The Great American Dream Machine
McHale’s Navy: The Complete Series
Sgt. Bilko/The Phil Silvers Show: The Final Season
The counterculture of the 1960s not only was spawned from the antiwar, civil rights, feminist and gay rights movements, but also a collective belief that white bread, pollution and petroleum-based products would have the same lasting effect on American consumers that Agent Orange had on the forests of Vietnam. Such feelings of impending doom, combined with the malaise caused by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., the Kennedys and Malcolm X made the United States a rather humorless place to be, heading, as we were, into the 1968 presidential race. What this country needed more than anything else, perhaps, was a good laugh. With Lenny Bruce already gone and Mort Sahl and Dick Gregory busy chasing down conspiracy theories, such previously conventional comics as the Smothers Brothers, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, George Carlin and Richard Pryor stepped up to fill the vacuum and give network censors fits. The controversial decision to allow Donald Trump to host “Saturday Night Live” might have been made by someone old enough to remember Richard Nixon’s brief appearance on “Laugh-In,” 47 years ago, simply to ask the rhetorical question, “Sock it to me?” If nothing else, it demonstrated that Tricky Dick might actually have a sense of humor, buried under his jowls and scowls. His opponent, Hubert Humphrey, was extended an invitation, as well, but declined. According to George Schlatter, the show’s creator, “Humphrey later said that not doing it may have cost him the election,” while “[Nixon] said the rest of his life that appearing on ‘Laugh-In’ is what got him elected.” It certainly didn’t hurt.
At a time when public-broadcast stations were commonly referred to as “educational TV,” a show likened to an “intellectual ‘Laugh-In’” began production on New York City’s non-commercial WNET. “The Great American Dream Machine” was a weekly satirical variety television series – first 90 minutes, then 60 – that was picked up by PBS affiliates around the country. Its audience may have been miniscule, compared to “Laugh-In,” but it was composed of hard-core liberals, media mavens and the next generation of opinion-makers. It didn’t take long for the show to bear fruit in the form of “The Groove Tube,” “Saturday Night Life,” “SCTV” and Kentucky Fried Movie. (Imported episodes of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” “That Was the Week That Was” and Mad magazine also deserve credit in this regard.) The first disc in Entertainment One’s long-awaited greatest-hits compilation, “The Great American Dream Machine,” opens with citizens from all walks of life being asked to relate their concept of American Dream. Not surprisingly, none was the same as the one before or after it. The first person profiled as a possible Great American Hero, was Evel Knievel, who, at the time, was known more for breaking his bones in failed motorcycle jumps than completing them. The show also featured animated material, skits, music, literary readings and satirical reports by Marshall Efron, who lambasted laws that were intended to protect consumers, but mostly protected corporations from lawsuits. Another fondly recalled bit is Albert Brooks’ hilarious short film, “The Famous Comedians School,” which, in merging comic clichés and magazine ads for the Famous Artists School, was a precursor of the mockumentary subgenre. Interview subjects included oft-divorced band leader Artie Shaw, burlesque queen Blaze Starr and hot-rod designer “Big Daddy” Ed Roth. Other notable contributors included Chevy Chase, Andy Rooney, Penny Marshall, Henry Winkler, Tiny Tim, David Steinberg, Linda Lavin and Charles Grodin. Watch the show today on DVD and you’ll recognize the forebears of Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, Trevor Noah and John Oliver. Liner notes are provided by critic David Bianculli.
If John F. Kennedy had decided to stay in Boston and get into the roofing business, instead of politics, it’s hard to say if anyone would have made a fuss over his heroism in the South Pacific, during World War II. After the boat he captained was rammed by a Japanese destroyer and cut in two, Kennedy used his swimming prowess to help rescue several of the 11 men who clung to PT-109’s slowing sinking bow. He also would swim to neighboring islands in search of water, food and communications equipment. There’s no question of the future president’s role in the harrowing attack or that the story, minus the bravery of native islanders, was milked by his advisors in future political campaigns. After he entered the White House, the incident became a cultural phenomenon, inspiring a song, books, movies, various television shows, collectible objects, scale-model replicas and an action figure, from Hasbro. It must have convinced ABC to green-light the comedy series, “McHale’s Navy,” which appeared to be inspired as much by “The Phil Silvers Show” as the President’s heroism. In it, a rag-tag crew of sailors was left stranded on a tiny South Pacific island, after a bombing raid by Japanese fliers. Although Earnest Borgnine bore no physical resemblance to JFK, as did Cliff Robertson in the 1963 biopic, PT 109, the Academy Award-winning actor (Marty) would be enlisted to play Lt. Commander Quinton McHale in the 1962-66 series. He favored Hawaiian shirts over fatigues and dress khakis, and, when his men weren’t shooting craps on the pier or hitting on the wahinis, they enjoyed water-skiing behind PT-73. The show’s beleaguered base commander, Captain Wallace B. Binghamton, was played by the ever-exasperated Joe Flynn, with Tom Conway also on board as the flustered Ensign Charles Parker. Long before Gavin McLeod took the wheel of the Love Boat, he portrayed the sailor, Happy Haynes. From Shout! Factory, “McHale’s Navy: The Complete Series” comes in a cardboard ditty box, containing 61 hours’ worth of programming; the featurettes, “The Crew Reunion” and “Ernest Borgnine and Tim Conway Remember”; and two full-length feature films, McHale’s Navy (1964) and McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force (1965). Listen carefully and you might hear a character mention an unnamed commander of torpedo boat, PT-109.
“Sgt. Bilko” would also provide the template for “Hogan’s Heroes” and “F Troop,” madcap military farces in which conflicts between historical antagonists were played for laughs. For those fans of the classic comedy who don’t already own “Sgt. Bilko/The Phil Silvers Show: The Complete Series,” Shout! Factory finished rolling out individual complete-season DVDs, “Sgt. Bilko/The Phil Silvers Show: The Final Season.” The episodes are as funny in repeat viewings as any show currently on television. In Season Four, Bilko and the rest of his platoon are transferred to California’s Camp Fremont, a vacant facility where Bilko is convinced that a fortune in gold is hidden. Although his scheme doesn’t pan out as foreseen, at least the camp is closer to the target-rich cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tijuana and Reno. It also allowed for cameos by such stars as Dean Martin, Lucille Ball, the sons of Bing Crosby and Mickey Rooney. Bilko’s schemes get more elaborate as the finale nears.
The Quay Brothers: Collected Short Films: Blu-ray
To the extent that Stephen and Timothy Quay’s short films are known outside the arthouse and academic communities, it’s for the puppetry and stop-motion animation featured in music videos for Alice in Chains, Peter Gabriel (“Sledgehammer”), His Name Is Alive, Michael Penn, Sparklehorse, Legion of Horses, Pere Ubu and 16 Horsepower, as well as contributions to Frida and Jack and Diane. Someone even went to the trouble of replacing the soundtrack to the whimsical short, The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer, with Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart’s “Willie the Pimp,” and attributing it to another animator. Unlike most of their imitators, the Quays aren’t reluctant when it comes to revealing their influences, who range from the Polish animators Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica, to puppeteers Wladyslaw Starewicz and Czech Richard Teschner, writers Franz Kafka, Bruno Schulz, Robert Walser and Michel de Ghelderode, and Czech composers Leoš Janáček, Zdeněk Liška and Pole Leszek Jankowski. They’ve also designed book covers, theater sets and installations for prominent galleries. Their best-known film, the 21-minute Street of Crocodiles, was based on the darkly metaphorical memoirs of Polish author and artist Bruno Schulz, murdered by a Gestapo thug in 1942. In describing the bleakness of life in interwar Poland, the Quays follow a mute protagonist as he explores a realm of “mechanical realities and manufactured pleasures.” It was selected by Terry Gilliam as one of the 10-best animated films of all time, while and critic Jonathan Romney included it on his list of the 10 best films in any medium for Sight and Sound’s 2002 critics’ poll. Most of their films feature puppets made of doll parts, and other objects and surfaces discovered Eastern European markets. They’re posed within tableaux resembling dollhouses haunted by ancient ghosts and extinguished dreams. The carefully chosen avant-garde musical scores complement the macabre settings and bizarre inhabitants of the Quays worlds. The intricacy demands repeat viewings, and Zeitgeist Films’ splendid Blu-ray edition, The Quay Brothers: Collected Short Films, allows for nearly microscopic inspection of the materials and props. Along with the aforementioned titles, the compilation includes This Unnameable Little Broom (1985), Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1987), Stille Nacht I-IV (1988-94), The Comb (1990), Anamorphosis (1991), In Absentia (2000), The Phantom Museum (2003), Maska (2010), Through The Weeping Glass (2011), Unmistaken Hands (2013) and “Quay,” an appreciation by Christopher Nolan (2015). Inside the digipak is a 28-page booklet, containing an updated Quay Dictionary and an introduction by Nolan. Although most of the shorts can be appreciated on one level or another by anyone with a childlike fascination of miniature worlds and clockwork gadgetry, for gifting purposes, “Collected Short Films” likely will best be appreciated by serious students of the animators’ art and amateur Freudians. The brothers’ commentaries, alone, are worth a second viewing.
The Civil War: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
In case anyone is wondering if Ken Burns’ exceedingly giftable The Civil War: 25th Anniversary Edition features a different outcome to our country’s most terrible conflagration, the answer is “no.” The good guys still win, but, sadly, a minority of loudmouths on the losing team continues to wage war against human decency, civil rights and common sense. Some of them are even running for president. Neither has Burns anything new to add in the way of history lessons, beyond what we learned in the comprehensive nine-episode mini-series that drew millions of viewers to PBS. What makes this volume valuable is the effort that went into preserving the original footage for optimal video and audio quality. Blessedly, very little was damaged while in storage for the last quarter-century. So, all that was needed was a good digital scrub to restore details and eliminate artifacts. It looks good as new … maybe better. The six-disc collector’s set also features more than two hours of new bonus video, including the featurettes, “Making ‘The Civil War’: 25 Years Later” and “Restoring ‘The Civil War’” and complete Shelby Foote interviews.
Gosei Sentai Dairanger: The Complete Series
Although the obsessive popularity enjoyed by the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers has fluctuated over the last nearly 25 years, it’s never completely evaporated. New iterations of the concept have appeared in different formats and mediums, with a new theatrical film, designed to reboot the series, planned for release in January, 2017. If that comes as good news to you or someone on your gift list, you might want to consider picking up the boxed set, “Gosei Sentai Dairanger: The Complete Series,” the original Japanese series that inspired the Power Rangers franchise. The Toei entertainment conglomerate titled the series, “Star Rangers,” for international consumption. Elements from it were merged into the second season of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” specifically the action sequences between the giant robots (which became the Power Rangers’ Thunderzords) and some of the monsters. It would take a full day to lay out the many permutations of the story and characters, and I’d probably get them wrong, so let’s assume that fans of one series likely would be interested in seeing the source materialq.
The Colbys: The Complete Series
Released on DVD last spring by Shout! Factory, “The Colbys: The Complete Series” is one of those shows that must have looked like a no-brainer upon its release on ABC, on November 20, 1985, but, after a bright opening, lost all of its luster going its second and final season. Originally titled “Dynasty II: The Colbys,” the prime-time soap starred Charlton Heston, Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Ross and Ricardo Montalban, who, at the time, might have been better suited for appearances on “The Love Boat,” which didn’t have much steam left in it, either. Produced by Aaron Spelling, it was a spin-off of the top-rated “Dynasty” – some critics called it a clone – featuring characters who are relatives by marriage of the Carringtons. If anything, they were even wealthier and more decadent than their in-laws. In a decision that smacked of suicidal hubris, ABC positioned the series against NBC’s powerhouse lineup of “Cheers” and “Night Court.” A year later, it was forced to stand up to CBS’ “Dallas” spinoff, “Knots Landing” and the Peacock’s re-positioned “The Cosby Show.” For that reason, alone, it might be more fun to watch the show today, than 30 years ago, when Americans were still trying to master their VCRs.
Shaun the Sheep Movie: Blu-ray
Through its mastery of stop-motion animation, Aardman has carved a niche in the family-entertainment game that few of its competitors have been able to match. It’s been a while since anything attached to company frontman Nick Park has lasted longer than 30 minutes and that was 10 years ago, with the Oscar- and BAFTA-winning The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The latest feature-length Aardman Animations production, Shaun the Sheep Movie, is based on Park’s “Shaun the Sheep” television series, which began in 2007 and is still going strong. Here, though, Park handed the reins to Mark Burton and Richard Starzak, who were able to commit six years of their time to the project. That it works so well without a single line of recognizable dialogue is a testament to the team’s ability to tickle our imagination with things other than words and anthropomorphic characters who wouldn’t be out of place in a petting zoo. Park introduced Shaun the Sheep in the 1995 “Wallace and Gromit” short “A Close Shave,” which also took top prize in Academy Award and BAFTA competition. Since then, Shaun has starred in 31 shorts of his own. Here, the mischievous ball of wool conspires to put the Farmer to sleep, in the usual sheeply way, so they can have some fun. The dull-minded doofus decides to take a nap in a trailer that soon will be rolling out-of-control to the nearest big city, where quickly loses his memory of anything except the use of shears.
Meanwhile, when things take an anarchic turn on the farm, Shaun and the flock decide to track down their master and bring him back to Mossy Bottom Farm, where the pigs have taken over the farmhouse. Unaware that untethered animals can be rounded up and impounded, until such time as they’re claimed or euthanized, Shaun makes the mistake of getting on the wrong side of the city’s animal-containment officer, Trumper. While inside the pound, Shaun finds allies in other caught critters, anxious for freedom. Almost accidentally, the escapees discover that Farmer has become a big star, shearing the heads of humans in fanciful shapes. Once again, the sheep put him to sleep and bring him back home, where Trumper is waiting for them. If the plot sounds simplistic, Aardman fans know to expect enough clever sight gags, musical cues, homages to previous films and crude barnyard humor to satisfy kids and adult viewers, alike. The Blu-ray’s audio/visual presentation literally sparkles, technically and artistically. The bonus features add “Making the Shaun Movie,” “Meet the Characters,” “Join Shaun Behind the Scenes,” “Meet the Crew” and a “Parody Poster Gallery.”
No Escape: Blu-ray
In an interview contained in bonus package, John Erick Dowdle and his brother, Drew, describe No Escape as a “family drama, masquerading as an action film.” They’re too young to remember the type of political dramas that also were referred to as “paranoid thrillers,” but there’s a bit of that subgenre visible in No Escape, as well. Among the titles lumped under the same heading were The Parallax View, The China Syndrome, The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor and, even, All the President’s Men. The Dowdles’ probably owe more to such films as Taken and Die Hard than any of those titles, but, here, too, bad things happen to good people for politically motivated reasons that will be revealed somewhere down the road. Owen Wilson plays a Texas-based engineer hired by an international conglomerate that facilitates the availability of fresh water in underdeveloped countries. Because he believes in his new employer’s mission, Jack convinces his wife, Annie (Lake Bell), and two young daughters, to move with him to an unnamed Southeast Asian nation that borders on Vietnam. Because viewers have already witnessed the assassination of a local potentate, after a meeting with a western business executive, we know more about what’s about to happen than the jet-lagged American. The next morning, while Jack is wandering the neighborhood of his swank hotel for a newspaper, he finds himself trapped between a phalanx of riot police and insurgents dressed like the assassin. Jack’s route back to the hotel is now strewn with hacked-up bodies and the flaming husks of automobiles and motorbikes. Outside the entrance to the hotel, the same rowdy bunch of protesters is clamoring for something or other. When another westerner is murdered before his eyes, Jack rushes to the rescue of his family. On his way up the elevator, he encounters the mysterious fellow, Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), they befriended on last night’s trip from the airport to the hotel. Before dealing with a pair of rebels in pursuit, Hammond tells Jack to take his family to the roof. The chase is on.
Any resemblance between the mob outside the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi and the machete-wielding rabble outside the hotel likely is coincidental. In a few minutes, Jack will discover that they’re pissed off at his company, which is conspiring with the government to monetize the water system by charging for a commodity that has always been free. (This already is happening in sub-Saharan Africa, where potable water is as precious as gold.) When the government inevitably runs out of money to pay for their end of the deal, the conglomerate takes control of the water system, setting rates poor people can’t afford. Because Jack’s face appears on a corporate banner in the hotel lobby, he’s being held responsible for the objectionable policy. At this particular point in the narrative, mind you, Jack has no idea why his company is being singled out or why no one there has made contact with him. By this time, though, it doesn’t really matter, because the crowd has fallen in love with the smell of blood and wants more of it. Despite a certain absence of logic as to why there’s been so little military response to the lightly armed crowd, the Dowdles do a nice job investing us in the safety of the family and, tangentially, Hammond. If viewers were given a few seconds to think about the conglomerate’s odious designs, we’d probably sympathize with the insurgents, who are dressed to resemble Al Qaeda wannabes. Any questions we have about other political affiliations and motivations, like those surrounding the identity of the country, will go unanswered. Wilson and Lake are entirely credible as endangered and likely clueless couple, while, as usual, Brosnan keeps things interesting whenever he’s on the screen. The can be said about the Chiang Mai, Thailand, setting. The Blu-ray adds a couple of deleted scenes and interviews.
A few years ago, Hollywood fell in love with stories in which seemingly normal kids in model communities commit horrible crimes and their parents are forced to deal with the consequences. These ranged from deciding whether to report their children to police after a terrible automobile accident, to facing the survivors of a massacre caused by their demented little angels. These weren’t abstract situations, either on film or in contemporary life. That parents are among the last people to recognize the signs of potential psychosis in their kids no longer is unthinkable. In the aftermath of school massacres, we’ve learned that classmates tend to understand the motivations of perpetrators of crimes better than any parent could be expected to perceive in conversations around the dinner table. Based on a best-selling novel by Herman Koch, The Dinner Party immediately recalls Barbet Schroeder’s Before and After and Terry George’s Reservation Road, in which the moral dilemmas faced by the adult characters are thrown into the laps of viewers. Ivano De Matteo and co/writer Valentina Ferlan’s story adds an additional layer of tension between adult brothers – a lawyer and a doctor – and their respective wives, who only see the worst in each other and their kids. The movie opens with an incident that is only tangentially related to the brothers. In a case of road rage, a brutish Roman driver takes offense at hand gestures directed at him by another motorist. When both cars come to a stop, the offended driver picks up a baseball bat and charges the driver, who’s still in the driver’s seat. Just as the bat is about to hit glass, the second driver – a cop – picks up his service revolver and shoots, killing the man and wounding his son. Not being the United States, the cop is taken into custody in advance of an investigation into unauthorized use of a weapon. At the couples’ monthly dinner, brothers Massimo (Alessandro Gassman) and Paolo (Luigi Lo Cascio) spark over the former agreeing to defend the cop, while the doctor is treating the seriously injured boy. At this point, it’s little more than a coincidence.
Paolo’s wife, Clara, is addicted to a popular real-crime show on television. As she’s watching a segment in which security-camera footage captured the unsolved beating of a homeless woman being mercilessly beaten, Clara intuitively begins to worry that her teenage son, Michele, might be involved. If so, the tape might also reveal the participation of his cousin, Massimo’s daughter Benni, who had invited Michele to a party that night in the same neighborhood. Of course, they deny everything. Clara decides to do an end-run around her husband, by consulting Massimo, not only about their legal options, but also how to squeeze the truth from the cousins. Paolo’s immediate response is to be pissed off at his wife for consulting his brother, first, and possibly giving him something to lord over the doctor. When Benni is forced to acknowledge her role in the crime, both couples are required to come to grips with a situation that could ruin their families’ stability and damage their reputations in equal measure. Michele and Benni are willing to blame everything on being wasted at the time of the incident and, therefore, absent of any real blame in what they perceive to be an accident.
Naturally, the adults aren’t so sure about how to proceed. Both of the men are bound by the moral dictates of their jobs to be advocates of the truth. They disagreed on how the road-rage killing should have been handled and, here, the murder of a homeless woman can’t even be dismissed as self-defense. Presumably, the in-laws’ next discussion over the dinner table will result in an agreed-upon solution to their dilemma, without destroying their kids’ futures or sending the wrong message by not holding them accountable. After all, crimes like this don’t happen in the best of families. DeMatteo never ratchets down the tension that’s built up between the couples or, for that matter, between the characters and viewers. The Film Movement DVD adds a making-of featurette. Apparently, an American adaptation of Koch’s novel, with Cate Blanchett at the helm and Oren Moverman (Love & Mercy) at the typewriter.
Like The Dinner, the primary characters in Applesauce are couples who meet for dinner on a regular basis, but who share one secret too many between them. Writer/director Onur Tukel plays Ron Welz, an inner-city teacher who challenges his students to put down their cellphones and check out what life has to offer. A decent guy, with discernible doofus tendencies, Ron is fascinated by a radio talk-show host (Dylan Baker), whose great talent is allowing his listeners the space to hang themselves with embarrassing revelations about themselves. On the night he works up the nerve to reveal his own worst moment, Ron is forced to sign off early by his wife, Nickki (Trieste Kelly Dunn), who’s anxious not to be late for their weekly dinner. When they’re asked why they’re late, however, Ron feels obligated to tell them what he was about to say to thousands of talk-show listeners. While unappetizing and potentially embarrassing, his faux pas more closely resembles an urban legend than actual occurrence. Even so, the next time they got together, Ron feels entitled to ask Les (Max Casella) the worst secret he might be harboring. Turns out, it’s a real game-changer for the four friends.
Meanwhile, after Ron reveals his secret about causing an adversary to lose a hand in a college tussle, someone begins sending him severed body parts in the mail and other deliveries. It unnerves him to the point that he begins to mistrust Les, Nikki, the Chinese take-out guy and an unruly student. Attentive viewers won’t have the same problem as Ron. Les’ secret, too, takes on a life of its own. In such uber-indies as Summer of Blood and Richard’s Wedding, the New York-based Tukel has already proven what one determined guy can accomplish on a mercilessly tiny budget, a few good ideas and game actors. When boiled down to the basics, Applesauce is a dark comedy about the law of unintended consequences and the dangers of being too honest with friends and strangers, alike. Not everything works as intended, but Applesauce demonstrates how Tukel may be ready to take a step or two up the indie ladder.
Ghost Story: Blu-ray
Audiences have become so accustomed to not seeing adults over the age of 30 in starring roles that the cast of John Irvin’s 1981 supernatural thriller, Ghost Story, might seem freakish to them. With the exception of two actors who play double roles — Craig Wasson (Body Double) and Alice Krige (Star Trek) – the movie represents something of a walk-of-fame reunion. Nearing the end of their long and distinguished careers, Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and John Houseman play four elderly New England gentlemen, who don tuxedos on a regular basis and tell tales of horror to each other. The Oscar- and Tony Award-winning actress, Patricia Neal (Hud), is a spring chicken compared to her older co-stars. Today, the odds of finding such a distinguished lineup in a genre film would be small-to-none. In 1981, however, any picture adapted from a best-selling novel by Peter Straub would warrant a budget that elevated it from ranks of drive-in and grindhouse fare.
The way Irvin makes us aware of the awful secret the lifelong friends have carried with them for more than 50 years is through flashbacks to their Jazz Age selves. In the interim, they became pillars of the town’s social and business communities. Recently, though, a ghost from the past has returned to haunt their dreams and those of younger family members. Knowing that their time in this world isn’t long, the specter appears to be working overtime to make their passage to the other side as painful as possible. As might be expected of a movie adapted from a novel, the thrills derive less from special makeup effects and jump scares than old-fashioned lighting tricks and anticipation. It worked then and still does, today. It helps mightily that the big reveals take place near the end of the movie. More than anything else, though, it’s fun to watch and guess along with the characters as to who will be the next to die. The upgraded Blu-ray adds commentary by Irvin; interviews with Straub, Krige, screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen, producer Burt Weissbourd and matte photographer Bill Taylor, as well as a vintage theatrical trailer, TV and radio spots and a photo gallery.
The Badger Game: Blu-ray
As most students of crime already know, a badger game is an extortion scheme in which a married man – usually – is lured into a compromising position by an attractive woman – usually — and blackmailed into scrapping up enough money to satisfy the crooks holding evidence of his cheating ways. Anyone attracted to Joshua Wagner and Thomas Zambeck’s The Badger Game by the wildly costumed actors on the cover needn’t worry about picking up a highlight reel from the University of Wisconsin’s march to the Final Four last year, because we’re talking about a different set of badgers. Here, two young women (Augie Duke, Jillian Leigh), who’ve fallen victim to a wealthy philanderer, scheme with a stripper and ex-con (Sasha Higgins, Patrick Cronen) to blackmail the man who’s done them wrong. They know that the “mark,” Liam (Sam Boxleitner), is worth $2 million and, because most it comes from his wealthy wife, he’d hate to give her reason to cut off the funding. It’s a sound idea that even allows for a couple of unexpected wrinkles. What can’t be anticipated, however, is Liam’s stubborn response to the threats and how the women will react to the cruelty of the sadistic ex-con. Hesitation and rookie mistakes ensure that everything that can go wrong in the basement of the big house in the woods does go wrong, including the arrival of a private eye interested in extorting the guy’s money before the amateurs get to it. The directors pull back from the sight of extreme torture, preferring to focus on tensions that arise upstairs between the kidnapers. The actors keep things from getting boring, at least. The package includes two separate commentary tracks and footage from a reception at a festival screening. (By the way, such blackmailing schemes go back at least to 1792, when the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, was extorted for money and information by the husband of Maria Reynolds, with whom he was having an affair.)
Blood and Lace: Blu-ray
When Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace found its way to the U.S. in the mid-1960s, giallo was a subgenre of Italian psycho-thrillers in its infancy. Critics greeted it and other Italian imports with only mild interest and some outright disdain, comparing the style to something Hitchcock might have dismissed on the way to making Psycho. Every visual and audio aspect seemed exaggerated by half and the cinematography felt garish in the extreme. In 1971, Philip Gilbert’s Blood and Lace was released to similarly glum notices, disappearing not long after its debut. VHS was still years away, so it wouldn’t be easy to find for a long while to come. I can’t recall how long it took before Americans began to accept giallo as entity onto itself, certainly longer than the acceptance of spaghetti-Westerns. The proliferation of classic titles pretty much coincided with the introduction of DVD and the added value of commentaries and other bonus features. Today, it’s as popular and widely imitated as it ever was. Still, it’s taken this long for the first American giallo to find a distributor willing to invest some money in an upgrade.
Typically, Blood and Lace opens with the hyper-violent murder of a prostitute and her trick, while asleep, by a hammer-wielding fiend whose face isn’t shown. Before the woman’s teenage daughter, Ellie (Melody Patterson), can leave town, she’s captured and sent to an isolated orphanage run by Gloria Graham’s sadistic Mrs. Deere and her handyman, played by Len Lesser, who would go on to immortalize Uncle Leo, from “Seinfeld.” They profit from the number of orphans they house and the corners they cut on budget items that are subsidized by the state. When one disappears, it raises suspicions with local authorities, including a sheriff played by Vic Tayback (“Alice”), who has a special interest in Ellie. It becomes especially acute when it appears as if the hammer-wielding stranger has begun to stalk the girl. Blood and Lace remains as unapologetically lurid today as it was 40 years ago. It exists more as a curiosity than anything else, especially for the involvement of 1952 Best Supporting Actress, Graham (The Bad and the Beautiful) and the recently deceased blond bombshell, Patterson (“F Troop”). The Arrow Blu-ray adds commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith and an alternate opening title.
The Stanford Prison Experiment
The Last House
In such testosterone-fueled movies as Romper Stomper, Chopper, The Hard Word, Animal Kingdom, The Proposition and the Mad Max series, Australian filmmakers have shown international audiences what it means to be a hard-ass action hero from Down Under. Look at some of the early films of Bryan Brown, Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, Eric Bana, Heath Ledger and Joel Edgerton and it’s possible to wonder how anyone that intimidating could play rough-and-ready in one film and soft-and-sensitive the next. Feel free to add Melbourne-born Sullivan Stapleton to that list of actors who seem to appear out of nowhere, grab you by the throat and leave you kicking and screaming for more. In Tony Ayres’ Cut Snake, Stapleton plays the kind of prison-sculpted monster we met in Chopper and Bronson and hoped would never be released from stir. Set in 1970s Australia, it describes what happens when hardened criminal Pommie (Stapleton) is freed from prison and heads straight for the home of his former cellmate, Sparra Farrell (Alex Russell), who, since his release, has lived the life of a fully rehabilitated citizen. He’s engaged to the beautiful Paula (Jessica De Gouw) and gainfully employed as a machinist. It isn’t until well past Pommie shows up on their doorstep that Sparra feels it necessary to come clean about his stint in prison. Being young, handsome and not particularly tough, Sparra almost immediately becomes a target for the psychopaths and sexual predators. When Pommie took him under his wing, however, the torment ended. Once free, Pommie expected that Sparra would quit everything and go on a hell-raising tour of eastern Australia. It didn’t take much to set the musclebound ex-con off, however, and, within days, Pomma has set the wheels in motion for disaster. The story appears to have been informed, in part, by 1973 firebombing of the Whisky Au Go Go nightclub in Brisbane, in which 15 people lost their lives. Admirers of The Hard Word and Animal Kingdom should find a lot to like in Cut Snake.
I wonder if Stanford University gets royalties from the half dozen, or so, movies and documentaries based on its famous 1971 prison experiment. Conducted from August 14–20, by a team of researchers led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo, the experiment was staged in the basement of the psychology building. Twenty-four male students were divided into groups of 12 guards and 12 prisoners, including 3 alternates in each team. Zimbardo took on the role of the superintendent, and an undergraduate research assistant the role of the warden. They attempted to approximate the many variables that affect real prisoner/guard dynamics. After six days, the experiment had gotten so out of hand that Zimbardo was encouraged to call it off, which he did. Six years later, Italian director Carlo Tuzii adapted the experiment to an Italian environment, in La Gabbia (“The Cage”). The 1992 documentary, Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment – written by Zimbardo and directed by Ken Musen — was made available via the SPE website. Mario Giordano’s novel “Black Box” was adapted for the screen by German director Oliver Hirschbiegel, as Das Experiment. An English-language remake of that film, The Experiment, was released in 2010. Newly released into DVD, The Stanford Prison Experiment, stars Billy Crudup as Zimbardo, from whose point-of-view the story is told. Other cast members include Ezra Miller, Olivia Thirlby, Tye Sheridan, Keir Gilchrist, Michael Angarano and Thomas Mann. Spoiler alert: the conclusions are the same in all of the films. Ironically, the study was financed by U.S. Office of Naval Research, which apparently neglected to pass the results along to the guards assigned to the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. As could have been predicted, they abused the powers not specifically denied them by their superiors. Commentary on the DVD is provided by Zimbardo and director Kyle Patrick Alvarez. It adds featurettes, “Bringing to Life the Stanford Prison Experiment” and “The Psychology Behind the Stanford Prison Experiment.”
I was reading one of those where-are-they-now articles on the Internet a few days ago and, in it, the writer speculated on what Jason Mewes might have been up to since his last on-tour film, Jay and Silent Bob Get Irish: The Swearing O’ the Green. Mewes, who knows he’ll never be mistaken for Sir Laurence Olivier, has had endured several well-documented run-ins with the law and addiction problems since becoming Kevin Smith’s muse, in Clerks, but a quick perusal of IMDB.com would have shown that he’s currently as busy as ever. He serves as leading man in Sean Cain and Wes Laurie’s hookers-in-jeopardy thriller, The Last House (a.k.a., Breath of Hate), which is set in a for-sale Hollywood mansion taken over by a trio of loony-bin escapees. The leader of the gang, Hate (Ezra Buzzington), has a thing for female sex workers, so it’s only natural that he becomes possessed with one named Love (Lauren Walsh). The others suffer the same fate as naughty girls in horror movies, in which sex is followed by death. To rescue his damsel, Mewes’ Ned is required to follow a trail that leads through an unusually sleazy strip club and a pimp who keeps a turtle as a pet. Otherwise, it’s fairly standard straight-to-DVD fare. It’s interesting to see such soft- and hard-core veterans as Monique Parent (Play Time) and Joanna Angel (Tattooed Babysitters Club), if only for the most obvious of reasons. The DVD adds a deleted scene, director interview and festival Q&A.
The Color of Noise: Blu Ray
Dirty Works: Rebel Scum
In the history of contemporary music, the underground sub-genre “noise rock” represents little more than a footnote. But, in the eyes and ears of many parents, all music produced after the swing era qualified as noise, so why parse the difference. Freshman documentarian Eric Robel, the writer/director/cinematographer/producer of The Color of Noise, thought enough about the post-punk, pre/grunge movement to devote two hours of digital space, not including featurettes, to the subject. It could have been longer, but Robel wisely chose to focus his efforts on former U.S. Marine Tom Hazelmyer (a.k.a., Artist Haze XXL) and his notorious record label, Amphetamine Reptile Records. To be precise, Hazelmyer joined the corps only after he’d become disillusioned with his future as a punk musician. While stationed near Seattle, he established Amphetamine Reptile with the intention of issuing albums by his band Halo of Flies, which had already been turned down by several recording labels. “Ooh Rah!” Eventually the label’s roster expanded to include releases by Helmet, the Melvins, the Cows, Helios Creed, Chokebore, Servotron and others. The operation would move to Minneapolis, which, like Seattle, was home to a burgeoning alt-rock scene. In addition to the time devoted to performance footage, The Color of Noise excels in the label’s role in the resurgence of poster art, EP covers and concert leaflets. The artistic discipline had lain more or less dormant since the collapse of the psychedelic era. The film also features more than 50 interviews from fans and practitioners around the globe.
Representing yet another rock subset is the Knoxville-based, the Dirty Works, which describes itself as a “white trash punk band” and the nexus of the Bible Belt and Punk Rock. Dirty Works makes the Sex Pistols look like the Beach Boys, while its frontman Christopher Scum makes Iggy Pop look like Donny Osmond … not in a particularly good way, either. In Video Rahim’s almost painfully intimate documentary, Dirty Works: Rebel Scum, we watch as what essentially is a single-gimmick bar band develops delusions of grandeur and self-destructs in a haze of marijuana smoke, heroin, methadone and, especially, hard liquor … lots and lots of it. Scum’s shtick basically requires of him that he bang his head throughout each set, while shouting anti-social lyrics, until blood begins to drip from his forehead. It isn’t the most original gag in the biz, but it still impresses the rubes. Rahim appears to have been given an all-access pass to some of the worst behavior ever displayed by a rock band, much of which falls under the general heading, “It’s only rock ’n’ roll.” In fact, though, alcoholism and heroin is never attractive, especially when the victim lacks the financial and professional wherewithal of Keith Richards. Or, when the lead singer’s devoted girlfriend gives up trying to help him repel his demons and joins him in partaking in the poison. As entertainment, Dirty Works: Rebel Scum is pretty unappetizing, but, as a street-level cautionary tale, it could hardly be more effective.
PBS: Xmas Without China
Comedy Central: Inside Amy Schumer: Season 3
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Jamestown’s Dark Winter
PBS: The Brain With David Eagleman
When it comes to production values and research, Alicia Dwyer’s seasonally appropriate documentary, “Xmas Without China,” doesn’t rival a Rick Burns’ production. It does, however, make some interesting points about how Americans celebrate what once was a religious holiday, with the help of people once considered to be godless communists. In fact, if it weren’t for China and its infamous sweatshops, Christmas would be a rather drab and far more expensive celebration. Dwyer follows Chinese immigrant Tom Xia around his family’s adopted hometown of Arcadia, California – heavily Asian-American and increasingly upper-middle-class – where he’s challenged residents to celebrate the holiday without the benefit of exports from China. The products would necessarily include the types of toys roundly condemned by consumer advocates for being potentially harmful to children. Xia wasn’t attempting to make any particular political point, preferring to question the American media’s blanket condemnation of imports from the PRC. The Jones family, which seems representative of the city’s non-Asian citizenry, agreed to give up toys, plates, lamps, clothes, appliances, entertainment platforms and decorations. They could substitute with products made elsewhere, but it turned out to be a more difficult task than actually finding a bull in a china shop. Meanwhile, Tom’s parents are constructing a new home, proudly using Chinese materials to build their American dream house. When they attempt to emulate their neighbors in the ritual of decorating their home and yard with lights, they, too, learn a lesson in consumerism, American style. (Having lived in the same neighborhood for many years, I can attest to the intense competition for most-brightly-lit house and hugely inflated prices for houses, which is forcing longtime residents, like the Jones, to consider selling at the top of the market and finding homes, elsewhere.) Xia also shares a visit to family members in China, where he also checks out how or even if the country’s export-based prosperity has trickled down to average citizens.
I wonder if anyone at Comedy Central has started a pool to guess how long superstar comedian Amy Schumer will continue hosting “Inside Amy Schumer,” before reserving her talents exclusively for the big screen. She’s already lasted a year longer at the network than Dave Chappelle, who took a powder from his hugely popular “Chappelle’s Show” after being accorded a $50-million contract. It’s difficult to believe that Schumer would risk her still young career for the uncertainty of Hollywood fame, but stranger things have happened. The third season DVD package represents her sassiest and most provocative stage and, yes, she’s already committed to a fourth stanza. The show has received a Peabody Award and has been nominated for eight Primetime Emmy Awards, winning two. Season Three opened with a bang, with Amy joining Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Patricia Arquette in a discussion about how it felt to reach their “Last Fuckable Day” in show business, as well as a hip-hop version of the scatological “Milk, Milk, Lemonade,” with Method Man, Amber Rose and other special guests. It would have been tough to top those show-stoppers, but Amy found ways to keep “Inside Amy Schumer” rolling for another nine episodes, ending at the same orifice that she began the season. It includes an unaired sketch and other goodies.
In PBS’ fascinating, sometimes macabre series, “Secrets of the Dead,” state-of-the-art forensics techniques are used to shed light on some of the most mysterious events in recorded history. The new DVD release, “Jamestown’s Dark Winter,” was inspired by a discovery made by a team of archaeologists excavating the site of the famously doomed early-American colony. Buried in the trash layer of a cellar, they discovered the remains of a young woman, dating back to 1609. The settlers faced an extremely harsh winter, surrounded by hostile members of the Powhatan tribe, who weren’t in a Thanksgiving state of mind. More surprising than the location in which they were found are the cut marks on the lower jaw and front of the cranium. With the help of forensic anthropologists, the extraordinary and frightening story of this young woman comes to life.
The six-part PBS series “The Brain With David Eagleman” reveals the human story behind neuroscience by blending scientific truth with innovative visual effects and compelling personal stories. Written and hosted by the genial scientist, the program attempts to educate neuroscience neophytes on the most fundamental processes of our most important organ: how it channels thought, how it processes reality, how it functions in both conscious and unconscious states. With barely a brain scanner or a white coat in sight, “The Brain” focuses on understanding the fundamental truths of what it means to be human now and in the coming centuries, while communicating these elegant and simple ideas as they apply to us and our experiences.
Shelby: A Magical Holiday Tail
Up TV: Marry Me for Christmas
Up TV: Christmas Mix
Up TV: Merry Ex-Mas
Original Christmas Classics Anniversary Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
PBS Kids: Peg + Cat: A Totally Awesome Christmas
It’s been a while since a truly endearing movie about Christmas has been released into theaters and went on to become an annual treat. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the costs of making and marketing such recent holiday pictures as Arthur Christmas, Four Christmases, The Santa Clause series – however modest and likely profitable – no longer is worth the risk. The number of available screens has also been reduced by studios pushing their awards candidates and potential blockbusters. The safer option today has become the VOD, PPV and straight-to-DVD marketplace, where a few recognizable names on a cover can mean a few million dollars in revenue. Shelby: A Magical Holiday Tail is the kind of picture that can be enjoyed by anyone who loves dogs – especially those of the talking variety – and can remember the better days of Chevy Chase, Tom Arnold and, even, Rob Schneider, whose best work since “SNL” has come as a voice actor. Shelby is a stray beagle, who has proven adept at escaping dog pounds. Arnold plays the frazzled animal-control officer whose life Shelby has made miserable. When a spoiled rich kid tries to adopt him for all the wrong reasons, Shelby runs away and hides in the suburban basement of 10-year-old aspiring magician Jake Parker (John Paul Ruttan). After the rich kid’s family offers the dogcatcher a $5,000 reward for the slippery doggy, Chase plays Jake’s grandfather and most dependable ally. The Dove-approved movie adds enough rowdy behavior and silly pranks to keep everyone happy.
Another reliable place to find holiday-themed entertainments is cable television, especially the niche networks that have learned a few tricks from the folks at Lifetime: recognize your audience, give your viewers what they want and don’t push your luck by taking them for granted. Once known as the Gospel Music Channel, Up TV is dedicated to presenting “uplifting, family-friendly original movies, series and specials.” It doesn’t cater specifically to so-called urban audiences, but those who remember its gospel roots haven’t been forgotten. Up TV began putting its holiday inventory of original programming on heavy rotation, beginning on November 1. I don’t know how much the 2013 rom-com, Marry Me for Christmas, owes to The Proposal, in which a pushy boss (Sandra Bullock) forces her young assistant (Ryan Reynolds) to marry her in order to keep her visa status in the U.S. and avoid deportation to Canada. Here, Marci Jewel (Malinda Williams) is the owner of an up-and-coming ad agency and thrilled with her single life in New York. With the pressure on at home for more grandbabies – and a deadline looming at work – Marci drags her employee, Adam (Brad James), to Atlanta, where he’s required to pretend to be her fiancé. While caught up in the family’s frenetic holiday drama, Marci learns some unexpected lessons about love, trust and family, particularly when it comes to her new ‘fiancé’ and lifelong friends.
As is too often the case with made-for-cable movies, Up TV’s original “Naughty and Nice” turns up on DVD as Christmas Mix. After infuriating advertisers with one of his trademark stunts, Los Angeles radio personality Pepper Sterling (Tilky Jones) gets exiled to the quaint town of Idyllwild for the holiday season. Forced to share airtime with his polar opposite, the buttoned-down psychologist Sandy Love (Haylie Duff), Pepper finds that he has met his match. After Christmas, Pepper is offered the chance to return home and resume his life as a radio celebrity. Gee, I wonder what he’ll do.
I can’t think of an actor who’s starred as the romantic lead in as many cable-original movies as Dean Cain. In Ion Television’s Merry Ex-Mas, he plays security specialist Jessie Rogers, who’s caught in a compromising position with his rock-star client, his humiliated wife Noelle (Kristy Swanson) swiftly files for divorce. Unable to convince her of his innocence, Jessie gets an assist from Jack Frost when they’re stuck in a cabin during a blizzard.
“The Original Christmas Classics Anniversary Collector’s Edition” includes Blu-ray editions of seven holiday favorites that are so old they’ve begun to grow whiskers: “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Santa Claus Is Comin to Town,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Frosty Returns,” “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Cricket on the Hearth.” The set adds several new hi-def featurettes, including “Be an Artist and Create,” starring Joe Vance, director of character art at DreamWorks; the “Kringle Jingle” ditty; “Santa Special Delivery,” with historical factoids about Santa Claus, trivia about the television show and song, as well as some interstitial interviews with kids; “Learn to Draw,” with Dave Burgess of DreamWorks Animation; “Rudolph Unwrapped,” another trivia track; another sing-along, “Magical Melody”; and “Frosty Snowflake Surprises,” with trivia factoids. After decades of use, these old chestnuts have never looked better.
At PBS Kids, the name of the game is repackaging, a common practice when showcasing DVDs for the youngest viewers. In fact, not all of the episodes in these holiday-themed collections have anything to do with Christmas. In “Peg + Cat: A Totally Awesome Christmas,” Santa’s got serious problems, Peg and Cat have to figure out how to make and wrap presents for all the children of the world, and then deliver them using 100 sleighs. “WordWorld: Merry Christmas” offers five adventures, including “The Christmas Star” and “A Christmas Present for Dog.” “Caillou’s Christmas” features 12 fun-filled holiday- and winter-themed adventures, from visiting Santa and going Christmas-tree shopping in “Holiday Magic,” to planning to stay up all night to see Santa in “Caillou’s Christmas Eve.” “Odd Squad: Reindeer Games” follows Olive and Otto to the North Pole, where Santa needs help delivering presents and rounding up reindeers that have escaped from their pens. The set also includes “Ms. O Uh-Oh” and “Party of 5,4,3,2,1.”