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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.

 

The DVD Wrapup: Stealing Cars, Dixieland, Great Hypnotist, The Forest, Dreams Rewired, Giallo, Zydeco, Alice’s Restaurant and more

Friday, April 8th, 2016

Stealing Cars

If this affecting teen drama had been made in the 1930s, it might have starred Mickey Rooney as the most unrepentant juvenile delinquent in a reform school full of hard cases. Or, it could have provided the perfect ensemble vehicle for the Dead End Kids, with Leo Gorcey standing up to the brutal screws and finding redemption in the nifty car he’s assigned to wax for the warden. In Stealing Cars, Emory Cohen (The Place Beyond the Pines) plays the self-destructive Billy Wyatt, a too-smart-for-his-own-good wiseass whose criminal behavior lands him in the Bernville Camp for Boys. Seemingly without any concern for his own safety, Billy shoves his education in the faces of the guards and fellow hoodlums, alike. Moreover, by defending the hapless, undersized Jewish inmate, Nathan (Al Calderon), Billy effectively deprives the camp’s bullies of a convenient punching bag. Both boys take the brunt of the head guard’s sadistic behavior, as well. Soon enough, it becomes clear that director Bradley J. Kaplan and screenwriters Will Aldis and Steve Mackall have created Billy Wyatt in the same mold as Paul Newman, in Cool Hand Luke, and Jack Nicholson, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. That the young man isn’t invested with the same rebellious charm and charisma as those two great actors has less to do with Cohen’s acting chops and more to do with the fact that Bernville really isn’t the hellhole the filmmakers would like us to believe it is … except, perhaps, for Nathan. John Leguizamo isn’t bad as Warden Montgomery De La Cruz, who treats his classic automobile as if it were the world’s most expensive blow-up doll. He makes the effort to help Billy, by separating him from the rabble, but loses the teen’s respect when he ignores the abuse being heaped on Nathan. Now that society seemingly has embraced the out-of-sight/out-of-mind philosophy when it comes to correctional facilities for troubled kids, it’s laudatory that the filmmakers have shone a spotlight on a problem most of us refuse to acknowledge. As such,Stealing Cars isn’t nearly as urgent as, say, Rick Rosenthal and Richard Di Lello’s powerful 1983 reform-school drama, Bad Boys, which starred Sean Penn, Esai Morales and Ally Sheedy. Still, it has its moments. Nice work is also turned in by Heather Lind (“TURN: Washington’s Spies”), as the camp’s nurse and Billy’s love interest, and, in cameos, Felicity Hoffman, William H. Macy and Mike Epps.

Dixieland

I’m perfectly aware that “poor white trash” is no longer an acceptable way to describe no-account individuals from the rural South, whose principal interests in life appear to be procuring drugs, performing and/or drinking in strip clubs and worshiping the gun gods. Based solely on the evidence provided viewers in Hank Bedford’s surprisingly compelling Dixieland, there’s practically no other way to encapsulate the motivations of the characters, who define what it means to be dismissed thusly. Chris Zylka (“The Leftovers”) is convincing as Kermit, a handsome young man incarcerated for attempting to shoot his mother’s lover, when he caught them diddling each other in a hot tub. His father, a drug dealer, was killed when Kermit was still a boy, leaving his mother (Faith Hill, in white-trash drag) to support them by dancing in a strip club run by a guy who demands sexual favors of “his” girls. Kermit isn’t out of jail more than 24 hours, when hooks up with Riley Keough (Mad Max: Fury Road), who lives in the double-wide trailer next-door and, likewise, has turned to dancing to pay for her mama’s cancer treatments. When the same greasy club owner attempts to put his mitts on Rachel, Kermit arrives in the nick of time to preserve her honor … such as it is. Worse, perhaps, he’s agreed to help Rachel pay off her debts by risking parole to act as courier for a $50,000 shipment of marijuana. All things being equal, Kermit would prefer training to become a barber to running drugs, like his daddy, but it isn’t in the stars. As unappetizing as all that might sound, Dixieland is salvaged by some fine acting, a rootsy country-music score and redneck atmospherics provided by the Mississippi Film Office. Also making memorable cameos are singer-songwriter Steve Earle and wrestler Mick Foley. (Need I remind anyone that the up-and-coming Keough is the eldest grandchild of Elvis and actress Priscilla Presley?) I know, perfect. The DVD adds deleted scenes and an interview with Bedford.

The Great Hypnotist

For reasons that, perhaps, can be laid at the doorstep of China’s censorship board, it’s unusual for a western-style psycho-thriller to find its way into circulation in the PRC. I don’t know the Communist Party’s official policy on hypnotherapy, but it’s not likely to be as accepted a practice as, say, acupuncture, tai chi or herbal medicine. Leste Chen’s The Great Hypnotist appears to have been influenced, at least, by Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Christopher Nolan’s Inception and M. Night Shyamalan’sThe Sixth Sense, as well as the surrealistic imagery of Salvador Dali. Hypnotherapist Xu Ruining (Xu Zheng) finds his nationally recognized talents severely tested when a colleague asks him to take on a case involving a young woman, Ren Xiaoyan (Karen Mok), who claims to be haunted by the appearances of dead people. The harder Xu tries to find a solution for Ren’s dilemma, the deeper he finds himself in a psychological quagmire that might involve his own personal demons. Although much of the story takes place inside the doctor’s chambers, The Great Hypnotist opens up when Ren’s dream state is induced. If Chen had been free to add some giallo tropes to the story, it might have resembled Lucio Fulci’s A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (reviewed below). It wouldn’t have passed muster with the censors, but might have been fun to watch, anyway.

#Horror: Blu-ray

Veteran actor Tara Subkoff’s first feature film as writer/director feels as if it were inspired by a parent’s frustration at watching a pre-teen daughter and her friends communicate exclusively through social media, even when they’re sitting across the dinner table from each other.#Horror also is informed by the national plague of cyber-bullying. These may not be the most original of themes, but Subkoff has managed to merge both elements into a frequently horrifying experience both for teenage viewers and their parents. Likely influenced by the Internet’s “Slender Man” phenomenon – a sinister fictional character that originated as a meme – which has been cited in several acts of violence among teens. Here, a group of self-absorbed and obscenely privileged pre-teen girls take their obsession with a bewildering online game way too far. In a posh suburban setting that recalls Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, the precocious cabal is allowed free rein of a glass-walled house, with an indoor swimming pool and dozens of hideous art pieces that scream, “nouveau riche.” While parents played by Chloe Sevigny and Balthazar Getty are away, the kids take turns bullying each other and using objets d’art as toys. When one of the girls, Cat (Haley Murphy), decides she’s taken enough abuse for one day, she takes a shortcut home through the forest. Not a great idea, considering someone possibly impersonating Slender Man has been spying on the girls and already murdered the Alpha Female’s dad, cheating on his wife in a red sports car. Adding to the madness is a rage-laced tirade by Cat’s dad (Timothy Hutton), who threatens the girls with jail, or worse, if something untoward happens to his daughter. Subkoff does a nice job illustrating the more sinister aspects of the online game, incorporating splashy graphics, emogis and animated mayhem. While #Horror is far from perfect, it delivers the goods when necessary, demonstrating just how fragile and vulnerable oh-so-hip teeny-boppers can be when presented with real horror.

The Hallow: Blu-ray

If the name Corin Hardy rings a bell in the heads of horror buffs, it’s likely because they’ve read speculation in the trades that the Irish effects wizard had been hired to direct Relativity’s remake of The Crow. If that no longer appears to be the case, it shouldn’t dissuade anyone from checking out Hardy’s neat debut feature, The Hallow, which suggests that he probably won’t have to wait much longer for his next high-profile project. Boiled to its essence, the modestly budgeted movie is a by-the-book haunted-house thriller, enhanced by a very clever mix of practical effects, animatronics, puppetry, prosthetics and a bit of CGI detailing. In it, a British botanist, his wife and their baby move into an abandoned mill house in scenic Letterfrack, County Galway. Before they can even complain about the closets being too small, they’re warned by a local wag about raising a child so near the forest, which ostensibly is inhabited by faeries, banshees, leprechauns and baby-snatching boogeymen. “Things really do go bump in the night here,” they’re told. The botanist discovers something that’s possibly even more sinister, in the form ofOphiocordyceps unilateralis, an insect-pathogenising growth commonly known as the “zombie fungus.” Need I say more? Hardy’s imagination is sufficiently fertile to take things from there. The Hallow, which has been dedicated to effects wizards Ray Harryhausen, Dick Smith and Stan Winston, stars Joseph Mawle (“Ripper Street”) and Bojana Novakovic (“Shameless”). The Blu-ray adds Hardy’s audio commentary track; the featurette, “Surviving the Fairytale: The Making of ‘The Hallow’” and several more behind-the-scenes bits and production galleries.

Rows; The Forest: Blu-ray

While there’s nothing intrinsically frightening about cornfields – unless one suffers from seasonal allergies – filmmakers have found dozens of ways to use them to the advantage of a good story. In Field of Dreams, Phil Alden Robinson hid a ghostly team of baseball players between the rows of corn. In Casino, just as magically, a truckload of stalks was brought to Las Vegas to stand in for the Indiana cornfield in which the Santoro brothers are brutally murdered. Children of the Corn has produced eight sequels, with another on the drawing board. Real crop circles were carved into the fields M. Night Shyamalan used in Signs. Just as ventriloquist dummies strike fear in children and adults, alike, it’s now impossible to look at a scarecrow without thinking it might come alive and cut one’s throat with his scythe. There are plenty more examples of cornfields being put to sinister use by filmmakers, but you get the picture. Could there be a more succinct title than Rows? Apparently inspired by a Brothers Grimm tale, writer/director/producer David W. Warfield’s psychological thriller takes place in and around a well-tended cornfield that’s enchanted by someone other than the Jolly Green Giant. Because the story is told from at least four separate points of view, while flashing forward and backward at a dizzying frequency, Rows defies easy encapsulation. In some ways it reminded me of the fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel, because the protagonist, Rose (Hannah Schick), is captured by a malevolent blond squatter, Haviland (Nancy Murray), when she serves eviction papers at her condemned farmhouse. Her father wants to tear down the house and develop the property into something far more profitable than agriculture. After somehow escaping Haviland’s torture chamber and losing her memory of the ordeal, Rose returns again with her friend, Greta (Lauren Lakis), with shockingly different results. People are repeatedly killed and hidden in the cornfield, where they either are buried or come back to life to torment the perpetrators of the crimes. Despite the neatly parallel rows, the field appears to swallow up the girls, for the purpose of toying with their fragile psyches. Finally, the house, itself, develops a mind of its own and it clearly doesn’t want to be torn down and replaced by condos or a Home Depot. Nevertheless, Warfield doesn’t squander a moment of Rows’ 84-minute running time, returning to the cornfield whenever the other storylines begin to lag.

Historically, haunted and enchanted forests have provided even more fertile ground for purveyors of genre fiction. Today, filmmakers who choose to set their film in Japan’s dense Aokigahara park (a.k.a., Suicide Forest or Sea of Trees), which lies at Mount Fuji’s northwest base, already have half of their work done for them. Because it’s a place where people go to die on their own terms, visitors who stray from the approved pathways are likely to trip over a corpse or bump their head on the feet of a hanging victim. At night, the forest is said to be haunted by the yūrei (angry spirits) of those left to die. I’ve seen a few of the movies set at Aokigahara, mostly Japanese, and they share two basis conceits. One, a hiker ignores the guide’s advice to stay on the well-marked and monitored paths, and 2) at least one of the characters ignores curfew and ends up spending the night with the yūrei. It’s up to the screenwriter to come up with something unique. Jason Zada’s debut feature The Forest, which, like Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees, got slammed by the critics, doesn’t break a lot of new ground. Ghost stories are best left to the Japanese and The Fores got tripped up by its own unlikely back story. On the small screen, however, most of its sins are overcome by some atmospheric cinematography and decent special effects. Rising star Natalie Dormer (“Game of Thrones”) plays Sara Price, an American woman who rushes off to Japan after receiving a call from Japanese police informing her that her troubled twin sister, Jess, was seen going into Aokigahara four days earlier and, therefore, is believed dead. After tracing Jess’ footprints from Tokyo to Mount Fugi, Sara strays far enough away from the path to find her sister’s tent. Instead of leaving a note and returning to the hotel, she decides to spend the night with an Aussie journalist who wants to report her story. No need to belabor the obvious, so I’ll leave well enough alone. If The Forest isn’t completely devoid of thrills – jump scares, mostly — there simply aren’t enough of them. Perhaps, if Sara hadn’t found the tent so easily … The handsome Blu-ray adds commentary, a gallery and making-of material.

Tumbledown: Blu-ray

Fans of romantic dramas adapted from the novels of Nicholas Sparks would find more to like in Tumbledown than most other viewers drawn to stars Jason Sudeikis and Rebecca Hall. Although the setting is hundreds of miles north of the author’s beloved Carolina shore, the dynamics at work are nearly the same. Sean Mewshaw’s debut feature, co-written with his wife, Desiree Van Til, describes what happens when “pop-culture scholar” Andrew McDonnell (Sudeikis) travels to Maine to interview Hannah (Hall), the protective widow of a once-promising singer-songwriter who died before his star reached its ascendency. The songs, actually written and performed by Seattle musician Damien Jurado wouldn’t make anyone forget Jackson Brown or Nick Drake, but they possess a soulful authenticity true to the spirit of the deceased artist. Andrew and Hannah don’t exactly hit it off when introduced to each other in a tres-tres quain tbookstore owned by an elder hippie (Griffin Dunne). Even so, they agree to collaborate on a biography, for which Andrew has been accorded extraordinary access to the singer’s tapes and files. Just when it looks as if they’ll begin making some music of their own, Hannah snaps to the reality that they’re both coming at the same subject from different angles. Andrew believes that the singer’s melancholic lyrics reflect a depression that couldn’t be overcome by love, alone, while Hannah and other family members refuse to consider the possibility that his fatal fall from a nearby cliff could have been suicide. Will their creative impasse put a freeze on their budding relationship or will they discover something in the unpublished songs that will bring them together, again? Duh. Actually, the ending offers one or two decent twists, but none that would qualify as surprising. Hall and Sudeikis aren’t required to carry the weight of the schmaltz alone. They get ample support from Blythe Danner and Richard Masur as Hannah’s parents and Dianna Aragon as Sudeikis’ girlfriend, back in the big, bad city. Massachusetts and British Columbia pass easily for Maine, as well.

Dreams Rewired

Using hundreds of clips from films made between the 1880s and 1930s, directors Manu Luksch, Martin Reinhart and Thomas Tode ask us in Dreams Rewired to imagine how the shrinking of the world through electronic communications might have rubbed the genie in the lamp in a way no one foresaw or intended. Consider the fact that during this 50-year period scientists and engineers connected disparate corners of the Earth through telephony and early motion-picture devices to radio and TV. Ideas, too, could spread like wildfire, if left unchecked by censorship boards. Edison and Melies conceived of miraculous ways to amaze and entertain the masses, while, a couple decades later, several western democracies would ban The Battleship Potemkin, fearing those same audiences might catch a severe case of Bolshevism. (Ironically, Stalin felt the same need to discourage rebellion and democratic reforms.) Adolf Hitler understood the power of film as propaganda much more acutely than documentarian Leni Riefenstahl (Triumph of the Will), who, upon forced reflection, said, “I filmed the truth as it was then. Nothing more.” In another 50 years, some political observers would argue that MTV had has much to do with raising the Iran Curtain as Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. In one sequence, clips from popular movies demonstrate how the invention of the phone precipitated the invention of the switchboard, which allowed for eavesdropping on conversations and the creation of machines to record them. Tilda Swinton’s soothing, precisely measured narration allows viewers to make the connection between eavesdropping then and spying on e-mails and cellphone conversations now. Unlike Bill Morrison’s meditative compilations of archival films – many of which have been severely damaged by neglect and the ravages of time — the material in Dreams Rewired is remarkably well preserved and a joy to study, over and over again.

Mutual Friends

In the movies, nothing good can come from throwing a party for a lover, spouse or anyone old enough to resent having to acknowledge his or her age or inner demons. Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s The Anniversary Party provided an extreme example of what can happen when too many self-absorbed people come together under the same roof to pretend they’re happy. The characters to whom we’re introduced in Matthew Watts’Mutual Friends have been called together to celebrate Liv’s engagement to Christoph (Caitlin Fitzgerald, Cheyenne Jackson). They’re yuppies on the way yup and can only dream of owning a Richard Neutra-designed home in the Hollywood Hills, as did Cumming and Leigh’s characters. Maybe, someday, but not now. They’re fortunate to have cozy flats in a transitioning neighborhood in one of New York City’s suddenly trendy neighborhoods. Party planners shouldn’t have to be told to avoid inviting former lovers and other people with unfinished business hanging between them to someone else’s happy occasion. Here, both Liv and Christoph will be required to address problems from past longtime relationships. Liv’s closest confidant, Nate (Peter Scanavino), has left her hanging for years, even though both of them suspect they’re perfect for each other. Also at the party is Christoph’s formidable ex-girlfriend of seven years, Annie (Jennifer LaFleur), who is none too happy that he never popped the question to her. Other characters include Sammy (Ross Partridge), a husband who finds out his wife is (Annika Peterson) cheating on him that afternoon; Paul (Michael Stahl-David), who can’t decide how he feels about impending fatherhood; Cody (Derek Cecil), a guy Liv dated twice before realizing what an odd creep he was; and a few helpful dopers, who provide comic relief. If Mutual Friends doesn’t really hang together, it’s because Watts’ central creative conceit called for merging seven different story threads written by seven different people. You can almost see the duct tape holding some of the scenes together. The other problem is that none of the characters are particularly likable. Even so, indie fans probably will appreciate the effort.

Deceived

There isn’t much to be said for Carlos Jimenez Flores’ messy little thriller, Deceived, except to point out that it was shot in Puerto Rico and features several actors with deep local roots. At a time when Hollywood casting directors can’t seem to be able to place minority actors in high-profile projects, it’s worth pointing out that there doesn’t appear to be a scarcity of them in the DVDs that cross my desk from indie distributors. Hollywood suits mostly need to imagine them in bigger pictures, under better direction, and in more substantial roles. Here, Alejandro (Sevier Crespo) has returned to San Juan in order to rescue his sister, Magdalena (Betsy Landin), from a life dominated by finding work in sleazy nightclubs and copping drugs from her surfer boyfriend (Mike Falkow). The last anyone’s heard of Magdalena – who, like the other women in the movie, is drop-dead gorgeous – is that she’s laying low on the beach with the South African surfer. After some kind of spat, she returns to old San Juan looking for work. Just missing her brother, Magdalena agrees to a date with a rich trick, who isn’t at all what he appears to be. If Alejandro isn’t having any luck in his search, the same can’t be said for Magdalena’s friends at the nightclub – the bar manager (David Paladino) and two stunning bar maids (Millie Ruperto, Darlene Vazquetelles) – who begin to fear for her safety when her date’s identity is finally revealed. (Hint: his eyes glow bright red when he gets over-stimulated.) The final showdown will shock some viewers, but that’s only if they’re still interested in what’s happening in Deceived.

That Uncertain Feeling

Only Angels Have Wings: The Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

Every month, dozens of “classic” movies are released on DVD, many of them retrieved from the public domain by distributors like Gotham Distributing Corporation and Alpha Home Entertainment. It’s pretty tough to keep up with the new stuff, but one good place to look is MoviesUnlimited.com or by picking up its extensive catalog. It beats waiting for the picture to show up on TCM. I can’t recall why I chose Ernst Lubitsch’s 1941 comedy, That Uncertain Feeling, except for the director’s ability to make me chuckle and a taste for Merle Oberon. In it, she plays the penthouse-bound wife of a wealthy insurance broker, Larry Baker (Melvyn Douglas), who’s more devoted to his job than his very attractive wife, Jill. After developing a lingering case of hiccups, possibly linked to her marital frustrations, she agrees to visit a psychoanalyst who specializes in psychosomatic disorders. While waiting for the tardy shrink, Jill allows herself to be amused by neurotic pianist Alexander Sebastian (Burgess Meredith), said to have been modeled after Oscar Levant. By comparison to her husband, Alexander is the life of the party. She convinces Larry to allow the fox to use a spare bedroom in the henhouse, eventually leading to a friendly divorce and yet another change of heart. It seems a bit risqué for a post-code picture, but that’s part of its appeal. There’s a wonderful scene in which the pianist nearly ruins a dinner thrown by Larry with a group of Hungarian investors, but ends up saving the deal with his ability to keep the doughy executives amused in their native tongue.

By marked contrast, Only Angels Have Wings, made two years earlier than That Uncertain Feeling, by an equally revered director, has been given a first-class makeover by Criterion Collection, with all sorts of goodies heaped on for good measure. Lubitsch’s film suffered endlessly after the original owner neglected to renew its copyright and it became open game for anyone with a duplicating machine. Howard Hawks’ aviation thriller has fared far better in its afterlife. Hawks loved making movies about the perils of flight and retelling the stories he’d heard about pilots who sometimes laughed at death, but never underestimated the dangers inherent in their job. Like Charles Brown’s Night Flight before it, Only Angels Have Wings is that kind of picture. Both movies are set in South America, where the Andes tested the limits altitude-challenged planes and forced pilots to take chances they wouldn’t have had to face anywhere else. Hawks was a master, too, of dramatizing the devil-may-care camaraderie that occurs when and if a mission is accomplished and booze is on the house. (How often have you seen someone pay for a drink in these kinds of situations?) Add a couple of immediately essential, but ultimately disposal dames to the male bonding and you had the fixings for a Hollywood melodrama. “Angels” opens when the “banana boat” San Luis makes its stop at the port of Barranca, Jean Arthur follows the mailbags off the ship to a part of town where stereotypically creepy local lurk in the shadows. Fortunately, she’s rescued from her dilemma by a couple of good ol’ boys from the watering hole that also serves as the airfield. She gets along famously with the pilots and ground crews, but immediately sets her sites on Cary Grant’s Geoff Carter, who coordinates the flights. The laughter stops when one of the younger fliers (Noah Beery Jr.) takes a nose dive on the landing strip, then picks up when the guys stiffen up their lips. As if Arthur weren’t tempting enough, Hawks adds Rita Hayworth on the arm of a disgraced former pilot, Bat MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess), possibly seeking redemption for a deadly faux pas.Naturally, the beautiful newcomer shares history with Carter, causing Arthur to seize up like an engine with a damaged oil pump. What’s really special about “Angels” area flying scenes that aren’t enhanced by wires and models. MacPherson volunteers to land an unproven plane on a mesa in the high Andes to rescue a seriously injured miner. He’ll return soon thereafter with a load of nitro glycerin. It’s pretty good stuff. The bonus features include an audio-only chat between Hawks and Peter Bogdanovich; a critical profile of the director; a discussion focused specifically on Hawks’ love affair with planes; a radio play featuring the all-star cast; and an essay by critic Michael Sragow.

A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin: Blu-ray

Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli: Blu-ray

At a time when contemporary filmmakers are attempting to say something new by borrowing tricks, tropes and techniques from the noir and giallo masters, it’s never been easier to find the real thing in crisp new Blu-ray editions. Freshly polished noir titles from around the world have kept buffs happy ever since high-def technology made it easy for them to cut through the grit, grime and shadows and watch the films in the way they were intended to be seen. Giallo is only now being accorded the same treatment by specialty labels, including here Mondo Macabro and Arrow Video. Even if some of the movies have been around for years on VHS, they’re only now being accorded the same degree of pampering usually reserved for Criterion Collection and Cohen Media releases. These three are especially representative of the genre’s unique characteristics.

Directed by “Godfather of Gore” Lucio Fulci (Don’t Torture a Duckling, Zombie), Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (a.k.a., “Schizoid”) was considered sensational, even in territory already mined by Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Umberto Lenzi. Employing cutting-edge special effects normally reserved for horror, “Lizard” pushed the limits on what audiences could endure in a story that also exploited the recreational and therapeutic uses of LSD, sexual orgies, nightmarish murders and cheesy euro-rock. Brazilian bombshell Florinda Bolkin plays Carol, the frustrated wife of a successful London lawyer. Carol’s begun to experience erotic dreams about her uninhibited neighbor, Julia (Anita Strindberg). One night, her dreams culminate in Julia’s violent death and she wakes to find her nightmares have become reality. Carol is, at once, the main witness and primary suspect. Things go even nuttier from there, as a hippie played by the former lead singer of Los Bravos (“Black Is Black”), Mike Kennedy, and his demonic girlfriend, begin to torture Carol with the truth. This, the first U.S. Blu-ray release of the film, is the longest uncut version of “Lizard” currently available. The package includes several fascinating featurettes and interviews with actors, writers and historians, as well as commentary with Kris Gavin.

“Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli” presents two substantially different examples of genre staples, in Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight, both starring the gorgeous Nieves Navarro (billed under her occasional stage name of Susan Scott) in the twin role of protagonist and damsel in distress. In “Midnight,” fashion model Valentina agrees to help a journalist (Simón Andreu) research the effects of LSD. While under the influence of the drug, she sees a man bludgeon a woman to death with a spiked metal glove. Until she begins to be stalked by a creepy psychopath, Valentina isn’t sure whether a murder took place or it was a hallucination. Adding to her dilemma are a pair of detestable drug smugglers, a flaky boyfriend and a cop who doesn’t believe she’s innocent in a series of actual deaths. Remarkably, there’s almost no nudity in the picture. That vacuum is filled in “High Heels,” this time with Navarro as an exotic dancer and the daughter of a murdered jewel thief. She finds herself terrorized by a black-clad assailant, determined on stealing her father’s stolen gems. She allows a persistent sugar daddy to take her to his London pad, only to discover that she can’t escape all her demons. These films are believed to have influenced Brian De Palma’s early psycho-thrillers. The double set is filled with goodies that giallo fans will treasure and newcomers can learn everything they need to know about the genre in lengthy interviews. The restoration work is excellent, as are the interviews, essays and featurettes.

The Kingdom of Zydeco: Blu-ray

Zydeco Crossroads: Tale of Two Cities: Blu-ray

Antibalas: Live From the House of Soul

If these three discs aren’t able to get your head boppin’ and feet tappin’, don’t bother to set your clock tonight, because you’re already dead. In the first two Blu-rays, Robert Mugge’s The Kingdom of Zydeco captures a moment in Cajun and Creole music when the giants of zydeco handed the baton to a new generation of Louisiana-based musicians. The core event is a joint concert appearance by Boozoo Chavis and Beau Jocque, who, after the deaths of Clifton Chenier and Rockin’ Dopsie, were vying for the crown that went with the title, King of Zydeco. In deference to the undisputed master of the art, Dopsie adopted the title of Crowned Prince of Zydeco and even wore a crown on a 1986 album. After Chenier died a year later, the mayor of Lafayette anointed Dopsie king. When Dopsie passed, in 1993, he reportedly asked a representative of the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame to bestow the title on Chavis. That didn’t sit well with Joque or fans who favored a more democratic process. In a wonderful marketing brainstorm, the owner of a Lafayette nightclub decided it might be fun to stage his own competition. The primary beneficiaries of the night’s festivities were the audience members, who didn’t need an invitation to dance, and anyone who can get their hands on this disc. Mugge’s film is noteworthy, as well, for showcasing the two bands before Chavis and Joque would themselves be summoned to that big crayfish boil in the sky. Also shown performing in the film are respected bandleader John Delafose and the talented younger artist Nathan Williams of Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas. Historical perspective is provided by competing nightclub owners Kerman Richard and Sid Williams (older brother of Nathan), deejay Lester Thibeaux, record store owner Irene Hebert, Zydeco Association heads Wilbert Guillory and Paul Scott, and from Louisiana Hall of Fame founder Lou Gabus. It adds the 27-minute performance film, Iguanas in the House (1996), starring New Orleans roots-fusion band the Iguanas.

Zydeco Crossroads: Tale of Two Cities documents the efforts of east-coast radio station WXPN to introduce its audience to a “great American genre that’s underexposed in Philadelphia that people really ought to know about,” says general manager Roger LaMay. The 15-month “Zydeco Crossroads” project featured broadcasts, live concerts, dance lessons and culinary exhibits. Mugge’s documentary also serves as an introduction to the generation of musicians who followed in the footsteps of the masters. Some are descendants of the artists discussed in The Kingdom of Zydeco and Les Blanc’s earlier, Hot Pepper, while others didn’t even enjoy the benefit of growing up in a French-speaking household. In addition to some interesting background material, the disc features concerts by C.J. Chenier and Rosie Ledet, in a Philadelphia festival setting, and performances in Lafayette by Buckwheat Zydeco, Nathan Williams, Chubby Carrier, Rockin’ Dopsie Jr., Major Handy, Creole United, Soul Creole, Lil’ Nate Williams, Chris Ardoin, Corey Arceneaux and Mississippi bluesman Vasti Jackson. Just FYI, there’s still time to buy tickets for this year’s edition of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Anyone fortunate enough to have seen the New York or road production of “Fela!” is encouraged to check out the next installment of Daptone Records’ new video series, “Live From the House Of Soul.” Recorded at Daptone’s backyard stage, in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, Antibalas is an afrobeat band modeled after Fela Kuti’s Africa 70 band and Eddie Palmieri’s Harlem River Drive Orchestra. The band also incorporates elements of jazz, funk, dub, improvised music and traditional drumming from Cuba and West Africa. In 2008, Antibalas was featured off-Broadway in “Fela!” and, again, a year later, when it moved to Broadway, at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre.

Natural Born Pranksters

It would be difficult for any comedy troupe to make the Jackass gang seem warm, sincere and Shakespearean, by contrast to their own work. That, however, is exactly what happens in Natural Born Pranksters, which features the antics of YouTube and “vlog” sensations Roman Atwood, Dennis Roady and Vitaly Zdorovetskiy. Atwood, alone, has recorded over a billion views on RomanAtwoodVlogs. While the pranks bear a certain resemblance to the kind of gags popularized on “Jackass,” “Punk’d,” “Just for Laughs” and “Impractical Jokers,” all of which owe their existence to “Candid Camera,” Natural Born Prankstersoften is unbearably unfunny. Neither does prankster-in-chief Atwood display even a fraction of the crude charisma of a Tom Green, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jamie Kennedy or the Crank Yanker crew. As for any comparisons with Johnny Knoxville, Bam Magera, Steve-O and Jason “Wee Man” Acuña, it boils down to the difference between inspired masochism and borderline sadism … watching restaurant patrons react with surprise to naked waiters and simply pointing a camera at a streaker at a sports events … or capturing the reactions of art patrons as a painting comes to life and merely exhibiting paintings made of homemade shit. That said, however, I haven’t seen any of the YouTube bits that prompted Lionsgate to take a chance onNatural Born Pranksters or Nissan, for that matter, which gave Atwood a 2015 GTR in exchange for the use of his Plastic Ball Prank video during half-time at Super Bowl XLIX. Maybe, I should have started there.

TV-to-DVD

PBS: Arlo Guthrie: Alice’s Restaurant 50th Anniversary Concert

NYPD Blue: Season 09

Power Rangers: Wild Force: The Complete Series

PBS Kids: Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Daniel Goes Camping

PBS Kids: Peg & Cat: Super Peg & Cat Guy

Among the landmark moments in the life of any true hippie’s life would have to be the first time they heard Arlo Guthrie’s recording of “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.” Upon the release of his 1967 album from which it was taken, the only thing most people knew about the bushy-haired musician was that his father was the great folk singer, songwriter and Okie raconteur Woody Guthrie, who succumbed to the ravages of Huntington’s disease the same month as the song was released. The rambling 18-minute song/monologue was based on a true incident from Arlo’s life, which began on Thanksgiving Day 1965 with a citation for littering, and ended with the refusal of the U.S. Army to draft him because of his conviction for that crime. The garbage that Guthrie was charged with dumping illegally at a closed dump, outside Great Barrington, Massachusetts, had been stored at a deconsecrated church being used as a home for two of his friends, Alice and Ray. For young people protesting the Vietnam War and other things that bothered them about their country, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” contrasted what was wonderful about the burgeoning counterculture and its adoption of a communal lifestyle, with the arrogance of moralistic cops and judges, the inherent hypocrisy of military conscription and frustration that comes with banging one’s head against the walls built to preserve mainstream conformity. Flash forward 50 years and the song is still being trotted out every Thanksgiving by FM classic-rock stations and PBS outlets in need of pledge-month entertainment. “Arlo Guthrie: Alice’s Restaurant 50th Anniversary Concert” demonstrates just how timeless a well-told story can be, even several decades after the counterculture imploded and restaurants, like Alice’s, were turned into IHOPs. Arlo still has a full head of hair, albeit gray, and his voice remains evocative of a bygone era, not only of the Summer of Love, but also a period of time when acoustic music reigned and topical lyrics broke through the sounds of silence. The disc adds 13 additional songs, ranging from the whimsical “Motorcycle Song” and “Coming Into Los Angeles,” to “City of New Orleans” and “This Land Is Your Land,” and a featurette on the Guthrie Center’s annual “Arlo Guthrie’s Historic Garbage Trail March.”

Like everything else in New York City that fall, the launch of the ninth season of “NYPD Blue” was overshadowed by the horror of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It would take a few weeks before the writers could incorporate the tragedy into the storylines, but shadows of gloom and doom hung over the 15th Precinct for most of the early episodes. Once again, Sipowicz would have to adjust to the reality of a new partner in the field, John Clark Jr. (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), and another in his heart (Charlotte Ross). He also is accorded a promotion. Clark took over for Danny Sorenson’s character, who disappeared in a dangerous bust at the end of Season Eight. Turns out, Sipowicz has had run-ins in the past with Clark’s dad, who steer’s the young man’s career from above, whether or not he wants the help. The cast also includes Gordon Clapp, Henry Simmons, Bill Brochtrup, Garcelle Beauvais, Esai Morales and newcomer Jacqueline Obradors.

Power Rangers: Wild Force: The Complete Series is something of an oddity, in that it lasted all of a single season and its production was split between Saban Entertainment and Disney’s BVS Entertainment, which took over the franchise from Fox. For those keeping score at home, “Wild Force” officially represented the 10thseason in the “Power Rangers” series. (This season used footage from “Hyakujuu Sentai Gaoranger.”)  Episode 34, “Forever Red,” represented an anniversary commemoration with nearly every Red Ranger. To confuse things even further, Disney moved production to New Zealand, allowing it to lay off many crew members and all voice actors. Saban would repurchase the company in 2010 and move the show to Nickelodeon and Nicktoons. There’s more, but who really cares? The year’s episodes revolved around the Orgs returning to the floating island in the sky, the Animarium, which is all that remains of an ancient kingdom destroyed 3,000 years ago. The Power Rangers are summoned to Animarium, where they join forces with giant beasts, known as Wild Zords.

The latest DVD offerings from PBS Kids include “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Daniel Goes Camping,” in which the feline star camps outdoors for the first time and experiences everything that makes nighttime special, from twinkling stars and playing with flashlights, to singing “Goodnight Sun.” The set includes “Backyard Camping,” “Daniel’s Sleepover” and an extended version of “Nighttime in the Neighborhood.” In “Peg & Cat: Super Peg & Cat Guy” the dynamic duo uses basic math and geometry concepts to protect the citizens of Mathtropolis.

The DVD Wrapup: Hateful 8, Winter, Child of Century, Chantal Akerman, Mediterranea, Leon Russell, Death Valley Days and more

Friday, April 1st, 2016

The Hateful Eight: Blu-ray

Released on Christmas in its limited 70mm road-show presentation, The Hateful Eight served both as an extravagant gift from Quentin Tarantino to his many fans and a happy reminder of how movies once were made and exhibited. It also demanded of critics that they find new ways to assure readers that experiencing the film’s visual grandeur on the wide, wide screen balances the pain associated with enduring Tarantino’s trademark excesses: the sting of the so-called n-word is felt 65 times in the three-hour version, with an extremely grisly body count of 16. Experiencing the Colorado-for-Wyoming Rockies in winter, as captured by Robert Richardson’s Ultra Panavision 70 cinematography and accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s Oscar-winning score, is nothing short of exhilarating. So, too, are nasty-as-sin performances by such familiar faces as Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Channing Tatum, Walton Goggins and especially Jennifer Jason Leigh, who continually steals the spotlight from the other heavy hitters in this Agatha Christie-meets-The Thing adventure. For all of the attention paid to the spectacular panoramas and landscapes, however, most of The Hateful Eight takes place within the confines of a stagecoach stop, deep in the mountains, while a fast-rising blizzard constricts the characters’ mobility. Set several years after the close of the Civil War, in a corner of the Union where old wounds have yet to heal, The Hateful Eight opens with Russell’s dogged bounty hunter John Ruth trying to get his prisoner, Daisy Domergue, to the town of Red Rock, where she’s scheduled to be brought to justice. Along the way, Ruth, who’s paid for the exclusive use of the stagecoach, allows the driver to pick up two strangers stranded in the snow: another bounty hunter and former union soldier, Major Marquis Warren (Jackson) and a former southern renegade who claims to be the new mayor of Red Rock (Goggins). When the impending storm forces them to bivouac at Minnie’s Haberdashery, they are confronted by four seemingly unrelated strangers, absent Minnie and her co-workers. Shackled to Ruth, Domergue exploits the tense atmosphere by slinging insults and racial epithets like sharp sticks at the other trapped characters. The Southerners also taunt the black bounty hunter, although it’s nothing he hasn’t heard before in his travels. It isn’t until halfway through the picture, though, that the disparate characters start dropping like Christie’s 10 little Indians. The impeccable Blu-ray and digital edition includes the 167-minute version that was released into the many theaters that weren’t retrofitted for 70mm projection. It’s likely that the 187-minute road-show edition will be released sometime down the road, with a few more featurettes than the perfunctory “Beyond the Eight: A Behind the Scenes Look” and slightly more insightful “Sam Jackson’s Guide to Glorious 70mm.”

The Winter

Konstantinos Koutsoliotas compelling debut feature, The Winter, takes place in a long abandoned house haunted by memories of the stories told to him by his wildly eccentric father. The remote rural setting is essential, because it represents a way of life gone to seed in Greece and a future as unstable as the country’s economy. Like so many Greeks born after World War II, Nikos Gounaras (Theo Albanis) is the product of parents who were forced to choose between eking out a subsistence living in the village they were born and moving to Athens, Thessalonica, northern Europe, America, or anywhere else the jobs were. Nikos’ father bucked the trend by remaining in the tiny village of Siatista, causing his wife to decide that she’d had enough of his nutty fantasies and antisocial behavior and split for the city with Nikos. Years later, perhaps inspired by his father’s bedtime stories, Nikos would write a novel accorded a fair measure of international acclaim. When we meet him, the visually eccentric hipster is living in London, completely blocked and dodging a flock of savagely persistent debt collectors. He can’t bear to reveal his true economic state to his mother, who’s tethered herself to her son via cellphone, so he invents little white lies to keep her from hopping on a plane and moving in with him. Even when Nikos is ensconced in the dilapidated family home in Siatista, he pretends to be living the life of a successful writer in Scotland.

 

Increasing delusional, the old man had died there, years earlier, under what Nikos considers to be mysterious circumstances. As the title suggests, he’s picked the coldest time of the year to work out his problems. The electricity has been turned off and the conveniences of modern plumbing have yet to make it to the mountains of north-central Greece. Unable to sleep comfortably, he has plenty of time on his hands to be confronted with the supernatural forces that plagued his father. Neither has Niko been welcomed back to the neighborhood with open arms. The elderly woman next-door is hospitable, if wary of his motives. It’s the priests who are most suspicious of the young man’s unexpected presence and they rule village life with an iron hand. Not only do they prey on their parishioners’ religious fears and superstitions, but they create new ones, as well, whenever the younger ones begin to show their independence. Koutsoliotas’ visual-effects background serves him well in The Winter. The animated fantasy sequences run the gamut from delightfully whimsical to downright nightmarish. The abandoned house in which the movie is filmed belongs to the co-writer/director’s family and, yes, the locals believe it to be haunted.

 

Confession of a Child of the Century: Blu-ray

French writer/director Sylvie Verheyde’s Confession of a Child of the Century feels very much like one of those lush period dramas that don’t quite fit the confines of a two-hour movie – even one that’s 125 minutes long – but might not carry enough literary heft for a “Masterpiece” mini-series. Like Diane Kurys’ 1999 rom-dram, The Children of the Century, it was inspired by Alfred de Musset’s 1836 semi-autobiographical novel. In it, the French dramatist, poet, and novelist describes his tempestuous two-year love affair with writer George Sand, who also counted composer Frédéric Chopin among her conquests. She is represented here, as Brigitte (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a widow 10 years older than the self-described libertine and all-around dandy Octave (Pete Doherty), who is sitting in for Musset. Upended by the death of his father and crushed by the betrayal of his mistress (Lily Cole), Octave is laying low in the French countryside. Like so many other rich young men of his generation, he suffers from the “disease of the century,” caused by drink, debauchery and ennui. It’s where he meets Brigitte, who allows herself to be wooed and won, but only for as long as their stars remain uncrossed. Ultimately, the younger man is undone by jealousy. Like the book, the movie doesn’t belabor the facts of their relationship, which, by all accounts, was something of a roller-coaster ride. Not surprisingly, Gainsbourg is well-cast in the lead female role. The choice of rock musician Doherty as Octave probably was a bit too on-the-nose, however. Having already survived more than his fair share of debauchery, he looks the part of someone who’s been used up and thrown away a time or two. Opposite Gainsborough, he is clearly out of his league. Verheyde’s design team really got the job done, though. The Cohen Media Blu-ray adds the featurette, “Confession of a French Literature Fanatic” to lend scholarly context to the proceedings.

 

Chantal Akerman: Four Films

If all one knows about Chantal Akerman’s significant body of work has been gleaned from the many glowing tributes published after her untimely death last year, or even from her 1975 breakthrough film Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai de commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, there’s a great deal more to be savored. Even from the perspective of an arthouse habitué, Akerman’s sometimes excruciatingly personal movies demanded great intellectual and visual forbearance. Although the Brussels native could easily be categorized as a “critics’ darling,” she presented challenges to them, as well. Akerman did what she what wanted to do, however and whenever she was moved to do it. Icarus’ newly released compilation, Chantal Akerman: Four Films, contains four mid-period documentaries that stretch the limits of the non-fictional discipline, by presenting alternative points of view, framing devices and sound designs. It wouldn’t be the first place most admirers would recommend as a starting place for an appreciation of her oeuvre – that, too, probably would be “Jeanne Dielman” – but it will do in a pinch.

 

From the East (1993) retraces a journey she made from East Germany, across Poland and the Baltics, to Moscow, to capture a crumbling post-Soviet world “before it is too late.” Set largely in the fall and winter, much of From the East was filmed using long, lingering tracking shots taken from a static, car-borne camera, pointed at lines at emotionless people waiting at points of transit. Their expressions tell us all we need to know about what life must have been like for people as yet unsure of what to expect from the new democracies. In South (1999), Akerman examines the facts and faces behind one of the most heinous crimes in post-Civil War history. Rather than continue her preparations for a project involving Mississippi writer William Faulkner, she traveled to rural Jasper, Texas, where 49-year-old James Byrd Jr. had been dragged behind a pickup truck to his death by a trio of white supremacists. The meditative film’s most striking sequence, perhaps, is a real-time ride along the same three-mile stretch of asphalt where parts of Byrd’s mutilated body had been scattered by his killers. It’s contrasted by matter-of-fact interviews and shots taken inside local churches.

 

Never more timely, From the Other Side (2002) examines life along both sides of the America’s porous border with Mexico, in Douglas, Arizona, and the Sonoran town of Agua Prietra. Unlike most reports from the region in the late-1990s, Akerman chose not to pursue political or coldly economic motives for the migration north and Arizonans’ reaction to it. Rather, she puts a tight focus on the human dilemma faced by people living alongside or traveling through the then-incomplete fence separating the two countries. Although the cultural differences are obvious, the common unifying factor is the harsh and forbidding wasteland unnaturally bisected by metal barrier. In Down There (2006), Akerman set up her camera inside an apartment in Tel Aviv and pointed it directly at the residential building across the street. In her narration, she muses on issues concerning her family, Jewish identity, her childhood and the fragility of life in the embattled Jewish state. A bonus film, Chantal Akerman, From Here (2010), consists of an hour-long, single-shot interview — directed by Gustavo Beck and Leonardo Luiz Ferreira – during which she discusses her methodology and her directorial philosophy with an out-of-frame reporter. That person is either terribly unprepared for task or uncomfortable with the language gap. Akerman’s body language is as interesting as anything said in the interview. A 12-page booklet with new essays by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Amy Taubin is included in the five-disc box set.

 

In May, Icarus will release I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman, which explores some of the Belgian filmmaker’s 40-plus films, carrying viewers from Brussels to Tel Aviv and Paris to New York. On April 1, Fandor subscribers can stream Akerman’s intimate final film, No Home Movie, to their home theater or mobile units. It is a stylized portrait of her perhaps too-close relationship with her mother, Natalia, a Holocaust survivor, who died a few months before Akerman is believed to have committed suicide. I also recommend checking out her early feminist films on YouTube. Her first feature, Je Tu Il Elle (1974), and first short, Saute ma ville (1968), could easily have provided the templates upon which Leah Dunham built “Girls.”

 

Mediterranea

Before the Syrian refugee crisis began in earnest, European media outlets decried the seemingly unstoppable flow of African immigrants from Tunisia, Libya and other countries that profit from the trafficking of humans. Reports of beaches littered with the bloated bodies of people who fell short of fulfilling their dream still threaten the tourist trade in southern Italy, even if the world’s attention has shifted further east. In 2011, Emanuele Crialese’s excellent Terraferma tackled the problem from the point of residents of the island of Lampedusa, where individual lifestyles have been dramatically altered by a decline in the fishing industry, new laws governing the rescue and harboring illegal immigrants, and the annual influx of tourists. Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre, also released in 2011, describes how residents of one French port city interact with recently arrived Africans. Jonas Carpignano’s debut feature, Mediterranea, follows best friends Ayiva and Abas as they make their way from landlocked Burkina Faso, through Libya, and, by boat, to the small town of Rosarno, in southern Italy. Each step of the journey is fraught with danger and an expectation of being ripped off in a dozen different ways. The young men are determined to fulfill the promises made to their family and friends back home, but nothing comes easy, even when they reach the promised land.

 

By extending the story beyond the immediacy of the journey, itself, Mediterranea echoes Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre and Gregory Nava’s El Norte, which anticipated the current crisis on the U.S./Mexico border. Like the immigrants who are welcomed by farmers and agricultural interests in the U.S., a large number of Africans who make their way to Europe find work in the fields and orchards. The more recently arrived they are, however, the more exploited they tend to be. Moreover, the Africans are subject to a form of racism as insidious as any that’s reared its head in the U.S., without the benefits won by Cesar Chavez and the UFW. Carpignano succeeds in taking viewers beyond the orchards and juice factories, to the camps, relief and social agencies, and places in Rosarno where the Africans interact in various ways with the locals. The movie’s most touching moment, perhaps, comes when Ayiva (Koudous Seihon) is given access to a computer capable of facilitating a Skype reunion with his sister and 7-year-old daughter. Mediterranea was inspired, in large part, by Carpignano’s award-winning 2012 short, “A Chjàna,” which was informed by Seihon’s own experiences and the 2010 Rosarno riots, which resulted in 1,000 African workers being removed from the area for their own protection.

 

Pigs: Blu-ray

Dickshark

Cherry Falls: Blu-ray

Murders in the Rue Morgue/The Dunwich Horror: Blu-ray

Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXXV

One of the things Hollywood-based reporters hear when assigned to write about movies that aren’t very good is that no one sets out to make a bad film. According to their stars and directors, the real stinkers were doomed from the start, wildly misunderstood or butchered by the suits. Actors rarely go into a project thinking they can phone in their performance from home. Directors, writers, cinematographers, grips and designers all hope to be congratulated by friends and relatives after the opening weekend. After the first round of budget cuts are announced, however, and pages begin to be ripped out of the working script, everyone begins to expect the worst. I only mention this because none of the genre specimens reviewed this week can be recommended for any other reason than being a guilty pleasure or for an individual performance or technical credit. I generally leave it up to the individual to decide whether a movie is “so bad it’s good.” These titles, I believe, are so bad that they almost defy description. Even so, the filmmakers and actors interviewed in the bonus features describe the movies we’ve just seen as being a lot better than they were, by any objective or critical standard. other than objectively inferior to most movies that have preceded it into the ancillary markets. It’s truly refreshing when a director comes clean as to how his dog picked up its fleas. In Hollywood, though, the truth isn’t a valued quality.

 

One definite tipoff to a picture’s distinct absence of quality is the number of titles its carried on its arduous journey to DVD/Blu-ray. Pigs was veteran character actor Marc Lawrence’s second and final foray into the business of making a feature film from behind the camera. Released briefly in 1972 as “The 13th Pig,” its working title was “Daddy’s Deadly Darling.” In Pig’s many re-edits and re-issues, it’s also been called “Blood Pen,” “Daddy’s Girl,” “Roadside Torture Chamber,” “The Secret of Lynn Hart,” “The Strange Love Exorcist” and “Horror Farm.” As far as anyone knows, the new Vinegar Syndrome DVD/Blu-ray represents the only time Lawrence’s vision has been realized intact. In it, Lawrence’s very attractive and amazingly buxom daughter, Toni, plays a young woman who one day shows up in a dusty speck on the map of California, where she takes a job at a restaurant owned by Zambrini (Lawrence), an elderly former circus performer who runs a small café and pig farm. Local legend has it that his pigs only eat human flesh and that in order to satisfy their growing appetites, Zambrini has begun to murder drifters. Coincidentally, his new waitress is an escapee from a mental facility and not at all averse to supporting her boss’ hobby. In fact, Lynn had killed her father after he raped her and now senses his abusive behavior is a condition shared by most men. Because it was made before the introduction of sophisticated special makeup effects and CGI, the titular stars of Pigs are limited to grunting before cinematographer Glenn Roland’s in-your-snout camera and terrorizing Lynn’s suitors by running through their legs. The pigs owned by the Chinese butcher in “Deadwood” were far more convincing, as was the wild boar in Razorback and the masks worn by the killers in Motel Hell, Saw and Berkshire County. Several movies have been inspired by Canada’s most prolific serial killer, pig farmer Robert Pickton. As bad as it is, VS has sent Pigs out in Blu-ray with a new 2K restoration from the 35mm Interpositive; featurettes with Toni Lawrence, also noteworthy for being Billy Bob Thornton’s second wife, composer Charles Bernstein (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Cujo) and Roland (Ilsa She Wolf of the S.S.); two alternate openings and alternate ending; and a gallery.

 

Anyone familiar with the work of sleazoid New Jersey auteur Bill Zebub already will have a pretty good idea what to expect when picking up his latest micro-budget extravaganza, Dickshark. Based on the jacket notes, we already know it will combine elements of creature horror, sci-fi experimentation and bargain-basement porn in the service of a story that satirizes the cottage industry of performance-enhancing ointments and other quackery pitched in late-night infomercials and pop-up ads on porn sites. The only thing open to question is the degree of depravity Zebub will achieve. Dickshark opens with a poorly endowed man borrowing what he believes to be his roommate’s penis-enlargement cream. In fact, the substance is the penile equivalent of Victor Frankenstein’s monster. The misinformed Romeo now is able to mold his unit into the shape of a small shark, which comes as bad news to his girlfriend. After shooting the dickshark off the body of her lover, she makes the tactical mistake of flushing it down the toilet. Its ability to survive the toxicity of the sewer water also allows it to grow larger and develop a penis-like appendage at the tip of its fin. When he isn’t busy fondling bimbos in the forest, the slovenly scientist must find a way to stop his monster while also preventing his experimental formula from falling into the wrong hands. If this doesn’t sound very promising, consider that Dickshark is only slightly less convincing than the many half-baked sequels to Jaws. I’m not a connoisseur of death-metal music, but Zebub finds a way to make it work for him here.

 

When it comes to genre parodies, timing is everything. In his American debut, promising Aussie filmmaker Geoffrey Wright (Romper Stomper) came up a month short to Keenen Ivory Wayans’ Scary Movie, a spoof of the already tongue-in-cheek Scream series. Cherry Falls not only was intended as a subtle sendup of the teens-in-jeopardy genre, but David Lynch’s nearly bulletproof “Twin Falls.” The central conceit in Ken Selden’s screenplay is that the killer is targeting virgins, instead going after the promiscuous teens usually slaughtered in the opening minutes of a slasher picture. It takes a while for the local sheriff (Michael Biehn) to figure out why the fiend is carving a “V” into the corpses of the victims and, when he does, he’s left with a dilemma. If the only way to avoid being killed is to be promiscuous, he’ll be put in the precarious position with their parents of promoting such behavior. Having gotten wind of the sheriff’s news, the students at Cherry Hills High don’t wait for permission to organize a potentially life-saving orgy. To prevent the mass deflowering and stop the killer, Sheriff Brent will have to revisit an episode in his distant past that might have prompted the crimes. The problem is that Cherry Falls is basically a two-gag comedy and, when the fun is wrung out of them, there’s nothing left to keep us interested. Wright probably could have salvaged something by making the comedy darker and the orgy a lot raunchier. The studio, by now probably eying a straight-to-TV release, decided to tighten the reins on him, instead. Apart from very decent performances by the eternally youthful Brittany Murphy and transitioning standup comic, Jay Mohr, there isn’t much else here to savor. The unfortunate backstory is explained in audio commentary with Wright and extended interviews with writer and co-executive producer Selden and producer Marshall Persinger and co-star Amanda Anka. Vintage interviews with Murphy, Biehn, Mohr and Wright, behind-the-scenes footage and the original script, via BD-Rom, also are included on the Blu-ray.

 

The new Scream Factory double-feature opens with Murders in the Rue Morgue, a truly unfortunate mashup of the Edgar Allan Poe story and The Phantom of the Opera. Director Gordon Hessler didn’t think he could wring any more excitement from what many people consider to be the first modern detective story, so he added an unconvincing psychosexual angle that might have been more interesting if it weren’t so tame. Although the period look isn’t bad, Jason Robards Jr. seems ridiculously out of place as the director of a Grand Guignol-type theater, where the players have suddenly become real-life victims. Victor Lom plays the disfigured actor, who no one considers to be the culprit because he’s believed to be long dead and buried. Adolfo Celi plays Inspector Vidocq, whose detecting skills are subordinate to the silly stuff happening in and around the theater. Michael Dunn and Lilli Palmer fare better in supporting roles. The Dunwich Horror was co-adapted from a short story by H.P. Lovecraft by future Academy Award winner Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential). Its primary claim to fame is a cast that includes Sandra Dee, Dean Stockwell, Ed Begley Sr., Talia Shire and Sam Jaffe and music by       Les Baxter. Otherwise, the story feels like a Druid take on Rosemary’s Baby. Dee plays the college girl who falls in love with the last descendant of a race of strange creatures that once inhabited the Earth. In an attempt to use her as a sacrifice in an unholy rite that will bring his people back to life, the young man comes face to face with a university professor whose knowledge of the occult is more than a match. The Blu-ray package adds commentaries with author and film historian Steve Haberman and the featurette, “Stage Tricks & Screen Frights.”

 

Normally, the “MST3K” compilations offer a movie or two that transcends its cornball reputation and offers something truly noteworthy to savor. Not so, with “Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXXV,” which inadvertently tests the aforementioned theory that no one sets out to make a bad movie. Take Teenage Cave Man … please. This film was shot under Roger Corman’s quick-and-dirty direction under the title “Prehistoric World.” American International Pictures changed the title to Teenage Cave Man to exploit the popularity of its own I Was a Teenage Werewolf, which made a small fortune for the company, prompting calls for an instant sequel. Hence, Teenage Cave Man, starring 25-year-old rising star Robert Vaughn, as the rebellious son of the clan’s Symbol Maker. After the dust clears from battles with dinosaurs, wild dogs and other monsters borrowed from previous AIP releases, screenwriter R. Wright Campbell delivered a surprisingly good ending, which presaged Planet of the Apes. In 1982, Corman’s New World Pictures would put its fingerprints on another future MST3K classic, Being From Another Planet (a.k.a., “Time Walker”). In it, professor Douglas McCadden (Ben Murphy) is exploring the tomb of King Tutankhamun when an earthquake causes a wall in the tomb to collapse, revealing a hidden chamber. Inside, McCadden discovers what he believes to be a mummy in a sarcophagus. After bringing it to his lab in California, the mummy reveals itself to be an extraterrestrial alien in suspended animation, wrapped up and covered with a dormant green fungus. Chaos ensues. Corman’s video production and distribution interest, Concorde Pictures, was responsible for Deathstalker and the Warriors From Hell, a 1988 sword-and-sorcery fantasy and the third film in the “Deathstalker” tetralogy. It anticipated the cosplay phenomenon by two decades. The fourth entry in the “MST3K” compilation, 12 to the Moon, is a 1960 science-fiction film depicting a moon landing by an international crew. As laughable as it is, David Bradley’s picture deserves kudos for anticipating President John F. Kennedy’s commitment to “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” by the end of the 1960s. Moreover, it foresaw the International Space Station, which didn’t launch into orbit until 1998. Even as prehistoric sci-fi goes, however, it’s pretty lame, which is to say, perfect for Joel, Mike and their robot compadres Crow and Tom to satirize.

 

A Poem Is a Naked Person: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

Rhythm ‘n’ Bayous : A Road Map to Louisiana Music

Today, with his long white hair and beard, Leon Russell more closely resembles a relic from a bygone age of rock ’n’ roll than a living legend still capable of raising hell on stage and in concert. Even before he helped Joe Cocker organize the 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour with, Don Preston, Rita Coolidge, Claudia Lennear, Carl Radle, Jim Price, Jim Horn, Jim Keltner, Jim Gordon and Chris Stainton – a who’s who of eminent sidemen and background singers – was known far and wide for his contributions to the recordings of rock’s biggest stars. The tour, along with several successful hit songs of his own creation, turned him into a marquee attraction in his own right. Deep down, however, Russell never stopped being a good ol’ boy from Tulsa, albeit one who looked like a character out of the Old Testament. In 1972, Russell and his British production partner Denny Cordell hired Les Blank – based on his 1968 film, The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins – to make a documentary set largely at his recording studio on Grand Lake o’ the Cherokees, in northeastern Oklahoma. It also would include footage from concerts, rehearsals, recording and interview sessions. That was the intention, anyway. After Blank moved into a cabin at the onetime fishing camp, complete with a first-rate Moviola editing machine, the project evolved into something very different. The result, A Poem Is a Naked Person, is as much Blank as it was supposed to about Russell. That’s because, while Russell was out of town, Blank was left alone to record things he believed made Russell what he became. They included interpretive images of the lake, woods, sunsets, hippies, artists and eccentric characters who lived between the lake and Tulsa. That the finished product clashed with Russell and Cordell’s idea of A Poem Is a Naked Person should be is an understatement. They hated it and, because they financed it, held it from general release for 40 years. Blank’s son, Harrod, would resurrect the project, with Russell’s tacit approval, shortly before his father’s death in 2013, securing clearances for the music and returning it to tip-top shape. Last March, a restored version of the documentary was screened publicly at the South by Southwest Film Festival, with Russell in attendance. It’s pretty easy to see why he wouldn’t have been thrilled with the finished product, as a lot of it bears a closer resemblance to a hillbilly freak show than and a rock-doc. It can be appreciated today, however, if for no other reason than it represents a missing chapter in Blank’s catalogue of bizarro Americana. The sparkling Criterion Collection edition adds a conversation between Harrod Blank and Russell; excerpts from an interview with Les Blank; a new making-of documentary; a short film by Blank’s creative assistant, “Out in the Woods,” Maureen Gosling; and an essay by Kent Jones.

 

Although Robert Mugge’s films are far less eccentric than those on Blank’s repertoire, they’re no less musically eclectic. The self-described ethnomusicologist has ridden along the same roads as Blank and partaken in the same ethnic and regional cuisine. Mugge’s camera is far less subjective, however absent the trademark idiosyncrasies and freak-show impulses. Like Blank, Mugge has repeatedly been drawn back to Louisiana, if not specifically for the food, then the great regional music. Rhythm ‘n’ Bayous: A Road Map to Louisiana Music is one of several recent explorations of the state’s musical heritage and current stars. What originally was intended to be a film about a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bus tour through New Orleans and southwestern Louisiana grew into a slightly broader appreciation of foot-stomping music, including Cajun, Creole, country, gospel, roots-rock, R&B, zydeco and “swamp pop.” The musicians to whom we’re introduced aren’t household names outside their own communities. The most familiar among them are old-timers, Dale Hawkins, who performs his 1957 single “Susie Q”; Claude King, doing his 1962 hit “Wolverton Mountain”; the duo, Dale and Grace, reprise their 1963 swamp- pop chart topper, “I’m Leaving It Up to You”; and Frankie Ford, best known for his 1959 hit, “Sea Cruise,” performs the A-side number, “Roberta.” (Ford died last September, at 76, in Gretna.) The younger and less known musicians are every bit as entertaining.

 

Sam Klemke’s Time Machine

I don’t know if Denver native Sam Klemke is the first person to have begun chronicling his life on the Internet, but, by the time YouTube got rolling, in the mid-aughts, already had 30 years’ worth of material to share with international geekdom. A caricature artist by profession, Klemke decided at 17 to begin recording annual updates on his life, using newly affordable and lightweight video technology. At the time, he was a reasonably handsome young man, bearded, but not one who would stand out from a crowd at a rock concert. As time went by, however, Klemke practically wrote the book on what it meant to be someone so obsessed with the Internet that everything, including his physical appearance, become subordinate to what’s happening there. It isn’t a pretty picture. Obese and disheveled, he barely makes an effort to avoid an early grave. Klemke isn’t a recluse, precisely, but he might as well be, because normal life held so far options for him. Somehow, he managed to find a like-minded girlfriend, who, eventually, would go to seed, too, but his friends were Web-based. Then, in 2011, Klemke (Shut Up Little Man!) decided to edit his videos into a reverse-aging clip, which went viral and resulted in Australian filmmaker Matthew Bate contacting him to make Sam Klemke’s Time Machine. It compares the subject’s ongoing self-portraiture to the 1977 NASA Voyager mission, which carried Carl Sagan’s golden recording of life on Earth to deep space. It’s a pretty neat conceit, especially considering the unappealing portrait of the protagonist.

 

Killing Them Safely

Anyone who’s watched more than a few episodes of “Cops” has seen how TASERs are supposed to work, when employed by police officers who’ve been trained how not to abuse the so-called non-lethal law-enforcement tool. Bad boys and even worse men, almost exclusively, are the targets of the electrical barbs shot by police, who, otherwise, might have considered using bullets or siccing police dogs on them. It looks safe enough, both for the offenders and cops, although it’s unlikely the producers would televise the death – or savage beating, for that matter – of an offender. As a corrective, first-time documentarian Nick Berardini offers Killing Them Safely (a.k.a., “Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle”), which argues that the rush to find a non-lethal alternative to lethal force helped create a different sort of monster. It turns out that stun guns can kill people, too, and some of them are only guilty of having rage issues. Berardini stacks the deck by introducing the power of the device with footage of a buffalo being stung and re-stung with electric charges in what amounts to a macabre dance. The point is that early stun guns could topple a large beast, even though the charges were far less powerful than the ones used today to incapacitate humans. Hideous, but, so far, no smoking gun. It isn’t until we watch a few of the hundreds of people who’ve suffered fatal heart attacks after being zapped multiple times. Berardini also wants us question the ethics of the company, TASER International, created by brothers Rick and Tom Smith, that’s profited mightily from the demand for non-lethal technology by police and the public. The Smiths may not be the most charismatic corporate spokesmen on the planet, but neither do they seem particularly evil. They don’t appear to have cooked the books to misrepresent the dangers inherent in the use of their product or market their products to children or demonstrably crazy people, as is the case with gun manufacturers. The interviews and data are fairly presented and balanced. Neither do they encourage police to zap suspects multiple times, when one might do. Some police officials are as concerned with the findings – and lawsuits – as any of us should be and no longer allow officers to use them. It’s possible that the only proven solution to charges of police brutality and misuse of tactical equipment is to equip all units with camera crews, so that arrests and chases can be chronicled for posterity. Hey, it works on TV.

 

Felicity: Blu-ray

Infrasexum

Blue Ice: Blu-ray

Newly upgraded to Blu-ray by the folks at Severin Films, the 1978 Aussie sexploitation romp, Felicity, plays like a dirty old man’s fantasy about what a 17-year-old girl fantasizes about before coming of age sexually. Fresh-faced Canadian Glory Annen looks every inch the obsessively horny convent-school student, who, in her free time, peruses the source novels of the films Emmanuelle and The Story of O. She’s proud of her still-developing body and doesn’t care who knows it. If that isn’t a textbook example of a male fantasy, I don’t know what is. She’s given the opportunity to live out her fantasies when she receives an invitation to visit a relative in Hong Kong. And, boy, does Felicity make up for lost time. Naturally, the nudity and sex scenes are handled with all the delicacy due a seriously soft-core Emmanuelle imitator. Writer/director John D. Lamond makes great use of his Hong Kong locations, which range from hilltop mansions to floating brothels, teeming markets to world-class restaurants. Besides Emmanuelle, Lamond says he was heavily influenced by The World of Suzie Wong. As these things go, Felicity is professionally made and rarely dull. The Blu-ray adds Lamont’s two previous Ozploitation flicks, The ABCs of Love & Sex … Australia Style and Australia After Dark, accompanied by commentaries on all three films; outtakes from the Not Quite Hollywood documentary; a fresh interview with Annen; and a John Lamond trailer reel.

 

It’s always fun to discover the first film made by a soon-to-emerge director or actor. Typically, they reveal at least a spark of talent, upon which a career can be built. Either that or an ability to turn in a reasonably coherent film on time and under budget. That, at least, was the Corman model. Three years before the commercial success of Deep Throat challenged creators of feature-length porn to incorporate recognizable narratives in their peep-show-ready sex scenes writer/director Carlos Tobalina introduced himself with Infrasexum, a sleazy affair Vinegar Syndrome deems worthy of being restored in 2K from a 35mm camera negative. Tobalina would go on to make nearly 50 more films, in a career that spanned 20 of the genre’s more productive years. With the possible exception of the 1975 sexploitation romp, Marilyn and the Senator, few of Tobalina’s pictures have stood the test of time and that’s only because he used exterior shots of the Watergate Hotel. Infrasexum represents a time in porn history before cameramen figured out how to make sex look interesting on camera and producers recruited hippie checks to make good on their dedication to the sexual revolution. Here, a middle-aged businessman, Errof Lynn (Brad Grinter), is sexually constipated and, on his doctor’s advice, leaves home to find relief. His path takes him to post-Rat Pack Las Vegas and post-Summer of Love California. I can only imagine how little the poor flower children were paid to have sex on camera with the impotent old fart. Beyond that, the story is nearly incoherent. Still. Tobalina scores points for trying, anyway.

 

Flash forward 17 years and things have improved immeasurably, in front and behind the XXX-rated camera. Blue Ice has a plot, passable production values and an all-star cast male stars. The women are less familiar, but professional. Herschel Savage plays hard-boiled San Francisco private eye Ted Singer, who has been hired by an eccentric high-roller (Jamie Gillis) to find an ancient and mysterious book that has the power to grant anyone who can open it the gift of eternal life and power. Also hot on the trail is a group of unrepentant Nazis, who believe that the book contains the formula for sexual bliss. Phillip Marshak’s effects-laden sci-fi “thriller” also features Jacqueline Lorians, Shanna McCullough, Paul Thomas, Ron Jeremy and character actor Reggie Nalder (The Man Who Knew Too Much). VS presents Blue Ice on Blu-ray and DVD in a new 2K restoration from its original 35mm camera negative. It adds an audio commentary track with Savage and co-star William Margold.

 

Stories of the Baal Shem Tov

Los Angeles-based animator Tawd B. Dorenfeld uses stop-motion techniques to illustrate the tales of handed down by Yisroel ben Eliezer, widely known as the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), the 18th Century scholar, mystic and holy man who’s credited with founding the Hasidic movement. The Baal Shem Tov left the dissemination of his teachings to his disciples, who passed them along in the oral tradition or in print. According to the Holy World Productions’ mission statement, “Baal Shem Tov was renowned for his love of simple people and their honest pure ways of serving God.” That’s been translated into a series of short animated films – collected in the 80-minute anthology, Stories of the Baal Shem Tov – that are embedded in Jewish tradition and lore. “We visit poor Jewish families, who find hope in their spirituality … not because of their religious acts, but because of their human kindness.” Even if the hand-crafted stop-motion characters will appeal most to younger viewers, parents and grandparents should stick around to add their own impressions and interpretations. The universal messages needn’t be limited to strictly Jewish or Hasidic audiences, either. Mayim Bialik, Roseanne Barr and Du Du Fisher are featured in the voicing cast.

 

TV-to-DVD

Death Valley Days: The Complete First Season: Collector’s Edition

PBS: Frontline: Netanyahu at War

PBS: American Experience: The Perfect Crime

PBS: Nature: Moose: Life of a Twig Eater

PBS Kids: Kate & Mim-Mim: Flight of the Flowers

The Nanny: The Final Season

CPO Sharkey: The Best of Season Two

Before Death Valley was accorded national park status, in 1994, and expanded to include Saline and Eureka Valleys, it’s likely that most American tourists were made aware of its unique properties and history through the long-running radio and television anthology series, “Death Valley Days.” Most of the episodes focused on the notoriously harsh environment and stamina of the pioneers who attempted to cross through it, mine its riches or make it home. The continuing sponsor was 20 Mule Team Borax, a cleaning product manufactured from boron mined in Death Valley. The ore was transported from the valley floor by team of mules pictured on the box of soap. The radio program was created in 1930 by Ruth Woodman and broadcast until 1945. From 1952 to 1975, “Death Valley Days” was produced as a syndicated television series. The hosts for the 532 episodes, repeats of which were syndicated under different titles, included Stanley “The Old Ranger” Andrews, Dale Robertson, Will Rogers Jr., Ray Milland, Rory Calhoun, John Payne and, finally, Ronald Reagan. Shout! Factory’s nicely scrubbed and polished DVD collection, “Death Valley Days: The Complete First Season,” features all 18 episodes in a three-disc set. We’re told that the straight-forward narratives are based on true events. Because the entire series was shot on location on black-and-white film, the unique scenic beauty of the park wasn’t readily apparent. The only things tourists knew to expect was the potentially deadly heat and lack of rain. What they didn’t know was that the extreme heat was only a factor for four months of the year and that, in winter, the even infrequent rainfall could produce blooms of normally dormant desert flowers. Visitors to Death Valley today can find many weathered remnants of the days represented in the series. In terms of storytelling, the first year’s episodes of “Death Valley Days” could have been repurposed from original radio scripts. Even so, they’re fun to watch, if only to see the occasional acting star of the past or future.

 

Anyone concerned about the situation in Mideast and our increasingly tense relationship with Israel should take a look at the “Frontline” presentation, “Netanyahu at War.” Historically, the U.S. has been a staunch supporter of the whatever government is in power in the Jewish state, over the last 65 years. The program uses Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s personal background to demonstrate how his hardline policies have impacted his relationship with President Obama, who has shown more of an open mind toward Arab concerns than previous presidents. Our recent negotiations with Iran over its nuclear stance and Netanyahu’s decision to back Republican congressional candidates are closely studied, as well. The results make for depressing, if necessary viewing, especially in an election year in which none of the candidates can be trusted to tell the truth about their intentions for the Middle East.

 

PBS’ “American Experience” presentation “The Perfect Crime” chronicles tells the shocking story of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, wealthy University of Chicago students, who amused themselves one day in 1924 by abducting and killing 14-year-old Bobby Franks, ostensibly to see if they could get away with it. They didn’t. At issue in the trial wasn’t their guilt or innocence, but whether defense attorney Clarence Darrow could convince the judge to spare them a date with the electric chair. It’s an amazing story, even if it only represented the third so-called trial of the century. (There would be more, of course.)

 

The most distressing news disseminated in the “Nature” presentation, “Moose: Life of a Twig Eater,” is the populations across many parts of North America is in steep decline and it has almost nothing to do with trophy hunters. The intimate nature documentary, filmed over 13 months in the spectacular wilds of Canada’s Jasper National Park, follows the birthing cycle and weighs alternative explanations for the drop in population.

 

From PBS Kids comes the pre-school favorite, “Kate & Mim-Mim: Flight of the Flowers,” which helps youngsters navigate some of the more difficult challenges facing them. They include Kate’s riding her bike for the first time without training wheels and Mimiloo’s efforts to learn to fly giant wind flowers.

 

Finally married, Fran and Maxwell Sheffield have all of Season Six to savor bliss of the marital variety. Alas, the first thing they experience together is being stranded on a deserted island, after falling off of the yacht carrying them to their honeymoon destination. Expect plenty more turmoil and excitement in “The Nanny: The Final Season,” not the least of which is a tenuous date with the stork for Fran and new opportunities for producer Maxwell, 3,000 miles away from New York, in La-La Land.

 

CPO Sharkey: The Best of Season Two” is strictly for those who haven’t already purchased “The Ultimate Don Rickles” set, which includes both seasons of the sitcom, or a la carte editions of the first and second seasons. This release features six episodes, supposedly “selected by Mr. Warmth himself”: “The New Captain,” “Sharkey Flies Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Close Encounters of the Worst Kind,” “Captain’s Right Hand Man,” “Fear of Flying” and “The Used-Car Caper.”

 

April 5

 

Stealing Cars

Billy Wyatt (Emory Cohen) is a young man with tremendous promise, but a troubled past leads him to the Bernville Camp for Boys. Billy must navigate his way through dangerous inmates and a cruel and punishing staff, but during it all, he learns to inspire others and find out the truth about himself in the process. STEALING CARS is a compelling drama with powerful performances by Emory Cohen, John Leguizamo, Mike Epps and Academy Award nominees William H. Macy – Best Supporting Actor, FARGO, 1996 and Felicity Huffman – Best Actress, TRANSAMERICA, 2005.

 

Dixieland

Featuring explosive chemistry between rising stars Chris Zylka (The Leftovers) and Riley Keough (Mad Max: Fury Road) and impressive supporting performances from music legends Faith Hill and Steve Earle, Dixieland is an intoxicating portrait of life and love on the margins. Fresh out of prison, Kermit (Zylka), a mostly good kid mixed up with local drug dealers, returns home to his rural Mississippi trailer park. As he struggles to keep his nose clean, he falls for Rachel (Keough), his sultry neighbor who s turned to dancing in a club to support her sick mother. Determined to overcome their inauspicious circumstances, the star-crossed lovers make a desperate, last-ditch effort to escape their dead-end town but soon find themselves ensnared in a cycle of crime.

 

The Great Hypnotist

Xu Ruining (Xu Zheng), a nationally renowned therapist incredibly skilled in hypnotherapy. But when his career takes off, he meets a patient named Ren Xiaoyan (Karen Mok) who brings him a complex problem. Xu Ruining discovers that with this particular case, the struggle between the doctor and the patient is not as easy as he expected. Despite her thin and weak appearance, Ren Xiaoyan always reacts violently to any problems with Xu Ruining. He wonders what exactly makes her closed-off to everyone. Is it from a painful memory in her childhood or the ring mark still visible on her middle finger? While sparing no efforts to figure out what has happened, he finds himself falling into a horrible trap…

 

#Horror [Blu-ray]

You’ve got followers… Cyberbullying goes offline during one deadly night. Inspired by a shocking true story, #Horror follows a group of preteen girls living in a suburban world of money and privilege. But when their obsession with a disturbing online game goes too far, virtual terror becomes all too real. Chloe Sevigny leads an ensemble cast that includes Natasha Lyonne, Taryn Manning, and Timothy Hutton in Tara Subkoff’s directorial debut.

 

The Hallow [Blu-ray]

A family moves to a remote house in rural Ireland and finds themselves in a fight for survival with an ancient evil living in the secluded woods.

Special Features Include:

-Audio commentary with director Corin Hardy

-“Surviving the Fairytale: The Making of “The Hallow””

-Behind-the-Scenes: “The Story”

-Behind-the-Scenes: “Influence”

-Behind-the-Scenes: “Practical F/X”

-Director’s storyboards gallery

-Director’s sketchbook gallery

-“The Book of Invasions” original illustrations gallery

-Creature concepts gallery

-Theatrical Trailer

 

Tumbledown [Blu-ray]

Pop culture scholar Andrew (Jason Sudeikis) comes to Maine to interview Hannah (Rebecca Hall), the protective widow of an acclaimed singer. When the unlikely pair strike a deal to co-write a biography, Andrew finds himself clashing with a cast of locals, including Hannah s hunky suitor (Joe Manganiello), and her loving but defensive parents (Blythe Danner, Richard Masur). When Hannah and Andrew’s stormy partnership blossoms into an unexpected connection, they face the possibility that the next chapter in their lives may involve each other. Dianna Aragon and Griffin Dunne costar in this startlingly funny and sweetly romantic tale of moving on and finding love in the unlikeliest of places.

 

Dreams Rewired’

Tilda Swinton’s hypnotic voiceover and a treasure trove of rare archival footage culled from hundreds of films from the 1880s through the 1930s much of it previously unseen combine to trace the anxieties of today’s hyper-connected world back a hundred years.Review

This film essay features an intricately, crafted voice-over by Tilda Swinton, melding together historic fact and contemporary theories. –Screen International

4 Stars! A marvelous essay film [that] leaves you fantasizing about what things there are to come. –Jordan Hoffman, The Guardian

Explores the history and ongoing narratives and idealizations that new advents in technology brought, like end to global crisis, less barriers to the outside world, as well as the end of privacy and security. –Aimee Murillo, Orange County Weekly

 

Mutual Friends

Liv is throwing a surprise birthday party for her too-perfect-to-be-true new fiancé, Christoph. And, the party must be flawless so all their friends will know how excited Liv is to be his wife. An amazing party might also help Liv atone for sleeping with her best friend Nate on the night of her engagement. Which meant nothing. Nate is averse to commitments, so he should just add Liv to his long list of women. And he usually could. But, as party time approaches, Nate begins to question his no-strings mantra and decides to make a full court press for Liv’s affections. As Liv is busy party planning and resisting Nate’s awkward advances, the rest of their friends head on a collision course through New York City. Prim, proper and newly pregnant Beatrice wants someone to admire her cabinets, while her husband, Paul is freaked out by the baby news. Paul admires Nate’s unattached ways and urges his buddy towards Ms. Sexy Hot Boss. Paul may not be able to take advantage of her charms, but he’s excited to know that Nate can. It may be torched Earth for Paul, but Nate still has a world of women to conquer. Across town, Liv’s older brother, the non-communicative Sammy, takes his stoner assistant to stakeout Sammy’s cheating wife. Where the fault lies in the break up of Sammy’s marriage may be unclear, but ignoring the problem, as Sammy tends to do, is not the answer. Meanwhile, drop-out brother Thomas has hired a stripper instead of a bartender and bought piñatas and disco balls to spice up Liv’s stuffy soiree. To make matters worse, Christoph’s ex, Annie, just showed up to win back her man or to punch him in the face. And, the party is just getting started–with or without the cock cake. When this tangled web of friends finally gathers, some people get lucky, some get even, and some go home in tears.

 

Deceived

Alejandro returns to his home in Puerto Rico, to help his sister Magdalena get her life together. Only to find out from an old acquaintance, Detective Garcia, that Magdalena has gone missing. Led to a bar in old San Juan, he discovers that not only was Magdalena working as an exotic dancer, but she was dating a drug dealing surfer, Laz. Here Alejandro tries to piece together the events that led to her disappearance and struggles to wrap his head around the interconnected nature of all the characters. Upon discovering that the bar manager, Michael, has a dark history and a millionaire philanthropist, Roman, is not just here to build an orphanage, Alejandro starts to realize that not everything is as it seems

 

Rows

is a horror/ fantasy/ thriller inspired by Grimm’s tales. ROSE works for her father, MARK, who turns cornfields into subdivisions. Rose must deliver eviction papers to HAVILAND, a squatter in a condemned farmhouse. Haviland is an evil enchantress– she puts Rose under a spell. Rose’s friend, GRETA, will also come under Haviland’s powers. They become lost in a seemingly infinite cornfield and must repeat a series of surreal or terrifying events in order to solve the mystery and break the spell. Rose and Greta (seemingly) murder Haviland, drag her into a cornfield, and bury her. But they cannot find their way out. Rose finds a portal, escapes and runs home. Inexplicably, Rose finds Greta waiting for her there. Events seem to repeat, but with shocking variations. When Rose and Greta return to the farmhouse, Haviland impales Rose with a knife. Greta and JACK (pawn of Haviland) drag Rose through the cornfield and throw her into the grave. The enchantment warps the laws of time and nature; Rose finds herself resurrected. She learns through a changeling that if the house dies, Haviland dies. Rose must fight back against Haviland and save her Father. The cycle repeats. This time however, Rose disrupts Haviland’s spell by “murdering” Jack. Rose attempts to set the farmhouse afire. Greta leads Rose underneath the farmhouse to a weird circular room. Rose’s father is drawn into the mystery, and Rose’s relationship with him is tested. A series of shocking reversals leads to a haunting climax: Rose finds her catatonic father. Greta, as Haviland’s mouthpiece, tells Rose that she must plunge the knife through her father’s chest, in order to break the spell. It won’t really kill him. Rose can’t make herself do it. In the end, Mark and Rose succumb to the Haviland’s powers. Rose will live as caretaker to the farmhouse, and Haviland, forever.

 

That Uncertain Feeling

Beautiful but neglected housewife Jill Baker visits a psychologist for treatment of her psychosomatic hiccups. There she meets neurotic pianist Alexander Sebastian and sparks fly. While boring insurance salesman Larry Baker ignores his wife, Sebastian is soon squiring her around town to art galleries, concerts and romantic lunches. When Jill requests a divorce, Larry reluctantly consents. She sets up housekeeping with Sebastian and learns that the grass that seemed so much greener, may be full of weeds.

After her performance as Lady Marguerite Blakeney in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), gorgeous Merle Oberon headed for Hollywood and stardom. Some of her standout performances included The Dark Angel (1935), The Divorce Of Lady X (1938), Wuthering Heights (1939) and Desiree (1954). One of Hollywood’s greatest actors, Melvyn Douglas took home a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1963 for his role in Hud and added a second Oscar in 1979 for his role in Being There. The excellent cast of That Uncertain Feeling includes Eve Arden, Alan Mowbray as the psychiatrist and a hilarious turn by Burgess Meredith as the wacky artist. Brilliant director Ernst Lubitsch was known for his witty and sophisticated handling of adult themes often referred to as the “Lubitsch Touch.” He is best remembered for his classics Ninotchka (1939), To Be Or Not To Be (1942) and Heaven Can Wait (1943).

 

Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli: Blu-ray

Emerging at the peak of the giallo boom of the early 70s, Luciano Ercoli s Death Walks films are two superlative examples of the genre linked by their shared casting of the stunning Nieves Navarro (billed under her adopted stage name of Susan Scott) as the lead woman in peril.finds herself terrorised by a black-clad assailant determined on procuring her father s stolen gems. Fleeing Paris and her knife-wielding pursuer, Nicole arrives in London only to discover that death stalks her at every corner.

Returning in Death Walks at Midnight (1972), Navarro stars as Valentina a model who, in the midst of a drug-fuelled photoshoot, witnesses a brutal murder in the apartment opposite hers. But when it becomes clear that the savage slaying she describes relates to a crime that took place six months earlier, the police are at a loss – forcing Valentina to solve the mystery alone.

Offering up all the glamour, perversity and narrative twists and turns that are typical of the giallo genre at its best, Luciano Ercoli s Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight anticipate the super-stylized trappings of Brian De Palma s early psycho thrillers (most notably, Dressed to Kill).

LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS

Limited Edition boxed-set (3000 copies) containing Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight

Brand new 2K restorations of the films from the original camera negatives

High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations

Original Italian and English soundtracks in mono audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-rays)

Newly translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtracks

Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtracks

Limited Edition 60-page booklet containing new writing from authors Danny Shipka (Perverse Titillation: The Exploitation Cinema of Italy, Spain and France), Troy Howarth (So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films) and writer Leonard Jacobs, illustrated with original archive stills and posters

DEATH WALKS ON HIGH HEELS

Audio commentary by film critic Tim Lucas

Introduction to the film by screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi

Newly-edited archive interview with director Luciano Ercoli and actress Nieves Navarro

Master of Giallo brand new interview in which Gastaldi discusses Death Walks on High Heels and offers up his thoughts as to what constitutes a good giallo

An interview with composer Stelvio Cipriani

Original Italian trailer

Original English trailer

Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx

DEATH WALKS AT MIDNIGHT

Audio commentary by film critic Tim Lucas

Introduction to the film by screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi

Extended TV version of the feature [105 mins]

Crime Does Pay brand new interview in which Gastaldi discusses Death Walks at Midnight and a career script-writing crime films

Desperately Seeking Susan a visual essay by Michael Mackenzie exploring the distinctive giallo collaborations between director Luciano Ercoli and star Nieves Navarro

Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx

Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight)

 

NYPD Blue: Season 09

The Emmy award-winning drama from co-creators Steven Bochco and David Milch returns for another twenty-three riveting episodes in NYPD Blue: Season Nine. Always a series that effortlessly adapted to change, Season Nine finds Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) experiencing several dramatic developments in his life, including a long-overdue promotion, a surprising new romance with Detective Connie McDowell (Charlotte Ross), and a new partner in the form of John Clark (Mark-Paul Gosselaar). The 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City are also employed into the series, reflecting both the evolving emotions about our public safety as well as the steadfast strength and dedication of law enforcement officers in the wake of those real-life events.

 

 

 

April 12

 

The Forest [Blu-ray]

A young woman’s hunt for her missing sister leads to horror and madness in this terrifying supernatural thriller starring Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games franchise). When her troubled twin sister mysteriously disappears, Sara Price (Dormer) discovers she vanished in Japan’s infamous Suicide Forest. Searching its eerie dark woods, Sara plunges into a tormented world where angry spirits lie in wait for those who ignore the warning: never stray from the path. Exploring The Forest

Galleries

Feature Commentary with Director Jason Zada

 

Village of the Damned

A doctor battles children who exert deadly mind control over adults in a small Northern California town.

Special Features Include:

-“It Takes A Village: The Making of:” Featuring interviews with director John 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 featuring John Carpenter, Christopher Reeve, Kirstie Alley, Linda Kozlowski, Mark Hamill, and Wolf Rilla (director of the original “Village of the Damned”)

-Vintage behind-the-scenes footage

-Theatrical Trailer

-Behind-the-Scenes Still Gallery

 

Bob Dylan – Triumvirate

Frank Zappa: In His Own Words

Arguably the sharpest tool in the rock musician box, Frank Zappa was never lost for words when presented with another’s opinion and would counter any position he did not agree with, fluently, eloquently and with the style and wit normally reserved for the great orator or the finest raconteur. Frank could be funny, serious and just about anywhere in-between and could literally talk for hours without losing a single member of his audience. This DVD collects together over 90 minutes of video interviews and talking engagements with or undertaken by Zappa across his career, during which the great man is on form and on the money throughout. Talking on numerous subjects and displaying variously; charm, intelligence, humour and impatience – sometimes all within the same interview – this is Zappa away from the day job but at his fascinating, albeit at times fearsome, best.

 

More than 50 years ago Bob Dylan entered New York’s Greenwich Village and created a one man tidal wave of musical change which most commentators of substance would agree was near instrumental in kick-starting what has come to be thought of as ‘modern music’ or ‘the rock age’. Dylan would of course balk at the idea, but by taking elements of just about everything that had gone before and dragging from the resultant soup a coherent blend of something that no one has ever been quite able to put their finger on, but which appealed to masses of youngsters, he succeeded as though destined to do so for millennia; Elvis and Little Richard had gone part of the way but Bob drove in the final nails of the coffin that put the past to rest and changed music in a way it had never changed before. This three disc set celebrates and documents the era during which Bob Dylan pulled off this extraordinary feat and created a musical enlightenment by doing so. Featuring documentary and interview material as well as rare footage from the time, this collection will leave no viewer in doubt as to where the roots of what we now largely take for granted were sown.

 

 

April 19

 

Biophilic Design

BIOPHILIC DESIGN is an innovative way of designing the places where we live, work and learn. We need nature in a deep and fundamental fashion, but we have often designed our cities and suburbs in ways that both degrade the environment and alienate us from nature. The recent trend in green architecture has decreased the environmental impact of the built environment, but it has accomplished little in the way of reconnecting us to the natural world, the missing piece in the puzzle of sustainable development. Come on a journey from our evolutionary past and the origins of architecture to the world s most celebrated buildings in a search for the architecture of life. Encounter buildings that connect people and nature hospitals where patients heal faster, schools where children s test scores are higher, and communities where people know their neighbors and families thrive. BIOPHILIC DESIGN points the way toward creating healthy and productive habitats for modern humans.

 

Shadows of Liberty

SHADOWS OF LIBERTY reveals the extraordinary truth behind the news media: censorship, cover-ups and corporate control. Filmmaker Jean-Philippe Tremblay takes a journey through the darker corridors of the US media, where global conglomerates call the shots. For decades, their overwhelming influence has distorted news journalism and compromised its values. In highly revealing stories, renowned journalists, activists and academics give insider accounts of a broken media system. Tracing the story of media manipulation over the years, SHADOWS OF LIBERTY poses a crucial question: why have we let a handful of powerful corporations write the news? We re left in no doubt media reform is urgent and freedom of the press is fundamental.

 

 

 

 

 

The DVD Wrapup: Freaks & Geeks, Daddy’s Home, Censored Voices,Black Mama White Mama, Mammon and more

Friday, March 18th, 2016

Freaks and Geeks: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
Like “My So-Called Life” before it and “Veronica Mars” after it, “Freaks and Geeks” was a show about suburban teenagers that blurred traditional genre boundaries and appreciated the fact that parents and teachers didn’t have all the solutions to life’s problems. For all of the respect shown these fondly remembered “cult classics,” however, “My So-Called Life” and “Freaks and Geeks” lasted all of one of season, while “Veronica Mars” was always in danger of being cancelled. Indeed, the shows’ greatest accomplishment might have been clearing the way for “Glee,” a show that smashed through the imaginary lines they blurred. Shout!Factory’s Blu-ray release of “Freaks and Geeks: The Complete Series” is unusual for taking full advantage of a show that lasted all of 18 episodes, only 15 of which actually were aired in the original 1999-2000 season on NBC. Normally, a show that was canceled prematurely would be accorded a single multi-disk package and, perhaps, some liner notes. Here, though, one multi-disc package contains 18 episodes in their original aspect (1.33:1), with deleted scenes, while another carries the same episodes in the widescreen format (1.78:1). A third disc contains such bonus material as a Museum of Television & Radio panel discussion; complete script for a never-shot episode; three full-episode table reads; original cast audition footage; raw footage; skits by the Sober Students Improv Players; NBC promo material; and several making-of and background featurettes. A separate “notebook” adds a letter and Q&A from creators Paul Feig and Judd Apatow, essays, memorabilia and synopses.

Set in 1980 at the fictional McKinley High near Detroit, “Freaks and Geeks” focused on two groups of outsiders: the stoners, tough kids and bad girls; and the brains, nerds and squares. The jocks, cheerleaders and bullies were noteworthy only in their interaction with the two fringe entities. A few of the teachers were featured in recurring storylines and parents ran the gamut from comic relief to completely dysfunctional. The prevailing lesson to be taken away from the series was and remains: there are no easy answers in life or high school, so keep your eyes, ears and mind open for everything to come. From a distance of 15 years, “Freaks and Geeks” isn’t devoid of cringe-worthy moments, but they’ll seem authentic to anyone who isn’t harboring the misconception that high school was anything but torture. Most fun, I think, is recognizing the faces of actors whose careers were still years away from blossoming and themes that Feig (Bridesmaids) and Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) would revisit in future projects. The co-creators would find several other good excuses to hire Linda Cardellini, Seth Rogen, James Franco and Jason Segel in movies. (Segel, Samm Levine, Martin Starr and Busy Philipps would all appear in the series “How I Met Your Mother.”) In the end, “Freaks and Geeks” didn’t suffer from pathetically poor ratings, as do most canceled shows. The licensing fees for the music, alone, would have crippled most series. The large ensemble cast was no bargain, either. NBC probably didn’t want to risk the bottom falling out in the second season. I’m guessing, too, that the network’s sponsors weren’t anxious to have their brands associated with episodes dealing with such issues as teen pregnancy, binge drinking, enjoying pot and other drugs, bashing the establishment, overripe libidos, homosexuality and gender-reassignment surgery. (The problems faced by teachers and parents seem trivial, by comparison.)

Daddy’s Home: Blu-ray
While watching the Blu-ray edition of Paramount’s Christmas comedy, Daddy’s Home, I couldn’t help but wonder when Will Ferrell began morphing into Fred MacMurray. After being successfully cast against type in such great dramas as Double Indemnity, The Caine Mutiny, There’s Always Tomorrow, Pushover and The Apartment, MacMurray would once again face typecasting, but this time as the All-American Dad, in Disney’s The Shaggy Dog, The Absent-Minded Professor, Son of Flubber and as single father Steve Douglas, on “My Three Sons.” In the lightweight, if commercially successful Daddy’s Home, Ferrell plays the All-American stepdad to his wife’s two children. Although his Mark Whitaker would appear to be the perfect counter to an absentee father who rides a Harley, wears top-to-toe leather and thinks proper parenting mostly takes place at the mall, he gets nearly no respect at home. Naturally, the kids are crazy about their dad-by-birth, Dusty Mayron (Mark Wahlberg), and openly hostile to Mark. (I didn’t buy the rude behavior directed at such a decent man, but it’s the film’s central conceit.) Their mom, Sara (Linda Cardellini), is too buffaloed by her ex-husband’s blarney to tell him to book a room in a motel or to see through his scheme to reclaim her heart. Mark sees through the ruse, but is too nice a guy to send Dusty packing, especially after he schmoozes his boss (Thomas Haden Church). The more Mark tries to even the playing field at home, the more paranoid and buffoonish he acts in front of the family. The one-upmanship doesn’t really get funny until the two men try to out-impress the kids at a Lakers’ game. Mark spends a fortune for courtside seats and souvenirs, but is trumped by Dusty’s ability to stage a meeting with Kobe. It causes Mark to drown his disappointment and envy in beer, which translates into a hugely embarrassing performance in a halftime three-point competition. It’s the only scene that demonstrates co-writer/director Sean Anders understands the difference between cheap slapstick (That’s My Boy, Horrible Bosses 2) and the precise comic timing Ferrell can bring to physical gag, when he’s on his game. Like I said, however, Daddy’s Home did extremely well against very tough competition over the Christmas holiday, so I might not be the right person to listen to on the subject. The PG-13 rating seems fairly earned, with only a couple of silly dick gags standing in the way of a PG. The package adds several deleted scenes, a blooper and a half-dozen background and making-of featurettes.

Censored Voices
Almost 50 years ago, this June, Israel kicked the crap out of a coalition of Arab states determined to wipe it off of the maps redrawn after the 1948 war. It did so by launching a devastating pre-emptive strike against the Egyptian Air Force and a nearly simultaneous ground offensive against tanks and infantry massed in the Gaza Strip and the Sinai. Unwilling to admit defeat, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser convinced his counterparts in Syria and Jordan that reports of his military’s demise were greatly exaggerated and they shouldn’t dissuade anyone from going ahead with plans to attack Israel from the north and east. Even before the Arabs could say “uncle” and forestall the disaster, Israeli counterattacks resulted in the seizure of East Jerusalem and West Bank from Jordan, while Syria was forced to pull back from the Golan Heights. If the defeated countries had played their cards right, they might have found Israel responsive to some concessions on captured territory, but the sound of sword-rattling drowned out any hope for long-term peace. Almost overnight, Israel went from underdog to potentially invincible superpower, with a new problem weighing heavy in its hands. By not immediately resolving the plight of Palestinians expelled from annexed territory or forced to live in ghetto conditions in their own homes, the country opened its windows to the winds of political hypocrisy, opportunism and media manipulation by the PLO and other terrorist organizations. The only thing that’s changed in the last half-century is the increased threat to Israel by previously powerless states and its conservative government’s willingness to spit in the eye of longtime allies.

Mor Loushy’s impassioned documentary Censored Voices reminds us that, except in times of imminent danger, Israeli homogeneity has never really existed. The ink hadn’t even dried on the ceasefire agreement before people on all sides of the political spectrum began to debate the ramifications of annexing captured territory and issues relating to Palestinian despair. One week after the war, while much of the country was still celebrating the reclamation of Old Jerusalem, novelist Amos Oz and historian Avraham Shapira visited several kibbutzim to record the fresh and candid recollections of reservists returning from the battlefield. Although severely censored by the Israel Defense Force, the transcripts would provide material for a popular work of non-fiction, “The Seventh Day.” Loushy had read the book, but wondered what the “censored voices” had to say. It took some convincing on her part to get Shapira to give her permission to peruse the tapes and compare them to the edited transcripts. While it can be argued that the kibbutzniks interviewed might have been predisposed to adopt more progressive, anti-nationalist attitudes after experiencing the horrors of war, the authenticity and sincerity in the anonymously recorded voices is palpable. Even so, Censored Voices doesn’t pretend to offer a balanced accounting of post-war public opinion. Once Loushy had gained access to the tapes, she attempted to round up the men interviewed and film them. She didn’t, however, record anything except their facial expressions. What’s striking about the observations is the prescience in evidence. While considering the implications of Israel so suddenly evolving from David to Goliath, the men predicted the eventuality of future wars and the unending turmoil surrounding the occupation of land Palestinians traditionally called home. Also included are tales of heroism and recrimination, based on battlefield memories. Censored Voices is a sobering document, but one that’s no less relevant today than when the censors took their red pencils to the transcripts.

Addiction Incorporated
In 1999, Michael Mann enlisted considerable star power to tell the story of a research chemist who came under personal and professional attack when he decided to appear in a “60 Minutes” expose on Big Tobacco. Despite only tepid box-office numbers, The Insider, was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including one for Russell Crowe as valiant whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand. Charles Evans Jr.’s provocative documentary, Addiction Incorporated, tells a remarkably similar tale of corporate malfeasance, greed and fraud. Instead of Brown & Williamson, where Wigand was employed, Victor J. DeNoble was employed by Philip Morris in the Behavioral Research Department from 1980-84. As such, he performed in-house rat studies on nicotine and addiction and was later fired because of the sensitive nature of what his studies revealed about nicotine dependency. His superiors had heard enough and decided to bury the evidence. After his lab was shuttered and publication of the results of years of research was canceled by scientific journals, DeNoble decided that it was his civic duty to make his findings public. The startling revelations prompted the 1994 congressional hearings, during which the seven heads of the major tobacco companies declared, under oath, that they believed nicotine was not addictive and could not be manipulated to ensure dependency. The legislators demanded that DeNoble be relieved of his contractual pledge to maintain silence on the research, clearly proving the executives were lying. Before the dust settled, an alliance of journalists, politicians, attorneys and whistleblowers set out to achieve what was once considered impossible: the first-ever federal regulation of the tobacco industry. Released in 2011, Addiction Incorporated only played in a couple of big-city theaters and festivals. It certainly didn’t benefit from being so far removed from 1998, when the Master Settlement Agreement was announced between states’ attorneys general and tobacco companies to settle lawsuits. The war against tobacco addiction continues, but the really loud guns were fired more than a decade earlier. In another similarity, journalists interviewed here from ABC News became the target of bullying by Big Tobacco, just as CBS’ Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) felt the heat in The Insider. Like CBS, ABC caved to the pressure of multibillion-dollar lawsuits.

Rage of Honor: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Invasion U.S.A.: Blu-ray
Braddock: Missing in Action III: Blu-ray
In February, Arrow Video released a nicely restored edition of the ninja action flick, Pray for Death, starring martial-arts all-star Sho Kosugi (Enter the Ninja) and directed by Gordon Hessler (The Golden Voyage of Sinbad). It’s only taken a month for its virtual sequel, Rage of Honor, to arrive in Blu-ray, with the same principals on board. The stories aren’t identical, as was the case with other mid-1980s action series, but they certainly aren’t different enough to warrant separate releases. A double-feature package would have served the same purpose, while saving collectors a few bucks. Instead of being set exclusively in a big U.S. city, Rage of Honor takes place in the American Southwest, Argentina and the Philippines, a location historically synonymous with low-budget action slop. After the death of his partner in a bungled drug bust, federal agent Shiro Tanaka (Kosugi) trades his badge and standard-issue sidearm for an arsenal comprised of nunchucks, blades and ninja stars. He follows the trail of blood to Buenos Aries and the jungles of Brazil (a.k.a., Philippines) for a series of showdowns with an international team of narco-terrorists. There’s nothing really new here, except the South American locations, which allowed for some excellent chase scenes, including one pitting cigarette boats. Besides performing the ninja tropes with care and precision, Kosugi is a master acrobat and, in Pray for Death and Rage of Honor, Hessler takes full advantage of his athleticism. The new Arrow edition is from a transfer of original elements by MGM. It adds the featurette, “Sho and Tell, Part 2: The Domination,” which extends interviews shot for Pray for Death; vintage trailers; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin; and a collectors’ booklet with new writing on the film and an extract from Kosugi’s upcoming book.

At about the same time in American movie history as Kosugi was kicking butts and taking names, Chuck Norris was selling tickets like hotcakes as the second great American avenger to Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo. While Stallone fought terribly hard not to be pigeonholed as a punch-drunk pugilist or jungle fighter with a chip on his shoulder, Norris pretty much rolled with the punches. An accomplished martial-arts fighter and teacher, Norris played to the crowd desperate for a non-Asian protagonist – Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren would follow – committed to killing commies for Christ and serving as America’s last hope to find and free the 1,000-plus POWs said to be held by the Vietnamese, who soon become a trading partner. Other Norris characters crushed drug pushers and organized crime at home and abroad. His association with Cannon Films ensured that he’d never be accorded the same budgets or marketing campaigns as Stallone. Neither, though, were the financial expectations as high. When Cannon went out of business, Norris was able to resuscitate his career on the small screen’s “Walker, Texas Ranger” and by making movies designed to go straight to video. Released in 1985, Invasion U.S.A. plays like the Bay of Pigs Invasion in reverse, crossed with Charles Manson’s helter-skelter theory of instigating a race war. As former CIA agent Matt Hunter, Norris is asked by the agency to put down an invasion of generic anti-American rebels, led by a former foe simply named Rostov. One of the reasons Hunter quit is because he wasn’t allowed to kill Rostov when the opportunity arose several years earlier. So, it isn’t until his nemesis attacks his home in the Everglades that Hunter agrees to eliminate Rostov and stop the invasion. Absurd, yes, but packed with hard-core action. The Blu-ray adds commentary by director Joseph Zito and interviews with writer James Bruner, special effects makeup artists Tom Savini, Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero.

Braddock: Missing in Action III is the third in series of “MIA” titles dedicated to the memory of Norris’ younger brother, Wieland, who was killed in the Vietnam War in 1970. It was directed by brother and frequent collaborator, Aaron, who also served in the war and is a martial-arts expert. This time Colonel James Braddock returns to Southeast Asia after he is told that his Vietnamese wife and 12-year-old son are still alive and possibly living among other Amer-Asian dependents left behind in the chaos of the takeover of Saigon by NVA and Vietcong forces. Without going into too much detail, Braddock somehow locates the stronghold in which the children are being held. After being captured and tortured for what seems be an eternity, Braddock is required to fight half of what’s left of the Vietnamese army, after its decimation in the first and second “MIA,” before crossing into Thailand with the children. He survives less on kung-fu than state-of-the-art weaponry.

Black Mama, White Mama: Blu-ray
In the annals of exploitation and grindhouse history, no picture stands taller or stoops lower the Eddie Romero’s Black Mama, White Mama. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to characterize it as the Citizen Kane of the genre, few pictures fused as many key thematic and visual elements into such a wildly entertaining product. Filmed in the Philippines from a script co-authored by Jonathan Demme and Joe Viola — collaborators on The Hot Box, Angels Hard as They Come and Rio TigreBlack Mama, White Mama (a.k.a., “Women in Chains,”
“Chained Women” and “Hot, Hard and Mean”) borrowed liberally from Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones, which starred Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in roles assumed by Margaret Markov and Pam Grier. For Grier, the movie sat on the cusp of her transition from women-in-prison (The Big Bird Cage) and Blaxploitation (Coffey) flicks. They play diametrically opposed convicts – a revolutionary and “harem girl” — who meet on a bus heading for a hell-hole prison in the boonies. Before escaping in chains, they engage in an unforgettable cat fight and shower scene, complete with a voyeuristic blond guard watching behind a peephole. What else makes “BM/WM” essential viewing? Well, there’s Corman regular Sid Haig, as an American cowboy bounty hunter; Lynn Borden, whose previous credits included Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Frogs and The Weekend Nun; the insanely prolific Philippine actor Vic Diaz; truckloads of U.S. surplus weaponry; fake nuns in chains; drawers full of white cotton panties; and the extraordinary tagline, “Chicks in chains … on the lam from a prison hell … manacled together by hate and the strange ideas a woman gets after 1,000 nights without a man.” The excellent Arrow Video restoration arrives with high- and standard-definition presentations; the original mono audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray); commentary by filmmaker Andrew Leavold, director of “The Search for Weng Weng”; essential interviews with Markov, Haig and Romero; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips; and a first-pressing booklet with new writing on the film by Temple of Schlock’s Chris Poggiali, as well as archival stills and posters.

Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs
All Hell Breaks Loose
Anyone whose taste in movies runs to such wacky straight-to-Syfy flicks as Sharknado, Lavalantula, SnakeHead Swamp and the upcoming Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre will want to rush out and find Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs. None of these titles could be considered good by anyone’s standards, except those used to judge movies that are so bad they almost demand to be watched and passed around by friends. Also known as “Jurassic Hunters,” Ari Novak’s first quasi-theatrical feature benefits from tight pacing, some decent sight gags and the mountains surrounding Livingstone, Montana. Dollar-for-dollar-spent, Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs makes Jurassic World look like, well, Sharknado: Heart of Sharkness. In a plot that might have been inspired by Rodan, miners are ordered by their greedy boss to break through an artificially constructed wall in a shaft leading to an iridium deposit. No sooner do they crack the blockage than they’re attacked by Velociraptors that have been trapped inside the chamber for God knows how long. The foreman manages to toss an explosive charge behind him in his rush to get out of the cave, temporarily stopping the advance of the vicious carnivores. It doesn’t long for the surviving raptors to clear the impediment and make a beeline to a small lake where a group of bikini-clad babes are taking a dip. In fact, the monsters appear to have an appetite for women in and out of uniform. The crazy thing about the Velociraptors is how easy it is to take them out with handguns, shotguns and flame-tipped arrows. In movies with exponentially larger budgets, it requires a small army to kill a single dinosaur. Here, a square-jawed cowboy (Rib Hillis), his ex-girlfriend and her sheriff dad (John Freeman) take out a bunch them with the kinds of constitutionally protected guns that kids in Montana and Texas receive as gifts for their First Communion. For variety, an actual T-Rex and Triceratops escape from the mine, as well. I don’t remember the latter being killed, so it might still be wandering around Montana looking for a Hooters to terrorize. And, lest I forget, the always delightful Eric Roberts plays a jailhouse lush.

If Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs pays homage to Japanese creature features of the 1950s, All Hell Breaks Loose is a throwback to the heyday of bad-biker movies, which may have met their waterloo when Joe Namath and Ann-Margaret were paired in C.C. & Company. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Jeremy Garner’s debut feature a religious film, but it involves a motorcycle gang from hell, Satan’s Sinners, determined to kidnap a virgin to be defiled by their demonic master. In doing so, they murder her husband before the geeky couple can consummate their marriage. While she’s being held hostage in a dirtball strip bar, God appears in cowboy drag to breathe new life into the newlywed. Even in his resurrected form, the poor sap, is an inordinately inept soldier of the lord. Without coming close to freeing his wife, he’s repeatedly murdered and reborn. Despite the DIY budget, the bikers look convincingly sleazy and comfortable in their native environment. There’s plenty of ridiculously gory action, too. For what it’s worth, the screenplay was penned by a self-described movie critic, who goes by the name of The Vocabulariast. That has to count for something.

Disturbing Behavior: Blu-ray
I can’t imagine many more dispiriting things for a director to experience than watching his picture being pecked to death by ducks assembled by studio executives in focus groups to nitpick pictures they may not completely grasp. Just as hurtful is reading reviews that blame the director for screwing up a picture that actually was dismantled and stitched back together by producers wielding mallets where a scalpel would have been the appropriate tool. Apparently, this is what happened to Disturbing Behavior, a movie that started out as a teen-horror version of The Stepford Wives, but ended up looking more like Frank Oz and Paul Rudnick’s uncharacteristically lousy 2004 remake. Essentially, David Nutter (“The X-Files”) and Scott Rosenberg (Beautiful Girls) imagined a high school on an isolated island in Puget Sound, where the normal pecking order has been subverted by the evil Dr. Edgar Caldicott (Bruce Greenwood). In his scheme, the naughty boys and girls are transformed into “blue ribbon” students, without losing all of their bad tendencies. The new kid in school senses that something isn’t kosher, but may be overmatched in restoring the status quo. The cast includes James Marsden, Katie Holmes and Nick Stahl. For some reason, 1999 overflowed with movies about demonic teens. The Blu-ray adds a slightly snarky commentary with Nutter, deleted scenes and an alternate ending.

TV-to-DVD
MHz Networks: The Heavy Water War
MHz Networks: Mammon
AMC: Fear the Walking Dead: The Complete First Season: Special Edition: Blu-ray
AMC: Turn: Washington’s Spies: Season 2
NOVA: Secret Tunnel Warfare
NOVA: Mystery Beneath the Ice
Maude: Season Four
Nickelodeon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Half-Shell Heroes: Blast to the Past
PBS Kids: Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Super Daniel
Of all the little-known stories about World War II, the least little-known may be the one in which Norwegian resistance fighters and British intelligence specialists combined forces to stall Hitler’s war machine by depriving his scientists of the “heavy water” required to control nuclear fission. That and the absence of key researchers – many of whom were Jewish and, therefore, scientists non grata in the Third Reich – kept Germany from beating the Allies to nuclear dominance. Besides being the subject of several books, the same story was first covered in the 1948 Franco-Norwegian production, Operation Swallow: The Battle for Heavy Water, with many of the original Nordic commandos playing themselves. In the 1965 British film, The Heroes of Telemark, Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris were cast in the key roles. Ray Mears’ 2003 documentary, The Real Heroes of Telemark, corrected several of the fudged facts in Anthony Mann’s hit movie. It and other historical made-for-cable docs have kept the memory of the courageous men and women alive to this day. At 267 minutes, MHz Networks’ mini-series “The Heavy Water War” (a.k.a., “The Saboteurs”) enjoyed the luxury of being as close to historically correct as possible, while also exploiting the inherent drama of the top-secret preparations and execution of the raid; the pressure put on German Nobel Prize-winner Werner Heisenberg to create a pineapple-sized bomb capable of decimating London; and the stress of family dynamics in Norway and Germany. There’s a hint of romance, but, unlike in The Heroes of Telemark, only of the unrequited variety between the essential Norwegian defector, Leif Tronstad (Espen Klouman Høiner) and a widowed intelligence officer (Anna Friel), who’s fictitious. What may not be recalled from previous versions of the story is the terrible toll paid by several dozen potential saboteurs, who were captured and killed by German soldiers before they could rendezvous with the advance team of four Norwegian fighters, who’d run out of food. Otherwise, the action bounces between Norsk Hydro plant in Rjukan, the British training base in Scotland, Berlin and the snow-covered mountains that stood between the raiders and factory. The mini-series doesn’t ignore the moral and ethical issues faced by scientists and spies, alike, including the slaughter of innocent civilians whose only crime is living too close to the target.

Also from Norway, by way of MHz Networks, comes the contemporary mini-series “Mammon,” which documents the end days of a decades-long financial and political conspiracy that becomes unraveled when a participant’s role is uncovered by his reporter brother, Peter Verås (Jon Øigarden), and, rather than spilling the beans, commits suicide. Bewildered and grief-stricken, Peter continues his investigation but the closer he gets to the truth, the more dangerous it becomes for him and his family. Another mysterious suicide provides the journalist with the single verbal clue, “Abraham,” that suggests the financial wrongdoing also involves some old-fashioned Old Testament violence. Naturally, as Peter gets closer to developing leads into the increasingly bizarre scheme, he encounters resistance from his pastor father, nephew, an ex-girlfriend, police, editor, paid assassins, other reporters and prominent businessmen and politicians, who may or may not share links to Abraham. Given the six-day time span of the narrative and mini-series, the story is only slightly less complicated than it could have been if William Faulkner had been called in to do a rewrite. I didn’t recognize any of the cast members, but I’m pretty sure they’re all big stars in Scandinavia, where “Mammon” was a hit. Fans of such recent exports as “The Killing,” “Borgen,” “Wallander,” “The Bridge” and “Lilyhammer” should find a lot to enjoy here.

Working from the principle that American television will always find room for zombies and other undead creatures, AMC parlayed the huge success of “The Walking Dead” into a potentially even greater franchise, by adding the combination origin story/prequel, “Fear the Walking Dead,” into a companion series. The six-episode horror/drama mini-series is based on the comic book series of the same name by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard. Its second season, debuting on April 10, will be comprised of 15 episodes.  This time, the epicenter of the plague in Los Angeles, when some hope for a cure is held by public-health officials and the infected are being warehoused in sports arenas. The family around whom the narrative revolves lives in the working-class enclave of El Sereno, on the city’s Eastside. It’s been set apart by a high chain-link fence, monitored by soldiers, after riots break out downtown. After escaping the violence, the Clark/Manawa and Salazar clans have found shelter in the abandoned homes of the barricaded suburb. Both extended families have troubles of their own to conquer before finding a permanent home, maybe in Georgia. Foremost among them, perhaps, is the heroin addiction of teen burnout Nick Clark (Frank Dillane), who’s finding it difficult to cop in the zombie apocalypse. The Salazars don’t trust the gringos and the Clark/Manawas are divided by marriage and rivalries between Travis’ first and second wives. “Fear the Walking Dead” gets a bit soapy around the edges, but it’s relieved by plenty of cool head-splattering action, as the epidemic spreads and becomes uncontrollable. Not surprisingly, the production values are all top-notch, especially settings that will be familiar to anyone who lives east of La Brea in L.A. The Blu-ray package adds the featurettes, “A Look at the Series,” a brief look at the series’ timeframe, setting, characters and trials, and “Inside the Characters of ‘Fear the Walking Dead,’”; audio commentaries; a widescreen version of the pilot episode; deleted scenes; and other undead goodies.

In the second season of AMC’s “Turn: Washington’s Spies,” the producers have moved beyond the origins of the Culper Ring, a spy network centered in New York City, Long Island and Connecticut formulated to feed intelligence directly to General George Washington. In 1776, the outcome of the Revolutionary War was anything but a foregone conclusion. As Season One opened, British forces recaptured Long Island, Staten Island and New York City for the Crown, leaving Washington’s army in dire straits. Against the wishes of his loyalist father, Long Island farmer Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell) would put his life in constant danger by passing through enemy lines in the guise of a merchant carrying produce to New York. The ring members developed invisible ink and other unique ways of communicating with fellow spies, known only by numbers. The arrest of Woodhull in the early episodes of the second season allows for the focus to shift to the evil machinations of Benedict Arnold and John Graves Simcoe; the fragile mental states of King George and General George; women volunteers on both sides of the fence; and the key roles played by black freemen. There are times in the narrative when it seems as if every character not fighting is spying, passing along gossip as fact or positioning himself for a job after the war ends. I think “Turn” is a terrific series – it returns in late-April – with a clear ring of authenticity throughout. Even at the end of the season, the war has a long way to go before it’s over. I hope “Turn” can find the audience necessary to take us there, with it.  The DVD adds deleted and extended scenes and a background featurette on Washington and William “Billy” Lee.

“NOVA” takes on two very different subjects, a world apart, in this week’s DVD packages. “Secret Tunnel Warfare” returns to the blood-drenched fields near the village of Messines, in Belgian West Flanders, where some of the heaviest fighting of World War I took place. To break a years’ long stalemate, Allies devised a devastating attack, planting 600 tons of explosives in secret tunnels carved under the German trenches. Scratch the surface of the cornfields there today and you’ll find a largely intact network of trenches, tunnels and mines left behind when the Armistice was signed, compete with live ammunition and corroding grenades, the skeletons of horses killed in the line of duty, helmets and unexploded ordinance. At the expense of a few dozen ears of corn, archaeologists are revealing the extraordinary scale and risks of the Allied tunneling operations in one of the biggest excavations ever undertaken on the Western Front. It opens a unique window on the frenzy of Allied mining activity that led up to the attack in June of 1917, during which mines planted under the German lines were simultaneously triggered, killing an estimated 10,000 German troops instantly.

In “Mystery Beneath the Ice,” the loyalty of PBS viewers is rewarded with yet another reason to worry about the imminent disruption of life on Earth. Apparently, the krill apocalypse has begun and it’s taking place under a thick crust of ice. The population of krill crucial to the Antarctic ecosystem – and, by extension, the world’s ecosystem –is crashing for reasons that continue to baffle the experts. One theory argues that the krill life cycle is driven by an internal body clock that responds to the waxing and waning of the Antarctic ice pack. As climate change alters the timing of the ice pack, their life cycle is disrupted. If krill go the way of the dodo, a primary food source for large sea animals goes with it. Scientists are working on, above and below the ice pack to discover ways to reverse the situation, but diving in frigid conditions makes it tough to find the breeding caves, where krill life begins.

It’s appropriate that Season Four of “Maude” opens with Our Heroine considering a run for New York State Senate, which, on paper, might sound like a good idea, but seriously threatens her marriage to Walter, who’s in danger falling off the wagon. Later in the season, Maude really shows off her independent streak when she spearheads a campaign to elect Henry Fonda as President of the United States, whether or not he wants to be typecast in the role.

Targeted at a slightly younger audience than other TMNT products, “Half-Shell Heroes: Blast to the Past” finds the turtles in the Jurassic Era, where they encounter some friendly dinosaurs and decidedly unfriendly aliens from the future. Using their ninja skills and transportation supplied by the dinosaurs, the four brothers must find a waу to save the daу and future simultaneously. It previously aired as a hourlong special, counting commercials, on Nickelodeon.

From PBS Kids comes Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Super Daniel, with nine episodes sure to tickle the fancy of your preschoolers. Here, the young tiger uses his imagination and “superpowers,” to figure out ways to help his friends out of predicaments. The new collection offers almost two hours of previously aired episodes, including bonus feature, “Goodnight Daniel.”

The DVD Wrapup: Agnes Varda, Macbeth, Coming Home, Finding Gaston and more

Thursday, March 10th, 2016

Jane B. Par Agnès V./Kung-Fu Master: Blu-ray
At 87, the much celebrated European filmmaker Agnès Varda doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Aligned with the French New Wave, her early work not only pre-dated the movement and but also influenced its more identifiable practitioners. If she isn’t as well-known as André Bazin, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and her future husband, Jacques Demy, it’s because of her desire to make films that didn’t focus on established traditions or classical standards. So it took longer for American audiences to warm to her singular vision and experimentation. Being a woman in an industry dominated by men couldn’t have helped her chances for commercial success, either. Varda also has remained active as a creator of stylized documentaries, a judge at prestigious festivals and frequent recipient of honorary awards. Cinelicious Pics has done the arthouse crowd a huge favor by releasing a double feature of rarely seen films Varda made concurrently with Jane Birkin in the mid-1980s: Jane B. Par Agnès V. and Kung-Fu Master (a.k.a., “Le Petit amour”). Varda has described the former as a collaborative portrait of a woman at 40. Although a huge star and multitalented celebrity in Europe, Birkin probably is best known here for being, 1) one of two topless nymphets who invade David Hemmings’ photo studio in “Blow-Up” and, 2) the mother of actress Charlotte Gainsbourg. She’s enjoyed far greater popularity in England and France as an actress, singer, model, cultural attaché, activist and “muse” to French composer Serge Gainsbourg. In 1986, she was approaching 40 with trepidation. Varda, who had passed that milestone 20 years earlier, hoped to convince her that it was a glorious age, with much room left to accomplish great things. In the non-linear bio-doc, Birkin relives key moments in her life through fantasy tableaux, some verging on the surreal. She wanted to “make a feature film about how I really am: jeans, old sweaters, messy hair, barefoot in my garden. Just once, I’d like to forget wigs and pretty costumes. I’d like to be filmed as if I were transparent, anonymous, like everyone else.” While Jane B. Par Agnès V. isn’t remotely mundane, Birkin comes across as a celebrity without airs or false modesty. For those familiar with the London-born personality’s history, it’s as revealing as it is entertaining.

Sometime during the filming of Jane B. Par Agnès V., Birkin described to the filmmaker a story in which a desperately lonely single mother of two girls fills the void in her life with a fling that would qualify as statutory rape in most civilized countries in the world. (In others, the perpetrator probably would be a candidate for summary execution.) Varda saw so much promise in the premise that she put their primary project on hold and quickly embarked on Kung-Fu Master, a purposely misleading title. In it, Birkin’s Mary-Jane becomes infatuated with a 14-year-old boy – played by the director’s son, Mathieu Demy – who can’t hold his liquor at a birthday party and required the help of a maternal figure to make it through his dry and wet heaves. In due course, Mary-Jane develops an unlikely crush on Julien, whose parents have left him alone while they’re gallivanting through Africa. In the time it takes most people to spell M-I-L-F, Varda has put the character on the path of forbidden love, albeit one that remains relatively chaste on screen. In one of her first roles, Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Mary-Jane’s teen daughter, who’s having her own troubles with boys, if of a far more normal variety. The title refers to Julien’s obsession with a violent arcade game of the same name. It reminds us that the boy is a long way away from being mature, while the decidedly immature Mary-Jane might have benefitted from having a son to nurture in more acceptable ways. She even goes so far as to invite Julien to join her and the girls on a trip to England, to visit her folks, and on a vacation to a secluded island. And, yes, it’s fraught with danger for everyone involved. As if to ground the story in something resembling reality, Varda adds a through-line involving a media campaign to alert young people in France and England about the then-growing peril of AIDS. If the thought of a 40-year-old woman becoming sexually infatuated with a 14-year-old boy disgusts you, as it should, Kung-Fu Master is definitely not for you. Ditto, if the fantasy romance between Mena Suvari and Kevin Spacey, in American Beauty, made you squirm. This one, methinks, is strictly for Varda/Birkin completists, who would allow the creative process some slack. Cinelicious Pics has done a nice job restoring both pictures from the original 35mm camera negatives. The set adds new interviews with Varda, one with Miranda July, and an essay by Sandy Flitterman-Lewis

Macbeth: Bu-ray
There’s nothing that demands to be seen live, in a theater, more than the plays of William Shakespeare. Several great adaptations have been committed to the big screen, as well, but too many of them feel forced, contrived or inconsequential. The ones that knock me out are those that take advantage of the settings Shakespeare left for his audience to imagine, through his words. The first time I traveled through Europe, for example, I was astounded by the number of castles visible from the windows of a train. I was also impressed by the close proximity of ancient battlefields, some hundreds of centuries older than the arrival of Columbus in the Americas. In an instant, I was able to envision events impossible to grasp completely in a classroom. The number of film adaptations of Shakespeare plays now is well beyond easy count. Stage productions captured on video only add trees to an already dense forest. Frankly, I didn’t expect much from Justin Kurzel’s recent adaptation of Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender as the Thane of Glamis, Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth and a host of terrific Brits in key supporting roles. What differentiates this version of “the Scottish play” from others, though, is the verisimilitude of meteorological conditions that must have plagued generations of warlords and soldiers hoping for fair skies, under which to conduct their bloody business. “Macbeth” is gloomy enough, without adding enough rain, fog, muck, dirt, dust and portentous clouds to test the resolve of any seasoned cinematographer. Here, Aussie shooter Adam Arkapaw (“True Detective”) turns all of those potential hurdles into gifts from the cinematic gods. Many of the battle scenes were staged on the rocky slopes of Scotland’s Isle of Skye, the largest and most northerly major island in the Inner Hebrides. Blood had been shed there for hundreds of years before King Duncan was born. Other sites include Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland; Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire; Hankley Common, Surrey; and the as-yet unsettled landslip of Quiraing, on Skye. It’s easy to imagine terrible things happening there.  In this, I was reminded of Grigori Kozintsev’s Soviet-era Hamlet and King Lear – available through Facets Video which were shot largely in Estonia and featured translations by Boris Pasternak, music by Dmitri Shostakovich and Jonas Gricius’ icy cold cinematography. You’ll want to keep a sweater close, before hitting play on these DVDs. The splendid Blu-ray adds an excellent Q&A with Fassbender and descriptive “Making Macbeth” featurette. And, how’s this for trivia: Fassbender is the fourth actor of the “X-Men” franchise to play the future king of Scotland, but the only one who’s never played the character on stage. James McAvoy, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen have all played the role on stage and on screen. Moreover, Cotillard has twice starred opposite an actor who played Magneto in the series.

Nights With Theodore
Of all the millions of tourists who visit Paris each year, I wonder how many get a chance to stroll through Parc des Buttes Chaumont, an island of serenity situated in northeastern Paris. Its history, alone, would require another movie or documentary to fully explore. From certain vantage points, it’s possible to marvel at City of Light, fully illuminated, bookended by the Eiffel Tower and Basilica of Sacre-Coeur. Other attractions include two manmade streams, an artificial lake, waterfall and grotto, left behind from the park’s days as a gypsum and limestone quarry. (Before Emperor Napoleon III assigned Jean-Charles Alphand to reclaim the land, it had also served as a site where the bodies of hanged criminals were displayed, as a refuse and sewage dump, and a place for cutting up horse carcasses.) The gardens, woods, bridges and “Temple of Sybille” are pretty spectacular, too. If your Parisian friends are reluctant to share their love of the park, it’s only because they don’t want to see it overrun by tourists. Anyone who picks up a copy of Sébastien Betbeder’s Nights With Theodore, which is largely set within its fenced perimeter, will almost certainly want to add it to the itinerary on their next tour of the 19th arrondissement. The beguiling romance began its life in 2012 as a made-for-TV movie, which explains the 67-minute length. One night, at a party, willowy college student Anna (Agathe Bonitzer) and an underemployed millennial, Theodore (Pio Marmaï), are smitten with each other, if only because this is a fairytale and serendipity is at play. Not wanting the night to end, Theodore leads the Modigliani-esque beauty to a climbable portion of the fence protecting Parc des Buttes Chaumont at night. They fall asleep under a majestic tree, awakening when the sun is high and the park is bustling. It’s a great way to begin a romance and one night of bliss leads to several more, if not always under the same tree. So far, so idyllic. It isn’t until they discover the presence of another park resident that things begin to get weird. Although Theodore is in fine fettle at night, alone in the park with Anna, outside of it he can barely make it from his bed to the door. Could it be that the park, which has a long and fascinating history, provides some magical curative charm over Theodore? Are we supposed to associate Theodore’s condition with Mimi, in La Bohème? And, what’s the deal with the other people who arrive there on moonlit nights to sit on a hill and stare into space? It’s that kind of enigmatic story. Even if we’re left with more questions than answers, the time we spend with the possibly star-crossed lovers is well worth the too-short visit to Paris.

Coming Home: Blu-ray
Zhang Yimou’s name might be familiar to Americans, if at all, as director of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games. Movie buffs, however, know him from such modern classics Red Sorghum, Ju Dou , Raise the Red Lantern, Not One Less, Hero and  House of Flying Daggers, some of which were seen by more people in the west than in the PRC. One of the curious things about Chinese censorship is that it allows for movies unavailable to its citizens to be shown openly elsewhere. Zhang is one of several Chinese artists, who, despite such impediments, continue to work there.) His latest period drama, set during and immediately after the so-called Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, anticipated problems with the censorship board and worked around them. Apparently, there are certain aspects of the Cultural Revolution that Communist Party officials don’t want to see revisited. Coming Home was adapted for the screen by Zou Jingzhi (The Grandmaster) from Yan Geling’s novel, “The Criminal Lu Yanshi.” While the Shanghai-born Yan was serving with the army in Tibet, Zhang was sent to the boonies to work on a farm and in a textile mill. His crime: having a father, uncle and brother who left for Taiwan after the Nationalists lost the Chinese Civil War. It was a small miracle that he was allowed to enroll in film school after the madness of the Cultural Revolution ended.

Zhang has said that he’s wanted to make a film that dealt specifically with the horrors of life during the period, but was prohibited from using that half of her novel for his film. Instead, he focused on the aborted romance between a professor, Lu (Chen Daoming), forced to work in a labor camp during the 10-year period, and his long-suffering wife, Feng (Gong Li), who develops amnesia to compensate for her pain. After escaping from his labor camp, Lu risks immediate re-arrest by making a beeline home. Being a loyal follower of Chairman Mao, his daughter, Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), turns him in to police after a brief, if less-than-fruitful reunion. For her trouble, Dandan is denied a leading role in her ballet company’s production of “Red Detachment of Women.” When Lu is finally freed, along with millions of other men and women, Dandan has abandoned dance and is working in a factory. His wife not only doesn’t recognize him, but she also associates his face with that of a supervisor who sexually harassed her. Without giving too much away, the rest of the movie is taken up with the reconciled father and daughter’s struggle to fix Feng. Not surprisingly, Gong Li delivers a powerful performance for Zhang. Not so coincidentally, her acting debut was in his first film as director, Red Sorghum. The Blu-ray adds a Q&A with Zhang Yimou at the Toronto International Film Festival and directors’ commentary.

Flesh for the Inferno
When it comes to exploitation, few filmmakers are as reliably prolific and, well, exploitative than Richard Griffin, who’s churned out more than 30 movies in the last 15 years. Not all of them are gems, but who can resist such titles as Accidental Incest, Seven Dorms of Death, Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead, The Disco Exorcist and Creature from the Hillbilly Lagoon? In the giallo-inspired Flesh for the Inferno, Griffin and writer Michael Varrati (Jagoff Massacre) jump on the pederast-priest bandwagon. In 1999, four nuns at a Catholic school confront a priest over allegations that he’s been molesting children. After listening to them patiently, he shoots one in the forehead and walls the other three behind a brick wall in the basement. Before they suffocate, the nuns sell their immortal souls to the devil … not that it does them any good. Skip ahead 15 years and the school’s been abandoned by the archdiocese and is ripe for gentrification. Guess what happens when a neighborhood youth group volunteers to clean up the place? That’s right, someone accidentally dislodges the bricks in the nuns’ prison, unleashing the demonic zombies and turning Flesh for the Inferno into an ungodly splatterfest. It helps that Griffin’s been able to round up his usual repertory company of genre-ready actors, Jamie Lyn Bagley, Anna Rizzo, Michael Thurber and Jamie Dufault.

You’re Killing Me
Black comedies don’t get much darker than You’re Killing Me, Jim Hansen’s LGBT answer to “Dexter.” It tells the story of a group of friends so self-absorbed that they not only fail to recognize the presence of a sociopath in their midst, but also refuse to believe him when he admits as much to them. As played by Matthew McKelligon (“Eastsiders”), Joe may not seem normal, exactly, but he’s far too gorgeous and sexy to be a serial killer. It must be a joke. Before George (Jeffrey Self), a narcissistic wannabe Internet star, begins to date Joe, viewers have already witnessed what happened to his last boyfriend. A week into their relationship, he made the mistake of pressing Joe on the sex thing and paid the price for pushing his luck. Joe then became obsessed with George after seeing him perform on his very silly webcast. It isn’t until the folks around them start disappearing that George and his colleagues begin to take Joe seriously. Is it too late or will Joe have the last laugh? While You’re Killing Me lacks the polish of Eating Raoul or “Dexter,” it’s certainly in line with other movies currently attempting to cross over from the LGBT festival circuit.

We Come as Friends
The age of colonization may be long gone, but imperialism continues apace in Africa, where Chinese and American interests now are fighting over what was left behind when the Europeans took their balls and went home. The newly liberated nations basked in the glory of independence for a while, but the celebrated ended when they realized how little was left in the way of easily exploitable resources. Meanwhile, the vultures, buoyed by unlimited capital or religious zealotry, hovered overhead in wait for the most megalomaniacal and greedy leaders to emerge. Nowhere is that more apparent than in South Sudan, which gained its independence from Sudan in 2011 and has endured internal conflict ever since then. Apart from traditional tribal rivalries, the largely agrarian population is divided by religion, politics, economics and other allegiances. The government also is required to burn what little money it has protecting its borders. In We Come as Friends, Austrian-born documentarian Hubert Sauper returns to the continent that inspired him to make the similarly harrowing Darwin’s Nightmare and Kisangani Diary.

This time, he arrived in homemade ultralight plane that took him to places not accessible to large craft and also served as an ice-breaker in more hostile areas. Impoverished villagers and refugees from the north are far more accustomed to the giant transport planes that could either be carrying relief provisions or heavy equipment to rape the and. South Sudan may not have been blessed with the best climate or rich soil, but it has oil, timber and minerals desired in the outside world. Some of their new “friends” didn’t even wait for the fighting to end to come calling. Unfortunately, once the oil started flowing, the prospect of jobs and prosperity didn’t follow. Sauper’s easy mobility allows him to flit from one village to next, listening to the elders’ stories – some of which extend beyond the arrival of the first European colonists – and meeting with politicians charged with cutting deals with the neo-colonists. He eavesdropped on missionaries selling Christianity, Islamists demanding allegiance to the Koran and business executives promising better times to come. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is as optimistic as anyone on the subject of trickle-down economics, even as oil drilling has poisoned the ground water supply garbage dumps have spoiled the scenery. If We Come as Friends asks troubling questions, it’s important to understand why poor people around the world still associate their poverty with U.S. “interests” … Chinese, too.

The Mask You Live In
Finding Gaston
It’s not out of the question to think that filmmaker/actress/speaker/activist Jennifer Siebel Newsom could someday be residing in the White House. She’s married to California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, a Kennedy-esque politician and odds-on favorite to succeed Jerry Brown in 2018. Only 48, Newsom probably already is being groomed for the nation’s highest office. Her resume is impressive, as well. After moving behind the camera, Jennifer’s executive produced two of the most provocative documentaries of the decade: The Hunting Ground and The Invisible War. In 2011, she co-directed with Kimberlee Acquaro another eye-opening film, Miss Representation, which explored the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America, and challenged the media’s limited portrayal of what it means to be a powerful woman. The Mask You Live In examines gender issues from the other side of the fence. Without promoting what could be dismissed as a feminist agenda, the film explores how our culture’s definition of masculinity is harming boys, men and society at large, practically from the cradle to the grave … or, to be more precise, from the color of the paint in a newborn’s nursery to the tears we’re only allowed to shed at the funeral of a close friend, spouse or relative. Some boys can fit into any pigeonhole they’re placed, sailing through life confident in our choices and without resorting to bullying or accepting stereotypes as fact. Others are able to roll with the punches and reach our preferred destination without making too many compromises or concessions to predetermined notions of manhood. Increasingly, though, society is being forced to come to grips with the effects of boys being bullied, shunned, humiliated and forced to conform with absurdly rigid societal norms. Newsom has gathered a diverse group of witnesses to testify on the own experiences, observations and research. They include experts in neuroscience, psychology, sociology, sports, education and media. And, blessedly, none argues for boys and young men to accentuate their “feminine side.” The discussions cover sexuality, homophobia, sexism, pornography, abuse, suicide, rape and acting like a dick because that’s what is expected of males in certain social situations. The Mask You Live In is the kind of film that could be shown in prenatal parenting classes – without putting any macho-man dads on the spot – and again when a son or daughter reaches puberty.

Julia Patricia Perez’ mouth-watering documentary, Finding Gaston, provides even more evidence of the value of a young male listening to his heart and acting accordingly, even if it temporarily causes a parent apoplexy. Gaston Acurio, the only son of a prominent Peruvian politician, was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, first as a lawyer and, then, as a candidate for office. It wasn’t to be. After one day in a law office, Gaston traded his briefcase for a toque and never looked back. The documentary follows his journey from student, in Paris, to one of the most admired chefs in the world. After establishing himself in Paris, Gaston’s father encouraged him to return to Peru and give something back to the culture and people who influenced his ascendency in the culinary universe. And, that’s exactly what he did. In popularizing Peruvian cuisine, Gaston listened to farmers, fishermen and women whose recipes had been handed down to them for generations. He returned the favor by founding schools for aspiring chefs and everyday homemakers, alike, while also providing a market for native produce, fruit, fish and spices. The Lima restaurant he opened with his wife, Astrid, started out French, but grew increasingly Peruvian as they became more familiar with the food available in their own backyard. Its influence spread throughout South America and among foodies, for whom Peru is now a destination for something other than Machu Picchu.

Sucker
In the right hands, there’s almost nothing more fun than a good heist movie. Scam artists come in all sizes, shapes and colors – witness the “Oceans” franchise – and recognize no language barrier. In the wrong hands, of course, the tell is visible from the first sleight-of-hand gag and only an inattentive blind person could miss it. The Australian export, Sucker, falls somewhere in the middle. Its saving grace is a typically delightful performance by Timothy Spall, as a career con artist who takes an 18-year-old Chinese-Australian lad under his arm. TV specialist Ben Chessell collaborated on the screenplay with comedian/actor Lawrence Leung, whose one-man show “Sucker” was a big hit at the Edinburgh Fringe, Melbourne International Comedy Festival and Sydney Opera House. Viral Internet star John Luc (“Mychonny”) plays Leung as a fragile young man who becomes estranged from his parents after being caught cheating on his entrance exams for medical school. Banished to his uncle’s house for the summer, Lawrence meets the Professor (Spall) after he single-handedly takes on the local chess club … drunk. The kid’s such a quick study that the Professor enlists him as a silent partner in his cons. The old man’s teenage daughter is already on the team, so, maybe, you can already see where this thing is headed. If not, hint, it’s a high-stakes card game in which Prof hopes to exact revenge for a beat-down he took years earlier. Frankly, it isn’t much of a scam, but Spall helps the kids pull it off.

The Golden Cane Warrior: Blu-ray
For the past 10 years, Well Go USA Entertainment has been a primary source for new martial arts and action pictures from China, South Korea, Japan and other Pacific Rim countries. It takes real nice care of the DVDs and Blu-rays distributed under its banner here. The Golden Cane Warrior is a fantasy wuxia picture not unlike others produced elsewhere in the region, except for the fact that it was made in Indonesia, by Indonesians, for distribution inside and outside Indonesia. Moreover, it looks as if someone invested real money in the project. The weapons of choice are staffs and sticks, including the “golden cane” of the title. The multigenerational cast of characters is comprised of men and women, boys and girls, who twirl their sticks with the same intensity as any Miss Texas aspirant, albeit with exponentially more lethal force. As Master Cempaka and her four disciples – orphans of her enemies, now potential heirs to the golden cane – prepare for the new warrior guardian to ascend, a treasonous act threatens to destroy the clan. The trouble starts when Cempaka separates Dara, the youngest of the two young women, and Angin, the youngest of the two boys from the group. One will be awarded the Golden Cane and learn the secret maneuver only handed down to masters. The two orphans who are left behind decide to uphold the honor of their parents’ clan by ambushing Cempaka and stealing the staff, thus tipping the balance of power in the mountainous region. Let the fighting commence. The Golden Cane Warrior’s greatest asset might be Indonesia, itself. The vast multi-island nation has been largely unexploited by movie and television teams, so almost anything shot in the boonies would look new and different. And, it does. The Blu-ray easily captures the contrasting colors, flora and topography. If Ifa Isfansyah’s unrated film had gone through the MPAA process, it probably would have qualified for a PG-13 tag. The violence isn’t particularly graphic and, Indonesia being a predominantly Muslim nation, there’s no sex or nudity. What it mostly is, though, is fun.

Children of the Stars
Anyone who thinks that the cosplay phenomenon began at midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, hippy-dippy Renaissance fairs, Trekkie conventions and ComiCon, isn’t taking into account Civil War re-enactments and gatherings of sci-fi fans in 1908 and 1939. It’s only within the last 20 years that every subset of genre fanaticism has been represented in gatherings around the planet. Bill Perrine’s jaw-dropping documentary, Children of the Stars, introduces us to the late Ruth Norman (a.k.a., Uriel), who, in 1954, founded the Unarius Academy of Science with her husband, Ernest. Unarius is short for “Universal Articulate Interdimensional Understanding of Science” and, if it sounds wacky, imagine trying to explain Roman Catholic, Mormon and Scientology tenets to a newly discovered tribe in the Amazon. If it weren’t for the fact that Spanish missionaries threatened the indigenous peoples of the New World with death and dismemberment, they would have been laughed back to Europe. That the Unarius faithful appear to be normal, whatever that means, and not at all cultish, attests to lengths people will go to find something – anything – to hold on to as the world spins its merry way around the sun. At the Unarius Academy of Science, death does not exist, Nicola Tesla was a Space Brother, Satan drives a Cadillac and “Star Trek” creator Gene Rodenberry was a fellow traveler. Members stage their own pageants, make their own movies and get together to discuss where they met and who they’ve been in previous lives. For some reason, Hitler’s name is dropped throughout the film. Not at all self-conscious, believers opened the archives to Perrine and offered testimony that doesn’t sound at all goofy, compared to the nonsense spouted by this year’s crop of Republican presidential candidates. Indeed, given the choice between an America led by Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or the next incarnation of Ruth Norman, a lot of us would pick up the Uranius flag. In any case, Children of the Stars should be of special interest to folks drawn to the early docs of Errol Morris and Trekkies who look for hidden meaning in the original series and its spinoffs. The DVD adds 25 minutes of bonus material.

Open Season: Scared Silly: Blu-ray
After 10 years and four animated features, the four-legged stars of Sony Pictures’ “Open Season” franchise show no sign of throwing in the towel, even after a wholesale change in the actors who voice them.  Open Season: Scared Silly follows the pattern of opening theatrically in some overseas markets, before debuting on DVD in others, including the U.S. The nice thing about it is that it doesn’t shortchange fans, by trimming each new installment to an hour or less and saving money on the animation. This time around, Elliot the mule deer entertains the woodland creatures with a campfire story meant to raise a few goosebumps before turning in for the night. Unfortunately, the legend of the Wailing Wampus Werewolf only serves to scare the bejeezus out of the scaredy-cat bear, Boog. The thought of confronting a werewolf in Timberline National Forest convinces Boog that he should skip the annual summer camping trip. The critters come together on a plan to scare the fear out of their ursine pal, if that makes sense. The Blu-ray comes with bloopers and outtakes; a “super speedy” re-cap of the movie; the featurettes, “Stepping Into the Spotlight: Mr. Weenie’s Process” and “Scaredy Pants: The Fears of ‘Open Season: Scared Silly’”; feature commentary with director David Feiss; and a director profile.

Decline of Western Civilization: Blu-ray
Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years: Blu-ray
42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection Vol. 14/15
Shout! Factory has released a la carte chapters of Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy, which, in 1981 and 1988, deconstructed punk and metal music, respectively, for adults too frightened to address the issue with their spaced-out kids. A third installment, which could have been subtitled, “Teenage Wasteland,” was only peripherally concerned with the music in 1998. Chapter One is distinguished by vintage performances with X, Circle Jerks, Black Flag, Catholic Discipline, Germs and Alice Bag Band, as well as conversations with their more coherent representatives. “The Metal Years” takes a fast-paced look at Sunset Strip’s outrageous Heavy Metal scene of the late ’80s. It features Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, Poison, members of Aerosmith, Kiss and Motorhead, as well as performances by Megadeath, Faster Pussycat, Lizzy Borden, London, Odin and Seduce. It’s the more entertaining of the two, if only because of the amount of alcohol and drugs consumed and ubiquitous groupies.

Impulse Pictures’ comprehensive series of sleazy 8mm shorts, “42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection,” has turned the corner on volumes 14 and 15. By my conservative count, that brings the total to more than 200 entries in the collection, all designed to be viewed during lunch hours and coffee breaks. The no-frills action is definitely not intended for couples’ viewing, unless, of course, the booth is built for two and your partner wasn’t averse to extreme back hair and sticky floors. Among the helpfully descriptive titles in these two volumes are “Totem Pole,” “Licking Lezzies,” “Slippery When Wet,” “Three’s a Ball” and “In the Barn.” Among the recognizable stars are Annie Sprinkle, Erica Boyer, Desiree West, Serena, Linda Shaw, Tina Russell and Veri Knotty, although I think the last one is a ringer. The sets arrive with liner notes from film “archeologist,” Dimitrios Otis, and hall-of-famer, Serena.

TV-to-DVD
IFC: The Spoils of Babylon: Season 1
Hallmark: When Calls the Heart: It Begins With Heart
PBS: Nature: Natural Born Hustlers
PBS: NOVA: Life’s Rocky Start
PBS Kids: WordWorld: Planes, Trains, and Trucks
What began in 2007 as a free-form Internet outlet for comedians and other clever people has evolved, as these things sometimes do, into a spot where producers and programming executives visit regularly to scout talent and borrow ideas. Like National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live and Second City before it, Funny or Die has become a brand synonymous with guaranteed laughs and an audience willing to go the extra mile to find offbeat humor. Founded by Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Chris Henchy, Funny or Die showcases videos of various lengths from a number of famous and amateur contributors. The in-house Funny or Die Team now creates original material for the site and other outlets. One such project, “The Spoils of Babylon,” aired on the IFC channel. In it, Ferrell plays Hemingway-esque author Eric Jonrosh, a master of dramatic fiction and chronicler of the Morehouse family. In a pose once adopted by Orson Welles to pitch wine to TV viewers with uncultivated taste buds, Jonrush introduces each week’s episode, following it with a postscript of overripe pomposity. In the first series, patriarch Jonas Morehouse (Tim Robbins) shepherds his daughter, Cynthia (Kristen Wiig), and adopted son, Devon (Tobey Maguire), from meager beginnings in the Texas oil patch to powerful boardrooms in New York City. Just as the Welles impersonation might fly over the heads of millennial viewers, the obvious references to such 1970-80s’ mini-series as “The Thorn Birds” and “The Winds of War” probably work more effectively on their Boomer parents. Even so, it was pretty easy to buy into the conceit, especially as enhanced by guests Jessica Alba, Val Kilmer, David Spade, Michael Sheen, Molly Shannon, Haley Joel Osment and a mannequin voiced by Carey Mulligan.  Not yet on DVD is the follow-up series, “The Spoils Before Dying,” in which Jonrosh’s banned movie of the same title is unearthed for a hipper generation of viewers.

When Calls the Heart: It Begins With Heart” originally aired over the Christmas holidays as “A New Year’s Wish.” I don’t know why Hallmark felt it necessary to change the title, but it isn’t the first time and probably won’t be the last. Thus, as they said in ancient Rome, caveat emptor. Neither does it look particularly wintery in Hope Valley, this year. In fact, it looks downright tropical. Everything in the frontier outpost has a fairytale aura. The women are all gorgeous and the men abnormally attractive for the period. Everyone has good teeth and fashionable hairdos. There are other anomalies, but who’s counting? This time around, Rosemary’s essay on what it’s like to be a “real frontier family” has attracted the attention of a reporter from the San Francisco Herald, who arrives in time for the annual fireworks show. Problem is, because Rosemary isn’t married, she has to pose as Lee’s wife. Meanwhile, a mysterious stranger pays a visit to the handsome Pastor Frank and Abigail opens her door and heart to a pair of ragamuffin orphans. There’s more, of course.

The latest release from PBS’ “Nature” series, “Natural Born Hustlers,” introduces younger viewers, especially, to animals noteworthy for their ability to fool predators and attract meals through genetic chicanery. They are the shape shifters, mimics, masters of disguise and illusion, cheats and sneaks in the natural world. The series reveals the modus operandi of remarkable animals going to elaborate lengths to claw their way to the top. I only wish that “Nature” was available in Blu-ray. “NOVA” continues its studies in advanced geology, with “Life’s Rocky Start.” Mineralogist Robert Hazen explains, in language most of us can understand how the same tumultuous convulsions that shaped the Earth also created the conditions ripe for the origins of life.

Also from PBS comes “WordWorld: Planes, Trains, and Trucks,” a show designed to help the youngest viewers get a leg up on the basics, when it’s their turn to begin school. All of the characters are made from the letters that spell their names, so, when Frog loses the letters PL from his plane, he and Bug Band must scour the jungle to find them. This DVD set is comprised of eight episodes, all pertaining to movement and travel.

The Bible Stories: In the Beginning
After serving President Jimmy Carter as White House communications director, the advertising and political strategist Gerald Rafshoon began a third career as a producer of such television docudramas as “The Atlanta Child Murders” and “Iran: Days of Crisis.” Getting a Georgia peanut farmer into the White House might have been a piece of cake compared to collaborating on a rapid-fire series of eight TV movies inspired by Old Testament scripture. The international co-productions were shot in Ouarzazate, Morocco, a desert mecca for studios in need of a reliable place to shoot period flicks set in the Holy Land. “The Bible Stories” collection has been released on video/DVD a couple of times since they aired here on TNT in the mid-1990s. The new Shout!Factory series looks as good as new. The three titles released this week are the four-disc collection, “The Bible Stories: In The Beginning,” with “Abraham,” “Jacob,” “Joseph” and “Moses”; “Abraham,” starring Richard Harris and Barbara Hershey; and “Moses,” with Ben Kingsley, Frank Langella, David Suchet and Christopher Lee. Individual releases of “David,” “Jacob,” “Joseph” and “Samson & Delilah” will trickle out through the spring. “Esther” and “Jeremiah” don’t appear to have a street date.

The DVD Wrapup: Danish Girl, Boy, Intruders, Beautiful When Angry, Iron Sheik and more

Thursday, March 3rd, 2016

The Danish Girl: Blu-ray
As the just completed awards season evolved, the biggest controversy surrounding The Danish Girl was the decision made by its distribution company, Focus Features, to promote the movie’s wonderful Alicia Vikander in the academy’s Best Supporting Actress category, instead of in the more prestigious and competitive Best Actress race. In fact, the rising Swedish superstar is on screen longer than the formidable Eddie Redmayne, who was properly placed in the Best Actor grouping. The strategy worked, of course, and went unmentioned in Vikander’s acceptance speech. If the brouhaha over the lack of minority nominees hadn’t erupted, someone might have made a bigger deal over the maneuver, which the Academy has rarely cared to challenge. As expected, 26-year-old Sacramento-native Brie Larson walked away with the Best Actress Oscar, for Room, and everyone walked away happy … except, perhaps, the other Supporting Actress candidates. Vikander will be back soon enough. Still, whenever the Motion Picture Academy lowers itself to the level of the Golden Globes, where The Martian was deemed a comedy-musical, instead of a drama, well, it raises eyebrows. Oscar’s presence in the ancillary marketing campaign – albeit, tarnished – should encourage potential viewers to take a chance on Room and The Danish Girl on DVD-Blu-ray or VOD. If neither picture performed particularly well at the domestic box office, Danish Girl is doing very well globally.) It will be interesting to see if Universal Studios Home Entertainment places advertising in Sunday’s second-season premiere of “I Am Cait” or finds a way to piggy-back off the critical success of Amazon’s “Transparent.” However much overhyped, Bruce Jenner’s public transition to Caitlyn Marie Jenner brought more attention to the struggle for LGBT rights and respectability than could have been achieved in a dozen marches on Washington or PBS documentaries.

Adapted from David Ebershoff’s best-selling novel by screenwriter Lucinda Coxon and director Tom Hooper, The Danish Girl is an intelligent and absolutely gorgeous movie. If neither the book nor the movie bear much resemblance to the historical facts, the film’s interwar European settings, set design and period costumes are splendidly rendered and the lead characters’ paintings are very easy on the eyes. As are Redmayne’s Einar Wegener/Lily Elbe and Vikander’s Gerda Wegener. In the book and film, Gerda is the loyal wife and fellow artist who supports Einar from the decisive modeling session in which he meets his inner Lily, through Lily’s first awkward relationships with men and the surgery that came with no guarantee of success. By choosing to focus on a romance that tested the limits of loyalty, patience and love, Hooper risked offending those of us who prefer the truth to pathos and unharnessed sentimentality. The real story, which has been obscured by time and distance, is extremely compelling, if not nearly as cinematic. What else is new? There’s certainly no discounting the drama of the sexual-reassignment surgery and Lily’s decision to undergo a relatively unproven procedure. Neither has Gerda’s struggle to be recognized as an artist of significance in a man’s world lost any of its relevance. Indeed, what happens in the next nine years in Gerda’s life – she died in 1940, at 54 – would provide ample material for a sequel, if anyone chose to tackle the subject. Also fascinating here is the depiction of German gynecologist Kurt Warnekros (Sebastian Koch) and his relationship to the work already being conducted in Berlin at Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Research. Anyone inspired to learn more about the early years of sexual-identity research should know that most of it was destroyed in 1933, when the Nazis closed the institute and Hirschfeld was able to escape to France. Gerda’s erotic paintings, illustrations and portraits of Lili currently are on display at Copenhagen’s ARKEN museum, with addition stops on the tour possible. Einar/Lili’s work, largely landscapes, is tougher to track down, but some pieces can found in public collections, including the Vejle Art Museum, in Jutland, Denmark. The Blu-ray, which nicely captures Danny Cohen’s imaginative lighting and camera work, adds “The Making of ‘The Danish Girl.’”

The Boy
Intruders
Craig William Macneill’s second feature, The Boy, has several good things going for it, not the least of which are excellent performances by David Morse and Rainn Wilson, as diametrically opposed father figures to a 9-year-old sociopath. Morse plays John Henley, divorced father of Ted (Jared Breeze) and struggling proprietor of an old-fashioned motor lodge in an undefined mountain setting. His wife had her fill of trying to make a dollar stretch to the breaking point and split for Florida, leaving them both behind. The motel’s been in the family for a generation, or two, and John expects to hand it over to Ted when the time comes, whether he likes it or not. Odds are, though, there won’t be anything left to inherit, thanks to a distinct lack of tourist dollars. At first glance, John seems to be a decent father. Before long, however, his bouts with self-pity and booze begin to wear on Ted, whose assignments include sweeping road kill off the highway, feeding the chickens and cleaning up after the guests. One of the first clues that any boy is developing antisocial tendencies is a fondness for killing defenseless animals. One rainy night, Ted uses strewn garbage to lure a deer into the middle of the highway, where, he expects, a speeding car won’t see it in time to hit the brakes. The driver of that car is William Colby (Wilson), who’s escaping something that has something to do with the ashes of his wife carried in a box next to the driver’s seat. Although Colby isn’t looking for company as his wounds heal, he finds Ted’s willingness to help him get back on the road irresistible. For his part, Ted sees in the mysterious stranger an opportunity to hitch a ride to Florida. Every new visitor to the Mt. Vista Motel provides the boy fresh victims for his insipient sociopathy. And, yes, things do get ugly a hurry. In an interview included in the bonus package, Macneill admits to envisioning The Boy as the first installment in a trilogy about the evolution of a serial killer. That kind of thing works if Chapter One is as powerful as The Silence of the Lambs or, dare I say, The Godfather. A more recent example of misplaced chutzpah was evidenced in the dreadful Atlas Shrugged trilogy, which, dollar for dollar, may be one of the greatest box-office flops in history … times three. Even if The Boy looks like the first chapter in the Mad Max series, compared to that hot mess, I can’t see how a direct-to-DVD thriller could raise much financial interest in a trilogy. But, like I said, the performances are worth a look and the mountains – Colombian, as it turns out – are well photographed by first-timer Noah Greenberg.

Just as The Boy teases us with potential, so, too, does Adam Schindler’s debut feature Intruders, which was forced to change its better title, “Shut In,” to avoid confusion with an upcoming film starring Naomi Watts, Oliver Pratt and boy wonder, Jacob Tremblay. Beth Riesgraf, who was so good as the larcenous acrobat in “Leverage,” stars as a pretty blond, Anna, whose agoraphobia is so severe that she can’t even leave the confines of her spacious Victorian house to attend the funeral of her brother. In fact, she can barely accept the fact he’s left her behind. Part of her undesired inheritance is a bag full of money, possibly ill-gotten, that she tries to donate to her flakey Meals-on-Wheels driver, Dan (Rory Culkin), who qualifies as her only friend. Instead of going to the funeral, Anna is at home when a trio of low-life thugs decide to break into the house to steal the money. How they even know the money exists is a mystery to Anna – and us – until what should be the most obvious answer to the question is revealed. In the meantime, she proves herself quite adept at taking on the intruders on her own terms. Everything that happens after Anna takes out the first crook qualifies as a spoiler. What I can say, however, is that Intruders eventually reminded me of a cross between O’Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief,” crossed with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” or “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Reisgraf demonstrates her versatility as Anna evolves from victim to tormenter and avenging angel. How far is she willing to push her luck? Stay tuned. It the screenplay by newcomers T.J. Cimfel and David White isn’t able to sustain the story’s promise, well, it isn’t likely anyone will be bored or come away from the movie unimpressed by Reisgraf.

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry
The nine words guaranteed to make anyone born after 1980 cringe are, “This is how we did it in the ’60s.” No single generation of Americans has proven to be more self-absorbed than the Baby Boomers, of which I was a member. Yes, we helped change the world for the better, if not always for ourselves, then our children and grandchildren. But, we’ve made it awfully difficult for anyone else to carve a niche for themselves. If Mary Dore’s extremely timely history of the women’s liberation movement, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, can be criticized, it’s because it too often feels self-congratulatory and, maybe, if I were 30 years younger, preachy. The women we become reacquainted with here deserve to have their story told and hard-won victories recalled. It isn’t until the final few minutes that we get to the crux of the matter, however. The same young women who’ve benefitted most from the feminist imperative – and, too often, reject the appellation, feminism – are the ones who stand to lose the most if the Supreme Court is allowed to swing even further to the right. In a very real way, the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade sparked a war that no one saw coming until Ronald Reagan sold what was left of his soul to evangelical activists. Like the appointment of Antonin Scalia, it went largely unchallenged by members of the so-called Me Generation. Now, it may too late.

What’s happening today in Texas, Mississippi and most of the other “red” states could spread to the “blue” states in a heartbeat. And, not just the right to have an abortion on demand or equal pay for equal labor, either. The threat can’t be exaggerated. She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry rightly traces the women’s liberation movement of the 1960-70s to the Suffragettes, who, decades earlier, had refused to be dismissed or silenced. That the campaign for women’s suffrage became associated with the temperance movement would come back to haunt activists when Prohibition raised its ugly head. Unlike zealots in the New Left and anti-war movements of 1960s, who too often treated women as if they were slaves, with benefits, progressives came to realize that women’s liberation couldn’t be achieved unless they reached out to sisters of all ethnic, political, religious, economic and sexual orientations. Dore doesn’t ignore the deep fissures in the movement, either. In some cases, victories were won despite the static of dissent. The excitement and passion heard in the voices of the film’s witnesses is so palpable that it might inspire young women today to stand up for the rights they stand to lose in a worst case political solution. Another positive thing about She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is that it allows the daughters and granddaughters of the activists we meet in the film to see them when they were young, burning with passion and had the numbers … not simply as the prigs who bug them about wearing mini-skirts, heels and too much makeup to school. It wouldn’t kill sons and grandsons to watch it, either. The DVD adds deleted scenes that probably were difficult to edit out of the finished product.

Narcopolis: Blu-ray
One of the great conspiracy theories of the 1960s involved tobacco companies, anticipating the inevitable legalization of marijuana, bidding to trademark such brands as Acapulco Gold and Panama Red, which, at the time, were the marketing equivalent of Burgundy wine, Roquefort cheese and Scotch whisky. If the rumor wasn’t true then, it almost certainly will become true as legalization and decriminalization continues apace. And, of course, once Big Tobacco gets its greedy hands on the product, the next most likely thing to happen is the criminalization and taxation of home- and boutique-grown herb. Sound familiar? If not, pick up a copy of Thunder Road or google, “moonshine/NASCAR.” That worst-case scenario is the easiest thing to grasp about Justin Trefgarne’s overcomplicated debut thriller, Narcopolis, which imagines a not-too-distant future in which the manufacture and consumption of all drugs have been legalized, just as long as said drugs have been grown or dispensed by licensed pharmaceutical firms. And, of course, licensing breeds corruption. In the dystopian underground of 2024, an elite police unit, Drecks, has been created to keep black-market dealers off the streets and the drug companies rich. Elliot Cowan (“Da Vinci’s Demons”) plays a former cop and addict, Frank Grieves, called in by Dreck to investigate the identity of a corpse and source of the drug shot or ingested. Not surprisingly, it’s traced to a conglomerate, Ambro, so large its right hand doesn’t know what its left hand is doing … or, if it does, refuses to acknowledge it. The biggest question then becomes, if the establishment wants to protect itself from the truth, why hire someone capable of upending the applecart? Once the jig is up, all that’s left is a long chase that goes nowhere none too fast. On the plus side, the low-budget project looks better than it has any right to be, thanks to newcomer Christopher Moon’s Blade Runner-inspired cinematography and set/art/production designs that provide a legitimately futuristic environment. Also prominent are Jonathan Pryce (“Game of Thrones”), James Callis (“Battlestar Galactica”) and Elodie Yung (“Daredevil”).

Weaponized: Blu-ray
With hall-of-famers Tom Sizemore, Mickey Rourke and Michael Paré on board, almost any straight-to-disc movie is going to have a leg up on the competition. It hardly matters if the story doesn’t make sense or the director is in over his head, because some genuinely nutty stuff is bound to happen between the credit rolls. Weaponized (a.k.a., “Swap”) is no exception. Timothy Woodward Jr.’s action-heavy sci-fi thriller opens with a terrorist attack intended to remind viewers of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. Private military contractor Kyle Norris (Sizemore) facilitates the development of a bio-mechanical weapons program by Professor Clarence Peterson (Rourke), who’s seeking revenge for the death of his son. According to the synopsis, the program allows soldiers to swap consciousness with an enemy target, giving them complete, if temporary control. While the program was intended to combat terrorists and safeguard American soldiers, its goals have been subverted. Naturally, when Detective Walker (Johnny Messner) unwittingly stumbles upon the program, he’s removed from the investigation by his captain (Pare) and a world of shit lands in his lap. I added that part. Frankly, I lost track of what was going on pretty early in the proceedings. Consciousness swapping is a new gimmick to me and I can’t say that it makes much sense. Still, watching these masters of schlock at work is worth the price of admission … barely.

The Sheik
The genius of professional-wrestling magnate Vince McMahon came to the fore in the 1980s, when he took a page from Stan Lee’s book and turned the WWF into a spectacle worthy of a Marvel Comics reunion. By turning a bunch of underappreciated ex-jocks and barroom brawlers into costumed superheroes and supervillains, then adding a rock-’n’-roll soundtrack to the proceedings, McMahon made fans of a generation of young people more attuned to Kiss and Metallica, than Dick the Bruiser and The Crusher. Igal Hecht’s extremely entertaining bio-doc, The Sheik, describes how a supremely talented Iranian athlete would find fame half a world away in an activity that resembles amateur wrestling in the same way that ballroom dancing approximates pogoing and stage diving. Born in Teheran in 1942, Khosrow Ali Vaziri represented Iran in the 1968 Olympics, as part of the Greco Roman wrestling team, before becoming a bodyguard for the Shah of Iran and his family. After his good friend, Olympic gold-medalist and national hero, Gholemreza Takhti, was found in his hotel room, dead of a not-so-apparent suicide, Vaziri decided to split for the United States. He became an amateur champion and coach, before joining Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association. After kicking around various North American circuits for several years, the Islamic fundamentalists who captured the American Embassy opened the door to eventual superstardom in the then-WWF. As the Iron Sheik, he taunted fans by spouting pro-Iran gibberish and waving the country’s flag. His trajectory was straight up, finally winning the championship in 1983 from old-schooler Bob Backlund. A month later, the Iron Sheik’s tenure would be overwhelmed by Hulkomania. His athleticism and showmanship allowed him to go from supervillain to superhero, until the fateful day in 1987 when Vaziri and his “arch-rival” “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan were pulled over by a New Jersey state trooper and busted for possession of cocaine and marijuana. His cover blown, the Sheik would lose his standing in the WWF and develop habits that threatened his marriage, career and health. Most of the second half of the no-holds-barred documentary is devoted to those dark years, from which he would emerge in the early 2000s as a pop-culture hero. What differentiates this film from a dozen others on the same topic and sports, in general, is the forthrightness of Vaziri, family members and 25 fellow wrestlers, including Hulk Hogan and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who add their testimony on his place in WWF/WWE history.

Paprika: Blu-ray
Peekarama: Erotic Adventures of Candy/Candy Goes to Hollywood: Blu-ray
Peekarama: The Young Like It Hot/Sweet Young Foxes
Sensual Encounters of Every Kind
Sex and Astrology
Movies featuring prostitutes, call girls, mistresses, madams, pimps and other freelancers are dime-a-dozen and have been since the silent era. Those set within the walls of a brothel are fewer in number, if for no other reason than the reality of life in a house is less easy to manipulate than those of individuals caught up in the game outside of one. The truly legendary bordellos no longer exist and the prostitutes can in no way be manufactured from a mold or cookie cutter. Among the titles that stand out are Belle de Jour, House of Tolerance, In the Realm of the Senses, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Love Ranch, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Pretty Baby, Working Girls, Saint Jack, the French TV series “Maison close” and such documentaries as “Cathouse: The Series,” Chicken Ranch and Born Into Brothels. The hypocrisy of the American government quietly sanctioning the existence of brothels during times of war, while legislating them out of existence in times of peace, was noted in “Biloxi Blues,” “Catch-22,” “From Here to Eternity” and the History Channel’s “XY Factor: Sex in World War II: The Pacific Front.” Released in 1991, Paprika combined social realism with co-writer-director Tinto Brass’ personal memories of killing time in legal brothels in post-war Italy, instead of attending college classes. It was inspired by John Cleland’s “Fanny Hill,” published in 1748, but updated to 1950s Italy. The astonishingly gorgeous and naturally sexy Debora Caprioglio plays a country girl, Mimma, who, after the death of her parents, lands a job in a big-city brothel to earn money for her boyfriend to start his own business. Given that the only business for which he’s shown any skill is pimping, Mimma soon will be sharing her earnings with the cad and Madame Collette, who nicknames her Paprika for her physical attributes. She only anticipates working at the brothel for two weeks, but is encouraged to stay on and conserve her money. To call Mimma a natural wouldn’t be an exaggeration. With a few exceptions, she enjoys the work and adapts well to the relative luxury and security of brothel life. The patrons are relatively well-heeled, but she falls for an aspiring seaman with dreams of owning his own boat. Mimma’s personal ambitions lead her from one house to another, as well as benefactors of increasing wealth and privilege. Besides the debt Mimma’s been led to believe she still owes her first boyfriend, the underlying tension throughout Paprika is a conservative initiative to close the brothels and return control of the business to pimps and mobsters. In an entertaining interview, Brass explains how the new legislation, while detrimental to his social life, probably forced him to focus on a career in filmmaking. Considering that Brass would become renowned as an eroticist, obsessed with busty babes with big butts, he clearly found a way to monetize the time wasted in his college days. Paprika isn’t exclusively interested in promoting the pulchritude of Italian womanhood, as is usually the case with Brass’ output. The narrative also offers commentary on the hypocrisy of Italian lawmakers and the plight of working girls, who, after the Merlin Law went into effect, in 1958, were forced to work the streets, take on pimps, rely on their own resources for health concerns and weather the ravages of age on their own. If Paprika has a happy ending, it can be credited in large part to the gumption and inspiration of Fanny Hill. Part of what makes Brass’ films such a treat are the brilliant production values on display, including the lighting, sets, costume designs and many strategically placed mirrors. No matter how one feels about his sexual appetites, his slightly softer than hard-core approach to porn never lacks polish, eye candy or winking humor. And, it looks great on Blu-ray.

Vinegar Syndrome’s series of “Peekarama” double-features takes viewers of a certain age back to a time in American eroticism when some companies gave lip service, at least, to the idea that porn needn’t be peddled exclusively to the rain-coat crowd. Some movies were distinguished by recognizable narratives, sex-positive couplings and attractive actors. (Ron Jeremy didn’t always resemble an overgrown Chia Pet.) That, of course, would change as budgets were kept from matching the aspirations of the more creative artists. In 1978, shortly after the amazing financial success of Deep Throat suggested that all things were possible, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner teased buxom blonds everywhere by hinting of a worldwide search for the actress to portray Playboy’s cartoon goddess, Little Annie Fanny, in a live-action movie. That didn’t happen, of course, but it wasn’t for lack of inspiration. VCX beat Playboy to the punch, intentionally or otherwise, with Erotic Adventures of Candy and Candy Goes to Hollywood, whose star, Carol Connors, combined the attributes of Daisy Mae Yokum and Little Annie Fanny. As conceived by Gail Palmer, the former is a comic adaptation of Voltaire’s, “Candide,” by way of Terry Southern’s novel, “Candy,” in which the virginal farm girl is curious about sex, but is forced to learn all the essential lessons the hard way. In Candy Goes to Hollywood, our heroine no sooner steps off the Greyhound on Hollywood Boulevard than she attracts the attention of a predatory sleazeball (John Leslie), who convinces her that he should serve as her agent. This one is full of the then-current pop-cultural references, including Saturday Night Fever and “The Gong Show.” The sex scenes aren’t anything special, but everything else easily qualifies as comedy. It includes a guest appearance by the late punk performer, Wendy O. Williams. Also in the mix of both pictures are such Golden Age stars as Desiree Cousteau, Sharon Kane, John Holmes, Rhonda Jo Petty, Richard Pacheco, Don Fernando, Georgina Spelvin, Paul Thomas, Patti Cakes and Eileen Welles.

The second double-feature is from 1983 and, therefore, more buttoned down, as these things go, anyway. Both qualify as couples’ viewing, though. Otherwise, Bob Chinn’s The Young Like It Hot and Sweet Young Foxes are noteworthy for introducing the glamorous Native American actress and two-time Miss Nude Galaxy, Hyapatia Lee, to adult-movie fans and, boy, did she make an impression. In The Young Like It Hot, telephone operators at a small-town company turn to phone-sex when threatened by their boss with automation. In Sweet Young Foxes, Lee plays a college freshman home from school and bored out of her mind. Along with some hometown friends, none of whom look remotely young enough to still be in college, Lee uncovers a world of sexual delights she never knew existed. In addition to Lee, the casts include Kay Parker, Shauna Grant, Lili Marlene, Herschel Savage, Mike Horner, Joey Silvera, Cara Lott, Pat Manning, Eric Edwards and a 30-year-old Jeremy. All four movies have been scanned and restored from 35mm camera negatives and add original theatrical trailers. Interviews with director Bob Chinn and actor Bill Margold are included in the former.

As long as we’re strolling down mammary lane, here, there’s 1978’s Sensual Encounters of Every Kind in which several more future all-stars – Leslie Bovee, Serena, Dorothy LeMay, Jon Martin, the ageless Spelvin and ubiquitous Leslie – pass an ancient talisman from one generation to another. Possession ensures its owner will be granted an ultimate sexual fantasy. The plot device will be used and reused for as long as porn exists. The new 2K restoration adds an audio interview with Jon Martin. Co-written by Harold Lime (Amanda by Night) is pretty hot, actually.

Even if Matt Cimber hadn’t created the ridiculous 1980s TV series, “GLOW: Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling,” or anticipated the mainstream porn revolution with the 1971 mockumentary, Sex and Astrology, his place in the show-biz hall of shame would be assured by the notoriety surrounding the Pia Zadora vehicle, Butterfly, which he adapted from a James M. Cain novel. Historians will immediately recall Butterfly as the movie most closely identified with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s greatest moment of infamy. It also was nominated for 10 Razzies, including two for Oscar-winner Ennio Morricone and one for Orson Welles. (To be fair, Cimber also directed recently re-released The Witch Who Came From the Sea, which wasn’t half-bad.) Anyway,

in Sex and Astrology, Cimber explored the erotic, humorous and downright unappetizing confluences of the constellations and human sexuality. It extends from toga parties in ancient Greece and Rome, to hippie freakouts in the psychedelic 1960s. Vinegar Syndrome brings it to home video for the first time, restored in 2k from newly discovered 16mm vault elements.

Kung Fu Trailers of Fury: Blu-ray
Common wisdom among moviegoers today holds that trailers not only are too goddam loud, but that they give away far too much of the plot. If the trailer sucks, it’s highly likely the movie it plugs will, too. The nature of the cinematic beast now demands that teasers sometimes appear a year ahead of a potential blockbuster’s release, serving best as trailers for trailers to come. Those savvy viewers who wouldn’t think of taking their seats after the trailers begin to roll know that the earlier a trailer is shown, the less likely it is that a scene they see will appear intact in the finished product. The same is true for the music and, even, a character. That’s because the first trailers for highly anticipated movies are finished before shooting is completed and long before the soundtrack has been recorded or special effects edited. Exhibitors who gather in Las Vegas each spring expect to be shown previews of films they’ll be showing at Christmas, if not some early footage and appearances by a star or two. Genre films not destined for holiday release are allowed to take their time. From Severin Films comes “Kung Fu Trailers of Fury,” a two-hour compendium of vintage previews for dozens of movies from the Golden Age of Hong Kong action flicks. What’s wonderful about them is the amount of martial-arts action and stunt gags represented in the trailers, leaving almost nothing to anticipate when the finished product finally arrived. And, for Western audiences, many of these pictures never did open. Among the many actors shown in various stages of their career are Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Lo Lieh, Sammo Hung, Angela Mao, Chuck Norris, Jimmy Wang Yu and Wu Tang, in such classics as The Way of the Dragon, Death Blow, Two Champions of Shaolin, Daggers 8, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, Shaolin Wooden Men, The Story of Drunken Master, Enter the Fat Dragon and Brutal Boxer. There’s plenty more, as well. They’ve been transferred in 2K from a collection of recently unearthed 35mm reels. Blu-ray bonuses add “A Brief History of Kung Fu Cinema,” with martial-arts nerds Ric Meyers and Frank Djeng; commentary with Meyers (“Films of Fury”), Michael Worth (“The Bruceploitation Bible”), martial-arts instructor Greg Schiller and Rick Stelow of Drunken Master Video; “The Way of the Cube,” on the discovery of the original 35mm trailers underneath the stage of a maverick UK cinema.

TV-to-DVD
The Bold Ones: The New Doctors: The Complete Series
Comedy Central: Drunk History: Season 3
Disney XD: Lego Star Wars: Droid Tales
Nickelodeon: Paw Patrol: Brave Heroes Big Rescues
With the release of “The Bold Ones: The New Doctors: The Complete Series,” Shout! Factory archivists have completed the cycle of groundbreaking series under NBC’s “The Bold Ones” umbrella: “The Lawyers,” “The Protectors” and “The Senator.” The network had also employed the wheel format for anthology series produced by Universal Studios, “The Name of the Game” and “The NBC Mystery Movie.” All of them reflected an effort by a new generation of producers to break from prime-time clichés and personality-driven gimmicks. Along with a mix of movie-tested actors and attractive newcomers, “The Bold Ones” showed new thinking in the various disciplines. “The New Doctors” chronicled the inner workings of the “prestigious” David Craig Institute of New Medicine, where Dr. David Craig (E.G. Marshall) and his assistants Dr. Paul Hunter (David Hartman) and Dr. Ted Stuart (John Saxon) tackled the most challenging of cases, frequently using cutting-edge medical techniques and “psychosocial” reasoning. At the dawn of the HMO era, doctors could afford the time to dig into maladies that today would be dismissed out of hand or passed along to another health-care provider. Despite some unrealistically soapy elements, the individual episodes – which ran for four seasons, from 1969 to 1973 — hold up pretty well today. Like most other network series of the time, women and diversity protagonists were limited to guest spots. (In “The Protectors,” African-American actor Hari Rhodes played a liberal district attorney to Leslie Neilsen’s conservative deputy chief of police.) Co-creator Steven Bochco was still a decade away from revolutionizing the industry with such series as “Hill Street Blues,” “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” “L.A. Law” and “NYPD Blue.” Directors included Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon), John Badham (Saturday Night Fever) and Jerry Lewis (The Nutty Professor). The 43-episode set adds an “Ironside” crossover.

I don’t know if the producers of “Drunk History” have considered adding an interactive home game to the hilarious Comedy Central franchise. It wouldn’t be difficult for amateur comedians/alcoholics to improvise on their own, but a collection of scripts would save a tedious Wikipedia search for themes. The winners could be awarded a free Uber trip to a local rehab center or AA meeting. The star-studded show is an offshoot of the “Funny or Die” web series created in 2007 by Derek Waters and Jeremy Konner. In each episode, an inebriated narrator struggles to recount an event from American history, while actors enact the narrator’s anecdote and lip sync the dialog. Season Three topics include New Jersey, Miami, spies, New Orleans, Cleveland, games, journalism and Los Angeles. Guests include Kat Dennings, Colin Hanks, Jack Black, Jaleel White, Greg Kinnear, Stephen Merchant, Justin Long, Jason Ritter, Tony Hale and Christopher Meloni.  Since January 12, 2015, a British version of “Drunk History” has been broadcast on the UK’s Comedy Central.

A comparison can be made between “Drunken History” and the five-part mini-series “Lego Star Wars: Droid Tales,” in that the entire “Star Wars” story — “Phantom Menace” to “Return of the Jedi” – is told through the subjective memories of R2-D2 and C-3PO. As far as I know, the beloved robots were stone-cold sober while recalling events in the mega-franchise’s history, as dramatized by characters (and backdrops) built from Lego bricks. A working knowledge of all-things-Star Wars is probably necessary to fully enjoy the mini-series, but not essential. An accidental kidnapping occurs while the droids are reminiscing at a victory celebration in the Ewok village on Endor. Some parents may be concerned that “Droid Tales” is nothing more than an infomercial for related products, but, sadly, such interlocking synergies have become a fact of life. At least, young fans should enjoy the action and writing.

Nickelodeon’s popular adventure series for pre-schoolers is represented by the six-adventure collection, “Paw Patrol: Brave Heroes, Big Rescues.” Their daring canine heroes are required to “em-Bark” on missions that take them through dangerous caves, bunny-filled woods, an icy tundra, under the waves and Adventure Bay, to prevent a dinosaur invasion.  and more adventures.

Capture the Flag
Enrique Gato’s computer-animated sci-fi feature, Capture the Flag, was made in Spain, about one of the great conspiracy theories in American history. No sooner did the Apollo 11 team splash down in the ocean than skeptics began to spread the theory that the mission was staged on a Hollywood backlot and directed for broadcast by Stanley Kubrick, whose 2001: A Space Odyssey has made NASA groovy. Capture the Flag revisits the paranoia surrounding the mission and others to come. Mike Goldwing is a “plucky” 12-year-old surfer, whose father and grandfather were astronauts. Grandpa Frank remains haunted by the decision that kept him from joining Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface. Even that memory is being threatened by a billionaire, who wants to fly to the moon, mine its resources and steal the American flag planted there. In an effort to thwart the scheme and redeem his grandfather’s reputation, Mike, gramps and his best friends, stow away on the shuttle. While Capture the Flag could never be mistaken for a Pixar or DreamWorks production, scientific-minded youngsters should find something here to enjoy.

Dudes & Dragons
What I know about cosplay movies could be put in a thimble, with room left over for spare change. I can’t even tell the difference between a straight fantasy adventure and a parody of a fantasy adventure. The title here, Dudes & Dragons, sounds as if it could be a satire, but I think I missed most of the jokes. Then, I learned that it originally was called, “Dragon Warriors,” which, while more accurate, wasn’t nearly as promising. It has to count for something, though, that Maclain Nelson and Stephen Shimelk’s film won a top prize at the 2015 Dragon*Con Independent Film Festival. What was able to discern immediately was that all of the action was shot in front of a green screen, so, occasionally, it seems as if elements from other movies or podcasts are accidentally intruding on the characters in Dudes & Dragons. Despite the momentary presence of Luke Perry, I suspect that most male viewers will be attracted to the movie by the beautiful Lady Ennogard (Kaitlin Doubleday), who spends an inordinate amount of time chained to makeshift gallows in an outfit that reveals plenty of side-boob, if not nearly enough front-boob. She’s being punished for refusing to marry the evil wizard, Lord Tensley (James Marsters), who, in retaliation, releases a deadly dragon to terrorize the land and eliminate love. Only the intercession of a true Dragon Master can break the curse and neutralize the dragon. It gets far more complicated from here. At 122 minutes, there’s plenty of time for things to get uncomplicated. How many viewers will make it to the end is another question altogether.

 

The DVD Wrapup: Spotlight, Good Dinosaur, Cannibal Women, Bees and more

Thursday, February 25th, 2016

Spotlight: Blu-ray
Sometimes, when the words “priest,” and “pedophilia” appear in a feature story or movie review, everything that comes after them is superfluous. As bummers go, the subject of Roman Catholic priests abusing their power by molesting children is right up there with gang rapes and terminal cancer. Some folks simply don’t want to be forced to deal with such a sordid subject, while others have already gotten their fill of it. At first glance, the late Oscar favorite, Spotlight, would appear to promise just such an unpleasant experience. The fact is, though, it’s no longer the kind of societal phenomenon that can sneak up and surprise anyone, anymore. Child abuse among priests and nuns has already been well covered in several fine documentaries and dramas, including Deliver Us From Evil, Sex Crimes and the Vatican, Twist of Faith, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Doubt, Sex in a Cold Climate and its dramatization, The Magdalene Sisters, Philomena and both The Boys of St. Vincent and The Boys of St. Vincent: 15 Years Later. Instead,like All the President’s Men, Spotlight is a journalistic procedural and the target of the investigation is abuse of power. While terrible crimes are unraveled, the excitement comes from watching highly trained and unusually dedicated reporters work on all eight cylinders in pursuit of a single goal: the truth. Just as President Nixon and his co-conspirators corrupted the power vested in the highest elected office in the land, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston used every available legal and extralegal tactic available to it to subvert justice and keep the crimes of its clergy secret. Nixon’s spokesmen told bald-faced lies to reporters, as did Cardinal Bernard Francis Law. In both instances, records that might have revealed the truth earlier were destroyed, misplaced or corrupted. In both journalistic procedurals, the papers’ publishers know exactly what’s at stake and understand the potential for reprisals by the targets, readers and advertisers. In both cases, too, reporters and editors acted as if the sanctity of the First Amendment depended on their professionalism, which, of course, it did. The biggest difference between the two movies can be found in the depiction of the investigative teams. By necessity, director Alan J. Pakula and screenwriter William Goldman portrayed Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward and Ben Bradlee as if they were demi-gods and someone nicknamed Deep Throat was in possession of the Holy Grail.

Outside of the Globe newsroom, the Spotlight team mostly toiled in anonymity, absent the trappings of superstardom and exaggerated opinions of themselves. Incoming editor Marty Baron, now at the Washington Post, gets the props he deserves for finding a way to advance the story beyond what had already been reported by the Boston Herald and Phoenix. Laboring outside New York and the Washington Beltway somehow renders everything a journalist exposes less important, even taking down a deeply entrenched and ethically challenged Cardinal of the Church. Director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) does a nice job cutting through the fog of hard-core Catholicism that permeates every nook and cranny of official Boston. He gets terrific performances from Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d’Arcy James and Rachel McAdams, as the Spotlight reporters; Liev Schreiber, as Baron; John Slattery, as Ben Bradlee Jr.; and Stanley Tucci as attorney Mitchell Garabedian, the primary subject of the Showtime drama on the same case. The movie’s subtext pertains to the self-inflicted diminishment of the newspaper industry in the years since the Spotlight investigation. In 2001-02, the American newspaper industry was still riding pretty high. That would begin to change dramatically in the next few years, as papers began to pay attention to the demands of Wall Street over the expectations of readers. In some communities, investigative teams were deemed luxuries and dismantled. That situation is addressed in a panel discussion with the actual Spotlight reporters, “Uncovering the Truth: A Spotlight Team Roundtable,” along with a couple of short featurettes.

The Good Dinosaur: 3D/2D Blu-ray
The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar
If Pixar/Buena Vista’s The Good Dinosaur didn’t exactly set the international box office on fire when it opened in time for our Thanksgiving weekend, if not anyone else’s, it might be because, 1) animated dinosaurs are as overexposed as zombies on the big screen, or 2) news of it being a “troubled” project spread beyond the Hollywood trades, diluting any positive buzz before it began. My guess is No. 1. By all of the usual standards, The Good Dinosaur is a very good movie. It tells a compelling story in an entertaining way and looks great on whatever size screen it’s shown. Critical mass had already been reached on anthropomorphic dinosaurs, along with stories about lions, tigers, polar bears and penguins threatened by man’s encroachment on their habitats. Then, too, there’s the matter of the PG rating, which, while not unusual for Pixar, is something parents expect of Disney products. When characters die or are wounded severely in a Disney movie, the MPAA invariably gives it a pass, with a “G.” This doesn’t always apply to Pixar-branded products, however, and The Good Dinosaur does contain a couple of things that might disturb very young viewers, if no one else. The “what if” premise might require some explaining, as well, especially for home-schooled children of fundamentalists. What if the asteroid believed to have been responsible for the destruction most animal life 65 million years ago actually missed the planet by an eyelash and giant dinosaurs never became extinct? Among other things, the movie suggests, giant cold-blooded lizards would be the dominant life force and human evolution would be stunted by the sheer force of their enormity and head start in the evolutionary race. Wisely, The Good Dinosaur doesn’t address the possibility that the Garden of Eden, itself, might have been devoured by grazing does omnivores, leaving Adam and Eve naked and hungry. Instead, vegan dinosaurs here have mastered the ability to raise crops on farms on well-manicured farm, while carnivores herd buffalo instead eating everything in sight. (Appropriately, Sam Elliott provides the voice of the cowboy T-Rex.)

After being washed away from his family in a flood, an Apatosaurus named Arlo makes friends with a feral human boy, Spot, whose playfulness sometimes gets in the way of the journey home. The imaginatively drawn landscapes and backdrops – reminiscent of the American west – will help younger viewers understand what’s happening. So will the stellar voicing cast, which includes co-writer/director Pete Sohn, Frances McDormand, Jeffrey Wright, Steve Zahn, Anna Paquin, A.J. Buckley and, of course, John Ratzenberger. The final product probably was compromised a bit by a midcourse correction during its six-year production schedule. It resulted in the original director being replaced, the story rewritten and most of the voice cast let go. Serious staff compression couldn’t have helped morale, either. The highlight of the 2D/3D Blu-ray package is the Oscar-nominated theatrical short, Sanjay’s Super Team, in which a fully assimilated Indian-American boy, Sanjay, connects with his family’s traditional religious beliefs by fantasizing a battle between three Hindu deities and a three-headed demon. Pixar board artist Sanjay Patel (The Incredibles) directed the semi-autobiographical short, with Brent Schraff providing the voices. As a thematic and stylistic merging of West and East, “Sanjay’s Super Team” is an example of the freedom accorded makers of short films, unhindered by commercial expectations and meg-budget pressure. Other bonus material includes an audio commentary, with Sohn and teammates going deep on making-of and inspirational background; “The Filmmakers’ Journey,” with Sohn addressing issues related to embarking on a first feature, especially in midstream; “Hide and Seek,” with Arlo and Spot; “|True Lies About Dinosaurs,” in which kids can learn what separates movie dinosaurs from real ones; “Recyclosaurus,” the crew competes to create the best dinosaur ever, from discarded items; “Every Part of the Dinosaur,” which explores the animation challenges; “Following the T-Rex Trail,” in which artists visit a working cattle ranch to research how things are done; deleted scenes, with intros; and scenes developed for the previous version.

The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar extends Disney’s Pride Lands franchise by introducing Kion, the son of Simba and Nala, and the younger brother of Kiara. He serves as the prince of the Pride Lands and the leader of the Lion Guard, an elite team of animals tasked with preserving the savannah. Along with Bunga the honey badger, Fuli the cheetah, Beshte the hippo and Ono the egret, Kion vows to defend the Pride Lands from predators and maintain balance within the Circle of Life. Typical of the series, “Return of the Roar” benefits from lots of lots of humor, music and kids’ familiarity with beloved characters. It coincides with the debut of a new “Lion Guard” series on Disney Channel.

The Girl in the Book
Freshman writer/director Marya Cohn’s The Girl in the Book could have wound up being the quintessential made-for-Lifetime movie, in that its protagonist is an ambitious young woman whose bad choices as teenager come back to haunt her as an adult. Although Emily VanCamp’s movie-star good looks sometimes work against the credibility of her character, Alice Harvey – she tries to un-glam the publishing-house drone, but to little avail — she’s probably representative of a certain kind of yuppie, who blows her paycheck on fashions seen in Vogue, makeup and overpriced cocktails. Ana Mulvoy-Ten, the European newcomer who plays the teenage version of Alice, kind of reminds me of Stevie Nicks on her best days. As the daughter of an aggressively obnoxious literary agent, teenage Alice allows herself to be seduced by one of her dad’s clients (Michael Nyqvist) in return for some writing advice. When she discovers that the loss of her virginity plays a central role in the cad’s new novel, she crawls into a shell she’ll be forced to carry throughout early adulthood. Instead of punching out the writer, Alice’s dad (Michael Cristofer) applauds her choice in mentors. Nearing 30, Alice is doing well enough as a virtual go-fer to somehow afford a cool Manhattan apartment, but she suffers from almost chronic insecurity caused by the first two men in her life. In another soap-opera cliché, it manifests itself in occasionally feverish bouts with promiscuity. At the same time as the novelist unexpectedly walks back into Alice’s life, and she’s cynically assigned to supervise his publicity junket, she discovers a needle in the haystack in the form of an up-and-coming female author. Instead of being hailed as the house’s next great literary agent, Alice is forced to watch the men in her life – now, including her dick boss – stumble over themselves taking credit for the find. It probably works that way in real life, too. Cohn’s juggling act includes humanizing Alice’s various dilemmas while avoiding the yuppie and feminist clichés that offer easy answers for difficult problems.

Frankenstein: Blu-ray
As rites of passage go, watching the 1931 version of Frankenstein, alone, in a darkened room, is pretty imposing. Not only has this introduction to the horror genre passed the test of time, but it also serves the purpose of bonding parents to their children. Usually, fathers and sons, but, occasionally, dads and daughters. (I’ve never met a woman who’s bonded with her daughter or son over a classic Universal monster flick, not even Bride of Frankenstein, and certainly not the Three Stooges.) Even though they share the same title, Bernard Rose’s Frankenstein shouldn’t be confused with James Whale’s original, especially as a rite of passage. Rose has given us such idiosyncratic indie entertainments as Immortal Beloved, Ivansxtc, The Kreutzer Sonata, Mr. Nice and 2 Jacks. The closest he’s come to the mainstream is Candyman, a warmly recalled horror fantasy partially filmed in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green Housing Project. His Frankenstein is told entirely from the perspective of the monster (Xavier Samuel), here named Adam. As created by Danny Huston and Carrie-Anne Moss in their 21st Century lab, Adam is born with superhuman strength, but the mind of an infant. At first, his creators are giddy with hope for Adam. It doesn’t take long before he begins to regress physically, however, coaxing the scientists to start all over again with a cloned Monster. Adam may not be a genius, but he recognizes the pain that could come with a premature autopsy. His strength allows him to break away from his constraints and escape into a world he can’t possibly be prepared to face. From this point on, Frankenstein follows Mary Shelley’s blueprint, right down the unfortunate little girl and blind musician. His basic problem is that he doesn’t know how to differentiate kindness and confrontation. Neither is able to modulate his Hulk-like strength. The reason I caution those unfamiliar with the story and its place in the canon from starting with Rose’s Frankenstein is because of the hyper-realistic depictions of surgical gore and brutality. This includes Victor Frankenstein’s attempt to dissect his failed creature and coping with life as a homeless Monster. As before, viewers will be required to decide for themselves as to whether Adam is more or less humane than humans he confronts on the mean streets of L.A.

Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death: Blu-ray
American Horror Project, Volume 1: Blu-ray
At one time, political satirist and standup comedian Bill Maher must have harbored ambitions of becoming a star of the comedy stage, silver screen and television. Well, two out of three ain’t bad. Watch his magnum cinema opus, Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, and you’ll see for yourself how much more difficult it was Maher to play a politically incorrect jungle guide than to become a politically incorrect talk-show host and celebrity atheist on HBO. Of course, he was young in 1989 and probably envisioned parleying “Cannibal Women” into a regular sitcom gig, in addition to his standup gigs, just like everyone else on the comedy circuit. In J.F. Lawton’s feature debut, Maher also had to overcome playing second fiddle to Shannon Tweed and Adrienne Barbeau, who had already reached iconic status in the world of T&A exploitation flicks. The movie itself is a parody of radical feminism, constructed on a foundation laid by Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, with a few references to The African Queen, Indiana Jones and Disneyland’s Jungle Ride thrown in for pop-culture mavens. Tweed plays Margo Hunt, a card-carrying member of N.O.W. – really! — and respected anthropology professor at a SoCal college. She’s enlisted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to counter a plot by fellow educator Dr. Kurtz (Barbeau), who’s raised a guerrilla army of Piranha Women to corner California’s avocado market. No man dares enter the jungle surrounding San Bernardino and Riverside – that’s right, jungle – as long as the cannibal warriors control the orchards. Accompanying Maher and Tweed on the harrowing up-river journey is Bunny, an impressionable home-economics major and brunette in dumb-blond drag. While the leading ladies get to keep their clothes on, a few of the Piranha Women get viewers hopes up by shedding their tops in the opening scene. This qualifies as a semi-bummer, considering that most of the reason for watching “Cannibal Women” is the possibility of Hall of Fame boobage from Tweed and Barbeau. In its place is a screenplay that is frequently quite funny and genuinely satirical. The nicely upgraded Blu-ray only adds a bevy of trailers from other kooky Full Moon pictures.

Over at Arrow Video/MVD, this week’s genre treat arrives in the form of American Horror Project: Volume 1, a compilation that promises “three tales of violence and madness from the 1970s” and largely delivers. The first, Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973), is most noteworthy for the appearance of Herve Villechaize, immediately prior to his breakthrough appearances in The Man With the Golden Gun and “Fantasy Island.” Here, though, the heavily French-accented actor is only one of several malevolent freaks residing in the bowels of a run-down fairground. Outsiders Vena Norris and her parents take jobs at Mr. Malatesta’s carnival, running a midway game booth, so they can search for their missing son. Its manager, Mr. Blood (Jerome Dempsey), is a vampire who sees in the Norris clan a temporary supply of plasma. In an underground chamber, Malatesta (Daniel Dietrich) performs deranged experiments and runs old horror films to keep the company of cannibal freaks amused. Christopher Speeth keeps thing creepy by experimenting with camera angles, lighting and atmospheric music. The movie’s low-budget constraints are part of its charms.

In Matt Cimber’s truly disturbing American giallo, The Witch Who Came From the Sea, Millie Perkins plays a woman whose dreams and fantasies – triggered by memories of her sexually abusive father – push her to the brink of madness at a most inopportune time for her male lovers. Twenty years after her dad “disappeared at sea,” Molly is finally coming to grips with the reality of her childhood ordeal, which she’s sublimated for all those years. Now, hooked on pills and booze, and working in a Venice Beach nightclub, Molly takes advantage of her access to high-profile father figures to take out her frustrations. They include a pair of Muscle Beach boneheads, a pair of NFL stars and an actor in a popular commercial for razors. Still best known for her debut performance in The Diary of Ann Frank, Perkins shows a lot of courage in a role that requires her to be semi-nude for long stretches of time and be a credible psycho-killer. Turns out, she was perfect for the part. The fact that the story was written by her second husband, Robert Thom (Bloody Mama), probably explains why she accepted such a challenging role. Forty years later, it easily qualifies as an arthouse slasher flick.

Robert Allen Schnitzer’s The Premonotion tells the story of another woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. After she’s released from a mental institution, the still unstable Andrea (Ellen Barber) is determined to locate the daughter she gave up for adoption years earlier. When her closest friend, a well-meaning midway clown, takes a photograph of a girl who looks like the child, only five years older, it triggers Andrea’s obsessive need to kidnap her. Danielle Brisebois (“All in the Family”) plays little Jennie, who loves her foster family and has no desire to reconnect with her birth mother. Jennie’s foster mother, played by Sharon Farrell, has premonitions of bad things to come, so it comes as no surprise when investigators are required to rely on ESP and other paranormal techniques to locate and rescue the child. Andrea’s the key suspect, so things get very weird and scary when she’s killed in an accident before the child is discovered. Bonus materials on the six-disc set include three short films by Schnitzer; several background and making-of featurettes, featuring fresh and vintage interviews with casts and crew; a production stills gallery; reversible sleeves for each film., featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork; and a limited edition 60-page booklet, containing new articles on the films. Each film arrives with interesting interviews and background material. This is especially true for Perkins’ recollections from “The Witch.”

The Bees: Blu-ray
The Curse/Curse II: The Bite: Blu-ray
Millennium / R.O.T.O.R.: Blu-ray
The environmental consciousness that grew out of the 1960s’ political movements not only inspired Earth Day and its various green-tinged offshoots, but also a slew of eco-horror films informed by the same dire warnings of disaster that fuel today’s cautionary tales about global-warming. Lacking sophisticated CGI technology and hobbled by Corman-esque budgets, few of these movies were scary enough to keep audiences from collapsing in unintended laugher. Nevertheless, eco-cide wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility, so devising new twists was never a problem for screenwriters. Among the critters that were exploited almost to extinction, but still pop up occasionally in straight-to-DVD flicks are the 28 recognized subspecies of Apis mellifera, a.k.a., killer bees. The “Citizen Kane” of killer-bee movies, of course, remains Irwin Allen’s The Swarm, a big budget affair with lots of stars. Also released in 1978 was Alfredo Zacarias’ much less ambitious The Bees, which probably cost a tenth of what Allen spent on his picture, but squandered every opportunity to become a cult classic. Even with a driven-in-proven cast in John Saxon, Angel Tompkins and John Carradine, the Mexican director approached the project as if Tompkins hadn’t already proven her grindhouse cred in Prime Cut, The Teacher and Walking Tall, Part 2; Saxon hadn’t co-starred with Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon and was coming off a string of giallo flicks; and Carradine wasn’t a living legend in the horror genre. Instead, Zacarias played it completely straight, with his stars portraying the only three scientists standing between an accidental invasion of killer bees and the apocalypse. Vinegar Syndrome has accorded The Bees a bright new 2k restoration from the 35mm negative and added a video interview with Zacarias,

In a double-feature of The Curse and it unrelated sequel, Curse II: The Bite from the late-1980s’ drive-in circuit, the eco-monsters are represented by a toxic meteorite from space hell and irradiated rattle snakes. Neither movie is very good, but genre completists will find a modicum of value in both low-budget pictures. Based on H. P. Lovecraft’s short novel, “The Colour Out of Space” – re-adapted in 2010 by the promising Viet-German newcomer, Huan Vu — The Curse describes the evolution of a waterborne plague somewhere in the rural South, caused either by a virus carried by a meteorite or a fear-mongering land speculator. As the icy-blue rock begins to melt, the nearest farm’s vegetables and fruit appear to flourish unnaturally. On closer inspection, the produce is rancid. Soon, the drinking water is corrupted, as well, leaving residents horribly disfigured. When I say “horribly,” however, I don’t mean in a scary way. As directed by actor David Keith and written by David Chaskin, the most frightening thing in the movie is Claude Akins’ bible-banging bully of a patriarch. Also along for the ride are Wil Wheaton, Malcolm Danare, Cooper Huckabee, John Schneider and, as the horny hausfrau, Kathleen Jordon Gregory. The campier they play it, the better the movie is. Curse II: The Bite is set in the desert Southwest, where radioactive residue from an abandoned nuclear test site has had an adverse effect on the snake population. Once bitten, a snake’s victim begins to develop characteristics of the serpent (enhanced by special-effects master, Screaming Mad George). Here, the central focus is on a pair of young lovers (J. Eddie Peck, Jill Schoelen), who reject the advice of a local yokel by making a detour through the impacted area. Also playing along are Jamie Farr, Shiri Appleby and Bo Svenson.

A second double-feature from the same period and distributor, Shout! Factory, resurrects a pair of sci-fi turkeys, one of which could have benefited from a much larger budget and higher production values, and the other, a RoboCop and Terminator 2 rip-off, that is so unbelievably bad, it demands to be seen. Based on a novel by John Varley, Millennium opens with the collision of a commercial jetliner and alien spacecraft, trolling through a crack in the time/space continuum. Kris Kristofferson plays the NTSB investigator, who, after being encouraged to investigate the peculiar radio transmissions from the cockpit, can’t help but fall in love with a time-shifting woman warrior, Louise (Cheryl Ladd), from 1,000 years in the future. Louise’s cohorts want to prevent the Earth’s suicidal rush to environmental apocalypse, but her romantic inclinations complicate their mission. Originally slated for a much grander presentation, directed by Douglas Trumbull, Millennium suffers from budgetary malnutrition. In 1989, kiddie-television specialist Cullen Blaine decided to jump into the deep end of the filmmaking pool with R.O.T.O.R., a movie about a futuristic cop from the Robotic Officer Tactical Operation Research workshop near Dallas. In its prototype stage, R.O.T.O.R. is mistakenly activated and hits the street looking for criminals on whom to exercise its programmed directive: “Judge and execute.” We know that robotics have come a long way from the drawing boards of 1989, but, if anyone had actually seen it, R.O.T.O.R might have stopped all development in its tracks. That said, you may never experience a better worst movie.

The Space Movie
In 1979, British rockumentary specialist Tony Palmer was commissioned by NASA to make a film celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It wasn’t a natural fit, but someone at the space agency admired his epic history of 20th Century music, All You Need Is Love – spanning ragtime and glam rock – and gave him a shot at the project. At the time, the space program had lost the luster attached to it during the 1960s and early 1970s, and American taxpayers had adopted a been-there/done-that attitude, which would extend to the shuttle missions. Released to almost no acclaim or marketing push, Virgin Films’ The Space Movie combines rarely, if ever seen color footage made available by NASA with the prog-rock stylings of British musician and composer Mike Oldfield, whose “Tubular Bells” became a smash hit after being showcased in “The Exorcist.” Nowhere near as trippy as Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon,” Oldfield’s heavily engineered score complements the underlying mood of excitement and apprehension that accompanied every space mission, from the early rocket tests to the landing on the lunar surface. I’m pretty familiar with most of news footage that emerged from that period, but was surprised by the different looks NASA made available to Palmer. The same applies to some of the radio communications between the astronauts and engineers in Houston.

When Bette Met Mae
If there are two more luminous stars in the Hollywood firmament than Bette Davis and Mae West, you’d need the Hubble Space Telescope to locate them. Ingénues come and go, but the great stars shine forever. If When Bette Met Mae won’t win any awards for its documentary attributes, as a souvenir from a bygone era, it’s a pip. In the fall of 1973, a cocktail party was given by Charles Pollock, a West Hollywood antiques dealer, for his irrepressible friend, Davis, and her truly legendary guest, West. While they’d never met, Bette and Mae held each other in high regard. West was accompanied by her two escorts, Stan Musgrove and Glenn Shahan, who were eager to meet Davis. Also present were Vik Greenfield, who had been Davis’ personal assistant, and Wes Wheadon, a young optometrist and friend of the host. That night, Wheadon happily agreed to serve drinks to Pollock’s guests. He also made sure that a reel-to-reel tape was running and unobtrusive. Blessedly, the men held their peace while Mae and Davis discussed their careers, how they crafted their unique styles of acting, their screen images, writing scripts, demanding fair pay, screen rights and residuals. Neither did they ignore censorship and the Hays Code, stardom, husbands, boyfriends, children and their loyal gay fan base. Indeed, Mae recalls her controversial 1927 stage show, “The Drag,” which was gay, gay, gay before being gay was cool … or legal. What’s captured on tape and dramatized by lip-synching actors is the very definition of the lively art of conversation. If the acting is bothersome, close your eyes and imagine you’re listening to the radio. Sally Kellerman serves as narrator, adding some historical background and introducing archival clips, Polaroids and contemporary interviews. The tape recording has been painstakingly restored and is easy on the ears. The only regret comes in hearing Wheadon admit to running out of tape just as dinner was being served.

Becoming Bulletproof
Every so often, an actor with a physical or learning disability will land a recurring role on a television series, such as “Glee,” “Life Goes On” or “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.” While their characters aren’t necessarily there to send a message to viewers about the need for inclusivity in the media – Peter Dinklage and Marlee Matlin are prime examples of actors who’ve transcended what others might consider to be their disability – it’s no sure bet these parts will go to similarly disabled actors. Becoming Bulletproof is a documentary about a Western being made by mixed group of able and disabled actors, as part of an annual endeavor under the Zeno Mountain Farm marquee to write, produce and star in original short films. The participants come from all parts of the United States and represent a myriad of disabilities. Prominent in both the documentary and “Bulletproof,” for example, are A.J. Murray, who uses a wheelchair and has cerebral palsy, and Jeremy Vest, who was born with Williams syndrome and plays the film’s titular hero. Such assignments aren’t easy to perform, but all of the performers are committed to completing the project and attending the Hollywood premiere. There’s nothing sappy about it. Two years ago, activists raised a storm when NBC cast Blair Underwood to play the paraplegic protagonist in a re-boot of the 1970s hit, “Ironside.” It’s possible that the network felt as if it could dodge controversy by hiring an African-American actor, but protesters would have preferred someone who’s actually confined to wheelchair. The makers of Becoming Bulletproof are making a similar case, although it’s more likely that it will be easier to prove their points by appearing in podcasts and on stage, first. To paraphrase the legendary Chicago Alderman Paddy Bauler, “Hollywood ain’t ready for reform.”

TV on DVD
Jesus of Nazareth: The Complete Miniseries: 40th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Chuggington: Delivery Dash at the Docks
One thing is clear from the GOP presidential debates: while all of the candidates claim to have a personal relationship with God, none understands what it means to be Christian, according to the gospels in anyone’s bible. If Jesus suddenly appeared on the stage of a televised debate, he’d sweep it clean of politicians and spin doctors the same way he evicted the merchants and money changers from the Temple. When Pope Francis observed, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel,” he was acknowledging the messages delivered in “Jesus of Nazareth: The Complete Miniseries: 40th Anniversary Edition.” The pontiff probably would disagree vehemently with some of the positions held by Hillary and Bernie, as well, but, at least, they don’t claim to have God on their sides. While it’s true that Pope Paul VI asked Sir Lew Grade to consider making a film on the life of Jesus, the British impresario envisioned the project as being truly ecumenical in spirit. Directed by Franco Ziffirelli (Romeo and Juliet) and co-written by Zeffirelli, Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange) and Suso Cecchi d’Amico (White Nights), “Jesus of Nazareth” has been described as a cinematic Diatessaron (“gospel harmony”), blending the narratives of all four New Testament accounts. Even at 382 minutes, the writers elected to compress aspects of the biblical texts and use a few composite characters. There are miracles, but none that require elaborate special effects. Anticipating an international audience, Grace rounded up a cast of familiar names and faces, including Olivia Hussey, Anne Bancroft, Ernest Borgnine, Valentina Cortese, Claudia Cardinale, James Earl Jones, James Mason, Ian McShane, Christopher Plummer, Donald Pleasance, Rod Steiger, Peter Ustinov, Michael York, Stacy Keach, Ralph Richardson, Fernando Ray and Sir Laurence Olivier. Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino were considered for leading man, but it was awarded to the relatively unknown Robert Powell, whose performance appears to have been informed by Max von Sydow in The Greatest Story Ever Told. In 1977, Zeffirelli’s no-frills, naturalistic approach to the subject and setting stood out from such less-traditional plays, books and movies as “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Godspell,” “The Passover Plot” and even “Life of Brian.” It should be noted that Jesus doesn’t break out in song at unexpected moments and families escaping tyranny aren’t referred to as “terrorists.”

I don’t know how much the British children’s series, “Chuggington,” owes to the earlier success of “Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends,” both of which feature anthropomorphized train locomotives and adventures targeted at very young viewers. Despite giving more than a 25-year head start to the folks at ITV/PBS behind “Thomas,” including guest conductors Ringo Starr, George Carlin, Alec Baldwin and Pierce Brosnan, the Ludorum/BBC production benefits mightily from a distribution partnership here with Disney Junior. It would have been difficult for the creators of “Chuggington” not to be impressed by the merchandising, licensing and video acumen that propelled “Thomas” into the commercial stratosphere. In “Chuggington: Delivery Dash at the Docks,” Koko is thrilled to be spending the day training with Daley, the yard’s new express delivery engine, and new dock master Skipper Stu. Patience and teamwork are the primary lessons being learned in the new DVD compilation, which contains six episodes from the show’s fifth season and a collectible Daley collectible toy.

The DVD Wrapup: Black Mass, Trumbo, Death by Hanging, Taviani Trilogy, Iron Ministry, Paprika, Black Panthers and more

Friday, February 19th, 2016

Black Mass: Blu-ray
Anyone who’s only started watching movies recently would think that South Boston has always been the crime capital of America. It wasn’t until Peter Yate’s splendid adaptation of George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle was released in 1973 and, a decade later, Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict and several TV series and movies based on the novels of Robert B. Parker, that Beantown crime statistics became relevant to anyone outside New England. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s familiarity with the turf would help Gus Van Sant make Good Will Hunting such a treat, but it wasn’t until the release of the hyperviolent Southie and The Boondock Saints that South Boston assumed its rightful place, alongside New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, as a breeding ground for Irish American hooligans. Dorchester native Dennis Lehane picked up where George V. Higgins and Parker left off, with Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River providing the source material for two very good movies. (His short story, “Animal Rescue,” was adapted and relocated to Brooklyn, as the underappreciated The Drop.) Martin Scorsese found fertile ground in Boston for turning the Hong Kong hit Infernal Affairs into The Departed, and Affleck would return home as director of the bank-heist thriller, The Town. Last year, Scott Cooper’s Black Mass further tested the skills of Hollywood stars to master a dialect only recognizable to longtime residents of Southie or Dorchester. Like the fictional Showtime series, “Brotherhood,” which featured two Irish-American brothers on opposite sides of the law – Rhode Island, standing in for Southie — Black Mass depicts the rise and fall of gang leader James “Whitey” Bulger and his improbably more civilized sibling, political kingpin William “Billy” Bulger. (Jack Nicholson’s thuggish crime boss in The Departed was loosely modeled on Whitey Bulger, as well.)

Black Mass picks up on Bulger’s career after his release from federal prison in the late 1960s and the beginning of his longtime relationship with FBI Special Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who had grown up in the same housing project as the Bulgers and needed a leg up in the agency’s pecking order. As the battle-scarred leader of the Irish mob’s Winter Hill Gang, Bulger was a major player in every crime category in South Boston. He broke the time-honored rule against cooperating with law-enforcement officials to cement his position of power over the Patriarca crime family. This was OK with the FBI agents who were more interested in the breaking the stranglehold of the Italian Mafia and would benefitted professionally by bringing it down. In return for Bulger’s tips, not all of which were helpful, the Winter Hill Gang was given a free pass to run South Boston for 20 years. The FBI’s side of the quid pro quo would prove more embarrassing for the department than would the revelation of Bulger’s decision to rat on his enemies. Finally, though, the corrupted agents were replaced by new ones. In 1994, one step ahead of a RICO indictment, Bulger went on the lam for 16 years with his girlfriend. Trapped, his cohorts rushed to save their own asses. Some of them received lesser sentences than the federal and state authorities convicted of aiding the Winter Hill Gang. Connolly, credited with “turning” Bulger, has never shown much remorse for his action and is still in prison. All of this was related in, “Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob,” by former Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, a decade before Bulger would be brought to justice.

Unlike so many other Hollywood gangster movies, Black Mass doesn’t waste a lot of time attempting to humanize Bulger and his pals. Indeed, it can be argued that Johnny Depp’s decision to wear icy blue contact lens occasionally makes him look too demonic. At one point, the recently released ex-con orders his buddies to help an elderly woman with her groceries, but it’s a brief sequence, quickly overshadowed by violent crimes. Bulger’s pain over losing his 6-year-old son, Douglas, to Reyes disease, is feels genuine, if only because it heightens his resolve to stay out of jail. Otherwise, Depp’s portrayal honestly describes a sociopathic killer, who doesn’t feel as if societal rules apply to him. His wings would be clipped in 2011 after federals agents, responding to a tip, swooped down on the Santa Monica apartment he shared with longtime girlfriend Catherine Greig. She’s currently cooling her heels in a low-security Minnesota prison for conspiracy to harbor a fugitive and identity fraud. Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) remained loyal to his older brother and it ultimately would cost him his jobs as president of the Massachusetts Senate and that of the University of Massachusetts system. Cooper treats his downfall as fact, not tragedy. As crucial to understanding how things happen in Black Mass and other Southie-based films is the overwhelming perception of a community so lacking in charm, charisma and positive inertia that it practically defines what Karl Marx meant by lumpenproletariat. The only things that get between the characters and their shot glasses are family, religion and sports. Robert Mitchum’s Eddie “Fingers” Coyle and Peter Boyle’s bartender, Dillon, created the template for the characters in Black Mass more than 40 years ago, both as snitches and pawns in a much bigger game. If Bulger’s saga feels incomplete, it’s only because the book and movie end on a question mark. I’m sure there’s room for a sequel, documenting the gangster and his moll’s international search for a home, but Constantine Nasr’s fascinating hour-long documentary, “The Manhunt for Whitey Bulger,” included in the Blu-ray package renders it unnecessary.

Trumbo: Blu-ray
The story of the Hollywood 10 has haunted the movie industry for more than 60 years. The debates and protests that surrounded the awarding of an honorary Oscar to Elia Kazan, in 1999, demonstrated just how little interest many insiders had in recognizing those artists who named names, while also being accorded the freedom to make unquestionably great films. With the exception of the Broadway theater guilds, blacklisting maintained a tight grip on all providers of entertainment and information for more than a decade. Even when the dam broke, a cloud of uncertainty remained as to how willing audiences and advertisers would be to forgive, forget and admit they’d been duped by megalomaniacal despots in Congress. The success of Spartacus and Exodus, both written by Dalton Trumbo, were huge successes despite his refusal to name names or otherwise participate in the witch hunt. He had won two Academy Awards in the 1950s, but under someone else’s name. Not everyone was so fortunate … or as necessary to the success of other actors and directors. Bryan Cranston’s twitchy portrayal of the writer in Jay Roach’s Trumbo has been nominated for a Best Actor statuette. He performs an amazing balancing act: maintaining Trumbo’s now-popular image of heroic crusader for personal liberty, while also depicting a man so self-absorbed that he treats his family as if they belonged to someone else. As delightfully idiosyncratic as Trumbo seems while sitting in his bathtub writing scripts, the rudeness directed at his daughter for interrupting him to share her birthday cake reveals something dark in the heart of this “millionaire communist.”  Likewise, when the teenager asks for time away from her courier duties to participate in civil rights protests, the writer dismisses her request as being somehow less important than churning out melodramas and exploitation vehicles in his tub. In fact, by comparison to too many other targets of the HUAC panel Trumbo’s agony was short-lived and limited to moving the family from a pleasant farm-like setting to blue-collar Highland Park. John McNamara’s screenplay doesn’t ignore or minimize the problems faced by others, but Trumbo isn’t their movie and the complexity of the politics surrounding leftist activity in Hollywood is to a few sentences in the prelude.

Being an advocate of workers’ rights and unions before and during World War II, when the USSR was ally, was relatively easy when compared to taking a stand against Stalinism and redefining what it means to be a socialist in a country whose economy depended on keeping unions in check. Louis C.K. does a nice job as Arlen Hird, an amalgam character who represents the true believers in the Writers Guild and pays for it with inoperable cancer. He and Trumbo nearly come to blows when they disagree on survival strategies. Political debates aside, however, it’s easy to spot the antagonists and cowards in Trumbo. The squeakiest wheel among the anti-communist contingent is gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), who attacks the perceived passivity of studio heads with anti-Semitic threats. The cowardice of the Jewish-immigrant studio heads, who kowtowed before the weight of her rhetorical power. Walt Disney’s antagonism toward the guilds was well known and much appreciated by the HUAC panelists. The unasked question that will be left in the minds of some viewers is, “Could history repeat itself?” Trumbo doesn’t directly address it, perhaps because it would spoil the happy ending. Demagoguery has already raised its ugly head in the GOP primary debates and it’s only a matter of time before one of the candidates opens the can of worms containing evangelical and conservative desires to rein in the godless studios, writers and artists they blame for polluting popular culture. Absent the silver-tongued eloquence and political connections of Jack Valenti, the MPAA may not be powerful enough to hold off attacks by evangelical Christians, Tea Party politicians and Fox News pundits … who benefit whenever Rupert Murdoch’s studio interests score a direct hit at the box office. I can hear it, now: “Are you now or have you ever been an Atheist, Jew or Muslim? Despite the popularity of Cranston and John Goodman’s terrific portrayal of a producer more interested in making money than bowing to HUAC demands, Trumbo grossed less than $8 million in a release that never exceeded 660 domestic screens. The similarly themed Good Night, and Good Luck made several times that much money and did OK overseas, as well. The Way We Were, which also addressed the blacklist period, did pretty well, too. Even with my reservations, I think that Trumbo deserves to find an audience in DVD/Blu-ray. It adds a making-of featurette and backgrounder on the characters.

Death by Hanging: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
According to data reported on the Death Penalty Information Center website, there have been 47 botched executions of condemned criminals in U.S. prisons since 1982, some more hideous than others. I only mention this to alleviate any skepticism raised by the failed execution, by hanging, that constitutes the central conceit of Nagisa Oshima’s inky black Death by Hanging. Made in 1968, the famously provocative Japanese filmmaker (In the Realm of the Senses, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence) sets up the by-the-book execution by reminding viewers of the public’s overwhelming resistance to eliminating the death penalty. He also wonders out loud how many of the people in favor of retaining it actually know how the state goes about killing someone it deems unworthy of life. American audiences have a pretty good idea, by now, of the procedures observed here, but the Japanese system adheres to a formality that has been strictly observed for decades. The circus atmosphere that attends some executions here is thwarted by a degree of secrecy that would take the fun out of it for some American proponents of the death penalty. Here, every detail is taken into account and described by the narrator in a matter-of-fact tone. The only hitch in Death by Hanging comes when the doomed man refuses to give up the ghost and the witnesses have no idea of how to proceed. In America, the warden might simply order someone to close the curtains in the chamber until the presiding nurse or doctor can hit the right vein with the needle or the victim finally stops moaning, twitching or smoking, depending on the method favored at the time. Here, though, the warden, clergy, guards and other dignitaries are forced to deal with sometimes contradictory legal, extralegal, religious and existential questions that border on absurdist theater.

Not only do they argue over whether someone can be executed twice for the same crime, but also what constitutes death and consciousness. Moreover, in Japan, the killer must be aware of the severity of his act and understand that capital punishment is the proper remedy for this affront to humanity. If he’s left unconscious or amnesiac, as is the case in Death by Hanging, what the man had admitted to before the failed execution applies to a second attempt. Or, does it? Oshima was inspired by the case of Ri Chin’u, a Korean who murdered two Japanese girls in 1958. In the film, the corpse that refuses to die belongs to “R,” who, Oshima wants us to believe, was shaped by Japan’s historic persecution of South Koreans and growing up too impoverished to anticipate a meaningful life. Not only does “R” not die in the hanging, but, when he regains consciousness, he’s completely unaware of the circumstances under which he was imprisoned. To spark his erased memory, the witnesses and guards even go so far as to re-enact the rapes and murders of the girls. The behavior will remind viewers of works by Brecht, Beckett, Kafka, Ionesco and Pinter. Things get even stranger when the re-enactors leave the chamber and go into the city streets, where the crimes happened. The supplemental features include a new video piece, featuring critic and film historian Tony Rayns; and Oshima’s documentary short, “Diary of Yunbogi,” which informs Death by Hanging.

Paulette: Blu-ray
While there’s certainly been no scarcity of movies about marijuana and folks who smoke imbibe, it’s the rare stoner flick that’s advanced the subgenre beyond Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke, which, in 1978, was dismissed by critics, but has since been embraced by tens of millions of entry-level potheads and their nostalgic parents. Among the titles that have endured are Half Baked, The Big Lebowski, Dazed and Confused, Pineapple Express, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, Go, The Wackness and Smiley Face. The jury’s still out on last year’s Dope and Inherent Vice. Tucked into a smaller niche are curiosities as Humboldt County, Saving Grace and Paulette, which aren’t any more about the stoner phenomenon than were Easy Rider and The Harder They Come, although parsing the difference might require an X-Acto knife. All three of these stories are told from the supply side, with Saving Grace and Paulette adding a clever senior-citizen twist to proceedings. In Saving Grace (2000), Brenda Blethyn’s recently widowed character conspires with her gardener, played by Craig Ferguson, to solve their financial dilemmas by growing high-grade pot in her greenhouse and selling it in London. The next logical project for British director Nigel Cole would be the delightfully cheeky Calendar Girls. Newly released in DVD/Blu-ray, Paulette takes a slightly different tack on the subject of widows and weed. In it, the late New Wave star Bernadette Lafont (The Mother and the Whore) plays an unlikeable old crone, who’s managed to alienate almost everyone in her life, except a very few elderly friends. Aggressively bigoted, Paulette distanced herself from her daughter for marrying a cop of African descent and bringing a mixed-race grandson into her life. She also refuses to disguise her distaste for the immigrants who’ve changed the racial balance in her neighborhood.

One night, while digging through piles of junk on the street, Paulette comes into possession of a large chunk of hashish. Instead of handing it over to her son-in-law, she makes a deal with the local drug dealer to share proceeds from anything she can sell on her daily rounds. Naturally, she discovers plenty of eager customers for such high-quality product. The dealer is sufficiently impressed to increase her supply, the proceeds from which she needs to prevent eviction. Almost accidentally, Paulette extends her brand by adding hashish to her already famous baked goods. The sweets are such an instant hit that she recruits her friends to bake and sell the products. As is the case in most of these movies, Paulette’s success attracts the attention of far more organized criminals, who want to muscle into her business and force her to sell to kids with a sweet tooth. The movie’s brightest moments are supplied by 7-year-old Ismaël Dramé, who, after being dumped on his grandma in a babysitting crisis, neutralizes her bitterness by helping in the kitchen. The Blu-ray adds 10 deleted scenes.

Labyrinth of Lies: Blu-ray
Every so often, an elderly German immigrant is arrested for crimes against humanity he may have committed 70 years ago. Typically, the man has lived a simple and quiet life in a working-class suburb and has kids and grandchildren who have only a vague idea of how he spent the war years in the Old Country. They’re as surprised as anyone else when he’s charged for crimes purportedly committed as a guard or flunky at a one of the many death camps spread across eastern Europe. They’ve heard the numbers, but can’t grasp how the bald and toothless old men they know and love could be an accomplice in the extermination of millions of Jew, Gypsies and other minorities deemed undesirable by Adolph Hitler. Perhaps, if they’d remained in Germany, they’d have blended into the woodwork like so many other camp workers. The task of locating, arresting and trying such people didn’t begin in earnest until the mid-1960s, and there were bigger war criminals laying low in Lima or working for their former enemies at Cape Canaveral or behind the Iron Curtain as spies. If Germaran officials had really been interested in prosecuting Joseph Mengele and other second-tier war criminals, all they had to do was wait for them to return home for a funeral or leave their South American lairs for Switzerland on their annual skiing vacations. Their assumed names weren’t that difficult to crack. Giulio Ricciarelli’s compelling legal drama, Labyrinth of Lies, explores this chapter in postwar history, while also showing how a handful of lawyers opened old wounds that had only recently begun to heal. After the completion of the Nuremberg trials, in autumn 1946, many Germans who served in the death camps assumed that they’d dodged a bullet and could get on with their lives. The average citizen knew less about Auschwitz than Americans who’d read stories about the liberation of the camps or seen newsreel footage captured after the Nazis split ahead of the Allied advance. Those who made it home unscathed were loath to describe what they’d seen and done in the war. It wouldn’t be until 1958 that judge and prosecutor Fritz Bauer, himself a former prisoner at the Lager Heuberg camp, could establish a precedent for going after guards and other low-ranking personnel responsible for crimes already on the books and make those charges stick. It would take another five years for the actual trials to begin.

In Labyrinth of Lies, Alexander Fehling plays the young, naive and idealistic public prosecutor Johann Radmann, who had heard the name, Auschwitz, but didn’t know anything more about it. Before being assigned to Bauer’s team, a reporter had approached him about the possibility of investigating a Berlin teacher, recognized by a camp survivor as a particularly vicious guard at the camp. The teacher dismissed the queries, by presenting papers showing he was occupied elsewhere at the time. Such documentation was as uncommon as a bratwurst at a picnic on the Rhine. Everyone in Germany had played a role in the war, so it was wise for civilians not to scratch too deeply under the surface. Former Nazis still held key positions in the West German bureaucracy and could still cause trouble for people with surplus amounts of conscience. Despite encouragement from Bauer, it didn’t take long for Radmann to tire of hitting roadblocks in his inquiries, official and otherwise. The deeper he digs into his own family history – his father had been declared missing on the Eastern Front – the closer he comes to hurtful truths about friends and relatives in his inner circle. It wasn’t until he was allowed to go beyond the borders of Germany to locate camp survivors that he could link faces and names to actions that didn’t fall under the category of “we were just following orders.” In this way, the national penchant for documenting events and collecting photographs helps him succeed. The sheer volume of information and paperwork helps explain why so many camp workers have avoided detection for all these years. Most have yet to be fully studied. Ironically, at 124 minutes, Labyrinth of Lies sometimes feels a bit too bogged down in German bureaucracy, as well. History buffs should find it to be worth the effort, though. It made the short list of foreign-language films nominated for an Oscar, but not the final five. The Blu-ray adds commentary by Ricciarelli and Fehling; deleted scenes; and a post-screening Q&A at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival.

The Taviani Brothers Collection: Blu-ray
At a time when the Italian film industry was in a post-giallo doldrums and the giants had disappeared into the background, brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviano carried the standard for artistry and tradition in independently produced entertainments. The brothers became obsessed with film after seeing Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan as students in Pisa. After honing their reporting skills, they were able to merge journalism with cinema in class-conscious dramas and documentaries. Cohen Media’s The Taviani Brothers Collection is comprised of their first three films that captured the attention of international audiences: Padre Padrone, The Night of the Shooting Stars (a.k.a., “La notte di San Lorenzo”) and Kaos. They reflect the Tavianis’ commitment to retelling history in a manner that combines the integrity of neorealism with the ingenuity of folk tales and legends. Shot on location in the villages from which the stories originated, the period feel was enhanced by the use of non-actors in key roles and natural production techniques. Winner of the 1977 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or, Padre Padrone is based on the autobiography by Italian scholar Gavino Ledda, who, if it were up to his Sardinian father, would have remained an illiterate shepherd all his life. Ledda didn’t escape his father’s domination until he’d left the army and, at 27, received his high school diploma. Six years later, he began his advanced studies at the Accademia della Crusca, under historical linguist Giacomo Devoto, and very soon would be nominated assistant professor in Cagliari, Sardinia. His escape from enforced poverty and menial labor provides the foundation for a story that crosses the divide separating agrarian and modern Italy.

The Night of the Shooting Stars, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at 1982 Cannes Festival, is a story about the inhabitants of a small Tuscan town, in the summer of 1944, trapped between the threat of destruction by the retreating German forces and the perhaps false promise of liberation offered by the advancing American army. It is told years after the fate of the town had been decided, by a mother to her child, almost as a fairytale. Herded into a church, after the soon-to-retreat Germans had set booby traps in their homes, the residents are divided by the possibility that they will be slaughtered in any case, or can reach the U.S. troops in time to save themselves and those left behind in the village. Tradition allows for the possibility that prayers recited during the Perseids meteor shower, which coincides with the Feast of San Lorenzo, will be answered. The supernatural aspect turns what might have been a by-the-book war story into something fair more magical and poetic. Set in the far southern province of Ragusa, Sicily, Kaos knits together four stories by master storyteller Luigi Pirandello and an epilogue, set in turn-of-the-century Italy. The Travianis’ eye for beauty is a natural fit for the twists built into the folk tales imagined by the author. The set includes a feature-length interview with the brothers that covers a lot of interesting territory.

Pray for Death: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Mutilator: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Judging from the worldwide success of the live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, released in 2014, there’s no reason to believe that the ninjutsu subgenre of martial-arts flicks is danger of disappearing any time soon. In fact, fans of the franchise may already be lining up for its sequel, TMNT: Out of the Shadows, which opens June 3. For all practical purposes, though, the heyday of the ninjas ended in the 1980s, when the entries became so mechanical that they ceased being enjoyable. The 1997 Chris Farley vehicle Beverly Hills Ninja did OK at the box office, but it relied mostly on the sight gags provided by watching the deceptively athletic actor executing slicker-than-owl-shit moves alongside the more adept Robin Shue. The thing that distinguishes ninja films from most samurai and wuxia titles is that, by definition, ninja (a.k.a., shinobi) were assassins, scouts and spies hired by territorial lords to conduct operations from which samurai were forbidden, according to the bushido code. In other words, they could employ stealth, costumes and all manner of flying weaponry to serve their masters.

Arrow Video has resurrected a prime example of the western ninja film in Gordon Hessler and James Booth’s 1985 action-thriller Pray for Death. If there had been anything resembling a bushido code in place for directors and writers of martial-arts pictures, they would have been honor bound rewrite the screenplay several more times before unleashing on an unsuspecting public. Fans deserved more than a promising premise. Before leaving Japan, at 19, in pursuit of an economics degree at Cal State/L.A., Sho Kosugi won the All Japan Karate Champion title and was a promising baseball player. Economics would take a back seat to teaching martial arts and competing on the North American circuit. It took eight more years for Kosugi to graduate from extra roles to co-starring in Enter the Ninja. In Pray for Death, Kosugi plays an Okinawan restaurateur and secret ninja warrior who allows his half-American wife to talk him into moving to America for a business opportunity. No sooner than he and his family pass through Customs than his character is targeted by the mob for allegedly stealing a necklace he couldn’t possibly have known existed. The morons decide to pressure Akira by threatening his wife and two sons. Soon, real tragedy strikes, and Akira decides to go ninja on the crime boss (Michael Constantine), his henchman (James Booth) and a small army of corrupt cops. Everything leads to the excellent fight in a mannequin warehouse that caps the movie.

The truly strange thing about Pray for Death is that Kosugi’s two pre-teen sons play key roles in fighting and non-fighting roles. It’s fun to watch then-11-year-old Kane Kosugi kick ass, almost side-by-side with his dad. The Arrow Video Blu-ray includes the unrated and R-rated versions of the movie, which are differentiated by varying degrees of simulated violence and a scene with an attempted rape, murder and bare breasts. Today, it probably would rate an R, even though the presence of the kids in such close proximity is a tad disturbing. There’s nothing wrong with the Blu-ray restoration, which adds two good interviews with the star, one vintage and the other new, and a trailer gallery. The nasty material edited out of the R-version is distinguishable by the unfinished color coding.

There is absolutely nothing fresh or particularly original about Mutilator (a.k.a., “Fall Break”), a 1984 chase-and-kill slasher flick that only made some noise at the box office outside North Carolina, where it was made, and because it promised of lots of unrated gore and T&A.  (It did enjoy a short run on 42nd Street and the grindhouse circuit, apparently.) Still, as an early example of DIY filmmaking, it’s earned whatever cult notoriety it achieved. Obscurity has never been a factor in determining the release of Arrow Video products, however, so the company’s interest in the inventive special effects and tagline, “By sword, by pick, by axe, bye-bye …,” isn’t particularly surprising. Shot largely in a beachside cottage by first- and last-time director Buddy Cooper, Mutilator practically defines the old phrase, “amateur night in Dixie.” North Carolina had yet to emerge as a production hub, so Cooper and his team had to rely heavily on previously untested local talent. Only a few would go on to work on another film and most of those folks were involved in behind-the-camera activities (makeup supervisor Mark Shostrom, cinematographer Peter Schnall). In addition to Arrow’s 2K restoration from original vault materials of the R-rated and unrated versions of the film, the set adds original mono audio; brand new interviews with cast and crew; reversible sleeve, featuring original artwork; fully-illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film, alongside archive articles from Fangoria magazine; and a very entertaining making-of featurette.

Estranged: Blu-ray
With a protagonist named January, it wasn’t difficult for me to flash on Wednesday of “The Addams Family,” as the nasty business in Estranged began to thicken. Amy Manson could easily pass for a grown-up version of Wednesday Addams, if she had decided that things had gotten far too weird at home and ran away to South America with her perfectly non-ooky boyfriend. After nearly being killed in a collision between motorcycle and car, Wednesday comes down with a bad case of amnesia about certain key aspects of her life. Not only has she forgotten her family, but also the circumstances that caused her to leave home. As it turns out, January’s family could easily give the Addams a run for their money. It takes viewers about 10 minutes to figure out why her return to the remote English estate was ill-advised and, confined to a wheelchair, as she is, how alone she feels when her quite unwelcome boyfriend disappears into thin air. Her chronically withdrawn mom and hulking beast of a dad (Eileen Nicholas, James Cosmo), if they are who they say they are, say that January is welcome to stay, but only on their terms. Her brother, sister and butler (Nora-Jane Noone, James Lance, Craig Conway) are every bit as creepy and similarly sadistic. The only question left to answer is whether January can regain her memory before it’s too late. The package adds a making-of featurette.

The Iron Ministry
Anyone who’s ever fallen in love with train travel will want to find J.P. Sniadecki’s documentary, The Iron Ministry, which was filmed over three years on China’s vast network of railways. I haven’t seen another movie that so accurately captures the sensory overload that comes with long-distance travel in crowded carriages, teeming with passengers of all ages, vendors, conductors, janitors and small-time hustlers. The only thing missing is the smell of a ripe passenger car, a day or more into a long journey, its garbage bins and ashtrays overflowing with cigarettes, diapers, food, aftershave and cologne. Women carry produce onto the train in baskets hanging from a bow, while men butcher meat and hang the pieces on hooks between the cars. Sniadecki had no problem finding people to share their opinions on almost every subject under the sun. The only place his cameras weren’t particularly welcome was in the sections reserved for people who could afford first-class tickets. The contrast between the treatment of first-class passengers and those in steerage would make Chairman Mao spin in his mausoleum. The Iron Ministry is the latest feature production from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, which is less interested in scenery than human interaction, even if it’s limited to watching a railroad employee sweeping up a small mountain of debris dropped on the floor for lack of anywhere else to put it. It’s also possible to learn a lot from watching weary travelers sleep or try to find a position conducive for a cat nap, at least. Last year, 2.5 billion people traveled by rail across the wide expanse of China. This year, alone, China Railway Corp. plans to spend $121.5 billion toward construction, expansion and modernization of its system, with an eye toward attracting tourists and business travelers. If only American politicians weren’t so pigheaded about investing in rail service here. The Iron Ministry is the perfect companion piece for Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home, which documents the annual migration of China’s 130 million workers to their home villages for the New Year’s holiday.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
National Geographic: Saints & Strangers
PBS: Best of Big Blue Live
PBS: Hudson River School: Artistic Pioneers
PBS: American Experience: Bonnie & Clyde
PBS: Frontline: Terror in Little Saigon
McHale’s Navy/McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force
Nickelodeon: Blaze & The Monster Machines: Rev Up & Roar
If through some wrinkle in time it would have been possible for members of the Black Panther Party of the 1960s to have occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, instead of a bunch of heavily armed ranchers and marginally employed rednecks, how long would it have taken the federal government to clear the grounds? Or, for that matter, militants of the American Indian Movement or SDS. In the same regard, how many of the NRA supporters who have won the right to carry weapons into schools, shopping malls and movie theaters are willing to credit Huey Newton and Bobby Seale for demanding that American citizens be allowed to openly carry firearms, even in the halls of the California State Legislature? None, probably. By contrast, if the FBI hadn’t successfully crushed the BPP, using illegal surveillance tactics and other provocations, would police officers around the country so freely shoot to kill children and young people of color? Those questions and more naturally come to mind while watching Stanley Nelson’s “Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” which was picked up for airing on PBS. Released to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party, the film features firsthand accounts from participants, including Kathleen Cleaver, the first Communications Secretary of the Black Panther Party; Elaine Brown, former Black Panther Party chairman; Emory Douglas, the party’s Minister of Culture and chief art director for the party’s newspaper; retired police officers; lawyers; and much archival news footage. Police repression and government legal maneuvering inspired white radicals and liberal activists to enter the fray on the side of BPP, even when their contributions were questioned. The free breakfast programs for children in impoverished neighborhoods was largely ignored by the media or dismissed as a diversion. When Judge Julius Hoffman ordered Seale chained to his chair and gagged in the trial of the Chicago 8, simply for demanding his right to a fair trial, the national media began to understand what was at stake. Even so, when police raided the apartment of Illinois BPP chairman Fred Hampton, killing him and another sleeping member, the local Chicago media bought into the lie that he was killed in a “shootout.” In fact, an investigation soon would show that the hail of bullets was one-sided and the raid was based on lies supplied by a paid FBI informant. If the same thing had happened to one of the leaders of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation, the shit storm would be keep Fox News buzzing for months. In effect, though, the Black Panthers were victims of their own image campaign. The black clothes, leather jackets, shades, berets and swagger – with or without openly carried weapons — brought the awe and respect of students and community members, along with the contempt and fear of J. Edgar Hoover, who demanded the movement be quashed. It wouldn’t take long before the national party collapsed under the weight of its individual egos, internecine squabbling, legal costs, paranoia and dissension. Much of what’s reported in Nelson’s film may qualify as old news, even if most of it has been long forgotten. What remains is the ironic notion that the more things changed in the early 1970s, the more they’ve stayed the same in the relations between the African American community and trigger-happy police, even with a black president. “Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” ends on a reflective note, neither optimistic nor overly pessimistic. Neither does a recounting of the party’s official list of demands by survivors sound particularly radical compared to the inflammatory rhetoric of the Republican leaders in Congress and candidates perfectly willing to arm right-wing kooks.

If it weren’t for the necessary violence and mild language concerns, the National Geographic Channel’s 192-minute mini-series, “Saints & Strangers,” would be an appropriate docudrama to show schoolchildren before they prepared for their first Thanksgiving pageant. By the time they’re adults, most of the wee pilgrims and Indians will have forgotten the message of the story, anyway, and this vivid representation is likely to stick in their memory longer than any recollection of Squanto’s good works and the promise of that first communal meal. Paul A. Edwards’ mini-series is best when it depicts the landscape of Plymouth, Massachusetts, and divisions that tested the resolve of both the English and Native Americans who populated the region. To put it bluntly, the pilgrims were divided by greed and religious fanaticism, with soldiers on hand to do what all soldiers are trained to do best: kill people who are a mystery to them. The religious colonists know that robbing graves and stealing food could cause problems down the road, but, since it’s God’s will for them to survive in Plymouth, it’s probably OK. For their part, the Pokanoket, Narragansett, Massachusetts and Wampanoag tribes were rewarded for peaceful overtures, generosity and restraint with an epidemic and being sold as slaves after 50 years of piece. Among the cast members are Vincent Kartheiser (“Mad Men”), Anna Camp (“Pitch Perfect”), Ron Livingston (“Office Space”), Ray Stevenson (“Rome”) and Natascha McElhone (“Californication”). Comedian/actor Tatanka Means (“Maze Runner”) and Kalani Queypo (“The New World”) and Del Zamora (“The Red Road”) may be recognizable in the Native American cast. All in all, it probably would have been better if Native Americans had discovered Europe, instead of the other way around. The DVD adds several deleted scenes.

As occasionally happens during TV coverage of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am tournament, the competition was dwarfed by the majesty of the oceanside setting. The sun shone on the competitors for the entire weekend, but the drama of a close finish was a sideshow to the crashing waves, blimp sightings of whales and other aquatic life, and scores of people gathered on the beach for reasons other than golf. Conditions aren’t always as conducive to tourism on the Monterey Peninsula. Sometimes, the fog turns Carmel, Pebble Beach and its 17 Mile Drive into a ghostly journey to points unknown. The terrific PBS documentary “Best of Big Blue Live” reminds us that golf isn’t the only thing that brings visitors to peninsula each spring. In what some might consider to be a perfect storm of disparate ecological forces, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary provides a semi-permanent home for marine life attracted by a bounty in krill and other edible links on the foods. “Best of Big Blue Live” is a whittled-down version of the original three-hour BBC One series, which was carried live from the observation deck of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, as well as research vessels, helicopters and divers on the edges of the kelp beds. It documents the extraordinary rejuvenation of the once endangered ecosystem through the migratory confluence of humpback whales, blue whales, orcas, sea lions, dolphins, elephant seals, sea otters, great white sharks, shearwaters and brown pelicans. If the hosts are sometimes overly giddy about the whip-around feeds, their enthusiasm is easily excused. If nothing else, viewers will be encouraged to conserve their money for an eco-cruise the next time they’re in the neighborhood.

From PBS, “Hudson River School: Artistic Pioneers” feels like one of those intentionally dull documentaries that used to bore high school students to death and, maybe, still do. As bright and colorful as the paintings on display are, the narration and interviews are just that dull and drained of emotion. The hour-long film explores the accomplishments of the first American school of landscape painting. From early 19th Century enclaves in New York’s Hudson River Valley, Adirondack Mountains, Catskill Mountains and White Mountains of New Hampshire, a group of American painters led by British born artist Thomas Cole forged an artistic vision of the American wilderness. While frequently overlooked by art teachers and curators, who favor European artists and sculptors, museum-goers enjoy discovering monumental paintings of the American frontier on their own. They don’t even seem to mind that the artists’ sometimes stretched the visual truth by adding spectacular dawns and sunsets, Native Americans, shepherds or children at play, and other unlikely juxtapositions. The same thing would happen as American artists wandered west with the easels and encountered such natural wonders as Yosemite. Even so, they describe an America that would soon give way to the intrusions of Industrial Age. Tellingly, perhaps, the film is sponsored by something called Clean Oil Painting, the city of Rhinebeck, N.Y., a paper-goods store and an agency for Hudson Valley tourism. You get what you pay for, I suppose. Here, the art speaks for itself.

By contrast, PBS’ “American Experience: Bonnie & Clyde” is a real crowd-pleaser. In addition to being a story with which we all are familiar, the documentary benefits from being unencumbered by Hollywood mythology and fact compression. Unless one discounts Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were the most famous criminal couple in U.S. history. What may surprise fans of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde is the savagery of Barrow’s early prison experience and Parker’s movie-magazine vision of live outside Depression-era Texas. He bore no resemblance to Robin Hood, let alone Warren Beatty, and she didn’t intend for her photographs to be splashed on the pages of newspapers across the country. The undeveloped film was discovered after they were hurriedly forced to exit a hideout. Even absent the embellishments, though, “Bonnie & Clyde” is pretty entertaining. The old clippings and photographs are fascinating to see, as is coverage of their funerals … separate, but equally well attended.

While American politicians fret about undocumented workers who cross the border to provide cheap labor to agricultural conglomerates and Beverly Hills households, our government seems unwilling to protect immigrants already in this country legally from exploitation by some their own people still fighting long-lost wars. That’s one of the messages conveyed in an investigation, “Terror in Little Saigon.” It was conducted by “Frontline” and ProPublica” into the murders of five Vietnamese-American journalists and a broader pattern of violence within the refugee communities that grew up in America after the Vietnam War. The violence goes back more than 30 years and appears to have perpetrated by a death squad sponsored by the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam, an organization with tentacles extending from Houston to Laos. The journalists questioned whether the front was extorting money from members of the Vietnamese community in the U.S., ostensibly to finance an invasion of their home country from Laos and Thailand. Cuban-Americans have been praying for the same miracle for more than a half-century. What the show’s reporters discovered is that the FBI has suspected the Front for many years, but quietly closed its domestic-terrorism inquiry in the late 1990s. It’s possible that it’s investigators found too many links between the CIA and the Front and tired off hitting dead ends. Even 20 years later, a reporter was able to gather information and interview suspects – some reluctantly – able to provide insight into the killings. Their arrogance and disregard for American laws is frightening, if not terribly unusual.

The most significant difference between “McHale’s Navy” and McHale’s Navy the theatrical release is the Technicolor presentation and, well, that’s it. The TV series was shot on black-and-white film, but little was gained because the movie was shot on Universal’s backlot. It must have done some business, because McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force followed a year later, this time without Ernest Borgnine and Carl Ballantine. It could also be noted that, in 1942-43, McHale’s Navy could only have joined the U.S. Army Air Forces. Even by the low standards of the mid-1960s, these movies are irredeemably boring. What might have prompted Universal to risk millions of 1997 dollars on a remake, based primarily on the presence of Tom Arnold, Debra Messing, Dean Stockwell and David Alan Grier is anyone’s guess.

AJ is an 8-year-old techie, who drives monster-truck Blaze, the top racer in Axle City. The two go on adventures that have them taking on problems involving science and math. Many of the predicaments they face are caused by Blaze’s rival, Crusher, a tractor-trailer that will do anything to beat other vehicles to the finish line. Targeted at pre-schoolers, the animated “Blaze & The Monster Machines: Rev Up & Roar” covers areas of science, technology, engineering and math. It is comprised of the episodes, “Zeg and the Egg,” “Dino Dash,” “Gasquatch” and “Dragon Island Duel,” as well as a “Blaze of Glory” video storybook.

The DVD Wrapup: 99 Homes, Grandma, Crimson Peak, Jan Troell, Sheba Baby and more

Friday, February 12th, 2016

99 Homes: Blu-ray
One way to view Ramin Bahrani’s gut-churning drama, 99 Homes, is as a powerful indictment of the corrupt practices embraced by the real-estate industry in the still unresolved collapse of the American economy. Lenders profited from the misery of homeowners who lost their jobs and couldn’t keep up with the first and second mortgages they pursued to afford everything from necessary home improvements to such luxuries as swimming pools, vacation condos and sports cars. As long as the economy was firing on all eight cylinders, everything was jake. When it spit out the bit, however, vultures like the character played by Michael Shannon in 99 Homes swooped in to displace the suckers and enrich themselves. The movie opens with single father Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) losing his only source of income when the loans supporting his construction business dry up and he faces being evicted from the home he no longer can afford. No matter how much Nash pleads for mercy, he can’t convince Shannon’s Rick Carver to give him more time to settle his debt. With the Sheriff’s Department and courts on his side, Carver’s able to give Nash, his mom (Laura Dern) and his son exactly two minutes to vacate the premises. In Shannon’s more than capable hands, Carver is only slightly less despicable than his assassin, Richard Kuklinski, in The Iceman.

Bahrani cleverly turns the screw once notch further by offering Nash a job with his tormentor, cleaning out a repossessed house so filthy even his regular crew couldn’t be convinced to touch it. One Carver scam invariably leads to another, until Nash is making the kind of money – dirty as it may be – to afford to return to the life he once lived. In doing so, however, he’s required to sell his soul to the same devils as Carver once did. This time, of course, he would have the law on his side. While Carver seems not to mind evicting families, or ripping off Fannie Mae on the side, Nash eventually begins to recognize himself in the people he’s helping evict from their homes. If, by this time, we’ve figured out how this based-on-a-true-story account probably is likely to end, we’re no less willing to cut Nash some slack. Just as he sees himself in his victims, we see ourselves in him. After all, how many of us could resist the urge to save our families at the expense of someone else’s troubles? If, at times, the pieces fall too neatly together, it’s difficult to feel overly manipulated by a scenario so realistic. Once again, the HFPA, Independent Spirit and SAG voters got it right by nominating Shannon for a Best Supporting Actor prize. The Blu-ray, which for some reason is only available at Best Buy, adds a deleted scene and Bahrani’s commentary.

Grandma: Blu-ray
Although it’s been 40 years since Lily Tomlin was last nominated for an Academy Award – Best Supporting Actress, Nashville – she had every right to expect a nod for her work in Paul Weitz’ Grandma. She should have taken home a Golden Globe, as well, but, by now, Jennifer Lawrence is a mortal lock in any HFPA category she’s nominated. I say that having seen and enjoyed Joy. What the academy voters were looking at, instead of Grandma, I have no idea. In it, Tomlin plays Elle Reid, a poet beyond a certain age who’s just broken up with her younger girlfriend, Olivia (Judy Greer), if for no other reason than she woke up on the wrong side of the bed that morning. Almost simultaneously, her 18-year-old granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), unexpectedly shows up at her home, needing $630 before sundown the next day for an emergency medical procedure. A true child of the 1960s, Elle agrees to help, but recently cut up her credit cards in a display of idealistic pique and is short on available cash. Because Sage has already made an appointment with the clinic, time is of the essence. Writer/director Paul Weitz uses the deadline to arrange reunions with an ex-lover (Sam Elliott), Sage’s meathead ex-boyfriend (Nat Wolff), a onetime business partner (Elizabeth Pena) and Marcia Gay Harden, who plays Elle’s estranged daughter and Sage’s moralistic mother, Judy, who’s so preoccupied with her business that she’s attached a makeshift desk to her exercise machine. Mom did, however, provide Sage with condoms, a gesture neutralized by the teenage couple’s decision to go without when the supply ran out.

Among the things we learn about Elle is that, while she’s been a less-than-perfect wife, mother, lover and friend, she’s shares many of the same negative traits as other peers trying to keep the 1960s alive in their hearts. The encounters with old friends are alternately funny and sad, with Sage getting a crash course on what it feels like to be trapped between two distinctly different generation gaps.  Neither does Weitz force Tomlin to play to the cheap seats in her first leading role in 27 years, by attempting to sugarcoat Elle’s negative traits with reminders of her days on “Laugh-In.” When the chips were down – especially after her disastrous collaboration with John Travolta and future wife, Jane Wagner, on Moment by Moment – she took to the stage for one-woman shows, sometimes with a whole new set of archetypal characters. Travolta’s career resurrection borders on Hollywood legend, of course, while Tomlin didn’t get enough credit for her supporting work in Nine to Five, Flirting With Disaster, I Heart Huckabees, Tea with Mussolini and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and A Prairie Home Companion. Her versatility and appeal have been showcased, as well, on such hit series as “Murphy Brown,” “The West Wing,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Damages,” “Web Therapy” and “Grace and Frankie,” which returns to Netflix in May. Weitz has said that he wrote Grandma with Tomlin in mind and the love shows in every scene. The Blu-ray’s special features include “A Family Portrait: The Making of ‘Grandma,’” a Q&A with Tomlin, Elliott, and Weitz, and commentary with Tomlin, Elliott, Weitz and Garner and Garner.

Crimson Peak: Blu-ray
As brilliantly conceived and bloody as Crimson Peak is, the infrequency of genuine scares in the Gothic romance suggests that co-writer/director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) had far too much on his plate between 2006 and 2014 to focus on the things that made his early movies so chilling. It’s been reported that Del Toro wrote the original script with Matthew Robbins – whose resume includes Steven Spielberg’s first feature, Sugarland Express, MacArthur and The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings — in 2006, but its production was delayed for more than 6½ years to afford time to work on Hellboy II: The Golden Army, The Hobbit trilogy and Pacific Rim. Normally, an artist as brilliant as the Mexican-born Del Toro could get away with knocking out a genre thriller in his spare time. Crimson Peak is so heavily steeped in literary, cinematic and Del Torian symbolism, though, it probably was easy to overlook the kind of edge-of-their-seats tension that made him an international sensation. The debt owed to such Victorian Age writers as Mary Shelley and the Brontës is made clear in the exchanges between aspiring novelist Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) and her perspective publisher and supportive, if doomed father. The only person who encourages Edith, who’s haunted by the ghost of her mother, is a mysterious stranger, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), from England.

They meet in Buffalo when Thomas approaches Edith’s industrialist father for money to complete a machine that extracts ore from the earth. Failing that, Thomas succeeds in comforting Edith after daddy’s “accidental” and whisking her away to his mansion on a barren patch of red clay in rural England. It’s there that Thomas and his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), reveal their true designs on the Cushing fortune. That the mansion’s resident phantoms seem willing to save the new bride from a disastrous fate works in the favor of the unsuspecting young American and, finally, viewers. As does the unexpected arrival of an old friend and spurned suitor, Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam). Even if genre fans were advised by critics not to expect to be scared out of their wits and early word-of-mouth bolstered that critique, Crimson Peak can be savored for its superlative production design, costumes, musical score, lighting and cinematography, all of which were unfairly ignored by Academy Award nominators. I can’t think of a better example of the added value designers and craftsmen/women bring to a story that CGI technicians simply can’t provide. It’s, as they say, worth the price of a rental by itself. The Blu-ray bonus package adds a treasure trove of making-of featurettes, as well as some deleted scenes and Del Toro’s commentary.

The Emigrants/The New Land: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Released nearly back-to-back in 1971 and 1972, Jan Troell’s epic story of the quintessential American experience, The Emigrants and The New Land, could hardly be more relevant today, as the Republican candidates for president want to pull back the welcome mat to a new generation of immigrants. Adapted from the novels “The Settlers” and “The Last Letter Home,” by Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg, it’s a heart-tugging reminder of how millions of new Americans struggled not only to make a life for their families in America, but also find the courage to pick up stakes and make the hazardous journey to their new homes, which frequently had to be carved from the wilderness.  With only a small stretch of the imagination, the story of impoverished Swedish immigrants Karl-Oscar (Von Sydow) and Kristina (Liv Ullman) echoes those we heard being told by our parents and grandparents about their experiences in the New World. Instead of the 15-foot wall Donald Trump and others want to see built to keep newcomers out, our ancestors are guided here by the torch held aloft by the Statue of Liberty. At 151 minutes, Troell gave himself ample time to explain both how difficult it was for Karl-Oscar and Kristina Nilsson to leave Smaaland and how the harsh reality of life in mid-19th Century Sweden necessitated their decision to leave. Along with other Swedes from the same region, they suffered through a harrowing journey by ship to New York. They would end up in rural Minnesota, where, at least, they wouldn’t be surprised by the weather. Indeed, the homesteaders were buoyed by the discovery of soil so fertile that their plot backs home might as well have been concrete.

The New Land picks up where The Emigrants left off, with the Nilssons welcoming children into the world and beginning to reap the rewards of choosing a section of land that, after much hard work, would allow them to engage in commerce with local store owners. As important, they were free to practice their fundamentalist religious beliefs. Through Karl-Oscar’s brother, Robert, and his friend, Arvid, Troell expands the narrative to include another aspect of the immigrant experience. After helping Karl-Oscar create something bountiful out of nothing, the young men set out for the gold fields of California. As difficult as the journey by sea had been, the trip west was several times worse. Robert would return to Minnesota, only to be accused by his older brother of lying about the small fortune in money he was carrying and requiring the comfort of Kristina in battling a debilitating illness. Troell then adds storylines concerning the Civil War, a bloody Sioux uprising and the dilemma faced by Kristina, who, in return for complying with “God’s will,” risked her life to mass produce children for her husband, even if he was willing to forego sex to keep her alive. The epic length of The New Land and The Emigrants today probably would have required they be divided into a mini-series. (Five years later, “Roots” would prove the viability of the format.) It probably would have been a good one. As it is, Troell’s films were greeted with enthusiasm on both sides of the pond, garnering Oscar nominations in major categories and making a decent amount of money. The splendid Criterion Collection edition adds interviews with Troell and Ullmann. Harder to find on DVD is Zandy’s Bride, which Troell made for Warner Bros. two years after The Emigrants. Set in and around Big Sur, it stars Ullmann as a mail-order bride delivered to a gruff rancher played by Gene Hackman.

Portrait of a Serial Monogamist
In their feature debut, Christina Zeidler and John Mitchell Smart appear to have borrowed the premise of Stephen Frears’ hipster rom-com High Fidelity to tell the story of a self-absorbed lesbian, Elsie (Diane Flacks), facing the prospect of middle-age solitude. Because she was dumped at an early age by her first schoolgirl crush, Elsie long ago vowed to be the dumper, instead of the dumpee, in future relationships. Portrait of a Serial Monogamist reminds me quite a bit more of Kissing Jessica Stein than the John Cusack vehicle, but mostly for its willingness to dial down the sex to appeal to a crossover audience. Canada has a long history of making LGBT movies that put to shame similar efforts by filmmakers in Hollywood. Among the films that even found traction here are Patricia Rozema’s I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing and When Night Is Falling, Richard Kwietniowski’s Love and Death on Long Island and Anne Wheeler’s Better Than Chocolate. Set in the Toronto’s clean and trendy Parkdale neighborhood, Portrait of a Serial Monogamist describes how Elsie’s friends and family members deal with her latest breakup, which seems to have been more than a little bit cruel. While Robyn (Carolyn Taylor) is able to bounce into the arms of another woman, Elsie’s commitment to play the field and not embark on yet another monogamist relationship appears to be taking on water. At the same time, Elsie is facing a troubling upheaval at her progressive radio station, which appears to be abandoning listeners her age. She takes up with a younger club deejay, who eventually tires of being treated like a homewrecker by the old farts in her girlfriend’s circle and some rude relatives. Portrait of a Serial Monogamist suffers from many of the same trivial conceits that afflict melodramas and rom-coms – gay or straight — in which yuppie characters invent their own problems. On the plus side, none are required to squeeze their way through a closet door or obsess over going all the way on a first date, and that’s a blessing. (Did Jessica Stein ever get past first base?)

Second Coming
Sweaty Betty
Every Family Has Problems
I wonder if any woman in the last two millennia has been able to convince her husband of the possibility that the unexpected and largely unwanted child she’s carrying is the result of being impregnated by the Holy Spirit. Not many, I suspect. Even Joseph wondered what was going on with his new bride, before being visited in a dream by an angel of the Lord who asked him to go along with the ruse for the next 18 years, or so. (It’s believed that Joseph took his secret to a relatively early grave.) In Debbie Tucker Green’s provocative feature debut, Second Coming, an Afro-Caribbean woman living in south London is faced with a dilemma that would benefit from the appearance of a holy messenger. Instead, Jax (Nadine Marshall) dreams of strange lights and leaking ceilings. Jax hasn’t had sex with her husband, Mark (Idris Elba), in a long time, and, in any case, was told after the birth of her son JJ (Kai Francis Lewis) that she’d no longer be able to bear children. It explains why Jax has only confided in her best friend from work, who logically suggests she get an abortion before she begins to show. Before long, however, JJ tips his dad off by asking him what he intends to name the child he couldn’t possibly have helped conceive. Naturally, the mystery threatens to tear the hinges off their marriage and the stability of their working-class family. Green probably deduced early on that such a premise probably wouldn’t fly on the face of it, even though it’s a dandy idea. She wisely decided to invest in JJ a curiosity and wisdom that could be perceived by viewers as being angelic, without also requiring him to sprout wings or a halo. Second Coming requires a heck of a balancing act on the part of a first-time filmmaker and there are times when the center fails to hold. The acting more than compensates for the rocky patches, however.

With all due respect to the humans we meet in Joseph Frank and Zachary Reed’s thoroughly irresistible DIY docu-drama, Sweaty Betty, it could have just as easily been titled “Petz n the Hood” and attracted the same amount of attention in indie circles … possibly more. As far as I can tell there’s no Betty, sweaty or otherwise, in the movie. There is a 1,000-pound hog named Ms. Charlotte, however, and an abandoned pit-bull named Kilmer. The hog is owned by Floyd, a huge Redskins fan who takes Charlotte to tailgate parties in hopes of getting someone to name her an official mascot. “The Hogs” was a term coined by offensive line coach Joe Bugel during team’s training camp in 1982, when he told Russ Grimm and Jeff Bostic, “Okay, you hogs, let’s get running down there.” It caught on and encouraged diehard fans to wear hats designed with a snout and tail … still more politically correct than wearing an Indian war bonnet. It’s entirely possible, as well, that the street after which the terrier – it resembles Petey on “The Little Rascals” — was re-named to honor former Washington quarterback Billy Kilmer. Otherwise, the connection between the real-life characters is tenuous. Sweaty Betty offers a slice-of-life portrait of a neighborhood that straddles the border of the capital and suburban Maryland. Although it’s a leafy and clean residential neighborhood, the mostly African-American residents appear to be, by most standards, poor and marginally employed. A few blocks away from Floyd live Rico and Scooby, two teenage single fathers and best friends, who see in Kilmer an opportunity to make money by raising puppies or selling her outright. They get help from family members to nurture the children, who appear to be well taken care of, healthy and happy. Kilmer … not so much. Anyway, as the three men make their rounds in the neighborhood, we’re given an opportunity to watch people interact in ways movies, TV sitcoms and dramas, the nightly news reports don’t. If their dreams border on the highly unrealistic, the men share an enthusiasm for life that’s palpable. Likely shot on a cellphone camera – as was the prize-winning TangerineSweaty Betty is as unpolished as a penny found lying on the sidewalk. Its fresh approach to the subject matter, however, is fresh and often quite funny. Oh, yeah, like The Harder They Come, the dialogue is subtitled to reflect the urban vernacular and patois. The DVD adds deleted scenes and a very weird short.

Like his older brother, Tyler, Emmbre Perry makes movies, some of which are produced as live recordings of stage plays. Also like his brother, the 36-year-old multi-hyphenate isn’t averse to slapping his name and photograph on DVD covers and lists of credits, whether or not he deserves the recognition. Unlike Tyler, however, Emmbre’s products aren’t even close to being ready for prime time. Every Family Has Problems is the second movie he’s written and the fourth he’s directed, behind No More Games, Let God Be the Judge and God Send Me a Man. You’d think, by now, he would have figured out how to mix an audio track in a way that doesn’t require viewers to continually adjust the sound levels. If it weren’t for the synopsis printed on the DVD cover, I wouldn’t have known what was happening on screen. Apparently, Every Family Has Problems concerns the disposition of a $500,000 life-insurance payout bequeathed to one of two stepbrothers living under the roof of an ill-matched pair of stepparents. Everyone suspects the boy has either stolen the money or is selling drugs. Perry plays the comic-relief grandfather with a beard so phony it wouldn’t fool a child, let alone the “upscale urban consumer” targeted by Perry’s production company. The cast also features Thomas Mikal Ford, rapper Lil Chuckee and a bunch of actors who were left off the credit roll, so as not to steal Emmbre’s thunder.

How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It)
Sheba, Baby: Blu-ray
If the minority-challenged folks at the motion-picture academy really want to make a statement at their annual Oscars soiree, they should, in addition to inviting the most bankable representatives of the African-American talent pool, consider going old-school … and I don’t mean trotting out Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, again. How about teaming Melvin van Peebles and Pam Grier to announce the winner in a high-profile category? Some observers might consider that to be a bit condescending, but it sure would make up for the absence of Will and Jada Smith. Joe Angio’s critically lauded 2005 tribute to Van Peebles, How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It), presents all the evidence anyone would need to warrant such an honor, while also presenting a history lesson in African-American cinema. Although his self-produced 1971 feature film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, is widely credited as the first Blaxploitation film, its topicality and importance as a groundbreaking indie can’t be understated. Moreover, its early, no-nonsense take on police brutality speaks to what’s happening in cities around the country, today. Van Peebles’ contributions to the American theater, rap music and the civil-rights movement remain are significant, as well. The DVD adds a recent interview with Van Peebles, who’s as outspoken as ever.

The case for Grier is even easier to make. Simply put, for more than 40 years, she’s been one of the coolest actors — of any color or gender — in the business. Quentin Tarantino reminded us of that in Jackie Brown. More to the point, she was a bankable in her heyday as any actress not named Barbra Streisand. After starting out doing badass women-in-prison pictures in the Philippines, Grier claimed a new niche in Blaxploitation as a bona-fide action hero. Arrow Video/MVD’s refurbished edition of William Girdler’s 1975 Sheba, Baby may not constitute a prime example of the subgenre, but she’s in fine form as the revenge-minded daughter of an extortion victim and it’s still fun to watch. Her other 1975 credits included Bucktown and Friday Foster. Arrow adds such supplemental features as an original trailer for the film; a collection of stills and promotional materials; “Pam Grier: The AIP Years,” with historian Chris Poggiali; a new interview with producer and screenwriter David Sheldon; two audio commentaries; and a 14-page illustrated booklet, featuring Patty Breen’s essay “Sheba, Baby.”

This Changes Everything: Blu-ray
Disruptive Film: Everyday Resistance to Power, Vol. 1
Facets Kids
What will it take for citizens of the world to rise up and take action against global warming and the pollution caused by stripping the world of its natural resources: a) a series of meteorological disasters too relentless to ignore; b) the gradual absorption of prime real estate by swelling seas; c) when profit motives are stripped from the ecological equation, or d) the release of more well-meaning documentaries like This Changes Everything? All of the above certainly, but, as narrator Naomi Klein asks rhetorically in her introduction to Avi Lewis’ provocative, if less than groundbreaking film: Have we finally come to the point where preaching to the choir has actually become boring? This Changes Everything presents seven portraits of communities on the front lines of the fight, from Montana’s Powder River Basin and the Alberta Tar Sands, to the poisonous skies of South India and Beijing. Lewis produced the film in conjunction with Klein’s bestselling book of the same title, filming in nine countries and five continents over four years. Her premise: we can seize the existential crisis of climate change to transform our failed economic system into something radically better. This Changes Everything was made before the unexpected decline in oil prices effectively took some of the wind out of the sails of the environmental movement, by encouraging short-sighted consumers to buy less efficient toys powered by carbon-based fuels. It also has given industrialists, utility companies and investors an opportunity to promote free-market solutions for problems caused by predatory capitalists. In California, however, when consumers successfully lowered water consumption in response to the ongoing drought, utilities requested a raise in rates to compensate for loss of profits. They’ll follow the same tack when and if independent solar-energy companies gain a foothold. Neither was the film made in time to reflect the lack of interest by presidential candidates of both parties to address the same issues in their so-called debates. Has the media pressed them to explain their positions, or lack thereof? No. Several of the Republican candidates have suggested either that global warming doesn’t exist or, if it does, it’s God’s will. As wonderful as it is to witness grass-roots activism occurring around the globe, it’s just as clear that most people won’t take climate change seriously until the patios of their beach homes are submerged under three feet of saltwater and the clouds above them rain coal dust. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and interviews, as well as access to teaching tools.

Just when it began to seem as if every film student in the western world is putting the finishing touches on a groundbreaking new movie about zombies or spring break with Robert DeNiro, Facets Video comes along to remind us that there’s still room for expressions of disgust for the status quo, repressive governments, capitalist swine and unfettered gentrification. Actually, the 26 short-form experimental non-fiction titles collected in Disruptive Film: Everyday Resistance to Power, Vol. 1, aren’t limited to any particular historical period, country or cause. Curators Ernest Larsen and Sherry Millner have successfully established a new history of film as political resistance, with radical global narratives that span from 1914 to the early 21st century and represent the diversity in approaches to documentary filmmaking. The collection has been arranged in nearly hour-long segments, representing “Globalized Resistances,” “Live Like a Refugee,” “Cultural Displacements” and “Performative Provocations.” It is intended to serve political and educational purposes, offering film, media and scholars a chance to review unaccountably under-appreciated works of film, video and animation that propose various strategies of resistance to power. And, no, not all of the films can be construed as being anti-American. Among those that are is John Greyson’s almost heartbreaking “14.3 Seconds,” a work of speculative video based on the notion that only 14.3 seconds worth of film stock went undestroyed after the 2003 bombing of Iraq’s film archives. In 2004, ICARP (Iraq Coalition Archives Restoration Project) announced that it intended to use these scraps to painstakingly reconstruct what was once considered the greatest collection of Arab Cinema in the world. It resulted in six different restorations, all lasting 14.3 seconds, in which the frames have been mixed and match in separate genre configurations.

For more than 30 years, Facets has hosted the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival, the largest such event in North America. It annually welcomes 25,000 Chicago-area children, adults and educators, and features more than 250 films from 40 countries. These include live-action and animated feature films, shorts, TV series, documentaries and other child-produced works. Its mission is to showcase “the best in culturally diverse, non-violent, value-affirming new cinema for children, and is one of the only Academy Award-qualifying children’s film festivals in the world.” Facets’ Kids Film Camp introduces kids ages 7-14 to the techniques, language and process of filmmaking, through the expertise of professional filmmakers and respected critics. To coincide with the introduction of a new streaming service Facets Kids, four volumes of representative films have been released in DVD. They are “The Power of Imagination,” “Embracing Differences,” “Family and Community” and “Overcoming Obstacles.” There’s nothing quite like these compilations in the marketplace.

Sociopathia
Serial Kaller
Far better than it has any right to be, the micro-budget slasher flick, Sociopathia, was co-produced, -written, -directed and -edited by multi-hyphenate scream queen Ruby Larocca, who also found time to co-star in it. She does so alongside such like-talented actresses as Nicola Fiore (Slaughter Daughter), Asta Paredes (Return to Nuke ‘Em High), Tammy Jean (Apocalypse Kiss), Nicolette le Faye (Call Girl of Cthulhu) and lesser-known ingénues Tabetha Ray, Desiree Saetia and Brandy Noir. I don’t expect anyone to be familiar with most or any of these names. I just enjoy repeating them. Jean plays the mild-mannered Mara, a prop designer by day and psycho-killer by night. Desperately lonely, Mara can’t stand the thought of saying good-night to her lovers – mostly of the female persuasion – so she kills them and trusses them up as living dolls. When she’s hired by a fledgling producer, Kat (Parades), Mara faces choices she never thought would be available to her and the “dolls” resent having to share her creator with someone new. If the acting here won’t make anyone forget such legendary scream queens as Jamie Lee Curtis, Debbie Rochon, Tiffany Shepis or Linnea Quigley, at least they deliver the goods when it comes to semi-nudity and looking reasonably dead in zombie makeup. Moreover, it’s nice to see genre players get their own slice of the pie, for once. The DVD adds a complete B&W version of Sociopathia – don’t ask why – and seven deleted Scenes, including one with George Stover, a cult actor best known for his work in John Waters’ films.

Even more scream queens have been rounded up for Dan Brownlie and Dani Thompson’s Serial Kaller, in which a group of beautiful Internet models are trapped inside their studio by an unstable fan. Instead of stroking the caller’s ego, while he’s stroking his … the models decide it might be fun to insult him. Other factors may be at work, but dissing a paying customer is never a good idea. Among the voluptuous stars are Thompson, Debbie Rochon, Suzi Lorraine, Jessica Ann Brownlie and Ashleigh Lawrence. The ladies divide their time between their double-mattress stages and the dressing room, rarely bothering to change their lingerie, in between. Serial Kaller isn’t even as good as Sociopathia, but, at least, the actresses are given more to do than scream on cue.

In the House of Flies
Madness of Many
While having to listen to the disembodied voice of renaissance punk Henry Rollins would be unnerving in the best of circumstances, it seems especially diabolical coming from a telephone in a cinderblock dungeon occupied by a pair of unfortunate young lovers in In the House of Flies. The innocent couple, Heather (Lindsay Smith) and Steve (Ryan Kotack), have been abducted for no apparent reason by a stranger whose voice resembles that of the former frontman of Black Flag. The Voice’s “game” involves pitting his captives against each other, by promising things he may or not be able to deliver. He has left various props inside suitcases strategically placed inside the dungeon, which seemingly has no exit. That Heather is pregnant effectively raises the tension level in Gabriel Carrer and Angus McLellan’s alternating absorbing and tedious psychodrama. The DVD adds a 45-minute behind-the-scenes documentary; footage from the Spanish premiere; deleted scenes; and commentary.

Clearly inspired by Jörg Buttgereit (Nekromantik) and Tom Six (The Human Centipede), Danish filmmaker Kasper Juhl has created in Madness of Many a work of torture porn, so hideously graphic and profane that it begs the question as to what passes for sanity these days in Scandinavia. According to the marketing blurb, “The film depicts the psychological journey of a young woman named Victoria. Since her childhood she has been sexually abused by her family. One day she decides to escape but the world is against her and she soon finds herself cast into an inferno of torture and punishment. This causes her unimaginable suffering, but she also comes to understand the true meaning of her existence …” I take the last five words to mean that Victoria (Ellen Abrahamson) should accept the fact that she’s just one more female character in extreme jeopardy, who exists solely for the entertainment of sadists and perverts. To this end, Buttgereit is a master at creating makeup effects that wouldn’t be out of place in a snuff film. In a preface to Madness of Many, he says, “Pain and suffering expands my consciousness to find peace.” The problem comes in not being able to differentiate between storytelling and the equivalent to killing cats for masturbatory fun. It’s interesting, as well, that the DVD arrives in a package containing three separate discs, including one for bonus material and another for the soundtrack. The making-of featurette does a nice job demonstrating how much fun the actors were having on the set and why horror is just another form of make-believe … except when it isn’t, of course. When Buttgereit isn’t making movies, he’s the lead singer in the death- metal band Abscission. Of course, he is.

Freaks of Nature: Blu-ray
Mansion of Blood
Hangman: Blu-ray
Black Mountain Side
Hellions: Blu-ray
The temptation to make and star in satires of genre flicks must be hard to resist. Mel Brooks did the world a favor by churning out parodies so dead-on funny that most potential imitators decided not to risk failure. The Scream and Scary Movie franchises reopened the floodgates, even as the National Lampoon series was running out of steam. Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright demonstrated the right way to have fun with genre parodies, in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, without insulting anyone’s intelligence or disrespecting time-honored tropes and conventions. Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows would be tough to beat, as well. Freaks of Nature (a.k.a.,“Kitchen Sink”) would appear to have had everything going for it, before it got caught up in some kind of a logjam at Columbia/Sony at the time of the hack . If I had to guess, I’d say it too closely resembled Hell Baby – also with Keegan-Michael Key – and The World’s End, with their all-star casts and Millennial humor. Among the recognizable players here are Nicholas Braun, Ed Westwick, Mackenzie Davis, Denis Leary, Vanessa Hudgens, Bob Odenkirk, Rachael Harris, Mae Whitman, Patton Oswalt and Werner Herzog’s disembodied. Director Robbie Pickering (Natural Selection) and writer Oren Uziel (22 Jump Street) don’t leave any of them hanging, exactly, but the laughs are sporadic. In a plot that might have been inspired by Troma’s Toxic Avenger, Freaks of Nature is set in the peaceful town of Dillford, Ohio, where vampires, zombies and humans co-exist in separate residential zones and everyone owes their well-being to a factory manufacturing dangerously unhealthy snacks made of brains. One day, a giant space vehicle hovers over the town and plant, causing the citizenry to panic and each other in stampedes. A force field prevents them from leaving. The key for their survival stands right before their eyes, but isn’t unleashed for 90 minutes of screen time.

In the horror comedy Mansion of Blood, Mike Donahue (Pooltime) appears to have invited everyone he’s ever known to a party at a haunted mansion in River Ridge Iowa, where the millionaire owner expects a lunar eclipse to shine light on a mystery that’s last several generations. As is the case in most eclipses, though, light eventually gives way to shadows. It does inspire a local witch to cast a spell to summon the spirit of her dead boyfriend, a trick that would be akin to bringing coals to Newcastle. The most noteworthy appearances here are by a creepy servant, played by Gary Busey, who looks more like Donald Trump every day. The other strange thing about Mansion of Blood is the inclusion of “college girls” whose breast implants might be older than the average age of their school’s student body.

I don’t know if Adam Mason’s Hangman is supposed to be a parody or comedy, but I lumped it in here because it very easily could have been funny and produced better results. Returning from vacation, the Millers (Jeremy Sisto, Kate Ashfield, Ty & Ryan Simpkins) find their home has been broken into by a very messy home invader. Naturally, they feel violated, angry and confused about what to do next. After a house search that completely misses the presence of the intruder and several screens linked to security cameras in the attic, they decide that lightning can’t strike twice in the same place and begin to go about their business as if nothing happened. Somehow, the Millers’ guest managed to install cameras so unobtrusively that they can’t be seen in the dozens of places they’re located. Every so often, the masked man drops down from the attic door to play pranks on the Millers and get closer to them than the cameras allow. His ability to do so, without causing the homeowners to call in exterminators or lock the door to the attic, finally becomes laughable.

In a high-altitude variation of The Thing and The Thing From Outer Space, writer/director Nick Szostakiwskyj pits a team of archeologists against a mysterious figure lurking on the fringes of the forest in British Columbia’s Monashee Mountains. Being the dead of winter, the scientists are trapped not only by the snow and cold, but also curiosity over the seemingly ancient structure they’ve found buried nearby. With nowhere to go, it becomes difficult to tell if the greater threat comes from the unknown or cabin fever. If nothing else, Black Mountain Side is easy on the eyes.

In Hellions, veteran Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald puts a rural twist on the Rosemary’s Baby conceit by having the interested bystanders to a teenager’s pregnancy be greedy little monsters using Halloween as a pretext for wearing creepy costumes and masks. Dora Vogel (Chloe Rose) just learned of her pregnancy that morning and is awaiting trick-or-treaters in the guise of an angel or fairy. The kids keep coming, even after the candy runs out. Ostensibly, the pro-life brats are torturing Dora because they assume she’ll abort the fetus. Always a welcome presence in genre flicks, Robert Patrick keeps everyone guessing as to his character’s motivation. McDonald also does a nice job with the arty dream sequences.

A Violent Life
Comin’ at Ya!: Blu-Ray 3D/2D
Hector the Mighty
E.N.D.
I’m not enough of a genre buff to know just how valuable One 7 Movies’ newly released A Violent Life might be to collectors of mid-century Italian cinema, except to point out that the 1970 drama appears to have lost its original title, “Ostia,” in the translation and given one used by Pier Paolo Pasolini for a 1959 novel about life among dispossessed youth in post-war Rome. The 1961 film adaptation of that book, by Paolo Heusch and Brunello Rondi, carried the title Violent Life, from the original “Una vita violenta.” Co-adapted and directed by frequent Pasolini collaborator, Sergio Citti (Salo, Accatone), Ostia/A Violent Life remains interesting for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that it prefigured the artist’s ghastly murder – still unsolved – on the same beach, five years later. Bandiera (Laurent Terzieff) and Rabbino (Franco Citti) are inseparable brothers – the sons of a brutal anarcho-communist peasant — who live on a patch of land outside Rome. As children, they’re traumatized by the callous devouring of a pet sheep and take out their rage on their drunken father. Years later, in the same fields, the petty criminals discover the body of a vivacious blond, Monica (Anita Sanders), whose sleep they mistake for death. The young brothers don’t seem particularly interested in ravaging the beauty, but their cronies take advantage of her dazed condition to finish what a wandering soldier and her father had previously attempted to do. While Bandiera and Rabbino are in prison for one crime or another, they’re given an opportunity to “cohabitate” with Monica, but only one shag per visit. Forced to choose between them, Monica inadvertently causes a rift between the brothers, who, otherwise, hadn’t shown any interest in her sexually. Upon their release, the trio goes for a swim in the sea. The sight of her nude body so casually displayed – in combination with latent jealousy – sparks a confrontation that’s possibly intended to remind us of Cain and Abel. A Violent Life may not be in the same league as Pasolini’s more noteworthy works, but it is of a piece with his earlier post-war studies of how poverty and caste impacted Italy before the economic “miracle” brought la dolce vita. Sadly, there are no bonus features.

Fifteen years after Italian genre specialist Ferdinando Baldi directed Django, Prepare a Coffin and Texas, Adios, he attempted to blow fresh air into the deflated Spaghetti Western category with Comin’ at Ya! Inspired, perhaps, by John Wayne’s 3D Western, Hondo, Baldi and writer/star Tony Anthony enthusiastically embraced the format. The story follows bank robber H.H. Hart (Anthony) as he exacts his vengeance on a pair of desperadoes who kidnap his fiancé, Abilene (Victoria Abril), at the altar and leave him for dead. The gunmen lock Abilene in the basement of a hacienda with a couple dozen other women they intend to sell as sex slaves. The question, of course, is whether H.H. can rescue the prisoners before they’re sold and dispersed throughout Mexico. Baldi appears to have been less interested in the intricacies of the story than creating opportunities to show off 3D effects. These include darts, snakes, beans, rats, spears, grasping hands, spiders, a bowling ball, bats, gun barrels, swords, cowboys falling down stairs, a spinning yo-yo and pinwheel, gold coins, apple peelings, flaming arrows and a baby’s bottom. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to purchase a 3D television simply to take advantage of the special effects, but those who’ve already made the investment might want to check out Comin’ at Ya!

Where the archivists at Cheezy Flicks find the masterpieces in their inventory, I’ll never know. As far as I can tell, Hector the Mighty never opened in the U.S. and, given the opportunity, stars Giancarlo Giannini and Vittorio De Sica might have considered buying the negative and destroying it. Giannini was on the verge of becoming a huge international star with Lina Wertmüller’s The Seduction of Mimi and Love & Anarchy, while 71-year-old De Sica still would go on to direct A Brief Vacation and The Voyage. Writer/director Enzo G. Castellari’s future held jobs helming The Inglorious Bastards and The Loves and Times of Scaramouche, so he, too, might have had reasons to keep Hector the Mighty submerged. Students of the Greek mythology might recognize the debt Castellari owes to Homer, as Helen of Troy’s kidnapping by Theseus is recalled in the abduction of Elena (Rosanna Schiaffino), wife of an Italian mob boss. Two powerful gangs compete to rescue her, even if she doesn’t want to be returned to her husband. Giannini plays Ulisse to Michael Forest’s Achilles. Because both men are recognized for their voicing talent, it’s a shame that they’re dubbing appears to have been performed by Three Stooges impersonators.

Five Italian filmmakers contributed to E.N.D. The Movie, a zombie-apocalypse drama whose related segments cover three different time periods, three different locations and three different gradations of a worldwide plague. The first takes place in a funeral parlor, where different employees are forced to deal with the earliest stage of an epidemic spread by cocaine. Soon, the corpses ready for the burial wake up in their coffins. On Day 1466, when the epidemic has already devoured the whole country, an American soldier and a pregnant woman are surrounded by zombies in a cabin in the woods. By Day 2333, the country is divided in two factions — humans and undead – neither of them what they appear to be. The DVD adds an interview with screenwriter Antonio Tentori.

Red Krokodil
Maybe you’ve heard or read about the street drug krokodil, which has been known to rot the skin of users from inside-out. Mostly popular in Russia and former Soviet states, where it surfaced in a heroin panic, krokodil was first synthesized in 1932 and patented in 1934 as desomorphine. A dose can be 8 to 10 times more potent than morphine, but have a far shorter active period. While it hasn’t been manufactured for pharmaceutical use for more than 30 years, it is relatively easy to make, given codeine and other ingredients readily available in Russia. Because it is known to cause such extreme gangrene and abscesses that a user’s muscles, tendons and bones can become exposed – and scaly ruptures surround the injections — it’s difficult to imagine even the most strung out junkie finding it therapeutic. Even so, a few cases of krokodil abuse have been reported in the U.S. In Domiziano Cristopharo’s harrowing Red Krokodil, we watch as the drug slowly destroys a young man who’s survived a nuclear disaster, like Chernobyl, but is consumed by loss and lack of hope for a future. Even though he lives in an apartment that can only charitably be described as a pigsty, his hallucinations carry him to places in nature where he can roam freely, naked as a jaybird. It doesn’t take long for Him (Brock Madson) to return to his world of hurt and decay, however, where his only companions are an imaginary Bunny Man and a stuffed toy crocodile given to him as a child. Red Krokodil is as nihilistic a movie as one is likely to encounter and not one for the faint of heart. As metaphors go, though, the drug certainly conveys how the filmmakers feel about a civilization destined to destroy itself. The DVD adds an alternate ending, a couple of deleted scenes and a photo gallery.

Hard Scrambled

Kurtwood Smith (“That ’70s Show”), whose face is far more familiar than his name, shines in David Scott Hay’s stagey character study, Hard Scrambled. Set primarily in a rundown urban eatery, Alice’s Diner is the kind of place where street urchins gorge themselves on coffee, but don’t spend much money on food. When the restaurant’s namesake (Beth Grant) suffers a terrible accident in the kitchen, Smith’s ex-con character and Richard Edson’s dreamer, Joe, compete to take over the operation, opening the door for financial scams and double-crosses. Hard Scrambled began its life as a play and its roots show throughout the movie. The DVD contains a lengthy making-of featurette, which likely will appeal to aspiring filmmakers.

Masterless: Blu-ray
I wonder if Craig Shimahara ever considered titling his debut feature “Gotta Serve Somebody,” after Bob Dylan’s gospel-rock classic, instead of the more ambiguous, Masterless. Kane Madison (Adam LaVorgnais) is a recently laid-off L.A. architect, whose spirit exists in two worlds. The first is in a hellishly competitive business environment, where godless capitalists are too busy worshipping the holy dollar to notice the emptiness inside them. The other is among the ancestors of his Japanese wife, who’s deathly ill, but must have some samurai blood coursing through her veins. In a conceit that’s far-fetched even by faith-based standards, Kane’s doppelganger spirit, Ronin, is an Anglo swordsman without a master, wandering through the forests of 19th Century Japan. He’s struggling in both spheres of consciousness. The idea, of course, is that no one can succeed without a master – God, for example — no matter how ruthless and well-armed they might be. (The word, “ronin,” also can be interpreted to identify a “salaryman,” between employers.)  Shimahara deserves credit for taking a chance here, both thematically and technically. Despite the elaborate conceit, it’s easy to keep track of the time shifts and the only really unlikeable character is Kane’s shrewish mother-in-law, who blames him for taking her daughter to America and allowing her to follow a Christian path. Those so inclined might enjoy the fresh approach to the genre by Masterless.

David Bowie: In His Own Words
Coldplay: Live Stories
Dicks: The Dicks From Texas
Charles Bradley: Live From the House of Soul
As coincidences go, this week’s package from MVD Visual contained a real doozy. No one at the company could have foreseen the loss of David Bowie, last month, at 69, to liver cancer, so the release of David Bowie: In His Own Words is purely and simply a coincidence. No one from the company called to give me head’s-up, as I’d already requested a copy in December. It’s possible that AXS-TV hadn’t scheduled showings of D.A. Pennebaker’s splendid 1973 concert film, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, before his death, but I’m glad I was given an opportunity to tape it. Filmed during the last stop of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour/incarnation, it could hardly be more entertaining or difficult to find through normal channels in mint condition. By contrast, “In His Own Words” contains virtually no music. The same applies to the same company’s Keith Richard: In His Own Words, released last month. They’re both comprised of interviews in the public record and other archival material, absent anything the producers would have to license. Because of the nature of the publicity tours from which most of the material was generated, the Bowie session provide far more insight into the man. For one thing, he’s asked better questions by interviewers who include Conan O’Brien and Carson Daly. Neither does he appear to be selling anything. He’s personable, funny, absent all pretext and completely forthcoming. Bowie seems at home talking about the fate of the planet, making wild but intriguing predictions about the future, chatting about the path of music or discussing any number of writers, poets, philosophers or artists who have inspired him. At 90 minutes, there’s more than enough material to make fans happy.

A similar coincidence applies to Coldplay: Live Stories, whose release coincided with the British band’s near disastrous appearance during the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Through no fault of the band’s own, it was expected to impress a packed stadium and tens of millions of TV viewers in exactly the wrong demographic range with songs they might have heard on the radio, but not associated with Coldplay. Neither did it help attract eyes when Chris Martin admitted to not knowing anything about American football. Why would he? Probably realizing that they’d made a mistake, the Pepsi promoters decided Coldplay couldn’t hold the interest of nacho-stuffed fans long enough to sell their latest concoctions. So, they invited Beyonce to join the party and plug her new album, alongside Bruno “Crazy Legs” Mars. Coldplay has filled venues around the world that are twice as big as Levi’s Stadium. No matter, it’s likely the check didn’t bounce and Coldplay didn’t look any worse, in retrospect, than the Carolina team. Coldplay: Live Stories, too, is largely free of music until near the end, when there’s plenty. What it does have, in spades, is band history going back to previous iterations and commentary by longtime followers. And, again, fans should love it.

Not at all coincidental, but similarly compelling are the two other music docs included in the delivery. Dicks: The Dicks From Texas recalls the early-1980s heyday the Austin band, which probably couldn’t get into the Super Bowl, even if the members purchased tickets. Cowpunk and “queercore” before either of those subgenres were remotely cool in Texas, the Dicks’ lead singer Gary Floyd could pass for Divine’s illegitimate child on stage. By all accounts, the Dicks were – and still are – influential in the national hard-core punk scene, even if they didn’t make any money at it. A good time is had by all in the DVD.

If Daptone Records sounds familiar, it’s probably because of its association with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, the funk/soul ensemble that backed Amy Winehouse on her breakthrough album, “Back to Black.” The Brooklyn-based label’s been around longer than that, however. Charles Bradley: Live From the House of Soul represents the first installment of Daptone Records’ new video series. Before settling on a career in the funk/soul/R&B arena, Bradley was a well-regarded James Brown impersonator.

Trancers: City of Lost Angels
Sci-fi completists are the primary audience for Trancers: City of Lost Angels, a long lost chapter in a three-part anthology concocted in 1988 by Full Moon founder Charles Band as “Pulse Pounders.” Once the money disappeared, so, too, did the 35mm negatives for “The Evil Clergyman” and a “Dungeonmaster” follow-up. A quarter-century later, a VHS transfer of an edited work print surfaced. In the 30-minute short, Tim Thomerson plays Jack Deth, a supercop from the future, who has put away three centuries worth of time-traveling criminals. Velvet Rhodes plays the violent assassin Edlin Shock, a recent escapee from a maximum-security prison. Now based in 1988 Los Angeles, Deth is involved in shaky relationship with 21-year-old Helen Hunt. The DVD adds some background features.

TV-to-DVD
El Rey: From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series: Season Two
MHz: A French Village: 1941: Season 2
MHz: Spiral: Season 5
PBS: Nova: Making North America
PBS: BBC Earth: Earth’s Natural Wonders: Blu-ray
PBS: American Experience: The Mine Wars
PBS: American Experience: Murder of a President
Independent Lens: A Ballerina’s Tale: Blu-ray
While there’s no shortage of hot young vampires on television, very few of them are conversant in Spanish and represent the fastest-growing minority in the U.S. Developed by Robert Rodriguez, the supernatural crime series “From Dusk till Dawn” expands on its namesake film and straight-to-DVD franchise, which employs a more comic/horror tone. If you haven’t heard of the show, it’s only because the series is the cornerstone production of the El Rey network, which is only carried on a handful of cable and satellite services. In addition to the usual bloodsuckers, the featured creatures include characters from Aztec and other Mexican traditions. In Season Two, Santanico Pandemonium (Eiza González) and Richie Gecko (Zane Holtz) are impersonating a modern version of Bonnie and Clyde, Seth Gecko and Kate (Madison Davenport) are scraping by as small-time criminals in north Mexico and Ranger Freddie Gonzalez (Jesse Garcia) is struggling to protecting his family in the suburbs. Naturally, the Titty Twister strip club attracts desperadoes like a Venus flytrap attracts, well, flies. As confusing as the shapeshifting can be, the mix of little known actors and popular guest stars is nicely choreographed. While full of fantasy violence and mayhem, nudity is of the partial variety. Look for visits by Danny Trejo, Wilmer Valderrama, Jake Busey, Robert Patrick, Esai Morales, Jeff Fahey and Don Johnson. The Blu-ray adds commentary on select episodes, recaps, making-of featurettes and a presentation from the 2015 NYC Comic Con.

The MHz Networks import, “A French Village,” chronicles the impact of World War II on a small village in central France from the beginning of the German occupation, 1940, until the liberation by Allied forces in 1944. Newly available on DVD is the second of six seasons, mostly encompassing the events of 1941. As the residents settle down for the long haul, the German presence in Villeneuve has become firmly entrenched, eclipsing any notion that the Vichy government had any say in the matter. The interaction between the German troops and residents is about to devolve from almost cordial to antagonistic, with the resistance taking shape and threats to Jews becoming more direct. One interesting storyline involves discussions among Communist Party members as to how to show their support for their comrades on the Eastern Front, where the Nazis still appear to hold the upper hand. As we already know, any violent resistance against the enemy would result in reprisals against the population at large. Here, though, there’s still room dialogue, commerce and soap-opera romance. It’s an amazing series, well worth the effort it takes to endure the subtitles. The MHz streaming site appears to be a year ahead of the DVD releases.

Also from MHz comes Season Five of the contemporary police procedural, “Spiral,” winner of the 2015 International Emmy for best Drama Series. It is about the men and women who work at the heart of the Parisian judicial system, especially the interaction between the lawyers, judges, prosecutors and detectives who cross paths on the most serious and heinous crimes. As is the case with “Law & Order,” reality tends to spiral out of control for each character, blurring the boundaries between private and professional life. If anything, the tension between men and women on the force is greater in “Spiral.” Season Five begins with the shocking double murder of a woman and a girl, found bound together in a canal. Naturally, the investigation begins with the father, who appears to have disappeared with his young son, after a bitter domestic clash. Captain Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) is still reeling from the death of a partner in Season Four and her demeanor is further tested by an unplanned pregnancy. As seemingly unrelated investigations develop, the characters find similarities to the original murders.

In its continuing effort to make viewers regret not taking advanced geology and Earth-sciences in college, PBS appears to have made it its business to explain not only how the world as we know it was shaped, but also the ways its continued to change … imperceptibly and in great physical upheavals. More to the point of television, though, such science-based series as “NOVA” and “BBC Earth” have made these changes look far more spectacularly beautiful than previous generations of students got have imagined. Drone technology probably will add new dimensions to our appreciation of the geologists’ art. The latest entries include “Making North America” describes how such elemental forces as volcanic eruptions, floods, glaciers and meteorites conspired to shape our land. The “NOVA” presentation serves as a sweeping biography of our continent and how it came to be. It is enhanced by hyper-realistic CGI animations, immersive geological field missions and the latest scientific research, The BBC’s “Earth’s Natural Wonders” travels to some of the planet’s most extraordinary destinations to show how their environments shape the lives of those who live there. They include Mount Everest’s Khumbu Icefall, the Amazon Basin and Grand Canyon.

From PBS’s “American Experience” come “The Mine Wars” and “Murder of a President,” the first taking an in-depth at struggle of mine workers to be compensated commiserate to the hazards of the job and needs of their families. The mine owners, of course, would have preferred the miner paid them to work there. They fought every effort to organize unions with repressive legislation, brutal police and national guard units, scabs and mercenary violence. If enormous profits weren’t available to management and the country didn’t need the coal to fuel our industrial engine, the strikes might never have been settled. It seems as if the unions have been fighting the same battles for respect, safety and adequate compensation since the early 1900s covered here. “Murder of a President” recounts the assassination and excruciating final months of President James Garfield’s life. Our 20th president was gunned down by a deranged Stalwart politician only a few months after taking office. He would die two months later from the wounds. A brilliant scholar, courageous general and fervent abolitionist, Garfield never wanted the job of president, but, once in office, he worked tirelessly to reunite a nation still divided 15 years after the Civil War.

Now playing on select PBS stations is “A Ballerina’s Tale,” which is a short version of Nelson George’s beautiful bio-doc of Misty Copeland, who made history when she became the first African-American woman to be named principal dancer of the legendary American Ballet Theater. George followed the Los Angeles-raised dancer for the past two years, during which her profile was raised to almost astronomical heights, if only because her backstory is as compelling these things get. Because of her ethnic background and non-traditional “body type,” the spotlight shown on her during her rise was harsher than the one accorded non-black ballerinas. The film also describes her career-threatening surgery for six stress fractures to her tibia. It is, at once, highly inspirational, motivational and entertaining,

The DVD Wrapup: Bridge of Spies, Truth, Snow White, Breathe and more

Thursday, February 4th, 2016

Bridge of Spies: Blu-ray
There’s always a point in a Steven Spielberg movie where I want to pull out my cellphone–or hit the pause button on my remote–to check the validity of what’s just happened on the screen. Likewise, there are times in every performance by Tom Hanks when he appears to be channeling Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart, instead of remaining within the skin of his character. It doesn’t take me out of the picture for very long, just enough to remind me that the operative word in “based on a true story” is “based,” not “true.” Most fact-based movies made in Hollywood require a suspension of disbelief for the sake of telling a story. It comes with the price of a ticket. If any collaborative team is allowed more latitude than Spielberg and Hanks, however, I’d be hard-pressed to name it. Their work on the Cold War drama, Bridge of Spies, provides a perfect example of why purists avoid going to see movies about their primary areas of interest, while others applaud a good screenwriter’s ability to make a historical event more entertaining than it was in real life. The drama surrounds the exchange of American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers for Soviet KGB Rudolf Ivanovich Abel (a.k.a., Colonel Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher) on February 10, 1962, at the Glienicke Bridge connecting West Berlin and Potsdam. At the same time, American student Frederic Pryor — accused of espionage by East German authorities –was quietly allowed to pass through Checkpoint Charlie, a free man. Both were arranged by New York insurance lawyer and former assistant to Justice Robert H. Jackson at the Nuremberg trials in Germany political negotiator James B. Donovan. In the movie, it appeared as if someone in Washington had pulled Donovan’s name from a hat, when, in fact, he was General Counsel at the Office of Strategic Services from 1943 to 1945. If Donovan’s name hadn’t been made public, Spielberg might have invented a composite character of him for Hanks to play.

Reporters dubbed the Glienicke span, Bridge of Spies, after the 1985 swap of 23 American agents held in Eastern Europe for Polish agent Marian Zacharski and another three Soviet agents arrested in the west. A year later, Soviet political prisoner Anatoly Shcharansky and three western agents were traded for five eastern agents. The bridge also played a role in screen adaptations of John Le Carré’s Smiley’s People and Len Deighton’s Funeral in Berlin. Even so, Bridge of Spies didn’t exactly write itself. Spielberg enlisted Ethan and Joel Cohn to polish Matt Charman’s original script, adding some spice to the negotiations between Donovan and the almost morbidly drab KGB and East German agents. Hanks took it from there, practically winking at the audience when Donovan pulled one over the dullards. He took a more serious tack when, against all odds and professional advice, Donovan nearly convinced the Supreme Court to free his much-loathed client from jail on a technicality. Spielberg’s signature touch can be recognized in the film’s icy depiction of life behind the still uncompleted wall separating East Berlin from West Berlin. The bombed-out cityscape stands in bold contrast to the brightness of life in the west. Alan Alda and Amy Ryan are the only two cast members whose faces would be recognized outside an SAG pep rally, but Hanks makes everyone look good in his company. Besides grossing $162.4 million worldwide and receiving near-unanimous critical acclaim, Bridge of Spies has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (for Mark Rylance), Best Original Screenplay and Best Production Design. The Blu-ray adds featurettes “Berlin 1961: Re-Creating the Divide,” “A Case of the Cold War: Bridge of Spies,” “U-2 Spy Plane” and “Spy Swap: Looking Back on the Final Act.”

Truth: Blu-ray
When Robert Redford played Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men, the Watergate crisis was fading from the memory of most American and journalism schools were churning out investigative journalists as if they’re so many sausages. Today, many of those same J-school graduates have been laid off from their jobs, with nary a parting handshake for their contributions to our great democracy. Investigative reporting took a big hit on the chin a few years later when CBS and ABC executives kowtowed to Big Tobacco for their own selfish reasons, denying the veracity of reports known to be accurate and making a mockery of the First Amendment. CBS’ betrayal was dramatized in The Insider, which, while making less money than All the President’s Men, did reasonably well at the box office. Al Pacino played reporter-producer Lowell Bergman and the picture attracted a flock of awards nominations. For its part, ABC cut a deal with a target of a “Day One” report to settle lawsuits ahead of its sale to Disney. In Up Close & Personal, Redford played a nearly washed up TV news director, who mentors, then falls for an ambitious blond reporter (Michelle Pfeiffer). The film had been intended to chronicle the rocket rise and tragic demise of Jessica Savitch, until studio buffoons decided that audiences really wanted to see another love story, featuring two blond leads.

In Truth, Redford plays another respected journalist and anchorman, Dan Rather, who could have benefited from having an editor like Ben Bradlee, instead of a bunch of Chicken Littles scurrying away at the first hint of controversy. Unlike All the President’s Men, James Vanderbilt’s debut feature serves as a reminder of how far the once-mighty industry has fallen in the eyes of the public. If Rather couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth – an argument made in the film not by viewers, but network suits – then, why not watch “Wheel of Fortune” or “Roseanne” reruns, instead? The trouble is, the Watergate scandal is probably fresher in the minds of today’s moviegoers than the 2004 fracas at CBS. If the impact of the events chronicled in Truth had made a dent on the American psyche, it didn’t register at the box office. In fact, it recovered less money in its domestic release than it cost to make ATPM in 1976. This, despite awards-caliber performances by Redford and Cate Blanchett, who, instead, was nominated for her work in Carol, and universally excellent reviews. Blanchett plays Mary Mapes, Redford’s producer and chief reporter on an investigation into George W. Bush’s alleged ability to avoid the draft by phoning in his obligation to the Texas Air National Guard. While there would be no shame in Bush or anyone else attempting to find a way out of going to Southeast Asia at that particular point in time, he did so by calling in favors from Bush family friends. Even more reprehensible, 30-plus years later in Bush’s re-election campaign, his advisers would tar his opponent, Vietnam vet John Kerry, by accusing him of being a liar about his service to the U.S. Neither would the president hesitate to put tens of thousands of American lives in harm’s way, when Bush ordered the unnecessary invasion of Iraq. It was an ill-conceived blunder for which we’re still paying.

All of that was in play when Rather went on “60 Minutes” to present Mapes’ findings to an audience of millions. Instead of putting Bush on the defensive, the report put them in the crosshairs of a smear campaign that prompted CBS brass to put extraordinary pressure on their news-division stars to recant and apologize for a story that, at its worst, could have used one more on-the-record source and a few more days to report. Too many of the people who had verified Mapes’ findings caved in to threats from Republican power-brokers. The network’s investigation stunk to high heaven and it looks even more politically motivated in Truth. Rather would resign in shame, while Mapes would be fired. Other than write the book upon which Vanderbilt based his story, the Peabody Award-winning news producer – who also broke the Abu Ghraib scandal — has remained unemployed. After losing Rather would be hired by the obscure AXS-TV channel to do high-profile interviews and location reporting. I don’t know who thought this particular scandal would sell tickets, no matter how well made it might be. It didn’t topple a president or indict a major industry for knowingly causing the deaths of millions of its customers. There’s more tension, suspense and empathy built into 10 minutes of James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News – Holly Hunter’s character was modeled after former Rather producer, Susan Zirinsky – than in the entirety of Truth. Special features include commentary with Vanderbilt and producers Brad Fischer and William Sherak; a Q&A with Blanchett, Vanderbilt and co-star Elisabeth Moss; deleted scenes; “The Reason for Being,” in which Rather, Mapes and cast members discuss the history behind the movie; and “The Team,” in which actors describe their characters.

Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs: Signature Collection: Blu-ray
When it comes to new Blu-ray editions of classic films, it’s always a good idea to read the fine print on the back cover before investing in something that may only be marginally different than what’s already on your shelf. While the differences between VHS, DVD and Blu-ray are obvious, those separating one Blu-ray iteration from another may be limited to qualities that have little or nothing to do with the audio-visual presentation. The addition or elimination of featurettes and other bonus material may not be sufficient reason for a replacement copy. It’s only been five years since Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – perhaps, the brightest jewel in the studio’s crown – in a brilliantly hi-def Diamond Edition. By all technical measures, the new Signature Collection is identical to the Diamond release … excellent. The bonus package here is highlighted by the Disney Digital Copy voucher found inside the case. It enables buyers of DVD and Blu‑ray discs to receive the digital version of the movie in their choice of iTunes or Windows Media formats. The fresh featurettes include, “In Walt’s Words: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” with archival audio footage from an interview with Walt Disney in 1956; “Iconography,” which begins with individuals reflecting on their history with the film and continues on to discuss the title character’s long-standing popularity; “DisneyAnimation: Designing Disney’s First Princess,” in which animator Mark Henn and art directors Michael Giaimo, Bill Schwab, and Lorelay Bové discuss the film’s character design history, inspirations and the artists who designed Disney’s first princess and supporting characters; “The Fairest Facts of Them All: 7 Things You May Not Know About Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”; “Snow White in Seventy Seconds,” a rapid-fire hip-hop retelling of the story; “Alternate Sequence: The Prince Meets Snow White,” a never-before-seen sequence featuring Snow White meeting the Prince for the first time; and “Disney’s First Feature: The Making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” a lengthier version of the supplement, “The One That Started It All,” found on the Diamond Edition release. The only missing featurettes anyone is likely to miss are some interactive activities, a music video and familiar studio history.

As great a movie as “Snow White” is, it isn’t a bad idea to warn parents against taking its G-rating at face value. As is the case with all of Disney’s animated fairy tales – and several live-action pictures – there will be material capable of frightening sensitive kids or prompting them to ask questions only a grown-up is qualified to answer. Disney has always gotten breaks from the ratings board that other companies don’t. Sometimes all a child needs to get through a “Bambi,” “Old Yeller” or “Snow White” is a hand to hold and a parent should be there to offer it.

Breathe
The least subtle moment in Mélanie Laurent’s taut teen drama, Breathe, comes in a high school science class, as the students absentmindedly watch a documentary about a noxious weed, cuscuta reflexa whose tentacles wind around the stems of a host plant, inserting sharp pincers into its vascular system. After the monster, as the teacher refers to it, is done sucking the sap and nutrients from a flowering plant, now smothered with “devil’s hair,” the predator will either attach itself to another plant in close proximity or, itself, die of starvation. Since we’ve already been introduced to the girls who will serve as the host and predator in this adaptation of Anne-Sophie Brasme’s popular YA novel, “Respire,” it isn’t difficult to imagine how things are going to play out in Breathe. It’s to Laurent’s credit that we never give up on Charlie (Joséphine Japy) and Sarah (Lou de Laâge), even as we begin to witness the “monster” attempting to crush the life out of the flower. At first, Charlie appears to be a perfectly normal high school senior, happiest around a close-knit group of classmates and anxious to take her final exams. At home, however, it’s a different story. The sometimes violent exchanges between her estranged parents have left her feeling insignificant in their lives and her own. Charlie also suffers from asthma, so we know exactly when the pressures of life are beginning to choke her.

Enter Sarah, the new girl in town who’s as funny, flirty and brash as Charlie is fragile and withdrawn. After their homeroom teacher seats the girls next to each other and asks Charlie to get Sarah up to speed, they become fast friends … too fast. Because Sarah is adept at hiding her own pain, what begins as a complementary friendship eventually succumbs to feigned intimacy and the usual tyrannies of being a teenager. That the ending telegraphs itself doesn’t make it any less powerful. Laurent, who’s starred in Inglourious Basterds, Aloft and Now You See Me, has elicited terrific performances from her two young and relatively inexperienced leads. They look and act the part of teenagers on the verge of womanhood, vulnerable but optimistic that things will get better once they’re on their own. This month’s Film Movement short film, “Bonne Esperance,” describes an unlikely alliance between a belligerent teenage girl and the social worker who falls under her elusive spell. The DVD also includes interviews with Mélanie Laurent, Josephine Japy and Lou de Laâge, and a Q&A with the filmmaker.

Take Me to the River: Blu-ray
Anyone who’s spent more than a day or two in Memphis already has felt the beating heart of American music. For most of the last 100 years, the city has provided a home – however temporary – for the men and women who shaped gospel, soul, rockabilly, rock ’n’ roll, R&B, jazz and the blues, on its journey from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago aboard the train they still call the City of New Orleans. The rhythm of the railroad, as it cut through the bayous, cotton fields, woodlands and farms, day and night, on its way to the promised land of the industrial north, served as the metronome for Memphis’ gift to the world. Personally, Martin Shore’s wonderfully entertaining documentary, Take Me to the River, warmly recalled the time I spent in the city with my son, visiting some of the same shrines and listening to the same music represented here. Shore uses multigenerational jam sessions, produced by descendants of the creators of the Memphis Sound at Hi, Royal and Stax studios, to link yesterday’s stars and session gods to such hip-hoppers as Snoop Dog, Yo Gotti, Al Kapone, Frayser Boy and Lil P-Nut. Among the old-timers represented, some for the last time on film, are Bobby Rush, William Bell, Mavis Staples, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Charlie Musselwhite, Otis Clay, Booker T. Jones and Hubert Sumlin.

It’s tres cool to listen to guitarist Charlie “Skip” Pitts recall sessions for “Duke of Earl” and Wilson Pickett and how he introduced the famous “wah wah” guitar riff to Hayes for “Shaft.” You’ll never guess the origin story of Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming.” Terrence Howard, who shot “Hustle & Flow” in Memphis, serves as host, plays the guitar and sings, while native sons Luther and Cody Dickinson demonstrate how black and white artists were able to cross boundaries in the studio that were closed outside. To that end, Bland pairs up with Gotti, on a mournful “Ain’t No Sunshine,” over a montage of images from the civil-rights struggle that led to the assassination of Martin Luther King, memorialized just a short drive from the studios. Although Take Me to the River doesn’t carry the same firepower as other recent documentary homages to creators of basically the same music, there are other joys to savor. I would have welcomed a bit more love shown to Sun Studios, but you can’t have everything. For those considering a trip to Memphis, I recommend stops at the Stax museum, Sun Studio, Beale Street, the Lorraine Motel memorial and civil-rights museum next-door, and, yes, Graceland. The DVD adds extended interviews and historic video footage.

The World of Kanako: Blu-ray
Japanese director Tetsuya Nakashima (Kamikaze Girls, Confessions) has never been known for his restraint in depicting the ripple effect of violence, not only on its victims, but also perpetrators and society. His no-holds-barred approach has occasionally cost him the financial backing of major studios and some pointed criticism. His films do very well at the domestic box office, however, so it isn’t likely Nakashima will dial down the action any time soon. Based on a novel by Akio Fukamachi, The World of Kanako (a.k.a., “Thirst”) certainly lives up to the director’s reputation … or down, depending on where one stands on the subject of gratuitous violence. It opens with disgraced former police detective Akikazu Fujishima (Koji Yakusho) berating his ex-wife after she calls to inform him of the disappearance of his daughter, who he probably couldn’t recognize in a lineup. Fujishima lost his job after beating the crap out of the man with whom she was cheating. He went on a six-month bender after being fired, resisting any outreach from his fellow cops, many of whom were crooked, corrupt or twisted. Before she went missing, both parents considered Kanako (Nana Komatsu) to be a model student and upholder of feminine virtues. It doesn’t take long for her father to uncover evidence of behavior that would shock a marine drill sergeant. After beating up and raping his ex-wife to temporarily silence his demons, Fujishima agrees there’s enough blame to go around for the girl’s inglorious slide.

In his effort to rescue Kanako from Tokyo’s forces of darkness, he bullies her friends into revealing what little they know about her and where she might be. The forced testimony makes it clear that his little flower is involved in illicit sex, hard drugs and other unladylike behavior. Even when Kanako’s shown kindness to bullied classmates, it came with a catch. Fujishima’s journey of discovery will remind some viewers Paul Schrader’s Hardcore, in which George C. Scott made the descent into the hell of Southern California’s porn industry to “rescue” his daughter and bring her back to Grand Rapids … and her senses. Unlike Scott’s strict Calvinist businessman, the boozy ex-cop in The World of Kanako becomes less and less inclined to bring his bad seed daughter home. Her disgrace is his cancerous tumor. Yakusho’s depiction of a Japanese Dirty Harry is so far over the top that viewers will be hard-pressed to find someone with whom to sympathize in The World of Kanako. Nakashima contrasts Fujishima’s dark, neo-noir mission with flashy J-pop images of his daughter partying hardy in nightclubs run by the yakuza. The operatically composed Blu-ray adds a lengthy making-of featurette and interviews with the cute-as-a-button Komatsu and the borderline creepy novelist, Fukamachi.

The Beauty Inside: Blu-ray
As gimmicks go, the one that informs Baek Jong-Yeol’s debut rom-dram The Beauty Within is pretty good. I doubt that the writer/director had Groundhog Day in mind when he embarked on a film in which the protagonist goes to bed one person, but wakes up the next 100-plus mornings looking radically different. Watching it during the first week of February, however, begged the question. On any given morning, Woo-jin could find himself in the body of someone of a different shape or size, gender or ethnicity. Inside, though, he’s the same lonely furniture maker he was before he fell asleep, only slightly more frustrated each time. Only his mother and nerdy best friend are privy to the situation. During one of his more manly morphs, Woo-jin is bowled over by the lovely Hong Yi-soo (Han Hyo-ju) and it causes him to do something drastic about the problem. One way is to stay up for three nights, milking his good looks, however temporary, for all they’re worth. God forbid, he should fall asleep and wake looking like Ted Cruz. Would Hong be attracted to his inner beauty, anyway? There’s more to the story, of course, but that’s the gist of it. Han is terrific as the imminently patient love interest for the many popular Korean actors and actresses playing Woo-jin. The Beauty Inside was adapted from the 2012 Web series directed by Drake Doremus and starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Topher Grace.

How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)
In the short documentary, “Draft Day,” which accompanies the feature on this Wolfe Video release, writer/director Josh Kim follows two transgender Thais as they prepare to participate in their country’s mandatory military-conscription lottery. It requires of 18-year-old youths to draw cards from a container held above their heads. Those pulling red cards must prepare immediately for military service, those holding black cards are exempt. As is the case in most countries, the sons of wealthy parents rarely are called to serve in any position, as are those deemed medically or mentally unfit. Not all transgender women (a.k.a., ladyboys or kathoeys) desire to play the abnormal card and are absorbed into the branch to which they’ve been assigned. Such matters are handled differently in Thailand, where, one suspects, everyone has better things to concern themselves with than gender-identity issues. It explains Kim’s matter-of-fact approach to the subject in his first feature, How to Win at Checkers (Every Time), in which key transgender characters are required to make the same choice. That’s only indirectly what the film is about, however.

The Korean-American filmmaker puts a tighter focus here on growing up on the economic fringes of Bangkok, where some of the “better things” to worry about include gangsters, corrupt politicians and a general lack of education and hope for boys growing up poor in contemporary Thailand. Based on two short stories by Rattawut Lapcharoensap, How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) observes the maturation process from the point of view of 11-year-old Oat, an orphan living with his aunt and kathoey brother, Ek, who’s approaching his 18th birthday.  Just as Ek protects his brother from the dangers of life in the high-crime neighborhood, Oat is determined to fix the draft in Ek’s favor. First, though, he must come up with the money necessary to bribe the local crimelord, whose son has nothing to fear from the coming lottery. In a captivating debut performance, Ingkarat Damrongsakkul comes of age before our eyes. The title refers to the game Oat and Ek (Thira Chutikul) play to fortify their bond. As good as it is, “Checkers” failed to make the short list of candidates for the 2016 Best Foreign Language Film. If nothing else, it’s nice to see a movie from Thailand – or anywhere else, for that matter – that doesn’t exploit the country’s infamous sex trade or its participants, not all of whom see themselves as victims or slaves.

Sticky: A (Self) Love Story
Historically, masturbation has not been a subject discussed with any degree of comfort in society … polite or otherwise. That reluctance has changed significantly since the media decided it was no longer a taboo subject. Seemingly, the children of the men and woman who fought in the Sexual Revolution no longer are taught they’ll be prohibited from entering the gates of heaven –  go blind or grow hair on the palms of their hands, either – if they occasionally bring themselves to orgasm. Even so, most parents still feel it necessary to react unfavorably to the discovery of evidence that suggests Babs or Junior is partaking in the joys of spanking the monkey or polishing the pearl. Instead of punishing them or attempting to add shame to the embarrassment of being caught red-handed, as it were, might I recommend a screening of Sticky: A (Self) Love Story as an alternative form of therapy? While tracing the stigma back to a basic misreading of Chapter 38 of the Book of Genesis, we’re introduced to ethicists and religious scholars who question the long-held belief that God condemned Onan for refusing to honor the teachings on levirate marriage and getting his rocks off without asking permission of a burning bush. Nicholas Tana’s strangely compelling documentary attempts to explain why masturbation is something most everyone does, but, until recently, few people will admit to doing. And, yet, the stigmatization that can cause permanent psychological damage or bullying on the social media continues. If we no longer buy into the same sort of FBI propaganda that linked compulsive masturbation to serial killers, then why have comedians Pee-wee Herman and Fred Willard paid such a high price for jerking off in a porno theater where, one might assume, it’s why they exist in the first place. Indeed, the relaxed attitude is reflected more accurately on television (“The  Contest” episode of “Seinfeld”), film (American Pie, There’s Something About Mary), music (“Sticky Fingers,” for one) and comedy clubs (too many to mention). Among those offering expert testimony are Janeane Garofalo, Nina Hartley, Larry Flynt, Film Threat founder Chris Gore and former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, who was fired by Hypocrite in Chief Bill Clinton for advocating a more reasonable approach to drug legalization, contraception in schools, abortion and masturbation.

Home Invasion
Thrillers involving home invasions and hostage situations are a dime-a-dozen on DVD. Once a director is able to establish a rapport between the victims and viewers, all that’s required is convincing us of the perpetrators’ willingness to do great mental and bodily harm to the captives. The news media have already laid that foundation in countless reports of crazed killers and rapists terrorizing suburbia. Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, along with its English-language twin sibling of the same title, tapped into the fears of all middle-class citizens already frightened by the random encroachment of inner-city crime on their seemingly secure enclaves. Screenwriters, of course, have encountered no obstacles to preventing sadists, sociopaths and other desperate criminals from bypassing elaborate security codes, hidden cameras and thick gated walls in their pursuit of mayhem. David Tennant’s straight-to-DVD thriller, Home Invasion, probably doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as Funny Games, but it works unexpectedly well as a scary time-killer. In it, a group of extremely well-coordinated and heavily armed bandits break into a home on an island linked to the mainland by a single-lane bridge. By disabling the bridge’s ability to open and close, the invaders buy themselves a couple of hours of time, even if the security system works correctly.

Natasha Henstridge’s Chloe is attempting to make peace with her belligerent stepson when the break-in occurs. Her husband has been out of town on business for a longer-than-normal time and completely out of touch with the family. The crooks’ knowledge of the home’s layout reveals a financial agreement gone bad between them and Chloe’s husband. She’s unaware of it, so can honestly plead ignorance when they demand to know the whereabouts of a safe filled with stolen money. Preoccupied with their mission, the crooks barely pay attention to the absence of Chloe and the boy when they escape into the large house’s many nooks and crannies. A storm is raging outside, so, even when she is able to contact the security company’s headquarters, its response team, led by Jason Patric, is unable to launch a land-and-sea rescue effort. Patric’s character is, however, partially able to monitor the movements of Chloe, the boy and the crooks, using cameras not blacked out in the early minutes of the invasion. They communicate via cellphone, but quietly and without any assurance it won’t be discovered by the gang’s sadistic leader (Scott Adkins). In some ways, I was reminded here, as well, of Wait Until Dark, another home-invasion thriller with a harrowing twist and a female protagonist who’s unable to say where a stolen doll, filled with heroin, is located. Home Invasion may not be essential viewing, even for genre buffs, but it makes good use of its limited resources.

The Land Before Time XIV: Journey of the Brave
Eight years have passed since the last entry in Universal’s “The Land Before Time” franchise, “The Wisdom of Friends,” found its way into the dinosaur-loving hearts of young DVD viewers. The 14th chapter in the saga, Journey of the Brave, follows the Apatosaurus Littlefoot, as he attempts to learn the whereabouts of his father, Bron, who returns to Green Valley once a year to lead his herd. Apparently, Bron became stranded in the wilderness when the “fire mountain” erupted and he needs some help. Littlefoot embarks on the journey with his friends Cera, Ducky, Petrie and Spike to find him. After a disagreement between Littlefoot and Cera on which path to take, Littlefoot (voiced by Scott McAfee) decides to go ahead, alone, where he meets a Pteranodon, Etta (Reba McEntire), who knows his father. As they travel across strange terrain, Littlefoot, Etta and Wild Arms (Damon Wayans Jr.) discover that by pulling together they can overcome any challenge. The series began in 1988 with The Land Before Time, directed and produced by Don Bluth and executive produced by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. It made enough money on a moderate budget to prompt a total of thirteen direct-to-video musical sequels and a TV series, even without the participation of its heavyweight trio.

TV-to-DVD
Mercy Street: Blu-ray
Masterpiece: Downton Abbey: Season 6: Blu-ray
The Hee Haw Collection: Kornfield Klassics
The Carol Burnett Show: Treasures From the Vault: The Lost Episodes
Nickelodeon: Shimmer & Shine
In the wake of the recent re-lease of Ken Burns’ epic PBS documentary, “The Civil War,” comes the six-part mini-series, “Mercy Street,” which dramatizes life, death, love and political intrigue in a Union Army Hospital, across the Potomac River from Washington, in Alexandria, Virginia. The thread of soap-opera melodrama that runs through the story is bolstered by the conceit of having the facility situated inside a previously grand hotel owned and managed by a family that believes strongly in the Confederate cause. The Greens aren’t entirely altruistic, of course, seeing as though James Green (Gary Cole) is a businessman first and patriot second. If viewers are supposed to think of Gone With the Wind’s O’Hara family when considering the machinations of the Greens, it works. Some also will recall the film’s single most powerful scene, panning the immensity of makeshift hospital grounds barely able to cope with the carnage of the battle for Atlanta. What happens inside the Mansion House is a microcosm of that and other scenes in “GWTW,” as well as the BBC’s fine WWI frontline-hospital mini-series, “The Crimson Field,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “ANZAC Girls” and James Kent’s Testament of Youth. (Even stately Downton Abbey was converted to a medical facility.) Likewise, “Mercy Street” puts a tight focus on several volunteer nurses, surgeons and patients, representing a myriad of opinions on what’s at stake in the American Civil War. Then, too, parallel storylines follow former slaves walking a tightrope between tenuous emancipation and the possibility they could be kidnapped and returned South, even as freed men and women; corrupt Union officials; and plots to murder President Lincoln. The series is created by Lisa Wolfinger and David Zabel and inspired by memoirs and letters of actual doctors and female nurse volunteers at Mansion House Hospital. The DVD adds deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.

If the British writer Robert Graves had lived long enough to be a fan of “Downton Abbey,” he might borrow some thoughts from his autobiography, “Good-Bye to All That,” to describe his feelings about the show’s sixth and final season. The book was published in 1929, when the author was 34 and quite ready to leave behind the world described in the beloved “Masterpiece” series. As much as we’d all love to see “Downton” last forever – or, at least, until Mick Jagger or Jimmy Page bought the estate – the family’s lifestyle no longer could be sustained … or tolerated. Creator Julian Fellowes has done a nice job wrapping things up, without resorting to maudlin devices or atypical fireworks. He has allowed for the luxury of tying up loose ends, however, by inviting back some long-absent characters. “Season 6” remains what “Downton Abbey” always been: a class act. For those viewers who can’t wait until next month’s finale – or, are still catching up – the Blu-ray arrives with the featurettes, “Cars of Downton Abbey,” “Farewell to Highclere,” “Changing Times” and, of course, a “Visit Britain” interstitial. I suspect that a gala compilation will become available shortly before Christmas, so fans may want to start saving their pennies. The fate of “Mercy Street” has yet to be decided.

Time Life/WEA continues to dish out bite-size portions of much larger and more expensive compilations, the latest being “The Hee Haw Collection: Kornfield Klassics.” The latest package of episodes from the long-running syndicated series, which gave new meaning to the terms, “cornpone” and “hayseed,” contains Episodes 45 and 48. They include contributions from series regulars Buck Owens, Roy Clark, the Hagers, Nashville Edition, as well as guest stars Loretta Lynn, Roger Miller, Bill Anderson and Peggy Little.

Last Saturday, Carol Burnette accepted a lifetime-achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild for her six decades on the big and small screen, including her groundbreaking namesake variety show, which ran for 11 years. During the late-1960s, CBS was sometimes called “The Carol Burnett Show Network,” a joking reference to the program’s huge ratings and value to its advertisers. And, yet, the first five seasons hadn’t resurfaced — no reruns, streaming video, DVDs or other formats — until Time Life introduced “The Lost Episodes.” The new six-disc set, “The Carol Burnett Show: Treasures From the Vault: The Lost Episodes,” features 15 uncut episodes and such guest stars as Jonathan Winters, Joan Rivers and Mickey Rooney. There are more than four hours of bonus features.

Nickelodeon’s newest addition to its Nick Jr. block, “Shimmer & Shine, features a young girl named Leah and two apprentice genies, Shimmer and Shine, who happen to be fraternal twins. They are allowed to grant three wishes every day, but, first, must travel to Earth from the magical land of Zahramay Falls, which is located inside their genie bottle. When not granting wishes, Shimmer and Shine live with their pets Nahal and Tala and travel around on a magic carpet. The trouble is, as genies-in-training, they sometimes misinterpret Leah’s wishes and often accidentally grant her wishes she didn’t mean to make.

The DVD Wrapup: Burnt, Assassin, New Girlfriend, Patels, Mr. Robot and more

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

Burnt: Blu-ray
A few years before Bradley Cooper broke from the pack of nearly interchangeable white male actors in The Hangover, he starred in an ill-fated Fox TV series, “Kitchen Confidential,” based on the memoirs of “bad boy” chef Anthony Bourdain. The celebrity-chef phenomenon had yet to reach critical mass on television, so the audience’s response probably had less to do with Cooper than the subject matter. In Burnt, he plays a character who more closely resembles Gordon Ramsey — Don Rickles, in a toque — than the hipper-than-thou bon vivant. Where the protagonist of “Kitchen Confidential,” Jack Bourdain, was required to overcome serious problems with substance abuse, Burnt’s Adam Jones not only has had to kick alcohol and drug habits, but also rage issues that precede him wherever he goes. Otherwise, the two productions could have been cut from the same template. Depending on how one feels about Ramsey, specifically, viewers either will be turned off after the film’s first half-hour or anxious to follow Jones on the road to redemption. To his credit, director John Wells also sought the advice of less idiosyncratic cooks Marco Pierre White, Marcus Wareing and Clare Smyth, who understand the difference between controlled chaos in the workplace and temper tantrums. Led by a supporting cast of fine international stars – Sienna Miller, Daniel Brühl, Matthew Rhys, Stephen Campbell Moore, Sam Keeley, Riccardo Scamarcio, Omar Sy – Burnt is best when Wells’ focus is inside the kitchen and dining room of Jones’ new London restaurant. Emma Thompson is typically good as Jones’ shrink, but, by now, the advice of one movie therapist is as good as anyone else’s opinion.

In “Kitchen Confidential,” apparently, the protagonist’s goal was to impress the restaurant critic of the New York Times. Here, in an unlikely scenario, the top London critic accepts an invitation to a preview dinner and makes sure everyone knows he’s there. More accurate is the anxiety that consumes Jones over what the Michelin critics might say after their surprise, if not entirely clandestine visit. A third star on his resume would validate everything Jones and his staffs have had to endure to get one. Curiously, the cuisine Jones prepares has less in common with the tastes of modern foodies than that of his rival (Rhys), whose kitchen is known for its micro gastronomy. As mouth-watering as Burnt is, I would discourage anyone from assuming that all foodie movies taste the same. The cranky-perfectionist conceit works better in Daniel Cohen’s Le Chef, Jon Favreau’s Chef, Lasse Hallström’s The Hundred-Foot Journey, Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci’s Big Night and Brittany Murphy’s largely undiscovered gem, The Ramen Girl. Also tempting are Mostly Martha and its Hollywood remake No Reservations, Woman on Top. Tampopo, Ratatouille, Julie and Julia and, of course, Babette’s Feast and Like Water for Chocolate.  The Blu-ray adds the informative featurette, “Burnt: In the Kitchen with Bradley Cooper,” several deleted scenes, Q&A highlights with the director and cast, and commentary with Wells and executive chef consultant Marcus Wareing.

The Assassin: Blu-ray
When Ang Lee’s sumptuous martial-arts drama, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was nominated for 10 Oscars, winning 4, lots of people wondered if the academy finally was willing to give future Chinese wuxia a fair hearing, at least, from voters. Apart from consideration in a few non-marquee categories, however, the genre has been given short shrift. Fact is, though, no other such movie, with the exception of Kill Bill and Kung Fu Panda, however, has generated the same excitement at the domestic box office as “CT/HD.” Having made several 10-best lists compiled by prestigious American critics and garnered awards from Cannes to Palm Springs, many wuxia enthusiasts felt that Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin might be accorded the respect accorded Ang Lee. Although it survived the first cut in the Best Foreign Language Film category, the Taiwan entry didn’t make the list of finalists, let alone for Best Picture. Neither did it find traction in any of the same tech categories as “CT/HD.” Where most martial-arts movies emphasize the action over anything except the production design, The Assassin takes a more patient, painterly approach to a story loosely adapted from Pei Xing’s late 9th Century tale “Nie Yinniang,” which has informed other swordsmanship and wuxia fiction.

Hou has set his adaptation in 8th Century China, during the Tang Dynasty. Shu Qi (A Beautiful Life) plays Nie Yinniang, a killer appointed to slay corrupt government officials by her master, Jiaxin, a nun who raised her from the age of 10 for this express purpose. When Nie displays mercy toward a target, Jiaxin punishes her with a ruthless assignment designed to test her resolve. It requires her to travel to Weibo in remote northern China to kill its military governor, her cousin Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), to whom she had once been betrothed. Staged on location in China’s Wudang Mountains and Daiju Lake, in Hubai Province, as well as lush forest preserves on Taiwan, the mist-covered settings reflect Nie’s contemplative approach to her duties. The thick woods also provide cover for the assassin and the men sent to kill her. The 68-year-old Hou (The Voyage of the Red Balloon) has said that he intentionally delayed making a period piece until “he is older.”  In the eight years he’s been absent from the director’s chair, Hou must have used the time to study everything from armaments and clothing design to the obscure Chinese dialect spoken by the actors. For their part, the actors knew that the maestro would expect the same courtesy in return. Their respect for him is duly noted in the brief making-of featurettes. As such, The Assassin is a cinematic feast to be savored.

The New Girlfriend
If all one knows going into a screening of The New Girlfriend is that the psychosexual thriller has been adapted by director/writer François Ozon from a short story by Ruth Rendell, there’s more than a fighting chance you’ll enjoy the compelling French export. Rendell’s crime fiction has benefitted from interpretation by several European directors – Claude Chabrol, Pedro Almodovar, Claude Miller – if only because their audiences are more willing to embrace sexual situations that push the limits of mainstream tastes and taboos. Moreover, they do so without calling attention to the edgy subject matter or courage of the actors in lead roles. The New Girlfriend opens with the untimely death of a young wife and mother, Laura (Isild Le Besco), and a teary eulogy delivered by Claire (Anaïs Demoustier), in which she describes a blood oath made as childhood friends to take care of each other’s loved ones, if such a calamitous occasion arose. Devastated by the loss, Clair one day drops in unannounced on Laura’s husband, David (Romain Duris), while he’s feeding the baby in full drag. Claire’s first inclination may have been to label him a “pervert” and rush out the door, but she allows David to elaborate on his longtime desire to lounge around the house in his wife’s clothes. Furthermore, he believes the baby would benefit from having the support of a father and a mother, however faux. After Claire agrees to go along with the parental ruse, she also agrees to help David overcome his fear of going out in public as Virginia. Eventually, Claire accepts Virginia as an emotional surrogate for Laura in her own life. Ozon now is in a position to play all sorts of head games with his characters, who, for all purposes, didn’t exist at the beginning of the movie. For American audiences still trying to get their heads around Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner’s emergence from the Kardashian closet, The New Girlfriend provides a decidedly different spin on the protagonist’s gender-identity issues and how they impact his relationship with his BFF, her husband and his bourgeois in-laws. The movie is extremely well made and the acting is of the highest quality. The Blu-ray adds 10 deleted scenes and a making-of featurette describing Duris’ daily transformation into Virginia.

Meet the Patels
About 16 years ago, an article was published in the Sunday New York Times Magazine answering a question asked by American tourists struck by the large number of people named Patel they encountered while checking into a roadside motel. If it seemed as if every motel on a given stretch of highway was owned by a Patel, they were right.  In 1999, according to the latest figures from the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, slightly more than 50 percent of all motels in the United States were owned by people of Indian origin. Of that number, about 70 percent of all Indian motel owners — or a third of all motel owners in America – shared the same last name. The extremely long and exhaustively researched article explained how the so-called Patel Motel Phenomenon came to be and why the surname didn’t necessarily mean that every Patel on the Eastern Seaboard or in rural Texas shared common blood. Geeta and Ravi Patel’s documentary/romcom Meet the Patels effectively updates the article, “A Patel Motel Cartel?,” by introducing us to some of the assimilated descendents of the original Patel pioneers and eavesdropping on the marital rituals encouraged by their parents. The desire to match adult children of recent immigrants by nationality, race or religion is nothing new, of course. The difference in Meet the Patels is observing the great lengths – as up to date as the tablet computer — some parents will go to ensure that Patel traditions continue in the New World. Co-director Ravi Patel is a not-so-young Indian-American, who, after breaking up with his non-Indian girlfriend, agrees to allow his match-making mom to search the planet for the right Patel girl for her boy. In addition to participating in meet-and-greets and blind dates from coast to coast, Ravi travels with his family to the region in India populated almost exclusively by Patels of the Gujarati Hindu sub-caste. Ravi’s pickiness is matched only by his mother’s desire to exhaust every option available to her. The frequently amusing documentary is marked by the love shared by this family of Patels and their common willingness to compromise, if only for the sake of the movie. Finally, Meet the Patels is as American a story as any you’re likely to find.

Naz & Maalik
Jay Dockendorf’s impressive debut feature Naz & Maalik introduces us to a convivial pair of black teenagers struggling to come up with the money they’ll need to afford their college tuition. We’re amused by their attempts to sell “lucky” lottery tickets, aromatic potions and pictures of Roman Catholic saints to Brooklyn pedestrians who don’t appear to be disturbed by the interruption in their daily routines. They know they’re fighting a losing battle, but, if nothing else, they might have enough loose change in their pockets at the end of the day to buy a live chicken to be slaughtered according to Muslim law for a birthday feast. As their day wears on, however, Naz & Maalik evolves from offbeat walking-and-talking comedy to a closely observed drama about the many different obstacles facing urban youths as they make the transition to adulthood. And, as if being poor and first-generation African-American Muslims weren’t large enough burdens, Dockendorf also has made them gay and sufficiently naïve to paint themselves into a corner with the FBI. In fact, it isn’t until the night before we meet them that the longtime friends take their first giant step out of the closet by acting upon their sexual attraction to each other. Being gay is no picnic in any religion, but, as otherwise devout Muslims, Naz and Maalik face losing everything they cherish in the world, including the love of family members and access to their religious community.

In what could be described as an exercise in piling on by the filmmaker, a shady white street hustler points them out to a federal agent who’s trolling for potential terrorists in the Fort Greene and Bed-Stuy neighborhoods of Brooklyn. The informant was sufficiently upset by their refusal to buy a handgun from him that decides to use them as bait for a handout … apparently, anyway. The agent’s clumsy follow-up demonstrates how frustrating it can be for any black Muslim – let alone those who abide by the laws of their state and religion – in post-9/11 America. Then, just when you think their day couldn’t possibly get any worse, Dockendorf devises a couple of interesting twists to do just that. After making the rounds of gay-and-lesbian festivals, it will be interesting to see if Naz & Maalik finds an audience outside the niche demographic, including those academy members who continue to bemoan the lack of diversity in Hollywood. Frankly, I’m surprised that it didn’t find any support among the generally more responsive voters at the Indie Spirit gatherings.

Luther the Geek Blu-ray
Sonny Boy: Blu-ray
Jack’s Back: Blu-ray
The Toxic Avenger Collection: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Among the words that have almost completely lost their original meaning over the last 30-40 years is “geek.” Although it’s generally accepted today that a geek is a nerd with the ability of getting things done, instead of obsessing over how cool something will look once it’s finished, we’re reminded by writer/director Carlton Albright that it describes a gnarly midway performer who bites the heads off chickens and drinks their blood. If the ASPCA hasn’t already convinced legislators to ban such freakish behavior, it’s unlikely there’s much call for the talents of a geeks outside Tea Party conventions and birthday parties for meth addicts. In Luther the Geek, a gang of Depression-era farmers attends a performance of a caged geek, held in a barn. While they taunt him in the usual hayseed fashion, a boy accidentally hits his mouth on a board, dislodging several teeth. The taste of blood, combined with the excitement that comes with watching a crazed man decapitate a chicken, encourages Luther to follow the caged performer into show business. Before long, he’s replaced his lost teeth with steel dentures, filed to razor-sharp precision capable of biting through the throats of human beings. Absent the stealth and wiles of Jack the Ripper, Luther is captured and sentenced to an eternity in prison. In modern penal terms, an eternity too often translates to anywhere between 10 and 50 years. Somehow a majority of parole-board officials recognizes in Luther something resembling good behavior and he’s allowed to join polite society. No sooner is Luther kicked out of a supermarket – brazenly chugging raw eggs from a carton — than he attacks an elderly woman and attempts to bite off her head. To avoid the cops, the clucking geek (Edward Terry) jumps into the car of a shopper heading back to her farmhouse. Once there … well, you can probably guess the rest. If Luther the Geek could never be mistaken for a competently made horror film, it maintains a brisk pace throughout its 80-minute length, with more than enough gore, nudity and stupid behavior to satisfy the average genre nerd’s passion for mayhem. Newly refreshed with a 2K scan from the 35mm negative, the Blu-ray edition adds commentary with Albright, an interview with actor Jerome Clarke, outtakes and deleted shots, and reversible cover art.

If there was a film made in the 1980s as thoroughly reprehensible – in a good way — as Luther the Geek, it’s Robert Martin Carroll’s almost unrepentantly sick – again, in a good way – Sonny Boy, which co-star David Carradine once characterized as being a cross between Bonnie and Clyde, Bringing Up Baby and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In the remote desert town of Harmony, N.M., a psychopathic petty crook and purveyor of stolen TVs, Slue (Paul L Smith), is enjoying a life of redneck bliss with his transvestite girlfriend, Pearl (Carradine), when a local good-for-nothing, Weasel (Brad Dourif), delivers onto them a baby boy. Weasel had stolen the red convertible from the infant’s parents – now deceased – but neglected to look under the blankets piled on the back seat. It wasn’t until he got to Harmony that the baby decided to alert Weasel of his spoiled diapers, at which time Pearl decides she wants to experience the joys of motherhood. Her lover decides, instead, to cut out Sonny Boy’s tongue and toss him into a corn bin to fend for himself for the next 15 years. When the feral child (Michael Boston) escapes and begins to terrorize the unsuspecting residents of Harmony, they rise up as one to destroy Slue and Pearl’s stronghold. Because Slue owns a military-grade cannon, the body count promises to be impressive. For what should be obvious reasons, Sonny Boy was accorded a record low number of days in distribution. It arrives on Blu-ray in nearly pristine condition, alongside commentaries with Carroll and writer Graeme Whifler and a BD-Rom draft of the script.

No less gory, but far more coherent is Jack’s Back, in which a L.A.-based serial killer celebrates Jack the Ripper’s 100th birthday by committing similarly grisly murders. Because James Spader plays twin brothers John and Rick Wesford and is the only still recognizable star, there’s a very good chance he’s either the killer or will be the lead suspect required to prove one or both of them is innocent. Naturally, the brother who’s a surgeon and has the cutlery to prove it is both the most and least likely person to have killed the hookers.  For Spader, Jack’s Back was sandwiched between key supporting appearances in Less Than Zero and Wall Street and a breakout lead performance in Sex, Lies and Videotape. He worked steadily through the 1990s, but the movies shrank in importance. His return to form wouldn’t come until a dozen years later with a wicked turn in Secretary and the introduction of his ethically challenged lawyer, Alan Shore, in “The Practice” and “Boston Legal.” Writer/director Rowdy Herrington’s next assignment would be directing the endearing cult classic, Road House, with Patrick Swayze and Kelly Lynch. The Blu-ray adds Herrington’s commentary, a making-of featurette and interviews with producer Tim Moore, actress Cynthia Gibb and DP Shelly Johnson.

And, while we’re on the subject of gloriously grotesque cinema, there’s the arrival on Blu-ray of Troma’s The Toxic Avenger Collection, which is comprised of The Toxic Avenger, The Toxic Avenger Part II, The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie and Citizen Toxie. For the uninitiated, the oddly endearing cult character, Toxie, arose 15 years ago from decaying carcass of Melvin Junko, a nerdy mop boy in a Tromaville gym, who dived out of a window, landing headfirst into a simmering vat of toxic waste. Suddenly, the woefully deformed Melvin has been transformed into a dogged crusader against corruption, thuggish bullies and indifference. In “Part IV,” however, an explosion transports Toxie to a parallel universe in which the superhero and his evil doppelganger, Noxie, chose opposite sides of the environmental fence to defend, while also impregnating the blond princess Sarah and her own evil doppelganger. Similarly affected by the explosion are Sgt. Kabukiman, the obese Chester/Lardass, Dolphin Man, and the late Lemmy Kilmeister. The “Toxet” adds intros by Lloyd Kaufman, commentaries, interviews with the cast and crew, marketing material, “Apocalypse Soon: The Making of ‘Citizen Toxie’” and Tromatic videos.

Nikkatsu Diamond Guys: Vol. 1: Blu-ray
Arrow Video once again discovers gold in a most unusual place. In the late 1950s, the venerable Nikkatsu film studio inaugurated a star system, designed to locate exploitable male talent and assign them to its Diamond Line for a series of wild genre pictures. This collection celebrates three of the Diamond Guys with classic films from directors Seijun Suzuki (Branded to Kill), Toshio Masuda (Rusty Knife) and Buichi Saito (Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril). Veteran tough guy Hideaki Nitani stars in Suzuki’s Voice Without a Shadow (1958), a noir whodunit about a former telephone-switchboard operator, Asako, who’s still haunted by the taunting voice of a disembodied killer. Reporter/narrator Ishikawa (Nitani) is pulled into the cold case when Asako recognizes the same voice emanating within the walls of her own home and calls her former co-worker for help. It belongs to one of the three men her husband has invited home for dinner and a game of mahjong. Her discovery triggers even more violence and an investigation that leads Ishikawa into the criminal underground.

Next, 1950s subculture icon Yujiro Ishihara stars in Masuda’s Red Pier as “Lefty” Jiro, a killer whose arrival in Kobe is complicated when he witnesses a man die in a crane “accident” that turns out to be anything but accidental. Much of the story unfolds in smoky nightclubs popular with trampy young women and slick gangsters. If Elvis Presley had been stationed in Japan, instead of Germany, he might have been convinced to spend his leave time acting in Saito’s The Rambling Guitarist, a 1959 action drama that resembles King Creole. Instead, pop superstar Akira Koabyashi stars as wandering street musician whose pugilistic skills endear him to a local crime boss and his daughter. The color cinematography adds a bit more of a Hollywood feel to the production, as well.

TV-to-DVD
USA: Mr. Robot: Season 1: Blu-ray
Nickelodeon Favorites: Whiskers & Paws
PBS Kids: Superwhy: Three Billy Goats Gruff & Other Fairytale Adventures
The Facts of Life: Season Eight
If, like me, the first time you paid attention to USA’s “Mr. Robot” was after it won two key Golden Globe awards, then you’ll be happy to learn that it’s easy to catch up on the series via DVD/Blu-ray, the USA Now app and select streaming services. Normally, I don’t give much credence to the organization, but, like a blind pig, it should be given due credit for finding the occasional acorn. The trophies for Best Television Series: Drama and Best Supporting Actor: Series, Miniseries or Television Film (Christian Slater) – as well as Rami Malek’s well-deserved Best Actor nomination – came as a happy surprise and vindication for early promoters of the show. The series follows Elliot Alderson (Malek), an extremely gifted, if totally creepy engineer, who works at the cybersecurity company Allsafe. As conceived by executive producer Sam Esmail (Comet), Elliot’s thought processes are heavily influenced by social anxiety disorder, paranoia and clinical depression. He connects to people by hacking them, like “human malware.” He isn’t averse to using his gifts to protect friends or punishing miscreants, including, in the first episode, a yuppie douchebag who mistreats his dog. Even so, Elliot finds himself at a crossroads when the mysterious leader of an underground hacker group recruits him to destroy the firm he is paid to protect. The antiheroic anarchist, known as Mr. Robot (Slater), woes Elliot by detailing a conspiracy designed to cancel all personal debts by taking down one of the largest corporations in the world. It’s the kind of revolutionary action behind which any TV viewer with a credit card or student loan can rally. At first, the scope of the plan intimidates Elliot. On balance, though, he decides that the mega-company is far too evil to be left to its devices. Just when the disparate pieces begin to come together, Elliot is forced to admit to a debilitating morphine addiction. What’s revealed in the detox-induced hallucinations takes us deeper into Elliot’s Lynchian backstory than some viewers may want to go. If there are times when Elliot acts as if he’s the love child of Dana Scully and Fox Mulder, Esmail admits to being influenced by such disparate entertainments as American Psycho, Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange, The Matrix, Fight Club, Risky Business and “Breaking Bad.” Mac Quayle’s nightmarish soundtrack raises more than a few goosebumps along the way, as well. Anyone plagued by the notion that the Internet could come crashing down, 20 minutes before they were able to cash out their investments, may want to avoid binge-viewing “Mr. Robot.” It’s that freaky. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a gag reel and making-of featurette.

Nickelodeon Favorites: Whiskers & Paws” features more than two hours of laughs from some of Nick’s newest shows. “Shimmer and Shine” and “Fresh Beat Band of Spies” make their DVD debut, as they encounter a zoo full of animals and an out-of-control bundle of bunnies. Other Nick adventures include the “PAW Patrol” pups trying to control some naughty kittens; “Dora and Friends” making peace between cat and dog; the “Bubble Guppies” getting an education in house cats; and Blue spending time with her bilingual kitten friend Periwinkle in “Blue’s Clues.”

In PBS Kids’ “Super Why: The Three Billy Goats Gruff and Other Fairytale Adventures,” the Super Readers employ basic literacy tools and strategies to uncover hidden clues in new and interactive ways. Among other things, the Super Readers reconsider “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” from the point of view of the Troll; Princess Pea and Red are partners in a potato sack race, but can’t decide whether to go slow and steady, as dictated in “The Tortoise & the Hare,” treat it as a sprint; and “The Elves and The Shoemaker,” in which Whyatt has a secret admirer and wants to know who it is.

In Season Eight of “The Facts of Life,” Blair, Natalie, Tootie and Jo say goodbye to their beloved Mrs. G, after she finds love and moves away. Her sister Beverly Ann (Cloris Leachman) steps in to keep an eye on them, but as the year passes and graduation from Langley College looms for Blair and Jo, things remain in flux. There’s also a rockin’ trip back to the 1960s; an Eastland girls’ reunion, featuring such familiar faces as George Clooney and Stacey Q.; and a surprising murder mystery, in which no one is truly safe.

The DVD Wrapup: Straight Outta Compton, Diary of a Teenage Girl, Howl, I Am Thor and more

Thursday, January 21st, 2016

Straight Outta Compton: Blu-ray
As difficult as it might be for fans of Straight Outta Compton to believe that it was nearly shut out of Oscar competition, it’s just that hard for me be to believe that enough voters in any category actually watched enough of the movie to endorse it. Unlike The Help and 12 Years a Slave, the story behind the rise and fall of the genre-shattering hip-hop group, N.W.A., had several things working against it from the get-go. Not all of them can be attributed to racial insensitivity and the lack of diversity in the academy, although they can’t be discounted out of hand. For example, I can’t imagine any voter over, say, 40, rewarding a movie whose acoustics required them to keep a tight grip on the remote control every time the explosive musical soundtrack kicked in on their state-of-the-art Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo or DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 system. And, then, feel it necessary to readjust the sound when dialogue is exchanged. Even if that obstacle could be overcome, of course, there still was the matter of what was being said. The theatrical cut, alone, included 293 f-bombs and at least as many colorfully delivered variations of the n-word for people who depend on studio-provided screeners to endure. Clearly, such concerns were of little consequence to those who actually were required to purchase tickets for the privilege of watching a movie. The fact that Straight Outta Compton grossed $200 million at the international box office argues that it effectively crossed over to audiences of several distinct ethnic groups, all conceivably below the age of 40. That, to me, is what should have made F. Gary Gray’s extremely well executed film a candidate for one of 10 potential spots in the Best Picture category. (In fact, only eight were deemed to be “of extraordinary merit.”) Beyond the irony of having its four white writers nominated in the Best Original Screenplay category, observers were left scratching their heads over the omission of Gray as a Best Director.

If the academy was more diverse, or had been required to see the movie in a theater full of hip-hop fans, the Best Picture voting might have been different. As it is, other organizations did the right thing by honoring the movie’s ensemble cast. The larger and more obvious injustice – to outsiders, at least — could be found in the Best Supporting Actor category, in which Sylvester Stallone was honored for his work in Creed, at the same time as Michael B. Jordan was being stiffed in the Best Actor race. Finding Stallone’s name on the ballot after all these years likely was too great a temptation for old-timers in the actors’ branch to ignore … once they figured out that this Michael Jordan didn’t wear a “23” on his robe. Many predictions had Idris Elba a finalist in the supporting-actor category, for Beasts of No Nation, and Will Smith a Best Actor contender for Concussion. (If I was of Chinese background, I’d be angry that The Assassin wasn’t nominated for Best Foreign Language Picture, Best Actress, Best Cinematography and several design categories.) Oscar-ceremony host Chris Rock probably will have the last laugh on the subject come February 28.

Straight Outta Compton tells the story of the “seminal” gangsta-rap group, N.W.A., whose appeal crossed racial boundaries and withstood attempts by police, the FBI and other conservative groups to silence its message. The outsider drama stars O’Shea Jackson Jr.as his real-life dad, Ice Cube; Corey Hawkins, as producer extraordinaire Dr. Dre; Jason Mitchell, as the doomed wordsmith Eazy-E; and Aldis Hodge and Neil Brown, as the less visible MC Ren and DJ Yella. Gray eloquently dramatizes the group’s us-against-the-world origin story, which provided a beacon of hope for a legion of rappers to follow. Moreover, even before the Rodney King beating and acquittal of the officers involved in it, the song “Fuck tha Police” would shine a light on the very real problems of police brutality, racial profiling and arbitrary prosecution of minority youths. (The same issues would enflame passions a quarter-century later.) Predictably, perhaps, paranoia over the distribution of great wealth among the artists, promoters and labels prompted the artists to take sides against each other. Old-school rock manager Jerry Hellman (Paul Giamatti) exploited the fissures, causing some members to take shelter in the evil empire of Shug Knight (R. Marcos Taylor). Foreshadowed here, too, are the murders of Tupac and Biggie and emergence of such rappers as Ice Cube, Ice-T, Snoop Dog, LL Kool J and Sean Combs as cross-media actors and celebrities. The women are relegated to roles as pool-party ornaments, coke whores, and blindly supportive wives and girlfriends. (What was left out of this storyline probably could have filled another 20 minutes.) The extended director’s cut edition seamlessly adds 20 minutes to the theatrical version, as well as deleted scenes, a deleted song performance, the director’s commentary track and several making-of and background featurettes.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl: Blu-ray
Teenage girls are notoriously protective of the thoughts they collect in their diaries. They’re maintained with a nearly religious dedication and hidden from their nosy moms with the same care the government reserves for state secrets. It’s the rare diary, though, that can avoid detection by a person who has almost unlimited access to dressers, pillow cases and closets, and, of course, probably kept a diary of her own. The jottings that teens feared would shock parents, back in the days when Sandra Dee, Sally Field and Annette Funicello served as role models, probably would be viewed today with amusement and no small amount of relief. The innermost thoughts of 15-year-old Minnie Goetz (Bel Powley), as revealed in Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, might even raise a blush in the cheeks of Bridget Jones. As originally conceived by novelist Phoebe Gloeckner and later adapted for stage and screen by Heller, Minnie is the daughter of Charlotte (Kristen Wiig). The divorced San Francisco mother of two is still living the Flower Power dream, a decade after it began to wither. They live in a neighborhood that looks very much like the Haight-Asbury of old (and probably still does). Minnie is exposed on daily basis to a wide variety of individuals specific to the city’s post-hippie generation, including all manner of libertines, predators and misfits. In her brief time on Earth, Minnie has developed precocious notions about the holy trinity of big city life in the 1970s: sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Among other things she admits to in her dear-diary confessions are trysts with her mother’s sexually blasé boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), and a growing fondness for hallucinogens. More telling than anything in her taped missives, perhaps, are illustrations in her notebook inspired by underground comics artist, Aline Kominsky, who, in 1978, would marry R. Crumb. The Diary of a Teenage Girl pulls few punches in its depiction of sex that qualifies in most jurisdictions as statutory rape, no matter how consensual. Powley may be 23, but she easily passes for 15. As such, parents of teenage daughters, especially, might find scenes depicting Minnie’s sexual awakening to be uncomfortably realistic, no matter how integral to the story and non-exploitative they are. In this way and others, I was reminded favorably of Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, Larry Clark’s Kids and Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World. Powley, Heller and the ensemble cast have been nominated for Indie Spirit Awards in three categories. The Blu-ray arrives with a strong making-of featurette, deleted scenes and L.A. Film Festival Q&A.

I Believe in Unicorns
Leah Meyerhoff’s debut feature I Believe in Unicorns bears easy comparison to The Diary of a Teenage Girl, in that it tells the story of an awkward teenage girl, in San Francisco, coming to grips with her first not entirely pleasurable sexual experience. The boy the waifish Davina (Natalia Dyer) chooses to share her coming-of-age is a skateboarding Adonis, who plays the guitar, shoplifts and wouldn’t look out of place in an ad for denim jeans. Sterling (Peter Vack) also is genetically predisposed to violence towards women when things get difficult for him. In addition to being obsessed with unicorns, the seemingly grownup Davina sometimes dresses in animal costumes and collects dinosaur figurines. She also is required to take of her invalid mother, who once enjoyed many of the same fantasies. That Davina’s impressionistic dreams and fantasies are rendered in stop- and fast-motion cinematography is what makes I Believe in Unicorns so compelling. Jarin Blaschke’s camera also does a nice job chronicling Davina and Sterling’s excellent adventure through the rolling hills of northern California. The inclusion of Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauer,” familiar from the Badlands soundtrack, almost immediately surrounds the lovers with an aura of dread. Visually, I Believe in Unicorns could hardly be more inventive and the story, itself, carries the ring of truth. Although, it debuted on the Internet after a run on the festival circuit, I can easily see how it might enjoy a cult following among teenage girls, if they can only find the DVD.

Howl: Blu-ray
Unlike movies featuring vampires and zombies, it isn’t often that one comes across a werewolf movie to recommend. From British makeup-effects specialist Paul Hyett (The Seasoning House), Howl borrows from three different sub-genres for a very decent thriller, set in and around a broken-down commuter train, stuck in the woods somewhere outside of London. It’s late at night and the cars are sparsely populated with a variety of passengers and railroad employees, none of whom is particularly thrilled to be large at all. Things begin to get weird after the engineer leaves the train to investigate the extent of the damage and discovers a stag crushed under one of the carriage’s steel wheels. This, in itself, wouldn’t be sufficient cause for alarm, except, perhaps, for a vegan passenger who might blame themselves for the deer being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It doesn’t take long for viewers, at least to discover what spooked the animal and it doesn’t bode well for the people on board. Naturally, when the engineer fails to return, they begin to frighten themselves with all of the various possibilities. Even after they barricade themselves inside one of the stalled cars, the passengers begin the serious job of looking out for their own best interests. They defend themselves admirably against what they believe to be the killer, not anticipating that the werewolf might not be alone in the darkness. Soon enough, the full extent of the threat is revealed and all that’s left for viewers to do is sit back and wait for the fun to begin. It’s a simple story, really, but writers Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler – perhaps inspired by their work on “Thomas the Tank Engine” – have given Hyett all the story he needs to create thrills and chills out of prosthetic gore, nasty fake fur and frightening masks and teeth. His team of set designers, lighting specialists and composers do the rest. The Blu-ray adds several making-of vignettes.

I Am Thor: Blu-ray
One of the most endearing things about rock ’n’ roll is its ability to surprise even its most jaded critics with unexpected twists on genre clichés and weird coincidences. Who would have guessed, even 35 years ago, that the deaths of David Bowie, Glenn Frye and Lemmy Kilmister would warrant notice on the front page of the New York Times? And, yet, there they were … on the newspaper’s website, at least. I wonder how many editors of the august publication could have picked Lemmy out of a lineup at the Hall of Fame before his death, at 70, on December 28. God knows, how they’ll handle the deaths of Ozzy or Jimmy Page … not to mention Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger. I doubt very much that Canadian rocker Jon Mikl Thor would warrant more than a few inches in the Times or any other American newspaper. That’s part of what makes Ryan Wise’s I Am Thor such a welcome addition to already saturated field of rock-docs and bio-pics. Equal bits Spinal Tap and Last Days Here, which chronicled the rise, fall and resurrection of Pentagram singer’s Bobby Liebling, I Am Thor introduces us to the onetime bodybuilding champion whose stage act included bending steel bars, smashing concrete blocks and blowing up hot-water bottles. Before emerging as Thor the Rock Warrior, the Vancouver native was best known as the first Canadian to win both the Mr. Canada and Mr. USA trophies, competing against Lou Ferrigno, among others, in international competition.

He retired in 1973, at 19, to pursue a career in entertainment, first as a naked waiter in a Vegas revue and, then, as a cosplay rocker at the old Aladdin resort. Thor attracted the attention of Merv Griffin, mostly as a novelty act, appearing on television from Caesar’s Palace. While there was no denying his certifiably gruff “metal” voice and innate showmanship, bad timing and worse luck would account for Thor and the Imps’ inability to compete at the same level as Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, KISS and Lemmy’s creation, Motörhead. The zenith of his career came in 1984, when “Thunder on the Tundra” and “Let the Blood Run Red” topped the British charts. After an untimely nervous breakdown three years later, Thor would retire from live performances to focus on movies and his own record label. While living in North Carolina, Thor would be encouraged to dust off his props and send his costumes – which now barely fit his pot belly – to the dry cleaners for an attempt at a comeback. Director Wise and producer Alan Higbee met Thor in 2000, began filming in 2001, and only finished shooting in 2014, in time for last year’s Slamdance festival. Besides much background material, I Am Thor capably demonstrates how difficult it can be to re-ignite the fire under an act reduced to ashes 10 years earlier. It isn’t pretty. Even so, I Am Thor is blessedly free of sad tales of substance abuse, burned bridges and corporate rip-offs. Instead, it is informed by the singer’s winning personality and drive to make audiences happy. Against all odds, we’re left with the feeling that Bob Seger was thinking of Jon Mikl Thor when he wrote “Rock and Roll Never Forgets.”

TV-to-DVD
Starz: Da Vinci’s Demons: The Complete Third Season
PBS: Frontline: Inside Assad’s Syria
PBS: Off the Menu: Asian America
The Saint: Seasons 3 & 4
Sisters: Season Three
PBS Kids: Caillou: Caillou Learns to Share
Although it would be difficult to exaggerate the amazing achievements of the great Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci, the highly entertaining Starz’ mini-series, “Da Vinci’s Demons,” suggests that he might, in fact, have been the first Marvel superhero. Impossibly handsome, a gifted swordsman and capable of visualizing complex scientific concepts in thin air, the troubled genius portrayed by Tom Riley more closely resembles Leonardo di Caprio or Leon Trotsky than the “portrait of a man in red chalk,” attributed to a 60-year-old Da Vinci, currently housed at Turin’s Biblioteca Reale. Riley’s Leonardo da Vinci wouldn’t be out of place in the CBS Western series, “The Wild Wild West,” playing Artemus Gordon to Secret Service agent James West. Through three seasons, Starz audiences have followed Da Vinci’s search for the mystical Book of Leaves, which, in Season Two, even found him in the New World. In the show’s third and final stanza, the Medicis and Pazzis continue their terrible rivalry, even as Turkish forces have established a beachhead at Otranto. This year, DaVinci’s vulnerability to the whims of the powerful leaders of Rome and Florence – as well as representatives of Satan, in the Labyrinth – nearly does him in. As the season comes to a close, however, a multi-episode re-appearance by Vlad the Impaler turns Italy’s darkest hour into a delightfully excuse for war. “Da Vinci’s Demons” must have been a terribly expensive show to mount, as it never looks less than convincing historically and the CGI touches never feel anachronistic. The show’s primary drawback, ratings-wise, might have resulted from a scarcity of the gratuitous nudity that attracts male eyes to other premium-cable shows. It’s there, but blink and you’ll miss it. Everything else about “Da Vinci’s Demons,” even the ending – re-shot after the cancelation was announced — is first-rate.

Even before Syria erupted in civil war, the country inherited by Bashar al-Assad from his dictatorial father was something of a mystery to most Americans. We knew that Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, had been a thorn in the side of western nations for most of his 30 years in charge of military and government affairs, specifically for harboring terrorists (including a Nazi war criminal), fomenting turmoil in Lebanon and being a staunch ally of the former Soviet Union. Syria remains, of course, a constant threat to Israel, with which it shares a disputed border. Beyond that, however, zilch. When the country did explode, as part of the Arab Spring uprising, the U.S. somehow convinced itself that Assad would be the next tyrant to topple at the hand of its own people. What President Obama and his advisers didn’t take into account, however, was the lack of common purpose in the Syrian resistance. Syrians were divided by religion, wealth, politics and ability to mount a rebellion. ISIS emerged from the fog of that war, as did a million or so refugees. What we’re learning today is just how desperate is the state of Syrians outside Damascus and the region controlled by ISIS. Entire populations are being starved to death and relief efforts are stymied. In the “Frontline” investigation, “Inside Assad’s Syria,” correspondent Martin Smith (“Obama at War,” “The Rise of the Isis”) was accorded access to government officials, militia leaders and areas generally off-limits to journalists. One of his guides, an Arab journalist, was killed in combat a day after they parted company outside the capital. Even as the death toll mounts, Smith was able to find delusional elements in the government and business community willing to promote Syria as a destination for tourism. He could hardly believe what he was seeing and hearing.

In their continuing efforts to keep pace with the Food Network and other food-centric programming, such PBS shows as “Off the Menu: Asian America” draw viewers by championing diversity and our willingness to merge cross-cultural influences. A half-century ago, no cuisine was as foreign to the American palate as that of Pacific Rim countries. Outside of New York and San Francisco, Chinese food came out of a can and Japanese dishes practically were non-existent. One of the great victories in the foodie revolution came with the realization that fresh ingredients and exotic spices could be blended to satisfy famously picky American tastes. Young people turned to their grandparents for recipes that reflected their ethnic backgrounds, instead of disguising them with ketchup, sugar and gravy. “Off the Menu” looks beyond China and Japan for examples of Asian/Pacific/American fusion. It takes us on a journey from Texas to New York, and from Wisconsin to Hawaii, using our obsession with food as a launching point to delve into a wealth of stories, traditions and unexpected characters that help nourish this nation of immigrants.

In the third season of “Sisters” Georgie (Patricia Kalember) carries Frankie’s baby via surrogacy and gives birth while trapped in car after an accident. Following the birth, Georgie has maternal feelings for the baby and feels unable to give the baby to Frankie (Julianne Phillips). Teddy (Sela Ward) finds success as a fashion designer; Alex (Swoosie Kurtz) feuds with Teddy and Alex’s daughter, Reed (Ashley Judd), gets married to Kirby (Paul Rudd). Frankie and Mitch (Ed Marinaro) deal with custody problems when they divorce and Alex battles cancer. Otherwise, nothing of much consequence happened. At the time considered groundbreaking for focusing on the lives of four women, “Sisters” dealt with human issues with warmth, heart and sensitivity.

A timeless figure of adventure since his creation by Leslie Charteris in 1928, “The Saint” has thrilled adventure aficionados with his exploits in a variety of media, including novels, movies and radio, but nowhere was the dashing Simon Templar more indelibly realized than in his 1960s television series. It starred the pre-Bond Roger Moore in the title role and, in Seasons Three and Four, featured early appearances for such actors as Burt Kwouk (“The Pink Panther” films), Carol Cleveland (“Monty Python’s Flying Circus”) and Donald Sutherland. The generous package adds “Behind the Scenes, With Sir Roger Moore as Director” and commentaries on “The Happy Suicide,” with guest star with Jane Merrow, “The Saint Bids Diamonds,” with Moore, producer Robert S. Baker guest star Eunice Gayson.

From PBS Kids, “Caillou Learns to Share” teaches his young fans one of the toughest and longest-lasting lessons they’ll ever have to learn. In it, Caillou discovers that sharing his things with the people he loves always turns out better in the end. From teaching his classmate Clementine his special art technique, to taking turns at playing conductor with his friends and family, to sharing his favorite things with little sister Rosie, Caillou learns that sharing not only makes him feel really good, it makes those around him feel good, too.

The DVD Wrapup: The Walk, Irrational Man, Look of Silence, Bitter Rice, Last Horror Film and more

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016

The Walk: Blu-ray
On September 10, 2001, it’s likely that some visitors to Lower Manhattan pointed to the summit of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and recalled the day, 27 years earlier, when a 24-year-old French daredevil covered the 138-foot distance between the two spans on a steel cable, not once, but eight times. Twenty-four hours later, Philippe Petit’s amazing test of human mettle would be obscured in the clouds of dust and debris raised by the collapse of the two 110-story towers in a horrifying terrorist attack. Absent any physical evidence of the edifice’s longtime mastery of the city’s skyline, Petit’s feat might just as well have been a scene from a movie. Almost a year later, though, Petit would remind us of his courageous stunt in “To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers,” an impressionistic memoir of “le coup” that read like a crime thriller. Its publication would soon be followed by Mordicai Gerstein’s Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book, “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers,” which he wrote and illustrated in response to the September 11 attacks. It’s possible that New Yorkers weren’t ready to re-embrace Petit’s achievement, while the memory of the deaths and destruction were so fresh in the collective consciousness. As politicians and developers continued to fine-tune plans for the construction of a new World Trade Center, a documentary based on the two books would test the public’s willingness to look beyond the attacks, however tentatively.

James Marsh’s universally-acclaimed documentary, Man on Wire, served both as a testament to Petit’s courage and the towers’ majesty. He also introduced the pickup team of French and American amateurs who helped Petit realize his dream. It would make a clean sweep of documentary awards and win the unanimous support of critics. What it didn’t do was make a lot of money at the box office … hardly unusual for documentaries. Even so, six years later, Robert Zemeckis thought enough of the story to give it another shot, with his vertigo-inducing The Walk. In a sense, the creator of Forrest Gump and Cast Away re-cast Petit as a superhero, with powers equal to those of Batman or Spider-Man. Dedicated to the victims of the September 11 attacks, The Walk allows for more backstory and a romantic subplot, involving Petit. A true Hollywood visionary, Zemeckis has long been an advocate for digital technology and exhibition, CGI animation and IMAX 3D. He not only intended to place viewers on top of the WTC with the aerialist – well played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt – but on the wire, itself. Even if Petit avoided looking into the abyss, Zemeckis practically rubs our noses in it during the final third of the movie. Anticipating just how effective a conceit this could be, I consciously avoided watching The Walk on a large-format screen. It was scary enough on the much smaller 4K screen in my living room. The PG-rated film looks spectacular on Blu-ray, in 2D and, I’ve read, in 3D. It’s also funny, inspirational and extremely moving. It adds deleted scenes and such background featurettes “First Steps: Learning to Walk the Wire,” with Petit coaching Levi on the art of wire walking; “Pillars of Support,” which introduces the cast that portrays the supporting characters; and “The Amazing Walk,” on the confluence of human drama and movie magic.

Irrational Man: Blu-ray
For longtime admirers of Woody Allen’s comedies, there may be nothing scarier than hearing his name mentioned in the same breath as Fyodor Dostoevsky. His latest, Irrational Man, represents Allen’s fourth film that borrows themes from “Crime and Punishment,” following Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream. Throw in Leo Tolstoy (Love and Death), Anton Chekhov (September), Ingmar Bergman (Interiors, Another Woman, Husbands and Wives) and William Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy), and you have a Murderer’s Row of influences mainstream audiences avoid like the plague. Those of us who’ve given up waiting for his sequel to Bananas – and carry library cards in our wallets — aren’t nearly so particular. There are wonderful things in all of his pictures, including the hardly distributed and, therefore, barely seen Irrational Man. The best reason for sampling it on DVD/Blu-ray is a cast that includes Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Jamie Blackley, Parker Posey and supporting actors who demand we pay attention to what’s happening in the background, as well as the foreground. Everyone works hard, as if to show Woody that his confidence in them is warranted. When compared to such delightfully original recent successes as Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris, To Rome With Love and Blue Jasmine, however, Irrational Man does feel more than a wee bit slight. Phoenix plays a boozy professor of philosophy, Abe, invited to teach at an elite small-town college, despite a sordid reputation that would disqualify him from working in most other institutions.

No sooner does Abe arrive on campus than he’s hit on by an unhappily married professor (Posey), who plies him with bourbon, and a star-struck student, Jill (Stone), who’s half their age. While he’s able to avoid being blinded by flattery, he’s never met a single-malt he could resist. Pure chance changes everything when Abe and Jill overhear a conversation about a corrupt judge and a decision that could have disastrous implications for a mother and her child. Where Jill sees the conversation as an excuse to discuss situational ethics, Abe treats it as an opportunity to put his philosophical money where his mouth is, by plotting the perfect murder. The film’s impact is limited by the small number of people whose lives would be influenced by any action taken – or avoided – by the characters. Irrational Man works best as a closely observed crime novella or short story targeted at graduates of such institutions, where gossip and betrayal are the coin of the realm. As usual with Allen’s Blu-ray releases, the featurettes are limited to red-carpet chit-chat and a photo gallery.

The Look of Silence: Blu-ray
Hate Crimes in the Heartland
Three years ago, a truly shocking documentary, The Act of Killing, demonstrated precisely what Hannah Arendt meant when she coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to characterize Adolph Eichmann’s role in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Director Joshua Oppenheimer risked his life by tracking down perpetrators of the 1965 Indonesian genocide, especially the monsters who, in victory, never were required to pay for their sins. Indeed, four decades later, they lived freely among the families of the million-plus “communists” who were slaughtered as politicians, police, government troops and American advisers physically distanced themselves from the carnage. The elderly fiends even agreed to re-enact their crimes, as if Oppenheimer was a Hollywood casting director, instead of a documentarian. A decade after those interviews were recorded, the filmmaker dared to return to Indonesia at the request of Adi, the brother of a man whose death was detailed for the first time in The Act of Killing. For The Look of Silence, Adi would accompany Oppenheimer and, while fitting the old men for eyeglasses, cautiously interrogate them as to their memory of his brother’s ghastly death. He then would prod neighbors and family members as to their roles in the subsequent cover-ups. Truly disturbing, The Look of Silence, finds the perpetrators of the violence to be no less unrepentant or prepared to seek redemption for their acts than they were 12 years earlier. The conversations are almost surrealistically civil. A few of the men go so far as to describe the ritual of drinking the blood of their victims, whenever their determination to continue lagged. One man justified his willingness to eliminate the perceived threat thusly, “We did it because America taught us to hate communists.” Ari also asked them about the lies still being taught as facts about the political beliefs of the victims and actions blamed on the victims by the actual perpetrators. Although Oppenheimer was extremely cautious in approaching the interview subjects, he was pleased to note that The Look of Silence was being screened in public, before thousands of viewers, and young Indonesians are looking forward to the day that truth and reconciliation panels might be established, as they were in South Africa, to openly discuss and heal wounds left untreated for 50 years. The bonus features include post-screening Q&As and expanded material from the interviews.

If any country needs to undergo the truth-and-reconciliation process, it’s the United States. Race relations throughout the country are worse today than at any time since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the leading candidates to replace President Obama are blatantly exploiting long-held fears and unfounded prejudices. Watch Rachel Lyon’s eye-opening Hate Crimes in the Heartland after The Look of Silence and you’ll understand why advocates for the downtrodden of the world no longer look to the United States for hope and direction. Lyon demands we examine two events that took place 90 years apart from each other, in the same American city, with a similarly devastating impact on residents. How many of us can say that we’ve heard about the so-called Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, which left the prosperous “Negro Wall Street” district of Greenwood devastated and destroyed. It began, as so many vigilante attacks and lynchings have, with a rumor that turned out to be a lie. This one was spread by a white woman who made physical contact with a black elevator operator and, for some reason, cried rape. Within 24 hours, a mob of white Tulsans levelled 35 city blocks, leaving as many as 300 people dead and more than 10,000 homeless. Thanks to officially sanctioned racism among police, politicians and newspaper editors, not one white person was ever arrested, tried or convicted of any crime related to the attacks. The documentary then flashes forward to the 2012 Good Friday Murders, a string of racially motivated killings that left three African-Americans dead and two injured. This time, white Tulsans Alvin Lee Watts and Jacob Carl England would be quickly arrested and accept plea agreements, trading a date with the gas chamber for life-without-parole sentences. As the documentary makes clear, the difference in the two incidents is the aggressive response by the law-enforcement community to arrest and prosecute the killers, in large part to avoid the kind of anti-police riots that rocked the U.S. last summer. Far drier than The Look of Silence, Hate Crimes in the Heartland convincingly examines the underlying racial tensions in Tulsa, some of which have festered since the 1921 riot. It does so using interviews with a variety of scholars and public figures, in and away from the city, with an eye toward reconciliation.

Contracted: Phase II: Blu-ray
In the original edition of Contracted, a deadly sexually transmitted disease is mysteriously carving its way through a section of Los Angeles, making the symptoms of full-blown AIDS look acne. That isn’t to diminish the impact of the killer disease, just to characterize the vomit-inducing body-horror effects on display, some of which might have been inspired by “The Hearse Song.” (“The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on your snout…”) Because almost every character of any consequence died in the 2013 original, director Josh Forbes and writer Craig Walendziak have chosen to focus Contracted: Phase II on Riley (Matt Mercer), a peripheral character who stupidly courted infection by giving in to his lust for the already decaying Samantha. With the maggots now beginning to wheedle their way through his body, Riley is racing the clock to find a cure or someone who might hold the answer to the disease’s origins. To this end, he turns to a curious police detective (Marianna Palka), while being stalked by B.J. (Morgan Peter Brown), who may or may not hold the key to a solution. At 78 minutes, Contracted: Phase II feels very much like the second chapter in a mini-series or a straight-to-DVD addendum to “The Walking Dead.”

Hotel Transylvania 2: Blu-ray
Never known for his subtlety or sophistication, Adam Sandler took a more active role in the creation of Hotel Transylvania 2, than merely providing the voice of Dracula in the original and serving as executive producer with Robert Smigel. Here, Sandler adds co-writer to his previous responsibilities, which makes sense, considering the animated comedy’s target audience. While adults quickly tire of overly broad characters, slapstick humor, cheap sentimentality and lame situations, kids rarely do. Neither are children influenced by critics who blame Sandler for countless of hours of screening-room agony. If it looks funny, they’ll give it a shot. I went into “HT2” without paying any attention to the cast list, so wasn’t prejudiced by memories of such recent disappointments as Grown Ups, Jack and Jill, Just Go With It, Blended and The Ridiculous 6. By marked contrast, the 6-year-old buried inside of me genuinely enjoyed Hotel Transylvania 2, even after perusing the publicity material. Sandler is one of several familiar actors reprising the roles they voiced in “T1,” along with Moscow-born director Genndy Tartakovsky. Among the new voices are those of Mel Brooks, Dana Carvey, Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman. Three years have passed since Jonathan (Andy Samberg) and Mavis (Selena Gomez) broke all sorts of human/vampire taboos by falling in love and getting married. There appears to be some confusion as to whether baby Dennis (Asher Blinkoff) is going to be one, the other or a hybrid of his parents’ gene pool.

Vampa Drac (Sandler) isn’t nearly as anxious to find out as his intolerant father, Vlad (Brooks), who still can’t understand why the hotel has put out the welcome mat for human guests. While Mavis and Jonathan are enjoying their first vacation in the outside world, Drac, Vlad and some monster friends decide to enroll Dennis in the same “monster-in-training” boot camp attended by his mother and her fanged friends. Nothing is quite the same there, either, however. The campers of both species are coddled to same degree as kids in a suburban pre-school program. If Dennis is going to earn his fangs, thus endearing himself with great-grandpa Vlad, and it will have to be here. “TH2” offers plenty of good noisy fun for kids, as well as some painless kicks for parents. The bonus package is targeted directly at younger viewers with separate commentary tracks; deleted scenes; a sketch gallery; a sing-along with Monster Scary-Oke; and interactive featurettes “Make the Scary, Silly Sounds of Hotel Transylvania 2,” “How to Throw the Ultimate Monster Party,” “How to Draw Your Favorite Characters” and “The New Guys: Meet Vlad, Dennis, Kakie.”

Bitter Rice: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Although the title of Giuseppe De Santis’ earthy drama, “Riso Amaro,” is commonly translated as Bitter Rice, it also translates as “Bitter Laughter.” The difference may only be relevant to linguists and those buffs who enjoy splitting such hairs, but it explains some of the ambiguity attached to a movie that’s defied easy classification. While most critics and historians lump Bitter Rice together with other products of the then-popular neorealism movement, it generally comes with an asterisk. De Santis’ leftist political beliefs can be detected in some decidedly anti-western conceits that feel out of place in a work of post-war drama. Apparently, by the time of its release, the spread of American pop culture was such that leftists feared it would turn the proletarian masses into bobby-soxers. That fear is reflected in the characterization of De Santis’ characterization of the sultry peasant girl, Silvana (Silvana Mangano), as the kind of jitter-bugging, gum-chewing bombshell, who, when she wasn’t in the fields, studied movie magazines. A former Miss Rome, Mangano graduated from the same finishing school as Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida and Brigitte Bardot. Their obvious charms would clear the way for the code-flaunting exploitation of Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe and Mamie Van Doren. Then, too, while also decrying the brutal working conditions endured by displaced women in post-World War II, De Santis adds a criminal subplot that might very well have influenced Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless.

It’s the confusion of conceits that prompted neorealism purists to slight the film as prurient entertainment and for audiences to embrace it. (The film even was nominated for the 1950 Academy Award for Best Story.) Bitter Rice is set in 1948, outside a train station where unemployed women are gathered to be transported to the rice fields of northern Italy for 40 days of largely thankless labor. Silvana is entertaining the crowd with her suggestive dancing, which wouldn’t be out of place in an American juke joint. Among Silvana’s admirers are Francesca (Doris Dowling) and Walter (Vittorio Gassman), who are on the lam from a jewel heist in France. Identified by police, Walter entrusts the jewelry to Francesca’s care, while he hops a train heading in the opposite direction. Francesca decides to cast her lot with the migrant workers – already divided by the employment of “scabs” — in particular the woman who seduced her boyfriend with her swiveling hips and come-hither eyes. The intrigue shifts to the rice fields, where the women express their pain, joys and solidarity in song and pine for boyfriends who are likely scratching for work in northern Europe. The melodramatic resolution occurs after Silvana and Francesca’s lovers return to collect what they think rightfully belongs to them. By then, however, the labor-hardened women have shifted their allegiances. The fully restored Blu-ray adds the 2008 documentary, “Giuseppe De Santis”; a 2003 interview with screenwriter Carlo Lizzani; and an essay by critic Pasquale Iannone.

The Last Horror Film: Blu-ray
Joe Spinell, a character actor who bore a passing resemblance to porn icon Ron Jeremy, will forever be known for his portrayal of Corleone Family henchman Willi Cicci in the first two installments of the Godfather. (He originally was intended to appear, as well, in The Godfather: Part III, but was written out and replaced by the character of Joey Zasa, following Spinell’s sudden death in early 1989.) In Rocky, the first of several films he made with Sylvester Stallone, he was the loan shark, Gazzo. In William Lustig’s critically reviled slasher classic, Maniac, co-writer Spinell portrays a momma’s-boy psychopath, loose in New York City, killing young women and taking their scalps as his trophies. Not nearly as loathsome as that film, The Last Horror Film stars Spinell as a demented fanboy – OK, fanman –who hopes to pitch and cast his slasher film at the Cannes Film Market. The trouble is, of course, that everyone who travels to the south of France in mid-May is too consumed with their own projects, image and party plans to screen a movie by a guy who looks as if he might have just escaped from a mental institution. Each new rejection, of course, results in an increasingly gory murder, with his ultimate target being the bombshell scream queen, Jana Bates (Caroline Munro).

None of that would be sufficient cause for excitement about The Last Horror Film’s Blu-ray release, 33 years later, if it weren’t for one thing: the ability of director David Winters (Alice Cooper: Welcome to My Nightmare) to turn the actual Cannes Film Festival into his own personal backlot. Employing guerrilla tactics, he found ways to inject Spinell’s psycho-killer, Vinny, into press conferences, parties, screenings and red-carpet arrivals. Viewers never know who’s going to show up in a scene. Winters also appears to have had the run of the city for locations, although it isn’t likely he paid a dime for permits. In this way, at least, The Last Horror Film reminded me of Henry Jaglom’s 2001 romcom, Festival in Cannes. I have no idea if Jaglom employed the same guerrilla tactic, but it’s the rare indie film that can afford such glamorous locations, cameos or music from a then largely unknown Depeche Mode. The Troma Blu-ray includes a new introduction by company president Lloyd Kaufman; commentary; “Mr. Robbie,” a short film by Buddy Giovinazzo (Combat Shock), starring Spinell; highlights from the 2015 Tromadance Film Festival; a Dolphin-Man bit; and a full episode of Troma’s latest web-series, “Kabukiman’s Cocktail Corner,” starring tattoo artist Paul Booth.

White Panther
Chasing a Star
One the common elements of the international cinema is the use of boxing to dramatize the struggle faced by minorities and immigrants seeking acceptance within a society that has little use for them, otherwise. The not so subtle message being transmitted is, “If you can make it the ring, you can make it anywhere,” no matter your race, religion or nationality. Maybe, maybe not. Likewise, White Panther is an Israeli movie about making it in the ring, as well as a society less united by race, religion and nationality than most Americans have been led to believe. In Danni Reisfeld’s debut film, Alex Zeitlin (Yevgeny Orlov) is just one of an estimated million Jews from the former Soviet Union who emigrated to Israel after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. In the former Soviet Union, where following religious traditions was largely taboo, intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles was a relatively common occurrence. If the newcomers expected to be accorded a red-carpet welcome upon their arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, they were quickly disabused of that notion. Even those non-Jewish fathers who volunteered for the military were shunned as outsiders – Alex’s KIA father was refused burial in a Jewish cemetery — and their children treated like third-class citizens reduced to living in rundown housing projects, surrounded by affluence and catering to tourists. Ironically, the immigrants were frequently scorned as atheists and troublemakers by the Sephardim, who historically have been looked down upon by the dominant Ashkenazi Jews.

These fissures explode intermittently during the course of the story, as gangs of Russian and Sephardi youths antagonize each other in the poorer sections of Tiberias. When Alex is arrested for participating in a brawl, he’s given the option of staying in jail or joining a fight club run by the cop, David, who arrested him. The religious Moroccan Jew takes Alex under his wing after learning that his late father was a champion boxer in Moscow, and “hero” of an IDF operation. This doesn’t sit well with David’s other boxers; his lovely daughter, Yasmin (Meytal Gal); or Alex’s hoodlum brother and his skinhead buddies. It sets the stage for melodrama of the most familiar sort: a still maturing young man finds himself torn between two father figures, until flaws of their own are revealed. “Bad seed” brother Yevgeny is destined for a life in prison for his self-loathing behavior, while the coach’s prejudice is revealed when Alex and Yasmin fall for each other and David’s prejudices are tested. While there’s nothing particularly unique in the boxing sequences, White Panther is enhanced by its Sea of Galili setting and views from hills that surround Tiberias. Boxing completists and viewers interested in Israeli themes should find a lot to like here.

Sports and gangsters figure, as well, in Avi Malka’s broadly farcical Chasing a Star (a.k.a., “Where Is Moshe Ivgy?”). In a plot that could have been inspired by Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, real-life Israeli movie star Moshe Ivgy (playing himself) is kidnaped by a disgruntled actor, Alex, whose agent appears to have forgotten he exists. If Alex can make Ivgy disappear for 24 hours, he might score a commercial intended for the more established actor. To accomplish this, he borrows a limousine from his chauffeur buddy and picks up Ivgy, who’s been slipped a mickey at party. Unfortunately, for Alex, the limousine is hijacked by a recently released ex-con who owes a pile of money to his old partners in crime –Russian, of course – and plans to split the country with his teenage lover. Sports enters the picture in the person of a talented forward for the police department’s women’s soccer team, who won’t participate in the championship game until Alex is safe and the limousine, with or without Ivgy, is located. Although Chasing a Star benefits from the fresh setting and attractive cast, the comedy probably won’t seem very new here.

Bolero/Ghosts Can’t Do It: Blu-ray
The name, Bo Derek, may not mean a lot to Americans born and raised in the Internet era, but, in the wake of her unforgettable appearance in Blake Edwards’ 10, she set the standard against which all great beauties would thereafter be measured. As the sexy newlywed Jenny Hanley, she rewarded Dudley Moore with a roll in the sack for rescuing her husband from drowning. Hanley may have defined what it meant be an “11 out of a possible 10,” but very few men disputed Bo’s claim to the title. She’s also famous for inspiring tens of thousands of white women of all shapes and sizes to embrace the ancient African art of cornrow braiding. Like her acting in movies produced with her husband, the modern-day Svengali John Derek, it was an unfortunate touchstone in the cultural zeitgeist of the Reagan era. Unlike the Kardashians and other reality-show bimbos, Bo Derek never held herself up as a paragon of beauty, acting or anything else, for that matter. Despite well-received appearances in 1981 and 1982 issues of Playboy, as well as several of the worst-reviewed movies of all time, the Dereks tended to keep to themselves, while pursuing their personal interests. For Bo, that included becoming an advocate for animal welfare legislation and support for organizations helping wounded veterans. While serving on the California Horse Racing Board, Bo’s also made guest appearances on several television shows and movies. Her husband, who also shaped the careers of sultry blond actresses Ursula Andress and Linda Evans, died in 1998.

If anything, the Shout! Factory Blu-ray double-feature, Bolero/Ghosts Can’t Do It, demonstrates how ill-equipped the photographer and former actor (All the King’s Men, The Ten Commandments), John Derek, was to direct his wife, or anyone else, in movies he’d also written. These titles contributed directly to Bo’s near-record haul of Razzy nominations and, in 2000, at the 20th Golden Raspberry Awards, for her being nominated as “Worst Actress of the Century,” alongside Brooke Shields, Elizabeth Berkley, Pia Zadora and eventual winner Madonna. Last year, she appeared in Syfy’s breathlessly awaited, Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! Apart from some gorgeous scenery and much gratuitous nudity, Bolero owes far less to the soundtrack of 10 than it does to such Rudolph Valentino flicks as The Sheik, Blood and Sand and The Son of the Sheik. Blessedly, George Kennedy’s chauffeur is one of the few characters who manages to keep his clothes on. Ana Obregon, Olivia d’Abo and Mirta Miller more than compensate for that lapse.

Worse, perhaps, is Derek’s swan song as a writer/director, Ghosts Can’t Do It, which combines elements of Ghost and Heaven Can Wait. Here, Bo stars as a young widow determined to bring her elderly rancher husband (Anthony Quinn) back to life after he’s stricken with a debilitating heart attack and commits suicide. Julie Newmar is the angel who greets him on the way to his date with Saint Peter. She comforts Quinn while widow Bo travels to some of the most exotic corners of the Earth – the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons, and Hong Kong — in her search for the perfect body to receive his reincarnated soul. The film was given a perfunctory release here, in 1990, but not before its VHS release overseas. Believe it or not, Donald Trump appears in an extended cameo as himself. Along with both Dereks, Newmar and Leo Damian, the future presidential candidate was nominated for a pair of Razzies, winning one for Worst Supporting Actor. Quinn dodged a bullet by being snubbed by the voters. Sadly, Ghosts Can’t Do It and Bolero don’t offer viewers any bonus features, although I’m sure Trump could have been convinced to do a commentary track, if asked.

The Image Revolution
In 1992, the world of comic-book heroes and villains was dominated by two companies, Marvel Comics and DC Comics, just as it had been since the debuts of Superman, the Human Torch and Namor the Sub-Mariner in Action Comics #1 and Marvel Comics #1. The Image Revolution recalls the upheaval caused by the departure of a group of illustrators and writers who had revitalized the industry by creating characters more in tune with Gen X readers. As has been the case in most businesses accustomed to maintaining extreme profit margins, Marvel executives refused to pay its most talented staff members what they believed they deserved for their contributions. Led by the outspoken Todd McFarlane (“Spawn”), the upstarts would form Image Comics and introduce a business model that would change the industry at a most propitious time. Among them were Rob Liefeld (“Deadpool”), Jim Lee (“X-Men”), Marc Silvestri (“Wolverine”), Erik Larsen (“Savage Dragon”), Whilce Portacio (“X-Factor”) and Jim Valentino (“Guardians of the Galaxy”). Harnessing such creative talent would prove no easier for Image than it had for Marvel and DC, however. The story is told through rare archival footage and new interviews with all seven founders, as well as industry insiders, comics historians and current Image Comics creators, including Robert Kirkman (“The Walking Dead”).

TV-to-DVD
UpTV: Love Finds You in Charm
Hill Street Blues: The Final Season
The Wonder Years: Season Four
PBS: Reading Rainbow: Miss Nelson Is Back
How ya going to keep them Amish beauties down on the farm, once they’ve seen Charm, Ohio? That’s the musical question asked in UpTV’s original movie, Love Finds You in Charm, an extension of Summerside Press’ “Love Finds You” series of Christian-romance books. Although dozens of titles have been published, only Terry Cunningham’s Love Finds You in Charm and Love Finds You in Sugarcreek have been filmed. Love Finds You in Valentine is on tap for release next month on the Up TV cable network. Being made aware of that connection allowed me to make sense of the newly released DVD, which is set among Amish communities in Indiana and Ohio. The last Amish romance I can remember is Peter Weir’s Witness, in which Harrison Ford goes undercover to protect an Amish boy who’s the only witness to a murder in New York. While in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the newly bearded cop falls for a local widow (Kelly McGillis) and ruffles the feathers of a perspective husband played by the late Russian ballet star Alexander Godunov. (Thirty years later, McGillis would appear as a spinster aunt in “Sugarcreek.”) Frankly, I’m at a loss as to how true Amish and Mennonites feel about movies set in their communities. Absent electricity, it isn’t likely they’d have much opportunity to screen the finished products, in any case. In Love Finds You in Charm, a pretty Amish teenager, Emma (Danielle Chuchran), decides to expand her horizons by moving to her widowed cousin’s farm in Charm, where she’ll help her sell prize-winning produce to tourists. Eventually, Emma will have to decide whether she wants to live among the “Plain People” or ride around town in her friend’s red convertible and sell her hand-made cheese on the Food Network. Anyone who enjoys inspirational stories about Christian love and romance – as practiced by fundamentalists – should find “Charm” charming.

The latest release from Shout! Factory’s library of “Hill Street Blues” episodes represents the landmark show’s seventh and final season. In it, officer Patrick Flaherty (Robert Clohessy) and officer Tina Russo (Megan Gallagher) attempt to rekindle the intensity of the Bates-Coffey relationship of years past. Sgt. Stan Jablonski (Robert Prosky) was lowered to secondary status part way through this season, but it wasn’t until Daniel Travanti announced he would not return the next year that producers decided to pull the plug on the series. It was also moved to Tuesday nights, almost midway through the season, so as to clear the way for “L.A. Law” to inherit the catbird seat on NBC’s must-see Thursday nights.

In the fourth season of “The Wonder Years,” Kevin (Fred Savage) is entering his last year at Kennedy Junior High and feeling the effects of puberty more acutely than ever.  With Winnie (Danica McKellar) now attending a different school, he’s open to temptation in the form of Madeline (Julie Condra), a new girl in his French class. Later in the season, Winnie and Kevin will struggle to maintain their relationship, suffering heartbreak, denial and even injury in the tear-jerker episode, “The Accident.” At home, mother Norma (Alley Mills) takes a job at Kevin’s school; father Jack (Dan Lauria) gets a promotion that takes him on the road; elder brother Wayne (Jason Hervey) buys a car; and sister Karen (Olivia d’Abo) enters college, leaving her room up for grabs. In other firsts, Kevin gets a job as a caddy and tries to crash a 10th-grader’s slumber party (with beer). Again, the original music has been restored to newly released seasonal packages.

For more than 30 years, the PBS series “Reading Rainbow” has been bringing print stories to life. In “Miss Nelson Is Back,” hosted by LeVar Burton, we learn what happens when the teacher in Room 207 disappears for a week and the kids conspire to “really act up.” LeVar embarks on a treasure hunt, gets transformed by a makeup artist and attends a performance by Blackstone the Magician, before stumbling upon a surprise birthday party meant for him.

The DVD Wrapup: Sicario, Sleeping With Other People, Maneater, Cruel, Broad City and more

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

Sicario: Blu-ray
In 2010, Gianfranco Rosi’s frightening interview with a real-life cartel assassin, El Sicario, Room 164, was awarded the top-documentary prize at the Venice Film Festival. Based on a Harper’s magazine article by Charles Bowden, El Sicario gave a hooded killer the opportunity to elaborate on how he came to work both sides of the law in Juarez, one of the most dangerous places on Earth to live.  Having recently experienced a religious catharsis, his confession effectively put a $250,000 price tag on his head. That the interview actually took place in one of the squalid motel rooms in which kidnap victims were interrogated and tortured only made the documentary that much more chilling. Anyone who’s watched El Sicario, Room 164 naturally would be suspicious of Denis Villeneuve’s ability to equal those spine-tingling recantations in the largely unrelated Sicario. An assassin’s handiwork can be observed in the opening scene, during which a FBI assault team led by Emily Blunt discovers the decaying bodies entombed behind a wall of a Tucson safehouse. Beyond that, however, Villeneuve (Incendies) and writer Taylor Sheridan are more interested in the wealthy Mexicans who pull the sicario’s strings.

Stripped to its narrative framework, Sicario is a powerfully rendered procedural that, while chronicling a strike against a cartel kingpin, forces viewers to endorse or decry the extralegal tactics used in the elimination of so-called narco-terrorists. In the same way that Osama Bin Laden was denied the luxury of a trial by a Navy SEAL hit squad, the target of the CIA-led commando unit in Sicario isn’t likely to require the services of a lawyer, either. Do we care? No more than we sweated the details of the raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. Villeneuve reserves those questions for Blunt’s ethically grounded FBI agent, Kate Macer. After leading the charge on the safehouse, Kate is assigned to a special inter-agency task force, based in El Paso. She’s never completely sure as to the role she’s supposed to play in the unit, but, by all appearances, it’s a real cowboy operation. Josh Brolin is the spook in charge, but, constantly at his side is a mysterious Colombian (Benicio Del Toro), who’s earned a reputation among drug traffickers as “Medellin.” When the CIA-led team crosses the border into Mexico to collect a prisoner from a Juarez jail, Kate is left to wonder how she’ll be able to square her participation with her superiors in Washington. Standing alongside the visibly larger and far more heavily armed commandoes, Kate senses that it has nothing to do with her tactical skills. After a shootout at the border, the prisoner is strongly encouraged by the Colombian to reveal everything he knows about the cartel’s methodology. As in any investigation of organized criminals, one clue leaked by an informer could leads to another, finally revealing the entire hill of beans.  Cutting corners through torture sometimes speeds the process.

Villeneuve has found the perfect vessel in Blunt, whose expressive eyes can’t disguise her distain either for the cartel or her unit’s tactics. He stacks the deck even further by putting her directly in harm’s way throughout Sicario, causing to wonder if Medellin is an agent of justice or a mercenary hired to settle an old score. The deceptively barren landscapes of northern Mexico and the American Southwest – as captured by perennial Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins – make the answers to her existential musings even more elusive. Neither does Villeneuve ignore the economic forces that drive poor Mexicans to risk their lives for the cartels, who profit from the insatiable appetite for illegal drugs by Americans undeterred by the body count along the shared border. Del Toro delivers an awards-quality performance as the presumptive sicario. Brolin, too, is excellent as the supercool American agent, who seemingly enjoys his job too much to listen to his conscience. The terrific Blu-ray presentation adds the featurettes, “Stepping Into Darkness: The Visual Design of Sicario,” which focuses on tone as much as actual cinematography; “Blunt, Brolin and Benicio: Portraying the Characters of Sicario,” features interviews with various cast and crew members; “A Pulse From the Desert: The Score of Sicario” profiles Jóhann Jóhannsson; and “Battle Zone: The Origins of Sicario,” with graphic evidence of cross-border horrors.

Sleeping With Other People
Somewhere between last year’s Sundance and a tentative limited release in September, Leslye Headland’s racy romcom, Sleeping With Other People, lost all of the wind that filled its sails going into the festival circuit. Its early reviews were largely positive, so the critics can’t be blamed for killing the buzz. That’s not unusual, though, as festival favorites cater to different audiences than the one necessary for commercial success. Sensing the change in momentum, distributors increasingly will redirect their resources toward the VOD, PPV and DVD marketplace. With its snappy dialogue and attractive young characters, Sleeping With Other People, reminded me of Ed Zwick’s Brat Pack adaptation of David Mamet’s 1974 play, “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.” In an effort to capture the markedly different sexual zeitgeist of the me-decade, the producers of About Last Night decided to largely abandon Mamet’s rhythmic dialogue and episodic structure, in favor of narrative concessions more likely to appeal to mainstream yuppie audiences. It did well, considering its “R” rating, but fans of Mamet’s early theatrical works weren’t impressed. What About Last Night was able to capture, though, were characters, who, having tired with the dating grind, were willing to consider, at least, pairing up and settling down. The Reagan-era economic boom afforded them soft places to land if these relationships failed.

For a while, anyway, Sleeping With Other People offers similarly attractive characters and much bright and funny dialogue. Sadly, though, just as the narrative begins to get rolling behind the kooky sexual entanglements of the star-crossed Jake and Lainey (Jason Sudeikis, Alison Brie), Headland turns down the heat. Instead of fueling the momentum behind their almost bromantic relationship, the story inexplicably takes a detour into the realm of sitcom clichés. The movie opens promisingly in 2002, when students Jake and Lainey get over their unearned sexual braggadocio long enough to take each other’s virginity on the roof of his dorm at Columbia. Love doesn’t have much to do with their encounter, so we aren’t surprised to learn that they haven’t seen each other in a dozen years. In an extreme example of unlikely coincidence, they bump into each other at a 12-step program for sex addicts. Instead of becoming lovers, again, though, Jake and Lainey become confidantes. Obviously, given the undeniable appeal of Sudeikis and Brie, such a limiting situation can’t be allowed to last very long. Naturally coquettish, Brie is especially fun to watch. Like Demi Moore in About Last Night, she easy conveys the heartbreak that comes with putting too much trust in a cad.

The Complete Lady Snowblood: The Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Memories of the Sword: Blu-ray
The House Where Evil Dwells/Ghost Warrior: Blu-ray
The most convenient reason for American fans of Japanese manga to seek out Criterion’s two-film collection, “The Complete Lady Snowblood,” is for its resemblance to Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill.” Lucy Liu’s half-breed assassin, O-Ren Ishii, is believed to have been inspired by Meiko Kaji’s interpretation of the brilliant swordswoman, Lady Snowblood, in Toshiya Fujita’s 1973 revenge thriller, Lady Snowblood, and its almost immediate sequel, Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance. Tarantino’s never felt it necessary to limit his inspirations to one or two sources, so O-Ren Ishii isn’t an exact match to Fujita’s Yuki Kashima. Still, the resemblance not only is uncanny, but also a very good excuse to invest in a rental or download. Kaji was a familiar presence in such Japanese genre pictures of the late-1960-70s as Stray Cat Rock, Female Convict Scorpion and Wandering Ginza Butterfly. She sings the theme songs to Lady Snowblood (“Shura no Hana”) and the Female Convict Scorpion series (“Urami Bushi”), both of which were used in Kill Bill. In the “Lady Snowblood” twin-bill, she plays the deceptively flower destined to avenge the deaths of her mother’s husband and son at the hands of four brutal bandits. After being sentenced to a life penalty for killing the bandit who raped and enslaved her, Yuki’s mother seduces a guard for the sole purpose of conceiving a child capable of exacting her vengeance on the three remaining bandits. The woman dies shortly after giving birth, but not before handing Yuki over to a stern priest anxious to begin her training in the martial arts. At 20, she’s fully prepared to carry out the responsibility inherited from the mother she never knew.

From this point on, Lady Snowblood offers almost non-stop action in the form of over-the-top swordplay and criminal chicanery. On the way to completing her mission, a reporter coins the nom de guerre Lady Snowblood – a play on the Japanese words for Snow White – ensuring mythic stature in the popular press. Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance picks up the story just as Yuki is about to be executed for her killing spree a year earlier. Instead, as she is sent to the gallows Yuki is rescued by Kikui Seishiro, head of the secret police, who offers her a deal to assassinate some revolutionaries and retrieve a crucial document. The plan backfires when Yuki begins to sympathize with her anarchist target, becoming a threat to the secret police and Imperialist government. The supplemental features include original trailers for the two films; new interviews with writer Kazuo Koike and screenwriter Norio Osada; and an illustrated leaflet with Howard Hampton’s essay “Flowers of Carnage.”

From Korea comes Memories of the Sword, another epic story of revenge in which a young swordswoman fulfills the destiny handed down to her by her parents. Set in the Goryeo era (sometime between the 10th and 14th centuries), Park Heung-Sik’s drama chronicles teenager Hong-yi’s (Kim Go-eun) quest to kill legendary fighters Sul-rang (Jeon Do-yeon) and Duk-gi (Lee Byung-hun), the two anti-imperial dissidents who murdered her father. It’s worth mentioning that Hong-yi’s hard-as-steel mother is blind. The handicap doesn’t prevent her from being a formidable warrior and an expert reader of the aroma of tea leaves. The story, which may actually be too complex for western audiences forced to rely on subtitles, benefits from some spectacular scenery, wild martial-arts action, dynamic swordplay and the fun that comes with watching another precious flower evolve into a stone killer.

The House Where Evil Dwells and Ghost Warrior put an American spin on a pair of Japanese genre standbys. Considering that both pictures probably were destined for drive-in purgatory here, I was surprised by how entertaining they remain three decades after their original release. When I say “entertaining,” however, I don’t want to imply that either film bears comparison to most newly imported Asian fare, just that they retain a certain campy charm. The House Where Evil Dwells (1982) offers early evidence that American filmmakers were aware of the appeal of Japanese ghost and haunted-house stories. In it, an American family newly transferred to Japan falls in love with a traditional home in which a terrible tragedy occurred a century earlier. The three participants in the ill-fated love triangle still inhabit the houses, but as ghostly specters intent on messing with any new tenant’s mind. Viewers of a certain age will appreciate the casting of Edward Albert (Galaxy of Terror), Susan George (Straw Dogs) and Doug McClure (Humanoids From the Deep), as well as the typically unsubtle direction of Kevin Connor (Motel Hell). For once, the doubly exposed ghosts look reasonably credible.

From 1984, Ghost Warrior (a.k.a., “Swordkill”) describes what happens when the intact body of a 400-year-old samurai warrior is found by skiers entombed in an ice cave. After being smuggled into the U.S., Yoshimitsu (Hiroshi Fujioka) is miraculously revived through cryosurgery. If it weren’t for a hapless attempt to steal his 400-year-old sword, Yoshi might not have been able to escape the evil scientists’ lab and Ghost Warrior would have been far shorter than its current 81 minutes. Instead, Yoshi’s allowed to wander through L.A., in search of sushi bars, antique stores selling ancient armor and homeless people to rescue from street gangs. Ghost Warrior benefits from our memory of the discovery, seven years later, of the mummified body of Ötzi the Iceman, high in the snowfields that separate Austria and Italy. Instead of cryosurgery, though, Ötzi’s DNA could potentially be used in any re-animation experiment. The Charles Band production stars Janet Julian (King of New York).

Deathgasm: Blu-ray
Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse: Blu-ray
if there were any two artistic pursuits that are made for each other, they’re heavy-metal music and zombie movies. Deathgasm, digital-effects specialist Jason Lei Howden’s first feature, combines both disciplines in a horror movie that’s so far over the top that it might not be considered appropriate viewing for anyone older than 18 or with an IQ score higher than, say, 80. It tells the story of the head-banging new kid in a high school dominated by jocks and cheerleaders. Just as water will always find its level, Brodie (Milo Cawthorne) has little trouble hooking up with the handful of like-minded dudes in school, as well as a Barbie look-alike who sees in the newbie an excuse to have her breasts and thighs tattooed. Naturally, these misfits form a band, while Medina (Kimberley Crossman) causes a rift between Brodie and her square boyfriend. Long story short, Brodie and his pal, Zakk (James Blake) stumble upon a mysterious piece of sheet music said to grant ultimate power to whoever plays it. The downside, however, is revealed when the music summons an ancient evil entity known as Aeloth, the Blind One, who threatens to destroy humanity as we know it. Once this force is unleashed, the only way to put the genie back in the bottle is to play the song backwards. Meanwhile, the gratuitous violence and zombie-inspired carnage perpetrated on the Auckland populace is, as they say, epic. The gore is so phony, it’s laughable. But, that’s sort of the point. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Howden, featurettes and the music video “Bulletbelt Deathgasm.”

Christopher Landon’s Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse should appeal to the same demographic as Deathgasm, if not fans of more sophisticated undead fare as Sean of the Dead and What We Do in the Shadows. In it, three young friends and fellow scouts — lower-case “s,” so as not to be confused with Boy Scouts of America — are enjoying a wilderness camping adventure when a zombie epidemic breaks out back home. When two of the boys’ boredom gets the better of them, they wind up in a gentleman’s club devoid of patrons, but rife with zombies. The one stripper who was powdering her nose when the zombie apocalypse erupted joins the scouts on their new mission to save the town. Of course, she does.

The Barefoot Artist
Watching Glenn Holsten and Daniel Traub’s bittersweet documentary profile of artist-without-borders Lily Yeh, I couldn’t help but recall Mother Teresa’s selfless devotion to India’s poorest and most desperately ill citizens. I doubt that the Chinese-born artist, educator and humanitarian is destined for sainthood, as was Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, but a statue or Kennedy Center Honor shouldn’t be out of the question. If the Eagles have earned one, why not an artist who brings joy and hope to the victims of war and poverty, without charging hundreds of dollars for her services? The Barefoot Artist takes its title from the organization Yeh founded to further her personal mission of using art to replicate the “village model” in devastated communities around the world. It began in 1986, when the professor of painting and art history at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts was asked by dancer Arthur Hall to create a park, mural and sculpture garden in the abandoned lot next to his studio in North Philly. The park, created, as well, from the hard work of neighborhood residents, was the beginning of the Village of Arts and Humanities project. After transforming more than 120 other lots into gardens and parks, it also began renovating vacant homes, creating art workshops, a youth theater and educational programs. In 2004, Yeh left the Village of Arts and Humanities to pursue other work internationally. It took her to Kenya, Rwanda, Ghana, Ecuador, India, the Republic of Georgia and the Ivory Coast, where impoverished and war-weary citizens used scavenged material to create art that reflected both their bitter memories and newfound hope for the future. The Barefoot Artist also follows Yeh back to China, where her father’s long ignored “second family” was severely punished for his role in the civil war as a general in Chiang Kai-shek’s army. Yeh’s intention was to make amends, but some wounds had yet to heal. As uplifting as most of the movie is, Yeh’s cathartic tracing of roots she didn’t know existed is almost too heart-breaking to bear.

The Gambler
Set in a Lithuania that doesn’t appear to have changed much since the last Soviet troops departed in August 1993, The Gambler offers as bleak a view of humanity as any movie made in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. The national pastime still involves drinking to excess, then passing out, and the walls of the buildings don’t look as if they’ve gotten a fresh coat of paint since the Nazi occupation. When the film’s moody protagonist, Vincentas (Vytautas Kaniusonis), isn’t saving lives as the best emergency doctor in Vilnius, he’s pissing away his paycheck as a degenerate gambler. He owes a small fortune to a mobster who doesn’t care how many people Vincentas has pulled from the brink of death. To make up for the deficit, the doctor invents a game based on the old dead-pool principle. Instead of using celebrities, though, the doctors in his unit wager on the estimated day and time one of their very ill patients will die. In their downtime, they compare notes on the severity of the ailments in play and how unforeseen complications might impact the patients’ date with Saint Peter. Because the medical data is shared on a computer network, doctors and paramedics from all corners of Lithuania rush to join in the fun. The longer the patients stay alive, the greater the jackpots grow. The higher the prizes, the greater the potential for corruption and tinkering with God’s timetable. Things get even more complicated for Vincentas when he falls in love with a fellow medic, Ieva (Oona Mekas), a single mother with a seriously ill son. Because of this, Ieva is the only medic who refuses to participate in the game. Because her medical bills now rival Vincentas’ gambling debt, however, it’s only a matter of time before she’ll have to consider compromising her values. It’s at this point that the darkness of the Baltic soul takes hold, carrying the story with it. It’s an excellent story … just don’t expect any happy endings.

The Maneater
The French title of Natalie Saracco’s debut film, The Maneater, is “La mante religieuse,” or, “The Praying Mantis.” It could just as easily have been titled “Jezebel,” as that’s the wholly appropriate name of the incendiary protagonist, played to the hilt by Mylène Jampanoï. Because that title will forever be associated with Bette Davis and “The Praying Mantis” isn’t nearly as provocative as “La mante religieuse,” the American distributors probably figured that a Hall & Oates’ reference, combined with a sexy poster, could only help sales. Maybe … maybe, not. Unlike the titular insect, Jampanoi’s Jezabel doesn’t even bother to blend into the background as she pursues the handsome village priest who conducted the funeral mass for her father. Once their eyes meet, you instinctively know that Jezabel’s real target is Father David’s soul, not his heart … and vice versa. Throw in the jealousy felt by Jezabel’s très épicé lesbian lover and loyalty of Father Dave’s acolyte, and you have a pretty decent tug of war. Even if it isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, The Maneater offers plenty of cheap thrills for Francophiles.

Cruel
French crime novelist Eric Cherrière makes a smooth transition from page to screen in his riveting directorial debut, Cruel. His protagonist, Pierre (Jean-Jacques Lelté), is the textbook example of a sociopathic serial killer. His personal issues can be traced to childhood musings about a distant future — most of them unfulfilled — repeated over home-movie footage taken of him frolicking on a pristine beach with his long-gone mother. Required to spend far too many of his waking hours taking care of his chair-bound father, who’s afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, Pierre only takes mind-numbing work in places he’s able to blend completely into the woodwork. It’s difficult to say what triggers his worst impulses, but they seem to involve separating his victims from what they cherish most. He studies his prey before pouncing, then locks them in the same basement cell in which his father once hid Jews from the Gestapo. Why Pierre tortures the helpless old man with his darkest thoughts also is open to the viewer’s conjecture. What’s more important is knowing that he’s a terribly efficient killer, who finally decides to help hapless police investigators connect the dots on his victims. It isn’t until Pierre is introduced to a lovely musician, Laure (Magali Moreau), that he’s given a viable alternative to killing and maintaining his anonymity. Of course, it also gives us cause to fear for her well-being. Cherrière’s pacing is such that we’re able to understand a bit more of what’s meant by “the banality of evil.” In the right hands, Cruel probably could be translated into a decent English-language thriller, but only if the temptation to cast a well-known actor is avoided.

Captive: Blu-ray
TV One: Stock Option
UPTV: Lyfe’s Journey
Valley Inn
This week’s selection of faith-based DVDs includes three films of special, but certainly not exclusive interest to African-American audiences. The best, Captive, combines true-crime drama with a story of redemption inspired indirectly from Pastor Rick Warren’s inspirational best-seller, “The Purpose Driven Life.” Clearly a product of a bargain-basement budget, Jerry Jameson’s hostage thriller benefits hugely from lead performances by David Oyelowo and Kate Mara, who probably agreed to take a substantial cut in pay as a favor to the producers. Brian Bird’s screenplay was adapted from Ashley Smith’s recollections of her harrowing experiences on March 12, 2005. In a bizarre confluence of desperate circumstances, Smith was abducted and held hostage by Brian Nichols, who was on trial for rape when he escaped from custody and murdered the judge presiding over his trial, a court reporter, a sheriff’s deputy and later a federal agent. Already a captive to drugs, Smith was able to talk Nichols out of continuing his bloody day-long spree, in part by sharing passages from Warren’s books. In the movie, at least, she has just been given a copy of the book by her aunt (Mimi Rogers), who’s looking after Smith’s young daughter while she’s in the process of kicking her addiction. Blessedly, the proselytizing takes a distant backseat to the drama inherent in two people looking directly into the face of death. Given the popularity of Warren and Smith’s appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s show, I’m surprised that Captive didn’t draw numbers in line with War Room and other faith-based fare. It adds several making-of and background featurettes.

In Stock Option, an out-of-work and homeless stockbroker (Amin Joseph) catches a break when he rescues a model (Antonique Smith) from being raped by a hoodlum lurking in the alley next to her studio. In an unlikely act of gratitude and Christian charity, Alina invites Marv – short for Marvelous, no less — home for a shower, meal and change of clothes. Not surprisingly, a little TLC does a world of good for the strikingly handsome young man, who also turns out to be a glib conversationalist. Before long, he volunteers to help Alina complete some household chores, for which he enlists other homeless buddies. Her sudden interest in the down-and-out stockbroker doesn’t sit well with her boyfriend, of course, who’s in a far less charitable state of mind. Marv will be required to clear several other hurdles before redeeming himself in the eyes of Alina’s family and friends he disappointed on his way to the bottom.

Although both movies debuted on different cable channels, Lyfe’s Journey is a product of the same Atlanta-based production company, Swirl Films. The company bills itself as America’s “number one urban film production company,” with over 40 original titles in the past 6 years. With a seemingly insatiable audience for original programming on niche cable outlets, it’s no wonder that evergreen dramatic conceits are recycled on a regular basis. The same strategy worked for Lifetime, after all. Here, family man David Lyfe (Keith Robinson) unexpectedly loses his lucrative job as a banking executive when the company falls into dire financial straits. It couldn’t come at a worse time for the father of a little girl and another in the oven. Despite solid references, Lyfe isn’t able to find another job. One night, he makes the mistake of commiserating over drinks with a suspiciously sympathetic young woman. The next thing he knows, his wife has thrown him out of the house. Desperate for a helping hand, he connects with a preacher who specializes in patching the broken souls of folks willing to contribute to their personal redemption. Besides paint-by-numbers scripts, both movies share attractive casts and protagonists we want to see succeed.

Valley Inn may be targeted at a different audience, but it shares the same Christian foundation as other faith-based films. If it also includes a subtle anti-capitalist subtext, then, so be it. Super-cute ingénue Jordan Scott plays a New Jersey college student, Emily, who accepts a summer job selling Christian books door-to-door in rural northwest Arkansas. Despite its location at the buckle of the bible belt, the territory proves to be less than fertile for book peddlers, especially those hawking tales already familiar to local residents. Expecting to be greeted with suspicion by stereotypical hillbillies, Emily finds herself surrounded by a surprisingly colorful and supportive collection of potentially new friends. The problem, of course, comes in knowing that the company for whom she toils expects sales and Emily isn’t anxious to force books on people with greater needs. Everything in Kim and Chris Spencer’s slight, if easy-on-the-eyes rom/dram/com leads to the region’s biggest event of the year, the Rodeo of the Ozarks. It’s here that Emily is given the opportunity to demonstrate just how much she’s grown over the course of a summer.

TV-to-DVD
Starz: Flesh and Bone: Blu-ray
Comedy Central: Broad City: Season 2
PBS: Nova: Cyberwar Threat/Inside Einstein’s Mind
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Vampire Legend
PBS: American Experience: American Commandante
PBS Kids: Wild Kratts: Australian Adventures
The world of ballet may seem an unnatural setting for a premium-cable mini-series, but the folks at Starz have proven themselves to be remarkably adept at turning atypical subjects into captivating entertainments. In a remarkably short time, such shows as “The Missing,” “Black Sails,” “Da Vinci’s Demons,” “Spartacus,” “Boss,” “The Pillars of the Earth,” “Magic City,” “Outlander,” “Camelot” and “Crash” have attracted viewers to what once was considered to be a minor-league operation. Among the things the mini-series share, to one degree or another, are attractive stars, interesting locations, nudity, contentious situations and provocative dialogue. Did I mention nudity? “Flesh and Bone” doesn’t skimp in any of these categories, especially what some might consider to be gratuitous sex. (Not me, of course.) The artistic milieu also allows for some not-so-usual homosexual liaisons and post-coital extortion. The intrigue begins when Claire Robbins (Sarah Hay) flees her Pittsburgh home, for reasons that won’t become apparent for several episodes to come. No sooner does Claire arrive in New York than she impresses the socks off of the imperious creative director of a prestigious ballet company. Naturally, this spurs an outbreak of jealousy and suspicions among the other dancers. Adding to her other problems is the appearance of a potentially dangerous specter from her past. Loyal fans of premium-cable miniseries won’t be at all surprised to learn that the artistry of classical ballet isn’t the only dance discipline likely to be exploited. Claire also is drawn to a local gentleman’s club – run by a Russian gangster – where she excels in contemporary lap dancing and stripper-pole gymnastics. As goofy it sounds, “Flesh and Bone” could hardly be more compelling. This ballet on display isn’t bad, either.

If Beavis and Butt-Head died and were reincarnated into a pair of twentysomething Jewish women, both single and living in New York City, their show might look a lot like Comedy Central’s hilarious sendup of contemporary hipster mores, “Broad City.” (And, yes, it matters that they’re Jewish.) The show is an extension of improv specialists Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson’s web-series, which found an angel in Amy Poehler. Their characters, Ilana and Abbi, spend most of their time avoiding hard work and anything resembling mainstream culture. They smoke dope and drink wine to excess and, when high, enjoy experimenting with makeup and sex toys. Their closest friends and acquaintances are only slightly less extreme examples of themselves and, perhaps, archetypal characters introduced in “Seinfeld” and “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” They might be completely foreign to viewers outside New York and other urban centers, but Ilana and Abbi probably aren’t much different than your average Starbucks barista or Whole Foods clerk. Among the weekly pleasures in Season Two are surprise guest spots by such familiar faces as Kelly Ripa, Janeane Garofalo, Seth Rogan, Kumail Nanjiani, Susie Essman, Bob Balaban, Amy Ryan, Kimiko Glenn, Alia Shawkat and Patricia Clarkson. The set includes 10 episodes, deleted scenes, pop-ups and extended skits. The show has been renewed for a third season, beginning next month.

This week’s selections from PBS include a pair of “Nova” episodes, one of which might leaving you staring at your computer in fear, while the other could leave you gasping at the brilliance of a theoretical physicist easily confused with Harpo Marx. “Cyberwar Threat” is informed by documents released by Edward Snowden and stolen from Sony Pictures – as well as the “stuxnet” attack on an Iranian computer network — as stepping stones to a frightening discussion of the potential for disaster at the hands of computer hackers. Their anonymity and elusiveness only adds to the intrigue. “Inside Einstein’s Mind” retraces Albert Einstein’s early “thought experiments,” which led to an understanding of gravity and the theory of general relativity. I tried to understand the simplified explanations, but left as clueless as ever.

In the “Secrets of the Dead” episode “Vampire Legend,” Oxford professor John Blair uses forensics sciences to demonstrate how the vampire legend popularized by Bram Stoker in “Dracula” might actually have originated in England, not Eastern Europe. Evidence discovered in recently unearthed graveyards suggests a common belief that the dead could rise and terrorize the living. Beheaded skeletons found among intact remains have inspired a reexamination of the modern vampire mythos.

 

In the “American Experience” offering, “American Commandante,” we’re introduced to a renegade American soldier and fighter for other people’s freedom, who, had he not actually existed, could have emerged from a novel by Ernest Hemingway. The full story of Cleveland native William Alexander Morgan remains shrouded in mystery, but what is known describes a man who completely reinvented himself, trading a reputation as a military washout and mob flunky, for a larger-than-life hero in Cuba’s revolution and Fidel Castro’s subsequent betrayal of democracy. Oh, yeah, he might also have served J. Edgar Hoover as a counter-revolutionary.

PBS Kids’ “Wild Kratts: Australian Adventures” takes the Kratts’ crew Down Under, where they will test their wiles against harsh conditions of the vast Outback desert and endangered Eucalyptus forest. The episodes include “Koala Balloon,” in which Martin and Chris help a young koala stranded in the Outback get back to his natural habitat; “Kickin’ It With the Roos,” in which they meet up with a mob of pugilistic kangaroos and get their car keys stolen by a mischievous joey; and “Platypus Café,” during which the brothers are required to save the eggs of a platypus from ending up on the breakfast menu of a wicked chef.

Steam Room Stories: Volumes 1, 2 & 3
One of the things that distinguish web-based series from mainstream television is their ability to appeal directly to niche audiences. Neither are they limited to any one length or timeslot. This isn’t to imply that their appeal is limited to a specific audience, however. While “Steam Room Stories” scored a direct hit with its intended demographic: young gay men, who spend as much time on their appearance as they do on anything else. This 248-minute collection is comprised of 99 episodes of the series, in which a small handful of attractive guys, clad only in towels, exchange observations that are alternately witty, catty, bitchy and perceptive, about all sorts of things. The skits are consistently funny and observant.

IndiePix Mix 10 II
The second grab-bag collection of previously released DVDs from IndiePix – 918 minutes’ worth of provocative entertainment for just under $80 – once again is a tantalizing mix of drama, comedy and documentaries. It includes the 2009 Sundance Grand Jury-winning documentary, We Live in Public, which documents the loss of privacy in the Internet age; Bhopali, about the world’s worst industrial disaster; Disarmed, on the continuing threat from antipersonnel mines deployed in wars long past; White Shadow, Noaz Deshe’s horrifying drama about the plight of Tanzanian albinos; That Girl In Yellow Boots, a voyeuristic drama set against the sprawling chaos of Mumbai; Soldate Jean, a deadpan Austrian comedy from Daniel Hoesel; Road to the Big Leagues, on baseball in the Dominican Republic; Satellite, a romantic fable about a young couple who give up everything to find something better; and So Bright Is the View, an offbeat story about a Romanian woman seeking a job in Atlanta that probably doesn’t exist.