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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.

Lovesick
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.

Docs-to-DVD
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.

TV-to-DVD
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.

Champs
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.

TV-to-DVD
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.

The DVD Wrapup: 50 Shades, Selma, Mr. Turner, The Nun, Snuff and more

Thursday, May 7th, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey: Unrated Edition: Blu-ray
My Mistress
Not having watched Fifty Shades of Grey in a theater, surrounded by rabid fans who’ve memorized the naughty bits of E.L. James’ runaway best-seller, I committed myself to approach the unrated Blu-ray edition with an open mind. I was pretty sure that Jamie Dornan’s contractually proscribed penis wouldn’t make a cameo appearance, but, otherwise, would be at a loss as to what was added to the original for it suddenly to be considered too hot for an R or NC-17 designation. If I were to guess, I’d say that several seconds of the extra three minutes, at least, can be found in the seriocomic contract-negotiations – my favorite scene in the movie – when a couple of the line-item vetoes might have disturbed MPAA screeners. As everyone else in the free world knew before checking out Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation – except moi – Anastasia Steele is an innocent in a world filled with attractive sexually active white folks, some of whom are exceedingly wealthy and twisted. The first man Ana meets with whom she’s willing to do the deed is an emotionally retarded young fellow who’s made a shitload of money doing God knows what and, after having his cherry broken as a submissive by a friend of his mother, now insists on playing the dominant role. For a virgin in her early 20s, Ana seems a bit too anxious to cross the final threshold into full womanhood and simultaneously engage in BDSM horseplay as dictated by someone who could be considered insane. A mutual interest in the novels of Jane Austen normally wouldn’t open the door to romance and pain on the same night. But, then, how could any modern gal resist such material pleasures as having a helicopter at your beck and call, gifted sports cars and state-of-the-art computers, and a glider ride straight out of The Thomas Crown Affair. Where “50 Shades” most differs from 9½ Weeks, its predecessor in R-rated BDSM, is in the lack of worldliness displayed by the two lead characters – one a recent college graduate and the other a tycoon — and Christian’s deeply submerged vulnerability, which rises to the surface at the strangest times. (He only reveals the source of his anxiety and pain while she’s fast asleep beside him.) Even if Ana is as cute as a button on Shirley Temple’s faux military garb in Wee Willie Winkie, as drawn, she couldn’t last five minutes in a sex-play dungeon against Kim Basinger’s novice submissive. The same holds true for Grey’s rough-tough creampuff vs. Mickey Rourke’s nicotine-stained arbitrageur. Although some of the lovemaking is inarguably sensual, the contract-negotiating scene is the only one that rivals the best passages choreographed by Adrian Lyne in 9½ Weeks or such classics of the sub-genre as Belle du Jour, Secretary, Crash, The Story of O or The Image. As difficult as it is to take potshots at a picture that’s made more than a half-billion dollars in worldwide distribution or might match that in DVD/VOD/Blu-ray revenues, I still think we have a long way to go before mainstream audiences are allowed a real taste of non-generic eroticism, unless it’s in sex-umentaries on HBO and Showtime. For those who like their BDSM Lite, however, three more minutes of “50 Shades” should prove three minutes well spent. The Blu-ray offers both versions, as well as several short making-of featurettes; interviews with cast, crew, author and BDSM consultant; a 360-degree set tour of Christian’s apartment; and music videos. And, yes, two more segments of the trilogy already on the drawing board.

Anyone who wants to extend their personal Fifty Shades of Grey experience really ought to consider picking up the kinkier Australian coming-of-sexual-age export, My Mistress. Unlike such early-‘80s adolescent fantasies as My Tutor and Private Lessons — during which teenage boys gain a first-hand appreciation of the Playboy Philosophy from women who easily could grace a magazine centerfold — co-writer/director Stephan Lance appears to have crafted his 16-year-old protagonist here, Charlie Boyd (Harrison Gilbertson), from a second or third re-reading of “The Catcher in the Rye.” Upon arriving home one day, Charlie is greeted by the corpse of his father hanging from a beam in the garage. For this, he blames his mother (Rachael Blake), who he believes is having an affair with his dad’s best friend. Charlie is so convinced of her culpability that he insists on treating the garage as a crime scene and spray-paints an indictment on the garage door. On his way off the deep end, he pays a visit to the mysterious MILF (Emmanuelle Beart) who lives down the lane. After offering his services as a gardener, Charlie sneaks a peek of Maggie servicing a client’s masochistic desires as a fully outfitted mistress. The sight transfixes the boy, who has a hard time processing the visual data assaulting his senses inside the suburban estate. Watching an outwardly normal fellow enduring pain for pleasure taps into something raw and unguarded in Charlie’s already fragile psyche. What he senses intuitively is that he’s in the presence of the Anti-Mom and she’s the only one capable of guiding him into manhood. I know what you’re thinking, but that’s not really how S&M works. As it turns out, Maggie has been a bit out of sorts lately, herself, and sees in her gardener’s obsession something perversely therapeutic. None of this would be remotely credible if Maggie weren’t played by the sensational French actress, Beart, who’s been down this road in previous movies. At 51, she has grown comfortable playing all sorts of characters, from straight to twisted, and filmmakers no longer require that she appear naked in all of her roles. Even so, no amount of stage makeup or airbrushing could make her look any hotter or more appropriate for the part of Maggie as she does in Gerard Lee’s offbeat drama. Naturally, this sort of mentoring affair can’t be allowed to go on forever and someone’s going to get hurt. Blessedly, the longtime Jane Campion collaborator has provided an escape hatch that doesn’t pander to anyone’s expectations or insult either the viewers or characters. I’m pretty sure that American distributors were scared off by the fact that the protagonist is 16 and Maggie isn’t cut down by a bolt of lightning at any time during the proceedings. The DVD adds a few short, but informative interviews.

Selma: Blu-ray
Even if director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb’s fine historical drama, Selma, didn’t do quit as well during awards season as many observers thought it should, they were far from alone in that distinction Most of the clamor was directed at members of the Motion Picture Academy – despite an Oscar for Best Original Song and Best Picture nomination – and its historic lack of minority representation. Maybe so, but the media’s obsession with the non-scandal tells me three things: 1) the only nominations that really count in Hollywood are those for Academy Awards, 2) perceived snubs against Oprah Winfrey ring louder than perceived snubs against everyone else, and 3) members won’t vote for something they’re too lazy to see in an actual theater or screening room. Selma is a very good movie about an important event in American history. It also made a bit of money at the box office. The only real rap against it is the depiction of President Johnson as a man willing to put personal honor – his well-intentioned and entirely essential War on Poverty – above the strategic demands of Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo). In fact, LBJ did more heavy lifting for civil rights than all of the Kennedy brothers combined. It goes unsaid in Selma how much credence JFK, RFK and even Jackie O gave the toxic reports of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who, at the time, was wiretapping and blackmailing King and the Kennedys. It’s also telling that DuVernay was required by King’s absurdly litigious estate to rewrite some of the speeches delivered by MLK in the film, because the family had already sold the rights to another studio. None of that should have negatively impacted the campaigns behind DuVernay and Oyelowo, because nominations in their categories would have come from members of the respective branches, not the entire academy. It’s more likely that voters reacted negatively to the decision not to send out screeners of Selma, seeing it as a ploy designed to force them to get off their asses and attend one of many free screenings arranged especially for them.

Last week, Paramount Home Media Distribution took the higher road by announcing its intention to donate a copy of the DVD free of charge to every high school in the U.S., along with companion study guides to help initiate classroom discussions. It would be interesting to know if the guides mention Governor Wallace’s later renunciation of his position on segregation and made a record number of African-American appointments to positions in Alabama. Or, for that matter, how to handle any discussion of MLK’s infidelity to his wife, Coretta Scott King, a hot potato that’s dropped almost as soon as its raised in the movie. The Blu-ray adds commentaries with DuVernay and Oyelowo, who’s terrific in the lead role; DuVernay, director of photography Bradford Young, and editor Spencer Averick; featurettes, “The Road to Selma” and “Recreating Selma”; several deleted and extended scenes; the music video, “Glory”; a collection of vintage newsreels and still images; short pieces that name the supporters of the Selma Student Ticket Initiative and introduce the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute; and a discussion guide. The important thing about getting Selma in front of students is the necessity for encouraging them to register to vote and, then, show up at the polls. Many of the same techniques used to deny minorities the right to vote in the 1960s are being used today by Republican and Tea Party officials to keep blacks and Hispanics, especially, from exercising their rights. The only way they’re able to get away with such an abuse of power is through the pitifully small turnout of minority, student and working-poor voters. That, I think, is the message that Dr. King would want viewers to take away from Selma.

Mr. Turner Blu-Ray
Last May, Timothy Spall won the Best Actor prize at Cannes for his delightfully crusty portrayal of British painter J.M.W. Turner, in Mike Leigh’s spectacularly photographed Mr. Turner. In it, Spall is required to re-create the final two decades of Turner’s life, which ended in 1851, at the ripe old age of 76. Unlike so many of the Impressionists who would be influenced by his use of color, texture and light, Turner was successful in his time and his paintings were being sold outside Europe. If his fame would be eclipsed less than a century later by Van Gogh, Gaugin and Monet, recent gallery and museum installations prove that his work is more popular than ever. Like the eccentric Leigh, Turner was quite a character. Several critics have suggested that the Palme d’Or-nominated film is the closest Leigh has come to a self-portrait. If so, he’s sullen, communicates largely in grunts and is more than a little bit dyspeptic. An entirely original filmmaker, Leigh doesn’t make movies like anyone else does. Most of his work in theatre and film is done without any initial script and the air of improvised spontaneity has endeared him to arthouse audiences. Although Turner is known primarily for landscapes, sky-scapes and maritime paintings, his paintings also reflect the gritty dynamics of the Industrial Age. Through Spall, who was asked to study painting for two years before production began, Leigh’s great accomplishment here is capturing Turner’s reverence for natural light and ability to anticipate exemplary outbursts of what he considered to be manifestations of God’s glory. To this end, cinematographer Dick Pope was awarded a special jury prize at Cannes, as well as an Oscar nomination, for his ability to re-create images almost exactly like those painted more than 150 years earlier. Spall, who isn’t a small man, is especially appealing when he’s portraying Turner’s physically awkward dalliances with his lovers and mistresses. The masterful Blu-ray presentation adds comprehensive commentary with Leigh; the featurettes “The Cinematic Palette: The Cinematography of Mr. Turner” and “The Many Colours of Mr. Turner”; and an additional scene.

The Last Five Years: Blu-ray
If any actress is busier these days than Anna Kendrick, I can’t imagine who she might be. Ever since being nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar in 2010 for her irresistible performance in Up in the Air, the petite brunette has been churning out four or five movies a year, including those in the Twilight series. We’ve also learned that she can sing a lick or two. There are moments in The Last Five Years when it looks as if all of the hard work has begun to catch up with Kendrick. That might have as much to do with makeup or lack, thereof, intended to reflect the problems her character is experiencing than fatigue, however. Unlike Into the Woods and the Pitch Perfect franchise, Richard LaGravenese’s adaptation of Jason Robert Brown’s off-Broadway musical doesn’t require its two stars to do anything but sing. The lyrics of Brown’s 14 songs tell the entire story of a love affair and marriage between rising New York novelist Jamie Wellerstein (Jeremy Jordan) and struggling singer/actress Cathy Hiatt (Anna Kendrick). There are other contrasts, but the only one that really matters is Cathy’s growing anxiety over not becoming successful as quickly as Jamie. Their story is told almost entirely through songs, using an intercutting time-line device. All of Cathy’s songs begin at the end of their marriage and move backward in time to the beginning of their love affair, while Jamie’s songs start at the beginning of their affair and move forward to the end of their marriage. The stories meet in the middle, during their wedding. Once one gets used to the back-and-forth, The Last Five Years makes sense as something that might actually have happened to Brown and his ex-wife, Terri O’Neill. The songs are interesting enough on their own, but anyone expecting anything resembling those in Kendrick’s previous movie musicals might need a few moments to adjust to narrative style. I doubt that anyone knew how to market The Last Five Years before dumping it into a couple dozen theaters and the VOD marketplace. Kendricks’ fans may not have been aware that it even existed. For them, The Last Five Years could make an irresistible virtual double-feature with Pitch Perfect 2, which arrives on May 15. The Blu-ray adds sing-along subtitles and a short “Conversation with Composer/Lyricist Jason Robert Brown.”

God’s Slave
When the absorbing South American terrorist drama, God’s Slave, began making the festival rounds in 2013, director Joel Novoa and writer Fernando Butazzoni couldn’t possibly have known how the horrifying events it describes would be eclipsed by the death in January of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman and assertions of a cover-up against President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman. In both cases, the focus is on the 1994 terrorist attack on the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association building, in which 85 people were killed and hundreds were injured. The car-bombing, which has gone unsolved for more than 20 years, is virtually identical to the pivotal event in God’s Slave. In the movie, which is equal parts procedural and human drama, two deeply religious men on opposite sides of the Mideast struggle are brought together in the hours before another planned attack in Buenos Aires. Each was shaped by killings witnessed as children and beliefs re-enforced by decades of acrimony, mistrust and violence. After Admed Al Hassamah (Mohammed Alkhaldi) witnesses the murder of his parents by a masked man with a gold Rolex on his wrist, he was adopted into a radical Islamic sect and trained to become a deep-cover terrorist. Years later, he’s embedded into a sleeper cell based in Caracas, where’s he’s given a cover job, assumed name and doctored passport, is encouraged to marry and soon commits to family life. Eventually, Admed will get the call from his handlers, directing him to fly to Buenos Aires and get fitted for a suicide vest. Meanwhile, Mossad agent David Goldberg (Vando Villamil) is on the verge of being sent back to Israel as the scapegoat for not stopping a deadly synagogue bombing. He’s memorized the names, aliases and faces of dozens of terrorists operating outside the Mideast. He recognizes Admed as he crosses the street in front of him on a final visit to the mosque closest the cell’s safehouse. What happens next will be heavily influenced by both men’s feelings for their own families and consciences.  Although several deadly attacks happened in the direct wake of the actual AIMA bombing, God’s Slave is only interested in pursuing the human story. In the not-too-distant future, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see an epic drama, similar to Munich, on the AIMA attack, reports of Argentine police complicity, investigative incompetence, corruption, cover-ups and murders that continue today not only in Argentina, but also Iran, Lebanon, Israel and several other countries. The DVD adds a making-of featurette, director’s statement and the shattering short-film, “Machsom,” which is largely set at a volatile security crossing between the West Bank and Israel.

The Nun
Uplifting stories about nuns and priests once were a staple of Hollywood. They’re still being made, but there’s no longer any guarantee the characters will be portrayed with the same reverence as they were when the Legion of Decency was nearly as powerful as the Hays Office. Today, there might as well be a target painted on the backs of clergy … sometimes for good reason, but other times not. One of the best films released in 2014 was Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski’s, Ida. It tells the story of a young woman on the verge of taking vows as a Catholic nun, circa 1962, when she learns that she’s Jewish and her parents were killed shortly after the Nazi takeover of Poland. It’s a beautiful film, full of small surprises and revelations. Leaders of the Polish Catholic Church objected to some parts of it, but not with enough factual authority to influence critics or prevent it from winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Guillaume Nicloux’s adaptation of Denis Diderot’s Enlightenment novel “La Religieuse” describes the ordeal of another novitiate, albeit with a very different revelation about her parentage. Diderot was inspired by the death of his sister, a nun, who he believed to have been overworked by her superiors at the convent. He constructed “La Religieuse” around a series of letters he had actually written to the Marquis de Croismare to lure him back to Paris in support of his sister. The scheme may have worked, but its public exposure caused the all-powerful Church launch a censorial campaign against Diderot than lasted past his death. Completed in about 1780, the work was posthumously published in 1796.

In The Nun, the correspondence from Suzanne Simonin (Pauline Etienne) to her lawyer actually finds its way to the marquise, who’s appalled to learn that her parents banished her to the nunnery to afford dowries for her sisters. Apparently, it was a common practice for financially burdened families to relinquish a daughter, who could then be exploited as a beast of burden, sex slave or handmaiden to the Mother Superior. Suzanne’s refusing to play along with the charade of volunteering to commit her life to Christ shocks the priest officiating at the initiation service. He orders her sent home, even if they still claim to be unable to support her. Desperate to “expatiate” the sins of her family, instead, Suzanne’s mother (Martina Gedeck) reveals to her bright and creative 16-year-old daughter that she’s the bastard product of a short-lived love affair after her marriage. Suzanne agrees to return to the convent, only to learn that a new, much younger and far more sadistic Mother Superior (Louise Bourgoin) is now in control of the place. It’s as if she has stepped into a production of “Cinderella,” complete with a Wicked Stepmother and several Sisty Uglers. This time, Suzanne’s letters find their way to an aide to the now-fictional Marquis de Croismare, who arranges for her to be transferred to a convent supervised by a much nicer Mother Superior (Isabelle Huppert). This time, the abbess openly encourages the young woman to refine her singing and piano playing talents. In return for favored treatment, however, Mother expects some sexual favors of her own. Nicloux’s solution to this horrifying situation doesn’t come as a complete shock to us, but it is satisfying. The splendid scenery, set design and acting allow us to endure Suzanne’s painful treatment, even if we don’t yet know where he’s taking us.

Amira & Sam: Blu-ray
Written and directed by Sean Mullin, a comedian and onetime U.S. Army officer, Amira & Sam is a debut feature that borrows just enough from real life to turn the familiar odd-couple conceit into something fresh and surprising. Just back from Afghanistan, where he served as a Green Beret, Sam Seneca (Martin Starr) is experiencing problems fitting back into American society. Their differences aren’t serious, as these things go, but Sam hasn’t been back in the U.S. long enough to realize that the people saying, “Thank you, for your service,” are only trying to make themselves feel comfortable about not enlisting after 9/11. While they’re happy you made it home, they don’t give a good crap about what’s happening over there and aren’t likely to help the veteran find meaningful work or treatment for your PTSD. After he’s fired from his job as a security guard at a high-rise apartment building – a funny scene, actually – Sam is encouraged by his financier brother to use his military background as a lure to attract wealthy investors, who also served in one of this country’s many recent foreign wars. He doesn’t snap to what his brother is up to until he’s asked to pull his dress uniform from the closet to wear to his engagement party. Several prominent ex-military clients have been invited to the affair and he’s expected to glad-hand them.

By this time, Sam has befriended Amira, the niece of an interpreter on his team in Iraq. She’s bitter over the fact that her father, also an interpreter, was killed in action and her uncle felt it necessary to bring her to New York to avoid being murdered. Amira makes a feeble living selling pirated DVDs on street corners, which, even in New York, is illegal. After escaping from a cop who could uncover her lapses in reporting to immigration officials, her Uncle Bassam (Laith Naklil) asks Sam to give her safe harbor until he can find her a more permanent home with relatives in Michigan. Naturally, after some rocky moments, they discover things they like about each other. It’s at the reception for Sam and his pregnant fiancé that Amira – who’s wearing a spectacular red sari and hajib – learns just how uncomfortable Americans are in the company of people who remind them of their government’s misadventures. The party ends when Sam gets in a fight with his brother – who reluctantly admits that he might be in a wee spot of bother with the SEC – and Amira accidentally elbows the condescending fiancé, causing her to file charges that could result in deportation. If this scenario stretches credulity, at least it requires Sam to take positive action on their future. This includes acting on Amira’s encouragement to realize his dream of performing at a comedy club. By comparison, the Taliban were pussycats. The Blu-ray adds interviews and making-of material.

The Frontier
Matt Rabinowitz’ intense father-son drama, The Frontier, probably would fit more comfortably in a small theater than on a large screen, if only because so little of it takes places outside the wooden-fence barrier of a smallish home in the country. Indeed, most of the dialogue is exchanged over tables in the kitchen and living room. Max Gail (“Barney Miller”) is extremely credible as the retired literature professor, Sean, who’s seemingly spent his entire life lecturing his students, children and lovers, quoting Walt Whitman and rejecting their opinions. In some college towns, such a tireless blowhard would be only too archetypal a character. Coleman Kelly plays Tennessee, the son who needed to put some space between himself and his father after his mother died. We’re led to believe that Sean kept a weather eye open for vulnerable female students and rarely turned down the lubricant of a free drink. Not surprisingly, Tennessee decided that working with horses and cows was preferable to academia, where he might have been surrounded by men exactly like his father. When he receives a letter from his dad asking him to return home before he goes to the big library in the sky, Tennessee cautiously agrees to do so.

Upon his arrival, Tennessee is greeted first by a drop-dead blond beauty who has moved into the house as the old man’s personal assistant and editor of his memoirs. Even if Nina (Anastassia Sendyk) is allowed to escape the chains surrounding “the young woman” in such stories, until Tennessee’s arrival, she’s required to play Sean’s audience of one. To avoid succumbing to such treatment, Tennessee commits his time to fixing things around the home, including the fences, which are badly in need of a fresh coat of paint. Finally, though, Nina rightly susses that the two men need some alone time, during which they can work out their differences over a bottle of whisky. The unusual thing about The Frontier is that three of the five listed actors are first-timers and one of them is a former “production driver” who’s appeared in a couple of features that no one has seen. Ditto writer Carlos Colunga and co-writer/director Rabinowitz. If I were forced to guess, I’d say that The Frontier began its journey to the screen as a script work-shopped by aspiring actors in a class taught by Gail or someone he owed a favor. It explains the intimacy of the story, which frequently gets lost as a full-blown movie. People who’ve enjoyed Gail’s work, largely on television, over the course of his 40-plus-year career, are the likely audience for The Frontier.

Murder of a Cat
Judging solely from the Saul Bass-inspired poster art, Gillian Greene’s comedy whodunit Murder of a Cat should be the kind of DVD or VOD that might fill a couple of hours of time on a quiet weekend night. Horror master Sam Raimi’s name is the first one mentioned, as producer, higher even than those of his wife Greene and actors J.K. Simmons (Oscar-winner, for Whiplash), Blythe Danner (Emmy-winner for “Huff”), Greg Kinnear (Oscar-nominee, for As Good As It Gets) and lead actors Fran Kranz (“JourneyQuest”) and Nikki Reed (Twilight). The trouble is, the poster is so much more appealing than anything in the first feature screenplay by Christian Magalhaes and Robert Snow (“New Girl”) that there’s almost nothing that Raimi and the A-list actors could have done to save it. Kranz plays Clinton Moisey, a small-town man-child who sells knick-knacks and handmade action figures from a table set up on the front lawn of his mom’s house. One morning, he wakes up to discover that his beloved cat has been killed and presumably murdered by an arrow shot by an unknown archer. Disturbed that the local sheriff (Simmons) isn’t treating the case as if it were the assassination of a public figure, Moisey decides to take the investigation into his own clumsy hands. It doesn’t take him long to discover that his cat divided its time between him and an eccentric young woman (Reed) who somehow has been able to rent an apartment in a facility for senior citizens. The trail then leads him to the mega-store, at which the arrow was sold and is owned by a man (Kinnear) that Moisey blames for ruining his “business.” His amateur sleuthing does turn up a couple of underwritten, kooky suspects, but he can’t get anyone to take them seriously, either. This complicates things for his mom (Danner), who has recently started dating the sheriff. It’s the kind of movie in which everything feels calculated to spark laughter among people who fill their idle hours on Facebook, exchanging pictures of their pets.

Love, Rosie
Fans of the subgenre of British rom-coms practically invented by Richard Curtis (Love, Actually, Notting Hill) should embrace Christian Ditter’s modern fairytale, Love, Rosie, which argues in favor of the proverb, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a dream fulfilled is a tree of life.” In this case, anyway, it’s possible to substitute, “Love deferred …,” for “Hope deferred …,” and come up with a more appropriate synapsis. As children, Rosie (Phil Collin’s daughter, Lily Collins) and Alex (Sam Claflin) are inseparable friends and confidantes. We know that Ditter and screenwriter Juliette Towhidi will require us to sit through nearly 100 minutes of false starts, missteps and blunders before the inevitable conclusion. The only question is how long we’ll remain interested in following their journey. Based on a 2004 novel by Cecelia Ahern, “Where Rainbows End,” Love, Rosie is propelled by another terrific performance by Collins (Mirror Mirror, Stuck in Love), who, compared to everyone else in the story, looks small enough to take up residence under a banana leaf at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The turning point for the two friends here comes when they attend their prom with separate dates and Rosie is impregnated in one of the most embarrassing ways possible. Rosie and Alex were anticipating to traveling to Boston together for college, but, after refusing to get an abortion, she remains in Ireland to raise her daughter in her parents’ home. (She also postpones introducing the girl to her birth father until much later.) Picky viewers could drive a truck the holes in the plot, but, sometimes, logic in rom-coms is overrated.

Against the Sun
Brian Falk’s debut feature tells the harrowing true story of three U.S. Navy airmen forced to survive for 34 days on an inflatable raft after crash landing their World War II torpedo bomber in the South Pacific. If that synopsis sounds familiar, it’s only because Against the Sun was released almost simultaneously with Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, which benefited from a larger budget, greater marketing reach and an equally dramatic second half that takes place on land. Also fresh in viewers’ memories were Robert Redford’s All Is Lost and Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, both of which involved characters stranded at sea. Of course, Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, John Sturges’ The Old Man and the Sea and any number of movies based on the Titanic disaster immediately come to mind when recalling movies about men stranded at sea. The marketplace can only support so many of these dramas. Here, Tom Felton, Garret Dillahunt and Jake Abel portray the three men stuck on a raft half as large as the ones available in Unbroken to Louis Zamperini and Russell Allen Phillips in their 47-day ordeal at sea. (Francis McNarma died 33 days after their plane crashed.) Otherwise, the men endured essentially the same punishing circumstances, relying on their wiles to catch the occasional fish or sea bird, avoid being eaten by sharks or capsized by giant waves, and survive on virtually no potable water or protection from the sun. Falk’s makeup department couldn’t possibly have made extreme sunburn look any more ugly and painful as it does in Against the Sun. The DVD adds a making-of featurette.

Mahogany: The Couture Edition
After scoring a Best Actress nomination in her first time at bat in Hollywood — her star turn in the Billie Holliday biopic, Lady Sings the Blues – Diana Ross probably could have had her pick of roles, regardless of race, for her follow-up feature. Like Barbra Streisand, the former lead singer of the Supremes was at the height of her diva-hood and looked invincible. Too bad, no one thought of pairing these two superstars in a feminist remake of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Even 15 years later, they probably could have pulled off Thelma and Louise, but Ross couldn’t resist the temptation to chew the scenery in the diva-ready Mahogany. While the part didn’t require her to sing, it allowed her sole credit for costume design, which must have seemed equally cool. You knew that the production was in trouble, however, when Motown boss Barry Gordy decided to take over the director’s chair originally manned by two-time Oscar-winner Tony Richardson (Tom Jones). Today, if Mahogany is remembered at all, it’s as the movie that launched a thousand drag impersonations.

Borrowing a classic mid-century template, Ross plays a fashionable young woman who grew up poor on the South Side of Chicago, but aspires to greatness as a designer of the kind of clothes not favored by the women who shop at Marshall Field’s. Instead a magazine photographer (Tony Perkins) discovers her at a shoot, mistaking her for a potentially in-demand “clothes hanger.” Instead of staying in Chicago and nurturing her relationship with a street-level politician (Billy Dee Williams, also from “LSTB”), she decides to take the photographer up on his offer of a big modeling assignment in Rome. Even though he insists that Mahogany is only there to model, she decides to wear one of her more adventurous creations for the shoot. This goes over like a lead brassiere, of course, and sparks begin to fly between them. Mahogany then decides to showcase her own orange-kimono creation at an important fashion auction, instead of the more subtle white number assigned to her. The photographer attempts to embarrass her on the runway, but is trumped by an Italian aristocrat (Jean-Pierre Aumont) with lots of money, but limited patience for bad behavior. As if to convince us of how much of a diva she’s become – yes, a diva playing a diva — Mahogany even manages to alienate her Chicago boyfriend when he comes to Rome for a visit. Things get even more retrograde from there. Rumor had it at the time that Gordy personally lobbied the academy to make sure the original Michael Masser/Gerry Goffin composition “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” was nominated. All things being equal, the peppy chart-topper probably should have beaten “I’m Easy,” from Nashville. Judged solely on its value as a low-octane camp distraction, Mahogany delivers the goods. The only new addition to this DVD package are “collectible” prints of fashions worn by Ross in the film. There’s also a stills gallery.

Snuff: A Documentary About Killing on Camera: Special Edition
There are two, maybe three very different things going on in Paul von Stoetzel’s provocative Snuff: A Documentary About Killing on Camera. It opens with a lengthy discussion of the snuff-film phenomenon, which the director describes as pertaining to “movies that are sold for profit in which a person is murdered.” The notion that such things exist on the underground market became popular in the 1970s, following the Manson Family killings and the emergence of ultra-graphic horror films, here and abroad. Hollywood has tackled the subject in such pictures as Paul Schrader’s Hardcore and John Frankenheimer’s 52 Pick-Up and Joel Schumacher’s 8MM. John Alan Schwartz’ Faces of Death and Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust set the table for the torture-porn sub-genre to come. Russian, Mexican and Philippine mobsters have attempted to sell products that purport to be snuff films, but proof of the real things existing is lacking. Among the legitimate experts interviewed here are longtime observers of the video/DVD industry, filmmakers, law-enforcement officials and academics. The documentary is informed, as well, by a couple dozen clips from representative films. What distinguishes Von Stoetzel’s take on the subject is the truly disturbing and controversial material that falls under the sub-headline, A Documentary About Killing on Camera. Using this distinction, Von Stoetzel is able to argue that Edison Studios’ infamous 1903 “actuality” film, “Electrocuting an Elephant,” was little more than the staged execution of a troublesome carnival attraction for amusement of Coney Island patrons and use in Edison kinetoscope arcades, as well as promotion of Edison’s campaign for AC electricity. By definition, it can be considered the first true snuff film and, today, it creation and distribution would be as illegal as kiddie porn. Less easy to define are sickeningly graphic films recovered from actual serial killers by police and shown here alongside heavily censored films collected by war cinematographers, but only available through underground sources. As appalled as most Americans are at even the possibility that an animal might have been harmed in the making of a movie, it’s become necessary for producers to allow Humane Society observers to monitor scenes involving creatures as large as Topsy and as insignificant as cockroaches. If a fish is to be caught, viewers are relieved to learn it was with a barb-less hook.

How, then, to explain the continued marketability of movies that graphically dramatize the commission of such heinous crimes as torture, rape and murder? It’s simple, really. Just as free-market economists defend the manufacture and sale of potentially harmful or unhealthy consumer products by asserting the principles of supply-and-demand, filmmakers justify pandering to audiences’ appetite for violence and mayhem by falling back on the First Amendment, adding a cautionary PG-13 or R rating and, yes, citing supply-and-demand or demand-and-supply. Since the advent of the ratings system, though, sexuality and the frequency of f-bombs have been judged far more harshly than violence. Two of the most significant images to emerge from the Vietnam War were those involving a little girl escaping a napalm cloud, naked and scarred with serious burns, and the summary execution of a Viet Cong combatant, with his hands tied behind his back, by Saigon’s chief of police. Re-creating those terrible incidents on film today, using special-effects magic, would be child’s play. How many of the same people who paid to watch the killing of Islamic insurgents by a Navy SEAL in American Sniper have also combed the Internet for actual combat footage and propaganda showing Americans, British and Arab combatants at the instant of their deaths? Our government makes every attempt to suppress these images, while filmmakers study them for accuracy and impact. Photos and films of Iraqis being tortured at Abu Ghraib prison were Internet favorites, as were videos of people leaping, sometimes hand in hand, from the highest floors of the World Trade Center, sometimes set to music. The beheadings of captives held by Islamic insurgents are routinely filtered by most legitimate news outlets, but easy to find on the Internet. I wonder how these “hits” would translate into Nielsen ratings. At the same time as our government refused to allow the circulation of photographs of flag-draped coffins at a Delaware airport, it was circulating titillating videos of Iraqis being vaporized by American missiles, as if to ensure taxpayers that their dollars were being used wisely. (The happy chatter of the people pushing the buttons in helicopters or from drone-control headquarters half a world away was, in many cases, censored.) So, today, can it rightfully be argued that one man’s snuff film is the ethical equivalent of another man’s propaganda footage? In a thoughtful interview, Von Stoetzel poses this and other tough questions, while also admitting to having had qualms about where the lines might have been drawn in this deeply upsetting documentary. As it is, “Snuff” should be made mandatory viewing for decision makers in government and Hollywood. The DVD includes the Q&A and Danny Cotton’s grisly short, “Dinner Date.”

Daisy Derkins: Dog Sitter of the Damned
Some exploitation titles are simply too tantalizing to pass up. Daisy Derkins: Dog Sitter of the Damned is one of them. Like Mark Mackner’s companion piece, Daisy Derkins vs. The Bloodthirsty Beast of Barren Pines, it would have no artistic reason to exist, except to keep a half-dozen buxom babes off the unemployment lines. Here, Daisy has just gotten a part-time job as a dog sitter for a very strange dude in a black robe. Instead of paying strict attention to the beast from hell, she invites a couple of even more skanky friends over to drink, consult a Ouija board and discuss their hideous boyfriends and stalkers, who seem to either play in death-metal bands or moonlight as wrestlers in Mexico. When things get too weird, Daisy summons paranormal specialist and pin-up girl Delia Anguish to film the proceedings for her cable-access show. Other freaks of nature making cameos are a witch, serial killer and wendigo with a crush on Delia. The amazing thing about this black-and-white atrocity is the lack of nudity, which normally is a given in these sorts of things. As such, it practically qualifies as family-friendly exploitation … almost, but not quite. The DVD adds two shorts, including the one that inspired the feature and some truly unappetizing previews.

Lost Rivers
Great Figures of the Bible
If a river no longer can be found on a map, does it still exist? When it rains on our big cities, the water has to go somewhere and, usually, it finds the same paths laid when the first great storms carved the canyons, valleys, hollers, ditches and gullies that led to marshes, swamps, lakes, seas and oceans. Compare maps of New York City from the 1600s, 1700s and today and it’s easy to see how city planners’ efforts to fool Mother Nature worked, almost each and every time. Consider, though, the history of the Collect Pond, which, for hundreds of years, supplied the native and European residents of Lower Manhattan with their water. Fed by an underground spring, Canal Pond has resisted every effort to make it disappear by devouring the landfill dumped into it and destabilizing everything constructed on it. Today, it serves city residents as a park with a manmade water fixture. Collect Pond isn’t included in Caroline Bacle’s fascinating documentary Lost Rivers, but its partial reclamation, which began in 1960, may have influenced some of the environmentalists we meet in it. She takes us to the Cheonggyecheon Stream, in Seoul; the Saw Mill River, in Yonkers, N.Y.; the Bova-Celato River, in Italy; the River Tyburn, in London; the Petite rivière St-Pierre, in Montreal; and the Garrison Creek, in Toronto. The reclamation projects, sometimes called “daylighting,” are intended to improve the riparian environment for a stream by tearing off the tops of culverts, pipe and drainage systems to which they were confined to protect residents for water-borne diseases and pollution. Where only garbage once bloomed, fish now grow and children play.

Originally released in a four-disc set, in 2004, Great Figures of the Bible is comprised of stories from the bible, as interpreted by Elie Wiesel while sitting on a stiff wooden chair in front of an unseen audience, presumably of young people. Knowing that parents and other adults might be eavesdropping on the discussions, the Nobel Prize-winning author and human-rights activist seems to go out of his way not to dumb-down the lessons, as is the case in so many other such collections. Neither do the producers rely on animation to illustrate the stories. That aspect is taken care of through the use of classic paintings, sketches, tableaux and brief live-action dramatizations filmed on location in Israel. The subjects of Weisel’s faith-neutral insights include Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, Job, Moses and David. As is the case with the ink-and-paper bible, especially the Old Testament, every answer raises a half-dozen more questions.

TV-to-DVD
AMC: Halt and Catch Fire: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
BBC/Starz: Dancing on the Edge: Blu-ray
ITV/BBC America: Broadchurch: The Complete Second Season
PBS: Masterpiece: Mr. Selfridge: Season 3: Blu-ray
PBS: Baby Genius: Favorite Children’s Songs
Who knew how much fun it could be watching computer geeks do battle over who did what, when, and to what financial gain, in the development of the PC, Apple Mac and evolution of social media? Although the lineage can be traced directly to the 1984 frat-boy comedy Revenge of the Nerds, that picture wasn’t so much about socially inept techies as the outcasts who routinely were denied access to the fraternities associated with the jock elite and the sorority girls who snubbed them. The phrase, itself, proved so elastic that it was paraphrased for use in the 1996 documentary, “Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires,” which included interviews with such Silicon Valley pioneers as Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, Paul Allen, Bill Atkinson, Andy Hertzfeld, Ed Roberts and Larry Ellison. The strangely entertaining AMC mini-series, “Halt and Catch Fire,” took a real chance by dramatizing the frequently byzantine technical and financial machinations that occurred back in the day, when IBM and Apple were battling for dominance of the PC market. (The title refers to computer-code instruction HCF, whose execution would cause the computer’s central processing unit to stop working.) Before this could happen, however, the hardware had to be made accessible to consumers who simply wanted one to send e-mails, write essays or play solitaire. The 10-episode first season, set in the Silicon Prairie of Texas, circa 1983, benefitted from the intense interaction between Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), a key player in the debut of the IBM Personal Computer; Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a brilliant cyber-punk recruited by MacMillan’s new employer, Cardiff Electric; and the pragmatic Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), a former system builder turned sales engineer, who represents the early geek community. The Blu-ray edition adds a third disc containing supplemental material, including episode-by episode summaries and discussions and the featurettes, “Re-Making the 1980s,” “Rise of the Digital Cowboys” and “Setting the Fire: Research and Technology.”

Although the proper pronunciation of his name still may present a bit of a hurdle for American tongues, Chiwetel Ejiofor has become one of the brightest stars in the entertainment firmament. A native Londoner of Nigerian Igbo lineage, Ejiofor came to the attention of most of us with his Oscar-winning performance in “12 Years a Slave.” Released on BBC Two a few months before Steve McQueen’s searing antebellum drama debuted at Telluride, “Dancing on the Edge” is set in post-crash London, among a group of swells who didn’t lose nearly enough money to curb their greed. Just as America’s Jazz Age had faded from views, New Orleans’ gift to the world was finding its way across the pond and into underground clubs and fancy ballrooms. The Louis Lester Band is being championed by a young journalist (Matthew Goode), who helps the Duke Ellington-inspired leader arrange a four-month stand at the grand Imperial Hotel. After a brisk start and publicity sparked by the attendance of the Duke of Kent and his brother, the Prince of Wales, the band is getting restless for the fame that comes with a recording contract and radio spots. It isn’t until the band is asked to play at a New Orleans-style funeral for the manager of an estate owned by the reclusive Lady Lavinia Cremone (Jacqueline Bisset) that things begin to take off for Lester and story being told. She loves “new” music and is especially partial to Lester (Ejiofor), whose career would hugely benefit from Lady Cremone’s intercession with stodgy BBC executives. Writer/director Stephen Poliakoff warns viewers ahead of time not to expect smooth sailing for Lester and he delivers on his promise by putting the band in direct contact with key movers and shakers in the pre-World War II period, not all of whom are enlightened on racial issues. John Goodman is typically good as an enigmatic American billionaire who has enough money to manipulate all of the other characters, even those only slightly less rich. The clash of old and new is fun to watch, and nothing at all like what was happening at the same time in the U.S., where jazz, R&B and blues musicians were being ripped off by record company and radio executives. The final episode is quite remarkable, really, in that it falls somewhere between a series of outtakes and the discussions in My Dinner With Andre.

The second season of BBCA’s “Broadchurch” is a two-pronged continuation of events that everyone thought were sewed up at the end of Season One. Rather than concentrating exclusively on murder most foul, creator Chris Chibnall split the spotlight between the crime and the habitués of coastal Dorset. This was no problem for American viewers, weary of mysteries shot in Los Angeles, Vancouver and Toronto. In Season Two, we’re asked to follow the courtroom drama ensured by Joe Miller’s not-guilty plea, as well as the reopening of the Sandbrook case by detective-inspectors Alec Hardy and Ellie Miller (David Tennant, Olivia Colman). Joining the show this time around are Charlotte Rampling, Eve Myles, James D’Arcy and Marianne Jean-Baptiste. Chibnall’s connection to “Torchwood,” “Doctor Who” and “Life on Mars” ensured the presence of familiar actors in starring and guest roles. I haven’t heard if Chibnall’s superfluous American copy, “Gracepoint,” has been picked up for a second season, but I doubt it. A third season of “Broadchurch” has been announced. The DVD adds making-of and background featurettes, interviews and deleted scenes.

In the third stanza of the surprisingly successful ITV/PBS series, “Mr. Selfridge,” we bid a sad farewell to Rose Selfridge and a bittersweet “welcome home” to the men and women returning home from World War I. To no one’s pleasure, Lord Loxley is also back in London causing trouble for the American department-store magnet. To take his mind off his wife’s death, Harry has been given almost more than he can handle with a pet project to build affordable housing for returning vets. Compared to Season One, when he was portrayed as a playboy and scoundrel, Harry now appears as if he might be auditioning for sainthood. It’s his children who are carrying on the Selfridge tradition by getting arrested in nightclubs, making enemies at work and getting fleeced by hucksters … and that’s only in the first three episodes. Harry’s also caught in a pickle involving unemployed veterans and the women who filled their jobs when they volunteered for the war. It hasn’t been easy for me to accept Jeremy Piven as Harry Selfridge, but I’m in the minority on this one. All of the actors seem to fit just fine, including those who’ve left the store behind and are still being followed by the show’s writers. The UK Edition Blu-ray adds a 35-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, focusing on new characters and story arcs.

The latest installment in PBS’ “Baby Genius” franchise, “Favorite Children’s Songs,” extends to its youngest fans – their parents, too — a personal invitation from Vinko, DJ, Tempo, Oboe and Frankie, as they introduce babies and toddlers to colors, shapes, letters and numbers through classical music, childhood sing-along favorites and engaging videos. The songs include, “The Wheels on the Bus,” “Pop Goes the Weasel,” “Do You Know the Muffin Man,” “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and several “Baby Genius” originals. Special features add ”Baby Animals Favorite Sing-A-Longs,” “DJ’s My Name,” “Sing-A-Longs” and a bonus song; subtitles in English and Spanish; and a Spanish audio track.

The DVD Wrapup: The Gambler, Wedding Ringer, Boy Next Door, Paddington, Eddie Coyle, Wolf Hall and more

Friday, May 1st, 2015

The Gambler: Blu-ray
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s exceedingly flexible short novel, “The Gambler,” has been strictly and loosely adapted many times since its publication in 1867. I doubt that country-music songwriter Don Schlitz was thinking of Sergei Prokofiev’s opera, “The Gambler,” when he wrote the song that became Kenny Rogers’ signature hit, but, in a sense, all such entertainments lead back to the Russian novelist. The song’s core message – “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em/know when to fold ’em/Know when to walk away/know when to run …” – applies as much to the protagonist of the novel as it does to Mark Wahlberg’s character in Rupert Wyatt’s 2014 adaptation, The Gambler. In it, gambler Jim Bennett can’t push himself away from any table long enough to walk away with his temporary winnings. Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) borrowed rather freely from Karel Reisz’ 1974 adaptation, which starred James Caan and provided James Toback with his first screenwriting credit. Like Dostoevsky, Toback suffered from a severe addicti1on to gambling. Like Caan’s character, Axel Freed, Toback was born into a wealthy New York family and taught aspiring writes at a college in New York. Not to be flip or dismissive of Wyatt’s The Gambler, but in some ways it reminds me of a Bizarro World version of Reisz’ take on the novel. Bennett is the quintessential SoCal bad boy, who wears shades in the dark and somehow manages to look cool in rumpled designer suits. He teaches literature at a school that resembles USC and he lives in a modern hillside dwelling that some real-estate agents might list as a treehouse. He tools around L.A., from Koreatown to Bel-Air, in red BMW 1M convertible that’s always five minutes from being used as collateral for a gambling. Axel Freed settled for a Mustang ragtop. One is Jewish, while the other is a back-sliding WASP. Bennett owes the most money to an enigmatic Korean financier, whose henchmen are proficient in the martial arts. He also has borrowed large sums from an African-American bone-breaker (Michael Kenneth Williams), who lurks in the shadows of the illegal downtown casino here, waiting to for gamblers to require his services, and a sports bettor (John Goodman) who could have been Marlon Brando’s stunt-double in Apocalypse Now. All of them recognize the symptoms of Bennett’s disease and advise him to seek help.

Bennett isn’t as much a degenerate gambler as one who refuses to win, even when he’s holding a pat hand. No matter how much he’s up, everyone from the pit bosses to viewers knows he’s going to give it all back and borrow even more money to keep losing. When he convinces his beleaguered mother (Jessica Lange) to give him a small fortune in cash to pay off the debts, everyone, including Mom, knows he’s going to piss it away. Brie Larson is the pretty student who succumbs to his classroom bullshit and devil-may-care attitude, while Anthony Kelley is the athlete whose cynicism about his future in the pros figures into The Gambler’s fairytale ending. I say that because screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) has elected to tweak Toback’s original conclusion to fit the Bizarro nature of the remake. After failing to rouse any interest from awards-voters in its limited early release, the movie would open in a few dozen theaters at the end of January. I can’t imagine that much money was invested in a marketing campaign, so it came as no surprise when it stiffed. There’s much to recommend The Gambler to renters, however, including much slick cinematography and atmospheric set dressing. Of all the cast members, it’s most fun to watch Goodman play a green-felt Buddha. There’s nothing wrong with Wahlberg’s performance, but we’re never given any reason – except for a death-bed dismissal by his filthy-rich father – to identify with his character. If we sympathize with Bennett, it’s only because he’s being played by someone we’re pre-disposed to like. The fine-looking Blu-ray adds several decent making-of featurettes and backgrounders, along with deleted and extended scenes. Anyone who enjoys this edition of The Gambler really ought to check out the original, along with both of The Hustlers, Robert Altman’s California Split, Joe Pytka’s overlooked comedy Let It Ride and Toback’s Fingers, which was remade in 2005 by Jacques Audiardas as The Beat That My Heart Skipped.

The Wedding Ringer: Blu-ray
It’s called “development hell” and that’s where The Wedding Ringer – a.k.a., The Golden Tux – languished from 2002 to 2013, when the relatively unknown comedic actor Josh Gad and soon-to-be superstar Kevin Hart were assigned roles that may have been written to attract the attention of Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn. The duo was responsible for Wedding Crashers, after all, the anarchic comedy that ultimately led to such send-ups of modern love and romance as The Break-Up, Knocked-Up, You, Me and Dupre, The Hangover, Hall Pass, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Bachelorette, Bridesmaids, Couples Retreat, Date Night and I Love You, Man. Of all these titles, the one that appears to have benefitted most from Wedding Ringer being stuck in development hell was “I Love You, Man.” Both share a common conceit: a young man has popped the question, but, unlike his bride-to-be, hasn’t enough friends to pull together his half of a wedding party. In “I Love You, Man,” Paul Rudd’s search for a best man ends when he meets millionaire investor Jason Siegel at a business function and they develop bro-mantic feelings for each other. In The Wedding Ringer, Gad plays a friendless nebbish, Doug, who hires Hart’s Jimmy Callahan to be his best man and recruit a motley crew of groomsmen for the bachelor party, ceremony and reception. Doug complicates things for Jimmy by telling his fiancé (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting) – who’s a million miles out of his league – that he’s never been able to introduce her to “Bic” because he’s been serving overseas as a military chaplain. This, of course, opens the door for Jimmy not only to impersonate Doug’s best man, but also serve as a last-minute substitute for the minister. Co-writers Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender provide the oratory that Hart delivers with the same gusto he brings to his standup routines, minus the n-words. It’s an extremely polished performance. The script doesn’t demand much more of Gad than he’s delivered in previous performances as the unfortunate overweight dweeb, a modern archetype he has mastered. (To see Gad at his best, check out the FX Network’s “The Comedians,” in which he plays Billy Crystal’s comic nemesis.) The Blu-ray adds Gad and Garelick’s commentary on select scenes; quite a few deleted scenes and outtakes; “Going to the Chapel of Love,” in which cast and crew share their own wedding memories; and the music video, “Can You Do This,” by Aloe Blacc.

The Boy Next Door: Blu-ray
The best thing to be said about The Boy Next Door is that, while it reportedly cost a mere $4 million to make, it look as if 10 times that amount was spent on it. With a worldwide gross approaching $50 million, Rob Cohen’s sexy thriller easily qualifies as one of the surprise successes of the year. For one thing, the entire story was given away in the extensive television-marketing campaign and, despite an R-rating, it wasn’t likely that leading-lady Jennifer Lopez was going to make her first skin-tastic appearance in nearly 20 years. (Newcomer Lexi Atkins assumes that responsibility.) For those who can’t recall seeing the commercials, Lopez plays the recently separated MILF who succumbs to the temptation posed by the ab-tastic teenager, Noah (Ryan Guzman), an accomplished handyman who’s insinuated himself into the life of her oft-bullied son, Kevin (Ian Nelson). Misgivings give way to terror after Mrs. Peterson realizes that the stud next door is morphing into the psycho next door. For one thing, Noah seems determined to save her from the man who done her wrong (John Corbett), as well as the perceived meddling of her best friend and fellow teacher (Kristin Chenoweth). Cohen is too good a director of action sequences to blow a no-brainer ending, so things end on a high note. What I would have preferred to see is an R-rated adaptation of “Leave It to Beaver,” with Lopez and Corbett playing June and Ward Cleaver, Guzman as Eddie Haskell, Nelson as Wally and Jerry Mathers as the Beaver. In hindsight, the sexual tension between June and Eddie should have been obvious, even in 1957. The Blu-ray adds “The Making of ‘The Boy Next Door’”; deleted scenes; and Cohen’s commentary.

Paddington: Blu-ray
No matter the whims of Wall Street, this week’s release of Paddington into DVD/Blu-ray and imminent arrival of Ted 2 in theaters ensure that the anthropomorphic bear market will continue into July, at least. With global box-office receipts of $219.1 million, Paddington now stands as the industry’s highest grossing non-Hollywood, non-animated family film. If Ted 2 takes off at the box office the way its predecessor did on its way to worldwide revenues of $549.3 million, the movie gods may find a way to forgive Seth MacFarlane the hideous ego-trip that was A Million Ways to Die in the West. Paul King’s irresistible adaptation of Michael Bond’s internationally beloved series of children’s books borrows from several different storylines, while featuring a computer-animated Paddington Bear – voiced by Ben Whishaw (Cloud Atlas) — interacting with human characters in a live-action environment. Such is the respect accorded the world’s most celebrated and, perhaps, only Peruvian bear that a cast that includes Nicole Kidman, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins,, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi and Julie Walters lined up to bask in the reflected glare of his computer-animated shadow. The movie opens in the dense rain forest, where a British geographer has discovered a family of highly intelligent, marmalade-addicted bears and invites them to visit him in London if they so desire. Years later, circumstances arise that cause Paddington to take the geographer up on his offer. The problem is that Montgomery Clyde is nowhere to be found and the patience of the family that offers him temporary shelter isn’t limitless. When an evil museum taxidermist (Kidman) discovers that a talking bear is within her grasp, she decides that Paddington belongs in her collection. (Her logic escapes me, but it serves the plot.) To avoid such a fate, the bumptious bruin sets out to find Clyde or die trying. His search takes him from one crazy character to another and misadventures sure to please family audiences. The Blu-ray presentation is excellent, except for a features package that isn’t up to par. It includes three short backgrounders, a sing-along feature and “The Making of ‘Shine’” with Gwen Stefani & Pharrell Williams.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle: Blu-ray
I’d be willing to wager the full retail price of the Criterion Collection edition of The Friends of Eddie Coyle that George V. Higgins’ 1970 source novel and Peter Yates’ 1973 no-frills adaptation have influenced more genre specialists than any other kindred entertainments produced in the last 40 years. Once enjoyed, buffs have hardly been able to wait to recommend them to friends. “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” is the rare novel that can be savored in a single day. Yates’ film has influenced countless writers and directors, but no one has dared remake it. Here’s what Elmore Leonard said in his introduction to a later printing of the novel, “I finished the book in one sitting and felt as if I’d been set free.  So, this is how you do it.” Then, there’s Roger Ebert’s original four-star review of the movie, in which he observed, “Eddie is played by Robert Mitchum, and Mitchum has perhaps never been better.” Personally, since becoming addicted to crime fiction, I’ve recommended both titles to friends, genre enthusiasts and aspiring writers countless times. The only thing I suggest ahead of time is reading the book before watching the movie. The Higgins influence can be seen most in such early Leonard novels as “52 Pick-Up,” which inspired an excellent adaptation by John Frankenheimer; “Switch,” released in 2013 as Life of Crime; and the underappreciated “Unknown Man No. 89” and “City Primeval.” If Leonard gets most of the credit for capturing the unique dialogue shared by cops and criminals, it’s only because Higgins’ best work came early in his second career and only two of his novels were converted to film. Although their literary output was comparable, “Dutch” outlived “George V” by 28 years, dying 14 years and probably several million dollars apart from each other.

Mitchum famously plays the mid-level mob functionary, Eddie Coyle, who, because he is facing a long stretch in the joint, agrees to cut a deal with a federal agent. Unbeknownst to the gun-running hoodlum, several of Coyle’s “friends” have simultaneously decided to curry favor with various other law-enforcement agencies by dropping his name as a potential bargaining chip. Besides the mob, Higgins anticipated the increasing militancy of the radical left and intersecting interests of the political and criminal underground. The SLA might fairly well have studied “Eddie Coyle” before taking their act on the road. It would take another three decades for other writers and directors to capture the unique flavor and texture of inbred Boston criminality and corruption. Such films as The Boondock Saints, The Departed, Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, as well as the neighborhood-specific novels of Dennis Lehane, turned the city into a hotbed for location shoots. Again, though, Yates laid the foundation by electing to not to shoot The Friends of Eddie Coyle on a soundstage. It’s all Boston, all the time. In its infinite wisdom, the motion-picture academy neglected to nominate, Mitchum, Yates or co-star Peter Boyle for top honors. The Criterion Collection’s restored high-definition digital transfer and uncompressed monaural soundtrack has been approved by Yates. It includes his commentary from 2009, a stills gallery, an essay by critic Kent Jones and a 1973 on-set profile of Mitchum from Rolling Stone.

Accidental Love: Blu-ray
Frame for frame, dollar for dollar, no potentially mainstream production has wasted as much top-shelf talent as Accidental Love (a.k.a., “Nailed”). Shot and shelved in 2008, it had “troubled production” written all over it front Day One. Developed as a broad political satire by David O. Russell (American Hustle), Accidental Love was finally given a tentative pre-DVD release this spring with Russell’s name removed in favor of Stephen Greene, a close relation to Alan Smithee. Serious financial troubles, including the repeated stiffing of union cast and crew, caused numerous walk-offs and an abbreviated shooting schedule. The result is a comedy that rightly anticipated the freak-show atmosphere surrounding the debate over Obamacare in Congress, but wasted all of Russell’s good instincts. As it is, several transitional segments appear to be missing and almost none of what’s left warrants the appearance of such fine actors as Jessica Biel, Jake Gyllenhaal, Tracy Morgan, James Marsden, Kurt Fuller, Beverly D’Angelo, Bill Hader, Kirstie Alley, Catherine Keener, Paul Reubens, James Brolin, Malinda Williams and a half-dozen other familiar faces. Not privy to the fragile financial situation, the actors must have relished the opportunity to work with Russell, who was between the box-office disappoint I Heart Huckabees and game-changing The Fighter. As written by Kristin Gore, Matthew Silverstein and Dave Jeser, Biel plays a small-town roller-waitress who accidentally gets a nail driven into her skull while at her restaurant. Because Alice isn’t insured and the Burger Hop manager denies liability, she seeks the help of her congressman (Gyllenhaal) to pass a bill that would cover such accidents. Besides her boyfriend, a local cop (Marsden), Alice is supported in her crusade by the local Squaw Girl troop. Once in the nation’s capital, the petitioners discover that the freshman representative isn’t likely to rock the boat by supporting the lost cause of health-care reform. Improbably, whenever the waitress accidently jostles the nail embedded in her head, it sets off a reaction closely resembling nymphomania. Unable to resist a pretty woman willing to trade her body for a favorable vote, the congressman pretends, at least, to support her cause. Accidental Love is occasionally funny, but, like the premise, more often stupid than darkly comic.

The Barber: Blu-ray
Despite the presence of two razor-toting protagonists, director Basel Owies’ feature debut, The Barber, is surprisingly light on genuinely frightening encounters between psycho-killers and helpless victims. The movie opens with the release from police custody of the likely suspect in a series of 17 murders of young women in the Chicago area. Flash-forward 20 years and the same man, Francis Alan Visser (Scott Glenn), is a model-citizen barber in a small town relatively free of abhorrent crime. Visser looks harmless, but there’s something in his closely guarded demeanor that make us suspect that he’s constantly holding something back. We’re also introduced to the son of the police investigator who committed suicide after Visser was let go due to tampered evidence. It takes us a while to figure out which side of the law the cop’s son, John McCormack (Chris Coy), is working when he arrives in town and confronts Visser – now living under an assumed name – outside a local diner with a knife. For one thing, while waiting for the barber to finish his dessert, McCormack looks as if he’s setting up the restaurant’s outwardly promiscuous waitress for a journey to the dark side. Then, after being grilled by the local chief of police, Visser goes out of his way to befriend the young man, who demonstrates his knowledge of the barber’s true identity. It’s as if two spiders are weaving webs on separate branches of the same tree, hoping that the other will eventually make the mistake of trespassing and getting stuck on his adversary’s silk. The added degree of danger here, of course, comes in knowing that both men are carrying straight-edge razors and the potential for violence fills the air. Beyond that, lie spoilers. Glenn is his usual cool, calm and collected self, playing a fiend who’s remained free for nearly a quarter-century and has no intention of being tripped up now. Coy’s good, as well, as the avenging angel. You can also throw into the mix a cocky female cop (Kristen Hager) who’s followed the same evidence that led McCormack to Visser’s barbershop and fits the description of many of the women he was accused of killing. Unfortunately, this promising scenario doesn’t produce anything particularly scary, except, perhaps, for the serial killer’s next victim. The DVD adds an alternate ending and deleted scenes.

Little Acccidents
Sara Colangelo’s heart-breaking debut, Little Accidents, effectively dramatizes how the dynamics of life in a small American town change in the wake of a tragic event. Here, as the title implies, the tight-knit community is required to deal with more than one catastrophe simultaneously.  Shot in the actual coal town of Beckley, West Virginia, Little Accidents opens several weeks after a mining accident claimed the lives of 10 men. After recuperating from his injuries in an out-of-town hospital, lone survivor Amos Jenkins (Boyd Holbrook) is further traumatized by people who expect him to testify one way or the other before an investigatory board, even though he has little recollection of the accident. Meanwhile, a mining company executive and his wife (Josh Lucas, Elizabeth Banks) are desperately searching for clues in the disappearance of their teenage son. We’ve already been made privy to the terrible secret behind his fate and have developed mixed feelings for the only two people who know it, too, was an accident. Some people think that the disappearance may be connected to a grudge against the executive, who almost certainly required his employees to ignore safety violations. Colangelo adds another layer of melodrama by connecting the emotionally wrought wife of the mining executive with the guilt-ridden son of one of the dead miners and the surviving victim of the explosion. When something as devastating as a mining disaster occurs in small town, already cut off from the world by mountains and rivers, its residents tend to band together as friends and neighbors or be divided by outside interests and ancient passions. Jacob Lofland, who was so good in his first film, Mud, delivers a devastating performance here, as do Holbrook and Banks.

50 to 1
With the 141st renewal of the “Greatest Two Minutes in Sports” right around the corner, what better time than the present to recall one of the most unlikely victories in the history of the Kentucky Derby.  Jim Wilson’s 50 to 1 may not be the crowd-pleaser that longshot 3-year-old gelding Mine the Bird turned out to be on the first Saturday in May, 2009, at Churchill Downs, but the gelding’s story is entertaining enough to stand on its own four legs. Besides the masterly ride by daredevil jockey Calvin Borel, who plays himself in the film, the primary focus of 50 to 1 is the team of New Mexico yahoos who believed in Mine the Bird, despite its spotty record and goofy stance. Just as Thoroughbreds from New Mexico aren’t supposed to make it to Kentucky, even if they took their first steps on the blue grass, dudes wearing cowboy clothes tend not to mingle with the swells, socialites and sheiks who gather there on Derby Day. If the movie isn’t as technically proficient as, say, the studio-produced Seabiscuit or Secretariat, its charm derives from the same sport that produces unlikely heroes with uncanny regularity. It explains why so many people who’ve never bet on a race pay attention to the Triple Crown series. That wasn’t in the cards for Mine the Bird, but its second- and third-place finishes in the Preakness and Belmont proved the Kentucky Derby victory was no fluke. The DVD adds a comprehensive making-of featurette.

Boy Meets Girl
First Period
The fact that Diane Sawyer’s “20/20” interview with Bruce Jenner attracted an audience of 17.1 million viewers – not counting those tuning in and tweeting via the social media – demonstrates just how far Americans have evolved in matters pertaining to the LGBT community. In households representing the key 18-49 demographic, 17 percent of all active televisions were tuned to the newsmagazine’s two-hour report on the 1976 Olympics decathlon champion’s sexual transition. How many of those viewers are only familiar with Jenner because of his Kardashian connection isn’t broken down in the Nielsen ratings’ data. By comparison, Sawyer’s March 18 “20/20” special “The Untold Story of ‘The Sound of Music’” – which included a chat with Julie Andrews – lagged behind the Jenner interview by a 271 percent margin in the same demographic. As if to prove that the audience – 68 percent of which was female – wasn’t solely interested in seeing how Jenner looked at this point in the process, ratings actually increased in the second and third half-hour segments, before dipping slightly in the final 30 minutes. If “Bruce Jenner: The Interview” had aired on a Sunday night, instead of Friday, those numbers almost certainly would have jumped considerably … or kept DVRs working overtime. I only mention this because, no matter how the geezers on the Supreme Court rule on same-sex marriages in the next two months, the LGBT cat is already out of the bag. But, then, anyone who’s been paying attention to the evolution of the so-called Queer Cinema already is aware of this trend.

Not to put too fine a point on an arguable proposition, but, Eric Schaeffer’s genuinely heartfelt coming-of-age rom-dram-com, Boy Meets Girl, could very well mark a coming-of-age moment for independent films in the LGBT niche. For years, genre specialists have been searching for ways to tell stories that cross over to mainstream audiences, without compromising emotional sincerity, sexual integrity and honest portrayals of complex characters. In other words, is there a way to get the same viewers who flocked to see Tootsie, The Birdcage, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and The Crying Game to embrace a low-budget film that stars a transgender actor? In Boy Meets Girl, newcomer Michelle Hendley is remarkable as the girl hoping to make her mark on the world outside rural Kentucky, where the fashion industry exists only on cable television. Thanks to the unforced understanding of her father and longtime best friend, Robby (Michael Welch), Ricky has managed to find a niche for herself after overcoming serious identity issues and the early death of her mother. While waiting to learn if she’s been accepted in a fashion school in New York, Ricky and Robby become friends with the pretty daughter of locally prominent parents. Unaware of Ricky’s current state of transition, Francesca (Alexandra Turshenra) is impressed by her senses of style and humor. Francesca, who’s engaged to a Marine stationed in Afghanistan, takes the news of Ricky’s sexual identity in stride, even to the point where she commissions a party dress from her and invites her new friends to a swank party at her parents’ home. Francesca’s curiosity will soon get the better of her, leading to a tastefully handled romantic interlude in which Ricky is every bit as nervous about making out with a woman as she is. Everything that transpires from this point on is blessedly free of clichés and enhanced by some genuinely surprising occurrences. Anyone whose curiosity has been piqued by the media circus surrounding Bruce Jenner – or teenagers facing identity issues of their own – ought to pick up a copy of Boy Meets Girl, which also benefits from some lovely scenery and cinematography.

The gentle spirit of Harris Glen Milstead (a.k.a., Devine) hovers cherubically over the broad teen farce, First Period, which could serve as the missing link between John Waters and John Hughes, “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” and “Freaks and Geeks,” “Hairspray” and “Grease.” Limited to a “dental-floss budget,” Charlie Vaughn and Brandon Alexander III successfully avoid the many pitfalls that have tripped up other filmmakers attempting to emulate the work of such past masters as Waters, Hughes, Amy Heckerling, Alexander Payne, Cameron Crowe and the many graduates of the Roger Corman Film School. Comedy isn’t nearly as easy to pull off as these guys make it look and it’s rarely pretty. Anyone who’s enjoyed Chris Lilley’s delightfully off-kilter “Summer Heights High,” “Ja’mie: Private School Girl” and “Jonah from Tonga” – exported from Australia to HBO – will have a pretty good idea what to expect in First Period. Alexander plays Cassie, the new girl in school whose unsavory habits and obesity turn off everyone, except Maggie (Dudley Beene), who’s even more off-putting than Cassie. Together, they decide the quickest way to impress the ruling clique of cute boys and popular girls is to come in first at the school’s talent show. Their lack of talent doesn’t matter, because none of the other students are remotely talented, either. Their nemeses, the Heather and Other Heather, expect to win the contest as models. The Heathers hope to further humiliate the “girls” – who are anticipating their “first period” – by instructing their boyfriends Brett and Dirk to go on a date and check out what’s under their hoods. Naturally, their scheme backfires when the boys develop a taste for plus-size girls. It helps that Alexander and Beene aren’t required to carry the entire weight of the 1980s-era comedy on their ample shoulders or rely on sight gags for laughs. They get plenty of help from Jack Plotnik (“Reno 911!”), Judy Tenuta (“Chant Mania”), Cassandra Peterson (“Elivra: Mistress of the Dark”), Tara Karsian (“ER”) and Diane Salinger (“Carnivàle”).

Always Woodstock
Debut features don’t have to imitate the ever-changing rhythms of life to be credible, but too many plot twists based solely on coincidence can ruin a picture before the first reel has unspooled. No matter how much good will is invested in a film by its cast and crew, nothing can keep viewers interested once they’ve been asked to buy into one too many convenient contrivance. How many movies and television shows have we seen in which the lead character, who’s already having a bad day, arrives home early and unannounced, only to capture their lover or spouse in delicto flagrante. In Always Woodstock, aspiring record-label executive Catherine Brown (Allison Miller) is fired for failing to kiss the ass of a punk singer (Brittany Snow), whose bad behavior wouldn’t be tolerated in the monkey house of any zoo in the country. Upon her arrival home, Catherine discovers her boyfriend (Jason Ritter) in the shower with a friendly blond bimbo. Distraught, she decides to drive up to Woodstock, New York, the rural musicians’ ghetto where her parents still own, but don’t inhabit, a cabin. The disgusting condition of the place, gives Allison an excuse to postpone her new career as a songwriter, by making a beeline to a local honky-tonk. It’s here that she’ll meet everyone she needs to know for the remainder of the movie, including a local legend singer and family friend, Lee Ann (Katey Sagal); a bartender (Rumer Willis) who happily overserves the newcomer; and the town’s handsome young doctor, (James Wolk), who’s in the right place at the right time to rescue her from alcohol poisoning. Before drinking herself into oblivion, however, Allison is able to demonstrate her karaoke skills. To fill the next 80 minutes, or so, Merson demands of her protagonist that she piss off everyone already in her corner with unnecessary temper tantrums and false accusations. Anyone who can’t guess what happens from here has never watched a Lifetime movie. Always Woodstock probably could have been saved if Merson had focused less on her boring protagonist and more on the redemptive power of a location only a hop, skip and a jump from Big Pink, a shrine to the singer-songwriter’s art if there ever was one.

Motivational Growth: Blu-ray
Class Of Nuke ‘Em High II: Subhumanoid Meltdown
The Toxic Avenger Part II: Blu-ray
From a Whisper to a Scream: Blu-ray
Jonah Lives
Auteur
In the 1990s, homeowners lived in mortal dread of discovering toxic black mold growing on the walls of their basement or hidden behind the drywall upstairs. Besides the real and imagined health fears associated with the mycotoxins present in Stachybotrys chartarum, hurriedly passed legislation prevented owners from selling their homes without full disclosure or proof of eradication. Forget the Blob, black mold was a real-life horror whose progress could be followed as it spread through one’s home. In Don Thacker’s wildly imaginative first feature, Motivational Growth, a clinically depressed young man survives a suicide attempt, only to awake in a fever dream in which his one-room apartment has been overtaken by a clump of black mold growing from the filth in his bathroom. The reclusive Ian Folivor (Adrian DiGiovanni) is so far off the deep end that he’s named his ancient television set Kent and exchanges dialogue with “The Mold,” whose voice is supplied by horror-genre veteran Jeffrey Combs. (Imagine Darth Vader impersonating the carnivorous Audrey II in Frank Oz’ Little Shop of Horrors.) Occasionally, a stranger will be appear at the door, like an unexpected visitor to Pee-wee’s Playhouse, bearing gifts or conversation designed to further mess with his mind. Between the Mold’s stentorian advice and Kent’s bizarre selection of vintage infomercials and video games, Motivational Growth occasionally drifts into freakazoid territory previously surveyed by David Cronenberg in Naked Lunch and TerrorVision. The longer it goes on, the more surrealistic things get. Fans of more conventional horror film might tire of Thacker’s hallucinatory dissection of one man’s descent into madness. As far as I’m concerned, however, Motivational Growth really hit the spot. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Combs, DiGiovanni and Thacker.

While we’re on the subject of fever dreams committed to film, the good folks at Troma Entertainment would like you to revisit the madness of Class of Nuke ‘Em High 2: Subhumanoid Meltdown and The Toxic Avenger Part II on Blu-ray. I can hear some of you saying, “Releasing these low-tech franchises on hi-def is like putting lipstick on a pig.” Part of the fun of watching Troma films is the groddy audio-visual presentation, which masks the endearingly cheeseball special effects and famously illogical narratives. Those of you who’ve worn out their VHS copies of the originals, however, might as well upgrade to the advanced technology, if only to catch up on the featurettes already added to the DVD and handful of new ones. Class of Nuke ’Em High 2 takes place six years after the extraordinarily messy events chronicled in the original. Out of the ashes of Tromaville High has risen Tromaville Institute for Technology (TIT), now located inside the Tromaville Power Plant. The school’s foxy genetic scientist, Professor Holt (Lisa Gaye), has developed a human life form that matures within nine months and performs tasks no one else wants to do. These Subhumanoids are identified by belly buttons that function as mouths. It’s almost impossible to condense what happens next into words, except to say that, yes, a giant squirrel is involved in the mayhem. In The Toxic Avenger Part II, the former Melvin Junko is lured to Japan to look for his father, but not until he deals with the fiends who blew up the Tromaville Centre for the Blind. While Toxie’s away, the bad guys at Apocalypse Inc. return to Tromaville to play their evil games. Here, too, what follows defies logic and easy explanation. The sequels won’t make anyone forget the originals, but, given enough killer weed, viewers won’t know the difference.

Jeff Burr’s surprisingly good horror anthology, From a Whisper to a Scream, didn’t even register a blip on my radar screen when it was released in 1987 as “The Offspring.” I’m glad that I caught up with it now in its new Scream Factory Blu-ray edition. The quartet of short horror films are set in a rural Tennessee town over the course of four different historical periods. Wrap-around segments hosted by Vincent Price and Susan Tyrrell set up each individual chapter, while explaining the connection to the town of Oldfield. In the first, Clu Gulager plays an elderly man pursues a romance with a younger woman to the grave and beyond. It’s followed by a story in which a wounded man on the run from creditors is rescued by a backwoods hermit with the secret to eternal life. My favorites involve the freakish events that occur when a glass-eater in a travelling carnival attraction develops a bad case of indigestion and a platoon of Civil War soldiers is treated to a dose of their own medicine by a household of malevolent orphans. The story behind the creation of these stories is nearly as entertaining as anything else in the package.  It’s covered in a full-length making-of featurette, with Burr and his creative team, and another documentary about how a group kids growing up in Dalton, Georgia, fell in love with filmmaking by making pictures on now-primitive, then-sophisticated Super 8 equipment. Also included are commentaries with Burr, writer/producer Darin Scott and writer C. Courtney Joyner; a stills gallery; and original “Offspring” TV spots.

There’s a special place in hell reserved for movies by first-time filmmakers in which a group of bored teens attempt to establish contact with the dead, using a Ouija board. This week’s attraction at the 666 Multiplex is Luis Carvalho’s schizophrenic thriller, Jonah Lives. While their parents and other adults frolic upstairs, at an alcohol-fueled “key party,” a bunch of unremarkable teens in the basement hopes to allay their boredom with a Ouija Board. After some false starts, they decide to conjure the spirit of Jonah, a murdered gent whose widow (scream queen Brinke Stevens) is upstairs putting her body up for grabs. Indeed, Jonah does show up at the appointed hour, but with an appetite for blood that’s practically insatiable. Again, while the slaughter continues only a few feet below them, the grown-ups anxiously await the draw of keys belonging to that night’s booty call. It isn’t until the very last moment of Jonah Lives that a connection between the two halves of the movies are linked to one another. Apparently, Carvalho couldn’t come up with a way for the horror and frivolity to overlap, as is sometimes done in more accomplished films. Even so, younger genre buffs might find it amusing to watch fellow teens attempt to run away from a slowly plodding zombie.

Any new horror movie made by the son of George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead) is going to attract a modicum of interest, at least, in the genre press. Because G. Cameron Romero has already weighed in with such titles as Staunton Hill, The Auctioneers and Repressed, however, the pressure is on to finally produce a breakthrough film worthy of the name. Auteur isn’t it … not by a long shot. It probably not fair to lay all of the blame at Romero’s feet, however, since the very capable and prolific James Cullen Bressack shares the writers’ credit with two newcomers and a director lives and dies on the strength of his source material. Here, a dimwitted documentarian is promised an opportunity to break into Hollywood, but only if he can locate his employer’s semi-legendary son and bring back the film he directed, before walking off the set with it. To locate the burn-out filmmaker, Jack Humphreys (B.J. Hendricks) rounds up cast and crew members – including the hyper-prolific Tom Sizemore — and uses the ruse of making a documentary on the production of “Demented” to trace his tracks. In fact, Charlie Buckwald (Ian Hutton) is about as difficult to find as a Starbucks on Wilshire Boulevard. Apparently, Buckwald went crazy attempting to add some real demonic hocus-pocus to his movie about faux satanic hocus-pocus. Like most alcoholics, he’s only lucid in fits and starts. The same can be said about Auteur.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Masterpiece: Wolf Hall: Blu-ray
PBS: Ken Burns: Story of Cancer/Emperor of All Maladies: Blu-ray
PBS: Twice Born: Stories From the Special Delivery Unit
PBS: The Physics of Light
Mama’s Family: Mama’s Favorites: Season 5
Nickelodeon: Wallykazam!/Let’s Learn: S.T.E.M.
PBS: Mia & Me: Discover Centopia
Through history books and works of fiction across all media platforms, the life and legend of King Henry VIII has been well-documented. We’re similarly familiar with his wives and challenge to the supremacy of the Roman church. I think it’s safe to say that we know more about the larger-than-life English monarch than most of American presidents. Apart from being dullards, our leaders have been required to govern within boundaries the crowned heads of Europe couldn’t imagine. Only a relative handful of them were allowed the freedom and opportunities to shine as individuals. Given what we’ve learned about Henry VIII and other prominent royals, that’s probably a good thing. The engrossing BBC/PBS production “Wolf Hall” reminds us that behind these powerful men and women stood largely anonymous counselors and advisers with agendas of their own. It’s through that prism that Hilary Mantel’s wrote her Booker Prize-winning novels, “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies.” The best-selling historical novels describe the role played by Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII, with an eye toward changing the generally accepted perception of him being a manipulative power-broker to one that shows him to be a multidimensional man of the world, brilliantly pragmatic strategist and loyal servant to his masters: Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and King Henry. As powerful as he became, however, the lords and ladies of the court continually dismissed Cromwell as the lowly son of a blacksmith and, as such, less than a gentleman. Because of his extensive travels throughout Europe and ability to speak several languages, Wolsey and Henry both paid attention to his advice on matters of state, religion and backroom politics. Here, he’s played by Mark Rylance (“The Government Inspector”), a cunning actor who looks as if he’d just stepped out of a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger. As was the case in Showtime’s “The Tudors,” where Henry VIII was played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Damian Lewis (“Homeland”) portrays the king as being handsome and in athletic shape, rather than robustly built and plain-looking. In a steely performance by Oxford-trained Claire Foy (“Little Dorrit”), Anne Boleyn is a formidable suitor and queen, willing and able to preserve her place in history, although she couldn’t possibly imagine how their marriage would impact the future of England and the world. Not at all surprising is the visual appeal of the six-part series, which begins with the impeccable costume designs and continues through the choice of medieval and Tudor structures at which it was shot. “Wolf Hall” caused me to wonder if Henry Kissinger – Cromwell’s equal in American political affairs – might someday well into the future get similarly sympathetic treatment in mini-series form. The Blu-ray adds several background and making-of featurettes, as well as cast and crew interviews.

How many thousands of doctors, surgeons, researchers and scientists have spent their entire careers searching for a cure for cancer, only to retire knowing that they hadn’t made a dent in controlling, let alone conquering the terrible disease? As far back as 4,000 years ago, Egyptian physicians studied cancer, finally concluding there was no cure for it. The only thing subsequent generations of doctors knew for sure was that cancer honored no borders and struck, as If at will, people of all ages, racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds. The more we learned about it, the scarier it became. Even saying its name out loud was discouraged, as if it carried the same stigma as a sexually transmitted disease. The Ken Burns-produced documentary series, “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies,” is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same title by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It not only attempts to demystify cancer by explaining everything we know to be true about the disease, but it also serves as a reminder of the fact that tens of thousands of highly trained men and women have refused to surrender to the many threats made by cancer. It’s the nature of the disease that every forward step is rewarded with two steps backward. Therapies and drugs hailed in newspaper headlines one day more often than not outlive their promise over the course of field trials. And, yes, the experimental remedies frequently have proven more deadly than the disease. Still, the fight continues on more fronts than most people know exist. Despite the cautiously optimistic note struck at the end of the three-part series, no punches are pulled or false hopes for a cures offered. It does so by presenting the data and anecdotal evidence as matter-of-factly and dispassionately as possible. Even so, the human factor is never far from view. While it’s impossible not to feel helpless as we watch children suffer, we’re also impressed by the specialists who comfort patients and families through the emerging palliative-care discipline. The series interweaves a sweeping historical perspective with intimate profiles of current patients and investigations that take us to the cutting edge of science. The three segments are titled: “Magic Bullets,” “The Blind Men and the Elephant” and “Finding an Achilles Heel.” The question that remains, of course, is why the governments of the world continue to waste billions of dollars each year fighting killing each other’s patriots, when the money saved in a ceasefire could be used to mount an international crusade against cancer. Even if took years to make progress on a cure, think of all the people who wouldn’t die from bullets and bombs.

Better news is reported in PBS’ “Twice Born: Stories From the Special Delivery Unit,” which relates heartbreaking and life-affirming stories from inside the world’s leading fetal surgery center, the Special Delivery Unit at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The mini-series invites us to step into operating rooms, where state-of-the-art technology allows surgeons to enter the womb and operate on babies before they’re even born. Unlike the war on cancer, the battle to save children from being delivered with terrible maladies likely to kill them, anyway, appears winnable. Viewers are left to decide for themselves if fetal surgery is just another way to take God out of the equation or it’s our obligation as God’s children to keep hope alive as long as possible for all parents.

I really can’t say whether or not the six-part PBS series “The Physics of Light” answers any more questions about how our universe was formed and continues to grow than such deep-science books and films as “A Brief History of Time,” “Stephen Hawking’s Universe” and “The Theory of Everything,” or, for that matter, “The Big Bang Theory,” “Monty Python: The Meaning of Life” and “Futurama.” Growing up, I probably enjoyed math and science more than the next student, but hit a wall at physics and trigonometry. No amount of studying — or prayer – helped me understand anything beyond the most basic concepts. Fortunately, my teachers understood how unlikely it was for some of us to grasp the subtleties of math and science and rewarded us with bonus points for simply showing up and staring blankly at the blackboard. That’s kind of how I feel about such productions as “The Physics of Light,” which use Einstein’s Theory of Relativity as a starting point for explorations into the nature of light, the intricacies of the atom and cutting-edge theories in physics. It’s divided into the chapters, “Light and Time,” “Light and Space,” “In Pursuit of Light,” “Light and Atoms,” “Light and Quantum Physics” and “Light and Strings.” By connecting available research to the miracle of light, “we can gain a deeper understanding not only of our immediate reality, but of the unseen realities that are hidden beyond our perception.”

StarVista/Time-Life’s subdivision of its comprehensive “Mama’s Family: The Complete Series” continues apace with the latest “Mama’s Favorites” package, covering the show’s penultimate fifth season. The episodes included here are: “The Really Loud Family,” “Naomi’s New Position,” “Found Money,” “Mama’s Layaway Plan,” “Mama in One” and “Dependence Day.”   I’m not sure how much thinner this pie can be sliced.

In Nickelodeon’s “Wallykazam!,” a boy named Wally Trollman and his pet dragon, Norville, live in a forest among giants, goblins and other fantastic creatures. Wally has a magic stick that makes words come to life on the screen, playfully transforming the world around him. It the network’s first preschool series that embeds a literacy curriculum into a full-length story, introducing skills such as letter and sound identification, rhyming, vocabulary development and comprehension strategies. “Let’s Learn: S.T.E.M.” introduces kids to join their favorite Nick characters in an exploration of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (S.T.E.M.) curriculum. “Mia & Me: Discover Centopia”: On her first day at a new school, Mia is given a book and bracelet that are more than they appear. The items have the power to transport Mia to a magical storybook world, Centopia, where she becomes a flying elf who has the ability to talk to unicorns.

The DVD Wrapup; Curling, God Help the Girl, Like Sunday Like Rain, Escape From New York and more

Friday, April 24th, 2015

Curling
While traveling through Southeast Asia, Noel Coward observed that no one except, “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” If he had visited Quebec in January or February, I wonder what he mighthave said about the folks who insist on going about their business as normal, even in temperatures verging on ridiculously cold. We meet one such person in Jean-François (Emmanuel Bilodeau), who performs menial maintenance tasks at a 5-pin bowling alley and a no-tell motel, while his daughter, Julyvonne (Philomène Bilodeau, and, yes, they’re related), is condemned to home-schooling in a house too remote to be accessible to anyone in the town. Jean-Francois is afraid that exposure to negative elements could result in her ending up in prison, just like her mother. The problem is, he’s exactly the kind of paranoid numbskull who shouldn’t be allowed to home-school his or any other child. Even his boss, who’s sympathetic to his limitations, describes him as “the kind of fool who jumps in the lake to get out of the rain.” Julyvonne’s lack of exposure to the rest of world has caused some people to believe she’s retarded, which she’s not.

Like Xavier Dolan and Denis Villeneuve, New Brunswick native Denis Côté (Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, Bestiaire) is an emerging force in the international cinema and his work deserves to be seen well beyond the French-speaking marketplace. Curling may be a prime example of minimalist filmmaking, but watching father and daughter emerge from their respective cocoons can be extremely fulfilling. What little comedy exists in Curling is dark, mysterious and handled capably by writer/director Cote. The sport of curling does figure in the narrative, but not as much as in Paul Gross’ kooky 2002 comedy, Men With Brooms, co-starring fellow Canadians Molly Parker and Leslie Nielsen. Anyone who can make curling entertaining to folks living north of, say, Duluth is either very imaginative or is a big fan of the Winter Olympics. Here it’s simply an activity, like bowling, that keeps residents occupied during the long winter nights. Thanks to Josée Deshaies’ empathetic cinematography, this corner of Quebec does look like a forbidding place to spend winter. If this makes Curling sound hopelessly dreary, it’s enigmatic ending should lift viewers’ spirits.

God Help the Girl
Life Inside Out
Something tells me that Stuart Murdoch’s underappreciated musical fantasy, God Help the Girl, might have found its rightful audience if the title were a bit more precise in targeting its intended audience. Something like, “MTV Presents ‘God Help the Girl’” or “Belle and Sebastian Want You to See This Movie” or “Love in the Time of Retro Rock.’” Inspired by B&S’ 2009 album of the same title, the mix of catchy pop tunes and teen angst immediately recalls John Carney’s irresistible Once, and Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe. If you hated those pictures, there isn’t much chance you’ll like this one. Indeed, several mainstream critics seemed to enjoy slamming it. There’s no denying the appeal of the actors, who wouldn’t be out of place in a movie about Carnaby Street in London’s Swinging ’60s. Australian pixie Emily Browning (Sucker Punch) plays Eve, a college-age Glaswegian who starts writing songs during a stay in a mental-health clinic for anorexia. Against the wishes of her therapists, Eve one day decides to fly the coop and find kindred musical spirits who might consider recording her songs. They impress singer-guitarist James (Olly Alexander, of Years and Years) and his music student, Cassie (Hannah Murray, of “Skins”) enough to start the band, God Help the Girl. As it turns out, Eve’s doctors probably were correct in surmising that she wasn’t quite ready for life in the rock-‘n’-roll lane. There’s a thread of melancholy that runs through the entire score, but is relieved by some genuinely peppy material that accompanies dance routines in the film. I may be a long way from the target demographic for God Help the Girl, but I think that word-of-mouth from the DVD could turn it into a cult attraction. Special features include deleted scenes, “Origin” and a music video.

The redemptive power of music isn’t a rare or unusual subject in the family-friendly flicks that carry the Dove seal of approval. Typically, though, the songs contained therein are of faith-based persuasion. When hard-core musicians hit rock bottom, for example, they tend to find relief in the arms of the church choir. This is OK, as far as it goes, but hardly original. Jill D’Agnenica’s Life Inside Out takes a different approach to reach the same destination. The musician in question, Laura (actress/co-writer Maggie Baird), is a “woman of a certain age,” who fulfills a popular fantasy by returning to her song-writing roots when her husband’s career blows up in his face. Instead of attempting to pursue a career in “scrapbooking,” with her sister and friends, Laura pulls her guitar case out of the closet and fights to return to the place she left when she got married and dedicated herself to raising three now-teenage boys. One of them, Shane (Finneas O’Connell, of “Glee”), has lost his will to participate in school activities and has become a pain in the ass at home. It doesn’t help that his brothers and his friends are pricks. In the most accidental way possible, Shane feeds off his mother’s renewed passion for music by discovering an innate talent of his own. Although some of the plot elements here might seem a tad contrived and predictable, more than a few surprises will reward viewers’ patience.  The DVD adds commentary, deleted scenes and additional performances. The music is quite good, as well.

Like Sunday, Like Rain
In 1994, Frank Whaley starred alongside Kevin Spacey in Swimming With Sharks, one of the best movies ever made about working one’s way up the corporate ladder in Hollywood. He’d also impressed critics with key roles in The Doors, Born on the Fourth of July, Field of Dreams, Swing Kids and Pulp Fiction. If, in 2015, he’s better known as “that guy in …,” it’s not because his career tanked or good roles fell into other people’s laps. Instead, Whaley’s dedication to indie films and the stage offered opportunities he found more appealing. He’s written and directed several indie features, Joe the King, New York City Serenade, The Jimmy Show and, most recently, Like Sunday, Like Rain, and found work on television, playing meaty parts on “Buddy Faro,” “The Dead Zone” and “Ray Donovan.” If his features found surer traction on the festival circuit than in theaters. Like Sunday, Like Rain, at least, deserves a big shot on DVD. Far from perfect, it can be recommended simply for the performances turned in by Leighton Meester and newcomer Julian Shatkin. The “Gossip Girl” alum portrays a hard-luck beauty from Upstate New York, Eleanor, who, after moving to the city, compounds the mistake of falling in love with a punk-rock musician (Billie Joe Armstrong, Green Day), with expecting him not to turn Neanderthal when she throws his guitar out of the window during a squabble.  (Clean-cut Eleanor doesn’t look as if she’s ever been in the middle of a mosh pit, let slept alone with a band member.)

After Dennis throws a tantrum in the restaurant in which she works, the penniless Eleanor is fired and forced to scrounge around for work. Conveniently, she scores a live-in assignment as a nanny for a 12-year-old cello prodigy, Reggie, who makes no attempt to endear himself with Eleanor or viewers.  Depressed, jaded and world weary, Reggie is well on his way to becoming the next Oscar Levant. His filthy-rich mother (Debra Messing) thinks the hardest part of mothering is a hiring people to perform the tasks she isn’t remotely interested in doing. For his part, Reggie pays his chauffeur, maid and camp counselor to ignore his mother’s directions and allow him to do his own thing when she’s out of town. Eleanor is, at first, put off by the boy’s impatience with her lack of experience as nanny and what he perceives to be an inferior IQ and intellectual growth. Because she needs the job every bit as much as he needs a good spanking, Whaley finds a way to put them on equal footing. The surprising part is how natural their relationship becomes after an understanding is reached and their strengths become complementary. If Like Sunday, Like Rain is short on belly laughs, its big heart and quiet surprises make up for them. The only DVD extra is an interview with Whaley, during which he answers the softball questions with wiseass replies.

Supremacy: Blu-ray
The true incident upon which Supremacy is based was so disturbing that the psycho-sociological embellishments employed by the filmmakers to score points about racism with viewers not only feels manipulative, but completely unnecessary, as well. Blatant racism is never pleasant to encounter, in real life and on the screen, but to have one’s face rubbed in it for the entire length of a 106-minute movie borders on cruel and unusual punishment. In 1996, a just-paroled Garrett Tully (Joe Anderson) is being chauffeured home to Bakersfield by the girlfriend, Doreen (Dawn Olivieri), of a fellow Aryan Brother inmate at the “supermax” Pelican Bay State Prison. After Garrett turns down a welcome-back blow job on the side of the highway, Doreen hands him a loaded handgun as a consolation prize. Tully grasps the weapon as if it were the lover he’d waited 13 years to embrace, leading us to believe that it won’t be long before he does something to earn a return trip to the northern California stockade. When he uses it to murder a sheriff’s deputy on a routine traffic stop – they’re actually casing a store to rob — it provides the orgasmic release Doreen failed to accomplish. Not even 24 hours from his release, Tully and Doreen are the subject of an intense manhunt. Before being captured, they invaded a nearby home and took the family hostage. That much of the story is portrayed with reasonable accuracy. Of all the NoCal homes in which director Deon Taylor and writer Eric J. Adams could have elected for them to take refuge, however, wouldn’t you know that it would probably be the only one within miles inhabited by an African-American family (Danny Glover, Lela Rochon, Evan Ross, Robin Bobeau). They also chose to make the slain cop black.

Sadly, the coincidence allows the filmmakers carte blanche to pepper Tully’s dialogue with language that wouldn’t have been out of place at a Ku Klux Klan rally in the heat of Mississippi’s Freedom Summer. None of the members of the multigenerational Walker family is spared his racist venom, which is so toxic even Doreen feels compelled at one point to apologize for it. Instead of merely stealing the keys to the family car, Tully spends most of the night waving his gun around the kitchen and threatening to shoot the “niglet” infant if their demands aren’t met. By allowing them to waste precious time venting their rage, however, the filmmakers have dug Garrett and Doreen a hole from which there’s no hope of escape. It’s the kind of claustrophobic scenario that might have worked better on stage, where all of our attention is focused tightly on the credibility of the characters and machinations of the standoff. On film, however, the intensity of the mindless vitriol constantly distracts us from Tully’s attempts to play one family member against the other. Because we’ve already been told that he’s No. 3 in the hierarchy of the Aryan Brotherhood, there’s really no use to bang us over the head with the n-word and its derivatives. In real life, Robert Walter Scully Jr. and Elaine Watters did murder Deputy Sheriff Frank Trejo and were captured under similar circumstances. I couldn’t, however, determine if the residents were African-American. Too bad the language gets in the way of the message.

Hit By Lightning
Despite his 12-year run as lovable nebbish Alan Harper, on “Two and a Half Men,” baby-boomers will forever recall Jon Cryer as Molly Ringwald’s hovering best friend, Duckie, in Pretty in Pink. Unlike Duckie, whose rockabilly hairdo has probably been immortalized in a Hollywood hair museum, Cryer no longer hides the fact that he’s nearly completely bald and, last week, turned the big 5-0. In Ricky Blitt’s dark and unconvincing rom-com, Hit by Lightning, he plays a loveless loser who gets the kind of good-news/bad-news wakeup call all such jinxed characters expect when something nice happens to them. At 40, Ricky and his accountant pal, Seth (Will Sasso), have come to sad realization that they are the only unattached men left in their high school class. To remedy this, Ricky has reluctantly joined E-Happily.com to find a proper mate. The good news arrives in the heavenly form of Danita (Stephanie Szostak), a suspiciously vivacious woman who wastes no time jumping into the sack with him. In classic film noir twist, Danita then reveals she’s already married to a crime novelist and former rabbi, Ben (Jed Rees), and she needs Ricky’s assistance in killing him. Before Seth can spit out, “cherchez la femme,” viewers will have sized up the ramifications of such a collaboration. Has Ricky watched the same movies and learned the same lessons as Fred MacMurray’s poor sap insurance salesman in Double Indemnity or is he destined to repeat them? Cryer’s fans may be willing to overlook Blitt’s ham-handed direction here, but others probably will regret not having picked up a copy of the original, instead.

Everly: Blu-ray
Perhaps to demonstrate that she can be every bit the action star as Angelina Jolie, Uma Thurman, Michelle Rodriguez, Michelle Yeoh and Kate Beckinsale – while also looking insanely hot in a torn white blood-splattered slip — it’s difficult to understand what Salma Hayek is doing in this video game of a movie. She’s done the bad-ass things several times already and, on the cusp of 50, certainly has nothing to prove in that department. Because Everly’s finer points are lost in the muddle of a minimalist narrative, it’s never precisely clear why a Yakuza militia has been assigned the task of over-killing her. It’s pretty safe to assume that Everly’s considered to be the property of a tyrannical Japanese gangster, Taiko (Hiroyuki Watanabe), against whom she’s turned state’s evidence or betrayed in a less formal way. In return, Taiko uses the occasion of Christmas to make her a present of the severed head of a police detective. Wave after wave of assassins are then sent into her apartment building – including bounty-hunting prostitutes — to fill her full of bullets, slice-and-dice her with finely honed blades, or tear her to pieces with explosive devices. Co-writer/director Joe Lynch has designed Everly’s apartment in such a way that she can dodge most of the metal projectiles and samurai swords, while licking the wounds caused by the ones that make contact. Her drive to remain alive is as strong as it is because her mother and child also are targeted in the assault. An actor of Hayek’s status brings high expectations to any role she accepts, and that’s Everly’s biggest problem. We’re always aware of the fact that it’s Hayek we’re watching, instead of a stone-cold warrior played by an up-and-coming actor hoping to use the role as a springboard to superstardom. Otherwise, action junkies will find plenty to savor here, especially the frenetic pace of the attack; imaginative array of assailants; and mega-decibel soundtrack. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Lynch, co-producer Brett Hedblom and editor Evan Schiff and second track with Lynch and cinematographer Steve Gainer. A music video of “Silent Night,” directed by Lynch, is performed by Raya Yarborough and Bear McCreary.

Blind Woman’s Curse: Blu-Ray
When I first became aware of martial-arts movies, Bruce Lee was so far above the rest of the pack that everything else paled by comparison. In his wake, most of the genre flicks available to American grindhouse and drive-in audiences felt stupid and irrelevant. Released at about the same time as Lee was becoming a household name in this country — and newly made available in Blu-ray by Arrow Video — Blind Woman’s Curse is representative of a period in Japanese cinema when practically anything was fair game, except pubic hair. In it, notorious writer/director Teruo Ishii combines martial arts with Yakuza, horror, gore, sexploitation and slapstick comedy in a way that is as fun to watch, today, as it must have been for buffs in its day. Also known as “Black Cat’s Revenge,” “Strange Tales of Dragon Tattoo,” “The Haunted Life of a Dragon-Tattooed Lass” and “The Tattooed Swordswoman,” Blind Woman’s Curse tells the story of Akemi Tachibana (Meiko Kaji), the young heir apparent of the Tachibana gang. In a showdown between Akemi and the rival gang leader responsible for her father’s death, she accidentally blinds his sister Aiko (Hoki Tokuda, who, in 1999, would marry author Henry Miller). Ever since, Akemi has suffered from nightmares and come to believe that she is cursed by a cat that means to suck her blood. Three years after being sentenced to a prison with other bad-ass women, Akemi returns to her gang absent much of her old bravado. Not to worry, though, because the sightless Aiko has used the same three-year period to recuperate from her calamitous wound and is itching to get her revenge. (She wouldn’t by the only blind swordsman in the genre.) Akemi, too, is forced to get herself back in fighting trim. This is some extremely wild stuff, complete with some of the coolest tattoos in movie history and other abhorrent behavior. Arrow Video did a nice job with Ishii’s color scheme and traditional music. It adds commentary by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp; the original trailers for four of the films in the Meiko Kaji-starring Stray Cat Rock series, made at the same studio as Blind Woman’s Curse; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx; and collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Japanese cinema expert Tom Mes, illustrated with original archive stills.

Sweet Lorraine
It isn’t often that a movie with as much star power as Sweet Lorraine comes around to rival the travesties perpetrated on the American movie-going public by Edward D. Wood Jr., the fellow who inspired the time-honored kiss-off, “so bad, it’s good.” With a cast that includes Tatum O’Neal in the lead role, Steven Bauer, Julianne Michelle, Peter Greene, Jimmie Walker, Scott William Winters and Robyn Peterson, the dubious political satire Sweet Lorraine would be unwatchable if it weren’t so hysterically ludicrous. Academy Award-winner O’Neal plays the wife of a New Jersey minister on the same mayoral ticket as a mob-connected bozo (Bauer) who’s schtupping their randy teenage daughter (Michelle). Their opponent (Winters) is on the down-low as a cross-dresser, who frequents the same nightclub where Lorraine (Tatum) secretly participates in women’s boxing matches and J.J. performs magic tricks. And, that’s just for starters. The man responsible for this mess, Christopher C. Frieri, whose resume includes I Was a Teenage Mummy, The Orbitrons and The Stranger (“A cynical tattooed loser first loses his job as a janitor in a bar run by a dwarf, then loses his mind.”), hasn’t made a movie in more than 20 years and none of them featured a recognizable actor. How he lured such name actors to Sweet Lorraine is a mystery, indeed. I hope they got paid ahead of time. Needless to say, the DVD includes no extras.

Escape From New York: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Breakin’/Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo: Blu-ray
Ghoulies / Ghoulies II: Blu-ray
Like Walter Hill’s The Warriors, John Carpenter’s Escape From New York stands today as an artifact of a period in time when the Big Apple was circling the drain and the Disneyfication of Times Square was so far from the realm of possibility that only the most Pollyannish of visionaries would risk humiliation by even mentioning it. The city was bankrupt, crime-ridden and filthy. If a great seismic event had caused the five boroughs to separate themselves from the rest of the state, the legislature probably wouldn’t have freed the funds necessary to pay for a fleet of tugboats to repatriate them. The prevailing attitude on New York’s future allowed Carpenter and co-writer Nick Castle the luxury of setting their dystopian vision in 1997, only 16 years in the future. By this time, Manhattan and Liberty Island have, indeed, been cut off from the rest of New York, as they’ve become a dumping ground for hoodlums, parasites and assorted other miscreants. The bridges have been mined and tunnels bricked up to prevent them access to the rest of the world. When Air Force One crash lands inside the perimeter, the notorious outlaw and former Special Forces war hero Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is coerced into agreeing to rescue the president (Donald Pleasence) before the bad guys can locate his hiding place and use him as a bargaining chip. To discourage Snake from skipping out on the assignment, an explosive device with a 24-hour electronic fuse is implanted in his neck. The rest, of course, is cult-classic history. Russell’s gritty portrayal of the one-eyed Plissken freed him from the chains he’d carried with him since his days as a Disney regular, while the movie, itself, served as a template for dozens of action fantasies to come. The Blu-ray upgrade from Shout! Factory includes commentaries with actress Adrienne Barbeau and director of photographer Dean Cundey, Carpenter and Russell, and producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves; a separate disc adds several good making-of featurettes in hi-def; interviews; a deleted opening bank-robbery sequence; and photo galleries.

Like so many skeletons in Hollywood’s closet, Shout! Factory is also resurrecting double-features of movies that probably should have remained buried and forgotten. Ghoulies and Ghoulies II borrow liberally from Joe Dante’s Gremlins, with hand-puppet critters who emerge from the toilets of hell to torment a group of college kids who dare to summon the devil in a bargain-basement ritual. In the sequel, the surviving gremlins hitch a ride in Satan’s Den, a traveling House of Horror operated by carnival workers who are facing foreclosure on their truck and trailer. Not at all scary, Ghoulies is best suited to kids who are beginning to embrace horror. The package arrives with commentary, new interviews and deleted scenes.

No 1980s retrospective would be complete without Breakin’, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo!, which does for break dancing what Roller Boogie did for inline skating and Perfect did for hot babes in leotards, headbands and ankle warmers. In the former, Lucinda Dickey plays a rich girl who avoids the advances of her dance instructor by teaming up with street dancers Ozone and Turbo to become “a poppin’ and lockin’ princess.” In the follow-up, the dancers take on a greedy real-estate developer seeking to close their studio space.

Mysteries of the Unseen World 3D: Blu-ray
We’ve all seen the frightening photographs taken of mites and other minute creatures by scientists using electron microscopes. If possible, imagine a horror movie in which species exponentially smaller, hairier and creepier than the critters in Antz, A Bug’s Life and Bee Movie, combined, are digitally captured and inserted into stories not dissimilar to Fantastic Voyage, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids or Journey to the Center of the Earth. The National Geographic presentation Mysteries of the Unseen World employs advanced high-speed and time-lapse photography, electron microscopy and nanotechnology in the service of a documentary that is designed to alert us to phenomena that can’t be seen with the naked eye. Everything from skin follicles to particles of outer-space waste are as common and prevalent as the air we breathe and water we drink. Most of us have also seen super-slo-mo images of bullets blasting through pieces of fruit or watermelons being dropped on concrete. Here, these images are slowed down to the point where it might take several seconds for that same bullet to pass through an apple or we can observe how individual drops of rain repeatedly break down into ever-smaller beads of water. Mysteries of the Unseen World also benefits mightily from being shot in color and 3D, giving it an otherworldly texture. Included is a featurette that explains in layman’s terms how the technology works and the movie was made.

TV-to-DVD
Pivot: Fortitude: Blu-ray
PBS: Frontline: Being Mortal
PBS: Nature: The Last Orangutan Eden
Chiller: Deep in the Darkness: Blu-ray
Considering all of the time I’ve spent lately watching TV shows and movies set at or near the South and North Poles, almost the last thing I wanted to add to my must-watch list was the 12-part police-procedural series from Europe, “Fortitude.” Set in a tiny town north of the Arctic Circle in Norway, but shot in Reyðafjörður, Iceland, the story is as dense and disturbing as most mini-series get. It opens with the accidental shooting of a man by an elderly photographer (Michael Gambon), who’s scouting the icy seacoast for wildlife. In fact, the photographer was aiming at a polar bear that was mauling the poor guy, when Sheriff Dan Anderssen was taking aim at the predatory beast. Anderssen tells the frightened old man to go away and not worry about any investigation. Meanwhile, Governor Hildur Odegard (Sofie Gråbøl) is attempting to assure investors in a hotel to be built inside a nearby glacier – think Club Med on the rocks — that the absence of crime makes Fortitude an ideal destination for eco-tourists. Halfway through her presentation, the governor is informed of the murder of the professor who had reversed his opinion on the project, citing the recent discovery of woolly mammoth carcasses on the glacier. If that weren’t sufficient cause for alarm, the discovery of mumps in a local boy not only stirs fear that his father might have carried the disease with him after serving in Afghanistan, but also that mumps could lead to polio in unvaccinated residents. Two more residents simply disappear into thin air and a half-dozen secret sexual liaisons have been exposed as collateral damage in the investigation. And, that’s simply the first episode. A British forensics officer played by Stanley Tucci is enlisted to get to the bottom of this mess, but almost no one in Fortitude wants to cooperate with him. All of that established, mini-series creator Simon Donald (“Low Winter Sun”) slows the pace considerably to focus on the interaction of between impacted townsfolk and let his cast do the heavy lifting as each new plot twist is revealed and genre lines are crossed, a la David Lynch. The series has been renewed for a second season, so any investment in time won’t go to waste. The Blu-ray adds 30 minutes of bonus material, including interviews.

If fatally ill patients and their doctors have one thing in common, it’s that neither of them are comfortable coming to grips with the reality of death and dying. How could they be? “Hope is not a plan,” argues renowned surgeon and New Yorker writer Atul Gawande in the PBS/”Frontline” documentary “Being Mortal.” “We find from our trials that we are literally inflicting therapies on people that shorten their lives and increase their suffering, due to an inability to come to good decisions.” The film also explores the burgeoning art and science of palliative care and the ways in which having a conversation around the question “What are your priorities if your time is limited?” can empower patients to live their lives fully, all the way to the very end. The subject may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but being prepared for the inevitable shouldn’t be limited to the purchase of life insurance and burial plots.

The PBS/”Nature” documentary “The Last Orangutan Eden” takes us to the Leuser Ecosystem on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It’s where an orphaned orangutan named Udin was raised in captivity by the not-for-profit Orangutan Project. Now deemed ready to be released into the wild, Udin’s progress will be followed by researchers who are comfortable working in the extreme conditions presented by the remote rainforest. It’s here that orangutans are sheltered by poachers and developers burning down the trees to facilitate the production of palm oil. In the film, getting is half the fun.

Based on a novel by Michael Laimo, the Chiller Network’s Deep in the Darkness borrows from a half-dozen better movies in the service of a story that is roughly divided in half between setup and execution. Sean Patrick Thomas plays Dr. Michael Cayle, a New York City physician anxious to trade the hustle-and-bustle of the big city for pastoral joys of life in puny Ashborough, New Hampshire. It takes a while before the family starts to notice that Ashborough might have been horror-master Ira Levin’s home away from home. What’s hiding just below the surface of this Stepford look-alike is an ancient tribe of hairy cave-dwelling savages, who have the locals scared shitless. Clearly, Cayle neglected to ask the right questions of the real-estate agent who negotiated the sale of the house. Although hardly the scariest movie available to renters, Deep in the Darkness represents above-average made-for-cable fare. Dean Stockwell is along for the ride as a town elder.

The DVD Wrapup: Babadook, Big Eyes, Happy Valley, Tale of Winter, Odd Man Out, The Missing and more

Friday, April 17th, 2015

The Babadook: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Despite the warm welcome accorded The Babadook by festival audiences and critics of both the mainstream and genre persuasion, this nifty Australian export about things that go bump in the night received an unfairly puny release upon its arrival here. I can’t explain why that might be so, except to point out that someone in the distribution game really missed the boat. I’d be interested to know how Jennifer Kent’s debut performed on VOD platforms, as horror tends to do very well on the highly convenient platform. Shout! Factory not only picked up The Babadook up for its genre-specific Scream Factory label, but also packaged it in a style that approximates the nerve-tingling storybook at the movie’s heart. Seven years after the violent death of Amelia’s husband, as they raced to the hospital for the birth of their son, she remains an emotional basket case, barely able to function in the real world. The boy, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), is troubled in a very different way. If ever a child could be expected to grow up to be a sociopath, it’s him. Samuel acts out his pain at school and with unsuspecting playmates. The one thing the boy can’t seem to handle, however, is the possibility that he might be the target of a monster – or actual bogeyman – who stands up to him in the netherworld where nightmares bleed into reality. One night, Amelia allows Samuel to pick out a book for them to share at bedtime. He selects “Mister Babadook,” a slim illustrated volume that one day mysteriously appeared in his bedroom and features sinister poetry and spooky pop-out characters. It’s at this point that things really begin to bump in the night for the haunted child and mother, who forces herself to return to the narrative to see if this gift from hell might have been delivered by her late husband. After some slicing and dicing, Amelia is able to discern a message that could bring them some temporary peace, at least. It isn’t often that a horror movie reveals as many maternal characteristics as The Babadook, in which mother and son share a bond that extends back to the womb. The Blu-ray adds Kent’s “Monster,” the short film that inspired the feature; deleted scenes; featurettes on the set, stunts and special effects; interviews with cast and crew; and a piece on illustrator Alex Juhasz, who created the book that plays such an integral part of the film and its packaging in Blu-ray/DVD. You definitely don’t want to watch The Babadook alone.

Big Eyes: Blu-ray
If Hollywood played by the same rules that govern journalism, an argument could be made that Tim Burton possibly agreed to produce and direct Big Eyes because he owned paintings made by the protagonist, including portraits of Lisa Marie, Helena Bonham Carter and his late pet Chihuahua. While undeniably compelling, Margaret Keane’s story feels a tad too slight for his enormous imagination to embrace. Still, when word got out that Keane’s almost unbelievable tale was being told by Burton, sales of her paintings hit new highs. Even if true, as current scandals go, any such controversy would be small potatoes compared to the ones that have tarred Brian Williams, Bill O’Reilly and Dan Rather, whose profession does demand adherence to certain ethical standards. And, truth be told, in Hollywood, ethics are measured by the number of zeros and commas in a film’s box-office tally. In a move that probably enhanced the box-office potential for Big Eyes, producer Burton took over the directorial reins once held by screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who had developed the project with the intent of writing and directing it. The former USC roommates had collaborated with Burton on Ed Wood and, back in 2010, entertainment reporters salivated over rumors that they would be working with him, again, on an animated feature inspired by “Addams Family” cartoons in the New Yorker. Like most such pre-production rumors reported as fact in the trades and blogs, this one never made it to the launch pad.

If the hero of Big Eyes is Margaret Keane, she’s frequently overshadowed by the egomaniacal antics of former husband, Walter Keane, who she met at a vulnerable point in her life and to whom she foolishly relinquished authorship of her art. The roles fit Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz to a T. Margaret’s singular portraits of waifs with large round eyes became a sensation in the 1960s, perhaps as a backlash to the rise in Modern, Abstract and Post-Impressionist painting that had come into vogue in the post-war period. This was the art embraced by the same critics – represented here by Terence Stamp — who lambasted the big-eye paintings as being blatantly commercial and overly repetitive. Waltz’ portrayal of Walter veers from the buffoonish to being a textbook case in defining psychological and physical spousal abuse. While probably correct in assuming that patrons of the arts were too set in their ways to invest in paintings that carried a woman’s signature, Keane appears to have convinced himself that promoting her work for fame and fortune was the same thing as creating it. It took Margaret Keane a long time to stand up to her husband’s identity theft and bullying tactics. Even Hawaii proved to be too short a distance from him to prevent meddling and counter demands that she maintain the ruse. When Margaret finally did demand recognition, in an interview with a local radio host, Walter sued her for slander. This led to a courtroom confrontation that would be hilarious if Walter’s behavior weren’t so demonstrably sociopathic. While Big Eyes may lack the cutting-edge heft usually associated with Burton’s films, he does inject the occasional surrealistic touch and it’s inarguably entertaining. Moreover, the performances are worth the price of admission, alone. The Blu-ray adds post-screening Q&As and making-of featurette.

Happy Valley
Antarctica: A Year on Ice: Blu-ray
The irony that drips from the title of Amir Bar-Lev’s latest documentary, would be too much to bear, if, as the home of Penn State University, Happy Valley weren’t so isolated from the world that exists beyond the shadow of academia’s ivory tower and the economic safety net it provides the greater community of 105,000 shining, happy and largely overweight residents. Outside of the classrooms and fields of play at PSU, status quo appears to something people have determined to be well worth fighting to maintain. As such, they tend to take everything that happens there as personally as the crew and passengers of the SS Minnow, on “Gilligan’s Island.” The folks we meet in Happy Valley, the movie, have determined that, as long as their blood runs blue, their precious Nittany Lions football team will be protected as if the mascot represented an endangered species. For the most of the 61 years, Joe Paterno stood on the sidelines as an assistant or head coach of the team. He was as loyal to the community, university and student body as they were to him. He was as close to being a living god in central Pennsylvania as any one person could be and, while far from being a tyrant, Paterno was able to avoid sticky situations by basking in the glare of their love. Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant achieved similar status in Alabama, as did Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi in Wisconsin, if for much shorter periods of time. Nearly 50 years after his final victory on the frozen tundra, Lombardi is still referred to as “Saint Vince.” Before his death to cancer, at 85, JoePa logged more victories than any other college coach and saw to it that most of his players leave school with a diploma.

Although Paterno had nothing to do with the allegations, his achievements and reputation sustained collateral damage when the child-sex-abuse scandal involving his longtime defensive coordinator began making Page 1 headlines around the country. In November, 2011, Jerry Sandusky was arrested and charged with 52 counts of sexual abuse of young boys over a 15-year period from 1994 to 2009. Most of the molestation victims were introduced to Sandusky as participants in his non-profit charity camp for underprivileged children. Because Sandusky stood beside Paterno for 30 successful years and probably turned down dozens of job offers from schools in need of a head coach, he was treated like a demi-god in Happy Valley. When the national media caught wind of a three-year grand jury investigation of Sandusky, impaneled by the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office, reporters descended on Happy Valley like a plague of locusts. When they got tired of reporting virtually the same rumors about potential witnesses and indictments, day-after-day, they turned their attention to how much the coach knew about his assistant’s behavior, when he first heard about it and what he did with the information. With the previously secure borders of Happy Valley already breached, Paterno became the next giant to fall. Yes, he had reported two previous accusations of abuse to his superiors in the university’s food chain, but a separate investigation found that he failed to follow-up on them and may have been involved in a cover-up to protect the image of the athletics program. Worse, he continued to allow access to PSU sports facilities to Sandusky, who used them for nefarious encounters with underage boys. In a move that many people saw as being premature, pre-emptive and unnecessarily cruel, the Penn State Board of Trustees rejected Paterno’s offer to retire at the end of the season and fired him with a couple of games left on the schedule. In two months, Paterno would die of cancer. In another six months, the NCAA vacated all of Penn State’s wins from 1998 through 2011, adding sanction that would have negative effect on recruiting players and remaining competitive in the Big 10.

Happy Valley doesn’t re-argue the cases against Sandusky, Paterno or the university officials who covered their heads in sand. Neither is it particularly unkind to the media horde that follows such stories from one place to another, like so many Kardashians to a red carpet. Instead it describes how the controversy turned University Park into a laboratory for gauging the effects of moral equivalency and the deification of sports figures in whose reflected glory fans are allowed to bask. Bar-Lev gives all sides in the debate ample time to state their cases and demonstrate where their loyalties lie … and, yes, make fools of themselves. Among those who agreed to be interviewed are die-hard PSU loyalists, conflicted students and townsfolk, child advocates, a muralist who removed Sandusky’s likeness from his wall painting of the PSU Pantheon, the Paterno’s naturally protective sons and Sandusky’s adopted son, who wasn’t even aware he had been molested until hearing the testimony of other victims.

In an interview conducted for the DVD package, Bar-Lev makes a direct correlation between the Penn State scandal and the on-going Bill Cosby controversy. As long as the beloved comedian can avoid being indicted for rape, his legion of fans and allies will defend his right to continue performing. Like the young who risked everything to testify about what Sandusky did to them, the women who allegedly were drugged and raped by Cosby may never be able to crack the thick veneer of respectability surrounding their attacker. To that end, the NCAA has already buckled under pressure from a lawsuit filed by Pennsylvania state representatives against the organization. It restored Paterno’s record and other sanctions on the program in return for an agreement by university officials to free up $60 million for programs serving victims of child sexual abuse in Pennsylvania.

I seem to recall a cartoon in which every bird in a “waddle” of Antarctic penguins is being stalked by a “waddle” of videographers. Because of all the documentaries, features and TV shows that have followed in the wake of March of the Penguins, no caption was required. Anthony Powell’s frequently stunning Antarctica: A Year on Ice is the latest in a long list of documentaries – animated features have become every bit as prevalent – set on our southernmost continent and showcasing one species of penguin or another. (The only things that separate these films from those shot in the Arctic are the penguins and the lack of wild game and an indigenous population.) As a study of isolated populations, Antarctica: A Year on Ice is kindred to Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov’s Happy People: A Year in the Taiga – also from Music Box – Herzog’s similarly placed Encounters at the End of the World, the BBC series “Frozen Planet” and the tense Russian drama, How I Ended This Summer, set at a meteorological station on a desolate island in the Arctic. Powell and wife, Christine, have lived and worked in Antarctica for many years. After more than 10 years of filming, his documentary is divided roughly in half by spectacular images of the rugged terrain and brilliant skies – day and night — and home movies in which the scientific bases’ yearlong residents describe their experiences and feelings about virtually being cut off from the world for six months at a time. If you’ve ever wondered how Christmas is celebrated on the South Pole or how people remain sane in such extreme circumstances, Antarctica: A Year on Ice is a good place to start. The Blu-ray easily met the challenge of my new 4K monitor, somewhat justifying the expenditure. Special features include behind-the-scenes footage, outtakes, Powell’s commentary, an interview on New Zealand radio, a short excerpt in which a penguin attacks an invasive camera and visits to the newly preserved huts of explores Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton.

A Tale of Winter
Odd Man Out: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
That Man From Rio/Up to His Ears: Blu-ray
If the machinations of love and romance weren’t so complicated, it would be easy to categorize Eric Rohmer’s films as fairy tales for adults. The characters are easily recognizable and their hang-ups as familiar as looking in a mirror. If they talk more than people in most other movies, their dialogue, at least, is intelligent and frequently stimulating. More than any other thing, though, Rohmer’s stories serve as reminders that love isn’t easy and romance is worth the pain and shame that sometimes accompany it.  A Tale of Winter (“Conte d’hiver”), the second in the master’s “Tales of the Four Seasons,” may have a predictable ending, but everything that precedes it is unexpected.  The willowy beauty Charlotte Véry plays Félicie, a flakey young Parisian who commits an almost unbelievable blunder after falling in love with the handsome restaurateur, Charles (Frédéric van den Driessche). It happens during a vacation on the shore, where other of Rohmer’s romances have blossomed. Felicie is so sure of her love for Charles that she neglects to insist on a condom. In the act of saying goodbye, she makes the mistake of giving him an address to her residence that places it in a different suburb altogether. Because he was on the road scouting restaurants, Charles was unable to reciprocate with an address of his own. Fast-forward five years and we know without being told that Felicie is the single mother of a beautiful daughter, Elise, while a photograph on her dresser confirms that Charles is the father. She is so confident that he will come to rescue them on a white horse that she allows Elise to share her dream of reunion with the father she only knows by name. Meanwhile, though, Felicie has left herself an escape route by falling into something resembling love with two other men and stringing them along as to the likelihood of Charles miraculously re-entering her life. It’s a cruel game, but each of the men is willing to cut the fairy princess some slack, as long as she continues to spend her nights with them. Although A Tale of Winter mostly unspools in Paris, Rohmer also treats us to some sunny days at the shore and a short visit to the quaint and scenic town of Nevers, which, situated on a hillside along the banks of the Loire River, adds to the film’s fairytale vibe. The moral of the story, I suppose, is to follow one’s heart and never give up on a dream. Even if that Disney-worthy advice works to the advantage of the protagonists in Rohmer’s romances, it’s not something that young lovers in the real world should take to heart.

If all anyone knows about Carol Reed’s movies derives from one or more screenings of his mesmerizing post-war thriller, The Third Man – yup, the one in which Orson Wells plays second fiddle to Anton Karas’ zither – they owe it to themselves to pick up the Criterion Collection edition of Odd Man Out. Released two years before Reed’s adaptation of the Graham Greene story, Odd Man Out likewise benefited greatly from Robert Krasker’s amazing black-and-white photography, which merged American film noir with German Expressionism. The shadows may not be as dramatically pronounced as they are in The Third Man, but the same overall sense of dread prevails throughout Odd Man Out. James Mason is terrific as Johnny McQueen, the leader of a clandestine Irish organization – not very unlike the IRA – hiding out in an unnamed city in Northern Ireland after escaping from prison. The organization is getting short on cash, so a cell decides to hit a factory on payday. Fearing that McQueen might not be up for such strenuous work, so soon after being in stir, his followers urge him not join them on the heist. And, sure enough, a momentary lapse in judgment causes McQueen to be seriously wounded in the escape, setting off a chain of events that exposes the organization’s top operatives and their supporters to extreme danger. After losing his grip on the getaway car, McQueen ended up on the concrete, with the police hot on his trail and a bullet in his crushed shoulder. After allowing him temporary shelter in a backyard shed, Reed turns his attention to choreographing a chase between the well-organized constabulary and the men and woman attempting to rescue McQueen before he’s arrested or bleeds out. In between, Reed introduces us to a rogue’s gallery of local residents and various landmarks along the way. Then, there are the turncoats willing to sell out their neighbors in exchange for a quid pro quo from police. We’re never sure how the chase will end and who survives it. Given everything’s that’s happened in Northern Ireland in the ensuing half-century, we have the benefit of understanding how such crimes and chases will finally add up to one bloody mess, unrelieved by reason or compromise. Criterion’s superb high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, adds greatly to our enjoyment of this 65-year-old classic. The featurettes include “Postwar Poetry,” a new documentary about the film; fresh interviews with British cinema scholar John Hill, musicologist Jeff Smith and composer William Alwyn; a 1952 radio adaptation of the film, starring Mason and Dan O’Herlihy; an essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith; and, best of all, “Home, James,” a 1972 documentary in which Mason revisits his hometown of Huddersfield, Yorkshire.

After a series of hard-guy roles that established Jean-Paul Belmondo as an international star, it must have bordered on sacrilege to find him in the extremely broad James Bond spoofs, That Man From Rio and Up to His Ears. If Jerry Lewis, himself, had donned the same white dinner jacket as Belmondo and traveled halfway around the globe – twice – in pursuit of a combined 212 minutes of slapstick humor, it would have made more sense than finding the star of Breathless, A Woman Is a Woman, Le Doulos and Pierrot le Fou in such blatant crowd-pleasers. Nonetheless, both of the Philippe de Broca-directed comedies turned in big numbers at the box office, with That Man From Rio even performing well here. Although the Belgian cartoonist, Hergé, wasn’t accorded official recognition for Tintin’s influence on what transpires in That Man From Rio, there’s no escaping the resemblance in plot points, pacing and visuals. In Up to His Ears, at least, Jules Verne’s “Les tribulations d’un Chinois en Chine” was credited as the movie’s inspiration. In the former, Belmondo’s character chases the kidnapers of the ravishing daughter (Françoise Dorléac) of a famous anthropologist, from Paris to such Brazilian destinations as Rio de Janeiro, a then-nascent Brasilia and Amazonas. They believe she holds the key to an ancient horde of diamonds hidden in a cave in the rainforest. In the latter title, whose plot borders on the ludicrous, Belmondo is a millionaire playboy, who believes he’s being chased by assassins. After sailing into Hong Kong on his yacht, Belmondo’s character is told that he’s lost his fortune – presumably in the stock market – and must scramble to recoup the money needed to maintain his lavish lifestyle. This time, the female lead is none other than Ursula Andress, who was coming off eye-popping performances in Dr. No, Fun in Acapulco, What’s New Pussycat, 4 for Texas and She. In addition to Hong Kong, the spectacular locations include Langkawi Island, Malaysia; Kathmandu and Patan, Nepal; and Jaipur, Rajasthan, India. The Blu-ray features add several lengthy and revealing backgrounder interviews, including a humorous reminiscence by co-star Jean Rochefort.

Kidnapping Mr. Heineken: Blu-ray
I can’t recall the amount of media attention here accorded the 1983 kidnaping of beer magnate Freddy Heineken in Holland. It was certainly big news in Europe, especially as it suggested that the lull in abductions of high-profile industrialists and politicians by leftist groups was over. In fact, the Heineken snatching was successful, despite the near-amateur execution of the snatch. Arrogant to the point of refusing the protection of bodyguards, Heineken was an easy target for the five-man gang. Because they weren’t affiliated with organized crime and known political factions, they were able to keep their victim and his driver hidden from police for three weeks, before a 35-million-guilder ransom was paid. The story of the eventual capture of the kidnapers and their trials is nearly as exciting as the crime, itself. It’s so compelling that two movies dramatized it. Daniel Alfredson’s Kidnapping Mr. Heineken  arrives on Blu-ray after brief and extremely limited theatrical run, three years after Maarten Treurniet’s excellent The Heineken Kidnapping. Both take slightly different approaches to the same material, with Alfredson’s version being more accessible to non-Dutch audiences. It features a delicious performance by Anthony Hopkins, as the increasingly perturbed victim, and kidnappers played by Jim Sturgess, Sam Worthington, Ryan Kwanteen, Mark van Eeuwen and Thomas Cocquerel. In a return to Holland after some 30 years, Rutger Hauer did an equally nice job as Heineken. You can’t go wrong with either version.

Manny
With this year’s fight of the century just around the corner, it’s as good a time as any to learn as much about the combatants as possible. For all of his success in the ring, undefeated welterweight champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. isn’t the most charismatic or likeable representative for the sweet science.  Very few observers would be unhappy if Mayweather were to be beaten by the scrappy 36-year-old Filipino, Manny Pacquiao, who may be on his last legs, but remains a fierce competitor. Mayweather’s rise from the streets of Grand Rapids, Michigan, rivals that of Pacquiao’s struggle to escape rural poverty in the strife-torn province of Sarangani. The difference is that Pacquiao, who now represents his home district in the Philippine House of Representatives, used boxing as a means to keep his family from going hungry, while Mayweather, having been born into a family of boxers, drug addicts and criminals, chose the only straight road left to him and he never looked back. Even so, he lost any chance of becoming a people’s champion after serving a two-month sentence for spousal abuse and his flamboyant Las Vegas lifestyle began making headlines in the tabloids. Although Pacquiao would prove not to be a saint, his worldwide status became a source of great pride to the Philippines and he reciprocated by contributing his time and money to charitable projects.  Leon Gast and Ryan Moore’s bio-doc, Manny, doesn’t dwell on the significance of the upcoming fight, choosing, instead, to focus on Pacquiao’s personal story and professional evolution. It also shows how a young fighter who could barely speak English when he began winning championships – and was an easy mark for corrupt managers and promoters — has become something of a talk-show darling, as well as a singer, preacher and politician. And, what Manny lacks in cinematic flair is made up for in information and fight footage. The DVD adds several background featurettes.

Vengeance of an Assassin: Blu-ray
If Sam Peckinpah had ever traveled to Thailand and left behind a son or a daughter, they might have grown up to make a movie as inventively violent as Vengeance of an Assassin, which opens with a brutal game of kung-fu soccer and ends with a body count at least as high as that in The Wild Bunch. Fans of Thai action films probably already are aware of the fact that it represents the final directorial effort by Panna Rittikrai (Ong-Bak), who died last July at the too-young age of 53. Rittikrai is responsible for some of the most amazing stunt work in the martial-arts genre and found success after branching out into directing, acting, writing and producing. Perhaps because Vengeance of an Assassin was being filmed at the same time as Rittikrai was battling complications from multiple organ failure, it is long on action and short on plot development and logic. Natee (Dan Chupong) became a killer for one reason- to discover who killed his parents and reciprocate. As he gets closer to uncovering the secret network of powerful men he believes are responsible, Natee becomes the target of a double-cross that threatens everything he loves. As usual, one of the side benefits of Thai products is scenery and locations not common to other genre products.

Echoes: Blu-ray
From the Dark: Blu-ray
Long Weekend: Blu-ray
Enter the Dangerous Mind: Blu-ray
If I were struggling with insomnia and night terrors, the last place I’d want to spend a weekend alone is in a glass-walled home, sans curtains, in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Apart from the occasional garbage-robbing coyote and night-crawling rattlesnake, there are the tormented ghosts of long-dead Indians and undiscovered Manson Family victims. That’s pretty much the setup for Echoes, a very decent first feature by newcomer Nils Timm. A troubled screenwriter (Kate French) accepts just such an invitation from her agent (Steven Brand), who keeps asking her to rewrite the same script, while neglecting to offer her any advice. It’s a wonderful house, though, designed with spectacular panoramic views, and no fences to keep out the boogeymen. When the agent is called back to his office, he encourages the writer to enjoy the weekend and try to get some work done. That’s easier said than done, especially when a light in the backyard turns it into a theater for the macabre. It’s up to viewers to determine if the writer is hallucinating or the house really is haunted by evil spirits lurking among the boulders and sagebrush. This may not be the most original premise for a horror whodunit, but Timm takes full advantage of the setting to raise the ante on fright.

The clever Irish director Conor McMahon, who’s already given us Dead Meat and Stitches, adopts a more minimalist approach in From the Dark. It opens with a farmer methodically digging out brick-shaped clods of peat, until he discovers the mummified remains of a human being … or, perhaps, the corpse was simply biding its time for the old man to find it. Flash ahead a few hours and cut to a young couple experiencing car trouble while on a road trip through the Irish countryside, which, of course, is beautiful on a moonless night. The driver does what anyone would do in the same situation: leave his girlfriend in the car while he seeks help at a home we’re pretty sure was owned by the peat farmer. When no one responds to his knocking, naturally the young man lets himself into the house, where he’s confronted by the 1,000-year-old spirit inhabiting the geezer. Tired of waiting, the perturbed companion follows her boyfriend’s tracks to the home, where, she, too, is confronted by the fiend. Once the couple determines that the creature can’t stand being illuminated, From the Dark becomes a claustrophobic game of tag between the light-seeking couple and a monster intent on keeping them inside a darkened house. Somehow, it works. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

The truly classic Ozploitation flick, Long Weekend, makes the most of a nature-strikes-back premise that might have been written and shot during a holiday trip to the beach. It’s this simple. A pair of squabbling Aussies sets out on a camping trip to the bush, hoping to save a marriage hobbled by the wife’s regret over an abortion demanded by her husband. Because they’re shown littering and driving away from a collision with a kangaroo, we’re pre-disposed to dislike them. Once they get to the beach, however, the rifle-toting husband becomes exponentially more onerous than she is. It explains why we side with the native wildlife – including the bloated corpse of a “sea cow” and a transplanted Tasmanian devil – as the critters begin to run roughshod on the campsite and unseen demons launch their strategic attacks. Our natural response is to ask why Peter and Marcia don’t simply pick up their stakes and split back for civilization. Sadly for the couple, the vegetation conspires with the animals and birds to prevent this from happening. Twenty years after Birds, the avian attacks in Long Weekend retain their ability to shock us, but these are considerably more credible. Horror and exploitation buffs should find a lot to like in this Synapse Films reclamation project. The Blu-ray adds commentary from producer Richard Brennan and cinematographer Vincent Monton, as well as an audio interview with Hargreaves.

Enter the Dangerous Mind (a.k.a., “Snap”) received some of the most scathing reviews I’ve seen in a quite a while and I think I know the real reason why it pissed off so many critics. In it, Jim (Jake Hoffman) is a painfully shy young man who’s only able to drown out memories of a traumatic youth by sitting in his room and mixing electronic dance music, heavy on dubstep beats. The music could hardly be more loud and disturbing. I spent most of the movie adjusting the volume, via remote control, so as to avoid being thrown out of my apartment unit. Perhaps, in a nod to “Cyrano de Bergerac,” Jim is tormented by a sociopathic voice in his head instructing him how to approach women, specifically the abnormally beautiful Wendy (Nikki Reed), who he meets on a visit to his social worker (Scott Bakula). It’s all kind of messy, but a decent twist at the end works in the movie’s favor. The problem, of course, is that filmmakers Youssef Delara and Victor Teran will have lost most their audience by this time, fearing their hearing is endangered.

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness
William S. Burroughs in the Dreamachine
The Way Things Go: Blu-ray
In Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s thoroughly enigmatic quasi-documentary, A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, a mysterious African-American hipster, who some viewers will recognize as avant-garde musician Robert A.A. Lowe, serves as our guide on a somewhat anachronistic journey through far northern Europe. It begins with a visit to either the first or last surviving hippie commune on a small Estonian island and ends at a discomfiting “black metal” concert in Oslo. These sequences serve as bookends to the contemplative middle chapter, during which Lowe fishes, alone, in a rowboat on a serene lake in the Finnish wilderness. On shore, he directly communes with nature via a mushroom with a bright red cap. I’m not sure what any of it means, except, possibly, the Chicago-based musician is a cool guy whose influences are many and varied. If, as I suspect, we’re expected to glean some philosophical, religious or metaphysical significance from the 98-minute A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, the first and third parts tend to neutralize the sublime meditations they surround. It’s also true that 30 minutes of in-your-face black metal would be enough to fill most uninitiated viewers with, at best, a great deal of anxiety. Even so, fans of Lowe and the filmmakers will be ecstatic to learn that it’s available in DVD.

John Aes-Nihil, whose greatest gift to American culture may be the transgressive Manson Family Movies, does for William S. Burroughs what, at one time, must have seemed to be impossible: turn the truly iconic beat writer into someone frightfully old and inconsequential. Ostensibly, William S. Burroughs in the Dreamachine is a documentary about the flickering gizmo created in the early 1960s by artist Brion Gysin and mathematician Ian Sommerville to simulate brain waves. Aes-Nihil uses Burroughs marquee value to stretch about 10 minute of solid material into 70 minutes of vacuous content. His presence basically serves as window dressing, along with irrelevant appearances by Allen Ginsberg and Leo DiCaprio. While it’s true that Burroughs and other influential mid-century artists embraced the apparatus, Aes-Nihil wouldn’t be the first person to exploit a famous author’s name to sell material previously available to the public. Nik Sheehan’s 2008 documentary FLicKeR was a far more persuasive vehicle for a discussion on the subject of the Dreamachine and it features even more celebrity witnesses. The machine has at its core a 100-watt bulb, which is surrounded by a spinning open column with tiny curved windows to allow the light to shine through. Oddly, it is to be experienced with one’s eyes closed. The hypnotic or hallucinogenic effect is supposed to simulate a drug-less high. In the Dreamachine represents Cult Epics’ contribution to the centennial of Burroughs’ birth. Sadly, the footage shot at a 1966 reception at the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art and subsequent material taken from a Nova Convention tribute and at Burroughs’ farmhouse, shortly before his death, wouldn’t get a passing grade in most high school AV classes.  The camera is static and the voices are mostly unintelligible. The DVD also includes a photo gallery and David Woodward’s 2007 Dreamachine Installation at the Freud Museum of Dreams, in St Petersburg, Russia. An interesting discussion is neutralized by a lack of subtitles or editing out of long-winded translations.

Of these three largely experimental films, by far the most accessible and entertaining is The Way Things Go (“Der Lauf der Dinge”), which documents an art installation that might have been created by the combined talents of Rube Goldberg and Redd Foxx’s junk-yard genius, Fred G. Sanford. The 100-foot chain-reaction structure is comprised of such commonplace objects as tires, ladders, boards, ramps, aerosol cans, flammable liquids and other discarded household objects. Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss document the 30-minute dissembling on a slow-moving camera, without embellishment or commentary. The best way to experience it is with kids, who should begin to howl with laughter and delight after five minutes. Who knows what they might be inspired to create, themselves, by watching the magic unfold.

Class of 1984: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Eddie and the Cruisers/Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives: Blu-ray
Carrie/The Rage: Carrie 2: Blu-ray
In his comments for the Blu-ray edition of Class of 1984, co-writer/director Mark Lester makes it sound as if the exploitation classic possesses the greatest gift of prophesy since 2001: A Space Odyssey, primarily for its inclusion of metal detectors at the doors of his anarchic “inner city” Lincoln High. He recalls the rave reception the movie received at Cannes and Roger Ebert’s supportive review, while also citing such influences as Blackboard Jungle, High School Confidential and A Clockwork Orange. He might just as well have mentioned Zero de Conduite, If … and The 400 Blows. The movie he didn’t  point to, unless I missed it, is the one I thought of first: New World Pictures’ Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, a film that, like Class of 1984, spawned Troma’s immortal, Class of Nuke ‘Em High. Lester also deserves demerits for a scene in which a gang of white hoodlums, led by Timothy Van Patten, beats the crap out of a gang of black thugs in a rumble staged in the heart of the ghetto. It’s a small point, perhaps, but even on “Welcome Back Kotter,” Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs was allowed to represent African-Americans as a fellow Sweathog. That’s all academic, however, because for better or worse exploitation flicks play by their own rules. The Shout! Factory edition presents enough solid evidence of the Class of 1984’s place in the Pantheon of Exploitation to discourage any further delusions of grandeur. Perry King plays the naïve music teacher who is hired by Lincoln High to replace an instructor who was driven nuts by the punks who turned his class into their own personal playground. The first thing he notices in the parking lot is the gun carried by a jaded fellow teacher (Roddy McDowell) who can’t wait to retire. The second is that four of the five chief troublemakers aren’t even enrolled in the music program. Timothy Van Patten’s spoiled rich kid plays a mean piano, but prefers to torment his teachers and the school’s geek population, which includes a puny musician played by Michael “No J” Fox. If the first half of Class of 1984 is riddled with holes and clichés, the exciting second half more than makes up for it. It’s violent, but in a way that would satisfy fans of Death Wish and Dirty Harry. A fascinating interview with King more than makes up for the less down-to-earth moments in chats with Lester, Lalo Schifrin, Lisa Langlois and Erin Noble.

In other news from Shout! Factory, similarly restored double-feature packages of Eddie and the Cruisers/Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives and Carrie/The Rage: Carrie 2 are newly available on Blu-ray. In the former, 20 years after the car of a New Jersey rock legend (Michael Pare) careens off a bridge, a TV reporter (Ellen Barkin) begins to suspect that the singer might have survived the crash. The original film didn’t become a hit until it was shown on cable and was embraced by teenage viewers.  In the sequel, Eddie comes out of hiding to front a different band. Some featurettes have been picked up for the re-release.

Despite the title, the Carrie double-bill is comprised of the 2002 adaptation of Stephen King’s classic tale of horror and retribution, which aired on NBC and starred Angela Bettis, Patricia Clarkson and Rena Sofer. Released theatrically in 1999, The Rage: Carrie 2 is the kind of unnecessary sequel that is made whether anyone wants to see it or not. Neither of these titles should be confused with Brian De Palma’s original Carrie or Kimberly Pierce’s 2013 remake, which received a handful of good reviews and may have turned a profit in the international market. The Blu-ray package adds new commentary by directors David Carson and Katt Shea, deleted scenes, an alternate ending and special-effects sequences.

TV-to-DVD
Starz: The Missing: Blu-ray
Syfy: Metal Hurlant Chronicles: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
Joe 90: The Complete Series
PBS: Wild Kratts: Shark-Tastic
PBS: Lights Out!
Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts: Hall of Famers/Stingers and Zingers
When a child disappears or is found dead, the loss is felt far beyond members of the immediate family. It’s as if we all have a stake in the outcome. Our compassion explains the widespread acceptance of Amber Alerts and the ability of bottom-feeding cable-news personalities to exploit such crimes for their own benefit. While we all want happy endings, too often all we’re left with are prayer vigils, live courtroom coverage and relief that it wasn’t our children who fell victim to the monsters around us. The international co-production “The Missing” – shown here on Starz and, in England, on BBC 1 – is an intricately drawn and imminently binge-worthy mini-series that examines one such disappearance as both a police procedural and heart-wrenching human drama. Fans of BBC America and PBS’ “Masterpiece” collection will recognize several of the key players as the cream of England’s acting crop, with some top French and Belgian actors lending their talent to the cross-Channel investigation. Brits Tony and Emily Hughes (James Nesbitt, Frances O’Connor), along with their young son, Olly, are vacationing in a town near Paris when car trouble forces them to spend the night in a B&B. An important soccer match has the entire town transfixed and, being a pleasant summer night, most are watching it in the plaza. At a critical moment, Tony loses hold of Olly’s hand for a precious few seconds. It’s in that wink of an eye, that the boy slips off into the night, perhaps forever, opening the floodgates of fear, recriminations and fevered speculation. Unwilling to lose track of even the memory of their son, the Hughes take up residence in the hotel for long periods of time over the course of the next eight years. European superstar Tchéky Karyo plays the dogged police detective for whom the investigation becomes an obsession shared with Olly’s hugely impatient father. Over time, the two men’s relationship grows from tepid acceptance born of necessity to a true friendship. Not surprisingly, Tony and Emily’s marriage is stretched to the breaking point and back. “The Missing” is so full of twists, turns, false leads, red herrings and cliffhangers that any synapsis would be too laden with spoilers to do justice to the complexity of the narrative. Let’s just say that, at various times, the suspects include everyone from the town’s politically expedient mayor to the town’s resident pedophile. None of them are given short-shrift by director Tom Shankland (“Ripper Street”) and writers Harry and Jack Williams (“Full English”). The package’s three short featurettes add almost nothing to our enjoyment of the mini-series or anticipation of a second season.

Distinguished by a hyper-realistic visual texture and intense heavy-metal audio presentation Syfy’s “Metal Hurlant Chronicles” offers fans of dystopian sci-fi a distinctly adult vision of the distant future. The self-contained stories in this noisy English-language Franco-Belgian anthology series are based on material already published in Métal Hurlant/ Heavy Metal magazine. Co-writer/creator Guillaume Lubrano’s unifying force is the titular asteroid – the last remnant of a once thriving planet – destined to search the cosmos for individuals struggling to survive amid the ruins, while retaining a semblance of humanity in a universe that couldn’t give a shit less. The episodes, patterned after “The Twilight Zone” and other sci-fi anthology series, feature some very decent CG animation, but, generally speaking, are too short be of much intellectual value to viewers. Still, for a couple of seasons, anyway, it filled a niche on Syfy. The cast includes Rutger Hauer, Michael Biehn, John Rhys-Davies, James Marsters, Michael Jai White, Scott Adkins, Kelly Brook, Joe Flanigan, Michelle Ryan and Dominique Pinon. Some viewers will be happy to learn that titty bars serve oxygen cocktails in deep space.

From Shout! Factory/Timeless Media, “Joe 90” is the latest compilation of Supermarionation television adventures, created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson (“Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons,” “Thunderbirds”) in the 1960s. After the brilliant Professor Ian McClaine develops a machine called BIG RAT (Brain Impulse Galvanoscope Record and Transfer) he decides to use his adopted son, Joe, as his guinea pig.  Having been imbued with the ability to become an expert in any field, the 9-year-old boy is recruited by the World Intelligence Network to join their quest to stop evildoers wherever they may arise.  “Joe 90: The Complete Series” contains 30 episodes of entertaining kids/geek programming, as well as commentaries with designer Mike Trim and director Ken Turner, and an interview with Gerry Anderson.

In the new PBS compilation, “Wild Kratts: Shark-Tastic!,” the environmental crusaders are researching ways to prevent the extinction of aquatic life around the planet, starting with the decimation of great white sharks by fishermen in pursuit of fins required to satisfy the expensive tastes of thoughtless diners. Next, when Martin knocks the Creature Power Suits into a deep Arctic trench, the brothers use the new Octopod submarine to search for them. Then, Aviva takes the lead when she wants to upgrade the Tortuga with swimming capabilities and the team attempts to decode the secret language of dolphins using a new invention.

Occasionally, one of the fine scientific investigations provided us by PBS raise questions about subjects most of us take completely for granted and only question when something goes wrong. The one posed in “Lights Out!” is new to me, however: Is too much artificial light a bad thing? Apparently, some scientists now believe that exposure to artificial light at night, even the glow of a cell phone or computer screen, can throw our internal body clock out of sync with the planet and may even be leading to serious illnesses. The producers visit nightshift workers at the Bruce Nuclear Power Plant, go for a ride-along with truckers on a cross-continental run and meet a New Orleans scientist who fights cancer by day and plays trumpet with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band by night. Among other things, they discover that hot spots are everywhere, from the illumination in the hospital ICU to the tiny screens of our mobile devices. I wonder of this Canadian export got much play on the Las Vegas PBS affiliate.

When Justin Bieber was cut to pieces by a jury of his peers on the latest Comedy Central roast, the jokes were passed through social media for days to come. The insults were largely R-rated and not all them were hurled in the direction of the bad-boy singer. There’s a lot of collateral damage in these affairs. While pretty hot in their day, the bon mots exchanged in Dean Martin Roasts: Stingers & Zingers and Dean Martin Roasts: Hall of Famers now seem as tame as the kittens and puppies in a pet-shop window. This isn’t to say, however, that they no longer are able to raise a smile or two, especially when the barbs are aimed at some of the biggest names in mid-century entertainment, politics and sports. “Stingers & Zingers” is an eight-DVD set that includes 24 complete “Celebrity Roasts “ and features a wide variety of guest roasters. “Hall of Famers” puts a tight focus on some sports figures as Hank Aaron, Yogi Berra, Joe Garagiola, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Stan Musial. The Aaron segment was taped only 10 days before he broke Babe Ruth s longstanding career home-run record. The distinction provided no shield against the pointed gags.

42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection, Vol. 9
Impulse Pictures’ series of vintage-loop collections continues apace with 15 short films made in the period just before pornography went mainstream. Although the credits didn’t carry any credits, within a couple of years some the actors’ names would appear on Times Square marquees and the covers of VHS packages around the world. Some of the actors would simply disappear into the ether, of course, probably hoping and praying these nine-minute flicks would disappear forever. The digital revolution ensures they’ll live forever, instead. Among the more familiar names assembled here are Kandi Barbour, Aunt Peg, CJ Laing, and Vanessa Del Rio. As usual, liner notes are provided by Cinema Sewer editor, Robin Bougie.

The DVD Wrapup: A Most Violent Year, Interstellar, The Immigrant and more

Thursday, April 9th, 2015


A Most Violent Year: Blu-ray
For many years, the 105-year-old National Board of Review has prided itself in being the first critical organization to reveal its list of the year’s best films, as well as handing out awards in several awards categories. As such, it not only has avoided getting lost in the avalanche of similar announcements, but also assured that no one in the greater cinematic community could forget its very existence. By comparison, the membership of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is an open book. Because of the attention given the board’s announcement by celebrity-obsessed media, publicists for the movies and artists so honored are accorded a head start in the increasingly competitive and absurdly expensive race for Oscars. (Never mind that most of the films named won’t reach audiences beyond New York and L.A. until mid-January, if at all.) When the NBR anointed J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year 2014’s Best Film, along with bestowing top honors on stars Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac – who shared the prize with Birdman’s Michael Keaton — it raised expectations for Academy Award nominations that never came. (The academy would also largely overlook the NBR’s other season-bests, Fury, Gone Girl, Inherent Vice, The LEGO Movie and Nightcrawler, all of which were undeservedly snubbed.) Even if it had made the finals, though, A Most Violent Year wasn’t likely to beat Birdman, American Sniper, Boyhood or The Grand Budapest Hotel for Best Picture. Still, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see it nominated for the unfilled ninth or tenth slots in the category. Alas, it wasn’t to be … such is life in the mean streets of Hollywood.

It’s worth noting that the title of Chandor’s easily recommendable thriller derives from the fact that 1981 – the temporal setting of A Most Violent Year — was one of the most violent, perhaps the most violent year in New York City history. No single industry, ethnic group or social stratum was immune to the madness. In a scenario that might have attracted Sidney Lumet, Isaac plays Abel Morales, the owner of one of the city’s leading suppliers of heating oil. Just as his business is about to expand, someone begins hijacking Morales’ trucks and selling the valuable contents on the black market. Like Morales, viewers are kept in the dark as to who’s responsible for the sometimes violent attacks, except that the likely suspects include competitors, a Teamster rep, loan sharks and organized crime. Chastain is typically excellent as Morales’ wife, a mobster’s daughter with a taste for Armani and protecting the company she helped prosper. Also terrific are Albert Brooks as Morales’ ethically conflicted lawyer and David Oyelowo, an ambitious district attorney, desperate to announce indictments. The interesting thing about Morales is that, for all of his gangster swagger and slick attire, he may be the one character in A Most Violent Year whose integrity is the least questionable, and that includes his wife. Even if I found myself tying up loose threads in the narrative, none interfered with my enjoyment of the picture. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Chandor and producers Neal Dodson and Anna Gerb; the 44-minute background featurette, “Behind the Violence”; four “conversations” between longtime friends, Chastain and Isaac; deleted scenes; and other tidbits.

Interstellar: Blu-ray
If A Most Violent Year appeared to come out of nowhere to capture three top National Board of Review honors, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar began generating audible buzz even before debuting in early October. Here’s what Variety’s chief film critic, Scott Foundas, had to say about it, “Interstellar reaffirms Nolan as the premier big-canvas storyteller of his generation, more than earning its place alongside The Wizard of Oz, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Gravity in the canon of Hollywood’s visionary sci-fi head trips. Global box office returns should prove suitably rocket-powered.” And that’s just what happened. To date, it has earned more than $672.6 million in the international marketplace, of which $188 million can be attributed to domestic revenues. As was the case with A Most Violent Year, however, early buzz failed to translate into high-profile nominations. It received four nominations in technical categories and one for Hans Zimmer’s original score, resulting in a single Oscar for visual effects. Typically, I don’t like to paraphrase other critics’ observations, but, as comparisons go, it would be difficult to find any more apt than the four classics mentioned in the Variety review. If you think The Wizard of Oz might be a stretch, well, judge for yourselves. Authors Jonathan and Christopher Nolan conjure a time in the foreseeable future when the planet has exhausted its ability to replenish its resources and a mass evacuation, as unfeasible as it sounds, is seen as a possible way to save humanity. The problem of finding a suitable planet to relocate the masses, however, remains unsolved. To this end, NASA has embarked on a highly classified mission – under the guidance of Nolan mainstay, Michael Caine — to send a select group of astrophysicists and a biotechnologist to a location somewhere in the direction of Saturn, where a newly identified wormhole might provide a superhighway to inhabitable worlds orbiting the massive black hole Gargantua.

As if to provide a more identifiably human protagonist for Interstellar’s audience to embrace – other than the data jockeys, engineers and conceptual cosmologists at NASA and Cal Tech — we’re given veteran military pilot and astronaut, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey).  A quintessentially down-to-Earth heartlander, Cooper retired to his vast family farm after NASA lost its funding. Evidence already visible on the horizon suggests, however, that a second Dust Bowl is imminent and, this time, nothing of lasting value will be spared. Cooper shares the farm with his crusty father-in-law (John Lithgow), teenage son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and precocious 10-year-old daughter “Murph” (Mackenzie Foy), who believes her bedroom is haunted. If so, the poltergeist is sufficiently well-versed in the properties of gravitational waves to leave binary-coded coordinates that lead Cooper to the hidden NASA facility supervised by Caine’s Professor Brand. During a final visit to the farm, Murph demands that Cooper not join the mission and throws a heart-breaking tantrum when he insists that he has no recourse but to at least attempt to save mankind. If he makes it back to Earth, which seems unlikely, Cooper knows that his children will have aged by as many as 50 years, while he’ll still be handsome and spry. (It’s complicated.) In the meantime, however, Murph (now, Jessica Chastain) will have joined Brand at NASA headquarters and Tom (Topher Grace) will have taken over the farm.

Once the space probe has left the Earth’s atmosphere, Interstellar moves swiftly into territory previously explored by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke. Cooper’s crew consists of Brand’s biotech daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), scientists Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley), and a pair of intricately programmed robots. There’s no way I could do justice to what happens when they enter the wormhole, accept to say that it isn’t like anything we’ve ever seen before on film. Instead of merely providing a visual treat for acid heads – as 2001 would become — the Nolans combine aspects of traditional sci-fi with survival drama, metaphysics, advanced cosmology and theology. McConaughey’s good-ol’-boy demeanor ensures that the mission won’t sail completely over the heads of viewers without PhDs. This isn’t to say, however, that amateur astronomers, Trekkies and other card-carrying space nerds will be disappointed by concessions made for those of us who are tested by the jargon in “The Big Bang Theory.” The science is sound, if theoretical, and expertly rendered by CGI wizards right here on Earth. To this end, an entire disc in the Blu-ray package is dedicated to interviews, making-of material, explainers and a 55-minute featurette in which the Nolans introduce us to theoretical physicist Dr. Kip Thorne, upon whose research Interstellar is based. Besides helping a generation of filmmakers make “the most exotic events in the universe … accessible to humans,” Thorne’s reputation recently was enhanced by an event depicted in The Theory of Everything. As portrayed by Enzo Cilenti, Thorne wins a bet with Stephen Hawking – based on theory that underlies Interstellar – who was then required to subscribe to Penthouse magazine for a year. He also was involved in the creation of Errol Morris’ “A Brief History of Time,” the PBS mini-series “The Astronauts,” Carl Sagan’s novel, “Contact,” and the “Interstellar” video game and tie-in novel.

The Immigrant: Blu-ray
Several excellent films have been made about the American immigrant experience and sometimes perilous passage from Ellis Island to the Promised Land, just a short ferry ride in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. As such James Gray’s Palme d’Or-nominated The Immigrant shares elements of period pictures that include The Godfather II, Ragtime, Once Upon a Time in America, the CBS mini-series “Ellis Island,” the 3D IMAX Across the Sea of Time, John Sayles’ The Brother from Another Planet and Emanuele Crialese’s sadly underseen, Golden Door. Likewise, images from Stephen Wilke’s “Ellis Island: Ghosts of Freedom,” JR’s “Unframed: Ellis Island” and Lewis Wickes Hine’s “social photography” consciously and subliminally have provided countless art, set and fashion directors with an accurate look at how millions of immigrants spent their first few days in the United States. Extremely well-crafted and emotionally taxing, The Immigrant depicts one Polish immigrant’s introduction to the dark side of the American Dream, circa 1921. Ironically, if it suffers at all, it’s from the familiarity we have with all of the movies and documentaries that were informed by the same photographs and newsreel footage. Practically every scene harkens to images already etched into our collective consciousness. It couldn’t help but distract me, even momentarily, from the personal drama of Ewa Cybulska. As portrayed by Marion Cotillard, Ewa is an impoverished refugee from war-torn Eastern Europe. As if the trip from Poland weren’t taxing enough, her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan), is quarantined in the island’s hospital after showing possible symptoms of TB. Meanwhile, rumors that Ewa turned tricks on the voyage west cause immigration authorities to separate her from the pack, as well. Like a turkey vulture attracted to roadkill, showman/pimp Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) just happens to be in the cavernous waiting room as Ewa is led to a holding area.

In a scenario that I can’t recall seeing previously in movies set on Ellis Island, Weiss is able to bribe a guard into allowing Ewa to do an end run around the validation process. Ewa speaks enough English to be wary of Weiss’ intentions, but not enough to feel secure in the teeming streets of lower Manhattan, where, she’s been led to believe, her aunt and uncle have abandoned her. Before being introduced to prostitution, Ewa works in the costume department of Weiss’ burlesque house and occasionally appears on stage as Lady Liberty. Still committed to getting Magda off the island, she has pretty much indentured herself to the miracle-worker, Weiss. She also has made a friend in his cousin, Emil (Jeremy Renner), who’s better known around town as Orlando the Magician. Emil is no more trustworthy than Bruno, but, at least, he isn’t a procurer of destitute young women. As the tension between them nears the volcanic level, all three characters find themselves running out of time to accomplish their respective goals. Things get especially dire for Ewa as the full weight of New York corruption and the debilitating exploitation of immigrants causes her to despair of ever freeing her sister. Can Bruno or Emil work their devious wiles before they’re either killed or run out of money? Stay tuned. If there’s something strangely off-putting about Cotillard’s portrayal – her ability to speak English goes largely unexplained – it doesn’t keep us from sympathizing with her plight or that of the other women helped by Weiss’ crooked connections. Because Gray and Phoenix had already collaborated on The Yards, We Own the Night and Two Lovers, it isn’t surprising that Weiss is the most fully realized character in The Immigrant. The Blu-ray adds Gray’s commentary and featurette, “The Visual Inspiration of ‘The Immigrant’,” which describes how the filmmakers were able to nail the period look, using Hines’ photographs and period paintings as primary source material.

Three Night Stand
If You Don’t, I Will
There are so many things wrong with the straight-outta-Canada rom-com Three Night Stand that it begs the question as to how it got green-lit in the first place. If I were to guess, I’d say that it was sold on the promise that teenagers and young adults would find it difficult to stay away from a sexual farce set in the gorgeous Laurentian Mountains, not far from Montreal, and starring such familiar hotties as Sam Huntington, James A. Woods and Meaghan Rath – all three from the North American iteration of the BBC’s “Being Human” — Emmanuelle Chriqui (“Entourage”), Reagan Pasternak (“Being Erica”), Aliocha Schneider (“Les Jeunes Loups”) and Dan Beirne (“Flashpoint”). Writer/director Pat Kiely had enjoyed a few moments in the spotlight as a key collaborator on Who Is KK Downey?, a publishing-industry satire that found some fans on the 2008 festival circuit. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Kiely also played a recurring character on “Being Human.” Instead of attempting to cobble together a successful rom-com from these inarguably attractive parts, Kiely might have been better served if he’d made a feature version of the supernatural crime series. As it is, Huntington and Rath play a yuppie couple, Carl and Sue, whose marriage is failing for a dozen different reasons. Carl hopes to re-kindle the last remaining spark of their relationship during a weekend getaway in the snow-covered mountains. In one of those coincidences that only occur in movies held together by star power and duct tape, the lovely chateau is owned and managed by Carl’s old girlfriend, Robyn. When Sue learns that it once served as a love shack for Carl and Robyn, the exotic beauty begins to suspect she’s being played. Also staying at the resort are a French-language pop star, Anatolii, and his bi-cougar mom, Lise, and two of Carl’s friends from work, who responded to his distress call. Complicating matters even further is the arrival of Robyn’s estranged husband, Aaron, a pugnacious asshole from B.C., who can’t accept the fact that she left him for anything or anyone else. Somewhere in this mess is the framework for a decent farce, I think, but Kiely simply was incapable of pulling one out of the fire. The dialogue bounces awkwardly between French and English; the women are incalculably more attractive and sympathetic than the men; the sexuality is closer to PG than R; and Anatolii’s relationship with his mother is inexplicably perverse. The only thing wrong with the gorgeous wintertime setting is Kiely’s attempt to wring humor from a sex scene that requires of the characters that they wear cold-weather gear and remain on their snowmobile. It’s about as romantic as a tortoise humping an old shoe.

Sophie Fillières’ strangely compelling French dramedy, If You Don’t, I Will, deals with several of the same issues addressed in Three Night Stand, but vive la difference. Where Kiely attempted to mine humor from a played-out vein, Fillieres allows it to emerge organically from situations most viewers wouldn’t necessarily consider to be fertile ground for laughs. Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric, who are as simpatico as any two actors can be, play a middle-class couple from Lyon whose 15-year marriage has run its course. Things Pomme and Pierre once happily shared now provide excuses for corrosive bickering and strategic indifference. At first, it’s easy to believe that Pomme deserves the bulk of our sympathy, but the more we learn about their personal history together, the less we’re inclined to solely blame Pierre for their mutual distress. Pomme has a son from a previous marriage, but he’s old enough to get along on his own, and she’s recovering from surgery for a brain tumor that happily was benign. He’s supportive, but has a girlfriend on the side. They probably are capable of maintaining a semblance of marriage for many more years or they could wake up one morning and pull the plug on the charade. On a hike through the mountainous Chamoiselle Forest, Pomme abruptly decides to take off on her own, while Pierre heads for the parking lot. Days pass in this gorgeous setting, allowing her plenty of time and opportunity to contemplate her present and future. Increasingly more concerned about his wife’s well-being, Pierre returns to the forest, where Pomme’s already plotting her exit. Without revealing what happens from this point in If You Don’t, I Will, I can say that it’s nothing most viewers will be able to predict. It’s also here that the dark comedy really kicks in. Like so many other French entertainments, If You Don’t, I Will wouldn’t last 20 minutes on the DVD players of most mainstream American viewers. For the art-house crowd, however, the joy of watching Devos and Amalric play off of each other should be reason enough to invest in a rental. The Film Movement release adds interviews with the stars and writer/director, as well as the funny Belgian short film, “Driving Lessons.”

Massacre Gun: Blu-ray
In an enjoyable interview included in Arrow Video’s lovingly restored Japanese crime thriller, Massacre Gun, the formidable genre star Jô Shishido allows that such films essentially attempted to do little more than slavishly re-create the noir conceits of B-movies cranked out of Hollywood in the 1940-50s. In time, the industry would develop a genre style of its own – combining noir conceits, with violent crime, sexual exploitation and rock music – but that would come later in the ’60s. At the beginning of the decade, though, filmmakers used their medium to depict the anti-social by-products of the American occupation. As was the case with American noir, the reliance on monochromatic was less a stylistic choice than one based on studio economics. Japanese filmmakers developed a keen eye for the nuances of black-and-white cinematography and, while largely derivative, churned out a steady supply of yakuza and samurai hits. Some, of course, were better than others. By 1967, Yasuharu Hasebe (Black Tight Killers), Seijun Suzuki (Branded to Kill) and Shohei Imamura (Pigs and Battleships) had emerged from the pack as directors to take seriously. In between historical epics, Akira Kurusawa had contributed High and Low (1963) and The Bad Sleep Well (1960) to the upper shelf of gangster-genre flicks. If movies such as Hasebe’s Massacre Gun failed to impress western audiences, it’s probably because the action sequences lacked the visual credibility even of TV’s “The Untouchables” and we had more than enough hoodlums with which to contend on our shores.  Viewed from a distance of 50 years, however, they can be enjoyed for their sheer entertainment value and technical flare. Here, Shishido plays an obedient a mob hitman, Kuroda, who, after being forced to execute his lover, decides to go straight. This, of course, isn’t looked upon with approval by his bosses or the gangsters who depend on him for their income and protection. After they tear apart the nightclub and boxing gym belonging to Kuroda and his brothers, a full-blown mob war becomes impossible to avoid, with heavy casualties on both sides. The shootouts are stylishly shot, but it’s the nightclub scenes that are most memorable. That’s primarily because of the cool-jazz soundtrack by Naozumi Yamamoto and atmospheric art direction of Takeo Kimura. Besides the interview with Shishido, the Blu-ray adds a fresh one with writer and film historian Tony Rayns; a gallery of rare promotional materials; an illustrated booklet, with new writing on the film by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp and illustrations by Ian MacEwan; and original archive stills.

Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn
Invaders From Mars: Blu-ray
It’s been nearly 100 years since the first film adaptation of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Since then, it’s been remounted for screen and television more the 50 times, including here in first-time director Jo Kastner’s Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn. If one can get past the fact that this adaptation was filmed in Bulgaria, instead of Missouri, the Danube makes a reasonable facsimile of the Mississippi and only a few of the European actors retain a discernible accent. Kastner’s screenplay follows the trajectory of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” finishing with a hint of what’s to come with Huck and the escaped slave, Jim, as they drift down the river on a raft. American stars Jake T. Austin, Joel Courtney and Katherine McNamara should be familiar to pre-teens and teens who follow such shows as “The Fosters,” “R.L. Stine’s ‘The Haunting Hour,” “Happyland” and “Wizards of Waverly Place,” if not their parents. Val Kilmer, who’s impersonated Twain on stage, plays the author as a very old man, recalling the events of his stories for a pair of young admirers. Parents could certainly use Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn as a starter set for kids they want to introduce to the classics of American literature.

No matter how much time kids spend grousing about their parents, doing chores and homework, one of the primal fears shared by all children is that they’ll wake up one morning and find them gone completely or so changed that they might as well be robots. It’s just that feeling of abandonment and uncertainty that informs Invaders From Mars, more so in Toby Hooper’s 1986 remake than in William Cameron Menzies’ original 1953 version. Although both films are built on the same foundation – Richard Blake’s timeless screenplay – Dante’s mission appears to have been engaging teens and pre-teens, who, unlike their parents, already were conversant with most sci-fi conventions and archetypes. After all, by 1986, how kids hadn’t already fallen in love with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and the first Star Wars trilogy? When the original was released, Martians were as likely to invade the U.S. as hordes of Chinese communists. Hooper knew it would have taken more to frighten American kids than the thought of E.T. returning to Earth with all of his friends and relatives on a giant spacecraft. The critics lambasted his remake, but, once again, treated it as if it were made specifically to please them and people old enough to remember Menzies’ picture. Instead, the collaborative team of Hooper, writers Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby, and creature-effects masters Stan Winston and John Dykstra, decided that kids in 1986 probably could use a few laughs to lighten the thought of losing control to Martian invaders. Grown-ups will appreciate the filmmakers’ efforts to engage older viewers with trick casting and other homages to the original. For example, Jimmy Hunt, who played young David MacLean in the original, was cast as the police chief in the remake.  Hunter Carson, fresh off his stellar debut in Paris, Texas, is frequently joined on screen here by his mother, Karen Black, cast as the school nurse who becomes convinced David is telling the truth. The Shout Factory Blu-ray adds Hooper’s entertaining commentary; the excellent 36-minute backgrounder, “Martians are Coming: The Making of Invaders From Mars”; a production illustration gallery from artist William Stout; storyboards; and a stills gallery.

Breathless: Blu-ray
By reversing the physical settings, as well as the nationalities of the lead characters from Jean-Luc Godard’s epochal Breathless (“A Bout De Souffle”), the ever-provocative American writer/director Jim McBride risked offending tens of millions of film buffs who regard the nouvelle vague classic as one of the most important films in the international repertory. Richard Gere’s career was still very much on the ascendency, but almost everything else about McBride’s Breathless was a risk most observers didn’t think was worth taking. Mainstream reviews of the finished products appeared to concur with that observation. In a very real sense, however, the filmmaker probably was inspired as much by the irresistible Otis Blackwell/Jerry Lee Lewis song of the same title, which preceded even the release of Godard’s movie. It’s heard throughout the 100-minute Breathless, sung by Lewis, Gere and X. There’s nothing wrong with Gere’s frenetic portrayal of Las Vegas gigolo, who steals a Porsche to get to L.A. to cash an IOU from a fellow hoodlum. Unfortunately, for everyone involved, he foolishly gets into a chase with a highway patrolman. The movie could have ended there and then, if Jesse hadn’t found a handgun in the glove box and left it on the front seat, where the temptation to use the damn thing was too great resist. The violent act certainly doesn’t help his chances of getting to L.A., locating his banker and hightailing it to Mexico with the girl of his dreams. Twenty-year-old Valerie Kaprisky, whose experience was largely in soft-core sexploitation flicks, couldn’t have been a less likely candidate for the job of being the UCLA architecture student with which Jesse becomes obsessed after a tryst in Las Vegas. If Gere offers a reasonable alternative to Jean-Paul Belmondo, Kaprisky could never be mistaken for Jean Seberg. She looked too much like a teenager and her English was almost laughable. What she did have going for her, though, was a body that must have defied the urge for her to get dressed every morning. And that was perfectly alright with Jesse, who, of course, was doomed from the point of his altercation with the cop. If there was one Blu-ray re-release that warrants commentary or backgrounder it would be McBride’s Breathless, but, alas, all we get is a trailer.

TV-to-DVD
BET: The Book of Negroes
PBS: Masterpiece Mystery: Grantchester: Blu-ray
If Black History Month had existed when I was in school, I might not have been so taken aback by the off-putting title of its mini-series, “The Book of Negroes.” After all, the word, “negro,” exists mostly as the n-word that spawned the more onerous n-word, whose usage today is condoned as street slang in some circles and condemned as a racial epithet when thrown around by others. Indeed, when American publishers decided to pick up Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill’s historical novel for distribution here, its title was changed to “Someone Knows My Name.” Although, it refers to a notion at the heart of the book and mini-series, it hardly packed the same intellectual and emotional punch as “The Book of Negroes.” Frankly, though, throughout much of the mini-series’ first three episodes, I wondered if I wasn’t watching an attempt to bridge ABC’s landmark “Roots” with last year’s tentatively linked “12 Years a Slave” and “Belle.” It opens in West Africa, in 1750, when native slave traders murder the parents of young Aminata Diallo (Aunjunae Ellis) and put her on a boat leaving for South Carolina. Naturally traumatized, Aminata befriends a boy from a nearby tribe, Chekura Tiano (Lyriq Bent), who was in the company of the slave traders, but took pity on her because she could speak his language … and she was pretty. At the end of the trek, however, Chekura, too, was put in chains and loaded on the boat to America. Their oft-interrupted friendship/romance exists as the primary subplot throughout all six episodes, beginning with their separation at the slave market in Charleston and, a few years later, a reunion in the forest behind the plantation that’s become her home. Aminata has a couple of things going for her that the other female slaves, at least, don’t. She is conversant in several tribal languages and English; she can read, write and engage in the art of storytelling; maintains Islam as a moral and ethical foundation; and, from her mother, has learned how to “catch” babies as a midwife. Each of these attributes evolves, later on, into a survival skill.

The melodramatic elements of the mini-series begin to disappear, when, Aminata is able to escape the clutches of both a sadistic owner and one who treats her well, but sells her infant daughter into slavery. The series then moves to New York, where a flourishing colony of free slaves exists under British rule. As the Revolutionary War heats up, Chekura and other former slaves are given an opportunity to clean their slates by agreeing to fight with the Redcoats. Knowing that American rebels, if successful, weren’t likely to accept their status as freed men, thousands accepted the offer. One of the conditions for surrender gave blacks who fought on the side of the British the right to be shipped to Nova Scotia, where they would be able to live freely and attempt to carve out a living from the frozen tundra. There was a catch, however, and it becomes the dramatic turning point in the mini-series. No former slave would be allowed to join the Canadian colony, if his or her former owner demands their return. Even slave-owner George Washington went along with this horrifying caveat. To make sure that as few of the former slaves were shipped back South as possible, Aminata agrees to organize a register of the New York blacks and turn it over to the British commander (Ben Chaplin) in negotiations with the Americans. And, yes, it became known as “The Book of Negroes.” Without giving away too much more of the increasingly compelling plot, I’ll only allow that the story carries us to Nova Scotia, where the locals prove to be nearly as racist as any plantation owner, and on to Sierra Leone and London, where abolitionists have launched a crusade to outlaw slavery and re-patriate blacks in another tribe’s backyard. Even though “The Book of Negroes” is technically a novel, it is largely based on the type of factual material that makes our Founding Fathers look like the short-sighted hypocrites many of them were. This country’s “original sin” still tarnishes our society. Much of the mini-series was shot on location, including the part of Nova Scotia where the black colony was originally established. The deleted scenes and short featurettes are good, too.

Leave it to the Brits to come up not only with another terrific “Masterpiece Mystery” series featuring an unusual protagonist, but also a nifty odd-couple pairing of crime fighters. The setting for the ITV/PBS production “Grantchester” is post-war England, where Sidney Chambers (James Norton) is vicar of the titular village, just outside Cambridge. He is frequently joined by Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green), who, despite being an embittered alcoholic, is able to see through the boozy fog long enough to find evidence overlooked by other cops. While you’d think Grantchester would be an unlikely place to sustain yet another series about heinous criminality, there’s seemingly no end to a cop’s work in rural England. Keating may be a bit of an archetype when it comes to world-weary police detectives, but Chambers is a real piece of work. As conceived by novelist James Runcie, the sexy vicar smokes, drinks, loves jazz, lies, steals and struggles with memories of a murder he witnessed while serving in World War II. Moreover, while he’s juggling relationships with two women (Morven Christie, Pheline Roggan) who couldn’t be more diametrically opposed, physically and emotionally, he allows himself to be seduced by a gorgeous torch singer.  Tessa Peake-Jones and Al Weaver provide comic relief as the vicar’s bossy housekeeper and his naïve curate. The Blu-ray package adds interviews and making-of material.

The DVD Wrapup: Imitation Game, The Circle, Roommates, Putin, MST3K and more

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015

The Imitation Game: Blu-ray
The Circle
Two amazing stories play out in The Imitation Game, one heroic and the other tragic. The struggle to break the Nazi’s World War II Enigma Code has been told enough times on film and television that most viewers will have sufficient awareness of the discovery made at Bletchley Park to wade through the mathematical and technological jargon in Graham Moore’s Oscar-winning script. What separates Morten Tyldum’s take on the story from the others is the magnetic presence of Benedict Cumberbatch, as the almost madly single-minded computer scientist, Alan Turing, and the level of tension sustained throughout The Imitation Game’s 114-minute length. The less-told story describes how British authorities later would go so far out of their way to tarnish the legacy of the brilliant cryptanalyst and mathematician, who, according to Winston Churchill, made the single greatest contribution in England’s war effort. Despite having played an essential role in the Allies’ victory over fascism, police used his homosexuality as an excuse to harass, humiliate and prosecute Turing, even after he had agreed to be chemically castrated. His suicide, in 1954, immediately recalls the treatment accorded Oscar Wilde, one of the greatest English-language writers of all time, after he was convicted of “gross indecency” and sentenced to two years of hard labor. Three years later, Wilde, a man who probably hadn’t performed two hours of hard labor in his life, would die penniless and in disgrace from an injury possibly sustained while in jail. (That, or syphilis, depending on who one chooses to believe.) More than a century later, lovers of Wilde’s plays and writings have erased any trace of the scandal once associated with his name.

In 2009, following an Internet campaign, Turing was accorded an official public apology by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Four years later, Queen Elizabeth II would grant him a posthumous pardon. It would be nice to think that we’ve turned a chapter on such hideous behavior. Based on current Indiana law and pending Arkansas legislation, however, merchants would be free to deny services to any contemporary Turing or Wilde, as well as such LGBT celebrities and athletes as Bruce Jenner, who’s being pilloried in the media for daring to live the rest of his life as a woman. In that regard, anyway, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” It comes as good news, then, to learn how well the picture’s done at both the domestic and foreign box office. Everything from the acting to the re-creation of the Bletchley Park laboratory is at the highest possible level. Yes, The Imitation Game suffers by comparison to some of the known facts of the story, but there’s no questioning how well the filmmakers were able to capture its spirit and urgency. Oscar nominee Keira Knightley does a fine job as Turing’s fellow code breaker and closest friend, Joan Clarke, as do the other A-list Brits in key roles (Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, Allen Leech, Victoria Wicks, among them). Alexandre Desplat imaginative musical score deserves notice, too. The excellent Blu-ray edition adds commentary by Tyldum and Moore; the 23-minute “The Making of ‘The Imitation Game’”; a pair of deleted scenes; and portions of three different Q&A sessions, all of which took place after festival and pre-awards screenings.

Stefan Haupt’s compelling docu-drama, The Circle, has absolutely nothing to do with wartime intelligence gathering. It does, however, provide another sterling reminder of how much and how little things have changed in the LGBT community since World War II and the passing of Turing. Although The Circle doesn’t dwell on the Nazis’ deadly persecution of homosexuals – as described in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s harrowing documentary, Paragraph 175 – it’s as impossible to ignore now as it was  then for gays and lesbians living next-door just across the invisible border from Germany. Had Turing been born in Switzerland, studied in England, stayed there to work for MI6, and then returned home in 1951, when he began to be harassed by British police, he probably would have lived well beyond the age of 41. Tragically, that wasn’t the case. Switzerland not only was officially neutral in World War II, but it also was historically indifferent to homosexuality and sodomy. When Berlin authorities no longer tolerated the “divine decadence” described in “Cabaret,” private dance clubs in Zurich and Basel were there to pick up the slack. In 1942, Article 194 of the new penal code decriminalized sexual acts between gays and lesbians 21 and older. This did not mean, however, that they felt sufficiently protected by law to step completely out of the closet. Because of the influx of LGBT ex-pats, including violent “rent boys,” police felt it necessary to maintain lists of names of people caught in compromising situations. Keeping it on the down-low often made the difference between maintaining job security and being unemployed.  The Circle’s focus is on the magazine Der Kreis/Le Cercle/The Circle, which began in the 1930s as an activist publication, primarily for lesbians. By 1942, it became a cultural and lifestyle publication with an almost exclusively male readership and mostly surreptitious circulation throughout Europe, as it contained pornographic text and art and beefcake photography. Until its demise in the 1960s, the affiliated club also sponsored well-attended parties, balls and performances. Finally, though, The Circle tells the story of Ernst Ostertag and Röbi Rapp, a schoolteacher and a drag entertainer, who enter a lifelong romantic relationship through their involvement in Circle activities. The surprise ending is far too good to spoil here.

Harlock: Space Pirate: Blu-ray
Fat Planet
The venerable Japanese manga and anime franchise — spawned from Leiji Matsumoto’s 1977 “Space Pirate Captain Harlock” — is set in and around 2977, when 500 billion exiled humans have decided it’s time to return home. Earth has finally recovered from the devastating war that ravaged the planet, causing a mass evacuation. The speed of light no longer a barrier, space travel has permitted humans to colonize planets in the far corners of the universe. Never having learned how to conserve resources or conquer boredom, all 500 billion of them have decided to return home simultaneously. Knowing exactly what could happen if this many people were to descend on the Earth’s fragile environment, the ruling Gaia Coalition committed to a war to prevent the homecoming from happening. Operating from a huge spacecraft that emits inky-black plumes of smoke, Captain Harlock and his rogue crew of space pirates present the greatest threat to the coalition. Beyond that, I’m not at all sure what the hell is happening in Harlock: Space Pirate, the latest iteration of the epic series. That’s mostly because three of the primary male characters look as if they were drawn from the same template and one of them, at least, is a coalition plant. The good news for fans and newcomers, alike, however, is that director Shinji Aramaki (Appleseed) was allowed a budget of $30 million to create a movie that would cost a Hollywood studio $100 million to duplicate. The CG animation is a joy to watch and the action rarely stops long enough to allow fans to catch a breath.

Also set in the far reaches of the universe, Fat Planet is a very silly cautionary comedy that might have been recommendable if it weren’t such a bargain-basement production. On a planet far, far away, a population of obese aliens has decided that the only way to prevent extinction is to lose weight. Sound familiar? In the course of monitoring video signals from Earth, the elders have discovered an exercise show that delivers on its promise to make people thinner and healthier. Health guru Jack Strong and some of his students are teleported to the planet of fatties to work their magic. Co-writer/director Dennis Devine would have been better served if they had abducted Jane Fonda or Richard Simmons. Mr. Skin Hall of Famer Priscilla Barnes is, by far, the most recognizable cast member. I hope she got paid up-front.

Outcast: Blu-ray
Every week, it seems, I’m sent at least one new historical drama from China, Korea or Japan to review. Fifteen years ago, that might have caused me to consider a future in the barista business, instead of reviewing DVDs. Since then, however, Chinese and Korean filmmakers have done for dynastic action-adventures what John Ford, Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh did for American Westerns. (Decades earlier, of course, Akira Kurosawa accomplished the same thing with Japanese samurai epics, leaving the job now to creators of anime and manga.) It wasn’t until recently that Chinese and Korean were given the money, resources and manpower to venture into the country’s vast and often spectacularly scenic hinterlands to make movies that didn’t rely solely on swordplay and pyrotechnics. Moreover, the studios also figured out how to exploit the appeal of young and attractive pop stars without sacrificing action. For the most part, Outcast looks like any one of a dozen Asian exports that pass my way every month. The difference comes in the casting of Hayden Christensen and Nicolas Cage, as war-weary veterans of the 12th Century Crusades. After slaughtering a staunchly defended compound full of unfortunate Islamists, the crusaders inexplicably decide to travel east, instead of northwest. Christensen’s opium-starved crusader, Jacob, stumbles into the imperial kingdom at approximately the same time as the dying emperor hands the keys to his teenage son and daughter, instead of their older war-hero sibling. When the emperor is assassinated by the passed-over son, he decides to use every means at his disposal to kill his younger, more helpless rivals. Jacob’s presence levels the playing field, somewhat. As the legendary White Ghost, Cage is given free rein to freak out whenever he feels like it. Many potential viewers will see his inclusion as sufficient cause for a rental … others, not so much. If the producers thought the unusual casting would sell tickets outside China, they misjudged the American marketplace. Cage is nothing, if not over-exposed at the moment, and Christensen hasn’t had a hit since Star Wars: Episode III. For A-list stunt coordinator Nick Powell, Outcast represents his first foray as a director. As such, the action and fight scenes are excellent, while everything else – except the set and costume design and Yunnan scenery – is underwhelming.

3 Nights in the Desert
In this exceedingly unconvincing rom-dram, three thoroughly estranged members of a long-dead band get together for a 30th-birthday weekend and, ostensibly, an excuse for freshman screenwriter Adam Chanzit to contrive a reunion album. Since splitting up, the lead singer (Amber Tamblyn) has made a name for herself on the cruise-ship circuit and nightclubs along the Pacific Rim; the drummer (Vincent Piazza) has gotten a business degree and moved to Squaresville; and the guitar player (Wes Bentley) has tuned in, turned on and dropped out to a sweet pad in the desert. Early on, chances look good for a rapprochement and possible re-entry into the ranks of folk-rock attractions. It isn’t until the guitarist dares his pals to enter an enchanted cave on the property that things begin to go sideways. They all recognize something different in themselves, while spending approximately 30 seconds in the shallow cave, but it mostly translates into faulty logic. 3 Nights in the Desert benefits from the Agua Dolce locations – on the far fringes of Los Angeles County – and some not-bad songs performed by Tamblyn. Nothing else works, though, including the dweebish costume and glasses assigned Piazza.

Day of Anger: Blu-Ray
I don’t know how much exposure Day of Anger (a.k.a., Gunlaw or I giorni dell’ira) received off the American drive-in circuit. It took a while for genre buffs to embrace Sergio Leone’s spaghetti-Westerns as something other than curiosities, so, in 1967, a picture by one of the master’s assistant directors might have gone unnoticed entirely. Not only does Arrow Video’s new Blu-ray edition of Tonino Valerii’s shoot-‘em-up look excellent in hi-def, but it also marks a big step forward for Italian-made Westerns. Lee Van Cleef plays gunslinger Frank Talby, who, one day, arrives in a dusty high-desert town whose residents don’t take kindly to strangers messing with the status quo. Here, that includes the local pooper scooper and street sweeper, Scott Mary, portrayed by Giuliano Gemma. Scott Mary is made to feel unwelcome by everyone who employs his services, so, when Talby invites him to share a bottle of hooch, some of the bar’s patrons decide to teach him a lesson. Instead, the gunslinger demonstrates his willingness to outdraw anyone who tests his skill. Scott Mary convinces Talby to take him under his wing as he rides to another town, hoping to collect a long-held $50,000 debt. When he’s told that the money was stolen by leaders of the last town he visited and it was reinvested in projects of their own, Talby begins his scorched-earth mission to exact revenge. By now, Scott Mary has absorbed all of the lessons administered by his mentor and become a heck of a sharpshooter, as well. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out early on that there will come a time when the student will have to stand up to his teacher and demonstrate, one way or another, that he’s ready to step out on his own. Without having to resort to trademark Leone conceits, Valerii crafted a Western that bears comparison to many of the best oaters churned out by Hollywood studios. The Blu-ray package contains the original version, in English and Italian, and the edition edited for export; interviews with Valerii, screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi and critic Roberto Curti; a deleted scene; an illustrated booklet, featuring new writing on the film by historian Howard Hughes; original archive stills; and new cover art.

The Roommates/A Woman for All Men: Blu-ray
Once upon a time, attending a double- or triple-feature at a drive-in theater was both an entertaining way for dad, mom and the kids to kill a few hours on a hot summer night and a rite of passage for teenagers experiencing the first pangs of sexual freedom. For one thing, agreeing to a drive-in date – even the safer option, a double-date — was a giant leap of faith for teen couples, too many of whom had yet to get to the chapter in their hygiene textbooks dealing with the hazards of unprotected sex. Drinking presented other potential dangers, especially at a time when designated drivers weren’t added into the equation. Other variables included crappy speakers, fogged-up windshields, mosquitoes and voyeuristic neighbors. Then, there were the movies.  Unless the bill of fare that night was a collection of movies starring Elvis Presley, John Wayne or Vincent Price, a first-run attraction generally was followed or sandwiched between a B-lister and C-list picture of wildly varying interest and quality. By the mid-1970s, some exhibitors had given up on showing A-list movies entirely, preferring, instead, to program inexpensive grindhouse films. We’ll never know how many accidents were caused by gawkers distracted by a pair of 38-DDs reflected on a giant white-painted screen clearly visible from the highway.  Much of the blame for these fender-benders could be laid at the feet of such soft-core auteurs as Arthur Marks, who, not unlike Eloise at the Plaza, spent most of his life absorbing the facts of movie-making life on various studio backlots, soundstages and locations. Before turning to T&A and Blaxploitation movies, Marx cut his filmmaking teeth directing and producing such television series as “Perry Mason” and “Gunsmoke.” MPI Media Group’s hi-def double-feature of Marx’s The Roommates and A Woman for All Men offers a delicious look back to the Wild West of exploitation pictures.

The Roommates is set in Lake Arrowhead, a little slice of heaven in the San Bernardino National Forest, 90 minutes from downtown Los Angeles. Four drop-dead gorgeous “coeds” and a “sexy stewardess” are enjoying a summer getaway in sylvan splendor when a splatter movie breaks out. Actually, the horror aspects of the movie play second fiddle to the T&A, which, while ample, is no more graphic than a 1973 Playboy pictorial. By contrast, A Woman for All Men can be enjoyed as a crime thriller or grindhouse hybrid. If it feels a lot like a better-than-most made-for-TV movie – a relatively new genre – at least it features recognizable stars, a legitimate femme fatale and a logical narrative. Judith Brown (The Big Dollhouse) is perfect as a Las Vegas working girl who strikes it rich by marrying a ego-maniacal tycoon (Keenan Wynn), thus pissing off the man’s children who were counting off the days until he died. As a dead-ringer for Ginger McKenna, in Casino, Brown could easily have been mistaken for Sharon Stone’s mother. The only question becomes how long Karen can pull off her scheme before being busted by her husband or his heirs. We’ve seen this exact same plot played out in dozens of movies and TV shows, but Brown’s steamy portrayal of a woman without scruples kicks it up several notches. Brown and Wynn are accompanied here by such veteran character actors as Alma Beltran, Alex Rocco, Lois Hall, Don Porter and Andrew Robinson, who had just portrayed the Scorpio Killer in Dirty Harry. The package includes interviews with Marx, Brown and other participants.

Ships
Turkish writer/director Elif Refig’s debut feature is a coming-of-age story that could have been set anywhere in the world that working-class parents scratch out a modest income and one or more of their children dream of escaping to a life of their own choosing. That it’s set in the roiling melting pot of Istanbul only makes it that much better. Ali works for his father, servicing ships anchored in the harbor with goods ranging from blow-up dolls to lambs intended for religious sacrifice. When he isn’t doing that, Ali wanders the waterfront minding his pigeons and searching for a ghost ship that’s haunted his dreams. On one of his walkabouts, Ali is attracted by a wall painting depicting a seascape that could only have been conjured by a kindred spirit. Eda’s life has just been turned upside-down by the return of the father who abandoned the family years earlier. Consequently, she’s suspicious of all men. Once Eda and Ali recognize the point where their imaginations intersect, they are forced to make the kinds of drastic decisions required of all dreamers and drifters. Where Ships differs from other coming-of-age stories is the setting, which couldn’t be any more intriguing. Istanbul is a crossroads city that’s always provided fertile ground for the fantasies of people seeking something completely different and the horns of the ships in the harbor seem to call out specifically to kids like Ali and Eda, whose next few steps could determine their fates forever. The DVD is accompanied by Refig’s short film, “Man to Be,” another gritty tale of a boy forced to grow up too soon. The disc I received was plagued with unsynched dialogue on the original Turkish soundtrack, so I would recommend renting a copy of Ships before investing in a purchase. Other than that, the movie is a delight.

Diamond Heist
Here’s one of those pictures that look as if the reels were misplaced in the shipping process and confused with material from other movies or television shows. Diamond Heist (a.k.a., “Magic Boys”) appears to borrow liberally from Guy Ritchie’s criminal milieu, Magic Mike and the two wild-and-crazy Czech brothers on “Saturday Night Life.” If that sounds appealing to you, Róbert Koltai and Éva Gárdos’ cock-eyed dramedy might provide a few hours of pleasure on a rainy night. Straight-to-DVD mainstays Michael Madsen and Vinnie Jones play key figures in a diamond heist gone wrong. Caught in the middle are a pair of misfit Hungarians recruited to replace dancers in a male review. Adding a bit of flash to this mess are Hungarian hottie Nikolett Barabas – once known best as Russell Brand’s new girlfriend – pop singer Jamelia and newcomer Nansi Nsue.

The Shift
Less a feature film than an episode in a hospital-based television series, The Shift tells the unpleasant story of a drug-addicted emergency-room nurse who makes Nurse Jackie look like Florence Nightingale. Things begin to unravel for Kayle (writer Leo Oliva) when his boss (Danny Glover) asks him to mentor a fledgling nurse over the course of a 12-hour hospital shift. He objects, but not strenuously enough to have Dr. Floyd (Danny Glover) kick him out the door on his ass. The poor young thing (Casey Fitzgerald) makes the mistake of taking his abuse personally, but, once she figures out his game, realizes that the last place Kayle should be working is in a hospital, where play God should be left to real doctors. Oliva trained as a nurse, before turning to filmmaking, so it’s safe to assume that The Shift was a project near and dear to his heart. Unfortunately, he decided to make Kayle one of the most disagreeable characters I’ve experienced in a long time.

A Second Chance: The Janelle Morrison Story
Films about athletes who have survived serious injuries and gone on to compete again have become so prevalent lately that they have become something of a dime-a-dozen commodity. At 31 and on her way to becoming a fully certified teacher, Janelle Morrison decided to pursue a career as a professional tri-athlete. No, I didn’t know that was a career option, either. Morrison had just won her first Ironman event, as an amateur, and would go on to place third in her first professional competition. A year later, after her car was struck by a truck on the Trans-Canada Highway, she was left clinging to life in a hospital. Her doctors were more concerned with keeping her alive than getting her in shape for her next triathlon, but, once out of her coma, that’s all Morrison could think about doing. And, of course, she did beat expectations by defying her doctors’ recommendations and getting back on track. For their first non-fiction film, Dave Kelly and Rob Kelly were just as determined to record her recovery in A Second Chance: The Janelle Morrison Story. My problem with the movie probably wouldn’t be shared with anyone who’s competed in an extreme sport or decided to tempt fate by going against the wisdom of doctors, trainers, coaches and relatives, simply to prove a point that’s already been established. Or, perhaps, I’m prejudiced against activities, like the Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlete, which began as a novel test of extreme physicality but have since allowed themselves to be corrupted by companies pitching overpriced products to easily manipulated wannabes. I wonder how far the Kellys would have gone with the project if Morrison had simply been able to finish one leg of the triathlon, which would have been sufficient cause for rejoicing for most people, but a severe disappointment to an adrenaline junky. Or, if something happened to reverse all of the hard work put into Morrison’s recovery. Those are the movies we don’t see.

Liars, Fires and Bears
Memory Lane
One of the things producers and agents look for at film festivals is the spark of creativity that shines through a movie passed over by the judges or left unembraced by audiences. While the offbeat buddy picture Liars, Fires and Bears clearly is the product of first-timers, burdened with a barely there budget, festival-goers stayed in their seats long enough to find the promise in its creative team. Charming newcomer Megli Micek plays Eve, a criminally precocious 9-year-old desperate to escape her foster parents and locate the successful brother she believes is being kept away from her. A habitual runaway, Eve sneaks around parking lots at night in search of unlocked cars and drunks willing to drive her to Denver. She hits pay dirt when she breaks into the car belonging to an alcoholic doofus, Dave (co-writer Lundon Boyd), who is sober enough to realize he shouldn’t be driving, but too drunk to appreciate the downside of putting a wee lassie behind the wheel. Naturally, his plan falls apart almost as soon as it begins leaving Dave in the hoosegow and in need of money to pay his fine. In the film’s most unlikely scenario, Dave hooks up with an unscrupulous pawn-shop operator who agrees to take him on as an accomplice. He screws up his first break-in so badly that he becomes Public Enemy No. 1, with his surveillance-camera photograph flashed on newscasts far and wide. Conveniently, Eve has just torched her foster parents’ home and Dave’s too dim-witted to see the hole in her pipedream about having a brother who’s a lawyer. As far-fetched as this scenario sounds, it provides plenty of time for the odd couple to form a convincing bond between them on their trip to Colorado.

Word on the street is that one-man-band Shawn Holmes made Memory Lane on budget limited to $300. Whenever I’m asked to believe something as patently absurd as that, I’m tempted to point out, “… and it looks like it.” Fact is, though, Memory Lane could easily pass for a genre flick that cost 20 or 30 times that amount to make … which isn’t saying all that much, either. Michael Guy Allen plays a despondent veteran of the war in Afghanistan, who, when he finally finds a woman to love (Meg Braden), finds her dead in his bathtub, wrists slashed. In a failed attempt to electrocute himself, Nick flashes on the possibility that Kayla may have been murdered. The only way he’s likely to confirm his suspicion, one way or the other, is to repeatedly push the envelope on death. It’s not the genre’s most unlikely premise and on a penny-for-penny basis, anyway, succeeds surprisingly well.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Language Matters With Bob Hollman
PBS: Nature: Owl Power: Blu-ray
PBS: Nova: Building Wonders
PBS: Frontline: Putin’s Way
I Am Not Giordano Bruno/Judge Not
Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXXII
WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete First Season/Quincy, M.E.: The Final Season
One of the most diabolical things a conquering force can do to the vanquished is take away the roots of their culture, including native languages and dialects. American and Canadian authorities demanded of Indian children that they endure severe haircuts and ignore their native languages. Missionaries required the same of native Hawaiians. Australia did even worse by its Aboriginal population by forcibly diluting their bloodlines and restricting the purebreds to the Outback. When the British annexed Wales, they attempted to eliminate all traces of the language, probably because they’d never be able to understand what was being said about them. PBS’ Language Matters With Bob Hollman” explains how frightfully successful these imperialist forces were in extinguishing traditional cultures, while describing how descendants have struggled, mostly since the 1960s, to rekindle pride and interest in nearly lost languages and the customs attached to them. Scholar and poet Bob Holman takes viewers to a remote island off the coast of Australia, where 400 Aboriginal people speak 10 different languages, all at risk, and introduces us to a 73-year-old man who’s the only living link to his tribe. In Wales, Holman joins in a poetry competition and finds a young man who raps in Welsh. In Hawaii, we learn how the oft-maligned hula is a language in dance. “Language Matters” is a documentary that parents can share with their children and discuss at length afterwards.

I wonder how many people under the age of 40 or 50 have seen an owl in its natural habitat and not in a zoo or aviary. It’s truly a unique experience. In the “Nature” presentation, “Owl Power,” bird trainers Lloyd and Rose Buck enlist cutting-edge technology – digital cameras, computer graphics, X-rays and super-sensitive microphones — in their search for answers to the mysteries surrounding the owls’ hunting techniques and ability to sustain themselves in a sometimes cruel environment. In doing so, the Bucks make scientific comparisons between their very own family of owls, eagles, falcons, geese and pigeons. We’re also able to follow the progress of two newly-hatched barn owls. Much of the material on display is nothing short of mesmerizing.

The fascinating “Nova” DVD package, “Building Wonders,” is a compilation of three recent episodes, “Colosseum: Roman Death Trap,” “Petra: Lost City of Stone” and “Hagia Sophia: Istanbul’s Ancient Mystery.” In each, modern engineering techniques and cutting-edge instruments are used to understand how buildings made millennia ago have been able to withstand the ravages of time and natural disaster, allowing us to marvel at them today. Modern architects use medieval tools to figure out how Turkey’s massive 1,500-year-old cathedral dome has been able to survive countless quakes in one of the world’s most violent seismic zones.  In the middle of Jordan’s parched desert, a “Nova” team investigates how Petra s architects were able to create a thriving metropolis of temples, markets, spectacular tombs carved into cliffs, bathhouses, fountains and pools? Also curious is how builders of the Colosseum were able to create water-tight tanks for mock sea battles and control the movement of men and animals throughout the bowels of the monumental structure.

The producers of the “Frontline” presentation “Putin’s Way” go the distance to describe how the Russian leader has destroyed the hopes of tens of millions of Russians anticipating post-Soviet peace and prosperity, by turning the country over to greedy plutocrats and hoodlums. At the same time, the Russian leader schemed to make himself a very wealthy and powerful man. The investigation also revisits the horrific 1999 Moscow apartment bombings and failed attempts to uncover corruption at the Kremlin. At a time when Putin could have exploited the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, he began stoking nationalism, conflict, authoritarianism and a bloody war in the Ukraine, during which Russian-backed insurgents decided it would be a keen idea to shot down a Malaysian jetliner. The episode includes firsthand interviews with exiled Russian business tycoons, writers and politicians, in addition to archival material and evidence of his abuses of powers.

The documentaries “I Am Not Giordano Bruno” and “Judge Not” attempt to answer the questions surrounding how Russian political cartoonist Boris Efimov and Tikhon Khrennikov, the one and only head of the Composers Union of the USSR, managed to survive under the bloodthirsty leadership of Joseph Stalin and several subsequent Soviet leaders. Efimov, whose brother was assassinated on Stalin’s orders, spent most of his 108 years on Earth drawing sharp observations about leaders and policies of the USSR’s enemies, while following the company line at home. Khrennikov took over the musicians’ union in 1948 and stayed on the job until 1991. At the same time as he worked to protect Soviet artists from prison and death, he also made sure that music was written in accordance with Communist ideology. The documentaries are extremely dry, but nonetheless intriguing.

Historically, we’ve come to expect the best of the worst from the hyper-critical crew of the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” spacecraft and, in Volume XXXII, three of the four features are inarguably cheesy:  Hercules, Radar Secret Service and San Francisco International. What’s unusual is the inclusion of John Sturges’ Space Travelers (a.k.a., Marooned), a well-reviewed stranded-astronaut thriller that anticipated Apollo 13 by 25 years and Gravity by 44 years, and can still grip viewers’ attention. Besides the presence of Gregory Peck, Richard Crenna, David Janssen, James Franciscus, Gene Hackman, Lee Grant, Mariette Hartley and Nancy Kovack, Space Travelers is reputed to be the only “MST3K” selection to have won an Oscar. In a new introduction, Frank Conniff attempts to explain how such a prestigious production ended up on the Satellite of Love’s viewing menu. The irony of the crew of the SOT watching a movie about astronauts stranded in space wasn’t lost on Joel Robinson, the only character who actually would require oxygen to survive a similar mishap. Other featurettes include “Marooned: A Forgotten Odyssey,” “Barnum of Baltimore: The Early Films of Joseph E. Levine,” “A Brief History of Satellite News,” “MST-UK, With Trace and Frank” and mini-posters by Artist Steve Vance.

Shout Factory’s latest additions to its a la carte menu of full-season compilations are represented by “WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete First Season” and “Quincy, M.E.: The Final Season.” Both benefit from facelifts accorded the series in last year’s boxed sets and bonus material.

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

Friday, March 27th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 19th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 12th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 6th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 26th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 8th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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