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The DVD Wrapup: Resident Evil, Buster’s Mal Heart, Free Fire, Tommy’s Honour, Stormy Monday, T.J. Hooker … More

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

Buster’s Mal Heart: Blu-ray
Writer-director Sarah Adina Smith has described her dark and challenging second feature, Buster’s Mal Heart, as a mix of Donnie Darko and Bad Santa. I might have added Life of Pi, Barton Fink and Lost Highway, if only as visual references. It’s a very curious movie, about a young husband and father, Jonah (Rami Malek), whose inability to handle basic realities of everyday life pushes him quickly past bipolar disorder, to outright schizophrenia, as a wildly eccentric mountain man, Buster (also Malek). Smith reportedly asked Malek to take on the double role of Jonah/Buster, before he began production on USA Network’s similarly off-putting series, “Mr. Robot.” It’s possible, I suppose, that Smith and USA shared casting agencies and rushes from Buster’s Mal Heart convince network executives that he was a perfect fit for playing vigilante hacker Elliot Alderson. Both characters are cut from the same cloth. Our first glimpse of Buster comes as he’s being chased by a small militia of police through a snowy valley, high in the Montana Rockies. Cut to Jonah, a night manager at an extremely generic motel in the flatlands, at work and at home, with his wife (Kate Lyn Sheil), daughter and burdensome mother-in-law (Lin Shaye). It’s clear that he’s working too many hours at the motel, but, without them, he’d never be able save enough money to achieve his simple dreams. He takes caffeine pills to give him an edge at work, if not sufficient time to rest and recuperate from damage done. One quiet night, a guest who identifies himself as The Last Free Man piques his curiosity with bizarre questions, inspired by an apocalyptic event he calls “the great inversion.” He’s played by D.J. Qualls — Golem in Season Three of “Fargo” — who would have been my second choice for Jonah/Buster. His references to Y2K square with messages he’s hearing in the jibber-jabber being spouted, at home, by insane-looking televangelists. Something terrible happens while Jonah’s wife and daughter are “vacationing” – as his boss puts it – at the motel. It leads not only to the emergence of Buster the Mountain Man, but also Buster’s alter ego, who’s stuck in a row boat in the middle of a vast sea. I’m not at all sure what Smith is trying to say here, except that too much work, for too little return, will drive a good man insane. But, we knew that already. Her first film, The Midnight Swim, asked as many questions as answers, as well as adding a supernatural twist. In it, Dr. Amelia Brooks (Beth Grant) disappears during a deep-water dive on Spirit Lake. Her three daughters travel home to settle her affairs, not expecting to find themselves unable to let go of their mother and becoming drawn into the mysteries of the lake.

Resident Evil: Vendetta: Blu-ray/4K UHD
The first thing that confused me going into Resident Evil: Vendetta was the absence of any mention of franchise mainstays Milla Jovovich and writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson. I recalled something about a recent theatrical release of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, but assumed that a name change had taken place between then and now. It happens. In fact, I was unaware of the existence of two separate “RE” movie series, both based on the same video game, conceived by Capcom in 1996. The six-part live-action series, which, began in 2002, starred Jovovich and was alternately produced, written and/or directed by Anderson. It has made over $1 billion, largely in overseas revenues. Resident Evil: Vendetta, originally “Biohazard: Vendetta,” is the third of at least four full-length CGI-animated features. It was directed by Takanori Tsujimoto (Bushido Man), written by Makoto Fukami (Psycho-Pass), produced by Takashi Shimizu (Ju-On) and scored by Kenji Kawai (“Ghost in the Shell”). Like its predecessors, “Biohazard: Degeneration” (2008) and “Biohazard: Damnation” (2012), it doesn’t appear as if “Vendetta” was accorded a theatrical release here. Once I learned not to expect a visit from Jovovich, who so happens to be married to Anderson, I was able to cut directly to the chase. Because the “Biohazard” installments don’t neatly coincide with the “RE” releases, I wouldn’t recommend for newcomers to leap into either franchise, without first becoming familiar with the video game. There are several recurring characters and themes, in addition to the zombies and demon dogs that require zapping by soldiers and gamers. Here, BSAA agent Chris Redfield (voiced by Kevin Dorman) enlists the help of government agent Leon S. Kennedy (Matthew Mercer) and professor Rebecca Chambers (Erin Cahill), from Alexander Institute of Biotechnology, to prevent death merchant Glenn Arias (John DeMita) from spreading the deadly A-Virus in New York. In addition to being an evil genius and buff dude, Arias has a very good reason to be pissed at a government willing to teach him a lesson, by lobbing a cruise missile into a wedding reception … just like Afghanistan. Much of the fighting takes place from the p.o.v. of single shooters as they make their way through mansions and buildings full of zombies. The bonus package adds three featurettes, “The Creature,” “Motion Capture Set Tour with Dante Carver” and “CGI to Reality: Designing Vendetta”; a still gallery (30 sketches/designs); commentary (in Japanese) with Tsujimoto, Shimizu and Fukami; a bonus disc with three more featurettes, “BSAA Mission Briefing: Combat Arias,” “Designing the World of Vendetta” and “2016 Tokyo Game Show Footage.” The 4K Blu-ray disc features both Dolby Vision high-dynamic range (HDR) and Dolby Atmos immersive audio.

 

La Vie de Jean-Marie
When Dutch filmmaker Peter van Houten embarked on his bio-doc of a sprightly septuagenarian priest, who tends to more than 20 villages in the French Pyrenees, he couldn’t have imagined how, when or where it would end. If the subject had died half way through the shoot, for example, all Van Houten would have had to show for the project would have been some lovely shots of the mountains and footage of the priest meeting with parishioners and tending to his beautiful garden. They could have been shown at his funeral, as an unexpected sendoff to a swell guy. As it is, however, La Vie de Jean-Marie is a 166-minute-long portrait of a remarkable, if wholly anonymous man, whose reward for a life well-lived would have to wait until his promised rendezvous with the Holy Father. This isn’t to say that Pastor Jean-Marie wasn’t appreciated by the people of Olette or that he didn’t make a lasting impression with his lifelong commitment to their spiritual well-being. They have to count for something, after all. He arrived at the priesthood in a circuitous, if not completely unlikely fashion. Jean-Marie was born the eldest son of a large family. In 1948, his Dutch father bought a mountain in the French Pyrenees – that’s right, a mountain – where, after being rejected in love, the young man turned to God. With simplicity, humor and openness, Jean-Marie emerged from his heartache with a great spiritual love for his neighbors. Over the years, as vacancies at other parishes occurred, he took it upon himself to ride the circuit, rather than demand the villagers come to Olette. In true cinema-verite style,Van Houten trails the pastor like a dog follows its master, catching every nuance and recording all of Jean-Marie’s many thoughts and observations. Viewers able to sit through 166 minutes of such closely observed portraiture will be rewarded with a narrative payoff that’s almost too good to be true. Certainly, if La Vie de Jean-Marie had been made in Hollywood, the unexpectedly uplifting summation would have been too tidy to be credible. I wouldn’t think of spoiling it. The hardest part might be finding a copy of the movie on DVD or VOD, from IndiePix Films. In a rarity, I couldn’t find a mention of it or Van Houten on IMDB.com. Keep trying, though.

Free Fire: Blu-ray
Ever since 2009, when writer-director Ben Wheatley’s Down Terrace caught the attention of critics and lovers of offbeat crime pictures, he’s deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino. Since then, the Essex-born filmmaker has reeled off a series of thrillers that combine stylized violence, colorful characters and the poetics of slang and profanity. Although Free Fall is set in Boston, in the mid-1970s, instead of the UK, where it was shot, it features all the Wheatley-isms fans have come to expect, with one significant variation. It’s a locked-room thriller, set in a large abandoned factory. It is where two groups of almost comically inept hoodlums meet to exchange cash for automatic weapons. We’ve seen the same thing happen hundreds of times in movies and television series, including Boston’s own, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Given the stakes, tensions run high from the get-go. The money’s right … the automatic weapons work … but they’re not the variety agreed upon beforehand. After some initial trepidation, the groups’ spokesmen agree that the unexpected change shouldn’t be considered a deal-breaker. Both sides might have exited the factory intact, if it weren’t for the insistence of two of the hired hands to reignite a violent argument begun the night before the exchange. One thing leads to another and a good old-fashioned Western shootout ensues, during which all the participants take shelter behind piles of rubble and, one-by-one, pull out handguns to shoot anything that moves. At that same time, they taunt each other with insults, threats and mocking sounds. Soon, a pair of seemingly unaligned snipers join the party, picking off unprotected individuals from above. Amazingly, Wheatley keeps the shootout going for 90 increasingly tense minutes, within the confines of the factory, occasionally relieving the carnage with inky black humor. Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Jack Reynor and Noah Taylor are among the familiar faces taking potshots at each other. The character who steals the show from the boys, however, is played by Brie Larson (Room), whose allegiance isn’t always clear. Martin Scorsese thought enough about Free Fire to lend his name as executive producer.

Ukraine on Fire
Until Donald Trump’s taunts, lies and insults lit a fire under the ass of the mainstream press, only a handful of media outlets cared enough about officially sanctioned propaganda, untruths and corruption to provide the public with a semblance of truth. If the President hadn’t dared the New York Times, Washington Post and a few other outlets to call him out on his ridiculous tweets and callous disregard for facts, he might have sailed through his first six months in office. Instead, he stirred up the hornets’ nest and lost control of his legislative agenda. Filmmaker and conspiracy theorist Olivier Stone has long fancied himself as a counterbalance to the mainstream press, occasionally paying well-publicized visits to dictators whose views, he felt, were being misrepresented. It was difficult to discern whose ego was more on the line in Stone’s interviews. Before Trump and Putin met at the G-20 Summit – twice, it turns out — Stone conducted a series of interviews with the Russian leader, for a Showtime mini-series. For all the advance hype, the best he could do was lob softballs at a politician well versed in deflecting criticism and shaping propaganda. Which is too bad, because, in his features, Stone has often presented articulate alternatives to the official versions of major historical upheavals. In Igor Lopatonok and Vanessa Dean’s debut documentary, Ukraine on Fire, Stone serves as one of three co-executive producers and chief interviewer. His photograph his larger than anyone else’s on the cover, including Putin. Apart from the chats, Stone’s contribution is zilch.

As documentaries on ongoing current events go, Ukraine on Fire leaves a lot to be desired. Even before it gets to the current state of affairs in the country, Lopatonok and Dean present a historical timeline that makes Ukraine look like a banana republic, dominated by fascists, anti-Semitic ultra-nationalists and politicians whose loyalty to allies is always in doubt. Given the CIA’s tendency to meddle in other countries’ business, it should come as no surprise to viewers that the filmmakers have been able to make a strong case for painting the agency as the bogeyman, inciting riots whenever pro-Moscow leaders take power and supporting the worst sorts of opponents. We’re expected to believe that the hundreds of thousands of students who demanded democratic reforms were ripe for cooptation by the right. They also take the side of the Russian nationals in eastern Ukraine, whose desire to join the Motherland gave Putin an excuse to send in paramilitary troops and spark confrontations that would lead to a full-blown invasion. As for the Crimea, they suggest, the Russians have an historical right to steal it. Naturally, Putin agrees with them. If Stone’s bullshit detector was working during the interview sessions, his questions don’t show it. No other side is represented, even when the filmmakers play devil’s advocate in the shooting down of Malaysia Airline Flight 17. And, that’s unconscionable. Evgeny Afineevsky’s Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (2015) was released a year earlier than Ukraine on Fire and takes a more populist approach to recent history there. Not having seen the doc, all I can point to is its being an official selection of the Venice and Telluride International film festivals, a 2016 Oscar nominee and People’s Choice Award winner for the Best Documentary, at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Tommy’s Honour
Listen to announcers and analysts reporting on any major golf tournament and you’d think they were watching a royal wedding or the installment of a pope, instead of describing a game played with a ball and stick, by men in branded sportswear. They speak in hushed tones whenever a contender’s caddy pulls a club out of his bag and the choice reminds them of something that happened in tournaments long past. A particularly impressive shot elicits the kind of praise usually reserved for Congressional Medal of Honor winners. You can almost hear CBS host Jim Nantz genuflect and cross himself whenever the names of the sport’s greats are referenced at the Masters. This wasn’t always the case, but, thanks to the network’s kowtowing to PGA executives, it’s become commonplace. The old farts at August National even dictate CBS’ lineup of commentators. (Gary McCord and Jack Whitaker were banned for being insensitive to tradition.) That’s what makes an appearance by comedian Bill Murray at a pro-am event, or in the announcers’ booth, so refreshing. It also explains why Happy Gilmore, Caddyshack and Tin Cup have made a whole bunch more money at the box office than such otherwise worthwhile dramas as Bobby Jones Stroke of Genius, The Greatest Game Ever Played and The Legend of Bagger Vance. The most shocking thing about Tiger Woods’ collapse, wasn’t the nature of his misdeeds, but that they reminded his many admirers that he was human and behaved like everyone on tour when the cameras weren’t pointed in their direction.

The “u” in the title, Tommy’s Honour, is a dead getaway that Jason Connery’s homage to his father’s native Scotland, and its historical role in golf’s development, is to be taken seriously. That’s clear, as well, in his choice of locations, which include the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, in Fife, which has been around since 1754, and is looked up by duffers and pros, alike, as a shrine. Tommy’s Honour depicts the lives and careers of Old Tom (Peter Mullan) and Young Tom Morris (Jack Lowden), one of the greatest father-son acts in the history of organized sports. Both men were born, raised and worked within spitting distance of the hallowed St. Andrews clubhouse, where, as commoners, they were personae non grata. As close as they were, much of the film’s drama derives the Morris’ complex and bittersweet relationship, fueled by jealousy and passion for the game. Tommy’s Honour is based on Kevin Cook’s 2007 biography, “Tommy’s Honor: The Story of Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris, Golf’s Founding Father and Son.” The movie plays down Old Tom’s many legendary achievements, if not their rivalry, in favor of a romantic throughline that sets the moral and religious tone of the period, as well as the dramatic climax. Another storyline involves the sport’s roots in snobbery, which allowed for Young Tom to represent the club in competition, but not as a member. He remains, at 17, the youngest golfer to win a major tournament. In addition to being a great golfer, in his own right, Old Tom was noted as an innovative greens-keeper, course and club designer, and teacher. If the twits who ran the club ever considered him a “gentleman,” apparently the pinnacle of status in the Victorian period, it isn’t revealed here. The real fun takes place in the gallery, anyway. The golfers were natural-born gamblers, who tried their best to intimidate each other, while fans are portrayed as rowdy sots, whose lack of decorum often resulted in fistfights. It’s also fun to see how the courses looked, at a time when manicuring greens was neither encouraged or practiced. The DVD release coincides with this week’s unfolding of the British Open.

Psychoanalysis
In the slow-burn drama, Psychoanalysis, Paul Symmonds is Australia’s top suicide-prevention specialist. He’s riding high in the psychiatric community and about to make a major presentation to his peers. Before he can do that, however, Paul’s stunned to learn that five of his patients have taken their own lives in the past week, throwing his reputation into question when it’s revealed in the media. When the speaking gig is canceled, Paul’s ego demands that he not accept the fallout without a fight. Curiously, he hires a documentary crew to follow him around as he attempts to clear his name. This includes a Psychology Board hearing, during which he is forced to attend sessions with a rival psychologist, who will determine if he’s capable of resuming his practice. The perceived dis allows freshman director James Raue to ask us, “Did they jump or were they pushed and, if so, why?” Paul’s sole ally in his investigation is a mentally unstable client, so anxious to support Symmonds that he impersonates an American FBI agent during interviews with the victims’ parents, some of whom need help themselves. It goes without saying that his stability will spiral downward as the search for the truth goes in directions he hadn’t anticipated. It’s all captured by the camera crew, which may have motives of its own to stick so close to Symmonds and his unreliable assistant. If Psychoanalysis’ pace requires some adjustments, actors Benedict Wall, Jes Craig-Piper, Michael Whalley and Ryan O’Kane keep things interesting.

Game Changers
In most nerdist melodramas I’ve seen, the star-crossed geeks eventually are required to hang up their controllers and adapt to a life outside the fantasy realms in which they came of age. In Rob Imbs’ micro-budget Game Changers, however, the characters are allowed to remain true to their roots throughout. When they mess up, as they inevitably do, it’s on terms that are more credible to gamers than other viewers. It is the story of two childhood friends — extrovert Bryan (Brian Bernys) and introvert Scott (Jake Albarella) — gaming superstars in their youth, but now settling into jobs in Bryan’s family IT company. True to the gamer spirit, they can’t imagine wearing anything more presentable than jeans, t-shirts and gym shoes to work, even as they climb the corporate ladder. Bryan attempts to direct his nervous energy into poker, but is too impulsive to be an effective player. He talks Scott into getting back into e-gaming at an intensely competitive level, which is OK, but only until he realizes that Bryan has become a video-game Nazi. Coincidentally, a cute and talented new employee develops a crush on Scott, based simply on her respect for his work. Like any true nerd, he’s, at first, unprepared to deal with normal boy-girl interaction. As he grows closer to her, his relationship with Bryan takes a devious turn. Somehow, Imbs pulls it off without forcing his characters to compromise or adapt to non-gamer society.

Behind the Mask: The Batman: Dead End Story
In the winter of 2003, commercial director Sandy Collora and some of his friends set out to make a short film for his demo reel. Starting at 17, he began honing his creature design and sculpting skills at Stan Winston’s studio as an assistant on “Leviathan” and “Alien Nation,” before moving on to work with Rob Bottin, Steve Johnson and Rick Baker. All along, he harbored the dream of interpreting his comic-book hero on film. What Collora’s team lacked in money, they more than made up for in chutzpah and imagination. In fact, Collora and his team created one of the most widely trafficked short films ever made: “Batman: Dead End.” In the seven-minute production, a pissed-off Batman – even darker than Christian Bale’s interpretation – punishes the Joker for escaping from prison. Unbeknownst to the Caped Crusader, however, the Alien and Predator are waiting in the wings to prove who’s boss in Gotham. That’s all there is to it. But, it looks great and is true to the characters’ look and venomous nature. Eric Dow’s Behind the Mask: The Batman: Dead End Story chronicles what happened when it was shown to the geeks at Comic-Con and the shock waves were felt all the way to Hollywood. The doc is divided into halves. In the first, Dow describes the inception and development of the project, including meetings with Sylvester Stallone. The second covers what happens when Collora becomes a hot property and, almost predictably, allows his artistic hubris to turn victory into disaster. In effect, he was handed the keys to Hollywood and pissed all over them. His refusal to accept the first few offers was admirable — from the point-of-view of an uncompromising indie artist, anyway — but, ultimately, suicidal. His only feature to date is the low-budget sci-fi thriller, Hunter Prey, of which DVD Talk said, “is likely to go down as one of the best sci-fi films in a long time that most people will never see.” Despite finding some traction in Europe, it was released here straight-to-video. The inside look at the legend of “Batman: Dead End” is informed by interviews with Collora, comic book legend Neal Adams and convention players Sean Clark, Shawn Reeves and Jordu Schell. It immediately recalls Overnight, Tony Montana and Mark Brian Smith’s insightful examination of Boondock Saints’ writer-director Troy Duffy’s spectacular rise and fall.

Stormy Monday: Special Edition: Blu-ray
In 1988, seven years before he would turn heads with Leaving Las Vegas, Mike Figgis introduced himself to filmgoers with Stormy Monday, a taut, stylish gangster movie that recalled John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday, Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind and any number of classic American noirs, in which the art, lighting and musical conceits were as crucial as the dialogue. That it was set on Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s rough-and-ready waterfront district only added to the fun. Despite a soundtrack informed by excellent jazz, R&B and blues, the most significant musical note was provided by the ragtag Krakow Jazz Ensemble – something of an extended Polish joke, I’m afraid – in a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” so discordant, it set the tone for everything that follows it. That’s because it’s American Week in Newcastle and the red-white-and-blue imagery is so pervasive, it’s possible to imagine Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher snuggling in the corner booth of Sting’s upscale jazz club. Sean Bean (“Sharpe”) plays Brendan, a handsome drifter seeking a custodial job with jazz club owner, Finney (Sting), who’s under pressure from American mobster Cosmo (Tommy Lee Jones) to sell, in exchange for a cut of a local land development deal. After Brendan overhears a pair of Brit mobsters discussing a possible hit on Finney, Brendan uses it as an entrée to Finney’s inner circle. Meanwhile, he’s hit it off with Cosmo’s sultry ex-lover Kate (Melanie Griffith, never sexier), who’s a part-time model, waitress and prostitute. Whether the Yanks or Brits win the showdown is almost beyond the point. What counts more than anything else is Roger Deakins’ cinematography, without which Figgis’ visions might have gone unrealized. (A scene in which Brendan and Kate exchange a kiss on a bridge overlooking the city’s fog-shrouded port is suitable for framing.) Arrow Video’s special edition is presented here for the first time in high definition and original stereo audio. It adds commentary with Figgis, moderated by critic Damon Wise; a video appreciation by critic Neil Young; a ”then and now” tour of the film’s Newcastle locations; a reversible sleeve featuring, original and newly commissioned artwork by Jacey; and booklet, featuring new writing by critic Mark Cunliffe.

Plastic Paradise: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Even since the late 1980s, I’ve avoided vacationing in Hawaii, Tahiti, Bali and other idyllic islands in the Pacific Ocean, fearing that I might accidentally swim or snorkel directly into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an amorphous blob of floating debris discovered 30 years ago by researchers for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Even if its horrific description bordered on urban mythology – and I could have afforded such a trip — why risk being swallowed up in slowly decaying globs of plastic bottles and other refuse? Whew, that was a close one. In Plastic Paradise: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, journalist/filmmaker Angela Sun traveled to distant Midway Atoll to uncover the truth behind the mystery. For all the attention that it garnered as the site of one of the great naval battles of World War II, the island chain is extremely difficult for civilians to reach and, since 2012, the tourism program has been suspended due to budget cutbacks. In the absence of environmental and historical tourists, Sun’s film suggests that the albatross population now controls passage on the roads and other thoroughfares. (Of the 21 species recognized by International Union for Conservation of Nature on its Red List, 19 are threatened, and the other two are “near threatened.”) Sadly, the gooney birds are the most threatened of all species on Midway by the plastic flotsam. Studies of birds in the North Pacific have shown that ingestion of plastic goblets results in declining body weight and condition. The plastic, after being consumed, can be regurgitated and fed to chicks, many of which die prematurely. That’s because the patch, which isn’t visible from the air or space, consists of tiny pieces suspended beneath the surface of the ocean. Larger objects also find their way to the beaches of Midway, but they’re more of an eyesore than of concern to marine life. Sun also encounters scientists, celebrities, legislators and activists who shed light on what our society’s vast consumption of disposable plastic is doing to our oceans — and what it may be doing to our health.

Do You Take This Man
The downside of the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriages was revealed when filmmakers began making movies in which the gay grooms and lesbian brides were portrayed as being as neurotically attached to tradition as heterosexual couples from time immemorial. In the movies that’s meant throwing as many roadblocks and potholes in the path of the betrothed to make audiences wonder if the marriage will be canceled or saved in the final reel. Joshua Tunick’s debut feature, Do You Take This Man, follows an intimate group of friends and family – only four of whom are gay — as they gather at the home of Daniel and Christopher (Anthony Rapp, Jonathan Bennett) for the rehearsal dinner. In lieu of gifts, each new guest carries with them an unspoken question that should have been answered before the two men – mismatched only by age – began to make plans for the ceremony. To me, none of them is worth more than a few minutes’ anguish, if that, but that wouldn’t make for much of a drama, would it? The fact is, though, Lifetime built a network around movies that are every bit as predictable and ultimately uplifting as Do You Take This Man. Neither should LGBTQ audiences be deprived of their right to wallow in schmaltz every so often. The veteran cast includes Alyson Hannigan, Thomas Dekker, Mackenzie Astin, Alona Tal, Sam Anderson, Lee Garlington, Hutchi Hancock and Marla Sokoloff. The DVD adds cast interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, deleted scenes and director’s commentary.

With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story
When I last reviewed “With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story,” the comic-book legend was 89 years old and still attending Comic-Cons with regularity. Now, at 94, Lee’s expected to attend next week’s event, in San Diego, as well. He’s appeared in nearly 60 films in the last five years – in person, as a voice actor, or animated – in roles ranging from narrator in Return to Nuke ‘Em High, Volume 1, to strip-club deejay, in Deadpool. The highly recommendable DVD is being reissued by Well Go USA. It features interviews with fans and colleagues, including Kevin Smith, Patrick Stewart, Samuel L. Jackson and Eva Mendes, and relating the oft-told tale of one man’s determination to tell incredible stories, which have enchanted the world for over 40 years.

TV-to-DVD
ABC/CBS: T.J. Hooker: The Complete Series
Lifetime: Love by the 10th Date
PBS: Earth: Great Yellowstone Thaw: How Nature Survives
PBS Kids: Arthur: Brothers and Sisters
With the exception of Betty White, I can’t think of another actor who’s enjoyed the kind of roller-coaster career on television as William Shatner. Never very far from the public eye since breaking into the spotlight at the dawn of the broadcast era, White and Shatner have found ways to remain visible, as stars, guest stars, supporting characters, talk-show guests and contestants on game shows. White began her career near the top, in the early 1950s, with title roles in “Life With Elizabeth” and “Date With the Angels,” hitting paydirt in the 1970s, with “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and, a decade later, in “The Golden Girls.” Shatner was a familiar face in series television until 1967, when he ascended to the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise, as Captain James T. Kirk, on “Star Trek.” The show’s failure put a dent in his career, only alleviated by cultists who wouldn’t let it die. The unexpected success of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) resuscitated his career as a pop-cultural icon, while a starring role in ABC’s “T.J. Hooker” demonstrated that he could attract an audience as something other than a fleet commander. Coincidentally, both actors’ careers were resuscitated once again by David E. Kelly’s sibling courtroom dramas, “The Practice” and “Boston Legal.” Shatner’s Denny Crane remains one of the medium’s singular characters, while White’s delightfully felonious Catherine Piper bridged several demographic gaps. They’re still active. For the first time on DVD, Shatner’s 90-episode run in Rick Husky’s popular 1980s cop drama is on view in Shout!Factory’s “T.J. Hooker: The Complete Series The Leonard Goldberg/ Aaron Spelling production premiered as a mid-season replacement on March 13, 1982, on ABC, and ran on the network until May 4, 1985. It was picked up for another season by CBS, which placed it in a late-night spot. In it, Hooker is a veteran police sergeant in charge of training new “LCPD” recruits for duty in the mean streets of “LC,” which is a dead ringer for L.A. He gave up his gold shield after his partner was killed and he was shot. Hooker’s return threatened to uniform coincides with a change in attitude about career criminals, drug dealers and other enemies of civility. In the 90Metal Jacket. As the show progressed, Hooker would mellow noticeably, without compromising his ideals or de-minute pilot episode, he does a pretty good impersonation of R. Lee Ermey’s no-nonsense D.I., in Full sire to clean up the streets. Among his young proteges are cocky lady’s man Vince Romano (Adrian Zmed) and Farrah-Fawcett clone, Stacy Sheridan (Heather Locklear). (Every time Sheridan goes undercover, she gets kidnapped and with rape, or so it seems.) Notable guest stars included Leonard Nimoy, Vic Tayback, Lisa Hartman, Jonathan Banks, Robert Davi, Melody Anderson, Jim Brown, David Caruso, Helen Shaver, William Forsythe, Tracy Scoggins, Greg Morris, Ray Wise, Nia Peeples, Heather Thomas, Dennis Franz, Glynn Turman, Robert Pastorelli, Delta Burke, Miguel Ferrer, Sharon Stone, Lauren Tewes, Vanessa Williams and Sid Haig. If “T.J. Hooker” isn’t recalled as anything special in the annals of TV crime shows, it’s because it arrived after the Joseph Wambaugh-inspired “Police Story” and in the same season as “Hill Street Blues,” shows that smashed all genre conventions. It took a while for the public to warm to the latter, however, and, in the meantime, Shatner’s fans kept his show popular with mainstream viewers. Even so, as is the case in any Spelling/Goldman product, the dialogue is often laughably cliché, as is the casting of supporting characters. Lots of chases, though. (I wonder if Lawrence Kasdan had Shatner’s T.J. Hooker in mind when, in The Big Chill,” he made the name of the series in which Tom Berenger’s character starred, “J.T. Lancer.” Both characters’ willingness to jump on and off moving vehicles is similar.)

Criticizing a Lifetime rom-com for its lack of intellectual value is exactly the kind of fool’s errand nutritionists face when pointing out the flaws in a Big Mac or Big Gulp. It’s pointless. No matter how silly women are made to look in their pursuit of careers, men or material goods, there’s always going to be a sizeable audience willing to buy into the stereotypes. “Love by the 10th Date,” which aired earlier this year, is no better or worse than other romantic comedies targeted at women who watch them as much to see what the characters are wearing as how they resolves their problems, such as they are. Lifetime dramas are starting to come of age, I think, but comedies based on stereotypes will always find an audience. The story focuses on the career and romantic ambitions of Gabby (Meagan Good), Nell (Kellee Stewart), Billie (Keri Hilson) and Margot (Kelly Rowland), exceptionally beautiful African-American journalists who work for a digital lifestyle magazine based in L.A. Their British editor (Kat Deeley) is unhappy with the level of pizzazz displayed in story ideas they’ve begun to forward, sensing that they reflect the lack of luster in their private lives. The editor threatens to fire them, if their next assignment turns out to be a flat as the last ones. They come up with a challenge based on the idea that a “relationship isn’t a relationship until the tenth date with the same person,” after which true love can be rooted in a solid foundation. The women are then required to navigate the ups and downs of modern dating, romance, exes and friendships, while also learning what they want out of life and love. Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, Brandon T. Jackson, Black Shakespeare, Christian Keyes and Andra Fuller are among the atypically eligible bachelors who are blindsided by the constraints placed on them by their dates. The cast, which includes three Grammy nominees, doesn’t have to stretch much to meet writer/director Nzingha Stewart demands. The biggest laugh comes when one of the women accidentally displays the results of her bikini wax, while being saved at a revival meeting, at which her 10th-date hopeful is laying hands on sinners. Conveniently, she had forgotten to wear underwear, before pretending to be overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit and fainting, legs akimbo. Happens all the time.

PBS/BBC’s “Great Yellowstone Thaw: How Nature Survive uses mini-cameras to describe how some the national park’s permanent residents pass the winter and how they take advantage of the spring thaw and summer runoff, which never are exactly alike from one year to the next. It isn’t as natural a process as you might think. Animals, like the plants in your garden, can be fooled by a false spring and emerge from their long winter’s nap before the eco-system is ready to accommodate their needs. That’s especially true with Yellowstone’s bear population. The winter described in this series was atypically mild, so the usual menu of food sources wasn’t available for an early riser. The cameras also capture great grey owls mating, nesting and raising their newborns. Buffalo roam … wolves hunt … beavers munch … hummingbirds suckle … rivers flood. The predators don’t always win and the meek don’t always lose. The three-part mini-series provides a wonderful reminder that we’re not alone, even if backcountry Yellowstone is off-limits to most visitors.

PBS Kids’ “Arthur: Brothers and Sisters” is set in the fictional American city of Elwood City. The show revolves around the lives of 8-year-old Arthur Read, an anthropomorphic aardvark, his friends and family, and their daily interactions with each other. The latest collection of eight stories about the joys – and challenges – of having a brother or sister. From D.W. copying her big brother’s every move, to the Tibble twins discovering one of them is two whole minutes older, this DVD features loads of sibling fun.

 

The DVD Wrapup: Lost City of Z, Zookeeper’s Wife, Fate of the Furious, Song to Song, Rossellini’s War, Quiet Passion, Norman, Terror in a Texas Town… and more

Friday, July 14th, 2017

The Lost City of Z: Blu-ray
If there’s one thing that bugs me about the business of show – I know, just one? — it’s when someone decides that he or she can think of a better title for a work of art than the creator of the source material. The last time it really bothered me, I think, was when Disney’s mega-budgeted John Carter (2012) died a miserable death at the domestic box-office and, to some, it signaled one trend or another. In my opinion, the studio could have saved itself some agony – if not marquee space – if it had humored the folks at Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc., who had recently trademarked the phrases “John Carter of Mars” and “Princess of Mars,” in anticipation of reaping some quick cash. Director Andrew Stanton (WALL-E) said, at the time, that he lopped off the Mars reference in the title to appeal to a broader audience. My guess is that he couldn’t convince anyone at the studio to invest a tiny slice of John Carter’s titanic $250-million budget to secure either of the titles and avoid a lawsuit of dubious credibility. The decision may not have cost Disney its plans for another franchise, but it didn’t sell any tickets, either. Neither was I thrilled with Quentin Tarantino’s decision to change Elmore Leonard’s novel, “Rum Punch” (1992), into Jackie Brown (1997). It was inspired, however, by his very smart decision to showcase former blaxploitation princess Pam Grier (Foxy Brown) in every way possible. While adapting “Rum Punch” into a screenplay, Tarantino changed the ethnicity of the main character from white to black, as well as changing her surname from Burke to Brown, and the setting from Miami to L.A. While falling short of being an unqualified commercial success, Jackie Brown did well enough to deflect any questions about Tarantino’s changes to the property. And, while Leonard wasn’t asked for his approval, he admitted his admiration for the screenplay – I asked – and pleasure knowing the check from Miramax wouldn’t bounce.

At first, second and third glance, I assumed that The Lost City of Z, was just another comic-book movie, Indiana Jones knockoff or sci-fi extravaganza, this one set on a planet with regions that mimic the dense jungles of South America, Africa or Southeast Asia. The title accorded James Gray’s film doesn’t lead one to anticipate anything approaching the endeavor, adventure and courage evidenced in New Yorker staff writer David Grann’s “The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon.” If, in the commercials and trailers for the film, the actor doing the voiceover had said, “The Lost City of Zed,” instead of “Z,” as is the case in the movie, my questions might have been alleviated from the get-go.  Still, it’s my hang-up, no one else’s. I should have been required to read the book. The fact is, though, it isn’t at all clear how well Gray’s moderately budgeted picture did commercially. It was only given a limited theatrical release, before Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street Media turned their focus to the VOD marketplace, where the economics are far more byzantine.

Regardless, The Lost City of Z is an easy movie to like. Charlie Hunnam (“Sons of Anarchy”) is very good as British explorer Percival Fawcett, who, after serving Queen and country in the military, was assigned the task of travelling to South America to map a jungle area at the juncture of Brazil and Bolivia. Fawcett would arrange seven more expeditions, between 1906 and 1924, at the behest of the Royal Geographical Society. As exciting as Fawcett’s reports were, they were greeted with equal parts awe, disbelief and ridicule by narrow-minded twits at the club. They were especially unimpressed by speculation that he’d come within a few days’ hike of a “lost civilization” long hidden in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil. He wasn’t the first explorer to report the possible existence of such a place, but, the Brits found it difficult to combine the concepts, “savage” and “civilization,” in the same thought. World War I would interrupt Fawcett’s most promising quest, leaving Gray the liberty to compact, exaggerate and ignore certain events in the explorer’s final seven years on and off the grid. Like Amelia Earhart’s final journey, Fawcett’s 1925 trek ended with a question mark. On it, he is accompanied by his son, Jack (Tom Holland), whose companionship Fawcett missed throughout miss of his career. The fact that The Lost City of Z ends in mystery squares with what we know about the explorer’s story and doesn’t detract from Gray’s yarn. The vast Amazon basin is famous for discoveries of “lost tribes” and valuable resources that force scientists to rewrite their textbooks. Who says that El Dorado — or the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine, for that matter – doesn’t exist shrouded in vines and trees, somewhere between the Andes and Brasilia. Sienna Miller, Robert Pattinson, Edward Ashley and Angus Macfadyen are fine in key supporting roles. Franco Nero appears in a scene almost certainly inspired by Fitzcarraldo, while the uncredited Aboriginal performers play their ancestors very well. Moreover, Darius Khondji’s cinematography deserves to be remembered. The Blu-ray adds audio commentary and three behind-the-scenes featurettes.

The Zookeeper’s Wife
As of January 1, Israel’s Yad Vashem Memorial has recognized 26,513 “righteous gentiles,” from 51 countries, for risking their lives, liberty or positions to save Jews during the Holocaust, according to the Seven Laws of Noah. That total represents 10,000 authenticated rescue stories. Among those men and women honored both as “Righteous Among the Nations,” and in films about their good work, are Oskar Schindler (Schindler’s List), Raoul Wallenberg (Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg), Ángel Sanz Briz (“El ángel de Budapest”), Leopold and Magdalena Socha (In Darkness), Stefania and Helena Podgórska (Hidden in Silence), Czeslaw Milosz (“Let Poland Be Poland”) and, as we learn in The Zookeeper’s Wife, Jan and Antonina Żabiński. If even 1 or 2 percent of those 10,000 stories are as potentially cinematic as Niki Caro’s heart-wrenching drama, there should be a line of screenwriters camped out at Yad Vashem right now, seeking inspiration. Angela Workman (The War Bride) based her screenplay for The Zookeeper’s Wife on Diane Ackerman’s book of the same title, which was largely drawn from Antonina Żabiński’s unpublished-in-English diary. In the 1930s, Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) was a geography teacher, zoologist and director of Warsaw’s thriving zoo. During the occupation, he was appointed superintendent of the city’s public parks. The movie focuses –  a 60/40 margin, by my reckoning — on Antonina’s (Jessica Chastain) unofficial roles as associate zookeeper, wife and mother to the couple’s pre-teen son, Ryszard, and newborn daughter, Teresa, and hostess to visiting dignitaries. After the zoo is nearly completely destroyed in the blitzkrieg that toppled Polish autonomy, the Zabinskis shared equally in the care, feeding and transport of an estimated 300 Jewish men, women and children. In the movie, most are confined to the basement of the zoo’s villa, until, at least, the German guards leave for the night. In fact, the empty cages also were outfitted to provide shelter. The Zabinskis’ professional relationship with German zookeeper and geneticist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) allowes them to remain at the zoo during the occupation and raise pigs as cover for transferring Jews from the ghetto, where scraps of food were collected, to the villa. Heck “volunteered” to move the most prominent of the endangered animals to German zoos – the others would be slaughtered for no good reason – and use the facilities to breed what became known as “Aryan cows.” His crush on Antonina causes all sorts of problems for the Zabinskis, the headstrong children and desperate survivors. There’s no reason to spoil anything else that transpires in The Zookeeper’s Wife, except to say that Heck’s position within Hitler’s inner circle would make an excellent movie on its own. Likewise, Caro’s depiction of the bombing of the zoo and subsequent panic caused by escaping animals is practically worth the price of a ticket, alone. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a making-of featurette and short piece on the real-life Żabińskis.

The Fate of the Furious: Blu-ray
The untimely death of Paul Walker, during production of Furious 7, appears to have hadd the anomalous effect of adding almost $100 million of new business to the usual numbers associated with the venerable “F&F” franchise at the domestic box office and another $600 million to the global tally. The Fate of the Furious’s domestic take of some $225.5 million settled a bit below that of Fast & Furious 6 and a bit ahead of Fast Five. It’s significant that estimated production costs during the same period doubled, from $125 million, in 2011, to $250 million for “Fate.” So, what keeps the franchise from sinking from its own weight? You guessed it, an overseas haul that’s grown from about $415 million, in 2011, to $1.163 billion, in 2015, and $1.013 billion, today. Despite the dip, the Universal blockbuster became only the sixth film to cross $1 billion at the overseas box office. The others are Avatar (Fox), $2.027 billion; Titanic (Paramount), $1.528 billion; Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Disney), $1.131 billion; and Jurassic World (Universal), $1.019 billion. What that means for U.S. audiences is that another two sequels are practically guaranteed, and with matching budgets. If Universal depended on domestic sales, alone, “Fate” would have looked very different than it does. That holds especially true for the wonderful opening sequence, in which Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) races a cocky Cuban motorhead, Raldo (Celestino Cornielle), through Havana’s cramped residential neighborhoods and broad Malecón esplanade. Dom and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are on their honeymoon, visiting a Cuban cousin, while the rest of the “family” members are enjoying a semblance of peace, quiet and freedom from prosecution elsewhere. Diehard fans of the series will appreciate the tight focus director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) puts on the pre-embargo cars driven by Cubans. Through Dom and Raldo’s encounter, viewers get to look under the hoods of vehicles that are held together by scavenged engines, cannibalized parts, duct tape and chewing gum. Even so, they look as if they were collected in California and flown to Havana for color.

Sadly, the rest of the story feels every bit as cobbled together as the cars. Mere moments after Dom wins the race and, of course, destroys his car, he’s approached by the international cyberterrorist, Cipher (Charlize Theron), who blackmails him into covertly joining her team. Back home, DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) calls on Dom’s team – Letty, Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson), Tej Parker (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) – to help him retrieve an Electro-Magnetic Pulse device from a military outpost in Berlin. During the getaway, Dom goes rogue, forcing Hobbs off the road and stealing the device for Cipher.  All too conveniently, methinks, Hobbs is arrested and locked up in the same high-security prison as his nemesis, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). After escaping, both are recruited by intelligence operative Frank Petty/Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and his protégé, Eric Reisner/Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood), to help the team hunt down Dom and capture Cipher. Even more conveniently, Cipher has kidnapped Elena Neves (Elsa Pataky) – who recently became Dom’s baby momma – and is holding them in a cell in her tricked-out 747. If Dom doesn’t cooperate with her plan to retrieve a nuclear football held by the Russian Minister of Defense., Cipher surely will kill mother and child. This leads to the second of the three exciting set pieces, this one set in Manhattan and involving dozens of cars that she controls robotically. With EMP and nuclear football in hand, Cipher now intends to steal a submarine being retrofitted at a frozen-over base in the Arctic. Will Hobbs’ team arrive in time to save the planet from Cipher? Stay tuned. As exciting as the set pieces are, I don’t recommend that newcomers enter the series at The Fate of the Furious. All of the characters are carrying too much baggage from previous installments. The Blu-ray adds several making-of and background featurettes, extended fight scenes and Gray’s commentary. The digital copy adds 13 minutes of unseen footage, which Gray describes as being “probably the most adult, tone-wise, in the franchise.”

Song to Song: Blu-ray
Critics can say what they will about Terrence Malick and the otherworldly turn his pictures have taken since his revelatory historical drama, The New World. Clearly, no high-profile filmmaker has taken greater risks, in anticipation of fewer financial gains and critical praise than Malick in the last dozen years. I can’t pretend to understand them anymore than anyone else, but, what I do love and admire about The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and Song to Song is the intense visual palette he’s created with Mexican-born DP Emmanuel Lubezki, and, in the Voyage of Time couplet, the American natural-history specialist, Paul Atkins. They’ve explored the boundaries of cinematography as much, or more, than any other collaborative team extant. Malick’s meditations on love, passion, sex and self-indulgence, in To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and Song to Song, frankly, have the same effect on me as paging through the September issues of Vogue and other high-fashion magazines. The camera demands we take seriously characters we might otherwise dismiss as unusually lifelike mannequins. The first thing to know about Song to Song is that it was filmed back-to-back with Knight of Cups, which it resembles, and is dated by footage taken at the 2012 Austin City Limits music festival. So, while it might look as if Ryan Gosling’s characters here and in La La Land are related, the coincidence can be traced to Malick’s fastidious post-production regime. (Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett appear in both pictures. Michael Fassbender replaced Christian Bale when his commitment to American Hustle interceded with Malick’s plans.)

The decadence described in Knight of Cups mimicked life among the rich and famous in the high-rent districts of Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and its list of cameo appearances in the party scene rivaled that of The Player. Song to Song takes place largely in Austin — the capital of New Wealth Texas — and the Yucatan Peninsula, a convenient getaway for cowboys who ride the digital range. The cameos and worldly advice here are provided by rockers Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, the Artist Formerly Known as Johnny Rotten, Florence Welch, Chili Peppers Anthony Kiedis and Flea, and twins Sara and Tegan (Quin). The story’s two competing love triangles involve record producer Cook (Fassbender, only one degree removed from his character in Shame); his musician protégé, BV (Gossling); and an aspiring songwriter, Faye (Rooney Mara). When the hookup with Cook doesn’t pay the expected dividends, Faye discovers genuine feelings for BV. For his part, Cook seduces and corrupts a seemingly innocent waitress, Rhonda (Portman), just because he can. After BV drifts away from the double-dealing Faye, she engages in some girl-girl experimentation with Parisian bombshell, Zoey (former Bond Girl, Berenice Marlohe). Lubezki’s wide-angle approach to these entanglements makes them look far more idyllic than they could ever have been in real life. (Not that I’m an expert in such things.) At the same time, his camera makes Austin look like Paradise on Earth for New Age millionaires. (The nearly emaciated female characters really ought to consider visiting the city’s famous barbecue and beer joints.) Always visually compelling, I’d be interested in seeing what Song to Song looks like in 4K. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “The Music Behind the Movie.”

American Fable
Reading a filmmaker’s resume on IMDB.com or in a studio-prepared press kit typically provides less information than a race horse’s part-performance chart in the Daily Racing Form, where it’s possible to predict a competitor’s future by what it’s done in the past. Learning, in advance, that first-time writer/director Anne Hamilton merely worked as an intern for Terrence Malick on The Tree of Life told me next to nothing about what to expect from her Midwestern gothic, American Fable. Perhaps, her role was limited to securing a ready supply of decent-tasting coffee in the Texas Outback or anticipating the weather conditions in Iceland, Chile and Italy. Instead, judging from her representation of life on a small Wisconsin farm, at the height of the Reagan-era economic crisis, Hamilton appears to have paid close attention to Malick’s modus operandi and close working relationship with DP Emmanuel Lubezki. If her fairytale mystery doesn’t always keep pace with Wyatt Garfield’s gorgeous cinematography, well, American Fable represents an auspicious start to a promising career. With her family’s livelihood imperiled by the farm crisis of the 1980s, 11-year-old Gitty (Peyton Kennedy) is mostly kept in the dark as to the true extent of their plight. For his part, a sadistic older brother relieves his anxiety by bullying her unmercifully, leaving Gitty with only one true friend and confidante: her pet chicken. Clearly, though, something ominous is hanging in the air. One day, after her ritual stroll through the corn field, Gitty comes across an abandoned silo, in which a man in a business attire is imprisoned. With an imagination stoked by storybook adventures, Gitty sees in Jonathan (Richard Schiff) someone who both needs her help and understands her loneliness. Hamilton leaves open the possibility that Jonathan is a demon, encased in the silo for reasons the girl couldn’t possibly understand, or an angel being held hostage by a cabal of cosplay freaks, led by Vera (Zuleikha Robinson), a woman who fancies a ram’s-head mask and rides through the fields on a horse borrowed from the local Renaissance Faire. Or, maybe, Gitty’s reading something mystical into a desperate cry for help by farmers hoping to extort money from an agri-business conglomerate. Viewers are encouraged to take their pick of the options … or not. It isn’t until very late in the proceedings that Hamilton gives us a solid reason as to why Gitty’s mom, dad and brother are treating her like a bad-penny orphan and, even then, it doesn’t quite wash. Neither does the overly ambiguous ending. As Schiff has demonstrated in such smallish indies as Take Me to the River and The Automatic Hate, he’s as effective on the big screen as he is on television (“The West Wing,” “Ballers,” “The Affair”). At the ripe old age of 13, Kennedy (“Odd Squad”) has already proven she can hang with the big dogs. Kip Pardue (Remember the Titans), Marci Miller (“Days of Our Lives”) and Gavin MacIntosh (“The Fosters”) round out the family unit.

A Quiet Passion: Blu-ray
Although it didn’t seem to register with Oscar, Globes or Indie Spirit voters, Cynthia Nixon’s portrayal of poet Emily Dickinson comes as close to perfection as any performance I was able to see last year. After playing the festival circuit and garnering rave reviews, A Quiet Passion only opened in six theaters, expanding to a grand total of 135 screens, and making a bit of money along the way. It arrived in the direct wake of the lovely BBC Wales production, “To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters,” which found an audience here on PBS affiliates. Both movies were shot in historically accurate locations and could still be taught – and debated – as part of any English-department curriculum, without any ink-and-paper purists protesting too vigorously. Their lifelines overlapped, a tad, as did the cultural, religious and sexual norms under which they labored. Among the reasons the acclaimed British writer/director Terence Davies (The Deep Blue Sea) was drawn to Nixon was her uncanny resemblance to the author, as evidenced by period photographs, and an audition for a previous unmounted project. Nixon says she was attracted to the project because, apart from the 1976 adaptation of “The Belle of Amherst” for television, Dickenson’s life and work has been given short shrift on film. And, of she admires her poetry. If anything, she’s been treated as an artist whose idiosyncrasies were more significant than her work or as just another dead poet, whose writing bored high school students were forced to memorize. Partially, this is because so much of what we might have learned about Dickenson went up in smoke, when, on her orders, her correspondence was destroyed by her sister. While the idiosyncrasies are on full, almost maddening display in A Quiet Passion, so, too, is her humanity and likely struggles with depression or bipolar disorder. Viewers should be able to identify with her struggles, especially those associated with the family’s Puritan heritage and conforming to strict borders separating men and women at home and in the marketplace. As such, I couldn’t help but compare the agonies endured by Dickenson – as well as agnostics and other 19th Century free-thinkers — to those faced by open-minded Muslims under Taliban and ISIS domination. Keith Carradine is especially good as Edward Dickinson, a man who allowed his daughter atypical creative and philosophical latitude, but could become a tyrant when pressed on his beliefs. As her loyal and much-put-upon brother and sister, Duncan Duff and Jennifer Ehle also stand out. The Blu-ray adds a post-screening Q&A session with Davies and Nixon; a behind-the-scenes featurette; a radio interview with Nixon; and a booklet with interviews, photos and a critical essay.

Bitcoin Heist: Bluray
If, like me, you have only a rudimentary knowledge of how cryptocurrency and other alternative markets work, the rare Vietnamese export, Bitcoin Heist, might provide a convenient entry point. Not only is it one of the very few action/adventures to emerge from our onetime enemy and current trading partner, but it also bears comparison to such glossy caper flicks as Ocean’s Eleven and Now You See Me. If it isn’t in the same league, quite yet, at least it’s trying to get there. Web surfers will also appreciate the protagonists’ attempts to deal with the ransomware epidemic. Co-writer/director Ham Tran (Journey From the Fall) built Bitcoin Heist on the same foundation as other thrillers in the it-takes-a-thief sub-genre, while adding some hot, young actors and sexy locations. It’s the kind of fast-paced flick you’d expect from Hong Kong and Korean studios. Bitcoin Heist is set in 2020, although it might as well be tomorrow. To snare one of the region’s most wanted hackers, the Ghost, an elite police team headed by Dada (Kate Nhung) is formed to infiltrate his gang and make sense of the scam’s intricacies. A failed operation will cause Dada to be relieved of her duties and begin a back-channel investigation of our own, using crooks she’d previously busted. They include a purple-haired hacker; a conman who hides priceless diamonds behind prosthetic facial moles; and an illusionist whose stage name is Petey Majik Nguyen. The Ghost is a tough nut to crack, alright, but Tran’s real problem is bringing the Internet to life long enough to make it interesting as a virtual character. He also must convince us of the likelihood that reformed crooks can be counted on to remain loyal to Dada. The magic and action sequences, influenced by Tsui Hark and early John Woo, free viewers from focusing too hard on the incomprehensible Bitcoin setup.

Norman
Because of writer/director Joseph Cedar’s prominence within the Israeli film industry (Beaufort, Footnote) and storylines that lead from New York’s Jewish community to the Knesset, it’s likely that the buzz on Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer – again, with my fixation on original titleswas intended to spread from festivals in North America, to Tel Aviv and back to the U.S., rather than rely on the usual media barnstorming. As obscure as Cedar may be here, commitments from Richard Gere, Michael Sheen, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Dan Stevens, Harris Yulin, Hank Azaria, Josh Charles and Steve Buscemi could have attracted arthouse audiences, anyway. In his first English-language film, the American-born Israeli was fortunate to cast Gere against type as a slightly disheveled, possibly homeless macher, Norman Oppenheimer, who might remind viewers of Woody Allen’s Leonard Zelig. As the picture opens, Norman strikes up a wholly unlikely friendship with a down-in-the-dumps Israeli politician, during his visit to New York. Norman’s pragmatic gesture to Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) will bear fruit, three years later, when his friend is elected Prime Minister. What Oppenheimer lacks in charisma, he more than makes up for in chutzpah. Recognizable for his unkempt white hair, snap-brim cap and ratty camel-hair coat, Norman could be any variety of New Yorker, from eccentric multimillionaire to panhandler. Instead, he’s known by the people he helps as a “generous Jew” … someone who gets things done for people who don’t possess his cunning and connections, without any obvious interest in personal gain. Once Eshel is elected and he warmly greets Oppenheimer at a reception in New York, however, the fixer’s dormant intentions rise to the surface. No longer satisfied with being “a drowning man trying to wave at an ocean liner,” he uses Eshel’s name to leverage a series of quid pro quo transactions linking the Prime Minister to a nephew, a rabbi, a mogul, his assistant and a treasury official from the Ivory Coast. The perceived relationship even opens a door at Harvard. As Cedar explains in the bonus interviews, Norman’s timing coincides with a not dissimilar scandal involving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Ever since 2014’s Time Out of Mind, Gere has allowed himself to play characters closer to his own age or older, and he’s no worse for the wear. He does a terrific job here, alternately forlorn, manipulative and charming.

Feed the Light: Blu-ray
It isn’t often that I’m able to introduce a completely unheralded genre picture with an unqualified rave. It’s even more rare when a film as good as Feed the Light is the product of a single artist’s imagination and ingenuity. If only it were easier to summarize. Since 1999, Swedish filmmaker Henrik Möller has written, directed, produced and appeared in 60-some video shorts, as well as editing and shooting 20 of them. The tres, tres creepy Feed the Light, whose budget seemingly could be measured in rolls of quarters, is his first feature. Like so many other aspiring horror/fantasy/sci-fi specialists, Möller chose to adapt – loosely — a story by H.P. Lovecraft, “The Color Out of Space,” that’s already been resurrected several times. Here, though, he elected to shape his interpretation, based on visual patterns firmly established by the filmmaker he interviewed for the seven-minute short, “Henrik Möller Talks to David Lynch” (2010). Feed the Light is set in the labyrinthine corridors of a subterranean warehouse in Malmo, Sweden. There are no windows and the fluorescent lights twitch to a pulsating soundtrack, likely inspired by Philip Glass. Shot in grainy black-and-white, with the occasional flash of color, it reminds some critics of Eraserhead. The overriding mystery here, however, concerns an alien light source, independent of the electrical grid, that controls everything and everyone confined to the warehouse. Lina Sundén plays Sara, a slightly androgynous woman who’s lost track of her young daughter and thinks her abusive ex-husband, who works at the warehouse, may be behind the disappearance. Despite blowing her interview with the facility’s emotionally challenged Boss (Jenny Lampa), Sara lands the job she’ll use to search for her child. The custodial staff is either completely hostile to the newcomer or suspiciously helpful in sharing the warehouse’s secrets. Basically, though, except for the supernatural force, she’s alone. Only 75 minutes long, Moller doesn’t appear to have had any trouble maintaining Feed the Light’s tension, mystery and momentum. Occasionally, he throws in something disgusting, just to see if we’re paying attention. The Blu-ray adds “Making of Feed the Light” and “The Lovecraft Influence: Interview With Co-Writer/Director Henrik Möller.”

Their Finest: Blu-ray
Masterpiece: My Mother & Other Strangers
With Christopher Nolan’s historical epic, Dunkirk, set to open around the world in the next few weeks, it’s worth paying attention to another British movie, made on a considerably smaller scale and budget, about roughly the same subject. The defense and evacuation of British and Allied forces trapped in Europe took place from May 26 to June 4, 1940, on the beaches of Dunkirk (Dunkerque), France. The Blitz started three months later, on September 7, when Hitler’s Luftwaffe began systematically targeting locations in London for 56 out of the following 57 days and nights. If we already know the outcome of the Battle of Britain, Americans have largely been required to rely on PBS’ “Masterpiece” and other mini-series to fill in the details of what happened between then and America’s official entry into the war, more than a year later. Although this country’s material support was assured, it took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, as well as Britain’s fortitude in the face of continued German airstrikes, to push us into the global conflict. Based on Lissa Evans’ wartime novel “Their Finest Hour and a Half,” Their Finest describes efforts to make a movie so emotionally captivating that it not only would lift the spirits of fellow countrymen, but also inspire American audiences to demand an Allied effort. Gemma Arterton plays Catrin Cole, a character based upon the Welsh screenwriter and playwright, Diana Morgan, who worked at Ealing Studios throughout the 1940s. Catrin’s duties were mostly limited to punching up dialogue in propaganda films for the Ministry of Information, at least until she’s dispatched to the coast to interview twin sisters who allegedly helped ferry soldiers home during the evacuation of Dunkirk. While their reputation appears to have been exaggerated, the story is deemed worthy of further exploration. She’s paired with Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), a sour young screenwriter described as having been “spawned in a pub out of sawdust.” Their primary directive, it seems, is to make movies that contain “authenticity informed by optimism,” and that’s exactly what they intend to do … God willing and the German bombs don’t land on the soundstage. Movies about people making movies tend to err on the side of the Industry and, while Their Finest doesn’t paint the actors and filmmakers as angels, Danish director Lone Scherfig (An Education) mines the humor in Gaby Chiappe’s (“Shetland”) adaptation of the novel, freeing Bill Nighy to steal the show as the crusty star, Ambrose Hilliard. You can probably guess how their movie turns out, but, as befits any good BBC mini-series, it hardly matters. The Blu-ray adds a making-up featurette and commentary with Scherfig.

The “Masterpiece” presentation, “My Mother & Other Strangers,” may be set three years after the events described in Their Finest, but it’s of a piece with other British mini-series and dramas staged on the homefront, before D-Day. Its primary difference is the Northern Ireland location, as befits a production financed by BBC Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Screen. Set on the shores of Lough Neagh, the series centers on the Coyne family and their neighbors, as they come to terms with the influx of thousands of American servicemen of the United States Army Air Forces’ Eighth Bomber Command. The pilots would soon relocate to England, but, in the meantime, the forced relationship often was rocky. By that, of course, I mean that the local men resented the appearance of so many cocksure Yanks in close quarters with the flower of Northern Irish sisterhood. There are times when their allegiances were decidedly mixed, as if Nazi soldiers wouldn’t try to take advantage of their sisters and wives, if they won the war.  At least, the Americans are polite. As displaced Englishwoman and the local publican’s wife, Rose Coyne (Hattie Morahan) finds herself acting as peacekeeper between the disgruntled locals and the soldiers, she is also drawn to the engaging young Captain Ronald Dreyfuss (Aaron Staton). Will Rose risk her family for this forbidden love? Stay tuned.

London Heist
It wouldn’t be fair to call Mark McQueen’s nasty crime drama a rip-off of Jonathan Glazer’s stylish gangland thriller, Sexy Beast, but there are too many similarities to ignore. At least, London Heist (a.k.a., “Gunned Down”) can’t be accused of mimicking Guy Ritchie, when he was still making movies that mattered. Both involve battle-hardened London gangsters, several of whom would kill their best mates to make an easier buck, and exploit sunbaked locations on Spain’s southwestern coast. There are crosses, double-crosses, shootouts and lots of tough, vaguely Cockney slang. The actors, even the dames, look as if they’ve just escaped from prison. Of the two films, Sexy Beast is, by far, the better movie. Considering that it’s 17 years old, however, fans of the subgenre might find a few things in London Heist to like. In a nutshell, it involves four seemingly allied gangsters and the equivalent of $4 million in cash stolen in an airport job. Co-writer Craig Fairbrass, who looks as if he could win a stare-down with Big Ben, plays the crook who not only is ripped off by his partners, but is forced to watch as his father is murdered. Cregan decides to catch the first thing smoking to Spain’s Costa del Sol, where his mentor (James Cosmo) is still calling the shots. To compensate for the missing money, while exacting his revenge, Cregan will have to round up mates he can trust and pull another job. You know how that usually goes.

Alive and Kicking
Although the Swing Era is said to have lasted from mid-Depression, 1935, to the year following V-E and V-J Days, when white Americans began their migration to the suburbs, it’s just as easy to trace swing and big-band music to the late-1920s and early-1930s, when African-American orchestras led by Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Bennie Moten, Cab Calloway, Earl Hines and Fletcher Henderson turned Harlem into a late-night destination for the posh crowd. If 1935 sounds a bit arbitrary, it’s only because it coincides with Benny Goodman’s epochal performance at the Palomar Ballroom, in Los Angeles, on August 21, 1935. Spotting an instant trend, Hollywood musical would introduce the Lindy hop, jitterbug, various shags, Susie-Q, Big Apple and Truckin’ to the masses. In the post-war era, another generation would adopt the bop, rock (at its best, a variation of the Lindy hop) and twist to their needs. One of the women interviewed in Susan Glatzer’s delightfully lively documentary, Alive and Kicking, pinpoints the modern resurgence to Thomas Carter’s Swing Kids (1993), Doug Liman’s Swingers (1996) and The Gap’s ubiquitous, 1998 “Khakis Swing” commercial, featuring Louis Prima’s “Jump, Jive an’ Wail.” If the 1990s swing craze appeared to give way to other, more trance-induced dance forms, Glatzer argues convincingly that the new-breed Lindy-hoppers simply lowered their public and media profile, organizing competitions and quietly forming social networks. As the rest of the world re-took to swing, the cream of our crop spread the gospel in clinics, contests and dance schools abroad. Alive and Kicking also showcases the dynamic culture and cathartic power of swing dancing from its historic origins to its impact today. Glatzer argues that, boiled down to its core, swing dancing simply is the pursuit of happiness, as joyous as it can be therapeutic. Only 88 minutes long, she follows a half-dozen individual dancers through highly personal stories. The DVD adds deleted scenes, an interview with the director and commentary with Glatzer and DP John W. MacDonald.

Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
There’s no greater gift a lover of classic cinema can give to someone just beginning their own artistic journey than films that can be collected the way wealthy men once kept and, yes, sometimes hoarded, first editions of great literature. Things are simpler now, of course, and leather bindings no longer are in fashion. For an amount of money considerably less than a dinner for two at a good restaurant, you can ensure that a loved one or friend possesses three of the building blocks of 20th Century cinema in pristine, high-definition resolution. Criterion Collection has repackaged “Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy” — Rome Open City, Paisan, Germany Year Zero – for connoisseurs, collectors and novices to appreciate for as long as the plastic discs allow. Although the first neorealist film is thought by some scholars to be Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943), the national film movement represented, first, in Rome Open City, would be characterized by stories set among the poor and the working class, filmed on war-ravaged locations, frequently using non-professional actors. If Europeans didn’t need to be reminded of the indignities and deprivations suffered during and immediately after World War II, the stories showed audiences that the devastation wasn’t limited to one class, city or neighborhood and words like “heroism” and “humanity” weren’t reserved solely for medal-presentation ceremonies. They had endured the horror together and survived only to clean up the mess left behind by the pursuit of fascism. For American and Canadian viewers, especially, neorealism brought the war home to people largely protected from the ugliest truths of war and genocide by government censors, Hollywood fantasists and veterans haunted by lingering memories of death and dying. Rome, Open City (1945) is set in the capital during the Nazi occupation in 1944. Although the Allies are advancing on the city, the Gestapo is still hunting communists and members of the resistance, some of whom wear the clerical collar. Divided into six episodes, Paisan (1946) opens as the Allies are preparing for the invasion of Italy and ends in the Po Delta, where partisans remain an endangered species. Germany Year Zero takes place in post-war Berlin, as survivors come to grips with the reality of total defeat and the shame of being revealed as co-conspirators to mass murderer. Not surprisingly, it was the most hotly debated entry in the trilogy.

A decade later, as the so-called economic miracles took hold across western Europe, neorealism would give way to other stories and genres. The boxed set features new high-definition digital restorations, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks, as well as vintage introductions to all three films by Roberto Rossellini; interviews from 2009 with Rossellini scholar Adriano Aprà, film critic and Rossellini friend Father Virgilio Fantuzzi, and filmmakers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani; commentary on Rome Open City by film scholar Peter Bondanella; “Once Upon a Time … Rome Open City,” a 2006 documentary on the making of this historic film, featuring rare archival material and footage of Anna Magnani, Federico Fellini and Ingrid Bergman; “Rossellini and the City,” a 2009 video essay by film scholar Mark Shiel on Rossellini’s use of the urban landscape in “The War Trilogy”; excerpts from rarely seen videotaped discussions Rossellini had in 1970 about his craft, with faculty and students at Rice University; “Into the Future,” a 2009 video essay about “The War Trilogy” by film scholar Tag Gallagher; “Roberto Rossellini,” a 2001 documentary by Carlo Lizzani, assistant director on Germany Year Zero, tracing Rossellini’s career through archival footage and interviews with family members and collaborators, with tributes by filmmakers François Truffaut and Martin Scorsese; “Letters From the Front: Carlo Lizzani on Germany Year Zero,” a podium discussion with Lizzani from the 1987 Tutto Rossellini conference; Italian credits and prologue from Germany Year Zero; and essays by James Quandt, Irene Bignardi, Colin McCabe and Jonathan Rosenbaum.

Terror in a Texas Town: Special Edition: Blu-ray
I could recommend picking up Arrow Academy’s upgrade of Joseph H. Lewis’ much-neglected noir Western, Terror in a Texas Town, for a half-dozen different reasons, without spoiling the best part ahead of time. Although I hadn’t heard of the movie before it arrived in the mail last week, I will happily sample anything the company sends my way. Not only do the films tend to be wildly entertaining, but the bonus features can be revelatory, as well. The same can be said about releases from Criterion Collection, Cohen Media Group and a few other boutique distributors represented here each week. Arrow’s movies, however, range from completely off the wall to delightfully eclectic. Upon its release, in 1958, the 80-minute Terror in a Texas Town was intended specifically for distribution as a B-movie, or second feature on a double-bill. While it could have lost another 10 minutes and no one would have known the difference, 80 minutes was the length exhibitors required to sell some popcorn, candy and pop during intermission and previews. The first image, which could be interpreted as a parody of High Noon, finds an as-yet-unidentified Sterling Hayden marching with purpose down a dusty main street, somewhere in Texas — actually, Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch – brandishing, of all possible lethal weapons. a harpoon. In fact, the scene is a flash-forward to a showdown with gunslinger Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young), 75 minutes later. Crale is a nearly over-the-hill gunfighter, in town to intimidate the peaceful farmers into selling their plots to a fat-cat businessman (Sebastian Cabot), who covets the oil he knows is hiding just below the surface of their nearly worthless fields. Two days before Hayden’s George Hansen arrives by train, Crale murdered the Swede’s immigrant father for refusing to sign over his land in a cheap hustle. His hired hand, Mirada (Victor Millan), witnessed the shooting, but, like everyone else in town, is afraid to blow the whistle on Crale … not that the sheriff would have done anything about it, anyway. Hansen takes it upon himself to convince the townsfolk to stand up for what’s right and refuse to sell their soon-to-be-valuable property for pennies on the dollar. Soon enough, he’ll be strolling down main street, harpoon in hand.

Terror in a Texas Town’s unusually stylish look – for a Western, anyway – carries Lewis’ then-unmistakeable fingerprints. He’s known best for My Name Is Julia Ross (1945), The Big Combo (1955) and Gun Crazy (1950), a Bonnie and Clyde-inspired crime drama still considered to be one of the essential noirs. OK, here comes the surprise … at least, for me. The movie’s populist message was anything but accidental. The credited screenwriter, Ben L. Perry, was a pseudonym for blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, who also has penned Gun Crazy under the “front” identity, Millard Kaufman. Nedrick Young, the actor who plays Johnny Crale, would win that year’s Oscar for best screenplay, The Defiant Ones, under the pseudonym Nathan E. Douglas. He, too, was blacklisted for invoking his Fifth Amendment rights while testifying before the 1953 House Committee on Un-American Activities. Terror in a Texas Town would be Lewis’ final feature. He went on to direct such TV Westerns as “The Rifleman” (51 episodes), “Gunsmoke” and “The Big Valley.” In 1960, at Kirk Douglas’ insistence, Trumbo would be accorded the screenwriter’s credit for Spartacus, in his own name, effectively ending the blacklist. Even so, Ned Young, who also wrote Jailhouse Rock (1957), reverted to Nathan E. Douglas once again for Inherit the Wind (1960), also nominated for an Oscar. That’s a lot of backstory for an 80-minute “programmer,” but well worth the time it takes to peruse the featurettes. The Blu-ray features a 2K restoration from original film elements produced by Arrow Films exclusively for this release; an introduction by Peter Stanfield, author of “Hollywood, Westerns and the 1930s: The Lost Trail” and “Horse Opera: The Strange History of the Singing Cowboy”; scene-select commentaries by Stanfield; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Vladimir Zimakov; and a limited-edition booklet, featuring new writing by Glenn Kenny.

Pulse: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Doberman Cop: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Few national cinemas have been impacted as much by the fickleness of commercial trends as Japan’s studio-dominated system. Apart from Akira Kurosawa, Yasujirō Ozu and other giants of the arthouse realm, a select group of genre practitioners not only were exhaustively prolific, but also sufficiently nimble to occasionally create something brilliant within the strict guidelines of time, budgetary and studio pressure. No better example can be found than in J-horror, a genre variation that changed the way audiences around the world viewed supernatural phenomenon, especially ghosts and apparitions. Hollywood has done its best to transplant such films as Ringu, The Grudge, Dark Water and One Missed Call, only discover that not all plants bloom in foreign soil. This month’s double feature of vintage Japanese films from Arrow Video is a mixed bag of J-horror and yakuza crime. Listen closely to the atypically candid interviews included in the Blu-ray packages and you’ll get a pretty good idea of how teamwork frequently trumped the demands of bottom-line-conscious studio executives. Not all the films were gems, of course, but the ones that weren’t helped finance the ones that were. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s dark and foreboding 2001 Pulse is widely recognized was one of the hallmarks of J-horror. Even with Wes Craven’s adaptation of the screenplay, Weinstein/Dimension’s American remake was pummeled by critics and, at best, may have broken even at the box office and in ancillary sales. Arrow’s sparkling digital transfer brings the original back to life – or death, if you will – in ways that should thrill buffs on both sides of the Pacific. Informed by an early embracement of Internet and social media in Japan, the apocalyptic film foretells how technology will only serve to isolate us as it grows more important to our lives. A group of young Tokyo techies experience strange phenomena involving missing co-workers and friends, after a mysterious website asks, “Do you want to meet a ghost?” They set out to explore a city which is growing emptier by the day, and to solve the mystery of what lies within a forbidden room in an abandoned construction site. Check out new interviews with writer/director Kurosawa and cinematographer Junichiro Hayashi, hunched over a fully stocked bar; “The Horror of Isolation,” a new video appreciation, featuring Adam Wingard & Simon Barrett; an archived making-of documentary and four behind-the-scenes featurettes; premiere footage from the Cannes Film Festival; cast and crew introductions from opening-day screenings, in Tokyo; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tommy Pocket; and limited edition booklet, featuring new writing on the film by critic Chuck Stephens.

Doberman Cop arrives on the heels of Arrow’s facelift of Wolf Guy (1975), a Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba actioner that combines lycanthropian horror with yakuza conceits. It’s an unholy mess, but far from unwatchable. Released to little fanfare in 1977, Doberman Cop reunites director Kinji Fukasaku (Cops vs. Thugs) with Chiba in a Western-style crime movie that mixes gunplay and pulp fiction, with martial arts, lowbrow comedy and revenge. It follows a hick cop, Joji Kano, to the big city, where he’ll help the locals in a murder investigation that may have ties to a missing-person case he’s been working on for several years. We know Joji’s a fish-out-of-water, because he arrives from Okinawa wearing a straw hat and holding the pork-bellied pig he intends to bestow on the chief. Before that can happen, though, Joji will visit a garish girlie show, during which one of the strippers decides to incorporate both recent arrivals into her act. Doberman Cop was adapted from an extremely popular manga, one of a “new breed” of cinema-ready gekiga. As he probes deeper into the sleazy world of flesh-peddling, talent-agency corruption and mob influence, Joji uncovers the shocking truth about the girl, her connection to a mobster-turned-manager (Hiroki Matsukata), and a savage serial killer who is burning women alive. It was Fukasaku’s sole film adapted directly from a manga and unreleased on video outside of Japan. It also showcases the combined talents of Chiba’s ”Piranha Army” of actors and pals. The package is enhanced by “Beyond the Film: Doberman Cop,” a new video appreciation by Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane; new interviews with Chiba – Part 2 of the one started on Wolf Guy – and screenwriter Koji Takada; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Chris Malbon; and illustrated collector’s book, featuring new writing on the films by Patrick Macias.

Species: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
If nothing else, Roger Donaldson’s 1995 sci-fi/horror flick, Species, probably will go down as the first mainstream movie in which American scientists intently observe a space alien – who could pass for a Victoria’s Secret model – as it attempts to make sense of a brassiere. Natasha Henstridge spends a lot of time in the altogether, as she roams the streets of L.A. looking for a human mate. A brief topless flash by Marg Helgenberger, as molecular biologist Dr. Laura Baker, prompted Mr. Skin to award Species a rare 4-star, Hall of Fame rating. One suspects that more serious fans of the genre were less impressed by the alien nudity than Swiss artist H.R. Giger’s otherworldly designs. Henstridge’s Sil wasn’t always such a babe. Giger’s concept of her, pre-entry, makes her look far more “biomechanical.” He also contributed a Ghost Train nightmare sequence that MGM refused to finance, so he invested $100,000 of his own money to keep it in the picture. Otherwise, the story’s focus on what happens when Sil escapes from observation and scientist Xavier Fitch (Ben Kingsley) dispatches a crew of experts to find her before she fulfills her horrific mission: to acquire human sperm and produce offspring that could destroy mankind. As her deadly biological clock ticks rapidly, Fitch and his team are hurled into a desperate battle in which, we’re told, the fate of humanity hangs in the balance. Of course, it does. The Blu-ray “Collector’s Edition” features a 4K scan of the film’s inter-positive and a new featurette, “Afterbirth: The Evolution of Species,” featuring interviews with director Donaldson, cinematographer Andzej Bartkowiak, production designer John Muto, composer Christopher Young, creature designer Steve Johnson, chrysalis supervisor Billy Bryan and “Sil” creature supervisor Norman Cabrera. A full disc’s worth of commentaries and bonus material has been ported over from previous Blu-ray editions.

Urban Traffik
Don’t You Recognize Me?
If I hadn’t recently watched The Chosen Ones, David Pablos’ unsparing drama about a Tijuana family involved in wining, dining and enslaving teenage girls for the purpose of turning them into heroin-starved prostitutes, I might have thought better of Jason Figgis’ similarly themed debut, Urban Traffick. The Un Certain Regard nominee is only available here through VOD services, including Netflix, which is where I found it. The Chosen Ones reminded me of Lukas Moodysson’s  Lilya 4-Ever (2002), Damian Harris Gardens of the Night (2008) and a dozen, or so, episodes of “Law & Order: SVU.” Urban Traffik is hampered by what appears to be a non-existent budget and a script that takes too long to get to the point. Neither do all the actors appear to be up to the task. That said, Dublin always provides a compelling setting for serious criminality and horror, and Figgis (The Ecstasy of Isabel Mann, Children of a Darker Dawn) practically owns the town, when it comes to filmmaking. It opens with first-time actor Damien Guiden, as Adam, stalking and befriending a homeless teenager in a Dublin cafe. She allows him to take her back to his apartment for some tea and sympathy, not suspecting that he’s a key player in a trafficking ring and needs to fill a quota, because the older girls keep disappearing. The most accomplished member of the gang is Alex (Kojii Helnwein), a raven-haired demon who appears to be conflicted by Adam’s insistence on testing the merchandise before turning the girls over to pimp central. It’s when Adam picks up the destitute street urchin, Amy (Clare Murray), that he recognizes his long-suppressed conscience and must decide what to do with it. Frankly, I’m not altogether sure whether Urban Traffik is intended to be an indictment of a crime that’s reached epidemic proportions on the Emerald Isle or the trafficking is just another excuse for the hyper-prolific director to roll film.

Figgis, reportedly a cousin of Academy Award-nominated writer/director Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas), is nothing if not prolific. Made two years before Urban Traffik, the slow-burn thriller Don’t You Recognize Me? takes a very different tack. Tony (Matthew Toman) is a documentary filmmaker who’s always on the lookout for interesting subjects for his “A Day in the Life Of” webisodes … the worse off they are, the better. Following an online appeal for fresh subjects, Tony has been contacted by K Gallagher (Jason Sherlock), a gang-banger from a rundown Dublin project. Along with a cameraman and sound recorder, Tony sets off by car to meet K, his mates and two girlfriends. K’s the real deal, alright. Things really get scary, however, when K leads the film crew to a warehouse set up like a rudimentary sound stage. It’s here that K’s older brother, Daz (Darren Travers), and his droogies have prepared a surprise party for Tony.  Daz explains that, when he heard someone was going to make a documentary about K, he decided to add his own contributions to the mix. Tony doesn’t recognize Daz, whose unfortunate twin brother, Damo, became the unwitting subject/victim of one of his first films. No need to go much further into the narrative, except to say that payback’s a bitch and Figgis has a knack for torture porn. If only he could afford a sound engineer who knew what he/she was doing and the equipment to pick up brogue-y dialogue in a cavernous warehouse. The subtitle option is recommended. Travers, who divides his time between stage, TV and movies, deserves a shot at better financed projects, as well.

Last Day of School: Blu-ray
Electric Apricot: Quest for Festeroo
It would be difficult to find a movie with lower production values and less reason to exist than Michael and Sonny Mahal’s grindsploitation quickie, Last Day of School. Anyone so inclined, however, could avoid a long, tiresome search by heading for www.troma.com, or the Troma Channel and Troma Universe at YouTube Red, and the Troma Now subscription service. In it, four college seniors at a school that looks very much like UNLV are caught cheating on their final exam. Instead of flunking them outright, their sex-addled and alcoholic professor demands that they perform a scavenger hunt, involving skanky sex workers, fat campus cops, horny sorority sisters, strip-club bouncers and his wife, who wakes up every morning hoping she’s magically been transformed into Jennifer Coolidge (a.k.a., Stifler’s Mom). The guys bounce between the campus and the Sex Strip on Industrial Road to collect the dancers. It’s possible, though, that the pros who actually dance in clubs like Sapphire’s and Spearmint Rhino make more in two hours than the producers of Last Day at School were willing to pay for several days’ work, while also showing their tits. Where they found these gals is anyone’s guess. All things considered, the Mahal Empire production (30 Girls 30 Days) could be forgiven its reliance on cut-rate talent, if Rolfe Kanefsky’s (Sorority Slaughterhouse) displayed an ounce of originality or modicum of humor, which it doesn’t. It’s possible, of course, that Kanefsky and the Mahals saved their best stuff for the Empire’s upcoming, “Party Bus to Hell,” during which “a party bus on its way to Burning Man — filled with a bunch of sexy young adults — breaks down in the desert … in the middle of a group of Satanic worshippers.” It stars Tara Reid … of course. The Blu-ray bonus package adds an introduction by Troma boss Lloyd Kaufman; a behind-the-scenes slideshow; a “30/30” trailer; and other Troma-tastic promotional material.

The great thing about This Is Spinal Tap was the target audience’s willingness not only to buy into the closely observed spoof of heavy-metal bands and culture, but also to support the faux ensemble by purchasing albums and tickets to concerts and reunion events. Fans didn’t even have to grasp the mockumentary concept to enjoy the music, which sometimes is reprised on Sirius/XM’s Underground Garage. Twenty years later, Primus frontman Les Claypool would write, direct and perform in Electric Apricot: Quest for Festeroo, a more obvious satire that attempted to stick a needle in the jam-band balloon. It features Steve “Aiwass” Trouzdale (Adam Gates); Steve “Gordo” Gordon (Bryan Kehoe); Herschal Tambor Brillstien (Jonathan Korty); and Lapland “Lapdog” Miclovich (Claypool), who display the requisite musicianship and ability to ad-lib dialogue. The premise holds that, in the Spring of 2005, a UCLA graduate filmmaker set out to make a documentary reflecting an element of contemporary-music culture that had yet to be fully examined. What he discovered was the music of Electric Apricot, through which he “achieved enlightenment.” Like Spinal Tap, Electric Apricot played occasional shows in 2004 and 2005, including the High Sierra Music Festival, to collect footage for the movie. It also performed a few gigs afterward, on the publicity tour. Skewered, as well, are Deadheads, Phish phans, Phil Collins, Burning Man, vegans, Lilith Fair poetics and Harry Potter. The handful of song parodies are well-mounted and funny, without also being terribly memorable. If the National Lampoon movie didn’t catch on, it’s probably because the gags are too spot-on to engage the ecstasy-amped jam-band crowd, for whom lyrics only get in the way of the “cosmic flan.” Troma, a sort of Criterion Collection in reverse, has picked up the distribution rights and, with a little help, could tap the same audience that embraced Cannibal! The Musical. It adds a High Times interview with the cast, deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes slideshow and some NSFW marketing stuff.

Navy SEALs v. Demons: Blu-ray
If the ongoing wars in the Middle East ever end and the military-industrial complex doesn’t push us into another expensive conflict immediately thereafter, there’s a place back home for our extremely well-trained and highly efficient Special Forces troops to land and make enough money to afford the medical benefits President Trump wants to steal from them. Yup, you guessed it … in the movies. While there may not be much room left in Hollywood for military consultants and stunt performers, producers of genre films are rushing to deliver fresh products to VOD services and the straight-to-DVD marketplace, where action is everything. The musclebound and elaborately tattooed warriors in such films as Navy SEALs v. Demons, Navy SEALs vs. Zombies and Texas Zombie Wars: Dallas, to name just three projects forwarded by fiction writer and producer Jeff “AK-Charlie” Waters, should be in high demand for a long while.  Among the cast members are Mikal Vega (Navy SEAL), Dale Comstock (Delta Force), Max Mullen (Army Ranger), Trevor Scott (Army 101st Airborne), David Lonigro (Special Operations Sniper), Tim Abell (Army Ranger), Kerry Patton (Air Force), Tony Nevada (Marine Corps) and Matthew R. Anderson (Army Special Forces). Even without taking a single class at Stella Adler or the Actors Studio, the muscular vets can be cast as ex-soldiers, bikers, prisoners, coaches and gym rats. With a lesson or two, they could portray business executives, priests and college professors … no problem … as long as aliens and superheroes are involved. I only mention this because of the current epidemic of zombies and other monsters that require special handling in the movies. The days of the wimp hero are over. In Navy SEALs v. Demons, the action moves New Orleans – site of “NSvZ” – to south Texas, where God-forsaken killers are ripping out the guts of illegal immigrants and turning virgins into wives. When the first wave of SEALs proves unequal to the task of eradicating the demons, they join forces with a local biker gangs and their stripper girlfriends. It’s all pretty stupid, but, where else are Hispanic actors going to find decent work these days … Hollywood

Truth or Dare?
The backstory here is better than anything in the movie, which some observers of slasher fare consider to be a classic specimen of the subgenre. In 1986, straight-to-cassette goremeister Tim Ritter sold the script to Truth or Dare?: A Critical Madness to a production company that also allowed him to direct his own adaptation. When the executives discovered Ritter was 17, they took the picture away from him and, he claims, butchered it. It’s almost impossible to discern when a horror movie shot on 16mm film, for the consumption of VHS owners, has been butchered, so we’ll have to take his word for it. Ritter would go on to write, direct, produce, edit and appear in quite a few more movies. Truth or Dare? has been recycled several times already. SRS Cinema, which specializes in such things, didn’t waste much money trying to clean this one up, however. I’ve seen worse. When an already unbalanced Mike Strauber (John Brace) catches his wife Sharon (Mary Fanaro) in bed with his best friend, the result is a rapid descent into madness. Mike’s revenge is triggered by the seemingly innocent child’s game “Truth or Dare?” His version is quite a bit more deadly than Madonna’s take on it, though. Look for an appearance by 9-year-old A.J. McLean, of the Backstreet Boys, as Little Mike. And, yes, Big Mike totes a chain saw and wears a leather mask. Its “A Critical Madness” theme song is the cherry on the sundae. The bonus package adds and an almost feature-length trailer reel of even less defensible SRS Cinema products; the director’s commentary; a 30th-anniversary scrapbook; several “TorD” trailers; and, of course, an Italian-language track.

The Blessed Ones
Although movies about Doomsday cults come and go, it’s possible that the negative publicity surrounding the ritualistic deaths at Heaven’s Gate, People’s Temple, Branch Davidian and Solar Temple has put a damper on the more murderous operations. The poor record of charlatans prophesizing the apocalypse hasn’t helped their cause much, either. In his second completed feature, behind Client 14 (2011), multihyphenate Patrick O’Bell describes what happens when two disaffected members of a messianic cult decide to test their luck in the vast desert wasteland surrounding their enclave, rather than “drink the Kool-Aid” provided them by a crackpot preacher. When their absence is discovered, the manipulative mastermind siccs his henchmen on them. Why he should be bothered by a couple of defectors, when heaven is only a few hours away, is beside the point. O’Bell and co-cinematographer Simon Hayes make the best out of what must have been an extremely limited budget, turning the desert landscapes outside Los Angeles into a formidable obstacle course. He also benefits from the work of actors, who, while active, probably need another feature credit on their resume: Dave Vescio (Wolf Mother), Andy Gates (Garden Party Massacre) and Tamzin Brown (The Adderall Diaries).

Bad Attitude
Search for Bad Attitude in IMDB.com and you’ll find a half-dozen entries, none of which lead to the one starring Ben Kobold, as Officer Kip White. Type in the actor’s name and you’ll be led to the entry for “White Cop,” which shares the same cover photo as the DVD for “Bad Attitude,” which was completed in 2014, only a few months after hashtag #BlackLivesMatter entered the social-media lexicon and hit the streets of America. I wonder who decided that “White Cop” might not be the best title for a comedy that’s supposed to remind viewers of “Reno 911!” By comparison, at least, Bad Attitude was an expedient compromise. Just as the roots of “Reno 911!” led from Nevada to the improv-comedy clubs of Los Angeles, so, too, it seems, do the roots of Jake Myers and co-writer Lara Unnerstall’s story lead to the improv stages and casting managers of the Windy City. It’s one of a handful of places in North America where naturally funny people either grow on trees or come to find jobs making people laugh. So much for the travelogue. Bad Attitude isn’t in the same league as comedies associated with the Groundlings, Second City or SCTV, but it isn’t devoid of laughs, by any means. Kobold plays a Clouseau-like cop, whose mission it becomes to wipe out a gang of European drug traffickers, who specialize in a popular new street drug, Stamp, for reasons made clear early in the picture. Among the actors who must deal with Kobold’s hapless character are David Liebe Hart, as the mayor of Chicago; and Britt Julious, as a TV news reporter.

Monster X
The first thing to know about Ruthless Studios’ Monster X is that it has nothing to do with Minoru Kawasaki’s 2008 creature feature, Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G8 Summit, whose premise sounds quite a bit more interesting than anything here. Imagine an English-language remake in which bodyguards for President Trump and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are required to protect world leaders from a giant dragon-like beast, capable of going mano-a-mano against Godzilla. I know which side I’d be backing. The 2017 iteration of Monster X has far more to do with vampires, werewolves, zombies and, even, banshees, than beasts hoping to disrupt Trump and Putin’s tea party. It took me nearly an hour to figure out that Monster X follows an anthology format. The chapters represent movies playing on different screens in a multiplex during a horror festival and the audience members who grow increasingly more sinister – and hairy – as it unspools. Some of it plays out, as well, through the eyes of a pair of nerds on their first date. It works intermittently, but only in a DIY sort of way.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Masterpiece: Prime Suspect: Tennison: Blu-ray
PBS: The Tunnel: Sabotage: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
WGN: Underground: Season Two
MHz: Detective Montalbano: Episodes 29 & 30
BBC: Food: Delicious Science
Smithsonian: Mummies Everywhere/Mummies Alive
If an American broadcast network announced that it was launching a prequel to “Columbo,” “The Rockford Files” or “Gunsmoke” – as opposed to, say, USA Network’s ill-fated reimagining of Ving Rhames as Lieutenant Theo Kojak – most viewers would greet the news with trepidation, at best. When Britain’s ITV revealed plans for a prequel to “Prime Suspect,” one of the most admired shows in television history, the trepidation was outweighed by anticipation. On Britain’s prestige networks, at least, such delicate endeavors are taken far more seriously than they are here. Apparently, though, the only person who was disappointed by the results was novelist Lynda LaPlante, upon whose books the long-running series was based and, it’s said, couldn’t work out the details on a deal. It’s our loss. The six-part “Masterpiece” mini-series, “Prime Suspect: Tennison,” opens with probationary officer Jane Tennison (Stefanie Martini) arriving late to work, as usual, to her North London headquarters, for which she receives a stern reprimand by the desk sergeant. Typically, she would be kept busy – out of the male detectives’ hair, if you will – directing traffic, working the dispatch desk, holding back looky-loos at crime scenes or getting coffee for the lads. On this day, however, the unusually grisly murder of a heroin-addicted prostitute requires her to canvass a working-class neighborhood with another WPC (Jessica Gunning), seeking clues and evidence. The crime’s resolution will take all six episodes to sort out, during which Tennison will blossom before our eyes. A related case, involving an elaborate bank heist, will further test her resolve. It’s pretty involving stuff. The fear going into the prequel, I suspect, was that the writers would push too hard on the sexism of veteran male cops – a bias that never really escaped Tennison – and that they might be treated shabbily as subordinate characters. They’re not. The semi-obligatory love interest rears its head by mid-series, but it, too, is handled with kid gloves. The best part is the verisimilitude accorded the supporting characters, headquarters setting and exterior locations. That, and a credible last-minute surprise, or two. The worst is the insertion of period rock hits, just in case viewers forget that this is 1973. It easy to see, as well, how Martini’s WPC Jane Tennison would evolve into Helen Mirren’s sainted Detective Inspector Jane Tennison. The Blu-ray adds several making-of featurettes and a backgrounder, comparing the two Tennisons.

Now showing on PBS affiliates here, as well, is the second season of “The Tunnel,” an Anglo-French co-production that not only extends the drama and interpersonal relations of Season One, but continues to honor its source. “The Bridge” was set largely on the bridge separating Copenhagen and Malmo, Sweden. Like that mini-series, which was adapted for re-location to the bridge spanning El Paso and Juarez, the first stanza opens with police on either side of the border debating as to which department has jurisdiction in the case of a severed body found at the precise middle of the bridge. In addition to the language gap, personality traits associated with the chief investigators reflected cross-cultural tropes that were worked into the storylines. Lacking a bridge connecting England and France, the bisected body found in Episode One of Season One of “The Tunnel” lies along the center line of the Chunnel. “The Tunnel: Sabotage” bears a vague resemblance to the second-season plot of “The Bridge,” in that terrorists strike at the center of the crossing, but the culprits aren’t among the usual suspects rounded up in such calamitous events. Indeed, it’s difficult to tell who exactly is responsible for the mysterious downing of a jetliner over the English Channel and what they were hoping to accomplish. We’re encouraged to think of the mini-series as an “investigative thriller” that reveals its intentions in the same way as the wooden figures of a matryoshka doll are revealed, one by one, until only a single nested character is left. Without going into too much detail, the terrorists in “The Tunnel” all appear to have separate agendas, not all of them based on ideologies or religious dogma. The common connection leads to Colonia Dignidad, a Chilean enclave of Nazi exiles, pedophiles, arms traffickers, abused children and Mengele wannabes, that was protected by the Pinochet regime in exchange for the right to use it as a torture chamber. It’s complicated, but not outside the ken of the investigators played by Stephen Dillane and Clémence Poésy, who truly are pieces of work. The mostly unknown cast of supporting actors has been recruited from a half-dozen European countries. They’re all very good, as well. The Blu-ray adds several behind-the-scene featuretts.

Even with the attention paid recently in theatrical films to the indefensible institution of slavery – and remake of “Roots” — I didn’t think I’d see the day that a weekly series about slaves in the antebellum South was accorded a Season One, let alone a Season Two. Alas, a third season of WGN’s “Underground” wasn’t in the cards. The large cast and high production values must have taken their financial toll. “Underground” tells the story of American heroes and villains of all colors, as well as the harrowing journey of escaped slaves seeking freedom in the north. Anyone still wondering why Harriet Tubman will soon be gracing our $20 bills need look any further than this series.  In the second season, white and black women are given an opportunity to confront their oppressors in armed struggle. The producers don’t shy away from portraying the brutality and indignities suffered by slaves. As such, “Underground” may be too rough for some younger viewers and especially sensitive adults. It should also be noted that the use of a modern music, dialect and grooming enhancements can be off-putting, but no more than those on other historical dramas on TV.

The review of “Prime Suspect: Tennison” that leads this section concerns the prequel to a popular British cop series, starring an actress, Helen Mirren, who would be a tough act to follow in any language. For nearly 20 years, “Inspector Montalbano” has been a big hit in Italy and throughout Europe, and can be enjoyed here on DVD or the streaming service MHz Networks. It, too, spawned a prequel, “Young Montalbano,” that lasted two years and may still be on hiatus. The personality-driven series’ longtime star, Luca Zingaretti, resembles Telly Savalas in a couple of ways, including a pronounced lack of hair and laid-back approach to his job. Montalbano, the creation of 91-year-old novelist Andrea Camilleri, is chief of police of Vigata (a.k.a., Ragusa), a small fictional town on the sun-drenched coast of Sicily. It’s a gorgeous setting for crime and enjoying some of the best food on Earth, al fresco. He has a long-distance girlfriend, Livia (Sonia Bergamasco), but, of course, isn’t averse to inviting one of the show’s gorgeous guest stars to join him for dinner, as well. The new DVD contains episode 29 and 30, “A Nest of Vipers” and “According to Protocol.” In the former, a man arrives at his wealthy father’s villa, only to find him murdered while drinking coffee in the kitchen. There’s no shortage of suspects, not the least of them being the 20 young women he routinely seduced, photographed in the buff and abandoned. Then, there are the folks who owe him money, to be paid off at exorbitant interest rates. The investigation takes another turn when Montalbano discovers that the victim not only was shot, but poisoned hours earlier. If nothing else, the news increases the likelihood of Montalbano arresting someone who feels guilt for a murder they couldn’t have committed. In the latter chapter, a beautiful, if badly beaten and gang-raped  woman manages to drive herself to an apartment building, where she collapses and dies in the foyer. Her intent appears to have been to direct investigators to one of the building’s tenants. In the investigation, during which Montalbano’s two girlfriends meet for the first time, the team uncovers a world of vice and hypocrisy that leaves them all in shock. Montalbano also strikes up a friendship with his new neighbor, a retired judge haunted by the idea that true justice and objectivity may not be possible.

Consumers are rightly advised not look too closely into how the food they eat – hot dogs, especially – is processed and packaged. I grew up in a meat-packing town and it’s a wonder I didn’t turn vegan. The researchers we meet in the BBC’s “Food: Delicious Science” — Dr. Michael Mosley and botanist James Wong – argue persuasively that more we know about the food we put into our bodies, the more we’ll learn to appreciate it. The global culinary adventure “celebrates the physics, chemistry and biology hidden inside every bite of your next meal.” If it tends to do so in microscopic detail, plenty of room is left for an enjoyment of the variety of tastes we savor and, too often, take for granted, including mother’s milk.

When the latest incarnation of Universal’s 85-year-old The Mummy franchise opened around the world, in mid-May, the studio hoped it would be the first installment in a Universal Monsters shared universe, also known as “Dark Universe.” While it did OK at the overseas box office, the Tom Cruise vehicle underperformed at home, despite an expensive publicity campaign. Could it be that shows like the Smithsonian Channel’s “Mummies Everywhere” and “Mummies Alive,” in which the dead stay dead, even as their corpses tell tales from beyond the grave, have dampened our appetite for such folly? Here, the mummies on display come in all shapes and sizes, not merely wrapped in fabric and entombed in gold-leafed caskets. They are as diverse as a Roman soldier buried under Mount Vesuvius ash; an Irish king preserved in a bog; and teenage Inca girl frozen in time at the peak of the world’s tallest active volcano. Most are in astonishingly good condition and, through the miracles provided by modern forensics technology, have fascinating stories to tell.

The DVD Wrapup: Laugh-In, Johnny and Friends, Homicide, Bob Hope, Pink Panther, Savage Innocents and more

Thursday, July 6th, 2017

Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Series
Textbooks could and probably have been written about the role played by “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” in American television history, at a time when the divide separating mainstream entertainment and the counterculture could be measured in miles. No one at NBC knew what to expect when the show’s pilot debuted on September 9, 1967. President Johnson was still expected to run for re-election and, in Vietnam, the Tet Offensive was still in its planning stages. Flower Power was beginning to wilt in San Francisco and college campuses soon would resemble police states. Although Richard Nixon was anything but a shoo-in to become the Republican standard-bearer, he recognized the schism dividing anti-war liberals from traditional Democratic voting blocs, including organized labor and the no-longer-Solid South. The pilot show performed well enough, however, to convince the network to give the green light to co-creators George Schlatter and Ed Friendly for a mid-season launch on January 22, 1968. Almost immediately, “Laugh-In” somehow managed, if only for an hour each week, to bridge the many gaps separating Americans of all political persuasions, colors and religion. Hosts Dan Rowan and Dick Martin appeared first each night, in tuxedos, exchanging the kinds of gags that made them popular in nightclubs, lounges and in variety-show appearances. It was after they invited viewers to join them at the “mod” party going on behind the curtain — it incorporated elements of “Playboy’s Penthouse,” Olsen and Johnson’s “Hellzapoppin’” and “The Ernie Kovacs Show” — that the method behind the madness began to reveal itself.  Go-go dancers Goldie Hawn and Judy Carne set the zany tone with their brightly colored bikinis and graffiti tattoos. Behind them, cast members and guests delivered one- and two-line gags with the rapidity of Gatling gun. If one didn’t work, another was only a couple seconds away. The sketches that followed may have been longer, but they rarely lasted long enough to wear out their welcome. Among the cast members whose names were announced each week by popular L.A. radio personality Gary Owens were such under-the-radar talents as Arte Johnson (Wolfgang the German soldier), Ruth Buzzi (Gladys Ormphby), Jo Anne Worley (“Is that a chicken joke?”), Henry Gibson (Nashville), the sexually ambiguous Alan Sues, Lily Tomlin (Ernestine/ Edith Ann/ Suzie Sorority of the Silent Majority), Teresa Graves (“Get Christie Love!”), Larry Hovis (“Hogan’s Heroes”), Jeremy Lloyd (Murder on the Orient Express), Dave Madden (“The Partridge Family”), Pigmeat Markham (“Here come da judge”), Pamela Rodgers (The Maltese Bippy), Richard Dawson (“Family Feud”), Moosie Drier (Oh, God!), Johnny Brown (“Good Times”), Hawn (Shampoo) and Carne (“Love on a Rooftop). In addition to Carnes’ “Sock it to me” bits, the cast members popularized such enduring catch phrases as “Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls!,” used to poke fun at NBC censors; “You bet your sweet bippy!”; “Beautiful downtown Burbank”; “One ringy-dingy … two ringy-dingies …”; “Blow in my ear and I’ll follow you anywhere”; “Want a Walnetto?”; and “Verrry interesting.”

The stock cast of characters skewered stereotypes ranging from dirty hippies and swishy gays, to macho-man jocks and conservative blowhards. The show’s greatest coup occurred in the first episode of Season Two, when then-presidential candidate Nixon looked into the camera and asked, rhetorically, “Sock it to me?” Unlike Carne, he wasn’t doused with water or assaulted by an off-camera boxer. The appearance did, however, serve to humanize a politician known to many voters simply as Tricky Dick.  An invitation was extended to Nixon’s opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, but he declined. According to Schlatter, “(He) 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.” Among the many celebrities who popped up from time to time, as well, were Jack Benny, Cher, Don Adams, Rita Hayworth, Johnny Carson, Sammy Davis Jr., Dick Smothers, Barbara Feldon, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Peter Lawford, Tiny Tim, Flip Wilson, Henny Youngman, Debbie Reynolds, Liberace, Raquel Welch, Tim Conway and, yes, Wayne and Buckley. The first season featured some of the first music videos seen on network TV, with cast members appearing in films set to the music of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Bee Gees, the Temptations, the Strawberry Alarm Clock and the First Edition.

For the first time on disc, Time Warner is offering “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Series,” a boxed set covering all 140 episodes, from January 22, 1968, to March 12, 1973. The landmark 50th anniversary package is comprised of 38 discs, covering all 140 episodes and 150-plus total hours of entertainment. (Eighty-nine of the episodes have yet to be released on any format.) Also included in the collection is the rarely seen pilot episode; a collectible 32-page memory book, with archival photos, show images, classic jokes and one-liners; Schlatter’s “liner notes”; the complete “25th Anniversary Cast Reunion”; interviews with Tomlin, Schlatter, Martin, Buzzi, Owens, Johnson and Sues; “Still Laugh-In: A Tribute to George Schlatter; bloopers; and “How We Won the Emmys.” Currently, the set is only available through Time Life, by calling 1-800-950-7887 or at timelife.com/products/laughin.

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson: Johnny and Friends
Johnny Carson shared with “Laugh-In” the catchphrase, “Beautiful downtown Burbank,” and countless references to Funk & Wagnall’s dictionaries, as well as making several cameo appearances on the show. Dan Rowan and Dick Martin not only were frequently guests on “The Tonight Show,” but they also served as substitute hosts. Time Life has been offering a la carte packages from its “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” collection for a while, now. Lately, the DVDs have begun to feature entire shows – complete with vintage commercials – dedicated, in part, to famous comedians who were part of that night’s lineup. This week, T/L released eight hours’ worth of vintage shows from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, in which the featured guests were Steve Martin, Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy. Being invited to join Johnny on the couch, after knocking the audience dead, was considered the highest honor an up-and-coming comic could earn. The seal of approval practically ensured a boost to the young performers’ careers and return visits weren’t taken for granted or treated as excuses to rest on their laurels. The highlight for me was watching Williams and his hero, Jonathan Winters, riff off of each other’s ad-libs for more than a half-hour.  Time Life has plenty more of these moments in its inventory.

Homicide: Life on the Street: The Complete Series
As long as we’re on the subject of Christmas in July gifting options, let me suggest “Homicide: Life on the Street: The Complete Series,” from Shout!Factory. Simply put, the Baltimore-set cops-and-criminal drama was one of best and most influential series on television, leading directly to HBO’s “The Wire” – also inspired by the reporting of David Simon – and the genesis of police detective John Munch (Richard Belzer), one of the medium’s most memorable characters. Munch is one of only a small handful of characters to appear on shows as disparate as “Law & Order” (three editions), “Arrested Development,” “The X-Files,” “The Beat,” “The Wire,” “30 Rock” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” He has been mentioned by name in the terrific British crime series, “Luther”; depicted in the 2016 comic book, “Spider-Man/Deadpool #6,” and as a Muppet, in the “Sesame Street” sketch, “Law & Order: Special Letters Unit”; and on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” both in character, and as Belzer. Fans of the noted conspiracy theorist, especially, will have a field day binging on the “Homicide” collection. The series, which ran from January 31, 1993 to May 21, 1999, was “created” by Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show), executive-produced by Barry Levinson (Rain Man) and Tom Fontana (“Oz”), but based on real crooks, cops and scenarios introduced in Simon’s book, “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.” It featured an outstanding ensemble cast, including Belzer, Andre Braugher, Yaphet Kotto, Melissa Leo, Ned Beatty, Clark Johnson, Daniel Baldwin, Kyle Secor, Jon Polito and Reed Diamond, and such guest stars as Robin Williams, Paul Giamatti, Rosanna Arquette, James Earl Jones, Joan Chen, Bruce Campbell and Jerry Orbach, as “L&O” detective Lenny Briscoe. Although it wound up being the most honored shows of its time, “Homicide” was anything but an instant hit. TV Guide dubbed it, “The Best Show You’re Not Watching,” while critics routinely listed it among the best shows on the air.

Initially, viewers appeared to have been confused by the show’s no-nonsense, police-procedural glimpse into the lives of a squad of inner-city detectives. Bad guys didn’t always pay for their crimes and the rigors of “the job” frequently caused the characters to question why they had decided to go into law-enforcement, in the first place. “Homicide” developed a trademark feel and look that distinguished itself from its contemporaries. It was filmed with hand-held 16mm cameras, almost entirely on location in Baltimore, using musical montages, jump-cut editing and repeated images shot during crucial moments in the story. It was also noted for interweaving as many as three or four storylines in a single episode, a practice that wasn’t applauded by cautious NBC executives. The “shaky camera” approach was modulated a bit after Season One, but innovation never fell out of favor with the creative team. “Homicide” arrives in its entirety in this comprehensive 35-disc collection. Among the featurettes are “Homicide: Life at the Start,” with Levinson and Fontana; “Homicide: Life in Season 3″ and “Homicide: Life in Season 4,” with Levinson, Fontana, Simon and producers Henry Bromell and James Yoshimura; “Inside Homicide,” with Simon and Yoshimura; “Anatomy of a Homicide,” a hour-long documentary about the making of “The Subway”; a panel discussion with Fontana, Levinson, Yoshimura and Simon; “Law & Order” crossover episodes; and “Homicide: The Movie (2000).

Bob Hope: Salutes the Troops
With our country now having passed its 241st birthday, and wars threatening to break out around the world, it’s not a bad time to recall when Bob Hope’s annual tours not only warmed the hearts of our servicemen and women stationed overseas, but also viewers and listeners back home. If the coverage of such USO-sponsored events has changed in the last quarter-century, it isn’t because celebrities and popular entertainers have failed to pick up the baton handed them by Hope, upon his retirement from touring in 1992. It’s only that the nature of war has changed since the liberation of Kuwait and network subsidies for such missions appear to have dried up. Instead of mass gatherings of troops in central locations, entertainers are helicoptered to distant outposts, where many fewer soldiers are there to greet them, with no less enthusiasm. Time Life/WEA’s latest compilation, “Bob Hope: Salutes the Troops,” is, at three discs, a bit longer than usual, as it encompasses his 57 tours for the USO between 1941 and 1991. The DVD includes appearances by Ann-Margret, Ann Jillian, the Golddiggers, Miss World Penny Plummer, Marie Osmond, the Pointer Sisters, Frances Langford, Patty Thomas, Bing Crosby, Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench, former NFL star Rosey Grier and such novelty acts as trampoline specialist Dick Albers; “Bob Hope: Memories of World War II,” in which Hope, his wife Dolores, Frances Langford and others reminisce about the era and the beginnings of Bob’s long service with the USO.

The Pink Panther Collection: Blu-ray
And, while we’re in the mood for binging, why not check out one of the top comedy franchises of the last 50 years? Shout!Factory’s “The Pink Panther Collection” is comprised of six installments representing the original collaboration between writer/director Blake Edwards, actor Peter Sellers and executive producer (uncredited) Walter Mirisch. As such, it does not include “The Pink Panther” cartoon series, in which Inspector Clouseau was voiced by Pat Harrington Jr., or Inspector Clouseau (1968), a Mirisch Company spinoff made while Edwards, Sellers and composer Henry Mancini were otherwise occupied with the uproarious comedy, The Party (1968). It was directed by Bud Yorkin, starred Alan Arkin and is collected in MGM’s “The Ultimate Pink Panther Collection,” released on DVD in 2008, prior to 2009’s The Pink Panther 2. “Ultimate” also includes Volumes 1-8 of the cartoon series; Curse of the Pink Panther (1983), the second of two spinoffs filmed after Sellers’ death, in 1980; Son of the Pink Panther (1993), with Roberto Benigni; and The Pink Panther, the first of two hit sequels starring Steve Martin. It does not, however, include the box-office favorite, The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), for which the team reunited. Apart from the Blu-ray upgrade, “The Pink Panther Collection” includes The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark (1964), The Return of the Pink Panther, The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978) and Trail of the Pink Panther (1982), in which Sellers appeared via clips and outtakes from previous episodes.

Before Sellers was cast as Clouseau, he had never worked as a physical comic. His ideas, timing and leadership in the genre took shape for the first time under Edwards’ direction, in The Pink Panther.  Lest we forget, David Niven was assigned the role of master thief, Sir Charles Lytton, who was in dogged pursuit of the famous Pink Panther diamond. By the time filming was complete, it had become abundantly clear that Clouseau had been allowed to steal the show from Niven. Today, Sellers’ interpretation of the incurably clumsy detective tops all other portrayals. This isn’t to say, however, that all the films were created equally. The decline in quality could be tracked in the roller-coaster box-office returns. Most of the bonus material included here — some of which reveals dissent within the production team — appeared in the 2003 and 2008 collections. Among the new featurettes are “An Italian Indian: The Pink Panther Princess,” an interview with actress Claudia Cardinale; “Back to the Start: The Origin of the Pink Panther,” an interview with Mirisch; commentaries by Jason Simos, of the Peter Sellers Appreciation Society; “A Bit of Passion and Lots of Laugh,” an interview with actress Catherine Schell; an interview with production designer Peter Mullins; “Panther Musings,” an interview with actress Lesley-Anne Down; “A Cut Above: Editing the Pink Panther Films,” with editor Alan Jones; and commentaries by author and film historian William Patrick Maynard.

Money From Home: Blu-ray
Shag: Blu-ray
Savage Innocents: Blu-ray
Chicago-based Olive Films has started offering DVD editions of vintage films that, while they might not qualify as classics, are delightfully eclectic and of interest to completists. The company describes its June releases as “an under-appreciated oddity from one of our favorite auteurs, the ultimate girls’-night-in flick, a classic comedy, a Cannon Group film and a Slasher Video guilty pleasure.”

Money From Home is the 11th of 17 movies in which Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin appeared as a team. It was the first to be shot in color and their only film made in 3D, one of two shot in three-strip Technicolor. In 1953, Martin and Lewis comprised one of the most popular comedy acts in post-war America. Lewis wouldn’t begin to direct until “The Bellboy,” four years after their partnership dissolved. Based on a story by Damon Runyon (“Guys and Dolls”), Money From Home takes place in a universe in which the protagonists sing and dance their way through difficult situations, underworld thugs have cute nicknames and their molls are glamorous. Martin plays Herman “Honey Talk” Nelson, a gambler who owes money to all the wrong people. Lewis portrays Herman’s cousin, apprentice veterinarian Virgil Yokum, who, he hopes, will help him fix a horse race for the mob. Along the way, Virgil meets a female vet (Patricia Crowley) and Herman falls for the owner of the horse (Marjie Millar). Among the highlights is a “Cyrano de Bergerac” homage, in which Lewis tries to woo Martin’s love by proxy. As usual, mistaken identities grease the skids for madcap humor. To promote the 3D novelty, Money From Home debuted in special preview screenings at 322 theaters across the country, on New Year’s Eve, 1953. Unfortunately, a screw-up at the lab forced distributors to show it in 2D. Trivialists might notice the credit, “Special Material in Song Numbers Staged by Jerry Lewis” … another first for the team.

Zelda Barron’s surprisingly effective coming-of-age comedy Shag, released in 1989, is equal parts Where the Boys Are, Bachelorette, Dirty Dancing, American Graffiti and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. In it, four teenage girls from Spartanburg, S.C., sneak away from their respectable homes for a weekend at Myrtle Beach, a magnet for Carolina teens approaching such adult challenges as college, the pre-Vietnam military, marriage and a lifetime of stultifying labor in jobs they’ll hate. An early summer festival promises the girls a dance contest, beer blasts and lots of cute boys … some from the other side of the socio-economic divide. If it doesn’t sound terribly original, Shag does benefit mightily from an atypical location, dead-on period feel, a dandy rock-and-soul soundtrack and bright, young cast that includes show-biz royalty: Bridget Fonda, Phoebe Cates, Annabeth Gish, Page Hannah, Tyrone Power Jr. and Carrie Hamilton. Cates plays Carson, the prim debutante who’s engaged to a stuffy young tobacco heir (Power), but not so committed that she refuses the advances of a silver-tongued local, Buzz (Robert Rusler), a charming Lothario with bohemian pretensions. As Melaina, Fonda is a budding femme fatale, intent on hitching her bleached-blond star to the wagon of teen heartthrob, Jimmy Valentine (Jeff Yagher), in town for the annual Miss Sun Queen contest. Gish is appealing as the dreamy-eyed Pudge, who befriends a shy naval cadet, Chip (Scott Coffey), who cuts a mean rug in the shag contest. Hannah plays Luanne, the bespectacled daughter of a congressman whose carefully tended summer home is trampled and TP’d by uninvited partiers. Although the climax is reasonably predictable, Barron holds on to her story long enough to prevent clichés from ruining it. My only gripe is that the only African-Americans on view are the musicians and congressman’s maid. Even in the Jim Crow South of 1963, you’d think a dance contest without blacks was like “American Bandstand” without Italians.

Any movie made in the early 1960s that attempted to present an honest portrayal of Aboriginal life, here or abroad, is bound to be interesting, if only as a curiosity. Nominated for the Palme d’Or Award at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents tells the story of a strangely jolly Inuit hunter, Inuk (Anthony Quinn), whose life in a forbidding environment only gets complicated when he allows a white trader to cheat him in a transaction involving a cheap rifle and small fortune in pelts. Until then, the only weapons Inuk needed were a spear and knife, and his sustenance was provided by the wildlife found north of the Arctic Circle. A cultural misunderstanding results in the death of a white preacher, who turns down Inuk’s offer of his wife’s warm body in return for a kindness. Suddenly, the hunter becomes the hunted, but, this time, on his own frozen turf. Ray adapted his screenplay for The Savage Innocents from Hans Ruesch’s novel, “Top of the World,” which was inspired by W.S. van Dyke’s similarly plotted film, Eskimo (1933). Unlike Danish explorer Peter Freuchen, who wrote the book from which Eskimo was adapted, Ruesch had no direct knowledge of Inuit life and customs. It’s also likely that both writers and directors freely borrowed from Robert J. Flaherty’s great 1922 docudrama Nanook of the North (a.k.a., “Nanook of the North: A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic”). Ray probably saw Inuk as an extension of the outsider characters he’d championed in previous films (Rebel Without a Cause). Shot partially in Greenland, the barren snowfields in The Savage Innocents look almost blindingly white in Blu-ray. The hunting scenes are brutally realistic, as well.

Where the movie stumbles, I think, is in its portrayal of the Noble Savage as a giggling naïf who comes to peril when confronted with the villainous whites and their loud toys. The depiction of such Eskimo customs as wife-gifting feels too stereotypical to be true, but who knows? As goofy as it sometimes looks, The Savage Innocents remains captivating throughout. In one of his first screen roles, Peter O’Toole plays a Mountie assigned to capturing Inuk. When he learned that his dialogue had been dubbed, O’Toole demanded that his name be taken off the film. He and Quinn would reunite two years later in “Lawrence of Arabia.” And, yes, after seeing Quinn as Inuk, Bob Dylan immortalized the character in the song, “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo),” made popular by the British group Manfred Mann.

The other two Olive releases are Déjà Vu (1985), an obscure reincarnation-thriller, starring Jaclyn Smith and Nigel Terry; and Victims! (1981), a slasher/stalker/rape/revenge flick about four girls terrorized on a camping trip.

The DVD Wrapup: T2 Trainspotting, Autopsy of Jane Doe, Dirty, Trespass, Monster Hunt and more

Thursday, June 29th, 2017

T2 Trainspotting: Blu-ray
God bless Margaret Mitchell. When pressured for a sequel to the novel of Gone With the Wind, she claimed not to have a notion as to what may have happened to Scarlett and Rhett, and that she had “left them to their ultimate fate.” Ditto, François Truffaut, who, in 1974, turned down an opportunity to remake Casablanca. It took 14 years for writer-director Richard Curtis to acknowledge the clamor for a reunion sequel to his surprisingly resilient Love Actually. It runs all of 15 minutes, and was shown on British and American television two months ago, as part of one of his charity’s worldwide events. If fans of Grown Ups, Bridget Jones’s Diary and American Pie could be as easily sated, the world would be a better place. That said, however, as unnecessary sequels go, Danny Boyle’s T2 Trainspotting, isn’t bad. Loosely based on Irvine Welsh’s 2002 sequel, “Porno,” it revisits, after 20 years, a close-knit group of friends united by drug addiction, self-imposed poverty and life in the squalid housing projects outside Edinburgh. Here, Mark “Rent Boy” Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns home from Amsterdam, where he fled after stealing his friends’ share of the money they made in a drug deal. Waiting for him are Daniel “Spud” Murphy (Ewen Bremner), still a barely functional heroin addict; Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller), now a cocaine addict, who runs the pub he inherited from his aunt and uses his Bulgarian girlfriend, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), to extort money from johns; and Francis “Franco” Begbie (Robert Carlyle), a violent offender, who, before his escape, was serving a 25-year prison sentence. All of them are suffering one form of distress, or another, not the least being a sudden need for cash. There also are children to consider. Shirley Henderson and Kelly Macdonald’s characters have returned, as well, but in key supporting roles, as functioning adults. T2 is again directed by Oscar-winner Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and written by John Hodge (Trance), whose collaborations began with Shallow Grave in 1994. Although Trainspotting could hardly be considered formulaic, T2 resembles the original in all the ways that made it so revelatory. The musical soundtrack features Blondie, the Clash, Wolf Alice, High Contrast, the Prodigy, Queen, Run–D.M.C., Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Underworld, the Rubberbandits and Young Fathers. The cinematography reflects the frequently frenetic action and occasional hallucinatory detour, while the comedy is inky black. In the 21-year interim, Boyle overcame one nearly fatal Hollywood misstep (The Beach) to become one of the industry’s most honored and in-demand directors.“T2 proves that neither he nor his fine ensemble cast has lost any of their edge.  The 4K UHD and Blu-ray editions include 30 minutes of deleted scenes, commentary with Boyle and Hodge and the lively featurette “20 Years in the Making: A Conversation with Danny Boyle and the Cast.”

The Autopsy of Jane Doe
The not-at-all-bad gag here is that Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch run a century-old mortuary/crematorium business in their Virginia home. It also doubles as the police morgue. The building’s age doesn’t allow for modern lighting, high ceilings or other accoutrements of modern forensics work.  All the better for Norwegian helmer André Ovredal (Trollhunter), who takes full advantage of the primitive conditions to ratchet up the suspense in The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Just as the sardonic widower, Tony (Cox), is about to close up for the night and free his son, Austin (Hirsch), to go on a date, the chief of police calls with news of a multiple homicide and to ask for an urgent favor. Among the victims found in a local basement is a half-buried Jane Doe (Olwen Catherine Kelly), whose body appears undamaged and unrelated to the carnage. The chief is interested in learning what might be revealed in an autopsy, to be performed ASAP. Rather than call off the date, Austin accedes to her desire to witness the proceedings, which are a tad more graphic than those conducted on your average TV cop show. Just as Ms. Doe’s innards are about to reveal secrets not obvious on the surface of her naked body, the lights go out and things begin to go bump in the night. Veteran horror fans will already know to pay attention for the sound of bells Tony has attached to the legs of corpses, just in case one of them isn’t quite dead. At 86 minutes, Ian B. Goldberg and Richard Naing’s screenplay is heavy on atmosphere and foreboding detail, if a bit familiar in the resolution department. Still, a good way to kill some time in the dark.

Dirty
The best thing about this cliché-ridden story about a pair of corrupt cops, who push their luck beyond all normal limits, isn’t even noted on the jacket of Dirty. It’s a juicy cameo by Chaz Bono – the transgender son of Sonny & Cher –who plays a grimy stoolpigeon, with terrible teeth and a 600-pound mother screaming at him from her bedroom prison. It’s short, but wonderful. Tony Denison (“The Closer”) is noted on the dust jacket, playing the LAPD chief stuck with a couple of bozo detectives who wear their bad intentions on their sleeves for all peaceful citizens to fear. Roger Guenveur Smith, especially, looks as if he were born specifically to play ill-bred villains, in and out of uniform. He and his partner (Paul Elia) have managed to accumulate quite the nest egg of stolen drugs and money in their time together. Instead of merely stealing a portion of a perp’s ill-begotten booty, then letting the wheels of justice grind away at them, the cops take all of it and kill everyone involved. Director Daniel Ringey and writer Benjamin J. Alexander are attempting to make a point here about the ease with which some cops get away with murder, but even Barney Fife could smell these two bad apples coming a mile away. Neither is it difficult to figure out ahead of time how the mighty will fall.

Motion
Evan Tramel’s Motion allows viewers to watch as all manner of cool things are blown up real good – as Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok, hosts of SCTV’s “Farm Film Report,” might say — in slow motion and highly defined colors. Bullets are shot through balloons full of paint, marbles are thrown into the whirling blades of blender, animals and birds burst into flight, and galaxies expand in ways never thought possible. The images are amplified by a soundtrack filled with snippets of classical music … some familiar, others not. I can’t say that there’s much here we haven’t seen before, no matter how cool it looks. Indeed, some of the images can be traced back to the foundations of motion photography. Kids unfamiliar with such extraordinary cinematography will get the biggest kick out of Motion, but Dads will find something fun here, too.

Through the Looking Glass
When someone whose livelihood depends on a constant flow of creative juices experiences a block, it’s not dissimilar to an accident victim slipping into a coma. As far as I know, there are no known medical or psychological cures for a sudden inability to be artistic. Typically, patience and sensory stimulations are the best hope for rehabilitation. In Craig Griffith’s 2006 debut, Through the Looking Glass, the Artist (Paul McCarthy) has seen his career come to a grinding halt. The Agent (Michael Langridge) continues to remind him of a rapidly approaching deadline, while The Friend (Jonathan Rhodes) arrives at The Artist’s foreboding Gothic estate to see if he might be able to impart some wisdom on the subject. Not even The Life Model’s exquisite body can jolt the Artist from his malaise. Those are the only human characters in Griffith’s 93-minute exercise in existential horror. The Monster, if such a creature even exists, arrives in the form of a mysterious package left at the mansion’s doorstep. It contains a mirror, which, when it isn’t reflecting The Artist’s angst is providing him with visions that he’ll work onto a canvas. Unfortunately, they can only be seen by the man holding the brush. When The Agent alerts him to this fact, it results in the peculiar disappearances of everyone around The Artist.  Through the Looking Glass’ claim to marginal fame is winning Best Horror prize at the 2007 Swansea Bay Film Festival. Griffith’s ability to tell his story, while his characters are bathed largely in darkness, obviously impressed the judges.

Grey Lady
The title of John Shea’s second writer/director credit in 20 years – Southie came first – derives from Nantucket Island’s nickname, “The Little Grey Lady of the Sea,” based supposedly on how it appears from the ocean when it is fog-bound … which is frequently. Apparently, too, all of the expensive homes in the modern, post-whaling era have been painted in shades of gray (American spelling). Grey Lady is set in the naturally gray off-season, when the population decreases from 50,000 to 10,000 full-time islanders. Shea’s screenplay offers another explanation, based on the gray homes that line the inlet to the harbor, and the whalers’ wives who lived in them, but, I think, it’s a stretch. No matter, it’s a terrific location for a crime story not involving sharks or tourists. Boston homicide detective James Doyle (Eric Dane) is drawn to Nantucket, based on clues left behind in the murders of his sister and lover/partner. Once he lands on the island and begins to investigate, Doyle comes to realize that the killer is still active and appears to be targeting people who once were in the same orbit as his parents. These include characters played by Amy Madigan (Field of Dreams), Natalie Zea (“Justified”), Adrian Lester (“Hustle”), Carolyn Stotesbery (“Agent X”), Rebecca Gayheart (“Vanished”) and Laila Robins (“Homeland”), who may have owed Shea a favor, as Grey Lady has arrived on DVD virtually unheralded and unsung. Even so, the setting alone is worth the price of a rental or PPV donation.

Life of Significant Soil
In writer/director Michael Irish’s debut feature, Life of Significant Soil, the title isn’t the only thing that requires scrutiny. Billed, early on, as a “repetitive comedy” – the qualifier, “sort of” was added later, then deleted — its only similarity to Groundhog Day is the basic conceit, which requires its small handful of characters to constantly relive the events of the previous day. Suffice it to day that Irish has a long way to go before he can walk in Harold Ramis’ shoes. His stars, Charlotte Bydwell, Alexis Mouyiaris and Anna Jack, while game, aren’t nearly as capable as Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, either. The focus of each day’s dilemma is the floundering relationship of aspiring dancer Addison and her uninspiring slacker boyfriend Conor. Addison has just learned she’s pregnant and Conor’s fundamental concern is the air-conditioner, which is usually on the fritz. For some time, she’s been aware that he’s been cheating on her – sexually, if not emotionally – with the downstairs’ blond, Jackie. About halfway through the day, Addison decides to have an abortion, which Conor and another friend arrange through a back-alley practitioner, Upstate, although there’s probably a dozen perfectly legal clinics within a mile’s radius of their Brooklyn flat. Because Life of Significant Soil tops out at 72 minutes, it’s likely that Irish realized that he was in over his head at some point and decided to cut his losses. Smart move.

Wichita
Justyn Ah Chong and Matthew D. Ward’s debut feature, Wichita, borrows from all sorts of sources, not the least of which are The Shining (the long, lonely drive into the Colorado wilderness), Sliver (room-to-room surveillance cameras) and all sorts of Cabin Fever clones. I’m not quite sure what the title represents, except the stitching on one of the sweatshirts worn by the protagonist. The working title was “Manifesto,” which may have been even less precise. Trevor Peterson plays Jeb, the creator of a children’s cartoon show, “Amy and the Aliens,” that’s sagging in the ratings, but features the voicing talents of the network boss’ daughter. Jeb is ordered to hole up in a fancy house in the mountains with a writing team and churn out 30 brilliant scripts in 30 days. The first sign that Jeb is starting to crack under the pressure is when he begins monitoring his team’s activities through mini-cameras strategically located throughout the property and using what he sees to intimidate and blackmail them. (Who set up the cameras and why remains a mystery.) The deeper he sinks into his pit of narcissism, rage and fear, the uglier things get for the team members. Things get even nuttier when Jeb takes a side trip to visit his religious-nut mom – Sondra Blake, former wife of Robert – and she mistakes him for a terrorist, or Satan, and begins shooting. True slasher junkies will get a kick from the mayhem that follows Jeb’s return to the mountains, but everything else left me cold.

Legion of Brothers: Blu-ray
In this up-close-and-personal look at about 25 of the 100 Special Forces troops, who, immediately after the 9/11 attacks, were airlifted into Afghanistan to join forces with the Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taliban and send Al Qaeda packing. They fought alongside anti-Taliban rebels, sometimes on horseback, and provided eyes and ears on the ground for Coalition bombing missions. Those were heady days for Americans still reeling from the horrors of 9/11 and, for a while there, it looked as the mission was accomplished. Sadly, White House and CIA interference allowed Osama Bin Laden and Taliban leadership to slip past other Special Forces units at Tora Bora, and that effectively ended the euphoria over deposing the Taliban government in Kabul. When American troops and Marines were relocated to Iraq, well … that’s another story, altogether. Legion of Brothers not only allows the Special Forces veterans to relive their heroic campaign to get the Coalition’s efforts on solid footing, but it also re-visits events that left a far different taste in their mouths. Director Greg Barker illuminates the impact of 15 years of constant combat on the soldiers and their families, as well as having to observe the aftermath of certain “victory” as it turned sour. There’s probably no better time than the July 4 to listen to the stories these men tell about the horrors of war and peace.

Death Line: Limited Edition: Combo: Blu-ray
The Unholy: Blu-ray
Nurse Sherri: Blu-ray
This week’s selection of horror reissues includes a pair of relatively obscure thrillers that look fine in Blu-ray and feature actors who elevate the genre. The third is just plain nuts. Shot largely in an unused London Tube station in the early 1970s, Gary Sherman’s Death Line (a.k.a., “Raw Meat”) features Donald Pleasence and Norman Rossington as a humorously crusty Scotland Yard detectives; James Cossins, as a pervy politician; Hugh Armstrong, as a fifth-generation ghoul; and a wacky cameo by Christopher Lee. The plot takes some explaining. Decades earlier, a group of male and female tunnel workers were lost in the collapse of a subway wall and presumed dead. Instead, they managed to survive on rain water, sewer rats and refuse, and the solidarity of the damned. Oh, yeah, they occasionally consumed the flesh of their own dead comrades, as well. Not having that luxury, the sole living descendant of the original surviving tunnel dwellers is forced to exit his cozy boneyard to find fresh victims, who he also tries to feed to his decaying ex-wife. The disappearance of the honorable OBE member demands the attention of the skeptical detectives, as does the subsequent kidnapping of the pretty hippy chick (Sharon Gurney) who first reported finding his collapsed body on the steps of the subway station. The producers lucked out when their location scouts found an abandoned station that literally reeked with atmosphere. Armstrong’s portrayal of the vile antagonist is what really pushes Death Line over the top, however. The courtship of his replacement bride – the kidnapped young woman — is as disgusting as it can possibly be. But, don’t take my word for it. When the film was shown as part of a horror series at Lincoln Center in 2002, director Guillermo Del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone) pronounced it one of his all-time favorites. Sadly, just as interest was beginning to mount among European distributors for Sherman’s tasty little film, it was re-edited by the producers and sold to AIP for American grindhouses and drive-ins, under the title “Raw Meat,” and largely forgotten. (It was shown in Britain in its original form, under its original title.) It has been freshly transferred and fully restored in 2K from the original uncensored camera negative and comes fully loaded with new bonus features, including commentary with Sherman, producer Paul Maslansky (Police Academy) and AD Lewis More O’Ferrall; “Tales From the Tube,” an interview with Sherman and executive producers Jay Kanter and Alan Ladd Jr., whose younger brother, David, plays the boyfriend witness; “From The Depths,” an interview with David Ladd and Maslansky; “Mind The Doors,” an interview with Armstrong; marketing material for “Raw Meat”; and a booklet featuring new writing by authors Michael Gingold and Christopher Gullo.

Phillip Yordan originally wrote the script for The Unholy in the 1970s, after the box-office successes of films like The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976). Director Camilo Vila found the script years later, in Yordan’s office, while they were working on something else and asked if he could use it. Unfortunately, the thirst for movies involving priests, exorcisms and Satan’s intrusions into church affairs was at a low point, and The Unholy languished in box-office purgatory. Set in New Orleans, a series of horrific murders of priests has only recently come to light. The latest involves a priest who succumbs to the charms of a beautiful woman (Nicole Fortier) in a diaphanous outfit that leaves nothing to the imagination. Viewers, of course, sense that she’s the devil in disguise Elvis once prophesized and there’s nothing we can do to save the doomed cleric. The archdiocese recruits the handsome Father Michael (Ben Cross) to take on the demon and his other manifestations. The priest deduces that Daesidarius (a.k.a., The Unholy One) murders the sinner in the act of sinning, then sends that person’s soul to hell. The movie’s biggest selling point is a cast that includes Peter Frechette, Ned Beatty, Hal Holbrook and Trevor Howard, in one of his final roles. Otherwise, there are a few too many missed opportunities here to make The Unholy stand out among other exorcism flicks. Fortier, however, isn’t one of them. The special features add commentary with Vila; isolated score selections and an audio interview with composer Roger Bellon; an audio interview with production designer and co-writer Fernando Fonseca, featuring selections from his unused score; ”Sins of the Father,” with Cross; “Demons in the Flesh: The Monsters of The Unholy”; ”Prayer Offerings,” with Fonseca; an original ending with optional commentary by producer Mathew Hayden; a storyboard and stills gallery.

One sure way to determine the degree of depravity of a particular grindhouse or drive-in specimen is to track the number of alternative titles under which it’s listed. In the case of Nurse Sherri, there’s “Possession of Nurse Sherri,” “Black Voodoo,” “Hands of Death,” “Beyond the Living,” “Hospital of Terror” and “Terror Hospital.” A second DVD, included in the package, is labelled “Killer’s Curse.” Added as an “exploitation cut” version, I failed to identify any differences between them. This shouldn’t be taken as a complaint, just an observation. The key point to be made is that it was made in the late 1970s, by semi-legendary schlockmeister Al Adamson (Dracula Vs. Frankenstein, Satan’s Sadists) and is a textbook example of what can happen when such an “artist” sets out to create a “violent and sleazy hybrid of ‘nurse’ films and supernatural horror.” That, it is. As usual, Vinegar Syndrome has invested significantly more money and TLC into its product than Adamson felt it deserved. It has been freshly restored, in 2K, of its original 35mm negative, and features interviews with its stars and semi-legendary producer Samuel Sherman, who supplies the commentary track. “Nurses’ Confessions” is a terrific backgrounder with co-stars Jill Jacobson and Marliyn Joi, and there’s a “Then and Now” locations featurette.

Trespass: Blu-ray
Stripped to its bare essentials, Walter Hill’s 1992 action/thriller Trespass works best as an urban adaptation of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, set in an abandoned factory in East St. Louis. It begins with a pair of good-ol’-boy Arkansas firefighters, Vince and Don (Bill Paxton, William Sadler), being handed a hand-drawn map and old newspaper clipping, purportedly leading to a stash of a stolen religious artifacts and hidden somewhere in the once thriving plant. The robber won’t need the map anymore, as he plans to kill himself in the four-alarm blaze. Naturally, the firefighters become fixated on the possibility that the museum-quality artifacts can be fenced or turned in to the insurance company for a nice reward. What Vince and Don don’t take into account, of course, is that the abandoned factory also is a hideout for local gang-bangers, including characters played by Ice-T, Ice Cube, Stoney Jackson, John Toles-Bey, Tommy “Tiny” Lister and De’voreaux White. Inconveniently, the factory serves as a home for a wily homeless gent (Art Evans). The Arkansas rubes aren’t prepared to take on an entire gang of obscenely well-armed thugs, who fear their sanctuary has been invaded, and the locals have no idea that they’re in possession of a fortune in gold. If you haven’t guessed already, the homeless guy is there to remind us not only of the folly of youth and wages of greed, but also Walter Huston’s old prospector in the John Huston classic. Fresh off their work on the Back to the Future trilogy, collaborative screenwriters Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis supplied Hill with enough of a framework to fill in the blanks with brilliantly choreographed violence and sardonic humor.  If Trespass failed to ignite a bonfire at the box office, the blame can be laid on the coincidence of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Originally titled “The Looters,” its release date was pushed from the July 4 weekend to Christmas, so that a new marketing campaign could be devised around the new title and conceptual spin. By either title, Hill’s picture is lots of fun. The package contains a vintage making-of featurette; five new ones, including interviews and pieces on the stunts and weaponry; deleted scenes; and a music video.

Monster Hunt
Yu-Gi-Oh! The Dark Side of Dimensions: Blu-ray
As of February, 2016, when it was surpassed by Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid, Raman Hui’s Monster Hunt held the title of highest-grossing, domestically made Chinese film of all time. Worldwide, it scored more than $400 million at the box office. Hui may not have been as stunned by those numbers as other observers, considering he’d previously worked on Shrek, Madagascar and Antz, and is listed as co-director on Shrek the Third, with Chris Miller, and director of several DreamWorks shorts. In other words, Monster Hunt’s success wasn’t a fluke. By combining live-action and animated characters, it tapped into a family-friendly market – even finding a ready audience in its very limited U.S. run – that most studios here would envy. Naturally, a sequel is already in post-production. This isn’t to say, however, I can safely describe what’s happening in Roi and writer Alan Yuen’s fantasy universe, I’ll paraphrase, thusly, “In a mythical ancient world, monsters rule their land while humans keep to their own kingdom. When adorable baby monster Wuba is born to a human father and the monster queen, mortals and creatures alike set out to capture the newborn. They include both monster-hating humans and monsters claiming Wuba as their own.” It has been dubbed into English.

I’m only a little more familiar with the universe described in Yu-Gi-Oh! The Dark Side of Dimensions, a feature-length spinoff of the multi-tentacled Japanese animated franchise. The film is an original story, featuring Yugi Muto and Seto Kaiba as its main characters. It follows events of the original “Yu-Gi-Oh!” storyline and the original manga. Once again, I defer to a more accurate summarization than I could provide: “A year after the departure of the Pharaoh, Yugi and his high school friends are discussing what they will do after graduation. Meanwhile, Seto has commissioned an excavation to retrieve the disassembled Millennium Puzzle from the ruins of the Millennium chamber. The item had previously housed the soul of his rival, Atem, who he hopes to revive in order to settle their score. The excavation is interrupted by Diva, who faces Kaiba in a game of “Duel Monsters” and steals two pieces of the recovered Puzzle. He keeps one fragment and gives the other to his sister, Sera, who passes it on to Yugi … host of the Pharaoh.” At 130 minutes, the movie might be too overwhelming for novices. Bonus material includes “Favorite Moments With the Cast,” featuring the English voice cast; Q&A’s with the actors who voice the lead characters; “Show Us Your Cards!,” a gallery of fans displaying their favorite “Yu-Gi-Oh!” cards;  and a separate collector’s card.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: American Epic: Blu-ray
PBS: The Story of China with Michael Wood: Blu-ray
ABC: Dirty Dancing: Television Special
PBS: Masterpiece: King Charles III
PBS: Frontline: Last Days of Solitary
I can’t think of better way to celebrate America’s birthday than binging on the four-part PBS documentary, “American Epic,” which the network describes as a “journey back in time to the Big Bang of modern popular music.” It’s well worth missing a fireworks barrage, or two. The “Big Bang” came in the 1920s, as radio took over the music business and scouts for record companies were forced to leave their studios in search of new voices and customers anxious to purchase phonographs. What they discovered was a treasure trove of uniquely American musicians, willing to share their sounds with the world and, perhaps, make some money doing so. Most had never heard themselves perform on a disc or over the airwaves. As unwieldy as the portable studios were, the sounds they captured were pristine and impassioned. The pops and scratches would be added later, at home. The 310 minutes of music in “American Epic” represents what today is commonly known as roots or Americana. It includes country singers in the Appalachians, blues guitarists in the Mississippi Delta, gospel preachers across the South, Cajun fiddlers in Louisiana, tejano groups from the Texas/Mexico border, Native American drummers in Arizona and Hawaiian musicians. It adds a companion book, a soundtrack featuring 100 remastered songs, an educational outreach program and a historical archive. None of it is boring or without reach, even to untrained ears. The remarkable lives of America’s seminal musicians are revealed through previously unseen film footage and photographs, and exclusive interviews with music pioneers, their families and eyewitnesses to the era. “American Epic” is the brainchild of exec-producers T Bone Burnett, Robert Redford and Jack White, whose excitement for the project is palpable throughout. Engineer Nicholas Bergh, a pre-eminent restorer of audio tracks for early films, had just finished collecting parts and rebuilding just such a machine — none of the original 20, made by AT&T’s Western Electric division, had survived — which works on pulleys and allows for no stopping or restarting, while recording straight to wax. It took first-time director Bernard MacMahon, who also produced with Allison McGourty and Duke Erikson, more than 10 years to complete the documentary, as it morphed and expanded. Among the participating acts are Alabama Shakes, John, Nas, the Avett Brothers, Taj Mahal, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Rhiannon Giddens and Taj Mahal. In a word, “American Epic” is breathtaking.

I recently referred readers to hour-long documentaries on several aspects of Chinese history, including the discovery of ancient chariots, terra-cotta warriors and battlefields. I couldn’t imagine how the PBS documentary series, “The Story of China,” written and presented by historian Michael Wood, could encapsulate 4,000 years of continuous history into a meaningful 360-minute package. A CliffsNotes or Classics Illustrated version, maybe, but not six hours of gorgeously captured landscapes and informed discussions of architecture, geography and military history. And, yet, by stopping short of the events that led to Chinese Civil War, communist takeover and embracing of a free-market economy, Wood probably saved himself another two-hour dissertation. By journeying along the Silk Route, down the Grand Canal and across the plain of the Yellow River, where Chinese civilization began, Wood found common elements in his story. He also meets people from all walks of life, visiting China’s most evocative landscapes and exploring such ancient cities as Xi’an, Nanjing and Hangzhou, which still reveal the fingerprints of history.

Anyone attempting to remake “Dirty Dancing,” on the big screen, TV or stage, must have known they would be opening themselves to a noisy backlash by the movie’s rabid fanbase. With a 30th anniversary edition already in the marketplace, the producers of ABC’s adaptation probably weren’t nearly as concerned about reviews, as word-of-mouth leading into this Blu-ray release, less than six weeks later. Although it closely follows the original narrative, there are several key differences, besides the casting of Abigail Breslin and Colt Prattes in the roles made famous by Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze. Today’s teens might appreciate the stronger emphasis on race relations and class divisions, and the honest portrayal of a young woman’s coming of age at a time when birth control was an uncommon luxury and young middle-class males were practically clueless as to how to behave in their company. The lower-class dancers are painted as being more well-versed in the ways of the world, but just barely. The dancing is good, of course, and the locations attractive. Baby’s parents are experiencing problems that went unaddressed in the original, as well. Supporting cast members include Sarah Hyland, Nicole Scherzinger, Tony Roberts, Shane Harper, J. Quinton Johnson, Trevor Einhorn, Katey Sagal, Billy Dee Williams, Bruce Greenwood and Debra Messing.  Andy Blankenbuehler, a veteran of “9 to 5: The Musical” and “Hamilton’s America,” handled the choreography very capably. The Blu-ray adds featurettes, “The Legacy Lives On” and “Don’t Step on the 1, Start on the 2.”

Those of us who’ve grown up wondering what crime Prince Charles must have committed to be denied his birthright — and by his mother, no less — might find a hint or two in PBS’ overtly Shakespearian, “Masterpiece: King Charles III.” Based on Mike Bartlett’s critically acclaimed and award-winning play, Rupert Goold’s interpretation benefits from terrific performances and a teleplay that includes ghosts, thoughts of patricide, romantic entanglements and much political intrigue. After waiting a lifetime for the call, Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith) ascends to the British throne after Queen Elizabeth II’s death. With the future of the monarchy under threat, protests on the streets and his family in disarray, Charles must grapple with his own identity and purpose. The stellar cast includes Oliver Chris, as William; Richard Goulding, as Harry; Charlotte Riley, as Kate; Margot Leicester, as Camilla; and Katie Brayben, as Diana’s ghost.

PBS’ “Frontline: Last Days of Solitary” teaches us that the U.S. is the world leader in solitary confinement, with more than 80,000 prisoners being held in isolation. Besides introducing Maine’s ambitious attempt to decrease its reliance on the disciplinary practice, “Last Days of Solitary” investigates what happens when prisoners who have spent considerable time in isolation try to integrate back into society, sometimes only days or weeks after being forced to live like animals and act like mental patients participating in a cruel experiment. The truly scary presentation offers some reason to hope that solitary confinement could someday be abolished, without ignoring the fact that some prisoners simply can’t adjust to life among other inmates, let alone civilians. The self-abuse these men endure to make their complaints known and taken seriously border on the unwatchable. That the prisoners we meet are almost exclusively white begs other questions.

 

The DVD Wrapup: Marseille Trilogy, Life, Bird With Crystal Plumage, Lawnmower Man, Car Wash and more

Thursday, June 22nd, 2017

The Marseille Trilogy: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
They Live by Night: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Way back in the Pleistocene Age, when all film students and cineastes had to rely on for evidence of a film’s virtues were barely-watchable 16mm prints of vintage movies, it was sometimes difficult to appreciate what differentiated true classics from run-of-the-mill entertainments. Poorly maintained projectors occasionally caused the film stock to melt, while scratches and other defects turned dialogue into garble. That all changed with laserdiscs, DVDs and the concerted efforts of preservationists, who benefitted mightily from advanced digital technology. In his introduction to the Criterion Collection release of Marcel Pagnol’s “The Marseille Trilogy,” Bertrand Tavernier (‘Round Midnight) describes how his opinions about Marius (1931), Fanny (1932) and César (1936) changed after watching the 2015 restoration, conducted by Compagnie Méditerranénne de Film and the Cinémathèque Française. In short, the experience was revelatory. As the silent era gave way to talkies, Pagnol turned his attention away from the Paris stage for new challenges as a filmmaker in his native Provence. The writer/producer of Marius turned to Alexander Korda (The Private Life of Don Juan) to adapt his 1929 play into what became a trilogy about star-crossed lovers in the port city and the working-man’s cafe that serves as the center of Pagnol’s fictional universe. Part One introduces us to Marius (Pierre Fresnay), the sedentary son of the bistro’s boisterous owner, Cesar (Raimu), and Fanny (Orane Demazis), whose strait-laced mother, Honorine (Alida Rouffe), runs an adjoining seafood store. After reaching adulthood, Marius and Fanny take their friendship to the next level, by embarking on an impetuous sexual relationship. When Honorine discovers them in flagrante delicto, she orders Cesar to force his son to marry her daughter, which he does. Just as they’re about to tie the knot, however, Fanny recognizes her lover’s overriding desire to experience life on the high seas before settling down and reluctantly gives him a pass. The first installment ends with Marius’ ship pulling out of the harbor, destination, the Indian Ocean. Fanny’s in tears and Cesar yelling at a ship that no longer is there.

In Fanny, directed by Marc Allégret (Entrée des artistes), we learn that the female protagonist is pregnant with Marius’ child and, as such, runs the risk of being ostracized by neighbors and family members in the heavily Catholic community. Honorine instructs Fanny to accept a long-standing proposal of marriage from wealthy businessman Honore Panisse (Fernand Charpin), who, after being advised of her condition, still agrees to legitimize the child’s birth. Fanny would have preferred to wait for Marius, but his letters home are non-committal, at best. When the baby arrives, Honore is as good as his word and Cesar evolves from a blustery old coot into a doting “godfather” to the child. The comic relief is much appreciated. In Part Three, Cesar, written and directed by Pagnol, the elderly Honore is dying; his adopted son, Cesariot (André Fouché), has returned home from military school to comfort him; Marius is working as an auto mechanic in Toulon; and Fanny is faced with the dilemma of possibly having to reveal the name of her son’s birth father to him. All the loose ends will ultimately be tied, but not until the melodrama reaches a fever pitch. As old-fashioned and conventional as the trilogy sounds, the interweaving of fortunes makes it as compelling as such vintage mini-series as “Rich Man, Poor Man,” “The Thorn Birds” and “Winds of War.” Indeed, it has been readapted several times on French television and in Joshua Logan’s 1961 feature, Fanny. Marseille is a splendid location, even in black-and-white, as are Toulon and Les Lecques. In addition to the 4K digital restorations of all three films, Blu-ray features include a new interview with Nicolas Pagnol, the writer/director’s grandson; segments of “Marcel Pagnol: Morceaux de choisis,” a 1973 documentary series on his life and work; a short documentary on the Marseille harbor, by Pagnol; archival interviews with actors Demazis, Fresnay and Robert Vattier; “Pagnol’s Poetic Realism,” a video essay by scholar Brett Bowles; a French television clip about the restoration of the trilogy; and an essay by film critic Michael Atkinson and excerpts from Pagnol’s memoirs. (BTW: If Honore’s surname sounds familiar, it’s because Alice Waters adopted it for her landmark Berkeley bistro, Chez Panisse, as a “homage to the sentiment, comedy and informality of these classic films.”

Criterion also has delivered a pristine Blu-ray edition of Nicholas Ray’s terrific 1948 debut feature, They Live by Night, a lyrical film noir that incoming RKO boss Howard Hughes kept on a shelf for two years, before word-of-mouth praise from abroad and Hollywood’s private-screening-room circuit changed his mind. When the release first came to my attention, I’ll admit, I confused it with Raoul Walsh’s They Drive by Night (1940) and Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937), both of which share certain tonal qualities with Ray’s adaptation of Edward Anderson’s 1937 novel, “Thieves Like Us.” It would be re-adapted in 1974 by Robert Altman, under the book’s original title. I took some comfort in learning that, like me, Altman was not aware that Ray had previously adapted the book. They Live by Night anticipated Ray’s subsequent existential genre films, such as Knock on Any Door, In a Lonely Place and Johnny Guitar. It would be difficult, as well, not to see the resemblance between Farley Granger’s alienated bank robber, Bowie, and James Dean, in Rebel Without a Cause, seven years later. After spending seven years on a Mississippi prison farm, 23-year-old Bowie joins a pair of hardened criminals in a string of thefts. During a pitstop, Bowie hooks up with the mechanic’s naïve teenage daughter, Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), who wants to taste freedom as much as he does. Instead, Bowie is implicated in a bank robbery that eventually results in the death of a highway patrolman. Although he had nothing to do with the shooting, itself, the media label him “Bowie the Kid” and paint him as the ringleader. Keechie believes enough in her man’s innocence that she decides to join him on his escape to Mexico. Naturally, things don’t work out as planned. When it comes to amour fou, do they ever?  The 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, adds commentary with Granger and historian Eddie Muller; a new video interview with film critic Imogen Sara Smith; a short piece from 2007 with film critic Molly Haskell, filmmakers Christopher Coppola and Oliver Stone, and film noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini; excerpts from a 1956 audio interview with producer John Houseman and a new essay by film scholar Bernard Eisenschitz.

Life: Blu-ray

Last month, in my review of The Space Between Us, I wondered if audiences have grown weary of stories based on the possibility of life on Mars and the many unexpected things that can happen during the commute from Earth. The Martian did well at the international box office, while others have struggled. If Daniel Espinosa’s adaptation of a smart and ominous screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool) looked inviting in print ads and TV spots, it also suggested yet another merger of tropes from Alien and previous trapped-in-space flicks, including Gravity. Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem. At a time when the sci-fi/horror market is packed to bursting, however, covering a production budget of nearly $60 million is no small trick. In May, Ridley Scott’s highly anticipated Alien: Covenant kicked off the summer season with a loud thud. In Life, astronauts aboard the Mars Pilgrim 7 space station are doing their weightless thing somewhere between the Red Planet and Earth, when a scientist (Arlyon Bakare) studying a sample of soil discovers a large, single-celled organism he suspects could provide evidence of extraterrestrial life there. Eureka! After being nourished on glycerin, it doesn’t take long for the miniscule creature, christened “Calvin,” to grow tentacles and behave like a mischievous baby squid. The problem comes in watching the Calvin grow like Topsy and realizing that it craves nutrients found in the human body.  Suffice it to say that the rest of the mission is eclipsed by the efforts of the remaining five astronauts – Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hiroyuki Sanada, Olga Dihovichnaya and Rebecca Ferguson, playing an overmatched quarantine specialist – to save their asses and mankind, if the shuttle returns to Earth and Calvin is unleashed there. Despite Life’s familiarity, Swedish-born director Espinosa (“Easy Money”) benefits from a cleverly designed space capsule, which allows for credible simulations of weightless movement, as well as the occasional jump scare. Like Gravity, ample time also is reserved for suspenseful space walks outside the shuttle. Sci-fi completists shouldn’t have any problem enjoying Life for its engineering conceits, if nothing else. Clearly, general audiences need something more than extraterrestrial squids to get their blood flowing, however. I wasn’t accorded the opportunity to sample the movie in 4K, but can see where it might be effective in places. Otherwise, the Blu-ray package adds deleted scenes, astronaut diaries and three very good making-of featurettes: “Claustrophobic Terror: Creating a Thriller in Space,” “Life: In Zero G” and “Creating Life: The Art and Reality of Calvin.”

The Bird With the Crystal Plumage: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
In movies, as in life, some stories are simply too good to be true. The better ones also tend to be too good not to pass along as fact. As apocryphal as it may or may not be, the origin story attached to Dario Argento’s classic giallo, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage is just such a tale. It’s said that at one point during the early days of production, an executive producer was so disappointed by the dailies that he considered firing the first-time director. Argento’s primary claim to fame had been co-writing the story for Once Upon a Time in the West, with Sergio Leoni and Berthold Bertolucci, so any directorial skills were based on observation, alone. When producer Salvatore Argento heard the complaints, he paid a visit to his associate’s office to hear him out of the subject of his son’s incompetence. Before that could happen, however, he noticed that the man’s secretary was visibly shaken by something she’d just experienced. The woman said that she was terrified by the footage she’d seen from The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and couldn’t get it out of her head. The proud papa then asked her to tell her boss about her reaction to the screening. Without exerting an ounce of clout, Salvatore saved Argento’s job. Because the thriller would prove to be a box-office smash — in Europe, at least — it would be nice to think that the secretary was given a raise or promotion. Among other things, it became noteworthy as the first installment in Argento’s groundbreaking “Animal Trilogy,” which also includes the highly stylized murder/mysteries The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1972). After more than 45 years, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage still retains its ability to shock and terrify viewers who don’t know what’s coming. In another possibly apocryphal story, one of the historians interviewed for the bonus package points out the debt of gratitude Argento and Hitchcock owed Gerd Oswald’s obscure 1958 adaptation of Fredric Brown’s noir thriller, “The Screaming Mimi.” Screaming Mimi starred Anita Ekberg, Philip Carey and Gypsy Rose Lee He insists that the depiction of a buxom blond being stabbed to death in an outdoor shower, not only influenced Argento’ deployment of razor-sharp cutlery, but also the famous shower scene In Psycho. Although neither film is considered an adaptation of the book, “The Screaming Mimi,” Argento only wrote the screenplay for “Bird,” on spec, after Bertolucci gave him a copy of it.  (Screaming Mimi has only been available on video since 2011 on VOD and MOD formats.)

Comparisons to Hitchcock extend, as well, to the role played by the American protagonist, Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), who becomes involved in the investigation of a series of vicious murders, even though he was simply an innocent bystander to one of them. The writer was passing by a glass-walled art gallery when he observed a woman fighting for her life from a knife wound. Although double glass doors prevented Dalmas from coming to her aid, he was able to give police their first vague description of the killer. Because it also made him a possible suspect, Dalmas’ passport is confiscated and he’s instructed to make himself available for further questioning. The misplaced notoriety also turns the American and his girlfriend, Giulia (Suzy Kendall), into sitting ducks for the man draped completely in black. If he wants to clear his name, Dalmas will have to launch an investigation of his own. It leads him to the nutso artist of grisly painting, which may have inspired the killer; the bug-eyed pimp of a murdered prostitute; an antiques dealer who employed one of the victims; and an assembly of retired pugilists, whose yellow jackets provide cover for a similarly dressed suspect. The closer Dalmas comes to actual clues, the more imperiled he and his girlfriend become. In case you’re wondering, the title refers to a magnificent crane in the city zoo, whose distinctive chirping can be heard in the background of a call made by the killer. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage may not be a barrel of laughs, but it’s a lot of fun to watch. Newcomers to giallo should find a lot to like here, as well, including the sumptuous cinematography by Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now) and a seductive score by composer Ennio Morricone (Once Upon a Time in the West). The new 4K restoration of the film from the camera negative, in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, was produced by Arrow Video exclusively for this release. It adds commentary with Troy Howarth, author of “So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films”; “The Power of Perception,” a new visual essay on the cinema of Dario Argento, by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, author of “Devil’s Advocates: Suspiria and Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study”; fresh interviews with critic Kat Ellinger, Gildo Di Marco (Garullo, the pimp) and Argento, now 76; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Candice Tripp; and a limited-edition 60-page booklet, illustrated by Matthew Griffin, featuring an appreciation of the film by Michael Mackenzie and other essays.

The Paul Naschy Collection: Blu-ray
Inquisition: Blu-ray
Although his name isn’t nearly as synonymous with horror as Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee or Vincent Price, Scream Factory’s five-disc The Paul Naschy Collection (1973-1981) makes a very good case for the Spanish actor being compared favorably to Lon Chaney pere et fils. Bearing a fair resemblance facially and in stature to John Belushi, Naschy has portrayed werewolves, vampires, mummies, hunchbacks, serial killers and evil priests, frequently using the same pseudonym, Waldemar Daninsky. If the films in which he appears don’t quite measure up to the classics from Universal, Hammer and AIP, it’s more a function of impossibly tight budgets and low production values in a national cinema not geared for genre fare. Still, they aren’t without their cheap thrills, including actresses who would give the last 50 years’ worth of Miss Universe candidates an inferiority complex. It’s been reported that Naschy developed a taste for monster movies as a boy, growing up during the Spanish Civil War and its brutal aftermath, in Madrid. He sought escape from the real-life horrors around him in adventure comics, movie serials and such American imports as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). His athleticism was honed as a soccer player and competitive weightlifter. Naschy got his start in the movie business as an extra during location shoots for such American and Italian productions as King of Kings, El Cid, 55 Days at Peking, Messalina vs. the Son of Hercules and Fury of Johnny Kid. Waldemar Daninsky’s first appearance came in Enrique López Eguiluz’ Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror (1968), for which he received a writing and story credit, as Jacinto Molina. He would supplement his acting and screenwriting as a producer, illustrator, director and author of Western pulp novels under the pseudonym Jack Mill. The Blu-ray box set includes Vengeance of the Zombies, Horror Rises From the Tomb, Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll, Night of the Werewolf and Human Beasts. While none of them is particularly noteworthy on its own merits, they easily qualify as movies that are so bad they’re good and too sexy to be completely unwatchable. In a first, the bonus package includes “alternate clothed sequences” and deleted scenes.

Being released separately from Mondo Macabre, Inquisition represents another common theme in Naschy’s repertoire. In addition to directing and writing the 1978 bloodbath, as Molina, he plays three key roles: Inquisitor/magistrate Bernard de Fossey, the Devil and the Grim Reaper. When it comes to horror, there are few events in history to top the Inquisition. Representatives of the Vatican were given carte blanche to torture and murder anyone it considered to be a heretic, blasphemer or enemy of the Church. This included women accused of being witches, devil worshippers and carriers of the plague. Here, Inquisitor De Fossey travels to the plague-ridden region of Peyriac, in southwestern France, a particularly target-rich environment for sadistic priests. Local beauty Catherine (Daniela Giordano) quickly catches his eye, tormenting him with impure thoughts. Her affections lie with her fiancé Jean, however. Her family’s embittered one-eyed manservant Rénover (Antonio Iranzo) rats out his enemies to the Inquisitor as blasphemers, including several semi-nude women who we’ll watch being tortured on the rack, then burned at the stake. (It isn’t as graphic as it could have been, especially by modern standards.) When Jean dies in mysterious circumstances, Catherine allies herself with Satan to get revenge on De Fossey and his henchmen. Because Naschy plays three roles, things sometimes get confusing. Still, the story is more compelling than most of the plots with which he was saddled. The Blu-ray adds an introduction by Naschy; an interview with Giordano; commentary by Rod Barnett and Troy Guinn, of the “NaschyCast” podcast; and “Blood and Sand,” a documentary on Spanish horror films.

The Lawnmower Man: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Shout!Factory’s 25th anniversary release of The Lawnmower Man: Collector’s Edition serves as a concrete reminder of how far Hollywood has come in its ability to duplicate images once reserved for virtual-reality headsets and other immersive hardware and software. Released 10 years after Tron failed to ignite the box office for excursions into the cyber-universe – the video game did better – The Lawnmower Man merged elements of Charly (“Flowers for Algernon”), a Stephen King short story and arcade-game technology. In Brett Leonard’s cult thriller, Dr. Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan) is a scientist obsessed with perfecting virtual-reality software. When his military-financed experiments on animals go haywire, he finds the ideal substitute in Jobe Smith (Jeff Fahey), a slow-witted gardener who resembles Raggedy Andy. Angelo shoots Jobe up with intelligence-enhancing drugs, before strapping him into a VR apparatus and introducing him to an extensive schedule of learning disciplines. In short order, Jobe absorbs more recorded knowledge than Wikipedia and with a higher degree of accuracy. He also comes to realize that, if he’s going to attract the MILF next-door (Jenny Wright), he’d better buff up and clean up his act. Once he’s passed that test, it becomes clear that Jobe has become addicted to the experience and juices up to the point where develops telekinesis and other psychic abilities, including being able to control his souped-up lawnmower without using his hands. When he becomes too powerful for Angelo and his fiendish backers, things really get nuts. Not surprisingly, the computer-generated graphics look primitive to anything we’ve become used to seeing, especially in such soon-to-arrive entertainments as Disclosure, The Matrix, The Cell, eXistenZ and Virtuosity, also directed by Leonard. Some old-timers might recall that New Line Cinema had obtained the rights to King’s story, “The Lawnmower Man,” and an unrelated script called “Cyber God,” to which the studio attached the title and an idea for a single scene. King was furious, as well, that New Line attached his name to the purloined title, and he sued the studio to have both removed. When it refused,  a judge fined it $10,000 a day and full profits until it did. The controversy didn’t help business. The new Blu-ray includes both the theatrical and director’s cut of the movie, from 4K scans of an interpositive and footage from the original camera negative; commentary with Leonard and writer/producer Gimel Everett; conceptual art, design sketches and stills; storyboard comparisons; the new featurette, “Cybergod: Creating The Lawnmower Man”; deleted scenes; and an original EPK, with cast interviews and behind-the-scenes footage.

Car Wash: Blu-ray
When Michael Schultz’ workplace comedy was selected for the Palme D’Or competition at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival, some French critics interpreted as a proto-Marxian parody of capitalistic oppression of the proletariat. The multiethnic cast of characters and hypocritical behavior of the business’ seemingly benevolent owner, Leon “Mr. B” Barrow (Sully Boyar), gave Car Wash a boost in the voting for the Best Music Award and a Technical Grand Prize. When it opened back home, a few months earlier, audiences overlooked the perceived political overtones, focusing, instead, on the frequently hilarious antics of the minimum-wage workers and their interaction with well-heeled customers and street rabble. Joel Schumacher’s script was, at once, funny and sympathetic to the employee’s various issues, while Schultz’ nimble direction validated the promise shown a year earlier in the urban teen dramedy, Cooley High. For all the structural comparisons to Nashville – each character having a discernible identity and story arc — Car Wash’s early buzz could be credited almost exclusively to producers’ Art Linson and Gary Stromberg’s decision to release Norman Whitfield’s funky soundtrack and titular theme song months ahead of opening weekend. It appealed to white and Latino disco audiences, as much as it did to African-Americans expecting some blaxploitation flavor. The pent-up want-to-see factor was palpable. As an extra incentive, there was the prospect of watching Richard Pryor’s spot-on imitation of Reverend Ike (a.k.a., Daddy Rich). Others making key contributions were George Carlin, the Pointer Sisters, Franklyn Ajaye, Bill Duke, Pepe Serna, Garrett Morris, Dr. Irwin Corey and Melanie Mayron. The other showstopper was Antonio Fargas’ gender-unspecific, Lindy. When Car Wash had its network television premiere in 1978, on “NBC Monday Night at the Movies,” among the things deleted by network censors were scenes that included Fargas’ overtly gay and not at all unpopular character. They were replaced with a subplot involving a diner owner, played by Danny DeVito, and material with Brooke Adams and Benny Baker. Special features include new interviews with Stromberg and Otis Day (Animal House), and reprised commentary with Schultz.

Altitude: Blu-ray
At this point in her career, all 46-year-old Denise Richards is required to do to earn a paycheck is show up, look good and kick some ass, as if to remind us of her 15 minutes of true fame years earlier in The World Is Not Enough. Her association with former husband Charlie Sheen continues to pay dividends – as one of his two baby mommas, they’re still friendly – through occasional mentions in gossip columns and sitcoms in need of a recognizable star. True, being voted the “Worst Bond Girl of All Time,” by the readers of Britain’s Daily Mail, was a bummer, but she’s hung in there. In Alex Merkin’s Altitude, a confined-space thriller set on a hijacked jetliner, Richards plays an FBI hostage negotiator on her way back to headquarters to be reamed out for blowing an assignment. Relocated into business-class after a confrontation with an obese passenger, who’s hogging her seat in steerage, Gretchen will soon learn that her suave neighbor is harboring a dangerous secret. It’s revealed when Dolph Lundgren, Greer Grammer and Chuck Liddell take control of the plane, demanding that the Brit, Terry (Kirk Baker), relinquish the elephantine diamond he stole from them. Learning that Gretchen is a federal agent, he offers her $50 million to help him stay alive. She’s already recognized the air marshal (Jonathan Lipnicki) on the flight, but he’s too green and corruptible to be of much use. If the chase could hardly be more recognizably absurd, well, most of the good plot points were revealed already in Turbulence and Passenger 57. Even so, Richards holds her own in the kick-ass department.

Under the Turban
In the first month after 9/11, more than 300 cases of violence and discrimination against Sikhs were recorded by the Sikh Coalition, a 15-year-old community-based organization that has “worked towards the realization of civil and human rights for all people.” During the ensuing period, the coalition has documented hundreds of hate crimes, many of them described by police as simple cases of mistaken identity. The crimes have included the murders of several Sikhs – six in one 2012 rampage, alone – and the bullying of countless students. Earlier this year, a violent attack on a Sikh man, working on his car in the driveway of his Seattle home, followed the killing of a dark-skinned Indian man in Kansas. In both cases, the attackers shouted, “get out of my country.” It wasn’t until 2013 that the FBI agreed to track hate crimes against members of all self-identified religions, as listed in the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life and Statistical Abstract. It took two years for the agency to implement the changes, however, and hate crimes have increased since then-candidate Donald Trump began his politically motivated campaign against Arab immigrants. Satinder Garcha, Mike Rogers and Meghan Shea’s documentary, Under the Turban, goes a long way toward explaining the history of the Sikh religion, how it differs from Islam and Hinduism, and why male followers honor their religion by wearing turbans and growing out their beards and hair. (Hint: it’s not just to piss off rednecks.) It’s a distinction even pea-brained bigots with assault rifles should be able to understand. Under the Turban should qualify as must-viewing for high school students not yet poisoned by society’s toxins. In it, entrepreneur Garcha attempts to answer a question posed to him, in 2012, by his 9-year-old daughter, Zara, “What does it mean to be Sikh?” It encouraged him to take his family of six on an extended adventure, with camera crew in tow, covering seven countries over five years. In visits to Italy, Argentina, Canada, India, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States, Zara asked dozens of fellow Sikhs the same question. The question of anti-immigrant violence is addressed in the family’s visit to the temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where the 2012 attack still reverberates. While there are times when the documentary resembles a compilation of home movies, the Garchas’ message can’t help but ring through.

TV-to-DVD
Starz:  Power: The Complete Third Season: Blu-ray
Comedy Central: Workaholics: The Final Season
Lifetime: Showing Roots
PBS: Nature: Hotel Armadillo
PBS: Nature: Forest of the Lynx
PBS: Audubon
PBS: NOVA: Holocaust Escape Tunnel
PBS: NOVA: Building Chernobyl’s Mega Tomb
PBS: NOVA: Chinese Chariot Revealed
Too often lately, my reviews of TV-to-DVD compilations read like obituaries of aborted series or final seasons. It’s nice to report that Starz’ gangsta drama, “Power,” will be with us for at least two more seasons. Through three action-filled stanzas – check out the first two, before Numero Tres — it has documented the fortunes of antihero James “Ghost” St. Patrick (Omari Hardwick), owner of a popular New York City nightclub, “Truth,” and drug kingpin. As cool as a Persian cucumber, Ghost has for three years balanced two careers; a supportive wife, Tasha (Naturi Naughton); two kids, who miss and sometimes resent their daddy; his mistress, federal agent Angela Valdes (Lela Loren); a loyal, if unpredictable Irish-American lieutenant, Tommy (Joseph Sikora); several employees/pushers; and a few enemies, who, despite the fact that he’s made them rich, would kill him in a heartbeat. As Season Three opens, Tommy has switched his allegiances to another gang and a smuggler earlier believed to be assassinated. Angela still doesn’t know that she’s sleeping with a fugitive from justice and Tasha isn’t about to ignore her husband’s unfaithfulness much longer. Meanwhile, there’s a mole in Angela’s office, who threatens to expose her affair with Ghost. As the season comes to a close, it’s impossible to tell the difference between his friends and foes. Oh, yeah, bodacious ta-tas are still a staple of the show. Among the plethora of producers, exec-producers, supervising producers, line and associate producers is 50 Cent, who also plays Ghost’s former business partner and all-around bad guy. “Power” creator Courtney Kemp Agboh, previously served as writer and executive producer of “The Good Wife.” The package adds a Season Two wrapup and short episodic commentaries by Agboh. New episodes begin next month.

The seventh and final season of Comedy Central’s “Workaholics” has come and gone, so, the laughs end here, in “Workaholics: The Complete Series.” Hence, consider this to be another obit. As consistently funny as the low-brow series was, I’ll never know  how the series made it through seven full seasons … and, I expect, neither will creators/stars Blake Anderson, Adam Devine and Anders Holm. Before entering the cable arena, they had a YouTube Channel called “Mail Order Comedy” and a mini web series, “5th Year.” Comedy Central executives noticed the series and turned it into “Workaholics.” An apt summary might read, “The stoner grandsons of the Three Stooges find work in the only industry that employs such misfits – telemarketing – and how they managed to stay out of jail or the unemployment lines.” The first episode’s plot, “The guys must figure out how to pass a drug test at work,” told Comedy Central’s slacker audience everything they needed to know going forward, except to expect a rapport between the characters that would remind them of “The Office,” if it had been co-produced by Cheech & Chong. And, by the way, a summarization of the show’s final episode reads, “The guys become party gods after an energy drink company starts paying them to throw ragers.” That about sums up the whole series.

As contrived as it sounds, the Lifetime movie “Showing Roots” is a period melodrama that shouldn’t work as well as it does, and begs the question as to why so few viewers have been able to find it. Even now, it’s only being sold at Walmart. (It goes wide on August 22.) It is set in a sleepy Southern town during the same week as “Roots” debuted on ABC. Maggie Grace (Taken) and Uzo Aduba (“Orange Is the New Black”) play friends and co-workers in a beauty shop – a.k.a., hair salon – run by a blond, church-going racist, Shirley (Elizabeth McGovern), who engages in nooners with a local cop. All of the white people in the movie are racist of one strip or another, except Grace’s Violet. Blue-collar types refuse to work alongside African-American men, as ordered by a government mandate, while the delicate flowers of Southern womanhood wouldn’t consider having their hair styled with a comb previously used by a black woman. Sounds awful, doesn’t it? Things pick up as the city’s blacks gather to watch the first episodes of “Roots,” which proves to be an ennobling experience for Aduba’s Pearl and Cicely Tyson’s Hattie. After Shirley fires Violet and Pearl for insubordination – cutting hair from designs in fashion mags – they rent a shop across the street. Some of the white women test Violet’s skills, but most refuse to share the waiting room with their peers from across the racial divide. Not surprisingly, something terribly cathartic happens to upset Shirley’s apple cart. In another unlikely scenario, Adam Brody plays a long-haired Vietnam vet, who rides into town in a VW van to ensure the integration of a construction site. Of course, he will worm his way into Violet’s heart. Will he, however, allow her to cut his hair? It’s that kind of a movie. Somehow, though, director Michael Wilson and writer Susan Batten find a way to dilute the clichés with fresh ideas on an overly familiar topic.

PBS’ aptly titled nature series, “Nature,” rarely fails to surprise viewers with its choice of subject matter and the technical expertise on display in capturing the animals in their natural habitats. When “Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures” introduced some of the same photographic techniques, it was usually possible for anyone over 21 to see the seams in the productions. Kids didn’t care. It’s far more difficult to tell how “Nature” works. And, frankly, I don’t care. “Hotel Armadillo” and “Forest of the Lynx” are perfect examples of technology being able to tame the savage beasts … temporarily, at least. The former is set in Brazil’s remote Pantanal, which covers more than 80,000 square miles and, as such, is the largest tropical wetland in the world. It is chiefly made up of flooded grassland, with patches of dry savannah or forest. It is populated by some of the most amazing animals on the face of the Earth, whose roots extend back to prehistoric times. The focus here is on the highly secretive giant armadillo, whose den provides an independent eco-system for dozens of other species, including anteaters. “Hotel Armadillo” follows the work of conservation biologist Arnaud Desbiez, who founded the Giant Armadillo Project, and his team. The project is supported by more than 40 zoos and aquariums worldwide.

“Forest of the Lynx” takes us to forests in Austria, so remote they’ve been able to heal themselves from logging, fires and mining, and return to their natural state. The most symbolic change, perhaps, is the return of the lynx, a medium-sized cat with short tail, characteristic tufts of black hair on the tips of their ears, large, padded paws for walking on snow and long whiskers. Since the beginning of the 20th Century, the Eurasian lynx has been considered extinct in central Europe. An extensive resettlement project has reintroduced lynx to Austria’s Kalkalpen National Park, which is nestled between two great mountain ranges. Three years in the making, “Forest of the Lynx” chronicles life in this remote wilderness and the complex partnerships among plants, insects, animals and trees, over the seasons. Especially interesting to watch are the white-backed woodpecker, one of Europe’s rarest birds, and pygmy owls, in mating season.

No single person was more responsible for introducing America to the rest of the world than James Audubon, who arrived here in 1803 on a false passport obtained by is wealthy French father. (George Washington had yet to build a wall around the 13 colonies.) Instead of pursuing a career mining lead on the family’s Pennsylvania estate, Audubon acted on his passion for birds. After selling his interest in the farm, he would marry and test his luck in other business opportunities. He would enjoy far more luck painting his favorite subjects than in any of his other endeavors. He subsidized his art work through portrait painting and teaching in the South. For someone who essentially was self-taught, Audubon’s ability to replicate the feathers, colors and poses of individual species bordered on the uncanny. While “Birds of America” wasn’t an easy sell in his adopted country, he found support in England and Scotland for the monumental work, which consists of 435 hand-colored, life-size prints of 497 bird species. The PBS documentary, “Audubon,” covers every aspect of his life, career and the process used to create his books. The DVD, which is wonderful, contains both the 60-minute broadcast version and 90-minute theatrical cut. I suggest the latter.

Historians and archeologists interviewed in the “NOVA” presentation “Holocaust Escape Tunnel” argue that the Lithuanian city of Vilna – once known as the “Jerusalem of the North” – not only was an early target of German forces on their march to the major cities of the USSR, but also “ground zero of Hitler’s Final Solution.” Instead of pretending that the concentration camps were work camps or temporary housing for Jews rounded up throughout Central Europe, thousands were murdered as soon as the SS Einsatzkommando 9 arrived in Vilna on July 2, 1941. They didn’t die in gas chambers, either. They were shot to death, at close range, by Nazi intelligence squads, SS assassins and Lithuanian collaborators, who blamed Jews for the rise of Bolshevism and subjection by Soviet troops. The Ponary massacre chronicled here involved the mass murder of up to 100,000 Jews, Poles and Russian POWs, and simultaneous destruction of Vilna’s synagogues and cultural institutions. Out of 70,000 Jews living in Vilna (a.k.a., Vilnius) only 7,000 survived the war. Sadly, the title, “Holocaust Escape Tunnel,” is both overly promising and a tad misleading. Yes, the documentary features the efforts of archeologists searching for proof of one of Vilna’s greatest secrets: a lost escape tunnel dug by Jewish prisoners inside a horrific Nazi execution site. (Few actually escaped.) It is, however, a smaller part of a longer report on efforts to excavate the remains of its Great Synagogue, which was destroyed by Nazis and entombed by Stalin’s minions. No matter, because the entire documentary is interesting and important.

In 1986, in the heart of Ukraine, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded, releasing 400 times more radiation than the Hiroshima Bomb and creating a restricted area larger than Long Island. Ever since, daredevil scientists, laborers and filmmakers have risked exposure to deadly radiation, to show the world how a post-apocalyptic Earth might look. My favorites are the docs in which we can observe how animals and plants have adapted to the extreme conditions and are thriving in the absence of man. They’re better than most of the sci-fi films I’ve seen lately, which can only speculate how a dystopian landscape might look. In the rush to confine the disaster, a so-called “sarcophagus” was built to contain the radioactive materials that lingered there. It wasn’t built to last forever. “Building Chernobyl’s Mega Tomb” describes how engineers and laborers from around the world are rushing to replace the temporary structure with one of the most ambitious superstructures ever built: an extraordinary 40,000-ton, 30-story-high, $1.5-billion dome. When it’s completed, workers will slide the dome over the sarcophagus, which, then, will be dismantled, along with the removal of the reactor pieces. If, in the meantime, the temporary roof collapses, another huge cloud of irradiated dust will follow the prevailing winds as far they take it. Clearly, too, construction workers are being exposed to radiation and, if that weren’t sufficiently unpleasant, the Ukrainian winter makes Chicago feel like Sarasota. The project is expected to take decades.

Every so often, a Chinese farmer will scrape the surface of his property and discover the ruins and artifacts of a civilization that thrived thousands of years earlier. It’s how the remarkably well-preserved Terracotta Army of the Qin necropolis was discovered, in 1973, and, last year, the Eastern Han Dynasty tombs of Jianghuai. The King of Zheng tomb was discovered by farmers in 1923, as well, but extensive excavations are still ongoing. Not only were the remains of hundreds of chariots discovered, but also the skeletons of as many horses in a mass grave. Horse-drawn chariots, once limited to transporting royalty and parades, were retrofitted for use in war and buried for use in some departed duke or king’s afterlife. Thundering across China’s battlefields, chariots dominated combat for a millennium, longer than anywhere else on Earth. “Chinese Chariot Revealed” documents the efforts to investigate the design secrets, reconstruct and test China’s first super-weapon.

The DVD Wrapup: John Wick 2, 3 Generations, Frantz, Three Sisters, South Park 20 and more

Thursday, June 15th, 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2: 4K UHD/Blu-ray
So many people are killed in the John Wick movies that it’s next to impossible to keep track of the body counts. Depending on who is counting, of the 119 deaths that occurred in the 2014 original, Keanu Reeves’ character was directly responsible for between 77 and 84. In John Wick: Chapter 2, the total is set at 128 kills, of which 123 are credited to Wick. I’d be hard-pressed to identify the five victims not attributed to Wick, although one key character commits suicide before he puts a bullet in her cranium. (Who gets the credit for that one?) If memory serves, only one police officer, Jimmy (Thomas Sadoski), appears in either or both segments, unless one takes into account the sirens heard at one point in the sequel. The paucity of cops in these films borders on comic relief. As was the case in the former, Wicks is forced out of momentary retirement to avenge serious affronts to his psyche: the unrelated deaths of his wife and dog. Here, the life of Wick’s extremely obedient American Pitbull is spared at the expense of his thoroughly trashed Boss 429 Mustang, vintage 1969, and out-of-the-way Post-Modernist home. Italian crime boss Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) uses twin RPGs to destroy the house, after Wick refuses to honor a commitment to return a favor, as directed by the code of his underground assassins’ bureau. His refusal is polite, but pointless. After the house is destroyed, Winston (Ian McShane), the owner of the Continental Hotel – headquarters, of sorts, for the New York operation — reminds John that, if he rejects the sacred “blood oath” medallion, he will be violating one of the two unbreakable rules of the underworld: no killing on Continental grounds and Markers must be honored. Wick will honor the commitment, begrudgingly, but there’s no question he and D’Antonio will meet again to settle the score. Instead of waiting, the oily D’Antonio commissions a $7-million hit on Wick. With that kind of money on the table, every assassin within the tristate area saddles up to track down Our Hero.

Director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad make it ridiculously easy for Wick to be found and even more ridiculously easy for the battle-hardened assassin to eliminate his pursuers using “gun fu,” a hybrid fighting style that combines martial arts and close-up gun play. That’s pretty much the whole story here. How John Wick differs from almost every other ultra-violent franchise extant, including the straight-to-video flicks of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris, is the attention paid to detail, nonstop action and imaginative death blows. Reaves, who, like Tom Cruise, performs most of his own stunts and is an attentive student of the martial arts, is far more credible as a master assassin than anyone could have guessed, at least before he made 47 Ronin and Man of Tai Chi, in 2013, and, of course, The Matrix trilogy. The set pieces in John Wick 2 border on the exquisite … beautifully choreographed and shot. Among them are a chase through a subway station (Montreal for New York); Rome’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art; a hall-of-mirrors exhibit, inspired by Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon; and an elaborate party, staged in a disco hidden in the catacombs of Rome (or a reasonable facsimile thereof). There also are dozens of obscure references to Wickian minutiae and a video game called “Payday 2.” Although the distributor originally announced plans to bypass theaters, fans took to the social media to demand a theatrical release and it paid off handsomely. I doubt the same doubt will impact the triquel, which likely will be set immediately after the events at the close of the sequel. The striking HD/UHD presentation adds deleted scenes; commentary with Reaves and his onetime stunt double and coach, Stahelski; a “Dog Wick” short; and featurettes ”RetroWick: Exploring the Unexpected Success of John Wick,” ”Training John Wick,” ”WICK-vizzed,” ”Friends, Confidantes: The Keanu/Chad Partnership,” ”As Above, So Below: The Underworld of John Wick,” ”Car Fu Ridealong,” ”Beat Down: The Evolution of a Fight Scene,” ”Wick’s Toolbox” and ”Kill Count.”

Frantz: Blu-ray
If any filmmaker carries a better batting average into each new project than François Ozon, I don’t know who it would be. Although he returns to certain themes and character traits with some frequency, each new Ozon release is different than the one that came before or will follow it. They include such award-winners as Young & Beautiful, Potiche, Swimming Pool, Angel, 8 Women, Water Drops on Burning Rocks, Time to Leave and Hideaway. His films are just as likely to debut at a festival dedicated to gay and lesbian titles, as Cannes or Venice. In his subtly Hitchcockian Frantz, Ozon introduces a character’s sexuality as a McGuffin, then returns to it much later from a different direction. As vague as that revelation may be, however, it probably tells potential viewers more than they should know going into the movie. Inspired in part, at least, by Vertigo, Ozon shifts directions so often that any spoiler would be one too many. Based on Ernst Lubitsch’s1931 Broken Lullaby and a 1930 play by Maurice Rostand, whose title itself qualifies as a spoiler, Frantz is set in Germany and France in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Both countries had suffered great losses and were in no hurry to welcome tourists from the opposing side.

Most of what happen in Frantz we observe from the perspective of a young German woman, Anna (Paula Beer), living with the parents of her late fiancé, who died in the trenches. Although Frantz’ body was buried in France, Anna visits the family plot almost daily. One day, she’s surprised to find a rose at Frantz’ marker. She will discover that it was left by a Frenchman, Adrien (Pierre Niney), who tells her he was friends with her fiancé in Paris before the war. Left as despondent by Frantz’ death as Anna, Adrien eventually is accepted by his parents, Doktor and Magda Hoffmeister, as someone who might provide them with a semblance of closure. Knowing that he’s unwelcome in the village, Adrien takes every opportunity to be with Anna and the Hoffmeisters, who even allow him to play Frantz’ prized violin. In turn, he regales them with couched memories about their time together in Paris. As abruptly as he arrived, Adrien makes plans to return to France, but not before unloading something heavy from his mind. Without giving anything away, Anna decides to follow him to Paris, where the mystery thickens and viewers can expect more surprises. What can be said is that, despite being on the winning side, the French are no more over the war than the Germans we met earlier. In fact, from the tortured landscape clearly visible from Anna’s train, you’d guess that France lost the war. Most of Frantz was shot in black-and-white, which Ozon considered to fit the period better than color. He uses that sparingly and with a strategic purpose in mind. The performances by Niney and Beer could hardly be any more compelling. The Blu-ray package adds a Q&A with Ozon, festival coverage, deleted scenes and a selection of ads and poster that demonstrate how difficult a task it was to market a film that could be interpreted in so many different ways.

3 Generations: Blu-ray
It would be difficult to overstate the disappointment registered by critics concerning 3 Generations, a well-intentioned dramedy in which three A-list actors tackle a hot-button issue, but let it slip away halfway through. In it, rising megastar Elle Fanning takes on Ray, a female-to-male transgender teen, desperate to begin hormone treatments before entering a new school, where no one knows her story. He was raised by in New York City by his impossibly neurotic single mother, Maggie (Naomi Watts), and grandmothers, Dolly and Frances (Susan Sarandon, Linda Emonds), who life in a lesbian-friendly multi-level home right out of Central Set Design. None of the adults, including Maggie’s estranged husband, Craig (Tate Donovan), is comfortable with Ray’s commitment to change, despite this late point in LGBTQ history. Maggie is holding on to the consent papers, as if her daughter will come to her senses in a few weeks and magically change her mind. She needs to get re-connect with Craig to get his signature, but, when she does, it triggers another unlikely contretemps. Meanwhile, Dolly would prefer that her grandchild come out as a lesbian, so she could date girls and skip the surgery. Really. If 3 Generations were set in 1975, and didn’t co-star someone as famously progressive as Sarandon, some of this tomfoolery would be timely, at least. (Another example: of all the cars in the world a lesbian couple would choose to own, here Dolly and Frances are hanging onto a barely roadworthy, if eminently practical Rambler station wagon.) Ray, on the other hand, is an extremely together young woman, who’s been recording her thoughts and observations for years and only wants to be treated as a male of the species. Even so, she seems anachronistically attached to her skateboard. Gaby Dellal and Nikole Beckwith’s story ends, not surprisingly, in a split decision that respects Ray’s narrative, while allowing the adults to escape with a smidgen of their dignity intact. 3 Generations debuted at the 2015 TIFF, but was pulled back from theatrical release soon thereafter for major revisions, a rewrite and two title changes. Fans of the actors will find more to enjoy here than almost anyone else, including members of the LGBTQ audience, some of whom have complained that Fanning’s role should have been played by a T. The Blu-ray adds deleted and extended scenes.

Alone in Berlin
Based on Hans Fallada’s 1947 German-language novel, “Every Man Dies Alone” – only translated into English in 2009 – Vincent Perez’ wartime drama, Alone in Berlin, tells a story of grass-roots resistance to fascism, at a time when the Nazi government was telling the citizenry to expect a swift end to the fighting. Otto and Elise Hampel were no different than anyone else, accepting the propaganda because they had no reason to disbelieve it. Then, one day, they receive word from the front of a personal tragedy. If the war is going so well, they reason, why were so many other Berliners receiving the same sad telegrams. Although the movie might have benefitted from German actors and subtitles, we’ve become so accustomed to watching Brits impersonate Nazis that the casting of Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson is not at all unwelcome. Otto and Anna Quangel, as they’re known in the novel and movie, protest the lies in the only way available to them: by pouring their rage and grief into postcards carrying anti-Nazi messages and scattering them across the city. By doing so, they hope to identify and spark a resistance movement comprised of people seeking the truth, if nothing else. Because the number of bodies returning home in caskets has yet to attain critical mass, however, German citizens are content to hold hands and sing “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” whenever prompted. Instead of rallying the citizenry, the postcards are dutifully handed over to the Gestapo, who, in turn, order local police to track down and arrest the perpetrators. They land on the desk of Inspector Escherich (Daniel Brühl), a dutiful cop about to learn where he stands in Hitler’s pecking order. (The longer it takes to find the perpetrators, the more he’s treated as a co-conspirator.) If there had been a happier ending to the Hampel/Quangel’s story, history would already have recorded it for posterity. Instead, Alone in Berlin is limited to dramatizing the three-year search for the protagonists, their quixotic quest and final betrayal. The story, as directed by Pérez (The Crow: City of Angels), is told in a straight-forward direction, with little room for dramatic high points. It’s influenced, perhaps, by Perez’ family history: a grandfather was shot by fascists in Spain; a great-uncle was murdered by the Nazis in a gas chamber; and another uncle died fighting on the Russian front.

Chapter & Verse
If anyone’s earned the right to make a movie about how one battle-hardened ex-con can make a difference in the life of an aspiring thug, it’s Jamal Joseph. Boil Chapter & Verse down to its essence and this, his first feature as writer/director, is nearly autobiographical. Films about tough love and how the absence of a father figure can impact a boy on his way to manhood have been around since the boot-camp movement took hold in the early 1980s. By dispensing with the abusive yelling and posturing, Chapter & Verse carries with it a ring of truth for almost all its 97-minute length. It’s also legitimately entertaining. Since Joseph went legit, the former member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army has distinguished himself as a filmmaker, author, film professor, community leader and poet activist. If it weren’t for a few solid breaks, he’d still be doing time for his crimes. In 1969, the teenager was held at Riker’s Island with 20 older party members on charges of conspiracy to blow up public buildings in New York. The expensive, eight-month “Panther 21” trial ended with the co-defendants acquitted after three hours of jury deliberation. A couple years later, he would he would cop a plea for his role in the murder of a prominent BPP newspaper manager, Sam Napier, based on a bloody bicoastal rivalry stoked by the FBI. Joseph was also implicated in the infamous 1981 Brinks truck robbery, in Nyack, N.Y., in which two police officers and an armored car driver were killed. He was sentenced to 12½ years in Leavenworth for harboring a fugitive, but released after 5½, with a pair of college degrees from Kansas University and his first play. He would continue his work as a playwright, become a full professor and chair of Columbia University’s Graduate Film Division, and artistic director of the New Heritage Theatre Group in Harlem. In 2008 Joseph was nominated for an Oscar for his contributions to the song “Raise It Up” from the film August Rush.

Chapter & Verse is the first title to be co-produced by the Harlem Film Company, an integrated film and digital-media company engaged in creating a studio that will develop, produce, market and distribute independently made African-American and Latino films. It follows reformed gang leader S. Lance Ingram (Daniel Beaty), who’s out on parole after an eight-year bit, and struggling to adapt to a Harlem in which crime, violence, poverty and gentrification co-exist none too peacefully. Like Joseph, Ingram collected a couple of computer-repair certificates in the joint, but can’t find anyone willing to consider the credentials of a black ex-con. Prodded by his parole officer to accept any old job, Ingram agrees to deliver meals to shut-ins for a local food bank. At night, he dutifully checks into a local halfway house. After a disagreement over a mislabeled meal with 75-year-old Miss Maddy (Loretta Devine), one of the more particular customers on his route, he strikes up an unlikely friendship with her. She warms to Lance after he saves her a bundle, by fixing her computer and attempting to serve as a role model for her 15-year-old grandson. At first, Ty (Khadim Diop), a wannabe gangsta with one foot already on the road to prison, isn’t interested. One afternoon, Lance runs into an old gangbangin’ buddy, Jomo (Omari Hardwick), who also tries to steer Ty in the right direction, Normally, Jomo would be expected to serve as the devil-in-disguise character, tempting Lance with promises of respect and money as a dope dealer or enforcer. Instead, he turns out to be anything but that. In fact, Joseph isn’t at all reluctant to give Lance every opportunity to succeed in his personal reclamation project. More unexpected twists are reserved for his humorously lascivious boss (Selenis Leyva) and unpredictable probation officer (Gary Perez). Even the OG is shocked by the ferocity of Ty’s hoodlum buddies. Among the other things missing in “C&V” are the de rigueur pounding hip-hop soundtrack and cheap moralizing usually found in urban melodramas, today.

Bitter Harvest
The Iron Ivan
Anyone looking for subtext in the ongoing debate over overtures by Trump loyalists to Vladimir Putin – or, perhaps, vice versa — need only look at the continuing hostilities in the Ukraine and Crimea, which, this week, prompted the Senate to renew economic sanctions against the Russian aggressors. If the investigations into the clandestine meetings between presidential adviser Jared Kushner, former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and various Russian officials, have accomplished anything, it’s a delay in President Trump’s anticipated relaxing of sanctions. George Mendeluk’s gripping drama, Bitter Harvest, offers a few million reasons why Ukrainians, today, are leery are of any encouragement given to Putin to keep troops in their country and support insurrection by Russian nationals in Crimea. It’s set against the background of the little-known Holodomor, a Stalin-directed famine that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 7 million to 10 million people, in the early 1930s. Afraid that Soviet agricultural strategies were failing, Stalin ordered soldiers to confiscate Ukrainian food stocks and property, and severely ration supplies to cities and towns. Peasants were painted as counterrevolutionaries hiding grain and potatoes at a time when workers, who were constructing the “bright future” of socialism, were starving. The Holodomor went largely unreported and officially unrecognized until the glasnost era opened secret files to historians from both the east and west. Bitter Harvest is considered the first movie to dramatize the tragedy with any concern for historical accuracy, and it took the efforts of Ukrainian Canadian screenwriter Richard Bachynsky Hoover and investor Ian Ihnatowycz to come up with the $21 million to make it. Even Ukrainian government agencies were reluctant to support it financially.

Inspired by actual events, Bitter Harvest follows two star-crossed lovers, Yuri and Natalka, played by Max Irons (“The White Queen”) and Samantha Barks (Les Misérables), struggling with their kulak grain-farmer families to survive Stalin’s brutal collectivization campaign and attacks on the church. Yuri’s father (Barry Pepper) and grandfather (Terence Stamp) are famous warriors, whose fighting was mostly done on horseback and with swords in hand. When an anti-Soviet revolt breaks out, Ivan is attending an art college in the capital. After being arrested and nearly killed, all he can think of is getting back to his village and rescuing Natalka. It’s during a train ride home that viewers are given a glimpse of the extent of the horror, via emaciated beggars and bodies dumped into creek beds. Critics weren’t impressed by Mendeluk’s decision to blend melodrama with straight historical drama, but there’s no denying the impact of being introduced to such a terrible event in world history for the first time, so many decades after it occurred. In this regard, Bitter Harvest recalls recent movies and documentaries about the Armenian genocide, which many Turks still refuse to acknowledge. The DVD comes with a photo gallery.

The events described in Gleb Orlov’s entertaining, if not wholly accurate biopic, The Iron Ivan, take place a couple of decades before the Holodomor, but in roughly the same vicinity as the horrors depicted in Bitter Harvest. It’s where Ivan Poddubny was born, in 1871, into a Cossack family, and grew into a man capable beating every opponent he faced as a circus performer and Greco-Roman wrestler for the next 45 years. I didn’t believe it, either, until I began doing some research on “Iron Ivan” in preparation for this review. Like Mikhail Porechenkov, the actor who plays the wrestler in his adult years, Ivan was a mountain of man who acquired his strength baling hay on his father’s farm and, later, working on the docks in Sevastopol. On a day off from work, Ivan took in the show at a traveling circus. One of the acts involved wrestlers, extremely large and from diverse backgrounds, who competed for the entertainment of the audience. If the outcomes were sometimes fixed, the strength of wrestlers couldn’t be faked. Ivan went through them like Hulk Hogan at a county fair. In lieu of the agreed-upon prize money, he joined the circus and took on all comers. Before long, he was training for international competitions in St. Petersburg and Paris. In 1903, he placed second in the world championship to Raul Bouchet, who greased his body with olive oil to prevent Ivan from getting a grip on him. He got his revenge the next year and never looked back. In America, he made a small fortune, but wasn’t allowed to claim it when he wanted to return home for good. Promoters weren’t anxious to lose their golden ticket and advised him against giving Soviet authorities a chance to confiscate it. The Iron Ivan skips over most of Ivan’s trials under the communist regime and during the Nazi occupation, choosing to romanticize his tragic romance with a gymnast (Katerina Shpitsa) he met in the circus. Its happened, but the context was largely lost in the retelling. I enjoyed the movie, despite the revisions, and may even try to learn more about the greatest grappler most of us never knew existed.

Three Sisters
The corner of China we visit in Wang Bing’s grueling documentary, Three Sisters, is so far removed from the teeming megalopolises shown in other movies, it might as well be on another planet. Xiyangtang is a tiny rural village in the mountains of China’s Yunnan province, where a handful of extended families grow potatoes, tend to livestock and work the land for the greater glory of the people. These villages were left behind when the communist government decided that the free-enterprise system could work to its benefit. Progress often can be observed over the next hill — in the form of power lines and stronger homes — or on television. but the peasants of Xiyangtang can barely afford the taxes to bring it closer, faster. At 153 minutes, Three Sisters provides ample time to describe what life is like for 10-year-old YingYing, 6-year-old ZhenZhen and 4-year-old FenFen, scrappy little kids forced to live with an aunt or grandfather, while their father is looking for work in the city. Their mother left the family a couple years earlier. Among their chores are herding sheep, goats and pigs, searching for firewood and collecting dung. The eldest sister, Ying, seems withdrawn and cautious, but can be as authoritative as she needs to be to keep the others in line, and loudly recite lines from books in the classroom.

Under different circumstances, she probably could have expected to attend college in a faraway city and become a future leader of her country. At this point in her life, however, the most she can hope for is that her father beats the odds, by finding a good job and taking the girls along with him. The intimacy of Wang’s approach can be overwhelming. The families’ poverty isn’t like that Wang has documented in the cities and PRC censors don’t want anyone to see. No one in the village is homeless, lacks basic sustenance or drinks to excess, but no one dares dream of the kind of life shown on television, either. Maybe, in a few years, but not now. The other thing Three Sisters has going for it is the natural beauty of Yunnan province, which borders Burma, Vietnam and Laos, as well as Tibet, Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi. The village is well above the tree line, though, so the great views come with a caveat. Icarus’ dGenerate collection features independently made documentaries from some of China’s most exciting and socially conscious filmmakers. Wang’s similarly provocative titles include The Ditch, ‘Til Madness Do Us Part, Man with No Name and Bitter Money.

Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie: Blu-ray
When it comes to stoner comedy and its impact on Hollywood, Cheech and Chong carried the same weight as such mainstream duos as Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Abbott and Costello, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, minus the dope references. Not only were they able to tap into the zeitgeist of the 1960s counter-culture, but they also survived long enough as individual artists and advocates for the legalization of marijuana to influence several generations of entertainers, including Mike Judge, creator of “Beavis and Butt-Head.” Before Up in Smoke (1978) made a small fortune for Paramount and director/co-producer Lou Adler, Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong honed their act on the stages of strip joints and night clubs across Canada and the U.S., and immortalized such hilarious sketches as “Basketball Jones,” “Santa Claus and His Old Lady” and “Sister Mary Elephant” on best-selling albums. As loosey-goosey as Up in Smoke turned out to be, its 1980 follow-up Cheech And Chong’s Next Movie – the second of seven C&C collaborations –made it look polished and refined. Reduced to its essence, the frequently uproarious and occasionally flat-out stupid movie represents a day in the life of the Cheech and Chong’s comic personae. This time around, they didn’t even bother to give their characters pseudonyms … except when Marin puts on a long blond wig and plays Cheech’s cousin, Dwayne “Red” Mendoza. Otherwise, the characters tool around Hollywood in stolen sports cars, using a duffel bag full of primo pot as a free pass to massage parlors, a movie set, fancy dinners, a comedy club and animated adventures in outer space. Today, viewers can enjoy discovering such familiar faces as Groundlings members Paul Reubens (Pee-wee’s Big Andventure), Edie McClurg (Wreck-It Ralph), Cassandra Peterson (“Elvira”), John “Jambi” Paragon (“Pee-wee’s Playhouse”) and Phil Hartman (“Saturday Night Live”), as well as Rita Wilson (Sleepless in Seattle), Jake Steinfeld (“Body by Jake”) and Michael Winslow (Police Academy), in early screen performances. The Shout!Factory restoration includes a fresh interview with Cheech Marin.

Handsome Devil
In his second feature, John Butler finds valuable lessons to be learned about homophobia and bullying at a posh Irish boarding school. We’ve come to expect a tolerance to sexual experimentation at elite “public” schools in England, where the bizarre hazing ritual known as “fagging” until recently practically was part of the curriculum. In movies set in Ireland, it’s the priests and nuns who typically put the fear of God into students they deem abnormal or overly mischievous. In Handsome Devil, the film’s sensitive, red-haired outsider, Ned (Fionn O’Shea), somehow finds himself in a school where rugby is king and queer-baiting not only is tolerated, but encouraged by the win-at-all-costs coach. Nicholas Galitzine is perfectly cast as the title character, a transfer student named Conor who automatically is assigned the bed, desk and dresser in Ned’s half-occupied bedroom. Both boys have a chip on their shoulders and take out their frustrations on each other. Things get even worse for Ned when it’s determined that Conor would be an asset to the school’s rugby team and the only thing holding him back from that obligation is his understated attraction to his roommate. Their mutual interest in singing is interpreted by the coach and the athletes as evidence that Ned’s gayness has rubbed off on Conor. At the same time, the team’s displaced star has discovered why Conor was kicked out of his previous school – guess what? – and is threatening to reveal the secret to school authorities. Anyway, it’s a mess, compounded by the fact that the coach also is blackmailing the boy’s inspirational, if closeted English teacher (Andrew Scott). As cliché as that might sound, viewers already know to expect surprises from the academy’s surprisingly reasonable headmaster (Michael McElhatton). Butler’s insistence on keeping Handsome Devil on the high road makes it one of the most widely accessible coming-out/coming-of-age specimens I’ve seen lately. The DVD adds a behind-the-scenes featurettes and a director’s commentary.

The Wedding Party
I’ve attended enough wedding receptions to know that, while, no two are precisely alike, they all resemble each other in certain predictable ways. Like everything else these days, nuptials and the parties that follow tend to be ritualized and orchestrated to exclude anything resembling spontaneity. As weddings have become more complicated, expensive and exotic, a cottage industry has grown around their preparation, attention to detail and execution. Some of the same people also cover bar and bas mitzvahs, political receptions and birthdays. What they can’t do is eliminate such variables as outbursts from drunken ex-lovers, too much salt on the entrée and the occasional sprained ankle or broken arm. Martin Short’s portrayal of hyperactive wedding planner Franck Eggelhoffer, in Father of the Bride (1991), hit the nail on the head so directly that it inspired an archetype that would be copied in dozens of movies, TV sitcoms and reality shows. In Thane Economou’s surprising debut feature, The Wedding Party, a groomsman and maid-of-honor assume the duties of a planner, working from a binder full of names, schedules and place settings. Nevertheless, shit happens, and Economou does an amazing job capturing most of it in one continuous take.

That’s the gimmick, if you will, that separates The Wedding Party from dozens of other movies about nuptials, funerals, baptisms, birthdays and quinceañeras. At 112-minutes, so many things could have gone wrong for Economou – a story that falls apart after 95 minutes, for example – that the exercise would have had to be abandoned, out right. Not many films have ever been made in a single take. When filming Rope (1948), Alfred Hitchcock intended for the film to have the effect of one long continuous shot, but the cameras available could hold no more than 1000 feet of 35mm film. Every 10 minutes of action ended on the back of a character’s head, a door or wall, to allow for a magazine change. Given the extreme difficulty of the exercise and the technical requirements for continuous shots, such feature films have only been possible since the advent of digital movie cameras. The titles include Timecode (2000), Russian Ark (2002) and PVC-1 (2007). Economou was able to pull it off, in large part, because the action begins as the ceremony ends and the reception is held in a spacious backyard, within a crane’s reach of the festivities. There’s enough room between tables to accommodate movement by actors and cameras, without forcing long walks through traffic or other extraneous movement. I didn’t recognize anyone in the ensemble cast of actors, who didn’t appear to miss a beat or step. (I hope this DVD finds its way to the desk of Hollywood casting directors.)

Everybody Loves Somebody
Un Padre No Tan Padre (From Dad to Worse)
You wouldn’t think it would be all that difficult to craft movies that appeal as much to Mexican audiences as Mexican-Americans, if only because they feature actors that are familiar from their roles in popular Spanish-language telenovelas and occasional appearances in American movies. Apparently, though, it is. The problem, I suppose, involves not having a sufficient number of screens available to test the market for films such as Everybody Loves Somebody and Un Padre No Tan Padre (“From Dad to Worse”), whose stories adhere to conventional themes, while maintaining a decidedly Hispanic tone and texture that should appeal to mainstream audiences on both sides of the border. Y Tu Mama, Tambien faced the same challenge. (American action films and comic-book superheroes play the same in any language, regardless of dubbing or subtitles, and dominate available space in theaters everywhere.)

In the romantic dramedy Everybody Loves Somebody, Karla Souza portrays Dr. Clara Barron, a successful OB/GYN who’s torn between two lovers and two cultures. Souza’s name and face are familiar from ABC’s ”How to Get Away with Murder” and her award-winning performances in Nosotros los Nobles (2013) and Suave patria (2012). Clara lives and works in Los Angeles, but has family in Ensenada and patients in Tijuana. She isn’t nearly as desperate to get married as her mother is to hook her up with an old boyfriend, who gave her up for a tour of duty with Doctors Without Borders. He’s played by José María Yazpik, a handsome Mexico City-born actor who’s won kudos for performances in Las oscuras primaveras and Solo quiero caminar, if not his turn in Beverly Hills Chihuahua. To avoid any unpleasantness at the seaside marriage of her mother and father (Patricia Bernal, Alejandro Camacho) – finally, after four decades of living together – Clara asks an Australian medical resident, Asher (Ben O’Toole), to serve as her beard at the event. Naturally, two things happen: 1) she develops a romantic interest in the younger Aussie, and 2) she’s confronted by her old beau, Daniel, who’s been invited to the wedding by her mom. Even after sleeping with both men, as if to test the whims of her heart, she can’t decide which man to choose. In Hollywood, the star system would decide the winner for her. In Catalina Aguilar Mastretta’s story, however, the verdict is always in doubt, if only because Clara has yet to mature to the degree she could make the right decision, whatever it is. Among the things Everybody Loves Somebody has going for it are its perfectly tuned ensemble cast and the natural beauty of the Ensenada shoreline. Although hardly a blockbuster, the picture did reasonably well on the 333 screens it played here, while making back its nut in worldwide receipts. That should come as good news to someone.

Raúl Martínez and Alberto Bremer’s Un Padre No Tan Padre (“From Dad to Worse”) did pretty well in its limited release here, in March, even if its cast doesn’t contain anyone who’s particularly well-known outside telenovelas. Héctor Bonilla is extremely credible in the role of an 85-year-old man so cantankerous that he’s been evicted from his nursing home for his abusive behavior toward staff and patients. The only one of his sons who volunteers to take him in – reluctantly – lives in a multigenerational commune of gentle folks outside lovely San Miguel de Allende. Not satisfied to be the fish out of water here, Don Servando isn’t at all reluctant to voice his displeasure for the hippy-dippy living conditions, the healthy menus or the non-conformists he meets. As rigid as a steel rod, in his standard three-piece woolen suit, he vehemently objects to sharing a bathroom with a woman who leaves her bras and panties on the floor or drying on the shower’s curtain rod. He carries a wooden cane, which he uses to punctuate his many grievances and can’t bear the fact that his son has long, stringy hair and is living with a woman who isn’t his wife, under the same roof as his aspiring artist grandson. Don Salvador shares Archie Bunker’s opinions on gays, minorities, unorthodox clergy and vegans. That is, until he unknowingly steals a brownie laced with medicinal marijuana — intended for the house’s resident cancer patient – and, not surprisingly, begins to a dance to a different beat. Neither are we shocked when the problems of the other non-cliché inhabitants begin to take precedence over those caused by the octogenarian. Even so, the solutions are never pat or forced on viewers.

The Blood of Fu Manchu/The Castle of Fu Manchu: Blu-ray
When it comes to controversial ethnic stereotypes, Sax Rohmer’s international super-villain, Fu Manchu, makes Charlie Chan and Amos & Andy look like models in an advertising campaign for United Colors of Benetton. Apart from the evil genius’ contribution to 20th Century tonsorial trends, the character has been offending Asians of all ethnic persuasions since the 1932 release of MGM’s adaptation of “The Mask of Fu Manchu.” In it, he tells a gathering of pan-Asian characters that they must “kill the white men and take their women.” As such, he became the poster child for the Yellow Peril. If only MGM had dialed down the rant and hired a Chinese actor to play Rohmer’s brainchild, Fu Manchu might have gone down in the annals of crime fiction as a worthy counterpart to Sherlock Holmes’ Moriarty. Consider, if you will, that his longtime nemeses are British police detective and gentleman spy Sir Denis Nayland Smith, and his loyal assistant, Dr. Petrie. Moreover, where would Ming the Merciless be, in the pantheon of supervillains, if it weren’t Fu Manchu’s precedent-setting bad-assery. It explains my surprise when I opened the package from Blue Underground and found its Blu-ray double-feature of The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) and Sax Rohmer’s Castle of Fu Manchu (1969), directed by Jess Franco and starring Christopher Lee, Tsai Chin, Richard Greene and Howard Marion-Crawford. The former is set in Fu Manchu’s secret lair, deep within the South American rain forest, where the mad scientist and his sadistic daughter, Lin Tang, are once again plotting world domination. This time, 10 beautiful slave girls are infected with an ancient poison so deadly that one kiss from their lips will bring instant death and lead to a global plague. When Nayland Smith is infected, Dr. Petrie races against the clock to find an antidote and foil the scheme. Among the women carrying the kiss of death are Maria Rohm, Loni von Friedl, Olívia Pineschi and, in an authorized cameo lifted from Rio 70, Shirley Eaton. The Blu-ray adds “Rise of Fu Manchu,” containing interviews with Franco, Lee, Chin, Eaton and producer Harry Alan Towers.

Set half a world away, in Istanbul, The Castle of Fu Manchu conjures a fiendish new chemical weapon that will turn the seas into a giant block of frozen water. (Ice-nine, anyone?) Once again, Smith and Petrie are called upon to save the world. In doing so, Smith becomes trapped in Fu Manchu’s “impenetrable lair of cruelty.” Maria Perschy and Rosalba Neri contribute their considerable charms, while Franco impersonates a nutty secret agent. The extras include “The Fall of Fu Manchu,” featuring interviews with Franco, Towers, Lee and Tsai.

Madhouse: Special Edition: Blu-ray
It would be difficult to find a more derivative entertainment than Madhouse (1991), produced and directed by Ovidio Assonitis, a B-movie specialist who wasn’t reluctant to borrow a good idea when he saw one. The independent film producer and businessman made his bones in the mid-1960s, when he launched an extensive distribution network catering to the Southeast Asian market in the mid-’60s. After 10 years, it’s said that he had distributed more than 900 films from offices in Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Philippines and Indonesia. In 1974, Assonitis satisfied an itch by co-directing, co-writing and co-producing Beyond the Door, an Italo/American bloodfest that turned a huge profit. His name and/or pseudonym also could be found on such drive-in fare as The Visitor, Tentacles, Over the Line and James Cameron’s feature debut, Piranha Part Two: The Spawning. Although that film still carries the future director of Aliens and Titanic’s sole credit, Assonitis took the helm midway through the process. Among other things, Cameron found it difficult to work with an Italian crew that didn’t speak English.

Assonitis did the same thing on Madhouse, this time retaining sole directing credit, but sharing the writing credit with three others. This time around, Assonitis brought his largely Italian crew to Savannah, which offered the proper facilities for a cross-subgenre movie involving an evil twin, evil priest, evil Rottweiler and birthday party from hell. Trish Everly and Allison Biggers portray the twins, Julia and Mary. When the disfigured sibling escapes from the booby hatch, no one in Julia’s vicinity is safe. Mary’s place in the subsequent killing spree becomes uncertain when the vicious dog and crazy priest also begin to turn up at crime scenes, along with gurgling sounds that might have inspired future composers of video-game music. If the plot seems borderline incoherent and suspiciously familiar, Madhouse (1981) is just gory enough to be disturbing. Apropos of that, that it was included on one of the official lists of video nasties, compiled by British censors. It was released fully uncut in U.K. in 2004. The Arrow Video package features a 2K restoration from the original negative; commentary with the Hysteria Continues; new interviews with cast and crew; an alternate opening-title sequence; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Marc Schoenbach; and a booklet featuring new writing on the film.

Political Animals
The only thing wrong with this topical documentary on insider politics is a title, Political Animals, and subtitle – “When Women Lead … Leaders Follow” – that tell us almost nothing about the film and may, in fact, be misleading. Co-writer/directors Tracy Wares and Tracy Wares maintain a tight focus on only four “out” legislators, Sheila Kuehl, Carole Migden, Jackie Goldberg and Christine Kehoe, who struggled individually and as a group to convince their peers that equal rights belong to all Californians, not just born-again evangelicals and married heterosexuals. Kuehl’s first battle involved pushing legislation protecting gay and lesbian students from being harassed, bullied or harmed because of their sexual orientation. Simple enough, but, from the reactions of fellow legislators, you’d think the former TV star had advocated the abolishment of snow in the Sierra Nevada. Without answering the question of whether straight teens should be allowed to beat up their LGBTQ peers, the Republican lawmakers pontificated on their disapproval of same-sex couples. After Kuehl was joined in the statehouse by the other “out” women, they took on such meaty issues as equal protection under the law for all Californians, job discrimination and, of course, marriage equality. The same strident voices objected to these proposals, using the same tired arguments. One dimwit compared lesbians to the minority of heifers on his farm who didn’t seem particularly interested in birthing their first calf. It isn’t until the debate over marriage equality that viewers are introduced to legislators who vociferously supported the gang of four’s position, although, there must have been more than a few fellow Democrats, at least. Still, because the women’s roots extend back to the 1960s, the filmmakers are able to demonstrate how much personal fortitude was needed to fight for rights that already appeared to be protected in the Constitution.

Americano
Kuu Kuu Harajuku: Music, Baby!
The first major animated co-production between Mexico and the United States features a young male parrot, Cuco, in desperate need of reaching the United States to convince his make-believe hero to return home with him to save the family business. First, however, he must get past the eagle guarding the border. Sound familiar? If there’s a political subtext informing Americano, it’s probably in my imagination. Still, if a pre-teen parrot can find his way from Mexico to Hollywood, with a stop at the San Diego Zoo, what’s to prevent anyone else with a dream from getting here …a wall? Instead of performing his chores and rehearsing at the family bird circus, Cuco (Rico Rodriguez) kills time watching the crazy stunts of his TV super-parrot hero, El Americano. He hopes to enlist the powerful bird’s help in rescuing his family from a revenge-fueled, villainous kingfisher. Not everything in America is what it seems to be on TV, however, and Cuco must rely on his wits to save the day. The best thing about Americano is its vibrant color scheme. The bilingual songs are fun, too. Among the voicing-cast members are Lisa Kudrow, Edward James Olmos, Gabriel Iglesias, Kate del Castillo, Cheech Marin, Erik Estrada and Paul Rodriguez.

The animated world of “Kuu Kuu Harajuku!” is based on the singer’s retail brand of “pop electric fragances”: Harajuku Lovers. Produced originally for airing on Australian television, the show features the “super cool” band, HJ5, comprised of five hot girls: Love, Angel, Music, Baby and their inspirational leader G. They love to sing, dance and sport the latest “kawaii” (cute) fashions. With help from their humorously incompetent manager, Rudie, HJ5 travels all over to put on shows, which always seem to be interrupted before they finish the first bar. In the U.S., the series premiered on Nickelodeon, before moving to Nick Jr. on February 3, 2017. Season 2 of the series is currently in production.

TV-to-DVD
Comedy Central: South Park: The Complete Twentieth Season: Blu-ray
PBS: American Masters: James Beard
PBS: American Masters: Alice Waters and Her Delicious Revolution DVD
Time Life/WEA: Hee Haw: Pfft! You Was Gone!
The 20th season of “South Park” premiered on September 14, 2016, just as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump entered the home stretch of the presidential campaign: a.k.a., “Giant Douche vs. Turd Sandwich, Part II.” Mr. Garrison, Trump’s stand-in on the show, adopted the candidate’s strident anti-immigration stance, but the closer he got to victory, the less he wanted to win. As Election Day approached, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone pushed their deadlines to the breaking point, so as to be as topical as possible. With Trump/Garrison’s stunning victory – thanks to the anthropomorphic Member Berries — the boys had less than 24 hours to work it into the narrative. The approach worked for storylines involving Bill Cosby, Bill Clinton and Internet trolls. Special features on the Blu-ray include “South Park: By The Numbers,” “South Park: The Fractured But Whole: E3 2016 Game Trailer,” “South Park: We’ve Been There,” “Comic Con 2016: Extended Panel With Matt & Trey,” deleted scenes, season commentary and #Social Commentary.

A couple of weeks ago, we reviewed the “American Masters” presentation, “Jacques Pepin: The Art of Craft.” Since then, I’ve received the tantalizing companion pieces, “American Masters: James Beard” and “American Masters: Alice Waters and Her Delicious Revolution.” Like Pepin, these pioneering foodies changed the way Americans shopped, ate and prepared food that tasted good and was healthier than that grown by farming conglomerates and processed to within an inch of its nutritional value. Beard’s story is more personality driven than the Waters’ piece, which focuses on a Berkeley institution, Chez Panisse. The world-class restaurant evolved from a place where 1960s’ counter-culturists could find healthy, inexpensive “counter-cuisine,” to the shining restaurant on the hill for diners willing to pay the price for the best locally grown and seasonal products. She also changed the way farmers and community gardeners serve their patrons. Like Pepin, Beard was an early advocate for localism and sustainability, as well as a cookbook author, journalist, television celebrity and teacher.

The title of the collection of episodes from Time Life/WEA’s “Hee Haw” library gets its title from Archie Campbell and Gordie Tapp’s trademark punchline, “Pfft! You Was Gone!” It was just one many bits that, repeated often enough, prompted comparisons to “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In.” In addition to Roy and Buck’s weekly pickin’ and grinnin’, this two-DVD collector’s edition is features musical performances by Dolly Parton (“Coat of Many Colors”), Tammy Wynette and George Jones (“We’re Gonna Hold On”), Merle Haggard (“Mama Tried,” “Branded Man”), Marty Robbins, Porter Wagoner and Susan Raye, along with the Kornfield Kounty repertory company. The set adds bonus interviews with original cast members, including Moe Bandy and Aaron Tippin.

The DVD Wrapup: The Assignment, Beauty/Bambi, Land of Mine, Sense of an Ending, The Ticket, Gene Kelly, Heath Ledger and more

Thursday, June 8th, 2017

The Assignment: Blu-ray
Kill ‘Em All: Blu-ray

While you can’t say the story told in Walter Hill’s latest, The Assignment, was ripped from today’s headlines – Denis Hamill’s original screenplay is nearly forty years old, after all – the fact that a protagonist undergoes gender reassignment, however involuntary, is reasonably topical at least. It might have garnered more positive media exposure, however, if, instead of choosing Michelle Rodriguez to play the butchered assassin, Frank Kitchen/Tomboy, Hill cast an actual member of the LGBTQ community: Laverne Cox, Candis Cayne or even the late Alexis Arquette. Transgender activists weren’t thrilled with the decision or the fact that Kitchen is so pissed off over not being consulted on the transformation that he seeks revenge on the surgeon (Sigourney Weaver), whose brother he killed. The latter complaint devalues the character’s legitimate source of rage at the discovery of his missing appendage. (Yes, he might have learned to live with it eventually, but certainly not in 90 minutes of screen time.) As it is, the distributors of The Assignment avoided an unnecessary stink by releasing it through video-on-demand outlets on in early March prior to a limited release a month later. Before that, though, someone leaked footage of the discovery scene to Mr. Skin, who dutifully posted the image of Kitchen with very acceptable new breasts and a jungle of pubic hair where his penis once hung. (We’re told it’s all a prosthetic hoax, but on Mr. Skin, image is everything.)  The rest of the movie concerns itself with getting even with the surgeon – who described it as an experiment – and those who helped her. At 75, Hill still knows how to orchestrate violence and, at 38, Rodriguez (Girlfight) remains in fighting trim. The Blu-ray adds “Filmmaking Portraits,” a photo montage.

There are more assassins stirring up trouble in Kill ‘Em All than you can count on the fingers of two hands and not all of them are of the male persuasion here, either. In veteran stunt coordinator Peter Malota’s directorial debut, Jean-Claude Van Damme plays Philip, a mysterious stranger who’s been transported to a local hospital on the brink of death. All we know about him is that he’s less interested in getting patched up than in getting out of the mostly empty facility as quickly as possible. Before he can escape, however, a gang of well-dressed Serb thugs invade the hospital, killing everyone who gets in the way of their search for a fallen comrade. How he got there almost certainly has something to do with Philip being in a room only a few floors above the morgue. Flashing forward a bit, the nurse (Autumn Reeser) who tended to Philip’s wounds and survived the onslaught is brought before FBI agents played by Peter Stormare and Maria Conchita Alonso. Malota uses the occasion to explain what happened to Philip before and after he was dropped off at the hospital and how it fits into the larger scheme of things. Confined almost exclusively to a single location, the fight scenes begin to repeat themselves after a while. Even so, the surprise payoff saves Kill ‘Em All from collapsing in on itself.

Beauty and the Beast: Blu-ray
Bambi: Signature Collection: Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
In American pop culture, almost every marketing trend can be traced back to Elvis Presley. When it comes to the matter at hand, Disney’s live-action remakes of classic animated features, it worth recalling the King’s second compilation of hit singles, commonly known as “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong.” The bold proclamation may have dwarfed the album’s actual title, “Elvis’ Gold Records, Volume 2,” but it was the 16 cloned images of Elvis in his trademark gold lamé suit, drooping forelock and a cooler-than-you’ll-ever-be stance that made the cover so iconic. Presley was nearing the completion of his tour of duty in Europe and RCA Victory was running out of ways to exploit the music he recorded before having his hair shorn in the service of his country. Even though the album was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America, it only reached No. 31 on the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart. That left plenty of room for squares in the media and recording industry to repeat the question raised three years earlier by Down Beat writer Les Brown, “Can Fifty Million Americans Be Wrong?” Older readers might have recognized the reference to the jazzy 1927 hit, “Fifty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong,” popularized by, among others, Sophie Tucker, Ted Shapiro and Miff Mole’s Molers. If the Elvis phenomenon had lost some steam during his absence, his transformation into a Hollywood leading man ensured that his fan base would grow exponentially, worldwide, and sales of his soundtrack albums would ensure more gold and platinum records for his trophy room at Graceland. But, once again, I digress. The release on DVD/Blu-ray of Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast requires that I try to offer a fresh take, not only on Bill Condon’s adaptation – which is an unqualified success – but also the studio’s recent practice of repurposing everything in its catalogue of hits, even against charges of redundancy and exploitation. The problem is, of course, that Disney’s live-action transformations are extremely entertaining and hugely popular with kids and adults, prompting the rhetorical question, “Can $1.18 billion in worldwide revenues be wrong … or, perhaps, a tad misleading?” Probably not. We can only hope is that the success of Disney’s life-action adaptations won’t impact the creation of original animated features that aren’t followed by Roman numerals. For Disney, Beauty and the Beast is the gift that keeps on giving.

Based on the venerable French fairytale, alternately credited (or, here, uncredited) to Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont and Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, the 1991 blockbuster spawned a lavish Broadway musical; a colorful “Disney on Ice” presentation; a dozen, or so, reissues on cassette, DVD and Blu-ray; a pair of direct-to-video follow-ups; records and soundtrack albums; a syndicated TV series; a comic book; video games; and merchandise that ranges from plush toys and costumes, to trading cards and singing tea sets. What’s not to like? Already this year, I’ve watched or re-watched the “Beauty and the Beast: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray”; Christophe Gans’ live-action Beauty and the Beast, starring Vincent Cassel, Lea Seydoux; and Criterion Collection’s superb Blu-ray edition of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 Beauty and the Beast. On my large-screen high-def monitor, at least, Condon’s hyper-realistic adaptation feels very much like a musical that, with a few allowances for CGI gimmickry, could be have been shot live on a Broadway or Las Vegas stage. Having human actors makes a difference, of course, and the $160-million budget afforded a cast that easily qualifies as “all-star.” As the title characters, Emma Watson and Dan Stevens are both charming and credible as singers, dancers and unlikely lovers. They’re supported by Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, Audra McDonald, Stanley Tucci, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and several dozen lesser-known human and computer-generated players. The physical sets merge seamlessly with the CG backgrounds. The Blu-ray offers three separate ways to experience the movie, including a no-frills version; the same version, with an overture; and sing-along edition. Bonus features include coverage of the first, elaborately staged table read, complete with singing and dancing to live music; the comprehensive featurettes, “A Beauty of a Tale,” which explores the process of transforming a beloved animated film into an instant live-action classic, “The Women Behind Beauty and the Beast,” “From Song to Screen: Making the Musical Sequences,” “Making a Moment With Celine Dion,” a music video and making-of-the-music-video piece, an extended song, “Days In The Sun,” deleted scenes and song selection.

I wonder if anyone at Disney has considered doing a live-action version of Bambi or, even, “Bambi on Ice.” Julie Taymor, who directed musicals of “The Lion King” and “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” on Broadway, probably would have some thoughts on the subject, but how could anyone get past the tragic death of Bambi’s mother without losing half of the audience? Let’s hope it never comes to that. In the meantime, there’s “Bambi: Signature Collection: Anniversary Edition,” which likely will have to suffice until Disney commits to 4K UHD, and that could take a while. It joins Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio and Beauty and the Beast in the elite grouping of Disney classics on Blu-ray. For the most part, the video and audio presentations haven’t changed much since their release in Diamond Edition packages. Fans and collectors should know that the latest iteration of Bambi adds several new bonus features, while losing a couple in the transition. They include “Studio Stories: Bambi,” in which archival sound clips and footage are interspersed with scenes from the film to showcase how different sequences were animated and how the filmmakers sought to make more realistic animal characters as compared to those featured in previous films; deleted and uncompleted scenes, “Bambi’s Ice and Snow” and “The Grasshopper,” with introductions by animator Floyd Norman; “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit: Africa Before Dark,” a vintage black-and-white cartoon; “The Bambi Effect,” a brief informational piece covering how the realistic character animations and more whimsical background art impacted future films; “Bambi Fawn Facts,” trivia about the real animals on which Bambi’s characters are based, including deer, skunks and rabbits; and a collectible Tyrus Wong artwork on the digital-only version. Vintage material adds deleted scenes, “Two Leaves,” “Bambi Stuck on a Reed” and “Winter Grass”; a deleted song, “Twitterpated”; “The Making of Bambi: A Prince is Born”; “Tricks of the Trade”; “Inside the Disney Archives”; “The Old Mill”; an original theatrical trailer; and, new to Blu-ray, “The Golden Age.”

Land of Mine
One of the ways Allied troops punished extermination-camp guards and German citizens, after the atrocities of the Holocaust were revealed, was to force them to dispose of the corpses of prisoners. It ensured that future generations couldn’t deny knowledge of what went on inside the walls of nearby camps. Other civilians were paraded before the emaciated prisoners left behind in the camps to die. By and large, the faces revealed in footage recorded after the liberation were those of adults. By 1945, tens of thousands of German boys, aged 12-16, were drafted and sent to the front lines to serve in various capacities, including combat. In Denmark, at least, more than 2,000 captured German men and boys were ordered to stay behind and sweep the beaches where an estimated 2 million land mines were planted. Shot at historically authentic locations, including in Oksbøllejren and areas in Varde, writer-director Martin Zandvliet’s Land of Mine is a gripping depiction of how one of those missions might have looked. Because of the ages of the boys and passion for revenge on the parts of British and Dane soldiers, it is one of the few movies in which Allied officers are almost as reprehensible as their German counterparts. Indeed, it was explicitly forbidden in the Geneva Conventions that any prisoner-of-war be forced to perform dangerous and/or unhealthy labor. (German adults with knowledge of the detection of mines further inland and at sea served under more official auspices.)

On top of the obvious dangers inherent in locating and defusing antitank and antipersonnel mines by hand – half of the POWs died in the process – the teenagers we meet here were denied food and medical treatment. Understandably, few tears were shed by Danes, who suffered greatly during the occupation. The 14 boys put under the command of Danish sergeant Carl Leopold Rasmussen (Roland Møller) are made to understand from the get-go that he isn’t likely to cut them any slack or treat them as anything but defeated soldiers, no matter their ages. If the emotional arc of the drama is never in question, Zandvliet keeps us riveted by personalizing all the characters and letting us know that none is immune to the possibility of being blown to smithereens before our eyes. Because none of the actors is recognizable outside central Europe, it isn’t likely that the highest paid or most photogenic among them would be spared ahead of anyone else. Zandvliet also acknowledges, in the bonus interview, that some of decisions were based more on audience concerns than historical accuracy. I think his instincts were correct.

 

The Sense of an Ending
Based on a Man Booker Prize-winner by Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending is the kind of highbrow entertainment one expects to find on PBS’ “Masterpiece,” where the smaller screen – not to be confused with cellphones — provides a sense of intimacy frequently missing from adaptations to film. In this case, at least, it also helps to know a bit about the kinds of students who attend universities like Cambridge and Bristol and assume that they’ve got the world by the short hairs, until, of course, shit happens. Even the title requires a scholarly explanation. It’s borrowed from Frank Kermode’s book of literary criticism of the same name, published in 1967, subtitled “Studies in the Theory of Fiction.” Its stated intention was to “make sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives.” As such, both Barnes’ novel and Ritesh Batra’s movie turn out to be meditations on memory and aging. Here, the memory and aging pretty much begin and end with Jim Broadbent’s Tony Webster, a small businessman in London who sells the occasionally Leica camera to people willing to pay the price for quality. His marriage to a wonderful woman, Margaret (Harriet Walter), finally collapsed under the weight of his sense of self-importance, while his single daughter, Susie (Michelle Dockery), is nine months into a difficult pregnancy. Tony isn’t much help to either of the women in his life, until Margaret breaks a leg and he’s enlisted to fill in for her at Susie’s Lamaze classes.

What shakes him to the core, however, is the arrival of a letter from a lawyer informing him that Sara (Emily Mortimer), the mother of a college girlfriend, has bequeathed him £500 and a diary. He’s frustrated by the fact that his former girlfriend, Veronica (Charlotte Rampling), has commandeered the diary and refuses to turn it over to him. The movie then flashes back 40-some years, to the period in his life when everything made sense … until it didn’t. It began when teenage Veronica (Freya Mavor) invited teenage Tony (Billy Howle) to her family’s country home, and he was mysteriously encouraged by Sara not to let her daughter to take advantage of him. A while later, he receives a “Dear John” letter from Veronica, who’s disappeared with his best friend. He responds with a letter seething with toxic vitriol, cursing them and their childen’s children ad infinitum. For the next four decades, it’s filed away with all of the other bad memories of his youth. Obsessed with what the diary might say about his role in Veronica’s adult life, if anything, he asks to meet with her and bring the diary. Viewers who’ve stuck with Nick Payne’s overly patient narrative this far are rewarded with a swiftly evolving series of events that not only amplify everything’s that’s gone before, but also what’s about to happen to Tony. And, it’s pretty compelling stuff. Anyone who caught Ritesh Batra’s Mumbai-set first feature, The Lunch Box, may be surprised by the choices he makes in The Sense of an Ending, which could hardly be any different in tone and setting. Fans of Brit-lit should enjoy it for the joys that derive from watching great actors working at the top of their game in material worthy of their talent. The DVD adds interviews and background material.

The Ticket: Blu-ray
The lesson to be learned in Ido Fluk’s sophomore feature can be summed up in a moralistic parable repeated several times in The Ticket. It’s the one in which a luckless man beseeches God for his help in winning the Lottery so often that his guardian angel intercedes with the deity to cut the poor sap a break. God replies, “I might let him win, but he would have to buy a ticket, first.” Point taken. Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) is quite convincing as James, a blind man, who, one morning, inexplicably regains the ability to see, lost as a child due to a pituitary tumor. James has been employed as a drone in a real-estate business that relies on cold-calls to produce leads for its sales reps to pursue. It’s mind-numbing work, but James has few options available to him and he’s good at it. Using the riddle as a starting point, James asks his boss to consider a series of motivational sessions to raise the performance level of the staff. He’ll also begin meeting with groups of perspective buyers, whose reluctance to believe the company’s pitches is completely understandable, if based on an unwillingness to pull the trigger on what could be a good deal for them.

Meanwhile, his new-found sense of sight opens the doors to a closet full of bourgeois pleasures denied him as someone whose job only required phone solicitations. Naturally, his upwardly mobile behavior impacts his relationships with a close friend, also blind, Bob (Oliver Platt), and his solicitous wife. The marketing material would like us to think that his wife, Sam, is drab and unenticing, but that’s not a description Malin Akerman could easily match. As Sam begins to withdraw from her no-longer-needy husband, drifting toward their resentful friend, Bob, James has already become enamored of a friendly blond co-worker, Jessica (Kerry Bishé). With her encouragement, James’ stock within the company rises with every new sales seminar and purchase of expensive toys. You may be able to guess what happens next. No matter, because Fluk introduces the surprise climax almost as naturally as he had when James’ sight returned. That might be enough to fill a “Twilight Zone” episode, but, at 97 minutes, is probably too obvious a trajectory for viewers conditioned to expect something closer to fireworks.

Heartland
If Maura Anderson’s debut feature, Heartland, had arrived on my doorstep in a plain brown sleeve, instead of a street-ready jacket, with a photo of two attractive women nuzzling up to each other and laurels from the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival, I might have been able to experience the movie without certain expectations. Knowing that it was being released by LGBTQ-friendly Wolfe Video seemingly left no more room for surprise, which is OK, because most of the DVDs I receive telegraph their intentions well in advance in trailers or photos on the covers. The real surprises come when a lightly reviewed DVD-original defies those expectations by redirecting the narrative flow and resisting the temptation to deliver only what’s expected of it by the target demographic. Superior performances on the part of little-known actors are a big plus, as well. While it’s likely that Anderson and screenwriters Velinda Godfrey and Todd Waring were acutely aware of how familiar their story might sound to targeted audiences, and worked diligently to avoid clichés, they understood, as well, that solid casting decisions would distract viewers from the stereotypes inherent in such movies set in the Bible Belt. Co-writer Godfrey pulls double-duty as Lauren, an Oklahoma City graphic artist, who, almost simultaneously, loses her girlfriend to disease and her home and job to the amount of time she spent tending to her in the hospital. She knows it won’t be easy to return home to her well-meaning, if devoutly Christian mother (Beth Grant) and the inevitabilities of small-town life, even if the town isn’t completely devoid of gays and lesbians. In the short run, a little boredom might do her some good. A ray of hope shines on Lauren when she learns that her brother, Kenny (Cooper Row) and his intended will soon arrive, specifically to raise money for a winery they’re backing in the Oklahoma hill country. In fact, that might be the most unlikely narrative conceit in Heartland.

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone when circumstances lead Lauren and her future sister-in-law, Carrie (Laura Spencer), to become booger buddies, if only to sneak away together for the occasional smoke and forbidden belt of vodka. At first glance, the sneaky-sexy redhead looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Under the influence of inebriants and a sympathetic ear, Carrie lets her hair down so quickly that you wonder if Kenny really knows very much about his fiancé. His disappearance on a last-minute business trip leaves Lauren and Carrie plenty of time to get to know each other better. That, and a hurricane that forces them to take shelter together under the house. When Kenny gets back, the firmament of their relationship has permanently shifted. So much for the obvious, though. The rest of the movie, during which the real shit happens, plays out in a way that can’t be easily predicted or dismissed for its improbability. Although fans of romantic dramas probably aren’t thrilled by ambiguity, the ending to Heartland leaves plenty of room for conjecture.

Enter the Warriors Gate: Blu-ray
With a plot that can be traced as far back as Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” and H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine,” Matthias Hoene’s action/fantasy, Enter the Warriors Gate, is one of several contemporary time-travel adventures that advance the technology beyond DeLoreans and hot-wired telephone booths. In doing so, it combines elements of The Last Starfighter (1984) and The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) in the service of a story that should appeal most to teenage gamers. A French/Chinese/Cambodian production, co-written and co-produced by Luc Besson, Enter the Warriors Gate features an American protagonist (Uriah Shelton) and a Chinese princess (Ni Ni), being hunted through time by a marauding army of barbarians. Jack is a fairly typically American kid, who, if it weren’t for his underdeveloped stature, probably would be eligible to hang with the cool kids. As it is, though, Jack is an easy target for bullies. To compensate, he and a geek buddy create a world of their own within the framework of a martial-arts video game. One morning, after being given an antique urn from a friendly Chinese shopkeeper, Jack is surprised to find an ancient Chinese warrior standing over him in his bedroom. Zhoo (Mark Chao) has traveled forward in time to ask the Black Knight – the boy’s video persona – to protect Princess Su Lin (Ni Ni), whose image is found on the heirloom. After trading Su Lin’s royal rags for jeans and a comfortable top, she’s able to blend in with the crowd … temporarily, anyway. When she’s captured by the Barbarians on her tail, Jack is tasked with following her back to ancient China and, with Zhoo, take on all manner of magical and mystical adversaries. Derivative? Sure. Still, Enter the Warriors Gate is as well-made as any of Besson’s other projects — Leon: The Professional, The Fifth Element – and as good a way as any for a gamer to kill a rainy afternoon. Special features include a deleted scene; the featurettes, “Beyond the Gate: Making Enter the Warriors Gate” and “The Journey East: Bridging the Cultural Divide”; and commentary with Hoene (Cockneys vs Zombies).

Sky on Fire: Blu-ray
Hong Kong action specialist Ringo Lam churned out 20 comedies between his debut, in 1983, and seeming retirement, two decades later. Then, for the next dozen years, zilch. Sky on Fire, his second film in the last two years, provides ample evidence that Lam still knows how to blow stuff up real good and destroy late-model vehicles in tunnels and freeways. It is the fifth in an informal series of crime films that share the words, “on fire,” in their titles: City on Fire (1987), Prison on Fire (1987), School on Fire (1988) and Prison on Fire II (1991). The first of those releases is said to have inspired Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Lam also directed Jean-Claude Van Damme in three films — Maximum Risk (1996), Replicant (2001) and In Hell (2003) – largely shot in Vancouver, Toronto and Bulgaria … the Canada of Eastern European. Perhaps, this explains why so much anticipation was built in to his return to action – literally — back home, in Hong Kong. The bad news is that Sky on Fire gets bogged down in a nearly incomprehensible storyline, so quickly out of the gate, that I was never sure on which side of the law the dozen or so key main characters stood at any given time. It opens with a chemical fire that rips through a laboratory dedicated to research on a potential cancer breakthrough, based on “ex-stem cells,” whatever the hell they are. One group of ethically challenged scientists wants to reap huge profits from the new treatment; another researcher only wants to vindicate his late father’s work and nail his killers; and Hong Kong’s finest simply want to protect the cure from falling into the wrong hands and prevent an all-out war from bringing the city to its knees. The good news is that viewers’ patience will be rewarded by an even more explosive climax, inspired, perhaps, by The Towering Inferno and collapse of the World Trade Center, on 9/11. The immensity of the set piece argues for the possibility that everything that preceded it was a MacGuffin. (I don’t mention it to be a spoiler-sport, but to provide a reason to stick with the movie through the less eventful moments.) Popular Asian stars Daniel Wu, Joseph Chang, Zhang Jingchu, Leon Lai, Lam Ka Tung and Amber Kuo spend most of their time dodging bullets or discharging firearms of their own, sometimes for no apparent reason.

He’s Got Rhythm: The Life and Career of Gene Kelly: University Press of Kentucky
In the Steps of Trisha Brown
It would be impossible for today’s generation of educators, students and journalists to appreciate the amount of work that once went into the creation of scholarly essays, dissertations, biographies and, yes, even obituaries … once, at least, one of the closely read sections of a newspaper. The contents of libraries, museums and “morgues” now are accessible via the Internet, almost instantaneously, and transportable with the flick of a few fingers. Even 25 years ago, the ready availability of such a wealth of data, information and imagery seemed like a distant possibility. The creation of such dedicated databases as Wikipedia and IMDB.com would come as less a boon to academics than students and reporters who couldn’t afford the time even to make sure that the information they would pass along was accurate. It produced some embarrassing moments for those who were caught borrowing passages – sometimes footnotes and quotes – from entries later deemed unreliable or biased. While things have gotten significantly better on the encyclopedic websites, in terms of accuracy and protecting the integrity of their pages, the caveat, “Garbage in, garbage out,” still applies. I was inadvertently reminded of how much things have changed in this regard, over the past 25 years, by Cynthia and Sara Brideson’s comprehensive biography, “He’s Got Rhythm: The Life and Career of Gene Kelly,” which expands on periods in the multihyphenate performer’s career not already covered in other biographies, retrospectives and introductions to films shown on TCM. Simply being able to review his films, at a moment’s notice, would have been impossible in the years before streaming took hold. In a show-business career that spanned a half-century, Kelly wore so many different hats that any scholarly biography less than 200 pages, not including an index and filmography, would practically be meaningless. Even though “He’s Got Rhythm” logs in at 560, some critics have argued that more room could have been devoted to how such an admirable fellow – likeable in every outward way — could also be such a demanding and punishing taskmaster, away from the limelight.

Kelly’s mother steered the Pittsburgh native and his brother, James, to an early interest in dance. The neighborhood bullies put the kibosh on that idea, by picking fights and calling them sissies. Gene switched his allegiance to baseball, before taking up journalism, economics and law in college. In 1937, after keeping afloat in the lean years, teaching dance and choregraphing shows locally, Kelly took up dance full-time … and, how! His first Hollywood credit was Busby Berkeley’s For Me and My Gal, co-starring Judy Garland and George Murphy. By then, Fred Astaire was the town’s top hoofer. Even so, Kelly’s combination of athleticism, masculinity and balletic training would complement, rather than overshadow, Astaire’s more sophisticated and graceful approach to the art of dance on screen. There was plenty of room in Hollywood for two great male dancers and choreographers, as well as occasional visits from Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins and Gower Champion, beginning in the 1950. Both men’s work is more readily available to lovers of dance and movies than ever before, thanks to DVD/Blu-ray, TCM and YouTube. Beyond the great musicals themselves, there’s the That’s Entertainment series, which he co-hosted; “Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer,” from PBS’ “American Masters”; and “Dancing, a Man’s Game: Gene Kelly,” which aired in 1958, as part of NBC’s “Omnibus.” Released last July, the latter reveals more about Kelly and his work than a dozen wiki entries possibly could. Written, choreographed, co-directed and starring the onetime wannabe shortstop, “Dancing, a Man’s Game” enlisted some of the top names in sports to illustrate Kelly’s belief that the same seemingly effortless movements employed by great athletes in game situations, paralleled the graceful movements of fine dancers, in performance. It featured appearances by Mickey Mantle, Johnny Unitas, Bob Cousy, Sugar Ray Robinson, Dick Button and fellow dancers Edward Villella and Patrick Adiarte. If Astaire’s work was savored best with champagne and caviar, “Dancing, a Man’s Game” could be enjoyed with a bag of peanuts and six-pack of beer. Even the bullies back in Pittsburgh might have been impressed. “He’s Got Rhythm” is part of the University Press of Kentucky’s “Screen Classics” series of books intended for scholars and general readers, alike.

If you’re enough of a dance aficionado to recognize such names as Merce Cunningham, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Martha Graham, and be able to use them in the same sentence as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, you may want to take a shot at Marie-Hélène Rebois’ In the Steps of Trisha Brown. If not, start your exploration of post-modern and experimental dance somewhere else. In the 79-minute documentary, dancers from the Trisha Brown Dance Company, teach the ballerinas from the Ballet de l’Opéra, in Paris, one of Brown’s most representative works, “Glacial Decoy.” For the rest of us, the documentary can serve as a master class on a form of dance that combines movement and physics with the cerebral and sensuous sides of the artistic discipline. In their introduction of the piece to the Paris cast, dancer Lisa Kraus and associate artistic director Carolyn Lucas advise them, “Do exactly the opposite of what your training told you to do,” which, in the world of ballet, is easier said than done. In a preview to the piece in the New Yorker, Joan Acocella was more specific, “French ballet students are instructed to hold their backs straight, their buttocks in, and their arms and legs and shoulders and heads in carefully modelled positions that have been elaborated by dancing masters, and recorded in rule books, for more than two centuries. By contrast, Trisha Brown’s dancers were taught by her to walk down walls, twirl down poles, semaphore to one another across rooftops, and, quite often, fling their limbs around like bags of wet laundry.” The rehearsal footage is interspersed with archival footage from original productions of “Glacial Decoy” and Brown’s own preparation for it. “In the Steps” also features archival dance footage, directed by Jonathan Demme, who died in April, at 73. After being treated for vascular dementia since 2011, the choreographer died last February, at 80.

Dredd: 4K Ultra HD: Blu-ray
Ex Machina: Ultra HD: Blu-ray
Last month, Severin Films released “Future Shock! The Story of 2000 AD,” a documentary that traced the comic-book roots of such New Age superheroes as Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper and Halo Jones. Created by writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra, Dredd has been a fixture of the “2000 AD” universe for 30 years. In the 1995 film adaptation of the dystopian crime-fighting series, Judge Dredd, Sylvester Stallone played the one-man judge/jury/executioner. Seventeen years later, Reliance Entertainment decided to resurrect the character in 3D, forsaking the star-driven approach to the story and reimagining his look. Dredd underperformed at the box office, as well, but longtime fans and critics liked it better than the Stallone version. It must have done some business in its Blu-ray 2D/3D incarnations, because Lionsgate has decided to give it a shot in 4K Ultra HD. Moreover, last month, independent entertainment studio IM Global and Rebellion announced plans to develop a live-action TV show, “Judge Dredd: Mega City One,” an ensemble drama about a team of Judges “as they deal with the challenges of the future-shocked 22nd Century.” Maybe they know something the rest of the world doesn’t. Here, judges Dredd (Karl Urban) and Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), his significantly less menacing intern, are dispatched by the central authority to wipe out Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), a ruthless crime boss bent on expanding her empire through sales of Slo-Mo, a dangerous reality-altering drug. Dredd wasn’t shot in 4K, so the payoff isn’t what it could be. The most noticeable uptick comes in scene shots from the perspective of Slo-Mo junkies. All of the bonus features are carryovers from previous Blu-ray releases.

The only real connection between Dredd and Ex-Machina, apart from the 4K UHD and Lionsgate, are the contributions of Alex Garland, who wrote the former and was writer/director of the latter. His writing credits also include The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go. One of the smartest, sexiest and most original sci-fi dramas in memory, Garland’s directorial debut managed to make some money, despite an undernourished marketing campaign. Domhnall Gleeson (The Revenant) plays Caleb Smith, a 26-year-old programmer at the world’s largest internet company. Oscar Isaac portrays the reclusive CEO of the company, Nathan Bateman, who owns a piece of idyllic property, roughly the size of Rhode Island. Caleb is helicoptered onto the property after winning a contest promising an opportunity to commune with nature and Nathan. In fact, Nathan fixed the contest so that Caleb’s trip wouldn’t raise the eyebrows of co-workers unaware of its true purpose. Nathan wants Caleb to put his star robot through the paces of the Turning test, used to judge a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. As portrayed by Alicia Vikander, Ava has a robotic body and human-looking face … one that can be camouflaged by fashionable clothing and the other removed and traded for another visage. Although the depth of her artificial intelligence has yet to be plumbed, she plays Caleb like a fiddle, even while confined to glass cage. The only other person at the compound is a drop-dead gorgeous Asian servant, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), who, silent and obedient, represents every yuppie tycoon’s idea of an ideal second wife. Ava not only is smart enough to know that her model robot likely was designed to operate outside the compound, independent of Nathan’s oversight, but that she’ll also need some help getting there. What makes this edition of Ex-Machina such a treat in UHD is its overall visual presentation, thanks to sets designed to be shot in digital at 4K resolution. The gleaming surfaces, breathtaking scenery and large slabs of glass enhance a set design specifically lit and color-coordinated to look ultra-modern, yet compatible with the natural background. The vintage bonus package, included on the Blu-ray 2D disc, is worth a long look by newcomers to the story.

Evil Ed: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
The Climber: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Spotlight on a Murderer: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The latest release of special editions from Arrow Video/Academy could hardly be more eclectic. None of the titles has been accorded much of an American release, despite the presence of a couple of recognizable stars and a place in the history of subgenres near and dear to the hearts of geeks everywhere. They’ve been impeccably restored and surrounded by bonus material unimaginable to anyone who worked on them.

By far, the most depraved movie in the bunch is Evil Ed, Anders Jacobsson’s blood-soaked homage to the splatter films of the 1980s and rebuke of then-current European censorship of video nasties and flicks that combined sex and violence. The fun begins with the title, a none-too-subtle reference to The Evil Dead (1981), and naming of Olaf Rhodin’s character, Sam Campbell, after director Sam Raimi and star Bruce Campbell. Images from Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator and The Shining are scattered throughout Evil Ed, as well. Also pay close attention to one-sheet posters nailed to the walls and such overly descriptive names as, Edward “Eddie” Tor Swenson. He’s the mousy technician at a company that puts the finishing touches on high-end arthouse films and low-end genre titles. One day, Ed’s sleazy boss transfers him from the Bergman-esque pictures to the company’s Splatter and Gore Department, where he’s assigned the task of editing “Loose Limbs,” a movie whose content won’t pass muster in the censorship office. The boss does, however, want to maintain a scene in which a girl is raped by a beaver and shot in the head with a bazooka. As if to demonstrate how the censors might actually be on to something, Ed soon begins to experience bizarre hallucinations, terrible nightmares and overwhelming urges to commit violent acts on people he mistakes for devils and gremlins. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the gag pretty much runs out of gas after about 30 minutes, or so, leaving an hour’s worth of padding and very decent special effects. (Göran Lundström would later work in the makeup department of such films as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and X-Men: First Class.) The 2015 “Special EDition” adds another six or seven minutes of goofy material. And, as if 99 minutes of this silliness weren’t enough, there’s a bonus package that would be excessive, even if Easy Ed had somehow managed to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. So, besides the 93- and 99-minute versions of the feature, there are deleted scenes, bloopers, a three-hour-long and separate 50-minute making-of featurette, a reversible sleeve with newly commissioned artwork and a collector s booklet with new writing on the film by critic James Oliver. Even at three hours, the deadpan recollections of the cast and filmmakers in the making-of featurettes, “Keep ’Em Heads Rollin” and “Lost in Brainland,” are pretty funny.

A couple of weeks ago, we learned how Warhol favorite Joe Dallesandro found his way into Jacques Rivette’s tortured arthouse mystery, Merry-Go-Round, after disappearing from American films for nearly a decade. As if by Hollywood magic, he returns this week in Pasquale Squitieri’s pulpy Italian crime thriller, The Climber (1975). In the early 1970s, he followed Paul Morrissey to Italy for Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula. The Italians considered Dallesandro to be a marketable American star on both sides of the Atlantic and saved the money it would have taken to fly him back to Rome. He stuck around Europe long enough to co-star in several Italian genre flicks and work with Serge Gainsbourg, Walerian Borowczyk and Louis Malle, all the while staying as drunk and high as possible, before returning home to play Lucky Luciano in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club. The Climber may be small change, compared to that extravagant production, at least, but there are several things to recommend it. Influenced thematically by The Public Enemy and Scarface, it charts the rise and inevitable fall of a small-time Naples smuggler, Aldo (Dallesandro), who makes the mistake of trying to skim profits from his boss. After he survives a savage beating, Aldo hooks up with lonely young woman, Luciana (Stefania Casini), who provides him with a ride to Rome and temporary shelter. His cousin refers Aldo to a mob fence, who sends him on a suicide mission, which he narrowly survives. After exacting his revenge on the fat “poofster,” Aldo organizes a gang of thugs on motorbikes to rip off deliveries of contraband and extort money from nightclub owners. Eventually, he makes his way back to Naples and a reunion with his old boss. The really terrific thing about The Climber is Squitieri’s ability to convey the ugliness of life for poor working-class Italians, whose only way to make ends meet is to pull the occasional heist. Moreover, I couldn’t tell the difference between actors impersonating thugs and amateurs who might have been brought in to provide color. Neither is there anything glamorous about the urban settings. The highlights of the bonus package are an alternative English-language soundtrack; “Little Joe’s Adventures in Europe,” a new interview on the actor’s film appearances during the 1970s and early 1980s; a reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Chris Malbon; and new writing on the film by Roberto Curti, author of “Italian Crime Filmography, 1968-1980.”

Today, Jean-Louis Trintignant is the most recognizable member of the ensemble cast of Georges Franju’s Spotlight on a Murderer (1961). While the Agatha Christie-like mystery also featured such high-profile stars as Pierre Brasseur, Dany Saval, Marianne Koch and Pascale Audret, I was most impressed with the Breton chateaux that provided the setting for the old-fashioned game of cat-and-mouse. Bordered on two sides by a lake, the multi-towered structure also featured a courtyard large enough to accommodate audiences for son et lumiere productions. The chateaux is owned by Count Herve de Kerloquen (Brasseur), who, knowing he’s about to die, decides to play a trick on his greedy heirs. Before expiring, he locks himself into a small closet, alongside the formal dining room, whose two-way mirror allows him to observe his relatives when they arrive to divvy up the spoils. He knows that no one will be allowed to inherit as much as a chair or ashtray, until his body is discovered or five years have passed since his disappearance. In the meantime, they’ll have to invest their own money to maintain and preserve the property. They decide to finance the upkeep through a series of son et lumiere shows recounting its history. Even as those productions are occurring, however, fate is narrowing the field of individual heirs. Who, if anyone, will survive what appears to be a curse? Stay tuned. “Spotlight” isn’t nearly as gripping or memorable as Franju’s previous thriller, Eyes Without a Face, but, at 95 minutes, even the black-and-white visuals are easy to absorb. Thanks for that, in large part, goes the writing team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who, as screenwriters and novelists, have given us Diabolique, Vertigo, Eyes Without a Face and, yes, even Body Parts. The nicely restored edition adds a vintage production featurette from 1960, shot on location and including interviews with Franju, Audret, Brasseur, Koch, Saval and Trintignant; “Spotlight on a Filmmaker,” a look at Franju’s career presented by Michael Brooke, author of the “Midnight Movie Monograph” on Eyes Without a Face; newly commissioned artwork by Peter Strain; and new writing on the film by Chris Fujiwara

Where the Buffalo Roam: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
It’s tempting to imagination how Hunter S. Thompson might have covered last year’s presidential campaign. His reporting for Rolling Stone in “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72” popularized the “gonzo journalism” concept, which only a handful of writers could pull off on their best days. As targets go, however, Donald, Hillary and the rest of the clowns – he might have embraced Bernie, as he had Jimmy Carter – likely would have proved too easy for him to skewer. And, even if he hadn’t committed suicide in 2005, at 67, his scalpel had grown dull years earlier. Still, when Thompson was on his game, no political observer was more observant and entertaining. By 1980, more young people were willing to buy tickets to his lectures, than to go back and read the books and columns that made him famous. They expected him to amuse them with his booze- and cocaine-fueled rants, instead of enlightening them on the current issues. And, he complied. The release of Art Linson’s Where the Buffalo Roam didn’t do him any favors, either. It’s possible that Bill Murray’s impersonation of Thompson was on the nose, but, it seemed too far-fetched to be true. Neither was there much of a focus to the movie, especially compared to Terry Gilliam’s frequently brilliant Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). John Kaye’s screenplay merges key elements from Thompson’s earlier political writing, events described in “Las Vegas” and “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat,” his 1977 eulogy to Chicano attorney and activist Oscar Zeta Acosta (a.k.a., Raoul Duke’s 300-pound Samoan attorney, Dr. Gonzo, in “Las Vegas,” and, as portrayed here by Peter Boyle, Carl Lazlo, Esquire). Together, they provide a cockeyed look back at the 1960-70s, when he could get away with being drunk, stoned and tripping most of his waking life. The Shout!Factory reissue is noteworthy for the restoration of Neil Young’s original musical score – missing from earlier versions – and an entertaining interview with Kaye, “Inventing The Buffalo.”

Juice: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
The most obvious selling point for “Juice: 25th Anniversary Edition” is the prominence of Tupac Shakur on its cover. Known best as a rap artist martyred for a cause that most of us can’t begin to fathom, Tupac proved in his first featured role that he might have a better shot at stardom as an actor than a member of Digital Underground. He was good enough to mix acting and music, though, as a solo rapper. The thing to remember here, though, is that he was one several young black actors whose careers would be enhanced by their appearance in Ernest R. Dickerson’s debut as a co-writer/director. Today, it stands up alongside Menace II Society, Boyz n the Hood and New Jack City as movies for a generation of African-American viewers – by African-American artists — once removed from the blaxploitation era. They’re informed as much by Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing as the kind of hip-hop and gangsta rap blasting from Radio Raheem’s speakers. Consider, however, who else was introduced in Juice: Omar Epps (Love & Basketball), Jermaine ‘Huggy’ Hopkins (How to Be a Player), Khalil Kain (Girlfriends), En Vogue’s Cindy Herron; Vincent Laresca (“24”); Queen Latifah (Chicago); George Gore II (“My Wife and Kids”); and, in a wee part, Donald Faison (“Scrubs”). Juice follows four inseparable Harlem teens, who waste their days skipping school, getting in fights and shoplifting. The only member of the group who has concrete plans for the future is Q (Epps), who has legitimate dreams of becoming a deejay. One day, Bishop (Shakur) happens to see James Cagney in White Heat and the film inspires him to buy a gun and rob a corner store, with his pals. It falls on the same night as Q’s first big shot at success. Needless to say, Bishop’s fate is destined to match that of Cagney’s Cody Jarrett. The bonus material includes Dickerson’s commentary; “You’ve Got the Juice Now,” featuring new interviews with Dickerson, producer David Heyman and actors Epps, Kain and Hopkins; “The Wrecking Crew,” on the bonds the actors immediately formed with each other; “Sip the Juice: The Music,” explores the essential role that music plays in the film; “Stay in the Scene: The Interview,” a vintage on-set interview with the four lead cast members, including Tupac; and a photo gallery.

Danger Close
From the vantage point of the Pentagon, the press corps in Vietnam was given too much access to the front lines and ugly truths of war. Reporters and photographers found their own way to hot spots, frequently sending back unfiltered dispatches that ran counter to the official version of events described by military spokesmen. By the end of the conflict, the media were accorded almost as much of the blame for the fall of Saigon as Ho Chi Minh. Things would be different during the 1991 Gulf War and subsequent invasion of Afghanistan. The Pentagon decided to keep reporters away from the front lines for as long as possible. One of the first things journalists were able to describe with any amount of accuracy was the carnage discovered on the Highway of Death, leading from Kuwait City to major cities in Iraq, the retreating civilians and military personnel attempted to escape Kuwait with pillaged treasures … and their necks. The media repeated descriptions of the assault, recorded from cockpits of jet fighters, as a “turkey shoot.” Ghastly images of charred bodies and destroyed luxury cars were said to have influenced President George H. W. Bush to end Persian Gulf War hostilities the next day. The invasion of Afghanistan was covered from arms’ length, as well. To appease media concern in advance of Operation Iraqi Freedom, two years later, the Pentagon decided to allow the “embedding” of reporters among military units, under certain conditions. Although the reporters weren’t likely to whitewash what they saw during the invasion, neither were they likely to be exposed to anything potentially controversial, either. By the time they reached Baghdad, friendships had been established and limits set. After our troops raced into the capital, against a backdrop of cheering Iraqi citizens and toppled statuary, President George W. Bush famously took advantage of the positive images to declare victory on the deck of an aircraft carrier. Those cheers wouldn’t last very long, however, as some of the same people who welcomed the Americans to Baghdad, decided it made more sense to devote their energies to settling religious scores, looting the national museums and stealing as much money and gold as they could carry from the banks. It took a while for journalists to figure out why so many Iraqis turned their backs on us, but, by then, the revolt was in full swing and IEDs and RPGs replaced conventional armaments as the insurgents’ weapons of choice.

After a while, most American media outlets decided that maintaining a presence in Iraq and Afghanistan was too costly and dangerous to maintain. If they were going to cover the wars at all, it would be through freelance sources. Alex Quade is among the rare breed of journalists willing to risk everything tell the stories that no longer were being relayed to American viewers and readers. She sold pieces to CNN, Fox News and other outlets, documenting both the day-to-day and extreme fighting conditions experienced by American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Referring to her as an “embedded” reporter and videographer doesn’t do justice to the kind of work she produced and risks she took in the Middle East and aftermath of natural disasters. She is the primary civilian focus of Danger Close, the third chapter in Christian Tureaud and David Salzberg’s series of wartime documentaries, preceded by their highly regarded The Hornet’s Nest and Citizen Soldier. The overriding story, however, concerns the mission of Special Forces Operational Detachment A-Teams in Diyala Province, Iraq, as they went after high-value terrorist targets and called in airstrikes with A-10s and F-16s. The most poignant moments come after describing how Green Beret Staff Sergeant Rob Pirelli was able to coordinate the construction of a defensible compound in the middle of territory controlled by Taliban and Al Qaede insurgents, and the aftermath of his death to enemy fire. After being sent home to repair broken bones suffered from a fall from an armored vehicle, Quade followed up with Pirelli’s family, showing them video of the facility and pictures of the men who were shaken by his death. Quade also decided to return to the compound as a follow-up to her original report, but found many of the doors previously open to her now closed. She was required to “hitch” rides from various Green Beret units, recording their missions as she went along on raids. It’s thrilling stuff, not unlike the helmet-cam video sent back in the early stages of the war. Danger Close also includes several reports Quade filed from the forward positions and during flights taken in fighter jets and attack helicopters. (A Chinook in which she was supposed to ride was shot down after she traded places with combat soldiers. She interviews the pilot of a rescue helicopter who risked his own life, believing she was on board and might have survived the catastrophe.) Her credentials include two Edward R. Murrow Awards; the Congressional Medal Of Honor Society’s Excellence in Journalism Award for her “honest & courageous” war reportage; a joint Peabody award for coverage of Hurricane Katrina, in 2005; (a CNN group award); a joint Emmy award for coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks; and a Du-Pont Columbia Award for the in-depth reporting she did for CNN on the Asian Tsunami.

TV-to-DVD
Spike: I Am Heath Ledger
PBS: American Masters: Jacques Pepin: The Art of Craft
PBS: Rocktopia: A Classical Revolution: Live from Budapest
After turning his attention away from hockey and other things inarguably Canadian – Anne Murray, the CFL – Derik Murray shifted his focus to hit-and-run bio-docs of celebrities, ready for distribution on cable television and in DVD. The ones I’ve seen are interesting, but limited by what Murray could afford to show, in the way of archival clips, and the time it takes to get beneath the skin of a subject worthy of a feature-length doc. Asif Kapadia’s award-winning Senna and Amy are good examples of celebrity bio-docs that leave very little to imagination after watching them. I Am Heath Ledger is the seventh entry in Murray’s “I Am …” series, after profiles of Evel Knievel, Chris Farley, Bruce Lee, JFK Jr., Steve McQueen and Dale Earnhardt. His parallel series, “Facing,” has profiled Donald Trump, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Vladimir Putin, Suge Knight, Saddam Hussein, Pablo Escobar and Muhammad Ali. Frequent collaborator Adrian Buitenhuis served as co-director on I Am Heath Ledger, which is enhanced by material shot by the Perth native for the enjoyment of friends and family, mostly, and the testimony of people like Naomi Watts, Ang Lee, Ben Harper, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Catherine Hardwicke and Mel Gibson, as well as close family members and boyhood friends. Although comparisons to James Dean are inevitable, the doc doesn’t push them on anyone. Ledger was a young man blessed with an unusual bounty of talents and capacity for close, personal relationships with many people simultaneously. His homes could be mistaken for youth hostels, what with the transient friends and vagabond Aussie musicians he attracted. Anyone looking for dirt probably would be better served by sticking to TMZ and other gossip sites. Conspicuously, if not expectedly missing is Michelle Williams, the mother of Ledger’s daughter, Matilda, and much in-depth reporting on his death, ascribed to an accidental overdose of pharmaceuticals.

It seems odd that PBS would devote an entire edition of its “American Masters” to an ex-patriot French chef, albeit one who wrote best-selling cookbooks – or, to be precise, an appreciation for the way great food is prepared — and advancing the revolution Julia Child launched on public television two decades earlier. Jacques Pepin arrived in the United States in 1959, when great French dining only was available at the New York restaurant Le Pavillon, his first employer, and, two years later, in the White House, under the watchful eye of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. The First Lady asked Pepin, twice, to become commander-in-chief of the president’s kitchen. Instead, he accepted an invitation from regular Le Pavillon customer Howard Johnson — yes, that one — to work alongside fellow Frenchman Pierre Franey to develop food lines for his nationwide chain of restaurants. And, yes, one of his greatest successes at Howard Johnson’s came in his decision to change the ingredients used in the fried clams’ recipe, making it a guilty pleasure of American motorists for years to come … myself, included. Accepting the White House gig might have seemed like a lateral move, despite the Kennedy imprimatur. While living in Paris, Pépin avoided being sent to Algeria as a conscripted soldier by being assigned duties as personal chef to three French heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle. Having already prepared meals for many of the same world leaders who would be invited to dine with the Kennedys, he decided that a drastic change might do him some good. Years later, after a near-fatal automobile accident, Pepin used his convalescence to translate his knowledge of preparation into English. In 1999, Pepin co-starred in the PBS series, “Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home,” which, in 2001, was awarded a Daytime Emmy. The rest is culinary history. “Jacques Pepin: The Art of Craft” is informed by interviews with friends, family members, journalists and celebrity chefs, including Anthony Bourdain, José Andrés, Tom Colicchio and Rachel Ray. You’ll never look at an omelet the same way, again. The DVD includes extended interviews, demonstrations, an 80th-birthday tribute and flashback to the first episode of “Today’s Gourmet.”

In the 1970s, one of the ways record labels extended the lives of top-selling albums was to have rock artists perform the same songs while accompanied by a symphony orchestra. Procol Harum and the Moody Blues were among the first to initiate symphonic rock, which would evolve into progressive rock of the 1970s. A 1972 collaboration, “Tommy (London Symphony Orchestra album),” featured the Who, the 104-piece orchestra and an all-star supporting cast of rock artists. It pre-figured the 1975 soundtrack for the movie, Tommy, which anticipated the 1991 Broadway musical, “The Who’s Tommy.” Today, pops orchestras routinely slate programs for their Boomer patrons. As entertaining as these performances were, they added little to the music that wasn’t already there. Neither was the collective personality of the orchestra discernible. Distributed by PBS, “Rocktopia: A Classical Revolution: Live from Budapest” represents the latest effort to fuse classical music, classic rock and opera, and it isn’t bad. The music is performed from original arrangements, drawing from Elton John, Mozart, Journey, Strauss, Aerosmith, Heart, Beethoven, Pink Floyd, Copland, Bruce Springsteen and the Who, as well as vocalists who recall the intensity and range of the original artists. The songs were chosen, we’re told, because they tell “the universal story of the human condition,” ways that transcend time, trends and commercialism. As such, the classical music and rock vocals form a song cycle accessible to audiences that range in age from ’tweens to geezers. Singing along to the individual numbers appears to have been encouraged. A making-of featurette is included.

The DVD Wrapup: World Cinema Project 2, Obsession, Pelle the Conqueror, Jacques Rivette, Dark Angel and more

Sunday, May 28th, 2017

Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project: No. 2: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
It would be difficult for most of us to sustain the level of affection and enthusiasm Martin Scorsese displays in his introductions to the half-dozen films collected in World Cinema Project: No. 2. They are his godchildren. Scorsese has always been a key player in the film preservation movement and this is the second batch of movies the World Cinema Project has rescued for future generations to enjoy. Established in 2007 under the auspices of the Film Foundation, which, in 1990, Scorsese founded and now chairs, the project has thus far restored 30 marginalized, infrequently screened films from 21 regions generally unequipped to preserve their own cinema history. They have been made available for exhibition on various platforms. For its part, the foundation has helped restore more than 750 films, accessible to the public through programming at festivals, museums and educational institutions around the world. It easily qualifies as God’s work and Scorsese has a right to be expect a few plenary indulgences. The films collected in the second volume, one made as recently as 2000, not only look better than they have in years, but, along with being historically significant, they’re also genuinely entertaining. Some are more challenging than others, however. The six titles collected in 2013 were Touki bouki (Senegal), Redes (Mexico), A River Called Titas (India and Bangladesh), Dry Summer (Turkey), Trances (Morocco) and The Housemaid (South Korea). Each has benefited from a 2K or 4K digital restoration, courtesy of the World Cinema Project, in collaboration with the Cineteca di Bologna, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-rays. The second collector’s set of nine DVD and Blu-ray discs, contains a booklet featuring essays by Phillip Lopate, Dennis Lim, Kent Jones, Fábio Andrade, Bilge Ebiri and Andrew Chan; Scorsese’s brief introductions; and a half-dozen informative video interviews with the directors, historians or collaborators.

Lino Brocka’s uncompromising 1976 melodrama Insiang describes one Philippine girl’s desperate efforts to escape the degradations of urban poverty, while exacting revenge on everyone who’s taken advantage of her subservience and fears. Among them are Insiang’s wicked mother, her much younger lover and a boyfriend who seduces her with lies and peer pressure. Set in the Manila slums, it was the first Philippine film ever to play at Cannes (Director’s Fortnight).

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s uncategorizable 2000 debut feature, Mysterious Object at Noon, combines visual experimentation, fantasy and documentary portraiture as the film crew travels from the Thai countryside to Bangkok, asking the people they encounter to contribute to a game of Exquisite Corpse, beginning with a story about a handicapped boy and his teacher. Since 2000, Weerasethakul has been nominated for five major awards at Cannes, winning three, for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Tropical Malady and Blissfully Yours.

Mario Peixoto’s 1931 silent film, Limite, was inspired by a hypnotic André Kertész photograph the 22-year-old Brazilian poet/filmmaker saw on the cover of a French magazine. Rarely seen, it been compared to the notorious first Buñuel-Dali collaboration, Un Chien Andalou, praised by Sergei Eisenstein (allegedly), hailed for its visual experimentation and artistry, and enhanced by the music of Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel and Sergei Prokofiev. It’s the only film Peixoto ever made and, although digitally preserved, still shows signs of extreme degradation. In short, it’s amazing.

Kazakh director Ermek Shinarbaev and Russian-Kazakh-Korean novelist Anatoli Kim collaborated on the 1989 historical drama, Revenge, a spiraling meditation on the way trauma is passed down through generations, like toxic DNA. In this decades-spanning tale of obsession and violence, a child is raised in Korea to avenge the death of his father’s first son. The cycle of hate extends from the feudal period into the 20th Century. Revenge was the first Soviet film to look at the Korean diaspora in central Asia.

Lutfi Aka’s 1966 Turkish Western Law of the Border describes a border war between government troops and outlaws whose only source of income involves working both sides of the Turkish/Syrian border. This includes clearing a minefield and wrangling a flock of sheep from one country into the other. Another storyline involves the son of the outlaw leader, who must decide between attending school or maintaining the family tradition. An unlikely alliance between adversaries also plays into a time-honored Western trope. Erol Tas, the “most famous villain in Turkish cinema,” co-stars in Law of the Border and Dry Summer, restored in 2013.

Edward Yang’s mournful 1985 drama Taipei Story reveals a city – and an entire generation of young adults — trapped between the past and present. As one yuppie couple’s dreams of marriage and emigration begin to unravel, Yang’s gaze illuminates the precariousness of domestic life and the desperation of Taiwan’s globalized modernity. It was made in collaboration with Yang’s fellow New Taiwan Cinema master and future Cannes sensation, Hou Hsiao-hsien (The Puppetmaster, The Assassin).

Obsessions: Blu-ray
The obscure Dutch-German exploitation film, Obsessions (a.k.a., “A Hole in the Wall”), is more noteworthy for its back story than almost anything that happens in the movie. That much is obvious from the promotion of Martin Scorsese and Bernard Herrmann’s names on the cover of the Blu-ray package. For once, it isn’t a case of bait-and-switch advertising. They contributed to Pim de la Parra’s Hitchcockian-by-way-of-giallo thriller, set in Amsterdam, if not as vigorously as the highlighted type suggests. As it so happens, Scorsese was in Holland for location work on Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967) and agreed to provide notes on Parra and Wim Verstappen’s script. It’s what filmmakers did for each other, back in the day. Parra hoped that Herrmann would take pity on a fan of his work with the great Alfred Hitchcock and contribute music at a tenth, or less, of his last paycheck. Instead, he offered a few snippets from soundtracks he’d discarded or were in the works. Cool. Even so, Obsessions was never released in the U.S., despite the fact that it was shot in English, with some dubbing to support the dialogue of supporting actors.

When a painting of Vincent van Gogh shaving off his ear with a safety razor falls from a wall and exposes a makeshift peephole, med school Nils Janssen (Dieter Geissler) becomes an unwitting witness to a gruesome sex crime in the room next-door. When his young fiancée, Marina (Alexandra Stewart), an enterprising journalist, tells him about a report of a murder that she is writing, he naturally wonders if it’s the very same killing. He will, in turn, witness other violent acts, which he decides not to report to police. Nils and Marina will soon find themselves over their heads in intrigue and violence. Blessedly, there’s plenty of world-class nudity here, as well, to keep exploitation fans interested. This is no schlocky production, though. It looks good and displays an attention to Hitchcockian detail. The bonus features should also be considered must-viewing, especially a recent interview, by phone, with Scorsese, who was happily surprised by Obsessions’ unlikely journey to restoration and recounted the events leading up to his participation in the project. The new high-def transfer also is enhanced by fresh introductions and interviews with Parra and Geissler, a featurette on Holland’s influential Scorpio Films, Scorsese’s original script notes and a photo/video gallery.

On the Way to School
This inspiring French documentary provides parents with the perfect response to their children’s complaints about having to walk more than two blocks to school or being forced to stay home and study more than one or two nights a week. Pascal Plisson’s On the Way to School describes the lengths to which some impoverished kids will go to get an education and improve their lives. The camera follows 11-year-old Kenyan, Jackson, and his sister, as they walk 9 miles to school, through a savannah populated by wild and potentially dangerous animals; 11-year-old Argentine, Carlito, 11, and his sister, who traverse 11miles of rocky plateau on the back of a single horse; 12-year-old Moroccan, Zahira, required to hike four hours through the rugged Atlas Mountains, each week, to reach their boarding school; and 13-year-old Indian paraplegic, Samuel, whose makeshift wheelchair is pushed three miles each day by his two brothers, over riverbeds and soft dirt, and with the occasional flat tire. The 77-minute film doesn’t waste much time lecturing viewers on the students’ courage and determination, against formidable odds, because that much is obvious. It does make great use of the scenic backgrounds, which, are as beautiful as they are intimidating for anyone without a helicopter or Jeep.

Pelle the Conqueror: Blu-ray
Dheepan: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
In 1983, Gregory Nava’s El Norte introduced American viewers – perhaps, for the first time — to the hardships faced by Mexican and Central American peasants in their attempts to escape poverty, war and prejudice, and make a new life in the United States. A dozen years later, Nava’s epic family drama, Mi Familia, would recount the story of the Sanchez clan, whose patriarch walked across the border, from Mexico to Los Angeles in the 1920s, and, three generations later, would include a writer, a nun, an ex-convict, a lawyer, a restaurant owner and a hot-headed son, who would fall victim to the eternal war between gang-bangers and police. Although Hollywood studios would continue to ignore such stories, for as long as they could get away with it, independent artists successfully explored questions and dilemmas raised by our country’s frequently hypocritical stance of illegal immigrants and undocumented workers, not only from Mexico, but also Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. Among the disparate movies and documentaries that stand out are A Better Life, Sin Nombre, The Visitor, Crossing Over From the Other Side, Under the Same Moon, A Day Without a Mexican, Spanglish Sangre de mi sangre, 7 soles and Desierto. In 2002, Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things and Michael Winterbottom’s In This World joined the growing list of British films addressing similar issues among African and Middle Eastern refugees seeking refuge there. It’s interesting to contrast what happens in these movies to those documenting the experiences of an earlier generation of immigrants who found their footings in distant lands legally, but not without the same hardships and struggles faced by Spanish-speaking refugees from poverty here.

Newly released in brilliant Blu-ray editions, Billie August’s Pelle the Conqueror (1987) and Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan (2015) are Palme d’Or winners that address the plight of immigrants, but, otherwise, could hardly be more different.  Although released 15 years after Jan Troell’s The Emigrants and The New Land, Pelle feels very much like a prequel to those films. All three star Max von Sydow and chronicle the hidden costs and broken promises of legal immigration, as well as the importance of community in times of happiness and great stress. Troell’s saga began in mid-nineteenth Century Sweden and concludes in Minnesota, with tragic a detour through the gold fields of California to fulfill the American dream. Based on a 1910 novel by Danish writer Martin Andersen Nexo, Pelle opens with two Swedish immigrants — a widow father, Lasse (Von Sydow), and son, Pelle (Pelle Hvenegaard) – arriving on Denmark’s Baltic island of Bornholm, seeking work and relief from famine and poverty. They’d heard that jobs were plentiful there, but, not that Lasse likely would be considered too old for the heavy lifting required and Pelle too young. Their only offer would come from an overseer who arrived at the port too late to have his pick of the fresh arrivals, but could set the terms of employment as harshly as he wanted. Lasse and Pelle would be paid as one man, a year after their joining the group of men and women already on the farm. The work was difficult, of course, and conditions rough. The farm’s owners left it for the managers and interns to be cruel to the laborers, but the matriarch sees promise in Pelle. As the years pass, all manner of insults and tragedies impact the Swedes living on the farm. Pelle is bullied at school and Lasse strikes up an illicit relationship with the wife of a sailor, who she presumes to be dead, but has yet to be accorded any proof of it. There are weddings to celebrate, as well as moments of great sadness to observe. Ultimately, Pelle will be given reasons both to anticipate a decent life as a gentleman farmer and to turn his eyes toward the new world. The movie ends before the events presented in the novel. In addition to the Palme d’Or, Pelle the Conqueror won the 1988 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Like Troell’s epic story, it does a spectacular job recording the seasonal changes and period look of the settings – Scandinavia and the Upper Midwest not being all that dissimilar – as well as the courage of the settlers. The superb Film Movement Classics’ Blu-ray offers commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie and a collector’s booklet with an essay by critic Terrence Rafferty.

Contemporary refugee crime drama, Dheepan, opens in a teeming Tamil refugee camp in Sri Lanka, but largely takes place in a violence-wracked housing project outside Paris. Only in his second film appearance, Antonythasan Jesuthasan (a former child soldier, novelist and political activist) stars as a veteran Tamil fighter, who, after the collapse of the nearly 26-year rebellion, decides to forge a more peaceful life in Europe. To accomplish this feat, however, Dheepan must invent a family sufficiently credible to convince French Customs officials that he’s worthy of doing the most demeaning shit work the country has to offer. Newcomers Kalieaswari Srinivasan and Claudine Vinasithamby play his “wife” and “daughter”: Yalini and 9-year-old Illayaal. (His real-life family was killed in the war.) While they aren’t thrilled by the arrangement, Yalini and Illayaal find ways to adjust to life among the feral African and Arab drug dealers, if only because Yalini has a cousin in England awaiting her arrival and there’s nothing for them back in Sri Lanka. To help accumulate enough money to afford the last leg of their journey, Yalini takes a job feeding and cleaning up for the invalid uncle of a druglord, who’s confined to the building by an ankle bracelot . Apparently, Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone) anticipated combining elements of Montesquieu’s “Persian Letters” with Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 revenge-porn thriller, Straw Dogs. I can’t vouch for the former, but I’m pretty sure Peckinpah would have endorsed the ending, during which the former soldier reverts to his former warrior self to save his “family” from a rival ganglord’s attack. If the genre flavor of the final confrontation divided critics at Cannes, the violence felt warranted and not at all uncharacteristic of a man and woman with survival instincts honed by a faraway war. It’s a trait shared by immigrants around the world. The Criterion Collection includes commentary with Audiard and co-writer Noé Debre; new interviews with Audiard and Jesuthasan; deleted scenes with Audiard and Debre’s commentary and an essay by critic Michael Atkinson.

The Jacques Rivette Collection: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
While many highly regarded critics are confident enough of their opinions that they’ll defend them with the same ferocity as a mama bear protects her cubs from strangers, there must be times when they wonder if their views are so far out of the mainstream as to reveal a momentarily lapse in critical thinking. Those of us who stick to DVDs and Blu-rays not only have the luxury of time – and rewind buttons – on our side, but also the ability to compare our opinions to those of dozens of other writers with proven track records. I tend not to do much research ahead of watching a movie, most of which now come with commentary tracks, making-of featurettes and interviews that aren’t any more trustworthy than the blurbs that appear on ads in the newspapers. And, while I don’t think anyone at Criterion Collection or Arrow Films is ever going to ask me contribute an essay to their bonus packages, I know what I like. While watching the movies included in Arrow Academy’s The Jacques Rivette Collection: Limited Edition there were times when thought I might not be up to the task of passing judgment. Although Rivette isn’t as well-known here as his Cahiers du Cinéma colleagues Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and Éric Rohmer, his Paris Belongs to Us (1961) Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), La belle noiseuse (1991) and Va Savoir (Who Knows?) (2001) invite repeat viewings. The films in this collection – Duelle (1976), Noroit (1976), Merry-Go-Round (1981) — are far less easy to recommend without a prior understanding of what Rivette hoped to accomplish.

In 1975, Rivette was approached by producer Stéphane Tchal Gadjieff, with whom he’d collaborated on the 13-hour Out 1, with an idea for a cycle of four interconnected films – “Scenes from a Parallel Life” — none of which represented the same genre, musical stimuli or cinematic references, although several of the same actors appeared in more than one entry. Only one received much of a release outside France, while two others failed to gain distribution. Plans for “Marie et Julien,” starring Albert Finney and Leslie Caron, and a musical-comedy, featuring Anna Karina and Jean Marais, were abandoned completely. Almost everything that could go wrong on a production did go wrong for Rivette, including his emotional stability. I found Duelle to be the most accessible and beguiling of the whole bunch. In the myth-infused fantasy, the Queen of the Sun (Bulle Ogier) and the Queen of the Night (Juliet Berto), converge on Paris in search of a magical gem that will allow one of them to remain in the city. Much of it takes place in a taxi-dance nightclub, which wouldn’t have been out of place for a noir-ish story about disaffected tango aficionados in Argentina. The fanciful costumes are a delight and Ogier and Berto could hardly be any sexier. Imagining Edith Piaf sharing a table with the ghosts of Henry Miller, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, isn’t at all difficult.

In Noroit, the pirate Morag (Geraldine Chaplin) seeks revenge against the pirate Giulia (Bernadette Lafont) for killing her brother. Except for a couple of dashing boy toys, the rest of the swashbuckling crew is comprised of women, wearing colorful leather costumes and then-fashionable bell-bottoms. It is very loosely based on Cyril Tourneur’s 1607 play, “The Revenger’s Tragedy” and Fritz Lang’s 1955 adventure, Moonfleet. If the plot is largely incomprehensible and the depictions of violence risible, there’s nothing not to love in a cast that includes Kika Markham, Anne-Marie Reynaud, Babette Lamy, Danièle Rosencranz, Anne-Marie Fijal and Marie-Christine Moureau-Meynard. The same Brittany coast previously provided locations for The Vikings.

It wasn’t until I looked at the interviews included in the bonus package, as well as some reviews, that I understood why I was so perplexed by Merry-Go-Round. Simply put, the reason it didn’t make any sense to me is that it didn’t make sense to anyone, including Rivette. Blame for that goes to the director’s decision to cast dope fiends Joe Dallesandro (Trash) and Maria Schneider (Last Tango in Paris) in lead roles and follow a script that was largely written on the fly. Schneider would take a powder after Rivette suffered another breakdown, only to be replaced in mid-stride by another actress who approximated her appearance. At some point, the surviving cast and crew threw up their hands and surrendered to an ending that effectively put everyone out of their misery. It wasn’t accorded a release, either. Dallesandro and Schneider play Ben and Leo, the American lover and French sister of Elisabeth, (Danièle Gégauff), who’s summoned them to her rural Paris home to divvy up their father’s estate. Elisabeth fails to show up at the agreed-upon meeting place, causing everyone involved to believe one of several theories: 1) the old man wasn’t killed in a plane crash, after all, and his cemetery plot is empty; 2) his fortune is hidden in a safe – or safety-deposit box – somewhere in Switzerland, but the key and combination are missing; 3) a sniper is targeting Elisabeth; and 4) someone in a suit of honor, atop a white steed, wants to kill Ben. A year after the film shoot was completed, Rivette decided to insert footage of the film’s composers, Barre Phillips and John Surman, on cello and clarinet, at logical chapter breaks in the narrative.

And, for once, the mess wasn’t a figment of my imagination or untrained mind. The bonus material includes “Scenes From a Parallel Life: Jacques Rivette Remembers,” a tellingly bizarre interview with the director, in which he discusses the movies; “Remembering Duelle,” in which Bulle Ogier and Hermine Karagheuz recollect their work on the 1976 feature; an interview with critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who reported from the sets of both Duelle and Noroit, and has funny observations about Merry-Go-Round; an exclusive perfect-bound book, containing writing on the films by Mary M. Wiles, Brad Stevens and Nick Pinkerton, plus a reprint of four on-set reports from the locations; and reversible sleeves, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Ignatius Fitzpatrick.

Cops vs. Thugs: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Wolf Guy: Special Edition: Blu-ray
His name may not be as familiar to western audiences as Akira Kurosawa or Yasujiro Ozu, but, when it comes to genre films, Kinji Fukasaku’s legacy may be every bit as formidable. Before emerging as one of the leading creators of revisionist yakuza flicks, starting with the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series, Fukasaku co-directed the Japanese sections of Tora! Tora! Tora! Thirty years later, he would collaborate with his son, Kenta, on Battle Royale, a dystopian action/horror flick that would directly influence Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill and such “teen death game” pictures as The Hunger Games, which neglected to accord Fukasaku a story credit. Kenta replaced his father in director’s chair for the Battle Royale II (2003), after Kinji succumbed to what he knew to be terminal cancer. In the early 1970s, Fukasaku focused his attention on the subset of organized-crime thrillers, known as jitsuroku eiga. In the “Battles Without Honor” series and Cops vs. Thugs, which some consider to be his masterpiece, Fukasaku and such writers as Kazuo Kasahara, Fumio Kônami and Koichi Iiboshi elected not to portray the gangsters as honorable heirs to the samurai code, but as well-oiled hoodlums and leaches on Japan’s booming economy. And, the cops weren’t much better. Fukasaku’s directing style incorporated a “shaky camera technique” that would be widely imitated.  Like other jitsuroku eiga from Toei Studios, the events and characters described in Cops vs. Thugs literally were “ripped from the headlines” and presented like pulp fiction.

It is set in the southern Japanese city of Kurashima, circa 1963, as business and yakuza interests are deciding how to divvy up land that’s ripe for development. Hard-boiled police detective Kuno (Bunta Sugawara) oversees a fragile detente between the warring Kawade and Ohara gangs. The Kawade clan uses its political connections to further their activities, while the Ohara take advantage of their alliance with the local police. When Kuno greases the skids for Ohara acting boss Hirotani (Hiroki Matsukata) to usurp a land arranged for the Kawades, a war breaks out. The violence inspires government officials to import a by-the-books lieutenant (Tatsuo Umemiya) to take control of the situation. Kuno must decide where his true alliances lie. The upgraded two-disc Arrow Video package includes “Beyond the Film: Cops vs. Thugs,” a new video appreciation by biographer Sadao Yamane; a visual essay on the chemistry between police and criminals in Fukasaku’s works, by film scholar Tom Mes; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ian MacEwan; and a limited-edition illustrated booklet, with new writing on the film by Patrick Macias.

Arrow Video has also given Kazuhiko Yamaguchi’s B-movie thriller, Wolf Guy, a digital facelift. More interesting than anything else in this bizarre horror/action/sci-fi hybrid is the presence of Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba, an international martial- arts superhero known best for his “Street Fighter” series. Produced by Japan’s Toei Studio, Wolf Guy is based on a manga by Kazumasa Hirai, whose work also inspired the 1973 prequel Horror of the Wolf, made by Toho Company. Chiba stars here as Akira Inugami, the only survivor of a clan of ancient werewolves, who relies on his supernatural powers to solve mysterious crimes. After a series of bloody killings, in which the victims appeared to be clawed to death by a phantom tiger, Inugami uncovers a conspiracy involving a murdered cabaret singer, corrupt politicians and a plot by the Japanese CIA to harvest his blood for its lycanthropic powers. Meanwhile, Inugami also learns that he may not be the last of his breed. Yamaguchi’s cult classics include Sister Streetfighter, Wandering Ginza Butterfly and Karate Bullfighter. The rarely seen Wolf Guy touches all the bases of the exploitation game, with plenty of violence, karate action, T&A, actual surgical footage and a psychedelic musical score, and Chiba gives viewers their money’s worth. The Blu-ray adds entertaining and informative interviews with Chiba, Yamaguchi and producer Tatsu Yoshida, and an illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Patrick Macias and a history of Japanese monster-movie mashups by Jasper Sharp.

Malibu High
The High Schooler’s Guide to College Parties: Unrated Edition
One way to ascertain whether an old, vaguely memorable B-movie from the 1970s has attained cult-classic status is when Quentin Tarantino runs into one of the cast members at party and pronounces their film to be one of his favorite pictures. I’ve heard the same praise mentioned in so many DVD featurettes that it makes me wonder how long Tarantino’s list of faves could possibly be. Another sure way to know that a movie makes the grade in his mind is if it’s been granted a special showing at the New Beverly Theater — another Tarantino concern – complete with a Q&A session featuring its director and one or more of its stars. It’s one of the things that make Los Angeles such a great place to be a movie buff.

Released in 1979, Malibu High is just such a guilty pleasure. Made for a song and released by Crown International Pictures during the death throes of the drive-in era, Malibu High features of mix of fresh young talent and seasoned pros, including Russ Meyer-regular Garth Pillsbury (Supervixens), John Harmon (Funny Girl), Wallace Earl Laven (Clambake) and Alex Mann (I Drink Your Blood). In her one and only lead performance, Jill Lansing was momentarily plucked from obscurity to portray a troubled teenager who’s just lost her father to suicide and boyfriend to a spoiled rich girl, Annette, played by Tammy Taylor (“Days of Our Lives”). Lansing is surprisingly good as bad-girl Kim, whose grades are so low she’s in danger of not graduating. Instead of picking up a book, she uses her kittenish wiles to coax her male teachers into trading sex for passing grades. Actually, she blackmails them, but who’s keeping score? Her pursuit of good grades evolves into a lust for fancy cars, cocaine and avenging Annette’s capturing of her fair-haired ex-boyfriend. Naturally, instead of taking a job at the Gap, she turns to prostitution. Such bad behavior can be tolerated for only so long, even in the teen-hooker genre, and, as the 90-minute mark approaches, Kim gets her just desserts. Malibu High may have it supporters, but, in my opinion, rarely extends itself beyond the borders of drive-in exploitation fare. Even so, the Vinegar Syndrome rehab job befits a movie of much greater stature. The bonus material includes commentary with Taylor and producer Lawrence Foldes; an amusing and comprehensive 26-minute making-of piece, “Making Malibu High,” in which Foldes describes how he, a 19-year-old college dropout, was able to put together the $56,000 necessary to make the movie; “Playing Annette,” with Taylor describing the trials of working alongside a delusional diva and family members’ reactions to her topless debut; “Playing the Boss,” with co-star Garth Pillsbury, who’s slightly bewildered by the feature’s lasting appeal; a 27-minute “New Beverly Q&A,”  which reunites Foldes, Taylor and Mann for a pre- and post-screening conversation (recorded in 2006); and Foldes’ student films, “Struggle for Israel” and “Grandpa & Marika” One story that’s repeated is how Lansing’s decision to hold out for more money cost her the exposure and publicity that came to the Playboy model who stood in for her in the poster, which became famous for being stolen out of display cases.

The High Schooler’s Guide to College Parties is an enticing title for a teen exploitation picture. The “Unrated Edition” makes it sound even juicier. The problem is that there’s hardly anything here that qualifies as exploitative, unless the target demographic is comprised of white suburban males on the cusp of adolescence. Despite a Parents’ Guide listing on IMDB.com that argues, “This movie makes American Pie look like The Sound of Music,” and an entry at the authoritative Mr. Skin website that only contains images of lingerie and pasties, the DVD hardly warrants “unrated” status. I doubt that MPAA approval was in anyone’s best interests. In any case, Nate Rubin (Wuss) plays a white kid named Shaquille, who’s afraid that he doesn’t have what it takes to make an impression at a top college. To prove that he isn’t just another run-of-the-mill dweeb, he decides to throw a “college party,” whatever that is, just like the one in Risky Business. He fears being stuck in a stereotypical middle-class world, like his father, but lacks the money and influence to attain his goals. Shaq thinks that his smart, popular and athletic cousin, Brett (Zach Rose), may be is his best chance at getting into the school and social circle he so desires. Brett is on the scholarship committee for the private university he attends and is highly connected to a sponsoring alumnus. Thus, the need to throw a party sufficiently wild and cool to impress him. It didn’t even impress me.

Blackenstein: Blu-ray
The Blackcoat’s Daughter: Blu-ray
The Hearse: Blu-ray
Dark Harvest/Escapes
What director William A. Levey and wannabe mogul Frank R. Saletri’s Blackenstein lacks in production values, acting and narrative coherence, it more than makes up for in a backstory that, itself is worthy of a movie. The first thing to know, however, is that this reimagining of the “Frankenstein” legend not only was made at the height of the blaxploitation craze, but also in the direct wake of William Crain’s infinitely better, Blacula. In it, a critically wounded Vietnam veteran is transferred from a substandard VA hospital, where he’s abused by an orderly, to the laboratory in the castle-like home of Dr. Stein (John Hart), in the Hollywood Hills. And, yes, he’s black. Stein, we’re told, recently was awarded the Nobel Prize for deciphering the genetic code. Not quite mad, but certainly possessed, the doctor specializes in the reconstruction of damaged bodies through infusions of chemically altered DNA and the “laser beam fusion” of limbs borrowed from patients who no longer need them. (Somehow, writer/director Saletri was able to borrow items from Universal’s original Frankenstein set.) The soldier’s physicist girlfriend and, coincidentally, an admirer of Stein’s work, convinces her mentor to treat the quadruple amputee, knowing that he might die in the process. While all this is going on, Stein’s devious assistant takes a shine to Dr. Winifred Walker (Ivory Stone) and sabotages the soldier’s treatment. An overdose of the DNA cocktail causes Eddie (Joe DeSue) to turn into a brutish creature with a blockish forehead even Dr. Frankenstein’s monster might find hideous. After the Blackenstein monster escapes from the lab, he wanders through the streets of L.A., alternately rescuing damsels in distress and killing everyone else who gets in his way. Genre historian Michael Weldon, author of “The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film,” described Blackenstein as “a totally inept mixture of the worst horror and blaxploitation films,” as if that were a bad thing.

A perusal of the bonus features provides a different, far more intriguing side of the story. Turns out, Seletri not only wrote, produced and created special effects for exploitation flicks – only one of which was completed – he was a lawyer whose client list was largely comprised of unsavory characters, some of whom he cheated. The Clark Gable-lookalike also was fascinated with all things related to horror and the occult, going so far as to buy Bela Lugosi’s totally cool, purposefully spooky home. Almost a decade later, Seletri would be murdered gangland-style in a crime that remains debated and unsolved to this day. If that weren’t enough, the Blackenstein cast includes a former TV Lone Ranger (Hart); a genuine 1940s Hollywood starlet, Andrea King (The Beast With Five Fingers); a one-time legal client (DeSue); and platinum-haired Liz Renay, who, in 1959, served two years in prison for refusing to testify against mobster Mickey Cohen, performed in what was believed to be the first mother-and-daughter striptease act and became the first grandmother to streak down Hollywood Boulevard. Renay was married seven times, but allegedly also found room for flings with Joe DiMaggio, Regis Philbin, and Cary Grant, among many other male celebrities. She appeared in John Waters’ Desperate Living (1977), as Muffy St. Jacques. It’s why I strongly suggest checking out the bonus features: “Monster Kid,” interviews Saletri’s sister, June Kirk, and veteran actors Ken Osborne and Robert Dix; an archived local L.A. news report on the one-year anniversary of the murder investigation; and a discussion with creature-designer Bill Munns. The set also offers the theatrical (78 minutes) and video-release version (87 Minutes).

Completed in 2015, The Blackcoat’s Daughter (a.k.a., “February”) is a nifty teens-with-cutlery thriller that oozes with atmosphere and throws in an exorcism, for good measure. It made the rounds of fantasy and horror festivals, garnering some excellent reviews, before inexplicitly opening on Internet VOD platforms a few months ago. Of all the movies I’ve seen lately that were denied a theatrical release, The Blackcoat’s Daughter is the one I think would have benefitted most by being seen on the big screen with master-blaster speakers. Exquisitely paced, beautifully photographed and wonderfully acted by such hot young talents as Emma Roberts (“Scream Queens”), Kiernan Shipka (“Mad Men”), Lucy Boynton (Sing Street) and Emma Holzer (Spring Breakers), it represents Osgood “Oz” Perkins’ debut at the helm, after acting in several movies and TV shows and co-writing a couple of features. If the name rings a bell, it should be noted here that he is the 43-year-old son of the late Anthony Perkins (Psycho) and Berry Berenson, who was on board the hijacked American Airlines’ Flight 11, which crashed into the World Trade Center. His brother, Elvis Perkins, composed the nerve-tingling musical score and songs recorded by the actors. Filmed at the coldest point in an Ontario winter, The Blackcoat’s Daughter largely takes place at an all-girls Catholic boarding school, just before parents are expected to arrive to retrieve them for a seasonal break. When two of the girls’ parents don’t arrive on time, they’re stuck inside the same abandoned dormitory, with only a pair of spinster nurses to watch over them. A slightly older woman (Roberts) is headed toward the school, after being picked up at a chilly bus stop by a middle-aged couple (James Remar, Lauren Holly), who, we can tell just by looking at them, are bad news. How bad will quickly become apparent in the tightly knit, 93-minute thriller. The Blu-ray includes commentary and a making-of featurette.

When The Hearse opened theatrically in June, 1980, it was greeted with a review by Roger Ebert, in which he declared it to be that summer’s best example of an “idiot plot.” It was his way of pointing out that only an idiot – here, a recently divorced teacher who inherits a home at the end of a dark, secluded lane – would remain in a place so clearly haunted and a distinct threat to one’s sanity. Moreover, everyone in town knows the place is haunted and keeps the newcomer, Jane Hardy (Trish Van Devere), at arm’s length. Her claims of being stalked by a reckless driver behind the wheel of a long, black hearse also fall on deaf ears. We know better. William Bleich’s debut script appears to have been cobbled together from a dozen other movies about ghosts and haunted houses – especially those of the European-gothic strain, favored in the 1960s – and ideas borrowed from a shelf full of Stephen King books. Director George Bowers (My Tutor) cut his teeth as an editor, so it isn’t surprising he would fill the narrative with enough jump-scares – audio and visual – to choke a Trojan horse. Admittedly, while some are effective, they’re telegraphed by heavy percussive cues and the sound of a dozen screeching violins. For some buffs, the best reason to watch The Hearse will be a decent performance by Joseph Cotton, who would retire only a year later, as an obnoxious lawyer. The Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray has been newly scanned and restored in 2k from 35mm original camera negative. It adds “Satan Get Behind Thee,” a video interview with lead actor, David Gautreaux (“The Young and the Restless”), vintage marketing material and reversible cover artwork by Chris Garofalo.

The archivists at Intervision Picture Corp. decided against pouring a lot of money into restoring Dark Harvest, a 1992 thriller that pits a group of stranded tourists against killer scarecrows in a desert setting that hasn’t seen a harvest since the Anasazi deserted their pueblos and split for points unknown. While killer scarecrows have been employed with great effect in more than a dozen slasher movies, they’re located in places where crops actually are able to grow. Typically, the more malevolent decoys mind the crops from the vantage point of a crucifix, as they are here. A lot of mayhem could have been avoided if the tourists hadn’t been too busy pitching woo to notice that the nearest crucified scarecrow has slipped off his perch and disappeared into the night. Otherwise, David I. Nicholson’s directorial debut is an eminently forgettable excuse for skewering half-naked college kids with pitchforks. The best that can be said for Dark Harvest is that Nicholson does a nice job photographing the rugged Mojave Desert landscapes due east of Los Angeles, even shooting directly to video. As a favor to those considering renting or purchasing the DVD, Intervision has added the Sci-Fi Channel anthology, Escapes, which is comprised of a half-dozen rather decent shorts from 1986, or thereabouts. The show’s host, Vincent Price, appears at the both ends of the anthology, as well as on the cover. The titles include “Something’s Fishy,” “Coffee Break,” “Who’s There,” “Jonah’s Dream,” “Think Twice” and, as a bonus, “Hobgoblin Bridge.” The package contains recent interviews with actors Patti Negri and Dan Weiss, from Dark Harvest, and Escapes distributor Tom Naygrow, who discusses the bizarre artistic demise of writer/director David Steensland.

Shaquille O’Neal Presents All-Star Comedy Jam: Live From Sin City
Shaq may executive-produce this highly popular series of comedy “jams,” but his appearances are pretty much limited to cameos and handing off the hosting duties to comedians more comfortable on a smaller stage than the one bookended by basketball nets. “Shaquille O’Neal Presents All-Star Comedy Jam: Live From Sin City” represents the series’ second visit to Las Vegas, this time filmed live at the Penn & Teller Theater in the Rio All-Suites Hotel and Casino. The crowd came ready to laugh out loud and, if called upon, be dissed from the stage, which could be brutal. Viewers probably know, by now, to be prepared for a barrage of rough and profane language, politically incorrect humor and sexual material not to be shared around the dinner table. Easily offended viewers may want to stick with Sinbad and J.J. Walker, because this is some hard-core stuff. “Live From Sin City” is hosted by Lavell Crawford (”Breaking Bad”), who may be bigger around than Shaq is tall, and features K-Dubb, Cocoa Brown, Donnell Rawlings and Earthquake. It runs 91 minutes, which is the average for Las Vegas shows.

Rock Dog: Blu-ray
Even if some animated features from the major Hollywood studios are made with massive financial returns in mind, there’s still plenty of room for artists and writers willing to cut the occasional corner, due to significantly tighter budgets, and creating stories that appeal to a more tightly focused audience. In some cases, that’s meant retooling pictures made in Asia for western audiences, hiring familiar actors to dub the dialogue into English and fudging cultural references through Anglicized signage and digitally altered type faces. That’s nothing terribly new or revolutionary, of course, dubbing and selective translations have been a part of the business for decades. What is different, perhaps, is a business model that recognizes how differently the box-office pie is being sliced these days. Worldwide revenues are growing, even as American eyes are turning to smaller and smaller screens. In 1998, Disney executives took a rather large leap of faith by greenlighting a big-budget feature, based on the Chinese poem, “The Song of Fa Mu Lan,” in which the daughter of an aged warrior becomes a hero by impersonating a man in the effort to counter a Hun invasion. The mostly American production team on Mulan had to rethink almost everything they’d learned in the Disney bible about heroes and villains, men and women, as well as the look, texture and sounds of a country previously reduced to clichés and stereotypes. The much smaller-scale Rock Dog purportedly marks the first time the production of a Chinese animation property — an adaptation of Zheng Jun’s graphic novel “Tibetan Rock Dog” – was outsourced to America, where a merging of cultural touchstones was achieved.

Ash Bannon, who’s logged quality time with Disney, Pixar and Sony Animation, was handed the reins of a story that begins in a secluded mountain village, Snow Mountain, where a Tibetan mastiff guards the sheep against a gang of predatory wolves. He dreams of becoming a guitar god after discovering a radio that’s dropped from the sky. A 10-year-old viewer in the U.S. could easily mistake the Himalayan background for the Sierra Nevada, where sheep also are a cash crop and dogs are used to keep them in line. The pursuit of rock stardom has never been as universal as it is today, but Bodi has to leave home to hear the heart of rock ’n’ roll beating out its hypnotic message, because all music is forbidden in the village. If the ending recalls Footloose … well, so be it. Among the performers on the English-language soundtrack, at least, are Foo Fighters, Radiohead, Beck and Adam Friedman. The A-list voicing talent includes J.K. Simmons, as the boss mastiff, Khampa; Luke Wilson, as Bodi, the title character; Lewis Black, as a big, bad wolf; and Eddie Izzard, as Angus Shattergood, the coolest cat in town. Also on board are Kenan Thompson, Mae Whitman Jorge Garcia, Matt Dillon and Sam Elliott. The featurettes are “Finding the Fire: The Making of Rock Dog,” “Mic Check: Casting the Voices,” “A Rockin’ New World: Animating Rock Dog,” “Rock Dog and Roll: Exploring the Music,” which focuses largely on Friedman, co-writer of “Glorious,” and a music video of same.

The Shack: Blu-ray
The success of Stuart Hazeldine’s adaptation of William P. Young’s runway best-seller, “The Shack,” confirms the depth of the divide that too often separates critics and audiences, when it comes to unabashedly faith-based movies and books. The initially self-published novel, inspired by the author’s real-life test of faith, in 2005, describes how one unfortunate family man comes to believe that God – assuming she exists – has turned her back on mankind, as evidenced by such ungodly events as terrorist attacks, famine, epidemics and, in the protagonist’s case, having to endure an abusive parent and suffer the loss of a child to a sexual predator. It’s as if the oft-repeated bromide, “God moves in a mysterious way/His wonders to perform,” was written with him specifically in mind. (It’s from the hymn “Light Shining Out of Darkness,” written in 1773 by William Cowper, after being institutionalized for insanity and finding refuge in evangelical Christianity.) After receiving a message, delivered either by God or the serial killer, Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington) is drawn to the abandoned cabin in the Oregon woods in which his daughter is believed to have been murdered. Instead of confronting the killer, gun in hand, Mack is led to an idyllic lakeside home inhabited by Papa (Octavia Spencer), Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush) and, standing in for the Holy Spirit, Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara).

While being comforted for his loss, Mack is allowed to ask the kinds of questions anyone in his tragic position would demand from a seemingly all-knowing, all-loving deity. Instead of quick answers, the totally contemporary Holy Trinity asks him a few of their own. The truth is revealed, by and by, in a way that divided some old-school evangelicals and more ecumenical Christians, who weren’t freaked out by the notion of a black, female God, Her Native American alter ego, a lithe and lively Asian Holy Spirit and, in the only example of typecasting, a Jewish/Israeli carpenter, Jesus Christ. There’s more to the story, which one of the filmmakers described as a spiritual/mystery/thriller – I’d add sci-fi/fantasy – but, you get the picture. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the professional critics assembled by Metacritic.com and Rotten Tomatoes, have been almost unanimous in their disapproval of The Shack, while audience polls have been overwhelmingly positive, creating a gap of more than 60 points both times. Critics are a cynical lot, so, even if they liked it a little bit, their praise would be muted. Compared to other faith-based movies that pass my way, The Shack is distinguished by excellent production values and set decoration – heaven could be a suburb of OZ – along with convincing performances. The cast also includes Rahda Mitchell, Tim McGraw, Alice Braga and Graham Greene. Special features add “Touched by God: A Writer’s Journey,” “God’s Heart for Humanity,” ”Heaven Knows': The Power of Song With Hillsong United,” “Something Bigger Than Ourselves: The Making of The Shack,” “Premiere Night: A Blessed Evening,” a deleted scene and Hazeldine’s commentary.

Future Shock! The Story of 2000 AD: Blu-ray
So many books and documentaries have been produced about the evolution of the American comic-book industry and the role played by superheroes in pop culture that it’s difficult to imagine anything more to say on the subject. Throw in underground comix and graphic novels and the list grows even longer. If the Democrats had chosen Stan Lee — the creative force behind the ever-expanding Marvel Comics Universe – to run against Donald Trump, instead of Hillary Clinton, the country might not be in the fix it is, right now. If, perchance, Hillary had asked Lee to oversee an image makeover – ditching the doughty pantsuits, would have been a good start – we still might be in the fix we’re in, but she’d possess the superpowers necessary to repel supervillains Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan and the rest of the GOP horde. Paul Goodwin’s entertaining documentary, Future Shock! The Story of 2000 AD, reminds us that American artists and the masters of Japanese manga haven’t been the only fish swimming in the comic-book seas over the last 40 years. After a steep decline in interest in adventure comics aimed specifically at boys, a group of British sci-fi specialists emerged from the clash of cultures represented by the simultaneous mid-1970s rise of the Sex Pistols and Margaret Thatcher.

Kelvin Gosnell, an editor at IPC Magazines, read an article in the London Evening Standard about a wave of forthcoming science-fiction films, and urged the comic-book company to follow suit. Pat Mills, a freelance writer and editor who had created Battle Picture Weekly and Action comics, was asked to round up a creative team to develop something completely new and different, even from their American counterparts. Mills and fellow freelancer John Wagner chose the then-futuristic name 2000 AD because it seemed to be so far in the future and no one expected the comic to last that long. The company’s longest running storyline would feature a character who might have been inspired by Texas “Hanging Judge” Roy Bean, Dirty Harry and the leather-clad moto-gladiator, Frankenstein, in New World Pictures’ Death Race 2000. As visualized by Spanish artist Carlos Ezquerra, Judge Dredd became an ultra-violent lawman, patrolling a future New York with the power to arrest, sentence and, if necessary, execute criminals on the spot. Twenty years later, Sylvester Stallone would be cast as Judge Dredd, in an adaptation that underperformed for reasons that are discussed here. It’s probably safe to say, however, that the writers of Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop owe an uncredited debt of gratitude to 2000 AM. At 110 minutes, plus featurettes, “Future Shock!,” could easily be accused of overkill, even if he copious interviews editors, writers, artists and fans and background information covers 40 years of history. There’s plenty of visual evidence to peruse, as well.

Man of La Mancha: Blu-ray
Kiss Me, Kate: Blu-ray
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!: Blu-ray
These tuneful titles represent the second wave of post-Broadway musicals sent out on Blu-ray from ever-eclectic Shout!Factory. The only ringer in the bunch, so far, is Man of La Mancha and that’s only because the original United Artists adaptation was readily available through a licensing agreement with MGM Home Entertainment. At the time of its release, in 1972, it was one of the hottest properties in the business we call, show. The original 1965 Broadway production ran for 2,328 performances and won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It has since been revived four times on Broadway, with productions mounted around the world. “Man of La Mancha” began its life in 1959 as a non-musical teleplay written by Dale Wasserman for CBS’s “DuPont Show of the Month.” It was retitled “I, Don Quixote,” because the geniuses at DuPont didn’t think the show’s viewing audience would not know that La Mancha was a Spanish territory, easily found on a map. A while later, director Albert Marre asked Wasserman to consider turning his teleplay into a musical. and suggested that he turn his play into a musical. The original lyricist was the celebrated poet W.H. Auden, but his contributions were discarded, in favor of those by Joe Darion. At the time, film adaptations of hit Broadway properties were accorded roadshow treatment, which meant they would be exhibited on an extremely limited basis, in theaters with plush seats, wide screens and high-fidelity sound systems. Religious and historic epics, such as The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, also were reserved for these grand venues, where they played until the bean-counters decided it was time to give viewers in the boonies a break. Man of La Mancha was one of the last pictures given such a sendoff. Once again, however, studio brass decided that they could improve on their Broadway counterparts, by casting a terrific lead actor, Peter O’Toole, who couldn’t sing, and a striking lead actress, Sophia Loren, who’d only sung in two previous movies, more than a dozen years earlier. Entire songs were eliminated from the soundtrack and verses from well-known tunes were condensed, possibly to squeeze in an intermission. With the exception of a road trip that allowed Don Quixote an opportunity to tilt at an Italian windmill, the overall cinematic experience felt stagebound and confined. Today, however, Man of La Mancha can be enjoyed for the musical’s singular moments and crowd-pleasing songs, as well as O’Toole’s interpretation of the character and, of course, the radiant presence of Loren in her prime, as Aldonza. A vintage making-of featurette comes with the package.

No such problems affect Chris Hunt’s delightful adaptation of Kiss Me, Kate, a wildly popular 1948 musical that was written by Samuel and Bella Spewack, with music and lyrics by the inimitable Cole Porter. The version being distributed by Shout!Factory represents the cast of the 1999 London revival, starring Brent Barrett and Rachel York, both of whom are excellent singers and actors. It was shot in high-definition, before a live audience, and looks terrific on the small screen. The story involves the production of a musical version of William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” and the ongoing conflict between Fred Graham (Barrett), the show’s director, producer and star, and his spunky leading lady and ex-wife Lilli Vanessi (York). A secondary romance concerns Lois Lane, the actress playing Bianca (Nancy Kathryn Anderson), and her gambler boyfriend, Bill Calhoun (Michael Berresse), who runs afoul of some gangsters. Barrett was nominated for an Olivier Award, as Best Actor for Fred/Petruchio, while Anderson could be a clone of Bernadette Peters. Its chapters are divided by song titles.

Two years before rising Aussie star Hugh Jackman would become forever identified as Logan/Wolverine in the X-Man franchise, he assumed the role of Curly in Trevor Nunn’s 1988 revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!,” under the auspices of the Royal National Theater. Howard Keel, John Raitt and Gordon MacRae left behind a big pair of cowboy boots to fill, through the years, but Jackman must have done something right, because, in some circles, he’s more well known as a singin’ and dancin’ cowboy than an antihero with retractable claws and a mean disposition. “Oklahoma!” debuted on Broadway in 1943, breaking new theatrical ground like a plow on the prairie. A year later, it won a Pulitzer Prize, in addition to almost every other award handed out for live performances in New York. In 1955, Oklahoma! became the first feature film shot in the Todd-AO 70mm widescreen process, while also being filmed in CinemaScope 35mm. Unlike the newly released Blu-ray adaptation, it was shot on location in Arizona, which had fewer oil derricks to spoil the shots. At the end of its West End run, Nunn took Jackman and company to a London film studio, where it was restaged under ideal lighting and sound conditions, and varied camera placements. It was released on DVD before airing on PBS. It includes a behind-the-scenes featurette guide to musical numbers.

Special Blood
The most effective documentaries, regardless of their modest origins, deliver unsuspected reminders about how little we know about the human condition and the capriciousness of fate. Unlike much of her previous work, which “explores the dark, surreal side of human nature,” Natalie Metzger’s no-frills Special Blood alerts viewers to a disease so rare that only a relatively small handful of doctors know it exists, let alone recognize and treat in an emergency-room setting. Because an attack of Hereditary Angioedema, caused by a problem with a gene that controls the blood protein C1 inhibitor, is easily mistaken for other common ailments, it takes an average of 10 years to diagnose. The genetic condition causes sudden, unpredictable and occasionally shifting swelling under the skin, in different parts of the body. Symptoms usually show up in childhood and get worse during the teen years, but many people don’t know HAE is causing their swelling until they’re adults. It can be triggered by stress or sickness, hormonal changes, mild trauma, dental work or surgical procedures, and such medications as oral contraceptives containing estrogen and ACE inhibitors If the swelling occurs in the neck, it can close the airway, sometimes resulting in death. In Special Blood, Metzger chronicles the lives of four patients with HAE … five, if one takes into account her own struggles with the treatable disease. She also introduces us to specialists, who, only recently, have be able to combine their research and make serious inroads into combating HAE at a dedicated facility in San Diego. The film is being shown at screenings arranged by people involved in awareness campaigns that include a series of 5K runs.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Masterpiece: Dark Angel
PBS: Victorian Slum House
PBS: Independent Lens: Birth of a Movement: The Battle Against America’s First Blockbuster
PBS: Frontline: Iraq Uncovered
WGN: Outsiders: Season two
PBS: David Holt’s State of Music: Season Two
Smithsonian: Air Warriors: Season 1/Season 2
Nickelodeon: Welcome to the Loud House: Season 1, Volume 1
PBS Kids: Peg + Cat: Peg and Cat Save the World
Over the course of six full seasons of “Downton Abbey,” Joanne Froggatt stole everyone’s hearts as Anna Smith, the underappreciated head housemaid and loyal confidante to the frequently imperious Lady Mary. In the current “Masterpiece” drama, “Dark Angel,” the wee Yorkshire lass plays Anna’s polar opposite: Mary Ann Cotton, who, between 1852 and 1873, may have murdered as many as 21 people, including 4 husbands and 11 of her 13 children. No one knows precisely how many people succumbed to the arsenic Mary Ann mixed into their “nice cups of tea,” but all it took was one conviction for her to be found guilty of murder and executed in a botched hanging. Today, of course, the local medical examiner would have nailed the cause of death and established a list of likely perpetrators after the first or second murder. The life-insurance policies redeemed by Cotton, so quickly after the first few funerals, would have narrowed the number of suspects to one. In the context of Victorian England, however, there was no reason to believe that a former Sunday-school teacher and nurse would intentionally kill a loved one, even if the families were struggling to make ends meet and Cotton had a married lover on the side. Periodic epidemics of English cholera and typhoid were blamed for the early victims’ gastric and intestinal disorders, although the comparatively short amount of time it took for them to die should have rung some bells. Even if Froggatt doesn’t much resemble pictures of Cotton, she does a nice job tracing her devolution from normal working-class wife and mother to a demon possessed by greed and lust. Director Brian Percival (The Book Thief), who had worked with the actress six times on “Downton Abbey,” takes full advantage of the almost timeless locations found in Saltburn-by-the-Sea, North Yorkshire and Durham County. The costumes, as usual for “Masterpiece” presentations, are as visually compelling as the period-correct exteriors and interiors. “Dark Angel” is the seventh in a series of ITV mini-series dramatizing the most notorious British murder cases of the past two centuries, following on from “This Is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper” (2000), “Shipman” (2002), “A Is for Acid” (2002), “The Brides in the Bath” (2003), “See No Evil: The Moors Murders” (2006), and “Appropriate Adult” (2011).

And, speaking of Victorian horrors, there’s PBS/BBC’ “Victorian Slum House,” which provides a distinct contrast between the country settings of “Dark Angel” and what life was like for slum dwellers between 1850 and 1900. Although London was the richest city in the world’s most industrialized country, the poor and destitute led difficult lives in ramshackle neighborhoods, teeming with poorly paid laborers, immigrants, undernourished children, street peddlers and criminals. In the five-part living-history series, a Victorian tenement in the heart of London’s East End – modeled after the notorious Old Nichol slum in Bethnal Green — has been painstakingly brought back to life. Host Michael Mosley joins a group of 21st Century families as they move in and experience the tough living and working conditions of the Victorian poor. The producers also took into account changes in economic and housing conditions, clothing, food, furnishings and politics over the 50-year period. As such, the series combines elements of “Big Brother” and “MTV Real World,” with the novels of Charles Dickens. It’s fascinating, as would be a similarly themed series shot in New York’s Lower East Side.

All first-year film students are exposed to the parallel controversies triggered by the 1915 release of D.W. Griffith’s alternately brilliant and overtly racist historical epic, The Birth of a Nation. They include issues pertaining to an artist’s First Amendment right to distort history, the public’s perceived right to prevent a work of art from being exhibited, the limits of censorship in a democracy and, of course, the ongoing debate on the film’s place in the education of a students from distinctly different cultural backgrounds and majors. The “Independent Lens” presentation “Birth of a Movement: The Battle Against America’s First Blockbuster” is less concerned finding answers to these questions – how could it? – than adding a perspective not typically considered when addressing them. It pertains the competition within the African-American community to decide which individuals and organizations should represent blacks in Washington, D.C., and the media. Bestor Cram and Susan Gray’s exhaustively researched documentary focuses on William Monroe Trotter, a prominent civil rights activist and publisher of Boston newspaper, who urged black Americans to protest to release of the movie in their cities and have it censored by leaders of the white establishment. While he was as prominent at the time as WEB Dubois and Booker T. Washington, Trotter’s contributions have largely been ignored in history books. The film also describes unsuccessful efforts by the fledgling NAACP to fund a film of its own on the subject and independent African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux’s long-lost Within Our Gates, which countered Griffith’s Birth of a Nation with a new set of heroes and villains. Among those interviewed are Spike Lee, Reginald Hudlin, DJ Spooky and, of course, Henry Louis Gates Jr.

In PBS’ “Inside Iraq,” “Frontline” correspondent Ramita Navai makes a dangerous and revealing journey inside the war-torn country to investigate the war within the war against ISIS. Militias have played a crucial role in Iraq’s fight against ISIS and are supposed to answer to the prime minister. Some of the Shia forces, however, have been accused of kidnapping, torturing and even killing Sunni men and boys. Because ISIS aligns itself with Sunni Islam, the militias often see Sunni civilians as potential enemies on the ground, now and the foreseeable future. Over several months of filming, Navai traveled to areas of the country where few journalists go, including refugee camps, to interview Sunnis who say their relatives were abducted and abused at the hands of the militias. Interviews with leading Sunni and Shia politicians, as well as militia members themselves, were also conducted.

WGN America’s third original series, “Outsiders,” lasted all of two seasons on the superstation. It found viewers, but probably was a victim of an unsustainable budget, weighed down by a large cast and location shoots in the mountains outside Pittsburgh. Set in the fictional town of Blackburg, in Crockett County, Kentucky, the series tells the story of the Farrell clan and their struggle for power and control in the hills of Appalachia. The Farrells have been a force in that neck of the woods for as long as anyone can remember. Living off the grid and above the law on their mountaintop homestead, they defend their way of life using any means necessary. “Outsiders” is one of the most violent series I’ve seen on basic cable, but in a way that recalls movie portrayals of Vikings, Barbarians, Hells Angels and the Zombie Apocalypse. It stars the always-watchable David Morse, Ryan Hurst, Kyle Gallner, Thomas M. Wright, Christina Jackson, Gillian Alexy and Rebecca Harris, all of whom look smashing in animal-skin fashions and filthy dreadlocks. The DVD adds deleted scenes.

Four-time Grammy winner David Holt has spent his life learning and performing traditional American music. It has taken him from the most remote coves of southern Appalachia to the bright lights of TV studios and the Grand Old Opry stage. In “David Holt’s State of Music” he shares tunes and stories with modern masters of this historic music, which is easily confused with bluegrass. The second-season package features such artists as the Steep Canyon Rangers, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, the Kruger Brothers, Mipso, Laurelyn Dossett, Dom Flemons, Amythyst Kiah, Rayna Gellert, Alice Gerrard and the St. John AME Zion Unity Choir. The season finale, recorded live onstage, features Rhiannon Giddens, Dirk Powell, Jason Sypher, Balsam Range, Josh Goforth and the Branchettes.

“Air Warriors” has been a staple of the Smithsonian Channel for five abbreviated seasons. To me, it’s like the old Ralph Edwards show, “This Is Your Life,” except for American fighter planes and helicopters. Their individual journeys from the blueprint and appropriations stages, to combat missions, are amplified through rarely seen action footage and the stories of the dedicated pilots. “Air Warriors: Season 1” and “Air Warriors: Season 2” cover the first six episodes and six very different airships and fighters: the Marine Corps’ U.S. V-22 Osprey, which can convert from helicopter to plane, and back again; the U.S. Army’s AH-64 Apache, considered to be the world’s premier attack helicopter; the F-15 Eagle, which, for decades, has been the U.S. Air Force’s weapon of choice when there’s any real chance of air-to-air combat; the Army’s Black Hawk UH-60 helicopter, which has played a role in nearly every American conflict and is used all over the globe; the Prowler and Growler, developed to help win battles electronically, by locating, jamming and destroying enemy radar; and Air Force’s A-10 Thunderbolt II, made to eliminate armored vehicles and buildings with remarkable accuracy, while also protecting American troops on the ground. Most have survived battles in the halls of Congress and the Pentagon, in addition to those fought in the skies over war zones.

Welcome to the Loud House: Season 1, Volume 1” is new to the DVD aisles. The animated series is set in the fictional town of Royal Woods, Michigan, which is based on creator Chris Savino’s hometown of Royal Oak, Michigan. Middle child Lincoln Loud is the only boy in a family of 11 children. His sisters have distinctive personalities and interests: bossy eldest child, Lori; crazy, but ditzy fashionista, Leni; musician, Luna; comedian, Luan; athletic, Lynn; gloomy goth, Lucy; polar-opposite twins, Lola and Lana; genius, Lisa; and baby, Lily. Lincoln occasionally breaks the “fourth wall” to explain to viewers the chaotic conditions and sibling relationships of the household, and continually devises plans to make his life in the house better. Each of the 13 episodes, contains 2 cartoons. I’m not aware of any kinship between the Louds of Royal Woods and the “An American Family” Louds, formerly of Santa Barbara.

In the two-part movie, “Peg and Cat Save the World,” the President of the United States (voiced by actress Sandra Oh … if only) summons Peg and Cat to the White House to solve a problem of national importance. The president needs Our Heroes to identify a mysterious object floating in space. This series is designed to engage pre-school children and teach them how to solve math-based problems, with Peg, a chatty and tenacious 5-year-old, her feline pal, Cat, and her smart, handsome friend, Ramone.

42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection, Vol. 20
The latest collection of 15 vintage shorts from Impulse Pictures’ ever-expanding, if not ever-evolving series of salacious 8mm loops — re-mastered from original prints – with such descriptive titles as “Swinging Sex,” “Lady on Top,” “Lesbian Hairdresser” and “Intimate Friends.” No mysteries, there. Look for hall-of-famers Linda Shaw, Jamie Gillis and Sharon Kane, and an essay by “porn archeologist” Dimitrios Otis. Little known factoid: between 1960-80s, there may have been as many as 60,000 peep-show booths in adult stores around the country. Today, you can probably count them on your fingers and toes.

The DVD Wrapup: Space Between Us, xXx, Starlight, Operation Mekong, Serial Mom, Brain Damage and more

Thursday, May 18th, 2017

The Space Between Us: Blu-ray
Apparently, Mars has become the Las Vegas of planets, at least in the eyes of screenwriters looking for a convenient place to add some tourist-appeal to their next sci-fi drama. By comparison to Neptune, for example, the Red Planet is close, potentially habitable, already mapped from space and explored by rovers, and visible from Earth. Several generations of novelists and filmmakers have explored it, as well, in works that have stirred the imaginations of audiences around the world. The problem now, of course, is that we’ve become so familiar with Mars that fantasists have had to reduce their dependence on little green men and other alien creatures as potential antagonists. Instead, they’re creating new ways for humans to make problems for themselves. Ridley Scott’s captivating drama of ingenuity and survival, The Martian, relied less on science-fiction for its conceits than raw data, visual evidence and empathy for its appeal. It made more than $600 million in global box-office returns, before sailing into the aftermarket. Indeed, there are exteriors in the largely Mars-based The Space Between Us that look as if they might have been ported over from The Martian. Its lack of success commercially and critically, however, probably can be traced to issues unrelated to space fatigue. Absent any of the bells and whistles that helped launch other recent sci-fi extravaganzas — 3D, IMAX, 3D IMAX — even The Martian faced an uphill climb. Neither were its chances enhanced by three release-date changes and a marketing campaign hobbled by mixed messages. Unlike Gravity, Passengers, Interstellar, Life, Approaching the Unknown and various franchise and comic-book adventures, The Space Between Us played like a teen romance that began and ended on Mars, but, otherwise, was earthbound. Its less grandiose scale reminded me of Duncan Jones’ underappreciated Moon (2009), a twisty lunar mystery about a lonely lunar engineer, played by Sam Rockwell, and his computer, GERTY, voiced by Kevin Spacey.

The intrigue begins when a seasoned NASA mission commander, on her way to Mars for a corporate colonization project, discovers in midflight that she’s pregnant. I can’t imagine how this potentially calamitous medical situation could have be missed by the team’s medical staff or come as a complete surprise either of the adults involved in the reproduction process, but it did. Shortly after landing, while giving birth to the first human born on Mars, the mother dies. In a potentially disastrous public-relations dilemma for the project’s sponsor, back home, Genesis CEO Nathaniel Shepard (Gary Oldman) and director Tom Chen (B.D. Wong) decide to keep the birth a secret from the media and invent a logical explanation for the high-profile woman’s death. Flash forward 16 years and the boy, Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield), is living what most viewers, I think, would consider to be a reasonably normal life … considering the circumstances. Watched over by a nagging android and astronaut Kendra Wyndham (Carla Gugino), Gardner’s assimilated naturally into the 15-member crew. Like any other adopted teenager, Gardner scratches around the space station for clues to his parentage, finally discovering a photo of his mother and a man the gangly 16-year-old closely resembles. He also has become addicted to Internet surfing and the social sites, upon which he’s befriended a similarly lonely teenage girl. Gardner’s led Tulsa (Britt Robertson) to believe that she’s corresponding with a bubble boy, limited to life in a Manhattan penthouse. Feeling that it’s time for him to broaden his horizons, Kendra helps Gardner hitch a ride on the next supply shuttle home. What she doesn’t know is how desperate he is to touch base with Tulsa and locate his father, based solely on the photo and an advanced computer search of similar backgrounds. Once he’s able to break free from corporate headquarters, he makes a beeline to Colorado, where he confounds Tulsa with his actual life story and convinces her to join him in his crusade. Their road trip to the beach communities of Southern California, is interrupted with an obligatory pitstop in Las Vegas, where Gardner’s life-threatening aversion to Earth’s atmosphere betrays him. The Space Between Us becomes a race against time and gravity. As far-fetched as it sounds, I think that teen and young-adult viewers would find a lot to enjoy here, especially in the sometimes awkward interactions between Gardner and Tulsa. The Blu-ray adds a decent alternate ending, deleted scene, a background featurette and commentary with director Peter Chelsom (Serendipity).

xXx: Return of Xander Cage: Blu-ray
As easily identifiable as Vin Diesel is as xXx operative Xander Cage, it’s worth remembering he’d been missing in action for 15 years before returning as the protagonist in the franchise’s second sequel, xXx: Return of Xander Cage. In xXx: State of the Union, the first sequel to 2002’s succinctly titled xXx, the lead kick-ass agent was played by Ice Cube. It didn’t do nearly as well as the original and a lot of people gave the franchise up for dead. With Diesel coaxed out of retirement for the triquel and a script that successfully forgoes logic for extreme action, a return to profitability seemed inevitable. And, while it underperformed domestically, it did well in the worldwide market, especially China, where it broke the $100-million barrier in six days. “Return’ opens with a smorgasbord of extreme-sports gags that a 25-year-old James Bond might envy. After scaling a dizzyingly tall broadcast antenna, high atop a mountain in the Dominican Republic, Xander base-jumps into the forest greenery below to avoid police. Once grounded, he skies down the mountain side, avoiding boulders, low-hanging branches and tree trunks. Then, he commandeers a skateboard and races down a winding road to the sea, where a group of rabid soccer fans is awaiting the transponder box needed to watch a World Cup match. The captivating set piece anticipates everything to come action-wise, while, back in the Estados Unidos, a smash-and-grab attack at a top-secret gathering of intelligence officials introduces viewers to the all-powerful Pandorada’s Box gizmo that, if triggered, could destroy humanity. When the wily invader succeeds in stealing the box, it disappears into the netherworld of high-tech hoodlums and corrupt spooks. Apparently, Xander is one of the few people on the planet capable of recovery the device and almost everyone in Washington thinks he’s deceased. It takes a visit from Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson), the NSA agent in charge of the xXx Program, to convince his former recruit to prevent a satellite-launched apocalypse. (Gibbons is the only character to appear in every installment of the franchise.)

The assumption is that the box is currently is in the hands of another former xXx agent, Xiang (Donnie “Ip Man” Yen), but he’s only one of several characters whose motivations are unclear. Xander agrees to lead the recovery mission, but only if he pick his teammates. It will be comprised of fellow extreme athletes played by Thai martial arts star, Tony Jaa (Ong Bak); Bulgarian gymnast/dancer, Nina Dobrev; lanky Bollywood model/actress, Deepika Padukone; scary Aussie tattoo freak, Ruby Rose (“Orange Is the New Black”); Chinese singer/actor Kris Wu; British UFC champ, Michael Bisping; “Game of Thrones” favorite, Rory McCann; Brazilian soccer phenom, Neymar; ex-NFL tight end, Tony Gonzalez. Dobrev’s master hacker, Becky Clearidge, desperately wants to kick some butts, but her talents are better suited to blocking the bad guys’ computer transmissions and making the impossible possible. Toni Collette is typically credible as a duplicitous CIA official and Ice Cube returns from the dead for a cameo. “Return” looks perfectly suited for 3D or UHD playback, so early adapters should look for it in those formats. Director D.J. Caruso (I Am Number Four), DP Russell Carpenter (Ant-Man) and the huge stunt team keep things moving at a breakneck speed for nearly all of the film 107-minute length. The Blu-ray adds “Third Time’s the Charm: Xander Returns,” a nuts-and-bolts supplement that examines Vin Diesel’s return to the series, new characters and cast members; “Rebels, Tyrants & Ghosts: The Cast,” on assembling the film’s international cast; “Opening Pandora’s Box: On Location,” on the various sets and shooting locations; “I Live for This Sh#t!: Stunts,” takes viewers behind-the-scenes for a look at making the action sequences; and a gag reel.

Starlight: Blu-ray
A few decades ago, when Iggy Pop was one of the odds-on favorites in everyone’s office dead pools, it would have been preposterous to think he might someday be the marquee attraction in a French art film, albeit as a guardian angel named La Conscience. And, yet, here he is. Iggy’s return to touring and recording is back on track, as well. He didn’t have to stretch much for his performance in Sophie Blondy’s Starlight, where he’s mostly limited to staring blankly into the camera from a blurred background. He wasn’t even required to wear a shirt or learn more than a few words of dialogue. Iggy’s spirit image merely appears at various times to members of a small circus company, reduced to performing before meager audiences in a community protected from the North Sea by a magnificent bank of sand dunes. Like the threadbare circus, itself, the performers are on their last legs. Two love triangles threaten to hasten its demise even further. The warring factions are comprised of ballerina Angele (Natacha Regnier), her clown lover Elliot (Bruno Putzulu) and the cruel, schizophrenic ringmaster (Tcheky Karyo), and the Gypsy fortune-teller Zohra (Beatrice Dalle), who’s also in love with Elliot. Although there are moments of Antonioni-inspired beauty, especially in the over-saturated black-and-white scenes at the beach and dunes, some of Starlight‘s more strident confrontations resemble outtakes from “Bum Fights” videos. I would have appreciated some bonus background features, but, alas, it is what it is. Iggy completists should get a kick out of it.

Outcasts
Borrowing from one of the hoariest of all hoary teen-movie plots — the revenge of the nerds — Peter Hutchings’ The Outcasts succeeds by taking advantage of the manic energy of its stars and a surprisingly smart screenplay by a pair of newcomers to the writing game. Casting specialists Dominique Ferrari and Suzanne Wrubel went to great lengths to create an unusually large cast of precisely defined characters, while also avoiding or fine-tuning the many cliches associated with the subgenre. Victoria Justice (“Vctorious” and Eden Sher (“The Middle”) play Jodi and Mindy, an amiable pair of scholastically oriented geeks, who, after becoming the targets of a nasty practical joke, spark a revolution of like-minded outcasts. The rebels include AV specialists, science-fair champs, debate-club wordsmiths, Girl Scouts, fatties, marching-band lifers, cosplay kids and honor-roll dorks. United, they present a formidable resistance to the tyranny of the “popular” kids. It also helps that the imaginatively conceived dialogue is delivered at breakneck speed by teens, who, conceivably, prepared by chugging Diet Mountain Dew spritzers and shots of Starbucks double-espresso. As archetypal as some of the characters are, Hutchings dispensed with the cardboard typically used to create stereotypical background elements, including parents and teachers. Each is allowed to retain a measure of humanity normally reserved for the protagonists. The “psycho Barbie” mean girls and brain-dead jocks may have been drawn with broad strokes, but they’re given opportunities to repent their sins. None of this would have worked if the costume and set designers hadn’t done their homework, or if the overtly moralistic resolution and requisite post-scripts underperformed. To my adult mind, the only noticeable drawback is a straight-to-Internet visual sheen more suited to YouTube webisodes than a movie that someday could be mentioned in the same listicle as Clueless or Election. That said, I doubt that anyone who grew up watching MTV sitcoms will object.

A Street Cat Named Bob
If parents can get over the fact that the protagonist of A Street Cat Named Bob is a slowly recovering drug addict, Roger Spottiswoode’s winning adaptation of James Bowen and Garry Jenkins’ international best-seller could easily qualify as an unlikely family entertainment. Unrated, presumably, to avoid a de rigueur “R” for drug references and language, it is the true story of a homeless London busker and the ginger feline who adopts him. Street musician James (Luke Treadaway), based on the co-author’s own experiences, struggles to control his addiction with methadone and chronic poverty by hawking magazines and performing catchy songs, with Bob on his shoulders, for spare change. In this way, A Street Cat Named Bob immediately recalls Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova in Once. Another unavoidable comparison is to The Soloist, in which a homeless, Juilliard-trained musician is discovered by a reporter who sees something remarkable behind the dirt and grime. Even so, it’s an uphill battle all the way. Spottiswoode has previously displayed a kinship with animal actors in Turner & Hooch and The Journey Home. Here, Bob isn’t required to perform any anthropomorphic gags or be anything but a strangely obedient pet and loyal friend. The only animal-centric conceit is having the camera observe certain things — a mouse, yarn, household items and the occasional canine threat — from a feline point-of-view. The gimmick is used sparingly, however, and, perhaps, relates to something in the book. The closing scene — no spoiler alert necessary — is as uplifting as movies about addictions and homelessness get. The songs are pretty good, as well. Solid support is provided by Ruta Gedmintas, Joanne Froggatt, Anthony Head and Beth Goddard. The DVD comes with a pair of background pieces.

Between Us
I doubt that Olivia Thirlby and Anna Kendrick share anything beyond dark hair, being short in stature, winning smiles, a similar age and tendency to be cast in roles that are interchangeable. Even in their 30s, they can get away with playing recent college graduates. The first word that comes to mind when they appear on screen is, “cute.” That’s fine, but five more inches in height would be better. Neither is likely to be cast as a femme fatale. That’s OK, too. Anna received an Oscar nomination, for Up in the Air, and has enjoyed success in a pair of monster franchises, Twilight and Pitch Perfect. Olivia was a member of Juno‘s terrific ensemble cast and stood out in the Sundance favorite, The Wackness. If their characters don’t always get their man, we sometimes wish they would steal someone else’s. None of that matters much in the overall scheme of things, but it’s what came to mind while waiting for something interesting to happen in Thirlby’s latest near-miss, Between Us. Its an urban rom/dram/com about longtime friends and lovers, who, for all the usual reasons, decide that it’s probably time to test fate by getting married. What that means here, of course, is that Henry (Ben Feldman) and Dianne’s hastily arranged wedding will fall apart, even before they can consummate the marriage … officially, that is. Their first night as husband and wife turns into a nightmare of accusations, recriminations and temptations that should have been considered before hiring a limousine for the ride downtown.

A similar thing happens in Richard LaGravenese and composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown’s rom/dram/com musical, The Last Five Years. In it, Kendrick plays a struggling actress, Cathy, whose marriage to the up-and-coming novelist, Jamie (Jeremy Jordan), falls apart just when it should be solidifying. Their story is told almost entirely through songs, using an intercutting timeline device that causes all of Cathy’s songs to begin at the end of their marriage and travel backwards in time to the start of their love affair. Conversely, Jamie’s songs take us in a forwardly direction, from the beginning of their romance to the end of their marriage. The individual arcs of their stories meet at the point when Cathy and Jamie are at their happiest. It’s an extremely complicated concept to pull off in a dramatic narrative, anywhere, but Anna’s an excellent singer and, I suspect, The Last Five Years worked better on the stage, where it originated.

But, where was I? Oh, yeah. Thirlby and Kendrick work so hard to convince us of their characters’ virtues that it’s difficult to believe that their partners would give up on them so easily. It’s almost as if they’re in the wrong movies. In Rafael Palacio Illingworth’s Between Us, Henry uses the wedding-day argument as an excuse to hook up with a free-spirited musician, Veronica (Analeigh Tipton), who admires his books, but looks as if she might have missed the last bus to the Burning Man festival. For her part. Dianne makes the last-minute decision to call a guy she just met on her job as a project coordinator, using the pretext of wanting to drive his sports car around town. Although she’s shocked to learn that he’s married — his wife is in the back seat when he arrives — their performance-artist friend, Liam (Adam Goldberg), is only too happy to pick up the pieces of her heart. Although Illingworth’s script offers a short-term resolution to the newlyweds’ dilemma, neither hookup comes remotely close to being a match made in heaven. Thirlby’s first big on-screen sex scene session — without a body double, anyway — was more cringeworthy than stimulating or erotic. (It might have been hotter if Goldberg had taken off his Doc Martins and greasy jeans.) Peter Bogdanovich and Lesley Ann Warren make an entertaining appearance as Henry’s parents.

On the Road, Somewhere
Guillermo Zouain and co-writer Wendy Muniz’ debut feature, On the Road, Somewhere (a.k.a., “Algun lugar“), follows three high-school buddies on a summer road-trip through the Dominican Republic, likely their last joint adventure before going their separate ways. I suspect that IndiePix Films would love for potential viewers to anticipate seeing a grass-roots version of Y Tu Mama, Tambien, but, at a brisk 71 minutes, there simply isn’t enough there to warrant comparisons beyond the obvious coming-of-age similarities. Even so, its good-natured amiability and scenic beauty recommend it to admirers of emerging Latino artists. (Zouain is a third-generation Dominican, of Lebanese descent, who emigrated to the U.S. in 2010.)  In it, Oliver (Arnold Martínez), Moises (Javier Grullon), and Hemingway (Victor Alfonso) need to arrive at the remote town of Pedernales, so that Oliver can say goodbye to his high school sweetheart, before she moves to New York. Moises is documenting the trip as a last tribute to his love of photography, before studying civil engineering in college, while Hemingway hopes to escape his oppressive family and become a writer in a society that doesn’t appreciate them. Complicating their mission is an automobile in desperate need of a new radiator. It forces them to rely on shared jitneys and an acquaintance with a motorboat. They encounter “nearly every character under the Dominican sun,” including a Haitian hitchhiker, a famous photographer, a political fanatic, an intriguing artist and voluptuous libertine. On the Road, Somewhere presents a different side of the D.R. than we’ve seen in action films (xXx: Return of Xande Cage), baseball-themed docs (Ballplayer: Pelotero), political dramas (Kill the Dictator) and cross-cultural romances (Sand Dollars). It’s the island’s natural beauty and cultural diversity that sell the picture.

Good Morning: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Japanese writer/director Yasujiro Ozu is known best for such observant postwar “home dramas” as Tokyo Story, Tokyo Twilight, Late Spring, Early Summer and An Autumn Afternoon. The Criterion Collection re-release of Good Morning provides ample proof, in case any was necessary, that Ozu’s comedies deserve our attention, as well. It is a loose remake of his own 1932 silent, I Was Born, But …, as well as his second film in color. The rebellious pair of children to whom we’re introduced in both movies could have been fashioned after the Katzenjammer Kids or the Little Rascals, and their friends run the gamut from typically polite and respectful, to anarchic … in a mischievous sort of way. Minoru and Isamu Hayashi stubbornly insist on becoming the next family in the suburban neighborhood to own a television, so they can watch sumo wrestling and baseball without leaving home. (It must have been a demand made by children around the world in 1959.) They even refuse to speak Japanese and eat their meals, until their father surrenders. Their impolite behavior is completely out of character for Japanese children of the period, so it’s especially interesting to see how their decidedly postwar parents deal with it. Good Morning‘s vision extends to the difficulties of multigenerational families living in small, pre-fabricated homes, so close together that one family’s living room practically leads into the kitchen next-door, and drunken grandfathers easily confuse one family’s front door for his own. The boys find ways to avoid having to deal with bullies at school, while, at home, mom learns how to cope with nosy and domineering neighbors, whose gossip can be as sharp as a knife.

The title, Good Morning, itself, offers a clue to Ozu’s overriding theme of changing norms in a society not quite ready to deal with them. The exaggerated repetition of polite greetings, expressions of gratitude, apologies, bowing and other courtesies — the “lubricant in Japanese society” — is hilarious, but only when we finally get the drift of Ozu’s running gag. He also shows how everyday commerce is evolving, by contrasting the efforts of a persistent street peddler who’s knows the territory and a neighbor who finally gets a meaningful job, as purveyor of consumer-electronics products to strangers. And, then, there’s the farting. Even if the unfettered flatulence is hard to detect, at first, it is one of the things that links generations in these households. Everyone lets one go every so often and giggles at their own impoliteness. The Technicolor may also be new, but not the director’s brilliant camerawork and subtle shifts in perspective, which most viewers won’t even notice. The Blu-ray benefits from a new 4K digital restoration from Shochiku Co., with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; the inclusion of “I Was Born, But .,.,” with a score composed by Donald Sosin; the surviving excerpt from “A Straightforward Boy,” a 1929 silent film by Ozu; a new video essay on his use of humor, by critic David Cairns; an interview with film scholar David Bordwell; and an essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.

Extortion
Writer/director Phil Volken’s second feature, after the virtually unseen 2013 dramedy Garbage, is a better-than-average straight-to-DVD thriller that’s set in the Caribbean and involves a kidnaping at sea. A cocky American doctor brings his family to an idyllic island, expecting perfection and respect, but is not averse to flashing hundred-dollar bills when his demands aren’t immediately met. After renting a motorboat that probably is less than seaworthy — in lieu of waiting for a more tourist-friendly jet-ski to become unavailable at his resort — Kevin Reilly (Eion Bailey) decides to take his wife, Julie (Bethany Joy Lenz), and sickly young son to an island that’s just over the horizon. After a few pleasant hours in the sun, the outboard motor predictably fails to start, leaving them high, dry and thirsty for a couple days. Just in the nick of time, a fisherman arrives to rescue them. Not. Miguel (Barkhad Abdi) decides, instead, to kidnap mother and child, while extorting a million bucks from dad. Just as the exchange is set in motion, however, Miguel decides to launch a series of switchbacks that will alternately surprise viewers and make the kidnapper that much more odious. Neither do we anticipate the resistance to Kevin’s plight he’s accorded by local authorities and U.S. consulate officials, who sense that he’s a con artist. Again, though, an unlikely set of circumstances forces the American to take matters into his own hands and find clues leading to his family’s whereabouts in ways anyone with a laptop, Google maps and a chip on his shoulder could do. In a bit of a twist, Danny Glover plays a cop who seems more willing to frame Kevin than find his family. The DVD adds a making-of featurette.

Operation Mekong: Blu-ray
Until the arrival in my mailbox of Dante Lam’s all-action Operation Mekong, I don’t think I’ve seen a movie from China that so clearly lays out the country’s vulnerability to an out-of-control drug epidemic. I know the communist government takes such threats extremely seriously, because I’ve seen news footage of men convicted of all sorts of serious crimes, their hands tied behind their backs, executed within minutes of hearing their verdicts being read. When it comes to portrayals of vices and other social ills, government censors are as stringent as Hollywood’s Hays Office was, back in the day. Still, it makes sense that China would be facing many of the same concerns experienced in less-totalitarian countries. Its immediate proximity to the Golden Triangle and ready supply of contraband from Southeast Asia, along the Mekong and Lamkang rivers, came as a surprise to me. The recent explosion in personal wealth among a younger, more worldly generation of city-based workers would seem to play into the hands of purveyors of all manner of decadent pleasures. It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that British and Qing Dynasty forces went to war, partially over the legalization of the opium trade. (The Brits were all for it.) Its proximity to the poppy fields of Afghanistan also makes China vulnerable to trafficking along historic trade routes. On the flip side, China has become a source country for significant amounts of the ephedrine and pseudoephedrine exported to Mexico and subsequently used to manufacture crystal meth destined for the United States. While it’s hardly a secret — check out the Wikipedia entry dedicated to illegal drug use in the PRC — the still burgeoning mainland movie industry has focused more of its attention on historical epics, martial-arts thrillers and yuppie romances. (Hong Kong-based filmmakers still have their hands full with the triads.)

Operation Mekong was inspired by a 2011 attack on two Chinese commercial vessels on the narrow section of the Mekong River that extends from China’s Yunnan Province, through the Golden Triangle, and south to Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. It is believed that pirates, under the command of cartel leader Naw Kham (Pawarith Monkolpisit), boarded the vessels in an attempt to extort money and, then, executed 13 sailors at gunpoint. They planted 900,000 methamphetamine pills, presumably to make it look like the boats were used for smuggling drugs, and dumped the bodies overboard. The Mekong River Massacre was treated as a major national tragedy by the Chinese and an embarrassment by the governments of Laos, Burma and Thailand. Nine Thai soldiers belonging to an elite anti-narcotics army unit were implicated in the attacks, but disappeared after being identified. Naw Kham was arrested by Laotian officials and extradited to China, where he reportedly admitted his guilt, and was executed, 11 months later, with three of his subordinates. Operation Mekong‘s take on the joint police investigation and capture of Naw Kham is based on the official Chinese version of the story, which gives most of the credit to Gao Gang (Zhang Hanyu), head of the elite narcotics-control team, and regional intelligence officer Fang Xinwu (Eddie Peng). Even if Lam’s interpretation of the events more closely resembles Rambo, than, say, American Gangster, the elaborately staged chase sequences are right up there with the one in The French Connection. The DVD adds a comprehensive making-of package.

Willard/Ben: Blu-ray
Way back in the dark ages of the early 1970s, a pair of movies about killer rats caught the fancy of teenagers and young adults, effectively launching a subgenre in which household pests, bugs and reptiles recognized their collective powers and turned on humans, with a vengeance. If the critics weren’t impressed, i’s probably because so many good movies were being churned out by Hollywood “mavericks” and foreign auteurs that they resented having to cover flicks targeted at the drive-in crowd. (They’d change their minds when sharp young filmmakers emerged from the pack to re-invent those genres.) While Willard became a huge financial hit, Ben‘s claim to fame is having its theme song sung by a very young Michael Jackson in the closing credits and having it nominated for an Oscar as Best Original Song. (It won a Golden Globe in the same category.) For some reason, both films have been difficult to find, especially in the refurbished condition afforded them by the archivists at Scream Factory. The first thing to know, besides the killer-rats conceit, is that the protagonist of Willard is an unfortunate young man named Willard Stiles (Ben Davison) and Ben is named after the leader of the movie’s rat pack, and not the other way around.

In the former, Stiles lives alone in a crumbling house with his ailing, slightly addled mother (Elsa Lanchester). His boss (Ernest Borgnine) is a vulgarian, who stole his business from Willard’s father and is now working the young man to death in a menial factory job. Willard is on the verge of a breakdown when he makes a new friend, the aforementioned Ben, one of the many rats who inhabit the house. Not only can Willard communicate with the rodent, but he’s also able to command him to do his bidding, which includes carrying out his vengeance on the man who robbed him of his inheritance. Without giving away too much, Ben opens with a police investigation, led by Joseph Campanella, into the sudden invasion of militant vermin in Willard’s former neighborhood. Ben finds an ally in a lonely 8-year-old boy (Lee Montgomery), who facilitates the ensuing game of cat-and-mouse between the police and four-legged antagonists. Look for Meredith Baxter, Arthur O’Connell and Rosemary Murphy in key supporting roles. Ben suffers here from a substandard visual presentation forced by the unavailability of the original negatives and interpositives. The Blu-rays add an audio commentary and new interview with Davison and Montgomery, as well as vintage marketing material.

Serial Mom: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Watching the movie many of John Waters’ legion of fans considers to be his most widely accessible entertainment, Serial Mom, I couldn’t help but wonder how Divine would have portrayed its wicked protagonist, Beverly Sutphin. The obese cross-dressing mainstay of Waters’ early features had died in 1988 and his loss had a deep impact on the Pope of Trash. Kathleen Turner was chosen to play the homicidal housewife, reportedly after Susan Sarandon and Julie Andrews were considered for the part. It wasn’t the perfect fit Divine would have been, but Turner’s presence assured a larger-the-usual budget for Waters and an opportunity to play in theaters not strictly reserved for arthouse or underground films. It’s still a hoot hearing Turner and Mink Stole exchange vulgarities in the initial obscene phone call that reveals just how duplicitous Waters’ “Breck Girl gone crazy” could be. Along with her doting and largely oblivious husband, Eugene (Sam Waterston, also playing against type), and two children, Misty (Ricki Lake) and Chip (Matthew Lillard), Beverly enjoys the kind of suburban lifestyle only a writer of 1950s sitcoms could invent. Even so, little things trigger her sociopathic instincts: a fly on the butter, a teacher dissing her horror-fanatic son, her daughter’s two-timing boyfriend and the white pumps worn by Juror #8 (Patricia Hearst) after Labor Day.

Waters has always been a big fan of true-crime TV shows and once frequented the kinds of trials that alternately repulsed and captured the public’s attention, including the Hearst/SLA trials. He saw irony everywhere. In an interview included in the bonus package, he points out that the slow-speed chase that preceded Beverly’s arrest was staged only a few months before O.J. Simpson and Al Cowlings led a parade of CHP and LAPD squad cars from Orange County to his Brentwood estate in a white Ford Bronco. If Serial Mom isn’t as shocking as Pink Flamingos or Multiple Maniacs, it remains a movie that can be enjoyed by Waters’ old and new fans. NBCs recent limited series, Trial & Error, certainly owes a huge debt of gratitude to Waters, Beverly Sutphin and Serial Mom. Other faces to look for belong to Suzanne Somers, Traci Lords and Bess Armstrong. The Scream Factory package includes a lively conversation with Waters, Turner and Stole; “Serial Mom: Surreal Moments,” featuring interviews with Waters, Stole, Hearst, Lake, Lillard, casting director Pat Moran and production designer Vincent Pirano; commentaries with Waters and Turner; and vintage featurettes “The Making of Serial Mom” and “The Kings of Gore: Herschel Gordon Lewis and David Friedman.” Waters has indicated that he’s been forced into retirement by production costs that no longer allow him to make the edgy material he favors and still enjoy some financial return. His last release, not counting “Kiddie Flamingos” — a table read, by youngsters, of his classic — was 2004’s A Dirty Shame. The American cinema’s loss is the lecture circuits gain.

Brain Damage: Special Edition: Blu-ray
American Mummy: Limited Edition: Blu-ray 3D/2D
In the annals of exploitation and sexploitation cinema, Frank Henenlotter’s name may not pop up as often as Herschell Gordon Lewis, Russ Meyer, Doris Wishman, Ruggero Deodato, Jess Franco, Joe D’Amato, Roger Corman and John Waters, but what he lacks in quantity is made up for in notoriety. In addition to the Basket Case trilogy, Henenlotter is responsible for Frankenhooker, Bad Biology, Brain Damage and the documentaries Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore and That’s Sexploitation! Brain Damage is newly available in an elaborately conceived Blu-ray “special edition” from Arrow Films. It exists today as a classic example of bad taste in the service of hard-core horror, as well as an alternately shocking and hilarious anti-drug allegory from the this-is-your-brain-on-drugs era. The antagonist in Brain Damage is a parasitic creature that’s a cross between the monster in William Castle’s The Tingler (1959) and a lamprey eel. Aylmer (a.k.a., Elmer) is a phallus-shaped thingee that attaches itself to the base of its victim’s brain stem, excreting a hallucinogenic serum into the host, while demanding access to the brain cells of people with whom he comes in contact. After sucking a victim’s cerebellum dry, Aylmer reattaches itself to the brain stem of Brian (Rick Hearst), a handsome chap who’s become addicted to the serum. If these nauseating encounters weren’t sufficiently gut-churning, the Arrow edition of Brain Damage restores a scene so disgusting it completely redefines what it means to experience mind-blowing oral sex. It should come with one of those warning signs that used to flash on screens ahead of gory scenes in the glory days of cheapo horror flicks. Even by the low standards established in Corman and Jack Nicholson’s The Trip, 20 years earlier, Brian’s psychedelic visions must have looked ridiculously primitive to 1980s’ acid heads. That, however, is what makes the micro-budgeted movie so endearing today. The newly recorded backgrounders and making-of featurettes should be considered must-viewing for fans of exploitation films and Henenlotter’s strangely influential Basket Case (1982). The writer/director adds fresh commentary and a Q&A recorded at the 2016 Offscreen Film Festival. There are interviews with cast and crew members; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sara Deck; a limited-edition O-card with exclusive artwork and collector’s booklet with new writing on the film by Michael Gingold.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the makers of American Mummy had seen Brain Damage and were influenced by some of its more grotesque imagery. Neither would I be shocked to find out that the folks at Wild Eye Releasing had decided to retitle the 2014 release — formerly known as “Aztec Blood” – to piggyback on the hype being generated by Tom Cruise’s upcoming reimagining of The Mummy. Whatever works, I suppose. After a nearly 20-year hiatus, co-writer/director Charles Pinion (We Await, Red Spirit Lake) returned to action with this 3D account of the mayhem that follows the discovery of a gemstone-encrusted mummy, in a cave in New Mexico, by a group of university students. When one of them performs a primeval blood ritual over the mummy, it awakens the malevolent spirit of the Aztec Lord Tezcalipoca. Apparently, he’s intent on finishing his centuries-old reign of terror, beginning with the horny kids. How far he will get is anyone’s guess. I wasn’t able to screen American Mummy on 3D, so am unable to comment on its effectiveness. There’s plenty of carnage on display, however, as well as some T & A. Typically, they compensate for a decided lack of anything else in the movie’s favor. Still, I’ve seen a lot worse. There are some brief making-of pieces.

Disturbing the Peace
Wouldn’t it be great to wake up one morning to the news that peace has been declared in the Middle East and that Israeli and Palestinian leaders are encouraging their followers to pull back from a perpetual war footing? Yeah, I’m not holding my breath on that one, either. Too many war mongers on both sides of the wall dividing the West Bank have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo for peace to break out overnight. Still, occasional documentaries, such as Disturbing the Peace, offer reasons to believe that a reasonable solution to a 70-year conflict may still be possible in our lifetime. Launched in 2005, Combatants for Peace is an organization dedicated to fighting violence through nonviolence. It’s comprised of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian freedom fighters, who’ve come to the conclusion — after long stretches of time in uniform or behind bars — that talking and listening can be more formidable weapons than guns and bombs. After briefly sketching out the events that led to the current stalemate, directors Stephen Apkon and Andrew Young introduce us to men and women who’ve stood on the front lines and found reasons within themselves to try another option. One of the women was arrested after an aborted suicide mission and served six years in an Israeli prison. It took her at least that long to see the humanity in people she once targeted as enemies. Needless to say, their commitment to the CFP and openly promoting its goals wasn’t always greeted with sympathy or kindness. Disturbing the Peace may not represent the opinions of the majority of voters in Israel, but it’s nice to know that the minority hasn’t given up on a peaceful solution and that a lack of news coverage shouldn’t be mistaken for silence.

A Mermaid’s Tale
In the 180 years since the publication of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, “The Little Mermaid,” dozens of other writers have been inspired to adapt it for opera, musical theater, ballets, comic books, manga and anime, television and movies … short and long, animated and live-action. If there are only so many ways mermaids can be portrayed, physically, what they’re able to accomplish in and out of the water has few limits. In Dustin Rikert’s G-rated A Mermaid’s Tale, a 12-year-old newcomer (Caitlin Carmichael) to an oceanside town rescues a teenage mermaid, (Sydney Scotia), who’s become entangled in a fisherman’s net. Without saying as much, Ryan’s crusty grandfather (Barry Bostwick) blames the resident mermaids — in dolphin guise — for scaring off the fish that long supported the community. He has other reasons for discouraging Ryan from getting too close to Coral, but those will come out later, as well as a clever strategy to save the dying town. A Mermaid’s Tale‘s is limited by its budget, which, likely, was capped by the film’s expected audience of tweeners and their little sisters. It is enhanced by the sunny seaside location and bright talents of its supporting cast, including Jerry O’Connell and Nancy Stafford.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Africa’s Great Civilizations: Blu-ray
DirecTV: Ice: Season One
HBO Latino: Millie & the Lords
PBS: Nature: Viva Puerto Rico
PBS: Frontline: Out of Gitmo
A&E: Duck Dynasty: The Final Season: Last Call
PBS Kids: Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Tiger Family Trip
Nickelodeon: Bubble Guppies: Super Guppies
For many years, one of the greatest failings of the American educational system involved a complete disregard of sub-Saharan African history, from the earliest stirrings of human life in the Rift Valley of Eastern Africa to the colonial era. The slave trade was covered, of course, but rarely the circumstances that allowed it to thrive and long-term disruption of historical trends and boundaries it fostered. I remember being taught that African tribes often conspired with European traders to create a reliable supply of slaves, but it sometimes seemed as if we were doing the kidnaped men, women and children a favor by putting them on a boat and shipping them a thousand miles from home to work, for free, while plantation owners sipped mint julips on their verandas. That’s pretty much changed, thanks to demands made by African-American teachers, students and parents to set the record straight. Even so, an awareness of African history before the arrival of European and Arab traders and religious zealots is missing from most elementary and high school curriculums. The illuminating six-part PBS mini-series, “Africa’s Great Civilizations,” makes great strides toward closing that gap. Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. — a fixture in PBS documentary series — takes viewers on a journey through 200,000 years of African history — from the birth of humankind to the dawn of the 20th Century — focusing on the formation of city-states and cultures that withstood the winds of change or were condemned to be buried by the shifting sands. Naturally, most of us are aware of the great Egyptian civilizations and magnificent ruins that still stand. Gates reminds us that just as many ruins, temples and shrines can be found throughout the continent, if one knows where to find them. He describes how the constant demand for gold shaped the great civilizations and lured new ones to Africa’s shores. The same applies to the ebb and flow of imported religions, from the earliest Christian churches in Ethiopia, to the arrival of Jesuit missionaries and amazing sweep of the Muslim empire, as it made its way from Egypt to Spain. With more than 40 years’ worth of Black History Months already behind us, regular presentations of “Africa’s Great Civilizations” could go a long way toward explaining why the continent will remain an important part of our future.

Ice“ is a reasonably ambitious mini-series on a cable network I didn’t even know existed, before a screener copy arrived in the mail. The stylishly shot series follows the questionable affairs of the L.A.-based Green family, whose fortune was made in the diamond trade and jewelry business. It was created and co-written by the hyper-prolific Oscar-winner Ron Bass (Rain Man), along with an exhausting list of writers, directors and producers that includes “Game of Thrones” co-executive producer Vince Gerardis and Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer). The even longer list of stars and co-stars includes Cam Gigandet, Jeremy Sisto, Raymond Barry, Ray Winstone, Judith Shekoni, Ella Thomas and Donald Sutherland. Diamonds have been sold, stolen, swapped, smuggled and counterfeited for millennia. It’s been a staple in novels, movies and television shows, ever since such mediums have existed. The illegal trade in conflict diamonds from warzones in central Africa added a new wrinkle to the game, as did the dissolution of the Soviet Union and need by organized criminals and coke dealers to minimize the bulk of their assets. In the first episode, when the drug-addled Freddy Green (Sisto) stupidity kills an operative from a rival organization, his brother, Jake (Gigandet), is forced to trade favors with the ruthless Lady Rah (Shekoni) to keep him alive and the family business intact. The double- and triple-dealing that begins in Lady Rah’s penthouse will extend to Moscow, London, Amsterdam and Vancouver, although a dangerous mission to smuggle diamonds into Canada seems pretty far-fetched. The producers appear to have made a concerted effort to diversify the cast to attract the largest audience possible, considering limited reach and marketability. Likewise, the hip-hoppity music score sometimes seems out-of-sync with what’s happening on the screen. When that sort of disconnectedness kicks in, there’s always someone around to shoot or screw.

Writer/director/actress Jennica Carmona and her actor sibling, Jessica Carmona, were the driving force behind HBO Latino’s “Millie & the Lords,” a contemporary look back at the roots of New York’s Young Lords Party, from the vantage point of former members and young Puerto Ricans largely unaware of its existence. The well-meaning, if overly simplistic story ignores the Lords’ Chicago origins and participation in the pre-Jesse Jackson Rainbow Coalition — Black Panthers, Young Patriots, Brown Berets, American Indian Movement — and eventual dissolution due to government infiltration and sabotage. Instead, Carmona approaches the subject through the day-to-day struggles of Milagros Baez, a young Spanish Harlem resident whose self-esteem is on the skids. Something in her father’s past is preventing him from recognizing her stature as an adult and ability to make her own decisions. When a former YLP member returns to El Barrio to teach a refresher course in the group’s history, Mille and her fellow students are inspired to adopt its political and social ideals. The melodramatic aspects are heightened when local thugs target one of the students who’s decided that he wants nothing more to do gang-banging. It inspires Millie to further escape the cycle of violence and poverty that’s strangling her contemporaries. Even if its heart is in the right place, the Kickstarter-financed “Millie & the Lords” is hamstrung by poor production values and overlapping storylines.

The “Nature“ presentation, “Viva Puerto Rico,” takes viewers to the unincorporated American territory, located in the northeast Caribbean Sea, which is currently being drained of its limited financialza resources by the same Wall Street interests that drove the United States into a depression in 2008. With our current president re-opening the floodgates of corruption and corporate greed for the first time in eight years, prospects for recovery there don’t look promising. As narrated by Jimmy Smits, “Viva Puerto Rico” shows how an endangered economy might affect efforts to avoid the extinction of a myriad of species native to the island. First, though, we are given a good idea of what’s at stake. Puerto Rico is a tropical island infused with such unique natural wonders as the world’s deepest sea-trench, the longest underground cave system, a startlingly bright bioluminescent bay and rain forests that sometimes really do rain frogs. Among the people we meet are scientists dedicated to restoring three segments of Puerto Rico’s rich biological heritage — manatees, parrots and sea turtles — through breeding programs, rehabilitation, and protected zones.

Unlike his predecessors, George W. Bush and Barak Obama, President Trump is in no hurry to release or relocate suspected terrorists housed at Guantanamo Bay prison or permanently close the facility. Remaining mum on the promises he made during his campaign and tweeting fake facts about the recidivist tendencies of those “freed” by Obama. He conveniently ignores the fact that most of the prisoners were relocated during the Bush administration and more of those men returned to their old ways. He’s indicated that he not only wants to keep Gitmo open, but also try Americans accused of terrorism there. For now, at least, the proposal appears to have been placed on the back burner. PBS’ “Frontline: Out of Gitmo” tells the story of a Yemeni detainee released from the controversial prison after 14 years and sent to Serbia, of all places. For all practical purposes, he’s only slightly better off than he was in Cuba. Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel describes the challenges and complexities of releasing men who were never charged with a crime, but were once considered too great a risk to set free. The second half, “Forever Prison,” uses rare archival footage to tell the little known story of how the military base came to be used to hold people beyond the reach of U.S. law. It happened a decade before 9/11, when some 70,000 Haitian refugees fled their country, seeking asylum in the U.S. in the wake of a bloody coup.

Carl Hiaasen’s latest novel, “Razor Girl,” is hooked, in large part, to a family of fake redneck outdoorsmen, whose TV reality show is practically a carbon copy of the “Duck Dynasty“ clan, only exponentially funnier. A&E has made a fortune on the show, but decided to pull the plug on it earlier this year, after 11 seasons … not to be confused with 11 years, as its run began in 2012. Some observers believe that A&E buckled to complaints over Phil Robertson’s bigoted misinterpretations of Christ’s teachings and complaints over a culture war he claims was begun by yuppies and vegans, none of whom are known to carry shotguns or crossbows to back their beliefs. Ratings have continued to slide, ever since the Robertsons began to take themselves seriously as public figures and allow themselves to be used as political tools by conservative pols. I don’t think the numbers normally would warrant cancellation, but, frankly, good riddance. I haven’t paid much attention to “Duck Dynasty” since the first season. I’d pay to watch a Texas Death Match between the Robertsons and Kardashians, but voluntarily submitting to such torture became too much to bear. Still, final seasons always reveal something about the people involved and, well, why not? I was most surprised by two things: 1) how much the dialogue resembled that put in the mouths Beavis and Butt-Head, by Mike Judge & Co.; and 2) how little time the Robertsons spend fishing and hunting. Almost everything in the 15-show season seemed scripted by someone at A&E headquarters or edited to make the men in the family look as if they were going to shave their beards 10 minutes after the final wrap party. The women in the show are as articulate and funny as their husbands are made to look moronic. It led me to believe that the wives either were blessed with better writers or they’re in on the scam and can’t wait for those beards to come off, too. Until the end of July, the package is available solely at Walmart.

PBS Kids’ “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Tiger Family Trip“ is an extended story arc created for the Fred Rogers-inspired show for preschoolers. The story follows Daniel and his family on a journey to visit Grandpere, accenting the highs and lows of traveling with young kids. Songs, simple games and gentle reminders of the importance of a positive attitude are some of the takeaways families can expect from the special presentation. Other episodes feature Daniel going to a carnival, watching fireworks and setting up a lemonade stand with Prince Wednesday.

Nickelodeon’s hit series “Bubble Guppies: Super Guppies“ also is designed for the enjoyment of preschoolers and family members who want to help the kids with early lessons on science, math and reading. Music plays a key role in the learning process. The 114-minute package contains the episodes, “Super Guppies!,” “X Marks the Spot,” “Haunted House Party,” “The Unidentified Flying Orchestra” and “Police Cop-etition.”

The DVD Wrapup: Fifty Shades Darker, Things to Come, Chef’s Wife, Alena, Kiju Yoshida, Streets of Fire, Beaches and more

Thursday, May 11th, 2017

Fifty Shades Darker: Unrated Edition: Blu-ray
The thing that fans of E. L. James’ fabulously successful “Fifty Shades Trilogy” already know, but some people anticipating the Blu-ray release of James Foley and Niall Leonard’s Fifty Shades Darker may not, is that it’s essentially a two-hour trailer for next year’s Fifty Shades Freed. Ominous characters are introduced into dramatic throughlines that inevitably turn into cliffhangers, leaving those of us who haven’t read the books hanging in midair, with too many questions on our mind, not the least of them concerning the lack of sexual gratification in a series about hardcore S&M… or, even, pubic hair. Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson have swell bodies, as far as they go, but so do Barbie and Ken. While there were a few micro-flashes of waxed pubes in Fifty Shades of Grey, they’ve been culled from both the sequel and its “unrated edition.” Admittedly, the pre-Valentine’s Day openings of both films were intended to attract couples — women in search of romance, men hoping for an after-party at home — but isn’t it possible that a few female viewers, at least, might want to know if Christian Grey’s newly acquired three-day stubble was balanced by some “manscaping” below. As Fifty Shades Darker opens, Christian and Anastasia are estranged. She’s an executive assistant at a high-profile publishing house, while Christian is carrying a torch for his errant plaything. In less time than it takes for most folks to decide between fake butter and plain popcorn, they reconnect and he’s agreed to Anastasia’s list of demands. In another blink of the eye, she’s peeling off her britches in elevators and restaurants, and submitting to the tortuous pleasure of inserting beads into her hoohah for a night out on the town. (I would have preferred to see the look on his face if she demanded he stick a necklace of jawbreaker-sized beads up his butt… but, alas, Christian’s still the boss.)

To keep things from getting too monotonous for viewers, several shadowy figures from Christian’s dark past — including her piggy boss, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), sex-crazed stalker (Bella Heathcote) and his personal Mrs. Robinson, Elena Lincoln (Kim Basinger) — have been added to the cast of characters. They have no intentions of allowing the blessed couple to live happily ever after, but, again, the details will only be revealed in 2018. (At least the producers had the decency not to divide the final installment into two parts, as was the case with the Twilight saga.) With the able assistance of cinematographer John Schwartzman and composer Danny Elfman, Foley does a good job keeping things sparkly, posh and tastefully erotic, but the holes in Leonard’s screenplay — or, more likely author-producer James’ novels — give new meaning to the concept of “half-baked.” A helicopter crash in the wilderness surrounding the Mount St. Helens has the same emotional payoff as a fender-bender on Santa Monica Boulevard. The unrated-edition adds 13 minutes of new and extended material, including a pool-room scene and some bumping and grinding that probably concerned the ratings board. If “Darker” didn’t do nearly as well as the blockbuster original at the domestic and worldwide box office, it still made enough money for investors to anticipate next Valentine’s Day’s release. Also included in the 4K UHD and Blu-ray versions are the featurettes, “Darker Direction,” in which Foley explains how he intended to address fans’ unresolved expectations from Part I; “New Threats,” on characters Jack Hyde, Leila and Elena Lincoln; “The Masquerade,” on the gala masquerade benefit event at Grey Mansion; “Intimate With Darker,” a discussion about the “sensual and provocative world of Fifty Shades Darker, including a visit to the Red Room and Christian’s new toys”; “Writing Darker,” with James and Leonard; “Dark Reunion,” with the filmmakers and cast members, who returned for the sequel; deleted scenes; and a tease to Fifty Shades Freed.

Things to Come: Blu-ray
The Chef’s Wife
The attention paid to Isabelle Huppert for her Oscar-nominated, Globe- and Indie Spirit-winning performance in Elle not only was well deserved, but also long overdue. The brilliant French actor has been a finalist for Cesar awards in the top acting categories 16 times, winning twice, for Elle and La ceremonie (1995). The first of two Best Actress nods, at Cannes, came in a unanimous vote for her work in La pianiste (2001). Her 132 credits on IMDB.com include a 2010 guest appearance on “Law & Order: SVU,” three features still awaiting distribution here and six more either completed, announced or in post-production. At 64, Huppert shows no signs of slowing down or begging for scraps from tables reserved for flavor-of-the-month ingenues. Her latest import, Things to Come (“L’avenir”), is exactly the kind of drama American studios should be offering to the cream of our acting crop, but no longer do… except as Oscar bait. In it, Huppert plays a woman — yes, of a certain age — whose world is about to come crashing down on her. Nathalie is a philosophy teacher, who’s popular with her students and has seen her work published and assigned throughout France. She and her husband, Heinz (Andre Marcon), have been married for 25 years and their nearly adult children seem reasonably well-adjusted. Her actress mother (Edith Scob) looks as if she could die at any moment, but, at least, it allows for steady work as a corpse or murder victim on TV crime shows. Things begin to go sideways when students block access to her classroom during one of France’s many strikes, for God knows what reason. Then, at their daughter’s insistence, Heinz reveals to Nathalie that he’s been having an affair with one of his students and is leaving her. Her publisher decides to cut back on the number of manuscripts he’ll need from her and Mom goes completely off her rocker, calling paramedics for imagined ailments and refusing to eat when she’s taken to a nursing home. She even is required to take care of her mother’s lazy black cat, Pandora.

For the first time in memory, Nathalie finds herself adrift. She attempts to make the best of her newly rediscovered sense of liberation, but things keep getting her way. In an American adaptation of writer-director Mia Hansen Love’s fifth feature, Nathalie would be given a more grin-and-bear-it personality and openness toward trying such contemporary cure-alls as Match.com, medical marijuana, samba lessons or a recovery group for women who have “Shit Happens” tattooed above their broken hearts. Here, Love allows her protagonist — modeled after her own mother — the dignity of maintaining a stiff upper lip in public, while saving her weeping for private moments, in the company of Pandora. Heinz turns out to be a selfish and insensitive dick, who boxes up his wife’s books, along with his own, when he collects his property, and looks astonished when Nathalie boots him out of the house before Christmas dinner. (His girlfriend’s in Spain, so he’s lonely. Tough shit.) Love also gives her the opportunity to renew a friendship with a handsome former student, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), who’s decided to leave teaching and join a group of like-minded young intellectuals in the Alps. They publish philosophical tracts, pretend to be anarchists and make cheese. Again, it would have been easy for Love to design a May-September romance for the two platonic friends, but Nathalie seems more concerned with how her fat Parisian cat might adjust to the mountain greenery, if transplanted and left unbound. In another actress’ hands, Nathalie’s troubles might not amount to a hill of beans in our minds. Huppert is so recognizable as someone we might know — or have met somewhere down the line — that we are perfectly willing to stick around to see how things work out for her. And, that’s no small trick.

Like Huppert, Emmanuelle Devos (Kings & Queen) and Karin Viard (Polisse) are actresses — again, of a certain age — who don’t appear to have much trouble finding identifiable characters to play or fulfilling roles in worthwhile movies. Their names may not be instantly recognizable here, but anyone who’s seen more than a handful of French films in the last 10-15 years is well aware of their talent. Seeing them together, in even as bittersweet a comedy as Anne Le Ny’s The Chef’s Wife, is something of a special treat. Devos plays Carole, the wife of a successful chef, Sam (Roschdy Zem), but someone who feels undernourished in her role as dining-room hostess at the high-end restaurant. She consults a career counselor, Marithe (Viard), who is herself dissatisfied by her useful but mundane place within the bureaucracy. Almost by accident, the women become fast friends, making excuses for each other and finding reasons to go on treks in the country. When Marithe meets Sam, she’s immediately struck by something in him that Carole no longer feels. From this point forward, Marithe’s interest in finding her friend a job away from her husband’s dining room becomes an ethically questionable, if romantically strategic conflict of interest. When Sam begins to show an interest in Marithe, his work begins to slip. Things do get a little too crazy as the comedy turns more ironic, but in a pleasant enough sort of way. Besides the acting talent on display, the lovely Orleans settings weave a spell of their own. (The same is true for the Alpine and Brittany locations in Things to Come.)

Alena
Based on an award-winning graphic novel from Sweden — distributed here by Dark Horse Comics — Alena is a revenge thriller, based in the kind of posh all-girls school in which members of the popular clique get away with being mean and nasty to new kids in school. Said to be inspired thematically by Carrie and tonally by Let the Right One In, Daniel di Grado’s debut feature demonstrates once again that girls can be just as nasty as boys, especially when their position in their Stockholm school’s pecking order is threatened. A year earlier, something caused the title character (Amalia Holm) to be expelled from the public school she was attending. The academy’s reigning blond goddess, Filippa (Molly Nutley), takes an instant disliking to the deeply introverted Alena, especially when she demonstrates her unexpected prowess at lacrosse. As captain, Filippa mistakenly believes that she holds veto power over the coach’s decisions as to who makes the team, even if the rookie would be an asset to the squad. After picking on Alena unmercifully, Filippa forces the coach’s hand by going over his head to the school’s easily buffaloed administration. The queen bee’s icy exterior begins to melt when Alena’s talent wins the support of teammates. Before that happens, though, the mean girls order a presumably lesbian teammate to assault Alena in a vicious shower-room attack. It kicks the narrative into a completely different gear. By now, Alena not only has befriended the bohemian, down-to-earth Fabienne (Felice Jankell), but also is reacquainted with a darkly sinister girl from her previous school, Josefin (Rebecka Nyman). One is warmly sympathetic and supportive, while the other will act as her avenging angel. Di Grado sometimes loses his grip on the throttle here, especially when it comes to balancing the horror, violence and exposition. With a mere 83 minutes at his disposable, though, he’s able to recover quickly and get Alena back on track.

Apprentice
Justice Served
It takes a lot for the execution of a convicted murderer to make the front page of a newspaper, anymore. That’s happened twice, since February, when Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson announced his decision to go ahead with plan to set a new American record by executing 8 condemned men in a 10-day span. The reason it had to be done in such a hurry, he said, was because the state’s supply of a controversial lethal-injection drug was about to expire and the suppliers weren’t happy about having their products mixed together, as a deadly cocktail. The second time came after media witnesses reported that Kenneth Williams continued “coughing, convulsing, lurching, jerking” for a several minutes after being injected with the first drug, midazolam. Hutchinson disputed the reports out of hand, but probably was unhappier that stays of execution for some of the men were announced before he could set the record, probably held by the death-mongers in neighboring Texas. In Singapore, where Boo Junfeng’s gripping drama Apprentice is set, chief executioner Darshan Singh claims to have executed 18 people on one day, using three ropes at a time. Singh also boasted of hanging seven people within 90 minutes, without having to rely on any namby-pamby injections to speed the process. If it seems impossible that the city-state could harbor so many hard-boiled killers within its compact borders, it’s worth noting that its Death Row population isn’t limited to murderers, but also those convicted of drug trafficking, treason, abetting the suicide of a minor, piracy and gun-related offenses. Instead of lethal injections — somehow considered humane in the U.S. — Singapore culls its prison population in the old-fashioned way, inherited by the Brits: long-drop hanging. It’s unscientific, but generally effective.

In Apprentice, an ambitious young correctional officer, Rahim (Wan Hanafi Su), is assigned a position under Aiman (Fir Rahman), a veteran executioner at the 80-year-old Changi Prison. Aiman may be a tough taskmaster, but he respects the job and treats the condemned men with something resembling compassion. Like Aiman, we wonder what would possess a former soldier to take a job that most people would consider to be a punishment for doing something wrong. Boo takes his time peeling away the layers of mystery surrounding the personalities of these two men, who, we soon learn, are joined by a macabre coincidence. Aiman probably was the only person to be close enough to hear the final thoughts of Rahim’s father, a convicted serial killer, before the the door on the killing-floor was released. Apprentice doesn’t play out like a revenge thriller, though. Yes, the lives of Rahim and his sister were forever marked by the execution, but, so, too, were those of the families of the victims. As a former gang-banger, he understands that he could have shared the same fate as his father. The more he learns from Aiman, the more he comes to appreciate the man’s insistence on performing his grisly task with an obsessive desire to avoid grisly missteps. The condemned men already know exactly when they’re going to die — alone — and that no call from the governor or a Supreme Court justice is likely to save them for more than a few hours. What the executioner learns from his prized student is also important to the flow of the story. It’s said that Apprentice received an eight-minute standing ovation after its premiere at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. If shown in Arkansas, the governor probably wouldn’t recognize the irony in Boo’s portrayal of a system whose methodology seems less barbaric than the one in place within the sterile confines of his state’s execution chamber. Bonus features include commentary with the filmmaker; a short film, “The Casuariana Cove”; a directors’ statement; and a why-we-selected statement from Film Movement.

In Justice Served, Marvin Young (a.k.a., Young MC) approaches the same subject from a decidedly different direction. In it, three individuals, whose loved ones were victims of heinous crimes, are given the opportunity to confront the men most likely responsible for the deaths, but who avoided prison due to a technicality in the law. The trials, such as they are, take place in a compartmentalized warehouse somewhere in Arizona. The victims’ representatives, who were kidnaped and drugged to prevent them from knowing where they’re going, sit at a desk in a room divided by a glass wall. The “defendants” sit across from them, one by one, handcuffed to an electrified chair. Before either of them can figure out what’s happening, an ominous voice comes over a loudspeaker, saying, “My name is Justice. You are here to retry the case of (insert names and crimes here). The defendant’s chair is electrified. The electricity is controlled by the red button. Feel free to use it.” The survivors aren’t given much choice as to when to push the button, really, but it gives the loved ones a dubious sense of control. Things don’t go precisely according to plan, but close enough for a micro-budget production, supported by the efforts of film students. The DVD adds behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Young and cast members Lance Henriksen, Gail O’Grady, Denyce Lawton, Christina Rose, Lochlyn Munro and Chase Coleman, about their experiences working with the students and a first-time director.

VHS Massacre: Blu-ray
Beyond the Gates: Blu-ray
The Greasy Strangler 
While watching Kenneth Powell and Thomas Edward Seymour’s nostalgic documentary, VHS Massacre: Cult Films and the Decline of Physical Media, I was reminded of the many 20th Century technologies that not only are obsolete, but also virtually unknown to anyone born after 2001. The same thought occurred last month, while watching Rings, F. Javier Gutierrez’ updating of the Ringu series. In it, the famously cursed VHS cassette is inadvertently re-discovered inside a VCR, left abandoned in a thrift shop. The evil contained within the cassette spreads like wildfire only after the film within a film is digitized and goes viral, via social media. Distributed by Troma, VHS Massacre appears, at first glance, to be yet another homage to the weird and wonderful movies that flourished during the first wave of straight-to-video products. The popular acceptance of the then-new Beta and VHS platforms basically opened the door for distributors to forgo traditional routes and release movies shot on 16mm or 35mm film in cassette form. Although the doc focuses on low-budget horror, slasher and sci-fi fare, the straight-to-video business was kickstarted by cartoons and movies made for children and, of course, hard-core porn. In addition to the increased amount of footage stored on VHS cassettes, producers used the format to do an end run around stiff licensing fees demanded by Sony for its Beta products. Eventually, the technically superior format succumbed to the demands of the marketplace. The larger message delivered in VHS Massacre, however, concerns the adaptability of savvy young filmmakers to not only take advantage of the financial benefits of video, but also the insatiable appetite for intriguing new titles by mom-and-pop stores across the country.

The doc then describes how studios conspired with Blockbuster and other large chains to control the flow, prices and placement of newly released theatrical features at retail. With Pandora’s Box already opened, however, niche production studios and distributors began delivering exploitation, grindhouse and other sensational cross-genre material to premium-cable services — hence the straight-to-cable label — especially for the late-night crowd whose needs were filled by soft-core T&A and strategically edited porn. When the analog era gave way to digital, an entirely new paradigm was introduced. Technically superior and far more compact DVD players and products took off like a rocket, all but killing off VHS cassettes. Streaming allowed for the distribution of DIY and micro-budget fare, via the Internet and YouTube. And, once again, much to the chagrin of the studios, audience acceptance for these frequently outrageous products exploded, creating new economic models and younger audiences. Naturally, VHS Massacre benefits mightily from lots of clips and interviews. Among the witnesses called are Joe Bob Briggs (MonsterVision), Lloyd Kaufman (Toxic Avenger), Greg Sestero (The Room), Debbie Rochon (Return to Nuke ‘Em High), Deborah Reed (Troll 2), Mark Frazer (Samurai Cop) and James Nguyen (Birdemic). It also is fun to watch collectors scour the shelves of old video stores and warehouses for titles, some which have yet to be transferred to DVD. The doc adds an inciteful intro by Troma czar Lloyd Kaufman; commentary by the directors; deleted scenes; “Troma Now! Extreme Edition”; a full episode of “Monster Kill: Merminators from Space,” the new Web series by Powell and Seymour; and Troma trailers.

Jackson Stewart wasn’t even born when the straight-to-video movement began to take shape. Even so, his retro-horror thriller Beyond the Gates looks as if it might have been made for drive-in audiences in the mid- to late-1980s. (The higher resolution afforded by DVD and Blu-ray reveals its true date of origin: June 2016.) In a horror trope almost as old as the genre itself, two estranged brothers, Gordon (Graham Skipper) and John (Chase Williamson), reunite in the wake of their father’s bizarre disappearance to sift through his property for clues to what happened. Their search leads to his video-rental store, staked floor-to-ceiling with vintage VHS tapes, posters and cut-outs. Among the discoveries is an interactive VCR board game that, when synced to the cassette, opens a portal to a nightmarish alternate reality… conveniently located in the basement of the recently haunted family home. The puzzle can’t be solved until four keys are located on the premises, each one leading to another level and the gruesome death of an annoying acquaintance. The most obvious clue to Stewart’s intentions here is the prominent role played by horror legend Barbara Crampton, famous for her skintastic contributions to Stuart Gordon’s Re-AnimatorSpace TruckersCastle Freak and From Beyond, Jim Wynorski’s Chopping Mall, Brian De Palma’s Body Double and James Frawley’s Fraternity Vacation. The Blu-ray includes commentary track with Stewart, Crampton and other cast and crew members; a behind-the-scenes featurette; deleted scenes; and surprise appearance by Gordon, for whom Stewart once apprenticed.

Jim Hosking and Toby Harvard’s The Greasy Strangler is exactly the kind of depraved and disgusting exploitation flick that could have been made for quick-and-dirty exhibition, at any time between 1980 and 2017, but not as inexpensively or with as much clarity. The primitive makeup effects, moth-eaten clothes and threadbare locations suggest that it could have been made for a straight-to-cassette release, as well. Because they used a digital camera and editing equipment, however, the filmmakers were able to capture images — however unappetizing — that might have been lost in the shadows if they had been recorded on film. After an extensive festival run, The Greasy Strangler debuted on the Internet — reaching a potentially huge audience for very little money — and enjoyed an extremely limited theatrical run before that going out on DVD and Blu-ray. The gross-out horror-comedy got an additional boost when it caught the attention of the lofty New York Times. Its summarization of the story’s plot borders on the hilarious, especially considering the paper’s high-end readership. Father and son Big Brayden (Sky Elobar) and Big Ronnie (Michael St. Michael) conduct tours of phony disco-history shrines in down-and-out corners of Los Angeles. Together, they make junk dealers Fred and Lamont Sanford look like Fred Astaire and Edward Everett Horton, in Top Hat. When they aren’t walking around the house in their stained and ill-fitting underpants, Brayton and Ronnie favor outfits that wouldn’t be out of place at a clown convention. The slovenly man-child Brayton dotes on his elderly, foul-mouthed father, while also suspecting him of being the Greasy Strangler. The infamous serial killer is so-named, because he covers himself (and his prosthetic mega-penis) in layers of grease and animal fat. Before returning home from a kill, the Strangler visits local a car wash to shed the trademark disguise. After Brayden falls for Janet (Elizabeth De Razzo), a chubby gal he meets on the disco tour, Ronnie makes it his business to convince her of his son’s unsuitability and impress her with his giant cock. Obviously, The Greasy Strangler isn’t for everyone… or, maybe, anyone without a pre-disposition for such midnight-madness fare as EraserheadBasket CaseEl Topo or Pink Flamingos.

Kiju Yoshida: Love + Anarchism: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Lately, the good news surrounding re-releases of vintage Japanese films on Blu-ray focuses on genre titles, anime and obscure cult favorites, and bonus packages that add plenty of value to the presentation. For a long time, Criterion has pretty much cornered the market on the acknowledged classics of the Japanese cinema, which it’s now upgrading to Blu-ray. Any number of niche and mainstream distributors have sprung up, as well, to picking up the slack on new releases and novelty items. Arrow Films and its Arrow Academy subsidiary handle titles from both ends of the spectrum. Its latest contribution to the high side is the seven-disc “Kiju Yoshida: Love + Anarchism: Limited Edition,” which includes Heroic PurgatoryCoup d’etat and two versions of Eros + Massacre, a loose trilogy of films from the late 1960s and early 1970s, united by their takes on radical politics and cinematography that recalls the work of Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Goddard and Alain Resnais. A contemporary of Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses) and Masahiro Shinoda (Pale Flower), Yoshida started out as an assistant to Keisuke Kinoshita (The Ballad of Narayama) before making his directorial debut at age 27. Not many of his 20-plus features and documentaries have found a DVD home on this side of the Pacific. All three films collected here concern events in pre- and post-World War II Japanese history that few Americans, even college graduates, are familiar. As such, I don’t recommend tackling them without first listening to the introductions provided by Yoshida and David Desser. It’s well worth the extra effort.

Eros + Massacre is presented in both its 169-minute theatrical version and the full-length 220-minute director’s cut. It tells the parallel stories of early 20th Century anarchist Sakae Osugi and a pair of student activists from the 1960s studying his radical stances on politics and the free love movement. On September 16, 1923, in the chaos immediately following the Great Kanto Earthquake, Osugi and his lover-partner, Noe Ito, and his 6-year-old nephew, were arrested, beaten to death and thrown into a well by a squad of military police. The killing of such high-profile anarchists, along with a child, became known as the Amakasu Incident. It sparked surprise and anger throughout Japan, reverberating for many decades afterward, when left-wing violence was at its most extreme. One of the reasons for the severe shortening of the movie was the threat of a lawsuit over an invasion of privacy by a woman who was involved with Osugi and went on to become a prominent Japanese politician. Heroic Purgatory pushes the challenging cinematic language of Eros + Massacre even further, presenting a bleak dreamlike investigation into the political discourses taking place in the period. It focuses on an engineer, Shoda, and his wife, Kanako, whose lives are disrupted by the appearance of a young woman, Ayu, who claims that Shoda is one of the men who could be her father. The event causes Shoda to reflect on his past as a militant youth and the mysterious “Plan D,” which involved the abduction of “Ambassador J.” Eleven years in the future, Shoda and his wife will become the subject of a media frenzy.

Coup d’etat (a.k.a., “Martial Law”) takes a more mainstream approach to its subject: Ikki Kita, a right-wing intellectual, who, in the 1920-30s, advocated the dissolution of the Emperor system and Meiji Constitution. The picture begins with a young radical murdering an elderly gentleman out for a stroll in his quiet neighborhood. The victim is Yasuda Zenjiro, head of the Yasuda financial cartel. Shortly after, revolutionary writer Kita receives a communique from the assassin, Asahi, in which he claims to have acted on ideas presented in his “Outline Plan for the Reorganization of Japan.” Another disciple of Kita, Nishida Mitsuki, coordinates an uprising of military and naval officers, all determined to assassinate the Prime Minister and Minister of Interior. While Kita has no direct involvement in the plot, he is arrested and executed, anyway. The implementation of martial law led to Japan’s pre-war militarism. Released two years after the ritual suicide of the celebrated writer and prominent nationalist Yukio Mishima, Coup d’etat may have been informed by his sensational death and aborted coup attempt. It may also have influenced Paul Schrader’s approach to Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985). The Arrow Academy edition features meticulously restored versions of each film; background material; commentary; interviews; introductions; limited edition packaging, featuring newly commissioned artwork by maarko phntm; and an illustrated 80-page book, with new writing on the films by Desser, Isolde Standish (“Politics, Porn and Protest: Japanese Avant-Garde Cinema in the 1960s and 1970s”) and Dick Stegewerns (“Kiju Yoshida: 50 Years of Avant-Garde Filmmaking in Post-War Japan”).

Chicago Cubs: 2016 World Series: The Complete Game 7: Ultimate Edition
Cubs fans waited 108 years for an opportunity to win the World Series and it took a victory for the ages to bring one home. Chicago overcame a 3-games-to-1 deficit to conquer the Cleveland Indians in an extra-inning seventh game, delayed by rain, as if to ratchet up the drama. The Indians, after all, hadn’t tasted victory in the Fall Classic, themselves, for more than a half-century. In the eighth inning, the Indians tied the Cubs on a home run by Rajai Davis. Then came the rains and a 17-minute wait for series MVP Ben Zobrist to smack an RBI double for the lead and Miguel Montero to single in Anthony Rizzo for a 2-run cushion, forcing Cleveland to the end of its tether. Chicago Cubs: 2016 World Series: The Complete Game 7 is presented by MLB and Shout!Factory in its entirety, preserving the complete, unedited footage of the four-and-a-half-hour event. A couple of other Blu-ray editions have already been released — covering the season, playoffs and previous World Series games — so, it’s worth reading the fine print to see if the so-called Ultimate Edition is the ideal choice.

Streets of Fire: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
In 1984, Walter Hill was as hot a director of action films as anyone in the business. The string included Hard TimesThe DriverThe WarriorsThe Long RidersSouthern Comfort and his first blockbuster, 48 Hrs., which rewrote the book on buddy films, salt-and-pepper teams and comic-straight-man pairings. Although popular music had always played a role in his pictures, Hill had yet to shoot an in-concert performance. It required some on-the-job training and off-the-cuff improvisation, in addition to prepping the stylized fight scenes and aggressive-driving sequences that were more his purview. Some of his discomfort with the musical format is evident in Streets of Fire, but, so, too, are the innovative solutions he and cinematographer Andrew Laszlo devised for combining disparate visual elements from existing rock musicals with ideas borrowed from the brilliant color scheme of Francis Ford Coppola’s One From the Heart and neo-noir shadings in graphic novels. We’re told in the introduction that Streets of Fire is a “rock & roll fable… from another time, another place.” Hill and co-writer Larry Gross (48 Hrs.) were directly influenced, as well, by The SearchersMad MaxEscape From New YorkGrand Theft AutoThe Wild One and a song from Bruce Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” album that didn’t appear on the soundtrack. According to Hill, he wanted Streets of Fire to remind him of what, as a teenager, he thought would make a good movie: custom cars, kissing in the rain, neon, trains in the night, high-speed pursuit, rumbles, rock stars, motorcycles, jokes in tough situations, leather jackets and questions of honor.” It takes place in an urban environment that combines Chicago’s otherworldly Lower Wacker Drive, a Detroit in decay and Paramount’s almost surrealistically phony backlot, which was covered over by a giant tarp to facilitate day-for-night shoots. The production lucked out when an abandoned borax factory was located nearby and it had yet to be stripped of its salvageable parts. The overall creative strategy didn’t pay dividends at the box office, at the time, causing the studio to drop plans for sequels. Since then, however, Streets of Fire has gained cult status, at least, and remains extremely watchable in hi-def.

As a crowd of bobbysoxers and bebop boys gathers for a concert by rock diva Ellen Aim (Diane Lane, then 18), members of the Bombers motorcycle gang, led by the vicious Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe), prepare to storm the auditorium and kidnap the well-before-her-time singing sensation. In the madness that ensues, the bikers create enough of a distraction for Raven to get safely away with Ellen. We assume that his intentions are dishonorable, but, because the studio insisted on a PG delivery, it isn’t clear what evil things Raven has in mind. Even before the smoke has cleared, newly returned soldier Tom Cody (Michael Pare) rides into town on an empty subway car — not unlike Randolph Scott, sitting the tall-in-the-saddle — and agrees to his sister’s request to rescue Ellen, with whom he has a romantic history. In a surprisingly effective casting decision, suggested by Amy Madigan, he chooses the two-fisted, beer-guzzling McCoy as his sidekick. Joined by Ellen’s weaselly manager, Billy Fish (Rick Moranis), they come to Ellen’s rescue. Once again, however, because of concerns over ratings, the violence is less disturbing than anything in West Side Story. This cult favorite features a razor-sharp cast and original songs written by Jim Steinman, Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty and Benmont Tench, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Ry Cooder and Jim Dickinson, and Dave Allen, and performed by the Blasters, the Fixx, Maria McKee, Marilyn Martin and Dan Hartman. For Ellen Aim’s singing voice, record-producer Jimmy Iovine combined the voices of Laurie Sargent and Holly Sherwood, billing them as “Fire Incorporated.” Her backup group, the Attackers, was comprised of members of Sargent’s Face to Face band. Not surprisingly, Steinmen’s anthems, “Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young” and “Nowhere Fast,” sound as if they might have been intended for Meatloaf or Bonnie Tyler. The splendid Blu-ray package contains a separate disc devoted to new and vintage bonus material, including two feature-length making-of docs, interviews, music videos and promotional material.

The Godfather-Godfather II-Godfather Part III: Blu-ray
On April 29th, Francis Ford Coppola and stars of The Godfather gathered in New York’s Radio City Music Hall for a 45th anniversary reunion, marking the release of the first installment in the universally acclaimed trilogy… the first two segments, anyway. Coppola was joined by Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, James Caan, Talia Shire, Robert Duvall and an audience of 6,000 fans, as they watched back-to-back screenings of The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II (1974) on the closing night of the Tribeca Film Festival. Considering that most of the people in the audience had already seen the films multiple times and some had even memorized the dialogue, the highlight of the evening was a panel discussion, in which the participants recalled highlights and lowlights of the production, as well as personal anecdotes and memories of dearly departed cast members. I wish that Paramount had waited a few weeks to release its commemorative repackagings of all three titles, including The Godfather: Part III, an economically driven sequel that still splits critics and audiences. It would have been interesting for those of us who missed the reunion to see it included as a fresh featurette.

Savannah Sunrise
Shawnee Smith and Pamela Reed, who’ve both done excellent work in far better pictures than Savannah Sunrise, play polar-opposites confined to a car, traveling from Louisville to Georgia, on a firm deadline. Their road trip is prompted by the forced relocation of Loraine, whose pastor husband died several years earlier, but is only now exiting the home provided by church. Joy is a stereotypically harried modern woman, struggling to maintain a balance between responsibilities at home and work. That equilibrium is disturbed when Joy is handed a last-minute assignment with a deadline that conflicts with the long-scheduled road trip. Not wishing to display any signs of weakness to her uncaring boss, she insists that she can hit both targets simultaneously, and without breaking much of a sweat. Obviously, Joy hasn’t rented Planes, Trains & Automobiles, lately. It’s just as likely that sophomore director Randall Stevens (My Dad’s a Soccer Mom) and writers James Mitchell, Thomas Torrey and Gary Wheeler == two writers too many, by my count, for such a weak screenplay — haven’t studied the John Hughes classic, either. It doesn’t take long for the good-natured, if increasingly forgetful Loraine to throw Joy’s intricately timed itinerary into disarray. And, therein lies the problem. The G-rated distractions are so unlikely — a stowaway alligator, anyone? — as to defy credulity. The overriding message being delivered here is that women from dissimilar backgrounds can learn a lot from each other, especially when forced to do so by circumstances. For the sake of their mental and spiritual health, women with A-type personalities also are encouraged to get back to the basics of family life. Welcome to the world of faith-based entertainment, Joy. The Walmart exclusive DVD adds interviews and a making-of featurette.

Holy Hell
Although the aphorism, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” is most frequently attributed to the great American showman P. T. Barnum, its true origin is less certain. That doesn’t make it any less accurate or meaningful, today. Take the most recent presidential campaign… please. The disturbing CNN Films documentary, Holy Hell, not only confirms the modern applicability of the phrase, but it also suggests that some of us were born with the word, “damaged,” tattooed on our foreheads in invisible ink. In 1985, film school graduate Will Allen joined what, at the time, he considered to be a loving, spiritual community in West Hollywood, centered on the enigmatic spiritual leader they called Michel. Then 22, Allen was forced to leave home after his mother learned he was gay and his sister invited him to join the nearby alternative community and meditation group she had been attending. Fortuitously, Allen ingratiated himself with the onetime ballet aspirant and failed Hollywood actor — gay porn, too — by immersing himself in the documentation of Michel’s every move and thought. It took a while for Michel’s true colors to reveal themselves, but, when they did, Allen’s camera was there, too. With 22 years’ worth of footage at Allen’s disposal, Holy Hell could just has easily become just another ugly indictment of a religious conman addicted to narcissism, avarice and other people’s gullibility. Among the things that struck me about the film are the good intentions of the “community” of souls gathered under Michelâ’s umbrella and his ability to hypnotize these well-educated men and women into believing he was their rock and gateway to God.

Cult tragedies could hardly have come as news to these people, after all. They clearly enjoyed participating in his elaborately staged pageants and there’s no evidence presented that he appropriated their savings for personal gain. On film, Buddhafield (“pure land”) resembles a Club Med for the Prozac Generation. The problem only came to the fore when Michel’s misogynistic behavior became too obvious to conceal and the code of silence surrounding his extortion of sexual favors from the youngest male disciples began to crack. It was only then that Michel, like Jim Jones and David Koresh before him, put his followers’ loyalty to the test, picking favorites and pitting them against each other. Holy Hell mixes footage of the good times in California, Hawaii and Texas with interviews conducted among people who left the cult and reveal of full range of emotions. Allen also went back to places they lived as a community, but abandoned when the heat was turned on Michel. The scariest thing, perhaps, is the overwhelming visual evidence of Michel’s malevolent charisma — imagine a particularly evil looking Nureyev, in Speedos — that would frighten most children and pets. The bonus material adds unused footage, extended interviews and surreptitiously captured footage of Michel — now, Reyji — and his current followers, once again in Hawaii. As penetrating an experience as Holy Hell is, it’s possible to wonder why some members stayed with Michel and how he’s been able to finance the operation for more than 30 years.

TV-to-DVD
Lifetime: Beaches
Discovery: Shark Week: Shark & Awe Collection
Netflix: Orange Is the New Black: Season Four
Comedy Central: Inside Amy Schumer: Season 4
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Nero’s Sunken City
PBS: Plants Behaving Badly
PBS: NOVA: The Origami Revolution
PBS Kids: All About Allergies
In the 30 years since the release of Garry Marshall’s adaptation of Iris Rainer Dart’s novel, “Beaches,” it’s been a property ripe for sequelization, re-adaptation and diversification. A sequel, based on Dart’s 1991 novel, “Beaches II: I’ll Be There,” was planned with Barbara Eden attached to it but never filmed. A Broadway-bound version made it as far as Chicago’s Drury Lane Theater, in 2014, before going into hibernation. Allison Anders’ recent remake, for Lifetime, covers two of the three bases, at least, by updating the protagonists’ WASP-Jew dynamic – Barbara Hershey-Bette Midler — to one that allows for a more au courant black-white vibe, with Nia Long and Idina Menzel (a.k.a., Adele Dazeem) in the lead roles. Here, Long’s spoiled rich girl, Hillary Whitney, first encounters Menzel’s artistically precocious CC Bloom at the street circus that borders Venice Beach. They go on to become lifelong friends, through thick and thin, even though they’re separated by beaches a continent apart from each other. (Or, in made-for-TV geography, different locations outside Vancouver.) Hillary, a single mom, struggles to make a mark of her own in her father’s law firm, while CC is scratching her way up the show-biz food chain. Their friendship is tested by a shared affection for a director (Antonio Cupo), but, they’re reunited by a more sinister force and the bonds of love. Lifetime’s “Beaches” doesn’t reveal the sure touch of Marshall’s hand at the wheel or the narrative edge of Anders’ previous successes, Sugar Town (1999), Grace of My Heart (1995), Mi vida loca (1993), Gas Food Lodging (1992) and Border Radio (1987). Apart from the dynamism of Menzel’s singing voice, Beaches is just another made-for-TV movie. For a while, anyway, it’s a Walmart exclusive.

Also available at the giant retail chain is “Shark Week: Shark Awe Collection,” a compilation of recent episodes from the programming concept that put Discovery Channel on the map, almost 30 years ago. Originally devoted to conservation efforts and correcting misconceptions about sharks, “Shark Week” eventually succumbed to the lure of demographic slumming with more exploitative material. In January, 2015, Discovery’s new president Rich Ross told reporters that shows like “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives” had “run their course.” An uproar raised by regular viewers and shark experts probably had more of an impact on programmers. The proof is in the pudding, however, and the episodes included in “Shark &Awe Collection” demonstrate a return to form. Indeed, they prove that when it comes to sharks, the truth is every bit as fascinating as fiction. Advances in DNA mapping now allows for the tracking of killer beasts, while deep-water technology has allowed for the discovery of new species and some considered extinct. The 22½ hours of material included in this collection, culled from the best episodes from 2015 and 2016, also serves as an anticipation-builder for the 2017 season, starting in July.

Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black: Season Four” picks up where Season Three left off, with the inmates splashing about in the nearby lake after the mass escape and Alex (Laura Prepon) facing a menacing prison guard in the greenhouse. Once those strings are tied up, administrators, guards and prisoners, alike, are required to deal with a substantial increase in the population, which threatens to change the balances of power in the facility. Piper also finds herself facing difficulties with the Dominicans, who, after she rebuffs them, launch their own mail-order-panty business, while also becoming de facto leader of a white-power group. Taystee becomes Caputo’s personal assistant and celebrity chef Judy King (Blair Brown), also finds ways to shake things up across the board. Everything leads to a confrontation between hunger-striking inmates and the prison’s newly militarized security staff. The shocking ending built anticipation for the Season Five opener, on June 9. Needless to say, it will be worth the wait. Special features on the three-disc Blu-ray release include a gag reel, a tour of the set and commentaries with cast and crew.

If the “Inside Amy Schumer: Season 4” package feels a tad lighter than previous compilations, it’s because the hostess with the mostest decided to cut back her load from 10 episodes to 9. More than a year ago, the most hilariously irreverent show since Dave Chappelle quit was renewed for a fifth season. Since then, Schumer revealed that while a fifth season would happen at some point, there were no plans for it to begin production in the near future. Based on the critical and commercial success of Trainwreck, she has turned her attention to movies, including this weekend’s Snatched, with Goldie Hawn, as well as the occasional comedy special, such as Netflix’s recent “Amy Schumer: The Leather Special.” Among other places she takes us in Season Four are a gun show, the set of “Game of Thrones,” the White House, a blimp, her gynecologist’s office and a clip show hosted by Andy Cohen. Guest stars include F. Murray Abraham, Sarah Chalke, Liam Neeson, Anthony Bourdain, Steve Buscemi, Selena Gomez, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Harvey Keitel and Ralphie May. The DVD adds behind-the-scenes material and interviews.

One of PBS’ most consistently intriguing series is “Secrets of the Dead” and the episode, “Nero’s Sunken City,” is particularly interesting. Anyone who’s traveled to Italy and passed through Naples can’t help but be aware of the still shaking Mt. Vesuvius and ruins of Pompeii. Far less known are the ruins of Baiae, an ancient Roman city lost to the same volcanoes that entombed Pompeii, but buried by the waters of the Bay of Naples. Nearly 2,000 years ago, from the first to the third century AD, Baiae provided Rome’s rich and powerful with the same comforts as the Hamptons offer Manhattan’s elite. It’s known today, if at all, as an underwater archeology site. For the first time, an international team of scientists, archaeologists and historians is meticulously mapping the underwater ruins and piecing together evidence that could lead to a better understanding of Baiae’s importance to Roman culture.

PBS’ two-part series, “Plants Behaving Badly,” examines how two groups of plants — orchids and carnivores plants — continue to exhibit the same fascinating behavior that attracted the attention of Charles Darwin 150 years ago. “Sex & Lies” allows viewers to revel in the ethereal beauty of orchids, while explaining how their exotic flowers are shaped for one purpose: to attract pollinators. Many use sex as a lure, impersonating a female bee or wasp. “Murder & Mayhem” examines the extraordinary behavior of carnivorous plants, which have fascinated scientists, curious children and filmmakers for decades. The reality is as interesting as fiction.

The unexpected “NOVA” presentation “The Origami Revolution” explores how researchers are using the centuries-old tradition of folding two-dimensional paper into three-dimensional shapes to spark a scientific revolution. The rules of folding are at the heart of many natural phenomena, we’re told, from how leaves blossom to how beetles fly. Now, however, engineers and designers are applying its principles to reshape the world around us and, even, within us, designing new drugs, micro-robots and future space missions. They are discovering how folding can be employed as a powerful tool to explore the limits of science.

Too often, parents don’t become aware of their children’s allergies until they display symptoms of distress, ranging from heavy sweating and running noses, to experiencing anaphylactic shock from an aversion to foods they didn’t know they had. Of course, kids are even more surprised — and frightened — to learn that something might be wrong with them. As part of Food Allergy Awareness Month, PBS Kids is releasing “All About Allergies,” a collection of episodes from its most popular series in which allergies play a key role, including those involving food and pets.

Digimon Adventure Tri.: Reunion
Frankly, the machinations of Digimon characters and their place in the anime universe bewilder me. I do know that Digimon Adventure Tri.: Reunion is the first entry in a trilogy — followed by “Decision” and “Confession” — celebrating the franchise’s 15th anniversary. The six-part series, streamed by several different services, serves as a direct sequel to the first two television series, Digimon Adventure and Digimon Adventure 02. It’s been six years since that summer adventure when Taichi and the rest of the DigiDestined crossed over to the Digital World and nearly three years since the final battle between Hikari’s group and Belial Vamdemon. Or, so I’ve learned. And, at some point, while the peaceful days went by, the gate to the Digital World mysteriously closed. When a Kuwagamon suddenly appears in Odaiba, its rampage leaves the town in ruins, and the people there in turmoil.

Alpha and Omega: Journey to Bear Kingdom
Otherwise known as “Alpha and Omega 8,” Journey to Bear Kingdom is a new computer-animated adventure-comedy produced by Splash Entertainment (Norm of the North) and distributed by Lionsgate. Apparently, the family-friendly series may be coming to an end, but who knows? Eight chapters is a long time in video years. Here, in a plot that sounds as if it might have inspired by the latest Underworld, all of the animals in the Eastern Forest are excited because Queen Bear and Princess Canue are coming to visit. But when evil Rogue Wolves threaten the royal bears, wolf pups Stinky, Runt, and Claudette leap into action. With courage, wits, and plenty of help from their wild and wonderful friends, the Alpha and Omega wolves rise to protect the queen and princess and save their forest home.

The DVD Wrapup: Salesman, Gold, Red Turtle, Rings, Tunnel, Age of Shadows, Saving Banksy, Saturday Night Fever and more

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2017

The Salesman
It can be argued, I suppose, that Donald Trump’s decision to ban citizens of Iran and six other predominately Muslim countries gave Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman an edge in the voting for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. After nominations were announced, Farhadi revealed that he wouldn’t test the executive order, preferring, instead, to demonstrate how short-sided and regressive a policy it was to treat all members of a religion as if they were terrorists. Toni Erdmann probably was the early favorite for the prize — after academy nominators snubbed Golden Globe-winner, Elle — but the President’s inadvertent interference steered sympathies elsewhere. Between those three very different titles, however, it would be difficult for me to pick a favorite. They’re all superb entertainments and could have been included in the Best Picture category, which, once again, fell short of the allowed 10 candidates, without stirring much debate. Certainly, Sandra Huller and Taraneh Alidoosti deserved being counted among the top five Best Actress finalists, alongside Globe-winner Isabelle Huppert. Working under the strictest of conditions, Farhadi has produced some of the most absorbing and humanistic dramas of the last decade with Fireworks Wednesday, About Elly, Oscar-winner A Separation and The Past. The emotions on display in A Salesman are far more universal than specific to life in Iran, as was the case in his previous films.

First, though, the title refers to the Arthur Miller play for which the male and female characters are rehearsing when the central act of violence occurs. A construction mishap forces Emad and Rana Etesami (Shahab Hosseini, Alidoosti) to pick up and move to a new apartment in a city, Tehran, where suitable housing is at a premium. A friend allows them to take over an apartment recently vacated by a woman whose many male guests caused a stir among her neighbors. He only allows that she was a woman who had many acquaintances, not a prostitute. One night, when Emad is away, one of those acquaintances — presumably — mistakes an unlocked door for an open invitation to walk in and pay for her services. Unable to wait, the man attacks her in the shower and causes her to be severely injured. He not only leaves her for dead, but the intruder also left behind the truck in which he arrived. The complicating factor in all this is the personal property left behind by the previous tenant, who promises to remove it, but never says when. Emad asks one of his students to help him track down the owner of the truck, so he can exact his own form of punishment, rather than involve the police, who, conceivably would blame Rana for inciting the rape by not locking the door. By not going to police, however, everything that can go wrong with Emad’s investigation does go wrong, mostly because he can’t control his temper while attempting to extricate the truth from a man who can’t afford to be exposed as either a rapist or patron of a prostitute. The same scenario could play out in an episode of “Law & Order,” without the grace notes Farhadi would add to it. The Blu-ray adds, “Conversation With Writer-Director Asghar Farhadi.”

Gold: Blu-ray
Although expectations have been lowered considerably since the days of the 49ers, prospectors continue to pan for gold in the rivers of California, some no more than an hour away from Los Angeles. During the drought years, access to the sandy riverbottoms increased as the waters shrank and ferocity decreased. Now that the rains have returned, erosion of the rocks in the High Sierra and, even, the San Gabriel range bordering much of L.A.’s urban sprawl, has revealed more traces of the ridiculously overvalued mineral. Nonetheless, for some, it remains the stuff that dreams are made of. In Stephen Gaghan’s whopping yarn, Gold, Matthew McConaughey and Edgar Ramirez play two such people: Nevada mining executive Kenny Wells and compositely drawn geologist Michael Acosta. Both men fulfill each other’s dreams, if not in the usual ways. Gold is based on the 1993 Bre-X mining scandal, in which a small Calgary-based firm supposedly discovered the mother lode — or a close approximation, thereof — in the jungles of Borneo, and the sparkle convinced key players on the Toronto Stock Exchange to invest billions of Canadian dollars into the company. Among them were three major pension funds. If the story sounded too good to be true — and, it was — the resulting scandal didn’t reverberate much further south than the 49th Parallel. It took almost 20 years for Hollywood prospectors to take notice of the scandal and realize that it could be adapted to a corporate retelling of The Treasure of Sierra Madre. First, though, screenwriters Patrick Massett and John Zinman were required to make it as American as possible, shifting locations to suit audience prejudices, and changing names to avoid lawsuits. For my money, they did a pretty good job of it. They also changed some of the motivations driving Wells and Acosta, allowing for some back-home romance (Bryce Dallas Howard), family tradition (Craig T. Nelson) and Wall Street shenanigans (Bruce Greenwood), as well as the ever-popular pull of a David-vs.-Goliath matchup and old-fashioned hubris thrown into the mix. A side scandal involving the family of then-president Suharto, of Indonesia, is reasonably accurate, too. That’s only part of what happens in Gold, but, therein, spoilers lie. Thailand doubles well as a facsimile of the Indonesian jungle, and the lead actors are, typically, excellent. Special features include commentary with director Stephen Gaghan, a deleted sequence, “The Origins of Gold,” “The Locations of Gold“ and “Matthew McConaughey as Kenny Wells.”

The Red Turtle: Blu-ray
It’s easy to sit through the entirety of Studio Ghibli’s Oscar-nominated The Red Turtle and not realize that it’s the first non-native film to be produced by the legendary Japanese animation studio. Never mind that the dialogue is limited to exclamations or the sounds of personal exertion. As the story goes, Ghibli and Wild Bunch executives sent Dutch animation artist Michael Dudok de Wit an email with two questions: could they could distribute his Academy Award-winning short film “Father and Daughter’ in Japan, where it took top honors at the 2002 Hiroshima International Animation Festival, and would he make a feature film for them? (Dudok de Wit’s 1994 animated short, “The Monk and the Fish,” also was nominated for an Oscar.) It turned out to be a natural fit. Dudok de Wit’s films are known for his trademark brushstrokes and familiarity with the ink and watercolors of Chinese and Japanese art. In 2014, following the retirement of co-founder and director Hayao Miyazaki, Ghibli announced it was temporarily halting production. Two months ago, it was revealed Miyazaki has come out of hibernation to direct a new feature film. Combined with The Red Turtle‘s success, the company appears to be back on solid footing. In the tradition of Robinson Crusoe and Cast Away, The Red Turtle is the story of a shipwrecked sailor — this time, with no backstory — who’s washed ashore a deserted island, mostly covered with bamboo trees, but with mountain views and fresh-water adjacent property. When he tires of those amenities, however, the castaway begins tying bamboo stalks together and plotting his getaway. It doesn’t take long before a mysterious force rises from beneath the surface of the ocean to knock the raft apart and send the sailor gasping for air. And, yet, he persists, constructing ever more sturdy rafts, but never making it very far from the island. Once its determined that the force destroying his vessels is a large red sea turtle, he decides to take desperate action. Soon thereafter, a woman castaway appears in the crashing waves, providing him with companionship and a reason to stay put. In the course of raising a family, Father, Mother and Son will experience many of the same things that happen to other families, but in far more extreme circumstances. The Blu-ray adds Dudok de Wit’s commentary; a feature-length making-of featurette; “The Secrets of The Red Turtle,” in which the director draws elements from the film; and a Q&A from AFI Fest.

Rings: Blu-ray
It’s said that collectors are willing to pay good money for VHS tapes in primo condition, especially those of the Disney persuasion. In Rings, a professor, Gabriel (Johnny Galecki), isn’t looking for buried treasure when he picks up a nostalgia-inducing VCR at a second-hand store. In fact, there doesn’t appear to have been any good reason for him to buy the antique, except to resuscitate a franchise that, after 12 years, should have been left to rest in peace. Naturally, Gabriel finds within the VCR a cassette containing the cursed footage introduced two decades ago in Hideo Nakata, Hiroshi Takahashi and Koji Suzuki’s Ringu and Ringu 2, and, a few years later, in Gore Verbinski’s English-language remake, The Ring. (Nakata would be recruited to helm The Ring Two.) The idea behind F. Javier Gutierrez’ update is that the curse — watch the tape and you have seven days to show it to someone else, or prepare for your funeral — now can be passed along digitally, in virally transmitted memes, instead of through outdated analog hardware. The first evidence we’re shown is on a plane heading for Seattle. A doomed passenger shows the tape to his seatmate, who’s only heard of the phenomenon, and, then, virally passes it along to other passengers, before the plane crashes.

Skip ahead a couple of years and Gabriel is teaching a course investigating the curse and recruiting students sufficiently nimble to pass it along to a subsequent generation of guinea pigs. They include incoming freshman Holt (Alex), who has promised his high-school girlfriend, Julia (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz), that they’ll stay in Skype communication each week until her Graduation Day. It isn’t until a Skype call is interrupted by what appears to be frat brothers, and Julia receives a weird message from a frantic woman on the same channel, that she begins to smell a rat. In less time than it takes to register for classes at most schools, Julia makes contact with Gabriel and becomes part of his experiment. Julia and Holt then are able to trace the origins of the curse, not to Japan, but a cemetery managed by a blind groundskeeper (Vincent D’Onofrio). Contortionist and stunt actor Bonnie Morgan returns from The Ring Two, this time, though, with a credit as Samara. Rings isn’t likely to impress anyone already familiar with the franchise. The critics hated it and it might only have made some money in the worldwide marketplace. The Blu-ray adds the featurettes, “Terror Comes Full Circle”; “Resurrecting the Dead: Bringing Samara Back”; “Scary Scenes,” in which cast members discuss reactions to horror movies and this film’s scariest scenes; and deleted/extended/alternate scenes.

The Age of Shadows: Blu-ray
Tunnel
Set in the 1920s, more than a decade after Japan’s brutal annexation of Korea, Kim Jee-woonâ’s action-thriller The Age of Shadows is a historically accurate account of the country’s resistance movement, largely led by students, and the dangers it faced when asserting a desire for independence. The death of the “pretend” Emperor Sunjong, in 1926, then would further galvanize resistance movements against an increasingly larger Japanese occupation force. On the day of SunJongâ’s funeral, some 240,000 students gathered in Seoul, filling the streets and scattering independence proclamations. The expansion of Japan’s war in China and Manchuria prompted the conscription of more than 5 million Korean men, to provide manual and military labor, while an estimated 200,000 women and girls, mostly from China and Korea, were forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military. Seventy years later, it seems as if we might be only a few short steps away from all-out war on the peninsula. Tellingly, the repressive post-war government of South Korea attempted to suppress student activists, but eventually failed, opening the county to a more democratic society and economic stature. North Korean leaders knew better than to give students the opportunity to rebel, choosing instead to promote a false sense of unity and prosperity. The young men and women we meet in The Age of Shadows don’t seem to be burdened by the sense of hopelessness that accompanies totalitarian rule. They have the support of the Chinese, Soviet Union (temporary, though it is) and emissaries of central European states willing to trade explosives and guns for valuable antiques.

Korean police captain Lee Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho) has been ordered by his Japanese overlords to pay special attention to members of his country’s resistance movement and, so far, he seems perfectly willing to sell out his own people in exchange for a favorable position within the department. When he’s unable to save a former classmate from being killed in a raid against radicals, however, Lee begins to reassess his priorities. Sensing an opening, the leader of the resistance, Jiang Che-san (Lee Byung-hun), begins the slow dance that could lead to having an ally in the police department. It could, just as easily, lead to disaster for both parties, especially when Lee is introduced a key resistance figure, Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo), whose antique shop is a front for a scheme to smuggle European-made explosives from Shanghai into Seoul. The Age of Shadows may have been inspired by events surrounding the 1923 bombing of Japanese police headquarters, in Seoul, but, by leaving out certain details, Kim was able to craft an air-tight cloak-and-dagger thriller. Even at 140 minutes, it never lags or feels bloated. The Blu-ray adds an interview with cast interviews and director Kim Jee-woon, whose credits include I Saw the Devil, The Good the Bad the Weird and the contemporary American Western, The Last Stand.

In Kim Seong-hun’s inventive disaster movie, Tunnel, a commuter survives the collapse of a miles-long tunnel under construction in the mountains outside Seoul. If part of the good news is that Kim Jung-soo is still alive and in cellphone contact with his wife and rescue workers, the bad news is that reporters will have the same access to him and probably drain the battery of his phone before he can reach them. The man’s only sustenance is two bottles of water and the birthday cake he was carrying home for his daughter. Soon, he will have to share them with a young woman who’s pinned in her crushed car and her sneaky Pug. Tunnel will remind some viewers of Billy Wilder’s prescient 1951 drama Ace in the Hole, in which a reporter played by Kirk Douglas turns the rescue of a man trapped in a cave into a media circus. (Perhaps, even, coining the term.) I don’t know if that was an intentional reference on Kim’s part or all such disasters have begun to resemble media circuses. At 126 minutes, Tunnel is about 20 minutes too long to sustain the conceit. Even so, Kim does a nice job keeping us from checking out watches.

Saving Banksy
Although graffiti is hardly a new phenomenon, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the defacement of subway trains in New York begged questions that weren’t asked of the soldiers who scribbled “Kilroy was here” on fences from Okinawa to Omaha Beach, or Simon & Garfunkel’s prophets, whose words were written on the subway walls and tenement halls, or the ancient brothel keepers whose advertisements can still be found in Ephesus and Pompei. When photographs of heavily decorated subway cars, overpasses and billboards began to be collected by publishers of coffee-table books and galleries, it became of matter of dollars and sense. While city officials searched for ways to prosecute the taggers and erase their graffiti, or prevent it from sticking to shiny surfaces, artists found advocates to protest the eradication of their work. Taggers were attacked by property owners and, in some cases, forced to reimburse the city for costs associated with its removal. God forbid, they should make the mistake of spray-painting over a local gang’s demarcations of territory. Meanwhile, the best of it was quietly being monetized by gallery owners, curators and investors who saw what happened to the value of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s graffiti art, when it made the transition from concrete to canvas. Colin Day’s provocative documentary, Saving Banksy, adds yet another wrinkle to the vandalism-vs.-art debate. The satirical creations of the British graffiti artist and political activist, known simply as Banksy, have become so celebrated that even the walls on which they appear have become valuable. When one of Banksy’s most visible specimens, “Haight Street Rat,” became something of a tourist attraction in San Francisco, authorities demanded that the owner of the bed-and-breakfast to remove, cover it or face a stiff fine. No matter that Banksy hadn’t sought the owner’s permission — presumably, anyway — or that it enhanced the neighborhood with its very presence, or that no one objected to the image of the stenciled rat, wearing a Che Guevara-style cap and clutching a Magic Marker. It had to go.

Brian Greif, former general manager of KRON-TV, came up with a compromise solution even the great King Solomon might have admired. In 2010, he persuaded the owner of the Red Victorian Bed and Breakfast to let him remove the 10 redwood-siding planks on which the rat was painted. Greif took the painting to art-restoration specialists, who mounted the slats on corrugated aluminum. He raised $10,000 to offset costs through a Kickstarter campaign, promising never to sell the work, even though other Banksy creations have sold at auction for more than $1 million and he was offered $700,000 for it. Instead, Greif attempted to donate “Haight Street Rat” to various museums. Without a letter of authentication from the artist, however, the institutions said they would not accept the work. Besides the possibility that giant rat might not have been a Banksy — not likely — curators were concerned that they could be accused of promoting vandalism. Day then introduces us to a dealer with fewer scruples than Greif. He’s profited handsomely from collecting street art that was worthless, until someone removed the portion of the wall or concrete slab on which it appeared, and delivered it to him. Many of Banksy’s pieces represent site-specific commentaries on current events, including a series rendered on surfaces in the West Bank, while others are intended to be ironic or satirical. Some pieces he’s acknowledged, so that groups could benefit from their value in the marketplace. The mystery behind their provenance suggests that Banksy isn’t a single person. Another paradox comes in knowing that street art, no matter its value, is considered fair game by rival taggers, vandals and building owners who prefer white wash to spray paint. Greif allows the rat to be displayed in galleries, but, “Our condition is that it has to be free and open to the public, and that there have to be programs to support street art.” Saving Banksy features interviews with artists Ben Eine, Risk, Revok, Niels ‘Shoe’ Meulman, Blek Le Rat, Doze Green, Hera Glen E. Friedman and Anthony Lister.

Counting for Thunder
Phillip Irwin Cooper’s surprisingly compelling adaptation of his one-man-show, Counting for Thunder, recounts the return home, to rural Alabama, of a struggling character actor, Phillip Stalworth (Cooper), tired of dealing with casting directors who think he’s too old to play characters his age and being rejected for parts that require a “Steve Carell type” because he looks too much like Carell. It’s Hollywood logic, to the Nth degree. When he isn’t working, Philip is at the beck and call of a diva who’s forgotten how to think for herself or perform everyday chores, like picking up the dry cleaning or collecting the mail. We’re told he has a girlfriend, as well, but their relationship has reached a dead end. When news reaches him of his mother’s cancer, Phillip has to convince his employer that she’ll probably be able survive his absence for a few days. Not surprisingly, a few days turn into a few weeks. That’s because Tina Stalworth (Mariette Hartley) takes her son’s advice and adopts a holistic approach to her treatment and, sure enough, the cancer goes into remission. Meanwhile, Phillip is required to deal with his father’s (John Heard) aversion to his “California ways“ pot brownies to relieve his mother’s pain, among them — and general crankiness over his choice of friends. Also hanging around are a thrice-divorced sister, who ignores Tina’s illness by insisting on chain-smoking around her, and a former high school jock who’s showing him an inordinate amount of attention. It won’t take long for the solitary home restorer, Joe (Peter Stebbings), to make Phillip recall the homosexual yearnings he felt as boy, but tabled when he moved to Hollywood. The only real question to be worked out here is when, exactly, Tina’s decision to quit chemo will backfire and the family can disintegrate naturally or come together as a stronger unit. That Phillip and Joe will hook up is handled as matter-of-factly as these things get. If that makes Counting for Thunder sound like a dozen other tear-jerking, coming-of-age and coming-out flicks we’ve all seen, I’m here to tell you that it’s anything but cliche. In addition to being the least condescending portrayal of life in a Southern family that I’ve seen in a long time, the various liaisons and hang-ups ring unusually true, as well. Cooper’s familiarity with the narrative allows for a natural unraveling of events and sensitive portrayals of the characters, all of whom he played in the one-man show.

Saturday Night Fever: Director’s Cut: Blu-ray
Arriving on the heels of Paramount’s 30th anniversary edition of Dirty Dancing, the 40th anniversary “director’s cut” edition of Saturday Night Fever begs certain comparisons to the Catskills-summer classic, as well as the 33-year-old Footloose and Flashdance. All of these gotta-dance entertainments were driven as much by compelling class-conscious stories as the dynamism of the performers. Not only did they change the way teens and young adults interact in nightclubs and high school gyms, but they also impacted the fashion scene and cadence of the hit parade. Every five or ten years, new anniversary editions are released, with newly discovered features, so the films must have some resonance with contemporary viewers, beyond the lure of undiluted nostalgia. Not being 17, or having kids that age, anymore, it’s impossible to know how any of them relate to teens whose musical tastes are more digital than analog and, for whom, dancing and choreography are two very different things. Judging from the amount of money invested in clubs and cocktails on any given weekend, in Las Vegas, alone, disco didn’t die with the infamous Disco Demolition Night promotion at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, on July 12, 1979, or the critical drubbing accorded Tony Manero’s return, six years later, in Staying Alive … co-written and directed by, lest we forget, Sylvester Stallone. From a distance of 40 years, however, I’d have to say that Saturday Night Fever‘s story holds up less well than the Bee Gees’ irrepressible songs, which retain a life of their own. Travolta’s no less electrifying as the kid with a dream as big as New York City, but that was only half the story, all along.

The interviews included in the bonus package remind us that “SNF” was as much about a place in time — Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, in the mid-1970s — as it was about dancing or disco. Tony’s dream of crossing the bridge into Manhattan — not the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which would only take him to Staten Island — gave him a decided edge over the mopes with whom he hung out. The same thing held true for his muse, Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), whose unmelodious accent could only emanate from one or two zip codes in the U.S. It’s unlikely that any of the other characters left the borough for fame or fortune. Last year, director John Badham collaborated with Paramount to restore the film in 4K, using the original negative and update the surround sound mix to further enhance the musical track. He also added scenes to the theatrical R-rated version that round out characters and plot, although they’re barely noticeable. I’d forgotten the scenes in the nightclub’s bar, with a pathetic stripper grinding away for bored patrons. In any case, the “R” was fairly earned for rough language and rougher sex. It also includes the original theatrical version, with Badham’s commentary and â “’70s Discopedia”; deleted scenes; and some vintage featurettes, “Catching the Fever,” “Back to Bay Ridge,” “Dance Like Travolta, With John Cassese┝ and “Fever Challenge”

3:10 to Yuma: 4K UHD/Blu-ray
The Expendables/The Expendables 2: 4K UHD: Blu-ray
Early adapters to the 4K Ultra High Definition format have only recently begun to be rewarded for their foresight and willingness to give another new technology a shot. It may not be as expensive an investment as 3DTV, but it isn’t cheap, either. Some companies are more invested in the process than others, so the inventory of UHD titles is far from reaching the point of critical mass. Nevertheless, the ability to play 4K discs on existing Blu-ray platforms is a real plus. If anything is going to sell UHD, it’s action/adventures in grand settings or comic-book fantasies with colorfully rendered special effects.

This week’s selections include 3:10 to Yuma, whose spectacular New Mexico and Arizona settings are worth the price of a rental, alone. It is James Mangold’s 2007 remake of Delmer Daves’ classic 1957 Western about an impoverished small-time rancher, Dan Evans (Van Heflin/ Christian Bale), who is persuaded to escort a vicious gunslinger, Ben Wade (Glenn Ford/Russell Crowe), from the nearly defenseless jail in tiny Bisbee, Arizona, to the nearest railhead. From there, the killer would be locked in a cage in the mail car and taken by train to Yuma for his trial and inevitable hanging. Getting Wade to Yuma will be no easy trick. Not only will his gang attempt to hijack Evans’ prisoner, but the threat of Apaches also hangs heavy in the air. Dan’s son, William (Barry Curtis/Logan Lerman), who tags along for the ride, initially is more impressed by the crook’s bravado than his father’s willingness to risk everything for an honorable payday. When it becomes clear that Ben’s gang — led by the sociopathic Charlie Prince (Richard Jaeckel/Ben Foster) — is hot on their heels, the killer’s taunts begin to wear heavy on Dan’s mind. No one in Bisbee is particularly anxious to risk their neck for a foregone conclusion. They’d prefer to settle the matter there and then. This Dan refuses to consider. Until the vastly different ending, Mangold hues closely to Halsted Welles’ original screenplay, which was based on a short story by Elmore Leonard. The primary and most obvious differences between the two recorded versions, though, is the addition of Phedon Papamichael’s stunning color cinematography and Marco Beltrami’s atmospheric score.  Despite the investment of creative energy and critical applause, 3:10 to Yuma did only so/so business at the box office. It gave studios another excuse to turn down proposals for Westerns, except for such dreadful hybrids as Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens and Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West. The 4K edition ports over featurettes included in the previous Blu-ray version: Mangold’s commentary, “Destination: Yuma,” “Outlaws, Gangs, & Posses,” “An Epic Explored,” “3:10 to Score,” “From Sea to Shining Sea” and “A Conversation With Elmore Leonard.” All are well worth checking out.

On the cover of The Expendables (2010), photoshopped photos of nine bad-ass mercenaries stretch from one side of the box to the other. On The Expendables 2, 11 armed and ready-to-boogey soldiers-of-fortune stand on a blanket of flames, left behind from some kind of an attack. On The Expendables 3, the number of glaring faces grows to 17. Some of the actors have come and gone, while others are new additions. Of the 37 faces, only one belongs to a woman — then-UFC champ Ronda Rousey — even though Chinese action star Nan Yu plays a prominent role in the first sequel. I’d love to see the budget breakdown on salaries for these prominent tough guys and such ringers as Kelsey Grammer, Antonio Banderas and Lauren Jones, whose claim to fame is being one of “Barker’s Beauties” on “The Price Is Right.” If none of the estimated budgets topped $100,000, it’s easy to see how the monetary flex point probably was on script development. With this many recognizable actors, all the screenwriters — Sylvester Stallone included — were required to do was string together as many of their catch phrases and references to previous films as would fit in a 120-page script, already crammed with enough fire fights to satisfy any weekend warrior. Significantly, perhaps, the body counts in the trilogy went from 188, in the original, to 482 and 480 in the sequels. Because Expendables 3: A Man’s Job was released in 4K UHD last year, ahead of this week’s upgrading of the first two episodes, it’s likely that enough units were moved to prompt optimism at Lionsgate. I thought that the reunion gag worked pretty well in No. 1, but less so in the sequels. I don’t get my rocks off on exotic weaponry and skull jewelry, however.  The vintage bonus material can be found on the Blu-ray editions, also included in the packages.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Nature: Yosemite: Blu-ray
PBS: Wild Weather
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Leonardo, The Man Who Saved Science
Nickelodeon: Rugrats: Season One/Season Two
The PBS “Nature” presentation “Yosemite“ probably was shot at the height of California’s recent drought, which ended sometime in mid-February, so, even a few months later, it feels like a distant memory. That doesn’t make the documentary any less relevant — or, easy on the eyes — just slightly out of date. The producers follow a year’s activities in the park, from season to season, and through the eyes of daredevil climbers and paragliders, rangers, environmentalists, campers, scientists and animals, large and small. It would be extremely difficult to make a film about Yosemite that’s less than spellbinding and “Yosemite” is far from mundane. At 60 minutes, however, it only scratches the surface of the park’s majesty and importance to the state’s eco-system. As a primer, perfectly suited for family viewing, it’s informative and entertaining.

The old saying, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it,” is probably as applicable today as it was when it was minted, in the late 1800s. While it’s become easier to track and predict meteorological phenomena and other extreme conditions, precision and prevention remain just beyond our reach. In PBS’ “Wild Weather,” scientists from around the globe deconstruct the processes through which such simple ingredients as wind, water, heat and cold interact to trigger such spectacular events as tornados, sandstorms, fiery whirlwinds and avalanches. They do this in the lab and in the field, literally out of dust, water and thin air. Dr. Nigel Tapper of Monash University, Australia, creates a massive dust storm so he can examine the microscopic moments when dust particles begin to bounce high enough into the stratosphere to interact with clouds. Engineers Jim Stratton and Craig Zehrung from Purdue University, use a high-powered “vacuum cannon” to fire homemade hailstones at over 500 mph. One thing leads to another and, voila, disasters happen.

Leonardo da Vinci was born a 500 years before the Internet, but the methods he used to formulate his theories, create great works of art and invent machines and gadgets that wouldn’t be practical for several centuries recall the way we browse the Web for own education and amusement. The “Secrets of the Dead“ chapter, “Leonardo, The Man Who Saved Science,” explains how Leonardo found the inspiration for some of his most important discoveries in manuscripts and drawings compiled as many as 1,700 years before his time and thousands of miles away from home. He knew that Italy wasn’t the center of the universe, when it came to scientific research and great ideas, at least, and searched tirelessly for ideas shared by the ancient Greeks, Islamic thinkers and his contemporaries. Once again, it would take countless more hours to develop a complete portrait of the man and his work — even leaving out the more prurient aspects highlighted in Starz’ “Da Vinci’s Demons” – but “Leonardo, The Man Who Saved Science” is as good an entry point as any.

It’s been almost 26 years since Klasky-Csupo animation studios combined resources with Nickelodeon Productions on “Rugrats,” a show as much for young parents as their children. For the better part of 14 years, the animated series chronicled the misadventures of four babies and their snotty older cousin, as they face things in life they don’t yet understand. In 2017, of course, children who grew up watching the award-winning show are old enough to turn their own youngsters on to “Rugrats.” The first two complete-season packages, once strictly available through Amazon and MOD purveyor CreateSpace, have been newly released through Paramount Home Entertainment.

The DVD Wrapup: Girl With All the Gifts, Girl From Brothel, Underworld V, Detour, Catfight, We Are X, Borowczyk, Three Brothers and more

Thursday, April 27th, 2017

The Girl With All the Gifts: Blu-ray
The more I learn about the business of distributing DVDs, Blu-ray and VOD, the less sense key business decisions make. Take, for example, Colm McCarthy and writer Mike Carey’s very representative horror flick The Girl With All the Gifts. Apart from being extremely well made and unusually thought-provoking, it features a performance by Glenn Close that almost has to be seen to be believed. Looking a bit like her cross-dressing butler Albert Nobbs – for which she won an Obie and received an Oscar nominated – but with an authoritative bearing not unlike her Nova Prime, in Guardians of the Galaxy, Close plays Dr. Caroline Caldwell, a no-nonsense biologist determined to find a vaccine for a zombie plague. The novelty of such casting, alone, would appear to be sufficient cause for an arthouse release. After debuting at last year’s Locarno, Stuttgart Fantasy Film and Toronto festivals – where it received excellent reviews — The Girl With All the Gifts was accorded little more than an Internet premiere, in January. Then, apparently, no one could figure out what to do with the darn thing. Here, 12-year-old Melanie (newcomer Sennia Nanua) is among a small group of children – “hungries” – who have been infected with a fungal infection that corrupts the brain, but remain able, more or less, to control their urges to stalk and devour uninfected humans. The rest act like zombies in “The Walking Dead” and a million other such undead entertainments.

Strictly monitored and restrained to wheelchairs, the children represent the control group Caldwell and other scientists are studying at a fenced-in British military base. When a sympathetic teacher (Gemma Arterton) gets too attached to Melanie, it threatens to throw an unpredictable variant into the research. Worse comes to worst when the full-blown zombies break through the fence and the child “hungries” are able to mix with the mob and escape the only home they’ve ever known. To achieve a realistically post-apocalyptic look, McCarthy flew a drone over the still-uninhabited ghost town of Prypjat, near Chernobyl, capturing images that would have been impossible to replicate on a spartan budget. Apparently, Close has wanted to appear in a zombie movie for a long time and her decision was influenced by her sister-in-law’s love of the sub-genre. Also effective are Dominique Tipper, Anamaria Marinca and Paddy Considine. The Blu-ray contains the making-of featurette, “Unwrap the Secrets of The Girl WIth All the Gifts,” with interviews with the director, writer, actors and composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer, all of whom discuss what it took to make an effective horror film on a barely-there budget.

The Girl From the Brothel
A few weeks ago, in my review of Lion, I digressed a bit on the subject of human trafficking and what happens to children who “disappear” from their homes and family. In the movie, as it was in real life, the protagonist, Saroo, was extremely fortunate to be delivered by police to a responsible Calcutta orphanage and placed with a loving family in Australia. Years later, of course, he tracked down his birth mother and sister in a tiny Indian village. Tens of thousands of other children in the same predicament as Saroo weren’t nearly as lucky. If I had known about co-writer/director/star Ilaria Borrelli and co-writer Guido Freddi’s The Girl From the Brothel (a.k.a., “Talking to the Trees”), I could have saved all of us some time. It not only serves as an indictment of the illegal trafficking of underage children in Southeast Asia, but, also, the corruption that allows it to enrich criminals, law-enforcement officials and desperately poor relatives of the victims. The indictment also extends to the tourists from around the world who support all forms of prostitution – legal and otherwise — in the region with their patronage. Here, Mia (Borrelli) is a Paris-based photographer with a drug problem, who flies to Cambodia to surprise her businessman husband, Xavier (Philippe Caroit), with her desire to adopt a child and embark on a more stable family life. In a plot device that is too convenient by half, Mia catches Xavier in a lowly brothel, being serviced by 11-year-old, Srey.  (Blessedly, the depiction is camouflaged and prurient only by implication.)

She decides, then and there, to rescue the girl and return her to the remote village from which she and her brother were kidnapped. To accomplish this feat, however, Mia is required to sacrifice herself to a highly placed government official. On their way out of town, Mia is shocked to learn that her precocious accomplice, Srey, has brought along a couple of friends and the theft of money from the pimp will ensure a countrywide police dragnet. Each of the girls comes from a different village and has a story of their own to tell. They are sharp enough to provide Mia with tips on how to avoid roadblocks and ingratiate themselves with locals. The journey is as scenic as it is harrowing, moving quickly from the teeming capital to fishing villages on the coast and jungles being stripped of their natural vegetation. Along the way, Mia learns everything she’ll ever need to know about survival skills and the worthlessness of Xavier. Borrelli also points out that not all of the girls’ parents and police are cut from the same cloth and some of them, at least, were ignorant of their whereabouts. I can’t decide if Freddi’s curiously New Age soundtracks adds or detracts from what’s happening on the screen.

Underworld: Blood Wars
In the generous supplement package included in the Underworld: Blood Wars package, the accents of German-born director Anna Foerster and Serbian costume Bojana Nikitovic suggest that they may possess some inside knowledge on the centuries-old blood feud between aristocratic vampires, known as Death Dealers, and their onetime slaves, the Lycans. How popular would Universal’s original Dracula have been if Bela Lugosi had affected a British accent, instead of relying on his native Romanian? Almost everyone else in the horror franchise’s fifth installment speaks in variations of the Queen’s English – as is also apparent in the bonus interviews – and it sometimes makes them sound as if they’re analyzing the intricacies of “War and Peace” or “Finnegan’s Wake,” instead of a supernatural gore fest. Lugosi probably wouldn’t recognize anything here, though, with the possible exceptions of the castles and fangs. At the ripe old age of 46, series MVP Kate Beckinsale looks even more stunning out of her body-hugging leather costume than in it. Younger stars Theo James, Lara Pulver, Clementine Nicholson, Daisy Head and Bradley James – all ridiculously buff and beautiful – seem happy to be along for the ride. Even if “Blood Wars” is an extension of all of the episodes that preceded it, an inordinately long preface allows newcomers to figure out what’s happening without much confusion. As the remaining vampires are on the verge of being wiped out by the Lycans, Selene (Beckinsale) is being hunted by the devious Eastern Coven leader Semira (Lara Pulver) and Lycan top dog Marius (Tobias Menzies). The former seeks justice for the deaths of Viktor and Marcus, while the Lycans intend to use her to locate Eve, the 12-year-old hybrid daughter of Selene and Michael Corvin, whose blood holds the key to building an army of vampire-werewolf hybrids. Semira lures Selena out of hiding by promising to grant her clemency, so she can train the Eastern Coven’s neophyte Death Dealers, but she’s betrayed by her rival’s ally and lover, Varga (Bradley James). Long story short: Selena escapes imminent death when Thomas and David (Dance, James) ride to her rescue. She ends up taking refuge with the peaceful Northern Coven – somewhere near Lapland – where all scores will be settled. The action is pretty good, if ultimately repetitive, with death meted out in numerous different ways. If “Blood Wars” failed to impress critics and paying customers – it was the lowest-opening chapter in franchise history – it does allow for a “new generation” extension, possibly as a straight-to-VOD/DVD entity or television series. Also included in the bonus package is a graphic-novel version of “Blood Wars,” which neatly sums everything up, without the clamor of the clanging swords, automatic-weapons’ fire and atmospheric music.

Detour: Blu-ray
In the movies, the best place to hire a hitman is the local strip club. In fact, the lower down the food chain one goes, the more time the characters spend in the company of gyrating dancers and topless waitresses serving watered-down drinks. It beats having to come up with intriguing dialogue and clever plots. In Detour, law student Harper (Tye Sheridan) enters into a pact with a heavily tattooed young man, Johnny Ray (Emory Cohen), who offers to kill his stepfather, Vincent (Stephen Moyer), whom he believes is responsible for the accident that sent his mother into a coma. The rest of the story plays out in manner not dissimilar to the split-level Sliding Doors (1998), this using a television broadcast of Edgar G. Ulmer’s infamous noir, Detour (1945), as connective tissue. Both involve the fate of Johnny Ray, who’s heavily in debt to an even more tattooed drug kingpin (John Lynch), who’s commandeered a motel on the old road between Las Vegas and L.A. The dealer is willing to trade the debt for Johnny Ray’s deliciously scuzzy girlfriend, Cherry (Bel Powley), who’s getting sick of being beat up by the guy who insists he can’t live without her. The other narrative allows for an alternate solution to Harper’s problem, this time without having to leave home. Writer/director Christopher Smith Black Death isn’t shy about using visual gimmicks to push viewers’ buttons. His best allies here, though, are Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl), who, even at 25, convincingly plays manipulative jailbait, and the deliciously sleazy Lynch. Detour has its moments, but they come and go without leaving much of an impression.

Catfight: Blu-ray
In the final episode of Season Eight of “Seinfeld” – “The Summer of George” – one of the parallel storylines describes how the males in Elaine’s life react when they sense that a fight between two women seems imminent. Typically, their behavior reflects a collective lack of intellectual growth among men, who, while in high school would behave like baboons in anticipation of a “catfight,” during which the girls were likely to lose a blouse or skirt. It was considered bad form for anyone, except a teacher or sibling, to break up these skirmishes. Catfight is also the title of Onur Tukel’s latest provocation, during which polar opposites played by Sandra Oh and Anne Heche relive an unresolved college grievance by kicking the crap out of each other and leaving one of them in a coma. They would wake up a couple of years later, in a hospital, unable to remember anything about how they lost everything and everyone they once deemed essential in their lives. Oh plays Veronica, a superficial upper-middle-class housewife, while Ashley is misanthropic and not particularly successful artist, obsessed more with her career than her life partner, Lisa (Alicia Silverstone), who wants to bear a child. Veronica and Ashely run into each other at a party, hosted by Veronica’s husband, during which their long-buried rivalry comes to the surface. After exchanging some cruel sentiments, they come to blows in a stairwell, leaving Veronica in the hospital in a two-year-long coma. She awakens to learn that her husband and son are both dead and her nest egg has been exhausted by medical bills. A year later, or so, the same thing happens again, this time in reverse. A third such engagement will occur, only, this time, neither woman has anything left to lose. The catfights in Catfight aren’t remotely sexy – although fetishists might disagree – and the ladies’ clothing remains mostly intact. What’s amazing is just how punishing the fights between these two big stars are made to look and for how long they last. If the first two punches are kind of funny, the next dozen or so are far from amusing. Some might wonder what kind of a madman could conceive of such fare and convince indie faves Oh and Heche to appear in it. A bonus featurette explains how the pugilistic realism was achieved.

The Marine 5: Battleground: Blu-ray
WWE superstar Mike “The Miz” Mizanin is back for a record third time as Jake Carter, a former Marine sergeant turned body guard and, in The Marine 5: Battleground, a stateside EMT. As such, he’s outlasted John Cena (12 Rounds), who launched the series, and the sequel’s star, Ted DiBiase (“Vengeance”). WWE Studios, which now also enlists its stars in the service of animated films – “Scooby-Doo,” “The Jetsons,” “The Flintstones,” “Surf’s Up 2” — tends to rotate the actors playing lead roles in its feature films. The same is true of its directors. The critics haven’t cared much for the studio’s live-action titles, but they must have done some business or why bother? This time around, Carter is assigned the responsibility of protecting a man who killed a leader of a local motorcycle gang. Trapped in the cavernous parking garage of an amusement park, Carter and his partner have the disadvantage of being outnumbered, out of communication with their supervisors and short on weapons. The man he’s protecting happens to be wounded, as well. In WWE movies, at least, a Marine should be capable of outlasting his villains, no matter the odds. And, of course, that’s exactly what happens. The supporting cast is stacked with such wrestlers as Heath Slater, Curtis Axel, Bo Dallas, Trinity “Naomi” Fatu, Joe Hennig, Taylor Rotunda, Naomi and Maryse “The Sultry Diva” Mizanin. Whoever invented the term, “It is what it is,” must have foreseen such movies as “The Marine 5.”

The Levelling
Set on a dairy farm in Somerset, England, after the devastating floods of 2014, The Levelling marks the long overdue return of Hope Dickson Leach to the filmmaking game, this time as a freshman writer/director. After graduating from Columbia, Leach learned the craft working as an assistant for Todd Solondz on Palindromes, as well as directing several promising shorts. She took several years off to start a family and reassess her role in an industry that values low-budget films, but not necessarily the people who make them. The Levelling is a far more direct and somber story than the occasionally satiric shorts she once delivered. It features excellent performances by Ellie Kendrick (“Game of Thrones”) and David Troughton (“Grantchester”), as a father and daughter forced to deal with unsettled issues in the wake of the death of her brother. In training to become a veterinarian, Clover Catto returns the family farm, only to find it in terrible disarray after the floods. Her father, Aubrey, refuses to believe that the shooting was anything but a terrible accident, even though all of the evidence argues for it being a suicide. Either way, a dairy farmer’s work doesn’t stop for mourning, funeral preparations, floods and familial discord. Among other things, the cows have to be fed, milked and birthed, and other obligatory chores don’t perform themselves. Neither do pastures and barns heal themselves when they’re damaged by the ravages of nature’s wrath. The frustrations caused by such unforeseen acts of God must have weighed heavily on Charlie (Joe Blakemore), before he picked up the gun. Repairing the father-daughter relationship is no less difficult for Clover, who, even as someone who works with animals, can envision a life removed from the mud, shit and dawn-to-dusk obligations of rural life.

We Are X: Blu-ray
Up until a few months ago, the only rock band I knew of named X was, and still is, as much a product of Los Angeles as Dodger Dogs and the Hollywood sign, and an excellent rockumentary, X: The Unheard Music (1986), has already been made about the pioneers of West Coast punk. That changed with the arrival of Stephen Kijak’s We Are X on the festival circuit, which I initially confused with Michael Haertlein and Jonathan Yi’s extremely wild documentary, Mad Tiger, about the New York-based Japanese art-punk ensemble Peelander-z. Unbeknownst to me, anyway, X Japan has been a major attraction in there for more than 30 years and has since taken its act to countries around the world, including the United States. It started as a power/speed/metal group, with heavy symphonic elements, but later would be highly influenced, as well, by the Western hair bands and prog rockers of the 1970s. X Japan is widely credited as being one of the pioneers of visual kei, a popular movement among independent and underground musicians working in the glam, goth, electronica and cyberpunk subgenres. It also has become famous for the power ballads it performs in sold-out auditoriums to the accompaniment of laser beams, flashing lights, smoke machines and hysterical fans. Under the enigmatic direction of drummer, pianist, composer, and producer Yoshiki, X Japan has sold over 30 million singles and albums. Sartorially, they make T-Rex look like the Four Freshmen. For all of the band’s success, however, it would be impacted by personal problems and the angst that goes with being hounded by fans and the media. We Are X is further informed by interviews with such admirers as Sir George Martin, KISS’ Gene Simmons, Stan Lee and Marilyn Manson. There’s footage from the concert to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Emperor Akihito’s ascension, as well as that from the Tokyo Dome and Madison Square Garden affairs. The Blu-ray adds extended interviews, Kijak’s commentary, backstage footage from rehearsals and concerts, as well as archival footage of such key moments such as the split of the band and their last concert and the death of one of the guitarists.

Robot Wars
Like too many other low-budget indies fortunate enough to find distribution, but only on straight-to-video platforms, a late title change caused Robot Wars to be released without much in the way of robots or wars on display. If I had known that going into the movie, I wouldn’t have wasted any time looking for them among the other cyber-stuff. This isn’t to imply that fans of first-person point-of-view flicks won’t find something to enjoy here, because that’s essentially what drives the narrative. In the near future, industrial espionage will be conducted by surgically altered spies able to infiltrate companies thought to be secure and photograph documents using an undetectable camera and data links implanted in their eye sockets. Here, a convict is offered a second chance at freedom, but only if he agrees to the procedure and help a team of thieves steal top-secret technology from a rival company. When the mission is compromised and their link to their sponsors is lost, the team is forced to transport their secreted prize through a lawless industrial sprawl populated with barbaric gangs and corporate death squads. Meanwhile, they discover the true nature of their mission and the true power of the device they now possess. The POV perspective makes the movie look and feel like a video-game. The DVD comes with a featurette.

In the Doghouse
When the children of divorced parents decide that it’s in everyone’s best interests to reunite mom and dad, they’ll use every trick in the book to accomplish the task at hand. Throw in a poodle with cognitive powers and mom might as well abandon all hope of hooking up with a guy who won’t break her heart after a few years of marriage. In Paul Rocha and writer Stephen Langford’s Dove-approved In the Doghouse, the kids have forgotten what caused the divorce in the first place – we’re never told — and play tricks on all of mom’s suitors to scare them off. Most of them are so hideously rendered that her ex even begins to look good to us. In a contrivance almost too absurd to mention, Wendy (Kim Hamilton) wins the lottery, alerting an ex-boyfriend to her good fortune. She’s already mentioned his name to a match-making friend, so it doesn’t come as much of a surprise when the bunko artist (Matthew Easton) shows up at her doorstep and she takes the bait. Now, the girls and Irving the Poodle are on the side of the angels and we still haven’t been given a good reason to cheer for the inevitable mother/father reunion. As these things go, In the Doghouse offers more than its fair share of funny moments, almost all of them at the expense of the poor saps a picture-perfect woman like Wendy normally wouldn’t date on a dare. Curiously, considering the prominence of his picture on the DVD jacket, Irving really isn’t given all that much to do in In the Doghouse.

Psycho Cop Returns: Blu-ray
She Kills: Limited Edition Blu-ray
Here are a pair of movies that easily qualify as being so bad, they’re not good, exactly, but funny … in a sick, thoroughly gratuitous sort of way. Released to video in 1993, Psycho Cop Returns is a sequel to the similarly nutso Psycho Cop, which also took the cassette route before being accorded cult status. Of more recent vintage, She Kills only looks like it was made at the height of the straight-to-cassette era. The more blotto the viewer is on generic-label beer, skunk weed or Drano, the more likely it is that he or she will make it to the end of the movies with no regrets. They’re that over the top.

For those who missed the original Psycho Cop, Officer Joe Vickers (Robert R. Shafer) isn’t nicknamed “Psycho” because everyone in the department’s bowling league is required to have one. No, he’s the real deal: a cop who believes that no law is too trivial to enforce and the use of lethal force is warranted, even when issuing tickets for jaywalking or citing noise violations at office parties, as is the case in Psycho Cop Returns. Neither is he keen on advising a perp of his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. “You have the right to remain dead,” he belatedly explains to one corpse. “Anything you say would be considered strange, because you’re dead. You have a right to an attorney, which you don’t need, because you’re dead.” The movie opens in a diner, where two office workers are discussing just how much fun they’re likely to have at that night’s bash. Overhearing their boasts, Officer Joe makes plans to pay the revelers a visit when the debauchery is likely to be at its height. Oh, yeah, have I mentioned that Officer Joe also appears to be an undead Satanist? For all the atrocities committed over Psycho Cop Returns’ 80-minute length, the gore is surprisingly inoffensive and the sex stops just short of actual penetration. Everything else is fair game. The folks at Vinegar Syndrome have gone way beyond the call of duty for this newly scanned and restored edition, adding a commentary track with director Adam Rifkin (Detroit Rock City); the 43-minute featurette, “Habeas Corpus,” offering interviews with Rifkin, editor Peter Schink, screenwriter Dan Povenmire and actors Robert R. Shafer, Miles Dougal, Rod Sweitzer, Nick Vallelonga, Barbara Niven and Melanie Good; “The Victims of Vickers,” with SFX artist Mike Tristano; and reversible cover artwork by Chris Garofalo. That represents an inordinate amount of effort invested in a movie whose punchline is a parody of the Rodney King beating.

She Kills opens with the camera following a beautiful blond a she strolls through a lush pasture, on the lookout for a spot where she’ll feel safe unbuttoning her blouse and letting the girls out for some good old country sunshine. She’s expecting to rendezvous with her fiancé, for whom she’s been saving her maidenhead, until that night’s wedding ceremony. It kind of reminded me of such risqué European erotica as Therese and Isabelle and I, a Woman, which took America by storm in the 1960s. Unbeknownst to our top-down heroine, Sadie (Jennie Russo), however, a sleazy biker is peering at her from the tree line. He’s a member of a gang appropriately known as the Touchers, but, before he can get his greasy hands on the virginal blond, her wimpy fiancé arrives. On their wedding night, the rest of the Touchers show up in the bridal suite to pre-empt the bedtime festivities. During the rape attempt, however, Sadie surprises everyone by defending her virginity with a wicked condition called “fire crotch.” (It looks as if she’s also been cursed to wear a merkin from hell.) A fortune-telling friend, Casparella, advises her to seek an exorcism, before all the men in town are burned to a crisp. The sadism on display could be considered cruelly gratuitous, if the gang members weren’t so cartoonish and the special effects so ridiculously cheesy.

Jess Franco’s Marquise De Sade
Along with Joe D’Amato, Tinto Brass, Henri Pachard, Gerard Damiano, Radley Metzger and Russ Meyer, Spanish multi-hyphenate Jesús “Jess” Franco was one of the grand ol’ men of porn – soft, hard, whatever – for most of second half of the 20th Century. For the most part, they learned how to make mainstream movies or docs before they got into the porn game and adapted to the changes that occurred in the 1960s, when most forms of erotica were legalized; during the commercialization of porn in the 1970s; the home-video explosion of the 1980s; and the gonzo boom of the 1990s. As long as they were making movies, they attempted to tell stories about women and men who might have escaped from an X-rated Harlequin romance novel and whose horizons stretched beyond the warehouse studios of San Fernando Valley. If the actors had blemishes, they didn’t show. Brass and Metzger’s films could double as travelogues for swingers. They’d shoot for hard-core audiences, while also leaving plenty of footage to cut for soft-core outlets. Moreover, they hoped viewers would stick with their movies beyond the first couple of staged couplings.

Franco’s pictures ran the gamut from cheapo/sleazo to literary. Movies based on characters and themes already familiar to potential viewers saved wear and tear on the imagination, while also suggesting the settings and costumes to be considered. Made in 1976, Jess Franco’s Marquise De Sade has carried several different titles over the last 40 years: “Die Marquise von Sade,” “The Portrait of Doriana Gray,” “The 1000 Shades of Doriana Grey” and “Female Vampire.” It more closely resembles Oscar Wilde’s literary classic “The Picture of Dorian Gray” than anything by the Marquis de Sade or Bram Stoker. Franco’s longtime partner and muse, Lina Romay, plays the lonely aristocrat Doriana Gray and her twin sister, who’s been locked away in an asylum. Though separated, they share a strange bond: while Doriana is repressed to the point of frigidity, she’s able to get off by channeling the sexual pleasure experienced by her insatiable twin. Not completely dissimilar to Wilde’s creation, Doriana’s youth is replenished with each new orgasm. The less often she climaxes, the older she looks. Frankly, though, I found it difficult to keep track of which sister was which … not that it matters, because Franco probably did, too. The DVD adds a making-of piece, with interviews, and a veritable cavalcade of Franco trailers.

Ophelia: Blu-ray
World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers: Blu-ray
Theatre of Mr. & Mrs. Kabal: Blu-ray
Goto Isle of Love: Blu-ray
Blanche: Blu-ray
Walerian Borowczyk: Short Films: Blu-ray
A few weeks ago, while reviewing Arrow Academy’s upgraded edition of Walerian Borowczyk’s Story of Sin, I mentioned that Chicago-based Olive Films would be sending a fresh batch of the Polish writer/director/animator’s long-forgotten pictures. They have arrived, alongside two other underseen gems: Claude Chabrol’s 1963 contemporization of “Hamlet,” Ophelia, and an abridged version of the star-studded 1964 anthology, The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers. Chabrol contributed a chapter to the latter film, as well, along with Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless), Ugo Gregoretti (Omicron), Hiromichi Horikawa (The Alaska Story) and Roman Polanski, who had just emigrated to France and asked that his segment be edited out of future releases. In Ophelia, André Jocelyn (Les Cousins) plays wealthy young provincial, Yvan, who becomes fixated on the idea that his mother, Alida Valli (The Third Man), and uncle, Claude Cerval (Belle de Jour), conspired to have his businessman father killed, so they could marry and sap his fortune. When Yvan’s paranoia becomes too much for his family and neighbors to bear, he begins wooing Lucy (Juliette Mayniel), the beautiful daughter of his parents’ groundskeeper. He convinces her to become the de facto Ophelia of his scheme. Chabrol adds enough visual and thematic references to the play to support Yvan’s suspicions, while Jean Rabier’s wintery black-and-white cinematography is sufficiently bleak to make us think that something is rotten in, if not Denmark, then Villepreux. Ophelia may have been a minor addition to Chabrol’s resume – and not at all Hitchcockian — but there’s enough there to keep his admirers happy for a couple hours.

Like so many other anthologies, The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers, is best savored in small bites, almost as palate cleansers separating the main courses of the artist’s oeuvre. Indeed, in the 50 years since the stories were compiled, the schemes depicted have been borrowed dozens of times and re-set in as many different locations around the world. What’s most interesting here is watching the hand-picked casts of top-shelf actors add touches of their own to the directors’ visions. Among them are Jean Seberg (Breathless), Catherine Deneuve (Indochine), Jean-Pierre Cassel (Murder on the Orient Express), Mie Hama (You Only Live Twice), Francis Blanche (Monsieur Gangster) and Ken Mitsuda (Sansho the Bailiff). Lending their considerable talents behind the camera are cinematographers Raoul Coutard (Breathless), Tonino Delli Colli (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), Asakazu Nakai (Ran) and Jean Rabier (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg).

The newly upgraded titles from Borowczyk’s still rather obscure body of work are Blanche, Goto: Isle of Love, Theatre of Mr. & Mrs. Kabal and “Walerian Borowczyk: Short Films,” the latter two demonstrating his mastery of animation. At mid-century, the differences between European and American animation were the equivalent of night and day, with the Euros favoring more angular characters and surrealistic situations, to the anthropomorphism that distinguished American cartoons. The almost bizarre creations of eastern European artists would find a ready audience of kids a couple of decades later, when Nickelodeon broke the mold on commercial animation. In the feature-length Theatre of Mr. & Mrs. Kabal, the henpecked Mr. Kabal, who’s prone to ogling young females through his binoculars, is never quite beyond the reach of the statuesque and domineering Mrs. Kabal. We all fell in love with “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” but it would have been impossible for non-Europeans to appreciate the debt – fully acknowledged in his introduction – owed the misanthropic Pole by the great Terry Gilliam. Watch these shorts alongside any episode of “Monty Python” and you’ll thank all that is holy that these two minds met somewhere along the line and melded into something that could be enjoyed as much by aesthetes as kids looking for something completely different. It’s there to be found in the shorts compiled by Olive/Arrow.

Borowzcyk also was celebrated for his ability to make historical dramas and period pictures that didn’t look as if they were shot in studio backlots and sets created overnight to resemble the interiors of castles, churches and cottages. His selection of classical and traditional music also fits the periods like an expensive leather glove. Blanche, based on the poem “Mazepa,” by Juliusz Slowacki, takes place largely in an actual medieval castle, somewhere in France, where an elderly baron, Michel Simon (L’Atalante), and his much younger bride (the director’s muse, Ligia Branice) welcome a visiting king, George Wilson (Les destinées), and his handsome page, Jacques Perrin (Cinema Paradiso), to their castle, setting in motion accusations of disloyalty and marital infidelity and turning what should be a fairytale into a nightmare.

Borowzcyk’s first live-action feature, Goto: Isle of Love (1968), must have come as a shock to the many admirers of his animation. Shot in consciously drab black-and-white, it depicts life on an island no other nation is interested in claiming. A meteorological disaster had destroyed everything worth exploiting and the coastline probably couldn’t support a tourist trade. At the time of its release, Borowzcyk could have modeled Goto after a half-dozen Eastern European countries, where the sun never seemed to be able to cut its way through the industrial smog, and creativity was treated as an affront to the state. My guess would be Albania, which, throughout most of the post-war period, was as isolated and colorless as North Korea is, today. In this tale of infidelity, revenge and repressed love, Pierre Brasseur (Port of Shadows) plays Goto III, an unstable and jealous dictator married to the beautiful Glossia (Branice). Unbeknownst to Goto III, Glossia is carrying on an affair with one of his guards (Jean-Pierre Andreani). Also lusting after the dictator’s wife is Grozo (Guy Saint-Jean), a petty thief who, by winning the confidence of Goto III, plans to win Glossia for himself. Several humorously telling scenes were shot inside a classroom, where the students’ primary duty is to memorize the island’s short history and be able to tell the difference between the three Gotos, from a painting whose perspective changes depending on where one sits. All four discs contain informative featurettes and interviews with cronies of the director and artists influenced by his work.

Three Brothers: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Assassin: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Red Queen Kills Seven Times: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Django, Prepare a Coffin: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Caltiki:  The Immortal Monster: Special Edition: Blu-ray
On top of everything else, Arrow has delivered an abbondanza of riches from Italy this week, representing several different genres, time periods and degrees of obscurity. Let’s move from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Of all the post-neorealist masters of the 1960s and 1970s, Francesco Rosi has remained among the most detached and ignored, at least by the folks who prioritize the films that get archived and restored for view by American cineastes with home-theater systems. Everything else made in Italy from the end of World War II to the wind-down of the giallo fantastique era, which coincided with the more politicized and humanistic work of Gillo Pontecorvo, Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Taviani brothers, Ettore Scola and Valerio Zurlini, has made the transition from screen to disc, it seems. A native Napolitano, Rosi was especially interested in chronicling the interaction between organized crime, politicians, the judiciary, police and everyday citizens too often caught in the crossfire. He also was known for adapting into film the writings of Carlo Levi, Primo Levi, Leonardo Sciascia, Gabriel García Márquez and Andrei Platonov, who provided the source material for Three Brothers. Americans would be more familiar with his gangland drama, Lucky Luciano (1973), with Rod Steiger, Vincent Gardenia and Edmond O’Brien in key supporting roles, than, say, the BAFTA-winning Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979) or the Silver Bear-winning Salvatore Giuliano (1962), a personal favorite of Martin Scorsese. Three Brothers reflects the changes that rocked post-war Italy on its way to the “economic miracle” of 1950-73. After the death of their mother, far-flung siblings played by Philippe Noiret, Michele Placido and Vittorio Mezzogiorno – a judge, union organizer and children’s advocate, respectively – return to their home village in southeastern Italy. They are of the generation of males, especially, who have blurred memories of the war, but left home as the country adopted a more urban, industrialized economic philosophy. If they returned home at all, it was for weddings, baptisms and funerals. Their elderly father is still alive, but it’s only a matter of time before he’ll happily join his wife in heaven. In the meantime, the brothers have decided that he should spend some quality time with his granddaughter, who’s perfectly suited for the job of grandpa-sitting. Unlike other such scenarios, in which the siblings would be expected to reopen old wounds, before exposing new ones, the brothers are more preoccupied with things happening hundreds of miles away from the heel of the Italian boot, in Rome, Turin and Naples. The judge is one of many law-enforcement officials targeted for assassination by La Cosa Nostra; tempers at the union activist’s factory are threatening to explode into violence; and the recent influx of refugees from Africa has sparked a social dilemma the government is ill-prepared to remedy. Television, newspaper and magazine reports won’t allow the men to bury their mother and comfort their father in peace. Three Brothers takes place, as well, after Italy’s “la dolce vita” respite and there’s no going back to it. The story, however, couldn’t have a more universal appeal. The Arrow Academy release is enhanced by a 2K restoration from original film materials; high-definition Blu-ray and standard-definition DVD presentations; a feature-length interview with Rosi; and a booklet featuring an essay by Professor Millicent Marcus, a 1981 interview with Rosi and a selection of contemporary reviews.

Even more obscure, perhaps, than Three Brothers is Elio Petri’s 1961 The Assassin (“L’Assassino”), a psychological mystery that starred Marcello Mastroianni, just as his career was beginning to explode. It also marked the emergence of Petri, who would go on to make Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, A Quiet Place in the Country, Lulu the Tool and Property Is No Longer a Theft. After gaining some attention at home in Mario Monicelli’s Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958) and Luchino Visconti’s Le Notti Bianche, Mastroianni would achieve international recognition in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), Antonio Pietrangeli’s Hungry for Love (1960), Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte (1961) and Pietro Germi Divorce Italian Style (1961). The Assassin has been described as Kafkaesque and Camusian, in that the protagonist, Alfredo Martelli, is arrested on suspicion of murdering his older, far wealthier lover, Adalgisa (Micheline Presle), but denies any culpability or knowledge of the crime. It’s not even clear if the police buy into their initial theory, allowing the art dealer to tag along in their investigation and even interview other potential suspects. We begin to sense that the police are so confident that Martelli’s guilty of something – and, worse, enjoying the spoils of his misdeeds – that he at least deserves to be harassed and cut down to size. The Assassin is interesting, as well, for presenting yet another side of life among the country’s privileged class. The pristine 2K restoration, in B&W, is complemented by an introduction, with historian Pasquale Iannone; a terrifically entertaining and informative interview with screenwriter, Tonino Guerra, who reminisces about collaborations with Fellini, Antonioni, Rosi, Monicelli, Vittorio De Sica, Andre Tarkovsky and Theodoros Angelopoulos.

Arrow has also kept busy packaging giallo titles from writer/directors not particularly known for their contributions to the subgenre. Last year’s “Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli” combined Death Walks at Midnight (1972) and Death Walks on High Heels (1971) into a single tidy package, before sending them out on their own last month. Likewise, “Killer Dames: Two Gothic Chillers by Emilio P. Miraglia” has been subdivided, with separate editions of The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971) and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972) newly released. I won’t go into much detail on them, again, except to say that, as well as being representative of various giallo tropes and turns, they are a lot of fun to watch. Even the interviews with cast and crew – especially the still sultry and sassy Erika Blanc — are entertaining. As the title of the package suggests, Miraglia wasn’t at all reluctant to mix gothic-horror conventions within a more garish Modernist framework. And, yes, the nudity is plentiful. Both movies look better than ever, too, no worse for the wear of being butchered by distributors anxious to make them fit the dictates of drive-in owners and TV censors.  The many fresh and vintage bonus features have been ported over, as well.

The venerable, if occasionally ridiculous series of Westerns that fall under the Django banner began in 1968, with Sergio Corbucci at the helm and the title character played by Franco Nero. Ten entries and nine Djangos later, Nero was expected to return to the series in Django, Prepare a Coffin, a prequel to original that was produced by the same company, B.R.C. Produzione S.r.l. According to IMDB.com, Nero is attached to an undated sequel, “Django Lives!,” being written by John Sayles, during which the aging protagonist is hired by a movie-production company to consult on a Western. Here, though, Django is still a youthful gunslinger who’s drifted into a frontier town in need of an executioner willing to do the bidding of a corrupt local politician. The doomed men have been framed, so that the politician and his cronies can repossess their land. After figuring out the scheme, Django arranges for the dead men to rise again and form a gang that’s loyal to him. Ultimately, though, the gunman is after the man, who, years before, had a hand in the death of Django s wife. The Blu-ray adds “Django Explained,” an overview of the character in general and this film in particular, by Spaghetti Western expert Kevin Grant, and a booklet with an essay by Howard Hughes.

More a curiosity that anything else, Caltiki: The Immortal Monster (1959) is a cross-genre thriller – and I use the term advisedly – that is noteworthy almost exclusively as a collaboration between two maestros of Italian cult cinema, Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava. They’d collaborated three years earlier on I Vampiri, with Freda giving up control of the production to the younger man about half-way through it to the slightly younger filmmaker. The same thing happened on “Caltiki,” which was listed as being directed by Robert Hamton. (It was felt, at the time, that Italian audiences wouldn’t buy a sci-fi/horror film made by an Italian.) I Vampiri, it should be noted, was the first Italian-made horror film of the sound era. Even so, the only thing that separates “Caltiki” from most of the pictures resurrected for the sake of ridicule by the “MST3K” crew is Bava’s contribution to it. Until I Vampiri and Caltiki: The Immortal Monster, he’d only directed documentary shorts and created special effects for and camera work for handful of other movies, including Hercules and Hercules Unchained. I’d encourage buffs to watch the making-of featurettes before committing to the feature, because the experts provide a pretty decent roadmap for viewers to follow to the significant, if primitive effects. For the record, though, “Calktiki” involves a team of intrepid archaeologists, led by Dr. John Fielding (John Merivale), who descend on the ruins of an ancient Mayan city to investigate the mysterious disappearance of its inhabitants several centuries earlier. Their search of a sacrificial pool awakens the monster that dwells beneath its waters … that’s right, the fearsome and malevolent god Caltiki, who takes the form of a blob. The explore manage to destroy it with fire – nearly, anyway — but foolishly hold on to a sample of regenerative blob. Meanwhile, the same comet that passed near our planet the last two times the Mayan civilization was threatened is on its way back for another swing around the sun. The package adds commentary by Bava historian Tim Lucas and Troy Howarth; “From Quatermass to Caltiki,” in which Kim Newman reviews the “evolution” of monster movies; the 86-minute full-aperture version; and the archived featurettes, “Riccardo Freda, Forgotten Master,” “The Genesis of Caltiki,” an introduction by Stefano Della Casa; and booklet insert.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Frontline: Battle for Iraq
PBS: Craft in America: Nature
One of the many things wrong with the American media is how little they seem to care about the wars in which we’ve become engaged, when compared to how much time is invested in the Oscars, baby giraffes, winter storms in places it usually snows in winter and, of course, the Kardashians. News executives insist that they’re only feeding us what we want to eat and covering wars isn’t cost effective, after the first few setbacks, anyway. And, that’s the problem, really. It’s easier and cheaper to buy news from war zones piecemeal, from freelancers, who aren’t entitled to such fringe benefits as life insurance. At the moment, some of the best reporting from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria is supplied by such foreign operations as the Guardian, CNN and the independent Vice News. The “Frontline” presentation, “Battle for Iraq,” was produced by Iraqi-born Guardian reporter Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who’s taken us closer to the action in Mosul than would seem advisable, even for someone who speaks the language. Before he reached the city limits, for example, he nearly was killed in an ISIS truck bombing. Things got even more dangerous from there, as he joined members of Iraq’s elite special-operations forces, known as the Golden Division. He also was able to sit down with a captured ISIS fighter, accused of helping carry out seven suicide attacks; film inside a hospital that’s struggling to cope with thousands of injured civilians; and interview residents of a refugee camp where there is a growing fear that life under the Iraqi army could be even worse than under ISIS.

PBS’ “Craft in America” helps viewers see the world through the eyes of artists, sculptors and craft workers, whose creations are reflections of the colors, textures, shapes, scents and tastes of the physical world. In “Nature,” the artists profiled express themselves through wood, glass, fiber and other materials that can be shaped or molded to approximate their interpretations of things we may see every day but rarely take the time to savor. And, there’s almost nothing abstract about it.

The DVD Wrapup: Founder, Punching Henry, Paris 05:59, Apocalypse Child, Donnie Darko, Woman of the Year, Tampopo, Handmaid’s Tale and more

Thursday, April 20th, 2017

The Founder: Blu-ray
As McDonald’s struggles once again to figure out how it wants to be perceived in markets in the U.S. and around the world, The Founder reminds of us of what made the concept so revolutionary in the first place. There’s a scene in John Lee Hancock’s appealing biographical drama in which Ray Kroc visits an early franchisee, where the operator has chosen to change the menu’s emphasis on hamburgers, fries and shakes and garishly promote its chicken entrees. The look on Kroc’s face made me think that he might take a cue from the New Testament and banish the blasphemers from his golden-arched temple, turning over tables and upending trash cans. Heaven only knows what he’d do if he returned to Earth, today, and visited my local McDonald’s, where, in addition to Big Macs, Quarter Pounders W/Cheese, World Famous Fries and Coca Cola, he could choose from a Premium Crispy Chicken Ranch BLT Sandwich, Braised Lamb, Premium Caesar Salads w/Crispy or Grilled Chicken, 16 different Snack Wraps, McCafé Hot Chocolate, McCafé Cappuccino, Fruit ‘N Yogurt Parfait and four varieties of McFlurrys. And, that’s not even half the items on the menu. My guess is that he’d prefer spinning in his grave than sampling an Angus Mushroom & Swiss on a “premium bakery style bun.” The thing that impressed the Midwestern shake-machine salesman (Michael Keaton) on his first tour of Mac and Dick McDonald’s bustling San Bernardino walk-up restaurant was the simplicity of the operation and how easily the concept could be transferred to new business partners.

Here, the lightbulb above Kroc’s head begins to glow while watching Dick (Nick Offerman) use a stopwatch to time every movement of his employees, from grill to window. He’s similarly impressed by brother Mac’s unbridled enthusiasm and devotion to the brand. Unlike today, customers didn’t have to think very hard about what they might want to order, although choosing between a soft and shake might require a few extra seconds. And, at 15 cents per burger, they could dine all afternoon on a buck. While Dick and Mac were content to satisfy the immediate needs of their customers, it didn’t take long for Kroc to concoct a blueprint for unlimited expansion through franchising. The Founder is roughly divided into two parts. One follows Kroc, as he struggles to expand the brothers’ brainstorm to fit his vision of golden arches stretching from sea to shining sea, while the second half shows him punishing his new partners’ lack of business acumen and killer instinct.  Instead, he sets the wheels in motion behind their backs. It isn’t often that a filmmaker allows audiences to reverse their opinions on the protagonist’s character – or lack, thereof — so drastically and in so short a time. For all their hard work and good intentions, the million-dollar checks the McDonald brothers received from Kroc for the use of their name and ideas proved to be small compensation for broken hearts. The Founder also spends some time with the two of the burger king’s three wives – Ethel (Laura Dern) and Joan (Linda Cardellini) – and hand-picked business partners, all of whom would help lead the company to unprecedented growth as both a real-estate interest and pioneer in super-sizing. Hancock and writer Robert D. Siegel don’t attempt to open that can of worms, though. Morgan Spurlock did that for them. The Blu-ray adds a post-screening Q&A with junket press.

Punching Henry: Blu-ray
I watch a lot of movies that debut at festivals, but wind up being distributed solely on DVD, VOD or the Internet. There are many reasons, mostly financial, for why they’re denied even a limited theatrical run. Among those is a reasonable expectation that they’ll be savaged by critics and fail to make back the money it takes to publicize the release. Expensive superhero pictures and cartoon fantasies don’t require the approval of mainstream critics to get past their opening weekends, while indies, docs and foreign-language films can’t survive without it. The studios can buy all the publicity they want by throwing elaborate schmooze-fests for the junket press and targeting easily impressed bloggers. Sometimes that strategy doesn’t work, either. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why someone didn’t take a shot on Punching Henry, a smart and funny dramedy about one guitar-strumming comedian’s rise from obscurity to accidental fame. It is immediately remindful of HBO’s similarly semi-autobiographical “Crashing,” IFC’s “Maron” and “Seinfeld,” which, during its first three seasons, was bookended by shots of Jerry doing bits in a nightclub, as well as musician/comedian/actor Martin Mull’s career trajectory. More than anything else, though, it is a virtual sequel to co-writer/director Gregori Viens and co/writer star Henry Phillips’ previous collaboration, Punching the Clown. After winning the Audience Award at the 2009 Slamdance Film Festival, it mostly vanished from view. The primary difference this time is a higher-profile cast.

Here, Henry is slowly recovering from being mistaken for another guitar-strumming comic, whose bigoted routines act might have kept audiences in Nazi-controlled Berlin in stitches, but not here … ever. Henry is being lured to L.A. by a TV producer (J.K. Simmons) who wants to make him a reality star. It isn’t a perfect gig, but it’s better than kicking around Trump country on weekend stands. His act involves singing observational and self-deprecating songs, while accompanying himself on guitar. They’re funny and mostly well-received, but, like Pete Holmes on “Crashing,” he suffers from a charisma deficiency. Fortunately, that’s exactly the kind of comic the producers of the reality show are seeking. When Henry arrives in L.A., almost everything that could go wrong, does. The mishaps range from having his car towed, and not paying attention to a phone message from police as to where to find, to failing miserably when attempting to inseminate the wife of an old lesbian friend (Stephanie Allynne, Tig Notaro). He also makes the mistake of looking a gift horse in the mouth, when, on tour, an on-stage accident turns into a hilarious Internet meme, accidentally reviving plans for the now-dormant TV show. Much of what we learn about Henry’s travails is dispensed during a podcast hosted by Sarah Silverman. Also appearing are Jim Jefferies, Doug Stanhope, Mark Cohen, Mike Judge, Clifton Collins Jr., Derek Waters and Nikki Glaser. I can’t find a single reason why someone who loves standup comedy might not enjoy Punching Henry. The DVD adds deleted scenes.

Apocalypse Child
This refreshingly different Filipino film, based on a local legend, is a perfect fit for those of us who repeatedly watch Apocalypse Now and Apocalypse Now Redux, whenever they pop up on TV; has memorized a dozen or more lines of dialogue and references them ad nausea to impress friends; watched Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse once, at least; and perused Eleanor Coppola’s “Notes: The Making of Apocalypse.” It’s also for anyone looking for a compelling family drama from a distant corner of the world. Mario Cornejo and Monster Jimenez’ Apocalypse Child is introduced thusly, “A critically acclaimed American movie about the Vietnam war was filmed in the area back in 1976, and legend has it that its famous director had an affair with a local girl of only fourteen years old. He returned to the States, and nine months later she gave birth to a baby boy.” It doesn’t take a genius to fill in the blanks, but the operative word here is “legend.” The film is set on the same Baler Bay beach that Kilgore declares, “Charlie don’t surf!” The other half of the legend suggests that, after Francis Ford Coppola and company departed, locals pulled a surfboard from the now-peaceful sea. It then was used by a generation of boys and girls, who later became champion surfers. A couple of decades pass and a young man named Ford (Sid Lucero) is a surfing instructor content to while away his days on the azure blue waves or in the arms of his pretty runaway girlfriend (Annicka Dolonius). He may or may not be the illegitimate son of the famed director. Either way, he doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to have his DNA analyzed and the results sent to the Napa Valley to be compared with that of his namesake. The question does come to a head, however, with the return of his childhood best friend, Rick (RK Baggatsing), now a local congressman, who threatens his idyllic existence with some ghosts from the past. Rick’s disaffected fiancé, Serena (Gwen Zamora), is both attracted to the rugged Ford and shocked by the rumor, which she has never heard. Cinematographer Ike Avellana takes full advantage of the location’s natural beauty, including that of the relatively tame sea. There isn’t any bombast here or recollections of the smell of napalm in the morning. It’s simply a wonderfully low-key story, based on an incident Eleanor might have missed in her book.

Isolation
The flip side of spending a romantic holiday on a lovely deserted island in the tropics, is the horror that comes when shit invariably happens and there’s no one to call, even if it were possible to raise a signal. It could be storm clouds assembling in the distance, in advance of a hurricane, or an unannounced gathering of sharks off the pier, upon which a diving board has just been added. In The Shining, the horror emanated from a writer’s decision to move into a remote hotel for a long winter’s stay, only to realize that all of the other guests are ghosts. Allegedly inspired by true events, Isolation describes what happens when of a pair of lovebirds are invited to relocate to a guest home on a tiny Bahamian island, after complaining about the noise from construction work outside the hotel they originally booked. The island is far enough away from Nassau to require a boat trip of a several hours’ time to arrive and not even close to being in cellphone range. The house is well-stocked and cozy, even the water in the shower takes an eternity to get hot. On a stroll to the nearest white-sand beach, Creighton (Luke Mably) and Lydia (Tricia Helfer) encounter a full-time resident, William (Stephen Lang), of the island, who invites them for dinner, prepared by his wife, Mary (Claudia Church). We’ve already seen William attack a pair of trespassers with his nail gun and wonder what he might have in store for the newbies.

William look as if he might have made a ton of money flying marijuana or cocaine from Colombia, with a brief stop in the Bahamas to refuel and wait out the DEA surveillance. They enjoy a swell dinner, with fine ganga and whiskey, before stumbling back home to the guest house, which, in the interim, has been ransacked. Who you gonna call? No one. The next day, while trying to find a land line, the couple is greeted by a burly gent, Max (Dominic Purcell), who’s wandering around shooting snakes with a handgun … or, so he says. Before asking Creighton and Lydia to stay for dinner, Max and Nina (Marie Avgeropoulos) make a convincing case for William is a pirate and thief, who’s only squatting in the beach house. They buy Max’s theory on who stole their valuables and promised to Creighton out on his boat to muster a signal. In this closed-island thriller, viewers are asked to determine which of the other couples’ stories is true and who really to trust. Max and William both look as if they could supplement their incomes by hijacking expensive pleasure craft or yachts full of dope, while the women seem content to live off the spoils. To my mind, co-writer/director Shane Dax Taylor tips his hand a bit too quickly, as if to provide more time for the chase and bloodshed to follow. Still, some of the setups and dialogue are sufficiently creepy to inspire dread in viewers.

Naciye
The Watcher
Like vampires and zombies, movies set in haunted houses never seem to go out of style. The best keep viewers guessing until nearly the end as to whether the hauntings are supernatural or quasi-religious in nature, showcases for the latest in jump-scares and special effects, or thrillers in which apparitions serve as red herrings for what’s really ailing the characters. Both Naciye and The Watcher maintained my curiosity, at least, for longer periods of time than I would have expected. In the former, Turkish writer/director Lutfu Emre Cicek (Mac & Cheese) uses flashbacks to establish plot points that lead us to believe the house in question is possessed by a malevolent spirit. Unaware of its history, a pregnant couple (Esin Harvey, Gorkem Mertsoz) moves into the house for some relaxation before the blessed event, only to wonder upon further inspection why the furnishings, closets and adornments suggest that someone is still living there or it was hurriedly abandoned for some unknown reason. We’re also encouraged to speculate on whether the woman hanging around in the shadows is a ghost or lodger who’s decided not to honor the sales agreement. Beware, the knitting needles. Either possibility leads to some unsettling speculation. Naciye stars Derya Alabora (A Most Wanted Man) as the elderly mystery woman/specter, capable of switching on a dime between kindly spinster and monster. The fact that the pregnant woman not only is due in a month, but unsure of which of her male associates could be the father, adds another pretty good reason for her to be a wit’s end. You don’t often see pictures like this coming from places outside the U.S., Korea and Japan.

Set thousands of miles west of the house in Naciye, Ryan Rothmaier’s debut feature, The Watcher, is built on the same foundation as Cicek’s film. Thinking they’ve just purchased their dream home, another young couple – in a rare casting decision, the man is black and the woman white – can’t wait to move into their spacious new home in the ’burbs. The listing neglected to mention that a heinous crime had been committed there years earlier. Before long, Emma (Erin Cahill) is freaked out by the sight of a face peering into her second-floor bedroom from a tree house, growing on the property. Not to worry, it’s only the very weird neighbor boy (Riley Baron), whose mother (Denise Crosby) is welcoming Emma and Noah (Edi Gathegi) to the neighborhood in the front of the house. To make things even stranger, packages filled with what appear to be housewarming gifts – but aren’t – begin arriving in the mail, along with warnings of even more dire things to come. And, if all that weren’t enough, there’s the nightly visits by a large raven-shaped figure, with very real claws. The Watcher appeared first on the Lifetime Channel, which isn’t known for its selection of horror originals. Considering the source, it plays very well outside the network’s target audience.

Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo: Blu-ray
Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau’s festival favorite begs the question as to whether it’s possible to fall in love – not merely in lust — with someone you’ve just met, fucked and shared at an orgy in a neon-lit basement. Actually, I can’t recall precisely how many men the title characters may, or may not have shared in the 20-minute-long opening scene of Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo. It’s after midnight in a gay sex club, in Paris, and the pulsating electronic dance music is turning the crowd of naked or leather-strapped guys to writhe as one. They aren’t there for the exercise, however. They’ve come to hook up with someone – seemingly, anyone – who returns their stare. The scene recalls similar gatherings in films made before the AIDS epidemic forced the closure of gay, bi- and straight sex clubs, glory-hole emporiums and bathhouses around world. The sex on display, while explicit, doesn’t feel particularly gratuitous or exploitative. I don’t know how many rehearsals or reshoots it might have required to look spontaneous, however. OK, that cover’s the movie’s most obvious talking point. It stars Geoffrey Couët and François Nambot as the two men who meet during the opening scene and are followed in real time for the remainder of its 92-minute length. The rest of Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo has reminded most observers of the walking/talking scenes in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Andrew Haigh’s much-lauded Weekend. After they leave the club and their eyes adjust to the far-less-stimulating lights of the post-midnight streets of northeast Paris, they decide to get to know each other better as friends, which, I presume, isn’t what usually happens post-coitus in such situations. Watching Théo & Hugo walk and bike around town in the wee hours, especially after the sensory overload in the first 20 minutes, is a tad jarring. As is the sobering revelation that Theo neglected to use a condom and Hugo is HIV-positive. Wisely, they agree to head for a nearby hospital to be tested and receive post-exposure prophylaxis. Can their budding relationship take such a jolt and survive? Stay tuned.

Donnie Darko: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Arriving a month after the 9/11 attacks, Donnie Darko presented a huge challenge to its distributors, Newmarket/Pandora. In addition to crossing a confounding number of genre bordaries, the original advertising campaign included visual references to a calamity involving a jet engine that descends from an empty sky and crashes into the title character’s home. It is central to any enjoyment of writer/director Richard Kelly’s film, so supplanting that image with one showing the face of the monstrous 6-foot-tall rabbit, Frank, forced potential viewers to guess whether Donnie Darkie was a horror flick, supernatural thriller, science fiction or some other variety of fish or fowl. Whoever or whatever he is, Frank appears to be wearing a frightening rabbit costume and silver mask possibly inspired by the fabled jackalope of the western plains. On October 2, 1988, Frank awakens the emotionally troubled Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal), leads him outside the house and informs him that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. At dawn, Donnie returns home to find a jet engine has crashed into his bedroom, leaving FAA investigators puzzled as to its source. It touches off an agonizing 28-day journey for the increasingly distressed teenager, whose more curious actions appear to be guided by Frank’s invisible hand. There aren’t many people or things in Donnie’s immediate orbit unaffected by the epidemic of bad craziness spreading through the middle-class suburban town. His bizarre actions don’t go unnoticed by high school bullies, paranoid teachers, admiring misfits and a similarly troubled new student, Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone). Immediately drawn to each other, Gretchen has recently moved into town with her mother, under new identies, to escape her violent stepfather. There probably isn’t anything I could reveal here that would completely spoil the surprises in Kelly’s narrative, which he’s summarized as ”‘The Catcher in the Rye’ as told by Philip K. Dick,” with Donnie standing in for Holden Caulfield. I can’t top that, so why try?

Donnie Darko barely avoided a straight-to-cable release, but not a puny $7.3-million worldwide gross in its severely limited and erratically timed theatrical released. It didn’t cost much to make, so there was some wiggle room left for profit. Its cult status was assured a year later, after positive word-of-mouth inspired genre buffs to give it a shot on VHS and DVD. It then attracted the attention of teenagers, who saw in Donnie’s alienation from society a reflection of their own angst. It has been released on Blu-ray three times, each one with more bonus features and some minor tinkering. The Arrow Films upgrade benefits from 4K restorations of both the theatrical-cut and director’s-cut versions and the original 5.1 audio (DTS-HD on the Blu-ray).  There are three separate commentary tracks, with cast and crew; “Deus ex Machina: The Philosophy of Donnie Darko,” a new documentary containing interviews with Kelly, producer Sean McKittrick, director of photography Steven Poster, editor Sam Bauer, composer Michael Edwards, costume designer April Ferry, actor James Duval and critic Rob Galluzzo; “The Goodbye Place,” Kelly’s 1996 short film, which anticipates some of the themes and ideas of his feature films; “The Donnie Darko Production Diary,” with optional commentary by cinematographer Steven Poster; 20 deleted and alternate scenes, with optional commentary by Kelly;
archival interviews with Kelly, actors Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, James Duval, Holmes Osborne, Noah Wyle and Katharine Ross, several producers; and cinematographer Steven Poster; three fan-based featurettes, “They Made Me Do It,” “They Made Me Do It Too” and “#1 Fan: A Darkomentary”; “Storyboard comparisons”; “B-roll footage”; “Cunning Visions” infomercials; a music video of “Mad World,” by Gary Jules; galleries; and an exclusive collector’s book, containing new writing by Nathan Rabin, Anton Bitel and Jamie Graham; an in-depth interview with Richard Kelly; introduction by Jake Gyllenhaal; and contemporary coverage, illustrated with original stills and promotional materials.

Woman of the Year: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Buena Vista Social Club: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Tampopo: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
While watching the new Criterion Collection edition of Woman of the Year, I tried to imagine some today’s A-listers trying to fill the shoes of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, if, God forbid, a remake were ever to be considered. Because the stars of George Stevens’ classic were 42 and 35 at the time of the movie’s release, such usual suspects as Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and Annette Bening would be ruled out for the Tess Harding role. Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern are pushing 50, while their “Big Little Lies” cohort, Reese Witherspoon, is too short. Logical choices to play Tracy’s manly-man sportswriter, Sam Craig, are even more limited. Mike Nichols’ 1988 comedy Working Girl gave off many of the same vibes as Woman of the Year, but in reverse, with Melanie Griffith’s spunky Tess McGill finally refusing to play second fiddle to the male chauvinist establishment represented by Harrison Ford’s Jack Trainer and Sigourney Weaver’s Katharine Parker, who represented the good-ol’-gal establishment, perfectly willing to waste their prime reproductive years for the sake of a seat in the board room. I don’t really know who could fill in for Tracy today, except for the likelihood that the actor probably would be British. Despite the contributions of Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosie the Riveter to the war effort, test audiences deemed Hepburn’s take on her renaissance-woman character to be overly confrontational and something of a ball-buster. In their minds, Sam was being lost in her long, lanky shadow and Tracy was too big a star for that to happen. (The fact that Tess’ tycoon father approved of Sam didn’t make things any easier for her when push came to shove.) According to the folks interviewed in the bonus package, the ending of Woman of the Year was subsequently changed to allow audiences to leave theaters with a smile, rather than a reason to argue on the way home. In it, Tess hopes to convince her estranged husband that she’s changed her tune, by sneaking into his bachelor pad and attempting to fix breakfast for him, albeit without stopping to shed her fur coat or put an apron over her designer ensemble She couldn’t make a bigger mess of the meal — or kitchen – if the recipes were written in ancient Greek. It’s hilarious. Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin’s terrifically smart and witty screenplay was honored with an Academy Award, and Hepburn was nominated for Best Actress. Woman of the Year also marked the beginning of the personal and professional union between Hepburn and Tracy, who would go on to make eight more films together. The digitally restored Blu-ray edition adds new interviews with George Stevens Jr., the director’s son; Stevens’ biographer Marilyn Ann Moss; and writer Claudia Roth Pierpont, on actor Katharine Hepburn. There’s also the 86-minute documentary, “The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute,” hosted by Hepburn, and an essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek.

At a time when the United States was still promoting the dubious notion that Cuba was the greatest threat to our democracy than all of our former wartime enemies combined, occasional groups of American musicians would defy the travel embargo to perform with Cuban musicians in cultural-exchange missions. As far as I know, none of the musicians was converted to godless communism and their instruments weren’t melted down for statues of Che Guevara. In 1996, virtuoso guitarist Ry Cooder was invited to Havana by British world-music producer Nick Gold to record a session in which musicians from Mali were set to collaborate with Cuban musicians. Long story short, the African contingent failed to obtain the necessary visa, forcing Cooder and Gold to punt. They decided, instead, to record an album of Cuban son music with local musicians, some of whom were household names before Fidel Castro came to power. For these veteran vocalists and instrumentalists, it was the day the music died. Not really, but the traditional jazz-inflected mix of cha-cha, mambo, bolero and other traditional Latin American styles was forced into hibernation for almost 50 years. Cooder would name the all-star orchestra the Buena Vista Social Club, after a popular danzón nightclub in Havana’s Marianao neighborhood that was closed in 1959, along with other clubs the regime considered to be segregated … even if the members were struggling Afro-Cuban musicians. In 1997, the studio album, “Buena Vista Social Club,” arranged by Cooder, Gold and Cuban bandleader and musician Juan de Marcos González was recorded and distributed by the niche World Circuit/Nonesuch labels. The album was awarded the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album and Tropical/Salsa Album of the Year by a Group at the 1998 Billboard Latin Music Awards. German director Wim Wenders would lure his friend, Cooder, back to the island a year later to re-create and film the original sessions with the same musicians, several in their 90s. Once again, the experience and result were wonderful. Wenders’ cameras followed the members around Havana – an eye-opener, for sure – and the orchestra to Amsterdam and New York’s Carnegie Halls, chronicling their observations along the way. In 2000, Buena Vista Social Club was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature. The Criterion Collection Blu-ray features a high-definition digital transfer, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack; commentary from 1999, featuring director Wim Wenders; a new interview with Wenders; “We Believe in Dreams,” a new piece featuring never-before-seen outtakes from the rehearsals for the Buena Vista Social Club’s Amsterdam concerts; a delightful interview from 1998 with musician Compay Segundo on his career and the Cuban music tradition; radio interviews from 2000 featuring musicians Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén González, Eliades Ochoa, Omara Portuondo and others; additional scenes; and an essay by author and geographer Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.

Criterion also is releasing one of the great foodie movies of all time – likely, the most entertaining foodie comedy – the Japanese “ramen western,” Tampopo. Juzo Itami’s 1985 film is the tale of an eccentric band of culinary ronin, who guide Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), the widow of a noodle shop owner, on her quest for the perfect recipe.  The genre-bending adventure pays homage to several different styles, from the Spaghetti Western to the silent comedies of Charlie Chaplin. It also satirizes the way social conventions distort the most natural of human urges: hunger. It does so, in part, by interspersing the efforts to make her café a success with the erotic exploits of a gastronome gangster and glimpses of food culture both high and low. Now that Americans have embraced ramen noodles for their taste, nutritional qualities and low-cost variations, our ability to enjoy Tampopo and savor its nuances probably has never been easier. The vastly underappreciated American/Japanese dramedy, The Ramen Girl (2006), in which Brittany Murphy’s character learns how to make noodles even Japanese admire, contains many references to Tampopo, including a cameo by Tsutomu Yamazaki, the male star of the earlier film. The Blu-ray is enhanced by a 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; “The Making of Tampopo,” a 90-minute documentary from 1986, narrated by Itami; new interviews with co-star Nobuko Miyamoto and ramen enthusiasts Hiroshi Osaki, Seiko Ogawa and American chefs Sam White, Rayneil De Guzman, Jerry Jaksich, and Anthony Bourdain; “Rubber Band Pistol,” Itami’s 1962 debut short film; a new video essay by Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos, on the film’s themes of self-improvement and mastery of a craft; and an essay by food and culture writer Willy Blackmore

The Handmaid’s Tale: Blu-ray
With the Hulu re-adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 best-seller, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” right around the corner, the timing of Shout!Factory’s Blu-ray edition of the original 1990 interpretation could hardly be better. Although it wasn’t a big hit with critics, Volker Schlöndorff’s The Handmaid’s Tale – from a challenging screenplay by Harold Pinter – probably will suit more viewers today than it did then. With a newly elected president, who many voters considered to be a male chauvinist pig, Robert Duvall’s portrayal of the story’s fundamentalist Christian dictator, Commander, will feel all too prescient. He is in control of the Republic of Gilead, a theocracy formed within the borders of what was formerly the United States of America after the “Sons of Jacob” launched a revolution and suspended the Constitution under the pretext of restoring order. Human rights are severely curtailed, especially those once instituted to level the playing field for women, who no longer are allowed to read.  The story is told in the first person by Kate/Offred (Natasha Richardson), one in a class of women – handmaids — still able to reproduce in an era of declining births, due to sterility from pollution and sexually transmitted diseases. The condition allows upper-crusters to control fertility and ensure that children born to handmaidens are placed in the homes of powerful men with infertile wives. When the Commander decides to take Kate for his handmaiden, he’s unaware of his infertility. When Kate finds this out on her own, she knows that he would blame and punish her his sperm deficiency. The Commander’s wife, Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway), who’s pretty sick of meeting his demands, as well, arranges for chauffeur Nick (Aiden Quinn) to impregnate Kate – or, give it his best shot, anyway – freeing them from their sexual obligations. Meanwhile, members of the resistance have infiltrated the compound and threaten to overthrow the dictatorship. Also prominent in the cast are Elizabeth McGovern and Victoria Tennant. The first 10-episode season of the Hulu mini-series is expected to be more faithful to the novel, while adding racial and religious minorities not included in either the book or first adaptation, because the Commander simply didn’t recognize their existence.  The only extra is an original trailer.

Tales from the Hood: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Before watching Scream Factory’s Blu-ray re-release of Rusty Cundieff and Darin Scott’s 1995 horror anthology, Tales from the Hood, I assumed it would be a laugh riot, on the order of I’m Gonna Git You SuckaDon’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood and In Living Color. While there’s plenty of comedy on the menu here, though, the film delivers a potent socially conscious message in each of the four urban-themed horror stories. They deal with police brutality, domestic abuse, institutional racism and gang violence, and are presented within a framing story of three drug dealers buying some “found” drugs from a scary funeral director, well-played by Clarence Williams III (“The Mod Squad”). He leads them on a tour of his establishment, introducing them to his corpses, who have tales of their own to tell. Among the more recognizable cast members are David Alan Grier, Wings Hauser, Paula Jai Parker, Corbin Bernsen, Roger Guenveur Smith, Rosalind Cash and Ricky Harris. The extensive bonus package adds “Welcome To Hell: The Making Of Tales From the Hood,” featuring interviews with Cundieff, Scott, Bernsen, Hauser, Anthony Griffith, special-effects supervisor Kenneth Hall and doll-effects supervisors Charles Chiodo and Edward Chiodo; Cundieff’s commentary; a vintage featurette; and stills gallery.

A Cowgirl’s Story
In the dozen-plus years that I’ve been reviewing DVDs in this space, I’ve followed several subgenres that hadn’t amounted to much until the direct-to-DVD era began. One of these can be reduced to two words: contemporary cowgirls. Dozens of movies and television shows have featured characters based on Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane and Belle Starr, even if the actresses chosen to portray them – Doris Day, Jane Russell, Barbara Stanwyck, Abby Dalton, Elizabeth Montgomery, Gail Davis, Mary Martin, Betty Hutton — bore no physical likeness to the Wild West heroines and villainesses, although Ethel Merman (“Annie Get Your Gun”), Robin Weigert (“Deadwood”) Jeanne Cooper (“Tales of Wells Fargo”) might have come the closest. Neither do Dale Evans or Gloria Winters (“Sky King”) fit the mold. No the models for characters in such recent “family friendly” neo-Westerns as the newly released A Cowgirl’s Story, Cowgirls ‘n Angels, Spirit Riders, Dakota’s Summer, Flicka: Country Pride, Flicka 2, Flicka: Storm Rider, Moondance Alexander, Montana Sky, Midnight Stallion, Coyote Summer, International Velvet and All Roads Lead Home appear to be 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, in National Velvet, 14-year-old Scarlett Johansson, in The Horse Whisperer; and 11-year-old Dakota Fanning, in Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story. Unlike most new-generation cowgirl flicks, they made their debuts on the big screen and the first two, at least, returned lots of money.  Timothy Armstrong’s A Cowgirl’s Story tells the story of 17-year-old Dusty Rhodes (Bailee Madison), entrusted to the care of her military-chaplain grandfather (Pat Boone), while her parents, both soldiers, are deployed in Afghanistan. (At 11, Madison also appeared in Armstrong’s Cowgirls ‘n Angels, which was afforded a very limited theatrical release before going into DVD.) Typically, in contemporary-cowgirl films, the protagonist is angry for one good reason or another and must come to grips with a no-nonsense relative or an elderly pedagogue in need of a reclamation project:  Keith Carradine, James Cromwell, Kevin Sorbo, Tim McGraw, Don Johnson, Patrick Warburton, Lance Henriksen, Kris Kristofferson, William Shatner and Ving Rhames, among them. In A Cowgirl’s Story, Dusty isn’t troubled or in need of redemption, but some of the kids at her new school definitely could use some equestrian therapy. She somehow convinces the girls in a prominent clique to form a drill team to perform at rodeos and shows to raise money for wounded soldiers. Dusty’s world is turned upside down when her mother’s helicopter is shot down in action and she goes missing. It’s at this point that the same kids who hazed her at the beginning of the school year rally behind her. Not all of the films listed above play the God card as quickly and repeatedly as is done here, and that includes Boonville Redemption (2016), in which Boone plays the town doctor alongside Diane Ladd, Ed Asner, Richard Tyson and young Emily Hoffman, who plays a small-town girl forced to come to terms with having been “born out of wedlock.”

Arctic Adventure: On Frozen Pond
The latest animated collaboration between Grindstone Entertainment Group and Lionsgate is Arctic Adventure: On Frozen Pond, a cute Chinese-made, English-dubbed adventure that nearly spans the globe. Anthony Padilla and Ian Hecox (YouTube’s “Smosh”) join Jon Lovitz (Hotel Transylvania) in this animated tale of brave frogs on a bold quest. For centuries, the Crystal Frog has protected the Frog Kingdom with its magic, but, when sneaky One-Eye plots to steal the artifact and become King, it’s up to Freddy and the Frog Princess to make the arduous trek to the Holy Land. Through forest, desert, river rapids and icy caverns, the bravery of the frozen warriors keeps this colorful saga “hopping.” Awarded the Dove Family Seal of Approval, “Arctic Adventure” includes the making-of featurette “Giving the Characters a Voice,” shot at the recording studio with Padilla, Hecox, Lovitz and Ambyr Childers.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Masterpiece: Home Fires: The Complete Second Season Blu-ray
PBS: American Experience: Ruby Ridge
Smithsonian: Hell Below
PBS: John Lewis: Get in the Way
The bad news first: “Home Fires,” the British World War II drama, now airing on PBS, has been cancelled by ITV. This, despite a write-in campaign by disappointed fans desperate to save the show from extinction. (In England, the second season ended last May.) “Home Fires” chronicles the lives of Women’s Institute members, in the rural Chelsea community of Great Paxford,, during the early days of the conflict that would become World II. As more refugees from the continent arrive in England, including soldiers and airmen already in training there, Great Paxford’s eclectic band of volunteer women find they must heighten their efforts to boost morale amidst the chaos and uncertainty enveloping the village. The series was inspired by the book, “Jambusters,” by Julie Summers. The second season opens on June 11, 1940, with the Battle of Britain looming and residents beginning to dread the arrival of each day’s mail. In other story threads, Teresa (Leanne Best) steps in to protect an Italian resident from the other people of the village; pastor’s wife Sarah (Ruth Gemmell) begins to feel alone after she gets some bad news about her husband, who’s on the front lines; Alison (Fenella Woolgar) gets the verdict on whether the charges of adultery will be upheld or dropped;  Claire and Spencer (Daisy Badger, Mike Noble) marry in secret; busybody switchboard operator Jenny (Jodie Hamblet) learns of this and tells Frances (Samantha Bond); accused homewrecker Laura (Leila Mimmack) faces the music; and abuse-victim Pat (Claire Rushbrook) befriends a kindly Czech soldier and enjoys her new life with no husband.

Newsreel footage and photographs shot during and after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor have become as much a part of America’s historical DNA as Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” Every year, on December 7, we mark that infamous event both as a memorial to those who died there, but also as a reminder of our inability to prevent just such a calamity from happening, in the first place. It was a cruel lesson. I wonder how many people under the age of 70 are aware of attacks by Nazi submarines along America’s eastern seaboard, three weeks after Pearl Harbor, carried out under the codename Operation Drumbeat. Even though shipping lanes between the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom had been targeted by German warships and submarines since the beginning of Hitler’s advances in Europe, Pentagon brass rejected the idea that Admiral Karl Donitz would dare penetrate the waters off America’s mainland. As such, we were as unprepared for Operation Drumbeat – and, later, Donitz’ “wolfpack” strategy — as we were for the attack on Pearl Harbor. The good news, of course, is that we recovered relatively quickly from those tragedies and mounted an increasingly successful offensive against Axis warships. This is only part of what I learned from watching Smithsonian’s intriguing six-part mini-series “Hell Below,” which describes the terrible toll of undersea combat. It is enhanced by archival photos and newsreels; interviews with historians and military experts; re-creations of battles and life inside subs; maps and other graphic devices; and, of course, dramatic narration and music.  If there’s anything that cable television has done well in the last 35 years is document the carnage, heroism, blunders, triumphs and execution of wars, dating back to the Crusades, but, especially, World War II. The really scary thing is learning just how close Hitler, if not Hirohito came to realizing his dreams – our nightmares – and forcing a land war on American soil. Maybe all the prayers worked.

Barak Goodman’s “Front Line” documentary “Ruby Ridge” describes just how difficult it is for American law-enforcement agencies to react to challenges by fanatics willing to die for their bent beliefs – and put their families in harm’s way, as well — just to serve as martyrs for future generations of fanatics. Before the deadly siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and catastrophic bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, in Oklahoma City, an 11-day confrontation between federal agents and the survivalist Weaver family, near Naples, Idaho, ended very badly for everyone involved. After patriarch Randy Weaver was discharged from the Army, he relocated to Iowa, where he and his wife, Vickie, had trouble making ends meet. While there, Vicki convinced her husband that the apocalypse was imminent and the family could avoid it by abandoning “corrupt civilization” and moving to a mountainous 20-acre property, outside remote Ruby Ridge, where they would build a cabin in the early 1980s. In that part of Idaho, it would have been difficult for a religious fundamentalist not to make contact with members of the Aryan Nation and other hate groups, if only because the picnics were fun and the gatherings gave kids the age of the Weaver children an opportunity to play together. Although Weaver claims to have never joined the Aryan Nation, he developed a friendship with a man planted within the group by the ATF to develop cases against members stocking weapons and explosives. In an attempt to save his ass, the informant told the feds that Weaver – a fellow gun nut – had supplied him with two illegally modified rifles. Weaver denied it, but his refusal to comply with the bench warrant led directly to the bloody confrontation that, when combined with Waco, inspired the Oklahoma City bombing by riled-up white supremacists.  An initial encounter of six marshals with the Weavers had resulted in a firefight and the deaths of Deputy U.S. Marshal William Francis Degan, 42; the Weaver’s son, Samuel, age 14; and the Weaver family dog. The subsequent siege of the Weaver residence, led by the FBI applying especially lethal rules of engagement, resulted in the further death of Vicki, 43, and family friend Kevin Harris, 24, as well as the wounding of Randy Weaver. More than a week later, Weaver and his three surviving children joined presidential candidate James “Bo” Gritz – Randy’s commanding officer during the Vietnam War – on the long walk down the mountain, where they surrendered to a force of between 300-400 agents and police. Not only would Weaver be acquitted of all criminal charges, but he and his daughters would reach a multimillion-dollar settlement with the government for their losses. One of the daughters is interviewed here, along with several law-enforcement officials.

When then-President-Elect Trump decided that it might fun to diss U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-Ga.) on his Twitter feed, in advance of this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, he incurred the wrath of more African-Americans than he did during his entire two-year campaign for the White House. It wasn’t enough that he had courted the KKK and other White Power advocates by not renouncing their support of his reactionary positions. He had reacted to Lewis’ stated belief that Russian hackers helped Trump steal the election by suggesting that the long-serving congressman from Atlanta should “spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart, not to mention crime infested, rather than falsely complaining about the election results. … All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!” What’s sadder was Trump’s ignorance of the true nature of everyday life in the city – for whites, blacks and all people of color – and his willingness to attack a civil-rights activist who was one of the original Freedom Riders and the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. As an early member and, later, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he had been beaten and arrested by police, and chastised for his non-violent beliefs by militants within his own organization. He paid a severe price for standing up to Gov. George Wallace’s storm troopers in the first Selma to Montgomery march, in support of the Voters Rights Act, and has lived long enough to watch actor Stephan James portray him in Ava DuVernay’s Selma. His career would come full circle twice again: first, on August 28, 2013, at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and, then, two months earlier, when he learned, to his horror, that the U.S. Supreme Court had decided to strike down a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Even if Wallace had been elected president in 1972, he couldn’t have pulled that one off. Kathleen Dowdey’s comprehensive biopic, “John Lewis: Get in the Way” was probably already in the can when Trump made his ill-advised tweet. While it’s possible he would have changed his tune if he had watched the film, it isn’t likely that he watches anything that’s not on Fox News. It is informed by interviews with a wide variety of activists, politicians, celebrities and two former presidents.

The DVD Wrapup: Lion, Toni Erdmann, Worlds Apart, Daughters of the Dust, Ludwig, Cathy’s Curse and more

Thursday, April 13th, 2017

Lion: Blu-ray
We hear so much about the kidnapping and virtual imprisonment of young women sold into slavery and prostitution that it’s easy to forget about the thousands of children stolen each year from their mothers at birth or grabbed from the streets of urban slums by traffickers and pimps. At the end of Lion, we’re alerted to the fact that upwards of 80,000 boys and girls go missing each year, while more than 11 million children live on the streets, just like the film’s protagonist, Saroo Brierley. He was one of the lucky few, who not only survived a great ordeal and but also were able to share their histories. Garth Davis’ thoroughly absorbing drama is based on Brierley’s memoir “A Long Way Home,” which chronicled his years-long search for the childhood home whose name he couldn’t pronounce or remember. After losing his older brother at the Burhanpur depot, two hours from his village, Saroo sought shelter in a compartment of passenger train he couldn’t have known would arrive, days later, in Kolkata, where he would become one of thousands of “lost children living and dying by their own wits. After nearly being snatched by sex traffickers, Saroo is taken by police to an orphanage, where, after a fruitless search for his parents, he was awarded to a loving family in Tasmania. It was as harmonious a union as such things get. Even before she learned his story, Sue Brierley put a map of India in his room and filled the house with Indian artifacts. She learned how to cook Indian food and only gradually introduced a western diet. His adoptive brother, Mantosh , a year younger than Saroo when he was adopted by the Brierleys, quickly revealed psychological problems that either were unknown to the agency or ignored. Twenty-five years after he left home, Saroo would use Google Earth to identify and return to his tiny rural village, where his mother and sister still lived and prayed every day for his safety. He learns, only then, the real reason his brother hadn’t come back to the depot that fateful night. In many western countries, an orphan’s ability to trace his/her biological parents has allowed for reunions, not all of them happy or mutually agreed upon. In Saroo’s case, the Brierleys not only encouraged him to trace his roots, but Sue would accompany Saroo on one of his visits to his first home.

Both the actors who play Saroo — Sunny Pawar, as the 5-year-old “lost boy,” and, later, Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) — are terrific. Sue Brierley couldn’t have been happier to learn that fellow Aussie Nicole Kidman would portray her in Lion. Also excellent is Priyanka Bose, an Indian actor who gained widespread attention on stage in South African playwright Yael Farber’s “Nirbhaya,” which was based on the 2012 Delhi gang rape. Rooney Mara is very good, as well, as Saroo’s American girlfriend, Lucy, who shares classes with him in Melbourne. She encourages his quest, but sometimes bears the brunt of his frustration over not finding answers quickly enough. In real life, Lucy is Lisa Williams, an Australian, who Saroo began dating because she had a fast internet connection at her apartment. Supposedly, his “eureka” moment occurred during a meal at the home of some Indian friends. The sight and smell of jalebi — a sweet he loved as a child – brings him to tears. After Saroo confides to Lucy that he is adopted, a friend suggests he use Google Earth to search for his hometown in India. Easier said than done … but ultimately the correct decision. The reunion scenes are likely to trigger tears in viewers’ eyes, as well. Lion turned a nice profit for Weinstein Company and its partners. The six Oscar nominations it received — Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Patel), Best Supporting Actress (Kidman), Best Adapted Screenplay (Luke Davies), Best Original Score – certainly won’t hurt Blu-ray/DVD sales. Ironically, American production companies rejected the story when Australian producers Andrew Fraser and Shahen Mekertichian refused to change the Australian setting to America. Duh. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a making-of gallery and “Never Give Up” music video, performed by Sia.

Films made about children appropriated by authorities and handed over to politically connected or wealthy families as orphans aren’t all that unusual. Lion’s happy ending is what sets it apart from other stories. Argentinian documentaries The Disappeared and Spoils of War describe the efforts made by the children and parents of victims of Argentina’s Dirty War (1976–1983) to investigate the truth concerning the murders of dissidents and kidnappings of an estimated 500 children born to women who would be killed by junta assassins.  In 1985, Luis Puenzo’s The Official Story, on the same subject, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The Magdalene Sisters and Sex in a Cold Climate are among several films about abuse at Ireland’s Magdalene Sisters Asylum, where some unwed mothers were forced to give their children up for adoption, while also being punished for their “sin” by working in the laundry. In Philomena, a journalist (Steve Coogan) picks up the story of a woman’s (Judi Dench) arduous search for her son, who was taken away from her decades earlier, and whose records were conveniently lost by the nuns in charge. Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner are said to be in pre-production on “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,” which recounts the story of a young Jewish boy in Bologna, in 1858 who, having been secretly baptized Catholic, is forcibly taken from his family to be raised as a Christian. A good movie could probably be made about the Native Americans forcibly converted to Mormonism – sometimes after being purchased as slaves and “adopted” by families as unpaid workers — and raised according to beliefs handed down by founder and prophet Joseph Smith. In 1823, Smith proclaimed that American Indians were a branch of a lost tribe of Israel, the Laminites, and the Mormon faith was meant to bring them salvation. The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 put an end to the sanctioning of such adoptions, but brought to the fore an argument over whether tribes can dictate what’s in the best interests of an adopted child. Barbara Kingsolver’s novel “Pigs in Heaven” deals with just such a case. The sex trade in Southeast Asia and India largely depends on the cooperation of impoverished villagers willing to sell their virgin daughters to traffickers for cash. Dozens of documentaries on the subject – and a movie and TV series, Trade of Innocents and Human Trafficking, both starring Mira Sorvino – have failed to dissuade western tourists from making the abuse of “lost children” profitable.

Toni Erdmann
It isn’t surprising that an American remake of Maren Ade’s thoroughly offbeat comedy Toni Erdmann is already on the drawing table, or that Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig’s names have been attached to it. In Alexander Payne’s not dissimilar About Schmidt (2002), Nicholson played a retired, recently widowed insurance executive who uses the excuse of his estranged daughter’s wedding to make amends for his emotional absence in her life. And, while mainstream comedies Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty have catapulted “SNL” alum Wiig onto Hollywood’s A-list, it’s her mold-breaking performances in such barely seen indies as Nasty Baby, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, The Skeleton Twins, Hateship Loveship and Welcome to Me that make her an ideal candidate to play the no-nonsense corporate executive forced to accommodate her father’s eccentric behavior. Wiig’s ballsy portrayal of a manic-depressive lottery winner, who finances her own “Oprah”-like talk show, suggests that she’s acutely aware of what made Sandra Hüller’s performance in Toni Erdmann so remarkable. The likelihood that the Hollywood remake might retain the original’s 162-minute length borders on zero, even if it were re-worked to fit the bounds of an easier-to-market PG-13, which would zap many of its funnier moments. (The R-rating accorded Toni Erdmann seemed generous, at least by the usual MPAA standards.) Hüller’s tightly wound Ines Conradi represents the interests of a German management-consultancy firm in Budapest. Negotiations have reached the critical stage, so the last thing she needs in her life is her prankster father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), showing up with his fake teeth and fright wigs. Because Ade has already demonstrated Winfried’s willingness to embarrass loved ones for the sake of a gag, we’re ready for anything to happen when he shows up unannounced not only at his daughter’s doorstep, but at her office, business receptions and dinners with her ex-pat friends. His favorite prank is to dispense gobbledygook advice to anyone willing to spend five minutes in the company of his alter ego, “Toni Erdmann.” Imagine a hybrid of Jerry Lewis and Dr. Irwin Corey – who died two months ago, at 102 – and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the title character’s shtick, which is as off-putting as it is hilarious. Indeed, it takes us almost as long to warm to Winfried as for Ines to figure out how to accommodate his whims. It’s what makes the extreme length – for a dark comedy, anyway – so easy to endure. Special features include commentary with Simonischek, Hüller and producer Janine Jackowski, and an AFI Fest Q&A with Simonischek, Hüller, Jackowski and co-star Ingrid Bisu. Apparently, a Blu-ray version of Toni Erdmann is available through Amazon on manufactured-on-demand basis, using BD-R recordable media.

The Mafia Kills Only in Summer
It would take four or five hyphens to classify Pierfrancesco Diliberto’s affectionately drawn comedy, The Mafia Kills Only in Summer, which manages to find the humor, romance, excitement, danger and mystery in one Sicilian boy’s formative years in the mob-controlled city of Palermo. Real events that took place in Sicily between the 1970s and the 1990s provide the background for a film that probably couldn’t have been set anywhere else in the world. No city located outside a warzone was more prone to institutional corruption, targeted bombings and assassinations than the ancient capital of Sicily, a city of roughly 855,285 souls. While most of its residents aren’t affiliated with La Cosa Nostra, very few have been unaffected by its lawlessness. It’s shown through the eyes of Arturo Giammaresi — Alex Bisconti, as Arturo bambino, and the director, as the adult — a sensitive and politically aware child whose story spans 20 years and includes a romance with a pretty little girl, Flora (Ginevra Antona/Cristiana Capotondi), who grows up to become a campaign manager in the embattled city. The bambini are separated just as they’re about to make a puppy-love connection and reunited when she needs a videographer to cover her candidate’s slightly odious campaign. The Mafia Kills Only in Summer is the rare movie that gets away with mocking some bad people — all the major political, judicial and criminal figures depicted are real – while extolling the virtues of the heroes who risk their well-being to clean up a system whose corruption has been accepted as a cruel fact of life by the populace. This includes former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti, with whom Arturo maintains a nearly lifelong obsession. (A comparison can be made to Andrew Bergman’s smart and funny The Freshman, in which a film-school student, played by Matthew Broderick, accepts a job with a mob chieftain, played by Marlon Brando, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Don Vito Corleoni, also played by Brando.) Because most of the Mafiosi involved in the crimes illustrated in the movie have since been killed or died in prison, the movie’s final conceit allows for a genuinely sentimental what-did-you-do-in-the-war ending.

Worlds Apart
Recent Academy Award-winner J.K. Simmons is featured on the cover of Christopher Papakaliatis’ topical drama, Worlds Apart, but enters the picture so late that it’s possible to wonder if his presence might be limited to a cameo, intended to tantalize American audiences. In fact, Simmons’ role turns out to be an essential portion of a triptych set against the backdrop of contemporary Greek life. Like the Athenian writer/director’s first feature, What If … (2012), it is informed by the country’s ongoing struggle to survive economic strife and crushing unemployment. Worlds Apart adds Greece’s current dilemma over issues related to becoming a first-stop refuge for immigrants escaping Syria’s civil war and sub-Saharan poverty. It is comprised of three separate narratives, each following a love story between a foreigner and a Greek. In the first, Tawfeek Barhom plays Farris, an immigrant street peddler who rescues a young Greek woman, Niki (Niki Vakali), from an attack and possible gang rape on an Athens street. One day, he recognizes her through the window of the bus taking her home from work. It allows him the opportunity to return the cellphone he recovered from the alley and embark on a tentative friendship. He returns each night to an abandoned jetliner at a decaying airfield outside the city, where dozens of illegal immigrants, some inarguably dangerous, have found shelter. It has become a target for right-wing Greeks who blame the refugees for a rise in crime. In the second narrative, Papakaliatis plays Giorgos, a department supervisor in a foreign-owned company that’s downsizing to squeeze every drachma from its Greek subsidiary. In addition to the problems he faces at work, Giorgos is fighting to keep his head above water paying the bills for family members, including a young son. One night, while drowning his sorrows in a bar, he meets and engages in a one-night stand with a cool Scandinavian blond, Elise (Andrea Osvárt), who kicks him out of her apartment after sex, because she “doesn’t like to sleep with men I don’t know.” It’s the perfect definition of a distinction without a difference. Naturally, Elise and Giorgos are further linked by the fact that she’s his new boss and has charged with initiating, however reluctantly, the severe cuts impacting his co-workers. Nonetheless, the sex is good and she eventually warms to his presence in the sack. In the third interrelated segment, Simmons plays a German ex-pat, Sebastian, who moves to Greece because he loves the country and his marks go further in an economy partially destroyed by his government’s ability to avoid paying debts accrued from the Nazi occupation. After a meet-cute encounter outside a neighborhood market, he and Maria (Maria Kavoyianni) come together on a weekly basis at the same place to chat and narrow the language gap. It’s sweet and innocent, for the most part, but aborted by a freak incident that tangentially links all three couples with the agony and ecstasy that is modern Greece. If some of the coincidences beg credulity, it’s all for a good cause. At home, Worlds Apart became the first movie to exceed 600,000 admissions since December, 2009, when Avatar opened. It was the top-grossing movie in Greece in 2015, surpassing Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Spectre. That has to count for something.

Daughters of the Dust: Blu-ray
Before this year’s Academy Awards nominations were announced, Hollywood insiders held their collective breath in anticipation of another year in which performances by African-American actors, writers and directors were overlooked or ignored, and protests erupted. Given the number of excellent pictures from which to choose, however, it wasn’t likely that the debate would continue for another season. The perceived snubbing of onetime favorite The Birth of a Nation was attributed to the revived controversy surrounding allegations that, while at Penn State, director Nate Parker and story collaborator Jean McGianni Celestin raped a fellow student and, at the time of his trial, Parker had exposed himself to another woman. He was acquitted of all four counts brought against him, while Celestin’s conviction for sexual assault would be overturned several years later.  Neither did more recent comments by Parker, stating that he would refuse to play a gay or stereotyped character, help the picture’s chances. The debate didn’t prevent Parker and The Birth of a Nation from receiving several nominations for Black Reel and Image Award honors or detract from the excellent reviews the film received. Eyebrows were raised, though, when accusations of sexual misconduct against Casey Affleck – later mediated and settled out of court – seemingly were ignored by Oscar nominators and voters. I wouldn’t care to predict how colorful the palette of next year’s Oscar slate will turn out to be, but it’s worth recalling that one of the greatest snubs in Academy Award history came a quarter-century ago in the organization’s total rejection of writer/director Julie Dash’s masterpiece, Daughters of the Dust, newly available in a splendid Blu-ray edition. Ironically, its snubbing is routinely ignored by reporters assigned each year the task of pointing out snubs and surprises in the voting. Arthur Jafa’s impressionistic cinematography, alone, would have warranted a nomination most years. Don’t take my word for it, though. Rent, purchase, download or stream a copy of the elegantly restored film — credit Cohen Media Group, in conjunction with UCLA – and experience it for yourself. Or, you could trust Beyoncé, whose visual interpretation of her album “Lemonade,” on HBO, featured several references to the film.

In addition to its standing as the first wide release by a black female filmmaker, Daughters of the Dust was selected in 2004 to join the Library of Congress’ National Registry of Film in 2004. Thanks to the kinds of articles and documentaries generally reserved for exposure during Black History Month, more Americans than ever before are aware of the Gullah (a.k.a., Geechee) culture that informs every aspect of Dash’s work. Her father was a Gullah from the Sea Islands of Georgia, as was her nanny, who performed certain rituals Dash would only later identify with a specific people and place. Daughters of the Dust tells the story of three generations of Gullah women in the Peazant family, on St. Helena Island, in 1902. It is narrated by the Unborn Child, carried by Eula, a married daughter in the Peazant family, who represents the first generation of black Americans born free. Several of the Gullahs we meet in the movie have already joined the Great Migration, while others will soon seek prosperity outside the agriculturally based South. Matriarch Nana Peazant, who can recall the arrival of the last illegal slave ship, Wanderer, in 1858, will remain on the island after this last family dinner on the beach, if only to maintain the graves of her ancestors and preserve traditions handed down from slaves of Ibo, Yoruba, Kikongo, Mende, Twi and Caribbean extraction. Dash had worked on Daughters of the Dust since 1975, while a student in Los Angeles, finally garnering the necessary $800,000 financing in 1988, from PBS’ “American Playhouse,” to launch full-scale production. Besides the historical and personal references, Dash’s incorporation of magical realism and Gullah creole dialogue make the film altogether unique and wonderfully poetic. The ecstatic response by critics and judges at the 1991 Sundance festival should have given Golden Globe and Oscar nominators sufficient cause to pay attention to film’s limited release 11 months later. Pleading ignorance wouldn’t have been a legitimate excuse to overlook Daughters of the Dust. Considering that it never played on more than 19 screens at the same time, an initial domestic box-office of $1.6 million is remarkable. The beautifully restored Blue-ray adds an interview with Jafa, who would go on to shoot Crooklyn, and be second-unit cinematographer on Eyes Wide Shut, Malcolm X and Selma; a Q&A with Dash; and an interview with Dash and Dr. Stephane Dunn.

War on Everyone: Blu-ray
At a time when police forces around the country are being besieged with complaints over incidents ranging from unwarranted stops and searches, to the questionable use of force against unarmed citizens, it’s probably just as well that John Michael McDonagh’s bad-boy action/comedy War on Everyone wasn’t accorded a theatrical release. I get that it’s designed as a parody of the cop shows of a bygone era, in which a pair of unorthodox dudes could get away with all sorts of mischief, as long as the bad guys paid for their crimes in the end. Here, Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Peña play a consciously malevolent reimagining of “Starsky and Hutch,” with hefty helpings of profanity, homophobia, racial slurs, beatdowns and sexist humor. The London-born filmmaker has already proven that he can handle hyperviolent action in The Guard, Calvary and his screenplay for Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly. A certain number of stylishly executed beatdowns in War on Everyone were only to be expected. It’s the piling on that draws the flag here. In it, Albuquerque police detectives Terry Monroe and Bob Bolaño meet their match in a scheme to steal a million bucks from an aristocratic Brit villain, Lord James Mangan (Theo James), and his lisping sidekick, Russell (Caleb Landry Jones). Not surprisingly, an inordinate amount of time is spent in a strip club that serves as Mangan’s cover. (Where would Hollywood be without the shorthand provided by titty bars?) The real problem comes in knowing that the sun has set on law-enforcement officials who think they can run roughshod over the citizenry – criminals, whores and other shady characters, among them – and not expect to pay for it, even in the popular media. The number of cops who can get away with being cool, ironic and studly, simultaneously, while committing such abuses, is pretty low, as well. Back in the day, the Production Code simply wouldn’t allow it. Paul Reiser plays their chief, who, while questioning their excesses, serves as an enabler. The Blu-ray adds, “Everyone Sounds Off: The Quirky Cast of War on Everyone.”

White Girl
After causing a bit of a stir and Sundance, White Girl suffered the same unkind fate as too many other red-hot indies when they come down from their Rocky Mountain highs. Only a few ride the wave all the way to awards season, while the majority are forced to settle for being picked up for release on DVD and VOD. There simply aren’t enough screens available to accommodate the large number of pictures that are seen and reviewed at Sundance, Telluride and, even, Toronto. Marketing costs are another hurdle altogether. Equal parts urban myth and urban cliché, White Girl forwards the age-old fable of the naïve college girl from the boonies, who moves to the big city and is immediately corrupted by its less savory elements. Rising star Morgan Saylor is extremely credible as Leah, a button-cute blond who no sooner unpacks the boxes in her new Queens apartment than she hooks up with a street-corner dealer, Blue (Brian Marc), mostly with the sole intention of getting high. It doesn’t take long for Leah to go from pot to cocaine and begin having rough-and-tumble sex with him, though. While that’s not particularly unusual, she also allows herself to be seduced by her boss at the job arranged through her school and become the middle (wo)man for cocaine (a.k.a., white girl) provided by Blue. Leah not only ends up getting hooked on the drugs she’s selling, but also the hot sex he provides and the thrill that comes with becoming a big shot at the nightclub she frequents with her insatiable friends. All sorts of complications arise from this situation, not all of them predictable. As nice a guy as Blue appears to be, at first, he answers to dealers who drive hard bargains and have a sixth sense for potential welshers. When Blue gets in trouble, Leah turns to a lawyer (Chris Noth) known for getting small-timers out of jail. His expertise comes at a stiff price, as well. By the time things sort themselves out, Leah has absorbed more about crisis management than she could learn in a classroom. In her freshman feature, Elizabeth Wood (Wade in the Water, Children) does a nice job capturing the contrasting vibes that electrify neighborhoods in the process of being gentrified, and the naivete of young people willing to cross boundaries without looking both ways, first. Leah’s increasingly high-stakes pursuit of hedonistic pleasures, we’re told, was inspired by Wood’s own experiences

Bwoy
After launching four well-received theatrical features on the LGBT festival circuit, it would nice if some deep-pocketed fellow gave John G. Young an opportunity to find success in the wider indie market. At this point in his career, money, or lack thereof, would appear to be an impediment to expanding his horizons. Bwoy is an example of bare-bones cinema that works, but probably could have been shot in three differently decorated phone booths, with a cellphone, with the same positive results. The deceptively simple premise also would fit a trifurcated stage. In Jamaican patois, “bwoy” is slang for boy, while “batty bwoy” is a pejorative term for a male who’s gay, bisexual or effeminate. Its use here is ironic, in the same way that the n-word once was deployed in titles during the blaxploitation era. In fact, Jamaica plays a crucial role in the advancement of the drama here. After suffering a great personal loss and the rupturing of his marriage, fortysomething phone-solicitor Brad O’Connor (Anthony Rapp) has come to the end of his tether. He’s finally decided to acknowledge his homosexuality, if only on the down-low, via the Internet. After a mind-numbing eight hours spent attempting to collect debts by phone, he ignores his patient African-American wife, Marcia (De’Adre Aziza), and heads straight for the man-cave in the basement of their Schenectady home. Brad is new to the online-sex game, where honesty and sensitivity are reserved for suckers. He gets no responses to his early postings, but plenty when he stretches the truth to fit the desires of respondents. Brad finds a playmate in Yenny (Jimmy Brooks), a handsome 23-year-old Jamaican, who quickly discerns the older man’s desire to serve as a father figure. After he breaks his cherry on Skype, things quickly evolve to the point where he become obsessed with Yennie and begins sending him money. No surprise, there. The story then takes a turn so unexpected that it reshapes the drama, opening it up for a bit of Jamaican sunshine to restore some needed light. The distance between New York and the Caribbean disappears in an instant. Despite the cramped quarters, the acting sells the story, which, in different hands, could have turned into a masturbatory trifle.

Dead or Alive Trilogy: Blu-ray
With 102 directing credits listed on his IMDB.com resume, Takashi Miike has undoubtedly been one of the world’s most prolific filmmakers of the past quarter-century, regardless of genre. The vast majority are feature-length and almost impossible to encapsulate in a few sentences. Miike may have begun his apprenticeship under two-time Palme d’Or winner Shôhei Imamura (The Ballad of Narayama, The Eel), but he is as close to being self-taught and self-motivated as anyone who’s made a career in the cinema dodge. While most of us were introduced to his work through his way-beyond-creepy Audition (1999), such divergent entertainments as Black Society Trilogy, Shinjuku Triad Society, The Happiness of the Katakuris, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, Over Your Dead Body, Zebraman and Ichi: The Killer have been given the red-carpet treatment by Shout! Factory and Arrow Video. For sheer gonzo excitement, it would be difficult to top his Dead or Alive Trilogy. Ostensibly, all three films — Dead or Alive, Dead or Alive 2: Birds, Dead or Alive: Final – are about gang wars pitting rival Chinese triads and Japanese Yakuza mobsters against a dogged enforcer, who could be a distant cousin of Wayne Newton and Don Ho. If none of the three titles is a direct sequel to the other, all of them star Riki Takeuchi and Show Aikawa. In Part One, Takeuchi plays the gangster Ryuuichi, who, along with his ethnically Chinese gang, is making a play to take over the drug trade in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district by massacring the competition. Detective Jojima (Aikawa), who sports a black trench coat, shades and a pompadour hairdo, uses his wiles and weapons to get the triads and Yakuza to thin out each other’s ranks, so that he can finish them off. It’s distinguished by perverse sexuality, stylized violence and clowns. In “Birds,” Aikawa and Takeuchi are together again, but as competing Yakuza assassins.  After a botched hit, the childhood friends flee to their home island and dedicate themselves to killing in the name of peace. In “Final,” Takeuchi and Aikawa are catapulted into a post-apocalyptic Yokohama that’s ruled by multilingual gangs, cyborg soldiers and a nutso mayor. They will butt heads, until the outrageously conceived finale, when they’re joined forever in a steampunk rapture. Miike’s raw display of unfettered imagination is nothing short of exhilarating. The special edition is enhanced by high-definition digital transfers of all three films; original uncompressed stereo; new interviews with actors Takeuchi and Aikawa, and producer/screenwriter Toshiki Kimura; new audio commentary for Dead or Alive by Miike biographer Tom Mes; archive interviews with cast and crew; vintage making-of featurettes for “DOA2: Birds” and “DOA: Final”; original theatrical trailers; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Orlando Arocena; and, first-pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet with new writing on the films by Kat Ellinger.

Ludwig: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
After watching Arrow Academy’s exquisitely restored edition of Luchino Visconti’s Ludwig (1973), I went on line to learn which monarch was crazier, Britain’s “Mad King” George III or “Mad King” Ludwig II of Bavaria, both of whose insanity has been documented in grandiose fashion on film. According to the TopTenz website, these men were only Nos. 10 and 7 on the top-10 list of wacko royals. (For those keeping score at home, the leading loony was Charles IX of France, who ascended to the crown only after all of the others in line for the job died.)  George III and Ludwig II had other things going for them, when lucid, but may best be recalled in posterity for the biopics made by Nicholas Hytner and Alan Bennett, Visconti and co-writer Enrico Medioli. Of the two films, The Madness of King George fared much better at the box office and awards ceremonies. Ludwig was the final piece in Visconti’s so-called German Trilogy, which also included The Damned (1969) and Death in Venice (1971). All of them dealt with one form of depravity, or another, including several things the MPAA tends to lump together as “aberrant sexuality.” In fact, though, when compared to the other films, Ludwig is rather tame. Even in the longer, preferred cut edition, the male nudity is either quite brief or shown from a distance. There isn’t any sex to speak of, either. That shouldn’t dissuade anyone from tackling the 238-minute cut, however. Ludwig remains notable, if only for Visconti and cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi’s celebration of such grand Bavarian locations as Roseninsel, Berg Castle, Lake Starnberg, Castle Herrenchiemsee, Castle Hohenschwangau, Linderhof Palace, Cuvilliés Theatre, Nymphenburg Palace, Ettal, Kaiservilla and Neuschwanstein Castle. The stigma attached to Ludwig when it was released derived from at least two severe edits demanded by European and America distributors, undertaken after Visconti had suffered a stroke. When it was first shown in New York, it ran 173 minutes. It would lose another half-hour on its way to the hinterlands. The nearly four-hour edition is complemented here by the television mini-series cut, which is at least as long. While no barn-burn, it benefits from some fine acting by Helmut Berger, as the king; Romy Schneider, as Empress Elisabeth of Austria; Trevor Howard, as composer Richard Wagner, a beneficiary of Ludwig’s foolhardy largess; Silvana Mangano, Wagner’s imperious wife Cosima von Bulow; and Gert Fröbe, as Father Hoffman. There’s also the splendid Alpine scenery, Piero Tosi’s Oscar-nominated costume design and a soundtrack that’s heavy on Wagner and Jacques Offenbach. Among the highlights for me were Ludwig’s truly bizarre entrances, by boat, through indoor swan pools. The limited edition features a 4K restoration from the original film negative; two viewing options, the full-length theatrical cut or as five individual parts; original Italian soundtrack and English soundtrack, available on home video for the first time; a new interview with Berger; “Luchino Visconti,” an hourlong documentary portrait of the director by Carlo Lizzani, containing vintage interviews with Burt Lancaster, Vittorio Gassman, Francesco Rosi and Claudia Cardinale; an entertaining interview with script collaborator, Suso Cecchi d’Amico; “Silvana Mangano: The Scent of a Primrose,” a half-hour portrait of the actress; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector s booklet containing new writing by Peter Cowie.

Sword Master: Blu-ray
Longtime fans of Hong Kong martial-arts epics will recognize Sword Master as a technically superior updating of the Shaw Brother’s 1977 wuxia pian, Death Duel. Fans of American Westerns and Japanese Samurai flicks are likely to find many similarities between those two films – adapted from a novel by Gu Long – and American genre films and TV episodes in which a retired gunslinger is required by circumstances to strap on his weapon one last time to defend his honor or die trying. In Derek Yee’s 2016 version, the Third Master of the reigning Hsieh clan (Lin Gengxin) has so grown weary of killing people in the defense of other people’s interests that he disguises himself as Ah Chi, a lowly servant in a brothel. His cover is blown when he’s stabbed several times by thugs attacking a prostitute, popularly known as Sweetie (Jiang Mengjie). Another wandering swordsman, Yan (Peter Ho), intends to prompt a duel with Third Master to test his own skill, but an impending war between various martial-arts houses poses a threat to both of the old-school warriors. It inspires a high-flying battle royal, with lots of cool wuxia action, likely supervised by producer Tsui Hark. While some critics have argued that the CGI and fairytale backgrounds occasionally detract from the swordplay, Sword Master is a lot of fun and easily accessible to wuxia beginners. The 3D edition of the film has yet to be released here. The Blu-ray comes with a making-of featurette.

Mad Families
Standing 6-foot-3, writer/director Fred Wolf has repeatedly proven that he can take a punch. He survived the early cancellations of talk shows hosted by Pat Sajak and Chevy Chase, becoming head writer of “Saturday Night Live,” throughout most of the 1990s. He’s also weathered the scathing reviews received as co-writer, with, among others, David Spade and Adam Sandler, of Joe Dirt, Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, both Grown Ups and the completely unnecessary direct-to-Crackle Joe Dirt: Beautiful Loser and straight-to-Internet Mad Families. For all the insults hurled at those movies by critics, Wolf was handed the director and co-writer’s reins of the slightly higher profile Drunk Parents, with Alex Baldwin, Salma Hayek, Joe Manganiello and Bridget Moynahan. Made with former “SNL” collaborator and Strange Wilderness  partner Peter Gaulke, it was scheduled for a March release, but appears to have been made available for free – legally or illegally, I don’t know — on Internet services. According to his mini-bio on IMDB, Wolf splits his time between Carmel and Santa Fe. If still true, Mad Families’ tanking probably won’t put a dent in his lifestyle. It’s set over a July 4 weekend at the Salt Stone State Park, whose campsites have been overbooked to the point where three families — Hispanic, African-American and Caucasian – are required to share one spot. It appears to be large enough to accommodate all three, but where would be the fun in that? Since none of them volunteer to split the scene, they agree to compete in a series of competitions to determine a winner. One requires the characters to participate in a contest to decide who can come up the best racist joke. There’s also an agonizing race around the pond. Several gags involve Charlotte McKinney’s ample bosom and short-shorts, while the drama derives from the Hispanic daughter and African-American son’s unannounced plans to be married. Charlie Sheen and Leah Remini headline a cast that also includes Finesse Mitchell, Naya Rivera, Barry Shabaka Henley, Juan Gabriel Pareja, Efren Ramirez and Danny Mora.

Dark Waters: Blu-ray
The Other Hell: Blu-ray
As is often the case with obscure genre titles distributed by such niche companies as Severin Films, the journey can be more interesting than the destination. Newly transferred into high def from their original 35mm negatives or prints, prime nunsploitation specimens Dark Waters (1993) and The Other Hell (1981) fit that description to a “T.” The only difference from such classics as Ken Russell’s The Devils, Gianfranco Mingozzi’s Flavia the Heretic, Jesus Franco’s Love Letters of the Portuguese Nun, Walerian Borowczyk’s Behind Convent Walls and Nigel Wingrove’s Sacred Flesh, is that they’re largely free of nudity and lesbian sex. (Yeah, I know, then what’s the point?)They are, however, loaded with sadistic violence, gore, spooky Catholic iconography, endangered babies, blood-stained habits and stylistically ominous cinematography. In the interview section of the Dark Waters Blu-ray, Naples-native Mariano Baino explains how his fascination with horror began at age 8, during a school visit to Rome. While there, he purchased a copy of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch-House” — presumably not in the Vatican gift shop – and became hooked on studying things on the dark side of life. Ten years later, he entered Rome’s Experimental Centre of Cinematography, where he was handed the tools to the trade. His short cannibalistic fantasy, “Caruncula,” attracted the attention newly wealthy Russian producer Victor Zuev, who offered initial financing for a feature, as long as it was made in post-Chernobyl Ukraine. While there, Baino encountered more setbacks in a month than many filmmakers face in a lifetime, from losing his studio space in a deal brokered by his corrupt production manager, to nearly having his cast and crew asphyxiated in the poorly ventilated Odessa Catacombs. In a nutshell, the plot focuses on a young Englishwoman, Elizabeth (Louise Salter), who returns to the island of her birth, both to investigate a convent her recently deceased father has been making payments to for years and visit a friend in residence there … before her mysterious death, at least. Apparently, the nuns are killing people at the behest of the Mother Superior, who looks as if she has just risen from the dead. She’s directed to a decaying library, hidden laboratories and a blind oracle/painter in the catacombs, who warns of demon cult and a Beast in the basement. The Blu-ray adds more than four hours of commentary to this Lovecraft-inspired ditty, with Baino; the featurettes, “Lovecraft Made Me Do It,” “Let There Be Water,” “Controlling the Uncontrollable” and “Deep Into the Dark Waters”; an intro; deleted scenes; a silent blooper reel with commentary by Baino; short films, “Dream Car,” “Caruncula” and “Never Ever After”; and a piece on the making of “Never Ever After.”

The Other Hell was made by Bruno Mattei, a director known affectionately as “The Italian Ed Wood,” for his ability to churn out exploitation flicks and “shockumentaries” that most of his peers would be embarrassed to make … unless they needed a gig. Mattei also enjoyed the distinction of having more pseudonyms than any working director on the planet. They include Vincent Dawn (Mondo Cannibal, Snuff Killer), Gilbert Roussel (Women’s Prison Massacre), J. Metheus (Emanuelle and the Erotic Nights), Jimmy Matheus (Libidomania), Jimmy B. Matheus (Cicciolina amore mio), William Snyder (Cruel Jaws) and Stefan Oblowsky (The True Story of the Nun of Monza, The Other Hell). Filmed mostly at Rome’s Convento di Santa Priscilla and Naples’ Cimitero delle Fontanelle, The Other Hell doesn’t look any worse for the wear of miniscule budgets and cut-rate production values. It opens with a nun searching for one of her fellow sisters in the lower levels of a convent. After making her way through the well-stocked ossuary, she arrives in what first appears to be a mad scientist’s lab, but is soon revealed to be a poorly lit embalmers’ chamber. It’s here that we’re treated to a lesson on how to embalm a sinful nun, the first step of which is to identify where the sin derived and thrust a knife into it. In this case, she’s told, the nun on the slab had been impregnated by Satan … so, you make the leap. The unsuccessfully aborted spawn is a monster with black body hair and demonic eyes, who suckles at the breast of the embalmed corpse of the convent’s former Mother Superior, which is stored in a closet. It’s just as yummy as it sounds.  A couple of priests are imported to investigate the rash of killings, with the younger, new-school cleric using modern methodology to find the source of the evil. While Mattei employs some fancy-schmancy effects and cinematography, the story rests on good old-fashioned stabbings, stigmata, Satanism, violence, graphic savagery, immolation and a severed head. The Other Hell stars Franca Stoppi, Carlo De Mejo and Franco Garofalo; was written by Claudio Fragasso (Rats: Night of Terror, Troll 2); and features a score “borrowed” from Goblin. It’s been newly transferred from a 35mm print allegedly discovered behind a false wall in a Bologna convent. The Blu-ray adds commentary with co-cirector/co-writer Claudio Fragasso, moderated by Freak-O-Rama’s Federico Caddeo; an amusing interview with Stoppi, who played Sister Franca; and “To Hell And Back,” archival interviews with Mattei and De Mejo.

House: Two Stories: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Released at the zenith of Hollywood’s slasher era, 1986, House is a haunted-domicile thriller that exploits another then-current conceit: the Vietnam veteran so traumatized by the war that he’s a hazard to himself and people around him. PTSD had officially been recognized by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980, but only as an anxiety disorder, not the more paralyzing “trauma- and stressor-related disorder” it would become. At the time, almost all slasher and splatter films were rated “R,” with plenty of gratuitous violence and nudity, if not always sex and pubic hair. The only problem facing director Steve Miner and producer Sean S. Cunningham – early veterans of the Friday the 13th franchise – was the fact that House, for all its well-earned thrills and chills, was a picture on the verge of being rated “PG-13.” The rating was added in 1984 to bridge the gap separating borderline attractions, such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins, and the clearly rougher Friday the 13th and Halloween. Short of adding of a shower scene or decapitation in post, it’s possible that a second F-bomb could have be added to the dialogue. Like Robert Mandel’s extremely clever thriller, F/X, whose “R” was attributed to crude language, House could hold its own in the jump-scare department, with some demonic creatures and nightmarish flashbacks experienced by the protagonist, played by William Katt.  Made for a modest $3 million, it returned $18.5 million at the domestic box office and spawned three so-so sequels, including House II: The Second Story, included in the Arrow set.

The original opens with a boy discovering the lifeless body of his aunt hanging from a ceiling fixture in the second-story bedroom of her Victorian-style house. Several years later, Roger Cobb (Katt), a horror novelist struggling to pen his next bestseller, inherits the creaky old mansion and moves in, despite the still-vivid memory of her death and, worse, the disappearance of his son at the same residence. Roger’s obsessive search for the boy destroys his marriage to Sandy (Kay Lenz) and his writing career. What the heck, he figures, the ghosts might even serve to untangle his writer’s block. Instead, the things that go bump in the night are either real live monsters or hallucinations. Meanwhile, his dreams take him back to Vietnam. That, or a Hollywood depiction of Roger’s time in-country. It’s not always easy to tell. Helping him escape his dilemma is the son of the blond bombshell across the street, who, while being babysat by Roger, stumbles upon portals to supernatural worlds protected by the house. Miner succeeds in tying up the loose ends and delivering a payoff that, if not terribly frightening, is entirely satisfying.

Two years later, the PG-13 onus has gone away, allowing co-writer/director Ethan Wiley the freedom to make a movie that teens could enjoy, as well as older horror buffs. “It’s an all new house with brand new owners,” read the ads for House II: The Second Story. Yuppies Jesse (Arye Gross) and Kate (Lar Park Lincoln) move into the same old Gothic mansion in which his parents died in 25 years earlier. (Why do people do that?) Not long afterward, his buddy, Charlie (Jonathan Stark), and his girlfriend, Lana (Amy Yasbeck), roll into town for a housewarming visit. While the ladies chill, Jesse and Charlie pore through the books and photo albums contained in the library and basement, discovering evidence that could lead to an Aztec treasure. It takes them to the grave of Jesse’s great-great-grandad (Royal Dano), where, they believe, a key piece of the puzzle can be found. The lads do what any clear-thinking yuppie would do: dig up Gramps’ casket, open the lid and lift out the crystal skull in the corpse’s hands. Surprise, surprise … Gramps’ previously lifeless hands grab Jesse’s arm, suggesting that we now have a zombie movie on our hands. Well, sort of. Gramps turns out to be a spry old geezer, after all, becoming Charlie’s booger buddy overnight. “House II” then turns into a comic adventure that combines elements of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future and One Million Years B.C. There’s nothing to gain by spoiling the fun, except to point out that George Wendt and John Ratzenberger play substantial supporting roles in the films, practically reprising their Norm and Cliff roles, in “Cheers.” Also showing up, in “House II,” is aspiring actor Bill Maher, as a music-industry weasel hoping to steal Kate away from Jesse. The restored Limited Edition package contains “The House Companion,” a 60-page book, featuring new writing on the entire franchise by researcher Simon Barber, alongside archival material; commentary with Miner, Cunningham, Katt and Wiley; “Ding Dong, You’re Dead! The Making of House,” a new documentary, featuring interviews with Miner, Cunningham, Wiley, story creator Fred Dekker, stars Katt, Lenz, and Wendt, composer Harry Manfredini, special make-up and creature-effects artists Barney Burman, Brian Wade, James Belohovek, Shannon Shea, Kirk Thatcher and Bill Sturgeon, special paintings artists Richard Hescox and William Stout, and stunt coordinator Kane Hodder; and a stills gallery.

Cathy’s Curse: Blu-ray
Lake Eerie
Fear Town, USA/The Slashening: Double Feature: Blu-ray
The Blackout Experiments
The Ungovernable Force
Sinful
Crimson Nights
Dream Stalker/Death by Love
Once again, the good folks at Severin Films have performed yeoman’s work in rescuing and restoring a long-ignored genre gem: the 1977 Canuxploitation classic, Cathy’s Curse (a.k.a., “Cauchemars”). Although it looks primitive, especially by the standards set by such cruel-kids thrillers as The Omen, Eddy Matalon’s Quebec-set film demonstrated that credible special effects could done on the cheap and laughs could be had at the expense of unsuspecting victims. That it was completely taken for granted at the time of its release and, of course, butchered to fit time constraints was par for the course for non-studio products, as well. Even when viewed primarily as a precursor to the slicky made horror flicks of the later-1970s-80s, Cathy’s Curse is fun to watch. Matalon moved from France to Montreal to take advantage of the same tax breaks American and British filmmakers were exploiting in Toronto and Vancouver. Canada’s Capital Cost Allowance would be severely reduced in 1982, but the path had already been laid by such beauties as My Bloody Valentine, Black Christmas, Prom Night, Terror Train and Ivan Reitman’s Cannibal Girls (“The Picture With The Warning Bell!”). In Matalon’s film, co-scripted with Myra Clément and Alain Sens-Cazenave, a young girl is roasted alive in a car accident after being abducted by her cuckolded and, therefore, misogynistic father. Thirty years later, her grown brother (Alan Scarfe) returns to their childhood home with his mentally unstable wife (Beverley Murray) and daughter, Cathy (Randi Allen). Almost as soon as the movers pack up and leave, the dead aunt’s vengeful spirit possesses the child through a demonic doll. Curiously, she also inherits her grandfather’s sexist diatribes. Cathy’s dad can’t imagine his little angel being so cruel, so dismisses her participation in a series of nasty accidents to visitors and potential guardians. Two of the set pieces are especially juicy: when Cathy is introduced to neighbor kids, she persuades them to restage the accident in which her aunt and granddad were turned into toast; later, Cathy gets the old caretaker (Roy Witham) drunk, so that she can sic a menagerie of imaginary critters on him. It gets wilder from there. The new Blu-ray includes the 81-minute U.S. release edit and 91-minute director’s cut); “Tricks and Treats,” an interview with Matalon; “Cathy & Mum,” interviews with Randi Allen and costume designer Joyce Allen; commentary on the U.S. cut by BirthMoviesDeath critic Brian Collins and filmmaker Simon Barrett; and an introduction to Cinematic Void screening at American Cinematheque by Collins.

Lake Eerie shares a few things in common with other thrillers mentioned here, not the least of them being a house that’s revitalized after standing abandoned for a few decades. This time, though, the previous owner mysteriously vanished while on an archeological expedition in Egypt. As if the crazy lady next-door, who delivers muffins to the traumatized widow, isn’t sufficiently ominous, there are neighbors who won’t go near the place and a dark presence that speaks Egyptian and tracks sand all over the hardwood floors. (Although Egyptology does play a role in the narrative, I made up the last two plot points.) If the rest of the story is fairly predictable, we are given a brief glimpse of the always-welcome Lance Hendrickson. The music was supplied by the aforementioned Harry Manfredini (House).

The double-feature packaging of Fear Town, USA and The Slashening is noteworthy only as a reclamation project by Troma. Adding Blu-ray to the presentation does nothing to improve their stories – both directed by Brandon Bassham — but it’s an upgrade from the cheesy audio/visuals already on display to YouTube Red subscribers. “Fear Town” takes place on the fictitious St. Blevins Day holiday, when four boys looking to lose their virginity, a girl haunted by a dark secret, a lonely teenager and an escaped mental patient all meet at a party in the woods. (Exclamation points optional.) In “Slashening,” a slumber party is thrown by best friends Lucy, Eva, Ashley, Beth and Margot … but, as we all know, “MURDER NEVER SLUMBERS!!!!!.” The actresses must have had no-nudity clauses in their contracts, because, sadly, there isn’t any. Troma has enhanced the package with commentary on “Fear Town” and the company’s standard array of promotional features: “Radiation March,” trailers and teasers to more representative products.

Paul M. McAlarney’s The Ungovernable Force is extreme, even by the standards usually applied by Troma, whose films revel in gratuitous sex, violence and about everything else some viewers might consider to be offensive. Some might recall McAlarney’s previous stroke of genius, Hillbilly Holocaust, in which surviving members of the Manson Family leave their bunker, years after Charlie’s death, expecting to enjoy life in post-Helter-Skelter America. As crazy as it was, Honky Holocaust wasn’t completely lacking in entertainment value. I’m not sure the same can be said for The Ungovernable Force, whose links to Troma appear to begin and end with appearances by Debbie Rochon and Lloyd Kaufman, whose voice also was heard in “HH.” Here, A gang of misfit punks teams up with a local community of bums (a.k.a., homeless gentlemen) to defeat a fascist sheriff and his two deputies. The resistance leader, Sal Purgatory (Jake Vaughan), is experiencing the anxiety the comes with becoming an over-the-hill punk and sex-shop employee. The film takes aim at fascism, police brutality, sexism, classism, racism, homophobia and political correctness. The cast includes punk “icons” Steve Ignorant from CRASS, Nick Cash from 999, Steve Lake from Zounds, Mensi from Angelic Upstarts, Paul Russo from the Unseen and Tony Moran (Michael Myers, in the original Halloween). The soundtrack features Flux of Pink Indians, Paranoid Visions, the Kids, Raxola, Who Killed Spikey Jacket and Eskorbuto. No, I haven’t heard of them, either.

Rich Fox’s innovative horror documentary The Blackout Experiments introduces us to a real-life fad in which volunteers, chosen via Facebook, allow themselves to be subjected to all manner of psychological manipulation, abuse and degradation, in an empty commercial space “blacked out” with plastic tarp. After being blindfolded or gagged, the disoriented participants will be treated to forced nudity, verbal abuse, restraints, brief suffocation and waterboarding … just like all of those Taliban rascals. The immersive horror experience, one supposes, helps them locate places in the recesses of their subconscious mind that need a bit of work … either that, or get their rocks off in scary sexual situations.  We’re told that the experiments and footage are “100% real.” Like everything else on the planet, we’re also told that the experience can be addictive and some participants need to be weaned off it. The DVD adds deleted scenes, an interview with the Blackout creators and bonus footage.

If anyone deserves a star on a Walk of Fame, it’s sexploitation superstar Misty Mundae. She’s accrued 83 acting credits over the past 20 years — Spider-Babe, Play-Mate of the Apes, The Lord of the G-Strings, Dickshark, among themand has also dabbled in behind-the-camera work. For a long time, the East St. Louis native drifted between hard- and soft-core assignments, as well as appearing in genre fare. As Erin Brown, she also co-starred in the late-night Skinemax soap, “Lingerie.” In a plot that might have inspired this week’s episode of “Law & Order: SVU,” Sinful imagines Mundae as an infertile woman so desperate for a child that she’s willing to kill for the opportunity to steal the fetus growing inside the womb of a neighbor (Erica Smith). Since skin flicks tend to avoid any mention of pregnancy, then, Sinful is pretty ambitious. A lot of the star’s fans will be put off their feed by the prop fetuses, and the dialogue is frequently absurd. Even so, it’s easy to see that Mundae and Smith are attempting to elevate the drama beyond the limits of the genre. (Why bother?) It includes footage from Erica Smith’s audition; a seven-minute behind-the-scenes segment and six-minute interview with Mundae; two clips from the 2006 New Jersey International Film and Screenplay Festival, including a Q&A, in which Jeff Faoro (Shock-O-Rama Cinema) chats with Mundae and Smith; liner notes written by Merle Bertrand; and commentary with director Tony Marsiglia who discuses writing the screenplay, directing, the cast and the difficulties of shooting a film in five days.

Mundae can be found in the Crimson Nights (1999) package, but only if one makes it as far as the bonus features, in which she co-stars alongside scream queen Ruby LaRocca (Where the Dead Go to Die) in William Hellfire’s 24-minute Peeping in a Girl’s Dormitory (2000). There’s plenty more girl-girl action in the feature, in which Roberta Orlandi (“True Blood”) stars as Susan, a voluptuous woman who embarks upon a sexually charged rampage after being infected with a virulent strain of blood-born plague. It moves from victim to victim like a game of tag played by vampires. Unfortunately, the nudity and shower scenes are the only things Jeffrey Arsenault’s blood fest has going for it. The DVD arrives with a vintage peep show and trailers from the Seduction Cinema vault.

Knowing that the pair of films that comprise Intervision’s Dream Stalker/Death by Love double-feature were shot on video for release on VHS cassettes, it’s easier the cut them some slack. Otherwise, there’d be no reason to spend more than five minutes with either of them. In the former, a Sacramento model is haunted by the corpse of her motocross-racer ex-boyfriend. After rising from the dead, Ricky (Mark Dias) not only revisits Kitty (Diane Cardea) for a midnight quickie, but also to murder her new boyfriend and the undertaker who botched his posthumous makeup session. If, God forbid, a remake were attempted today on a cellphone camera, the visuals in both pictures would look significantly better. The dialogue, acting and cinematography, however, are different stories. Nothing could save them. The original director even took legal action to strike his name from the credits … or, so we’re told in the bonus interviews. Death by Love, at least, benefits from significantly more exposed skin. Producer/director/writer/star/contractor Alan Grant plays a babe-magnet sculptor whose girlfriends all end up dead with their throats ripped open. Meanwhile, he’s being spied upon by an unknown person and followed by a pair of cops. Almost none of it makes any sense and the production values are non-existent. As vanity projects go, however, it qualifies as being so bad, it’s funny. The package comes with featurettes “Remembering Ricky,” with Mark Dias; “Dirt Bike Dreams,” with executive producer Tom Naygrow; “Alan Grant Remembers Death by Love,” via Skype; and “Yvonne Aric and Brad Bishop Remember Death By Love,” via Skype.

Backgammon
For his first feature, Backgammon, Francisco Orvañanos had the great good fortune to rent, borrow or steal the kind of out-of-the-way mansion, in Maine, that other filmmakers and location scouts might wish they’d discovered first and kept word of it to themselves. The hilltop setting provides sparkling long-distance views of the ocean, interrupted only by an unspoiled pasture that angles gently to the rocky coastline and almost demands to be traversed barefooted. The house’s handcrafted fixtures would whet any sophisticated traveler’s appetite for fireside lounging, leisurely dinners and expensive cognac, served in antique crystal snifters. Sadly, most viewers will be left to wonder how such a heavenly spot could be wasted on such an insignificant story. Orvañanos had the right idea, at least. When Ivy League wimp, Lucian (Noah Silver) arrives at the mansion with college friends Andrew (Christian Alexander) and Elizabeth (Olivia Crocicchia), for a weekend vacation, they don’t expect to find Andrew’s kittenish sister, Miranda (Brittany Allen), and her Baudelaire-obsessed boyfriend, Gerald (Alex Beh), already ensconced there. Andrew and Elizabeth decide that five’s a crowd and split early, leaving Lucian to fend with the precocious painter and his flirtatious red-haired muse. Not having read the R.B. Russell’s novella, “Bloody Baudelaire,” from which Backgammon was adapted, it’s difficult to ascertain where the blame for the ensuing exchanges of dopey dialogue ought to be placed. By the end of the second evening, though, Gerald has lost all his nude paintings – for which Miranda modeled — to Lucien in a drunken card game, and completely disappears from view. Taking advantage of his absence, Miranda freely toys with Lucien, who appears to believe that either Gerald and/or his girlfriend are spying on them through a peep hole or hidden camera. Over time, the sexual tension dissipates like the air from a tire with a slow, but persistent leak … just like our curiosity over where Gerald might have gone. The scenery is nice, anyway.

Lonely Boys
Jules and Saul are best friends at loose ends. Both have recently broken up with their significant others and will soon lose their sources of income. One drinks and the other is trying to stop. They look alike and squabble like brothers. That’s really all we know about Jules and Saul, before being asked to empathize with their plights. Dan Simon, who plays struggling playwright Jules, directed and co-wrote Lonely Boys, with Patrick Davin (The White Russian) and Gregory Lay, who portrays the soon-to-be-divorced Saul. When low-budget indies are this incestuous, they tend to demand things of viewers they haven’t earned, in this case a reason to really care about the characters’ search for happiness. They’re surrounded by convivial and attractive women, but are so consumed with their own problems they eventually wear out their welcome with them, too. Things pick up when the guys leave Brooklyn and head to Connecticut for a beachside weekend and more failed opportunities to heal their wounds. At one point, just as Jules is about to break the ice with a pleasant brunette, he is stricken with an anxiety attack so intense that he’s forced to beg off. I suppose it was meant to be funny, but comes off as just one more inexplicable blunder. Even so, anyone undergoing withdrawal from the final episode of “Girls” might feel right at home with these archetypal millennials.

Claire in Motion
Annie J. Howell and Lisa Robinson’s follow-up to Small, Beautifully Moving Parts, which got some critical attention in 2012, serves the same purpose as a Richter scale as it measures the emotional stability of a woman who’s lost her husband, literally, to forces she and we never quite grasp. Betsy Brandt (“Life in Pieces”) is quite effective as the title character in Claire in Motion, a movie that’s less interested in solving the mystery than painting a portrait of a woman who suddenly realizes that her husband’s lover knows more about him than she does. Both Claire and her husband, Paul, teach at a college in Ohio. He’s in the art department, while she’s a math instructor. When Paul doesn’t come home one night, Claire’s head spins with possible reasons. She knows that he fancies himself to be an amateur survivalist, so she conducts her own search in a nearby forest, where he might have fallen off a cliff and his body could have disappeared from easy view. It isn’t until she goes to his office to retrieve his property that she meets his pretty blond “graduate assistant,” Allison (Anna Margaret Hollyman), who’s almost shockingly forthcoming with information about Paul. She points to a sculpture and drawings representing flight, which make Claire think he took up skydiving to understand more about it. (There’s a metaphor in there, somewhere.) When Allison also picks up on their son’s need to know more about his departed dad, she works with him on some simple sculptures. It’s sad to watch Claire come unglued over her own possible shortcomings, when all signs point to her husband going middle-age crazy and succumbing both to his vanity and the magnetism of a blond half his age. She’s better off without a guy who thinks he can hide out in a state park in frigging Ohio for a few weeks and, suddenly, he’s Robinson Crusoe.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Masterpiece: To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters: Blu-ray
PBS: Frontline: Divided States of America
PBS Kids: Wild Kratts: Panda-monium
Nickelodeon: Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir: It’s Ladybug
Unlike most BBC mini-series that wind up on PBS affiliates, the two-episode “Masterpiece” presentation “To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters” times in at two easy-on-the-eyes hours. Filmed mostly in ever-gorgeous Yorkshire, with the family’s home village of Haworth being used extensively, Sally Wainwright’s story offers an excellent representation of life around the moorland of scenic Penistone Hill in the 1840s. With the original Parsonage at Haworth not made available for filming, a dead-on replica of it was constructed there. The drama focuses on the relationship of the three Bronte sisters — Charlotte, Emily and Anne — and their artist brother, Branwell, at a critical juncture of the family’s history. With their father half-blind and Branwell struggling with addictions to alcohol, laudanum and opium, the sisters’ dreams of making a living as writers had yet to be realized. They dared not reveal the true identities of the pseudonymous brothers, Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell, but the time was drawing near when they might be required to do so. Wainright introduces the siblings as wildly imaginative children, their minds literally aflame with ideas. By the time they enter their 20s, the sisters’ precocious ambitions are weighed down by Branwell’s decline and their dad’s financial needs. Still, they can’t help but write and prey for a miracle. Finn Atkins, Chloe Pirrie and Charlie Murphy not only are able to capture the sisters’ strikingly different personalities, but they also mimic Branwell’s family portrait, from which he deleted his own image. The title is taken from a clergyman’s observation about Curren Bell’s ability to work in anonymity, “What author would be without the advantage of being able to walk invisible?” The Blu-ray adds background featurettes.

The two-part “Frontline” presentation, “Divided States of America,” examines how President Obama’s promise change and unity was derailed almost as soon as he was inaugurated, by the realities of race-based politics in Washington. As we now know, Republican congressmen vowed early on to cripple every initiative proposed by the White House, for as long as he would be in office, no matter how negotiable they might have been. The perception of Obama outside the capital changed drastically, as well, as he was blamed for his inability to deliver on pledges made during his campaign. Part Two examines racial tensions in America, the war for control of the GOP and the growing dysfunction in Washington, which led to the election of perceived outsider Donald Trump. Today, Trump is facing many of the same obstacles that stymied Obama, in reverse. It’s a provocative documentary, even as our memory of those hopeful days of yesteryear fade into despair.

This time around, in “Wild Kratts: Panda-monium,” kids are invited to join Martin Kratt and Chris Kratt as they learn about some of the amazing features of giant pandas, red pandas, golden pheasants and snowy owls. In these four adventures, the brothers save giant pandas from the evil Zach Varmitech, help to reunite a lost red panda and her mother and save animals captured in China from the villain Donita Donata.

Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir: It’s Ladybug” describes what happens when Paris is threatened by supervillains and our cartoon heroes are the city’s only hope! With the help of their magical pets, Ladybug and Cat Noir team up to outwit the forces of evil. Their biggest challenge, though, might be getting their alter egos Marinette and Adrien through junior high school.

The DVD Wrapup: Rogue One, Office Party, Three, Story of Sin, Actor Martinez and more

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: Blu-ray
If, like me, you were a tad confused about how Rogue One: A Star Wars Story would fit within the Star Wars mythos, especially since the franchise’s Mother Ship is currently between Episodes VII and VIII and two related novels, a soundtrack album and a video game also were being released in December. Moreover, “Rogue One” had been incorporated into YouTube’s “The Star Wars Show” and the ongoing “Lego Star Wars” series on Disney XD. Anyone who’s visited Disneyland lately can see the company’s commitment to the “Star Wars” franchise/brand by strolling past the former site of Big Thunder Ranch, which is giving way to a 14-acre mega-attraction, unofficially known as Star Wars Land. So, where does Rogue One: A Star Wars Story fit into the mix? In a nutshell, it is the first installment of the “Star Wars Anthology” series, set immediately before the events of the original Star Wars film. (Untitled “Anthology” standalones, including a Han Solo project, are set for 2018 and 2020.) Ironically, the story’s seed was planted way back in 1977, in the opening crawl of “Episode IV: A New Hope,” On it, quizzical audiences were advised that “Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star …” OK. Four decades later, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story would follow that group of rebels on their mission to steal the plans for the Death Star, or die trying, which, of course, didn’t happen. According to interviews included in the extensive bonus package, John Knoll, visual effects supervisor for the prequel trilogy at Industrial Light & Magic, pitched the idea for the film 10 years before its development began. After the Disney acquisition of Lucasfilm, in 2012, Knoll decided to re-pitch it, this time to his new boss, Kathleen Kennedy, who ran it up the flagpole at the newly combined company.

The first things longtime fans will notice is the absence of an updated crawl and an overture by a composer not named John Williams, although his aural fingerprints can be heard throughout the score. Buffs probably were already aware of the absence of Jedi in the cast of characters and the difference in narrative tone from the other episodes. Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) and co-writers Chris Weitz (Cinderella) and Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Indentity) have emphasized that “Rogue One” was conceived as a war story with a sometimes ambiguous moral code. Otherwise, almost everything that happens in the story would require a spoiler alert to summarize. Because the movie has passed the billion-dollar barrier, worldwide, I suspect that very few, if any diehard fans have yet to see “Rogue One.” So, let’s not ruin the surprises for the one or two people out there who’ve yet to enjoy them. Returnees should know that the Blu-ay presentation is excellent, from beginning to end and inside-out. The more sophisticated the home-theater setup, the better the experience will be.  That said, however, while “Rogue One” is available in 3D, new owners of 4K UHD players and monitors will be disappointed to learn that Disney/Buena Vista has decided, once again, to play the delay game. Collectors should know, as well, that Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Target and the Disney Store – surprise, surprise – offer the movie in exclusive packaging and slightly different bonus selections. None of the dozen making-of featurettes is longer than nine minutes, but they do add value to what already is a noteworthy addition to the franchise. I further suspect that commentary and longer featurettes will be added to the inevitable super-duper holiday edition.

Office Christmas Party: Unrated: Blu-ray
The unrated version of Office Christmas Party, which kept two directors and six writers from the unemployment lines, is five minutes longer than the theatrical edition (also enclosed), and eight, if you include deleted scenes. It contains a bit more of everything that warranted the original’s R-rating, but nothing terribly salacious. Among the things that offended the MPAA ratings board were several scenes with partial nudity, crude sexual references throughout, a scene in which a man drinks eggnog from a phallic-shaped portion of an ice sculpture, coarse language, a penis sculpted by a 3D-printing machine and more shots of “alcohol/drugs/smoking” than in all three Porky’s movies combined. In Germany, Norway, Netherlands and Sweden, however, anyone over the age of 12 was allowed entrance to the multiplex showing Office Christmas Party. Here, of course, kids under 17 would be required to drag along a parent or guardian or simply buy tickets for the PG-13 screening next-door. To be fair, though, most parents probably would agree with the MPAA on this one, especially in its unrated iteration. (Based on Office Christmas Party and Bad Santa 2, some impressionable youngsters might come to believe that holiday parties in Chicago really are this outrageous and degrading, and pray someday they get a job there, too.) All snarkiness aside, though, “OCP” is probably as good as things are going to get in the out-of-control-party subgenre, at least until someone dramatizes what goes on at a state dinner at Mar-a-Lago, with Bill Murray playing President Trump. The filmmakers were allotted a generous $45-million production money, most of which probably went to secure a cast of talented comic actors.

The setting is Chicago’s Zenodek company, a failing tech interest that takes up two floors in a Loop hi-rise. The office is run by Josh Parker (Jason Bateman) and party-hardy figurehead Clay Vanstone (T.J. Miller), who inherited the company from his fun-loving dad. His uptight sister, Carol Vanstone (Jennifer Aniston), was made CEO of the international corporation and has ordered Josh and Clay to spend the days leading up to Christmas, downsizing the Chicago office. She also demands that the annual holiday party be cancelled, along with bonuses, which Clay is loath to do. They might be able to save the company, but only if they can convince a major client, Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance), to send millions of dollars in business their way. Where better than at an orgy, where everyone will be on their worst behavior? Josh’s cohort, Tracey Hughes (Olivia Munn), has committed herself to sealing the deal, but it isn’t until Walter accidentally inhales a kilo of cocaine, mistakenly dumped in the snow-making machine, that the skids are sufficiently greased. Even so, when Carol’s flight is canceled at a snowbound O’Hare, she could still ruin everyone’s plans and holiday cheer. This includes an emergency run to a pimps-’n’-hos soiree, just down the street. Mayhem, of course, ensues. Directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck benefit from a supporting cast of funny actors: Kate McKinnon and Vanessa Bayer (“SNL”), Jillian Bell (“Workaholics”), Rob Corddry (“Ballers), Randall Park and Sam Richardson (“Veep”), Jamie Chung (“Gotham”), Da’Vine Joy Randolph (“This Is Us”), Andrew Leeds (“Bones”) and Jimmy Butler, of the Chicago Bulls. The Blu-ray adds commentary with the directors (on the theatrical disc); the background featurette, “Throwing an Office Christmas Party”; outtakes and alternate lines from various scenes; deleted scenes, not included in the extended version; and an alternate ending.

Three: Blu-ray
The Legend of Bruce Lee: Volume Two
Even by current standards, Johnnie To’s latest crime thriller, Three, is a departure from the norm. Set almost entirely inside the intensive-care unit of a bustling Hong Kong hospital, it pits a trio of completely different professionals against each other. Their paths cross in the emergency room after a desperate criminal is brought in with a bullet lodged in his head. The patient, Shun (Wallace Chung), shot himself to avoid being taken directly to jail after a blown heist. He knew he would be rushed to the hospital and given sanctuary until his gang was able to hear about his arrest and rescue him. Awaiting him is the headstrong surgeon Dr. Tong Qian (Zhao Wei), whose tireless pursuit of perfection has begun to backfire on her. She wants to remove the slug as soon as possible, but Shun violently resists her efforts. Waiting for Shun to be released is Chief Inspector Ken (Louis Koo), a dogged cop who sometimes ignores regulations to secure a conviction. The criminal has given the doctor a phone number to call, but Ken has forbidden her from doing so, in fear of a bloody escape attempt. As these three bump heads, everyone else is required to act as if nothing unusual is going on around them. It precipitates some unlikely interaction between bed-ridden patients, nurses and doctors on their rounds. The director compresses six hours of time into 90 tension-filled minutes, with a stunning slow-motion climax that Sam Peckinpah might have envied. Three works best as a diversion, akin to a parlor trick, as To makes us wait for the ending we all know is coming, but surprises us with its ferocity. The Blu-ray adds featurettes, “Making-Of: Master Director Johnnie To” and “Three Complex Characters.”

In the 40-plus years since the untimely death of Bruce Lee, filmmakers far and wide have stood in line to create biopics that have attempted to interpret/exploit his legacy. Most of them have distorted the facts to suit the tastes and gullibility of their audience. Others were made according the stipulations imposed by family members. It wasn’t until 1993, when Rob Cohen’s Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story became the first to acknowledge the influence of Wing Chun master Ip Man, that the real Bruce Lee saga began to emerge. Kar Wai Wong’s The Grandmaster and Donnie Yen’s Ip Man series – a new one arrives next year, we’re told – gave serious fans of martial arts a reason to cheer. Produced by China Central Television and exec-produced by daughter Shannon Lee, “The Legend of Bruce Lee” played out in 50 episodes on the CCTV network and was syndicated around the world. It starred Hong Kong actor Danny Chan and American actress Michelle Lang as Lee’s wife, Linda Lee Cadwell. Lionsgate compressed the series into a 183-minute straight-to-DVD film that satisfied almost no one. Released on November 1, 2016, the first volume of Well Go USA’s “Legend of Bruce Lee” times in at 451 minutes, while Volume Two covers the 480-minutes of Episodes 11-20. This one opens with Lee suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of an older master and his determination to combine disciplines to create a new system and school, based in Seattle. Lang’s part expands as Lee suffers a serious back injury – a rival fighter assaults him with a log … true story — and she devotes herself to his recovery. Because the series was designed to appeal primarily to the vast Chinese audience, it isn’t surprising that the overtly melodramatic and mythic elements dominate the narrative. Too often, the lame English dubbing – curiously, the non-Asian actors are made to sound like characters in an anime — interferes with the narrative flow. The fighting and training scenes are good enough to keep hard-cord fans interested, though.

The Story of Sin: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Property Is No Longer a Theft: Special Edition: Blu-ray
In revealing his list of the ten-best animated films of all time, Terry Gilliam described Walerian Borowczyk as “a twisted man whose films were infused with a unique cruelty and weirdness.” I’m sure he meant that as a compliment. His obituary in the New York Times opened with, “Walerian Borowczyk (was) an internationally known Surrealist filmmaker, described variously by critics as a genius, a pornographer and a genius who also happened to be a pornographer.” The Polish-born Borowczyk, who also spent much of his career in France, was all of that and, as we’ve begun to learn, a whole lot more. In 2015, Arrow Video released brilliantly restored Blu-ray editions of Immoral Tales, The Beast and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, three of his most notorious films, all packed with illuminating bonus material. Later this month, Olive Films is sending out “Walerian Borowczyk: Short Films,” Blanche, Goto Isle of Love and Theatre of Mr. & Mrs. Kabal. Apart from being a sexual provocateur, Borowczyk’s features are distinguished by their exquisite period look, attention to details and integration of classical music into situations one might think wouldn’t support it. The Story of Sin was released in France in 1975, the same year as The Beast opened in Poland. While the latter remains one of the cinema’s more outrageous re-conceptualizations of the “La Belle et la Bête” fantasy, Story of Sin is a thoughtful and beautifully constructed adaptation of Stefan Żeromski’s 1908 novel about a young woman’s picaresque quest to reconnect with the man who took her virginity and disappeared. As a boarder in the home of Ewa Pobratynska (Grazyna Dlugolecka), Lukasz Niepolomski (Jerzy Zelnik) promised to divorce his wife and make a proper lady of her. After being refused a divorce in Catholic Poland, Lukasz travels to Rome, ostensibly to seek an annulment, leaving Ewa behind to struggle making ends after being kicked out of her home. In Warsaw, Ewa is approached by friends and wealthy acquaintances of Lukasz, who provide her with information on his whereabouts and enough money to tempt her to follow them around Europe in search of him.

Finally, while still professing her love for Lukasz, who’s a bit of a conman, Ewa succumbs to life in the Victorian Era fast lane. Lessons are learned and lives are ruined. Borowczyk’s gift for period staging makes the journey – from sumptuous spas and resorts, to sordid brothels – a visual treat. As Ewa, the stunning Dlugolecka is required to spend much of her time in the nude, although almost all of it is presented in ways that cover her nether regions. Lovers of turn-of-the-century erotica surely will find much here to savor. In addition to a recent interview with the delightfully candid actress, the crisply restored Arrow edition offers a great deal of evidence to substantiate Gilliam’s admiration for Borowczyk’s animated films, nearly a dozen of which are included here. They’re wonderful. Also included are an introduction by poster designer Andrzej Klimowski; featurettes on Borowczyk’s career in Poland and innovative use of classical music; a reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Klimowski; and, in the first pressing, a fully illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new and archival writing, including an exclusive interview with the producer of Story of Sin, director Stanislaw Rozewicz, a text by art historian and one-time Borowczyk collaborator, Szymon Bojko, and excerpts from Borowczyk s memoirs, presented in English for the first time.

The inelegantly phrased title of co-writer/director Elio Petri’s Property Is No Longer a Theft can be traced to a slogan coined by French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in his 1840 book, “What is Property? Or, an Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government.” As a onetime committed Communist Party member – he quit in 1956, after the suppression of the Hungarian uprising – Petri would have been aware of the “property is theft” concept, which even was questioned by Karl Marx and German philosopher Max Stirner. Here, most of thieving is done in reaction to those capitalists who would argue that property is a gift, handed down by God himself. It’s a dark comedy, informed by giallo and radical politics of 1970s Italy. “Theft” is the final entry in Petri’s “Trilogy of Neurosis,” which also included the Oscar-winning Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and Lulu the Tool (a.k.a., “The Working Class Goes to Heaven”). The former tackled the corrupting nature of power, while the latter questions where a worker fits in a world in which he can’t even trust his trade union. Here, Total (Flavio Bucci) is a low-level bank clerk who’s allergic to money, even though it’s his job to handle it every day. His father raised him to believe that property was to be respected, if not worshipped. His mind is changed when he is refused a loan request, moments after a dishonest businessman blackmails his boss into giving him an exorbitant loan.

The customer, known only as the Butcher (Ugo Tognazzi), endears himself to bank employees by handing out packages of prime cuts of beef. If he pulls his money out of the bank, the boss knows it could ruin him. That kind of arrogance makes the Butcher the perfect target for Total’s newly invigorated anti-capitalism. After quitting his job, Total devotes himself to tormenting the Butcher, stealing his possessions one-by-one, starting with the man’s meat cleaver and mistress (Daria Nicolodi), who bears an uncanny resemblance to Morticia Addams. Eventually, the former clerk begins stealing from thieves, who go about their business without the benefit of a political agenda. (Total only steals property, not money.) “Theft” is enhanced by some hallucinogenic visuals and a complementary score by Ennio Morricone. The nice thing is that viewers need not be politically left of Bernie Sanders to get a kick out of it. The newly restored Blu-ray adds fresh interviews with Bucci, producer Claudio Mancini and make-up artist Pierantonio Mecacci; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Nathanael Marsh; and, with the first pressing, an illustrated booklet containing new writing on the film by Camilla Zamboni.

Youth in Oregon
It’s difficult to imagine a comedic premise – dark or light – more challenging than the one that informs Joel David Moore and writer Andrew Eisen’s Youth in Oregon. In it, Billy Crudup plays Brian Gleason, the son-in-law of 80-year-old Raymond Engersol (Frank Langella), who insists upon traveling from New York to Oregon to take advantage of the state’s Death with Dignity Act. Raymond doesn’t look particularly ill, but he’s already undergone one excruciating operation on his heart and doesn’t want to go under the knife again, even if the surgery could delay an inevitable second heart attack. Tellingly, he breaks the news to his incredulous family on his birthday. Raymond’s wife, Estelle (Mary Kay Place), wants to tag along, if only to help Brian try to talk him out of going through with the euthanasia. Brian’s wife (Christina Applegate) is unable to make the trip, because their daughter (Nicola Peltz) is experiencing boyfriend problems and leaving her alone is out of the question. Estelle plans to break the tedium by remaining high or unconscious on pills and booze. No sooner does Brian put the SUV in gear than Raymond puts on his favorite CD of bird songs. Already, viewers know that they’re in for a long ride, because the codger isn’t listening to their arguments – he’s already done all the necessary homework – and he’s intent on making amends with his estranged gay son (Josh Lucas) along the way. Brian also decides, while they’re in the neighborhood, to swing northward to Montana to visit his own college-age son, who informs them of his decision to drop out of school. He thinks that grandpa is doing the admirable thing and shouldn’t be talked out of it. There’s humor here, folks, but it’s the kind that sneaks up on you. The punch to the heart comes at the end, but not in the way we’ve been led to believe it will arrive. Needless to say, Youth in Oregon isn’t for everyone. As usual, Langella is terrific as a frequently unlikeable character in a difficult situation for himself, his family and the audience.

We Don’t Belong Here
If Peer Pedersen’s debut drama We Don’t Belong Here somehow landed on a double-bill with Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, management might consider handing out samples of Prozac and Zoloft with every bag of popcorn … if not complimentary whiskey and morphine. Then, at least, viewers could be on the same wavelength as the desperate characters in both movies. This isn’t to say that We Don’t Belong Here deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the O’Neill classic, just that you wouldn’t want to see it after being fired from your job or dumped by a lover. As usual, Catherine Keener is extremely convincing as the tightly wound matriarch of a very messed up family, living in a posh suburb of Boston. Also good is the late Anton Yelchin – in one of his final performances – as Nancy Green’s only son, Max, a recently institutionalized drug addict and survivor of a suicide attempt. His sisters Elisa, Lily and Madeline (Riley Keough, Kaitlyn Dever, Annie Starke) may not be as fragile as Max, but they also qualify as damaged goods. While her kids tread on wafer-thin ice, Nancy attempts to hold her shit together long enough to make it through a party for high-society hens at her home. Good luck on that one, mom. The cast also includes Maya Rudolph, as Nancy’s BFF and secret lover; Molly Shannon, Cary Elwes, Justin Chatwin and Michelle Hurd, as various dealers, enablers, shrinks and other unstable adults. Everything that could possibly go wrong, does. Trivia fanatics should note that Annie Stark is the daughter of actress Glenn Close and producer John H. Starke; Riley Keough is Elvis’ granddaughter; and Rudolph’s mother was singer Minnie Ripperton.

Actor Martinez
In the world of independent filmmaking, there are pictures that look unpolished because budgets were tight and the production team lacked the experience and/or equipment to slicken it to studio standards. And, lots of us like them that way. There are other indie films that push the boundaries of the experimental envelope and are less concerned with audience acceptance than that of their peers. Depending on the eyes of the beholder, they can either be wonderful or horrible. Mike Ott and Nathan Silver’s latest brainteaser, Actor Martinez, is exactly the kind of movie that finds lots of traction at festivals, but struggles to be seen and reviewed outside of them. Depending on which press release you believe, the filmmakers went to Denver to find an aspiring actor around whom they could build a faux documentary or they were hired by aspiring actor and full-time computer tech Arthur Martinez to collaborate on a film that would showcase his skills. Does it matter? Yes and no. At first glance, it’s the former. That’s because, at first glance, it looks like a mockumentary, with delusional characters who might have been recruited from a Salvation Army superstore. While articulate and dedicated to his craft, Martinez looks as if he could find plenty of work as an extra in a movie set in a factory or as a member of the star’s bowling team. That isn’t intended as an insult, just an observation. A world-class know-it-all, Martinez is allowed an inordinate amount of time arguing with the directors. When they decide to spike the action by bringing in a working actress (Lindsay Burdge), who was chosen because she looks like Martinez’ ex-wife, things really go haywire. Actor Martinez is very weird and, if intentional, borderline cruel. That ambiguity probably is what endeared it to festival audiences and a goodly number of critics. The DVD adds the short film, “Riot”; festival Q&A panels at the Denver and Tribeca Film Festivals; and deleted scenes. For the record, Martinez has since appeared in four short films.

Cooking at the World’s End
For gourmands who’ve graduated to the next level – planning vacations according to star ratings in the Michelin Guide — Cooking at the World’s End should qualify as a must-see. There are enough great restaurants in Spain’s easy-to-get-to locations to keep visitors satiated for year. Getting to Galicia, on the northwestern coast of the Iberian Peninsula, requires the kind of energy many non-European travelers could put to good use eating in great restaurants in Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia and the nearby Basque country, where four of the recently announced top-50 restaurants in the world are located. (Catalonia also had two winners.) Alberto Baamonde Bello’s documentary describes what began to happen when, in 2003, nine young Galician chefs combined their talents and knowledge to transform the cuisine of their region. Along with a new generation of producers and farmers, the Grupo Nove developed a theory of gastronomy grounded in traditions, attached to the land and the product, using radically new cooking techniques. Today, Grupo Nove is composed of 20 chefs and in a short period of time, has accounted for 8 Michelin stars, 19 Soles Repsols awards and international recognition. Among the people interviewed here are Pepe Solla, Xosé Cannas, Yayo Daporta, Beatriz Sotelo and Javier Olleros.

Puppylove
Delphine Lehericey’s sexually charged coming-of-age drama, Puppylove, has not, as far as I know, been shown in theaters in the U.S. It’s been exhibited at several prestigious festivals in Europe and been considered, at least, for awards there. It deals with situations not uncommon in Hollywood and indie films, but rarely depicted with the same visual integrity. Until Film Movement’s release of the DVD edition of the 2013 release, it’s likely that distributors didn’t see any upside in courting the same kind of controversy – however, marketable – that greeted such pictures as Lolita (both versions), Baby Doll, Pretty Baby and Blue Lagoon (both with Brooke Shields), The Crush, Birth, American Beauty, Hounddog and Fat Girl. In all of these films, underage actresses, their body doubles or characters were either seduced or compromised by older men. That taboo was reversed in the 1980s in such coming-of-age comedies as Class, My Tutor, Private Lessons, In the Mood and They’re Playing with Fire. Because statutory rape isn’t considered laughing matter or particularly romantic in most places outside California and France, standards were imposed on the industry here forbidding nude scenes in which underage actors are involved or present during production; depictions of rape or sexual-related violence, without the presence of parents and child-labor reps during the shoot; and use of adult body doubles in scenes involving underage characters in sexual situations. Even the porn industry has conformed with such laws, going so far as to display disclaimers and addresses of its records keepers. The studios will push the limits of the laws on occasion, but only sparingly and on the advice of counsel.

In Puppylove, Diane (Solène Rigot) is a 14-year-old loner, who juggles looking after her little brother, Marc, with a turbulent relationship with her single father, Christian (Vincent Perez). She prefers to dress conservatively and shuns makeup. Her polar opposite is Julia (Audrey Bastien), a newcomer to Diane’s school and neighborhood. She exudes independence, spontaneity and an adventurous spirit everything that Diane seems to be missing. They form a somewhat uneasy mentor/student relationship, based on a shared interest in the piano, substantiating each other’s alibis, pop music and dancing. While Diane is overtly hostile to her father’s advice and girlfriends, Julia appears to have set her sights on seducing him. Again, hardly an unusual setup in mainstream movies. The closer the girls become, the more willing Diane is to experiment with her inhibitions. We realize how dangerous this might be when she responds to the mostly innocent, if belittling harassment from male classmates by strolling into the boys’ locker room with only a towel to protect her modesty. It ceases to be amusing when she drops the towel and allows herself to be ogled by the startled adolescents. Lehericey ratchets up the sexual tension when, on separate occasions, the girls convince their parents to bring them along on weekend retreats. If we were experiencing Puppylove first as a novel, the depictions wouldn’t be nearly as upsetting. On the screen, however, the nudity alone is enough to give most viewers pause. It caused me to check out the ages of the actresses – not included in their IMDB.com resumes – if for no other reason than to ease my own misgivings about staying with the movie. (Both were in their late-teens or early-20s at the time of production.)  That said, I came away from the movie feeling that the sexual intimacy was treated honestly, as was the girls’ behavior. The men’s willingness to suspend their disbelief over their ages is never in question, either. (No obvious references to the continuing Roman Polanski saga were necessary.) The unexpected ending also worked. Francophile viewers should find plenty here to enjoy, but only if they’re not easily shocked.

Bob Dylan: In His Own Words
It’s only taken five months for Bob Dylan to make his way to Stockholm, where he finally received his Nobel Award in literature. He was in the neighborhood at the time, so, he must have figured, why not? It was a closed ceremony, as opposed to the one in which Patti Smith stood in for him, leaving the gathered media at a loss for his words. The one juicy detail revealed, by a photographer with a long lens, was that he arrived wearing a black hoodie and brown boots. Even at his most loquacious, the Bard of the Mesabi Iron Range has confounded reporters attempting to get more than a handful of words out of him, one or two of which might reveal something about his opinions on extemporaneous poetry to why he began to wear mime makeup on the Rolling Thunder tour. What you hear is what you get. It explains why I.V. Media’s Bob Dylan: In His Own Words – despite its many technical imperfections – will be must-viewing in the homes of Dylanologists. It includes 100 minutes of filmed interviews – some “rare,” others not — with Dylan, primarily when he was on the road outside the U.S. and probably had nothing better to do. Although never completely forthcoming, he gives them the benefit of answers that probably pleased their editors, anyway. And, he does so without appearing hostile, superior or purposefully ambiguous. At one point he even takes the time to sketch a portrait of the reporter interviewing him, and it’s quite good. The downside comes in the producers’ lack of concern over the viewers’ inability to cut throw background noise, the need for subtitles and identification of names and places. Most of them took place during the 1970-80s, but also included are the excellent Ed Bradley interview for “60 Minutes” and his bizarre acceptance speech at the Grammys. As usual, beginners probably will wonder what all the fuss was about.

Tank 432: Blu-ray
Veteran UK “camera operator” Nick Gillespie has chosen for his debut as writer/director a claustrophobic thriller, in which a small group British mercenaries, their hooded prisoners and a victim of gas poisoning are attacked by mysterious forces represented by a figure in the distance, wearing a gas mask. After taking refuge inside an abandoned M41Walker Bulldog tank, left standing in a field overlooking a lovely English valley, they discover to their dismay that the door is jammed and all but one wounded comrade are stuck inside the cramped, immobile vehicle. While Gillespie plays with themes of isolation, paranoia and combat insanity – the wounded soldier (Michael Smiley) taunts the tank as if it were a bull in a plaza de toros in Spain – viewers may stop caring about their fate. Tank 432 (a.k.a., “Belly of the Bulldog”) only begins to pick up speed when one of the men inside manages to hot wire it and kick it into gear. The fact that Gillespie apprenticed under executive producer Ben Wheatley (Kill List, High-Rise) should lure fans of the pressure-cooker subgenre, especially for its unforgiving atmosphere and well-sustained mystery.

Heidi
The first credit registered under the name of Zurich-born filmmaker Alain Gsponer on IMDB.com is a three-minute animated short, “Heidi,” that asked the musical question: Does the image of Switzerland as “Heidiland,” which so many Swiss have helped to spread to the far corners of the Earth, correspond to any kind of reality?” His latest release is a feature-length Heidi that’s far more traditional and almost two hours longer. It’s the most recent of about 20 filmed and televised versions of Johanna Spyri’s beloved 1881 children’s novel, with the most famous being the 1937 musical, directed by Allan Dwan and starring Shirley Temple and Jean Hersholt. Gsponer’s adaptation stars 10-year-old Anuk Steffen, alongside the great Swiss-born actor Bruno Ganz (Wings of Desire) and a very credible herd of goats. It was shot on location in the Alps, mainly in the region of Grisons, including Bergün and Rheinwald, and has been dubbed into English. And, yes, Heidi easily qualifies as fun for the whole family.

TV-to-DVD
The Best of Tim Conway
PBS: Dead Reckoning: War, Crime and Justice from WWII to the War on Terror
PBS: The Talk: Race in America
Smithsonian: Sports Detectives: Season 1
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the start of “The Carol Burnett Show” on CBS. It feels as if the folks at Time Warner/WEA and, before that, Columbia House and Gunthy-Renker, have been anticipating the landmark occasion for most of the last 17 years. The highlights and seasonal compilations first were made available through direct-response infomercials and, now, through Internet and retail outlets. “The Best of Tim Conway” appears to be the first stand-alone collection dedicated to the gifted comic actor’s contributions to the show, which has been in syndication on various cable outlets for most of the last half-century. Most fans of the show probably think Conway and his trademark characters were there from Day One. In fact, he was only made a regular performer, as opposed to an occasional guest, in Season Nine. Although the material featuring Conway in this 153-minute disc is funny, there isn’t enough of it to justify the title and, for no good reason, there are too many times when Conway isn’t part of what’s being shown on screen. That caveat noted, the highlights include Conway’s “Oldest Man,” as the world’s slowest head of a racetrack pit crew; “The Virgin Prince, in which he’s a “swishbuckling” hero with an appetite for flies and destruction; Conway’s take on the Lone Ranger; the hilarious Conway/Korman sketches, “The Dentist” and “Man’s Best Friend”; and “Mr. Tudball,” who takes leave of his senses while showing compassion for his dimwitted secretary, Mrs. Wiggins. The DVD includes outtakes.

With this week’s news of the Syrian government’s complicity in the deaths of dozens of men, women and children in a gas attack makes PBS’ “Dead Reckoning: War, Crime and Justice from WWII to the War on Terror” essential viewing for anyone who cares about how wars are conducted and what constitutes a crime against humanity. Before the Allied victory in World War II, such questions were rhetorical, at best. The willingness of Japanese and German leaders to condone and encourage even the most hideous atrocities against non-combatants and prisoners-of-war forced the victorious governments to seek justice in the name of the victims of the Holocaust and other mass murders. Most of the worst offenders were rounded up and forced to face the music for crimes that hitherto had no names. Others, like Adolph Eichmann and Claus Barbie, found new homes in South America, protected by local authorities and comrades still in governmental positions in Germany. Barbie worked for the CIA while he was being hunted by French police and Nazi hunters. Our fear of communism allowed Japan’s royal family to escape prosecution for its complicity in the crimes committed by insanely loyal Japanese soldiers and officers. Atrocities committed by Soviet troops in Poland were ignored, because they were on the winning team. As time passed and genocides continued around the world, it became increasingly more difficult to bring the monsters to justice. The world’s superpowers could barely agree on what constituted genocide, let alone which of their proxies should pay for atrocities committed in their interests. The World Court has tried leaders of insurgent movements in Bosnia and Africa, while others have evaded justice. The big shots who should have been held responsible for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam were cleared, leaving platoon leader Lieutenant William Calley Jr. to take the heat, which amounted to serving only three and a half years under house arrest. The documentary inquiry begs the question as to whether Syrian President Bashar Assad will ever be arrested and tried for the gassing of civilians and other crimes in the country’s civil war. If “Dead Reckoning” doesn’t break your heart, nothing will. He’s more likely to end up in a condo in Moscow or Tehran than on trial at the Hague.

The Talk: Race in America” is a two-hour documentary about a subject that, even two years ago, was easily ignored by the mainstream media, politicians and law-enforcement officials. Complaints about police brutality were nothing new and neither were accusations of unjustified killings of minorities in police custody. In most cases, the police were given the benefit of the doubt by grand juries and investigative bodies within the departments. That all changed in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by a lumpen auxiliary cop, George Zimmerman, who stood behind Florida’s stand-your-ground law and was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter. The verdict was largely seen as business-as-usual in a state where such miscarriages of justice happen all the time. When similar shootings of unarmed suspects began to happen in Missouri, Baltimore, Cleveland, South Carolina, Washington and Los Angeles, trigger-happy cops no longer were able to hide behind their badges, spawning the “Black Live Matter” was born. Citizens armed with cellphone cameras captured any behavior they judged to be suspicious, police were forced to wear cameras as part of their uniforms and ride in patrol cars equipped with them, as well. The title, “The Talk: Race in America,” refers specifically to the increasingly common conversations that began taking place in homes and communities across the country, between parents of color and their children. Sons, especially, were advised about how to behave if they were ever stopped by the police in driving-while-black situations or while strolling through predominantly white neighborhood where paranoia runs deep. African-American and Hispanic celebrities related stories of their own about being stopped while driving within minutes of the homes, even in ritzy neighborhoods. Growing up in fear of the people entrusted with protecting all Americans is a heck of a civics lesson.

Also timely is the Smithsonian Channel’s “Sports Detectives,” which might have joined the search for Tom Brady’s Super Bowl jersey if the theft had happened a couple of years earlier than last February. The reason O.J. Simpson’s cooling his heels in a Nevada prison isn’t because he killed his wife and a friend who made the mistake of following her home that fateful night, but for attempting to recover memorabilia he claims was stolen from him. The documentary series reminds us that these incidents were anything but isolated and rare. Some of the most coveted and valuable treasures from history’s greatest games and players are missing or misidentified. In Season One, private investigator Kevin Barrows and sports reporter Lauren Gardner travel the country in search of Muhammad Ali’s missing Olympic gold medal, Jim Craig’s “Miracle on Ice” flag, Dale Earnhardt’s first race car, the saddle worn by Triple Crown-winner Secretariat, Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game ball, a bat used by Lou Gehrig and other valuable items.

The DVD Wrapup: 20th Century Women, Silence, Just a Sigh, Art Bastard, Blow-Up, MST3K and more

Thursday, March 30th, 2017

20th Century Women: Blu-ray
Writer-director Mike Mills has said that the protagonist of his third feature — Dorothea, played so knowingly by Oscar-nominee Annette Bening – is based on his mother, a woman who probably couldn’t exist outside of a few zip codes on the west side of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Berkeley and Marin County. Mills was raised in the People’s Republic of Berkeley and 20th Century Women is set in a section of Santa Barbara commonly known as “The American Riviera,” and not just for its idyllic weather, lush hillsides and million-dollar views that start at $10 million. It would be misleading to describe Dorothea as a single mother who runs a “boarding house,” with her adolescent son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Set in 1979, they live in the kind of the old Santa Barbara domicile that qualifies as a fixer-upper, but most people would consider to be walk-in condition. Her boarders include a 24-year-old “free-spirited” punk photographer, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), whose recent bout with cervical cancer has brought warnings against conceiving children; William (Billy Crudup), a post-hippie handyman, whose abilities run from fixing cars and doing carpentry, to holding up his end of the bargain in countless one-night stands; and Julie (Elle Fanning), an introspective 17-year-old flower child, who, after sneaking out of the house she shares with her shrink mom, spends her nights in Jamie’s bedroom, where they share a Platonic relationship.

exc It’s her best performance since The Kids Are All Right, which 20th Century Women kinda, sorta resembles in a SoCal sort of way. She gets terrific support from Gerwig, Fanning and Crudup, all of whom represent specific types of people who might have sought refuge in laid-back Santa Barbara. America was morphing from Jimmy Carter’s reasoned, gospels-informed approach to governing into the I’m-in-it-for-me Reagan juggernaut, so where better to lay low? Mills’ revelatory post-script rings true, as well. The Blu-ray adds revealing commentary with Mills and the featurettes “Making 20th Century Women” and “20th Century Cast.”

Silence: Blu-ray
Even more than gangsters and pasta, the thread that runs through Martin Scorsese’s entire resume is the role played by conscience and religion in the decisions made by his diverse array of characters. Silence joins such obvious examples as Kundun, a film about the life of the Dalai Lama; The Last Temptation of Christ, which portrays Jesus Christ as a man, first, and deity second; and Mean Streets, in which an aspiring gangster (Harvey Keitel) struggles to reconcile his faith in the Church and the realities of the family business. A sharp eye will find characters dealing with issues related to faith in many other Scorsese films. Scorsese has said that he considers himself to be a lapsed Catholic – perhaps, even, excommunicated for his divorces – but not someone who’s rejected Christianity or the inevitably of sin and redemption. (He’s also publicly discussed his own practice of Transcendental Meditation.) Before Silence opened here, Scorsese screened it at the Vatican, before an audience that included 400 Jesuit clerics and their guests. The film is based on Shusaku Endo’s 1996 novel of the same title. Both are fictionalized accounts of the persecution of Christians and Jesuit missionaries in 17th Century Japan. As such, it immediately recalls James Clavell’s novel and mini-series, “Shōgun”; Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe; and Roland Joffé’s The Mission. Those Jesuits did get around. Anyone raised Roman Catholic has heard dozens of stories about Christian martyrs and the trials of missionaries as they attempted to convert people to the faith. By wearing a cross around your neck, you, too, could become a soldier for Christ and, as such, someone who would sacrifice their own lives in His name. No film that I’ve seen, outside of Sunday School indoctrination, has delivered the same message as succinctly and persuasively as Silence.

The story follows two 17th Century Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), who travel from the Portuguese colony of Macau to Japan to locate their missing mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). We’ve already been introduced to Ferreira as he’s being forced to watch the torture and slow deaths, through crucifixion, of newly converted Japanese. They arrive on islands in the Nagasaki prefecture during the time of Kakure Kirishitan (“Hidden Christians”), which followed the defeat of the Shimabara Rebellion of Catholics against the Tokugawa shogunate. They receive a warm welcome from the peasants desperate to receive the sacraments and be guided in the faith. At the same time, the priests must avoid contact with a samurai weeding out suspected Christians. The Inquisitor senses the arrival of the priests and hopes to draw them out by torturing villagers who reveal their beliefs by refusing to step on a fumi-e (a carved image of Christ). Even after Rodrigues advises them to do so, some peasants still can’t bring themselves to blaspheme the image. They are crucified on the beach, against the rising tide, and refused a Christian burial. The priests will go their separate ways, leaving Silence to focus – temporarily, at least – on Rodriguez’ continuing mission, arrest and the mental torture of watching peasants suffer for his refusal to renounce the Church. It would be easy for the shogun to kill Rodrigues, but not advance the greater glory of causing another priest to commit apostasy, like Ferreira, who’s bound to turn up sooner or later. Silence is an exquisitely made film, which benefits from being shot in a spectacular area of Taiwan and world-class acting. At 161 minutes, though, it’s probably too long slog for viewers who don’t care much for Roman Catholic history. (Opening with something from the Shimabara Rebellion, instead of the crucifixions, might have captured their attention.) It did very poorly at the box office and Scorsese was further rebuffed by nearly being shut out of the Oscars. (Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto received the only nomination.) The featurette, “Martin Scorsese’s Journey Into Silence” squeezes a lot of information into 25 minutes.

Just a Sigh
After spending the last few years languishing on a shelf, Jérôme Bonnell’s newly released romantic drama Just a Sigh should give fans of Gabriel Byrne a reason to smile, anyway. A bit too tentative for viewers expecting a large dollop of comedy with their love stories, its stillness and time-release intimacy reminded me of Before Sunrise. Alix (Emmanuelle Devos) and Doug (Gabriel Byrne) are traveling from Calais to Paris, in the same train car, a few rows separated from each other. They exchange furtive glances, but are blocked from an impromptu meeting when another traveler provides him with the directions he was hoping to get from her. Doug is an Irish professor in Paris to attend the funeral of a friend, while Alix is in the city to audition for a movie and, as fate would have it, attend the same funeral. After the service, mourners gather at a local café, where they share even more glances. This time, however, it’s possible to feel the heat being exchanged between them. After being cock-blocked by another well-meaning fellow, the two will-be lovers devise a way to get away from the crowd and meet in Doug’s hotel room. For a couple in their mid- to late-40s, Alix and Doug do a pretty good impression of love-struck teenagers. Possessed with an allusive beauty, Devos may not be a known quantity on this side of the Atlantic, but she’s a five-time César Awards nominee, winning twice for performances in In the Beginning (2009) and Read My Lips (2001). Byrne, of course, is a legitimate leading man of the old school. Even at the ripe old ages of 66 and 52, they make a fit pair and the love scenes are hot. The drama comes from Alix having used up the batteries in her cell phone, being overdrawn at the ATM and being unable to hook up with someone we assume is an old boyfriend. Still in mourning, Doug simply is trying to extend the moments of blissful intimacy, while she tries to decide whether she’ll make the last train back to Calais or wait to re-connect with her boyfriend. It’s possible that they’ll get together, again, but, as was the case in Before Sunrise, we’re left with no assurances.

Art Bastard
It’s been a long time between documentaries for journeyman editor Victor Kanefsky (Bloodsucking Freaks). His directorial credits are limited to Art Bastard and 1978’s Just Crazy About Horses, whose lasting memory is a graphic depiction of the mating habits of champion Thoroughbreds. Here, Art Bastard once again takes on the rituals of the rich and famous, this time through the eyes of a bitingly satirical artist whose unwillingness to compromise with the hidebound gallery and museum establishment has cost him dearly. Now 76, Robert Cenedella has challenged the system with his scabrously funny and fantastical paintings of life in New York City, especially within the realms of celebrity, politics and commerce. A student, protégé and friend of German artist George Grosz, Cenedella expresses his personal visions of contemporary American life in paintings that recall Pieter Brueghel, George Bellows, Marcel Duchamp, Honore Daumier and William Hogarth. I might throw into that mix Hieronymus Bosch and Mad magazine. About his work and unwillingness to go along with the commercial flow, he’s said, “You can bastardize everything else in your life, but if you compromise your art, why be an artist?”

His commissions include works for the Bacardi Corp., Absolut Vodka, a theater piece for Tony Randall and two paintings for the Le Cirque 2000 Restaurant in New York and Mexico City. He may be best known, however, for the controversy surrounding a 1988 one-man show at Saatchi & Saatchi’s New York headquarters, in which a painting of a crucified Santa Claus was removed before the show opened. In December, 1997, “Santa on the Cross” was displayed for the second time in public in a front window of the Art Students League of New York. It is the institution from which Cenedella was educated – after being expelled from the city’s High School for the Arts – and still teaches. Among those interviewed in this lively, 82-minute film are Cenedella’s wife, Liz; his sister Joan; TV critic Marvin Kitman, evidently a friend of his; Richard Armstrong, director of the Guggenheim Museum; art appraiser Paul Zirler; and Ed McCormack, managing editor of Gallery & Studio Magazine. In an unusual gesture, the end credits include a slide show of every painting used in the film – even those by other artists — complete with full identifications. Since the completion of Art Bastard, Cenedella was commissioned to create “Fín del Mundo,” a triptych that “captures the chaos surrounding Donald Trump’s march to the White House.” It’s worth looking up on the Internet, even if it didn’t prevent the clownish mogul from being elected.

Blow-Up: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
In 1966, Michelangelo Antonioni was already famous around the world for creating films about the alienation, neuroses and the “existential ennui” affecting Italians, who, while enjoying the fruits of the country’s transformation from a poor, mainly rural nation into a global industrial power, also sacrificed traditional values and historical identity. In his series on “modernity and its discontents” — L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), L’Eclisse (1962), Il deserto rosso (1964) — the characters represent an urban bourgeoisie unable to cope intellectually with its own good fortune. Although two of the three chapters of I Vinti (1953) were shot outside Italy — in Paris and London — Blow-Up was Antonioni’s first entirely English-language film and the first completely shot outside Italy. The interviews included in Criterion’s splendid supplemental package describe the director’s obsession with nailing the details of what a single day in the life of his successful London photojournalist and fashion photographer, Thomas (David Hemmings), might be like. He picked the brains of  London’s most prominent shooters, models, architects, designers, artists and scene makers, even going so far as to cast several of them — Reg Wilkins, Veruschka, Jill Kennington, the Yardbirds (Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Keith Relf), Janet Street-Porter, among others – and incorporate their art into the overall design. To create a feeling of hyperrealism, Antonioni spray-painted streets, trees, grass and houses to the shades and textures he desired. And, for all that, Blow-Up’s box-office success could be credited in large part to Thomas’ steamy session with Veruschka and the playful romp with aspiring teen models (Jane Birkin, Gillian Hills) in the rolls of background paper in his studio, which actually belonged to photographer John Cowan. Today, of course, that oh-so-controversial glimpse of pubic hair is ridiculously brief and about as sensual as the propeller Thomas purchases from an antique shop.

Antonioni uses Thomas to show us how “the experience of the protagonist is not a sentimental nor an amorous one, but rather, one regarding his relationship with the world, with the things he finds in front of him.” After spending the night inside a flophouse, where he has taken pictures for a book of editorial-art photos, Thomas fills the next 24 hours transitioning from Victorian London to Swinging London. Between fashion shoots, he chances upon a couple embracing on a grassy plateau in Maryon Park. It isn’t until he’s confronted by the woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), who demands the roll of film, that he begins to think that his photos might contain something more than a cheap voyeuristic thrill. Indeed, when they are developed, enlarged, hung from a beam in his studio and enlarged again, Thomas senses that he might have captured a murder in progress. Jane’s willingness to trade something of herself for the negatives convinces him of that. When he returns to the park, however, nothing is there, except some crushed grass. The idea here is that, “By developing with enlargers … things emerge that we probably don’t see with the naked eye. (Thomas), who is not a philosopher, wants to see things closer up. But it so happens that, by enlarging too far, the object itself decomposes and disappears.” Just when we think we have a grasp on what we’ve been shown, it disappears, as well. The same thing happens after Thomas wins the fight for the neck of Jeff Beck’s demolished guitar, only to realize when he leaves the nightclub that it’s a worthless piece of junk.

The more we learn about Blow-Up, however, the better it gets. The Criterion addition is enhanced by the restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; a new piece about Antonioni’s artistic approach, featuring photography curators Walter Moser and Philippe Garner, and art historian David Alan Mellor; “Blow-up of Blow-Up,” a fresh 52-minute documentary on the making of the film; a 2016 conversation between Garner and Redgrave; archival interviews with Antonioni and actors Hemmings and Birkin; and a book featuring an essay by film scholar David Forgacs. It must be said that Antonioni’s next English-language film, the widely reviled Zabriskie Point (1970), lost the handle on the American counterculture and 1960s radicalism almost from the first student demonstration. It did a nice job capturing the enigmatic beauty of Death Valley, though. Also in English, The Passenger was hailed as a masterpiece by many of the same critics who hated Zabriskie Point.

Arsenal: Blu-ray
The best and, perhaps, only reason to check out Steven C. Miller’s almost comically violent Arsenal is the over-the-top performance by Nicolas Cage, who appears to be channeling Mickey Rourke, Joe Pesci and Moe Howard simultaneously. Mumbling and wearing a wig even John Travolta might have considered to be too bizarre and obvious, Cage plays a Mississippi Gulf Coast gangster who spends most of the movie in a ramshackle titty bar snorting coke and barking instructions to his dreadlocked and musclebound associates. The target of Eddie King’s wrath is Mikey (Johnathon Schaech), a ne’er-do-well who looks as if he just was released from prison, where he spent the last 10 years pumping iron and getting tattooed. Mikey not only owes Eddie a pile of money, but he’s also lost the $10,000 given to him by his brother, J.P. (Adrian Grenier), to help him get back on his feet. Instead, he invests the bread in a bag of cocaine, which is promptly stolen by some other thugs. J.P. is a clean-cut god-fearing Biloxi developer, who, apparently, also serves the city as an auxiliary cop. Don’t ask. His contact on the force is Sal (John Cusack), whose undercover disguise wouldn’t fool anyone who isn’t a Hollywood costume designer. Mikey is such a world-class dirtball that he colludes with Eddie to extort $350,000 from J.P., by posing as a kidnap victim. J.P. doesn’t have that kind of money just lying around, so he enlists Sal in his mission to rescue his brother and do away, once and for all, with Eddie. Left unsaid in that summary – if not the movie’s title – is the amount of firepower Miller has invested in his story. The violence is frequent, aggressively loud, extremely bloody and largely gratuitous. This isn’t to say that fans of such excess won’t enjoy Arsenal, because the explosive action sequences are well-choreographed and as over-the-top as these things get. Anyone looking for the Nic Cage of Leaving Las Vegas, National Treasure and Snowden may want to take a pass, however. The Blu-ray adds Miller’s commentary; the “Building an Arsenal” featurette; and extended cast and crew interviews.

Americana
Zachary Shedd’s first feature as writer/director is adapted from a short film he made eight years earlier. Both share the title, Americana, which is the name of the movie within Shedd’s uneven, if somewhat promising debut. I’m not sure why either of these movies is called “Americana,” but that’s only one of the confounding things about a picture that essentially merges neo-noir mystery with atmospheric drama and forces viewers to contend with switchbacks, flashbacks, flash-forwards, withheld information, rampant paranoia and undernourished characterizations. It’s set in San Francisco, which is nicely photographed and adds all sorts of character to the story. It is not, however, a place where movies about people making movies within movies makes a lot of sense. The putative protagonist is Avery Wells (David Call), an accomplished film editor, who, after a shocking on-set incident two years earlier, moved into a remote mountain cabin to drown himself in booze and self-pity. Almost out of the blue, a producer shows up there to talk him into editing the film Avery’s vivacious blond sister, Kate (Kelli Garner), was starring in when she was killed. The person who murders her, we’ll learn, is linked to the victim of a fatal automobile accident, she may or may not have caused. The producer, Calib (Jack Davenport), we’ll also learn, has several ulterior motives for calling on Avery to work on his sister’s last film. For Avery to get back on track, personally and professionally, however, he’ll first be required to figure out the mystery behind Calib’s request and his feelings of guilt over his sister’s fate. That, my friends, is a lot of weight for a first-time writer/director to carry, while also trying to make a movie that looks great while straddling genre borders. (Somehow, in its second stop on the festival circuit, Americana was featured at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival, even though it wouldn’t appear to fit its defined parameters.) Still, an A for effort.

Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek
In the American South, historical sites are almost as common as the kudzu that took root in the 1930s and now blankets the hillsides and forests, from Louisiana to Georgia. They’re so prevalent that some politicians think nothing of selling the sites off to developers or removing the people who’ve lived there since the Civil War. And, yes, white politicians find it far easier to uproot African-Americans who stand in the way of “progress” than anyone else. Leah Mahan’s inspirational documentary, Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek, describes how a transplanted Boston teacher worked tirelessly, over the course of a decade, to prevent corporate interests from bulldozing his ancestral home and the graves of his ancestors. It was being done simply to accommodate the sprawling city of Gulfport, Mississippi, and its casino-, military- and tourism-based economy. In 1866, a group of emancipated slaves settled along about 320 acres formerly owned by Arkansas Lumber Company. Thomas and Melinda Benton acquired enough land to bring their holdings to 50 percent of the community. It straddled the 13-mile-long Turkey Creek, a freshwater marsh and coastal hardwood forest. It continues to be a haven for wildlife and migrating birds. Although the community predated the founding of the City of Gulfport, it was annexed in 1994 to allow for commercial development and expansion of the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the area, city planners used the disaster as an excuse to begin uprooting vegetation that helped preserve the watershed. In 2001, Derrick Evans left his teaching positions in Boston and moved back home to Turkey Creek. The documentary follows his efforts to rally support for the once-voiceless community, through the Turkey Creek Community Initiatives. After Katrina, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places and received assistance from the Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plain and Audubon Mississippi. The film has inspired other such community preservation projects and was featured on “The Daily Show.”

Fair Haven
Before watching Kerstin Karlhuber and co-writer Jack Bryant’s quietly effective drama, Fair Haven, I was under the impression that conversion therapy – a.k.a., reparative therapy – was acknowledged to be a cruelly ineffective way to “cure” LGBT youths of what their parents and church perceive to be a disease. Apparently, not. Here, Michael Grant (Where Hope Grows) is well cast as James, a young piano prodigy, who returns home, to his family’s apple farm, after a long stay at a Christian conversion-therapy retreat. His hard-ass father, Richard (Tom Wopat), not only has forced James to endure such torture, but he also insists that he give up the piano and work toward saving the farm. The 19-year-old might have been more inclined toward accommodating his dad if he hadn’t already blown James’ college nest egg to pay for his therapy and mother’s funeral. He becomes even more upset when Richard tells him that he’s turned down generous offers to sell the property and wouldn’t think of giving up the family homestead, even if it means James has to give up his dreams. He believes that the conversion worked and gets angry with his former boyfriend (Josh Green) when they bump into each other in town. He even agrees to date the pastor’s daughter (Lily Anne Harrison), who couldn’t be more pleased that James is available to her. We’re not convinced of his conversion, however. Even if we know how Fair Haven is likely to end, Karlhuber doesn’t insult our intelligence by creating shortcuts or employing clichés to help her get there. In fact, the flashbacks to therapy sessions leave room for debate – however futile – among the participants and their soft-spoken instructor (Gregory Harrison). Karlhuber makes good use of the lovely rural setting and veteran cast. Special features include behind-the-scenes material, deleted scenes and cast interviews.

Witchtrap: Blu-ray
When it came to making horror films, writer/director Kevin Tenney could be considered a natural. He shot his first Super 8 film in the 6th grade and left USC early to make Witchboard, a silly, if highly profitable thriller notable for the presence of former child star Rose Marie (“The Dick Van Dyke Show”) and former O.J. lover Tawny Kitaen (The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik Yak). In it, a female college student is harassed and later possessed by an evil spirit summoned through a Ouija-board experiment. Tenney’s third film, Witchtrap, doesn’t have anything to do with witches or Witchboard, and it was released straight-to-video. By 1989, video originals had come of age, so there wasn’t any real stigma attached to it. For years, it seems, the once elegant Lauter House has been plagued by strange and violent occurrences. Unexplained deaths and seemingly supernatural activities have scared away all perspective tenants and buyers. Its new owners are toying with the idea of turning the old mansion into a bed-and-breakfast, targeted at tourists who claim not to be afraid of evil spirits. First, however, a team of paranormal experts are brought in to identify the demonic forces and trap them in a gizmo especially designed for such purposes. Sure enough, the big, bad ghost takes the bait, but not before Linnea Quigley is killed in the shower by a malevolent nozzle. It’s a classic scene in a movie mostly devoid of real shockers. Vinegar Syndrome has restored Witchtrap in 2k from the 35mm Interpositive, totally uncut, with its long-censored gore fully intact. It adds lively group commentary with Tenney, producer Dan Duncan, cinematographer Tom Jewett and actor Hal Havins; video interviews with Tenney, Quigley, Jewett and SFX supervisor Tassilo Baur; audio interviews with SFX makeup artist Judy Yonemoto and composer Dennis Michael Tenney; “Book of Joe” a short film directed by Tenney, with an alternate ending; a production/promotional still gallery; and original cover artwork by Corey Wolfe.

TV to DVD
Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXXVIII
Frontline: President Trump
Most longtime fans of MST3K probably have already heard the good news that the Satellite of Love will return to Earth orbit on April 14, with 14 new episodes of the series set to stream on Netflix. A record-breaking Kickstarter campaign, initiated by Joel Hodgson, raised $5.8 million from 48,270 backers, with an additional $600,000 in backer add-ons that allowed for two more episodes and a Christmas special. Comedian Jonah Ray will play Jonah Heston, the new host aboard the SoL, with the voices of Crow and Tom provided by Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn. YouTube heartthrob Felicia Day (“The Guild”) will play Kinga Forrester, Clayton Forrester’s daughter and one of the new Mads in charge of the experiments, alongside comedian Patton Oswalt, as Kinga’s henchman, TV’s Son of TV’s Frank. Rebecca Hanson, a Second City alum, assumes the role of Gypsy, as well as another of Kinga’s henchmen. Mary Jo Pehl, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy will cameo on the revival, reprising their roles as Pearl Forrester, Brain Guy (a.k.a., Observer) and Professor Bobo. The list of movies to be scorched has yet to be revealed, except to say that most of the selections will be of a more recent vintage than those in the original shows. If that doesn’t give fans something to live for this spring, nothing will. Meanwhile, the latest compilation of evergreen episodes arrives this week from Shout!Factory, presenting “the worst” in the subgenres: Cold War drama, Sword and Sandals, Juvenile Delinquents and Monsters. They include the irredeemably bad Invasion, U.S.A. (1952), Colossus and the Headhunters (1963), High School Big Shot (1959) and Track of the Moon Beast (1976), plus several featurettes.

PBS debuted its “Frontline” presentation, “President Trump,” on January 3, while the president-elect was picking his Cabinet and futilely attempting to coax celebrities to perform at his Inauguration. Trump was still basking in the glow of his historic victory, convinced that everyone in Washington was practicing their bows and curtsies in anticipation of the First Family’s coronation. If President Obama had warned him against expecting too much from Congress in the first few weeks and months of his administration, he’d ignored the advice. In three weeks, Trump would learn just how complicated things can get when an outsider promises to drain the swamp, without consulting the alligators and copperheads first. Those blissful days in January must feel like a distant memory right now. In fact, the information imparted in the six-part “Frontline” documentary series feels very much like ancient history. No candidate has been subjected to as much media scrutiny – or ridicule, for that matter — as Donald Trump and they still got the results wrong. “President Trump” does a good job backtracking on the events in the man’s life that endeared him to America’s great unwashed. It does so through interviews with advisors, business associates and biographers, who describe how Trump transformed himself from real estate developer, to entertainer, to president. It also explores the roots of the division and polarization in Washington that frustrated the Obama presidency and laid the groundwork for the election of a defiant outsider.

The DVD Wrapup: Julieta, Sing, Kind of Murder, Nightless City, Multiple Maniacs, Cinema Paradiso, 45RPM, Ali & Nino, American Princesses, Split and more

Thursday, March 23rd, 2017

Julieta: Blu-ray
While any new movie by Pedro Almodóvar is cause for celebration, Julieta stands out for several reasons. Upon its screening at Cannes, critics were quick to point out that it not only marked a return to the women-centric dramas for which he’s been associated for the entirety of his 40-year, 20-feature career. It’s also one of only a very few titles that he’s adapted from a literary source or shared a writing credit. Based on three stories by Canadian writer Alice Munro — “Chance,” “Soon” and “Silence,” from her 2004 collection “Runaway” – Almodóvar originally planned to adapt them as his first English-language screenplay, possibly starring Meryl Streep. He didn’t feel comfortable pursuing that,  and re-set the film for locations in Spain. If reviewers missed the director’s outrageous comedy and other trademark touches, loyalists savored his insider riffs on Spanish telenovelas, Hitchcockian tropes and film noir, as well as Julieta’s distinct visual style and complementary color palette. To this end, Almodóvar re-teamed with production designer Antxón Gómez, costume designer Sonia Grande, composer Alberto Iglesias and set designer Federico García Cambero. French cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu capably filled in for José Luis Alcaine. His muse, Rossy de Palma, also plays a prominent role. Emma Suárez won several Best Actress awards in Europe for her portrayal of the adult Julieta, a woman who experiences great romance and great despair in her lifetime, but not for reasons usually associated with such upheavals. Adriana Ugarte plays the younger Julieta, an aspiring teacher whose steamy encounter with a married fisherman, Xoan (Daniel Grao), on an overnight train to their homes, opened the door for the next 30 years of fate-driven events.

For example, coincidental to learning she’s pregnant from her one-night-stand, Julieta receives a letter from Xoan, who’s managed to track her to the address of her former school. Taking it for an invitation, she arrives at his bayside home in Galicia, within days of his long-suffering wife’s funeral. They have no problem rekindling their romance, even though Xoan’s former lover and confidante, Ava (Inma Cuesta), is still in the picture. Their daughter, Antia (Priscilla Delgado), will grow into her teens as a true daddy’s girl, but one with a curiosity about life outside the fishing village. Mother and daughter are devastated by news that Xoan has died in a terrible storm, possibly after a squabble over the continuing presence of Ava in his life. Years later, Antia is given reason to believe that the squabble – along with her being away from home, at camp – caused Xoan’s death and not his disregard for the power of the storm. While on a religious retreat in the Pyrenees, she decides to turn her back on her past and reject any contact with her mother, now living in Madrid. If the decision seems awfully rash, it sets up the emotionally charged second half of the story. Once again, as fate would have it, Julieta finally falls in love with another man, Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti), she meets at Ava’s funeral. They even make plans to move to Portugal, which she abandons after running into Antia’s childhood friend, Beatriz (Michelle Jenner), who delivers some alarming news to her. Not only does it cause Julieta to remain in Madrid, but also sink into a debilitating depression over feelings of guilt and abandonment. The tantalizingly ambiguous ending probably will encourage some viewers, at least, to refer to Munro’s stories. In this case, though, that’s a good thing. The lovely Blu-ray adds featurettes “Portrait of Julieta” and “Celebrating Director Pedro Almodóvar,” from a retrospective of his works at MoMA.

Sing: Special Edition: Blu-ray/UHD/3D/DVD
In their seven-year partnership, Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures have already launched four legitimate franchises in the highly competitive animated-features arena: Despicable Me, Minions, The Secret Life of Pets and, now, Sing. Feature-length sequels and triquels to these hit flicks have already been scheduled, as well as several related or stand-alone shorts (a.k.a., cartoons). They also appear to be moving ahead on a series of Dr. Seuss adaptations that began with The Lorax (2012). Made from a relatively modest $75-million production budget, Sing did very well both domestically and worldwide. The easiest way to describe the tuneful movie is to compare it to an “American Idol” for anthropomorphic animals. Matthew McConaughey voices Buster Moon, an eternally optimistic koala – more Mickey Rooney than Ryan Seacrest — who stages an elaborate singing competition to save his crumbling theater. To cover rent and utilities, Buster resorts to several funny, if less-than-honest schemes. The cast also includes fellow Academy Award-winners Reese Witherspoon, as Rosita, an overworked and underappreciated mother of 25 piglets; Scarlett Johansson, as Ash, a punk-rock porcupine with a beautiful voice behind her prickly exterior; Seth MacFarlane, as a small, suave mouse named Mike; Taron Egerton, as Johnny, a young  gorilla hoping to break free from his gangster family; and, among other artists, John C. Reilly, Tori Kelly, the Jennifers Saunders and Hudson, the Nicks Kroll and Offerman, Leslie Jones, Rhea Perlman and Laraine Newman. While kids should enjoy watching the animals perform, parents can sing along to the brief snippets from 85-plus hit songs, from the 1940s to 2016, performed by the voice actors or cover groups. (Songs performed by the original artists, at longer than abbreviated lengths, would have cost a fortune in licensing fees.) Co-director Garth Jennings previously directed the quirky comedy Son of Rambow and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, while first-time helmsman Christophe Lourdelet has worked on Minions, The Lorax and French-language delights The Rabbi’s Cat and A Monster in Paris. The Blu-ray edition adds character profiles; making-of and background featurettes; several music videos; and three entertaining mini-movies.

 

A Kind of Murder: Blu-ray
Adapted rather loosely from Patricia Highsmith’s third of 22 novels, “The Blunderer,” A Kind of Murder would have benefited greatly from sticking to the details of the 1954 thriller and resisting the temptation to tweak them for reasons known only to director Andy Goddard (Set Fire to the Stars) and first-time screenwriter Susan Boyd. They did a nice job changing the time frame to the early 1960s and even made Cincinnati environs look like New York. The costumes are appropriate for the period – JFK had yet to take possession of the White House – and a scene set precariously in a Greenwich Village bar avoids insulting the “beatnik” patrons and viewers’ intelligence. The problem is that the plot twists invented to make the movie more appealing to modern audiences don’t hold up to scrutiny by mystery buffs, who, ostensibly, are the target audience. Patrick Wilson and Jessica Biel play an unhappily married suburban couple, living in an almost oppressively modern house he designed not far from the city. In “The Blunderer,” Walter Stackhouse is a mild-mannered lawyer condemned to constantly adjusting to the whims of an overreaching shrew, Clara (Biel). In the movie, Walter is an architect and aspiring writer of crime fiction and Clara doesn’t become insufferable until she conjures a sexual dalliance between Walter and a sexy cabaret singer, Ellie Briess (Haley Bennett), who’s brought to a party at their home as a guest.

Clara makes him so miserable with her accusations of infidelity that he finally decides to confirm her fears by succumbing to Ellie’s not-at-all subtle advances. Clara’s failed suicide attempt puts a wrinkle in Walter’s plans to divorce her, but not before she’s found dead on a bus trip to visit her dying mother. In the mind of a single-minded police detective (Vincent Kartheiser), her death too closely resembles an unsolved murder he believes was committed by the wonderfully named, if oily bookshop manager, Melchior J. Kimmel (Eddie Marsan). After reading about the Kimmel murder in the newspaper, he clips the item as reference for a future novel. Its discovery by the detective effectively gives him all the evidence he needs to make his suspects’ lives miserable. While not terribly far from capturing the gist of “The Blunderer,” Boyd’s script forces her protagonist to make the kinds of mistakes that no mystery writer – even a novice – would commit. These include repeatedly allowing himself to be caught in lies any rookie flatfoot could detect and trusting too many people to make alibis for him. A deliberately noir-ish conclusion also begs credulity. Even so, A Kind of Murder is well-acted and sufficiently atmospheric to be recommendable as a rainy-day diversion. But, then, so would picking up any Highsmith book from the library or downloading it to a hand-held device. The bonus material includes interviews with the director and cast, as well as featurettes on capturing the right period feel.

The Nightless City
Here’s an interesting movie that came out of nowhere, absent any release information or reviews. Even now, all I know about The Nightless City is that its studio is listed as the eclectic Shami Media Group and that it’s available through MVD Visual. Sometimes, its reps know what I’ll enjoy watching before I do. That’s certainly the case here. In the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear incident, a hypersensitive photographer (Maya Murofushi) is so haunted by the surrealistic manifestations of the nuclear disaster and subsequent tsunami that she’s unable to sleep. Mariko decides to move to Sicily, the current home of a former lover (Giovanni Calcagno), Rocco, who might provide her the space she needs to her reset her inner alarm clock. If anything, her insomnia gets worse. By chance, Mariko discovers that she’s able to sleep at night whenever Rocco agrees to drive her around the city, which I assume to be Palermo. Refreshed, she picks up her camera and begins a series of photos relating to her dreams and memories of the disaster, as well as hyper-realistic photos of Rocco in bed, which she blows up to fill the apartment’s walls. I don’t know who shot the photographs, but they’re truly amazing. The thing is, just as Mariko’s life begins to return to normal, his gets turned upside-down, due to her need to be chauffeured around the city until the wee hours. Finally, his devotion is rewarded with the loss of his own job, if not his sanity. What I really liked in The Nightless City is the merging of art mediums – including Massimo Foletti’s cinematography and Lorenzo Esposito Fornasari and Lorenzo Feliciati’s music – to reveal the disassociation experienced by Mariko from the disaster. In this way, it reminded me of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 arthouse thriller, Diva, which blended several disparate artistic impulses in the service of wonderfully complex and super-hip crime story.  If you loved Diva, or only remember it for Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez’ performance of the first-act aria from the opera “La Wally,” you may want to take a chance with The Nightless City.

Ali & Nino
Anyone who’s able to find Baku on a map, without consulting Google, already is part of the target audience for Asif Kapadia’s Ali & Nino, an epic romance based on Kurban Said’s 1937 novel. Those of us who couldn’t pinpoint Azerbaijan on a map, let alone Baku, might need more convincing. For the record, the Republic of Azerbaijan is a crossroads nation in the South Caucasus, situated at the borders of Southwest Asia and Southeastern Europe. Rich with oil, it is bound by the Caspian Sea to the east, Russia to the north, Georgia to the northwest, Armenia to the west and Iran to the south. Baku is its capital. In 1918, multicultural Azerbaijan was under the control of czarist Russia, and mostly content with its wealth and religious diversity. That situation would dramatically change, twice, in the next two years. After the collapse of the Russian Empire and end of World War I, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic became the first modern parliamentary republic in the Muslim world. Twenty-three months later, after Vladimir Lenin declared that Soviet Russia could not survive without Baku’s oil, Red Army troops invaded the country. And, that was all she wrote for the next 70 years, when the dissolution of the USSR opened the door for another shot at independence. That’s all the information a non-Azerbaijani viewer needs to enjoy Ali & Nino on its merits. Those more familiar with the country’s history probably will find in undernourished, though.

Adam Bakri and María Valverde play star-crossed lovers, Ali Khan Shirvanshir and Nino Kipiani, a Muslim boy and Orthodox girl, who defy their parents’ wishes by deciding to marry. Ali killed a wealthy suitor after he attempted to kidnap Nino and marry her in Moscow. For this, a price was put on his head by the victim’s family. For once, then, religion isn’t the determining factor causing them to run off to mountains to begin their life together and raise a family. His Muslim relatives there like Nino and she adapts to their customs. It’s a lovely setup for a far more explosive second half, when Ali’s patriotism trumps Nino’s desire to stay in the mountains until the smoke clears. Once they reach Baku, again, it becomes clear that it will be impossible for them to live together in peace. Ali sends Nino to then-Persia, to live in a harem until their baby arrives and he’s able to contribute to the new government. The primary question then becomes whether they’ll ever be able to celebrate their belated honeymoon in Paris, as promised. Shot in Azerbaijan and Turkey, Ali & Nino is easy on the eyes. What’s missing is the passion that’s informed other romantic epics, including Doctor Zhivago, which the marketing team wants us to think it resembles. The political throughline, while historically accurate, feels too cut-an-dried, as well. The international cast includes Mandy Patinkin, Connie Nielsen, Homayoun Ershadi and Halit Ergenç, indicating that the producers thought they could draw an international audience. (Exec-producer Leyla Aliyeva is the daughter of Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan.)

Multiple Maniacs: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
In an interview conducted with John Waters for the release of this welcome special edition, which bears both the Criterion and Janus logos, the Pope of Trash recalls how almost all the art films he obsessed over as a teenage buff were released by Janus. To see it attached to one of his most scandalous entertainments, he offers, means that his career has truly come full circle. I don’t know if Waters has hung up his director’s megaphone just yet – he’s declared that “irony ruined everything” and it’s no longer possible to make independent films that cost $5 million – but he’s spent most of his time lately writing, lecturing and playing guest roles in other people’s projects. While the commentary track here argues against Waters having been totally defanged by time and competition, his nostalgic memories of the creation of his second feature, Multiple Maniacs, occasionally border on the sentimental. Delightfully blasphemous, it scores directs hits on the norms of life in suburban Baltimore and the rise of the politically correct left at the end of the 1960s. The centerpiece depravity in Multiple Maniacs is the Cavalcade of Perversion, a mobile midway attraction mounted by a troupe of misfits organized by Lady Divine (Pink Flamingos). Then and now, her presence mocked everything held sacred by the Hollywood studios and fashion-magazine editors. According to ringmaster Mr. David, the freaks include “assorted sluts, fags, dykes and pimps (who) know no bounds! They have committed acts against God and nature, acts that by their mere existence would make any decent person recoil in disgust!” They re-enact the Stations of the Cross, while Lady Divine goes on a rampage after being raped by a 15-foot lobster. Divine would famously trump this outrage a year later in Pink Flamingos, of course, but not before Canadian censors burned their print of Multiple Maniacs, rather than validate it with public condemnation. The restoration team offered to retain the period blemishes, artifacts and scratches, but Waters asked them give it the first-class sheen it wasn’t accorded on 16mm stock. The 4K digital upgrade, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, was supervised by Waters. The Blu-ray also adds entertaining interviews with cast and crew members Pat Moran, Vincent Peranio, Mink Stole, Susan Lowe and George Figgs, as well as an essay by critic Linda Yablonsky.

45RPM
Juli Jackson’s debut feature, 45RPM, debuted as a work-in-progress at the 2012 Ozark Film Festival and, again, a year later, at the Little Rock Film Festival, before hitting the circuit for another two. I have no idea what distributors didn’t see in the delightfully unprepossessing rock-’n’-roll fantasy. In my opinion, someone really missed the boat. In spirit, at least, the micro-budget indie reminded me favorably of High Fidelity and Empire Records, both largely set in a record store, but mostly of Ace Atkins’ first novel, “Crossroads Blues.” In it, an ex-New Orleans Saint turned Tulane University blues historian searches for the fabled lost recordings of Robert Johnson — and a missing colleague – and, as they say, finds trouble at every turn. In 45RPM, Charlie (Liza Burns), an artist who seeks a connection between her work and her deceased father’s music, teams up with Louie (Jason Thompson), an obsessive record collector from Memphis. All they have to go on are a few vague memories of a record she listened to as a child and his extensive knowledge of obscure 1960s garage-rock. After a false start caused by Charlie misremembering the name of her dad’s band – Five Man Trip, not Five Man Trio – they visit every used-record store, small-town radio station and swap meet in central Arkansas looking for clues. The thrill of the hunt invigorates Louie, while a deadline back home causes Charlie to take out her frustration on him. If it feels forced on her part, the financial pressure is really the only source of drama throughout 45RPM, which was OK with me. Somewhere along the way, we’d also expect them to realize their mutual love/lust for each other and hit the nearest rest stop for sex. Instead, Charlie and Louis stick to the task at hand, which, again, is OK. The scenes and stops along the road are enhanced by a soundtrack full of songs by what I assume are active Southern blues/rockabilly/garage bands. The ending satisfies, even without Jackson having to add some fireworks to spice it up. The DVD adds a making-of featurette and uncompleted short film that inspired the feature.

Creature Lake
The Creature Below
The cover art for direct-to-videos is notoriously derivative, often ripping off marketing campaigns for infinitely better and demonstrably more successful movies. Rarely, though, have two genre pictures that are so similar been released in the same month than Wild Eye Releasing’s Creature Lake and Breaking Glass’ The Creature Below. One each, a woman in a bikini is shown emerging from a body of water, with tentacles protruding behind her back. On closer examination, the woman on the cover of the former wears a demonic grin beneath glowing eyeballs, while the woman on the latter appears to be standing on the lower jaw of a sea monster. The images are quite striking, if inarguably generic. Only one of them reflects what happens in the movie, however. That would be Drazen Baric and Damien Slevin’s debut feature, Creature Lake (a.k.a., “Gitaskog”), whose bathing beauty is, in reality, demonic and naked. If it is a hybrid of exploitation flicks that emerged from the found-footage and cabin-in-the-woods subgenres, it also owes something to The Creature From the Black Lagoon and Deliverance. Here, a bunch of urban bozos repairs to a remote Canadian lake for a weekend “sausage party.” A member of a First Nations tribe warns them against disrespecting the sacred waters, which are protected by a powerful spirit. Naturally, one of the men mistakes the naked woman beckoning him into the lake for an Indian maiden or garden-variety nymphomaniac, who must have been enjoying a swim when she chanced upon this bevy of horny hunks. Imagine their surprise when the fellow who jumped into the water first is sucked into the depths, never to be seen again. Somehow, they fail to put two and two together, until it’s too late. Creature Lake is just goofy enough to qualify as a guilty pleasure, which is more than can be said about most post-“Blair Witch” and -“Cabin Fever” efforts.

The Creature Below isn’t as easy to categorize, although parts of it resemble other sci-fi/horror pictures in which humans conduct experiments on sea creatures without regard to the ramifications of messing with Mother Nature. Anna Dawson plays Olive, an expert deep-sea diver and marine biologist who’s on a mission to research theories of the seaborne origins of life. The dive that opens the picture is interrupted by something that nearly kills her. Before Olive’s rescued, though, she grabs an egg. After being berated by her sponsor (Zacharee Lee) for destroying a precious piece of equipment, Olive smuggles the egg home with her, stashing it in the basement of the house she shares with her boyfriend, Matt (Daniel Thrace), and her nosy sister, Ellie (Michaela Longden). As the creature emerges from the egg and begins to grow, Olive forms an oddly symbiotic relationship with it. She discovers the creature’s bloodlust at about the same time the scientist realizes that Olive may have stolen evidence to prove his thesis. Ellie also becomes curious about what was growing in the aquarium downstairs. Olive’s experiencing horrific nightmares, as well. The trick becomes keeping her sister out of a danger, while protecting herself from her sponsor’s wrath. To this end, she receives help from an unexpected ally. Bonus features include a behind-the-scenes featurette, deleted scenes, a Frightfest Q&A and director Stewart Sparke’s very short short, “Rats,” about a young woman who finds her home plagued by mutant rats from outer space.

Sisters of the Plague
3 Sisters
Death Walks on High Heels: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Death Walks at Midnight: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Anyone who can’t find atmosphere in New Orleans isn’t breathing and Jorge Torres-Torres’ supernatural thriller nearly drowns in it. Josephine Decker, an impossible-to-pigeonhole actress with roots in the Mumblecore discipline, plays a seemingly sane woman who makes a tentative living leading tourists on haunted-house tours around the French Quarter. It isn’t until Jo’s desperately alcoholic father (Thomas Francis Murphy) moves into the house she shares with her girlfriend (Isolde Chae-Lawrence) that things really begin to get weird. The old man probably is hiding his culpability in the death of Jo’s mother and, in turn, her increasingly disturbing nightmares and hallucinations. She seeks the help of a medium, of which there’s a surplus in the Crescent City, who warns her to prepare for something beyond her control. It turns Sisters of the Plague into the kind of possession drama that could play in arthouses, but has trouble exiting the LGBT festival circuit. Torres-Torres (Shadow Zombie) and co-writer Jason Banker (Toad Road) leave a lot to the imagination, but the atmosphere is thick enough to hold it together for 80 minutes.

Ireland isn’t a bad place to look for atmosphere, either. Dáire McNab’s modern giallo, 3 Sisters, shifts the points-of-view with a frequency that makes it difficult to tell where his camera is pointing at any given time and why. (The police investigation, autopsy and burial of the first victim is shown from the POV of the corpse.) The one thing we know for sure is that someone is murdering the members of a Dublin family, one by one, and without waiting for the blood to dry between killings. In addition to the POV tricks, the camera bounces from intimate, in-your-face close-ups, to shots captured on security cameras. It takes a while to get fully adjusted, but adventurous viewers will find value in the effort. No sooner is the uncle of the title characters found in a pool of his own blood – possibly from a self-inflicted wound — than one of the sisters is brutally murdered in her home. The victim’s sister/housemate Sarah (Gillian Walsh) discovers the body and, unable to face staying the night there, seeks refuge with her ex-boyfriend, Dylan (Elliott Moriarty). As they tentatively rekindle their extinguished romance, the killer lurks menacingly in the background, targeting the third sister. As it also turns out, the patriarch of the family is dying of cancer. Sarah, Dylan and an almost comically brusque police detective discover almost simultaneously that she stands to inherit a small fortune when the father dies. As the 87-minute mark approaches, it’s difficult to say how much satisfaction McNab is going to give his viewers when/if he reveals the killer and what will happen to him. We miss the gaudy colors associated with giallo, but everything else is there, including Italian cult favorite Giovanni Lombardo Radice (Cannibal Ferox, House on the Edge of the Park). The DVD adds deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.

For a more traditional giallo experience, a good place to start would be Luciano Ercoli’s Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight, from the early 1970s. Less known than Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Sergio Martino, Ercoli only directed a handful of films before retiring on a substantial inheritance, or so the legend goes. He lived another 38 years without making another one. There’s nothing wrong with his “Death Walks” duo, though. We reviewed them here last year, when Arrow bundled immaculately restored versions of them as “Death Walks Twice.” Both star Spanish-born model/actress/bombshell Nieves Navarro, who embodied all the traits with female giallo superstars. In “High Heels,” she plays an exotic dancer terrorized by a black-clad assailant determined to steal her murdered father’s already purloined gems. She flees Paris to evade her knife-wielding pursuer, but England offers only temporary refuge. In “Midnight,” Navarro portrays Valentina, a model who, during a drug-fueled photoshoot, witnesses a brutal murder in the apartment opposite hers. Naturally, the police fail to find anything amiss, forcing her to play amateur sleuth to unravel the mystery. The separately sold discs carry over featurettes and interviews that were included in the boxed set.

Cinema Paradiso: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Creeping Garden: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Sometimes, good things do get better. The hyper-eclectic MVD Entertainment Group has just added Arrow Academy to its roster of companies whose products it distributes in the U.S. It is a division the U.K.’s Arrow Films, which does such a nice job with restorations of specialty and genre titles, including the aforementioned Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight. The new imprint will release “definitive and prestige-edition films by revered maestros of cinema from across the globe, including filmmakers such as Federico Fellini, Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick, Fritz Lang, R.W. Fassbinder, Roberto Rossellini and Jean-Luc Godard.” Typically, the digitally upgraded titles will come loaded with newly produced commentary, featurettes and interviews. Its “Cinema Paradiso: Special Edition” and “The Creeping Garden: Limited Edition” packages are a very good start. One of the most honored films of the last 50 years – foreign language or otherwise – Cinema Paradiso (1988) has only been available in stripped-down versions of the theatrical cut or bonus-free DVD editions of the extended director’s cut. Writer/director Giuseppe Tornatore initially said that his intention for the picture was to serve as an obituary for traditional movie theatres and the movie industry in general, in the post-war era. If, upon completion, that was all Cinema Paradiso turned out to be, it might have branded as an Italian version of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. Instead, especially at the 174-minute length, it stands as a loving homage to the cinema, as told through the eyes of Salvatore “Totò” Di Vita (Salvatore Cascio/Marco Leonardi/Jacques Perrin), now a successful film director, but, as a boy, an apprentice to the projectionist, Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), at the local cinema. When Toto, whose father was killed in the war, returns home for Alfredo’s funeral, he’s flooded with memories filled with love and regret. Noiret’s performance was worth the price of admission, as was Ben Johnson’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Sam the Lion, The Last Picture Show. The Arrow package includes the 124-minute Cannes Festival theatrical version, as well 174-minute Director’s Cut, which incorporates more of Salvatore s backstory. Restored from the original camera negative, it’s further enhanced by uncompressed original stereo 2.0 Audio and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio options; commentary with Tornatore and Italian cinema expert, Millicent Marcus; “A Dream of Sicily,” a 52-minute documentary profile of the director, featuring interviews and extracts from his early home movies, and set to music by the Ennio Morricone; “A Bear and a Mouse in Paradise,” a 27-minute documentary on the genesis of Cinema Paradiso, featuring interviews with the actors who play Toto and Noiret; a discussion of the emotionally charged “kissing scenes” sequence; a 25th-anniversary re-release trailer; and collector’s booklet, by Pasquale Iannone, illustrated with archive stills, behind-the-scenes images and posters.

And, now, for something completely different from the same place: The Creeping Garden is a visually stunning documentary that explores the extraordinary world of, believe it or not, “plasmodial slime mold,” as revealed through the eyes of the fringe scientists, mycologists and the artists who work with them. In recent years, this curious organism has become the focus of much research in such areas as biological-inspired design, emergence theory, unconventional computing and robotics. Like so many other scientific endeavors, much of the research shown on film borders on science fiction. In fact, as I began watching The Creeping Garden, I thought it was a genre flick, with actors in lab coats describing yet another pre-apocalyptic threat to humanity. Soon enough, though, the film transports us from the laboratory into the primitive lifeform’s natural habitat, studying them using amazing time-lapse macro-cinematography to reveal hidden facets of the world around us. As fascinating as the science can be, what sells The Creeping Garden are the images that come alive before our eyes. It was co-directed by the artist/filmmaker Tim Grabham and author/critic Jasper Sharp, with an original soundtrack composed by Jim O Rourke (Sonic Youth). The package adds commentary with the directors; a short film on biocomputer music, which allows a two-way musical dialogue between man and slime mold; “Return to the Fungarium,” a featurette revealing further treasures of the facilities at Kew Gardens; “Feeding Habits of Physarum,” a featurette on the feeding preferences and dislikes of slime molds; three Cinema Iloobia shorts: Angela Mele’s animated slime molds; a separate soundtrack disc,
rearranged by O’Rourke; and an illustrated collector’s booklet containing writing on the film by Jasper Sharp. As usual with Arrow packages, be aware that some features are limited to the first-edition pressings.

Apocalypse Kiss
The Quiet Hour
Even if Lloyd Kaufman is given an extended cameo in Apocalypse Kiss, as POTUS, Troma isn’t distributing Christian Jude Grillo’s pre-apocalyptic genre-bender. Michael Berryman makes a brief appearance as an evil corporate mogul, as well, but that doesn’t mean Apocalypse Kiss resembles The Hills Have Eyes, either. The critics seem to agree that it bears a surface resemblance, at least, to a cut-rate version of Blade Runner. If only. Besides directing “AK,” which apparently has been sitting on a shelf for three years, Grillo (Booley) also is credited as writer, composer, editor, production designer, set decorator, VFX coordinator, camera operator and part of the casting team. Far more prominent than Kaufman and Berryman are aspiring scream queens Carmela Hayslett and Tammy Jean, as lesbian lovers who murder horny rich guys by luring them into sure-fire sex traps; D.C. Douglas, as Adrian, the Red Harvest Killer, who’s jealous of the newcomers; and Tom Detrik, as government security agent Jerry Hipple, who blames Adrian for the death of his wife, but accepts his assistance against the lesbians. All the while, killers and victims, alike, are unaware the world is about to reach an abrupt catastrophic ending. This allows for generous helpings of gratuitous T&A and dystopian violence. The DVD adds the featurettes, “The Making of Apocalypse Kiss” and “Make Your Own Damn Space Station,” with Lloyd Kaufman; commentary with cast and crew; and fake commercials from the future.

Here’s another sci-fi drama in which the vehicles that bring aliens to Earth hover in the clouds, this time looking like wasp or hornets’ nests hanging on the branch of a tree. They’re here to harvest the planet’s resources and kill anyone who gets in the way. In her first feature, Stéphanie Joalland borrows a conceit from Arthur C. Clarke’s “Rendezvous With Rama” that allows her to forgo giving her aliens a physical presence. It’s enough that we know they’re there and are slowly sucking the life out of Earth. Survivors are allowed to leave their homes for two hours each day, during which the farmers we meet can tend to their crops, livestock and the solar panels that keep them safe. It also gives marauding bands of cannibals time to attack the survivors. The action here centers around an Irish family stranded in a farmhouse in County Tipperary. Nineteen-year-old Sarah (Dakota Blue Richards) and her nearly blind brother have just buried their father in the front garden. The loss leaves them vulnerable to attack, at least until Sarah can master the finer points of self-control. When a stranger named Jude (Karl Davies) appears from the wilderness, dressed like a soldier and hobbled by a bullet in his leg, she’s forced to decide if she can trust the outsider or assume he’s a cannibal and put another round in him. Because the story is less sci-fi than narrative drama, viewers are encouraged to wonder how they’d perform under similar circumstances. And that, after all, is what genre fiction is all about, anyway.

Death Passage
In this urban-legend thriller from Down Under, American backpackers Maya, Amelia and Toby meet a pair of Aussie rascals at the beach. A bonfire provides the setting for a retelling of the local legend of Lemon Tree Passage – Death Passage’s original title — where the ghost of a motorcyclist warns young drivers to slow down … or else. Naturally, the visitors want to experience such an amazing supernatural phenomenon for themselves. After witnessing the ghost firsthand, they realize that they’ve been caught in the clutches of a malevolent force that possesses the area and threatens to turn the final days of their vacation into a living nightmare. Part of the suspense comes from knowing that the Americans are isolated and in danger, 10,000 miles from home, and the ghost may be the least of their problems. Australian horror flicks tend to take place on lonely roads in rural locations, where things have plenty of space to go bump in the night. The DVD package adds behind-the-scenes material, blooper footage and an alternate ending.

Split
The last time most of heard anything about Deborah Kampmeier was 10 years ago, when, in her second film, Hounddog, she directed 12-year-old Dakota Fanning in a scene that involved a rape. Nothing unsavory was shown, but the possibility that her parents and Hollywood heathens would allow an America’s princess to be on the same set as a fictional rapist precipitated a feeding frenzy among bluenose politicians and other would-be censors. The furor killed the picture, months before critics could sink their teeth into it and may have done irreparable harm to her career. It certainly didn’t hinder Dakota. In her first film, Virgin (2004), a precocious Baptist teenager (Elizabeth Moss) finds herself pregnant, with no memory of having had sex, and determines that she is carrying the child of God. It received several favorable reviews and showed promise for Kampmeier’s future. Split’s opening has been reserved for VOD outlets and DVD, but she’s already in pre-production on another 2017 release, so, maybe she’s on the comeback trail. Split is an intensely dramatic, decidedly feminist story about a young actress and exotic dancer, Inanna (Amy Ferguson), who attempts to expand her horizons by joining an all-woman acting troupe. It’s about to stage an emotionally grueling indictment, in the Athenian tradition, of the violence perpetrated on women by men. At first, Inanna is overwhelmed by the outpouring of pain by the other women, whose inhibitions clearly disappeared years earlier. Very quickly, Inanna falls in love with and marries the womanizing artist who’s creating the masks the actors will wear during the play. In short order, though, she discovers to her horror that practically everything she loved in Derek (Morgan Spector) disappeared on their wedding night, including the desire to have sex. Instead, he becomes secretive and abusive. Finally, after much trepidation, Inanna finds the strength to claim her independence and sense of self-worth by accepting the play’s theme and support of the other actresses. While it makes a very strong statement on an issue that couldn’t be more topical, Split could be accused of sending a mixed message about victims of abuse enabling their attackers. It should be noted, as well, that Split contains a lot of nudity – full-frontal and otherwise – but almost none of it could be considered gratuitous within the context of the story. Neither is it reserved for women of a single Hollywood-approved shape, size or color. In several ways, Split reminds me of Susan Streitfeld’s Female Perversions (1996) and specific storylines in the HBO mini-series “Big Little Lies.”

Ascent to Hell: Blu-ray
Co-writer/director Dena Hysell sets the stage for the horror to come in Ascent to Hell by flashing through photos of victims of industrial fires, including the ones involving sweat shops with locked staircases and exits. I suspect that most, if not all of them were taken at the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory inferno, which, in 1911, claimed the lives of 146 garment workers. Is it sacrilegious to build a horror film on the ruins of such a tragedy? Maybe so, but, as the closing credits roll, we’re encouraged to cut the producers of Ascent to Hell a break through reminders of more contemporary disasters. In it, Kate (Azura Skye) is a residential real estate agent told by her boss to sell a commercial property with a shocking history. It might as well have been named after the Asch Building – now Brown Building — still standing at 23-29 Washington Place, in New York’s Greenwich Village, where Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire occurred. By 1916, New York University had taken over 8th Floor, where so many people died or leaped to their deaths. Today, tourists are directed to the building’s top floors as part of sightseeing excursions targeted at fans of haunted houses and ghosts. Hysell makes sure we know whose side he’s on, by characterizing potential developers as heartless yuppies who couldn’t care less about the building’s legacy. Neither are they impressed by Kate’s disclosure of the community’s efforts to create green zones around it. Yes, these are bad people, who deserve everything they’re about to receive as they survey the uppermost floors, where reminders of the long-ago tragedy are still there to be seen. Genre buffs don’t need a spoiler alert to know what’s going to happen to them on the least-renovated floor. Hysell pulls it off pretty well, I thought.

Splatter Disco
RoboCop 2/3: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women: Comic Book Collectors Edition
Battle of the Worlds: Comic Book Collectors Edition
Night of the Living Dead: Comic Book Collectors Edition
Few filmmakers have done more with less than writer/director Richard Griffin — Creature from the Hillbilly Lagoon, Pretty Dead Things, Necroville, Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead – one of the true auteurs of extreme exploitation. It’s fair to wonder what he might be able to accomplish with even a Corman-sized budget and support team. Released in 2007, Splatter Disco is said to have had a more sustainable budget than usual, but you’d be hard-pressed to figure out where the money went. I suspect that it was invested in a cast that includes exploitation specialists Lynn Lowry (Model Hunger), Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead), Trent Haaga (Bonnie & Clyde vs. Dracula), Sarah Nicklin (A Darker Fifty Shades: The Fetish Set) and Debbie Rochon (Killer Rack). The acting is several notches above what’s evidenced in most of Griffin’s pictures, including The Disco Exorcist, which came later, but isn’t a sequel. On the cover of the After Hours re-release, a blurb declares that Splatter Disco is “The First Splatter Musical,” which would come as news to the producers of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”  Here, the owner of the fetish club Den O’ Iniquity has his hands full dealing with an unhappy wife, dying father, censorious citizenry and a psycho killer targeting his staff and clientele. As abhorrent behavior goes, Splatter Disco falls short of John Waters’ 2004 fetish-fest, A Dirty Shame. Most the club’s patrons resemble squirrels in pajamas. It arrives with commentary with Griffin, behind-the-scenes featurette, an alternate scene and “trailer vault.”

What is it they say about not missing your water …? Watching bad public-domain movies absent the commentary provided by the orbiting critics of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” can be a real drag. Even movies that are so bad they’re good require some witty repartee to break up the monotony occasionally. The only thing new about the Comic Book Collectors Editions of Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, Battle of the Worlds and Night of the Living Dead, which still holds up on its own merits, is the cover art. It made me think that there might be a graphic-novel adaptation of the movie inside, along with the movie. But, nooo. The gimmick isn’t bad, but collectors should consider if the reasonable $9.99 price tag warrants a second or third purchase of a movie already in their collection. Maybe, but only if they were available exclusively in a limited-edition series.

RoboCop 2 and RoboCop 3 are perfect examples of what can happen to the legacy of a genuinely entertaining and completely original movie when a studio is bleeding red ink and desperately needs a hit. After three years and a successful release into video, RoboCop was still a hot property. Sequels hadn’t worn out its welcome, yet, and special effects were only getting better. RoboCop 2 suffered immediately from the exit of director Paul Verhoeven and addition of Hollywood veteran Irvin Kershner. Frank Miller’s original version of the script was deemed unworkable and everyone with an opinion to spare felt it necessary to chip another two cents into the mix. Along the way, much of the humor that informed the original was lost, as well as the fresh take on a venerable genre. The half-man/half-robot conceit remained valid, but the MegaCop vs. MegaCorp theme wasn’t as relevant to post-Reagan audiences. Even so, there’s plenty of action to be enjoyed and the “Thank you, for not smoking” gag still works. The second sequel transplanted Detroit to Atlanta, which looked even less Midwestern than the Dallas locations in the first two chapters. The widely rumored game of musical chairs – including the addition of director Fred Dekker (The Monster Squad) and John Burke in the title role — failed to spark any interest in younger audiences and it tanked. Here, Our Hero was forced to decide, once and for all, if he was on the side of the corporation or the people being rousted by OCP. It might have worked better if RoboCop was sent to Kuwait, instead. The Collector’s Editions do add value in the form of fresh 2K polishes and new commentary tracks, interviews, making-of featurettes and galleries. Shout!Factory, as usual, takes its job of giving new life to old product very seriously here and delivers accordingly.

SpacePOP: Princess Power
The Swan Princess: Royally Undercover
The latest animated series to make the leap from the Internet to DVD is “SpacePOP,” which, according to Andy Heyward, CEO of Genius Brands, “is like Spice Girls meets Star Wars.” Ask any parent of a pre-teen girl and they’ll tell you that any movie with a princess in it is going to attract their attention, whether it’s Disney’s Moana, Tangled and Frozen, or such kindred royals as Princess Barbie, Anne Hathaway’s Princess Amelia “Mia” Thermopolis Renaldi, Princess Leia, Princess Mononoke, Kristin Chenoweth’s Princess Skystar (in this fall’s “My Little Pony: The Movie”) and Princess Alise, in The Swan Princess: Royally Undercover. A kids’ sensation on YouTube, SpacePOP: Princess Power extends the brand from three-minute webisodes to a 72-minute feature. It describes what happens when the evil Empress Geela takes over the Planets of the Pentangle and five teen princesses disguise themselves as pop-music musicians. Their band, SpacePOP, may remind some parents of the animated TV series “JEM and the Holograms.” Their mission is to spread the message of freedom, friendship, joy beauty and fashion through music … kind of like Kanye and Kim. In doing so, they join the resistance to take down the Geela, free their parents and liberate the people of the Pentangle.

The Swan Princess: Royally Undercover is the seventh addition to a franchise that began in 1994 with an animated musical fantasy, based on the ballet “Swan Lake.” It featured the voice talents of Jack Palance, John Cleese, Steven Wright and Sandy Duncan, and was directed by a former Disney animation director, Richard Rich. It didn’t do very well at the domestic box office, for several pretty good reasons, but rallied to spawn six  direct-to-video features. Here, when mysterious visitors arrive in the Kingdom, Lucas, Princess Alise and their friends go undercover on a secret spy adventure to see if they can be trusted. They will need all their superior detective skills, as well as some cool gadgets, to solve the royal mystery and save the Kingdom. Both films are being distributed by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

TV-to-DVD
Smithsonian: Million Dollar American Princesses: The Complete Series
Smithsonian: Polar Bear Town: Season One
PBS: Nature: Snowbound: Animals of Winter
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Van Gogh’s Ear
PBS: American Masters: Mike Nichols
PBS: Military Medicine: Beyond the Battle Field
Nickelodeon: Super Shredder: Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Hallmark: When Calls the Heart: The Heart of Faith
In the not-so-distant past, newspapers supplied all of the information TV viewers needed to choose the shows they wanted to watch and the times they would be broadcast. The popular acceptance of cable television forced newspaper to expand their grids and listings to the bursting point. Today, schedules for original programming on dozens of legitimate cable, satellite and streaming services are largely relegated to the scrolls and grids provided to subscribers. The problem for viewers and critics, alike, is all the work it takes to separate the wheat from the chaff, making sure the best are seen and the worst ignored. I’m fortunate to receive boxed sets of DVDs carrying entire seasons’ worth of programming. It wasn’t until I received the Smithsonian Channel’s multipart, “Million Dollar American Princesses: The Complete Series” – distributed through PBS — that I became aware of a show that extended the “Downton Abbey” experience, without endlessly repeating favorite scenes, interviews and BBC spinoff shows. Elizabeth McGovern, who played the American heiress married to Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, whose estate was in desperate need of the money provided by her dowry. Who better, then, to introduce us to some of the American women who, in effect, traded their inheritances for titles and, sometimes, love. Who knew, right?  The seven-part series takes us from the late 1800s, when daughters of America’s new industrial millionaires marry into the money-strapped British aristocracy, to the 20th Century, when a new kind of American Princess wields power not through wealth, but through character, style, wit and sexuality. Through the decades, these women bring dramatic change to the European aristocracy and eventually the world. The series also tells the stories of such headline-making women as Peggy Guggenheim, Consuelo Vanderbilt, Jennie Jerome, Grace Kelly, Gloria Swanson, Winnaretta Singer, Rita Hayworth, Clara Ward, Barbara Hutton, Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy and Nancy Astor. Each is different and singularly interesting.

Another Smithsonian offering, the Season One package of “Polar Bear Town,” describes what happens every fall in Churchill, Manitoba, when a thousand bears migrate directly through town on their way to Hudson Bay. Tourists from all over the world come to see it for themselves and it’s up to veteran guides and conservation officers to protect the bears and the people.

Winter’s hard on everyone, especially animals stuck in places where the only relief available is what they create for themselves. In the “Nature” presentation, “Snowbound: Animals of Winter,” wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan introduces us to some of the world’s most iconic snow animals, from the penguins of Antarctica, to the bison of Yellowstone, polar bears and the Arctic fox. He also burrows beneath the ice to show us how some animals are able to survive months of hibernation and other adapt in ways unfamiliar to us.

Too many times, Hollywood’s version of the truth doesn’t come close to squaring with the truth presented as evidence by prosecutors, defense attorneys and forensics experts. This notion was summed up best, of course, in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, when Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young) advised Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It isn’t a particularly novel concept in Europe, either. For most Americans, including those of us who would fly to Amsterdam on a whim, just to visit the Van Gogh Museum, Kirk Douglas’ portrayal of the artist in Lust for Life is close enough to pass for fact. In 1991, Maurice Pialat’s beautifully rendered Van Gogh confounded some audience members by suggesting that the artist did not cut his ear entirely off, but, instead, took some nasty swipes at it. It wouldn’t be Pialat’s only debatable decision. Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo was more interested in drawing a psychological portrait of Van Gogh, as he stared into a shattered mirror. So, the argument leading into PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead: Van Gogh’s Ear” not only was how much of his ear was lopped off, but also what happened between that moment and his arrival at Dr. Felix Rey’s office for treatment. The accepted scenario argues that he walked into Arles’ red-light district, where he delivered a portion of his ear –or lobe — to a prostitute named Rachel, probably nicknamed Gaby, in a handkerchief. Narrator Jeremy Paxman joins Provence-based “art sleuth” Bernadette Murphy as she nears the end of her career-long mission to solve the mystery of what happened on that fateful night of December 23, 1888. What she discovers is no less exciting than anything described in the movies.

The most overworked word in the Hollywood vernacular, by far, is “genius.” Anyone with more than one blockbuster movie or hit TV series is a borderline genius, at least, while a franchise or spin-off ensures genius, especially for producers and directors. Very few of them are, however, even if they have the papers to prove it. Mike Nichols was a genius. As a third cousin, twice removed, of Albert Einstein, he had the pedigree to prove it. In April 1939, when the Nazis were arresting Jews in Berlin, 7-year-old Mikhail and his 3-year-old brother, Robert, were sent, alone, to the United States to join their father, who had fled Germany months earlier. His mother eventually joined the family, escaping through Italy, in 1940. Thirteen years later, as a student in Chicago, he became an announcer for classical music station WFMT-FM, where he would launch the pioneering folk-music program, “The Midnight Special.” It’s still on the air. In some sections of the city, Nichols’ greatest accomplish might still be his work with Compass Players, the predecessor to Chicago’s legendary improvisational troupe, the Second City, whose members included Elaine May, Shelley Berman, Del Close, Nancy Ponder and director by Paul Sills. In 1958, the comedy duo, Nichols and May, took New York by storm. As we are reminded in PBS’ “American Masters: Mike Nichols” – directed by May — his trajectory never stopped rising. He excelled as a director, actor, writer and producer, winning an Oscar, a Grammy, four Emmys, nine Tonys and three BAFTAs. On each step of the ladder, Nichols changed the way things were done before him. Among those interviewed are Renata Adler, Bob Balaban, Alec Baldwin, James L. Brooks, Tony Kushner, Dustin Hoffman, Neil and Paul Simon (separately), Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep and Robin Williams. Mostly, though, it’s Nichols’ alone, on a stool, reminiscing.

Until wars are fought by robots, drones and malware, soldiers’ wounds will continue to be treated by doctors, surgeons, nurses and therapists whose abilities may always be two or three steps behind an enemy’s demonic desire to kill, maim and otherwise neutralize their opponents. One of the fascinating things about PBS’ “Mercy Street” is learning how the art of healing and treating wounded Civil War soldiers advanced, if ever so slowly, to the point where significant numbers survived amputations and prosthetics were introduced in the recovery process. Just as World War I was a proving ground for the weapons that would be commonly used in World War II, and the Korean War opened doors to the horrors of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, each new conflagration presented unique challenges to medical professional on the ground and in hospitals back home. The most diabolically effective weapon used against coalition troops in Afghanistan and post-Saddam Iraq became armor-piercing IEDs – Improvised Explosive Device – which were as simple to construct and detonate as they were harmful to those riding in convoys.  The same applied to easily portable RPGs — rocket-propelled grenades – which could take out tanks and helicopters with equal ferocity. The only good news came in the ability of doctors and medics to stabilize the wounds long enough for casualties to be rapidly transported to well-equipped Combat Support Hospitals, which, in 2006, replaced the Korean War MASH units that played an important role in the development of the triage system. From there, survivors could be quickly transferred to hospitals in Germany and the U.S. for intensive care. In PBS’ “Military Medicine: Beyond the Battle Field,” ABC newsman Bob Woodruff traces the stories of veterans, surgeons, researchers, rehab experts and families, from battlefield to military hospitals, from hi-tech research centers to rehab facilities, to homes and workplaces, where a new generation of wounded warriors are given a chance to live a productive, if vastly different life, away from combat. In January, 2006, while covering the ongoing insurrection in Iraq as co-anchor ABC’s “World News Tonight,” of Woodruff was critically wounded by a roadside bomb. The documentary is informed, as well, by Woodruff’s remarkable recovery. It also allows him to pass along what he learned about treatments for traumatic brain injuries, which not only afflict wounded soldiers, but also athletes and victims of car accidents.

In Nickelodeon’s “Super Shredder: Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo are pitted against “their strongest, most dangerous, most deadliest enemy ever,” the Super Shredder. After recovering from wounds inflicted in a fight with Master Splinter – and being injected with mutagen — the metallic fiend has bowed vengeance against Splinter and the Turtles. To protect their beloved sensai, the Turtles prepare for a final showdown by enlisting the help of April O’Neil, Casey Jones, Karai, Shinigami and the Mighty Mutanimals. If successful, they could put an end to Oroku Saki’s reign of terror forever. The episodes span Season Four’s “The Super Shredder” and Season Five’s “End Times.”

Hallmark has never made it easy for fans of “When Calls the Heart” to easily tell the difference between the episodes shown and television and those sent out on DVD. Don’t bother looking for “The Heart of Faith” in the synopses provided by various Internet sites, because you aren’t likely to find it. A perusal of the small print of the back of the package informs anyone who takes the time to look for it that “Heart of Faith” originally was shown last November, as “The Heart of Christmas.” In fact, the title PPV subscribers should look for is, “When Calls the Heart Christmas.” It’s a subtle change, but enough to confuse search engines. I suspect that “Heart of Faith” was attached to encourage faith-obsessed newcomers to buy a Christmas special in spring, without reading the synopsis or noticing the wee decorated tree in a photo on the box’s bottom-right corner. The story opens with Rosemary and Lee’s return from their honeymoon and completion of their new row house. It’s next to Elizabeth, who’s busy helping her students mount a nativity play. A traveling peddler, Sam, is mistaken for Santa by the kids and, by Jack, for a thief. Meanwhile, the pageant is threatened when word arrives that the supply train has derailed. Without costumes for the play, food for the feast and presents for the kids, Christmas will be just another day in December. It takes a lot of faith, spirit and cooperation to show Hope Valley what the holiday is all about.

Surrender Cinema: Ultimate Pleasure Box
What could be more fun for admirers of the soft-core erotica that’s made Skinemax a late-night pastime for insomniacs and post-pubescent boys than a collection of 12 sci-fi flicks from Surrender Cinema’s heyday. Unlike such original Cinemax series as “Erotic Confessions,” “Hot Line,” “Passion Cove,” “Lingerie” and “Co-Ed Confidential,” now being repeated ad nausea on the network, the films included in the “Surrender Cinema: Ultimate Pleasure Box” probably would have opened on the drive-in circuit, before going straight-to-DVD or premium cable. With that option closed to distributors by the mid-1990s, they became a staple of late-night cable in the U.S. and Canada. Typically, the skin was limited to T&A, but the occasional limp penis and bush would slip through. Now, of course, actresses have their pubes lasered to extinction at puberty or are allowed the slightest of landing strips. Some of them even were allowed to leave their original breasts unenhanced. Thus, such easily forgettable movies as The Exotic Time Machine, Femalien and their inevitable sequels and trailers qualify as nostalgia. There’s also The Exotic House of Wax, Hidden Beauties: The Awakening, Lolida 2000, Dungeon of Desire, Virtual Encounters, Pleasurecraft and Virgins of Sherwood Forest, featuring such immortal stars as Jacqueline Lovell, Holly Sampson, Regina Russell, Brandy Davis, Gabriella Hall and Nikki Fritz. Long may they wave.

The DVD Wrapup: Fences, Elle, Passengers, Solace, Film/Not Film, Robert Flaherty, Drunk History and more

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

Fences: Blu-ray
It’s possible to enjoy Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer-, Tony- and Drama Desk-winning play, Fences, without knowing anything about the playwright or his Pittsburgh Cycle (a.k.a., Century Cycle) of 10 plays chronicling the evolution of the African-American experience throughout the 20th Century. You could watch it simply to savor Viola Davis’ Oscar-winning performance or Washington’s interpretation of Troy Maxson, a could’ve-been baseball star, who, at 53, is supporting his family as a garbage collector for the city. The stories behind Fences’ long journey to the screen and Wilson’s rise to prominence as a distinctly American voice in the theater are definitely worth a closer look. Nine of the 10 plays in Wilson’s cycle are set in Pittsburgh’s predominantly blue-collar Hill District, which, while economically depressed, seemingly offered a secure mid-century home for a cross-section of African-American residents and recent immigrants. Even so, everything that happens in Fences is colored by Troy’s resentment over being passed over by the Major Leagues for reasons he believes range from his prison record and advanced age, to being black, which is the one he prefers to blame. His resentment is equaled by his pride at having pulled himself up by the bootstraps to be a self-sufficient family man. Troy conveniently overlooks the $3,000 stipend the government awarded his brother (Mykelti Williamson) for a traumatic head injury he suffered in the war, but was redirected to pay for the Maxsons’ modest house. Rose Maxson (Davis) is proud of her husband, but often bears the brunt of Troy’s disapproval of his trumpet-playing son from a previous marriage, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), and weekly visits for “loans.” Then, there’s the perceived disrespect shown him by their headstrong teenage son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), who’s been given an opportunity to play football at a college in North Carolina, but, for mostly selfish reasons, Troy vetoes. Rose isn’t given the opportunity to add her two cents to the debate, mostly because her husband has convinced himself that those two cents already belong to him. The voice of reason is supplied by their good-natured friend, Bono (Stephen Henderson), who he met during their time together in prison and works alongside him on the truck. The title, Fences, derives as much from the walls that failed to contain Troy’s Negro Leagues home runs, as the wooden barrier Rose has asked Troy to build around their house, but will only complete when and if Cory buckles to his demands.

In 1987, when “Fences” was first produced on Broadway, Wilson rejected prospects for any movie adaptation that wasn’t directed by an African-American. In its infinite myopia, Hollywood was unable to come up with one until producer Scott Rudin asked Washington to reprise on film his Tony-winning portrayal of Maxson in the 2010 revival of the play and direct it. Davis, Williamson, Hornsby and Henderson also agreeed to repeat their roles. A few eyebrows were raised when playwright-screenwriter Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) was hired to build on a draft written by Wilson before his death in 2005. Finally, though, Wilson was given sole authorship of the adapted screenplay, as well as an Academy Award nomination, while Kushner is credited as co-producer. It explains why Fences sometimes feels as if it were transplanted directly from the stage and the establishing exteriors are limited to a few shots of Troy and Bono working in the streets of Pittsburgh, his visit to downtown headquarters to be promoted to driver and a shot of kids playing stickball. The movie never feels stagebound or contrived, however. Wilson’s genius for turning conversations into poetry is as evident as ever. It’s worth noting that Washington has committed to a deal with HBO to bring the other nine plays in the Pittsburgh Cycle to the premium-cable network as producer, one a year, for the next decade. The featurettes, which could have benefitted from being longer, include “Expanding the Audience: From Stage to Screen”; “The Company of Fences,” a closer look at reuniting the stage cast for the film and a few new faces; “Building Fences: Denzel Washington; “Playing the Part: Rose Maxson,” an examination of Viola Davis’ character and her performance; and “August Wilson’s Hill District.”

Elle: Blu-ray
Not having seen La La Land – its release on Blu-ray/4K/DVD is now set for April 25 – it would be impossible for me to say with any certainty if Emma Stone’s performance was more deserving of an Academy Award than Isabelle Huppert’s, Elle, an honor for which they were both nominated. By splitting its Best Actress contest into light and dark categories, the HFPA allowed its members to accord both women their due respect and avoid any fruitless debate. In hindsight, of course, it’s easy to see how Huppert was the perfect choice to play the emotionally damaged, but fiercely resilient title character. Among the names floated ahead of Paul Verhoeven’s decision to stage Elle in France, instead of the United States, as planned, were Nicole Kidman, Sharon Stone, Julianne Moore and Diane Lane. He wanted Jennifer Jason Leigh to be considered by the producers, as well, but, “She’s an artistic presence and we were looking for names.” While Marion Cotillard and Carice van Houten then were mentioned, the combination of rape, rough consensual sex and nudity would be enough to scare any A-list actress away from the project. Huppert was the obvious choice all along, I suspect, but she wouldn’t be any easy fit in an English-language adaptation of Philippe Djian’s French-language novel, “O …” Nevertheless, at 64, Huppert is still a highly prolific and popular star in Europe, as well as an arthouse draw here. Moreover, throughout her 45-year career, she’s portrayed several female characters caught in desperate straits – beautiful and short in stature, but never fragile — and has looked as comfortable acting nude as clothed.

In Elle, her Michèle Leblanc dusts herself off after being raped and pummeled by a ski-masked intruder, clearly distressed but curiously unwillingly to bring in the police to conduct an investigation or immediately turn to anyone else for comfort and support. She goes to work, as usual, at the video-game company she runs with a close friend, Anna (Anne Consigny). We soon will learn just how conversant Michèle is with manifestations of abhorrent violence: the video games sold by her company contain nightmare visions of rape, while, as a girl, her abusive father was imprisoned as a mass murderer. A haunting photograph of the very young Michèle, staring blankly at the camera in her underwear, had been widely disseminated in France and, even decades later, she and her mother are harassed by strangers with long memories. As determined as Michèle is to not be reduced to being a victim, she does show signs of cracking. In addition to racing a deadline at work, Michèle is forced to deal with a needy ex-husband with a much younger girlfriend; a jealous lover, who’s married to her closest friend (and, likely, onetime lover); and an aimless son, trapped in a relationship with an abusive girlfriend and pregnant by another man. That’s a lot of turmoil for an actor to imbue in a character, especially one as chic as the bourgeois Michèle. Her opportunity to take control of her predicament – and turn the tables on her attacker — comes in another shocking home invasion. Huppert skillfully navigates her character through a perfect storm of diverse emotional impulses, looking disheveled and vulnerable one minute and fashionably buttoned-down the next. In the interviews included in the bonus package, Verhoeven says he intended Elle to be considered “a protest against genre” and easy pigeonholing as either a victim or avenging angel. Then, in the closing scene, the tables are turned on her in a completely unexpected way. Special features are “A Tale of Empowerment: Making Elle” and “Celebrating an Icon: AFI’s Tribute to Isabelle Huppert.”

Passengers: Blu-ray
For the Love of Spock
Ghost in the Shell: Movie: Blu-ray
Far be it for me to make excuses for a major studio, but Sony/Columbia clearly drew the short straw when its big-budget sci-fi picture Passengers was forced to open a week after Buena Vista’s even more expensive sci-fi adventure, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, just ahead of the long Christmas holiday. Even if the two movies’ narratives could hardly be more different, they both were largely set on space vessels in galaxies far, far away. And, while “Rogue One” promised fun and excitement for three generations of filmgoers, Passengers carried a distinctly mature vibe with it into megaplexes. Director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) and screenwriter Jon Spaihts (Doctor Strange) imagine a time, several hundred years down the road, when Earth has become so crowded and unlivable that 5,000 people from around the globe willingly board a giant luxury liner – yes, the Titanic in outer space – for the 120-year-long voyage to the idyllic, corporate-owned colony, Homestead II. In addition to the thousands of passengers, the spacecraft is carrying 255 crew members, all of whom have been placed in a state of suspended animation for the duration. Again, in keeping with the Titanic’s first and final voyage, the ship’s protective energy shield is damaged in a collision with an asteroid. The ship’s computerized repair system corrects most of the damage, without being thrown off course or destroyed. It isn’t until one of the passengers, mechanical engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), is awakened from his induced slumber, 90 years short of the spacecraft’s scheduled arrival. Jim spends the next year living in splendid isolation, with only a few maintenance robots and Arthur the android bartender (Michael Sheen) providing company. (Here, Tyldum admits to freely borrowing the bar’s look and lighting from the Gold Room bar in The Shining.)  Instead of committing suicide, Jim takes a gigantic moral leap by picking out another passenger to make his ordeal easier. Given a choice of 5,000 pods from which to choose, Jim decides to disrupt the slumber of Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), a blond beauty who looks as if she knows how to party.

It takes a while before Aurora warms to Jim and they begin to partake in the luxuries the ship offers. It takes even longer for her to learn that her predicament is anything but accidental. By then, however, the ship is starting to malfunction. Coincidentally, another pod failure awakens Gus (Laurence Fishburne), a chief deck officer and veteran space traveler. Together, they discover multiple failures in the ship’s systems that will eventually cause the ship to break down if not fixed. It opens the door for a thrilling series of precarious repair efforts that might remind viewers of Gravity. We wouldn’t be at all surprised to watch one or both of the protagonists float off into deep space, with a broken tether hanging from their space suit. The reason I don’t think young audiences here didn’t flock to Passengers – it did very well in the overseas market – is that the action that occurs in the final third of the movie comes after a bit too much courting, romance, moralizing and jogging around the ship’s interior. There’s also the incongruity of Lawrence’s many costume changes, which might have been appropriate if a character played by Elizabeth Taylor had been awakened from hibernation, not a reporter on a 250-year-long assignment (don’t ask). That said, sci-fi buffs should enjoy the amount of thought and hard work that went into the set design and scientific touches. The best occurs when Aurora is swimming in the pool in her suite – which extends from the ship’s outer shell, like the one in Playboy suite in the Las Vegas Palms resort – and a mechanical glitch knocks out the ship’s gravitational control. It causes the water to swallow up Aurora and knock her around as if she were a goldfish in a plastic bag. I also loved Sheen’s turn as the android bartender, whose computerized memory holds the recipes for thousands of cocktails and the languages of all the passengers. He also has the temperament of a professional, who’s heard all the jokes a dozen times and still manages a chuckle. The bonus package adds a great deal of background and making-of material, as well as deleted scenes, outtakes and interviews.

So much hoopla was raised in the media by last year’s 50th anniversary of “Star Trek” that anyone who wasn’t a card-carrying, costume-wearing Trekkie could be excused from wanting to see anything franchise related, at least until it begins again this spring with “Star Trek: Discovery” and “Star Trek Equinox: The Night of Time.” The title, For the Love of Spock, suggests yet another fan-driven salute to everyone’s favorite Vulcan, cobbled together after Leonard Nimoy’s death on February 27, 2015, at 83. Instead, Adam Nimoy’s compelling bio-doc celebrates the life and career of his father, without obsessing on his alter-ego, Mr. Spock, or playing down the character’s importance in his life. Originally, the film was going to focus on Spock – he’d already directed “Leonard Nimoy’s Boston” for the city’s PBS affiliate, WGBH — but his father died, Adam decided to expand the scope of the project. In addition to dozens of clips, interviews, home movies and testimonial, For the Love of Spock explores the son’s frequently troubled personal relations with his father. If these reflections sometimes disrupt the rhythm of the nearly two-hour film, they demonstrate, once again, that no one’s perfect. Fellow Bostonian Barry Newman describes the struggles they faced breaking into the business in the 1950s, while making a meager income doing odd jobs and appearing in bit parts on TV series. Nimoy shares his own anecdotes about the road to “Star Trek,” which began when he worked on Gene Roddenberry’s “The Lieutenant.” This leads to the give and take that preceded the launch of “Star Trek,” including the problems involved in shaping Spock’s trademark ears. Also testifying are William Shatner, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Neil deGrasse Tyson, J.J. Abrams, Jim Parsons, Mayim Bialik, Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana and Simon Pegg, among several others. The DVD adds “Leonard Nimoy’s Boston”; a Kickstarter gallery; a Tribeca panel; “Trivia Time,” with Jason Alexander; an on-set visit with “The Big Bang Theory” cast; Adam Nimoy’s commentary and the Tribeca Teaser.

There already are two Blu-ray editions of Ghost in the Shell: Movie extant, as well as various sequels and television offshoots. The difference in Starz/Anchor Bay’s new edition is its “Mondo X SteelBook” packaging, which is nice, as far as it goes, but doesn’t make original the adaptation of the Japanese anime/manga classic any better than it already was. What the release does do, however, is anticipate Paramount’s life-action adaptation, starring Scarlett Johansson, as the Major; Michael Pitt, as Kuze; and Juliette Binoche, as a new character, Dr. Ouelet. In the anime, it’s 2029 and a cybernetic government agent, Major Motoko Kusanagi, and the Internal Bureau of Investigations, are hot on the trail of the Puppet Master. It’s a mysterious and threatening computer virus capable of infiltrating human hosts. The movie, which combines CGI with standard animation, questions human existence in the fast-paced world of the information age. Not everyone is excited about the “whitewashing” of “Ghost in the Shell” and protests have already been lodged about reports on the dubbing and use of visual effects to make white actors look Asian. But, who knows what it will turn out to be. What hasn’t been kept secret, especially as fanboy bait, is news that Johansson will appear nude, as is her character in the original. If you haven’t seen Ghost in the Shell: Movie already, I recommend checking out the Blu-ray.

Solace: Blu-ray
The cover of Solace appears to promise a mano a mano battle between characters played Anthony Hopkins and Colin Farrell, although it’s impossible to tell from their expressions who’s the protagonist and who’s the antagonist. The only hint we’re allowed is the subtitle, “How do you stop a killer that can read your mind?” Given only that much evidence, I couldn’t wait to find out who’s mind was being read and which one these somber-looking characters was capable of doing it. About two-thirds of the way through Afonso Poyart’s 101-minute drama, I began to wonder if the producers had failed to inform the Brazilian director (Two Rabbits) that they’d hired the two-time Golden Globes-nominated actor – Lobster, In Bruges – and he was waiting in the dressing room for his call. I had just watched Passengers, in which the fifth-listed actor, Andy Garcia, appears in the last 15 seconds of the movie and doesn’t have any lines. When Farrell does make his appearance in Solace, it’s like a breath of fresh air in a room wrapped tightly with plastic sheeting. Hopkins, who couldn’t deliver a poor performance if he tried, has already established himself as a former FBI consultant, John Clancy, who used clairvoyance and psychometry to solve crimes. He’s being beckoned from an uneasy retirement by his friend, Joe Merriwether (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and newbie agent Katherine Cowles (Abbie Cornish), who are in desperate need of help in capturing a serial killer, whose gifts include clairvoyance, clairaudience and claircognizance. They’ve kept the killer several steps ahead of the FBI, which is only now reaching out to him. Like Hannibal Lector, Clancy wants to see the case files before making a commitment. They suggest he anticipates doing battle with the master and has been setting traps to make such a confrontation happen. The problem is that far too many other seemingly unrelated things happen before the two psychically gifted men meet finally meet and are given very little time to tie up loose ends. In fact, it isn’t until the killer spells everything out for him that we’re left to wonder if he isn’t such a bad guy, after all. Legend has it that the original script for Solace was picked up by New Line as a sequel to Se7en (1995), tentatively titled “Ei8ht.” Several years after that didn’t happen, the stand-alone version of Solace – now owned by Warner Bros. – was bought by Relatively, which went bankrupt and sold it to Grindstone and Lionsgate for a limited release and DVD/Blu-ray. The faces on the cover have to count for something, after all. The disc arrives with Poyart’s commentary and an eight-minute making-of featurette.

The Forest for the Trees
Film Movement originally released The Forest for the Trees on DVD in 2006, as a Film of the Month Club selection. The company has since expanded upon the original subscription concept, which was based on making festival favorites available to viewers with little or no access to such events. It is wisely re-releasing The Forest for the Trees to piggy-back on the heat generated by Maren Ade’s third feature, Toni Erdmann, which was nominated in the Best Foreign Picture category by Academy, Globes and BAFTA voters. It will be released by Sony Classics on April 11. The Forest for the Trees, which was Ade’s film-school graduation project, follows mousy country girl Melanie Pröschle as she weathers the same rocky shoals faced by countless other teachers when they enter a classroom for the first time. She left her parents and boyfriend behind, thinking that big-city life would be exciting enough to compensate for their absence. In her first staff meeting, Melanie sets herself up for a huge fall by promoting her plans for a progressive curriculum and ability to bring a “warm breeze” of fresh ideas to the school. Naturally, the kids in her classroom are as brash and rowdy as any depicted in an American movie, including “Blackboard Jungle” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.” Eager for some kind of companionship, aside from the attention of a creepy co-worker her age, Melanie orchestrates a “chance meeting” with her neighbor, Tina (Daniela Holtz). As friendships go, however, Tina’s runs as hot and cold as tenement shower. The butt of jokes at school and a thorn in Tina’s side, Melanie decides that enough is enough and she’s due a fantastical escape. Ade based the movie on stories her parents, both teachers, had shared with her. The incorrigible father in Toni Erdmann also was modeled after her father. The short film added to the DVD is Paul Cotter’s “Estes Avenue.”

Film: Blu-ray
Notfilm: Blu-ray
Most Internet biographies of Nobel Prize-winning author Samuel Beckett introduce him as an avant-garde Irish novelist, playwright, theatre director and poet. They quickly mention, as well, that he lived in France for most of his adult life and wrote in both English and French. Anyone who isn’t already familiar with “Waiting for Godot,” his monumentally influential “tragicomedy in two acts,” probably was searching for a different Samuel Beckett. Buried deep within these biographies, if at all, is mention of Film, his only known screenplay. Commissioned by Barney Rosset, of Grove Press, as part of a larger project matching playwrights and the cinema, it was filmed in New York City in July, 1964. (Rosset had also solicited scripts from Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet, to no immediate avail.) and In his first and only visit to the U.S., Beckett spent two weeks of a hellishly hot and humid Manhattan summer quietly observing the production and offering advice when solicited by first-time feature director Alan Schneider. While it debuted at the 1965 Venice Festival to acclaim, Film’s New York release prompted wildly divergent opinions from film and theater critics. The best reason for anyone who isn’t a PhD candidate to pick up the excellent Milestone restoration is the presence of 68-year-old Buster Keaton, who, at the time, was occasionally asked to appear in straight and comic roles on television, movies and the stage, but was broke, terminally ill and largely stayed busy playing imaginary games cards with long-dead studio moguls. He quickly accepted Schneider’s offer. As the 20-minute film opens Keaton’s “Man” is a lonely figure, a handkerchief over his face, skittering alongside a large brick wall in a barren patch of land on the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge. His destination is a furniture-less apartment, where, after he silently scrambles to control the cats and dog that sneak into the room as soon as he shoves them out the door. The Man commences to rip up photos of what may be his mother, himself and turn-of-century ancestors, before he is finally forced to confront his own face in a mirror. In an interview with a reporter for the New Yorker, Beckett said, “It’s a movie about the perceiving eye, about the perceived and the perceiver – two aspects of the same man. The perceiver desires like mad to perceive and the perceived tries desperately to hide. Then, in the end, one wins.” OK, but Film is worth the effort of finding just to see Keaton perform, again, in a serious work of art.

The Blu-ray adds a restored edition of Schneider’s definitive 1961 television adaptation of “Waiting for Godot,” which starred Zero Mostel and Burgess Meredith, for NET’s “Play of the Week,” as well as outtakes from cats-and-dog sequence. Also from Milestone comes film-restorationist Ross Lipman’s 2015 documentary, Notfilm, an exhaustive kino-essay on the making and meaning of Film. At 128 minutes, it is six times longer Beckett’s movie. Without it, however, I don’t think that an appreciation of Film would be fully attainable, especially for those of us without a degree in film theory or contemporary literature. Through clips, interviews, anecdotes and analysis, Lipman is able to frame Film within the context of western culture at a pivotal time in the mid-20th Century, while also deconstructing it as a cinematic treasure. Among the first sources interviewed by Lipman was in his seven-year restoration process was maverick publisher and First Amendment champion Rosset, who discovered reels under the sink in his kitchen. He then turned to Beckett’s biographer, James Knowlson; film historian Kevin Brownlow; Film actress Billie Whitelaw; Keaton’s friend and Film actor James Karen; and critic Leonard Maltin, who visited the set as a star-struck 14-year-old Keaton fan. Other featurettes include “Street Scene: A Lost Scene Reconstruction, from outtakes; audio Recordings of Beckett, Kaufman, Rosset and Schneider; “Buster Keaton and Film,” James Karen in conversation; “Memories of Samuel Beckett: An Afternoon with James Knowlson,”; “Jean Schneider: Memories of Alan Schneider”; “Jeannette Seaver: Beckett and Godot”; “Photographing Film/Photographing Beckett,” Steve Schapiro and I.C. Rapoport in conversation; a photo gallery; and “The Music of Notfilm,” with downloadable MP3 recordings by Mihály Víg.

Canoa: A Shameful Memory: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
45 Years: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Most of what Americans remember about the 1968 Summer Olympics, held in Mexico City, between October 12-27, involves the black American medal-winners – the Australian sprinter who came in second also supported them — who raised their black-gloved fists and lowered the heads during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” They did so in solidarity with civil-rights activists back home, who were being targeted by law-enforcement agencies in the wake of riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and growing influence of militants in the Black Power movement. In response, IOC president Avery Brundage suspended Tommie Smith and John Carlos from the U.S. team and banned them from the Olympic Village. It triggered a huge furor in the U.S., based largely on the photographic images displayed on front pages of newspapers across the country and, likely, the globe. Ask any Mexican of a certain age and they’re likely to say that the thing they remember most about the Olympics were the widespread protests leading up to Games, under the banner of the Mexican Student Movement. They prompted the country’s right-wing government to impose strict restrictions on speech and assembly, as well as a visible military presence.

Ten days before Opening Ceremonies were scheduled to begin, army and police snipers were ordered to open fire on a gathering of some 10,000 protesters in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, in the Tlatelolco section of Mexico City. Early government reports put the death toll at between 20-28 people, with hundreds wounded and 1,300 more arrested. The foreign media, which had yet to reach Mexico City to cover the Olympics, were unable to verify the extend of the massacre and accepted the lowball figures from partially complicit U.S. authorities there. Most of the Mexican media reported that the students provoked the army’s violent response with sniper fire of their own, from the apartment buildings surrounding the plaza. Witnesses and other non-government observers estimated that at least 300 students and bystanders were killed or made to disappear. The Games went on as planned, with visitors from around the world largely ignorant of the actual carnage. It would take another 32 years and toppling of the longtime ruling party for an impartial investigation and accurate tally of casualties. It supported the eyewitness reports.

Eight years later, Felipe Cazals and writer Tomás Pérez Turrent’s Canoa: A Shameful Memory would become the first Mexican movie to dare challenge official accounts of the summer of student protests and comment on the deep schisms within mainstream Mexican society and the Catholic Church, which, itself, was split between hard-liners and the priests espousing liberation theology. As far as I know, the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition of the movie offers American viewers their first glimpse of the winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 1976 Berlin International Film Festival. It’s about time. Canoa: A Shameful Memory employs a Brechtian narration conceit to re-stage the 24-hour period that led to and followed the savage attacks on five innocent hikers, two weeks before the Tlatelolco massacre in the capital. The tragedy occurred in the impoverished rural village of San Miguel de Canoa, about 120 km southeast of Mexico City, in the shadow of La Malinche. News of the protests in the capital and universities around Mexico had reached villagers through politically slanted television reports and the fiery rhetoric of the local priest (Enrique Lucero), who not only calls the demonstrators godless communists, but also the physical embodiments of Satan on Earth. He demands from the easily bullied parishioners that they maintain a militant vigilance against outsiders, while simultaneously picking their pockets of whatever centavos they have. It is into this highly charged atmosphere that five employees of the Autonomous University of Puebla – employees, not students – arrive in the village, by bus, on a rain-soaked evening. The only shelter afforded the young men, who were turned away from the church and jail, is the home of a resident who freely shares his disdain for the priest. Before long, word is passed via a public loudspeaker that Satan’s envoys have, indeed, arrived and are about to plant the “communist flag” at the church’s altar, defile their animals and steal snacks from the village store. After a lynch mob is mobilized, four of the five outsiders and the man who opened his door to them are beaten, slashed and shot to death. Ambulance drivers are denied access to the village, before military police are called to quell the violence. Meanwhile, the priest who fomented the lynching – a dead ringer for Peoples Temple founder Jim Jones — stands in the background, acting like the cat that ate the canary.

Canoa: A Shameful Memory is most effective in its characterizations of the dirt-poor peasants, whose misplaced pride and religious convictions turn them into mindless killers. Cazals builds tension by shifting the camera’s perspective from the hikers’ points-of-views, to the church, bar and homes of the villagers. Cinematographer Álex Phillips Jr. is especially adept at finding whatever light is available – the mob’s torches, bare lightbulbs –and using it to illuminate the horror, without rubbing our noses in it. I don’t know if Cazals would consider himself to be a student of Costa-Gavras’ documentary-style indictments, but “Canoa” feels as if it were made with Z, State of Siege and The Confession in mind. Although there aren’t as many bonus features attached as most Criterion titles, the conversation between Cazals and Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), describing the effect the movie had on a new generation of Mexican filmmakers, is fascinating. A new introduction by Guillermo del Toro and essay by critic Fernanda Solórzano also are included.

It’s only taken nine months for “45 Years” to be given the Criterion treatment, after a perfectly decent Blu-ray release by Paramount last June. The difference between them, I suspect, lies in a bonus package that includes the original Sundance Select theatrical trailer; “The Making of 45 Years,” with clips and fresh interviews with director Andrew Haigh, Tom Courtenay, Charlotte Rampling, producer Tristan Goligher and editor Jonathan Alberts; commentary with Haigh and Tristan Goligher; a new video interview with author and poet David Constantine, who discusses Haigh’s adaptation of his short story; and an illustrated leaflet featuring an essay by critic Ella Taylor. The title refers to the 45 years of marriage Geoff and Kate soon will celebrate, as well as his sublimated memory of the woman he loved and lost before he met his wife. A letter addressed to Geoff from Germany informs him – and Kate, who’s only heard of the woman – that her body has been discovered in a glacier, somewhere in the Swiss Alps. Not only that, but, even after 45 years in the deep freeze, her body is in perfect condition. Geoff’s reaction to the discovery makes Kate wonder if she’s been playing second-fiddle to a ghost for all that time or he’s just experiencing a particularly disturbing senior moment. It’s a neat premise and Rambling and Courtney are terrific.

To Tell the Truth
A Boatload of Wild Irishmen
When is a documentary not a fact-based reflection of the truth? When it’s propaganda. OK, but is it possible for a documentary to also be propaganda? In the same way that history is said to be written by the victors, the difference between documentaries and propaganda depends on whether the ox is being gored or doing the goring. These and other questions are raised in Calvin Skaggs’ two-part To Tell the Truth, which, in “Working for Change,” explores the evolution of the non-fiction genre through social documentary films, from 1929 through 1941, and, in “The Strategy of Truth,” examines the uses of documentary/propaganda during World War II. The latter allows us to wonder how the Third Reich would have treated Colonel Frank Capra, mastermind of the U.S. Army’s “Why We Fight” series, if Germany had won the war. After the Nazis were defeated, Allied forces hunted down Triumph of the Will director Leni Riefenstahl and virtually assured that she would be ostracized from the international film community. In “The Strategy for Truth,” we’re shown how Capra’s 1944 follow-up, “The Negro Soldier,” was used to soften African-Americans’ reluctance to serve in an officially segregated and, frequently, downright racist military, typically in service, custodial and maintenance jobs. He also hoped the film would convince white Americans of the patriotism of black soldiers and positive role they’re already playing in the war effort. Although it was an undeniably impressive piece of work, it’s foundation was built on sand. Among the people interviewed are Alec Baldwin, the late Agnes Varda and Kevin Brownlow. It adds John Huston’s wartime contributions, “Anatomy of a Jeep” and “Let There Be Light,” which was suppressed for 30 years. It’s also worth noting that many of the progressive filmmakers who participated in the U.S. Office of War Information’s propaganda campaign would be thanked by being blacklisted and banished from Hollywood.

Several generations of film students knew Robert Flaherty as the “father” of the modern documentary film. Revisionist historians probably would argue that the director of “Nanook of the North,” “Moana,” “Man of Aran” and “Louisiana Story” is the father of modern reality-based programming. That, however, would have us stipulate that “reality based” and the manipulation of known cultural and historical facts for the purposes of mainstream entertainment are synonymous, which they most assuredly are not. The whimsically titled “A Boatload of Wild Irishmen” makes the case for the latter, while explaining why his films are as relevant and emulated today as they’ve been for most of the last 90 years. Flaherty is said to have opened Pandora’s box by demonstrating how filming the everyday life of real people could be molded into dramatic, entertaining narratives. If the events and dialogue shown on the big screen didn’t take place in precisely the same order as they were captured by the camera, it wasn’t because Flaherty hadn’t studied them for countless days and hours ahead of time. And, if the ethnographic details were fudged, who back home in the U.S. would know it. Certainly not, paying customers. The title, A Boatload of Wild Irishmen, refers to the Aran Island fishermen he convinced to go to sea in a stiff gale and risk their life attempting to make it back to shore unscathed. Mac Dara Ó’Curraidhín and writer Brian Winston’s 2010 warts-and-all documentary is best when drawing a portrait of a Hollywood original and old-school adventurer who lived the kind of life others only read about in books or observed in newsreels during double-features.  The film benefits from much archival footage, clips and interviews with people who either are related to people in the documentaries or remember when they were being made. Joseph Boudreaux, who played “the Boy” in 1948’s The Louisiana Story, may not have appeared in another movie, but he’s lived long enough to re-live some of the hunting and fishing scenes staged by Flaherty for Ó’Curraidhín.

The Gospel of Mark
Every once in a while, some ambitious producer decides that it might be fun to make a series of movies based on stories from the Old Testament or New Testament gospels. This doesn’t include the individual Hollywood biblical epics that Cecil B. DeMille churned out for holiday viewing for more than 30 years or such politically and spiritually charged stand-alones as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. In the mid-1960s, Dino De Laurentiis announced that The Bible: In the Beginning …,” directed by and starring John Huston as Noah, would be the first in a series of feature films based on the books of the Bible. When Fox lost $1.5 million on the deal, however, it abandoned any plans for sequels. Imagine if God had simply pulled the plug on humanity after Sodom and Gomorrah, instead wasting good fire and brimstone on it, and waited for something cheaper and more malleable to come along in its place? Thirty years later, a group of producers led by former Jimmy Carter aide Gerald Rafshoon commissioned a series of seven classic Old Testament stories — employing top-shelf actors, directors and composers – even going so far as to build a production facility in Ouarzazate, Morocco. They established a worldwide distribution network, taking advantage of new cable- and satellite-delivery systems. It has since been recycled several times over in DVD and other cable networks. The Gospel of Mark is the third of four films from a consortium of production companies with experience in the Christian subgenre. The others are The Gospel of Luke/John/Matthew. The simplicity of the idea is practically inspirational. Each depicts the life and toils of Jesus Christ, as written in the gospels. Narrated in English, they adhere to the New International Version of the scripture, while the actors speak in Aramaic. (You’d have to lip read Aramaic to understand it, though.) Each installment shares David Batty, as director; Selva Rasalingam, as Jesus; Karima Gouit, as Mary; Leila El Fadili, as Mary Magdelene; El Housseine Dejjiti, as Judas Iscariot; and so on and so forth. No screenwriters are credited and it’s entirely possible they used the same Moroccan facilities as the ones built by Rafshoon. I was impressed by how effective the concept worked as cinema and entertainment. The casting of Middle Eastern and Northern African actors and extras adds verisimilitude missing in past religious epics. The featurettes include “Deconstructing a Scene,” “Building Jerusalem,” “Composing the Gospels,” “Filming the Gospels” and “Narrating the Gospels.”

Beyond Redemption: Blu-ray
Return of Kung Fu Trailers of Fury: Blu-ray
It took a while for me to figure out where Beyond Redemption, the debut feature by stuntman-turned-director Bruce Fontaine, was set and why all the Asian characters were speaking undubbed English. That’s because Vancouver isn’t the first place that comes to mind when organized crime comes to mind … great food, welcoming Canadians and cruise-ship depots, sure … but Triads?  In the 2011 National Household Survey, it was determined that 27 percent of Vancouver’s “visible minority” community – or, roughly, 163,000 people – were of Chinese ancestry. Apparently, many of the city’s wealthy Asian immigrants winter in places other than British Columbia, so the number fluctuates. In the 1980s, Canadian martial arts expert Fontaine made a name for himself as a western gweilo villain and stuntman in Hong Kong cinema. He’s since returned to B.C. to train actors working in western Canada’s film industry. In Beyond Redemption, undercover cop Billy Tong (Brian Ho) fights his way into the inner circle of a street gang that’s kidnapped the daughter of a Triad boss and is in danger of becoming collateral damage in a police sting … or something like that. Frankly, the only things that work in Fontaine’s film are the action sequences. With so many first-rate martial-arts exports now available on DVD and PPV, though, it’ll take more than a few good fights to compete with Hong Kong as a reliable producer of such products. But, then, they probably said the same thing about Vancouver and Toronto before they were turned into Hollywood North and New York North. The package adds short studies of two fighting scenes.

Anyone interested in seeing just how far the Hong Kong film industry has come since Bruce Lee turned it into a prime source for action flicks should pick up “Kung Fu Trailers of Fury” or the newly released “Return of Kung Fu Trailers of Fury.” The sequel adds 35 more original trailers from the Golden Age of Martial Arts Cinema, starring such legends as Angela Mao, Bolo Yeung, Don Wong, Chang Yi, Bruce Li, Leanne Liu, Lo Lieh and, yes, even Chuck Norris. According to the marketing material, it’s “another invincible collection of treachery, brutality, swordplay, wirework, darting daggers, flying fists and the most insane fighting styles ever unleashed on celluloid,” with “insane” being the operative adjective. Considering that the plots of these movies were as nonsensical as the action was fun to watch, the extended previews contain most of what made the movies watchable in the first place. The Blu-ray makes them look better than they have in 40 years, but no less off the wall. Among the titles represented are Yellow-Faced Tiger, Bruce and the Iron Finger, Revenge of the Shaolin Kid, The Avenging Boxer, Snuff-Bottle Connection, Hell’s Windstaff, Thundering Mantis, The Legendary Strike, Kung Fu Killers, Crazy Horse & Intelligent Monkey and Shaolin Invincible Sticks. Audio commentary is provided by writer Ric Meyers (“Films of Fury”), Frank Djeng (New York Asian Film Festival), martial arts instructor Greg Schiller and Ric Stelow, of Drunken Master Video

Firestarter: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Drive-In Massacre: Blu-ray
By 1984, when Firestarter was released into theaters, seven of the eight novels Stephen King had written under his own name – as opposed to Richard Bachman — and five of his short stories had been adapted for the screen. His first book “Carrie,” had been turned into a supernatural horror film that launched or expanded the careers of Sissy Spacek, Nancy Allen, William Katt, Amy Irving, and John Travolta, and confirmed Brian DePalma’s promise as a potential successor to master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock. Like Spacek’s telekinetic Carrie, Drew Barrymore’s Charlene ‘Charlie’ McGee has been gifted/cursed with psychic powers she sometimes has trouble controlling. In an extreme stretch of narrative logic, the cute 8-year-old has inherited ESP and the ability to start fires – pyrokinesis, if you will — from her parents, Vickie and Andy (Heather Locklear, David Keith). While in college, they had participated in a controlled trial of a mind-expanding drug, like LSD, coming out of it with telepathic and other psychic abilities. When Charlie’s powers first manifested themselves, they were fairly easy to contain. Before long, however, her pyrokinesis grew far more powerful. Andy was able to teach his daughter how to extinguish the fires she started, but her ESP failed to predict that agents from the federal Department of Scientific Intelligence (a.k.a., “the Shop”) would murder Vickie while kidnapping the child. Andy is able to short-circuit the agents’ efforts to bring Charlie into the Shop, causing them to seek refuge with an anti-government farmer and his wife (Art Carney, Louise Fletcher) who provide them with a vehicle to a secluded cabin on a beautiful North Carolina lake. When they make the mistake of telegraphing their location in a letter to the New York Times, Captain Hollister (Martin Sheen), sends Agent John Rainbird (George C. Scott) to capture them and stop the release of state secrets. Father and daughter are kept in separate living units until the pony-tailed, half-Cherokee Rainboard allows them to escape. Inexplicably, he hates Charlie and vows to kill her. The final fiery showdown – none of which is beholden to computer graphics – provides a showcase for some of the industry’s top stuntmen and pyro technicians. Throw in a juicy musical score by Tangerine Dream and Firestarter is a guilty pleasure for the ages. The Shout!Factory Collector’s Edition adds commentary with director Mark L. Lester; a 53-minute making-of featurette, featuring interviews with Lester, actors Freddie Jones, Drew Snyder and stuntman/actor Dick Warlock, and Johannes Schmoelling of Tangerine Dream; a visit to Schmoelling’s studio and performance of “Charlie’s Theme”; and a stills gallery.

Released in 1976, at the dawn of the slasher era, Stu Segall’s Drive-In Massacre is less a a guilty pleasure than an extremely cheesy one. Even so, buffs and completists probably will want to check it out as a historical document, if only to see how things were done when no one in Hollywood wanted to touch the genre. As the title suggests, a sword-wielding serial killer is slaughtering young men and women at a SoCal drive-in theater, seemingly for the crime of demonstrating their affection for each other in public. The killings are gruesome, if not particularly credible, and the usual drive-in hijinks are limited to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it topless scene. The primary suspects include the drive-in manager, who hates everyone and everything involved in the exhibition business; his unpaid maintenance man, who once labored as a geek in a carnival; a drooling voyeur; and various suspicious characters who come out of left field when the action begins to lag. The Ozploitation classic, Dead-End Drive-In wouldn’t arrive for another 10 years, so, I guess, you can say Drive-In Massacre was ahead of its time. Believe it or not, the movie was restored from the original camera negative, recently discovered in the ruins of the Sky View Drive-In, near Oxnard. The bonus features include commentary with Segall; and interviews with star/co-writer John F. Goff, actor Norm Sheridan and Segall.

Child Eater
Because writer/director Erlingur Thoroddsen is from Iceland, we’re free to wonder if the boogeyman at the heart of his nifty first feature is used by parents around the world to scare their children into behaving properly at night or it’s strictly an American invention. Trolls condemned to live under bridges around the world probably serve the same purpose as bogeymen, but, today, the only beings who live under bridges are homeless people, so, where do they go? Child Eater expands upon a short film of the same title that Thoroddsen took on the festival circuit in 2012. Its bogeyman has a name and a history, but, likewise, is used by parents to scare their children. As the legend goes, a fellow named Robert Bowery owned a petting zoo in the 1970s, but he was forced to close it when he was diagnosed with macular degeneration. On the last day of its operation, it was discovered that all the children visiting the zoo had their eyes ripped out. Ever since, adults have used the story to convince children not to stray too deeply into the forest. In the present day, a curious kid named Lucas (Colin Critchley) and his parents have moved into a house next to the old zoo. Soon, the boy begins telling stories about seeing a scary looking man wandering around the property, and he bears a striking resemblance to the eyeless Bowery. Then, one night, when his parents have hired a babysitter, Lucas simply disappears into the night. Frightened that she’s blown the gig, Helen (Cait Bliss) picks up a flashlight and follows his footprints into the zoo. Child Eater benefits from cinematographer John Wakayama Carey’s ability to shoot at night and not lose the characters in the darkness and an early scene in which a little girl from a quarter-century earlier is shown holding her own severed eyes, innocently delivering the line, “He hurt me.”

Stevie Ray Vaughan: 1984-1989: Lonestar
Texas blues-rocker Stevie Ray Vaughan bought his ticket to Rock ’n’ Roll Heaven on August 27, 1990, when he decided to hitch a ride from Wisconsin to Chicago on one of the four helicopters reserved for Eric Clapton and his entourage. They’d just finished a two-show gig at Alpine Valley and the night sky was heavy with fog. The chopper with Vaughan aboard failed to navigate a 150-foot ski hill and crashed into it, 50 feet below the summit. Legend has it that Clapton gave up his seat to make room for his friend and fellow guitar god, but he’s since denied that was the case. The incisive bio-doc Stevie Ray Vaughan: 1984-1989: Lonestar picks where Sexy Intellectual’s previous documentary, Rise of a Texas Bluesman: Stevie Ray Vaughan: 1954-1983, left off. His debut album, “Texas Flood,” had finally been released to widespread praise and solid sales, and his name was being mentioned in the same breath as Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Elmore James. Typically, though, one out-of-the-chute success doth not a career make. Vaughan’s demons laid in wait ahead of him and he drove himself and bandmates to the point of exhaustion to avoid losing forward momentum. The 108-minute “Lonestar” is enhanced by rare film footage; exclusive interviews with many close friends and confidantes; contributions from industry professionals and music writers who documented Vaughan’s career as it unfolded; seldom seen photographs; and more concert footage than usual for these unauthorized docs.

TV-to-DVD
Comedy Central: Drunk History: Season 4
PBS Kids: Super WHY!: Triple Feature
PBS Kids: Wild Kratts: Triple Feature
Among the many highlights of the fourth season of Comedy Central’s “Drunk History” is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s narrating of the story of Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the infamous duel that not only shaped a young nation, but also Miranda’s smash Broadway musical. The trick here is, of course, recounting it while three sheets to the wind. Not drunk are the actors mouthing the narrators’ words, whether or not they make sense. Here, Alia Shawkat plays Hamilton and Aubrey Plaza is Burr. Other founding fathers are portrayed by Tony Hale, David Wain and Bokeem Woodbine. Among the other luminaries featured are Timothy Leary (Thomas Lennon), Marilyn Monroe and Ella Fitzgerald (Juno Temple, Gabourey Sidibe), Carry A. Nation (Vanessa Bayer), Andrew Jackson (Michael Cera), Charles Ponzi (Jesse Plemons) and Julia Child (Michaela Watkins).

In “Super WHY!: Triple Feature,” Whyatt and the Super Readers embark on entertaining and educational adventures set in such classic fairytales as“Humpty Dumpty,” “Hansel & Gretel” and “Jack and the Beanstalk.” The three previously released DVDs are bundled together onto two discs, logging in at 280 minutes. Young viewers can learn from helping Cinderella get ready for a party at the prince’s castle, by spelling D-R-E-S-S and using an alphabet map to aid Hensel and Gretel in their search for the witch’s house. In total, the Super Readers go on 10 journeys designed to help them with the critical skills they need to learn to read.

In “Wild Kratts: Triple Feature” kids are invited to Join Martin and Chris Kratt as they meet amazing animals from around the world. Here, three previously released DVDs – “Predator Power,” “Lost at Sea,” “Rainforest Rescue” — are bundled together onto one 205-minute disc. Among the eight stories included are “Stuck on Sharks,” “Mimic,” “Little Howler,” “Raptor Roundup,” “Speaking Dolphinese,” “Blowfish Blowout,” “Rainforest Stew” and “Shadow: The Black Jaguar.”

The DVD Wrapup: Moana, Brand New Testament, Weissensee Saga, 100 Streets, and more

Thursday, March 9th, 2017

Moana: Blu-ray
Seventy-five years ago, at the behest of President Franklin Roosevelt, Walt Disney embarked on a good-will mission to South America. FDR knew that America would soon be forced to intercede in the war in Europe, at least, and Adolf Hitler and Francisco Franco had already made political and financial inroads there. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck had already won the affection of tens of thousands of people there and Disney was greeted warmly everywhere he went. His absence from the Burbank studio coincided with the bitter walkout by animators unhappy over broken promises and the firing of a key ally. The Good Neighbor Policy excursion south not only allowed for a cooling-off period, during which federal mediators worked out a settlement, but it also led to the Oscar-nominated package pictures, Saludos Amigos and Three Caballeros. The sponsors allowed Disney to bring along a group of roughly 20 composers, artists, writers and technicians, whose observations directly informed both of the movies, which debuted in South America and Mexico before their American premieres. It’s paid dividends ever since, especially through the popularity of José “Zé” Carioca, a dapper, cigar-smoking parrot who’s served the same branding purpose as Jiminy Cricket. Today, it isn’t unusual for Disney/Pixar creative personnel to be flown to countries that will provide the settings for animation projects. In 2011, directors John Musker and Ron Clements (The Princess and the Frog) fell in love with the idea of a project based on Polynesian mythology and the heroic exploits of the demigod Maui. They pitched the original treatment for Moana to Pixar-Disney Animation boss John Lasseter, who recommended they go on research trips to Fiji, Samoa and Tahiti.

Over time, Moana was reshaped from a story focused on Maui to one that chronicles the historic migrations of Polynesian people and their symbiotic relationship with the ocean. They decided to set the film at the end of the last great mass exodus, about two thousand years ago, on a fictional island in the central Pacific Ocean, not unlike Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. The protagonist became Moana, the daughter of a chief, and she would be voiced by Hawaiian teenager Auli’i Cravalho. Dwayne Johnson, whose mother is of Samoan background, was hired to voice the repurposed Maui. In another critical decision, Disney recruited a variety of experts on Polynesian history and culture to ensure authenticity and pre-empt what had become almost pro-forma accusations of cultural insensitivity in earlier features. Throughout the production process, revisions to everything from language and characterizations, to hair styles,, tattoos and ancillary products, were suggested and made. The result is a wonderfully entertaining family movie whose Oceania influences are reflected in the color palate, music, dance, dress, physical backdrops and customs.

As the story of Moana now goes, a small jade stone that is the mystical heart of the island goddess Te Fiti is stolen by the demigod Maui, who was planning to give it to humanity as a gift. As he makes his escape, he is attacked by the lava demon Te Kā, causing the heart of Te Fiti and Maui’s power-granting magical fish hook to be lost in the ocean. A millennium later, Moana Waialiki is chosen by the ocean spirit to receive the heart, but drops it when her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), comes to get her. He insists the island provides everything the villagers need, but, years later, fish become scarce and the island’s vegetation begins dying. After Tui forbids Moana from going “beyond the reef” to find more fish, her grandmother, Tala (Rachel House), encourages the precocious princess to trust her ancestral instincts and take to the sea to save their people. She sets out with her pet rooster, Heihei (Alan Tudyk), to find Maui, recover the hook and heart, and make Te Fiti happy, again. It could just as easily been Jose, Jiminy or Tink. The extensive bonus package adds the short films, “Inner Workings” and “Gone Fishing,” with Maui; the deleted song, “Warrior Face”; “Voice of the Islands,” on the filmmakers’ trip to the islands and islanders’ trips to Burbank; rapid-fire Q&As with the talent; deleted scenes; commentary with the directors; and several making-of featurettes.

The Brand New Testament: Blu-ray
The Ardennes
Belgium may not be the largest country in the world, or even northern Europe, but its contributions to cinema are substantial. Among the names and titles that have been honored at festivals and awards ceremonies over the past 40 years, or so, are Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (Rosetta, L’Enfant), Chantal Akerman (Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels), Marc Didden (Brussels by Night), Robbe De Hert (Blueberry Hill), animators Nicole van Goethem (A Greek Tragedy) and Raoul Servais (Harpya), Stijn Coninx (Daens), Erik Van Looy (The Alzheimer Case), Nic Balthazar (Ben X), Lieven Debrauwer (Pauline and Paulette), Michaël R. Roskam (Bullhead) and Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde (Man Bites Dog). And, while most of these films would hardly qualify as mainstream entertainments, it should be noted that Belgian bad-ass Jean-Claude Van Damme starred in Mabrouk El Mechri’s JCVD (2008), one of the most engaging and intelligent martial-arts/action flicks made anywhere west of Pacific Rim. If Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte had followed the lead of Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel and ventured into a cinematic collaboration, like Un Chien Andalou, the result might have looked something like Jaco Van Dormael’s feature debut, Toto le héros (1991), which won the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. In it, 8-year-old Thomas Van Hasebroeck is convinced that he was exchanged with his neighbor, Alfred, the day of their birth during a fire in the hospital. As a result, Thomas comes to believe he is living the life God intended for Alfred, and vice versa. He resents Alfred’s good fortune and spends most of own life seeking revenge for the perceived injustice. Once seen, it lingers in the memory like a brilliantly colored dream that combines mystery, fantasy, drama, action and comedy. Van Dormael’s 1996 follow-up, The Eighth Day, features an unexpected friendship that develops between an unhappy salesman (Daniel Auteuil) and a young man (Pascal Duquenne) with Down’s syndrome, who’s just escaped from a mental institution. His 2009 drama/fantasy/romance Mr. Nobody examines the life of Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto), a 118-year-old man who is the last mortal on Earth after the human race has achieved quasi-immortality. The English-language story is told through the different lives Nemo would have led, had he made different choices as a 9-year-old boy, waiting at a train station. It starred Jared Leto, Sarah Polley and Diane Kruger. Kiss & Cry (2011) is an experimental fantasy featuring miniatures and dancing hands.

Anyone familiar with Joan Osborne’s 1995 hit record “One of Us” will immediately recognize the conceit in Van Dormeal’s his delightfully playful surrealist fantasy, The Brand New Testament. The song asks, “What if God was one of us?/Just a slob like one of us/Just a stranger on the bus/Tryin’ to make his way home …” In the film, God has taken up residence in an apartment in Brussels he shares with his meek and disengaged wife (Yolande Moreau) and 10-year-old daughter Ea (Pili Groyne), to whom he is emotionally and physically abusive. God (Benoît Poelvoorde) is a grumpy sadist who created humankind specifically to have something to torment. He manipulates reality via a personal computer, which, one day, Ea manages to hack and provide everyone on Earth the day and hour of their deaths. She escapes the apartment through a washing machine that provides a worm hole to the outside world. Jesus, materializing in the form of a religious statue in the kitchen, encourages his sister to defy their father by gathering a motley crew of disciples and writing a brand-new New Testament. Her six apostles include a one-armed woman, a sex maniac, a killer, a woman who has been left by her husband, an office worker and a gender-dysphoric child. Catherine Deneuve’s love-starved housewife is the funniest and most absurd vignette of them all. Meanwhile, in his blundering attempt to corral his daughter, God is cursed by having to play by the same maniacal laws he imposed on humans living outside his apartment. It wouldn’t be fair to spoil any more of the surprises, except to point out that they are consistent with our dependence on personal computers and the plot isn’t any more blasphemous than “One of Us.” In Van Dormael’s hands, it’s a celebration life and love. The Music Box package adds interviews with the director and making-of material.

It’s easy to draw comparisons between Robin Pront’s directorial debut, The Ardennes, and David Mackenzie’s Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water. In each, a pair of brothers – one a hot-headed ex-con – embark on a crime spree intended to fund what turns out to be an impossible dream of going straight. The violence, which is harsh and explosive in both pictures, is diluted somewhat by one of the brothers’ relationship with a woman who decided over time to modify her own behavior. The settings could hardly be any more diverse, however. While Mackenzie’s drama played out against a bleak and wind-swept background of the American Southwest, The Ardennes is set in the gritty working-class neighborhoods of Antwerp, as well as the dense forests of Belgium and Luxembourg. Brothers Dave and Kenneth (Jeroen Perceval, Kevin Janssens) are reunited on Kenneth’s release after four years in prison, following a failed home invasion. While Kenneth is anxious to dive headfirst into the drug-centered existence that ensnared him in the first place, both Dave and his brother’s former girlfriend, Sylvie, have adopted clean lifestyles. When Kenneth begins to sense that Sylvie was unfaithful to him while he was away, he goes on a tear that threatens to pull everyone into a maelstrom of violence and death. Tonally, at least, The Ardennes will remind viewers of Michaël R. Roskam’s Bullhead. Many of the same actors and producers — Jeroen Perceval, Bart Van Langendonck — involved in that crime drama play key roles here. Even if the narrative doesn’t always keep pace with the action sequences, the imaginatively staged shootouts, fistfights and emotional eruptions should please fans of such things. The Film Movement DVD adds commentary and an interview with director Pront and Janssens; a making-of featurette; a short film by director Robin Pront, “Injury Time”; a director’s statement; and the distributor’s “Why-We-Selected” statement.

100 Streets: Blu-ray
Fans of such British TV series as “Luther,” “Rebus,” “The Inspector Lynley Mysteries,” “Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands,” “Hollyoaks” and “EastEnders” are the target audience for 100 Streets, a trio of interconnected stories that play out within an economically and racially diverse section of London. The title suggests that it’s an extension of screenwriter Leon Butler’s debut short, “One Square Mile: London.” In the first segment, Idris Alba plays a retired rugby star, Max, whose womanizing has caused him to be kicked out of the home he shared with his estranged wife (Gemma Arterton) and children. His massive ego prevents him from giving them the space they need to heal from his abuses. Eventually, the green-eyed monster of jealousy will force Max into the same corner as Othello. If that’s too obvious a comparison, Alba makes the most of it, at least. Ken Stott (“The Vice”) plays a retired actor who sees something in a local gang-banger and drug dealer (Franz Drameh) that’s invisible to everyone else in the boy’s circle. Even as Terence and Max’s wife, also a semi-retired performer, attempt to turn Kingsley into an actor, his street cronies vow to keep him in the game. The third story involves a cabbie and soccer coach (Charlie Creed-Miles), who made a mistake years earlier that could block his and his wife’s efforts to adopt a child. Meanwhile, an unavoidable accident puts him into a depressive state that threatens his marriage. 100 Streets may not be the most original of stories, but the actors give it their all … which is plenty.

Cold War 2: Blu-ray
Upon its release in 2012, Sunny Luk and Longmond Leung’s Cold War was promoted as the second coming of international hit, Infernal Affairs, which spawned a prequel, sequel and Martin Scorsese adaptation, The Departed. While, it didn’t have the same desired impact, Cold War left enough people wanting more to warrant Cold War II. Fans of the original will recall how a van carrying five highly trained Hong Kong police officers and equipment was hijacked by criminal/terrorists demanding a huge ransom. Thanks to an informant inside the department, the hijackers always managed to stay one step ahead of the police. A power struggle at the highest level of the police hierarchy suggests there’s plenty of room for intrigue. Left unresolved at the end of the thriller were the identity of the mole and whereabouts of the van. Cold War II picks up a while after the events of the original, which ended in a successful rescue operation, with the kidnapping of the wife and daughter of Commissioner of Police Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok). The ransom demand this time involves the release of an imprisoned hijacker, who has connections of his own within the department. Lau’s former rival, the retired commissioner M.B. Waise Lee (Tony Ka Fai Leung), is called upon to rein in the ringleaders and determine, once and for all, who’s in control of Hong Kong. And, of course, there’s the unresolved matter of the mole. Despite a bit too much talk and posturing, the action sequences are sufficient reason to recommend Cold War II to admirers of the original. An EPK-style behind-the-scenes featurette is included.

Trespass Against Us: Blu-ray
To completely understand and appreciate Adam Smith’s ferocious theatrical debut, Trespass Against Us, a wee bit of knowledge about England’s “travelling people” is necessary. Although all three groups play by their own set of rules and answer to family before law-enforcement authorities, they believe in a God-given right to navigate the highways and backroads of the U.K., camping illegally on public or private land and causing mayhem wherever they weigh anchor. The original Rom Gypsies aren’t as prominent in Britain as they are on the continent; Irish Travelers, comprise an itinerant ethnic group (a.k.a., pavees, pikeys and tinkers) that maintains a set of religious, cultural and familial traditions; and Scottish Highland Travelers, known as Tinkers for their origins as itinerant tinsmiths, no longer mend household utensils for income.  Although hundreds of thousands of gypsies were slaughtered in World War II, Roms and Travelers don’t appear to be protected by any politically correct guidelines. No ethnic group is more widely and freely slandered, although some filmmakers have attempted to give them a fairer shake than others: The Man Who Cried, The Red Violin, Black Cat/White Cat, I Even Met Happy Gypsies, Time of the Gypsies, The Field, Into the West and Trojan Eddie. Like The Harder They Come, whose English-language dialogue and patois demanded the addition of subtitles. Trespass Against Us not only could benefit from subtitles, but footnotes, as well. Conversations are peppered with Shelta or Cant, dialects that bear enough of a resemblance to English as to be confusing, if not indecipherable to outsiders and moviegoers.

Michael Fassbender plays Chad Cutler, the second generation in a small band of Irish Travelers living in a slum of their own creation somewhere in the scenic west of England. His father, Colby (Brendan Gleeson), is the rough-hewn patriarch of the clan, which enjoys a parasitic relationship to their upscale neighbors. He enjoys nothing more than telling tall tales around the campfire and reminding his grandchildren not to believe anything they learn at school. Even so, Chad and his wife (Lyndsey Marshall) are adamant that their children get an education. While Chad envisions a more conventional future for the kids, he’s limited to a life of crime, kicks and car chases … lots of them. The drama comes when he attempts to wrest control of his brood from his father and brothers, without being completely disowned by them. Smith and screenwriter Alastair Siddons don’t always succeed in balancing drama with action, but it’s lots of fun to watch … in a Tarantino-ish sort of way. Finally, though, apart from Chad’s wife and children, there’s no one in Trespass Against Us that stands out as being particularly sympathetic. The Chemical Brothers’ score is a big plus.  Special features include “Blood Bonds: On the Set of Trespass Against Us” and “Heartfelt,” in which Smith discusses his collaborations with the Chemical Brothers.

Tupac: Assassination: Battle for Compton: Blu-ray
Last month, in this space, I commented on Michael Dorsey’s Murder Rap: Inside the Biggie and Tupac Murders, a documentary largely based on interviews with lead LAPD detective Greg Kading and other witnesses. At Amazon.com, at least, the title of Kading’s book, “Murder Rap,” adds the misleading “Investigations by the Detective Who Solved Both Cases.” As self-serving as the documentary is – for Kading and the department — it couldn’t help but be of interest to true-crime enthusiasts and fans of the hip-hop legends. In Tupac: Assassination III: Battle for Compton, Richard Bond makes a rather different case, using some of the same evidence, testimony and sources. Bond’s entry in IMDB.com only shows documentaries related to Tupac and events that led up to and followed the attack in Las Vegas. It goes to great lengths to explain why, after 20 years, the investigation has bogged down to a crawl and isn’t likely to pick up any time soon. Reporters, lawyers, cops, gang-bangers and other people close to the story describe just how bolloxed up the investigation got after police in three cities – Los Angeles, Compton and Las Vegas – decided it wasn’t in their interest to solve the crimes. The depth of corruption in L.A. and Compton – at one time, Death Row Records controlled the suburb – matched the ability of street gangs to operate with impunity. It also was matched by the greed of participants hoping to derail their gravy train. As the mafia has demonstrated, making witnesses disappear is the easiest way to ensure a mistrial or not-guilty verdict. Finally, too, Bonds appears to be making the case for treating the murders – however devastating to their fans – as sideshow events to a much larger conspiracy. At just short of two hours, “Battle for Compton” may be exhausting, but rarely tiresome.

New Life
In what could easily be described as a family-friendly adaptation of Love Story or Terms of Endearment, Drew Waters’ debut as a co-writer/director is a three-hanky weeper that takes a paint-by-numbers path to an uplifting ending. New Life opens with a love-at-first-sight moment between kids who live next-door to each other and continues through long-distance relationships, diverting flirtations, marriage, pregnancy, sickness, recovery and I’ll bet you can guess what comes next. Jonathan Patrick Moore (Christian Mingle) and Erin Bethea (The Redemption of Henry Myers) make a very cute and credible couple, no matter how formulaic New Life gets. The worst faux pas, however, is forcing American supporting actress Kelsey Formost to affect a French accent even Pepé Le Pew wouldn’t buy. Old pros Barry Corbin, Bill Cobbs and Irma P. Hall add a sentimental aura to the proceedings, as well.

The C Word
At a time when the Trump administration is on the brink of opening the floodgates built to protect Americans from industrial, chemical, medicinal, food- and water-borne toxins, Meghan O’Hara cautionary documentary, The C Word, could hardly be more relevant. Most of the information dispensed in the film has been available on the Internet, in documentaries and books, but, here, the immediacy of the message carries a sense of urgency and timeliness. Apart from narrator Morgan Freeman, the voice of authority belongs to French physician and neuroscientist David Servan-Schreiber, author of “Anticancer: A New Way of Life,” a New York Times best-seller that has been translated into 35 languages. In it, he discusses his two successful battles with a malignant brain tumor – the first, at 31 — and the treatment program he put together to help himself beyond his surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. He would succumb to brain cancer on July 24, 2011, but not until 20 years after his first diagnosis. While it’s probably true that everything we eat, drink, touch and breath can potentially cause cancer, Servan-Schreiber’s treatments and research demonstrated that much less exposure to the carcinogens, even after surgery, can temporarily thwart its progress, at least. O’Hara’s clever mix of animation, graphics, clips and interviews makes the 90-minute film pass quickly and painlessly. The DVD adds several ancillary featurettes.

Departure
Here’s another borderline-mainstream film about a gay teenager that likely will be pigeonholded among new releases of gay/lesbian videos, but easily could find a ready audience among arthouse audiences. Neither a coming-out or first-kiss drama, Departure tells the story of a family in crisis about things other than romances between same-sex couples. In it, an English mother (Juliet Stevenson) and her teenage son (Alex Lawther) spend a week preparing for the sale of their lovely summer home in the Languedoc district of France. Beatrice is having a difficult time dealing with the imminent dissolution of her loveless marriage to his father, Philip (Finbar Lynch), and it’s interfering with Elliot’s pursuit of an enigmatic local, Clément (Phénix Broassard). A budding poet, Elliot doesn’t appear to be the kind of boy to whom the older, more robust Clément would be attracted. With his mother back home in Paris, dying of cancer, however, Clément not only values his sincerity and companionship, but he also warms to Beatrice’s unquestioning approach to their friendship. While Clément isn’t oblivious to Elliot’s advances, he puts up an ambivalent front during their time together. This includes lazy interludes at the local reservoir, swimming, sunning and sharing confidences. At the cottage, Clément helps Beatrice put together the family’s memorabilia, while also performing chores and, yes, sharing confidences. Predictably, perhaps, as their stay in the country nears its end, both mother and son are compelled to confront their desires for Clément, as well as the growing storm in their family’s dissolution and clandestine betrayals. Stevenson, an atypically attractive actress, is best known here for her appearances in Bend It Like Beckham and imported British mini-series. She provides a touch of class as the almost tragically vulnerable Beatrice. Lawther, who impressed as the young Alan Turing in the film, The Imitation Game, is excellent, as well. Largely unknown outside France, Broassard does a nice job as the object of their attention. The bucolic Languedoc locations also add to Departure’s appeal. Freshman writer/director Andrew Steggall interviews his stars in the bonus package.

Resistance
Co-writer/director Amit Gupta’s debut feature is a what-if tale, adapted from a novel by Welsh poet, author, playwright and TV presenter Owen Sheers. (In 2011, Sheers also became the first writer-in-residence at the Welsh Rugby Union.) Resistance explores the possible ramifications of a failed D-Day invasion and successful crossing of the Channel by German forces. It’s set in a remote village in the Olchon Valley in the Black Mountains of south-east Wales, where a group of women awake one morning to find their husbands missing and the village occupied by a small unit of German soldiers. Almost everything that happened to the battle-weary troop after D-Day is held back from viewers, as the bulk of the fighting presumably occurred elsewhere. Michael Sheen plays a resistance leader who pops up every so often to assure us the men haven’t been slaughtered or abducted by alien. Otherwise, everything’s quiet on the Welsh front. The story really belongs to the women and their dealings with the soldiers, who seem more interested in waiting out an armistice than intimidating the residents or scrubbing the countryside for partisans. As such, Resistance offers a substantially different take on the dynamics of occupation than we’ve seen in movies driven by fighting and cruelty. Given what we know about the punishments meted out by Nazi forces on villagers believed to be supporting resistance fighters, however, the movie doesn’t always ring true, especially as they begin to feel an affinity with the women and friendships grow. Excellent performances by Andrea Riseborough (Birdman), Iwan Rheon (“Game of Thrones”) and Tom Wlaschiha (Game of Thrones) allow us to suspend our disbelief, if only for 92 minutes.

Pig Pen
This unrelievedly bleak portrait of a 13-year-old runaway, Zack (Lucas Koch), plays out like a dark underground horror flick, until it becomes clear that the horrors on display in Pig Pen are extremely real and probably more prevalent than anyone cares to believe they are. The sadly alienated child of a pill-popping mom (Nicolette le Faye), Zack is thrown out of their home by her sadistic boyfriend, dealer and would-be pimp (Vito Trigo). He instructs the boy not to come home until he’s earned – in one of the worst ways possible – at least $50 to pay for his mother’s habit. While on his own in the streets of Baltimore, Zach encounters all sorts of the usual riff-raff, as well as a couple of homeless folks who take pity on him. When he returns home to rescue his mom, he’s forced to confront the monster who’s devoured her soul and hopes to do far worse to him. Co-writer/director Jason M. Koch (7th Day) pretty much limits the narrative to what’s revealed in those few sentences, but anything more would be overkill.

Slasher.com
The potential hazards of online dating have been exhaustively considered and described in police dramas on TV and countless straight-to-video releases. Apparently, these warnings continue to be ignored by young women, especially, who believe their intuition provides a better defense against unhappy endings than healthy doses of skepticism and caution. But, then, where would the slasher genre be without desperate dumbasses? In Chip Gubera’s imprecisely titled, Slasher.com, no sooner do Jack (Ben Kaplan) and Kristy (Morgan Carter) meet on-line than they embark on a weekend getaway to the woodlands of rural Missouri. Things start out innocently enough, until they’re introduced to their hosts, Jesse (R.A. Mihailoff) and Momma Meyers (Jewel Shepard), who are right out of Central Casting. Mihailoff, some might recall, played Leatherface, in Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, while, back in the day, Shepard was a highly visible princess of soft-core porn (Christina, Mission: Killfast). The newly introduced lovebirds’ timing could hardly be any worse, as a serial killer is on the loose and all signs lead to the backwoods inn and the torture chamber contained within it. But, you knew that already. Slasher.com isn’t much, but fans of hillbilly horror – and/or Ms. Shepard — might find something to like.

Bloodrunners: Blu-ray
Try to imagine Francis Ford Coppala’s The Cotton Club being remade on a bargain-basement budget, with Ice-T as the speakeasy’s bandleader/host and more corrupt cops than the average episode of “Boardwalk Empire.” Now, consider that Ice-T’s character not only is a vampire, but ruler of a nest of undead prostitutes and traffickers in bottles of moonshine blood. (“True Blood,” anyone?) Not a bad concept, really, but co-writer/director/editor/cinematographer/designer Dan Lantz probably should have sold Bloodrunners to someone with enough money to do a vampires-vs.-cops picture right. Shooting Bloodrunners on a digital 4K camera only serves to enhance the shortcuts taken in the construction of otherwise credible nightclub set and costumes. And, apart from Ice-T and a few of the vampires, the acting is well below standard, even for genre fare.

Man Down: Blu-ray
When he isn’t making a spectacle of himself, Shia LaBeouf routinely demonstrates how capable an actor he is. His amazing performance in American Honey is proof enough of that. In Dito Montiel’s thoroughly disjointed Man Down, LaBeouf’s battle-scarred Marine, Gabriel, starts out as a loving husband and father, who enlists after 9/11 with his childhood friend Devin (Jai Courtney), and, after surviving boot camp, lands in the thick of battle in Afghanistan. While there, Gabriel and Devin are involved in a bloody encounter with insurgents that also claims the lives of civilians. From this point forward, Gabriel and Montiel’s well-meaning narrative both begin to unravel. After their tour of duty ends, Gabriel and Devin return home to an America that’s suffered a catastrophic attack and is unrecognizable to them. Oh, yeah, his wife and son have disappeared and may be in the possession of terrorists … or, perhaps, the demons in his head. Montiel, who worked with LeBeouf previously on A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, is making a statement on the continuing PTSD epidemic among veterans, but it only becomes clear when an info card is flashed before the final credits. Otherwise, it too often resembles just another crazed-veteran flick. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Montiel and military advisor Sergeant Nick Jones Jr.

TV-to-DVD
MHz: The Weissensee Saga
MHz: Corp + Anam
MHz: A French Village: 1945: Season 6
PBS: City in the Sky
PBS: American Experience: Oklahoma City
Time Life: Mama’s Family: Mama’s Favorites Collection
WE: Kendra on Top: The Complete Fourth and Fifth Seasons: Uncensored
Nickelodeon: Paw Patrol: Pups Save the Bunnies
Americans who’ve fallen in love with “Masterpiece” and other programming from the UK, thanks largely to PBS, BBC America and Acorn TV, owe it to themselves to check out MHz Choice and the DVDs of series carried globally by MHz Networks. This week’s releases attest to the quality of programming available to viewers who don’t mind reading subtitles. For example, “The Weissensee Saga” is the kind of sweeping family saga of conflicting loyalties, betrayal, love and hope that we’ve come to expect from the BBC. What’s remarkable about the three-season-long series is that it’s set in East Berlin, in the decade before the Wall was brought down and unification of East and West Germany began. It stars Uwe Kockisch as Hans Kupfer, a high-ranking Stasi official whose oldest son followed him into the internal spying operation and the other a policeman. Kupfer’s wife (Ruth Reinecke) is loyal to her husband and her country, even in the face of evidence that he’s made contact with an old flame (Katrin Saß). The singer also loves her country, but has been marginalized by her willingness to stand up to party officials who use communism as shield for human-rights abuses and fear-mongering. In a coincidence that would strain credulity if it weren’t so well-handled, the cop (Florian Lukas) falls in love with the singer’s daughter (Hannah Herzsprung) after she’s arrested for an aborted attempt to flee to the West. Meanwhile, rising Stasi star Falk Kupfer (Jörg Hartmann) – far more rigid in his neo-fascist beliefs than Hans — has begun to establish a network of spies, informers, backstabbers and dupes, using their own frailties and liberal opinions against them. We also watch their children grow into young adults, with stories of their own to follow. Americans might be surprised by the depiction of East Berlin as city that doesn’t look particularly devastated from post-war neglect and citizens as suspicious of the west as Americans were of Soviet Union. The views of hardliners and dissidents are aired fairly, as are the divides within the Kupfer family. Not surprisingly, the most joyous episode dramatizes the events that followed stunning announcement that border crossings no longer would be policed and citizens of both Germanys could come and go as they pleased. An American version of “The Weissensee Saga” would end there, probably, but there’s still a year’s worth of tumult, intrigue and revelations to go in the series. In one way, at least, it’s a perfect complement to FX’s “The Americans,” in which a pair of Soviet spies embrace socialism, while enjoying a typically middle-class American lifestyle.

From Ireland comes the superb Gaelic-language crime series, “Corp + Anam” (“Body and Soul”), which exposes the seamy side of life in a city large enough to have a couple of TV channels, but still small enough to retain a sense of small-town charm and intolerance. The worst of it is filtered through the lens of dogged television crime reporter Cathal Mac Iarnáin (Diarmuid de Faoite), who, while something of a loose cannon, usually gets to the bottom of things. His intense pursuit of the truth has destroyed his relationship with his wife (Maria Doyle Kennedy) and children. His ethically challenged reporting also causes problems at work, where he frequently locks horns with his too-cautious news editor. In the first season, alone, Mac Iarnáin pursues cases of health-service neglect, Internet pedophilia, teenage recklessness and police corruption. I, for one, wasn’t aware of the prevalence of Gaelic in everyday and official discourse.

In its sixth season, the blockbuster French drama, “A French Village,” arrives at the point where France has been liberated and the citizens of Villeneuve are coming to grips with ensuring peace and the slippery slope of reconciliation. In the wake of the occupation this not only means getting back to work and repairing the damage caused by bullets and bombs, but also identifying and punishing Nazi sympathizers, Vichy collaborators, traitors and opportunists. Resistance leaders have returned from the shadows to exact justice on everyone they determine to have betrayed them. Within the Resistance, of course, the political struggles became just another extension of the war, with Gaullists, communists, socialists and non-allied freedom fighters all struggling to capture the high ground. Common criminals, black-marketeers and blackmailers have also come to the fore. Not having been forced to survive an occupation or play by rules set by a collaborationist government, much of Season Six may seem dry or overly complex. They might be more interested in learning how the newly liberated French citizens consider the American soldiers left behind to counter possible Nazi insurgencies and ensure stability. As much as the French welcomed liberation, some partisans considered them to be enemies of their political beliefs and, as such, capitalist tools. Their relations with French women, some of whom are shown profiting from commerce and romantic alliances with the soldiers, also caused resentment. It isn’t something Americans are likely to have read about in history books, but it’s interesting, nonetheless.

Implicit in any discussion of the PBS documentary series “City in the Sky” is the worrisome question, “If we can’t keep our cities and infrastructure from falling apart and malfunctioning on solid earth, how can we expect our cities in the sky from remaining safe and aloft?” It certainly isn’t something passengers care to ponder at great length. We have enough to worry about while standing in interminable lines at the TSA checkpoints. Consider that, at any one time, there are as many as a million people airborne somewhere in the world, with 100,000 flights crisscrossing it every single day at variants of 30,000 feet. In the series, viewers set off around the world to uncover the invisible global networks and complex logistics that make it all possible. The segments — “Departure,” “Airborne” and “Arrival” – bring us into the cockpits of planes traveling at night, in storms and landing at airports that weren’t constructed to accommodate the needs of today’s travelers, carriers and freight haulers.

Domestic terrorism didn’t begin or end with the terrible bombing of the Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, on April 19, 1995, which killed 168 people and left 675 more injured. People rushed to blame the same Arab terrorists who had attempted to bring down the World Trade Center, two years earlier, but it soon became clear that the attack was timed to coincide with the ATF assault on the Branch Davidian compound and Ruby Ridge standoff. The ripple effects continue to be felt today, as white supremacists sense an opportunity to eliminate gun laws entirely and re-write the Bill of Rights to reflect right-wing values. PBS’ “American Experience: Oklahoma City” traces the events that led Timothy McVeigh to that day and recounts the stories of the survivors, first-responders, U.S. Marshals, FBI investigators and journalists who covered the events. The film provides an in-depth and provocative exploration of the white supremacist, extremist militia movement that rose to prominence in the early 1990s and still makes news today.

It’s difficult to tell how Time Life finally is able to distinguish between complete-series collections of such hit shows as “Mama’s Family” and “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” and more tightly focused “best of” and “favorite guest” packages. There’s also individual season sets for fans to consider. The latest, “Mama’s Family: Mama’s Favorites Collection” contains 37 unedited episodes on six discs, hand-picked by Vickie Lawrence and struck from the original broadcast masters. They include “Mama on Jeopardy,” “Mama Goes Hawaiian,” “Found Money,” “Pinup Mama,” “Bubba’s House Band,” “Soup to Nuts,” “Country Club,” “Mama Buys a Car,” “The Wedding” and “Mama’s Boyfriend.” By contrast, the company’s 24-disc and substantially more expensive “Mama’s Family: The Complete Collection” weighs in at 3,052 minutes, including 12 hours of bonus features.

It’s been 10 years since Kendra Wilkinson left Hugh Hefner and the Playboy Mansion in her rear-view mirror. This week, the former cheerleader and celebrity concubine (a.k.a., “girlfriend”) plead her case before her Instagram fans, arguing that she no longer wants to be labeled a “Playboy girl,” because “Comparing me now to that 18-year-old girl, then, is apples ’n’ oranges.” To avoid further confusion, Kendra attached to the post a mildly erotic shot of her stepping into a swimming pool. I assume that this flurry of activity was intended to coincide with the release of “Kendra on Top: The Complete Fourth and Fifth Seasons: Uncensored.” It isn’t clear if the show will be renewed by WE tv, but clearly it’s running on the fumes. In Season Four, producers were able to milk lots of sympathy for Kendra by playing the Hank card. (The former NFL player had an ill-advised affair with someone he may or may not have known is a transvestite.) It doesn’t take long – a couple of tequila shots, to be precise – for her to hook up with pinup boys she met on other reality shows, leaving her baby in Hank’s hands while she’s partying in London, New York and Seattle. In Season Five, Hank appears to have taken a powder, which is exactly what Kendra is seeking on a trip to Sundance.  Meanwhile, her evil mother threatens to write a tell-all book, and her estranged brother, Colin, wants to meet with her. There’s lots of other boring stuff, but fans – you know who you are — probably will eat it up.

The top-rated Nickelodeon franchise, “Paw Patrol,” ramps up for the holiday season with the seven-rescue compilation, “Paw Patrol: Pups Save the Bunnies.” They include the double-length mission to save Adventure Bay’s Easter-egg hunt, “Pups Save the Bunnies,” “Pups Get Growing,” “Pups Save the Mayor’s Tulips.” “Pups Save a Stinky Flower,” “Pups Save the Songbirds” and “A Pup in Sheep’s Clothing.”

The DVD Wrapup: Moonlight, Doctor Strange, Arrival, Before Trilogy, Chronic and more

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

Moonlight: Blu-ray
It’s the nature of the Hollywood beast that memories of Sunday night’s misnaming of La La Land as Best Picture won’t be forgotten. Comedian Steve Harvey, who misread the name of the 2015 Miss Universe winner and barely lived to tell about it, was kind enough to tweet Warren Beatty Monday morning, offering his condolences and support. Beatty will have a much easier time living with his faux pas than PricewaterhouseCoopers accountant Brian Cullinan, now relieved of future duties, who was too busy tweeting to notice the impending shitstorm. If I were in charge of next year’s Oscar ceremony, this first two people I’d invite to open an envelope would be Beatty and Harvey, who, in 2012, appeared as himself in Medea Goes to Jail. This time, at least, there’s no question that Moonlight and La La Land were worthy candidates for top honors. This, of course, hasn’t always been the case … Crash, anyone? The controversy could actually serve to raise awareness of both pictures, especially among East Coast viewers who nodded off after the dreaded three-hour barrier passed. Indeed, the biggest beneficiary of the debacle could be Lionsgate, which owns the home-video distribution rights here, along with those to Manchester by the Sea, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Lion and 20th Century Women.

Moonlight tells three interrelated coming-of-age stories, all involving Chiron, a Miami youth trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty, drug addiction, intolerance and despair. In the first chapter, “Little,” we’re introduced to the desperately shy and withdrawn child, nicknamed Little (Alex Hibbert), as he takes refuge from bullies in an abandoned building. He’s rescued by Juan (Oscar-winner, Mahershala Ali), a Cuban crack dealer, who takes the close-mouthed Chiron to the house he shares his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe). After being fed dinner and allowed to spend the night, Chiron begins to warm to Juan. The next morning, he delivers Chiron back to his emotionally abusive mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), whose home is as disheveled as his is tidy. Sensing that Chiron could use a well-meaning father figure in his life – in Miami, drug dealers aren’t necessarily excluded from such roles — Juan teaches Chiron how to swim, while also advising him to make his own path in life. The boy also befriends Kevin (Jaden Piner), a cocky classmate who sees something in Chiron the bullies want to punish.

In the second chapter, “Chiron,” our now-teenage protagonist (Ashton Sanders) continues to be bullied, but now with the added intimation of being a “faggot.” Although Juan has died in the interim, Chiron continues to spend his nights with Teresa. His crack-addicted mother now supports herself through prostitution and whatever money she can wrangle from her son’s benefactor. Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) and Chiron notch up their friendship with a first sexual dalliance, shared on a moonlit beach. The next day, Kevin kowtows to a gang of thugs by betraying his friend in the cruelest possible way. Chiron refuses to reveal the identities of his attackers or take any more crap from his mother. His startling response to being pummeled by his only friend ensures that Chiron has turned the corner into early adulthood … at least, as far as the law is concerned. The third chapter, titled “Black,” after the nickname given Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) earlier by Kevin, opens a decade later, outside Atlanta, with the young man fully assimilated into the life inadvertently introduced to him by Juan. After experiencing a portentous dream, Chiron decides to seek personal redemption by confronting his mother in a drug-rehab facility and responding to a mysterious late-call from an apologetic Kevin (André Holland), now working as a chef in Miami. Things get pretty deep in “Black,” but not in any predictable way.

Moonlight is based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s semi-autobiographical text, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” written in 2003 to cope with his own mother’s death from AIDS. Never produced, it was ten years before Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) – who grew up only a few blocks from McCraney, in Miami’s poverty- and crime-wracked Liberty City projects – was pushed to begin work on a second film. The characters are informed by people who influenced both men at various times in their lives. If Moonlight feels hyperreal, it’s because McCraney and Jenkins endured many of the same powerful forces as Chiron and Kevin. The gay subtext shouldn’t dissuade anyone from picking up the movie, even if some observers have put Moonlight into the pigeon-hole reserved for LGBTQ title. McCraney and Jenkins’ points are made in ways that are no more graphic than anything in Brokeback Mountain, which won important awards and made money for Focus Features and Universal Studios Home Entertainment. Moonlight took statuettes for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Ali) and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was a finalist, as well, for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Harris) and Best Achievement in Directing/Cinematography/Film Editing/Music Written for a Motion Picture. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Jenkins and the informative featurettes “Ensemble of Emotion: Making Moonlight,” “Poetry Through Collaboration: The Music of Moonlight” and “Cruel Beauty: Filming in Miami.”

Doctor Strange: Blu-ray 2D/3D
A lot of people who care deeply about such things, as well as a few of us that don’t, thought 2017 might have been the year when a movie based on a comic-book superhero would be shown some love in Oscar voting.  There appeared to be enough room in the Best Picture category for Deadpool to sneak into the expanded mix, which had a slot open for just such a longshot. But, nooooo … it wasn’t to be.To their credit, Golden Globe voters nominated Deadpool as Best Motion Picture: Musical or Comedy and Ryan Reynolds, as Best Actor in the same category. Looking ahead, fans of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy are hoping the upcoming sequel will surpass expectations prompted by the crossover success of the 2014 original, which was a runner-up in the Best Achievement in Makeup/Hairstyling and Visual Effects categories, traditionally reserved for green-screen epics. Suicide Squad did take home an Oscar this year in the ridiculously abbreviated list of candidates in the Makeup/Hairstyling, while Doctor Strange was nominated for Visual Effects. Meanwhile, genre and mainstream critics praised Scott Derrickson’s interpretation of surgeon Stephen Strange’s origin story for its introduction of Eastern mysticism to the Marvel Cinematic Universe bible and his ability to navigate the comic’s cross-dimensional conceits. Visually, Doctor Strange frequently merged Chinese-box mechanics with the surrealistic architecture of Inception’s dream scenes. If the narrative spends a bit too much time laying the foundation for future installments, the stunning action sequences justify such forward-looking plans.

The problem, of course, is that Disney/Marvel has so many projects circling the airport right now that the studio probably couldn’t absorb the loss, if more than two or three of them crashed and burned in the interim. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an abrasively arrogant neurosurgeon, who, like Dr. Gregory House, is only interested in helping patients whose conditions challenge him. If he can be a world-class prick, in and out of the surgical theater, Strange would still be the first person called by the Vatican or White House to remove a bullet or tumor from the spine of a pope or president. While being appraised of a possible next patient, while driving very rapidly in his sports car, Strange takes his eyes off the road long enough to miss a turn and go careening off the side of steep hill. He survives the crash, barely, but not without the loss of the physical and neurological tools necessary to do his work. It isn’t until his therapist alerts him to the miraculous recovery of Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), a construction worker who’s overcome his injuries to the point where he can once again live a productive life, while standing on his own two feet. After much cajoling, Panghorn points Strange in the direction of Nepal, where sorcerers Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) teach the mystic arts to very select students at the secret compound, Kamar-Taj.

The Ancient One demonstrates her powers to the skeptical Strange, revealing the hidden seams connecting the astral plane and Mirror Dimension. After he begs her to take him under her wing, she begins to recognize similarities in personality between Strange and her black-sheep student Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who recently led an invasion of Kamar-Taj, killed the librarian and stole an ancient text. The Ancient One prepares Strange to do battle with Kaecilius to protect Earth against invaders from other dimensions, using a spell generated from three buildings called Sanctums, found in New York City, London and Hong Kong. By comparison, the story behind Kal-El’s journey from Krypton to Earth, and subsequent emergence as Superman, is as simple as a nursery rhyme. After all the mumbo-jumbo is dispensed with, however, the action becomes non-stop and wonderfully complex. The Blu-ray package adds more than an hour’s worth of interesting background featurettes; a humorous short, in which Thor copes with life away from the battlefield in a contemporary American setting; deleted and extended scenes; a gag reel; and commentary with Derrickson.

Allied: Blu-ray/4K
More than anything that happens in the movie, itself, Allied will go down in pop-cultural history as the catalyst for precipitous change in Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s surprisingly fragile marriage. The cause was, at first, attributed to an on-location romance – since denied – between Pitt and leading lady Marion Cotillard. The irony didn’t escape anyone whose primary memory of the 2005 spy-vs.-spy caper, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, is the role its pairing of Pitt and Jolie played in breaking up the fairy-tale marriage of Pitt and America’s Sweetheart, Jennifer Aniston. In that picture, a bored married couple is surprised to learn that they are assassins hired by competing agencies to kill each other. In the far more sober-minded Allied, one of the married spies is ordered to eliminate a threat to the Allied cause, by killing a treasonous spouse. In Hollywood, what goes around, always comes around. There are better reasons to appreciate both pictures, but not if you’re a fan of TMZ and the Enquirer. Cotillard has publicly denied the rumors, while Jolie has used the gossip rags to present an indictment against Pitt that practically defies belief. At one time, sparking or defusing speculation about on-location liaisons were within the prevue of a studio publicist, who was paid to find the most favorable spin for his boss. Today, studio publicists spend most of their time preparing press releases, arranging junkets and deferring to personal publicists and freelance specialists able to trade favors with the tabloid and gossip press and set rules limiting access to the talent. I can’t remember Pitt doing much press in support of the Allied – things had gotten far too ugly in the divorce proceedings – but Cotillard dutifully made the rounds of the talk shows, dutifully knocking down rumors in lieu of promoting the old-fashioned wartime romance. It’s too bad, because the movie needed all the positive spin it could get, especially going into the intensely competitive holiday season.

If, while watching Bob Zemeckis and writer Steven Knight’s Allied, viewers immediately are reminded of Casablanca, it’s no accident. The designers in charge of costumes, exteriors and set designs borrowed freely from perceived period ambience and pressure-cooker relationships established in Michael Curtiz’ beloved classic. Pitt plays Max Vatan, a French-Canadian pilot and spy, who is parachuted into Vichy French Morocco, where he’s assigned the less-than-onerous task of pretending to be married to deep-cover assassin Marianne Beauséjour (Cotillard). Apart from his Quebecois accent, they make a convincing pair. When the mission is successfully completed and they’re extracted to England, Marianne and Max get married for real. She delivers their child during a German air raid and prepare to live happily ever after … if only. One day, Max is called into the offices of the British S.O.E. (Special Operations Executive), whose head man informs him of reports that his wife is a German operative, still reporting to Axis spies planted in England. Naturally, Max denies any such thing is possible. Even so, their marriage is covered under the “Intimate Betrayal Rule,” which demands of married spies that they execute their spouse, post haste, if proven to be a double-agent. If the execution isn’t carried out, both could be arrested, tried and punished for high treason. Max decides to risk his life in a covert mission to German-occupied France to determine the truth for himself. It’s at this point that the suspense begins to take hold. One of the things that’s made Casablanca so enduring was a collection of supporting characters nearly as memorable as Rick and Ilsa. Here, Lizzy Caplan is the closest thing to a recognizable face and, so, Pitt and Cotillard are forced to carry the load. Allied doesn’t look too bad on the small screen, if only because we’ve gotten used to watching such vintage dramas on TMC. The Blu-ray adds an hour’s worth of featurettes, the longest of which is 10 minutes long.

The Before Trilogy: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Just as investors and participants were required to make a giant leap of faith when committing to Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making Boyhood, backers of what became known as the “Before Trilogy” were challenged to ignore disappointing results for the first chapter and accept the possibility the Austin-based writer/director could turn things around. In 1995, Linklater’s reputation was based largely on the cult popularity of indie faves Slacker and Dazed and Confused, neither of which resembled the walk-and-talk Before Sunrise in any recognizable way. “(It) was a little European art film that was never going to be a mainstream success,” Linklater recalls. “But, it was generally well-reviewed and, I felt, people got it. That’s where (the trilogy idea) started: the people who liked it, liked it. Most people … didn’t notice it.” In it, characters played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke meet on train from Budapest to Vienna, becoming fast friends while chatting in the dining car. Because Jesse has a plane to catch the next morning, Céline decides to hop off the train to Paris and hang out with him in Vienna for the next several hours. Before they go their separate ways, however, they agree to meet six months later at the same railroad station and pick up where they left off. Neither has enough money to afford a hotel room or much in the way of food or drink. What they have, even for so brief a time, is each other and that’s more than enough. In fact, what happens to Jesse and Céline roughly approximates the fantasy every youthful backpacker carries with them when hitchhiking through Europe on holiday. Linklater was influenced by a similarly magical encounter with a woman he met years earlier on a train in Pennsylvania. He’s said that the purposefully ambiguous ending of Before Sunrise serves as a litmus test for viewers, forced to decide for themselves if the lovers will reunite, as planned, or blow it off.

Before Sunset (2004) picks up nine years later, when Jessie is signing his semi-autobiographical novel at the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore, on Paris’ Left Bank, and Céline makes a surprise appearance at the end of his reading. The obvious question hanging between them is whether one or neither of them returned to Vienna for the rendezvous. (It’s also on the minds of the reporters and readers, who, likewise, were left hanging at the end of the novel.) They hadn’t exchanged addresses, so were unable to reschedule their meeting for a more convenient date. In the interim, Jesse has gotten married and fathered a son. Céline spent a couple of years in the U.S. before moving back to France to become an advocate for the environment. Not so coincidentally, Jesse has another plane to catch, this time in only a few hours, giving Linklater an opportunity to upgrade their story in real time.

Released in 2013, Before Midnight finds Jesse, Céline, their twin girls and his son from his first marriage on vacation on the Peloponnese peninsula of Greece. He’s a successful novelist and she’s chomping at the bit to take a job with the French government. Jesse would prefer to move to Chicago, for reasons that seem more than a little bit selfish to Céline. Despite the idyllic location of their summer residence and friendly relationship with smart and witty friends there, the couple is facing the very real prospect they no longer are in love and, by extension, are no longer young. Neither is their predicament remotely unique. We’ve enjoyed sharing a few days with them and might even envy their ability to converse so easily and sound as intelligent as they do. It’s nice that, after 18 years, Jesse and Céline are still as attractive a couple as when we met them on the train to Vienna. The director-approved 2K restoration makes all three chapters look as if they were filmed back-to-back, instead of nine years apart. It adds several new and vintage interviews with Linklater, Delpy and Hawke; behind-the-scenes footage; audio commentary on Before Midnight; “Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny,” a feature-length 2016 documentary by Louis Black and Karen Bernstein; “After Before,” a new documentary by Athina Rachel Tsangari about the making of Before Midnight in Greece; a new conversation between scholars Dave Johnson and Rob Stone about Linklater’s work; an episode of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” featuring host Terry Gross, Linklater, Delpy and Hawke; “Linklater // On Cinema & Time,”  a new video essay by Kogonada; and an illustrated leaflet, featuring an essay by critic Dennis Lim.

Utopia
Many horrifying things about Australia’s historic mistreatment and neglect of its Aboriginal population are revealed in John Pilger and Alan Lowery’s heart-breaking documentary, Utopia. And, yes, the title reflects the ironic notion that one of the most hellish regions of the Northern Territories, possibly in the entire world, could be considered to be an idyllic place to live. The most mind-blowing revelation, perhaps, comes when we’re taken to Rottnest Island, off the coast of Western Australia, now a popular holiday destination and nature reserve. Throughout most of the 1800s, and until 1931, this “heaven on Earth” served as a penitentiary and reform school for Aboriginals convicted of crimes, ranging from murder to theft. Some 3,700 indigenous men and boys were imprisoned there during the life of the establishment, with an estimated 369 of them buried there in an unmarked graveyard. With no signs or warnings posted to discourage them, generations of tourists have been encouraged to consider the hallowed ground as a playground and throughway for nature walks. Even worse, perhaps, buildings once used to “warehouse” prisoners now provide holiday accommodations, as part of the Rottnest Lodge. Imagine the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre Monument converted to accommodate a “Westworld” resort and condos and you’ll get an inking how Aboriginals feel about what passes for fun on Rottnest Island. It wasn’t until 2015, after numerous protests from local Aboriginal activists, that the Rottnest Island Authority agreed to create a memorial recognizing the events, deaths and unmarked graves and begin work on the Wadjemup Burial Ground.

It is only one of many examples provided by the producers of Utopia of how Australia’s unofficial apartheid continues to negatively affect the native population, while also whitewashing and twisting the reality of the country’s racist history in textbooks and tourism campaigns. Utopia further investigates government policies on epidemic levels of poverty, disease, pedophilia, suicide and illiteracy. In several “60 Minute”-like interviews, the producers offer government officials — many of whom freely acknowledge the failures of reform efforts — offer little cause for optimism. Out of sight, out of mind. In conclusion, Pilger points out that the indigenous people of Australia – unlike those in most other developed countries – have routinely been denied the right of self-determination and autonomy in places they’ve historically lived, farmed and developed, according to their own beliefs and standards. If a mining company finds an exploitable commodity in an area largely populated with indigenous people, the government finds a way to do so, without giving anything back to the natives. As bad as conditions continue to be on American Indian reservations, some autonomous tribes, at least, are legally allowed to steal white people blind in Las Vegas-style resorts and casinos. Aboriginal communities aren’t able to benefit from outsider-owned casinos in territories where poverty and unemployment are rampant.   The DVD adds another 90 minutes of extended interviews.

Chronic
In Mexican writer/director Michel Franco’s first English-language film, Chronic, Tim Roth delivers an emotionally gripping portrayal of an in-home nurse, David, who works primarily with terminally ill patients. Away from them, he’s awkward and reserved. In their presence, however, he’s dutiful, efficient and intimately concerned with their comfort and well-being as they approach death. The reasons behind David’s devotion to his patients’ every need – no matter how unpleasant – are never made crystal clear. It leaves us wondering if he’s an Angel of Mercy, an Angel of Death or a penitent, working off his sins in the most humbling manner possible. One family interprets his overreaching concern as being somehow perverse. They threaten to sue him for sexually abusing their invalid father, who, before his stroke, satisfied his obsession with gay porn without them knowing about it. Knowing how close the patient is to death and incapable of amusing himself, David helps his him surf the web for anything that might take his mind off his pain. On the other hand, Sarah Sutherland, who plays Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ perpetually morose daughter, in “Veep,” brightens up whenever her college-age character is in David’s presence. His obsession with her is left vague. Franco’s uncompromising portrayal is facilitated through the objective lens of a nearly static camera and fewer than 100 shots. He’s approached the characters in After Lucia, Daniel and Ana, and After Lucia in much the same way. Chronic was accorded a Best Screenplay award at Cannes and nominated for Best Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards ceremony. (Roth was a finalist for Best Actor.) The DVD adds an interview with Franco.

We Are the Flesh: Blu-ray
For his first feature, We Are the Flesh, Mexican multihyphenate Emiliano Rocha Minter benefits from the kind of Arrow Films presentation usually reserved for classic horror and other cult treasures. Anyone coming to the Blu-ray package based solely on previous Arrow releases is in for a shock, however. While, someday, We Are the Flesh may rightly be accorded cult status, it’s of more interest today to extreme arthouse junkies and admirers of the post-surrealist theater espoused by Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, New York’s Living Theater, Jerzy Grotowski at the Theater Laboratory in Poland and Peter Brooks’ experiments with the Royal Shakespeare Company, including “Marat/Sade.” It also hues closely to the avant-garde and surrealistic films of Luis Buñuel and Alejandro Jodorowsky, both of whom lived and worked in Mexico. If all that that name-dropping sounds a tad pretentious, check out what critic Virginie Salévy – founder and edi