Into the Storm: Blu-ray
I can’t remember when storm chasing became a staple of reality television, but, just as miniature cameras have allowed NASCAR fans up-close-and-personal views of violent crashes, the prospect of watching daredevil scientists getting devoured by an EF5 tornado was a guaranteed hit. While we were blessedly spared slo-mo footage of “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin’s death-by-stingray, photos of the research vehicle crushed by powerful tornados, last year, told us all needed to know about the final moments of veteran chasers Carl Young, Tim Samaras and his son, Jim. For those unable to visualize the potential consequences of pitting technological prowess against Mother Nature’s fury, I suggest picking up a copy of Into the Storm. I wonder what the ratings for Syfy’s Sharknado were in Tornado Alley. I can’t imagine anyone who’s lost a home to a twister seeing anything funny in it, but that’s just me. Anthony C. Ferrante and John Swetnam’s mega-disaster thriller isn’t devoid of some whoppers of its own. The genre lends itself to hyperbole and wild sight gags. I recall interviewing director Jan de Bont before the 1996 release of Twister and the excitement caused by the inclusion of a befuddled cow sucked into the vortex, accompanied by the digitally distorted sounds of lions and camels. Four years later, I was able to eavesdrop on the CGI wizards at Industrial Light & Magic, as they were putting the finishing touches on The Perfect Storm, and visit the giant tank at Warner Bros. where some of the more intimate scenes were shot. News footage from actual Nor’easters wasn’t sufficiently frightening, so computer graphics were added to jack up the intensity to nightmarish proportions. I don’t think anyone minded. Much has happened in the ensuing 13 years to raise the bar on the replication of meteorological carnage. Many of the images included in Into the Storm came from material captured by storm chasers and news reports, including coverage of the EF5 tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma, only 10 days before the deaths of Young and the Samaras. Other images were digitally integrated into scenes of powerful multi-vortex tornados and a “fire whirl” threatening the citizens of fictional Silverton. If some of those images force viewers to suspend their disbelief to record levels, it’s only because mind-blowing storm footage is readily available on the Internet and it’s free. What the estimated $50-million budget couldn’t sustain, however, was an A-list cast and a story that doesn’t borrow from nearly every other disaster movie ever made. Although not made for cable, Into the Storm occasionally looks as if it were. The first cliché requires there to be a clash between a daredevil storm chaser (Matt Walsh) and a data-obsessed, if beautiful scientist (Sarah Wayne Callies), who bears the brunt of the team’s yearlong drought in recordable storms. When their Moby Dick arrives in the form of an off-the charts tornado cluster, the team must choose between keeping the cameras rolling from the safety of their heavily fortified vehicle or sounding the alarm in Silverton, whose citizens have gotten accustomed to withstanding lesser storms. In a convenient win-win solution to their dilemma, the pros are able to collaborate with local amateurs, who, of course, have been risking their own lives to capture potentially valuable footage on their cellphones. When a teacher at the town’s endangered high school learns that his son, with whom he’s just argued, natch, and his hottie girlfriend, might be playing hooky in an abandoned warehouse, another improbable obstacle is added. Again, it’s nothing anyone hasn’t seen before, but the race against time adds a tick-tock element one expects from these things. The Perfect Storm’s screenwriter William D. Wittliff, working from Sebastian Junger’s book, couldn’t have invented anything more dramatic than what happened to those fishermen that day and the A-list cast did the rest. The Blu-ray package adds such interesting background featurettes as “Into the Storm: Tornado Files,” “Titus: The Ultimate Storm-Chasing Vehicle” and “Fake Storms: Real Conditions,” which demonstrates how the real and digital images were merged.
In a movie that suffers by comparison to Blade Runner, Antonio Banderas plays a character who too closely resembles Harrison Ford’s replicant hunter, Rick Deckard. Where Ridley Scott used constant rain to emphasize how shitty things had become in Philip K. Dick’s toxic vision of noir L.A., Gabe Ibáñez’ Automata maintains its prevailing climate of dread by visualizing a planet scorched by endless radioactive sunshine. Given all the fear-mongering surrounding the climate-change debate, it’s easy to buy into cinematographer Alejandro Martínez’ hellishly unsparing landscape. Unfortunately, it’s the only aspect of Automata that really feels new and different. As such, it will be of more interest to post-apocalyptic completists than the mainstream critics who were almost unanimously unimpressed by it. They didn’t hate it, exactly, but neither did they find anything in it to love, as some niche bloggers did. Banderas may be more convincing than Tom Cruise in these sorts of futuristic thrillers, but, having enjoyed so much of his work with Pedro Almodóvar, I couldn’t avoid the feeling he would be better served elsewhere. Fellow Almodovar favorite Javier Bardem also lent his disembodied voice to Automata’s Blue Robot, so, if nothing else, Ibáñez must have felt buoyed by the support of his fellow Spaniards in only his second feature. The brief presence of Banderas’ wife, Melanie Griffith, as a “sexbot” tech and voice of one of her creations, Cleo Robot, is easier to explain. In 2044, the Earth’s surface is so radioactive that 99.7 percent of the population has been wiped out and most of the survivors exist behind walls built by robot drones. Banderas plays Jacq Vaucan, an agent for ROC Robotics, which has been entrusted with the responsibility of preventing the increasingly devious cyborgs from abusing the three protocols carved in stone by Isaac Asimov: 1) a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; 2) a robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law, and 3) a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. They also appear to be breaking the protocols by altering and repairing themselves. It had to happen sooner or later, so ROC Robotics pays dearly to eliminate any threats to humans. Unlike too many of his fellow “insurance agents” and police, Vaucan exhibits more than an ounce of sympathy for those robots talented enough to improve their lot on Earth. It makes him a target for destruction, as well. When Vaucan disappears into the desert with Cleo, his supervisors kidnap his wife and newborn child. Incredibly, they run him down at a factory/hospital run by rogue robots. The ensuing standoff feels rushed and unnecessarily illogical. Robert Forster and Dylan McDermott add a touch of class in supporting roles. The Blu-ray adds a short making-of piece.
Norwegian import Everywhen is set 30 more years into the future than Automata, in a country where the threat to humanity doesn’t involve robots or radioactive sand. Somehow, though, another 3 billion people have suddenly disappeared from the face of the Earth. At a time when teleporting is a common means of transportation, 17-year-old Ian Finch (Harald Evjan Furuholmen) wills himself into the alternative universe he believes his missing brother, Dylan, can be found. The problem for Ian is that no one there wants Dylan to be found. Like his protagonist, co-writer/director Jarand Breian Herdal is a mere lad of 17. The movie, itself, isn’t all that exciting, but it did get some play in Norway. Considering Herdal had only about $10,000 to spend – maybe, he stole his parents’ credit cards – it doesn’t look bad, either. A short making-of film accompanies this DVD, as well.
The Wind Rises: Blu-ray
Princess Mononoke: Blu-ray
Kiki’s Delivery Service: Blu-ray
Ever since Western film critics and animation buffs helped convince Walt Disney Company to showcase the work of Hayao Miyazaki, by distributing titles from Studio Ghibli outside Japan, niche audiences here have applauded his takes on mankind’s struggle to balance nature and technology, the strength and wisdom of his female characters, and maintaining a pacifist stance in world enamored of war. They also have admired the ways fantasy and supernatural themes are integrated into manga-influenced stories of almost breathtaking visual beauty. Knowing Americans’ genetic predisposition to not reward movies that carry subtitles, Disney has arranged for casts of prominent voice actors to mute any objections to them. (It does the same thing in other markets.) Last year, Miyazaki stunned the industry by announcing his retirement after the completion of The Wind Rises, newly released here in Blu-ray alongside previous masterworks Princess Mononoke and Kiki’s Delivery Service. If all one knew about The Wind Rises before watching it at home or in a theater is that it either won or was nominated Best Animated Feature in every major critics’ poll or awards competition in which it was represented, they’re likely to be nonplussed by its subject matter. Although hugely popular in Japan, the film was the subject of political debate from both ends of the spectrum. If Miyazaki were more widely recognized in the U.S., The Wind Rises may have sparked an even greater controversy here. That’s because Miyazaki chose to illustrate the life story of Jiro Horikoshi, a man most Americans wouldn’t recognize as being Japan’s most prominent designer of military aircraft. His most notorious creation was the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter, which, of course, inflicted the greatest amount of death and destruction during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Hardly a subject to keep turnstiles spinning at U.S. multiplexes. Even those familiar with Horikoshi and his seemingly contradictory lack of sympathy for Japanese imperialism, however, might look askance at a screenplay that completely misrepresents his marriage and pre-war timeline, invents characters out of whole cloth, and even imagines a cigarette habit that didn’t exist.
What is indisputable is the engineer’s lifelong passion for flight and ability to see beauty in machines that almost surely would be used in war. As if to counter potential controversy, Miyazaki imbues his protagonist with the gift of visual prophesy. The widespread flames caused by a large earthquake pre-sage the firebombing of Tokyo, while, later, in a dream, Horikoshi and his imaginary Italian mentor, stroll through a field littered with the metal carcasses of Zeros. Even so, Horikoshi clearly compromises his repugnance for the Japanese cause by accepting the challenge of designing something that combines form and function in a way that corrupts artistic vision. “All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful,” he says. It’s a trade-off too few designers and artists of all backgrounds have been able to resist. Even so, unless one has skipped ahead to the interviews contained in the bonus package, it would be difficult to understand precisely what the filmmaker is trying to say about Horikoshi’s dreams and capitulation. If I’ve thrown in a few too many spoilers here, it’s only because this wonderful film can be interpreted in so many different ways, not all of them entirely accurate. The splendid Blu-ray package, which Americans can enjoy with or without subtitles, includes the making-of featurette “The Wind Rises: Behind the Microphone,” storyboards, Japanese trailers and TV spots and lengthy Q&A press conference that accompanied the announcement of the completion of the film.
While viewers interested enough in Miyazaki’s career to seek out The Wind Rises in its Blu-ray debut likely already have enjoyed DVD versions of Princess Mononoke and Kiki’s Delivery Service, most will want to compare them to the hi-def experience, anyway. They won’t be disappointed. I would caution newcomers against starting at the end of the master’s list of credits, though, as his best-known films are significantly different in tone and style than The Wind Rises. Released in Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong in 1997, American audiences didn’t get a look at Princess Mononoke until two years later, after Disney/Miramax was able to add an all-star English-language soundtrack and arrange for the filmmaker’s first press tour here. In it, Miyazaki pits Lady Eboshi’s expansionist clan of humans against the forest’s animal spirits led by Princess Mononoke, who was raised by wolves. The film wasn’t nearly as big a hit on this side of the Pacific as it was elsewhere, but its spectacular beauty, complex anime and engrossing narrative got the ball rolling for the release of previously undistributed titles and re-release of movies butchered by less conscientious handlers. The bonus material includes “Princess Mononoke in the USA,” on Miyazaki’s promotional tour; voice actors Jada Pinkett Smith, Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thornton, Gillian Anderson and Billy Crudup discuss their contributions; original Japanese storyboards; and marketing material.
Shown in Japan in 1989, Kiki’s Delivery Service arrived here on video in 1998 through Buena Vista Home Entertainment. The first attempt at dubbing English dialogue, employing American idioms and sound effects, disappointed many viewers who were already aware of Miyazaki’s work. It was given a second vocal makeover five years later on DVD. In it, Kiki is a 13-year-old apprentice witch on a worldwide mission to prove herself worthy of promotion to full-time status. Along with her black cat, Jiji, Kiki creates a successful high-flying delivery service, via broomstick. In addition to 10 carryover featurettes, the Blu-ray add “Ursula’s Painting,” a musical montage of images created by junior high school students and used by Director Miyazaki for the film.
A Five Star Life
It’s no secret anymore that women executives attempting to break through the glass ceiling are being asked to make sacrifices and lifestyle compromises that men in the same positions either take for granted or don’t have to sweat. Among them are traveling to places that make them feel uneasy and putting off having a family. Neither do indiscretions caused by loneliness necessarily cause men to be categorized as promiscuous or soiled, merely horny or desperate. If the hospitality industry has finally come to its senses and begun catering to single business travelers – some of the best hotels in Las Vegas no longer require guests to walk through casinos to get to their elevator or breathe air polluted by cigarette smoke and crude language – it’s because making such concessions pays off in repeat visits and referrals. In Maria Sole Tognazzi’s A Five Star Life, we’re introduced to a woman of a certain age who’s been able to navigate those shoals and come out the other end mostly unscathed. Margherita Buy was a natural choice to play Irene, an impeccably fashionable and dedicated executive at a company that owns some of the most prestigious hotels in the world. If Irene were working at a newspaper, her title would be “hotel critic.” Because she reports to men responsible for maintaining the company’s value to shareholders, instead of a crusty editor, her opinions carry much weight within the chain, from top to bottom.
If anything, Irene is far pickier than any critic. She checks in under assumed names and carries a corporate credit card not in her real name. She grades every person with whom she comes in contact, from concierge to pool attendants, and doesn’t eat anything she won’t critique when she gets back to her room. Irene puts on white gloves to check for dust on ledges and shelves, then sticks a thermometer into a bottle of room-service wine to make sure it’s ready to serve. Fortunately for Irene and viewers, the hotels she’s assigned to survey are in such places as Gstaad, Paris, Tuscany, Brindisi, Marrakech, Berlin and Shanghai. It’s an amazing job, even if it does keep her away from home for weeks at a time. Once there, she spends almost all of her time with her sister Silvia (Fabrizia Sacchi), two lively young nieces, and occasional lover, Andrea (Stefano Accorsi), who’s recently impregnated a woman who works for both of them. (It’s possible he’s more of a sperm donor than live-at-home dad.) Like many other overworked executives, regardless of gender or ethnicity, Irene doesn’t waste a great deal of time worrying about what might have been. That is, until she chances upon a woman (Lesley Manville) whose take on life prompts her to do just that. This turning point is handled by Tognazzi with great skill, without polemics, recriminations or cliché. Minus the fireworks, A Five Star Life may be too restrained and subtle to suit general audiences, but there’s no denying the integrity of Buy’s performance and relevance of the message.
A Summer’s Tale
It’s always a thrill when a new distributor joins the marketplace, pledging to bring “the best in world cinema to film enthusiasts across the United States,” and then delivers on that promise. Considering how few of the world’s great movies find their way into theaters here, the addition of one more company serving the arthouse crowd is welcome news, indeed. Founded in 2013 as an expansion of its short-film distribution wing, The World According to Shorts, Big World Pictures has just released into DVD Eric Rohmer’s 1996 romantic comedy, A Summer’s Tale, and Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross’ intense Georgian coming-of-age drama, In Bloom. Originally premiering in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival, A Summer’s Tale is the third film in his Four Seasons film cycle and the only one to never before receive U.S. theatrical distribution, until this past summer. This typically light entertainment follows a young college graduate, Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud), who plans to meet his girlfriend for a three-week vacation in a lovely seaside town in Bretagne. Instead, he’s left to his own devices while she cruelly keeps him hanging. Not long after his arrival, Gaspard makes the acquaintance of Margot (Amanda Langlet, who, 13 years earlier, starred in Rohmer’s Pauline at the Beach), a waitress at a restaurant owned by her mother. Like Gaspard, Margot is a recent college graduate waiting for her boyfriend to arrive. A frisky young woman, she recognizes something in him the audience has yet to perceive. He’s naïve to the point of being clueless when it comes to women and prefers to memorize sea shanties than try to figure out his feelings toward Margot, her friend, Solène (Gwenaëlle Simon) and his absurdly flighty girlfriend. Rohmer doesn’t mind that we fall in love with Margot, who seems so naturally right for Gaspard, but he prefers to treat as a best friend. Finally, we don’t know if we should feel sympathy for the young man or frustrated to the point of exhaustion by him. It’s not an atypical reaction to characters drawn by Rohmer, whose movies read more like novellas than romantic comedies. Naturally, he and cinematographer Diane Baratier takes great advantage of the wonderful seaside setting.
The Soviet Union may have collapsed a quarter-century ago, but it remains unclear if the early promise caused by the raising of the Iron Curtain was a mirage or if the new democracies can withstand the forces of repression and toxic nationalism. The strife-torn Georgia of 1992 described in In Bloom reminds us of the recent horror in Ukraine, especially in the lives of people caught in the crossfire between loyalist forces and rebels supported by Vladimir Putin’s neo-fascist regime in Russia. No sooner had Georgia declared its independence from the Soviet Union than people throughout the embattled region found themselves immersed in a war on the Black Sea coast in Abkhazia and widespread vigilantism. In Bloom is set in the capital city of Tbilisi, while, relatively distant from the war, nonetheless was impacted by food shortages, sectarian violence and crime. We’re introduced to 14-year-old Eka and Natia, inseparable friends who might not look out of place hanging out at a mall anywhere in the world. They love music, steal cigarettes from their parents, flirt with cute guys and aren’t keen on doing homework. What we’ll learn about them, as well, is how their futures are clouded by being raised in dysfunctional families in a dysfunctional country. At a time when girls their age should be preparing for college or careers, Eka and Natia must deal with deeply entrenched male chauvinism, the scourge of alcoholism among loved ones, thuggish behavior by their peers and the ever-present danger of rape and “bride-nappings.” At a certain point in the narrative, a gun is given to one of the girls by a would-be boyfriend who fears that she may soon need it to fend off unwanted suitors or her abusive father. When she decides that her friend may need the gun more than she does, the film’s dynamic changes dramatically. Can seemingly hopeless situations be improved through violence, however justified, or must it always makes things worse? The answer to this question will determine if Eka and Natia’s coming of age will bring something besides more misery.
Brazilian Western: Blu-ray
If you can, imagine how a merging of the Jamaican gangsta’ classic The Harder They Come and the Beatles’ folk-rock ballad “Rocky Raccoon” might come off on the big screen. I’m pretty sure it would look very much like Brazilian Western, a terrific Third World oater that has been shamefully ignored by U.S. distributors. Similarly overlooked upon its release in 1972, The Harder They Come’s infectious blend of music, romance and outlaw heroics eventually turned Perry Henzell’s film into a midnight-movie sensation. Its soundtrack album became a starter-kit for newcomers to reggae, as well. Paul McCartney has characterized “Rocky Raccoon” as being a tongue-in-cheek spoof of the folk/troubadour tradition and a “freewheeling ramble” about a hopelessly overmatched gunfighter in the Old West. It was recorded in 1968, almost as an afterthought for inclusion on the Beatles’ White Album. Like Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come,” “Rocky Raccoon” remains one of the most memorable songs of the period. René Sampaio’s Brazilian Western was adapted directly from a catchy nine-minute-long heroic ballad, “Faroeste Caboclo,” written by the late Renato Russo in 1979 and recorded by the folk-rock group Legiao Urbana in 1987. Just as the song anticipated the period of social and political upheaval that followed the end of the dictatorship, in 1985, Brazilian Western looks back at the same period and, beyond that, to the creation of the country’s ultra-modern capital of Brasilia.
Like Cliff’s Ivanhoe Martin, Joao de Santo Cristo (Fabrício Boliveira) was born in the backcountry and moved to the capital as an adult looking for work and recognition. Unlike Ivan, Joao arrived in Brasilia an already fully blown outlaw. He had bided his time until his impoverished mother died, before confronting the military policeman who murdered his father in cold blood. By the time he got out of prison, the dictators were gone and Brasilia was a hotbed of activity, both for the well-off children of the new ruling class and the noticeably poorer and blacker children of the laborers who built the city’s space-age buildings. Not able to make a decent living as a carpenter, he turns to a cousin, Pablo (César Troncoso), who controls the vice in shantytown and wants his cousin to sell marijuana to the rich kids across town. What Pedro neglects to mention is that his territory already is serviced by a “playboy” hoodlum, Jeremias (César Troncoso), who has bought off the local police for protection. No sooner has Joao set up shop in his new territory than he is rousted by the cops. He makes his escape by climbing into the second-story window of the daughter of a state senator. It doesn’t take much convincing for Maria Lúcia (Isis Valverde) to provide shelter for the intruder. An architectural student at the university, she’s bored and a bit self-conscious about her station in life. Intrigued, Isis offers to introduce Joao to her friends, who are impressed by the quality of his weed. Not surprisingly, the rest of the movie is taken up with Jeremias’ obsession with getting rid of Joao and Pablo and re-connecting with Maria Lucia. If you are conversant in Portuguese, it’s all there in the song. If not, you won’t regret sticking with Brazilian Western to its exciting end. You’ll want to check out the making-of featurette, too.
Docs on DVD
Alive Inside: Blu-ray
I Am Ali: Blu-ray
Legends of the Knight
Master of the Universe
Slow Food Story
Although billions of dollars have been raised in the search for a cure – or, even, a few solid clues – for memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease and certain other neurological ailments, it wasn’t until early last month that the success of a non-drug program was reported. The study, a joint project between the Easton Center at UCLA and Buck Institute for Research on Aging, claims that 9 out of 10 volunteer patients had their symptoms reversed after participating in a 36-point program. If the report didn’t set off fireworks at the Alzheimer Association, it’s because of the small number of patients involved. Still, as it pertains to progressive memory loss and dementia, the report represented the first positive step forward in years. Michael Rossato-Bennett’s uplifting documentary on the illness, Alive Inside, has been on the festival hustings ever since winning the prestigious Audience Award at this year’s Sundance soiree, so it doesn’t include any information from the UCLA study. What it does offer in the way of good news is physical evidence of the curative powers of music. Since daily brain stimulation is among the suggested activities in UCLA’s 36-point program, the therapy supported by Dan Cohen’s non-profit organization, Music & Memory, already is in line with those findings. And, a great number of success stories have been recorded. M&M teaches elder-care professionals how to set up personalized music playlists, delivered on iPods and other digital devices, for those in their care. These musical favorites tap deep memories not lost to dementia and can enable residents to feel like themselves again, to converse, socialize and stay in the present. That’s the sales pitch, anyway. What’s remarkable about Alive Inside are the clips of patients literally “coming alive” when the music begins to flow through the headphones. One man’s eyes nearly pop out their sockets, while other patients begin discussing their memories of hearing a song for the first time or moving their feet to the beat. The only thing I’ve seen that’s comparable is footage of the re-awakened patients of neurologist Oliver Sacks, whose work and book inspired the movie Awakenings. As the author of “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain,” Sack appears as a witness here alongside musician Bobby McFerrin. Among Cohen’s concerns is the industry’s reliance on mind-numbing pharmaceuticals to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, in lieu of a cure. He also points out the need for volunteers and contributions to expand M&M’s reach. If he’s looking for used iPods and MP3 players, he should screen Alive Inside at high schools across the country. I wouldn’t be surprised if the kids ripped the headphones from their ears and lobbed their players toward the stage.
There came a point in Clare Lewins’ extremely compelling bio-doc I Am Ali when I thought I might not have tuned into the Internet on the day that Muhammad Ali died and missed the flood of eulogies and tributes that would surely follow such a sad event. It is exactly the kind of documentary everyone of great substance should be rewarded with before they die and are unable to appreciate the sincerity of the kind thoughts shared with viewers. The great heavyweight boxer is not lacking in filmed testimonials and considerations on his impact on the sport and history. Footage from his fights is available for purchase, rental and downloads, as are several excellent feature films and documentaries. What makes I Am Ali different from those properties is its tight focus on how his life affected those of friends, family members, opponents and complete strangers. Especially touching are the taped recordings of phone calls and other conversations he had with his young children and, later, their recollections of those conversations and what kind of father he was to them. As loved as Ali is around the world, there were times in his life and marriages when he was less than a perfect role model. Those moments aren’t examined in any depth, but neither are they ignored. I Am Ali is informed, as well, by home movies, musical selections and archival footage of training sessions, fights and public appearances. What’s revealed is a portrait of Ali as a fighter, lover, brother, father and friend.
At about this time, last year, San Francisco caught Batman fever and it quickly spread through the media across the country and world. When the Make a Wish Foundation asked the city to allow a 5-year-old boy with leukemia to play the Caped Crusader for a day, Bay Area residents did everything in their power to make it happen. In doing so, they also brought smiles to the faces of people whose only recollection of the character may be that of Adam West in a gray or lavender body suit, depending on their TVs. Christian Bale, who’s played the last three big-screen Batmans, has also gone out of his way to make the dreams of kids with terminal diseases come true. Other aspiring superheroes have been accorded similar treatment in other cities. Brett Culp’s Legends of the Knight was completed before San Francisco opened its Golden Gate to Batkid Miles Scott – currently in remission — but it was able to include footage of a Maryland Batman imitator getting a pass from a traffic cop, so he could be on time for a visit to Georgetown Hospital. It didn’t stop them from asking him to pose for pictures in his Lamborghini Batmobile. Everyone needs a hero … super or otherwise. That’s pretty much the point of Culp’s documentary, which interviews everyone from lifelong fans and comic-book artists, to kids who’ve been bullied and others with birth defects. We meet Batman imitators who spend their weekends brightening the days of sick children and give crime-stopper advice at schools. While not the most polished doc you’ll see this year, Legends of the Knight makes up for it by being inspirational and entertaining.
Although the number of genuine hobos presumably gets smaller every year, the annual National Hobo Convention took place last August, as usual, in Britt, Iowa. It would have been a perfect place to screen Freeload, but apparently there wasn’t any room left between the Toilet Bowl Races, Cow Chip Chucking Contest and Hobo Cemetery Tour. Basically, Daniel Skaggs’ provocative film asks us to consider what it means to be a hobo at a time when such words as freeloader, bum, tramp, vagabond, slacker and homeless person have been accorded new politically correct meanings. Skaggs spent 18 months documenting how contemporary hobos survive, look, dress, find food to eat, places to bathe and escape being arrested for vagrancy, theft and trespassing. None of the young people we meet bear any resemblance to Red Skelton’s Freddy the Freeloader or legendary circus clown Emmit Kelly; warble “Big Rock Candy Mountain” and “Hobo Bill” over campfires in the “jungle”; leave visible signs behind to alert fellow bindle-stiffs; live by any set ethical code; or use the boxcars to commute to labor camps. Not surprisingly, perhaps, all of the guys have odd nicknames, crudely drawn tattoos and clothing so dirty it could test the limits of a commercial washer and dryer. In these ways, of course, they could just as easily pass for rock stars or skateboarding champions. Some of the hobos we meet have tried and failed to meet the standards of square society, while others have decided that encumbrances of any kind are out of the question. When one of the guys earns an actual paycheck, he shows it off as if it were a four-leaf clover on St. Patrick’s Day. Another highlight comes when one young man panhandles enough money to buy a live lobster, which his dog almost immediately steals and tries unsuccessfully to devour. Most potential viewers, I think, would find Freeload far more aggravating than energizing or educational. The music fits the theme, however.
In Marc Bauder’s Master of the Universe (“Der Banker: Master of the Universe”), a leading German investment banker, Rainer Voss, spends a lot of time standing alone in an abandoned office suite overlooking Frankfurt’s financial district of Frankfurt. When he isn’t pointing out the headquarters of companies that didn’t survive the economic collapse, Voss directs our attention to the logos of international conglomerates most viewers wouldn’t recognize, even if they were German. The deserted meeting room serves both as metaphor and warning to those who don’t listen carefully to Voss’ advice and repeat the same sins that caused the depression. He spends a great deal of time repeating things we’ve already heard about financial instruments, regulatory agencies that don’t regulate and the psychology of corporate executives too caught up in the game to realize they’ve sold their souls to the devil. When they’re gone, he argues, their replacements will likely steer their companies on same course. What Voss doesn’t do is offer a convincing argument as to why those responsible for the collapse – himself included – shouldn’t be sent to prison and forced to work in the laundry for an eternity.
Stefano Sardo’s Slow Food Story describes what happens when a bunch of Italian leftists tire of living like the proletariat and jump head first into a movement that allows them to eat really good food, drink expensive wine and share them in convivial surroundings with former comrades. It puts a tight focus on Carlo Petrini, a charismatic fellow who’s managed to franchise his anti-fast-food movement — the ArciGola Gastronomic Association, later shortened to Slow Food – to like-minded gourmands around the planet. I’m not sure how it warrants a feature-length documentary, in that Petrini is preaching to a choir that began turning to organic, vegan and other healthy foods in the 1960s and continues to do so, today. Likewise, its message isn’t likely to reach people who can’t or won’t afford anything but processed goods and products that hide the bad ingredients in small type in the box containing nutritional information. His followers readily acknowledge that artisanal and naturally grown food isn’t cheap, only that the people who grow it deserve the additional bread. With McDonald’s and other fast-food chains racing around like free-range chickens with their heads cut off to create new products for health-conscious patrons to embrace, maybe the Slow Food movement is an idea whose time has come. As long as Honey Boo Boo and Mama June are rewarded handsomely for eating like pigs at a trough, however, it’s unlikely that American tummies will be ready for reform.
As the Light Goes Out: Blu-ray
Knowing that Kwok Chi-kin’s As the Light Goes Out is an action movie from Hong Kong won’t help western fans of the subgenre make the right decisionwhen it pops up on their list of suggested titles from Netflix or Amazon. That’s because the movie harkens more to Irwin Allen’s The Towering Inferno and Ron Howard’s Backdraft than anything associated with John Woo or Chow Yun-Fat. And, I suppose, there are plenty of folks out there who’ve been longing to see a good movie, however soapy about firefighters. It’s Christmas Eve in Hong Kong, and while the residents prepare to celebrate, the firefighters of Pillar Point Division (Nicholas Tse, Shawn Yue, Andy On) are dispatched to a warehouse fire. Next thing they know, a larger section of the city is plunged into darkness and flames are nearing a power plant supplying natural gas. It raises the overall degree of difficulty to unprecedented levels. The action scenes are both terrifically entertaining and serve to dilute the melodrama. The Towering Inferno had plenty of action, too, but what really sold the picture was an all-star cast that included Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Richard Chamberlain, Jennifer Jones and, wait for it, O.J. Simpson. As the Light Goes Out suffers a bit by featuring a roster of actors with which most of us are unfamiliar. Those who are should have a good time, though. Pay attention for a cameo by Jackie Chan, as himself.
Not Another Celebrity Movie
Emilio Ferrari isn’t a name that immediately comes up when you plug “quality cinema” into a search engine. It’s also true, however, that he’s written, directed and produced far more movies than any critic I know, so it’s fair to ask who’s more deserving of your trust when it comes to evaluating cheap-and-dirty comedies. The only way I can answer that question is by suggesting that Not Another Celebrity Movie isn’t nearly as bad a parody as it could be and, in some quarters, might actually qualify as a guilty pleasure. Its conceit, as spelled out on the DVD cover, involved hiring a couple of dozen celebrity look-alikes and inserting them into a spoof of both iterations of Ocean’s Eleven. If he’s thrown in a few ringers – Justin Bieber, Charlie Sheen, Lady Gaga, Angelina Jolie, Donald Trump, Usher, Johnny Depp and Paris Hilton, among them – well, as the argument goes, the more the merrier. The story, which is absurdly convoluted, boils down to Sheen (Dave Burleigh) being so addled that he becomes convinced that his DNA is running through the veins of Justin Bieber (Dannielle Owens-Reid). The only way he can be sure he’s Bieb’s daddy, however, is to meet face-to-face with the ill-mannered entertainer and trace their respective roots. Because none of the people minding Bieber’s affairs want that to happen, Sheen is required to pull together a team of rascals like those in “Ocean’s” series and stage a kidnapping in Las Vegas. I’ve seen worse look-alikes than the ones gathered here, but the only person who comes closest is former porn star Bree Olson, who plays herself as one Sheen’s former live-in “angels.”
Monkey Shines/The Dark Half: Blu-ray
Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings: Blu-ray
Rise of the Black Bat
The Thing on the Door Step
The best of this week’s bunch of horror flicks fall into the category of golden oldies. It is the Shout Factory double-feature, Monkey Shines and The Dark Half, both of which are zombie-free adaptations of novels by master of the undead, George A. Romero. Based on a scary little story by Michael Stewart, the 1988 Monkey Shines demonstrates what can happen when a service animal gets too attached to its quadriplegic owner and becomes jealous of anyone who comes between them. In this case, it’s a very clever and possibly telepathic primate named Ella (Boo). The monkey and the onetime athlete she serves, Alan (Jason Beghe), become fast friends, which can’t be said of Ella’s relationship with his former girlfriend and doctor, her trainer and Alan’s lover, his speed-freak brother and busybody mother and another doctor, who sees a cure where others don’t. At some point, Alan comes to understand that Ella’s a very naughty and destructive little helper, but is physically unable to put an end to her game. Butchered by the studio and panned by critics, Romero’s first commercial endeavor was a huge disappointment to him and horror buffs. Today, by comparison to most other horror flicks, Monkey Shines holds up very well. So does The Dark Half, which, four years later, was similarly manhandled by the financially troubled Orion Pictures. It was adapted from a Stephen King novel that eerily reflected the writer’s own tortured state of mind in the early-1990s. Timothy Hutton plays King’s surrogate in the story, the novelist Thad Beaumont. As a boy, after suffering seizures, an operation on Thad’s brain revealed traces of a growth that proved to be a twin brother that never developed. As a seizure-free adult, Thad has become a novelist who writes serious books in his own name and pulp fiction under a pseudonym, George Stark. Guess which books sell better. King’s personal demons manifest themselves through Stark, both in the book and movie. Don’t worry, it’s all explained in the almost feature-length interviews with Romero in the bonus package. Like Ella, Stark is a truly nasty fellow who, like Ella, starts killing people when he feels threatened. Then, there’s the matter of a mega-flock of sparrows that began to appear during Thad’s brain surgery and return with his doppelganger. Once again, Romero was disappointed with the final product, but, in fact, it’s pretty good. The Blu-ray package adds making-of featurettes with both movies, deleted scenes, alternate endings, behind-the-scenes footage and other treats.
Also returning from the same period is the direct-to-video Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings, which bears almost no qualitative resemblance to the 1988 Pumpkinhead, which served as Stan Winston’s directorial debut. Where the original was conceived as an inky-black fairytale, the “sequel” might as well have been written by crayon and directed with boxing gloves affixed to director Jeff Burr’s hands. Moreover, where Pumpkinhead was distinguished by another fine performance by Lance Henriksen, “Blood Wings” scrounged a few cheap headlines by hiring President Clinton’s doofus brother, Roger, to play Mayor Bubba. Otherwise, it’s just another revenge picture in which teens get their comeuppance for testing the credibility of rural mythology. The Blu-ray adds commentary and a lengthy interview with Burr; “Recreating the Monster,” with special-effects specialists Greg Nicotero, Gino Crognale and Mark McCracken; and behind-the-scenes footage.
Under-baked to the point of being inedible, Rise of the Black Bat (“The Black Bat Rises”) would have no reason to exist if it weren’t for the very interesting story that inspired it. In 1933, the short-lived Black Bat Detective Mysteries introduced a crime-fighting superhero, who, six years later, would be fleshed out in Black Book Detective as a cowled crusader, not unlike the Bat-man, who also was introduced to comic-book readers in 1939. Apart from the color of their respective outfits, the characters could be mistaken for brothers. The second incarnation of Black Bat appeared in print intermittently from 1939 to 1953. His alter ego is District Attorney Anthony Quinn, who was blinded by acid thrown at him by a gangster’s henchman. A cornea-grafting procedure restores his eyesight, while also heightening other senses, but it leave him unable to operate freely in the light of day. Sometime in the next dozen years, the publishers of Black Bat and Batman came to an agreement that clearly benefitted the latter. Quinn would be killed off in 2011, so that a third series, Legacy of the Black Bat, could begin. For better or worse, Scott Patrick and Trevor Payor’s Rise of the Black Bat resuscitates Tony Quinn in the person of Jody Haucke (Thunderstorm: The Return of Thor). The narrative approximates the second series’ origin story. Even at 80 minutes, though, the film contains more padding than a Miss America pageant and a credits list that reportedly includes fake names — jumbled references to DC superheroes – to make the crew appear to be larger than it was.
Hardly any other authors have had their work translated into film more times than H.P. Lovecraft. Ironically, when the Providence native died in 1937, he was virtually unknown and penniless. If he had lived to the ripe old age of 124, Lovecraft would probably be as rich and famous as Steven King, who considers him to be “the 20th Century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.” In a bizarre corollary, it seems that the best adaptations have been created by filmmakers of limited means and an absent a great deal of studio interference. Released originally in 2003, but displaying a fresh polish by Leomark Studios, The Thing on the Doorstep benefits from imaginatively stylish video cinematography and loving treatment of the source material by director Eric Morgret and writer K.L.Young. It is the story of mysterious hypnotist Asenath Waite and the young man she enchants, Edward Derby, as well as the friend who has to kill him after unspeakable things happen. The film won Best Feature at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival and the prestigious H.P. Lovecraft Award at the Rhode Island International Horror Film Festival.
The volume of new horror releases really picked up after Halloween. Most of them, however, clearly have been undone by miniscule budgets, inexperienced actors and ineffective special effects. All deliver buckets of blood and gore, gratuitous nudity and violence against women, and lighting effects some might find irritating.
Isis Rising: Curse of the Lady Mummy employs the myth of Isis and Osiris as a starting point for a silly story about what happens when a six college students are assigned the task of deciphering hieroglyphics on a slab of stone acquired by a local museum. In their curiosity, they awaken the ancient spirit of Isis and her wrath is unleashed on the group.
In Collar, a disheveled derelict with a reputation of satanic violence tortures women, including a cop, who he restrains with a dog leash and bludgeons. Other things happen, but most of the film takes place in places yet to be hooked up to the electrical grid.
Skinless becomes a race against time for a terminally ill medical researcher, who formulates what could be a cure for cancer but may not live to participate in clinical trials. After he decides to make himself a human guinea pig, things get really strange. Tumors mutate into monstrous forms and cause the researcher to go violently mad.
The Killer 4 Pack is grab bag of stomach-churning films that, for all I know, might have been entered into a student film festival and compiled for a song. The best of the quartet is The Day of the Dead, which links Mexican religious rituals to a series of gruesome murders in Chicago. In Jezebeth, a Goth gal discovers a 19th Century diary that provides her with all the information she needs to summon a demon. Once again, in Carnage: The Legend of Quiltface, students accidentally put themselves in harm’s way by wandering into the desert for a photography assignment. In it, the skin on the head of psycho-killer, Quiltface, has been stitched together from parts of several other faces. In Hellweek: Grindhouse Edition, rush week is ruined when students decide to stage a hazing ritual in an abandoned warehouse that serves as a flophouse for a band of homicidal maniacs.
PBS: Masterpiece: Worricker: Turks & Caicos/Salting the Battlefield/Blu-ray
PBS: Nature: Animal Misfits
When last we saw British secret agent Johnny Worricker (Bill Nighy) in November, 2011, on “Masterpiece Contemporary,” writer/director David Hare was still hoping that ratings for “Page Eight” would allow for two more installments of a planned trilogy. And, here they are, back-to-back … not exactly like clockwork, but welcome nonetheless. As a rule, whenever a BBC spy thriller arrives on our shores for airing on PBS, I wait for the UK version to arrive almost simultaneously on DVD/Blu-ray. Too often, they’re trimmed to make room for Pledge Month (Pledge Year?) pitches. “Turks & Caicos” and “Salting the Battlefield” tie up loose strings from “Page Eight,” at the end of which Worricker went on the lam with top-secret information about Britain’s tacit approval of CIA rendition centers and the torture of prisoners. The mini-series catches up with him as he’s laying low in Turks & Caicos, celebrating each new dawn that he’s still alive. In “Part Two,” he’s recognized by a CIA operative played very coolly by Christopher Walken, who claims to be in the islands for a conference on the global financial crisis. Of course, they’re not. In fact, their business ties in with Johnny’s last case and both MI5 and the CIA want to keep things from leaking to the press. Rachel Weisz no longer is in the picture, but a very adult looking Winona Ryder does a nice job as someone who could break the case wide open. Walken and Nighy are terrific in a game of Spy vs. Spy that sees them working together and against each other, almost simultaneously. “Salting the Battlefield” opens with Johnny and ex-lover Margot Tyrell (Helena Bonham Carter) bouncing around Germany, attempting to avoid capture by MI5 operatives. But Worricker knows his only chance of resolving his problems is to return home and confront his nemesis, Prime Minister, Alec Beasley (Ralph Fiennes), before going to the press. As is usually the case, nothing is what it appears to be and the spooks threaten to kill Johnny’s adult daughter (Felicity Jones). Fiennes could hardly be more convincing as a world leader on the hot seat and, therefore, extremely dangerous. A backgrounder is included in the Blu-ray.
The latest release from PBS’ “Nature” series, “Animal Misfits,” provides great fun for the whole family, by spotlighting animals that appear to have defied the laws of evolution and creationism by surviving extinction, despite themselves. Or, to put it another way: they zigged, when the rest of their species zagged. Some are thriving, while others are endangered. Among the oddball subjects are
the giant panda, mudskipper, big-headed mole and woolly bear caterpillar.
Billy Joel: Live at Shea Stadium: Blu-ray
Built in 1964, Shea Stadium was the home of the New York Mets for 45 years … most of them near the bottom of the National League. In some circles, then, it might be best remembered for staging the Beatles’ first stadium concert, on August 15, 1965. It was a show that lots of people attended, but no one heard, because of the screaming fans. Since then, the multiuse facility has provided a stage for most of the major bands while on tour. Oh, yeah, the Mets also won two World Series there. “The Last Play at Shea,” was staged on July 16 and July 18, 2008, before a combined 110,000 fans. Besides Billy Joel, who many consider to be the house act at the venue, it contains 150 minutes of his biggest hits and performances with special guests Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, Garth Brooks, John Mayer, John Mellencamp, Steven Tyler and Roger Daltrey. The final section of Shea Stadium was torn down in 2009.