Bettie Page Reveals All: Blu-ray
For the first time in memory, the post offices in our area refused to do taxpayers the kindness of extending drive-through service on the evening of April 15, the deadline for tax returns. Considering how commercially oriented the USPS has become, I wonder if anyone there has considered issuing a sure-fire commemorative stamp of history’s greatest pin-up model and born-again Christian, Bettie Page. If the USPS can justify printing stamps honoring the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and “Global Forever: Sea Surface Temperatures” – alongside such recent honorees Jimi Hendrix, Charlton Heston and Harvey Milk – why not try to suck a few bucks from fetishistic philatelists, as well? After all, among the many things the USPS counts on from its customers is that a goodly number of commemorative stamps will never be attached to envelopes. Page stamps would be treasured, not canceled. After watching Mark Mori s frequently fascinating “Bettie Page Reveals All,” I’m positive that such a stamp would sell like hot cakes, even if the photograph didn’t reveal anything more suggestive than her trademark smile and bangs. Even in her most risqué poses, of which there are several new ones in the documentary, Page exuded the kind of innocence that Doris Day was going for in her wink-wink/nod-nod “Pillow Talk” period. And because of this, perhaps, she continues to influence fashion and popular culture as much as when she first appeared in Playboy in January, 1955. Likewise, many of the same people who exploited Page’s popularity while she was alive continue to profit from her image six years after her death, in 2008, at 85.
Mori’s documentary doesn’t merely pick up where “The Notorious Bettie Page” left off in 2005. That movie, which starred a very game Gretchen Moll, was labeled “a lie” by Page during a screening. It ended at the peak of her career with the political witch hunt led by Tennessee’s publicity-hound senator, Estes Kefauver, and her moonlight conversion to born-again Christianity in Key West. “Bettie Page Reveals All” extends her story another 50 years, few of which were pleasant. Instead of using her notoriety to advance her career, as did stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, Page largely disappeared into the cut-throat world of trailer-park evangelism and schizophrenia. While the sexual revolutionists of the 1960s battled first-generation feminists for philosophical dominance of the New Left, Page was fighting her own demons. Neither was she aware of the post- and post-post-feminists who considered her to be a pioneer for taking charge of her own sexuality, using her femininity to carve a career out of the male-dominated sex industry and being a role model for sexual-positivity. For most of the 1980s and early ’90s, however, her diminished mental condition required she live under state supervision. Once she became aware of her cult following, Page began to allow the occasional interview, but only if it was taped and didn’t reveal her face or figure. Although she had long ago relinquished her rights to profit from her photos, she finally found representation that would lead to a steady stream of income from people wishing to use her likeness for other commercial purposes. In 2012, she was ranked by Forbes as one of the top 10 posthumous celebrity earners.
In Mori’s recorded interviews, Page sounds strong and confident in her memory of the events that shaped her life, including an abusive father and gang-rape after moving to New York. Her words are accompanied here by many films and photographs, some long unseen and more intimate than previously made available. The film is also informed by recent interviews with such admirers as Dita Von Teese, Hugh M. Hefner, Rebecca Romijn, Tempest Storm, Bunny Yeager, Paula Klaw, Mamie Van Doren, Todd Oldham, Naomi Campbell and camera-club member Dick Heinlein. Among those seen in archival footage are photographers Irving Claw and Arthur “Weegee” Fellig, cinematographer James Wong Howe, Marge Simpson (Julie Kavner) and various pop icons who’ve affected her look, including Katy Perry, Madonna and Beyonce. While not perfect, Mori’s film is as definitive as any we’re likely to see. The Blu-ray package adds “Filth and Obscenity,” a “warning film” from the days when sex was dirty and the environment was clean; more from “The Early Years” audio interview, with leftover photographs; an unreleased phone conversation between Bettie and Paula Klaw; several restored versions of Irving Klaw’s “Wiggle Movies”; the “Bettie Page” music video, by Buzz Campbell; an expanded pin-up gallery; and footage from Bettie’s funeral, presided over by the Rev. Robert Schuller and attended by Hugh Hefner. – Gary Dretzka
The Inspector Lavardin Collection: Blu-ray
I think it’s fair to suggest that the Inspector Lavardin we meet in these four delightful mysteries by Claude Chabrol is the French answer to LAPD Lt. Columbo, if not quite so rumpled. The stories themselves, however, are right out of the Alfred Hitchcock playbook … no surprise, given Chabrol’s admiration for the master’s work. As shaped by novelist Dominique Roulet and portrayed by Jean Poiret, Lavardin is a somewhat acerbic provincial police detective who appears to arrive at crime scenes out of nowhere and immediately size up the key circumstances surrounding a murder. The rest of the movie, then, is spent confounding the suspects to the point where they reveal themselves, by mistake or simply to get the detective out of their hair. And, while Lavardin clearly isn’t stupid or incompetent, he frequently does things and asks the kinds of questions that make people think they’re smarter than he is. Unlike Columbo, however, there are times when his temper gets the best of him and he lashes out at a suspect. If his interrogation techniques wouldn’t pass muster before even the most conservative judge, it’s easy to forgive him his trespasses. It’s a neat balancing act, but Poiret pulls it off well. It’s what makes “The Inspector Lavardin Collection” so interesting to watch. We know that the detective is going get his man – or woman – but we don’t know how. Typically, too, Chabrol creates antagonists that, in someone else’s movie, would be considered to be pillars of society. Of the titles collected here, “Chicken With Vinegar” (1985) and “Inspector Lavardin” (“1986”) were made for theatrical distribution, while “The Black Snail” (1988) and “Danger in the Words” (1989) were taken from “The Secret Files of Inspector Lavardin” television series. In the U.S., I think, all four would have been positioned for television, as part of a thematic wheel. Cohen Media Group’s nicely restored theatrical features include commentary by critics Wade Major and Andy Klein – Gary Dretzka
Riot in Cell Block 11: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Master of the House: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Because America’s prison systems continue to operate in an atmosphere of mutual loathing, dictated decades ago by the terrible riots at New York’s Attica Correctional Facility and New Mexico State Penitentiary, almost no efforts are being made anymore to rehabilitate prisoners or prepare them for life on the streets. (A government report issued this week points to a dramatic increase in recidivism among former prisoners in 30 state facilities during the first year after their release.) Since the launch of the War on Drugs and imposition of mandatory-minimum sentences, the prison population not only has exploded, but the racial demographics have been turned on their heads. Moreover, the privatization and corporatization of state facilities have allowed politicians to promote an attitude resembling “out of sight, out of mind.” Even as strict sentencing guidelines are being re-evaluated, the owners of private, for-profit prisons have joined guards’ unions in demanding occupancy quotas and additional fees for empty prison cells. All those things ran through my mind while watching Don Siegel’s 1954 prison thriller, “Riot in Cell Block 11,” beneficiary of another sterling 2K restoration by the folks at Criterion Collection. Instead of depending solely on exterior shots of an ancient prison or abandoned facilities for atmosphere, the producers of “Riot in Cell Block 11” were allowed to shoot inside California’s Folsum State Prison, using actual prisoners and guides as extras and technical advisers. The neo-realistic approach looked extremely credible, saved a lot of money and played right into producer Walter Wanger’s desire to showcase the inadequacies of contemporary prisons. Wanger, who had been incarcerated for several months at a Los Angeles County honor farm in the shooting of his wife’s lover, was so disgusted by the conditions that he came up with $10,000 to make “Cell Block 11.”
Fed up with guard brutality, overcrowding, terrible food and the lack of protection from violent and mentally disturbed inmates, the hard-core prisoners in Cell Block 11 lure a guard into a trap and take over the unit. Coincidentally, the prisoner’s demands mirror the complaints made earlier by the warden to the state prison board. Typically, the administrators and politicians in charge are in no mood to make concessions to inmates holding hostages. They aren’t enthusiastic about making any concessions, period. One thing leads to another and other issues begin to cloud the negotiations, inside and outside the block. Can a more violent confrontation be avoided? Stay tuned. It’s worth knowing going into “Cell Block 11” that it was released at a time when such riots were becoming an epidemic around the country and the convicts, many of whom fought in World War II, were housed in prisons built in the 19th Century. The actors and extras in “Cell Block 11” are predominantly, but not exclusively white. I don’t know if segregation by color was enforced in the 1950s – outside the South, anyway – but that problem would be left as a ticking time bomb, set to explode two decades later. Another interesting thing about the movie is the casting of veteran characters actors whose faces were familiar primarily to fans of gangster movies and Westerns. They included such professional hard guys as Neville Brand, Don Gordon and Robert Osterloh. Criterion’s almost spooky black-and-white restoration really adds a sense of menace to the proceedings. The bonus package contains commentary with film scholar Matthew H. Bernstein; the NBC radio documentary series, “The Challenge of Our Prisons,” which originally aired in March, 1953; Kristoffer Tabori, Don Siegel’s son, reads excerpts from the chapter on “Riot in Cell Block 11,” from Stuart Kaminsky’s “Don Siegel: Director,” and a chapter from his dad’s autobiography, “A Siegel Film”; and an illustrated booklet featuring an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara, a 1954 article by co-producer Walter Wanger and a 1974 tribute to Don Siegel by Sam Peckinpah.
Criterion’s other black-and-white gem this month is “Master of the House,” by the great Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer and co-writer/playwright Svend Rindom. Made in 1925, the silent parable preceded Dreyer’s unforgettable “The Passion of Joan of Arc” and “Vampyr.” It tells the strangely contemporary story of a middle-class housewife, whose husband is taking out his frustrations over losing his job on her. Even though Ida already is overworked with domestic chores and child care, Victor complains about every missed detail of his daily routine. Apart from being completely unreasonable, Victor is too much of a coward to admit the gravity of his circumstances and his time away from home is idly spent. When things get too much for Ida to bear, the other women in Victor’s life – his onetime nanny and Ida’s mother – conspire to teach him a thing or two about compassion and hard work. This is one silent movie that doesn’t require title boards to express what’s happening on screen. It can be read in the eyes and facial expressions of the actors, especially leads Johannes Meyer and Astrid Holm. The restoration is impeccable, naturally, and the bonus materials include a recent score by Gillian Anderson, presented in uncompressed stereo; a new interview with Dreyer historian Casper Tybjerg; a new visual essay on Dreyer’s camera work and editing by David Bordwell; new English inter-title translations; and a booklet featuring an essay by Mark Le Fanu. – Gary Dretzka
The Pawnbroker: Blu-ray
Garden State: Blu-ray
Adding to April’s rich bounty of hi-def re-issues are William Friedkin’s suspenseful “Sorcerer,” an adaptation of the same Georges Arnaud novel that inspired Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “The Wages of Fear” (1953), and Sidney Lumet’s riveting post-Holocaust drama, “The Pawnbroker.” In its initial 1977 release, “Sorcerer” was so poorly timed and marketed that audiences somehow failed to make the connection between it and Friedkin’s hugely successful “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist.” Although it had everything a fan of action/adventures could want, “Sorcerer” couldn’t compete against the halo effect of “Star Wars” and “tent pole” marketing strategy introduced by “Jaws.” In hindsight, it can be argued that “Sorcerer” resembled an arthouse version of “Indiana Jones.” That might have made a nice blurb, but “Indiana Jones” was years away from being launched and “Jaws” had scared as many mainstream viewers away from art houses as it did beaches. In short order, “Sorcerer” was put on shelf and forgotten, even in the run-up to the VHS revolution. Rights would transferred, lost and only recently recovered. Perhaps, finally rescued from the “cult” curse, enough fans of explosive thrillers will discover how great “Sorcerer” looks in Blu-ray and how exciting even the simplest of stories can be. In it, Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, and Amidou play desperadoes on the run not only from the authorities back home, but also hitmen hired to track and kill them, no questions asked. The man have come to the end of their respective trails in a South American shithole town, surrounded by rain forest, corrupt cops, guerrilla fighters, government troops and oilmen with a problem on their hands. A blowout continues to rage at a drilling site deep in the jungle and the only hope for putting it out quickly can be found in a decaying pile of TNT in a warehouse in the town. The four desperadoes are given little choice but to attempt to drive the explosives to the site, over about 200 miles of extremely bad road, without blowing themselves into tiny pieces. Any survivors of such a mission have been promised $10,000 dollars apiece and legal citizenship papers. That’s it, really, but nothing more is needed. It’s a barely-there road leading from decaying bridges over troubled waters, to eroding hillsides and barren mountain passes where guerrillas collect the toll. The settings are spectacular and, because of the movie’s age, we know that Freidkin didn’t have CGI technology to fall back on for special effects. This is one Blu-ray that cries out for a making-of featurette, but the only extra is DigiBook packaging and photos.
A backgrounder would have been welcome, as well, as part of a bonus package on “The Pawnbroker.” Alas, there’s none. Upon its release, in 1964, movies with explicit Holocaust imagery were few and far between. Only a shot of the tattooed number on the arm of a prominent character was used to explain why that person was constantly depressed, angry or reclusive. Here, we learn of the pawnbroker’s European roots in flashbacks of the last happy day he shared with his family and horrifying images of his experiences in a concentration camp. They go a long way to explain why Rod Steiger’s character, Sol Nazerman – the only member of his family to survive the death camp – is so consumed with survivor’s remorse. His face shows displays no sign of life or desire to have one. He supports the sister of his dead wife through the money he makes from a Harlem pawnshop, where, it seems, everyone’s selling and no one is buying. Knowing that the old man isn’t likely to pay them anywhere near what they want for an item, the customers always arrive with a sad tale to tell. Sol’s Puerto Rican assistant, Jesus, sees something good in the old man and desperately wants to learn the pawn business. Once in a while, Sol will begrudgingly agree to teach him something valuable. Fact is, though, the only reason the pawn shop isn’t shut down or robbed is because it launders money for the local rackets boss (Brock Peters). Lumet also courted controversy by including a scene in which Jesus’ prostitute girlfriend attempts to help him by tempting Sol with her bare breasts. Instead, they trigger a flashback in which Sol recalls Gestapo officers raping his wife and other Jewish women. Geraldine Fitzgerald plays a neighborhood do-gooder who tries, but fails to get close to Sol. The topless scene caused such a furor in Hollywood that its inclusion had to be negotiated between the film’s producers and the MPAA appeals board to secure a Production Code Seal. The precedent would lead eventually to the introduction of the ratings system. Even after 50 years, watching “The Pawbroker” can be a depressing experience. Steiger’s Oscar-nominated performance is every bit that powerful. Lumet’s dark representation of life in Harlem is enhanced by the stunning B&W cinematography of Boris Kaufman and Quincy Jones score.
Ever since it broke through the pack as the surprise hit of 2007, “Once” has served as one of the exceptions that proves the rule of what it takes to become a hit. Despite a cast of amateurs and unknowns, the deeply moving story of an unlikely romance between an Irish busker and an immigrant street vendor, came out of nowhere and didn’t stop until Oscar night. Although it deserved to be nominated in the Best Picture category, it settled for a trophy in the Best Original Song category. If stars Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová have only appeared together again as voice actors on “The Simpsons,” it isn’t because no one has tried to re-team them. They’ve simply decided to focus on their own music, instead. Good for them.
Another small movie that became a big hit is Zach Braff’s thoroughly offbeat romantic comedy, “Garden State.” It describes what happens when a New Jersey lad returns home for his mother’s funeral from Los Angeles, where he is a semi-recognizable actor. He has been away from his family for 10 years, primarily over the guilt trip laid on him by his father. Once home, he reconnects with similarly quirky characters played by Natalie Portman and Peter Sarsgaard. – Gary Dretzka
A Farewell to Fools
Despite their appearances in several recent duds, any movie that stars Gerard Depardieu and Harvey Keitel in nearly co-equal lead roles is bound to be anticipated in some quarters with great relish. Set near the end of World War II in occupied Romania “A Farewell to Fools” offers both men plenty of opportunities to shine and neither of them phones in their performances. What’s problematic in Bogdan Dreyer’s debut film is a story that makes relevant points about humanity, but delivers a distinctly mixed message on how a besieged citizenry deals with pure evil, even in a fictional format. As the movie opens, a Romanian boy is playing in a large, open field, when a soldier approaches him on a motorcycle with a side car. Instead of bullying the boy, the friendly German gets off his machine and encourages the completely agreeable youngster to give it a go. Off-camera, an unseen assassin uses the motorcycle’s roar to sneak up to the soldier and slit his throat. Almost blissfully unaware of the consequences, the boy hops back on the bike and rides into his village. The adults, of course, know exactly what’s going happen next. Once the Nazis learn what happened, the leader of a nearby regiment would ride into town and demand the handover of the anonymous assailant. If not, 10 prominent citizens would be killed the next morning. Of all the possible solutions to the dilemma, the otherwise amiable Father Johanis (Keitel) joins other town leaders in a scheme to convince Ipu (Depardieu), the village idiot, to sacrifice himself for the common good. Ipu fancies himself to be a French loyalist, left behind after the previous war and adopted by the community. At what is intended to a lavish last supper, a doctor convinces the light-hearted simpleton that he’s suffering from a grave illness, while the priest promises a funeral service worthy of Napoleon Bonaparte. Ipu is game, but asks Johanis to deliver an early eulogy and demands that the town’s elite set aside prime real estate for his equally feeble, if nearly invisible beneficiaries. Depardieu steals the show from this point forward, turning a dark comedy into a conundrum for the villagers and audiences, alike. If Dreyer and Anusavan Salamanian have devised a clever ending to the parable, it’s more likely true that the Nazis would have mowed down a large fraction of the population, figuring that the assassin almost certainly was among the victims, anyway. There’s nothing wrong with the acting and the setting is wonderfully pastoral. “A Farewell to Fools” also makes its overall point quite clearly. Finally, though, I was left with the same feeling I had upon first seeing the famous National Lampoon cover, showing a frightened-looking mutt with a gun being held against its head, alongside the admonishment, “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.” – Gary Dretzka
Tin Can Man
Gila!/The Lost Empire
Dark Satanic Magick
Empire of the Apes
Pete is having a helluva bad day. His girlfriend dumped him for another man and his boss is threatening to fire him from a job he hates and isn’t competent to perform. Finally, safe and secure in the sanctity of his apartment, Pete makes the mistake of opening his door to a man, Dave, professing to be his next-door neighbor. All at once, the day he thought couldn’t get any worse turns from bad to disastrous. After pretending to use the telephone to report an accident, the stranger gets right up into Pete’s face and begins to taunt, humiliate and intimidate him. Dave then insists that Pete accompany him on what a publicist might term, a terrifying journey into one of David Lynch’s darker nightmares. Only Dave knows where we’re going and he isn’t saying. Only a flashlight lights the way through pitch-black hallways, backyards and trailer parks. The flashlight also illuminates the faces of Dave and Pete, which appear to be no more than a foot away from the camera lens. The title, “Tin Can Man,” becomes relevant when Dave introduces Pete – after a fashion – to another man, this one held captive on a bed, his head covered with a burlap sack and his body festooned with tin cans. When Dave whistles a carnival melody, the captive dances to his tune. Their next stop is at a trailer in which Dave’s purported family – thinner versions of Dean Stockwell’s female cronies — taunt, humiliate and intimate Pete. “Tin Can Man” is one scary movie, largely because we’re completely lacking in context. Only rarely are we allowed to see anything beyond the black borders and, even then, we have no real idea what Pete did to deserve such treatment. In some ways, it’s resembles “Blair Witch” in a fish bowl. Kavanagh first shopped “Tin Can Man” in 2007. Two years ago, he sent out a re-edited and refurbished cut to festivals, including the Jameson Dublin, where it won a Special Jury Award.
Given Jim Wynorski’s reputation for being the leading vivisectionist in Hollywood, it’s a bit of a surprise that his period-faithful remake of Ray Kellogg’s 1959 creature-feature, “The Giant Gila Monster,” doesn’t feature a giant lizard crossed with a crocodile, shark, hippopotamus or dinosaur. In fact, although he lightens up the atmosphere at tad, Wynorski’s film could easily be mistaken by anyone with an old analog TV set as the real deal. Turns out, a seriously mutated Gila monster is terrorizing residents of a rural community, effectively erasing hot-rodders, drive-in sex and rock ’n’ roll as the greatest threat to the peace. You can guess the rest. What’s nice about “Gila!” is that it takes the genre seriously enough to make it look authentic, but not so seriously that contemporary viewers will be bored by it. There’s something here for the whole. Released in 1985, “The Lost Empire” represents Corman-graduate Wynorski’s debut as a director/writer/producer. It’s watchable today only for the camp value of watching buxom babes’ in skin-tight costumes and Farrah Fawcett hairdos battle masked ninjas from another planet under the control of the mysterious Dr. Sin Do and the undead wizard Lee Chuck. The action takes place in a fortress on a secret island, resembling the temple in “Enter the Dragon.” The chief redeeming factor here is the presence of co-star/co-producer Raven De La Croix as an enchanted Indian maiden in a white buckskin outfit. There are plenty of amusing bonus features in both packages.
“Scream Park” may not be based on the freshest of ideas, but, at least, it shows what can be accomplished by a freshman filmmaker on a nearly non-existent budget. The result is a 1980s-vintage slasher movie, unencumbered by modern special-effects technology or anything else that brings it into the 21st Century. The Fright Land amusement park is on the brink of bankruptcy and needs a dramatic surge in attendance to prevent immediate closure. The park’s owner (Doug Bradley, from “Hellraiser,” in a cameo), decides that what Fright Land needs is something truly frightening. He decides to hire a couple of yokels to terrorize the staff’s after-hours party. Naturally, things don’t go quite the way the owner planned.
“Dark Satanic Magick” promises a lot more than it delivers and what’s missing mostly is horror. A semi-attractive woman wakes up in a nearly empty cellar, not knowing how she got there or what’s in store for her. Apparently, her captor fancies himself to be a practitioner of dark arts, which, here, include rape and ritualized torture. Although some of it is highly tasteless, what the captive (Melanie Denholme) mostly does is the hootchie-koo in her skivvies and semi-nude. Somehow, her dancing reverses the flow of energy from the magician to the captive, allowing her to exercise her “free will.” The trailers included on the disc are more interesting.
Any similarity between “Empire of the Apes” and any of the titles in the “Planet of the Apes” is strictly simian, in nature. The story takes place on a planet populated by a dying race of apes. Three female convicts find themselves on the same planet after they escape from a spacecraft taking them to a prison planet. After the pod carrying the women crash lands, the apes see an opportunity to use them as breeding stock to replenish their numbers … in a PG sort of way. The ante is raised when the warden of the prison arrives on the planet and is required to deal with both the women and the gorillas. The special effects are laughable and the monkey suits are worse. – Gary Dretzka
Here’s a low-budget hostage drama from a first-time filmmaker that succeeds where most other freshman products fail. “Junction” does so, by stripping away the extraneous elements and relying on the lean screenplay to deliver the goods. Four lowlifes, desperate for crank, try to score some drugs from their favorite supplier. Sadly, the dealer doesn’t work on credit, so the tweakers are required to accept the challenge of stealing a flat-screen TV for his mother’s birthday. Unfortunately, the quartet is far less adept at robbery than getting high and screwing up their complexions. The house they pick has just such a television, alright, but it also contains a box full of kiddy-porn cassettes. This causes one of the thieves to freak out, slowing their getaway until the home’s owner arrives. The aggrieved meth-head uses the opportunity to kick the crap out of the guy, assuming the tapes belong to him. The delay gives the man’s wife and young daughter time to get home and the cops to be made aware of the break-in. Everything that transpires from this point on can be considered spoiler-bait and worth keeping secret. Suffice it to say, “Junction” offers lots of down-and-dirty entertainment – if not fun, exactly – and edgy exchanges between the perps, cops and victims. For low-budget thrills, Tony Glazer’s debut feature is hard to beat. The DVD adds a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka
The Hooping Life
Like yo-yos, hula hoops have been going in and out of style ever since they were invented, in 1958. Blessedly, Amy Goldstein’s documentary, “The Hooping Life,” wastes very little on the history of the toy, itself, or even the craze it inspired. Instead, she makes a case for it being a combination crime-stopper, body-shaper, time-waster and art form. It stops just short of being an infomercial by including interviews with people who have taught inner-city youth to master the activity and used it themselves as therapy. Apparently, the current fascination with hula hoops was spurred by fans of String Cheese Incident, a rock band that encouraged expert hoopers to join it on stage. This was followed by a wave of onetime aerobics addicts picking up a hoop and turning the activity into something resembling a religion, not unlike skateboarding. Others added flare and color to hooping. Tournaments and concerts were staged, as well as mass migrations to Burning Man and other gatherings of post-hippie tribes. The people we meet here are very good at what they do, of course, and some of their stories are quite compelling. Guest appearances are made by Shaquille O’Neal and the long-dead Art Linkletter, an early shill for the product. “This Hooping Life” may be a niche entertainment, but it well serves the intended market. – Gary Dretzka
Seven Warriors: Blu-ray
Even before Angela Mao Ying appeared alongside Bruce Lee in “Enter the Dragon,” as a guest star, she was a hot property in the burgeoning Hong Kong martial-arts industry. Once a dancer and acrobat in the Peking Opera, the Taiwan-born actor was a quick study when it came to kung fu. Being attractive and seemingly vulnerable, Mao provided a surprise element to the mostly male genre. “Lady Whirlwind” and “Hapkido” also feature future industry heavyweight – literally and figuratively — Sammo Hung Kam-Bo as an actor and stunt coordinator. Both titles have been included in this “Martial Arts Double Feature” from Shout! They are of interest mostly as historical relics from the period before “wire fu” elevated the art to another level entirely. In “Lady Whirlwind” (1972), Mao plays a young woman seeking to avenge the death by suicide of her sister. In the meantime, she takes on the manager of a crooked casino (Sammo Hung) and his sister, the female crime boss Tiao Ta-Niang (Anna Liu), who runs the local syndicate. Her partner introduces a parallel storyline involving another fighter (Yi Chang). Eventually a Japanese Tai Chi enthusiast joins the circus, during Mao kicks the crap out of gangs of thugs. “Lady Whirlwind” was shown here as “Deep Thrust: The Hand of Death,” to exploit the then-current “Deep Throat” craze.
In “Hapkido,” Mao plays one of three Chinese students studying kung fu in Japanese-occupied Korea, circa 1934. At the time, rival schools fought openly in streets and marketplaces, even knowing that Japanese held all of the trump cards. After one particularly messy confrontation, the Chinese students are sent home for sticking up for the local shopkeepers. In China, they start their own school and set out on good-will visits to the other martial-arts schools. Eventually, they’ll have to stand up to the invaders, but not before Mao’s brother returns to take on the toughest of the tough.
Sammo Hung figures prominently the 1989 wuxia drama “Seven Warriors,” as co-star, co-director and co-producer. As the title suggests, it is a Chinese remake Akira Kurosawa’s classic, “The Seven Samurai,” this time set in Warlord Era of the 1920s. Once again, citizens of a beleaguered village, Guangxi, hire seven paladin expert in seven different disciplines to beat back the warlord’s armies and return peace and tranquility to the area. Besides action, “Seven Warriors” adds some humor and drama. Among the movie’s other stars are a 27-year-old Tony Leung, Chen Jing, Adam Cheng and Jacky Cheung. It isn’t likely that anyone will confuse “Seven Warriors” with “Seven Samurai” or “The Magnificent Seven.” – Gary Dretzka
American Masters: Billie Jean King
Nova: Killer Typhoon
Ken Burns: The Address
Among the many things today’s young athletes take for granted is the appearance, at least, of gender equality in sports. Title IX assures a semblance of balance in high school and collegiate athletics, even if revenues in the professional arena for women’s sports is based on free-market forces. When Billy Jean King was breaking into high-end tennis competition, women players were paid under the table for their participation in tournaments and always played second-fiddle to the men. That wouldn’t begin to change until King and other competitors banded together to form their own organization and, soon thereafter, the Virginia Slims circuit. As freakish as the event was, the match game between former No. 1 men’s player Bobby Riggs and King, who was at the top of her game and leading advocate for equal rights among all Americans. At 55, Riggs was mostly known as a gambler and hustler, still capable of making a living on side bets. The feminist movement had made significant gains by 1973, when he challenged King to a Battle of the Sexes. When King refused, current top female player Margaret Court took up the challenge, losing miserably. When King did agree to it, if only to avenge Court’s loss, she breezed past Riggs, shutting him up for good on the subject of on-court equality. The positive media reaction went a long way toward pushing the agenda for greater equity in women’s professional sports. When King was blackmailed by her former lover into admitting their sexual relationship, its aftershocks would negatively impact her career, but help legitimize the incipient gay and lesbian rights movement. The “American Masters” special “Billy Jean King” is almost equal parts bio-doc and testimonial. Among those sharing their thoughts are Margaret Court, Chris Evert, Ilana Kloss, Maria Sharapova, Serena and Venus Williams, Caroline Wozniacki, members of the Virginia Slims Circuit Original 9 and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had plenty of nice things to say about King’s influence on her.
PBS’ “Nova” offers a scientific post-mortem on Typhon Haiyan, which, last fall, slammed into densely populated parts of the Philippines with 200 mph winds and a two-story storm surge. It left an estimated 5,000 people dead and countless millions homeless. In addition to tracking the storm from inception and warning as many residents as possible, “Killer Typhoon” describes how meteorological, geological and societal forces combined to create the conditions that led to such devastation. Given that this corner of the world has never been a stranger to typhoons and tsunamis, easier access to data could help save lives in the future. This is especially the case in the era of climate change and global warming.
Ken Burns’ “The Address” takes a relatively common learning exercise – memorizing Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address – and adds significantly to its degree of difficulty by handing the assignment over to 50 boys with learning disabilities. Using only 272 words, the President was able to express everything he wanted to say about the Civil War as a struggle not just for the Union, but also for the principle of human equality. By coming in at about two minutes, Lincoln surprised reporters expecting the usual pre-speech posturing and bloviating. It’s well worth memorizing by any and all Americans. Burns’ team embedded cameras at the school, so that the process could be observed as unobtrusively as possible. On film, it’s an extremely inspirational experience. – Gary Dretzka
Lingerie Fighting Championships: Lace vs Leather
Organized women’s wrestling has been around since 1937, at least, crowning champions and promoting the most beautiful of the competitors as superstars. Like roller-derby, it attracts a certain kind of fan and promotes certain images over others. Today, the female wrestlers are required to wear costumes that wouldn’t be out of place on a Victoria’s Secret runway and be at least as photogenic as the average Playboy model, which many of them become. Already in excellent shape from daily workouts, weight lifting and cosmetic surgery, all the most athletic specimens have to learn is how to stomp their feet very loudly and take falls. Some of them have even been given their own phony-reality show, “Total Divas,” on E! Then, there’s the trailer-park answer to the “Divas” franchise, “Lingerie Fighting Championships: Lace vs. Leather,” which takes the lingerie-sports fad and turns it into “Amateur Night in Dixie.” I can’t fault the women for trying to better themselves and make a few bucks, but the attempts to mimic the conventions of such reality shows as “Real World” and “Bad Girls” – confessional interviews, faux feuds, hyperbolic drama – would be laughable if it weren’t so pathetic. The show aired as PPV special last fall. Anyone interested in a far more historically based and entertaining study of the subject, there’s “Lipstick and Dynamite, Piss and Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling.” – Gary Dretzka