Author Archive

The DVD Wrapup: Secret Life of Pets, JT Leroy, Just Eat It, Howard’s End, Quiet Earth, Henry, Phantasm and more

Friday, December 9th, 2016

The Secret Life of Pets: Blu-ray
When homeowners began to install video surveillance devices in every room of their house, the idea was to spy on babysitters and nannies who might be neglecting or abusing a child or, perhaps, catch a burglar in the act of ransacking a home. At some point, though, a pet had to have been caught tearing up the pillows on a couch or acting out when a mail carrier got too close to the front door. After admonishing their dog or cat for behaving as if they had a choice in the matter, the next logical step was to send a tape to the producers of “America’s Favorite Home Videos.” They probably needed a break from watching kids hitting their dad in the nuts with a Wiffleball bat. In 1992, three years after the show launched its 27-year run on ABC, host Bob Saget presented the VHS release, “America’s Funniest Pets,” which may or may not have inspired the uproarious animated feature, The Secret Life of Pets. Even before Alan Funt’s radio-based “The Candid Microphone” crossed over to television as “Candid Camera,” in 1948, the ability to monitor the behavior of our kids, nannies, pets and, of course, spouses, was an idea too juicy not to contemplate. Today, of course, anyone with wi-fi and a video-surveillance system can watch their pets cavort on their computer at work. Somehow, it took almost a quarter-century for an animation studio – in this case, Universal’s ambitious Illumination Entertainment division — to merge the core elements of “America’s Funniest Pets” and Pixar’s Toy Story franchise into a spanking-new entertainment franchise. Emboldened by the success of Despicable Me and Minions, IE wisely invested its financial resources in The Secret Life of Pets, a 3D computer-animated buddy/adventure/comedy about what happens when our pets are left to their own devices. The A-list cast of voice actors probably had something to do with the stunning box-office appeal as well.

In it, a Jack Russell Terrier named Max (Louis C.K.) shares a compact Manhattan apartment with his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper). While she is at work, Max hangs out with other pets in the building: the obese and lazy tabby, Chloe (Lake Bell); hyperactive pug, Mel (Bobby Moynihan); laid-back dachshund, Buddy (Hannibal Buress); and parakeet, Sweetpea. When Katie adopts Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a large and shaggy mongrel from the pound, all hell threatens to break loose behind her back. Enraged by Max’s effete attitude, Duke attempts to abandon his roommate in an alley, where, to his chagrin, they are both attacked by a gang of alley cats led by the hairless Sphynx cat, Ozone (Steve Coogan). The cats remove both dogs’ collars and leave them to be caught by Animal Control, opening the possibility that Duke will be put down for repeat vagrancy. In a clever turn, they are rescued by a rabbit named Snowball (Kevin Hart), the leader of the Flushed Pets Gang, which is comprised of sewer-dwelling animals who resent humans for their tendency to abandon their little friends when they tire of them. Max and Duke pretend to despise humans, but flunk the initiation test by refusing to allow a one-fanged viper to bite them.

After the dogs escape the sewers, things really get complicated. Their odyssey includes a trip to Brooklyn, on a ferry; a raid on a sausage factory; a visit to Duke’s last happy residence; a traffic mishap on the Brooklyn Bridge; and a plunge into the East River in an Animal Control van. They’re rescued at the last second by Gidget (Jenny Slate), a white Pomeranian with a crush on Max; characters voiced by Albert Brooks and Dana Carvey; and a repentant Snowball. Not surprisingly, perhaps, The Secret Life of Pets finds all the animals back home, their owners none the wiser. Director Chris Renaud (Despicable Me) joins the fun by playing Norman, a taxi-driving guinea pig who keeps getting lost. Sharp eyes will detect numerous references to previous Illumination titles, Universal brands and other cherished cartoon animals. The PG rating warns parents of pre-schoolers of scenes that contain “mild violence and peril” and a squished viper. The Blu-ray extras add a dozen, or so, informative making-of and background featurettes, sing-alongs, mini-movies and a visit from Brian the Minion.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story
While literary hoaxes come and go, some are better than others. Because so many readers around the world were touched by the house-of-mirrors story cooked up by a novelist purporting to be a street urchin named JT LeRoy, the drama continues to reverberate today, a decade after the hoax was uncovered. Jeff Feuerzeig’s intriguing documentary, Author: The JT LeRoy Story, is one of several books, films and crime-show episodes that have borrowed aspects of the case to discuss the literary and criminal ramifications of such chicanery, and the possible motivations of the perpetrator. In 2006, a New York Times article revealed that the15-year-old male author, LeRoy, was, in fact, a 35-year-old woman born in Brooklyn. Laura Albert adopted the pseudonym to facilitate her conceptualization of the troubled teenager, whose life played out in the highly realistic memoirs “Sarah” (2000), “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things” (2001) and “Harold’s End” (2004). As a teen, Albert had called suicide hotlines for help, choosing to speak with counselors as a boy. One doctor encouraged Terminator, who later became known as JT LeRoy, to collect her thoughts on paper. Pseudonyms are hardly a new or novel literary device and, if the books hadn’t been marketed as autobiographical, the controversy might have been nipped in the bud. Instead, Albert’s deception extended to dealings with her publishers and a production company interested in adapting her short stories for film. She also invented a flesh-and-blood alter ego, who could stand in for her at signings and other literary gatherings, and accepted freelance assignments from prestigious publications in LeRoy’s name.

Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy was supposedly born in West Virginia to an abusive truck-stop prostitute. The androgynous teenager’s own backstory included prostitution, drug addiction and vagrancy in California. The poetically written novels initially struck a chord with readers who identified with the character’s total immersion in a lifestyle dictated by punk rock, drugs, gender confusion, pervasive societal bigotry, homelessness and inescapable violence. They would resonate, as well, with outsider artists who saw in LeRoy a younger version of themselves. His/her list of admirers included musicians Billy Corgan, Liz Phair, Courtney Love, Winona Ryder, Gus Van Sant, Asia Argento, David Milch and Tom Waits, all of whom reached out to the author in taped phone conversations, e-mails and faxes … remember those? LeRoy’s growing appeal caused a demand by fans and publishers for public appearances. Knowing that her bubble would burst if the truth was revealed, Albert conspired with Savannah Knoop, the half-sister of her guitarist boyfriend, Geoff, to fulfill the obligations typically associated with stardom. Unlike the overweight and plain-looking novelist, the 25-year-old aspiring fashion designer could have passed for Andy Warhol’s emaciated little brother. In addition to a hideous blond wig, Knoop wore dark googles over sunglasses and non-gender-specific clothes. Wherever LeRoy/Knoop appeared, so did a red-wigged Albert and her shaggy-haired boyfriend – a millennial Sonny & Cher, if you will — to supplement her words with angst-filled songs. Close proximity to the writer allowed Knoop to sound informed when quizzed by reporters and autograph seekers.

Ironically, the New York Times article was published after Albert had revealed her identity to Corgan and a couple of other artists in positions to advance her career, while maintaining her public persona. A year later, a Manhattan jury found Albert liable in monetary damages for the tort of fraud, because she had signed her nom de plume to the movie contract. She was ordered to pay $110,000 to the production company, covering the option contract; $6,500 in punitive damages; and $350,000 in legal fees. The Author’s Guild released an amicus brief supporting Albert and opposing the jury’s decision, because of the impact it might have on writers in the future. (In 2009, after an appeal, a settlement was reported.) By this time, Albert had proven to herself and others that her talent wasn’t limited to the JT LeRoy brand. She appears as herself throughout Author: The JT LeRoy Story, recalling the various twists and turns of her personal story and, if anything, looking better than ever. For her part, Knoop took advantage of newfound notoriety to publish “Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy.”

The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger
Anyone familiar with the prolific artist, philosopher, writer, storyteller and “radical humanist,” John Berger, will naturally be attracted to the multi-sourced cinematic exercise, The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger. Segmented according to seasonal changes affecting the French Alpine village, Quincy, it features a series of unabashedly brainy, yet accessible conversations with the Booker- and Guardian Fiction Prize-winner. Anyone drawn to the DVD solely by the presence of co-director and longtime friend Tilda Swinton – an arthouse mainstay, newly re-minted as a star of action and comic-book flicks – shouldn’t bother. She doesn’t kick anyone’s ass or appear in costume. When Swinton isn’t behind the camera, she engages Berger in friendly conversations that, invariably, lead to an exchange of philosophical points of view. She freely admits to having “an indissoluble bond of kinship” with Berger, with whom she acted in the 1989 film “Play Me Something,” based on one of his short stories. While they’re chatting in the kitchen of his rustic home, they peel and core apples for a delicious-looking crumble. In the other segments, Berger combines ideas and motifs from his work with the texture and history of his mountain home. Berger’s wife Beverly, who mainly remains in the background here, passed away during the shoot, leaving a void that’s palpable. Among Berger’s more familiar works are the 1972 BBC series and essay on art criticism, “Ways of Seeing”; the Booker Prize-winning novel, “G”; and collaborations with the Swiss director Alain Tanner on La Salamandre (1971), The Middle of the World (1974) and Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976). An original score by Simon Fisher Turner helps unite the segments, also directed by Bartek Dziadosz (“The Trouble with Being Human”), Colin MacCabe (“Ways of Listening”) and Christopher Roth (Baader).

Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story
There’s a subset of documentaries that attempt to prove that modern men and women can survive in this materialistic society without succumbing to such luxuries as processed food, shopping malls, red meat, electricity and, yes, even toilet paper. Such well-meaning exercises in guilt-inducement focus on the western world’s obsession with gluttony, convenience and conspicuous consumption. Canadian filmmaking couple Grant Baldwin and Jenny Rustemeyer are obsessed with waste. The Clean Bin Project (2010) follows a “regular couple” who engage in a quasi-comedic contest to determine who can swear off consumerism and produce the least amount of garbage in an entire year. Their Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story addresses the same problem in a different way. This time, Grant and Jenny commit themselves to only consuming food that’s been discarded from farms, retail outlets and the overstocked refrigerators and shelves of friends. Grant gives new meaning to what it means to be reduced to dumpster diving to survive. To his dismay, he discovers an alarming amount of food thrown away not only because it’s approaching its expiration date, but also because it doesn’t meet the aesthetic demands of supermarket chains and picky consumers. Some is donated to agencies that provide food to poor people, but the demand for certain non-essential commodities simply doesn’t exist. One estimate puts the amount of food products disposed of in landfills, as opposed to being shipped to sub-Sahara Africa, at nearly 50 percent. They also discover that overproduction can’t be blamed on any one company, agency or agri-business conglomeration. As was the case with Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me, a large dollop of humor helps the medicine go down. Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story is further informed by interviews with TED lecturer, author and activist Tristram Stuart, author Jonathan Bloom, food/agriculture scientist Dana Gunders, farmers, retailers, charitable organizations and consumers.

Howards End: Blu-ray
The re-release of Merchant Ivory Productions’ Howard’s End on Blu-ray, six years removed from Criterion Collection’s impeccable hi-def upgrade, reminds us once again of the great vacuum left by the loss of producer Ismail Merchant and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, as well as the subsequent retirement of director James Ivory. For at least one generation of movie lovers, the company’s adaptations of classic novels defined the term, “prestige picture” … or, if you will, period costume dramas. It did so on budgets that today would be reserved for genre films by untested directors. Howard’s End was the third adaptation of an E.M. Forster novel committed to the screen by Merchant Ivory, after A Room with a View (1985) and Maurice (1987), and the third, along with David Lean’s A Passage to India, to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. (Maurice’s screenplay is credited to Ivory and Kit Hesketh-Harvey.) All of Merchant Ivory’s films are renowned for their attention to period detail, respect for the source material, world-class acting and beautiful locations. That baton has been passed to the British mini-series – “Downton Abbey,” “Poldark,” “Wolf Hall,” among them — we see here on PBS’ “Masterpiece.” The Merchant Ivory catalogue looks more sumptuous with every new technology.

Howards End is a romantic drama, based on Forster’s 1910 novel surveying class relations in early 20th-Century England. It does so by focusing on three families connected only by proximity and the occasion of intimacy: the Schlegel sisters, Margaret (Emma Thompson) and Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) who represent the enlightened bourgeoisie; the rich and largely uncultured Wilcox family (Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, James Wilby); and the white-collar middle-class Basts (Sam West, Nicola Duffett). When Ruth Wilcox dies, her estranged husband, Henry, is flummoxed to learn that she’s left her interest in the Howards End property to the less-frivolous of the Schlegals. To everyone’s surprise, Henry falls in love and marries Margaret, without acknowledging her hidden ownership of the country home. In response, Helen Schlegel turns to a married family friend – the lowly bank clerk, Leonard Bast – for comfort. Their brief, if fruitful encounter reverberates throughout the rest of the story, causing all sorts of acrimony and recriminations relating to Margaret’s “honor” and the Wilcox fortune. It’s wonderful stuff that translates well to the screen.

Thompson, Jhabvala and set/art designers Luciana Arrighi and Ian Whittaker took home Academy Awards, while Merchant, Ivory, Redgrave, cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts, costume designers Jenny Beavan and John Bright, and composer Richard Robbins were among the finalists. Cohen Media’s new two-disc set ports over some of the supplements from the Criterion release while also offering some new bonus material, including commentary with critics Wade Major and Lael Lowenstein; a 2016 conversation between James Ivory and Laurence Kardish, former senior curator of film, MOMA; a 2016 interview with Ivory and Redgrave at this year’s Cannes Film Festival; “On Stage Q&A,” with Ivory and critic Michael Koresky at Lincoln Center; an EPK short from 1992; featurettes “Building Howards End” and “The Design of Howards End,” with Luciana Arrighi and Jenny Beavan; and a 12-minute testimonial to Merchant, by Ivory. Technically, it’s difficult to recommend one Blu-ray package over the other. The 2016 release benefits from a new 4K restoration, culled from the film’s original camera negative, and some fiddling on the aspect ratio.

The Quiet Earth: Blu-ray
In the 1950s, people around the world woke up every morning wondering if this would be their last day on Earth. Several powerful countries were conducting nuclear tests, without the benefit of knowing whether clouds of irradiated dust were harmless, deadly or somewhere in between. Pregnant women were cautioned against drinking the milk from cows that may have grazed on poisoned grasses, while schoolchildren were laughably led to believe that they could avoid death by ducking under desks and covering their heads. As if Americans weren’t sufficiently frightened by the concept of mutually assured destruction, Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, “I Am Legend,” gave them good reason to fear surviving the nuclear holocaust. The premise was strong enough to support would three motion pictures. The 1959 “Twilight Zone” episode, “Time Enough at Last,” demonstrated how a survivor’s good luck could reverse itself in a heartbeat. That year also brought Stanley Kramer’s sadly cerebral good-bye to mankind, On the Beach. After the Cuban Missile Crisis came and went, we were allowed to think that cooler heads would ultimately prevail, but only if Barry Goldwater was denied the presidency. Between Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” and George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” a new generation of Americans was given something to fear besides submarines carrying nuclear warheads. The current epidemic of dystopian and post-apocalyptic movies wouldn’t begin for another 30 years, or so. That’s a long and winding way of introducing Geoff Murphy’s 1985 The Quiet Earth, a largely ignored post-apocalyptic thriller that almost no Americans outside of large cities have seen.

Only one New Zealand film, Smash Palace, had made any kind of a splash here and, after Alien and Blade Runner, Americans had developed a taste for much more expensive sci-fi fare. The Quiet Earth simply didn’t qualify. It appears to have been based as much on Ranald MacDougall’s 1959 thriller, The World, the Flesh and the Devil, which starred Harry Belafonte, Inger Stevens and Mel Ferrer, as Craig Harrison’s 1981 genre novel. In it, experiments with a radical new power source — a band of solar energy that would circle the planet — go awry and appear to wipe out all signs of life. All clocks have stopped at the biblically relevant time of 6:12 a.m. and only a handful of corpses are visible. Zak (Bruno Lawrence), a scientist who worked on the project, somehow survived the experiment. At first, of course, he’s frightened by the reality of his situation. Given time, however, Zak decides to take advantage of the situation by stealing fancy cars, declaring himself King of the Quiet Earth, enjoying the trappings of wealth and trying on women’s lingerie. Without giving too much away, Zak eventually will come in contact with a hippie girl and Maori truck driver, who demonstrate the hardiness of humanity, while also confirming that there’s nothing more destructive than a love triangle. Except for some metaphysical hocus-pocus, the enigmatic ending to The Quiet Earth reminded me of the ending to On the Beach, with a lonely Ava Gardner watching the last submarine disappear under the waves. The Blu-ray offers commentary by Neil deGrasse Tyson and critic Odie Henderson, and a detailed essay on the film by Professor Teresa Heffernan.

Neither Heaven Nor Earth
Clément Cogitore’s unsettling wartime drama, Neither Heaven Nor Earth, combines the haunting mystery of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock with the cliff’s edge tension of Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s documentary, Restrepo. Here, French Army Captain Antares Bonassieu (Jérémie Renier) and his squad are assigned to monitor the remote Wakhan valley of Afghanistan, on the border of Pakistan. In the early stages of the war against Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, its narrow passages were believed to provide a staging ground for cross-border attacks on allied troops and rival warlords. From their mountain-top outposts, the French also are within walking distance of the last Afghan village before the border and the shepherds who went about their own business in the valley. No one on either side of the conflict trusted the others particularly, but compromises based on mutual security and bribes often were negotiated.

The French soldiers may not engage the enemy every day, or even weekly, but the men’s vigilance and determination to get home in one piece are palpable throughout the film. One day, without a single shot being fired, animals and men from all sides start mysteriously disappearing. The French demand answers from the Afghans, who, in turn, suspect the warring forces of slipping into the village and terrorizing the residents. Captain Bonassieu is as confused as everyone else, but, as a realist, demands concrete answers to a mystery that may be steeped in metaphysics, religion or superstition. They all come into play here at one point in the investigation or another. A French chaplain is called in to contain the speculation, but ends up echoing mysticism found in the Koran. If Neither Heaven Nor Earth is not your typical war story, it’s largely because Afghanistan has historically resisted classification as a typical war zone. Alexander failed to tame it at a time when Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion. Bonus features include Cogitore’s commentary and short film, “Among Us”; and Film Movement’s “Why We Selected” statement.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer: 30th Anniversary: Blu-ray
When I was a mere lad, working at the Chicago Tribune and drinking at the Billy Goat, I’d frequently walk past one of the concrete pillars keeping Michigan Avenue from collapsing on the network of streets below it known collectively as Lower Wacker Drive. It’s provided an extremely cool setting for car chases and chance encounters in such entertainments as The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Adventures in Babysitting, The Fury, Code of Silence and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Anyone considering shooting a movie in Chicago, about real people who live and work in Chicago, at least, ponders ways of using Lower Wacker as a location. The Goat’s entrance was only a few feet away from the pillar upon which the flyer for Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer had been posted years earlier, and, ironically, where a key scene was shot. Once spotted, the flyer was impossible to ignore. The glowing opinions of esteemed critics might have confused some passersby into thinking the movie was showing at an arthouse, up the stars and down the street. Below the blurbs and stars, however, the reflection of the antagonist’s face, staring into a mirror, argued otherwise. It belonged to Michael Rooker, now a veteran character actor, but, then, one of many struggling to make a name for themselves in Chicago’s burgeoning off-Loop theater scene. Co-writer/director John McNaughton, himself a struggling artist, had taken one look at Rooker during the casting process – in the garb of a janitor on his way to work — and knew he had his serial killer. What he didn’t know was how much of an impact his ground-breaking first feature would have on a genre that had become bloated with poorly drawn slashers, stalkers and sociopaths.

By chronicling a week in the lives of two very sick Chicagoans, and refusing to pass judgment on their acts before the closing credits rolled, McNaughton brought something frighteningly new and different to the table. The first four tableaux were based on real life murders the self-admitted serial killer, Henry Lee Lucas, claimed to have committed. Indeed, McNaughton arranged the shot of a nude corpse to mirror the same position of a victim in a case involving Lucas. In another reversal of form, he refused to provide the audience with a litany of excuses for how such a good boy had turned out so bad. Henry wasn’t the product of a broken home, abusive foster parents, societal ills or being bullied as a child. McNaughton demanded of us that we perform the duties normally reserved for the state’s attorney, judge, jury and executioner. His refusal to tack a “happy ending” or positive resolution to the end of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer – along with the graphic violence – left audiences as perplexed as the MPAA ratings board, which remained adamant about its decision to brand it “X.” (Along with Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Pedro Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!,  it’s credited with forcing the MPAA to replace the X rating with slightly less restrictive NC-17.) As it is, three years would pass before the movie’s debut at the 1986 Chicago International Film Festival and its inclusion in the 1989 Telluride Film Festival, where half of the audience walked out.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer pulled in $600,000 in its first theatrical run — six times its production budget – before making a killing (pun intended) in video rentals, sales and re-releases. MPI previously released the film on Blu-ray in 2009. Dark Sky Films has restored the film in 4K resolution from its original camera negative and magnetic soundtrack, adding new extras to existing featurettes. They include “In Defense of Henry: An Appreciation,” with director Joe Swanberg, film critic Kim Morgan, film professor Jeffrey Sconce, exploitation expert Joe Bob Briggs and Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris ; “Henry vs. MPAA: A Visual History”; “Henry at the BBFC,” an interview with “Nightmare USA” author Stephen Thrower; “It’s Either You or Them,” an interview with artist Joe Coleman”; “In the Round: A Conversation with John McNaughton”; and a booklet, with an essay by Stephen Thrower. Features ported over from the earlier hi-def release are McNaughton’s commentary and an interview with the director; “Portrait: The Making of Henry”; deleted scenes and outtakes; the original trailer; still gallery; and storyboards. The making-of material reminds us of the chilling effects working on a film, like “Henry,” can have on the actors – co-stars Tom Towles and Tracy Arnold, and murder victim Lisa Temple — and behind-the-camera crew.

If There’s a Hell Below
Anyone who longs for the days when “paranoid thrillers” were as commonplace as any other subgenre shouldn’t have to wait too long for a new wave of conspiracy-based pictures to crash on our shores. The difference between today’s conspiracies and the ones depicted in such fictional entertainments as The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, Klute, The Conversation, All the President’s Men, Z, Missing, Blow Out and The Pelican Brief, is that one needn’t be paranoid, anymore, to believe that a government agency is listening in on their phone calls, inventing lies to advance a political agenda or trying to deprive them of their constitutional rights. The evidence of such plotting can be found in the handful of newspapers that still believe that supporting investigative teams is as important as running comic strips, bridge columns and horoscopes. When the FBI’s top-secret COINTELPRO program was exposed, in the 1970s, the findings confirmed nearly every conspiracy theory forwarded by radical groups over the past 20 years. Oliver Stone’s Snowden might have done better at the box office if the story of the NSA’s illegal surveillance techniques hadn’t already played out in the mainstream and niche media, and Laura Poitras’ non-fiction Citizenfour. The same applies to Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate, in which WikiLeaks fugitive Julian Assange is played by Benedict Cumberbatch. The much-admired film made even less money than Snowden. It’s tough for screenwriters and activist directors to top the facts already laid out on “60 Minutes” or a dozen other TV newsmagazines, late-night comedy shows and “Saturday Night Live.” The hideous presidential campaign we’ve just endured was one long paranoid thriller, during which lies and innuendo were as widely accepted as facts as news reports to the contrary. Tens of millions of voters not only bought into the lies, but they also spread falsehoods of their own.

It’s against this background that Nathan Williams decided to test the resiliency of the paranoid thriller with the low budget If There’s a Hell Below, co-written with his brother, Matthew. In it, an employee of a national security agency lures a reporter for an alternative paper in Chicago to a desolate section of the Pacific Northwest, where the paucity of rain has created an amber wave of grain that stretches as far as the eye can see. Debra (Carol Roscoe), a “senior information processing engineer,” has promised to give Abe (Conner Marx) a thumb drive ostensibly containing state secrets. Before that can happen, though, Debra must make sure that Max is the reporter he claims to be and can be trusted with the data. She instructs him to drive into the country, which is curiously devoid of farm implements. Besides some abandoned sheds and silos, the only sign that anyone lives nearby is a wind farm as ominous in its own way as the black helicopters in “The X-Files.” Debra tells him where to go and when to turn, but it isn’t likely that any of roads are on a map. Just when it seems that the exchange will be made, Debra spots a black SUV in the near distance, parked and apparently ready to follow them. Before long, the chase is on, and we’re none the wiser as to what she’s hiding and who might be driving the SUV. That’s all I can reveal, except to say that Williams does a nice job maintaining the tension and keeping us interested in the story. Neither is the ending as predictable as it might sound from this summary. If If There’s a Hell Below’s setting recalls the crop-duster chase in Hitchcock’ North by Northwest, it’s a testament to Williams’ imagination and Christopher Messina’s splendid cinematography.

Call of Heroes: Blu-ray
Looking for action? If you don’t mind reading subtitles, Benny Chan’s new wuxia epic, Call of Heroes, could be your ticket, as it reveals the influences of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, any number of spaghetti Westerns and action director Sammo Hung’s unmistakable handiwork in the fight scenes. It stars Louis Koo (Drug War), Eddie Peng (Cold War II), Wu Jing (Shaolin) and Sean Lau Ching-wan (Overheard 3). Set in the period between the end of the Qinq Dynasty and establishment of the Republic of China, when warlords vied for power, Call of Heroes describes what happens after the government orders soldiers stationed in a rural village to move to the front lines, leaving it ripe for takeover by the sadistic son of warlord Cao Shaolun (Koo), who immediately kills three random people. While Sheriff Yang Kenan (Ching-wan) prepares for the convicted psychopath’s execution, his father’s aide Zhang Yi (Jing) arrives with the threat of a massacre. Instead of acquiescing to Cao and the fearful populace, the sheriff enlists the help of wandering warrior Ma Feng (Peng), who should remind viewers of Toshiro Mifune. They must organize a militia of peasants to defend the jail and keep the village out of Cao’s hands. Chan isn’t reluctant to borrow tropes from the Hong Kong action cinema, but he seems more interested in tweaking them for maximum effect. Made for the equivalent of $32 million, Call of Heroes delivers more than the usual number of grandiose sets, including an entire town. The Blu-ray adds several short making-of featurettes.

Never Open the Door: Blu-ray
Even over the long Thanksgiving-holiday weekend, city folks staying in secluded cabins in the woods should know enough to refrain from opening the door to strangers. This advice pertains, as well, to unexpected late-night visitors who look as if they might be in desperate need of assistance. Anyone who’s watched more than a few horror movies in the last 40 years knows that nothing good can come from such kindness, especially when out of cellphone range. No sooner is the turkey fully devoured in the opening minutes of Vito Trabucco’s Never Open the Door than Tess (Jessica Sonneborn) admits a wounded man, after he practically breaks down the door trying to attract the attention of someone inside. The stranger immediately spews her with blood and passes out on the floor. With his last ounce of strength, he advises the poor woman, “Never open the door.” Yeah, no shit. The rest of the movie requires of the couples that they go completely off their rockers, each one fearing they’ll be the next to die or be transformed into something unspeakably evil. Tess, bless her heart, decides this would be a good time to shower off the gore, instantly providing some viewers, at least, a reason to stick around for another 45 minutes of the film’s 64-minute length. Joe Provenzano’s nifty black-and-white cinematography imbues the proceedings with a 1950s “Twilight Zone” vibe, especially in its spooky final scene. The Blu-ray adds several interviews and making-of pieces that are almost as long as the movie.

Curse of the Man Who Sees UFOs
Typically, when I come in possession of a documentary with a title like, Curse of the Man Who Sees UFOs, the first thing I do is turn the box around and check out the running time. Based solely on the cable shows I’ve seen dealing with “ancient astronauts” and people who’ve been abducted by aliens, the prospect of watching anything over an hour fills me with dread. Director Justin Gaar deserves lots of credit in my book for getting me to sit through his truly offbeat doc and a bonus feature that purports to show the lights of UFOs dancing over Monterey Bay. Christo Roppolo claims to have seen UFOs since childhood and, as an adult, has collected hours of footage of strange crafts shooting across the skies of Central California. The camera clearly shows the light from unseen objects blinking and occasionally racing overhead. They occasionally reveal interesting pigments, as well. All I know is that Monterey isn’t all that far from Vandenberg Air Force Base, where rockets are tested and satellites are shot into orbit, and it’s less than an hour’s flight from Area 51. So, why not? The thing is, Roppolo really, really believes that he’s seen UFOs and occasionally uses a flashlight to blink back at them. His vehemence often translates into the kind of colorfully profane outbursts that would scare the crap out of people who’ve never lived in California. Gaar looks beyond his subject’s case for UFOs, turning the film’s focus towards Roppolo’s love for film, music and horror movies. Roppolo also reveals passages in his life that help explain how he managed to find some comfort in the possibility that a UFO might someday land in his backyard and carry him away to a planet where being eccentric isn’t a curse.

The Devil’s Dolls: Blu-ray
Padraig Reynolds’ tres, tres gory The Devil’s Dolls (a.k.a., “Worry Dolls”) begins where most direct-to-video horror flicks end … with a blood-stained electric drill, a mutilated cop and dead antagonist. Neither does the writer/director (Rites of Spring) waste any time attempting to hide the root cause of the violence we’ve just witnessed, although anyone expecting to see killer Barbies in action may be a tad disappointed. I suspect that the original title was changed to avoid any potential confusion with Charles Band’s depraved 2008 thriller, Dangerous Worry Dolls, which benefitted from being set in a women’s prison. Besides inhabiting the same subgenre, Reynolds’ dolls bear very little similarity to Band’s dolls. Typically, worry dolls are slipped under the pillows of people who want to pass along their concerns to an inanimate object. Here, though, none of the characters are logging many hours of sleep. After the serial killer is eliminated by a cop named Matt (Christopher Wiehl), a box full of worry dolls is found in his workroom and put in the back seat of the police car. Before it can be deposited in the evidence room, Matt’s snotty little daughter, Chloe (Kennedy Brice), mistakes the box for a present and claims it for her personal use. She decides to make some money by giving the dolls a makeover and selling them as lucky charms in her mom’s gift shop. Instead of absorbing the buyers’ worries, the cursed amulets turn the shoppers into monsters. Soon, the peaceful Mississippi town becomes the setting for a chain of random and brutal murders. The local voodoo queen (Tina Lifford) – she’s black, of course, and lives in a shack in the deep boonies — is the only local resident privy to the dolls’ curse and, of course, police ignored her earlier warning. Despite what must have been an extremely modest budget, The Devil’s Dolls exhibits decent production values and credible special effects.

Kiss Me, Kill Me
Me, Myself and Her
Shot in West Hollywood and populated with LGBT characters, director Casper Andreas cautions potential viewers against thinking Kiss Me, Kill Me will fit only one pigeonhole. The prolific actor/writer/director (Going Down in LA-LA Land, The Big Gay Musical) and writer David Michael Barrett (Bad Actress) aren’t even sure if the word, “gay,” is spoken in what they hope will be considered a traditional noir thriller. Good luck, on that. Kiss Me, Kill Me wouldn’t be the first picture to fill that niche, in any case. A dozen years ago, four pictures featuring the gay P.I., Donald Strachey, were adapted from the popular mystery series written by Richard Stevenson. Apart from festival dates and the occasional theatrical debut, the movies went straight to DVD. It’s possible that LGBT audiences in 2016 have been given sufficient cause to de-segregate their viewing habits. Unless I’m mistaken, all four letters in the acronym are represented in Kiss Me, Kill Me. Unable to make up his mind between his current boyfriend, Dusty (Van Hansis), and ex-lover, Craigery (Matthew Ludwinski), successful Hollywood producer, Stephen (Gale Harold), is required to make a difficult decision when push comes to shove at a party. After an embarrassing confrontation, Dusty splits for the nearest 24-hour convenience store, with the unfaithful Stephen just a few steps behind. A violent incident inside the store leaves Stephen dead and Dusty, who’s blacked out, the prime suspect … at least, in the mind of the salt-and-pepper police investigators. Except for the WeHo setting, mystery fans aren’t likely to find anything particularly new or genre-bending in Kiss Me, Kill Me, which, probably, is what the filmmakers intended. A trumpet-heavy soundtrack immediately recalls Mark Isham’s work in Trouble in Mind and Short Cuts. Brianna Brown, Allison Lane and D.J. “Shangela” Pierce also turn in nice performances. The DVD adds commentary with Andreas and Barrett, interviews, background, red-carpet footage from FilmOut San Diego, a music video and the Kickstarter video pitch.

Last December, Todd Haynes’ Carol was being touted by critics and industry insiders as one of top contenders for Oscar nominations. Set in New York City during the early 1950s, it tells the story of a “forbidden love affair” between an aspiring photographer (Rooney Mara) and an older woman going through a difficult divorce (Cate Blanchett). Carol, based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, received six Oscar nominations, none of which were for Best Picture or Best Director. Maria Sole Tognazzi’s romantic com/dram, Me, Myself and Her, is built on a substantially different foundation, but the similarities are telling. At a time when Italy was weighing the question of legalizing same-sex marriages, Me, Myself and Her focused on a monogamous lesbian relationship that had avoided serious roadblocks until it hit the five-year mark. As the picture opens, Marina and Federica live together in the kind of posh apartment usually reserved for otherwise middle-class characters played by award-winning actresses. The voluptuous and self-confident Marina (Sabrina Ferilli) traded a career in the movie industry for the challenge of running a successful health food restaurant. The skittish Federica (Margherita Buy) is a respected architect with a marriage behind her and a grown son. Marina left the closet years earlier, while Federica is reluctant to admit that she’s strictly-clittly. When Marina inadvertently outs her partner in a magazine interview – she’s a dead ringer for Catherine Deneuve, in her 50s – Federica experiences a full-blown identity crisis, even going so far as to rekindle a romance with a younger man she met years earlier on a ski trip. If the betrayal crushes Marina, the tryst saddens Federica in ways that can only lead to the logical ending, circa 2016. (In the 1950s, the Production Code would have ensured a different ending.) Unlike Carol, which included a scene with partial nudity and caressing, Me, Myself and Her is sexy, but tame compared to other Italian romances. It’s the outstanding performances by Buy (Mia Madre) and Ferilli (The Great Beauty), who has one of the cinema’s great smiles, that will sell the movie outside Italy.

TV-to-DVD
OWN: Greenleaf: Season One: Blu-ray
HBO: Jennifer Lopez: Dance Again
PBS: Frontline: The Choice 2016
PBS: Frontline: A Subprime Education
PBS: NOVA: School of the Future
PBS: Time for School
If Tyler Perry’s success has taught us anything, it’s that programming targeted at African-American audiences has a better chance of holding on to viewers if it adds a taste of old-time religion to the mix of scandalous behavior, hypocrisy, scandal, romance and music. “Greenleaf,” which contains large dollops of all three elements, is the second scripted drama on the Oprah Winfrey Network, after Ava DuVernay’s “Queen Sugar.” The various storylines revolve around the antics and agonies of Memphis’ powerful Greenleaf family and their sprawling megachurch. The series, which has been renewed for a second season, was created by “Lost” and “Six Feet Under” writer Craig Wright and executive produced by Winfrey, Wright and Clement Virgo (“The Book of Negroes”). Religion isn’t a passing notion in “Greenleaf.” The righteous characters have been washed thoroughly in the blood of the lamb and the sinners know a reckoning will come, even if it’s in the sweet by-and-by. Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David) and Lady Mae Greenleaf (Lynn Whitfield) are the patriarch and matriarch of the Greenleaf family. In the first episode, their estranged daughter — preacher-turned-journalist Grace “Gigi” Greenleaf (Merle Dandridge) – returns home after a 20-year absence, following the mysterious death of her sister, Faith. Much to the chagrin of her teenage daughter, Sophie (Desiree Ross), Gigi decides to stay in Memphis to investigate the death of her sister and begin working in Greenleaf World Ministries. In turn, Sophia begins picking up bad habits from her preppy classmates. Winfrey plays Mavis McCready, who, besides being Lady Mae’s sister, owns a blues club and serves as Grace’s confidante. Along with faith and prayer, the early episodes feature storylines involving rape and police brutality. Special features include “The Oprah Winfrey Conversations,” bloopers and featurettes “Creating Greenleaf” and “Greenleaf Musicians.”

Jennifer Lopez: Dance Again” originated as a New Year’s Eve special for HBO on December 31, 2014. Shot over a six-month period, it combines spectacularly staged musical performances with “intimate” documentary footage and interviews with Lopez and her closest friends. The biggest challenge, we’re led to believe, is keeping track of her two young children and parents, who accompany Lopez on her first world tour. On it, they visit 65 cities on five continents, traveling 100,000 miles and reaching an estimated million fans. Someone was assigned the chore of tallying the minutes of music produced (11,250), sequins sewn (500,000) and wardrobe changes (162). sequins and 162 wardrobe changes. It will be interesting to see how “Dance Again” holds up against Showtime’s two-hour presentation, “Madonna: Rebel Heart Tour,” beginning this weekend.

I’ve been too depressed to pick up a newspaper or watch CNN ever since the results of the presidential election were announced. It’s easier for me to believe that the moon is made of green cheese than Donald Trump will soon be president. Hillary Clinton was no prize, but, compared to Trump, she looked like the second coming of Eleanor Roosevelt. Oh, well, it won’t be long before the president-elect shows his true colors and the people who voted for him begin to wish Obama had sought a third term. First shown at the end of September, the “Frontline” presentation, “The Choice 2016,” is about as relevant today as yesterday’s horoscope. The
two-hour investigative biographies draw on dozens of interviews from those who know the candidates best, including friends and family, advisors and adversaries, and authors, journalists, and political insiders. Sadly, too few voters studied reports like this before casting their ballots.

As part of PBS’ “Spotlight Education” initiative, “Frontline” aired two films examining the realities of education in America. In “A Subprime Education,” correspondent Martin Smith revisits the show’s investigation of for-profit colleges, which aired in 2010 as “College, Inc.” The colleges say they’re expanding access to education and preparing students for success, but Smith finds that, in many cases, they’re just collecting money and leaving students in debt, without degrees and unprepared to face the job market. It puts a tight focus on the implosion of Corinthian Colleges and includes “Omarina s Story,” about how a program to stem the high school drop-out crisis has affected one girl’s journey.

Once the envy of the world, American schools are now in trouble. Test scores show our kids lag far behind their peers from other industrialized countries, and as the divide between rich and poor grows wider, the goal of getting all kids ready for college and the workforce gets harder by the day. The “NOVA” presentation, “School of the Future,” questions whether the science of learning — including new insights from neuroscientists, psychologists, and educators reveal – can reveal how kids’ brains work and tell us which techniques are most likely to engage and inspire their growing minds?

PBS’ “Time for School: 2003-2016” is a “longitudinal documentary project” that attempts to put a human face on the global education crisis. It does so by following five children in five poverty stricken countries — India, Brazil, Kenya, Afghanistan and Benin — from their first days of school through the next 12 years, as they try to get a basic education. Lax child-labor laws, early marriage and the chaos of war prevent legions of young people from getting an education. The stories are told primarily from the point of view of the children and their families.

The DVD Wrapup: BFG, Pete’s Dragon, Baked in Brooklyn, Weng Weng, T.A.M.I./T.N.T. and more

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

The BFG: Blu-ray
Pete’s Dragon: Blu-ray
With great numbers already recorded for Disney’s Moana, it’s difficult to look back at the last two years and imagine studio executives not being completely thrilled about what they’ve accomplished. Several releases have exceeded or threatened to hit the billion-dollar barrier and critical response has generally been friendly, even for those titles with lower financial expectations. The BFG, a co-production with Amblin Entertainment, and the live-action re-imagining of Pete’s Dragon, opened nearly back-to-back with Finding Dory this summer in theaters around the world. Dory became a monster hit, while the other two pictures were disappointments to the folks who analyze box-office returns. Each entered its opening weekend with the support of critics, although the value of reviews in mainstream outlets, one way or the other, seems to have seriously diminished in the last 10 years. Of the two, it’s safe to say that expectations for The BFG far exceeded those for Pete’s Dragon. That’s based on an estimated production budget of $140 million, Steven Spielberg’s presence in the director’s chair, brand recognition from the beloved children’s book and a delightful adaptation of Roald Dahl’s words by Melissa Mathison (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial), who died of an illness that was diagnosed only as production neared its completion. Of a total gross of $176.8 million, only $55.4 million derived from domestic sources. Certainly, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the movie, which, in fact, is very well made and entirely representative of previous work by the all-star cast and crew. I suspect that advertising that made the giants look big, but not terribly friendly, might have scared off some pre-tweens or their parents. Knowing ahead of time that a gnarly-looking giant kidnaps a 10-year-old girl from a London orphanage – do such places exist, anymore? –regardless of the fact he isn’t interested in putting her on the menu, might have been an unsettling prospect for some kids. Parents unfamiliar with the book may have misconstrued the meaning of the title, seeing “Big Frigging Deal,” instead of “Big Friendly Giant.” At first, that’s how I read it.

Once Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) and the BFG (Mark Rylance) reach his funky abode in Giant Country – off the British mainland — he explains that she must stay with him for the rest of her life. He’s afraid she’d reveal the existence of giants and open the habitat to military attack or, worse, tourism. Sophie, an insomniac, doesn’t believe he can control dreams, so, after reading her to sleep, contrives a nightmare in which a failed escape attempt causes her to be eaten by another giant. When one of Unfriendly Big Giants, the Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), senses the presence of a human guest, he pays the BFG a visit. Sophie avoids detection, but demands they travel to Dream Country, where they can catch happy dreams and spread them to poor kids in London. They also forge a nightmare for Queen Elizabeth II, hoping it will inspire her to order the British Army to remove the unfriendly giants from her queendom. Penelope Wilton’s depiction of Her Royal Highness is wonderful, as are the contributions of Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall as her maid and butler. If your kids love fart jokes — of course, they do – The BFG will keep them giggling for weeks. The 2D Blu-ray includes the featurettes, “Bringing The BFG to Life,” with Dahl’s daughter, Lucy, screenwriter Mathison, executive producers Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall and Kristie Macosko Krieger, and other members of the cast and crew; “The Big Friendly Giant and Me,” in which Barnhill links characters in the book to their counterparts in the movie; “Gobblefunk: The Wonderful Words of The BFG,” a tutorial on giant-speak; “Giants 101,” in which Clement and Bill Hader (Bloodbottler) introduce us to the bad giants, along with movement-choreographer/motion-capture performer Terry Notary; and the bittersweet “Melissa Mathison: A Tribute.” Typically, 3D fanciers will have to wait a while for that version to arrive (ditto, 4K). BTW: the animated feature from 1989, Roald Dahl’s The BFG, was re-released earlier this year and it’s quite good.

David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon deserves to do a lot better in VOD/Blu-ray/DVD, as well. Of its $141.8 million worldwide gross, $75.5 million of it was earned here. The difference being that its production costs were $80 million lower and Disney won’t have to split the proceeds with other companies. In addition to changing the time-frame, location and certain aspects of Peter and Elliot’s relationship from the 1977 feature, Lowery’s biggest conceit here is adding a layer of short, green fur to the dragon. When asked about the decision, the co-writer/director (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) explains that he’d rather have “the kind of dragon you really want to give a hug to” than a “Game of Thrones”-type dragon, which he described as “cool, but scaly and cold.” It takes some time to get accustomed to the fur, but kids may not see the difference in this more canine-like creature. Here, Elliot reveals himself to Pete (Oakes Fegley) after the boy’s parents are killed in a car accident in the middle of a vast forest. (The movie was shot in New Zealand, which hasn’t been completely stripped of old-growth trees.) Together, Pete’s able to live off the land and get along without such things as haircuts and shirts. At night, they share a cave deep in the wilderness, where the dragon’s fur provides comfort for them. It isn’t until several years later that that Pete and Elliot are forced to deal with the real world. Bryce Dallas Howard plays forest ranger Grace, who grew up listening to stories of mysterious flying beasts told by her father (Robert Redford). She didn’t put too much stock in them until discovering Pete watching her tagging redwoods for her husband’s (Wes Bentley) logging company to avoid … or something like that. The boy’s description of his friend and guardian squares with her dad’s recollections and, together with his granddaughter (Oona Laurence), Grace joins in the effort to save the dragon natural habitat. Unfortunately, one of the loggers finds out about Elliot’s existence and, in a nod to King Kong, perhaps, decides to beat her to the punch by capturing the beast for profit and bragging rights. Pete’s Dragon more closely resembles a Disney adventure from yesteryear than the kind of superhero extravaganzas that fill the megaplexes today. Still, it should appeal to kids and their parents in need of some rainy-day entertainment. The Blu-ray adds bloopers, deleted scenes, the featurettes “Notes to Self: A Director’s Diary,” “Making Magic” and “Disappearing,” Lowery’s commentary with co-writer Toby Halbrooks and actors Fegley and Laurence, and music videos from the Lumineers and Lindsey Stirling.

Baked in Brooklyn: Blu-ray
Urban myth and yuppie romance both come into play in Rory Rooney and screenwriter David Shapiro’s diverting Baked in Brooklyn, not to be confused with Gustavo Ron’s My Bakery in Brooklyn or Tamra Davis’ 1998 stoner comedy, Half Baked, which it more closely resembles. Josh Brener, the half-pint computer genius in “Silicon Valley,” wasn’t required to alter his small-screen personality much to play the laid-off consultant, David, who turns to dealing pot via the Internet when the money crunch begins. Even a dog trained to detect drugs might be inclined to give the unassuming nerd a pass, if he tried to smuggle a kilo of grass through an airport in his solar-powered knapsack. That’s probably what Alexandra Daddario’s babelicious Kate thinks, as well, when he sings his sad song to her after meeting-cute at a party. Kate has a long-distance boyfriend, but finds something sufficiently comforting in David to ask him to be her BFF-without-benefits and his third roommate. David’s goth sister hooks him up with her decidedly non-geek dealer friend, Ace (Michael Rivera), who’s adapted Amway sales techniques to the marijuana trade. David’s brainstorm involves offering to supply small quantities of grass to strangers he meets on social media, so long as they’re reachable by bicycle from his Brooklyn pad. Not surprisingly, the business takes off like a rocket ship. Success, however, makes David as nervous as the prospect of someday making out with Kate. (Daddario’s bedroom scenes with Woody Harrelson, in “True Detective,” were nothing short of incendiary.) To calm his nerves during transactions with a rouge’s gallery of customers, David begins to ingest nerve-relaxants by the handful. They also help him make it through his sometimes acrimonious dealings with Ace. Naturally, David’s obsessive attention to business causes him to neglect his friends, all of whom remember the definition of “hubris” from their English lit courses and apply it to him. Despite a certain predictability, Brener never strays out of character long enough to become unrecognizable. Compared with other stoner comedies, Baked in Brooklyn is pretty tame. That doesn’t mean, however, that viewers who aren’t completely wasted can’t find things to enjoy in it.

Ants on a Shrimp
PBS: A Chef’s Life: Season Four
By the time that René Redzepi reached the ripe old age of 35, his two-Michelin-star restaurant, Noma, in Copenhagen, had already been voted the best restaurant in the world four times in the annual San Pellegrino Awards competition, sponsored by the British magazine, Restaurant. Before making a long-term commitment to Denmark, Redzepi spend some time working in the similarly honored kitchens of Spain’s El Bulli and the French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley. Not content to rest on his restaurant’s laurels, Redzepi accepted the challenge of creating a 14-course menu for the high-end dining room of Tokyo’s Mandarin Oriental hotel. Three years earlier, he had had run a pop-up restaurant at Claridge’s, in London. Redzepi is credited with reinventing Nordic cuisine, through his use of freshly foraged ingredients, including a signature dish that consists of raw langoustine sprinkled with ants. Thus, the title of Maurice Dekkers’ food-porn documentary, Ants on a Shrimp. Curiously uninvolving, the film spends almost two-thirds of its time in the preparation for opening night and a third in the creation of delicacies fit for the world’s elite diners, and almost none on the dining experience, itself. As is typical in these sorts of documentaries, Redzepi is portrayed as a perfectionist, who demands the same of his employees, who traveled with him to Japan for the experiment … or, to be precise, ordeal. Perfection is an elusive goal, especially when it comes to food. Watching a chef attempt to translate his concept of perfection to a kitchen full of highly capable, if frequently frustrated assistants is like standing by powerless while a stranger berates their child in a store. Things really pick up when Redzepi leaves the hotel and visits the kind of places that will allow him to realize his desire to be “not just a tourist, but an informed traveler.” In addition to creating ways for his staff to study Japanese etiquette and basic language skills, he goes on trips to the mountains to forage for unique tastes and markets to learn about local ingredients and practices. Nothing’s easy, however, when it comes to putting what he’s absorbed into practice. If a dish doesn’t suit his palate — deep-fried fish sperm, for example — it won’t make the cut. I wanted to see the looks on the faces of the diners when they were presented with the individual courses and took those crucial first bites, but, alas, Ants on a Shrimp ends before that can happen. Foodies will certainly find something to love here. Others will have trouble getting past the idea of chowing down on a prawn the size of a lobster, with bugs sprinkled on its tail.

PBS’ Peabody Award-winning “A Chef’s Life: Season Four” is equal parts cooking show, tutorial on traditional Southern ingredients and soap opera, starring chef and author Vivian Howard. She’s famous in culinary circles, at least, for forsaking a career in New York City to return to her roots in the rural North Carolina town of Kinston. Her restaurant, the Chef and the Farmer, promotes cuisine that will be familiar to natives and promotes destination dining to outsiders. The most interesting thing about the new DVD to me, anyway, is her straight-forward approach to dishes and ingredients that need defending outside the South. Among them are rabbits, catfish, mayonnaise, sunchokes (a.k.a., Jerusalem artichokes), cabbage, watermelon and hocks. A negative Internet review momentarily puts her off her feed. (If it was on Yelp, the writer probably was looking for a free meal or other considerations to retract it.) The soap-opera aspect comes from involving viewers in her personal life (twins), her race to meet a cookbook deadline and the departure of her sous chef. Howard deserves credit for promoting community and incubator farming, addressing the complaints raised by meat-is-murder protesters at a culinary convention and admitting defeat when a recipe experiment fails. The presence of her mother and neighbors in the kitchen adds to the credibility of Howard’s trad menu,

The Intervention
One of the things that differentiates sitcom stars from their big-screen counterparts is a willingness to kill some of their time between seasons working on indie projects for friends that demonstrate an ability to deliver performances not supported by canned laughter and pratfalls. More often than not, however, these movies take the straight-to-DVD/VOD route to their fans. A common variation on the practice is ensemble casting, which gives equal time to a larger number of actors and a more relaxed atmosphere to the off-camera experience. Clea DuVall’s The Intervention seemingly fulfilled both considerations. In it, a group of 10 thirtysomething friends is invited to spend a few days relaxing, drinking and reminiscing in a large home near Savannah. By the time the movie’s over, they also will have wasted an inordinate amount of time and energy bickering, boozing, breaking up and swapping mates. If that description of The Intervention doesn’t immediately remind you of The Big Chill, you probably haven’t seen it. The difference is that this group of yuppies has been called together by Annie (Melanie Lynskey) primarily to intervene in the tortured marriage of Ruby (Cobie Smulders) and Peter (Vincent Piazza). The other variation involves a lesbian subtext, involving Jessie (DuVall), Sarah (Natasha Lyonne) and the obsessively bisexual Lola (Alia Shawkat), the much younger companion of Jack (Ben Schwartz). Also along for the ride are Rick (David Bernon) and Matt (Jason Ritter). Annie’s intervention doesn’t go as planned, primarily because she doesn’t have the guts to confront the dysfunctional couple. And, so it goes. Fans of the individual stars may enjoy seeing them outside their natural television habitats, but others will probably find it overly familiar by half. Also noteworthy here is the film score by Sara Quin of the Canadian duo, Tegan and Sara. Du Vall and the identical twin sisters have collaborated on several music and online videos.

The Search for Weng Weng
The closest most Americans have gotten to the Philippine cinema – location shoots for Apocalypse Now don’t count – is the series of women-in-prison films made by Jack Hill, Jonathan Demme and Cirio H. Santiago for Roger Corman. The actors we remember from those exploitation classics are Pam Grier, Sid Haig, Jeannie Bell, Roberta Collins and Judith Brown. Low-budget as they were, the movies made for New World Pictures looked like Gone With the Wind compared to most of the stuff churned out by Eddie Nicart largely for consumption by domestic Philippine audiences. It would be impossible, even today, for anyone whose seen such action/adventures asThe Cute… the Sexy n’ the Tiny, For Y’ur Height Only, D’Wild Wild Weng, Agent 00 and The Impossible Kid of Kung Fu to have forgotten the islands’ biggest box-office draw, Weng Weng. Standing a mere 2 feet, 9 inches, Weng Weng might have begun his career as a novelty act, but, after reaching leading-man status, he would be invited by then-First Lady Imelda Marcos to Malacañang Palace and named an honorary secret agent by General Fidel Ramos, who presented the actor with a custom-made pistol. He was a familiar guest on TV shows, at film festivals and awards ceremonies. Weng Weng stopped making movies – and money — after his popularity waned in the mid-1980s. Andrew Leavold, co-writer/director of The Search for Weng Weng, once owned and managed Trash Video, the largest cult video-rental store in Australia. As such, he was quite aware of the actor’s place in the Philippine film industry. What puzzled Leavold was what happened to Weng Weng – who didn’t identify with being a midget or dwarf, just small– after he stopped appearing in movies. He’d heard most of the stories, but needed to verify them for himself. It took him three visits to the islands and more than 40 interviews with the people closest to him, including his only surviving relative, brother Celing de la Cruz, to separate truth from myth. Fans of exploitation flicks will savor The Search For Weng Weng not only for its portrait of the artist as a small man, but also for Leavold’s exploration of the country’s cinematic history.

It’s All So Quiet
Esteros
If Dutch auteur Nanouk Leopold’s austere drama had required a theme song, he couldn’t have picked a more representative tune than “Play It All Night Long,” Warren Zevon’s backhanded ode to redneck culture. In it, the late, great rock-’n’-roll poet observed, “There ain’t much to country living/Sweat, piss, jizz and blood. …” It’s All So Quiet fills the bill on all counts. Loosely based on Gerbrand Bakker’s International Dublin Literary Award-winning novel, “The Twin,” It’s All So Quiet follows a long-single dairy farmer, Helmer (Jeroen Willems), in his 50s, as he prepares for the death of his bedridden father (Henri Garcin) and, perhaps, a final opportunity to express himself in ways forbidden to him, so long as he remained under the stern old man’s roof. You may read into that what you will. As the movie opens, the close-mouthed Helmer is confronted not only with the imminent death of Vader, who is confined to his upstairs bedroom, but those of other elderly neighbors, and the retirement plans of closest friend, identified simply as Melkrijder, after his occupation. Wim Opbrouck plays the burly milk-truck driver who pays daily visits to the farm, but is about to give up the route and move in with his sister. Leopold (Wolfsbergen, Brownian Movement) leaves a lot of emotional baggage unspoken between the men. The same applies to the much younger farmhand, Henk (Martijn Lakemeier), who Helmer’s hired to help with the chores while he paints and cleans the first floor for the first time in decades.

The younger man’s presence raises the specter of Helmer’s long-dead twin brother, who we’re led to believe was Vader’s favored son and, had he lived, might have allowed the farmer some space to distance himself from his father’s once-iron fist. In the final film appearance before his untimely and unexpected death, at 50, Willems reveals the emotions behind his character’s dilemma with a quiet certainty that a statue might envy. Outside of central Europe, It’s All So Quiet’s was largely limited to festivals and the occasional arthouse. It would be an ideal picture to watch in a theater in Wisconsin, Minnesota or Iowa, where family farms have yet to be completely swallowed up by agribusiness concerns. Outside of Milwaukee, Madison, Iowa City and Minneapolis/St. Paul, however, you can probably count the number of compatible theaters on the fingers of one hand. It would make a terrific double-feature with Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam’s brutal 2011 drama, Bullhead, which was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category. It somehow turns the illicit cattle-hormone trade in Europe into the basis for a battle between a pugnacious slaughterhouse worker (Matthias Schoenaerts) – himself addicted to steroids – and gangsters with a 20-year grudge against him.

There’s no disguising the source of tension between Matias and Jeronimo (Ignacio Rogers, Esteban Masturini) in the Argentinian rom-dram, Esteros, which expands the 2015 short, “Matias and Jeronimo.”  In Papu Curotto and Andi Nachon’s debut feature, the boys who experienced their sexual awakening in the previous film reunite as adults. We learn that Matias’ disapproving father had caused them to separate, when he took a job in Brazil, and, in the interim, he’s walked the straight-and-narrow path. When, 10 years later, Matias returns to Argentina for Carnival, he’s accompanied by his girlfriend, Rochi (Renata Calmon), a charming young lady who doesn’t see the train about to hit her. In the kind of reunion that can only happen in the movies, Rochi’s desire for matching zombie makeup brings them both in contact with Jeronimo, who, in the interim, has fully acknowledged his homosexuality. At first, the resolutely glum Matias attempts to dampen the sparks that still crackle between them. It isn’t until Curotto switches the setting to the untamed wetlands of the Santiago del Estero del Ibera nature reserve that Matias loosens up enough to face his personal dilemma head-on. Esteros doesn’t push any particular social agenda, except to argue by example that LGBT-themed movies don’t have to exist in a ghetto created by inadequate budgets, compromised production values and actors only familiar to niche audiences. I’ve seen the same evolution in LGBT movies made in western Europe. Special features include interviews with the director and cast, and a stills gallery

American Guinea Pig: Bloodshock: Blu-ray
All movies come with a warning label, whether it’s in the form of the MPAA’s “advisory ratings” or the artwork and blurbs that appear on posters and DVD jackets. They all require some reading between lines and a healthy disregard for marketing hyperbole and the sometimes-hypocritical stance of the board. The warning attached to American Guinea Pig: Bloodshock can be found in the title, itself. Only serious students of hard-core horror are likely to decipher its meaning, though. Casual fans of the genre probably should avoid it altogether. The “Guinea Pig” in the title refers to a series of films made in Japan in the 1980s, so viscerally disturbing and unabashedly gory that one of them fooled no less an expert than Charlie Sheen into thinking it was an actual snuff film. It wasn’t, but the company making the manga-based series already was under investigation by Japanese authorities for their realistic depiction of torture. The scrutiny persuaded producer Hideshi Hino to cease and desist production, nearly 15 years before the subgenre acquired a name and subgenre of its own: torture porn. In 2002, a now-defunct German company collected six of the films, a making-of documentary and the previously unreleased “Making of Devil Woman Doctor.” Three years later, Unearthed Films released the first truly complete box set with all six features, both documentaries and Slaughter Special, along with bonus features and the manga on which Mermaid in a Manhole is based. The “American” in American Guinea Pig: Bloodshock alerts the cognoscenti that the baton has been passed to a new generation of genre specialists, whose mastery of special makeup effects was enhanced by CGI technology. In 2014, Unearthed Films’ founder and screenwriter Stephen Biro resurrected the concept with American Guinea Pig: Bouquet of Guts and Gore. In it, two kidnaped women wake up strapped to beds in a room full of men wearing assorted masks and armed with 8mm and VHS cameras. The two women are then sedated and dosed with LSD, before being dismembered, disemboweled and fileted by a big guy in the Baphomet mask. No kidding.

The “Bloodshock” in American Guinea Pig: Bloodshock pretty much telegraphs what viewers can expect to see in Chapter Two in the new series. It’s the name given the financially lucrative process dreamed up by the film’s sadistic and probably insane doctor. It involves the harvesting of a torture victim’s blood, while serotonin, adrenaline and endorphins are being pumped through his circulatory system. Each time he is dragged from his padded cell, the levels of torture are increased to maximize the substances’ content in the blood that’s drawn. Ostensibly, patients in need of a quick pick-me-up could benefit from transfusions of the purloined blood. Things really get nasty when the male victim (Dan Ellis) discovers a female victim (Lillian McKinney) in the cell next to his and they find exciting new ways to boost their own endorphins. It all takes place in an abandoned mental facility. This time around, Biro dusted off the director’s chair for effects wizard Marcus Koch (We Are Still Here, 100 Tears), who added his own special sauce to the recipe. As if being treated to the sight of the male victim’s tongue being sliced off and sutured in the first 10-minute sequence wasn’t sufficiently nauseating, a making-off video describes how it was accomplished, along with other atrocities. The entire package includes commentaries with Marcus Koch and Stephen Biro, and actors Andy Winton, Gene Palubicki and Alberto Giovannelli; Biro’s introduction; production videos; footage from the Days of the Dead festival Q&A; interviews with Koch, Biro, Ellis and McKinney; featurettes “Bloodshock: Deconstruction” and “Bloodshock: Behind the Scenes”; a soundtrack CD; and booklet.

T.A.M.I. Show/The Big T.N.T. Show: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Peter Green: Man of the World
Lovers of classic rock and R&B haven’t lived until they’ve seen video footage of a very young Joan Baez — wearing a conservative dress, stockings and heels — belting out “You’ve Lost That Living Feeling,” accompanied by Phil Spector on piano and a full orchestra behind them. She’d already established her folk credentials by opening with “100 Miles” and “There But for Fortune,” so the idea probably sprung from the forehead of the inventor of “wall of sound” record production. The reigning queen of folk music is preceded on Shout Factory’s combined T.A.M.I./The Big T.N.T. Show Blu-ray by the Lovin’ Spoonful and Ray Charles and followed by The Ronettes and Roger Miller, who looked a bit shocked by the screams from the teenyboppers in the audience. If it seems as if the shows might have been booked by Ed Sullivan, if he’d been tripping on LSD, you wouldn’t be far off the mark. Take a closer look at these supremely restored concert events and you’ll see the missing links between Alan Freed’s inaugural Moondog Coronation Ball and Woodstock. Of the two events, the 1964 T.A.M.I. Show is the better known, if only because its highlight moment comes when Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones attempted to follow an electrifying performance by James Brown. Keith Richards admitted later that choosing to follow Brown and the Famous Flames was the biggest mistake of the Stones’ careers, because no matter how well they performed, they could not top him. The other acts represented a Who’s Who of current chart-toppers, including Chuck Berry, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Lesley Gore, Jan and Dean, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Supremes and Barbarians. Back in the day, Top 40 radio didn’t differentiate between white, black and Latino performers and frequently ignored genre boundaries.

The film was shot by director Steve Binder and his crew from “The Steve Allen Show,” using a precursor to high-definition television called “Electronovision,” invented by Bill Sargent. It was marketed for pay-per-view presentations in theaters across the country, as well as a movie released by teen-friendly AIP. The acronym, “T.A.M.I.,” meant both “Teenage Awards Music International” and “Teen Age Music International,” depending on who one asked. “The Big T.N.T. Show” is a 1966 sequel to “T.A.M.I.” and, if anything, more wildly eclectic. Shot before a live audience at the Los Angeles’ Moulin Rouge club – uniformed cops in the aisles and blacks relegated to the rear rows – the show also featured emcee and band leader David McCallum (a.k.a., Illya Kuryakin), Petula Clark, Bo Diddley, Roger Miller, The Byrds, Donovan and The Ike & Tina Turner Revue, who, despite Tina and the Ikettes’ atypically conservative outfits, absolutely killed it. The Blu-ray adds reminiscences from Petula Clark, John Sebastian, musician/photographer Henry Diltz and Binder; “The Big T.N.T. Show: An Eclectic Mix,” with more snippets of the same interview sessions, albeit with a focus on the different styles of music in the concert; and booklet of essays and photographs. The faces and fashions on display in the audience look like a casting call for “Hairspray.” (Keep an eye out for Frank Zappa, in the audience, and Teri Garr and Toni Basil among the go-go dancers.)

Along with Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson and Roky Erickson, the great blues guitarist and singer Peter Green may be best remembered today for going off the deep end on LSD and disappearing from view while the rest of the rockin’ world passed them by. Wilson has recently demonstrated how well he’s recovered from his ordeal, by returning to the recording studio and stages around the country. Erickson, too, has stepped back from the edge of the abyss. Barrett died in 2006, of pancreatic cancer, without fully recovering from mental illness and contrails of drug abuse. After replacing Eric Clapton in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Green went on to form Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, one of the essential blues-inspired rock bands of the second British Invasion. In addition to delivering superb interpretations of American blues classic, Green wrote and recorded “Black Magic Woman,” which would become a huge hit for Santana, as well as the ethereal instrumental, “Albatross,” and brilliantly layered, “Oh, Well.” Steve Graham’s thoroughly researched and interview-heavy rock-doc, Peter Green: Man of the World, goes a long way toward answering the 40 years’ worth of questions raised by fans and critics about his disappearance from Fleetwood Mac and how it impacted the band’s successful transition into superstardom. The film gives equal time to Green’s drug use and subsequent spiral into schizophrenia, discussing, as well, electroconvulsive therapy that prolonged his illness and extended absence from the music scene. He would make a tentative comeback in the mid-1990s, but also invest his energy into art and photography. “Man of the World” contains more than the usual amount of archival footage of live and studio performances, stills and original in-depth interviews with Fleetwood, McVie, producer Mike Vernon, Noel Gallagher, John Mayall, road manager Dennis Keane, biographer Martin Celmins, Carlos Santana and Jeremy Spencer. A visit to Green’s collection of vintage guitars is a highlight of the bonus package.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Willie Velasquez: Your Vote Is Your Voice
PBS: NOVA: Super Tunnel
PBS: NOVA: 15 Years of Terror
Despite the outcome of the race for the White House, the League of United Latin American Citizens found reason for optimism. After parsing the numbers, the nation’s “largest and oldest Hispanic organization” announced that Latino turnout increased over 17 percent since 2012, “a trend that LULAC feels will continue for the foreseeable future.” That news would have been greeted with approval by the subject of the PBS documentary, “Willie Velasquez: Your Vote Is Your Voice,” a Mexican-American civil-rights pioneer who died in 1988, at 44, after launching more than a thousand voter-registration drives in 200 cities. This was accomplished through the nonpartisan Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, an initiative that “forever changed the local and national political landscape.” Hector Galán’s film was broadcast over PBS affiliates a month before the national elections. It’s impossible to determine if it had any impact on higher voter turnouts –the fear of a Trump presidency pretty much took care of that – but it would be nice to think that such inspirational portraits of Hispanic leaders would keep the ball rolling. A Mexican-American butcher’s son from San Antonio, Velasquez spent two summers as an intern in Washington working for San Antonio’s pioneering Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez. After that, he returned home to help found the Mexican-American Youth Organization and become a key player in the formation of the Raza Unida Conference. It wasn’t until he turned his focus onto voter registration, though, that he could see progress in the fight against the remnants of Jim Crow and the gerrymandering of political districts with significant Latino populations. Enough obstacles remain to make this documentary relevant today as a teaching tool and source for inspiration.

The “NOVA” documentary, “Super Tunnel,” takes viewers on a journey below the streets of London, where the $23-billion Crossrail transit system is being constructed by 10,000 workers, alongside portions of what is considered the world’s oldest subway. Not to be confused with the Chunnel, which runs under the English Channel, the Super Tunnel adds 26 miles of tracks bisecting some of the city’s most historic districts. The problem comes, of course, in avoiding damage to buildings situated above the construction sites and keeping the existing “tube” intact. Crucially, the workers must drive one of their gigantic 1,000-ton tunnel-boring machines through the earth, passing within inches of escalators and an active subway tunnel, without the passengers on the tube platforms below ever knowing they are there.

Also from “NOVA” comes “15 Years of Terror,” an investigation into the progress being made by U.S. counterintelligence agents in the struggle to anticipate terrorist attacks and prevent recruitment of new fighters by ISIS computer jockeys. Internet trolls also are attempting to understand what happens in the minds of terrorists and intercede to stop the next attacks, sometimes by making the leading proponents of jihad targets for drone strikes.

Alpha and Omega: The Big Fureeze
The Wild Life
Lionsgate’s animated DVD franchise, “Alpha and Omega,” continues apace with “The Big Fureeze,” the seventh entry in a series that began in 2010 with the big-screen feature, Alpha and Omega. That one featured an all-star voicing cast that included Justin Long, Hayden Panettiere, Dennis Hopper, Danny Glover, Christina Ricci and the ubiquitous Larry Miller. It was set in Canada’s Jasper National Park, where wolves Kate and Humphrey have known each other since puppyhood, but exist on opposing ends of the Western Pack’s social structure. Kate was the energetic Alpha daughter of the pack leader, while Humphrey is the good-humored Omega. If Kate agreed to accept an arranged marriage with Garth of the Eastern Pack, the packs unite in peace and prosperity. Love intervened in favor of Humphrey. Six sequels later, Kate and Humphrey have a litter of three wolf pups to tend. When they disappear in a fierce winter storm, looking for food, Stinky, Claudette and Runt — along with Brent the bear cub and Agnes the porcupine – set out bring them home safe and sound. For what it’s worth, “The Big Fureeze” is the first sequel to have original co-writer Steve Moore back at the word processor. Nevertheless, at a brisk 47 minutes, this one is strictly for the kiddies.

Originally titled “Robinson Crusoe,” Lionsgate and nWave Pictures’ feature-length adventure, The Wild Life, re-interprets the Daniel Defoe classic from the point of view of the island’s animal population. Things are going along swimmingly for the colorful critters until a seriously disheveled sailor washes ashore during a furious storm. Parents concerned about Defoe’s detours into cannibals, murders, slave trading and the Christian proselytizing should know that there’s nothing here your average pre-schooler can’t grasp. Instead, a chatty parrot named Mak, who dreams of escaping the island to see what else is out there, uses Crusoe’s arrival as inspiration to get going. His posse includes a goat, a chameleon, a porcupine and a tapir, each with little quirks of their own. The DVD adds “Meet the Characters,” “Tips for Your Trip” and “The Wild Life Musical Adventure.”

The DVD Wrapup and Gift Guide: One-Eyed Jacks, Hell or High Water, Kubo, Mia Madre, The Land, Holiday Horror, Poldark and much more

Thursday, November 24th, 2016

One-Eyed Jacks: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Re-watching One-Eyed Jacks, after many years, in its pristine Blu-ray incarnation, and listening to the testimony included in the Criterion Collection’s bonus package, I was reminded of another movie that was tortured by studio edicts, yet turned out to be pretty good, anyway: The Magnificent Ambersons. First-time director Marlon Brando and then-sophomore director Orson Welles share many attributes, but being in the same league at the helm of a classic motion picture isn’t one of them. Both movies were taken away from the directors at the insistence of executives who demanded changes to make them more acceptable to mainstream tastes and, in the process, were “butchered.” Welles’ presence can be felt throughout The Magnificent Ambersons, anyway, and not just as the story’s narrator. As the star of One-Eyed Jacks, as well as its original director, Brando delivers a performance so distinctively nuanced –it runs the gamut from bizarre to brilliant – that it’s been indelibly etched into the memories of everyone who’s seen it. Ditto, his delivery of the lines, “Get up you scum sucking pig! I want you standing when I open you up,” “You may be a one-eyed jack around here, but I’ve seen the other side of your face” and “Get up, you big tub of guts!” to Kid Rio’s adversaries. Neither is it likely that the directors’ original visions ever be shown intact, unless the discarded footage is discovered in a salt mine in Kansas or abandoned cinema in the Amazon Basin.

Even so, as remains the case for Welles’ near-masterpiece, there are a dozen other good reasons to pick up the pristine Criterion Collection editions. This is especially true of the newly released Blu-ray of One-Eyed Jacks, a Western that broke all the rules and is always ripe for critical reevaluation. Pressing the case are a supporting cast that includes Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, Sam Gilman, Timothy Carey, Katy Jurado, Pina Pellicer, Elisha Cook Jr. Pina Pellicer, as well as longtime Brando compadres Karl Malden, Larry Duran and Wally Cox, who didn’t make the cut; a back story that includes Stanley Kubrick, Sam Peckinpah, Elvis Presley, Henry Fonda and Billy the Kid; spectacular Mexican desert and California coastal locations, as captured by the since-abandoned VistaVision format; its many unsubtle Freudian implications; and One-Eyed Jacks’ distinction as the missing link between John Ford and Sergio Leone, between the acknowledge Hollywood classics and revisionist Westerns that have dominated the genre ever since. Moreover, adapted from a novel by Charles Neider, it’s built on a terrifically entertaining story. The 4K digital restoration was undertaken by Universal Pictures, in partnership with the Film Foundation and in consultation with filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray. It adds an introduction by Scorsese; excerpts from voice recordings Brando made during the development of the film’s script; video essays on the film’s production history and on its potent combination of the stage and screen icon Brando with the classic Hollywood Western genre; and an essay by film critic Howard Hampton.

Hell or High Water: Blu-ray
Because you never know who’s going to get shafted when Oscar nominations are announced, I’m kind of hoping that pundits and Golden Globes voters don’t forget David Mackenzie and Taylor Sheridan’s contemporary Western, Hell or High Water. An August release, it could easily get lost when ballots are cast. Everybody loves Jeff Bridges, so it would be difficult to ignore his turn here as a retirement-age Texas Ranger handed a doozy of a goodbye assignment. I hope that voters can look beyond it long enough, however, to appreciate the job done by Chris Pine (Star Trek) and Ben Foster (3:10 to Yuma) as sibling bank robbers raised in Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy and Jim Thompson territory. Based on his screenplay for Sicario, Sheridan clearly appreciates the splendid isolation and vast emptiness of the desert Southwest, where daily life hasn’t changed all that much in the last 150 years. Pickup trucks have replaced horses, for the most part, but there remains an uneasy relationship between cowboys and lawmen, cattle and oil pumps, ranchers and the bankers holding their mortgages. These elements come into play here when brothers Tanner and Toby are told that a patch of oil might lie under their late mother’s iron-flat property and it will belong to the bank if they don’t pick up some quick money.

In a decision that smacks of Lone Star irony, Toby convinces ex-con Tanner to only rob branch offices of the bank salivating over the prospect of picking up some oil leases. Their success attracts the attention of the Texas Rangers, who assign good-ol’-boy Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) and his half-Commanche/half-Mexican partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), who patiently puts up with Marcus’ purposefully offensive banter. In that sense, at least, Hell or High Water pits two sets of brothers/partners against each other in a low-tech game of cat-and-mouse. Giles Nuttgens’ highly evocative cinematography pairs well with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ high-lonesome soundtrack. Mackenzie, a Brit, must have been a cowboy in a past life, because he nails the ethos on the head here. Certainly, he’s found the beauty and character in a largely barren landscape that most people either take for granted or ignore. The Blu-ray adds the worthwhile featurettes, “Enemies Forever: The Characters of Hell or High Water,” “Visualizing the Heart of America,” as well as a post-screening Q&A and red-carpet reception. (Taylor Sheridan, Ben Foster and editor Jake Roberts have been nominated for an Indie Spirit Award.)

Kubo and the Two Strings: Blu-ray
If Laika Entertainment doesn’t enjoy the same brand recognition outside the animation community as Pixar/Disney, DreamWorks, Aardman, Tokuma Shoten, Studio Ghibli or Blue Sky, it has a batting average any established studio would envy. The Oregon-based stop-motion studio’s first three features – Coraline, The Boxtrolls, ParaNorman – were nominated for Oscars. (It also participated in the success of ABC Family’s “Slacker Cats” and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride.) I wouldn’t be surprised to find its latest, Kubo and the Two Strings, among the finalists for this year’s competition. The epic action/fantasy was directed by the company’s president and CEO, Travis Knight, whose affiliation with the company began in 1998, as an animator, when his father, Phil, co-founder of Nike, made his initial investment in Portland’s Will Vinton Studios. It took a few years for things to settle down at the studio, which was also doing commercial work at the time, but, once it dedicated itself to features, Laika found its natural footing. Set in ancient Japan, Kubo and the Two Strings tells the story of a boy with a vivid imagination and a gift for paper-folding, who lives on a high cliff perched above the same restless sea that claimed his mother. Kubo (Art Parkinson) has an eye patch hidden beneath his bangs, disguising a wound he claims was made by his grandfather. When he accidentally summons an evil warrior spirit seeking vengeance on his family, Kubo is forced to embark on a quest to solve the mystery of his fallen samurai father and his mystical weaponry. Knight attributes the film’s distinctly Asian look to such inspirations as Japanese origami, ink-wash paintings, woodblock prints, Noh theater, Edo period doll making, ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) and 20th Century graphic artist, Kiyoshi Saito. Fans of Ray Harryhausen’s skeletal warriors will find something to cheer here, as well. The all-star cast of voice actors includes Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, Rooney Mara, Brenda Vaccaro, Minae Noji and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. Among the subjects covered by Knight and his team in the bonus making-of featurettes are the film’s Japanese inspiration, “Mythological Monsters,” “Braving the Elements” and “The Redemptive and Healing Power of Music.” Knight adds commentary and an epilogue.

Homo Sapiens
The title, Homo Sapiens, is a tad misleading, but only because the documentary pays homage to the discarded landmarks of mankind, without also showing the men and women responsible for them. That’s because, for all intents and purposes, they no longer exist. At best, they’ve escaped the dystopian landscapes by moving somewhere more hospitable to the whims of beings who’ve spent most of the last 100 years developing weapons that assure mutually assured destruction. Anyone who’s studies video footage taken of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone from distances of 10, 20 or 30 years of the nuclear-reactor disaster will know what to expect from Nikolaus Geyrhalter (Our Daily Bread, Pripyat) here. Using only the organic sounds of nature as narration – birds, the wind, rain trickling through the holes of abandoned factories, auditoriums and cathedrals – his largely static camera lingers on empty spaces, ruins, ghost towns increasingly overgrown with vegetation, crumbling asphalt … absent any sign of human life. As such, the Austrian documentarian wants us to ponder the fragility and finite nature of human existence at the end of the analog age, as well as planned and unexpected obsolescence. Absent any identification, viewers are left to guess the locations of the ruins. Some aren’t hard to name, though: the skeleton of a roller-coaster swallowed in waves raised by Hurricane Sandy; decaying movie palaces in Detroit; trashed multiplexes in Japan; a place in Argentina that has been swallowed up by a salt-water lake, which then receded, leaving a sea of white salt; the mosaics on the Buzludzha Monument in Bulgaria; the irradiated buildings of the Fukushima and Chernobyl nuclear plants; an island off Japan that nearly was mined out of existence. It may take a while to accustom one’s self to Geyrhalter’s artistic conceits in Homo Sapiens, but patience is rewarded with poetry.

The Childhood of a Leader
Psychiatrists and criminalists have compiled an extensive list of behavioral traits that, when combined, can predict whether a bad little boy will grow up to become a sociopathic killer. Watch enough reruns of “Law & Order” and you’ll begin to wonder if those skeletons of unfortunate little animals in your son’s bedroom suggest a career as a zoologist or someone who could become the next Jeffrey Dahmer. Determining whether a naughty boy will grow up to become a world leader with sociopathic tendencies is another question altogether. Who knows what horrors could have been averted if a psychiatrist had veto power on the candidacies of Hitler and Mussolini and ascendancies of Franco, Stalin, Pol Pot and Kim Il-sung. Americans will elect a sexual deviant or megalomaniacs to lead them, as long as he promises to make them great. Brady Corbet’s clunkily titled directorial debut, The Childhood of a Leader, profiles one very naughty little boy whose coming of age parallels the rising tide of fascism in Europe, after World War I.  It’s the opposite of the kind of high-concept film that only takes a few words or sentences to synopsize. Set amidst the turmoil of World War I and its aftermath, The Childhood of a Leader takes place primarily within the confines of a French villa of an American diplomat (Liam Cunningham) assigned to negotiate the terms of the Versailles Agreement. When he’s away from home, his European-born wife (Bérénice Bejo) passes the time shopping, dining out and bullying the villa’s employees. Their young son, Prescott (Tom Sweet), is a dead-ringer for Little Lord Fauntleroy. As such, he constantly is forced to remind his parents’ adult friends that he’s a boy. Instead of attending a local school, where he’s likely to bullied, Prescott is being home-schooled by his father’s presumptive mistress (Stacy Martin), who he tortures with his obstinate behavior and grabby fingers.

His parents can’t tolerate the boy’s behavior, which includes interrupting meetings and receptions in the nude, but, likewise, have exhausted the limits of non-corporal punishment. Add to this pathology the boy’s tendency to eavesdrop on conversations between the duplicitous and short-sided diplomats, determined to break the backs of the defeated German populace. We know how that turned out. Prescott wasn’t drawn specifically to remind us of Hitler, Franco or Mussolini, although he shares certain behavioral traits. He’s also too young and too American to have joined them in a leadership position in a similarly fascist regime. Scott Walker’s thunderous, Bernard Herrmann-inspired score discourages viewers from sweating such details. Corbet and co-writer Mona Fastvold’s intriguing debut, The Sleepwalker, was a psychodrama about siblings from a dysfunctional family. Frankly, I’m not sure who they thought would be the natural audience for The Childhood of a Leader, except Twilight fans attracted by Robert Pattinson’s name on the poster or admirers of Bejo, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Artist. (Pattinson plays a worldly diplomat whose sound advice is superseded by the American negotiator’s desire to return to the U.S.) The Indie Spirits judges just nominated The Childhood of a Leader and director Brady Corbet in the Best First Feature category.

Hands of Stone: Blu-ray
As great a boxer as Roberto Durán was in his prime, winning five world-title belts in four different divisions, his reputation will forever be clouded by two words he denies saying: “No más.” Supposedly, they were uttered as the then-reigning welterweight champion abruptly forfeited his1980 rematch with challenger Sugar Ray Leonard. No one is likely to remember that he would continue to fight, without embarrassing himself further, until an automobile accident forced him to retire 21 years later, at age 50, or how much of his prize money he’s given away to street urchins in his native Panama. I’ve lost count of the movies about boxing I’ve seen since I started writing about DVDs and Blu-ray releases. Most of them are as predictable as a cold day in Chicago in January. Even the ones that do stand out – Creed, Million-Dollar Baby, The Fighter, — are formulaic in one way or another or owe too great a debt to Raging Bull. Venezuelan writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz’ comprehensive biopic, Hands of Stone, isn’t without its occasional cliché, trope or neglected fact. For the most part, though, it’s a genuinely entertaining profile of a boxer who was one of the most electrifying fighters of the last 50 years. Considered to be more of a brawler than a stylist, what he lacked in charisma – compared to Leonard (Usher Raymond), anyway – he more than made up for in power. Thus, the title of the movie. Jakubowicz owes a huge debt of gratitude to fellow Venezuelan Edgar Ramirez (Joy, “Carlos”), a terrific actor who really looks at home in the ring, and Robert DeNiro, who plays Hall of Fame trainer Ray Arcel. Unlike other recent assignments, DeNiro appears dedicated to honoring his character’s legacy and helping the picture make an impression in the Spanish-speaking world, if not the U.S., which has always been partial to Leonard. Also good is Rubén Blades, as Duran’s financial backer; Ana de Armas, as the loyal wife; and Ellen Barkin, as Arcel’s wife. The Blu-ray adds making-of and background featurettes, including material on Duran’s contributions to Panamanian affairs.

Mia Madre: Blu-ray
You never know when and where John Turturro is going to turn up in a movie. He not only plays gangster Frankie Carbo in Hands of Stone, but also threatens to steal the show from Margherita Buy in Nanni Moretti’s heart-tugging drama, Mia Madre. This, despite the fact that her marvelous portrayal of a director/mother/director constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown earned the 54-year-old actress a fifth David di Donatello Best Actress award. Turturro provides the comic relief in a film whose protagonist, I suspect, takes everything way too seriously for most American tastes. Turturro’s Barry Huggins is an actor recruited to attract English-speaking audiences to a movie about workers protesting layoffs proposed by a new boss. Turturro drives director Margherita nuts by forgetting his lines, improvising others and becoming frustrated by the day-to-day trials of filmmaking. After-hours, however, Huggins can be extremely charming. It’s a quality that Margherita makes little time to appreciate, having dedicated her free time to sitting alongside her hospitalized mother, Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), as she prepares to die or go home. She also invests a bit too much of her time in the care and feeding of a college-age daughter, who isn’t particularly interested in pursuing a career as a Latin teacher, as mom has decreed. If that weren’t enough, Ada’s chosen to burden herself further by ending her marriage. Mia Madre was inspired by incidents in the life of writer/director/co-star Moretti, who also drew from personal experience for the Palme d’Or-winning The Son’s Room. His own mother, Agata, died in 2010, as Moretti was finishing We Have a Pope. Like Ada, Agata was a teacher of classical languages. The car Margherita drives belongs to Moretti; his parents’ books line the walls of the film’s interiors; and Lazzarini wears clothes Agata wore in hospital. The gravity of such personal references wore me down after a while, but there’s no doubting the sincerity of Moretti’s desire to address questions surrounding human transience, how we process loss and the healing power of humor. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes; the 42-minute featurette, “Just a Movie: On the Set of Mia Madre”; four minutes of Turturro riffing on his character; and “The Torture of an Actor,” which deals with the question of how actors feel when their director is another actor and keeps handing out “suggestions” throughout multiple takes of a scene.

The Land
It’s been quite a year for Cleveland, the much maligned city on the southern shore of Lake Eire. While the weather still stinks most of the year and the football team does, as well, the city’s NBA franchise brought a professional-sports championship home for the first time in a half-century and the Indians appeared in a World Series for the first time in almost 70 seasons. The Republican National Convention was held in the revitalized downtown district, largely without incident, opening the gates for Donald Trump’s successful, if ignoble race against Hillary Clinton.  Like most cities worth their salt, it has an international film festival to call its own. And, while the city would hardly qualify as Hollywood Mideast, a handful of genre films has used Cleveland as a backdrop for depictions of urban crime and offbeat comedy. Craig Moss’ The Charnel House and Paul Schrader’s Dog Eat Dog opened in November; Tom Nagel’s ClownTown and Charles Moore’s Madtown, in September and March respectively; Chris Kasick’s Uncle Nick recalled the Indians’ dime-beer night disaster; and Steven Caple Jr.’s The Land demonstrates that Cleveland has a thriving skateboarding and hip-hop scene. Newly released to DVD, it follows the tradition of being made by people who grew up there and hires local actors in key roles. The Land tells the story of four teenage boys who devote their summer to escaping the streets of Cleveland to pursue a dream life of professional skateboarding. It’s interrupted, however, when they boost a cache of party drugs and peddle them to revelers as if they belonged to them. Instead, the drugs belong to a local drug “queen-pin,” Momma (Linda Emond), whose hippie attire belies a cold heart. Before long, the lads find themselves in over their heads so deep, they’ve put the lives of themselves and their families in peril. The appealing cast is led by Cleveland rapper Colson Baker (a.k.a., Machine Gun Kelly), Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Moises Arias, Rafi Gavron and Ezri Walker. Erykah Badu contributes a cameo and songs, including a duet with executive producer Nas. The soundtrack adds songs by Nosaj Thing, Pusha T & Jeremih, Ezzy and other familiar rappers. The Land isn’t completely devoid of clichés, but the pacing is good, as is the skating.

Sneakerheadz
Chuck Taylor All-Stars may be enjoying something of a comeback as the anti-Nike sneakers, but the only way a pair would be valuable is if they carried the DNA of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain or Michael J. Fox, who wore Chucks in Back to the Future. Freshmen documentarians David T. Friendly and Mick Partridge’s Sneakerheadz describes how athletic footwear evolved from the dark ages – which lasted into the 1960s – to the point where boutique sneakers autographed by Michael Jordan and other athletes are traded on eBay for tens of thousands of dollars. The emergence of athletic shoes as fashion statements coincided with mainstream acceptance of hip-hop, graffiti and skateboard culture, as well as the corporate footwear wars that raised the ante on endorsements. The trend became a craze when lines began to appear outside shoe stores – some now dedicated exclusively to sneakers – on days when every new release of an Air Jordan model, the most recent being the AJ 31. Sneakerheadz is informed by the testimony of designers, manufacturing executives, collectors, speculators and traders. Left until nearly the end is the downside of the craze. As Nike and its competitors began capitalizing on it by introducing new editions of its shoes and encouraging its designers to make them as cool and desirable as possible by jacking up the retail prices. It encouraged gang-bangers to use violence to steal them from unfortunate wearers, whose only crime was requesting a pair for a birthday or Christmas. Neglected completely is the controversy sparked by strikes in Indonesia, Vietnam and China, where workers complained of sweatshop wages and conditions.

The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection: Blu-ray
Gregory Peck Centennial Collection: Blu-ray
I can’t think of a more sure-fire gift idea than Universal’s Blu-ray set, “The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection.” The temptation, of course, is to suggest it for older movie lovers on your list, but I’ve never met anyone – of any age – who hasn’t fallen in love with the on-screen antics of Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo, even if the unfunny Marx brother, Zeppo, requires more explanation than the essential role played by straight-woman Margaret Dumont. This “restored edition” features the only five movies in which all four brothers performed together: The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and, of course, Duck Soup. Commentaries are provided by film scholars Anthony Slide, Jeffrey Vance, Robert S. Bader and Bill Marx (son of Harpo), F.X. Feeney and Leonard Maltin. Duck Soup is accompanied by “The Marx Brothers: Hollywood’s Kings of Chaos” and vintage “Today Show” interviews with Harpo, Groucho and Bill Marx. No matter how often you watch them, the movies always reveal something delightfully new.

As the title of Universal’s “Gregory Peck Centennial Collection” points out, 2016 is the centennial year of the great, La Jolla-born actor’s birth. A five-time nominee for the academy’s Best Actor in a Leading Role prize, Peck finally took home Oscar’s bacon in 1963, for his unforgettable performance in To Kill a Mockingbird, the first half of this double-feature. In 1968, he would be honored with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. In the infinite wisdom of American Film Institute voters, Peck’s Atticus Finch was named the No. 1 Screen Hero of the last 100 years, while the movie – adapted from Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-winning novel – ranked No. 2 on the list of 100 Most Inspiring Movies of All Time and the 25th Greatest Movie of All Time, in its TV special, “100 Years, 100 Movies, 100 Heroes & Villains.” In Cape Fear, Peck plays a different small-town lawyer, this one forced to put his loved ones at risk in order to trap a criminal (Robert Mitchum) he’d helped send to prison years earlier. Based on a novel by John D. MacDonald, Cape Fear remains a unnerving experience. For his 1991 remake, Martin Scorsese convinced Gregory Peck, Martin Balsam and Robert Mitchum to re-appear in key roles. The Centennial set arrives with the feature-length documentary, “A Conversation With Gregory Peck,” “Fearful Symmetry: The Making of To Kill a Mockingbird,” Peck’s Best Actor acceptance speech, the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award ceremony, an excerpt from “Tribute to Gregory Peck,” “Scout Remembers,” commentary with director Robert Mulligan and producer Alan Pakula, “100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics,” “The Making of Cape Fear” and production photographs.

Horror for the holidays
Rabid: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Dead Ringers: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg emerged at a time in the mid-1970s when horror and sci-fi had yet to merge in any meaningful way and the splatter/slasher sub-genre was in its infancy. He knew that Frankenstein was equal parts horror and science-fiction, as was Kurt Neumann’s original version of The Fly, which he would revisit 18 years later with a budget that allowed him to take advantage of contemporary makeup, technology and set design. Cronenberg also understood the fright and anxiety that accompanied everyday medical and dental procedures, bodily transformation surgery and infections. His early films fit into the pigeonhole reserved for visceral “body horror.” Influential Canadian journalist Robert Fulford nearly killed Cronenberg’s career before it reached takeoff velocity by attacking Shivers in the national magazine, Saturday Night. Since the film was partially financed by the taxpayer-funded National Film Board of Canada, the headline read, “You Should Know How Bad This Movie Is: You Paid for It.” The money dried up faster than blood on a barroom floor. Fortunately, budding producer Ivan Reitman had faith in his fellow Canadian and found the money to make Rabid, which combined vampirism, zombies, viral disease and experimental skin grafts. Reitman also ratified his friend’s decision to cast Marilyn Chambers – the Ivory Snow cover girl, turned porn star – as a pretty, young blond who develops a blood-craving thirst and misplaced vagina after emergency surgery for a motorcycle accident.

It was a risk few, if any, producers have been willing to take, before or since Rabid. (Former Playboy bunnies don’t count.) She wasn’t required to display any more skin than, say, Cybill Shepherd, in The Last Picture Show, and easily held her own in the acting department. Because government and medical authorities refuse to admit a problem exists, the virus spreads rapidly. (The delivery system is so bizarre and cruel that describing it would spoil the fun.) The Scream Factory makeover begins with a 2K scan from the negative at Cronenberg’s preferred aspect ratio (1.66:1); new audio interviews with Jill C. Nelson, author of “Golden Goddesses: 25 Legendary Women of Classic Erotic Cinema, 1968-1985” and Chambers’ personal-appearances manager Ken Leicht; an interview with co-star Susan Roman; separate commentaries with Cronenberg and William Beard, author of “The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg”; archival interviews with Cronenberg, Reitman and co-producer Don Carmody; the featurette, “From Stereo to Video,” a video essay by Caelum Vatnsdal, author of “They Came from Within: A History of Canadian Horror Cinema”; marketing material; and a stills gallery.

Following by two years the commercial and critical success of The Fly, Cronenberg based Dead Ringers on the true story of twin gynecologists Stewart and Cyril Marcus, who were found dead in their apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The cause of the deaths was, at first, determined to be withdrawal from barbiturate addiction, but other reasons were later forwarded. Inspired by the novel “Twins,” by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland, Cronenberg created a world of obsession, seduction, betrayal, misplaced love and addiction that played better in arthouses than the megaplex. The horror trope exploited here is the mad-scientist conceit, with experimentation on women patients and the invention of surgical tools the Marquis de Sade would have been proud to claim for himself. Beverly and Elliot Mantle (Jeremy Irons) have been fascinated with sex and women’s reproductive organs since childhood. Even before they graduated from college, the brothers invented a mechanical devise that made gynecological examinations significantly easier. They would continue their experimentation with tools of their trade – one more medieval-seeming than the other — until Beverly had gone mad from drug abuse and what he believed to be unrequited love. Anyone who thinks their dentist’s office resembles a stainless-steel torture chamber, will be made just as queasy by brothers’ surgical theater … male viewers, as well as women.

The madness extends to their relationship with a patient, actress Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold), whose trifurcated uterus makes her a freak of nature and, as such, of particular interest to the Mantles, who also consider themselves to be outsiders. Before Claire’s arrival, the more confident brother, Elliot, would pass along his sexual conquests to the painfully withdrawn Beverly without their knowledge. All he was required to do was related exactly what happened on the dates. Claire intuits Elliot’s game and jealousy over her being able to reach something in Beverly’s psyche that he thought belonged to him. Into this already creepy scenario, Cronenberg adds a layer of visually poetic eroticism that may be too twisted for some viewers’ taste. Not only did Dead Ringers score year-end honors with mainstream critics in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Canada, but it also impressed niche judges in France and Portugal and at the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films. Irons and Bujold earned all the accolades they received. Also impressive are Howard Shore’s evocative score, Peter Suschitzky’s chilly cinematography and split-screen magic, and Carol Spier’s exquisitely sterile set design.  Viewers can choose between the high-definition transfer of the film (1.78:1 aspect ratio) or 2K scan at the director’s preferred aspect ratio (1.66:1). A new commentary with writer Beard and old one with Irons; fresh interviews with actress Heidi Von Palleske, artist/actor Stephen Lack, special-effects artist Gordon Smith, director of photography Peter Suschitzky, and reclaimed chats with Irons, Cronenberg, producer Marc Boyman and co-writer Norman Snider; and a vintage behind-the-scenes featurette.

C.H.U.D.: Special Edition: Blu-ray
C.H.U.D II: Bud the Chud: Blu-ray
Return of the Living Dead 3: Blu-ray
I Drink Your Blood: Blu-ray
In 1984, just as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were finding their footing in the sewers of New York, Douglas Cheek’s unpretentious creature-feature C.H.U.D. – also set there — was released to no great acclaim into drive-in theaters across America. Ramon, the 40-foot-long star of Lewis Teague and John Sayles’ Alligator, had been vanquished four years earlier, turning the city’s plumbing system into a Darwinian swamp. The TMNT phenomenon caught on, while C.H.U.D. needed some help from “The Simpsons” to develop a cult following. In it, the corpses of missing homeless men, women and pet dogs are being stockpiled underground by once-human monsters – not unlike the creature from Black Lagoon – who’ve been infected by toxic waste illegally stored in Gotham’s netherworld by Wilson, an insane Nuclear Regulatory Commission official. City officials are hesitant to sound the alarm when the disappearances are brought to the attention of police by A.J. “The Reverend” Shepherd (Daniel Stern) and photographer George Cooper (John Heard), who’s been shooting homeless “undergrounders” for a pet project.  Once the C.H.U.D. monsters – its stands for Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers or Contamination Hazard Urban Disposal – begin to extend their rubbery reach through manhole covers and even the shower of Cooper’s naked girlfriend (Kim Greist) the impending disaster can’t be ignored. Wilson suggests sealing the sewers, opening gas lines and asphyxiating the C.H.U.D.s, despite the inherent danger to the city. The ending isn’t particularly coherent, but it’s an ending, nonetheless. Arrow Video’s C.H.U.D. benefits from a new 1080p restoration from original film elements; commentaries with director Douglas Cheek, writer Shepard Abbott and actors Heard, Stern and Christopher Curry; new interviews with the crew and the music composers; the theatrical cut and extended version; a deleted shower scene; behind-the-scenes gallery; newly commissioned artwork by Dan Mumford; and a collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film.

In another five years, C.H.U.D. II: Bud the C.H.U.D. would open on VHS to even less acclaim than the original. It is built around the idea that enzymes taken from the sewer-dwelling creatures could be used to make hyper-effective killing machines for the army. The Pentagon has ordered military scientists to kill the project, but one of the super-soldiers – Bud the C.H.U.D. (Gerrit Graham) – has been hidden away for possible reanimation, later. A trio of bumbling teenagers steal and accidentally reawaken Bud, who hopes to form a C.H.U.D. army of his own. It results in a slapstick monster mash. There are a couple of things that make C.H.U.D. the more watchable of the pair, both newly released on Blu-ray. The former’s cast included established actors Heard (Cat People) and Stern (Diner), as well as early appearances by Greist (Manhunter), Curry (Starship Troopers), John Goodman (True Stories), Jay Thomas (“Mork & Mindy”) and Jon Polito (Miller’s Crossing). The concern shown New York’s homeless population – contrasted to official disregard – also was admirable. The sequel’s main attractions are the bathing suit worn by Tricia Leigh Fisher, daughter of Eddie Fisher and Connie Stevens; Graham’s over-the-top Bud; and contributions, however, Robert Vaughn (who died last week, 83), Larry Linville, Jack Riley, Norman Fell, June Lockhart, Rich Hall and Bianca Jagger. The Lionsgate/Vestron edition of C.H.U.D. II contains commentary with director David Irving; featurettes “Bud Speaks!” with Graham, “Katie’s Kalamity,” with Fisher, “This C.H.U.D.’s For You!,” with special-effects artist Allan Apone; and a stills gallery.

Lionsgate’s collector’s edition of Return of the Living Dead 3 focuses on two teenagers who get caught up in a secret government program to use Trioxin from previous films to develop a cadre of zombie-like “super soldiers.” If that sounds like the C.H.U.D. II scenario, minus the sewer connection, well, great minds tend to think alike. Colonel John Reynolds (Kent McCord), Colonel Peck (James T. Callahan) and Lieutenant Colonel Sinclair (Sarah Douglas) oversee the reanimation project, which, of course, doesn’t go as planned. After the zombie are subdued and quarantined, those responsible for the disaster are transferred. Colonel Reynolds’ son, Curt Reynolds (J. Trevor Edmond), and his punk girlfriend, Julie Walker (Melinda Clarke), have already borrowed his father’s key card to access the lab and spy on the experimentation. So, when Julie is killed in a motorcycle accident, Curt takes her to the lab to see if he can use the Trioxin to re-animate her. It works, but a girlfriend zombie is no easier to control than a “super soldier” zombie, and it causes problems of a very different sort for Curt. Coincidentally, the couple ends up in the sewer system, as well, where they encounter a vagrant (Basil Wallace) who takes them in and hides them. If the ending is extremely off-the-wall, it’s fun to watch super-sexy Clarke (“The O.C.”) in action, wearing peek-a-boo costumes that might have been designed by Jean Paul Gaultier for her later turn as professional dominatrix Lady Heather on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” Like the previous “ROTLD” sequel, this one bears almost no resemblance to George Romero’s 1968 zombie and should be viewed as part of a completely separate five-part franchise. It contains commentaries with Clarke, director Brian Yuzna and special-effects supervisor, Tom Rainone; featurettes “Ashes to Ashes,” a conversation with Yuzna and screenwriter John Penney, “Living Dead Girl,” interview with Clarke, “Romeo Is Bleeding,” an interview with actor J. Trevor Edmond (“Beverly Hills, 90210”), “Trimark & Trioxin,” interviews with production executive David Tripet and editor Chris Roth, “The Resurrected Dead,” with special make-up effects designers Steve Johnson and Chris Nelson; a storyboard gallery; and still gallery.

Grindhouse Releasing has revived the 1971 drive-in “classic” I Drink Your Blood, a clumsily made gorefest that holds the distinction of being the first movie branded X by the MPAA ratings board, simply on the basis of its violent content. Clearly feeding off the fearful public reaction to the Manson Family killings, and reports of a rabies plague in Iran, David E. Durston’s micro-budget chiller describes what happens when a van full of hippie Satanists arrives in a small New York town that’s practically deserted and, at the time, actually was a ghost town. The group, led by the longhaired Horace Bones (East Indian dancer, Bhaskar Roy Chowdhury), takes refuge in an old rat-infested hotel. When two members of the group rape a local girl, her crusty grandfather later shows up at the hotel with a shotgun. The hippies rough up the old man, give him LSD and set him free in mid-freakout. The old man’s scene-stealing grandson, Pete (Riley Mills), decides to carry out his own revenge. In a twist that might have presaged Christopher Bond’s 1973, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” the grandson shoots a rabies-infected dog and injects its blood into the meat pies baked in the local bakery and consumed voraciously by the cultists. The results aren’t quite as predictable as one might think. Like the meat pies, I Drink Your Blood – or, to be more precise, “I Eat Your Blood” – shouldn’t be attempted on an empty stomach. The extensive bonus package includes a restored version of the original uncensored director’s cut; four deleted scenes, including the original ending deemed too disturbing for 1970s audiences; audio commentaries by Durston and Bhaskar, and co-stars Jack Damon and Tyde Kierney; on-camera interviews with future scream queen Lynn Lowry, Kierney and Damon; a new interview with Durston; original theatrical trailer and radio spots; extensive gallery of stills and poster art; rare film of Bhaskar performing “The Evil King Cobra Dance”; the very strange 1964 zombie flick, I Eat Your Skin, with an interview with second-unit director William Grefe; and Blue Sextet, Durston’s long-lost psychedelic skin flick presented for the very first time on home video; liner notes by horror journalist David Szulkin; and an embossed slipcover.

The Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast
Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXXVII
Herschell Gordon Lewis (a.k.a., Godfather of Gore) died last September 26, at the ripe old age of 90. Although his filmmaking career effectively lasted little more than a dozen years – 1961-72, then his 2002 Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat, 2009’s The Uh-Oh! Show and 2016’s Herschell Gordon Lewis’ BloodMania – his quick-and-dirty exploitation pictures influenced two generations of filmmakers, including John Waters, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino and James Gunn. Among other things, Lewis could take partial credit, at least, for introducing the splatter subgenre and merging nudity and violence in ways that anticipated the sexual revolution, biker culture, mainstreaming of porn and subsequent slasher sub-genre. When he wasn’t doing that, the Pittsburgh native and Northwestern graduate taught college-level communications and advertising courses, managed radio stations, directed TV commercials, started a production company, wrote about advertising and public relations and served a three-year bit in prison for fraud. In between those activities, in 1961, he began his collaboration with exploitation producer David F. Friedman on several nudie-cuties, before entering the drive-in-friendly gore market two years later. At various times, Lewis produced, directed, wrote, shot, scored and appeared in his nearly two-dozen films. It was in Blood Feast that Lewis pulled a cow’s tongue out of an actress’ mouth on camera, effectively changing the horror landscape forever. At a MSRP of $229.95, Arrow Video’s 17-disc box set “The Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast,” may cost more than the budgets of some of his pictures. You get a lot of bang for your buck, though.It contains 14 of his “most essential” titles, including nine Blu-ray debuts: Blood Feast, Scum of the Earth, Two Thousand Maniacs!, Moonshine Mountain, Color Me Blood Red, Something Weird, The Gruesome Twosome, A Taste of Blood, She-Devils on Wheels, Just for the Hell of It, How to Make a Doll, The Wizard of Gore, The Gore Gore Girls and This Stuff’ll Kill Ya! None of them fits the generally accepted definition of “good,” but some are worse than others. All have one redeeming quality, at least. It adds brand-new introductions to the films by Lewis, as well as hours of extras, including newly produced interviews and featurettes, commentaries and short films. Two more Blu-ray discs feature 1.33:1 versions of Blood Feast, Scum of the Earth, Color Me Blood Red, A Taste of Blood and The Wizard of Gore. A separate DVD contains “Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore” and there’s a 28-page H.G. Lewis annual, stuffed full with Lewis-themed activities and archival promotional material.

And, what would Thanksgiving be without a box load of turkeys from Mystery Science Theater 3000. Volume XXXVII features two episodes from the Comedy Central era of the show and two from Sci-Fi Channel. One is hosted by show creator Joel Hodgson and three by Mike Nelson. If it weren’t for the crew’s catty commentary, none would have escaped the dust bin of cinematic infamy. For that matter, neither would half of the rom-coms made in Hollywood in the last 10 years. The Human Duplicators is a 1965 color film, starring Richard Kiel, Hugh Beaumont, George MacReady, Dolores Faith and George Nader. Kiel plays an alien sent to conquer Earth conquer by producing duplicates of certain humans. The fragile ceramic-like heads of the duplicates are an especially amusing touch. Released in 1983, Escape 2000 (a.k.a., “Escape From the Bronx”) is a 1983 color film, starring Henry Silva and a bunch of Italian actors no one west of the Straits of Gibraltar will recognize. A small band of heroes must fight their way through the ruins of the Bronx against an evil corporation bent on exterminating them. Sadly, Snake Plissken does not make a cameo.

From 1964, The Horror of Party Beach is a black-and-white cheapo film with cheesy monsters, bikini-clad twisters, surf bums and a rock band, the Del Aires, dressed like the pre-LSD Beach Boys. The main attraction for 2016 audiences in Invasion of the Neptune Men is watching Sonny Chiba play a heroic protagonist named Space Chief, as he fends off cone-headed aliens from Neptune. Highlights include Mike Nelson’s Noh Theater host segment and the return of Krankor, from Prince of Space. And, yes, H.G. Lewis was well-represented on MST3000.

The Vincent Price Collection III: Blu-ray
The third and, perhaps, final collection of collaborations between Vincent Price is a mixed bag of horror, sci-fi and performance artistry. Master of the World is a departure, in that it represents the work of Jules Verne, not Edgar Allen Poe, and affords a look at what AIP was capable when it decided to expend more money on a project than usual. Screenwriter Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man) combined two Jules Verne stories –“Clipper of the Clouds” (1886) and its sequel “Master of the World” (1904) – for this cautionary tale about the hazards of killing for peace. In 1868, an American scientist and his team become hostages of fanatical pacifist Robur (Price) who uses his airship, Albatross, to destroy military targets on Earth. Among those detained is a government worker played improbably by Charles Bronson. The upgraded edition of the 1961 adventures includes commentary with actor David Frankham, “Richard Matheson: Storyteller” and memorabilia. Roger Corman directed Price a year later in Tower of London, in which Richard III is haunted by the ghosts of those he has murdered in his attempt to become the King of England. Bonus features here include interviews with Corman and his producer brother, Gene Corman, and two episodes of “Science Fiction Theatre,” both starring Price.

In 1970’s Cry of the Banshee, Price finds himself in Elizabethan England, playing a wicked lord who massacres nearly all the members of a coven of witches. In doing so, he earns the enmity of their leader, Oona (Elisabeth Bergner), who calls up a magical servant, a “banshee,” to destroy the lord’s family. Not only was this Price’s final foray into Gothic horror, but the title sequence was designed and animated by future Python Terry Gilliam and it marked the film debut of Stephen Rea. It adds commentary by film historian Steve Haberman and “A Devilish Tale of Poe,” an interview with director Gordon Hessler. The disc contains both the 87-minute long AIP theatrical cut and the 91-minute director’s cut.  From 1963, Diary of a Madman is adapted from Guy de Maupassant story about a French magistrate, who, after visiting a doomed prisoner, becomes the human host for the evil spirit haunting the man. It adds the commentary of film historian Steve Haberman.

Made for television in 1970, “An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe” is a one-man show dedicated to one of the greatest writers of suspense we’ve had. Price reads “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Sphinx,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” He does so in costume and with a flair that reveals his classically trained roots. It adds a fresh interview with director Kenneth Johnson and commentary track from Haberman.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Masterpiece: Poldark Season 2: Blu-ray
History: Texas Rising/Sons of Liberty Double Feature
PBS: Nature: Super Hummingbirds: Blu-ray
PBS: American Experience: Tesla
In the sudsy world of prime-time soap operas, the other American broadcast networks can barely compete with PBS and its uniformly top-shelf acting, spectacular locations, splendid costumes and production values. Granted, most of them were made in the UK, where quality isn’t taken for granted, but American dollars help finance them. Neither are nudity and violence promoted as enticements for viewers to sample a series, as is the case even with the best of our premium-cable offerings. For the last several weeks, one PBS affiliate in Los Angles has decided to counterprogram against HBO and Showtime with a triple-bill of “Masterpiece” mini-series, “The Durrells in Corfu,” “Indian Summers” and the second season of “Poldark.” The other local PBS outlet airs such mini-series as “Father Brown,” “Shetland” and “Vera,” on Sunday night, and “Luther,” “The Fixer” and “Prisoners of War,” on Mondays. Thank God, for DVRs, dedicated apps and Blu-rays.

The arrival of “Poldark” last year took some of the sting, at least, out of losing “Downton Abbey.” I don’t know if it’s sapped many television-tourism dollars from north Hampshire, Oxfordshire and Yorkshire, but the Cornwall coast on display in “Poldark” has the benefit of crashing waves, dramatic rock formations and wide sandy beaches, perfect for strolling, horse riding and surfing, although there’s wasn’t much of the latter in the 1700s. Instead, Season Two picks up with struggling mine owner Ross (Aidan Turner) preparing to go to trial for murder and his rival, George Warleggan (Jack Farthing), planning to ruin him once and for all. It just wouldn’t do for the title character to disappear after the first episode of the second season, so count on Demelza to ride to her husband’s rescue. Indeed, the flaming redhead is given plenty more to do in the coming episodes, including dealing with Ross’ infidelity and desires of her own. Affairs of the heart drive several other soapy storylines, before, guess what, Ross once again ends up on trial, this time for giving material support to smugglers. The original BBC edition retains some sexuality excised for the PBS release.

The History Channel’s 2015 period mini-series “Texas Rising” and “Sons of Liberty” are presented as a double-feature edition. Both take liberties with the historical record, choosing action over accuracy. On cable television, such mythologizing is rarely considered to be a crime. The 10-part “Texas Rising” picks up immediately after the defeat of Texan revolutionaries at the Alamo. The bad news is carried by lone survivors Emily D. West and Susana Dickenson, to TRA headquarters, where General Sam Houston (Bill Paxton) leads the insurrectionists. They vow to “remember the Alamo,” while the Mexican army commanded by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (Olivier Martinez) recuperating from the strain of battle. While Houston’s seeming lack of enthusiasm for revenge is challenged by his subordinates, we know that an ill-considered attack would amount to suicide. Also covered here are the origins of the Texas Rangers and the role played by President Andrew Jackson (Kris Kristofferson). Less prominent are the perspectives of Mexicans, Native Americans and slaves. The cast includes Dean Morgan, Ray Liotta, Brendan Fraser, Crispin Glover, Rob Morrow, Jeff Fahey and Cynthia Addai-Robinson. The three-part “Sons of Liberty” mini-series focuses on the years 1765-76, prior to start of the Revolutionary War. Such American and British officers and strategists as Samuel Adams, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Paul Revere, George Washington and British General Thomas Gage are central characters. The creation of the Colonial Congress, the Declaration of Independence and the eventual outbreak of the war also are depicted. Among the more recognizable stars are Ben Barnes, Marton Csokas, Rafe Spall, Henry Thomas and Dean Norris.

There’s almost nothing more amazing in nature than a hummingbird. In PBS’ “Nature: Super Hummingbirds,” high-speed cameras allow us to appreciate just how special they are and how they serve the environment. The photography slows their flight down to the point where we can easily discern their feeding habits and methodology, as well as study the aerodynamics of flight, nest building and their unique beaks at work. While there’s plenty of science on display here, it’s the magical beauty of the hummingbird in flight that sells the show.

If any American scientist got a raw deal in life, it was Nikola Tesla. A Serbian-American inventor, electrical and mechanical engineer, physicist and futurist, he was best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating-current electrical system. While the technology he developed revolutionized the way we’ve all lived and worked for the last hundred-plus years, his fame was eclipsed by Thomas Edison, for whom he worked, and Guglielmo Marconi, who stole his ideas, including some that would open the door to today’s wireless world. PBS’ “American Experience: Tesla” introduces us to the man and scientist who died before he received the credit he deserved for electrifying the world.

The DVD Wrapup: Finding Dory, Jungle Book, Shirley Clarke 4, Better Call Saul, Christmas Stuff and more

Thursday, November 17th, 2016

Finding Dory: Blu-ray
The Jungle Book: Blu-ray 3D/2D
As someone whose first screensaver turned my computer into a digital aquarium, parsing the differences between Finding Dory, Finding Nemo or SpongeBob SquarePants, isn’t something I care to spend time doing. If there’s a fish in the movie, I’m likely to enjoy it. The only critical knocks I’ve seen against Finding Dory were prompted by a perceived diminishment, however slight, in Pixar’s trademark gags and a story that bears too much resemblance to the original. Even so, the aggregate score on Metacritic.com stands at a lofty 77 and, last month, the worldwide box-office tally passed the billion-dollar barrier. One of the rotating screen savers provided by Windows 10 is an underwater scene, with a regal blue tang in the foreground, promoting Saving Dory. In life, as it is in cartoons, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Despite the 13-year gap that separates the two pictures, in movie time it’s only been a year since Nemo’s journey to the Sydney dentist’s office and Dory’s and Marlin’s frantic quest to find him. Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) is still struggling with her short-term memory loss. Nemo (Hayden Rolence) is happily growing up beside his father, Marlin (Albert Brooks), attending school and enjoying life Down Under. Dory is plagued by flashbacks of being separated from her parents, in the distant waters off California’s Morro Bay. Accompanied by Nemo and Marlin, she sets out on an adventure to find her family. Demonstrating, once again, that nothing good comes easy, the trio is separated when they reach the California coast, where the disembodied voice of Sigourney Weaver attracts them to the Marine Life Institute.

It’s there that Dory is netted by researchers after getting tangled in a plastic beer-can holder. In quarantine, Dory finds a new companion in Hank (Ed O’Neill), a seven-tentacle octopus – a heptapus, if you will — who joins her in exchange for a tag directing the bearer to an aquarium in Cleveland. It’s here, as well, that Dory finds other distant reminders of her past life, as well as other aquatic specimens destined for relocation to the city once referred to as the Mistake by the Lake. A Hollywood ending – two, actually – ensures that viewers will come away from Saving Dory happy and anxious for another sequel. It arrives on Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD in a couple of different combo packs, one featuring a 3D version and the other a Blu-ray 2D, only. It contains supplements on the primary disc and a second bonus disc. In addition to the commentary, with director Andrew Stanton, co-director Angus MacLane and producer Lindsey Collins, and more than 50 minutes of deleted scenes, the best of the relatively short making-of features is “The Octopus That Nearly Broke Pixar,” a closer look at the challenges and process of creating “the most complicated character” Pixar has ever made … a why Hank had to be a heptapus. “Living Aquariums” is a collection of four themed digitally animated “fish tanks,” designed for ambient enjoyment, including “Sea Grass,” “Open Ocean,” “Stingrays” and “Swim to the Surface.”

It hasn’t taken long for Disney to offer 3D-compatible viewers an opportunity to take full advantage of their advanced hardware, by sending out a “Collector’s Edition” of The Jungle Book in both Blu-ray formats, DVD and Digital HD. (A UHD edition probably isn’t all that far behind, either.) The live-action adaptation of Disney’s 1967 animated classic – via Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 collection of stories — takes full advantage of its leafy settings and craggy waterhole for 3D opportunities that are plentiful and convincing. Fans of the original are likely to have a more difficult time adjusting to the revisions in the movie’s musical soundtrack than with anything to do with the visual elements. The story remains extremely compelling. Adding to the package’s value, as well, are several new features not included in the previous release. Besides the carryover  content, there’s “The Bare Necessities: From the Jungle to the Bayou,” in which top New Orleans musicians, along with Bill Murray, record “The Bare Necessities”; “The Return of a Legend,” in which composer Richard Sherman, alongside director John Favreau, pens and performs new lyrics for “I Wan’na Be Like You”; “The Jungle Effect,” a brief juxtaposition of on-set footage and the digitally enhanced finished product; “The Jungle Book Around the World,” with scenes from the film presented in several different languages; and “Developing Kaa,” an animatic constructed to help develop the scene in which Mowgli meets Kaa.

The Magic Box: The Films of Shirley Clarke. 1927-1986: Project Shirley Volume 4: Blu-ray
There’s a place reserved in heaven for those who care so passionately about cinema that they would devote their entire careers to the preservation of movies almost no one would miss if they disappeared or were forever relegated to a shelf in a long-forgotten vault. Moreover, if it weren’t for companies willing to compile and distribute those lovingly restored films, they might languish in someone else’s vault, available only to scholars and cineastes who know where to look for them. It’s one thing to put together a feature-length collection of “lost” silent comedies or melodramas, starring the great stars of yesteryear, but where’s the profit in breathing new life into footage too obscure to register on the radar screens of academics and buffs, alike. “The Magic Box” represents the culmination of Milestone Film’s exhaustive “Project Shirley,” an eight-year-long effort to explore the films and life of an extraordinary woman, Shirley Clarke. Not all the contributions to the fourth and final volume, “The Magic Box: The Films of Shirley Clarke, 1927-1986,” are as well-known or historically significant as previous entries in the series, The Connection, Portrait of Jason and Ornette: Made in America, which dealt with outsider artists and underground culture. Most fall into the categories of home movies, experimental and performance films. The other is a documentary profile as close to mainstream as Clarke tended to get. Produced for Boston’s PBS affiliate, WGBH, “Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel With the World,” harkens to a time when a poet laureate could fill an auditorium for a reading and be welcomed at the White House simply because they’d accomplished something wonderful. A poet might be asked to read at the inauguration of American president or serve as a cultural ambassador-at-large. In 1955, Frost even appeared on “Meet the Press.”

Today, of course, Noble laureate Bob Dylan can’t even rouse himself to travel to Stockholm to accept his prize and, perhaps, deliver a speech that would shake young people out of their lethargy and deplore the bloodlust of religious fanatics and war mongers. (To this end, Dylan need only perform “Masters of War.”) Clarke finished her Academy Award-winning profile of Frost, a four-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, just prior to his death at age 88. She followed him to speaking engagements at Amherst and Sarah Lawrence and record scenes of his life in rural Vermont and personal reminiscences about his career. He is also seen receiving an award from President Kennedy and touring an aircraft carrier. Before committing her life to film, Clarke pursued a career in dance. It can be seen in the performance (“Bullfight”), experimental (“Savage/Love”) and workplace (“Skyscraper”) films and outtakes collected here. Producers Dennis Doros and Amy Heller deserve a lot of credit – they’ve already been honored for previous restorations – for sticking with the Shirley Clarke Project for eight challenging years. Working with Clarke’s daughter Wendy, as well as restoration teams at Wisconsin Center for Theater and Film Research, Museum of Modern Art Film Department, National Archives, the Anthology Film Archives, the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the Academy Film Archive, and Metropolis Post, they’ve given us a PhD-worthy study of a largely unsung artist.

The Killing of America: Blu-ray
As appalled as most Americans are by the deluge of crimes committed by mentally unstable men and boys with access to assault rifles, handguns and explosives, such outbursts of rage and intolerance have plagued the country for almost as long as we’ve existed as a sovereign entity. The difference between what’s happening today and the footage shown in Seldon Renan and Leonard Schrader’s provocative 1982 documentary, The Killing of America, is the willingness of the perpetrators to murder groups of children, as well as people with whom they carry political grudges. The video evidence of mass psychosis proved to be so startling that, after its initial screening, was pulled from distribution, exhibition on television and sale in the U.S. It was condemned as exploitive and obscene by critics in the mainstream press, even though none of the footage was faked or altered. In essence, the material was culled from video taken at crime scenes, but left on the cutting-room floor of editing bins for being too shocking or revealing. Uncensored autopsies also provided evidence of the ravages of unchecked violence. Cops are shown killing people for reasons that couldn’t be justified by guidelines or reason, but typically left unchallenged. We’re introduced to serial killers and assassins – through original reporting and police interrogations — some of whom are perfectly willing to discuss their motivations.

Schrader and his wife, Chieko, created The Killing of America as a wakeup call for a society that had grown numb to repeated atrocities or felt impotent when it came to reversing the trend. John Hinckley Jr.’s failed assassination attempt on President Reagan prompted calls for stronger gun-control laws, even at the highest levels of government. Two decades later, NRA lobbying efforts would succeed in reversing all the gains made in the wake of two assassination attempts on President Ford’s life, the murder of John Lennon and Hinkley’s insane love letters to Jody Foster. The film’s message, deemed too controversial in 1982, remains even more relevant today, with a President-elect backed by the NRA and Washington’s pro-death lobbyists. Included in The Killing of America package is the longer, even more shocking Japanese version of the film. It was modified to include views of an America that could be considered majestic, beautiful and peaceful – from above, anyway – before rubbing viewers’ noses in the muck. It ends with the Central Park memorial for John Lennon, where the participants pledged to strive for peace, love and understanding, as a white dove flew over their heads, supposedly representing Lennon’s spirit. If at times, The Killing of America comes off as a “snuff film,” it can be attributed to a time in the exploitation genre when it would have had to compete with pseudo-documentaries in the Italian cinema’s “mondo” subgenre. Severin Films presents the still-disturbing doc fully restored, uncut and loaded with exclusive bonus features, including audio commentary with Renan, interviews with Renan, editor Lee Percy, historian Nick Pinkerton and a documentary on “mondo” movies.

Cardboard Boxer: Blu-ray
If an actress is looking for a shortcut to an Oscar nomination, she’s encouraged to consider one of three classic parts: nuns, prostitutes or deaf women … or, ideally, a hearing-impaired nun who moonlights in a brothel. Male actors have been allowed a greater range of characters from which to choose, although priests frequently have gotten a leg up in the nomination game. Sadly, depictions of pedophile clergy are what’s being noticed most today by voters. One role that gives actors of both genders an opportunity to stretch is that of the homeless person, struggling to stay alive on the mean streets of our great cities. For many years, Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp set the standard for characters who couldn’t hold a job and lived hand to mouth. Red Skelton, Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason created characters in the same mold. In fact, homelessness wasn’t recognized as a problem that should concern Americans until the 1980s, when lawmakers closed mental-health facilities to save money in their budgets. Nick Nolte deserved Oscar consideration for his portrayal of a suicidal vagrant in Paul Mazursky’s uproarious Down and Out in Beverly Hills, itself an American remake of Jean Renoir’s 1932 comedy, Boudu Saved from Drowning. Mare Winningham, played a homeless single mother in God Bless the Child; Will Smith, a homeless dad, in The Pursuit of Happyness; Samuel L. Jackson, a mentally ill resident of Central Park, in The Caveman’s Valentine; Jamie Foxx, as a homeless street musician in The Soloist; and Richard Gere, playing against type in Time Out of Mind.

In Cardboard Boxer, Thomas Haden Church plays Willie, a fairly generic homeless man who sleeps in a cardboard box in Los Angeles’s notoriously dangerous Skid Row district. We’re made aware of his hidden talent when a couple of suburban teenagers offer him money to fight another homeless man for cash. Here, freshman writer/director Knate Gwaltney is referencing the “bum fight” craze, during which homeless men were similarly pitted for the amusement of Internet voyeurs and bored yuppies. I suspect that lawsuits have put a damper on the practice, but it fits Gwaltney’s vision here pretty well. Although we don’t know where Willie learned out to fight, we do know that he’s an otherwise gentle soul who finds a reason to live after he discovers the discarded diary of a troubled young girl in a dumpster full of smoke-damaged furniture. In a strange twist, he needs help reading the parts of the diary written in cursive script. He befriends a wheelchair-bound veteran, Pinky (Boyd Holbrook), who offers to read the passages to him, in exchange for some help getting to a pawn shop to pawn his Purple Heart. Also central to the story is a cab driver, Pope (Terrence Howard), who keeps watch over the men on the street and demands an end to the fights. There are times when Cardboard Boxer seems ready to collapse under the weight of its various subplots, but Church’s credibility is never in question and Gwaltney uses Downtown L.A. to its best advantage.

Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Lone Wolf and Cub: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
One of the most enduring mysteries of life involves the meaning of dreams. In addition to analyzing them, researchers have also spent countless hours attempting to pin down whether we dream in color or black-and-white. The answer to that riveting question appears to depend, in large part, on whether those surveyed grew up watching color or black-and-white television. It may sound logical, but doesn’t come close to explaining the Technicolor brilliance of the images in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. At the ripe old age of 80, the Japanese master probably had absorbed several decades’ worth of B&W imagery before color film became commonplace. Before embarking on a career in film, however, Kurosawa had trained as an artist. He would storyboard his films as full-scale paintings, many of them of such stunning beauty and precision they could hang in a museum … and, since his death in 1988, have been displayed in galleries. Such was the case with Dreams, a collection of eight stories inspired by various aspects of his rich and full life. Some are more compelling than others, but each is wonderful in its own way. The colors add a vibrancy that is tangible. This is especially true in “Crows,” in which Kurosawa’s “I” (here, Martin Scorsese) not only converses with Vincent van Gogh in the fields of Arles, but takes a surrealistic stroll inside the mind of the Impressionist painter. Colors are used metaphorically in the cautionary environmental parables, “The Peach Orchard” and “Mount Fuji in Red.”

In “Sunshine Through the Rain,” a boy’s forbidden witnessing of a wedding procession of masked “foxes” is greatly enhanced by the tonal gradations of greens, browns and yellows in the enchanted forest. The segment does open up when the boy stands in a meadow, where actual foxes frolic, under a giant multicolored rainbow, seeking redemption for his effrontery. By contrast, the muted colors of “The Tunnel” echo the solemnity of a company of dead soldiers being reviewed by their very much alive commander, who’s required to explain why they must to return to the darkness of the afterlife. Likewise, in “Blizzard,” a whiteout forces mountaineers to contemplate the likelihood of death, until they’re rescued by a snow spirit, and, in “The Weeping Demon,” the dystopian imagery couldn’t be made any more dour. Where Dreams opened with a wedding procession that threatened the boy’s life, the closing segment, “Village of the Watermills,” includes a raucous funeral procession that celebrates it. The symmetry of these events, along with the Noh influences, help us contemplate Kurosawa’s lifelong vision, as well as his conceits. As enjoyable as it is to watch after 25 years, it’s worth recalling that critics failed to agree on its importance within his canon. As often happens, however, the distance provided by time offers pundits, peers and fans the luxury of perspective. Reverential interviews with two generations of international filmmakers certify Kurosawa’s influence on world cinema, as do the recollections of his closest aides. There’s also a lengthy making-of featurette, in which “The Tunnel” is examined with an eye to detail and the maestro’s ticks and recipes for success.

Although Kurosawa’s oeuvre includes masterpieces in several different genres and themes, American audiences know his samurai films best. That’s changed a bit since the advent of the DVD revolution, but not much. A second new offering from Criterion, Lone Wolf and Cub, demonstrates just how elastic the genre could be and still provide enjoyable and influential viewing. It was based on a manga series created by writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima, which, since 1970, has been adapted into six films starring Tomisaburo Wakayama, four plays and a television series starring Kinnosuke Yorozuya. Lone Wolf and Cub chronicles the story of the Shogun’s chief enforcer and executioner, Ogami Ittō, whose arsenal includes a dōtanuki battle sword and variety of less-conventional weapons that can be assembled and utilized in a matter of seconds. Disgraced by false accusations made by the Yagyū clan and consequent murders of his wife and servants, Ittō is forced onto the hell-bound path of the ronin assassin. The only other survivor of the massacre is his newborn son, Daigorō. After giving the child the “choice” of accompanying his father on his vengeful missions or accepting ritual death, Daigorō is put into a tricked-out wooden cart and wheeled around the country like any other baby. As he grows, Daigorō absorbs his father’s methodology and warrior’s code.

If this sounds preposterous, even by manga standards, compare the popularity of Lone Wolf and Cub – championed in the U.S. by Frank Miller, Max Allan Collins and Justin Lin — to the enduring acceptance of Kan Shimozawa’s Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman and its spinoffs. Criterion’s boxed set contains the original six films, as well as Shogun Assassin, the English-dubbed reconstruction of the first two films, LW&C: Sword of Vengeance and LW&C: Baby Cart at the River Styx. The original six films are sourced from brand new 2K digital restorations and spread over two discs. Shogun Assassin is presented as a bonus feature. The supplemental features on the three discs in the collection include original trailers; “Shogun Assassin’ (1980); the French documentary film “L’ame d’un Pere, L’ame d’un Sabre” (2005); new video interviews with manga novelist and screenwriter Kazuo Koike and biographer Kazuma Nozawa; and an illustrated booklet featuring an essay and film synopses by Japanese pop culture writer Patrick Macias. It should be noted that the violence is extremely graphic, if not particularly realistic, and incidents of rape and partial nudity are not uncommon. As the series unfolds, Itto becomes more and more invincible and the buggy begins to resemble a miniature war wagon. That said, the stories and conceit do grow on you.

Private Vices, Public Virtues: Blu-ray
It’s entirely possible that I was out sick – or merely snoozing – the day our European-history teacher synopsized the Mayerling Incident, a series of events that led to the deaths of the 30-year-old heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his 17-year-old mistress, at the Imperial hunting lodge in the Vienna Woods. The deaths, which occurred in 1889, remain a mystery to this day. Three guesses have been bandied about for most of the last 125 years by royal gossips, police, historians, authors and screenwriters: Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, and his lover Baroness Mary Vetsera were the victims of a double murder, equal partners in a double suicide or the perpetrators of a murder/suicide, with one dying long after the other was killed. Hapsburg Dynasty functionaries were so anxious to destroy evidence and put their own spin on the deaths that nothing conclusive could be determined, even after several exhumations and forensic examination. Last year, Vetsera’s letters of farewell to her mother and other family members, previously believed lost or destroyed, were found in a safe-deposit box in an Austrian bank, where they had been deposited in 1926. The historical upshot: if Rudolf had been elevated to the crown, as expected, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip may not have bothered shooting his cousin, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, sparking World War I.

Miklós Jancsó’s highly controversial fantasy/drama Private Vices, Public Virtues was inspired by the Mayerling Incident, but only to the extent that its protagonists bear the names of Crown Prince Rudolf and Mary Vetsera. If anything, the 1976 film served as a metaphor to a time in central Europe, only a few years earlier, when the heady aroma of freedom caused young people to thumb their noses at their elders and repressive Communist Party leaders. Sexual libertines and feminists promoted their own agendas, if only for a brief period of time. By setting the debauchery and tragedy in the late-1800s, Jancsó probably thought he could deflect the controversy sure to rise from the extensive nudity and non-traditional sexual couplings. Sadly, it didn’t. After its Cannes debut, Private Vices, Public Virtues would be treated like a pariah, even within arthouse circles. Forty years later, it can be viewed as a bacchanalian fantasy or Habsburgian Woodstock – for once, the male nudity equals that of the female characters — that recalls the work of Fellini, Pasolini, Tinto Brass and Walerian Borowczyk. The revelries are well-staged and the production values top-notch. This first Blu-Ray edition, from Mondo Macabro, is uncut and restored from the original negative. It comes with extensive interviews with cast member Pamela Villoresi, film historian Michael Brooke and writer Giovanna Gagliardo.

TV to DVD
Better Call Saul: Season Two: Blu-ray
While it’s probably true that proponents of quality television wouldn’t have to had to watch the entirety of “Breaking Bad” to enjoy its spinoff prequel, “Better Call Saul,” there would be no way to appreciate Season Two without first absorbing Season One. That might sound obvious, but the same basic rule hasn’t applied to other prime-time dramas, which could be joined mid-run, mid-season or even mid-show. The show’s protagonist, ethically challenged Albuquerque attorney Jimmy McGill, a.k.a. Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), didn’t make his first appearance in “Breaking Bad” until midway through the second season. “Better Call Saul” begins in 2002, seven years before Walt and Jesse hired the “best criminal lawyer in town” to defend Badger, who had been apprehended by the DEA. In the first season of “Better Call Saul,” we watched Jimmy establish his reputation – largely via ads on late-night television and handouts – as a lawyer willing to do almost anything to get a client exonerated. Jimmy isn’t invincible, but he tries hard. We also met his far more legitimate, if completely paranoid brother, Chuck McGill, who’s a partner in a major New Mexico law firm, and future love interest, attorney Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn).

Jimmy enters the big leagues when he outfinesses his brother’s firm over who should represent residents of the Sandpiper Retirement Home and a corrupt county treasurer who embezzled $1.6 million. All of which leads to Season Two, during which Jimmy and Kim are forced to deal with the ramifications of success and respectability. Former Philadelphia cop Mike Ehrmantraut (veteran bad ass Jonathan Banks), now a parking-lot attendant, is also given a juicy storyline that will extent into “Breaking Bad.” The reclusive Chuck is lured from his man cave by his partners to oppose some of his brother’s more devious moves, but it comes at a price. As sleazy as he might be at times, Jimmy has a good heart and works hard for his clients. Bonus extras include cast and crew commentaries on all 10 episodes, a gag reel and a table-read for the “Switch” episode. Special Blu-ray features add “Jimmy and Kim: A Complicated Relationship,” “The Takedown,” “In Conversation: Jonathan Banks & Mark Margolis,” “Constructing Davis & Main,” “Landing FIFI” and the bonus scene, “HSC: Beaches ‘n’ Peaches,” as well as commercials “Davis & Main Mesothelioma,” “Who Stole My Nest Egg?!,” “Davis & Main Sandpiper” and “Your the Greatest!”

Christmas in November
Bob Hope: Hope for the Holidays
It’s A Wonderful Life: Platinum Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Lifetime: The Spirit of Christmas
UPtv: A Dogwalker’s Christmas Tale
Shared Rooms
There once was a time, not so long ago, when Christmas wasn’t Christmas until the first of many airings of It’s a Wonderful Life and the annual Bob Hope holiday special, whether it was from a war zone or a festive soundstage at NBC’s Burbank studios. In my opinion, the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol, starring Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, still trumps all the other versions, with the possible exception of the 1962 made-for-TV “Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” but that’s just a personal choice. Another generation of viewers might point to “Rudolph, the Red-Nose Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” as shows they return to year after year. Time Life/WEA’s “Bob Hope: Hope for the Holidays” is one of several DVDs extant that focus on the beloved comedian’s holiday specials and star-studded USO tours. From what I can recall, “Hope for the Holidays” represents the penultimate such show, 1993’s “Bob Hope’s Bag Full of Christmas Memories,” made when he was 90 … the approximate age of some of the Phyllis Diller jokes. It originally was included in the boxed set, “Bob Hope: The Ultimate Collection.” The setting, we’re told, is Bob and Dolores Hope’s Toluca Lake home, but I wouldn’t bet a lot of money on that. As usual, they invited friends from the world of entertainment and sports to celebrate and reminisce about vintage seasonal sketches, which date back to the December 24, 1950, with “The Colgate Comedy Hour,” whose guests included opera star Lily Pons, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bob Cummings, New York Mayor Vincent Impellitteri, the Boys’ Choir from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and Charles Sandford and his Orchestra. The guest list for the 1993 show included Naomi and Wynonna Judd, Loni Anderson, Barbara Eden, Joey Lawrence, Ed Marinaro, Lynn Swann, Loretta Swit and a couple dozen cameos, via archive footage. A compilation of Bob’s monologues from his many holiday tours for the USO is also included.

The story behind Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is almost as fascinating as the one told in the movie. It had an uneasy gestation period and took its own good-natured time reaching classic status or turning a profit. Adapted from Philip Van Doren Stern’s 1939 story, “The Greatest Gift,” it opened to mixed reviews and lousy box-office, but five Academy Award nominations. Its lone winner was a Technical Achievement Award, which honored RKO Radio Studio’s Special Effects Department for the development of a new method of simulating falling snow on motion picture sets. The next year, the FBI issued a memorandum pointing out the possibly communist-inspired themes in the movie. It wasn’t until It’s a Wonderful Life fell into the public domain, in the mid-1970s, that it became a true staple of the holiday season. Although royalties were still paid to certain rights holders, the movie was shown repeatedly on network affiliates and independently owned stations. Today, NBC is licensed to show the film on U.S. network television, limiting its exposure to two airings during the holidays. Colorization also became an issue in 1986, when the first of three versions was released by Hal Roach Studios. Capra changed his mind on the technology when his investment in Colorization Inc. was returned and he lost artistic control over the process. A third colorized version was produced by Legend Films and released on DVD in 2007 with the approval of Capra’s estate. In addition to both the B&W and colorized versions, the Platinum Edition features two bonus materials, “The Making of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’” and “A Personal Remembrance,” a special tribute to Frank Capra, narrated by his son Frank Capra Jr.

The proliferation of distribution points for original programming has resulted in a surplus of holiday-themed movies that can be repackaged as made-for-DVD movies or repeated endlessly on cable channels, such as Lifetime, UPtv, Disney and Hallmark. For the most part, they’re as provocative as the average Christmas card and as nutritious as white bread. While most are targeted at so-called family audiences, others add romantic hooks that wouldn’t offend a Sunday School teacher. That’s OK … there’s no shortage of R-rated holiday-themed movies in the marketplace for less-sentimental viewers. Lifetime’s “The Spirit of Christmas” fits most of the qualifications required of a made-for-cable movie, but, even so, I was surprised by how diverting I it is. Kate (Jen Lilley) is an ambitious New England attorney, assigned by a real-estate company to appraise the value of Hollygrove Inn, a grand Victorian home that has been in the Forsythe family for generations. It doesn’t take her long to figure out that the place is haunted by Daniel (Thomas Beaudoin), a dandy who was murdered 90 years earlier, on Christmas. Daniel can be a playful fellow, but he’s cursed with the need for mourning his lost love, Lily (Kati Salowsky). Kate volunteers to use modern detection techniques to solve the crime. Even if you can guess the rest, director David Jackson and writer Tracy Andreen minimize the clichés by maximizing the charm.

Letia Clouston and Jake Helgren’s “A Dogwalker’s Christmas Tale” doesn’t offer much that’s particularly new, but dog lovers might want to take a chance on it. What it boils down to is a tale of redemption involving a spoiled college student, Luce Lockhart (Lexi Giovagnoli), who is forced to take a job over the holidays after maxing out her credit cards. While walking the dog of a rich developer, she learns that the local canine campus will soon be turned into a spa. This doesn’t bother Luce, until the folks at the dog park explain what the space means to them personally. She joins forces with an overamped veterinary student desperate to quash the development, but it must be accomplished by Christmas.

Now that gay and lesbian couples have won the right to get married and start families, it won’t be long before the LGBT genre begins to overflow with the overly sentimental holiday movies that resemble the stories that are made for mainstream cable networks. With only a few small variations, same-sex spouses and parents will be confronted with the same challenges and dilemmas as men and women in traditional marriages and they’ll deal with them in much the same way. Writer/director Rob Williams already has one seasonal title under his belt, Make the Yuletide Gay (2009). Shared Rooms is a feel-good rom-com, set between Christmas and New Year’s Day, a period typically reserved for familial angst and the anxiety that derives from unrealized expectations. Married couple Laslo and Cal (Christopher Grant Pearson, Alec Manley Wilson) take in a gay teen relative (Ryan Weldon), who shows up on their doorstep after being kicked out of his home. Sid and Gray (Justin Xavier, Alexander Neil Miller) have a casual online hookup that unexpectedly deepens and Julian and Dylan (Daniel Lipshutz, Robert Werner) confront their secret mutual attraction when a boarder is taken in and they’re forced to share a bed for a week. The intertwining stories come together at a New Year’s Eve party, not unlike Garry Marshall’s New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. Among the issues discussed in an upbeat manner are gay parenting, disembodied hookups, rehab, dealing with exes and gay youth being rejected by their families.

The DVD Wrapup: Star Trek/Wars, Indignation, Private Property, Morris From America, Viktoria, Mes Aynak, Initiation and more

Friday, November 11th, 2016

Star Trek Beyond: Blu-ray
Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens Blu-ray
If you dig deep enough into the Pulp Fiction bonus package, you’ll find a deleted scene in which Mia Wallace tells Vincent Vega: “My theory is that when it comes to important subjects, there’s only two ways a person can answer. For example, there’s two kinds of people in this world, Elvis people and Beatles people. Now Beatles people can like Elvis. And Elvis people can like the Beatles. But nobody likes them both equally. Somewhere, you have to make a choice. And that choice tells me who you are.” Having interviewed diehard fans of Star Trek and Star Wars, I suspect that the same is true for the rival sci-fi/adventure franchises. If pure numbers mean anything in such a comparison, it’s probably relevant to point out that Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens outgrossed Star Trek Beyond on the worldwide stage, $2.07 billion to   $341.9 million. The domestic/foreign ratio of 45/55 percent is roughly the same for both films. If Beyond is the weakest of the three “rebooted” editions domestically, it falls between Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness in overseas markets. Comparing the production budgets for the latest entries shows that Episode VII cost $245 million, while Beyond ate up around $185 million. It’s practically impossible to figure in the exact cost of [rints & advertising these days. Among other things, digital technology has virtually eliminated the costs associated with film prints, and the so-called Fanboy/Fangirl Effect also impacts the bottom line of franchise pictures. (“Beyond” benefited, as well, from a lucrative marketing and merchandising arrangement with Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.) Identifying and cultivating a new generation of franchise loyalists is as essential as it is difficult to maintain. Critics appeared to endorse both films, with “Force” scoring an excellent 82 rating on Metacritic versus a very positive 68 Metascore for “Beyond.” In the case of franchise and comic-book pictures, though, an aggregator of reviews on niche sites likely would more helpful than the opinions of mainstream pundits.

If these holiday-ready set demonstrate anything conclusively, it’s that distributors of DVD/Blu-ray/VOD titles are way ahead of consumers and equipment manufacturers on the technological curve, at least when it comes to promoting the visual and audio potential for home theaters. Unlike Ultra High Def and Blu-ray 3D units, technologically advanced pictures, like Star Trek Beyond and the upgraded edition of Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens, are priced to sell right now. Disney made fans wait seven months for the Collector’s Edition everyone knew would arrive by Thanksgiving, giving them time to save their quarters and silver dollars for a new high-end set. Paramount decided not to test the patience of “Trek” loyalists, choosing, instead, to give them the whole meal at once. Complicating things, as usual, are the side deals distributors cut with retailers to offer “exclusive” bonus features. The fold-open DigiPack/Collector’s Edition of “Episode VII” can be purchased in a single all-inclusive box, representing Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray 2D, DVD and Digital HD, as well as a bonanza of new supplements. This, in addition to carryover material from the last release and singular packaging. The release, it should be noted, omits a new Atmos or DTS:X soundtrack, relying, instead, on the previous iteration’s DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 lossless soundtrack. New material includes audio commentary with director J.J. Abrams, who opens with a passionate recounting of seeing the original film for the first time and the franchise’s influence on cinema; three newly added deleted scenes; and three new featurettes, “Foley: A Sonic Tale,” “Dressing the Galaxy” and “Sounds of the Resistance.” Tech-savvy fans will have to wait a bit longer for the UHD version of the movie, as well. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the Collector’s Edition, though.

While it’s possible to settle for the basic Star Trek Beyond package, with Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD/UltraViolet and Atmos sound, some consumers will be tempted by separate a 4K Ultra HD edition; Blu-ray 3D; 4K/3D Gift Set, exclusively through Amazon; and two-disc sets, whose individual packaging, features and collectibles have been created for sales at Wal-Mart, Target or Best Buy. Do your homework and you won’t be disappointed when you get home. In the same way that some glossy magazines will distribute different covers of the same edition, hoping to snag collectors, it’s possible that Paramount is counting on Trekkies to buy several different packages, hoping they’ll be valuable one day. Maybe, if it also limited the production run, the gambit would work. Too much of the same good product won’t make it any more lucrative in 20 years, though. Fortunately, “Beyond” can stand on its own as a vehicle for fast-paced action, solid story-telling and character continuity. The biggest difference this time around, really, is the introduction of director Justin Lin (Fast and the Furious), who was handed the baton by Abrams when he was entrusted with “Star Wars: Episode VII,” and a distinct feeling of loss, knowing that Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin are no longer with us. Otherwise, after docking at Starbase Yorktown, the crew of the USS Enterprise — halfway into their five-year mission – once again is called upon to venture into dangerous uncharted territory to rescue stranded allies. The Enterprise is destroyed in an ambush by a ruthless enemy with a deep hatred of the Federation, leaving Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew stranded on a remote planet with no means of communication. With the crew separated and the villains’ true intentions only slowly coming to light, their mission becomes a fight for survival that could result in countless dead. The supplemental material adds deleted scenes; a gag reel; and the featurettes, “Beyond the Darkness,” “Enterprise Takedown,” “Divided and Conquered,” “A Warped Sense of Revenge,” “Trekking in the Desert,” “Exploring Strange New Worlds,” “New Life, New Civilizations,” “To Live Long and Prosper,” “For Leonard and Anton.”

The commemoration of “ST50” continues with the release of the Smithsonian Channel documentary, “Building Star Trek,” set against the backdrop of two projects: rebuilding the bridge and restoring the original USS Enterprise model. Astronauts, engineers and writers, as well as the series’ stars, come together to explore the visionary universe of “Star Trek.” It serves as a companion DVD to History Channel’s “50 Years of Star Trek,” released last month.

Indignation: Blu-ray
Philip Roth has written 31 books, of which 8 have been adapted for the big screen and another for television. Compared to Stephen King or William Shakespeare – there, I mentioned their names in the same breath – that’s not a terribly impressive number. There’s no telling how many times the rights to his other novels have been purchased, without being turned into feature films, but it’s probably a sizable number. Comedies Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint probably did OK at the box office, at a time when adults who read books also went to the movies, if only to see what the Philistines in Hollywood did to them. Far less successful were The Human Stain; Elegy, which was adapted from “The Dying Animal”; The Humbling; American Pastoral and, new to video, Indignation. With the exception of the 1984 “American Playhouse” presentation of “The Ghost Writer,” it wasn’t until 2003 that anyone attempted another film adaptation. The Human Stain underperformed, despite a list of credits that included director Robert Benton, screenwriter Nicholas Meyer and actors Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Gary Sinise, Anna Deavere Smith, Kerry Washington and Margo Martindale. It received several very positive reviews, but was deemed a hard slog for mainstream audiences. In Elegy, Ben Kingsley is terrific as a professor of literature and a student of American hedonism, who falls hard for a 22-year-old student, Consuela (Penelope Cruz), who doesn’t understand the toll jealousy takes older men. Patricia Clarkson, Dennis Hopper and Peter Sarsgaard are also very good in it. Even with Al Pacino, Greta Gerwig and Nina Arlanda working at the top of their game, Barry Levinson’s The Humbling could only be found at festivals and on DVD. A Pulitzer Prize for Fiction probably won’t be enough encouragement for anything more than a limited run of Ewan McGregor’s recent adaptation of American Pastoral.

New to DVD/Blu-ray this week, Indignation is based on Roth’s 29th novel of the same title. It is set in 1951, a period in American history when a student deferment could mean the difference between staying alive and being killed in the Korean War. Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), the son of a kosher butcher and not atypical Jewish mother, is about to make the jump from Newark to Ohio’s Winesburg College – yes, named after the novel — which is far enough from New Jersey to keep his overprotective parents from moving into the dorm with him. Instead, he’ll be rooming with the only two Jewish underclassmen who’ve decided not to join the fraternity where most Jewish students congregate. Marcus is a conscientious student and confirmed atheist who bristles at the mandated chapel services and overall conservativism of the WASP-y administrators, who spy on the students and make snap judgments based on race and religion, not that there are any black students. (After graduating from high school in Newark, Roth attended college at Bucknell, in central Pennsylvania.) Marcus is thrown for a loop, when on his first date with an alluring shiksa goddess, Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), he unexpectedly receives his first blow job. He doesn’t know quite how to handle the gesture or Olivia’s blasé attitude to an act some young men consider to be a hard-earned stepping stone to adulthood. (“This will come as a great shock to young people,” Roth has quipped, “but, in 1951, you could make it through college unscathed by oral sex.”) When Marcus makes the mistake of taking his roommates’ sexist comments to heart, it sets off a series of events that is the opposite of comedy. Also very good here are Tracy Letts, as the uptight Dean Caudwell, and Linda Emond, as Marcus’ unconsciously toxic mother. Featurettes include “Timeless: Connecting the Past to the Present” and “Perceptions: Bringing Philip Roth to the Screen.”

Private Property: Blu-ray
How can a movie just disappear … not just from view, but everywhere? That’s the story behind Private Property, a deliciously pulpy crime drama that was released in 1960 and vanished very soon thereafter, thanks, in large part, to the condemnation of the Legion of Decency and lack of a Production Code seal. Television specialist Leslie Stevens’ directorial debut – he had adapted Gore Vidal’s play, “The Left Handed Gun,” for Arthur Penn and Paul Newman – could hardly be confused with …And God Created Woman or Baby Doll. It describes the actions of a matched pair of a vagabond criminals, when tested by nearly irresistible temptation, in a way that’s explicit, without being lurid, and cruel, without being gratuitous. Even as crime fiction, Private Property leans closer to the paperback prose of Jim Thompson’s “After Dark, My Sweet” and “The Killer Inside Me” than Raymond Chandler’s intricately plotted storytelling in “The Big Sleep” or James M. Cain’s “Double Indemnity.” Fact is, if Thompson had been asked to adapt “Of Mice and Men” and set it in southern California, it would look a lot like Private Property. Two drifters, Duke and Boots (Corey Allen, Warren Oates), wander off the beach somewhere near Malibu – far less crowded and expensive than it is today – to a gas station, where the owner senses they’re trouble. It’s there that the boyos first lay eyes on the bleach-blond bombshell, Ann Carlyle (Kate Manx), and hit up a traveling salesman for ride into town, following her all the way to in her swank Beverly Hills home.

It isn’t difficult to see how Boots is Steinbeck’s Lennie Small to Duke’s George Milton. As the alpha male, Boots desperately hopes to ingratiate himself into the arms of Ann, pretending to be a gardener in need of a few bucks. She’s nice enough to set him up with a little work and the kind of increasingly personal conversation that he hopes will lead to something intimate. Ann loves her salesman husband, but he pays more attention to his job than his lovely wife, even in bed. The intruders hole up in the unoccupied home next-door, which provides a grandstand view of her swimming pool. Duke has promised Boots that the next desperate woman they find will be his, but he’ll have to be patient. A lummox and likely sexual deviant, Boots is played to a T by Warren Oates, who, in 1960, was on the brink of becoming one of the leading character actors of his generation. Watching him, you can almost see the molten lava rising to the surface of his twisted psyche. In Allen’s hands, Duke is all sublimated rage and Playboy-sanctioned lust. Stevens, a protégé of Orson Welles, was married to Manx at the time and the film was shot in and around their home. Shooting was completed in around a week’s time, for just under $60,000. Private Property has been given a fresh 4K restoration from previously lost film elements rediscovered and preserved by UCLA Film and Television Archive. It adds a new video interview with still photographer and technical consultant Alex Singer and essay by Don Malcolm.

Morris From America: Blu-ray
Here’s a movie I didn’t see coming. Writer-director Chad Hartigan surprised me before, with the minimalist drama, This Is Martin Bonner, about two very different adult men desperate to make a mid-life correction before it’s too late. It didn’t get much attention outside the festival circuit, but, then, what does these days? In Morris From America, Hartigan manages to avoid all the ways in which a movie about a precocious 13-year-old African-American boy and wannabe gangsta rapper (YouTube star Markees Christmas) can go wrong, especially if the filmmaker is white and the story is set in Germany. Morris’ father, Curtis (Craig Robinson), has taken a job as a soccer coach in Heidelberg, where his son’s classmates expect him to play basketball (he doesn’t) and kowtow to their not-so-understated racism. Curtis is as hip a dad as any motherless child could want, but his job interferes with his ability to monitor Morris’ journey through puberty. Sensing the boy’s vulnerability, the slightly older Katrin (Lina Keller) adopts him as a younger brother, protective one minute and cruel the next. He also gets advice from his German-language tutor, played by Carla Juri (so good in Wetlands), who also has trouble deciding what insights about the boy she should share with Curtis and what are best left unmentioned. Every minute the movie goes on, Morris feels less and less like a fish out of water. Katrin encourages her older boyfriend, a deejay, to put the boy on stage with him for an improvised number, while also introducing him to some of the same bad habits he might have gotten into if they’d stayed in New York. It’s where Morris From America approaches the coming-of-age crossroads, but pulls back before the protagonist finds himself at childhood’s end. Robinson is terrific as Curtis, who, at first, wants to be his son’s best friend and confidante, but also learns a thing or two about parenting as the movie reaches its satisfying conclusion. Aside from raunchy R-rated hip-hop poetics and underage partying, Morris From America probably could have found an enthusiastic audience among kids in their mid-teens. I wonder if anyone tried very hard to find it. The package adds commentary, a deleted scene, audition footage, bloopers and a backgrounder.

Band of Robbers
Like Jeff Nichols’ Indie Spirit-winning adventure, Mud, Adam and Aaron Nee’s ambitious crime-caper, Band of Robbers, borrows freely from Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” It even goes so far as to name its principle characters after those invented by Twain, albeit1,500 miles from the Mississippi River, in the American Southwest of today. Kyle Gallner and Adam Nee, play adult versions of childhood friends, Huck and Tom. Huck’s just been released from prison and would prefer going straight to joining Tom and some of their doofus buddies in a heist so improbable that it could have only been inspired by an author whose imagination knew no limits. While Huck was cooling his heels in stir, Tom was very slowly climbing the latter in his local police department. His real dream, though, is to reunite the gang and finally uncover the path that leads to a treasure in gold. Just as they’re about to hit the safe in a pawn shop, Tom is assigned a pretty young partner, Becky Thatcher (Melissa Benoist), who’s destined to gum up the works. The Nees have also found a spot for Injun Joe (Stephen Lang) in the narrative, building some clever gags about his Native American roots, such as they are. As promising as the conceit is, however, Band of Robbers could have benefitted from a larger production budget and a bit more time to think things through. Still I wouldn’t deny it an “A” for effort.

The Hospital 2
A horror-movie distributor knows it’s struck gold when a supermarket chain bans the film from its stores or, even better, a relatively obscure country bans it out of hand.  That’s precisely what happened to the sleazy torture-porn vehicle, The Hospital, in the UK and Bulgaria, respectively. Three years later, the sequel has arrived to test the ethical stance of purveyors of DVDs that wear their exploitative hearts on their sleeves for the world to see. The Hospital 2 only makes passing reference to the abandoned facility whose haunting had less to do with the pissed-off ghosts of former patients than the obese psycho-killer-in-residence, Stanley Creech, who prompted the spirits’ anger. Here, the action moves to a shelter, run by some truly sick individuals who torture the abused women and stream the sessions around the world on the Internet. It’s almost as if co-writer/directors Jim O’Rear and Daniel Emery Taylor made a quick study of the earlier film’s fans and declared, “If it’s sadism, fake blood, sexual perversity and overweight actors they want, let’s give it to them, again.” There is one actor, Betsy Rue, who is in tip-top shape, but, she, too, spends a great deal of time running around the house is blood-covered underwear. To borrow a tired phrase that could be used to describe most low-budget atrocities, “It is what it is.” The DVD adds interviews, bloopers, a video diary and featurette on the historic house – haunted, too – in which The Hospital 2 was filmed.

Viktoria
The Almost Man
Of all the god-forsaken places one could find themselves in the decade before the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Bulgaria was right up there with Albania and East Germany as places where the sunshine of freedom went to die. Judging from the characters we meet in Maya Vitkova’s emotionally wrenching debut feature, Viktoria, Bulgaria hasn’t exactly been a barrel of laughs since then, either. The film is divided into three distinct segments, with one of three related women put on center stage in each part. In a nearly affectless performance, Irmena Chichikova plays a young woman, Boryana, whose dream of escaping the oppressive country and traveling to Venice is thwarted by news of her pregnancy. Boryana tries every conceivable way to force a miscarriage, but her bureaucrat husband, Ivan (Dimo Dimov), wants the baby to arrive on Mother Nature’s timetable and keeps a close eye on her. In a conceit that some viewers might consider to be overripe with symbolism, baby Viktoria arrives without a belly button or umbilical cord. Communist Party functionaries latch on to the event with far more enthusiasm and wonder than poor Boryana, who sees the government declaration of Viktoria being the Baby of the Decade as just one more lock on the door of her prison. Fortunately for the baby, Ivan and Boryana’s chronically dour mother, Dima (Mariana Krumova), happily take advantage of the government’s gifts of a new apartment and better jobs within the Communist Party. Flash-forward nine years and Boryana’s more alienated from her family than ever. Viktoria (Daria Vitkova), on the other hand, has formed a weirdly paternal relationship with the party chief, who soon could be out of a job. Since she isn’t tethered to the old system, symbolically or otherwise, the girl wrings the miracle-child game for all it’s worth. Another flash-forward brings Viktoria (Kalina Vitkova) closer to the age of her mother when she became pregnant. The fact that Viktoria’s beloved grandmother is likely to die soon raises the rare maternal spark in Boryana, who no longer can keep her daughter from exploring horizons of her own … or provide any realistic excuse for not realizing her own dream. Like so many other movies from Eastern European filmmakers, Vitkova isn’t reluctant to throw in the kind of fantastical touches that will keep westerners, at least, guessing as to their deeper meaning. As the picture nears the 155-minute mark, Viktoria’s audience may be looking for something other than symbolism – milk, blood and distant lights, among them – to get them closer to the finish line. Still, an auspicious debut from a promising new filmmaker.

Also from Big World Pictures comes The Almost Man, a Norwegian dramedy that feels very much like the kind of American picture in which you might find Adam Sandler, Vince Vaughn or Jason Segel in the protagonist’s role. The title character is a rapidly aging man-boy, Henrik (Henrik Rafaelsen), who knows that he’ll have to grow up someday, but keeps on delaying the inevitable. His redheaded girlfriend, Mia, is pregnant with a baby who will be more mature at birth than her daddy is at 35. Henrik and Mia’s relationship appears to be based on acting like horny teenagers whenever the mood strikes, which, recently, has been less and less often. She’s grown tired of sharing his affections with his similarly dopey pals, whose idea of a good time is snapping towels at each other’s penises in the shower room. Finally feeling the paternal urge, Henrik takes a new job and moves into a prefab duplex with Mia. Even at a brisk 75 minutes, writer/director Martin Lund keeps us guessing as to whether Henrik’s experiment will work.

Saving Mes Aynak
Timothy Leary’s Dead
One Nation Under Trump
As if there isn’t enough bad news coming out of Afghanistan, along comes Brent E. Huffman’s eye-opening documentary, Saving Mes Aynak, another sad tale of exploitation versus preservation. Afghan archaeologist Qadir Temori is in a race against time to save a 5,000-year-old archaeological site from imminent demolition by Chinese mining interests. The last time such a cultural catastrophe occurred in the region, the Taliban regime destroyed the majestic Buddhas of Bamiyan in an act of religious fanaticism. This time, however, the atrocity is being financed by state-owned China Metallurgical Group, which bought mineral rights for the equivalent of a paltry $3 billion. It is believed that $100 billion worth of copper is sitting under Mes Aynak, a Bronze Age community that was a stop on the Silk Road before it became an outpost for early Buddhist thought and culture. There’s no way that Temori and an international team of archaeologists will be able to salvage even a quarter of the ruins and artifacts before they’re rendered into dust by giant earth-moving machines. Nothing they uncover that is not portable will be preserved. It’s assumed that current and future Afghan leaders have already been sufficiently bribed and the U.S. isn’t about to intercede in another losing cause there. Saving Mes Aynak, a co-production of Kartemquin Films and German Camera Productions, is being used in an information campaign timed to coincide with the release on DVD – through Icarus Films here — and free public screenings in Afghanistan. The mine also is likely to produce an environmental disaster and become an easy target for Taliban terrorists who reside in the eastern mountains. During the production, the team was protected by 200 armed guards. That number has been reduced as the government has turned the screws on the mission. The DVD adds more interviews, deleted scenes and featurettes on the digs and the early discoveries.

Twenty years after his death, Timothy Leary remains one of the most interesting and influential figures of his time. That, he also was one of the century’s most self-indulgent and self-promoting goofballs – unable to stay out of the spotlight for more than a few days – worked against his earlier scholarship and investigations into the role psychedelic drugs could play in curing some of society’s more troublesome ills. The title of Paul Davids’ wide ranging documentary, Timothy Leary’s Dead, is, of course, taken from the Moody Blues’ song, “Legend of a Mind.” In between the release of that song and his actual death, attributed to prostate cancer, in 1996, Leary became the object of nearly constant surveillance and harassment by various police agencies. In a very real sense, he also became the poster boy for the non-clinical abuse of LSD as a recreational drug, something he argued against since the mid-1960s. If there was a more delusional group of radicals than Leary and his celebrity entourage, it was the Weather Underground. The domestic terrorists convinced themselves that breaking him out of prison would convince dopers and other flower children that blowing up buildings might be as much fun as attending a Grateful Dead concert. Once he found refuge in Algeria with the Black Panther Party-in-exile, however, it became abundantly clear that acid and revolution didn’t mix very well. Everything in Timothy Leary’s Dead leads to the death-bed scene. Leary had come to grips with his death sentence by suggesting that he would merely be traveling to the next frontier. He asked that his final moments be made available over the Internet and his brain waves be monitored, for as long as possible. Towards the end, he also became obsessed with cryogenics. While he asked that his body be cremated, friends pitched in to have his ashes jettisoned into space, along with the those of Gene Roddenberry and a couple dozen other final frontiersmen. I don’t normally hand out Spoiler Alerts, but, in this case, it should be noted that Davids borrows a notion, possibly from Re-Animator, that Leary demanded that his head be removed immediately after death and saved in a box filled with ice. It’s plenty creepy, especially considering that it’s possible to imagine the face springing to life with a final, “Th-th-th-that’s all folks!” The DVD adds commentary and indecipherable charts.

Given the outcome of the presidential election, it’s entirely possible that you’ll see a DVD titled One Nation Under Trump on a VOD menu. For some reason, this clip job’s street date was Tuesday, November 8, Election Day. Maybe someone thought Jim Gufferson and BC Furtney’s so-called documentary might have undue influence on the American electorate. In fact, there’s nothing revealed in the film that you haven’t already seen at one point or a thousand over the last two years on the campaign trail.

Fire Song
Hara Kiri
For his debut feature, Adam Garnet Jones, a Canadian of Cree and Métis ancestry, has elected to take on issues that would test the limits of filmmakers with far more experience. If being gay weren’t still an issue in tight-knit First Nation communities, Fire Song could have been marketed as a drama about the difficulties of a rural youth leaving home and getting a leg up on adulthood in a place where the challenges don’t involve overcoming a sibling’s suicide, getting his distraught mother’s life back in order, breaking a cycle of alcohol and poverty, and avoiding the bad decisions of his peers. The film’s protagonist, Shane (Andrew Martin), is an Anishinaabe teenager in northern Ontario, who wants to keep his girlfriend (Mary Galloway) happy without having to commit to having sex with her. That’s something he’s reserved for his boyfriend, David (Harley Legarde-Beacham), the semi-closeted grandson of a tribal leader. His mother’s family wants to take the money he’s set aside for college and use it to fix a leaky roof, something his uncle is too lazy to do on his own. There’s more, but why pile on? It says a lot about Jones’ innate filmmaking skills that the story moves as fluidly as it does and doesn’t get bogged down in the most difficult throughlines. Indeed, the boys’ gay dilemma almost comes off as a red herring, at times. Fire Song benefits greatly from being shot in the alternately gorgeous and gritty Anishinaabe community, which sits on the banks of a large lake and marshes with plenty of places for “two spirit” (masculine/feminine) lovers to get lost. The cast is comprised exclusively of First Nations actors and, I suspect, the crew was similarly populated. When paired alongside Jack Pettibone Riccobono’s docu-drama, The Seventh Fire, set on a poverty-stricken Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota, you might be excused for thinking that Native American filmmakers finally are laying claim to their own stories.

Henry Alberto’s debut feature, Hara Kiri, is another film that straddles the categories typically reserved for LGBT and indie audiences. SoCal skate punks August (Jesse Pimentel) and Beto (Mojean Aria) are united by a distinct lack of direction in life and willingness to push the envelope on anti-social behavior. They fit right into the Venice Beach scene, but, apart from a missing gear or two between their ears, have brains that someday could be used for something other than mischief. It’s possible that they’re lovers, too, but we’re given reasons to believe they aren’t exclusive to any single gender. After giving the subject some thought, they’ve decided to kill themselves in a suicide pact. We’re invited to go along for the ride, which takes them from the morning of their penultimate day on Earth to the next sunrise, which they’ve set aside for the final act. That, of course, presupposes that they’ll be able to pull it off, alone or together. In Alberto’s debut picture, the climax is always in doubt. The DVD adds alternate and deleted scenes, audition clips and a Q&A with Alberto and Pimentel.

The Initiation: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The natural audience for Arrow Films’ resurrection of the underwhelming 1984 slasher flick, The Initiation – besides Daphne Zuniga fetishists – is the one dedicated to collecting every coeds-in-jeopardy and sorority-bloodbath title extant. The nudity has already been accorded Mr. Skin Hall of Fame Nudity status, which, based on the new Blu-ray release, makes it time for an update. Zuniga plays a college freshman, who, as a girl, witnessed “the beast with two backs” gyrating on her mom’s bed and decided to stab the one didn’t belong to her dad. Flash-forward a dozen years, or so, and Kelly is about to be initiated into a sorority known for kinky swearing-in rituals. Coincidentally, we learn, a riot has broken out at a mental hospital near the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex. Not surprisingly, one or more of the patients will find their way to the post-initiation party being held in her family’s multi-story department store, whose doors are locked from the outside by a devious sorority sister. Chaos ensues. If you’re guessing that Zuniga will wind up being the “final girl,” you’d only be half right. The Initiation has been given an excellent hi-def restoration from original film elements, as well as new audio commentary by The Hysteria Continues; fresh interviews with actor Christopher Bradley and Joy Jones; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Justin Osbourn; and a collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by critic James Oliver.

Boonville Redemption
The first thing some folks are likely to notice on the cover of the end-of-an-era Western, Boonville Redemption, is the almost bizarre juxtaposition of two of the names over the title. They belong to Christian conservative and Gospel Hall of Fame member, Pat Boone, and the outspoken liberal political activist and former president of the Screen Actors Guild, Ed Asner. The last time these two octogenarians agreed on anything more controversial than the time of day, it probably had to do with … well, it’s hard to imagine them seeing eye to eye on anything. Eighty-year-old Diane Ladd, who’s been honored for her work in such disparate entertainments as Wild at Heart, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, “Touched by an Angel” and “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” fits easily between her polarly opposed co-stars. I’m not sure how much time Boone and Asner shared on the straight-to-DVD/VOD film’s Western-town set at the Paramount Ranch, in Agoura. One plays a country doctor who dispenses bromides, as well as pills, while the other is a grumpy judge, riding a circuit in northern California, in 1906. You can probably guess which one plays which. In fact, though, the faith-based Boonville Redemption has something in it to appeal to most viewers, even liberals. (The Dove Foundation reviewers recommend it ti audiences 12 and above.)

At the center of the drama is 13-year-old Melinda (is Emily Hoffman), a hard-luck kid who was born out of wedlock and is scorned by the old farts in town for her non-WASPy features. She’s especially despised by her step-father, Mason (Richard Tyson), who’s managed to intimidate all the other men in town with his willingness to engage in violence and exploit the political clout of his father. He also boasts of forcing Boonville’s younger women to engage in sex with him. Melinda’s mother, Alice (Shari Rigby), appears to have married the bully to escape the stain attributed to her lover, who disappeared years earlier. No one dares tell Malinda what “really happened” to her father and, so, she’s left to investigate the circumstances on her own, or in the company of her only friend, an orphan boy nicknamed “Shakespeare,” for reasons that will become evident. It isn’t until they embrace prayer that the truth slowly begins to emerge. Even then, however, it seems almost as common a recommendation as someone suggesting aspirin for a headache. As isn’t the case in most faith-based movies, the “Redemption” in the title reveals itself in a largely organic and satisfying manner. Director Don Schroeder (“No Greater Love”) and freshman writer Judy Belshe-Toernblom deserve credit for dealing with issues not typically addressed in faith-based movies in such straight-forward ways.

Snowtime!: Blu-ray 3D
Stick Man
Here are a pair of holiday-themed movies for kids, whose animation is more sophisticated than that usually reserved for such seasonal fare and whose stories can be enjoyed by cross-generational audiences. From Quebec comes Snowtime!, a remake of La Guerre des Tuques (“The Dog Who Stopped the War”), a live-action French-Canadian kids’ pic that topped Canada’s box office in 1984. During Christmas holidays, the children of a small village split themselves into two groups, build a huge snow fort and begin preparing for a week-long snowball war. The youthful rivalry reveals lingering tensions among some group members, while also helping members see each other differently than they had before. This is particularly true for the leaders of the two groups, Luc (voiced by Angela Galuppo) and Sophie (Lucinda Davis), who find themselves torn between admiring each other from a distance, yet leading their own group to victory. Snowtime!’s allegorical isn’t deeply buried under a snowbank: peace is tough and tedious; war is the easy solution. Other voices are supplied by Sandra Oh and Disney Channel star Ross Lynch. The song, “L’hymme,” is performed by Céline Dion and Fred Pellerin. The film is available in DVD, Blu-ray 2D and 3D.

Stick Man” is adapted from British author Julia Donaldson and artist Axel Scheffler’s children’s book of the same title. In it, an anthropomorphic twig becomes separated from his family in spring and is required to embark on an Odyssean adventure to return home in time for Christmas. If he is to be reunited with his family, Stick Man will require the assistance of all sorts of interesting characters, including Father Christmas.  The 27-minute animated film was directed by Jeroen Jaspaert and Daniel Snaddon, and produced by the team responsible for the Oscar-nominated shorts, The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom. It features the voice talents of Martin Freeman, Jennifer Saunders and Rob Brydon.

Nurse Diary: Beast Afternoon
42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection Vol. 18
It’s been a good while since Synapse released its last entry in the Nikkatsu Roman Porno series, which, besides kinky soft-core porn, is distinguished by titles that defy easy description or comprehension. The new DVD entry, Nurse Diary: Beast Afternoon, arrives in the wake of news that the venerable Japanese studio has re-booted the series and is sending out five new films, to be shown in theaters and cable TV before being introduced into DVD. They will be made according to the traditional Nikkatsu recipe, which may have been dictated by Roger Corman: low budgets, seven-day shooting schedules and a sex scene every 10 minutes – but it’s too early to say whether the formidable pubic-hair ban of yore will be honored … not that contemporary actresses have any left after bush trimming. Between 1971 and 1988, Nikkatsu released 1,133 films in the genre, some launching the careers of mainstream directors and stars. Yojiro Takita, who won a best foreign-language Oscar in 2009 for Departures, directed several Roman Porno and Shintoho-pink productions in the 1980s, including Molester’s School Infirmary and Groper Train: Wedding Capriccio. Released two years after his 1980 debut with Zoom In: Rape Apartments, Naosuke Kurosawa’s Nurse Diary: Beast Afternoon is interesting primarily for demonstrating an active imagination at work within the strict confines of the Roman Porno formula.

Here, a doctor develops a new scientific breakthrough in female psychotherapy with the discovery of the “Dream Ring,” a device that is inserted into a woman to record her thoughts and dreams. One night, the doctor and his assistant end up dead, hanging by ropes from the rafters of their lab. Later, a woman suffering from “genophobia” (the fear of sexual intercourse) is admitted to the Tachibana Clinic for observation. Another group of doctors, led by the horny lesbian researcher, Ayako (Maiko Kazama), have the “Dream Ring” device implanted inside Reiko (Jun Miho). The ring of a jingle bell triggers wildly erotic and violent dreams and nightmares. The clinic doctors have more sinister reasons to test this device on Reiko, however. A stranger, dressed all in black, follows her around, as well. It lends the film an air of science-fiction and early J-horror. The DVD arrives with notes by Jasper Sharp.

Ironically, the same technology that caused the demise of soft-core Nikkatsu products also pushed hard-core peep shows to the wayside here. In Japan, VCRs and cassettes opened the floodgates to harder material, while, in the U.S., the same hardware allowed consumers to enjoy erotica at home. Impulse Pictures doesn’t waste much time releasing new entries in its “42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection” series, which has just reached “Volume 18.” This collection of 8mm loops features 15 “classic” shorts, with non-ambiguous titles like “Partners,” “Dutch Treat,” “Silky Tongues” and “Twice is Nice.” Among the adult film stars represented in No. 18 are Linda Lovelace, Seka and Linda Shaw. Liner notes are provided by “porn archaeologist,” Dimitrios Otis.

TV-to-DVD
AMC: Into the Badlands: Season 1: Blu-ray
PBS: L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables
PBS: BBQ With Franklin
Apparently, AMC’s loyal viewers were looking for some martial-arts action to fill the gap left when the dead stop walking and its other hit mini-series are on hiatus. After a six-episode inaugural run on the cable network, Into the Badlands has been renewed for a second 10-episode season, set for 2017. Loosely based on the Chinese tale Journey to the West, it describes the journey of a warrior, Sunny (Daniel Wu), and a boy, M.K. (Aramis Knight), who must overcome several obstacles each week on their way to enlightenment. Sometime in the distant future, civilization as we know it has ceased to exist. Billions perished in wars and nations collapsed before a feudal society emerged, where the strongest rose to wealth and power. This area is known as the Badlands. It is uneasily divided among seven rival Barons, who control the resources necessary to sustain daily life, including opium poppies. Each Baron has armies of trained assassins, known as Clippers, at their disposal … literally. And, to make things even more fun for martial-arts junkies, guns have been banished. For once, women and minority actors have been accorded key roles, even those requiring combat. Veteran bad-asses Stephen Lang and Lance Henriksen are prominent in Season One, as well. Being on basic cable, nudity and profanity are taboo. The set adds featurettes on various aspects of the show’s mythology and action sequences, and a digital comic.

Unbeknownst to me, L.M. Montgomery’s 1908 children’s classic “Anne of Green Gables,” and subsequent books featuring the adventures of Anne Shirley, have been adapted for movies, radio, television, the stage and Internet dozens of times in the last 100 years. Fans of the series flock to Canada’s Prince Edward Island, where the Green Gables farmhouse is located, in Cavendish, and Bala’s Museum, in Ontario. Canada Post has issued two separate sets of stamps commemorating Montgomery’s work. The latest typically charming iteration stars Ella Ballentine, as Anne, and Sara Botsford, and Martin Sheen as Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. The late-middle-aged brother and sister live on a farm they have named Green Gables. They are expecting an orphan boy to help with the chores, but, when Anne arrives, they have to reassess their plans. Meanwhile, the little red-haired girl with the irrepressible personality and temper makes an impact on everyone she meets.

Who doesn’t love a great meal of barbecued meat? OK, there are some vegetarians who haven’t jumped on the chuck wagon, but anyone with a predilection for cooking it themselves will want to join pit master and James Beard Award-winner Aaron Franklin for the mouth-watering PBS series, “BBQ With Franklin.” In it, he visits BBQ joints large and small, each with their own secret formula for perfection. The great thing about BBQ is seeing how many different ways it can be prepared and the fierce regional loyalty they inspire. The 10 episodes include “Brisket,” “Sausage.” “Whole Hog,” “The Pits,” “Fire & Smoke,” “Poultry & Sauce,” “Direct Heat & Mesquite,” “Competition,” “Pickin’ Beef” and “Leftovers.”

The DVD Wrapup: Sea of Trees, Uncle Nick, Imperium, Men & Chicken, Judge Archer, IT Team and more

Thursday, November 3rd, 2016

The Sea of Trees: Blu-ray
Now that California has become the fifth state to allow terminally ill residents to request life-ending medication from their physicians, is it beyond the realm of possibility that it might permit them to use the Golden Gate Bridge as the delivery system, instead of drugs? Anything’s possible, I suppose, especially in California. One insurer, at least, reportedly already has denied a cancer patient further coverage of chemotherapy treatments, suggesting she take advantage of the new law. It would be willing to pay for the formal authorization by her doctors and the drugs prescribed, but nothing else. Imagine the savings for our impoverished health-care providers. I considered the possibility of such madness after watching Gus Van Sant’s critically maligned The Sea of Trees, which is set in Japan’s Aokigahara rain forest, at the northwest base of Mount Fuji. It is where dozens of people each year travel to commit unassisted suicide, many for reasons that aren’t related to health issues. Famously haunted by the lingering spirits of the yūrei of those left to die, the vast forest is patrolled by park officials, who merely point to signs that advise visitors to reconsider their choice. Negative word-of-mouth from a media screening at Cannes was so intimidating that its backers decided to limit distribution to a small handful of screens here – significantly more elsewhere — probably hoping that Oscar-winner Matthew McConaughey and nominees Naomi Watts and Ken Watanabe might be able to impact the VOD/DVD aftermarket. Stranger things have happened, but not many.

To be fair to Van Sant, dozens of inarguably worse movies have been released by Hollywood and indie distributors already this year, with some even finding their way to major international film festivals. In The Sea of Trees, an American man, Arthur Brennan (McConaughey), travels to the Suicide Forest to relieve himself of extreme guilt feelings related to his failing marriage to Joan (Watts) and her possibly terminal illness. After finding a suitable place to die, he encounters a disheveled Japanese man (Watanabe), who wants to kill himself as well, and both men begin a journey of self-reflection and survival. The movie’s biggest problem, I think, is that the grandeur of the setting frequently overwhelms the melodramatic handling of the Brennan’s marital woes. The struggle to survive in the forest overnight, during a rain storm, may have had the same effect on the philosophical musings of the two guilt-ridden men. Why fight death, after, when you’ve already welcomed it into your life? Ironically, perhaps, Gramercy/Focus/Universal’s low-budget chiller, The Forest, found Natalie Dormer in the same location, searching for her twin sister, who is believed to have committed suicide there. In The Forest (there’s two, actually) and in a couple of others set in Aokigahara recently, the nefarious spirits of the dead are given more of an opportunity to influence the narrative than in The Sea of Trees. The yūrei aren’t completely absent from Van Sant’s film, but, he doesn’t seem to have been particularly interested in horror. The making-of featurette, “The Sea of Trees: A Story of Beauty and Tragedy,” is included.

Uncle Nick: Blu-ray
The cover art on the Uncle Nick package alerts us to the likelihood that the movie contained therein has something to do with Christmas, with the wonderfully lumpen comic-actor Brian Posehn (“The Sarah Silverman Program”) sitting in for Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa or Randy Quaid’s Cousin Eddie, in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. While it’s obvious that director Chris Kasick and writer Mike Demski (“Attack of the Show!”) probably created Posehn’s lewd, drunken Uncle Nick from the DNA of those memorable characters and other ghosts of holidays past, a parallel storyline has nothing to do with Christmas. After shopping for gifts at a local liquor and hardware store, Nick shows up early at the fancy lakeside home of his brother, Cody (Beau Ballinger), his rich wife, Sophie (Paget Brewster), quizzically flirtatious niece, Valerie (Melia Renee), and nerdy nephew, Marcus (Jacob Houston). He intends to spike the punch and get a head start on everyone else, especially his ditzy sister, Michelle (Missi Pyle), and her doofus husband, Kevin (Scott Adsit).

Savvy viewers could set their clocks to the series of social abominations committed by Nick over the course of the evening, including sharing booze and cigarettes with the kids, sending selfies of his penis to Valerie, berating his brother for sponging off Sophie and trying to make Sophie feel bad about being rich. Being diehard fans of Cleveland sports teams, the filmmakers pay due homage to one of the lowlights in the city’s checkered history: the dime-beer-night promotion at Municipal Stadium on June 4, 1974, which turned so riotous that it caused the Indians to forfeit the game to the Texas Rangers. (It would be trumped five years later by the Disco Demolition Night riot, July 12, 1979, at Chicago’s Comiskey Park.) Uncle Nick is thus broken into inning-by-inning chapters, whose flashbacks reflect the incrementally bad behavior at the game and party. It’s an interesting device … sometimes more interesting than what’s happening inside the house. Fans of Posehn and such off-brand cable-comedy shows as “Mr. Show with Bob and David,” “The Sarah Silverman Program,” “Human Giant,” “The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret” and “Reno 911” should have a field day with Uncle Nick. A barf-o-meter is included in Blu-ray supplemental package.

Imperium: Blu-ray
On April 19, 1995, a rental truck packed with explosives was detonated in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, leaving 168 people dead and hundreds more injured. The immediate knee-jerk reaction by most Americans, I suspect, was that this horrifying crime was perpetrated by the same sort of Islamic terrorists who had denoted a similar device in a truck parked under the North Tower of the World Trade Center, two years earlier, killing six people and injuring more than a thousand. Instead, within two days, right-wing extremists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were identified, arrested and charged in the attack. The former was executed in 1999, while the latter remains in prison. Like the true believers we meet in Daniel Ragussis’ Imperium, the former U.S. Army roommates were inspired by what they believed to be illegal government repression of the survivalists living at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the deadly siege on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. In the 20 years since that attack, the Internet has served as a clearing house for groups, previously not thought directly linked by their hatred for the government, to swap conspiracy theories, learn how to make explosives, trade hate literature, music and Hitler memorabilia, and coordinate actions.

In what at first glance seems to be an illogical casting decision, Ragussis chose wee Daniel Radcliffe to portray FBI agent Nate Foster, who’s based former undercover agent and counterterrorism expert Mike German. He’s recruited by Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette), who monitors such things, to infiltrate a white-supremacist group that she believes is connected to a network of hate organizations holding several containers full of radioactive material. It’s worth noting, however, that Radcliffe, formerly known as Harry Potter, is of the same height and stature as Edward Furlong, who was so scary in American History X. After convincing a group of bonehead Nazi wannabes of his hatred for non-Aryans, he’s introduced to members of other groups far more capable of committing a heinous assault on a big-city utility. Even though Foster is a thorough investigator, there are times when taking a by-the-book approach could cost him his life. His ability to think on his feet makes things interesting and exciting for viewers and everyone around him. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Ragussis and German; cast and crew interviews; and the featurettes “Living Undercover” and “Making Imperium.”

My Love, Don’t Cross that River
Boiled to its essence Jin Mo-young’s thoroughly enchanting My Love, Don’t Cross That River is a romance for the ages and a reminder that love can be eternal … or as close to it as we’re allowed on Earth. Jo Byeong-man and Kang Kye-yeol, have been inseparable companions for 76 years. Being several years younger than her husband when they were introduced to each other, Kang admits to initially being shy and intimidated in his presence. All these years later, they dress in matching outfits, finish each other’s sentences and laugh at each other’s jokes. At the beginning of the film, Jo and Kang are a surprising spry 89 and 98 years old. They show few signs of slowing down as they navigate the rocky paths, hills and streams of their gorgeous rural property. Around a year into the production, Jo developed a serious cough and begins to look his age. No one, except Kang, appears to be concerned enough to bundle him up, put him into a car and take him to the local clinic for a check-up, at least. The closest we get to an early prognosis is Kang explaining to her children that a doctor has concluded that he’s too old to benefit from drugs or stop-gap treatment, so let him hack his lungs out.

Still, it’s possible to wonder if Jin might have considered handing him a bottle of codeine-laced cough syrup and worry about journalistic ethic later. My Love, Don’t Cross That River ends the way it has to end, though, with one of the subjects mourning the passing of the other. Here, as the title suggests, it’s handled with extreme dignity and poetic finality. Even after 86 minutes, we don’t know a great deal about the details of this wonderful couple’s time together. We do know they loved each other and, for reasons of their own, were willing to share their joy and pain with us, and that’s enough. The DVD arrives with Christian Bruno and Natalija Vekic’s short doc, Ed & Pauline, a portrait of the creative collaboration between uber-critic Pauline Kael and fellow movie lover Ed Landberg. In the 1960s, they transformed a small storefront theater in Berkeley into a church for cineastes. As a married couple, however, they were a bust. It recalls a time before Kael was a dominant force in movie criticism at the New Yorker and art films were a rare and endangered species outside New York.

Ugly, Dirty & Bad: Blu-ray
Men & Chicken: Blu-Ray
The Apostate
Now that I’ve seen Ettore Scola’s uncharacteristically uproarious and dark comedy, Ugly, Dirty & Bad, I have a pretty good idea where Paul Abbott might have come up with the narrative structure for the raunchy TV series “Shameless,” in both its British and America iterations. Although Abbott is said to have based the story and characters on his own dysfunctional family and adolescence in rough-and-tumble Burnley, Lancashire, they’re cut from the same cloth as Scola’s film. At the lazy, drunken and dishonest heart of all three is a worthless father, Frank Gallagher, in “Shameless,” and Nino Manfredi, as the despicable Giacinto Mazzatella, in Ugly, Dirty & Bad. So much, though, for idle speculation. Mazzatella lives with his wife and brood of around 18 children, grandchildren, in-laws, his TV-addicted mother and for a third of the movie, at least, his much younger mistress. The seriously overcrowded home is in a hilltop shantytown, located almost in the shadow of the Vatican and homes of people who benefitted from Italy’s post-war “economic miracle.” All the people in the house are distinguished by one or more unappealing personality trait, physical characteristics or financial challenges. The old man lost his sight in one eye from an industrial accident, for which he was compensated with a million lires. A miser, Mazzatella knows that his family would kill him for what they considered to be their share of the money. He hides it in the house or on his person, even going so far as to sleeping with a shotgun. When he brings home his fat prostitute mistress and lavishes her with gifts, food and clothes, the family members do conspire to get rid of him. These are people, we’re told, are “miserable people, living miserably.” The only person in the shantytown considered to be even remotely successful is a pretty teenage girl who poses for pinup magazines and gets lifts home from men who drive Mercedes. She makes her mother proud. Ugly, Dirty & Bad doesn’t offer much of anything hopeful or redemptive to the characters, beyond the ability to survive on the edges of society on their own terms. Neither, though, does he ridicule or slander them. In this way, the movie turned Italian neo-realism on its head. The Film Movement Classics package includes commentary by Richard Peña, professor of film studies, Columbia University and a collector’s booklet with an essay by film scholar, Ronald Bergan.

From Denmark comes Anders Thomas Jensen’s outlandish and frequently disturbing slapstick comedy, Men & Chicken, described by one wag as a dark hybrid of the Three Stooges and “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” And, that’s as good a description as any of what awaits viewers. Mads Mikkelsen, once again playing hilariously against type, and David Dencik (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) are paired for the fourth time in a Jensen film, this time as personality-challenged siblings who are appraised of their actual genealogical roots in their late father’s videotaped will. Seeking more information, they travel to the small Danish island of Ork, where they stumble upon three additional half-brothers. Each of them has a hereditary harelip and lunatic tendencies, probably from living in a dilapidated mansion overrun by barn animals. At first, the outsiders engage in a competition of wills. Eventually, though, they’re accepted into the secretive clan. More than that, I can’t reveal. To say that Men & Chicken won’t fit everyone’s tastes is something of an understatement. For anyone looking for something completely different, though, it will come as a godsend. The Drafthouse Films release contains a lengthy booklet, featuring behind-the-scenes photos and concept art from the film’s production, as well as a brief essay from Jensen.

More absurdist than dark, Uruguayan director Federico Veiroj’s The Apostate describes the confounding pursuit of the baptismal certificate a Spanish man needs to officially renounce his Roman Catholic faith. Rather than simply stop attending Mass and partaking in the sacraments, aimless graduate student Gonzalo (Álvaro Ogalla) wants to justify his decision to church leaders, by decrying all the usual things lapsed Catholics decry when considering their religious options. The clerics with whom he meets consider his opposition to Church dogma to be sufficiently sound to make him a candidate for redemption. The higher he climbs on the Church’s hierarchical ladder, the more his quest for a simple sheet of paper comes to resemble that of Yossarian in “Catch-22.” The Apostate touches on the conflict between tradition and modernity within the Catholic Church, using Gonzalo as an example of a sinner – sleeping around, mostly – who has no use for the Church, but abides by its ludicrous protocols, anyway. Despite the subject matter, The Apostate doesn’t demand much more of viewers than they open themselves to the possibility that they’ll find one man’s religious crisis to be entertaining. The “deluxe edition” of the Breaking Glass DVD includes Veirjo’s two other full-length features, “Acne” and “A Useful Life.”

Men Go to Battle
Most of the recent movies set around the Civil War have necessarily dealt with slavery and its effects on individuals and society at large.  Zachary Treitz’s feature debut, Men Go to Battle, deals far less with the politics and violence surrounding the issue, or the preservation of the union, than with the reality of life for young Northern farmers destined to become fodder for Southern cannons. In 1861, Francis and Henry Mellon (David Maloney, Timothy Morton) are struggling to keep their Kentucky property from drying up and blowing away, even as rumors of war swirl around them. When the homestead becomes too small for their divergent personalities, Henry takes off one night to take advantage of the security and benefits of army life. When the war begins for real and the generals put their men directly in harm’s way, Henry is so stunned by the carnage that he decides to walk home and keep going. What distinguishes Men Go to Battle from other movies set during the war is cinematography and pacing that recalls the more pastoral scenes in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. Treitz also does a nice job realistically depicting the interaction between hard working men and women, and their children, in social situations.

Carnage Park: Blu-ray
Last Girl Standing
By now, it’s safe to assume that most, if not all aspiring filmmakers under 30 have seen enough pulpy movies made or influenced by Quentin Tarantino, the Coens or Robert Rodriguez – and, by extension, grindhouse classics of the 1970s – that the genre DNA has become encoded in their bloodstreams. What excites niche critics most is the discovery of newcomers willing to find to tweak, twist and tickle tropes and clichés whose origins can be traced back to the silent era. After Bob Dylan was named Nobel Laureate last month, it became fashionable for pundits to point out how much his songs owe to such early blues and country giants as Charlie Patton and Jimmie Rogers, not to mention such acknowledged masters as Woody Guthrie and Blind Willie McTell. An open secret for 50 years, his ability to steal from the best is something we’ve always loved about Dylan. In turn, singer-songwriters have been borrowing from Dylan ever since he was signed to Columbia by John Hammond. I only mention this because reviews of Michael Keating’s truly freaky, if completely derivative Carnage Park reference Tarantino, the Coens and Rodriguez as if viewers couldn’t figure out it out for themselves. A few even refer to Peter Watkins’s 1971 faux-documentary Punishment Park, which, itself, owes its existence to Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1932 shocker The Most Dangerous Game. Here, it’s 1978 and a bank robbery gone wrong forces two criminals to take a hostage, the young-but-resilient Vivian (Ashley Bell), as they go on the run. Things go from bad to berserk when Vivian and her captors wind up in the crosshairs of a deranged ex-military sniper (Pat Healy), who ensnares them in his deadly game of cat and mouse. The sniper, who wears a gas mask and carries an M-16, has carved a theme park dedicated to torture and death out of his vast Southwestern enclave. He would love to add a few more trophies to his underground boneyard. If there’s nothing particularly new in the premise, what makes Carnage Park fresh are 1) the presence of the delightfully unimposing Bell (The Last Exorcism), a scream queen for our time, 2) Mac Fisken’s frequently spectacular desert cinematography, and 3) Keating’s ability to keep us guessing as to who’s going to be killed next and how it will be accomplished. In five productive years – Ultra Violence, Ritual, Pod, Darling – he has proven himself to be the real deal.

Benjamin R. Moody’s paranoid thriller, The Last Girl Standing, deviates from the well-trodden path, as well. It opens with a scene of ritualistic carnage that would serve as the climax for most other slasher flicks. The “final girl,” Camryn (Akasha Villalobos), dispatches with the masked-and-horned fiend, but is severely traumatized by the murder of her closest friends. Flash-forward five years and Camryn finally feels well enough to get a job at a dry-cleaning shop, if only as therapy, and to test her stability. No such luck. It doesn’t take long before she begins to feel as if she’s being stalked by something or someone evil. To calm her tortured nerves, Camryn agrees to move into a house owned by a co-worker and his tightknit group of friends. They sympathize with Camryn’s plight, but eventually tire of her frequent outbursts, which they consider to be PTSD-induced hallucinations. On the other hand, her release from the booby hatch might simply have been premature. Not even a return to the scene of the crime and exhumation of the killer’s body bring closure. Camryn now believes that the killer will invade the house and leave her alone and in shock, once again. Is this even possible? Moody does a nice job maintaining tension in a story whose highpoint may have come before the opening credit roll.

Judge Archer
Reign of Assassins
The Lost Bladesman
Bruce Lee: Tracking the Dragon
Around here, it seems as if every week is a good week for new martial-arts pictures. While none of them have been created equally, each has its own reason for existing and, given the enduring nature of Asian myth and legend, they make the history of the American West look like a blink of the eye. Then, too, there’s the diversity in set and costume design, weaponry and fight choreography. If Bruce Lee served as the catalyst for bringing wuxia, kung fu and other fighting disciplines into the late 20th Century, the titles covered here demonstrate the enduring allure of the past. Xu Haofeng, writer/director/stunt-coordinator of Judge Archer, may be a newcomer to the game – his third screenplay became The Grandmaster, a collaboration with Wong Kar-Wai and Zou Jingzhi Zou – but he prepared for the transition by studying hand-to-hand combat, researching martial-arts history, lecturing on film direction and writing novels. Judge Archer is set in the early part of the 20th Century, a time of great social, political and economic upheaval in China. Warlords, their soldiers and other practitioners of the martial arts would find their control of underground activities challenged by police and opponents with access to guns and explosives. The story follows a young man (Song Yang), who escapes from his village after being cruelly beaten up and witnessing the rape of his sister by the local landlord. He takes refuge in a monastery, where his talents are honed and he’s trained to take over the position of the Judge Archer. Less a promotion than a death sentence, the arbitrator adjudicates conflicts between the various academies, each one of them serving a different warlord. The intricacies of the plot don’t always gel, but it’s fun to watch the dizzying array of fighting styles and weapons on display. Judge Archer also features a tad more sexuality than usual, as well.

Reign of Assassins, a wuxia directed by Su Chao-pin and co-directed by John Woo, may be set during the Ming Dynasty, but it feels as if it could very easily be adapted to an old-fashioned Western. Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is a skilled assassin dedicated to returning the mummified remains of a mystical Buddhist monk to their resting place, before they can be stolen or purchased for their magical powers. Along the way, Zeng falls in love with Jiang (Jung Woo-sung), whose father was killed by her gang, but is unaware of her past. He has secrets of his own, which will be revealed when the Black Stone Gang realizes where their missing accomplice is laying low. (The press material suggests we think of it as Face/Off meets Mr. and Mrs. Smith.) The gang endeavors to recover the monk’s remains and teach Zeng a lesson in humility. The film’s cast includes actors from Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong and China, as well as Woo’s daughter, Angeles, as Eater Bear. (The names of the gang members are a hoot.) The action recalls the heyday of the 1990s, when fantasy and creative wire work combined to enchant audiences drawn to historical epics.

Written and directed by Alan Mak and Felix Chong, collaborators on the Infernal Affairs trilogy, The Lost Bladesman is loosely based on Luo Guanzhong’s historical novel, “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.” Once again, ancient China is in a state of turmoil. To unify the country, General Cao Cao (Jiang Wen) takes the great warrior Guan Yu (Donnie Yen) prisoner, in the hope of convincing him to turn his back on the general’s enemy, Liu Bei (Alex Fong). As leverage, Cao Cao has taken Guan Yu’s lover, Qi Lan (Betty Sun), hostage, as well. Once the smoke clears, Cao Cao makes promises to Guan Yu that he has no intention of keeping. The double-cross prompts an exciting mix of wild battle scenes and furious duels, all choreographed by Yen. Guan Yu frequently is required to take on hordes of opponents, typically with only a spear or ax at his disposal. He’s one very bad dude.

Whenever I receive a DVD purporting to offer something new on the life and films of Bruce Lee – gone, lo, the past 43 years – I wonder how cheesy the clip job is going to be. Lee didn’t have the largest inventory of films from which draw and the ones available to most documentary makers are weathered almost beyond recognition. It explains why I was so surprised by John Little’s unusual take on the subject, Bruce Lee: Tracking the Dragon. More than anything else, it reveals the time, effort and money invested in a product most people are probably going to dismiss out of hand. Little does nothing more than visit and report what he finds from the locations of scenes shot for The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, The Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon. It’s a device that Scream Factory has repeatedly employed as a bonus feature in its Blu-ray packages of upgraded horror flicks. Besides being fun to watch, it allows fans to revisit what’s left of the locations and witnesses. Many of the sites Little visits remain largely unchanged nearly a half-century later. At monasteries, ice factories, the Colosseum, mansions, outdoor landmarks, dojos and on urban streets, Little is able to present a comprehensive review of Lee’s legacy. The clips are clean, useful and don’t look as if they were transferred from World War II surplus film stock. He also was able to interview co-stars, crew members, hotel and factory workers, and witnesses to the productions. Fans will love it.

Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror: Blu-ray
Razors: The Return of Jack the Ripper
The Trail of Dracula
Giallo specialist Andrea Bianchi (Malabimba: The Malicious Whore) was working against type when he took on the gory zombie thriller, Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror. The experiment was less than successful, but not completely devoid of rewards. The action starts when a nutty professor opens the cover to an Etruscan tomb and is rewarded for his enterprise by being killed by one of its undead inhabitants. Coincidentally, a mixed group of clueless jet-setters takes up residence in the estate’s opulent castle, where they become easy targets for the zombie horde. Bianchi adds some kinky sexual interludes before the ghouls’ attack, including a too-close relationship between a sexy mom (Mariangela Giordano) and her needy 12-year-old son (played by 25-year-old dwarf actor Peter Bark). Burial Ground isn’t likely to show up on any expert’s list of top horror films. It remains, however, a creep show worthy of any buff’s attention. The Severin Blu-ray adds “Villa Parisi: Legacy of Terror,” a featurette on the historic house location; “Peter Still Lives,” a festival Q&A with Bark; “Just for the Money,” an interview with actor Simone Mattioli; “The Smell of Death,” interviews with producer Gabriele Crisanti and actress Mariangela Giordano; and deleted/extended scenes.

Because Jack the Ripper may be as familiar to American moviegoers as Billy the Kid and John Dillinger are to European audiences, it takes something new and different to capture our collective attention. Typically, it arrives in the form of a new suspect in the infamous Whitechapel murders, which took place between April 3, 1888, and February 13. 1891. The royal connection has been explored, as has the dubious theory that the monster moved to the United States and picked up here where he left off in London. Ian Powell and Karl Ward’s appropriately dark and dreary, Razors: The Return of Jack the Ripper is based on premise that seems reasonably fresh, at least. A half-dozen screenwriting students, gathered in a dank Islington warehouse (the Elektrowerkz nightclub), are assigned by their hot-shot teacher to come up with an idea for a new horror franchise. One of them, Ruth Walker (Kelby Keenan), comes to class with a box of knives and razors she’s been led to believe once belonged to the killer. The warehouse is said to have been built over a smelter that police of the period used to destroy confiscated weapons, so why not? When the box disappears, the bad craziness begins. This includes ghosts of victims past and a new series of murders. Not bad, but don’t try to watch “Razors” on your iPhone, because it will look like a blackout during the blitz. It also suffers from some narrative lapses. The DVD adds the featurettes, “Lights, Camera, Speed!” and “Behind the Walls,” as well as clips and interviews, and commentary with the directors and cast.

The Trail of Dracula takes 75 minutes to trace the path the vampire king took from folkloric nightmare to prominence in the 20th Century’s most powerful and popular medium. Some of the world’s foremost experts on the Dracula legend open with scholarship surrounding Vlad the Impaler and their influence on Bram Stoker’s celebrated novel, then discuss landmark stage productions and classic movie adaptations. Vintage interviews with Bela Lugosi, John Carradine and Christopher Lee add some life to all the talk of the undead, as do clips from later cinematic iterations. “The Trail” feels very much like the kind of extended featurettes now appearing in Arrow Video Blu-ray packages, but I didn’t recognize it as such. The bonus package is pretty good, too, starting with 94 minutes of Dracula-themed movie trailers, audio interviews with Lee and Francis Lederer (Return of Dracula). It adds video interviews with director Werner Herzog (Nosferatu the Vampyre) and actor Udo Kier (Blood for Dracula).

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in Concert: Blu-ray
Gypsy: Blu-ray
Leonard Bernstein’s Candide in Concert: Blu-ray
If the idea of bringing Broadway musicals to Blu-ray doesn’t sound particularly novel or revolutionary, consider how few live stage performances of landmark productions have been recorded for posterity on hi-def. Typically, we get film adaptations of important works, but rarely without revisions being made for the medium. For Academy Award consideration, if nothing else, original songs are added or deleted and actors more familiar to movie audiences replace Broadway or West End cast members. This has been going on for generations, only occasionally bringing loud protests from audiences. Way back in the early 1970s, when such things were still possible, producer Ely Landau launched a series of completely faithful film adaptations of 14 important stage plays under the American Film Theatre banner. They were contracted to be exhibited in 500 theaters in 400 cities, with admissions based on subscriptions to the entire series. Landau wanted to reach American audiences who rarely get to see the seminal works of theatre, as interpreted by Broadway’s greatest actors and directors. Among the titles were “A Delicate Balance,” “The Homecoming,” “The Iceman Cometh,” “Three Sisters,” “The Maids” and “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.” Directors and stars included Tony Richardson Peter Hall, John Frankenheimer, Harold Pinter, Laurence Olivier, Katharine Hepburn, Paul Scofield, Lee Marvin, Jeff Bridges, Robert Ryan, Fredric March, Brock Peters, Stacy Keach, Gene Wilder, Zero Mostel, Alan Bates and Jessica Tandy. The “subscription only” conceit probably had as much to do with the series’ failure as a general unfamiliarity with too many of the plays. Still, when Kino International announced it would release individual titles on DVD, in 2003, and a boxed set, in 2008, it came as welcome news to lovers of English-language theater.

This week, Shout! Factory launched its new home-entertainment series, Shout Broadway, with live-performance renditions of Gypsy, Leonard Bernstein’s Candide and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. If they’re missing the cast members who made them famous — “Gypsy” was first performed on Broadway in 1959, after all – the actors who do perform here are uniformly excellent and familiar to most Americans. Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s “Gypsy,” one of Broadway’s most memorable productions comes to life in 2015’s stunning West End production, starring Imelda Staunton, Peter Davison and Lara Pulver. The colorful and catchy production of “Leonard Bernstein’s Candid in Concert,” about an innocent young man’s journey through a life filled with colorful characters and unexpected life obstacles, stars Tony Award-winners Patti LuPone and Kristin Chenoweth. “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in Concert” is represented by the 2001 concert presentation of Broadway’s black-humored thriller of revenge, razors, murder, and meat pies. It features LuPone, Tony-winner George Hearn, and Neil Patrick Harris and adds a making-of featurette, with Sondheim. “Sweeney Todd” and “Candide” were previously released on standard-definition DVD.

Meathead Goes Hog Wild
Have you ever begun to watch a movie — at home or at a festival — and, after 15 minutes of boredom, decided to hit the stop button or sneak into another screening down the hall? Then, when you read the reviews, it’s as if the critics watched a completely different movie. By giving up early, it seems, you missed the good parts. I felt like hitting the stop button on Meathead Goes Hog Wild when I gave up hoping the unnamed protagonist would do something to justify my investment in time. In another five minutes, however, things changed dramatically. It was as if a different director had taken the helm and righted the ship’s course. Made for something on the order of $6,000 in Kickstarter funds, and what the trio of co-writer/co-director/co-producers — Kevin Cline, Zach Harris, Sean Pierce — could squeeze out of their piggy banks, Meathead Goes Hog Wild is an urban revenge fantasy not unlike Taxi Driver and Falling Down. Cline plays the unknown protagonist, a slacker whose wealthy suburban roots are revealed early in the narrative. We empathize with him when he returns home to say goodbye to his family’s terminally ill dog and discovers that his parents have ignored his wishes by putting Care packages filled with household staples and cash in the backseat of his car. Despite his protestations, he’s about to lose his job at the local mom-and-pop butcher shop for his slovenly appearance and inappropriate interaction with customers. When the owner refuses to accept his apology, the young man cuts off his straggly hair and swears vengeance. Considering how few resources he has, however, this would not be easy. Even so, the movie suddenly has become interesting. The newly bald avenger decides to break into the shop and steal a supply of meat, which he neatly repackages and tries to hand out to needy residents of Chicago’s predominantly African-American Near West Side (I guessing). Not acquainted with the saying, “Beware of geeks bearing gifts,” the wannabe Santa is stunned by how few people refuse the free meat. During the course of the evening, he also is attacked, robbed, shot at, used as bait for a cheating husband and accused of mocking a gang’s graffiti signatures. The protagonist is so scrawny and clueless that we change our mind about him entirely. What impressed me most about “Meathead” is how well the creative team captures a hyper-sanitized vision of Chicago at night, from a brightly polished El station to streets free of garbage, standing water and potholes. (Spike Lee accomplishes the same effect in his movies.) If “Meathead” had cost $60,000 or $600,000 to make – still bargains – I might not have arrived at the same conclusion. At $6,000, though, it’s a small miracle.

Don McLean: Starry Starry Night
My Way
Morphine: Journey of Dreams
“American Pie” is the kind of classic tune that millions of amateur troubadours have sung along to over the past 45 years, but very few professional artists have attempted to cover. Madonna recorded an abridged version of it, along with two music videos, as did Mott the Hoople. The song is so closely associated with Don McLean’s personal history, however, that few artists will touch it. And, that’s a very good thing, because a lot of Baby Boomers consider the song a part of their personal songbook, as well. Last year, McLean’s original working manuscript for “American Pie” sold for $1.2 million at Christie’s auction house. His first televised special, Don McLean: Starry Starry Night, has been a PBS Pledge Month staple for the last 10 years. The DVD is newly available to civilians, as well. Recorded in Austin’s Paramount Theater, it features “Vincent,” “It Was a Very Good Year,” “Castles in the Air,” “Crying,” “Singing the Blues” and, of course, “American Pie,” as well as interstitial interviews. Nanci Griffith joins him on “And I Love You So” and “Raining in My Heart.” It has now been visually upgraded with concert footage from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.

The story behind Dominique Mollee and Vinny Sisson’s kooky rockumentary, My Way, is so Hollywood perfect that there were times when I thought it might have been scripted by the fabulists at MTV’s “Real World” or “Road Rules.” We follow the all-women rock band, fronted by Rebekah Starr and Estonian tambourine player Annika, as they travel from a rural Pennsylvania town to L.A., with stops along the way to sell their CDs and perform at the occasional dive bar. When they aren’t out hustling their product, bickering or looking for the nearest watering hole, the members stand before the camera to record their confessions and observations of life on the road. Their goal is to shot music videos that showcase all their attributes. Although Starr abhors sexist labels and being ogled by horndogs – she left the corporate world because of her distaste of the toxic workplace environment — it’s impossible to ignore the fact the women are drop-dead gorgeous … all of them. And, they’re extremely competent musicians, to boot. Although more poppy than punk, their songs bear the imprint of Hole, the Go-Go’s, Bangles and a dozen different Brit power-pop bands. If anyone is attempting to resurrect the Monkees today, I’d suggest they consider the pre-packaged RSB. The sad fact, though, is that the music business is a cruel way to make a living and it’s getting tougher. By focusing  their appeal to serious fans of hard-core rock, they’ve effectively eliminated the kids who actually spend money on their favorite acts … Taylor Swift being the prime exemplar of what sells today. Also testifying are rock legends Steven Adler (Guns N’ Roses), Rikki Rockett (Poison) and, inexplicably, Ron Jeremy, who plays a character in one of their videos. My Turn would have benefitted from the opinions of Courtney Love, Joan Jett and Ann or Nancy Wilson. The DVD adds extended interviews and full-length videos.

Morphine: Journey of Dreams is yet another rockumentary about a highly regarded band that woulda, coulda, shoulda become a bigger attraction, but couldn’t break through the clutter of the 1990s’ music scene. A big hit in Boston and cities with a substantial audience for alternative rock ’n’ roll, Morphine limited its own appeal by creating a “low rock” niche. The trio’s unique and mesmeric sound echoes the Velvet Underground and bands not afraid to cross genre boundaries and write lyrics that are worth the effort it takes to decipher. Witnesses include the trio’s surviving members — saxophonist Dana Colley and drummers Billy Conway and Jerome Dupree — plus the late Mark Sandman’s girlfriend, and peers Joe Strummer, Steve Berlin and the ever-quotable Henry Rollins. The in-concert material speaks for itself. The DVD adds 40 minutes of extended interviews, Colley’s journal readings and Sandman’s photographs.

Midnight Run: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
In 1988, when the coast-to-coast buddy film Midnight Run was released, no one in Hollywood was convinced that Robert De Niro had the necessary chops to play one of the male leads in a comedy. He had been disguised beyond easy recognition in Brazil and Rupert Pupkin, in The King of Comedy, could hardly be mistaken for a comedian. A hard-boiled skip-tracer, maybe; a funny hard-boiled skip-tracer, who knew? Charles Grodin, playing the crooked bookkeeper DeNiro’s character is committed to find and return, had already displayed his sly comic charm in several supporting roles, but rarely in the lead position. Even if Midnight Run more than broke even at the box office, it didn’t do the kind of business that would inspire anyone to repeat the experiment. A decade later, De Niro made people laugh in Wag the Dog, Jackie Brown and Analyze This. Meet the Parents served as the palette cleanser fans needed to remove the bad taste left from The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle. With the exceptions of Silver Lining Playbook, American Hustle and Joy, it can be argued that he’s been phoning it in ever since. Dirty Grandpa, anyone? The release of Midnight Run: Collector’s Edition into Blu-ray serves as a reminder not only of the magic that comes from perfect casting, but also the importance of well-matched supporting characters, including Yaphet Kotto, John Ashton, Dennis Farina and Joe Patoliano and a budget that can afford location shoots in Arizona, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Michigan, Manhattan, Las Vegas, Idaho and New Zealand. It benefits from a 2K scan from the Inter-postive; hi-def interviews with De Niro (sort of, anyway), Grodin, Pantoliano, Ashton, Kotto and writer George Gallo; and a vintage making-of featurette.

TV-to-DVD
Channel 4: The IT Crowd: The Complete Series
PBS: Masterpiece: Durrells in Corfu: Blu-ray
A&E: 50 Years of Star Trek
AMC: Hell on Wheels: Season 5, Volume 2: The Final Episodes
BBC/PBS: India: Nature’s Wonderland
BBC Earth/PBS: Forces of Nature: Blu-ray
PBS: Simple Gifts: The Chamber Music Society at Shaker Village
PBS: Craft in America: Teachers
Nickelodeon: Paw Patrol: Pups Save Christmas
When desktop computers became ubiquitous appendages to office workers here and around the world, it soon became apparent that an entire class of employees would have to be created to service both machines and humans. Because IT staffers held the keys to a company’s fluid operation, and were ridiculed as geeks and nerds, it sometimes seemed as if they held fellow employees in contempt (“Have you tried turning it off and on again?”) and punished them in ways that weren’t always apparent. The Channel 4 sitcom, “The IT Team,” confirmed such notions in hilarious stories and throughlines. Here, the support team was comprised of bitter slacker, Roy (Chris O’Dowd), socially inept Moss (future Conchord, Richard Ayoade) and their new boss, computer illiterate Jen (Katherine Parkinson). The show also focuses on the bosses of Reynholm Industries: Denholm Reynholm (Chris Morris) and later, his son Douglas (Matt Berry). The British series ran four seasons, from 2006 to 2013. An American adaptation was planned, but never came to fruition. The DVD adds commentary with writer/director Graham Linehan on select episodes, deleted scenes, outtakes; interviews, original opening-sequence animatic, “Kalypso” by Sweet Billy Pilgrim and the rarely seen episode, “The Internet Is Coming.”

The world was a much larger place, when, in 1935, Louisa Durrell announced that she and her four children were moving from Bournemouth to the Greek island of Corfu. Her husband has died some years earlier and the family is experiencing financial problems. A Homeric battle ensues as the family adapts to life on the island which, despite a lack of electricity, is cheap and an earthly paradise. The family of five had already been uprooted from India to England, after the death of patriarch Lawrence Samuel Durrell, and money was tighter than she expected it to be. Compared to England, island life promised to be idyllic … practically free … except when it wasn’t. The “Masterpiece” mini-series, “Durrells in Corfu,” was adapted from youngest son Gerald Durrell’s memoirs, “My Family and Other Animals” (1954), “Birds, Beasts and Relatives” (1969) and “The Garden of the Gods.” He portrayed his mother Louisa (Keeley Hawes) as the family’s well-meaning but slightly eccentric matriarch. Women can’t be too eccentric for PBS audiences. Much of the show’s first six-episode season deals with the family adjusting to the new environment and the sometimes-difficult Greek residents. Gerald’s obsession with animals and Margo’s roller-coaster romances add quite a bit of spice to the proceedings. ITV has already committed to a second season.

The History documentary 50 Years of Star Trek is a celebrity-enhanced look back at a half-century of Trekiana, based on memories of things past and their importance in the pop-cultural universe. Only those neophytes who haven’t heard about the series’ premature demise and subsequent resurrections will find anything revelatory in the discussions with cast, crew, creators and critics. Dyed-in-the-wool Trekkies will gravitate toward Leonard Nimoy’s last interview and the celebrity testimonials. Kevin Pollak, Nerdist podcast co-host Matt Mira, history professor John Putman, actress Jeri Ryan, NASA engineer Bobak Ferdowsi and make-up effects artist Doug Drexler sat down at the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles to talk about Trek. It arrives on the same day as Star Trek Beyond.

I don’t if the folks at AMC planned for “Hell on Wheels” to last as long as the time it took to complete this country’s first transcontinental railroad. That’s how it played out, however. “Hell on Wheels: Season 5, Volume 2: The Final Episodes” completes the journey undertaken by former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) on Nov. 6, 2011. and his work on America’s first transcontinental railroad. The final push to finish the monumental undertaking brings with it a reckoning for Bohannon and the men standing in his path: the bloodthirsty Swede, the mercenary Chang and the rapacious Thomas Durant. While the railroad’s completion is certain, who and what will survive the golden-spike ceremony remains in question, with no one more at risk than Cullen Bohannon. With plenty more rail to be laid in the U.S. and Canada, the show might never end, despite “The Final Episodes” distinction.

India isn’t the first place that comes to mind when travelers plan trips based on safaris, birding or eco-tourism. There are so many other things to see and do in the subcontinent that it hardly seems time- or cost-effective to go off the beaten to ind exotica. In any case, in many places, the animals come to you. The BBC’s wondrous two-part mini-series, “India: Nature’s Wonderland,” travels from the mountainous north, where the holy waters of the Ganges originate, to the verdant hills and forests of the distant south, where elephants graze among the tea bushes. Wildlife expert Liz Bonnin, actor Freida Pinto and mountaineer Jon Gupta are our guides to this vast land, bringing within feet of potentially dangerous elephants, Asiatic lions and tigers, once hunted to near extinction. The hosts also attend celebrations and dances held each year to celebrate animals they fear, respect and worship. And, of course, babies are well represented: rhinos, turtles, lions, hornbills, caciques, elephants and macaques.

In four episodes, the BBC and PBS co-production, “Forces of Nature,” describes how and why so many of Earth’s wondrous sights, global communities and habitats are created by the forces of the universe that seem random and arbitrary, but are anything but that. Exploring motion, shapes and colors, the series connects things like snowflakes and the largest human-made towers to the laws of science and nature. The documentary take us from Florida’s coastline to Papua, New Guinea, inside of a volcano, to the icy seas of Greenland and beyond to learn how complex forces shape our planet: Why is water blue? How can a shape defy gravity? Why do bees make hexagonal honeycombs? It also describes how forces that began at the beginning of time create meteorological phenomena today.

Each year on Memorial Day weekend, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center takes up residency in one of the country s most beautiful historic sites: Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Kentucky, where a vibrant Shaker community once flourished. The “Live From Lincoln Center” went on the road with the ensemble for the first time in its 40-year history, taking its cameras, trucks and a 15-member crew into the heart of rural America for “Simple Gifts: The Chamber Music Society at Shaker Village.” Performed for a riveted audience in a converted tobacco barn, the concert celebrated American music with unparalleled intimacy and intensity, climaxing with Aaron Copland’s iconic “Appalachian Spring,” which incorporates a traditional Shaker theme at the heart of the work. The film draws parallels between the interrelatedness of art and craftsmanship, the beauty and hardships of the frontier, and the quest for transcendence in American life.

PBS’ “Craft in America: Teachers” highlights artists committed to sharing their skills and passion for craft with students of all ages. It features Navajo weavers Barbara Teller Ornelas and Lynda Teller Pete, at Idyllwild Arts; glass artist Mark Mitsuda, at Punahou School; and glass artist Therman Statom and ceramic artist Linda Sikora, at Alfred University School of Art and Design. The award-winning documentary series is a journey to the artists, objects, techniques and origins of American craft.

Paw Patrol: Pups Save Christmas” is the latest collection of episodes from the hit Nickelodeon show, which features daring rescues by canine crusaders. Kids are invited to join Ryder, Chase, Everest and the rest of the gang as they embark on snow-filled adventures to help Santa save Christmas, rescue penguins, polar bears, Sports Day, Skye Pups and Danny Pups.

The DVD Wrapup: Hunt for Wilderpeople, Skiptrace, Nerve, Vampire Ecstasy, Gored, Dark Water, The Id, Norman Lear and more

Friday, October 28th, 2016

Hunt for the Wilderpeople
I’ve complained before about the lack of attention given to uniquely entertaining indie movies by distributors, even after being greeted with near-unanimous approval by audiences and critics at festivals. Indulge me while I endorse another film that has broad audience appeal but could easily get lost in the VOD-DVD shuffle. Set in a supremely scenic corner of Peter Jackson’s backyard (a.k.a., New Zealand), Taika Waititi’s coming-of-age Hunt for the Wilderpeople follows a state-raised Maori boy who’s nearly run out of options when it comes to being taken in by foster families and non-penal shelters for abandoned kids. Rotund, lazy and belligerent, Ricky (Julian Dennison) is handed over to a middle-age couple living on the edge of the “bush” – a term not at all representative of the environmentally diverse Tongariro National Park – at the center of the country’s North Island. After a rough start, Ricky quickly finds himself at home with the loving Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata), the cantankerous Uncle Hec (Sam Neill) and mutts Zag and Tupac. When news of Bella’s unexpected death reaches Auckland, Ricky knows that he’ll be transferred to another facility and that Uncle Hec probably won’t go out of his way to prevent the militaristic marshal (Rachel House) from taking him away. The adventure begins when Ricky takes refuge in a forest thick enough to protect him from anyone not named Hec and Zag.

After Hec sprains his ankle, he finds himself at the mercy of the bush and his deceptively out-of-shape “nephew.” To his surprise, Ricky turns out to be a terrific companion. Fearless and a veritable encyclopedia of American gangsta’ culture, he’s also able to provide food and shelter for both of them. Meanwhile, though, the authorities have decided that Hec must be an abusive guardian and Ricky is in harm’s way. The manhunt is complicated by the combined wiles of the desperadoes and the oddball characters they encounter along the way. There’s nothing here that’s predictable or pre-ordained by cinematic tropes. Neill’s experience (Jurassic Park, “The Tudors”) provides a nice counterbalance to Dennison’s fresh take on Ricky’s impertinence and unbridled enthusiasm. The natural wonders of New Zealand – parts of the “LOTR” saga were filmed here, as well – provide an uncommonly diverse background for the story. If Waititi’s name sounds familiar, it’s for his peculiarly Kiwi entertainments as Eagle vs. Shark, “Flight of the Conchords” and What We Do in the Shadows. He’ll get his shot in the Major Leagues with – surprise! – the next chapter in the comic-book epic, “Thor: Ragnarok.” Let’s hope he doesn’t lose sight of the little picture. (BTW, the only thing preventing “Wilderpeople” from getting a PG is some coarse language and hand-to-hand combat with huge wild boars.)

Skiptrace: Blu-ray
American fans of Jackie Chan action-comedies, especially those of the Rush Hour, Shanghai Noon and Tuxedo persuasion, will want to check out Skiptrace, a sprawling romp in which Johnny Knoxville takes over the buddy role previously reserved for Owen Wilson, Chris Tucker and Jennifer Love Hewitt. I don’t know if “Jackass” or Bad Grandpa got much play in China, but there isn’t anything here that requires Knoxville to stick a roman candle in his anus or take a flying leap off a ski jump on a tricycle. Chan plays Bennie, a top Hong Kong detective whose partner is killed in mob hit orchestrated by a heavily protected character nicknamed, “The Matador.” Knoxville plays American gambler Connor Watts, who’s on the lam from Russian gangsters out to settle a score credible only as a plot device. Conveniently, Connor holds the missing link Bennie needs to connect with the Matador. Mostly, the setup allows director Renny Harlin to shoot in China, Hong Kong, Siberia, Macau and Mongolia, or reasonable facsimiles thereof. This, plus the presence of Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing, WWE Diva Eve Torres and 6-foot-1 Finnish singer/songwriter Sara Maria Forsberg, lends Skiptrace a faux James Bond aura. The Blu-ray adds Harlin’s commentary and the featurette, “When Jackie Met Johnny.” And, how’s this for trivia: Chan and Harlin were set to film a fight scene for the abandoned film, “Nosebleed,” on the roof of the World Trade Center the morning of the 9/11 attacks. Instead, the shoot was rescheduled for the next day, so Chan could come up with a new stunt using a window-washing lift. Or, maybe, just maybe, the CIA tipped him off to the impending doom. All conspiracy theories are welcome here.

Nerve: Blu-ray
In Rebel Without a Cause, a game of chicken was staged to determine whether Jimmie or Buzz was the baddest dude at Dawson High School. Theoretically, Buzz won the “chickie run” by staying in his car the longest. By deciding to bail out before his car could fly off the cliff, into the Pacific, however, Jimmie lost the game, but saved his life. If collared by the police, the spectators might have been held as accomplices to any charge of manslaughter registered against James Dean’s archetypal alienated teen. The same game would be staged in other movies, but none as memorably well as the one in Nicholas Ray’s classic story of alienated youth in post-war America. The most significant difference between the games of chicken played in “Rebel” and Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s not dissimilar teen drama, Nerve, is that the dares are meted out via social media, where the viewers are separated into groups of interactive Players and Watchers. The stakes, however, are every bit as high. An industrious, but terribly withdrawn high school senior, Vee (Emma Roberts), is pressured by friends to join the popular online game Nerve, in which Players are rewarded with cash for passing each succeeding test. They range from kissing a stranger, Ian (James Franco), in a restaurant, to risking her life in increasingly dangerous games of chicken.

Vee turns out to be a natural competitor and supportive partner to the more seasoned Ian. If the ending is predictable – or, to be more precise, inevitable – the tests roll out in a satisfying manner. It’s conceivable that games like Nerve already exist on social media and Watchers have served as accomplices by egging on Players or already suicidal peers. I doubt that Nerve was specifically intended to be a cautionary tale, as was Rebel With a Cause. Neither do I think it could play as well across different generations. It did pretty well in its theatrical run and should find an audience, as well, among teens attracted to the interactive features – viewers can choose between being Players or Watchers – and youthful cast of television veterans. They include Miles Heizer (“Parenthood”), Emily Meade (“The Leftovers”), Kimiko Glenn and Samira Wiley (“Orange Is the New Black”), Josh “The Fat Jew” Ostrovsky (“3AM”) and Machine Gun Kelly (“Roadies”). Juliette Lewis plays the token adult. The Blu-ray adds 15 character “pods”; outtakes; games; and profiles.

The Last Film Festival
By one account, at least, some 4,000 film festivals are staged annually around the world. Several of them are held in cities so far off the beaten path that they may not have more than one or two screens, including the pull-down job at the local high school. The Last Film Festival asks us to consider how bad a movie would have to be to be rejected by 3,999 of them. Or, conversely, how desperate the organizers would have to be to accept an atrocity titled “Barium Enigma.” Dennis Hopper, in his final role, plays the film’s producer, Nick Twain, who knows how bad it is, but is committed to promoting it because of the presence of his teeny-bopper mistress, Chloe (Katrina Bowen). He assumes that the fix is in and “Barium Enigma” will sweeps the awards presentation. If so, no one told the O’Hi Festival’s organizer, Harvey Weinstein (Chris Kattan), who also is the tiny Ohio town’s undertaker. Nick is chagrined by the lack of attention surrounding his picture, alternately blaming his young agent (Joseph Cross), missing star (Agim Kaba), aging diva (Jacqueline Bisset), ambitious mayor (JoBeth Williams) and a mysterious stalker (Leelee Sobieski). The premise and cast might have lent itself to ensemble piece directed by Robert Altman (A Prairie Home Companion) or David Mamet (State and Main), in which celebrities rub shoulders with star-struck rubes. Co-writer/director Linda Yellen (The Simian Line) is said to embrace an improvisational filmmaking style, but the anemic script – co-authored with Michael Leeds (The Simian Line) – provided too weak a foundation for meaningful ad-libbing. The Last Film Festival has its moments, but too few for such a rich premise and too far in between, even for a 90-minute production. Because Hopper died during the shoot, in 2010, at 74, it must have tested Yellen’s mettle to cobble together a releasable picture. Hopper completists will want to see it, if only to watch him interact with top-shelf actors. The DVD adds interviews with cast and crew.

Vampire Ecstasy/Sin You Sinners: Blu-ray
With the possible exceptions of Russ Meyer and David F. Friedman, no name was more closely associated with American sexploitation flicks of the mid- to late-20th Century than Joseph W. Sarno. In the early 1960s, Sarno recognized the early stirrings of the sexual revolution – currently being depicted in Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” — and made pictures about wife swapping, swinging in the suburbs, sexual identity and psycho-sexual anxiety. As the floodgates opened after court rulings involving I Am Curious/Yellow and Deep Throat, his work would transition from grindhouse to soft- and hard-core pornography Although he made Suburban Secrets in 2004 – six years before his death, at 89 – his filmmaking career basically ended in 1990, with a series of pictures completed under the pseudonym Irving Weiss. The Vampire Ecstasy/Sin You Sinners package represents the first entry in a new series from Film Media/Film Movement. Newly restored to high-definition from the original film elements, Vampire Ecstasy (1973) is Sarno’s initial soft-core foray into gothic horror. When a trio of beautiful young women journey to their ancestral home to claim an inheritance, they fall prey to a coven of witches intent on reincarnating the deceased daughter of their vampire leader. It was shot inside and around an actual German castle, which came complete with a dungeon for rituals that required nudity.

Sin You Sinners (1963), the earliest available film in Sarno’s catalogue, isn’t in nearly as good a shape as Vampire Ecstasy, and its cautious approach to nudity has an almost historical quaintness surrounding it. The actors look as if they might have been recruited that day from a Times Square burlesque theater and were asked to bring their sleazy costumes with them, however tattered. The plot involves a medallion forged in a voodoo ritual, capable of sustaining an exotic dancer’s seductive qualities. When her jealous daughter and employer hatch plots to steal the amulet for themselves, it sets off a chain of events that ends badly for the dancer. The Blu-ray includes an interview with Sarno and producer, Chris Nebe; commentary on Vampire Ecstasy with Nebe; a featurette, “A Touch of Horror,” in which Sarno describes adapting his style to the horror genre; and liner notes by film scholar Tim Lucas.

Gored: A Love Story
Anyone who’s ever attended a bullfight, if only to cheer for the bull, will find something compelling in Ido Mizrahy’s Gored: A Love Stoy, a documentary that neither glamorizes the controversial Spanish pastime nor condemns it out of hand. It is the story of Antonio Barrera, reputedly the “most gored bullfighter in history,” a man who grew up surrounded by manifestations of the culture and tradition. He knew from an early age that  the blood sport would provide his only path to fame and a comfortable life for his family. Despite the fact Barrera has been impaled 23 times in the ring and undergone 17 surgeries, Mizrahy takes his quixotic quest seriously. And, while his bravery is unquestionable, it’s easy for viewers to wonder what would possess an already wounded bullfighter to return to the ring to give an audience its money’s worth. Gored follows Barrera from Spain to Mexico, and back, as he approaches the reality of retirement. It contains home-video footage of the bullfighter as a boy and interviews with family members and fellow bullfighters. Much of the footage will be impossible for people who care about animals to watch, unless they’re looking for evidence to build a case against the sport. Aficionados probably will be able to see beyond the gore far enough to support their love for it.

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict
For most of the last 100 years, the Guggenheim name has been synonymous with the collection, curation, exhibition and preservation of modern and contemporary art, sculpture and architecture. Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s fascinating documentary, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, describes how one member of the extended family used her comparatively modest inheritance not only to collect art in Europe and America, but also to nurture the creativity of a who’s-who of Bohemian artists, writers and thinkers whose talent might have withered on the vine for lack of interest by mainstream benefactors. Her life, while clearly comfortable, didn’t lack for disappointments and tragedy. Guggenheim’s father, Benjamin, died in the 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic, and her artist daughter, Pegeen, committed suicide. She existed as an independent woman, with a notoriously voracious sexual appetite, in world dominated by powerful and self-centered men. She promoted and collected the work of Samuel Beckett, Man Ray, Constantin Brâncuși, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp, Jackson Pollock and William Congdon, among many others. In 1943, at Duchamp’s instigation, she curated an exhibition wholly dedicated to women artists. Exhibition by 31 Women was comprised of works by such underrepresented artists as Djuna Barnes, Leonora Carrington, Buffie Johnson, Frida Kahlo, Louise Nevelson, Dorothea Tanning, Xenia Cage, her sister Hazel and daughter Pegeen … even Gypsy Rose Lee. In 1948, she was invited to exhibit her collection in the unoccupied Greek Pavilion of the Venice Biennale and, in 1949, she established herself in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, on the Grand Canal. Before her death in 1979, she gifted her home and collection to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, to be used for teaching purposes and tourism. All name-dropping and gossip aside, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict should be considered must-viewing for anyone who’s ever stood in line to get into an exhibit of Modern art or took Art History 101. The DVD adds extended interviews.

Schneider vs. Bax
Apart from having just watched Alex van Warmerdam’s ninth feature, Schneider vs. Bax, I’m not at all familiar with the Dutch writer/director/actor’s oeuvre. Most often compared to the Coen Brothers, van Warmerdam’s eccentric works have been become additions to major festivals around the cinematic world. His follow-up to the much-admired Borgman is a slow-burn thriller and comedy so dark that it’s almost impossible to tell when it’s sneaking up on you in the shadows. It’s even harder to guess what van Warmerdam is trying to say about the violence dished out by his characters. On the morning of his birthday, a hitman named Schneider (Tom Dewispelaere) gets a call from his boss, Mertens (Gene Bervoets), demanding that he fulfill a contract to take out Ramon Bax (Van Warmerdam), a debauched writer living in a small bungalow surrounded by a veritable forest of reeds in vast Lowland marsh. Mertens doesn’t provide a reason for the hit, allowing only, “It’s an easy job. With a little luck, you’re back home before noon.” This suits Schneider, because his wife and daughters have planned a party for him that afternoon. It may have seemed easy to Mertens, but, when Schneider arrives at the wetlands preserve, nothing goes as planned. Among other things, Bax is visited by a half-dozen friends and acquaintances, including his estranged daughter and randy father. Normally, the grumpy writer would share a line or two of cocaine and some shots with his visitors, before kicking them out of the house. Today, however, having already been tipped off to Schneider’s approach, the extra bodies are a nuisance. Their dangerous game of cat-and-mouse progresses at a glacial pace, even when Schneider figures out that he’s been double-crossed and decides to proceed, anyway. The actors’ deadpan approach to the material adds yet another layer of tension to the mix. Schneider vs. Bax is said to convey certain Dutch tendencies, but I could imagine it being remade – ideally, by van Warmerdam – in the Everglades. The bonus features include the delightful short film, “House Arrest,” a director’s statement and “Why-We-Selected” statement from Film Movement.

Fight Valley
I don’t know about you, but I attended the kind of high school where, every so often, a couple of girls would get so worked up about one thing or another – not always boys –and walk into the nearest alley to duke it out. For the males in the crowd, the highlight always came when one or both of their blouses fell to the pavement. Typically, it was at this point that the girls figured out that nothing good could come from going on any further. They’d give the crowd the finger, indicating that the show was over, and go home. Fear of retribution by gangs had yet to become a concern for girls or boys. None of us could imagine a day when the novelty of women’s professional wrestling would evolve to the point where girls with a chip on their shoulders could earn a living kicking the crap out of each other, for real, in MMA and UFC competitions or, for unreal, in the WWE, or, for glory, in the Olympics. These days, progress is in the eye of the beholder.

These things came to mind while watching Rob Hawk’s no-holds-barred Fight Valley, a bargain-basement version of Fight Club, featuring several highly trained and totally buff women who’ve competed at the professional level. When 22-year-old Tory Coro (Chelsea Durkalec) is found dead in a dumpy neighborhood where fighters go to earn money, her sister, Windsor (Susie Celek), moves to town to begin her own investigation. A rank amateur, Windsor would train with Jabs (Miesha Tate, a former bantam-weight champ), who teaches her how to survive in the valley as they prepare to come face-to-face with Tory’s killer. In addition to Tate, Fight Valley’s street cred is provided by UFC “superstars” Holly Holm and Cris Cyborg, WBO lightweight champion Amanda Serrano, Belgian standout Cindy “Battlecat” Dandois and Serena DeJesus, an “inspiring autistic MMA fighter” dubbed the Southpaw Outlaw. And that’s just the women. The DVD adds preproduction choreography; final fight-scene choreography; a Philadelphia diner “Meet & Greet”; New York premiere with Q&A; drone footage; and deleted scenes.

The Midnight Swim
While they share no other similarities, I can’t help but think that the depiction of three sisters in Sarah Adina Smith’s directorial debut, The Midnight Swim, bears an uncanny resemblance to those in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters and, by extension, Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” It probably has more to do with Smith’s editing of Shaheen Seth’s empathetic cinematography than anything else, but the balance of intimacy and estrangement are what keeps The Midnight Swim from sinking to the depths of the film’s very likely haunted Spirit Lake. Lindsay Burdge, Jennifer Lafleur and Aleksa Palladino play look-alike siblings, who gather at the family home on the lake their mother, an environmental activist, disappeared into during a deep-water dive. While reacquainting themselves with each other’s eccentricities, June, Annie and Isa must come to grips with their mother’s legacy, estate and a local legend that could be tied to her death. It involves seven sisters who vanished into the same lake, one after the other, never to be seen again, dead or alive. Given the women’s New Age-y predilections, they are open to the possibility of a “River of Forgetting,” flowing through the lake like a current of spirituality, or the summonsing of the mythical Seventh Sister, through incantation. If the path leads to re-incarnation, so much the better. One of the women’s ex-boyfriends adds his homespun wisdom, when asked, while the youngest sister annoys everyone by recording everything on her video camera. If Smith had chosen to add a ghostly dimension to the proceedings – or a sea serpent, for that matter — viewers might have had something to grasp besides the characters’ almost non-existent backgrounds and personal motivations. Without it, The Midnight Swim feels too much like the kind of chick-lit musings best savored while waiting for a yoga class to begin. There are far worse things to ponder, I suppose.

Dark Water: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Exorcist III: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The Thing: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The Return of the Living Dead: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Hideo Nakata and Hiroshi Takahashi’s 1998 adaptation of Koji Suzuki’s 1991 thriller, “Ringu,” introduced western audiences to the supernatural traditions of Japanese horror fiction and its modern manifestation, J-horror. Ringu, its sequel Ringu 2 and a pair of excellent English-language re-interpretations by Gore Verbinski and Nakata, himself, would open the door for Walter Salles’ 2005 ghost story, Dark Water, starring Jennifer Connelly, Tim Roth and John C. Reilly. Nakata and Yoshihiro Nakamura’s original version of Dark Water, adapted from Suzuki’s “From the Depths of Dark Water,” went largely unseen here, despite the popularity of The Ring. It may have been held back from distribution to clear the way for Salles’ English-language version. Arrow Video fills that void with a splendid Blu-ray “special edition,” which benefits from a new hi-def digital transfer, the original making-of featurette, a half-dozen informative interviews, a new cover design and commemorative booklet. Dark Water follows Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki), a single mother struggling to win sole custody of her only child, Ikuko. When they move into a new home within a dilapidated apartment complex, Yoshimi begins to experience startling visions and unexplainable sounds, calling her mental well-being into question and endangering not only her custody of Ikuko, but perhaps their lives as well. Almost the entire movie takes place during a steady rainfall. Once again, the ghost of a “dead wet girl” plays a key role.

No film franchise, based on an undeniable classic, has experienced as tortuous an afterlife as the one represented here by Scream Factory’s The Exorcist III: Collector’s Edition. The 1977 sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic, was reviled by everyone involved in the production, with the possible exception of Warners’ accountants, who squeezed some undeserved profits from unsuspecting audiences and video sales. The saga of Exorcist: The Beginning (2004) is almost as horrifying as the movie itself. A television series of the same title began this season on Fox. The second sequel, “Exorcist III,” was written and directed by William Peter Blatty, who based it on his novel “Legion,” which is to William Friedkin’s original what Mrs. Butterworth’s is to maple syrup. Blatty would have been happy to adapt “Legion” as it was written, minus the misleading reference to The Exorcist. Instead, the geniuses at Morgan Creek Productions demanded he add an exorcism to the final reel, a new and old character, and more graphic violence. It opens 15 years after the events related in the original, with George C. Scott replacing Lee J. Cobb, as Police Lieutenant Kinderman, and Ed Flanders sitting in for William O’Malley, as Father Dyer. For all that time, Kinderman has been haunted by the death of his friend Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), who magically reappears here as Patient X.

The true embodiment of evil in “III” is Brad Dourif’s demonic serial killer, who identifies himself as the long-dead Gemini Killer and mimics his M.O., even from behind bars. In an investigation that defies all logic, he pushes all of Kinderman’s buttons. Because reviews and revenues for “III” reflected the bad vibes generated by the producers’ demands, it comes as some relief that the restoration team at Scream Factory was able to take what little unused footage was available and re-create something more in keeping with Blatty’s original vision. Both are included here, along with a vintage featurette; deleted scenes/alternate takes/bloopers; the deleted prologue; vintage interviews and behind-the-scenes footage with Blatty, Scott, Miller, Flanders, Grand L. Bush, executive producer James G. Robinson, production designer Leslie Dilley, Larry King and former surgeon general, C. Everett Koop; a new audio interview with Blatty; fresh interviews with cast and crew, including Dourif and composer Barry DeVorzon. Both versions are scary in different ways.

John Carpenter’s 1982 re-imaging of John W. Campbell Jr.’s novella, “Who Goes There,” which had already inspired Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks’ 1951 The Thing from Another World, wasn’t an immediate hit when it was released nearly simultaneously with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Blade Runner. It didn’t take long, however, before word-of-mouth caught up with the chilly sci-fi thriller and showcase for state-of-the-art special effects. It would influence a generation of aspiring filmmakers in the crossover genres and unleash a flood of ancillary products. Thirty-five years later, Antarctica has become a popular destination for tourists and all manner of scientists, as well. The alien organism discovered by Norwegian researchers here and in the 2011 remake wouldn’t stand a chance against an army of tour guides and killer penguins. The Scream Factory “collector’s edition” is enhanced by a 2K scan of the inter-positive, supervised and approved by director of photography Dean Cundey, and 4.1 sound created from the original 70mm six-track Dolby Stereo soundtrack. New HD material includes commentaries with Cundey and star Kurt Russell; the featurettes, “The Men of Outpost 31,” “Assembling and Assimilation,” “Behind the Chameleon,” “Sounds From the Cold,” “Between the Lines” and “The Art of Mike Ploog.” Separate discs of vintage SD featurettes, commentary and marketing material also are provided.

On his first day on the job at a medical supply warehouse, Freddy (Thom Mathews) unwittingly releases the gas in a canister left over from a secret U.S. military operation, involving the suppression of zombies. After the cadaver stored in the canister springs back to life, it’s subdued in the tradition way by characters played without irony by Clu Gulager and James Karen. To be safe, they convince a local mortician to destroy the infected body parts in his crematorium. The smoke from the chimney carries the gas over the adjacent cemetery, which is being deluged by rain. The particles re-animate an army of corpses, who arise from their graves with a ravenous hunger for human brains. Fortunately, a group of wonderfully punky teens is partying among the headstones, just waiting to be eaten. “The Return of the Living Dead: Collector’s Edition” revisits and restores Dan O’Bannon’s horror/comedy – genuinely scary and very funny — which paid homage to George Romero’s drive-in classic, without also being a parody. (The story behind the legal wrangling that stalled “Return” is fully explained in the bonus package.) The two-disc collector’s package adds a pair of new commentary tracks; the two-hour retrospective, “More Brains”; nearly two-hour “workprint” version; and more than two hours’ worth of fresh interviews, including a half-hour with O’Bannon. The SD package has also been ported over from previous editions. Anyone who watched these four collections back-to-back – along with other recent packages from the niche distributors – should qualify for post-graduate credits in film history and theory.

The Id: Blu-ray
A Better Place
SIN: Self Induced Nightmares
Tales of Poe
Girl in Woods
One of the most formidable of all psycho-horror tropes involves the abused children of insanely overprotective parents, who, when they emerge from behind locked doors as adults, are ill-prepared to deal with the everyday hassles and temptations the rest of us take for granted. In Psycho IV: The Beginning, we were allowed a glimpse into the traumatic childhood events that would shape Norman Bates’ murderous psychosis. It is the only film in the series in which Norma Bates (Olivia Hussey) was shown alive. Director Thommy Hutson and screenwriter Sean H. Stewart’s feature debut, The Id, describes what happens when fifty-something Meridith Lane (Amanda Wyss) decides that she’s had enough of her wheelchair-bound father’s tyranny and breaks out of her shell. For viewers, who despise the old man (Patrick Peduto) from minute-one, her re-awakening as an independent woman could hardly come at a more opportune time. Sadly, as was the case with Norman Bates, the damage done by years of abuse proves to be permanent. For decades, she’s survived on memories of a teen fling, severely aborted by the ogre-in-residence. When, out of the blue, her white knight calls and appears at her door in slightly tarnished form, we’re afforded a vision of true madness. Although Peduto is quite convincing as the geezer, The Id belongs to Wyss, who will forever be known as Freddy Krueger’s very first murder victim in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Even at 55, the still-attractive Manhattan Beach native looks youthful in flashbacks and frightfully overwrought when tested, wearing a red dress suitable for a late-1970s prom. The Id hasn’t been accorded much attention outside the horror websites since it was voted Best Thriller at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival. It deserves a shot a success in Blu-ray/DVD/VOD, if only with genre buffs. It includes a featurette, “Needs, Wants & Desires: Behind the Scenes of The Id”; commentary with Hutson and Wyss; deleted and alternate scenes; behind-the-scenes and audition footage; and a photo gallery.

In his debut, A Better Place, Dennis Ho introduces us to a young man, Jeremy, whose overly protective mother kept him locked up at home, not because she’s a sadist, but for the protection of people who aren’t aware of his special talent and make the mistake of bullying him. Instead of home-schooling the boy, he might have been better served enrolled at the Mutant Academy reserved for X-Men. Jeremy (Stephen Todt) possesses the uncontrollable ability to transfer the pain and injury he endures from outsiders to the persons his attackers love most. It isn’t much of a superpower, but it’s the only one the meek and mild youth has. When his mother passes away under suspicious circumstances, Jeremy knows that he must venture into the real world. Just as he meets a sweet young thing, waiting tables at the local diner, he’s confronted by the kind of bullies his mom protected him against … and vice-versa. The rest of the story isn’t as predictable as it might sound. Besides the singing waitress (Mary Ann Raemisch), Jeremy finds an unlikely ally in a sexy older woman, who’s schtupping the town’s corrupt mayor and horny reverend. Ho weaves a decidedly Christian through-line into the story that isn’t particularly Evangelical or distracting.

The horror anthology SIN (Self Induced Nightmares) brings together some of Europe’s leading genre specialists in the service of seven short films that range from reasonably entertaining to downright clever, if universally bloody. They’re spun by a mysterious woman writer, who is mistaken for a blind date by an unfortunate stranger. Dan Brownlie’s “Bear Scary” is arguably the most memorable in that it features a stuffed toy that makes Ted look like Smokey the Bear. Three ever-popular tales of Edgar Allen Poe have been compiled by directors Bart Mastronardi and Alan Rowe Kelly in the surprisingly ambitious Tales of Poe. They take some liberties with “The Tell Tale Heart,” “Cask of Amontillado” and “Dreams.” but not many and nothing egregious. The primary selling point here is a cast a scream queens that includes Debbie Rochon, Bette Cassatt, Amy Steel, Caroline Williams, Lesleh Donaldson, Adrienne King. The men are represented by ex-Village Person Randy Jones, Joe Zaso, Carl Burrows and Michael Varrati. They probably would have been a perfect, even without makeup or costumes. It adds deleted scenes, a NYC Horror Film Festival interview and behind-the-scenes featurette.

Jeremy Benson’s babe-in-the-wilderness thriller, Girl in Woods, offers Juliet Reeves London the kind of showcase she needs to have her name recognized as someone other than “Uncredited” on IMDB.com. She plays Grace, a fragile young woman who loses her fiancé to a tragic accident no more than a day after he proposes to her. Lost somewhere in the middle of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Grace becomes increasingly desperate – and delusional – the longer she’s forced to go without her medication. The victim of severe childhood trauma, she’s tortured by enemies real and imagined. By the end, viewers will be confusing the two, as well.

Be Somebody
Because I don’t follow anyone or anything on Twitter and wouldn’t have recognized the  newly defunct Vine from a stick of licorice, I wasn’t aware that the star of Be Somebody is bona-fide social media phenomenon and has been since he was 14. Now, at the ripe old age of 18, Matthew Espinosa has made his feature-film debut as Justin Bieber-like superstar Jordan Jaye, who, despite his success and fame, only wants to live like a regular teenager … or so we’re told. He gets an opportunity to do just that while escaping from a pack of rabid teeny-bopper fans. He finds refuge in the person of small-town, high school art student Emily Lowe (Sarah Jeffery). Not only does she not recognize Jordan, but she’s also completely unimpressed by his story. Did I mention this is a fantasy? In keeping with Be Somebody’s PG rating, they get past their differences long enough to embark on an unexpected journey of friendship, affection and self-discovery. Working from a snappy script by Lamar Damon (Slap Her, She’s French!), Joshua Caldwell (Layover) has crafted a romantic fantasy that should appeal to younger teen and ’tween girls. Even though Espinosa is said to have 20 million followers on social media, not enough of them bothered to show up for Be Somebody’s limited release engagements to justify something more grand. It wouldn’t be the first time that a studio executive bought into the myth of Internet stardom.

TV-to-DVD
Fox: The Passion Live
PBS: American Masters: Norman Lear: Blu-ray
History: Ancient Aliens: Season 9
PBS: Art 21: Art in the Twenty-First Century: Season 8
PBS: Royal Wives at War
Hallmark: When Calls The Heart: Year Three
Although Tyler Perry gets top billing in this musical interpretation of “The Passion,” fans of Medea shouldn’t expect to see his trademark character turn up unexpectedly at the Last Supper, serving grits and gravy. In fact, Perry’s only responsibility here is to narrate the 2,000-year-old story of the last hours of Jesus Christ’s life on Earth through passages from the Bible – adapted by Peter Barsocchini (“High School Musical”) — and introduce singers Seal (Pontius Pilate), Trisha Yearwood (Mary), Michael Whitaker Smith (disciple), Chris Daughtry (Judas Iscariot), Jencarlos Canela (Jesus), Shane Harper (disciple) and Prince Royce (Peter), who perform in contemporary dress. The Fox special was an American adaptation of a Dutch television special of the same name, which has been broadcast annually since 2011, and was, in turn, a localized version of the BBC’s 2006 special “Manchester Passion.” The soundtrack includes songs recorded by Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Creed, Evanescence, Train, Hoobastank and Tears for Fears, among others. This epic event was broadcast live from some of New Orleans’ most familiar locations – it’s Perry’s hometown and a symbol of urban resurrection — while featuring a procession of hundreds of people carrying a 20-foot, illuminated cross from outside the Superdome to the stage at Woldenberg Park on the banks of the Mississippi River.

It goes without saying that Norman Lear remains one of a small handful of television producers who can truly be called visionary. He not only changed the programming Americans watched in prime-time, but he also had a profound effect on what adult viewers expected of the medium, itself. “All in the Family,” “Good Times,” “Sanford and Son,” “The Jeffersons,” “Maude,” “Mary Hartman/Mary Hartman,” “Fernwood Tonight” and “One Day at a Time” owned broadcast television in the 1970s and early ’80s, with “a.k.a. Pablo” representing the flop that proved the rule. He left the television racket in the mid-1980s to deal with personal matters and get involved in feature films. As a political activist, he founded the advocacy organization People for the American Way in 1981 and has actively supported First Amendment rights and progressive causes ever since. He owns a copy of the Declaration of Independence and, in his late 60s, started a second family with a new wife and twins. For “American Masters: Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” the show’s producers were given unprecedented access to Lear, personal archives, family, friends and collaborators. Their work coincided with the publication his memoirs, “Norman Lear: Just Another Version.”

As difficult as it is to believe the hypotheses forwarded by the researchers on History Channel’s “Ancient Aliens,” it’s just as hard to imagine how the producers managed to find enough material to make it through nine seasons. The theories may be undeniably provocative and entertaining, but again … nine seasons? Sure, why not? If the not-so-ancient aliens on “Duck Dynasty” can fool viewers for the same number of seasons, who’s to say that the subjects of “Ancient Aliens” aren’t every bit as credible? The season’s menu includes “Forbidden Caves,” “The Great Flood,” “Alien Resurrections,” “Alien Messages,” “Mysteries of the Sphinx,” “Secrets of the Mummies,” “Aliens Among Us,” “Aliens and the Civil War” and “The Alien Agenda.” Most begin with a grain of truth, before zooming off into the ozone, just like “Duck Dynasty” and most other reality-based shows.

Season Eight of PBS’ “Art in the Twenty-First Century” once again provides unparalleled access to the most innovative artists of our time, revealing how they engage the culture around them and how art allows viewers to see the world in new ways. Instead of being organized around an artistic theme, as is usually the case, the 16 featured artists are grouped by their unique and revealing relationships to the places where they live: Chicago, Los Angeles, Mexico City and Vancouver.

After Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936, public confidence in the British monarchy almost completely subsided. A popular and charismatic king was suddenly gone, choosing his twice-divorced mistress over his Crown and country. His ashamed family drove him into exile, but nobody had faith in his successor, George VI, a nervous man with a crippling stutter. Hitler saw in the former King a man with whom he could work. Now, the PBS docudrama Royal Wives at War returns to the original words and opinions of the two women at the heart of that battle — the Queen Mother (Emma Davies) and Wallis Simpson (Gina McKee) — to discover the truth. Drawing together new evidence found in their letters, memoirs and biographies, director Tim Dunn and writer Lindsay Shapero unravel the story of a feud between, later the Duchess of Windsor, that lasted from their first encounter in the chilly winter of 1933 right up to their deaths.

From the Hallmark Channel comes “When Calls the Heart: Year Three,” a five-disc DVD set comprised of the two-hour holiday movie, “It Begins With Heart” (a.k.a., “A New Year’s Wish”); “Troubled Hearts,” which combines episodes “Troubled Hearts” and “A Time to Speak”; “Heart of a Hero,” a combination of episodes “Heart of a Hero” and “A Gentle Heart”; “Forever in My Heart,” with episodes “Forever in My Heart” and “Heartbreak”; and “Hearts in Question,” with “Hearts in Question” and “Prayers From the Heart.”

The DVD Wrapup: Through the Looking Glass, Café Society, Our Kind of Terror, Buying Democracy and more

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

Alice Through the Looking Glass: Blu-ray
Not having done my homework ahead of watching Alice Through the Looking Glass on Blu-ray, I just assumed that Tim Burton had directed the sequel to his and Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. In fact, I wasn’t relieved of that notion until I started looking into the movie’s production background for this review. Burton stayed on as producer, but handed off the baton to relative newcomer James Bobin, whose name has been affixed to Muppets Most Wanted and The Muppets and television’s “Flight of the Conchords” and “Da Ali G Show,” which might explain the presence of Sasha Baron Cohen, as Time. Although the drop-off at the international box office was huge — $1.025 billion for “Alice,” to $287.1 million for “Looking Glass” – I don’t think any of the blame can be laid at the feet of the director, returning screenwriter Linda Woolverton, composer Danny Elfman or Lewis Carroll, for that matter. If anything, “Looking Glass” was a far more difficult film to market. Somewhat darker than “Alice,” it has rarely been adapted for the big screen and didn’t have a history with Disney. Inconveniently, as well, “Looking Glass” opened almost simultaneously with news of Amber Heard’s filing for divorce from Johnny Depp and, five days later, obtaining a temporary restraining order against him. I suspect, though, that anyone who enjoyed Burton’s “Alice” will want to take a chance on “Looking Glass,” anyway.

In it, the grown-up Alice Kingsleigh has returned to London after long and arduous voyage to the Orient – as eastern Asia was once known – only to learn of her father’s death and that her unctuous ex-fiancé, Hamish Ascot (Leo Bill), has taken over her father’s company. He plans to have Alice sell him the ship in exchange for her family home, which her mother (Lindsay Duncan) sold to him to retain her standing in society. Unable to make a choice, Alice hides from Ascot’s guards in her late father’s study. As the guards are threatening to break down the door, Alice’s butterfly friend Absolem (Alan Rickman, in his final voiceover role) disappears through a magical mirror that leads back to Underland. There, Alice is greeted by such old friends as the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), the Tweedles (Matt Lucas), the Dormouse (Barbara Windsor) and the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry). They inform her that Tarrant Hightopp, the Mad Hatter (Depp), is in poor health because his family has gone missing following the attack of the Jabberwocky. The queen persuades Alice to convince Time – the demi-god human/clockwork hybrid, who dictates passages in Underland using a Chronosphere — to save the Mad Hatter’s family … in the past. She cautions Alice that if her past self sees her future self, everything will be history. The wondrous adventure takes her through various time/space/shape continuums, before she can return home to save her father’s ship. The Blu-ray overflows with bonus material, including music videos, making-of and background featurettes, hidden Easter Eggs, character profiles, commentary and deleted scenes.

Café Society: Blu-ray
If, as was the case in the 1970-80s, such writers and directors as Paul Mazursky, Michael Ritchie, Neil Simon, Herbert Ross, Elaine May, Nora Ephron, Mike Nichols, Francis Veber, and Larry Gelbart were still competing for the same adult audiences, Woody Allen wouldn’t stand so alone in the American filmmaking firmament. Neither would his detractors feel as if they have to make excuses for buying tickets to see his annual film. Café Society is a lot like his previous five romantic dramedies and fantasies — Irrational Man, Magic in the Moonlight, Blue Jasmine, To Rome with Lovee, Midnight in Paris – in that they almost guarantee audiences of a certain age that they won’t regret venturing out to the local arthouse to take advantage of early bird or seniors discounts. It’s not only because his films are devoid of gratuitous nudity, profanity, zombies and fart jokes, although that would be reason enough for some folks. Perhaps, it’s because the people he recruits represent a cross-section of today’s most accomplished and interesting actors and that the scenarios and gags aren’t intended to appeal to the lowest possible audience denominator. I wouldn’t mind seeing what he could do with a sequel to Bananas, Sleepers or Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask, but that boat sailed a long time ago.

Café Society, which performed twice as well at the overseas box office, is set in the 1930s, when a young Bronx native, Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), decides that he doesn’t want to work in the family jewelry business until he gives Hollywood a shot. Conveniently, his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell) is one of the most powerful talent agents in town and, after blowing Bobby off for a few weeks, finds some menial errands for him to do. Phil introduces Bobby to his secretary Veronica, nicknamed Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who is tasked with helping him settle into Hollywood. In a contrivance only Allen could pull off without it seeming ridiculously calculated, Bobby falls in love with Vonnie’s unpretentious approach to life, but is rebuffed by her allegiance to her secret lover – guess who – who promises to divorce his wife, but doesn’t deliver on it. Fast forward a few years, after Bobby has returned to New York and accepted a job with his gangster brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), running a high-end nightclub. It’s here that Bobby meets divorcée Veronica Hayes (Blake Lively) and they begin the process of settling down. Of course, Allen arranges to have Vonnie and Bobby meet once again, not terribly unlike the way Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman would reunite a few years later at Rick’s Café Américain. The best thing about Café Society isn’t the story of Bobby and Vonnie, however. It’s the period re-creations of how the posh set waits out the Depression in Hollywood and Manhattan, which are as glamorous as any MGM musical from the same period. Typically, the Blu-ray is short of bonus features, limited to an “On the Red Carpet” featurette and photo gallery.

What We Become: Bluray
If it weren’t for the distinction attributed to Bo Mikkelsen’s debut feature that it’s “the first post-apocalyptic zombie movie” made in Denmark, I’d probably dismiss What We Become as a direct lift of the first few episodes of “Fear the Walking Dead” and leave it at that. The setting doesn’t feel particularly Scandinavian or even reveal anything a Swede or Norwegian might consider to be fodder for a Danish joke. (They’re what passes for humor in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin.) Set in a typically suburban neighborhood north of Copenhagen, the typically middle-class Johansson family assumes that one summer day is going to pass just as they always do in that part of the world. What they can’t possibly foresee is the Zombie Apocalypse – can anyone? — which looms right around the corner. It begins with TV reports of a serious virus spreading through a section of its viewership area. The Johannsons don’t begin to show their concern until an elderly neighbor reports the death and subsequent disappearance of her husband, who, as usual, was perched in front of the TV. They don’t even panic when armed men in Hazmet gear suddenly appear in the neighborhood warning residents to stay indoors and wash their hands.

It’s when the armed men begin to cover the windows of secured homes with sheets of plastic, however, and infected neighbors are hauled off, never to be seen again, and food supplies dwindle, that the Johannsons and their uninvited guests do, indeed, panic. When, unexpectedly, the soldiers pull back to an area separated from the neighborhood by fences, a few residents risk death by checking out the ruckus. It’s then that the extent of the Zombie Apocalypse becomes apparent. Mikkelsen does a good job ratcheting up the fear factor from paranoia to full-blown panic. The only thing that differentiates What We Become from the dozens of other zombie flicks we’ve seen, however, is the degree of danger he’s willing to impose on the youngest Johannson daughter (and her pet rabbit) and her older brother, who’s just fallen in love with the new babe on the block. Still, I’d be more impressed had Mikkelsen chosen to make the movie according to Dogme 95 specifications.

Our Kind of Traitor: Blu-ray
If, at 85, John le Carre is going to keep writing novels, someone in England is going to find the money to adapt movies and mini-series from them. Thank goodness. In the last five years, we’ve seen Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, A Most Wanted Man, “The Night Managermini-series and Our Kind of Traitor, with a mini-series remake of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold set for next year. Less cloak-and-dagger than a game of musical bank accounts, Our Kind of Traitor describes a subterranean world in which brazen Russian oligarchs and gangsters ruthlessly control financial institutions once known for their stability, anonymity and conservative principles. Why settle for numbered accounts in Swiss bank accounts – whose security no longer can be guaranteed to tyrants and other miscreants — when you can convince a respectable putz to buy a bank for you? As we learned from Iran-Contra and other Reagan-era shenanigans, the CIA and MI6 frequently tag along with the gangsters and cartels to facilitate operations of their own design. Here, a British professor, Perry (Ewan McGregor), is vacationing with his wife, Gail (Naomie Harris), in Marrakesh, where he befriends a boisterous Russian gangster, Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), who senses that his usefulness to the mob has run its course.

After a few games of tennis, Dima asks Perry to do a favor for him. He wants him to deliver a USB drive to MI6 agents, who might consider allowing him to defect in exchange for a list of names and account numbers of British politicians helping Russian oligarchs launder money through London. All Perry has to do is hand the drive to MI6 agent Hector (Damian Lewis) and get back to business as usual. There is, as usual, a hitch. If the intelligence agency is going to accuse British politicians of corruption, Hector demands more information from Dima. He asks Perry to pay one more visit to his new friend, who demands protection for his family if he’s going to keep cooperating. The exchange is arranged to coincide with the signing of an important banking agreement. Once again, easier planned than done. What director Susanna White and writer Hossein Amini’s Our Kind of Traitor lacks in suspense, it makes up for in a bravura performance by Skarsgård. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a making-of featurette and interviews with cast and the creative team.

The Best Democracy Money Can Buy
Here’s another documentary that Republicans will avoid like a heat-seeking, Zika-carrying mosquito. That’s because The Best Democracy Money Can Buy spells out exactly how our democracy has been corrupted by politicians and election judges bought and paid for by our wealthiest citizens. When Donald Trump says, “This election is rigged,” he’s right. It isn’t the media that’s corrupt, however. Nor is it the entity that’s stealing votes. Trump “henchman,” Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State, claims that his computer program has identified 7.2 million people in 29 states who may have voted twice in the same election. Sound familiar? In fact, most of these purged suspects are minorities–mainly Democratic voters – whose first and last names are among the most common in the country: Jose Gonzales, Albert Jackson, anyone name Kim, for example. Men and women serving their country overseas also are targets for fraud. What the election judges fail to take into account when disqualifying a voter are middle names and such suffixes as Jr., Sr., III etc., which would explain the seeming discrepancy. Add them together and the number of voters Donald Trump and his buddies claim have voted in different states on the same day soars into the millions. Or, to put it another way, millions of people with the same first and last names have been denied the right to have their ballots weighed. And, that’s presupposing that people of color were allowed to vote in the first place, given draconian ID procedures that create unconscionably long waits, but only in heavily Democratic districts. And, no, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy isn’t just another Michael Moore production, although he’s promised to release a doc of his own this week. Rolling Stone investigative reporter Greg Palast uses a mock-noir approach to deliver his evidence, consulting such celebrity gumshoes as Ice-T, Richard Belzer, Rosario Dawson, Willie Nelson and Shailene Woodley. The search takes Palast from Kansas to the Arctic, the Congo and to a swanky Hamptons dinner party held by Trump’s sugar-daddy, John Paulson, a.k.a. “JP The Foreclosure King.” The DVD adds extended interviews and reports from Azerbaijan, Congo and Liberia. It’s as disspiriting as it is fascinating.

Child’s Play: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Waxworks Compilation: Blu-ray
Count Dracula’s Great Love: Blu-ray
One of the most popular and enduring horror franchises in history, the series inspired by Tom Holland and Don Mancini’s Child’s Play is scheduled to spawn a sixth sequel next year, Chucky 7. Its immediate predecessor, Curse of Chucky, was released on VOD on September 24, 2013, and DVD/Blu-ray two weeks later. Having branched out into comic books and video games, Chucky is as recognizable a brand name as Cabbage Patch Kids, which he resembles. Actually, the character’s full name, Charles Lee Ray, was derived from those of notorious killers Charles Manson, Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray. As they are wont to do, parents’ groups protested the violent nature of what ostensibly was a toy, and blamed a murder or two on its influence. In the original, newly released into a dandy Blu-ray from Scream Factory, the toddler-size doll is possessed by the mind and soul of the Lake Shore Strangler (Brad Dourif), a Chicago mass murderer obsessed with black magic. After the killer is shot by a cop and left for dead in a toy store, he utters a voodoo incantation that causes lightning to strike the store and trigger the curse. It manifests itself after a single mom (Catherine Hicks) scrapes together enough money to purchase a burn-damaged Chucky doll from a street peddler. It’s an immediate hit with her son, who’s been pre-sold on the doll in television commercials. (Mancini has said that Child’s Play began as a satire on toy marketing and merchandising for children, before being re-written as horror.) The rest is mayhem. The idea of turning a child’s toy or ventriloquist’s dummy into the antagonist of a story typically is traced to Richard Attenborough and William Goldman’s chilling 1978 Magic and episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” In fact, the subgenre probably originated in 1925, with Tod Browning’s The Unholy Three. The first Child’s Play isn’t nearly as schlocky as some of us might remember it to be. The writing is sharp and the scenario is as credible as these things get. I can’t vouch for its sequels. The Blu-ray package adds new commentary with Holland to go along with previous tracks with actors Alex Vincent and Hicks and designer Kevin Yagher, producer David Kirschner and screenwriter Mancini. A second disc offers a dozen making-of and background featurettes, interviews and marketing material.

I suppose it’s worth recalling that movies about wax museums didn’t originate with the 2005 Paris Hilton vehicle House of Wax. In fact, they can be traced to Paul Leni’s 1924 Waxworks and Michael Curtiz’ 1933 The Mystery of the Wax Museum. In Anthony Hickox’s 1988 horror/comedy, Waxwork, newly released into Blu-ray, with its 1992 sequel, Waxwork II: Lost in Time, which alludes briefly to “Alice in Wonderland.” In a relatively familiar scenario, an evil magician creates a wax display of famous monsters and murderers and invites a group of unsuspecting young college students to view the collection. When they overstep their boundaries, however, the students find themselves trapped in the deadly tableaux. The original stars Zach Galligan, Deborah Foreman, Miles O’Keefe, Michelle Johnson and David Warner and features the special effects of Bob Keen (Event Horizon). In the sequel, Mark and Sarah (Galligan, Monika Schnarre) have managed to escape the deadly wax museum before it was destroyed. Amazingly, one deadly wax hand escaped destruction, as well, and follows Sarah home. It murders her stepfather before she can destroy it. (Disembodied hands also constitute a subgenre, starting with 1946’s The Beast With Five Fingers.) When Sarah is accused of the murder, she and Mark must travel back in time to stop the still-present evil. The Blu-ray includes commentary with Hickox and Galligan, as well as the new feature-length film, “The Waxwork Chronicles,” an isolated score and audio interview with composers Roger Bellon and Steve Schiff, an archived making-of piece, still galleries and music video.

Paul Naschy was to Spanish-language horror movies what Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were to Hammer Films and Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were to Universal’s classic monster flicks. Last week, we cited Naschy’s triple-character turn in A Werewolf in the Amazon, which was made several decades past his prime. It’s no coincidence that Javier Aguirre’s 1973 Count Dracula’s Great Love (a.k.a., “Cemetery Girls,” “Dracula’s Virgin Lovers” and “The Great Love of Count Dracula”) resembles the Hammer Dracula films that began with The Horror of Dracula, albeit with considerably more T&A. After their carriage breaks down and their driver is killed in a freak accident, a group of young women is forced to spend the night in a strange and isolated former sanatorium, owned by the secretive Dr. Marlow (Naschy). While three of the four women are quickly attacked by Marlow/Dracula’s undead servants, the Eternal One reserves the beautiful virgin Karen (Haydée Politoff) to be his bride and redeemer of his long-dead daughter. There’s nothing subtle about Spanish horror and The Horror of Dracula is no exception. Even so, Dracula completists will savor this “unclothed” addition to their collection. The Vinegar Syndrome package is comprised of a fully restored edition from its uncut international negative and featuring a never released feature length audio commentary track with star Naschy and Aguirre; new interview with actress Mirta Miller; an English dub and original Spanish-language soundtrack; stills gallery; eight-page booklet by Mirek Lipinski; and reversible cover artwork.

A Beautiful Now
To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine, once again, I think that the problem with writer/director/producer Daniela Amavia’s freshman feature comes down to this: “Daniela, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of five little millennials don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” As is so often the case with indie debuts, the elevation of sticky personal relationships to universally relatable drama can be a dubious exercise. In A Beautiful Now, a passionate dancer, Romy (Abigail Spencer), has come to the point in her professional life where pursuing a career in the arts is swiftly becoming a losing proposition. She hasn’t lost more than a step or two artistically, but can’t help hearing the padded toe steps of the next generation of dancers approaching from a mile away. At one particularly delicate juncture, Romy decides that the best way to solve her dilemma is to lock herself in her bathroom with a handgun and make sure that a handful of estranged friends (Cheyenne Jackson, Collette Wolfe, Elena Satine, Patrick Heusinger and Sonja Kinski) is gathered outside the door either to empathize with her or be made to feel eternally guilty. Amavia uses flashbacks to convince us of Romy’s promise as a dancer, as well as the importance of certain pivotal moments in her personal life. Outside the door, the friends recall their own relationships, especially those shared with Romy. The setup harkens to The Big Chill, minus the football games, Motown hits and accomplished characters, and that’s what’s missing in A Beautiful Now: something to make us feel better about sharing our time with these people. Still, there’s just enough substance here to give Amavia more hope for the future than Romy.

The Missing Ingredient: What Is the Recipe for Success?
Among the many things that make New York great are the institutions that endure the vagaries of time, fashion, trends and hype. These include restaurants, some of which didn’t survive the 2008 Depression. All big cities have restaurants that have stood the test of time. Very few of them have been the subject of documentaries. Of the films that describe what it takes to make a high-profile restaurant great, yet vulnerable to failure, the best are The Restaurateur, A Matter of Taste, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, King Georges, Spinning Plates and Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven. Excellent docs about hot-dog joints, delis and food trucks also abound, but are of a decidedly different texture. Michael Sparaga’s The Missing Ingredient: What Is the Recipe for Success? assumes we know what makes a restaurant great, especially the quality of the cuisine, attention to detail, commitment of the kitchen and wait staffs, and ambience. Sparaga is as interested in defining what makes restaurant an “institution,” which is something else altogether. To do this, he focuses on two New York restaurants, neither of which would be known outside the five boroughs, unless a viewer chanced on one of them on a visit. Before it closed in 2010, Gino’s was known for 65 years as an Upper East Side bar, restaurant and “club” where the elite from New York’s political, business, athletic and cultural worlds felt comfortable enough to dine regularly and get drunk before going home. Its red sauce was legendary, as was its trademark red wallpaper, comprised of 314 nearly identical zebras. The reviews weren’t always salutatory, but that wasn’t the point.

Pescatore, a Midtown staple on Second Ave since 1993, is the other restaurant profiled in “Missing Ingredient.” It has served its fair share of celebrities, but has remained best known as a neighborhood attraction in a part of the city that promotes the latest trends and positive reviews in the Times and glossies. General manager Charles Devigne recognized the fickleness of his customers and decided to do something radical – sacrilegious, even – to re-define the bistro and attract a more stable clientele. His controversial decision to borrow one of Gino’s iconic features – the zebra wallpaper — inspires Sparaga’s exploration of the undefinable quality that transforms a simple eatery into an institution. Instead, it gave him an opportunity to re-interview the same quintessential New Yorkers from whom he sought opinions on the closing of Gino’s. To say it misfired for Devigne is like dismissing the controversy over the introduction of anew recipe for Coca-Cola as a tempest in a teapot. In New York, even the simplest gesture can be blown into an earth-shaking contretemps that demands comment, no matter how little anyone outside the cognoscenti cares. Frankly, most interest in “Missing Ingredient” will be by reserved for New Yorkers who’ve heard of Gino’s and Pescatore and felt a certain kinship to the people who dined, drank and worked there. Parsing the restaurant economy is interesting, as well, but only to those who understand its dynamics.

Last of the Mississippi Jukes
The South’s juke-joint tradition extends well beyond the introduction of electronic jukeboxes in the 1940s and the great migration north of field hands, sharecroppers and care givers. More likely than not, the word “juke” derived from the Gullah word joog, meaning rowdy or disorderly. They could be found at rural crossroads, near where plantation workers and sharecroppers struggled to make a living. They were barred from most white establishments by Jim Crow laws and were gouged as a captive audience by club owners. Robert Mugge’s excellent 2003 music documentary, Last of the Mississippi Jukes, explores the fading traditions of rural juke joints, as well as their urban counterparts in Jackson, the state capital. The blues, as we know it today, was first played by itinerant musicians in juke joints, largely in the Delta. It would travel north, to Memphis, first, and then Chicago and Detroit. The two Mississippi venues featured are Jimmy King’s Subway Lounge, which, for three decades, operated in the basement of the black-owned Summers Hotel, in Jackson, and actor Morgan Freeman and attorney Bill Luckett’s Ground Zero Blues Club, in Clarksdale. The story is told by blues historians Dick Waterman and Steve Cheseborough, by surviving club owners, local politicians and musicians. Among the latter are Alvin Youngblood Hart with Sam Carr and Anthony Sherrod; the House Rockers and the King Edward Blues Band; Bobby Rush, Chris Thomas King, Vasti Jackson, Patrice Moncell, Eddie Cotton, Greg “Fingers” Taylor, Lucille, Abdul Rasheed, Levon Lindsey, J.T. Watkins, Dennis Fountain, Pat Brown, George Jackson, Steve Cheseborough, Casey Phillips, Jimmy King, David Hughes and Virgil Brawley, who provide the musical backdrop to the painless history lesson. The doc has been updated to report on the status of clubs visited in 2003.

75th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor
As we approach yet another landmark anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it’s difficult to imagine anything new being learned about the terrible historical event. The fact is, however, that every new advance in marine technology, micro-photography and industrial forensics gets us closer to long-submerged facts. The title “75th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor” is tad misleading in that it’s a compilation of previously released programming from History Channel, including “60th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor.” These shows are “Deep Sea Detectives: Japanese Sub at Pearl Harbor” (2003), “History: Other Tragedy at Pearl Harbor” (2001), “Live From Pearl Harbor Highlights” (2001), “The Letter From Pearl Harbor” (2011), “Unsung Heroes of Pearl Harbor” (2001), “Tech Effect: Pearl Harbor” (2004) and “What Went Down: Pearl Harbor (2009). The shows haven’t lost their ability to inform and entertain, even if much of the narration is repetitive. The most newsworthy of the reports describes how the first salvo in the war came from American sailors who destroyed a miniature Japanese submarine approaching the harbor an hour before the air attack. A deep-sea submersible locates the wreckage, substantiating eye-witness accounts from the seamen that more than 60 years were treated as rumors or outright fabrication. I wish the producers had added updates to these reports, especially what’s happened to the sub since its discovery. There’s also previously classified material on the nearly derailed Operation Forager, the invasion of Saipan. They owe it to the veterans, some no longer with us, who were interviewed for the shows.

TV-to-DVD
Amazon Prime: Doctor Thorne
Freefall: Guilt: Season 1
Esquire/ITV: Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands: Blu-ray
Diehard fans of the late, lamented “Downton Abbey” won’t have their appetite completely sated by the elegant British import, “Doctor Thorne,” but, like the PBS/ITV sensation, they can take some solace in knowing it was written by the estimable Julien Fellows. He also introduces all four chapters of the story, which Fellows adapted from the Anthony Trollope novel. Ostensibly, it follows the life of penniless Mary Thorne (Stefanie Martini), an orphan who grows up with her much admired uncle, Doctor Thorne (Tom Hollander), and her relationship with the Gresham family at nearby Greshamsbury Park estate. The Greshams have fallen victim to personal vices and ill-considered financial dealings, so, when it comes time for them to marry off their handsome eldest son, they expect him to pick the wealthiest of all eligible bachelorettes (Alison Brie). When he falls, instead, for the family’s servant girl, Lady Arabella Gresham (Rebecca Front) makes sure she’s banished from the household. What Trollope allows early on, and almost none of the other characters, except Dr. Thorne, are aware, is that Mary stands second in line to inherit a fortune left by the disreputable Sir Roger Scatcherd (Ian McShane). First in line is Scatcherd’s gluttonous son – Mary’s half-brother – who refuses to forgive the Greshams’ debts, unless she agrees to marry him, instead of Frank Gresham. If all of that information sounds like a giant spoiler, you should know that almost all of it is revealed in Chapter One, at Sir Roger Scatcherd’s deathbed. Thorne’s commitment to maintain his brother’s secret complicates the proceedings almost beyond repair … or until the final chapter. Again, as was the case with “Downton Abbey” and most other period pieces from England, most of the fun comes in the set and costume designs, terrific acting and splendid estates at which the exteriors were shot. The package includes several making-of featurettes and interviews.

If you’ve never heard of the British export, Guilt, it’s probably because you’ve never heard of the Freefall cable network, formerly ABC Family. The more often these operations change their names, the less likely we are to find shows we want to watch. “Guilt” isn’t the kind of story you’d expect to find on a “family” service, but, while a tad salacious, it likely would get a PG-13 if it had to pass the MPAA board. Grace Atwood (Daisy Head) finds herself in a mess when her best friend, Molly Ryan (Rebekah Wainwright), is murdered, and she blacked out from drugs at nearly same time and in the same room as the killing. Grace’s sister, Natalie (Emily Tremaine), is an American practicing law in London. She pledges her allegiance to Grace, but is flummoxed at every turn. One of those turns takes Natalie to a high-end brothel, where Grace and most of her girlfriends worked as prostitutes, hosts or cocktail waitresses. By the time the trial begins, there are several prime suspects, besides Grace, and other characters plotting various forms of revenge. At 10 episodes, the story is allowed to play out in due course and without much overcrowding. My guess would be that Guilt would have found more eyes on BBC America or a similar network. Hard to tell if it will be renewed. Billy Zane plays a champion defense attorney, looking very much like fellow Greek, Telly Savalas.

Beowulf is the legendary hero and king of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem that has befuddled English majors for generations. It took Hollywood a bit longer to find something worth salvaging in the ancient 8th Century text. It came in 1999, with Christopher Lambert in the title role. He would be followed in the part by Gerard Butler, Chris Bruno, Ray Winstone and hunky Kieran Bew. The monster, Grendel, has only been as formidable as the special-effects budgets have allowed. Still Beowulf fits right into the current craze for comic-book superheroes and epic fantasies. “Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands” does away with Grendel, but isn’t remotely short of monsters, trolls and demonic warriors. The story picks up 20 years later with Beowulf returning to his homeland of Herot, in the Shieldlands, to pay his respects to deceased king Hrothgar (William Hurt). Past jealousies mean Beowulf gets a frosty welcome, especially from Hrothgar’s wife, Rheda (Joanne Whalley), and son, Slean (Ed Speelers). The town is being attacked by a creature and Our Hero is accused of murder. The political intrigue gets thick after a while, leaving viewers waiting to grasp, besides ferocious critters battling buff swordsmen. The mini-series’ 12 episodes are available for download on Esquire, as well as this attractive Blu-ray.

The DVD Wrapup: Infiltrator, Blood Father, Violent Cop, Sherpa, Les Cowboys, Hills Have Eyes and more

Friday, October 14th, 2016

The Infiltrator: Blu-ray
If it weren’t for the likelihood that American audiences already know as much about Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel as they’ll ever care to learn, Brad Furman’s compelling drug-war drama, The Infiltrator, might have managed to break even at the box office. Instead, fine performances by Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”) and Diane Kruger (“The Bridge”), as undercover U.S. Customs agents Robert Mazur and Kathy Ertz, will pretty much go for naught. Enough is enough, already. Although Escobar makes a brief cameo, the primary antagonist here is Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), a Chilean-born gem trader who connects with Mazur when the cartel runs out of places to stash its ill-gotten gains. One of those is the thoroughly corrupt Bank of Credit and Commerce International, which agrees to accept cash deposits in return for a percentage of the money laundered. At various times, the BCCI’s clientele included depositors representing the Abu Nidal terrorist group, the CIA, Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega, Bangladesh leader Hussain Mohammad Ershad and Liberian strongman Samuel Doe. Because we’ve been inundated recently with such Escobar biopics and mini-series as Netflix’s “Narcos,” Telemundo’s “El Señor de los Cielos” and Andrea Di Stefano’s Escobar: Paradise Lost – with takes by John Leguizamo and Javier Bardem still to come — The Infiltrator almost feels like an afterthought. Endless repeats of Scarface on cable TV have contributed to the surplus of knowledge on cocaine trafficking, as well. Perhaps, in anticipation of this logjam, Furman and screenwriter Ellen Brown Furman chose to balance the bloodshed and blow, as described in Mazur’s book, with a solid romantic angle designed to divert our attention away from the tiresome details of the smuggling industry.

The heroes of Operation C-Chase were Customs Service agents, after all, and their motivation was to deprive the cartel of the fuel that fanned the flames of so-called narco-terrorism. If the Colombian cartels weren’t brought down in this or any other U.S. operation, the arrests and trials were able to temporarily inconvenience Escobar and other smugglers and re-direct millions of drug dollars to other covert missions, including the Iran-Contra Affair. It’s worth recalling that Al Capone was brought down by his failure to pay his fair share of income taxes, not in a hail of bullets, like the characters he inspired: Al Pacino’s Tony Montana and Paul Muni’s Tony Camonte. Cranston never looks as comfortable in his undercover guise as John Leguizamo, playing Mazur’s street -smart partner, Emir Abreu. Much of the drama, then, derives from whether Mazur will succumb to such perks as lap dances from strippers (remarkably, he doesn’t) and the temptations that come from making the staged relationship with a beautiful partner look real. Mazur is happily married to Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey) when he’s assigned the blond beard (Kruger), who looks great in borrowed jewels and furs, but resists the temptation to be compromised by them. It’s difficult to tell if Evelyn’s doubts about her husband’s relationship to his partner was a plot device or based on real life. When it comes time to reel in the fish, Mazur’s boss (Amy Ryan) wrings some money out of the budget to afford a first-class wedding, to which all of Bob’s BFFs in the cartel and bank are invited, only to be betrayed … much to Mazur’s consternation. The Infiltrator stands out as a platform for Cranston, primarily, not as the kind of tick-tock thriller or romance-under-fire more easily marketed to crossover audiences from “Breaking Bad.” Fans of movies set at the juncture of underworld commerce and law enforcement, however, aren’t likely to be disappointed. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a making-of featurette and EPK interviews.

Blood Father: Blu-ray
I know that Jean-François Richet’s action-thriller Blood Father was released in some U.S. theaters in mid-August, but you couldn’t prove in by anything in the box-office reports found on IMDB.com or BoxOfficeMojo. It even received mostly above-average marks from the dozen, or so, mainstream critics listed on Metacritic.com. Even so, it quickly disappeared from view. The quick turn-around into DVD/Blu-ray/VOD belies the movie’s excellent pedigree. Richet delivered excellent work in the 2005 John Carpenter remake, Assault of Precinct 13, and two-part French gangster flick, Mesrine. It was adapted for the screen by author Peter Craig (The Town, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay) and Andrea Berloff (Straight Outta Compton) and impeccably shot in the wilds of New Mexico by regular Richet collaborator, Robert Gantz. The imaginatively cast supporting roster includes Erin Moriarty, Diego Luna, Dale Dickey, William H. Macy, Michael Parks and Miguel Sandoval. Daniel Casillas and Rick Stratton’s tattoo work is nothing short of frightening. That, of course, leaves the star and protagonist, Mel Gibson, who’s been in Hollywood’s doghouse for at least the last 10 years for his derogatory comments about women, police, blacks, gays and Jews, as well as residue from being raised in a Sedevacantist (traditionalist) Catholic household led by a right-wing Holocaust denier and outspoken critic of Vatican reforms. Hollywood was willing to forgive most of those sins, as long as he was a box-office sensation, and, as they say, a credit to the industry. When, on July 28, 2006, Gibson allowed the booze in his system do the talking for him during a Malibu police stop, he became the punchline for a thousand jokes on late-night talk shows and persona non grata everywhere else. Since then, he’s starred in Jody Foster’s instantly forgettable The Beaver and Martin Campbell’s Edge of Darkness and made appearances in Machete Kills, Get the Gringo and The Expendables 3.

His first directorial credit in 10 years comes attached to the upcoming World War II biopic, Hacksaw Ridge, set to open in a couple weeks. Curiously, perhaps, the preview trailer for Hacksaw Ridge, which precedes Blood Father on the DVD/Blu-ray, doesn’t carry Gibson’s name, merely “From the Academy Award winning director of Braveheart.” Ouch. In Richet’s thrill-a-minute picture, Gibson plays the father of a long-missing daughter, Lydia (Moriarty), who only returned home after accidentally shooting her hoodlum boyfriend (Luna) in a failed hostage-taking incident sanctioned by La Eme (Mexican Mafia). Gibson’s Link is an ex-con, ex-biker and ex-alcoholic, who’s living in a trailer in the middle of the desert, working as a tattoo artist. No sooner does Lydia wake up from a long nap than the trailer is besieged by La Eme assassins, whose faces are tattooed with a veritable spider’s web of ink. Link and Lydia somehow manage to escape the first assault, but are followed around the Land of Enchantment by gangsters, bikers and anyone interested in collecting a $30,000 reward for Lydia’s return. (That part doesn’t make a lot of sense, except as an excuse for some high-speed motorcycle action.) Richet knows how to direct action and that’s what makes Blood Father worth a look by fans of the genre and Gibson, who hasn’t lost more than a step or two in the last 10 years. It’s rated R for some naughty language and substance abuse, but nothing more potentially harmful to teenagers than that. It adds deleted scenes and a making-of featurettes.

Violent Cop: Blu-ray
Boiling Point: Blu-ray
The significance of the Film Movement releases of Violent Cop and Boiling Point begins and ends with their being the first two directorial efforts of Japanese Renaissance man Takeshi (Beat) Kitano, who, before becoming the country’s foremost action star, was a successful standup comic and TV host. Based on the nature of Japanese comedy and variety shows in the 1980s – parodied in Lost in Translation — the transition from hosting an over-the-top TV variety show to starring in yakuza movies would be comparable to Paul “Pee-wee” Reubens taking over the Dirty Harry franchise from Clint Eastwood. In fact, when lead actor Kitano was asked to assume directorial responsibilities from Kinji Fukasaku, the movie was a comedy. He insisted that the script be rewritten to remove the gags, so that he could distance the character from his television persona. After re-watching Violent Cop recently for an interview, he said, “Frankly, I couldn’t bear to watch it. It’s like being forced to watch yourself when you were a kid. I felt so embarrassed.”

Kitano needn’t be any more embarrassed than Jerry Lewis, whose first experience as a multi-hyphenate was The Bellboy, or Woody Allen for What’s Up, Tiger Lily? and Take the Money and Run. In the beautifully restored edition of Violent Cop, Kitano plays a rogue cop who often uses extreme violence and other unethical methods to get results. It’s shocking, to be sure, but in the highly stylized fashion that has marked mass-market yakuza films for decades. While investigating a series of drug-related homicides, Detective Azuma discovers that his friend and colleague, Iwaki (Sei Hiraizumi), is supplying drugs from within the police department. After Iwaki is murdered and Azuma’s sister is kidnapped, he leaves no stone unturned in getting retribution.

Boiling Point, which followed hot on the heels of Kitano’s 1989 directorial debut, is another yakuza picture, this time probably a bit more difficult to grasp for western audiences. That’s because its primary conflict involves a junior-league baseball team and lackluster player, Masaki (Masahiko Ono), who makes the mistake of defending himself against a gangster who bullies him at a local gas station, where he works. The thug loses face after being hurt in the confrontation and, despite a round of apologies from management and staff, demands from his boss that he be allowed to avenge the insult. The incident leads Masaki from the baseball diamond into the underworld of the yakuza and a lifestyle that doesn’t square with the image of teamwork, accommodation and almost overreaching formality that characterizes Japanese sports. Kitano has been a frequent critic of Japanese society and the use of baseball as a metaphor would have struck a chord with mainstream viewers. Like Violent Cop and most of Kitano’s succeeding features, Boiling Point isn’t for the faint of heart. Action junkies won’t mind the violence and other garish touches, though. The Blu-ray packages are available separately, with lengthy making-of featurettes and informative essays.

Sherpa
There’s been no scarcity of excellent documentaries lately about mountaineering and the challenges of scaling the world’s highest peaks. Lightweight digital camera equipment has allowed filmmakers to follow along on these dangerous mission, recording triumphs and tragedies as if they were staged in a soundstage or on location in Colorado. The same 1996 climbing tragedy described in Jon Krakauer’s harrowing best-seller, “Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster,” inspired the ABC-TV movie “Into Thin Air: Death on Everest,” the IMAX large-format doc Everest and Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest, all spectacular. Between May 10-11, eight people died after being caught in a blizzard while ascending or descending from the summit. Krakauer had already been assigned to report on the overcrowding on Mount Everest, caused by the growing number of commercial expeditions, and the risks involved for everyone from the climbers to the Sherpa guides, whose expertise was never in greater demand. The deaths didn’t, however, discourage mountaineers of varying degrees of experience from paying the tens of thousands of dollars required to make the trek to base camp and beyond. A shot taken from a helicopter in Jennifer Peedom’s documentary Sherpa shows a long line of climbers heading for the summit, one right after the other, like ants on their way to a picnic. The guides call it “gridlock.”

For the Sherpas who live in the Himalayas year-round, the boom in expedition tourism came as mixed blessing. The income was welcome, of course, but the overcrowding was taking a toll on the natural environment and health of the guides, who were making the roundtrip to the 29,029-foot summit more often than ever. Used oxygen tanks and the frozen corpses of dead climbers were becoming an eyesore, as well. Peedum’s team was already on the mountain shooting a documentary from the point of view of the Sherpas and their families – the guides now included women — when an even greater tragedy struck. On April 18, 2014, an ice avalanche occurred on the Khumbu Icefall, killing 16 Nepalese guides. Beyond he human toll, the cameras were able to capture the angry confrontations between the guides, foreign expedition leaders and Nepalese government officials regarding wages and benefits, working conditions and enforceable protocols. Tempers had flared a year earlier, when a foreigner insulted a guide in language the Sherpas considered disrespectful to the mountain they know as Chomolungma. After the debate, it was decided that the mountain would be closed to climbers for the season. The 2015 season was cancelled, as well, due to avalanches in the wake of the April 2015 Nepal earthquake, killing 21 on the mountain. Sherpa goes a long way toward placing the guides’ contributions to the success of foreign climbers – including Sir Edmund Hillary’s long-ignored partner, Tenzing Norgay – in their rightful perspective. It adds an interesting making-of featurette, which includes material taken of families in a nearby village.

Len and Company
In Tim Godsall and Katharine Knight’s debut feature, Len and Company, the title character (Rhys Ifans) is a seen-it-all rock-star so disenchanted with the current scene that he barricades himself inside his spacious rural retreat in Upstate New York and refuses to be civil to anyone who makes the mistake of caring about him. This includes his estranged, college-age son, Max (Jack Kilmer); a pop-star protégé, Zoe (Juno Temple); and ex-wife, Isabelle (Kathryn Hahn). He seems to have warm feelings for a shy local kid, William (Keir Gilchrist), who does odd jobs around the house and makes sure his studio is wired correctly. We know that Len has a few crossed wires of his own, because, when we meet him, he’s snorkeling in an outdoor swimming pool that doesn’t look as if it’s been cleaned since Esther Williams was inducted into the Swimming Pool Hall of Fame, in 1967. Max drives to the property from New York, hoping that Len would do him the courtesy of listening to his band’s demo tape and giving it an honest critique. Assuming it will be just another example of art-school bollocks, he refuses to even listen to it. Despite his dislike for pop music, as opposed to his love for cashing in on its popularity, Len produced Zoe’s last hit album and made her a bigger star than she already was. She hopes that Len will find it in his heart to cheer her up from the teeny-bopper blues and maybe prevent yet another accidental-on-purpose OD on pills. Needless to say, he’s pissed off by her visit.

He even manages to upset William, when, in a fit of pique, Len berates him for attempting to add chlorine to the pool. He retaliates by pulling out the studio wiring and burying it in the woods. Nice guy. It isn’t as if we haven’t already encountered disgruntled Baby Boomers artists, so delusional they consider themselves to be more amusing and creative after they stop taking their meds. We’ve been given little to no evidence of Len’s contributions to mankind and lose patience with him at about the same time Godsall offers him a way out of his – and our – misery. If it weren’t for our familiarity with Ifans’ previous, more likeable work, we’d have given up on Len and Company before redemption became an option. Actually, we care more about the well-being of the supporting characters, no matter how Len turns out. Kilmer allows us to feel the pain of being the unwelcome son of a narcissistic genius, who may well be jealous of his offspring’s decency and ability to emote. I’d sit through 102 minutes of anything in which Temple appears, even HBO’s “Vinyl.” The 27-year-old daughter of producer Amanda Temple (Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten) and director Julien Temple (London: The Modern Babylon, The Filth and the Fury), brightens any screen on which she appears. Everyone else is pretty good, as well.

Les Cowboys: Blu-ray
Am I the only person who sees the title, Les Cowboys, and immediately thinks it might be the third installment in a City Slicker trilogy, with John C. Reilly sitting in for Jack Palance? Probably. Instead, it is a serious attempt by the prolific French screenwriter Thomas Bidegain — Rust and Bone, A Prophet, Saint Laurent – to comprehend what’s going on in a world that stopped making sense after 9/11. In doing so, Bidegain borrows the template created by John Ford and Frank S. Nugent for The Searchers. When Alain Balland’s teenage daughter goes missing from their rural community in the southeast corner of France, he grabs his young son, Kid, and hits the road to find her. Kelly (Iliana Zabeth) had vanished while the Stetson-sporting Alain (François Damiens) was singing “Tennessee Waltz” at the region’s annual Country Festival. He and his wife, Nicole (Agathe Dronne), assumed the girl was too busy doing line-dances or taking target practice to completely disappear from view. Her friends offer no excuses in her defense or clues to her whereabouts. In the absence of a thorough police investigation, Alain learns that Kelly split for points unknown in the company of her Arab boyfriend, Ahmed (Mounir Margoum), whose existence was unknown to the family. A few days later, a letter informs them that she’s voluntarily gone full-blown Muslim and they needn’t worry about her. Not surprisingly, this doesn’t satisfy Alain, who grabs Kit and follows a trail that leads to northern Africa. This is 1994, so the level of paranoia isn’t nearly as high as it will be seven years later.

A few years pass until Alain is tipped to the possibility that a clue to Kelly’s whereabouts – and that of the granddaughter, whose existence has been hidden from him — might be found in Belgium. To his chagrin, Kid and Nicole decide not to accompany him on what’s probably just another wild-goose chase or an imposition on Kelly’s chosen lifestyle. Sadly, Alain’s killed after falling asleep behind the wheel on a lonely stretch of highway leading to Brussels. By now, terrorist attacks in New York, London and Spain have transformed the world and Kid can’t help but pick up the baton of his dad’s obsession. He travels to Afghanistan as a Red Cross volunteer, but can’t help flashing Kelly and Ahmed’s photographs to locals on the off-chance she will be recognized. Instead, Kid is taken under the wing of an American mercenary (Reilly), who seems as comfortable in the battle zone — negotiating with warlords to solve problems — as he would have been, back home, on the range. From this point on, spoilers lie. Suffice it to say that there are plenty more revelations and surprises to come. Les Cowboys’ overriding message eventually comes down to something Reilly’s L’Américain tells Kid about the necessity for carving one’s own path through life and respecting those chosen by others. It sounds simple, but, if the aftereffects of 9/11 have taught us anything, it’s that intolerance and bigotry aren’t limited to any one religion, ethnic group or nationality. Despite its surface resemblance to The Searchers, Les Cowboys is a uniquely satisfying movie that can stand on its singular vision and the imagination of an outstanding filmmaker in his directorial debut. The Cohen Media Blu-ray adds an extensive making-of featurette.

Approaching the Unknown
Frankly, I didn’t pay much attention to Approaching the Unknown when it joined the stack of DVDs scheduled to be review in future columns. I didn’t recognize the face of the astronaut on the cover and wasn’t anxious to spend another 90 minutes lost in space. I should have noticed the names of Mark Strong and Luke Wilson and put the DVD on the top of the stack, but the rust-brown coloring caused them to blend into the dark background, above an unfamiliar title that didn’t exactly pop out at me from the cover, either. Strong is an extremely versatile British actor, who’s excelled in such high-profile projects as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Body of Lies, Sherlock Holmes, Kingsman: The Secret Service and The Imitation Game. Here, he plays astronaut William D. Stanaforth, who’s volunteered for a one-way mission to Mars to lay the groundwork for colonization of the red planet. One of the reasons he’s been chosen to serve as the mission’s advance man is the system he created to use dirt to produce water. After making an ill-advised stop at a space station, where he is greeted by fellow astronauts who are only slightly more welcoming than the creature in “Alien.” After that, his ship begins to misbehave and his efforts to fix the problem only add to the misery. His mission controller (Wilson) wants Stanaforth to return home, but he is having none of it. For the rest of the journey, he’s pretty much reduced to tinkering with machinery, contemplating infinity and hallucinating. In this way, Approaching the Unknown will remind sci-fi buffs of The Martian, Gravity, Interstellar, Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Arriving so closely on the heels of The Martian and Gravity, though, Mark Elijah Rosenberg’s drama was doomed to a limited theatrical release and low-key re-entry to DVD and VOD. And, that’s really too bad, because Strong’s performance is comparable to any of the ones in the aforementioned titles and the deep-space visuals – likely collected from or inspired by the spectacular images captured by the Hubble telescope – keep the 90-minute film from wearing out its welcome or feeling derivative.

Broken Vows
Before re-reading some articles on Fatal Attraction, I didn’t know that there was a scientific term – two, actually – for the malaise that was driving Glenn Close’s lovesick character, Alexandra Forrest. There are plenty of words to describe the behavior of Michael Douglas’ dangerously randy protagonist, Dan Gallagher, with “horndog,” “dickhead” and “Bill Clinton wannabe” coming immediately to mind. Poor Alex suffered from a disorder commonly known as “erotomania” and “de Clérambault’s syndrome.” In the 1971 psychological thriller Play Misty for Me, Jessica Walter’s wigged-out stalker, Evelyn Draper, gave director/star Clint Eastwood more problems than any of the bad guys in the Dirty Harry franchise. I don’t know if either of those two shots across the bow for marital fidelity actually discouraged anyone from cheating on a spouse with someone who might be crazy, but, I suspect, they did. If Bram Coppens’ debut feature, Broken Vows, from a screenplay by James Agnew and Sean Keller, won’t be confused with Fatal Attraction or Play Misty for Me, it might convince one or two bachelorettes, at least, to limit the number of cocktails they imbibe on their girls-go-wild weekend. Here, Jamie Alexander (“Blindspot”) plays Tara, a fetching lass celebrating her impending marriage in New Orleans. After way too many drinks and some prodding from her bridesmaids, Tara makes a play for the handsome bartender, Patrick (Wes Bentley), who’s game for what she imagines will be a one-night stand. No harm, no foul … just some last-minute payback for a fling enjoyed by her fiancé, Michael (Cam Gigandet), years earlier. Imagine Tara’s surprise when Patrick shows up a day or two later at the home she shares with Michael, assuming that she feels the same way about him as he does for her. Nothing Tara says or does convinces him of her affection for Michael and her intention to marry him. It causes Patrick to shift into full Alexandra Forrest gear, even going so far as to call all the vendors providing services for the nuptials and telling them they won’t be needed, after all. It gets worse, but not in ways that are likely to surprise fans of stalker pictures and psycho-thrillers. As a first effort, though, Broken Vows isn’t bad, just overly familiar.

Ovation!
This high-spirited dramedy about play within a play represents Henry Jaglom’s 20th feature and the sixth starring his red-headed muse, Tanna Frederick. The backstage-as-center-of-the-universe conceit incorporated by Ovation! reminds me of Robert Altman’s final theatrical film, A Prairie Home Companion, which chronicles the last week in the broadcast life of America’s favorite radio/variety show. And, yes, except for the A-list cast playing beloved on-stage characters and backstage hands, it looks and sounds very much like what we imagined life on Garrison Keillor’s radio home might be like. Jaglom doesn’t enjoy the luxury of being able to recruit an all-star cast, typically making due with an ensemble cast of actors with whom he’s familiar and comfortable. His son and daughter Simon and Sabrina, have also been given meatier than usual assignments here. Frederick’s Maggie Chase is one of the stars of a play being staged in a financially challenged theater on the west side of Los Angeles. Although we aren’t permitted more than one or two glances at the audience or performance, we’re told that the play is receiving standing ovations after each show. The cast has grown weary of being promised definite word on the fate of the theater and is concerned when Maggie is offered a TV gig by mainstream star Stewart Henry (James Denton). Although both have regular companions, they spark immediately in a post-performance meeting. Besides the mysteries surrounding Maggie’s decision and the fate of the theater, there’s no scarcity of intrigue involving the various cast and crew members, agents, producers and directors. It includes an abusive relationship that disturbs everyone within shouting distance of the couple, the high anxiety exhibited by a Tarot reader and other shenanigans. I’m not sure that I buy the simplistic depictions of the abusive behavior of two male cast members, but Jaglom finds interesting ways to neutralize them. He also creates a tidy resolution for the other mysteries. If you love the theater the way Jaglom does, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll enjoy Ovation!, too.

Der Bunker: Blu-ray
German newcomer Nikias Chryssos’ truly creepy debut feature, Der Bunker – not to be confused with Adolph Hitler’s final resting place – made the rounds of fantasy and other genre festivals before taking the path of least resistance to Blu-ray/DVD. That shouldn’t stop horror buffs from checking it out before arranging their Halloween playlists, however. In it, a young man known to us only as Student answers an ad for a quiet room to let, in a remote place, so that he can complete an important project. As he approaches the door to the underground bunker, we intuitively know that Student (Pit Bukowski) isn’t going to get much work done. Father (David Scheller) immediately attaches himself to the young man, telling silly jokes and acting as if he were a partner in the project. Mother (Oona von Maydell) demands that he sit down in their kitchen for something she insists is dinner. Lurking off-screen is Klaus (Daniel Fripan), a stereotypical dimwit whose home schooling includes paternal bullying and maternal breastfeeding. When Father declares that Klaus is being groomed to be “president,” it becomes unclear as to which of the family members is more retarded, to coin a perfectly appropriate description. To this end, the parents coax Student to take over tutoring Klaus. Father suggests he learn the capitals of the world, first. The results are darkly comical. Things begin to turn really weird after Klaus – and, by extension, Student – fails his father’s first pop quiz. Student is so distressed by the boy’s punishment that he decides to coach him in the art of cheating. It doesn’t take long before he also discovers Mother’s trick to get her big baby boy to sleep. That she isn’t embarrassed when she spies Student checking her out only adds another layer of intrigue. And, yes, things get even stranger from there … not in a gory sort of way, but disturbing nonetheless. Chryssos is able to build and maintain tension through Matthias Reisser’s claustrophobic cinematography and a color scheme that reflects the feeling of being trapped underground. It only changes toward the end, when an opportunity for escape opens up and it’s indicated in neon red hues. Weighing in at 85 minutes, Chryssos isn’t given much time to make a lot of freshman mistakes. The Blu-ray adds a good making-of piece and deleted scenes.

The Inhabitants
Observance: Blu-ray
Phantom of the Theatre
The Invoking 3: Paranormal Dimensions
The Devil’s Forest
The primary selling point for the haunted B&B thriller, The Inhabitants, is the Rasmussen brothers’ shared writers’ credit on John Carpenter’s 2010 disappointment, The Ward, which starred Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer and Danielle Panabaker. Co-writers/directors Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen then collaborated on the haunted-sanitarium chiller, Dark Feed. It received some decent marks on niche sites, but others suggested the brothers stick to writing. The Inhabitants tells the story of Dan (Michael Reed) and Jessica (Elise Couture), a couple who buy the March Carriage House, a historic New England bed-and-breakfast whose up-keep became too expensive for the previous owner and her wacky aunt to afford. The sale’s due-diligence period must have expired before the couple discovered the inn’s history of depraved ownership, which dates back to the Salem witch trials. This, combined with all of things that go bump in the night in the first month of their occupancy should have told Dan not to leave his wife home alone when he left town on a business trip. Instead, he fulfills the requirements of the Idiot Plot by letting her fend for herself in a house only a moron wouldn’t realize is haunted. Sure enough, by the time he returns home, Jessica is in a catatonic state and the dog is missing. The Rasmussens also decided to add a hidden room loaded with surveillance equipment of the type used for making sex tapes to be sold on the Internet. A collection of ancient surgical implements harkens back to a time when the house was used as a midwifery and several of the town’s children died while being supervised by a woman presumed to be a witch. The Inhabitants was shot in color, but it might as well have been black-and-white for all of the nearly indistinguishable imagery, caused by a suspicious electrical blackout.

If, in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Jimmy Stewart had been confined to wheelchair in an apartment haunted by malevolent spirits, it might look a bit like Joseph Sims-Dennett’s freakishly atmospheric Observance. The filmmaker’s influences might also have included Polanski’s The Tenant and, for its deployment of eerie sonic effects and listening devices, Coppola’s The Conversation. That’s not to suggest that the Aussie filmmaker’s sophomore feature is completely derivative, but these influences seem pretty clear. Parker (Lindsay Farris) is a young man who recently lost everything in his life he holds dear, including money. To make ends meet and keep his mind off his troubles, Parker reluctantly returns to work as a private investigator. His assignment is to observe a pretty blond (Stephanie King) from an abandoned apartment in a derelict building across the street. Like Stewart, he uses a high-power lens to keep track of her inside her apartment. He also has tapped her phone and is able to ask a friend to translate the intelligence for clues of what, he does not know. Neither is his employer concerned when he witnesses some possibly illegal exchanges between the woman and an unknown man. The Employer is so determined that Parker completes his mission that he offers additional pay for additional days on the job. Parker suspects that the Employer is the same man who’s paying visits to the woman, but, again, to what end? It’s at about this time in the proceedings that things begin to go sideways for Parker. The haunting takes the form of an infection that causes him to cough up a dark, bloodlike fluid and have hallucinations of near-past tragedies. Still, if he wants to be paid, he must remain on the investigation, which, after several days, moves outside for a while. More suspenseful than scary, Observance is best when the atmospherics are used to advance the action, instead of the indeterminate narrative. A precede is included on the DVD/Blu-ray.

Considering that the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the People’s Republic of China makes the bluenoses at the Hays Office look like libertines, it’s a wonder that Raymond Yip’s Phantom of the Theatre could be made. That’s because it goes against the same ban on promoting superstitions and aberrations that kept Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters: Answer the Call and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, among other pictures, to be refused access to Chinese audiences. The question is addressed in the film when filmmaker Gu Weibang (Tony Yang) is cautioned by a crew member about censorship relating to supernatural content. He responds, “What aberrations? The Book of Rites clearly states that ‘all beings die and return to the ground.’ That is how a ghost is defined. Even our ancestors acknowledge ghosts.” Even so, some Pacific Rim critics have suggested that Yip voluntarily pulled back on the horror and special effects, replacing them with a sometimes ponderous romantic through-line. The theater that provides the setting here was destroyed in a deliberately set fire 13 years earlier, killing a family troupe of acrobats who gave a command performance for a local warlord. The once grand playhouse has reopened to accommodate the film shoot, despite the presence of the ghosts of the acrobats. The supernatural movie within a movie will star a promising young actress Meng SiFan (Ruby Lin). No sooner does production begin than the leading man and producer each spontaneously combust. But, even in this ghost-filled theater in pre-World War II Shanghai, the show must go on. If Yang’s story was been hobbled by censorship, Phantom of the Theatre can be recommended for the ghosts that remain and its splendid re-creation of the rebuilt theater and period costumes.

In 2013, Jeremy Berg’s supernatural thriller, The Invoking, was accorded some positive reviews on genre websites and prizes at a couple festivals. How it evolved into the low-budget anthology series The Invoking 2 and The Invoking 3: Paranormal Dimensions is a mystery to me. The dots between them don’t appear to connect in terms of creative talent, producers or distributors, except for the participation of Ruthless Pictures in the similarly developed All Hallows Eve franchise. Lee Matthews (The Horror Network) is cited on IMDB.com – if not the final credit roll — as writer and director of the nine chapters of “Invoking 3.” Each short film purportedly was shot at the location of disturbing paranormal events, involving Grim Reapers, evil poltergeists, satanic forces and conjured spirits. They could be film-school projects, for all I know. The chills in these micro-budget efforts derive largely from scary makeup effects and bizarre masks.

We’re advised on the cover of The Devil’s Forest (a.k.a., “The Devil Complex,” “The Devil Within”) that the movie is based on true events. Doubtful, but let’s say it was. In it, documentarian Rachel Kusza (Maria Simona Arsu) travels to Transylvania with a film crew to collect evidence that the Hoia Baciu forest is haunted and possibly complicit in a dark history of strange occurrences, ghost sightings and countless cases of missing people. After entering the forest, they were never seen or heard from again. After searching for the film crew for two years, Rachel’s teacher, Howard Redman (Tom Bonington) found the crew’s camera buried in the snow. Before taking his own life, Redman uploaded the footage to the internet. He needn’t have bothered. The found-footage reveals little besides sinister looking trees and dirty snow. Apparently, the forest judges the people who enter it and decides which ones are allowed to leave. Some movies have that effect on viewers, too.

Carrie: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
She Who Must Burn
The Hills Have Eyes: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Vamp: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Looking back on Carrie with the benefit of Scream Factory’s sterling 40th-anniversary Blu-ray edition fresh in my mind, it’s easy to see why Brian De Palma’s revenge fantasy freaked the hell out of a generation of Baby Boomer audiences. Everything was changing in the marketplace and viewers were just getting accustomed to such things as tent-pole pictures, demographic-specific marketing campaigns, the virtual end to platform releasing and wide acceptance of horror films in which teens are butchered simply for doing the kinds of things teenagers do late at night in cars. Hollywood’s relative inattention to the genre gave new-breed filmmakers the opportunity to be subversive and scary, while giving kids what they wanted to see. In Carrie, De Palma respected his audience enough to include dozens of references to the work of important directors and classic movies, while also taking advantage of the freedoms afforded by the extinction of the Production Code and protections provided by the MPAA film-rating system. Because Carrie was the first Stephen King novel adapted for the big screen, viewers really didn’t know what to expect. Critics, by and large, kept the movie’s secrets to themselves and “spoilers” didn’t travel around the globe at the speed of light. I have to believe that Carrie is still capable of shocking viewers new to the movie 40 years later. What viewers who haven’t seen it since 1976 may not recall are early non-television appearances by John Travolta, Amy Irving, William Katt, Nancy Allen, Betty Buckley, P.J. Soles, Michael Talbott and Edie McClurg. Sissy Spacek was familiar only to those who’d seen her terrific performance, alongside Martin Sheen, in Terrence Malick’s debut feature, Badlands. For their work here, Spacek and her terrifying on-screen mother, Piper Laurie would be nominated for Oscars, notably for what many in Hollywood must have considered to be a genre picture. Not for nothing, Carrie also demonstrated how telekinesis could be used a defense to being bullied at school and at home. In addition to the bonus features carried over from previous iterations and formats, the two-disc Collector’s Edition Blu-ray boasts a 4K Scan of the original negative and restoration; fresh interviews with Nancy Allen, Betty Buckley, William Katt, Piper Laurie, Edie McClurg and P.J. Soles, screenwriter Lawrence Cohen, editor Paul Hirsch, director of photography Mario Tosi, casting director Harriet B. Helberg and composer Pino Donaggio. Also new is another segment in Scream Factory’s “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds,” during which viewers to take a tour of the film’s locations, then and now.

Every time zealots from the Westboro Baptist Church picket the funeral of a soldier killed in action, an AIDS victim or religion whose teachings it abhors, an atheist is born … maybe more. Piper Laurie’s character in Carrie might have been inspired to join the WBC if she hadn’t been crucified by cutlery by her telekinetic daughter. Veteran Canadian filmmaker Larry Kent must have had the same church in mind when he conceived the unusually pointed anti-hate thriller She Who Must Burn. In it, a women’s-care clinic is shut down after its doctor is shot to death by anti-abortion protester, Abraham Baarker (James Wilson), who was arrested soon after. Undeterred, the doctor’s assistant, Angela (Sarah Smyth), relocates the clinic to her home, which then becomes the target of the fanatics, who mistakenly believe she’s performing abortions. Even assisting battered women leave their abusive spouses or counseling pregnant teens is grounds for retribution by the assorted Baarkers and their followers. Assuming they have the Constitution on their sided, the Baarkers push their luck once too often causing local lawmen to finally get off their asses. This may not sound as if She Who Must Burn movie fits under the heading of horror, but there’s monsters aplenty among the church members, who would even set a “sinner” on fire to punish her … again, not unlike Carrie. Evans has built a career around addressing social ills through genre themes. By not turning the Baarkers into gargoyles or overly exaggerated characters, he refuses to allow the horror of hate to be compromised or ignored.

If one takes into account Wes Craven’s stylish, if pseudonymous 1975 porno, The Fireworks Woman, The Hills Have Eyes stands as his third feature and second horror flick, behind The Last House on the Left. It must not have been easy for Craven to find financing for a follow-up to a film so graphically violent that it caused the critic for the New York Times to walk out in disgust after 50 minutes. (By contrast, Roger Ebert gave it 3½ out of 4 stars.)  That it was loosely based on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring demonstrated that Craven was interested in something other than torture-for-torture’s-sake. Five years would pass before the release of The Hills Have Eyes, which, Craven allowed, was inspired by the legend of Sawney Beane and his loathsome family (a wife, eight sons and six daughters), who roamed the highlands of Scotland’s East Lothian County, near Edinburgh, in the early 1400s. Standing in for those lush hills are the scrub-brush wastelands of Apple Valley, Mojave and Victorville, Clalifornia. It resembles the high-desert landscape north of Las Vegas, where the station wagon and trailer belonging to the white-bread California family from Cleveland, breaks down on their way to Disneyland. Unfortunately, the AAA TripTik failed to warn them of the feral varmints who inhabit the hills surrounding their unexpected bivouac and feast on interlopers. The rest of the story is best left to your imagination … or nightmares. Even if Craven doesn’t disguise the influence of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre on The Hills Have Eyes, it’s different enough to stand on its own as a pioneer in the torture-porn, revenge and cannibal-clan subgenres. The Arrow Video 4K restoration from original film elements was supervised by producer Peter Locke and adds postcards; a reversible fold-out poster, featuring new and original artwork; limited edition booklet, with new writing on the film by critic Brad Stevens and a consideration of the “Hills” franchise by Ewan Cant, illustrated with original archive stills; audio commentary with Wes Craven and Peter Locke; “Looking Back on The Hills Have Eyes” making-of documentary, featuring interviews with Craven, Locke, actors Michael Berryman, Dee Wallace, Janus Blythe, Robert Houston, Susan Lanier and director of photography Eric Saarinen; “The Desert Sessions,”  a new interview with composer Don Peake; the alternate ending, in HD for the first time; marketing material; an image gallery; original screenplay (BD/DVD-ROM Content); and reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Paul Shipper.

In his review of Vamp, Ebert compared it to “a vampire version of After Hours, Martin Scorsese’s great 1985 film about a long night in the big city when everything went wrong.” (Director Richard Wenk acknowledges the influence in an interview here.) He didn’t particularly care much for the story, so chose, instead, to linger on the thoroughly arresting performance by Grace Jones as an undead stripper. Thirty years later, Vamp can be enjoyed not only for her over-the-top dance and costume, but for Billy Drago’s albino thug, Dedee Pfeiffer’s cute-as-a-button stripper, Gedde Watanabe’s nerdy sidekick and Sandy Baron’s sleazy club owner. Chris Makepeace and Robert Rusler play the fraternity pledges who promise the brothers far more than they can deliver in the way of party favors. Vamp also benefits from Elliot Davis’ atypical nighttime cinematography, Alan Roderick-Jones’ imaginative set design and Greg Cannom’s special-makeup-effects work. The Arrow Video upgrade is enhanced by a high-definition digital transfer; original mono audio; “One of those Nights: The Making of Vamp,” a new documentary featuring interviews with director Richard Wenk, cast and crew members; behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage; a blooper reel; image gallery; Wenk’s delightful 1979 short, “Dracula Bites the Big Apple”; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by the Twins of Evil; and a booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Cullen Gallagher.

Francesca: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
It’s easy to get the impression from an interview included in the Francesca Blu-ray package, from Unearthed Films, that Argentinean co-writer/director Luciano Onetti hates the term “neo-giallo” as much as loves, respects and emulates old-school giallo, right down to the lurid colors, disembodied red gloves playing a piano and grain in the film stock. His first, 67-minute crime drama Sonno Profondo (a.k.a., “Deep Sleep”) got some attention at several niche film festivals, as did the 13-minute-longer Francesca, which doesn’t suffer much from being seen on the smaller screens. As the story goes, it’s been 15 years since the disappearance of little Francesca, daughter of the renowned storyteller, poet and dramatist Vittorio Visconti, and the mystery remains fresh in her home town. Today, the community is stalked by a psychopath bent on cleansing the city of “impure and damned souls,” apparently prompted by various chapters in Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” Police detectives Moretti and Succo know that they can’t solve the current string of murders unless they solve the mystery surrounding Francesca’s fate. You can bet they’re related one way or another. The narrative, which is presented almost entirely from the first-person perspective of its villainous lead character, probably would have benefitted from another 10-15 minutes of exposition. Still, fans of giallo should find Francesca worth the effort of finding. The special edition adds a DVD, a disc dedicated to the atmospheric soundtrack, an essay, a “hidden” scene and alternate opening, interview with Onetti and making-of piece.

A Werewolf in the Amazon Collection
Knowing how much Brazilian exploitation specialist Ivan Cardoso owes to José Mojica Marins (a.k.a., Coffin Joe) explains almost everything on display in Camp Motion Pictures’ truly outrageous “A Werewolf in the Amazon Collection.” Just as Coffin Joe was considered to be the “Dario Argento of Brazil,” Cardoso’s contribution to genre filmmaking was “terrir,” (a Portuguese portmanteau of “terror” and “rir,” “to laugh”), which combined classic horror tropes and homages to such innovators as Alfred Hitchcock and Roger Corman, with elements of the sexy chanchada comedy style. His movies delivered on their promise of mixing T&A with parodies of the most widespread Brazilian stereotypes. They take some time getting used to, of course, but so did giallo and women-in-prison flicks made in the Philippines. This new-to-DVD compilation is comprised of A Werewolf in the Amazon (2005), with Fangoria Hall of Famer Paul Naschy playing both the evil vivisectionist Dr. Moreau and his trademark character, the Wolfman; noir-inspired The Scarlet Scorpion (1990), in which the playboy crime-fighter Anjo takes on his arch-enemy Escorpião Escarlate, who kidnapped a respected fashion designer (Andrea Beltrão); The Seven Vampires (1986), concerning a botanist researching a dangerous carnivorous plant and a bumbling detective investigating a plague of mysterious attacks at a upscale nightclub; and The Secret of the Mummy (1982), which describes what happens  when Professor Expedito Vitus discovers the tomb of Runamb, the Mummy, and unleashes a murderous rampage. Unrestored, the latter pair look as if they were produced in 1922, instead of the 1980s. Even so, they’re far from unwatchable. The boxed set adds “A Marca do Terrir,” a short-film collection featuring Cardoso’s 16mm “Nosferatu in Brazil” and the experimental featurette, “O Sarcofago Macabro”; a mini-poster; and liner notes by film critic Justine Smith.

Beep: A Documentary History of Game Sound
Being Canadian
Among the many things we take for granted in life are the sounds we hear emanating from video games, pinball and slot machines and other electronic entertainments. They don’t exactly fit the traditional definition of music and are rarely hummable. As we’re reminded in Beep: A Documentary History of Game Sound, percussive sounds have always played a role in popularizing arcade and casino games. They were of the bells-and-whistles variety, chiefly used to alert winners and passersby of a jackpot. It encouraged others to join in the fun, even if the odds against winning a stuffed animals or coins was miniscule. The introduction of Pong and other video games changed the way manufacturers considered sound. At first, the bleeps, bloops and gurgles provided little more than ambient background noise. As increasingly sophisticated software allowed more memory to be dedicated to sound, the synthesized notes, mutes and loops more closely resembled movie soundtracks and electronic-music scores. Individual sounds could be attached to specific characters, scenarios, actions and movements, while also branding a game. That’s a layman’s explanation for what’s discussed in Karen Collins docs in clips from more than 80 interviews with game composers, sound designers, voice actors and audio directors from around the world, as well as imagery from groundbreaking games and hardware platforms. While undeniably interesting and comprehensive, at 153 minutes “Beep” almost certainly will wear out its welcome for casual gamers and non-geeks after the first 45 minutes, or so. A documentary about the history and evolution of Muzak, elevator and lounge music would have the same lulling effect. For others, the two-DVD set features an extended director’s cut; the featurette “Big in Japan:A Japanese Special”; a tribute to Ryu Umemoto; and a tutorial on getting into the business.

If the next President of the United States decides to build a 30-foot-high wall on our border with Canada to keep more comedians from entering this country, legally or illegally, America would be a less happy place to live and Canada might be able to maintain a stable entertainment industry. I don’t know how many of Hollywood’s funniest comedians and writers can trace their roots to the Great White North, but it probably is higher than the number of Polynesian islanders playing football in the NFL and colleges here. Robert Cohen’s entertaining documentary, Being Canadian, is less concerned with the nature of humor in the Canadian psyche than “what it means to be Canadian.” This is a question that perplexes Cohen far more than any of the people interviewed here, including Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Jason Priestley, Conan O’Brien, Eugene Levy, William Shatner, Seth Rogen, Mike Myers, Dan Aykroyd, Alanis Morissette, the Trailer Park Boys and a dozen celebrities you wouldn’t guess are Canadian. What I took from the film about our quaint neighbor to the north is if Cohen absolutely, positively had to know what it means to be Canadian, he probably spent too much time in L.A.

The Legend of Frenchie King
42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection Vol. 17
Neither Brigette Bardot nor Claudia Cardinale was a stranger to period action pictures when they teamed up on the 1971 spaghetti Western, The Legend of Frenchie King, which, true to form, was shot in Andalucía, Spain, where Sergio Leone had staked a claim years earlier. Bardot had teamed with Sean Connery on the Louis L’Amour adaptation, Shalako, while Cardinale had famously appeared in Once Upon a Time in the West. Bardot would soon retire from making motion pictures, while Cardinale is still performing. Along for the ride was Michael J. Pollard, who was still riding on the fumes left over from his performance in Bonnie and Clyde. Bardot and her sisters have formed a team of train robbers, dressed as men. Cardinale and her brothers own a ranch that promises to produce a gusher of black gold in the near future. Much to the amusement of the local cowhands and sheriff, the ladies engage in a wild cat fight until they figure out how to parley their strengths to profit from the oil. (They also enjoy the brothel workers’ weekly bath in a nearby river.) It’s goofy, alright, but watching two of the 1960s’ most prominent “sex kittens” together is a real hoot, even 45 years later.

Impulse Pictures’ 42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection series must have struck a chord somewhere, as it’s just turned the corner on Volume No. 17. The 15 newly re-mastered 8mm shorts may not be flawless, but they’re probably as clean as they’ve ever been. (I use the word “clean” advisedly.) This time around the stars include Seka, Sharon Kane and Linda Shaw. They all look so young and fit. (Viagra was still 20-some years from reality.) Liner notes are by Dimitrios Otis.

TV-to-DVD
AMC: Feed The Beast: Season 1
PBS Kids: Caillou: Caillou the Courageous
Nickelodeon Favorites: A Very Nick Jr. Christmas
It’s difficult to recommend a series, in this AMC’s Feed the Beast, that hasn’t been renewed or been allowed to tie up loose ends. Fans of David Schwimmer and James Sturgess may not have been aware of the existence of the underpublicized show and want to check it out, anyway. Based on the Danish series “Bankerot,” it involves brothers-from-other-mothers Tommy Moran and Dion Patras, both of whom appear to carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. Dion (Sturgess) isn’t out of prison for more than a couple hours, before he’s picked up off the street by a fat gangster who carries a pliers around as his weapon of choice. Dion owes him a ton of money for burning down his father’s restaurant while flying high on coke. Tommy isn’t exactly ecstatic to see his friend walk into his life again, because his wife was in the restaurant at the time and failed to escape. Their son is so traumatized that he stopped speaking to anyone, including his teachers. Dion is a chef extraordinaire and Tommy is a master sommelier, so the only hope of raising the money is by opening a fancy new Greek restaurant in a Bronx neighborhood waiting to be gentrified. There’s more. Feed the Beast probably was too convoluted to maintain a steady audience. Miss one episode and you were lost forever, Anyway, the acting’s good, so there’s that.  The cooking displays are truly mouthwatering.

Growing up can be fun, but, let’s face it, there are things no child should be expected to experience before puberty, at least. These would include televised presidential debates, hot dog eating contests and watching Pete Rose analyzing a baseball game on Fox Sports 1. To prepare for such real-world shocks and disappointments, today’s preschoolers can get a head start by watching shows such as PBS Kids’ “Calliou” or picking up the occasional DVD compilation, like “Calious the Courageous.”  The 55-minute package includes seven stories on overcoming such fears as spiders, shadows, roller-skates and climbing.

The six-episode collection, “Nickelodeon Favorites: A Very Nick Jr. Christmas,” is a sampler of holiday- and winter-themed shows from some of the network’s favorite series and characters. Among them are Blaze and the Monster Machines in “Monster Machine Christmas,” Shimmer and Shine in “Santa’s Little Genies,” Dora and Friends in “Shivers the Snowman,” Bubble Guppies in “A Very Guppy Christmas” and Wallykazam! in “Wally Saves the Trollidays” and “Snow Place Like Home.”

The DVD Wrapup: Innocents, Swiss Army Man, Purge: Election Year, Diary of a Chambermaid, The Wailing, Homestretch and more

Friday, October 7th, 2016

The Innocents: Blu-ray
For most of its 1,050 years as recognizable entity, Poland has stood at the crossroads of European history. It’s rarely been a particularly comfortable place to be. In September, 1939, the country was invaded almost simultaneously by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Before the dust cleared and an Iron Curtain on freedom fell, at least 5.6 million ethnic Poles and Polish Jews perished at the hands of the invaders, 90 percent of the deaths being non-military in nature. The Warsaw Uprising of 1944 left 150,000 civilians dead. Another 320,000 were deported to Siberia. In the 50 years between the fall of Poland and raising of the curtain, most of what Poland could offer the world culturally emanated from an émigré community frustrated by the broken promises at Yalta and oppressive Communist Party censors. Movies dramatizing the horrors of occupation and heroes of the resistance were left largely to filmmakers working in the west. Those made internally were weighted toward a Moscow-approved view of reality. They included Wanda Jakubowska’s 1948, The Last Stage, which was shot on location at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp and employed Holocaust survivors as actors. Largely unseen here until 2009, when Facets Video distributed the Polart edition, The Last Stage remains one of the most disturbingly accurate Holocaust movie ever made, even considering the pro-Soviet propaganda at its close. Since 1990, the free cinema of Eastern European has become one of the most vital movements of them all. Among titles with direct connections to Poland are Agnieszka Holland’s Europa Europa and In Darkness; Roman Polanski’s The Pianist; Andrzej Wajda’s Korczak and Katyn; and Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, which was shot in several Polish locations. Released in 2014, Pawel Pawlikowski’s post-World War II drama, Ida, told the story of Anna, an orphan brought up by nuns in the convent after being left there by Polish neighbors during the occupation. Eighteen years later, on the eve of taking her vows, Anna is instructed by Mother Superior to meet Wanda, a Communist Party functionary and atheist, who’s Anna’s only living relative. After Wanda tells Anna about her Jewish roots, both women embark on a journey not only to learn more about their family’s tragic story, but also to look inward and question engrained beliefs. Intricately conceived and full of surprise revelations, Ida was awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Likewise set largely inside a convent, this time in December 1945, Anne Fontaine’s deeply engrossing The Innocents (a.k.a., “Agnus Dei”) is the based-on-fact story of French Red Cross doctor Mathilde Pauliac (Lou de Laage), who, while treating the last of the French survivors of German concentration camps in Poland, is summoned to a Benedictine convent by a distraught nun. Although not authorized to leave the medical outpost, as it’s surrounded by Red Army troops, Mathilde reluctantly agrees to follow her to church outside town. When she arrives, she finds one of the younger sisters in labor and promptly delivers the baby via C-section. The silence and shame that accompanies the infant’s birth would suggest that the nun had been impregnated by the devil – or, perhaps, the Holy Ghost — and no word of it should leave the convent’s walls. Instead, as the strict Mother Abbess (Agata Kulesza) and similarly rigid Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) explain, the nun was one of seven nuns that had been impregnated by Soviet soldiers who had forced their way into the monastery. The women had survived the German occupation, only to be raped by their “liberators” from the east. Although Mathilde agrees to minister to the pregnant women, some refuse pre-natal care out of personal shame, a reluctance to being touched below their habits and the bizarre belief that they somehow shared the blame. All of them have been emotionally and spiritually traumatized. Eventually, with the help of a “worldly” French-speaking nun, Mathilde wins the confidence of the pregnant women, if not the elders. The overriding question then becomes what happens to the children born out of wedlock and the “tarnished” nuns. Despite the nuns’ continuing chorus of prayers, no one knows how God wants the situation to be resolved, of course … the Mother Abbess would probably veto it, anyway. After the horrors of the war, it’s difficult to believe God ever paid much attention to what was happening in Poland. Meanwhile, Mathilde is faced with crises of her own. Working from screenplay by Sabrina B. Karine, Alice Vial and Pascal Bonitzer, Luxembourg-native Fontaine (Gemma Bovary, Coco Before Chanel) has crafted a spiritually informed drama that respects the faith of the nuns, while questioning the motivations of people whose notions of morality are suspect, at best. Finally, too, it asks us to re-consider our beliefs about motherhood, religion and heroism. Like Ida, The Innocents is a story about, but not strictly for women, which, sadly, I can’t see being made in Hollywood. I can only hope it’s remembered when Oscar voting begins in January. The Music Box Blu-ray arrives with a pair of interviews with Fontaine, one hosted by Holland.

Swiss Army Man: Blu-ray
When in doubt, fart. Ever since Mel Brooks broke the flatulence barrier in Blazing Saddles, the almost always gratuitous addition of a fart to a scene has induced laughter among viewers, young and old. And, it isn’t limited to gross-out flicks anymore, either. Any time two or more unrelated characters share an elevator or friends take a road trip, a fart is sure to follow. Neither are animated pictures exempt. Of all the things the MPAA ratings board based its R-rating for Swiss Army Man – the Citizen Kane of flatulence-informed films – excessive farting wasn’t one of them. And, yet, the film’s many fart gags reportedly caused several audience members at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival screening to take an early powder. Blessedly, co-writer/directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert elected not to add Smell-O-Vision to the sensory mix. Early buzz on Swiss Army Man accurately described it as Weekend-at-Bernie’s-meets-Cast Away. In it, Paul Dano plays Hank, the sole survivor of some kind of terrible disaster or accident, living on a deserted stretch of beach. Finally, he decides that suicide is a better option to such a solitary existence than waiting for a passing ship to rescue him. Just as the rope tightens around his neck, however, Hank spies the only slightly bloated corpse of another man (Daniel Radcliffe) being washed upon the shore. After toying with “Manny” like a kitten with a baby bird, Hank discovers an aspect of the decomposition process not commonly acknowledged in television dramas and movies, but well known to morgue attendents. The post-mortem passing of gas can be shocking, but it’s hardly unusual or harmful. Apparently, though, Manny has a natural-gas reserve not unlike those being fracked in North Dakota. Being bored and resourceful, Hank discovers a plethora of ways to exploit Manny’s gifts. Some are off-putting, while others genuinely hilarious. Meanwhile, Radcliffe remains in character throughout the indignities. If this was all there is to Swiss Army Man, the story could be reduced to an episode of “South Park.” Instead, the Daniels, as the filmmakers sometimes call themselves, find ways to turn their creation into the strangest of buddy pictures, complete with romance, hallucinations, wildlife and a poignant climax. Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull and Robert McDowell contributed a soundtrack that sounds improvised, but adds an emotional tug not typically associated with movies this unusual. Dano and Radcliffe have evolved over the past few years into actors who defy stereotypes at every turn and demand that their work be seen. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Kwan and Scheinert, production designer Jason Kisvarnay and sound mixer/“fartist” Brent Kiser; deleted scenes; a pair of making-of featurettes; and a lengthy Q&A with the filmmakers, featuring Glenn Kiser moderating at the Dolby Institute. It focuses on a grant “Swiss Army Man” received from Dolby for sound design and production.

The Purge: Election Year: Blu-ray
Defying most of the laws of box-office physics, each new installment in the Purge series has earned more money than its predecessor. Typically, after the second or third installment in genre franchises, producers start weighing the pros and cons of going straight-to-DVD/VOD. After all, why waste money on distribution and marketing when a fan base has been established and its loyalty has been assured? Budgets have risen only marginally, while critical response has grown more favorable. The Purge: Election Year was widely expected to be the third chapter in a trilogy that began in 2013, with a home-invasion scenario, starring Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey. Then, a year later, The Purge: Anarchy focused on a three groups of people caught outside in Los Angeles on Purge night, when all crimes are legal and forgiven. “Election Year” takes the action to Washington, D.C., where a senator who wants to abolish the 12-hour event becomes an assassination target. It has been two years since former police sergeant Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) stopped himself from a regrettable act of revenge on Purge Night and, now, he’s head of security for presidential candidate Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell). It’s the same woman, who, in 2022, helplessly witnessed her family get murdered by a Purger. Roan believes Purge Night, which now attracts hooligans from around the world, is nothing more than a scheme to enhance the wealthy and erase the poor. As a way to counter that argument, the organizers agree to remove the prohibitions against killing government officials above a certain ranking. It becomes Griffin’s duty to protect her not only from the riff-raff celebrating “Halloween for adults,” but also from those who would go to extreme lengths to preserve the ritual slaughter. The setup allows for a maximum amount of action and surprises in the allotted 110-minute time, with the addition of several non-governmental characters and references to bullying and intolerance that seem to have been inspired by the Trump campaign. Fans also are given reason to believe a fourth installment could be on its way. The Blu-ray includes deleted scenes, a short backgrounder and character spotlight on the return of Leo Barnes.

Into the Forest: Blu-ray
If more dystopian movies were written and directed by women, they might look less like Mad Max and more closely resemble Patricia Rozema’s deliberately paced and emotionally engaging Into the Forest. If there was a zombie in it, I missed it. Based on Jean Hegland’s word-of-mouth best-seller, published in 1996 in paperback by tiny Calyx press and in hardback, two years later by Bantam, Into the Forest has been described as a feminist drama. It can, however, be enjoyed as a struggle for survival by two teenage girls, who must learn to cope without their parents and conveniences of modern civilization they’ve taken for granted since birth. Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood play Nell and Eva, sisters who find themselves stuck in an isolated house in the forests of northern California after a nationwide power outage … or, perhaps, a more permanent disaster. Having lived in the sparsely populated region most of their life, the girls aren’t completely unprepared for roughing it for a couple of weeks while the electricity and gasoline supplies are restored. Long-term solutions, however, aren’t as easy to find. Nell is an extrovert, who’s natural inclination is to party until the cows come home, while Eva has resorted to dance therapy to get over her mother’s recent death, to cancer. (Their father dies in a terrible accident, while cutting down a tree.) As time goes by, they’ll be required to deal with declining food, gas and water supplies, destructive animals, inclement weather, solitude and thieves. They probably could attempt to move into the nearest city, 30 miles away, but there’s no telling what’s happening there. Months pass and their home succumbs to the meteorological realities of life and decay in a rain forest. When Eva is impregnated by an acquaintance determined to steal their last jerrycan, Nell must adjust to being her sister’s ob-gyn, psychiatrist, provider and source of warmth and protection. With Google unavailable, Nell must rely on the family encyclopedia for information. Anyone who’s read the novel and is familiar with Rozema’s resume — I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, When Night Is Falling, Mansfield Park – wouldn’t expect her to provide an easy way out to the sisters, like a sudden power surge or unexpected arrival of the National Guard. Into the Forest further benefits from Daniel Grant’s lush cinematography and superb acting by Page and Wood, two of our finest young actresses. The Blu-ray adds Rozema’s commentary and a making-of featurette.

Diary of a Chambermaid: Blu-ray
One definition of chutzpah would be a filmmaker re-adapting a classic book that’s already been successfully interpreted by such masters as Jean Renoir and Luis Bunuel. The prolific French writer/director/actor Benoît Jacquot (Farewell, My Queen, 3 Hearts) has that kind of chutzpah, in spades, so it’s important that he bring something more to Octave Mirbeau’s 1900 book, “Diary of a Chambermaid,” than a tonal shift from black-and-white to color. The class-conscious novel takes the point-of-view of a resentful maidservant, Mademoiselle Célestine, whose job Jacquot equates to a form of indentured servitude, created to simplify the decadent lives of wealthy men and women. One of them fetishizes her boots to the extent that he is found dead one morning with one of them stuffed in his mouth. While some of Celestine’s bosses may be better than others, none is free of the turpitudes of bourgeois society. If the poor and laboring classes aren’t any better when it comes to morals, at least they have an excuse. As Célestine, Léa Seydoux easily stands up to our inevitable comparisons with Paulette Goddard and Jeanne Moreau, whose portrayals were shaped by the restrictions of the time – 1946 and 1964 — or personal quirks of the director. After excelling in such high-profile pictures as Spectre, Mission:Impossible – Ghost Protocol, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Farewell, My Queen, Midnight in Paris and Lobster, Seydoux is as hot as anyone in the business, right now. Here, Célestine braces at the humiliating submission to Madame Lanlaire’s onerous terms of employment, her husband’s constant groping and the handsome gardener Joseph’s virulent anti-Semitism. She knows her only alternative might be a job in a brothel, which, of course, is just a different sort of slavery. As a period piece set largely in northern and coastal France, Diary of a Chambermaid could hardly be more eye-catching. It was nominated for César Awards in the categories of Best Costume Design, Best Production Design and Best Adapted Screenplay (with Hélène Zimmer). The gorgeous Blu-ray includes an extensive making-of featurette, with a tight focus on Jacquot’s approach to the material.

Amazonia
Heart of the World: Colorado’s National Parks
It’s difficult to imagine how such a delightful and visually arresting picture as Amazonia failed to land a single 3D screen upon which it could exhibited to school groups and families looking for some G-rated entertainment. The French/Brazilian live-action co-production tells the story of how a domesticated capuchin monkey, Sai, survives a plane clash in the rain forest and learns to fend for himself in an environment so foreign to him it might as well be Mars. A terrifically energetic and expressive actor, Sai literally is required to learn how to feed himself, avoid predators, survive an unexpected journey down a raging river and ingratiate himself with the jungle’s primate population. Natural hams, capuchins are captivating whether they’re performing for tips in the company of an organ grinder or using their wits to crack open nuts and fruits. Here, though, Sia must share the spotlight with the production team, which logged several years of hard work and filled barrels of sweat, no doubt, traipsing through the rain forest with equipment and provisions. The newly available DVD isn’t available in 3D or Blu-ray, but the visuals don’t look as if they were staged to make objects pop off the screen or scare the kiddies. It’s simply good fun. It includes an informative making-of featurette and a few cute animated shorts.

Colorado may be best known these days as the marijuana-consuming capital of North America, but, after that distinction wears off, it will still be famous for its spectacular natural beauty and diversity of its geologic resources. That will never change. The travel documentary, Heart of the World: Colorado’s National Parks, focuses on a half-dozen of the state’s most scenic national parks and monuments, each one worthy of a separate excursion during the course of one’s lifetime. The beautifully photographed film carries us through all four seasons and hundreds of centuries of geologic time. Even if the three hour-long episodes sometimes repeat scenes, interviews and information, while giving off an unnecessarily promotional air, there are too many things to love about Colorado to lower the film’s score for boosterism.

Eva Doesn’t Sleep
If all the average, post-Baby Boomer American knows about Eva Peron derives from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s acclaimed musical “Evita” and movie based on it, Eva Doesn’t Sleep will beg all sorts of questions that will require a visit to Wikipedia. It’s worth the effort. The musical argues rather successfully that Peron – an entertainer before becoming then-Colonel Juan Perón’s mistress and wife – triggered the cross-pollination of celebrity and politics in the mid-20th Century, and Madonna was the perfect person to play her in the movie. Eva’s rise from illegitimacy and poverty appealed to Argentina’s poor and working class, as did her familiarity as model, radio and movie star. Eva met Juan Peron at an earthquake-relief “festival” he organized to entertain survivors and raise money for recovery efforts. They clicked immediately, no doubt sensing how each other’s strengths could be merged in his pursuit of higher office and her desire to appeal to the masses, one way or the other. She proved to be a quick study. In 1946, now-President Juan Peron acknowledged her growing role in the country’s famously mercurial political arena by handing her the bill he had just signed, granting women the right to vote. Before her untimely death in 1952, at 33, the cancer-ridden Evita was given the official title of “Spiritual Leader of the Nation.” The weeks-long outpouring of love and grief by everyday Argentines made headlines around the world. He planned to construct a monument that would make Lenin’s mausoleum in Red Square look like a shoebox casket for a child’s dead pet. Before that could happen, though, Peron was overthrown in a 1955 military coup, causing him to leave the country without her extensively embalmed body in tow. Eva Doesn’t Sleep blends fact and conjecture in its attempt to make sense of what happened to her body and why the militarists and other ruling-class Argentines implemented plans to wipe all mention of the Perons’ activities from the country’s official memory.  In 1973, Perón was allowed to return to Argentina, from Spain, and become president for the third time. After he died in office a year later, his third wife, Isabel, succeeded him, becoming the first female president in the Western Hemisphere. Isabel had Eva’s body returned to Argentina and briefly displayed beside her husband’s, before being interred in the Duarte family tomb in Buenos Aires’ La Recoleta Cemetery.

In the largely unseen Eva Doesn’t Sleep, Pablo Agüero (Salamandra) uses newsreel footage to illustrate the public reaction and turmoil that followed Evita’s death. Far more intimate are the episodic segments that dramatize the highly personal feelings of individuals in close contact with the embalmed body. Gael Garcia Bernal (Amorres Perros) plays Admiral Emilio Massera, who can barely disguise his glee after learning of Evita’s death. He despised the populist initiatives she championed and place she held in the hearts of the public. Twenty years later, Massera would play a key role in the military coup that deposed Isabel Peron and the ensuing disappearance of some 9,000 dissidents and potential foes of the junta in the “Dirty War.” Spanish actor Imanol Arias (The Liberator) portrays Madrid-based professor of anatomy Dr. Pedro Ara, who was called in to embalm the body. His work was occasionally referred to as “the art of death” and that’s exactly how Aguero approaches the potentially creepy tableaux. Even more macabre is the interchange between an officer and his driver (Denis Lavant) assigned the duty of transporting a wooden box carrying the embalmed body to a secret location in Europe. After the driver is left alone with the makeshift coffin, he dares to lift the cover to determine the value of the cargo. The officer understands the significance of their mission and why it must be kept secret. After several nips of alcohol from a canteen, the young man and his seen-it-all superior bond over their respective wounds and their almost absurdly close proximity to death and history. Finally, Aguero demonstrates Evita’s legacy with a depiction of the kidnapping and assassination of former President Pedro Eugenio Aramburu Silveti in 1970, by leftist Montoneros guerrillas. His regime was ruthless in its pursuit and persecution of Peronists left behind after the 1955 coup. During the interrogation of Aramburu, he justifies the abuses he authorized and the disappearance of Evita’s corpse. Although not shown, the Montoneros would demand the return of the body before they would release his corpse. Eva Doesn’t Sleep probably could have been dramatized very easily on stage, accompanied by projections of archival images. As it is, Aguero’s story is a haunting reminder of the lengths men in positions of power will go to preserve their status, however temporary, and stand in the way of true democracy.

Joshy: Blu-ray
Laid in America: Blu-ray
Despite the large number of coming-of-age movies targeted directly at American teenagers, it’s amazing how many adult characters never made it past that milestone in life and how the “bromance” subgenre has emerged to address the problem of premature adulthood. With the borderline clichéd ensemble comedy Joshy, Jeff Baena (Life After Beth) gives us a half-dozen more reasons not to care much about chronically pampered yuppies and their rituals. One of them, Josh, played Thomas Middleditch (“Silicon Valley”), is about to be married and accept some of the responsibilities, at least, of adulthood. Before that can happen, his fiancé (Alison Brie) commits suicide. Aware that she had been struggling with depression, Josh tries not to take it personally. Her parents (Paul Reiser, Lisa Edelstein), though, are perfectly willing to blame him for her well-disguised illness, if only to assuage their feelings of guilt. Four months later, a half-dozen of Josh’s bros decide that a “cleansing the palate” is in order and decide to meet at the cabin in Ojai, where they’d intended to have his bachelor party. Even if none of the guys appear to have much in common, besides a desire never to grow up, the conditions are ripe for Joshy to evolve from bromance to soul-baring weekend reunion picture, a sub-genre inspired by the popularity of The Big Chill. Despite the presence of such familiar television actors as Adam Pally (“The Mindy Project”), Nick Kroll (“The League”), Brett Gelman and Jenny Slate (“Married”), Lauren Graham (“Gilmore Girls”), Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Rec”) and Jake Johnson (“The New Girl”), Joshy was accorded only the most limited of releases. I suspect that’s because viewers have tired of seeing the same actors playing characters similar to the ones here. Or, perhaps, they anticipated a backlash to the many reunion pictures that promise laughs but contain more angst and kvetching than hijinks. The guys pick up some girls at a local bar/casino, but only the married one scores. He appears to regret the liaison in the morning, but takes his time informing her of the complication. The young woman (Jenny Slate) has been down this road before and isn’t about to let it ruin her birthday weekend. She shares a hot tub with the rest of the guys, but everyone keeps their clothes on. (These are serious actors, after all.) Strippers are booked, of course, but the guys can’t work up anything resembling an erection. The discovery of a BB gun prompts some childish target practice. The only laughs in a surprise visit by the owners of the cabin (Joe and Kris Swanberg) derive from some toddler-in-jeopardy moments. Everyone here can and has done better work on TV and in ensemble movies. There’s a commentary track with Baena, Middleditch and producer/actor Adam Pally.

Neither does Laid in America advance the boys-will-be-boys conceit very far beyond the Dude, Where’s My Car visual reference on the cover. Fans of YouTube “sensations” KSI and Caspar Lee are the target audience for this teen comedy, which includes the obligatory inflatable sex doll, happy-to-oblige dominatrix and oddball pairing of a desirable blond and nerdy virgin. KSI (a.k.a., Olajide “JJ” Olatunji), 23, has more than 14 million subscribers on YouTube and was named the UK’s “most influential creator” in 2015. The South African Lee has more than 6 million subscribers on YouTube. It explains why they decided to bypass a theatrical release and sell the movie via downloads or DVD/Blu-ray. In the extremely broad comedy, Duncan (KSI) and Jack (Lee) are exchange students with just one night left in the United States to fulfill their bucket-list dream of losing their virginity to a beautiful young woman … although, as the deadline approaches, their criteria lessen. Bobby Lee (“Mad TV”), as a wannabe Korean gang-banger, steals every scene in which he appears, along with his gal-pal (Alexis G. Zall). Angela Kinsey (“The Office”) also manages to elevate the proceedings. Laid in America’s single bonus feature features KSI and Caspar Lee hosting an in-depth, day-by-day, behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie. Among other topics, the hosts and additional cast and crew discuss the differences between shooting a film versus shooting for YouTube, specific scene details, locations, character details, cast and performances.

The Hunting of the President Redux
Only the most diehard Republican could argue with any integrity that a small, but influential cabal of conservatives has conspired to make life hell for Bill and Hillary Clinton. The current Democratic candidate for the presidency opened herself up to ridicule in 1998, when she defended her philandering husband by pointing to a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” rooted in backwater Arkansas politics and extending to such tomfoolery as the Whitewater, Troopergate and Travelgate scandals; unfounded speculation surrounding the suicide of deputy White House counsel Vince Foster; and the then-president’s unwillingness to acknowledge his affairs. Like the Benghazi brouhaha, none of these so-called conspiracies amounted to hill a hill of beans. Sadly, the constant barrage of rumors, accusations and gossip found a ready audience in the mainstream media, which had been embarrassed when the National Inquirer and other tabloid rags beat them to key revelations in the O.J. Simpson murder trial and other juicy stories. In Nickolas Perry and Harry Thomason’s adaptation of Joe Conason and Gene Lyons’ exhaustively reported book, “The Hunting of the President,” the facts are laid out alongside the rumors and profiles of the key accusers, one more grotesque than the next. The film was nominated for the WGA’s Documentary Screenplay Award. Turns out, the rumors had a longer shelf life than the book and documentary. When it became clear that Hillary would emerge as the Democratic candidate and many of the same non-truths were resurrected by the right-wing media, Perry and Thomason decided to update their film with fresh interviews of the people featured earlier. The result is a litany of mea culpas and embarrassed faces, from Little Rock to Washington. They freshen an already interesting and compelling documentary, especially if one is predisposed to buy into the Clintons’ side of the endless debate. As was the case of the original film, though, what’s lacking is any reasoned discussion of Bill and Hillary’s willingness to shoot themselves in the foot by lying as their first line of defense and building a wall around themselves when attacked. It’s a strategy that continues to trip up Hillary. It remains to be seen if she would have benefited more from cutting Bill loose after l’affaire Lewinsky or defending the indefensible with an eye toward maintaining his fan base in the presidential campaigns of 2008 and 2016.

The Wailing: Blu-ray
When stripped of context, a total domestic gross of $786,633 may not sound like a huge amount of money. Put under a microscope, however, it’s easy to see how Na Hong-jin’s classy horror film, The Wailing, may signal the arrival of another important writer/director from South Korea. It’s difficult to imagine many viewers, besides fellow countrymen and genre buffs, willing to invest 156 minutes of their time in so unsettling a movie. Moreover, at its widest exposure, The Wailing could only be seen on 35 screens. Well Go USA Entertainment has done a terrific job exposing Pacific Rim artists and titles to American audiences hungry for stories that don’t look as if they’ve been put through the studio meat grinder, suffocated by bean counters and forced to run the gamut of film festivals before scoring distribution or a DVD/PPV debut. I don’t know how much money was invested in Na’s film, but it couldn’t have hurt that 20th Century Fox was one of three companies involved in production. (It also handled the domestic South Korean distribution.) In it, residents of the little town of Goksung are gripped by fear when a mysterious Japanese stranger arrives almost simultaneously with an outbreak of a terrible disease or epidemic of demonic possessions. After the almost buffoonish Inspector Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) reaches the boundaries of accepted police work, he’s forced to consider more traditional methodology and explanations, including the presence of a ghost or demon. The Outsider (Jun Kunimura) has been seen devouring decaying animals in the forest and flashing bright red eyes at people who get too near to him, so why not? In one riveting scene, Jong-goo takes a police acolyte and a local shaman to the Outsider’s shack in the woods and begins investigating. It’s there that the young cop discovers a hidden room filled with photographs of and personal items belonging to the victims. Outside, the shaman attempts to prevent the owner’s pit bull from breaking its chains and attacking him. The dog isn’t stilled until the Outsider returns home and takes him for a walk, leaving the investigators stunned and empty-handed. The Wailing takes a turn in the direction of The Exorcist when Jong-goo’s adorable daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) not only begins to exhibit symptoms of the disease, but also demonic possession. And, yes, her portrayal of the poor dear is frighteningly credible. As if the Outsider weren’t a sufficiently distressing presence in the village, another potential suspect, the ghostly Woman of No-name (Chun Woo-hee) appears in Goksung, serving as either a beautiful red herring or the real killer. Na adds some humorous touches to the narrative, besides Jung-goo’s chipmunk cheeks, but we’re never quite sure what to think of them. The gorgeously shot film looks great on Blu-ray, which contains only two short making-off pieces.

The Homestretch
Coming Out
By now, I think it’s safe to say that the presidential debates will remain free of any serious discussion of such crucial domestic issues as homelessness, poverty and the twin disparities of income and punishments accorded corrupt bankers and people forced to shoplift diapers and food for their children. The Republican candidates managed to completely ignore the question of global warming (or, if you prefer, climate change) by agreeing that it doesn’t exist, while Democrats have always been better at pointing out problems than fixing them. Anne De Mare and Kirsten Kelly’s essential documentary, The Homestretch, stands as a reminder that homelessness isn’t limited to adults or people who’ve given up hope of ever finding meaningful work, again. Neither are the faces of homelessness and poverty limited to those ravaged by long-term drug addiction, alcoholism and mental disorders. Co-produced by Kartemquin Films, The Homestretch follows three homeless teens as they fight to stay in school, graduate and build a future. Roque, Kasey and Anthony are representative of the estimated 1.6 homeless teens struggling to overcome problems related to parental abuse, drugs and complete lack of ambition and hope. With unprecedented access into the Chicago Public Schools and emergency youth shelters, De Mare and Kelly were able to navigate a landscape of couch hopping, transitional homes, street families and a school system stretched to the limits by budgetary constraints and political imperatives. The filmmakers didn’t think it necessary to devote a great deal of time showing us such manifestations as smoking crack or shooting heroin, panhandling or committing crimes to make ends meet. Instead, the emphasis is on the battle to find ways to provide at-risks kids a leg-up. The devotion of the adult volunteers is almost thrilling to watch, even when they hit roadblocks. It’s also impressive to watch the teens take such positive steps as participating in extracurricular at school – Roque memorizes “Hamlet” in Spanish and English — and cheering each other on for their successes. Of course, it’s impossible for any fly-on-the-wall documentary to ignore recidivism, bad behavior and ignoring the advice of psychiatrists. The real message seems to be that money well spent, along with the participation of sincere and dedicated adults, can overcome problems typically blamed on lack of governmental oversight, heartless bureaucracies, political meddling and societal indifference. It isn’t easy and nothing’s guaranteed. Still, I’d recommend forcing any candidate for public office to attend a screening of

When I saw the title, Coming Out, I assumed the Wolfe Video release would be a throwback to the many dramas and documentaries of the 1990s and early-2000s that focused on the agony, if rarely the ecstasy of exiting the closet and confronting friends and family with the reality of sexual identification. Queer cinema has come a long way in the last 10-15 years and it hardly seems necessary to dwell on the past. I’m not sure what filmmaker Alden Peters expected to experience when he decided to come out to his friends and family and record their responses to his revelation … probably a mixed bag of emotional outpourings. His project was inspired by the cruel outing and subsequent suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, who had been surreptitiously filmed in his dorm room while having sex with another man. The video was leaked on the Internet by his roommate, who wanted to use it as evidence to get someone new to share the room. Instead, it was shown to others in the dorm as comedy. Clementi’s death brought national attention to the issue of cyberbullying and the struggles facing LGBT youth. Unfortunately, it also prompted several American teenagers to commit suicide after being taunted about their homosexuality. It’s possible that none of the teens was aware of the support network available to troubled LGBT youths embarking on the often difficult passage. Peters, currently enrolled in New York college, decided to film the entire process, as he breaks the news to everyone who is important in his life, and he even goes back and discusses their feelings and reactions again a few days later when the news had sunk in. Anyone expecting the usual amount of Sturm und Drang is likely to be pleasantly surprised by the lack of drama that greeted Peters’ individual announcements. Instead, everyone who hadn’t already assumed he was a gay, expressed their approval of the decision. It turned out that all of his anxiety going into the project went for naught. Granted his family and friends weren’t predisposed to be shocked, in any case, but the responses lent Coming Out an atypically light-hearted and comforting air. The 70-minute documentary adds interviews with psychiatrists and organizers of support groups on social networks.

My Many Sons
Sports fans are a notoriously fickle lot. If their team is winning, all manner of bad behavior by players and coaches is likely to be tolerated. If it’s losing, however, even the smallest infraction could bring calls for sanctions and public humiliation, if not imprisonment. Bobby Knight, a living legend in Indiana, could throw chairs across a basketball court, berate officials and abuse players verbally and physically without registering a peep from fans and alumni. It wasn’t until his behavior embarrassed university officials not completely obsessed with Hoosier basketball that he was dumped. Penn State still can’t decide what it thinks about the role played by football coach Joe Paterno in the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Florida State’s unwillingness to penalize star athletes for committing serious crimes has made front-page news in the New York Times. Now that the media have been shamed into finally blowing the whistle on athletes and coaches for crimes great and small, pressure has increased on parents, alumni and fans to decide where to draw the line on excessive behavior. These are the things that passed through my mind when considering the merits of My Many Sons, the story of basketball coach Don Meyer (Judge Reinhold), who temporarily passed Knight to become the winningest basketball coach in NCAA history. It’s a truly inspirational biopic, especially in its portrayal of Meyer’s ability to continue coaching, despite battling terminal cancer and becoming wheelchair-bound after a nearly fatal car wreck. Like Knight, Meyer was an unabashed taskmaster willing to crush a player’s ego – including that of his son – if he didn’t perform to his exacting standards. Of all the things he could have demanded from his team and the student bodies of the small colleges he served, these were the top three: everybody takes notes, everybody says “please” and “thank you,” and everybody picks up trash. Working in his favor was the fact that Meyer refused to recruit players who might have been inclined to commit rapes, drink until they puked, abuse the athletic department’s 800-line and skip classes. Still, in practices and in games, he could be merciless. My Many Sons may indeed be an unusually heart-warming story of character, relationships, loyalty and turning young boys into men, but, for most of its 97-minute length, it’s also an uncritical endorsement of bullying kids to maintain a winning program. On the plus side, director Ralph E. Portillo (Angels Love Donuts) and first-time screenwriter Carol Miller stick to the facts of Meyer’s official biography, without embellishing either the good or bad aspects of his career and family life.

Fender Bender: Blu-ray
The Demolisher: Blu-ray
6 Plots
Mark Pavia’s unapologetically retro thriller, Fender Bender, is easily recommendable to anyone longing for the days when a masked maniac could prowl the highways and byways of small-town America and stalk, with the intention of slaughtering, innocent teenagers for reasons known only to him. While, admittedly, the slasher subgenre isn’t exactly my cup of blood, Fender Bender opened with a jump-scare that scared the crap out of me and convinced me to stick around for the next 85 (out of 91) minutes. The premise, not that a slasher flick necessarily needs one, involves a creep known to us only as The Driver (Bill Sage), who tools around the country in a souped-up sedan, stopping long enough in any one town to identify his prey, bump into the rear end of her car and invade her home, based on information gleaned from the exchange of insurance information. That Driver doesn’t pull any punches becomes clear when he takes out an attractive MILF (Cassidy Freeman), only hesitating long enough for her to get out of her bath and try to go to sleep. His next stop is a town in New Mexico – Santa Fe or the outskirts of Albuquerque – where he allows his car to make contact with the rear fender of a one driven by Hillary (Makenzie Vega), a 17-year-old girl newly alerted to her dick boyfriend’s infidelity. Although the accident isn’t her fault, Hillary’s parents ground her for pissing them off once too often. Guess what happens, then, when Mom and Dad take off for a weekend trip to the nearest Indian casino? That’s right. And, of course, Hillary invites some friends to keep her company after the second jump-scare. If everything in between transpires according to Hoyle, Pavia does come up with an ending most viewers won’t be able to predict half-way through the movie. Clearly influenced by the work of John Carpenter (Halloween), Pavia does a nice job paying homage to the master. The Scream Factory’s first made-for-cable movie adds a “Retro VHS” version of the film; a 40-minute “Slashback” reel, containing vintage trailers; director’s commentary; producer’s commentary; a behind-the-scenes featurette; and marketing material.

Gabriel Carrer’s highly stylized and almost stiflingly atmospheric revenge thriller, The Demolisher, also pays homage to the masters of slasher porn, while experimenting with frequently annoying audio and visual conceits. Because cable repairman Bruce (Ry Barrett) feels responsible for the beat-down given his ex-policewoman wife, Samantha (Tianna Nori) by a gang of extreme thugs. He wanders around the mean streets of Toronto, donned in modified Robocop gear, looking for the hoodlums and beating the crap out of them. Out of uniform, he isn’t as tough. Halfway through the dialogue-deprived story, Bruce begins to imagine that a different young woman, Marie (Jessica Vano), instigated the violence against Samantha and goes after her. Turns out not to have been a good idea. The story’s moral could be that a mask and leather outfit doth not a superhero make. The Demolisher pretty much left me cold, but it found plenty of admirers on niche websites and among Canucksploitation buffs. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette, deleted scenes and a Filmmakers Q&A at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival.

First released in 2012, in a small handful of foreign markets, the claustrophobic Australian teen horror, 6 Plots, arrives on these shores with only one fairly tired plot attached to it and a half-dozen happy-shiny young actors. The story involves a mixed group of seven youngsters, all friends, whose lives revolve around partying and, presumably, surfing to their hearts’ content. They hope to stream one of the parties across the Internet, but things don’t work out that way. After one night of mild debauchery goes awry, six out of the seven wake up encased in boxes, unable to escape. The seventh, Brie (Alice Darling), is accorded the responsibility of racing the clock to save her six friends, based on clues provided by a digital puppet master. The victims were allowed to retain their smartphones. The curious thing, perhaps, is that the boxes aren’t buried as much as hidden in precarious Melbourne locations. Brie mustn’t contact parents or authorities, or they will all die. If the premise isn’t bad, the execution is pretty weak. A making-of featurette explains how fragile the concept really was.

It’s a Rockabilly World
The Tubes – Live at German Television: The Musikladen Concert 1981
The popularity of rockabilly music has ebbed and flowed since its heyday, some 60 years ago. It some ways, it originated as a hillbilly answer to zoot-suit finery and the ecstatic response to black swing and R&B, during and after World War II. As Brent Huff’s delightful popumentary It’s a Rockabilly World suggests, the unique nature of rockabilly culture derived from young men’s addiction to cars, hair grease and cigarettes, while the girls emulated the pinup models who lifted the spirits of our fighting men in World War II. At first, it was strictly a working-class phenomenon, unrelated to Britain’s imitative Teddy Boy and Teddy Girl sub-culture. As American rock grew outward from its rockabilly and R&B roots in the 1960s, the Beatles and other Brit rock groups remained faithful until psychedelia took hold. It wasn’t until the American rockabilly band Stray Cats scored some hits that the kids here and in England realized how much fun it was to emulate the 1950s scene and began a revival that continues today, here and around the world. The universality and topicality of the movement is on full display in the documentary, shot at conventions in Las Vegas and other locations. It has expanded to include adherents of shockabilly, schlockabilly, gothability and punkabilly, with the common denominators being tattoos, throwback hairdos, extreme cosmetics and a love of dance. The passion for cars no more went away than the hair grease. The conventioneers we meet do tend to be purists when it comes to their overall look, but inclusivity does seem to be encouraged.

Any Tubes performance video without “White Punks on Dope” and “Don’t Touch Me There” already is suspect. That said, “The Tubes – Live at German Television: The Musikladen Concert 1981” – on DVD for the first time – is a technically sound and visually arresting reminder of the high-concept band at its most magnetic. The concert was staged in the studios of Radio Bremen, Germany, to support the band’s “The Completion Backward Principle” album and European tour. The personnel lineup includes Fee Waybill, Roger Steen, Bill Spooner, Rick Anderson, Vince Welnick, Michael Cotton and Prairie Prince, as well as dancers/showgirls. The funny/cool thing about the Tubes was that newcomers listening to an album might be completely unaware of the group’s highly theatrical stage act, which combined quasi-pornography with wild satires of media, consumerism and politics. As musicians, there were few tighter ensembles.

TV-to-DVD
History: American Experience: The Presidents Collection
PBS: Spillover: Zika, Ebola & Beyond
PBS Kids: Wild Kratts: A Creature Christmas
It probably is an appropriate time to re-release PBS’s award-winning “The Presidents Collection,” if only as a reminder of the great diversity of personalities of the men – temporarily, at least – who’ve served as the nation’s chief executive and commander-in-chief. The series documents each of the presidents, starting with George Washington, and following in chronological order to Barack Obama. Each president’s segment begins with the narrator giving a brief dossier on each one, from their political affiliation, family and notable traits. The segments then highlight the history behind each administration, linking each one to the following. While only a few can be said to be comprehensive, all of them reveal quirks, passions, personality traits and conceits that shaped these mostly rich, accomplished and overwhelmingly Protestant men. It also puts the profiles into the context of their times. Anyone who thinks Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are unique for their idiosyncrasies is encouraged to check out some of the oddballs who’ve made it to the White House.

PBS’ “Spillover: Zika, Ebola & Beyond” tells the terrifying tale of how vulnerable we are to diseases once limited to animals and insects, but now can easily be transmitted to humans through overcrowding, poor sanitation systems and fear of the unknown. The Ebola epidemic served as a red flag to scientists and medical personnel for its mysterious spread and severe consequences. Now, researchers are on the hunt for deadly diseases, hoping to stop them before they spill over and spread out of control. It’s not a question of if another outbreak will strike, but when? And will we be prepared?

Wild Kratts: A Creature Christmas” gets the holiday-DVD ball rolling with this hourlong movie. It’s Christmas time and the Wild Kratts are taking a break to celebrate. They are beginning to open their presents when the alarm sounds. The villains, Zach Varmitech, Gaston Gourmand and Donita Donata are kidnapping all the baby animals to turn them into Christmas ornaments. The Wild Kratts’ celebration will have to wait as spring into action to save their friends and get them home for the holidays.

The DVD Wrapup: Blood Simple, Cat People, Shallows, Neon Demon, Sirk X 2, Warcraft, Kamikaze ’89 and more

Friday, September 30th, 2016

Blood Simple: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
I don’t know how many rookie baseball players have hit a grand-slam home run in their first Major League appearance. Neither would I care to hazard a guess as to how many NHL players have pulled off the hat trick their first time on the ice or the number of NBA rookies who’ve tallied a triple-double in their debuts. A few probably, but not many. For most of the last 100 years, Orson Welles has stood out as the one filmmaker who changed the game in his first feature, Citizen Kane, even though his reputation as “boy genius” preceded his arrival in Hollywood. Before Blood Simple hit the festival circuit in September, 1984, at Deauville and Toronto, it’s safe to say that Joel and Ethan Coen couldn’t get arrested in this town. On the advice of Sam Raimi, they knocked on doors in Los Angeles, New York, the Twin Cities and Austin, hats in hand, trying to interest someone, anyone in checking out their two-minute teaser for the film. It’s what filmmakers did in the days before Kickstarter. Any money they raised went straight to their headquarters in Texas, where a cinema community was in its infancy and a few dollars went a long way. Even so, these future game-changers were so unknown that their star, M. Emmet Walsh, whose work they admired in Straight Time, demanded to be paid in cash, after each day’s work. His unnerving portrayal of the double-dealing private detective, Loren Visser, would be honored by IFP/West members with the inaugural Independent Spirit Award for Best Actor. (Joel Coen tied Martin Scorsese for Best Director and the picture was nominated for Best Feature, Best Screenplay and Barry Sonnenfeld’s cinematography.) Backed by the strong support of critics and positive word-of-mouth, Blood Simple grossed $2.15 million – not an insignificant sum for an indie — in its first theatrical go-round. More to the point, the Coens had effectively created a sub-genre of its own to accommodate the film’s singularly dark humor, troubling audio effects, unexpected violence, hip musical score and inventive cinematography. The critics labelled it “neo-noir,” because the story appeared to be influenced more by pulpy crime paperbacks of the 1950s than Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and the camerawork favored that of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Wim Wenders’ The American Friend. In the interview section of the new Criterion Collection edition, the Coens admit to the film’s resemblance to the novels of Jim Thompson, but insist they hadn’t read any of them in their preparations for Blood Simple. Among the neo-noirs that soon followed in its wake were James Foley’s as After Dark, My Sweet, Dennis Hopper’s The Hot Spot, John Dahl’s Kill Me Again, Stephen Frears’ The Grifters, The Last Seduction and Red Rock West, David Lynch’s Lost Highway, Oliver Stone’s U Turn, Carl Franklin’s One False Move Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan, Michael Oblowitz’ This World, Then the Fireworks.

The Blu-ray edition of Blood Simple benefits immensely from the new digital transfer, which was created in 4K 16-bit on a Scanity film scanner from the original 35mm camera negative. The restoration was supervised by the Coens, Sonnenfeld, producer David Diliberto, documentarian Lee Kline and colorist Sheri Eisenberg. It borders on the spectacular, especially in scenes that tended to fade into black on VHS and DVD. Consequently, too, the neon signs really pop out of the shadows, as do such sound effects as the mosquito zapper in an early scene between Walsh’s decidedly hard-boiled, but not at all noble P.I. and Dan Hedaya’s wonderfully paranoid honky-tonk owner. It’s their exchange of damning photographs and soiled cash that sets off the series of double-crosses, outright blunders and failed communication to come. Although her character couldn’t be mistaken for such femme fatales as Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner or Ava Gardner, Frances McDormand’s naïve hick, Abby, satisfies the traditional noir notion of “cherchez la femme.” Thirty-plus years later, Blood Simple is every bit as entertaining – disturbing, too – as it was in 1985 and far more satisfying for those of us who first saw it on VHS or on television. The supplemental features on the Criterion disc include a collection of original trailers; new video interviews with actors McDormand and Walsh; a filmed conversation with the Coens and Sonnenfeld; new filmed interviews with composer Carter Burwell and sound editor Skip Lievsay; and an illustrated leaflet, featuring Nathaniel Rich’s essay “Down Here, You’re on Your Own” and technical credits.

September has been a banner month for Criterion collection. In addition to Blood Simple and the long-awaited Blu-ray edition of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s essential Dekalog, scrutinized by Ray Pride earlier this week, in his column Pride, Unprejudiced, the company has released impressive new editions of Kenji Mizoguchi’s pre-war romance, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939), which balances light melodrama with a serious critique of social inequality in Japan; Carol Reed’s pre-WW II spy-vs.-spy drama, Night Train to Munich, which predated England’s entry into the larger European conflict and stars Paul Henreid, Rex Harrison and Margaret Lochwood; and Jacques Tourneur’s original 1942 horror thriller, Cat People, which would be remade 40 years later by Paul Schrader.

Newly restored on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Kieslowski’s death, the Criterion edition of Dekalog has been released in coordination with a limited U.S. theatrical run. It adds longer theatrical versions of the series’ fifth and sixth films; A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love; archival interviews with the director; new and vintage interviews with cast and crew; Annette Insdorf’s discussion of the series’ formal and thematic patterns; a new essay and capsules by Paul Coates; and excerpts from “Kieslowski on Kieslowski.” At a full list price of a shade south of $100, the generous package would make a fine holiday gift for anyone interested in making or watching great movies. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum  is enhanced by a new video interview with critic Phillip Lopate and an illustrated leaflet, featuring an essay by film scholar Dudley Andrew.

Night Train to Munich adds an archival video interview with Bruce Babington, author of “Launder and Gilliat” – writers of “Night Train” and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, which it resembles — and Peter Evans, author of “Carol Reed.” They discuss the movie’s production history and socio-political environment from which the film emerged, alongside an illustrated leaflet featuring an essay by critic Phillip Kemp. Far more bountiful is the supplemental package attached to Cat People, which should be considered mandatory viewing for horror buffs of almost any age. It includes an original trailer; a new video program, featuring cinematographer John Bailey; Kent Jones’ documentary, “Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows”; an archival episode of the French television program “Cine,” with footage from an archival interview with director Jacques Tournier; commentary by film historian Gregory Mank; and an illustrated leaflet, featuring Geoffrey O’Brien’s essay “Darkness Betrayed.” I enjoyed watching both versions back-to-back and comparing them based on how each reflects the standards of the periods in which they were made.

The Shallows: Blu-ray
Having taken a powder from big and small screens after the cancellation of “Gossip Girl,” Blake Lively staged something of a comeback this summer in Woody Allen’s period comedy Café Society and Jaume Collet-Serra’s creature feature The Shallows. Of the two, the latter required of the 5-foot-10 blond beauty the least number of costume changes and makeup adjustments. That’s because The Shallows takes place almost exclusively on or near a giant rock in the middle of a secluded bay, somewhere in the tropics. Lively plays Nancy, a skilled and adventurous surfer who’s dropped off at the pristine beach by a local resident and expects to spend the next couple of days catching waves in blissful solitude. Her idyll is disrupted slightly by the presence of a couple of dudes already in the water, with whom she’s required to share small talk, but they turn out not to be proprietary and there are plenty of waves for everyone to share. As befits her sport and the climate, Nancy’s attire consists almost entirely of a modest bikini, wetsuit top and multipurpose watch that allows here to calculate distances and the timing of tidal flows. When Nancy’s wave-mates decide to call it a day, she makes the mistake of holding out for one last set. In its place arrives a huge great white shark, for whom the shallow waters and coral formations serve as a reliable feeding ground. After biting the human interloper on the leg, the shark develops a ravenous appetite for human flesh. Like the North Vietnamese sniper in Full Metal Jacket, the female shark responds to Nancy’s every attempt to swim to a nearby buoy or the beach, which, absent the wound, would easily be within her reach. Her only companion on the rock is a bird she names Steven Seagull, also stranded with a damaged wing. With high tide approaching and blood still leaking from a makeshift tourniquet, what’s a girl to do? All I’ll say in the way of a spoiler is that Lively and the CGI shark perform every task Collet-Serra (Non-Stop) asks of them in highly credible fashion. And while the setting is beautiful, Nancy’s feeling of abject helplessness and solitude are palpable. OK, it’s not Jaws, but the jump-scares are legitimately frightening and were far less expensive to produce. The bonus package contains deleted scenes and four very good making-of featurettes. The Shallows is also is available in 4K UHD.

The Neon Demon: Blu-ray
Nicolas Winding Refn is the kind of fearless young filmmaker who doesn’t appear to be fazed by negative reviews in the mainstream media, boos at press screenings at Cannes and miniscule box-office returns. Born in Copenhagen and raised by filmmaker parents partly in New York, where he was dismissed from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts for throwing a table into a wall, Refn has pointed to surrealistic Alejandro Jodorowsky and splatter classic, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, as primary influences. Both are on display in The Neon Demon, a surrealistic horror for anyone who’s ever wondered what motivates fashion designers to dress beautiful teenage models as if they were circus clowns from another dimension or why magazine editors lap up every new atrocity and feed them to readers who wouldn’t wear the clothes, shoes and accessories on a bet. Celebrities, maybe, but no who actually pays for them. Elle Fanning (Trumbo) was 16 when she was cast as Jesse, a prototypically skeletal blond who arrives in L.A. one day, out of the blue, like just another Alice Kingsleigh approaching Wonderland. Almost immediately, she impresses a prominent agent (Christina Hendricks), who finds her gigs with an artsy-fartsy photographer (Desmond Harrington) and eccentric clothing designer (Alessandro Nivola). Jesse’s instructed to tell anyone who asks that she’s 19, instead of 16, presumably to allow them to shoot the waif in provocative poses.

As the new girl on the block, Jesse’s presence reminds the other models that their expiration date is quickly approaching and the lifts and tucks won’t last forever. The horror kicks in when her primary rivals, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), take on several of the primary characteristics of vampires and her only friend, Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist, initiates the sexual advance we can see coming from a mile away. It doesn’t work, but Ruby alleviates her disappointment at the funeral home where she also works. Things only get nastier from there. If The Neon Demon proves anything here, it’s that Refn probably could do as good a job staging and sound directing runway fashion shows as anyone already in the business. (Cliff Martinez’ electronic soundtrack serves as a distinctly different supporting character.) Although Refn claims to be color blind, the brilliance and intensity of his palette in both “Demon” and Only God Forgives could hardly be more invigorating. In this regard, comparisons to Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, set in a similar milieu, wouldn’t be too far-fetched. Both directors demand a great deal from their audiences, who welcome the challenges in anticipation of the moments of genius. That’s why I don’t think it’s fair to judge Refn by the largely negative reaction to his last two films. His Pusher trilogy, Bronson, Valhalla Rising and Drive received excellent reviews, even as they pushed the limits on stylized violence and action. Neither is he ever at a loss for visual references to his favorite films and directors. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Refn and Fanning, a featurette on the musical score and short backgrounder.

Two Films by Douglas Sirk Double Feature: Blu-ray
Several years before Douglas Sirk embarked on a series of still-celebrated Hollywood melodramas, in collaboration with producer Ross Hunter and Universal Studios, he made a pair of black-and-white pot-boilers that remain pretty entertaining: A Scandal in Paris and Lured. If, today, they don’t fit the pigeonhole the German-born director’s been assigned by enamored critics and academics, based on All I Desire, There’s Always Tomorrow, Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life, they remain interesting for several other sound reasons. First is the marriage of solid story-telling and appealing visual qualities necessary for any enjoyment of the somewhat shaggy narratives. Another is the presence of debonair leading man George Sanders, who frequently played scoundrels and villainous characters, but wasn’t limited to them. In fact, he was almost comically versatile, able to play incognito crime-fighters, the Gay Falcon and the Saint, and characters worthy of Academy Award consideration, such as Addison DeWitt, in All About Eve. At 6-foot-3, Sanders was comfortable in roles ranging from cad to sea captain, without being limited by historical periods or fear of being strictly typecast. (In addition to being a fine actor, Sanders is fondly remembered by movie buffs for being married to and divorced from Zsa Zsa and Magda Gabor and for making good on his promise to commit suicide when he got old and bored with life.)

In Lured, the most obvious attraction – now, if not in 1947 – is the presence of Lucille Ball as a brassy American dame, Sandra Carpenter. The feisty redhead went to London to work in a show, but now finds herself stuck working as a taxi-dancer in a cheapo London nightclub. When a fellow entertainer disappears after a date with a mysterious suiter, Sandra volunteers her services to Scotland Yard Inspector Harley Temple (Charles Coburn), who suspects she fell victim to the so-called Poet Killer or, perhaps, a white-slave trader. Whoever is making the women disappear connects with them through ads placed in the personal columns, then taunts police with clues that reference images in the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, of all writers. Adapted from Robert Siodmak’s 1939 French thriller Pieges, Lured (a.k.a., “Personal Column”) was shot in a Hollywood studio. A few outdoor inserts showing a foggy Thames River gave it a decidedly, if not definitively noir texture. Among the other cops and suspects are Boris Karloff, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Alan Mowbray and George Zucco. Commentary is provided by film historian Jeremy Arnold.

A Scandal in Paris is loosely based on the ghost-written memoirs of French criminal-turned-criminalist Eugène François Vidocq (1775-1857), a fascinating character whose exploits also influenced the writings of Victor Hugo, Edgar Allan Poe and Honoré de Balzac. A voice-over narrator describes how Sanders’ Vidocq was literally born behind bars and, from his cradle, could study the stars through the barred windows. The constellations and galaxies would come to represent the freedom that comes with escape and life on the lam. Whenever things got too weird and dangerous on the outside, Vidocq returned “home” to the prison and friends he left behind him. After one such escape, Vidocq and his Sancho Panza, Emile (Akim Tamiroff), embark on a picaresque series of encounters with people who ranged from aristocrats to felons, often while sitting on a stolen white horse. When he tired of the grind of stealing jewelry from elderly women and planning bank heists with his cronies, Vidocq embarks on a second career as a police investigator, private detective and forensics expert. Once again, the obvious studio-made texture is enhanced by the razor-sharp B&W cinematography and fairytale set design. Also on hand are Carol Landis, Signe Hasso, Gene Lockhart, Alma Kruger and Alan Napier, who, 20 years later, would play butler Alfred Pennyworth to Adam West’s Batman. The Blu-ray adds commentary by Wade Major, film critic with NPR affiliate KPCC-FM and co-host/producer of the IGN DigiGods podcast.

Kamikaze ’89: Blu-ray
Although the still-active Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog are the most widely known representatives of the New German Cinema, which flourished from the late 1960s into the 1980s, the artist who most personified the movement’s rebellious, anti-establishment spirit was Rainer Werner Fassbinder. His transgressive approach to the theater and cinema prompted observers to label him the NGC’s enfant terrible, as well as its most prolific and challenging creative force. Before Fassbinder’s suicide on June 10, 1982, at 37, he completed 40 feature-length films, a pair of television series, 3 three short films, 4 video productions, 24 stage plays, 4 radio plays and 36 acting roles. It explains why some of his creations are more accessible than others. Outside of Europe, Fassbinder’s best-known work probably is the acclaimed 15-hour television mini-series, “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” an adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel of the same title. Wolf Gremm’s rarely seen Kamikaze ’89 represents Fassbinder’s last acting appearance in a feature film. He plays Jansen, a respected cop living in a dystopic future, where a mysterious organization known as the Combine controls all media. After its headquarters receives several bomb threats, the post-punk detective is tasked with investigating possible threats to the nefarious conglomerate. Here, the near-future setting is 1989 Germany, which has become the richest of nations and all economic, social and political problems have been solved through heavy-handed measures. Even though the use of alcohol has been prohibited, the boredom that sometimes accompanies perfection has produced an environment so boring that it drives its citizens to drink. To compensate, the conglomerate’s boss, Blue Panther, sponsors such events as televised laughing contests to control the minds of the people. Based on Per Wahloo’s post-Utopian novel ”Murder on the 31st Floor,” in which Jansen so unnerves the authorities – he wears a simulated leopard-skin suit and similarly hideous bright red shirt — they become more concerned with preserving the secret of the “thirty-first floor” than with discovering who is threatening the company. Some of the best moments in this chaotic tale come when Jansen’s relaxing in the clandestine Cop Bar, which combines elements of nightlife from Blade Runner with every neon-lit strip bar in made-for-Cinemax movies. It’s goofy, alright, but Fassbinder fans aren’t likely to mind even the really crazy stuff. The soundtrack is by Edgar Froese, of Tangerine Dream, and bonus features include commentary by producer Regina Ziegler, the 60-minute documentary, “Rainer Werner Fassbinder: The Last Year,” John Cassavetes’ Kamikaze ’89 radio spots and a collector’s booklet with an essay by critic Nick Pinkerton and a mini-essay about the film’s soundtrack, written by Samuel B. Prime.

Also included in the Film Movement package is Ziegler’s feature-length documentary A Wolf at the Door, about the last years of her husband-collaborator, Gremm. Diagnosed with cancer and given one year to live, Gremm elects to fight the spread of the disease with every ounce of his stamina. He goes along with all of the usual therapies, while also exploring the alternative recommendations of various specialists in Europe and the United States. Although he’s in severe pain throughout the ordeal, morphine patches allow Gremm to function at home and on poignantly nostalgic trips to Majorca, Las Vegas, Death Valley, San Francisco and Miami. Ziegler’s attention to the details of her husband’s therapy, treatments and mental well-being are remarkable, as is her ability to capture them in such an objective, even-handed manner. Miraculously, Gremm’s life is extended by another two years, at least.

City of Gold
Laura Gabbert’s mouth-watering documentary City of Gold follows Pulitzer Prize-winning food and dining critic Jonathan Gold around Los Angeles, mostly discovering new and ever-more-diverse ethnic restaurants for the Times’ middle- and upper-class subscribers, so they don’t have to leave their well-padded nests. At the same time, Gabbert shadows the writer as he expounds on his eclectic tastes and diversions, visits with relatives, shmoozes restaurateurs and foodies and attends staff meetings at the newspaper. As is its wont, the then-fat publication hired him away from the LA Weekly, where, five years earlier, his lively populist writing made him the first food critic to be awarded journalism’s top prize. (Now, even as the Tronc-owned paper shrinks, you sometimes need a roadmap to find it.) If, today, Los Angeles is considered to be one of the top culinary destinations in the country, it’s not because of the celebrity-haunt restaurants on the city’s West Side or formal downtown dining rooms. Instead, as noted in the film, it’s because of the dizzying array of places – including strip malls, food trucks and pushcarts – that ply the regional cuisine of dozens of countries around the world. Typically, the owners of these establishments don’t have the wherewithal to publicize their businesses or reach out beyond their native customers and neighbors. One restaurateur recalls wondering what all of the white faces were doing in his place all of sudden, before being informed of Gold’s review in that morning’s paper. The stories behind the dishes also serve as history lessons on the current ethno-geography of Los Angeles and the city’s culinary micro-economy. It’s possible, as well, to sense the intensity of the heat coming off of the chili peppers served in his favorite dishes. Anyone unfamiliar with Gold’s work might wonder why he would betray traditional critical anonymity for the sake of someone else’s film. In fact, Gold would be recognized almost immediately, anyway, if only because of his straggly hair, frequently unkempt attire and profile only matched by Alfred Hitchcock or Orson Welles. He doesn’t alert restaurateurs of his plans or take pictures of his food with an iPhone, as do the Yelpian masses. More than anything else, though if it weren’t Gold’s writing, which is as tantalizing as the food, few people would traipse 20-30 miles out of their way to sample the tacos made in an East L.A. food truck.

Edge of Winter
Co-writer/director Rob Connolly puts an unusual spin on the horror genre’s tried-and-true cabin-in-the-woods storyline, by taking what’s typically a source of hair-raising apparitions and heebie-jeebies and turning it into an innocent bystander. In Edge of Winter, a recently divorced and laid off dad hopes to score points with his sons by taking them on a winter camping trip to a secluded lake in The Middle of Nowhere, Ontario. The kids don’t know what to expect, exactly, and appear to have been negatively affected by the secrecy surrounding the divorce. For his part, Elliot (Joel Kinnaman) lets them engage in such traditional bonding activities as driving his truck through the woods and using his shotgun to kill bunny rabbits. The boys aren’t all that into it, but it’s a start. It isn’t until the oldest son drives the truck into a snow drift and falls into a semi-frozen lake that things turn weird. Elliot becomes completely unhinged after hearing that his wife is planning to move out of state with her boyfriend and plans on taking the boys with her. He turns the cabin into a psychological fortress, to the point that he refuses to acknowledge the protocols of humanitarian behavior in the frozen wilderness. The arrival of two hunters, merely seeking shelter and warmth, triggers emotions that turn Elliot into the kids’ worst nightmare.

Warcraft: Blu-ray
Highlander : 30th Anniversary [Bluray
While I can’t comprehend the “World of Warcraft” phenomenon any more than I’ve been able to grasp the significance of “Dungeons & Dragons,” “Game of Thrones” or “Lord of the Rings,” I was struck by the similarities between the Warcraft movie adapted from the video game franchise and the recent History Channel docudrama series, “Barbarians Rising” (reviewed below). The rebel hordes that challenge the Roman legions, for example, could easily be mistaken for the warriors portrayed in Blizzard’s incredibly popular “real time strategy” game. Neither are the costumes all that different from any those created from leather, faux animal pelts and tin foil for other sword-and-sandals and pirate extravaganzas. Then, too, Hannibal’s elephants must have seemed as bizarre to the Romans as the gryphons in Warcraft (a.k.a., Warcraft: The Beginning). The intensity of the hand-to-hand combat is similar, as well. It all makes sense when you consider how video games are based on actual events in world history and retranslated for kids addicted to them. Even after watching Duncan Jones’ and Charles Leavitt’s epic fantasy/adventure, Warcraft, I can’t come up with a better summary than the one provided on the Blu-ray/DVD jacket, “The peaceful realm of Azeroth stands on the brink of war as its civilization faces a fearsome race of invaders: orc warriors fleeing their dying home to colonize another. As a portal opens to connect the two worlds, one army faces destruction and the other faces extinction. From opposing sides, an unlikely set of heroes are set on a collision course that will decide the fate of their families, their people and their home. So begins a spectacular saga of power and sacrifice in which war has many faces, and everyone fights for something.” Obviously, those already consumed with the game and its various extensions are the target audience for Warcraft. That it underperformed at the domestic box office shouldn’t be held against those who made it look as wild-and-woolly as it does. The special effects are terrific, as are the other relevant production values. Warcraft fared fair better in overseas markets, especially China, so it isn’t likely we’ve seen the last in the series just yet. The Blu-ray package offers deleted/extended scenes, a gag reel and the featurettes “The World of Warcraft on Film,” “The Fandom of Warcraft,” “Warcraft: Bonds of Brotherhood,” “Motion Comic,” “Warcraft: The Madame Tussauds Experience,” “ILM: Behind the Magic of Warcraft,” the 2013 teaser and origin story.

And, in the same way that the warriors in Warcraft, “Barbarians Rising” and Conan the Barbarian, for that matter, might have been modeled on the ancient Barbarian tribes, so, too, could the entire “World of Warcraft” universe have emerged from Gregory Widen’s multiplatform Highlander franchise, which preceded Blizzard’s brainstorm by eight years. The coincidental arrival of Lionsgate’s Highlander: 30th Anniversary Edition benefits from a nifty 4K restoration of the film completed by StudioCanal, as well as the inclusion of vintage features reprised from the 25th anniversary package, including deleted scenes, commentary with director Russell Mulcahy and interviews. In it, during a fierce sword battle in the 1500s, Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert), a simple Scotsman known as a poor fighter, is mortally wounded, but does not die. MacLeod learns from the mysterious Ramírez (Sean Connery) that he is of a race of immortals. These rare knights, not to be confused with vampires, one supposes, never age and never reproduce. They can only meet death by the blade of another of their kind. Leaping back and forth through the centuries, MacLeod once again meets the evil Kurgan (Clancy Brown) who nearly killed him 500 years earlier. All mythology aside, however, the spectacular Scottish Highlands locations are what set Mulcahy’s original apart from the other installments and other sword-and-fantasy pictures. (Sequels would be filmed in Romania, British Columbia, Argentina and Lithuania, along with more physically accessible parts of Scotland.) Like so many other cult favorites, Highlander was considered, at first, to be a box-office dud. Even then, however, it would benefit from overseas revenue and buzz from the VHS and Laser Disc releases. (The Queen songs didn’t hurt, either.) I wonder how many fans of Starz’ time-travel romance, “Outlander,” see in Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) a female counterpart to Connor McLeod. Incidentally, a Highlander remake is on the boards for 2017 or 2018.

Lady in White: Blu-ray
Blood Diner: Blu-ray
Chopping Mall: Blu-ray
PHOBE: The Xenophobic Experiments
In 1988, it must have been difficult for a distributor of genre films to sell a supernatural thriller, based on a legitimately ghostly legend from Upstate New York, that wasn’t dominated by blood-stained cutlery and butchered teenagers, preferably nude or in their underwear. It was a time when a PG-13 rating — as was fairly accorded filmmaker Frank LaLoggia’s Lady in White — must have seemed like the kiss of death. Critics gave it mostly positive reviews, but, by then, the approval of the mainstream press also could make it a non-starter. LaLoggia based his film on a long-standing urban legend he heard while growing up in the region about a mother whose daughter disappeared, apparently at the hands of a predatory young suitor. The White Lady roams the lake front, searching for the missing girl. The supposed residence of the White Lady, a demolished hotel built in the 1800s, has become a popular tourist attraction. In Lady in White, a wide-eyed boy played by Lukas Haas (Witness) becomes caught in the mystery after being attacked by the presumed serial killer and witnessing the nightly ritual of a ghost in the translucent form of a slain child. That his story isn’t totally discredited by friends, family and police only adds to the drama. Haas’ Frankie Scarlatti is surrounded by immigrant relatives, who ultimately provide a safety net for him when he’s most threatened. The scares derive from plot devices that will remind viewers of movies that carry such names as Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, Tobe Hooper and Walt Disney. Lady in White was LaLoggia’s second feature, after Fear No Evil. He made another feature, Mother, in 1995, before retiring to Italy. It probably has something to do with the difficulty in financing pictures. Two decades before Kickstarter, LaLoggia’s cousin, Charles, raised production money from 4,000 investors, many of whom live in and around the small town of Lyons in Upstate New York that doubles for the fictional Willowpoint Falls in Lady in White. The excellent bonus package adds commentary with LaLoggia, behind-the-scenes footage with an introduction by LaLoggia, deleted scenes, a promotional short film, media spots, a behind-the-scenes photo montage, an extended photo gallery and party site for teenagers and three separate versions of the movie: the theatrical cut, a director’s cut and an extended director’s cut.

Blood Diner and Chopping Mall don’t resemble Lady in White in any way, shape or form, other than 35mm. They represent the kind of low-budget films that were popular in the mid-1980s and stealing screens in drive-ins, especially, from less exploitative stuff. I don’t know if the Vestron releases made any money, but they’ve been accorded an afterlife based on cult status, alone. Originally, Jackie Kong’s Chopping Mall was intended to be a long-delayed sequel to the Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 1963 film Blood Feast, which featured an ancient Egyptian love goddess and numerous hacked-up teenage girls. (The “godfather of gore, died Monday, at 87.) Kong (The Under Achievers) and writer Michael Sonye (Commando Squad) decided to take the horror/comedy route, instead. Here, Michael and George Tutman (Rick Burks, Carl Crew) are the owners of a successful health-food restaurant, which serves dishes made from body parts left over from their nightly human-sacrifice rituals. They do so at the behest of the re-animated brain and eyeballs of their Uncle Anwar, who was executed before he could complete the job he never got to finish: the resurrection of the goddess Sheetar from the limbs and organs of his victims. As such, it fits the definition of being so bad, it’s good … kind of. It features lots of T&A, funny Third Reich references, insane amounts of gore and a twisted sense of humor. The punk rock and doo-wop soundtrack isn’t bad, either. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Kong and executive producer Lawrence Kasanoff; the isolated score, featuring select audio commentary with composer Don Preston; interviews with Kong, the rare woman director in the horror genre, actor Carl Crew, DP Jurg V. Walther, FX creator Bruce Zahlava and writer Michael Sonye. There’s also an archival interview with crew member and Hollywood Book & Poster owner Eric Caiden.

The future may belong to robots, but, even today, they’re far from infallible. In Jim Wynorski’s 1986 Chopping Mall, all it takes is lightning bolt to reprogram the R2D2 wannabees that provide overnight security at the Park Plaza Mall. Instead of targeting burglars and other trespassers, the robots use their laser beams to take out anything that moves. These include four couples that have lingered past closing time to make out in a mattress store. Because all of the exits are blocked or locked, the characters are at the mercy of the androids. It’s said that Chopping Mall was inspired by Trapped, a 1972 made-for-TV movie in which six vicious Doberman guard dogs terrorize James Brolin, who was knocked unconscious by a mugger and missed by the human guards in their final sweep. Producer Julie Corman’s participation ensured that everything would be done on the cheap and there would be just enough topless interludes to keep the drive-in crowd interested. Wynorski, who was just getting his feet wet in the exploitation game, found several interesting ways to get around the budget limitations and keep it fun. They include cameos by Corman regulars Paul Bartel, Mary Woronov, Dick Miller, Gerrit Graham and several voluptuous scream queens. (The explosion of Suzee Slater’s head may be the movie’s highlight.) Otherwise, Chopping Mall is pretty tame and only occasionally funny. The Blu-ray bonus package overflows with commentaries, interviews and backgrounders on the robots and Chuck Cirino’s terrific electronic soundtrack.

The 1995 DIY cult sensation PHOBE: The Xenophobic Experiments has been released on DVD in remastered form for the first time. Like so many other do-it-yourself efforts, it’s remarkable mostly for being completed in the first place. Over the course of a year, aided by a dedicated team of friends, volunteers and “fellow film rebels,” Ontario filmmaker Erica Benedikty wrote, produced, directed and edited the sci-fi action thriller, allegedly for only $250. (Others put the figure at $5,000, figuring in donated equipment.) There are times when “Phobe” looks as if it were financed with S&H Green Stamps, donations and buckets of blood, sweat and tears. Roman candles and Lightsabers were substituted for more sophisticated effects. In it, an escapee from a military experiment on another planet arrives on Earth to plant some sort of egg. A mullet-coifed space cop follows the creature here, battling it in a forest dangerously close to Niagara Falls. Benedikty not only was able to complete PHOBE, but also hold an opening night screening, other showings (cable access and YouTube count for something) and dream that it would be discovered. This DVD qualifies as a real coup. It comes with commentary by writer/director Erica Benedikty, moderated by Paul Corupe (canuxploitation.com) and Peter Kuplowsky (Laser Blast Film Society); Benedikty’s first feature-length movie, Back in Black; a documentary on the creation of the film and its continuing legacy; a Q&A with cast and crew, following a home-town screening in St. Catharine, Ontario; original FX shots from 1995 broadcast version of “Phobe”; outtakes; a performance of the theme by Gribble Hell.

Slugs: Special Edition: Blu-ray
I can’t think of more succinct high-concept premise for a horror story than the one used to describe this outrageous 1988 creature feature: “Killer slugs on the rampage in a rural community.” True, the same pitch could be recycled to include anything from ants to elephants, but the sight of dozens of slimy, licorice-black critters emerging from faucets, toilet bowls, sewers, garden hoses and body orifices, simultaneously, is almost too gruesome to bear. And, yes, they sport sharp little fangs capable of doing great harm to human flesh. (Coincidentally, much of Slugs was shot on location in Lyons, N.Y., which, in 1988, also filled in for the town in Lady in White.) Apparently, the onslaught began when water slugs migrated from the nearby lake at breeding time, into the city’s sewage system, which once served as a toxic dump. Of course, they did. Spanish director Juan Piquer Simón (Pieces) adapted the movie from the 1982 horror novel, “Slugs,” by Shaun Hutson. In addition to massive amounts of slime and gore – it originally was rated X – there was enough T&A to satisfy any drive-in customer, back in the day. The meticulous Arrow Video hi-def restoration is accompanied by commentary with writer and filmmaker Chris Alexander; interviews with actor Emilio Linder, special-effects artist Carlo De Marchis and art director Gonzalo Gonzalo; an interview and locations tour with production manager Larry Ann Evans; a 1988 Goya Awards promo reel; original theatrical trailer; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Wes Benscoter; and fully-illustrated collector’s booklet with new writing Michael Gingold.

Subterranea
Arriving on Blu-ray/DVD without any hint of fanfare, Subterranea, is the kind of off-the-wall movie that deserves to be discovered by fans of experimental psycho-dramas and dark, low-budget thrillers. Based on a 1997 concept album by British neo-progressive rock band IQ – itself inspired by Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser — Mathew Miller’s debut feature follows a man known only as The Captive (Bug Hall), who, after being forced to live his entire life within a darkened cell, is released into the world for the first time with nothing but the clothes on his back. Never having seeing the light of day or another human being, the Captive’s first fully conscious impressions are provided by the roar of a subway train and the helping hand of a homeless man, Remy (Nicholas Turturro). The only thing that isn’t a mystery is his memory of the voice of the man he knows only as The Provider, who kept him fed and captive for all those years. With no more walls to contain him, the Captive faces an entirely new world that’s full of unlimited and threatening horizons. Finally, he discovers that he’s the cornerstone of an orchestrated social experiment, devised by the Provider, and he’s inherited enemies and allies he couldn’t have known existed. Although a lot of disbelief needs to be suspended, Subterranea will reward those willing to go along for the ride. Characters played William Katt, Amber Mason and Lily Gladstone know more about the Captive than he knows about himself. The deleted scenes and featurettes included in the package will help viewers put together some of the missing pieces.

A House Is Not a Home
While watching Christopher Ray’s haunted-house thriller, A House Is Not a Home, I was reminded of a quip made Eddie Murphy, about moving into a new home on Long Island and the possibility that it might be haunted by its former owner, a cranky old Jewish man.       “Boo! … Get off my lawn! … Boo-ooo! I’m under the bed now! …. Or, maybe I’m not. Who knows? Maybe. I could be. Who cares? … I could be under the bed.” He went on to point out something that’s all too obvious to jaded viewers, “I was watching movies like Poltergeist and Amityville Horror. Why don’t the people just get the hell out of the house? You can’t make a horror movie with black people in it. … You’d see (them) runnin’ down the street … the movie’s over!” Murphy’s theory was well known to Ray and male lead Gerald Webb before they started shooting their movie. The sentiment is echoed, as well, by the son of transplanted urbanites Ben and Linda Williams the morning after a scary first night in the house. Instead of splitting immediately, the Williams elect to ignore the bumps in the night and tough it out. Ben and Linda have decided that the best way to get a fresh start on their troubled marriage is to buy a big ol’ house in the suburbs. Yeah, that always works. It doesn’t take long for us to figure out that the house has a mind of its own and it wants Ray, an architect, to make some changes. By the time the Williams figure out what’s happening, it’s too late to leave. But, they have to try, anyway. Although things got a bit too dark and smoky for my little DVD to decipher with any precision, there was plenty of hocus-pocus on display to satisfy fans of the haunted-house subgenre. I don’t think it’s unfair to mention that Ray’s resume includes such Syfy gems as Mega Shark vs. Kolossus, 3-Headed Shark Attack and Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus. The writing team of James and Jon Kondelik (Airplane vs. Volcano) and Victoria Dadi (2012: Ice Age) had some beauts on their resume, as well. So, clearly, A House Is Not a Home could have turned out a lot worse. Filling out the cast are Aurora Perrineau (Jem and the Holograms), Bill Cobbs (A Night at the Museum), Richard Grieco (“21 Jump Street”), Diahnna Nicole Baxter (“Scandal”) and Eddie Steeples (“My Name is Earl”).

Beyond Valkyrie: Dawn of the Fourth Reich
What would a World War II movie be without a cameo, at least, by Tom Sizemore? No, I don’t want to think about it, either. In addition to a key role in Saving Private Ryan, Sizemore kept extremely busy in the past few years acting in films encompassing every genre imaginable and even more sub-genres. For a guy who many deemed to be unemployable a dozen years ago, he’s doing very well. The thing about most of these low-budget, fact-based movies is that a little bit of history goes a long way. In Beyond Valkyrie: Dawn of the Fourth Reich, for example, Allied intelligence officers are aware of the plot to kill Hitler and other high-ranking Nazi leaders inside his Wolf’s Lair field headquarters, near Rastenburg, East Prussia. They’ve assigned a special-ops team to extract the man destined to lead post-war Germany. (I missed that part in Tom Cruise’s Valkyrie.) The assassination plot ultimately collapses, however, leaving the team stranded in the middle of enemy-held territory. After a series of easily spoiled coincidences, the team finds itself preparing for another top-secret mission, this time with a Soviet special-ops team, led by Major Aleksandr Kulkov (Pasha D. Lychnikoff). This time, the combined Allied unit – including the requisite beautiful spy, Julie Engelbrecht – is tasked with finding a train loaded with gold bars and preventing it from unloading the ill-gained booty onto a submarine heading for Argentina. Naturally, there are a lot of violent confrontations between Gestapo troops and the combined unit. And, of course, the Nazis can’t hit the broadside of a barn with their machine guns, while the good guys can’t miss, even with handguns. Nonetheless, director Claudio Fäh (Sniper: Reloaded) is able to make the most of a flawed script, small budget and Bulgarian locations.

Justin Hayward: Live in Concert at the Capitol Theatre
If the Moody Blues aren’t always mentioned in the same breath as other British Invasion bands, it isn’t because they were considered inferior to the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Who, or a johnny-come-lately to the scene. It’s just that, by 1967, when their concept album, “Days of Future Past,” was released, the Moody Blues had effectively merged rock, pop and orchestral music into something called “art rock,” which gradually evolved into “progressive rock.” The sub-genre wouldn’t flourish until the mid-1970s and, by that time, the band was ready for a long hiatus. On the strength of its first batch of albums – loosely linked to psychedelia, with its ode to Timothy Leary on “In Search of the Lost Chord” – the Moody Blues entered the pantheon of classic-rock acts, doomed to reprise the same favorites on endless reunion tours. Based on filmmaker David Minasian’s latest collaboration with Justin Hayward, “Live in Concert at the Capitol Theatre,” that’s OK with me. Hayward’s elegant voice is in fine shape on this lovingly produced film, which mixes the hits with new compositions, and never sounds old or dusty. The bonus videos include “The Wind of Heaven,” written with the director.

Confessions of Isabella
The most interesting thing about Trina McGee’s DIY drama, Confessions of Isabella, isn’t her ability to wear five different hats simultaneously – director, writer, co-star, producer, composer – but the long list of Hispanic and African-American actors she enlisted to work on it. If Hollywood truly is looking for a Rainbow Coalition of young faces to add diversity to its movies, all they have to do is find McGee’s phone number. It isn’t as if it wouldn’t be difficult to locate. Her own list of credits includes 59 appearances on “Boy Meets World” and several visits to Bill Maher’s previous employer, ABC’s “Politically Incorrect.” Here, Isabella (Alexya Garcia) is a young Latina dancer attempting to make a name for herself in the hip-hop scene. She gets the opportunity when she hooks up with producer Antonio (Alejandro Bravo), who promises her the moon but follows through on none of them. He also cheats on her with every new ingénue that enters his studio. Big shock. Antonio also owes a hip-hop musician money and/or recordings, neither of which he’s likely to deliver. Along comes McGee, as a homeless woman with stringy gray hair, who sympathizes with Isabella and offers a solution of her own that, turns out, only makes things worse. Neither is she served well by a fortune-telling dishwasher at a local diner who essentially tells her to follow her heart … advice she could have gotten from a fortune cookie. Oh, yeah, Trina also appears on the trailer for Marcello Thedford’s upcoming Sins of the Guilty, as star and writer. The scenes in the preview look suspiciously familiar to images just seen in Confessions of Isabella. And, yet, as insufficiently entertaining as it is, McGee’s film could serve as inspiration for minority filmmakers to never give up on their dreams, no matter how unlikely it seems to find distribution.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Masterpiece: Indian Summers: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
History: Barbarians Rising
Even though Season Two of “Indian Summers” is still unspooling on PBS affiliates here, rabid fans of the fine British mini-series can avoid the weekly interruptions by picking up the Blu-ray compilation and binging to their hearts’ content. The good news is that one needn’t be a student of British colonial history or, even, an admirer of previous mini-series, “The Far Pavillions” and “The Jewel in the Crown,” to enjoy this elegantly soapy production. The bad news came with the announcement of its cancellation after only two chapters in a planned five-season arc. Given the expenses involved and declining ratings in England, it isn’t likely to find any backers for an extension. It’s our loss. The second stanza picks up three years after the events that closed the first season. The British socialites and colonial officials who vacation in Simla, in the foothills of the Himalayas, are still able to pretend that their reign won’t end in 12 short years, even as they can see the dark clouds of war forming over Europe. Cynthia (Julie Walters) is still in charge of maintaining decorum and tradition at the newly integrated – sort of, anyway – social club, while also promoting the chances of Ralph Whelan (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) to ascend to the rank of Viceroy on the imminent retirement of Lord Willingdon (Patrick Malahide). His seemingly loyal Indian aide, Aafrin (Nikesh Patel), is facing pressure from his associates in the Independence Party to betray Ralph, but is conflicted by his love for Ralph’s sister, now married to bullying banker Charlie Havistock (Blake Ritson). Even J.R. Ewing couldn’t have scripted the twists and turns from there any better than Paul Rutman (“Vera”) and his writing team. The former summer capital of British India has modernized to the point where the producers decided to stage the series in the lush hills of Penang, Malaysia. Its beauty helps explain the sense of entitlement enjoyed by the Brits at work and at play. New cast members in Season Two are Art Malik, as the pompous Maharajah, and Rachel Griffiths, as his Australian concubine; Arjun Mathur, as the terrorist, Naresh Banerjee; and James Fleet, as the almost fatally horny Lord Hawthorne. The excellent Blu-ray package adds a decent making-of featurette.

In its attempt to combine education and entertainment, the History Channel mini-series “Barbarians Rising” took a somewhat different tack than what is usually applied to such endeavors. The series not only is told from the point of view of the various rebel leaders who challenged the rule of the Roman Empire – a.k.a., Barbarians — it also presents brief commentaries from modern scholars and historians, and supplements both with computer-generated maps. Imagine watching Starz’ “Spartacus,” HBO’s “Rome” and Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” and “Julius Caesar” and having the narratives interrupted every 10 minutes, or so, with the opinions of retired generals, educators and, yes, even, Jessie Jackson, or a cool graphic device. It isn’t a bad way to keep viewers interested in ancient history, really, although the battles do tend to resemble each other after a while. I suppose that history majors and Latin teachers will find plenty of nits to pick, as well as the occasional unforgiveable omission and flat-out whopper. It’s significantly better than leaving our history lessons to Hollywood screenwriters, which is usually the case these days. Among the recognizable actors in key roles are Tom Hopper, Steven Berkoff, Kirsty Mitchell, Steven Waddington and Nicholas Pinnock.

The DVD Wrapup: Free State of Jones, Beauty & Beast, Bettie Page, Pele and more

Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

Free State of Jones: Blu-ray
At 139 minutes, Gary Ross’s frequently exhilarating, sometimes grueling Free State of Jones dramatizes one of the most unlikely and virtually unknown – outside Mississippi, anyway – chapters in Civil War history. Unlike Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave and the recent re-adaptation of “Roots,” viewers averse to sadistic violence and racial epithets weren’t required to gird their loins for what was to come. Ross (Seabiscuit) cobbled Free State of Jones from three separate stories, based on original research, concerning Mississippi farmer Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) and the loose coalition of deserters and escaped slaves he led from a dense swamp along the Leaf River, in southeast Mississippi. Their revolt was sustained by local residents, whose property and livestock had been confiscated as a tax to support Confederate troops, and disdain for a newly passed law that allowed plantation owners to avoid military service if they owned 20 slaves or more. (An additional family member was exempted from service for each additional 20 slaves owned by the planter.)  After making the 200-mile trek home from the Siege of Corinth, in the northeastern corner of the state, Knight was jailed for desertion by Confederate authorities, who also ordered the burning of his homestead and farm. After his escape and retreat to the swamp, Knight would be led to an enclave of escaped slaves and eventually be joined by several hundred deserters. Even after the union victory at Vicksburg, there were enough Confederate troops in southeast Mississippi to keep the guerrilla force from joining the Yankee juggernaut. Ross’ re-creation of Knight’s swampy Southern Unionist encampment, along with depictions of skirmishes launched against Confederate supply wagons from the thick cover, are painstakingly rendered. He also does a nice job portraying Knight’s ability to quell a mini-revolt by white soldiers, who resisted his insistence that they fight alongside the blacks as brothers in arms and share whatever provisions available to them. When news that the war had ended reached Knight, he couldn’t have known that the peace would be as difficult to sustain as their insurrection.

If Ross had decided to wrap up the story here and merely allude to the perils of Reconstruction, Free State of Jones could have ended naturally and entirely satisfactorily, without further testing his viewers’ ability to maintain their attention for what amounts to a half-hour postscript. The story already had been interrupted occasionally by flashforwards to a court case, begun 85 years later, involving the great-great-great grandson of Newton and his common-law wife Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a freedwoman and student who helped him survive the swamp ordeal. Since he is of one-eighth black descent, the light-skinned descendant was arrested under Mississippi’s miscegenation laws, prohibiting his interracial marriage to a white woman. While interesting and historically relevant, the through-line feels forced and disruptive of dramatic flow. Likewise, the final chapter pertaining to the Reconstruction period almost demands that we see it as an apology by Hollywood’s liberal establishment for D.W. Griffith’s revisionist portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan, in The Birth of a Nation. This time, any notion that Klansmen are heroes or defenders of traditional Southern values are destroyed by accounts, far closer to reality, by atrocities against the freed slaves who fought alongside Newtown. In one or two instances, Ross appears to be referring directly to scenes shots by Griffith, showing Klansmen riding to the rescue of damsels in distress and against black farmers and homesteaders. Again, its value as a corrective is diminished by its length and tacked-on feeling. Even so, there’s plenty of good stuff to be learned here about a subject – some Mississippians still consider it to be a fable, unworthy of revisiting – about which most of us are ignorant. If Free State of Jones failed at the box office – as it did — the blame should be attributed more on Civil War fatigue than anything to do with the story, production values, acting or, even, its length. The nicely rendered Blu-ray adds the excellent documentary featurette, “History of Jones County,” which features real local residents and descendants discussing the history, intercut with numerous clips from the film.

Beauty and the Beast: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Because a new demi-generation of children arrives, like clockwork, every five years, or so, Disney has never required much of an excuse to re-release its classics to whet their appetites for quality entertainment and those of adults in need of a break from the demands of parenthood. In the late 1990s, the studio faced a challenge with the widespread acceptance of DVD, a format that suffered little from ravages of age and overuse. As kids grew more savvy and demanding, Disney would offer a full menu of new and recycled bonus features, as well as interactive activities. Blu-ray added its own highly defined reason for existing, as did, five years ago, Blu-ray 3D. The only thing that Beauty and the Beast: 25th Anniversary Edition doesn’t provide consumers is a new reason for 3D adaptors to rejoice, a marketing decision that hardly qualifies as a snub. That will be corrected soon enough, probably when the cycle begins again, with the release of a 4K UHD/Blu-ray 3D/DVD/Digital HD combo. The Signature Collection edition of Beauty and the Beast needs no further introduction beyond mentioning the fresh featurettes added to a vintage array of bonus material. It includes four versions of the movie: the Blu-ray release of the original theatrical film; an extended version, with the “Human Again” song sequence; a sing-along version, new to home entertainment; and the original work-in-progress version, which will be available digitally and on Disney Movies Anywhere. One of the new bonus extras invites fans to gather around a piano with composers Alan Menken (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin), Stephen Schwartz (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pocahontas), Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (Frozen), and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Disney’s upcoming Moana and “Hamilton: An American Musical”) as they sing and share how they’ve personally been inspired by the film’s award-winning music. Others focus on how Walt Disney sought to adapt this famous European fairytale at various times before his death, in 1966; an update on Paige O’Hara, the voice of Belle; behind-the-scenes access into the recording booth with the cast; 25 Fun Facts, hosted by Gus Kamp and Kayla Maisonet; and a sneak peek at Disney’s upcoming live-action re-telling of Beauty and the Beast, arriving in theaters in 2017.

Cell: Blu-ray
Here’s another movie that, on its surface, would appear to have everything going for it, but couldn’t escape VOD hell on its long-delayed release. Stephen King’s novel “Cell” was published in January, 2006, and, ever since, has been the subject of fanboy speculation and Internet chatter. Eli Roth (Hostel) originally was attached to the project, then scheduled for a 2009 release. “It should feel like an ultra-violent event movie,” he said. A couple of years later, Roth decided that his vision of Cell and that of the Weinstein Company were two completely different things and he should move on to more personal projects. At the end of 2009, King announced that he had completed a screenplay, but, get this, “changed the ending based on negative feedback from readers of the book.” Another three years would pass before John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson signed on to play Clayton Riddell and Tom McCourt respectively. It wasn’t until June 10, 2016, that Cell debuted on streaming services. As these things usually go, Cell is a perfectly acceptable rainy-day diversion … easy to watch, just as easy to forget. King might have been inspired by the sight of dozens of people in any given place, walking and talking, exchanging thoughts and information of use only to them, their ears glued to wireless gizmos. Only a few of the cellphone junkies, if any, considered the possibility that their phone would turn on them and cause brain tumors, as alarmists warned. In King’s mind, however, it couldn’t have been a very large leap from listeners contracting tumors to their turning into brain-eating zombies, instead, triggered by a loud, pulsating signal via the cellphone network. The protagonist, Riddell, only escapes because the batteries on his phone were dead. In his personal mission to find and save his wife and son, Riddell encounters many zombies (a.k.a. phoners) – some aimless, others guided by mysterious sounds — and a smattering of people who shared Riddell’s exemption, including McCourt and a teenager played by Isabelle Fuhrman (“Masters of Sex”). While Riddell has difficulty finding his wife and son, but he does discover the source of the signal, which might have been inspired by the annual Islamic gathering at Mecca. Tod Williams’ flat and listless direction, combined with some lackluster performances, make the ending anticlimactic. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Williams and the making-of featurette, “To Cell and Back.”

Under the Sun
If North Korea didn’t possess weapons of mass destruction and a will to deploy them, the country depicted in Under the Sun might be forgiven as a terrible joke. Even the most straight-faced mockumentarian couldn’t have invented a scenario as strange as the one delivered by Russian director Vitaly Mansky, under the strict supervision of government officials. The idea was for Mansky to document an “ordinary” Pyongyang family, whose charming 8-year-old daughter, Lee Zin-mi, has been chose for induction into the quasi-military Children’s Union. It’s a great honor, of course, and the children have prepared for the events by memorizing dances and hosannas to Kim Jong-Un on the Day of the Shining Star, the nationally celebrated birthday of former leader Kim Jong Il. It hardly seems possible to escape images of Jong-Un, Jong-Il and Kim Il-Sung, whether they’re in the form of monumental statues in public squares or mass-produced photographs hung in every classroom and household in North Korea. The country is frighteningly regimented, but Mansky plays it straight, letting the pictures speak for themselves. What’s truly bizarre is the micromanagement of his movie by handlers who simply can’t leave well enough alone. Not only do they orchestrate coverage of Zin-mi’s induction ceremony, but go so far as to falsify the jobs of her parents and micromanage the décor of their tidy apartment. The handlers aren’t ham-fisted or impolite, however. They go about their jobs as if it’s a perfectly normal and expected part of the filmmaking process. Just as it’s impossible not to feel sorry for the people we meet here, it’s just that difficult to figure out if they’ve been brainwashed beyond the point of redemption or how bad their lives might be when the cameras were turned off.

Masks: Blu-ray
SIN: Blu-ray
The Exotic Dances Of Bettie Page: Blu-ray
The first and foremost thing to know about Andreas Marschall’s modern giallo is that it’s built on a template created by the great Dario Argento, for Suspiria. It takes more than little bit of chutzpah to futz around with a true classic of the form, but that’s one attribute filmmakers rarely lack. Indeed, Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson are already booked to star in Luca Guadagnino’s remake, set for release in 2017. The actresses also were featured in Guadagnino’s erotic drama, A Bigger Splash, recently released on DVD. Marschall’s film re-sets the story from Dance Academy Freiburg to a private drama school, in Berlin. While the cast is almost entirely Germanic – Argento enlisted Yanks Jessica Harper and Joan Bennett — he does borrow the musical conceit of surrounding the action with a jarring soundtrack, not unlike the one originally contributed by Goblin. Here, an aspiring actress, Stella, played by first-timer, Susen Ermich, realizes her dream by being accepted to the Matteusz Gdula-Institute. In the 1970s, the school´s founder, Matteusz Gdula (Norbert Losch) practiced a learning style that promised to let students shine by driving them to their mental limits. The method was banned after mysterious deaths occurred during his lessons. They weren’t forgotten, though. No sooner does she arrive than Stella begins to hear thing go bump in the night and they appear to emanate from a closed door that leads to the abandoned, forbidden wing of the school. Several extremely gory deaths later, disturbing secrets are revealed. Because it was shot digitally, Masks isn’t able to replicate the garish Technicolor splendor achieved by Argento using the three-strip Technicolor process. (The maestro reportedly asked cinematographer Luciano Tovoli to watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, so that he could model Suspira’s color scheme after it.) The Blu-ray from Reel Gore Releasing recalls Strand’s 2014 hi-def edition of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, which also paid homage to the masters of classic Italian giallo horror. Curiosity is probably the best reason to check out Masks, whose limited edition includes a CD of the original soundtrack, a collectible Blu-ray/DVD slipcase and sleeve, a 24-page booklet, a behind-the-scenes featurette, deleted scenes, a music-video clip and slideshow.

From Cult Epics arrives SIN, an hourlong triptych from Nico B, a Dutch filmmaker known for his 1998 underground horror production “Pig” and the biographical “Bettie Page: Dark Angel.” Conveniently, he’s also founder of the L.A.-based distribution company, which also handles the work of Walerian Borowczyk, Tinto Brass, Jean Genet, Fernando Arrabal, Rene Daalder, Abel Ferrara, Radley Metzger and Irving Klaw. “SIN” is comprised of three episodes, ostensibly staged in the 1920-40s, where each story describes the “duality” of a female protagonist: the belly/frolic dancer (Angelita Franco), the sculpture model/nun (Caroline Pierce) and the legless aristocrat/nurse (Dahlia Dark). Inspired by early 20th Century erotica and surrealistic filmmaking, Nico B explores the subliminal curse of destiny we call sin. They’re shot in Super 8 silent film, with a soundtrack by Claude Debussy. The limited edition BD/DVD combo features original artwork and a booklet with storyboards by artist Brian M. Viveros. The new HD Transfer adds nude color outtakes, teasers and several
Super 8 short films by Nico B.

So much has been written about Bettie Page that it hardly seems necessary to add any more, except to alert fans to a new release. Cult Epics’ newly restored Blu-ray collection, The Exotic Dances of Bettie Page, does a wonderful job cleaning up imperfections that have attached themselves to these short 8mm films, shot by Irving Klaw and previously compiled 25 years ago. It was about that time – 40 years past the long-retired model’s underground prominence — that Page’s cultural significance was upgraded from fetishist’s dream to mainstream pop icon … Bettie Boop, in the flesh. Since the dances themselves would barely warrant a PG-13 rating these days, the most revealing thing here is the quality of the images, which have been given a sharp 2K HD transfer from the original masters. (A comparison between the VHS, DVD and Blu-ray editions can be found on YouTube.) Also included are more risqué selections from the Bettie Page Kamera Club, a photo gallery, “Bettie Page Uncovered: The Private Life and Photographs,” a 2016 Q&A with her nephew and an O-ring silver print.

Dead End Drive-In: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Like so many other good exploitation flicks, Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Dead End Drive-In comes tantalizingly close to making lucid points about the future of mankind, using sex, drugs, booze, rock ’n’ roll, violence, hot rods and pyrotechnics to address sticky societal concerns. The Ozploitation classic was released in 1986, in the rather long wake of Peter Weir’s The Cars That Ate Paris, George Miller’s Mad Max trilogy, Ian Barry’s The Chain Reaction, Richard Franklin’s Roadgames, John Clark’s Running on Empty (a.k.a., “Fast Lane Fever”) and non-Aussie cousins Alex Cox’s Repo Man, Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 and Ron Howard’s Grand Theft Auto, among many other high-octane specimens. Australia and the United States share many things in common, including the twin passions of open road and speed. The juvenile delinquents of the 1950s embraced the motto, wrongly attributed to James Dean, “Live fast, die young, have a good looking corpse.” Better that than be burned to a crisp by a Soviet ICBM missile. By the 1970s, Ozploitation specialists found other things about which to worry. They included shortages of gasoline, anarchic punks in fast cars and an invasion of immigrants from Southeast Asia. In the not-so-distant dystopian future described in Dead-End Drive In, the Australian economy has crumbled and violent gangs have taken control of the streets after dark. To counter the endless wave of violence, government authorities have decided to lure youthful offenders into drive-in theaters by offering reduced ticket prices for the unemployed. Once inside, their cars are disabled and the kids are trapped inside a concentration camp of their own device.

They occupy their time drinking, getting into fights, stealing parts from other disabled cars and getting their hair spiked or colored in makeshift, unisex salons. At night, they get to watch Trenchard-Smith’s action movies on an unending loop. Ned Manning and Natalie McCurry play Crabs and Carmen, the captive couple with the most to lose – a souped-up 1956 Chevy convertible — while Peter Whitford portrays the manager of the drive-in who’s in cahoots with corrupt cops. Complicating matters for the prisoners is a bus load of Asian immigrants dropped off at the facility by police, who hope to instigate a race riot. Donald Trump couldn’t have imagined a worse fate for outsiders than the one contrived by the hoodlums who outnumber them 10-to-1, at least, and have crafted weapons out of discarded car parts. The punks convince their girlfriends that they’ll be raped by men in turbans if they don’t join their ethnic-cleansing campaign. If nothing else, though, the distraction allows for Crabs’ escape attempt and terrifically staged chase inside the perimeters of the drive-in between tow trucks and police vehicles. Lawrence Eastwood’s post-apocalyptic production design was nominated for a 1986 Australian Film Institute award. (Sadly, designers on genre films are widely ignored here by awards committees.) Once again, Arrow Video outdoes itself with a fresh 2K restoration from original film materials, Blu-ray, audio commentary by Trenchard-Smith, and a pair of ancient documentaries, “The Stuntmen,” Trenchard Smith’s portrait of Grant Page (Mad Max, Road Games) and other Australian stunt performers, “Hospitals Don’t Burn Down,” the director’s 1978 public information film, and a fully-illustrated collector’s booklet containing writing on the films by Cullen Gallagher and Neil Mitchell.

The Real MVP: The Wanda Durant Story
Pele: Birth of a Legend
Although these inspirational biopics are from different distributors, they both feature sports superstars and the family members that stood behind them and obscurity when the going got tough. From Lifetime Television, The Real MVP: The Wanda Durant Story dramatizes the struggle of a single African-America mother to raise two sons – one of them, Kevin, would reach the zenith of professional basketball — while working nights as a postal employee and, during the day, as an unlicensed hair stylist in her Washington, D.C., kitchen. Cassandra Freeman does a nice job as Wanda Durant, who sacrifices mightily to provide her sons with every opportunity to succeed, including encouraging them to participate in a community program and AAU ball. Kevin’s choppy ascent from the prep ranks to stardom in the NBA – with a brief stop at the University of Texas – is covered, of course, but it’s Wanda that we’re encouraged to care about most. Her son’s on his way to the Golden State Warriors, where’s he’ll help them regain the championship, while mom gets to bask in his reflected glory.

Likewise, Pelé’s stardom can be traced directly back to the encouragement and sacrifices of his father and mother. Raised in poverty in the slums of São Paulo, Brazil, Edson Arantes do Nascimento couldn’t even afford a proper ball or shoes. His father, an ex-footballer, is shown here teaching his son how to score goals with mangos. His mother worked as a maid, bringing home leftovers and hand-me-downs. Pelé led ragtag Bauru Athletic Club juniors to three consecutive São Paulo state youth championships before being recruited, at 15, by scouts for Santos FC. He finished the 1957 season, his second, as the league’s top scorer. A year later, Pelé became the youngest player to play a World Cup Finals, the youngest scorer in a World Cup Final and the youngest player to win a World Cup Winner’s Medal. It’s also where Pele: Birth of a Legend leaves off, assuming that everyone else in the soccer-obsessed world already knows the rest of the story. Vincent D’Onofrio and Colm Meaney add a bit of international flavor to the proceedings. The DVD adds a couple of background featurettes.

Rodeo & Juliet
While Thadd Turner’s contemporary oater, Rodeo & Juliet, isn’t much different than dozens of other family-friendly romances, it does have something the others don’t. In the role of the beautiful country girl who moved to the big city to escape a romantic dilemma, but then returns 20 years later with her snooty big-city daughter in tow, is Krista Allen. In addition to being one of the most beautiful women on the planet, the 45-year-old actress is one of the very few who’s won the admiration of fans of soap operas, sitcoms, dramas, feature films and soft-core porn. Granted, a lot of water has passed underneath the bridge since she last doffed in her top in the “Emmanuelle in Space” series, but casting agents tend to have long memories when it comes to an actress’ world-class body. Good for her. Even though Rodeo & Juliet earned the blessing of the Dove Foundation, it isn’t particularly faith-based or overtly religious. Allen’s Karen embarrassed her father and fiancé (Tim Abell) after leaving them at the altar, years earlier. In the meantime, she’s become a successful author of romance novels. After her dad dies, Karen is called back to the ranch, which is deep in debt. The last place her daughter, Juliet (Nadine Crocker,) wants to spend the summer is in the boonies, but it isn’t long before she falls for a cool dude, Monty (Zeb Halsell), in a cowboy hat. Turns out, he’s the nephew of the jilted ranch hand, who’s persona non grata for insisting that the old man’s will left him half the ranch. The only drama comes when Karen finds out that Monty is teaching Juliet how to ride the ranch’s prized horse, Rodeo, to the local barrel-racing championship. Rodeo & Juliet isn’t the most compelling drama I’ve seen lately, but fans of Lifetime movies and barrel racing should like it.

Elephant Kingdom
This animated feature from Thailand tells the story of a brave elephant, Rock (voiced by Cary Elwes), who commits himself to rescuing his wife, Melody (Alexa PenaVega), after she’s kidnapped by the powerful human king (Patrick Warburton, who else?). Coming to Rock’s aid in Elephant Kingdom is a colorfully offbeat troop of young pachyderms, including Rally (Carlos PenaVega), Pugsley (Mikey Bolts), Wingman (Garrett Clayton) and the human queen (Ambyr Childers). Director Melanie Simka (Frog Kingdom) specializes in English-language adaptations of imported animated fare. Movies about pastel-tinted elephants have become a staple of Thai entertainment, harkening back to the country’s rich folklore tradition.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War
PBS Kids: Kate & Mim-Mim: The Mimiloo Zoo
In the wake of the success of Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust drama, Schindler’s List, it comes as something of a surprise to learn that the story of Waitstill and Martha Sharp didn’t find a sponsor. The compassionate American Unitarians displayed similar courage in the face of the Nazi death machine, even though their mission began thousands of miles from the European crucible. In other hands than those of co-directors Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky, the 90-minute PBS documentary, Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War, might have made a powerfully inspirational feature film. As it is, however, Burns’ dedication to the non-fiction platform assured that the documentary would find a home at PBS and could be mentioned in the same breath as Spielberg’s salute to German industrialist Oskar Schindler. In fact, Schindler and both Sharps are listed among the “Righteous Gentiles” honored by the State of Israel for risking their lives during World War II to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis. The Sharps’ heroism differs from that demonstrated by Schindler in that they were recruited by Unitarian Service Committee to move to Prague, from their New England home, leaving their children behind in the U.S., to help specifically designated individuals to emigrate to the west. Although the foundation for the mission had already been laid by American and European clergy anticipating the German threat to freedom, the Sharps would spend two dangerous years making the network work, employing both legal and extralegal strategies. Contrary to what the U.S. government would openly acknowledge about the status of Jews in the period before we entered the war, the Sharps witnessed atrocities first-hand. Sublimating their emotions made them better at what they did best. John le Carré or Graham Greene couldn’t have improved on their story. There are surprises around every turn and intrigue in such unexpected places as the Sharps’ marriage. Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War is informed by interviews with the Sharps’ children, people saved by them and members of the Unitarian community. To say that their story has been underreported – one book, by Susan Elisabeth Subak – is hardly an exaggeration.

Kate & Mim-Mim: The Mimiloo Zoo” is comprised of six amusing tales and a bonus video called “Mimiloo’s Creatures.” In the PBS Kids’ show, the popular lead characters are joined by friends Lily, Gobble, Tack and Boomer, as they encounter an amazing assortment of curious creatures including baby humming turtles, a unicorn, lemmings, and mitty kats. Exploring themes of friendship, adventure and problem solving, “Kate & Mim-Mim” encourages children to use their imaginations and work together, believing no problem is ever too big to solve. The holiday special, “Kate & Mim-Mim: A Christmas Wish” arrives in another two weeks, with winter-theme stories and a bonus music video.

The DVD Weekend: Popstar, Civil War, Bigger Splash, King Jack, Standing Tall, Marguerite, Marauders, Tower Records, Vaxxed, Raising Cain and more

Friday, September 16th, 2016

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping: Blu-ray
It’s possible that Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer — collectively known as Lonely Island – wrote their occasionally very funny music mockumentary, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, thinking it could re-create the commercial, critical and pop-cultural success accorded This Is Spinal Tap. If so, they probably should have set their sights on someone less prone to self-parody than the ever-ridiculous Justin Bieber, who is more worthy of a three-minute sketch on “Saturday Night Live.” The great thing about Rob Reiner’s 1984 comedy was that viewers couldn’t always be sure when the band was making fun of heavy metal music, the musicians themselves, their fans or the industry. They still can’t. It isn’t unusual to hear a cut from Spinal Tap’s fictional “Smell the Glove” album on SiriusXM’s Underground Garage channel, played alongside the Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop, the Ramones and Patti Smith. Any memory of the songs on the “Popstar” soundtrack vaporizes within minutes of hearing them. Although the title references Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, Popstar also recalls Madonna’s self-absorbed performance in Truth or Dare, the posthumous Michael Jackson salute This Is It, Katy Perry: Part of Me, Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience, One Direction: This Is Us and Justin Bieber’s Believe. Generally well-reviewed critically, if not a commercial success, Popstar follows white-rapper Conner 4Real (Samberg) as he experiences the ups and downs of the pop-star life, especially after his second album “Connquest” is a flop and he is forced to do whatever he can to stay in the spotlight. This includes the possibility of reuniting with his old boy band, the Style Boyz. In addition to Samberg, Schaffer and Taccone, the featured cast includes Sarah Silverman, Tim Meadows, Bill Hader, Imogen Poots, Joan Cusak and Maya Rudolph, with smaller and cameo roles filled by, among others, Emma Stone, Justin Timberlake, Kevin Nealon, Adam Levine, Akon, Arcade Fire, DJ Khaled, Jimmy Fallon, Mariah Carey, Mario Lopez, Michael Bolton, Pink, Ringo Starr, RZA, Seal, Usher, 50 Cent and, even, Martin Sheen. If “Popstar” begins to feel like an “SNL” reunion show after a while, it shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s enjoyed short films by Lonely Island (“Dick in a Box”) on the sketch-comedy series. Producer Judd Apatow probably had more to do with rounding up the all-star lineup than anyone else, but it’s Samberg who keeps the ball rolling for 86 minutes. Clearly, his fan base, Emmy nominations and Golden Globe for “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” weren’t enough to produce a hit. The good news comes in the Blu-ray bonus package, which adds commentary with Schaffer, Taccone and Samberg, deleted scenes, a gag reel, music videos, interview outtakes and humorous featurettes “How to Donkey Roll,” “Big Boy Freestyle,” “Frog Jizz,” “Shooting Hoops,” “Turn Up the Beef” backstory, “Sex Tape and “Fun at CMZ,” all of which demonstrate how short-form parody can be just as effective as feature-length mockumentaries … unless you’re Christopher Guest.

Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War: Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray
Metalstorm: The Destruction Of Jared-Syn: 3D Bluray, Bluray
Anti-American sentiment may be rampant around the world, but international audiences didn’t let their political beliefs keep them from endorsing Captain America and the Avengers on film. After cashing a check of nearly $408 million at North American turnstiles, Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War went on to record another $744.5 in international sales, easily smashing the billion-dollar barrier. Domestically, it became the 23rd film to cross the $400-million mark and the fourth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to hit that target. At 147 minutes, there’s more than enough action here to sate the appetite of any comic-book and superhero buff. What qualifies co-directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo’s follow-up to Captain America: The Winter Soldier as something a bit more thought-provoking than the average genre specimen, though, is a story that demands that viewers face the fact that war ain’t pretty and murder is murder when it comes to the unintended victims of war. The Pentagon calls the slaughter of innocents, family members and bystanders “collateral damage,” but, in any non-military court, the charge probably would be involuntary manslaughter, at least. As was the case with the “pilots” we met in Eye in the Sky and Good Kill, the weight of remorse over collateral damage has begun to weigh heavy on the heads of the Avengers, as well as their superiors and leaders of the United Nations. Government pressure to rein in the Avengers drives a deep wedge between Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), causing a rift that turns the two friends into bitter enemies. Vision (Paul Bettany), Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Iron Man sign off on the pullback deal, while Captain America and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) refuse. With much of the group now under UN control, it’s sent in to interfere with a mission Captain America, Falcon and others have undertaken to track down Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a.k.a. James “Bucky” Barnes. The brainwashed assassin is believed to be behind a bombing at the United Nations conference in Vienna, in which the father of the man known as the Black Panther” (Chadwick Boseman) is killed. As alliances are formed and torn apart by writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who also penned “CA:TWS,” their “CA:CW” sometimes requires a scorecard to keep track of the players and their allegiances, as well as the introduction of new and old characters. Let’s just say, it defies easy summarization. It certainly isn’t lacking in action. I haven’t seen the 3D version, but have to assume it holds up to close scrutiny. The supplemental material adds “United We Stand, Divided We Fall: ‘The Making of Captain America: Civil War,’” a two-parter in which cast and crew look back at the story’s comic-book origins and discuss its thematic depth and relevance, as well as nearly every aspect of the production process; “Captain America: The Road to Civil War” and “Iron Man: The Road to Civil War”; a sneak peek at the next Marvel film, “Doctor Strange”; deleted and extended scenes; a gag reel; and commentary with the directors and writers.

As cheesy and derivative as any other low-budget sci-fi adventure from the early-1980s, Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn looks as if it were made from props borrowed from Mad Max 2 (1981) and costumes left over from a Star Wars or Indiana Jones parody. Directed by the prolific schlockmeister Charles Band, “Metalstorm” is set on the desert planet of Lemuria, where a miner and his daughter, Dhyana (Kelly Preston) fall prey to the evil dictator Jared-Syn (Mike Preston). Dogen (Jeffrey Byron), a brave peacekeeping ranger, is recruited to save Dhyana and the rest of her planet from Jared-Syn, his son, Baal (R. David Smith) and the hideous Cyclopean warlord, Hurok (Richard Moll). The only person who knows where Jared-Syn’s hiding is an aging, burned-out seeker named Rhodes (Tim Thomerson). It can be fun, but only in the campiest sort of way. The 3D isn’t very effective, either.

A Bigger Splash; Blu-ray
Anyone who enjoyed Luca Guadagnino’s romantic 2009 drama, I Am Love, should find a lot to like in his feature follow-up, A Bigger Splash, if only for another intriguing performance by his muse, Tilda Swinton. Here, she plays a middle-age rock star, Marianne, recuperating from an operation on her larynx on a sun-drenched island located between Sicily and Tunisia. She’s joined there by her long-time lover, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), who’s played a key role in keeping her from slipping back into depression and succumbing to various addictions. We worry that Swinton’s milk-white skin might take a beating from the hot Mediterranean sun, but, soon enough, Marianne will face more immediate problems than skin cancer. Her bombastic producer and former lover, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), has invited himself to spent a few days in the company of Marianne and Paul, accompanied by his beautiful and overtly sexy daughter, Penny (Dakota Johnson). We’re given some reason to believe that Harry and Penny may be something other than blood kin, but, when she begins making a play for Paul, it’s also possible she’s serving as wingman for her father, who clearly would like to reignite old passions with Marianne. Fiennes is terrific as the self-absorbed hedonist, Harry, a life-of-the-party type with a million stories about the musicians with whom he’s worked. Far less outgoing, Paul is almost defenseless against Harry and Penelope’s charms. Guadagnino dials up the tension a few more clicks by adding the occasional yard snake to the mix, as well as undocumented African trespassers hoping to use the island as a stepping off point for Sicily and points further north. What happens next in the two-hour-plus erotic thriller may not surprise viewers familiar with Jacques Deray’s 1969 La Piscine, which starred Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Maurice Ronet and Jane Birkin and was set in Saint Tropez, but others should find the patiently crafted drama to be highly intoxicating and far from predictable. (A Bigger Splash also bears a passing resemblance to Francois Ozon’s 2003 Swimming Pool.) The acting, which is terrific, is matched by the beauty and romantic allure of Pantelleria Island.

King Jack
Take Me to the River
The Automatic Hate
While critics, producers and exhibitors use the New York Times, Huffington Post and trades to debate the future and possible demise of the cinema — as they do every time the question is raised by a celebrity filmmaker with an opinion to share — exciting unsung artists emerge from the shadows of every festival season with pictures that demand to be seen, admired and discussed. In a perfect world, the films’ post-festival lives would be accommodated by megaplexes and multiscreen arthouse complexes anxious to promote fresh talent on a dormant screen or two. The same could be said of the surplus of excellent documentaries, foreign and other special-interest titles. In this less-than-perfect world, however, it’s nice to know that so many video-on-demand and pay-per-view outlets have sprung up lately to pick up the slack, before distribution on DVD/Blu-ray. The trick for consumers, as always, is separating the wheat among the chaff and encouraging their friends to do the same thing. Fans of horror and sci-fi, especially, have been doing this for some time, to the advantage of the genre and its aspiring stars. No one that I’ve read is contending that the genre film is dead or that we’ll ever experience a drought of fine indie fare. Only that we may have to enjoy the cream of the crop somewhere other than the big screen … sad, but hardly fatal. Coincidentally, three such pictures arrived in the mail this week on DVD, all of them dealing with issues of interest to teens, young adults and parents with uncompromising fervor.

Felix Thompson’s debut feature, King Jack, is as good a coming-of-age drama as I’ve seen in a long time. It won the 2016 Independent Spirit Awards’ Someone to Watch prize and a narrative prize at last year’s Tribeca festival. Set in a generic small town, it describes the efforts of a 15-year-old boy to escape the burden of being the target of unwarranted persecution by neighborhood bullies. Jack’s older brother, an auto mechanic, was a star athlete and all-around cool guy, but, a pejorative nickname hung on the boy by his long-gone father gave local jackasses a convenient scab to pick. Already smarting from an unsettling putdown, Jack (Charlie Plummer) is enlisted by his mom to shepherd a cousin around town while the boy’s mother recuperates from a breakdown. The kid, Ben (Cory Nichols), is shorter, fat and has the kind of hangdog look that attracts bullies like mosquitos to a picnic. At first, of course, Jack treats Ben with the same regard shown to him by his tormentors. The event that sets the story in motion is a confrontation with his nemeses, during which Jack picks up a stone and plugs the instigator in the head, leaving an embarrassing scar. From then on in, Jack and Ben are required to stay one or two steps ahead of the gang or take the brunt of retaliatory violence. It allows Thompson the opportunity to introduce a few diversionary elements to the narrative, including several sympathetic female classmates, the discovery of things the cousins share in common and willingness of his brother to put their antagonistic behavior aside and stand up for the boys. Recognizing that his mom, Karen (Erin), has a million other things on her plate, Jack doesn’t burden her with his suffering until it becomes too obvious to ignore. King Jack, distributed by Well Go USA Entertainment, is enhanced by credible performances across the board, a recognizable small-town setting and an extremely well-balanced cast of characters. It deserves to be seen.

Film Movement is responsible for Take Me to the River and The Automatic Hate, both of which serve roughly the same audience and address issues that rarely get an airing outside the indie circuit. In the former, Logan Miller plays Ryder, a California teenager, whose homosexuality is no longer a secret to his parents (Robin Weigert, Richard Schiff), but could pose a problem at the family reunion to which they’re headed in rural Nebraska. While Ryder isn’t opposed to coming out at the affair, his mom advises him against it. Turns out, though, that his mother’s kinfolk take Ryder’s decidedly non-redneck attire as an affront to their manhood and immediately begin to picki on him. Yes, mom should have insisted he wear Levis, a Cornhusker T-shirt and Jordan sneakers to the affair, but she foolishly underestimated the capacity of Red State residents to despise anyone different than themselves. The younger cousins take a shine to Ryder, however, after he agrees to keep them occupied with stories and games. When one little girl runs home from the barn pointing to blood on her dress, her parents and grandparents can only surmise that the older boy molested her and should be run out of town on a rail. While it’s far more likely that the 9-year-old tripped and fell, or, as Ryder’s mom argues, had an early visit from her monthly friend, the Nebraskans begin a guerrilla war, of sorts, on the Californians. Freshman writer/director Matt Sobel could easily have driven the story off the rails, by pushing the limits on homophobic behavior. Instead, he opens up the story to include Ryder’s ability to separate himself from the madness and his mother’s sublimated memories of growing up in such a repressed environment. Even as we wait for a horror story to emerge from the drama, Sobel finds ways to keep the focus on loftier goals. The DVD adds commentary with Sobel, Weigert and Miller and interviews.

Justin Lerner’s sophomore effort, The Automatic Hate, also ventures into family dysfunction, but with more literary ambitions. Joseph Cross plays Davis Green, the son of academics who’s chosen to ignore their goals for him and become a chef. One night, a pretty young blond, Alexis Green (Adelaide Clemens), shows up at the home he shares with his dancer girlfriend (Deborah Ann Woll) and announces to him that she’s his first cousin and would like to know him better. Davis had no idea that his father (Richard Schiff, in another excellent performance) had a brother, let alone cousins, and is vehemently discouraged by him and his dying grandfather from looking into Alexis’ claim. After some digging through the family archives in grandpa’s basement, though, Davis decides to find Alexis and discover the truth in her assertion. In an interesting twist, Alexis and her sisters run a thrift job in a nearby town, which also serves as a dispensary for the family’s medical-marijuana crop. The women take an instant liking to Davis, but remain cautious about introducing him their iconoclastic father, Josh (Ricky Jay), a rough-hewn farmer not too far removed from his hippie roots. Josh almost immediately sees through the ruse, also warning Davis against investigating the cause of split between the brothers. Even so, the cousins use the occasion of their grandfather’s death to arrange for a family reunion. It’s a doozy … right out of Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill. It, too, though, is almost overshadowed by an ill-advised romantic entanglement prompted by the emotions stirred by the shocking discoveries and emotional strain caused by more than 20 years of missed familial opportunities. The Automatic Hate gets pretty heavy, at times, but Lerner is able to relieve it with humor and displays of raw sentimentality. The DVD adds deleted scenes, commentary and a frightening short about racial disharmony in the UK and its effects on a pre-teen girl.

Standing Tall: Blu-ray
Marguerite: Blu-ray
The first of two excellent Cohen Media releases to be considered this week is Standing Tall, a ferocious coming-of-age drama that opened the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and went on to win two Césars. In chronicling the formative years of the feral youth Malony Ferrandot (Rod Paradot), from 6 to 18, co-writer/director Emmanuelle Bercot (On My Way) and writer Marcia Romano (Under the Sand) severely test the time-honored observation of Boys Town founder Father Flanagan’s, “there’s no such thing as a bad boy.” Abandoned by his mother (Sara Forestier) into the custody of a children’s magistrate, Florence (Catherine Deneuve), Malony is constantly in and out of juvenile court. Prone to outbursts of rage when things don’t go his way, he’s only happy when he’s in a stolen car, trying to impress his passenger with is daredevil driving. While his good-for-nothing mother pops her head into his life at various times, the boy’s real family is Florence, his caseworker Yann (Benoît Magimel), school supervisors and the one or two boys with whom he gets along. When he is sent to a stricter educational center, he forms an unlikely relationship with the daughter, Tess (Diane Rouxel), of one of his teachers. Their relationship doesn’t immediately translate into redemption and the boy’s natural inclinations toward violence keep him from a life outside the gates of the reform schools and penal institutions. The difference between the French facilities and their American counterparts is equal to the space between Boys Town and the reformatories described by Brendan Behan in “Borstal Boy.” The boys are given cigarettes in lieu of punishment and their teachers possess the patience of saints. Finally, at nearly the two-hour mark, Maloney is given one last opportunity to take charge of his life and break the cycle that began when his mother lost her ability to control him. Paradot’s performance would be remarkable, even if it weren’t his debut, and Deneuve and Magimel are perfectly cast, as well. The Blu-ray adds a lengthy interview with them and Bercot, as well as deleted scenes and commentary.

The connective tissue between Standing Tall and Marguerite, besides their French pedigree, is the contribution of writer Romano. It describes the amateur singing career, such as it was, of Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York heiress who dreamed of becoming an opera singer, despite having a terrible singing voice. Meryl Streep deftly portrayed the title character in Stephen Frears’ critically acclaimed biopic, which opened almost concurrently with Marguerite here. Neither made a dent in the box office, but are well worth finding for the serio-comic portrayals by two of the cinema’s finest actresses. The slightly older American actress’ name comes up whenever it’s Oscar season, of course, while Catherine Frot’s performance has already been honored with a César for Best Actress in the similarly inspired role. Here, co-writer/director Xavier Giannoli (Superstar) elected to name his protagonist Marguerite Dumont, after the actress (Margaret Dumont) who never caught on to the fact that she was the brunt of so many of Groucho’s jokes in the Marx Brothers’ comedies. Although she possessed a voice that could stop a racehorse in mid-stride, Marguerite loved the operatic repertoire, collected musical memorabilia and frequently sponsored charitable events, where the cause was more important than the sound of her voice. Because the era of the Victrola and recorded music had yet to spread to her estate, near Paris, Marguerite could pretend, at least, that she was worthy of playing a grand concert venue. In deference to her wealth, generosity and status, the audiences at her chamber events went along with the ruse without betraying their true opinions to the diva. She’s buoyed by the tongue-in-cheek praise she receives from a prominent critic (Sylvain Dieuaide), who has his own reasons for joining Marguerite’s philandering husband (André Marcon), pompous singing coach (Michel Fau) and protégé (Christa Théret) in keeping the 800-pound gorilla at bay. Most of the fun here is derived from Giannoli’s attention to post-war detail and the diversity of the cultural scene. I haven’t seen Streep’s portrayal of Jenkins, but I can’t imagine it being much better than the one turned in by Frot. That’s the highest of praise, in my book. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and an interview with the director.

Marauders: Blu-ray
It’s been more than 20 years since Michael Mann’s excessively violent, if exceedingly stylish thriller, Heat, raised the ante on all future bank-heist movies to come, large and small. Henceforth, all such pictures would feature crooks trained to pull off the robberies with the precision of a special-forces unit attacking a terrorist enclave in enemy territory and nearly the same volume of fire power. It may even have inspired the bloody shootout, two years later, outside of a Bank of America branch office in North Hollywood, during which the bank robbers were killed and 11 officers and 7 civilians were wounded. The criminals wore body armor and carried AK-47 assault rifles. The ferocity of the shootout wasn’t lost on a generation of police and screenwriters, who’d already been inspired by Heat. In Marauders, the offenders borrow the shock-and-awe tactics of Hitler’s blitzkrieg strategy, as well, by hitting the facility quickly, ruthlessly and with no apparent concern for the well-being of customers, employees or guards. Moreover, the masks they wear would frighten an army of trick-or-treaters. If only the rest of the story were as straight and to the point as the opening salvo. For the first time in quite a while, Bruce Willis provides substantially more of himself to a low-budget thriller than a cameo and his name on the posters and cover arts. He does so as the Daddy Warbucks-like owner of Cincinnati’s Hubert National Bank, from which tens of thousands of dollars are stolen in a seeming heartbeat. Other branches are hit in similar fashion. Steven C. Miller worked with Willis previously on Extraction, if for far less screen time, while Marauders represents Michael Cody’s first screenplay. I suspect he received some help from Chris Sivertson, who’s previously given the world two versions of All Cheerleaders Die. The overly complicated screenplay ties the robbers to Hubert in a rather far-fetched way, and, in turn, the FBI and police officers in charge of the investigation. Agent Montgomery (Christopher Meloni) is still haunted by the torture killing of his wife and escape from prosecution of the primary suspect. Adrian Grenier plays Agent Wells, assigned to work as liaison between Montgomery and a local policeman (Richie Chance), whose corruption helps pay for treatment of his cancer-ridden wife. Action fans, at least, won’t require a scorecard to keep track of the players and or care much about who does what to whom. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Miller and cinematographer Brandon Cox; a featurette, “The Making of ‘Marauders’”; deleted/extended scenes; and interviews.

All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records
Back in Time
The title of director Colin Hanks and writer Steven Leckart’s exhaustive documentary, All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records, invites us to imagine a conspiracy or financial scandal attributable to corruption or greed. In fact, though, Tower Records fell victim to the same digital revolution that’s put a dent into brick-and-mortar stores selling books, shoes and tickets to destinations far and wide. The music industry bought a temporary buffer against the inevitability of the digital future by crushing Napster and a few other underground file-sharing services and individual traders, but it only looked venal in the process. In the end, the fear demonstrated by the record labels in legal battles only confirmed the imminent arrival of a technology that would revolutionize the way we listen to music as much as the Victrola and Walkman put together. At 38, the son of Tom Hanks and his first wife, Samantha Lewes, grew up within hollering distance of the first Towers Records store, in Sacramento. In 1996, when he briefly appeared in his father’s feature debut, That Thing You Do!, the landmark store on the Sunset Strip was still a mecca for music lovers and musicians, and it became his personal hangout. “Tower Records was a place to meet your friends, your co-workers or a place to meet new friends who shared a common love of music, literature and all things cultural,” Hanks has said. “I’ve been able to find just as much interesting, exciting music through the Internet and iTunes. The personal interaction is not the same, and I’m not walking out of a store with a physical thing, so there’s definitely an element that is lost, for sure.” Beyond the laid-back approach to selling records embodied by the company, the documentary demonstrates how the founders made employees feel as if they were part of larger family and maintained it for many years. The first Sacramento store caught the second wave of rock-’n’-roll commercialism, inspired by the Beach Boys, Beatles and Motown, when album sales overwhelmed those of 45s and kids would have lived in listening booths, if they hadn’t been eliminated. All the company had to do, whether launching a new store on the west coast, New York or Japan, was open the doors and let connoisseurs and buffs feast on a vast collection of albums, books, magazines and other goodies. It didn’t help when used-CD stores began to pop up like mushrooms to take advantage of the format’s forever-clean sound and recordability on PCs. Inevitability, though, record sales would dry up and streaming services provided services, selection and prices even Tower couldn’t match. Individuals were able to create their own playlists without the help of a middleman or PhD in pop studies. “All Things Must Pass” is informed by interviews with company founders, executives and employees, as well as longtime customers and musicians who frequented the stores, including Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl, David Geffen and Chuck D. You’d think it would be sadder, but we still have the music and memories.

For me, anyway, a little bit of Back to the Future nostalgia goes a long way. Only a few weeks after watching DeLorean: Living the Dream, which put a tight focus on the actual car in No. 1 and its restoration, I received a second, more polished documentary, Back in Time, which not only expanded on the DeLorean angle, but also contains interviews with Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, James Tolkan, Lea Thompson, Christopher Lloyd, Huey Lewis, Michael J. Fox and several studio executives and techies. Director Jason Aron’s film isn’t as reverential as it might sound, but that doesn’t mean diehard fans of the trilogy won’t love it.

Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe
Yes, this is the same documentary that was scheduled to be shown at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, but whose invitation was withdrawn when a controversy erupted over the film’s message, motives and methodology. It didn’t help that co-founder Robert De Niro had a personal reason for endorsing the film and defending its inclusion. Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe was directed by first-timer Andrew Wakefield, who wrote the study printed in the Lancet that started the controversy between vaccines and autism. The British medical journal later redacted the 1998 article and, in 2010, Wakefield lost his medical license as a result. The British gastroenterologist accuses the Centers for Disease Control of destroying data on a 2004 study that showed a link between the MMR vaccine (mumps, measles, rubella) and autism. The documentary is well enough produced to convince viewers already pre-disposed to believe anti-government conspiracy theories that the CDC and pharmaceutical interests might risk the health of millions of Americans for profit and prestige. Most viewers, though, won’t have any trouble seeing the holes in the argument. Wakefield conveniently ignores the case made by those who see the proven benefits in using the MMR vaccine and question his statistics. The arguments of those who can remember the scourge of polio and introduction of vaccines to prevent it are ignored, as well. It’s understandable that parents of autistic children have been drawn to his theories, based solely on the coincidental timing of an onset of the disease and a vaccination. Vaxxed plays directly on the personal guilt feelings of these parents and the medical community’s inability explain the causes of autism. The California Legislature was so unimpressed with arguments that it voted to require parents to vaccinate their children before they’re allowed to enroll in public schools. Most of us are happy it did so.

See the Keepers: Inside the Zoo
IMAX: Wonders of the Arctic: 4K UHD/3D Blu-ray/Blu-ray
IMAX: The Last Reef: Cities Beneath the Sea: 4K UHD/3D/Blu-ray
Who hasn’t wondered what goes on behind the scenes at a zoo or circus, when the animals aren’t on display and their keepers aren’t part of the show. See the Keepers: Inside the Zoo may not provide the most sophisticated take on the subject of what goes on when no one’s looking. If anything, it has a homemade, do-it-yourself feel that endears viewers to workers who barely make minimum wage for the privilege of doing what some of them might do for free, as docents or retired volunteers. As we learn in this visit with four different zookeepers at the Memphis Zoo, their contributions to our enjoyment are immense. After all, there aren’t many things worse than visiting a zoo and being confronted by undernourished and sickly animals, losing their fur and absent any gleam in their eyes. The keepers here take it personally when one or more of their charges isn’t in tip-top shape when the gates open each morning. Viewers also are introduced to the big cats, giraffes, penguins, snakes and Komodo dragons up close, on the other side of the zoo exhibits.

With its recent slate of new releases, Shout! Factory continues its drive to convince consumers of the value of 4K Ultra High Definition and Blu-ray 3D. They’re still reputed to be the next big thing in home-theater technology, but have yet to catch fire. (They still cost too much for average consumers.) Fortunately, Wonders of the Arctic and The Last Reef: Cities Beneath the Sea look great in all of the most popular formats. The former showcases the ongoing mission to explore and come to terms with the future of Arctic, above and below the ice, for human and animal residents. Underlying all is the crucial role that ice plays in the northern environment and why it demands to be saved.

From the Academy Award-nominated creators of the Broadway show “STOMP” and the award-winning film Wild Ocean, The Last Reef is an inspirational large-format and 3D experience, capturing one of nature’s more vibrant, diverse and endangered wonderlands. Shot on location in Palau, Vancouver Island, French Polynesia, Mexico and the Bahamas using groundbreaking 3D and ultra-high-def cinematography, The Last Reef takes viewers on a journey to explore the connection between our cities on land with the complex, parallel world of the coral reefs beneath the sea.

Raising Cain: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Apart from resurrecting a noteworthy Brian DePalma psychodrama, which features a stellar performance by John Lithgow (yes, I realize that’s redundant), the Shout! Factory “collector’s edition” of Raising Cain spotlights exactly how Blu-ray can simultaneously serve the filmmaker, consumer and distributor by making a good thing better. Instead of merely releasing a remastered edition of the creepy 1992 thriller with the usual array of featurettes, deleted scenes and commentary options, Shout! Factory took the filmmaker’s reservations about the original to heart and found a way to realize both his original vision and the studio-preferred re-edit. It did so at DePalma’s urging, after he watched a version of “Raising Cain: Recut,” which had been posted on Indiewire in January 2012. Geoff Beran, moderator of the blog De Palma à la Mod (and ultimate fanboy), used previously deleted material to change the point of view of the narration, essentially turning the story inside-out. “It’s what we didn’t accomplish on the initial release of the film,” DePalma said in his note to Beran, adding, “It’s what I originally wanted the movie to be. Could you contact the company releasing the Blue-ray and tell them I think it’s important they include it with the new release? If you need me to talk to some at the company just give me a number and a name.” And, that’s exactly what he did. It’s possible that Beran was inspired by Paramount’s and Francis Ford Coppola’s various remixes of The Godfather trilogy, one of which, at least, put “I” and “II” in linear order and added some missing elements. “Raising Cain: Recut,” though, was strictly a labor of love.

Either way he sliced it, though, Raising Cain would tell the story of twin brothers, Carter and Josh, one good and the other evil, so warped by their father’s psychological experiments that they would commit heinous crimes in their pursuit of new human specimens for him to study and manipulate. Lolita Davidovich plays Jenny, the good twin’s wife and working mother of their toddler daughter, upon whom Carter dotes. Jenny inadvertently sets off a terrible series of events when she hooks up with an old boyfriend (Steven Bauer) in a public park, in plain view of potential peepers. To reveal anything more would spoil the fun for viewers of either version. Suffice it to say that DePalma pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, as is his wont, while also referencing several familiar thematic touchstones. In addition to the original cut, which isn’t at all bad, and “Recut,” the Blu-ray package adds interviews with actor Lithgow, Bauer, Gregg Henry, Tom Bower, Mel Harris and editor Paul Hirsch; original marketing material; the featurette, “Changing Cain: Brian De Palma’s Cult Classic Restored”; and a video essay of “Recut.”

The Purging Hour
The Neon Dead
With a new edition of the found-footage classic, The Blair Witch Project, set to open in theaters around the world today, this time from frequent collaborators Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett (V/H/S, The Guest), it once again is possible to separate the real-dealers from the many imitators in the sub-genre. Although I’ve yet to see Blair Witch, I’ve sampled a few of the early positive reviews and am sure that the veteran filmmakers will take advantage of a budget several times greater than the original cost of $60,000. It’s also worth noting that Blair Witch wasn’t rushed into the production, simply to capitalize on the sensation, as was Joe Berlinger’s roundly panned Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. In fact, Wingard reportedly was able to work on his film for five years, before anybody even knew it was being made. I only mention this in reference to The Purging Hour because the deck now clearly has been stacked against the success of every other new found-footage project. Not only are they destined to be compared to “TBWP,” but also Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, V/H/S and the Quarantine/Rec series. Also made for a pittance, Emmanuel Giorgio Sandoval’s The Purging Hour describes what might have happened during the first 24 hours of a family’s stay in their new house in the mountains of California. No sooner can the Diaz family change their mailing address than they disappear into thin air, leaving only some bloody remains. Years later, personal home footage has anonymously shown up on the “dark web,” purportedly clearing up the cold case. This rough camcorder footage fills most of the movie, interspersed with documentary-style interviews with town residents and friends of the family. The film’s 80-minute length isn’t enough to compensate for the hum-drum nature of the interviews and postponement of any real action.

Torey Haas’ first feature, The Neon Dead, benefits from his visual-effects background, but naturally is hamstrung by a budget estimated to be $17,000. In it, a recent college graduate (Marie Barker) hires two free-lance paranormal exterminators (Greg Garrison, D. Dylan Schettina) to combat a monster infestation in her bathroom. It isn’t their primary work, so a certain amount of ineptitude is to be expected. It explains how, instead of eradicating the beast, the exterminators unleash veritable flood of undead guests. It turns out the ghouls are under the command of the deadly Guy Smiley, who has links to the demon realm and has set in motion plans to take over the world. The makeup and special effects work pretty well, primarily through the use of funhouse colors and oddly shaped features. On a dollar-for-dollar basis, the entertainment value is surprisingly high.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Masterpiece: Churchill’s Secret
PBS: Frontline: Business of Disaster
Little House on the Prairie: Legacy Movie Collection
PBS Kids: Odd Squad: Creature Encounters
Transformers: The Movie: 30th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
PBS may be best known for presenting classy mini-series, in-depth documentaries and quality children’s programming, but it occasionally offers a stand-alone drama, such as the “Masterpiece” production, “Churchill’s Secret.” In it, Michael Gambon plays Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of England, who, at 79, suffered a serious stroke after a state dinner, and had to disguise his condition to keep the wolves in his own political parties at bay and not show weakness to England’s foes. Charles Sturridge and Stewart Harcourt’s adaptation of the Jonathan Smith novel, “The Churchill Secret KBO,” basically covers the period between June 23, 1953, and his October speech before a Conservative Party convention in Margate. Two months later, Churchill would be well enough to meet with President Eisenhower, in Bermuda, but, otherwise, it was pretty much touch-and-go. The citizens of both countries were none the wiser. American viewers probably would find this to pretty dry stuff, if it weren’t for Gambon’s typically brilliant portrayal of the irascible patient. It also benefits from Sturridge’s tighter focus on the two principle care-givers in his rehabilitation period: his protective wife, Clementine (Lindsay Duncan), and the fictional nurse Millie Appleyard (Romola Garai). Before arriving at Chartwell, the Churchill estate in Kent, Appleyard had no idea who her patient would be or the challenge facing both of them. Churchill has suffered a second stroke and may not last the weekend. The other interesting segment involves the squabbling that goes on when his son, Randolph, and surviving daughters gather to brighten his spirits … or not. The recent medical emergency experienced by Hillary Clinton reminds us that American politicians – JFK and FDR come immediately to mind — can be every bit as circumspect about their health as anyone else, even knowing the stakes of maintaining such secrecy. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and interviews.

The PBS “Frontline” presentation, “Business of Disaster,” reveals how victims of natural disasters, even those with insurance, are preyed upon by companies and government agencies whose mandate it is to protect them from further harm. The film focuses on the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, which left thousands of people homeless and unable to collect the money they needed to rebuild or relocate. It isn’t that the money wasn’t there for them, however. Too much went to insurers, who counted on subcontractors to lowball victims, and company executives who demanded obscene profits to protect their bottom lines. On visits to disaster areas, politicians promised much in the way of relief, knowing Congress wasn’t about to allot the money to make everyone well. The findings are truly horrifying and should be a source of shame for everyone involved. That such injustices follow in the wake of every natural disaster tells us that shame is for suckers.

Michael Landon probably wasn’t the first person to recognize the appetite of post-Vietnam Americans for television shows that didn’t challenge their conservative values or ridicule their faith in God and the American Dream. After his tenure on NBC’s “Bonanza,” Landon could pretty much write his own ticket and he foresaw the vacuum in such programming. Based on the popular series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, recalling her childhood in the northern Midwest during the 1870-80s, “Little House on the Prairie” could easily be mistaken for what today is categorized as faith-based programming. In fact, “Little House” explored many topical themes besides religion, including adoption, alcoholism, poverty, handicaps and prejudice of all types. It also took on drug addiction (morphine), leukemia, child abuse and rape. Landon made sure that the drama was balanced by comedic and romantic moments. The “Little House on the Prairie: Legacy Movie Collection” is comprised of three movie adventures that ran on NBC after the series was canceled and Landon was working on other projects. In “Look Back to Yesterday,” Albert displays courage in the face of a serious illness that threatens his scholarship to medical school. “Bless All the Dear Children” follows Laura and Almanzo as they race to find their missing baby daughter. In “The Last Farewell,” the residents of Walnut Grove unite to defend their town against a railroad tycoon who holds the deed to the township and wants to turn it into an open-pit mine.

PBS Kids’ “Odd Squad: Creature Encounters” is the latest DVD compilation from the Fred Rogers Company. It features five “odd” stories from the popular series, including a special extended adventure called “6:00 to 6:05.” When it comes to dealing with bizarre situations and unusual creatures, the agents of the Odd Squad are always ready for the challenge. This time, viewers can join agents Olive and Otto as they interrogate a mummy, a unicorn and a robot that escaped from library books; work to find a powerful weapon capable of defeating the Hydraclops; and travel back in time to prevent dinosaurs from destroying headquarters.

Like the animated TV series, the feature-length spinoff, The Transformers: The Movie, was based upon Hasbro’s Transformers toy line, which itself was inspired the Diaclone and Microman toy lines, originally created by Japanese toy manufacturer Takara. It arrived in 1986, between the second and third seasons of the syndicated show here. For those of you who’ve been sleeping under a rock for the last 30 years, or are childless, the story goes like this: For millennia, the heroic Autobots, led by Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), have been at war with the evil Megatron (Frank Welker) and his Decepticons over control of their home planet of Cybertron. However, an even greater threat: Unicron (Orson Welles), a colossal converting planet that devours everything in its path and is heading right for Cybertron. The only hope is the Autobot Matrix of Leadership. Other voices are provided by Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy, Eric Idle and Robert Stack. The Shout! Factory Blu-ray is presented in a fresh 4K transfer and adds the 46-minute featurette, “Til All Are One: Looking Back at ‘Transformers: The Movie’,” with interviews and information about the film; “Transformers: The Restoration,” about scanning and restoring the feature; “Rolling Out the New Cover,” an interview with artist Livio Ramondelli; commentary with director Nelson Shin, story consultant Flint Dille and star Susan Blu; and several short pieces covered from previous video editions.

The DVD Wrapup: Now You See Me, Bodyguard, Tale of Tales, Equals, Genius, Hockney, Lamb, Night Manager, South Park and more

Thursday, September 8th, 2016

Now You See Me 2: Blu-ray
An audience’s communal willingness to suspend disbelief while watching an illusionist perform live is a far more entertaining exercise than suspending disbelief in the service of a large-budget, effects-dependent movie, if only because a trick might occasionally go haywire or a normally docile tiger could unexpectedly attack its handler. We exist at a time in cinematic history when blunders and missteps are freely shown during the closing credits of a feature or as part of a DVD’s bonus package. The industry’s dependency on green screen and CGI technology, to achieve economic and creative goals, has become so commonplace that it’s possible to long for the days when stuntmen made us believe that A-list stars routinely risked everything to make us laugh, cry or tingle with excitement. The conceit behind Now You See Me and Now You See Me 2 requires us to accept the unlikely, if thoroughly appealing premise that a quartet of superstar magicians could combines their individual talents to play Robin Hood or save the world from powerful forces beyond our control. In the sequel, the newly reconstituted Four Horsemen — Lizzy Caplan filled in for the inconveniently pregnant Isla Fisher — are asked by FBI mole Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) to reconvene for the purpose of exposing corrupt businessman Owen Case (Ben Lamb). He’s developed software with the potential to de-encrypt data stored on computers around the world. (The premise might hold less water if it weren’t for recent cyberattacks on the Democratic National Committee, the NSA, Sony Pictures Entertainment and several off-shore tax shelters.) The magicians conspire to do this at an elaborately staged party for Case’s company, but are interrupted by a mysterious individual who turns the tables on the Horsemen by revealing secrets of their own to the crowd. As federal agents descend on the party, they escape by jumping into waste-removal tubes located on the roof, expecting to be deposited onto the back of a garbage truck several stories below them.

Instead, they’re transported to a laundry bin in the back of a restaurant in Macau, where everyone is confused by their sudden arrival. They’re captured by henchmen serving Woody Harrelson’s evil hypnotist twin, Chase, and taken to the penthouse of Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe), Case’s former business partner. Long believed dead, Mabry has his own ideas for the chip and enlists the Horsemen to steal it. After the cocky J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) agrees, they head for magic shop run by Li (Jay Chou) and his grandmother Bu Bu (Tsai Chin), who make them the equipment needed to pull off the heist. Meanwhile, Atlas contacts the all-seeing Eye to arrange the device’s handover, once stolen. As if this weren’t sufficiently confusing, the newly exposed Rhodes finds it necessary to arrange for the release of ace conman Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) from prison. In doing so, he also must accept certain realities about the death of his father, who died in a Houdini-esque illusion. Even at 129 minutes, “NYSM2” can barely contain the many plot twists, location leaps, misdirections and sight gags introduced by director John Chu (Jem and the Holograms) and returning co-writer Ed Solomon. To this end, the filmmakers were aided by David Copperfield and a team of magician advisers. A brilliantly choreographed sequence, in which a dizzying array of card flips, cups and tosses are used to infiltrate the heavily guarded mega-computer, may be the best of the lot and required the least amount of CGI intervention. The Blu-ray adds the excellent featurettes, “The Art of the Ensemble,” “You Can’t Look Away” and “Bringing Magic to Life.” A third installment in the franchise already is in the works – the first two played better overseas than domestically – and it likely will further accentuate the overall “Mission:Impossible” vibe.

The Bodyguard: Blu-ray
Hard Target 2: Blu-ray
In a career that’s spanned more than a half-century, Sammo Hung has worked and fought alongside most of the great martial-arts specialists in the Hong Kong and Chinese film industry. In addition to his 175 acting credits, Hung’s also served dozens of other producers as stunt coordinator and director, in an out of period costume. At a portly 5-foot-7, it hardly seems possible that his training began at age 9, while enrolled in the China Drama Academy, a Peking Opera school, in Hong Kong. By the time Hung reached 14, he had already followed his grandmother — archetypal martial-arts actress Chin Tsi-ang — and his film director grandfather, Hung Chung-Ho, into the family business as a stuntman. (His parents both worked as wardrobe artists.) In 1962, he made his first appearance alongside Jackie Chan in the film Big and Little Wong Tin Bar, and, 11 years later, played the Shaolin student Bruce Lee faces in the opening sequence of Enter the Dragon. In The Bodyguard, co-director Hung cast himself against such next- and future-generation stars Andy Lau, Tsui Hark, Li Qinqin, Jia Song, Hu Jun, Eddie Peng, Yuen Bo and William Feng, as well as old-timers Karl Maka, Yuen Wah, Yuen Qiu and Dean Shek. Although most appear in what amount to cameo roles, the stars’ presence boosted word-of-mouth for the movie (a.k.a., “My Beloved Bodyguard”) in mainland and Hong Kong theaters. It’s possible that audiences expected it to be something of a valedictory for Hung, even if, at 64, he doesn’t appear to be the retiring type. Just as John Wayne capped his career with a couple of cop roles (Brannigan, McQ), Hung plays a retired special agent, Ding, who once protected heads of state and other dignitaries, but now lives a solitary existence in a quiet industrial city on the borders of Russia, China and North Korea. As Jun Jiang’s freshman script unfolds, Ding is told by his doctor that his Alzheimer’s has progressed to the point where he should begin making notes for himself and using a tape recorder to help him remember even simple tasks. Coincidentally, he befriends a precocious girl, Cherry (Jacqueline Chan), whose degenerate-gambler father, Li (Lau), disappears after fulfilling a mission for the local mob. By skipping out with the dough, however, Li has placed himself and his family in jeopardy with the Vladivostok and local Chinese gangs. (The Russians are the scarier of the two entities.) Although Ding can barely remember his home address, his “muscle memory” kicks in whenever he’s challenged by the young gangsters. This, even though he’s as grossly overweight as Elvis or Brando in their waning years. While some critics bemoaned the emphasis on the grandfatherly relationship between Ding and Cherry, in combination with a dementia-complicated friendship with an elderly neighbor, Hung shouldn’t be penalized for adding melodramatic elements to an otherwise violent story. The Blu-ray adds a pair of making-of featurettes, mostly created to sing the praises of the filmmaker.

The original 1992 Hard Target was noteworthy as John Woo’s English-language directorial debut, as well as for the pairing of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Lance Henriksen and a body count of 30-plus characters. Set in New Orleans, it was inspired by the 1932 thriller The Most Dangerous Game, from a story by Richard Connell. In it, a human becomes the prey of wealthy thrill-seekers, who pay large sums of money to stalk and kill him. Although rarely credited to Connell, the venerable conceit has been recycled endlessly over the last 80-plus years, as recently as the Hunger Games franchise and just-reviewed Woody Harrelson vehicle, The Duel. Netherlands-born director Roel Reiné (Death Race 2) chose to borrow the concept behind The Most Dangerous Game and title of Woo’s adaptation of it. Van Damme protégé Scott Atkins plays Wes Baylor, a MMA fighter who had the great misfortune of killing his best friend in a match in Thailand. He’s lured out of self-imposed retirement by a businessman who hangs a million-dollar carrot in front of his face, in the form of fight in Myanmar. Once he gets to the site of the bout, however, he’s greeted by the crooked promoter Aldrich (Robert Knepper), a platoon of soldiers and a half-dozen blood-thirsty hunters, attracted to the ruby-filled money belt rewarded to the last person standing. The lush Thailand-for-Burma jungle setting is perfect for such a competition, in that it allows cover for the prey and a tough challenge for the hunters. Aldrich, though, has stacked the deck against Baylor by adding a GPS tracker to the bag of gems he’s carrying. Hard Target 2 is loaded with action, kills and near misses. Baylor even gets a helping hand from a pretty young Burmese woman, Tha (Ann Truong), who tends a herd of elephants and is afraid that her brother has been killed by Aldrich’s clients. (The always welcome Rhona Mitra plays a vicious  huntress.) The beautifully rendered Blu-ray adds commentary with Reiné, Adkins and Knepper, composer Trevor Morris and camera operator Rolf Dekens, deleted scenes, a deleted-shots “montage” and the featurettes “A Fighting Chance: Behind-the-Scenes of ‘Hard Target 2,’” “‘Hard Target 2’ Through the Lens,” “Into the Jungle: On Location of ‘Hard Target 2’” and “Thrill of the Hunt.”

Tale of Tales: Blu-ray
It would be difficult to find three movies more dissimilar to each other than Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah, an unromanticized story about the real Neapolitan mob; Reality, a darkly comic treatise on the metaphysics of fame and reality TV; and Tale of Tales, his fanciful adaptation of Giambattista Basile’s 17th Century fairy tales, the “Pentamerone.” You can forget Basile’s secondary title, “Entertainment for Little Ones,” as the tales were written for the amusement of bored royals and filled with characters and storylines designed to frighten adults. So, too, of course, were the stories written by the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault – “Rapunzel” and “Cinderella,” among them — fantasists who borrowed liberally from Basile and openly credited him for the inspiration. It’s possible that he was influenced, himself, by Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” whose stories could be traced to traders from India, Persia and Spain. Born in 1566 to middle-class Neapolitan parents, Basile would serve as a courtier, soldier, poet and fairy tale collector to several Italian princes. It explains the sharpness of his depictions of the foibles, vanity and eccentricities of royalty. Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones and John C. Reilly play the kings of three not terribly dissimilar kingdoms: Strongcliff, Highhills and Longtrellis, respectively.

While wandering through the streets of Strongcliff one day, the pompous and horny king becomes enchanted with the voice of a woman coming from inside the home of commoners Dora (Hayley Carmichael) and Imma (Shirley Henderson). Little does he know that the woman he hopes to seduce is elderly and extremely wrinkly. Fearing that the king will respond negatively to the truth, the sisters hatch a plan to conceal Dora’s looks when he inevitably forces her to share his bed. The plan is doomed to failure, of course, but, thanks to the intervention of a local witch, Dora almost pulls off the ruse.

In “The Flea,” the king of Highhills becomes as concerned with the care and feeding of a pet flea as he is with the marital status of his melodious daughter (Bebe Cave). When the critter finally dies, it’s the size of a cow. The king decides that the only man worthy of his daughter Violet’s hand in marriage will be the one who can identify the source of the hide. To his daughter’s chagrin, the lucky fellow is a gigantic ogre who lives in a bone-strewn cave near the top of a very high mountain. The ogre treats his new bride as if she were a valueless possession, rather than a princess, and Violet conspires with a troupe of circus entertainers to escape. Nothing comes easy for her, however, and the ogre is given a second chance to possess her. In “The Queen,” John C. Reilly and Salma Hayek play the rulers of a kingdom of great beauty and diversity, but no heir to the throne. In her desperation for a child, the queen commits her husband to performing an act of insane bravery, as suggested by a persuasive necromancer. If the king doesn’t survive his encounter with a sea monster, the queen’s compensation arrives in the form of the beast’s still-beating heart, which, after being cooked and eaten, ensures her instant pregnancy. The flip side of the necromancer’s prophesy reveals itself in the simultaneous pregnancy of the virgin who prepared the meal for the queen and absorbed the same fumes. It would result in the birth of twin albino half-brothers, whose allegiance to each other, years later, will drive the queen to banish one boy and alienate the other.

As re-imagined by Garrone and co-writers Edoardo Albinati Ugo Chiti and Massimo Gaudioso, the stories interwoven throughout Tale of Tales feel delightfully fresh and altogether different than anything we’ve come to expect from film and cartoon adaptations of other traditional fairytales. That includes, of course, Disney’s collection of Grimm Brothers’ adaptations acquired for free from the public domain. There are plenty more tales from the “Pentamerone” – most completely unexposed to adaptation — left to be exploited by adventurous filmmakers. Despite its Italian roots, Tale of Tales was shot in English and is extremely easy on the eyes, from a cinematic perspective. The package includes an excellent making-of featurette and interviews.

Genius
Dozens of films and documentaries have been inspired by the lives and eccentricities of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and various other Lost Generation authors. As far as I know, before Genius, author Thomas Wolfe and editor Maxwell Perkins hadn’t been featured outside of the occasional mention in a literary documentary. First-time director Michael Grandage and the prolific John Logan (Spectre, The Aviator) based their story on the 1978 National Book Award-winner “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius,” by A. Scott Berg. If they saw the project as being anything other than a labor of love, targeted directly at English majors and arthouse habitués, they surely were fooling themselves. Even considering the protagonists’ legendary status in the publishing industry, the prospect of watching an editor work on elephantine manuscripts for almost two hours is daunting, at best. Perkins, as portrayed by Colin Firth, is every writer’s idea of a great editor, massaging words and ideas into beautiful prose and putting up with all manner of ego trips and hissy fits. Jude Law’s Wolfe is a coil of tightly wound energy, overflowing with self-serving opinions and North Carolina charm. Perkins would come to represent the father Wolfe lost while he was in Boston, working on his Master’s degree at Harvard. For Perkins, the father of five daughters, the impetuous novelist became the son he and his wife, Louise (Laura Linney), never had. Hemingway and Fitzgerald (Dominic West, Guy Pearce) make brief, but memorable appearances, providing literary context and inspiring some caustic dialogue. Nicole Kidman is fine as Wolfe’s muse, Aline Bernstein, while Vanessa Kirby’s Zelda looks as if she just put her finger in an electrical socket. The interaction between writer and editor would grow old very quickly, if weren’t for the dead-on Depression-era look provided by cinematographer Ben Davis and production designer Mark Digby.
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Lamb
Yared Zeleke’s remarkably self-assured feature debut tells the story of Ephraim, a half-Jewish Ethiopian boy who is sent by his father to live among distant relatives after his mother’s death in a drought-plagued region of the country. When it became the first Ethiopian film to be shown at Cannes, Lamb prompted immediate comparisons to Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, based on the plucky kid’s determination to succeed against great odds. With his father away in Addis Ababa looking for work, Ephraim’s only true-blue friend is his rapidly growing pet lamb, Chuni. Although his relatives live in the spectacularly beautiful and lush green mountains in Ethiopia’s southern mountains, they treat the 9-year-old as if he’s a burden on them. His interest in cooking makes him an easy target for insults from his bullying uncle Solomon and other boys looking for a scrap. (He’s labeled a “starving hick” by peers, and “effeminate” by his uncle.) When the decision is made that Chuni must be sacrificed for the next religious feast, Ephraim (Radiat Amare) hatches a plan to save the animal and return home. As such, he represents what some seemingly helpless people will risk in order to take charge of their own destinies. Besides providing a spectacular background for this unusual coming-of-age story, the Bale Mountains remind us that there’s still a great of Africa we’ve never seen. The DVD adds short films.

The Seventh Fire
Once Were Warriors: Blu-ray
No matter how many press conferences, debates and forums are conducted in the next two months, the likelihood of any questions pertaining to Native American issues being asked of the presidential candidates, let alone answered, is … well, none. It’s been 53 years since then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy made headlines by addressing to the National Congress of American Indians in Bismarck, North Dakota, and making clear his opinion that First Nation tribes deserved fair treatment under law and enjoyed a unique status as separate, sovereign nations within the United States. He also recognized the responsibility of the United States to meet its trust obligations to Native Americans. It wasn’t until 1988, when Congress passed and President Reagan signed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, though, that some tribes, at least, would be able to realize RFK’s vision … which probably didn’t include casinos. The then-controversial legislation gave states the power to regulate the gaming and impose special taxes on the reservations in the form of compacts. Apart from certain social issues, it became a win-win situation. Sadly, too, the gradual proliferation of these casinos gave politicians a pretty good excuse to ignore Indian issues for years to come. By 2015, there were more than 460 gambling operations run by 240 tribes, with a total annual revenue of $29.9 billion. Non-native casino owners, including GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, have spent tens of millions of dollars in a futile attempt to impede their growth. Otherwise, the operating principle for non-native politicians has been, “out of sight, out of mind.”

Jack Pettibone Riccobono’s searing documentary, The Seventh Fire, reminds us that the financial success of some tribes, even those with casinos, hasn’t trickled down in any meaningful way to benefit all residents. The White Earth Indian Reservation, in north-central Minnesota between Bemidji and Fargo, is one of seven Chippewa/Ojibwa reservations in the state and home to the Pine Point (pop. 338) residents featured in the film. Prominent among them is Rob Brown, a Native American gang leader newly sentenced to prison for a fifth time. As muscular as a Vikings linebacker and Hollywood handsome, Brown bides his time on the outside confronting his role in bringing the violent drug culture into his beloved Ojibwa community, while also savoring the gangsta lifestyle. For Rob, the thought of spending the next several years behind bars is relieved by knowing he’ll have the freedom to write and draw, absent the distractions of criminal life. His 17-year-old protégé, Kevin, has been given every opportunity to escape – or, at least, kick his addictions to drugs, booze and the thug life — but still dreams of filling Brown’s shoes. He treats the inevitability of jail as a necessary rite of passage. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the girlfriends of both men become pregnant during the course of the film, ensuring that the cycle of poverty and government handouts won’t end soon. From executive producers Terrence Malick, Natalie Portman and Chris Eyre, The Seventh Fire isn’t unrelievedly depressing, thank goodness, but the positive moments are far outnumbered by the cries for help. I said much the same thing about Roberto Minervini’s unnerving documentary, The Other Side, which focused on disenfranchised young people in the northern Louisiana. Bonus features include deleted scenes and two short films directed by Riccobono.

The coincidental re-launch into Blu-ray of Lee Tamahori’s harrowing 1994 drama, Once Were Warriors, and recent release here of James Napier Robertson’s The Dark Horse, once again demonstrates that the hard-scrabble life of Aboriginal people isn’t unique to North America or desolate reservations. Set in urban Auckland, Once Were Warriors tells the story of the Maori Heke family and its place in the otherwise placid city’s gang hierarchy. Jake Heke (Temuera Morrison), who could be Rob Brown’s brother by another mother, frequently beats his wife when drunk and frightens his children with the ferocity of his resentment of her pure Maori roots. Mixed race and descended from slaves, as he’s constantly reminded, Jake obviously loves Beth (Rena Owen) and their family, but is gripped by the disease of machismo. The movie follows a period of several weeks in the family’s life, showing Jake’s frequent outbursts of violence and the effect that they have on his family. The youngest son is in trouble with the police and is headed for a foster home, while the elder son is about to be “patched” in a Maori street-gang ritual. Jake’s 13-year-old daughter has serious problems of her own, mostly traceable to a woman’s place in a male-dominated culture. If I’m not mistaken, Once Were Warriors introduced the traditional posture dance, haka, to westerners, including the University of Hawaii Rainbow Warriors football team. It combines war cries, stomping movements and chants, with the mugging of heavily tattooed faces. The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes featurette, original stills and a collector’s booklet featuring an essay by New Zealand’s leading cinema expert, Peter Calder.

Compadres
Maybe Donald Trump really is onto something, at least when it comes to action comedies co-produced by Mexican and American companies. He could have built a wall 30 feet high around the recently reviewed spring-break non-laugher, Sundown, and border-hopping, Compadres, and no one on either side would have minded. Some critics might have agreed to finance the construction, even. And, while Fernando Lebrija’s overtly racist Sundown was all too comprehensible, Enrique Begne’s Compadres requires that viewers carry a roadmap to gauge the side of the border upon which the characters are standing at any given moment. The action starts in Mexico, as good cop Garza (Omar Chaparro) watches his longtime partner get killed by a vicious crime boss named Santos (Erick Elias). Santos later kidnaps Garza’s pregnant girlfriend, Maria (Aislinn Derbez), and blackmails the cop to help him flee police custody. Newly dismissed from the police force for enabling the escape, Garza decides the way to nail Santos is through an accountant who has stolen $10 million from the criminal. Garza sneaks into the United States, only to discover that a chubby 17-year-old computer nerd Vic (Joey Morgan) is responsible for the theft, instead of a crafty old-timer. The visually comedic odd couple is put through a wringer of sophomoric antics and bilingual gags, while Eric Roberts and Kevin Pollack are only allowed enough screen time to justify adding their names to marketing material. On the plus side, Aislinn Derbez (“Gossip Girl: Acapulco”) is as gorgeous an actress as exists on either side of the border and her male counterpart, Garza, probably will remind some folks of a young George Clooney.

Sweethearts of the Gridiron
Thirty years before the owner of the Dallas Cowboys professional football team decided to add a troupe of high-kicking, suggestively attired cheerleaders to its entertainment mix, the Kilgore College Rangerettes did practically the same thing, only in less bodice- and thigh-revealing outfits. Football fans outside Texas were made aware of the Rangerettes’ unique ability to raise the temperature of even the chilliest of Cotton Bowl games, when, in 1951, they began an annual streak of appearances that continues today. Before the Rangerettes were outgunned physically by the DCC – all of whom bore a seemed to emulate fellow Texan, then-Farrah Fawcett Majors — they made regular appearances at Dallas Cowboys pre-game and half-time shows, which led to appearances at nationally televised parades, presidential inaugurations, military bases and the Radio City Music Hall, home of the Rockettes. Chip Hale’s comprehensive documentary, Sweethearts of the Gridiron, does a swell job explaining how the Rangerettes came to prominence at a small college in an oil boomtown, just east of Dallas, and the exhaustive process by which all future team members are chosen. Like the U.S. Marine Corps and Kirov Ballet, a certain degree of pain accompanies the grueling discipline necessary for precision cheerleading and pep squads. Hale also acts as a fly on the wall during practice sessions and the surprisingly dramatic judging, which takes into account choreography, physical skills, coordination and the all-important ability to smile through pain, rain and personal trauma. I’d compare the film to documentaries we’ve seen on cutthroat beauty contests – and, of course, Michael Ritchie’s Smile – except that no throats are threatened here and the girls are wonderfully talented and supportive of each other. Neither are they allowed to increase their chances of being selected with industrial-strength cosmetics, gravity-defying underwear or stripper poles. The only misstep I found was the failure to note the delay in choosing the first African-American team member, Freddie Goosby Evans, in 1973, and the first black officer in August 2012.

Equals: Blu-ray
If movies have taught us anything about the post-dystopian future, it’s that, unlike heaven, it’s hardly worth the investment in time, effort and piety it would take for us to end up there. In Equals, co-writer/director Drake Doremus (Breathe In) and screenwriter Nathan Parker (Moon) envision a utopian society every bit as sterile, affectless and robotic as those in such disparate entertainments as Logan’s Run, Sleeper, 1984, Brave New World, Defending Your Life, The Lobster, THX 1138 and Fahrenheit 451. Conformity in dress (white), architecture (ethereal) and thought (neo-fascist) are strictly enforced by an all-seeing force that’s been able to eliminate mankind’s natural desire to explore, experiment and create. Rebellion is represented by a character or group of characters’ striving for individual freedom through books, drugs, sex, ideas and fashion. Typically, the non-conformists live in forests, jungles or mountains and are hunted by the powers that be. Love and pro-creation are the greatest threats to the strictly enforced status quo. Leads Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart do a nice job playing citizens of the Collective, who, after becoming infected with Switched On Syndrome, fall in love. (Their other choice was committing suicide, also forbidden.) Their Silas and Nia are colleagues at a science journal, where they work on massive tabletop interfaces, researching and documenting the world prior to the Great War (no, not that one). They’re aware of a wild area known as the Peninsula, rumored to be populated by humans, but have been indoctrinated into rejecting its lure. They are as drawn to each other as any coupling of star-crossed lovers found in literature and face the same obstacles. Fortunately, other citizens have caught the SOS bug – to one degree or another – and are willing to break the law by resisting the temptation to rat them out. That’s about it, really. In a sense, Equals ends at a point other such romantic fantasies begin. It looks terrific, though, and Stewart, at least, is naturally able to take full advantage of her character’s limited emotional range. Commentary is provided by Doremus, cinematographer John Guleserian and editor Jonathan Alberts. The featurettes include the standard-issue “Switched On,” with interviews and film clips; “The Collective,” with better material from Stewart and Hoult; and the 30-minute “Utopia,” on the production design and some of the backstory that isn’t overtly covered in the film.

Night of the Living Deb
The Dead Room: Blu-ray
Therapy for a Vampire
Evils of the Night: Blu-ray
While nowhere near as clever and accomplished as Sean of the Dead – or Juan of the Dead, for that matter – co-writer/director Kyle Rankin and screenwriter Andy Selsor’s zombie romance, Night of the Living Deb, scores points for being teen friendly and giving free rein to ginger firecracker Maria Thayer. Born on a bee farm in Boring, Oregon, Thayer is 40, but possesses the looks and exudes the energy of a teenager. Here, she plays an aspiring reporter for a Maine television station, Deborah Clarington, who, after foisting herself on a young man in a bar, awakens in his apartment the next morning oblivious to the zombie apocalypse that’s erupted while they were sleeping. As handsome as he is, Ryan Waverly (Michael Cassidy) turns out to be little more than a greener-than-thou eco-dweeb. Conveniently, Ryan’s corrupt father (Ray Wise) is the owner of Portland’s water utility, which may or may not have something to do with the sudden invasion of undead Down Easterners. While Rankin fails to score many points in his orchestration of the seemingly amateur zombies’ stumbling movements, Thayer’s imitation of Lucille Ball on speed keeps things moving smoothly to Night of the Living Deb’s twisty ending. The DVD adds a making-of piece and bloopers.

The New Zealand import, The Dead Room, is a haunted-house thriller completely dependent on audio technology so bombastic that it could scare a train off of its tracks if turned to full blast. Inspired by reports of an actual haunting in a historic farmhouse in central Otago, New Zealand, The Dead Room involves an investigation being conducted by two scientists (Jed Brophy, Jeffrey Thomas) and a young psychic (Laura Petersen). After the owners flee the property, the trio moves in for a few days, arranging cameras and listening devices in the hallway and living room. For most of the movie’s 78 minutes, only the psychic senses that they’re not alone in the house. The scientists require more proof, of course, causing the trio to stay one more night than would normally be advisable under these circumstances. Found video footage reveals what they discovered next. My guess is that Kiwi director Jason Stutter (“Tongan Ninja”) and co-writer Kevin Stevens were more interested in capturing the fancy of native audiences already familiar with the story before sending the movie out into a world saturated with ghost stories. For what it’s worth, The Dead Room reportedly is the first film to use Acoustic Science’s new Rumble sound technology. It works just fine.

There can be no more difficult task in the filmmaking game than coming up with a new angle on the vampire or any other horror subgenre. Comic revisionism may have begun with Abbott & Costello, who first worked alongside Doctor Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula and the Wolf Man in 1949, but it certainly didn’t end there. The Fearless Vampire Killers, Transylvania 6-5000, Vampire in Brooklyn, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Blood for Dracula and Blacula also mined some laughs from an already tired genre before the deluge facilitated by special-effects and digital revolution of the late 1990s. From Austria comes David Rühm’s Therapy for a Vampire (a.k.a., “Der Vampir auf der Couch”), which is set in 1930 Vienna, with Sigmund Freud accepting new patients, one of whom is Tobias Moretti’s undead Graf Geza von Közsnöm. The count, whose marriage to the vain Gräfin Elsa von Közsnöm cooled centuries ago, has lost his thirst for life. Because she can’t see her reflection in a mirror, Freud suggests that the Count appease his vain wife by commissioning a portrait of her by his assistant, Viktor. Once there, he falls for Viktor’s headstrong girlfriend and model. Lucy (Jeanette Hain), who reminds him of the girl that got away many, many years ago. Thusly, Therapy for a Vampire becomes a comedy of errors, mistaken identities and misplaced affections that works in any language.

Mardi Rustam’s 1985 horror comedy, Evils of the Night, represents a very goofy attempt to combine sci-fi, horror and soft-core porn in the service of a slasher parody. XXX mainstays Amber Lynn, Crystal Breeze and Jerry Butler play teenagers who put their lives in jeopardy by having sex in convertibles on Lovers Lane and lonely fields, while a motley collection of alien fiends lurk in the bushes hoping to siphon their teenage blood. The geriatric vampires from outer space are played by John Carradine, Neville Brand (in his last film), Aldo Ray, Tina Louise and Julie Newmar, whose presence is almost worth the price of a rental. As usual, the folks at Vinegar Syndrome put lots more time and effort into restoring this rarity than the original producers did, at the time, before releasing it. In addition to being scanned and restored in 2k from 35mm master, the Blu-ray extras include “Alien Blood Transfusion,” an interview with director Mardi Rustam (a.k.a., Mohammed Rustam); an alternate feature-length TV edit; isolated score by Robert O. Ragland; 25 minutes of outtakes; marketing material; and a reversible cover artwork.

Hockney
The Royal Road
David Hockney is one of only a handful of contemporary artists whose name and physical appearance are as recognizable as his work, whether it’s paintings capturing the shimmering sunlight on southern California swimming pools, fanciful photo-collages of American landscapes, composite Polaroids, stage designs or 1960s-era Pop Art. His bespectacled face and bleached-white hair are his trademark, as were Dali’s mustache, Warhol’s wig and Van Gogh’s ear. Randall Wright’s entertaining and informative feature bio-doc, Hockney, weaves together a portrait of the multifaceted artist from frank interviews with close friends and never before seen footage from his own personal archive. Like his paintings and experimentation with each new visual technology, Hockney, even at 79, seems ageless. As accessible as the work continues to be, the Yorkshire native never appears to take his relevancy for granted, a notion that’s backed up by the friends and peers interviewed by Wright. Hockney looks back at the artist’s formative years in the British Pop Art scene and his experience of being a gay man as the AIDS crisis took hold, as well as his years working in California. The charismatic artist takes us on an exclusive tour of his archives and into his studio, where he still paints seven days a week. The DVD adds the director’s commentary.

Also of interest to LGBT viewers, especially, is The Royal Road, Jenni Olson’s overstuffed “cinematic essay in defense of remembering” and stream-of-consciousness monologue on such disparate topics as the Spanish colonization of California, the Mexican-American War and broken promises of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, her own reflections on butch identity the pursuit of unavailable women, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It’s set against a backdrop of 16mm urban California landscapes and features a voiceover cameo by Tony Kushner. She explains how last year’s controversial beatification of Padre Junipero Serra is tarnished by historical evidence of the priest’s enslavement of the indigenous Indian population and harsh treatment of those hesitant to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and savior. Olson’s voice may be singular, but the visual debt owed to Chantal Akerman is undeniable. My biggest problem with The Royal Road is Olson’s sense of geography. After telling us she’ll be following the path of El Camino Real from Mission San Diego de Alcalá, in San Diego, to Mission San Francisco Solano, in Sonoma, the visual journey mostly bounces between the Bay Area and Los Angeles. The Vertigo analogies take some getting used to, but eventually make sense. I would argue, however, that they’d better serve an entirely separate venture.

Urge: Blu-ray
It’s taken most of the last dozen years for moviegoers to sever the chains that bound Pierce Brosnan to his stint as James Bond in the never-ending 007 series. After being introduced to movie audiences 36 years ago, as an Irish assassin in The Long Good Friday, it’s interesting that he got his first big post-Bond break, playing an increasingly incapable hitman in The Matador. In between, Brosnan turned in memorably nuanced performances in The Tailor of Panama, The Thomas Crown Affair and Mars Attacks!, but the declining franchise required his presence. Ever since, Brosnan has been a welcome presence in romantic dramas (Married Life), romantic comedies (Laws of Attraction), romantic mysteries (The Ghost Writer), action fantasies (Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief), spy dramas (The November Man) and tone-deaf musicals (Mamma Mia!). I can’t recommend to Brosnan’s fans that they run out and get a copy of Aaron Kaufman’s stylish psycho-thriller, Urge, but he’s the closest thing to a reason for checking out this straight-to-VOD genre specimen. In it, a young billionaire, Jason (Justin Chatwin), invites a group of attractive friends to his island hideout for a weekend of revelry and gluttonous consumption. The highlight comes when they’re invited to a nightclub that wouldn’t have been out of place in Manhattan during the heyday of Studio 54. The music is loud, the dresses are skimpy, the drinks strong and the temptations plentiful. Among them are the usual array of ingestible drugs, including a smoky blue substance inhaled like gaseous cocaine. It is introduced to Jason by the enigmatic club owner, The Man (Brosnan). Urge is the kind of miracle drug that allows partakers to override their hang-ups and inhibitions for a few hours, while revealing their true natures. The Man makes it abundantly clear that Urge should only be taken once in a lifetime and its misuse could bring tragic results. The guests have such a blast the first night of their visit, they decide to ignore the Man’s warning and take it again, anyway. Maybe, you can guess what happens next. If you can, there’s no need to watch the movie. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

TV-to-DVD
BBC/AMC: The Night Manager: Blu-ray
Comedy Central: South Park: The Complete Nineteenth Season: Blu-ray
One of the most binge-worthy mini-series of the season, “The Night Manager,” has just been released in an “uncensored” version that fans of spy thrillers should find irresistible. Adapted by Oscar-winning director Susanne Bier (In a Better World) and writer David Farr (Hanna) from a best-selling 1993 novel by John le Carré, “The Night Manager” has been updated to the point in time when the Arab Spring began turning into the Arab Winter. In it, Tom Hiddleston plays a former British soldier, Jonathan Pine, who is recruited by Angela Burr (Olivia Colman), as a deep-cover intelligence operative. In doing so, he is required to navigate Whitehall and the Pentagon, where there is an alliance between the intelligence community and the secret arms trade, the theory being that one couldn’t exist without the other. His first attempt to serve Queen and country – and subsequent lack of discretion on the part of MI6 — inadvertently results in the death of the beautiful Egyptian woman who asked the night manager to copy some papers that were of value to her lover and British agents. Four years later, Jonathan would be given a night manager’s job in a different luxury hotel to go with a new identity and military background. His assignment is to infiltrate the inner circle of megalomaniacal arms dealer Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie) and his dangerously paranoid associate, Lance Corkoran (Tom Hollander). That was the easy part. More difficult would be keeping up with Roper’s nefarious negotiations with legitimate world power brokers, insurgent groups and freelance terrorists. Jonathan could be killed for a dozen different missteps each day, including getting too near Roper’s blond bombshell mistress, Jed Marshall (Elizabeth Debicki). Tension builds throughout the mini-series — which garnered 12 Emmy nominations — as does the complexity of Ropers’ machinations and negotiations. The most important “censored” scene recovered for the Blu-ray is the one in which Hiddleston’s bottom is revealed, during a vertical tryst with Jed.

Every new season of “South Park” can be described as “long awaited,” but, with the presidential election in its final stretch run, the upcoming debut of Season 20 couldn’t come soon enough for most fans. After lampooning Donald Trump’s foreign policy by having Canadians build a wall to keep Americans from fleeing northward, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone recently indicated that they might pull back on the political satire, so as not to “service” the candidates as characters. Instead, it’s likely that Mr. Garrison will represent Trump’s points of view in his run for the White House. And, to be fair, it’s only been nine years since “The Snuke” episode, in which the Secret Service discovers a small nuclear bomb concealed in Hillary Clinton’s vagina. The absurdities inherent in the American political system might prove too difficult to resist, however. Season 19 was noteworthy, as well, for Parker and Stone’s decision to forgo their practice of ending a storyline at the close of an episode, by extending story arcs for longer periods of time. For example, PC Principal and Caitlyn Jenner helped carry the political-correctness theme from beginning to end. The 10-episode compilation adds several deleted scenes from “Stunning and Brave,” “Where My Country Gone?,” “You’re Not Yelping,” “Safe Space,” “Naughty Ninjas” and “Truth and Advertising”; a 27-minute “season commentary” track; “South Park: The Fractured But Whole E3 2016 Game Trailer,” a sneak peek at the game coming to PS4 and Xbox One on December 6; and “#Socialcommentary,” on-screen tweets that shed some 140 character insights into each episode.

Prince: Up Close & Personal
Typically, the “Up Close & Personal” series of musician interviews is noteworthy for collecting obscure material from media outlets outside the United States. The fresh perspectives, even after 40-50 years on a shelf, can reveal fresh points of view and the artists sometimes are more forthcoming to European and Australian journalists. That was the case with the recent Frank Zappa release, anyway. “Prince: Up Close & Personal” strays from the normal path by repeating the entire Larry King session with His Purple Highness, including an almost pointless chat with bass player Larry Graham. In my book, that’s cheating. Shorter interviews, including his first with MTV, make better use of our time. In all of them, the recently deceased musician is friendly, attentive and informative. I, for one, was surprised and impresseds.

Atroz: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Short for atrocious, Atroz joins such extreme titles as Cannibal Holocaust, Martyrs, A Serbian Film, Wolf Creek and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer on a short list of horror films even hard-core horror buffs might find too horrifying to watch under normal conditions. Made by veteran sound designer Lex Ortega and presented by legendary Italian exploitation director Ruggero Deodato, it appears to have been made as commentary on the huge number of unsolved murders in one of the most violent countries in the world, Mexico. It opens with a woman being struck down by a car and the arrest of the driver and his drunken passenger by police. In their search of the men’s car, the commanding officer makes a gruesome discovery on a camcorder. The video recorder features the relentless torture and murder of a transvestite prostitute. In their interrogation of the suspects, the police employ tactics that might even have sickened former VP and torture-defender Dick Cheney. The upshot is, however, the discovery of more videotapes, exposing sexually deviant torture and murders. As befits the found-footage subgenre, Atroz is crudely made under far less than adequate lighting conditions and shoddy production values.  Clearly, Ortega wants us to consider the possibility that the ends justify the means, especially in the investigation of heinous crimes, and no one should shed tears for obviously guilty perps. Or, maybe we should. The operative word there is “obviously” and it’s from the point of view of hardened and likely corrupt Mexican cops. The three-disc set includes a separate musical soundtrack and the short film from which Atroz was extended.

Fishes ‘N Loaves: Heaven Sent
Nancy Criss and Kenneth Lemm’s Dove-approved comedy, Fishes ‘N Loaves: Heaven Sent, is a fish-out-of-water affair in which an inner-city pastor (Patrick Muldoon) is re-assigned to a rural church and the burden of readjustment falls squarely on the shoulders of his wife (Dina Meyer) and children. Actually, Pastor Michaels has been asked to find a replacement for the still spry Pastor Ezekiel (Bruce Davison) and, as time passes, we are led to believe that he’d like the job. Naturally, a culture clash quickly emerges as Pastor Michaels’ biggest problem, with his wife being too sophisticated for the old biddies in the Arizona church and the kids anxious to go home. If the ending of any film would appear to be pre-ordained it’s “Heaven Sent.” Fans of faith-based cinema won’t mind.

Taboo: Blu-ray
Made in 1980, before anyone knew what a MILF might be, let alone a cougar, Kirdy Stevens’ hard-core classic, Taboo, broke through more barriers than any other adult film in the Golden Age in the Golden Age of Porn. No one knew how the growing number of couples interested in the genre – or, for that matter, the raincoat crowd — would respond to a movie that eroticized father-daughter/mother-son incest, a subject that had only been approached in mainstream films a handful of times. Thanks to savvy performances of the undeniably hot Kay Parker, then 35, and Juliet Anderson, 42, the forbidden subject matter pretty much was trumped by the ability of “mature” actresses to make the younger gals look like amateurs. They were MILFs before the term was even invented. Parker plays Barbara Scott, a middle-class suburbanite whose husband leaves her, blaming her frigidity for destroying their marriage. Left alone without a source of income, she turns to her friend, Gina (Anderson), who opens Barbara’s eyes to the secret world of suburban swingers. Nothing turns her on as much as her teenage son, Paul (28-year-old Mike Ranger), however. As vile as that might sound, the age and lineage of the actors was never in doubt – they weren’t dressed or made up to look like underage teenagers – and, amazingly, the series spawned 22 sequels, most in video format. The Blu-ray has been scanned & restored in 2k from 35mm original vault elements and adds new audio commentaries with Kay Parker, writer/producer Helene Terrie and Kirdy Stevens; an archival video interview with Parker; promotional image gallery; and reversible cover artwork.

The DVD Wrapup: Jungle Book, Weiner, Dark Horse, Roots, Narcos and more

Friday, August 26th, 2016

The Jungle Book: Blu-ray

Move over, Tarzan, the real King of the Jungle is a wee mancub named Mowgli. Born two decades before Edgar Rice Burroughs left John Clayton, Viscount Greystoke, parentless in Africa, to be raised by apes, Rudyard Kipling’s feral boy was adopted by wolves in the forests of India. At one time or another, perhaps after studying the worldwide revenues of The Jungle Book and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, someone in charge of a studio or comic-book empire has imagined a showdown between Tarzan and Mowgli, or a way to have them combine their powers to save mankind from vengeful animals. Given the vagaries of public domain, anything seems possible. On the Disney lot, anyway, Mowgli rules. While the 1999 animated Tarzan probably made the company some money in its global sales and DVD/Blu-ray afterlife, the animated editions of The Jungle Book have all sold through the roof. Moreover, its lineage can be traced directly back to Uncle Walt, without the stain of racism or white entitlement that greeted Tarzan.

Comparing live-action apples to live-action apples, The Jungle Book has swamped Maleficent and Cinderella, but slightly trails Tim Burton’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland, which benefitted from huge 3D numbers. Of these, the only live-action title even close to Jon Favreau’s “reimagining” of the Kipling classic at the Metacritic site is Kenneth Branagh’s delightful Cinderella, starring Lily James. (Tarzan scored slightly higher, but based on many fewer critics’ opinions.) So, what should parents and children make of these numbers? Nothing, really. True, it might take a few minutes for kids to get accustomed to the live-action settings, photo-realistic backdrops and freakishly accurate CGI animals. Ditto parents, who also need to know that the reimagining has resulted in some darker elements than the original – some harkening back to Bambi – and more violence. The Dolby Atmos sound system turns the thunderous noise produced by an avalanche and stampeding animals downright frightening. Thus, the PG seems earned.

Poor Mowgli hasn’t changed his diapers in more than 45 years, but we can blame mother wolf Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) for that, as her other cubs have never worn clothes. Otherwise, 12-year-old newcomer Neel Sethi is as animated as Disney’s other Mowglis and far more expressive. If there are fewer songs this time around, it’s well worth the wait to hear Christopher Walken’s take on “I Wan’na Be Like You,” Bill Murray & Kermit Ruffins’s “The Bare Necessities” (also Dr. John and the Nite Trippers, in the closing credits) and Scarlett Johansson channeling Peggy Lee in the serpentine “Trust in Me.” As was the case in the 1999 “TJB,” several characters have been reconsidered, added or erased from Kipling’s book. Murray’s impersonation of Baloo is truly inspired. Ben Kingsley and Idris Elba’s readings of black panther Bagheera and evil tiger Shere Kahn are also noteworthy. A Blu-ray purchase adds a DVD copy of the film and Disney digital code; the 35-minute “The Jungle Book Reimagined,” with producer Brigham Taylor, visual-effects supervisor Robert Legato and director Favreau discussing how the film got off the ground, the source material, early drafts of the new film, Disney and Kipling book Easter eggs and tech talk; “I Am Mowgli,” a closer look at young Neel Sethi’s casting and performance; “King Louie’s Temple: Layer by Layer,” a quick look behind the scenes of one of the movie’s key musical pieces and homage to co-writer Richard Sherman; and commentary with Favreau.

Weiner

All politicians are narcissists, to one degree or another. They love watching themselves on television, giving speeches and responding to their followers’ adoration. They can’t help themselves. If Donald Trump is the extreme example of a politician who can’t get enough of himself, especially when he’s making up lies and his loyalists are buying every one of them, then disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner is the ultimate example of someone who lies to himself and believes every word. After being caught exchanging humiliating e-mails and photographs of his penis with women on the Internet, everyone assumed he would simply disappear from public view and find work outside the public sector. Instead, the liberal Democrat decided to become a candidate for further derision by running for mayor of New York, one of the most visible positions in American politics. Worse, he allowed former chief of staff Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg to chronicle his uphill struggle for their cringe-inducing documentary, Weiner. Somehow, he’d convinced himself that he’d win and, in doing so, would become the star of his own movie. Instead, after leading early on in the polls, another scandal erupted, putting Weiner on the defensive once again, this time irrevocably.

Before quietly disappearing from view, Weiner’s ever-stoic wife, Huma Abedin, stood alongside him, looking every bit as dyspeptic as Julianna Margulies, when forced to campaign for her philandering husband on “The Good Wife.” In doing so, she joined a long line of beleaguered women – Jackie Kennedy, Lee Hart, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Silda Wall Spitzer – who stood by their men, frequently to the disdain of pundits and other women, who’d suffered similar indignities, not always in public. Apparently, Huma had not given her permission to be filmed for Weiner, and for good reason. Instead of being portrayed as the influential aide and confidante of the first woman chosen by her party to seek the nation’s highest office, she either looks like a hood ornament or just another mom with too much to do. (Last week, we not only learned that Weiner got caught in yet another “catfish” trap by a different Internet troll, but also that Republicans want to throw her under the same bus as Hillary in the e-mail scandal.) Whatever happens, Huma is likely to survive the fall from grace better than her husband. The same can’t be said with any assurance for Weiner’s young and inexperienced communications director Barbara Morgan, who gets as much face time in Weiner as Huma. After losing all of her natural blond buoyancy when the first betrayal breaks, she gets suckered into an X-rated blowout with a gabby ex-intern that becomes first-page news. By election night, Morgan looks as if she might be considering a different line of work, altogether. Apart from any Shakespearian undertones, Weiner works best as a portrayal of New York politics at its most brutal. (In a delicatessen, he’s attacked by a loudmouth customer for marrying “an Arab.”) Even Howard Stern’s influence is felt, when a former sexting partner of Weiner – and wannabe porn star – is encouraged to stalk him through the streets of the city. If this is democracy in action, then what do New Yorkers call pro wrestling?

The Man Who Knew Infinity: Blu-ray

I don’t know what it is about mathematics that turns filmmakers into wide-eyed schoolboys, but there’s almost as many movies about numbers junkies as there are meth labs in southern California’s Inland Empire … maybe more. Matthew Brown’s surprisingly accessible The Man Who Knew Infinity joins such recent math-centric dramas, dramedies and thrillers as A Beautiful Mind, The Imitation Game, Pi, A Brilliant Young Mind, Proof, Enigma, Fermat’s Room, The Oxford Murders, An Invisible Sign, Codebreaker and Raising Genius. Then, too, there are the many movies about physicists and astrophysicists. If the name Srinivasa Ramanujan sounds familiar it’s either because you’re Indian, a math major or can remember back to the point in Good Will Hunting when Stellan Skarsgard explains the genius of the character played by Matt Damon to Robin Williams by comparing him to Ramanujan. (Who? We asked.) As played by Dev Patel, Ramunajan is a dirt poor mathematical autodidact living in Madras, when he’s noticed by teachers who can’t keep up with his ideas. They encourage him to send some of his work to British mathematician G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), who, after being disavowed of the notion that the letter is a hoax, invites the young man to continue his studies at Cambridge.

The necessary clash between characters comes when Ramanujan bristles at Hardy’s insistence that he offer demonstrable proofs for his theorems, which appear to him as godsends. They’re among the most complex and important discoveries in the history of the science and continue to be applied to advanced research, including recent revelations about black holes. The other point of contention reflects Hardy’s atheism and Ramunajin’s deep religious conviction. “An equation for me has no meaning,” he says, “unless it expresses a thought of God.” Brown’s story, from Robert Kanigel’s biography of the same title, also accents the racism faced by this talented young “wog” as he, Hardy and J. E. Littlewood (Toby Jones) worked tirelessly to have the work recognized by Oxford authorities, and the long separation from his wife, Janaki (Devika Bhise). As these things go, The Man Who Knew Infinity is reasonably faithful to the facts of Ramunajin’s life. The acting is first-rate, even giving a nod to philosopher Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Northam), whose pacifism would cause him to be removed from the Cambridge faculty as World War I raged across the channel and a makeshift hospital was built in the college’s yard. Even if the equations surely won’t make sense to viewers, the story is as compelling as any biopic of a scientist you’re likely to find.

Paths of the Soul
Papirosen

Zhang Yang’s amazing docudrama, Paths of the Soul, is so mesmerizing that it doesn’t take long for viewers to forget about the 800-pound gorilla sitting in a corner of the screen. The film condenses an extended Tibetan family’s 10-month, 1,200-mile pilgrimage to the holy city of Lhasa – by foot, in a continuous repetition of prostrating one’s self on the ground – into 115 minutes of devotion-in-motion, unbelievable perseverance and stunning physical beauty. The gorilla, as you might already have guessed, is the absence of any mention of the politics behind the schism separating active followers of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, and Buddhists still living in Tibet, under the all-seeing eye of the Chinese government, which intends to pick the next leader when he dies. Because anyone pre-disposed to watching Paths of the Soul already is aware of the division and its political ramifications around the world, it’s worth the effort simply to take in the wonders of contemporary Tibet and Lhasa. Kowtowing involves taking several steps, prostrating oneself, sliding on wooden blocks and clapping them three times after standing upright. The group of 11 here is followed by a tractor carrying provisions and each evening’s shelter. One traveler is committed to cleansing bad family karma; another, a butcher, wants to wash the animals’ bloodstains from his soul; and another pilgrim, sensing the end is near, hopes that prayers and prostrations will break the chain of cause-and-effect determined by his life’s actions. Like the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, it’s a trek every Tibetan Buddhist hopes to accomplish in their lifetime, at least once. The mostly two-lane road is high, winding, exceedingly arduous and, sometimes, not there at all. The pilgrims share the road with other vehicles, whose drivers many not be paying strict attention to what’s happening in front of them. Along the way, the men, women and child experience

avalanches, rockslides, childbirth, flooded roads, a traffic accident and the death and high-altitude funeral of a comrade. How many of the individual events along the route were depictions or outright orchestrations isn’t clear. The devotion of the pilgrims is never in question. Kundun may not be the most highly regarded of Martin Scorsese’s many films, but anyone who is moved by Paths of the Soul will certainly benefit from checking it out. Because it focuses on the reigning Dalai Lama and his banishment from Tibet, it had to be shot in Morocco. Scorsese, writer Melissa Mathison and her then-husband Harrison Ford were added to the list of people banned from entering Tibet because of Kundun.

Gastón Solnicki’s 2011 documentary, Papirosen, features a religious quest of a very different sort, and its appeal will likely be limited to those whose thirst for Holocaust-related stories is unquenchable. That, and folks whose tolerance for other people’s home movies is insatiable. It is a little of both. Masterfully edited from nearly 200 hours of footage to 74 minutes, Papirosen represents a decade of filmmaking, and four generations of Argentine director Solnicki’s family history, culled from 8mm home videos, a VHS bar mitzvah, interviews with his father and grandmother, as well as original observational material. His father, Victor, emerges as the lead figure, primarily as he’s the most outspoken, neurotic and in need of the passport he’s lacked for more than 50 years. That’s because he left Europe on the brink of war without stopping to collect such necessities as birth records and didn’t need them as long as he remained in Argentina. The kids have other, more mundane problems with which to contend, including an addiction to shopping. The most poignant moment comes when longtime friends join in songs with the older Solnickis at a Buenos Aires restaurant and are informed that a person given up for dead decades earlier is still very much alive and living in the Old Country.

Dark Horse

Inspirational stories about racehorses facing uphill battles against insurmountable odds have become dime-a-dozen. Even so, cheap thrills are better than none at all and equine dramas are better than most. Dark Horse not only tells the unlikely story of a horse given no chance of winning anything, but also introduces us to some uncommon Welsh folks, about 23 in all, who invested the equivalent of about $13 a week to raise and keep a Thoroughbred. Dream Alliance was bred by Janet Vokes, a barmaid at a workingmen’s club in Cefn Fforest, in the depressed mining region of Gwent. Her primary experience until then had been breeding whippets and racing pigeons. While on the job, Vokes overheard Howard Davies, a local tax adviser, discussing a racehorse he had owned 20 years earlier. She was inspired by the idea, and, soon after, she and her husband, Brian, found a mare, Rewbell, that was available for ₤1000. They ultimately bought her for ₤350, a sum that didn’t guarantee anything resembling a potential champion. Davies would be anointed the “racing manager” of the group and, as trainer, J.L. Flint. They bred Rewbell to multiple U.S. stakes winner Bien Bien, then in his first year at stud in the UK, and their chestnut foal ultimately would allow a group of unemployed miners to partake in the “sport of kings.” (Actually, Dream Alliance’s American-bred half-siblings, Bienamado and Bien Nicole, enjoyed productive careers, so maybe the gelding shouldn’t have been considered much of a dark horse, after all.) Dream Alliance’s brief racing career included more than any horse’s fair share of challenges, from a devastating injury and miracle recovery, to returning to competition confronting winners considered to be a class or two above his own. The story has gone largely unsung here, primarily because Dream Alliance was a steeplechase specialist at a time before international championships were broadcast worldwide on TVG and HRTV. A lot of the movie’s charm comes from watching the amateur cast react to their horse’s good and bad luck. For an owner, there’s nothing quite like either one.

The Duel: Blu-ray

Few actors chew scenery with as much enthusiasm and vigor as Woody Harrelson. In the revisionist Western, The Duel, he gets to play a messianic nut job who combines the look of Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz, with the criminal religiosity of David Koresh and Warren Jeffs. Kieran Darcy-Smith’s film opens with duel-to-the-death between Harrelson’s Abraham and another man, whose son, David (Liam Hemsworth), would witness the one-sided battle and grow up to be a Texas Ranger. Twenty-two years later, David would assigned to investigate the mysterious deaths of Mexicans in the vicinity of the city controlled by Abraham. Shortly after David and his wife (Alice Braga) ride into town incognito, Abraham inexplicably makes him sheriff. It doesn’t take long to see that the snake-handling Abraham intends to seduce Marisol and, while David is busy investigating the murders, add her to his corral of sister wives. From this point on, things in Helena get even stranger. Writer Matt Cook (Triple 9) deserves kudos for coming up with a story with enough grit to keep viewers’ nourished for the The Duel’s entire 110-minute length.

The Other Side

It’s sometimes said that the face and soul of America are best captured by foreigner filmmakers and writers willing to shine light into corners most of us would prefer remain in shadows. While I agree with this sentiment to some degree, I believe the same can be said of American outsider artists and other truly independent voices. Going off the grid is as easy as buying a dependable car and being willing to stay in fleabag motels and meet people whose prison tattoos are less frightening than their views on just about everything in which you believe. That’s certainly the case in Italian documentarian Roberto Minervini’s The Other Side, a more transgressive follow-up to his “Texas Trilogy” — Stop the Pounding Heart, Low Tide and The Passage — which found the humanity in folks whose everyday existences depend on a deep and abiding relationship with a God who’s probably forgotten they even exist. (Don’t tell them that, though.) The Other Side finds Minervini in the north-central Louisiana hamlet of West Monroe, known best, perhaps, as the home town of the “Duck Dynasty” family. Compared to the people we meet here, however, the Robertsons are wimps. The film’s first half is taken up with the day-to-day life of a no-count junkie and his similarly addicted girlfriend, who, even while pregnant, shoots up and strips to make money. The setting may be half-a-state away from Terrebonne Parish, where Beasts of the Southern Wild was filmed, but it could have been next-door. During the second half, Minervini was allowed to follow a small, but heavily armed militia of gun freaks, whose hatred of African-Americans and liberals has convinced them that President Obama’s about to declare martial law and they’re going to come out the other side, assault rifles in hand. They rehearse for war by donning their camos and blowing up lots of harmless stuff in the forests outside town … and, of course, drinking lots of beer. And, yet, through Minervini’s lens, they’re just as worthy of a fair shake as anyone else we meet in The Other Side. The DVD adds deleted scenes.

Fever

The first half of French actor-turned-writer/director/cinematographer/producer Raphaël Neal’s debut feature, Fever, combines large dollops of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” with several familiar coming-of-age tropes. The second half is dominated by echoes of Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt and arguments surrounding her theories concerning the “banality of evil,” as they pertained to Adolf Eichmann and his so-called conscience. Set in contemporary Paris and adapted from a novel by Leslie Kaplan, Fever follows two high school students, Damien and Pierre, after they murder a woman unknown to them — and unseen by viewers — in her apartment. Their action coincides with discussions they’re having in school, concerning the Holocaust and individual responses to evil. Like Leopold and Loeb, Damien and Pierre are from well-off families. If they aren’t old enough to have constructed moral boundaries for their behavior, they absorb other people’s ideas like a sponge and enjoy the freedom to test them on innocent people. One of them is a young optician, Zoé, who lives across the street from the murdered woman and literally crashes into one of the boys as they are leaving the apartment. Her eyes connect with one of them as she picks up a glove taken from the scene as a souvenir. It’s the only clue tying Damien and Pierre to the murder and she doesn’t tie one to the other until later. By the time that happens, Zoé, has begun to question everything about her own bland existence, causing her to break up with her longtime partner and do some detective work of her own. At school, Eichmann’s ghost is doing a number on students asked to apply Arendt’s journalism to themselves and their families, some of whom lived through the Nazi occupation and may have been complicit in the cover-up of war crimes. A lot of difficult questions are asked and discussed in the course of Neal’s 80-minute drama, so the lack of answers hardly comes as a surprise. Martin Loizillon, Pierre Moure and Julie-Marie Parmentier are excellent in the difficult lead roles.

Shooting the Prodigal

The Fight Within

Two new faith-based movies push the limits on logic and credibility, especially when it comes to sending mixed messages to viewers. There are so many fish out of water in David E. Powers’ Southern-fried comedy, Shooting the Prodigal, that it’s difficult to identify the faith being served. A Baptist church in a small Alabama town is running low on money and attendance, causing the elders to demand a return to the Bible-banging techniques of the late, lamented previous pastor, Bob Sr. It was his dream to build a youth center on land owned by his secret friend, who’s known in the parish as “that Jewish woman.” The younger Pastor Bob turns to her once again and she agrees to donate the land, with a single caveat, that her nephew be brought in from New York to direct a fund-raising movie, based on the fable of the Prodigal Son. An Old Testament-New Testament conflict develops when the Jewish director fills the cast and crew with the only capable locals available, including a black gentleman who’s “light in the loafers” and other non-Evangelical types. An inter-faith romance also blooms between director Josh and Pastor Bob’s volleyball-star daughter. I wondered what kind of secular humanist was responsible for this politically correct picture, until noticing that it was co-written/directed by David E. Powers, a retired associate pastor at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. It’s his first film and, by any reckoning, a well-made one, at that. It has some genuinely humorous moments and the diversity doesn’t seem forced or foreign. I expected quite a bit less.

In director Michael William Gordon and writer Jim Davis’ The Fight Within, God comes to the rescue of a MMA fighter who forgoes retirement long enough to help his brother save his gym and protect his lovely young Christian sweetheart from an old foe. Emma’s about to begin a stretch of missionary work with orphans in Africa, but becomes a believer in the redemptive qualities of MMA fighting when it affects her boyfriend. The only times The Fight Within works is in the fighting scenes, which are actually pretty brutal and not at all forgiving.

Psycho IV: The Beginning: Blu-ray

The Bloodstained Butterfly: Blu-ray

The Sleeping Room

Several genre obsessives consider Psycho IV: The Beginning to be the best of the sequels to the original Alfred Hitchcock thriller. While that’s not saying a great deal, really, it shouldn’t be construed as being damning with faint praise, either. Created for release in the U.S. on the Showtime cable network, “The Beginning” is both a prequel and sequel to Psycho. It is the only episode in the series that shows Norma Bates alive and the only one of the sequels to use Bernard Herrmann’s theme. Working from a script by Hitchcock’s screenwriter and, of course, Robert Bloch’s novel, director Mick Garris (Sleepwalkers) presents a seemingly rehabilitated Norman Bates (Perkins), who’s drawn to a late-night radio show where the host (CCH Pounder) encourages him to share his views on the topic of matricide. Reliving his childhood, Norman recounts his trials as a boy (Henry Thomas) living with his widowed, schizophrenic mother (Olivia Hussey), who’s a psycho-sexual nightmare. Could reliving these memories rekindle murderous impulses from Bates’ past? Stay tuned. This would be one of the last films Perkins completed before his death on September 12, 1992, due to pneumonia as a complication of AIDS. He was 60. Special features add commentary with Garris, Thomas and Hussey; the featurette, “The Making of Mother,” an interview with make-up effects artist Tony Gardner; behind-the-scenes footage from Garris; and a gallery of rare photos from Garris’ collection.

The Bloodstained Butterfly is another excellent entry in Arrow Video’s giallo catalogue from 1971, this one directed by Duccio Tessari (Death Occurred Last Night, A Pistol for Ringo), a year that also included releases by maestros Dario Argento (Four Flies on Grey Velvet) and Mario Bava (A Bay of Blood). Apart from the usual genre conceits, “Butterfly” contains elements of the courtroom-drama and police-procedural subgenres. When a young woman is knifed to death in a Bergamo park, during a thunderstorm, all fingers point to TV sports personality Alessandro Marchi (Giancarlo Sbragia), seen fleeing the scene of the crime by numerous eyewitnesses. A guilty verdict looks cut-and-dried, at least until a killer using similar methodology strikes while Marchi’s behind bars. While the truth comes out in the end, it’s what happens in between that makes “Butterfly” so compelling. That, and a cast that includes Helmut Berger, Evelyn Stewart and Carole André, as well as a score by Gianni Ferrio. The Blu-ray set adds commentary with critics Alan Jones and Kim Newman; “Murder in B-Flat Minor,” a new visual essay on the film, its cast and crew by author Troy Howarth; a career retrospective on director Duccio Tessari; original Italian and English theatrical trailers; a gallery of original promotional images; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin; and a 36-page booklet, illustrated by Tonci Zonjic, containing writing by James Blackford, Howard Hughes and Leonard Jacobs.

John Shackleton’s freshman feature is all style and setup, with very little follow-through. That doesn’t necessarily make it unusual or unworthy, though. In The Sleeping Room, an inexperienced prostitute, Blue (Leila Mimmack), works for a pimp and madam in the British coastal town of Brighton. Conveniently, she does house calls, one of which takes her to a Victorian structure being remodeled by a shady contractor. While exploring, they uncover a secret space, a “sleeping room,” where working girls could rest between servicing clients. Blue also comes across a mutoscope, an early motion-picture device that works very much like a flip book. The story told in by the photographs will evolve through the short length of the movie and eventually take Blue back to the roots of her family tree. The house has its share of ghosts and secrets, some of which are dangerous. The DVD adds making-of featurettes and a short film.

The Adventures of Paula Peril

Anyone who’s pondered getting into the world of cosplay (costume play, for the uninitiated), but has been holding out for a heroine, may want to check out Valerie Perez. Besides making any of her many superhero costumes look sexier, just by being squeezed into them, she’s proven she can do more than test the tensile strength of a bodice. If that doesn’t sound like much of an accomplishment, consider that most cosplay models are content merely to stand around a comic-book convention and be stared at by hordes of nerds. (As opposed to participating in cosplay rituals and competitions, which are something else entirely.) Next year, Israeli hottie Gal Gadot (Fast & Furious) will attempt to step into the boots, tiara and bulletproof bracelets once worn by TV Wonder Woman Lynda Carter. Perez, who stars in the DVD series, The Adventures of Paula Peril, has been impersonating Wonder Woman at charity events, conventions and other gatherings of the geeks for years and, at a trim and athletic 5-foot-7, very much looks the part. She models for various comic book and video game artists, while also making appearances as Lara Croft, Zatanna the Magician, Vampirella, a Vulcan scientist and Scarlet Witch, and stage hosting the annual Saturn Awards. Perez has appeared as Paula Peril in a total of six short films, including the seven-minute short, “Trapped in the Flames,” which, curiously, can even be found on the occasional bondage site. The Adventures of Paula Peril is an anthology feature, containing the short films “Mystery of the Crystal Falcon,” “The Invisible Evil” and “Midnight Whistle” – a “Perils of Pauline” look-alike — re-mastered with 30 minutes of new content and a storyline directed by Jason Winn. Perez describes her character as “Lois Lane and Nancy Drew meet Indiana Jones.” At her newspaper office, Paula must contend with the headline-stealing Veronica Vilancourt (Marla Malcolm), a deadline-fretting editor (James Connor) and protective friend (Stephen Hanthorn). Paula’s made enemies with a mob boss and is constantly getting herself into and out of dilemmas. Unlike most women in the newspaper dodge, her work outfit consists of black boots, a mini-skirt, tight red sweater, bra made to hold DDs at a right angle from her body and, maybe, skin-colored hose. Frankly, while the movie isn’t much to look at, Perez’ presence more than makes up for the lapses in coherency.

Love Camp

How can one distinguish a Jess Franco women-in-prison movie from all of the others made in the 1970s? The guards, as well as the inmates. are topless, and none of them speak Filipino, at least not in Love Camp, which also incorporates the conceits of a jungle prison flick. Here, incredibly, a group of listless women is abducted from a lazy South American town by communist guerrillas and forced to march through the jungle in various stages of undress. At a makeshift brothel, they’ll serve the revolution by servicing the fighters. One of the women, Angela (Ada Tauler), is kidnapped on her wedding night, before she could consummate her marriage. At the prison, Angela enchants both the Germanic commandant and lesbian warden, and, they compete to keep her fruits to themselves. Suddenly, though, her counter-revolutionary husband arrives to save Angela, leaving her to decide between three lovers. It’s junk, of course, but a prime example of its genre, and a nicely restored one, at that. As for the sex, Love Camp’s almost ubiquitous nudity and rape scenarios make it harder than soft-core but softer than hard-core. The extras add previews of other Franco films and an interview with the ultra-prolific Spanish sleazeball, who died in 2013, at 82, in Málaga.

TV-to-DVD

History: Roots: Blu-ray

Netflix: Narcos: Season One: Blu-ray

Starz: Blunt Talk: Season One

Starz: Ash vs Evil Dead: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray

PBS: Koko: The Gorilla Who Talks

PBS: Masterpiece Mystery!: Endeavour Series The Complete Third Season: Blu-ray

PBS: Masterpiece Mystery!: Inspector Lewis Season 8: Blu-ray

With the 2016 Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony right around the corner – September 18 – there’s no better time to start binging on full-season packages of the nominees and the snubbed, alike. I hesitated to watch the “reimagining” of “Roots” as it played out last spring on the History, A&E and Lifetime networks in four two-hour installments. In the same way that it isn’t fair to measure one Super Bowl or World Series against another, especially if one’s home team is competing, I didn’t want to hold the new “Roots” up against the truly epochal 1977 original. Simply put, no one had seen anything like producers Stan Margulies and David L. Wolper’s history of slavery in America – based, of course, on Alex Haley’s book – which didn’t hold much back when it came to the horrors associated with this country’s “original sin.” The fact that ABC was one of only three commercial broadcast networks at the time, and the cable industry was still in its infancy, helped focus 100 million viewers’ rapt attention on the mid-January mini-series, which was still a fresh concept. (It devastated movie attendance, among other things.) The new “Roots” couldn’t possibly match that experience … or could it? Well, no and yes. Unless one were paying close attention, it would have been easy to miss the Memorial Day opening. It received excellent reviews, but who reads them anymore? As phenomenon goes … it wasn’t. And, yet, it was able to stand on its own merits as a compelling drama and valuable history lesson. If it didn’t feature as recognizable a cast as the 1977 original, which included a large number of stars familiar mostly to TV viewers, the equally fine cast of newcomers allowed viewers to focus exclusively on their characters and individual stories, some of which had been condensed or expanded from the original. The impact of the brutality on viewers was heightened, as well, by the current state of race relations in this country and Donald Trump’s unwillingness to denounce his bigoted followers. This isn’t to say that “Roots” didn’t offer humor, warmth and humanity to counter the countless n-words and whip lashes. Regé-Jean Page’s Chicken George storyline, and Forest Whitaker’s Fiddler arc, especially demand to be seen and enjoyed. Technical advances unimaginable 40 years ago also enhance the experience. The Blu-ray includes the 42-minute featurette, “Roots: A History Revealed,” which is well worth watching. It’s too early say whether a remounting of “Roots: The Next Generations” might already be on the drawing boards.

Neither was I in much of a hurry to catch Netflix’s “Narcos,” which threatened to be a rehash of everything already known and shown about the rise of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel. The pursuit by law enforcement divisions, bridging Colombia and the United States, didn’t promise much in the way of refreshing the story, either. Now that I’ve binged on it, however, I can easily recommend it to fans of international crime thrillers and those who watch Scarface whenever it pops up on cable TV. Brazilian actor/musician Wagner Moura is terrific as the cocaine kingpin who revolutionized the smuggling game, by recognizing the insatiable appetite of Americans for a drug that wasn’t considered dangerous for almost a decade after its arrival here. The rest of the largely South and Central American cast is also very good. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Escobar comes off here as an antihero or charismatic criminal, because he doesn’t. It’s the spoils of his crimes that whet the appetites of viewers, who, against their better judgment, envy his plunder. While his many bizarre excesses – a personal menagerie that included hippos and zebras, and gold-plated everything else – are amusing, there’s no disguising the fact that Escobar was a cold-blooded killer, philanderer and amoral ego maniac. He got around it by becoming something of a modern-day Robin Hood, at least in the Medellin region, where poverty had been a cold reality of life. Neither is there any doubt that he and his mates needed to be contained or eliminated. (Luis Guzman’s José Rodríguez Gacha is even more ruthless than Moura’s Escobar.) The problem for some viewers will come in watching DEA, CIA, Pentagon and State Department officials put Colombia in a stranglehold for the sins of coke-snorting Americans and a handful of criminals who serviced their insatiable appetite for the drug. When the U.S. turned the screws on Colombian leaders, largely to appease First Lady Nancy Reagan and her “Just Say No” campaign, it assured a bloodbath that claimed the lives of as many innocents as criminals. (President Reagan was more obsessed with eliminating communist guerrillas, who, at least, weren’t as corrupt as the nation’s political elite.) As the cartel leaders grew richer and more powerful, the behavior of the DEA in combatting them became that much more reprehensible. American agents and officials played by Boyd Holbrook, Pedro Pascal, Danielle Kennedy, Richard T. Jones and Patrick St. Esprit demonstrate exactly how muddled our policies were in Colombia and how often they worked at cross-purposes to each other. By the end of Season One, it was difficult to cheer for anyone with much conviction. The Blu-ray arrives with select commentaries, deleted scenes and making-of pieces.

Someday, in the not too distant future, the major broadcast networks are going have to do something about their problem with developing new sitcoms. As far as I can tell, the only three sitcoms that cracked last season’s top-25 shows – in the “key 18-49 demographic,” anyway – were “The Goldbergs,” “Modern Family” and “The Big Bang Theory.” NFL football broadcasts dominated almost all of the timeslots they occupied. “The Middle,” “Black-ish,” “Life in Pieces,” “Two Broke Girls,” “The Simpsons” and the now-deceased “Mike & Molly” all had their moments, but none that recalled the Glory Days of the sitcom. The Big Four can still churn out the occasional hit drama, reality and talent show and be rewarded with impressive numbers, of course. For comedy, though, viewers head for the cable networks, where the writers and exec-producers have greater latitude when it comes to language, nudity, sex, drugs and subject matter and niche appeal. Starz’ “Blunt Talk” is a perfect example of a show that thrives creatively on the freedom provided by premium cable and easy availability through streaming services and DVD compilations. Its numbers are probably dwarfed by the aforementioned sitcoms, but who’s counting? In it, the wonderfully talented Patrick Stewart skewers the image of cable-news hosts, by playing one so pompous, misguided and uninformed that we recognize a little bit of his Walter Blunt in every host on CNN, Fox, CNBC, MSNBC and, for that matter, ESPN and Fox Sports. (I doubt that any of Blunt’s real-life peers would acknowledge their influence on him, though.) Through the platform of his nightly news show, the Falklands War veteran is on a mission to impart his wisdom and guidance on how Americans should live, think and behave. Imagine, if possible, Jeff Daniels’ Will McAvoy, in the HBO drama series “The Newsroom,” crossed with the much-hired/fired/resigned Keith Olbermann. As is also the case with off-network sitcoms, the supporting cast of long-suffering characters – here, played by Jacki Weaver, Adrian Scarborough, Dolly Wells, Timm Sharp — is superlative. Any show able to reference Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces and Laurel & Hardy’s The Music Box, as “Blunt Talk” so nimbly pulled off in Episode Eight, is one to watch on a weekly basis or binge on.

Starz’ completely nutso horror/comedy “Ash vs Evil Dead” is a 10-episode follow-up to the film franchise, The Evil Dead, this time in half-hour bites. The series follows the exploits of chainsaw-handed monster hunter Ash (Bruce Campbell), the stock boy and aging lothario who has spent the last 30 years avoiding responsibility, maturity and the ever-present zombie terrors of the Evil Dead. Also along for the roller-coast ride are Lucy Lawless, as Ruby, a mysterious figure who believes Ash is the cause of the Evil outbreaks; Ray Santiago, as Pablo Simon Bolivar, an idealistic immigrant who becomes Ash’s loyal sidekick; Dana DeLorenzo as Kelly Maxwell, a moody wild child trying to outrun her past; and Jill Marie Jones, as Amanda Fisher, a disgraced Michigan state trooper sent to find Ash and prove his responsibility in the grisly murder of her partner. The series is executive produced by Sam Raimi, who also directed the first episode. As entertaining as it is, “Ash vs Evil Dead” is not for the squeamish.

In 1971, Stanford graduate student Penny Patterson began teaching sign language to an infant gorilla, Koko, on loan from the San Francisco Zoo. What started out as a scientific experiment evolved into an intimate friendship, as depicted in “Koko: The Gorilla Who Talks.” The exhaustively documented film shows Penny and Koko at every turn in their relationship. There are times when viewers will question if the researcher may have gone too far, by pushing the experiment beyond any possible goals and not finding a more social habitat for Koko. Personally, I’d prefer it if gorillas in the wild could be armed and trained to defend themselves from poachers.

PBS’ tremendously popular “Masterpiece Mystery!” entries “Endeavour” and “Inspector Lewis” are newly available in packages comprising episodes in their third and eighth seasons, respectively. Set in the 1960s, “Endeavor” follows Endeavour Morse (Shaun Evans) in his early years as a police constable, working alongside his senior partner DI Fred Thursday (Roger Allam), in the oddly crime-ridden precincts of Oxford. The new series of four “Endeavour” episodes is set in 1967, just after Morse is placed in police custody, framed for a murder he didn’t commit, and Thursday’s life was left hanging in the balance after being shot. The sometimes uneasy rapport between the two men is a joy to watch.

The eighth (or ninth, depending on where one sits) season of “Inspector Lewis” is said to be the show’s final stanza. Given that the successor to “Inspector Morse” represents a third generation of characters, though, there’s no real reason to believe that never will be never. One can only hope not, anyway. The arrival of new Chief Superintendent Joe Moody (Steve Toussaint) heralds a new era for Oxfordshire Police, causing DI Will Lewis (Kevin Whately) to finally make a decision on retirement. Meanwhile, after years of avoiding the thorny issue of family ties, Hathaway (Laurence Fox) is forced to confront his past.

The DVD Wrapup: Sky, 11 Minutes, Raiders!, De Broca, Session 9, Dirty Country, Buckaroo Banzai and more

Wednesday, August 17th, 2016

Sky

So much has been made lately about the immigrants attempting to cross our southern border to find work, we’ve forgotten about the many people who come here simply to discover something that’s been missing in their lives and think it might be hiding in Hollywood, Las Vegas, Graceland or New York. Fabienne Berthaud’s frequently compelling road picture, Sky, describes what happens when the marriage of French couple implodes in the Middle of Nowhere, USA, and she declares her independence in a most American way … violently. Thinking that she’s killed her drunken mate with a lamp, after being humiliated by him in a dumpy bar attached to a crummy motel on the western edge of the Mojave Desert, Romy (Diane Kruger) grabs a ride with trucker (Lou Diamond Phillips) heading for Las Vegas. Instead of being dropped off in front of the Bellagio or Venetian, where she might have landed a shop as a cocktail waitress, at least, Romy finds herself stranded downtown, at a bus stop, next a sad old thing in a bunny outfit, who poses for tourists alongside a fake Elvis. In exchange for a place to crash, Romy agrees to wear the costume for a night, during which she allows herself to be hustled by a shaggy guy in a cowboy hat. Diego (Norman Reedus) mistakes her for a prostitute and, because the shoe fits, she goes along with the ruse. Romy takes an immediate romantic liking to him, despite a cough that suggests he might be near the top of a list of lung-transplant candidates. Actually, it’s not that far from the truth.

With the money he leaves behind on the nightstand – unsolicited – Romy buys a beater car and heads back to the town she’d left a few days earlier to turn herself in to the sheriff. Instead of being cuffed and read her rights, a friendly cop tells her that her husband survived the beating and wasn’t pressing charges. No matter, because in Romy’s mind, he’s history. After visiting his hospital room and telling him to buzz off, she makes a beeline for the address Diego left behind with the hundred-dollar bills. Turns out, he’s a park ranger and not at all unhappy to see her. It doesn’t take her long to fall into the simple patterns followed each day by desert rats, waiting tables for beer money and hanging out with Diego’s dead-end pals, one of whom is a pregnant boozer played rather well by Lena Dunham. In a nice twist, Berthaud allows for Romy’s closest acquaintances in the dusty crossroads town to be Native Americans – they re-name her, Sky — whose tribe apparently missed out on the casino boom. As unlikely as the story sounds, I’m not sure it is all that different from the one told so well in Percy Adlon’s off-the-wall dramedy, Bagdad Café, which shares some of the same desert locations with Sky. The leads are very good, especially the German-born Kruger, who’s starred in all three of the director’s features and had key roles in Inglourious Basterds, Unknown and “The Bridge.”

11 Minutes

At the ripe old age of 78, Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski (Deep End, Essential Killing) borrowed a technique he used in film school, more than a half-century ago, for the synchronistic drama, 11 Minutes. By combining disparate stories and tying them together at the end, Skolimowski describes how unrelated residents of the same city can be united in communal empathy by a single event. It is the culmination of 11-minute snippets from the lives of several residents of Warsaw. Viewers are able to synchronize the events through an “event” – an airplane flies dangerously close to the city’s skyline — that, we know, takes place at a specific time. Because the plane is seen in at least two of the sequences, it’s possible to draw inferences to 9/11, although with no degree of certainty or deeper meaning. Knowing, perhaps, that we might not be able to connect all of the dots within the movie’s 81-minute length, Skolimowski opens with a four-minute precede — mixing sleek cinematography with footage from webcam, smartphone and CCTV cameras — offering glimpses into something going on between a husband and wife, a film director and a married actress he’s “interviewing” in a hotel room, a hot-dog seller with a sordid personal history and a messenger, who delivers more than packages. If the fragmented approach seems overfamiliar, almost formulaic, it’s because similar synchronicity occurred in Babel, Crash and Short Cuts. Giving the characters only 11 minutes to establish themselves in our minds turns it into more of a chamber piece than anything else. And, given that 11 Minutes is an arthouse exercise, it’s reasonably acessible.

Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made: Blu-Ray

For a shot-for-shot remake to be taken seriously, it has to be as close to a Xerox copy of the original as possible, without also being a parody or casting gimmick. Gus Van Sant justified his 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho by shooting it in color. (It didn’t work.) Michael Haneke remade his 1997 German-language thriller, Funny Games, 10 years after its original release, this time in English. (It did.) American television reboots of such British hits as “The Office,” “Skins” and “Coupling” have used the same scripts with different actors, to mixed results. What allows Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made to succeed at the same game is a backstory so singularly off the wall that isn’t likely to be repeated any time soon. After all, who in their right mind would consider copying a mega-budget project — Raiders of the Lost Ark – whose elaborate set pieces, top-shelf talent and exotic locations made it a state-of-the-art experience. Still, in 1981, two 11-year-olds in Mississippi set out to remake their favorite film, word-for-word, scene-for-scene, special effect by special effect, seemingly just for kicks and bragging rights at their school’s AV club. With considerable help of friends and the guidance of parents, Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala managed to complete their DIY adventure in seven years. All that was missing was the explosive sequence at the end of the movie. Thirty years later, the now-estranged friends – cherchez la femme – tie all of the loose ends together and fully realize their childhood dream. Then, Tim Skousen and Jeremy Coon decided it might be fun – if not particularly profitable – to document the long-delayed project, which was being funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Fans of Steven Spielberg’s classic adventure might recall that part of the final scene involved a brawl between Nazis and anthropologists at a makeshift landing strip. The “flying wing” aircraft was blown up before it could escape with the Ark to Berlin. Considering how disastrously wrong other special-effects experimentation went in the original go-round, it’s a good thing that the 11-year-olds didn’t get their hands on the explosives they’d need to finish their film. Things would go badly enough almost 40 years later, even with pyrotechnics experts manning the fuses. As it is, one of the amateur filmmakers came within a few hours of losing his job in Hollywood because of the many rained-out production days. The documentary also describes what happened when an unfinished cassette of “Raiders!” was discovered by a bunch of Austin film nerds, shown to an SRO crowd at the Alamo Drafthouse and it ultimately made its way to Spielberg, who loved it. Chances are, so will you. The finished product isn’t included in the Blu-ray package, as it’s still on tour and through VOD. “Raiders” does feature interviews with John Rhys Davies, Eli Roth and Harry Knowles, as well as cast and crew members and parents, whose marriages were less successful than either movie. It’s a lot of fun to watch and, in the right hands, truly inspirational. The Blu-ray adds four hours of extras, including dual audio commentary tracks (with Skousen and Coon, as well as Strompolos and Zala); deleted scenes from the documentary; outtakes from the adaptation; Q&A footage from the adaptation’s 2003 premiere at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin; and a photo booklet featuring storyboard art drawn from memory by the boys, when they were tadpoles.

Philippe de Broca Double Feature: On Guard/Five Day Lover: Blu-ray

The thought occurred while I was watching Philippe de Broca’s swashbuckling adventure, On Guard, that I can’t remember seeing Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks wearing the kinds of wigs – powdered or otherwise – forced upon French and British actors when portraying the same literary and historical heroes. John Wayne began sporting a wig in 1948, but not that any of his fans would notice. The hairpiece he wore when impersonating Genghis Khan, in The Conqueror, could have passed muster in the Beatle Invasion, eight years later. Like Alexandre Dumas’ 1846 novel, “The Three Musketeers,” Paul Féval’s 1857 historical adventure “Le Bossu” (“The Hunchback”) has been adapted for the screen five times since 1912, the last one 46 years ago. Although a $30-million budget may not sound like much money for such an epic yarn, even in 1997, every penny of it is visible in the spectacular locations, period costumes, interior sets and elaborately choreographed action. Best known for the splashy mid-’60s James Bond parodies, That Man from Rio and The Man from Acapulco, de Broca’s also shepherded several large-scale productions (Cartouche) and the humanistic anti-war dramedy, King of Hearts, which found more support on American campuses than in France. Spanning 16 eventful years, beginning in 1700, On Guard follows a skilled swordsman, Lagardère (Daniel Auteuil), who is befriended by the playboy aristocrat Duke Philippe de Nevers (Vincent Pérez), after the upstart engages the even more proficient fencer in a non-lethal duel. By doing so, Lagardère hoped to learn his secret maneuver, the “Nevers Attack.”

Later that night, Nevers’ weaselly cousin, the Comte de Gonzague (Fabrice Luchini), attempts to assassinate him, thereby allowing him to claim the family inheritance. When that fails, Lagardère and his new friend set out for a grand castle in the French Alps, where Nevers will marry his lover and claim his bastard child as his heir. Gonzague’s men aren’t finished with him yet, however. During the bloody attack that follows the wedding, Lagardère is able to escape with the baby, while the new bride/widow is taken hostage by her cousin-in-law. He takes her back with him to Paris, where she’ll be imprisoned and judged too mentally unstable to control the family fortune, which includes large holdings in French-controlled territories west of the Mississippi River. From there, the action, deceit and romance never stop. If On Guard is 10-20 minutes too long, viewers can focus less on the subtitled dialogue and enjoy the scenery provided by the Château-Ville-Vieille, in Hautes-Alpes; Paris’ Hôtel de Sully and Place des Vosges; Le Mans, on the Sarthe River; and various locations in Queyras, in Hautes-Alpes. A making-of featurette comes with the two-disc package.

And, now, for something completely different. Released in 1961, Five Day Lover is the kind of risqué sex comedy American arthouse audiences came to expect from French filmmakers at a time when the Production Code still dictated the borders of Hollywood rom-coms and Doris Day was simultaneously viewed as both virginal and a sex symbol. Although nudity was limited to bare backs and shoulders, the film’s laissez-faire attitude toward adultery and sex outside of marriage probably was considered provocative. I doubt anyone considered it to be an early salvo in the sexual revolution, however. Jean Seberg, less than two years removed from her breakthrough performance in Breathless, plays a young Brit, Claire, living in Paris with her bookish husband, Georges (François Périer), and their two small children. One day, while attending a fashion show mounted by her friend Madeleine (Micheline Presle), Claire flirts with a lighthearted young Frenchman, Antoine (Jean-Pierre Cassel), whose only visible means of support appears to be provided by the socialite designer. Although Claire appears to love her husband, she chafes at his frugal nature and boring small talk. Antoine’s his polar opposite. Madeleine doesn’t seem to mind the younger man mooching off her, as long as he satisfies her in bed. The same is probably true for Claire, who doesn’t limit her love-making sessions to any one piece of furniture. When Madeleine learns of the affair, she plots an ambush by inviting Claire, Georges and Antoine to the same party and seeing what happens. It’s at this point that reality sets in for the participants in the lovers’ quadrangle and de Broca’s camera is there to capture it. Georges Delerue’s bouncy score, combined with Jean Penzer’s ability to capture the joys of living in Paris in pristine black and white cinematography, really enhance the film. Especially telling is a sequence in which the illicit lovers win 200,000 francs at a racetrack and decide to blow it all in one night on the town … something Paris was built to accommodate. At sunrise, they find themselves at the grand Château de Chantilly, which, coincidentally, Claire had visited with Georges a week earlier. During a long pause in their conversation, she proves as adept at making mundane small talk as her husband. What’s really great about Five Day Lover, however, is the presence of Seberg, a fine American actress who suffered from depression after being set up in a FBI conspiracy and killed herself, 18 years later, at 40.

The Playboy of the Western World

Watching it today, more than a century after The Playboy of the Western World was first performed in Dublin, it’s difficult to understand how the wicked comedy sparked riots by nationalists who viewed the contents of the play as an offence to public morals and an insult against Ireland. As one of the co-founders of the Abbey Theatre, Irish playwright John Millington Synge probably wasn’t expecting such a reaction to what would later be considered to be his masterpiece. No less a patriot than William Butler Yeats felt it necessary to defend the play against the rabble who also rioted against Seán O’Casey’s pacifist drama, “The Plough and the Stars.” “You have disgraced yourself again,” he declared. “Is this to be the recurring celebration of the arrival of Irish genius?” Today, of course, “Playboy” is about as controversial as the latest pronouncement by Bono. This isn’t to say that it isn’t tremendously entertaining or is hopelessly anachronistic, though. The play is set in a remote inn on the west coast of Ireland at the dawn of the 20th Century. The innkeeper’s daughter, Pegeen Mike, is preparing for her marriage to a local lad, when a young man barges into the tavern, claiming that he’s on the lam for killing his father. After Christy Mahon cleans up a bit, he becomes the most eligible bachelor in County Mayo, even charming Pegeen out of her betrothal. Turns out, however, that reports of the old man’s demise are greatly exaggerated. It puts a whole new spin on how the men and women of the village look at Mahon, if not how he perceives himself outside the boundaries of the old man’s farm. Although much of the comedy is lost in the lack of subtitles on this DVD edition, the play is celebrated for Synge’s use of the poetic, evocative language of the lyrical speech of the peasant Irish. The DVD performance by Ireland’s Druid Theater Company was taped in 1982 and is considered to be among the best adaptations of the play.

 

Love Me

Among the many noteworthy movies that have examined the immigration process commonly associated with “mail-order brides” and “picture brides,” depending on the direction a woman travels to her new home in the United States, are Jan Troell’s Zandy’s Bride, Kayo Hatta’s Picture Bride, Ali Selim’s Sweet Land and Henry Koster’s Flower Drum Song. None whitewash the difficulties attendant with meeting a potential spouse, absent any previous history together, and expecting that things will work out somewhere down the road. That any worked out at all is something of a miracle. (My Greek grandfather married my Greek grandmother based solely on information exchanged in a few letters and references from her future brother-in-law, who already was in the United States and anxious to get married to a girl he knew from the same village.) The United States was a very different place in the 19th Century, when sending for brides, based on newspaper ads or sketchy photographs, became an option for lonely men working on the prairie or the railroad. The ration of men to women was way out of balance, especially when language differences also had to be taken into consideration. Jonathon Narducci’s informative and frequently intimate documentary, Love Me, introduces us to the new generation of Internet-order brides, if you will, and the men willing to spend thousands of dollars just to meet them. It isn’t all-inclusive, by any means, but the film identifies most of the pluses and minuses. We aren’t told why a disproportionate number of Ukrainian women are willing to be courted by western men working through agencies that advertise their services on the Internet, with reasonably accurate photos of female candidates but sketchy bio backgrounds.

 

Here, we follow groups of men before and after they travel to the Ukraine for meet-and-greets in three different cities, where translators are provided and free time is allowed to break through to the second level. It’s easy to see why the men we meet, some just off their second or third marriages, would have a problem connecting with post-feminist American women. Some have unreasonable expectations of women they hope will share their Eisenhower-era vision of the nuclear family, while others must not have looked in a mirror in the last 30 years, because they couldn’t look any less like Robert Redford or, even, Vladimir Putin. The women, on the other hand, range from agreeably plain to stunning. We’re given no reason to believe they’re gold diggers, strippers looking for better opportunities in the Land of Milk and Honey, gang molls or shills for the agencies. Indeed, the men seem more desperate than the women, despite the Ukraine’s crappy economy. Perhaps, the female candidates have heard the stories about what’s happened to mail-order brides who’ve disappointed their husbands and paid the ultimate penalty, whether by being murdered or going to jail for beating the bugger to death. If there’s no reason to think that any such problems could arise here, it’s safe to believe that some might have been averted by last-minute cold feet.

 

Dirty Country

The working principle behind Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher’s truly outrageous doc, Dirty Country, is: “Dirty music … it’s as American as apple pie.” With apologies to such lyrical smut-peddlers as piano man Dr. Dirty, proto-rapper Blowfly and frat-faves Doug Clark’s Hot Nuts – whose works are on display here – and Roger Alan Wade (“Butt Ugly Slut”) and the late Rusty Warren (“Knockers Up”), being American has nothing to do with dirty music. It’s probably as old as the graffiti on the walls of Pompeii brothels. And, yes, there’s a big difference between the songs heard in “party records” and the rap ditties of 2 Live Crew or Three 6 Mafia, or even the time-honored beatnik smut of the Fugs. The purveyors of party records are like those kids we all met in junior high who discovered early in life that “penis” and “vagina” are inherently funny-sounding words and met with laughter 100 percent of the times they’re uttered out loud in study hall. After losing his factory job in the placid central Indiana town of Middletown (pop. 2,900), 53-year-old Larry Pierce turned to writing and recording raunchy country albums, which were sold almost exclusively in truck stops. It’s where Pickett and Prueher found the material that inspired them to embark on the five-year journey to make Dirty County. Along the way, Pierce connected with the Colorado rock band “-itis,” which already was performing songs they lifted from his albums, accompanied by the kind of props one can find at your local sex shop. Such cuts as “Don’t Fart When You Screw,” “She Makes My Peter Stand Up” and “Destination Dirtpipe” borrow familiar pop melodies, while leaving almost nothing to the imagination. In any case, the lyrics are far less relevant than the titles, as they tend to be repeated ad nausea. The documentary spends a lot of time in Pierce’s garage, where his wife, mom and neighbors boogie until the cows come home, singing along to “Pussy Whipped,” “Sick Minded Bastard” and “Will You Swallow My Cum.” He hit the jackpot when he was discovered by Howard Stern and has been touring ever since.

 

American Sophomore

Sundown

The release of American Sophomore into DVD has either been delayed for four years or seven, depending on who one asks about such things. When it was originally pitched to potential distributors, however, it was simply called “Sophomore.” By adding “American” to the title, we’re supposed to make the connection between it and American Pie. Both are about teenagers at their most uncouth, but the similarities pretty much end there. T. Lee Beideck’s film is split into several sections — First Day of School, Freshman Friday, Drink King, Last Day of School, among them — and each vignette focuses on different students, faculty and staff. (Once a year, a secret drinking contest is held after-hours among the faculty and staff members, including Patrick Warburton’s janitor and dad, with the winner being crowned the Drink King.) Then and now, the only prominent names among the cast members are Warburton (“The Rules of Engagement”) and Amanda Plummer (Pulp Fiction), who add whatever touches of class the comedy possesses. I’d like to think they conducted master classes with the young actor whenever time permitted during production. As you might imagine, American Sophomore focuses on the many indignities upperclassmen inflict on freshmen and teachers during the course of a year. You already know what most of them are … and may have experienced one or two. Just when you think Beideck’s film is going down in flames, he pulls out of the plunge by allowing the kids to learn from their mistakes and mature before our eyes. It’s a nice touch, especially because the freshmen and middle-school characters look their age, for once, and the teachers aren’t uniformly drawn as automatons or fascists. Apart from an inspirational quote, I’m not sure why the school is named after Helen Keller … there’s also a non-ironic quote from Abraham Lincoln. More surprising were the songs by Woody Guthrie, including his delightful “Riding in My Car.”

 

Adding “American” to the title of Sundown wouldn’t have made it a single iota more recommendable to fans of “spring break” or “coming of age” comedies. Neither does a thematic resemblance to Risky Business add much to the hapless story. What I did find interesting was the financial backing accorded the production by different entities in the Mexico tourism industry, specifically those promoting visits to Puerto Vallarta. They should demand their money back, as the Mexicans we meet in Sundown are, by and large, crooks, creeps, scam artists, pimps, prostitutes and cock fighters. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a cameo by drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. Guadalajara-born writer/director/producer Fernando Lebrija (Amar a morir) contrives a scenario in which a pair of American high school seniors, Logan and Blake (Devon Werkheiser, Sean Marquette) embark on a spring trip to Puerto Vallarta, without the approval of their parents or much spending cash. Logan is carrying his grandfather’s Rolex watch, which he had picked up at the jeweler the morning of their departure and would lose within hours of their arrival … of course. Ostensibly, the reason they’ve chosen the scenic Pacific coast city is to hook up with their high school crushes. Instead, they’re swindled by everyone they meet, including a pint-sized travel guide and fixer, Chuy (Silverio Palacios), and a stripper, Gaby (Camilla Belle), in debt to a perverted pimp, Dorian (Jordi Molla). Naturally, after Gaby slips a “roofie” into Logan’s drink, she grabs the Rolex and turns it over to Dorian. He’ll return the watch to Logan, but for $5,000 he doesn’t have. This is how the cockfight – not graphic, but still unappetizing – figures into the story. With his parents (Teri Hatcher, John Michael Higgins) out of town on a vacation of their own, Logan is racing the clock to get back home with the watch. (Recalling the race against time in Risky Business.) The wet-and-wild spring break activities aren’t enough to balance the display of rampant criminality in Sundown, but PV still looks like a nice place to visit. The movie’s greatest asset is a soundtrack that includes the in-person electric-dance-music of Paul Oakenfold and Steve Aoki. For some reason, Lebrija also decided to add a cameo by “Girls Gone Wild” fugitive Joe Francis, who has a luxury resort nearby. The DVD adds making-of and other features.

 

Session 9: Blu-ray

When Session 9 was released in 2001, co-star David Caruso was still attempting to backpedal his way into the hearts of American TV and movie audiences, after famously predicting the demise of “NYPD Blue” when he pulled up his stakes and left the show 26 episodes into the show’s 12-year run. He refused to grasp the reality of his irrelevancy as a cast member in a true ensemble show or anticipate the ascendency of Dennis Franz’ Detective Andy Sipowicz. Brad Anderson’s haunted nuthouse thriller didn’t require of Caruso that he carry the weight of the movie on his shoulders, anyway. The real star was the recently shuttered Danvers State Mental Hospital, a monstrous facility custom-built to scare the crap out of anyone who passed through its gates. The other interesting thing Session 9 had going for it was Anderson’s decision to shoot the film on HD, one of the first high-profile features to do so. After 15 years of dormancy, a developer wants to convert the 126-year-old facility into condominiums … a scheme that could have served as the premise for another horror flick entirely. Pollution-control guidelines demanded the removal of hazardous materials before any construction could begin, forcing the developer to hire a Hazmat team to get rid of the asbestos. No sooner does the team arrive at the site than the workers begin swapping yarns about the former residents, medieval medical practices, reported hauntings and abuses attributed to the staff. Once inside the hospital, the leftover hardware and murky infrastructure provide all the necessary background for the paranoia being exhibited by the harried crew, which includes Peter Mullan, Paul Guilfoyle, Stephen Gevedon and Brendan Sexton III. The discovery of a lobotomy tool and tapes of therapy sessions provide more chills than almost anything else in Session 9. Special features include “Return to Danvers: The Secrets of Session 9,” featuring interviews with Anderson, actor/co-writer Stephen Gevedon, actors Josh Lucas, Brendan Sexton III, Larry Fessenden, composers Climax Golden Twins, and director of photography Uta Briesewitz; “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds,” revisiting the locations of the film; commentary with Anderson and Gevedon; deleted scenes and an alternate ending, with commentary by Anderson; and featurettes “Story to Screen” and “The Haunted Palace.”

 

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray

A natural corollary of a work of art being ahead of its time – in this case, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension — is that it was too hip for the room. Released in 1984 to some critical acclaim, but almost no business, it still defies easy summarization. A rock-’n’-roll sci-fi comedy, “Buckaroo Banzi” tells the story of the space-age renaissance man, Dr. Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller), who’s a physicist, neurosurgeon, test pilot, race driver, musician and potential savior of humanity from a band of inter-dimensional aliens called Red Lectroids. Led by the deranged dictator Lord John Whorfin (John Lithgow), the Lectroids steal the Oscillation Overthruster — a device that allows Banzai to travel through solid matter — with the intent of using it to return to their home of Planet 10. Banzai’s Hong Kong Cavaliers, who bear some similarity to Doc Savage’s Fabulous Five, reside at the Banzai Institute, a think-tank located in Holland Township, New Jersey. They are also Buckaroo’s rock band. There are several more heroes and villains included in the narrative, but why add incomprehensibility to confusion? It must have made sense in the cocaine-fueled 1980s, but, without the benefit of a graphic novel or superhero series to support it, the story became an unholy mess. Or, to be more precise, a potential cult favorite. By the time, “Buckaroo Banzai” evolved from concept to reality, first-time director W.D. Richter had written Slither, Peeper, Nickelodeon, Dracula, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Brubaker and All Night Long. Writer Earl Mac Rauch wrote New York, New York and A Stranger Is Watching. With that much talent on board, it’s almost inconceivable that such a flimsy plot could be attached to such an intriguing looking production. The cast also includes an all-star lineup of character actors: Ellen Barkin, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Lloyd, Clancy Brown, Dan Hedaya, Yakov Smirnoff, Jonathan Banks, Carl Lumbly, Lewis Smith, Pepe Serna, Matt Clark, Vincent Schiavelli and Billy Vera (of the Beaters). Special features include “Into the 8th Dimension: A Two-Hour Retrospective Documentary,” including fresh interviews with cast and crew, many of whom still can’t say with any accuracy what it’s about; commentaries with Michael and Denise Okuda, and Richter and Rauch; a “declassified” featurette; alternate opening sequence (with Jamie Lee Curtis); deleted scenes; and “Jet Car” trailer.

 

Microwave Massacre: Blu-ray

In one of the truly incongruous castings of all time, the famously deadpan comedian Jackie Vernon was chosen – after Rodney Dangerfield passed on the opportunity – to play the protagonist in Microwave Massacre, widely acknowledged as one of the worst horror movies of all time. Vernon’s presence, as a cannibalistic widower, normally wouldn’t be sufficient reason for Arrow Video to bestow a full 2K restoration on what, in 1983, was one of the original straight-to-video miscues. But, in addition to the many fine blaxploitation, sexploitation, giallo, yakuza, German new wave and other classic exploitation films it’s released, Arrow’s also found room for such indigestible fare as Brian Yuzna’s Society, John Grissmer’s Blood Rage and Buddy Cooper’s The Mutilator. And, thanks to TLC and fresh featurettes, the Blu-ray packages aren’t cheap, either. Here, Vernon, the same guy who provided the voice for the animated holiday special, “Frosty the Snowman,” plays a construction worker so tired of his wife’s complaining and gourmet-food experiments that he bludgeons her with a pepper grinder. Still hungry, Donald dismembers the body and sets about microwaving the remains, which turn out to be rather delicious. For variety, Donald will bring home the occasional stripper and once again perform the gastronomical exercise. Microwave Massacre is so ineptly made that the do-it-yourself horror would hardly frighten a flea. If Vernon isn’t much of an actor, at least he’s come up with any number of witty asides that add a spark of originality and humor to the proceedings. The Blu-ray adds audio commentary with writer-producer Craig Muckler, moderated by Mike Tristano; a new making-of featurette, including interviews with Muckler, director Wayne Berwick and actor Loren Schein; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork to be; and fully-illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by “Nightmare USA” author Stephen Thrower.

 

TV-to-DVD

Spike: I Am JFK Jr.

Nickelodeon: Shimmer and Shine: Welcome to Zahramay Falls

PBS Kids: Wild Kratts: Wild Reptiles

When, on July 16, 1999, a small plane carrying John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife, Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, and her older sister, Lauren, crashed into the ocean off Martha’s Vineyard, it triggered a tsunami of mourning only slightly less devastating than the one that followed the recent death of Princess Diana. That one, of course, was sustained by conspiracy theories and the assumed complicity of paparazzi on motorbikes and a, perhaps, drunken chauffeur. While speculation that the 38-year-old Kennedy had pressed his beginner’s luck by attempting a nighttime landing seemed reasonable, the American media chose to treat this and every other family misstep as the extension of a curse or, worse, payback for his grandfather’s devil’s bargain with the Mafia. By all indications, young Kennedy was a decent fellow who avoided the spotlight, but wasn’t reluctant to back causes he considered righteous and stand up for friends. Moreover, he was undeniably handsome and sufficiently buff, even, to be considered a prize catch for Elaine Benes, on “Seinfeld.” (She blew it, of course.) Shown on Spike-TV as part of its “I Am …” series of bio-docs, “I Am JFK Jr.: A Tribute to a Good Man” is a celebrity-driven homage, filled with interviews with such friends, acquaintances and observers as Robert De Niro, Cindy Crawford, Mike Tyson, Christiane Amanpour, Chris Cuomo, Paul Begala, Grateful Dead songwriter John Perry Barlow, New York restaurateur Richie Notar, professional colleagues Rose Marie Terenzio, Gary Ginsberg and Matt Berman, fellow First Son Michael Reagan and media gadflies Ann Coulter and Larry Flynt. The 93-minute film is grounded with personal photos from John’s closest friends and vintage newsreel footage of young John in the White House, on vacation with his family and rare footage of him in the years after his famous father’s assassination. Entertaining, informative and occasionally insightful, without also being academic or comprehensive, it’s from the same director, Derik Murray, who’s already done “I Am Chris Farley,” “I Am Evel Knievel,” “I Am Bruce Lee” and “Johnny Cash: American Rebel.”

 

From Nickelodeon’s lineup for kids arrives “Shimmer and Shine: Welcome to Zahramay Falls,” a compilation of previously aired episodes. The show focuses on a young girl, Leah, and her friends — twin genies in training — Shimmer and Shine. They grant Leah three wishes every day, but they don’t often work out as planned. In the double-episode, “First Wish,” Leah wins a genie bottle pendant at a carnival and is surprised to find that her prize comes with a bonus, in the form of Shimmer and Shine. Leah wishes for a polka-dotted elephant and things get complicated when she uses her remaining wishes to keep her neighbor, Zac, from seeing the elephant. In the end, the girls create a new carnival attraction and learn that they can overcome any obstacle by working together. In the title segment, Shimmer and Shine receive a special Green Burst Gem from Princess Samira and bring it into the human world. The evil sorceress Zeta uses magic to steal the gem, but her spell goes awry and pulls Leah and Zac into Zahramay Falls. In “Happy Wishaversary,” it’s time for Shimmer, Shine and Leah to celebrate the anniversary of their first wish. The twins make Leah a bracelet with a magical touch. When Leah puts the bracelet on, she can float like a genie, but only until she loses control of the prize.

 

PBS Kids’ “Wild Kratts” is an American-Canadian educational animated series created by Chris and Martin Kratt. The show’s aim is to educate children about biology, zoology and ecology, while teaching small ways to make big impacts. The episodes collected here are “Wild Reptiles,” “The Gecko Effect,” “Crocogator Contest,” “Rattlesnake Crystal” and “Chameleon on Target.”

 

The DVD Wrapup: Hologram for the King, The Tiger, Women He’s Dressed, The Midnight After, Monster With 1,000 Heads, The Tunnel, Halt & Catch Fire and more

Thursday, August 11th, 2016

A Hologram for the King: Blu-ray

This warm-hearted, if all too topical adaptation of Dave Eggers’ novel – a 2012 finalist for the National Book Award – describes what happens when an American businessman deemed redundant travels to Saudi Arabia in a last-ditch effort to re-establish his self-confidence and make enough money to afford his daughter’s college education. It’s not as uncommon a story as one might think, considering that the Middle East is one of the few places on Earth where middle-age westerners can find work after being laid off. In yet another of his trademark Everyman roles, Tom Hanks effortlessly mines the humanity in the character, Alan Clay, while also demonstrating just how desperate he and, by extension, so many other of his contemporaries, has become. Clay was an executive at Schwinn when it was sold to Chinese interests and run into the ground to exploit the brand. He’s been virtually unemployable in mainstream commerce ever since. As the title, A Hologram for the King, might suggest to tech-savvy viewers, Clay is leading an IT team that’s attempting to convince the royal family to invest in a teleconferencing system that uses holograms in lieu of a flat-screen Skype feed. It’s a neat technology, to be sure, but one that would only be affordable by the wealthiest and adventurous of clients. Once in Saudi Arabia, Clay’s whisked away to what essentially is a desert metropolis waiting to be built. He’s been promised an audience with the king and expects that business will be conducted with the same courtesy and efficiencies he’s come to expect in North America, Europe and parts of the Pacific Rim. Not only does he run into a bureaucratic system that would make the Pentagon and Kremlin look like pikers, but he also develops a serious medical condition, which puts him at the mercy of a mysterious health-care network. Meanwhile, the American and European expats are required to abide by an Islamic morals code that forbids everything that makes living in the free world so much fun, including meaningful friendships with Saudi women. Knowing that this may be his last shot at a job that doesn’t require him to wear an orange apron or push fries, Clay uses all of the maturity and patience he’s acquired in a lifetime of sales work to resist throwing up his arms and catching the next plane home.

Clearly, Hanks was the natural choice to play Clay. He had worked with director Tom Tykwer previously, on Cloud Atlas, and hasn’t seemed to mind working in movies (Larry Crowne, The Terminal, Ithaca) that promised to return small profits, if any. He read the book and liked the character. More problematic was the likelihood that Eggers’ hipster readers might not anticipate adaptations of their favorite novels with the same passion as J.K. Rowling’s fans reserve for each new Harry Potter project.Indeed, Eggers’ name on the credits of Sam Mendes’ compelling 2009 Away We Go – alongside that of his wife and collaborator, Vendela Vida – did nothing for box-office. (Ditto, Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land or Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are.) It’s nice that indie producers think enough of Eggers’ work to give his books a shot, however. Hologram” is not a difficult film to follow or enjoy, even for Hanks’ many mainstream fans. Clay’s character is all-too-recognizable these days and the difficulties of life in the kingdom for American contractors is pretty well known, as well. Tykwer stops short of taking cheap shots of the Saudi government and, towards the end of the story, Clay even is allowed a romantic encounter of the forbidden kind, which is handled with great taste and compassion. Eggers spent quite a bit of time travelling through the region, gathering string for the novel. Tykwer did, as well. Cinematographer Lance Acord (Lost in Translation) captures both the beauty of the desert and incongruity of building skyscrapers and shopping malls in such an inhospitable environment. The special making-of featurettes are also worthwhile: “The Making of ‘A Hologram for the King,’” “From Novel to Screen: The Adaptation of ‘A Hologram for the King’” and “Perfecting The Culture.”

The Tiger: Blu-ray

Nature’s greatest predators have become so endangered in their natural habitats that it’s easy to cheer for them when confronted by men with guns and a desire to kill them. Such adventures as The Edge, The Ghost and the Darkness, Jaws, Rogue and The Grey are movies in which a bear, lions, a shark, crocodile and wolves have given as good as they got before ultimately succumbing to cinematic destiny. If the bear in The Revenant had made its presence known a little later in the narrative, it, too, might have been accorded a bit more sympathy from audiences. Killer tigers are generally associated with India, where news reports of deadly attacks are only slightly less common than litigation involving pit bulls on “Judge Judy.” What’s so compelling about Park Hoon-jung’s gorgeously photographed adventure, The Tiger, is that it takes place in a part of the world not commonly associated with tigers, Korea. But, why not? It opens in 1915, with the elderly hunter Chun Man-duk (Choi Min-sik) teaching his young son how to shoot and track animals in the country’s highest mountains. Ten years later, with Japanese troops in full control of the peninsula, a pompous general commands his soldiers to eliminate the few remaining tigers, including the 850-pound “mountain king” who also serves as the region’s primary sperm donor. When ordered to come out of retirement to serve the Japanese officer’s obsession with collecting pelts. Chun asks, “Why would you dare provoke the mountain lords?” It isn’t until his son agrees to join one of the hunting teams that his father takes it upon himself to kill the tiger before it takes the young hunter from him. Although the tiger is practically omnipotent, Park reveals a side of the beast that gives us even more reason to sympathize with him. Every time a female tiger is killed, two more of his cubs die of malnutrition. Chun also reminds us that the elimination of all tigers will allow the wolf and wild boar populations to prey on native deer and farm animals, as well as defoliate the valleys. There are times in The Tiger when the CGI seams show, but not with any frequency. More than anything, it’s a terrific yarn, well told.

 

Women He’s Undressed

Last week in this space, I reviewed Joe Forte’s indie documentary, The Man Who Saved Ben-Hur, which introduced readers to his 89-year-old second cousin John Alarimo, who, as a highly placed assistant and confidante to the stars, left behind an apartment full of memorabilia, letters and gifts to show for it. By coincidence, another terrific film about a largely unsung Hollywood hero has just been released into DVD. In Women He’s Undressed, it’s the legendary costume designer Orry-Kelly, whose credit appears on an astonishing 282 motion pictures, designing for Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Rosalind Russell and many more Golden Age stars. Aussie director Gillian Armstrong (My Beautiful Career) and writer Katherine Thomson put a tight focus on the continent’s native son, who moved to America in search of an acting career on Broadway, but settled for work in vaudeville and as a mural artist in nightclubs, designer of neckties, cushions and shawls. He migrated to Southern California with everyone else, when the movies began to talk and the Depression-weary audiences needed to get over their blues with some Hollywood make-believe. The opinionated three-time Oscar recipient — Some Like It Hot, Les Girls, An American in Paris – remained with Warner Brothers and First National Studios before moving on to Universal, RKO, Fox and MGM. The film includes interviews with actors Jane Fonda and Angela Lansbury, critic Leonard Maltin, costume designers Ann Roth, Catherine Martin, Colleen Atwood, Michael Wilkinson and Kim Barrett. Orry-Kelly (nee, Orry George Kelly) was known for his ability to “design for distraction,” to compensate for difficult figures, an illusion that sometimes borders on magic. Monroe’s seemingly diaphanous gown in Some Like It Hot remains one the 20th Century’s great architectural wonders. In Forte’s bio-doc, the gay-Hollywood subtext is implied, rather than openly acknowledged. In Armstrong’s Women He’s Undressed, also the title of his newly discovered memoirs, Orry-Kelly openly discusses his travels and extremely close relationships with “Archie” (Gary Grant), Randolph Scott and other prominent Hollywood “bachelors,” whose reputations are on the down-low to this day. After the imposition of the Production Code, being openly gay and not agreeing to a sham marriage could mean the difference between working in the industry and permanent banishment. Having important friends in the industry – Jack Warner’s second wife, Ann, Rosalind Russell and Bette Davis, among others – made sure Orry-Kelly stayed employed between Oscars. Once again, Women He’s Undressed would be the perfect gift for loyal watchers of TCM. The DVD adds more interview material.

 

The Midnight After

Any movie co-written and directed by Fruit Chan (Durian Durian), from an Internet serial by a guy who calls himself Pizza, is sure to attract the attention of curiosity seekers, at least. The title of the source material, “Lost on a Red Minibus to Tai Po,” suggests that Chan may have been shooting for a Hong Kong-set edition of the ABC series, “Lost,” by way of “The Twilight Zone.” In The Midnight After, a mini-bus filled with17 mostly young riders and a portly driver, is on its way from the high-density shopping and nightclub district of Mongkok, to the high-rise residential community of Tai Po. Once it passes through a tunnel linking the districts, the passengers are astounded to discover that the entire area appears to be depopulated and absent any cars or telephone connections. When a couple of the riders attempt to escape back to Mongkok, they hit an invisible wall and are turned into dust. The survivors head for a local café, where their imaginations are allowed to run wild and rivalries between them become heated. Eventually, a couple of radio signals are able to cut through the cone of silence, including one from five years in the future and another, in Morse Code, that translates into David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” A strange figure in a hazmat suit turns out to be a Japanese man who says he has come to save them. It’s pretty crazy stuff. Apparently, Chan has loaded The Midnight After with references that will make sense primarily to frustrated residents of post-British Hong Kong. A basic knowledge of the island’s geography and background will give viewers a better appreciation of Chan’s motivations.

 

The Monster With a Thousand Heads

There’s hardly an American of limited financial means who can’t relate to the Mexican wife of the dying man in The Monster With a Thousand Heads, when she goes postal on the executives of a medical-care insurer that’s denied him proper care. Based on a novel by Mexico-based director Rodrigo Plá’s regular screenwriter, Laura Santullo, the 74-minute drama describes how a bureaucratic snafu escalates into a life-and-death confrontation between a seemingly powerless consumer and heartless representatives of industry without a soul. When Sonia (Jana Raluy) receives the news that her husband’s cancer has progressed to a terminal stage, she races to secure the insurance company’s approval for an experimental medicine that could help him. She’s met with indifference and negligence at every turn. Sonia finally reaches her boiling point when she’s told that treatment has been rejected because the company had already met its quota of qualified patients and her husband was simply out of luck, despite previous insurance payments. She’ll need to get the approval from doctors and executives on every subsequent step of the ladder and, heading into a holiday weekend, they’ve already given their receptionists instructions not to be disturbed. It’s at this point that Sonia cracks and, with her teenage son in tow, decides to reach the proper authorities, gun in hand, whether or not they’re at home or in the sauna after a game of handball. As deathly serious as the situation is, The Monster With a Thousand Heads is not without humor. If an American wife did the same thing in defense of her husband’s health, she’d never be convicted by a jury of her peers.

 

Up in Flames

Along with the many eccentric characters invented by R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers are the most endearing and enduring of all comix superstars. The FFFB first appeared in the Rag, an underground newspaper published in Austin, Texas, in May 1968, with Shelton still associated with the strip until 1992. Their lives revolve around the procurement and enjoyment of recreational drugs, particularly marijuana, without getting busted or burned in the process. Freewheelin’ Franklin summed up their entire raison d’être by observing, “Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope.” In a very real sense, the FFFB were Cheech and Chong before Cheech & Chong were Cheech & Chong. What I don’t know is if the unauthorized porno, Up in Flames, was shot and titled in 1973 or 1978, when C&C’s Up in Smoke was released to universal stoner acclaim. No writer or director has stepped forward to take credit for the film, which changes the physical stature and names of the characters a bit, and only Colleen Anderson, Richard Mailer, John Seeman and Erica Havens might be recognizable to habitual viewers of vintage adult pictures. Otherwise, it’s pretty true to form. Their landlady has tired of the brothers’ dodging rent and throwing parties, and given them one day to come up with the cash or be evicted by sundown. It isn’t much of a pad, but it’s home. Fat Freddy goes to work for R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural – again, in an unauthorized appearance — a vitamin salesman, who dresses in a potato sack and fake beard. Mr. Natural cons Fat Freddy into accepting “vita-beans,” in lieu of cash, after two of his skanky saleswomen feign a desire to be him when he holds them. Among the reasons that I think Up in Flames may have been made before 1978 are the appalling production values and sexual encounters that are the antithesis of couples’ porn. Nonetheless, it can be enjoyed for its historic value, if nothing else. Considering all the attention accorded Ralph Bakshi’s X-rated and authorized Fritz the Cat, a year earlier, Up in Flames may not have enjoyed a XXX-theatrical release. The DVD arrives with previews of material in Impulse Pictures’ “42d Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection.”

 

TV-to-DVD

PBS: The Tunnel: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray

AMC: Halt and Catch Fire: The Complete Second Season

PBS: Frontline: The Secret History of ISIS

PBS: 9 Months That Made You

Originally a co-production of Sweden’s Sveriges Television and Denmark’s Danmarks Radio, the 10-part mini-series, “The Bridge,” has directly spawned original series set on the Bridge of the Americas, separating El Paso and Juarez, and the Chunnel connecting England/France. It has aired in more than 100 countries since its debut in 2011. In the first episodes of each series, the bisected body of a prominent politician is found straddling the border of the respective countries. The bodies have been surgically severed – the bottom halves of the first victims belong to prostitutes — as if to require police on both sides of the border to combine their resources to solve the crime. The Scandinavian “Bridge” and “The Tunnel” bear the closest resemblance to each other, in that a Truth Terrorist claims to be committing his crimes in order to draw attention to various social problems. Further crimes are telegraphed ahead of time by the TT, who touches all of the right buttons of his pursuers. In all three series, the female cops display such symptoms of Asperger syndrome as poor social skills, difficulty empathizing with others and an inability to channel her emotions. They’re forcibly partnered with male cops from across the border whose loosey-goosey approach to crime solving contrasts with the women’s strictly by-the-book principles. “The Tunnel,” which aired here on PBS affiliates, stars Stephen Dillane (“Game of Thrones”) and Clémence Poésy (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”) as British and French police detectives Karl Roebuck and Elise Wassermann. Her laissez-faire attitude toward sex stands in direct counterpoint to his unnecessarily messy marriage and relationship with his 18-year-old son. The top half of the first victim belongs to the French minister with strong opinions on immigration, trade and European unity. The primary difference between “The Tunnel” and “The Bridge” is the screenwriters’ willingness to dig deeper into Karl and TT’s backgrounds in covert intelligence. It took me less than a day to binge on the whole series, which was accorded extraordinary access to the Chunnel and its infrastructure. The Blu-ray adds commentary and making-of material.

 

In the 1980s, when “Halt and Catch Fire” is set, the role of women in the personal-computer industry was said to be relegated to asking the male geeks if they wanted fries with their hamburgers at McDonald’s. The more strong-willed the woman, the more marginalized they were. And, the same can be said for the female protagonists in Season One. Where characters played by Lee Pace and Scoot McNairy dominated the storylines in the first go-round, their better halves, Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishé, found their footing in the second, with Aleksa Palladino coming on board to add a California element to the Silicon Prairie crew. Season Two, which takes place in early 1985, chronicles the rise of Mutiny, Cameron and Donna’s start-up company, which is built upon the most disruptive idea of the modern era the Internet, a customer’s willingness to pay for the privilege of chatting and playing games over land-line telephone connections. They’re also asked to pull the trigger on deals that could benefit one, all or none of the company’s employees. Joe Macmilian gets married, without dealing first with his feelings toward Cameron; Gordon tries to hide his illness from everyone; and newcomer John Bosworth almost gets caught in the crossfire. Special features include “Inside Episodes 201-210,” “History of Now,” “Joe’s Strategic Benchmarks,” “Tour of an ’80s Startup” and “Set Tour With Lee Pace And Scoot McNairy.” Season Three begins in two weeks.

For all of the money spent on gathering intelligence to win the war on terrorism, it’s fair for taxpayers to ask how it came to be that an entire army of terrorists could hide from view as it accumulated enough trucks, tanks, all-terrain vehicles and mobile missile launchers to capture half of Iraq, practically overnight. The “Frontline” episode, “The Secret History of ISIS” examines how the leaders of the Al Qaeda spinoff organization grew from practically nothing after the invasion of Iraq to a force that’s struck fear in the hearts of political leaders and civilians around the world. Not only does it once again trash the Bush administration’s half-baked strategy for the democratization of Iraq, but it also questions President Obama’s waffling on the civil war in Syria. It’s a tough hour to watch, especially knowing that our vaunted intelligence agencies missed all of the signs of a caliphate suddenly emerging in the middle of nowhere.

 

In 180 minutes, PBS’ absolutely fascinating “9 Months That Made You” chronicles the story of how we all were made, from conception to the moment of birth, 280 days later. This breakthrough series follows the gestation process, using state-of-the-art CGI to reveal the most exquisite biological choreography found in nature. Across three episodes, the show charts how 100 trillion (with a “t”) cells come together to make each of us a unique individual. The producers also travel outside the womb to show the consequences of minute abnormalities that are both predictable and completely unexpected. The miracle of birth isn’t made any less miraculous in “9 Months That Made You,” just easier to understand and appreciate.

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The DVD Wrapup: Lobster, Mother’s Day, Last Days in Desert, Parched, Female Prisoner Scorpian, Guernica, Louder Than Bombs and more

Thursday, August 4th, 2016

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.

 

Parched

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.

 

Sea Fog

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.”

 

Traders: Blu-ray

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.

 

Guernica

Chosen

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.

 

Traded: Blu-ray

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.

 

Bite: Blu-ray

Summer Camp

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.

 

High Strung

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.

 

Puzzled Love

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

Lazer Team

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.

 

Gibby

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.

 

TV-to-DVD

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.

The DVD Wrapup: Born to Be Blue, Sing Street, Boss, Hardcore Henry, Criminal, Opry Classics, Last Diamond, Invitation, Ozland and more

Thursday, July 28th, 2016

Born to Be Blue

This spring, jazz lovers were given the rare opportunity to sample films about two of the greatest trumpet players in American musical history. And, while neither Robert Budreau’s Born to Be Blue or Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead would pass a lie-detector test, both are well-made testaments to the players’ unique talents and well-documented idiosyncrasies. Performances by Ethan Hawke and Don Cheadle in the lead roles are wonderful and the soundtracks do justice to the artists’ legacy. The Chet Baker we meet in Born to Be Blue has already scaled the heights of his art – largely off-screen – and is starring as himself in an unfinished biopic, presumably being made in Italy. Budreau uses black-and-white flashbacks to describe Baker’s past and color for the period following the brutal 1966 attack that seriously threatened his career and required of him that he relearn the mechanics of playing the trumpet. In this, he receives the tireless support of a composite African-American girlfriend (Carmen Ejogo), who finally must face the reality that, when forced to choose between heroin and love, an addict will always pick his love for junk. In the 1950s, when he was introduced to hard drugs, Baker was one of the most famous trumpeters in the world, renowned as a pioneer of the West Coast “cool jazz” scene, a song stylist, ensemble player and an icon of cool, right up there with James Dean and Marlon Brando. Budreau messes with the timeline a bit, as to when Baker invades New York’s Birdland, where Davis and Dizzy Gillespie are waiting to see if the white kid from California can cut it. In reality, Davis and Gillespie were already aware of Baker’s chops and possibly had even listened to tapes of a jam session with Charlie Parker, conducted in Los Angles, two years earlier. Still, they had every reason to be envious of his outsized commercial appeal, especially as it was manifested in the 1953 and 1954 jazz polls. Predominantly white readers of Down Beat and Metronome rated the native Oklahoman over all other trumpet platers and, in 1954, top jazz vocalist. (By contrast, Baker would be inducted posthumously into Down Beat’s Hall of Fame, one year after his death in 1989, but nearly 30 after Miles and Dizzy were so honored in their lifetimes.)

Baker’s lifelong love affair with heroin began in 1957. It would result in an addiction that caused him to pawn his instruments, serve time in an Italian prison and be expelled from both West Germany and the United Kingdom. He would settle in northern California, where he played in San Jose and San Francisco between short jail terms served for prescription fraud. After dramatizing the attack, which occurred after a gig in Sausalito, Budreau focuses his attention on Baker’s arduous, painful and initially humiliating recovery and attempt to stay clean, while relearning the trumpet and flugelhorn. Even when the story doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny, it’s difficult not be impressed by Hawke’s gritty performance, which clearly was a labor of love. He resembles the drug-ravaged musician we met in Bruce Weber’s essential 1988 bio-doc, Let’s Get Lost, in which Baker performed and reminisced. At the time, he was touring and occasionally would return to the U.S. to perform. Anyone who saw him in that film couldn’t have been surprised that he would die within the year, after having fallen from the second-floor window in an Amsterdam hotel. Heroin and cocaine were found in his room and bloodstream. The events dramatized in Born to Be Blue end long before that happens. The jazz score to the film was created by composer and pianist David Braid and performed by Kevin Turcotte. Two tracks feature Hawke’s vocals. It isn’t the only movie based on Baker’s life. Michael Anderson’s All the Fine Young Cannibals (1960), which starred Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood, gave an even looser interpretation of events in his life. Actually, jazz has fared pretty well on film. Anyone looking for a good way to kill a rainy weekend could do a lot worse than binging on Bernard Taverniers’ Round Midnight, Clint Eastwood’s Bird, Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown, Dee Rees’ Bessie, Liz Garbus’ What Happened, Miss Simone?, Sidney J. Furie’s Lady Sings the Blues, Martin Ritt’s Paris Blues, Vincente Minnelli and Busby Berkeley’s Cabin in the Sky and Arthur Lubin’s New Orleans, with performances by Armstrong, Woody Herman and Billie Holiday. Also check out Chet Baker Live @ Ronnie Scott’s, with Van Morrison and Elvis Costello, which can be found on the Internet.

Sing Street: Blu-ray

Typically, it takes nine months to a year for a film that debuts at Sundance or Cannes to complete the festival circuit and enter general distribution. A few months later, it might be introduced into DVD/Blu-ray. The less commercial foreign offerings tend to take a while longer to find a distributor. Some of the prize winners – The Artist and Son of Saul, among them — are held back for release until closer to awards time, with a stop at Toronto and/or New York to build some critical buzz. (The 2015 Cannes Jury Prize-winner, The Lobster, was given a limited U.S. release in May, seven months after its European run, and arrives in DVD/Blu-ray next week, possibly in anticipation of Oscar consideration.) Because there are no hard and fast rules, overblown media coverage of festivals doesn’t always square with the reality of industry demands or do much more than tease the public’s appetite for quality entertainment.

Sing Street, John Carney’s second music-themed romance since Once, debuted in January at Sundance. It made a quick stop at the hometown Dublin Film Festival, where it was nominated for seven awards, winning one, before embarking on a limited international theatrical release two months later to almost unanimous acclaim and its arrival in DVD/Blu-ray this week. That’s quick, by any standard. Even if Sing Street didn’t follow the unusual pattern, I wouldn’t bet against it. Carney’s musical follow-up to Once, the endearing New York-set Begin Again, quietly outperformed the much admired tale of buskers in love. Credit for that probably goes to the drawing power of Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Levine, Catherine Keener and James Corden, but a heartfelt story and some catchy tunes spawned positive word-of-mouth for Weinstein Company/Anchor Bay. Sing Street, which recalls That Thing You Do!, The Runaways, Absolute Beginners and The Commitments, did pretty well in an extremely limited U.S. run. Without being at all derivative or contrived, it takes us back to 1980s Dublin, as seen through the eyes of 14-year-old boy Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), who sees music as a way to cope with life in a soon-to-be-broken home and school run by bully priests and bully kids. His introduction to the power pop of Duran Duran, Joe Jackson, the Jam, the Police, Hall & Oates, the Cure and Spandau Ballet came through a tight relationship with his slacker brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor), who lives at home after dropping out of college and tries to blot out their parents’ bickering by staying high.

This being the dawn of the music-video era, Conor and his mates’ eventual sound and look will be heavily influenced by these groups. Once he settles on rock as an option to despair, Conor begins to collect like-minded teens with more musical training for a band. If he can’t play an instrument, he contributes his voice and considerable writing talents to the ensemble. Even before they book their first gig, though, it’s important for Conor to visualize their first video. To that end, he turns to the most worldly and heavily made up girl in the neighborhood, Raphina (Lucy Boynton), to dance and vamp as the boys pretend to be playing their first song. Raphina aspires to being a model, but is willing to accommodate the younger boys as a showcase for her talents. It isn’t surprising that Conor falls for the more mature girl, who displays a fondness for older men in convertibles and a weakness for their promises of stardom. With all of those pieces in place, it’s up to the boys in Sing Street – from the Synge Street Christian Brothers School depicted in the movie – to embark on the painfully slow path to recognition, if not immediate stardom. To his credit, Carney lets the story play out at its own pace, without building unreasonable expectations of a fairytale ending. Neither does the preponderance of teen characters mean that Sing Street can’t be enjoyed by grownups, especially those who passed through the ’80s on their way to adulthood and remember the good time they had watching The Commitments. The lyrics to the songs created specifically for Sing Street were written by Gary Clark, vocalist and songwriter with the ’80s band Danny Wilson (“Mary’s Prayer”). His “Drive it Like You Stole It,” sung by Walsh-Peelo, and Adam Levine’s “Go Now,” deserve consideration for next year’s Best Original Song. The Blu-ray package adds a brief making-of featurette; a discussion between Carney and Levine; and original cast auditions.

The Boss: Unrated: Blu-ray

When Melissa McCarthy shed 45 completely redundant pounds, the Hollywood rumor mill went into overdrive speculating as to whether the producers of her hit sitcom, “Mike & Molly,” would require her to put back the weight they assumed attracted millions of fatties to the show. Instead, it was cancelled outright, leaving a half-season’s worth of scripts unshot and dozens of people out of work. Apparently, no one at CBS cared to test the possibility that funny is funny, no matter the weight of the actors and quality of scripts. McCarthy would land on her feet, by accepting a job on the “Gilmore Girls” reboot, reprising the character of Sookie. At the same time, she was looking ahead to the release of high-profile feature films, The Boss and Ghostbusters. By the time Ghostbusters debuted, McCarthy’s weight loss topped 70 pounds. Good for her. I’ve yet to see Ghostbusters, but I doubt that it is any more or less funny because of her decision. In any case, it isn’t likely she’ll ever be confused with Twiggy or Shelly Duval. For McCarthy, The Boss represents yet another broad and bawdy comedy that rests on the notion that laughs are based more on timing and delivery than weight. The genesis of the turtleneck-favoring Michelle Darnell character came years earlier, in a sketch McCarthy created while a member of the Los Angeles-based improv company, the Groundlings. In it, a wealthy businesswoman “goes to jail for insider trading, then struggles to reinvent herself as America’s new sweetheart upon her release.” Any resemblance to Martha Stewart is probably intended, while the similarities to Donald Trump come naturally. The Boss was written McCarthy and husband Ben Falcone, along with Groundlings friend, Steve Mallory. Darnell is too full of herself to realize the extent of the damage she left in her wake after being sent to prison. Her vindictive former lover, played well by Peter Dinklage, has emerged as her greatest threat, while her former assistant (Kristin Bell) reluctantly agrees to give her a couch in her apartment. It takes time for Claire’s innocent young daughter, Rachel, to warm to Michelle, but eventually they become unlikely business partners in a scheme inspired by cut-throat Girl Scout cookie drives. The R-rating is fairly earned by the film’s dependence on profanity for laughs. The unrated Blu-ray edition adds about five minutes of new material to the original length, but nothing that anyone would have missed. There’s an alternate ending, deleted scenes, extended/alternate scenes, a gag reel, the original “Michelle Darnell” sketch upon which the movie was based, and featurettes on the Groundlings connection, Dinklage and Bell.

Hardcore Henry: Blu-ray

Criminal: Blu-ray

Seemingly unrelated, these adventurous sci-fi action thrillers feature protagonists with superhuman strength and memories that have been scientifically recycled in an effort to combat an evil villain’s designs on world domination. Neither Hardcore Henry nor Criminal will make a lot of sense to mainstream viewers too old to have become addicted to violent video games or have grown weary of watching movies in which people are killed like so many cockroaches in the basement of a greasy-spoon restaurant. Of the two, Ilya Naishuller’s Moscow-set shoot-’em-up, Hardcore Henry, is the more innovative. Because viewers and the protagonist share a field of vision, gamers will recognize the conceit as being the same as that employed in such first-person-shooters as Doom, Wolfenstein 3D and Battlefield. Henry’s just been brought back to life by his engineer wife, Estelle (Haley Bennet), who’s also fitted his broken body with new robotic limbs and appendages. No sooner is his consciousness given a jump start than Henry and, by extension, viewers are thrust into a running battle with the rebel scientist Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) and Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), an albino supervillain with telekinetic powers and obligatory designs on, yes, world domination. The thing is, Henry has no memory of Moscow and doesn’t really understand why everyone is shooting at him. All he knows is that Estelle has been kidnapped and something tells him that he should free her from the bad guys. In doing so, perhaps, he just might discover his purpose in life and the truth behind his identity. The POV action takes us from city to country, above and below ground, and involves parkour, gunfights, flamethrowers, airships, streetcars, helicopters, tanks and exploding heads. Non-gamers, I suspect, will find that Hardcore Henry gets as tiresome as the shaky camera technique. Fanboys and FPS enthusiasts, on the other hand, should have a ball. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, fan chat and commentary tracks with Naishuller and Copley.

Criminal extends the legend of Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s creation into the 21st Century by giving the monster a mission and an ability to channel the intermittent memories of the person whose brain it now carries in its head. In a role that even he thought might be out of his strike zone, Kevin Costner is introduced as a ferocious inmate, Jericho Stewart, whose reputation for inflicting pain on anyone who gets in his way is well-deserved and about to cost him his life. Inexplicably, Stewart is deemed to be the perfect vessel for an assignment that requires the elimination of shadowy enemies of freedom and others seeking, yes, world domination. The London-based CIA station chief (Gary Oldman) calls on a brilliant surgeon (Tommy Lee Jones) to replace Stewart’s brain with that of a recently murdered CIA operative. Before his untimely demise, Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds) was about to trade a satchel full of money for a thumb-drive containing American nuclear codes, also being offered to a nihilistic terrorist group by a computer whiz known as the Dutchman (Michael Pitt). Pope was killed before he could accomplish that task, leaving his handlers without a clue as to the whereabouts of the Dutchman. Knowing that it will take a one-man army to deal with the terrorists, even if the doctor can recapture Pope’s memories, the increasingly frazzled CIA chief borrows Stewart from the Brits for the experiment. It takes a while for Pope’s memories to take hold in Stewart’s body, however, leaving unsuspecting Londoners in danger of being hurt for his personal amusement. That includes Pope’s wife (Gal Gadot), who, he suspects, knows the location of the bag of cash her husband had yet to deliver to the Dutchman. The rest of Criminal plays out in tick-tock fashion, as the Dutchman has no preference as to which side deserves his data most. Ariel Vromen (The Iceman), working from a convoluted script by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg (The Rock, Double Jeopardy), appears to have lost control of Criminal, which is by far his most ambitious project. Indeed, in an interview included in the bonus package, Costner admits to frequently giving Vromen advice on various aspects of the production. As director/producer/star of the Oscar-winning Dances With Wolves, Costner’s insights probably were helpful. For his part, Costner eventually convinces us that his monster is capable of developing a conscience, before it was too late. Special features include deleted scenes, the featurettes “Criminal Intent” and “Director’s Notes,” and Madsonik’s “Drift and Fall Again” music video.

Grantham & Rose

This is exactly the kind of first feature that, while it doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny, offers enough small surprises to keep us watching for 90 minutes … after which it begins to fade rather quickly from memory. Stage veteran Kristin Hanggi (“Rock of Ages”) built the unlikely May-December dramedy and road picture, Grantham & Rose, from a script by Ryan Spahn (He’s Way More Famous Than You). In it, an eightysomething volunteer at a facility for juvenile offenders takes a curious interest in a 17-year-old boy who’s just gone through processing for something that’s never really fully explained. As played by Jake T. Austin (“Wizards of Waverly Place”), Grantham Portnoy quickly becomes an easy target for the more hardened teens, if only because he wears eye makeup, carries a sketch book and is kind of a wimp. Rose is portrayed by Marla Gibbs, herself 85, who’s instantly recognizable from her tenures on “The Jeffersons,” “227” and dozens of other TV sitcoms. One day, after scouring his records, Rose talks Grantham into accompanying her on an unauthorized road trip to Atlanta. Being a juvenile, it isn’t likely that he’d spend any more time in the facility than he originally was scheduled to serve, so why not? Along the way, Grantham upsets Rose by helping a pretty young shoplifter escape from the clutches of a convenience-store owner. Thirty-two-year-old Tessa Thompson plays the sexy lone-wolf Wallis, who looks 17 but is of indeterminate age. Along the way, Rose uses her state-supplied credit card to pay for shared lodging and the occasional meal. For a kid whose home life gives him an excuse for breaking the law, Grantham spends an inordinate amount of time trying to reach his derelict mother by phone. All of this leads to a climax so whimsically contrived that it actually works in favor of us leaving the picture with a smile. It may answer only one of the questions left hanging throughout the narrative, but, sometimes in first features, we don’t even get that much satisfaction. And, of course, it’s nice to see Gibbs in a feature film that doesn’t require her to play a housekeeper.

The Last Diamond

Heist movies are like magic acts that rely on sleight of hand and momentary distractions to help audience members suspend their disbelief. In a movie such as Eric Barbier’s The Last Diamond, a director can sustain an illusion by introducing new characters, changing locations and manipulating the camera. A product of France, Belgium and Luxembourg, The Last Diamond has a serviceable heist at its core and plenty of interesting things to look at while waiting for the theft of a diamond that’s almost as big as the Ritz. The matter-of-fact nature of the crime, which doesn’t occur until the middle of the movie, is complicated by the number of people involved in it and icy allure of the victim, which almost causes the male protagonist to be killed before his time is up. Yvan Attal (Rush Hour 3) plays a professional safecracker, Simon, who’s only out of prison a few hours before his most trusted associate, Albert (Jean-François Stévenin) recruits him in an increasingly elaborate scheme to steal the famous Florentine diamond, valued at around $55 million. The supposedly cursed gem stone had belonged to a fabulously wealthy Antwerp resident, whose death – mysterious, naturally – causes her beautiful heir, Julia (Bérénice Bejo), to arrange for a gala display and auction. This is the best possible scenario for the crooks, who now know exactly where the diamond will be and when. Simon ingratiates himself with Julia by convincing her that he was a former security adviser to her mother and knows things about the diamond and its admirers that she doesn’t. Not surprisingly, they become lovers, furthering complicating Simon’s mission. Without giving anything else away, let’s just say that the second half of the movie and caper, itself, is taken up with crosses, double-crosses and booby traps. The Last Diamond may not be a prime example of the subgenre, but it’s stylishly executed and reasonably clever. Sometimes, that’s all it takes. Bonus material adds an interview with Barbier and interviews with Bejo and Attal.

The Greatest Ears in Town: The Arif Mardin Story

It once could be said with no small degree of accuracy that the men, mostly, who wear the headphones and work the dials in a recording session are “unsung” or, worse, anonymous. In concert, Frank Sinatra always made it a point to credit the writers and arrangers of his songs, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that producers were accorded star status and buffs would buy an album, simply to find his fingerprints on it. George Martin, Phil Spector, Bob Johnston, Quincy Jones, Andrew Loog Oldham and Brian Wilson actually did become household names, adding their musical signatures to albums by some of the biggest names in the business. Thirty years later, documentary makers would begin to put faces to their sounds in feature-length films and television newsmagazines. The Greatest Ears in Town: The Arif Mardin Story is the latest such documentary to find its way to DVD, behind Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built, about his boss and home studio; Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll; Tom Dowd & the Language of Music; Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story; Walk on By: The Story of Popular Song; Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of “Smile”; Muscle Shoals; The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector; and The Heart of Country: How Nashville Became Music City USA. Doug Biro and Joe Mardin, Arif’s son, began “The Greatest Ears in Town” knowing that the subject probably wouldn’t live long enough to see the finished product, which, was first shown in 2010, four years after he succumbed to pancreatic cancer. The story begins in Turkey, where Mardin was born and developed a love of music. In 1956, after meeting Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones at a concert in Ankara, he sent demo compositions to a friend at an American radio stations, who passed them along to Jones. Mardin became the first recipient of the Quincy Jones Scholarship at the Berklee College of Music, in Boston. Mardin began his career at Atlantic Records in 1963 as an assistant to Nesuhi Ertegün, a fellow Turkish émigré and brother of the label’s co-founder, Ahmet Ertegün. While climbing up the ladder at Atlantic, he worked with Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd in the creation of the “Atlantic Sound.” What makes this documentary so compelling is the number of stars who responded to the filmmakers’ call to bear witness on Mardin’s contributions to their careers. Accompanied by rare footage, photos and hit songs are Aretha Franklin, Norah Jones, Chaka Khan, Bette Midler, Jones, Martin, Willie Nelson, Carly Simon, Jewel, Daryl Hall, Phil Collins, Felix Cavalieri and Barry Gibb.

Invitation: Blu-Ray

For her debut feature, Girlfight, Karyn Kusama received the kind of reviews that set the bar for her next film at almost impossibly high levels and, sure enough, the live-action comic book Aeon Flux, starring Charlize Theron as a sexy assassin, came up short with critics and at the box office. In 2009, Jennifer’s Body, the story of a sexy succubus cheerleader (Megan Fox), written by Diablo Cody, promised more than it could deliver, but garnered some decent reviews and pretty much broke even in sales. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Kusama’s career pretty much was put on hold for the next six years. In addition to preparing for an indie release of the locked-door thriller, The Invitation, Kusama directed episodes of “Casual,” “Billions,” “The Man in the High Castle” and “Chicago Fire.” She probably deserved better, but that’s Hollywood. After screenings at several fantasy and horror-themed festivals, where it took a couple of top prizes, The Invitation opened in a handful of theaters and on VOD, to mostly positive reviews. The dinner-party scenario laid out by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (R.I.P.D.)

will be familiar to those familiar with Would You Rather, The Perfect Host, The Last Supper and, why not, The Exterminating Angel. A group of friends and acquaintances are invited to a dinner party, for no apparent reason, by a pair of garden-variety L.A. yuppies, in a house with a nice view of the city lights. Curiously, Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband, David (Michiel Huisman), have invited her former husband, Will (Logan Marshall-Green), who’s never really gotten over the death of their young son. Because he senses a hidden agenda that the others don’t, Will becomes acutely aware of the fact that doors are locked from the inside and one of the guests disappears in the middle of the party. Things get even stranger when the hosts show the guests a movie from their latest trip to Mexico. It looks every bit like a recruiting video for a cult preparing to get a head start on the apocalypse. By the time Will’s deepest fears are realized, it’s almost too late to prevent the delivery of the surprise intended for dessert. There’s more to the story than that outline suggests, but the thing to know going into it is that Kusama does an excellent job maintaining the suspenseful pace, making Will look like an overly paranoid ex-husband and holding back a few surprises for the end.

Ozland

Dystopian dramas appear to have gone out of style, at least for the time being. It’s possible that filmmakers have run out of ideas on the subject or, as was the case with Allegiant, the creation of credibly apocalyptic backdrops has become too expensive. Ozland, a debut feature by Mississippi native Michael Williams, succeeds by breaking away from the chains that keep most sci-fi/horror pictures from straying too far from the zombie/vampire/alien vortex. All viewers have to do is tap their heels together three times and think to themselves, “There’s no place like home.” Don’t close your eyes, however. Made for what must have been pennies, Ozland describes what happens when two divergent survivors of one kind of horrible disaster, or another, are left to their own devises in a dry and dusty post-apocalyptic world. For some reason, the title led me to believe that the location was in the Australian outback. On closer examination, the same rural countryside could easily be found in Kansas. I should have figured out the overriding gimmick after the younger of the two men finds a copy of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and takes every word of it as the gospel truth. That a giant tornado descended from the heavens to devastate humanity becomes as easy to believe as any nuclear disaster or climate-related catastrophe. Traveling companions Leif (Zack Ratkovich) and Emri (Glenn Payne) have no true memory of what caused things to go to hell, so L. Frank Baum’s version of life on Earth was as good as any other. As they move from one deserted house to another, they do pick up Ozian references of how things might have been from discarded magazines and newspapers once used as protection against the elements. In Leif’s mind, Kansas becomes Oz and the book could be their last hope for finding other people, running water and salvation. Once I figured out what Williams had in mind, buying into Ozland’s conceit wasn’t difficult at all.

Listening

Khalil Sullins’ imaginative debut feature, Listening, follows the progress of impoverished Cal Tech students as they struggle to perfect a technology that would allow people to read each other’s minds and dictate those thoughts in “circular feedback loops.” For the military, such an advance would take the guesswork out of interrogating prisoners and other enemy agents. For civilians, it would assure honesty in romantic relationships and give parents a way to determine which of their kids broke the window in a neighbor’s garage or didn’t re-fill the ice tray. You can imagine the ramifications of such technology falling into the wrong hands or being acquired before the kinks have been worked out of it. Desperately broke, one of the researchers hopes to sell the gizmo to a mysterious government agency as soon as possible, while his partner envisions the pitfalls and splits for a remote location tipped in the opening sequence. As a way to geek-proof his creation, Sullins has added a couple of women who look hot, even when a rectangular patch of hair is shaved to make room for the transmitter gizmo. As bargain-basement sci-fi goes, Listening isn’t bad. The scientific stuff looks reasonably accurate and the jargon almost makes sense. It’s worth recalling that one of David Cronenberg’s early successes, Scanners, was based on similar theme.

The Boy Who Cried Werewolf: Blu-ray

Rollercoaster: Blu-ray

Originally sent out by Universal as a double feature with the superior creature-feature Sssssss, Nathan Juran’s PG-rated The Boy Who Cried Werewolf must have really come as a severe letdown to viewers, even in 1973. Not terribly unlike the 1957 drive-in classic, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, its only concession to 16 years of special-effects progress appeared to be color cinematography. Seeing the movie now, it’s no wonder that horror fans were so excited by Rick Baker’s revolutionary effects work, only eight years later, in John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London. As the picture opens, California ’tweener Richie Bridgestone (Scott Sealey) is trying to cope with the impending divorce of his parents. He hopes they will reconsider, if only he can put them together in an idyllic location, such as Big Bear Lake, where his dad (Kerwin Matthews) still maintains a cabin. One weekend together, Richie witnesses his dad being attacked by a werewolf. Robert manages to kill the beast by pushing him off the side of a cliff and onto a jagged piece of metal. Before the sheriff arrives and Richie’s story can be proven, the werewolf reverts to his human form. The damage to Richie’s dad is done, however, as will become apparent with the arrival of new full moon. It isn’t the last time the son will witness his dad’s destructive powers. Even as the death-toll mounts, the authorities continue to dismiss his claims and fears. It isn’t until a wandering band of Jesus Freaks begins their pilgrimage through the forest that the truth is revealed. Will it come too late? In his first year as a Hollywood art director, Austrian-born Juran won an Academy Award for art direction on How Green Was My Valley. He would go on to direct Attack of the 50-Foot Woman and First Men in the Moon, before turning to television and such series asDaniel Boone” and “Lost in Space.”

Rollercoaster washed up in the first wave of terrorist-spawned thrillers in the mid-1970s, including Black Sunday, Two-Minute Warning, Juggernaut, Ffolkes and the fact-based Raid on Entebbe. At the time, the antagonist didn’t have to reveal political motives, as was the case with Black Sunday, in which Black September terrorists intended to spoil the Super Bowl for millions of Americans. He could be a lone-wolf lunatic or cold-blooded extortionist, as is the character played Timothy Bottoms in Rollercoaster. The Young Man pledges to stage five rollercoaster attacks in as many different amusement parks, unless $1 million is paid to him. As the formula went, there was always a good-guy cop who took the threat and the blackmailer seriously and wanted to save as many people as possible, even if it meant shutting down the attraction. Here, detective Harry Calder (George Segal) must not only contend with the nut job, but also the forces of capitalism and politics — Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Harry Guardino — who would put customers at risk to avoid losing a single dollar. Calder was further humanized by having an attractive wife (Susan Strasberg) and spunky daughter (Helen Hunt). In an interview included in the bonus package, associate producer/writer Tommy Cook says that it was his intention to make the rollercoaster as much a character as anyone else, but have Young Man be a disgruntled Vietnam vet. He still doesn’t like how the ending was changed. The Blu-ray also adds the original Sensurround soundtrack, which was a technological gimmick to immerse viewers in the action.

Hellhole: Blu-ray

Doctor Butcher M.D./Zombie Holocaust: Blu-ray

The Candy Tangerine Man/Lady Cocoa: Blu-ray

Petey Wheatstraw: Blu-ray

How does a director make the leap from such family-friendly fare as Savannah Smiles and Christmas Mountain, to Hellhole, a nasty piece of work that could be a charter member of the grindhouse hall of fame? Newly available in Blu-ray, the rarely seen 1985 release has it all, including lots of kinky sex, shower scenes, creepy stalkers, vulnerable blonds and ball-busting nurses. Instead of taking place in a vermin-infested prison in the Philippines, it is set in a psychiatric facility in the good ol’ US of A., where sexy psycho-bitch Mary Woronov is testing a new lobotomy technique, using helpless inmates as her guinea pigs. Her prize patient is Susan (Judy Landers), a pretty amnesiac who is believed to have internalized secrets that caused a sicko named Silk (Ray Sharkey) to strangle her mother with a red sash. Somehow, Silk is able to land a job as an orderly in the same facility in which Susan now resides, alongside dozens of dangerously anti-social women. The title derives from the prison-within-a-sanitarium, where the women who misbehave the most are sent for punishment. Woronov denies the existence of the Hellhole to state administrators, almost in the same breath as she explains the presence of women pretending to swim in a large sandbox, “I find sand to be much more therapeutic than water.” It takes something in the neighborhood of 80 minutes for Silk to reawaken Susan’s dormant memories by attacking another woman with a red scarf. The end of Hellhole turns out to be as nutty as the beginning. If it never strays too far from genre conventions, it manages to stand out from the pack with an all-star cast of cult favorites, including Marjoe Gortner (The Food of the Gods), Richard Cox (Cruising), Terry Moore (Mighty Joe Young), Edy Williams (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), Robert Z’Dar (Maniac Cop), Dyanne Thorne (Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS) and, of course, Sharkey (“Wiseguy”) and Woronov (“Eating Raoul.”). Hellhole may be as close as these things get to perfection. The Blu-ray adds a fresh interview with Woronov.

The Severin double-feature Doctor Butcher M.D./Zombie Holocaust isn’t quite what it appears to be on the cover. In fact, both of these Italian-into-English gore fests, by Marino Girolami (as Frank Martin), are pretty much the same picture, with the latter adding about five minutes of previously excised material, a restored title sequence and some color correction. Doctor Butcher M.D. is the official U.S. release version, with extra footage and a unique soundtrack. Both open in New York, where a group of Dr. Dreylock’s med students discovers that body parts are missing from the cadavers they use for research. Not being valuable organs, the missing appendages aren’t much good to anyone who isn’t a cannibal. When one hospital worker is killed after taking the heart of a corpse, smokin’ hot anthropologist Lori Ridgeway (Alexandra Delli Colli) recognizes it as the handiwork of a tribe in the Moluccan Islands that worships the god Kito. Dr. Peter Chandler (Ian McCulloch) organizes an expedition to Moluccas, to which Lori and the journalist Susan Kelly (Sherry Buchanan) are invited. Once there, they meet the mad Doctor Obrero (Donald O’Brien), who directs them to an island populated with cannibals and zombies, one of whom is no match for the blade of a motorboat engine. Both movies are of a piece with Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust and Lucio Fulci’s Zombie and should viewed in the same context and with the same caution. The extensive bonus features include featurettes on the making, marketing and impact of the films, especially as they pertain to the scene along New York’s 42nd Street before its Disneyfication. There are fresh interviews with editor Jim Markovic, Ian McCulloch, effects master Rosario Prestopino, filmmaker Enzo Castellari (Girolami’s son), Sherry Buchanan; FX artist Maurizio Trani, as well as vintage trailer.

One of the things that worked against blaxpoitation and chop-socky films, when it came to attracting crossover audiences, at least, was an obvious lack of polish in the production-values department. No matter how good a story, they looked cheap. Released in 1975, The Candy Tangerine Man and Lady Cocoa are perfect example of movies that would have benefitted from even slightly larger budgets and more behind-the-camera know-how. Matt Cimber’s The Candy Tangerine Man would have been just another movie about pimps, whores and revenge if it weren’t for an entirely unexpected twist in the middle that changes everything we think we know about John Daniels’ ghetto prince, Baron. And, no, it doesn’t involve him being an undercover cop or narc. It may not hold up under close scrutiny, but logic and realism aren’t necessarily considered to be virtues in exploitation pictures. Otherwise, “Candy Tangerine” repeats all the usual clichés about pimps reciprocating for the pressure put on them by white cops, gangsters and their lackeys, by demanding more productivity from their working girls. The violence is crude, but, like I said, the twisteroo compensates for the sins. Way better overall is Lady Cocoa, a movie about a female inmate (Lola Falana) at a Nevada penitentiary who agrees to trade testimony against her gangster boyfriend for a few days of R&R at a Lake Tahoe resort. As if in anticipation of being rescued by her lover, Cocoa proves to be a real handful for her strait-laced handler, Doug (Gene Washington), who resists her temptations. The movie benefits from being shot on location in a North Lake Tahoe resort, where a storm prevented visitors and employees from coming or going. It provided the film with a more natural feel than what could be expected if the production was restricted to a few hours a day in a handful of hotel and casino locations. Falana is never less than a blast to watch, even if she doesn’t look like the typical female lead in an exploitation flick. Also, look for Mean Joe Greene, the great Steelers’ defensive tackle, as one of the thugs hot on Cocoa’s trail, and Millie Perkins (The Diary of Anne Frank) as a party-hardy tourist. The excellent Vinegar Syndrome package adds Cimber’s introduction for The Candy Tangerine Man, commentary for Lady Cocoa with Cimber and DA/actor John Goff, and a reversible cover.

The ever-exploitable Rudy Ray Moore plays the title character in Petey Wheatstraw, a comedy that followed in the wake of the action-oriented Dolemite and The Human Tornado. Petey grew up knowing that he would have to be stronger, faster and more clever than his enemies. He learned kung-fu at an early age, but grew up with a desire to be a nightclub comedian. He books a date at a friend’s club for the same night as a mob-financed club is about to open in another corner of the ghetto. As a territorial battle erupts, Petey negotiates a deal with Lucifer to rectify a fatal mistake. The devil’s half of the arrangement requires Petey to marry his daughter, who looks as if she might have spent the last 1,000 years tanning in the raging fires of hell. The comedy here is as broad as it could possibly be, while the treatment of women is on a par with that in most Blaxploitation pics. The bonus pieces add the making-of documentary, “I, Dolemite Part III”; commentary with Rudy Ray Moore’s biographer, Mark Jason Murray, co-star Jimmy Lynch and director Cliff Roquemore; a “Shooting Locations Revisited” featurette; previews of other Rudy Ray Moore epics; and cover artwork, by Jay Shaw.

Opry Video Classics II

The performances compiled for posterity in Time Life/WEA’s eight-disc “Opry Video Classics II” represent a time in American cultural history before the borders that separated rock-’n’-roll and country/western were closely guarded by disc jockeys, record labels and arbiters of taste based largely in Nashville. Rockabilly wouldn’t come back into fashion for several years and the old guard controlled everything from hair styles to the authenticity of the acts allowed to perform on the stage of the venerable Ryman Auditorium. Elvis Presley wasn’t welcomed back after his first performance, in 1954, and, until 1973, Jerry Lee Lewis was deemed far too uncontrollable to book. When the Killer finally did appear, he broke the rules by playing his rock-’n’-roll hits and referring to himself in words unsuited to for public consumption in the shrine to country music. The Byrds were practically run off the stage after Gram Parsons convinced Columbia executives that country-rock was compatible with other Opry standbys and the label should lobby for an invitation. Nope, too soon. Today, of course, the lines separating the genres have been completely and forever blurred. As such, “Opry Video Classics II” exists as both a time capsule and juke box full of wonderful songs, performed with utmost respect for an audience full of people who had never dreamed of seeing that much talent on one stage in their lives. At the Opry, it was the men who dressed like peacocks and the women who were required to look as if they’d just left an ice-cream social. The clowning was reserved for the hillbilly comics, who, in a couple of years, would moonlight on “Hee Haw.” It’s all in good fun and the music is memorable. The material presented here was recorded between 1955, when WSM-TV added a one-hour show to its lineup, and 1974, when the Opry moved from the Ryman to points east of downtown Nashville. Over time, sponsorship would change from Purina, to Pet Milk and National Life, while host T. Tommy Carter would make way for Bobby Lord and Judd Collins. The final incarnation would be “That Good Ole Country Music,” which added more contemporary production values to reflect the changing times. The compilation is broken into the chapters “Songs That Topped the Charts,” “Legends,” “Love Songs,” “Pioneers,” “Queens of Country,” “Hall of Fame,” “Kings of Country” and “Jukebox Memories.” Marty Robbins, Roy Acuff, the Carter family, Bill Monroe, Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells and Minnie Pearl, Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner (and his Nudie suits), Bill Anderson, Charlie Pride, Connie Smith, Carl Smith, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Tammy Wynette and Ray Stevens, who contributes the ever-timely “Ahab the Arab.” Despite the age of the video clips, they are unblemished and the sound is excellent.

My Big Night

If Pedro Almodóvar ever agreed to remake Blake Edwards’ madcap 1968 comedy, The Party, it might look a lot like Álex de la Iglesia’s over-the-top showbiz satire My Big Night. The absence of Peter Sellers would be a problem, but Almodovar’s never had much trouble finding comic actors with the versatility necessary to carry a work of unbridled slapstick. De La Iglesia is known primarily for such dark comedies as El día de la bestia, Accion mutante, Perdita Durango, Crimen ferpecto and Las Brujas de Zugarramurdi, as well as a documentary on the great Argentine soccer player, Lionel Messi, who plays for FC Barcelona. Co-written with frequent collaborator Jorge Guerricaechevarría, Mi Gran Noche describes what happens when a pre-recorded, studio-produced New Year’s Eve show descends into chaos and everything that could go wrong actually does. The TV special combines the worst elements of Euro-pop schlock with an audience of preening celebrities, rival hosts and entertainers, onetime lovers, has-beens, wannabes and extras, such as Jose (Pepón Nieto), sent by an employment agency after a camera crane takes out one of the stars. One rivalry could very well result in an unscheduled shooting before the close of the show, which never seems to end. Meanwhile, outside the studio, a strike by TV union workers is threatening to escalate into a full-blown riot and fire, requiring clouds of foam to quell. The gala setting may prove too foreign for many American viewers, but those with a sense of contemporary European pop culture shouldn’t find the translation difficult to make.

Sunrise

Most of Partho Sen-Gupta’s neo-noir procedural, Sunrise, feels as if it had been inspired by a rain-splashed cover of a Frank Miller comics collection. The back alleys and seedy nightclubs of Mumbai, during monsoon season, could very well double for the most desolate locations in Miller’s “Sin City.” In a country where tens of thousands of children are abducted each year, however, there would be no reason to simulate everyday horror in a comic. In Sen-Gupta’s second feature to his 2004 drama, Let the Wind Blow, Social Services officer Lakshman Joshi (Adil Hussain) is investigating the same trafficking ring that may have abducted his own 6-year-old daughter several years earlier. Joshi’s never stopped looking for Aruna, but a more recent kidnapping adds a greater sense of urgency to the investigation. Determined to crack both cases simultaneously, the dour detective rarely looks as if the never-ending rain is anything more than an irritant. As is usually the case in such neo-noir stories, the closer one gets to the object, the further away is the solution. One night, while chasing a lead, Joshi stumbles upon the Paradise nightclub, where the entertainment is supplied by underage girls dancing fully clothed to snake-charming music in a slightly provocative manner. A group of unpleasant looking men emerges from a doorway to shower the girls with currency as the detective grinds his teeth in disgust. While this seems real enough, it’s repeated the same way several different times. By this time, we’re never clear as to whether Sen-Gupta is leading us to a possible recovery – the girls on stage would be Aruna’s age – or a trip deeper into Joshi’s tortured mind. In an interview, the filmmaker reminds us that there’s no greater anguish than that experienced by a parent whose child has disappeared and that feeling is palpable throughout the film. In fact, his wife has already lost her mind. Sunrise could hardly be a more harrowing experience. Sen-Gupta’s direction, in combination with Hussain’s acting, the “noise music” of Eryck Abecassis, brilliant nighttime cinematography of Jean-Marc Ferriere and sound design of foley artist Nicolas Becker (Gravity) shouldn’t be missed by fans of the genre. The DVD adds an informative making-of featurette.

A Light Beneath Their Feet

If ever an actress was born to play the bipolar mother of teenage girl, it’s Taryn Manning, whose character on “Orange Is the New Black” is several different kinds of crazy. Then, too, if any rising star was the perfect choice to play that daughter, it’s Madison Davenport (Sisters). Valerie Weiss’ closely observed sophomore feature, A Light Beneath Their Feet, tackles a mental problem most Americans don’t spend a lot of time pondering. Even if one understands what it means to have bipolar disorder, understanding what it must feel like to be the child of single bipolar parent is another thing altogether. Davenport’s Beth Gerringson is an extremely bright young woman, who’s been accepted at UCLA and her hometown school, Northwestern. They’re both fine schools, but going to California would mean that Beth would be separated from her emotionally dependent mother, Gloria, for the first time in both of their lives. Staying in Evanston would ensure that the dependency continues for another four years, at least. Beth’s dad and second wife are on the verge of starting new family, so would be of no help. As played by Manning, Gloria is capable of working in the cafeteria of the school that Beth attends and keeping herself entertained with whatever television show is playing in her mind at any given time. Beth’s dilemma is compounded by the appearance in her life of school bad-boy, Jeremy (Carter Jenkins), who will be forever known for being the underage boy who had sex with a now-jailed junior-high teacher. He’s really not a bad kid, but, in an unlikely contrivance, their relationship is threatened in the cruelest of ways. I get the feeling that Weiss and screenwriter Moira McMahon Leeper did a lot of homework, when it came to shaping Gloria into a dramatically compelling and intellectually honest character. When she does go off her meds, as is inevitable in these sorts of things, what happens is entirely believable and deeply sad. How many teenagers share Beth’s dilemma is anyone’s guess.

Amateur Night at City Hall: The Story of Frank L. Rizzo

The re-release of Robert Mugge’s 1977 film Amateur Night at City Hall: The Story of Frank L. Rizzo would hardly raise a blip on the national political radar screen, if it weren’t for the fact that the rise of the former police commissioner and two-term mayor of Philadelphia wasn’t so reminiscent of Donald Trump’s ascendency in the Republican party. Indeed, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the GOP candidate studied Rizzo’s career and his divide-and-conquer approach to politics. The documentary leads with Rizzo’s performance as a beat cop, who protected the large Italian-American community from the things it feared most: blacks, hippies and liberals. To Rizzo’s credit, he was able to increase the number of African-American cops on the force, without diminishing its para-military approach to policing. Even so, beatings were routine and the racism even trickled down to the point where Rizzo would have interracial couples harassed and order raids on coffee shops. As mayor, he continued to protect his natural constituency, while dealing harshly with anyone who made waves. That’s not to say that all of his decisions were controversial or racially biased, however. His downfall would come when he spent money the city didn’t have on unnecessary patronage work and other self-aggrandizing projects. After being re-elected on a no-tax-increase platform, Rizzo was almost immediately forced to increase the payroll tax to cover the debt. “Amateur Night” was completed two years before Rizzo left office, so it lacks a distinct sense of closure and perspective. After seeing it, though, it will be impossible not see a little bit of Rizzo in the Trump campaign.

TV-to-DVD

PBS: NOVA: Operation Lighthouse Rescue

PBS: Nature: Nature’s Perfect Partners

PBS Kids: WordWorld: It’s Time for School

As the curse of extreme climate change begins to kick in for real, hundreds of stories like “NOVA: Operation Lighthouse Rescue” will be told. Lighthouses exist on pieces of land that are exposed directly to rising tides and storm-tossed waves. As easy as it would be to build a tower and add a revolving light to the top of it, such a strategy would mean giving up a part of our heritage that’s nearly impossible to replace. The historic Gay Head Lighthouse, which sits on a bluff at the tip of the island of Martha’s Vineyard, could have been an early casualty, if residents hadn’t taken steps to protect it. Built in 1856, the more than 400-ton structure soars 175 feet above the ocean. Because it still warns ships and sailors of impending danger, the cost of raising the landmark from its foundation and moving it 134 feet inland could easily be justified. The “NOVA” team goes into great detail on every aspect of the transfer, which is in danger of failure from Step One.

In the “Nature” episode, “Nature’s Perfect Partners,” we learn how partnerships between such unrelated species as lions and lizards can work for both entities. Although a lizard could provide a snack for a lion, they feed on the flies that constantly buzz around the lions, as they try to nap after a hearty meal. Other unlikely couples include tarantulas and toads; hippos and little fish called barbells; silver tip sharks and saltwater jacks; and the tiny goby and its housemate, the shrimp, which is almost completely blind. The film also documents how other animals build partnerships with their own kind in order to survive. Teamwork is a trait practiced by elephants that live in large social groups, often spanning generations. The program shows how members of a herd quickly react when an inexperienced mother unknowingly puts her newborn calf in jeopardy crossing a mud pan and river. Other examples feature the strategies of a wolf pack, a pod of killer whales, a group of silver ants and a large hyena clan.

This may come as bad news to youngsters who can’t get enough of the things summer has to offer, but the start of school is only a month away. In the PBS Kids’ cartoon compilation, “WordWorld: It’s Time for School,” it’s the first day of school for the critters. Shark, of all species, is afraid to go. With the help of his good friend, Duck, and some encouragement from Cat, their teacher, Shark’s fear turns into confidence, and by the end of the day, he’s head of the class. When it’s Duck’s turn for show-and-tell, he wants to bring the thing he loves best: his nest! When the nest breaks apart into letters, however, will Duck be able to retrieve them all in time? The set contains eight stories.

The DVD Wrapup: A Perfect Day, Daughter of Dawn, Bridgend, Kill Zone 2, Muriel, Crimes of Passion, Bad Moon and more

Wednesday, July 20th, 2016

A Perfect Day: Blu-ray

I don’t know if Joseph Heller’s great wartime satire “Catch-22” was translated into Serbo-Croatian, then passed around by a future generation of filmmakers in former Yugoslavia under Tito’s nose. It seems that it was, since so much of Heller wrote about the futility of dictating the terms of waging war would be repeated in movie after movie in the wake of the thoroughly illogical Bosnian conflagration. They would include such absurdist depictions of the conflict as Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land, Pjer Žalica’s Fuse and Srdan Dragojevic’s Pretty Village, Pretty Flame. (Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo told a similar story, but from the perspective of several battle-hardened journalists.) In his theatrical films and documentaries, Spanish writer-director Fernando León de Aranoa directly addresses issues – unemployment, prostitution, shattered dreams, refugees, solidary deaths – usually reserved for low-budget indies here. He’s been nominated for some of the top awards the cinematic world has to offer, but has yet to make a dent in Hollywood. His Balkans-set black comedy, A Perfect Day, is based on a novel by Paula Fariasa, a writer and doctor who’s worked for Doctors Without Borders and witnessed the horrors of war firsthand. It should have been León de Aranoa’s ticket to acclaim beyond the Spanish-speaking world, but, after making the nearly year-round circuit of festivals, A Perfect Day opened in a handful of U.S. theaters to almost no business. This, despite a cast that includes Benicio del Toro, Tim Robbins, Melanie Thierry, Olga Kurylenko – all working at the top of their game – and several actors known primarily in eastern and southern Europe. The setting is 1995, presumably in Bosnia-Herzegovina, over the course of 24 hours. A truce has been called, but no one on the need-to-know list – the combatants – is prepared to honor it. Knowing that cease-fires can be as dangerous as periods of full-out war, an international team of relief workers makes its appointed rounds with an eye out for such potential hazards as the carcass of a booby-trapped cow in the middle of a road and insurgents who were more interested in settling scores than laying down their guns.

The picture opens with veteran aid workers Mambrú (Del Toro) and B (Robbins) riding in separate vehicles to the site of a possibly poisoned well, on a desolate mountain top location in a still-contested territory. In their radio exchanges, the two men engage in the type of gallows humor usually reserved for crime scenes, executions and natural disasters. Here, it’s also employed to test the mettle of newcomer Sophie (Thierry), whose specialties include water systems and sanitation. They are joined by a savvy Bosnian interpreter Damir, (Fedja Štukan), and, later, Mambrú’s former girlfriend Katya, a war correspondent. The team is responding to a report of a dead body found in a well. Its presence could very soon contaminate the water supply for everyone living in the area, no matter their nationality. Just as the body is about to be extracted from the well, the rope bringing it to the surface breaks. Nobody in the immediate vicinity is willing give the aid workers a hand by offering them even a worn stretch of rope or admitting that such a thing is available anywhere in the area. The belligerent proprietor of a general store, located several arduous miles away, refuse to admit that they have rope to sell, even as several coils are pointed out to him. Rope will become available soon enough, but under circumstances any sane person would have avoided. By this time, the team has been joined by a boy, Nikola, that Mambrú saves from bullies who’ve stolen his soccer ball. Upon their return, the team is greeted by peacekeeping forces who forbid them from using the rope to recover the body. The corpse, they explain, may carry a bomb and, if so, it would have to be defused first by a completely different set of experts, who would need to be dispatched by a higher-ranking team of UN officials. In any case, aid workers aren’t allowed to touch dead bodies.

 

Using logic that might have made Heller wince, the soldiers reject Sophie’s argument that, by the time such authorization could come, the well would be forever contaminated. And, so it goes. A simple act of humanitarian aid becomes so snarled in bureaucratic gobbledy-goop that it’s possible nothing good ever will come from the volunteers’ best intentions. Even so, León de Aranoa really does a nice job keeping the narrative from bogging down in bureaucratic banter and despair. In the hours that follow the confrontation, he’s able to round off the drama with a similarly surreal negotiation between the boy and his antagonists and a night’s-long standoff with another possibly mined cow on a lonely mountain road. The restless natives are keenly rendered by the supporting characters and extras, who look as if they might have lived through the same war being depicted. Alex Catalán’s frequently spectacular cinematography captures the starkly majestic mountain terrain, which, apart from its beauty, shouldn’t have been worth the loss of a single life. The final irony comes in knowing that in war, especially, no good deed goes unpunished. The Blu-ray adds some worthwhile making-of material and interviews.

 

The Daughter of Dawn: Blu-ray

Last year, Milestone Films released on Blu-ray Edward S. Curtis’ remarkable 100-year-old drama, In the Land of the Head Hunters, the first feature-length film created with and starring members of the Kwakiutl tribe of British Columbia. (Still, one of a small handful of movies so produced.) Its story, set before Europeans arrived on the North Pacific Coast, described a warrior’s spiritual journey of love won and lost, and of a battle between tribes to save his bride. Considering that the film was largely unknown outside academia and film-restoration community, its unveiling was considered to be quite an event. Seventeen months later, Milestone has pulled a second rabbit out of its hat, this time with the feature-length Western, The Daughter of Dawn, a rediscovered 1920 film shot in Oklahoma entirely with members of the Comanche and Kiowa tribes. It was lovingly restored at UCLA’s film lab for the Oklahoma Historical Society, which negotiated for years with a private detective who had accepted it in return for services rendered and finally settled for a few thousand dollars and a substantial tax break. In addition to the visual facelift, a new score was composed and recorded by the student orchestra at the Oklahoma City University School of Music. Unlike most Westerns, which focus on the interests, history and crimes of white settlers and outlaws, The Daughter of Dawn, features an all-Native American cast of 300 Kiowas and Comanches. Set in the surprisingly scenic Wichita Mountains of southwest Oklahoma, it showcases a romantic rivalry for the hand of the title character (Esther LeBarre, in her first and only role), a buffalo hunt, hand-to-hand combat, horsemanship, dances, deceit, courageous acts and scenes from everyday life. The Native American actors, who in 1920 had been living on reservations for less than fifty years, brought with them their own tipis, horses, clothing and memories. The story was directed by a young director, Norbert Myles and written by Richard E. Banks, who had spent 25 years living with various tribes and may have been influenced by an actual incident concerning the daughter of a great chief, whose hand in marriage was coveted and fought over by the greatest warriors of two tribes. The Blu-ray package includes interviews with restorers, historians and Native American women who recall aspects of the shoot. There also are featurettes on the music composed for the restoration.

 

Bridgend

Every so often, the American media will glom onto a subject like teen suicide and milk from it as much misery, dubious meaning and genuine compassion as they can, before moving on to the next headline-making tragedy. The teen-suicide epidemic of recent years has been blamed on bullying, especially on Internet networks, and such things as peer pressure, social rejection, drugs, body shaming and abusive parents. Celebrities have been enlisted for public-service announcements and awareness campaigns targeted specifically at at-risk teenagers and bullying has been condemned in numerous movies and TV shows. In the May 14, 2012, edition of People magazine, a couple of dozen photos of young suicide victims accompanied the article, “A Tragedy in Wales: A Small Town Mystery.” It would be followed a year later by John Michael Williams’ little-seen documentary, Bridgend, and, two years later, Jeppe Rønde’s hair-raising dramatization of the same title. For his first fictional work, Rønde spent six years traveling between Denmark and South Wales, where, by February, 2012, 79 people between the ages of 13 and 41 had committed suicide by hanging. The UK press didn’t wait for People magazine to declare the suicide cluster a disaster of unforeseen magnitude. Indeed, the parents of one of the dead teens accused the media of “glamorizing ways of taking one’s life to young people,” while MP Madeleine Moon said that the media were “now part of the problem.” Any way you look at it, the Bridgend suicides made for a hell of a story. That, and the fact that no one could figure out why so many kids and young adults were killing themselves in a serene borough with a population of just over 100,000. Rønde’s Bridgent describes what happens when teenage Sara (Hannah Murray) arrives in the town with her policeman dad, Dave (Steven Waddington), who’s been sent there to investigate the situation. At first, Sara has as much trouble adjusting to the small-town environment as her father finds gaining the confidence of the locals. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Sara finds comfort in a defiant young tough who introduces her to the ritual outdoor wakes that follow each new hanging. The more Dave tries to keep Sara from seeing the young man, the more entwined she becomes with the kids in the creepy cult. Rønde appears to be more interested in atmosphere than answers in Bridgent and, to this end, it succeeds as drama and speculative fiction. Hannah Murray, who fans of “Skins” will remember as Cassie, steals the show as the impressionable Sara. (Murray has also been good in “Game of Thrones” and the underseen musical drama, God Help the Girl.)

 

The Perfect Match: Blu-ray

After directing music videos for Britney Spears, Celine Dion, R. Kelly, Tony Braxton and Luther Vandross, Bill Woodruff carved a niche for himself making rom-coms and comedies, including Honey and Beautyshop, targeted at so-called urban audiences. He’s since bounced between TV and theatrical projects, with a second sequel in the “Honey” series scheduled for later this year. What his latest romantic dramedy, The Perfect Match, lacks in originality and logic, it makes up for in a sexy cast of familiar African-American actors. Terrence Jenkins (Think Like a Man) portrays Charlie, a playboy, music agent and Internet photographer (isn’t everyone?), who lives on the beach and has recently discovered that his circle of friends has tightened with every new marriage. He doesn’t see himself as marriage material, so his friends Rick (Donald Faison) and Victor (Robert Christopher Riley) challenge him to date only one woman for the weeks leading up to Victor’s approaching wedding. This doesn’t seem likely, either, until he meets the exotic beauty, Eva (Cassie Ventura), who turns the tables on him by insisting that she’ only interested casual sex. Normally, this would be like Christmas in July for such a world-class playa like Charlie. Because it’s the woman who prefers sex over substance, however, the playboy magically changes his tune about commitment. If it weren’t for the instant analysis provided by Charlie’s shrink sister, Sherry (Paula Patton), his dilemma could have been overshadowed by a series of melodramatic turns staged for his other coupled friends (Dascha Polanco, Lauren London, Brandy Norwood, Kali Hawk) and a business relationship with the real-life rapper French Montana and his boss (Joey Pantoliano). If the characters are so universally young, good-looking and successful here that it defies our ability to suspend disbelief, well, check out the last 30-40 years of Hollywood produced rom-coms. Neither has that’s ever stopped anyone from watching other made-for-Lifetime or -BET movies or reading romance novels. Meanwhile, Woodruff has sufficiently mastered the formula to ensure fans of the subgenre a swell time.

 

Kill Zone 2: Blu-ray

It isn’t often that a balls-to-the-wall action picture from China, with a stopover in Thailand, wins the widespread applause of mainstream critics. John Woo, Zhang Yimou and Tsui Hark have done pretty well in that regard, as did Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin, which made numerous year-end Top 10 lists. Unlike Kill Zone 2 (a.k.a., “SPL II: A Time For Consequences”), however, those pictures told actual stories and weren’t required to rely on martial arts to advance them. To impress American critics, even those second-stringers relegated to reviewing genre flicks, the fight scenes really have to rock and that’s exactly what “KZ2” offers. Contrary to what its title suggests, it is related to Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen’s 2005 SPL: Kill Zone strictly by inference and the return of Hong Kong actor Wu Jing (Wolf Warrior), albeit playing a different character. He’s joined on the marquee here with Tony Jaa (Ong-bak), a ferocious multidiscipline fighter from Thailand and son of elephant herders. He plays a principled Thai cop, Chatchai, who moonlights as a prison guard after learning that his daughter needs a bone-marrow transplant. Wu plays an undercover Hong Kong cop and potential marrow donor, Kit, who, after his cover is blown, somehow lands in Chatchai’s facility. After they nearly destroy each other in a jailhouse fight, the two men form an alliance against crime boss Mr. Hung (Louis Koo), who’s running a kidnapping and organ-theft ring. While Chai is determined to keep Kit alive for the sake of his daughter’s health, the warden, Ko (Jin Zhang), wants him dead to ensure the smooth operation of the prison. The facility turns out to be a front for Mr. Hung’s organ-trafficking business, which is run from a building next-door to the prison. The only reason we care about the story at all is the presence of Chatchai’s daughter, who, despite battling leukemia, keeps all of the kids and nurses in the ward smiling. It’s the balletic fighting and stunt work that counts most of all. Credit for that goes to Chung Chi Li (Rush Hour), Ken Lo (The Legend of Drunken Master) and Jack Wai-Leung Wong (Four Assassins). “KZ2” may not always make sense, but it’s all in fun. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and deleted scenes.

 

Muriel, or The Time of Return: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

There are foreign-film buffs among us who will insist they understand the films of French director Alain Resnais and can tell you exactly what they mean … if you have a few hours or days to spare listening to theories as abstract as the movies themselves. Last Year in Marienbad and Hiroshima, Mon Amour have baffled American audiences and film-school students for more than a half-century with their unconventional narrative techniques and themes addressing consciousness, memory and the imagination. He would tackle more accessible topics in the political drama La guerre est finie, but not before delivering a similarly difficult intellectual exercise in the less widely distributed, Muriel, or the Time of Return, a film that demanded a working knowledge of recent French history, as well as an appreciation for Resnais’ elliptical style. In his review for the New York Times, Bosley Crowther opened by saying, “Perhaps there are those who can follow the scattered clues in the devious mystery that Alain Resnais has thrown together in his new French film. … But, I am not one.” He didn’t dismiss “Muriel” out of hand, or try to convince readers to save their money. Crowley simply advised caution, by waving a white flag. Other critics, though, have admitted to admiring “Muriel” more than Resnais’ more recognized titles. His first film in color, “Muriel” can most easily be described as the story of some emotionally damaged people — former lovers and men who returned home scarred from very different wars — set in a city being rebuilt after being destroyed during World War II. At its heart is a terrific performance by Delphine Seyrig, who also played “the woman” in “Marienbad” and widowed housewife, part-time prostitute in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels. As proprietor of a high-end antiques shop in the seacoast town of Boulogne, Hélène is surrounded by other people’s memories during the day and, at night, those of her own creation. Are they reliable? Maybe, maybe not. Resnais’ style allows for both options. The Criterion package, representing the first upgrade in many years, adds 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray; excerpts from the 1980 documentary “Une approche d’Alain Resnais révolutionnaire discret” and a 1969 interview with Seyrig; 1963 interview with composer Hans Werner Henze; new interview with film scholar François Thomas, author of “L’atelier d’Alain Resnais”; a new English subtitle translation; and an essay by film scholar James Quandt.

 

COMIX: Beyond the Comic Book Pages

OUTATIME: Saving the DeLorean Time Machine

I can’t think of any major Hollywood figure as generous with his time as pop-cultural pioneer Stan Lee, who, at 93, readily consents to interviews with reporters, while also mentoring aspiring comic-book writers, attending countless conventions and fan events, and making cameo appearances in live-action pictures. Given Hollywood’s current dependency on comic-book characters for box-office fodder, it’s safe to say that his presence will be felt in the entertainment industry long after he’s gone to that big Comic-Con in the sky. For the time being, however, Lee continues to pop up with regularity on the documentaries churned out with regularity on the art of creating, drawing, writing, selling comic books and exploiting superheroes for fun and profit. It wasn’t always such a walk in the park for Lee, as the industry has experienced more than its fair share of upheavals and legal battles, but, right now, he’s sitting on top of his worlds. The documentary Comix: Beyond the Comic Book Pages is Michael Valentine’s first film and, while the subject is overfamiliar, by now, it doesn’t feel derivative or terribly redundant. Besides rounding up the usual gang of artists and writers – easily available at conventions – Valentine consults collectors and other passionate fans, cosplayers and geeks. Bonus features include extended scenes and outtakes and a second disc devoted to hour-long interviews with Lee and Frank Miller.

 

Sometime during the run-up to Universal’s 30th-anniversary salute to its Back to the Future franchise, co-creator/co-writer/co-producer Bob Gale noticed, or was made aware of the fact, that the story’s entire reason for existing was literally gathering dust in the Universal backlot and slowly being stripped of its parts by souvenir scavengers. The original DeLorean Time Machine not only was showing its age, but it also was disappearing before the eyes of fans, executives and backlot security officials. Studios have made a science out of recycling costumes, props, wigs, vehicles and backdrops, but the idea of preserving this singular automobile probably wasn’t on the top of anyone’s mind back in the 1980s and early-1990s. It probably was a hundred times cheaper to fabricate a DeLorean than to invest in restoring one. Steve Concotelli’s OUTATIME: Saving the DeLorean Time Machine chronicles every step in the restoration process, from convincing Universal it would be a cool thing to do as part of the festivities, to hire a crew, sweat out a tight deadline and get Shaw’s thumbs’-up if they meet it. The team compiled by Joe Walser committed itself to restoring the Time Traveler with 100 percent accuracy and attention to detail. Replacing the stolen parts would be the hardest part of the job. As impressive as the yearlong process is, however, there are times when viewers will feel as if they’ve tapped into a cabal of “BTTF” nerds, who nearly pee in their pants with every new discovery and step forward. If that sounds cruel, you’ve probably never been to a Comic-Con, where you’re surrounded by geeks committed to making you to feel out of place for not wearing a costume or taking selfies in front of posters and memorabilia displays. The package adds material from the unveiling of the finished product at the Petersen Automotive Museum, where it currently sits.

 

Crimes of Passion: Special Edition: Blu-ray

In the 1970-80s, no director’s name was as synonymous with movies that challenged the status quo as Ken Russell. After specializing in documentaries about music and dance for the BBC, he joined the on-going sexual revolution with an erotically charged adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Woman in Love. For the next two decades, he made deliberately provocative films that combined artistic disciplines and could hardly be more visually arresting. He pulled out all the stops for an over-the-top adaptation of the Who’s “Tommy,” with some of the most popular actors and rock singers on the planet, and sandwiched it between eyebrow-raising biopics of Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky, sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Gustav Mahler, Franz Liszt and Rudolph Valentino, which merged lurid sexuality with music, art and splendid set and costume designs. I don’t think any of them, except Tommy, were profitable, but some of us enjoyed the spectacle, anyway. The 1980s began with Paddy Chayefsky (Network) being so unhappy with Russell’s treatment of his screenplay for Altered States that he demanded his name be taken off the finished project. The zeitgeist-capturing psycho-thriller played into the period’s obsession with finding keys to self-awareness through pseudo-scientific and quasi-religious treatments, including sensory-deprivation chambers and hallucinogens. Despite the bad vibes, it received some very positive reviews, probably made some money and went on to become something of a cult hit. Next would come Russell’s thinly disguised satire of American sexual mores, Crimes of Passion, in which Kathleen Turner played Joanna, a strait-laced sportswear designer by day and $50-a-trick streetwalker by night. China’s well-known on the stroll for her long blond wig and willingness to entertain the occasional freak, including a demented street preacher played with gusto by Anthony Perkins.

 

Private dick Bobby Grady (John Laughlin) is hired by Joanna’s employer to investigate whether she’s selling designs to a competitor, but all he turns up is a desire to sleep with China. After 12 years of marriage to a woman (Annie Potts) who’s lost her interest in sex, Bobby’s ready to try something new. It turns out that China/Joanna is, as well, but Perkins’ Rev. Peter Shayne wants to redeem her soul before she meets her maker. It’s absurd, made worse by the studio’s insistence that Crimes of Passion be edited to support a R-rating. (You can find some of the deleted material in Arrow Film’s bonus package.) Most interesting to me, however, is composer Rick Wakeman’s soundtrack, which is based entirely on Antonín Dvorák’s “From the New World” Symphony and takes repeated liberties with its familiar refrains. It would be a long time between plum assignments from there on in for the director, although his completely freaky The Lair of the White Worm, based on a Bram Stoker story, also became a bona-fide cult classic. In 1991, he revisited street-level prostitution in L.A. with Whore, starring Theresa Russell (Black Widow). Some believe that he made it in response to Pretty Woman, a modern fairytale about a struggling Beverly Hills working girl for which the studio demanded a happy ending. The crisp Crimes of Passion Blu-ray has been accorded a new 2K restoration, which benefits Russell’s sometimes garish color scheme, and commentary with the director and producer-screenwriter Barry Sandler; seven deleted/extended scenes with optional commentary by Sandler; a new interview with Sandler, recorded especially for this release; home-movie footage of Russell visiting Florida for a retrospective screening at the 2009 Orlando Film Festival; reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Twins of Evil; and an illustrated booklet containing new writing by Russell’s biographer, Paul Sutton, correspondence between Russell and Kathleen Turner, and an on-set interview with Russell. The package contains, as well, high-definition and standard-definition presentations of the director’s cut and unrated versions of the film.

 

Bad Moon: Blu-ray

While watching the Scream Factory re-release of Eric Red’s werewolf thriller, Bad Moon, I thought that it was a pretty good example of a mid-1980s monster-as-slasher picture. If it weren’t for a scene with partial nudity and some gory lupine attack footage, it seemed consistent with a lot of PG-13 pictures in the genre. It wasn’t until later, watching the bonus material, that I figured out that Bad Moon actually was released in 1996 – well after the start of the CGI revolution — and cuts were made to prevent it from being branded NC-17. A few more trims probably would have brought the R down to PG-13, but, what would be the point? The distributor wasn’t going to spend much money on promoting the release, anyway, and extended displays of boobies and blood played well in the cassette after-market. And, as sometimes happens, Bad Moon actually did find new life in VHS and DVD. The Blu-ray goes one better by restoring the cuts made for the original release, while offering even longer versions of the same scenes presented separately in footage that looks as if it might have been copied from material that’s sat on a shelf too long. Of course, a copy of the original theatrical edition also is included in hi-def, in addition to the director’s cut. The offending scene takes place early, when photojournalist Ted Harrison (Michael Pare) is shown taking a break from his work, making out with his girlfriend in a canvas tent. We’re made aware of the presence of an evil being when the horses begin to freak out and natives get restless. Soon enough, a werewolf slashes its way into the tent, assaulting the topless babe (Johanna Marlowe Lebovitz) with grievous intent. The monster is shot by one of the less fearful guides, but not before the woman is killed and the photographer is infected with the monster’s saliva. Flash forward a couple of years and Ted is back in the U.S.A., camped alongside a pristine lake in Oregon taking pictures. Someone had just been murdered in the vicinity, but he invites his sister (Mariel Hemmingway), her young son (Mason Gamble) and the family German shepherd to visit him, anyway. In anticipation of a full moon, Ted takes the precaution of chaining himself to a redwood. It doesn’t fool the family dog, upon whom the sight of a helpless monster leaves a lasting impression. Timing in at a brisk 80 minutes, Bad Moon adds one or two neat twists before leaving room for a sequel at the end, if it had done any business … which it didn’t. The 35-minute making-of featurette, “Nature of the Beast: Making of Bad Moon,” offers new interviews with Red, Pare, Gamble and special effects wiz, Steve Johnson; a couple of commentary tracks; the unrated opening scene from the Red’s first cut, sourced from VHS; and three storyboard sequences.

 

Lee Scratch Perry’s Vision of Paradise

Ruben Blades: The Return of Ruben Blades: Blu-ray

For those who think reggae became an irrelevant musical genre after the death Bob Marley, and weren’t willing to sample the work of his talented children and grandchildren, Volker Schaner’s head-bobbing documentary, Lee Scratch Perry’s Vision of Paradise, will come as a revelation. Loyal fans already aware of reggae and dub’s continued vitality should have a ball becoming reacquainted with Perry, one of the singular and influential forces in the history of popular music. Schaner has spent the last 13 years attempting to get a handle on the eccentric 80-year-old’s philosophies, theories, beliefs, art, politics and music. It took the filmmaker not only to Kingston, the fire-scarred Black Ark studio and his ancient mother’s country home, but also stopovers in England (a.k.a., Babylon), Switzerland and Ethiopia, where Perry traces the roots of the Rastafarian religion and explains his ongoing battle to rid the world of Satanic influences. Here and there, Schaner illustrates Perry’s testimony with cartoonish depictions of the devil, animated interstitials and short films possibly inspired by Yellow Submarine. Jamaica, from the mountains to coast, looks great and Perry’s religious art is fascinating. (It could be dismissed as wonderfully fanciful if the artist wasn’t there to explain its significance and meaning to those who believe that the world can be saved through music and the sacramental use of ganja.) Casual fans of reggae and Jamaican culture will almost certainly find much of “Vision of Paradise” to be several million miles too far out for their tastes. Others will think it makes perfect sense, especially when accompanied by the music. Also sprinkled throughout the film are interviews with musicians and fellow producers, black and white, who attest to Perry’s non-mystical talents. It would be interesting to discover what happens when Perry and Sun Ra meet in heaven … or some other celestial body. The DVD arrives inside a 24-page book, with a 30-minute making-of documentary, director’s comments and over two hours of additional unseen scenes.

 

Just as salsa and other Afro-Cuban music goes in and out of style with fickle non-Latin audiences here, interest in the whereabouts of singer/musician/actor/activist/politician Rubén Blades tends to rise or fade depending on how visible he is in the mainstream media. Until the nearly concurrent releases of the Grammy-winning “Buscando América” and Leon Ichaso’s indie hit, Crossover Dreams, Blades was known primarily for his work with the New York-based salsa ensemble, Fania All-Stars. Robert Mugge’s music-filled documentary, The Return of Ruben Blades, also shot in 1985, followed the baby-faced 36-year-old home, after earning a master’s degree in international law from Harvard Law School. His dance card would be filled with assignments from Hollywood, recording and touring for most of the next 30 years. In 2015, Blades’ album “Tangos” won a Grammy award for Best Latin Pop Album and he’s currently a cast member of “Fear the Walking Dead.” Like most of Mugge’s other films, “The Return” is equal parts history, biography and performance. An aspiring politician, Blades also used the film to discuss politics and Yankee cultural imperialism, without taking any direct shots at General Manuel Noriega’s corrupt regime. (He would also be profiled on “60 Minutes,” by Morley Safer.) The soundtrack is heavy on songs from “Buscando América” and includes a discussion of the origins of “Pedro Navaja,” inspired by “Mack the Knife,” his socially conscious song about the life and death of a murderous street hustler.

 

The Bible Stories: Jacob

The Bible Stories: Joseph

The latest installments in Shout! Factory’s reintroduction of executive producer Gerald Rafshoon’s “The Bible Stories” series are “Jacob” and “Joseph.” Once again, the productions benefit from attention to period details, decent budgets, big-name actors and Saharan locations. In the Book of Genesis story of family treachery and reconciliation, “Jacob,” directed by Peter Hall, the cast includes Matthew Modine, Lara Flynn Boyle, Sean Bean, Irene Papas, Christoph Waltz, Giancarlo Giannini and Joss Ackland. The musical score was composed by Ennio Morricone and Marco Frisina. Academy Award winners Ben Kingsley and Martin Landau top the cast of “Joseph,” with support from Paul Mercurio, Lesley Ann Warren, Dominique Sanda, Alice Krige and Monica Bellucci.

 

TV-to-DVD

Daniel Boone: Collector’s Edition: Season One

Bitten: The Final Season

Secrets of the Dead: Teotihuacan’s Lost Kings

America’s Test Kitchen: Season 16

Caillou: Caillou Goes for the Gold

Collected episodes from the long-running NBC series, “Daniel Boone,” have appeared in DVD previously, but weren’t nearly as easy to find and enjoy as TMG/Shout’s upgraded release, “Daniel Boone: Collector’s Edition: Season One,” which includes all 29 episodes in glorious black-and-white. (The second and subsequent seasons were shot in color.) By this time, Fess Parker had earned the right to wear a coonskin cap wherever and whenever he wanted by playing Davy Crockett in the eponymous 1950s’ Disney mini-series. Parker would once again don the racoon-skin chapeau for the NBC series, which ran from September 24, 1964, to September 10, 1970, accumulating 165 total episodes. Shot in Kanab, Utah, and several different California locations, “Daniel Boone” portrayed the Kentucky frontiersman as a family man, first, and only then a surveyor, farmer, trapper, statesman and militia leader. Season One takes places in the years before the Revolutionary War, when British officers negotiated with Native American tribes to take sides against the colonials. Ed Ames famously played Mingo — Boone’s half-Cherokee Oxford-educated friend and ally – who could fling a tomahawk as well as he could sing opera (except on the “Tonight” show). Boone’s wife, Rebecca (Patricia Blair), son Israel (Darby Hinton) and daughter Jemima (Veronica Cartwright), often were asked to behave as if they were modern-day sitcom characters, helping dad welcome visitors to Boonesborough and fretting when he didn’t come home on time for dinner. Despite the absence of Indians in most roles, the storylines tried to do some justice to Native American history and customs, even if they couldn’t stand up to close scrutiny. Antiquated as it is, “Daniel Boone” remains reasonably entertaining and, for kids, an introduction to early American pseudo-history.

 

The third and final season of the Canadian-made werewolf drama, “Bitten,” took the storyline into very strange places, indeed. To keep the narrative moving forwardly, Elena, the world’s only female werewolf, was introduced to a father and half-siblings she never knew existed. While consumed with investigating the veracity of their claims, Elena and her pack were forced to deal with a merciless pack of Russian werewolves, anxious to do what their forebears couldn’t accomplish during the Cold War. As such, Season Three deviated from the direction taken in the first two stanzas, by adapting a duty-vs.-family, Alpha-vs.-Alpha theme. “Bitten” was based on the “Women of the Otherworld” series of books, by author Kelley Armstrong. It was produced as an original series for the Space network and picked up here by Syfy. The extras include the featurette, “A Look at the Final Season,” as well as deleted and extended scenes.

PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead” always takes viewers to places they didn’t know they wanted go, like catacombs, tombs and ancient burial grounds. In “Teotihuacan’s Lost Kings,” the producers address a mystery that’s bugged archeologists for a long time: the location of the final resting place for the greatest of Aztec kings. The show follows a team of international scientists documenting their exploration of royal tombs far beneath the surface of the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacán. When archeologists discover evidence of a sacrificial chamber beneath the famous Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, they find the clues that may finally reveal a secret society of executioners.

 

PBS’ “The Great Polar Bear Feast” provides an extraordinary example of neighborly cooperation, as well as more alarming evidence of the effects of global warming on two endangered populations. Every year, normally solitary polar bears gather in large numbers of 80 or more at Kaktovic, Alaska. The polar bears are waiting for the feast left for them by Inupiat residents who’ve just bagged one of the three bowhead whales they’re entitled to harvest each year. After they pick the carcass clean of edible meat, the residents haul the skeleton to a pile of weathered bones on the shore, where the bears and their cubs will feast on the leftovers. It’s quite a sight.

 

Caillou, the PBS Kids’ series by way of Canada’s Treehouse TV, is based on the books by Hélène Desputeaux. It centers on a 4-year-old boy who is fascinated by the world around him. In “Caillou: Caillou Goes for the Gold,” Caillou and his friends appear to be getting a head start on the Olympics, as they participate in such activities as soccer, running, karate, baseball and swimming. With patience and practice, Caillou becomes more confident as he gets better and stronger.