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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.

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 or BoxOfficeMojo. It even received mostly above-average marks from the dozen, or so, mainstream critics listed on 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.

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.

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 – 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.

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.

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.

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 ( 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.
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.

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.

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.

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.


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

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.


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.


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


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


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.



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.”



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.



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.




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 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.



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 logo, guaranteeing that what’s contained therein is safe for audiences of all   ages. That’s all most potential viewers would need to know about director Phil Gorn’s inspirational comedy, which marks his return to the helm after 14 years and the decidedly non-Dove-approved Ultimate Reality. After the death of her mother, Katie (Shelby Lyon) has lost interest in her school, friends and gymnastics. Things begin to pick up for her when a science teacher asks her to take care of her monkey, Gibby (Crystal), for the summer. Gibby helps her with gymnastics, renewing friendships –including finding a potential boyfriend (Peyton Meyer) and overcoming her nemesis, a mean girl who is out to beat Katie at everything. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie … just in time for the Olympics. Gibby also stars Shannon Elizabeth (American Pie), Sean Patrick Flanery (The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles) and Vivica A. Fox (Independence Day).


IMAX: Humpback Whales: 4K UHD/3-D/Blu-ray

There can be no sweeter scientific calling than the one that allows marine biologists to monitor the communications of humpback whales and unlock their many secrets. Serious study of the 55-foot, 50-ton behemoths didn’t begin until the 1970s, when their songs were recorded and sold to young people, who would launch the international save-the-whale movement. IMAX specialist Greg MacGillivray’s fascinating Humpback Whales, now available in 4K UHD/Blu-ray 3-D/Blu-ray formats, chronicles the progress researchers have made in those 40-plus years of undersea exploration. Narrated by Ewan McGregor, it helps explain why humpbacks are the most acrobatic of all whales, why they sing their haunting songs and why they migrate up to 10,000 miles round-trip every year. Most of the footage was captured in Tonga, Hawaii and Alaska.


The Adventures of Panda Warrior

Nickelodeon: PAW Patrol: Sports Day

One needn’t be a detective when it comes to seeing through the marketing schemes of companies selling DVDs to unsuspecting consumers, especially parents looking for movies safe for baby-sitting duty. Sometimes it takes a keen eye to distinguish between the real McCoy and faux McCoy. At first glance, I’ll admit to wondering when DreamWorks Animation slipped its latest Kung Fu Panda title past me. On closer inspection and after some Internet trolling, it became apparent that the Lionsgate release, The Adventures of Panda Warrior, was made in China and distributed in different countries as “The Adventures of Jinbao.” In New Zealand, it went out under the Sony banner, while in parts of Asia it was Golden Network Asia Limited. None are affiliated, as far as I know, with DreamWorks, although the Panda Warrior and Kung Fu Panda could be cousins. Here, the Panda Warrior began life as a “peace-loving soldier from Ancient China, magically transported into a world ruled by an evil nine-headed snake. Transformed into a panda, he joins forces with a flying pig to free the once-peaceful Merryland from tyranny.” The English voices are provided by Rob Schneider, Lauren Elizabeth, Haylie Duff, Tom Kenny and Norm MacDonald. At a list price of nearly $20, consumers should know what they’re getting for their baby-sitting money.


PAW Patrol” is an animated children’s program on Nickelodeon about six rescue dogs in training and their friend, a boy named Ryder. The series encourages creative problem solving, as each of the pups is inspired by a real-life job: firefighter, police officer, construction worker. Rocky the Recycling Pup who always has the right tool for the job. The DVD contains six episodes, all themed around sporting events.



Starz: The Girlfriend Experience: Season One: Blu-ray

In the parlance of the sex trade, “the girlfriend experience” is an option available to customers of prostitutes and escorts who want to enjoy a typical date – maybe including dinner, a movie, some dancing – that’s guaranteed to end with some degree of coital satisfaction. It could last a few hours or a whole night and cost the trick more than the usual amount of money for a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’m encounter. The Starz series was adapted from Steven Soderbergh’s feature film, The Girlfriend Experience, which became notorious for starring the then-famous porn princess Sasha Grey and a storyline that also incorporated elements from the 2008 presidential campaign, not unlike Shampoo. It was widely viewed as being yet another attempt to bridge the worlds of porn and mainstream Hollywood. The Starz spinoff series, “The Girlfriend Experience,” is a bit of a misnomer in that the clients of second-year law student Christine Reade (Riley Keough) usually pay by the hour at rates affordable only by men in the One Percent Club. Christine is pretty enough, but it’s difficult to explain why some very powerful men would risk the marriages and fortunes for her company. A promising student, Christine accepts an internship at a prestigious Chicago firm, where, naturally, she’s bound to run into someone who either is a client or wouldn’t mind a freebie, in lieu of a raise or promotion. While there’s plenty of skin in the series’ first year, it’s nowhere near as graphic or gratuitous as what can be found every week on “Game of Thrones.” What it does have going for it, besides Keough and executive producer Soderbergh, are co-creators/co-directors/co-writers Lodge Kerrigan (Keane) and Amy Seimetz (Sun Don’t Shine), and they keep things interesting.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.



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.

The DVD Wrapup: Everybody Wants Some!!, Allegiant, Belladonna, Van Gogh, Mecanix, Green Room, With Child, Dark Horse and more

Thursday, July 14th, 2016

Everybody Wants Some!!: Blu-ray

Best viewed as either an extension or follow-up to Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused and Boyhood, Everybody Wants Some!! once again explores the rites of passage attendant to post-Vietnam American youth. It describes how teenage boys, specifically those raised in Texas, take their first giant steps into manhood, demanding their independence from parental authority, while trading one nest for another, all to a soundtrack of whatever rock music was on the radio at the time. That so many of us recognize ourselves in Linklater’s characters and depictions of the coming-of-age process – mostly told from a young white male point of view — speaks to the commonality of experience in a nation homogenized by stimuli provided by the mass media. The stoners and slackers in Austin, circa May 1976, were then and still are interchangeable with those in Madison or Spokane, while Mason’s boyhood journey resonated with anyone who grew up outside major cities at a time when divorce was commonplace and adults couldn’t be counted upon to serve as role models. Typical of Linklater’s stories, a girl or young woman will emerge as a catalyst for change in the life of the male protagonist, but, by and large, he keeps them in the background. At best, it’s a way to demonstrate how females mature faster than males, but are no match for their aggressively stupid behavior in testosterone-heavy settings. The focus in Everybody Wants Some!! is on a houseful of college athletes – ranging from incoming freshmen to out-going seniors — left to their own devices over the course of a long weekend before the first day of classes. The adult supervision is provided by a coach who briefly visits the house and warns them against dissipating their energy before realizing the glory of a team championship. It’s 1980 at a generic college in south Texas, four years before President Reagan signed into law the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. Everyone is free to drink until they puke or ruin someone else’s life in a traffic accident. Drugs are every bit as prevalent as they were in “D&C.” Even though some of the ballplayers will be drafted by a Major Leagues team and given an opportunity to excel at the next level – under stricter adult supervision – others will enter adulthood as alcoholics and might-have-beens. It’s easy to imagine the characters we meet in Everybody Wants Some!! reuniting in an Austin bar, five years later, singing along to Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days,” while soon-to-be wealthy computer geeks and other onetime outcasts try desperately to ignore their caterwauling.

The protagonist here is Jake, an incoming freshman pitcher, who arrives on campus with the Knack’s “My Sharona” blasting away in his car. Like most freshmen, Jake probably would have benefitted from spending a semester or two in an on-campus dormitory, but, at the school’s Baseball House, he’s surrounded by guys destined to owe more to Matthew McConaughey’s David Wooderson, in “D&S,” than Derek Jeter. Jake, who one girl immediately pegs as “the quiet guy in the back seat,” quickly falls into line with the upperclassmen in their unsupervised revelry, demented hazing rituals and pursuit of mindless sex. School is still 48 hours away, so it’s easy to cut them some slack. Linklater wants us to see in Jake the kid who conceivably could rise above the hijinks and carve a path for himself on or off the diamond. Fortunately, he’s sufficiently self-aware to realize that college life might offer slightly more than one-night stands and baseball. He succeeds in re-connecting with Beverly (Zoey Deutch), the theater major who picked up on his quiet demeanor and may actually be as talented in her chosen discipline as he is in sports. Jake allows her to open his eyes to things he might have completely missed – including a party at which Beverly’s classmates act out their personal eccentricities while in “Alice in Wonderland” drag — if he had limited his horizons to the make-out room on the second floor of the Baseball House. If Beverly seems a bit too perfect a fit for Jake at this juncture in his life, it fits with the role played by other women in Linklater’s films. After a night fully spent getting to know each other, Beverly makes sure Jake makes it to his first lecture, during which he succumbs to exhaustion and falls asleep alongside a fellow team member. The unusually eclectic mix of male characters in Everybody Wants Some!! reminded me of the soldiers we meet in World War II movies, with each platoon member representing a different nationality, regional background, religion and personality. (Tellingly, only one African-American player, one Hispanic and no Native American are on the Cherokees’ roster.) The ensemble work is excellent, whether the characters are partying, sharing insights on life or preparing for the coming season. Some of the actors are seasoned, while others were handpicked during auditions for their athletic skills and potential as fictional teammates. The 1980s fashions and mustaches are appropriately grotesque. All caveats aside, Everybody Wants Some!! should provide a couple hours of boisterous fun for anyone who survived the 1980s with wits and livers intact. The Blu-ray adds “Everybody Wants Some!! More Stuff That’s Not in the Movie”; “Rickipedia,” on the writer/director’s verbal quirks; “Baseball Players Can Dance”; “Skills Videos,” taken during the auditions; and “History 101: Stylin’ the ’80s,” on the various steps taken to assure the film’s period look.

The Divergent Series: Allegiant: Blu-ray

Fans of the first two installments of “The Divergent Series” need to know that the anemic performance of Allegiant won’t prevent the final chapter to be released next year. This time, however, it is scheduled to open on June 9, 2017, a date that affords the studio two additional months to make sure Ascendant doesn’t look as rushed into theaters as Allegiant did. Blessed with 20/20 hindsight, Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer admits that the studio wanted to hit nearly the same March release date that he believes benefitted Insurgent and Divergent, even though the second didn’t do as well as the first. Allegiant would clock in a year later with half the domestic take as Divergent, a sum that might have killed a less visible franchise. Because overseas sales have remained reasonably consistent throughout, Lionsgate pushed its luck by bifurcating the finale of Veronica Roth’s bestselling YP trilogy. It worked for The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and The Twilight Saga, so why not? Such cynically conceived financial ploys are rarely rewarded with enthusiastic reviews or audience support. That’s because the semi-sequels mostly repeat information and characters from the previous chapters and substitute chases, pyrotechnics and set pieces for story refinement. Returning director Robert Schwentke doesn’t waste any time putting the film’s best foot forward, in the form of an escape from dystopian Chicago over an electrified wall the scale of which Donald Trump has pledged for our border with Mexico. When Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James), Tori (Maggie Q) and a few other militants reach the top of the barrier, it becomes clear that the wall and Bureau of Genetic Welfare (housed within the ruins of O’Hare Airport) are separated by a lifeless toxic wasteland. (Forget for a minute that the airport actually is part of Chicago and a mere 18-mile train ride connects the Loop to the massive facility.) They are rescued from their pursuers and the poisonous terrain by transports that offer maximum protection from the elements. Once ensconced, Tris and Fore soon learn that residents – under the command of Jeff Daniels – are just as hung up on factional purity as everyone else. Even at two hours, Allegiant feels like nothing more than a prelude to Ascendant. The basic Blu-ray package adds commentary with Producers Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher; and featurettes “Allegiant: Book to Film,” which briefly discusses the adaptive process and decision to split the book into two films (described by a crew member as “treading water”), “Battle in the Bullfrog,” “Finding the Future: Effects and Technology,” “Characters in Conflict,” “The Next Chapter: Cast and Characters” and “Building the Bureau,” a look at how O’Hare was supposedly retooled for a new purpose. It’s also being released in a 4K edition; a Target exclusive DigiBook, with bonus disc; and Best Buy exclusive SteelBook.

Belladonna of Sadness: Blu-ray

Nominated for the Golden Bear Award at the 1973 Berlin International Film Festival, its taken 42 years for Eiichi Yamamoto’s lushly illustrated and graphically erotic Belladonna of Sadness to arrive in the United States. Audiences here weren’t sheltered from X-rated animation at the time, or such midnight-movie head trips as Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet and Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards, Fritz the Cat, The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat and Coonskin. Osamu Tezuka and Eiichi Yamamoto’s Cleopatra: Queen of Sex made a brief landing in the U.S. in 1972, but Yamato’s One Thousand and One Arabian Nights and Hiroshi Harada’s Midori didn’t even warrant that much attention here. Yamamoto, whose early credits also include Astro Boy and Kimba, the White Lion, based Belladonna of Sadness on Jules Michelet’s theoretical 1862 text, “Satanism and Witchcraft,” which remains notable for being one of the first sympathetic histories of witchcraft and the secret religion inspired by paganism and fairy beliefs. The illustrations unfold as a series of psychedelic watercolor paintings, which bleed, twist together and are informed by Tarot cards, paintings by Klimt, Delacroix, Degas and Kandinsky, John Keats’ poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and J.R.R. Tolkien fantasies. In it, Jeanne and Jean are happy newlyweds in a rural village. Their idyll is shattered, when, on their wedding night, Jeanne is raped in a ritual deflowering by the local baron and his lackeys. Although Jean attempts to assure her of his unconditional love — “Let us forget everything in the past” — she begins to see visions of a phallic-headed spirit encouraging her to use newly acquired black powers to take revenge on the baron. As the couple’s fortunes improve, the baron raises taxes to fund his war effort. Jean is made tax collector and the baron cuts off his hand as punishment when he cannot extract enough money from the village. After another visit from the spirit, Jeanne takes out a large loan from a usurer and sets herself up in the same trade, eventually parlaying it into becoming the true power in the village. When the baron returns victorious from his war, and his wife, envious of the respect and admiration accorded Jeanne, calls her a witch and has her driven out. She finally makes a pact with the spirit, who reveals himself to be the devil, from whom she is granted considerable magical powers, and uses them to lead a rebellion in the village. On its Japanese release, Belladonna of Sadness made so little money, it took down its production company. Rape, mutilation and other transgressive sexual behavior weren’t at all uncommon in Japanese art disciplines in the 1970s – Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses would provide further evidence of that – but, even so, some of it is still difficult to take. The restored Blu-ray edition includes original trailers, new interviews with director Eiichi Yamamoto, art director Kuni Fukai and composer Masahiko Satoh and a 16-page illustrated booklet featuring Dennis Bartok’s essay “Belladonna of Sadness: Lost & Found.”

Van Gogh: Blu-ray

In 1992, Maurice Pialat’s revisionist take on the last 60 days of Vincent Van Gogh’s life had the distinct commercial misfortune of being released less than two years after Robert Altman’s splendid Vincent &Theo. That both of these critically acclaimed art films timed in at well over two hours might have something to do with the lukewarm response at the box office. It’s more likely that the collective memory of Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn’s star turns in Vincente Minnelli’s brilliantly photographed Lust for Life, 25 years earlier, trumped a very good performance by Tim Roth, still a year away from his breakthrough performance in Reservoir Dogs. If each of the three films offers a different take on the artist and his various conditions, the paintings exist in a world of their own. Pialat, himself a skilled painter, elected to offer a more contextual approach to artist’s final weeks. After leaving the asylum in Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh (Jacques Dutronc) settles in Auvers-sur-Oise, a quiet and pretty little village north of Paris. It allows him to be near the summer home of Doctor Gachet, an art lover and patron recommended by his brother. For the most part, Vincent seems downright happy to be there and shows it by being extremely productive. It takes a little time getting used to a convivial Van Gogh. Pialat does an especially nice job matching various scenes to such easily recallable paintings as “Portrait of Dr. Gachet,” “Wheatfield with Crows,” “Woman in the Cafe Tambourin’,” “Marguerite Gachet in the Garden” and “Marguerite Gachet at the Piano.” The last two are significant because of Pialat’s contention that the artist and Gachet’s daughter (Alexandra London) – likely in her late teens – consummated an affair that other historians argue was merely wishful thinking on her part. Despair over her father’s reaction to their affair, along with Van Gogh’s growing mistrust of his brother, Theo, may have led directly to the artist’s nearly botched suicide. Something else viewers will notice is the presence of both ears attached on Vincent’s head. Pialat believes, with some historical backing, that he didn’t actually sever the appendage, but merely took swipes at it with a razor. Among the wonderful set pieces are revelries with prostitutes at a riverside picnic and inside the Café Tambourin. The working girls appear to enjoy his presence and he certainly appreciates their hospitality. Once again, the scenery couldn’t be any lovelier. Van Gogh was nominated for 12 César awards, taking home one for Dutronc’s performance in the lead role. The excellent Cohen Media Blu-ray adds interviews with Dutronc, once referred to as “a dilettante of music,” actor Bernard Le Coq and cinematographer Emmanuel Machuel; deleted scenes; and original and re-release trailers.

The Preppie Connection

There are several good reasons for teen scholars not of the manor born to look beyond the elite prep schools of New England and settle for something just as good nearer to home. They’re made perfectly clear in Joseph Castelo’s old-fashioned cautionary tale, The Preppie Connection. No matter how much an outsider brings to the table, the insatiable greed and bred-in-the-bone sense of entitlement displayed by the legacy students will always trump good grades, hard work and a winning personality. Here, the lamb being led to slaughter is blue-collar scholarship student, Tobias Hammel (Thomas Mann), who makes the mistake of falling for the resident WASP princess, Alexis Hayes (Lucy Fry). In a desperate attempt to impress her, he smuggles $300,000 of uncut cocaine into the dormitories of Choate Rosemary Hall School, in his Connecticut hometown, to be carved into lines and hoovered up the nostrils of the elite school’s leading clique of trust-fund babies. Toby began to be noticed when he supplied some killer pot to his classmates, who were afraid to approach street dealers on their own. He really caught their attention when he offered invest their allowances into a trip to Colombia with a fellow student – the son of a diplomat — and return with a fake Inca figurine loaded with primo flake. Toby even had money left over to help his parents save their house from foreclosure. One trip led to another, until Alexis traded her arrogant boyfriend, Ellis Tynes (Logan Huffman), for a round-trip ticket to Colombia with Toby. (The cartel era had yet to take over the international cocaine trade, leaving it to foolhardy freelance traffickers.) You can probably guess what happens next. It’s too bad Toby wasn’t paying attention when hubris was being taught in English lit, because Lady Alexis’ presence would inspire his suppliers to raise the ante by adding kidnapping to their criminal resumes. Although they managed to avoid being held for ransom by the skin of their teeth, they aren’t able to dodge the DEA agents waiting for them at JFK, after being ratted out by a petulant Ellis.

While Castelo doesn’t demand that we sympathize with Toby, he does make a solid case against poor and working-class kids entering into temporary alliances with more privileged classmates, unless a get-out-of-jail-free card is part of the deal. The person who inspired The Preppie Connection, which takes great liberties with the truth, survived the ordeal largely intact. Derek Oatis was interviewed on “60 Minutes” by Ed Bradley, before being sentenced to five years’ probation and 5,000 hours of community service. (His real-life ex-girlfriend received three years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service.) If he had been tried before a judge in a New York court, the penalty for selling two ounces or more of heroin, morphine, opium, cocaine or cannabis was a minimum of 15 years to life in prison. Oatis and his girlfriend were both expelled from Choate, along with the 12 students who gave them money for cocaine. (It would be interesting to learn those names.) Instead of being warehoused behind bars, alongside other poor and minority convicts, Oatis now practices criminal law in Connecticut and is a prominent animal-rights activist. Thirty-plus years after Scarface and “Miami Vice” forever changed the faces of drug kingpins to a deeper shade of brown, hundreds of smuggling-themed movies have come and gone, making the events described in The Preppie Connection seem like an inconsequential fraternity prank. (Contemporary George Jung, portrayed by Johnny Depp in Blow, finished a 20-year bit in prison only two years ago. The subject of Mr. Nice, Welsh cannabis trafficker Howard Marks, was sentenced to 25 years in jail and given a $50,000 fine, ultimately serving seven in a federal prison.) It makes me wonder why Castelo even bothered to revisit a comparatively ancient scandal that was forgotten almost as soon as it began. The Preppie Connection does have its moments, though, including a narrow escape from kidnappers anxious to tap into Alexis’ inheritance and capturing the stench of entitlement that permeates such institutions.

Gorilla Bathes at Noon

No one captured the absurdities of life behind the Iron Curtain with more precision than filmmakers based in Yugoslavia. The Czech New Wave enjoyed its moments in the sun, but, when the government cracked down on free expression, the light wouldn’t return for decades to come. Under Tito, the forced integration of ethnic cultures ensured creative diversity, while repressive and often contradictory government policies forced artists to develop a thick skin and sense of humor that camouflaged their bitterness over being treated like children one minute and political prisoners the next. Filmmakers shared ideas with their Western European counterparts and Americans working in Yugoslavia on projects affordable only by combining cast and crews. This wasn’t yet the norm in countries that reported directly to Moscow. Along with Emir Kusturica (When Father Was Away on Business), Goran Paskaljević (Cabaret Balkan) and Srđan Dragojević (Pretty Village, Pretty Flame), Dušan Makavejev found audiences for their work outside Europe. The ferocity of the wars that followed in the wake of the Yugoslavia’s disintegration prompted filmmakers to respond to the insanity with inky black comedies that reflected how strange it was for longtime friends, neighbors and in-laws to suddenly become bloodthirsty enemies. The only thing these people had in common was a dependency on the black-market economy and disdain for the blue-helmeted peacekeepers who weren’t up to the task of restoring harmony or maintaining ceasefires. Makavejev emerged years earlier from the Black Wave movement of the 1960s and early 1970s. Widely admired outside Eastern Europe, W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism was banned in Yugoslavia due to its exploration of the relationship between communist politics and sexuality, as seen through a prism of theories advanced by controversial Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. (In 1956, FDA officials demanded the destruction of Reich’s “orgone accumulators,” even going so far as to incinerate his private library.) After a seven-year hiatus, he tackled more conventionally black comedy in Montenegro and The Coca-Cola Kid. Another lengthy break from filmmaking would lead to the thoroughly offbeat 1993 comedy, Gorilla Bathes at Noon, newly revived by Facets Video. Critics saw it as a welcome return to form for Makavejev, primarily because it spoke directly to the uncertainty of life for Eastern Europeans forced to adjust to capitalist economics and democratic politics after a nearly a half-century of Soviet-style communism. Their newfound freedom wasn’t turning out quite the way it was depicted in the western media.

The protagonist of “Gorilla” is a Soviet army major, Lazutkin (Svetozar Cvetkovic), who missed the train that hauled his Red Army comrades back to Moscow. He exists in the temporary no-man’s land separating the soon-to-be-unified East and West Berlin. When Lazutkin tries to reach his wife, back home, he discovers that she’s deserted him and relinquished their apartment to a stranger. In a very real sense, the penniless and inadvertently decommissioned officer is a self-imposed exile, waiting to discover if he’ll turn west or east when the merger of opposing cultures begins. Characteristically, Makavejev intercuts the removal of a long-standing statue of Lenin with clips from the 1945 Soviet combat film “Fall of Berlin,” a patriotic dramatization of the Red Army’s capture of the Reichstag on May 2, 1945, and the celebration that followed the last traces of resistance. Stalin, who appears to be made of wax, arrives to salute the victory and diversity of the soldiers who participated in it. Back to the present, Lazutkin surveys the still largely desolate eastern landscape on a white two-wheeler bicycle, from which the now-meaningless flag of the USSR hangs limply. Sometimes he dons his military uniform for trips through the city. At other times, he adopts the casual look of an American tourist, perhaps to see if Berliners will react to his choice of clothing, one way or another. He doesn’t mind being busted for vagrancy, because considers the food in the West Berlin jails to be better than anything in Moscow. Lazutkin also makes friends with a zookeeper, who allows him to hang around while he tends to the needs of the big cats and apes. They, too, are served better food than what he could expect in post-war Moscow. He steals as much fruit and raw meat as he can carry, while riding his bike, and shares with his cronies in a makeshift camp where the black market thrives. While engaging in a stare-down with a caged tiger, Lazutkin asks himself, “Am I dreaming of him or is he dreaming of me.” He mimics the gestures, eating habits and facial tics of a great ape and, when necessary, scales the side of a skyscraper for a good night’s rest. In this way, Gorilla Bathes at Noon reminds me of Karel Reisz’s 1966 absurdist comedy, Morgan, in which a working-class British artist (David Warner) has an emotional breakdown after his upper-crust wife, Leonie (Vanessa Redgrave), leaves him for a bourgeois art dealer (Charles Napier). To compensate, the wildly eccentric Morgan dons a gorilla outfit and stalks Leonie as if he were King Kong in Manhattan. Makavejev allows us to form our own opinions about Lazutkin’s dilemma and where he might belong after the last chunk of the concrete wall that once divided Berlin is broken into small pieces to be sold as souvenirs.

Marguerite & Julien

Every so often, a beautifully rendered film reaches these shores, almost daring American audiences to look sympathetically at a subject they might otherwise avoid like the plague or turn away from in disgust. The 1960s arthouse favorite, Elvira Madigan, for example, was partially marketed as the most gorgeous movie ever made about doomed romance and shared suicide. Incest isn’t as taboo a subject as it probably once was, especially during era of the Production Code, but rarely is love between siblings accorded the picture-postcard treatment it receives in Valérie Donzelli’s Marguerite & Julien. Working from a script originally written by Jean Gruault (Jules and Jim, Wild Child) for François Truffaut, a narrator relates their story to a group of orphans as if it were a dark and tragic fairytale … once upon a time, a brother and sister fell in love, but were prohibited from living happily ever after … that sort of thing. Gruault’s screenplay was, in turn, based on the true story of Marguerite and Julien de Ravalet (Anais Demoustier, Jeremie Elkaim), the son and daughter of the Lord of Tourlaville, who tested the limits of what 17th Century society would accept and were executed on charges of incest and adultery. Early on, their elders recognize the siblings’ unusually close relationship and do what they can to interrupt its progress. Distance doesn’t staunch their love, however, and neither do time and fear of punishment. Indeed, absence only makes their reunion more passionate. The fairytale setting derives from being shot in in Ile-de-France and at the Ravalet Castle on the Cotentin Peninsula. As if to appeal to the same crowd that embraced Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, Donzelli throws in some anachronistic visuals and music.


Originally shown in 2003 at the Lausanne Underground Film Festival and rarely seen since then, Mecanix is definitely the product of a troubled mind. If dreams could talk, this one would scream. Single-time filmmaker Rémy M. Larochelle, a product of French-speaking Quebec, has created in Mecanix a cluttered stop-motion environment in which skeletal, clay and mechanical beings dwell within the cadavers of dead animals and the “last freeborn human.” To me, anyway, the tiny critters mimic what scientists must see through their electron microscopes during biopsies and extreme virology experiments … or the films of the Brothers Quay, E. Elias Merhige and Shin’ya Tsukamoto. The story, such as it, describes what happened when the last human beings were enslaved by these strange creatures and it was determined that within one of them dwells the “embryo of the universe” or, if you will, the seed of life. Somehow, the embryo is found inside a strange bird, instead, creating panic among the “mechanics.” Don’t ask. Not all of the underlying metaphysics and symbolism make a great deal of sense. At times, real actors appear against a backdrop of precisely animated clay figures and drawings. More than anything else, however, Mecanix exists as a visual and sonic experience. Casual fans of sci-fi and horror probably won’t take away much from it, while those attuned to avant-garde and experimental cinema very well might.

Model Hunger

Hand the reigning straight-to-video scream queen a camera, script, miniscule budget and access to an all-star cast of C- and D-list actors and the end-product might look something like Debbie Rochon’s grisly freshman feature, Model Hunger. With an on-screen resume that’s approaching 250 roles, Rochon has endured practically every exploitative abuse imaginable, outside of the various hard-core fetish categories, anyway. This includes starring roles in several Troma classics. Wisely, she doesn’t let the apple fall far from the tree in her first stab (pun intended) at the genre that made her famous. Rochon’s first good decision was to hire Lynn Lowry (The Crazies, Cat People), who’s been in the business 12 years longer than her. Her character, Ginny (Lowry), remains bitter over a modelling career that ended prematurely when photographers and their clients decided that normal-sized women no longer were capable of persuading consumers to buy cosmetics and expensive clothes. Ever since, the deeply embittered and insecure suburbanite has preyed on neighborhood girls – cheerleaders, included – who have shown up at her doorstep. Adding fuel to her fire, Ginny is addicted to “Suzi’s Secret,” a shopping- network show hosted by Suzi Lorraine (House of Manson) that condemns body-shaming, while promoting products that add tonnage. Despite the rising body count, no one suspects Ginny until Tiffany Shepis (Sharknado 2: The Second One) and her husband Carmine Capobianco (Bikini Bloodbath) move next-door and smell a rat … or something. Model Hunger has done very well critically within the genre media and at fan festivals. Curiously, most of the nudity is limited to scanty underwear and very brief T&A. Maybe, Rochon was hoping to attract more women to the extreme-gore niche. The bonus material adds commentary; a music video; a self-interview by co-star Aurelio Voltaire; a Babette Bombshell video, “Nasty Nibblin'”; deleted scenes with Rochon and Troma honcho Lloyd Kaufman; and an Easter egg, featuring an isolated music track by Harry Manfredini (Friday the 13th).

Green Room: Blu-ray

We’ll never know how many box-office dollars can be attributed to the presence of Anton Yelchin in the indie thriller, Green Room, or what his recent death could mean for sales in Blu-ray/DVD/VOD. It did reasonably well in theaters and received some positive critical buzz, as well, so anything’s possible. Yelchin’s boyish charm is on full display here, as bassist in a dime-a-dozen punk ensemble, the Ain’t Rights, so desperate for gigs they accept a sketchy last-minute gig at a decrepit Oregon roadhouse. They probably should have called it quits when the bassist, Pat (Yelchin), was forced to siphon gas from a car to get there, but their devotion to their art demanded they persevere. Ironically, the Ain’t Rights find themselves in front of a dance floor filled with skinheads and neo-Nazis. In true punk form, they open with the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” It might not have been the most prudent way to get the rough-and-ready audience pogo-ing, but they eventually warmed to the transgressive sound. After making it off the stage in one piece, the Ain’t Rights take a break in a room in which a young skinhead girl has just been brutally murdered. Oops. Imogen Poots plays the victim’s friend, Amber, who, likewise gets trapped inside the green-painted room and is threatened by the club owners. The rest of Jeremy Saulnier’s 95-minute third feature, following the very promising Murder Party and Blue Ruin, involves the band members’ attempts to escape the nightclub before the heavily armed and tattooed white supremacists can eliminate them as witnesses. Timing is everything in these sorts of adventures and Saulnier manages to ratchet up the tension without giving short shrift to any of the key cast members or disturbing the balance between cunning and violence. Also good here are Patrick Stewart, Eric Edelstein (Jurassic World), Joe Cole (“Peaky Blinders”), Callum Turner (“War & Peace”) and Alia Shawkat (“Arrested Development”). Lest we forget, Yelchin and Sir Patrick Stewart are veterans of the “Star Trek” series, playing Pavel Chekov and Jean-Luc Picard, respectively, while Poots and Yelchin appeared together in Fright Night. The bonus features were completed before the rising star’s death.

Stressed to Kill

It would be safe to assume that any director with the courage to take credit for a movie titled, The Masturbating Gunman (a.k.a., “Masked Avenger Versus Ultra-Villain in the Lair of the Naked Bikini”) is either beyond shame or suffering from an Ozploitation overdose. The statute of limitations having run out on that stinker, I decided to take a chance on Stressed to Kill, which the Melbourne native directed and co-wrote with first-time Tom Parnell. While, at first glance, it would be easy to dismiss the revenge thriller as a poor man’s remake of Taxi Driver or Falling Down, it wouldn’t be an accurate summation of what happens here. For two things, it starred cult-favorite Bill Oberst Jr. and a still appealing, if decidedly out of shape Armand Assante. While Oberst always sneaks up on audiences unfamiliar with his work, his 66-year-old co-star knows when to share the spotlight and when to pick up the ball and run with it. As a seen-it-all Florida police detective, Assante’s Paul Jordan is tasked with stopping a series of murders caused by poisoned blow darts – that’s right – and bring the perpetrator to justice. The movie really belongs to Oberst, who, you could say, plays the title character. His Everyman character, Bill Johnson, can’t seem to make it through a full day at work without encountering someone or something that triggers his anger issues. With his blood pressure at the boiling point, Johnson is a walking, talking, ticking time bomb of rage. The fuse is lit whenever he encounters the kind of nincompoops who can’t make up their minds after finally making it to the front of a long line; refuse to quit texting in a darkened movie theater; block his driveway and refuse to move; and extend his work day with illogical demands. In 2016 Florida, such abhorrent behavior not only is commonplace, but tolerated in fear of being murdered by the offender. The hook here comes when Johnson shares his feelings with a sympathetic friend, who suggests the primitive weaponry. At first, it would be difficult for viewers not to sympathize with Johnson, so heinous are the irritants. When Stressed to Kill gets really nasty, though, we realize that Savage has stacked the deck against two or three of the victims by overstating their offensive behavior. Nonethless, most viewers won’t mourn their passing. For his part, Assante’s detective surprises us with his questionable methodology. Anyone who enjoyed Wayne Brady’s image-reversing payback-is-a-bitch sketch on “Chappelle’s Show” will dig it.

With Child

No Men Beyond This Point

After 50 years, it’s amazing to me that so many people still don’t get such basic tenets of the women’s movement as levelling the playing field by eliminating gender-based hiring, promoting equal pay for equal work, shattering the glass ceiling and protecting a woman’s right to choose. Women may be as underrepresented on corporate boards today as they’ve ever been. Lumpen celebrity journalists still are compelled to criticize an actress, based solely on the results of elective cosmetic surgery or willingness to speak out after discovering that they aren’t as overpaid to make crappy movies as their male counterparts. If Donald Trump is elected president, women being considered for Cabinet posts or federal judgeships might be required to appear before him in a bathing suit. Pundits and politicians see nothing wrong with criticizing the appearance of Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren, while Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Ted Cruz and Harry Reid get a free pass. You get the picture … according to me. I only bring this up after watching the clever role-reversal dramedy, With Child, and over-the-top mockumentary, No Men Beyond This Point, both directed by men. Although they don’t hit the nail directly on the head, the films are thought-provoking, each in its own way.

Based on a true story, With Child asks that we consider whether a widower with limited means should be entrusted with the welfare of an infant, when an in-law, relative or close friend has offered to temporarily, at least, carry the load and change the diapers. If the answer seems obvious, first-time writer/director Titus Heckel throws all sorts of curves into the argument, starting with his beyond-stubborn protagonist, Auden Price (Kerry van der Griend). The first twist comes when the construction worker’s request to bring his four-month-old daughter to the worksite each day in a car seat is denied. Auden is offered plenty of work by other contractors, but not with child in tow. No kidding. Auden adamantly refuses to allow his sister-in-law, a judge, to mind the baby, along with her other children, until he recovers from his loss. We agree with the sister-in-law that a baby deserves a better shot at happiness than being assaulted by pounding hammers, whining saws and possibly toxic dust while confined to a tiny chair. Just when it appears as if Auden’s about to give in to such logic, he’s hired by a local woman, Petra (Leslie Lewis), a respected scientist, who’s as neurotic as he is stubborn. As a child, Petra’s hippy parents abandoned her to the care of her agoraphobic and seriously over-protective grandmother. Petra was raised as a recluse, never allowed to climb a tree or learn to swim. Although we can see how two quirky people could fall in love and get over themselves long enough to attend to the needs of baby, Auden begins to Petra as if she had joined the enemy camp. Things come to a head when the sister-in-law files a custody order and Auden, who actually is making progress as a father, must decide to fight or let go. It’s here, again, that Heckel places unforeseen roadblocks in his path. The good news is that they aren’t so far out of line that they become contrivances, alien to the spirit of the story so far and characters. Just when With Child appears to be headed toward a male-power, “Defending the Caveman” conclusion, it changes directions on us by addressing serious issues – not involving taking infants to construction sites — with a balanced blend of humor and drama.

Mark Sawers’ mockumentary No Men Beyond This Point asks questions that were raised 45 years ago, after Gloria Steinhem antagonized male chauvinists everywhere by positing, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” It wasn’t the first time the idea of a male-free environment had been addressed, even by Hollywood mythmakers. They had frequently toyed with just such a notion in depictions of Amazon culture, ranging from dramatizations of Greek mythology to sci-fi fantasies. Men simply couldn’t understand how humanity could proceed without their precious semen. Then, too, there was Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto (Society for Cutting Up Men), which, in 1968, advocated overthrowing mainstream society and eliminating the male sex. Although considered by many to be satirical, Solanas began the revolution prematurely by attempting to assassinate Andy Warhol. In No Men Beyond This Point, though, science provided the means for mid-century women to eliminate the need for men entirely. Reports of virgin births weren’t uncommon. Neither was parthenogenesis, as an excuse for an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, necessary. By the careful weeding out of male DNA, giving birth to a male child was as unusual as watching a fish ride a bike. At 37, an unassuming housekeeper named Andrew Myers (Patrick Gilmore) is believed to be the youngest man and, as such, has become a reluctant spokesman for a movement to prevent the extinction of men. As a combination housekeeper/nanny, Andrew is loved by the children, driven hard by the matriarch of the family and the object of curiously romantic stirrings by her lover/wife. Sawers uses interviews, news footage and other documentary conceits to give an air of verisimilitude to the proceedings, although, as noted, its filled with outdated notions.

The Dark Horse

Everything I said two weeks ago about Carmen Marron’s uplifting chess drama, Endgame, I could repeat here today about The Dark Horse, an even grittier story about disadvantaged youth and redemption through competition. Instead of Mexican-American students in a Texas high school, the kids in James Napier Robertson’s excellent sophomore feature are impoverished Maori youths given few choices in life except gangbanging and motherhood. The inspirational coach, Genesis, played by Cliff Curtis (“Fear the Walking Dead”), is battling bipolar disorder with a fistful of pills every day and a desire to steer kids in the right direction, even as the Maori continue to be victimized by racism and unemployment. Genesis is well aware of the lure of gangs and need for youths to find comfort in numbers. Despite being homeless, he uses Maori tradition to attract kids to the program. That includes his soon-to-be-18 nephew, Mana (James Rolleston), whose father, Ariki (Wayne Hapi), wants nothing more for his son than to be “patched” and someday take over the violent Vagrants. The brothers are heading for showdown, because Mana’s birthday and “patching” falls on the same day as the New Zealand championship. Despite its genre familiarity, The Dark Horse is a wonderful picture – kindred to Whale Rider and Once Were Warriors – that isn’t overly predictable and respects the traditions and recent plight of the urban Maori. The acting and cinematography also are commendable.

IMAX: Flight of the Butterflies: 4K UHD/3D Blu-ray

IMAX: Rocky Mountain Express: 4K UHD/Blu-ray

If you’re one of the very few people with a home-theater system that can accommodate 4K ultra-high-definition 3D Blu-ray programming, well, good for you. At the moment, anyway, such technology is more of an expensive novelty than anything else. Even when manufacturers agree on technological standards, entertainment providers have been slow to warm to providing consumers with content that’s affordable, plentiful and compatible with other systems. In the case of 3D, there’s still the matter of offering glasses that work across the entire spectrum of brands. But, you knew that already. Shout! Factory is one of the companies that’s shown a willingness to test/whet consumer appetites. Instead of limiting buyers to one format, it’s offering its latest IMAX titles in multiple formats in a single package. Originally shot to accommodate the high-tech standards of large-format theaters, Flight of the Butterflies and Rocky Mountain Express look pretty good on small screens, as well, even on 2D Blu-ray. The former is presented as a detective story, prompted by one Canadian scientist’s curiosity over the migratory habits of the might monarch butterfly, a critter with an appetite for leaves other animals consider to be inedible and the strength to travel thousands of miles for a winter’s rest. After tagging and tracking the butterflies to determine the routes, the clues petered out somewhere near the Rio Grande River. Further research by more hardy researchers located a secret hideaway in the mountains north of Mexico City where millions of monarchs covered the pines like a flocked Christmas tree. I can only imagine how this looks in 3D, but it looked swell on my 4K-ready screen. It adds an interesting making-of featurette and visit to the refuge by the aging scientist.

Available only in 4K, 2D Blu-ray and a digital copy, Rocky Mountain Express chronicles the building of Canada’s first transcontinental railway, a task every bit as formidable as the race to the middle of the intercontinental railroad that connected the east and west coasts of the United States. It doesn’t speculate as to the degrees of difficulty associated with both engineering feats, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Canadian mountain ranges were even more challenging than those in California, Utah and Wyoming. Director Stephen Low follows the route on a train powered by a refurbished steam engine, which is really a sight to see these days. Low mixes newly shot footage with vintage photographs and other archival accounts of the laborers’ ordeals. Overhead tracking, plus point-of-view shots, serve two purposes: present visual testimony as to the remarkable victory over nature’s roadblocks and encourage viewers to share the pride of the Canadian people, who, invite everyone to partake in the scenic glory offered by the transcontinental trip. The package also includes two vintage featurettes on the development off the country’s transportation system.

Sons of Ben

Major League Soccer competition began in 1996, with 10 teams spread across the U.S. After a rocky financial start, it’s since doubled in size and expanded into Canada. Despite being a city that supports its professional teams – sometimes with a ferocity that inspires criminality — it would take 14 years before Philadelphia was granted a franchise. The documentary, Sons of Ben, recalls the efforts of a small, but fully engaged booster club the tirelessly lobbied the league and city officials in Philadelphia and nearby Chester to build a soccer-only stadium worthy of hosting big-time competition. At first, fans of the Eagles, Phillies, 76ers and Flyers showed no interest in helping the Sons of Ben (as in Franklin) raise funds or lend their names to petitions. Their persistence would pay off when economically depressed Chester decided to take a chance, by coming up with a riverside site and plan to develop the area. Sons of Ben chronicles the grassroots group’s many high and lows, both as cheerleaders for a team and family men and women. As the film was wrapping up production, the team – now, the Philadelphia Union – was doing better than the plans for development.

Sex Roulette

The Little Blue Box

The word, “classic,” is tossed around a lot in the marketing of vintage titles newly re-released into DVD/Blu-ray and fully remastered in from original 35mm vault materials. Sometimes the designation is used correctly, but, more often than not, it qualifies as hype. No genre is more guilty of this misdemeanor than porn from the Golden Age. That said, however, I think these Synapse/Impulse titles qualify, if only because they have something to offer than straight sex, of which there is plenty. The 1978 European export, Sex Roulette, differentiates itself from its American counterparts for several reasons: elderly, not particularly handsome men enjoy sexual trysts with younger women more often than in any non-fetish movie I’ve seen; a pregnant woman and black little person (a.k.a., midget) are featured; the Monte Carlo scenery is lovely; and the orgy scenes include one staged in a pig sty. None of the scenes come off as any more exploitative then those in comparably kinky fare. In it, Vanessa Melville (a.k.a., Veronique Maugarski) plays a blond bombshell travelling with her uncle and butler to various casinos on the French Riviera. While they’re having a blast bed-hopping, Veronique is compensating for an inability to climax by blowing lots of her uncle’s money on games of chance. Naturally, things balance out after a while, but not before the grownups have had their fun. It was directed by Czech émigré Alan Vydra.

In 1979, Americans in the porn game still harbored hopes of finding audiences interested in pictures that merged hard-core sex with narrative storytelling and comedy. Ultimately, the fledgling industry would rely almost exclusively on personality-driven frolics that were heavy on sex and light on everything else. Anything more demanded budget expenditures few producers were willing to make. John Leslie stars in Arlo Schiffen’s second and presumably last movie under that name: The Little Blue Box. As was the case in Schiffin’s Little Orphan Sammy, Jennifer Welles assumed the lead role, this time in the dual role of a door-to-door salesman of pirate-cable boxes and John’s workaholic wife. The box allows access to an interactive network of adult films, which partially compensate for the absence of sex in his life. While his wife is away, John and Welles’ Ms. Azure play, often in tandem with such future hall-of-famers as Gloria Leonard, Jamie Gillis, Leslie Bovee and Sharon Mitchell. What presented itself as futuristic in 1970s today qualifies as nostalgic.


Starz/BBC: The Dresser

PBS/ITV: Vicious: The Finale

Discovery: Naked and Afraid XL: Season 1

PBS: NOVA: Wild Ways

PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Cleopatra’s Lost Tomb

PBS: Independent Lens: Adjust Your Color: The Truth About Petey Greenwald

PBS Kids: Dinosaur Train: Under the Volcano

Nickelodeon: Blaze and the Monster Machines: Fired Up!

At a time when some of our greatest living actors are best known for playing larger-than-life characters in comic-book pictures, it’s a comfort to know that someone, at least, understands how best to utilize their talents. In the second film adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s brilliant off-stage drama, The Dresser, Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen deliver performances that are the theatrical equivalent of a heavyweight championship fight. At 77 and 78, respectively, Sir Ian and Sir Anthony have stayed busy – and, one hopes, wealthy — playing such mythical figures as Gandalf, Magneto, an over-the-hill Sherlock Holmes, Methuselah, Odin and King Hrothgar. Their presence is always welcome, but one is always left wondering if they’d rather be doing “King Lear.” That’s exactly what Hopkins is doing in The Dresser, as the distinguished, if completely addled British actor, Sir. His every need and whim are administered to by Sir’s longtime, long-suffering and extremely loyal dresser and aide-de-camp, Norman (McKellen), himself well beyond retirement age. As the movie opens, Norman and everyone else in the travelling production company are nearly frantic with despair over Sir’s disappearance from a hospital, where’s he’s been treated for a breakdown of some sort. Because The Dresser unfolds in a small English regional theater, during the Blitz, audience members and company members are literally risking their lives waiting patiently in their seats for the legendary star to appear. Sir arrives in the nick of time, of course, wondering what all the fuss is about, while Norman springs into action. Anything else would be unprofessional. Also relieved are Her Ladyship (Emily Watson), who’s put up with his antics – on and off stage – for more years than anyone dare count; Madge (Sarah Lancashire), the stage manager who wonders if this show is really going to go on; and star-struck ingénue, Irene (Vanessa Kirby). The other players and technical-crew members shiver with each new report of a bomb landing somewhere in the mid-distance. Meanwhile, viewers at home, wonder exactly how long Sir will be able to make his way up the stairs to perform one of the most taxing roles in the repertoire. For his part, Norman is racing against the hands of an invisible clock as he fortifies himself with either cheap liquor or cough syrup. The interaction and verbal sparring between the two old pros – characters and actors, alike – is a true joy to behold. Watson, too, gives as well as Her Ladyship is forced to take in their incessant behind-the-scenes squabbling. The bittersweet ending succeeds, as well. The DVD adds entertaining interviews and background material.

In the contagiously funny British sitcom, “Vicious,” McKellen teams with another giant of the British stage, Derek Jacobi, also 77. They play an elderly pair of self-described queens, Freddie and Stuart, who’ve lived together for nearly 50 years, in a tidy Covent Garden flat with their comatose dog, Balthazar. Freddie was a struggling actor – his last bit role was on “Downton Abbey” — and Stuart worked in the bar in which they first met. Their barbed dialogue isn’t strictly reserved for each other, of course. In true sitcom fashion, the doorbell rings every few minutes as another member of their extended family arrives for his or her fair share of abuse. Frances de la Tour plays the constantly horny Violet Crosby, a close friend of Freddie and Stuart, who has designs on their young and handsome upstairs neighbor, Ash (Iwan Rheon). Marcia Warren is Penelope, another old friend, who often becomes confused over the simplest things, and Philip Voss plays Mason Thornhill, Freddie’s opinionated brother. The story occasionally leaves the confines of their sitting room, but not often. Knowing that Jacobi and McKellen were openly gay before being openly gay was cool provides the honey that allows some viewers to swallow some of the more stereotypical gags and asides, of which there are many. “The Finale,” which has yet to air in England, chronicles a year in the newly married couple’s life. Freddie and Stuart enjoy their inheritance and a birthday; Violet moves on from her divorce; and Ash must decide whether he should accept a scholarship to attend school in New York or remain in New York, collecting ex-girlfriends.

If I were a board member of the FCC, one of the first things I’d do is outlaw so-called reality shows that hire writers to put ideas and words into the heads of their seemingly real and unscripted participants – a.k.a., actors – and shows with the word, “Naked,” in their title that deliver blurred images as irritating as burlap diapers in a nursery. For all the audience knows, the 12 contestants on “Naked and Afraid XL,” who’ve previously appeared on “Naked and Afraid,” are wearing nipple patches, pasties and jock straps under those pixelated clouds. On the spinoff series, the survivalists are tasked with surviving in the Colombian wilderness for 40 days, with only one or two helpful items of his or her choosing. We’re told they aren’t given any other items, clothing, food or liquids – c’mon, how can the water possibly be safe to drink? – and the camera crews are not allowed to intervene, except for medical emergencies. The contestants hunt, trap and gather their food in the wild and build shelters with their own hands and material found in nature. At the end of the 40 days, the remaining survivalist(s) must arrive at the designated extraction point. Frankly, apart from unblurring the contestants, the only way I’d become a regular viewer is if Discovery Channel added a celebrity edition of the show, featuring the Kardashians and stars of the various housewife series.

As mankind has encroached on the natural habitats of our animal neighbors, we’ve inadvertently created dozens of new ways for them to die unnatural deaths. From PBS, “NOVA: Wild Ways” how engineers and environmentalists are working together to allow wildlife access to places where they can hunt, breed and migrate without fear of becoming roadkill or target practice for landowners. While national parks and preserves offer some protection to wildlife, even the Serengeti and Yellowstone parks are too small to sustain healthy populations over generations. “Connectivity conservation” allows some of the world’s most beloved endangered species — lions, bears, antelope, elephants – to move safely between refuges, via tunnels, overpasses and protected land corridors. The show visits Yellowstone, the Canadian Yukon and Southern Africa’s elephant highways, stretching across five nations.

In the “Secrets of the Dead” episode “Cleopatra’s Lost Tomb,” Dominican lawyer-turned-archeologist Kathleen Martinez may be on the verge of accomplishing a feat none of her professional peers have managed to do: discover the tomb of Egypt’s last queen. Working on the barest of clues, Martinez has identified the temple Taposiris Magna, located in Alexandria, Egypt, as the most likely spot. Her unorthodox methodology has already paid dividend, but there’s plenty of digging left to do.

The centerpiece event of Talk to Me, Kasi Lemmons’ excellent 2007 biopic of Washington, D.C., radio host Petey Greene, comes when he uses his electronic podium to calm listeners caught in the maelstrom of hatred, fear and violence that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Without Greene’s non-stop filibuster on the need for a non-violent response to the tragedy, the rioting could have been much worse, extending beyond a James Brown concert designed to bring people together in peace. It turned the strictly local on-air personality – an ex-con and man about town with a gift for ghetto gab – into an activist whose words carried weight in a troubled city with an overwhelmingly African-American population. Loren Mendell’s 2008 documentary, Adjust Your Color: The Truth About Petey Green, amplifies on the portrait drawn by Lemmons, while providing visual proof of what made Greene such an alluring draw for radio and TV audiences. Don Cheadle, who made Greene come to life in the movie, narrates the documentary, which was aired as part of PBS’ “Independent Lens” series. The newly released DVD misconstrues Greene’s outspoken approach to his job as being a precursor of the “shock jock” trend, without also acknowledging the role played by highly charismatic African-American media personalities in other urban centers. The difference, of course, was that Greene was a high-profile African-American radio host in a city whose predominantly black population was unrepresented in Congress and whose many deeply engrained problems were routinely ignored by the federal officials assigned to govern it. That he also could be extremely funny and outrageously attired gave him star quality. The most shocking segment of the film features Greene grilling a very young Howard Stern, in blackface, on being a “cracker” who exploits his black staff, including Robin Quivers, who’s in the TV-studio audience.

PBS Kids’ Emmy-nominated “Dinosaur Train,” from the Jim Henson Company, leads its latest collection of episodes with “Under the Volcano,” which shouldn’t be confused with Malcolm Lowry’s harrowing novel about a day in the life of an alcoholic Brit diplomat in Mexico. Instead, join Buddy and family as they watch Old Smoky erupt. It provides a non-lethal lesson in lava and geysers. Other episodes in the set teach ways to use a pile of leaves, petals, wood and shells from the family nest.

Nickelodeon’s four-episode collection, “Blaze and the Monster Machines: Fired Up!,” follows Blaze, AJ and their friends as they embark on slippery adventures to save a truck wash, race to deliver medicine to cure sick trucks and put out fires wherever they arise. Kids can learn how to use science, technology, engineering and math to solve problems.

The DVD Wrapup: Hank Williams, Adderall Diaries, 6, Francofonia, Mad Tiger, Suture, Blood & Black Lace and more

Friday, July 8th, 2016

I Saw the Light
Hank Williams: The Complete Mother’s Best Collection … Plus

Country-music singers have been trying to find the bottle in which Hank Williams captured his lightning for most of the last 65 years, with only a handful even coming close to locating the darkness in his soul or the poetic wellspring that inspired his most memorable songs. That’s why I don’t take much stock in the complaints of mainstream critics who voiced their disapproval of Tom Hiddleston’s interpretation of Williams’ vocalizing and stage presence in Marc Abraham’s biopic I Saw the Light. The actor moved into singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell’s Nashville home for five months for a crash course in singing, guitar playing and yodeling. If Crowell felt that the Brit entertainer was ready for prime time, that’s good enough for me. That’s not the part of the movie that bothered me, anyway. What I missed most were the early chapters in Hank’s life, during which Williams’ own roots were planted, thanks, in large part, to a black street performer, Rufus Payne, who gave him guitar lessons in exchange for meals or money. A similar debt to black musicians was owed by A.P. Carter, Jimmie Rogers, Woody Guthrie and Elvis Presley. While lying awake at night in northern Minnesota, Bob Dylan would listen to hardcore R&B and country radio stations from the Deep South. Abraham elected to focus on Williams’ tortured relationship with his first wife, Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen), who so desperately wanted to share the limelight with him, and overbearing manager/mother, Lillie (Cherry Jones). It also lacked the down-home Southern flavor that animated James Mangold’s Walk the Line and Jim McBride’s Great Balls of Fire!, as well as any indication of Williams’ expanding popularity outside the South and Canada. Even so, Hiddleston frequently is able to mine the emotional core of musician whose physical pain drove him to seek relief in booze and pills. The most telling moment comes when a reporter attempts to break through the artist’s cool exterior, between sips of whiskey, and finally is told, “Everybody has a little darkness in them. I’m talking about things like anger, misery, sorrow, shame. I show it to them, and they don’t have to take it home. They expect I can help their troubles.” In another scene, Williams reverts to his “Luke the Drifter” persona, which he employed in his religious-themed recordings and recitations, for some stage preaching. He didn’t feel like performing that day, but gave the crowd its money’s worth, anyway. Abraham’s source material was provided by Colin Escott’s 1994 book, “Hank Williams: The Biography.” It arrives with deleted scenes; the featurettes “A Night in Nashville,” from the premiere and musical performance by Hiddleston, “Illuminating A Legend: Inside ‘I Saw the Light’” and “Talking Hank,” with Crowell and Hiddleston; and audio commentary with Abraham.


Where If I Saw the Light focuses on Williams’ dark side and decline, “The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings … Plus!” reveals qualities in him that endeared him to radio listeners by bringing a little lightness into the days of men and women on their way to work or toiling in the kitchen. In 1951, it wasn’t unusual to hear the biggest stars in the country and blues arenas using their music to sell products in sponsored radio shows. “King Biscuit Hour,” which featured African-American blues artists Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) and Robert Lockwood Jr., could be heard throughout the Mississippi and Arkansas deltas. Nashville’s 50,000-watt WSM-AM lured Williams to do some pickin’, grinnin’ and singin’ in support of Mother’s Best Flour. As befit the early-morning timeslot, he kept things on the sunny side, often exchanging banter with the host. (At various times in his short career, he also promoted the Hadacol patent medicine, Naughton Farms plant nursery and the Health & Happiness Show.) If the Drifting Cowboys were going to be on the road, Williams would pre-record the 15-minute segments. Re-released by Time Life to coincide with the theatrical and DVD/Blu-ray release of I Saw the Light. “The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings … Plus!” is comprised of 15 CDs, containing 143 songs, interstitials and casual chat. A 16th DVD disc features daughter Jett Williams, who didn’t learn she was Hank’s kin until the early 1980s, interviewing surviving members of his band. The recordings provide listeners a deeper insight into Williams’ life and music, revealing a personality that might have influenced Garrison Keillor. The recordings, including previously unrecorded material, are in surprisingly pristine condition and his voice is in tip-top shape. The set adds a 32-page booklet, with vintage photos and full discography. You may want to skip ahead to the 15th CD, which includes an audition for Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix and a truly amazing story-song warning young lovers against the scourge of syphilis.


The Adderall Diaries: Blu-ray

Another week, another James France performance to check out. And, just in case you’re beginning to think that the hyper-productive actor, poet, teacher and seeker of post-graduate degrees has begun to make things up as he goes his merry way through life, it’s worth knowing that his character in The Adderall Diaries is based on someone other than him or one of his myriad personae. Franco plays Stephen Elliot, a delinquent-turned-novelist modelled after Stephen Elliot, who wrote the best-selling memoir from which the movie was adapted (and directed Franco in About Cherry). Although severely blocked, Franco’s Elliot maintains a relatively high profile in literary circles by reading from his memoirs, which deal directly with his extremely troubled past and abusive relationship with his father. (It squares with known facts about Elliot’s life as a street urchin, drug addict and ward of the state, while growing up on Chicago’s North Side.) He’s been contracted to write a true-crime book on the murder trial of Hans Reiser (Christian Slater), a sociopathic fellow who’s been accused of killing his wife and making her body disappear. While covering the trial, he befriends New York Times reporter Lana Edmond (Amber Heard), who enables all of Elliot’s bad habits and picks some up for herself. The turning point of the story comes when the author’s father (Ed Harris), presumed dead, shows up at one of his readings and basically disavows everything he’s been accused of doing. Neil Elliot turns the tables on his son by suggesting that he refused all attempts to reconcile their differences or control his worst impulses. Being accused of lying in front of an influential group of readers at a book-signing party is a career altering experience, of course, and it not only impacts the publisher’s marketing campaign, but also Elliot’s fragile hold on reality. It won’t be the last time Neil Elliot figures into the narrative, but what finally brings the pot to a boil is an encounter between the author and newly convicted Reiser. The Adderall Diaries represents the feature debut of Pamela Romanowsky, who previously participated in The Color of Time, an expressionistic appreciation of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet C.K. Williams, written and directed by a dozen different NYU students and produced by their instructor, you guessed it, Franco. The embellishments Romanowsky added to make Elliot’s story – including a BDSM subplot — more cinematic mostly serve to distract viewers from what is a promising essay on how we select, edit and repress our memories to conform to a more appealing version of ourselves. The Blu-ray adds Romanowsky’s commentary, the featurette, “The Adderall Diaries: A Director’s Perspective,” and deleted scenes.


600 Miles

The films that have emerged from the on-going drug war in Mexico, informed either by unspeakable brutality or deeply engrained corruption, would be difficult to believe if it weren’t for the cartels’ willingness to blow their own horns and the ease with which journalists are able identify the kingpins and trace the trail of Yankee dollars from Sinaloa and Mexico City to Switzerland. From what I can tell, the traffickers see themselves as protagonists in movies that exist mostly in their heads, as well as the heroes of narcocorridos whose lyrics refer to specific illegal activities and include real dates and places. It explains why Denis Villeneuve’s otherwise excellent cross-border thriller Sicario failed to fully emerge from the shadow cast by Gianfranco Rosi’s 2010 documentary, El Sicario, Room 164, in which a cartel assassin recalls his greatest hits. Matthew Heineman’s intricately designed Cartel Land practically exists as a sequel to Steven Soderbergh’s fictional thriller Traffic. Gregory Nava’s fictional Bordertown, about a journalist (Jennifer Lopez) investigating a series of murders near American-owned factories on the border of Juarez and El Paso, echoed material in the documentaries Maquilopolis and Señorita Extraviada. In Mexico, the truth almost always is stranger and more compelling than fiction. At first, Gabriel Ripstein’s deliberately paced 600 Miles feels very much like a documentary. Two teenagers, a gringo and Mexican-American, take advantage of lax gun laws in Arizona to purchase firearms to be smuggled across the border to Mexican criminals, for fun and profit. They drive expensive SUVs and only occasionally are quizzed by dealers about their intentions. Unless you’re a NRA supporter or Republican, the ease with which these knuckleheads legally acquire assault weapons and handguns, using cartel-supplied money, might come as a shock.


It takes a while to realize that they’re being loosely tailed by ATF agent Hank Harris (Tim Roth), who’s awaiting the go-ahead to pounce on them. In what turns out to be a major miscalculation, Harris decides to confront Arnulfo (Kristyan Ferrer) in a parking lot behind some stores in a Tucson shopping district. He doesn’t realize that the boy’s partner, Carson (Harrison Thomas), is within striking distance when Harris pulls out his gun. Carson knocks him out from behind and helps Arnulfo stuff him into a compartment normally reserved for contraband. Naturally panicked, Arnulfo volunteers to transport the agent’s handcuffed body 600 miles into the Mexican interior, where he’ll offer Harris up as tribute to his bosses. Once roused, Harris takes his time surveying the situation and attempting to guess how much danger he’s in. It doesn’t take long for him to ascertain that the kid only has the vaguest idea of what’s at stake for both of them. At a roadblock manned by cartel soldiers, Harris decides to impress Arnulfo by saving his life. He does this by telling him exactly what to say when confronted by the armed highwayman, including the name of a trafficker the guard should call to ascertain the agent’s identity. As he explains to the boy, sometimes the opposing forces in the drug war do favors for each other and this was one of them. 600 Miles will evolve from here into a taut thriller with sporadic bursts of intense action. Ripstein does a nice job keeping us guessing what will happen to Harris and Arnulfo and when. The ending should take most viewers by surprise. Roth is very good as the lone-wolf lawmen, as is Ferrer (Sin Nombre) as the wet-behind-the-ears cartel wannabe.


Electra Woman & Dyna Girl

Not having seen the original live-action version of “Electra Woman & Dyna Girl,” which aired only 16 episodes in a single season as part of the umbrella series, “The Krofft Supershow,” I would have no way of comparing it to the recent re-boot, which stars the slightly off-kilter YouTube sensations Grace Helbig and Hannah Hart, respectively. The original early-’70s sci-fi series, starring Deidre Hall and Judy Strangis, was targeted primarily at kids who were beginning to warm to the burgeoning superhero craze. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that the new Electra Woman & Dyna Girl is aimed at the gender-neutral world of cosplay nerds and fans of alternative content. Helbig, especially, is an aggressively comedic actress, who knows precisely how to twist the dials of computer geeks. That she gets to do it here in head-to-toe Spandex alone is worth the price of a rental. Hart comes off more as a naughty pixie. In a world overpopulated with superheroes and archenemies, no city is large enough to accommodate all of them. EW&DG are relegated to the Rust Belt crime capital of Akron, Ohio, until being asked to relocate to L.A. by a mega-agent who specializes in branding and promoting superheroes. The degree of competition for the attention of the local media is fierce and DG soon feels as if she’s been relegated to “sidekick” status. When push comes to shove and an even more fabulous superbabe arrives on the scene, it probably won’t be long before old wounds are healed. The film was released as a series of eight 11-minute webisodes on April 26, 2016, through Fullscreen’s digital streaming platform. It looks pretty seamless here. The bonus features interviews at fan gatherings and background material.


Imber’s Left Hand

Anyone with a handheld camera and lots of patience is capable of transforming historical footnotes and also-rans into subjects worthy of a documentary to call their own. If they’re fortunate, a grant or two will miraculously become available or fans will contribute to a crowd-sourcing campaign to cover incalculable amounts of time and effort. A friend or relative might even consider crafting a Wikipedia page for posterity. It’s cheaper than buying a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, anyway. Before watching Imber’s Left Hand, I wasn’t aware of painter Jon Imber or what it meant to be considered a leading representative of the Boston Figurative Expressionism movement, which, itself, was an integral part of American modernism bracketing the Second World War. According to art historian Judith Bookbinder, “(It) expressed the anxiety of the modern age with the particular accent of the city…Boston figurative expressionism was both a humanist philosophy – that is, a human-centered and rationalist or classically oriented philosophy – and a formal approach to the handling of paint and space.” I’ll take her word for it. What made Imber a perfect candidate for a documentary profile is, sadly, the very thing that makes some little-known artists more interesting than other. At some point in late-middle-age, Imber contracted ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and was told it ultimately was be a death sentence for his life and career. Director Richard Kane traveled to the artist’s summer home in Maine to chronicle his increasingly labored efforts to continue his work as a credible artist, despite his condition. Thanks in large part to the support of his wife, painter Jill Hoy, Imber learns to paint with his left hand and eventually with both hands held together at his waist. His remarkable resolve leads to the creation of more than 100 delightfully stylized portraits in a four-month span. As the disease begins to take its toll, Jon and Jill remain extremely personable and outgoing to longtime friends and neighbors. The summer is capped with gallery opening, where the portraits are displayed. Imber’s Left Hand is as heartwarming as it is heartbreaking. The praise for his work seems justified and the testimonies run far short of becoming maudlin. The package includes an uncut interview with the artist.


Francofonia: Blu-ray

The story of the looting of French art galleries, museums and estates by Nazi officers during the German Occupation is pretty familiar to Americans, thanks to such movies as John Frankenheimer and Arthur Penn’s The Train, René Clément’s Is Paris Burning? and George Clooney’s The Monuments Men. If the facts weren’t always strictly observed, they captured what was at stake when German troops exited Paris and some officers took a stand against the cultural genocide demanded from Berlin. A catastrophe of incalculable scope was barely averted in a real-life drama that had its roots in actions begun years earlier by prescient curators and far-flung art lovers. In Francofonia, the same Russian filmmaker whose Russian Ark famously captured the soul of the State Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace, in a single 99-minute take, not only describes how the Louvre was saved from disaster years, but also what was at stake. Alexander Sokurov explains how the deputy head of the Louvre, Jacques Jaujard, anticipated the looting of the museum and ordered its treasures be shipped to chateaus and castles around the country, well before the invasion. Moreover, he credits a German officer with inventing ways to keep Hitler and Goering’s thugs from running roughshod through what was left of the collection. On August 16, 1940, Jaujard was introduced to Count Franz Wolff-Metternich, who had been appointed by his Führer to oversee France’s art collection, not just those works once housed in the Louvre. In effect, this forced marriage meant that Jaujard’s decisions could be second-guessed by Hitler and his Vichy puppet, Marshall Philippe Pétain. One of Wolff-Metternich’s greatest services to world culture was to honor his conscience by serving as a buffer between both monsters. The heroic role played by Rose Valland, one of Jaujard’s employees, is explored in greater depth in Illustre et inconnu (a.k.a., “The Man Who Saved the Louvre”), the superb feature-length documentary that accompanies Francofonia. While documenting their contributions, Sokurov also waxes philosophic on the Louvre’s hold on French culture, pride and identity. He does this by using actors to portray Napoleon Bonaparte and Marianne, national symbol of the French Republic, as they survey the empty hallways and galleries of the wartime Louvre. It was Napoleon, after all, who brought so many of the treasures displayed there to France as the cost of doing business in times of conflict and conquest. Marianne flits around the same spaces, reciting the national motto, “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.” It takes a bit of time to become accustomed to the conceit, but what could be more French? At 57 minutes, Illustre et inconnu is able to expand on the tight focus afforded Jaujard and Wolff-Metternich in Francofonia, explaining what happened after the German was called back to Berlin for disobeying orders, and expanding on how Jaujard, Valland and French actress Jeanne Boitel, worked with Resistance fighters and American intelligence to avoid the bombing of chateaus sheltering art and preventing Hitler’s mandate to destroy Paris. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and collector’s booklet.


Dear Eleanor

Emma’s Chance


I would hate to think that any teen-oriented dramedy in which Eleanor Roosevelt plays a key role – visible or otherwise – is doomed to failure. Add a character based on one of the three men who may or may not have escaped from Alcatraz in June, 1962, and you wonder how such a quaint notion was green-lit. The fact is, though, it didn’t take much effort for Dear Eleanor to make me to suspend my disbelief long enough to share an unlikely cross-country ride with two runaway girls. Set in 1962, as the Cuban Missile Crisis loomed, the coming-of-age story stars Isabelle Fuhrman (“Master of Sex”) and Liana Liberato (“If I Stay”) as a pair of friends who drive the length of the nation to realize one of their mothers’ dream of offering her opinions to the famously liberal Roosevelt. The woman wouldn’t live long enough to accomplish this personal goal, but her daughter Ellie feels obligated to go in her place. Naturally, her father (Luke Wilson) attempts to dissuade her from such folly and, just as naturally, her cocky friend talks her into hopping into the vintage family convertible for the trip east. Adventures await them, of course, in ways Thelma and Louise might themselves have envisioned several years later. Josh Lucas plays the escaped convict Frank Morris, a roguish fellow who imposes himself on their excellent adventure, while Jessica Alba plays a fairy-godmother stripper who hitches a ride to New York for an audition being conducted by the producers of “Gypsy.” The ending probably will seem sappy to some viewers, but it’s of a piece with what happens before it. Oh, yeah, an actor name Patrick Schwarzenegger also makes an appearance some teens in the audience will find appealing. Dear Eleanor was directed capably by Kevin Connolly (“Entourage”) and written by first-timers Amy Garcia and Cecilia Contreras. The DVD includes two commentary tracks.

Also flying under the radar this week is Emma’s Chance, an overly familiar story about a troubled teen, Emma (Greer Grammer), who finds redemption in the care and feeding – mucking the stall, too – of an abused animal. Chance is an ornery show horse quartered at an animal-rescue ranch to which Emma has been assigned by a juvenile court. Emma, who’s been bullied herself, forms an unlikely bond with the jumper, who won’t let just anyone ride him. After warming to each other, Emma hatches a plan to use Chance to save the financially strapped facility from an evil dude who wants to sell the horses to Mexican meat-packing interests. The story was inspired by the good work done at Chino Hill’s Red Bucket Equine Rescue and its president and founder Susan Pierce (Missi Pyle). Joey Lawrence plays a devoted wrangler.


Carmen Marron’s Endgame is another movie that succeeds, despite a fact-based plot that has been revisited a couple dozen times since Stand and Deliver re-wrote the rules on David-vs.-Goliath stories in 1988. Here, Efren Ramirez (Napoleon Dynamite) plays the chess coach at a school in Brownsville, Texas, where his brother was a star athlete before his untimely death. Jose’s always been required to live under the shadow of his brother and, now, their mother doesn’t seem to want anything to do with him. When he was 5 years old, Jose’s abuelita taught him to play chess like his grandfather, who was a champion in Mexico. It’s an unorthodox style, but Jose’s bigger problem has always been a lack of self-confidence. That changes, as well, when he begins defeating opponents in support of the school’s team on its way to the state championships. Lots of lessons are learned here, but they’re petty painless. It a perfect companion piece to Niki Caro and Kevin Costner’s McFarland, USA, in which a team comprised of the sons of poor farm laborers stuns California’s cross-country elite. It did well enough for Disney that, you’d think, someone would take a chance on giving Endgame a theatrical release, especially in markets with a large Mexican-American audience. Instead, it faces heavy competition in DVD and VOD.


Cabin Fever: Blu-ray

The Levenger Tapes

The Pack: Blu-ray

When Gus Van Sant produced his shot-by-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller, Psycho, nearly 40 years separated their release dates. The addition of color was the sole concession to the passage of cinematic time. The direct translation of Michael Haneke’s shocking Funny Games into English, 10 years later, could be justified as a concession to American audiences’ profound resistance to subtitles and unfamiliar stars with French accents. What possible excuse could Eli Roth have had for hiring Travis “Z” Zariwny to perform the same non-surgical procedure on his breakthrough hit, Cabin Fever, only 13 years removed from the original? Vanity? Not good enough … especially given the easy availability of the franchise entries on DVD/Blu-ray. In both, a band of college kids heads to the woods, where they plan on spending their spring break getting drunk and having sex. The first ominous note is struck when they pull into a gas station and are confronted by a garden-variety redneck and his possibly rabid son. The second comes when one of the young men uses a tricked-out assault rifle to shoot at something in the woods that takes him by surprise. Could the stranger’s odd behavior have anything to do with the sudden outbreak of a flesh-eating virus among the frisky spring-breakers? Of course, it could. The cast of largely unknown actors assembled here, led by Gage Golightly, Matthew Daddario, Samuel Davis and Nadine Crocker, isn’t required to stretch beyond their known limits or be any more naked than their predecessors. The real problem, I think, comes in the great number of nearly identical horror/slasher movies that have been released in the interim, mostly straight to DVD or VOD. So many clueless vacationers and horny teenagers have been slaughtered in the last 13 years – 30, really, for those keeping score – that a few more would hardly be noticed. Considering that the fleshing-eating virus isn’t the only terrifying disease afflicting innocent tourists and outdoors types, however, it can still provide a few chills. A movie about an attack of giant Zika-carrying mosquitos and/or their zombie victims, at the Summer Olympics, probably is already on the drawing boards. The Blu-ray adds some interviews and background material.


And, while we’re on the topic of familiar genre tropes, when was the last time you saw a found-footage thriller? Not long, I’ll bet. Once again, in Mark Edwin Robinson’s The Levenger Tapes, college students Amanda (Johanna Brady), Kim (Lili Mirojnick), and Chase (Morgan Krantz) are traveling to Chase’s family mountain retreat for a Spring Break getaway. They stop at a liquor store, where Chase decides to steal a bottle of rum. During the ill-advised getaway, their car is involved in a fender-bender with a truck. Upon their arrival, the students drink, converse and swim in their undies, before spotting a campfire in the distance. After ascertaining that it belongs to the man from the truck, they decide to walk over to deliver an in-person apology. Along the way, they develop a serious case of the heebie-jeebies. Meanwhile, one of them is capturing what passes for action on a video tape, which later is pored over by local police. On it, the students come upon the bloody dress of an 8-year-old girl, which may or may not be involved in the trio’s disappearance. There were times when I had trouble differentiating between the found footage and that captured during the normal course of the narrative. It all seemed to have been taken by the same camera used by cinematographer Magdalena Górka, without consistent allowance for the distressed images usually associated with home movies.


For a debut feature, director Nick Robertson and writer Evan Randall Green have fashioned a terrifically atmospheric and reasonably exciting siege thriller, involving a pack of wild dogs – thus, the title, The Pack — determined to kill every living thing on an Australian sheep ranch. Naturally, that includes the residents of the isolated farmhouse. Most of the action takes place over the course of a single night, with canine eyes sparkling in the brush and tree line, and the rancher running out of bullets for his rifle. Can the small family last the night, before the dark black dogs invade the house and have them for a late snack? Veteran Aussie actors Jack Campbell and Anna Lise Phillips take the threat with appropriate seriousness. The Blu-ray adds some interesting making-of material, focusing on the creation of the wild look-alike dogs … not to be mistaken for werewolves.


Mad Tiger

As previously noted here, the production of feature-length rockumentaries has reached the saturation point in the DVD marketplace, with no signs of slowing down any time soon. To break through the pack, the subject of any new film must have something going for it, besides the music and fans. Otherwise, all you have is a long rock video. Michael Haertlein and Jonathan Yi’s Mad Tiger easily qualifies as something different … at least, for those of us new to the wacky world of Japanese pop culture. It follows the relationship of two Japanese musicians, Yellow and Red, who have been best friends, band mates and business partners for more than 15 years, while touring the U.S. in the performance-art punk band, Peelander-Z. Based in New York, its on-stage persona merges elements of Mexican lucha libre wrestling, the live-action Power Rangers, Sun Ra and the American heavy-metal band GWAR. Or, as the group bills itself, “a Japanese Action Comic Punk band hailing from the Z area of Planet Peelander.” The costumes range from sentai style suits, to kimono, to rubber Playmobil style wigs. There is also a tiger costume and a squid/guitar costume, designed to coincide with the song “Mad Tiger.” The band employs such on-stage antics as human bowling, pretending to hit each other with chairs in imitation of pro-wrestlers and mid-performance piggyback rides. Apart from the performance footage, which borders on insanity, Mad Tiger chronicles the aftermath of Red’s departure from the band and Yellow’s attempts to replace him. (Other members include Peelanders Pink, Purple, Green, Black and formerly Blue.) It’s pretty wild stuff, so I recommend being in the right mood to absorb the act properly. The bonus package adds seven deleted scenes, two Peelander-Z music videos and a directors’ statement.


Search Party: Blu-ray

Scot Armstrong, co-writer/director of the anemic boys-will-be-boors comedy, Search Party, can boast of a resume that includes such not-bad/not-great entertainments as Road Trip, Old School, Starsky & Hutch, School for Scoundrels, Hangover II and Showtime’s “Dice.” Somehow, he figured out a way to sweep up all of the jokes that fell on the cutting-room floor of those movies and make a nearly complete feature out of them. That’s not to say any of the gags were worth saving, only that they finally added up to about 90 minutes, with credits. Neither were they sufficiently funny to keep Search Party from sitting on a shelf for two years, despite a comically gifted cast that includes Adam Pally (“The Mindy Project”), T.J. Miller and Thomas Middleditch (“Silicon Valley”), Shannon Woodward (“Raising Hope”), Alison Brie (“Community”), J.B. Smoove (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”), Lance Reddick (“The Wire”), Krysten Ritter (“Jessica Jones”), Jason Mantzoukas (“The League”), Horatio Sanz (“SNL”), Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci (“Garfunkel and Oates”) and Rosa Salazar (“Man Seeking Woman”). When the love of his life (Woodward) jilts him at the altar, thanks to his hard partying pals Jason (Miller) and Evan (Pally), Nardo (Middleditch) follows her down to Mexico, where he’s carjacked and left naked in the middle of nowhere. At this point, viewers are assaulted with the kind of racist gross-out humor that would make Donald Trump blush. The rest of the out-of-control road-trip humor isn’t much better. Only fans of the actors will be able to digest Search Party, without a great deal of pot and beer for chasers.


Code of Honor: Blu-ray

For a while there, I actually thought I was watching an action epic from Steven Seagal’s vintage years. That’s because Code of Honor features wall-to-wall gunplay, pyrotechnics, knife duels and strippers … all of it gratuitous. It’s pretty much in the same vein as the dozens of other straight-to-video (or close to it) titles that Seagal’s been churning out for the last 25 years. (He knows his audience and what it wants.) The only concession to age displayed by Seagal is a weirdly geometric hairdo and facial makeup/camouflage borrowed from a mortuary. Code of Honor is as resistant to mainstream criticism as almost everything as he’s done in the same period. Here, he plays Colonel Robert Sikes, a special-forces lifer who lost his family to gangs while he was overseas. It’s prompted him to return home and go all Charles Bronson on any ’banger or pimp working the streets with the intent of committing felonies. The local constabulary doesn’t appreciate the help from Sikes or his former protégé (Craig Sheffer), who’s stalking him and itching for a showdown. In another familiar urban-action trope, writer/director Michael Winnick balances the black and Latino criminals with crooked white politicians and cops, as well as a bogus news team acting as a Greek chorus. Action junkies, at least, won’t be disappointed.


Suture: Special Edition: Blu-ray

To fully appreciate this experiment neo-noir, viewers are required to buy into a conceit most won’t recognize or completely understand until they check out the bonus material provided by Arrow Video in its fully restored special edition. It explains why Suture found so little traction after its festival release, in 1994, despite gathering some indie cred at Sundance and encouraging reviews. Those who come to Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s mystery within a mystery with an open mind and close attention to detail, even 22 years later, will be rewarded with a uniquely intriguing cinematic experience. Miss a clue along the way and you might come away from Suture shaking your head. Given that introduction, maybe you’ll forgive me for not ruining the fun with too many spoilers. The story opens immediately after the funeral of a wealthy Phoenix businessman, who fathered almost identical half-brothers, but afforded them very different lots in life. It’s where Needles construction worker Clay Arlington meets his half-brother, Vincent Towers, who grew up in the lap of luxury in Scottsdale. Vincent immediately recognizes in Clay an opportunity to wipe clean a slate that includes being the prime suspect in the old man’s suspicious death. No sooner does Clay arrive in Scottsdale to solidify his newfound bond with Vincent than his half-brother exchanges IDs and clothes with his guest. Vincent also asks Clay to drive him to the airport to catch a flight for an unexpected business trip, with instructions on how to answer the new-fangled car phone – it’s 1993, you’ll recall – in case something comes up. Few viewers will be surprised, then, when the phone rings in the luxury convertible and Vincent hits a button on a pay phone at the airport and the tone detonates a bomb planted underneath the vehicle. While Clay miraculously survives the blast, he’ll awaken with a serious case of amnesia and a face requires extensive plastic surgery. The rest of the 96-minute film chronicles Clay’s recovery from the surgery, including an amnesiac’s attempts to clear his name in a murder he didn’t commit, a therapeutic return to a desert hellhole he can’t remember leaving and another trap set by Vincent. That’s only the skeleton of the story, however. At the time of Suture’s debut, the cast was largely unknown. Dennis Haysbert had just broken through with a key role in Love Field; Mel Harris had just completed a four-season run on “thirtysomething”; Michael Harris was struggling to make a living as an actor; Dina Merrill, at 71, was still gorgeous and active; and Sab Shimono was scrambling for the few acting jobs available to Asian-Americans. To introduce their characters would ruin the gag. If you’ve gotten this far, you’ll want to check out the fresh interviews and background featurettes.


Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan: Special Edition: Blu-ray

For most of the 20th Century, Ray Harryhausen’s name was synonymous with special visual effects and stop-motion animation. In biblical terms, the pioneering effects supervisor of King Kong, Willis H. O’Brien, begat Harryhausen, who begat Peter Jackson (The Hobbit), Nick Park (Wallace & Gromit), Terry Gilliam (Brazil), John Landis (An American Werewolf in London), Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy), James Cameron (Avatar), Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park), Tim Burton (Mars Attacks!), Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas), Dennis Muren (Star Wars), Joe Dante (Gremlins), John Lasseter (Toy Story), Phil Tippet (Jurassic Park), Greg Broadmore (District 9) and Randy Cook (The Amazing Spider-Man), among the third- and fourth-generation filmmakers interviewed in this highly entertaining testimonial. Not only do these disciples praise the master, but they also explain exactly how Harryhausen’s contributions raised the state of the art, well into the digital era. Gilles Penso’s definitive documentary, Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan, was accorded remarkable access to clips from such wonderful fantasies as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came from Beneath the Sea, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Mysterious Island, Jason and the Argonauts and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Those titles may not mean much to viewers born during the era of computer animation, virtual reality and 3D modeling, but they spelled m-a-g-i-c to their parents and grandparents. Harryhausen lived long enough to be interviewed for the documentary and narrate parts of it. So did, his longtime friend and partner in sci-fi exploration, Ray Bradbury. Rounding out the celebrity parade are daughter Vanessa Harryhausen, historian Tony Dalton, actors John Cairney, Martine Beswick and Caroline Munro and composers Christopher Young and Robert Townson. At 90 minutes, there isn’t a wasted moment. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and interviews; home movies on the set of Sinbad; Q&A sessions at the Paris Cinematheque and London Gate Theater; commentary with the filmmakers; and a Ray Harryhausen trailer reel.


Blood and Black Lace: Special Edition: Blu-ray

If a newcomer to giallo asked me to recommend a title to use as a starting point in any exploration of the genre, it would be Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace. By breaking from established conventions of whodunits and horror, Bava anticipated the golden era of giallo by six years. He did so by locating the nexus of terror, criminal pathology and sex, then lighting the scenes in garish primary colors and backing them with a creepy soundtrack. Even though nudity wasn’t a part of the recipe in the early to mid-1960s, what was left to the imagination carried viewers’ imaginations a long way. “B&BL” may not have made a lot of money, but it influenced a generation of Italian filmmakers and inspired the Americans who would launch the slasher sub-genre, a decade later. Set largely inside a couture fashion house, the still extremely watchable picture chronicles a series of murders involving beautiful models at the hands of what appears to be a masked mannequin. Police Inspector Sylvester (Thomas Reiner) is assigned to investigate the murder, beginning with salon managers Max Marian (Cameron Mitchell) and his lover, the recently widowed Countess Cristina Como (Eva Bartok). When it’s revealed that the first victim, Isabella (Francesca Ungaro), had kept a diary, almost everyone involved in the operation attempts to locate and burn it. With each subsequent murder, the litany of vices grows to include corruption, then-outlawed abortions, blackmail, backstabbing and drug addiction. The deaths also serve to reduce the long list of potential suspects, without diminishing the mystery or tension. It helps, as well, that the salon is housed, in typical Bava style, in a creaky old building that once probably served as a villa for Italian aristocrats. Hence, the high ceilings, hidden stairways and numerous bedrooms.


The Arrow Video package arrives with a new 2K restoration of the film, from the original camera negative, as well as well as optional Italian and English soundtracks, presented in original uncompressed mono PCM audio. The highlight of the bonus package is “Psycho Analysis,” a comprehensive new documentary on Blood and Black Lace and the origins of the giallo genre, featuring interviews with directors Dario Argento (Suspiria) and Lamberto Bava (Demons), screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi (All the Colors of the Dark) critics Roberto Curti and Steve Della Casa, and crime novelists Sandrone Dazieri and Carlo Lucarelli. Add to it a new audio commentary by Mario Bava’s biographer, Tim Lucas; an appreciation by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, the creative duo behind Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears; “Yellow,” the acclaimed neo-giallo short by Ryan Haysom and Jon Britt; “Gender and Giallo,” a visual essay by Michael Mackenzie exploring the genre’s relationship with the social upheavals of the 1960-70s; a panel discussion on Mario Bava, featuring Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava and Steve Della Casa, recorded at the 2014 Courmayeur Film Festival; “The Sinister Image: Cameron Mitchell,” an episode of David Del Valle’s television series, devoted to the star of “B&BL”; the alternative U.S. opening titles, sourced from Joe Dante’s private print and scanned in 2K especially for this release; the original theatrical trailer; a reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys; and a collector s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Howard Hughes, author of “Cinema Italiano” and “Mario Bava: Destination Terror,” an interview with Dante and Del Valle on Mitchell, illustrated with archive stills and posters.


The Swinging Cheerleaders: Special Edition: Blu-ray

Return of the Killer Tomatoes: Special Edition: Blu-ray

Teenage Swinger: Grindhouse Double Feature

Arrow Video prides itself in having an eclectic catalogue of obscure or forgotten titles, a few restored well beyond what their place in cinema history would suggest. Such is the case with Jack Hill’s The Swinging Cheerleaders and John De Bello’s almost indescribably rancid, Return of the Killer Tomatoes! Arrow’s inventory of Hill’s work includes the far more defensible Spider Baby, Pit Stop, Blood Bath, Coffy and Friday Foster, all prime examples of mid-century exploitation flicks. Also released under the titles “Locker Room Girls” and “H.O.T.S. II,” The Swinging Cheerleaders was selected by Quentin Tarantino for the First Quentin Tarantino Film Fest, in Austin, Texas, 1996, and featured in the Satan’s Cheerleader Camp Film Fest, also in Austin in 2000. Jo Johnston plays Kate, a j-school student at Mesa University, who goes undercover as a cheerleader for her college newspaper to expose female exploitation on campus. Instead of feeling oppressed, Kate kind of digs the spotlight provided pretty girls with pompons. What she doesn’t like is a plot involving school administrators, the football coach, backers and a local bookie to fix the big game in favor of the heavy underdog rival. The Swinging Cheerleaders reveals a total ignorance of the feminist movement, investigative journalism, the rules of football and the general erosion of school spirit. Instead, it offers some topless interludes with Johnston, Rosanne Katon and an obviously pregnant Rainbeaux Smith, and an opportunity for the captain of the football team to beat up a “hippie.” (Apparently, the crowd at a Texas preview reacted very favorably to the scene.) The package’s best moments are reserved for the bonus package in a newly recorded commentary and fresh interview with Hill; archived interviews with cinematographer Alfred Taylor, Hill and rockabilly musician, wrestling manager, film producer and actor Johnny Legend (My Breakfast with Blassie); a Q&A with Hill, and actors Colleen Camp and Rosanne Katon, recorded at the New Beverly Cinema in 2012; and reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys.


Ten years after the horrors unleashed in the 1978 cult sensation, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!, tomatoes have been outlawed, making criminals of anyone who loves pizza, pasta sauce and salad bars. Rather than attempting a spoof of a spoof, De Bello extended the conceit in Return of the Killer Tomatoes! in the hope of finding an even younger audience than the one that greeted the original. To accomplish this feat, he recruited fresh faces Anthony Starke and George Clooney … yes, that George Clooney. Not surprisingly, he plays the womanizing buddy of Chad Finlander, whose Uncle Wilbur was the hero of the Great Tomato War and inventor of the tomato-less pizza. The always-welcome John Astin plays the evil Professor Gangreen, who’s developed a way to transform tomatoes into human facsimiles trained to conquer the world. Clooney, who’s mostly there to attract teenage girls, is given far more to do in the sexploitation department than the overly chaste Karen Mistal and future Playboy Playmate and pre-porn Teri Weigel. As bad as it is, “ROTKT!” would spawn two more sequels, two TV series and a video game. The Blu-ray package adds an interview with Anthony Starke, a stills gallery, commentary with De Bello, hosted by Michael Felsher, a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin and fully-illustrated collector’s booklet with new writing by critic James Oliver.


The latest “Grindhouse Double Feature” release from After Hours Cinema features a pair of unremarkable titles from 1975 that probably were exhibited in more sheltered drive-ins and hard-tops unashamed of their sticky floors and torn seats. There’s plenty of skin, but the money shots begin off-screen or have been so reduced by scratches and grime that they’ve disappeared entirely. I’d hate to see what the prints looked like before they received their digital polish. In “Teenage Swingers,” Pete and his live-in girlfriend are forced to end their arrangement when his puritanical dad moves in to their crowded apartment. This forces the couple to save their together time for visits to a friend’s apartment, where they discover the joys of swinging. Will Daddy Dearest get hip and join the party? Probably. In “My Daughter’s Babysitter,” the nubile girl-next-door, hired to watch a couple’s kid, becomes distracted by mom’s treasure trove of glossy mags and marital aids. Will the parents object when they come home and find their toy box disturbed? Probably not.



MHz Networks: The Young Montalbano

MHz Networks: Detective Montalbano

PBS Kids: Roald Dahl’s The BFG (Big Friendly Giant)

PBS Kids: Peg + Cat: Out of This World

American prime-time television once was the bastion of idiosyncratic police detectives and lone-wolf private eyes, whose charisma, cunning and cocksure approach to crime fighting attracted a loyal audience base. If their heyday on the broadcast networks is long past, the premium cable and streaming networks have begun to pick up the slack with such shows as “Bosch,” “Longmire,” “The Red Road” and “Justified.” Anyone looking for characters like Kojak, Columbo, Sam McCloud or Robert T. Ironside may want to check out such foreign-language streaming services as MHz and Acorn (the queen’s English being foreign to most Americans). It’s on the former streaming network that I found Italy’s “Detective Montalbano” and “The Young Montalbano” (also newly available on DVD), as well as “Don Matteo,” “Detective De Luca,” “Inspector Manara,” “Inspector Nardone” and “Inspector Vivaldi Mysteries.” Produced and broadcast by Italy’s RAI since 1999, “Detective Montalbano” and its 2012 prequel series, “The Young Montalbano
are based on the internationally popular mysteries of Andrea Camilleri. Salvo Montalbano is chief inspector of the police department in Vigàta, a scenic seaside town in Sicily, where mafia-related crime competes for the cops’ attention with normal criminal activity. He is a gruff character, responsible and serious at work, but also open and friendly with people he knows he can trust. Montalbano uses his superior intelligence and patience to reconstruct the details and personalities behind violent crimes. Among his colleagues are his slightly buffoonish best friend and deputy, Mimi Augello; the dogged inspector Giuseppe Fazio; his sensitive, name-mangling subordinate Agatino Catarella; his current girlfriend, Ingrid Sjostrom; journalist and ally, Niccolò Zito; and Livia Burlando, with whom he has a sometimes tempestuous, long-distance relationship spanning both series. All of these characters appear, as well, in “The Young Montalbano,” with habits and personalities still in their developmental stage. While veteran stage, screen and television actor Luca Zingaretti plays the elder Montalbano, William Petersen look-alike Michele Riondino plays Salvo as the newly appointed police chief of Vigata. He’s surrounded by younger versions of the same characters in the earlier series. Salvo, an avid swimmer, lives in an apartment whose terrace overlooks the town’s beach. Both series take full advantage of the magnificent Sicilian countryside and holiday traditions in ancient mountaintop villages. The producers also find ways to introduce voluptuous Italian actresses into Salvo’s cases, as femme fatales or red herrings. The two new “Young Montalbano” DVDs cover the series’ six-episode second season. The “Detective Montalbano” release covers Episodes 27 and 28 and includes Teresa Mannino’s flirtatious feature-length profile of the author, “Montalbano and Me: Andrea Camilleri.” Each episode runs about two hours in length, which, however entertaining, is about 20 minutes too long.


Although Steven Spielberg’s tres, tres expensive adaptation of Roald Dahl’s source novel The BFG failed to set the box office on fire over the long holiday weekend, it’s yet to open in several key foreign markets and Finding Dory has to run out of steam eventually … right? It will be interesting to see how the 1989 animated version, created for television and video, will fare at a price less than the cost of an individual ticket at the multiplex. Younger viewers won’t be able to tell the difference. First published in 1982, “The BFG” takes places on a moonlit night, when little Sophie is snatched from her orphanage bed by a giant who whisks her away on a magical, thrilling and funny adventure. Unlike the Bloodbottler, the Fleshlumpeater and the Bonecruncher, the Big Friendly Giant is a good fellow who blows sweet dreams into the bedroom windows of children as they slumber. When Sophie learns that the monstrous crew of meanies is off to England to gobble up innocent boys and girls, she sets out to stop them once and for all, with the help of her new, rather large friend. Producer Kathleen Kennedy first acquired the rights to the literary property in 1991 and it’s taken all these many years for frequent partner, Spielberg, to make it a reality. The animated musical feature was produced by the award-winning Cosgrove Hall Studio, makers of “DangerMouse” and “The Wind in the Willows.” The DVD arrives with a new documentary on Dahl.


PBS Kids’ takes problem solving to an entirely new level in “Peg + Cat: Out of This World.” In the compilation DVD, Peg and Cat must put their heads together to fix their spaceship, outsmart Big Mouth (a crafty space alien who loves to dance), and win a cosmic T-ball competition. It helps immensely that they’re great at spotting patterns and working together as a team. The hourlong set is comprised of “The Doohickey Problem,” “The Long Line Problem,” “Richard the Third” and “The T-Ball Problem.”


The DVD Wrapup: Aferim!, WTF, Rams, Family Fang and more

Thursday, June 30th, 2016


Although slavery hasn’t been a taboo subject for exploitation by Hollywood filmmakers, it took Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave to fully dramatize the brutality and dehumanization inherent in the long-accepted practice for a new generation of viewers. The recent retelling of the “Roots” saga may not have been greeted with the same excitement as the original, but both versions of the mini-series should enjoy a long life in Blu-ray/DVD/VOD. The recent resurgence of gladiator movies and mini-series also called attention to slavery in the ancient world. From Romania, Aferim! tells a completely unexpected story about slavery, this time as practiced against Gypsies, Tartars, Jews and Muslims in Eastern Europe from the mid-1300s to the mid-1800s. You can count the number of films that address that horrifying chapter in history on the fingers of a single hand. The title of Radu Jude’s wide-screen, black-and-white dramedy Aferim! comes from the Ottoman Turkish expression, meaning “Bravo!,” or, if you will, “Give me five.” It is set in 1835 in the Wallachia region of eastern Romania, where a slave-hunting constable and his young-adult son have been handed the papers allowing them to search for a runaway Roma slave accused of having an affair with a nobleman’s wife. Costandin is played by Teodor Corban, who some buffs might remember from 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) and 12:08 East of Bucharest. The bounty hunter would have been a perfect fit for either Django Unchained or 12 Years a Slave, as he delivers a non-stop commentary on slavery, priests, Gypsies, whores, gambling and anything else he needs his son to hear on his way to manhood. On their odyssey, they encounter people of several different nationalities, religions and ethnic groups, each of whom harbor prejudices of their own. Many still do. When the slave, Carfin, is caught, halfway through Aferim!, the dialogue between captor and caught could have been borrowed from a dozen different Westerns or, for that matter, The Last Detail. It’s an amazing picture that deserves to find a wide audience here. Special features include Jude’s excellent, Sundance-winning 2006 short, “The Tube with a Hat.”

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: Blu-ray

In a strange case of art resembling book reviews, it was Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times’ chief book critic, who inadvertently sold the idea of casting Tina Fey as the protagonist in Paramount’s dark wartime comedy, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. In her review of journalist Kim Barker’s 2011 memoir, “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Kakutani observed, the author “depicts herself as a sort of Tina Fey character.” If she had recommended, say, Sandra Bullock or Anna Kendrick, they probably would have gotten serious consideration, as well. Fey’s inclusion was assured when Loren Michael’s Broadway Video and Fey’s Little Stranger Inc. joined Paramount as co-producers. Broadway Video benefits from sweetheart deals cut – enforced may be a more appropriate term — with former and existing members of the “Saturday Night Live” casts. BV has repurposed hundreds of “SNL” re-run packages, including those for individual performers, holiday and themed sets. If Broadway Video, Broadway Movies and SNL Studios have injected the show’s alumni into such unqualified theatrical turkeys as MacGruber, Superstar and Stuart Saves His Family, they’ve also nurtured “30 Rock,” “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “Documentary Now!” and “Portlandia,” while continuing to believe in Kristin Wiig, Seth Meyers, Will Forte, Amy Poehler, Fred Armisen and Rachel Dratch, whose post-“SNL” careers needed the occasional jump start. Barker’s memoir barely made a dent in the best-sellers’ lists until Fey embraced the film adaptation and the book, like the movie, suddenly became “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.” (The same sleight-of-hand occurred when Elmore Leonard’s “Rum Punch” became “Jackie Brown,” even if the book’s original protagonist was a white woman named Jackie Burke, living in Miami.)

Just as Kakutani predicted, Fey proved to be a natural choice to play the novice foreign correspondent assigned to a seemingly endless conflict – as Kim Baker – which, in the minds of editors and readers, had become a sideshow to the war in Iraq and the hunt for Osama bin Laden. (In the movie, the character works for a TV network, while, in real life, Barker, was a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune.) As a novice, Baker is taken aback by the gallows humor that informs all interaction between embedded journalists and the debauched nightlife that makes such assignments tolerable. Correspondents go to extreme lengths to score the kinds of scoops worthy of breaking through the clutter on network news shows. Here, this includes putting their sources at risk of retaliation by their superiors and playing footsie with swinish Afghan dignitaries. Even so, the longer Baker remains in Afghanistan, the more likely it becomes that she will push the limits of personal safety and sanity. To this end, screenwriter Robert Carlock (“30 Rock,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Focus, I Love You Phillip Morris), added melodramatic and rom-com elements to a story someone felt wouldn’t succeed at the box office without concessions to popular tastes. Unless one reads the book, however, it would be difficult to parse the fact from the invention. An almost farcical scene in which she learns to fire an automatic weapon with the same horny Afghan official was taken right from the book, while less realistic events were cut from whole cloth. After Margot Robbie’s hard-drinking correspondent, Tanya Vanderpoel, asks Kim’s permission to make herself available sexually to the newcomer’s stud security guards, she’s given a lesson in war-zone sexism. Tanya explains to the baffled Kim that women who would be rated a “4” or a “6” back home are often upgraded to a “9” or “10” in Kabul. (The obviously fallacy here, of course, is that both women would qualify for the higher grades anywhere on the planet – check out Robbie in “The World of Wall Street” –even in combat fatigues and head scarves.) Basically, though, “WTF” doesn’t stray too egregiously far from the parameters laid down in the book.

As is the norm with most movies set in Afghanistan and Iraq, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot failed to attract the same hordes of viewers who turned American Sniper and Lone Survivor – the exceptions that prove the rule – into certified hits at the box office. It did much better than the abysmal Rock the Kasbah, which was built from a similar foundation and starred “SNL” veteran Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Kate Hudson, Zooey Deschanel, Danny McBride and Scott Caan. There’s no reason “WTF” shouldn’t do better in DVD/Blu-ray/VOD, if only because Fey’s profile still fits better on the small screen. The best scenes in the movie, in my opinion, feature Baker donning a burka to capture video images in a Taliban stronghold and meet in secret with Afghan women repressed by fundamentalists in their “liberated” village. These scenes reminded me of Erik Poppe’s 1,000 Times Good Night, in which Juliet Binoche does an amazing job as a photojournalist torn between her family in Europe and the Adrenalin flow that comes with risking one’s life to relay cold, hard facts to people who aren’t interested in the truth. The nightclub scenes recalled those in Canal+ mini-series, “Kaboul Kitchen,” which was set in the only French restaurant in the capital and provided a DMZ for politicians, journalists, thieves, prostitutes and other miscreants. Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar, shown at the Toronto Film Festival during the same week as the attacks of 9/11, describes the brutal conditions faced by women in Taliban-run Afghanistan. (Some critics have also made comparisons to the Goldie Hawn dramedy, Private Benjamin.) The Blu-ray package adds deleted scenes; an extended scene; the featurettes, “All In: The Making of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”; “War Reporter: The Real Kim”; “Embedded in Reality,” which explains how the military played a pivotal role in bringing the movie to life; “Wedding Party,” a tight focus on the joyous wedding celebration from the film; and “Laughing Matters,” which describes how the characters relied on drinking, partying and other vices to cope with the constant threat of danger.

Rams: Blu-ray

While international filmmakers continue to discover the benefits of making movies in the otherworldly settings provided by Iceland, non-Nordic audiences have yet to embrace the country’s homegrown cinema. The exceptions are such early films of Baltasar Kormákur as 101 Reykjavík, The Sea, A Little Trip to Heaven, Jar City and The Deep, which have since led to such off-island projects as 2 Guns, Contraband and the brilliantly dramatized Everest. Grímur Hákonarson’s quirky sibling drama Rams takes place a little further off the beaten path than most Icelandic exports. Instead of easily reached locations along the coastal Ring Road, Rams takes place in a secluded valley in the mountainous interior, where modified snowmobiles and other all-terrain vehicles do the work no car could attempt and where roads are a seasonal luxury. It’s in such isolated locations that hatchets remain unburied for decades at a time. Estranged brothers Gummi and Kiddi have lived side by side for 40 years, tending to their sheep, without speaking a word to each other. The lineage of their prized rams extends back to the arrival of the Vikings and is unique to the valley. After Kiddi wins the annual contest, Gummi suspects there might be something drastically wrong with the winning ram. The lethal degenerative “scrapie” may be nearly invisible in its early stages, but it can travel through an agricultural region like wildfire. The farmers not only are ordered to decimate their flocks, but destroy their stalls and any tools used to tend the sheep. The condition takes at least two years to eradicate, during which the farmers are compensated for their loss by the government. The greatest dilemma for the brothers, though, comes in knowing that the mass slaughter could put an end to the lineage and no imported variety could produce the same quality wool. Gummi understands the consequences and agrees to go along with the agricultural authority’s demands, just as Homer Bannon did in Hud when foot-and-mouth disease was discovered in his herd. The surly alcoholic, Kiddi, holds out until the very end, blaming his brother for alerting the government to the problem and everything else that’s gone wrong with his life. Hákonarson leaves room for an ending that should satisfy most viewers, even as it conforms to Iceland’s famously fickle and brutal weather conditions, captured superbly by Norwegian cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (Victoria). Hákonarson was accorded the Un Certain Regard Award at Cannes. The Cohen Media Blu-ray adds an interview with the director and award-winning 2007 short, Wrestling, a love story about two gay wrestlers, living in rural Iceland, who must keep their relationship a secret from the inner world of the sport, which, in its Icelandic mode, is strangely homoerotic.

Margarita, With a Straw

Shonali Bose and Nilesh Maniyar’s consistently surprising Margarita, With a Straw describes the journey of self-discovery taken by an precocious Indian teen who refuses to allow conditions beyond her control to keep her from achieving her goals. Born with cerebral palsy, Laila (Kalki Koechlin) has gone through life as if the disease was something happening to other people in her orbit, affecting them more than it does her. Her slurred speech is only a minor impediment to communication, just as her wheelchair doesn’t preclude acting on her whims, including making out with her boyfriend or reacting to sexual stimuli on the Internet. If the emotional crises that impact other teenagers appear to have a greater effect on Laila, it’s only because her options are so much more limited. After being humiliated at an awards ceremony for her rock-music compositions – and patronized by a judge – she succeeds in winning a writing scholarship from a school in New York. Her working-class father isn’t thrilled by the prospect of sending his daughter halfway around the world to realize a dream, but her mother wouldn’t have it any other way. Mom even agrees to accompany her to the U.S. Even so, Laila quickly finds her footing socially and in the classroom. Her naiveté continues to work against her romantically, but it doesn’t prevent her from allowing herself to be comforted by a blind Pakistani/Indian student and lesbian, Khanum (Sayani Gupta), after being trapped in a street protest. Their affection for each other grows naturally and without limits based on perceived physical handicaps. Faced by the prospect of unfettered happiness, however, Laila is forced to deal with someone else’s debilitating illness and her own cluelessness when it comes to matters of the heart. In Margarita, With a Straw, Bose and Maniyar have created an all-inclusive study in acceptance that could hardly be easier to digest. The DVD adds worthwhile interviews and background material.

Precious Cargo: Blu-ray

Mark-Paul Gosselaar has one of those faces that are immediately recognizable, if not for any particular role or series. That is, of course, for those of us who’ve never watched “Saved by the Bell” or its various spinoffs and immediately recognize him as Zack Morris. After checking out his resume on, it was easy to recall Gosselaar’s grown-up turns as Detective John Clark Jr. on “NYPD Blue” and Franklin Bash on “Franklin & Bash.” At 42, he’d love nothing more than to be recognized as an actor as comfortable in action features as he was in sitcoms and genre series. In soldier-turned-filmmaker Max Adams’ directorial debut, Precious Cargo, Gosselaar plays a crook with a talent for ripping off criminals unlikely to file a complaint with local authorities or Interpol. Jack’s team includes a punky sharpshooter (Jenna B. Kelly), his veterinarian girlfriend (Lydia Hull) and pregnant former lover (Claire Forlani), who’s on the run from a crime lord played by Bruce Willis. The scheme requires of Jack’s team that it collects a safe full of stolen diamonds and hand it over to Willis’ crew in return for not being killed on the spot. If the plot isn’t all that distinctive, action fans can enjoy the film’s many explosions, car chases, airborne escapes and a nifty boat chase, staged somewhere in the vicinity of Gulfport, Mississippi. Gosselaar and Kelly display a pleasant rapport in their post-combat exchanges, while Willis once again pretty much phones in his performance, which probably only required one or two days of his time. At 45, Forlani probably wasn’t the best choice to play a visibly pregnant crook, on the run from the law and her former boss in stiletto heels. Although she remains one of great beauties to appear on big and small screens, the hi-def camera reveals far too much of the cosmetics used to make her look 30. With 4K-resolution right around the corner, makeup artists are going to have to work harder to make middle-age actors of both genres look natural. (By contrast, Willis is lit in one scene to resemble Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now.) The Blu-ray adds “The Making of Precious Cargo” featurette and cast/crew interviews.

Back in the Day

Blessed with a cast of highly recognizable actors, but cursed by what I suspect was a budget best described as “micro,” Back in the Day will go over best with boxing and Mafia completists who tend to find positive things to say about the frequently interrelated subjects. Here, however, the mobsters don’t seem to be particularly interested in fixing the fights of local favorite, Anthony Rodriguez (William DeMeo), an Italian/Puerto Rican hybrid growing up on the streets of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. They exist on the same plane as the wise guys who hang around the social club run by Paulie and Tuddy Cicero, in Goodfellas, who don’t seem to work but always have money for shiny clothes. During the 1980s, when much of Paul Borghese’s drama is set, the mobsters pay lip service, at least, to keeping the neighborhood safe for women, children and shopkeepers, as long as they’re of the white persuasion. Gentrification and an influx of nationalities other than Italian wouldn’t begin in earnest until the new millennium. Growing up, Anthony was burdened by an abusive, alcoholic father, who somehow got lucky by marrying a hard-working Italian woman (Annabella Sciorra) from the neighborhood. After tiring of being called “spic” by every two-bit Joe Pesci-wannabe in Bensonhurst, Anthony decides to take out his anger on the heavy bag installed in the basement by his father, when he still gave a shit about his family. His newfound boxing skills come to the attention of local mob bosses Enzo DeVino (Michael Madsen) Gino Fratelli (Alec Baldwin) after he vents his frustrations over the hit-and-run death of his mother on the butcher who once tried to molest him. As time goes by, Anthony will be paid to vent his leftover frustrations on other professional boxers, while the mobsters continue to play their dangerous games with guns in the old neighborhood. Because Back in the Day opens with what could be Anthony’s final championship fight, we already know how half the movie, at least, is going to play out. His past is related to boxing writer Larry Merchant in flashback form over lunch in a venerable Bensonhurst restaurant. (Former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson appears in an off-the-wall cameo.) Almost everything that takes place in the movie suffers from the bare-bones budget, including the boxing scenes, which could have been staged in a convenience store. Even so, the appearance of big-name stars – including Danny Glover, Joseph D’Onofrio, Shannen Doherty – keep things moving for most of the overlong two-hour length.

The Steps

The Family Fang

As the children of Baby Boomers grow older and realize their dreams of making movies about their brilliantly tortured lives, we’re going to see a lot more like The Steps, One More Time (reviewed here three weeks ago) and The Family Fang. Digital technology now allows for relatively inexpensive filmmaking and Kickstarter campaigns sometimes succeed in supplementing credit-card budgets and the occasional AFI or Sundance grant. The more stars one can round up by begging, pleading and calling in favors, the better. The presence of one or two stars once guaranteed distribution, but, now, a half-dozen might not be enough. Early positive reviews don’t always work, either. Just as a tortured family reunion provided the foundation for One More Time, which stars Christopher Walken, Amber Heard, Hamish Linklater, Oliver Platt and Ann Magnuson, a gathering of two soon-to-be-united tribes is in the forefront of The Steps. The former is staged in a beautiful home at the tip of Long Island, while the latter unspools in a splendid lakeside home in Ontario. It would be too easy to dismiss the family dynamics as “dysfunctional” – a catch-all term popularized in the 1980-90s — although they are. These nearing retirement Boomer parents are wealthy and successful in their own ways, and the kids, apart from being neglected at various times in their lives, have been spoiled and given every opportunity to succeed. They resent having to live in the shadow of one or both parents, but are too messed up to carve a niche of their own. I also doubt that these families are representative of those found outside major urban centers. In One More Time, Walken’s character is an out-of-the-limelight music star from the days of Neil Diamond, Barry Manilow and Billy Joel. In Andrew Currie and Robyn Harding’s The Steps, James Brolin portrays a wealthy money manager whose wheelings and dealings provided ample opportunities for him to enjoy the fat life of an absentee parent. Now that he’s met another woman (Christine Lahti) with whom to share his perfect life, Ed wants his children to embrace Sherry’s brood as half-siblings, anyway. Ed’s American children (Emmanuelle Chriqui, Jason Ritter) are neurotic and self-absorbed in a New York sort of way, while Sherry’s kids and kids-in-law (Kate Corbett, Vinay Virmani, Steven McCarthy, Benjamin Arthur) are screwed up in ways more closely associated with growing up with a free-spirited single mom in Canada. It isn’t a perfect match. The poop really hits the fan, however, when Ed and Sherry announce they’re adopting a child – Chinese, natch — to bring the family together. There are some decent ideas at play in both films, but none that cry to be seen on a big screen at a multiplex for $11 a ticket.


Walken is an even greater joy to watch in The Family Fang, an adaptation of Kevin Wilson’s best-selling novel that received an “excuse me” release before disappearing into VOD limbo last month. Here, he plays the male half of a controversial husband-and-wife conceptual-art team famous for the kind of cruel and macabre public performances that are easily confused with pranks. Michelle Kidman and director Jason Bateman play the adult versions of Annie and Baxter – a.k.a., Child A and Child B – who never got over being used by their parents as props in the often faux-gory and disturbing public performances. As a narrator explains, “The Fangs simply throw themselves into a space, as if they were hand grenades, and wait for the disruption to occur.” For their parts, the elder Fangs (Walken, Maryann Plunkett) never got over their children’s decision to pursue disciplines – writing, acting – that didn’t test the limits of decorum and normalcy. After Baxter is hospitalized in a freak accident, the family comes together for the first time in a long while. It’s an uneasy reunion, but things don’t get truly weird until Caleb and Camille take off on a ride through the Massachusetts countryside and simple disappear. Naturally, Annie and Baxter’s first thought is that it’s yet another performance, intended to draw attention to themselves. The police aren’t so sure. I don’t know how the movie squares with the novel, but, as it is, The Family Fang does a nice job asking provocative questions about what children and parents owe each other and what happens when the debt comes due. The damage done can be read on the faces of Kidman and Bateman, who can’t escape Caleb and Camille’s shadow, no matter how hard they try. Admirers of such offbeat dysfunctional-family flicks as The Royal Tenenbaums, The Squid and the Whale, The Family Stone and Running with Scissors really should take a chance on The Family Fang.


Docs-to DVD

Elstree 1976

George Crumb: Voice of the Whale

Weaving The Past: Journey of Discovery

Scary Man

Here’s another documentary that might have attracted a niche audience, if only members of the target demographic knew it actually existed. The title probably could have been a little less vague, but Star Wars buffs would have caught the reference and flocked to the film as if it were a memorabilia convention. Elstree 1976 refers to the British production facility where four episodes of George Lucas’ juggernaut were filmed, including the first one, whose huge success assured that the studio wouldn’t be repurposed as condominiums. Jon Spira’s film explores the lives of the largely unheralded actors and extras who helped create one of the most celebrated franchises in cinematic history, but weren’t named Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher or Mark Hamill. Instead, Spira found and interviewed such actors as Dave Prowse, who wore the Darth Vader suit and acted out a performance that James Earl Jones’ voice would make famous; Paul Blake, who played Greedo, the guy Han Solo shoots in the cantina bar; Pam Rose, given an addition to her noggin to play barmaid Leesub Sirln; and Jeremy Bulloch, whose character, Boba Fett, would achieve a degree of infamy unparalleled in sci-fi history. Almost everyone interviewed was a working actor before Star Wars and remained one afterwards, some reprising their characters in later episodes. Forty years later, they continue to attend fan conventions and collect money for autographs. Their stories are quite delightful.


Shuffle through any pile of 33rpm albums left behind by reformed hippies, after they left home in anticipation of careers in the straight world, and there’s a very good chance you’ll find a tattered copy of “Songs of the Humpback Whale,” a 1970 album produced by bio-acoustician Roger Payne. By the standards of the day, it was a huge hit. By demonstrating how whales communicated through a sonic vocabulary that resembles music, Payne gave environmentalists a weapon in the incipient battle to save whales from extinction. It was about this time, as well, that Pulitzer Prize- and Grammy-winning composer George Crumb used man-made instruments to re-create the sounds of whales in “Vox Balaenae for Three Masked Players,” a decidedly avant-garde work for electric flute, cello and amplified piano. He is noted as an explorer of unusual timbres, alternative forms of notation and extended instrumental and vocal techniques. Examples include the seagull effect for the cello, metallic vibrato for the piano and using a mallet to play the strings of a contrabass. Crumb defines music as “a system of proportions in the service of spiritual impulse” … the “first cell from which language, science and religion originated.” In 1976, fledgling documentarian Robert Mugge created the first of what would become dozens of music-related films, “George Crumb: Voice of the Whale.” The 54-minute doc was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. A native of West Virginia, Crumb also was greatly influenced by the raw-sounding gospel music he heard in the churches of the poor, God-fearing mountain folk. In the segments recorded in his home, Crumb discusses his influences and techniques with fellow composer Richard Wernick, while his musician wife, Elizabeth, offers her own version of their eccentric lifestyle. As heady as the discussions sometimes get, musicologists should find them fascinating. I couldn’t find a link between George Crumb and artist R. Crumb, apart from an uncanny resemblance to each other.


What Donald Trump doesn’t know about the history of Mexico and the root causes of the poverty that continues to inspire illegal immigration could fill all of his skyscrapers and villas. The less his supporters understand about this and other key issues, the freer their candidate is to exploit such ignorance for his own personal and political gain. Conversely, the more Americans learn about the struggles of the working poor in Mexico and Central America, the more sympathy we’ll have when confronted with the faces of people driven to give up everything they know for a small piece of the pie. Walter Dominguez’ heart-wrenching documentary, Weaving the Past: Journey of Discovery, was born from a desperate desire to fulfill his grandfather’s dying wish to locate his long lost family and re-connect ties severed when he escaped north for a new lease on life. Dominguez, who had drifted away from a filmmaking career in the mid-1970s, was driven to resume it after sinking into a deep depression in the wake of 9/11. By electing to fulfill the promise to his saintly Mexican-born grandfather, Reverend Emilio Hernandez, he was able to lift the fog of despair through hard work and intense research. He wasn’t given many clues as to where to begin his “journey of discovery,” but he eventually was led to led to people in Mexico who knew where to start. “Tata” Hernandez had been part of a social movement, one that strove to end oppression of Native Americans and impoverished Mexicans and exploded into a bloody revolution that touched both sides of the border. Like many people of Mexican background, Dominguez is part Native American, meaning that he has roots that extend further into the history of North America than most. While the Spanish and well-to-do Mexicans oppressed the Native Americans, on the other side of the border, white Americans exploited both the Mexicans and the Native Americans. Inspired, as well, by a promise made to his own dying father, Dominguez finally was able to locate elderly relatives and friends of his grandfather and learn about those uncles and aunts who decided not to make the trip north. His research also revealed a history of dictatorship and genocide neglected in American classrooms. How many American descendants of immigrants would benefit from tracing their roots to the Old Country and learning the conditions that led to their decision to leave home? The commonality of such experience is part of the fabric of America now being threatened by xenophobes, nationalists and outright bigots.


There was a time, not so long ago, when people who lived in close vicinity to the flyways of migratory birds could set their watches to the sight of the first V-shaped formations of Canada geese heading south for the winter. It was exciting to watch them pass overhead, knowing they’d escaped extinction for one more year and future generations might be able to enjoy the same sight. Little did we know, then, that these magnificent long-necked creatures would adjust so well to changing conditions on the ground that they would skip the arduous flight to their nesting grounds and find ways to survive the brutal winters of the Midwest. At first, it was believed that the geese were attracted solely to the cooling ponds outside nuclear plants. Before long, however, semi-flightless flocks of geese took control of golf course, public parks, corporate lawns, airports and sanctuaries, where food was easy to find and no one shot at them. It was novel, at first, but soon became a nuisance when the birds’ droppings made leisurely walks impossible and chemical imbalances polluted ponds. Dutch directors Eugenie Jansen and Albert Elings noticed how farmers and health officials there not only were dealing with over-populations of geese, but also a year-round surplus of starlings, sparrows and pigeons. Recognizing the regulations introduced to protect endangered species, Scary Man (a.k.a., “Vogelvrij” or “Outlawed”) attempts to take as objective a view of the problem as is possible. Winner of multiple international awards, including the Earth Watch Film Award from the National Geographic Society, Scary Man explores how the Dutch cope with the competition for space and resources between too many birds and too many people living in a small country. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it didn’t take long for the birds to become immune to the usual human measures – loud noises, sparkling ribbons, decoys of predators – and begin to ignore them.


Made in Cleveland

Until two weeks ago, Cleveland was a city known primarily as a city so polluted its river caught fire and as the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, and losing sports teams … literally losing its longtime NFL franchise in 1995, when the owner decided to move his team lock, stock and barrel to Baltimore, where it became the Ravens. While the Indians occasionally show signs of life, it took the NBA’s Cavaliers to break the spell by bringing home the first major professional sports championship since the Browns won the 1964 NFL championship. (Someday, perhaps, the annual concert honoring new Hall of Fame inductees will be staged on the shores of Lake Erie, instead of Madison Square Garden.) The 2013 anthology film, Made in Cleveland, consists of nearly a dozen short films featuring the work of seven different directors, five screenwriters and a myriad collection of widely known and local actors (news anchors Robin Swoboda and Leon Bibb, among the latter). And, while the vignettes probably could have been staged in almost any big urban center, the backdrops, landmarks and locations will be immediately recognizable to anyone who’s spent time in Cleveland. The film didn’t receive any distribution outside northern Ohio, but few of these sorts of hit-and-miss things do. Among the more recognizable cast members are Busy Philipps, Gillian Jacobs, Patrick Antone, Jeffrey Grover and Robbie Barnes. The bonus package adds a deleted piece.



Disney Channel: Adventures in Babysitting

PBS: Prince Philip: The Plot to Make a King

PBS: NOVA: Can Alzheimer’s Be Stopped?

PBS Kids: Odd Squad: The O Games

PBS: Nature: Jungle Animal Hospital

Disney Channel no longer lets any grass grow under the feet of its original movies. Its updating of Adventures in Babysitting hits the streets almost simultaneously with its release on Disney’s various cable outlets. The special attention accorded the nearly 30th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ classic urban misadventure, which provided an early platform for Elizabeth Shue, Penelope Ann Miller, Vincent D’Onofrio and Bradley Whitford, among others, derives from it being the 100th Disney Channel Original Movies. That number includes “Descendants,” “Teen Beach Movie,” “High School Musical” and their various sequels. Here, Sofia Carson (“Descendants”) and Sabrina Carpenter (“Girl Meets World”) assume the roles once destined for Raven-Symoné and Miley Cyrus in an aborted 2009 remake. That might have been fun, especially considering how Miley has grown up in the interim, flashing her boobs to anyone with a camera. John Schultz’ adaptation follows the same basic blueprint from the original, which Disney originally allowed to go out with a PG-13 rating through Touchstone. A mismatched pair of babysitters find themselves in a bit of bother when their cellphones are mistakenly exchanged, causing them to be put in charge of two very different sets of children. Naturally, the kids have agendas of their own to pursue while the parents attend the same fancy party. Eventually, they attract a pair of comical lowlifes who are after a treasure the kids have in their possession. Mayhem, of course, ensues. Even lacking a PG-13 edge, this “Adventures in Babysitting” should please ’tweens and Disney Channel fans in their early teens who’ll buy into the whole kids-take-charge vibe. The DVD adds a short “Adventures in Outtakes” and a magnetic photo frame, whose removable center supplies some babysitting rules and ideas.


Viewed from this side of the pond, Prince Philip has always been something of an enigma. Condemned to forever walk two steps behind his wife, Queen Elizabeth II, the former heir to the abandoned Greek crown must enjoy the benefits of his regal station. Like his son, Prince Charles, however, he probably thought he’d be doing something else to earn his keep, by now. There was a time when Philip Mountbatten, the Duke of Edinburgh, a member of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg and the royal families of Greece and Denmark, was far more than the emotionally challenged cypher he would become. The excellent PBS bio-doc, “Prince Philip: The Plot to Make a King,” describes how the once-dashing naval officer stole/won the heart of the woman who would be queen and, in doing so, scared the crap of Winston Churchill and other British politicians who feared he might be a Nazi sympathizer or pawn of his ever-scheming uncle, Lord “Dickie” Mountbatten, a British statesman and naval officer killed in an IRA bombing in 1979. Nothing came of all the rumors, behind-the-scenes machinations and political paranoia, and little was ever revealed to the public. With a few minor plot twists and storyline that included Princess Diana, “The Plot to Make a King” would make a terrific novel.


Among the many ways our tax dollars could be better spent than financing two increasingly ludicrous wars in the Middle East would be a frontal attack on Alzheimers disease, which ravages the minds of more than 40 million victims worldwide and, as such, poses a greater threat than Al Qaeda and ISIS put together. While the cause of Alzheimers remains a mystery and a cure seems almost impossibly elusive, advanced medical technology has given researchers some reasons to feel cautiously optimistic. The “NOVA” presentation “Can Alzheimer’s Be Stopped?” allows viewers to join investigators as they gather clues and attempt to reconstruct the molecular chain of events that ultimately leads to dementia. Along the way, we meet individuals from all walks of life who reveal what it’s like to struggle with Alzheimer’s, as well as members of a unique Colombian family who have learned that their genetic predisposition all but guarantees an early-onset of the disease. These courageous patients are participating in clinical trials and drug tests that may or may not bear fruit in their lifetimes. Genentech Inc. is mentioned more often than other companies, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily a bad thing.


PBS Kids’ “Odd Squad: The O Games” gets into the spirit of Olympics-year competition with a series of crazy math challenges. The winner gets to be Ms. O for a day and run Odd Squad. Agent Otto is chosen to compete against the villainous Odd Todd, who is Agent Olives’ former partner. If Odd Todd comes out on top, he could shut down Odd Squad forever. The series features young agents who use indirect reasoning and math to solve and investigate strange happenings in their town. Satire and comedic archetypes are used to teach the audience math and math-related topics.


PBS’s “Nature: Jungle Animal Hospital” takes viewers deep into the Guatemalan jungle to observe the work of an organization whose staff works around the clock to care for injured, orphaned and endangered animals brought to its facility from all over the country. The rescue center, known as ARCAS, is at full capacity with over 700 boarders of all shapes and sizes, chiefly victims of the illegal pet trade. Filmmakers spent a year documenting the work being done at the country’s busiest rescue center, including Anna Bryant’s efforts to make sure a troop of spider monkeys would finally be ready to go back to the wild after several years of rehabilitation. The vets also work with authorities at checkpoints on roads leading out of the jungle to locate newly-hatched baby parrots being smuggled out on buses by the hundreds. The program also documents the first time that captive-bred scarlet macaws are released into the wild in Guatemala. Jaguars, armadillos, crocs and gray foxes also make cameo appearances.



The DVD Wrapup: Knight of Cups, Greek Wedding 2, Wondrous Boccaccio, Anesthesia and more

Thursday, June 23rd, 2016

Knight of Cups: Blu-ray

Anyone whose idea of brilliant filmmaking includes Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World, but found Emmanuel Lubezki’s typically flawless cinematography no match for the writer-director’s meandering metaphysics in The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, is likely to be disappointed once again by Knight of Cups. Don’t get me wrong: Lubezki’s visual interpretations of Malick’s wispy meditations on one Pilgrim’s Progress through sin, suffering and sensory overload on his way to John Bunyan’s Celestial City are easily worth the price of this technically splendid Blu-ray from Broad Green Pictures. Christian Bale plays a presumably successful screenwriter, Rick, who, after being shaken awake one morning by an earthquake, comes to the realization that all of the pleasures of life aren’t worth a plugged nickel if they don’t contribute to redemption on the way to heaven. (The leading byproduct of strong temblors are epiphanies, at least on the West Side of L.A.) Rick also represents the character in a deck of tarot cards, the titular Knight of Cups, who, while artistic, refined and full of high principles, also is easily bored, desirous of constant stimulation and, when viewed upside-down, unreliable, reckless and delusional. That’s a lot of weight for a Hollywood Everyman to bear, especially one as handsome and prone to debauchery as Rick. Here, the road to his redemption begins in the City of Destruction – or, if you will, the Big Rock Candy Mountain by the Sea — with its ready supply of cocaine, boutique liquors, convertibles and million-dollar views. When Rick isn’t partaking in pillow fights with wannabe starlets in their designer britches, he’s wandering aimlessly through decadent parties; attending mass at strip clubs, where at least some of the dancers have PhD’s in philosophy; taking spontaneous road trips to Las Vegas and Death Valley; and strolling down the beach with someone else’s wife. Rick is allowed the luxury, as well, of commiserating with a half-dozen of the City of Angels’ loveliest diversions: Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots, Cate Blanchett and Isabel Lucas. More sobering detours take him to Skid Row, the burn unit of a hospital and a hair-raising encounter with his imperious father (Brian Dennehy) and brother (Wes Bentley). With so many options open to him, besides actually writing screenplays, it’s no wonder Rick is so confused. We should all be so confused.

Knight of Cups couldn’t have been made by anyone less contemplative or obsessed with the dialectics of beauty than Malick. Before capturing the attention of the film world with the visually stunning and deeply moving Badlands and Days of Heaven, he apprenticed under some of the industry’s savviest professionals. His stellar education in the humanities would only come to the fore, however, after three individual hiatuses, totaling 32 years. Since his spellbinding historic drama, The New World, was released, in 2005, Malick has completed five films, only three of which have been seen by the public. The metaphysical themes of those three pictures suggest he might have immersed himself in the philosophical and religious teachings to which he was first introduced in college. Still, if he had one eye focused on the heavens during this 40-year period, his other was pinned on the people and things that attract and repulse serious artists to Hollywood in nearly equal measure.Knight of Cups may not fit the dictionary definition of aroman à clef, but it’s close. The most obvious of several Malickian conceits manifested here is the recruitment of dozens of real-life celebrities – actors, writers, agents, producers – who play themselves or cynical representations of themselves during the course of the two-hour story. (The more venal among them should go back and listen to Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain (You Probably Think This Movie’s About You”) Many are easy to recognize, while others are known only to their children, ex-wives, lawyers and maître d’s of the West Side’s toniest restaurants. Typically, Malik required of the primary cast members that they improvise their dialogue, based on character descriptions and outlines. Occasionally, too, Malick would “torpedo” an actor into a scene, just to see how the others reacted. The effect is less than organic.

Knight of Cups reminds me a great deal of Robert Altman’s The Player, which included many high-profile cameos and spoofed the archetypal characters. (Others have compared it to Paolo Sorrentino’s Fellini-esque The Great Beauty.) Rick and Tim Robbins’ aggressively ambitious studio executive could be cousins, working different sides of the same studio lot. Because The Player was framed within the context of a murder mystery, however, it didn’t really matter if viewers recognized any of the celebrities Robbins glad-handed before ordering his first bottle of boutique spring water for the day. In Knight of Cups, the cameos frequently auger mystery and dread. Antonio Banderas’ zany antics during the big party scene last for only a few minutes, but are far more memorable than anything Rick does and says in his voice-over narration. It’s almost as if Banderas is the film’s court jester and everything he surveys is fool’s gold, which, of course, it is. If Malick wants us to view Los Angeles as Bunyan’s City of Destruction, however, Lubezki’s ability to capture its bewildering mélange of architecture, vegetation, natural wonders and light suggests that no one be condemned for mistaking it for heaven … until the bills come due, of course. I’m not sure how Knight of Cups will fare come awards season. The critics were decidedly mixed and the domestic box office bordered on nil. No one should be surprised, however, if Lubeski wins his fourth Oscar in a row – after The Revenant, Birdman and Gravity – for his work here. It’s that amazing. The Blu-ray adds interesting and informative interviews with cast and crew members. Malick, as usual, is a no-show.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2: Blu-ray

In some corners of the Hellenic diaspora, Nia Vardalos’ surprise comedy hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding is regarded in the same light as others see “Roots” … minus, of course, the scourge of racism and slavery. No matter how many times my relatives watch it, they recognize people and situations from their own upbringing, including a patriarch’s insistence that all words somehow derive from ancient Greek or his insistence that there’s no legitimate excuse for not cleaning a grease pit in the family restaurant on a sunny weekend or holiday. Diehard fans have waited 14 years forMy Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, which Vardalos insists she couldn’t have written until she experienced parenthood first-hand. (Vardalos and movie husband, John Corbett, shared the screen in 2009’s disappointing I Hate Valentine’s Day, which she co-wrote and directed, but was otherwise unrelated to the MBFGW franchise.) Most of the actors who starred in the original reprise their roles in My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2. They look 14 years older, but in a perfectly organic way. Toula and Ian’s child, Paris (Elena Kampouris), isn’t old enough to have a big fat wedding of her own, so Vardalos conceived a scenario in which Mom and Dad Portokalos discover they weren’t officially married and they’ll be required to repeat their vows to remain in the church’s good graces. Recognizing that Gus (Michael Constantine) isn’t the same romantic dude she wed decades earlier, Marie (Lainie Kazan) plays hard to get. Meanwhile, the rest of the family is ganging up on the grumpy goth Paris to pick a college close to home and accept their help in the match-making department. Like Grandma Marie, Paris resists the advice of four generations of Portokalos meddlers, but for how long? The sequel didn’t do nearly as well at the box office as the original – how could it? – but it made some money, I think. While critics duly noted the formulaic plotting and the occasional overreaching for laughs, it would be difficult for viewers of any ethnic persuasion not to find things they’ll recognize. After all, that’s what struck the chord that made the original a hit. The Blu-ray adds a cast reunion, gag reel and making-of featurette.

Wondrous Boccaccio

When the 14th Century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio wrote “The Decameron,” he couldn’t have imagined the influence it would have on the next 650 years’ worth of novelists, short-story writers, playwrights, film and television producers. It would have been tough enough to imagine a magic box with tiny electronic people inside it. “The Decameron” and its many derivatives are set against the backdrop of the Black Death epidemic that struck Florence in 1348, forcing a group of 10 well-heeled young men and women to seek refuge in a secluded villa just outside the city. To while away the time, they swap tales of love and courtship … 100 in all. Some had been picked up from travelers and storytellers from all points of the compass and brought to Italy, where Boccaccio made them his own. They, in turn, would form the basis for works by Chaucer, Martin Luther, Shakespeare, Molière, John Keats, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe. There have been several big-screen adaptations, including Pier Paolo Pasolini’s outrageously ribald, The Decameron, which set the bar almost impossibly high. Forty-five years later, though, the esteemed Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (The Night of the Shooting Stars, Padre Padrone) gave it a shot in Wondrous Boccaccio. They needn’t have bothered. The licentious spark that ignited Pasolini’s adaptation is missing and the lovely Tuscan scenery, pretty boys and girls, and splendid period costumes fall just short of compensating for it. On the other hand, this unrated release will be better suited to viewers whose tolerance for perversity kept them from Pasolini’s classic, which, was immediately followed by the kindred Canterbury Tales, Bawdy Tales (as writer) andArabian Nights. The Film Movement package includes a directors’ statement and the animated short film, “Ground Floor,” by Asya Aizen.

Anesthesia: Blu-ray

Tim Blake Nelson’s tightly interwoven drama, Anesthesia,makes a very sound argument for the theory that casting decisions can make the difference between success and failure, commercially and artistically. That’s because almost all of his characters here are disagreeable in one way or another and it’s only the stellar cast that keeps their bitterness from overwhelming what they have to say. Like Paul Haggis’ Crash, with a distinctly New York accent, everything that happens in Anesthesia is a thread in the fabric of a much larger tapestry. Because we’re first introduced to Sam Waterson’s retiring philosophy professor, Walter Zarrow, his storyline is – forgive the mixing of metaphors — the river into which all tributaries flow. All we know about Zarrow as he stops at a street-corner flower stand after work is that he’s on his way to a pre-arranged rendezvous with a woman, Marcia (Glenn Close), we soon will learn is his wife. Within minutes, Zarrow’s either being mugged or having a heart attack on the stoop of an apartment building. With his last ounce of strength, the mild-mannered professor manages to ring the doorbells of everyone inside it. We half-expect a repeat of the Kitty Genovese incident, but, instead, Zarrow is attended to by one of the residents. Before he slips into unconsciousness, he whispers something into his rescuer’s ear, intended only for Marcia. That snippet of wisdom won’t be revealed for another 90 minutes, however, along with the Zarrows’ connection to a self-destructive junky (K. Todd Freeman) and his lawyer brother (Michael Kenneth Williams); a couple (Jessica Hecht, Nelson) experiencing the twin traumas of cancer and sordid revelations about their stoner kids; and a professionally unfulfilled woman (Gretchen Mol), whose husband’s infidelity has driven her to drink. Zarrow is the most compelling character, if only because Nelson has given him the most interesting things to say. He’s retiring after 30-some years of selling the same old baloney to easily impressed students and we’re invited to observe him delivering a fresh load to another graduating class. Then, it’s on to the flower stand. Yul Vazquez plays a shrink who’s seen one too many young men and women trapped in the revolving door of addiction, while Kristen Stewart portrays a suicidal cutter and burner; Lisa Benavides-Nelson plays her shrink; and Mickey Sumner is the lovely young blond about to be dumped by the cheating husband (Corey Stoll). If Nelson ties everything up a bit too neatly at about the 85-minute mark, the actors are well up to the challenge of making it look deceptively easy.

Going Away

Sometimes, there’s no getting around the fact that there are some things the French make better than anyone. Escargot is certainly one of them, as are certain varieties of wine and cheese. For the purposes of this review, anyway, let’s say that romantic dramas featuring attractive, if inexplicably miserable young people is another. Not so much, French comedies and movie musicals, although the best of them betray a certain charm, as well. Nicole Garcia’s Going Away describes the difficult coming together of two people who are running away from things they’ve given up trying to fix and now require space to regroup before the next wave of punishment. Baptiste Cambière (Pierre Rochefort) is a teacher living in the south of France, where the average length of a school placement is limited to one term. He’s a loner with a troubled past, so we’re never quite sure if a more permanent situation would be more to his liking, Just before summer break, Baptiste is left unwittingly in charge of a young student, Mathias, whose bozo father wants to spend the weekend with his trashy lover and needs to have the boy delivered to his mother. Sandra (Louise Bourgoin) works in beachside restaurant in the resort town of Palavas-les-Flots, near Montpellier. She is drop-dead gorgeous, but has trouble tattooed all over her. She’s accrued serious debts, ranging from Hawaii to the south of France, and it’s only a matter of time before the thugs on her trail catch up to her. Baptiste is reluctant to leave Mathias at her home alone, while she works, so they take advantage of the seaside amenities. More prone to violence than seems possible for a teacher, he rescues Sandra from one predicament after another before taking off for the spectacularly scenic Midi-Pyrénées region. It’s here that we’ll learn Baptiste’s deeply held secrets. Suffice to say that, as the black-sheep son in ahaute bourgeoise family, he was ostracized and driven to extreme measures to find a niche for himself. When we meet the icy family matriarch, Liliane (Dominique Sanda), and the rest of her heartless brood, Baptiste’s past and future come to a head simultaneously. How that knowledge will impact the future his traveling companions is the next question left for Garcia to answer.  Bourgoin’s already made a name for herself in such first-rate entertainments as The Girl from Monaco and The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, while Rochefort, the son of actor Jean Rochefort and the director, Garcia, is only now being noticed on his own merits. Sanda’s return after two long layoffs is especially welcome.

King Georges

As we’ve witnessed in Gordon Ramsey’s “Kitchen Nightmares,” “Hell’s Kitchen” and certain other foodie shows, society will forgive all manner of abusive behavior from chefs, as long as the food meets expectations and service is impeccable. Try hurling a frying pan and f-bombs at your co-workers in the office as see if you’re rewarded with a show on Fox Business or CNBC. Erika Frankel’s documentary debut as a director, King Georges, is a portrait of the widely esteemed chef Georges Perrier, longtime owner of Philadelphia’s Le Bec-Fin, one of the country’s premier destination restaurants. Frankel caught up with Perrier around the time he announced he was closing the restaurant for the first time, in 2010. The overwhelmingly negative response to the announcement allowed Perrier to remain in business another couple of years. Frankel spent most her time in the cramped kitchen, overseeing the production of the night’s meals. The rest is spent in the front of the house and in Perrier’s home, where he spent very few hours in a day. Not surprisingly, the dishes are every bit as mouth-watering as one would expect from a chef of Perrier’s reputation. The problem I had is his inability to keep a civil tongue in his mouth when he observes a faux pas made by an assistant. Naturally, the eruption passes quickly, but the effect on viewers doesn’t dissipate until makes nice with staff members or is able to mellow out after the rush. It only when the restaurant closes for good and the equipment and furnishings are put up for sale that Frankel is able to capture a side of Perrier not frequently seen in the film’s first hour. No longer the workaholic or perfectionist, he’s able to dispense his accumulated knowledge to students and occasionally serve as a senior apprentice in the restaurants of friends and former colleagues, including “Top Chef” winner and former protégé, Nicholas Elmi. The film is spiced with archival footage and interviews from world-renowned chefs, such as Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud and Eric Ripert.

The Black Jacket

At a time when gang-related bloodshed in South Central Los Angeles was rising at an alarming pace, a former Black Panther, community activist and martial-arts aficionado decided to encourage ’bangers and police to consider a strategy based on cooperation, communication and trust. Instead of giving in to the perpetrators of violence or encouraging police to react first and talk later, Aquil Basheer took the initiative in the crisis, by calling on concerned citizens to merge their strengths and adopt intervention and negotiation techniques in first-call situations. As CEO/president of Maximum Force Enterprises, Basheer developed the Crisis Survival Training Institute and its 16-week course, during which volunteers are constantly challenged by those with street-level experience. If they pass their tests, graduates are awarded black windbreakers with the association’s logo on it. By changing the violent mindsets of influential gang members, one person at a time, hundreds fewer murders have been recorded since its implementation. In Los Angeles, 87 neighborhoods once at war with each other now co-exist in something resembling peace, employing cease-fires and widespread communication before tempers boil over. Since its inception, Basheer’s teaching method and course have been adopted by the Los Angeles City and those in other cities throughout the world. My only quibble with director Ryan Simon’s verite-style approach is that viewer spend too much in classrooms and awards ceremonies and not enough in the streets, where the action is.


Peace After Marriage

Born in Jordan, raised in Brooklyn, comedian Ghazi Albuliwi puts a fresh twist on the old green-card marriage ruse in Peace After Marriage by having an Israeli woman and Palestinian-American man enter into a sham relationship, so she can stay in this country and be near here Israeli boyfriend, who’s also gaming this system. Of course, as anyone attempting to pull off the scam already knows, an immigration official will make every effort to confirm the legality of such an arrangement through unannounced home visits and asking personal questions. The parents of Albuliwi’s character, Arafat, have failed miserably – and comically – to arrange a “suitable” marriage for their son. Arafat may not be much of a catch, but his new Israeli wife, Miki (Einat Tubi), would pass anyone’s test … except Arafat’s deeply embarrassed Palestinian parents and their imam. When her boyfriend dumps Miki, after all, she decides to cut Arafat a break by agreeing to go to a Halloween party at the home of one of his slacker friends. To demonstrate his affection for her, he poses as a Hasidic Jew. (It’s one of several gags that push the limits of taste.) Produced in the spirit of ecumenism, Peace After Marriage, approaches the characters’ individual dilemmas with all the grace and dignity of a bulldozer in Gaza. There are plenty of funny moments, but merely having one’s heart in the right place is insufficient cause for celebration. As Arafat’s mother, the great Middle Eastern actress Hiam Abbass so clearly outclasses everyone else here that it’s possible to wonder if she’s related to someone in the production team.

All American Bikini Car Wash

Is there a school where film students are taught that adding the word, “bikini,” to any title ensures untold riches at the box office? The word was coined in 1946, after the atomic bomb was tested at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, and the Vatican might have given the two-piece swimsuit its greatest publicity boost when it declared the bikini sinful. At first, Hollywood studios allowed themselves to be buffaloed by the morality police, insisting on one-piece outfits for their female stars. Brian Hyland’s novelty hit “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” along with Ursula Andress’ famously skimpy two-piecer in Dr. No, forced Hollywood to take a stand … at the box office. In Beach Party, Annette Funicello’s briefs were cut so high, they argued against her being born with a navel. (It was revealed for the world to see in Muscle Beach Party.) Even so, the American public ate up these displays of flesh, making them huge hits. Ever since then, movies with the word in the title – even if the tops, at least, are removed quickly after they appear on screen – have a better-than-average chance of landing a late-night spot on Cinemax. This is a long way of pointing out that the latest example is Nimrod “Call Me Rod” Zalmanowitz’ debut feature, All American Bikini Car Wash, merely transfers the conceit to Las Vegas and beats it to death with a flock of silicone-enhanced bimbos willing to shed their tops for tips. In it, a dimwit college student agrees to run his professor’s Las Vegas car wash to avoid flunking out of business school. Naturally, he gets in trouble with local loan sharks and needs to be rescued by one of the shim-sham-chamois girls. With fewer production values on display than in any of the beach-blanket movies, it could find its natural audience among teenage boys, too timid to sample porn. Some pretty hot sports cars are featured in the car-wash scenes, including some top-down convertibles that don’t appear to be any worse for the wear usually associated with being submerged in suds and recycled water.


In his very first motion picture, writer/director/editor/producer Bryan Coley has rendered a movie so thematically incomprehensible that it confuses Christian values with redneck idiocy. (Something it shares with Donald Trump’s evangelical base.) That this self-described Southern fairytale is narrated by Jeff Foxworthy is only likely to attract fans who won’t be able to find a review on the Internet. The product of a broken home, he recognized things in the lead character that applied to him and other victims of disappearing-daddy syndrome. In Crackerjack, Wes Murphy plays Bill “Crackerjack” Bailey IV, a sports junkie who inadvertently commits himself to a men’s softball ministry after learning that his girlfriend (Bethany Anne Lind) is pregnant and expects him to grow up and accept parenthood. Apparently, this isn’t a family value that runs in the DNA of Bailey men. CJ’s redneck credentials are further demonstrated by his residence of choice – a double-wide trailer — and entrepreneurial endeavors that include collecting Dinky Baby Dolls to sell online and collecting quarters and bottling them by state. (His behavior appears to have been influenced by the targets of Foxworthy’s many “You might be a redneck …” jokes.) The closer Sherry comes to her due date, the more likely it becomes that he’ll blow town, even after being tutored by his Christian teammates. The best thing Coley could have done with his script would have been handing it off to someone who might actually have already made a movie and knows what to do when things go sideways. The faith-based community deserves better options than Crackerjack.

The Crush: Blu-ray

Three years before Alicia Silverstone set box offices on fire in Amy Heckerling’s wonderfully au currant Jane Austen-inspired, Clueless, she played a 14-year-old Lolita act-alike in her feature debut, The Crush. Although Adrian’s failed seduction of her parents’ back-yard tenant, Nick (Cary Elwes), progresses a bit too hastily, Silverstone’s overnight evolution from adorable teen to femme fatale is pretty scary. Not only is she able to come within a false eyelash of leading Nick into statutory-rape beef, but she also nearly eliminates her competition, an all-grown-up photographer (Jennifer Rubin) with whom he works at a gossip magazine. Just for kicks, Adrian’s dad (Kurtwood Smith) has even rebuilt a carnival merry-go-round in the attic. And, yes, it figures into the creepy climax of The Crush. Special Blu-ray features include commentary with writer/director Alan Shapiro; “The Doting Father” interview with Kurtwood Smith; and “Stung by Love,” an interview with Jennifer Rubin.

No Way Out: Blu-ray

Roger Donaldson’s still thrilling remake of the 1948 noir classic, The Big Clock, is noteworthy for several reasons. Foremost, No Way Out confirmed the as-yet-untested theory that Kevin Costner was a triple-threat leading man, who could handle complex action roles, melt women’s hearts and deploy his natural charisma to prompt laughs and tears. Although he had already broken through in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, as Treasury agent Elliot Ness, Costner fought for screen time with Robert De Niro and Sean Connery. Here, he plays Navy intelligence officer Tom Farrell, who’s been assigned to investigate the murder of a call girl, whose affections he shared with a powerful Washington politician (Gene Hackman). If Tom isn’t guilty of one serious crime, however, the secret he’s hiding from police might implicate in something equally as bad. No Way Out also marked the emergence of Sean Young as a bona fide Hollywood sex symbol. Besides being entirely credible as a high-priced escort, Young possessed a sense of humor, passion for sex and openly flirtatious appeal that most big-screen prostitutes either were denied or were required to act out in code. Tom and Susan’s early love scene, which includes a striptease in the back of a moving limousine, would only be eclipsed by Sharon Stone’s white-hot sexuality in Basic Instinct, five years later.      Then, too, Donaldson made full use of its Washington setting, visually and as a backdrop for intrigue, corruption and lust for power. The wheelchair-bound computer geek played by George Dzundza and Will Patton’s closeted aide-de-camp are terrific, as well, as opposite sides of the same bureaucratic coin. No Way Out may not have won any awards in 1987, but its success changed the way things were done in the thriller genre for years to come. It was released into Blu-ray last February, but somehow only reached my mailbox last week, making it fair game.

Great American Frontier Double Feature: Grayeagle/Winterhawk: Blu-ray

Credit Shout! Factory for resurrecting two of the most compelling, if hugely underappreciated Westerns in recent Hollywood history: Grayeagle (1977) and Winterhawk(1975). Like the more expensive Little Big Man, before them, the gorgeously shot pictures gave the rare fair shake to Native Americans in the movies, without also portraying white settlers and trappers in a completely negative light. Arriving at a time when Westerns were losing their appeal at the box office, however, they were butchered by AIP editors hoping to cut them for release in TV packages and PG ratings. The damage appears to have been repaired in this Blu-ray double feature, which also restores James W. Roberson’s elegiac cinematography. Grayeagle plays like a poor man’s version of John Ford’s The Searchers, only from the Cheyenne point of view. The great cowboy actor Ben Johnson plays trapper John Coulter, whose life is thrown into upheaval when his daughter, Beth (Lana Wood), is kidnapped by the seemingly invincible warrior Grayeagle (Alex Cord). Coulter sets out on the plains with his friend Standing Bear (Iron Eyes Cody) to rescue Beth, who is coveted for reasons not readily apparent to viewers, with an assist from Jack Elam. (Lana’s sister, Natalie, played a similar role in The Searchers.) In Winterhawk, Blackfoot chief Winterhawk (Michael Dante) is double-crossed in a trade for much-needed medicine for his tribe. They were given smallpox-infected blankets from U.S. soldiers, but were denied treatment. After the chief’s companion is killed by trappers, he kidnaps a white woman (Dawn Wells, of “Gilligan’s Island” fame), sparking a range war. Besides some spectacular scenic vistas, enjoy the performances of Western veterans Leif Erickson,    Elisha Cook Jr., Woody Strode, L.Q. Jones, Arthur Hunnicutt, and Denver Pyle.Sacheen Littlefeather, Hollywood’s most famous Native American for 15 minutes, after refusing Marlin Brando’s Oscar for The Godfather, also has a prominent role. Writer/director Charles B. Pierce is noteworthy as a director, screenwriter, producer, set decorator, cinematographer, actor and one of the first modern independent filmmakers. His reputation will be partially restored with the release of these upgraded Westerns, but his primary claims to fame are his cult hits The Legend of Boggy Creek (1973), The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) and suggesting the phrase, “Go ahead, make my day,” to Clint Eastwood in Sudden Impact.


Fox: The X-Files: The Event Series: Blu-ray

Comedy Central: Workaholics: Season Six

Baa Baa Black Sheep: Black Sheep Squadron: The Final Season

Discovery Family: Transformers Rescue Bots: Heroes of Tech

ABC Kids: Power Rangers Ninja Storm: The Complete Series

PBS Kids: Super WHY!: Goldilocks and The Three Bears and Other Fairytale Adventures

Not having been a devoted follower of “The X-Files” in its original television incarnation, I’ve always faced the prospect of reviewing full-season packages – some originally in cassette form — and the hyphen-less stand-alone features, The X Files: Fight the Future and The X Files: I Want to Believe, with no small degree of trepidation. The complexity of the myriad storylines and menagerie of finely drawn characters required footnotes I didn’t possess. And, frankly, binging has never seemed to be a viable option. The 1998 movie felt forced and overly reliant on special effects to me. It underperformed at the domestic box office, while doing very well globally. The second edition underperformed everywhere. The 2001 spin-off series, “The Lone Gunmen,” opened big, before quickly losing steam and being canceled. The final season of “X-Files” in its original run may have been overshadowed by the very real events of 9/11, which couldn’t be blamed on aliens or the other usual suspects. It went out with a whimper. Even so, even mediocre “X-Files” episodes would prove to be infinitely more interesting than most of the other non-animated content on Fox, in the ensuing 13 years. “The X-Files: The Event Series,” newly packaged in a bonus-laden Blu-ray set, opened on January 24, 2016, to numbers that recalled ratings for the eighth-season episode “This Is Not Happening.” When DVR and streaming figures were taken into account, the Season 10 opener, “My Struggle” was seen by 21.4 million viewers, scoring a 7.1 Nielsen rating. The season ended six weeks later with “My Struggle II,” which was viewed by 7.60 million viewers. In total, the season was viewed by an average of 13.6 million viewers, making it the seventh most-watched television series of the 2015-16 year. As difficult as it would seem to top the cataclysmic events and frightening revelations in the mini-series, the desperation of broadcast executives suggests that nothing is impossible. Everything that happens in the “event series” qualifies as a spoiler, so let’s just say that David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are back, as agents Mulder and Scully, whose personal relationship dissolved in the interim, but retain fondness for each other. Once again, the X-Files detail has been disbanded, leaving Mulder with only one place to go with new evidence that alien abductions have been faked. Or, have they? Mitch Pileggi also returns as FBI assistant director Walter Skinner, while new blood is represented by agents Einstein (Lauren Ambrose) and Miller (Robbie Amell), who might as well be clones of the protagonists. What really recommends the new Blu-ray set is the bounty of bonus features, including three commentaries; deleted and extended scenes; the mandatory gag reel; lengthy making-of and background pieces; interviews; Karen Nielsen’s short film, “Grace”; a gag reel; and “Monsters of the Week,” a recap of the wildest and scariest antagonists from the original series. I’m sure that longtime fans will be pleased.

Imagine arriving at work on what promises to be another typically boring day at your telemarketing-company office, only to discover that your boss has filled three open positions with young men, who appear to be the useless offspring of the Three Stooges or the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. That, essentially is the concept behind Comedy Central’s “Workaholics,” a thoroughly goofy workplace sitcom whose sixth season is now available on DVD. Co-creators/co-writers/co-stars Adam Devine, Blake Anderson, Anders Holm and Kyle Newacheck emerged from a YouTube Channel entity, “Mail Order Comedy,” and mini-web-series “5th Year.” The protagonists, who share a cubicle at work and are roommates at home, met in college. They dropped out or were asked to leave, primarily over lack of interest and partying way too hardy. After scoring the jobs, their first test obviously was passing the drug test. It’s a cliché, by now, but some actors do it better than others. Also good are Maribeth Monroe’s no-nonsense boss and Jillian Bell’s obsessive cat lover and fellow office drone. They all have extensive backgrounds in improv comedy and it shows.

One of the first shows created and executive-produced by the hyper-prolific Stephen J. Cannell, “Black Sheep Squadron” was loosely based on a portion of the real-life military career of USMC aviator Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, commanding officer of a group of fighter pilots based in the Solomon Islands during World War II. The squadron was so named because its pilots formed “a collection of misfits and screwballs who became the terrors of the South Pacific.” Like almost every such unit in a wartime fighting unit, the crazy stuff ended when the first bullets began to fly. The NBC series ran from 1976-78, for a total of 36 episodes, only 13 of which comprised the second season. Arriving in the immediate wake of the Vietnam debacle, it’s likely that American audiences weren’t in the mood for an old-fashioned action dramedy. Competition from the more timely Korean War comedy, “M*A*S*H,” didn’t do the show any favors. Even so, Robert Conrad’s manly man presence assured NBC that audiences would tune in, if only to see what attracted him to the role. It also benefitted from the casting of such up-and-comers as John Larroquette, Dirk Blocker, Larry Manetti, Robert Ginty, Joey Aresco and James Whitmore Jr., as well as the occasional hot nurse. For the moment, at least, “Baa Baa Black Sheep: Black Sheep Squadron: The Final Season” is a Walmart exclusive.

Transformers: Rescue Bots: Heroes of Tech” follows Chase, Heatwave, Blades, Boulder and a family of first responders as they do whatever it takes to protect both their home and the world. They learn that new technology can assist them in wondrous ways, but it can also have consequences if misused. Among other things, experimental technology turns Cody into an adult, a space elevator strands Doc and Graham in orbit and a new invention causes the entire town to sing, instead of talk.

Shout!’s “Power Rangers Ninja Storm: The Complete Series” is a compilation of 38 episodes from the mother ship’s 11th season. It was the first to air on ABC in its entirety and be filmed in New Zealand.  In it, Tori, Shane and Dustin lead typical teenage lives in Blue Bay Harbor, while also studying at a secret ninja school under the teachings of a wise sensei. Their world changes when Lothor, a ninja master banished to space for his evil deeds, returns to Earth bent on revenge. Sensei gives Wind Morphers to the three kids that will transform them into Power Rangers to compete in this ultimate battle.

The two-hour PBS Kids’ package, “Super WHY!: Goldilocks and the Three Bears and Other Fairytale Adventures” opens with a “Super WHY!” take on the classic fairy tale. Whyatt finds himself in big trouble when he accidentally messes up the room belonging to his older brother, Jack. When the Super Readers visit Goldilocks, they encounter a similarly messy situation, caused by the inconsiderate bears. Together they figure out how to solve Goldilocks’ problem and Whyatt learns how to make a clean sweep of his mess, too.

The DVD Wrapup: 45 Years, 10 Cloverfield Lane, London Has Fallen, Wenders/Franco, La chienne and more

Thursday, June 16th, 2016

45 Years: Blu-ray
I, Anna

Once upon a time in Hollywood, movies that featured elderly characters played by venerable stars could be counted on to attract a decent-sized slice of the box-office pie and command the attention of awards voters. The Shootist, On Golden Pond, Cocoon, Driving Miss Daisy and Grumpy Old Men come immediately to mind, of course, but they were made at a time when a John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau also could pop up unexpectedly on a late-night talk show whenever they felt like it and not merely as an excuse to pimp their new movie. When Johnny Carson left “The Tonight Show,” in 1992, the talent bookers for Jay Leno and David Letterman’s shows targeted a radically younger demographic with actors whose publicists insisted they stay on-message and didn’t stray too far into unknown territory. Ever since then, it seems, while a major studio might consider distributing a movie that targets “mature” viewers, it’s far less likely to finance one. If an Ian McKellen, Michael Caine, Clint Eastwood, Helen Mirren, Anthony Hopkins or Jane Fonda finds high-profile work in a studio project, it’s a comic-book fantasy or action picture alongside actors who may never have performed a Shakespeare play on stage and may never will. RED, RED 2, The Expendables and The Expendables 2 would appear to be exceptions to the rule, but their appeal to star-crazy overseas audiences can’t be denied. Thank goodness for the tax- or lottery-supported European producers, indie studios and mini-majors that still take chances on age-neutral productions.

Charlotte Rampling, still radiant at 70, was a finalist in the Best Leading Actress category in this year’s Oscar race for her performance in 45 Years, opposite Tom Courtenay, 79. Financed in large part by public money, the independently made British drama features a cast dominated by actors who probably have never stayed up to watch Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel, let alone been asked to appear on their shows. (Not surprisingly, perhaps, Rampling was profiled earlier this year on the much-older-skewing “CBS News Sunday Morning.”) Written and directed by Andrew Haigh (“Looking”), 45 Years bears comparison to Away from Her (2006) and Amour (2012), but not in ways you might expect. Although the story hinges on memories, its focus isn’t on a partner with Alzheimer’s disease or a life-threatening medical condition. It’s in a different genre altogether from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Quartet and Calendar Girls, which were dominated by veteran actors and appealed to roughly the same audiences. (Made for around $10 million, they averaged about $30 million in worldwide receipts.) Based on David Constantine’s short story “In Another Country,” 45 Years is set Norfolk County, England, a lovely rural community whose infrastructure dates back to Roman times. Geoff and Kate Mercer are on the brink of their 45th  anniversary, which is to be celebrated with friends and neighbors in a historic hall in the village. In lieu of children, they’ve enjoyed the company of dogs for all these years. If Geoff is a bit fragile in his dotage, Kate has no trouble picking up the slack. That is, until a letter arrives alerting him to the shocking revelation that a slowly receding glacier in the Swiss Alps has revealed the long-frozen corpse of a lover who died decades earlier in a fall. In some ways, the revelation hits the couple as if it actually were a doctor’s diagnose of a disease that may or may not prove fatal. Although Kate was aware of the fate of her husband’s ex-lover, she isn’t ready to deal with Geoff’s reaction to the news. She deduces correctly that he’s been silently carrying at torch for her throughout their seemingly idyllic marriage. Even as they’re approaching a happy milestone, however contrived – Geoff was too ill to celebrate their 40th with a party – Kate struggles to make sense of what’s just happened to her. To his credit, Haigh doesn’t require of Courtenay and Rampling that they break down in tears or argue bitterly as the story evolves. Instead, every minute emotional tug and tear can be read in the actors’ faces and physicality. The gorgeous English countryside, which allows for agricultural, industrial and tourism components in the economy, is vividly captured by Lol Crawley’s camera.

It’s taken four years for I, Anna to makes its debut here on DVD, this despite another terrific performance by Rampling, whose face and body have never betrayed much, if any evidence of cosmetic manipulation. This time, she plays Anna/Allegra, a lonely divorcee living in a London high-rise with her daughter and young grandchild. Sixty-something Anna has begun to frequent singles mixers and speed-dating events, after which she might go home with the occasional bachelor. Here, one of them ends up dead. Another after-hours companion is insomniac police inspector Bernie Reed (Gabriel Byrne), who, at first, masquerades as just another lonely heart, but can’t help being attracted by her mysteriously vulnerable persona. Anna doesn’t recall the brief encounter she had with the detective, in an elevator, after she returned to the victim’s building to retrieve an umbrella she misplaced. This, combined with the testimony of the hostess at the mixer, make her the prime suspect in the murder. There are others, including a stepson and his drug dealer, but none so well-suited for the role of femme fatale than Anna. If she doesn’t exactly seduce Bernie, we’re aren’t surprised by their attraction to each other. I don’t know how it is in real life, but, in the movies, detectives are suckers for attractive suspects, often risking their investigation by corrupting evidence. As adapted from Elsa Lewin’s novel by Rampling’s son Barnaby Southcombe, who’s sitting in the driver’s seat of his first feature, the increasingly creepy story is told largely in flashbacks. Deeply disturbed, Anna is a perfect match for Rampling’s famously steely approach to her assignments. Whenever I, Anna runs the risk of being too contrived, the two veteran leads – at 66, Byrne is no spring chicken, either—make it easy for viewers to hang with it. Southcombe also does a nice job capturing high-altitude views of London we don’t always see.

10 Cloverfield Lane: Blu-ray

If the title of this claustrophobic thriller from producer J.J. Abrams—Hollywood’s reigning master of disaster—sounds familiar, it’s because it refers ever so obliquely to the surprise international hit, Cloverfield, which used found footage to document the destruction of New York City by aliens. Made for a paltry $15 million, 10 Cloverfield Lane was similarly profitable – if studio accountants would ever admit that such a thing exists – in its domestic release last March. This, despite the fact that it contains no found footage and was shot by a standard, decidedly non-“shaky” camera. The threat to humanity here is largely dubious and the setting can fairly be described as the middle of nowhere … or somewhere, like rural Louisiana, where the tax breaks are beneficial to cost-conscious producers. References to the slushie brand “Slusho,” from the original Cloverfield, can be found if fans look real hard. The inspiration for a memorable incident at the end of the movie can be traced to star Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character in The Thing, while a central conceit appears to have been borrowed from the second season of Abrams’ “Lost.” If that makes 10 Cloverfield Lane sound too much like just another cynically conceived sequel to an unexpected sensation, it’s worth noting that the movie more closely resembles Room, albeit with a sci-fi twist, than the original. That, folks, is the movie’s greatest asset. After gathering her suitcases and hurriedly leaving her apartment for no apparent reason, Winstead’s character, Michelle, is involved in a serious accident on a lonely country road. After waking up, she quickly realizes that she’s shackled to a wall in a bunker-like cell, with an IV attached to her arm. Haven’t we seen this before, it’s fair to ask. Well, yes and no.

After a few moments of confusion, brought upon the realization that she immobile, a survivalist named Howard (John Goodman) comes through the locked door, insisting that he rescued her with all the best of intentions in mind and the restraint is to prevent her from re-damaging her leg. Indeed, after he frees Michelle from her restraints, Howard brings her food and water. (“You must stay hydrated,” he demands.) He then explains how they may be the only survivors of a devastating attack of unknown origins and it’s unsafe to leave the bunker under any circumstances. At this point, the odds are about 50/50 that Howard’s either completely crazy or actually telling the truth. Michelle and a bunker mate, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), have a difficult choice to make, in either case. I suppose there are viewers who are capable of guessing what happens in the last reel, but it would be of the wild variety. The movie’s unpredictability is what endeared 10 Cloverfield Lane to critics and audiences in its theatrical run. Hint: sci-fi fans shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand as an entertainment option. Goodman and Winstead work very well together, both as adversaries and potential allies. Commentary is provided by Abrams and freshman director Dan Trachtenberg. Also good is the behind-the-scenes footage, in which cast and crew revisit the legacy of 2008’s Cloverfield; discuss how 10 Cloverfield Lane went from script to production; tour Howard’s extremely elaborate mega-bunker; see how the costume designers were challenged to create a homemade Hazmat suit; and follow the production team and sound designers as they work on the movie’s epic finale.

London Has Fallen: Blu-ray

Of the two nearly identical POTUS-in-jeopardy movies released in 2013 – Roland Emmerich’s White House Down and Antoine Fuqua’s Olympus Has Fallen – it’s difficult to say which one deserved a sequel more … or less. Saving the world’s most prestigious residence from destruction would seem to be the kind of act that’s too tough to follow. If I were the president, I’d lock myself in the Situation Room and not come out until the end of my term and wait until Morgan Freeman was ready to relieve me of my duties. Besides playing God twice, Freeman has portrayed a sitting President in Deep Impact; the Speaker of the House, in Olympus Has Fallen; Chief Justice, in “Madam Secretary”; a senator, in Momentum; a general, in Outbreak; Nelson Mandela, in Invictus; Frederick Douglas, in “Freedom: A History of Us” and “The Civil War”; and Malcolm X, in Death of a Prophet. Here, in London Has Fallen, three years have passed since North Korea devised a plot to kidnap President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart), and Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) has earned his way back into his confidence. Freeman returns, as well, this time as VP, along with Angela Bassett, Melissa Leo and Radha Mitchell, whose talents aren’t exactly tested in the sequel. In fact, no one’s talents are particularly challenged here. In the original, Fuqua reportedly balked at having Middle Eastern terrorists attack the White House, if for no other reason than it would have been just another cliché waiting to happen. By setting the action in London, this time, and hiring Iranian-born Babak Najafi to direct, the threat against President Asher and other world leaders by Arab revolutionaries is more legitimate. The difference between legitimate and credible, however, is huge.

Returning writers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt have conjured a device by which heads of state from around the globe will descend on London at the same time. The British Prime Minister has died and a state funeral is planned. Audience members will smell a rat long before the Secret Service and a British Special Air Service team are forced into action to counter what amounts to an elaborate Trojan-horse infiltration of the city by a horde of Arab militants. In an operation that must have taken years to plan, but only a few minutes of screen time to execute, terrorists disguised as police and other security personnel attack the procession of arriving dignitaries. At same time, bombs are detonated on bridges across the Thames and in every landmark building in the city. It’s all being orchestrated by men we see narrowly escaping a drone strike in the first few minutes of the movie. They plan to blow up Asher’s limousine or, failing that, taking out the presidential helicopter on the escape route with strategically located Stinger missile slingers. Failing that, the insurgents will settle for kidnaping him and cutting off his head on the Internet for everyone to see. It’s preposterous, of course, but no more so than the Die Hard movies that London Has Fallen and Olympus Has Fallen resemble. Gerard Butler may not be as effortlessly funny as Bruce Willis, but he can stab a terrorist in the eye with a Ka-Bar knife as well as any handsome galoot making his living as an action star. The featurettes include “The Making of London Has Fallen,” which explains how a backlot in Bulgaria was transformed into central London, and “Guns, Knives & Explosives.”

Every Thing Will Be Fine: Blu-ray

Another week, another film starring James Franco. Wim Wenders is once again represented, as well, a mere two weeks after “The Road Trilogy” was released by Criterion Collection. For Wenders, at least, Every Thing Will Be Fine marks a return to narrative drama, after 10 years of focusing on such documentaries as The Salt of the Earth, Pina and Cathedrals of Culture. It was during this period that Wenders fully embraced 3D, vowing not to make any more films in the 2D format. While it’s one thing to make action and horror pictures that use the format to elicit screams or laughter from audiences between mouthfuls of popcorn, it’s quite another to employ 3D in a film doesn’t require jump-scares to entertain viewers. Not having seen Every Thing Will Be Fine in 3D, I can’t say whether he succeeded in creating a more satisfying visual environment for drama. In mainstream films and porn, even, it’s easy to see where a director inserted a scene or series of shots for the purpose of titillating or shocking viewers. Here, the consistency of the multidimensional look, not to mention the stereoscopic glasses, could work against a filmmaker’s intentions. If Wenders’ visually spectacular dance-performance film, Pina, was perfectly suited to 3D, it’s possible that it appeared superfluous in Every Thing Will Be Fine. It’s unlikely, though, that home viewers will get the opportunity to check it out as Wenders intended it to be seen. Financial and technical considerations aside, it took a critical drubbing and failed miserably at the box office. It’s possible that Wenders was too pre-occupied with the visual presentation to focus on the story, which suffers from a lack of narrative flow and fully developed characters. The opening scene, filmed on a frozen lake in Quebec, is indicative of what appears to be a desire on Wenders’ part to impress viewers with the format’s potential. It’s here we’re introduced to the protagonist, struggling novelist Tomas Eldan (Franco), as he awakens from a nap in an unheated fishy shanty, surrounded by folks who actually are there to catch fish or get drunk, one. If it isn’t the first place I’d expect to find a blocked writer, I’ll bet the brilliantly white icescape looked terrific in 3D.

As Eldan, Franco reminded me a lot of the shell-shocked drifter, Travis Henderson, portrayed so eloquently by Harry Dean Stanton, in Paris, Texas. Besides being hamstrung by a debilitating writer’s block, Eldan is troubled by his fractured relationship with his father and his longtime girlfriend’s increasing unwillingness to put up with his detached personality and ugly moods. One day, after a quarrel, he decides to take a drive in the country, which, being winter, is white with driven snow. Through no fault of his own, Eldan’s car collides with a sled recklessly ridden down a hill by a young boy and his brother. It takes a while for him to figure out that only one of the children survived the accident, but, when he does, the realization hits him like a sledgehammer. The boy’s mother, Kate (Charlotte Gainsbourg), is, of course, similarly devastated – and not completely blameless for permitting such dangerous play—but knows she must hold things together for the sake of the boy who survived the accident. In the days and weeks to come, Kate and Eldan develop a peculiar rapport, based, possibly, on survivor’s remorse. Ultimately, the aftershocks from the accident flatten out, allowing the writer to create something meaningful based on the experience. He will find commercial success from his writing and happiness in a loving relationship with a fan of his work and her precocious daughter. Kate isn’t nearly as fortunate. Years later, the accident comes back to haunt Eldan in the form of an out-of-the-blue letter from the surviving boy. Now approaching adulthood, his desire to connect with writer emotionally threatens to once again push everything out of balance. It isn’t easy to discern how much of the alienation and angst displayed by Eldan derives from Franco’s interpretation of the character or Wenders’ instructions. Rachel McAdams, Marie-Josee Croze, Julia Sarah Stone and Gainsbourg provide excellent counterpoints to Eldan, who, at times, can be insufferable. The Blu-ray adds several informative interviews and background on Wenders’ techniques and choices.

Those People

I don’t know if writer-director Joey Kuhn was inspired by Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan when he began work on his debut feature, Those People, but I’d be very surprised if he hadn’t checked it on Netflix, once or twice. As an American Graffiti for privileged Upper East Side youths, it’s aged pretty well in the 26 years since it was released on the arthouse circuit. Apparently, the sons and daughters of extremely wealthy New Yorkers still feel as comfortable in formal wear as the rest of us do in Levis and resent their parents in direct proportion to the amount of money they mooch off them for champagne, cocaine and dry cleaning. What makes Those People different than other films clearly influenced by Metropolitan and Cruel Intentions is a central storyline involving two gay men in a mixed group of art-school graduates and the handsome newcomer, who threatens to upset the established order of things within the clique. For years, Charlie (Jonathan Gordon) and his manipulative best friend, Sebastian (Jason Ralph), have maintained a relationship that’s fitfully romantic. Sebastian’s world has been rocked by the arrest and conviction of his father in a financial scheme similar to the one concocted by Bernie Madoff. The world outside their socially isolated group considers Sebastian to be as toxic as his dad and mom, who’s tried to distance herself from both of them. As cocky and promiscuous as he is, however, Sebastian relies on Charlie for unconditional emotional support. When Charlie falls for a handsome Lebanese pianist, Tim (Haaz Sleiman), Sebastian considers it to be a personal betrayal. While their other friends take the introduction of an outsider in stride, they’re afraid that Sebastian will attempt to steal the spotlight from Tim by harming himself. If that were the only angle being worked by Kuhn, Those People wouldn’t be nearly as impressive a freshman effort. He has two other cards, at least, up his sleeves. For a first feature in a niche genre, Those People, is a remarkably polished entertainment. The acting is completely natural and the technical work is well above par. Until recently, the film has been displayed predominantly in gay-and-lesbian film festivals. There’s no reason Those People can’t be enjoyed by straight audiences as well.

Rabid Dogs: Blu-ray

Apart from some lovely old buildings and signs written in French, Montreal could easily pass for any Canadian city trying to pass for American in the movies. True, the city’s young adults are exceptionally attractive and prefer French to English, but, outside Old Montreal and Old Port, it might as well be Cincinnati. And, while some genuinely fine movies have been produced in Quebec, economic necessity demands they look beyond the St. Lawrence River to fickle French audiences, arthouses in the United States and, only then, to English-speaking Canadians and the straight-to-video market here. I don’t know if the reverse is true, but Montreal’s filmmakers and distributors have their work cut out for them. Rabid Dogs is exactly the kind of hyperviolent and chase-heavy crime thriller you’d expect from film students who grew up on Quentin Tarantino, Oliver Stone, Guy Ritchie, Clint Eastwood and Robert Rodriguez, all of whom owe a debt of gratitude to such post-Code rabble-rousers as Sam Peckinpah, Don Siegel, John Boorman, Peter Yates and Walter Hill. It’s safe to say that freshman co-writer-director Éric Hannezo has studied the masters, as well. The remake of Mario and Lamberto Bava’s thriller of the same title – finished in 1974, but not released in the U.S. until 1998, as Kidnapped—opens with an explosion and bank heist in central Montreal. Three masked robbers rush through a cloud of blue smoke toward a getaway car, manned by a driver with an itchy trigger finger. They’ve come away with at least two big sacks full of cash, but are followed almost immediately by police. Before long, the brain of the operation is killed in a collision with a large chunk of concrete, leaving the others on foot and virtually clueless. The first vehicle they carjack belongs to a pretty newlywed (Virginie Ledoyen), who is forced to share the back seat with a horndog creep. They also will steal the station wagon of a guy (Lambert Wilson) who says he’s transporting his comatose daughter to a hospital for a transplant.

The gang’s driver promises the newcomer that he won’t let the girl die and assigns the female hostage to comfort her. Their presence allows the robbers to con the police at roadblock stops, but, otherwise, they’re burdens. By hanging on to them for so long, viewers are tipped to the likelihood of an ending that either going to be extremely messy or loaded with gimmicks. In fact, it’s a little bit of both. Without giving anything away, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the movie’s most entertaining set piece. After finally managing to get the police off their tail, the road leads directly into a tiny village, where heavily armed bear worshippers have gathered to sacrifice an ursine effigy that sits in the middle of their escape route. The celebration forces the equally well-armed bad guys to mingle with the quintessentially Canadian animists. At the same time, a local woman insists that the still-unconscious little girl be brought into her home to be comforted when she awakens. When photographs of the fugitives are shown on TV, the situation escalates from crazy to insane. To his credit, Hannezo has an ace up in his sleeve in the form of a narrative twists few viewers will see coming. I enjoyed Rabid Dogs, even though I was put off by the studly crooks, all of whom appear better suited to modelling jock straps than threatening innocents in hoser French. Usually, it’s the female actors whose beauty tests the boundaries of credibility. If one of the male characters, at least, resembled Jean-Paul Belmondo, Warren Oates or Steve Buscemi, it would have been easier to buy into Rabid Dogs. Even so, rabid fans of action pictures and shoot-’em-ups should find plenty to enjoy here. The Blu-ray adds one of the longest making-of featurettes I’ve ever seen and several decent interviews.

La chienne: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

Le amiche: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

This month’s selection of films from Criterion Collection includes two interesting, if largely unsung titles from a pair of European masters who had yet to hit their stride. Released in Paris in 1931, La chienne is Jean Renoir’s second picture using the new synchronized sound technique. Based on a novel by Georges de la Fouchardière, it describes the kind of love triangle that confounds kind-hearted, if sometimes tragically gullible older men when a pretty young thing promises to deliver kindnesses their wives no longer provide. Such is the case with the sad-sack cashier, Maurice Legrand, played by Michel Simon. (In the next three years, the great comic actor would star in Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning and Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante.) After rescuing the pretty blond prostitute, Lulu (Janie Marèse), from a public beating by her pimp and lover, Dédé (Georges Flamant), Legrand returns home to his shrewish wife, Adele (Magdeleine Bérubet), who treats him as if he personally killed her late husband in the Great War. When Adele threatens to destroy the canvases he paints on his day off, Maurice finds a way to solve two problems at once. By leasing an apartment for the visibly bereft Lulu, he not only can dream of being admired by a gorgeous dame, but he’ll also have what amounts to a faux gallery for his paintings. What he fails to recognize, however, is Lulu’s unchecked passion for the deadbeat pimp, who she continues to support. Even though he wouldn’t recognize a valuable work of art from a black-velvet painting of Maurice Chevalier, Dédé is able to find a dealer as unscrupulous as he is. It isn’t until Maurice leaves Adele, in a hilarious scheme involving her not-so-late husband, that Maurice discovers the full extent of Lulu’s deceit. Such love triangles are doomed to collapse, of course, but Renoir has other points to make about the human comedy. Despite La chienne’s age, its message is as relevant today as it was both in 1931 and when it was re-introduced in 1945 in Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street. Likewise, Michel Simon is still able to bring tears and laughter to the eyes of contemporary viewers. La chienne has been newly restored in a 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The Criterion package also adds an introduction to the film from 1961 by Renoir; a new interview with Renoir scholar Christopher Faulkner; a fresh restoration of On purge bébé (1931), Renoir’s first sound film, also starring Simon; a 95-minute French television program, from 1967, featuring a lively conversation between Renoir and Simon, directed by Jacques Rivette; an updated English subtitle translation; and an essay by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau.

When Michelangelo Antonioni’s Le Amiche finally made its American debut in 1963, eight years after its initial release overseas, many critics made the mistake of comparing it to L’Avventura, an unqualified masterpiece that had shared the Jury Prize at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival (with Kon Ichikawa’s Odd Obsession). By not viewing the earlier picture within the context of Antonioni’s creative evolution, they had expected things from Le Amiche it couldn’t possibly have delivered. What was relevant in 1963 and remains interesting today is how the many of the film’s themes and visuals techniques would be refined in such 1960s’ triumphs as L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse, Il Deserto Rosso and Blow-Up. Set in Turin and based on a short novel by Cesare Pavese, Le Amiche explores the complicated social milieu of women – and, not incidentally, a few of their men – finally released from the sacrifices required of them by the post-war economy and free to enjoy the finer things in life offered by Italian designers, craftsmen and chefs. Although the excesses of the country’s “la dolce vita” period wouldn’t emerge for another five years, the “modern women” we meet here have already gotten a head start. Among them is fashion designer Clelia (Eleonora Rossi Drago), who’s returned to her hometown of Turin, from Rome, to oversee the opening of a boutique. She is drawn into the tumultuous lives of a group of bourgeois women (potential customers, all) when one of them, Rosetta (Madeleine Fischer), risks internal damnation – a very real fear in 1950s Italy—by attempting suicide in the hotel Clelia is staying. They are exactly the kind of ridiculously frivolous women who, today, populate the various “Real Housewives” series on cable. (One woman interviewed in the bonus package also makes comparisons to the characters in HBO’s “Girls,” although I think that might be a stretch.) If nothing else, these self-indulgent women contribute to the common good by supporting artisans, cosmetic surgeons, psychiatrists and designers, who, one supposes, pay taxes on their earnings. I wouldn’t want that comparison to diminish anyone’s interest in watching Le Amiche, because, in every other way possible, it is an accomplished work of art. The Criterion Blu-ray offers a new 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; a conversation with scholars David Forgacs and Karen Pinkus on the film’s themes; a new interview with scholar Eugenia Paulicelli on the importance of fashion in Antonioni’s work; a new English subtitle translation; and an essay by film scholar Tony Pipolo.

The Best Intentions: Blu-ray

At just a shade over three hours, Bille August’s The Best Intentions easily qualifies as an epic romance. What makes it extraordinary is a screenplay written Ingmar Bergman based somewhat loosely on the difficult courtship and turbulent early years of the marriage of his parents, Erik Bergman and Karin Åkerbloom (a.k.a., here, Henrik and Anna). The maestro had retired from making feature films 10 years earlier, but still wrote screen- and teleplays and directed television and stage productions. Private Confessions and Sunday’s Children would form a trilogy of life in the Bergman family. Only in Sweden, perhaps, could so much be wrung from the marriage of a Lutheran minister and his aristocratic life partner, but, in a sense, most of Bergman’s films were informed by things he experienced in life, especially religious matters. The Best Intentions opens in 1909, with the poor, idealistic theology student Henrik meeting the strong-minded and educated daughter of a rich family in Uppsala. At the time, he was engaged to a slightly older woman (Lena Endre), who allowed the future servant of God to share her bed in an otherwise unheated room. That Anna’s parents (Max von Sydow, Ghita Nørby) so vehemently attempted to douse the sparks between Henrik and Anna (Samuel Fröler, Pernilla August) only served to bring them closer together. Henrik’s widowed mother disapproved, as well, but far less openly. Immediately after their wedding, Henrik and Anna travel to the north of Sweden, where he’s accepted a position in a community controlled by a brutal factory owner. While extremely beautiful throughout the year, the town’s closed-minded citizens and virulent gossip-mongering eventually would drive Anna up the wall. Henrik’s offered a lucrative position in Stockholm, but disappoints Anna by turning it down for curiously altruistic reasons. (Erik Bergman would serve as chaplain to the King of Sweden.) Their return to the northern town will bring even greater challenges. It’s an amazing film, splendidly shot by Jörgen Persson and wonderfully acted by Sweden’s finest actors. Jurors at Cannes set a precedent by awarding August the Palme d’Or for best film and his wife, Pernilla, the Best Actress prize. The Blu-ray adds Ingmar Bergman’s rarely seen short film “Karin’s Face,” which is comprised of artfully composed photographs of his mother taken at different stages of her life, and a collector’s booklet with an essay by Peter Cowie.

The Films of Maurice Pialat, Volume 2: Under the Sun of Satan: Blu-ray

The second installment in Cohen Media’s “The Films of Maurice Pialat” series is 1987 Palme d’Or winner Under the Sun of Satan. The choice was unanimous. In it, Gerard Depardieu plays Father Donissan, a mediocre seminarian who’s haunted by evil and the failure of his divine mission. He practices self-flagellation before going to bed and is constantly challenged by his superior (Pialet) to engage parishioners, even though he freaks them out. Donissan counters, “With you, everything looks easy. Alone, I’m useless. I’m like the zero, only useful next to other numbers. Priests are so miserable.” On a long walk through absolutely gorgeous farmlands to hear confessions at a different church, Donissan is joined by a stranger we soon recognize to be Satan. Like Christ in the desert, the priest is tempted by pleasures of the flesh and promises of untold powers. Shaken, Donissan will nonetheless pass the test. He then is confronted by a young woman, Mouchette (Sandrine Bonnaire), who appears to be on her way to setting a local record for committing mortal sins, and parishioners who challenge him to bring a dead boy to life. Under the Sun of Satan is based on Georges Bernanos’ novel “Diary of a Country Priest.” And, while Depardieu has become a large shadow of his former self, his performance here is nothing short of remarkable. Bonus features include interviews, conducted in 2012, with Depardieu, cinematographer Willy Kurant and production designer Katia Wyszkop; nearly an hour’s worth of deleted Scenes, introduced by members of Pialet’s crew; behind-the-scenes footage; and the original trailer. All spend considerable time describing how difficult it could be to work with man who clearly considered himself to be a genius.


Nikkatsu Diamond Guys: Vol. 2: Blu-ray

Because Arrow Video’s first “Nikkatsu Diamond Guys” collection delivered a trio of eccentric, if not completely off-the-wall crime flicks, I expected more of the same from Volume Two. But, boy, was I in for a surprise. In fact, Tokyo Mighty Guy, Danger Pays and Murder Unincorporated are parodies, spoofs and farces that could have been concocted by Jerry Lewis and Pee-wee Herman on an acid trip to Japan. They’re every bit that strange … in a delightfully childish sort of way. “Diamond Guys” refers to a star system employed by Nikkatsu studios in the late-1950s that promoted its marquee actors in various genre modes. In Buichi Saito’s Tokyo Mighty Guy, Akira Kobayashi stars as Jiro, a chef who defies the Yakuza by opening a French restaurant in the busy Ginza district. They had previously collaborated on The Rambling Guitarist – included in Volume One – a genre-bending action picture that may have inadvertently laid the foundation for every cheeseball movie musical Elvis Presley made after he was directed by Don Siegel in Flaming Star. Jiro not only is able to convert a leading gangland functionary into being a sushi chef, but he also is able to save the bathhouse owned by the parents of the perky girl-next-door (Ruriko Asaoka) and a brothel coveted by the mob. This might sound like a straight crime story, but the Crayola-colored opening, all-punches-pulled fights and silly musical interludes clearly are targeted at a much younger audience. Chipmunk-cheeked Jô Shishido stars in Kô Nakahira’s Danger Pays and Haruyasu Noguchi’s screwball Murder Unincorporated, one of which deals with a billion-dollar counterfeiting ring and the other a comically inventive hit squad. As silly as the movies are, the Arrow Video package treats them with utmost seriousness with beaucoup interviews, trailers and image galleries, as well as another sit-down with Nikkatsu expert Jasper Sharp and a booklet with new writing from Stuart Galbraith IV, Tom Mes and Mark Schilling.


Jeepers Creepers/Jeepers Creepers 2: Blu-ray

Judged solely on its own merits, the Jeepers Creepers franchise remains a legitimately scary and largely original entertainment to be enjoyed primarily by teen audiences. The Creeper (Jonathan Breck) kills people in ways that most other movie monsters and serial killers couldn’t possibly accomplish and, if he isn’t strictly original, name me one that is. Likely inspired by legends of the flying biped creatures Spring-Heeled Jack and the Jersey Devil, the Creeper hunts every twenty-third spring for twenty-three days, feasting on pre-selected body parts, before making like a cicada. If a limb or eyeball is damaged in an encounter with a human, the Creeper will compensate for it by expropriating the same body part in a later attack. It’s attracted, as well, by the smell of fear in its victims. When challenged, the Creeper is able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, not unlike Superman. In the 2001original, executive produced by Francis Ford Coppola, homeward-bound teen siblings (Gina Philips, Justin Long) are terrorized on a Florida highway by a maniac in a beat-up truck. Sometime later, they spot the same vehicle in the yard of an abandoned church and recognize the driver dropping something vaguely human into a waste barrel. Naturally, their curiosity gets the best them. On closer inspection, Darry discovers that the bottomless barrel opens into a shaft that leads to a cavern strewn with mutilated bodies. Avoiding detection in the hellhole, Darry convinces Trish to alert local authorities. The only reason they buy into the outrageous story is because of the unusual number of unsolved murders in the county. The title derives from a warning issued to Darry by a local psychic, who draws a parallel to the attacks and 1938 novelty song, “Jeepers Creepers.” Mayhem ensues.


The sequel, Jeepers Creepers 2, picks up a few days after the original ends, when a scarecrow abducts a boy and whisks him away into the heavens. Still hungry with only a few hours left in his 23-day eating spree, the Creeper attacks a target-rich school bus carrying teens home from a track meet. Conveniently, the bus has stalled on a desolate stretch of highway outside the usual range of two-way radios. The missing boy’s father (Ray Wise) and brother, whose farm isn’t that far away from the bus, hightail it to the site with a harpoon-like device attached to the back of their pickup truck. Once again, mayhem ensues. This time, however, the teens have already deduced that the Creeper is selective in its pursuit of prey and susceptible to being punctured by javelins and other makeshift weapons. With the clock ticking, the monster is at a slight disadvantage to the kids and farmer. We know it survived, barely, because a Jeepers Creepers 3 is on the drawing board for 2017, with Victor Salva back at the helm, Breck returning as the Creeper and the hope that Philips and Ray Wise will return as their 23-years-older characters. The Scream Factory package contains more bonus features than would seem humanly possible for such genre fare. Now, caveat emptor, it should be noted the Salva still carries the brand burned into the hides of convicted child molesters, alerting those around him to what many would consider to be an unforgiveable crime. For sexually abusing the underage star of Clownhouse, then in production, Salva served 15 months of a 3-year-prison term, before being released on parole. The actor came forward again in 1995, before Salva’s film Powder was released. Not surprisingly, the controversy negatively impacted box-office results for the Disney fantasy drama.


Bad, Bad, Gang!

Released in the same year as Deep Throat, John Donne’s Bad, Bad, Gang! is far more a curiosity than a landmark in the history of the adult-film industry. Significant, if at all, as a “roughie” that blends the kidnapped-by-bikers subgenre with hard-core sex in an outdoors setting, it features uncredited performances by future stars Rene Bond, Nancy Martin and Suzanne Fields – reunited, two years later, in Flesh Gordon – in then-uncredited roles. Four civilians, given the tangentially biblical names of Kane, Able, Eve and Jane are harassed by members of the Vipers motorcycle gang on their way to the Garden of Eden campground. By this time, the hoodlums have added a pair of horny hitchhikers to the entourage and will soon kidnap Eve from the trailer. That’s the end of the biblical references, thank all that’s good. After some sexual hijinks of their own, Kane, Able and Jane will form a posse to rescue Eve, who, by this time, appears to enjoy being cuffed, in the spread-eagle position, to the side of a cliff and toyed with by her greaseball captors and, of course, hitchhikers Satin and Blackie. None of this amounts to good, clean fun, except, perhaps, for a skinny-dip in a nearby pond. But, you get the picture. The 480p Impulse Pictures presentation is as good as it ever was, maybe better. Collectors of edgy grindhouse fare will find Bad, Bad Gang to be of far greater interest than casual fans of vintage porn.


Quackerz: Blu-ray 3D

Shaun the Sheep: The Farmer’s Llamas


It appears as if Shout! Factory is doing OK with the animated features it picks up from all corners of the map and adds the talents of familiar American voice actors. Quackerz was written and directed by Kazakhstani special-effects specialist Viktor Lakisov and distributed first to countries in that region. If I’m not mistaken, the 3D effects were added later by Montreal’s Mokko Studio. It is set on an island, populated with peaceful Mandarin ducks, that is mistakenly invaded by militaristic mallards. As if their stars were aligned against them by Shakespeare, Longway, the son of the Mandarin emperor, and Erica, the daughter of the mallard commander, meet and fall for each other. Meanwhile, the wicked Ms. Knout is conspiring to blot out the sun. Can the opposing forces agree to settle their differences in time to save the planet from extinction? Probably. Quackerz probably won’t win any Annie Awards, but young viewers won’t notice the difference in quality from those that do contend for such prizes. The cast includes Mark DeCarlo, Michael Gross, Jessi Corti, Robbie Daymond, Andrea Becker and Bruce Nozick.


At a brisk 28 minutes, parents and older kids won’t have any problem sitting through and enjoying Aardman’s “Shaun the Sheep” spinoff “The Farmer’s Llamas.” It’s that funny and well done. When the farmer and Bitzer go to a country fair, Shaun steals away with them intent on causing mischief. He talks the unwitting farmer into purchasing a trio of llamas at the auction and bringing them back to Mossy Bottom Farm. The other sheep aren’t convinced that the zany foreigners will find farm life to be compatible with their overreaching ways. They’re right, of course, so Shaun is required to devise a way to bring tranquility back to the farm. The DVD package includes several making-of featurettes and bonus cartoons.


I don’t know if the folks at Ruthless Studios were anticipating the release of Pixar/Disney’s Finding Dory this week and intended Fishtales to feed off the marketing campaign, like a remora attaches itself to a shark, or if it’s strictly coincidental. After a shark attack causes Angie the anglerfish and Puffy the puffer’s octopus friend, Ollie, to get lost in the vast ocean, fun-loving Ray the manta ray helps them scour the depths for the eight-legged creature. The animated characters stand out from the live-action backgrounds containing actual sea life. If Fishtales isn’t the most sophisticated animation you’ll ever see, there’s something soothing about the aquarium-like environments. I kept waiting for something strange to happen, but it didn’t.



Discovery: Alaskan Bush People: The Compete Seasons 1 & 2

PBS/ITV: Grantchester: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray

PBS: Nature: Animal Reunions

Discovery Family: Littlest Pet Shop: Making Friends

Lifetime: Toni Braxton: The Movie Event

Discovery’s “Alaskan Bush People” is one of the most disturbing reality-based series I’ve yet experienced. And, yes, that includes all of the Kardashian spinoffs, “Armed & Famous,” “The Swan” and “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” which it resembles. The living-off-the-beaten-track conceit isn’t all that weird, really – disenchanted ex-hippies from Texas attempt to survive in the Alaskan wilderness, with their large brood, by the sheer force of will – but it’s Billy Browns’ bald-faced arrogance and half-baked solutions that are so appalling. For one thing, because the show largely consists of re-creations of events culled from the father of seven’s 2009 book, “One Wave at a Time,” it’s impossible to discern what’s real and what’s been embellished. For another, the clumsy old man constantly puts his family in jeopardy by stumbling over inert objects and not avoiding serious illnesses. Worst, though, is the notion that anyone with a high school education is capable of home-schooling children, including two teenage girls, so isolated from humanity that they’ve developed accents unheard anywhere else in North America. Neither are there textbooks or teaching implements to be found. Brown’s idea of proper living quarters are, first, a makeshift hunter’s shelter and, then, a one-room cabin that wouldn’t have been completed if it weren’t for the help of neighbors concerned about the kids’ health. As it is, the only source of heat is the combined warmth produced by nine bodies in insufficient sleeping bags. The five boys, none of whom resemble each other, are fully grown adults who fetishize their guns – not uncommon in Alaska – but probably could have benefitted from remedial shop courses provided in a real high school. Mama Ami Brown seems overwhelmed by her husband’s grandiose plans and usually looks as if she’s just along for the ride. The other troubling thing about Brown is an attitude that allows him to believe he’s entitled to homestead in places where it’s long been forbidden and that his family has greater rights to the vast wilderness than the animals who’ve forever considered it to be their natural habitat. As far as I can recall, none of the challenges in the American “Survivor” series have been staged in locations nearly as potentially life-threatening – certainly nowhere near as cold—as Alaska’s Copper River Valley in the dead of winter. The production unions wouldn’t allow such a thing.


The lowlight of Season One comes when unidentified locals attack the uncompleted cabin at night, with guns blazing for no apparent reason. Things got so dangerous, production had to be curtailed. Viewers had to wait until the opening of Season Two to learn that some of the notoriously private Alaskans had tired of serving as colorful background elements for no compensation. There was also the very real possibility their faces would be exposed to skip tracers, debt collectors and ex-wives in the Lower 48. Undaunted, Brown buys a decrepit fishing boat and heads for an island with one of the largest populations of bears in the world. That experiment didn’t last long, either. “Alaskan Bush People” might be considered a comedy of errors, if it weren’t for the lack of anything funny, except, perhaps, the Brown boys’ ideas on dating etiquette. The third season just ended.


Pick a profession, proclivity or fetish and someone in England will build a perfectly agreeable murder-mystery series around it. “Grandchester,” which just completed its second season, is a perfect example of that theory. Although priests, nuns and vicars have contributed to the genre in many different iterations, it took crime novelist James Runcie to come up with Anglican priest and former Scots Guards officer Sidney Chambers (James Norton), who investigates crimes with the far more pragmatic Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green). Keating is gruff and methodical, where Chambers is more intuitive and forgiving of mankind’s foibles. Among the vicar’s idiosyncrasies is a love for whiskey, jazz and the occasional buxom brunette. “Grandchester” may not the most unusual or sexy shows on the “Masterpiece Mystery” lineup, but it’s well produced and lots of fun. Guest stars for Season Two include Neil Morrissey, Claudie Blakley, Nigel Planer, Andrew Knott, Nicky Henson and Oliver Dinsdale.


In the “Nature” episode, “Animal Reunions,” we witness what happens when humans are reunited with the wild animals—gorillas, elephants, cheetahs, chimpanzees—with which they forged deep bonds, years earlier. Will they still recognize their human caregivers and how will they react? The broader question, perhaps, is whether wild creatures can experience such emotions as joy, devotion and love. Pet owners have never doubted the possibility, but scientists demand more proof than a bark, slobber or hug. Narrated by Richard Thomas, “Animal Reunions” contains interviews with scientists, authors and caregivers, in addition to scenes of their journeys to reconnect with their former charges.


No such questions concern the characters on Discovery Family’s “Littlest Pet Shop: Making Friends.” Blythe and the non-human residents of the Littlest Pet Shop love making new friends of all shapes, sizes and species. In the 110-minute compilation, they babysit a curious kitten, befriend a genial spider and meet another fashion-minded girl. The adventures wind up with a two-part special, during which Blythe’s dream of holding a Pet Fest finally comes true. Parents need to know that “Littlest Pet Shop” is produced by Hasbro Studios and DHX Media, which means children will be exposed to product placement for an extensive line of toys, a mobile game and comic-book adaptation.


In a career that’s spanned more than a quarter-century, R&B singer Toni Braxton has experienced more than any singer’s fair share of ups and downs. Throughout her career, the Maryland native has sold more than 67 million records, including 41 million albums, worldwide. She’s won seven Grammy Awards, nine Billboard Music Awards and seven American Music Awards. Braxton has become a television executive producer and personality, thanks to stints on “Dancing with the Stars” and the reality series, “Braxton Family Values,” with her mother and sisters Traci, Towanda, Trina and Tamar. On the downside, Braxton has spent far too much time in courtrooms, defending her career decisions and spoiled business relations. The made-for-Lifetime biopic, “Toni Braxton: The Movie Event,” based on her memoir “Unbreak My Heart,” follows her career from her discovery, in 1990, by L.A. Reid (Greg Davis, Jr.) and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds (Gavin Houston), to her public battle with lupus and divorce, her son’s autism and other family struggles. What’s glossed over could probably fill another 90-minute biopic, however. It’s directed by Vondie Curtis-Hall and stars       Lex Scott Davis as the singer.


DVD Wrapup: Zootopia, Hail Caesar, 13 Hours, Anomalisa, The Confirmation, Touched With Fire, One More Time, Tom Waits and more

Friday, June 10th, 2016

Zootopia: Blu-ray

The messages in Disney’s new animated gem, Zootopia, are so overtly liberal, I’m surprised none of the Republican candidates for president didn’t it condemn it during their debates for being subversive. Of course, there’s still time for Donald Trump to propose constructing a wall around the Burbank studios, lest undocumented-alien bunnies, sheep and foxes attempt to enter the country illegally. On that count, anyway, politicians who choke on words like inclusivity, empowerment, diversity and co-existence are several days late and at least a billion dollars short.  . (In 2005, evangelicals ended an eight-year boycott of Walt Disney products, ostensibly for lack of interest.) This past weekend, in only its seventeenth week of release, Zootopia hit the landmark billion-dollar barrier, grossing $337.2 million domestically and $662.8 million internationally. Where it will end up when the closely guarded Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray 2D, DVD, Digital HD and PPV numbers finally are recorded is anyone’s guess.

Another strong release from Walt Disney Animation Studios (FrozenBig Hero 6) – decidedly not Pixar, although John Lasseter oversees both departments — Zootopia imagines a metropolis in which humans are replaced by anthropomorphic biped mammals. They range in size from elephants to shrews, all drawn in perfect proportion to each other, and go about their business like humans in any American city. This means business is conducted with drone-like efficiency; burly police patrol the streets, looking for conmen and crooks; the meek fear those with greater cunning and few scruples; corrupt politicians prey on the prejudices of their constituents; and females of the species needn’t apply for jobs generally allotted males. Like Disneyland and Disney World, Zootropia is divided into quadrants corresponding to the prevailing climates of their inhabitants’ natural habitats. Bunny Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) is the wee daughter of carrot farmers in the agricultural zone, where residents carry fox repellant to ward off the famously sly predators. Despite her size, Judy is determined to attend the police academy and become a big-city cop. Although the physical tests are skewed against smaller species, Judy graduates at the top of her class. None of her new co-workers in the ZPD, including Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), believe in her abilities, so she’s relegated to meter maid duty. Committed to making a difference, nonetheless, she goes about her duties with determination and diligence. It doesn’t take long, however, for Judy to fall for a con being pulled on an ice-cream vendor by Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) and his “son.” Because the owner discriminates against species of whom he doesn’t approve, especially foxes, the eminently fair bunny threatens him with arrest. Naturally, the fox finds a way to turn her kindness into a profitable scam. Long story short, Judy and Nick find a way to exploit each other’s strengths in the service of a missing-persons’ case that’s baffled the chief and threatens to upend the delicate balance between predator and prey animals. If Judy can’t find the victims in 48 hours, Bogo has threatened to fire her.

It’s a longshot, of course, but never doubt the tenacity of an underdog when it comes to evening the odds in a movie made by Disney or directed by Frank Capra, which Zootopia easily could have been. In Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush’s easily digested ethical tale, however, the story is only half the fun. The verisimilitude of the all-mammal environment is true to any city in the Disney universe, with dozens of only slightly camouflaged references to studio and non-studio classics, characters and insider gags. (Yes, there’s at least one “hidden Mickey”) As such, adults will feel at home in Zootopia, too. The animal characters take on the behavioral traits of humans, in mostly comic ways, and no single animal is above corruption or beyond redemption. A hilariously constructed scene at Zootopia’s DMV, where the sloth bureaucrats work at their usual pace, is the closest thing to a cheap shot. Among the standouts in the voicing cast are Jenny Slate, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer and Chakira. Among the mid-length featurettes are “Research: A True-Life Adventure,” in which the filmmakers immerse themselves in the real world’s animal kingdom in order to better construct the movie’s characters and world; “The Origin of an Animal Tale,” on the development, inspirations, story themes, the film’s evolution in main character focus and final film themes; “Zoology: The Roundtables,” in which Ginnifer Goodwin leads discussions on the characters, environments and animation; “Scoretopia,” on the movie’s unique music; “Z.P.D. Forensic Files,” a quick look through some of the Disney-related Easter eggs scattered throughout the movie; the music video, “Try Everything,” by Shakira; deleted character sketches; and deleted scenes.

Hail, Caesar!: Blu-ray

A TCM-level knowledge of mid-20th Century Hollywood history is all one needs to enjoy Hail, Caesar!, a story that covers 24 eventful hours in the life of nearly over-the-hill contract star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) in 1951. To love it, though, most viewers would have to be diehard fans of Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old MenFargo), who wrote and directed the closing-of-an-era comedy, with enough familiar faces to satisfy curious fans and buffs, alike. Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a studio fixer whose hands are kept full by stars in constant need of supervision and protection from the cops and gossip columnists. Eddie’s also commissioned here to keep budgets from overflowing and religious leaders from questioning the theology in his latest bible epic, starring Whitlock as a Roman centurion on Good Friday. Before the climactic crucifixion scene, Whitlock is kidnaped from his trailer, in full period regalia, and taken to a beachside home in Malibu frequented by commie sympathizers. At the same time, Eddie is required to prevent his bathing-beauty headliner (Scarlett Johansson) from being exposed for having an out-of-wedlock baby and keep his cowboy star (Alden Ehrenreich) from being outed in an affair with a big-shot director.

As frazzled as he is, though, Eddie is taking an inordinate amount of time responding to a headhunter from Lockheed, offering a far more stable job away from the circus. If the storylines don’t actually connect in any noticeable way, the set pieces keep things moving briskly throughout the film’s 104-minute length. There’s a supremely well-choreographed swimming pool ballet, featuring Johansson and a bevy of mermaids; a period party scene in which the cowboy ambles into the ballroom like John Wayne with a hangnail; a homoerotic dance routine, with Channing Tatum standing in for Gene Kelly as a hoofing sailor on leave; and Tilda Swinton, as identical-twin gossip mongers. Then, too, there’s Whitlock waking up from a serious hangover and wandering into a cell meeting in the living room of the Malibu cottage, where, in his naiveté, the centurion-suited star is impressed with the logic of boilerplate Soviet rhetoric. As the story goes, Clooney forced the Coens’ hand by telling reporters that his next project would be the brothers’ decade-old idea, Hail Caesar!, which had yet to take on a life of its own.  If the finished product looks a bit half-baked, that’s probably why. The sterling Blu-ray includes backgrounders, “Directing Hollywood,” “The Stars Align,” “An Era of Glamour” and “Magic of a Bygone Era.”

Anomalisa: Blu-ray

Although Charlie Kaufman has only directed two feature films and written seven, since leaving TV sitcoms for 1999’s Being John Malkovich, his name is synonymous with movies that test the imaginations of viewers and critics, alike. It’s been eight years since Kaufman wrote and directed Synecdoche, New York, a portrait of an artist so complex and challenging that even the positive reviews it received scared the want-to-see from audiences. Roger Ebert opened his glowing four-star review by revealing that “Synecdoche” required at least two viewings to fully absorb. Then, he absolves himself for not writing a conventional review, because, “There is no need to name the characters, name the actors, assign adjectives to their acting,” because his faithful readers will understand what he’s trying to say. Some did, most didn’t. Personally, I found “Synecdoche” to be a worthwhile, if taxing cinematic experience. I was moved by its artistic vision and ability to encapsulate a lifetime of work into a play within a movie (or a movie within a play within a movie.) Among other things, Kaufman required of viewers that they learn the meaning of the word, “synecdoche,” and rare mental illness, the Cotard delusion, after which the protagonist is named. The title, Anomalisa, has no meaning beyond the place it holds in the hearts of the man and woman at the story’s core. To grasp its relevance, though, it’s important to understand the reference made to another syndrome, the Fregoli delusion, which provides the name for Cincinnati’s fictional Hotel Fregoli. It is a belief, exemplified by the insecure self-help author, Michael Stone, that different people are, in fact, a single person who changes appearance or is in disguise. All of the characters in Anomalisa are puppets whose movements are coordinated through stop-motion animation – co-directed by Duke Johnson — and, yes, the faces of the vast majority look exactly alike.

After checking into the hotel, where he’ll address a convention of customer-service professionals, Michael gets into an ugly argument with an old flame he hasn’t seen in years. He soon will meet Lisa Hesselman, a woman as vulnerable as he is insecure. A huge fan of his work, Lisa is attending the convention with a friend who she considers to be far prettier and socially evolved.  Far from unattractive, Lisa constantly apologizes for insignificant missteps, faux pas and factual errors. She does, however, succeed in breaking the ice by appealing to his ego. They enjoy anatomically correct puppet sex and discuss the kind of personal things Michael stopped exchanging with his wife years earlier. She captivates him by singing Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” in two languages. They end up making promises to each other that may or may not be kept. Back in L.A., he’s greeted by look-alike friends invited by his wife for a surprise party and a son who immediately asks what he brought back from Ohio with him. The bust of an animatronic Japanese woman he picked up in a store for “adult toys” only serves to freak out the kid. Anomalisa began its life in 2005 as a “sound play” for the Los Angeles run of “Theater of the New Ear.” In the performance, David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh played Michael and Lisa, with Tom Noonan sitting between them voicing all of the other characters and creating atmospheric sounds (the “cacophonous drone of humanity”). Carter Burwell conducted the Parabola Ensemble and a foley artist added sound effects. The only way Anomalisa was able to be translated into film — considering the financial bath taken by “Synecdoche” – was through a successful Kickstarter campaign. It’s well worth checking out the bonus material, which explains everything and adds interesting making-of featurettes.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi: Blu-ray

Last January, a lot of fuss was made over the timing of the release Michael Bay’s undeniably exciting 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, on more than 2,300 screens. It was based on first-person accounts of the October 11, 2012, assaults on American compounds in Libya’s second largest city, related in Mitchell Zuckoff’s book, “13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi,” by surviving members of the Annex Security Team stationed there. The small, but select unit was comprised of contracted ex-military personnel, who were highly paid to risk their live once again to protect unspecified U.S “interests.” Paramount made the strategic decision to pre-screen the film for the GOP hopefuls then harassing the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire and stage a hyper-political mega-premiere – 30,000 tickets were handed out — at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. At the time, Republicans were attempting to tar former Hillary Clinton as a co-conspirator to the Islamist militants who stormed the gates of the facilities, leaving U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, U.S. Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith and CIA contractors Tyrone S. Woods and Glen Doherty dead. The candidates promised that a stash of Clinton’s private e-mails would reveal the “truth” about her complicity in a whitewash protecting Obama administration officials from blame. In fact, “13 Hours” took no position in the non-scandal, except to point out that U.S. outposts around the world were woefully unprepared for such attacks on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy and the CIA agent in charge put too much faith in members of a Libyan militia, hired at $28 a day. One of the team members had accused the bureau chief of ordering a 20-minute delay in sending the security team to the compound, thus stalling armed retaliation to the first wave of attacks. Others disputed the account. Still, it wouldn’t be the first time CIA put too much faith in fighters it had insufficiently vetted. Neither could the huge high-definition screen at the home of the Dallas Cowboys handle the audio demands, causing fans in the upper tech to leave early.

Working from a screenplay by Chuck Hogan (The Town), as well as the guidance of the security contractors and an estimated $50 million of studio money (peanuts, compared to any of the “Transformers” installments), Bay was able to fashion a fact-based thriller that put viewers directly in the line of fire and wasn’t required to embellish the heroism of the team with CGI effects … OK, maybe one or two. He built precise replicas of the compounds in Malta, an island only 207 miles north of Libya, and had an arsenal of advanced, if temporarily non-lethal weaponry at his disposal. The mostly anonymous militants look as if they mean business and were willing to turn post Gaddafi Libya inside-out to install a government favorable to their fundamentalist beliefs. The tension and anti-American sentiment in the streets of faux-Benghazi are palpable, as well. Bay allows plenty of time to humanize the characters played by James Badge Dale, John Krasinski, Max Martini, Toby Stephens, Pablo Schreiber, David Denman, Dominic Fumusa and Freddie Stroma. They occupy their off-time playing video games, lifting weights and Skyping family members. (Significantly, one is reading Joseph Campbell’s “The Power of Myth.”) Apart from a panicked driver who can’t tell right from left, the only person who is made to look like an unforgivably shortsighted boob is the composite CIA chief, Bob (David Constabile). The actual agent in charge that day denies ordering the contractors to “stand down.” The claim was backed up by the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee’s finding that there was “no evidence of intentional delay or obstruction by the Chief of Base or any other party.” Unlike American Sniper, which opened huge and ballooned to a global take of $547.4 million, “13 Hours” ended up underperforming, with a worldwide haul of $69.4 million. (In 2001, Black Hawk down scored $172.3 million.) If I were to guess, I’d say that the studio’s blatant campaign to attract blindly conservative audiences only served to convince mainstream and liberal viewers to take a pass on what must have sounded to them like an exercise in right-wing propaganda. It’s entirely possible, though, that Paramount’s excellent Blu-ray presentation — a separate disc devoted to background and making-of featurettes — could win back viewers looking for what essentially is a gripping war story.

The ConfirmationBlu-ray

Riddle: when is a faith-based movie not promoted as being faith-based or family friendly? Answer: when the faith in question doesn’t wear its “evangelical” message on its sleeve. Released on the same date in March, Sony’s inspirational memoir Miracles From Heaven, starring Jennifer Garner as the mother of boy in desperate of divine intervention, was released on 3,047 screens on its way to a formidable $72.6-million worldwide gross. By comparison, Lighthouse Pictures’ The Confirmation, with Clive Owen as the alcoholic father of an 8-year-old boy is in need of divine intervention, was accorded a release so limited that it hasn’t registered in Box Office Mojo or’s box-office tallies. I haven’t seen the former title, which won’t hit DVD for another month, but can attest to the entertainment value provided by The Confirmation. I shouldn’t have been caught off-guard by its worthiness, as it was written and directed by Bob Nelson, author of the widely acclaimed and Oscar-nominated drama, Nebraska. I was immediately attracted, instead, by the presence of Owen (Croupier), Maria Bello (History of Violence), Patton Oswald (Young Adult), Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) and Matthew Modine (Full Metal Jacket). That’s a lot of star power for a movie that couldn’t have cost more than $10,000 to produce. It’s a simple story, really. Jaeden Lieberher (St. Vincent) does a wonderful job as Anthony, a boy so effortlessly virtuous that his parish priest (Stephen Tobolowsky) has to prod him to come up with a sin worthy of single Hail Mary or Our Father penance.

The boy isn’t a Little Goody Two-Shoes clone, just someone for whom misbehaving isn’t an option worth pursuing. Father Lyons actually encourages Anthony to live a little, if only because it will make his next confession – timed to coincide with his Confirmation ceremony – a bit more interesting. The opportunity arrives when his mother, Bonnie (Bello), hands him off for a weekend stay with his alcoholic, seriously underemployed and lapsed Catholic father, Walt (Owen). Bonnie will be spending the time away from home on a church-sponsored retreat with her new husband (Modine). The unease between father and son is palpable, especially when Walt tells Anthony to stay in the truck while he ducks into a bar for a pick-me-up. After a bit of time passes, Anthony decides to confront his pop in the tavern. With the truck unguarded, a petty thief takes advantage of an unlocked security box to steal Walt’s tools, which are a custom-made to facilitate custom woodwork finishing. With a rare job awaiting him on Monday, Walt becomes desperate to locate the box, which is probably already gathering dust in a local pawnshop. As if his luck weren’t sufficiently disastrous, his landlord has padlocked the house and the misbehaving pickup finally gives up the ghost. His only option is to sneak into his ex-wife’s home and drag Anthony along with him as he scours the town for lowlifes capable of ripping off the keys to a man’s livelihood. To this end, he’s assisted by fellow down-and-outers, played by Oswald and Nelson.

Without giving anything else away, it’s safe to assume that this exercise in male bonding will be provide Anthony with every opportunity to fill Father Lyons’ scorecard in the confessional. If that scenario reminds you of Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, it should. In an interview included in the bonus material, Nelson fully acknowledges borrowing from the classic of Italian neo-realism. Its post-WWII setting is a perfect parallel for the economically depressed Pacific Northwest town in The Confirmation, as well as its quietly redemptive message. Special features include “A Father-Son Story: Inside the Characters of ‘The Confirmation’” and “The Performances of ‘The Confirmation’.”

Touched With Fire: Blu-ray

If it had been released in more than a few dozen theaters last February, Paul Dalio’s highly personal drama, Touched With Fire (a.k.a., “Mania Days”), might have benefitted from comparisons to Frank and Eleanor Perry’s 1962 campus favorite, David and Lisa, in addition to the presence of Katie Holmes. Sent out on the eve of the youth quake that forever changed America, “D&L” dared deal with serious mental health issues faced by teenagers basking in the false promise of JFK’s Camelot and Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.” Parents couldn’t accept that life in this best of all possible worlds wasn’t perfect, as advertised, and psychiatric treatment might benefit kids from middle-class families. Times have changed to the point where parents no longer hesitate to seek the advice of trained medical personnel and teens aren’t stigmatized by regular visits to their shrink. If anything, they’re overmedicated and too easily diagnosed with serious emotional maladies, once reserved for stressed-out adults. Like David and Lisa, unforgettably played by Keir Dullea and Janet Margolin, the central characters in Touched With Fire meet while at a treatment facility for bipolar disorder. Carla and Marco, portrayed by Holmes and Luke Kirby, are older than the protagonists of “D&L,” but not so much that teenagers can’t relate to them. They’re both obsessed with artistic pursuits – poetry, prose, painting, sketching whatever comes to mind –and the power of the sun, moon and stars to control their moods and creativity.

As long as they stay on their meds, Carla and Marco are fully capable of functioning within a dysfunctional society. Marco, especially, feels as if the medication impacts negatively on his creativity and relationship with Carla, who isn’t thrilled with the effects of drugs designed to flatten her moods. They wonder if Vincent Van Gogh’s gifts, and those of a couple dozen other suffering artists, would have emerged if they had been prescribed anti-depressive and anti-psychotic drugs. They’re especially drawn to Van Gogh’s wondrously complex and visually stunning “The Starry Night,” which represents the artist’s view of the pre-dawn sky from the asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Writer/director/composer Dalio based Touched With Fire on his own struggles with bipolar disorder and what he learned from Kay Redfield Jamison’s “Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.” (She makes a cameo here, as well.)  The 1993 book examines the relationship between the syndrome and artistic creativity, using extensive case studies of historic writers, artists, and composers assessed as probably having suffered with cyclothymia, major depressive disorder, or manic-depressive/bipolar disorder. Dalio encourages viewers to come to their own conclusions about whether the toll paid by troubled artists for their gifts is worth the pain that comes with it. Holmes and Kirby deliver highly compelling performances, as they dramatize the full emotional spectrum experienced by their characters. The Blu-ray adds necessary background material in the featurettes.

One More Time

Have you ever heard someone say they’d pay to watch their favorite actor read the telephone book? I’ve said it a time or two, myself, probably about Christopher Walker, who could tap dance his way through the Yellow Pages. Robert Edwards’ One More Time tests the theory. In it, Walken plays Paul Lombard, the kind of old-school entertainer who used to pop up on “The Tonight Show” occasionally, without notice, holding a coffee cup filled with booze, and dropping names to beat the band. Although only a half-generation removed from Barry Manilow and Billy Joel, the calendar has finally caught up with him. As comfortable as he appears to be in his jewel-box home in the Hamptons, where an unseen mistress competes for his attention with a sixth wife (Ann Magnuson) and pliant maid, he’d kill for one last chance to get on the road with a new hit song. So far, so good. The problems with the picture start when Lombard’s punky daughter, Jude (Amber Heard), is forced to relocate to the Hamptons from Brooklyn, when she runs out of money. She’s a frustrated singer, whose only recent gigs are singing backup on commercial jingles. Jude is having an affair with her married shrink and carries a chip on her shoulder the size of the Montauk lighthouse. Also leaching on the old man are a condescending sister and brother-in-law (Kelli Garner, Hamish Linklater), who’s still carrying a torch for Jude. They’re all insufferably self-absorbed and contemptuous of anyone and anything they can’t control. Even when Lombard does come up with a song worth selling — Edwards and Joe McGinty’s “When I Live My Life Over Again” – the ramifications of its possible success send shock waves through the family. It’s only when Lombard’s level-headed agent (Oliver Platt) shows up from out of nowhere that things pick up, again. It’s movies like One More Time that make us understand why some animal species eat their young.

Kill Your Friends: Blu-ray

Anyone as disappointed by the HBO mini-series “Vinyl” as I was probably will want to take a pass on Kill Your Friends, which does for 1990s London what producers Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger did for 1960s New York. Based on a novel by former record-industry insider John Niven, Owen Harris’ debut feature makes the same mistake as too many other show-biz tell-alls: it doesn’t give us a reason to care about the protagonist, 27-year-old A&R man Steven Stelfox (Nicholas Hoult). As long as the Britpop format is topping the music charts, Stelfox has carte blanche to discover new acts and trip their greed reflex with unholy amounts of booze, cocaine and “birds,” as the Beatles used to call their camp followers. Even though he’s developed a tin ear, Stelfox appears oblivious to the notion that the party’s going to end someday and all the cocaine in the world won’t put Humpty Dumpty together again. Even so, any director who can’t find a few good yucks in such meaty material as that found in Niven’s novel shouldn’t have been handed the project in the first place. The filmmakers also borrow a page or two from Bret Easton Ellis’ inky-black satire, “American Psycho,” and Mary Harron’s cinematic depiction of a world in which greed not only is good, but mandatory for success. It’s a lifestyle worth killing to maintain. The nice thing about movies like Kill Your FriendsAmerican Psycho and “Vinyl” is that they tend to come with superlative soundtracks. Here, such Cool Britannia bands as Blur, Bastille, the Chemical Brothers, Oasis, Radiohead, Prodigy, Doof (“Suck My Dick”), ODB and Echo and the Bunnymen pick up the slack when necessary. James Corden and Georgia King do nice jobs in key supporting roles. The DVD adds interviews with cast, director, and writer.

No Home Movie

I’ve written so often in the last year about DVD releases of films by the late Chantal Akerman that I’ve pretty much run out of words to say on the subject. As most of her admirers already know, No Home Movie was made while her beloved mother – a Holocaust survivor, living in Belgium – was in the final stages of her life. It was first shown at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, two weeks before Akerman’s self-inflicted death, on October 5. (It would be put on display at the New York Film Festival on October 7.) Critics would get another opportunity to share their feelings on the movie and loss of such an influential artist when No Home Movie went into limited release here on April 1. Before she died and was treated for depression, Akerman said: “This film is about my mother … my mother, who is no longer with us … about this woman who came to Belgium in 1938, fleeing from Poland, the pogroms and violence … this woman who we only see inside her apartment … an apartment in Brussels. (It is) a film about a world in motion that my mother does not see.” Akerman allows us to eavesdrop on their final conversations, via Skype, or in the Brussels apartment, sometimes with sister Sylvaine and her maid. As was her wont, Akerman rarely spent much time in any one place for very long. Her work frequently took her to far-flung corners of the world, so the idea that Brussels might be “home” was a bit of stretch for her.  Her mother does live in an airy middle-class apartment in Brussels, but, for those who lost almost everything in the war, home must seem like a relative concept. Those unfamiliar with Akerman’s work probably wouldn’t benefit much from starting with No Home Movie, even if it shares familiar cinematic architecture with previous films. Even longtime fans may find the intimacy too much to bear.

Mr. Right: Blu-ray

Get a Job: Blu-ray

In another one of those matches made in Hollywood heaven, Anna Kendrick and Sam Rockwell easily steal the show in Mr. Right, a story about assassins in love and hate. Rockwell plays an A-list hitman, Francis, who’s every bit as adept at avoiding getting killed as he is fulfilling contracts. In the latest in a long line of disappointments, Martha has just caught her boyfriend cheating on her. Just as she’s almost conceded the game, however, Martha bumps into Francis while shopping and, yes, it’s kismet. Instead of being repulsed by his profession, she decides that Mr. Right only comes around once in a lifetime … in her case, at least. Turns out, she’s a natural born killer. When Francis’ former employer (Tim Roth) begins to close in on him, Martha becomes his right-hand gal. Her training sessions are nicely staged, with the final test being a juggling act with razor-sharp knives. If Paco Cabezas’ follow-up to the Nic Cage revenge vehicle, Rage, won’t make anyone forget Grosse Pointe Blank or Prizzi’s Honor, it is entertaining enough to recommend to fans of the stars and dark action comedies. It comes with the featurette, “A Sweet Couple.”

In 2002, Dylan Kidd made a sweet and sexy coming-of-age comedy, Roger Dodger, that quickly became one of my favorites of the new millennium. I still love it. In his feature debut, Jesse Eisenberg plays a geeky Midwestern high school student, who travels to New York to ask his playboy uncle (Campbell Scott) to teach him how impress girls out of their panties. Kidd followed up that critical success two years later with the fantasy romance, P.S. In it, Laura Linney plays a divorced woman of a certain age given the opportunity to relive her past when she meets a young man (Topher Grace) who appears to be her long-dead high school sweetheart. It garnered some favorable reviews, but made no money in very limited release. Since then, Kidd is credited with directing a TV movie and two episodes of the Adult Swim comedy, “Children’s Hospital.” I won’t hazard a guess as to what might have derailed Kidd’s career, but, if not making money were a crime, only a half-dozen directors in Hollywood would be working. Which brings us to Get a Job, a comedy that hasn’t seen the light of a projector or Blu-ray beam since it was completed in 2012. With a cast that includes the aforementioned Ms. Kendrick, Alison Brie, Marcia Gay Harden, Greg Germann, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Bryan Cranston, how is such a thing even possible? Get a Job, which qualifies as a stoner and slacker flick, as well as a workplace comedy on the order of Office Space, isn’t the least funny movie I’ve ever seen, as some pundits would have you believe. It’s just not anywhere near as funny as it ought to have been, given the talent involved. The story, by freshman writers Kyle Pennekamp and Scott Turpel, follows several recent college graduates as they try to find meaningful work in the cold-blooded world of corporate America. If not meaningful, then, something north of the minimum wage. If not, can they carve a niche in the emerging techno-economy? Special features include “Video Résumé Outtakes” and “Where it All Began: The Cast of ‘Get a Job’.”

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: Director’s Cut: Blu-ray 4K

Star Trek/Star Trek Into Darkness: Blu-ray 4K

IMAX: Journey to Space: Blu-ray 4K

As many times as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan has been released into its various video and digital iterations, I can’t remember where I first saw the picture many still consider to be the best of all the “Trek” features. For all the sturm und drang that surrounded its creation, including the unseating of creator Gene Roddenberry from the bridge of the franchise, the sequel kick-started Paramount’s floundering “ST” universe, outperforming everyone’s expectations and improving the odds for everything that would follow it. After enjoying cult status for so many years, “ST” became an all-encompassing commercial juggernaut. The secret sauce included such ingredients as a commitment to returning to the show’s roots, with original crew members and a familiar villain (Ricardo Montalban); an eye to the future, as represented by newcomers Kirstie Allie, Paul Winfield and a bunch of trainees anxious to prove their mettle; an air-tight budget that demanded a return to fundamentals; no-nonsense producer Harve Bennett; outsider director Nicholas Meyer; and early buzz about a final “death scene” that would leave audiences in tears. Decades after the “Genesis Device” conceit was forgotten, Spock’s final speech continues to tear the heart out of viewers. It’s also interesting to see how easy it is to re-adjust to the analog, pre-CGI sci-fi world. “Wrath of Khan” arrives in Blu-ray with all previous bonus features intact, including three minutes of re-cut material and a 30-minute featurette, “The Genesis Effect: Engineering the Wrath of Khan.” In it, Meyer, producers Robert Sallin and Ralph Winter, and journalists Mark Altman and Larry Nemecek, walk viewers through a condensed version of how the second film in the series was made. The informative featurette was produced last year, after both Bennett and Leonard Nimoy passed away, leaving Adam Nimoy to briefly fill in for his father and Sallin to give Bennett his due.

But wait, there’s more. Those Trekkies fortunate enough to have both a 4K-equipped HDTV screen and 4K Blu-ray playback unit can be the first on their blocks to enjoy the rebooted 2009 Star Trek iteration and Star Trek Into Darkness in the newest technology extant. The key players will be seen in the upcoming Star Trek Beyond and something called Star Trek 14. There are plenty of mostly vintage bonus features, but the price tag has risen to around $50. I haven’t seen anything on 4K, so you’re on your own here.

“Star Trek” and NASA have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship for more than 40 years, even extending to Paramount providing DVDs for the International Space Station astronauts to enjoy. It’s appropriate, then, that Patrick Stewart (a.k.a., Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise-D) was enlisted to narrate K2 and Giant Screen Films’ Journey to Space, an “event” picture designed to re-ignite America’s passion for space exploration. That it’s being “presented” by Toyota and Boeing makes one wonder if the producers have an ulterior motive for going to trouble of cobbling together existing hi-def footage and rounding up veteran astronauts to gush over their personal experiences. (It’s tough to afford an ambitious space program and the Pentagon’s appetite for war toys simultaneously.) Even so, it’s difficult to grow weary of the spectacular images of Mars, the ISS and deep space, captured by the rovers and Hubble Space Telescope. Shout! Factory is releasing Journey to Space in both a two-disc version, which includes the 4K UHD iteration and a combo Blu-ray 2D/3D disc, and a standalone 1080p Blu-ray 2D version. The higher the def, the greater the experience.

The Funhouse Massacre: Blu-ray

At one time or another, most of us have asked ourselves the rhetorical question, “How hard could it be to write a movie like that?” A lot harder than you’d think it is. One way to come up with an idea for a horror picture, for example, is to take any conceivable circumstance or daily occurrence and tack a worst-case scenario to it. Some movies, even the good ones, almost seem to write themselves. I would guess, for example, that the premise behind The Funhouse Massacre would have exhausted itself years ago. I’m no expert on horror tropes, but Andy Palmer appears, at least, to have come up with a new twist on an old subgenre. As the story goes, it’s Halloween and six of the world’s scariest psychopaths escape from a secret facility for the criminally insane, run by a warden played by Robert Eglund. Like moths to a flame, they are attracted to a holiday-themed fun house, whose mazes are inspired by the same murderers’ various reigns of terror. Not only do the patrons assume that the resulting carnage on display is all in fun, but they’re completely unaware, as well, of the fact that they’re about to become part of the act. Neither do the local police have a reason to believe anything is amiss inside the walls of the funhouse, even if one of the deputies (co-writer Ben Begley) has a special affiliation with escapee “Mental Manny” (Jere Burns). The others are Animal the Cannibal (E.E. Bell), Dr. Suave (Sebastian Siegel), the Taxidermist (Clint Howard), Rocco the Clown (Mars Crain) and Dollface (Candice De Visser). The Funhouse Massacre couldn’t have cost a fortune to make, so the availability of space at Land of Illusion Haunted Scream Park, outside Middletown, Ohio, must have helped keep expenses down. The Blu-ray package includes commentary with director Andy Palmer, producer Warner Davis and actors Clint Howard and Courtney Gains; Popcorn Talk’s video commentary with Palmer and co-writers/co-stars Ben Begley and Renee Dorian; “A Day on the Set”; and production diaries.

Altered Minds

How does one follow gigs directing such reality shows as “Samantha Brown’s Great Weekends,” “Guide to Style,” “One Week to Save Your Marriage” and “What Not to Wear”? In Michael Z. Wechsler’s case, you turn to the dark side of life, in a family psychodrama, Altered Minds (a.k.a., “The Red Robin”), with shades of dysfunction, horror and CIA torture. Judd Hirsch plays world-renowned psychiatrist and Nobel Prize-winner Dr. Nathaniel Shellner, who, dying of cancer, has gathered his adult children to the old homestead to celebrate what could be his last birthday. Of the four children, three were adopted in Shellner’s time visiting orphanages in war-torn countries. Things begin to go off the rails when the oldest son, Tommy (Ryan O’Nan), accuses his father of arranging the adoptions to facilitate psychological experimentation. Haunted by some recent discoveries, he wants to unlock closely held secrets before it’s too late. The wheelchair-bound scientist would like to resolve the issues plaguing his son’s mind, as well, but doesn’t always realize when he’s being played by Tommy, a writer of horror fiction. It’s only a matter of time before Shellner’s experience in the CIA’s Project MKUltra mind-control program will kick in and tip the balance of power within the family. The DVD adds deleted scenes, two commentary tracks, Wechsler’s video logs and material from rehearsals and screenings.

Tom Waits: Out of the Box/Down & Dirty

Louder Than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story

East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem

Way back at the beginning of his career, Tom Waits would slither up to the stage of a theater — relying on the wall to keep him erect – stagger to the microphone, as if drunk on sweet wine and cheap beer, a cigarette hanging loosely from lips and his eyes staring at a point three inches in front of his pointy-toe brogues. His Froggy the Gremlin voice betrayed the combined effects of whiskey, smoke and sandpaper. The lyrics, when they could be discerned, recalled American musicians and poets as diverse as Bob Dylan, Lord Buckley, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Frank Zappa, Thelonious Monk, Howlin’ Wolf, Captain Beefheart and, of course, Charles Bukowski. We hadn’t seen anything like him and none of the imitators lasted very long. If it was an act, it was a good one. The material couldn’t sound less commercial, but the gems included in such appropriately titled albums as “Closing Time” (1973), “The Heart of Saturday Night” (1974), “Nighthawks at the Diner” (1975), “Heartattack and Vine” (1980) produced FM-ready gems for himself, the Eagles (“Ol’ ’55”), Tim Buckley (“Martha”), Bruce Springsteen (“Jersey Girl”) and Rod Stewart (“Downtown Train”), among other artists. No one has a larger catalogue of unauthorized Waits DVDs than MVD Visual, with the latest titles, “Out of the Box” and “Down & Dirty,” providing fresh meat to hungry fans. The evolution and maturation of the artist are visible in both selections. At 66, the star of stage, screen, vinyl and television has stopped smoking cigarettes and drinking hard liquor – thank goodness – but he’s still a terrific raconteur. They contain interviews from every period in his career, analysis by domestic and English critics, as well as snippets from music videos and talk shows. (Be aware that “Down & Dirty” is included in “Out of the Box” and can be purchased separately.)

The history of music wouldn’t be complete without mention of the famous venues in which it was performed or staged. In this regard, at least, La Scala, Vienna Staatsoper, Carnegie Hall and Paris Opéra can be fairly mentioned in the same breath with the Ryman Auditorium, the Fillmore and Avalon ballrooms, Village Vanguard, CBGB, Troubadour and Nippon Budokan. Tony D’Annunzio and Karl Rausch’s almost tearfully nostalgic Louder Than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story makes a convincing case for Detroit’s venerable showcase to be included in any such list of platforms for noteworthy music, as do such first-hand witnesses as Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, the surviving members of the MC5, Grand Funk Railroad’s Mark Farner, Henry Rollins, the Who’s Roger Daltrey and Stooges guitar player James Williamson. Although the Grande provided a stage for acts that catered to other Motor City constituencies, it will go down in rock history as the true birthplace of punk. Without the Stooges, MC5 and Alice Cooper, it would have taken a bit longer for Britain’s Clash and Sex Pistols, New York’s Ramones and Dolls and the West Coast noise bands to find their groove. In turn, if the 1960s’ counterculture hadn’t emerged at the same time as the civil rights and anti-war movements exploded, the Grande might not have become a home away from home for such popular attractions as Led Zeppelin, Cream, B.B. King, Janis Joplin, Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd and the Who. This was back in the day when a ticket to see a three-headliner show might top out a $5. The DVD adds vintage home-movie footage, archival photographs and other reminders of a Detroit that no longer exists and a grass-roots music scene that eventually would be gobbled up by rapacious record labels and promoters.

At a time when it seems impossible to imagine peace in the Mideast, it’s nice to know that some Israelis and Palestinians, at least, have reached out to each other in the name of peace, love and understanding, through music. The setting for this experiment in unforced harmony is Jerusalem, which is divided into the Arab East and Israeli West. The occasion is the recording of David Broza’s new album and documentary, East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem, a non-partisan collection of songs chosen specifically to be shared by musicians, singers and school children from opposite sides of the contested divide. Not all of them sound like the flipside of “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony),” thank goodness. The traditional rhythms of Israeli and Palestinian folk music add a necessary buoyancy and sense of place to the songs. Steve Earle was brought in as producer to stretch the roots of the music even further. In between rehearsals, co-directors Henrique Cymerman and Erez Miller tour the holy city with the musicians, offering their own feelings about what makes the place special and the pain of permanent relocation and division. Bonus features, include behind-the-scenes footage of David Broza in the studio and three music videos featuring David Broza and Steve Earle.

Stardust Stricken: Mohsen Makhmalbaf: A Portrait

Although this documentary looks as if it might have been shot any time in the last hundred years, depending on the technology on hand, it’s actually focused on the period almost immediately prior to and after the Islamist revolution in Iran. It’s jarring, especially when compared to films made by Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Leila Hatami, Samira Makhmalbaf and other participants in the Iranian New Wave from the same period. It speaks to the drama inherent in the upheaval that accompanied the abrupt transition from the modern, if frequently cruel monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to the fanatically repressive government of Ayatollah Kohmeini and his Koran-waving minions. Filmmakers, especially, have found it difficult to straddle the thin line drawn by censors who couldn’t possibly care less about what the judges at Cannes, Venice and Berlin think. Made in 1996, Stardust Stricken: Mohsen Makhmalbaf: A Portrait pairs two of the most important participants of the Iranian New Wave: journalist/critic/translator Houshang Golmakani and filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The documentary provides an introduction into the early life and works of Makhmalbaf, who, after being released from prison in 1979 for political activism and stabbing a cop, embraced literature and the cinema, while also finding peace in the Koran. In addition to revisiting formative locations in Makhmalbaf’s early life, Golmakani inserts footage taken during the costly eight-war between Iran and Ba’athist Iraq. Even his advocacy for the Islamic arts in Tehran couldn’t prevent five of his films from being banned in his home country. In 2001, his mostly widely known film, Kandahar, won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes. It brought him his second Palme d’Or nomination. (The first was in 1999 for Ghessé hayé kish, which he co-wrote and co-directed with Abolfazl Jalili, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Naser Taghvai.) In another classic example of the adage, “be careful what you wish for,” Makhmalbaf felt it necessary to leave the Islamic Republic in 2005, shortly after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, sixth President of Iran, and has lived in Paris since then. If any documentary cried out for a sequel, it would be “Stardust Stricken.”


IFC: The Spoils Before Dying, Season 2

PBS: The Secrets of Saint John Paul

PBS: Secrets of the Dead: The Alcatraz Escape

PBS: Ode to Joy: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9

PBS: David Holt’s State of Music

Hallmark: When Calls the Heart: Heart of a Hero

In 1992, Bruce Springsteen recorded “57 Channels (and Nothin’ On),” lamenting the dearth of quality programming on his newly purchased satellite dish. It was the closest he’s ever come to a novelty song and I doubt if he can remember the lyrics, let alone perform it in concerts. Today, consumers have more genuinely entertaining choices available to them then at any time in history, often more than 57 in the same timeslot. Independent programmers, podcasters and Internet-based artists have usurped the responsibility once reserved for the three broadcast networks and PBS. IFC’s “The Spoils Before Dying,” an extension of its “The Spoils of Babylon,” is a series that wouldn’t have seen the light of prime-time in 1992, except, perhaps, as a sketch on “Saturday Night Live.” Produced by Matt Piedmont and Andrew Steele for Funny or Die, the shows seemed to be little more than an after-school project for Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Kristen Wiig, Steve Tom, Haley Joel Osment, Michael Sheen and their funny friends. They attracted what even a cable network would consider to be a loyal niche audience of college-educated and comedy-savvy viewers. They are presented as comedy mini-series that parody classic entertainment tropes, introduced by the pompous “author, producer, actor, writer, director, raconteur, bon vivant, legend and fabulist” clone of late-career Orson Welles, Eric Jonrosh (Ferrell). “Babylon” spoofed such epic-scale “TV event” miniseries as “The Thorn Birds” and “Rich Man, Poor Man,” once-popular shows most viewers would be too young to have seen. The noir-soaked “Spoils Before Dying,” a “lost film” based on Jonrosh’s 1958 novel, follows 1950s jazz pianist-turned-private eye Rock Banyon (Michael Kenneth Williams) as he becomes embroiled in a murder investigation that hits too close to home. Banyon is given three days to clear his name in the murder of his colleague and lover, Fresno Foxglove (Maya Rudolph). It’s a lot of fun.

Catholics tend to revere the men who have been elected to shepherd their flock, while merely tolerating the cardinals who elected them and live in luxury at the expense of parishioners burdened by medieval dictates and criminal clergy. Like Pope John XXIII before him, Pope John Paul II was admired, as well, for advancing inclusive reforms that actually made Catholics feel good about their faith. The fascinating PBS/BBC documentary, “The Secrets of Saint John Paul,” made me wonder how Catholics would react to the very real possibility that the first non-Italian pontiff in more than 400 years had a romantic relationship with a married woman –Anna-Theresa Tymieniecka – who studied in Poland, before moving to the United States. Unlike the priests who prey on parishioners of both sexes, then-Archbishop of Kraków Karol Józef Wojtyla and Tymieniecka maintained a 30-year friendship, based, at the very least, on mutual intellectual curiosity and scholarship. Even when he was elevated to the papacy, Tymieniecka remained in contact with John Paul II as friend, adviser, translator and confidante. We know this only because their two-sided correspondence is part of a collection of documents sold by Tymieniecka’s estate in 2008 to the National Library of Poland. According to the BBC, the library had initially kept the letters from public view, partly to clear John Paul’s path to sainthood, but a library official announced in February the letters would be made public. BBC reporter Edward Stourton was the first to gain full, if guarded access. Veteran investigative journalist Carl Bernstein and Vatican expert Marco Politi were the first journalists to talk to Tymieniecka, in the 1990s, about her importance in John Paul’s life. They dedicated 20 pages to her in their 1996 book “His Holiness.” At the time, she denied having developed any romantic relationship with John Paul II/Wojtyla, “however one-sided it might have been.” If the recently disclosed letters and photographs suggest otherwise, I doubt that most rank-and-file Catholics would demand a retraction of his sainthood. Stourton’s research also reveals how the blatant misogyny of Vatican officials nearly forced an end to the friendship, causing the Pope to surreptitiously post letters from outside Rome. In retrospect, such revelations only make JPII more human.

In the PBS presentation, “Secrets of the Dead: The Alcatraz Escape,” three Dutch scientists use 3D modelling technology to speculate on the possibility that, in 1962, bank robbers Frank Morris and Clarence and John Anglin could have launched a patchwork raft into the waters surrounding Alcatraz Prison and survived. The men disappeared, leaving behind a cold case that has mystified law enforcement for over a half-century. The new technology is bolstered by elaborate data collected on the tidal patterns of San Francisco Bay at a to-scale model of the region, as the waters pass under the Golden Gate Bridge. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the mixed results of their investigation beg more questions than they answer.

The new 90-minute public-television special “Ode to Joy: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9” showcases the triumphant musical masterpiece in a rare full-length television recording by the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, with the Westminster Symphonic Choir, under the direction of conductor Mark Laycock. The orchestra and choir are joined by soprano Ah Young Hong, mezzo-soprano Leah Wool, tenor William Burden and bass-baritone Mark S. Doss. Technically exquisite, the symphony is performed in historic Alexander Hall on the campus of Princeton University, in honor of American scholar, philanthropist and human rights advocate William H. Scheide on the occasion of his 100th birthday celebration. The program also takes viewers to Vienna, where historical background is added.

Also from PBS, “David Holt’s State of Music” takes a reading on the health of American mountain music, as it’s been practiced for hundreds of years, from the most remote coves of southern Appalachia to the bright lights of Asheville’s public-TV studios and the Grand Old Opry stage. Grammy Award-winning performer David Holt has spent his life learning and performing traditional American music. Here, he introduces viewers to modern masters of traditional music.


In Hallmark’s “When Calls the Heart: Heart of a Hero,” Abigail and Frank pursue a romance before the town of Hope Valley is tested by the threat of a gang of outlaws and Elizabeth and Jack’s relationship is touched by jealousy, when a woman from his past unexpectedly arrives in town. While Bill grows overprotective of Abigail’s safety, Jack refuses to let the residents give in to their fears. It leads to a dramatic conclusion in which an unlikely ally joins the cause.

The DVD Wrapup: Janis, Triple 9, Princess, Wim Wenders, City of Women, Blood Bath, Human Tornado and more

Friday, June 3rd, 2016

Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue

GG Allin: Carnival of Excess

For as long as I can remember, someone has been trying to make a biopic about Janis Joplin. The closest anyone has come is Mark Rydell’s 1979 The Rose, which was loosely based on the Texas songbird’s troubled life, career and premature death to a heroin overdose nine years earlier. Because Joplin’s family wasn’t yet ready to commit to a specific Hollywood suitor, The Rose could only tease audiences with allusions to known facts. Since then, Lili Taylor, Pink, Zooey Deschanel, Brittany Murphy, Renée Zellweger, Amy Adams and Nina Arianda have had their names attached to film and theatrical projects that hit roadblocks along the way for similar reasons. The wait, in large part is over. Amy Berg’s comprehensive and legitimately affecting documentary, Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue, succeeds because she was granted the access the other hopefuls were denied. Still, it took eight years to complete. In addition to the rights to Joplin’s music and image, Berg gained access to friends, family members and music-industry sources who previously were limited as to what they could reveal to journalists and filmmakers. (Berg benefitted from cooperation with producer Peter Newman, who, for nearly 20 years, has held the rights to a treasure trove of Joplin material and still plans to make his own “Janis.”) Berg’s greatest coup, perhaps, was identifying musician Cat Power (as Chan Marshall) as the perfect person to read from the sadly revealing letters Joplin wrote home to her parents. On-screen interview subjects include her sister Laura, brother Michael, high school girlfriend Karleen Bennett, Kris Kristofferson (author of “Me and Bobbie McGee”), surviving bandmates from Joplin’s three bands, manager Julius Karpen, music mogul Clive Davis, D.A. Pennebaker (Monterey Pop), onetime boyfriend David Niehaus, hippie entrepreneur Chet Helms, talk-show host and friend Dick Cavett, and musicians “Country” Joe McDonald, Pink, Powell St. John (Mother Earth), Bob Weir, Melissa Etheridge and actress Juliette Lewis. That her singing style evolved through the years is evidenced in wonderful footage from shows in San Francisco, Monterey, Woodstock, Europe and Canada. And, of course, no bio-doc would be complete, or accurate, without a good deal of reflection on Joplin’s tortuous adolescence in Port Arthur, Texas, and lifetime obsession with pleasing her parents and convincing them of her success. Comparisons with Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning Amy, on the similarly tragic circumstances surrounding Amy Winehouse’s life and death, aren’t out of the question, either. The DVD adds featurettes “Big Brother Acapella,” “Avalon vs. the Fillmore,” “Influences” and “Walk of Fame Ceremony.”

Fans of the late punk provocateur GG Allin – and you know who you are – will relish the release of GG Allin: Carnival of Excess, a no-frills documentary filmed two years before his 1993 death to, guess what, heroin. If anyone was born behind the 8-ball, it was Allin. Named Jesus Christ Allin at birth by his screw-loose father, Merle, he was raised in rural New Hampshire, in a cabin with no electricity or running water. He lived under the constant threat of being killed by the joyless coot in a murder/suicide pact and buried underneath the floor boards. Finally realizing that she had married a dangerous lunatic, Arleta Allin took her two school-age boys to Vermont to recover some semblance of normality. To avert further damage, Arleta changed JCA’s legal name to Kevin Michael Allin. (GG became his nickname after older brother, Merle Jr., was unable to pronounce “Jesus” properly and called him “Jeje.”) Carrying that kind of baggage, it could hardly come as a surprise to his elders that their boy would turn to punk rock for refuge. His early influences included Aerosmith, KISS, the Stooges and New York Dolls, from whom he acquired an appreciation for cross-dressing. Later, GG’s stage act would become synonymous with violent self-abuse, transgressive music, scatological behavior and confrontation with spectators and police. In “Carnival of Excess,” GG performs proto-country songs on an acoustic guitar, sitting on the floor behind a coffeetable crowded with bottles of booze and beer, ashtrays and drug paraphernalia. The self-anointed Godfather of Scum Rock is surrounded by two women in stripper garb, gyrating to whatever it was that appealed to them about GG’s music. In between songs, some of which are pretty good, GG offers his opinions on a myriad of subjects, including life, death, touring and jail.

Triple 9: Blu-ray

Set in Atlanta, Triple 9 is a hyperviolent crime thriller cut from the same template as Michael Mann’s Heat. Where Mann’s L.A.-set drama combined narrative logic with explosive action, though, Triple 9 only offers superbly choreographed gunplay and chases. The lack of balance is likely the result of requiring proven Aussie director John Hillcoat – The Proposition, The Road, Lawless – to make do with a half-baked script by newcomer Matt Cook. In it, a gang of career criminals and corrupt cops is hired by Irina (Kate Winslet), the wife of an imprisoned Russian mobster, to break into a bank and steal a safe-deposit box that contains information that could overturn his conviction. Instead of paying the thieves, she gives their leader, Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor), another mission. This time, it involves breaking into an even less-accessible government office and stealing more data on her husband. An ill-conceived assassination of a crew member upends plans for the new job, providing a lead for boozy investigator Woody Harrelson to pursue. The title refers to the police code, 999, for an officer-down situation, requiring all available units to respond. The diversionary tactic doesn’t exactly work as planned, but only because the screenplay allows for such illogical developments to get in the way of the effective set pieces. If Triple 9 isn’t wholly successful, it’s not for any lack of star power supplied by supporting-cast members Casey Affleck, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins Jr., Norman Reedus, Teresa Palmer, Michael K. Williams and Gal Gadot. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and a pair of short making-of featurettes.


From Israel, Tali Shalom-Ezer’s unflinching debut feature chronicles a disaster waiting to happen. That Princess plays out in an environment associated with academic and professional achievement — not, say, in a trailer park on the outskirts of Little Rock – begs questions that only occasionally are addressed in films outside the festival circuit. Still sexy and flirtatious at fortysomething, Alma (Keren Moris) is a nurse who shares an apartment with her unemployed teacher boyfriend, Michael (Ori Pfeffer), and a 12-year-old daughter, Adar (Shira Haas), from a previous marriage to a seemingly more grounded man, possibly a kibbutz worker. Adar is enrolled in a school for gifted students, probably in Tel Aviv, but rarely attends or does her homework. When confronted by the school’s principal, Alma is able to avert Adar’s expulsion by openly flirting with the defenseless administrator. When chastised by her noticeably embarrassed daughter, Alma defends her MILF-y behavior as an essential tool in fixing problems faced by modern moms. Neither does she hide her sensual impulses off-duty, at home, with the only too agreeable Michael. On the cusp of womanhood, Adar can’t help but be affected by their canoodling. Clearly needy, though, she even climbs in bed next to them when she can’t sleep. With nothing but time on their hands when Alma is at work, Adar and Michael engage in activities that would be considered to be playful if she was 5 and he was her father. Instead, before our eyes, their relationship crosses the border from questionable and ill-advised to creepy and potentially criminal. One afternoon, in order to escape Michael’s attention, Adar uses the time away from school to set out on a walkabout through the city’s teenage wasteland. It’s here she befriends an aimless 17-year-old boy, Alan (Adar Zohar-Hanetz), who, while noticeably taller, could be her twin. They even dress alike. Adar not only convinces her mother to allow the homeless youth to spend a few nights in their already cramped apartment, but also to share her bed in a non-sexual way. Even so, curiosity leads to some mild petting and limit testing. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Alan and Adar’s resemblance to each other – could he be her doppelganger, instead of merely a look-alike? — trips a switch in Michael’s hair-trigger libido. Can this childhood be saved? Stay tuned. Shalom-Ezer does a nice job keeping this potentially messy drama from spinning out of control and keeping her own opinions of her characters in check. The acting is terrific, especially Haas in her debut performance. It arrives with a making-of featurette.


City of Women: Blu-ray

By 1980, radical feminism had been eclipsed by the desire of young women to carve their own paths through life, unburdened by the demands of unenlightened men and stale political imperatives imposed on them by the editors of Ms. Magazine and women who still refused to shave their body hair. The thought of Federico Fellini revisiting the subject at this late date through the still-lascivious eyes of his cinematic alter-ego, Marcello Mastroianni, probably was greeted with the degree of indifference usually reserved for over-the-hill artists, athletes and actors in other disciplines. Curiosity, nostalgia and fan loyalty would be the likely deciding factors in determining the commercial fate of Fellini’s City of Women, at least outside Italy. Critics were mixed on its artistic merit and audiences indifferent. Thirty-five years later, divorced of lowered expectations and the landmines of politically correct thought, it’s possible to see the wildly extravagant fantasy in a different light. I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed City of Women, which could be considered a delayed sequel to . It opens in a crowded train, where Mastroianni’s Snaporaz will be lured into the tiny washroom by a woman (Bernice Stegers) whose physical attributes match those associated with the stereotypical Italian bombshells of the 1960s and giallo. Before Snaporaz can seal the deal, the train makes an abrupt stop, alerting the woman to its arrival at her appointed destination, which appears to be in the middle of nowhere. His enflamed libido demands that Snaporaz follow the unnamed woman through a meadow and into a forest, where a feminist convention is underway at a luxury hotel. Instead of minding his own business and returning to the train depot, Snaporaz decides to follow the scent of his seducer through a ballroom full of women of every known feminist variety, from lipstick lesbians and diesel dykes, to snuggle bunnies and commandoes in the battle of the sexes. Stumbling through the assemblage like Mr. Magoo at a strip club, Snaporaz finally comes to the conclusion that he’s been directed to the convention either for the amusement of the participants or to be devoured as the main course at a banquet. He accepts a ride from the hotel’s stout furnace tender, who takes him to a farm field with rape on her mind. After being interrupted, this time by the woman’s elderly mother, he connects with a car full of stoned teenage girls headed to a party at the estate of Dr. Xavier Katzone (Ettore Manni), a crazy libertine celebrating the occasion of his 10,000th sexual conquest. While wandering around the elaborately accessorized estate, Snaporaz meets his slightly inebriated ex-wife (Anna Prucnal) and a voluptuous woman (Donatella Damiani) he met roller-skating at the hotel. Things really get Fellini-esque, if you will, when Snaporaz discovers a portal into another fantasy world controlled by women, where his masculinity is judged. No need to reveal what happens next, but, be assured, it’s of a part with what’s preceded it. More than anything else, City of Women serves as a reminder of Fellini’s halcyon days, when a visit to his world was like a day at Disneyland on LSD. It arrives on Blu-ray with vintage French and Italian theatrical trailers; an interview with production designer Dante Ferretti; a new documentary film featuring producer Renzo Rossellini, film historian Aldo Tassone, producer and film historian Carlo Lizzani, and Federico Fellini’s assistant Dominique Delouche; and an entertaining interview with Italian director Tinto Brass, who compares his tastes in women with those of his friend, Fellini.


Wim Wenders: The Road Trilogy: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

Although the origin of the road movie genre generally is traced back no further than Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde, Two-Lane Blacktop and Badlands, its roots can be said to extend to Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou, Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road, Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night and TV’s “Route 66.” Admirers of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s “Road” pictures may object, but, except for The Road to Hong Kong, production was largely limited to the Paramount Studios lot. In less location-specific road and buddy flicks, the potential for adventure, romance, tragedy and a few good laughs existed around every curve on the road. Every stopover presented existential challenges to individual freedom. When the journey was over, some kind of emotional or intellectual growth could be expected of the protagonists. Looking back at the films included in the constantly surprising, “Wim Wenders: The Road Trilogy” – made back-to-back in the mid-1970s, Wenders says, “The genre doesn’t quite have the same appeal anymore, mainly because everybody travels now. Traveling was once a privilege, and being on the road was a state of grace, and not that many people dared to take that liberty. But today, anybody can book a flight to the U.S. and rent a car or bike and go down Route 66 or feel like in Easy Rider.” That sentiment became especially cogent with the completion, in 1992, of the original Interstate Highway System, as envisioned 35 years earlier by President Eisenhower’s dream team. In many ways, today’s federal expressways are rivers of conformity, dictated by expediency and cookie-cutter chains of hotels, gas stations and restaurants. That wasn’t yet the case when Wenders brought his no-frills production crew to the United States to make the perfectly delightful Alice in the Cities, in which a German photojournalist is saddled with the supervision of a precocious 9-year-old girl after encountering her mother at a New York airport. In the U.S. to capture the “real America” on film, Philip Winter (Rüdiger Vogler) has decided to return to Germany to clear the writer’s block in his head caused by the disappointment of seeing how ghastly a vision that turned out to be. While trying to book a flight, he encounters a German woman (Lisa Kreuzer) and her daughter Alice (Yella Rottländer) doing the same thing. During the wait for their flight, which has been delayed by a strike, the three foreigners pool their assets for a hotel room and tour of the rapidly changing Manhattan. The next morning, mom hops in a cab and disappears into thin air. After returning to Europe, via Amsterdam, the innocent friendship between Winter and Alice grows as they travel together through various European cities on a quest for Alice’s grandmother. As is the case with most good road movies, their journey becomes one of growth and discovery. For audiences here, it opened our eyes to America as others saw us and a Europe that was still coming to grips with its own post-war visions. If viewers are reminded of similarly black-and-white buddy film, Paper Moon, starring Ryan and Tatum O’Neal, then 9, you wouldn’t be alone. Wenders nearly killed his own fully funded project after seeing Peter Bogdanovich’s film, but was talked into continuing with strategic alternations by Nicholas Ray, who couldn’t see the point of letting an approved budget go to waste.


Vogler returned a year later as the director’s alter ego in Wrong Move, a road picture that largely takes place on German rails and waterways. It is as dour as Alice in the Cities was bright. It chronicles six days in the life of Wilhelm, an aspiring novelist encouraged to discover what’s happening in his country by his mother, who gives him a ticket to Bonn. On the way, he becomes enchanted with the fleeting visage of an actress (Hanna Schygulla) staring back at him from a train running parallel to his. He’s shares his compartment with a pair of stowaways — an athlete in the 1936 Olympics (Hans Christian Blech) and his mute teen companion, Mignon (14-year-old Natasha Kinski, in her first screen role) – and a plump poet (Peter Kern) who insinuates himself into their conversation. Once off the train, Mignon performs acrobatics for loose change, while the older man – like the train conductor, a former death-camp guard — plays harmonica. In a serendipitous encounter, Wilhelm reconnects with the actress after interrupting a film crew shooting a scene nearby. The poet encourages the whole group to join him at a house owned by his uncle, situated on a bluff high above the Rhine. As beautiful as the location is, it’s mostly populated with ghosts representing the last 50 years of German angst. Adapted from a late-18th Century novel by Goethe, Wrong Move eventually finds Wilhelm on the Zugspitze, the highest mountain peak in Germany, to ruminate on where he’s been and where he might go. The same could be said of Wenders’ Germany.


In the nearly three-hour Kings of the Road, Vogler plays a traveling projection-equipment mechanic, Bruno, whose work takes him to villages along the East German border. Early on, he connects with a depressed young man, Robert (Hanns Zischler), whose Volkswagen had just disproved the theory that bugs float. Bruno’s circuit appears to allow for a day or two in each small town, as well as the occasional romantic encounter, which is more than enough for his needs. It also allows him to gain insights on life from the masters of American cinema, which Wenders injects into the narrative at strategic points. The two men don’t spend a lot of time conversing, but, when they do, its largely spent on their inability to form and maintain relations with women. There are several wonderful set pieces here, including one in which the two travelers entertain a group of impatient kids with shadow acting, as well as one of the most famously disgusting displays of a bodily function ever committed to film. There were other points in all three of these movies when I was struck by visual images that reminded me of Jim Jarmusch’s work, 10 years down the road. The common denominator being Robby Müller’s brilliant black-and-white cinematography. In addition to presenting upgraded versions of all three films, the bonus package includes the short films “Same Player Shoots Again” (1967) and “Silver City Revisited” (1968); archival audio commentary with Wenders and actors Vogler and Rottlander; discussions about Muller, author Peter Handtke and other influences; outtakes; Super 8 Footage; and a 48-page illustrated book featuring Michael Almereyda’s essay, “Between Me and the World”; Allison Anders’ essay, “A Girl’s Story”; James Robinson’s essay, “Utter Detachment, Utter Truth”; Nick Roddick’s essay, “Keep on Truckin'”; and technical credits.


The Abandoned: Blu-ray

I hope director Eytan Rockaway and writer Ido Fluk don’t get discouraged by the negative reviews in mainstream outlets for their debut feature, The Abandoned (a.k.a., “The Confines”). The genre press was far more forgiving and helpful in their criticism. Desperate to get her life back on track, the unstable Streak (Louisa Kraus) takes a job as a security guard, working the graveyard shift at a once upscale, now abandoned apartment complex, the lobby of which resembles Grand Central Station in the wee small hours. On her first night on duty, however, she discovers a horrifying presence lurking deep within the bowels of the decaying building. The entire security staff is comprised of Streak, who walks through the hallways every two hours, and the surly, wheelchair-bound Cooper (Jason Patric), who monitors the same territory from a deck of security cameras. Streak hasn’t even made it to lunch break when the heebie-jeebies set in and she begins hearing mysterious noises. The picture’s greatest asset is the labyrinthine network of hallways and seemingly empty rooms. Cooper has warned Streak to stay within her appointed rounds and not stray into areas that might contain secrets pertaining to previous tenants. Not only does Streak ignore Cooper’s warnings, but she also disobeys his order not to open the lobby door to a homeless man (Mark Margolis) and his dog, in dire need of shelter in a storm. It probably wasn’t a good idea on her part. If the building’s infrastructure wasn’t sufficiently creepy, Rockaway adds a faulty electrical system into the mix and enough jump-scares for a decade’s worth of Halloween haunted houses. Once the building’s deepest secret is revealed, however, the cheap thrills no longer retain the same ability to jolt viewers. Streak’s mission then becomes one of saving souls, including her own. The Abandoned could have benefitted from a bit more patience in the introduction of things that go bump in the night and some background on the building. Most critics were unhappy with the ending, but that’s almost par for the course for first-timers. It demonstrates the kind of promise that looks good on a resume. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and an alternate ending.


Blood Bath: Special Edition: Blu-ray

Psychic Killer: Blu-ray

There’s no better example of repurposing Hollywood film stock than Blood Bath, a movie that began its life as a highly stylized product of the mid-1960s Yugoslavian cinema – such as Tito allowed it to be – but ended it, several iterations later, as a cult classic with the indispensable Sid Haig playing a beatnik named Abdul the Arab. (Where’s Haig’s star on the Walk of Fame? Good question.) Naturally, Roger Corman, a filmmaker who actually could squeeze blood out of a turnip, is at the center of the story. Fifty years later, Arrow Video has released into Blu-ray all four versions of the movie in a single package, demonstrating what a determined producer can do when challenged by mediocrity. In 1963, while on vacation in Europe, Corman made a deal to distribute an unproduced Yugoslavian espionage thriller, “Operacija Ticijan.” For his $20,000 investment, he was able to insist that Operation Titian be custom-tailored for exhibition back home. Corman provided two cast members, William Campbell and Patrick Magee, who had appeared together for him in The Young Racers and protégé Francis Coppola’s Dementia 13. In addition, Coppola (not yet, Francis Ford Coppola) was installed as the production’s uncredited script supervisor. Corman deemed Operation Titian unreleasable, but not so bad that it couldn’t be redubbed, slightly re-edited and released to drive-ins as Portrait in Terror. (The names of the largely Yugo cast and crew were anglicized, as well.) Set entirely in then-exotic Dubrovnik, Operation Titian can be viewed as a strangely entertaining example of the German kriminalfilm subgenre of crime thrillers. Popular at the time, krimis were distinguished by almost accidentally arty production values, gothic settings and masked or obscured antagonists. Many of the films were based on the early-20th Century work of the prolific British journalist, novelist, playwright and screenwriter Edgar Wallace. In Operation Titian, Campbell plays a Dubrovnik-based artist who resembles Liberace and wields a spear-fishing gun. Patrick Magee plays a shadowy Italian art thief visiting the medieval seaport in pursuit of a Titian painting, also coveted by the artist. Also figuring into the plot are a blond American tourist (Anna Pavone), with earlier ties to the artist, and a Yugoslavian stripper (Linda Moreno). If the story makes almost no logical sense, it’s distinguished by Rados Novakovic’s (a.k.a., Michael Roy) decision to light the city’s ancient streets and buildings as if he were attempting to re-create Carol Reed’s The Third Man, substituting ageless Dubrovnik for post-war Vienna. No kidding … the city lends itself to just such an audacious conceit.


Audacious conceits aren’t what made Corman successful, however. To American-ize Operation Titian even further, he handed the picture over to Coppola classmate and rising exploitation specialist Jack Hill (Spider Baby) and fellow Corman protégé Stephanie Rothman (Terminal Island), who would turn it into the slasher picture with fangs, Blood Bath, and, later, the TV-ready Track of the Vampire. Hill filmed additional sequences in Venice, California, in order to match the original movie’s European look, and turned the former krimi into a horror movie about a crazed madman who kills his models and makes sculptures out of their dead bodies. Hill borrowed the bohemian milieu from the Corman-directed A Bucket of Blood (1959), which, itself, would lend sets to The Little Shop of Horrors, adding American actors Sid Haig, Jonathan Haze, Marissa Mathes, Lori Saunders, Sandra Knight and Biff Elliot. Blood Bath would strip much of the music and action from Operation Titian – including an international fishing competition – while maintaining many of the atmospheric, scenic and character-establishing elements. In doing so, it lost quite a bit of the original’s running time, which would then have to be replaced for the TV version in the form of exceedingly long chases and inexplicable dances. In doing so, Track of the Vampire imagines an undead artist (Campbell) who somehow is immune to bright sunshine and is capable of swimming underwater in a trench coat. It also adds a surrealistic beach scene, a chase with the vampire and beach bunny and an unintentionally hilarious confrontation between the beatniks and the vampire. Not surprisingly, then, the featurettes, essays and interviews that comprise Arrow Video’s extensive bonus package tell a story far more compelling than any in the four newly restored into 1080p versions of Blood Bath, Operation Titian, Portrait in Terror and Track of the Vampire. Among them are “The Trouble with Titian Revisited,” a new visual essay in which Tim Lucas returns to (and updates) his three-part Video Watchdog feature to examine the films’ convoluted production history; “Bathing in Blood with Sid Haig,” a new interview with the still-active actor; outtakes from Track of the Vampire, scanned from original film materials; double-sided fold-out poster, featuring original and newly commissioned artworks; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Dan Mumford; limited-edition booklet containing new writing on the film and its cast by Peter Stanfield, Anthony Nield, Vic Pratt and Cullen Gallagher.


When Jim Hutton’s movie career began to sputter after co-starring in Walk Don’t Run, the 6-foot-5 actor turned to guest-starring roles in popular television series and MOTW’s. In 1975, Hutton returned to the big screen in Psychic Killer, a bargain-basement supernatural thriller destined for exhibition in drive-in theaters, where his name still meant something. In it, he plays the mentally unstable Arnold Masters, implicated in a murder he didn’t commit. While incarcerated in a mental facility, a fellow patient teaches him the tech niques of astral projection, which allows those who possess psychic powers to use their minds to control events far from where they are, seemingly unconscious. Before his fellow patient and mentor commits suicide, the older man clears the name of his protégé. Masters is bequeathed the amulet that triggers the effect and provides the perfect alibi he sets out to avenge his incarceration and death of his mother. Even when the police (Paul Burke, Aldo Ray), his shrink (Julie Adams) and a parapsychologist (Nehemiah Persoff) figure out how Masters’ enemies are winding up dead, they’re hard-pressed to make a case against a man under constant surveillance. Still, it’s inevitable. The most interesting thing about Psychic Killer, perhaps, is the PG rating it received, despite an amusing striptease, a nude shower scene (Mary Charlotte Wilcox) and the truly grisly death of a butcher (Neville Brand) after being attacked by a side of lamb hanging from a hook on an overhead conveyor … really. Today, it would be accorded an automatic R rating, but, back then, the board was far more lenient. Curiously, the geniuses at the MPAA never reconsider such clearly misguided ratings – one way or the other – when they’re attached to DVDs. Its concern for protecting family values and parental choice ends as soon as a movie opens and the tickets are counted. Psychic Killer was directed by character actor Ray Danton, whose sons and ex-wife appear in the featurette, “The Danton Force.” Other bonus material includes “The Psychic Killer Inside Me” featurette, with actor Greydon Clark; “The Aura of Horror,” with produce Mardi Rustam; marketing material; and reversible cover artwork. Look for a cameo by Della Reese.


The Human Tornado: Blu-ray

Hot on the heels of Vinegar Syndrome’s recent Blu-ray release of Dolemite comes Rudy Ray Moore’s follow-up, The Human Tornado. Of all the Blaxploitation titles, these might have been the most ghetto fabulous. The Dolemite character was an extension of Moore’s nightclub act, which rivaled Redd Foxx for its earthy qualities. The movies are set in the same sort of clubs, which feature a variety of acts designed to attracts pimps and their “bottom bitches” on their nights out on the town. In other words, the real show was in the audience. In The Human Tornado, a cartoonishly racist cop chases the entertainer out of his domain and back to L.A., where Queen Bee’s (Lady Reed) club has once again been taken over by the mafia. On top of that, the honkies have also kidnapped two of Queen Bee’s dancers. Dolemite rounds up the toughest kung-fu fighters in L.A. to take on Queen Bee’s enemies. As ludicrous and lopsided as the speeded-up confrontations are, they benefit from the loosey-goosey atmosphere that allows the background characters to maintain smiles and grins throughout the action. There’s plenty of skin and sloppy sex on display this time around, too. I don’t know how many more of Moore’s pictures VS intends to restore and release, but the character would re-appear in various iterations until just before his death, in 2008, at 81. Among the supporting-cast members are Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters) and world karate champion Howard Jackson. The Blu-ray package adds “I, Dolemite II,” making-of documentary; “Der Bastard,” German dubbed version; a commentary track, with Moore’s biographer, Mark Jason Murray and co-star Jimmy Lynch; an audio interview with director Cliff Roquemore and martial arts champion Howard Johnson; original theatrical trailers for both Dolomite pictures; and original cover artwork by Jay Shaw.



PBS: Frontline: Saudi Arabia Uncovered

Of all the things we associate with life in Saudi Arabia, poverty isn’t one of them. We know that foreign laborers don’t enjoy the same rights and privileges accorded citizens, but it isn’t a problem unique to one country in the region. For as long as western democracies have allowed themselves to be dependent on an uninterrupted flow of oil to fuel their factories, automobiles and economies, the royal family and its inner circle have treated the world outside Saudi Arabia as its own private shopping mall and playground. The same government turned a blind eye toward the human rights abuses committed by the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which patrols streets and malls to enforce a strict form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism, now, along with oil, one of the country’s leading exports. Among other things, children are taught in Wahhabi schools that Christians, Jews and Shia Muslims are their enemies. Based on undercover video footage shot throughout the kingdom, the “Frontline” presentation “Saudi Arabia Uncovered” reveals truths about Saudi Arabia that should make viewers question the hidden costs of affordable oil and gasoline. When the royal family began to feel the pinch of reduced revenue from oil exports and the cost of battling insurgents in Yemen, they took it out on the people who were most likely to bring the Arab Spring to the Shia-dominated east of the country. On a single day at the start of 2016, the government executed 47 people, including a leading cleric, on all-encompassing terror charges. With clandestine footage, on-the-ground reporting and unique access to the cleric’s family (his 21-year-old nephew Ali is now on death row, sentenced to beheading and crucifixion), the documentary shows a side of Saudi Arabia rarely seen by the outside world. Along the way, the film follows key figures leading efforts to make change in Saudi Arabia: Raif Badawi, a blogger who was imprisoned and sentenced to 1,000 lashes for posts critical of the government and Islam; and Loujain Hathloul, a prominent women’s rights activist who filmed herself driving in defiance of the kingdom’s laws and was arrested for the effrontery. “Saudi Arabia Uncovered” raises disturbing questions, most of which lack satisfactory answers, especially considering how badly we’ve blown previous attempts at sorting out divisions in the region.