gods/Frogs: Double Feature: Blu-ray
Empire of the Ants/Jaws of Satan: Double Feature: Blu-ray
Urban legends, hazing rituals and campfire stories are to the horror genre what Grimm’s Fairy Tales are to Disney and other purveyors of family entertainment: time-honored and completely free sources of exploitable material. The Burning and Madman, made almost simultaneously in the Golden Age of Slasher Flicks, both were inspired by the reliably scary “Tale of the Cropsey Maniac,” whose retelling became an annual ritual at summer camps in and around New Jersey and upstate New York. Only The Burning was able to directly refer to the camp caretaker, Cropsy (no “e”), whose face was badly disfigured in a prank and has vowed to punish those responsible, as well as naughty boys and girls who wander too far away from the nightly campfires. In Joe Giannone and Gary Sales’ cult-favorite, Cropsey has mutated into Madman Marz (Paul Ehlers), who resembles the late, great wrestler Haystacks Calhoun, but whose name recalls the mid-century TV pitchman, Earl William “Madman” Muntz. Otherwise, it relies on the same slasher formula that wore out its welcome by 1986. The remarkable thing about Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray re-release is a bonus package that would put most Criterion Collection offerings to shame. Besides a short introduction by co-writer/producer Gary Sales, there are a pair of commentary tracks, one with Sales, Ehlers and the late Joe Giannone and actor Tony Fish, and the other with the podcasters known collectively as The Hysteria Continues; featurettes “Madman: Alive at 35,” “The Early Career of Gary Sales” and the 92-minute “The Legend Still Lives,” made in 2011; a stills and artwork gallery; “Music Inspired by ‘Madman’,” which highlights fan submissions that utilize the picture’s atmosphere to fuel grim lyrics; “In Memoriam,” during which Sales  discusses the work of Giannone, Tony Fish and actor Carl Fredericks, who died in 2012; a couple of Dead Pit interviews from a 2008 horror convention; and promotional clips.

Just before the tidal wave of slasher and splatter flicks came to dominate the drive-in scene in 1980, the kind of sci-fi/horror movies that Japanese filmmakers stopped making in the 1950s suddenly began popping up on screens across the U.S. Just as Rodan and Mothra spoke to the residual effects of radioactive fallout from the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, American filmmakers created creatures mutated from carelessly discarded toxic and nuclear waste and chemicals that found their way into the food chain or ground water. Released in 1972, Frogs did for amphibians and reptiles what Birds did for birds, a decade earlier. It also reflected the success of Willard, in which a social misfit deploys an army of rats on his tormentors. The casting of Ray Milland as a millionaire who poisons wildlife on his private island lent an air of credibility to a story that could easily have been dismissed as a mere novelty. The geezer invites his family to his estate for a birthday celebration, not anticipating that the island’s frogs, snakes, bugs, Gila monsters and other creepy crawlers have picked the same occasion to exact revenge on him. Look for very early appearances by Sam Elliott and Joan Van Ark, who adds her recollections to the bonus featurette. The other half of the double-bill is the H.G. Wells-inspired The Food of the Gods, from 1976, in which a group of football players who use their week off to go hunting on an island in the Pacific Northwest – or, if you’re Canadian, the Pacific Southwest – where they become the prey for giant wasps, chickens, worms and rats. The mutations are caused by a mysterious substance that is oozing from the ground and is too tempting for the critters to avoid. Besides the backsliding evangelist, Marjoe Gortner, it stars Ida Lupino, Ralph Meeker, Pamela Franklin and Jon Cypher.

Empire of the Ants would be worth the price of admission, if only to watch a sleazy land developer played by Joan Collins – just slightly past her prime, but still a babe – being attacked by giant ants. Like The Food of the Gods, the low-budget sci-fi/horror hybrid was adapted from an H.G. Wells story by genre specialist Bert I. Gordon. The Wisconsin native holds the distinction of having the most movies shown on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Here, a group of investors has been lured to south Florida by one of those all-expenses-paid come-ons that are never worth the price of a free ticket. As it turns out, the development has been polluted by radioactive waste that’s been leaking from barrels that have been dropped into the waters off of the Everglades. Voila, the island’s ants have grown to the size of bugs of the Volkswagen variety. After a harrowing escape through the swamps, the investors discover an even more sinister scheme than Collins’ land deal. None of Empire of the Ants is terribly convincing or compelling, but it is of a piece with other AIP drive-in fare of the period. The second half of this double-feature is Bob Claver’s 1981 thriller, Jaws of Satan (a.k.a., “King Cobra”), a title, at least, that combines two of the most prominent themes of the past decade. Here, a Southern town is being plagued by unusually aggressive snakes, which display traits associated with cobras, rattlesnakes and copperheads. Satan has mobilized the local serpent population against a priest who’s inherited an ancient Druid curse and it’s up to Fritz Weaver, Gretchen Corbett, Jon Korkes and a 10-year-old Christina Applegate to stop the plague before a new dog-racing facility opens or the Apocalypse. The Scream Factory upgrade makes the movies easier to watch than they might have been on “MSTK3” or matinee revivals.

Blood Slaughter Massacre
#EM3: Eenie Meenie Miney Moe
Valley of the Cycle Sluts
Camp Massacre
Captain Z & the Terror of Leviathan
Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead
Smokey and the Hotwire Gang
At a time when even the most familiar names in Hollywood are forced to watch their movies going straight to DVD/VOD/Blu-ray, the path to distribution has grown even narrower for filmmakers trying to catch a break with an off-brand company willing to take a chance on something new. Even then, if it weren’t for the niche websites that focus on genre products, cash-strapped artists and executives would find it next to impossible to find the right audiences for their films. Last week, the New York Times announced that it no longer would feel obligated to review every movie that opens in a theater between New Jersey and Connecticut. The problem comes down to the limited amount of money budgeted for freelance critics and reductions in the space allotted for reviews each Friday. I can see the Times’ point, considering the number of movies given limited runs in one city or two, before being shipped to the after-market, preferably with a few kind words lifted from an otherwise lukewarm review. The other issue brought up by critics of the new policy is the likelihood that faith-based and family-friendly titles, exhibited in theaters leased by backers for a week or more, can be even easier to ignore than in the past. Technically, God’s Not Dead wouldn’t qualify for inclusion, even though it grossed more than six times its $9.2-million production budget in leased runs. On the other hand, the benefits of a New York Times review for certain niche titles – especially one likely to be negative – probably aren’t what they once were.

The retro splatter thriller Blood Slaughter Massacre was screened in the Big Apple last week, ahead of its release on DVD. I couldn’t find a review in any mainstream outlet, despite the interesting story behind it … just as well. Manny Serrano and co-writer Louie Cortes’ movie originated as a series of faux trailers for 1980s-vintage horror flicks. When combined, the trailers practically tell the entire story of a movie that’s waiting to be made. After screening the series at a short-film competition at the Saturday Nightmares Convention, in New Jersey, Serrano and Cortes were approached by the founder of the New York City Horror Film Festival, the late Michael J. Hein, who encouraged them to expand the idea into a feature and put them together with the production company, Mass Grave Pictures. It has since been released by Wild Eye. “BSM” adheres to all the basic rules governing slasher films in the Golden Age, especially the one about having no pity for girls who show their titties. The opening flashes us back to a party, 10 years earlier, during which several teenagers were brutally murdered by a fiend in an ill-fitting mask. The killer escaped justice and the incident was covered up by local authorities. Flash forward to the present and the same two cops who were called to investigate a noise complaint at the house where the party was being held recognize signs that the same killer is back. No genre troupe is ignored or cliché avoided in advancing a story that wallows in blood and gore. Clearly, the filmmakers are big fans of the classics and expect viewers to be similarly inclined. The DVD adds commentary, deleted scenes and the original short films.

Jokes Yanes’ fast and sexy #EM3: Eenie Meenie Miney Moe is another movie that’s destined to get lost in the shuffle of straight-to-DVD releases that kinda-sorta resemble each other and whose stars wouldn’t be recognized by anyone outside their hometowns. That would be too bad, because it captures the sounds, rhythm and color palette of Miami in ways rarely achieved by filmmakers who parachute into southern Florida every now and again, and split back for Cali a half-hour after the Martini Shot is slated. And, yes, all of the usual touchstones of Miami nightlife are covered: drugs, discos, guns and insanely hot guys and gals. The common denominator is the hustle … and the horror of watching young lives destroyed by things they couldn’t have seen coming. One of the protagonists’ hustle is using his company’s tow truck at night to hook up expensive cars and take them to chop shops, but not before he strips it of everything that’s loose and valuable; an underage teenage girl is living the fast life with a dealer; her brother would take the guy out in a second, if he wasn’t working on a hustle with the Russian mob and didn’t need the aggravation; and they’re not alone. Everything begins to congeal when the truck driver steals a bag of pills from a sports car and, assuming they’re Ecstasy, begin peddling them around town. The results couldn’t be more devastating if Jack the Ripper had moved into the same South Beach apartment building as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The EDM soundtrack keeps things from slowing down even a little bit.

Most of the actors in Valley of the Cycle Sluts (a.k.a., “Death Riders,” “The Bandits”) look as if they had been recruited from prisons, biker bars and strip clubs and were being paid in beer, gasoline and free tickets to a David Allan Coe concert, in lieu of cash. Instead of having to depend on early morning wake-up calls to round up cast and crew, the PA’s simply waited for taverns to close and taunted the bikers into chasing him to the location of the shoot. They didn’t even have to change clothes. Sleaze veteran Jason Williams plays Wade Olson, an undercover cop, who, after humiliating a couple of street-level smack peddlers, is kidnapped by a gang of biker babes. Once in the desert, they stake him to the ground and force him to watch them strip to down to their Frederick’s of Hollywood Outlet Store skivvies and pierced nipples. The first woman who gives him a hard-on, without using her hands, gets to kill him. Most men are capable of getting aroused looking at a nurse’s ankles, while on a metal table waiting for a colonoscopy, but not this guy. Later, after Olson is allowed to escape, we’re treated to the sight of women in garter belts, stockings and teddies running after him in the desert. It’s a tiny bit sexy, but only in the most perverse sort of way possible.

Someone had to make a horror movie in which contestants in television weight-loss competition are killed off one-by-one, possibly to improve the odds of one or more of them winning the million-dollar first prize. Most of them would have died in the course of the competition, anyway, but where’s the fun in merely watching nature takes its course? In John Waters’ hands, Camp Massacre (“Fat Chance”) could have been a real hoot. Even the momentary presence of adult-star Bree Olson, wrestler Al Snow and “ghost hunter” Scott Tepperman could save this big glob of fat.

In Captain Z & the Terror of Leviathan, pirate Captain Zachariah Zicari somehow finds himself on the banks of the Ohio River, circa 1714, where he saved settlers on the American frontier from unleashing the forces of hell. Captain Z accomplished this by preventing a group of she-demons from unleashing the force of a powerful amulet that would have released something called the Leviathan. Three hundred years later, the amulet is discovered in the river by a bunch of hillbillies who believe that it could fetch a fortune on e-bay or “Antiques Roadshow,” simply for its gold content. Instead, they’ve summoned the spirit of Captain Z, who resembles a cross between Captain Morgan and Jack Sparrow. Meanwhile, the staff of the local after-work hangout begins to act as if it’s being taken over by Red Lobster. The whole thing smacks of “Amateur Night in Dixie,” but, then, that much is clear from the cover art.

If you don’t dig writer/co-director Richard Griffin’s latest low-budget horror chiller, it’s not because Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead (a.k.a., “Dr. Frankenstein’s Wax Museum of the Hungry Dead”) is the work of an amateur intending to go pro. He’s already made a dozen-plus features of varying quality, including Pretty Dead Things, The Sins of Dracula. The Disco Exorcist and a few other titles I may or may not have reviewed. I’m guessing that “Hungry Dead” is the closest Griffin’s come to a traditional horror in a long while. A group of wise-ass students pay a visit to a wax museum one afternoon as part of a class outing. Some decide to come back at night for a wee bit of hanky-panky, not knowing that the museum’s owner is related to the original Dr. Victor Frankenstein had he’s inherited some of the family DNA. Just when the kids think they’re alone, safe and ready to party, the monsters come out to play. No one could mistake it for a Universal or Hammer classic, but it’s a movie and, in the end, that’s all that counts.

Anthony Cardoza’s Smokey and the Hotwire Gang is so old it should come with a razor to cut the gray hairs from the beards of the car nuts who can remember the last time a gallon of gas cost less than a dollar and CB radios were flying off the shelves of Radio Shack … soon to be a memory, itself. I’d be lying if I said that I was able to follow the narrative of this Smokey and the Bandit wannabe, beyond the presence of big rigs, truck stops, citizens-band radio and busty waitresses. At one point, I mistook legendary car customizer George Barris for porn star Ron Jeremy, who also was active in 1979. He plays a supporting role as a car buff whose van is stolen and used in an armored car robbery. Like Bert I. Gordon (Food of the Gods), Cardoza was a frequent contributor to “MST3K,” as an actor in Ed Wood’s Night of the Ghouls and Coleman Francis’ The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961), The Skydivers (1963), Night Train to Mundo Fine (1966) and The Hellcats (1968).

The Saint: The Complete Series
The Nanny: The Complete Series
The Wonder Years: Season Three
The big news on the TV front this week is Timeless Media Group’s release of all 118 episodes of “The Saint” for the first time on DVD. For those keeping score at home, that translates to 5,660 minutes of material on 33 discs. The ITC series starred Roger Moore, whose debonair and practically unflappable screen persona had already been cemented in such series as “Ivanhoe,” “The Alaskans” and “Maverick,” as cousin Beauregarde Maverick, before the British launch of “The Saint,” in 1962. The first two black-and-white seasons were shown here in syndication, before the show was picked up by NBC for its prime-time schedule. The show’s protagonist, Simon Templar, was created in 1928 by British-American author Leslie Charteris, who also deployed the character in novellas, short stories, a long-running comic strip and movies, tackling television. Although “The Saint” was listed alongside such spy series as “The Avengers,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Danger Man,” “I Spy” and “Get Smart,” Templar was considered to be more in line with Robin Hood, in that he preferred returning stolen money to its rightful owners than toppling evil regimes. Like Richard Boone’s Palidin, in “Have Gun – Will Travel,” Templar was a ladies’ man conversant in politics, current events and the arts. He was no more required to remain in London than Paladin was limited to taking job in the Bay Area. Look for guest star appearances by Oliver Reed, Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland, Edward Woodward (“The Equalizer”) and such Bondian beauties as Honor Blackman, Shirley Eaton and Lois Maxwell). Moore’s decision to remain active in the production of “The Saint” and other TV projects, effectively pushed his move to the James Bond series until 1973.

To describe Fran Drescher’s voice as merely being nasal is to completely miss the point of what made the Queens native one of the most popular of all 1990s sitcom stars. Neither does it explain why so many aurally sensitive viewers, like me, would no more tune into “The Nanny” than they would entice a flock of magpies to nest in that big shade tree in their back yards. I was reminded of this phobia while sampling select episodes of the show in Shout! Factory’s “The Nanny: The Complete Series.” Nevertheless, there’s no arguing with success and that exactly what “The Nanny” was for CBS from 1993 to 1999. The show was the brainchild of Drescher and her then-husband Peter Jacobson. While on a trans-Atlantic flight between New York and London, Drescher sat alongside top network executive Jeff Sagansky, for whom she had starred in the short-lived “Princesses.” After some gentle nasal persuasion, he agreed to let her and Jacobson pitch to an idea for a sitcom to CBS. While in London, visiting Twiggy Lawson, Drescher refined her pitch to a spin on “The Sound of Music,” but, “Instead of Julie Andrews, I come to the door as Fran Fine.” The doorstep belonged to Broadway producer Maxwell Sheffield (Charles Shaughnessy), who was looking for a nanny for his daughter. The contrast between the WASP-y Brit and the loud and impulsive Jewish gal from Queens proved irresistible to viewers, who already anticipated that the friction between them someday would soften and turn to love. The DVD set includes the pilot episode, with commentary my Fran Drescher, along with commentaries on “Imaginary Friend” and “I Don’t Remember”; a background featurette, “The Making of the Nanny”; and reunion special.

Also new from Shout! Factory is “The Wonder Years: Season Three.” The four-disc DVD set contains all 23 episodes of the show’s third season and features songs from the original broadcasts by the Jackson 5, Paul Simon, The Who, Elton John, The Beach Boys, Diana Ross, The Righteous Brothers, James Taylor, The Byrds, Jackie Wilson and James Brown.Bonus extras include a roundtable discussion with Danica McKellar, Fred Savage and Josh Saviano; the featurette “A Family Affair: At Home With the Arnolds”; and interviews with several cast members.

The DVD Wrapup: Leviathan, Lovesick, Before I Disappear, Blue Room and more

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Leviathan: Blu-ray
If any modern country exemplified the nearly ancient epigram, “The more things changes, the more they stay the same,” it’s Russia. A quarter-century after the Iron Curtain was lifted and Soviet repression gave way to the hope of freedom and democracy, Russia is led by a paranoid thug who makes Nikita Khrushchev look like Thomas Jefferson. Instead of being iron-fisted by Communist Party functionaries, however, the populace is ruled by an increasingly militaristic government and bullied by plutocrats, gangsters, small-minded politicians and conservative leaders of the ascendant Russian Orthodox Church. That much, at least, can be inferred in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s overtly allegorical drama, Leviathan, which ironically was inspired by the story of a Colorado man whose beef with city officials eventually led him to armor-plate a bulldozer and use it as a battering ram against bureaucratic intransigence. Zvyagintsev and co-writer Oleg Negin also admit to have borrowed from the biblical stories of Job and Naboth’s Vineyard. The creature alluded to in their film’s title at one time thrived in the fertile waters of the Barents Sea. Today, however, the whale’s sun-bleached skeleton lies on a lonely stretch of sand and rocks outside the fictional town of Pribrezhny, as drained of promise as the peoples’ dreams for a new Russian state. The aggrieved party in Leviathan is an auto mechanic and army veteran, Kolya (Alexei Serebriakov), whose simple ancestral home is situated on a lovely parcel of land overlooking the sea. Vadim (Roman Madyanov), the corrupt mayor of Pribrezhny, covets the site for purposes of his own self-aggrandizement. He’s able to have the property expropriated for a sum well below its compensatory value and not even close to its sentimental worth. After nearly exhausting every legal appeal available to him, Kolya convinces an old army buddy and well-connected lawyer, Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), to travel to the coastal community to represent him in his last stand against injustice. The cocky Muscovite carries with him a dossier that, if necessary, could be used against the mayor as blackmail.
Also factoring into Kolya’s dilemma is a problem with alcohol shared by almost everyone else to whom we’re introduced in Leviathan and, by inference, the nation. His wife’s frustration with his alcoholism is further compounded by the hostility directed at her by Kolya’s teenage son from his first marriage. Depressed by the likelihood of having to trade her home for a crappy apartment in the town, the love-starved Lilia (Elena Lyadova) sees in the handsome and self-assured lawyer an opportunity to escape to a better life in the capital. When all of the individual ingredients begin to combust, the explosion can be heard as far away as the whale’s empty carcass. If you’re wondering how any movie as obviously critical of the country’s fragile democracy and religious establishment managed to be submitted as Russia’s official candidate for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film, you wouldn’t be alone. (After winning a Golden Globe and being chosen as a finalist for an Oscar, it lost to Poland’s superb Ida.) According to several observers, it isn’t likely any future depictions of “ordinary” Russians as drunkards and slaves to an inherently corrupt system will so easily avoid the scrutiny of the Ministry of Culture. In an interview with the New York Times, Russian journalist Vladimir Posner observed, “Anything seen as being critical of Russia in any way is automatically seen as either another Western attempt to denigrate Russia and the Orthodox Church, or it’s the work of some kind of fifth column of Russia-phobes who are paid by the West to do their anti-Russian work or are simply themselves profoundly anti-Russian.” Apart from any political considerations, part of what makes Leviathan so extraordinary is the actors’ ability to convince us of their characters’ ordinariness, if you will. We’re able to feel every ounce of their pain and frustration with every ounce of vodka poured down their gullets from an ever-present shot glass. I’ve never seen drunkenness depicted so realistically on stage or in a movie. The starkly beautiful cinematography holds up well in the Blu-ray edition, which also contains commentary with Zvyagintsev and producer Alexander Rodnyansky; an informative making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and introductions and a Q&A from the Toronto International Film Festival.

Jealousy, possibly the most toxic of all human emotions, has provided fodder for artists and storytellers practically since the beginning of biblical time. Among the most powerful depictions of the effects of jealousy on the heart and mind, of course, remains William Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice.” The presence of the green-eyed monster has been chronicled in scripture, mythology, literature and such films as Mildred Pierce (also an excellent HBO mini-series) and Fatal Attraction. Turning jealousy into comedy has long proven to be more problematic, for the simple reason that its victims tend to look more pathetic than aggrieved. Sadly, “pathetic” is the first word that comes to mind when attempting to describe Luke Matheny’s fatally undernourished rom-com Lovesick. Matt LeBlanc plays Charlie Darby, a well-liked elementary school principal whose relationships with women habitually end when he begins to display to the symptoms of chronic jealousy. It manifests itself in ways that make him look desperately obsessive and possibly dangerous. Although Charlie recognizes his shortcoming, scripter Dean Young finds ever-more embarrassing ways for him to blow every prospect of love. And, while he gets solid advice from Adam Rodriguez (“C.S.I. Miami”), he seems to prefer the misguided observations of a buttinsky neighbor played Chevy Chase. Naturally, when Charlie is this-close to a nearly perfect blond, Molly (Ali Larter), he does everything in his power to make her disappear. Its neither funny nor credible. LeBlanc is so much more interesting in “Episodes,” as an actor with similar personality defects, it’s possible to wonder if he accepted the role as a favor for someone related to the filmmakers. Larter (“Heroes) brightens up everything she’s been assigned and her fans might enjoy seeing her here, alongside the former co-star of “Friends.”

Just Before I Go: Blu-ray
Before I Disappear
Romanticists typically have portrayed suicide as an act of courage or despair, precipitated by a series of emotional crises that trigger a response validated by the dictates of personal freedom. Artistic dramatizations have added an air of nobility to deaths that might easily been averted if logic and patience had prevailed. Moreover, there’s a huge difference between romanticized descriptions of suicide in literature and the objective language found in coroner’s reports or chilling photographic evidence of distended tongues, brain-spattered walls and slit wrists. As long as the Production Code prohibited graphic depictions of death on screen, the ugly reality of suicide was shrouded in avoidance and euphemism. Once that passed, realistic depictions of violent death evolved with every new advance in special makeup effects and squib engineering. The quickest and most startling way to end any crime drama in a movie or television show merely requires of a doomed antagonist, usually of the male persuasion, to place the barrel of a handgun on his head and pull the trigger. Far from Shakespearian, it brings the final curtain down on time. The uneven suicide dramedy Just Before I Go represents the feature debuts of director Courteney Cox and writer David Flebotte, both of whom previously collaborated on the dark takedown of celebrity journalism, “Dirt.” Seann William Scott, who created and finally humanized the scene-stealing Stifler in the American Pie series, here portrays the suicidal loser Ted Morgan. At 41, the divorced L.A. pet-shop owner decides to return to his hometown to confront the school bullies, snotty debutantes, sadistic teachers and cruel family members who made his adolescence a living hell. As is typical in such you-actually-can-go-home-again exercises, Ted eventually comes to the realization that his old nemeses had already committed a form of suicide by accepting suburban rot as a way of life. Out of the blue, he meets a pretty young woman (Olivia Thirlby) hoping to capture his last few days on film. That’s a show-stopper if there ever was one. Forced, instead, to intercede in the serious problems of other characters in the movie, Ted discovers things inside himself he didn’t know existed. If there’s nothing particularly enlightening in Just Before I Go, it’s only because Cox and Flebotte decided at one point to throw the protagonist into a kitchen sink full of sexually dysfunctional supporting characters and slapstick scenarios. (Kate Walsh’s somnambulistic onanist is something to behold.) I suspect that the same people drawn to every new American Pie sequel – nor a petty sum — will find something to enjoy in Cox’s freshman film.

Expanded from Shawn Christensen’s Oscar-winning short film, “Curfew,” Before I Disappear takes a far more realistic approach to suicide brought on by despair, while also introducing a determinedly optimistic tyke who could have been played by a 12-year-old Shirley Temple. Besides writing and directing, Christensen plays a young man seriously addicted to pills and various white powders. Richie is working off his debt to a sadistic dealer and a nightclub owner (Ron Perlman) by cleaning toilets in bathrooms no sober human being would consider using, except in the most dire of digestive emergencies. After he discovers the lifeless body of an overdosed girlfriend in one of the stalls, Richie decides to pull the plug on his own worthless existence. While lying in a tub full of seriously polluted bathwater – his own blood trickling from his wrists — Richie answers a call from his estranged sister, Maggie (Emmy Rossum), demanding that he pick up his niece, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek), from school. Maggie makes it clear that she wouldn’t ask him for help if anyone else in her orbit had been available. In something of a surprise decision, Richie wraps his wounds with cloth once probably used as a hankie and heads off to the girl’s school with a code word and instructions not to screw up the assignment. Almost immediately, Sophia pointedly reveals her mistrust of her uncle’s ability to accommodate her after-school activities and preparations for an important test in the morning. In this, she’s as prescient as she precocious. Because of his obligations to various dealers and thugs, Richie is unable to escort his charge from school to acrobatics and back home without several ill-advised pit stops in between. Concerned more with not being prepared for her test than fearful for her physical well-being, Sophia ends up playing cards and sharing Chinese food with his dealers’ bodyguards, who also create a safe space for her to study. As it turns out, Maggie has been arrested in a violent altercation with her married lover and is cooling her heels in jail. The guy’s wife is anxious to confront Maggie, but is willing to use Richie as a punching bag in her absence. At some point in the proceedings, I was reminded of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours and John Landis’ Into the Night, if only because most of Before I Disappear takes place in several different locations in the wee hours. It isn’t as accomplished as those two films, but audiences drawn to bleak urban drama should find Christensen’s conceits interesting, alongside Ptacek’s spunky performance.

The Blue Room
In this most French of erotic thrillers, co-writer/director/star Mathieu Amalric plays a handsome, if otherwise non-descript adulterer, who risks everything for a few satisfying assignations with the extremely sultry and unmistakably married Esther Despierre (Stéphanie Cléau). As drawn to Esther’s raw sexuality as he is, Julien Gahyde doesn’t appear to be particularly unhappy at his rural home, with a still-alluring wife, Delphine (Léa Drucker) and charming daughter. As interpreted by the immensely prolific Belgian writer Georges Simenon, one man’s seven-year-itch is his lover’s perfect excuse for murdering her husband. The larger question here, though, is whether Julien’s itch is so great that he’d enter into a conspiracy with Esther to broaden her felonious intentions and somehow get away with it. Amalric does a really nice job keeping us guessing as to the non-carnal motivations of Julien and Esther – their chemistry in bed speaks for itself — while also leaving the door open to the possibility that one, both or neither of them might be culpable in the unseen deaths. Even under the intense interrogation of the local prosecutor and police officials, it’s difficult for us to piece together any more of the details of the case than are allowed the courtroom audience. We think that we know more than the spectators because of the elliptical nature of the narrative, but we don’t. The title refers to the color motif of the rooms in which most of the most telling activity takes place. Admirers of the mysteries of Claude Chabrol and previous Simenon adaptations shouldn’t hesitate picking up The Blue Room.

The Living
Jack Bryan’s unexpectedly satisfying sophomore feature, The Living, is the kind of low-profile picture that gives the straight-to-DVD business a good name. If the industry sidebar didn’t exist, after all, how many of the admirable low-budget indies would have an ice cube’s chance in Miami of being seen outside the festival circuit? The Living describes what can happen when ill-considered decisions are put into motion for reasons that seemed good at the time they are made, but in the clear light of day might have been re-thought. Here, a mousy young Pennsylvania man, Gordon (Kenny Wormald), is pressured by his mother and friends to avenge the beatings given his sister, Molly (Jocelin Donahue), by her worthless husband and blackout drunk, Teddy (Fran Kranz).. Joelle Carter, who rode an emotional roller-coaster as Ava Crowder in “Justified,” is the kind of mother who isn’t reluctant to pick the scabs off her less-than-perfect children and instigate trouble when they don’t behave according to her dubious ethical code. Although Teddy deserves a good ass-kicking – or jail, one – Molly prefers to punish him her way. She’s the kind of victim who is willing to forgive her abuser if he displays the proper degree of remorse and promises not to drink to excess, again. We know this is baloney, but Molly would rather live with someone she still is capable of loving to being tormented by her know-it-all mother. As a favor from a friend, brother Gordon has been given the phone number of a destitute ex-con willing to kill Teddy for $2,000. The only caveat comes in having to travel to the Mississippi home of the hitman, Howard (Chris Mulkey), and listen to his menacing b.s. all the way to Pennsylvania. When Gordon witnesses the kind of mayhem Howard is capable of causing if provoked, he begins to wonder if the price of his manhood is worth the risk of ending up in prison. It’s from this point on that The Living begins to demonstrate why it deserves a solid shot in the DVD and VOD marketplace.

Two Men in Town: Blu-ray
The best reason for picking up a copy of Two Men in Town isn’t the participation of such high-profile actors as Forest Whitaker, Harvey Keitel, Brenda Blethyn, Luis Guzmán, Ellen Burstyn and Mexican star Dolores Heredia, although that normally would be sufficient cause for celebration. Instead, it’s the welcome return of writer/director/producer Rachid Bouchareb – London River, Days of Glory, Outside the Law — to these shores as an interpreter of the American Dream. It also marks his return visit to New Mexico, where much of his previous project – Just Like a Woman, which paired Golshifteh Farahani and Sienna Miller as a pair of on-the-lam belly dancers – was shot in 2011.  Two Men in Town is set along the border separating New Mexico and old Mexico, where as many dreams are destroyed as left to blossum. Although the movie doesn’t avoid the subject of illegal immigration, it’s secondary to the dramatic interplay between the newly paroled convicted murderer, William Garnett (Whitaker); his by-the-book parole officer, Emily Smith (Blethyn); and Sheriff Bill Agati, whose deputy was killed by Garnett 18 years earlier. Garnett converted to Islam while incarcerated and it appears to have made him a better man. The sheriff is itching for an opportunity to send the ex-con back to prison, while Smith is doing her level best to keep that from happening. Condemned to spend the next three years of his parole period in a dusty border town, Garnett is required to choose between a minimum-pay, maximum-work job at a cow-milking mill or accepting a job with the local crime kingpin, Terence (Guzman), with whom he has a checkered past. His decision to stick with the cows angers Terence to the point where he even threatens Garnett’s bank-teller girlfriend (Heredia), a lovely woman who deserves none of the shit about to rain on her head. Even though he recites his prayers at the appointed times – at work and in his flophouse apartment – the Koran provides only minimal protection against rage issues that were merely patched over in prison. Two Men in Town is a loose adaptation of the 1973 crime drama of the same title by Jose Giovanni, whose work was informed by the years he spent on Death Row in a French prison. Restaging the story on the border adds an extra layer of intrigue to the story that occasionally gets in the way of Garnett’s redemption. It partially explains why Cohen Media decided to add Rory Kennedy’s insightful 2010 documentary, The Fence, which documents the impact of the manmade 700-mile barrier on communities on either side of the same border with Mexico. Also enhancing the Blu-ray presentation is Yves Cape’s brilliant cinematography, which finds beauty in places to many Americans are quick to dismiss as wastelands.

Bordering on Bad Behavior
The South African director/writer team of Jac Mulder and Ziggy Darwish accomplish in Bordering on Bad Behavior what tens of millions of peace-loving citizens of the world have wanted to do for more than 60 years: lock representatives of all warring parties in the Middle East into an inescapable space and demand they arrive at solution to their mutual issues before being allowed to leave. Then, when they reach each inevitable impasse, pump high-grade marijuana into the chamber and substitute the drinking water with booze. It might take a while for the inebriants to take effect, but, once they do, something resembling agreement might be secured. That, I think, is a reasonable summation of what happens in the outlandish military dramedy Bordering on Bad Behavior, whose first half is dominated by vitriol and second half actually resembles a stoner comedy. The story opens with an Australian special-forces commando of Lebanese Arab background getting lost during a stroll with his soldier cousin along the border with Israel. Although Baz (Bernard Curry) has managed to survive for several years in some of the hairiest war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, it isn’t until he’s on leave, visiting his relatives, that he makes the greatest mistake of his military career by accidentally strolling into a top-secret Israeli communications base. It’s here that he’s confronted by Bob, an American officer and full-time Texan in Israeli garb (Tom Sizemore) and a bitter Israeli commando assigned to take over the post in the morning. Don’t ask. In the time it takes Baz to pull back the hammer on his service revolver, the door to the facility slams shut with a loud click. Because he was able to get the drop on the laid-back short-timer, Bob, and the seriously pissed-off Israeli patriot, Avi (Oz Zehavi), Baz succeeds in keeping things from getting out of hand. Even though he’s there to provide the movie’s Arab point of view in the angry exchanges with Avi, Baz has also been assigned a Jewish wife (Liv Jackson) and flashbacks from the day he saved the life of an Israeli seriously wounded in a suicide bombing. Again, don’t ask. The reward for his selfless actions came in the form of being berated by a relative of another victim and hassled by cops for presumably being of the same faith as the suicide bomber. For his part, Ari’s deep bitterness derives from having lost a sister in a suicide bombing – perhaps the same one – and being fed a load of anti-Arab propaganda in school. Knowing that these three outwardly very different men will be forced to co-habit the facility for the next six hours, Bob talks Baz and Avi into observing a ceasefire. Fortunately for everyone involved, their temporary man-cave is well supplied with drugs, booze, steaks, porn and ammo. The soldiers’ willingness to partake in such timely diversions ensures that the second half of Bordering on Bad Behavior will overflow with politically incorrect laughs, good-natured ribbing and other bro-mantic behavior. As absurd as this scenario might sound on paper, it would be nice to think that such rapprochements — however unlikely — were possible in the real world.

Strange Magic
Maya the Bee Movie
Nickelodeon: Team Umizoomi: Meet Shark Car
Rarely have “George Lucas,” “Lucasfilm” and “Disney” appeared in the same sentence as “bomb,” but that’s exactly what happened in box-office summaries of the weekend Strange Magic opened on 3,020 screens across the U.S. As executive producer and story creator, Lucas probably hadn’t experienced this much negative press since the bumbling Jar Jar Binks was introduced in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Not only did the animated fairy tale tank at the box office, but it was trashed by critics, who, as a group, have yet to forgive Lucas for creating the aforementioned Binks and fear the Naboo native will make a cameo in Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Primarily influenced by “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and two other Shakespearean comedies, Strange Magic deploys 60 years’ worth of Top 40 hits “to tell the tale of a colorful cast of goblins, elves, fairies and imps, and their hilarious misadventures sparked by the battle over a powerful potion.” There’s certainly nothing wrong with the imaginative settings and characters, as drawn, and an excellent voicing/singing cast that includes Alan Cumming, Evan Rachel Wood, Elijah Kelley, Kristin Chenoweth, Meredith Anne Bull, Alfred Molina, Maya Rudolph and Peter Stormare. What I found awkward was the juxtaposition of cutting-edge technology and a soundtrack loaded with songs lifted from an era when vinyl was king and analog was the sound. (A few of the songs were of more current vintage, but none that stood out as much as the golden oldies.) Youngsters attracted to the fantasy and fairies likely were intimidated by the Shakespearian conceit and unimpressed by a libretto enhanced by songs made famous long before they were born. Without the kids’ insistence, parents weren’t likely to drag them to the multiplex just to hear a few songs from their teen years. And, even in its third week, Paddington was still able to finish third that weekend. That said, Strange Magic is far easier to endure on DVD and less expensive, to boot. I kind of enjoyed hearing the tunes again, this time sung in the wee voices of enchanted forest creatures. The animation looks terrific on my 4K screen, too. Strange Magic could end up doing well on DVD, but only if parents and Boomer grandparents can find a way to convince the kiddies that they’ll dig songs made famous by Freddie Mercury, Robert Palmer, Bob Marley, Mickey & Sylvia, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Heart, the Doors and ELO as much as they do. The DVD adds a couple of making-of featurettes.

Shout! Factory didn’t bother to invest a great deal of time and money in an effort to attract kids to an animated tale of German-Australian origin, based on a Teutonic fable written in 1912 by Waldemar Bonsels, about a newborn bee possibly afflicted with ADHD. There was nothing to gain by releasing Maya the Bee Movie in theaters and plenty of good reasons to focus on a DVD strategy, instead. Alexs Stadermann (The Woodlies Movie) wasn’t blessed with an easily marketable voicing cast and the story was more familiar to European and Japanese families. In fact, Maya the Bee Movie represents the latest in a long line of adaptations of Bonsels’ “The Adventures of Maya the Bee,” a book that appeared to espouse militarism, naturalism and racism in defense of the common good of the hive. Sound familiar? These “-isms” have lost most of their sting over the course of a century, in which the book was adapted for a 1924 live-action feature film (starring bugs), comic books, an anime, a pair of television series, video games, a children’s opera and merchandise. In the latest iteration of the story, Maya isn’t at all keen about being born into a world of rules and group-think. She prefers flitting around the meadow, making friends with a violin-playing grasshopper, a dung beetle and a young member of the much-maligned hornet tribe. When the Queen’s royal Jelly is stolen, the hornets are the prime suspects and Maya is thought to be their accomplice. Maya may have been banished from the hive, but she and her friends understand the value in finding the missing jelly and preventing a potentially disastrous war between the bees and hornets.

Preschoolers who may be a year or two away from Maya the Bee Movie can get their animated kicks from the latest Nickelodeon compilation, “Team Umizoomi: Meet Shark Car.” In it, Milli, Geo and Bot use their math powers to find Shark Car and return it to their friend, Jose, before the ferry leaves. Other episodes include “Umi Toy Store,” “Stompasaurus” and “Lost and Found Toys.”

Stigmata: Blu-ray
If the Vatican ever wanted to extend its franchise, what better way than to open its archives to screenwriters and take a cut of the action. The Inquisition, alone, would provide fodder for dozens of factually informed mini-series and torture-porn flicks. The statute of limitations has run out on most of the Church’s crimes, so its army of lawyers probably wouldn’t have to worry about lawsuits, except, perhaps, from the descendants of the Jewish babies who were kidnapped and handed over to childless Catholic families or sent to convents and seminaries. With every new mini-series and movie based on the Crusades, Henry VIII, the Borgias, the House of Medici, the Gnostic Gospels, the post-WWII “ratlines,” exorcism and other manifestations of Christian mysticism, Vatican copyright specialists are practically giving away money. If nothing else, we might be spared such half-baked entertainments as Stigmata, a 1999 suspense vehicle newly re-launched in Blu-ray. There’s nothing wrong with basing a thriller on the bewildering phenomenon, in which an ordinary person mysteriously displays the marks of the wounds of Christ. No less a writer than Elmore Leonard found a way to work the stigmata into a novel – albeit, his most obscure title – later adapted into a decent thriller, Touch, by Paul Schrader. In Stigmata, Rupert Wainwright’s very loud, if stylish thriller, the question isn’t whether a young blond hairdresser’s wounds are legitimate or not, the writers also demanded that Frankie (Patricia Arquette) undergo the full Exorcist experience, babbling in ancient tongues and scribbling Coptic text on a wall in her loft. (Actually, Hebraic lettering was substituted for Coptic or Aramaic.) As a self-described atheist, Frankie hasn’t the vaguest clue as to what’s happening to her or why the hallucinations appear to be triggered by strobe lights or flashbulbs. (Would St. Francis Assisi’s stigmata react to the same stimuli if he were to reappear today and go clubbing?) Gabriel Byrne plays the Vatican-based priest who travels the world investigating the validity of such miracles, but is snubbed by his superiors when he has the temerity to take his job seriously. When a priest knowledgeable in Christian mysticism chances on one of Frankie’s stigmatic freak-outs on a subway train, his report raises Byrne’s eyebrows and causes panic within the heeby-jeeby crowd in Rome. Suddenly, we’ve gone from Linda Blair’s bedroom and into territory Dan Brown would mine in “The Da Vinci Code.” The set designs are far more compelling than the narrative, while a Billy Corgan/Mike Garson should still be of interested to younger viewers. Also notable are appearances by Jonathan Pryce, Portia de Rossi, Nia Long and the ever-ominous Rade Sherbedgia. Arquette, who won an Oscar this year for her key role in Boyhood, later would play a housewife who communicates with the dead in CBS’ paranormal drama, “Medium.” Scream Factory adds commentary with Wainwright; deleted scenes; the featurettes, “Divine Rites” and “Incredible But True,” taken from a History Channel special about stigmata; and a Natalie Imbruglia music video from the film’s soundtrack.

Bob Dylan: Roads Rapidly Changing
Neil Young: The Road Goes On Forever
On Tender Hooks
All This Mayhem: Blu-ray
With the possible exception of Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, there probably aren’t two American musicians more thoroughly analyzed than Bob Dylan and Neil Young, who, unlike most singers before them, also composed the lyrics to their songs. It’s difficult to imagine anything more to add to Dylan’s back pages since the publication of his memoirs, “Chronicles,” and airing of Martin Scorsese’s authorized profile for PBS, “No Direction Home.” Young bared his roots and inspirations for Jonathan Demme in “Journeys” and “Heart of Gold.” Once famously enigmatic, both of these amazing musicians have become as elusive as robins in May. More than a few Dylan/Young-centric bio-docs of European origin have already been released by MVD Visual, which distributes titles from such niche companies as Sexy Intellectual, Chrome Dreams, Pride, Jinga, IMV/BLUELINE, Iconic and Gonzo. These labels also have direct access to concerts televised in Europe and previously unavailable here. Even so, you’d think that the appeal for Bob Dylan: Roads Rapidly Changing and Neil Young: The Road Goes on Forever would be drastically limited by their complete dependence on public-domain resources, promotional videos, news clips, second- and third-hand witnessing, and other archival material. It’s made perfectly clear on the DVD jackets that the subjects didn’t participate in the creation of the film or agree to lift licensing considerations. It hardly matters, because the lack of access to these famously guarded celebrities – in some cases, not always – allows for an open discussion from critics, musical and business associates, and artists with unique points of view on the subject. Here, the absence of authorized concert and studio footage allows for thorough discussions of the historical context in which Dylan and Young emerged and triumphed. Snippets of songs are all one usually needs to recall them in total, anyway.

At 121 minutes, Roads Rapidly Changing leaves plenty of time to expand on Dylan’s place in a folk scene that was already thriving when he arrived in Greenwich Village, from Minnesota, in the early 1960s, but was on the verge of a complete re-invention of itself by the time he “went electric.” By way of introduction, director Tom O’Dell focuses on the roles played by Lead Belly, Josh White, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie in the genesis of the folk movement and its relation to left-wing activism in the 1930s-’40s and near destruction in the communist witch hunts of the ’50s. By the time Dylan had become a media darling and commercial commodity, dozens of singer-songwriters were finding homes on niche record labels and folk-rockers were bridging the gap separating Laurel Canyon and Nashville. We also learn how Dylan chose to bypass the Woodstock festival, practically within shouting distance of Big Pink, and use a hitherto obscure musical gathering on the Isle of Wight to announce his recovery from a serious motorcycle accident. In addition to the input provided by British authors and critics, Rolling Stone’s Anthony DeCurtis and the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau, we also here from contemporaries Maria Muldaur, Eric Andersen, Martin Carthy, former Fug Peter Stampfel, Tom Paxton and Izzy Young, founder of the Folklore Center and producer of Dylan’s first major concert.

Exactly twice as long as the Dylan bio-doc, The Road Goes on Forever isn’t nearly as intimidating as it might seem. While the alternately candid and repetitive second disc is comprised of broadcast and promotional interviews conducted over the course of the last 40 years, the more entertaining first half of the DVD package traces Young’s rock and folk roots from deepest, darkest Winnipeg, and early bands the Squires and Mynah Birds; past the folk clubs of Toronto; to the Sunset Strip, where Buffalo Springfield would begat a solo career and CSN&Y, which would begat Crazy Horse, the Stray Gators, the Stills-Young Band and a collaboration with Pearl Jam; and more baffling genre experimentation than Dylan ever dared. All along, there’s no question that Young continues to follow his own drummer and stick to principles that inspired his co-founding of Farm Aid and the acoustic Bridge School Benefit concerts, as well as political and environmental activism. Fans will find The Road Goes on Forever to be two-plus hours well spent.

One doesn’t enter a viewing of Kate Shenton’s tortuous documentary On Tender Hooks lightly. Shining any light on the “body modification and suspension community” necessarily requires graphic demonstrations of the piercings and other procedures that most people consider too painful to endure, but the fetishists we meet here anticipate in the same way as some chronic-pain suffers welcome sessions with their chiropractor. Anyone who’s seen images of a Plains Indian enduring the Sun Dance ceremony – tethered to a pole by a rope attached to rawhide thongs affixed to the skin of his chest – already has a pretty good idea what to expect here. Outlawed in the U.S. and Canada for nearly 100 years, the ritual employed pain and personal sacrifice as both a cleansing mechanism and as a prayer to benefit family and community. In On Tender Hooks, the practitioners find something resembling bliss through being suspended on metal hooks pushed through the skin on their backs. Why stop with piercing one’s earlobes or genitals, when so much other epidermal landscape awaits exploitation?) To help her audience understand what’s required of novice fetishists, Shenton undergoes the painful procedure so we don’t have to do it ourselves. It’s pretty horrifying and, yes, it’s almost possible to feel some of her pain. But, hey, whatever floats your boat. Also included in the DVD are several of Shenton’s short films, for which she duly acclaimed.

All This Mayhem tells the all-too-familiar story of niche athletes who didn’t see the price tag that comes with fame and allowing themselves to be exploited by purveyors of T-shirts and sporting goods. The cautionary tale of Australian brothers, Tas and Ben Pappas, bears an uncanny resemblance to Rising Son: The Legend of Skateboarder Christian Hosoi and Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator in that the subjects spend so much time honing their skateboarding skills and partying their brains out, they are unable to recognize the point where the cocaine and booze turned them into monsters. What differentiates All This Mayhem from a dozen other rags-to-riches-to-rehab docs is the brotherly bond and high-octane personalities that connected the skateboarding standouts on the way up and down that same ladder. Because Eddie Martin’s film ends on a marginally optimistic note, the dark parts probably aren’t sufficiently bleak to keep aspiring superstars from desiring the same wealth and fame that allowed the Pappas bros to skate on the edge of oblivion for as long as they did. The DVD adds lots of deleted scenes and other skateboarding stuff.

3 Holes and a Smoking Gun
Of all the mysteries of the cinema, the art of coming up with a saleable title is one of the most difficult aspects to master. Some, like Titanic and Gone With the Wind, come easy. Others demand far too much familiarity with the source material or presence of a mega-star – Mars Needs Moms, John Carter, The Lone Ranger (Johnny Depp), The Adventures of Pluto Nash (Eddie Murphy) – to support the weight of leaden content. While it’s unlikely that the backers of “Three Holes, Two Brads and a Smoking Gun” had the money to afford test marketing, at some point in the post-production process the title was pared down to the only slightly less unwieldy, 3 Holes and a Smoking Gun. Either way, when combined with the ominous cover art, I was instantly reminded of Guy Ritchie’s much copied, rarely matched Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. If anything, though, Hilarion Banks and Scott Fivelson’s inside-Hollywood conceit more closely resembles Robert Altman’s The Player, in that the theft of a screenplay is the catalyst for all of the intrigue, mayhem and hubris that follows. Newcomer Zuher Kahn plays Jack Ariamehr, an aspiring filmmaker and student of a burned-out Hollywood screenwriter, Bobby Blue Day, who split for New York with his tail between his legs. It isn’t until he writes Ariamehr’s assignment script that Day begins to think he might have found his return ticket to the Big Show. What neither teacher nor student see, however, is the toxicity that radiates from the pages of the screenplay. It leaves everyone who touches it under the sad misapprehension that the story belongs to them and they actually deserve to claim all royalties it meet accrue. It isn’t a bad premise, but Banks and Scott Fivelson add so much baggage to the load 3 Holes and a Smoking Gun already was carrying that it began to sink before it could swim. On the plus side, anyone who’s wondered whatever happened to Richard Edson —Desperately Seeking Susan, Stranger Than Paradise, Do the Right Thing – will find the answer here.

C.P.O. Sharkey: The Complete Season 1
DirecTV: Rogue: The Complete Second Season
Netflix: Orange Is the New Black: Season Two: Blu-ray
Spike: Bar Rescue: Toughest Rescues
UP: My Dad’s a Soccer Mom
Known far and wide as the insult comic with a heart as big as the great outdoors, Don Rickles has enjoyed a career that has spanned nearly 65 years and continues as a popular guest on talk shows and occasional live stage appearances. He’s found success, as well, in such movies as Casino, Kelly’s Heroes, a series of ’60s beach-party movies and as the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story series. After risking his fledgling show-business career and possibly his kneecaps taking potshots at Frank Sinatra while on stage in a Miami Beach nightclub, “Mr. Warmth” found a home in Las Vegas as the king of late-night lounge comedians, attracting audiences filled with post-show performers and camp followers of the Rat Pack. On television, he became a popular guest star on talk shows, sitcoms and the “Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roast” specials. His shtick became so familiar by the late-‘70s, his fans couldn’t go to a hockey game without recalling Rickles’ trademark “hockey puck” gags. Before landing the starring role in “C.P.O. Sharkey,” he hosted a short-lived variety show on ABC. In 1995, he gave the sitcom racket another shot, co-starring with Richard Lewis in the doomed “Daddy Dearest.”  Time Life’s new collection of first-year episodes of “C.P.O. Sharkey” is newly available on DVD. Besides the politically incorrect material, the show is best remembered for the times when 6-foot-7 Seaman Lester Pruitt (Peter Isacksen) would stand alongside the 5-foot-6 Sharkey, exchanging homilies and barbs. Having served in the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Cyrene in World War II, Rickles frequently looked more comfortable in his role than the calculatedly diverse cast of targets, er, characters. John Landis’ 2007 documentary for HBO, “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project,” re-introduced him to another generation of comedy lovers. When Rickles passes, knock on wood, he’s certain to match the same volume of praise from peers of all ages accorded Joan Rivers on her demise last September.

At a lithe 5-foot-3, Thandie Newton probably would have a tough time meeting the physical requirements of an undercover detective in most big city police departments. Fortunately, besides being a terrific actor, the native Brit of Zimbabwean descent is just game enough to convince Bay Area hoodlums that she’s a drug queenpin, gangster’s moll, revenge killer, prostitute (of course), mother of a sexually precocious teenager and, yes, emotionally troubled rogue cop. Produced by DirecTV, “Rogue” feels very much like a European mini-series, in that the protagonist walks a thin line between heroism and anti-heroism and occasionally puts people she loves in precarious positions. Being a premium offering, there’s rarely a scarcity of nudity and graphic bloodshed. At the start of Season Two, detective Grace Travis is still struggling with painful issues left over from the first go-round, when a sexual relationship with a prominent gangster went way beyond the call of duty. After convincing a fellow agent to go undercover as a sexual plaything for the target in an even more complex and dangerous sting, Grace is devastated when it goes sideways. The investigation’s tentacles eventually reach from Oakland to the Pentagon, Vancouver and Pakistan. Several peoples’ jobs are put on the line, as is Grace’s relationship with her conspiratorial mother and vulnerable daughter.

The fact that Netflix’s terrifying prison drama “Orange Is the New Black” is required to compete among comedies and musicals in Golden Globe and Emmy voting is a mystery to me. There are more laughs in a single episode of “Downton Abbey” and “Mad Men” than an entire season of “Orange Is the New Black.” Maybe, it’s just me, because I don’t find Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” particularly comedic, either. In Season Two, Taylor Schilling’s “suburban white girl” character isn’t required to carry most of the narrative load. While remaining a key story thread, Piper’s ordeal is subordinate to the battles of will being waged in other racial, sexual and power cliques. The addition of Lorraine Toussaint’s sociopathic Yvonne “Vee” Parker to the cast of character raised the level of tension to alarming heights. At the same time, prison officials were required to pay the toll for their avarice and greed. There’s no better show on television right now, but it’s definitely not for the skittish … or anyone looking for laughs or music. The Blu-ray adds several making-of featurettes and commentary on a couple of episodes.

Growing up in a suburb of Milwaukee reputed to have more taverns per capita than any other city in the country, I took for granted that the corner bar served as a home away from home for almost everyone I knew. Some even curried a quasi-family appeal with bar food and fish fries. Trick-or-treating the boozehounds would become half the fun of Halloween. As an adult, it wasn’t difficult for me to understand why, all things being equal, one bar made money and another went broke. By the time Spike TV’s “Bar Rescue” came around, I was too old to realize the childhood dream of everyone raised in Milwaukee, by opening a tavern to call one’s home. It’s just as well, because the responsibility of maintaining my friends’ addiction to alcohol would probably have landed me in the poorhouse. And, that was before the competition for customers required tavern owners to emphasize aspects of the business beyond bar food, happy hours and the occasional free round. (Yes, Virginia, there was a time when loyal patronage was rewarded by the occasional free round.) “Bar Rescue” isn’t any different than other reality-rescue shows in which an expert tears employees of a troubled restaurant, beauty salon or country inn a new asshole, before putting them on the right road to profitability. Here, Nightclub Hall of Fame inductee and bar-management specialist Jon Taffer is commissioned to save dying businesses from themselves by scaring the crap out of owners and employees, first, and, then, providing them with the wherewithal to correct mistakes and woo new customers. He accomplishes this in collaboration with a rotating team of specialists with expertise in drink and food preparation, customer service, economics and interior design. Not all of the owners are ready to admit their mistakes when Taffer unloads on them, but the smart ones eventually get with the program. “Bar Rescue: Toughest Rescues” adds the featurette “Taffer’s Top 10: Most Disgusting Bars” to the four featured episodes.

Anyone old enough to remember Rodney Dangerfield’s 1992 sports comedy, Ladybugs, is 1) already familiar with what happens in My Dad’s a Soccer Mom and 2) probably has kids or grandchildren young enough to enjoy it.  The gist of the story is that “Marion “Mad Dog” Casey (Lester Speight) has run out of NFL teams that are willing to employ him and is stuck performing the chores associated with being an archetypal “soccer mom.” It requires chauffeuring his 10-year-old daughter, Lacy, from school to ballet and theatre class activities – neither of which she really enjoys – and, then, to soccer practice, which she loves. Much of the humor derives from the fact that Marion is a very large man and something of a bull in a china shop on the soccer pitch. Because Up TV is short for “Uplifting Entertainment” and began as the Gospel Music Channel, the fun is family oriented and important lessons are learned.

The DVD Wrapup: Dr. Jekyll & Miss Osbourne, Retaliation, Beloved Sisters, Mad Max, Jamaica Inn, Make Way for Tomorrow, Power, Welcome to Sweden … More

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne: Blu-ray
Retaliation: Blu-ray
It wasn’t until Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and a few other influential directors began championing movies previously dismissed as “too foreign” or mere genre specimens that it became possible for us to see how small distance between grindhouse and arthouse really was. The time had finally arrived when the restorer’s art and modern technology could be combined to reverse the clock on movies ravaged by time, indifference and neglect. As the DVD and Blu-ray revolution took hold, distribution companies, almost certainly inspired by the high-end success of Criterion Collection, formed to feed the demand for obscure cult, experimental and genre classics. Digital software and old-fashioned TLC eliminated the scratches, artifacts and careless edits that helped contribute to the near demise of VHS cassettes, even as long-lost reels and snippets of valuable footage were being discovered in basements and lockers around the planet. Once a market for such arcana was established on DVD, it became possible for the addition of more learned commentary, background featurettes, deleted scenes and interviews than was possible with laserdiscs. The corporate pioneers of DVD only foresaw bonus packages comprised of original trailers and foreign language tracks. It wasn’t until the filmmakers themselves embraced DVD and Blu-ray that everything else came to pass.

Arrow Video’s truly revelatory reclamation of Walerian Borowczyk’s 1981 Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne is representative of the British company’s dedication to restoration, education and collaborations with the growing number of academic institutions tilling the same gardens. Born and educated in Poland, Borowczyk would immigrate to France in 1959 and settle in Paris, where he was free to focus on painting, lithography, cinema posters and various schools of animation. Ten years later, he would become a leading figure in the re-invention of pornography as a vehicle for artistic and social expression. Not surprisingly, his surrealistic ideas and hard-core visions didn’t always correspond to the demands of the marketplace. It explains why Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, under one of its many different titles and edits, failed to find an appropriate audience for its outrageous blend of horror and eroticism. Despite earning Borowczyk the Best Feature Film Director distinction at the 1981 Sitges Film Festival, mainstream exhibitors weren’t anxious to promote controversy that comes with such borderline material, thus consigning it to theaters on the fringes of respectability. Not surprisingly, the raincoat-wearing crowd displayed little patience for the narrative and artistic interludes between sex scenes, which, themselves, were more perverse than titillating. After being chopped, channeled, censored and renamed, Borowczyk’s adventurous adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s time-honored novella was shelved and largely forgotten. In it, Udo Kier plays the infamous London doctor with a decidedly split personality as a considerably younger man, about to be married to the lovely Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro), a name inspired by Stevenson’s own wife. The couple has invited several guests to a party at Jekyll’s intricately designed mansion to announce their betrothal. Meanwhile, Hyde makes his presence known in a series of rapes and murders in and around the house. Obsessed with “transcendental medicine” and its relationship to the current fascination with empiricism, Jekyll is experimenting with a substance that, when added to water, allows Mr. Hyde to take control of his personality, turning him into a sexually insatiable sadist. The kicker here is his fiancé’s mad desire to experience the same urges.

Unlike Stevenson and previous adapters, Borowczykq refused to introduce women simply as victims. Fanny’s willingness to experience the same pains and pleasures of her lover’s curse – harkening to the Countess Elizabeth Báthory and her taste for blood baths – didn’t feel out of place in the nascent post-feminist ‘80s. There’s more to the story, of course, but the beautifully shot movie defies easy summarization. For that, viewers are invited to stay tuned for the several informative featurettes analyzing the director’s visual influences (including Vermeer), Bernard Parmegiani’s avant-garde musical soundtrack and evolution as a filmmaker who some would dismiss as a pornographer with pretentions of glory. The Blu-ray and DVD presentation is impeccable, adding English and French soundtracks and optional English SDH subtitles; a somewhat dry, but informative introduction by critic Michael Brooke; audio commentary, featuring archival interviews with Borowczyk, Kier, Pierro and producer Robert Kuperberg, and new interviews with cinematographer Noël Véry, editor Khadicha Bariha, assistant Michael Levy and filmmaker Noël Simsolo; more interviews and visual essays; Marina and Alessio Pierro’s short, “Himorogi,” and the recently re-discovered “Happy Toy,” inspired by Borowczyk’s interest in Charles-Émile Reynaud’s Praxinoscope; a reversible sleeve with artwork based on Borowczyk’s own poster design; and a booklet with new writing on the film by Daniel Bird and archive materials, illustrated with rare stills.

Last month, Arrow released the terrific 1967 Japanese film noir, Massacre Gun, as part of its first wave of restored Blu-ray titles for American consumption. Its director, Yasuharu Hasebe (Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter), and popular action star, Jo Shishido (Gate of Flesh), would re-teamed a year later in Nikkatsu’s color classic, Retaliation. It harkens to a time in the 1960s when Japanese farmers were pitted against corporate, federal and gangland interests for the control of their lush fields just outside Tokyo. The country’s post-war recovery didn’t make allowances for farmers whose crops were being grown the same way and in the same places for countless generations. Planes now carrying American tourists and business executives to Japan are landing and departing over those same fields, now covered by concrete. Here, three different gangs are battling not only for the negotiating rights to the farmland, but also control of vice in a nearby industrial district. Major star Akira Kobayashi (Black Tight Killers) plays a yakuza lieutenant, who, after serving an eight-year bit in stir, returns home to find his godfather’s power completely compromised and no one immune from back-stabbing, deceit and less-than-honorable behavior. Shishido plays the rival gangster waiting to kill him in retaliation for the death of his brother and the similarly popular Meiko Kaji (Lady Snowblood) is the farmer’s daughter who gets caught in the crossfire.

Hasebe pulled out all of the stops for Retaliation and keeping track of the gangsters in this operatic drama requires a sharp eye, if not a scorecard. His roving, handheld camera offers a different perspective on yakuza action, preferring a raw and intimate examination of the costs of violence, including rape. (A home-erotic bromance is suggested, as well.) Although a genre film from a studio that embraced both traditional exploitation themes and overt sexploitation, Retaliation never looks as if it had produced on an assembly line or could be accused of taking shortcuts to save money. Arrow’s limited-edition Blu-ray (3000 copies) includes the restored high-definition edition and standard-definition DVD presentation; the original uncompressed mono audio, newly translated English subtitles, fresh interviews with Jô Shishido and critic/historian Tony Rayns, the original theatrical trailer, a gallery with rare promotional images, a reversible sleeve with original and newly commissioned artwork by Ian MacEwan and a booklet featuring new writing on the film by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp.

Make Way for Tomorrow: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Jamaica Inn: 75th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
And, while we’re on the subject of film restoration, it’s easy to believe that the absence of movies in which elderly people are allowed authentically romantic feelings for each other is something new. The pristine classics we enjoy on TMC may play to an older demographic, but the characters are often cross-generational. (Bogie and Bacall, Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, among them.) If On Golden Pond became a sensation in large part by pairing Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn in a December-December relationship, it would take another 31 years for festival audiences and jurors to raise the profile of the aching French drama, Amour, for mainstream consumption. By comparison to the actors in those films, the romantic leads of 2014’s Love Is Strange — Alfred Molina and John Lithgow – are spring chickens. Leo McCarey’s rarely seen 1937 jewel, Make Way for Tomorrow, was far more admired by the director’s peers than studio heads and audiences, who much preferred such crowd-pleasers as Duck Soup, An Affair to Remember, The Bells of St. Mary’s and Going My Way. (According to Hollywood legend, when McCarey received his 1937 Best Director Oscar for The Awful Truth, he alluded to Make Way for Tomorrow by saying he got it for the wrong film.) Made at the height of the Great Depression, Make Way for Tomorrow tells the all too real story of an elderly couple (Beulah Bondi, Victor Moore) separated after the old man is released from his longtime job as a bookkeeper and their home is repossessed by their bank. They reluctantly agree to live apart in the homes of two of their four children, where, at least, they’ll have company and some comfort for their ills. Unlike Ma and Pa Joad, Barkley and Beulah aren’t trading one economic disaster for another, though. Their children are surviving the Depression very well, thank you, and in comfortable surroundings. The greatest inconvenience comes when a teenage daughter is required to share her room with Grannie and an illness causes Gramps to take over the master bedroom. Long-distance phone calls are still a luxury, however, and the postal service takes its merry time delivering correspondence. Although things remain civil in their adopted homes, it soon becomes clear that the situation is too far from ideal to please anyone.

When Gramps is instructed to move to California for his health, the daughter we haven’t met on screen tells him that she only has room for him. His wife, meanwhile, has agreed to move into a pleasant senior residence. Before parting again at the train station, possibly forever, they are allowed nearly a full day together in the city, during which they relive memories of their honeymoon. Instead of cluttering their time with madcap Manhattan misadventures or cheap melodrama, McCarey permits them as satisfying an interlude as anyone could hope to experience in Gotham. The small surprises not only delight the couple, but also leave the door open for a happy ending … or a reasonable facsimile thereof. The film’s emotional pulse is so different from movies of the period – today, too – that it catches us off-guard … like a German comedy or Chinese Western. Indeed, it’s said that Yasujirô Ozu’s universally admired Tokyo Story was inspired by Make Way for Tomorrow, in that it recognized the cusp separating time-honored Japanese family structure and post-war indifference to traditions. Orson Welles told Peter Bogdanovich that the film “would make a stone cry” and I have no reason to challenge that observation. The Blu-ray upgrade adds “Tomorrow, Yesterday and Today,” a worthwhile 2009 interview with Bogdanovich; another with critic Gary Giddins, in which he discusses McCarey’s artistry within the political and social context of the film; and a booklet featuring essays by critic Tag Gallagher and filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, and an excerpt from Robin Wood’s 1998 “Leo McCarey and Family Values.”

In his review for the New York Times, Frank S. Nugent predicted that Jamaica Inn “will not be remembered as a Hitchcock picture, but as a Charles Laughton picture.” Immediately after completing his adaptation of the Daphne Du Maurier drama – the first of three – Hitch moved his tack from England to America, where he already was a known quantity. Nugent wasn’t attempting to dissuade readers from checking out the picture, only cautioning against expecting “those felicitous turns of camera phrasing, the sudden gleams of wicked humor (and) the diabolically casual accumulation of suspense which characterize his best pictures.” That review may have run in 1939, but his opinions still hold true today. Because Laughton owned half of the production company, he was going to portray the wicked and oily squire who benefitted most from the plunder of shipwrecks off the rocky Cornwall coast, circa 1800. The pirates who did the dirty work didn’t resemble those working the Caribbean, but having distressed ships come to them was generally a safer proposition. Laughton discovery Maureen O’Hara plays the naïve young woman, who, after losing her parents, travels to Cornwell to live with her aunt.  No sooner is her trunk thrown up the staircase of the Jamaica Inn to her room than she is drooled upon by the lascivious squire – a naughty vicar in the novel, but changed to pass Hollywood censors — and finds herself stuck in the web of violence and deceit that made the place notorious. It doesn’t take long for the spunky country girl to adjust to her new environment and discover an ally, but Laughton wasn’t about to be overshadowed by the ingénue, her rescuer or Hitchcock, for that matter. The result is a movie that can be relished in the same way that we enjoy other period classics in which the star is allowed free reign. Cohen Media’s splendid 4K restoration adds commentary with historian Jeremy Arnold and the essential featurette, “Shipwrecked in a Studio: A Video Essay With Donald Spoto.”

Mad Max: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
These Final Hours: Blu-ray
When Mad Max: Fury Road opens around the world this week, it will benefit from a marketing campaign several dozen times greater than the entire cost of making, advertising and distributing the Oz-ploitation classic, more than 35 years ago. Actual production costs for the fourth installment in the hugely popular and influential franchise are so much greater than what was available to co-writer/director George Miller that it’s permissible now for older fans to wonder if success might spoil “Fury Road.” Some mainstream pundits rated the far more lavish Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome higher than the original Mad Max and its immediate sequel Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, while others found that extra dollars and its “Lord of the Flies” conceit more than a little bit off point. Still, as the trilogies go, Miller’s holds up better critically than “The Godather” trio. I know that the primary audience for “Fury Road” is likely not to be the Boomers who found something fresh and exciting in the post-apocalyptic asphalt-burner – one of the first – but the Boomlets who launched the “Fast & Furious” franchise into the stratosphere and might relish seeing it in 3D. It’s unlikely that the “Furious” soon-to-be octet would exist without Mad Max or H.B. Halicki’s even earlier high-octane/low-budget actioner, Gone in 60 Seconds, so I strongly recommend to  newcomers that they pick up the hi-def Scream Factory edition asap. (Try Roger Donaldson’s kiwi follow-up, Smash Palace, too.) What I think they’ll be surprised to see is a cinematic vision this is so spare and unpretentious that it might have been churned out by Roger Corman’s exploitation mill. Indeed, it practically looks pre-apocalyptic. It might also be interesting for them to watch Mel Gibson, before he achieved A-list status and, later, destroyed his career by allowing alcohol to reveal his barely submerged inner demons. There simply was no way Gibson, in only his second feature, wasn’t going to become a superstar. The Blu-ray adds fresh interviews with Gibson, co-star Joanne Samuel and DP David Eggby; vintage featurettes “Mel Gibson: The Birth of a Superstar” and “Mad Max: The Film Phenomenon”; a photo gallery; and commentary with Eggby, art director Jon Dowding and special-effects artists Chris Murray and David Ridge. And, no, this isn’t the version of Mad Max for which perfectly intelligible Australian English was dubbed over by the voices of American actors. That bonehead decision nearly killed the appeal of the movie in its first U.S. release.

When viewed from certain angles, Zak Hildtich’s latter-days thriller, These Final Hours resembles a prequel to Mad Max. A giant comet is seen streaking across the sky, heading for points unknown. Minutes later, we hear that the resultant fire storm is destroying the planet one time zone at a time. Perth, being the “most remote city on Earth,” is likely to be the setting for mankind’s last roundup. Already, residents are settling old scores, committing ritual suicide, praying on street corners and having sex … lots of it. The highways aren’t yet flooded with cars carrying desperate souls attempting to escape the final holocaust. Where would they go? James (Nathan Phillips) faces the dilemma of choosing to die with his pregnant lover, Rose (Angourie Rice), in her oceanfront pad, or making his way cross-town to a friend’s “epic” party, where his fiancé Vicky (Kathryn Beck) and several dozen other hard-core Aussie hedonists are snorting, smoking, screwing, swimming, chugging and playing Russian roulette to while away their final hours. Naturally, James picks the latter. Before he gets there, however, James saves a pre-teen girl from being raped by thugs who resemble members of the motorcycle gang in Mad Max. Uncharacteristically, he commits himself to helping Rose (Angourie Rice) locate her father at a designated meeting place. When that doesn’t happen, James brings Rose to the party, where an ancient hippie chick plies her with a mind-altering substance. The message being delivered here is that even facing imminent death, seriously debauched individuals, like James, can achieve something resembling redemption … or not. These Final Hours benefits from cinematographer Bonnie Elliott’s overriding hazy yellow light and Hildtich’s ability to pull emotional strings most other low-budget dystopian thrillers ignore, preferring instead to add more zombies to the mix. Neither does he cop out at the film’s end.

Beloved Sisters: Blu-ray
At 171 minutes, Dominik Graf’s speculative biopic of Weimar writer/historian Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller would test the endurance of most graduate students in German cultural history, especially those living outside the borders of whatever Reich it is that country is currently enjoying. Fortunately for everyone involved, Beloved Sisters isn’t intended for scholarly analysis or strict adherence to known truths. Instead, it is an epic romance that demands little more than our attention. When Schiller first met Caroline and Charlotte von Lengefeld, they were living a relatively frugal life as lower aristocrats in Rudolstadt, an artistic mecca in the central state of Thuringia. Already a controversial playwright and accomplished poet, Schiller affects the garb and genial demeanor of a carefree rover who thrives as much on romance as air and water. Although Charlotte is already committed in an unhappy marriage to a local courtier, both sisters dote on Schiller to the point where he rarely lacked for love … or, as is implied by Graf, intimacy. He had a wealthy lover on the side, as well, but the sisters’ irresistibility radiates from the screen. Once Schiller settles into a professorship at the University of Jena, and Christine delivers their first of four children, things take a sharp turn in the direction of melodrama and strident conflict. What really sells Beloved Sisters, however, is Graf’s good fortune in being able to stage his story in urban and natural settings that haven’t changed much, if at all, in the last 225 years. Many of the locations are quite beautiful, too. Florian Stetter, Henriette Confurius and Hannah Herzsprung are quite convincing as the three sides of a literary love triangle. (Surprisingly, for all the ripping, only a single pair of nipples manages to escape a bodice and neither aureole belongs to the sisters.) The Blu-ray takes full advantage of the region’s natural beauty and arrives with a decent making-of featurette.

Little Sister
Back in 1995, when Robert Jan Westdijk’s Little Sister became a sensation on the international festival circuit, the idea of shooting a movie simply from the point of view of a subjective camera operator was fresh and daring. The Blair Witch Project was still four years away from taking the video world by storm and very few people remembered that Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust had been the first out of the gate, in 1980, purportedly comprised of found video footage left behind by a news team that disappeared in the Amazonian rain forest. Today, of course, it’s the rare POV or found-footage film that is capable of holding our interest for more than 10 minutes. Once we know how the trick is done, after all, it’s no longer capable of surprising us.  Here, on the occasion of her 20th birthday, Martin pays a visit to his sister Daantje’s Amsterdam apartment. At first, she reacts to the camcorder in her face as if it’s a weasel awaiting the first opportunity to rip her flesh. After much prodding, Daantje begins accept Martin’s constant presence and annoying personality. He follows her to a class at fashion school and a party that only ends when everyone has passed out. It’s also used to collect evidence against Daantje’s boyfriend. Finally, the real moment of horror arrives when the point of view is reversed and Daantje takes control of the camera. We’ve already been tipped as to what’s coming, but that doesn’t make it any less disturbing. In the case of Little Sister, anyway, being first does have its advantages.

Now that this year’s fight of the century is fading from memory – except for the unhappy punters and PPV viewers unaware of the loser’s bum shoulder – it’s probably a good time for fans of the “sweet science” to remind themselves why they cared about the match, in the first place. Bert Marcus’ compelling, if celebrity-burdened documentary, Champs, goes a long way toward answering their questions, without also addressing one of the sport’s most pressing concerns. And, no, it has nothing to do with concussions, dubious judging or Don King, none of which are ignored by the filmmaker. By focusing so much attention on Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and the fighters who challenged them in their prime, I was left wondering why the heavyweight division is so much less interesting today than the one unified two weeks ago by Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s victory over Manny Pacquaio. Both welterweights weighed in at roughly 145 pounds, practically guaranteeing a more entertaining fight than any heavyweight skirmish in recent memory. Middleweight Bernard Hopkins, the other great boxer featured in Champs, normally carried between 155-160 pounds, even as a light heavyweight. A popular champion, Hopkins debuted as a pro on November 10, 1988 and was still drawing a paycheck in the ring last November 8, when he was defeated by the Russian light heavyweight champ, Sergey Kovalev. With the money potentially available to a serious American heavyweight contender, it remains curious as to why so few currently exist. By recalling the careers and travails of Tyson and Holyfield – as well as the excitement that surrounded their fights – Marcus pretty much repeats everything we already know about their careers. Hearing the former champs tell their own stories so candidly adds a great deal to the presentation. Hopkins’ escape from a life cursed by poverty and crime echoes the stories of hundreds of other American fighters — from a dozen different ethnic backgrounds — since Jack Johnson, the son of former slaves, became the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world. Champs features clips from classic bouts, as well as the colorful observations of journalists, educators and such high-profile fans as Mark Wahlberg, Denzel Washington, Ron Howard, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Spike Lee and Mary J. Blige.

Stay As You Are
Frequently, in Italian films of the 1970s, the line separating exploitation and more artistic endeavor was blurred to the point of non-existence. That’s partly because of the commercial appeal of movies featuring women who were as beautiful fully clothed as they were naked, and directors whose talent exceeded the demands of genre work. There are times in the beginning of Alberto Lattuada’s 1979 erotic drama, Stay As You Are, when the music and seemingly gratuitous nudity recall giallo pictures from earlier in the decade. On closer inspection, however, it doesn’t seem likely that Marcello Mastroianni and composer Ennio Morricone would, at this point in their careers, lend their considerable talents to a project designed simply to titillate arthouse audiences. The presence of a barely 18-year-old Nastassja Kinski is easily explained by the fact that she already was a celebrity in Europe for following in the footsteps of her father Klaus. She already was in Rome during the casting process and on the fast track to international success in Tess, Cat People, One From the Heart, The Moon in the Gutter, Unfaithfully Yours and Paris, Texas. And, of course, she wasn’t at all shy about disrobing on screen. Here, Kinski’s perfectly suited for the role of a college student who either truly prefers dating way-older men or simply gets off on toying with their neuroses about growing old. Mastroianni, plays Giulio Marengo, a landscape architect who reluctantly allows himself to be seduced by the beautiful Francesca after meeting slightly cute at a Florentine historical site. Still extremely handsome at 55, Giulio is estranged from his wife and vulnerable to temptation, if not from Francesca then from her equally game roommate. What begins as a setup for a randy erotic comedy takes a sudden turn for the perverse when Giulio learns from a friend that his new girlfriend might be the lovechild of an old girlfriend and, by extension, his daughter. When he informs Francesca of this possibility, she doesn’t seem the least bit bothered by it … or, at least, not as bothered as we are. Lattuada, whose credits by now included Mafioso, Variety Lights (with Federico Fellini), La steppa and Oh, Serafina!, was able to leave viewers with an ending that didn’t require taking a shower after seeing it. Besides the joy of watching Mastroianni in a meaty role, accompanied by Morricone’s music, we’re also treated with location shots of Florence’s Piazza San Giovanni, Piazza San Marco, Villa La Pietra and Boboli Gardens. The Blu-ray extras include the “Original Motion Picture Soundtrack” and an optional English-language or Italian-language track with English subtitles. I suggest the latter.

The Sleepwalker
There aren’t many decisions that viewers anticipate with greater anxiety than when a movie’s bipolar antagonist decides it’s OK to discontinue taking his or her meds. That’s what happens in Mona Fastvold’s debut feature, The Sleepover, a four-character psychosexual drama that keeps getting creepier as it goes on … until, at the end, it doesn’t. Newlyweds Kaia and Andrew are restoring her family’s sprawling and secluded rural home when their routine is disturbed by the unexpected arrival of Kaia’s emotionally disturbed sister, Christine, and her boyfriend Ira. It doesn’t take us long to figure out that the sisters share a bizarre, possibly violent history and it’s possible that the worst is yet to come. For one thing, Christine is a somnambulist who doesn’t seem to have any control over what happens when she’s on her late-night prowls. The more we get to know about the sisters, the likelihood grows that something truly messed up is going to happen within the handsomely mounted film’s 91-minute duration. The tension between the women brings out the worst in Andrew, whose hair-trigger temper doesn’t allow much room for behavior he can’t predict or control. Ira doesn’t appear to understand what’s going on with his pregnant girlfriend, let alone be able to prevent her disappearances.  All we know for sure is that whatever happened in that same house when they were kids is on the verge of happening again. The spooky mood is enhanced by the many scenes that take place at night and Sondre Lerche’s atmospheric score. Without revealing anything that happens in the final half-hour, I can safely predict that as many viewers will be disappointed by the ending as are satisfied. I’d also be willing to bet that Fastvold’s next effort will be something that finds wider release and be greeted with anticipation by critics. The DVD adds a Q&A conducted at Sundance, where the movie debuted in 2014.

The Drownsman: Blu-ray
Extraterrestrial: Blu-ray
Syfy: Icetastrophe
Chad Archibald, director of the surprisingly chilling straight-to-DVD thriller, The Drownsman, includes in his helming credits the CTV documentary series, “Creepy Canada,” which took viewers to places even the Mounties fear to dread. Writer Cody Calahan is listed as art director for a bizarre reality-based series, “Canada’s Worst Driver,” that ran on Discovery Channel Canada. I don’t know when low-budget horror films officially overtook improv comedians as Canada’s leading export to the U.S., but what began as a trickle has become a deluge. At one time, these tax-incentive projects betrayed their origins as clearly as a maple-leaf patch on the backpack of a Canadian hoping not to be mistaken for an American while hitchhiking through Europe. Today, the actors are as self-assured as their contemporaries in Hollywood and much more care is given to eliminating such obvious production “tells” as the unique sound of police sirens and look of their uniforms; clearly foreign street signs; and the tell-tale pronunciation of certain vowel combinations. Streets still look cleaner there, I suppose. The Drownsman is about a young woman, Madison (Michelle Mylett), who, after falling into a lake, comes face to face with a dreadlocked monster that resembles a cross between the Creature From the Black Lagoon and Swamp Thing. She is so freaked out by this encounter that she locks herself in her room for a year and avoids all water. When Madison even goes so far as to ignore her best friend’s wedding, she is forced to undergo something resembling an “intervention.” During it, something is triggered within the humanoid beast that causes him to target all of the women, not just Madison. The Drownsman is shot in exceedingly dark tones, with light supplied by candles and the light from drowning tanks in the creature’s lair. There is a backstory to this madness, but it’s so unlikely that it can be easily ignored. Genre buffs have been quick to point out the similarities (a.k.a., homages) here to Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, while also praising Archibald’s fresh approach to the material. As the serial killer turned supernatural psychopath, Ry Barrett is plenty scary.

Inspired, perhaps, by the Butcher Brothers (The Violent Kind), Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz adopted the nom de plume, The Vicious Brothers, for Grave Encounters (I & II) and Extraterrestrial. The difference between these filmmakers and, say, the Coens, the Hughes, Wachowskis and Polishes, is that they aren’t siblings or particularly evil. Extraterrestrial begins as a cabin-in-the-woods thriller, but ends up in a UFO, piloted by creatures that fit the accepted profile of the Roswell and “ET” aliens. Just as viewers are getting used to the likelihood that most or all of the archetypal cabin-dwellers are going to perish in the woods during the course of the weekend, a fireball streaks across the night sky. Now, for all we know, the flaming starship could be carrying the entire stable of Universal monsters, a shitload of alien zombies or a collection of slasher killers from the 1980s. Unable to contain their curiosity, the campers discover an alien spacecraft and indications that the passengers are still out there, somewhere.  The ending may not surprise everyone, but those new to one or both of the subgenres will have better luck getting off on it. Michael Ironside is the most prominent cast member, although Brittany Allen, Freddie Stroma, Melanie Papalia, Jesse Moss and Emily Perkins probably have fans of their own, especially those of the Canadian persuasion. The Blu-ray adds a reversible wrap with alternative artwork, commentary tracks by the Vicious Brothers and actors Brittany Allen and Melanie Papalia, the featurette “The Making of Extraterrestrial” and deleted scenes.

A meteor also figures prominently into the truly goofy made-for-cable thriller, Icetastrophe (a.k.a., “Christmas Icetastrophe”), which borrows effects, characters and stereotypes from nearly every Syfy disaster movie ever made. At the very least, this means that residents of a small town in a picturesque corner of British Columbia are subjected to dangerous objects falling from the sky, other mysterious objects breaking through fissures in the streets and pretty young scientists from a nearby university joining forces with buff local lawmen and/or park rangers to save humanity. Veteran director Jonathan Winfrey (Carnosaur 3: Primal Species) and writer David Sanderson (Zodiac: Signs of the Apocalypse) only required one unique conceit to differentiate Icetastrophe from dozens of other Syfy titles. Here, the meteor splits in two above a small town in the shadow of a mountain, putting the town and its lake into a deep freeze. It mimics the effects of Ice-nine in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” and the superpower of Mr. Freeze, in various Bat-man and DC titles. The crystallization of buildings, streets and humans can be immediate or take its merry time, as when a motorboat carrying two of the protagonists are attempting to outrun the ice on the lake. As also tends to occur in these movies, two young lovers separated by circumstances or parental interference must come together to save themselves and the town.  The effects here are low-budget even by cable-television standards, but that probably won’t prevent younger teens from enjoying it.

The Vatican Exorcisms
An Irish Exorcism
At a time when Pope Francis is making new friends for the Church around the world with his progressive views on human rights and other social issues, he’s also been surprisingly candid on the iffy subject of exorcism. Now, while I think there’s sufficient evidence to argue that Satan possesses several world leaders, Wall Street financiers, hardened criminals, studio executives and pedophiliac clergy, rarely are they the subject of movies and documentaries about exorcism. Typically, it’s the domain of unruly children, disobedient wives and incessantly barking dogs. Earlier this month, Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican’s chief exorcist for 25 years, suggested that practitioners of yoga and fans of such fantasy novels and TV shows as “Harry Potter,” “True Blood” and “The Vampire Diaries,” might be opening themselves to possession. He’s previously cautioned against satanic sects within the Diocese of Rome and cabals of Freemasons. Somebody has to do it. This week, a pair of unrelated DVDs, The Vatican Exorcisms and An Irish Exorcism, have arrived in my mail, purporting to tell the truth about the current state of the practice. While neither is particularly convincing, they are harbingers of a tsunami of new straight-to-DVD faux-cumentaries on the subject. I’d have preferred seeing a mass exorcism of priests accused of crimes against parishioners and only recently acknowledged by the Vatican.

I’d have given more credence to The Vatican Exorcisms if the Italian-American filmmaker, Joe Marino, didn’t remind me so much of Father Guido Sartucci. Fans of “The Smothers Brothers Show” and earlier editions of “SNL” will remember Sarducci as comedian Don Novello’s chain-smoking gossip columnist and rock critic for the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. Sarducci is more credible than any of the priests interviewed in these movies. Nonetheless, Marino traveled to Rome accompanied by Padre Luigi, “a true exorcist,” and the south of Italy, described as a place where “Christian rituals are inextricably linked to the pagan ones.” I’m all for legitimate exorcisms, but suspect that Satan would notice a full camera and audio crew documenting one of his earthly manifestations. By watching a couple of episodes of “60 Minutes,” Marino would have realized that a hidden camera is more likely to produce results than a hand-held camera and sound boom.

An Irish Exorcism is less about the attempt to rid a tormented child of demonic possession than it is about anthropology student Lorraine (Aislinn Ní Uallacháin) and her half-assed approach to recording an exorcism for her final paper. A comely lass, Lorraine convinces a pair of local priests to sit for interviews about an exorcism they’ll perform soon on a local girl, Lisa, who’s either truly possessed or has watch The Exorcism too many times. Naturally, we’re required to endure watching the negotiations and interviews from the point of view of the production crew. If Dante Alighieri were to return to Earth today, he’d devise a way for sinners to be further punished by forcing them to watch an endless loop of POV shows and found-footage movies, such as An Irish Exorcism, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and “Duck Dynasty.” A special place would be reserved for horror flicks that aren’t scary. Somewhere, Linda Blair is spinning in her split-pie soup.

Magical Universe
How come I wasn’t surprised to learn that the co-director of Who Is Henry Jaglom? also has given us Magical Universe, the strangely compelling bio-doc of an elderly artist in Maine who’s spent most of his life creating elaborate dioramas featuring Barbie dolls in a staggering number of poses, outfits and situations. It took 10 years for Jeremy Workman and his girlfriend, Astrid, to capture the essence of Al Carbee, an 88-year-old outsider artist, who, when he isn’t in the company of Barbie, writes fancifully drawn screeds about  himself and whatever else is on his mind. Carbee’s work has been exhibited in a gallery in Portland, but I can’t recall any mention of sales. (He died owing several credit-card companies a small fortune in unpaid debts.) There’s no questioning the artist’s sincerity or talent, however singular, or Workman’s personal affection for Carbee and his eccentricities. Viewers, though, may get the feeling that he’s spent way too much time alone, tending his thousands of guppies in his spare moments. After so many years as a recluse, Carbee clearly fell in love with Workman’s camera. Another fascinating aspect of the artist’s life is his seemingly ramshackle home, which has hidden caverns and makes Pee-wee’s playhouse look like Romper Room. The DVD adds background material and outtakes.

Dinosaur Island
It seems like a hundred years have passed since the original Jurassic Park captured the world’s attention with its wonderfully imaginative and strangely lifelike depictions of dinosaurs specifically cloned to populate a theme park for the enjoyment of kids of all ages. Steven Spielberg made anxious viewers wait a while before revealing the first breathtaking panorama of the park, with its many different dinosaurs peaceably assembled in the kind of idyllic setting only Hawaii could provide. He would make us hold our breaths even longer for the pivotal scene in which the park’s alpha T-Rex arrives, adding a palpable taste of horror to the speculative fiction first imagined by Michael Crichton in novel. Scientists have learned so many more things about dinosaurs in the ensuing 22 years that one can hardly wait to see if the Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World team has been able to make the same exponential leap forward in the art of creating cinematic dinosaurs. Dinosaur Island is a smallish, low-budget adventure for kids that features CGI dinosaurs that would have stunned audiences in advance of Jurassic Park. Compared to Avatar and other such visual extravaganzas, though, Matt Drummond’s film is the cinematic equivalent of small potatoes. As far as I can tell, it went straight-to-DVD overseas and wasn’t even accorded the decency of a limited theatrical release in the U.S. The fact is, Dinosaur Island is small potatoes. It tells the story of a 13-year-old boy, who, on his way to visit his father, finds himself stranded on an island in the South Pacific that’s populated with dinosaurs and other creatures, amazing vegetation, aboriginal tribes, a graveyard for 707s and a girl who’s been stranded there for several years. Parents who watched adults being attacked by velociraptors and a T-rex in the original “Jurassic” series might not be impressed by the velociraptors and giant “millipedes” in Dinosaur Island, but it could whet the appetites of kids already anticipating the as-yet-unrated Jurassic World.

Power: The Complete Season One: Blu-ray
Welcome to Sweden: Season 1
Masters of Sex: Season Two
The Best of the Ed Sullivan Show
The Midnight Special
It would be unfair to credit the popularity of Starz’ urban crime drama “Power” to the stunning success of Fox’s “Empire,” which, at first glance, would appear to be drawingfrom the same demographic pool. Exec-produced by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and show creator Courtney Kemp Agboh (“The Good Wife”), the series began more than six months before “Empire” hit the ground running. Neither was anyone at the premium-cable network positive if it could compete on the same turf that produced “Spartacus,” “Black Sails,” “Da Vinci’s Demons” and, now, “Turn.” It did well enough, at least, to warrant a second season, which begins in early June. If it hadn’t been re-upped, the writers would have left nearly a half-dozen cliffhangers in its wake and thousands of followers unhappy. It took me a couple of episodes to get hooked, but, once I was, it was easy to come back for more “Power.” The story revolves around James “Ghost” St. Patrick (Omari Hardwick), a street-level punk who parlayed his profits into a chain of laundromats – literally, to launder money – and, finally, a glamorous nightclub where New York’s elite meet to drink, network and snort blow in the washrooms. It’s a slick operation and the uber-slick St. Patrick rules the roost, while his longtime partner-in-crime, Tommy Egan (Joseph Sikora), oversees their subsidiary drug empire. St. Patrick and his wife and confidante, Tasha (Naturi Naughton), live the kind of penthouse life that typically would be out of reach for a mere laundromat magnate. The family lacks for nothing, except, perhaps, the security that comes with not being in cahoots with a Mexican cartel. Everything is going swimmingly for Ghost and Tommy, until a female assassin in pink boots begins to intercept shipments and kill their couriers. Then, too, there’s St. Patrick’s chance meeting in the club with an old Nuyorican flame, FBI agent Angela Valdes (Lela Loren), which is witnessed by Tasha. Certain to cause problems during the show’s initial eight-episode run is Angela’s ignorance of how Ghost makes his money and vice-versa. The only thing that truly distinguishes “Power” from “Empire” — from the male viewers’ point-of-view, anyway – is the proliferation of gratuitous female nudity, as is the custom of premium-cable programming. Fortunately, Kemp Agboh’s experience as writer/producer for such series as “The Good Wife,” “The Bernie Mac Show,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Hawaii Five-0” keeps the story’s disparate threads from fraying, altogether. The flashy Blu-ray adds a few undernourished background featurettes.

Some cynics, myself included, may suspect that NBC’s “Welcome to Sweden” owes its existence on the network to Amy Poehler’s role as executive producer and presence of her brother, Bruce, as the male lead and a staff writer. The premise of the sitcom supposedly derives from Bruce Poehler’s own experience as a New Yorker who moves to Sweden to live with his girlfriend. Besides the fact that a nebbish like Bruce (the character) wouldn’t last two weeks with a world-class babe, like Emma (Josephine Bornebusch), no one as socially inept could last one tax year as a CPA for celebrities in his sister’s orbit. It’s the job he gives up upon leaving New York, but, for some reason, won’t return to in Sweden, despite his inability to handle menial tasks in the tourism industry. On a more positive note, almost everything else in the sitcom is worth a look, starting with Emma’s very Swedish family, the beautiful setting and nutty recurring characters. It also is enhanced by an international crew of writers, who keep the culture-clash conceit from tilting too far on the side of American sensibilities.  Their influence is detectable more in later episodes than those earlier in the season. Bruce’s former job ensures the regular inclusion of celebrity guests, such as Aubrey Plaza, Illeana Douglas, Malin Akerman, Will Ferrell, Gene Simmons, Neve Campbell, sister Amy and such Scandinavian celebs as ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus, Claes Månsson, Christopher Wagelin and Per Svensson. The always welcome Lena Olin plays Emma’s delightfully cold-hearted mother.

Masters of Sex” has become such a complex and surprising series that, when I received the “Season Two” package, I actually thought it’s been on Showtime for three, at least. Maybe that’s because it usually takes more than two years for other series to pack the same amount of drama into their storylines. On closer inspection, I realized that its season, like that of “Shameless,” is 12 episodes long, compared to the 8 or 10 received for other important series. In “Season Two,” the writers expanded the narrative beyond Masters, Johnson and their human guinea pigs. Such then-timely taboos as interracial love and substance abuse were introduced, as well as the potential for television to educate viewers and make celebrities out of people otherwise toiled in anonymity. Moreover, there was so much nudity in Season One that it practically became a non-issue in Season Two, except for the hospital administrators and mid-century prudes for whom Hugh Hefner had yet to become a household name. Masters and Johnson, separately and together, also are faced with losing control of their research and loved ones. The season’s must-watch episode is “Fight,” during which we learn more about Masters (Michael Sheen) than in the entirety of the first stanza. We’re also introduced to gender issues as relevant today as they were in the 1950s. The Blu-ray adds the lengthy featurettes, “The History of Sex,” “The Women of Sex” and “The Men of Sex,” as well as episode-specific deleted and extended scenes.

I don’t know how many times that highlights of “The Ed Sullivan Show” have been packaged, re-packaged and subdivided, as VHS and DVD collections exclusively available through television advertorials, at Amazon or other retail outlets. This time around, under the auspices of Time Life Entertainment, the performances included in the six-disc “The Best of the Ed Sullivan Show” package look better than ever. Given the crappy speakers built into mid-century television sets, the classic acts on display here can be considered as good as these things get, as well. From 1950 until 1971, the Sullivan show the owned 8 p.m. timeslot (Eastern and Pacific) on Sunday nights, at least on CBS, before cable and satellites began to eat the broadcast networks’ lunch. Sullivan, known first as a newspaper columnist, promised audiences something for everyone and delivered it. The word, “variety,” meant that a plate-spinner might be sandwiched between an opera diva and a scene from a Broadway drama. Sullivan showcased Elvis Presley, the Beatles and James Brown at times when they were being lambasted in the mainstream media, but screaming teenagers were making them millionaires. “The Best of the Ed Sullivan Show” doesn’t ignore the occasional controversy, but there were so few as to be deemed laughable over the course of a few months. The package is divided into six categories: “Unforgettable Performances,” “The 50th Anniversary Special,” “The All-Star Comedy Special,” “World’s Greatest Novelty Acts,” “Amazing Animal Acts” and “Bonus Interviews.” Among the rarities isthe only known film of prima ballerina Anna Pavlova, the Muppets’ first TV appearance, comic impressions of Sullivan, Broadway appearances from “My Fair Lady” and “West Side Story,” appearances by Barbra Streisand, Humphrey Bogart, Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Carol Burnett and thousands more performers and audience guests.

Another television classic that’s been sliced and diced over the years is “The Midnight Special,” a late-night show that took rock, pop, R&B and country acts as seriously as the producers of the Sullivan show.  The latest permutation of last fall’s comprehensive gift box is a three-disc set that includes such timeless acts as Glen Campbell, Earth, Wind & Fire, ELO, Donna Summer, Dolly Parton, Aretha Franklin, Etta James & Dr. John, Heart, Santana, Linda Ronstadt, and Van Morrison, and such barely remembered performers as the Bay City Rollers, Captain & Tennille, Eddie Rabbit, Mac Davis, Albert Hammond, Peaches & Herb and Chic. Among the comedians represented are Billy Crystal, George Carlin, Freddie Prinze, Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers and Steve Martin. Bonus features include an interview with guitarist George Benson and a featurette with series creator and producer Burt Sugarman.