The Lobster: Blu-ray
Celebrity journalist Barbara Walters is credited with popularizing the ice-breaker question, “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” At a Super Bowl I covered in another lifetime, I was dumbfounded to hear the same question asked of professional athletes by a reporter instructed to do so by her non-sports magazine’s editor, who stored the answers for a time when a hole opened up unexpectedly and they could be shoveled in, in lieu of something useful. That was quite a few years ago and the questions have only gotten dumber in the interim. I’m embarrassed to admit that it was this question that came to mind while watching Yorgos Lanthimos’ semi-dystopian drama, The Lobster, and hearing Colin Ferrell’s newly dumped character, David, being asked what kind of animal he wants to be if he fails to find a mate during his 45-day stay at a half-way house for doomed singles. It’s not a rhetorical question, by any means, and his answer is telling: “Because lobsters live for over one hundred years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives. I also like the sea very much.” Another resident reminds David that when lobsters are trapped, their fate is to be thrown into a pot of boiling water. The message being that animals are as vulnerable to suffering as humans and nothing is certain in the afterlife. Animals aren’t, however, asked beforehand what kind of human they’d like to be when they go. They’re just gone.
Lanthimos and his fellow Greek writing partner, Efthymis Filippou, have, in a very short time, developed a reputation for challenging audiences with such absurdist situations. In Dogtooth (2009), their first film to cause a stir at Cannes, three teenagers are confined by their pathologically overprotective parents to an isolated country estate, where they spend their days listening to endless homemade tapes that teach them a whole new vocabulary. In Alps (2011), A group of people start a business where they impersonate the recently deceased in order to help their clients through the grieving process. By comparison, The Lobster is practically mainstream. In the hotel that serves as a four-star purgatory for singles, the men and women wear similarly non-descript uniforms, follow orders obediently, are given lap dances in lieu of consensual sex and masturbation, and are able to earn extra days of freedom by bagging “loners” with a dart gun. Loners are the singles who’ve strayed off the reservation and hide in the forest between the hotel and City, where consumerist families of the nuclear variety dwell. If you’re wondering about the acceptability of same-sex marriages and other LGBT activities … they’re not. When Bob finally decides to rebel, join the loners and take a lover, it isn’t long before he understands what Pete Townshend meant by the final lines in “Won’t Get Fooled Again”: “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.”
I don’t know if The Lobster, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2015, is still eligible for Academy Awards consideration in 2016. After playing several U.S. festivals and being acquired by A24 from failed distributor Alchemy, it got a limited release in May, and grossed $9 million. It would be a crime if Farrell, at least, wasn’t remembered by Oscar voters. Also very good are Ashley Jensen, as Biscuit Woman; Ariane Labed, as The Maid; Olivia Colman, as Hotel Manager; Jessica Barden, as Nosebleed Woman; Angeliki Papoulia, as Heartless Woman; Rachel Weisz, as Short Sighted Woman; Ben Whishaw, as Limping Man; Léa Seydoux, as Loner Leader and John C. Reilly, as Lisping Man. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “The Fabric of Attraction: Concocting ‘The Lobster.’”
Mother’s Day: Blu-ray
Before Garry Marshall’s death on July 14, at 81, the beating he took from critics for Mother’s Day probably was among the furthest things from his mind. At least, I hope it was. Marshall always had a million things going on, including his continuing work at Burbank’s Falcon Theatre and a rewrite of the book for the Broadway-bound musical version of Pretty Woman. The final tally of his credits includes 38, for writing; 29, as a producer; 83, as an actor; 30, for directing; and 123 for just being himself, in something or other. He was an easy person to interview and seemed to enjoy life immensely. I can’t say that the drubbing he took on Mother’s Day, as well as for New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day, wasn’t warranted, because, by all recognizable critical standards, it was a turkey, albeit one with lots of big-name stars. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he recognized all of the thread-bare clichés in the half-baked scripts, but enjoyed working with actors with whom he was exceedingly familiar and knew that the worst that could happen was that it would break even at the box office. (What I can’t understand, however, is how Julia Roberts could justify taking a reported $3 million payday on her underwhelming performance here.) Apropos of the title, the intertwined storylines here are dedicated to the proposition that bad things can happen to good moms, even on Mother’s Day, if only not so bad that the wrinkles can’t be ironed out in about two-hours’ time. Because those storylines are so lame and the attraction of the all-star cast is what sold the tickets, let’s simply report that it’s comprised of moms played by Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts, Kate Hudson, Britt Robertson, Margo Martindale, Sarah Chalke, Cameron Esposito, Anoush NeVart and (stepmom) Shay Mitchell. The assorted husbands, lovers and finks are played by Timothy Olyphant, Aasif Mandvi, Robert Pine, Larry Miller, Jason Sudeikis and Jon Lovitz. Hector Elizondo is along for the ride for the 18th time in a Marshall-directed film, as the agent of Roberts’ home-shopping queen. Enough said. Although these aren’t the most profitable of Marshall’s pictures, I still would recommend Young Doctors in Love, The Flamingo Kid, The Princess Diaries and Nothing in Common. I didn’t believe a minute of Pretty Woman – the original script was totally diluted by Disney’s Touchstone division — but am not at all surprised it made so much money or that someone in New York might want to take a shot on the happiest of hookers on Broadway. The bonus package adds deleted scenes and gag reel.
Last Days in the Desert
Among the many things I still don’t understand about the exhibition process is how The Passion of the Christ – with its graphic violence and Latin and Aramaic dialogue — could score as impressively as it did, while another excellent movie about the life of Jesus, the speculative PG-13 Last Days in the Desert, wasn’t able to find a screen. The same question applies to all of the dopey family-friendly, faith-based pictures that followed in its wake and made money. Maybe, if the producers of “Last Days” had rounded up a bunch of evangelical preachers and promised them a cut of the revenues, someone would have taken a chance on four-walling the darn thing. As it is, however, Broad Green Pictures’s clearest option apparently was to cut its losses and sent it out early in DVD. Rodrigo García’s beautifully rendered and profoundly moving drama depicts what might have occurred during Christ’s 40 days and nights in the desert, following his baptism, but before embarking on his public ministry. Ewan McGregor not only plays Jesus, as he wanders determinately through the wilderness of Judea – nicely played here by California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park – but also his mirror image in Satan, who, when he isn’t outwardly tempting Jesus with worldly pleasures, badgers him with philosophical rhetoric. In his primary conceit, writer/director García (Albert Nobbs) dramatizes what happens when Jesus, weary from fasting and praying, comes upon a small family struggling to eke out a living on a rocky bluff. Tye Sheridan (Mud) plays Son, a sullen youth who dreams of visiting Jerusalem and Alexandria, but is obligated to Father (Ciarán Hinds) to help him provide a living and built a rock home for Mother (Ayelet Zurer), who’s seriously ill. Jesus sees a lot of himself in Son and volunteers his carpentry skills to Father. In addition to sharing the back-breaking labor, they discuss the difficulties of raising a son in such a stark environment and what it means to have one’s dreams shattered early in life. Satan desperately wants to claim the souls of the family members, but Jesus battles for their place in heaven with the same strength and determination as he uses when his own beliefs are tested on the cross. There’s nothing in Last Days in the Desert that compares in intensity to scenes of the Passion in Mel Gibson’s film or Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. McGregor convinces us of Jesus’ vulnerability, conviction and, above all, his humanity, even as we wish he would perform a miracle to relieve the family of its misery. The bleak surroundings, combined with Jesus’ wane look, will have you grabbing for a glass of water and snack, even as Satan tries to convince Christ to turn a stone into a loaf of bread.
Rarely has a movie been able to dramatize the day-to-day horrors faced by women – married and soon-to-be married — in a patriarchal society. Even rarer is the movie that, like Leena Yadav’s Parched, that looks behind the habitual brutality, humiliations and subservience in an attempt to broaden the discussion and make sense of such inhumane relationships. It does so by examining how four ordinary women maintain their dignity and, against great odds, strive for a return to normalcy. Parched avoids the trap of being polemical – or, worse, unbearably depressing — by locating the warmth, strength and, yes, humor in a situation most westerners would consider to be completely untenable. It is set in the heart of a vast desert in northwest India, where cultural and religious norms haven’t changed much in the last few hundred years. Although the village elders in the Hindi community have permitted women to own cellphones – primarily to keep their minds off of their husbands, who spend weeks away from home driving trucks – they refuse to allow them to watch television. At 15, Janaki is being groomed to be sold in an arranged marriage to Gulab, a teenager who’s run up a large debt with a pimp in the nearest city and has no means of support, beyond stealing from his mother, Rani. When we meet her, Janaki looks like someone who’s just had her fortune read and the Gypsy fainted before revealing the results. We’ll later learn that she prefers a different boy, who can’t match the dowry offered by Rani. Years earlier, Rani had been bartered away to a man who routinely beat her, before disappearing from her life. Her friend Lajjo lives with a drunken husband who abuses her for not being able to conceive a child, but harbors a despicable secret in case she does become pregnant. Rani, Lajjo and other women earn money by weaving rugs for a subcontractor, who, unlike the other men in the village, values their hard work. While the village elders prohibit women from entertaining themselves with television, the men are allowed to ogle the dancers in a traveling midway attraction, which visits the area each year for a few days of and occasionally provides other services for the wealthier men.
Bijli is a dancer and prostitute with ties to the village, through Rani and Lajjo. It takes about 10 minutes for the wildly exuberant performer to figure out what’s ailing her friends and how Gulab has inherited the worst tendencies of his absentee father. Having indentured herself to a traveling pimp, Bijli is hardly an exemplar of the women’s liberation movement. Nonetheless, she’s paid pretty well for her services, can leave the encampment in her off-hours and loves to provoke the hypocrites with her provocative routines. To the chagrin of her pimp and male dancing partner, Bijli has decided to cut back on the prostitution and focus on the stage act. While she’s encouraging her friends to stand up for themselves, they’re auditioning another woman to pick up the slack. One fateful night, the women agree to take the kind of bold action that will change the trajectory of their lives. To her credit, Yadav doesn’t offer any pat answers or contrivances to ensure an impossibly happy ending. What she does give us, though, is easily worth the price of a rental. Some critics have felt that she’s weighted the drama too much in favor of the female characters, by overemphasizing the beatings and allowing them to go on longer than would be necessary to make her point. There may be some validity to the last point, but it doesn’t make Parched any less compelling. As shot by Academy Award-winning cinematographer, Russell Carpenter (Titanic), the Great Indian Desert stands as a formidable barrier to modernity. When the dance troupe arrives, several centuries’ worth of strictly enforced tradition disappears for a few hours each night in a rare blast of color, sound and vitality. An extended erotic encounter inside the desolate region’s magnificent Naida Caves Diu Gujarat is nothing short of breathtaking. Also irresistible are Radhika Apte, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Lehar Khan, Surveen Chawla and Sayani Gupta (also seen in Wolfe Video’s terrific Margarita With a Straw), none of whom are familiar outside India. The DVD adds interviews with Carpenter and other behind-the-camera talent.
Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection: Blu-ray
I’ve seen enough Japanese sexploitation pictures from the 1960-70s to know that curious Americans would likely be appalled by the cavalier approach to rape and violence against women. Most other elements of the genre films are so broadly drawn that the attacks can only be considered in the context of every other looney thing surrounding them, including the hideously drawn men and revenge exacted on them. The absolutely singular Female Prisoner Scorpion series requires of viewers that they put up with some truly upsetting scenes of violence to women before being able to cheer the lethal female protagonist, Nami Matsushima, a.k.a Scorpian, slice and dice the ones who have inflicted so much pain on her and other, more defenseless women. In this way, the four films collected here can be compared to Ms. 45, Coffy, The Bride Wore Black, Death Wish, I Spit on Your Grave, Lady Vengeance and Teeth. Meiko Kaji (Lady Snowblood) plays the avenging angel as if she were a composite of Yoko Ono, Stevie Nicks and Pam Greer. In turn, the knife-wielding Scorpion probably informed Uma Thurman’s Bride, in Kill Bill. She isn’t immune from being arrested, either. Indeed, every new incarceration provides yet another opportunity to escape and kill, again. What makes the quartet of movies gathered here — Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, Jailhouse 41, Beast Stable and #701’s Grudge Song — so interesting are the many different narrative conceits, stylish cinematography, supernatural touches and dozens of visual references to Japanese and western classics. Scorpion barely says two sentences in a row throughout the series, but her eyes speak volumes. The sex and violence are excessive, without also being gratuitous, and the musical soundtrack lends an air of horror to the proceedings. In a perverse sort of way, the “Female Prisoner” series is exploitation for arthouse audiences; “pinky violence” for the grindhouse crowd; feminism for fanboys. Shunya Ito directed the first three installments, while Yasuharu Hasabe stepped in for “Grudge Song.” Once hooked, you’ll want to binge through all three and the extras. The Arrow Films restoration and bonus package is exceptional, as well. Besides looking and sounding pristine, each disc is accompanied by critical appreciations, interviews and visual essays; a double-sided fold-out poster of two original artworks; reversible sleeves for all films, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ian MacEwan; a booklet with new writings on the film by critic Chuck Stephens; a brand new interview with Toru Shinohara, creator of the original Scorpion manga; and an archive interview with Meiko Kaji, illustrated with original stills.
Meet the Blacks: Blu-ray
There are several ways you can tell when a low-budget picture has scored a direct hit … apart from simply comparing the cost-to-return ratio at Box Office Mojo, of course. Sequels and/or prequels are rushed into production; they open in theaters, instead of going straight-to-video; subsequent releases on DVD/Blu-ray are packaged in two- and three-disc sets; and someone decides to make a parody of the franchise. Such is the case with James DeMonaco’s Purge series, which has produced three chapters in three years, including The Purge: Election Year, which opened around the world this summer to some of the franchise’s best reviews. While its parody, Meet the Blacks, didn’t do nearly as well at the box office, it did make back 10 ten times its reported $900,000 budget. The critics hated it, but it probably will do decent business in the after-markets, thanks to appearances by Mike Epps, George Lopez, Paul Mooney, Charlie Murphy, Mike Tyson, Lavell Crawford, DeRay Davis and, God help us, Perez Hilton. Snoop Dogg makes a cameo and the music is by RZA. The Black family, led by Epps, is getting out of Chicago in hopes of a better life. After coming into some unexpected and unearned funds, Carl takes his family and leaves the hustling lifestyle behind for something better. Taking a cue from the “Beverly Hillbillies,” perhaps, Carl, his new wife Lorena (Zulay Henao), son Carl Jr. (Alex Henderson), daughter Allie (Bresha Webb) and cousin Cronut (Lil Duval) pack up and move to the Promised Land. They arrive just in time to experience the annual “purge,” when all crime is legal for 12 hours. Being a deadbeat, Carl has a lot of people looking for him, including numerous baby mommas. On the night of the purge, they all come looking for him, even the clown, James Clown (Tyson), he stiffed after a birthday party appearance. Deon Taylor, who’s previously given us such dubious entertainments as Supremacy and Chain Letter, is guilty, as well, of piling on the racial and other politically incorrect humor.
Puerto Ricans in Paris: Blu-ray
As the title suggests, Ian Edelman and Neel Shah’s first feature, Puerto Ricans in Paris, is a one-joke fish-out-of-water story that is carried on the backs of Edgar Garcia (“How to Make It in America”) and that most unlikely of all in-demand character actors, Luis Guzmán (Boogie Nights). In this risibly unlikely comedy, Luis and Eddie are NYPD detectives, who, after breaking up a counterfeit-purse operation, are recruited by a Parisian fashion agency to track down a black-market thief who’s stolen its latest designs. Forgetting for a minute that the NYPD would never allow two of its detective to freelance in a jurisdiction so distant in all regards from One Police Plaza, it’s difficult to think that one nearly bungled assignment would lead to such a plum gig and bonus well beyond their annual salaries. When viewed, however, in the same comic vein as Jackie Chan’s collaborations with Chris Tucker and Owen Wilson, Puerto Ricans in Paris isn’t all that far out, really. By all rights, it should have been titled, “Nuyoricans in Paris.” Luis and Eddie don’t look any more out of place in the City of Lights than Columbo, Kojak or Baretta would have been, had they been called upon to infiltrate the runway shows, nightclubs and cafes frequented by the world’s haute-ist fashionistas. The movie’s best sight gags come from watching the 5-foot-7 Guzman, being seduced by the very drunk designer, played by Alice Taglioni, who stands well over 6-feet in heels.
Renowned for such noteworthy pictures as Mother, The Host, Barking Dogs Never Bite and his first English-language film Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho is a writer/director whose every new picture attracts global attention. He co-wrote Sea Fog with freshman director Sung-bo Shim, with whom he shared a writers’ credit on the politically charged 2003 police procedural, Memories of Murder. Both pictures are based on headline-making events in South Korea. Times were hard for people trying to make a living in the fishing industry as the world inched its way to the new millennium in the 1990s. Veteran ship captain Kang Chul-joo has just been told that his vessel is being sold to a conglomerate and everyone will lose their livelihoods. In a last-ditch effort to recoup some earnings for his crew, Kang takes a job smuggling illegal Korean-Chinese immigrants into South Korea. Because all the right palms have been greased beforehand, Kang is led to believe that he can focus on meteorological conditions and sustainability of the boat and its human cargo. Instead, something unexpected goes desperately wrong. Most Korean audiences probably already are aware of the details surrounding the tragedy that occurred on the 69-ton fishing vessel Taechangho, southwest of Yeosu, on October 7, 2001, and the 2007 stage play of the same name, “Haemoo.” Apart from the drama and fog-enhanced suspense, the movie asks if the efforts to control illegal immigration might not be as draconian as the political systems from which the “croaker fish” are paying high fees to escape. It also asks us to consider how such terrible accidents affects the men who were forced by economic circumstances to give up honorable jobs and become criminals, whether or not anything untoward happened on the trip. Sung and Bong added an on-board romance to further humanize the story and raise the stakes, a bit, on the survivors. The DVD adds the very different short film, “Sea Child.”
The international financial crisis and loss of decent-paying jobs also provides the subtext for Traders, a gritty Irish drama that merges ideas from Fight Club with the incentive-laced suspense of TV’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” In it, a recently laid-off nebbish invents a “game” in which people desperately short of cash can double their money by participating in a death match. The contestants agree to use their dwindling life savings as a stake. John Bradley (“Game of Thrones”) plays the rotund Internet moderator, Vernon Stynes, who’s established a firm set of rules and expects that players will have the integrity to play by them in hand-to-hand combat. Harry Fox (Killian Scott) would appear to have more resources than other potential traders, but the prospect of continually doubling his money on his way to a million-Euro reward is too tempting to ignore. In his first fight, more like an exhibition than anything else, a loophole large enough for Vernon to exploit becomes readily apparent to the two friends. Still, just as Harry proves himself be to be a born trader, Vernon becomes ever more jealous of his nest egg and sure that he deserves want amounts to a cut of the action. The greedier Vernon becomes, the less tolerant Harry is of his demands. On the brink of Harry becoming a millionaire, Vernon conspires with some dangerous thugs to take him out of the game. Trader’s biggest selling point is the even keel Harry maintains as he slices through an increasingly inventive selection of combatants, all of whom will have won enough money to match stakes. In their first feature, longtime collaborators Rachael Moriarty and Peter Murphy have successfully balanced the fighting with just enough romance to keep things interesting. They also make good use of the urban and rural Dublin settings.
I think it’s safe to say that the destruction of the Basque village of Guernica, in 1937, by German and Italian bombers in support of Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War, is familiar to Americans, if it all, it’s via Pablo Picasso’s painting, “Guernica.” Before the mural-sized oil painting was returned to newly democratic Spain in 1981, it was held for safe keeping at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Ironically, it continued to be a symbol for peace, even as the U.S. relentlessly bombed North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War. What made Guernica different than other towns and villages destroyed in 20th Century conflicts was the unnecessarily savage attack on the town by the Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion and the Italian Aviazione Legionaria. Although control of Guernica would put Franco at distinct strategic advantage in the Basque region, the town itself had virtually no air defenses and the Republicans were known to be in retreat. Koldo Serra’s drama, Guernica, lays the blame for the magnitude of the death and destruction less at Franco’s feet than those of Oberstleutnant Wolfram von Richthofen and his boss in Berlin, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, who saw the attack as a test of Adolph Hitler’s offensive strategy to become known as blitzkrieg. Included in the attacks were tests of newly designed incendiary bombs that would be almost impossible to extinguish. Hundreds of innocent lives were snuffed out in minutes, while three-quarters of the structures were levelled. Serra’s depiction of the short, but devastating attack is nothing less than unnerving, as intended, and no words could do justice to it. It became incumbent on writers José Alba, Carlos Clavijo Cobos and Barney Cohen to come up with something to fill the other 80-some minutes. They decided to hook their story on a jaded American newspaper man, Henry Howell (James D’Arcy) – standing in for the real-life Times’ reporter George Lowther Steer – an idealistic, Capa-inspired photographer (Ingrid García Jonsson), and a love interest provided by a local press-office censor, Teresa (María Valverde). She introduces us to the other key storyline, involving the Soviet functionaries and spies whose job it was to prevent the truth about the war and Republican losses from reaching readers in the U.S. and rest of Europe. The Soviets are made to look every bit as evil as the Germans, minus the extreme firepower, and probably were. (In fact, Stalin provided arms to the Republicans in return for the right to deplete Spain’s treasury of gold, some dating back to the colonization of Mexico.) The DVD release has a handful of deleted and extended scenes.
In his long-awaited sophomore feature, Bosnian/British filmmaker Jasmin Dizdar (Beautiful People) chose to take on one of those based-on-a-true-story tales that leave you wondering how much of the movie was “based” on the actual event and how much is “true.” In war stories especially, I think that I’d prefer the disclaimer, “40 percent of what you’re about to see is based on a true story,” or, even, “The vast majority of what you’re about to see is based on a true story, so don’t blame the screenwriter if you’re bored.” Because most movies inspired by war stories feature feats of superhuman strength or unconscious bravery, I’d like to know just how much of my disbelief I’ll be required to suspend. That’s just me, though. Chosen opens with Pappy (Harvey Keital) being asked by his grandson, Max (Julian Shatkin), to recall a true hero from his life, for a 1,000-word essay he’s been assigned. Pappy, like so many other veterans of World War II, is reluctant to turn his back pages to the only chapter in his life story where true heroism might have come to the fore. Finally, he comes up with Sonson (Luke Mably), a Hungarian Jewish lawyer, who, in 1943, was enlisted by the fascist state police to break boulders into stones. It’s mindless work, but it beats being forced into a boxcar headed for Auschwitz, which is what would happen to the country’s Jews a year later, when the Nazis decided the Hungarian government was being soft on non-Aryans. After the German occupation, Sonson’s wife (Diana Cavallioti) dies because Jews are not allowed medicine, while her sister, Judith (Ana Ularu), is targeted for relocation to a death camp. Finally pushed to the breaking point, Sonson pledges his resources to tracking down the train in Poland and rescuing Judith, who’s already broken free from captivity and working with the resistance movement. Nonetheless Sonson is determined to find the only connection to his dead wife. How he’s going to accomplish this miraculous feat is very much open to question, as is the fate of Max’s homework assignment. It takes a while for Chosen to get going, but, when it does, the action scenes are pretty good. And, while it’s always nice to see Keitel, he quickly relinquishes the spotlight to Mably.
If I’m reading his resume right, Timothy Woodward Jr. has directed 11 movies in the last three-plus years; produced 20 features and TV shows since 2005; and acted in 18 projects during roughly the same period. I don’t know about the TV shows, but none of the movies appear to have gone anywhere other than straight-to-DVD/Blu-ray/VOD. That might sound like a knock, but it isn’t. Because Woodward’s been able to get such well-traveled talents as Tom Sizemore, Johnny Messner, Mickey Rourke, Mischa Barton, Estella Warren, Vinnie Jones, Dolph Lundgren, Danny Trejo, Vivica A. Fox, Danny Glover and Verne Troyer to lend their names to his dust jackets, they sell. The names supporting Woodward’s latest project, Traded, include Kris Kristofferson Trace Adkins, Natalia Cigliuti and Michael Paré. Based on screenplay by Mark Esslinger (Delivery), the traditional Western is set in 1880s Kansas, way out on the plains. Gunslinger-turned-rancher Clay Travis (Pare) is about to get some bad news handed to him in the form of a rattlesnake lying in wait for his young son. The boy was retrieving some canned goods for his mom and wasn’t doing anything wrong. In the Old West, shit happens … all the time. No sooner does the mourning period pass than his teenage daughter, Lily (Brittany Williams), decides to run away from home, hoping to secure a job in Wichita as a Harvey Girl waitress. Travis wanted her to stand home, in the middle of nowhere, where he can protect her. He decides to track her down, but is always one or two train stops late. Lily’s plans to serve pancakes to train passengers are aborted when she’s kidnaped by tobacco-chewing pimps and turned out at one of two competing brothels in a one-horse town. As these things go, it’s never made absolutely clear whether or not Lily’s actually has lost her virginity to a cowhand before her dad rescues her – it’s inevitable, right – but it’s close. Western aficionados should admire the body count, even if the rest of the story is pretty slow and predictable. Kristofferson, who looks as if he’s been riding the range for the last 200 years, actually is given a bit more to do here than has been expected of him in recent outings.
The Trust: Blu-ray
Manhattan Night: Blu-ray
The American Side
When you’re looking for crazy, who ya gonna call? Nicolas Cage, who else? In The Trust, he plays a Las Vegas cop, Stone, in charge of collecting evidence from crime scenes. After a fairly routine drug bust, Stone notices that the perp was freed from jail on a cash payment of $800,000. Because something doesn’t seem kosher, he asks a much younger cop, Waters (Elijah Wood) – who, apparently, has nothing better to do – to tail the guy and see what’s up. If Cage and Wood don’t ring the same bells as Starsky and Hutch or Crockett and Tubbs, it’s close enough for DirecTV original (with a limited release a few weeks later). Turns out, the path leads to a two-story laundry that doesn’t waste much time, water or suds on linen products from the nearby casinos. There’s a small, but powerful armory hidden within the walls of apartment upstairs and a seemingly impenetrable safe downstairs that’s big enough to double as a garage. You know that Stone’s going to find a way to get inside that vault, even if he has to chew his way through the reinforce concrete, and Waters is going to sweat every detail. This being the first film by the directing team Alex and Ben Brewer, it comes as a surprise that the heist plays out as well as it does and their stars make such a good team. Neither are the Vegas locations from the usual playbook. As rainy-night entertainment, action fans could do a lot worse than The Trust. Oh, yeah, Las Vegas resident Jerry Lewis appears briefly in a couple of scenes as Stone’s ex-cop father. The Blu-ray package includes the featurettes “The Dynamics of a Duo: Nicolas Cage and Elijah Wood” and “The Visuals of Vegas,” as well as commentary with the Brewers.
Manhattan Night (a.k.a., “Manhattan Nocturne”) is another crime thriller that didn’t go anywhere very fast in a brief and very limited release, despite the presence of Academy Award-winner Adrien Brody and a solid book tie-in. Based on a best-seller by Colin Harrison, the noir mystery suffers from a bit too much tinkering by first-time director Brian DeCubellis, whose love for New York gets in the way of decent story. Brody plays a crusading columnist for a tabloid newspaper, who’s blessed with a beautiful wife (Jennifer Beals), a nice family and a hideaway pad no mere investigative journalist could afford in a million years. The reporter, Porter Wren, must have a low tolerance for blonds, as he becomes an easy mark for an especially beautiful widow at a party in a posh apartment. When Caroline (Yvonne Strahovski) asks him to solve the bizarre death of her beyond-crazy filmmaker husband (Campbell Scott), they practically set a land-speed record to make it to her house for a quickie. No sooner than viewers can say, “What an asshole,” Wren is summoned to the offices of a filthy-rich business mogul, who blackmails him to agree to an investigation that parallels the one he’s already doing for Caroline. Just when things appear to be getting interesting, DeCubellis’ screenplay begins to go sideways. That’s primarily because the hush-hush material Wren discovers is laughably lame. That said, Manhattan Night is stylish enough to make a decent rainy-night double-feature with The Trust. Special features include commentary with DeCubellis, Scott and cinematographer David Tumblety; interviews; a making-of featurette; deleted/extended scenes; a director’s notebook; and storyboards.
And, while we’re on the subject of film noir conventions and rainy-day fare, there’s Jenna Ricker’s exceedingly retro The American Side, a movie so true to form it easily could have been turned into a parody in a pinch. Co-author Greg Stuhr stars as hard-boiled private detective Charlie Paczynski, a graduate of the Mickey Spillane school of criminal investigations. Talk about throwbacks, Paczynski is the only P.I. extant who conducts all of his business on a payphone. So far, so routine. What makes The American Side so appealing are its old-school Niagara Falls and Buffalo settings and a bizarre plot that involves inventor Nicola Tesla. The last time Tesla figured in a feature film, it was Christopher Nolan’s underappreciated The Prestige. It seems as if one of Tesla’s diagrams was stolen from his home after he died, but before government agents broke in to confiscate his “discredited” theories. To add a bit more authenticity, Ricker brought in veteran hard guys Joe Grifasi, Robert Forster, Robert Vaughn and Harris Yulin, to work alongside less-grizzled actors Alicja Bachleda (Ondine), Matthew Broderick, Camilla Belle, Janeane Garofalo and Grant Shaud. There’s even a barrel that goes over the falls.
Louder Than Bombs
Almost all 109 minutes of Danish filmmaker Joachim Trier’s English-language follow-up to Oslo, August 31st and Reprise can be summed up in the lyrics of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Motherless Children”: “And Father will do the best he can, when Mother is dead, Lord/Well, the best he can, when Mother is dead/Father will do the best he can/So many things a father can’t understand/Nobody treats you like Mother will …” In Louder Than Bombs, Mother is a prize-winning photojournalist, credibly played by the great French actress Isabelle Huppert. Gabrielle Byrne is the Father, Gene, Isabelle left in charge of two teenage boys, when her car rammed into the grill of a semi. The motherless children that Gene can’t understand are Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and Conrad (Devin Druid). That brief plot outline may not tell the whole story, but how many great blues songs – most not much longer than two minutes – have laid the foundation for exponentially more complex movies? Like Juliette Binoche’s Rebecca in Erik Poppe’s 1,000 Times Good Night, Isabelle is hooked on the rush that comes from documenting important stories through the lens of a camera. When they return home to their families between assignment, the women can’t help but wish they were somewhere else, dodging bullets in war zones and visiting refugee camps. Rebecca’s husband is having some of the same problems raising daughters as Gene is experiencing with his boys. Where Rebecca barely escapes death in a pair of terrorist attacks, however, Gene is left grieving his wife’s stateside death that may have been self-inflicted.
Two years later, Jonah is an accomplished educator and first-time father, suffering from post-partem depression. Gene’s far more concerned with Conrad, a dour young man who’s never been told the truth about Isabelle’s last days on Earth. If there was ever a teenager likely to voted “most likely to bring an automatic weapon to school,” it’s Conrad. Gene tries hard to keep things together at home and begin a meaningful relationship with a fellow teacher (Amy Ryan), but he comes from the generation of fathers who works harder to be friends with their sons than fathers. As a retrospective of Isabelle’s work approaches, Gene also must deal with the fact that her dirty laundry – and, by extension his family’s – will be aired in a Page One preview in the New York York Times, by a former colleague (David Strathairn). Blind Willie Johnson was spared such predicaments, but Trier is giving Gene, Jonah and Conrad a similarly upsetting lesson in the blues. It may be a bourgeois blues, but the Danish filmmaker has captured it pretty well, nonetheless.
The Binding: Blu-ray
Long before cigarette manufacturers were required to add warning labels to their products, purveyors of horror movies cautioned audiences with all sorts of stunts and gimmicks designed to whet the appetites of horror fans. William Castle not only produced and directed some of the best genre flicks of 1950-60s, but he also created some of the most fondly recalled publicity stunts. For Macabre, he offered a $1,000 life insurance policy against “death by fright,” while “doctors,” “nurses” and ambulances were prominently stationed for the benefit of fainthearted viewers. I can’t remember if my screener copy of Bite came with a barf bag, as some do, but it might actually have come in handy. I’m not kidding. Genre-specialist Chad Archibald (The Drownsman) takes his time setting up the horror, which begins with a bride-to-be drifting off the beaten path at her Costa Rica bachelorette weekend and getting bitten by an unknown bug at a hidden swimming hole. Long story short, Casey (Elma Begovic) returns home with a skin condition all the Clearasil in the world couldn’t cure. Egg sacks and enflamed pustules begin to appear on Casey’s body and she begins to twitch like a spastic insect, possibly related to David Cronenberg’s fly. It gets worse, but the real fun comes in watching what happens to friends, her fiancé and future mother-in-law when they begin showing concern for her absence. The makeup effects and set design are of Oscar quality, not that they would get past the first round. The Blu-ray adds an essential making-of featurette and Archibald’s commentary.
Neither is Alberto Marini’s Summer Camp a romp in the park. Its generic title doesn’t really explain what viewers can expect in the ensuing 81 minutes of nearly non-stop action. In what I assume to be a Euro-American co-production, four American counselors are in the mountains outside Madrid preparing for the opening of a summer camp for Spanish kids who want to learn English. The hacienda is far from ready for habitation and the gypsy encampment outside its wall doesn’t auger well for the future. Things turn nasty as the counselors tour the barn where small animals are kept. Something resembling rabies is spreading through the pens and threatening to infect the counselors and staff. Its primary characteristic is a sudden display of rage, followed by mayhem and a just as sudden return to normalcy. By narrowing down the possible pathogens, a likely suspect emerges just hours before the first of the campers are about to arrive. What differentiates this Summer Camp from all the others is the lovely landscape and the roller-coaster action.
The bible has provided Hollywood with countless ideas for movies over the last hundred years, or so. Beyond the stories directly taken from the Old Testament, there are the many moral and ethical issues tackled by screenwriters desperate for an angle. Gus Krieger’s faith-based The Binding harkens to the biblical tale of Abraham, who was commanded by God to bind and kill his young son. A young minister’s wife, Sarah (Amy Gumenick), attempts to balance her maternal inclinations with her deeply held religious faith, especially when her minister husband, Bramwell (Josh Heisler), begins to have dreams about God’s intentions for their newborn daughter. Even if the dreams are accurate, who’s to tell whether it’s Satan or the deity who’s calling the shots? Bramwell now believes that the apocalypse can be avoided only by the baby’s sacrifice. The Binding stops short of giving a writer’s credit to biblical scholars, however. Krieger keeps a few things up his sleeve. The Blu-ray adds interviews with Gumenick, Josh Heisler and Leon Russom (Minister Uriel), and a commentary track with Krieger.
Careful What You Wish For
Most fans of the Jonas Brothers band were too young even to be gleams in their parents’ eyes when Body Heat was released in 1981, so Nick’s feature debut in Careful What You Wish For should be full of surprises for them. Everyone else will know what’s happening after Jonas’ Ivy League-bound Doug Martin first lays eyes on his new next-door neighbor, Lena Harper (Isabel Lucas), from the safety of his bedroom window. Lena, who looks like a teenager, herself, is married to a rich fool (Dermot Mulroney), 20-plus years her senior, who hires Doug to get his yacht ready for a summer of sailing on the North Carolina shore. When the old man is out of town on business, Lena makes it her business to seduce the 18-year-old virgin and string him along for a few weeks without her hubby or his parents noticing. No problem. The rest you can either guess or already have figured out. Based on looks, alone, director Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum (Ramona and Beezus, Aquamarine) would have made a more likely MILF seductress than the blond Aussie bombshell, but there’s no question that Lucas delivers the goods, all the way to the switcheroo ending. Considering that Jonas is only asked to look alternately nervous and horny, he does just fine. Paul Sorvino pretty much steals the show as cornpone country cop who’s smarter than most people think he is.
Instantly reminiscent of Fame, Step Up and a dozen other gotta-dance culture-clash stories, High Strung features a hip-hop violin player who hooks up with a classical dancer on scholarship at the Manhattan Conservatory of the Arts. They meet while he’s busking in a subway terminal, where his violin is stolen and illegal-alien status could get him deported if the theft was reported. Ruby (Keenan Kampa) gets Johnnie (Nicholas Galitzine) interested in a competition, wherein a dancer performs with a string musician and the winner gets a scholarship. A scholarship could lead to a student visa for Johnnie, but he has to win over a ballroom full of snobs first. If only they could find a crackerjack hip-hop dance crew to really differentiate their audition performance from the pack. If the story sounds a bit iffy, High Strung is saved by the kind of music and dance that teenagers tend to support.
Sniper: Ghost Shooter
If you’ve seen one Sniper, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you’ve seen all six of them. The lead actors tend to rotate from chapter to chapter, as do the theaters of operation. Otherwise, though, fans know not to expect many surprises. In Sniper: Ghost Shooter, Billy Zane returns after a brief hiatus as an elite marksman, Richard Miller. Chad Michael Collins is back as Brandon Beckett, son of Thomas Beckett (Tom Berenger), who isn’t. For the team’s next mission, Dennis Haysbert, a.k.a., The Colonel, wants his them to relocate from the Middle East to a mountainous region in the former USSR to protect a gas pipeline stretching from Georgia to Western Europe from extremists eager to disrupt its operation. This time around, a so-called ghost shooter is picking off the good guys with such remarkable precision that he must be getting help from somewhere. That it could be coming from someone with access to strictly guarded coordinates from a satellite GPS makes for some tenser moments than usual.
The same type of viewer who fell in love with Cédric Klapisch’s delightful ensemble rom/dram/com, L’auberge espagnole, when it was released here in 2003, will want to take a chance on Puzzled Love. There are differences between the Barcelona-set pictures, but none that particularly matter. Instead of adding to the luster of such rising European stars as Cécile De France, Audrey Tautou, Kelly Reilly, Cristina Brondo, Judith Godrèche and Romain Duris, Puzzled Love focuses on Marcel Borràs and Saras Gil, who, in 2011, were newcomers on the international scene. Because the movie didn’t cause much of a commotion outside the Spanish-language markets, the actors didn’t get quite the same bounce. Now that it’s out there, though, there’s no reason Borras and Gil shouldn’t benefit, as well. Sun is a lovely and reasonably studious brunette from Chicago, while Lucas, being from Mallorca, is a bit more hang-loose. They meet in a flat with rooms being sublet for the rest of the school year by students who’ve become extremely familiar with each other during their time together. So much so that the newcomers are told that they’ll have to be open to weekly theme parties and sometimes excessive behavior. To prevent complications, flatmates are discouraged from hooking up. After a distinctly rocky start, Sun and Lucas slowly warm to each other, even knowing they’ll be heading their separate ways in a few months. It’s a dilemma with which students from around the world can understand and empathize. The only real gimmick here involves the parceling of writing and directing duties to 13 different people. It took me a long time to catch on to the conceit, but, when I did, it didn’t change my favorable opinion of Puzzled Love.
The Man Who Saved Ben-Hur
Spend any amount of time in Los Angeles and one is likely to acquire neighbors and friends who’ve toiled in the entertainment industry and have scrapbooks full of photos and memorabilia to show for it. Even better places to meet industry veterans are parties and the kind of gin mills whose lighting softens the wrinkles around the eyes. Listen to them long enough and you might be tempted to pull out a tape recorder. Before embarking on his close-to-the-heart documentary, The Man Who Saved Ben-Hur, writer/director Joe Forte (Firewall, Callr) knew that his elderly second cousin, Johnny Alarimo, had associated himself with some of the biggest names in town and might want to share a few yarns with a kindred soul. What he couldn’t have expected was the treasure trove of museum-quality photographs, letters, gifts and other souvenirs the one-time song-and-dance man had collected in his career as an AD, translator, dialogue coach and trusted companion in more films for which he’s ever been given credits. A perusal of his IMDB.com file reveals far less than anything collected in the boxes in his moderately sized apartment. If Alarimo is described as a loner, it’s only because he’d outlived most of his contemporaries and his phone had stopped ringing years ago. The title, The Man Who Saved Ben-Hur, refers to a time when his ability to speak Italian gave director William Wyler a leg up in getting things done while shooting the epic historical drama in and around Rome. An ability to order off the menu in foreign ports and grease the palms of union bosses is a sure way to get a producer’s credit in Hollywood. More than that, however, he could be an extremely charming and discreet companion. If that’s shorthand for being gay, well, you didn’t hear it from Alarimo, who took those stories, if any, with him to the grave. Forte’s approach was far more accommodating than gossipy and his film speaks volumes about the differences between old and new Hollywood. The bonus package adds extended interviews.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
For most of the last 20 years, I’ve lived in the wee SoCal town in which the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers was filmed, 60 years ago. The Red Scare was in full bloom and viewers were free to make parallels to the witch hunts that had already occurred in Hollywood, the McCarthy hearings and Moscow. Mostly, though, audiences craved a good scare. Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers was shot in San Francisco, where, by 1978, the hippies were being replaced by self-help enthusiasts, serial killers and increasingly aggressive panhandlers. Because pedestrians and office workers tended to avoid the eyes of other people, it would have been difficult to distinguish between the pod people and Frank Zappa’s plastic people. Adding color to the spread of the space-borne sickness helped make the menace that much more sickening. Here, viewers play a guessing game as to which of the big-name stars — Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Leonard Nimoy, Veronica Cartwright, Jeff Goldblum – will be turned into drones before our eyes. Critics pretty much loved Kaufman’s remake, while fully acknowledging the place in the canon held by Don Siegel’s original. (He appears in a cameo, as a cab driver, along with Robert Duvall and Kaufman.) The Shout Factory package features a new 2K scan of the interpositive; fresh interviews with actors Brooke Adams and Art Hindle, writer W.D. Richter, composer Denny Zeitlin and author/film historian Steve Haberman; as well as vintage commentary by Kaufman, interviews with Kaufman, Richter, director of photography Michael Chapman and actors Donald Sutherland and Veronica Cartwright; featurettes, “Practical Magic: The Special Effects Pod,” “The Man Behind the Scream: The Sound Effects Pod,” “The Invasion Will Be Televised: The Cinematography Pod”; and an episode of “Science Fiction Theatre,” “Time Is Just a Place,” based on Jack Finney’s short story.”
Anyone who’s a fan of the work produced by Austin-based Rooster Teeth Productions – the Internet’s “Red vs. Blue” – will be anxious to see Lazer Team. A throwback to 1980s’ era sci-fi, including Ghostbusters, the lesser Star Wars entries and Fantastic Four superhero flicks, Lazer Team describes what happens when four small-town losers accidentally down an alien spacecraft with a with a Roman candle and soon find themselves responsible for the fate of the entire planet. In the crash site, they find a battle suit, whose appendages and weapons become genetically bound to them. Government agents were expecting the delivery from outer space and now are required to work with the quartet of doofuses against an omnipotent enemy. The greater challenge may be keeping Lazer Team from annihilating each other, before they can save mankind. If the $2.5-millon picture lacks polish and finesse, it shouldn’t prevent fanboys and cosplay freaks from enjoying it.
There are two photographs on the cover of Gibby: on top, a Capuchin monkey gets his head in between a teenage girl and boy, attempting to share a kiss; below it, the same girl, wearing the suit of a competitive gymnast, extending her arms as if she’s just stuck a landing. The cover also features the Dove.org logo, guaranteeing that what’s contained therein is safe for audiences of all ages. That’s all most potential viewers would need to know about director Phil Gorn’s inspirational comedy, which marks his return to the helm after 14 years and the decidedly non-Dove-approved Ultimate Reality. After the death of her mother, Katie (Shelby Lyon) has lost interest in her school, friends and gymnastics. Things begin to pick up for her when a science teacher asks her to take care of her monkey, Gibby (Crystal), for the summer. Gibby helps her with gymnastics, renewing friendships –including finding a potential boyfriend (Peyton Meyer) and overcoming her nemesis, a mean girl who is out to beat Katie at everything. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie … just in time for the Olympics. Gibby also stars Shannon Elizabeth (American Pie), Sean Patrick Flanery (The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles) and Vivica A. Fox (Independence Day).
IMAX: Humpback Whales: 4K UHD/3-D/Blu-ray
There can be no sweeter scientific calling than the one that allows marine biologists to monitor the communications of humpback whales and unlock their many secrets. Serious study of the 55-foot, 50-ton behemoths didn’t begin until the 1970s, when their songs were recorded and sold to young people, who would launch the international save-the-whale movement. IMAX specialist Greg MacGillivray’s fascinating Humpback Whales, now available in 4K UHD/Blu-ray 3-D/Blu-ray formats, chronicles the progress researchers have made in those 40-plus years of undersea exploration. Narrated by Ewan McGregor, it helps explain why humpbacks are the most acrobatic of all whales, why they sing their haunting songs and why they migrate up to 10,000 miles round-trip every year. Most of the footage was captured in Tonga, Hawaii and Alaska.
The Adventures of Panda Warrior
Nickelodeon: PAW Patrol: Sports Day
One needn’t be a detective when it comes to seeing through the marketing schemes of companies selling DVDs to unsuspecting consumers, especially parents looking for movies safe for baby-sitting duty. Sometimes it takes a keen eye to distinguish between the real McCoy and faux McCoy. At first glance, I’ll admit to wondering when DreamWorks Animation slipped its latest Kung Fu Panda title past me. On closer inspection and after some Internet trolling, it became apparent that the Lionsgate release, The Adventures of Panda Warrior, was made in China and distributed in different countries as “The Adventures of Jinbao.” In New Zealand, it went out under the Sony banner, while in parts of Asia it was Golden Network Asia Limited. None are affiliated, as far as I know, with DreamWorks, although the Panda Warrior and Kung Fu Panda could be cousins. Here, the Panda Warrior began life as a “peace-loving soldier from Ancient China, magically transported into a world ruled by an evil nine-headed snake. Transformed into a panda, he joins forces with a flying pig to free the once-peaceful Merryland from tyranny.” The English voices are provided by Rob Schneider, Lauren Elizabeth, Haylie Duff, Tom Kenny and Norm MacDonald. At a list price of nearly $20, consumers should know what they’re getting for their baby-sitting money.
“PAW Patrol” is an animated children’s program on Nickelodeon about six rescue dogs in training and their friend, a boy named Ryder. The series encourages creative problem solving, as each of the pups is inspired by a real-life job: firefighter, police officer, construction worker. Rocky the Recycling Pup who always has the right tool for the job. The DVD contains six episodes, all themed around sporting events.
Starz: The Girlfriend Experience: Season One: Blu-ray
In the parlance of the sex trade, “the girlfriend experience” is an option available to customers of prostitutes and escorts who want to enjoy a typical date – maybe including dinner, a movie, some dancing – that’s guaranteed to end with some degree of coital satisfaction. It could last a few hours or a whole night and cost the trick more than the usual amount of money for a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’m encounter. The Starz series was adapted from Steven Soderbergh’s feature film, The Girlfriend Experience, which became notorious for starring the then-famous porn princess Sasha Grey and a storyline that also incorporated elements from the 2008 presidential campaign, not unlike Shampoo. It was widely viewed as being yet another attempt to bridge the worlds of porn and mainstream Hollywood. The Starz spinoff series, “The Girlfriend Experience,” is a bit of a misnomer in that the clients of second-year law student Christine Reade (Riley Keough) usually pay by the hour at rates affordable only by men in the One Percent Club. Christine is pretty enough, but it’s difficult to explain why some very powerful men would risk the marriages and fortunes for her company. A promising student, Christine accepts an internship at a prestigious Chicago firm, where, naturally, she’s bound to run into someone who either is a client or wouldn’t mind a freebie, in lieu of a raise or promotion. While there’s plenty of skin in the series’ first year, it’s nowhere near as graphic or gratuitous as what can be found every week on “Game of Thrones.” What it does have going for it, besides Keough and executive producer Soderbergh, are co-creators/co-directors/co-writers Lodge Kerrigan (Keane) and Amy Seimetz (Sun Don’t Shine), and they keep things interesting.