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

Friday, August 26th, 2016

The Jungle Book: Blu-ray

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

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

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

Weiner

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

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

The Man Who Knew Infinity: Blu-ray

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

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

Paths of the Soul
Papirosen

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

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

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

Dark Horse

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

The Duel: Blu-ray

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

The Other Side

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

Fever

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

Shooting the Prodigal

The Fight Within

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

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

Psycho IV: The Beginning: Blu-ray

The Bloodstained Butterfly: Blu-ray

The Sleeping Room

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

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

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

The Adventures of Paula Peril

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

Love Camp

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

TV-to-DVD

History: Roots: Blu-ray

Netflix: Narcos: Season One: Blu-ray

Starz: Blunt Talk: Season One

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

PBS: Koko: The Gorilla Who Talks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 17th, 2016

Sky

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

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

11 Minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Playboy of the Western World

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

 

Love Me

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

 

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

 

Dirty Country

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

 

American Sophomore

Sundown

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

 

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

 

Session 9: Blu-ray

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

 

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

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

 

Microwave Massacre: Blu-ray

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

 

TV-to-DVD

Spike: I Am JFK Jr.

Nickelodeon: Shimmer and Shine: Welcome to Zahramay Falls

PBS Kids: Wild Kratts: Wild Reptiles

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Thursday, August 11th, 2016

A Hologram for the King: Blu-ray

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

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

The Tiger: Blu-ray

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

 

Women He’s Undressed

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

 

The Midnight After

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

 

The Monster With a Thousand Heads

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

 

Up in Flames

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

 

TV-to-DVD

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

AMC: Halt and Catch Fire: The Complete Second Season

PBS: Frontline: The Secret History of ISIS

PBS: 9 Months That Made You

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

Thursday, August 4th, 2016

The Lobster: Blu-ray

Celebrity journalist Barbara Walters is credited with popularizing the ice-breaker question, “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” At a Super Bowl I covered in another lifetime, I was dumbfounded to hear the same question asked of professional athletes by a reporter instructed to do so by her non-sports magazine’s editor, who stored the answers for a time when a hole opened up unexpectedly and they could be shoveled in, in lieu of something useful. That was quite a few years ago and the questions have only gotten dumber in the interim. I’m embarrassed to admit that it was this question that came to mind while watching Yorgos Lanthimos’ semi-dystopian drama, The Lobster, and hearing Colin Ferrell’s newly dumped character, David, being asked what kind of animal he wants to be if he fails to find a mate during his 45-day stay at a half-way house for doomed singles. It’s not a rhetorical question, by any means, and his answer is telling: “Because lobsters live for over one hundred years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives. I also like the sea very much.” Another resident reminds David that when lobsters are trapped, their fate is to be thrown into a pot of boiling water. The message being that animals are as vulnerable to suffering as humans and nothing is certain in the afterlife. Animals aren’t, however, asked beforehand what kind of human they’d like to be when they go. They’re just gone.

Lanthimos and his fellow Greek writing partner, Efthymis Filippou, have, in a very short time, developed a reputation for challenging audiences with such absurdist situations. In Dogtooth (2009), their first film to cause a stir at Cannes, three teenagers are confined by their pathologically overprotective parents to an isolated country estate, where they spend their days listening to endless homemade tapes that teach them a whole new vocabulary. In Alps (2011), A group of people start a business where they impersonate the recently deceased in order to help their clients through the grieving process. By comparison, The Lobster is practically mainstream. In the hotel that serves as a four-star purgatory for singles, the men and women wear similarly non-descript uniforms, follow orders obediently, are given lap dances in lieu of consensual sex and masturbation, and are able to earn extra days of freedom by bagging “loners” with a dart gun. Loners are the singles who’ve strayed off the reservation and hide in the forest between the hotel and City, where consumerist families of the nuclear variety dwell. If you’re wondering about the acceptability of same-sex marriages and other LGBT activities … they’re not. When Bob finally decides to rebel, join the loners and take a lover, it isn’t long before he understands what Pete Townshend meant by the final lines in “Won’t Get Fooled Again”: “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.”

I don’t know if The Lobster, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2015, is still eligible for Academy Awards consideration in 2016. After playing several U.S. festivals and being acquired by A24 from failed distributor Alchemy, it got a limited release in May, and grossed $9 million. It would be a crime if Farrell, at least, wasn’t remembered by Oscar voters. Also very good are Ashley Jensen, as Biscuit Woman; Ariane Labed, as The Maid; Olivia Colman, as Hotel Manager; Jessica Barden, as Nosebleed Woman; Angeliki Papoulia, as Heartless Woman; Rachel Weisz, as Short Sighted Woman; Ben Whishaw, as Limping Man; Léa Seydoux, as Loner Leader and John C. Reilly, as Lisping Man. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “The Fabric of Attraction: Concocting ‘The Lobster.’”

Mother’s Day: Blu-ray

Before Garry Marshall’s death on July 14, at 81, the beating he took from critics for Mother’s Day probably was among the furthest things from his mind. At least, I hope it was. Marshall always had a million things going on, including his continuing work at Burbank’s Falcon Theatre and a rewrite of the book for the Broadway-bound musical version of Pretty Woman. The final tally of his credits includes 38, for writing; 29, as a producer; 83, as an actor; 30, for directing; and 123 for just being himself, in something or other. He was an easy person to interview and seemed to enjoy life immensely. I can’t say that the drubbing he took on Mother’s Day, as well as for New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day, wasn’t warranted, because, by all recognizable critical standards, it was a turkey, albeit one with lots of big-name stars. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he recognized all of the thread-bare clichés in the half-baked scripts, but enjoyed working with actors with whom he was exceedingly familiar and knew that the worst that could happen was that it would break even at the box office. (What I can’t understand, however, is how Julia Roberts could justify taking a reported $3 million payday on her underwhelming performance here.) Apropos of the title, the intertwined storylines here are dedicated to the proposition that bad things can happen to good moms, even on Mother’s Day, if only not so bad that the wrinkles can’t be ironed out in about two-hours’ time. Because those storylines are so lame and the attraction of the all-star cast is what sold the tickets, let’s simply report that it’s comprised of moms played by Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts, Kate Hudson, Britt Robertson, Margo Martindale, Sarah Chalke, Cameron Esposito, Anoush NeVart and (stepmom) Shay Mitchell. The assorted husbands, lovers and finks are played by Timothy Olyphant, Aasif Mandvi, Robert Pine, Larry Miller, Jason Sudeikis and Jon Lovitz. Hector Elizondo is along for the ride for the 18th time in a Marshall-directed film, as the agent of Roberts’ home-shopping queen. Enough said. Although these aren’t the most profitable of Marshall’s pictures, I still would recommend Young Doctors in Love, The Flamingo Kid, The Princess Diaries and Nothing in Common. I didn’t believe a minute of Pretty Woman – the original script was totally diluted by Disney’s Touchstone division — but am not at all surprised it made so much money or that someone in New York might want to take a shot on the happiest of hookers on Broadway. The bonus package adds deleted scenes and gag reel.

 

Last Days in the Desert

Among the many things I still don’t understand about the exhibition process is how The Passion of the Christ – with its graphic violence and Latin and Aramaic dialogue — could score as impressively as it did, while another excellent movie about the life of Jesus, the speculative PG-13 Last Days in the Desert, wasn’t able to find a screen. The same question applies to all of the dopey family-friendly, faith-based pictures that followed in its wake and made money. Maybe, if the producers of “Last Days” had rounded up a bunch of evangelical preachers and promised them a cut of the revenues, someone would have taken a chance on four-walling the darn thing. As it is, however, Broad Green Pictures’s clearest option apparently was to cut its losses and sent it out early in DVD. Rodrigo García’s beautifully rendered and profoundly moving drama depicts what might have occurred during Christ’s 40 days and nights in the desert, following his baptism, but before embarking on his public ministry. Ewan McGregor not only plays Jesus, as he wanders determinately through the wilderness of Judea – nicely played here by California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park – but also his mirror image in Satan, who, when he isn’t outwardly tempting Jesus with worldly pleasures, badgers him with philosophical rhetoric. In his primary conceit, writer/director García (Albert Nobbs) dramatizes what happens when Jesus, weary from fasting and praying, comes upon a small family struggling to eke out a living on a rocky bluff. Tye Sheridan (Mud) plays Son, a sullen youth who dreams of visiting Jerusalem and Alexandria, but is obligated to Father (Ciarán Hinds) to help him provide a living and built a rock home for Mother (Ayelet Zurer), who’s seriously ill. Jesus sees a lot of himself in Son and volunteers his carpentry skills to Father. In addition to sharing the back-breaking labor, they discuss the difficulties of raising a son in such a stark environment and what it means to have one’s dreams shattered early in life. Satan desperately wants to claim the souls of the family members, but Jesus battles for their place in heaven with the same strength and determination as he uses when his own beliefs are tested on the cross. There’s nothing in Last Days in the Desert that compares in intensity to scenes of the Passion in Mel Gibson’s film or Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. McGregor convinces us of Jesus’ vulnerability, conviction and, above all, his humanity, even as we wish he would perform a miracle to relieve the family of its misery. The bleak surroundings, combined with Jesus’ wane look, will have you grabbing for a glass of water and snack, even as Satan tries to convince Christ to turn a stone into a loaf of bread.

 

Parched

Rarely has a movie been able to dramatize the day-to-day horrors faced by women – married and soon-to-be married — in a patriarchal society. Even rarer is the movie that, like Leena Yadav’s Parched, that looks behind the habitual brutality, humiliations and subservience in an attempt to broaden the discussion and make sense of such inhumane relationships. It does so by examining how four ordinary women maintain their dignity and, against great odds, strive for a return to normalcy. Parched avoids the trap of being polemical – or, worse, unbearably depressing — by locating the warmth, strength and, yes, humor in a situation most westerners would consider to be completely untenable. It is set in the heart of a vast desert in northwest India, where cultural and religious norms haven’t changed much in the last few hundred years. Although the village elders in the Hindi community have permitted women to own cellphones – primarily to keep their minds off of their husbands, who spend weeks away from home driving trucks – they refuse to allow them to watch television. At 15, Janaki is being groomed to be sold in an arranged marriage to Gulab, a teenager who’s run up a large debt with a pimp in the nearest city and has no means of support, beyond stealing from his mother, Rani. When we meet her, Janaki looks like someone who’s just had her fortune read and the Gypsy fainted before revealing the results. We’ll later learn that she prefers a different boy, who can’t match the dowry offered by Rani. Years earlier, Rani had been bartered away to a man who routinely beat her, before disappearing from her life. Her friend Lajjo lives with a drunken husband who abuses her for not being able to conceive a child, but harbors a despicable secret in case she does become pregnant. Rani, Lajjo and other women earn money by weaving rugs for a subcontractor, who, unlike the other men in the village, values their hard work. While the village elders prohibit women from entertaining themselves with television, the men are allowed to ogle the dancers in a traveling midway attraction, which visits the area each year for a few days of and occasionally provides other services for the wealthier men.

 

Bijli is a dancer and prostitute with ties to the village, through Rani and Lajjo. It takes about 10 minutes for the wildly exuberant performer to figure out what’s ailing her friends and how Gulab has inherited the worst tendencies of his absentee father. Having indentured herself to a traveling pimp, Bijli is hardly an exemplar of the women’s liberation movement. Nonetheless, she’s paid pretty well for her services, can leave the encampment in her off-hours and loves to provoke the hypocrites with her provocative routines. To the chagrin of her pimp and male dancing partner, Bijli has decided to cut back on the prostitution and focus on the stage act. While she’s encouraging her friends to stand up for themselves, they’re auditioning another woman to pick up the slack. One fateful night, the women agree to take the kind of bold action that will change the trajectory of their lives. To her credit, Yadav doesn’t offer any pat answers or contrivances to ensure an impossibly happy ending. What she does give us, though, is easily worth the price of a rental. Some critics have felt that she’s weighted the drama too much in favor of the female characters, by overemphasizing the beatings and allowing them to go on longer than would be necessary to make her point. There may be some validity to the last point, but it doesn’t make Parched any less compelling. As shot by Academy Award-winning cinematographer, Russell Carpenter (Titanic), the Great Indian Desert stands as a formidable barrier to modernity. When the dance troupe arrives, several centuries’ worth of strictly enforced tradition disappears for a few hours each night in a rare blast of color, sound and vitality. An extended erotic encounter inside the desolate region’s magnificent Naida Caves Diu Gujarat is nothing short of breathtaking. Also irresistible are Radhika Apte, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Lehar Khan, Surveen Chawla and Sayani Gupta (also seen in Wolfe Video’s terrific Margarita With a Straw), none of whom are familiar outside India. The DVD adds interviews with Carpenter and other behind-the-camera talent.

 

Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection: Blu-ray

I’ve seen enough Japanese sexploitation pictures from the 1960-70s to know that curious Americans would likely be appalled by the cavalier approach to rape and violence against women. Most other elements of the genre films are so broadly drawn that the attacks can only be considered in the context of every other looney thing surrounding them, including the hideously drawn men and revenge exacted on them. The absolutely singular Female Prisoner Scorpion series requires of viewers that they put up with some truly upsetting scenes of violence to women before being able to cheer the lethal female protagonist, Nami Matsushima, a.k.a Scorpian, slice and dice the ones who have inflicted so much pain on her and other, more defenseless women. In this way, the four films collected here can be compared to Ms. 45, Coffy, The Bride Wore Black, Death Wish, I Spit on Your Grave, Lady Vengeance and Teeth. Meiko Kaji (Lady Snowblood) plays the avenging angel as if she were a composite of Yoko Ono, Stevie Nicks and Pam Greer. In turn, the knife-wielding Scorpion probably informed Uma Thurman’s Bride, in Kill Bill. She isn’t immune from being arrested, either. Indeed, every new incarceration provides yet another opportunity to escape and kill, again. What makes the quartet of movies gathered here — Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, Jailhouse 41, Beast Stable and #701’s Grudge Song — so interesting are the many different narrative conceits, stylish cinematography, supernatural touches and dozens of visual references to Japanese and western classics. Scorpion barely says two sentences in a row throughout the series, but her eyes speak volumes. The sex and violence are excessive, without also being gratuitous, and the musical soundtrack lends an air of horror to the proceedings. In a perverse sort of way, the “Female Prisoner” series is exploitation for arthouse audiences; “pinky violence” for the grindhouse crowd; feminism for fanboys. Shunya Ito directed the first three installments, while Yasuharu Hasabe stepped in for “Grudge Song.” Once hooked, you’ll want to binge through all three and the extras. The Arrow Films restoration and bonus package is exceptional, as well. Besides looking and sounding pristine, each disc is accompanied by critical appreciations, interviews and visual essays; a double-sided fold-out poster of two original artworks; reversible sleeves for all films, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ian MacEwan; a booklet with new writings on the film by critic Chuck Stephens; a brand new interview with Toru Shinohara, creator of the original Scorpion manga; and an archive interview with Meiko Kaji, illustrated with original stills.

 

Meet the Blacks: Blu-ray

There are several ways you can tell when a low-budget picture has scored a direct hit … apart from simply comparing the cost-to-return ratio at Box Office Mojo, of course. Sequels and/or prequels are rushed into production; they open in theaters, instead of going straight-to-video; subsequent releases on DVD/Blu-ray are packaged in two- and three-disc sets; and someone decides to make a parody of the franchise. Such is the case with James DeMonaco’s Purge series, which has produced three chapters in three years, including The Purge: Election Year, which opened around the world this summer to some of the franchise’s best reviews. While its parody, Meet the Blacks, didn’t do nearly as well at the box office, it did make back 10 ten times its reported $900,000 budget. The critics hated it, but it probably will do decent business in the after-markets, thanks to appearances by Mike Epps, George Lopez, Paul Mooney, Charlie Murphy, Mike Tyson, Lavell Crawford, DeRay Davis and, God help us, Perez Hilton. Snoop Dogg makes a cameo and the music is by RZA. The Black family, led by Epps, is getting out of Chicago in hopes of a better life. After coming into some unexpected and unearned funds, Carl takes his family and leaves the hustling lifestyle behind for something better. Taking a cue from the “Beverly Hillbillies,” perhaps, Carl, his new wife Lorena (Zulay Henao), son Carl Jr. (Alex Henderson), daughter Allie (Bresha Webb) and cousin Cronut (Lil Duval) pack up and move to the Promised Land. They arrive just in time to experience the annual “purge,” when all crime is legal for 12 hours. Being a deadbeat, Carl has a lot of people looking for him, including numerous baby mommas. On the night of the purge, they all come looking for him, even the clown, James Clown (Tyson), he stiffed after a birthday party appearance. Deon Taylor, who’s previously given us such dubious entertainments as Supremacy and Chain Letter, is guilty, as well, of piling on the racial and other politically incorrect humor.

 

Puerto Ricans in Paris: Blu-ray

As the title suggests, Ian Edelman  and Neel Shah’s first feature, Puerto Ricans in Paris, is a one-joke fish-out-of-water story that is carried on the backs of Edgar Garcia (“How to Make It in America”) and that most unlikely of all in-demand character actors, Luis Guzmán (Boogie Nights). In this risibly unlikely comedy, Luis and Eddie are NYPD detectives, who, after breaking up a counterfeit-purse operation, are recruited by a Parisian fashion agency to track down a black-market thief who’s stolen its latest designs. Forgetting for a minute that the NYPD would never allow two of its detective to freelance in a jurisdiction so distant in all regards from One Police Plaza, it’s difficult to think that one nearly bungled assignment would lead to such a plum gig and bonus well beyond their annual salaries. When viewed, however, in the same comic vein as Jackie Chan’s collaborations with Chris Tucker and Owen Wilson, Puerto Ricans in Paris isn’t all that far out, really. By all rights, it should have been titled, “Nuyoricans in Paris.” Luis and Eddie don’t look any more out of place in the City of Lights than Columbo, Kojak or Baretta would have been, had they been called upon to infiltrate the runway shows, nightclubs and cafes frequented by the world’s haute-ist fashionistas. The movie’s best sight gags come from watching the 5-foot-7 Guzman, being seduced by the very drunk designer, played by Alice Taglioni, who stands well over 6-feet in heels.

 

Sea Fog

Renowned for such noteworthy pictures as Mother, The Host, Barking Dogs Never Bite and his first English-language film Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho is a writer/director whose every new picture attracts global attention. He co-wrote Sea Fog with freshman director Sung-bo Shim, with whom he shared a writers’ credit on the politically charged 2003 police procedural, Memories of Murder. Both pictures are based on headline-making events in South Korea. Times were hard for people trying to make a living in the fishing industry as the world inched its way to the new millennium in the 1990s. Veteran ship captain Kang Chul-joo has just been told that his vessel is being sold to a conglomerate and everyone will lose their livelihoods. In a last-ditch effort to recoup some earnings for his crew, Kang takes a job smuggling illegal Korean-Chinese immigrants into South Korea. Because all the right palms have been greased beforehand, Kang is led to believe that he can focus on meteorological conditions and sustainability of the boat and its human cargo. Instead, something unexpected goes desperately wrong. Most Korean audiences probably already are aware of the details surrounding the tragedy that occurred on the 69-ton fishing vessel Taechangho, southwest of Yeosu, on October 7, 2001, and the 2007 stage play of the same name, “Haemoo.” Apart from the drama and fog-enhanced suspense, the movie asks if the efforts to control illegal immigration might not be as draconian as the political systems from which the “croaker fish” are paying high fees to escape. It also asks us to consider how such terrible accidents affects the men who were forced by economic circumstances to give up honorable jobs and become criminals, whether or not anything untoward happened on the trip. Sung and Bong added an on-board romance to further humanize the story and raise the stakes, a bit, on the survivors. The DVD adds the very different short film, “Sea Child.”

 

Traders: Blu-ray

The international financial crisis and loss of decent-paying jobs also provides the subtext for Traders, a gritty Irish drama that merges ideas from Fight Club with the incentive-laced suspense of TV’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” In it, a recently laid-off nebbish invents a “game” in which people desperately short of cash can double their money by participating in a death match. The contestants agree to use their dwindling life savings as a stake. John Bradley (“Game of Thrones”) plays the rotund Internet moderator, Vernon Stynes, who’s established a firm set of rules and expects that players will have the integrity to play by them in hand-to-hand combat. Harry Fox (Killian Scott) would appear to have more resources than other potential traders, but the prospect of continually doubling his money on his way to a million-Euro reward is too tempting to ignore. In his first fight, more like an exhibition than anything else, a loophole large enough for Vernon to exploit becomes readily apparent to the two friends. Still, just as Harry proves himself be to be a born trader, Vernon becomes ever more jealous of his nest egg and sure that he deserves want amounts to a cut of the action. The greedier Vernon becomes, the less tolerant Harry is of his demands. On the brink of Harry becoming a millionaire, Vernon conspires with some dangerous thugs to take him out of the game. Trader’s biggest selling point is the even keel Harry maintains as he slices through an increasingly inventive selection of combatants, all of whom will have won enough money to match stakes. In their first feature, longtime collaborators Rachael Moriarty and Peter Murphy have successfully balanced the fighting with just enough romance to keep things interesting. They also make good use of the urban and rural Dublin settings.

 

Guernica

Chosen

I think it’s safe to say that the destruction of the Basque village of Guernica, in 1937, by German and Italian bombers in support of Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War, is familiar to Americans, if it all, it’s via Pablo Picasso’s painting, “Guernica.” Before the mural-sized oil painting was returned to newly democratic Spain in 1981, it was held for safe keeping at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Ironically, it continued to be a symbol for peace, even as the U.S. relentlessly bombed North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War. What made Guernica different than other towns and villages destroyed in 20th Century conflicts was the unnecessarily savage attack on the town by the Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion and the Italian Aviazione Legionaria. Although control of Guernica would put Franco at distinct strategic advantage in the Basque region, the town itself had virtually no air defenses and the Republicans were known to be in retreat. Koldo Serra’s drama, Guernica, lays the blame for the magnitude of the death and destruction less at Franco’s feet than those of Oberstleutnant Wolfram von Richthofen and his boss in Berlin, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, who saw the attack as a test of Adolph Hitler’s offensive strategy to become known as blitzkrieg. Included in the attacks were tests of newly designed incendiary bombs that would be almost impossible to extinguish. Hundreds of innocent lives were snuffed out in minutes, while three-quarters of the structures were levelled. Serra’s depiction of the short, but devastating attack is nothing less than unnerving, as intended, and no words could do justice to it. It became incumbent on writers José Alba, Carlos Clavijo Cobos and Barney Cohen to come up with something to fill the other 80-some minutes. They decided to hook their story on a jaded American newspaper man, Henry Howell (James D’Arcy) – standing in for the real-life Times’ reporter George Lowther Steer – an idealistic, Capa-inspired photographer (Ingrid García Jonsson), and a love interest provided by a local press-office censor, Teresa (María Valverde). She introduces us to the other key storyline, involving the Soviet functionaries and spies whose job it was to prevent the truth about the war and Republican losses from reaching readers in the U.S. and rest of Europe. The Soviets are made to look every bit as evil as the Germans, minus the extreme firepower, and probably were. (In fact, Stalin provided arms to the Republicans in return for the right to deplete Spain’s treasury of gold, some dating back to the colonization of Mexico.) The DVD release has a handful of deleted and extended scenes.

 

In his long-awaited sophomore feature, Bosnian/British filmmaker Jasmin Dizdar (Beautiful People) chose to take on one of those based-on-a-true-story tales that leave you wondering how much of the movie was “based” on the actual event and how much is “true.” In war stories especially, I think that I’d prefer the disclaimer, “40 percent of what you’re about to see is based on a true story,” or, even, “The vast majority of what you’re about to see is based on a true story, so don’t blame the screenwriter if you’re bored.” Because most movies inspired by war stories feature feats of superhuman strength or unconscious bravery, I’d like to know just how much of my disbelief I’ll be required to suspend. That’s just me, though. Chosen opens with Pappy (Harvey Keital) being asked by his grandson, Max (Julian Shatkin), to recall a true hero from his life, for a 1,000-word essay he’s been assigned. Pappy, like so many other veterans of World War II, is reluctant to turn his back pages to the only chapter in his life story where true heroism might have come to the fore. Finally, he comes up with Sonson (Luke Mably), a Hungarian Jewish lawyer, who, in 1943, was enlisted by the fascist state police to break boulders into stones. It’s mindless work, but it beats being forced into a boxcar headed for Auschwitz, which is what would happen to the country’s Jews a year later, when the Nazis decided the Hungarian government was being soft on non-Aryans. After the German occupation, Sonson’s wife (Diana Cavallioti) dies because Jews are not allowed medicine, while her sister, Judith (Ana Ularu), is targeted for relocation to a death camp. Finally pushed to the breaking point, Sonson pledges his resources to tracking down the train in Poland and rescuing Judith, who’s already broken free from captivity and working with the resistance movement. Nonetheless Sonson is determined to find the only connection to his dead wife. How he’s going to accomplish this miraculous feat is very much open to question, as is the fate of Max’s homework assignment. It takes a while for Chosen to get going, but, when it does, the action scenes are pretty good. And, while it’s always nice to see Keitel, he quickly relinquishes the spotlight to Mably.

 

Traded: Blu-ray

If I’m reading his resume right, Timothy Woodward Jr. has directed 11 movies in the last three-plus years; produced 20 features and TV shows since 2005; and acted in 18 projects during roughly the same period. I don’t know about the TV shows, but none of the movies appear to have gone anywhere other than straight-to-DVD/Blu-ray/VOD. That might sound like a knock, but it isn’t. Because Woodward’s been able to get such well-traveled talents as Tom Sizemore, Johnny Messner, Mickey Rourke, Mischa Barton, Estella Warren, Vinnie Jones, Dolph Lundgren, Danny Trejo, Vivica A. Fox, Danny Glover and Verne Troyer to lend their names to his dust jackets, they sell. The names supporting Woodward’s latest project, Traded, include Kris Kristofferson Trace Adkins, Natalia Cigliuti and Michael Paré. Based on screenplay by Mark Esslinger (Delivery), the traditional Western is set in 1880s Kansas, way out on the plains. Gunslinger-turned-rancher Clay Travis (Pare) is about to get some bad news handed to him in the form of a rattlesnake lying in wait for his young son. The boy was retrieving some canned goods for his mom and wasn’t doing anything wrong. In the Old West, shit happens … all the time. No sooner does the mourning period pass than his teenage daughter, Lily (Brittany Williams), decides to run away from home, hoping to secure a job in Wichita as a Harvey Girl waitress. Travis wanted her to stand home, in the middle of nowhere, where he can protect her. He decides to track her down, but is always one or two train stops late. Lily’s plans to serve pancakes to train passengers are aborted when she’s kidnaped by tobacco-chewing pimps and turned out at one of two competing brothels in a one-horse town. As these things go, it’s never made absolutely clear whether or not Lily’s actually has lost her virginity to a cowhand before her dad rescues her – it’s inevitable, right – but it’s close. Western aficionados should admire the body count, even if the rest of the story is pretty slow and predictable. Kristofferson, who looks as if he’s been riding the range for the last 200 years, actually is given a bit more to do here than has been expected of him in recent outings.

 

The Trust: Blu-ray

Manhattan Night: Blu-ray

The American Side

When you’re looking for crazy, who ya gonna call? Nicolas Cage, who else? In The Trust, he plays a Las Vegas cop, Stone, in charge of collecting evidence from crime scenes. After a fairly routine drug bust, Stone notices that the perp was freed from jail on a cash payment of $800,000. Because something doesn’t seem kosher, he asks a much younger cop, Waters (Elijah Wood) – who, apparently, has nothing better to do – to tail the guy and see what’s up. If Cage and Wood don’t ring the same bells as Starsky and Hutch or Crockett and Tubbs, it’s close enough for DirecTV original (with a limited release a few weeks later). Turns out, the path leads to a two-story laundry that doesn’t waste much time, water or suds on linen products from the nearby casinos. There’s a small, but powerful armory hidden within the walls of apartment upstairs and a seemingly impenetrable safe downstairs that’s big enough to double as a garage. You know that Stone’s going to find a way to get inside that vault, even if he has to chew his way through the reinforce concrete, and Waters is going to sweat every detail. This being the first film by the directing team Alex and Ben Brewer, it comes as a surprise that the heist plays out as well as it does and their stars make such a good team. Neither are the Vegas locations from the usual playbook. As rainy-night entertainment, action fans could do a lot worse than The Trust. Oh, yeah, Las Vegas resident Jerry Lewis appears briefly in a couple of scenes as Stone’s ex-cop father. The Blu-ray package includes the featurettes “The Dynamics of a Duo: Nicolas Cage and Elijah Wood” and “The Visuals of Vegas,” as well as commentary with the Brewers.

 

Manhattan Night (a.k.a., “Manhattan Nocturne”) is another crime thriller that didn’t go anywhere very fast in a brief and very limited release, despite the presence of Academy Award-winner Adrien Brody and a solid book tie-in. Based on a best-seller by Colin Harrison, the noir mystery suffers from a bit too much tinkering by first-time director Brian DeCubellis, whose love for New York gets in the way of decent story. Brody plays a crusading columnist for a tabloid newspaper, who’s blessed with a beautiful wife (Jennifer Beals), a nice family and a hideaway pad no mere investigative journalist could afford in a million years. The reporter, Porter Wren, must have a low tolerance for blonds, as he becomes an easy mark for an especially beautiful widow at a party in a posh apartment. When Caroline (Yvonne Strahovski) asks him to solve the bizarre death of her beyond-crazy filmmaker husband (Campbell Scott), they practically set a land-speed record to make it to her house for a quickie. No sooner than viewers can say, “What an asshole,” Wren is summoned to the offices of a filthy-rich business mogul, who blackmails him to agree to an investigation that parallels the one he’s already doing for Caroline. Just when things appear to be getting interesting, DeCubellis’ screenplay begins to go sideways. That’s primarily because the hush-hush material Wren discovers is laughably lame. That said, Manhattan Night is stylish enough to make a decent rainy-night double-feature with The Trust. Special features include commentary with DeCubellis, Scott and cinematographer David Tumblety; interviews; a making-of featurette; deleted/extended scenes; a director’s notebook; and storyboards.

 

And, while we’re on the subject of film noir conventions and rainy-day fare, there’s Jenna Ricker’s exceedingly retro The American Side, a movie so true to form it easily could have been turned into a parody in a pinch. Co-author Greg Stuhr stars as hard-boiled private detective Charlie Paczynski, a graduate of the Mickey Spillane school of criminal investigations. Talk about throwbacks, Paczynski is the only P.I. extant who conducts all of his business on a payphone. So far, so routine. What makes The American Side so appealing are its old-school Niagara Falls and Buffalo settings and a bizarre plot that involves inventor Nicola Tesla. The last time Tesla figured in a feature film, it was Christopher Nolan’s underappreciated The Prestige. It seems as if one of Tesla’s diagrams was stolen from his home after he died, but before government agents broke in to confiscate his “discredited” theories. To add a bit more authenticity, Ricker brought in veteran hard guys Joe Grifasi, Robert Forster, Robert Vaughn and Harris Yulin, to work alongside less-grizzled actors Alicja Bachleda (Ondine), Matthew Broderick, Camilla Belle, Janeane Garofalo and Grant Shaud. There’s even a barrel that goes over the falls.

 

Louder Than Bombs

Almost all 109 minutes of Danish filmmaker Joachim Trier’s English-language follow-up to Oslo, August 31st and Reprise can be summed up in the lyrics of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Motherless Children”: “And Father will do the best he can, when Mother is dead, Lord/Well, the best he can, when Mother is dead/Father will do the best he can/So many things a father can’t understand/Nobody treats you like Mother will …” In Louder Than Bombs, Mother is a prize-winning photojournalist, credibly played by the great French actress Isabelle Huppert. Gabrielle Byrne is the Father, Gene, Isabelle left in charge of two teenage boys, when her car rammed into the grill of a semi. The motherless children that Gene can’t understand are Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and Conrad (Devin Druid). That brief plot outline may not tell the whole story, but how many great blues songs – most not much longer than two minutes – have laid the foundation for exponentially more complex movies? Like Juliette Binoche’s Rebecca in Erik Poppe’s 1,000 Times Good Night, Isabelle is hooked on the rush that comes from documenting important stories through the lens of a camera. When they return home to their families between assignment, the women can’t help but wish they were somewhere else, dodging bullets in war zones and visiting refugee camps. Rebecca’s husband is having some of the same problems raising daughters as Gene is experiencing with his boys. Where Rebecca barely escapes death in a pair of terrorist attacks, however, Gene is left grieving his wife’s stateside death that may have been self-inflicted.

 

Two years later, Jonah is an accomplished educator and first-time father, suffering from post-partem depression. Gene’s far more concerned with Conrad, a dour young man who’s never been told the truth about Isabelle’s last days on Earth. If there was ever a teenager likely to voted “most likely to bring an automatic weapon to school,” it’s Conrad. Gene tries hard to keep things together at home and begin a meaningful relationship with a fellow teacher (Amy Ryan), but he comes from the generation of fathers who works harder to be friends with their sons than fathers. As a retrospective of Isabelle’s work approaches, Gene also must deal with the fact that her dirty laundry – and, by extension his family’s – will be aired in a Page One preview in the New York York Times, by a former colleague (David Strathairn). Blind Willie Johnson was spared such predicaments, but Trier is giving Gene, Jonah and Conrad a similarly upsetting lesson in the blues. It may be a bourgeois blues, but the Danish filmmaker has captured it pretty well, nonetheless.

 

Bite: Blu-ray

Summer Camp

The Binding: Blu-ray

Long before cigarette manufacturers were required to add warning labels to their products, purveyors of horror movies cautioned audiences with all sorts of stunts and gimmicks designed to whet the appetites of horror fans. William Castle not only produced and directed some of the best genre flicks of 1950-60s, but he also created some of the most fondly recalled publicity stunts. For Macabre, he offered a $1,000 life insurance policy against “death by fright,” while “doctors,” “nurses” and ambulances were prominently stationed for the benefit of fainthearted viewers. I can’t remember if my screener copy of Bite came with a barf bag, as some do, but it might actually have come in handy. I’m not kidding. Genre-specialist Chad Archibald (The Drownsman) takes his time setting up the horror, which begins with a bride-to-be drifting off the beaten path at her Costa Rica bachelorette weekend and getting bitten by an unknown bug at a hidden swimming hole. Long story short, Casey (Elma Begovic) returns home with a skin condition all the Clearasil in the world couldn’t cure. Egg sacks and enflamed pustules begin to appear on Casey’s body and she begins to twitch like a spastic insect, possibly related to David Cronenberg’s fly. It gets worse, but the real fun comes in watching what happens to friends, her fiancé and future mother-in-law when they begin showing concern for her absence. The makeup effects and set design are of Oscar quality, not that they would get past the first round. The Blu-ray adds an essential making-of featurette and Archibald’s commentary.

 

Neither is Alberto Marini’s Summer Camp a romp in the park. Its generic title doesn’t really explain what viewers can expect in the ensuing 81 minutes of nearly non-stop action. In what I assume to be a Euro-American co-production, four American counselors are in the mountains outside Madrid preparing for the opening of a summer camp for Spanish kids who want to learn English. The hacienda is far from ready for habitation and the gypsy encampment outside its wall doesn’t auger well for the future. Things turn nasty as the counselors tour the barn where small animals are kept. Something resembling rabies is spreading through the pens and threatening to infect the counselors and staff. Its primary characteristic is a sudden display of rage, followed by mayhem and a just as sudden return to normalcy. By narrowing down the possible pathogens, a likely suspect emerges just hours before the first of the campers are about to arrive. What differentiates this Summer Camp from all the others is the lovely landscape and the roller-coaster action.

 

The bible has provided Hollywood with countless ideas for movies over the last hundred years, or so. Beyond the stories directly taken from the Old Testament, there are the many moral and ethical issues tackled by screenwriters desperate for an angle. Gus Krieger’s faith-based The Binding harkens to the biblical tale of Abraham, who was commanded by God to bind and kill his young son. A young minister’s wife, Sarah (Amy Gumenick), attempts to balance her maternal inclinations with her deeply held religious faith, especially when her minister husband, Bramwell (Josh Heisler), begins to have dreams about God’s intentions for their newborn daughter. Even if the dreams are accurate, who’s to tell whether it’s Satan or the deity who’s calling the shots? Bramwell now believes that the apocalypse can be avoided only by the baby’s sacrifice. The Binding stops short of giving a writer’s credit to biblical scholars, however. Krieger keeps a few things up his sleeve. The Blu-ray adds interviews with Gumenick, Josh Heisler and Leon Russom (Minister Uriel), and a commentary track with Krieger.

 

Careful What You Wish For

Most fans of the Jonas Brothers band were too young even to be gleams in their parents’ eyes when Body Heat was released in 1981, so Nick’s feature debut in Careful What You Wish For should be full of surprises for them. Everyone else will know what’s happening after Jonas’ Ivy League-bound Doug Martin first lays eyes on his new next-door neighbor, Lena Harper (Isabel Lucas), from the safety of his bedroom window. Lena, who looks like a teenager, herself, is married to a rich fool (Dermot Mulroney), 20-plus years her senior, who hires Doug to get his yacht ready for a summer of sailing on the North Carolina shore. When the old man is out of town on business, Lena makes it her business to seduce the 18-year-old virgin and string him along for a few weeks without her hubby or his parents noticing. No problem. The rest you can either guess or already have figured out. Based on looks, alone, director Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum (Ramona and Beezus, Aquamarine) would have made a more likely MILF seductress than the blond Aussie bombshell, but there’s no question that Lucas delivers the goods, all the way to the switcheroo ending. Considering that Jonas is only asked to look alternately nervous and horny, he does just fine. Paul Sorvino pretty much steals the show as cornpone country cop who’s smarter than most people think he is.

 

High Strung

Instantly reminiscent of Fame, Step Up and a dozen other gotta-dance culture-clash stories, High Strung features a hip-hop violin player who hooks up with a classical dancer on scholarship at the Manhattan Conservatory of the Arts. They meet while he’s busking in a subway terminal, where his violin is stolen and illegal-alien status could get him deported if the theft was reported. Ruby (Keenan Kampa) gets Johnnie (Nicholas Galitzine) interested in a competition, wherein a dancer performs with a string musician and the winner gets a scholarship. A scholarship could lead to a student visa for Johnnie, but he has to win over a ballroom full of snobs first. If only they could find a crackerjack hip-hop dance crew to really differentiate their audition performance from the pack. If the story sounds a bit iffy, High Strung is saved by the kind of music and dance that teenagers tend to support.

 

Sniper: Ghost Shooter

If you’ve seen one Sniper, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you’ve seen all six of them. The lead actors tend to rotate from chapter to chapter, as do the theaters of operation. Otherwise, though, fans know not to expect many surprises. In Sniper: Ghost Shooter, Billy Zane returns after a brief hiatus as an elite marksman, Richard Miller. Chad Michael Collins is back as Brandon Beckett, son of Thomas Beckett (Tom Berenger), who isn’t. For the team’s next mission, Dennis Haysbert, a.k.a., The Colonel, wants his them to relocate from the Middle East to a mountainous region in the former USSR to protect a gas pipeline stretching from Georgia to Western Europe from extremists eager to disrupt its operation. This time around, a so-called ghost shooter is picking off the good guys with such remarkable precision that he must be getting help from somewhere. That it could be coming from someone with access to strictly guarded coordinates from a satellite GPS makes for some tenser moments than usual.

 

Puzzled Love

The same type of viewer who fell in love with Cédric Klapisch’s delightful ensemble rom/dram/com, L’auberge espagnole, when it was released here in 2003, will want to take a chance on Puzzled Love. There are differences between the Barcelona-set pictures, but none that particularly matter. Instead of adding to the luster of such rising European stars as Cécile De France, Audrey Tautou, Kelly Reilly, Cristina Brondo, Judith Godrèche and Romain Duris, Puzzled Love focuses on Marcel Borràs and Saras Gil, who, in 2011, were newcomers on the international scene. Because the movie didn’t cause much of a commotion outside the Spanish-language markets, the actors didn’t get quite the same bounce. Now that it’s out there, though, there’s no reason Borras and Gil shouldn’t benefit, as well. Sun is a lovely and reasonably studious brunette from Chicago, while Lucas, being from Mallorca, is a bit more hang-loose. They meet in a flat with rooms being sublet for the rest of the school year by students who’ve become extremely familiar with each other during their time together. So much so that the newcomers are told that they’ll have to be open to weekly theme parties and sometimes excessive behavior. To prevent complications, flatmates are discouraged from hooking up. After a distinctly rocky start, Sun and Lucas slowly warm to each other, even knowing they’ll be heading their separate ways in a few months. It’s a dilemma with which students from around the world can understand and empathize. The only real gimmick here involves the parceling of writing and directing duties to 13 different people. It took me a long time to catch on to the conceit, but, when I did, it didn’t change my favorable opinion of Puzzled Love.

 

The Man Who Saved Ben-Hur

Spend any amount of time in Los Angeles and one is likely to acquire neighbors and friends who’ve toiled in the entertainment industry and have scrapbooks full of photos and memorabilia to show for it. Even better places to meet industry veterans are parties and the kind of gin mills whose lighting softens the wrinkles around the eyes. Listen to them long enough and you might be tempted to pull out a tape recorder. Before embarking on his close-to-the-heart documentary, The Man Who Saved Ben-Hur, writer/director Joe Forte (Firewall, Callr) knew that his elderly second cousin, Johnny Alarimo, had associated himself with some of the biggest names in town and might want to share a few yarns with a kindred soul. What he couldn’t have expected was the treasure trove of museum-quality photographs, letters, gifts and other souvenirs the one-time song-and-dance man had collected in his career as an AD, translator, dialogue coach and trusted companion in more films for which he’s ever been given credits. A perusal of his IMDB.com file reveals far less than anything collected in the boxes in his moderately sized apartment. If Alarimo is described as a loner, it’s only because he’d outlived most of his contemporaries and his phone had stopped ringing years ago. The title, The Man Who Saved Ben-Hur, refers to a time when his ability to speak Italian gave director William Wyler a leg up in getting things done while shooting the epic historical drama in and around Rome. An ability to order off the menu in foreign ports and grease the palms of union bosses is a sure way to get a producer’s credit in Hollywood. More than that, however, he could be an extremely charming and discreet companion. If that’s shorthand for being gay, well, you didn’t hear it from Alarimo, who took those stories, if any, with him to the grave. Forte’s approach was far more accommodating than gossipy and his film speaks volumes about the differences between old and new Hollywood. The bonus package adds extended interviews.

 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray

Lazer Team

For most of the last 20 years, I’ve lived in the wee SoCal town in which the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers was filmed, 60 years ago. The Red Scare was in full bloom and viewers were free to make parallels to the witch hunts that had already occurred in Hollywood, the McCarthy hearings and Moscow. Mostly, though, audiences craved a good scare. Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers was shot in San Francisco, where, by 1978, the hippies were being replaced by self-help enthusiasts, serial killers and increasingly aggressive panhandlers. Because pedestrians and office workers tended to avoid the eyes of other people, it would have been difficult to distinguish between the pod people and Frank Zappa’s plastic people. Adding color to the spread of the space-borne sickness helped make the menace that much more sickening. Here, viewers play a guessing game as to which of the big-name stars — Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Leonard Nimoy, Veronica Cartwright, Jeff Goldblum – will be turned into drones before our eyes. Critics pretty much loved Kaufman’s remake, while fully acknowledging the place in the canon held by Don Siegel’s original. (He appears in a cameo, as a cab driver, along with Robert Duvall and Kaufman.) The Shout Factory package features a new 2K scan of the interpositive; fresh interviews with actors Brooke Adams and Art Hindle, writer W.D. Richter, composer Denny Zeitlin and author/film historian Steve Haberman; as well as vintage commentary by Kaufman, interviews with Kaufman, Richter, director of photography Michael Chapman and actors Donald Sutherland and Veronica Cartwright; featurettes, “Practical Magic: The Special Effects Pod,” “The Man Behind the Scream: The Sound Effects Pod,” “The Invasion Will Be Televised: The Cinematography Pod”; and an episode of “Science Fiction Theatre,” “Time Is Just a Place,” based on Jack Finney’s short story.”

 

Anyone who’s a fan of the work produced by Austin-based Rooster Teeth Productions – the Internet’s “Red vs. Blue” – will be anxious to see Lazer Team. A throwback to 1980s’ era sci-fi, including Ghostbusters, the lesser Star Wars entries and Fantastic Four superhero flicks, Lazer Team describes what happens when four small-town losers accidentally down an alien spacecraft with a with a Roman candle and soon find themselves responsible for the fate of the entire planet. In the crash site, they find a battle suit, whose appendages and weapons become genetically bound to them. Government agents were expecting the delivery from outer space and now are required to work with the quartet of doofuses against an omnipotent enemy. The greater challenge may be keeping Lazer Team from annihilating each other, before they can save mankind. If the $2.5-millon picture lacks polish and finesse, it shouldn’t prevent fanboys and cosplay freaks from enjoying it.

 

Gibby

There are two photographs on the cover of Gibby: on top, a Capuchin monkey gets his head in between a teenage girl and boy, attempting to share a kiss; below it, the same girl, wearing the suit of a competitive gymnast, extending her arms as if she’s just stuck a landing. The cover also features the Dove.org logo, guaranteeing that what’s contained therein is safe for audiences of all   ages. That’s all most potential viewers would need to know about director Phil Gorn’s inspirational comedy, which marks his return to the helm after 14 years and the decidedly non-Dove-approved Ultimate Reality. After the death of her mother, Katie (Shelby Lyon) has lost interest in her school, friends and gymnastics. Things begin to pick up for her when a science teacher asks her to take care of her monkey, Gibby (Crystal), for the summer. Gibby helps her with gymnastics, renewing friendships –including finding a potential boyfriend (Peyton Meyer) and overcoming her nemesis, a mean girl who is out to beat Katie at everything. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie … just in time for the Olympics. Gibby also stars Shannon Elizabeth (American Pie), Sean Patrick Flanery (The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles) and Vivica A. Fox (Independence Day).

 

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

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

 

The Adventures of Panda Warrior

Nickelodeon: PAW Patrol: Sports Day

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

 

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

 

TV-to-DVD

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

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

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

Thursday, July 28th, 2016

Born to Be Blue

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

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

Sing Street: Blu-ray

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

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

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

The Boss: Unrated: Blu-ray

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

Hardcore Henry: Blu-ray

Criminal: Blu-ray

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

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

Grantham & Rose

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

The Last Diamond

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

The Greatest Ears in Town: The Arif Mardin Story

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

Invitation: Blu-Ray

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

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

Ozland

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

Listening

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

The Boy Who Cried Werewolf: Blu-ray

Rollercoaster: Blu-ray

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

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

Hellhole: Blu-ray

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

The Candy Tangerine Man/Lady Cocoa: Blu-ray

Petey Wheatstraw: Blu-ray

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

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

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

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

Opry Video Classics II

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

My Big Night

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

Sunrise

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

A Light Beneath Their Feet

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

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

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

TV-to-DVD

PBS: NOVA: Operation Lighthouse Rescue

PBS: Nature: Nature’s Perfect Partners

PBS Kids: WordWorld: It’s Time for School

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 20th, 2016

A Perfect Day: Blu-ray

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

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

 

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

 

The Daughter of Dawn: Blu-ray

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

 

Bridgend

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

 

The Perfect Match: Blu-ray

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

 

Kill Zone 2: Blu-ray

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

 

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

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

 

COMIX: Beyond the Comic Book Pages

OUTATIME: Saving the DeLorean Time Machine

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

 

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

 

Crimes of Passion: Special Edition: Blu-ray

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

 

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

 

Bad Moon: Blu-ray

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

 

Lee Scratch Perry’s Vision of Paradise

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

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

 

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

 

The Bible Stories: Jacob

The Bible Stories: Joseph

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

 

TV-to-DVD

Daniel Boone: Collector’s Edition: Season One

Bitten: The Final Season

Secrets of the Dead: Teotihuacan’s Lost Kings

America’s Test Kitchen: Season 16

Caillou: Caillou Goes for the Gold

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Thursday, July 14th, 2016

Everybody Wants Some!!: Blu-ray

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

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

The Divergent Series: Allegiant: Blu-ray

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

Belladonna of Sadness: Blu-ray

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

Van Gogh: Blu-ray

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

The Preppie Connection

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

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

Gorilla Bathes at Noon

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

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

Marguerite & Julien

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

Mecanix

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

Model Hunger

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

Green Room: Blu-ray

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

Stressed to Kill

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

With Child

No Men Beyond This Point

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

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

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

The Dark Horse

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

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

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

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

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

Sons of Ben

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

Sex Roulette

The Little Blue Box

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

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

TV-to-DVD

Starz/BBC: The Dresser

PBS/ITV: Vicious: The Finale

Discovery: Naked and Afraid XL: Season 1

PBS: NOVA: Wild Ways

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

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

PBS Kids: Dinosaur Train: Under the Volcano

Nickelodeon: Blaze and the Monster Machines: Fired Up!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 8th, 2016

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

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

 

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

 

The Adderall Diaries: Blu-ray

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

 

600 Miles

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

 

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

 

Electra Woman & Dyna Girl

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

 

Imber’s Left Hand

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

 

Francofonia: Blu-ray

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

 

Dear Eleanor

Emma’s Chance

Endgame

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

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

 

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

 

Cabin Fever: Blu-ray

The Levenger Tapes

The Pack: Blu-ray

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

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

 

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

 

Mad Tiger

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

 

Search Party: Blu-ray

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

 

Code of Honor: Blu-ray

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

 

Suture: Special Edition: Blu-ray

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

 

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

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

 

Blood and Black Lace: Special Edition: Blu-ray

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

 

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

 

The Swinging Cheerleaders: Special Edition: Blu-ray

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

Teenage Swinger: Grindhouse Double Feature

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

 

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

 

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

 

TV-to-DVD

MHz Networks: The Young Montalbano

MHz Networks: Detective Montalbano

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

PBS Kids: Peg + Cat: Out of This World

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Thursday, June 30th, 2016

Aferim!

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

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: Blu-ray

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

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

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

Rams: Blu-ray

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

Margarita, With a Straw

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

Precious Cargo: Blu-ray

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

Back in the Day

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

The Steps

The Family Fang

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

 

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

 

Docs-to DVD

Elstree 1976

George Crumb: Voice of the Whale

Weaving The Past: Journey of Discovery

Scary Man

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Made in Cleveland

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

 

TV-to-DVD

Disney Channel: Adventures in Babysitting

PBS: Prince Philip: The Plot to Make a King

PBS: NOVA: Can Alzheimer’s Be Stopped?

PBS Kids: Odd Squad: The O Games

PBS: Nature: Jungle Animal Hospital

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

Thursday, June 23rd, 2016

Knight of Cups: Blu-ray

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

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

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

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2: Blu-ray

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

Wondrous Boccaccio

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

Anesthesia: Blu-ray

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

Going Away

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

King Georges

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

The Black Jacket

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

 

Peace After Marriage

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

All American Bikini Car Wash

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

Crackerjack

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

The Crush: Blu-ray

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

No Way Out: Blu-ray

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

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

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

TV-to-DVD

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

Comedy Central: Workaholics: Season Six

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

Discovery Family: Transformers Rescue Bots: Heroes of Tech

ABC Kids: Power Rangers Ninja Storm: The Complete Series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 16th, 2016

45 Years: Blu-ray
I, Anna

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

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

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

10 Cloverfield Lane: Blu-ray

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

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

London Has Fallen: Blu-ray

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

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

Every Thing Will Be Fine: Blu-ray

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

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

Those People

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

Rabid Dogs: Blu-ray

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

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

La chienne: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

Le amiche: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

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

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

The Best Intentions: Blu-ray

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

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

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

 

Nikkatsu Diamond Guys: Vol. 2: Blu-ray

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

 

Jeepers Creepers/Jeepers Creepers 2: Blu-ray

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

 

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

 

Bad, Bad, Gang!

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

 

Quackerz: Blu-ray 3D

Shaun the Sheep: The Farmer’s Llamas

Fishtales

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

 

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

 

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

 

TV-to-DVD

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

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

PBS: Nature: Animal Reunions

Discovery Family: Littlest Pet Shop: Making Friends

Lifetime: Toni Braxton: The Movie Event

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Friday, June 10th, 2016

Zootopia: Blu-ray

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

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

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

Hail, Caesar!: Blu-ray

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

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

Anomalisa: Blu-ray

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

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

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

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

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

The ConfirmationBlu-ray

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

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

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

Touched With Fire: Blu-ray

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

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

One More Time

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

Kill Your Friends: Blu-ray

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

No Home Movie

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

Mr. Right: Blu-ray

Get a Job: Blu-ray

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

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

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

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

IMAX: Journey to Space: Blu-ray 4K

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

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

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

The Funhouse Massacre: Blu-ray

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

Altered Minds

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

Tom Waits: Out of the Box/Down & Dirty

Louder Than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story

East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem

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

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

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

Stardust Stricken: Mohsen Makhmalbaf: A Portrait

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

TV-to-DVD

IFC: The Spoils Before Dying, Season 2

PBS: The Secrets of Saint John Paul

PBS: Secrets of the Dead: The Alcatraz Escape

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

PBS: David Holt’s State of Music

Hallmark: When Calls the Heart: Heart of a Hero

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Friday, June 3rd, 2016

Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue

GG Allin: Carnival of Excess

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

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

Triple 9: Blu-ray

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

Princess

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

 

City of Women: Blu-ray

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Abandoned: Blu-ray

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

 

Blood Bath: Special Edition: Blu-ray

Psychic Killer: Blu-ray

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Human Tornado: Blu-ray

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

 

TV-to-DVD

PBS: Frontline: Saudi Arabia Uncovered

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

The DVD Wrapup: Zoolander 2, Finest Hours, A Married Woman, Manhunter, The Damned and more

Friday, May 27th, 2016

Zoolander No. 2: The Magnum Edition: Blu-ray

In the opening moments of Zoolander 2, Justin Bieber is machine-gunned to death in an international conspiracy to rid the world of beautiful celebrities, a crime to which the self-absorbed and ridiculously coddled Canadian pop singer could only plead guilty. With his last dying breath, the Bieb summons the strength to post an Instagram picture of himself sucking in his cheeks and puckering his lips in a Blue Steel pout fans of the first Zoolander might recognize. With approximately 100 minutes to go, co-writer-director-star Ben Stiller will be required to recycle gags from the original, coordinate the many cameo appearances of well-known stars and fashionistas, preen in character for the camera and hope that viewers have forgotten that Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter did a far better job skewering the industry seven years before Z1 was unleashed in 2001. Both Zoolanders satirize a multibillion-dollar business that’s beyond shame or any ability to contextualize itself within real-world problems and achievements. True, at the retail level, the industry contributes to the economies of some of the world’s poorest and most depressed countries, but only because subcontractors are allowed to hire cutters and seamstresses at sweatshop wages. The very real problem is alluded to here, but only as a convoluted plot device involving Zoolander’s ridiculous antagonist Jacobim Mugatu (Will Ferrell). Never mind. Here, supermodels Derek Zoolander and Hansel are lured out of self-imposed exile by Billy Zane, a courier for the marble-mouthed body-care gargoyle Alexanya Atoz, wonderfully portrayed by an unrecognizable Kristen Wiig. Derek is still despondent over losing his wife and custody of their son in a devastating fire at his highly flammable academy at the Port of New York. Interpol fashion division chief Valentina Valencia (Penelope Cruz) identifies Bieber’s farewell pout as one of Zoolander’s classic looks, linking the death to a serial killer. She helps him locate Derek Jr. in an orphanage, but the boy’s plus-size physique disappoints him. Mugatu has other plans for Junior and his precious DNA. Admirers of Zoolander should enjoy the occasionally funny moment, if only to count the number of celebrities they recognize in cameos. Everyone else, I think, will wonder what all the fuss was about, in the first place. The Blu-ray’s special features include “The Zoolander Legacy,” “Go Big or Go Rome,” “Drake Sather: The Man Who Created Zoolander” and “Youth Milk.”

Memoria

Is it possible that this is James Franco’s world and the rest of us are merely being allowed to purchase tickets to live in it? How many actors have the money, interest and opportunity to continually shift gears in pursuit of a meaningful and interesting career? Bill Murray’s upward trajectory almost didn’t survive the tailspin caused by his decision to go dramatic in The Razor’s Edge. If it weren’t for his acerbically comic turns in Analyze This and Meet the Parents, as well as David O. Russell’s spot-on casting in Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and Joy, Robert De Niro might not be remembered for anything he’s done since 1997’s Wag the Dog and Jackie Brown. At 38, Franco’s career highlights include an Oscar nomination for 127 Hours, an Emmy nomination for “James Dean” and Independent Spirit trophies for Milk and 127 Hours. I suspect that he values the nomination he received for the 2013 Un Certain Regard Award, for his adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying — a fine movie that went virtually unseen in the U.S. — as much or more than any of those honors. He would return to Mississippi for The Sound and the Fury a year later and, once again, for the upcoming Mississippi Requiem collection of four Faulkner-inspired short films. He’s played poets CK Williams, Hart Crane and Allen Ginsberg, as well as publisher Hugh Hefner and journalistic imposter Christian Longo. Moreover, Franco’s comedic chops were established in “Freaks and Geeks,” Pineapple Express, Date Night, Your Highness, This Is the End, The Night Before and Spring Break, in which he was scary and funny in equal measure. Without missing too many beats, he re-entered UCLA in 2006 to continue his search for a degree that was interrupted in the mid-1990s. Franco has two MFA degrees, both in writing, from Columbia and Brooklyn College, and a third, in film, from New York University. He paints, teaches, lectures, sings, blogs, writes and has a recurring role on the soap opera, “General Hospital.” It would be logical to think that anyone who divides his time so thinly would someday have to fail miserably or burn out, but, even in the face of much commercial indifference, Franco has shown no interest in slowing down. He’ll sleep when he’s dead.

Like Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto and Gabrielle Demeestere’s Yosemite, Nina Ljeti and Vladimir de Fontenay’s observant teen drama Memoria is the third film based on Franco’s short stories “Palo Alto Stories” and events recalled in “A California Childhood.” It’s where he grew up and, last year, taught an eight-part film class to students at Palo Alto High School. By all outward appearances, kids who grow up in the shadow of Stanford University should be living the digital dream and some of them do. The problem, of course, is that the kids who can afford to accept invitations to attend school at Stanford aren’t the same ones who are educated in tax-supported high schools in and around the Silicon Valley. The ones we meet in Memoria smoke, drink, exaggerate their sexual prowess and skate their boards until the cows come home. They’re also largely oblivious to the damage they’re doing to Ivan (Sam Dillon), a socially awkward 17-year-old whose stepfather is a bully and mother is preoccupied with her own problems. At home, he retreats to a realm of military combat within the confines of his bedroom, struggling to carve a niche in the world and dreaming of the father who left before he was born. A bit gawky in appearance, Ivan is exactly the kind of kid who could find refuge at school or, failing that, use automatic weapons to relief his frustrations. Franco plays Mr. Wyckoff (James Franco), the English teacher who sees a spark of life beyond Ivan’s pain and chronic tardiness. He encourages him to deal with his demons directly, through prose. At a shade under 70 minutes, Memoria leaves little time to waste on other high school hijinks and salvation strategies. The filmmakers hint at Ivan’s only real options through his strained attempts at writing and foggy views of the Golden Gate Bridge’s most likely spots for suicide leaps. A hunting rifle is injected into the narrative early on, as well, but for entirely different reasons. De Fontenay and Ljeti are solely credited with writing Memoria, although it wouldn’t exist without Franco’s source material. I sense that they also were inspired by Richard Linklater’s Boyhood – in which Dillon appeared — and other of his portrayals of teenage wastelands.

The Finest Hours: Blu-ray

I wouldn’t so far as to describe the Coast Guard as the Rodney Dangerfield of U.S. military branches, but it’s rarely seen on film unless its services are needed to mop up a drug bust on the high seas or keep a makeshift raft full of Haitians from dropping off its human cargo on the beaches of southern Florida. Before Disney committed Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman’s “The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue” to film, the most prominent were The Guardian (2006), with Kevin Costner as Ashton Kutcher; The Perfect Storm (2000); The White Squall (1996); Onionhead, Andy Griffith’s follow-up to No Time for Sergeants; Sea of Lost Ships (1953), with John Derek; The Woman on the Beach (1947), with Rex Ryan, Charles Bickford and Joan Bennet; Dog of the Seven Seas (1946), Coast Guard canine Sinbad; the RKO serial and subsequent feature, SOS Coast Guard (1942); Sea Devils (1937) with Preston Foster, Victor McLaglen and Ida Lupino; Border Flight (1936), filmed at the Coast Guard Air Base in San Diego; and, yes, John Wayne in The Sea Spoilers (1936), during which he’s pitted against Alaskan smugglers and seal poachers. Numerous cameo appearances as participants in sea and air-borne rescues should also be noted. The Finest Hours may be the most triumphant of them all, as it describes a feat still considered to be the greatest small-boat rescue in history. Filmed largely on location at Station Chatham, Massachusetts, where the event took place on February 18, 1952, it describes the heroism of two seamen: Petty Officer Bernard C. Webber (Chris Pine) and tanker captain Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck). Fate, in the form of a powerful nor’easter, would bring the two men together in a way neither could have predicted, even after years of training for just such a potential tragedy. The oil tanker SS Pendleton had broken in two off Cape Cod, leaving only the stern section and 33 crewman struggling to stay afloat. After much rancorous debate, Sybert decides that the only way to survive is to allow the stern to drift toward shore, where it could get hung up on a sand bar or shoal and wait out the storm. Or, it could continue to be pummeled by 70-foot waves and sink.

At the Coast Guard station, where another rescue mission is being coordinated, several older guardsmen treat any attempt to find and make contact with the Pendleton as a suicide mission and advise against taking any unnecessary chances. Instead, Webber and his crew of three steer the motorized lifeboat according to the currents and wind conditions to an unlikely rendezvous, nearly being capsized by the same huge waves. Even though, the title of the book gives away the likely end to the saga, director Craig Gillespie (Million Dollar Arm) commands our attention throughout the film with an orgy of CGI tumult. Neither was it a given that the 36-foot Coast Guard Motor Lifeboat CG 36500 designed to carry seven passengers safely – now berthed at Rock Harbor in Orleans, Massachusetts — could handle 32, plus the three guardsmen. Despite its many exciting moments and excellent acting, The Finest Hours didn’t do very well at the box office, even as exhibited in Disney Digital 3-D, RealD 3D and IMAX 3D. In fact, Disney CEO Robert Iger recently told investors the company expects to take a loss of $75 million on it. This was acknowledged before the movie was sent out in Blu-ray/DVD/VOD. If I had to guess, I’d say that the narrative bounced too frequently between the drama of the rescue mission and a melodramatic love angle, involving Webber and his newly announced fiancé, Miriam (Holliday Grainger), a switchboard operator who made herself a pest at the Coast Guard station. Miriam’s persistence pays off at the end of the movie, adding a heart-tugging coda to an already emotionally charged climax. The bonus package includes: “Against All Odds: The Bernie Webber Story,” which includes a visit the quaint and close-knit town of Chatham and residents who recall the rescue; deleted scenes; and several short backgrounders.

The Nasty Terrible T-Kid 170: Julius Cavero

If the graffiti artists of the 1970s had been content to reserve their statements for the sides of subway cars, their work would be little more than a passing eyesore for detractors. Because the scribblers elected, instead, to deface everything from garage doors, bridges and trucks to unattended baby carriages, the art-vs.-vandalism debate escalated to a national controversy. Sadly, the ratio of artists-to-taggers back then was heavily weighted toward wannabe gangbangers who simply loved seeing their name everywhere they went. It stopped being amusing when police and vigilantes took it upon themselves to eliminate the problem, one tagger at a time, and turf battles erupted between rivals. Carly Starr Brullo Niles’ splashy documentary, The Nasty Terrible T-Kid 170: Julius Cavero, profiles one of the most prolific subway artists of all time. The Peruvian/Puerto Rican Caverro began his tagging career as King 13 in the Bronx, using it to announce that he’d won one kind of challenge or another, including performing daredevil tricks on swings in local parks. He would be forced to join a local gang to prevent being beaten up for tagging the wrong wall in the wrong neighborhood. With an ego the size of the Big Apple, itself, Cavero finally succumbed to the twin perils of urban life: addiction and arrest. Unless one lives in New York or Philadelphia, the artist’s braggadocio might sound as appealing as Donald Trump with a bullhorn. Those so inclined, however, will enjoy watching the nearly 30 years’ worth of archived footage and home movies collected in The Nasty Terrible, including footage shot in train yards of the Bronx.

Dusk

On the cover of his first feature, writer-director Michael Maney appears to promise viewers one genre cliché – the cabin-in-the-woods thriller – when he actually has something far more original in mind. Some horror buffs may find the approach to be too clever by half, but originality in the pursuit of a fresh twist is no vice. I think Barry Goldwater said that. Maney demands that we think outside the box by setting things up with a spooky encounter on a dark, lonely road between the protagonist and a ghostly specter and his misbehaving car. After things get back to normal, recently wed John Whitmore (John McGlothlin) rushes home to describe the incident to his seemingly perfect wife, Anne (Juliana Harkavy), who’s too tired to listen. When he wakes up the next morning, Anne is nowhere to found. Instead, John discovers a mysterious tape recorder on the kitchen counter, with a taped message demanding cash for her safe return. Naturally, he’s warned against calling the police or trying anything “reckless.” Because the kidnaper knows the precise location of a safe in the house and the amount of cash it contains, it’s reasonable to assume it’s some kind of inside job and he may be taken for ride. Anne seems nice enough, but her over-protective father might very well be using the abduction as a test to see if his yuppie son-in-law is capable of protecting his daughter. Too afraid to consider such a cynical ploy, John is instructed to await a visit by a possibly dangerous man, David (Ford D’Aprix), who will drive them to the cabin in the woods, where, presumably, Anne awaits her knight in shining armor. Along the way, though, John once again begins experiencing flashbacks and visions, none of which would appear to connect to a straight kidnap-for-ransom job. Beyond this point, though, lies spoilers. Some viewers might able to put the puzzle together, but Maney is stingy with legitimate clues. If Dusk clearly could have benefitted from a larger budget, the largely unknown cast deserves credit for leaving most of the second-guessing until the final credits begin.

 

Rise of the Legend: Blu-ray

If the commercial value of a superhero could be measured against that of a folk hero, I’d love to see how Davy Crockett would fare against

Superman, Spider-Man, Batman and Iron Man. Besides popularizing the coonskin cap as a fashion statement, ABC’s five-part series, “Davy Crockett,” drew millions of kids and adults to the fledgling network’s “Walt Disney’s Disneyland,” in 1954-55. The individual hourlong episodes would be combined and released in a pair of feature films, as well. Its theme song, “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” became a huge hit on the Walt Disney label for several different artists, while Crockett-themed bubble-gum cards kept dentists filling cavities for the next decade. The Davy Crockett Arcade and Davy Crockett Frontier Museum were original attractions at Disneyland’s Frontierland. Fess Parker and his co-star Buddy Ebsen toured the United States, Europe and Japan. By the end of 1955, Americans had purchased over $300 million worth of Davy Crockett merchandise, which translated to $2 billion by 2001. The D-ticket Indian War Canoes attraction, which began in 1956, gave way to Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes in 1971. Similarly named rides could be found in Disneyworld, Disneyland Paris and Tokyo Disneyland. I’d be surprised to learn, however, that Disney got a slice of the Postal Service’s 5-cent commemorative stamp, which debuted in 1967. I only mention this textbook example of corporate synergy to introduce a similarly revered Chinese folk hero, Wong Fei Hung, who, since 1949, has been featured in more than 100 films and television series, including the newly released Rise of the Legend. Hong Kong actor Kwan Tak-hing starred as Wong in over 70 films between the 1940s and 1980s, earning the nickname “Master Wong.” At various times, he’s also been played by Sammo Hung, Jet Li, Vincent Zhao, Gordon Liu and Jackie Chan. Wong’s legacy extends to a hit theme song, a video game and characters in a novel, comic book series and card game. A master of Hung Ga, he introduced a new version of the Tiger Crane Paired Form Fist, which incorporates his Ten Special Fist techniques. Wong is renowned for using the Shadowless Kick and was adept at using such weapons as the staff and southern tiger fork. Like Ip Man, who specialized in the Wing Chun technique, his reputation has grown beyond the borders of China. If that weren’t enough, Wong practiced medicine and acupuncture, as well as the martial arts.

 

As directed by Roy Hin Yeung Chow and written by his Nightfall collaborator Christine To Chi Long, Rise of the Legend recounts the oft-told tale of how Wong defeated a group of 30 gangsters on the docks of Guangzhou, armed with a staff. It follows Wong as a child learning valuable life lessons from his revered father, Wong Kei Ying (Tony Ka Fai Leung), and being scarred forever by his death in a gang war. Twelve years later, the son (Eddie Peng) embarks on an intricately planned mission of revenge against the gangsters, who, in the late Qing Dynasty control the docks of Guangzhou, run opium dens and brothels, and sell slaves. (The real time frame as to when Wong Kei died may be a bit skewed here.) Wong Fei infiltrates the ruthless Black Tiger gang, led by the still-formidable Lei (Sammo Hung), who’s at war with the North Sea gang for control of the Huangpu Port. After proving his value in a wild knife fight, Lei accepts Wong Fei as a godson and one of his trusted Four Tigers. Meanwhile, a group of childhood friends (Jing Boran, Wang Luodan, Angelbaby, May Wang) have formed a reformist gang, the Orphans, and hope to bring justice back to the Guangzhou. Historically, collaboration between gangsters, corrupt officials and foreign traders would set off the Opium Wars and Boxer Rebellion, leading to the collapse of the last dynasty. Here, though, the emphasis is on action, as directed by Corey Yuen. Because Rise of the Legend is the first film to feature Wong Fei in nearly two decades, there’s plenty of room left to exploit the thoroughly buff character for a new generation. The Blu-ray package adds a making-of package, with featurettes on the characters, Eddie Peng, injuries, cinematography and stunts.

 

A Married Woman: Blu-ray

Typically, movies about marriage and extracurricular romance have one character, at least, with whom the audience can relate in a positive way. One person cheats, the other doesn’t. Another character might push his or her lover to make a choice that would change their lives forever and cause their partner a great deal of pain. If there’s no guarantee of happiness, tragedy is the more common result of deceit. In Jean-Luc Godard’s relatively obscure relationship drama, A Married Woman, viewers aren’t given the luxury of an easy choice. It arrived in 1964, a period when Godard had yet to commit to making overtly political films, employing non-traditional techniques and aggressive dialogue. It is of a piece with other films in which bourgeois women make dramatic changes in their lives, sometimes based on whims or urges prompted consumerist longings. In a role that might have been originally intended for Anna Karina, Godard chose the little known Macha Méril, an actress whose lineage could be traced to Russian and Ukrainian nobility. In A Married Woman, though, she plays a decidedly middle-class Parisian of the later post-war period, whose fashion choices are dictated by women’s magazines and world view is limited to her immediate horizons. Conventionally beautiful and up to date, Charlotte is more interested in the pursuit of the perfect bust than anything dealing with current politics. We’re willing to forgive this shortcoming, but only because Raoul Coutard’s almost voyeuristic camera demands we focus more on her body than her mind. Indeed, once we discover that Charlotte is cheating on her cocky pilot husband with an actor, Robert (Bernard Noël), we assume that she’s the aggrieved party. Robert would like her to leave Pierre (Philippe Leroy), but she hesitates in fear that he might be acting the part of her lover. Things will get extremely complicated when Charlotte learns she’s pregnant, not knowing who the father might be or if he’s the man she would choose to raise her child. We’d care more, too, if Godard hadn’t played a trick on us earlier, revealing just how vapid Charlotte really is. Because it derives from a joke inspired by the ongoing Frankfurt-Auschwitz war crimes trial, of which she’s blissfully unaware, and not, say, her thoughts on France’s hopes in the World Cup, Godard radically alters our perspective on her. He demands we question whether Charlotte’s interested in anything but what she sees in Vogue Paris and, more subtly, prompts us to wonder what, if anything is wrong with Pierre and what’s right about Robert. Pierre had her followed a few months before the current crisis, but Charlotte has become adept at dodging tails, real or imagined. Throw in the stereotypical perception of all French men being capable of juggling wives and lovers and we’re left with almost no reason to care what happens to anyone here. Such ambivalence for one’s own creations was jarring for mid-1960s audiences. It still is. That, however, was part of what made Godard and other New Wave directors interesting. The Cohen Media Group’s pristine restoration from the original negative adds interviews conducted in 2010 with French fashion designer and film producer agnès b., Godard scholar Antoine de Baecque and Méril.

 

Killer Dames: Two Gothic Chillers by Emilio P. Miraglia: Blu-ray

When I think of killer dames, my mind doesn’t turn immediately to Italy and the giallo boom of the early 1970s. I’m not even sure there’s a direct correlation between “dames” of noir tradition to something resembling the femme fatales we meet in Emilio P. Miraglia’s The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times. The cherchez la femme principle still applies, however. In giallo, men are more obsessed with prurient assumptions to notice whether a beautiful woman is pulling the wool over their eyes. Unlike Barbara Stanwyck, in Double Indemnity, women in the genre often fall victim to fetishistic violence and extreme cruelty in decidedly non-noir colors. The films collected in Killer Dames: Two Gothic Chillers by Emilio P. Miraglia, along with a treasure trove of interviews, analysis and commentary, are gothic giallo murder-mysteries, packed to the gills with twisted sexuality, ample bosoms, peek-a-boo nightgowns and lurid visuals. Miraglia’s name doesn’t pop immediately to mind when one considers the genre. Only two of the six films he directed fit the definition, while the others fall under the general heading of “spaghetti” action. In my mind, though, they’re as representative of the genre as the films of Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci or Mario Bava.

 

In The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave, Lord Alan Cunningham (Anthony Steffen) is haunted by the memory of his wife, Evelyn. He channels the trauma of his late spouse’s past affair by picking up red-headed prostitutes, driving them to his decaying castle and subjecting them to vicious acts of torture. (One, at least, makes the mistake of thinking his whip is intended for fun.) The count’s friends and doctor recommend that he remarry, if only to recapture his fading sanity, and avoid redheads. When he does arrive home with a doe-eyed blond, Gladys (Marina Malfatti), however, it spawns a different series of sinister events, not the least of which is the disappearance of Evelyn’s corpse from the family crypt. The highlight of the bonus package is an interview with Erika Blanc, whose character might have been dismissed as just another sexy victim, if it weren’t for an opening striptease that begins in a casket and ends at the castle. It’s a classic.

 

The Red Queen Kills Seven Times is based on a legend about a Black Queen and bloodthirsty Red Queen, who turn up every hundred years and claims seven fresh victims in a small German town. The story of sisterly hatred and revenge is conveyed to two girls by their grandfather, as if it were equal parts Grimm Brothers’ fable and cautionary tale. Years later, after the old man’s death, the girls would inherit both their family’s castle and curse. They would have to wait a year before assuming ownership, though. Plenty of things can happen in a year and, as befits a giallo, the almost startlingly gorgeous siblings, Kitty and Franziska (Barbara Bouchet, Malfatti), are involved in businesses that provide plenty of excuses for ritual violence and debauchery. When a few of Kitty’s co-workers at the fashion house turn up dead, she starts to believe that the curse might be real, after all. There are some incredibly freakish scenes here, involving rats, leaches and rape. None, I think, are gratuitous within the context of the genre. A 20-year-old Sybil Danning appears as a model in the movie and is the subject of an entertaining interview in the generous bonus package.

 

Accidental Incest

If anyone was a perfect fit to direct the film adaptation of Lenny Schwartz’ off-Broadway play, “Accidental Incest : Someone for Everyone,” it was veteran schlockmeister Richard Griffin. They had already collaborated had on Scorpio Films’ Murder University and Normal and, of curse. Mike Nichols was no longer available. That Griffin could turn Accidental Incest around for $20,000, or thereabouts, also might have been a contributing factor. With a resume that includes Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead, Disco Exorcist, Creature From the Hillbilly Lagoon and Nun of That, Griffin wouldn’t have much problem mustering his fan base to sample his next gem, so any loss would be small and any gain enormous. First, though, the title. Apparently, incidences of accidental incest aren’t all that uncommon, anymore. Spiraling divorce rates have decreased the odds against separated children running into a sibling and falling in love, simply by chance, as do artificial insemination clinics that turn a blind eye toward serial contributors. Ken Scott’s Starbuck and Delivery Man described a situation in which a man, who, 20 years earlier, had sold his sperm to an unscrupulous clinic, was now being sued by hundreds of his progeny who wanted more information on their biological roots. Not surprisingly, Accidental Incest is exponentially more sordid. It also offers musical interludes, not unlike those in Rocky Horror Picture Show. In it, twisted neighbors Milton and Kendra (Johnny Sederquist, Elyssa Baldassarri) meet and fall in love after surviving near-death experiences. Their guardian angels comfort them by prophesizing they would meet someone who could alleviate their loneliness and that their child would be special. (God makes a cameo, as well.) Things begin to get sticky when word of their love gets back to their respective biological parents, who, naturally, try to sabotage Milton and Kendra’s relationship. Bonus features include commentary with cast and crew members and a deleted scene.

 

The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead: Blu-ray

If you’ve ever tried to come up with the name of the British punk band co-founded by Captain Sensible and drummer Rat Scabies, or the first UK punk ensemble to release a single and an album and tour the United States, where it may even have inspired the first wave of West Coast hardcore punk, The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead is the documentary for you. Despite all of these distinctions and having nine singles that charted on the UK Top 40, the Damned pretty much squandered its advantage over the Sex Pistols, Clash and other punk bands by pissing on the notion of commercial success. The individual Sex Pistols may have scorned capitalism, but their manager, Malcolm McLaren, handled that end of the business. Nevertheless, as we learn in Wes Orshoski’s exhaustively researched film, the Damned would continue to make music intermittently and in numerous generic and personnel variations for most of the last 40 years. The documentary charts the history of the band against a backdrop of interviews and tour footage from 2011 to 2014, and was edited together “rough” to make the film feel more like the Damned’s uncompromising first album. It includes appearances from Chrissie Hynde, Mick Jones, Lemmy and members of Pink Floyd, Black Flag, Depeche Mode, Sex Pistols, Blondie and Buzzcocks. In the bonus features, Captain Sensible takes viewers on a tour of Croydon, the south London town that gave rise to the Damned, and he busks on the streets of Hollywood with actor/musician/comedian Fred Armisen, who pops up in these docs with alarming regularity. Orchovski’s previous work includes the biopic Lemmy and Shuggie Otis: Live in Williamsburg.

Manhunter: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray

Bad Influence: Blu-ray

Among the things heard after the 2002 release of Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon, which starred Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton and Ralph Fiennes, were comparisons between it and Michael Mann’s Manhunter, both based on the same novel by Thomas Harris. Released in 1986 to positive reviews, but lackluster public support, Mann’s typically stylish thriller has grown in popularity since Hopkins assumed the role of the playfully sadistic Dr. Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs. In chronological fact, FBI profiler Will Graham had captured Lector beore Harris’ series began and would be forced to come out of retirement to confront the man who haunted his dreams in Manhunter, just as Clarise Starling would become hooked in “Silence.” “Red Dragon” would be revisited once again in the second season of the NBC series, “Hannibal,” with Hugh Dancy playing Graham. Relative newcomer William Petersen, a mainstay of Chicago’s off-Loop theater circuit, certainly wasn’t the obvious choice to play the emotionally fragile profiler, but he’d impressed Mann in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. and might have landed a key role in Thief, if Jim Belushi hadn’t been available. His Graham is a throbbing bundle of nerves tortured by images of murdered innocents and afraid to lose his family to broken promises. Brian Cox, as a slicked-back “Lecktor,” was cooling his heels in a federal prison that was porous enough to allow the occasional coded letter from an admirer to slip past the guards and censors. In return for a peek at the case files pertaining to the “Tooth Fairy” murders, Lector gives Graham an idea of the kind of criminal with whom he’s dealt and, inadvertently, clues as to where the murderous Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan) might be lurking as the next full moon nears. At 6-foot-6, Noonan was a frightening presence on the big screen, yet gentle enough to allow a blind co-worker (Joan Allen) to share his love for animals, including a sedated tiger she’s invited to pet. The decision to lay Iron Butterfly’s dark hippie anthem “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” over the violent confrontation at the film’s climax continues to raise goosebumps. The Blu-ray “Collector’s Edition” comes with a director’s cut that adds four minutes to the film’s two-hour length, if not much revelatory material; the original cut in SD; lengthy interviews, both fresh and archival; vintage commentary with Mann; and a stills gallery.

On its glossy surface, Bad Influence remains a reasonably exciting, if slightly dated re-imagining of Patricia Highsmith’s “Strangers on a Train” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” novels that had already served Alfred Hitchcock and Rene Clement very well. What’s most interesting today, though, is the lasting effect it would have on co-stars James Spader, who was coming off a career-altering performance in Sex, Lies and Videotape, and former Brat Pack member Rob Lowe; writer David Koepp, whose future would include credits for Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible and Spider-Man; and director Curtis Hanson, future Oscar winner, for L.A. Confidential. Bad Influence might have done significantly better at the box office if it weren’t for the lingering effects of a sex-tape involving Lowe and a 16-year-old girl at the 1988 Democratic Convention. The leaked tape also featured Lowe and a friend in a ménage-a-trois with an American model, this time in Paris. It would be another two decades before Kim Kardashian’s leaked sex tape would help enhance her career, such as it is, rather than destroy it. In any case, here, Lowe plays an enigmatic sociopath, Alex, who insinuates himself into the sweet yuppie life and burgeoning career of Spader’s mousy financial analyst, Michael. The timing couldn’t be better, when it comes to building Michael’s self-confidence and willingness to stand up to bullies at work, at least, or worse, considering the false sense of invulnerability that Alex instills in him. Like Michael, we sort of like Alex. It isn’t until we recognize the strands of the web he and his sexy companion, Claire (Lisa Zane), are weaving around the poor chump. Marcia Cross plays Michael’s fiancé, the wealthy daughter of a business tycoon. The question becomes one of deciding whether there’s a method to Alex and Claire’s madness or they’re sadists who enjoy torturing their prey before going for the jugular. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “Under the Influence With David Koepp,” an interview with the writer.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume II

This is the Shout! Factory edition of a MST3K DVD package distributed by Rhino more than a decade ago. I’m not exactly sure why it’s being re-released in an edition that only varies somewhat from the original, but I’ll hazard a guess. Cherry editions of the original 2003 package are going for a small fortune and that’s without now-standard closed captioning and hour wraps for Cave Dwellers and Pod People, movies so bad they defy easy verbal assault by the crew. The set also includes the completely baffling Angels Revenge – a.k.a., “Angels’ Brigade” and “Seven from Heaven” – apparently made in 1979 to exploit the already-cooling “Charlie’s Angels” craze. Sadly, unless there’s a European-cut extant, there’s no more T&A on this version than there was on the hit TV show. Angels Revenge focuses on seven women who decide to fight the local drug cartel after the brother of a Las Vegas pop singer, is found severely beaten. When taken to the hospital, the young man is found to have been on illegal drugs. The Angels hatch a plan to destroy the local drug processing plant. If onetime Playboy POTM Susan Kiger (January, 1977) is the only semi-recognizable female cast member, the male team is so loaded with over-the-hill actors it could constitute an AA meeting. They include Peter Lawford and Jack Palance as leaders of a drug cartel, and Jim Backus, Alan Hale Jr., Pat Buttram and Arthur Godfrey in smaller roles. A fourth disc is comprised vintage shorts: “The Home Economics Story,” “Junior Rodeo Daredevils,” “Body Care & Grooming,” “Cheating a Date With Your Family,” “Why Study Industrial Arts?” and “Chicken of Tomorrow.” All of them appear to have been made with the intention of preserving the status quo and middle-class value in post-war America.

 

TV-to-DVD

PBS: 1916: The Irish Rebellion

PBS: American Experience: Space Men

Nova: Creatures of Light

Nickelodeon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Beyond the Known Universe

PBS: Kate and Mim-Mim: Balloon Buddies

On Easter Monday 1916, a smaller-than-anticipated group of 1,200 Irish rebels — poets, teachers, actors and workers, among them — mustered at several strategic locations in central Dublin, determined to disrupt business as usual in their wee corner of the British Empire. A unit was dispatched to the General Post Office, on Dublin’s main thoroughfare, with orders to occupy the building and hoist two republican flags outside it. That accomplished, Commander-in-Chief Patrick Pearse stood outside the building and read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic to pedestrians and office workers who barely took notice of him. The British were caught off-guard, at first, but it didn’t take long before an overwhelming force of troops from the mainland were put on ships and sent to Dublin to restore order. After some bitter street fighting the rebels were routed and their leaders jailed and shot. The Easter Rising may only have resulted in a moral victory, but it would inspire the creation of an independent Irish state and contribute to the eventual disintegration of the empire. The impressive three-hour PBS co-production, “1916: The Irish Rebellion,” examines the political history of Ireland that led to previous failed uprisings, while also examining the conditions of the day and signing of an Armistice that inevitably would lead to a bloody civil war and divided Ireland. The documentary doesn’t whitewash the mistakes made by rebel leadership, but there’s no way it could ignore the murderous intentions of a government that historically has refused to relinquish an inch of territory before first attempting to destroy anyone who dared demand freedom. Liam Neeson, who played the titular revolutionary leader in Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins, does his usual fine job as narrator.

We may never know how many primates and canines were sacrificed in the race to plant a flag on the moon. One would be too many, but science demands that we test the feasibility of space flight before sending a human being into orbit. I may be mistaken, but it’s possible that more screen time in The Right Stuff was devoted to our chimp astronauts than the heroic fliers we meet in the “American Experience” presentation, “Space Men,” which tells the little-known story of the men whose scientific experiments laid critical groundwork for NASA’s manned space program. A decade before President Kennedy committed the nation to sending a man to the moon, balloonists were the first to venture into the frozen near-vacuum on the edge of our world, exploring the very limits of human physiology and human ingenuity in this lethal realm. Among the people we meet are U.S. Air Force Captain Joseph Kittinger, who set a world record for the highest parachute jump (102,200 feet) and longest parachute freefall (84,700 feet) while testing high-altitude parachute escape systems in Project Excelsior. The record stood until October 14, 2012. If his balloon had a patio chair attached to it, people would still be talking about Kittinger.

 

It’s said that we know more about what’s happening on Saturn than the fish and invertebrates that exist in the deepest parts of our oceans. The PBS series “Nova” routinely introduces viewers too things we couldn’t possibly have learned if it weren’t the constant evolution of technology. “Creatures of Light” may be the most colorful and enlightening such presentation yet. As familiar as most of us are with fireflies and electric eels, the light show that takes place constantly in the oceans’ depths is unmatched by anything outside Las Vegas. Until recently, for example, marine biologists were unaware of the staggering number of creatures capable of creating light, even in places where the sun’s presence is a rumor. In the dark depths of the oceans, nearly 90 percent of all species shine from within. Whether it’s to scare off predators, fish for prey or lure a mate, the language of light is everywhere in the ocean depths. “Nova” and National Geographic take a dazzling dive to this hidden undersea world where most creatures flash, sparkle, shimmer, or simply glow. Biologists are interested in learning if we might be able to harness nature’s light to track cancer cells, detect pollution, illuminate cities and the inner workings of our brains.

 

OK, I’ll admit it. I’ve completely lost track of the various “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” series, the networks on which they’re shown and what in God’s name would possess anyone to live in a sewer. The new collection, “Beyond the Known Universe,” contains the first 12 episodes of Season Four. It picks up where the third-season finale left off, with the Triceratons’ successful destruction of the Earth with a Black Hole Generator. Thanks to the help of Professor Zayton Honeycutt, April O’Neil and Casey Jones are teleported back in time six months prior to the Earth’s destruction and travel throughout the galaxy to retrieve the three fragments of the generator and destroy them. What they couldn’t have anticipated are new enemies, such as the sinister Lord Dregg, the wacky Wyrm, the Jaws of outer space, Armaggon, and the entire Triceraton Empire. They also encounter such new allies as Sal Commander & Mona Lisa, the ancient Aeons, the Daagon, the Utrom Council and even their 1980s counterparts.

 

Three stories from PBS’ popular kids’ series “Kate and Mim-Mim” are collected in “Balloon Buddies.” Kate is making a balloon buddy for Mim-Mim, the rabbit, and needs a big balloon. In Mimiloo, they find a balloon tree, but all its fruit is flat and droopy. They must find a way to re-inflate the balloons for the Big Balloon Parade, where Kate has a big surprise for Mim-Mim. And, that’s just for starters.

 

The DVD Wrapup: Theeb, Naked Island, Witch, Maurice Pialat, Cop Rock and more

Thursday, May 19th, 2016

Theeb: Blu-ray

There are times when Naji Abu Nowar’s terrific World War I adventure, Theeb, feels very much like Lawrence of Arabia writ small. Less than half as long, it tells a similarly exciting story from the point of view of Bedouin tribesmen who attach themselves to a British Army officer assigned to blow up an Ottoman railroad in the heart of the desert. Because Theeb is essentially a coming-of-age story, it betrays no secrets to reveal that the officer rather quickly becomes a non-factor in the drama, leaving only what he left behind to drive the narrative. Theeb was shot in parts of Jordan’s magnificent Wadi Rum (a.k.a., Valley of the Moon) that also provided backdrops for David Lean’s epic, The Martian, Red Planet and Passion in the Desert. While war rages across Europe and in the Ottoman controlled wilderness, newly ordained tribal chief Hussein raises his younger brother, Theeb, in a traditional Bedouin community isolated by the vast desert and its maze-like sandstone formations. So as not to dishonor the memory of his recently deceased father, Hussein and a cousin agree to lead the officer on an arduous journey to a series of water wells on the route to Mecca. At an age when boys in such environments quickly are required to act like men, Theeb decides to follow the men at a discreet distance on his mule. The path takes him to a steep canyon, where a different sort of war is being waged by Ottoman mercenaries, Arab revolutionaries and outcast Bedouin raiders. A deadly ambush suddenly requires of Theeb that he not only determine his own fate, but also that of a mercenary “guide” cut from the same cloth as Omar Sharif’s black-clad in Sherif Ali. After a sudden reversal of fortune, the boy is forced to accompany the wounded guide to the nearest Turkish outpost, where secrets will be revealed and Theeb will be faced with the first great moral dilemma in his life. The maturation process will further demand of Theeb that he decides whether he’ll follow the lead of the outlaw, return to a leadership position in his tribe or conceivably join Lawrence in the march to Aqaba and beyond. Nowar and co-writer Bassel Ghandour lived among the desert tribes for a year, absorbing the language and culture. They constructed Theeb as a “tale of four water wells,” during which Theeb is called upon to live up to the name — “wolf,” representing manhood in Bedouin culture – bestowed upon him by his father. In a very real sense, then, it describes traditions not unlike those glorified in the American Westerns that allowed Native Americans more than a modicum of decency and respect. Wolfgang Thaler’s cinematography splendidly captures both the intimacy of the human drama and grand scale of the locations. Theeb, like Mustang and Son of Saul, was a finalist for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. The other two candidates, Embrace of the Serpent and A War will be released into DVD next month. They attest to the continuing growth of the world cinema, especially in countries not typically represented in the category. The Blu-ray adds the director’s commentary and short film, “Waves ’98.”

The Naked Island: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

From high above Japan’s Setu Inland Sea, the small patch of land at the center of Kaneto Shindô’s minimalist 1960 classic, The Naked Island, looks very much like Alcatraz, minus the abandoned prison. The family of four that lives on the island struggles to grow crops for subsistence trading, absent the assistance of potable water, sophisticated tools, generators or a motor for the wooden boat that takes them to shore, at least once a day, for fresh water, provisions and school for one the boys. Given the modernity of post-WWII Japan clearly visible on the opposite shores, their self-reliance seems less a condition of abject poverty, than a conscious decision to demonstrate that such a way of life was still viable. That it clearly isn’t feasible can be seen in the Sisyphean nature of their labor. Water from the mainland is transported by rowboat, then carried up a contoured hillside over what is basically a well-trod goat path. The crops are irrigated by hand, using a ladle. While parents Toyo and Senta go about their chores, Taro and Jiro prepare meals, feed the animals and attempt to catch the rare fish that a mainland restaurateur might find valuable. It’s a numbing existence, to be sure, but not one without time for occasional displays of love, despair and comfort, the latter in the form of a lingering bath in a heated barrelful of water. Just when The Naked Island appears to have reached a monotonous uniformity, Shindo shifts gears so abruptly that viewers are shocked into doubting the sanity not only of the endeavor, but also the man who demands so much of his family. While dialogue remains virtually non-existent, the story takes an unexpected turn to something resembling modern life, with the attendant joys and tragedies that come with it. Soon enough, though, the dull routine of years past – maybe decades – re-enters with the spring. Just as Robert J. Flaherty and Merian C. Cooper fudged details of everyday life in their early ethnographic documentaries, Shindo takes liberties with Toyo and Senta’s chores and rituals. What shines through is the endurance of the human spirit, sometimes for inexplicable reasons and, at others, out of pure determination to succeed on one’s own terms. Kiyomi Kuroda’s sparkling black-and-white cinematography ensures a sense of realism that never wavers throughout the 94 minutes of The Naked Island. The Blu-ray adds a video introduction by Shindo; archival audio commentary with Shindo and composer Hikaru Hayashi; a new video interview with actor and Shindo promoter Benicio Del Toro; a new video interview with film scholar Akira Mizuta Lippit; and an illustrated leaflet featuring an essay by film scholar Haden Guest.

Kindergarten Cop 2

If sequel specialist Don Michael Paul (Jarhead 2, Tremors 5) doesn’t dishonor the legacy of Ivan Reitman and Arnold Schwarzegger’s hit fish-out-of-water comedy, Kindergarten Cop, his primary directive could have been to test the waters for a series of straight-to-DVD sequels targeted at kids who weren’t even born when the Governator left office in 2011. Twenty-five years later, in Kindergarten Cop 2, Dolph Lundgren proves to be a reasonable facsimile of a musclebound teacher terrorized by over-privileged kids and politically correct parents, while in pursuit of a dangerous international criminal. In this case, it’s an Albanian fiend, Zogu (Aleks Paunovic), whose wife provided Lundgren’s Agent Reed a few moments of bliss during the investigation. In order to solidify the FBI’s case against Zogu, Reed is assigned by his bullying boss to need to find a flash drive that belonged to a recently deceased kindergarten teacher. It’s believed to contain a tipoff to a terrorist attack. If the outcome is never actually in doubt, the interaction between Reed and everyone else at the progressive school is what will keep viewers occupied for most of the movie’s 100-minute length. After some awkward introductions, Reed develops an easy rapport with the kids – some of whom need extra TLC – and a fellow kindergarten teacher (Darla Taylor) who sees beyond his clumsy attempts at pedagogy. Bill Bellamy plays a fellow FBI agent, while Sarah Strange is the school’s p.c. principal. The DVD adds deleted scenes, a gag reel and “Kindergarten Cop 2: Undercover.”

Night Has Settled

Set in 1983, Steve Smith’s follow-up to 2008’s The Last International Playboy appears to borrow key elements of Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, Roger Kumble’s Cruel Intentions and “Gossip Girl,” all in the service of an adolescent coming-of-age dramedy populated by the sons and daughters of New York’s social elite. The cover blurbs want potential viewers to consider the films of Larry Clark, as well, but the prep-school attendees in Night Has Settled have quite a bit more going for them than the skateboarders and borderline criminals in his depictions of debauched youths. Eighteen-year-old Spencer List is extremely convincing as the post-pubescent protagonist, Oliver Nicholas, a member of a clique of prep school boys and girls whose boredom and lack of direction is salved by sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll and shoplifting booze. As usual, almost none of their parents spend much time at home, leaving the kids free to engage in late-night parties and sexual experimentation. Oliver’s divorced mother, Luna (Pilar López de Ayala), is a self-absorbed free spirit who would prefer to be treated more like a friend and confidante to her son and daughter than a real mom. That responsibility lies with their Chilean nanny and housekeeper, Aida (Adriana Barraza), who is the parental figure Oliver wishes his mom would be. In fact, Luna is so incompetent as a mother that she happily leaves the parenting to Aida, who’s still grieving the loss of a son, years earlier, at the age of 10. Just when it seems as if the relationship between Oliver and Aida is becoming dangerously Oedipal, Smith puts her in the hospital with a debilitating stroke. Devastated, the boy acts out his myriad feelings in all the usual ways, leading to a cathartic moment that salvages both the character and the otherwise too-familiar story. If anything, Smith has invested too many interesting ideas into a film that’s all of 90 minutes. For example, in addition to all of his other problems, Oliver is cursed by migraine headaches whenever he nears climax while masturbating. That’s a new one on me, but Stone manages to pull it off without sacrificing much time or narrative coherency. Smith also finds room for the other youthful characters to grow.

The Witch: Blu-ray

The abruptness of the title and demonic visage of a goat on the DVD jacket may suggest that The Witch is just another low-budget portrait of a supernatural being, burdened by genre pretentions and clichés. An alternate image, used on the one-sheet posters, shows a young woman walking into an autumnal forest, brightly lit by a full moon, as naked as the branches of the trees. If that were all to recommend Robert Eggers’ debut feature, it probably would have been released straight-to-DVD or VOD and left to fend for itself. Fortunately for everyone involved, however, an executive at fledgling A24 recognized the film’s potential for carving a niche in a genre overpopulated by zombies, vampires and sadists. The buzz surrounding the modestly budgeted indie must have been ear-shattering, because The Witch did well enough against Deadpool and the faith-based Risen to be accorded a legitimate theatrical run. Instead of focusing directly on the protagonist’s midnight stroll or the spooky-looking goat, Eggers has constructed a deeply atmospheric period piece that anticipates the Salem witchcraft trials and persecution of women who may or may not have been guilty of something ungodly. In 1630s New England, a devout Puritan family of seven is banished from their church and village in a disagreement over Christian beliefs. They are required to start over on the edge of the known frontier, where fields will need to be cut from rocky earth and the dangers of the forest have yet to be fully defined. Bears and Indians, sure … the devil’s spawn, not so much. Whatever happens to them will be God’s will. Or, so they’ve been led to believe.

Eggers effectively cultivates a profound dread of the unknown before introducing the inevitable gore and Satanic heebie-jeebies. Shot in an abandoned lumber camp in northern Ontario, The Witch is infused with a palpable feeling of isolation. Eggers built his reputation on set design and his attention to historical detail here goes way past anything expected from a budget south of $4 million. (The mosquito repellant might have been the most expensive item on the budget.) The thickly accented dialogue, filled with “thys” and “thees,” also is perfectly credible. When disturbing things do begin to happen to the scripture-citing William (Ralph Ineson) and his fragile wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), it’s difficult for them to determine if they’re acts of God or Satan. Their newborn child disappears, along with some prized objects. The crops fail. The next youngest boy and girl find comfort in the company of the belligerent goat, Black Peter. There’s even a malevolent jack rabbit. Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), his father’s right-hand man, hasn’t been the same since he discovered a strange dwelling in the forest, inhabited by a woman who wouldn’t be out of place in a Russ Meyer film. We assume, without direct proof that the titular character is teenage Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). In a movie about Catholic mysticism, Taylor-Joy is the kind of open-faced blond who would be cast as the tortured saint-to-be. That Eggers has been able to maintain viewers’ interest for two-thirds of the movie, without giving hard-core genre buffs something nasty to chew, demonstrates the power of suspense and foreboding, which is enhanced by a droning soundtrack and sensory cues as earthy as the farm’s dung heap. If Thomasin is the witch, she probably doesn’t look much different than any of women sacrificed to bigotry and intolerance in Salem, 60 years later. The interviews, Q&A and gallery included in the bonus package attest to Eggers mastery of the project, from start to finish. I won’t be the only one who can’t wait to see what he – and Taylor-Joy, for that matter – accomplish next.

Dementia: Blu-ray

I Saw What You Did: Blu-ray

In his feature debut at the helm, cinematographer/director Mike Testin does what he can with a script by fellow first-timer Meredith Berg that telegraphs almost all its surprises and will be familiar to anyone old enough to remember Nurse Diesel in High Anxiety or Annie Wilkes in Misery. If that sounds like I’ve spoiled the ending, I doubt anyone will hold a grudge against me. The best things in Dementia are incidental to the script devices. Veteran character actor Gene Jones (“Vinyl,” as Colonel Tom Parker) is very good as a Vietnam-era war hero and POW, George Lockhart, whose sound mind and body are about to give out on him. Haunted by dreams of being tortured and exposed to what he still considers to be the cowardice of one of his fellow prisoners, at least, suffers a stroke after using a rifle to scare some neighborhood bullies off a neighbor boy. While in the hospital, he’s also diagnosed with dementia … or whatever the politically correct term for the titular disease is these days. George would like to reconnect with his estranged son (Peter Cilella) and teenage granddaughter (Hassie Harrison) before his illness gets too advanced, but the distance between the two men presents a formidable challenge. His only friend is played by Richard Riehle, an old-timer who’s instantly recognizable from the 350 roles he’s played in movies and television. The son, Jerry, doesn’t have to look very far for the live-in caregiver/therapist, Michelle (Kristina Klebe), as they already met in the hospital. Afforded just that much information, it would be difficult not to figure out what transpires in the ensuing hour or so. Testin’s had plenty of experience shooting pictures not terribly dissimilar to Dementia and he’s saved a few tricks for his freshman outing in the director’s chair. When Michelle madness is revealed, he makes excellent use of George’s spacious house for the ensuing game of hide-and-seek. Testin also sets up a parallel test of nerves between his nurse and granddaughter, both of whom are blond and obsessed with completing their missions.

Even when it was released in 1965, I’m not sure William Castle’s psycho-thriller I Saw What You Did made much of an impression on its target audience, teenagers, who were becoming pretty jaded when it came to horror and other genre pictures. What’s interesting about it today is how Castle appears to have borrowed the shower scene from Psycho and telephone segment from Bye Bye Birdie – among other things – in the service of a movie that would influence John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Kevin Williamson, Marc Cherry (“Desperate Housewives”) and possibly even some giallo specialists. To pass the time while babysitting, bored teenagers Libby and Kit (Andi Garrett, Sara Lane) pick names out of the phone book and prank strangers with the warning, “I saw what you did and I know who you are.” They couldn’t have known that one of men (John Ireland) they called had just murdered his wife in the shower and put her body in a trunk, for burial in the woods. The only person in a position to torment him with this knowledge is a neighbor with the hots for him and helps him with the trunk. (Joan Crawford’s assignment wasn’t much more than a cameo, but she was given top billing.) Castle conceives of a way, however illogical, for the killer to turn the tables on the girls and put them on the defensive. The rest of the movie pretty much plays out in jump scares, lighting and sound effects. I Saw What You Did clearly was made on a budget that didn’t allow for great artistry or frills. Competition with television for young eyes was still fierce and it was film that could play in theaters and drive-ins. Castle’s name may not mean as much to today’s audience as Roger Corman, but they were two peas in a pod when it came to the exploitation market. Such titles as House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, Strait-Jacket, 13 Ghosts and Macabre have stood the test of time and continue to be remade by new generations of filmmakers. His reputation as a showman is unmatched, as well. For I Saw What You Did, he instructed exhibitors to set aside a section of seats equipped with seat belts for easily shocked audiences.

The Winding Stream: The Carters, the Cashes and the Course of Country Music

Modern country music may owe more to the Eagles, the Allman Brothers and Buffalo Springfield than George Jones, Willy Nelson and Merle Haggard – ditto, country radio, which is more country-suburban, than country-western – but the roots of all commercially viable country music can be traced to A.P., Sara and Maybelle Carter. That’s the premise of musician-turned-documentarian Beth Harrington (“Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly”), whose essential The Winding Stream: The Carters, the Cashes and the Course of Country Music should be shown on a continuous loop at the rock ’n’ roll and country music halls of fame, Opryland, the Ryman Auditorium and Grammy Museum. Harrington takes us all the way back to 1927, when A.P. piled family members into his car for the then-grueling journey from Maces Spring, Virginia, to Bristol, Tennessee. Victor Records producer Ralph Peer had advertised for local musicians to gather there to record songs only familiar to the mountain folk. A.P. didn’t make it to the recording session, as he was looking for a replacement tire for the car, but, several weeks later, he received $50 for each song Sara and Maybelle recorded. By the end of 1930, they had sold 300,000 records in the United States. Realizing that he would benefit financially with each new song he collected and copyrighted, A.P. traveled around the southwestern Virginia area in search of new material. As the family grew, so did its fame. In 1938, the extended family traveled to Villa Acuña, Mexico – across the border from Del Rio, Texas – where they performed a twice-daily program on the 250,000-watt radio station, XERA. For the next 50 years, one iteration of the Carter Family or another performed “old time music” for enthusiastic fans everywhere. “The Winding Stream” is the product of exhaustive research and continually updated interviews with family members, historians and musicians. The Cash family connection is also duly noted, especially Johnny’s longtime relationship with June Carter. Harrington was able to interview the Man in Black only weeks before his death in 2003 and it’s terrific stuff. Anyone anxious to extend the experience should check out Maggie Greenwald’s underappreciated 2000 drama, Songcatcher, which chronicled a fictional musicologist’s (Janet McTeer) discovery of a treasure trove of ancient Scots-Irish ballads that had been handed down through generations of Appalachian musicians, but never written down or recorded. It is loosely based on the turn-of-the-century work of Olive Dame Campbell, founder of the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina, and that of the English folk-song collector Cecil Sharp.

The Films of Maurice Pialat: Volume 1: Blu-ray

Even by American arthouse standards, the films of French director Maurice Pialat were a hard sell. His intensely naturalistic technique required a great deal of patience from viewers accustomed to Nouvelle Vague storytelling, as well as a willingness to take unlikeable characters at face value. That they were inspired by people close to him in real life didn’t make them any more sympathetic. Pialat’s uncompromising attitude is reflected in a feature-length documentary, “Love Exists,” that’s included in the Cohen Film Collection package, The Films of Maurice Pialat: Volume 1. During his 35-year career, which began when he was 42, Pialat completed only 10 major features. Although his pictures scored numerous nominations at Cannes and in Cesar competition, they were shut out of the Academy Awards and Golden Globes. Probably the best known of three features included here is Loulou (1980), in which well-to-do Nelly (Isabelle Huppert) falls in lust with the unemployed lay-about Loulou (Gérard Depardieu). The underground life is fun until her husband pulls her safety net out from under her and she’s faced with having to raise a child with the small-time hoodlum, who can barely take care of himself. Like a working-class and not particularly funny version of American Graffiti, Graduate First (1978) follows a graduating class of teenagers in northern France as they await the results of the baccalaureate exams that could seal their fates as young adults. One path leads to college and the security that comes with middle-class life, while the other puts them in the more precarious position of having to live in continual fear of being laid off or making due on minimum-wage salaries. The kids need look no further than their parents to understand what they’re up against. In Mouth Agape (1974), a woman (Monique Mélinand) who’s worked hard all of her life as a shopkeeper, wife and mother, is fighting a losing battle with cancer. Gathered around her in her final weeks and days are her philandering husband (Hubert Deschamps), her adult son (Philippe Léotard) – also a cheat – and her eager-to-please daughter-in-law (Nathalie Baye). There’s love to be found here, but it takes a while to surface. In June and July, Cohen is sending out Blu-ray editions of Under the Sun of Satan and Van Gogh, an excellent biopic that had the misfortune of arriving within a year of Robert Altman’s terrific Vincent & Theo. All three volumes include insightful interviews and deleted scenes.

Hired to Kill: Special Edition: Blu-ray

Sometimes, I wonder if the famously inventive headline writers at New York’s tabloid newspapers (“Headless Body in Topless Bar”) are ever called upon to suggest taglines for movies. On Amazon, a blurb for Hired to Kill brashly declares, “No Man on Earth Could Get Him Out of Prison Alive. Seven Women Will Try.” This is collaborated in an interview included in the bonus package with filmmaker Nico Mastorakis, who allows that he envisioned a “Magnificent Seven with women.” More precisely, I’d suggest, “Magnificent Seven with runway models.” If Hired to Kill had been half as good as the tagline, it might not have been released straight-to-video in most markets or virtually forgotten in the 26 years since it was made. If anything, it exists as a slightly less sexploitative knockoff of Andy Sidaris’ Hard Ticket to Hawaii, Malibu Express, Picasso Trigger and Savage Beach, which defined the girls-with-guns subgenre in the 1980s. The difference is a cast that includes such noteworthy, if well past their prime stars as Oliver Reed, George Kennedy, Jose Ferrer and veteran tough guy Brian Thompson (Cobra). Here, Thompson plays the musclebound mercenary, Frank Ryan, assigned by Kennedy to track down Reed on a rebel-controlled island and free an imprisoned opposition leader (Ferrer). In a leap of faith impressive even by straight-to-DVD standards, the rock hard, 6-foot-3 actor is required to pose as a fashion designer conducting a photo shoot with seven “beautiful but deadly female fighters.” The Greek island of Corfu provides the perfect backdrop for action, glamour and intrigue. If only the machine guns looked as if they were firing live ammunition and some of the punches actually landed in the fight scenes. Co-writers Kirk Ellis and Fred Perry previously collaborated with Mastorakis on such immortal thrillers as The Naked Truth, Death Street USA and Terminal Exposure. Co-director Peter Rader enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame – or infamy — as co-writer of Waterworld, for which he later would be featured in “Flops 101: Lessons from the Biz.” Arrow Video has also released sterling Blu-ray “special editions” of Mastorakis’s Island of Death and The Zero Boys … not that there was all that much clamor for them. Bad-movie buffs should get a kick out of the presentations, though, as well as commentary and fresh interviews with editor Barry Zetlin, Mastorakis and Thompson; an essay by critic James Oliver; original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys; and BD/DVD-ROM copy of the original “Freedom or Death” screenplay.

TV-to-DVD

Cop Rock: The Complete Series

BBC: The Merchant of Venice

PBS: Mr. Selfridge: The Complete Fourth Season: Blu-ray

The Red Skelton Show: The Best of Early Years, 1955-1958

Carol + 2: The Original Queens of Comedy

The Facts of Life: The Final Season

Power Rangers: Ninja Sentai Kakuranger: The Complete Series

When an executive producer of hit television series is on a roll, he can propose almost anything and someone in Hollywood will take a nip at the bait, at least. Such was the case with Steven Bochco, who, by 1990, had successfully launched such landmark shows as “Hill Street Blues,” “Doogie Howser, M.D.” and “L.A. Law,” as well as near-misses “Hooperman” and “Rockford Files” spinoff “Richie Brockelman, Private Eye.” His record may not have been perfect, but Bochco and co-creator William M. Finkelstein (“L.A. Law,” “Murder One”) carried enough weight and promise to get ABC to buy into an idea so preposterous it would go down in history as one of the medium’s worst disasters. “Cop Rock” attempted to combine the gritty street-level police procedural with musical theater. The series centered on the LAPD and featured an ensemble cast that mixed musical numbers and choreography throughout individual storylines. Although some critics embraced the idea, it was trashed by most other opinion-makers and ignored by audiences. It lasted all of 11 episodes before being pulled off the network schedule. Today, like CBS’s ill-fated “Viva Laughlin,” it might not have made it to a third week. Even so, exposure on cable television would add a cult-like sheen to “Cop Rock.” (The same can’t be said of NBC’s “Hull High,” also launched in 1990, which lasted all of eight episodes, but would directly influence “Glee” and “High School Musical.”) Shout! Factory, a company known to take chances on longshots, has decided that the time might be right for a DVD revival of “Cop Rock.” If the individual episodes remain offbeat to a fault, it’s still fun to watch such members of Bochco’s repertory company as ex-wife Barbara Bosson, Larry Joshua, James McDaniel, Peter Onorati, Ronny Cox, CCH Pounder and guest stars Michelle Greene, James Sikking, Jimmy Smits, Gordon Clapp, Sheryl Crow, Gina Gershon and theme-song composer Randy Newman pop up every now and again. The police action and courtroom scenes should remind Bochco fans of scenes from his more fortunate efforts. The DVD adds new interviews with Bochco and series star Anne Bobby.

Perhaps the most provocative play in William Shakespeare’s repertoire, “The Merchant of Venice” has perplexed audiences as long as it’s been performed, somewhere in the neighborhood of 418 years. Aside from the lingering questions about the Bard’s intentions when it comes to his portrayal of the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, the play’s ending defies easy categorization as to whether it’s technically a tragedy or comedy. It kind of depends on how one feels about the forced conversions as punishment. Shylock’s painful status in Venetian society is emphasized in his celebrated “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, even as the epithets of his enemies continue to sting the ears of contemporary audiences. Because of this ambiguity, the play has lent itself to contemporization as a vehicle for anti-Semitic vitriol by bigots and a loud call for tolerance by others. Then, too, by allowing Portia and Nerissa to don judicial disguises and beg Shylock to reconsider his demand for a pound of Antonio’s flesh — “(Mercy) is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes” – Shakespeare appears to be making a case for gender equality. The 1973 adaptation newly released on DVD here by Shout! Factory originally aired on Britain’s ITV and ABC on this side of the pond. Sir Laurence Olivier and Dame Joan Plowright lead a stellar cast of actors (Anthony Nicholls, Anna Carteret, Jeremy Brett, Louise Purnell), most of whom originally appeared in the 1970 National Theatre stage production. That’s reason enough to check it out. Like Jonathan Miller, director John Sichel advanced the action to Victorian times.

ITV is also responsible for the surprise hit series, “Mr. Selfridge,” which currently is wrapping up its four-year run on PBS. In the episodes included in “The Complete Fourth Season” Blu-ray edition, creator Andrew Davies has advanced the narrative several years to the eve of the store’s 20th anniversary celebration. The Roaring ’20s have caught up with Harry, who’s begun to party like it’s 1909, again, and is paying for it. After missing Season Three, Lady Mae (Katherine Kelley) returns to London and, not surprisingly, Harry eventually finds himself in dire financial difficulty. A prominent newspaper publisher has declared war on him, as well. Faithful fans of the Sunday-night soap won’t be disappointed by the introduction of new characters — the hotsy-totsy Dolly sisters, a cocky business partner, a black seamstress — and story threads that need to tied before the series concludes. The Blu-ray adds four background featurettes.

Shout! Factory and Timeless Media Group extend their inventory of shows from the so-called Golden Age of Television with “The Red Skelton Show: The Best of the Early Years, 1955-1958.” Historically speaking, it marks the start of the beloved comic’s association with Johnson’s Wax and Pet Milk, as well as CBS’ experimentation with colorcasts on Tuesday night. Otherwise, the show continued to provide a home for such

delightful characters as Clem Kadiddlehopper, Cauliflower McPugg, San Fernando Red and Freddie the Freeloader. Among the guest stars are John Wayne, Johnny Carson, Jack Benny, Phyllis Diller, George Raft, Martha Raye and Carol Channing, in other words the cream of Hollywood’s vintage crop. Young viewers will have to take my word on this, but the 18 shows represented here are as funny as anything on TV right now … not so much the dance and song routines, though.

Besides providing lots of laughs, the 1966 special “Carol + 2: The Original Queens of Comedy” offered a preview of the arrival of “The Carol Burnett Show.” Alongside the two redhead comedians is Broadway dynamo Zero Mostel, whose unpredictability was his hallmark. Carol’s wedding anniversary sketch with Mostel points to future marital angst with Harvey Korman. When she and Lucy clean up at the William Morris Agency, as imaginary “charwomen of the board,” she offers a variation of the character whose animated likeness opened the show. The first appearance of the character, included here in a bonus sketch, was on Burnett’s 1963 special, “Carol & Company.” The DVD also includes the 1972 CBS television movie version of “Once Upon a Mattress,” in which Carol reprises her 1959 Tony-nominated Broadway debut role as Princess Winnifred the Woebegone. Joining her are Ken Berry, Bernadette Peters and Jack Gilford, all of whom (in addition to Lucy) would guest star on “The Carol Burnett Show” multiple times over its 11 seasons.

The Facts of Life: The Final Season” wraps up nine years of life in and around Eastland School for Girls, a boarding school in Upstate New York. A spin-off of “Diff’rent Strokes,” the series focused on the school’s housemother and dietician Edna Garrett (Charlotte Rae). Also under her wing are students Blair (Lisa Whelchel), Natalie (Mindy Cohn), Tootie (Kim Fields) and Jo (Nancy McKeon), who by this time, were probably closer to retirement than puberty. As the girls prepared to join the world outside Peekskill, Blair rallied the troops one more time to save Eastland from bankruptcy. Oh, yeah, one of the girls finally loses her virginity in the ninth season. Despite solid ratings, NBC was forced to cancel the show when Cohn and McKeon decided to move on to grown-up shows.

Before the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers stormed America in the 1990s, the Japanese series, “Super Sentai Zyuranger,” laid the foundation for its success of tokusatsu television. The sixteenth installment in the long-running “Super Sentai” franchise of superhero programs would provide the raw material for Saban’s “Power Rangers” franchise. The storyline in the “Complete Series” box is nearly incomprehensible. Apparently, though, “It’s been a long time since the great war between the Three God Generals and the Youkais, an ancient race of monstrous spirits. Since then, imprisoned in a cave protected by the mystical Seal Door, their leader Daimaou and his Youkai army wait, planning for the day they can finally strike. That day has arrived and it is up to the Kakurangers, along with the Three God Generals, to defeat the Youkais, before Daimaou’s villainy destroys Earth.” That, from the publicity blurb from Shout! Factory for the boxed set. Some things, you simply can’t make up.

The DVD Wrapup: Mustang, Where to Invade Next, Patty Duke, In a Lonely Place and more

Thursday, May 12th, 2016

Mustang: Blu-ray

Once upon a time, when the world was a much larger place, the Arabic and Farsi-speaking world was seen from afar as a land of camel caravans, wandering Bedouins, harems, men who resembled Rudolph Valentino and woman shrouded head to toe in elegantly embroidered robes. That perception would change drastically after first the oil embargo, the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and even more when the Taliban thought it necessary to destroy the Buddhist statues at Bamiyan and declare war on women’s rights under God. Today, we’re much more aware of the religious practices and cultural nuances in states where Islam is the dominant faith, as well as among Muslim families here. Who, for instance, had heard of honor killings and female genital mutilation before the ascension of Ayatollah Khomeini opened the doors to discussions of such extreme practices or knew that such atrocities occurred in the U.S.? If only Lawrence of Arabia was still around to defend western ideals in a hostile land. The thing to remember is that Hollywood no longer shapes the world’s perception of life in parts of the world once so foreign to us. We learning a lot from the home-grown movies shown at international festivals and artists nominated for career-defining prizes.

Nominated for a 2015 Academy Award in Best Foreign Language Film category, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s and co-writer Alice Winocour’s heart-breaking coming-of-age drama, Mustang, describes what happens in a country, Turkey, where the dreams and hopes of too many girls are crushed at the onset of puberty. By now, stories of atrocities against women are almost commonplace in the international cinema, sometimes ending in shootings (He Named Me Malala), barbaric executions (The Stoning of Soraya M.) and genital mutilation (Desert Flower, God’s Sandbox). Controversies over Muslim women being forced to wear a hijab or burqas in public have migrated to Europe and the U.S. In Mustang, other forces are at play. School’s just ended for summer break in a village nestled along the cliffs of the Black Sea coast and the freedom the boys and girls enjoyed at secular institutions can’t be guaranteed under the roofs of guardians whose daily grind hasn’t changed much since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Five orphan sisters frolic in the shallow waters, oblivious to prying eyes of neighbors and any sense of shame. At one point, two of the girls are hoisted to the shoulders of male friends from which they can wrestle. What we see as innocent horseplay is treated as an immoral provocation by a neighbor of the girls’ uncle and grandmother. Embarrassed by the gossip, the grandmother berates and possibly strikes the girls off camera. When the uncle arrives home, he drags them to the nearest hospital, where all five are examined to see if their hymens are intact. The high-spirited girls barely know what to make of their elders’ behavior, probably because they have never received any sex education. The older girls already are aware of the urges that swell within their bodies occasionally and that boys experience them, as well. Their guardians have other concerns than rumor-mongering, though.

They know that village girls are worth nothing to the families of perspective husbands if tarnished before a wedding. The girls, even the youngest, are at an age when marriages are arranged and their values are established by people they don’t even know. All of them react differently when the oldest sister is assigned to a boy not of her choosing. It is at this point in the drama when the oh-so-religious uncle begins to make his midnight creeps outside their bedrooms and absent the new bride’s protective eye. Sexual abuse may not be condoned in the holy books of any religion, but no commandment has prevented a determined pervert from stalking his prey. Here, while the grandmother seems aware of her son’s tendencies, she’s unable to keep him in check. The sooner the girls are married off, the saver they’ll be … theoretically, at least. Another wedding doesn’t go so well, causing the remaining virgins to panic. Ergüven effectively disguises her intentions for their future, allowing the girls to muster the strength and moxie they have left to concoct a survival plan. One of the points the Ankara native makes clear is the difference between life for girls and women in the rural villages and those in Istanbul. It also applies to the women hired to teach girls in these areas, especially those looking for role models. Mustang is an exceptional movie, especially for a first-timer, neither as brutal and upsetting as it could have been nor completely devoid of humor. The girls and their grandmother are allowed to maintain their individual personalities and quirks, and several of the male characters demonstrate they aren’t stuck in the 18th Century. Things are pretty fragile right now in Turkey and no one can say with any certainty what the future holds for the people we meet in the movie. The Blu-ray adds Ergüven’s similarly impressive short, “A Drop of Water”; interviews with the giddy teen actors at Cannes; a 16-page Special Edition collectible booklet; and soundtrack download.

Where to Invade Next: Blu-ray

If Donald Trump really wants to make America great again, as he continually asks us to believe, it means that the presumptive Republican torch-bearer, 1) doesn’t consider the U.S. to be as great as most of us assume it still is, and 2) he has something up his sleeve more constructive than building a wall along the entirety of our border with Mexico, eliminating health-care benefits for all citizens and getting Rosie O’Donnell to lose weight. Say what you will about documentarian Michael Moore and his confrontational methodology, but in Where to Invade Next, at least, he offers several measured alternatives to the status quo Mr. Trump considers to be so inadequate. They’re not his ideas, really, they’re ours. The title refers to Moore’s tongue-in-cheek self-help strategy, which involves “invading” countries from which we can stake claim to programs, innovations and initiatives the U.S. could implement to make itself great again. The gag here is Moore’s assertion that all of the reforms originated here and were borrowed by such countries as Italy, France, Germany, Slovenia, Norway, Iceland, Finland and Tunisia. The initiatives, in one form or another, by workers, first, and later by industrialists who benefited from their implementation. Today, of course, corporations have turned their backs on their employees and their ideas, to meet terms dictated by the renegade state of Wall Street. In Where to Invade Next, Moore spends more time listening than preaching and inserting his snarky opinions into the discussions.

In Italy, he feigns astonishment when interviewing workers about their eight-weeks’ paid vacation and generous maternity leave. He asks French children to compare their school lunches to photos and descriptions of meals served to their American counterparts. Chefs, administrators and nutritionists explain how leisurely lunches, etiquette lessons and culinary diversity all serve the common good, just as they did before President Reagan’s USDA found a way to qualify ketchup and pizza as vegetables. The segment on the seemingly cushy Norwegian prison system might appear to viewers to be an apples-vs.-oranges comparison to penal conditions here, but not so the status of women in Iceland and Tunisia, drug laws in Portugal and progressive education systems in Slovenia, Germany and Finland. The arguments make sense and the statistics don’t lie. This kinder, gentler Moore will be recognizable those who follow him on the Internet or on talk shows, if not those so alienated by his grandstanding inBowling for Columbine, Sicko, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Roger & Me. It can be argued that Moore cherry-picks his examples in the doc, knowing that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to social reforms. Then, too, Where to Invade Next was made before the current refugee crisis and explosion of racism in Europe. Even so, Moore offers more alternatives to our current doldrums in two hours than the presidential hopefuls did in the entirety of the Republican and Democratic primary season. It’s funny, though, that the pressing issue of who can use which bathrooms wasn’t addressed, even once.

I Know a Woman Like That

I have no idea why it’s taken Elaine and Virginia Madsen’s celebratory documentary, I Know a Woman Like That, seven years to find a home outside festivals and private screenings. Nor, why its release on DVD comes two days after Mother’s Day, instead of several days before the holiday. In lieu of flowers and chocolates, it would have made a lovely gift for mothers and daughters of a certain age and older. The title derives from a comment made by Elaine to her Oscar-nominated daughter, after a glowing salute to an elderly woman of accomplishment in Chicago. Mom mentioned how nice it was to attend events honoring “women like that” and that she hopes Virginia will meet some. She replied, “I do know a woman like that.” Elaine parlayed that compliment into this film, in which 17 “exceptional and vigorous women … share an extraordinary attitude about how to live the upper decades of one’s life.” The wide-ranging and conversational interviews benefit from taking place in casual settings and absent any agenda, hidden or otherwise. Some of the women, who range in age from their 60s to their 90s, are instantly recognizable — Gloria Steinem, Lauren Hutton, Eartha Kitt and Rita Moreno – while others will require some prodding, including Evanston Mayor Lorraine Morton, restaurateur Elaine Kaufman, actor Olive McQueen and author Maxine Hong Kingston. The subject matter takes us from accomplishments and expectations, to maintaining beauty and sexual relations. The one thing that isn’t mentioned is retirement, which, of course, may have negative connotations for women of means and quite another for those whose working lives were far less fulfilling.

You’ll Like My Mother: Blu-ray

Symptoms: Blu-ray
The same question raised about I Know a Woman Like That’s post-Mother’s Day release applies for the folks at Scream Factory with You’ll Like My Mother. This year, the designated date for the holiday – the second Sunday in May – arrived earlier than usual, possibly causing the distributors of these mom-centric pictures to be blindsided. No matter, there’s a better excuse for picking upYou’ll Like My Mother than timing purchases to the happenstance of holidays. Its star, Patty Duke, died on March 29, at the too-early age of 69. A true star of stage, screen and television, Duke was only 16 when she received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in her first major starring role, as Helen Keller, in the The Miracle Worker. She had originated the role on Broadway, opposite Anne Bancroft, but only after appearing in a string of made-for-TV movies and anthologies. In what some observers probably considered to be a lateral move, Duke almost immediately switched gears to play twin cousins – one urbane, the other more free-wheeling – for three years, on “The Patty Duke Show.” (Her TV father, William Schallert, died this week, at 93.) Although her identification as a kooky teen never completely was erased, the New York native tried mightily to demonstrate her range in such pictures as Valley of the Dolls,Deadly Harvest and My Sweet Charlie, whose director, Lamont Johnson, would call on her again in You’ll Like My Mother. Set in the middle of a blizzard in northern Minnesota, the taut psychodrama plays out almost exclusively inside a grandly designed mansion populated with nut jobs. Duke portrays the very pregnant Francesca Kinsolving, whose arrival at her dead husband’s boyhood home is greeted with something approximating fear and loathing. This, despite his titular claim, “You’ll like my mother.” Rosemary Murphy (To Kill a Mockingbird) can’t wait for the snow to clear to be rid of the interloper, no matter that Francesca is carrying her grandchild. There’s something desperately wrong, as well, with the other two occupants, represented by Sian Barbara Allen and Richard Thomas (“The Waltons”). The unraveling of the mystery is neatly handled by Johnson, although kudos should also be accorded the set designers, who turn the stately home into an elegantly appointed house of horror. (A few years later, a horrible double murder would take place in the same Glensheen Mansion used in the movie.) I can’t recall if any of Duke’s obits or appreciations mentioned You’ll Like My Mother, but, if not, it’s no reflection on her performance. Fans and genre buffs will be happy to find the sparkling new Blu-ray editions, which add lengthy new interviews with actors Thomas and Allen, who would become lovers during the production.

Catalonian genre specialist José Ramón Larraz (Vampyres) employs much the same claustrophobic setting – a once-elegant estate in the rain-drenched British countryside – for Symptoms (a.k.a., “Blood Virgin”), a 1974 creep show that earned its R-rating and then some. Thought lost for most of the last 30 years, it underwent an extensive renovation by BFI Video before being released here by independent U.S. distributor Mondo Macabro. The company is one of several new entities whose international focus on erotic horror has produced impressive results. Angela Pleasence (From Beyond the Grave) plays Helen, a fawn-like young woman drawn to the mansion for reasons that coincide with her only barely submerged lesbianism. She’s invited the much healthier looking blond beauty, Anne (Lorna Heilbron), to share a weekend filled with walking through the forest, rowing, cooking and, perhaps, some bedtime fun. Adding to the tension is groundskeeper Brady (Peter Vaughan), the kind of hulking presence who lurks behind trees along the pathway and outside kitchen windows at night. That the house is haunted, as well, by other things that go bump in the night – possibly including Helen’s former lover, Dora — becomes clear well before the storm cuts off the electricity for the first time. One needn’t possess a Ph.D. in gothic horror to know how things are going to play out in Symptoms. What sells Larraz’ film are the clinging comic-book atmospherics and his willingness to push the borders of exploitation delivered, at the time, by Hammer and AIP. If he appears to have been influenced by early Roman Polanski, Vicente Aranda, Jesús Franco and Belgian writer Thomas Owen, it can also be said that his work likely inspired an entire generation of suspense specialists, including Guillermo del Toro, Jaume Balagueró, Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez. The special features add the 2011 documentary on Larraz, “On Vampyres and Other Symptoms”; “From Barcelona to Tunbridge Wells,” a 1999 TV documentary on Larraz, part of the “Eurotika!”; new interviews with stars Pleasence, Lorna Heilbron and editor Brian Smedley-Aston. The retail version of this release will be preceded by a limited, numbered version (500 copies only) with exclusive extras.

In a Lonely Place: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

Stripped of any necessity to meet box-office expectations and tease awards prognosticators, some movies are allowed to mature over time like a fine wine so as to impress future generations of imbibers, er, viewers. It explains why lists compiled by critics every 10 years, or so, rarely match those of largest-grossing films, even those prorated for inflation. Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place is a terrific mid-century noir that works as a crime drama, romance and inside look at how Hollywood’s rank-and-file suffer drunkenly for their craft. Made outside the studio system by Humphrey Bogart’s independent Santana Productions, Andrew Solt’s script took liberties with Dorothy B. Hughes’ source novel, sharpening some edges while ignoring other conceits. Bogart delivers a terrific performance, but his character is very different than the one adapted from the book. Because Americans aren’t big on nuance, or keen on seeing their heroes portrayed in atypical ways, In a Lonely Place didn’t impress at the box office or blow away the critics. That would come later. Among many other accolades, it was added to the registry of the National Film Preservation Board 57 years after it was released. Neither did Ray’s personal odyssey, as reported in the fan mags and trades, lend positive buzz to the marketing campaign. Blessedly, the new Criterion Collection release can be enjoyed and studied completely divorced from complaints about the adaptation, gossip surrounding Ray and Gloria Grahame’s tempestuous marriage, Bogie’s advancing years and premature comparisons to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. If the production’s backstory remains fascinating, it’s the kind of stuff that’s best suited for preludes to airings on TCM.

Bogart is easily recognizable as the hard-drinking, chain-smoking and deeply unhappy screenwriter Dixon Steele, who, like everyone else in Hollywood, is desperate for an assignment that’s intellectually fulfilling and sells tickets, too. Dix resents the fact that he’s only been asked to hack out a workable screenplay from a trashy best-seller and keep his flashy embellishments to himself. He’s so alienated from the project that he recruits a hatcheck girl to come home with him one night to synopsize the plot, so he doesn’t have to read the book … really. Dix quickly tires of her presence and gives her some money and directions to the nearest cabstand. The next morning, he’ll be told that she was strangled and tossed out of a moving vehicle sometime during the night. Today, we’d say that Dix has serious rage issues and is off his meds, so anything’s possible. He doesn’t have an alibi or even a logical explanation as to why he’d pass up what appears to have been a sure thing. After being grilled in the local police station, Dix becomes acquainted with his next-door neighbor, Laurel Gray, who gives him the alibi he would need to go home. As played by blond bombshell Grahame, his neighbor possesses everything necessary to lower his defenses for a while. They become lovers, of course, but Dix’s tirades and paranoia over the open murder file not only become tiresome for Laurel, but dangerous, as well. The chemistry between them is incendiary and Ray, who would divorce Graham immediately after the production wrapped, milked every spark from it. The ending will keep first-time viewers and those only familiar with the novel guessing. The supplemental features include an original trailer; new video interview with writer and biographer Vincent Curcio; archival featurette with director Curtis Hanson; new audio commentary with film scholar Dana Polan; the archival documentary film “I’m a Stranger Here Myself”; and an illustrated leaflet, featuring an essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith.

Sheep Skin

Compared to the number of movies about vampires and zombies extant, werewolves appear to be an endangered species. CGI effects have helped make the transformations from man to beast cheaper, easier and scarier, but keeping up with the Joneses requires money. Sheep Skin, Kurtis Spieler’s first feature, is said to have cost $25,000 and, yes, there are times when it looks as if they ran out of funds prematurely. Instead, he made the smart decision to go heavy on dialogue and save the wham-bam action and special effects for later. As such, there are plenty of times when Sheep Skin more closely resembles a revenge thriller than a horror flick. In it, a group of friends in a punk-rock band kidnap a horn-dog business man, Todd (Laurence Malleny), who they believe is actually a werewolf hiding in plain sight. The group leader’s sister was murdered on the same full-moon night she accepted a date with the married jerk. Other young women disappeared under similar circumstances, only to be found ripped apart in the cruelest way possible. After the suspect is lured away from his office by one of the women band members, he’s taken to a warehouse to confess to his transgressions or be beaten to a pulp. Unlike the solidarity of the kidnappers, Ted holds firm that he’s only flesh-and-blood. When his wife shows up to find out what he’s doing out so late, things get more than a little crazy. At 80 minutes, very little time is wasted in extraneous narrative. The beast on the cover arrives at the right time and doesn’t outstay its welcome. Sheep Skin was adapted from Spieler’s considerably different 2007 short film, which is included in the bonus package. It also offers a Werewolf Reference Guide, stills gallery, commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes featurette and separate B&W version of the film.

Toyen

If there’s a word in the American vernacular misused as often as “awesome” and “iconic,” it has to be “surreal.” No one should be allowed to use it unless he or she is able to pick Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Andre Breton, Joan Miro and René Magritte from a lineup of 20th Century artists. Being able to parse the difference between a tobacco pipe and a painting would suffice, as well. In Toyen, Jan Nemec pays homage to artist Marie Čermínová, who co-founded the Surrealist movement in her native Prague, survived the Nazis and the Communists, maintained artistic and personal relationships with artists Jindrich Heisler (whom she hid during WWII) and Jindrich Styrsky, and was an active member of the French Surrealist circle. In order to access the almost exclusively male modernist art world, Čermínová adopted the gender-neutral name, Toyen, while also creating paintings and drawings that were overtly erotic. Nemec’s essay captures much of Toyen’s style, including a belief that, “Surrealism becomes a remarkably good way to understand the Nazi Occupation and Communist eras.” Toyenmixes archival footage with re-enactments, poems by Toyen, Heisler and Styrsky, and, according to Peter Hames, in “Czech and Slovak Cinema,” “a visual palette and soundscape that penetrate the interior life of this enigmatic and great artist.” While some familiarity with 20th Century artistic movements would increase a layperson’s appreciation of the film, a reminder of Nemec’s own contributions to the international cinema also add to the experience. Described as the enfant terrible of the Czech New Wave, Nemec came to prominence with his 1964 debut feature Diamonds of the Night, “a largely wordless tale of two boys who escape from a concentration camp,” which was followed by the Kafkaesque satire, A Report on the Party and the Guests, and the Surrealist triptych, Martyrs of Love. His critiques of authoritarian rule weren’t appreciated by the ruling Communist Party hacks and he was forbidden from making any more of them under their watch. Unlike fellow exile Miloš Forman, who would prosper in the west, Nemec found it difficult to work within the confines of traditional formats. He would return to filmmaking and teaching after the fall of the Iron Country. Co-written by Tereza Brdecková, Toyen didn’t find distribution in the U.S. until picked up by Facets Video, which released it on DVD a week after Nemec’s death, in Prague, at 79. The DVD includes bonus features relevant to the artist’s career and art.

Gabo: The Creation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman
Although the deaths of Nemec, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Chantal Akerman didn’t receive quite the same amount of hyperbolic coverage as that of Prince and David Bowie – how could they? – they were duly noted in major newspapers and in appreciations published in other dedicated forums. Of the three, García Márquez maintained the highest profile outside South America and Europe, if only because he won the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature, which rarely is a guarantee of fame and fortune. The Colombian novelist, short-story writer, film critic, screenwriter, journalist and statesman’s legacy includes the universally admired and widely translated “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” (1967), “The Autumn of the Patriarch” (1975) and “Love in the Time of Cholera” (1985). Not only were they acclaimed by critics, but they also were greeted with commercial success. Among other attributes, they popularized the literary style, “magical realism,” which injects supernatural elements and events into otherwise ordinary scenarios. Justin Webster’s highly accessible Gabo: The Creation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez does a very nice job defining the people, places and things that shaped a simple country boy’s journey from the “banana republic” of Aracataca – the basis for the fictional village, Macondo – and on to Barranquilla, Bogota, Barcelona, Havana, New York, Paris, Oslo and beyond. The influence of “solitude” in his work is traced to his parents’ near-abandonment of the boy when they left Aracataca for Barranquilla and left him with his maternal grandparents. They would introduce him to the art of storytelling and, yes, ice: a “miracle” found at the United Fruit Company store. García Márquez’ non-literary achievements would find him at the forefront of his country’s political struggles of the 1970s and 1980s and a previously unknown role in negotiations between Cuban leader Fidel Castro and American President Bill Clinton. In addition to Clinton himself, the documentary includes the testimony of former Colombian president César Gaviria; writers Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza; journalists Enrique Santos, María Jimena Duzán and Xavi Ayén; New Yorker correspondent and author Jon Lee Anderson; biographer Gerald Martin; literary agent Carmen Balcells; and siblings Aída and Jaime García Márquez.

Since the death last October of Chantal Akerman, hardly a month has gone by without some new or restored DVD release carrying her name. Despite being distraught over her own mother’s death – she was a Holocaust survivor, living in Brussels — Akerman had been working on a couple of projects, including her conversations with Marianne Lambert in I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman. At a mere 68 minutes, the film couldn’t possibly do justice to the Akerman’s nearly 50 years making movies, teaching and traveling the world, which, in part, explains the title. Akerman considered herself to be a nomad, even though the ties to her mother remained long and taut. She shares with Lambert her cinematic trajectory – albeit in a nonlinear fashion – using clips from Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), News From Home, The Rendez-Vous of Anna, Je, Tu, Il, Elle, South, From The East, From The Other Side, Là-Bas and last year’s No Home Movie. (Some newly reissued or collected in boxed sets.) With her editor and long-time collaborator, Claire Atherton, Akerman examines the origins of her film language and aesthetic stance. It’s pretty heady stuff, but nothing someone interested in learning more about her career should find intimidating.

TV-to-DVD

BBC/A&E: War and Peace: Blu-ray
Bob Hope: Entertaining the Troops
Transformers: Robots in Disguise: Season One
Newhart: The Complete Fifth Season
PBS: Ecuador: The Royal Tour
PBS: NOVA: Iceman Reborn
PBS: Yoga for the Rest of Us: Easy Yoga for Diabetes
Nickelodeon: Bubble Guppies: Fun on the Farm
Like most people who claim to be well-read, I’ve never finished “War and Peace,” a novel considered essential by many scholars and librarians. At a length of more than 1,000 pages, there’s a very good chance that I won’t get to it again in my lifetime. I don’t say that with any sense of pride, arrogance or xenophobia, however. In some ways, I greeted the prospect of watching the 354-minute BBC/Weinstein mini-series, “War and Peace,” with the same degree of trepidation. But, watch it, I did … in two sittings. While there’s no doubt on my part that I missed almost all of the key literary nuances and subtexts invested in the story by Tolstoy, I took away plenty of worthwhile things, perhaps, even, a desire to tackle the novel on a long vacation. As adapted by the reigning king of British prime-time soaps, Andrew Davies (“Mr Selfridge,” “House of Cards”) and directed by relative newcomer Tom Harper (“Peaky Blinders”), this “War and Peace” offers concessions to easily distracted viewers, without sacrificing the major themes or shortchanging the characters. The fine Anglo-American cast includes Paul Dano, as Pierre; James Norton, as Andrei; Lily James, as Natasha; Tuppence Middleton, as Helene; and, in other prominent roles, Greta Scacchi, Jack Lowden, Aisling Loftus, Jim Broadbent, Stephen Rea, Chloe Pirrie, Gillian Anderson and Brian Cox. There are dozens more, of course. We meet most of them in St. Petersburg, circa 1805, as the young officers prepare to join Austria in its crusade to stop Napoleon from taking control of Europe. They settle for a temporary non-aggression pact the older soldiers know won’t satisfy the pip-squeak potentate. The lull does give the young aristocrats a chance to polish their brass buttons, take dancing lessons and find suitable partners for a lifetime of luxury. The war proves cruel for everyone involved, however, especially the French lured to Moscow like a doomed mouse to the cheese in a trap. I don’t know if Tolstoy maintained a 50/50 balance between war and peace, but, here, I’d say the balance is tilted slightly in favor of romance and other palace intrigue, which, for the purposes of the medium, is OK. Some people might be curious about Dano’s casting as the idealistic Pierre, the illegitimate son of Russia’s richest man, but, finally, a real mensch. They might want to check out his work in Youth, Love & Mercy, Looper and 12 Years a Slave before passing judgment. The Brits, of course, appear to be of the manor born. The bonus features are short and insufficient to any understanding of the production challenges, but, after six hours of binge viewing, they’ll do: “From Page to Screen,” with writer Andrew Davies expanding on key parts of the writing process, including stage directions, and Tom Harper discussing staging the production; “The Read Through,” an inside look at the first stage of creating chemistry among cast members; “Making the Music,” with Michael Garvey, director of music, composer Martin Phipps and Andrew Skeet, orchestrator and conductor; “Count Rostov’s Dance,” in which choreographer Diana Scrivener and actor Adrian Edmondson quickly recall a captivating dance scene from the program; “Rundale Palace,” which examines the locations’ historical highlights; and “What Is War & Peace?,” another quick, playful piece in which the cast offers a few thoughts on what the story has to offer.

There’s something terribly sad buried deep within the levity on the surface of the shows featured in Time Life/WEA’s “Bob Hope: Entertaining the Troops.” The smiling faces in the audiences aren’t at all dissimilar to those seen in 50 years’ worth of the beloved entertainer’s previously broadcast Christmas specials. The entertainers seem genuinely pleased to be in Hope’s company, whether they’re performing to full houses on bases a half-world away from the shit or others only a few klicks from the DMZ’s in Korea and Vietnam. The DVD features three specials, two from the Vietnam era and a never-before-released 1951 special from Korea. Although Hope takes some shots at the pace of the Paris peace talks, only a single question from a soldier reveals the hostility we’ve been told greeted the entertainer as the Vietnam war dragged on and men died unnecessarily. The years, 1970 and 1971, were still pretty hot, despite President Nixon’s occasional pullouts and ceasefires. In a very real sense, though, it’s hard to look at the faces in the crowds and not see the ghosts of Christmas Yet to Come. Too many of them wouldn’t be coming home. Then, too, we’ve since watched a USO show go terribly wrong in Apocalypse Now andApocalypse Now Redux, in which the fate of the Playboy Bunnies is dramatized in the aftermath of the chaotic liftoff. “Bob Hope: Entertaining the Troops” encourages us to take the shows at face value, though. As corny as the jokes are, we laugh at them along with the audience members, who’d been deprived of any kind of television for months. There was no scarcity of skin mags in Vietnam, but the guys still go ape at the sight of Connie Stevens, Ursula Andress, the Golddiggers and various Miss Universes to which they’re introduced from the stage. It’s almost quaint. Most poignant are the shots of wounded soldiers carried to the shows on stretchers, while the cigar-chomping brass lounged nearby on cushioned chairs. The stops weren’t limited to war zones, though, as Hope made sure the men and women in far-flung bases and ships were entertained, as well. The 1951 special takes place on an aircraft carrier not far from the fighting in Korea. In its wisdom or lack thereof, the government had disbanded the USO after WWII due to lack of funds, but Secretary of Defense George Marshall and Secretary of the Navy Francis P. Matthews requested that the USO be reactivated to serve the troops in the soon-to-be-hellish conflict. It’s worth mentioning that the USO continues to provide entertainment for troops around the world, including Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2009, Stephen Colbert performed the last episode of weeklong taping of “The Colbert Report,” carrying a golf club on stage and dedicating it to Bob Hope’s service for the USO.

Shout! Kids Factory and Hasbro Studios have combined once again to bring the well-travelled characters from “Transformers: Robots in Disguise” to DVD. The 26 episodes of Season One lead off with a Cybertronian prison ship filled with Decepticons crash landing and unleashing its prisoners on Earth. Bumblebee returns to the planet he once called home and, with Strongarm, Sideswipe, Fixit and Grimlock, tracks the escapees down, in order to bring them to justice. Along with their new human allies, Denny and Russell, this unlikely team of robots in disguise must protect the Earth while preparing for an ominous threat suited only for a Prime. The DVD includes all 26 episodes and bonus features of the 2015 San Diego Comic-Con International Panel, featurettes and animated shorts.

Comedy legend Bob Newhart returns as harried innkeeper Dick Loudon for a fifth season of “Newhart,” alongside his lovely, forever sweater-clad wife Joanna (Mary Frann) and such off-kilter friends and colleagues as handyman George (Tom Poston), yuppie-in-training Michael (Peter Scolari), spoiled and sassy Stephanie (Julia Duffy) and wacky brothers Larry (William Sanderson), Darryl (Tony Papenfuss) Darryl (John Voldstad). Only a comic genius could pull off even half of the off-the-wall setups for the 24 episodes included in the new package and it has three more seasons to go.

PBS’ “Ecuador: The Royal Tour,” represents the seventh in a series of “ultimate” or “royal” tours of countries conducted by seasoned host Peter S. Greenberg … 8½, if you count “Mexico: Mucho Mas” and “Maria Shriver’s California.” As the titles suggest, Greenberg is given extraordinary access to off-the-beaten path destination and clear sailing through crowded tourist spots and markets. If the schmoozing wears thin after a while, it pays off in treatment most of us could never hope to expect, including transportation to far-flung places by private jets, helicopters and sponsored vehicles. President of Ecuador Rafael Correa rolled out the red, green and liquid carpet for Greenberg as they swam with piranha in the Amazon rainforest, went whale watching off the coast of Manta, shopped like locals in a rural market in the Andes, returned to the President’s hometown of Guayaquil and the school he attended, visited a cacao plantation and went diving with sharks in the Galápagos Islands. Previous destinationsin the series included Jordan, New Zealand, Israel, Mexico, Peru and Jamaica.

Armed with the latest 3D modeling tools, “NOVA” returns to the scene of world’s oldest known murder mystery in “Iceman Reborn” Since the discovery of Otzi’s mummified corpse was discovered by hikers in 1991, PBS has established a beach head when it comes to his case and those of similar finds in Egypt, the Andes, Bronze Age bogs and Washington State. The Iceman found on a barren pass in Italian Alps, has been poked, prodded, drilled, detailed and re-frozen to the point where you’d think there was nothing left for the imagination. The latest modeling technology allows for the creation of a virtual clone, reborn with resin, clay and paint under the supervision of artist and paleo-sculptor Gary Staab. We also are made privy to new revelations about Otzi’s life and legacy, including surprising secrets hidden in his genetic code.

In PBS’ “Yoga for the Rest of Us: Easy Yoga for Diabetes,” veteran instructor Peggy Cappy demonstrates her signature approach in a daily workout for people struggling with diabetes or pre-diabetes. The disc is divided into seven separate segments, with exercises that can be performed at home, all at once in just over an hour, or a segment at a time. Contrary to what some yoga fanatics argue, the exercise discipline isn’t a sure-fire cure-all. People living with diabetes are strongly advised to observe dietary restrictions. Other installments in the “Yoga for the Rest of Us” focus on arthritis, pain management and the heart. The bonus features emphasize circulation, breathing and diet.

The new collection of “Bubble Guppies” episodes, “Fun on the Farm,” invite young viewers to join the stars as they explore the world of farming and meet new animal friends, such Bubble Kitty and Spring Chicken. Kids can also join in exciting farm events like the Cowgirl Parade. The five episodes collected “Fun on the Farm” are “Have A Cow,” “The Bubble Bee-Athalon,” the “Bubble Kitty!” episode “Whiskers & Paws,” the “Spring Chicken Is Coming” episode of “Springtime Adventures” and the “Cowgirl Parade” of “Rootin’ Tootin’ Wild West.”

42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection, Vol. 16

I suppose there are tens of thousands of these things lying around in warehouses and garages around New York and New Jersey, just waiting to be discovered, re-tooled and re-distributed to folks who’ve never dropped a token into a slot in a peep-show gallery. According to “porn archeologist” Dimitrios Otis, Vancouver’s Movieland Arcade may be the last place in North America, at least, that still provides booths for pervs to enjoy 8mm and 16mm loops, as God intended them to be shown. To call the ones shown in 42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection, Vol. 16 old-fashioned is akin to saying Pong is an old-school video game. And, yet, here are 15 more “classic” loops – Volume 16, to be exact — with such recognizable stars as Linda Shaw, Lisa DeLeeuw, Erica Boyer, Marlene Willoughby, John Holmes and the ageless Ron Jeremy, which suggests that some of the titles may be as recent as 1978, at the dawn of the VHS revolution.

The DVD Wrapup: East Side Sushi, Glassland, Scherzo Diabolico, The Club, Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party and more

Thursday, May 5th, 2016

East Side Sushi

Every 10 years or so, the media get on their high horse about the lack of diversity in Hollywood – usually, vis a vis that season’s minority-free Oscar nominations – without also pointing out the scarcity of black, brown, red and yellow faces on magazine covers and photos attached to puff pieces in newspaper feature sections. Given the choice between another profile of Gwyneth Paltrow, Nicole Kidman or George Clooney and interviewing a lesser-known actor of color, editors will always go with the overexposed money shot … as in, a publicist-approved, photo-shopped photograph that looks great on a magazine rack at CVS. Anthony Lucero’s delightful foodie dramedy East Side Sushi has everything that columnists and other opinion makers said was missing in the nominations. Sadly, like too many other critically blessed indies, it arrives in DVD virtually undistributed and barely recognized outside the festival circuit. In it, when single mom Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres) finally comes to the conclusion that wheeling the family-owned fruit-vending cart around the mean streets of Oakland is a dead-end gig, she offers her considerable slicing-and-dicing skills to a local sushi restaurant advertising for help. While the premise lends itself to all sorts of potentially offensive culture-clash humor, Lucero cleverly avoids the cheap shots and other obvious stuff, in favor of a heart-warming human-interest story with plenty of laughs for a PG audience and just enough bite to keep grown-ups entertained. Neither is the narrative trajectory obvious. Having developed an interest in sushi preparation watching foodie shows on cable, Juana arrives at the Osaka Japanese Restaurant in downtown Oakland already primed to succeed. Although relegated to the kitchen behind the curtains leading to the counter, she’s a quick study, filling in for absent employees and always asking the right questions while stirring the rice. Nonetheless, while impressing her fellow chefs, Juana knows it will take more than talent to convince the owner and his wife of her value to them in a counter-chef position. And, yes, their reticence can be blamed on the fact that she’s a non-Asian woman. They run a “traditional” operation and don’t want to risk alienating any of their regular customers.

At home, Juana’s elderly father (Rodrigo Duarte Clark) becomes her unwilling guinea pig when it comes to practicing the preparation of sushi at home. He prefers his leftover fish grilled or pan-fried and accompanied by jalapeño peppers. Her daughter (Kaya Jade Aguirre) enjoys helping mom in the kitchen, but her learning curve when it comes to raw fish is fairly steep, as well. To compensate, Juana creates foods that merge Japanese and Mexican tastes, without compromising either. Still, the restaurant owner (Roji Oyama) balks at putting her out front with the male chefs. To win them over, she enters a “Top Chef”-style competition, with her fusion concepts. The contest organizers love her “green diablo roll” (with a poblano pepper substituting for seaweed), but, like her boss, are stunned to learn she’s of the female persuasion. Unwilling to risk a legal challenge, she’s pitted against three male chefs, with her dad and daughter serving as her assistants. Back at the Osaka, the televised competition is monitored by the still-skeptical boss and the chefs – one of whom (Yutaka Takeuchi) has been especially supportive — who quietly pull for Juana. It doesn’t go exactly as Hollywood clichés would demand, but everything that follows is logical and satisfying. In addition to excellent acting, Marty Rosenberg’s cinematography makes the sushi look consistently mouthwatering. East Side Sushi may not carry the weight of a potential nominee for an Oscar or a Spirit nomination, but it succeeds nicely as an entertainment that can be enjoyed by teens and adults. The blend of ethnic elements is as natural and unforced as the Juana’s prize recipes. It reminds me favorably of the underappreciated rom/com/dram The Ramen Girl, in which Brittany Murphy played a fish out of water in Tokyo. Predictably, that wonderful picture went straight-to-DVD, too. Need I mention that the casts for both pictures are predominantly non-white? TheEast Side Sushi DVD adds a pair of deleted scenes, as well as featurettes “Behind the Sushi” and “Behind the Music.”

Glassland

Sydney native Toni Collette has been impressing international audiences and critics ever since her breakthrough performance in Muriel’s Wedding, in 1994. Between then and her riveting portrayal of an alcoholic mother in the intense Irish drama Glassland, she’s appeared in such disparate entertainments as Cosi,Emma, Velvet Goldmine, 8 1/2 Women, The Sixth Sense, Shaft, The Hours, Little Miss Sunshine, The Dead Girl, Hitchcock, Fright Night,Krampus and, of course, Showtime’s The United States of Tara. In that series, Collette played a homemaker with dissociative identity disorder and a dysfunctional family. That’s tough. Irish filmmaker Gerard Barrett (Pilgrim Hill) elicits another dynamite performance from Collette as a mother, Jean, whose husband moved on after she gave birth to a child with Down syndrome. For her part, Jean rejected the boy entirely, referring to him as a monster and immediately sinking into an alcoholic stupor. The only time she shows any signs of life is when she’s in the non-blackout phase of her drunkenness. If it weren’t for her first-born son, John (Jack Reynor), Jean probably would have frozen to death in a doorway years earlier. As it is, he’s grown weary of searching for her when she’s on a bender and cleaning up after her after she gets sick or begins to destroy dishes. John makes a few pounds driving taxi cab around Dublin and, in an undernourished narrative thread, transporting the occasional Asian sex slave for a local pimp. Finally, at wit’s end, John demands that his mother enter a rehab program neither of them can afford. To help pay for it, he makes a decision he could live to regret. Although we care for Jean and pull for her recovery – Collette’s performance demands it of us – it’s John we pity. Unlike his closest friend in the housing project, the young man has enjoyed none of the benefits of growing up in any normal way. When he isn’t babysitting his mother, he’s trying to make life as easy as possible for the institutionalized brother. There’s almost nothing new or surprising in Glassland, including another exceptional performance by Collette. Rising star Reynor (Macbeth, Transformers: Age of Extinction) is also quite good in a difficult role, and their interaction, at least, is worth the price of a rental.  Bonus content includes interviews with the director and actors Jack Raynor and Will Poulter; the short film, “Aïssa,” about a young Congolese women desperate to establish residence in France; and director’s statement.

Scherzo Diabolico

This twisted little kidnap/revenge thriller from Mexico should surprise even those genre buffs who think they’ve seen everything when it comes to table-turners. If Adrián García Bogliano’s Scherzo Diabolico begins slowly, there are times when it almost careens off its tracks like a speeding locomotive. In this, the movie resembles French composer Charles-Valentin Alkan’s titular Scherzo Diabolico Op. 39 no. 3, an étude designed to burrow as insidiously into the mind of viewers as it does in that of the victim. Francisco Barreiro, who previously worked with Bogliano in Here Comes the Devil, stars as Aram, a failed pianist who has been emotionally trampled by his professional and personal life. The mild-mannered functionary finally snaps after being passed over for the promotion he deserves and his shrewish wife expected him to get. To assuage his rage and frustration, Aram methodically times and tracks his boss’ daughter as she makes her way to and from school and other appointments. His idea is to abduct the girl and keep her chained to a pole in an abandoned warehouse outside Mexico City. To maintain his anonymity, Aram wears a skull mask and maintains a safe distance from his victim (Daniela Soto Vell), even when he’s photographing her for the ransom demand. Ironically, the kidnapping does such a number on his boss’ head that he’s forced to resign and Aram is promoted to the position he felt he deserved all along. Not only does this make his life easier at home, but it also allows him to promote the woman with whom he’s been carrying on an office affair. Curiously, Aram decides to free the girl from bondage, without any exchange of money. The police are baffled by the case and the girl is so traumatized that she can barely function. In a very neat twist, Aram seals his own fate when he bumps into his former boss on the street and gives him a tape of music he believes will soothe him. Instead, it sets off a series of events almost true gruesome to watch. As awful as they are, though, the brutality is designed to press Bogliano’s crescendo of unexpected twists. Composer and sound designer Sealtiel Alatriste contributes to the tension by adding his own ideas to the titular étude. As novel as it is, Scherzo Diabolico definitely isn’t for the faint of heart. The bonus features include commentaries, interviews and a music video.

The Club: Blu-ray

Instead of defrocking priests who’ve disgraced the Church and turning them over to the police, in its infinite and infallible wisdom the Vatican has chosen to punish them in ways that have allowed them to continue abusing children or sent them off to cushy retreats to ponder their crimes … or ignore them, as the case may be. In doing so, Church officials have spit in the eyes of aggrieved parishioners and continued to put children in harm’s way. Such blatant hypocrisy has caused otherwise devout Catholics to find other paths to worship and wonder why the commandments only apply to the unordained masses. Pablo Larraín’s theological drama, The Club, deals directly with some of the toughest questions faced by the clergy, their victims and Vatican officials, charged with separating the good priests from the bad. In it, four priests and a nun live together in a secluded house in the small Chilean fishing village of La Boca. It would be an idyllic setting, if it weren’t for the fact that the priests have been forbidden any meaningful communication with the community and the villagers can’t survey the cliffs overlooking the ocean without being reminded of the presence of the largely undisciplined inhabitants. Their crimes range from pedophilia and political corruption, to selling babies under the noses of their unwed mothers. One, who worked as chaplain in the fascist military of Augusto Pinochet, was tasked with convincing assassins, kidnappers and torturers that a timely confession would cleanse their souls of guilt and they’d be as welcome in heaven as Mother Teresa. It isn’t until a guilt-ridden priest, Father Lazcano (Jose Soza), shows up to join them that the atmosphere begins to change. Instead of being allowed to agonize in private – or not – Lazcano is followed to La Boca by a raving drifter, Sandokan (Roberto Farias), who accuses the Father of sexually molesting him. He stands outside the house loudly reciting the hideous acts for all to hear. When the other priests tire of this intrusion, Lazcano is handed a gun intended to convince the stranger to leave. Instead, he blows his brains out in the yard.

The suicide causes such a commotion with the Church that the Vatican assigns a special representative, Father Garcia (Marcel Alonso), to remind the residents of the debt they owe the Church, if not their victims, and their responsibility to repent in a far more Spartan environment than one that doesn’t include wine with home-cooked meals and training a racing greyhound for local contests. In fact, though, none of the priests or nun feel in particularly repentant moods. They’ve all figured out ways to forgive themselves and resent the implication that an outsider is capable of judging them. Nonetheless, the suicide does trigger a series of events, some darkly humorous, that implicates some of the residents in a scheme that eventually prompts the villagers to redirect their hostility to an innocent man. Because it’s so well acted, The Club compels viewers to remain with it, even after the transgressions are fully revealed. American audiences already have had their noses rubbed in the dirt of pedophilia in the priesthood, of course. By incorporating the sins of church and state into the discussions, Larraín asks questions that were raised in The Magdalene Sisters and movies about the Vatican’s alleged complicity in the Holocaust and Ratlines that allowed Nazis to escape persecutions after the war. (Feel free to add the allegations of corruption made in Godfather III.) The Club also benefits from the moody cinematography of Sergio Armstrong and empathetic compositions of Carlos Cabezas. Other Chilean films that demonstrate the country’s place in the international cinema include Larraín’s No, Tony Manero and Post Mortem, Andrés Wood’sMachuca and Loco Fever; Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light andSalvador Allende, Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria, Matías Bize’s En la cama and Sebastián Silva’s The Maid and Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus. The bonus features add astute commentary by actors Alfrado Castro and Antonia Zegers; interviews with Larrain and Zegers; an excerpt from a press conference at the Berlinale festival; and a booklet featuring cast and crew interviews and an essay by Jessica Kiang

Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre: Blu-ray

Helga: She Wolf of Stilberg

Sometimes, I feel as if more attention is paid to the creation of titles for Syfy exploitation flicks than to the scripts, acting, special effects, cinematography and casting. At first glance, that would appear to be the case with Jim Wynorski’s wonderfully named, if dreadfully executed Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre, which suggests genre-creep of the most egregious variety. Is it a women-in-prison picture crossed with a creature feature or something else entirely? Given that Wynorski’s been making low-budget quickies since 1984 — from Chopping Mall to the as yet unseen CobraGator – you might think he’d simply cast a couple of B-minus or C-plus actors in the lead and surround them with unknowns, reserving the bulk of the budget for effects and catering. Dominique Swain, who used up most of her 15 minutes of fame in 1997, as the nymphet in Adrian Lyne’s controversial adaptation of Lolita, easily qualifies as the former. With sexploitation stars as Traci Lords, Christine Nguyen and Cindy Lucas also on board, however, some fans of the WIP subgenre might hope for the days when the presence of a Pam Grier, Linda Blair, Sybil Danning or Barbara Steele assured them of a decent shower scene, at least. No such luck in a Syfy original, though, unless a separate version was cut for more worldly audiences overseas. As the modern environmental-disaster movies dictates, uncontrolled fracking has caused the plates under some swampy Southern wasteland to shift, allowing a prehistoric fresh-water shark to escape from the depths. With uncanny accuracy, the shark or sharks sense the presence of large-bosomed convicts forced to labor in the swamps and gulp them up almost instantly. When a shark runs out of navigable water, it is able to burrow through the muddy earth at a great speed. It becomes a landshark. The rest of the movie is spent luring the beast to explosive charges hidden around attractive targets. It would be nice to report that the shark displays greater range than the actors, but, alas, it isn’t the case. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Wynorski and actresses Cindy Lucas (Piranhaconda) and Amy Holt (Dinocroc vs. Supergator). There’s also a photo gallery.

Apparently, “Helga, la louve de Stilberg” (a.k.a., Helga, She Wolf of Spilberg) is making its first appearance on our shores, since being released in Europe in 1977. It was, of course, the French response to the series of “Ilsa” S&M epics, which began three years earlier with Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS and ended withIlsa, The Tigress of Siberia, with the formidable Dyanne Thorne reprising her role in the various sequels and spinoffs. Unlike Ilsa, Malisa Longo’s Helga is the sadistic enforcer for a generic collection of fascists residing in a castle in an anonymous country somewhere in South America. The dungeon houses a dozen or so female political prisoners, all whom are routinely whipped and forced to provide sexual favors at Helga’s whim. Her most valuable catch and potentially greatest threat to her reign arrives in the form of the rebel leader’s daughter, Elisabeth (Patrizia Gori). What the story lacks in production values, acting and writing is more than compensated for in full-frontal nudity and other sexploitation essentials. The DVD isn’t in very good shape, but I’ve seen worse.

Mojin: The Lost Legend: Blu-ray

Chinese filmmakers have no need to borrow action characters from American movies, but it’s difficult not to speculate on the resemblance to Indiana Jones and Lara Croft in the tomb-raiding adventure, Mojin: The Lost Legend. Based on a best-selling series of Internet novels, which last year spawned two unrelated cinematic adventures, it stars Shu Qi, Chen Kun, Angelababy and Huang Bo as a team of modern grave robbers laying low in New York’s Chinatown to avoid laws that frown on such widespread practices. An offer from a mysterious stranger tempts them into one last heist, involving an ancient Mongolian pendant said to have supernatural powers, as well as the protection of ancient spirits. The degree of difficulty attached to the heist is confirmed by the many skeletons of Japanese soldiers who died attempting to steal it. It isn’t an impossible quest, really, but the spirits have to be in a generous mood.  Even so, the team is required to overcome several difficult obstacles, including zombies. If one doesn’t allow references to Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution to slow down the proceedings, “Mojin” can be a lot of fun. If some of the effects look as if they’d be nice to experience in 3D, it’s only because that’s how the movie was shown in China. It must have helped Wuershan’s fantasy-adventure gross $1.6 billion in mainland theaters in less than a month. The Blu-ray extras include a making-of and behind-the-scenes featurette.

Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party

Anyone who sees the Wolfe Video logo on the DVD package for Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party and expects it to be a story primarily of interest to gay viewers, is going to be surprised … not disappointed necessarily, but curious as to how it came to be. Structurally, at least, it resembles Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s The Anniversary Party, in that a large group of friends gather at a lovely house with a large swimming pool to mark a milestone in their hosts’ marriage. As the guests grow drunker and higher, secrets and yearnings come to the fore. Chicago filmmaker/actor Stephen Cone’s film is populated with young characters who continue to struggle with the ramifications of coming of age physically and adults for whom the transition to middle age is bringing unexpected challenges. Sobriety, or lack thereof, is employed as a comic device, more than anything else. Cole Doman couldn’t have been a better choice to play Henry, the birthday boy and son of an evangelical minister, whose wife has recently experienced a moral crisis. Most of the teenagers are friends from school, church or summer bible camp. They represent a large cross-section of suburban Christian youth, ranging from conservative to laissez-faire. The same applies to the parents. Not surprisingly, perhaps, we sense Henry’s sexual orientation before he’s willing to commit to it. Cone is in no hurry to force anything on him or open doors that weren’t already cracked. Neither is the angst reserved for Henry and his parents. Being half-naked in and around a swimming pool does wonders not only for the libido, but also for framing the escalating degrees of melodrama. And, what would a party be without a few laughs. Henry Gamble’s Birthday Partyhas plenty of them. What I liked most is Cone’s natural pacing and taking the characters’ beliefs and quandaries at face value. If the picture has an agenda, it’s to demonstrate that not all evangelicals are cut from the same cloth and having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ doesn’t preclude having a good time outside church or being gay. Pat Healy (Magnolia) and Elizabeth Laidlaw (“Boss”) are especially good as Henry’s parents.

Pride and Joy: The Story of Alligator Records: Blu-ray

The electrified blues may one of Chicago’s greatest gifts to American culture, but, like so many other endangered species, it’s had to struggle to survive. If the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds and the original Fleetwood Mac hadn’t championed the hochie-coochie music from Chicago’s south and west sides, American bands might not have found the roots of their musical heritage. Nor would such amazing musicians as Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Jimmy Rogers, Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy have gained inroads into predominantly white concerts halls, campus theaters and nightclubs, sometimes even collecting royalties from the Brits who borrowed from their songbooks. After the first and second waves of the British invasion turned to foam on the shores of Lake Michigan, it became incumbent on small record labels and nightclubs dedicated specifically to the blues to keep the flames burning. Among the first was Bob Koester’s Delmark, which specialized in jazz and blues, and Bruce Iglauer’s Alligator Records, both of which are still in business and represented in Robert Mugge’s Pride and Joy: The Story of Alligator Records, newly re-released in Blu-ray. (Arhoolie Records of El Cerrito, California, focused more on down-home roots music.) “Pride and Joy” was made in 1992, a year after he completed Deep Blues, about the blues traditions of Mississippi. In celebration of the label turning 20, Iglauer had organized an anniversary tour starring Koko Taylor and her Blues Machine, Elvin Bishop, Katie Webster, Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials and the Lonnie Brooks Blues Band. Pride and Joy presents musical highlights from one of the four-plus-hour concerts, as well as interviews with Iglauer, Koester and the artists. The documentary has been transferred to high-definition from the original 16mm film and lovingly restored. It adds interviews and additional concert material.

Top Gun: 30th Anniversary Limited Edition: Blu-ray

The caveat that applies to Paramount’s new “Top Gun: 30th Anniversary Limited Edition” is that the only thing truly different here is the Steelbook packaging. So, it’s primarily of interest to completists and first-time buyers. I hadn’t watched Top Gun from start to finish for quite a while before putting the new release on my player. It holds up very well after three decades, both as entertainment and as a technical achievement. As a production team, Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson were about to embark on an unprecedented roll of success with mega-budget hits that, while not exactly formulaic, fit a certain template. The mix of action, adventure, romance, humor, tragedy, male bonding and rock music would work again and again in such films blockbusters asBeverly Hills Cop II, Days of Thunder, Bad Boys, Crimson Tide and The Rock. (Simpson died in 1996, of heart failure). Tom Cruise, of course, had something to do with Top Gun’s success. The bonus features picked up from previous Blu-ray editions include commentary by Bruckheimer, director Tony Scott, co-screenwriter Jack Epps Jr. and naval experts; the featurettes “Danger Zone: The Making of Top Gun,” “Best of the Best: Inside the Real Top Gun,” “Survival Training,” “Behind the Scenes”; interviews with Cruise; multi-angle storyboards with optional commentary by Scott; and music videos of “Danger Zone,” “Take My Breath Away,” “Heaven in Your Eyes” and “Top Gun Anthem.”

Ambrosia

Traditionally, immigrants to North America have found it difficult to carve niches in societies likely to treat them like outsiders, no matter how much their sweat, blood and tears have contributed to the common good of their adopted homes. Why should they be treated with any more kindness and dignity than that reserved for the Aboriginal people of the United States and Canada? That changed in the 1970s, when the immigrant class began to include potentates of the international drug and oil cartels, wealthy refugees from Ayatollah Khomeini’s fundamentalist regime and Chinese from Hong Kong and Taiwan. They were required to sail past the Statue of Liberty before seeking ways to protect their nesteggs and families from being usurped by the newly capitalist PRC. Today, Saudi Arabian princes drag race through the streets of Beverly Hills and shop ’til they drop on Rodeo Drive and in Las Vegas. As far as the law is concerned, they’re untouchable. Meanwhile, Donald Trump wants to build a wall along our border with Mexico, ostensibly to keep out Spanish-speaking men and women who happily accept jobs Americans refuse to perform. Baharak Saeid Monir’s Ambrosia tells the story of an Iranian-Canadian couple, Ali and Leila, who dream of an exciting future in Vancouver. Ali (Camyar Chai) owns a pizza shop he hopes to expand into a franchise, while Leila wants to succeed as a designer of haute couture. We’re not supposed to think of Bravo’s “Shahs of Sunset” while watching Ambrosia, but’s difficult not to contrast the “reality” of the show to the unreal conceits of the movie. I’m sure, for instance, that there are transplanted Iranians who are struggling to make a go of things slinging pies for a living, I doubt that any of their wives resemble Sahar Biniaz, who represented Canada in the 2012 Miss Universe competition. Her character’s designs fit Biniaz’ 5-foot-8 frame like gloves worn to gala. Her thick raven hair practically defies description.

And, yet, Leila is condemned to balance her schoolwork with duties at the pizzeria. That is, until her teacher offers her a job at the high-end salon she runs with her lesbian lover. Both women (Heather Doerksen, Pauline Egan) could have given Biniaz a run for her money in the beauty contest. In the next 60-some minutes, Leila will be confronted with two moral dilemmas we needn’t dwell on here and Ali will have to decide if he can ask her to live in a motor home, at least until the economy picks up steam. The conceit here is to imagine Leila and, to a lesser degree, Ali, trapped in a cultural vice between traditional Islamic values and new-world decadence. Monir doesn’t require the protagonist to wear a headscarf while out in public and no one is required to disrobe, but Leila’s beliefs are sorely challenged. While this isn’t beyond the realm of possibility, such dilemmas are usually reserved for prime-time soaps and telenovelas. Ambrosia was shown at a couple of Iranian film festivals, where it paled compared to other representatives of the country’s excellent cinema. I don’t know where it will end up, certainly not Skinemax or whatever its equivalent might be in the Muslim world. To find a home in Bollywood, which supplies the same uptight countries with movies to exhibit, Ambrosia would require a dozen new production numbers. I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of the actors in future projects, even those with fewer moral scruples. I can’t imagine it playing anywhere else, however, unless it’s on TV screen in the background of “Shahs of Sunset.”

Emelie: Blu-ray

Submerged: Blu-ray

The Mirror

Among the many rites of passage for new parents is the hiring of a babysitter and handing over responsibility for their children’s well-being, in some cases, to a stranger. In the movies, babysitters have been portrayed as heroes and villains, protagonists and antagonists. The tough part is predicting exactly when the distinction between good and evil is made abundantly clear and viewers are forced to take sides. In their first feature, Emelie, director Michael Thelin and writer Richard Raymond Harry Herbeck, leave the question hanging for a short time, before revealing that substitute babysitter, Emelie (Sarah Bolger), isn’t the benevolent guardian she appears to be. Our curiosity is piqued when Emelie wins over the youngest children by allowing them to draw on the walls and play crazy pretend games. The sullen older boy senses that things are completely out of whack when Emelie treats the kids to a cassette of their parents mimicking porn actors. Even so, her motivations remain cloudy for most of the movie’s brisk 80-minute length. Thelin does a nice job balancing the forces at work here, allowing big brother, Jacob (Joshua Rush), ample opportunity to take control of the situation, before Emelie rebounds in her effort to do … what, exactly? The parents aren’t given much to do, except being blissfully unaware of what’s going on at home. The spotlight belongs to Bolger (“The Tudors”) and Rush (“The Lion Guard”), whose dangerous game of cat-and-mouse rarely gets tiresome. If Emeliewon’t make anyone forget the scene in Curtis Hanson’s The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, in which the nanny played by Rebecca De Mornay begins breast-feeding the couple’s newborn child in an effort to make it her own, what could? The making-of featurette adds interviews with Thelin, Herbeck, the principal adult cast and several of the film’s producers.

Genre specialist Steven C. Miller (Automaton Transfusion) tries his best with writer Scott Milam’s claustrophobic closed-room thriller – here, a stretch limousine full of millennial scum at the bottom of a canal – that wastes far too much time outside the vehicle, explaining how the disco dogs and dollies ended up in such a predicament. The explanation takes longer to unfold than the time it takes for the limo to sink, leaving precious little time for viewers to feel claustrophobic. In the obviously titled Submerged, the car is being chased by a team of masked ninjas, intent on kidnapping Jesse (Talulah Riley), the daughter of a corrupt corporate mogul (Tim Daley). Jonathan Bennett (“Awkward”) plays a former Army Ranger, hired by the businessman to protect Jesse from creeps looking for ransom bait. All too conveniently, though, the limo has been tricked out to withstand all manner of attacks and prevent it from filling up with water too quickly and drowning the insufferable passengers. Submerged also stars Cody Christian (“Teen Wolf”), Rosa Salazar (“Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials”) Mario Van Peebles (New Jack City).

Based on allegedly real events, which apparently set certain quarters of the Internet atwitter, The Mirror dives into the deep end of found-footage flicks and almost fails to return to the surface. Three friends purchase a supposedly haunted mirror on eBay, with the intention of capturing proof of the paranormal on camera and winning a large financial prize from a vague online competition. The first sign of trouble occurs when one of the tenants begins to sleepwalk around the apartment, eventually grabbing a butcher’s knife and stalking a lone woman outside. The Mirror stars Jemma Dallender (I Spit on Your Grave 2), Joshua Dickinson and Nate Fallows.

TV-to-DVD

PBS: 10 That Changed America

Fox Kids: Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation: The Complete Series

Nickelodeon: Let’s Learn: S.T.E.M. Vol. 2

PBS Kids: Wild Kratts: Wild Animal Babies

This enticing compilation of episodes from PBS’ “10 That Changed America” series argues convincingly that all of what’s good in our country’s towns, parks, homes, churches office buildings can be traced to the genius of a few dozen architects, designers and visionaries. Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis H. Sullivan, Frank Gehry, Charles and Henry Greene, Charles and Ray Eames, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Frederick Law Olmsted and Thomas Jefferson are appreciated, sometimes more than once. So, too, are the anonymous builders of the centuries-old Taos Pueblo and city of St. Augustine, Florida. Hosted by Geoffrey Baer, the tours are more of a whirlwind than a stroll in a park, but all of them should inspire family road trips and architecture tours. Some are a bit far out of the way. Others are a bus ride away. Don’t worry, you won’t be tested afterward.

Under the tutelage of Master Splinter, Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo spent their formative years fighting their nemesis, Shredder, and his evil army, in the sewers of New York. In the 26-episode “Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation: The Complete Series” the world inhabited by the live-action turtles is about to change. If you thought Shredder was bad, wait until you meet the newest TMNT foe: Dragon Lord. It will take all the power of the turtles to combat this new villain. This time around, though, they will have help from a female turtle named Venus De Milo. If fans can’t find it in the usual places, they might try Walmart. Bonus material includes the special “Power Rangers in Space” crossover episodes and a music video.

Nick’s “Let’s Learn: S.T.E.M. Vol 2” contains more than 140 minutes of S.T.E.M.-themed adventures with Blaze and the Monster Machines. The show is the first preschool series to comprehensively cover all areas of S.T.E.M. – science, tech, engineering, math — in every episode, as well as fan-favorites “Dora and Friends: Into the City,” “PAW Patrol” and “Team Umizoomi.” In addition to expanding imaginations and developing inquisitive minds, the DVD also comes with a themed worksheet to reinforce some of the lessons learned throughout the collection.

Wild Kratts: Wild Animal Babies” allows pre-schoolers to explore nature, discover amazing animals and meet wild animal babies. Join Martin Kratt and Chris Kratt as they learn about the unique ways young animals are raised and protected by their parents. In select adventures on this DVD, the crew helps an adorable (and destructive) baby elephant stay out of trouble, wrangle some playful lion cubs and more.

The DVD Wrapup: Son of Saul, Phoenix, Losing Ground, Jane Got a Gun, Driftless Area, Packed in a Trunk, Dillinger, Sexploitation, What?, Krampus and more

Friday, April 29th, 2016

Son of Saul: Blu-ray

Phoenix: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

As much as we’d like to put World War II in our rearview mirror and move on to less nightmarish film fodder, the sad truth is that we need constant reminders of what happened then and what could happen again, if hate is allowed to trump cries for peace and sanity. The sick legacy of Third Reich simply refuses to disappear into the fog of history, either in real life or in the movies. What’s amazing is that even 70 years after peace treaties were signed, ever more heart-wrenching stories continue to surface from the conflagration. How many more remain to be told is anyone’s guess. The concurrent release of Son of Saul and Phoenix on DVD/Blu-ray suggests that European historians, writers and filmmakers – the children and grandchildren of the silent generation — still have plenty to say on the subject. Hollywood studios didn’t waste any time lionizing the heroism of American troops in the service of the Allied cause. It wasn’t until Steven Spielberg put audiences directly in the line of fire, during the first half-hour of Saving Private Ryan, that American audiences were forced to come to grips with the fact that John Wayne had died and no longer could shield us from the ugliness of combat. Outside the Soviet Union, where the Red Army’s triumphs were duly celebrated and atrocities ignored, European filmmakers struggled with ways to confront the reality of rampant of anti-Semitism and early appeal of fascism that allowed Nazi forces to cakewalk across borders. For too long, a dark shroud of guilt and shame kept artists from directly addressing the root causes Holocaust and the intricate machinery of death that served Hitler’s madness. Released in 1964, Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker was the first American movie to deal with the Holocaust from the viewpoint of a camp survivor. Typically, though, enforcers of the Production Code, the MPAA and Legion of Decency fretted more over the exposed breasts of two key characters than the good that could come from endorsing the distribution of a necessarily dark drama. It wasn’t until the 1970s, though, that non-documentary films and mini-series found audiences in large enough numbers to support a subgenre of war pictures dedicated to the Holocaust. In 1990, Polish director and screenwriter Agnieszka Holland’s Europa, Europa opened the door for movies that dealt with complex issues pertaining to ethnic identity and survival. Today, finding new ways to interest viewers in Holocaust-themed stories – even those involving doomed dissidents, homosexuals, Gypsies, Slavs and intellectuals — seemingly would be a difficult task for any filmmaker, especially in the long wake of Schindler’s List, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah and Oscar-winning Life Is Beautiful. Judging simply from such multifaceted European movies as Holland’s In Darkness, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s Sarah’s Key and Stefan Ruzowitzky’s The Counterfeiters there are many more stories – albeit subtitled — out there to tell.

 

In addition to winning major prizes in nearly every competition in which it was entered – if only in the stopgap categories limited to foreign-language pictures — László Nemes’ breathtaking Holocaust drama, Son of Saul, probably deserved to capture the Academy Award for Best Picture or, at least, be nominated for it. That’s strictly my opinion, but I offer it after finally seeing all of the finalists on the big screen or on Blu-ray. They’re all excellent, but none compares to the wallop delivered by Son of Saul, which also is remarkable for its technical achievements and acting. The setting is Auschwitz-Birkenau, in October of 1944, as the Red Army is advancing on Germany with guns blazing and revenge on its collective mind. Unwilling to admit imminent defeat, Adolph Hitler has ordered the Gestapo to pick up the speed in transporting Jews to concentration camps. So many are being systematically murdered that the crematoriums can’t keep up with the volume and bodies are being stacked up in the open. Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando, the group of Jewish prisoners forced to assist the Nazis in the rounding up of new arrivals and directing them almost immediately to their deaths. While waiting for them to die, the prisoners were required to retrieve, sort and pile everything left behind by the doomed men, women and children. The Sonderkommandos weren’t exempt from death in the gas chamber, but the Nazis needed all the help they could get in expediting the process and pretending that hands other than Aryan were executing the dirtiest of deeds. Moreover, the cynical policy ensured that survivors would forever debate the morality of Jews serving the Nazis, even faced with death for disobedience, in such a hideous way. Despite the fact that many of the prisoners we meet here already consider themselves to be dead, the strongest among them conspire to sabotage the machinery and kill as many of the guards as they can before, if possible, rendezvousing with the advancing Soviets. Nemes based his story on testimony from camp survivors, repeated viewings of Shoah, and the “Scrolls of Auschwitz.” These were the diaries of members of the Sonderkommando, written and buried before they revolted.

 

Saul considers himself to be one of walking dead, going through the motions until it’s his turn to die. It isn’t until he discovers the body of a teenage boy, left barely breathing after everyone else in the chamber is dragged to the crematoriums, that something ignites a spark of reflection in his brain. Disturbed by what could be a glitch in the system, a German doctor orders Saul to transport the boy to an operating theater where he will be allowed to die in his own time – not long — and have an autopsy performed on him by another Jew forced to comply with the cruelest of commands. After learning that the boy is Hungarian, Saul decides that the boy is his illegitimate son and deserving of a religious burial. For this, he needs to find a rabbi among the multinational crush of prisoners and compel him to recite Kaddish over a single corpse, while ignoring so many others. His single-minded mission convinces Saul’s fellow prisoners that he’s completely mad, even in a place where all madness is relative. While they’re preoccupied with gathering the tools for their uprising and disguising them from the Nazis, as they continue to perform their tasks, Saul interrogates the newly arrived Jews to find a rabbi. Son of Saul, which takes place over the course of 36 hours, isn’t a story of survival or heroism. Instead, Nemes says that it’s about the reality of death and coming to terms with it. Even so, by tightly focusing on the faces, hands and whispered conversations of the living, rather than the dead and dying bodies in the slightly blurred background, the horrors of the gas chambers are almost blessedly muted. A student of Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, a master of framing and long uninterrupted tracking shots, Nemes conspires with cinematographer Mátyás Erdély and sound designer Tamás Zányi to keep the viewer trapped in the immediacy of Saul’s world. The effect is mesmerizing. The drab color scheme argues, as well, that Auschwitz-Birkenau was a place the sun’s rays didn’t reach. Comprehensive, informative and sometimes philosophical commentary is contributed by Nemes, Röhrig, and Erdély. There’s also a deleted scene and a post-screening Q&A at the Museum of Tolerance, with the same participants. Admirers of Son of Saul should consider it to be required viewing.

 

German writer/director Christian Petzold takes a very different approach to his Holocaust-inspired, Phoenix, adopted from a novel by Hubert Monteilhet. Set in Berlin, in the early days of the Allied occupation, it measures the pain and guilt experienced by two women who never thought they’d survive, let alone return home. Before she was gathered up by the Gestapo, Nelly (Nina Hoss) was a nightclub singer in Berlin. Her souvenir from Auschwitz is a face disfigured by a bullet wound after its liberation. Travelling in the care of a protective friend, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), Nelly has inherited enough money from a deported family member to pay for a plastic surgery operation that she knows will make her a stranger to herself. After Nelly is completely healed and they get their affairs in order, the women plan to buy an apartment in Haifa and quit Germany for good. Before that, however, Nelly wants to reunite with her former husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who survived the war by ratting out her out, along with other Jewish friends. As the picture opens, however, she isn’t aware of the fact that it was his deceit that led the Gestapo to her. In a decidedly Hitchcock-inspired twist, Nelly’s reconstructed face allows her to sidle up to her onetime pianist, who’s employed as a janitor in the Phoenix cabaret, without recognizing her. Neither does Nelly reveal herself when Johnny enlists her in a plan to recover property confiscated from his wife after her arrest. This requires Johnny to teach his ex-wife how to act, walk and write as she did when they were together. The similarities give Johnny pause, but only momentarily. Such parasitic opportunists probably were as common in post-war Berlin as pigeons or rats. The more Nelly learns about Johnny’s backstabbing in her absence, the more we want to see her exact revenge on him. But, will she succumb to long-dormant romance … and, given the Hitchcockian plotting, how would she do it? Then, too, why aren’t Nelly and Lene already in Haifa? Even though, like Saul, they feel as if they’ve already died and are uncomfortable among the living, the payoff to these questions is very satisfying. Another thing that makes Phoenix special is re-creation of post-war Berlin, with special attention given to the nightclub, which now caters to GIs looking for a taste of the divine decadence forbidden by the Nazis. Personally, I was surprised not only that such places existed so soon after the war, but also that Nelly was confident that she’d recover wealth confiscated by the Nazis. In this, we probably know more about post-war Germany than a survivor possibly could. In addition to the Hitchcock touch, Petzold borrowed ideas from the Douglas Sirk playbook, Germany Year Zero and Out of the Past. Phoenix is the fifth out of his seven feature films to feature the wondrously talented Hoss and the second film in a row, after Barbara (2012), to star Hoss and Zehrfeld in the leading roles. Petzold won the FIPRESCI Prize at the San Sebastián International Film Festival and Hoss was voted top actress at several other events. The Criterion Collection package adds a conversation with Petzold and Hoss; an interview with cinematographer Hans Fromm; a making-of featurette; and an essay by critic Michael Koresky.

 

Losing Ground: Blu-ray

Founded in 1990, Dennis Doros and Amy Heller’s Milestone Films has received several prestigious awards for its restoration, preservation and release of such endangered and rarely seen movies as Alfred Hitchcock’s Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles, Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery, Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba, Marcel Ophuls’s The Sorrow and the Pity, the Mariposa Film Group’s Word is Out, Shirley Clarke’s The Connection and Ornette: Made in America. In December, 2012, Milestone became the first-ever two-time winner of the New York Film Critics Circle’s Special Award, this time for its work in restoring, preserving and distributing the films of iconoclast Clarke, whose Portrait of Jason also was greeted warmly by collectors and buffs. The company’s latest reclamation project, Losing Ground, is being acclaimed for re-introducing filmmaker Kathleen Collins to a new generation of viewers, many of whom have grown accustomed to not seeing minority actors and themes represented on screen. The low-budget 1982 drama was one of the first features directed by an African-American woman. If it didn’t find distribution in the United States, the fault probably can be laid at the feet of distributors whose pre-conceived notions of what black audiences would pay to see was tilted toward Blaxploitation flicks and comedies with such popular stars as Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor. Losing Ground reflects a completely different aspect of the African-American experience, then and now. Closer thematically to films of the French New Wave and intimate dramas of Ingmar Bergman and John Cassavetes, it profiles the marriage of a black philosophy professor (Seret Scott) at a New York college and an uncompromising abstract painter (Bill Gunn), who’s just sold his first piece to a major gallery. Although Sara is working on a paper about the “ecstatic experience” in religious rites, she’s as shy, sober and strait-laced as they come. By contrast, Victor is the kind of guy who wears his emotions on his sleeve and isn’t reluctant to push Sara into uncomfortable positions to share his exuberance. That summer, he convinces her to take a break from the city by joining him in a slightly rundown estate in an artists’ colony along the Hudson River in upstate New York. The quaint little town appears to be a magnet for Puerto Rican women and their families, seemingly on a full-time basis. If there’s nothing abstract in the scenery and faces available to Victor here, he’s reinvigorated by nature and colors that don’t come in geometric forms in the city. For her part, Sara would feel more comfortable in a town able to accommodate her needs for a library suited to her academic pursuits. (The Internet was a distant dream, if even that.) Not surprisingly, perhaps, Victor latches onto a young Puerto Rican neighbor, Celia (Maritza Rivera), who seemingly is the polar opposite of his wife and agrees to model for him. While Sara is in the city doing some research, she’s approached by a student who’s making a film that requires some dancing and dramatic displays of emotion. At first reluctant, Sara’s further encouraged by a dashing black actor, Duke (Duane Jones, star of the original Night of the Living Dead), who seems determined to bring out the blackness in her. They’re paired in a retelling of the “Frankie and Johnny” tragedy, which demands she let her hair down. Meanwhile, Victor’s attempting to stoke some of the Latin fire in Celia, both on canvas and over wine in the late afternoon and evenings, surrounded by old-growth trees.

 

Without going into detail, let’s just say that the tables eventually get turned on the Sara and Victor, in ways consistent with their characters’ personal trajectories and some narrative judo on Collins’ part, which provides a surprisingly satisfying ending. If Victor acts pretty much like any temporarily unattached and sexually frustrated man would in similar circumstances – or in an Eric Rohmer film, for that matter — Sara clearly is a stand-in for Collins, who was educated in France and became involved with SNCC in the civil-rights campaigns. She admits as much in the fascinating interview attached to the Blu-ray bonus package. This would be an appropriate time to point out that the filmmaker would succumb to cancer, in 1988, at age 46. The consistently challenging process of financing, producing and finding a distributor for Losing Ground must have taken its toll on her, especially when compared to her work in the theater and teaching at the college level. The Milestone package also contains her first film, the 50-minute The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy, which she based on episodes from “Cruz Chronicles,” a “novel of adventure and close calls” by Henry Roth. In it, three mischievous Puerto Rican lads find a summer job fixing up the once grand riverside home of an elderly stage actress. It takes a while for them warm to each other’s presence, as they share almost nothing in common. While the boys are directed by the practical, if ethereal advice of their dead father, Miss Malloy frequently gets lost in memories of a glorious past. It’s a lovely story, practically unseen since being made in 1980. Collins’ creative partner, cinematographer Ronald K. Gray, is represented by the 7-minute 1976 short, “Transmagnifican Dambamuality.” Lengthy interviews with Gray, playwright/actor Seret Scott and daughter, Nina Lopez Collins, add to the experience, as does a vintage 1982 interview with Kathleen Collins at Indiana University, in which the emphasis is on teaching.

 

Jane Got a Gun: Blu-ray

In Gavin O’Connor’s revisionist Western, Jane Got a Gun, wee Natalie Portman plays a frontier woman and former sex slave who calls on a onetime lover to help her save her daughter, homestead and severely wounded husband (Noah Emmerich) from a gang of revenge-minded gunmen led by Ewan McGregor. The ex-boyfriend, Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton), isn’t anxious to risk his life in what amounts to a suicide mission, but, knowing Jane will go it alone if necessary, he accepts the challenge. Set in scenic badlands of northern New Mexico, which could pass for 1865 B.C. if it had to, Jane Got a Gun was heavily influenced by the 1971 Western, Hannie Caulder, starring the physically more formidable Raquel Welch. In it, Welch plays the aggrieved widow who enlists a bounty hunter (Robert Culp) to teach her how to be a gunfighter. In both movies, the male lead is required to pull a trick out of his sleeve to balance what appear to be 20-to-1 odds against the protagonists. If all anyone requires is action and atmosphere in their Westerns, Jane Got a Gun shouldn’t disappoint. Beyond that, however, there’s nothing revolutionary here. I’d be surprised if Portman returns to the genre anytime soon, if only because the payoff rarely equals the investment in time, energy and money, anymore. As far as I’m concerned, the 2011 Oscar-winner can do whatever she wants … especially since she’s one of 30 names listed as one variety of producer or another. By 1971, Welch had already established herself as a sex symbol who wasn’t relegated to generic parts that required nothing more than unbuttoning her blouse. She was the primary drawing card in 100 Rifles and Bandolero! It would take another 20 years before women would be given top billing, even in revisionist and indie Westerns. Since then, we’ve seen The Ballad of Little Jo, Bad Girls, The Quick and the Dead, Meek’s Cutoff, The Homesman, Dead Man’s Burden and The Missing. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s portrayal of the doomed Daisy Domergue in The Hateful Eight is anything but typical. The problem, of course, is convincing audiences, especially women, to support Westerns in which female protagonists can hold their own in the blood-letting department. Jane Got a Gun ran into some serious problems during production, so, probably in consideration of budget constraints, there are no bonus features. The production values speak for themselves.

 

The Driftless Area

Burning Bodhi

It’s been seven years since Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt stole the hearts of indie audiences in the quirky, non-linear romance (500) Days of Summer. At the time, it was the irresistible 30-year-old’s most complete performance to date and a picture that made a bunch of money for Fox Searchlight. Instead of catching another big wave, Deschanel decided to take a chance on the wonderfully quirky Fox-TV series, “The New Girl,” which became an immediate hit in the most desirable demographics and turned her into a multi-platform star. That she’s stuck with the series all these years, without churning out a prestige picture or two during the hiatus periods, struck many observers as unusual. Instead, Deschanel focused whatever energy she had left on She & Him, the duo she formed with singer-songwriter M. Ward before (500) Days took off. In July, 2014, she gave birth to a daughter, Elsie Otter. She would appear in a few feature films – Our Idiot Brother, Your Highness and Rock the Casbah – but nothing to make anyone forget her earlier, more promising work. Along comes The Driftless Area, a very compelling neo-noir, which, for some reason, Sony has decided to launch on DVD and VOD. This, despite an ensemble cast that also includes Anton Yelchin, Aubrey Plaza, John Hawkes, Frank Langella, Alia Shawkat and Ciarán Hinds. Shot in B.C. and Wisconsin on what must have been a shoestring budget, co-writer/director Zachary Sluser adapted the story from Tom Drury’s 2006 novel. In it, a restless young man, Pierre (Yelchin) falls in love with a mysterious woman, Stella (Zooey Deschanel), who rescues him from a well, into which he fell while strolling through the countryside. Pierre had already been introduced to us in an ugly encounter he has with a local hoodlum (Hawkes) while hitchhiking home. A brief struggle leads to a potentially catastrophic event that drives the action for the next 90 minutes and adds a distinct air of magical realism to the proceedings. As his relationship with Stella deepens, Pierre is driven to engage in a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with the driver who assaulted him and, in a freak accident, was left for dead on the side of the highway. We’ll soon learn how the lives of all three of these characters intertwine in the most unusual of ways. I think The Driftless Area might have found a loyal audience in theaters if given the opportunity to create buzz and garner positive reviews. The DVD arrives with a decent making-of featurette.

 

Kaley Cuoco has been working in Hollywood, mostly on television, for 20 of her 30 years on the planet. Unlike Deschanel, the Camarillo native didn’t enjoy the luxury of garnering big-screen credentials before climbing on board “8 Simple Rules,” “Charmed” and the sitcom juggernaut that became “The Big Bang Theory.” Her character, Penny, represents a slight variation of the archetypal TV blond, whose lineage can be traced at least as far back as Elizabeth Montgomery on “Bewitched” and Barbara Eden on “I Dream of Jeannie.” Penny hasn’t been required to wear the dumb-blond yoke to play Penny, unless it was in the show’s early beauty-and-the-geeks period, as was the case for Goldie Hahn on “Laugh In,” Suzanne Somers in “Three’s Company” and Beth Behrs currently on “2 Broke Girls.” Nonetheless, when Cuoco was offered a non-comedic role in a contemporary ensemble piece, she didn’t have to think twice, even at small fraction of her $1 million/week salary on the “The Big Bang Theory.” In Matthew McDuffie’s indie drama, Burning Bodhi, Dylan (Landon Liboiron) finds out via Facebook that his best friend from high school, Bodhi, has died of an aneurysm. With no small degree of trepidation, he returns to Albuquerque to share in the grief generated by the deceased’s many friends. The former classmates struggle with the experience of confronting not only Bodhi’s sudden passing, but their own vulnerability to blind chance. Throughout their reunion, sticky feelings of love, longing and regret are stirred up in the characters – Cuoco, Sasha Pieterse, Cody Horn, Andy Buckley, Tatanka Means, Virginia Madsen, Meghann Fahy – whose lives he touched. As was the case in The Big Chill, they’ve all changed since going their separate ways after high school … or, not going anywhere at all, as the case may be. If Burning Bodhi couldn’t possibly make anyone forget Lawrence Kasdan’s Baby Boomer classic, it should please fans of the young actors, who, like Cuoco, are known far more for their work on television than on the big screen.

 

Packed in a Trunk

Anyone impressed by the 2013 American documentary Finding Vivian Maier, about the posthumous unlocking of a treasure trove of photographs taken by a previously unsung Chicago nanny and amateur street photographer, almost certainly will enjoy Packed in a Trunk. Although the circumstances are very different, both films describe an almost miraculous discovery of artistic gems created before the women responsible for them could benefit from their fame. In this, they shared certain qualities and demons with Vincent Van Gogh. In the case of Finding Vivian Maier, historian John Maloof purchased a box of photo negatives at a 2007 Chicago auction, then scanned the images and put them on the Internet site, Flickr. After news articles began to come out about Maier and another collector’s similar discovery of her work, a Kickstarter campaign for the documentary was launched. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 87th Academy Awards. The title, Packed in a Trunk, refers to the discovery of paintings by the obscure lesbian artist Edith Lake Wilkinson, who was part of the Provincetown art scene from 1914 to 1923. In 1924, at the recommendation of her crooked estate attorney, Wilkinson was committed to a decrepit, if expensive mental-health facility, in large part due to her “close and constant contact” with longtime companion. Once the artist was put away and abandoned, Edith’s work and all her worldly possessions were packed into trunks and shipped off to a relative in West Virginia, where they sat in an attic for the next 40 years. Edith’s great-niece, writer/director Jane Anderson (“Olive Kitteridge”), grew up surrounded by Edith’s vibrantly colorful Impressionistic paintings. On a whim, her mother had poked through the trunks and boxes in her dusty attic and rescued Edith’s work, if only for her own enjoyment. The film follows Anderson in her decades-long journey to find the answers to the mystery of Edith’s life and, then, return the work to Provincetown, where they could be recognized by the larger art world. As such, it also shines a light on the nation’s gay and lesbian community at a time when coming out of the closet often meant being locked up in jail or an asylum. She was joined in her quest by writer/director Michelle Boyaner (“A Finished Life: The Goodbye & No Regrets Tour”).

 

Dillinger: Special Edition: Blu-ray

Dolemite: Blu-ray

It wasn’t until Bonnie and Clyde was released in 1967 that anyone in Hollywood attempted to take a chance on showing the effects of lead on flesh and bone, in slow motion and excruciating detail. The Production Code may have been on its last legs, but no one could predict with any certainty how audiences would react not only to witnessing full-blown carnage in living color – ABC’s highly controversial “The Untouchables” was shown in black-and-white – but also to what some saw as the romanticizing of criminality. It worked. And how! It didn’t take long for Roger Corman and his team of recent film-school graduates to breathe new life into the gangster genre and develop a formula to make it profitable. Among the throwback titles the company released were Corman’s Bloody Mama, Martin Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha and John Milius’ Dillinger, which has just been accorded a first-class refurbishing by Arrow Video. Although there’s nothing particularly wrong with Michael Mann’s 2009 Public Enemies, the only justification for its retelling of John Dillinger’s story and $100-million production budget was the presence of Johnny Depp as titular bank robber. Milius, who had already joined the list of Hollywood’s screenwriting elite, agreed to participate in Dillinger if he could direct the picture, as well as write it. The $2.5 million AIP spent on it might not have covered the cost of renting vintage automobiles on Public Enemies, but it was money well spent. Both pictures took liberties with the facts, but nothing that would cause anyone to rewrite the time-honored legend. If J. Edgar Hoover was actually moved to complain about the portrayal of the G-men in Dillinger, he no longer carried the weight in Hollywood he once did. What was great then and is still the No. 1 reason to pick up a copy of the Blu-ray is a cast the included some of the greatest supporting actors in the industry: Warren Oates is a dead ringer for the boastful bank robber; Ben Johnson plays the cocky FBI bloodhound, Melvin Purvis; Harry Dean Stanton, Geoffrey Lewis, Steve Kanaly and star-to-be Richard Dreyfuss play ancillary gang members; Cloris Leachman, is a nice fit as the Lady in Red; and Mamas and Papas’ singer Michelle Phillips, in her first big movie role, doesn’t embarrass herself as the moll. As for action, Dillinger could still inspire wet dreams in card-carrying NRA members. Commentary is provided by Stephen Prince, author of “Classical Film Violence: Designing and Regulating Brutality in Hollywood Cinema”; new interviews with producer Lawrence Gordon, director of photography Jules Brenner and composer Barry De Vorzon; a stills gallery; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips; and a booklet containing new writing by Kim Newman on fictional portrayals of Dillinger, plus an on-set report containing interviews with writer-director John Milius and others, illustrated with original production stills.

 

Released in 1975, as the Blaxploitation subgenre was beginning to lose steam, Dolemite is an extreme example of the pimp as anti-superhero. Rudy Ray Moore, who resembles an over-the-hill heavyweight boxer, plays the title character, who’s just been released from prison and given carte blanche by a friendly FBI agent to take out his chief rival Willie Green (director D’Urville Martin). The well-connected thug had set up Dolemite on a phony drug charge and stole his club from under former partner-in-crime, Queen Bee (Lady Reed). In his corner, he’ll find a bevy of kung-fu-fightin’ prostitutes anxious for him to get back in the game. Supporting Green is the corrupt mayor, some crooked cops and a duplicitous preacher. Dolemite is an old-school pimp from the word, “go.” He’s also the headliner at his nightclub, the Total Experience, singing, dancing and signifyin’ with his hooker chorus line. Technically, Dolemite is a real mess and the acting isn’t much better. It may not hold a candle to The Mack … but, honestly, what does? The character and movie directly influenced Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, Eddie Murphy and Quentin Tarantino. The most essential thing about the newly scanned & restored in 2K version from Vinegar Syndrome is the background material on Moore, who enjoyed a thriving career as nightclub entertainer, freelance record distributor and producer, and X-rated comedian, before turning to the movies. In fact, Dolemite is an extension of a character he established in his act. The Blu-ray adds a delightful making-of documentary, “I, Dolemite,” and commentary track from Moore’s biographer, Mark Murray, featuring interviews with Moore as well as co-stars Jerry Jones, Lady Reed, John Kerry and cinematographer Nick von Sternberg; featurettes “Lady Reed Uncut” and “Locations: Then & Now”; the intended 1.85:1 widescreen frame and an alternate full-frame “boom mic” version; original trailers for Dolemite and The Human Tornado; and original cover artwork by Jay Shaw.

 

That’s Sexploitation!: Blu-ray

All Night at the Po-No: Storefront Theatre Collection: Volume #1

Trashy Lady: Blu-ray

I don’t know if the history of pornography can be traced beyond the Paleolithic cave paintings discovered in France’s Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Caveto, but who would be surprised to learn that some of our ancient ancestors, at least, were as fixated on sexuality as the lions, rhinos, deer and bears that adorned the walls of Chauvet Cave? In fact, some archeologists believe that representations of genitalia and sexual coupling can be traced back at least 11,000 years to the Creswell Crags in England, although it couldn’t be determined if they were intended to stimulate the caves’ residents or sex-ed classes for the young’uns. Clearly, though, the graffiti artists of Egypt, Greek, Rome and Peru had something on their minds beyond landscapes, portraits and still lifes. Pornography has existed throughout recorded history and has adapted to each new medium, from papyrus to the Internet. Eroticism on film goes back to the invention of motion pictures and many of the earliest shorts still are available for perusing on You Tube Red. The borders separating titillation, Victorian pornography, sexploitation and art blurred forever from there. In the exhaustively researched and often quite entertaining documentary, That’s Sexploitation!, writer/director Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case, Frankenhooker) and producer David F. Friedman (a.k.a., Mighty Monarch of Exploitation) pick up the subject in the 1920s, when the monetization and widespread delivery of porn products became nearly unstoppable. That isn’t to say that law-enforcement officials and religious leaders didn’t attempt to eliminate it, just that the purveyors of smut always found ways to get around their efforts, thanks, in large part, to the insatiable appetite of the American public. Depictions of explicit nudity, sexual intercourse and medical diagrams were famously inserted into films distributed as “hygiene” or “educational” and exhibited before audiences segregated by gender. In the post-war era, stag films, nudist camp shorts and nudie-cuties would give way to hard- and soft-core pornography openly shown in large cities where adherence to the First Amendment wasn’t considered voluntary. Even so, up until the latter half of the 1960s, much of the quasi-legal content was tamer than what could be found in the ruins of the brothels of Pompeii. This kind of explicit material isn’t for everyone, of course. Among its shortcomings is a reluctance to pay attention to the participation of organized crime in the industry or the mainstreaming of porn, in the Golden Age. In addition to the two-hour-plus documentary from Severin Films, That’s Sexploitation! offers three more hours of shorts from the Something Weird Archives and commentary with Henenlotter and Something Weird’s Lisa Petrucci.

 

As if anticipating the release of That’s Sexploitation!, Vinegar Syndrome has sent out the three-disc concept compilation, “All Night at the Po-No: Storefront Theatre Collection: Volume #1,” which is comprised of titles made immediately preceding the Deep Throat phenomenon and were exhibited in spaces that today might accommodate a Subway or Chinese take-out joint. Unlike larger houses, including those in the Pussycat chain, the films screened in these cozy spaces were low-budget 16mm efforts, affectionately known as one-day-wonders. Hundreds of these theaters dotted the landscape, attracting the anonymous work of aspiring independent and underground filmmakers. If there’s a common denominator here, it’s the presence of amateur actors who might have been recruited at hippie acid tests and whose acting chops make Harry Reems and Marilyn Chambers look like Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. The women, especially, are far from unattractive, but hardly classic movie goddesses. Their emotional range stretches from bored to giddy and none appear overly concerned about carrying a few extra pounds. Fetishists will welcome the absence of razors, implants and big hair. The male actors, with the exception of a very young John Holmes, are interchangeable. Most find it difficult to maintain an erection for more than a few minutes. Of the 12 films here, a few are no more than extended loops. Others tell stories that display a strong sense of humor, narrative and character development. The industry had not yet migrated from to L.A., from New York and San Francisco, so the action isn’t reserved exclusively to generic indoor sets. The titles include Huck Walker’s “All American Hustler,” Anthony Spinelli’s bizarre vampire comedy “Suckula,” Rik Taziner’s low-rent costume saga, “The Erotic Adventures of Hercules,” as well as such anonymously directed efforts as “Carnal-Go-Round,” “Sex Before Marriage,” “Homer the Late Comer” and the experimental subjective-camera feature, “Erotic Point of View.” Besides Holmes, only Rene Bond and Sandy Dempsey are remotely familiar. All have been scanned in 2k from rare original theatrical prints to re-create the experience of stumbling into the Po-No theater late one evening and not leaving until dawn the next day. Another thing that differentiates the films here from those to follow is a willingness to portray drug use and abuse honestly. Listen carefully and you might even catch a then-popular song by Paul Simon or Herb Alpert that’s been appropriated by the filmmakers, almost certainly without permission.

 

In a separate release, Vinegar Syndrome flashes ahead a mere 10 years to Trashy Lady, one of the most stylishly made and technically advanced hard-core films of the shot-on-35mm age. In the Roaring ’20s-period production, Harry Reems plays a slick gangster, Dutch, who has been ditched by his regular dame, Jessie (Cara Lott). Upon being introduced to the beautiful cigarette girl, Katherine (Ginger Lynn), who’s just begun to work at his classy speakeasy, Dutch is immediately smitten with her “good girl” looks and aura of innocence. Soon enough, though, he enlists the help of Rita (Amber Lynn) to teach her the tricks of the trade. It so happens that Rita served as main moll to Dutch’s incarcerated rival, Louie (Herschel Savage). Trashy Lady was nominated for six XRCO awards, including best director (Steve Scott), and featuring AFAA-award-winning cinematography by Tom Howard as well as an AVN-award-winning performance from Reems. In my opinion, though, Ginger steals the show with a performance that combines comedic chops with natural acting talent and natural girl-next-door beauty. The film arrives in Blu-ray for the first time, newly restored from its original 35mm negative, and Scott and Howard’s 1971 time-travel flick, “Coming West,” which very easily could have fit in the “Po-No” collection. The bonus package also includes commentary with Howard, moderated by filmmaker David McCabe, and a second commentary track with co-star Savage and XRCO co-founder, Bill Margold. Although Savage co-starred in Trashy Lady, he can barely recall the experience. What he and Margold can remember of the actors borders from offensive to hilarious.

 

What?: Blu-ray

After his wife, Sharon Tate, was so brutally murdered in an orgy of violence orchestrated by Charles Manson, it was easy to forgive any cinematic misstep taken in its immediate wake by Roman Polanski … until, of course, the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl in Jack Nicholson’s Hollywood Hills home. Despite receiving several excellent reviews by mainstream critics, the public response to his adaptation of Macbeth, made for or Playboy Productions, was dampened by the X-rating attached to it by the MPAA’s concerns of extreme violence and a scene of Lady Macbeth ruminating in the nude. Then, Polanski produced a lifestyle documentary on the effort by Jackie Stewart to win the 1971 Monaco Grand Prix in Monte Carlo. After being shown at the 1972 Berlin International Film Festival, Weekend of a Champion was shelved for 40 years. Entertaining and occasionally exciting, it was re-edited and re-released briefly in 2013, before being sent out on DVD a year later. Blessedly forgotten after Polanski’s triumphant return to Hollywood with Chinatown was the over-the-top sex farce he made with Carlo Ponti’s money on the Amalfi Coast of Italy. What? (a.k.a., “Diary of Forbidden Dreams”) would be as reviled as Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown were universally admired. Written by Polanski and frequent collaborator Gérard Brach, What? chronicles the sexual indignities that befall a curly-haired American hippie while hitchhiking through Italy. As portrayed by Akron native Sydne Rome (Just a Gigolo), the only differences between her naïve and over-accommodating Nancy and Little Annie Fannie is a surprisingly scholarly and artistic background that manifests itself in unexpected ways during the film. After being attacked by three lecherous Italians while hitchhiking, she escapes down the steps and funicular leading to a villa overlooking the sea. It is owned by a wealthy art collector (Hugh Griffith) and inhabited by an international collection of wackos and what appear to be very expensive prostitutes, including the recently retired pimp, Alex (Marcello Mastroianni), and the proprietor’s sneaky son, Mosquito (Polanski). As near as I can figure, the rest of the movie is taken up by Nancy attempting to keep her clothes from being stolen by the villa’s rambunctious watchdog and humoring the sexual fetishes of the other residents. What? reflects the prevailing attitudes toward sex in Europe, which found some humor in forced intercourse in unlikely place and frequently exploited the liberating aspects of the sexual revolution. If the women characters tended to be almost freakishly glamorous and voluptuous, the male characters in comedies would be portrayed as sexually inept buffoons. Mastroianni was able to pull off being the debonair leading man in one film and a hopelessly deficient playboy in another. Here, his grabby character might have been inspired more by the chick-chasing Harpo Marx, than, say, Marcello Rubini in La Dolce Vita. As clueless and vulnerable as her character frequently is, Rome is the only actor who comes out of What? unscathed. The nicely restored Blu-ray adds new interviews with Rome, composer Claudio Gizzi and cinematographer Marcello Gatti.

 

Krampus: Blu-ray

The Zero Boys: Blu-ray

Sssssss: Blu-ray

Before seeing the delightfully twisted Scandinavian fantasy, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, I was completely in the dark about the European holiday tradition that involved the “half-goat, half-demon” anti-Santa, Krampus. Appearing on the eve of the Feast of St. Nicholas, Krampus would appear to children who didn’t live up to their holy obligation of being good little boys and girls in the preceding 300-some days leading up to Christmas. Where Saint Nicholas might award the lucky children rarely available fruit, nuts or trinkets, Krampus might bestow a lump of coal on the naughty ones, at best. Jalmari Helander’s inky black comedy, released here in December 2010, added several diabolically new wrinkles to the legend that also required reindeers and elves. I suspect that I wasn’t the only one unaware of Krampus, because, according to IMDB.com, it wasn’t until 2012 that the character appeared in an American entertainment, that being an episode of “Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated,” titled “Wrath of the Krampus.” Since then, he’s made more than a dozen appearances. The latest, Michael Dougherty’s Krampus, did well enough at the box office to think that it might be trotted out as every new holiday season approaches, not unlike National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. It succeeded even though its distributors decided not to show the picture to reviewers ahead their Friday deadlines – typically holiday-themed horror flicks haven’t fared well with mainstream critics – and most potential viewers hadn’t yet heard of Krampus. As is the case in the Griswald’s annual “Christmas Vacation” reunion, the spirit of the holiday is threatened by warring branches of the same dysfunctional family. The only one demonstrating anything close to a traditional Christmas mindset, if only in the form of believing in Santa Claus, is pre-teen Max. After being ridiculed by his obnoxious cousins, Max decides that putting too much credence in the holiday tradition no longer is worth the effort. This show of weakness emboldens the spirit of Krampus, who’s in the neighborhood this year. After killing the town’s electrical grid, the beast directs its wrath at Max’s family. Thanks to some effective special effects, the fury unleashed is pretty convincing, as are the monster’s makeup and costumes. If Universal lacked faith in its product in December, it’s made up for it with a bonus package that should please genre buffs. In addition to a digital copy of Krampus and UltraViolet access, it contains an alternate ending, deleted and extended scenes, a gag reel, galleries, commentary with Dougherty and co-writers Todd Casey and Zach Shields and featurettes, “Krampus Comes Alive!,” “Behind the Scenes at WETA Workshop” and “The Naughty Ones: Meet the Cast.”

 

I’m not at all sure what possessed Arrow Video to pull out the red carpet for The Zero Boys, a straight-to-video slasher flick from 1986 that also fit under the spam-in-a-cabin banner. In a nutshell, the story involves a group of “weekend warriors” – or, Rambo wannabes, take your pick – who, after a day spent shooting paintballs at pretend Nazis, ends up deep in a section of the woods north of Hollywood haunted by real killers. They’re accompanied by a small group of women, one of whom was the prize for winning that afternoon’s competition. It doesn’t take long for the couples to realize they’ve really stepped into some deep shit. In some ways, The Zero Boys appeared to be based on Charles Ng and Leonard Lake’s cabin of horrors in the Sierra Nevada foothills 150 miles east of San Francisco. Finally, though, the targets of the fiends’ sociopathy discover a way to turn their faux armaments into killing machines and a battle royal ensues. Blond scream queen Kelli Maroney (Night of the Comet) turns in a decent performance as the hard-boiled prize catch. More interesting stuff can be found in the bonus package, including a pretty entertaining piece in which Mastorakis interviews himself on the highlights of his long and varied career (The Greek Tycoon, Ninja Academy). He’s extremely proud of the contributions made by future Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer, cinematographer Steven Shaw (“Pandora’s Clock”), Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption) and other up-and-comers. Co-stars Kelli Maroney and Nicole Rio provide new interviews; Maroney and Mastorakis are on separate commentary tracks; a stills gallery; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys; and a fully-illustrated collector’s booklet with new writing by critic James Oliver.

 

Released in 1973, SSSSSSS remains interesting mostly for the very real cobras and pythons imported specifically for the production from the jungles of Southeast Asia, as well as a typically manic performance by Strother Martin (Cool Hand Luke). He plays the head of research at a facility far enough from civilization to avoid the prying eyes of the medical-ethics police. Dr. Stoner’s madness manifests itself in his desire to develop a serum that can turn a man into a King Cobra. It takes a while for his daughter (Heather Menzies) to figure out that Stoner is using her boyfriend (Dirk Benedict) as a guinea pig. Considering its age, SSSSSSS looks pretty good for an early creature feature. The Blu-ray adds interviews with Benedict and Menzies, and a photo gallery.

 

Death Becomes Her: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray

In this extremely broad and occasionally crude sendup of show-business narcissism, director Robert Zemeckis employs groundbreaking special effects in the service of what essentially is a 104-minute catfight between two of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Image-obsessed diva Madeline Ashton is played by Meryl Streep, who, in the early 1990s, had yet to convince critics that she could do as well in comic roles as she did in dramas. In the somewhat more sober role of Helen Sharp, the girlfriend of a miracle-working plastic surgeon, Goldie Hahn was uncharacteristically asked to play straight man to Streep. As Death Becomes Her opens, Helen introduces Madeline to her escort, Dr. Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis), in a backstage visit after a performance of a play based on Tennessee Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth.” Hearing the words “plastic surgeon” elicits the same Pavlovian response in the actress as being told she’d being nominated for an Oscar or Tony. David Koepp and Martin Donovan’s screenplay flashes us forward to a period when Madeline and Ernest are unblissfully married and Helen has devolved into an obese coach potato. Another flash-forward reverses the roles of the two women, this time with Helen a successful author of self-help books, Madeline a nearly over-the-hill star and the doctor doing makeup on corpses at a funeral home. Now completely desperate, Madeline hands her fate to the mysterious seductress Lisle Von Rhoman, who claims to be 71 but looks, well, exactly like Isabella Rossellini in her prime. Lisle offers Madeline the secret to eternal youth, courtesy of a glowing purple potion that immediately restores her earlier beauty and figure. Like any miracle drug or promise of eternal youth, however, there’s a catch. I won’t reveal it here, except to say that it required all of Zemeckis’ pre-CGI expertise and it’s hilarious. The Blu-ray adds “The Making of ‘Death Becomes Her,’” featuring interviews with Zemeckis, Koepp, director of photography Dean Cundey, production designer Rick Carter and special effects artists Lance Anderson and David Anderson; a vintage behind-the-scenes featurette; and photo gallery.

 

TV-to-DVD

PBS: Nature: Raising the Dinosaur Giant

PBS Kids: Caillou: Caillou’s Pet Parade

Just when paleontologists think they have the whole dinosaur thing figured out and can rest on their laurels for a generation, or two, a shepherd in Mongolia or Argentina will stumble upon on the fossilized remains of a previously unknown creature and force them to rewrite their textbooks. This is exactly what happened in 2014, in a remote corner of Patagonia where a portion of a thigh bone was discovered sticking out of a rock formation. Another 200 bones from the same species of titanosaur were discovered in the same vicinity. As yet unnamed, the gigantic herbivore is expected to weigh in at just over 77 tons and stand 121 feet from head to tail. In the “Nature” presentation, “Raising the Dinosaur Giant,” Sir David Attenborough guides us through the remarkable journey of “waking the giant” as it happens, connecting the dots, translating the paleo jargon and explaining the revelations using living examples, other dinosaur discoveries and CGI visuals.

 

The PBS Kids’ series “Caillou” is based on a series of books by Quebecoise writer and illustrator Hélène Desputeaux, which center on a 4-year-old boy who is fascinated by the world around him. In the DVD compilation, “Caillou’s Pet Parade,” he enjoys learning to care for different types of animals and pets belonging to his neighbors, parents and grandparents. The 13-episode collection times in at an hour.

The DVD Wrapup:  Ip Man 3, Lady in the Van, Chainsaw 2, Antonia’s Line, Gangster VIP, Dangerous Men, Lamb and more

Friday, April 22nd, 2016

Ip Man 3: Blu-ray

The story of the truly legendary Chinese martial-arts teacher, Ip Man, has been told many times on film over the last 22 years. He was introduced in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story(1993),, but mostly as a sidebar reference in an overly reverential biopic about the world’s most famous kung fu fighter. It wasn’t until 2008 that Ip Man, who introduced the Wing Chun technique to Lee 50 years earlier, would be lionized in movies in which the more famous studentLee would be an incidental character. Ip Man 3 marks the end of a trilogy starring Donnie Yen and directed by Wilson Yip. Although exaggerated, the series remained faithful to the spirit of the man and influence Wing Chung had on the discipline. In 2013, Hong Kong writer=director Wong Kar-Wai (In the Mood for Love) chimed in the on the subject in The Grandmaster, which did well at the international box office and was nominated for Academy Awards in the cinematography and fashion-design categories. Just as that film covered much of the same territory as Yip’s first two installments, Ip Man 3 adds biographical material also introduced in The Grandmaster, including the death of his wife to cancer. Now peacefully settled in British-controlled Hong Kong, Ip Man once again finds himself in the middle of hostile territory, this time when a local triad and land developer combine their efforts to take over property being used by a karate school. They’re formidable foes, but Ip Man has the backing of former students against the hordes of thugs available to the triad.

The thing that really sets Ip Man 3 apart from the first two films, however, is the presence of former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson – huh? – as, who provides the muscular frontmanmuscle for athe property-development team. Soft-spoken as ever, Tyson’s Frank is a family man, as well as a two-fisted brawler. That he will engage in mortal combat with Ip Man – or one of his acolytes – is assured from the first second we lay eyes on him. Frank’s fighting style could hardly be more different than Ip Man’s Wing Chung, which is to boxing what ballet is to breaksquare dancing. It is a concept-based martial art and form of self-defense that utilizesutilizing both striking and grappling movements, while specializing in close-range combat. Frequently practiced on a wooden dummy, an expert practitioner can deliver lethal blows from a distance one or two inches from his opponent. The intricately choreographed acting scenes here also highlightutilize several forms of specialized weaponry and combat, including Muay Thai, MMA, daggersknives, Six and a Half Point Poles, Butterfly Swords, kicks, elbow strikes and eye gouges. Danny Chan, who had previously portrayed Lee in the 2008 TV series, “The Legend of Bruce Lee,” reprises the character in what amount to be entertaining cameos. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and interviews with Yen and Tyson.

The Lady in the Van: Blu-ray

One needn’t be enamored with the Dowager Countess of Grantham, in “Downton Abbey,” or Muriel Donnelly, of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, to pick up a copy of Nicholas Hytner and writer Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van. A willingness to sample anything and everything in which Maggie Smith is involved is what could make this very, very British dramedy appealing to American audiences outside the arthouse circuit. In it, Smith plays Miss Mary Shepherd, an eccentric homeless woman whom Bennett befriended in the 1970s before allowing her to temporarily to park her beat-up van in the driveway of his Camden home. Even though it’s a well-off neighborhood, largely populated by artsy types, Mary is the kind of woman who could test the patience of a saint. She’s disheveled, cantankerous and tortured by demons that took up residence in her nogginmind decades earlier. Alex Jennings is as well-cast as the Oxford-educated Bennett – and his professionally competitive and frequently visible alter ego — as Smith is as Mary. Fastidious, reclusive and largely closeted, Bennett already had made a name for himself in the satirical revue, “Beyond the Fringe,” by the time Mary moved into his driveway. While the writer may have been intimidated by her outspoken nature, it’s also likely that Bennett saw in Mary a bit of his mother, who was being treated for depression in a private facility.. A lot of things happen over the course of 15 years, including the unraveling of the mystery that keeps Mary locked in her own private nightmarehell. In 2000, Smith was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Theater Award for her performance in “The Lady in the Van,” also directed by Nicholas Hytner. She reprised the role in 2009, on BBC Radio 4, opposite Bennett playing himself. For his part, Hytner directed both the stage and screen versions of Bennett’s “The Madness of King George III” and “The History Boys.” Also prominent in the cast are Jim Broadbent, Frances de la Tour and James Corden. The Blu-ray adds Hytner’s commentary; the featurettes “Playing the Lady: Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd,” “The Making of ‘The Lady in the Van’” and “The Visual Effects”; and deleted scenes.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Part 2: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray

The Stuff: Special Edition: Blu-ray

Thirty years ago, when Tobe Hooper unleashed “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Part 2”,” on an unsuspecting public, mainstream critics labored to find the right words to condemn it as unmitigated trash. In Roger Ebert’s single-star review, he noted that “(It) has a lot of blood and disembowelment, to be sure, but it doesn’t have the terror of the original, the desire to be taken seriously. It’s a geek show.” Furthermore, “Maybe Tobe Hooper — who went on to make Poltergeist for Steven Spielberg — has grown mainstream, less concerned to shock, more eager to show us it’s all a joke.” Today, though, the same things that turned Ebert and others against the sequel to a film most of the same critics praised, upon its release in 1974, have found a ready audience among horror geeks whose collective voice now speaks at greater volume than their counterparts in the print media. I can see both points. By all traditional standards, “Part 2” is an unholy mess. If, in 1986, the now-shuttered Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College had a film school and its students had been assigned a sequel, its students might have collaborated on a movie very much like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Part 2. With such over-the-top characters as Leatherface, Chop Top, Grandpa and Drayton “The Cook” Sawyer back in tow, in full freak-out regalia, the only thing standing between “Part 2” and some good old-fashioned screams is a script with its tongue solidly in its cheek.

 

Adding to the ironic fun was the casting of a newly clean-and-sober Dennis Hopper as Lieutenant “Lefty” Enright, who’s been seeking revenge against the cannibal clan ever since they butchered his niece. His next best lead comes after the Sawyers attack a pair of douchebag yuppies, driving to a big hoedown in Dallas. Just before they’re confronted on a bridge, the lads make a call to local radio host, Vanita “Stretch” Brock (Caroline Williams), who records the whole thing and wants to join Lefty in his investigation. Bad idea. The lawman purchases a chainsaw of his own and Stretch falls down a rabbit hole into the Sawyers’ chamber of horrors. It’s a wonderlandmasterpiece of gore, depravity and skeletal memorabilia, as are the makeup effects by Tom Savini and Bart Mixon and Cary White’s production design. I also wonder what Ebert might have made of the Scream Factory Collector’s Edition, which outdoes Criterion Collection at its own game. In addition to the new 2K HD scan of the inter-positive film element, the two-disc set adds three separate commentary tracks, with cast and crew; extended outtakes from the feature-length “It Runs in the Family” documentary, featuring L.M. Kit Carson and Lou Perryman; a 43-minute compilation of behind-the-scenes footage from Tom Savini’s archives; an alternate opening-credit sequence; deleted scenes; still galleries including posters and lobby cards, behind-the-scenes photos, stills, and collector’s gallery; MGM’s original HD Master, with color correction supervision by director of photography Richard Kooris; “House of Pain,” an interview with make-up-effects artists Bart Mixon, Gabe Bartalos, Gino Crognale and John Vulich; “Yuppie Meat,” an interview with actors Chris Douridas and Barry Kinyon; “Cutting Moments,” with editor Alain Jakubowicz; “Behind the Mask,” an interview with stuntman and Leatherface performer Bob Elmore; “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds:” Revisiting the locations of the film, hosted by Sean Clark; the entire “It Runs in the Family,” a six-part documentary, featuring interviews with screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson, actors Bill Moseley, Caroline Williams, Bill Johnson, Lou Perryman and special makeup effects artist Tom Savini.

 

Larry Cohen’s cautionary horror flick, The Stuff, received a half-star greater rating from Roger Ebert than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Part 2. Had he lived long enough to see the special Blu-ray editions, he might have wondered what he missed. What was easily dismissed in 1985-86 is being re-released today with audio commentaries, featurettes, interviews, essays and other goodies, as might befit an Oscar-winning or Cannes sensation. The title refers to a white substance found gurgling from the ground near a petroleum refinery in Alaska. Turns out, the “stuff” is so addictively delicious that a purveyor of supermarket desserts decides to package, distribute and market the product as if it were Ben & Jerry’s irresistible Cherry Garcia ice cream. The Stuff immediately recalls The Blob, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and original marketing campaigns for cigarettes, cocaine-laced Coca-Cola products and miracle drugs, ranging from penicillin to Viagra. Once devoured, average consumers begin parroting advertising slogans and hoarding containers in every nook-and-cranny of their homes. Only a curious pre-teen boy, Jason, (Scott Bloom), and industrial spysaboteur, Mo (Michael Moriarty), suspect that Stuff is comprised of chemicals that may not be entirely nutritious or healthy. Indeed, once threatened, Stuff takes on a life of its own, demanding of its addicts that they protect it from close inspection by government agencies.

Despite its environmental message, The Stuff is no more convincing today than it was in 1985 and the fluffy white “creature” is far less frightening than the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters. Because its R-rating is totally unjustified, it would do wellmake a good on Syfy, where such low-budget, lower-IQ fare is commonplace. The Arrow Video facelift is only as good as the original camera negative allows it to be. What is undeniably fun is seeing Moriarty, Andrea Marcovicci, Garrett Morris, Paul Sorvino, Danny Aiello, Patrick O’Neal, Brooke Adams, Tammy Grimes, Abe Vigoda, Clara “Where’s the Beef” Peller, Eric Bogosian, Patrick Dempsey and Mira Sorvino in roles they may or may not regret accepting. Other features include “Can’t Get Enough of ‘The Stuff’: Making Larry Cohen’s Classic Creature”; introduction and trailer commentary by director and fan Darren Bousman (Saw II); a reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Gary Pullin; and a booklet withnew writing on the film by Joel Harley, illustrated with original stills and promotional materials. If I were to recommend other Cohen films, I’d start with Little Caesar, It’s Alive and Q.

Antonia’s Line: Blu-ray

Marleen Gorris’ multigenerational drama, Antonia’s Line, opens in the immediate wake of World War II, in a Dutch village left largely intact by German occupation forces, but not without some permanent scars. Into it strolls a strong-willed native daughter, Antonia (Willeke van Ammelrooy), who’s returned to claim the family farm she’ll inherit when her desperately ill mother finally kicks the bucket. Along the way, Antonia gives her own free-spirited artist daughter, Danielle (Els Dottermans), a cook’s tour of the rural village. Among the residents who survived the occupation are such colorfully named characters as Crooked Finger, Loony Lips, Mad Madonna and Protestant. For the next 40 years of Antonia and Danielle’s life, these and other endearing characters will fit into a narrative that eventually will include their children, grandchildren, and great-children and displaced neighbors.

. The title refers to the line of women for whom men are a largely incidental force within the family. It would be stretching the point to suggest that each new daughter represents a different step on the ladder of 20th Century feminist thought, because Antonia’s Line evolves organically from the land and womb. Every so often, Gorris spices the narrative with whimsical touches of magical realism, leftover traces of latent European fascism, nihilistic gloom, repressed Protestant thought and Catholic mysticism. Another common denominator is the communal sacrament of shared bounty. You’d think that an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film — the first to go to a woman director in the category — would have assured Gorris a place in the cinematic firmament for years to come. In fact, she would helm only seven more pictures in the next 20 years, including Mrs. Dalloway, The Luzhin Defence, Carolina and an episode of “The L Word.” Sadly, that appears to be par for the course for outspoken feminists, who address themes related to sexual violence and gay and lesbian issues. The Blu-ray package includes an archival interview with Gorris and a collector’s booklet, with an essay by Thelma Adams, cast and crew credits, chapter breaks and stills.

Outlaw: Gangster VIP: The Complete Collection: Blu-ray

Of all the vintage crime series being refurbished and repackaged by Arrow Video, the six titles in the Outlaw: Gangster VIP may be the most curious. It was inspired by the titular novel, written by Goro Fujita, a former gangster who wrote about what he knew: life as a state-raised yakuza functionaryassassin in the 1960s. Like the mafia, the yakuza’s place in post-war Japanese society has been alternately romanticized and vilified on screen. The street-level mobsters we meet in Toshio Masuda’s Gangster VIP, Mio Ezaki’sHeartless, and Keiichi Ozawa’s Gangster VIP 2, Black Dagger, Goro the Assassin and Kill! control the bars, brothels, karaoke joints, gambling, noodle shops and rackets in such pockets of crime as Tokyo’s Kabukicho and Roppongi neighborhoods. They bear almost no resemblance to the modern-day samurai earlier filmmakers had painted them to be. Neither had the yakuza consolidated its power bases to seize control of legitimate Japanese industries or political parties, so most of the bloodletting takes place among rival gangs and for relatively low stakes. After serving time in prison for knifing a would-be assassin, Goro (Tetsuya Watari) re-introduces himself to a subterranean world in which, if anything, life is even cheaper than it was before he left. He’s especially appalled by the thugs who terrorize average citizens, especially young women who they see as potential prostitutes. Despite Goro’s reputation, the gangsters resent his desire to remain unattached and Lone Ranger approach to justice. His appeal isn’t based on charisma or sense of nobility, though.

If anything, Goro will remind American audiences of Charles Bronson. His weapon of choice is the hand-forged tanto dagger, which is hidden in a sleeve or under a jacket. Goro’s prowess with a blade allows him to take on dozens of yakuza minions at a time. The feature-length movies in the “Outlaw” package were released in rapid-fire fashion in 1968 and 1969. To say they are formulaic would be an understatement. Watched back-to-back, they might as well have been Xeroxed. The street punks are interchangeable, as are the bosses, prostitutes and fingers that are sliced off whenever someone requires punishment. The funny thing is, though, each of the movies is different enough from the other – sequels, prequels, stand-alones – to encourage binge viewing. A deluge of yakuza films and series from Nikkatsu and Toei studios would follow in the wake of “Outlaw,” including Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity series. The limited-edition box set (3,000 copies) contains all six films in the “Outlaw series,” available with English subtitles for the first time on any home video format. They’ve received high-definition digital transfers, from original film elements by Nikkatsu, as well as original uncompressed mono audio; commentary on Gangster VIP by Jasper Sharp; a visual essay covering the entire series, by Kevin Gilvear; new artwork by Tonci Zonjic; original trailers for all six films and promotional image galleries; and a booklet featuring an interview with director Toshio Masuda, plus fresh essays.

Dangerous Men: Blu-ray

I wouldn’t go so far as to call Dangerous Men a Death Wishfor feminists, but, way back in 1979, it must have seemed like that was what filmmaker John S. Rad had in mind. A better comparison might be made to Ms. 45, if it wasn’t for the fact that Abel Ferrara’s revenge thriller wouldn’t be released for another two years and set 3,000 miles from Malibu, where most of the movie was shot. Flash ahead 25 years, when Dangerous Men was finally finished and exhibited before a nearly empty house in Santa Monica. It, it probably elicited the same response as “Springtime for Hitler,” before the audience determined it was a goof. Conceived, financed and shot in dead earnestness by the Iranian expatriate, Dangerous Men is a revenge flick about an unfortunate young woman, Mina (Melody Wiggins), who’s attacked by a pair of bikers while enjoying a day at the beach with her fiancé. The rape is interrupted by Mina’s boyfriend, who kills one of the bikers and he, in turn, is knifed to death by athe bald behemoth. Without missing a beat, Mina devises a plan to take out her rage on the surviving biker and, a few hours later, a guy who picks her up while hitchhiking. Unlike the biker, the driver only loses his clothes to Mina and his sense of macho entitlementpride. She’ll quickly turn her attention to men who prey on working girls on Hollywood Boulevard. Because the brother of Mina’s dead fiancé is a police detective, it doesn’t take long for her to be unmasked asbecome the most wanted woman in southern California.

It’s from this point forward that whatever logic Rad invested in the screenplay gets picked up by the Santa Ana winds and blown out to sea. Every shortcut available to Rad is taken, as are the many contrivances, clichés and tropes he might have picked up watching American B-movies on Tehran television – some of which probably ended up on “MST3K” — before the Islamic revolution. Even worse, at the same time as Mina’s fate is sealed in the city, the rogue cop picks up the scent of a hitherto unknown criminal boss, Black Pepper, who looks like Dog the Bounty Hunter and gets his kicks watching a belly dancer with his sleazy girlfriend. And, after a chase through the brush, Dangerous Men ends … it just ends. No mention of Mina’s fate or that of the renegade cop. The production values are ridiculously bad, the stunt work laughable, Rad’s musical score sucks and the actors are inept, at best. Only a few of them acted in a feature before or since Dangerous Men. And, yet, it’s far from unwatchable. In fact, it’s tough to take your eyes off of it. The Drafthouse Films’ Blu-ray release features hours of extra content, including a feature-length commentary from authors Zack Carlson and Bryan Connelly; an original short documentary about the film’s original 2005 theatrical release; a video interview with cinematographer Peter Palian (Samurai Cop); the only television appearance of John S. Rad, on “Queer Edge With Jack E. Jette & Sandra Bernhard”; and a print interview.

Sex Ed

If any actor could convince us that a 23-year-old virgin is able to teach a sexual-hygiene class to junior high school students, it would be Haley Joel Osment. Still fondly remembered as the kid who saw dead people in The Sixth Sense, the 28-year-old actor not only is perfectly suited for the role of the teacher, but, through blurred eyes, he might be able to pass as a student. After disappearing from the big screen for a while, Osment has landed quite a few roles – Entourage, Tusk, “The Spoils Before Dying” — that don’t require the presence of a classic leading man. In Sex Ed, his Ed Cole accepts an adjunct position in a middle school teaching in a class that only requires him to show up in a tie. After discovering that the kids are completely clueless when it comes to their pubescent bodies and sex, other than what they glean from the Internet and older siblings. Given Ed’s awkwardness with the women he meets in the first few minutes of the movies, we sense that he’s a virgin before he is required to reveal it at a key point in the story. In fact, Ed’s completely comfortable addressing the sexually precocious students’ questions and anxieties. It’s the parents who are uncomfortable with the idea that their little darlings not only are capable of having sex, but likely would do the deed absent condoms or any other contraceptive. Naturally, director Isaac Feder (“Life on the Line”) and writer Bill Kennedy (“House of Cards”) have created a parallel storyline in which Ed is given every opportunity to get laid. Conceivably, Sex Ed is a movie that could be enjoyed by kids, sitting alongside their parents in front of the TV, but I don’t think either of them would make it through the movie without squirming a hole in their trousers.

Lamb

Faithfully adapted from a powerful first novel by Bonnie Nadzam, Lamb puts viewers in the uncomfortable position of having to reconsider the morality of a deeply disturbing and inarguably illegal act from the points of view of the perpetrator and victim simultaneously. The difference between this story and countless others that fall under general heading of thriller are the multidimensional portrayals of two loners – one in his 40s and the other still approaching puberty – whose shared neediness clouds their better judgment. Ross Partridge (“Wedlock”) serves triple duty as writer, director and male lead, playing the part of David Lamb, a Chicago businessman severely traumatized by the recent death of his father and breakup of his marriage. While feeling sorry for himself at a strip mall, he’s approached by the precocious pre-teen Tommie (Oona Laurence), who’s been dared by friends to hit him up for a cigarette. Instead of turning her away with a smile and tired piece of advice, he lights one up for her, knowing it will prompt a coughing jag. To teach her and her friends another lesson, however, David suggests she hop in his automobile and drive away with him, as if she were being kidnapped. If the potential for serious harm doesn’t faze them, nothing will.

 

When Tommie tells him her own tale of woe, David immediately senses both a kindred spirit in the girl and a pedagogical opportunity for himself. A day later, when she agrees to take off with him for the mountains of Wyoming, viewers naturally will begin to fear, as well, for her health and safety. We know that pedophiles and killers share few outwardly visible physical traits, so David’s true intentions are impossible to anticipate. That fear is corroborated by his tendency tell white lies to Tommie about his background and their reality of their destination. Instead of cabin in the mountains, with horses to ride, they’re headed to a shack on the plains with a cranky next-door neighbor. Learning she’s been deceived is the first test of Tommie’s stiff upper lip. Even so, the shack is near enough the snow-covered Rockies to keep her open to the possibilities of her adventure. Like Nadzam, Partridge keeps viewers guessing throughout the entirety of the narrative. While we wait for the monster to emerge, he and cinematographer Nathan M. Miller take full advantage of Wyoming’s wide horizons and surprising beauty of the plains. Although far from being a comedy, our queasiness isn’t unlike that felt while watching or reading “Lolita.” M comes to mind as well. In addition to riveting performances by the lead actors, Lamb benefits from a supporting cast that includes Jess Weixler, Tom Bower.  Scoot McNairy and Joel Murray. The DVD adds deleted scenes, a making-of featurette and commentary with Partridge and Laurence.

Earthrise

If, after repeat viewingsviewing of The Martian, you still can’t get the Red Planet off your mind, you might consider taking a chance on Glenn Payne’s micro-budgeted Earthrise a shot. While clearly not in same league as Ridley Scott’s thriller or Solaris, which it resembles thematically, it asks the kind of questions sci-fi buffs enjoy pondering. Here, the thing to remember is that things have gotten so bad on Earth that 99 percent of its survivors have been repatriated on Mars. Each year, a team of colonists returns to their ancestors’ home to join the effort to rehabilitate the planet. Not having set foot on Earth previously, they’re either in for a treat orof a horror show. Everything that happens in Earthrise either takes place on the transport vehicle or in the imaginations of the passengers, who will be tortured by monsters, ghosts of family members, voices and hallucinations the others can’t see. Anyone who’s seen John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon’s Dark Star (1974) already knows what can be accomplished in the sci-fi arena, even on a meager budget, using makeshift backgrounds and DIY props. Likewise, Earthrise is better than it has any right to be. Casey Dillard, Greg Earnest and Meaghin Burke deserve most the credit for that. The DVD adds commentary.

Norm of the North: Blu-ray

While the idea of building an animated franchise around a NIMBY polar bear must have sounded good at the time of conception, six years ago, in execution, Norm of the Northappears to have been jinxed from the get-go. Even so, it was given a two-week release on more than 2,400 screens, as well as in theaters around the world. Judged beside other animated features, Norm of the North underperformed to an almost historic magnitude. On the plus side, though, it probably didn’t cost a great deal of money to make and the marketing campaign was more or less perfunctory. When Norm the English-speaking polar bear (voiced by Rob Schneider) discovers that real-estate developers plan to build condos for tourists near the animals’ natural habitat, he and a gaggle of lemmings set out for New York to discourage them. While in the Apple to confront the greedy developer, the ironically named Mr. Greene (Ken Jeong), he teams up with the environmentalist daughter of one of the man’s assistants (Maya Kay, Heather Graham). If the rest is predictable, a few laughs are generated by the Minion-like lemmings and Norm’s twerking moves. Then, there’s the kid-friendly potty humor, which should distract the target audience for a few minutes, at least. Good thing, thing 6-year-olds don’t base their viewing decisions on reviews. Other voices are supplied by Michael McElhatton, Colm Meaney, Bill Nighy and Zachary Gordon.

Docs-to-DVD

Theory of Obscurity: Blu-ray

If the band profiled in Don Hardy Jr.’s Theory of Obscuritywas a product to be sold to consumers, its slogan might be: The Residents, serving discerning hipsters and music nerds for more than 45 years. A rare breed, by any definition, the Bay Area “art collective” appears to have roots leadingwas directly todescended from Spike Jones, Flash Gordon, Sun Ra, Ernie Kovacs, Salvador Dali, Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and Art Ensemble of Chicago, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Captain Beefheart and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. It would, in turn, influence Ween, Primus, Devo, Yello and Ke$ha, among others, while also helping to turn the music video into an emerging art form … sometimes, anyway.  Fiercely anonymous, the Residents’ public image has always been that of a group of tuxedoed gentlemen, wearing eyeball helmets and top hats … or variations, thereof. As the title Theory of Obscurity suggests, the Residents may be the most influential band that almost no one outside northern California knows. This, despite a resume that includes more than 60 albums, numerous music videos and short films, 3 CD-ROM projects, 10 DVDs, 7 major world tours and film soundtracks.

Even if the Residents may never be accorded access to the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame, except as paying customers, the band practically defined what it meant to be avant-garde in the final third of the 20th Century. As such, most consumers of record albums and CDs found it difficult to listen to more than one or two songs at a time. The same can be said for the documentary, which fans will enjoy immensely and leave others cold. Among those interviewed for the non-musical sections of the film are Jerry Harrison (Talking Heads), Matt Groening (“The Simpsons”), Gerald Casale (Devo), Josh Freese (Guns N’ Roses, Weezer), Penn Jillette and Homer Flynn. The Blu-ray’s bonus package adds extended interviews; footage of the Residents’ first performance, at San Francisco’s Boarding House; outtakes from the uncompleted film, “Vileness Fat”; three remastered classic short films; a new short film created from never-before-seen footage from the “Hello Skinny” sessions; an animated short film from an unfinished feature, “Freak Show”; a found-footage short film, “The Walking Woman”; and aa short film of the delivery of one of only two existing copies of the $100,000 “Ultimate Box Set” to the Museum of Modern Art. (It was housed in a 28-cubic-foot refrigerator, which contained the first pressings of every Residents’ release to date, as well as such ephemera as an eyeball mask and top hat.

Love Is a Verb: Blu-ray

Shadows of Liberty

A Dog Named Gucci

Biophilic Design

On “Real Time With Bill Maher,” hardly a week goes by before the host or a guest asks why no one in the global Muslim community seems willing to publically condemn the extremists and fundamentalists who use terror to advance their various religious, political and cultural agendas. The other question commonly heard involves the seeming lack of commonality among Arab states as to who, besides the United States, should lead the military offensive against ISIS andAl Qaeda. Answers to those very good questions have eluded us since such PLO spinoffs as al-Fatah, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Black September decided that it was easier to slaughter innocent men, women and children than take on the Israeli military head-on. In the wake of brutal terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, talk-show hosts across Europe are probably asking the same questions as Maher.

After watching Terry Spencer Hesser and Stephan Mazurek’s thought-provoking documentary, Love Is a Verb, it’s less difficult to understand why no one on that side of the argument has stepped forward to condemn violence committed in the name of Allah. Now living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, the Islamic preacher, scholar and reformist Fethullah Gülen is as close to a recognized spokesman for his co-religionists as anyone else on the planet. He teaches a Hanafi version of Islam — known as Hizmet, meaning service in Turkish — deriving from Sunni Muslim scholar Said Nursî’s teachings and Sufism. The secular leadership of Turkey so fears Gülen’s ability to inspire a parallel government, sufficiently powerful to impose its Islamic will on the nation, that it continually harasses and jails his followers. At first glance, the Gülen introduced to us in the documentary exists as the Bernie Sanders of Islam. Among other things, he promotes direct social activism, serving the poor and destitute, benevolent capitalism, traditional education and interfaith dialogue. He also believes that women play an essential role in the religion and science and faithreligion can co-exist in the network of schools he’s built here and around the globe.

At 55 minutes, however, Love Is a Verb begs almost as many questions as it attempts to answer. Foremost among them is why he prefers not to become the spokesman so many of us would love to see on talk shows and the speakers’ circuit. (Like everyone else, Gülen would probably love to live the rest of his life without having to fear a suicide bomber knocking on the gates of his 26-acre compound.). Despite the awards garnered by Gülen’s charter schools and graduates, are they immune from dogmaticto manipulation or a narrowing of values? If, as assumed, he favors sharia law over the current Turkish judicial system and corrupt secular elites, can it co-exist with modernist ideals. At 75, it’s also worth asking if Gülen has established a line of succession that can stand up to less moderate forces inside Turkey and beyond it, or, for that matter, the Pentagon.

For the last four years, reporters and lumberjacks have vied for dubious title of Worst Job in America, according to CareerCast.com. While I can understand why logging would be an unappealing career to pursue – if only because it’s extremely dangerous – it’s difficult to fathom how being a reporter ranks so low. Perhaps, it’s because the folks at CareerCast.com have an increasingly difficult time placing candidates for lucrative positions and job security for people older than 45 is almost non-existent. It sure beats yelling, “Timber,” or dodging falling trees for a living. In Jean-Philippe Tremblay’s disturbing documentary, Shadows of Liberty, several distinguished journalists describe why they’ve fallen out of love with their jobs. In the cases described here, it’s because the heyday of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers ended when the government allowed international conglomerates to purchase prominent media interests and milk them for every cent they could. In doing so, company brass began to kowtow to government agencies and the White House, for any number of bad reasons. The reporters remind us of several high-profile investigations – weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the CIA/Contra/crack conspiracy — that were successfully quashed or twisted from on high and one, at least, that was deemed too hot to handle, entirely. As alarming as this stuff is, solid reporting couldn’t prevent the re-election of George W. Bush, the rise of the Tea Party, iconization of the Kardashians and emergence of Donald Trump as a political force. Among those testifying here are Dan Rather, Julian Assange, Daniel Ellsberg, Amy Goodman and former CIA agent Robert Baer. The doc was originally released in 2012 and things have only gotten worse since then.

One needn’t be a dog lover to admire Gorman Bechard’s A Dog Named Gucci or even someone who’s owned a pet. All that’s necessary is a heart and profound sense of fairness for all living things. It opens with the horrifying story of Gucci, a 10-week old chow-shepherd mix, that was hung by his neck by aspiring teen sociopaths, beat up, doused with lighter fluid, and set afire. Doug James, standing on his porch nearby, heard the puppy’s cries and ran to help. After taking in the poor thing, at the request of Gucci’s 15-year-old runaway owner, he turned to specialists at Auburn University to nourish its recovery. What happened next is just as remarkable. When the perpetrators were given a slap on the wrist, James would convince local legislators to push for the passage of the “Gucci Bill,” making domestic animal abuse a felony. As word of the victory spread, Gucci’s story would inspire advocates in other states to follow the same strategy. Bechard, whose previous focus was on rom-coms and music videos, emphasizes how social media now allows people to maintain a network for the protection of domestic animals and strengthening of laws to prevent and punish it.

Normally, the last thing on the mind of business executives is the health, comfort and well-being of their office-bound employees. The more uniform the environment, the less work it will take the custodial workers to keep the place tidy. The easier the task, the fewer the number of employees are needed on the payroll, leaving more money for stockholders and budget-obsessed bosses. Too often, though, such exercises in corporate conformity cause morale, loyalty and productivity to plummet and absenteeism and turnover to rise. Stephen R. Kellert and Bill Finnegan’s documentary, Biophilic Design, makes a convincing case for so-called green architecture that humanizes the workplace by bringing the outdoors in and uses sustainable materials in creative ways. The concept is shown to work in hospitals, schools and other places where people need to be reminded of their natural roots.

TV-to-DVD

Syfy: Haven: Complete Final Season: Blu-ray

PBS: The Human Face of Big Data

PBS: Nova: Himalayan Megaquake

Hallmark: When Calls the Heart: Troubled Hearts

It’s difficult for any television series to sustain a gimmick as far-fetched as the one that lured fans of “Haven” to Syfy for five seasons. It helps, of course, that the network could promote the connection between the show and the Stephen King novel, “The Colorado Kid.” As is frequently the case with cable-based series, “Haven” opened in the summer of 2010, absent the kind of competition it might have faced two months later, when the more prominent networks introduced supernatural series of their own. The series opened with Emily Rose playing FBI special agent Audrey Parker, who is assigned to the small Maine town of Haven, where strange things happen to seemingly normal people. It doesn’t take long for her to experience “The Troubles,” a plague of paranormal afflictions that have occurred in the town at least twice in the past. As it turns out, Audrey is amenable to possibility that things in Haven really do go bump in the night and someday one of those things could lead her to the mother she has never known. In Season Five, the protagonists struggle to keep the town’s secrets under wraps, even under the watchful eyes of a smart CDC doctor, who comes to believe that there may be an underlying genetic marker to the Troubles. In the final 13 of 26 episodes of the fifth season, Haven has been cut off from the rest of the world by a mysterious fog bank. Through journeys into the past, the future and the very fabric between worlds, events in Haven hurtle towards a cataclysmic showdown. Patient fans will welcome the secret behind the “Croatoan” mystery. Special features 13 “Inside Haven” featurettes and commentary tracks; interviews with Eric Balfour, Lucas Bryant, William Shatner, Adam Copeland and producer Shawn Piller; a mythology refresher; and backgrounders. DVD buyer should be aware that the first 13 episodes of the final season already have been released.

After Edward Snowden became Public Enemy No. 1 by revealing the extent of spying – or, perhaps, the tip of the espionage iceberg – on people who may or may not have anything to do with terrorism, Americans were given something homegrown to replace the Red Scare. Any sense of security we’d developed over access to our financial, political and personal information vanished overnight. PBS’ “The Human Face of Big Data” argues that not everything in the digital universe is an open secret. The massive gathering and analyzing of data in real time is allowing us to address some of humanity’s biggest challenges, not all of which have anything to do with national security. This film captures the promise and peril of this extraordinary knowledge revolution.

On April 25, 2015, a devastating earthquake rocked Nepal. As it ripped across the Himalayas, it wiped out villages and left thousands dead or stranded, as were climbers preparing to tackle Mount Everest. Through dramatic eyewitness footage, expert interviews and stunning graphics, NOVA’s “Himalayan Megaquake” takes viewers beyond the pictures of destruction by exploring what we can learn from the deadly combination of earthquakes and landslides. If it seems as if NOVA’s producers are Johnny-on-the-spot whenever a large natural disaster, it’s only because they are.

In “Troubled Hearts,” the latest DVD release from Hallmark Channel’s “When Calls the Heart” series, big revelations are in store for Hope Valley as Elizabeth moves into her own house, dismaying Jack, who has been planning to build a new home for the both of them. Rosemary discovers that Lee has taken out a loan and worries that he is in financial difficulties. And Jesse, the young drifter who works in Abigail’s kitchen, has information that could ruin Pastor Frank’s good standing in Hope Valley.

The DVD Wrapup: Burns on Robinson, The Force Awakens, Dylan/Zappa, Jorg Buttgereit, Tony Perkins and more

Friday, April 15th, 2016

PBS: Ken Burns: Jackie Robinson: Blu-ray

Considering that Ken Burns put a tight focus on Jackie Robinson several times in his epochal 1994 documentary series, “Baseball,” and MLB has bent over backwards since 1997 to remind a new generation of fans of his significance to the game and beyond, it may seem curious that he would devote another four hours to this great African-American athlete and humanitarian. Fact is, though, there isn’t a superfluous moment in the entire 240-minute length of PBS’ tremendously compelling “Ken Burns: Jackie Robinson.” Rachel Robinson, his widow, convinced Burns to return to refocus on Jackie, who died, in 1972, at 53, to chronicle his off-the-field life in a separate bio-doc. In addition to covering his baseball career in greater detail, Burns, his daughter, Sarah Burns, and her husband, David McMahon (“The Central Park Five”) assembled interviews, photographs, reportage and other archival material, covering the hall-of-famer’s life from cradle to the grave. As such, the new documentary exists as an unexpected epilogue to Burns’ “The Civil War,” in that issues left unresolved by that conflagration have haunted black Americans – even those as prominent as Robinson — ever since Reconstruction. Instead of erasing the Original Sin of slavery by eradicating Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation in the South, Congress so wanted to maintain the illusion of national unity it allowed the defeated rebels everything they would needed to subjugate their former slaves and their ancestors. Today, the ongoing dilution of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which Robinson and other civil-rights leaders demanded be enacted, could once again disenfranchise minority voters in states controlled by Tea Party Republicans. Burns’ film reminds us of the fact that Robinson never was able to escape the shadow of racism. Once the Dodger great hung up his cleats, he was condemned by whites and black Americans for taking an advocacy position on something more important than who deserves to start in the all-star game. Because his personal stand differed from the one taken by other civil-rights activists, Robinson started taking heat from those whose cheers once rang through stadiums everywhere. Among the things that went unremarked in official MLB celebrations marking the breaking of the color barrier was Robinson’s contrarian view of American politics. As Burns points out, because Robinson didn’t believe Democrats were sincere in their pledges to end segregation, he considered Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller greater hopes for racial justice than JFK and LBJ. It wasn’t until Barry Goldwater ignored black Republicans at the 1964 convention and Nixon embraced estranged Dixiecrats in 1968 that the Hall of Famer surrendered to political reality.

Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson was born into a family of sharecroppers in Cairo, Georgia, in 1919. After his parents divorced in 1920, his mother decided to move the family to Pasadena, California, where the children might avoid a future that only promised a life in the cotton fields. Instead, the Robinsons would encounter racism and police harassment in a city that, on its surface, was so unlike the region they’d left. If the memory of the Robinson brothers’ athletic feats is now a great source of pride for the City of Roses – older sibling, Mack, placed second to Jesse Owens in the 200 meters at 1936 Berlin Games, while Jack lettered in four sports at UCLA – it took a while for the scope of their achievements to be recognized off the fields of play. After being drafted into an officially segregated army, it would take heavyweight champion Joe Louis’ help to keep him from being anything more than a grunt among grunts in a war ostensibly against intolerance, bigotry and fascism. Even after Jackie was accepted into the army’s Officer Candidate School and commissioned as a second lieutenant, he would face court-martial for refusing a bus driver’s order to move to the back of an unsegregated bus commissioned by the army. He would be acquitted, but the proceedings prevented Robinson from joining the all-black 761st Tank Battalion in its deployment to Europe. In early 1945, while Robinson was coaching at Sam Huston College, the Kansas City Monarchs sent him a written offer to play professional baseball in the Negro leagues. And, as they say, the rest is sports history. Still, the only place Jackie and Rachel wouldn’t be confronted with the ugliness of racism and segregation was in Canada, during his time with the Dodgers’ Montreal Royals of the Class AAA International League. Summer 1949 would bring another unwanted distraction for Robinson. In July 1949, the reigning National League MVP even was required to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities concerning statements made by athlete, actor and unrepentant communist Paul Robeson. If Robinson had declined to address the issue or defended Robeson’s First Amendment rights, he might have been sanctioned by the league. He managed to dodge that high fastball, but the tar would prove difficult to wash away. Rachel Robinson, even more so than such baseball greats as Don Newcomb, Carl Erskine and Willie Mays, singer Carly Simon and President Barack Obama and the First Lady, Michelle, steals the show with her lucid recollections of what life was like for them during both the darkest and brightest periods in their professional and personal lives. Several less-known historians, journalists, friends and activists are given the by-now familiar Burns’ interview treatment. This is terrific stuff. The archival material shown in the Blu-ray presentation benefits from a fresh hi-def scrubbing.

Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens: Blu-ray

Back in 1999, when Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace was about to debut on a few screens, I spent time on Hollywood Boulevard interviewing fans who’d camped out in front of the Chinese Theater to get the best seats on opening night. In a very real sense, they’d been waiting for 16 years for the prequel trilogy to arrive, minus the tents and instant access to countless T-shirt shops and the Scientology center. The Hollywood & Highland complex and then-Kodak Theater were still on the drawing board, so the campers provided the biggest free show in La La Land. I even was able to tear one of them away from the makeshift community to attend a press screening just ahead of the first midnight show. Even if, at first, my companion debated the protocol in getting a head start on his pals, they encouraged him to do it. On the way to Westwood, he literally was trembling in anticipation of watching “Episode I” before almost anyone else in the world. When we returned to the encampment, it was all he could do to refrain from spoiling the fun for his fellow Warriors and Internet geeks who were monitoring the activities on Hollywood Boulevard via a primitive pre-Skype hookup. While “Episode 1” did well enough at the box office, I can’t recall many fans lining up more than a few hours for “Attack of the Clones” or “Revenge of the Sith.” The thrill was definitely gone. It returned when Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens opened huge and grew even bigger here and overseas, setting records as the pre-Christmas rush continued into the new year. How much of the pent-up anticipation was inspired by producer Kathleen Kennedy’s confirmation of speculation that Jar-Jar Binks and the Ewoks were 86’d from “Episode VII” – one of the very few leaks to emerge from the set – is impossible to gauge. With J.J. Abrams (Star Trek Into Darkness) at the helm and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill) returning to the fold, passionate fans must have been encouraged. Clearly, someone at Disney must have convinced franchise creator George Lucas to sit this one out and obsess on something other than creating characters that appealed to pre-teens and could be exploited in toy stores, video games, slot machines, TV spinoffs, books and product-licensing deals.

 

Nonetheless, the largest part of what makes “The Force Awakens” so appealing is the non-gimmicky way beloved characters, as well as actors Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, have been re-integrated and in more substantial roles than cameos. The decision to make Daisy Ridley’s scrappy Jakkuian scavenger, Rey, the heroine could have backfired, as well, with predominantly male geeks. Instead, she fits right into the mix. I’m still not sold on Adam Driver (“Girls”) as the conflicted antagonist, Kylo Ren, but that’s probably because I identify him with the hipster characters he’s played in previous indie dramedies. The son of Han Solo and Leia Organa, Ren is consumed by a desire to emulate the legacy of his Sith Lord grandfather, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. He even goes so far as to wear a black mask in his honor. Andy Serkis plays the hologramic Snoke, supreme leader of the First Order, who controls the dark side of Ren’s personality, while the light side lurks deeply sublimated in his DNA. The sinister First Order rose from the ashes of the Empire and is still consumed with the possibility that Luke, the last Jedi, will emerge from hiding and quash its plans to conquer the galaxy. With Luke gone, the burden is taken up by Rey, Solo, Chewbacca and Finn, a defecting Stormtrooper. The inner characters’ inner conflicts are balanced by much outstanding action in the skies above D’Qar, in its snow forest and Snoke’s Starkiller Base, with advanced airborne weaponry and, finally, lightsabers. The Blu-ray, which looks and sounds terrific, is further enhanced by a separate disc containing an extensive making-of featurette, deleted scenes, interviews, table reads and location visits.

 

Bob Dylan: Triumvirate

 

Frank Zappa: In His Own Words

 

I receive a dozen, or so, discs each year from MVD Visual, in which celebrated musicians are profiled without their specific authorization or participation. In addition to footage borrowed from music videos, free concerts and other public-domain events, they include interviews with old friends and entertainment reporters, studio technicians, session musicians and learned critics, mostly of the British persuasion. Some of these clip shows are better than others, but few deserve unequivocal praise. While I expected some interesting material to emerge from Bob Dylan: Triumvirate and Frank Zappa: In His Own Words, I wasn’t prepared to be as entertained as I was by them. Typically, Dylan and Zappa – before the guitar wizard’s untimely death in 1993, at 52 — have proven to be hugely elusive, famously enigmatic and occasionally antagonistic targets for interviewers. Nonetheless, the MVD catalogue, alone, offers some 60 DVD and CD titles on various stages of Dylan’s career and 30 on Zappa. As unsanctioned as the material may be, they represent a treasure trove for fan-atics. The first two discs in Triumvirate cover the years 1961-65, during which Dylan evolved from struggling refugee from the frozen tundra of Minnesota to emerging genius and potential threat to the international folk music establishment. Dylan buffs will already have seen and heard most of it in previous documentaries, in unauthorized biographies, Martin Scorsese’s “No Direction Home” and his autobiography, “Chronicles.” It’s the third disc, containing vintage interviews conducted in tour stops around the world and including his “60 Minutes” session with Ed Bradley, that makes this set essential. What sets these interviews apart is how happy and outgoing he appears to be in person and in the forthcoming responses he gives the reporters, most of whom aren’t in the same league with Bradley. He tells stories, laughs easily and opens up about his influences. It’s a side of the man I haven’t seen, unless one goes back to his interchanges with Johnny Cash on the country giant’s TV show. They almost serve to contradict the wiseass attitude Dylan revealed to hostile mainstream reporters in D.A. Pennebaker’s “Don’t Look Back,” shot back in 1965. The MVD/Collector’s Forum label recently released a similarly inclusive three-disc package on Leonard Cohen, also titled “Triumvirate.”

 

Likewise, Frank Zappa: In His Own Words showcases the iconoclastic musician at his most casual and chatty. In interviews recorded in Scandinavia, England and Australia, he cuts the largely uninformed interviewers a lot of slack with responses that are informative and absent snark, impatience or cynicism. In one panel discussion, the only thing the talk-show host appears to be interested in learning is the role groupies play in the rock world. Duh. Others clearly wondered why all of his albums weren’t as funny or caustic as the early Mothers of Invention material. (I was reminded of Joni Mitchell’s observation, “Nobody ever said to Van Gogh, ‘Paint a Starry Night again, man!’ He painted it and that was it”) Frank really perks up whenever a reporter chooses to discuss his forays into classical music and the threat posed by then-Second Lady Tipper Gore and Parents Music Resource Center.

 

Sex Murder Art: The Films of Jorg Buttgereit: Blu-ray

 

Bride of Re-Animator: Limited Edition: Blu-ray

 

If a subgenre has been reserved for transgressive cinema, surely German filmmaker Jorg Buttgereit’s unparalleled work tops the rather short list of truly grotesque, unsettling and overtly anti-social titles only hard-core fans should be encouraged to watch before they die. Only those viewers who fully comprehend the risks to the brain of watching such provocations should attempt Cult Epics’ daring “Sex Murder Art: The Films of Jorg Buttgereit.” This carefully archived collection is comprised of his most noteworthy underground feature-length films: two versions of Nekromantik, Nekromantik 2, Der Todesking (“The Death King”) and Schramm, all in uncut and uncensored hi-def, as well as the documentary, “Corpse F*****g Art” and short films “Hot Love,” “A Moment of Silence at the Grave of Ed Gein,” “Horror Heaven,” “Bloody Excess in the Führer’s Bunker” and “My Father.” Add commentaries, making-of featurettes, separate soundtrack CD’s, a 40-page booklet containing interviews and photos with Buttgereit and collaborators, and trailers, and you’ve got the cinematic equivalent of a medieval slaughterhouse. Of special interest to collectors are Buttergreit’s music video, “Half Girl,” a live concert presentation of Nekromantik 2 and new art design by Silver Ferox. As transgressive as the films collected here may be, at least it’s clear there’s a mind at work behind them, which is more than one can say for Tom Six’s The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence).

 

And, while we’re on the subject, there’s Arrow Video’s Blu-ray upgrade of Bride of Re-Animator, the inevitable, if unnecessary sequel to Stuart Gordon’s horror/comedy,Re-Animator (1985). That cult classic was adapted from H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West, Re-Animator.” Its success helped open the floodgates to dozens of other films inspired by Lovecraft’s work. Not only is Gordon’s hand missing from the sequel, but so, too, are freshly conceived characters from the author’s canon. As producer of Re-Animator, Brian Yuzna (Society) was as logical a choice to replace Gordon as anyone. He was well aware of the need to create a solid balance of gory horror, inky black humor and T&A. The sequel is set eight months after the events of the original, with the nutso scientist Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) and his reluctant assistant Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) in Peru performing illegal experiments on soldiers killed in a civil war. (Did I miss something?) Once back in the U.S.A., West continues his experimentation on corpses stolen from the graveyard next-door and the heart ripped from Cain’s dying lover (Mary Sheldon). If the bright yellow serum is effective in re-animating corpses, it also has the unexpected consequence of turning them into ferociously aggressive zombies. The less time viewers spend scrutinizing the narrative, the longer they can savor the cagey humor in the interaction between mortician Dr. Graves (Mel Stewart) and the disembodied head of Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), as well as the creations of special-effects master Screaming Mad George. Arrow’s fully upgraded three-disc set contains 2K restorations of the unrated and R-rated versions of the film; original Stereo 2.0 audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray), newly commissioned artwork, by Gary Pullin; a limited-edition booklet and packaging; fresh commentary with Brian Yuzna, alone, and alongside Combs, visual effects supervisor Tom Rainone and the effects team John Buechler, Mike Deak, Bob Kurtzman, Howard Berger and Screaming Mad George; another commentary track with Combs and Abbott; and featurettes “Brian Yuzna Remembers Bride of Re-Animator,” “Splatter Masters: The Special Effects Artists of Bride of Re-Animator” and “Getting Ahead in Horror”; and deleted scenes.

 

Village of the Damned: Blu-ray

 

Destroyer/Edge of Sanity: Blu-ray

 

In an interview conducted for the Blu-ray edition of his 1995 Village of the Damned, John Carpenter acknowledges that he agreed to remake Wolf Rilla’s sci-fi/horror classic, released in 1960, in return for the money necessary to put his stamp on Creature from the Black Lagoon. I don’t know what happened to that project or the money promised to him. (Wes Craven’s Swamp Thingprobably would have sated most horror fans’ appetite for such a thing.) One reason the original black-and-whiteVillage of the Damned was so scary is that it was among the first to suggest that a sinister force could control the destiny of children born to unsuspecting parents. Like the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the children in Village of the Damned appear to have been engineered to conform to certain social and political norms, before growing up to become mindless communists, fascists or pawns of an intergalactic Caesar. The idea would be revisited in The Boys from Brazil (1978) and other movies about the cloned spawn of Adolf Hitler. Stranger things have happened, I suppose. How else to explain Ted Cruz? Besides adding color to the movie, Carpenter relocated the story to an isolated rural community in northern California and chose to tell it from the point of view of the women who were impregnated during the mysterious blackout period. Standing in the children’s way is Dr. Alan Chaffee (Christopher Reeve), whose own daughter is among the damned kids, and a scientist (Kirstie Alley) who stole the only stillborn baby from the mass maternity ward and is conducting experiments on it. Linda Kozlowski (Crocodile Dundee) plays the mother of a boy who might actually possess a conscience. The children are sufficiently scary and evil, but the addition of color tends to flatten the impact of their laser-beam eyes. So does our familiarity with the conceit and the absence of a convincing perpetrator of the mass pregnancy. That mostly applies to adult viewers and sci-fi buffs, however. Carpenter’s Village of the Damned is well enough made to scare first-timers. Special features include “It Takes A Village: The Making of ‘Village of the Damned’,” featuring interviews with Carpenter, producer Sandy King, actors Michael Pare, Peter Jason, Karen Kahn, Meredith Salenger, Thomas Dekker, Cody Dorkin, Lindsey Haun, Danielle Wiener-Keaton and make-up effects artist Greg Nicotero; “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds,” revisiting the locations of the film; “The Go-To Guy,” Peter Jason on John Carpenter; vintage interviews with Carpenter, Reeve, Alley, Kozlowski, Mark Hamill and Wolf Rilla; a stills gallery; and vintage behind-the-scenes footage. It would be Reeves’ final feature role, before being paralyzed in an equestrian accident involving a horse used in the film.

 

The common element in the Scream Factory double feature,Destroyer/Edge of Sanity is Anthony Perkins, who made the pictures back-to-back in 1988-89. While far from his prime as an actor – he would die a couple of years later from complications of AIDS – the 57-year-old star ofPsycho still was capable of raising goosebumps when the occasion arose.

 

In the women-behind-bars flick, Destroyer, Perkins’ replaced Roddy McDowall on short notice. He plays a director making an exploitation picture in a prison that, 18 months earlier, had been the site of a botched execution and terrible riot. The place is still haunted by the spirit of Moser (Lyle Alzado), a muscle-bound freak who defied death in the electric chair and is obsessed with the picture’s star, Deborah Foreman. (All of the female inmates wear stockings, a garter belt and heels.) While the picture is flimsy around the edges, Alzado’s menacing presence is enough to keep viewers from dozing off in mid-scene.

 

In Edge of Sanity, Perkins pulls double duty as the rational Dr. Henry Jekyll to the murderous Jack Hyde, who, after his alter ego freebases cocaine, might commit crimes historically attributed to Jack the Ripper. Jekyll’s sexual inadequacies cause him to take to the streets and brothels of London as Hyde. His gorgeous wife, Elizabeth (Glynis Barber), does charity work with the working girls of Whitechapel, some of whom have had near-misses with the monstrous Hyde, who she only knows as Henry. Gérard Kikoïne’s thriller benefits from some very convincing design work and cinematography, which recalls the heyday of Hammer Films.

 

Bannister: Everest on the Track

 

In 1952, when Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne, Britain pretty much defined what it meant to win the war, but lose the peace. Work was scarce and financing for ambitious projects, including the 1948 Olympics, was even tougher to secure. The empire had shrunk dramatically, while the U.S. and Soviet Union, vied for the title of world’s most dominant superpower. What the shrinking commonwealth desperately needed was something to stiffen its citizens’ upper lips. The first such event made headlines on the same day as the queen’s long-delayed coronation, when a British mountaineering team led by New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay became the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest. A year later, medical student Roger Bannister would accomplish a feat many people also thought to be impossible. On May 6, 1954, at Iffley Road track in Oxford, he became the first person to run a mile in under four minutes. Given the number of climbers and runners who’ve done the same thing in the past 60-plus years, it would be easy to argue that both giant leaps for mankind were inevitable, thanks to modern training methods and advanced equipment. The same could be said about the first lunar mission. Tom Ratcliffe and Jeremy Mosher’s no-frills documentary, Bannister: Everest on the Track, does a nice job setting the stage for the worldwide acclaim and honors bestowed on Hillary and Bannister as soon as the news spread around the world. They use vintage interviews to capture the excitement and frustrations that accompanied Bannister’s mission. Unlike almost everyone else who would follow in his pin-spiked footprints, he was a student first and athlete second. He practiced when it didn’t interfere with his studies and even showed up for work on the day he would set the record. Bannister: Everest on the Track isn’t the kind of film that is likely to get any young athlete’s heart racing, but, in the run-up to the Summer Olympics, there are far less entertaining ways to kill 70 minutes,

 

TV-to-DVD

 

Samson and Delilah: The Bible Stories

 

David: The Bible Stories

 

CNN Documents Babylon 5

 

PBS: Finding Your Roots: Season 3

 

PBS: Frontline: Supplements & Safety

 

Sisters: Season Four

 

The latest installments in executive producer Gerald Rafshoon’s series of made-for-TV bible epics are “Samson and Delilah” and “David,” which debuted here in the mid-1990s on Turner Network Television before moving into the ancillary markets and the Trinity network under various banners. The Shout! Factory editions are being released as “The Bible Stories.” Like most chapters in the Old Testament, they would appear to have been written in anticipation of God’s vision for Hollywood – Sodom & Gomorrah West – in mind. Checking in at or around three hours in length, they featured actors known to audiences around the world and behind-the-camera talent with experience on feature films. The timeless Moroccan locations added a palpable air of period authenticity, as well. What distinguishes Nicolas Roeg’s “Samson and Delilah” from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 Technicolor pageant – besides the unlikely pairing of Roeg and the Book of Judges – is the presence of Dennis Hopper, Elizabeth Hurley, Eric Thal, Michael Gambon and Diana Rigg in some of the same roles played by Victor Mature, Hedy Lamar, George Sanders, Henry Wilcoxon and a young and surprisingly hot Angela Lansbury. Although there are many discernible differences in the two movies, the basic framework is still visible. God imbues in Samson the supernatural strength necessary to battle the Philistines, who kept the Israelites under their collective thumb. After scoring several miraculous triumphs, Samson famously succumbs to forbidden pleasures of the flesh and loses his precious hair in the process. Lesson learned, Samson is allowed one more opportunity to serve God and punish the Philistines. If nothing else, Roeg (Walkabout) demonstrates that he’s still comfortable making movies about forbidden love in desert settings.

 

Robert Markowitz’ 1997 interpretation of the story of David faced competition that was even fresher in the minds of fans of bible epics. In addition to Henry King’s David and Bathsheba and, indirectly, King Vidor’s Solomon and Sheba, from the 1950s, there were Bruce Beresford’s 1985King David, starring Richard Gere and Alice Krige, and, a year later, the animated David and Goliath, with Robby Benson voicing the future king. At 190 minutes, David was accorded plenty of time to expand on the anointing of the shepherd boy (Nathaniel Parker) as future king of Israel by the prophet Samuel (Leonard Nimoy), through his slaying of Goliath, the tests presented by King Saul (Jonathan Pryce) and the seduction of Bathsheeba (Sheryl Lee), and on to the succession struggle with their sons. It’s a thrilling story, which continues to reverberate today in Jerusalem.

 

Not having watched a single episode of “Babylon 5,” I’d be one of the last people to judge anything related to its story or position in the hierarchy of episodic sci-fi shows. Based on what I’ve heard from people I respect, however, the series was admired by the kind of viewers who read things other than science-fiction and don’t aspire to being buried in a model of the bridge of the Enterprise. Although the ratings didn’t match those of the various “Star Trek” offshoots, its demographic appeal was sterling. In a sense, “Babylon 5” was the flagship of the ambitious, if short-lived Prime Time Entertainment Network, which only existed from 1993 to 1997. The show would be revived for a fifth and final season, beginning in 1998, by TNT. Series creator J. Michael Straczynski reportedly conceived of “Babylon 5”as, fundamentally, a five-year novel for television. “CNN Documents Babylon 5” offers diehard fans something unusual to the point of being unique. In anticipation of special news presentation, CNN producers were invited to the sets and stages used to create “Babylon 5” to conduct lengthy background interviews and collect footage to accompany the edited chats and clips. In any such report, hours of videotape might produce a mere10-15 minutes of footage, which will supplement a staff reporter’s narrative. The CNN package is comprised of five hours of vintage material: three hours of never-before-released video and two hours of bonus content. It is broken into five “encounters”: “Behind the Scenes,” “Behind the Scenes With Tour Guide Jason Davis,” “Complete Interviews,” “Complete Interviews With Video Footnotes” and “20 Years Later,” a picture-in-picture look back with Jerry Doyle and Claudia Christian.”

 

The third season compilation of “Finding Your Roots,” hosted by Henry Gates Jr., continues to examine our nation’s fascinating ethnic mixture. The show employs traditional genealogical research and genetics to discover the family history of well-known Americans. The pairings include Donna Brazile, Ty Burrell and Kara Walker; Bill O’Reilly, Bill Maher and Soledad O’Brien; Shonda Rhimes, Maya Rudolph and Keenen Ivory Wayans; Bill Hader, Jimmy Kimmel and Norman Lear; Richard Branson, Frank Gehry and Maya Lin; Sean Combs and LL Cool J; Patricia Arquette, John McCain and Julianne Moore; Sandra Cisneros, Neil Patrick Harris and Gloria Steinem; Lidia Bastianich, Julianna Margulies and Azar Nafisi; and Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow.

 

In “Supplements & Safety,” PBS’ “Frontline” tackles the booming $30 billion industry built on vitamins and other dietary supplements. It’s estimated that half of all Americans take a health supplement every day, ranging from fish oil to multivitamins to diet pills. Some 85,000 supplements currently are on the market, which is largely unregulated and tests the limits of FDA regulators. The lack of proof in labelling has also become a hazard to consumers.

 

The early highlight of Season Four of NBC’s women-first drama, “Sisters,” is the addition of George Clooney as police detective James Falconer, who’s assigned to Cat’s (Heather McAdam) rape case and grows close to Teddy (Sela Ward). Jo Anderson (“Roswell”) also joins an already strong supporting cast as Dr. Charlotte ‘Charley’ Bennett. Otherwise, Season Four “Sisters” provides the same bewildering tangle of melodrama, drama, humor, tragedy and out-of-the-blue surprises as it did for six heart-tugging, gut-wrenching seasons.