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The DVD Wrapup: I Feel Pretty, Never Really Here, In Harmony, Leisure Seeker, Scorpion’s Tail, Hong Sangsoo, Doom Asylum, T2, The Tunnel, The Good Place … More

Thursday, July 19th, 2018

I Feel Pretty: Blu-ray
There’s an air of not-so-quiet desperation that permeates Amy Schumer’s third star vehicle, I Feel Pretty. Everything that made the let-it-all-hang-out comic such a hot commodity, only two years ago, appears to have been drained from a property that suffers from an almost complete lack of bodacious, in-your-face humor and self-deprecating mischief. Seemingly, it would be too easy to blame what must have been a demand for a PG-13 rating, but if you put a muzzle on an attack dog, it loses its bite. Trainwreck (2015) made a lot of money for Universal, despite an “R” rating and anemic overseas numbers. It made fans of her of her unbridled sketch-comedy show, “Inside Amy Schumer,” feel right at home, while appealing to men with meaty appearances by John Cena, LeBron James, Tony Romo, Amar’e Stoudemire and Marv Albert. Pairing Schumer with her blond soulmate Goldie Hawn, in Snatched (2017), must have seemed like a no-brainer for the geniuses at Fox, but it fell on its face at the box office and failed to impress critics. In this case, its “R” rating probably had a negative impact on Hawn’s older fans … that, and her off-putting cosmetic surgery. The most obvious things missing in Snatched and I Feel Pretty, however, are writer’s credits for Schumer and directors comfortable working outside the box.  Trainwreck was helmed by kindred spirit Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin), who had no problem identifying and expanding upon Schumer’s strengths as an actor. If she was accorded sole writer’s credit, Apatow reportedly encouraged improvisation between takes, which suited the star’s modus operandi and the talents of a cast loaded with actors adept at working off-the-cuff. By contrast, the vacation-from-hell comedy, Snatched, was written and directed by proven talents — Jonathan Levine (Warm Bodies), Katie Dippold (The Heat) – who likely were instructed to color within the lines and refrain from taking risks.

I Feel Pretty was co-written by rom-com specialists Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (How to Be Single), who might have been better advised to surrender directing duties to someone with more experience than a single awarding-winning short (“Fairfax Fandango”), 20 years ago. In it, Schumer never seems comfortable playing Renee, a noticeably overweight woman — if hardly obese or unattractive — who constantly struggles with feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. The woeful website manager for a large cosmetics firm makes some painfully awkward attempts at getting into shape, but she fails in every predictable way possible. After being knocked unconscious in a fall from a SoulCycle machine, Renee wakes up believing she is suddenly the most beautiful, shapely and capable woman on the planet. To the outside world, she’s the same old Renee, minus the feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. Her newfound self-confidence opens the door to an opportunity at the cosmetics firm run by the grandmother/granddaughter team of Lilly and Avery Leclair (Lauren Hutton, Michelle Williams). Instead of working in a dumpy Chinatown office, she’d become one of the company’s public faces in an uptown hi-rise. Naturally, the wannabe fashionistas who handle Leclair’s day-to-day operations can’t see beyond Renee’s ugly-duckling exterior and pedestrian contributions to planning sessions. Leclerc’s sophisticated and still radiantly beautiful founder, Lilly, relishes her strangely intrusive employee’s enthusiasm, dedication to duty and business strategies designed more for everyday consumers than models, who don’t have to pay for the cosmetics they endorse.

Through her website experience, Renee professes to know how to develop a line of great-looking makeup, as well as a marketing scheme designed to appeal to people who shop at Target. (The retail chain is one of several products and companies all too prominently placed throughout I Feel Pretty.) Her new attitude impacts her relationship with two eligible bachelors, one of whom has six-pack abs (Tom Hopper) and the other (Rory Scovel), carries six-packs home from work. The only question that remains unsettled throughout the second third of the movie is what will happen to Renee’s Cinderella moment when, as is inevitable, she falls and hits her head again. As rom-coms go, I Feel Pretty is neither completely unwatchable, nor remotely memorable. It’s just sort of … well, there. If it weren’t for the moments when Schumer improvises in front of the mirror and receives jolts of energy from her funny co-stars, who also include Aidy Bryant, Busy Phillips, Sasheer Zamata and Adrian Martinez, the movie would have sunk under the weight of its leaden clichés and tropes after the first act. (One of the biggest laughs comes when Renee’s exercise partner, played by the stunningly gorgeous Emily Ratajkowski, bemoans her invisible “imperfections.”) The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a gag reel and the making-of featurette, “Being Pretty.”

You Were Never Really Here: Blu-ray
If we, as Americans, knew for a certainty that sexual predators would refrain from preying on children, if they were threatened with vigilante justice, instead of a trial, it’s fair to wonder how many heinous crimes would be nipped in the bud. That was the question left for audiences to ponder after watching Taxi Driver, Dirty Harry, Death Wish, Standing Tall, Billy Jack and a half-dozen other violence-driven dramas of the 1970s, in which antiheroes accomplished what even the most sympathetic judges and hamstrung prosecutors weren’t allowed to do: rid society of its defective elements. Antiheroes went out of fashion during the Reagan/Bush years, when robotic cops were introduced to do our dirty work. They were followed into megaplexes by comic-book superheroes who performed the same unsavory chores. Lynne Ramsay’s powerful drama, You Were Never Really Here, returns to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when flesh-and-blood antiheros walked the earth and rescued damsels in distress. Hi-yo, Silver! Away! Among the many differences between the Lone Ranger and Ramsey’s protagonist, Joe, is the Western hero’s customary refusal of remuneration and the mercenary’s insistence on being well-paid for his services. Otherwise, one wears a mask and cowboy hat, while the other disguises his identity with a hoodie. The Lone Ranger relies on the proceeds of a silver mine to support his good work, while Joe takes his orders from a money-grubbing middle man. One used his pearl-handle revolver to intimidate criminals, while the other’s weapon of choice is a ball-peen hammer, which he uses to bash in the skulls of scumbags.

Joe will remind audiences more of Travis Bickle than the Lone Ranger, although neither of the Avenging Angels accepted money for their contributions to society. Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s antihero describes himself, thusly, “Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.” The same thing can be said of Joe, who remains in the shadows, leaves no trails and whose only companion appears to be his invalid mother. At 88 minutes, Ramsey doesn’t allow her audience much time to ponder the similarities between Joe and Travis, beyond a belief they’re saving defenseless teenage girls from a life of sin, depravity and brutality.  Neither does the Glasgow-born filmmaker, who’s made such demanding movies as Ratcatcher (1999), Morvern Callar (2003) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), burden us with much of a backstory on Joe, the mercenary killer played by Joaquin Phoenix, or the sex traffickers he dispatches with a single blow. The only things we really know about him involve a sketchy tour of duty in a terrible foreign war, being tortured as a boy by his father and a samurai’s determination to perform as trained, with a minimum of fuss and noise. (In Jonathan Ames short novel of the same title, Joe’s complementary skills are explained by his being a former FBI agent and Marine.) Unlike Bickle, too, there’s no time for Joe to woo a beautiful young campaign worker by taking her to a porn theater in Times Square. When he isn’t working, Joe watches television at home, with his mother.

Like Scorsese, Ramsey amplifies the horror in You Were Never Really Here with an immersive musical track – composed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood — and disturbing sound effects. Phoenix doesn’t look as if he’s shaved or combed his hair since he “dropped out” after Two Lovers (2008). Clearly, though, Joe carries Bickle’s DNA. It manifests itself in the character’s eyes. Here, the central crime involves the abduction of the seemingly virginal 13-year-old daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) of a U.S. Senator, who’s connected to a governor being investigated for sex crimes. Joe gets his assignments through a middleman (John Doman) and receives his pay through a cut-out operative in the back room of a New York bodega. Joe’s is a master at tracking leads and locations through high-security software. If it doesn’t take him long to find the girl, who’s being softened for the role of sex slave, it’s only because the battle for his soul is only just beginning. And, once again, the ferocity of Ramsey’s storytelling leaves us no time to concern ourselves with occasional holes in logic. Obviously, the R-rated picture isn’t for everyone, even those who may be drawn to it by their memories of Phoenix’s portrayal of Johnny Cash. Fans of hard-core crime dramas should check out You Were Never Really Here, if only for the test of nerves it provides. It’s interesting to note that the film was submitted to the 2017 Cannes Film Festival in an unfinished state, and it was completed only a few days before the first public screening. Even so, the Palme d’Or nominee came away with a Best Actor award for Phoenix and tied for Best Screenplay with Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

The Leisure Seeker
Here’s a movie for people, like moi, who complain endlessly about the lack of films made for adults who haven’t read a comic book in 40 years and provide substantial roles for actors well beyond a certain age. The Leisure Seeker stars 83-year-old Donald Sutherland and 72-year-old Helen Mirren – with a cameo by comedian Dick Gregory, who died last August, at 84 – neither of whom have suffered lately from lack of quality work. Even so, in his first English-language undertaking, Italian director Paolo Virzi (Human Capital) elicits performances from the old pros that doesn’t require them to be anything but themselves and act their respective ages. I shudder to think, however, what kind of indignities they may have had to endure if The Leisure Seeker were financed by a Hollywood studio and blatantly targeted at a cross-generational audience. (The casting of Jane Fonda and Lindsay Lohan in the dreadful Georgia Rule provided a negative example of what can happen when such pairings are forced, while Paul Weitz’s indie dramedy, Grandma, gave Lily Tomlin and Julia Garner an opportunity to show how they can be made to work.) Shot in various locations along the Eastern Seaboard, The Leisure Seeker is more of an Italian feel than most American pizzerias. Much to the chagrin of their adult children, Ella and John Spencer have decided to take an excursion – perhaps, their last – in their antique Winnebago Leisure Seeker motorhome, which has provided them with a wealth of pleasant memories. What frightens their son and daughter most is the fact that John has Alzheimer’s and occasionally drifts into a world of his own. Since Ella continues to allow her husband to do almost all the driving, the trip from Wellesley, Massachusetts, to Key West, could either turn out to be a fitting valedictory for a longtime marriage or a demolition derby.

In his prime, John introduced thousands of well-heeled students to the novels of Ernest Hemingway. Today, he wants nothing more than to visit the author’s home on the island. Virzi fell in love with Michigan writer Michael Zadoorian’s best-seller of the same title, which became especially popular in Italy. As co-written by Francesca Archibugi, Francesco Piccolo and Stephen Amidon, the script takes the usual liberties with the source material, but nothing that doesn’t make sense in the context of a road picture or buddy film, in which the protagonists are husband and wife. Since I haven’t read the book, I can only surmise that a lot of the mayhem caused by John’s illness was tempered to allow for entertaining encounters with the kind of everyday Americans one meets on a highway linking very different parts of the same country. Gregory’s cameo comes in a nursing home, to which Elle expelled her husband after his memory returns long enough to recall a serious lapse of judgment in his youth. Otherwise, a lot of the humor derives from people who’ve sold their houses and now live in their motorhomes; at a pro-Trump rally in the South; an encounter with modern-day highwaymen; and a friendly motorcycle gang. The pace is leisurely and Luca Bigazzi’s cinematography nicely captures a landscape that must have been completely foreign to him. Moreover, the actors’ considerate chemistry prevents the unhappy moments from becoming overly sentimental or, worse, maudlin. The DVD adds a making-of featurette and a couple of panel discussions.

In Harmony
Here’s another heart-rending and entirely relatable drama that should appeal to grown-up viewers, especially those who’ve recently been faced with life- and career-changing issues. If that sounds a bit on the heavy side, credit the team behind French writer/director Denis Dercourt (The Page Turner) for making In Harmony an experience that’s as entertaining as it is meaningful. Based on co-writer/adviser Bernard Sachsé’s real-life story, it stars Albert Dupontel (See You Up There) as an equestrian stuntman, Marc Guermont, whose movie career comes to an abrupt and painful end when his horse reacts to an unexpected explosion by throwing him and stepping on his back. Without consuming a lot of time on Marc’s exhaustive hospital stay and therapy sessions, viewers pick up on the proud and stubborn horseman’s life as he returns to his farm, committed to rebuild his career as a trainer from scratch. Spoiler: that isn’t going to happen … at least, not in the way he expects. The part of Sachsé’s book to which most people can relate is his battle with the movie company’s insurance provider, which is willing to go the distance to cheat him out of the settlement due a man, who, through no fault of his own, will never work in his chosen profession or, perhaps, get on the back of a horse, again. The insurance company is represented by an attractive, largely fictional character, Florence (Cécile de France), whose job is to talk the 50-something Guermont into accepting a settlement that, while sizable, eventually wouldn’t cover expenses on his farm, home and pursuits.

Before long, the no-nonsense claims adjuster is forced to balance her obligations to her employer with her natural sympathy for anyone in Marc’s predicament. Florence is aware of the fact the company is willing to put as much financial pressure on the claimant as is necessary to get him to sign the settlement agreement. This includes illegally freezing his assets and cutting back on payments to workmen hired to retrofit his home and maintain Marc’s boarding and training business. While his courage in the face of adversity impresses her, it’s his recognition of the frustration she feels over an aborted career as a concert pianist that finally works on her heart. Knowing that Guermont doesn’t have the wherewithal to contact a lawyer willing to go the distance against the company, Florence is faced with the dilemma of giving in to her growing fondness for the man or committing an unethical act certain to get her fired, if discovered. It doesn’t help matters any that she’s married to a decent man, and their daughter also plays the piano. Or, that here husband and Marc have occasion to do business with each other. Here on in, however, lie plot twists that make In Harmony such a pleasurable viewing experience. And, while it’s a distinctly French entertainment, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that someone in Hollywood is preparing a script in which Marc is recuperating rodeo star or jockey … same circumstances, same ending, different language. In addition to terrific performance by the veteran actors, Dupontel and de France (Hereafter), kudos go out to the chestnut stallion, Othello, who proves to be as empathetic and versatile in a supporting role as most human actors in similar circumstances.

The Chinese Lives of Uli Sigg
Typically, westerners are far more interested in the traditional arts and crafts of Asian, African, Latin American and indigenous artists than anything painted or sculpted within the last 100 years. After all, it’s what’s taught in colleges and displayed in museums, alongside mummies, suits of armor, furniture and dinner sets commissioned by royalty. We’ll stand in line for hours to see the paintings of French Impressionists and Spanish Surrealists, Americans are far more suspicious of Modern arts … unless it comes attached with a brand name, like Andy Warhol. Look how long it’s taken for American museums to embrace the brilliant work of such Mexican artists as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Rufino Tamayo and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Even though Mexico is our next-door neighbor and the artists have spent time working in the U.S., they might as well be from Togo. Then, too, the governments of many Third World and underdeveloped nations have shown themselves to be openly antagonistic to artists whose bodies haven’t been a-mouldering in their graves for a couple of centuries, at least. Indeed, a commitment to Modern art – even when it isn’t meant to be controversial or provocative – can land artists, filmmakers and free-thinkers in jail or banishment to other countries. World opinion and prestigious awards work in the favor of some persecuted artists, of course, but not always. One such irrepressible artist, Ai Weiwei, plays a prominent role in the eye-opening documentary, Chinese Lives of Uli Sigg, by German writer, culture advisor and theater director Michael Schindhelm.

It begins by recounting the development of the first joint venture between a Westeern company and China, initiated by the Swiss-based Schindler Group. Then, it introduces us to the Swiss diplomat, businessman, journalist and art collector, Uli Sigg, who worked for Schindler – frequently under conditions completely alien to Swiss executives – and made solid contributions to what was then a struggling Chinese economy and infrastructure. While stationed there in various capacities, Sigg developed a passion for modern Chinese art and the country’s often beleaguered and underappreciated cultural community. In time, he became the largest private collector of contemporary Chinese art in the world. Sigg is credited here by artist Weiwei, pianist Lang Lang and curator Victoria Lu for championing the artists he admires, working tirelessly for their international recognition and preserving their work as a record of China’s tumultuous and historic changes, especially those undertaken since the end of the Cultural Revolution. Moreover, in 1997, he organized the annual Chinese Contemporary Art Awards. In  2012, he donated 1,463 works by 350 Chinese artists to a new museum, scheduled to open next year in Hong Kong. His donation to the M+ includes 26 works by Weiwei and other works by Ding Yi, Fang Lijun, Geng Jianyi, Gu Wenda, Huang Yongping, Liu Wei, Xu Bing and Zhang Xiaogang. The combined works are worth an estimated $163 million. Nevertheless, the donation garnered negative press in mainland China, because he decided to hold back 300 works for his personal collection. While the controversy is discussed in the doc, the emphasis is on the paintings, sculptures and mixed-media exhibits that are brilliantly colorful, highly whimsical and surprisingly topical.

I Am Another You
It’s always interesting to see what America looks like through the eyes of strangers, especially if those eyes belong to artists accustomed to looking at life through a lens. With her humanistic documentary profile of a homeless millennial, Chinese filmmaker Nanfu Wang has joined the likes of Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas), Michelangelo Antonioni (Zabriskie Point), Louis Malle’s (Atlantic City), Lars von Trier (Dogville), Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in America), Roman Polanski (Chinatown) and Peter Watkins (Punishment Park), to name just a few of the directors who’ve used broad strokes to depict Americans in their native habitats. Not all of them have gotten it quite right – Antonioni whiffed on his portrayal of student radicals in 1960s, while capturing the timeless beauty of Death Valley – but, when they do, as was the case in Paris, Texas and Once Upon a Time in America, we benefit from their fresh perspectives on our way of life. In her early 30s, with only one other documentary feature (Hooligan Sparrow) under her belt, Wang probably would blush to mentioned in the same breath as those filmmakers, but, for what it attempts to achieve, I Am Another You deserves some consideration alongside their movies. Currently residing in New York, Wang was born in a small farming village in Jiangxi Province, China.  She lost her father when she was 12 years old and was forced to drop out of school to work, so she could support her family. Unable to afford high school, Wang enrolled in a vocational school and eventually started working as a teacher at the primary level. Several years later, Wang was granted a full fellowship from Shanghai University, while enrolled in a graduate program for English language and literature. Having developed a late interest in film, she returned to school to study it. She also earned a journalism degree from Ohio University and a degree from New York University’s Documentary Program.

In I Am Another You, she uses one young man’s decision to join the homeless masses to address her fascination with how Americans define and explore their constitutional right to pursue freedom. In 2011, while staying at a Florida hostel, she met a personable 22-year-old Utah native, Dylan, who’d been living on the road for a year. Looking a bit like a young Matthew McConaughey, Dylan’s idea of being homeless conforms to how hippies lived, traveled and supported themselves in the late 1960s, at least until Charles Manson gave the communal lifestyle a bad name. (Before the so-called Manson Family was apprehended for the Tate-LaBianca murders, young people lined the streets of university towns, hoping to catch a ride to places from Alaska to Florida. After their pseudo-hippie conceits were revealed, you could wait days for a ride and go a hundred miles in any direction without seeing a hitchhiker.) Wang considered Dylan to be something of a “barefoot philosopher,” speaking with clarity and conviction about a life free from materialistic constraints and conventional expectations. “Eating, happiness and community” are his only goals, he says. In the documentary, we watch him panhandle and beg for money, cigarettes and food, some of which he’ll simply give away to other vagrants. Wang follows Dylan with her camera on a journey that takes her across America, sleeping in parks, scratching for food, dodging police and communing with other people deemed “homeless.” She meets his father and mother, who are divorced, and discovers some of her subject’s backstory. It includes an estrangement from the Mormon faith, a serious drug habit, bouts with unchecked bipolarism and a constant desire to live off the grid.

In what amounts to the third act of I Am Another You, Wang is invited to attend the second marriage of Dylan’s father – a likable guy, by the way – to a woman who bears a passing resemblance to his ex-wife. Since she saw her subject last, Dylan appears to have cleaned up his act and is enjoying a clear-eyed view of life. He’s cut his hair, gets along well with his siblings, dad, stepmother and other guests at the wedding, and appears ready to stick around for a while. He even has a girlfriend, who’s only slightly better off than he is. As his father suspects, however, the proximity to old friends with bad habits puts him back on the road to substance abuse and mental instability. Living under a familiar roof becomes as foreign to him as eating pizza from the garbage was for the filmmaker. We’re left with the feeling that, without medication and therapy, Dylan is going to hit a dead-end sometime very soon. His good looks and engaging sense of humor will fade, and he won’t be able to rely on the kindness of strangers – some of whom we meet – for his needs.

The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Just when you think you’ve seen all the gialli worth watching, another terrific specimen pops up and grabs you by the jugular … this one from a distance of 47 years. When committing one’s time to surveying the masterworks of an unfamiliar genre, subgenre or national cinema, the temptation always is to start with the work of most famous practitioners and continue down the ladder until it’s time to move on to something else. When it comes to giallo, of course, that means focusing on such prolific practitioners as Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Umberto Lenzi, Lucio Fulci and Antonio Margheriti. That would, however, be like limiting one’s intact of hard-boiled crime fiction to such influencers of film noir as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain. There’s so much more to be seen and read, it’s ridiculous to think you’ll ever have enough free time to make it through the first decade’s worth of source material. For the last couple of years, at least, Arrow Video has become one of the go-to companies for re-releases and upgrades of classic giallo, Westerns, horror and police dramas. It’s allowed other distributors to work the cannibal market, but, considering how many directors dabbled in the other subgenres, it always comes up in discussions included in the exemplary supplemental featurettes. Arrow’s “Special Edition” of Sergio Martino’s excellent jet-set giallo, The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail, reminded me of two things, 1) how much I enjoyed Blu-rays of Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) and Suspicious Death of a Minor (1975), and 2) how many more titles are left for me to explore, including Torso (1973), All the Colors of the Dark (1972) and The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, which only cover his giallo phase. Like several other contemporaries, Martino began his career assisting on sword-and-sandal films, like Hercules Against Rome (1964), then moved on to sexploitation  docs (Naked and Violent), Spaghetti Westerns (Arizona Colt Returns), sex comedies (Giovannona Long-Thigh), cannibal horror (Slave of the Cannibal God), creature features (The Great Alligator), straight  horror (The Scorpion With Two Tails), sci-fi (The Fishmen and Their Queen), thrillers (Casablanca Express ), erotica (The Smile of the Fox) and, until 2012, TV movies and series (“Carabinieri”). Like most of the other noteworthy Italian directors, he’s surrounded himself with such international sex symbols as Barbara Bach, Ursula Andress, Barbara Bouchet, Senta Berger, Carol Alt, Anita Strindberg, Suzy Kendall and, female muse, Edwige Fenech. Among his leading men were Luc Merenda, Richard Conte, Glenn Ford, Donald Pleasence, Mel Ferrer, Stacy Keach, George Segal, and, male muse, George Hilton.

The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail has so many red herrings and unexpected twists, it’s frequently been compared to thrillers by Alfred Hitchcock, especially Psycho. It opens with the mysterious death of a millionaire, in  a midflight explosion. Even as the fiery debris is falling to Earth, his wife, Lisa (Evelyn Stewart), is enjoying a sexual liaison with her English lover. It isn’t the most secure alibi that a woman about to inherit a small fortune could have, but it’s convenient. Lisa must fly to Athens to collect the inheritance. (With other stops planned in Rome and Madrid.) It is also where a bevy of criminals is waiting to separate her from the money, which a blackmailer has instructed her to carry around the city in a suitcase. An insurance-fraud investigator, Peter (George Hilton), is also on her trail, which ends rather abruptly with the disappearance of the dough and end of Lisa’s role in the movie. The search for the money moves to a gorgeous Greek island, where the investigator and his journalist lover (Anita Strindberg) pick up the scent of a razor-toting ninja. The typically tangled script by Ernesto Gastaldi (Death Walks on High Heels), and complementary musical score by Quentin Tarantino-favorite Bruno Nicolai, help make The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail one of giallo’s more definitive, as well as entertaining titles. The Arrow package benefits from a new 4K restoration of the film from the original camera negative; the original lossless mono Italian and English soundtracks; Italian/English dialogue tracks; commentary with writer Ernesto Gastaldi; lengthy interviews with Hilton and Martino; analysis of Martino’s films by Mikel J. Koven, author of “La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film”; a video essay by Troy Howarth, author of “So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films”; a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Chris Malbon; and, in he first pressing, an illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring writing on the film by Rachael Nisbet and Howard Hughes, and a biography of star Anita Strindberg, by Peter Jilmstad.

Doom Asylum: Blu-ray
Released in 1987, Richard Friedman and Rick Marx’s bargain-basement sendup of slasher films, Doom Asylum, was meta before meta was cool. (I just became familiar with meta-horror and wanted to use the adjective in a review as soon as possible.) As cheesy as it looks most of the time, the story is sound enough to support the deliberate excesses of its creative team. It opens with a terrible automobile accident that leaves a young woman dead and her lover shockingly burned and mutilated. The first tip that Doom Asylum is playing fast and loose with genre conventions comes when the survivor crawls to his girlfriend’s side and picks up her severed hand, as if it were a prop in a Shakespearean tragedy. After passing out, the victim is taken to a nearby sanatorium, where he’s put on a slab in the mortuary, in advance of some slicing and dicing by the tool-obsessed coroner and his assistant. After managing to fight them off, using their chest cutter as his weapon, the badly deformed and constantly bleeding creature decides to take up residence in the building, even when it’s abandoned. Ten years later, the daughter of the dead woman organizes a road trip to visit the site of the accident, where their car breaks down, leaving them stranded just outside the gates of the sanitarium. (Patty Mullen, who will forever be known first as a former Penthouse model, and secondly for her performances here and in Frankenhooker, plays both mother and daughter.) Once there, the mixed group of nerds and yuppies set up a picnic lunch, but not before the women strip down to their bathing suits.

In a completely in explicable coincidence, a band of female punk rockers has taken over the roof of the abandoned facility to practice their act. Disturbed by the presence of their uninvited audience, they bombard them with water balloons made from condoms. The confrontation includes a topless scene by scream queen Ruth Collins that’s so obviously forced and gratuitous that it’s the opposite of erotic. Not only are the musicians pissed off, but the killer (Michael Rogan) is none too pleased to share his domicile with the trespassers. One by one, the visitors leave the safety of their respective groups to explore the creepy, graffiti-adorned interior, only to be savagely attacked by the killer. (The set design was provided by teenagers and vagrants who used the former hospital as an out-of-the-way place to crash or party.) As befits a slasher parody, Doom Asylum includes a “final girl” and special makeup effects that look even less convincing in hi-def. To pad out the original 79-minute running time, scenes from George King’s 1936 melodrama, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, starring Tod Slaughter, are spliced into Doom Asylum to extend its runtime to almost 90 minutes. (The killer is watching the black-and-white movie on television.) Now, here’s the pièce de résistance: a 22-year-old Kristin Davis (“Sex and the City”) made her film debut in Doom Asylum as a doomed bookworm. She wears black-rimmed glasses and a baby-blue one-piece bathing suit, which, sadly, stays on her girlish bodyuntil her date with destiny. (As weak as Davis’ acting is here, it’s more accomplished than anything in Sex and the City 2.)  The Arrow package includes archival interviews with producer Alexander W. Kogan Jr., director Richard Friedman and production manager Bill Tasgal; “Morgues & Mayhem,” new interview with special-makeup-effects creator Vincent J. Guastini; “Movie Madhouse,” a fresh interview with DP Larry Revene; “Tina’s Terror, with Collins, who explains how she was talked into doffing her top; audio commentaries with The Hysteria Continues and screenwriter Rick Marx; a still gallery; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Justin Osbourne; and a fully illustrated collector’s booklet with new writing by Amanda Reyes.

Two Films by Hong Sangsoo: Special Edition: Blu-ray
On the Beach at Night Alone: Blu-ray
I’m not sure how the folks at the independent British distribution company, Arrow Films, differentiate between the world cinema, cult, art, horror and classic films only recently made available here on its Arrow Video and Arrow Academy labels, via MVD Entertainment Group. According to its Facebook page, Arrow Academy “brings cinephiles prestige editions of new and classic films from the greatest filmmakers across the globe.” (What constitutes a “new classic”?) Arrow Video kicked off its American division in spring of 2015, with the Spaghetti Western, Day of Anger; Michael Armstrong’s horror, Mark of the Devil; and the “bizarro yakuza/samurai/ghost-story/horror hybrid” Blind Woman’s Curse. Two years later, Arrow introduced its Academy line into North America, with Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp’s The Creeping Garden; Elio Petri’s The Assassin and Property Is No Longer a Theft; and Luchino Visconti’s Ludwig. Apparently, it comes down to Grindhouse vs. Arthouse. This week, the aforementioned Case of the Scorpion’s Tail and Doom Asylum represent AV, while “Two Films by Hong Sangsoo” — Woman Is the Future of Man (2004) and Tale of Cinema (2005) – are a better fit for AA’s criteria. Makes sense.  At the last moment, Cinema Guild snuck Hong’s On the Beach at Night Alone in on me. It’s one of three films released by the hyper-prolific Korean writer/director in 2017 and it’s easy to see how his approach has evolved in the interim. There’s no question that Hong’s work fits snuggly within the confines of the arthouse category and shouldn’t be confused with the far more accessible output of such Korean Renaissance exemplars as Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden), Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, Mother), Kim Ki-duk Kim (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring, Moebius), Kim Jee-woon (The Good the Bad the Weird, The Age of Shadows) and Yeon Sang-ho (The King of Pigs, Train to Busan).

As a keen observer of human foibles and subtle personality traits, he’s been compared to French New Wave pioneer Eric Rohmer (Pauline at the Beach, Claire’s Knee), whose deliberate approach has been praised, mocked and copied by critics, buffs and contemporaries. I wouldn’t have any problem comparing his highly stylized films to those of Whit Stillman (Metropolitan) and My Dinner with Andre (1981), Louis Malle’s chatty collaboration with theater director Andre Gregory and actor-playwright Wallace Shawn. In Woman Is the Future of Man, two long-time friends — a filmmaker (Kim Taewoo) and an art teacher (Yoo Jitae) – decide to reconnect with a woman (Sung Hyunah) with whom they both had an affair, although only one of them knows it. Lacking appreciable amounts of self-awareness, they quickly demonstrate how little they’ve evolved since college. By contrast, the woman has long overcome any sadness she experienced by being jilted and has successfully gotten on with her life. Tale of Cinema almost imperceptively unfolds as a film within a film, telling two interrelated stories of passion and failure. In the first, a depressive young man (Lee Kiwoo) forms a suicide pact with an old girlfriend (Uhm Jiwon), with whom he’s recently reconnected. In the parallel story, after a failed filmmaker (Kim Sangkyung) sees a movie that he believes is based on his life, he commits to meeting its female lead (also, Uhm Ji-won) and turning their onscreen relationship into reality. Neither the suicide pact, nor the filmmaker’s awkward attempts to make a love connection are particularly successful. Ironically, though, the actress opens herself to an evening of drunken sex with the dork.

If you haven’t guess already, much of what approximates fireworks in Hong’s films is triggered by cheap rice wine and the inflated expectations of delusional men with a blood-borne desire to make films movies. (In “Woman,” both men hit on the same waitress, separately, by requesting she audition for a part in a movie and pose in the nude for a painting. Although flattered, she has no problem rejecting their overtures.) Copious amounts of Soju wine, the allure of the cinema and an ill-advised sexual liaison also inform On the Beach at Night Alone, for which the 36-year-old former model, Kim Min-hee (The Handmaiden), was awarded the Berlin International Film Festival’s top acting award, Silver Bear. In it, she plays an actress, Younghee, who engages in an affair with her older, married director, while on location. After returning home from Europe, she learns to her chagrin that the affair is an open secret among her friends, fans and members of Korea’s artistic community. Even if such liaisons are taken for granted in Hollywood and Europe, the stain of adultery still carries weight back home. While meeting with friends in a lovely beachfront community, Younghee is confronted directly with the allegation and, after much Soju is consumed, the sparks really begin to fly. The title, which, as is his wont, Hong borrowed from a Walt Whitman poem, alludes to the hours of solitude and contemplation Younghee spends on Gyeongpo Beach, a popular place for locals and tourists to watch the sun rise. (Not so ironically, perhaps, the fictional affair mirrors Hong and Kim’s real-life May-September affair, as it was labeled in the press, which left the 58-year-old filmmaker’s 30-year marriage shattered.)

The Arrow Academy package adds newly filmed introductions to both films by Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns; interviews with Kim Sangkyung, Lee Kiwoo and Uhm Jiwon, the stars of Tale of Cinema; an introduction to Woman Is the Future of Man, by director Martin Scorsese; a featurette on the film’s production, with the actors; a stills gallery; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Scott Saslow; and illustrated booklet, with new writing on the films by Michael Sicinski. On the Beach at Night Alone, from Cinema Guild, adds a Q&A from the New York Film Festival; an essay by Mark Peranson; and reversable art, featuring a limited-run poster.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day: Endoarm: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
Just for the record, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is the episode in the franchise in which Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the good Terminator, sent back in time to protect John Connor (Edward Furlong), the boy destined to lead the freedom fighters of the future. John’s scrappy mother, Sarah (Linda Hamilton), has been institutionalized for warning of a nuclear holocaust she knows is inevitable, but no one else believes is coming. Together, the threesome must devise a way to stop T-1000 (Robert Patrick), the most technically evolved and lethal Terminator yet created, whose mission is the opposite of that of his still formidable predecessor. James Cameron also returns as director, with co-writer William Wisher. To merely describe “T2” as an “explosive action-adventure spectacular,” as does some of the marketing material, is to miss the point of making Arnold the good guy and young John, an aspiring juvenile delinquent, who rebels against being forced to live with foster parents. Cameron must not have been thrilled with the idea, either, because the T-1000 eliminated Jenette Goldstein and Xander Berkeley from the story before we got to care very much about them, one way or another. “T2” also became a proving ground for the latest in computer-generated imagery, including the first use of natural human motion for a computer-generated character and the first partially computer-generated main character. The experimentation pushed the budget to within spitting distance of a record $100 million, which, in hindsight, was a bargain. Besides collecting four Academy Awards — Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Makeup and Best Visual Effects — it became the highest-grossing film of 1991, topping out at $205.8 million at the domestic box-office and $315 million in foreign sales, an astounding figure, considering the infrastructure for overseas exhibition was still 10-15 years from being fully developed. The patents on the software probably were worth a pretty penny, as well. Paramount, which took over the series in 2015, with Terminator: Genisys, is expected to release an as-yet-untitled sequel in 2019, with Tim Miller (Deadpool) at the helm.

Now to the matter at hand: Lionsgate’s limited-edition, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day: Endoarm Collector’s Edition,” in Blu-ray, 4K UHD. Fans and collectibles junkies expected the package to be released last December, but, apparently, only the Blu-ray/4K UHD edition was ready for Christmas gifting. While responding to complaints about previous Blu-ray/DVD editions, the Blu-ray/4K upgrade received decidedly mixed reviews from critics, buffs and techies. This had to come as a surprise to fans who expected Cameron’s seal-of-approval on anything with his name attached to it. My untrained eyes and ears savored the 4K UHD presentation, with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, on my less-than-state-of-the-art home-theater unit. Since I can’t remember seeing “T2” in any of its iterations, I was free to make comparisons based on unscientific data. Neither have early investors in the $175 “Endoarm Collector’s Edition” sounded terribly impressed with the specially packaged gizmo – limited to 6,000 units — based on complaints lodged on Amazon. Not having been sent a test arm, and not being a collector, I wouldn’t know. As always: caveat emptor. The bonus features included on the Blu-ray disc include a new 55-minute documentary, featuring Cameron, Schwarzenegger and Furlong; deleted scenes with audio commentary; three versions of the film; two commentary tracks; and several featurettes ported over from previous editions. First-timers should know that “T2” has lost none of its considerable ability to entertain sci-fi and action enthusiasts.

A.R.C.H.I.E. 2: Mission ImPAWsible
I don’t suppose that having Michael J. Fox’s name highlighted above the title will hurt sales and rentals of A.R.C.H.I.E. 2: Mission ImPAWsible, Robin Dunne’s Dove-approved follow-up to A.R.C.H.I.E. (2016), especially in Canada. If he needed a second job, the diminutive native of Edmonton, Alberta, probably could sell snowballs to Inuits. The eponymous protagonist gets second billing, even if Fox’s role is limited to providing the voice for the robotic beagle. I didn’t recognize the names of any of the other actors here, although the bulbous Sheldon Bergstrom kind of resembles those other Canadian exports, John Candy, and Ryan Reynolds, in Just Friends. The sequel in a small plane with Paul (Dunne), who is taking flying lessons from A.R.C.H.I.E. We learn that Sydney (Bergstom) has always had a desire to perform in a circus or carnival, but he is largely unqualified to do anything that people would pay money to see. He does, however, talk A.R.C.H.I.E. into serving as his talking sidekick in a ventriloquist act. While the carnival is in terrible financial straits, it does enjoy a rise in attendance thanks to A.R.C.H.I.E. and his buddy. The timing could hardly be any worse, in that the dog with the animated mouth has been contemplating deleting his hard drive, so that he can be a normal dog. And carnival owner, Max (David Milchard), has been thinking about spending more time with his son Gregory (Will Allen Mitchell) and less time with the show. Drama ensues when someone steals the carnival’s money and demands that Paul help him escape in a getaway plane.  He’s also taken Gregory hostage as insurance. Little does the thief know that Paul can’t land the plane without A.R.C.H.I.E.’s assistance and A.R.C.H.I.E.’s computer needs a reboot to function correctly. Not surprisingly, room is left for a second sequel. Maybe the evil, tariff-levying president of the United States can play a villain and Justin Trudeau can enlist A.R.C.H.I.E. in the service of their country to save it from ruin.

Across the River
At 75 minutes, Warren B. Malone’s debut rom-com Across the River is too long to be a short, but too short to find much traction as a theatrical film. It reminds me the material featured on the ShortsTV channel, where pint-sized relationship comedies and dramas are packaged in shows with such headings as “Love Bite,” “Sex in Shorts” and “Shorts in Love.” They allow sufficient time to get to know the characters and understand what makes them tick – as well as a brief roll in the hay, or two – before we figure out how mundane some of them are and it’s time for them to leave us. Anyone who’s attended a festival dedicated to the form knows how difficult crafting a prize-winning short can be, as well as how entertaining they are. Across the River describes what happens when a pair of long-estranged lovers accidentally cross paths along the Thames, in central London. They haven’t seen each other since their romance ended badly, years earlier, so the pain has worn off and they’re surprised and happy for the opportunity to reconnect. It doesn’t take long for Elizabeth Healey’s Emma and Keir Charles’ Ryan to remember what led to their breakup, however, and the temptation to place blame is impossible to resist. This, of course, is followed by a stroll along the river and its parkway, during which they recall the reasons they got together, in the first place. Knowing they both must get to their respective homes, on opposite sides of the river, Emma and Ryan are required to pack a lot emotional baggage in a short period of time. We’re left wondering if they’ve matured sufficiently to give it another go or they’d have to give up too much to even try. That’s it, really. The walk along the Thames is pleasant enough to justify our short investment in time, but nothing about them is exceptional, beyond that.

Male Shorts: International V1
Breaking Glass Pictures presents an international collection of five short films, all of them focusing on gay men, and some of them are explicit. Their only exposure, so far, has been at festivals highlighting LGBTQ titles. “Male Shorts: International V1” is comprised of Just Past Noon on a Tuesday, in which two strangers visit the penthouse of a recently deceased lover, only to find themselves learning more about each other; La Tepette (“The Mousetrap”) features Baptiste, a gay man who can’t stop dreaming about a female contortionist, who works at a local pub and steals cheese from traps; The Storm (“La Tempete”), about a young man, Leo, who fantasizes about a handsome TV weather forecaster, Luca; Neptune, in which a chance encounter with another swimmer at a local pool develops into an obsession; and PD, set in a cruising area that takes on majestic proportions as classic Grecian statues recall sonnets 18, 57 and 20, by William Shakespeare.

PBS: The Tunnel: Vengeance, Season 3: UK Edition
NBC: The Good Place: The Complete Second Season
PBS: Frontline: Blackout in Puerto Rico
PBS: Frontline: Trafficked in America
There’s always a certain amount of trauma attached to the loss of a favorite television show. Audiences invest a lot of time and emotional currency into storylines and characters that, before they were introduced formally, were as foreign to them as delegates to the United Nation. And, yet, mourning the cancellation of a sitcom, mini-series or legal drama is something we’ve all been required to accept, however grudgingly. It explains why reruns of classic shows – and some, not so classic – continue to dominate the cable-television universe and seasonal compilations sell like hotcakes on DVD/Blu-ray. I wonder how a psychiatrist would explain the continued popularity of “I Love Lucy,” “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Andy Griffith Show,” decades after the lights went out on their sets. Are they really that much better than shows made after, say, 1999? Maybe, maybe not. Among the mini-series that I’ve recorded and enjoyed most in the last 10 years, or so, are the 2011 Danish/Swedish crime series “The Bridge” (a.k.a., “Broen” and “Bron”); the British/French offshoot, “The Tunnel” (a.k.a., “Tunnel”); and the U.S./Mexico hybrid, “The Bridge,” which was canceled after a two-year stint on FX. I’ve yet to see the Russian/Estonian spinoff, “The Bridge” (a.k.a., “Мост”/“Sild”), which began airing in the Russian Federation in May. Three of those four series began the same way, with a corpse being discovered smack dab in the middle of a span connecting two different countries. (In “The Tunnel,” the body is discovered on the line dividing France and England, inside the Channel Tunnel. The placement requires the participation and active cooperation of two separate police jurisdictions, with mixed-gender lead investigators. Beyond the expected problems with language differences, the writers further complicate the proceeding by assigning the detectives character traits associated with their cultural backgrounds, as well as medical ticks, relationship issues and political interference.

Sadly, “The Tunnel: Vengeance, Season 3” compilation marks the end of the Anglo/French collaboration. The fourth and final season of the Scandinavian original should soon find its way to streaming services very soon, as well. Season Three of “The Tunnel,” reunites Stephen Dillane in his International Emmy Award-winning role as Karl Roebuck, with Clémence Poésy as Elise Wassermann, one of the most intriguing characters on television. As with her Swedish counterpart, Elise is noted for demonstrating traits consistent with Asperger syndrome, such as difficulty in understanding or recognizing social concepts such as empathy, sarcasm and lying. She possesses an above-average intellect, a good eye for detail and a reputation for thoroughness. Roebuck is getting over serious marital problems. The season is informed by post-Brexit hysteria and the exploitation of immigrants trapped in Calais. The killer or killers may be immigrants from the Bosnian War, with a fixation on “The Pied Piper of Hamlin.” I, for one, am really going to miss the show.

By limiting its first  two seasons to 13 episodes, each, “The Good Place” appears to have taken a page from the playbook of premium cable networks, where quality almost always trumps quantity. Sitcoms on HBO and Showtime carry production costs – talent contracts, too – that aren’t necessarily covered by subscriptions. NBC may be hedging its bets on “The Good Place” by doing the same thing. Unlike most network sitcoms, it carries an unusually large number of recurring cast members – a veritable United Nations of young acting talent — in addition to lead actors Kristen Bell and Ted Danson. Shot on location at Pasadena’s heavenly Huntington Gardens, the first season was said to be influenced by “Lost,” Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” and “The Prisoner.” It’s one of the very shows on television whose characters are of nondenominational and interdenominational backgrounds, and routinely are challenged by philosophical and ethical issues that cross religious borders. In it, the recently deceased Eleanor Shellstrop (Bell) finds herself in a colorfully quirky afterworld designed by Michael (Danson). The “Good Place,” we’re told, is where people who led a righteous life on Earth go for their final reward. This confuses Eleanor, who fully expected to wake up in the “Bad Place.” When she realizes that she was sent there by mistake, she decides to hide her morally imperfect behavior and try to become a better person. Because Michael answers to a higher power, he’s constantly experimenting with ways to keep traffic moving and mistaken placements held to a minimum. As the end of Season One, it is revealed that Michael is an emissary from the Bad Place and that he constructed a fake Good Place to torture Eleanor and other cherubs whose bodies and souls got switched in their journeys. He’s forced to repeatedly restart his experiment, due to Eleanor always figuring out that the Good Place is the Bad Place, and eternity may have its limitations in either location. That’s weighty stuff for prime-time television. “The Good Place” was created by Michael Schur, best known for his work on the NBC comedy series “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.” He also co-created the comedy series “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” which, after being canceled by Fox, was picked up by NBC for a midseason run. He may be the only person at NBC who knows what’s going on in “The Good Place.”

What’s the deal with Republican presidents and disastrous hurricanes? The most recent Bush administration managed to make a very bad situation worse in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, due to its lack of concern over the citizenry of a predominantly Democratic and heavily African-American metropolitan area. The Trump team has had even less reason to help rebuild Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria tore apart its prehistoric electrical grid and housing that wasn’t built to withstand a major storm. The “Frontline” presentation, “Blackout in Puerto Rico,” investigates the continuing humanitarian and economic crisis in Puerto Rico, in relation to how the federal response, Wall Street and years of neglect have left the island struggling to survive.

In “Trafficked in America,” PBS’ “Frontline” and the Investigative Reporting Program at U.C. Berkeley tell the inside story of Guatemalan teens, who, in 2014, were brought into the country illegally and forced to work against their will on an Ohio egg farm. It’s one of many businesses dependent of immigrant labor, as no sane American would choose to be employed by them, especially at minimum wage. An investigation into labor-trafficking reveals a criminal network that exploited undocumented minors, companies profiting from forced labor and the U.S. government’s role in protecting those who benefit from slave labor conditions … including, I suppose, everyone who enjoys eggs with breakfast.

The DVD Wrapup: Quiet Place, Dietrich/Steinberg, A Ciambra, Maborosi, Chappaquiddick, Josephine Baker, Lean on Pete, Jazz Ambassadors, Blue Desert … More

Thursday, July 12th, 2018

A Quiet Place: Blu-ray, 4K UHD/HDR
Even though I tend not to watch movies in a theater, before reviewing the DVD/Blu-ray version – especially the blockbusters – I try to keep track of what’s opening and whether the films are likely to be diminished in the home-viewing experience. When Paramount’s extremely clever horror/thriller A Quiet Place arrived at my home, in its Blu-ray, 4K UHD/HDR version, my initial reaction was that it spent a week or two, tops, in theaters, before embarking on its small-screen afterlife. For a moment, perhaps, my eyes mistook A Quiet Place for the title of the 1985 dystopian thriller, from New Zealand, The Quiet Earth. Geoff Murphy’s film only opened on one screen here, capturing $16,375 over its one-week run, a number that’s better than it looks. According to the numbers-crunchers at Box Office Mojo, it would somehow go on to make $2.12 million in its final domestic tally. It would be deemed a legitimate cult classic, as well as one of the 10 best last-man-on-Earth titles, as measured in a 2013 IndieWire poll, and by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, in a 2014 article in the Los Angeles Times. Attaining cult status was never a problem for the producers of A Quiet Place, as it shot out of the gate on its opening weekend and never looked back. It ended up with a domestic haul of $187.3 million and another $143.2 million in foreign sales, against an estimated production budget of $17 million. That’s impressive.

The twist here involves the curious aftermath of a cataclysmic event — probably a direct hit by a meteor populated with alien spawn – that, in 2020, wipes out most of humanity. Its payload of sightless creatures, possessing hypersensitive hearing and seemingly impenetrable exoskeletons, has attacked and devoured anything that makes noise. How the Abbott family has managed to survive is anyone’s guess. The advantage they hold over other Earthlings appears to be that they’re conversant in American Sign Language – a pre-teen daughter is deaf, as is the actress playing her (Millicent Simmonds) – and have found refuge on a farm, far from any urban center. Apparently, all the birds and insects have been eradicated, making it easier for the creatures to discern the presence of humans. We learn this when 4-year-old Beau is swept away by one of the spider-like aliens, only seconds after he begins to play with a battery-powered toy on the way home from a family food run. Lee Abbott (John Krasinski) had taken the toy and its batteries away from the boy, after he discovered it in a deserted supermarket, but his older sister, Regan, gave it back to him. Unbeknownst to her, Beau had already taken the batteries from his dad and inserted them in the model jet fighter. In the flash of an eye, little Beau is toast. Conveniently, Lee Abbott is an engineer/survivalist, who hasn’t given up on locating other human life via his short-wave radio setup. His wife, Evelyn (Emily Blunt), is a doctor and pregnant with their fourth child. Regan and Beau’s brother, Marcus (Noah Jupe), are required to grow up fast in the year that passes since their sibling’s abduction. At a spare 90 minutes, The Quiet Place leaves no room for padding. And, while the soundtrack carries virtually no dialogue or non-ambient noise, an intense level of suspense is maintained throughout the movie.

Krasinski, who triples as director and co-screenwriter, enjoyed a leg-up by working alongside his real-life wife, Blunt. He also benefitted from a crack production team that found myriad ways to amplify the sounds of silence, forcing viewers to buy into the drama through its strategic use of noise, ranging from a baby’s whimper to fireworks. It works, too. The other difference between The Quiet Place and other sci-fi/horror thrillers is the limited deployment of the well-conceived creatures. We know they’re out there, lurking in the cornfields, but have no idea of how many there are, how they communicate and what their goal might be, if any. I don’t know how long it took Paramount, co-producers Krasinski, Michael Bay (Transformers) and Brad Fuller (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), and co-writers Bryan Woods and Scott Beck (Nightlight), to commit to a sequel, but the script leaves plenty of room for one, with or without the same cast members. The bonus features bundled onto the Blu-ray disc in the combo package include “Reading the Quiet: Behind the Scenes of A Quiet Place”; “The Sound of Darkness: Editing Sound for A Quiet Place”; and “A Reason for Silence: The Visual Effects of A Quiet Place.” While none is very long, each contributes to our enjoyment of the movie. The Blu-ray and 4K UHD/HDR editions are both very good technically, but trained eyes probably will be able to see the positive difference in the higher-res picture.

Lean on Pete: Blu-ray
One way to tell that Lean on Pete is a horse movie of different color is the positioning of credits on the jacket of the DVD/Blu-ray package, in comparison to how the same information is emphasized on the theatrical poster. The lovely image of the equine title character, being led by the protagonist, Charley (Charlie Plummer), under a star-filled western sky, is de-emphasized by half on the DVD cover. Above it are the names of three of the movie’s human stars –Plummer, Chloë Sevigny and Steve Buscemi — and a composite photo of them in front of a shed of some sort. Also accorded more prominence are the awards won at three major festivals, bracketed between laurel-leaf parentheses; a graphic device announcing that Lean on Pete is a New York Times “Critics Pick”; and the words “A Film by Andrew Haigh” and “Based on the Acclaimed Book,” written by Willy Vlautin (“The Motel Life”). Haigh previously wrote and directed the compelling arthouse drama 45 Years, which is a picture that his target audience should recognize. In a recent interview, Haigh was only exaggerating a tiny bit when he referred to Buscemi and Sevigny as “the king and queen of American independent cinema.” Seeing them together of the cover of Lean on Pete, wearing clothes that don’t fit their previous screen personae, should pique the curiosity of the indie crowd. The reference to Manohla Dargis’ rave review in the certificate should carry the same weight as the Dove Foundation Seal of Approval does for family and faith-based products and the Certified Fresh logo from Rotten Tomatoes does for popcorn fare. The marketing racket used to be so simple.

Charlie Plummer, no relation to Christopher or Amanda, is terrific as a Portland teenager, condemned to live with his ne’er-do-well father until he’s able to sprout the wings he’ll need to fly somewhere more conducive to his budding intellect. Always in need of money for food and other essentials, Charley is intrigued by a horse he spots at one of the barns he passes on his daily runs. During a chance meeting with the horse’s cantankerous owner, Del (Buscemi), the boy is offered a job shoveling manure. As distasteful as it is, Charley enjoys the opportunity to be around Lean on Pete, a quarter-horse nearly at the end of its racing career, After his father is seriously injured in a brawl, and hospitalized, Charley decides to take up residence in an unused stall at the local racetrack, where he finds acceptance and camaraderie. He’s also able to get Lean on Pete in shape for a last hurrah, ridden by a semi-retired jockey, Bonnie (Sevigny), who’s aware of all Del’s tricks. When he learns of the trainer’s plan to pocket the earnings from Lean on Pete’s unexpected victory and money from an unscrupulous Mexican rancher, Charley loads the horse into a trailer and heads for points unknown in Del’s pickup truck. His only known relative is an aunt living somewhere in Wyoming, although that’s as close to an address as he has. It’s at this point that Lean on Pete turns into something of a hybrid of classic buddy and road films, except with several perilous encounters with Red State citizenry along the way. They sleep under the stars and Charley panhandles to buy food for himself, oats for the horse and gas for the truck, which inevitably breaks down. After it does, they head to Wyoming in the same way as cowboys did a hundred years earlier. Lean on Pete pretty much follows the episodic flow of the novel, creating surprises around every turn and an ending that doesn’t feel contrived. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “Searching for Home: Making Lean on Pete.”

Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood, 1930-1935: Blu-ray
I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find Criterion Collection’s truly wonderful “Dietrich and von Sternberg in Hollywood” on top of most critics’ year-end summations of the best DVD/Blu-rays and gift sets. Although Dietrich is no stranger to TMC, Netflix and Amazon subscribers, it’s difficult to imagine a better way to binge on her work than to start at the beginning, paying special attention to von Sternberg’s impeccable use of shadow and light in their creation. Qualities that may have been overlooked by casual viewers stand out like signpost in these fully upgraded editions of Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress and, Dietrich’s favorite, The Devil Is a Woman. Moreover, expert analysis in newly made featurettes tells viewers what to look for in terms of the director’s technical prowess – behind and alongside the camera – and what makes the movies noteworthy in this regard. The Criterion Collection upgrades adds so much more enjoyment to the experience, it’s as if we’re seeing and hearing the films for the first time. I was especially impressed by the clarity of the dialogue, which is sharper, smarter and more inciteful than I remember it being.

It’s worth recalling, as well, that the Austrian-born von Sternberg was already a fixture in Hollywood when he was chosen by Emil Jannings (The Last Command) and producer Erich Pommer (Metropolis) to make Germany’s first major sound picture, The Blue Angel, and to shoot it in Berlin in English, as well as German. (It explains why the classic film isn’t included here, even though it was released here after Morocco.) It’s also fun to watch these pre-code movies intact. Look closely and you can even see a few unadorned breasts. The suggestive dialogue, slightly revealing costumes and innuendoes speak for themselves … as does Dietrich’s incomparable screen presence.

The special features, which are almost worth the price of admission, alone, begin with new 2K or 4K restorations of all six films, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-rays. Then, there are fresh interviews with film scholars Janet Bergstrom and Homay King; director Josef von Sternberg’s son, Nicholas; Deutsche Kinemathek curator Silke Ronneburg; and costume designer and historian Deborah Nadoolman Landis. Also engrossing are a documentary about Dietrich’s German origins, featuring film scholars Gerd Gemünden and Noah Isenberg; a new documentary on Dietrich’s status as a feminist icon, featuring film scholars Mary Des Jardins, Amy Lawrence and Patricia White; “The Legionnaire and the Lady,” a 1936 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of Morocco, featuring Dietrich and Clark Gable; a video essay by critics Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López; “The Fashion Side of Hollywood,” a wonderful 1935 publicity short featuring Dietrich and costume designer Travis Banton; a television interview with Dietrich, on Danish television, from 1971; and a book featuring essays by critics Imogen Sara Smith, Gary Giddins and Farran Smith Nehme. While the word, “iconic,” is thrown around willy-nilly by publicists and reporters, Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Mae West defined the term at a time when everything was changing in Hollywood and Depression-era audiences needed something glamorous to call their own.

A Ciambra: Blu-ray
Rocco and His Brothers
Although the links connecting Jonas Carpignano’s A Ciambra (2017) and Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (1960) appear, at first glance, to be tenuous, consider: both were made in Italy, one in the south and the other about southerners in the north; they both reflect the challenges facing displaced persons in unfamiliar environments; they share neo-realist roots; the performances by the ensemble casts are nothing short of electrifying; and both DVD/Blu-ray editions carry the imprimatur of Martin Scorsese. (He also exec-produced A Ciambra in its theatrical run.) It’s likely that Scorsese was impressed by Carpignano’s debut feature, Mediterranea (2015), one of the earliest in what has become a wave of films about 21st-century migrants risking everything to seek a better life in Europe. It follows the perilous journey of two friends from Burkina Faso, who cross the Mediterranean to settle in Italy. To say that they’re greeted warmly by the locals would be an exaggeration. In fact, Mediterranea and Carpignano’s short film “A Chjàna” were inspired, in large part, by the ethnic cleansing carried out by residents of Rosarno on itinerant crop-pickers, primarily from Ghana. A Ciambra is also set in Calabria, this time in a community where Italians, Romani and African migrants coexist in uneasy tension. Italian authorities probably thought they were doing Gypsy families a favor by creating apartment blocs for them to live, in lieu of being allowed to migrate freely across borders in caravans, as is their tradition. Instead of waiting for the buildings to be finished, however, some Romani squatters moved into the half-completed units and began adding their own makeshift touches to them.

By electing not to top off the project, authorities effectively created a ghetto supported by criminal activities, including auto theft and stripping construction sites of recyclable metals. They’re joined in these illegal endeavors by similarly inventive African migrants. (The bigger fish in the port city of Gioia Tauro are reeled in by the ‘Ndrangheta, a.k.a., the Calabrian mafia.) Carpignano didn’t have to look too far for material — amateur actors, either – to inform his slice-of-life drama, which, likewise, was adapted from an earlier short, “Young Lions of Gypsy” (2014). In the lead roles, the mixed-race filmmaker simply re-cast 14-year-old Pio Amato and Koudous Seihon, a Burkinan migrant he discovered during a protest in Rosarna and inserted into “A Chjàna.” Here, Pio is required to take over the family business after his father and older brother are arrested for stealing and repurposing copper wiring. Pio thinks he’s ready to handle the responsibility – he as a solid connection in the African community, Ayiva (Seihon), who serves as a surrogate brother — but, eventually, finds that he’s jumped into the deep end and forgotten that he can’t swim. A Ciambra probably can be accused of perpetuating stereotypes of Gypsy criminality – African immigrants, as well – but, having lived in the region for several years, Carpignano probably has already faced and responded to such complaints. (He was raised between New York and Rome.) The film’s hard edges are softened a bit by recollections of tradition Roma life by a grandparent and Pio’s waking dream of a horse walking around the city streets, freely and unencumbered. The worthwhile bonus features include “A Ciambra: The Other Side of the Story” and deleted scenes.

Rocco and His Brothers, of course, needs no introduction to arthouse buffs and lovers of Italian cinema, in general. Set among Milan’s struggling working-class community on the brink of Italy’s post-war “economic miracle,” it opens with the arrival of a family from the country’s largely rural south at Milan’s cavernous railroad terminus. Recently widowed Rosaria Parondi leads her loyal brood of four handsome sons — ranging from pre-teen to twentysomething — in a procession headed for the apartment of her eldest son, Vincenzo (Spiros Focás). He migrated to the industrial north several years earlier and she fully expects him to make room for the family, no matter how cramped they would be. Instead, they arrive at his mailing address, just in time to join the party marking Vincenzo’s betrothal to the Milanese beauty, Ginetta (Claudia Cardinale), a celebration to which they weren’t invited. After some squabbling between future mothers-in-law, Rosaria is rudely informed that there’s no room at the inn and the Parondis will have to find lodging elsewhere. Good luck. For a while, at least, they crowd into the unheated basement of a tenement largely populated with southerners, who, we learn, are notorious for neglecting to pay the rent and falling back on Milan’s welfare system. Like other migrants of the period, the sons all eventually find jobs that, with luck, could lead to better jobs up the economic ladder.

The earthy Simone (Renato Salvatori) turns to boxing, while the thoughtful dreamboat Rocco (Alain Delon) finds work in a dry-cleaners dominated by young women, upwardly mobile Ciro (Max Cartier) studies, and little Luca does odd jobs around the neighborhood. One evening, out of the blue, a spunky prostitute, Nadia (Annie Girardot), hides from her father in their makeshift apartment. Visconti allows Nadia to seduce viewers, much in the same way as she puts a hook into the mouth of Simone and reels him into her boat. Time passes and, with Simone no longer able to afford Nadia’s company, he focuses on his promising boxing career. Rocco is drafted into the navy; Ciro gets a job at the Alfa-Romeo plant; Vincenzo and Ginette become parents; and little Luca delivers groceries on his bicycle. Nadia runs into Rocco in a coastal town after spending a year in prison for solicitation and services. He convinces her to walk the straight and narrow path with him as his guide. When word of their romance finally reaches the constantly broke and drunk Simone, he turns their sibling rivalry into a war, and things get ugly fast … or as fast as things can get in a three-hour movie. Shot in the streets, workspaces and underground boxing clubs of Milan, Rocco and His Brothers qualifies as neo-realism, however late in the genre’s lifespan. The decidedly non-neo The Leopard, The Stranger, The Damned and Death in Venice would follow in its wake. The splendid Milestone set opens with Scorsese’s introduction to the amazing restoration, as well as praise for Visconte, Giuseppe Rotunno’s “lustrous” and “pearly” B&W cinematography and Nino Rota’s operatic score. A second disc adds six minutes of outtakes; “Before and After,” a side-by-side demonstration of the results of the restoration efforts; and lengthy interviews with Caterina d’Amico, daughter of co-writer Suso Cecchi d’Amico, and interviews with cast and crew members Claudia Cardinale, Mario Garbuglia, Annie Girardot, Guiseppe Rotunno, Piero Tosi and Suso Cecchi d’Amico.

Milestone has done a similarly spectacular job with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s dreamlike debut feature, Maborosi (1995). It follows in the wake of Arrow Academy’s impressive “Family Values: Three Films by Hirokazu Kore-eda,” containing I Wish (2011), Like Father, Like Son (2011) and After the Storm (2016). His courtroom drama, The Third Murder, opens here later in July and 2018 Palme d’Or-winning Shoplifters is set for a Thanksgiving release. Few, if any filmmakers in the world are working at a higher level than the 56-year-old Tokyo native. In his four-star review, Roger Ebert described Maborosi as a “Japanese film of astonishing beauty and sadness, the story of a woman whose happiness is destroyed in an instant by an event that seems to have no reason. Time passes, she picks up some of the pieces, and she is even distracted sometimes by happiness. But at her center is a void, a great unanswered question.” It hasn’t gotten any less impressive in the 23 years since Ebert wrote those words and the “great unanswered question” still hangs in the air, just as explanations for so many other suicides remain elusive to survivors. Based on a novel by Teru Miyamoto, Maborosi follows a young woman’s struggle with grief and loneliness after her heretofore cheerful factory-worker husband, Ikuo (Asano Tanobu), apparently commits suicide – having walked into an on-rushing train, his corpse is too badly mangled to identify with complete accuracy — without warning or reason, leaving behind his wife and 3-month-old infant.

Four or five years later, Yumiko (Makiko Esumi) consults with a marriage broker, who introduces her to an Osaka widower, Tamio (Naitoh Takashi), with a small daughter of his own. They’ll take up residency in Tamio’s home town, a coastal fishing village on the Sea of Japan. The kids get along famously, and Kore-eda allows Yomiko a few moments of genuine happiness with her husband and child. Even so, the largely affectless woman remains consumed by grief and unanswerable questions. The title comes from the answer her second husband gives to her question, “Why did he do it?” Rather than having planned to kill himself, Tamio suggests, Ikuo was entranced by the oncoming light of the train’s engine. “Maborosi” is defined as a light or visual siren that entices mariners to get too close to rocks or to follow it into the endless distance. She’s also saddened by the memory of a dream in which her beloved grandmother is fleeing — going to her home village to die — and the disappearance of her crab vendor. A poetically framed funeral procession, shot from a distance, is, at once, soothing and mysterious. Special features include commentary by film scholar Linda Ehrlich and Yuki Togawa Gergotz; the introspective short documentary, “Birthplace,” during which Esumi revisits the coastal village; and new English subtitles by Linda Hoaglund, with the assistance of Judith Aley and Ehrlich.

Hotel Salvation
In the 1960s, Jessica Mitford’s landmark work of investigative journalism, “The American Way of Death,” and Tony Richardson’s adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s satire, “The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy,” delivered what appeared to be a staggering one-two punch on the funeral industry. Although the publication of Mitford’s best-selling book inspired consumer advocates and raised the hackles of funeral-industry executives, it wasn’t until the Federal Trade Commission began its own investigation of the industry, in the late 1970s, that a set of regulations would be imposed on morticians, including providing clients with a detailed price list of all goods and services, informing them that embalming is not required by law, and allowing families to plan alternative funerals that did not follow traditional patterns. While cremations became more widely accepted by American consumers and clergy, the Funeral Trade Rule of 1984 did little to stem the rising costs of funerals and hard-sell tactics directed at grieving family members who still demand “dignified” sendoffs for relatives. And, while The Loved One (1965) effectively skewered the excesses of Forest Lawn and other “theme” cemeteries, it might have had the unintended effect of alerting bereaved consumers to the existence of pet mortuaries – also featured in Mondo Cane (1962) — and the eventual scattering of ashes in space. In 1973, the Neptune Society began offering full-service cremations and the dispersal of ashes at sea, including the Neptune Memorial Reef, located 3.25 miles off the coast of Key Biscayne, Florida. Sometimes, though, unscrupulous morticians burned the bodies, skipping the disposal of the ashes entirely.

Several Indian movies and documentaries have been set in part or in whole in the holy city of Varanasi (a.k.a., Benares), including Masaan, the 2015 FIPRESCI Prize-winner at Cannes, and Satyajit Ray’s FIPRESCI-winner at the 1957 Venice Film Festival, Aparajito (1956). Hindus believe that death in the city will bring salvation, making it a major center for pilgrimages by people close to death. Varanasi is known for its many ghats — embankments made of stone steps, where pilgrims perform ritual ablutions – two of them being reserved for cremations and the scattering of ashes in the Ganges. Shubhashish Bhutiani’s excellent debut feature, Hotel Salvation, observes the ritual from the point of view of an accountant, Rajiv (Adil Hussain), whose seemingly healthy father believes that a recent series of ominous dreams foreshadow his imminent death and he needs his son to accompany him to Varanasi. Rajiv attempts to convince 77-year-old Daya (Lalit Behl) to hold on until things settle down at work and actually feels sick. At once stubborn and free-spirited, the man refuses to listen to reason, however. Although I’ve seen several movies in which the cremation ritual is depicted, I wasn’t aware of the hotels – not dissimilar to hospices – established just above the ghats, where patrons can prepare for death and salvation.

The Mukti Bhawan, an approximation of the title, Hotel Salvation, is a cheap and rundown establishment that offers nothing in the way of comfort and convenience, and management expects its guests to die quickly or leave on their feet after 15 days. Daya, a retired school teacher, is fine with the bare-boned accommodations, while Rajiv is appalled by the cramped quarters, cockroaches and mice. It doesn’t take long for him to get tired of fulfilling his father’s many petty demands, which he’s perfectly capable of handling. While we commiserate with Rajiv, it’s impossible not to marvel at how well Daya fits in with the other guests, whether they’re chanting to beat the band, enjoying their favorite TV shows or sharing meals in their rooms. He even appears to fall in love with a lovely woman, Vimia (Navnindra Behl), who expected to die there years earlier, alongside her husband, but is too nice to evict. Vimia makes sure that Daya and Rajiv are well fed and follow the rules – no meat, no alcohol, no cigarettes, but marijuana and hashish are OK – and kept in relatively good spirits. Sensing her husband’s frustration, Rajiv’s wife and daughter pay a visit, as well. Daya’s relationship with his open-minded granddaughter is in direct contrast to his prickly relations with the strait-laced Rajiv. By now, Hotel Salvation has evolved into a story where faith and family become intertwined, and death is merely the next step in longer journey. In addition to the fine acting, Bhutiani benefits from a subtly evocative acoustic score by Tajdar Junaid and cinematography that captures both the claustrophobic living conditions at Mukti Bhawan and the wide-screen majesty of the Ganges. Bonus features include a making-of featurette and short film “Que La Nuit Soit Douce.”

Chappaquiddick: Blu-ray</strongThe popularity of the parlor game, “What If …,” typically is traced to a mythical “The Twilight Zone” episode in which a woman travels back in time to kill the baby Adolph Hitler. In fact, “Cradle of Darkness,” didn’t air on the revived series until October 2, 2002, with the then-obscure Katherine Heigl playing Andrea Collins, the Hitler family’s housemaid. Or, maybe it appeared on an earlier episode of “Thriller” or “The Outer Limits.” Anyone who’s read H.G. Welles’ “The Time Machine,” or its Classics Illustrated adaptation, has had to consider the question as it is applies to Hitler and the killers of John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther and Malcolm X. It’s impossible to come away from John Curran’s frequently riveting docudrama, Chappaquiddick, without playing the “What If …” game. It revisits the events that occurred immediately before and after the car in which Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) was riding careened off the side of the narrow bridge connecting Chappaquiddick Island to a secluded ocean beach just beyond it. It ended up submerged, upside-down, in tide-swept Poucha Pond. The Oldsmobile belonged to Massachusetts Sen. Edward Moore “Ted” Kennedy (Jason Clarke), who somehow was able to escape the car, while his 28-year-old passenger struggled futilely for air. Although Chappaquiddick relives the bright and personable campaign aide’s final day on Earth, its emphasis is on the despicable cover-up that began even before the car was discovered and traced to Kennedy. Kopechne, who was raised in New Jersey, was among a group of six single women invited to the island for a reunion of the so-called Boiler Room Girls. All had worked tirelessly on the presidential run of Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated a year earlier.

The men at the party all were associated with various Kennedy family interests, as well. They were considerably older than the “girls” and all but one of them was married. It was assumed at the time — if never proven — that Kennedy was inebriated at the time he supposedly volunteered to drive Kopechne to the last ferry back to Edgartown, on Martha’s Vinyard, where she was staying. Instead, he took a wrong turn, which led to the single-lane, unlit Dike Bridge. Working off a densely constructed script by first-timers Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan neither absolves Kennedy nor condemns him, beyond the slap on the wrist given him by a family-favored judge. The senator admitted his fault in a statement delivered to the press, several hours he neglected to inform the police of the incident. There’s an implication that Kopechne might not have drowned, if Kennedy had immediately phoned police and a dive team was dispatched within the next half-hour. None of this information – or speculation, for that matter – is particularly new or open to debate. While we’re shown Kennedy fleeing the scene, it’s never been made clear how he managed to exit the car. He claimed that he didn’t know and may have suffered a concussion, which doesn’t explain why he didn’t call police until late the next morning. Until that time, he appears to have been more interested in circling the wagons and calling in family loyalists to minimize the damage. Their deliberations and decisions made that day are what makes Chappaquiddick such an unsettling experience. Neither is ailing patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy (Bruce Dern) made to look like anything but the slimy ex-bootlegger and WWII isolationist, who used his friends in the Cosa Nostra to help JFK beat Richard Nixon. Although he could barely speak, the old man urged Teddy to craft an “alibi” as soon as possible. He was supposed to say that Kopechne had borrowed his car and made the wrong turn onto Dike Road, instead of taking the fork that led to the ferry. Before the alibi could be set in motion, however, the senator delivered his admission of negligence to the sheriff.

We actually begin to feel sorry for Kennedy when his father berates him for blowing the alibi and effectively derailing any chance he had for a presidential run in 1972, against Nixon. He’s told that he was never cut out to be president and was an embarrassment to the family. Instead of resigning from the Senate, Teddy accepted his guilt and inability to mount a campaign for the presidency in 1972 and 1980. He became a formidable presence in the Senate, for decades to come. He may have made a great president, but we’ll never know. If there is a single shining performance in Chappaquiddick, it’s delivered by Australian native Clarke, who not only is a dead-ringer for the senator, but an actor of considerable talent, who’s also proven himself in such entertainments as Mudbound, Everest, Zero Dark, Thirty, Lawless and the Showtime mini-series, “Brotherhood.” Also good are Ed Helms, as Kennedy’s lawyer, cousin, fixer and conscience, Joe Gargan; Taylor Nichols, as longtime Kennedy aide Ted Sorenson; Clancy Brown, as the oily former Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara; Jim Gaffigan, as Kennedy confidante and outgoing U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, Paul F. Markham; and Olivia Thirlby, as the most outwardly randy Boiler Girl, Rachel Schiff. As a thoroughly pissed off and unsympathetic Joan Bennett Kennedy, Andria Blackman delivers the film’s most unforgettably caustic moment. Frankly, though, as good as it is – Curran’s previous credits include We Don’t Live Here Anymore, The Painted Veil and Tracks – I doubt that Chappaquiddick will resonate with many people younger than 50, for whom Camelot is a musical and the Kennedy clan is old news. The bonus features include the 25-minute making-of featurette, “A Reckoning: Revisiting Chappaquiddick” and “Bridge to the Past: Editing the Film.”

The French Way: Blu-ray
Even if her radiant smile and cursively drawn name dominate the cover of this curious Blu-ray release from Kit Parker Films (via MVD Video Distributors), Josephine Baker’s performance in The French Way supports those of actors whose appeal was limited to French-speaking actors. Even so, it’s the only reason for the corny Romeo/Juliet romcom to exist, more than 70 years after its debut. The film was made in Paris, in 1940, as the Nazis were preparing to march into the city. It wouldn’t be released into French theaters until 1945. Jacques de Baroncelli, who started directing films in 1915, was approaching the end of career when he was tapped to make The French Way, whose non-singing parts went to Georges Marchal, Micheline Presle, Jean Tissier, Raymond Aimos, Gabrielle Dorziat and Saturnin Fabre. Baker already was huge star in Europe, coming off Zouzou, opposite the great Jean Gabin. In The French Way, she plays nightclub chanteuse Zazu Clairon, whose primary role here is to bring her star-crossed neighbors together, despite their parents’ longstanding, totally silly feud. The comedy derives from watching the cranky parents spark, while waiting out the bombing raids in their cellars. Seventy years later, the Blu-ray only really takes off when Baker’s singing in her nightclub.

American audiences wouldn’t get to see most of Baker’s limited film work until the 1950s. A noticeably abridged version of The French Way, which didn’t include any of the risqué dancing for she was known, wouldn’t reach these shores until 1952. Princess Tam-Tam (1935) was denied the Production Code Administration’s Seal of Approval, due to the insinuation of an interracial relationship. As a result, most mainstream theaters in the United States failed to show to film. Some independent cinemas screened it without the seal and it became a mainstay in cinemas catering to predominantly black audiences throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Baker fought such discrimination throughout her entire career, refusing to perform in clubs in the U.S. and other places that restricted ticket sales to white audiences only. She became a worldwide sensation after moving to Europe during the 1920s, primarily through her exuberant dancing of the Charleston, Black Bottom and the Danse Sauvage, wearing a costume consisting of a skirt made of a string of artificial bananas. One of the hottest celebrities during the Jazz Age, Baker would walk down the Champs-Elysees. Pablo Picasso described her as, “Tall, coffee skin, ebony eyes, legs of paradise, a smile to end all smiles.” During World War II, she worked as a spy for the French resistance and later was decorated for her support. In 1949, a Baker returned in triumph to the Folies Bergere.

In 1951, Baker was invited back to the United States for a nightclub engagement in Miami. After winning a public battle over desegregating the club’s audience, Baker followed up her sold-out run at the club with a national tour. It climaxed with a parade in front of 100,000 people in Harlem, in honor of her being anointed the NAACP’s “Woman of the Year.” Nonetheless, New York’s Stork Club refused to serve her because she was black. This not only led to a confrontation with columnist Walter Winchell, who falsely accused of her of being a communist sympathizer, but a public show of support from Grace Kelly, who was in the restaurant. (Twenty years later, after Baker went broke, Princess Grace would offer her a place to live in Monaco.)  In 1963, she spoke at the March on Washington at the side of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., wearing her Free French uniform emblazoned with the Légion d’honneur medal. She was the only official female speaker. Sadly, the Blu-ray arrives without any bonus material. I’d love to see a musical bio-pic on Baker, directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Beyoncé. Previous docudramas didn’t really do the trick. In the meantime, I suggest Googling “Josephine Baker” or heading straight to YouTube to watch performances from the mid-1920s to just before her death in 1975, at 1968, leaving behind a “Rainbow Tribe” of adopted children, from several different nationalities, racial and religious and religious backgrounds.

Blue Desert
By setting this intriguing flight of existential fancy in the two places in South America that couldn’t be less alike – Brasilia and Chile’s Atacama Desert – multimedia artist Eder Santos has created a movie, Deserto Azul (2014), that is equal parts baffling and beautiful. The federal capital of Brazil, founded in 1960, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its Modernist architecture for its futuristic buildings, mostly constructed from glass, steel and reinforced concrete and divided by large patches of greenery. In 50 years, it has grown from nothing, to what’s estimated to be the country’s third most populous city. By contrast, Chile’s vast, extremely arid Atacama Desert makes Death Valley look overcrowded. It is between these two locations that a young Brazilian man, Ele, is teleported during the 94-minute course of Deserto Azul, which shouldn’t be confused with the 1990 Blue Desert, which starred Courteney Cox and D.B. Sweeney. In an age “devoid of memory and truth,” Ele is driven by intuition and dreams in his search for the meaning of life and existence. One of the ways he accomplishes this is by hopping on a crowded motion-simulator platform that wouldn’t be out of place at a large American amusement park, and, once seated, putting on the wraparound optical device handed out by the “flight attendant.”

While strolling through the starkly beautiful Atacama, Ele encounters a man (Ângelo Antônio) spraying blue paint on rock formations, if for no other reason than he considers it to be his life’s mission to blur the lines between Earth and the two-mooned sky. (Don’t ask.) Back home, Ele is invited to attend a disco/rave along with other lonely, alienated strangers, attracted by the ethereal music and intoxicating ambience. It’s here that he meets Alma (Maria Luisa Mendonça), a singer so beautiful she could give eyesight to the blind … or, in Ele’s case, meaning to his life. Have I already mentioned that Santos was, in part, inspired by Yoko Ono’s 1964 book of conceptual art, “Grapefruit,” and Brazilian author Machado de Assis? According to the presenters of the PIPA Prize, Deserto Azul “is a result of the artist’s continuous experimentation with video language and his relationship with the visual arts.” It takes some work on the part of viewers, but those looking for a challenge could fall in love with it.

FilmRise on DVD
The Drew: No Excuse, Just Produce
The Man Who Saw Too Much
24×36: A Movie About Movie Posters
Women Who Kill
Don’t Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl!
I Dream in Another Language
Free and Easy
The FilmRise titles included in the latest package from MVD Entertainment Group have previously been released through VOD and MOD (manufactured on demand) outlets. Apparently, they were sent out on Blu-ray last summer, but weren’t easy to find. The MVD releases are on DVD and stripped of bonus features. The audio/visual presentation is quite good, however, and the selections are wonderfully eclectic.

With basketball fever still in the air and LeBron James’ name on everyone’s lips, at least in Los Angeles, there’s no better time to check out The Drew: No Excuse, Just Produce, a highly entertaining documentary on the city’s amateur-hoops subculture. For 45 years, the Drew League has been a fixture in South-Central. With roots as a pickup game for local playground stars and athletes from nearby colleges, the six-team Drew League took its name from the bandbox school gym at which the games were played. They emphasized fierce competition over name recognition and featured the rapid-fire, in-your-face action of an amateur pickup game in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago or SoCal. The gym has also served as a demilitarized zone for rival gang-bangers. During the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Drew remained open as a valued community outlet. During the 2011 NBA lockout, Drew became a gathering place for some of the league’s biggest stars, competing against local talent. After a five-year stop at school that charged organizers an arm and a leg to maintain, the games now take place at King Drew High School, where 28 teams enjoy newer facilities and expanded space for teeming crowds. Co-directed by former NBA All-Star Baron Davis, who grew up in South-Central and continues to play in Drew games, The Drew: No Excuse, Just Produce traces the league’s roots by focusing less on the occasional superstar visit – James, Kobe, James Harden, Byron Scott, Kevin Durant, DeMar DeRozan, Brandon Jennings, Xzibit — than the organizers, fans, announcers and players who’ve participated since Day One. It also explains what the league and basketball have meant to the impoverished, but proud community.

Trisha Ziff’s excellent documentary The Man Who Saw Too Much introduces us to Mexican photographer Enrique Metinides, who, since his pre-teen years, has spent his life shooting images of death, tragedy and violence in Mexico City. As such, Metinides is as well known to readers of Spanish-language tabloids as Arthur “Weegee” Fellig was to New Yorkers during the 1930s and 1940s. His work not only captures gruesome scenes of human tragedy, but also the curious reactions of onlookers. Need I mention that The Man Who Saw Too Much isn’t for the squeamish.

Ever since the days of one- and two-reel shorts, movie posters have been as much a part of the universal cinematic experience as popcorn, sticky floors and noisy neighbors. Not only do they play a key role in the marketing of new pictures and creation of stars, but posters are considered by many to be highly collectible works of art and memorabilia. Kevin Burke’s 24×36: A Movie About Movie Posters explores the colorful history of the one-sheet, with a tight focus on the artists – many of them anonymous – whose work has meant so much to the industry. It also examines how movie-poster illustration has become something of a “lost art,” due to marketing trends that favor Photoshopped images over lithography, and copy-cat designs over original ideas. In addition to much dazzling artwork, Burke’s film is informed by interviews with several artists and collectors.

Ingrid Jungermann wrote, directed and stars in Women Who Kill, a droll comedy about murder and women who have committed murder … or, may have. Jungermann plays the commitment-phobic Morgan, who, along with her ex-girlfriend, Jean (Ann Carr), have gained a following in the podcast community for their interest in female serial killers. There’s a chance they may still have feelings for each other – beyond living in the same apartment and sleeping in the same bed — but co-dependence takes a back seat when Morgan meets a mysterious and exotically beautiful stranger, Simone (Sheila Vand), during her shift at a food coop in a gentrified section of Park Slope, Brooklyn.  When Jean shows her roommate proof that Simone may not be who she says she is, Morgan accuses her of trying to ruin the best thing that’s ever happened to her. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Morgan begins to notice things in Simone’s behavior that suggest Jean’s warning may not be as self-serving as it sounds. Together, Morgan and Jean investigate Simone as if she were a subject of their podcast, uncovering disturbing clues — a death at the coop, a missing friend, a murder weapon — leading them to suspect she’s capable of murder. The big question becomes: Is Morgan’s life truly in danger or is she simply afraid of what it means to be in a relationship.

For the sake of brevity, let’s call Felipe Bragança’s intriguingly titled Don’t Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl, a “West Side Story”-like tragedy, in which a 13-year-old Brazilian boy, Joca, and Basano, a 14-year-old Paraguayan Guarani Indian girl, on the brink of womanhood. Their villages are separated by the swiftly flowing Apa River, which, a century ago, carried the bodies of thousands of victims of a terrible war to the sea, and, today, still transports “floaters” to a watery grave. Basano, who calls herself the Tattooed Queen of the Apa River, knows far better than the infatuated Joca what could happen if they succumbed to their attraction to each other. Already, motorcycle gangs from opposite sides of the river battle for control of the region’s roads and bridges. Joca’s older brother has been engaged in a sexual relationship with the girlfriend of the rival gang’s leader, which angers women on both sides of the Apa. Once she hits puberty, Basano appears less interested in addressing Joca’s passion than in stirring up trouble between the boys who meet on bicycles on the bridge over the Apa.  “Alligator Girl” contains many debut performances, so the acting is frequently choppy and underwhelming. The film’s saving grace is Glauco Firpo’s hypnotic cinematography, which takes full advantage of the unblemished setting. Having already written Love for Sale, The Escape of the Monkey Woman and The Joy, Bragança seems to feel comfortably at home along the border regions of central South America and with the urban and rural poor of Brazil.

Ernesto and Carlos Contreras’ I Dream in Another Language also benefits from a concrete sense of place and a fascination with people living so far off the grid that traces of an ancient language still reverberate through a tropical jungle. A linguist from the University of Veracruz has traveled to the village to record and translate that language, once spoken by hundreds, maybe thousands of indigenous people, but now is only understood by two old men. The problem is that Isauro and Evaristo haven’t spoken to each other in any language for more than 50 years. Their feud began over dibs on a Spanish-speaking girl, with whom only one of them could converse. There’s another reason, but it needn’t be revealed here. The only way for the linguist, Martin, to succeed is to get them to converse, with one of them translating. Martin has also fallen in love with one of the men’s granddaughter, Lluvia, whose future lies somewhere other than the village. As befits any movie from the tropics, a certain amount of magical realism also informs the drama. As Martin will soon learn, the dying language is very much alive among the animals and vegetation in the jungle that surrounds a mysterious cave, which serves as the portal to the afterlife to Indians who once spoke the language.

Free and Easy doesn’t even come close to describing the tone of Geng Jun’s absurdist deadpan comedy. “Uptight and Frightened” probably would have been more accurate, but minus the same je ne sais quoi. When a man purporting to be traveling soap salesman arrives in a desolate Chinese town, in what appears to be the dead of winter, he encounters a young fellow who attempts to intimidate him with kung fu. Instead, the salesman invites his assailant to sniff the aroma of a bar of soap. After the kung fu fighter does so, he collapses in a heap. It frees the salesman to steal his wallet, without doing anything seriously harmful. This happens over and over, again, until the few people still in town attempt to stop the thefts. Slowly, the one-man crime wave inspires other locals – including the exceedingly lethargic police, an arborist and a fake monk — to work up their own scams, to very mixed results. Free and Easy takes a lot of getting used to … especially at a pace that almost seems as frozen as the fields surrounding the town. Fans of Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki shouldn’t have any problem getting used to it, however.

To make Supergirl, Jessie Auritt followed world-champion “power lifter” Naomi Kutin around the country, from her record-breaking lift/squat/whatever at 9 years old, to her bat mitzvah, at 12. Naturally, the media beat a path to her door. Not only does Naomi take a great deal of pride in her achievements – as she should – but she also begins to buy into “supergirl” hype. Having lifted a few weights in my time, I was more than a bit put off by the girl’s obsession with training and making weight in her division. I’m no doctor, even if I play one on the Internet sometimes, but I doubt that it’s healthy for a pre-pubescent girl or boy to risk doing serious damage to their rapidly developing bodies by pushing it to extremes, every day, for hours at a time. Having a dad who’s also a committed weight lifter, as well as a hyper-supportive mom and brother to pump up her young ego, can’t help but promote excessive behavior. Still, different strokes for different folks … right? Miraculously, Naomi appears to lead a normal life outside the basement gym and tournaments. Auritt’s parallel focus in “Supergirl” is observing the family of Orthodox Jews square Naomi’s avocation with religious guidelines that, at first glance, anyway, would appear to prohibit such things for girls. The parents appear to have justified their decision to themselves, however, which is OK, I suppose. Supergirl is interesting, but, even at 80 minutes, the achievements of pre-teen power lifter aren’t all that compelling. Maybe I’d feel differently if Naomi and her dad were more committed to making the Olympics team or getting a scholarship, instead of merely breaking records.

Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! Blu-ray
Seijun Suzuki was still in good standing at Nikkatsu, when, in 1963, he made Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! It was the kind of over-the-top gangster flick that signaled just how far the director was willing to go to test the limits of the studio’s patience for unorthodox filmmaking, especially that intended for general audiences. The break would come four years later with Branded to Kill, an even more stylized Yakuza mashup, starring the wonderful Jô Shishido, who, in 1956, underwent the plastic surgery and injections that gave him the big, round cheeks that would remind audiences of a chipmunk. Intentionally far out, “Detective Bureau” recalled for me the parodies of genre clichés made by Jim Abrahams, David and Jerry Zucker (Police Squad!), not long afterwards. The story follows police detective Hideo Tajima (Shishido), who, tasked with tracking down stolen firearms, turns an underworld grudge into a bloodbath. In doing so, Suzuki transforms what might have been merely a colorful potboiler into a send-up of cultural colonialism and post-war greed. Between the shootouts, he adds several nightclub set pieces – featuring flashy showgirls and a virginal damsel in distress — so goofy they wouldn’t have been out of place in an Elvis Presley movie. It pays to check out the bonus featurette, in which the ever-entertaining Japanese-cinema expert Tony Rayns explains how none of the gunplay in the film could have taken place as depicted. (Tough gun laws forced real-life gangsters to rely on knives and swords.) He places “Detective Bureau” within the context of studio politics, Suzuki’s roller-coaster career and then-current Japanese history. Besides the interview, the Arrow Video package looks terrific, as usual, adding a gallery of original production stills and a reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin.

Modern Life Is Rubbish
Daniel Jerome Gill and Philip Gawthorne ‘s re-working of their 2009 short of the same title derives from an album of classic 1990s Britpop, “Modern Life Is Rubbish,” by Blur. The title was inspired by graffiti stenciled along Bayswater Road, in London, created by an anarchist group. The band’s frontman, Damon Albarn, said the phrase reflected the “rubbish” of the past that accumulated over time and stifled creativity. He told journalist John Harris that he thought the phrase was “the most significant comment on popular culture since the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK.’” It also reflected the band’s general displeasure with what its members observed of American life in a recent tour, as well as the rock press’ infatuation with a rival band, Suede. It’s one of the CDs that triggers flashbacks in Modern Life Is Rubbish, as a soon-to-be-divorced couple divides the music they’ve collected over 10 years. Liam (Josh Whitehouse) and Natalie (Freya Mavor) first connected in a store specializing in used vinyl. At the time, Liam was an aspiring musician, who picked up girls by showing off his knowledge of rock music and its arcana. Natalie, who allowed the handsome stranger to prattle on, while she collected ideas for the album covers she one day hoped to design. As their relationship progressed, Liam struggled to make a dent in the brutally competitive music scene, without compromising his high-falutin ideals, while Natalie eventually succumbed to the lure of a job that paid real money and satisfied many of her creative urges. Finally, after 10 years together, they split over Natalie’s unwillingness to put up with Liam’s aggressively childish pursuit of rock-’n’-roll purity, in a band called Headcleaner. After making the heartbreaking decision to separate, they split their prized music library, lingering over albums and CD covers that represent high points in their relationship. The only questions facing viewers, then, are how long it will take for the music that served as chapters in their love story to pull them back together and what will trigger their inevitable rapprochement. The sentimentality oozes from the contrivances deployed in the final scenes like a PB&J sandwich in which too much of both ingredients is applied to the bread. At its best, Modern Life Is Rubbish recalls bits and pieces of High Fidelity (2000), 500 Days of Summer (2009) and 9 Songs (2004). At its worst, Liam is to Blur what Herman’s Hermits were to the Rolling Stones. The musical soundtrack does, however, benefit from songs by such period-appropriate bands as The 1975, The Vaccines, Stereophonics, The Libertines, Radiohead, Warpaint, Frightened Rabbit and Billie Marten.

William H. Macy seems so comfortable playing the thoroughly unlikable patriarch of the world’s most dysfunctional family, in Showtime’s “Shameless,” it’s difficult to understand how, as director, he let the half-baked dramatic comedy, Krystal, come apart at the seams. Apparently, it’s taken him 14 years to bring Will Aldis’ unwieldly story and screenplay to the screen. Shooting was supposed to begin in February 2015, in Atlanta, with Jane Fonda, Josh Hutcherson, Sienna Miller and John Hawkes announced in the lead roles. Macy was only slated to direct the film, but, when the recasting process cut into his schedule, he assumed the role of the kooky father, Dr. Wyatt Ogburn, opposite his real-life wife, Felicity Huffman, playing movie wife, Poppy Ogburn. Their youngest son, Taylor (Nick Robinson), is a swell kid, with only one discernable problem. The teenager lives with a condition called paroxysmal atrial tachycardia, which means his heart beats abnormally fast during periods of physical or emotional stress. It’s for this reason that Taylor’s parents have maintained a household based on maintained on order, stability and lack of excitement. The first time his condition manifests itself is when he stumbles upon Wyatt’s Playboy collection in the basement. Beyond the usual shame attached to such embarrassing discoveries by adolescent boys, this one comes with a highly elevated heartbeat and a guardian demon. Another near-death experience comes at the beach, when he spots a beautiful older woman, Krystal (Rosario Dawson), and his heart goes into overdrive. He’s taken to the hospital, where the strangely laid-back Dr. Lyle Farley (William Fichtner) quickly diagnoses the problem and injects Taylor with a drug to calm the palpitations. Later, while working at an art gallery run by Kathy Bates, he spots Krystal walking to a building where the Alcoholic Anonymous meeting is taking place. Not surprisingly, Taylor follows here into the meeting, which his boss also attends, and pretends to have a substance-abuse problem.

Here’s where things begin to spin out of control, however. Not only does “the program” give him easy access to his heart’s desire, but he adopts the person of one of the guest speakers (Rick Fox), a cool dude who rides a Harley. Although Krystal isn’t terribly impressed, the bad-boy routine works on her wheelchair-bound son, whose negative attitude is causing him problems at school. Their friendship puts Taylor in direct contact with the boy’s ex-con father, who caused Krystal’s addiction problems and wants her to take him back. But wait, there’s more. Krystal, who turned to stripping and prostitution, has a potentially embarrassing connection to Taylor’s father, who isn’t nearly as pious as he appears to be. By the time the movie begins to close in on the 90-minute mark, the linkages between characters get so thick that they begin to overshadow previous plot points and characters. Even with his bad heart, Taylor is called upon to rescue Krystal and her son from a life of despair and addiction. Krystal isn’t devoid of humor, by any means. It’s the missed opportunities and reliance on slapstick that finally short-circuits the story.

PBS: The Jazz Ambassadors
PBS: Masterpiece Mystery!: Endeavour, The Complete Fifth Season
PBS: Going to War
Lifetime: I Am Elizabeth Smart
Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Fifth Season
PBS Kids: 20 Music Tales
Throughout most of the early years of the Cold War, Americans held to the belief that their democracy made the U.S. the “greatest country in the history of the world.” We’d saved the planet from fascism after all – twice, if you count World War I – refugees from the Eastern Bloc were clamoring to find work and raise their families here. And, yet, Soviet propagandists and the left-wing media in developing countries continued to find ways to score points with “the masses” simply by pointing to this country’s Achilles heels: our support for colonial powers in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia and our government’s unwillingness to put an end to segregation in the South. And, although unions made tremendous gains in the 1950-60s, industrialists fought against every one of them. President Eisenhower, who wouldn’t be allowed to represent today’s Republican Party in the White House, knew that we were losing the battle in the press and decided to listen to the advice of the African-American Democratic who represented Harlem in the House of Representatives. In 1955, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. convinced Ike that jazz could be used as a not-so-secret weapon against totalitarianism, especially in places where people of color were oppressed. While the musicians refused to serve as shills for a country that enforced Jim Crow laws in states and municipalities across a large swath of the U.S., they enjoyed spreading the good news of this country’s greatest cultural export. For the next decade, America’s most influential jazz artists, including Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Dave Brubeck, along with their racially-integrated bands, traveled the globe to perform as cultural ambassadors. It wouldn’t take long, however, for the bigots in power to neutralize the work being done by the artists. News of the mutilation and murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old youth from Chicago, killed while visiting an uncle in Mississippi, traveled fast and no amount of USIA spin could prevent it from making headlines around the world. The State of Mississippi tried two defendants, but they were acquitted by an all-white jury. (A year later, they would acknowledge committing the crime; in 2017, the woman who accused Till of whistling at her told the Associated Press that she had lied and the boy had made no overture to her.) The illuminating PBS documentary, “The Jazz Ambassadors,” revisits the successes and near failure of the musicians’ mission, as well as efforts by Southern Democrats and congressional Republicans to choke funds from the program. The story is told through striking archival film footage, photos, interviews and radio clips, with iconic performances throughout the hourlong documentary. Also fascinating is the recollection of Goodman’s 1962 tour of Poland and the Soviet Union, where students and jazz lovers defied KGB goons to get closer to the artists they loved.

Set in the mid- to late-1960s, the ITV/Masterpiece British series, “Endeavour,” focuses on the early career of Inspector Endeavour Morse (Shaun Evans) after he left Lonsdale College of Oxford University — without taking a degree — and spent a short time in the Royal Corps of Signals as a cipher clerk. He would return to Oxford as a member of the Carshall-Newtown Police Department, which kept him busy with a surprising number of violent crimes. “Endeavour, The Complete Fifth Season” (UK Edition) picks up in 1968 and Endeavour’s recent promotion to Detective Sergeant. He is assigned with a new Detective Constable, George Fancy (Lewis Peek), who initially doesn’t impress him. Meanwhile, Joan Thursday is back in town; DCI Thursday’s plans for retirement hang in a balance; and the future of Cowley Police Station continues to be debated. I don’t imagine that a spoiler alert is necessary to inform fans that a sixth series, set to air in 2019, has been announced.

For most of the last 100 years, filmmakers have grappled with their inability to accurately depict the hellish conditions faced by fighting men and women in the heat of combat. Such movies as Platoon and Saving Private Ryan have come closer to capturing the chaos, intensity and insanity of war than most other films, which have been limited by convention and viewers’ ability to stomach images of graphic violence. They’ve also been bound by the assumption that audiences prefer supporting their forces overseas from afar, than to witness the conditions that require heroism and call attention to the limits of bravery and training. Until the Vietnam War, returning soldiers were reluctant to relate their wartime experience to anyone except buddies gathered at VFW, American Legion and Vietnam Veterans of America functions. Most of them still refrain from discussing their experiences with relatives and friends. Although I can’t honestly say that the PBS documentary, “Going to War,” fully illustrates what happens in combat, it does explain why many veterans of several different American wars have such a difficult time dealing with their memories. It begins at boot camp, where men and women recruits relinquish their individual identities in the service of a greater good. It follows them into their first combat experiences, where they put into practice the concepts of selflessness and comradery beaten into them weeks and months earlier. They’re then asked to recall their first encounters with the death of comrades and enemies, alike. Leading the exploration are Sebastian Junger, bestselling author and director of the Academy Award-nominated film, Restrepo, and Karl Marlantes, decorated Marine officer and author of the memoir, “What It is Like to Go to War.”

If Sarah and Tory Walker’s docudrama for Lifetime, “I Am Elizabeth Smart,” doesn’t shed much new light on the 2002 kidnapping, multiple rapes and attempted brainwashing of the Salt Lake City teenager, it’s probably a blessing. There’s no questioning the sordid behavior and sick intentions of her captors, and the emotional and physical pain she endured. What makes this film different from previous films and true-crime series on the crime and rescue is the participation of the victim, Smart, as narrator, producer and source. It has a strangely dampening effect on the already flat drama, which leaves most of the horror to the imagination of viewers. Lookalike blond Alana Boden (“Mr Selfridge”) tries her best to approximate 14-year-old Smart’s experience, but her age, 21, neutralizes the story’s shock value. I think the same can be said about the actors who play the captors, Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee (Skeet Ulrich, Deirdre Lovejoy), who, while sadistic and narcissistic, don’t look nearly as insane as the actors who’ve portrayed Charles Manson or his female posse. In fact, the movie leaves out much of Mitchell and Barzee’s backstory, which begins with his extreme interpretations of Mormon doctrine and includes a flock of abused children between them from multiple partners. Neither does it question how the SLC police could have allowed such an obvious suspect to avoid capture, even after questioning the Smart’s former handyman. It’s possible that the producers dialed back the ugliest aspects of the case, so that it could be accessible to Lifetime audiences, parents and teens who could benefit from the lessons taught here on child abuse, computer crimes, trafficking and pornography. They have been causes foremost in Smart’s mind since being freed from captivity and beginning to raise a family of her own.

Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Fifth Season” opens with a long-awaited appearance by Dick Martin’s dream guest, Raquel Welch, and such memorable sketches as “Martha Mitchell’s Mystery Phone Calls,” a Raquel Welch/Ruth Buzzi duet, “Ernestine Calls the White House,” “Return of the Swizzlers” and “The Flying Fickle Finger of Fate Award.” Arte Johnson departed after the 1970-71 season, when he demanded and got star billing … sort of.  So did Henry Gibson. They were replaced by former “Hogan’s Heroes” stars Richard Dawson and Larry Hovis. The show celebrated its 100th episode with a reunion of several original cast members, including John Wayne, Tiny Tim and alumni Johnson, Gibson Judy Carne, Jo Anne Worley and Teresa Graves. Musical interludes are provided by Robert Goulet, Charo and Three Dog Night. Other fifth-season guests Steve Allen, Johnny Carson, Johnny Cash, Carol Channing, Petula Clark, Bing Crosby, Tony Curtis, Gene Hackman, Rita Hayworth, Hugh Hefner, Bob Hope, Paul Lynde, Liza Minnelli, Agnes Moorehead, Joe Namath, Carroll O’Connor, Vincent Price, Carl Reiner, Debbie Reynolds, Sugar Ray Robinson, Bill Russell, Vin Scully, Doc Severinsen, Jacqueline Susann and Henny Youngman.

From PBS Kids comes “20 Music Tale,” which features four hours’ worth of educational programs related to music and dance. The subjects range from forming a schoolyard marching band to helping Ludwig van Beethoven write a symphony. The selections are compiled from “Caillou,” “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” “Dinosaur Train,” “Nature Cat,” “Odd Squad,” “Peg + Cat,” “Reading Rainbow,” “Wild Kratts” and “Wordworld.”

The DVD Wrapup: Blockers, Finding Your Feet, Ismael’s Ghosts, Don’t Grow Up, Last House on Left, Sartana, Striking Back, Sharks … More

Thursday, July 5th, 2018

Blockers: Blu-ray
It probably took adults over the age of, say, 40 or 50, a while to decipher the imagery on posters for Universal’s cross-generational comedy, Blockers, upon its release in early April. In addition to the neatly arranged photo of the actors playing parents and daughters, there’s the silhouette of a rooster strutting atop the letters of the one-word title. Slightly to the left of the cock’s tail feathers is the tagline, “Parents can be such …” Combine the individual parts and you get, “Parents can be such … (COCK) BLOCKERS,” which might not have passed muster with MPAA watchdogs, who also monitor advertising. Although the term, “cockblock,” has been traced to 1972, via “DawgSpeak!: The Slanguage Dictionary of the University of Georgia,” it wasn’t until it was used in Superbad (2007) that it took hold among young white scenesters. The original script was titled “Cherries,” which not only would have been too blatantly suggestive for the MPAA, but also more than a tad misleading, in that the butt of the joke throughout Blockers is the attempt by three sets of parents to prevent their daughters from losing their virginity (a.k.a., “breaking their cherries”) on prom night. Originally, too, the story involved three fathers keen on preserving the virginity of their daughters. That concept was revised to include two fathers, Mitchell and Hunter (John Cena, Ike Barinholtz), and a mother, Lisa (Leslie Mann). If nothing else, the inclusion of Mann – a veritable Everymom figure – precluded potential viewers from thinking that Blockers was a delayed sequel to 3 Men and a Baby (1987) and Coline Serreau’s French original, Three Men and a Cradle (1985). It’s also possible that the 16 predominantly male producers – many of them veterans of Sausage Party and other Seth Rogan/Evan Goldberg projects – including, wait for it, Superbad – realized that another working title, “The Pact,” wouldn’t draw flies as a revisionist bromance, in which the teenage girls were in command of the teenage boys’ very active libidos.

Perhaps, though, the wisest choice of all was hiring Kay Cannon to make her directorial debut in the driver’s seat of Blockers. Her writing credits include all three Pitch Perfect entries and such gal-friendly TV shows as “Girlboss,” “New Girl” and “30 Rock.” By comparison, the film’s credited screenwriters, Brian and Jim Kehoe, hadn’t done much to impress anyone beyond some collaborative shorts and the little seen 2005 comedy Overachievers (a.k.a., “The Hand Job”). Even with Cannon’s hand on the wheel, too many of the gags rely on scatological set pieces, car crashes and other things borrowed from previous Rogan/Goldberg comedies. She must have done something right, however, because Blockers won the approval of the mainstream critics on, while grossing a shade lower than $100 million, against a production budget of $21 million. Here, nosy mom Lisa intercepts an e-mail on the computer of her daughter, Julie (Kathryn Newton). It sets out the basics of her arrangement with Mitchell’s daughter, Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan), and Sam (Gideon Adlon), concerning their mutual intention to get laid on prom night. (Usually, the ultimate wet dream of post-pubescent boys.)

It doesn’t seem as if there’s been much consideration given to contraception and disease prevention. Everyone acts as if AIDS/HIV no longer is a problem, the morning-after pill wasn’t widely available or that condoms are readily available in modern drug stores, not just in men’s room vending machines. To my mind, it’s a glaring omission, considering the vast amount of information on the subject available to teens and their parents these days. The adults are more concerned with the girls’ putting a moral price tag on their virginity and not selling it to the first bidder. Their daughters appear to have considered the ramifications of their pact, at least, and are fully prepared to say, “No,” if necessary. Neither are the boys portrayed as being anything other than gentlemen … doofuses, yes, but not overly aggressive doofuses. I suspect, however, that the blame for their convenient lack of memory lies more with the screenplay than the characters. As such, the comedy plays out on two parallel tracks, running in slightly different directions. The adults’ track is dominated by slapsticky contrivances and bumbling attempts to get ahead of the girls’ prom-night trajectory. The girls dominate every scene that calls for their presence, while the young male actors — Graham Phillips, Miles Robbins, Jimmy Bellinger – suffer from looking far too old to play high school seniors. An LGBT story thread is handled with humor and sensitivity, as well. The supporting adult cast members — Gary Cole, Gina Gershon, Hannibal Buress, Sarayu Blue and June Diane Raphael – aren’t given that much to do, but they do it well.

For what it’s worth, Gideon Adlon is the daughter of actress Pamela Adlon (“Better Things”) and Miles Robbins is the son of Tim Robbins and actress Susan Sarandon. It’s gotten to the point where critics may be required to take nepotism and other forms of favoritism into consideration, when weighing casting decisions in movies under review.  They’re nothing new, of course, but the ramifications of Hollywood’s current baby boom may someday tilt the playing field in the favor of pedigreed talent, as is the case in Ivy League schools with “legacy” admissions. (There’s no question that the celebrity media gives the children of celebrities top billing in puff pieces.) The Blu-ray adds unrated deleted scenes; a gag reel; Line-O-Rama, with ad-lib takes for several scenes; “Rescue Mission,” a discussion of the film’s most outrageous scenes and stunts; “Prom Night,” a look at the girls’ “sex pact”; “The History of Sex With Ike Barinholtz”; “John Cena’s Prom Survival Kit for Parents,” from his professional blocker’s bag of goodies; “Chug! Chug! Chug!,” a closer look at a scene in which John Cena’s character takes in some beer from the wrong end; “Puke-A-Palooza,” on the film’s vomit visuals; and commentary with Cannon.

Finding Your Feet
If Hollywood studios only seem to care about their elderly stars when they can be paired with ingenues, in such May-December dramedies as Georgia Rule or Grandma, or last-hurrah romps like Going in Style and Last Vegas, British producers don’t appear to have any problem finding meaningful work for their still extremely capable old-timers. Neither are their appearances limited to such Oscar-bait films as Florence Foster Jenkins, Phantom Thread, Mr. Turner and 45 Years, all released late in the year and sometimes described as valedictories. Susan Sarandon, Helen Mirren and Michael Caine don’t appear to have any trouble finding work, but they’re exceptions to the rule. If you find more than three old-timers within an inch of top billing in an American studio picture, you might consider making an appointment with your optometrist. Richard Loncraine’s Finding Your Feet is a prime example of the kind of ensemble dramedy – Calendar Girls, Quartet, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, My House in Umbria, Unfinished Song, Greenfingers and Tea with Mussolini — that the Brits do better than anyone. There are enough fine actors available to avoid recycling the same casts over and over, again. While Finding Your Feet isn’t likely to win any major awards outside the festival circuit, its sole intention is to locate its audience and entertain it. In it, Imelda Staunton plays haughty social climber Lady Sandra Abbott, who’s just discovered that her caddish husband (John Sessions) has been engaged in a longtime affair with one of her best friends (Josie Lawrence). Unable to face the social humiliation in her moneyed countryside community, Sandra turns up at the door of her estranged older sister’s London flat. Elizabeth (Celia Imrie) is a never-married misfit with a wide array of oddball friends and liberal beliefs.

To stay fit, Elizabeth participates in dancing classes for senior citizens, as well as the occasional flash mob. Although Sandra isn’t ready to fully embrace the social side of the class, she enjoys the dancing and the people she meets there. That includes Charlie (Timothy Sprall), a Cockney furniture restorer, who lives on a converted houseboat moored on a London canal. It takes a while for Sandra to recognize the chemistry between them, which viewers sense from the minute they meet. Despite the difference in their social standing, they’re a perfect fit. Meanwhile, the dancers participate in a flash mob in Piccadilly Circus, which catches the eye of contest promoters in Rome. What could be finer than a romantic escape to the Eternal City? The inevitable deal-breaker comes when Charlie reveals to Sandra that he’s married and supporting a wife soon to die of Alzheimer’s disease. Once bitten, twice shy, Sandra decides that the grass may still be greener at her country estate, now that her husband has split from his lover. What happens next isn’t entirely predictable, but close enough that we aren’t shocked by it. It does involve some jerking of tears, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone, either. It’s especially fun watching Spall and Staunton in lead romantic roles.

Ismael’s Ghosts
While I’ve admired previous work by French director and multiple Palme d’Or nominee Arnaud Desplechin – Jimmy P., My Golden Days, A Christmas Tale, Kings & Queen, Esther Kahn, My Sex Life … or How I Got Into an Argument – but I’d be hard pressed to give an unqualified recommendation to Ismael’s Ghosts to casual fans of arthouse films or its stars: Marion Cotillard, Mathieu Amalric and Charlotte Gainsbourg. There’s nothing wrong with their performances, certainly. In fact, I can’t imagine them being any more compelling than they already are here. Desplechin’s direction is similarly exceptional. Anyone considering a purchase or rental of Ismael’s Ghosts, based solely on the presence of the lead actors, should know that it can’t be fully enjoyed – or, understood – without a working knowledge of Desplechin’s earlier titles. The names of certain characters are revisited in Ismael’s Ghosts, as are themes, locations and storylines. It’s no accident, either, that Amalric returns in his sixth collaboration with Desplechin. Like the co-writer/director, Amalric’s character, Ismaël Vuillard, hails from the northern French commune of Roubaix. He’s played Ismaël Vuillard in Ismael’s Ghosts and Kings & Queen); Henri Vuillard, in A Christmas Tale; and Paul Dedalus, in My Golden Days and “My Sex Life …” Another related character is Ivan Dedalus, played by Raphaël Cohen in My Golden Days, and Louis Garrel in Ismael’s Ghosts. If that weren’t sufficient cause for doing one’s homework, consider the James Joyce references, including various Dedalus family members, and László Szabó’s Henri Bloom, Dedalus’ mentor and father-in-law. In an interview published on the Eye for Film website, Desplechin also acknowledged references to French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, director Alfred Hitchcock and author Philip Roth. Not all of them made the cut in the 114-minute version shown at Cannes. Magnolia’s far better DVD restores 20 minutes of unfortunately trimmed material.

Potential viewers can take all of that as a warning or an invitation, I think. Going into Ismael’s Ghosts, I was blissfully unaware of most of the literary connections, cinematic references and recurring characters. It would have been difficult, however, for me not to notice the Joycean nods, Amalric’s always-welcome return or the Tajikistan thread that connects it to My Golden Days. Clearly, Desplechin had Vertigo in mind when creating the female protagonist, Carlotta Bloom (Cotillard), whose disembodied presence haunts an early scene in which Bloom and Vuillard share their unresolved pain over her disappearance, 20 years earlier. Ismael has already moved on, by having his wife declared dead – despite evidence of her death — and finding a new soulmate. In a flashback, we’re introduced to his current lover, Sylvia (Gainsbourg), an astrophysicist he met two years earlier. Attempting to break through Ismael’s paralyzing writer’s block, they rent a cabin in Noirmoutier-en-l’Île, on France’s Atlantic coast. The production of a spy thriller about diplomat Ivan Dedalus (Garrel) — based on Vuillard’s similarly missing brother — has already begun, albeit without a completed screenplay. Of the myriad people who could have walked up to Sylvia while she’s lying on the sun-drenched beach, how is that Carlotta heads straight for this stranger and introduces herself as the wife of her lover? Although Sylvia is stunned by the encounter, they chat as if they were picking up a conversation interrupted earlier in the day. It’s Ismael who becomes unhinged by Carlotta’s sudden, unexpected presence. He further unravels after Carlotta invites herself to stay with the couple, with only the thinnest of explanations as to where she’s been and what she’s been doing. Now that Ismael is unable to deal with anything corporeal, Sylvia suggests rather forcefully that Carlotta contact her father, even at the risk of his suffering a heart attack. Ismael’s Ghosts engages viewers in ways other films don’t bother to try. Besides asking us to consider what’s real and what isn’t, we’re forced to share Ismael and Bloom’s possible descent into madness. How many movies can say that?

Don’t Grow Up
The Cured: Blu-ray
French director Thierry Poiraud’s previous thriller, Goal of the Dead, co-directed with Benjamin Rocher (The Horde), describes what happens when a nearly retired soccer star returns home after an absence of 17 years, only to be greeted by hostility from fans he left in the lurch. A match between the player’s current team and the home-town side is arranged. In the meantime, however, a key member of the locals – and the star’s former best mate – is injected with a youth-inducing drug. Naturally, it backfires, turning the guinea pig into a zombie, whose sputum infects his mates. It turns the game into a tongue-in-cheek contest between human and undead athletes. Like Poiraud’s new film, Don’t Grow Up, Goal of the Dead is difficult to find on this side of the pond, either in theaters or on DVD. The premise is no less inventive. In a sense, it combines elements of “Peter Pan,” MTV’s “Real World” and, in a stretch, “Lord of the Flies,” all in the service of a pretty good zombie-apocalypse mashup. Based on a screenplay by Marie Garel-Weiss (The Party’s Over), Don’t Grow Up is set on a heavily wooded island – one of the Canaries, probably – where a group of teenage delinquents have been sent to live in isolation, at a youth facility. One morning, they wake up to find themselves alone, with no adult supervision. After celebrating their newfound freedom, the teens decide to investigate what’s happening in other parts of the island. They discover that the adults have been turned into blood-thirsty and psychotic predators and the epidemic only impacts people over the age of 18. If only the survivors can escape the island, maybe, just maybe, they can find life beyond Thunderdome … or, at least, beyond Tenerife. There’s enough action in Don’t Grow Up to keep most fans of the subgenre satisfied, as well as an atypically thoughtful ending.

In David Freyne’s debut feature, The Cured, the Maze Virus has ravaged the Europe, turning people into mindless zombies. Then, a remedy is developed and 75 percent of the infected are cured and returned to humanity. The Irish, however, are slow to recognize a good thing when they see it, only adopting the cure when the Maze Virus has nearly devastated the population. No one in the government is willing to completely trust the results from the antidote in other countries, deciding, instead, to quarantine the patients in Belfast’s Victorian Era prison, the Crumlin Road Gaol. Those recovering fastest get to spend time outside the facility, with sponsors and family members, or working. Those left behind are subject to beatings and mistreatment by callous guards and other staff members. Senan (Sam Keeley) is caught in the middle. Relatives of those people killed by the zombies have no choice but to accept that the returning patients are cured, or violently resist their presence outside the hospital’s walls. The catch is that these former mindless killing machines remember every horrible thing they did under the influence of virus, living with their memories, their regrets, their guilt and their shame … however benign they might be. Most of the relatives and friends of the victims have neither forgotten nor forgiven what happened. Senan is invited to live with his brother’s widow, Abbie (Ellen Page), and his nephew, Cillian (Oscar Nolan), who aren’t completely aware of the pain he’s caused them. Still, Senan is required to pass through a gauntlet of screaming protesters before and after his weekly meetings with his supervisor – who’s a prick – and decide if their attempts to cage the “resistant” minority are sufficient cause for violence. Anyone who enjoys The Cured enough to look for analogous situations in real life shouldn’t have any trouble finding them on the nightly news.

Furious: Blu-ray
If Zack Snyder had elected to follow 300 with other depictions of heroism in the face of hopeless odds, he could have considered the Texans’ stand against the Mexican army at the Alamo or the Zealots’ three-year struggle to hold off 10,000 Roman soldiers at Masala. Instead, he left the comic-book-influenced depictions of epic defeats to other filmmakers, including Russian filmmakers Dzhanik Fayziev and Ivan Shurkhovetskiy, who adapted the live-action/CGI technique for Furious (a.k.a., “Legend of Kolovrat”). Set in 1237, during the Mongol invasion of Russia, the plot is based on “The Tale of the Destruction of Riazan,” a medieval military text about the capture of the prosperous border city of Ryazan by the Mongol Horde. Like other such historical tales passed down by generations of amateur historians and mythmakers, and then repurposed by clergy, the details were fudged to the advantage of the victorious or aggrieved parties. Nevertheless, Furious does appear to conform to known facts about the Golden Horde and the Russian resistance to it. The verisimilitude of the costumes, jewelry, weaponry and other period accoutrements is always open to question in such pictures, but these elements look as if considerable thought and research went into them. If the acting, dialogue and animation aren’t quite up to the standards expected by American audiences, younger viewers might enjoy the change of scenery.

The story focuses on Evpaty Kolovrat (Ilya Malakov), a Ryazan knight who stood up to the Mongols when the Golden Horde — a mixture of Turks and Mongols — reached the outskirts of the city. Prince Fedor (Ilya Antonenko) instructs a small group of his men, led by Evpaty, to go to Emperor Batu Khan (Aleksandr Choi) with an offering of gold and silver. When Batu’s demand that they kneel before him is refused, the Ryazans are set upon by the emperor’s swordsmen. They manage to escape, barely, but Batu knows that the wintery conditions will keep them from reaching home before his horsemen are able to destroy it. Evpaty and his 17-warrior force attempt to raise the spirits of the handful of devastated survivors, but very little of it remains. After reaching out to two neighboring cities, asking them to join the fight, they choose to take refuge behind their city walls, instead. They make the kind of final, fruitless stand that would inspire generations to come, but could only end badly. At its peak, the territory of the Golden Horde included most of eastern Europe from the Urals to the Danube River, and extended from the steppes into Siberia. In the south, its lands bordered on the Black Sea, the Caucasus Mountains, and the territories of the Mongol dynasty known as the Ilkhanate. Internal struggles allowed the northern state of Muscovy to rid itself of the “Tatar Yoke” and reclaim Russian land. The Crimean Khanate and the Kazakh Khanate survived until 1783 and 1847 respectively. This tidbit of history isn’t included in the movie, but it explains the diversity of the states in the former USSR.

The Last House on the Left: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Released in 1972, when extremely violent content and explicit depictions of depraved behavior still were capable of shocking critics and audiences, alike, a nasty bit of business by freshman writer/editor/director Wes Craven pushed the envelope as far as it would go. A few months earlier, critic Pauline Kael had initiated a national debate on the use of violence (rape included) in A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs and Dirty Harry, meticulously made films that couldn’t be dismissed simply as exploitation or genre fare, the ghetto most mainstream critics reserved for Craven’s The Last House on the Left. Although carefully crafted displays of blood and gore had been cinematic staples for more than 50 years, such horror subsets as  “splatter,” “stalker” and “slasher,” had yet to be accorded subgenre status under its umbrella. Italian giallo frequently combined all three elements simultaneously, to support garish procedurals and murder mysteries, but it was more of a curiosity than Spaghetti Westerns had been in the mid-1960s. In “Last House,” a pair of wannabe hippies from the suburbs – Mari Collingwood (Sandra Peabody) and Phyllis Stone (Lucy Grantham) – decide to score some marijuana before attending a rock concert in the city. It’s Mari’s birthday and her parents have given her a necklace with a peace-symbol pendant to wear, along with the usual admonishments about taking candy from strangers. Immediately agreeing to dismiss the advice, the girls ask the first long-haired guy they see where they might be able to purchase of lid. He escorts them to the apartment in which he’s staying, where three prison escapees and their moll are killing time until they can head north into Canada. It doesn’t take long for Mari and Phyllis to figure that they’ve been lured into a pit full of vipers, all waiting to sink their fangs into something tasty. After being taunted, tortured and raped, the hoodlums toss the girls into the trunk of their own car and split for the boonies.

As coincidence would have it, the escapees stop in the dense woods near Mari’s house to sate their appetite for sick, sadistic thrills. Craven made what happens next as realistic as his meager budget and twisted imagination would allow … which is to say, sickeningly so. Once the girls have been raped, sliced up and eliminated, the gang heads for the nearest house, where they ask for food and a place to crash. Sure enough, the place they pick for shelter belongs to Mari’s parents. Viewers familiar with Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960) will know what to expect in the final reel. That’s because Craven based “Last House” on the Oscar-winning drama, asking viewers some of the same questions as Bergman posed. When queried about the terribly realistic rape and murder in The Virgin Spring, Bergman explained, “It shows the crime in its naked atrocity, forcing us, in shocked desperation, to leave aesthetic enjoyment of a work of art for passionate involvement in a human drama of crime that breeds new crime, of guilt and grace. … We must not hesitate in our portrayal of human degradation, even if, in our demand for truth, we must violate certain taboos.” In his review for the New York Times, Bosley Crowther demurred, “Mr. Bergman has stocked it with scenes of brutality that, for sheer unrestrained realism, may leave one sickened and stunned. As much as they may contribute to the forcefulness of the theme, they tend to disturb the senses out of proportion to the dramatic good they do.” It’s fair to wonder what he’d say now.

So, a half-century later, what makes The Virgin Spring a universally admired work of art and “Last House” simply an early example of a splatter flick? The color and grain of the filmstock? Both movies were banned and censored upon their release, only to re-evaluated years later through different prisms. The violence in both films hasn’t lost its ability to shock and sicken. Bergman was raised in a devout Lutheran household, surrounded by religious imagery and discussion. Craven, who grew up in a strict Baptist family, earned an undergraduate degree in English and psychology from Protestant Wheaton College and a master’s degree in philosophy and writing from Johns Hopkins University. After turning away from a career in teaching, he began making shorts and industrials with Tom and Harry Chapin. Then, he honed his behind-the-camera skills in the yet-to-explode porn industry. He envisioned a film in which the violence would be shown in detail onscreen, and, as was so often the case with Westerns that glamorized violence and the “vigilante hero,” not give the public a misleading representation of death, especially in the wake of the Vietnam War. Because “Last House” did very well in its domestic release, except among critics, studios and colleagues in the world of indie films, he was henceforth labelled a “horror director.” Despite the perceived stigma, he was free to expand his vision in such crowd-pleasers as A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes and Scream, in which he came full-circle on the genre. While the Arrow Video Blu-ray has been newly restored in 2K from original film elements, the source material almost looks as cheesy as it did in 1972. The new and vintage bonus features are what sell this three-disc limited edition. They’re plentiful, informative, provocative, humorous and nostalgia-inducing. Moreover, even if you hit the pause button after 20 minutes, “Last House” is as difficult to ignore as a bad nightmare.

The Complete Sartana: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
After watching 10 Jerry Lewis movies back-to-back a couple weeks ago, I thought that 5 Spaghetti Westerns in a row would be a snap. No such luck. Arrow Video has been filling my mail box with so many Italian genre titles lately, I thought I’d catch a break after its “A Pistol for Ringo & The Return of Ringo: Two Films by Duccio Tessari” package, released two months ago. Then, a month later, came Film Movement Classics’ hyperviolent The Great Silence. I thought there was a Trinity title in there somewhere, but I could be mistaken. The movies included in Arrow’s The Complete Sartana might give you a hint of what I was up against: If You Meet Sartana … Pray for Your Death; I Am Sartana, Your Angel of Death; Have a Good Funeral My Friend … Sartana Will Pay; Light the Fuse … Sartana Is Coming; and Sartana’s Here … Trade Your Pistol for a Coffin, in which George Hilton replaced Gianni Garko in the lead role. Like Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, Terence Hill’s Trinity, Franco Nero’s Django, Lee Van Cleef’s Sabata and Giuliano Gemma’s Ringo, Garko’s Sartana withstood numerous changes through the character’s lifetime, including imitations, new leading men, directors and co-stars; and cross-over movies. Giani “Johnny” Garko introduced a character named Sartana Liston in the 1966 Spaghetti Western, $1,000 on the Black (a.k.a., “Blood at Sundown”), and in his next film, 10,000 Dollars for a Massacre, he played Django, as Gary Hudson. In addition to the movies included in the Arrow box, Sartara would make appearances in a dozen more Westerns, with several more actors filling in for Garko and Hilton. In them, he was paired with and/or against Django, Trinity, Sabato and Ron Ely’s Hallelujah. Are you still with me, because I’m fading fast. The things that set Sartana apart from the other Spaghetti Western heroes were his cape, card tricks, unusually good grooming, a fondness for gadgetry and trick weapons, and a droll sense of humor. Robert Conrad’s James T. West comes to mind. Like the Man With No Name hero of Sergio Leone’s first Western, A Fistful of Dollars, Sartana manipulates other parties to fight each other and promote his interests. He also resembles Colonel Mortimer, the second protagonist in For a Few Dollars More, in that he carries a set of special weapons, including a derringer with a reversible barrel. (Don’t ask.) All of that said, however, fans of Westerns in general, and Spaghetti Westerns, in particular, will appreciate the TLC that went into “The Complete Sartana: Limited Edition,” especially the 2K upgrades, newly conducted interviews, commentaries, archived featurettes, artwork, essays and photo/media gallery.

Funeral Day
The two latest titles from Random Media both deal with imminent death. One’s a talky drama and the other is dark comedy. The most recognizable actor in Jamison M. LoCascio and Adam Ambrosio’s Sunset – the drama — is veteran character actor Austin Pendleton, whose first important acting credits came in Otto Preminger’s Skidoo (1968), Mike Nichols’ Catch-22 (1970) and Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972). Among other things, Pendleton was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Director, for directing Elizabeth Taylor in a 1981 revival of Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes.” Here, he’s part of a small, but diverse company of actors whose primary responsibility is to look as if a nuclear warhead is about to land on their heads … which is exactly what’s about to happen to them. First, at a dinner gathering, the guest discuss the morality of reciprocating tit-for-tat to the expected attack by an unnamed country; then, the couples and a friend separately debate whether or not to evacuate; and, finally, they bend over and kiss their asses goodbye. No, I made that last one up … close though. The whole movie would feel far more intimate and suspenseful if performed on stage. On the screen, viewers have the time and freedom to wonder out loud why they aren’t being told which country is attacking us, why its leaders are pissed off at us or why the missiles are taking their good-natured time getting to New York. (L.A. was bombed hours earlier and terrorists don’t have ICBMs, yet.) Given the stupidity of the nut balls with their fingers on the nuclear triggers these days, Sunset certainly is topical enough. It might have felt more realistic if it were set in 1962, however.

Jon Weinberg and Kris Elgstrand’s Funeral Day is an inky comedy about a neurotic young man, Scott (Weinberg), who, after finding what he thinks is a lump on a testicle, becomes convinced that he’s about to make a long, painful descent to the grave. He discovers it on the same morning that he’s scheduled to attend the funeral of a friend, who died a couple days earlier of cancer. Doctor Oz might suggest that there are a few options available to him: 1) call his doctor and make an appointment for the first opening that day; 2) attend the funeral, then call his doctor to make an appointment; 3) make a beeline to the nearest emergency room and wait five hours for a doctor to give him a five-minute exam; 4) check out the facts on survival rates, proven treatments and the difference between benign and malignant tumors on WebMD; 5) ignore the previous options and panic. Not surprisingly, Scott chooses what’s behind door No. 5. Like too many other people who are likely to die of cancer before they’re able to celebrate their next, final Christmas, he’s too afraid of what a doctor might tell him and refuses to call for an appointment. Instead, he immediately visits old girlfriends to beg for sympathy and seeks the advice of strangers in a park. He does, however, find some relief in a hand job and mercy screw. Will he come to his senses before his allotted 79 minutes of screen time are over? Stay tuned.

Acorn TV: Striking Out/Delicious: Series 2
Discovery: Shark Week: Sharktacular Adventurers
PBS: Rwanda: The Royal Tour
Nickelodeon: Nella the Princess Knight: Royal Quests
Is this a great time to be a couch potato, or what? In addition to the over-the-air broadcast networks, we can choose from hundreds of cable/dish channels and premium channels that offer movies and original programming. Because these services make money from the infomercials and shopping networks they carry, they’re loathe to offer a la carte packages that allow customers to purchase only the stations they watch. Rising prices have forced viewers to question the value of such services, causing cancellations and creating a market for TV-to-DVD packages and other alternatives. Soon enough, such streaming services as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Sling and Vudu took up the gauntlet by bundling the same network, premium and original programming that cable/dish services offered, without the home-shopping, religious, infomercial and junk-sports channels that added pennies on every dollar we’re billed, and fees, minus anything worth watching. Savvy viewers have since learned how to get the most bang from their bucks, without sacrificing programming from the broadcast networks and local affiliates, even in hi-def.

What’s really been fun is discovering services that bundle dramas, sitcoms, mini-series and vintage programming from around the world, via set-top boxes, smart-TVs and apps for personal viewing on smartphones. For a fee that I consider to be reasonable, Acorn TV and BritBox offer a bounty of English-language programming from England, Scotland, Canada, Australia, Ireland and Australia, some of which have been shown here on BBC America and PBS. MHz Networks offers the best in foreign-language series and shows, including some that have been remade with English-speaking casts – “The Tunnel,” “The Bridge” and “Wallander” for example – and regionalized plot lines. Acorn and MHz also release quality content on DVD. If you’re going to spend good money on fancy home-theater systems and cable/satellite equipment, anyway, why not learn how to make the most of it?

This month’s DVD selection from Acorn includes second-season compilations of “Striking Out” and “Delicious,” both of which are binge-worthy. The former is a popular legal drama from Ireland that follows the tumultuous professional and personal life of Dublin-based solicitor, Tara Rafferty (Amy Huberman) and her fledgling firm, which specializes in family law. Other key players are Emmet Byrne, as office assistant Ray Lamont, a petty criminal Tara once represented in court; Meg Riley (Fiona O’Shaughnessy), a duplicitous private detective and computer whiz; George Cusack (Maria Doyle Kennedy), Tara’s seen-it-all office partner; Eric Dunbar (Rory Keenan), Tara’s cheating ex-fiancé and former colleague, and his too-tempting-to-resist brother, Sam (Moe Dunford); and senior counsel Vincent Pike (Neil Morrissey), Tara’s mentor and friend. As the season opens, we learn that Tara’s been evicted from her former offices, presumably by her former boss, who also is Eric’s scheming father. To pay the bills, she takes on clients whose legal problems range from deportation and nasty divorces, to bigamy and a lawsuit against a convent. The show’s basic structure and romantic entanglements should remind American viewers of such shows as “L.A. Law,” “Law & Order,” “The Good Wife” and “Damages.” Although a bit more dark comedy and fooling around probably wouldn’t hurt, it’s easy quite binge-worthy, The special features include a behind-the-scenes featurette and a panel discussion recorded at the Television Critics Association’s biannual séance, with Huberman and Morrissey discussing their characters, legal jargon and working in Dublin.

The second Acorn release is “Delicious,” a workplace drama set in a palatial country hotel, with a first-class restaurant, located in lovely South East Cornwall, England. In Season Two, a year has passed since the death of the horndog celebrity chef Leo Vincent (Iain Glen). His ex-wife, Gina (Dawn French), and widow, Sam (Emilia Fox) – both of whom he deceived — have turned the failing hotel he left behind into a profitable enterprise, thanks to some ill-gotten money that went unmentioned in his will and, therefore, untaxed. When the two women aren’t kvetching and squabbling, Gina does the cooking, while Sam manages the business. Iain’s ghost figures prominently in Season Two, even as a bright young chef (Adam Hasketh) arrives out of nowhere to prepare Gina’s recipes. For my money, the soap-opera aspects of “Delicious” are extremely grating and the women’s working relationship is too contrived. Their nearly adult children, who can’t keep their hands off each other, are insufferable, as well. Gina’s estranged and humorously incorrigible father, Joe, is played with great relish by the wonderful Italian actor, Franco Nero. The stunning scenery and Pentillie Castle setting compensate for the frequently strident dialogue. The DVD adds a behind-the-scenes featurette, in which cast and crew members discuss the characters, food, setting and what’s new in Season Two, and a behind-the-scenes photo gallery.

Christmas in July is a faux holiday celebrated on television, anyway, by the Hallmark Channel and the QVC shopping network. Following the recent death of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and subsequent transfer in ownership of the Playboy Mansion, the summer’s most famous lingerie and roller-disco party, Midsummer Night’s Dream, has been moved to the Marquee Nightclub at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas on July 28. With Independence Day fireworks a smoky memory and Bastille Day yet to come, loyal Discovery Channel viewers know that July won’t really begin until Shark Week 2018 kicks off, this year on Sunday, July 22. The network’s premiere event premiered on July 17, 1988, when original cable programming was in its infancy. It was devoted to conservation efforts and correcting misconceptions about sharks. Over time, it’s grown in popularity and the breadth of shark-related shows has widened to satisfy the interests of its fan base. Anyone hoping to get a head start on the festivities is invited to check out all 754 minutes of “Shark Week: Sharktacular Adventurers,” which collects 18 episodes from the 2017 iteration of the event, the highlight of which was swimming superstar Michael Phelps racing against sharks in Bimini. The episodes range from in-depth scientific studies to horrifying stories of shark attacks. Temporarily available at Target outlets, the Blu-ray edition of “Shark Week: 30th Anniversary Edition” features 30 years’ worth of fan-selected favorites, such as “Air Jaws,” “How Jaws Changed the World,” “Prehistoric Sharks,” “Diary of a Shark Man” and “Bull Shark: World’s Deadliest Shark.” Otherwise, it becomes available on September 4th, 2018.

Ten years ago, the thought of visiting the Central African country of Rwanda for anything other than a relief mission was considered to be preposterous. Even though the nearly four-year-long Civil War and genocide officially ended 12 years earlier, the images of savagery and intolerance remained fresh. The conflict pitted Hutu and Tutsi forces against each other, resulting in the concurrent mass murder and rapes of as many as 1 million Tutsi, Twa and moderate Hutus. It would take another 20 years for the UN-established International Criminal Tribunal and Gacaca genocide courts to complete their business. In the meantime, such disturbing fact-based films as Hotel Rwanda (2004), Sometimes in April (2005), Shake Hands With the Devil (2007), A Sunday in Kigali (2007) and the documentary Earth Made of Glass (2010) convinced adventure tourists, naturalists and honeymooners to sample other destinations, instead. PBS’ “Rwanda: The Royal Tour” provides the first evidence I’ve seen that the country is ready to welcome visitors interested in sampling its many geographical, cultural and zoological treasures. In fact, tourism has become one of the country’s fastest-growing economic resources, with 1.3 million visitor arrivals logged in 2017. An estimated 94,000 tourists visited Nyungwe National Park, Akagera National Park and Volcanoes National Park. Tourism has generated 90,000 jobs and is Rwanda’s largest foreign exchange earner. The World Bank has ranked Rwanda the third easiest place to do business in Africa, with the continent’s second fastest growing economy, and it has been awarded for its leadership in tourism and competitiveness by the World Travel and Tourism Council and the World Economic Forum respectively. Host Peter Greenberg imparts much the same information in his extended interviews with current Rwandan president and former guerrilla leader Paul Kagame, and during stops along their joint tour of the country’s primary attractions. Chief among them is the replenishment of the native wildlife population – also diminished during the war – and opportunities to commune with mountain gorillas in expensive guided tours, some conducted by former poachers. For an entire week, Kagame became the ultimate guide, showcasing the visual gems that his country has to offer. Together, they went gorilla trekking through Volcanoes National Park, jet-skied in Lake Kivu, explored Nyungwe Forest National Park on an elevated canopy walkway, and saw a variety of wildlife on a safari through Akagera National Park.

Nickelodeon’s “Nella the Princess Knight: Royal Quests” is comprised of eight episodes from the cable network’s popular kids’ adventure show. It follows Nellla and her friends, as they embark on daring quests to save her kingdom. They range from tracking down the rare Bafflin, to teaching a dragon the true meaning of friendship.

The DVD Wrapup: Acrimony, Sheikh Jackson, El Sur, Endless, Back to Burgundy, Hamlet, Mimic, M:I 4K, Addiction, Vigil … More

Wednesday, June 27th, 2018

To say that Melinda, Taraji P. Henson and Ajiona Alexus’s character in Tyler Perry’s Acrimony, has rage issues is like comparing the lava pouring from Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano to the acid reflux one experiences after eating too much pizza. Both burn, but only one of them destroys everything in its path.

The DVD Wrapup: Acrimony, Sheikh Jackson, El Sur, Endless, Back to Burgundy, Hamlet, Mimic, M:I 4K, Addiction, Vigil … More

Wednesday, June 27th, 2018

Tyler Perry’s Acrimony: Blu-ray
To say that Melinda, Taraji P. Henson and Ajiona Alexus’s character in Tyler Perry’s Acrimony, has rage issues is like comparing the lava pouring from Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano to the acid reflux one experiences after eating too much pizza. Both burn, but only one of them destroys everything in its path. Alexus’ Melinda is a college student who erupts when she catches her boyfriend, Robert (Antonio Madison), a chemical-engineering student, cheating on her. Instead of simply slapping the dude’s face and attempting to rip off her rival’s wig – as is what usually happens on “Cheaters” – Young Melinda rams her car into Robert’s mobile home, causing her to undergo an emergency hysterectomy. While Melinda is recovering, an apologetic Robert visits her in the hospital and they make plans to get married. At this point in Acrimony, Robert is, indeed, leeching on Melinda’s inheritance, primarily, though, to finance an invention he expects to make them both rich. Years later, Older Melinda is still supporting Robert’s dream of creating a self-charging battery. He even talks her into mortgaging her mother’s house, something that doesn’t endear him to his in-laws. A few years slide by and Robert re-connects with his old flame, Diana (Crystle Stewart), who just happens to be working in the same office as the venture capitalist Robert has been trying to impress. After Diana convinces her boss to check out the gizmo, he offers Robert $800,000 for all rights to it. When Robert turns it down, he receives a tongue-lashing from Melinda that could peel rust from wheelbarrow. She also demands a divorce.

While Melinda is working on getting her groove back, Robert is living in a shelter and washing dishes. Somehow, Diana gets the investor to reconsider his offer, and Robert is handed a multimillion-dollar deal that allows him maintain rights to the technology. Still pissed at her ex-husband for an affair she believes took place between him and Diana – it didn’t — Melinda refuses to accept his apology for spending her inheritance. She does, however, pocket the $10-million check he gives her, along with the keys her old house. After thinking it through a bit more closely, she goes to Robert’s new penthouse apartment and attempts to seduce him. She’s mortified when Diana enters the living room and introduces herself as Robert’s fiancé. It’s at this point that Melinda goes completely off her rocker and unsuccessfully sues Robert for half of his earnings. The rest of Acrimony depicts Melinda’s complete meltdown and final attempt to make him see things her way. As usual, there’s nothing subtle about Perry’s approach to his own material. Every movement is telegraphed well ahead of time and key plot twists lack credibility. The good news comes in knowing that Madea is nowhere in sight and the familiarity the mini-mogul feels with the cast members pays off in performances that are much better than those in his comedies. The R-rated Acrimony only grossed $2 million less than the PG-13 Boo 2! A Madea Halloween, which, I think, is saying something. It helps the bottom line, as well, that Perry tends to work with crew members who know exactly what he wants and gives it to him. Although Acrimony reportedly was shot in eight days, it looks as good as most pictures shot in four weeks and with a larger budget. A making-of featurette hosted by Perry offers a glimpse at how such a miracle occurs, while cast members extoll the virtues of working in an atmosphere of mutual trust and top-down encouragement.

Sheikh Jackson
Filmmakers around the world face far worse fates than being snubbed by an Academy Award nominating committee, not being certified “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes or not being recognized by the maître d’ at Spago. Dutch multi-hyphenate Theodoor “Theo” van Gogh was murdered for producing a short film that criticized the treatment of Islamic women. Award-winning movies by Iranian filmmakers Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi are routinely banned by the country’s censors, and the directors can’t leave the country. Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ prompted violent attacks on theaters showing the film by Christian fundamentalists in France. Chinese censors not only banned Chen Kaige’s Palme d’Or-winning Farewell My Concubine, but Harvey Weinstein also demanded it be trimmed by14 minutes in its U.S. release; Zhang Yimou’s Oscar-nominated Raise the Red Lantern was banned from release in China for three years; Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s The Interview so infuriated the North Korean government that it threatened action against the United States if Columbia Pictures released the film, and, when it refused, Sony Pictures became the victim of a massive computer hack; Russian censors failed to see the humor in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan and The Death of Stalin, and banned them; and, of course, in the United States, the MPAA does the government’s bidding by labeling controversial films NC-17, effectively forcing cuts be made to them or else run the risk of being excluded from multiplexes. The good news comes in knowing that 15 years after he was punished for Raise the Red Lantern, Zhang chosen to direct the Beijing portion of the closing ceremonies of the 2004 Summer Olympics, in Athens, Greece, as well as the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics, in China. So, there is hope.

Last year, Egypt submitted the intriguingly titled Sheikh Jackson to AMPAS for consideration in the category of Best Foreign Language Film. Although it wasn’t nominated, Amr Salama’s provocative drama accomplished the next best thing, by being cleared and authorized for exhibition by Egypt’s censorship committee. That wasn’t the end of the story, though. According to an article entitled “Social Islamism in Egypt,” posted on Nervana Mahmoud’s current-affairs blog, Nervana, it faced an even larger hurdle. Egypt’s general prosecutor initiated an investigation against Salama after a “member of the public,” a Giza-based solicitor, accusing Sheikh Jackson and its director of “contempt of religion.” She explains, “Rather than dismissing the complaint as nonsense and discharging the accuser of wasting valuable time in the Egyptian legal system, the prosecutor opted to interrogate the movie director, Salama, and refer the film to Al-Azhar to provide a verdict on the charges. When film critic Tarek El-Shenawy defended the film, many Facebook readers responded with ugly insults and replies against him, the film and even art in general.” In some countries, this sort of attack might have assured long lines at the box office. In others, it can put a target on the backs of everyone involved in the project. Cleopatra Entertainment picked up Sheikh Jackson for theatrical distribution in early 2018, but I couldn’t find any indications that it was seen outside the Toronto and Cleveland film festivals and screenings arranged for Oscar nominators. It’s certainly possible that potential exhibitors not only feared upsetting Americans who blame Islam for everything that ails them, but also touching off protests by fundamentalists here. Niche distributor MVD Entertainment Group is releasing the film on DVD, and it’s well worth checking out.

In it, Omar Ayman Altounji and Ahmad El-Fishawi play the title character, Khaled Hani, as a child and adult, respectively. As a teenager, Khaled filled a void in his life by listening obsessively to the King of Pop’s music, dressing like him and attempting to moonwalk. His only friend at school is Sherine (Salma Abu-Deif), who turned Khaled on to Jackson, in the first place, and impresses him with her ability to effortlessly master different musical instruments. After his mother’s untimely death, the responsibility for raising Khaled is contested by his menacing macho-man father, Hani (Maged El Kedwany), and his deeply religious uncle (Mahmoud El-Bezzawy), neither of whom admire Jackson’s artistry. Flash forward several years, and Khaled has grown into a dedicated imam, with a family of his own. We sense that something is missing in his life, but don’t quite know what it is. Neither does he. That is, until he overhears the radio in nearby car, announcing Jackson’s death in Los Angeles. He’s so shocked by the news that he steers his car into a barricade, damaging its front end. Suddenly, too, Khaled is overtaken by an overwhelming crisis of faith that causes him to hallucinate visions of Jackson among the worshippers at his mosque and break into tears during services. The only way he’ll be able to get to the core of his malaise is to bore deep within himself and confront long unresolved issues. To this end, he benefits from the guidance of fellow imams, the advice of a psychiatrist, a chance meeting with a fully grown Sherine and an overdue visit with his aging father. Salama leaves enough loose ends untied at the end of the 93-minute drama to encourage viewers to debate what might happen to Khaled and his future as an imam. (If he had been obsessed with Elvis, Khaled could have moved to Memphis and opened a mosque in the shadow of Graceland.) I can see where Islamic fundamentalists might reject Khaled’s decision to put his trust, temporarily, in someone other than God … including a woman shrink, who dresses in western fashion. These days, movies in which priests, nuns, ministers and Mormon missionaries are rocked by things far more testing than a Michael Jackson fixation, are almost as commonplace as movies about zombies. In Egypt and throughout the Arab world, however, fundamentalists who wouldn’t otherwise step into a movie theater possess the power to ruin the fun for everyone.

El Sur: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Ten years after making his mark on Spanish cinema and habitués of the international festival circuit with The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), Víctor Erice returned to filmmaking with his remarkable adaptation of a novella by Adelaida García Morales, “El Sur: Seguido De Bene.” Another decade would pass before Erice delivered his third and final feature, an acclaimed bio-doc of artist Antonio López, The Quince Tree Sun. He wouldn’t contribute anything more than segments to a few anthologies and shorts, until 2006, when the museum installation, “Víctor Erice/Abbas Kiarostami: Correspondence,” was launched in Barcelona for exhibition in institutions around the world. The Criterion Collection release of El Sur (“The South”), the second of his three acknowledged masterworks, recalls the anticipation shared by film buffs of every new Terrence Malick movie – five, in all – between 1973’s brilliant Badlands and 2011’s artistically ambitious and thoroughly enigmatic The Tree of Life. Malick hasn’t stopped working since, confounding critics and fans in equal measures. I mention Malick because what’s so noteworthy about both men’s work is their shared dedication to exquisitely framed images; a painterly use of light, shade and color; spare dialogue and voiceover narration; and an insistence on capturing artistic tableaus exactly as they were envisioned. El Sur expands upon the director’s fascination with childhood, fantasy and the legacy of his country’s horrible civil war. His daughter, Estrella, grows up on a rural estate in the north of Spain, captivated by her enigmatic father, a man who combines science and magic as a practicing doctor and diviner. Agustín Arenas (Omero Antonutti) was raised in the south of Spain, but he traveled north after disagreeing with his father on which sid to back in the divisive conflict.

He remained in the north, with his wife, Julia, Estrella, without shedding many vestiges of his southern upbringing or sharing the mysteries of his heart and soul with his family. Among the hidden secrets is an unexplained obsession with a B-movie starlet (Aurore Clement) that manifests itself in clandestine visits to a theater in the city and scribbling her name in notebooks hidden in his office. In El Sur, the adult voice of Estrella (María Massip) narrates the story of her childhood, especially her curious relationship with Agustin, during a period that roughly spans her First Holy Communion, at 8, to his disappearance from her life, at 15. She’s played by Sonsoles Aranguren and Icíar Bollaín, who look as if they’re sisters. The film ends abruptly, but satisfactorily, with her preparing to board a train for the Mythic South, where’s she’ll meet a different set of relatives – her grandmother and aunt traveled north for her First Communion — and discover clues to the mystery that was her father. Sadly, we may never know how Erice would have interpreted that segment of Morales’ book. That’s because, even as he was about to begin shooting the second half of El Sur, his producer delivered the bad news that financing had fallen through and the picture wouldn’t be completed as anticipated.

The abbreviated version of El Sur, on display in this Criterion Collection gem, debuted before an unsuspecting Cannes audience shortly after the plug was pulled on further production. Apparently, the director had no say in the decision, and the film was hailed as a finished product. Even at 95 minutes, El Sur is an amazing work for several reasons. Not the least of them was the ability of cinematographer José Luis Alcaine (Volver) and camera operator Alfredo Mayo (Burnt Money) to impeccably re-create the paintings of Vermeer, Rembrandt, Da Vinci and Michelangelo that informed Erice’s longtime vision. (Stanley Kubrick accomplished much the same thing in Barry Lyndon.) As discussed in bonus featurette, his cinematic influences included a host of directorial giants, ranging from Renoir (The River) to Nicolas Ray. I don’t know if I’ve seen another movie that so precisely captures the intangible bond between fathers and daughters, even when it’s stretched to its limits. The Criterion package adds an almost unbearably sad interview with Erice, from 2003, in which he discusses what might have been, if he had been allowed to finish the film, and how Estrella’s visit to the south would have gone. Another piece reflects upon the creation of the film, featuring interviews, from 2012, with Antonutti, Aranguren, Bollaín, Alcaine and Mayo. There’s an episode of “¡Qué grande es el cine!,” from 1996, featuring film critics Miguel Marías, Miguel Rubio and Juan Cobos, all gushing over El Sur; an essay by novelist and critic Elvira Lindo; and a new edition of the novella, which reveals how the finished movie might have ended.

Manila in the Claws of Light: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
It’s entirely fitting that Martin Scorsese was asked to introduce the Criterion Collection edition of Lino Brocka’s Manila in the Claws of Light, not only for his tireless advocacy of movie restoration, but also because it fits so well alongside Mean Streets as an example of urban tragedy. The Philippine filmmaker’s life was cut short in 1991, at 52, by a fatal automobile accident in Quezon City. His career was divided between pictures expressively made for commercial purposes and those designed to call attention to the plight of society’s outsiders and misfits, especially the slum-dwellers, prostitutes, call boys and undocumented workers who make up the underclass of the country’s largest city. Like so many other Third World capitals, Manila is portrayed as being a mecca for poverty-stricken young people from the provinces, whose traditional livelihoods dried up a generation earlier and can’t afford to stay there anymore. (The same could be said about New York City, in the 1970-80s, when prostitution, porn, drug-dealing and squatting provided an alternative economy.) What they discover are “libertarian dystopias,” where the city’s poor grasp for the little wealth that has yet to be distributed through jobs and relief agencies. They are breeding grounds for the kind of poverty that creates its own victims and predators, and where every cop has his price and every public official is corrupt.

In Manila in the Claws of Light (1975), a young fisherman, Julio Madiaga, (Bembol Roco) arrives in the capital on a quest to track down his girlfriend, Ligaya Paraiso (Hilda Koronel), who was lured there earlier. She was promised an education and legitimate work, but no one had heard from her in months. After running out of money, Julio takes an extremely dangerous, low-wage job at a construction site. At night, he shares food and conversation with fellow laborers in a crowded space provided by the company. In between, Julio navigates far meaner streets than any in Little Italy, searching for a woman he suspects – correctly –is hidden behind locked doors in a brothel and doing the bidding of a man who claims he owns her. Death strikes without warning on the construction site, in the streets and in the garbage-strewn shacks that line the city’s toxic waterways. Corruption and exploitation are commonplace in all the layers of government and society. President Marcos has imposed martial law, in response to rising political tumult. His wife, Imelda, spends her time hobnobbing with celebrities and buying shoes.

When Julio’s job comes to end, a street hustler encourages him to turn tricks to finance his mission. It’s one of the few endeavors open to young men that pays well and affords them the luxury of upward mobility. It’s ironic that he agrees to enter the same world in which his lover is trapped, but hardly shocking. One needn’t be gay or a twink to make money, either. Being cute, empathetic and available normally will suffice. One of the things that makes the film so compelling is Brocka’s ability to shoot freely in the same squalid neighborhoods that Julio and Ligaya would have visited after their arrival in Manila. These include teeming streets and markets, rubbish-strewn slums, neon-lit bars and brothels, and a humungous garbage dump, where peasants attack each newly arrived truck as if it were delivering bags full of money. Manila in the Claws of Light may not be unique in its depiction of life under such horrid conditions — poverty and squalor are universal — but, as humanitarian melodrama, it stands out within the context of its time and place. The new 4K digital restoration was achieved by the Film Development Council of the Philippines and Cineteca di Bologna/L’Immagine Ritrovata, in association with the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, LVN, Cinema Artists Philippines, and cinematographer Mike De Leon. It adds “Signed: Lino Brocka” (1987), a feature-length documentary about the director, by Christian Blackwood; “Manila … a Filipino Film,” a 1975 documentary about the making of the film, featuring Brocka and actors Hilda Koronel and Rafael Roco Jr. (a.k.a., Bembol Roco); analysis with critic, filmmaker and festival programmer Tony Rayns; and an essay by film scholar José B. Capino.

Dogs of Democracy
Rome has its cats. Venice has its pigeons. San Francisco has its parrots. And, New York has its rats. Mary Zournazi’s compelling essay-documentary, Dogs of Democracy, describes the almost symbiotic relationship that has developed between the many stray dogs of Athens and a citizenry beleaguered by an unending series of demands for financial sacrifices and government austerity. Zournazi, who grew up in Australia, explores life on the streets of the capital through the eyes of the dogs — many of them old and infirm — and the people, many of them crippled by layoffs and cutbacks, who are dedicated to keeping them fed. Among the dogs and Athenians we meet are a mutt named Loukanikos – after the sausage — and several political activists, who adopted him as a mascot for their anti-austerity protests. Loukanikos’ health was “severely burdened” by the inhaling of tear gas and other chemicals during the many riots and march in which he participated, and died during the film’s production at the home of an activist who cared for him. Just short of an hour in length, Dogs of Democracy tells a universal story about love and loyalty even cat people should enjoy.

The Endless: Blu-ray
The filmmaking team of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead may not be a brother act, but their first three pictures suggest that they might have dipped their toes in the same gene pool at some point in their lives. The Endless followed Spring and Resolution onto the festival circuit, where they won approval from critics, many of whom weren’t necessarily tied to genre flicks. They also collaborated on a segment in the horror anthology, “V/H/S: Viral.” If their names don’t ring a bell, it’s only because none of the studios have looked below the radar to find them. A perusal of the reviews that have greeted Benson and Moorhead’s films reveals a consensus on their place in the meta-genre subgenre. The working definition of the term is, “horror movies that make statements on horror movies,” typically as parody or homage. A quote that opens The Endless confirms the debt they owe H.P. Lovecraft: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” I’m not sure where the “meta-” fits in any consideration of The Endless, but, as was the case with Lovecraft’s writing, it straddles the boundaries separating pulpy horror, sci-fi, suspense and “weird fiction.” Its plot recalls an era when the American public and media were simultaneously fascinated and horrified by cults, based on the shared religious, spiritual or philosophical beliefs of their members. Among the best known are those associated with mass suicides and/or a willingness to die at the hands of government agents for the beliefs of charismatic males, including Jim Jones (Jonestown), David Koresh (Branch Davidians), Marshall Applewhite (Heaven’s Gate), Shoko Asahara (Aum Shinrikyo) and Luc Jouret and Joseph Di Mambro (Order of the Solar Temple).

In The Endless, the Doomsday Cult in question more closely resembles a summer camp for societal misfits. Moorhead and Benson co-star as brothers, Aaron and Justin, who receive a cryptic video message inspiring them to revisit the UFO death cult they escaped a decade earlier. Besides anticipating the Kool-Aid they’d be required to drink when the alien ship arrived, the brothers feared being castrated, as was the custom. It’s with much trepidation that they drive to the mountain retreat and pass a couple of residents, who look as if they’d stared into the sun for too long a time, looking for spaceships. Once inside the gates of Camp Arcadia, however, it’s Old Home Week. They’re warmly greeted by people they knew before they left the camp and invited to join in meals, campfires and other outdoors activities. The campers, who don’t appear to have aged in a decade, drink and sell homemade beer and smoke killer grass, which endears them to Aaron and Justin. Things begin to get weird, however, when multiple moons rise in the sky and the brothers are invited to play tug-of-war with an opponent that’s lurking in the shadows. The next day, they encounter places on the compound where time reversed itself every 10 minutes or so and an invisible force shield. As the members prepare for the coming of a mysterious event, the brothers race to unravel the seemingly impossible truth before their lives become permanently entangled with the cult. Because some of the characters are further out than others, the narrative occasionally gets a bit murky. Moorhead and Benson share an easy rapport that smooths the story’s wrinkles. The Blu-ray adds several making-of featurettes, interviews, commentary with the directors and producer, deleted scenes and “ridiculous extras.”

Spinning Man: Blu-ray
The twisty American procedural, Spinning Man, is helmed by a Swedish director (Simon Kaijser), who oversees an award-winning cast that includes a Brit, who was raised in Barbados (Minnie Driver); an Irishman, who now calls Malibu home (Pierce Brosnan); another Brit, successfully transplanted into Australian soil (Guy Pearce); and an Israeli actress (Odeya Rush), around whom the movie’s central mystery is built. The other key role is filled by the Phoenix-born Alexandra Shipp, whose father is African-American and her mother Caucasian. The story was adapted from George Harrar’s 2003 thriller by Matthew Aldrich, who co-wrote the story and screenplay for Coco, a movie that celebrates Mexican folk traditions. Who says Hollywood doesn’t celebrate diversity? Spinning Man was shot in and around Los Angeles, which any good locations scout can make look like a mid-sized college town in the Midwest. Pearce plays a philosophy professor, Evan Birch, suspected in the abduction and possible murder of a teenage clerk (Rush), who works at an equipment-rental stand at a local lake. Although he can’t remember being there, an inspection of his car produces evidence that could be linked to the crime. When confronted by police in front of wife (Driver) and daughter, the professor makes the mistake of thinking he can outsmart the cool and calculated detective, Malloy (Brosnan), whether or not he’s guilty. His wife has been through the drill before, when her husband was accused of seducing a student at a different school.

Indeed, Birch is set up like a bowling pin throughout most of Spinning Man. Viewers must consider several options: that he’s guilty, but too smart to be charged with a crime he’s already dodged once before; that he’s guilty and Mallory trips him up by picking an obscure philosophical nit; he’s innocent, but convicted on circumstantial evidence and the jury’s disdain for his arrogance; or he’s set free when the teenager returns from an unscheduled trip to Disneyland with her boyfriend. That’s two more options than we usually get. You can take your pick, because all the choices are valid in their own way. Personally, I would have preferred to see Mallory stack the circumstantial evidence against Birch and run off with poor Minnie Driver, whose character is sick of competing with teenage girls for her husband’s attention and could easily see herself living on the handsome cop’s pension for a while. Fans of the principle actors should find enough to like here to forgive lapses in narrative logic that mystery buffs won’t be able to overlook.  The extras include commentary by Kaijser, an “Inside Spinning Man” and deleted scenes.

Back to Burgundy
Cédric Klapisch’s picturesque family drama, Back to Burgundy, joins a growing list of movies designed to appeal to oenophiles and Francophiles, alike. After a decade abroad, Jean (Pio Marmal) learns of his estranged father’s failing health and returns to his hometown in Burgundy. He arrives in time to say goodbye to the man he blames for making his life intolerable as a teenager and unwilling to rejoin the family business since then. Jean still makes wine, with his wife, more than half a world away, in Australia. Having missed his mother’s funeral, for reasons he didn’t explain, Joel isn’t greeted with open arms by his strong-willed sister, Juliette (Ana Girardot), and responsible brother, Jérémie (François Civil). They’re happy to see him, but they fear how he will react to an inheritance that’s written in red ink and could cost them their legacy. France’s wine economy isn’t what it once was, and family-owned vineyards no longer are able to compete with corporations and growers less interested in high-quality reserves than more lucrative blends. As four seasons and two harvests fly by in picturesque Burgundy, the siblings are forced to reinvent their relationship to each other and balance tradition with reality. The younger siblings must also decide whether they’ll kowtow to Jean for the short period of time he plans to stay or stand up for themselves. Complicating matters is Jérémie’s marriage to the daughter of the landowner who expects to purchase part of his neighbor’s estate, for a song, and Jean’s increasingly fragile bond with his Aussie wife and son. On the plus side, though, Klapisch provides viewers plenty of opportunity to savor the process of making great wine and camaraderie that accompanies a rich harvest and successful first tasting. Bonus features include features “Shooting Back to Burgundy” and “The Wine of Burgundy”; the director’s commentary by director; more than 45 Minutes of additional scenes; and a blooper reel.

Escape Plan 2: Hades: Blu-Ray
Despite the pairing of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, the original 2013 version of Escape Plan pretty much stiffed in its domestic release. It did more than four times more business overseas, however, bringing the grand total to $137.3 million. Those kinds of numbers pretty much guaranteed a repeat performance – if only on DVD/Blu-Ray/VOD — but only if Escape Plan 2: Hades retained some of the talent from the first picture. Stallone and 50 Cent are the only actors who obliged, but that’s probably sufficient cause for action junkies to rejoice. Sly’s co-stars here are former WWE “superstar” Dave Bautista and Chinese kung-fu artist Huang Xiaoming, who, besides being married to Hong Kong superstar Angelababy, is a high-profile television star on the mainland … and that’s where the action is these days, folks. (Chinese film production company, Leomus Pictures, co-financed the film.) Otherwise, writer Miles Chapman helped save money by practically Xeroxing his script for the original and, presumably, the already in production triquel, “Devil’s Station,” with most of the other actors in place. The Hades Prison set looks as if it might have been created on the site of an abandoned laser-tag facility or vacant warehouse. That’s not a knock on the movie, because budget-minded remakes keep talented people working and foreign money in this direction. The Blu-ray adds several making-of featurettes and interviews.

The Escape of Prisoner 614
If the reincarnated spirit of Barney Fife reappeared unexpectedly in a contemporary police comedy, he might look and behave a lot like Martin Starr’s hapless sheriff’s deputy, Jim Doyle, in the (almost) direct-to-DVD The Escape of Prisoner 614. Not nearly as tightly wound as Barney was when confronted with actual police work in “The Andy Griffith Show” – or in the company of an overly amorous Thelma Lou – Doyle is the dimwitted sidekick of a more formidable deputy, Thurman Hayford (Jake McDorman). The deputies answer to Ron Perlman’s hard-ass sheriff, a.k.a., Sheriff, who doesn’t resemble Andy Taylor in any significant way and doesn’t think much of either one of them. When Sheriff questions Thurman about the lack of crimes reported to him under their watch, he credits good police work and the unwillingness of would-be criminals to test the deputies. Instead of praising the goofballs, he calls their bluff by firing them for eliminating the crime they were hired to prevent. No sooner does Sheriff depart for the county seat than Thurman fields a call from the warden of the local penitentiary, reporting the escape of a convicted cop killer, Prisoner 614 (George Sample III). Although Jim and Thurman no longer are authorized to do so, they decide to pursue the escapee to get back in the good graces of their boss. And, sure enough, the deputies somehow manage to overcome their strategic weakness – they waste their bullets shooting at tin cans — by capturing Prisoner 614, an African-American who professes his innocence of the crime for which he’s been convicted. In the two days that it takes for them to return to the station, where Sheriff’s been impatiently waiting, they come to believe the prisoner is telling the truth. Sheriff, who routinely refers to the prisoner as “boy,” can’t be bothered with anything except taking credit for his department’s solid police work. Before he can be returned to the prison, where he faces the death penalty, the deputies conspire with a waitress at the local diner to prevent such a travesty of justice from occurring. While in no way credible, Zach Golden’s debut is just entertaining enough to recommend to fans of “Hap and Leonard,” “Memphis Beat” and, perhaps, even, the TV version of “Fargo,” although it’s far less dark and far more competently made. With some work, The Escape of Prisoner 614 could serve as a pilot for a show on one of the off-brand cable networks.

Edward II: Blu-ray
It would be presumptuous of me to argue for putting a temporary hold on movies based on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” or any one of a half-dozen other plays that filmmakers can’t resist recycling, simply because I feel obligated to watch them in their entirety and review them. Still, I would gladly wait patiently for as long as it takes for someone with something new to say to add their name to the seemingly endless list of adaptors on … or, like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), successfully mine a new audience. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with the Royal Exchange Theater’s production of Hamlet (2015), which finds the estimable British actress Maxine Peake (The Theory of Everything) in the title role and, at least, looks different than previous productions. Sarah Frankcom and Margaret Williams’ innovative adaptation was captured live in Manchester and beamed live to cinemas, before making the transition to disc. This is a Hamlet for audiences that don’t mind in-the-round presentations, color- and gender-blind casting, modern dress and props, and the lack of a proscenium arch or apron stage, just as long as the director doesn’t tinker with the text. The Bard’s immortal words remain intact here, and they fit neatly within the disc’s 184-minute length.

It’s primarily for that reason that it took very little time for me to get used to the choice of a woman to the Prince of Denmark. Peake plays him straight, according the book, and without a feminist agenda informing the performance. Neither, as far as I can tell, were the casting choices made for the sake of novelty or irony. Peake’s blond hair is shorn to unisex length and she wears pants and a tailored white shirt. Her delivery is strong and gender-neutral. By the time Hamlet locks lips with fair Ophelia (Katie West), nothing seems out of the ordinary, which is as it should be. My hope is that people new to Shakespeare – on the stage or film – don’t watch one of these revisionist adaptations and skip more formal productions. Also released into theaters in 2015 was the National Theater Live’s Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Sian Brooke – also paired in PBS/BBC’s “Sherlock” – but the DVD has yet to cross the pond. It is 16 minutes longer and the actors wear clothes from the early in the 20th Century. My favorite version is Grigori Kozintsev’s Hamlet, with medieval Ivangorod Fortress, in Estonia, standing in for Elsinore, and a slate-gray sky reflecting the brooding nature of the text, which is Russian (with subtitles). It is further enhanced by Dmitri Shostakovich’s original symphonic score and a lively translation by Russian novelist and dissident Boris Pasternak. Seven years later, Kozintsev worked the same magic with King Lear. But, I digress. Film Movement’s release of the 2015 Hamlet can is tailored for students of the theater students and those whose hunger for Shakespeare can’t be sated.

Derek Jarman’s post-modern version of Christopher Marlowe’s classic Elizabethan tragedy, Edward II (1991), has been deemed an exemplar of the New Queer Cinema. The movement emerged in the early 1990s with an explosion of independently produced films that featured gay and lesbian protagonists and subjects; explicit and unapologetic depictions of gay sex; and a confrontational and often antagonistic approach towards heterosexual culture. Given the relative invisibility of references to AIDS in mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, these films were hailed within the gay/lesbian community as a welcome correction to a history of under-representation and stereotyping of LGBTQ characters and situations. The AIDS epidemic was far from over and conservative governments in Washington and London had yet to commit to finding a cure. Even the most liberal Democratic candidates for higher offices demonstrated a reluctance to putting too much of an emphasis on issues, like allowing gays in the military and same-sex marriage. The plot revolves around Edward II’s (Steven Waddington) infatuation with Piers Gaveston (Andrew Tiernan) and his bestowing of favors on the nobleman. It proves to be the downfall of both men, thanks to the machinations of the hugely ambitious nobleman, Roger Mortimer (Nigel Terry), lover to Queen Isabella (Tilda Swinton). The play telescopes most of Edward II’s reign into a single narrative, beginning with the recall of Gaveston, from exile, and ending with his son, Edward III, executing Mortimer the Younger for the king’s murder. Although historians disagree on the relationship between the king and Gaveston, Marlowe doesn’t disguise his belief that they were sexually and politically entwined. Jarman, who would die three years later of an AIDS-related illness, infused his adaptation with large dollops of male nudity, sexual writhing and depictions of Edward’s army as gay-rights protesters, played by gay-rights activists. It features a splendid performance by Swinton, who, in 1991, was widely considered to be Jarman’s muse. A post-Eurythmics Annie Lennox makes a cameo as the Singer. The new 2K restoration of the film adds the featurette, “Derek’s Edward” and “Queenie Queens on Top,” a new essay by filmmaker Bruce LaBruce, with a prologue by Swinton.

The Mimic: Blu-ray
Korean writer/director Huh Jung returns here for the first time since his 2013 thriller, Hide and Seek. Combining ghostly elements of 1990s J-horror and regional superstitions prevalent throughout Asian cinema, The Mimic crosses borders a little too often to be consistently suspenseful. When the key elements gel, however, The Mimic offers plenty of genuinely creepy moments, roughly divided by things that go bump in broad daylight and those that go bump in the night. It focuses on Hee-yeon (Yum Jung-ah) and Mi-ho (Park Hyuk-kwon), a married couple moving to a small town at the foot of Busan’s Mount Jang, with their young daughter, to get past the disappearance of their son, five years earlier. They also plan to include Mi-ho’s mentally ill mother to the household. The location is significant because of its proximity to the Jangsanbum, an evil tiger spirit with the power to imitate human voices. Mysterious things begin to happen after a dog from the couple’s kennel disappears into a hole in the cave’s entrance and a malevolent presence makes its presence known. It’s at this point when a practically feral little girl (Shin Rin-a) shows up out of nowhere and Hee-yeon takes her home with her, possibly as a substitute for her missing son. Before long, the otherwise mute tot begins to mimic the voice of her daughter and other inexplicable things begin to occur, sucking Hee-yeon deeper into her emotional morass. It begs the question as to whether Hee-yeon is going nuts or objectively bizarre things are causing her to react to them in ways that only seem crazed. When Mi-ho begins to transform himself into a ghoulish monster — whenever the mood hits, it seems – it sets up a climax that can only be satisfactorily resolved within the winding bowels of the cave. By this time, viewers will either by totally hooked on the hocus-pocus or hopelessly confused about where The Mimic is heading. To his credit, though, Huh helps maintain viewers’ attention with lovely mountain scenery and trippy special effects. The Blu-ray adds a pair of short EPK featurettes.

China Salesman: Blu-ray
Former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson must be an extremely popular dude in China, Southeast Asia and other foreign markets. He’s starred in a half-dozen mostly action movies filmed abroad, including  Girls vs Gangsters (Vietnam), Ip Man 3 (China), Gates of the Sun (Algeria), Kickboxer: Retaliation (Thailand) and China Salesman (China/Africa). Steven Seagal, who’s probably more popular overseas than here, also plays a featured character, albeit one who’s second fiddle to Iron Mike. Eriq Ebouaney (France), Janicke Askevold (Norway), Marc Philip Goodman (Mexico) and Li Dong-xue (China) add their own international flavors to the PRC-financed actioner. Supposedly based on a true story of a corporate intrigue, China Salesman appears to tread some of the same fictional African settings as the immensely popular Wolf Warrior II, which also was financed by Chinese investors and describes how Chinese ingenuity, technology and persistence is conquering the hearts, minds and wallets of sub-Saharan Africa. Any resemblance between the two movies beyond that are purely coincidental. Where Wolf Warrior II sold millions of tickets worldwide and received decent, if not ecstatic reviews, China Salesman stiffed in its theatrical release and was greeted by some of the snarkiest reviews I’ve read in quite a while. The trash-talking started when critics deduced that Seagal was using a stunt double in a fight with Tyson, staged inside a bar in a country in which alcoholic beverages are illegal. One suggested that Tyson used a stunt double, as well, with close-ups and grimaces provided by the co-stars afterwards. The convoluted storyline, along with a lack of character development and internal logic, also gave critics an easy target for their barbs. In it, a pair of global-telecom conglomerates, DH and MTM, are involved in a bidding war to become the primary mobile-network provider of an African country. When a civil war erupts, however, with insurgents led by mercenary Kabbah (Tyson), who is in cahoots with MTM, it’s left to Yan Jian (Li), DH’s chief engineer and salesman, to help the president secure a line of communication throughout the country and restore peace. Seagal’s Lauder owns the joint in which the fight occurred – he ordered the bartender to pee in a carafe and give it to the abstinent Kabba – and will take money from anyone willing to accept his terms. The action sequences might appeal to VOD audiences drawn by the stars’ reputations, but, except for the novelty of watching Tyson do something besides break walls and barrels with his fists, China Salesman is pretty weak stuff.

Mission: Impossible: 5-Movie Collection: Blu-ray, 4K UHD/HDR
Jack Reacher: Blu-ray, 4K UHD/HDR
With Mission: Impossible 6: Fallout about to open worldwide on July 26, or thereabouts, dedicated fans of the series have plenty of time to purchase an affordable 4K UHD/HDR system and binge on the newly reformated movies contained in the “Mission: Impossible: 5-Movie Collection.” Blu-ray owners can do the same thing, sans the bragging rights that come with all new technology. Frankly, I’ve become so used to watching big-budget action flicks on 4K that it isn’t until I catch up to the standard Blu-ray bonus features that I can tell the difference, anymore. While, in some instances, the audio/video presentations are less than transcendent, the difference is always noticeable and welcome. In the case of the first two installments of the “M:I” franchise collected here, the improvement from the 2007 Blu-ray releases is pronounced and can be appreciated, as well, by anyone disappointed at the time. The improvements in “M:I 3” are more incremental. And, while the Blu-ray editions of “M:I 4” and “M:I 5” were well done, the 4K upgrades are even better. That’s saying something. Because, presumably, I’m preaching to the Mission:Impossible faithful here, there’s no need to recap the individual stories. It should be noted, however, that three of the five have dialed the audio up a notch from Dolby Digital 5.1, to a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lossless soundtrack. Ghost Protocol recycles the same 7.1 Dolby TrueHD lossless presentation from the 2012 Blu-ray, which is OK, too. The most-recent episode, Rogue Nation, carries over the powerful Dolby Atmos soundtrack, while upgrading the visual presentation to 2160p/Dolby Vision. In another nice touch, No. 5 adds fresh bonus features to the package, split between two of the three discs. The other chapters retain the original supplemental material.

The first entry in Tom Cruise’s alternate stand-alone action franchise, Jack Reacher, finally makes the leap to 4K UHD/HDR, a full 15 months after the sequel, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, was introduced in the format. It adds some 4K/Dolby Vision oomph to the 2013 Blu-ray, which already was pretty decent, while porting over the preexisting 7.1-channel lossless soundtrack and all of the previously released supplements, which includes a pair of audio commentaries and a trio of featurettes. Lest we forget, a military sniper is severely beaten after his arrest for killing five random people. Before he slips into unconsciousness, he asks for Reacher (Cruise). Jack arrives and notices that things don’t add up. The evidence is too easily found. Someone is following him and, when hired goons try to get rid of him, he knows something bigger is going on.

The Curse of the Cat People: Blu-ray
The title may be more than a tad misleading, but fans of Val Lewton’s original Cat People (1942) shouldn’t find it difficult to enjoy The Curse of the Cat People for what it is: more of a continuation than a sequel. According to Hollywood legend, producer Val Lewton intended for the film to be a stand-alone portrait of dysfunction in a seemingly normal middle-class couple and how it affects their impressionable daughter. The story mirrored episodes in Lewton’s own upbringing and that of his daughter. There are ghosts aplenty in The Curse of the Cat People, if not as many cats of the humanoid or strictly feline variety. After recruiting the returning writer DeWitt Bodeen, composer Roy Webb, DP Nicholas Musuraca and actors Simone Simon, Kent Smith and Jane Randolph, all Lewton needed to create an instant sequel was a better title than “Amy and Her Friend.” Because of the typically skimpy budget handed Lewton by RKO, sets from Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) reportedly were re-purposed. Little Amy Reed (Ann Carter) is the daughter of Oliver (Smith) and Irena (Simon) Reed, who died at the end of Cat People. After the tumultuous events in the original, Reed decided to move upstate with Amy and his new wife, Alice (Randolph). When Amy begins to act out her dreams, hallucinations and fantasies, Alice blames it on her mother’s genetic influence. Extremely inquisitive and precocious, the 6-year-old is welcomed into a spooky old house, inhabited by an ancient actress, Julia Farren (Julia Dean), her estranged daughter (Elizabeth Russell) and Irene’s ghost, who resembles a fairy princess and is only visible to Amy. Things come to a head when the girl begins to disappear into her fantasies, possibly with the intention of joining her birth mother in the hereafter. In his first directorial assignment – filling in for an out-of-his-element Gunther von Fritsch — Robert Wise turned Mrs. Farren’s backyard into a magical setting for a mother/daughter reunion, as well as a place where local superstitions, including Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman, added a nightmarish touch to the proceedings. The Shout Factory release adds new commentary with author/historian Steve Haberman; a previously recorded track with historian Greg Mank and audio interview excerpts with Simone Simon; the new “Lewton’s Muse: The Dark Eyes of Simone Simon,” a video essay by filmmaker Constantine Nasr (“Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy”); and an audio interview with Ann Carter, moderated by Tom Weaver.

The Addiction: Special Edition: Blu-ray
What the 2000s have been for zombies, the 1990s were for vampires, and, while horror buffs might not recognize the fiends in Abel Ferrara and Nicholas St. John’s The Addiction (1995), they’re as legitimate as any played by Max Schreck, Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Catherine Deneuve. Set in a decidedly ungentrified Manhattan and shot in black-and-white – the chiarascuro greatly enhanced by Arrow Films’ 4K scan of the original camera negative – The Addiction uses blood lust as a metaphor for drug addiction, just it served as a metaphor for unbridled sexuality in hundreds of other vampire movies in the last 100 years. After being seduced by the euphoria associated with substance abuse, addicts become imprisoned within their own bodies, by a constant need for more drugs. In traditional vampire movies – and, of course, such revisionist sagas as “True Blood” and “Twilight” – victims are frequently lured into their addiction for blood by sexually alluring partners. In horror movies in which HIV/AIDS plays a role in a lover’s demise, it frequently is the result of a craving for sexual release so powerful that caution was thrown to the wind. Again, intense pleasure is followed by excruciating pain, and, in some cases, the fanged host lacks the ability to feel remorse for infecting the victim with his curse. The same sociopathic absence of guilt applies to junkies and alcoholics, who turn their lovers into addicts in exchange for the pleasure of their depleted company. Those are two of the things found lurking in the shadows of The Addiction, although a second or third viewing may be necessary to find them.

The perfectly cast film stars Lili Taylor as graduate philosophy student Kathleen Conklin. On her way home one night, she’s is assaulted by the aggressively vampish beauty, Cleopatra (Annabella Sciorra), who drags Kathleen into a darkened stairway and sinks her teeth into her. Soon, she can feel herself spiraling into a nightmarish world of blood addiction and existential angst. Driven by her merciless condition, she preys on friends, classmates and, even, her professor. Emboldened by her ability to stay reasonably healthy, Kathleen is waylaid by a far more urbane and sophisticated vampire, Peina (Christopher Walken), who controls his own addiction through fasting and meditation. (The hang out in artist Julian Schnabel’s high-ceiling pad.) He references Husserl, Nietzsche, Feuerbach and Descartes, while urging her to read William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” to understand her condition. The advice helps her achieve her goal of completing her graduate thesis, but the party she throws to celebrate turns into violent and blood-drenched group grope.

Ferrara leaves what happens next open to interpretation and contemplation, especially as it pertains to the notion that remorse and redemption can overwhelm sin. If this makes The Addiction sound too arty, pretentious or unappetizing, it’s worth noting that many mainstream critics have found it to be the most accessible and entertaining of Ferrara’s films, which are anything but mainstream. The Blu-ray adds worthwhile commentary by Ferrara, moderated by critic and biographer Brad Stevens; a new and lively featurette, “Talking with the Vampires,” featuring Walken and Lili Taylor, composer Joe Delia, cinematographer Ken Kelsch and the director; fresh interviews with Ferrara and Brad Stevens; the archival “Abel Ferrara Edits The Addiction,” from the time of production; a reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Peter Strain; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, containing new writing on the film by critic Michael Ewins. Keep an eye out for appearances, some very brief, by such New York-based, pre-fame actors as Edie Falco, Paul Calderon, Fredro Starr, Kathryn Erbe and Michael Imperioli.

Vigil: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Typically, when the words “new wave” and “New Zealand” are used in the same sentence, it’s in reference to surfing and the occasional tsunami-sized swells that only a handful of Kiwis are capable of riding. Add the names Roger Donaldson and Geoff Murphy to the sentence and the discussion turns to a nascent cinematic movement, which wouldn’t fully blossom until a decade later, when Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures), Jane Campion (The Piano) and Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors) picked up the baton. When Jackson committed to produce The Lord of the Rings on his home turf and foreign producers liked what they saw of the countryside and heard about the production crews, the dream of a sustainable industry became reality. The planes that once transported local actors and directors from Wellington, to new careers in London and Hollywood, now were returning with cabins full of artists from UpOver. This spring, Arrow Academy released shiny new editions of Donaldson’s Sleeping Dogs and Smash Palace on Blu-ray. This week, Vincent Ward’s visually stunning coming-of-age drama, Vigil (1984), has been accorded the same treatment. Next month, Arrow will send out his time-travel fantasy, The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988). In Vigil, the first New Zealand film to be invited to compete at Cannes, a stranger appears in the fog-shrouded cliffs overlooking an isolated farm at the same time as the man of the house accidentally falls to his death, rescuing a ram. After carrying the dead man’s body home, the stranger, Ethan Ruir (Frank Whitten), is asked by his wife’s crusty old father, Birdie (Bill Kerr), to stick around and help with chores that might otherwise have gone unfinished. The 12-year-old daughter, Toss (Fiona Kerr), who witnessed the accident, sees Ethan as a dark presence with nefarious intentions. Her mother, Elizabeth Peers (Penelope Stewart), is every bit as mistrustful of the intruder, but, as a former ballet dancer, is more put off by his brutish demeanor.

Considering how far off the beaten path the farm is, it should come as no surprise that Mom eventually finds relief for her sexual longing in the tall and muscular man’s company. What does come as something of a surprise is the unscheduled arrival of puberty, which causes Toss to wonder why she’s seeing something in Ethan that wasn’t there a few weeks earlier. Blessedly, it never gets to the point where viewers will want to turn their heads from the screen. Still, with an absence of friends and the loss of her father, it’s no wonder the precocious farmgirl has begun to experience growing pains. Kay’s performance is nothing short of remarkable. She handles Toss’ emotional transformations in ways that are completely credible and heart-churning, while also easing the character’s occasional flights into the realm of fantasy. Vigil was shot in the geologically diverse western section of New Zealand’s northern island.  Its main geographical feature is the stratovolcano of Mount Taranaki, whose base appears to be surrounded by brilliantly green and lush rain forests. The misty mountains are like something out of a fairy tale. Toss’ grandfather is too unsteady to work the land and Elizabeth is ready to head back to civilization, while there’s still time for Toss to make an easy transition into womanhood. Not all of things that happen in the final sequences make complete sense, but there’s no mistaking Ward’s ability to extract great performances from his actors and frame them against a backdrop of spectacular scenery. The pristine Blu-ray presentation adds a recently recorded appreciation by film critic Nick Roddick; an on-set report from the long-running New Zealand television program “Country Calendar”; an extract from a 1987 “Kaleidoscope” television documentary on New Zealand cinema, focusing on Vigil and Vincent Ward, who would go on to make Map of the Human Heart (1993) and What Dreams May Come (1998).

Puppet Master: Retro Limited Edition: Blu-ray
No proverb sums up the evolution of genre filmmaking in recent Hollywood history better than, “From little acorns do mighty oaks grow.” Substitute “wooden-headed monsters” for “acorns,” and “franchises” for “oaks,” and you’ve encapsulated the history of Charles Band’s horror empire and the rise of the direct-to-video market that flourished in the 1980s and continues to evolve in the age of YouTube, streaming and DIY filmmaking. After the collapse of his mini-studio, Empire Pictures, in 1988, Band relocated to the United States from Rome and opened Full Moon Productions. His goal was to create low-budget horror, sci-fi and fantasy films, while retaining a somewhat “big-budget” look. After partnering with Paramount Pictures and Pioneer Home Entertainment, Full Moon began production on its first feature film, Puppet Master, which enjoyed a direct-to-video release on October 12, 1989, sidestepping high costs for marketing, prints and distribution. It has spawned 10 sequels; a crossover project, with characters from Demonic Toys; an upcoming 2018 reboot, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, two comic-book mini-series; an ongoing comic-book series; and numerous collector’s items. Today, Full Moon Streaming adds yet another way for subscribers to watch the company’s growing inventory of genre titles. For the uninitiated, Puppet Master opens in 1939, in Bodega Bay, California, where an elderly puppeteer, André Toulon (William Hickey), is putting the finishing touches on a living puppet named Jester. A living Asian puppet, named Shredder Khan, stares out of the window, searching for his leader, Blade, who’s on a recon mission around the hotel. After Blade spots a pair of Nazi spies on their way to Andre’s room, he races ahead of them to warn his friends of the sneak attack.

André puts Blade, Jester and Shredder Khan into a chest with an Indian puppet, Gengie, before hiding the box in a wall panel. As the Nazis prepare to break down the door, Toulon shoots himself in the mouth with a pistol. Flash ahead 50 years, as psychics Alex Whitaker (Paul Le Mat), Dana Hadley (Irene Miracle), Frank Forrester (Matt Roe) and Carissa Stamford (Kathryn O’Reilly) descend on Bodega Bay with an old colleague of theirs, Neil Gallagher (Jimmie F. Skaggs), who resides at the inn. They expect to find clues to the secret of life, discovered by ancient Egyptians, but, instead, encounter killer puppets, each one uniquely equipped for murder and mayhem. In anticipation of Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, Full Moon released the original both on Blu-ray and a limited-edition “Vintage VHS Collection,” with the latter having only 3,000 units produced, and the first 300 being signed and numbered by Band. The more affordable set includes the uncut, remastered Blu-ray and a Blade figurine, contained in mock VHS box. Also from Full Moon comes the $299.95 (full retail) “Puppet Master Collection: Toulon’s Ultimate Collectible Trunk Set: Limited Edition: Blu-ray.” It’s housed in a detailed replica of Toulon’s travelling case, in a wood and metal-forged box set, containing all 11 official Puppet Master films re-mastered on Blu-ray, a 12th behind-the-scenes bonus disc, with more than six hours of behind-the-scenes footage; a mini Blade figure; collectible booklet; and new cover art for each film.

Searching for Victor ‘Young’ Perez: The Boxer of Auschwitz
Ascent of Evil: The Story of Mein Kampf
Who knows how many stories remain to be told about the millions of victims of the Holocaust, whose names are engraved on walls throughout Europe and Israel? While the Germans were meticulous in their recording of names, numbers and details about their prisoners’ transport, too much of what made each person special has been lost or left unrecalled by survivors. Until recently, that appears to have been the case with Victor “Young” Perez, a Tunisian Jew, who, in 1931, became the youngest world champion in boxing history. Twelve years later, he was deported to Auschwitz, where he was forced to box for the amusement of the camp guards. He died on the “death march” that left the camp on January 18, 1945. It wasn’t until 2013, when co-writer/director Jacques Ouaniche and Yoni Darmon completed their biopic about the hard-hitting flyweight, Victor “Young” Perez, that his story was disseminated. How widely, I can only guess. The film’s page on only shows one stop in the U.S. – the 2013 Hamptons International Film Festival – and two reviews, in French. The news may not have reached actor Tomer Sisley (The Heir Apparent: Largo Winch), who, a couple of years later, began taking boxing lessons for what he hoped to be a biopic about the same boxer. In Searching for Victor ‘Young’ Perez: The Boxer of Auschwitz, director Sophie Nahum follows Sisley as he conducts research with elderly Holocaust survivors who remember Perez and boxers who trained with him. One attempts to locate the Paris gym in which they sparred, while another shows Sisley the numerical I.D. tattooed on his arm, at Auschwitz. According to camp records, it was only two numbers away from those given Perez. They also uncovered a trove of photos, newspaper clippings and other memorabilia pertaining to his boxing career. Not having seen the previous movie, I found it fascinating. The second half of the documentary takes place inside the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and Memorial and remnants of other nearby death camps, with a different survivor escorting Sisley around some of the same quarters that housed prisoners. It’s heartbreaking, of course, but a little more research on Perez’ ordeal might have helped.

Left unspoken is the very real possibility that Perez was pitted against the Jewish-Greek middleweight, Salamo Arouch, portrayed by Willem Dafoe in Triumph of the Spirit (1989).  Arouch was able to survive the ordeal, likely through his participation in the exhibition bout. He died, in Israel, in 2009. Family members who were transported to Auschwitz with Arouch and Perez perished in the gas chambers. In an obituary published in the Washington Post after Arouch’s death, at 89, he’s quoted as saying his toughest opponent was a German-Jewish boxer, Klaus Silber, who had been an undefeated amateur boxer. He recalls that they sent each other sprawling out of the ring before Arouch recovered and knocked out his opponent. He never saw Silber again. After the release of Triumph of the Spirit, another Jewish-Greek middleweight champion, Jacques “Jacko” Razon, sued Arouch and the filmmakers for more than $20 million, claiming they had stolen his story and that Arouch had exaggerated his exploits. Razon clearly remembers boxing and working in the camp’s kitchens alongside Perez, as well as being forced on the same death march to Gleiwitz. According to the same obit, the case was later settled for $30,000. After the Allied victory, both the Greek sboxers emigrated to Palestine, where they fought in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. In case Sisley is still interested in pursuing his project, it appears as if Razon is still alive and living in Israel. The documentary includes a study guide.

Ascent of Evil: The Story of Mein Kampf describes how Adolph Hitler’s autobiographical manifesto, written while imprisoned for his failed 1923 coup attempt in Munich, became a default bible for millions of Germans in the leadup to World War II. Frédéric Monteil’s instructive documentary explains exactly how the 720-page, two-volume “Mein Kampf” evolved from a clumsy screed, dismissed as the ravings  of a mad man, to an international best-seller, whose sales continued after the war. Indeed, in the Internet Age, its circulation is wider than its ever been. Even so, much of the book’s history has been forgotten. Monteil uses historical footage, photographs and interviews with scholars to make the case that the blueprint for Hitler’s rise to power and everything that transpired afterward is on full display in “Mein Kampf,” which found an audience, despite condemnation by editorial writers, politicians and world leaders. It’s described as a simple book of paradoxes: famous, but unknown, fascinating and repulsive. Anyone who can watch “Ascent of Evil,” without reconsidering Donald Trump’s ghost-written tome, “The Art of the Deal,” isn’t paying attention.

Turtle Tale
Too many of the movies I’ve seen recently, featuring anthropomorphic animals to reach family audiences, have resorted to having dialogue emerge from the non-moving lips of the furred and feathered characters. The stories are trite and special effects are cheesy. It helps explain why the animated, live-action and hybrid features from Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks, Studio Ghibli, Aardman and other major companies continue to find successful in theaters, VOD and check-out counters, presumably around the world. At first glance, the cover of Liongate’s live-action/animation comedy, Turtle Tale, promised more of the same old thing. The first indication that it wasn’t came with the welcome sight of animal actors, who actually look as if they might be sharing dialogue with each other’s characters, moving their lips, beaks and jaws to simulate talking. It allowed me to focus on the story, instead the feeling that I was destroying brain cells with every passing moment. Here, though, the animal and human characters weren’t working at cross-purposes to each other. Turtle Tale is inspired by events that took place at the George C. McGough Nature Park, in Largo, Florida, which includes 15 acres of mangroves and submerged areas, as well as 20 acres of upland. It’s populated by several different varieties of indigenous turtles and tortoises, owls, raptors, snakes and lizards, several of which have speaking roles in the movie. There’s also a rehabilitation facility on the premises. Noah Schnacky (“In Sanity, Florida”) plays a locbal juvenile delinquent, who take the fall for an act of mindless vandalism. He’s sentenced to dozens of hours of community service at the nature park, where he meets a pretty, red-headed docent (Lily Cardone) and dedicated naturalist (Mary Rachel Quinn), who prove to be perfect role models for him. He befriends the critters, who talk about him behind his back, turns his life around. After some of his hoodlum buddies invade the park and endanger the animals, Calvin knows exactly where to find the culprits. Locating the animals is a tougher assignment, though.

PBS: NOVA: Decoding the Weather Machine
At a time when the President of the United States and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency wear their ignorance on their sleeves as climate deniers, it’s important that scientists, activists and documentary makers continue to bang the drum for the truth. The two-hour “NOVA” presentation, “Decoding the Weather Machine,” may be seen as preaching to he converted, but it’s important to keep people still sitting on the fence from falling for the propaganda spewed by bought-and-paid-for legislators, giant corporations and the pollution lobby. On the plus side, nothing makes for more exciting television than disastrous hurricanes. widespread droughts and wildfire, extreme floods and withering heat. Extreme rainfall. It is hard not to conclude that something’s up with the weather, and many scientists agree. It’s the result of the weather machine itself—our climate—changing, becoming hotter and more erratic. In this 2-hour documentary, NOVA will cut through the confusion around climate change. Join scientists on a quest to better understand the weather and climate machine we call Earth. Why do scientists overwhelmingly agree that our climate is changing, and how can we be resilient – even thrive -in the face of enormous change?

The DVD Wrapup: Double Lover, Death of Stalin, Flower, Hooked, Alex & Me, Guilty Men, Night of Lepus, Greaser’s Palace, Man in Orange Shirt … More

Thursday, June 21st, 2018

Double Lover: Blu-ray
Adapted from a Joyce Carol Oates novel, “Lives of the Twins,” written under the pseudonym of Rosamond Smith, Double Lover is as different from François Ozon’s previous period drama, Franz, as noon is to midnight. The same could be said about most of the movies in Ozon’s credits. Double Lover should please those who dig his erotic psychodramas and eclectic views on human sexuality. Swimming Pool comes to mind, of course, as do Water Drops on Burning Rocks and The New Girlfriend. Because Ozon makes arty films for arthouse habitués – thrillers, comedies, melodramas – a place should already be reserved for him in heaven … if not atop the charts at Box Office Mojo. In an interview included in the Blu-ray package, the co-writer/director acknowledges the debt he owes here to Alfred Hitchcock and Brian DePalma. That’s pretty obvious, though. I suspect that Ozon would also admit to watching David Cronenberg’s “body horror” drama, Dead Ringers, Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, and Paul Verhoeven’s neo-noir erotic thriller, Basic Instinct. In Double Lover, Ozon raises the kink factor about as high as it can get and still find distribution in the few dozen American theaters in which it played.

In it, Marine Vacth (Young & Beautiful) plays Chloé, a beautiful young woman – aren’t they all? – whose chronic stomach pains can’t be explained by her internist or gynecologist, through whose speculum we’re allowed to co-examine her vagina. The somewhat murky shot dissolves into a close-up of Chloé’s eye, which sets the tone for all that follows. On her doctor’s advice, the former model begins to see a psychoanalyst, Paul (Jérémie Renier), who’s attentive, gentle and, yes, handsome. After declaring her cured, Paul is free to declare his love for Marine and pursue a more lasting relationship with her. They move in together, but things start to get weird when Chloé thinks she’s spotted him on the street, chatting with another woman. He swears that it wasn’t him, without fully confiding in her as to how such a mistake could have been made. After some snooping into Paul’s personal items, Chloé suspects that an answer might lie in a clandestine visit to a different psychoanalyst, Louis, who is the twin brother Paul refuses to acknowledge.

Although they’re identical physically, the men’s professional methodology could hardly be more different. Louis immediately decides that Marine’s problem is sexual frigidity and rape could be the cure. It isn’t, but she reacts to it in the same way as too many other mentally fragile women do in the movies … first with revulsion, then curiosity and, finally, passion. After a while, Louis figures out Chloé’s relationship to his brother, and she cops to it. Once Paul agrees to open the lid on his personal vault of secrets, Ozon lets the good-twin/evil-twin dynamic take over the narrative. It reveals another wrinkle in the story, involving a different young woman with the bad luck to have gotten between the siblings. As strange as this scenario gets, it opens the door for the arrival of the always-welcome Jacqueline Bisset, as her mother. The final confrontation, which differs in one important way from the novel, at least, requires no small degree of attention from viewers. They may want to keep their fingers on the replay button of their remote control, just in case. Ozon does a nice job keeping all the loose ends from fraying, while also playing with our perceptions of what’s being done to whom.  The Cohen Media Blu-ray adds “Conversations From the Quad,” with Ozon and Vacth being interviewed by Richard Pena, professor of film studies at Columbia University.

The Death of Stalin
Before the collapse of the Soviet empire, American intelligence agents and political scientists engaged in a form of tea-leaf reading, known as Kremlinology, that required a careful analysis of the positioning of ministers and generals on the reviewing podium of May Day parades. In the movies, at least, FBI agents engaged in the same kind of unscientific research at the funerals of mob bosses and the marriages of their children. They would stake out the processions and study the floral arrangements for clues to the new order of things. Unscientific, sure, but, more often than not, reasonably accurate. Kremlinology is still practiced at CIA headquarters, even though it’s clear who’s in charge in Russia. The Death of Stalin recalls when Stalin was on his death bed and no one in his inner circle dared assume his intentions as to his choice for a successor. The intrigue and machinations that followed the funeral made the average American political convention look like a church picnic. In anyone else’s hands than Armando Iannucci, the much-feared dictator’s death, after 30 years at the helm of the ship of state, probably wouldn’t lend itself to comedy … even of the black variety. The Scottish satirist, writer, director and radio producer is best known in England for having created or co-created “Knowing Me Knowing You With Alan Partridge” and “I’m Alan Partridge,” with Steve Coogan, and “The Thick of It,” a television series that satirized the inner workings of British government, from 2006 to 2012. A feature film spin-off, In the Loop (2009), did the same thing to Anglo-American politics in the Iraq War period. Described as the anti-“West Wing,” it was a critical hit, but commercial failure. The good news that emerged from its lack of popular success arrived three years later, in the form of an invitation from HBO to create “The Veep.”

It is in the darkly comedic shadows of those television shows that The Death of Stalin was adapted from the French graphic novel, “La mort de Staline.” It was directed by Iannucci; co-written by Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, Peter Fellows and Fabien Nury; and stars Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Jeffrey Tambor and Adrian McLoughlin, as Stalin. Whatever the producers shelled out on makeup, wigs and costume design was money well spent. The movie opens in March 1953, with Stalin demanding that the engineers at Moscow Radio rush a recording of that night’s concert to his residence. Pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) is performing Mozart, accompanied by a full orchestra. This night, however, no one bothered to record the concert and Stalin’s request sends the station manager, Andreyev (Paddy Considine), into a panic. Instead of telling him the truth, Andreyev immediately stops the musicians, audience members and technicians from leaving the concert hall. He drags people from the street to fill the auditorium and maintain the acoustical integrity. A substitute conductor was rushed to the hall, in his pajamas, to fill in for the previous maestro. Even though the ruse is successful, it’s still possible that heads will roll for the delay. Instead, when Stalin reads the insanely disparaging message secreted in the sleeve by the pianist – whose parents were purged — he suffers a cerebral hemorrhage and collapses. He dies three days later, with no anointed successor nor a framework within which a transfer of power could take place. If the history, as depicted, wouldn’t pass muster in a classroom, Iannucci’s comedic touches can be felt everywhere else. Not for nothing, The Death of Stalin was banned in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Fans of “The Veep,” especially, should make the effort it takes to find it.

Way back at the dawn of the Golden Age of Porn, many Americans were shocked to learn that the pretty blond model, known as the “Ivory Snow girl,” was neither Cybill Shepherd, whom she resembled, nor “99 44/100% pure,” as advertised. Marilyn Chambers posed for the photo, which was prominently displayed in supermarkets across the nation, before she committed to a career in the adult-film industry. Naturally, the producers of Behind the Green Door found it very handy as a marketing tool for their movie. That’s kind of how I felt during the first few minutes of Flower, after seeing that the film’s seemingly virginal 17-year-old protagonist, Erica Vandross was doing land-office business giving blow jobs to grown men and blackmailing them, ostensibly to raise money for her father’s bail. Erica even offers to perform a hummer, gratis, on her obese and practically mute future stepbrother, Luke (Joey Morgan), to pull him out of the suicidal shell he entered after leaving rehab. Few actresses would seem less likely to be handed the role of a sexual predator than Zoey Deutch, the daughter of actress Lea Thompson and director Howard Deutch, and broke into the business, at 15, on the Disney Channel series, “The Suite Life on Deck.” Now 24, she’s appeared in such movies as Vampire Academy, Dirty Grandpa, Everybody Wants Some!!, Why Him? and The Disaster Artist. If she wanted, Deutch probably could pass for a teenage for another couple years. Even though she’s the best reason to pick up a copy of Flower, however, it was difficult for me to buy into Deutch playing a sexual mercenary and outcast at school. Fellow Disney alumnus Miley Cyrus would be more credible in the role, perhaps, but nowhere near as good an actor. Deutch carries the movie in the palm of her hand, as if it were a snowball made of Ivory Snow. Although though Luke politely turns down Erica’s seemingly genuine offer — “I like sucking dick, it wouldn’t be a burden” — it sparks a friendship between them.

Luke tells Erica that the root of his problem can be traced to an incident of sexual abuse, in which a teacher, Will (Adam Scott), fondled his genitals. Because of a scarcity of evidence and the boy’s lack of credibility, no charges were filed against him. The stain proved to be permanent, however, and he was fired from his job. While conversing with Emily at a local bowling alley, Luke spots Will, panics and runs home to commit suicide. Like everything else he’s done in his life, it’s a pathetic failure. Even so, it convinces Emily that Will is guilty. Along with her only true friends and co-conspirators, she uses her sexual wiles to entrap Will into confessing his crime or leave himself open to be outed as a pedophile. The trouble, of course, is that Will’s story turns out to be as credible as Luke’s tale of woe sounded, at first. He argues that Luke is harboring a misconception of the incident, based on something else, entirely. By now, however, the wheels of their scheme are already in motion. If the movie’s conclusion doesn’t feel any more realistic than the beginning, it works within the context of everything that’s transpired, in between. It wouldn’t be fair to suggest that Deutch, writer/director Max Winkler (Henry’s son) and co-writers Alex McAulay and Matt Spicer were influenced – directly, or otherwise – by Lolita (1962) or Baby Doll (1956). Still, I can’t imagine that DNA belonging to Sue Lyon and Carroll Baker wouldn’t show up in Emily, somewhere. Spicer co-wrote and directed Ingrid Goes West, in which Aubrey Plaza plays a social-media stalker who could have been Emily’s distant cousin. Traces of Thirteen, The Bling Ring, Something Wild can also be seen. Also good is the ubiquitous Kathryn Hahn, who plays the kind of mom who either wasn’t paying much attention to her daughter’s precocious behavior when she was growing up or was too busy trying to get laid, herself, to care.

If Erica had been a gay white male, instead of an impulsive, sexually active teenager, she’d be known as a hustler, instead of “slut.” In Hooked, newcomer Conor Donnally’s homeless 18-year-old hustler, Jack, looks more like a fashion model or surfer than a guy who puts his life on the line with each new trick. Max Emerson’s debut feature was inspired by the troubling e-mails he received from LGBT youths after he published his own memoir, “Hot Sissy: Life Before Flashbulbs.”  The statistics cited before the closing credits bear out the 25-year-old filmmaker’s belief that being a homeless runaway makes a cash-starved teenager an easy target for predators of all stripe, and being hustler is an especially dangerous practice. As is the case with Deutch’s performance, in Flower, the thing that makes Hooked significantly more entertaining than the average message movie is Donnally’s charismatic personality and belief in his character’s ability to survive in the concrete jungle, without sacrificing his sense of humor and dignity. When Jack isn’t on the make, he and his 17-year-old boyfriend, Tom (Sean Ormond), bounce around Manhattan posing for photographs and playing pranks on people who don’t enjoy bearing the brunt of their gags.

One of them, Ken (Terrance Murphy), re-enters Jack’s life while he’s sitting in a Chinese restaurant, daring a waiter to evict him for only ordering a glass of water and chasing it with a dash of Dijon mustard. The boys had ruined Ken’s expensive shirt by squirting condiments at him as he walked down the street. Instead of busting the devilishly handsome young man for the offence, Ken demands he order some real food and join him for lunch. Later, Ken asks him to fly to Miami and spend the weekend together in his swank condo. Ken is a closeted married man, with a devoted wife (Katie McClellan) and child, and plenty of money to burn. He’s a decent guy, really, but, by living a lie, Ken’s destined to make someone close to him extremely unhappy. He enjoys Jack’s mischievous side, but, when his borderline-personality disorder kicks into gear, Ken doesn’t quite know how to handle it. They have fun together, until one of the older man’s little white lies darkens Jack’s mood. After that, Hooked takes an abrupt turn to the more serious side of Emerson’s story. The DVD adds behind-the-scenes footage and a teaser for “Drag Babies.” Although Deutch’s future is assured, itwill be interesting to see where Ormond’s next job takes him.

Alex & Me: Blu-ray
Disney Channel: The Swap
It’s tough to ascertain the impact of the United States’ team being shut out of World Cup on boys dreaming of attaining the same goal in 2022 and 2026. There probably are some boys cooling their heels in President Trump’s detention centers right now, who aspire to representing Mexico, Guatemala or El Salvador in the upcoming games and, at least, can look to the Mexican team for inspiration. Let’s hope they’re being allowed to watch the matches on television in their cages and tents. Pre-teen and teenage girls have been encouraged to pursue their soccer dreams – once considered to be impossible – by the continued success of the U.S. women’s amateur and professional teams. Eric Champnella’s inspirational sports comedy/fantasy, Alex & Me – not to be confused with “Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence” – follows 14-year-old Reagan Willis, whose overriding dream is to play soccer as well as her hero, Olympic gold medalist and World Cup winner, Alex Morgan. Her room is a shrine to all things Alex, including a life-size poster of the star forward. In the Willis household, however, Reagan lives in the shadow of her brother, Logan (Matt Cornett), the MVP of his high school football team and highly sought college recruit.

When Reagan fails to make the cut of her middle-school soccer club and is humiliated by her rival, Claire, she’s certain “her ship has sailed.” After accidentally hitting her head in a fall, Reagan’s poster suddenly comes to life and everything changes. Morgan becomes her exclusive, if invisible coach and best friend. Their workouts lead to Reagan joining a team of girls with far fewer advantages than the one that rejected her. One of the things they lack is a well-manicured practice field and a dependable coach. After the team’s first coach leaves, Reagan’s father feels obligated to fill in for him. Together, they turn an empty lot into proper soccer pitch. It raises the spirits and ambitions of all the team members. You can probably predict the trajectory of the story from here, even though Champnella digs some potholes in the team’s road to the finals. If Alex & Me isn’t nearly as polished or universal as Bend It Like Beckham, there audiences probably overlap a bit. The enthusiasm of the young actors is palpable, while Morgan is just good enough at impersonating herself that the movie succeeds as family entertainment and inspiration for aspiring athletes. The Blu-ray adds several making-of featurettes and interviews.

I don’t know why it’s taken two years for the Disney Channel original movie, The Swap, to find its way into the DVD marketplace, but probably doesn’t have anything to with the reception it received on its cable debut or the film’s passing resemblance to the studio’s Freaky Friday. Based on the YA novel of the same title, written by Megan Shull, The Swap stars Peyton List (“Bunk’d”) and Jacob Bertrand (“Kirby Buckets”) as thoroughly modern teens, who find it easier to exchange their thought in visible text blocks – think cartoon balloons, but with Twitter messages – than converse using actual words, like their ancestors. During one of their frequent text arguments, the kids compare notes on whose life is tougher. A cyber-genie, who’s been eavesdropping on their exchanges, decides it might be fun to have Ellie and Jack inhabit each other’s bodies for a while. It takes a while for the kids to feel comfortable in their new bodies, especially when Jack learns he’s destined to compete in a rhythmic-gymnastics championship and Ellie prepares for hockey tryouts for Jack. Wanting to keep the swap hidden from their family and friends, Ellie and Jack work together to teach the other the ins and outs of their normal lives. The Swap found a big audience when it debuted. It probably included some of the same viewers who would enjoy Alex & Me.

Guilty Men
There’s probably been a hundred movies and television show about Colombia’s drug cartels and the epidemic of violence that’s followed in their wake. Less documented has been the war for the country’s soul between FARC guerrillas and the government forces, backed by the CIA, and right-wing paramilitaries, who enjoy extorting money from peasants and drug kingpins, as much as the love killing rebels. Colombian director Ivan D. Gaona’s Guilty Men is a curiously romantic drama set against the background of the 2005 agreement for the rebels and paramilitary groups to demobilize. In rural Santander province, though, peasants are forced to continue making payments to one group or another, and the bodies of people who refuse are dumped in the fields that surround the villages. The central mystery involves the identity of the men who drive around the countryside on motorcycles, at night, killing their enemies, collecting extortion money and stealing chickens and pigs from farmers. Things don’t get straightened out in this regard until late in the film. The romantic subplot involves a love triangle, with two men vying for the hand of Mariana (Leidy Herrera). When he isn’t driving a dump truck around Santander, Willington (Willington Gordillo Duarte) serves the community as a DJ. Mariana has committed to his cousin, Rene (René (René Diaz Calderon), earlier than expected because she’s pregnant. Rene believes that the baby will carry his genes, but Willington and Mariana aren’t as sure. She still finds it difficult to refuse late-night drives in the spacious cab of his truck, if only because the music on his mix tapes is so beautiful. It helps to know a little bit about recent Colombian history, but a quick survey of Wikipedia should do the trick. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy the spectacular mountain scenery captured by cinematographer Juan Camilo Paredes and Edson Velandia’s percussion-heavy score. The bonus features add deleted scenes; cast & crew interviews; behind-the-scenes footage; and material from the Toronto International Film Festival.

Frat Pack
For reasons known only to Danny Trejo and his agent, the truly iconic Echo Park-born character actor has recently begun to lend his name, face and hard-ass persona to the covers of DVDs in which his contributions are limited to extended cameos. This would be a perfectly fine gesture, if his presence weren’t the only reason his fans would have for investing 90 minutes of their precious time watching such pathetic gross-out flicks as Frat Pack. Anyone sucked into renting, streaming or purchasing a copy of this bro’s-will-be-bro’s fiasco should be allowed to trade their receipt for a free Mexi Falafel appetizer at any one of his excellent L.A.  restaurants. Completists would only get a 25-percent discount. (With more than two dozen projects in various stages of production or post-production, it’s possible that Trejo simply is too nice a guy to say, “No.”) Frat Pack has been described as, “Road Trip meets Bridesmaids meets Project X, with a little American Pie thrown in for good measure.” In it, a recent graduate of a British college, Elliot (Richard Alan Reid), crosses the ocean to meet his soon-to-be American stepfather, Michaelson, and stepbrothers, who drag him along on a road trip to a fraternity reunion in Colorado. Why his mother, Moira (Beverly D’Angelo), would be interested in marrying a schlub whose major claim to fame are his imitations of Chris Farley – as channeled by the comic’s real-life brother, Kevin – is constantly open to question. The frat brothers are shadowed to Colorado by a quartet of mismatched sorority sisters. Along the way, the students encounter all manner of Red State riff-raff, including Trejo’s dissipated tattoo artist, Dirty. The humor arrives in the form of scatological and sexual clichés, or depictions of drug and alcohol abuse, and fat people taking dumps.  None of it is original or particularly amusing. The good boy, Elliot, and good girl, Skylar, are portrayed by co-writers Reid and Rachel Risen, who are a dozen years older than the characters they portray. Other familiar faces include Robert Knepper (“Prison Break”), Tommy Davidson (“The Proud Family”), Lochlyn Munro (“Riverdale”) and Hana Mae Lee (Pitch Perfect).

Night of the Lepus: Blu-ray
Viewed from a distance of nearly 50 years, it’s possible to watch the early eco-horror flick, Night of the Lepus, and enjoy it for everything it’s not. On the top of that list would be scary, passably realistic and well made. What it does have going for it, however, is a premise that was inspired by an actual infestation of rabbits, in Australia, which prompted the construction of trans-continental fences to keep the pests from overrunning pasture lands. By substituting Arizona for western Australia, it was possible for producer A.C. Lyles and director William F. Claxton to pitch a sci-fi Western they hoped would remind viewers of The Birds (1963), Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), Them! (1954), The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971) and The Deadly Bees (1966), while anticipating the dozens of similarly themed creature-features to come. Based on Russell Braddon’s 1964 novel, “The Year of the Angry Rabbit,” Night of the Lepus describes what happens when rancher Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun) seeks the help of college president Elgin Clark (DeForest Kelley) to halt the advance of thousands of rabbits that have filled the void left behind when ranchers eradicated their natural predators: coyotes, mostly. Clark enlists researchers Roy and Gerry Bennett (Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh), who are more likely to respect the rancher’s wish to avoid using cyanide to poison the rabbits. Roy proposes using hormones to disrupt the rabbits’ breeding cycle. After one of the test bunnies is injected with a new serum, believed to cause birth defects, the Bennetts’ daughter switches it with one from the control group. After it escapes, the super-stud rabbit fathers an army of gigantic hare-lipped killers. It’s easy to figure out that domesticated rabbits were filmed against miniature models, from extreme angles, while costumed actors occasionally pop up in the attack scenes. Night of the Lepus is the perfect movie to show at parties and have guests pretend they’re crew members on MST3K’s Satellite of Love. The Blu-ray remaster of the film was struck from original film elements and adds commentaries with author Lee Gambin (“Massacred by Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film”) and pop-culture historian Russell Dyball.

Greaser’s Palace: Blu-ray
Sandwiched in between the releases of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973), Greaser’s Palace (1972) gave lovers of experimental and underground films a reason to believe that their time had come. Unfortunately, acid heads comprised too small a demographic to be economically feasible, and the trend was short-lived. Fortunately, the midnight-movie phenomenon was just beginning, and it proved to be a perfect way to exhibit hard-to-distribute pictures. Robert Downey Sr. had already made a name for himself among critics, students and arthouse buffs as the writer/director of Putney Swope, a devastating satire of Madison Avenue, in which an African-American activist (Arnold Johnson) is given carte blanche at an advertising agency. Filmed entirely in New Mexico, Downey’s follow-up, Greaser’s Palace, re-located the Passion of Christ to a wild-and-wooly corner of the Old West. A zoot-suited drifter, Jesse (Allan Arbus), arrives from out of nowhere, entertaining the motely crew of boozehounds, over-the-hill cowboys and prostitutes, criminals and transvestites attracted to the Palace, a saloon run by the ruthless Seaweedhead Greaser (Albert Henderson). His ability to walk on water and raise the dead really slays them. All Jesse wants to do is reach Jerusalem, where he can perform his song-and-dance routine in peace. After restoring life to Lamy “Homo” Greaser (Michael Sullivan) – shot and killed by his father – and causing Seaweedhead’s showgirl daughter, Cholera (Luana Anders), to see him as a rival for the Palace’s audience, Jesse becomes the perfect candidate for crucifixion. Yes, Greaser’s Palace every bit as nutso as it sounds. From a distance of nearly 50 years, however, like so many other relics of the period, it seems almost quaint. Other prominent members of the cast are Pablo Ferro, Toni Basil, Hervé Villechaize, George Morgan, Don Calfa, Woody Chambliss, Jim Antonio and an uncredited Robert Downey Jr., then 7 years old. The music was supplied by Jack Nitzsche. Scorpion Releasing’s Blu-ray re-master was struck from the original camera negative, and it includes an interview with Robert Downey conducted by the late screenwriter, Rudy Wurlitzer (Two-Lane Blacktop), and late filmmaker Jonathan Demme.

Lionheart: Special Edition: Blu-ray
In this early star vehicle for Jean-Claude Van Damme, the Muscle From Brussels demonstrates a side of his trademark character that wouldn’t be particularly useful in the dozens of theatrical and straight-to-video originals to come. Lionheart opens with the brutal attack on the brother of a French Foreign Legionnaire, Lyon Gaultier (Van Damme), who’s stationed in a desert outpost half a world away. Upon receiving news that his brother in Los Angeles is seriously injured, Gaultier is refused a furlough to visit him. Before he can be thrown into a pit with a tin roof for insubordination, however, he kicks the crap out of a half-dozen guards and escapes into the desert in a stolen Jeep. Once he reaches New York, on a freighter, he needs to make enough money to reach the west coast. With the help of an amateur fight manager, Joshua (Harrison Page), Gaultier reluctantly turns to the illegal, bare-knuckles fighting circuit. He arrives in L.A. just in time to watch his seriously burned brother die and his sister-in-law (Lisa Pelikan) refuse any offer of financial support, even for his charming niece. Unwilling to forsake his brother’s struggling family, Gaultier returns to the underground circuit. This time, though, he and Joshua are forced to throw in with a ruthless, drop-dead gorgeous promoter (Deborah Rennard), who pits him against fighters straight out of a video-arcade game. At the same time, bounty hunters from France have traced him to L.A., with a warrant for the deserter’s return. What happens next should come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen even one of JCVD’s many movies. The refurbished MVD Rewind package adds nearly 90 minutes of new interviews and featurettes, as well as several more archived pieces, marketing material and a poster.

PBS: American Experience: The Chinese Exclusion Act
PBS: Masterpiece: Man in an Orange Shirt: Blu-ray
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Hannibal in the Alps
PBS: First Civilizations
PBS: Frontline: Trump’s Takeover/
PBS: Nature: Natural Born Rebels
Smithsonian: A Star-Spangled Story: Battle for America
Smithsonian: America’s Greatest Monuments
PBS Kids: Nature Cat: Onward & Pondward!
I don’t know when PBS’ justifiably damning documentary, “The Chinese Exclusion Act,” began production, but it has to have been before our current president began referring to immigrants as “animals” and “rapists,” and demanding a wall be built along our southern border. The story behind America’s longest running insult to the spirit of the Constitution rings as true today as it did when the act was signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur, on May 6, 1882. It prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers, whose hard work had already helped the country’s western expansion, codifying the Angell Treaty of 1880 and the U.S.-China Burlingame Treaty of 1868, both of did the same thing. Beyond the act’s stated goal, it restricted the movement of immigrants already here, limited their ability open businesses and buy land, and prohibited them from marriage. As such, it forced Chinese women into prostitution and freed hooligans to lynch the men, but not before cutting off their pigtails. The would be repealed by the Magnuson Act on December 17, 1943, when Uncle Sam required the assistance of Chinese nationalists in the war against Japan. The first significant Chinese immigration to North America began with the California Gold Rush of 1848–1855 and it continued with subsequent large labor projects, such as the building of the First Transcontinental Railroad, from 1863 to 1869. Not surprisingly, they were assigned the most dangerous tasks, while receiving the least amount of pay. Once the golden spike was driven at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 19, 1869, white Americans – most of them recent immigrants themselves – demanded that the Chinese not be allowed to stay in the country. They feared that they would accept “coolie wages” to work the fields in the south and dominate commerce in the west. Instead of resorting to mob violence, lynching and arson, the aggrieved white laborers should have taken out the wrath on the capitalists whose divisive policies benefitted their businesses. It would take them several more decades to figure out that economic scheme and form unions to defend against it. Directed by Ric Burns, the documentary addresses the effects of the act on three generations of immigrants through subsequent uprisings, strikes, hideous court rulings and racist legislation. Things have improved on that count, largely because of the impact of educated Chinese immigrants – no laborers need apply – on the American economy. Last week, in fact, a lawsuit against Harvard University charged that, while Asian-Americans scored higher than other racial groups on test scores, they fared less well when it came to a more subjective assessment of their “positive personality, likability and kindness,” providing the school an excuse to exclude them. (I’d love to see how Harvard grad Jared Kushner fared against the average Asian-American applicant in 1998, before his father pledged $2.5 million to the school and provided funding toward a scholarship program for low- and middle-income students.) Many of the same ethnic slurs and discriminatory policies that were used against Chinese immigrants are being expressed today by Trump and his flunkies.

The BBC commissioned novelist Patrick Gale to write the teleplay for “Man in an Orange Shirt” as the flagship drama for its “Gay Britannia” celebration, marking the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalized gay sex between consenting adults. Prior to the 1967 ruling, the arrest and imprisonment of gay men destroyed lives, legacies and careers. Far from ideal, the measure only decriminalized homosexual acts done in private. Still, it paved the way for people to agitate for more meaningful change, as well as openly protest abuses by courts and police. The show’s two interconnected chapters, roughly an hour each, describe how much the decriminalization of once-forbidden love has changed the ways of life for gay couples over a span of 50 years. It also points out how little the emotional climate has changed for those still hiding in a closet of their own making. Oliver Jackson-Cohen and James McArdle play Michael and Thomas, who first explore their affection for each other during the heat of war and hope to rekindle their love after they return home. To avoid being discovered and arrested, though, Michael marries Flora (Joanna Vanderham), who remains in the dark until she discovers the men’s affair through love letters found in a drawer. Although she’s disgusted by them, Flora would prefer to live a loveless life than raise their son without a father. She also fears the humiliation that would derive from having her husband land in the same jail as Thomas, an artist being punished for an ill-planned tryst in a public loo. The first chapter ends with Thomas’ release, a chance meeting in a large department store with Michael’s family and a question mark. In Chapter Two, Michael’s grandson, Adam (Julian Morris), is living with a much older version of Flora (Vanessa Redgrave), while trolling the Internet for hookups and slowly falling in love with a handsome black architect, Steve (David Gyasi). Even though the legal climate has changed, Adam remains commitment-phobic. And, when he does come out to Flora, her angry words carry the same sting as the ones she used to denounce his grandfather. By now, though, Flora no longer equates being gay with pedophilia. Having lost the love of her husband, Flora must decide if her outdated beliefs are worth the cost of losing her grandson. As poignant as the men’s stories are, Flora is truly the central figure in Man in an Orange Shirt. It’s through her evolution that viewers are able to see how difficult it’s been for England’s LGBT community to affect change in a society hidebound by tradition.

I’ve always subscribed to the belief the Hannibal’s invasion of the Roman Republic, in 218 BC, has been accorded too little respect by teachers in American schools. Sure, everyone knows about the elephants – or their facsimiles in the “LOTR” and “Star Wars” sagas — but everything else about the campaign has been ignored. How many students, for example, can name with any certainty the mountain ranges and rivers his army was forced to cross – OK, the Alps are given – and how everything ended for the great general and the future of Rome. PBS’s “Secrets of the Dead: Hannibal in the Alps” tackles some of the questions left unanswered by Polybius’ “Histories,” combining state-of-the-art technology, ancient texts and a recreation of the route itself to prove conclusively where Hannibal’s army made it across the Alps. His army was comprised of 30,000 troops, 15,000 horses and 37 war elephants, and we’ve been told that he crossed the mighty Alps in only 16 days to launch an attack on Rome from the north. For more than 2,000 years, nobody has been able to prove which of the four possible routes Hannibal took across the Alps, and no physical evidence of Hannibal’s army has ever been found… until now. In “Hannibal in the Alps,” a team of experts – explorers, archaeologists, geologists and animal wranglers –– ascertains how and where he did it. More than anything else, though, the show’s fascinating graphics allow us to visualize exactly how daunting Hannibal’s task actually was.

Having lived as mobile foragers for most of our time on Earth, when and why did humans set out on the road to civilization? How did they create villages, towns, cities and states, and establish the blueprint for the modern world? PBS’ “First Civilizations” is broken into what its producers identify as the four cornerstones of civilization: war, religion, cities and trade. It explores each in the context of a different location, traveling to Mexico, Guatemala, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Oman, Morocco, France, Germany, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S. They record the latest archeological discoveries, test new theories and uncover original information. Dramatic reconstructions and computer graphics are employed to visualize the lost world of the first civilizations. In each episode, the ancient story is complemented by a modern-day analogy, with an expert connecting the dots between past and present. The idea is to show how our ancestors were motivated by the same impulses that persist today: the inevitability of war, a need for religion, the lure of the city, a love of trade. Their story is our story.

The “Frontline” reports, “Trump’s Takeover” and “McCain” examine the battle for the soul of the GOP – such as it is — being waged between the devil and angel sitting on opposite sides of party members’ shoulders. The former takes viewers inside POTUS’ high-stakes crusade, which has employed more dirty tricks, divisive rhetoric and outright lies than Richard Nixon could have invented in his lifetime. The latter focuses on Sen. John McCain’s complicated relationship with the President and his own Republican party. It also looks at McCain’s life and politics, from POW in Vietnam, to choosing Sarah Palin as running mate, to his dramatic vote against the GOP’s health-care bill.

From a promiscuous prairie dog to a kleptomaniac crab and an alpha chimpanzee, who reigns with an iron fist, “Natural Born Rebels” explores the most rebellious animals in the natural world. A better word to describe most of the critters we meet in the three-part “Nature” series might be mischievous, sneaky, funny and pugnacious. I don’t think an animal can be considered rebellious, if it’s doing what comes naturally. Animals living in zoos, forced to conform to certain unnatural norms, have been known to rebel against their captors, however, but that’s another story. The PBS mini-series follows scientists, equipped with the latest recording equipment, as they uncover an astonishing variety of “insubordinate” animal behaviors and, despite how it appears on the surface, they’re discovering the complex science behind why these animals behave the way they do. The photography, as usual, is amazing. And, yes, “Natural Born Rebels” is as family friendly as these things get.

Along with “Louie Louie” and “La Bamba,” “The Star-Spangled Banner” is one of the least understood songs in heavy rotation today, as well as the most misconstrued. It would be interesting to learn how many of today’s sunshine patriots, who religiously participate in the singing of the National Anthem, whenever and wherever it’s performed, know all its words, their meaning and its original. We know that the current President, who loves to use it as a weapon against his enemies, is only able to mumble the lyrics — and words to the Pledge of Allegiance, for that matter – but he looks sincere, at least. The National Anthem has been played before some, but not all baseball games for nearly 100 years. It’s only been since World War II that it’s been performed before every game and, since 9/11, that “America the Beautiful” has become mandatory during the seventh-inning stretch. There’s no law against sitting, kneeling, sleeping or remaining silent while they’re being played. Unless you’re a member of the armed services, no law dictates the placement of one’s hand over one’s heart, either. The Smithsonian Channel’s “A Star-Spangled Story: Battle for America” explores the bicentennial of the National Anthem and the battle that inspired it, combining interviews with leading historians, conservators, and soprano superstar Renée Fleming, who sang the anthem at the 2014 Super Bowl. Experts explain why the song is so unique and what the individual lyrics mean to them. The special also includes historical re-enactments, 3-D computer graphics, hands-on demonstrations and behind-the-scenes tours of the Smithsonian’s extraordinary collection of artifacts, including the sealed chamber that houses the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the song. named the Star-Spangled Banner.

Smithsonian Channel’s “America’s Greatest Monuments” asks similar questions about the war memorials, statues and monuments honoring America’s founding fathers, fallen soldiers, heroes and political leaders. They range from Arlington’s eternal flame to soaring tributes in stone, steel, soil and sky. Many have fascinating stories to tell.

Go Onward and Pondward,” with PBS Kids’ backyard explorer extraordinaire, “Nature Cat,” along with his friends Hal, Squeeks and Daisy. The team learns where a stream begins and explores new environments along the way in seven fun-filled outdoor adventures.

The DVD Wrapup: Loveless, In Syria, Good Postman, Inflame, Ordinary Man, I Called Him Morgan, Jerry Lewis, Will & Grace … More

Thursday, June 14th, 2018

Loveless: Blu-ray
Whenever rescue workers fan out in search of a missing child, a palpable of sense of dread – even as transmitted through the lens of a camera – is impossible to avoid. Sadly, such searches have become commonplace events in American movies, TV dramas and true-crime programs like “Forensics Files.” When the child is found unharmed or rescued from harm, the relief we feel is as powerful as the sadness that comes from unspeakable tragedy. The same can be said about the crime dramas and mini-series from Europe that find their way to PBS, BBC-America and various streaming services. The greater horror comes from not knowing the missing child’s fate, one way or another. In the Oscar-nominated Loveless, Andrey Zvyagintsev and co-writer Oleg Negin have crafted a different sort of missing-child story, set among atypically middle-class Muscovites, whose concepts of family and status are far from traditional. Their previous collaborations – Elena, The Banishment and Leviathan – have also required that we look to the east through a different prism. None of Zvyagintsev’s films have been particularly easy to watch, from an emotional point of view. If they present life stripped of contrivances and narrative shortcuts, it’s still the human condition that drives the stories and is never far from their surface.

Boris (Alexei Rozin) and his soon-to-be-ex-wife Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) share an apartment, which, for once, doesn’t look as if it were designed by a Politburo-approved architecture firm. It’s possible that they haven’t enjoyed a moment of marital bliss since they realized that the only thing holding them together is their 12-year-old boy son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), whose birth precipitated the marriage. Both enjoy the company of lovers, whom they’ll probably marry after the dissolution papers are signed. Boris’ girlfriend is already pregnant. It’s during one of Boris and Zhenya’s more bitter arguments that Zvyagintsev’s camera finds Alyosha, in a closet, sobbing uncontrollably. That night, or one soon thereafter, while the adults are sleeping elsewhere, the boy decides he’s had enough and runs away from home. When they finally figure out that Alyosha isn’t playing a game on them, Boris and Zhenya report the disappearance to police, who aren’t terribly helpful. Fortunately, one them advises them to call a local relief organization that specializes in such recovery efforts. There’s no reason to spoil anything here, except to say that the intricately choreographed search takes viewers into corners’ of the wooded Moscow neighborhood that look as familiar as any in our own backyards. Although the parents’ selfish responses to the continued lack of news isn’t likely to surprise viewers, the flash-forward ending should raise a few eyebrows, at least. The package includes the unusually candid 61-minute “The Making of Loveless,” which is more of a stripped-down documentary than promotional EPK.

In Syria
The Good Postman
In his 2009 debut as writer/director, seasoned Belgian cinematographer Philippe Van Leeuw chronicled the Rwandan genocide from the perspective of a Tutsi domestic, whose Belgian employers are preparing to flee the country in advance of Hutu militants. While The Day God Walked Away received scant exposure here, by all accounts. it wasn’t a feel-good movie about life on the run from horror. In his similarly impactful follow-up, In Syria (a.k.a., “Insyriated”), a mother struggles to keep her family safe over a 24-hour period, as war rages outside their largely undamaged Damascus flat. Because the movie was shot in an apartment in Beirut, the claustrophobia experienced by the family members is palpable here, as well. The incomparable Israeli-Arab actress Hiam Abbass (Lemon Tree) was nominated for a Lumières Awards for her portrayal of Oum Yazan, the mother of three who has turned her home into a safe harbor for her multigenerational family and neighbors. Outside the front door, bombs explode at irregular intervals and automatic-weapons fire punctuates conversations. On this day, Oum’s attempts to keep her guests from panicking will be sorely tested by forces beyond her control, however.  Neighbors Samir and Halima (Diamand Abou Abboud), a young couple with a small baby, have made plans to leave for the safety of Beirut after their flat upstairs was destroyed by shelling. Very little time passes before Samir is gunned down by a sniper, almost immediately after leaving the apartment to finalize their escape. Oum decides not to tell Samir that her husband might be lying dead or seriously wounded, fearing that she would run to him and be shot. She decides to withhold the truth from her until after dusk. The most disturbing scene comes when two burglars, pretending to be security officials, break through Oum’s defenses and rape the first woman they see, while the others hide in the kitchen.  Even though Van Leeuw spares viewers from the worst of the attack, the victim’s facial expressions reveal everything. The all-pervasive intimacy of the family’s ordeal makes In Syria different than the growing number of theatrical films and documentaries describing conditions in the war-torn country. The DVD includes the short film, “Le Pain,” directed by Hiam Abbass; a directors’ statement; Why-We-Selected statement, from Film Movement.

Theoretically, at least, it would be possible to follow the same characters we meet in films such films as In Syria, as they make their way north to places like Finland — Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope — with stops in Bulgaria — Tonislav Hristov’s The Good Postman – and another dozen border-crossings along the way. Other recent movies have chronicled what happens to African and Afghan refugees, seeking new lives in Italy, Greece, France and England, and, for several decades now, from Central America, to the United States. It’s a subject that not only lends itself to the prejudices of xenophobic demagogues, but also filmmakers whose compassion for displaced people has resulted in several powerful dramas and dark comedies. Sadly, most of them have a better chance of winning an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Feature than finding distribution here, outside the festival circuit. The Good Postman, a stylishly made documentary that I initially confused with being a work of fiction, is set in a tiny Bulgarian village, facing the Turkish border, that has been resisting foreign invaders since the times of the Roman and Ottoman Empires. It is now being overrun by refugees on their way elsewhere. The once-thriving village has been reduced to an electorate of 37 elderly citizens and at least one middle-age slacker hoping for a return to communism.

A mayoral election is being contested in the village — long referred to as the Great Gate — concurrently with efforts by UN border guards to stem the flow of men, women and children across the border. One candidate wants to crack down on the refugees, while his chief opponent would encourage some to take root in the village and work toward its recovery. The favorite has no stated opinion one way or another. The region, which appears to be rich in agricultural opportunity, has lost all the young people willing to put in the hard work it would take to bring the fields, pastures and vineyards back to life. The Good Postman, named for the mayoral candidate who advocates the absorption of refugees into village life, introduces us to several of the men and women who will decide the election, most of whom are infirm. My opinion of The Good Postman hasn’t changed since I realized – yeah, I know, duh – that it’s a documentary. The thoroughly engrossing film benefits mightily from Orlin Ruevski’s elegantly composed wide-screen cinematography and Petar Dundakov’s simple, Middle East-inflected score. It’s the faces of the ancient Golyam Dervent residents that most clearly resonate throughout the film, however. Only a century ago, their parents and grandparents were the ones escaping persecution, after Turkish troops and irregulars attacked the region, burning homes, raping women and killing villagers in their path

Turkey not only serves as an entry point for refugees from its war-ravaged neighbors, but it also is dealing with serious troubles that originate within its own borders. Although it’s listed among the region’s secular states, Turkey’s increasingly politicized Muslim majority is divided among dozens of well- and lesser-known denominations. Some are extremely tolerant of their co-religionists’ beliefs, while others have resorted to violence to express the differences. The current government has been accused of using repressive measures of its own to maintain control of religious and political extremists. Turkish officials have also allowed their hatred of Kurds to interfere with the country’s key role in the war against ISIS and opened the door for Moscow to get a foothold in northern Syria. While a working knowledge of contemporary Turkish affairs isn’t necessary to appreciate Ceylan Özgün Özçelik’s impressive debut feature, Inflame, a basic understanding of the country’s varied demographics doesn’t hurt. That’s because what begins as a psychological drama – with supernatural overtones – gradually evolves into a paranoid thriller, colored by political mandates and religious intolerance. The film opens with a group of educated friends debating the role social media plays in modern Turkish society. It is heavily regulated by the government to control the flow of information and impede dissent. Inflame’s protagonist, Hasret (Algi Eke), is caught somewhere in the middle of the debate. As an editor of documentaries for the government news channel, she’s been accorded a certain amount of freedom in the choices she makes at work.

Lately, however, Hasret has been haunted by recurring nightmares that take the form of disjointed newsreel footage of a tumultuous event in the country’s near past. They’ve impacted her work to the point that she’s transferred to a department that contributes editorials and voice-over work for government speeches. It means that every word and image that airs is pre-screened by editors conversant in official government policy. Now, when she returns to the flat left to her after her parents’ death, 25 years earlier, the questions raised in her dreams take on a life of their own. In addition to hearing music that isn’t there and being confronted by a dog with strangely human traits, Hasret begins to suspect that the apartment, itself, is haunted by the spirits of her parents. I won’t spoil the outcome, except to point out that the date of their fatal accident corresponds to the 1993 mass murder of 35 artists and musicians, mostly Alevi intellectuals, who had gathered for a cultural festival in Sivas. She comes to believe that they died in the fire, deliberately set by fundamentalist Sunni locals, and their deaths went unreported in the media. The mob was reacting to the presence of prominent author, satirist and activist Aziz Nesin. (In early 1990s, Nesin began a translation of Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel, “The Satanic Verses.”) A post-script explains how the horror of that event still reverberates through Turkish society and creates a solid foundation for Hasret’s ordeal. Inflame was nominated for Best First Feature at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival and won the Special Jury Prize at the Ankara International Film Festival and SXSW Gamechanger Award.

An Ordinary Man
One of the inherent flaws of the cinematic art is an inability to precisely differentiate between evil characters who earn our disdain for their sinful acts and lack of remorse for their crimes, and the antiheroes whose dastardly deeds are superseded by an actor’s outstanding interpretation of a clever screenplay. Although the concept can be traced back to the origins of theatrical drama, it wasn’t until the 1960s that it was fully exploited in popular culture. Even then, however, filmmakers toyed with their audiences’ emotions by casting such charmers as Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Kris Kristofferson and a post-spaghetti Clint Eastwood to impersonate criminals, trigger-happy cops and vigilantes who, in real life, would look guilty, even leaving a confessional. Charles Bronson and Warren Oates had to work extra hard to win our sympathy. Ben Kingsley is one of a small handful of actors who’s delivered mesmerizing and highly credible portrayals of characters ranging from Mahatma Gandhi, Georges Méliès and Simon Wiesenthal, on one end of the spectrum, to Sweeney Todd, Fagin and Meyer Lansky, on the other … with Adolf Eichmann yet to come.  In the darkly comedic crime drama, Sexy Beast, his take on career criminal and world-class thug Don Logan was simultaneously, frightening and hilarious.

In Brad Silberling’s An Ordinary Man, Kingsley delivers another brilliant performance, this time as a character clearly modeled after former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladić and former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadžić. Both men avoided arrest for more than a decade after charges were filed and a price was put on their heads. Like them, Kingsley’s character, the General, could be said to have been hiding in plain sight. To avoid capture, he was routinely moved from safehouse to safehouse by his security detail. Unlike Karadžić, who grew a beard David Letterman might have envied, the General resembles the undisguised images of him plastered on walls around the city in which he’s hiding … possibly Belgrade. In An Ordinary Man, no matter how much effort Kingsley exerts keeping viewers from seeing him as an antihero or obedient soldier, the General’s charisma and cunning are undeniable. Neither is the movie a procedural, whose focus is on the efforts to capture him.  Our fascination comes from the General’s interaction with his only companion, Tanja (Hera Hilmar), a cleaning woman in her 20s, who came with the apartment. After he tests Tanja with a withering barrage of sarcastic barbs and insulting demands, they open up to each other about their lives and later venture out to shop or, in one scene, dance. The chemistry that develops between them is well-earned and constantly surprising. That the 30-year-old Icelandic actress (“Da Vinci’s Demons”) is able to go toe-to-toe with Kingsley for most of the movie’s 90 minutes is quite an achievement.

Six Films by Nikolaus Geyrhalter
I Called Him Morgan
Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four
The Cage Fighter
My Letter to the World
I can’t remember a better week for lovers of documentaries of all artistic persuasions. It’s topped by Icarus Films’ comprehensive seven-disc compilation, “Six Films by Nikolaus Geyrhalter.” The Vienna-born documentarian may not be as well-known here as Michael Moore and Errol Morris, but his films have routinely captured major awards in prestigious festivals around the world. They’re distinguished by calm, carefully framed shots with an eye for geometric compositions. Typically, they eschew commentary and music to create visually striking accounts of “places at the margins of our perception, while, at the same time, cataloging social phenomena and periods of upheaval in a cinematically epic fashion.” Using a mostly static camera, Geyrhalter has tackled such disparate topics as the terrain of post-disaster Chernobyl (Pripyat), reflections on a dystopian world (Homo Sapiens), modern food production (Our Daily Bread), Europe’s endangered factory workers (Over the Years), the western world after dark (Abendland), and people who live and raise families with little technological assistance (Elsewhere). The package is the first comprehensive survey, representing more than 17 years of Geyrhalter’s films, three of which have never been released in the U.S. It adds a booklet, featuring Alejandro Bachmann’s “Spaces in Time,” published in English for the first time; excerpted interviews with Geyrhalter; Elsewhere location notes; and a new high-definition Blu-ray edition of Our Daily Bread. In January, Kimstim released Cern, the director’s fascinating portrait of the immense Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest laboratory for particle physics, located underneath the border of France and Switzerland.

In February 1972, celebrated jazz musician Lee Morgan was shot and killed by his common-law wife, Helen, during a gig at a club in New York City. The murder sent shockwaves through the jazz community, and the memory of the event still haunts those who knew the Morgans. Filmmaker Kasper Collin’s I Called Him Morgan is informed equally by vintage recordings and photographs of the “hard bop” trumpeter in rehearsal and performance, and a remarkably candid interview that jazz historian Larry Reni Thomas conducted in 1996, with Helen Moore (a.k.a. Helen Morgan), a year before her death. Among the other participants are Wayne Shorter, Jymie Merritt, Billy Harper, Judith Johnson, Bennie Maupin, Larry Ridley, Paul West, Al Harrison, Charli Persip and Albert “Tootie” Heath. The FilmRise release is as good a documentary about the passions that drive jazz musicians as any I’ve seen.

In Motherland, Filipino-American filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz takes viewers inside what’s reputed to be the world’s busiest maternity hospital, located in one of the world’s poorest and most populous countries: the Philippines. Her almost shockingly intimate portrait of Manila’s Fabella Hospital is enhanced by the same vérité approach popularized here in the 1960s by Frederick Wiseman, the Maysles Brothers and Charlotte Zwerin. Like flies on the wall, we follow Diaz’ unobtrusive camera through the doors of the warehouse-sized facility, where the next group of expectant women is told what to expect in the next few hours, then are ushered into waiting rooms teeming with patients experiencing severe labor pains and, as quickly as is safely possible, deposited into overcrowded nurseries, where they’re introduced to their babies and taught how to breast feed them. All of this transpires without narration or prejudicial observations. We’re allowed to eavesdrop on conversations between the patients and their discussions with nurses and social workers. Visiting hours resemble stampedes and, yes, misidentifications do occur. We’re not talking about dozens of patients here, but hundreds of women, coming and going as rapidly as their stitches and doctors allow them to exit. It would have been easy – if not particularly humane – for Diaz to focus more tightly than she does on the single mothers who are repeat customers and show reluctance to use contraception. (Most of them are Catholic, but the Church’s moral stance on such things isn’t utmost in the minds of the mothers and staff.) Even if we know that the children are likely to be raised under poverty conditions, it’s difficult not to cheer for these women and the uphill climbs they’ll face throughout motherhood.

Investigative documentarians make their bones by exposing miscarriages of justice, corruption and abuses of power by prosecutors. Even in the most egregious rushes to judgment, the odds are stacked against defendants attempting to reverse unfair convictions. No one in authority wants to admit that mistakes were made on the road to a headline-making verdict, least of all police, prosecutors and witnesses who swore to God that their testimony was truthful. Deborah Esquenazi’s almost excruciatingly painful to watch documentary, Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four, helped overturn the wrongful convictions of four Hispanic lesbians in a case even the producers of “Law & Order” would consider to be too far-fetched to air. In Texas, however, even a complete lack of evidence isn’t sufficient cause to dismiss charges on lesbians, gays and people of color. In the summer of 1994, Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh and Anna Vasquez were accused of sexually assaulting Ramirez’ 7- and 9-year-old nieces, in San Antonio. The four openly gay women were charged after a week-long visit from the girls at Ramirez’s apartment. They were indicted in an environment of pervasive homophobia and the idea that homosexuals are naturally prone to sexually abusing children and “satanic-related” crime. None of it, including the forensic evidence of abuse, was backed by science, data or precedent. Even so, the women were sentenced to 15 years in prison, with Ramirez being hit with an additional 12 years and the loss of her newborn baby, several days after the start of her sentence. The film picks up in the closing years of their incarceration, after one of the nieces admitted to having been pressured by her father, Javier Limon, to make the false accusations. In 2013, Texas lawmakers passed a law allowing individuals to challenge their convictions, if there is new or changed scientific evidence. With the assistance of the Innocence Project of Texas and Good Samaritans from as far away as Canada, Esquenazi’s film earned its happy ending. [

Jeff Unay’s action documentary, The Cage Fighter, might have delivered a more powerful punch if it weren’t for such recent pictures as Rocky Balboa (2006), The Wrestler (2008), Grudge Match (2013) and Creed (2015). Neither did it help the film’s chances that one of the recurrent themes of movies based on MMA fighting is the willingness of seemingly over-the-hill cage fighters to risk their lives in pursuit of one last title. In the briskly paced and edited film from IFC, Joe Carman is a journeyman cage fighter, whose constant battle with post-concussion syndrome hasn’t prevented him from re-entering the caged ring – sometimes in the shape of an octagon – and seeking redemption for past beatings. Neither have promises to his wife and four daughters prevented him from risking his life for the sake of vanity of delusions of grandeur. Watching the tears run down their faces when he comes homes bruised and battered, or is pummeled in the ring in front of them, is nothing short of heartbreaking. Just as shattering is a conversation over glasses of beer between Joe and top contender Clayton Hoy, a much younger MMA star who has precious little to show for his success. That Carman is cut from the same physical mold as characters played by Sylvester Stallone and Mickey Rourke – not to mention, Joe Palooka – doesn’t hurt The Cage Fighter one bit.

My Letter to the World was made as a companion piece to Terence Davies’ surprisingly well-received biopic of Emily Dickinson, A Quiet Passion, for which Cynthia Nixon was nominated as Best Actress by the National Society of Film Critics. The future gubernatorial candidate also lends her voice to Solon Papadopoulos’s project, which digs a bit deeper into the historical record of the poet’s life and work and fits perfectly on the small screen. The documentary journeys through the seasons of the writer’s life, in 1800s New England, and features interviews with scholars and other knowledgeable folks. They add new theories about the poet’s personal relationships and her revered work.

Progress is a relative thing, especially in parts of the world where poor people are the last to benefit from their labors, taxes and discoveries. In Mexican filmmaker Ruben Imaz’ visually arresting Tormentero, a huge oil patch is discovered in the watery backyard of a fishing village. Naturally, the accidental find makes everyone wealthy, except the residents of the villages, who no longer can take advantage of the once-rich supply of shrimp and swim in water uncontaminated by globules of oil and the chemicals used on the nearby oil derricks. The oil workers precipitated an overnight crime wave and inflation was soon to follow. Instead of taking their unhappiness out on the government-owned oil company and fat-cat profiteers, who followed in its wake, the helpless villagers decided to blame their troubles on Romero (Jose Carlos Ruiz), the poor sap who first noticed the crude oil bubbling up along the shoreline. Viewers are introduced to Romero much later in his life, when the alcohol he guzzles has begun to pickle his brain, causing hallucinations and dreams haunted by ghosts. He torments his simple-minded son, whose only friends appear to be the monkeys he finds in the jungle. In his final days, Romero makes it his mission to reclaim the love and honor he lost decades earlier. Imaz stages the film almost like a dream … somewhere between a hallucination and reality. Absent a clearly defined narrative, Imaz invites us to look at this world through the jaundiced eyes of his protagonist. He invests Tormentero with generous amounts of magical realism, surrealism and fever dreams. Cinematographer Gerardo Barroso allows Imaz to realize his vision by capturing the region’s beautiful natural settings and darker hues of Romero’s prison without walls.

Ice Mother
The characters we meet in Bohdan Sláma’s endearing family dramedy, Ice Mother, are so familiar that it takes a while to figure out what part of Europe it might be located. If the movie had been dubbed, instead of subtitled, it could have been set in Minnesota, Wisconsin or North Dakota … anywhere immigrants maintain customs that most Americans consider, at best, quaint. Otherwise, the family dynamics are universal. After the death of her tightwad husband, 67-year-old Hana (Zuzana Kronerová) attempts to continue such family traditions as the communal Sunday dinner and maintain a house that’s inefficiently heated by coal. Her two adult sons are spoiled and lazy, and their wives have come to expect Hana’s services as a cook and babysitter. One of the sons even steals money from her to finance one of his hare-brained schemes. It’s no wonder that she appears to have given up having any life of her own. That changes, however, when Hana and her equally spoiled grandson, Ivanek, happen upon a group of men and women her age, who belong to an outdoors swimmers’ club, which appears to prefer wintery conditions than warm weather. She’s welcomed to their number after she helps pull one of their struggling members, Broňa (Pavel Nový), from the frigid river. These old-timers make Polar Bear Club members in Chicago look like cowards. They also convince Ivanek to put down his handheld computer and play some of the same games as the people his grandma’s age do. (He’s also entrusted with Broňa’s favorite pet chicken.) Not surprisingly, the closer Hana and Ivanek grow to the club members – Broňa, especially – the greater their sense of independence becomes. The only questions that remain involve Hana’s willingness to prove to her family that she means business, and whether she’ll join her new friends in Prague’s version of the Winter Olympics.

The Outsider
There have been several good movies and documentaries made about the financial crisis of 2008 and the traders, bankers and white-collar thieves who nearly broke the back of the global economy. Boiler Room (2000), The Big Short (2015) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) preceded The Outsider, which reminds us that greed knows no boundaries. Months before the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 caused chaos in world markets and misery for millions of homeowners, the Paris-based bank, Société Générale, lost approximately €4.9 billion in a scandal involving fraudulent transactions traced to a young hotshot trader, Jérôme Kerviel. Christophe Barratier’s The Outsider (a.k.a., “Team Spirit”) does a pretty good explaining how Kerviel (Arthur Dupont) pulled off the scheme, which didn’t begin to concern bank officials until his ledgers began to bleed red ink. Otherwise, everything was copacetic. And, while Kerviel was justly punished for his run of bad luck, he almost certainly wasn’t the only trader playing fast and loose with the numbers. There isn’t as much bad behavior on display in The Outsider, as that depicted in the American films. Except for a couple of strip-club scenes and a line of cocaine, or two, most of the good-ol’-boy antics are limited to the banks of computer screens in the high-rise office building overlooking the city. As repetitive as The Outsider feels, at times, it’s entertaining enough to recommend to completists. Barratier struck gold in 2004, with the musical drama, The Chorus.

I Can Only Imagine
Seventeen years after MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine” became the best-selling Christian single of all time, selling 2.5 million copies, the inspirational story of its creation has been turned into film. Bart Millard says that he wrote the emotional ballad in the direct wake of the death of his father and terrorist attacks on 9/11, as way to comfort relatives and friends of people killed that day. The song took very little time to write and wasn’t necessarily targeted at a Christian audience.  “I think the biggest thing is, there’s no agenda: we’re not trying to shove the Bible down anybody’s throats,” Millard has explained. “I’m asking the same question many people have wondered, whether you go to church or not: ‘OK, God, if this turns out to be real, if we die and we get (to heaven), how am I going to respond?’ There’s no answers in that song, it’s all questions.” In the Erwin Brothers’ depiction of the song’s genesis, newcomer J. Michael Finley plays Millard, opposite Dennis Quaid, who effectively portrays the singer/songwriter’s abusive father. It isn’t until Millard discovers that his father has experienced a come-to-Jesus moment of his own, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, that he returns home to mend fences. Country-music stars Amy Grant and Trace Adkins also contribute to the song’s success in I Can Only Imagine. Despite mostly lackluster reviews, I Can Only Imagine scored big at the North American box office, returning $84 million against a reported $7-million production budget. Clearly, the unabashedly melodramatic drama wasn’t produced to impress critics. The Blu-ray package includes commentary with co-directors Andy Erwin and John Erwin, Millard, co-writer/composer Brent McCorkle and producer Kevin Downes; deleted scenes; featurettes “Imagine Forgiveness with Bart Millard,” “MercyMe: The Early Days,” “Casting I Can Only Imagine,” “The Power of the Song,” “Dennis Quaid: On My Way to Heaven”; recording sessions; and EPKs.

Body of Deceit
If this erotic thriller is supposed to remind viewers of the kinds of movies that made Sharon Stone an A-list star, it falls short in the excitement department. Apart from several clearly telegraphed double-crosses and an extremely fragile love triangle, Body of Deceit’s primary selling points are its gorgeous Malta locations and copious amount of nudity and make-out sessions … mostly of the girl/girl variety. Eliminate the beautiful scenery and reasonably high production values and what’s left is a late-night Cinemax movie. That’s OK with me, but others might feel cheated by the obvious plot twists. Kristanna Loken plays a professional ghost writer, Alice, who’s still traumatized by a terrible automobile accident that left her in a coma for two weeks in a mainland hospital. Unable to recall the details, Alice has begun to suffer from depression, cryptic nightmares and writer’s block. Her husband, Max (Antonio Cupo), persuades Alice to go back to the island, hoping that something will unblock her mind, so she can start working again and meet her last deadline. The couple is welcomed to a beautiful Maltese villa by the stunning maid, Sara (Sarai Givaty), who resembles Rosanna Arquette, circa 1985. Things heat up with Alice realizes that she’s being followed by an undercover cop, whose intentions are too-quickly revealed. Even so, director Alessandro Capone (Hidden Love) keeps a couple of rabbits up his sleeve until the film’s 91 minutes are over.

Jerry Lewis: 10 Films
Coming to America: 30th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Trading Places: 35th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Terminator: Genesis/Forrest Gump: 4K UHD/HDR
It’s been 10 months since Jerry Lewis’ death, at 91, of cardiovascular disease. In a career that extended, on one stage or another, from the early 1930s to 2017, the former Joseph and/or Jerome Levitch defined what it meant to be a multihyphenate. Obituary writers struggled to complete a lead paragraph that described all the different hats he wore during that period: comedian, straight man, actor, singer, hoofer, mime, humanitarian, film director, film producer, screenwriter, tech wizard, headliner, television host, guest star, author, teacher and family man. It wouldn’t be accurate to compare his career to a roller-coaster, because it remained on the ascendency for nearly 30 years. I think it’s safe to say, marathon appearances on the annual MDA than the movies included in “Jerry Lewis: 10 Films.” He deserved a Best Supporting Actor nomination, at least, for his startling performance in The King of Comedy (1982), despite protestations that he was just playing himself. (His improvisational and directorial skills also were cited by Martin Scorsese.)

If the cheap shots about the reverence shown him by French critics and filmmakers never really ended, how many of his detractors could split the difference between auteur theory and schtick? Without belaboring the point, here’s what Jean Luc Godard had to say about the mercurial artist, at the height of his career and early days of the French New Wave: “Jerry Lewis … is the only one in Hollywood doing something different, the only one who isn’t falling in with the established categories, the norms, the principles. … Lewis is the only one today who’s making courageous films. He’s been able to do it because of his personal genius.” The titles included here, which played to adult sensibilities, while also delighting kids, are the one that prompted such praise.

The Stooge (1951) features one of Lewis’ earliest pairings with Dean Martin as a musical-comedy duo, albeit one forged by unusual circumstances; The Delicate Delinquent (1956), in Lewis’ first solo flight, he plays a bumbling janitor caught between neighborhood toughs and a friendly cop (Darren McGavin); The Bellboy (1960), in which a clumsy, mostly mute bellboy turns Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau Hotel upside-down; Cinderfella (1960), in which Lewis adds his trademark touches to the classic fairy tale, with Ed Wynn playing the Fairy Godfather; The Errand Boy (1961), in which Paramount Pictures enlists a human wrecking ball to discover who’s draining studio resources; The Ladies Man (1961) inserts a girl-shy nebbish into a women’s-only hotel to serve their every, frequently selfish whim; The Nutty Professor (1963) confuses a nerdy chemist with a slick lounge lizard, Buddy Love; The Disorderly Orderly (1964) puts an overly empathic med-school dropout in charge of caring for patients in a private rest home; The Patsy (1964), a cameo-heavy twist on “My Fair Lady,” with Jerry’s trademark schlub as Eliza Doolittle; and The Family Jewels, with Lewis playing seven distinctly different characters attempting to win the heart and fortune of an orphaned heiress. Binging on all 10 movies provides ample proof of how much Lewis influenced generations of comics to come, including Eddie Murphy and Jim Carrey.

Only Murphy was afforded the kind of freedom Lewis that enjoyed while acting on his whims and brainstorms. His influence is most visible in Murphy’s own version of The Nutty Professor (1996) and its sequel, Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (2000). In 1988, Murphy and Arsenio Hall both played multiple characters in Coming to America, while Eddie reprised the gag in Vampire in Brooklyn (1995). The original version of The Nutty Professor was included on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 funniest American films of all time and was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2004. Just for kicks, let me suggest watching The Delicate Delinquent alongside West Side Story. The curated boxed set adds commentaries with Lewis and Steve Lawrence; deleted scenes; interviews with compiler Chris Lewis; auditions; and backstage material.

Paramount is rolling out a quartet of its most popular vintage titles on Blu-ray and/or 4K UHD/HDR. Newcomers to Murphy’s work should check out “Coming to America: 30th Anniversary Edition,” with Hall and James Earl Jones; and “Trading Places: 35th Anniversary Edition,” with Dan Aykroyd, Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche and, of course, Jamie Lee Curtis. Both were directed by John Landis. Neither has been remastered or includes fresh featurettes, but they add slipcovers and vouchers for UV/iTunes digital copies. Terminator: Genesis and Forrest Gump benefit from fresh 4K UHD/HDR upgrades, with such enhancements as 12-bit Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos soundtracks. Terminator: Genesis‘ UHD disc contains no extras, but the pair of bundled Blu-ray discs ports over both all the original Blu-ray’s content, as well as a second disc with in-depth extras not included on the core release from 2015. Forrest Gump‘s UHD disc carries over a pair of legacy commentary tracks, which can only be found under the “Settings” tab. Viewers will find a plethora of extra content on the included pair of Blu-ray discs, which are simple ports of the 2009 set. A UV/iTunes digital copy code is included purchase.

Abominable: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Released in 2006, Ryan Schifrin’s Abominable feels like a throwback to a bygone era when creature features and disaster epics ruled the drive-ins. For some reason that I can’t exactly figure out, it works remarkably well today, surrounded in the marketplace by even more dated flicks that have been re-tooled in Blu-ray. Like many of the titles refurbished by Scream Factory, Cult Epics, Lionsgate, Synapse, Grindhouse, Cheezy and, now, MVD Rewind, Abominable has camp and nostalgia value up the yin-yang. For once, the story behind it isn’t bad, either. The publicity material suggests that the almost certainly mythical beast, variously known as Sasquatch, Yeti and Bigfoot, has been sighted some 42,000 times in 68 countries. It wasn’t until 1921 that the Himalayan Yeti became popularly known as the Abominable Snowman, a term that has little resonance today. Despite the insistence of filmmakers, the Yeti, Sasquatch and Bigfoot sightings argue against the hairy bipeds being aggressively violent. In fact, the rarity of the sighting suggests they’re incredibly reclusive. No one, as far as I know, has encountered a baby Bigfoot and it’s more likely to be a vegan than carnivore. The persistence of the legend can largely be traced to its value to the tourist industry in the Pacific Northwest.

Abominable doesn’t offer viewers much of a back story, really. The conceit – a horror flick inspired by Rear Window – substitutes for a coherent narrative. The monster simply appears one night outside the farmhouse belonging to Billy and Ethel Hoss (Rex Linn, Dee Wallace). The creature has killed a horse and will soon devour the family dog, an Irish Setter too stupid to know when to stay put. It returns to the Hoss’ house, but only to leave behind some humungous footprints. When next encountered the Sasquatch is threatening the lives of a group of young women holding a bachelorette party at a high-altitude retreat and their neighbor, a wheelchair-bound man who lost the use of his legs in a climbing mishap. A hunting party that includes the farmer is also in the vicinity. Matt McCoy plays the injured neighbor, who monitors the monster’s attack on the women through a pair of binoculars. The subsequent attack on the mountain condos is well choreographed by Schifrin, whose father, Lalo, composed the musical score. The Sasquatch is a take-no-prisoners sort of a fellow, who’s even able to survive an ax that’s driven through its chest and being crushed between a tree and the rear end of an automobile.

The question that lingers is how can a single Sasquatch be at so many places simultaneously and still be hungry after devouring so many large pieces of meat? Stay tuned. Besides Wallace, Linn and McCoy, the familiar cast includes Jeffrey Combs, Paul Gleason, Haley Joel, Phil Morris, Tiffany Shepis and Lance Henriksen. The Blu-ray adds an audio/visual upgrade; commentary with Schifrin, McCoy and Combs; Schifrin’s introduction; deleted and extended scenes; outtakes and bloopers; the featurette, ”Back to Genre: Making Abominable”; short films by Schifrin; the original 2005 version of the film; a storyboard and stills gallery; and collectible poster.

Ninja III: The Domination: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
It would be difficult to find a genre picture more indicative of the cheeseball fare associated with Cannon Films in its 1980s heyday than Ninja III: The Domination. OK, maybe Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, which also starred former Miss Kansas candidate and Solid Gold dancer Lucinda Dickey. In it, she plays Christie Ryder, a telephone-company worker and part-time aerobics instructor, who becomes possessed by the spirit of an evil ninja, whose life she attempted to save. Dominated by the killer’s vicious and relentless rage, she sets out to avenge his death. Her boyfriend, confused by Christie’s changing personality and afraid that he might be her next victim, enlists the help of Yamada (Shô Kosugi). In a life-threatening exorcism and ultimate fight to the death, Yamada proves that he is Christie’s only chance for survival. It is not really a trilogy in the sense that the story lines are all connected or that Kosugi plays the same character in each movie, which he doesn’t. According to director Sam Firstenberg, Ninja III was inspired as much by The Exorcist and Poltergeist as previous kung-fu movies. The collector’s edition is enhanced by a 4K remaster of the film and new interviews with Dickey, actor Jordan Bennett, producer and stuntman Alan Amiel, production designer Elliot Ellentuck and co-composer Misha Segal. Ported over are isolated tracks from the original score; a theatrical trailer with optional “Trailers From Hell” commentary with screenwriter Josh Olson; commentary by Firstenberg and stunt coordinator Steve Lambert; and reversible cover with original theatrical poster art.

Sherlock Gnomes: Blu-ray
In this long-anticipated sequel to the remarkably successful animated feature, Gnomeo & Juliet (2011), detective Sherlock Gnomes (Johnny Depp) is recruited to help investigate the mysterious disappearance of ornaments from lawns around London. Sherlock has defeated his archenemy Moriarty (Jamie Demetriou), once and for all, and Gnomeo (James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt) – now in charge of restoring their master’s garden to its former glory — assume that he has plenty of time to get to the bottom of the crime. To this end, Sherlock can count on the wisdom and detection skills of Dr. Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor). This time around, the action is more suited to younger audiences than full-family viewing, but the production values are high enough to keep adults interested, for a while anyway. The Blu-ray adds featurettes “Gnome Is Where the Heart Is,” “All Roads Lead to Gnome: London Locations in Sherlock Gnomes,” “Gnome Wasn’t Built in a Day: The Design and Art of Sherlock Gnomes,” “Miss Gnomer: Mary J. Blige and the Music of Sherlock Gnomes,” the music video “Stronger Than I Ever Was,” “How to Draw” and “Animating Sherlock Gnomes.”

NBC: Will & Grace (The Revival): Season One
Lifetime: Sea Change
PBS: Frontline: Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia
History: Ancient Aliens: 10th Anniversary Edition
Nickelodeon Favorites: Great Summer Campout!
Unlike the revival of “Roseanne,” which ABC pulled the plug on last month, the reboot of NBC’s pioneering sitcom, “Will & Grace,” will live to see the bright lights of two more seasons, at least. If Roseanne Barr’s ignoble downfall taught the television establishment anything, it’s that the only person who can get away with posting crackpot opinions on Twitter is the President. Amazingly, he’s told so many lies on social media that his nose has run out of the cartilage needed to surpass Pinocchio’s record. And, no one asks him to apologize, either. The first incarnation of “Will & Grace” was broadcast on the Peacock Network from September 1998 to May 2006. Despite initial criticism for its stereotypical portrayals of gay characters, as well as some timidity on the part of NBC’s promotional department, it went on to become a staple of its Thursday-night lineup. It was met with continued critical acclaim and awards recognition. Emmy nominations have yet to be announced, but the revival likely will get its share. In 2012, former Vice President Joe Biden cited the show as a trailblazer for acceptance of the LGBT community, “I think ‘Will & Grace’ probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has ever done so far. This is evolving.” Indeed, Biden’s endorsement of the sitcom and same-sex marriage preceded President Obama’s willingness to publicly accept the controversial stance. Beyond that, the ninth season of “Will & Grace” picked up where it left off 11 years ago. Not having followed the show for most of its original run, it’s difficult for me to say if the characters are more outspoken and willing to show their affection for same-sex friends. Maybe, maybe not. All I know is that Debra Messing’s Grace, with all her neuroses, would make a wonderful match to Jerry Seinfeld’s Jerry, in “Seinfeld.” (Their paths crossed twice on the show, in “The Yada Yada” and “The Wait Out,” but with Messing playing a different character, Beth.) Bonus features include deleted scenes, a gag reel, “Back to the Beginning,” “Reuniting the Team” and a discussion with director James Burrows and cast members.

If Lifetime had a YA division, “Sea Change” would be one of its marquee attractions. More or less based on Aimee Friedman’s young-adult novel of the same title, it’s about a teenage girl, who, after the death of her father, returns to the island home of a mother she never knew. It doesn’t take long for 17-year-old Miranda Merchant (Emily Rudd) to figure out that scenic Selkie Island – actually, Nova Scotia’s Oak Island – is divided in almost every way possible by the demands of the wealthy summer residents and the locals, who couldn’t survive without them. It will take a bit longer for Miranda to learn that the locals are divided, as well, by the normal folks and the seemingly normal Seawalkers, who are half-human, half-amphibian. As Miranda settles into island life, she finds herself torn between T.J., heir to one of the oldest Selkie families, and mysterious bad boy, Leo, who is part of the working-class “townies.” Leo has the advantage over T.J., for saving Miranda after she momentarily forgets that she can’t swim and wades into the ocean. The deeper she digs into Leo’s life, the closer Miranda comes to uncovering mysteries of her own. Veteran television director Chris Grismer does a nice job maintaining a balance between teen schmaltz and supernatural melodrama.

One doesn’t need a degree in international relations to fully appreciate how messed up things are in the Middle East and how unlikely it is that they’re going to get better any time soon. Invest two hours of your precious time watching the “Frontline” presentation, “Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia” and you’ll know as much about the situation as any undergraduate and more than 90 percent of the people running things in Washington. Not only is the mess complicated, but the roots of current hostilities extend back 1,400 years. The two-part documentary is quite a bit more interesting than what students usually are able to glean in lecture halls, if only because the visuals are more exciting than textbooks. The central event that drives the series is the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 to 1988. The conflict, which left at least a million combatants and civilians dead, more closely resembled World War I than other modern wars. It involved large-scale trench warfare, with barbed wire stretched across fortified defensive lines; machine-gun nests; bayonet charges; Iranian human wave attacks, extensive use of chemical weapons by Iraq and deliberate attacks on civilian targets. What most people outside the region didn’t understand, at the time, is that the carnage was caused, in large part, by religious differences almost imperceptible to most westerners. Although Saudi Arabia wasn’t directly involved, it took sides with Iraq. Years later, the ramifications of that war would be felt in the ill-advised American invasion of Iraq; civil wars in Lebanon and Syria; the rise and decline of ISIS; collapse of Yemen; and increased militarization of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Throw in Israel, oil and an out-of-control refugee problem, and you have the makings of a real powder keg … or Armageddon, one.

Who knew that there was so mileage in a series of quasi-investigative reports about UFOs, extraterrestrials, crop circles and other phenomena associated with the possibility that life exists on other planets? I don’t know if “Ancient Aliens: 10th Anniversary Edition” represents History Channel’s biggest cash cow, but the 36-disc collection would be impressive, even as a doorstop. The gift set includes all 135 episodes and over 100 hours of “Ancient Aliens” content. The epic series explores the ancient and unexplained, in search of humankind’s origins, as well as the secrets of the universe. From the age of dinosaurs to the mysteries of ancient Egypt, and from early cave drawings to present-day sightings and cover-ups, “Ancient Aliens” has fed the imaginations of true believers and skeptics, alike.

The new “Nickelodeon Favorites” DVD, “Great Summer Campout!” features five episodes from select Nick Jr. shows about summer and camping. They are “Bubble Guppies: The Summer Camp Games,” “Shimmer and Shine: Treehouse Retreat,” “Blaze and the Monster Machines: Truck Rangers,” “Sunny Day: Wild Styled” and “Nella the Princess Knight: Dueling Sleepovers.” Let’s hope the DVD is reserved for rainy days only.

The DVD Wrapup: Wrinkle in Time, Peter Pan, Hurricane Heist, Oh Lucy!, Freak Show, Great Silence, Smash Palace, Satellite Girl and more

Wednesday, June 6th, 2018

A Wrinkle in Time: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
Peter Pan: Signature Collection: Blu-ray
Not having read the book upon which Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time is based – the studio’s second adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 novel in the last 15 years – I won’t chance basing my review on other writers’ comparisons with the novel. For all I know, it’s 100 percent accurate. The fact that Ava DuVernay’s highly ambitious, if too frequently inert adaptation went unseen by so many of the book’s admirers speaks volumes. Apparently, DuVernay’s decision to make the Murry family multiracial didn’t sit well with some readers. Indeed, A Wrinkle in Time may be the most self-consciously diverse – some would say, politically correct – big-studio movie I’ve ever seen, at least in the casting of principles and extras. It didn’t bother me, really, but it was impossible to not be distracted by the flaunting of Hollywood’s color line. A Wrinkle in Time follows adoptive siblings Meg and Charles Wallace Murry (Storm Reid, Deric McCabe) on their epic science-fantasy quest to find their astrophysicist father, Dr. Alexander Murry (Chris Pine), who disappeared after an embarrassing presentation before his peers. His scientist wife, Dr. Kate Murry (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), is convinced that her husband solved the question of humanity’s existence and was teleported to another world for further investigation. His long absence has scarred Meg and Charles Wallace emotionally and impacted their ability to perform at the level expected of them at school. Meg’s only friend is the handsome Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller), who risks his BMOC status by embracing Meg’s theories and determination to find her father. The youthful astral travelers will soon learn that he’s trapped on Camazotz, a dark smudge in the universe that’s home to the IT (David Oyelowo). The IT represents all the greed, anger, pride, selfishness and low self-esteem in the world.

One night, Charles Wallace opens the door to their home to a red-haired stranger, Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), who closely resembles Glinda the Good Witch, in The Wizard of Oz. She informs him of the tesseract, a type of space-travel his father had mastered. A few hours later, when Calvin joins Meg and Charles Wallace in their backyard, Mrs. Whatsit appears with Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and an older woman, Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), who stands about 30 feet tall. They will lead Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace through a tesseract, to the considerably brighter and more colorful planet, Uriel. There’s no way to summarize what happens next without larding it with spoiler alerts. Suffice it to say that their adventure has only just begun and it’s a doozy. The idea was to produce a CGI-enhanced adaptation of the prize-winning book – which was rejected by two dozen publishers – on the budgetary scale of The Chronicles of Narnia, Bridge to Terabithia and District 9. That pipedream didn’t last long, however. The total production and marketing budget ballooned to around $250 million, which meant that A Wrinkle in Time would have had to gross around $400 million to break even. Opening weekend tallies quick disabused Disney of that notion. The studio decided not to push its (bad) luck, electing to pull the picture from foreign markets. Instead, it settled for a huge write-off. Some pundits blamed its disappointing, second-place opening on the dominance of Black Panther, then still No. 1 in its fourth weekend. Ironically, perhaps, both the Disney releases were helmed by African-American filmmakers.

The good news is that A Wrinkle in Time isn’t as mediocre as the numbers would suggest. Apart from the frightening decision to cast Oprah as a gigantic fairy princess, there are plenty of things to recommend it, especially to viewers with 4K UHD players. The movie’s color palette is brilliantly displayed in scenes that are delightfully fanciful or downright scary, considering the age of the protagonists.  What’s missing is narrative flow. Visually, A Wrinkle in Time isn’t all that distant from The Wizard of Oz, a movie that is as vibrant today as it was in 1939. The only visible seam was the one connecting the black-and-white opening and Dorothy’s Technicolor dream, and it was obliterated by the tornado and crash landing of the house in Munchkinland. DuVernay’s story unfolds as if there are semi-colons between the scenes. By contrast, L’Engle’s book and its sequels kept readers racing through their pages to see what’s coming next. Not only has it been named to a Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children, but it’s also one of the most “challenged” by parents who want to ban it from curriculums and libraries. Evangelicals have pointed to the book’s inclusion of witchcraft, crystal balls and “listing the name of Jesus Christ together with the names of great artists, philosophers, scientists and religious leaders, when referring to those who defend earth against evil.” He didn’t? Conservatives object to L’Engle’s depiction of “conformity” and the “status quo” as bad things, and that, within every society, there is a powerful dominant group that challenges minority interests. They don’t? Despite the censorial demands, “A Wrinkle in Time” has won the Newbery Medal, Sequoyah Book Award and Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, and was runner-up for the Hans Christian Andersen Award. The Blu-ray disc, which is included in the package, contains the half-hour “A Journey Through Time,” which covers Ava DuVernay’s direction, reinventing the book for modern sensibilities, casting and performances, character qualities, costumes and makeup, sets and shooting locations; deleted scenes, with optional commentary; commentary with DuVernay, first assistant director Michael Moore, visual-effects supervisor Richard McBride, screenwriter Jennifer Lee, producer Jim Whitaker, film editor Spencer Averick and production designer Naomi Shohan; music videos “I Believe,” performed by DJ Khaled and Demi Lovato, and Chloe X Halle’s “Warrior”; and bloopers.

In its sixth home-video iteration to date, Peter Pan (1953) joins six previous Disney classics – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Beauty and the Beast, Pinocchio, Bambi, The Lion King and Lady and the Tramp — in its Signature Collection. As has been the case with previous additions to the series, it features the same excellent 1080p video transfer that enhanced the 2013 Diamond Edition, as well as the same DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 lossless soundtrack. A 4K UHD upgrade would have been nice, but it wouldn’t have fit the studio’s normal release pattern, which teases viewers with a few new bonus features, in lieu of far more substantial. Anyone who already owns the Diamond Edition will have to decide for themselves if the handful of fresh featurettes is worth another investment in nostalgia. They include “Stories From Walt’s Office: Walt & Flight,” in which Rebecca Cline and Edward Ovalle from the Walt Disney Archives reveal items in the boss’ office that had to do with flight, including models of Walt Disney’s private airplanes; “A Darling Conversation With Wendy & John: Kathryn Beaumont and Paul Collins,” in which the voicing actors reflect on their time at the Disney Studio; and sing-along versions of “You Can Fly”-Oke and “Never Smile at a Crocodile”-Oke. The preview supplementary package appears to have been ported over intact.

The Hurricane Heist: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
When director Rob Cohen is on his game, as he’s been in The Fast and the Furious (2001), xXx (2002) and Dragonheart (1996), it’s easy to forgive him for the movies’ inconsistencies, illogical choices and silly set pieces. Why bother, when you’re having a good time? Hurricane Heist is no different. In it, a small militia of high-tech crooks, bent cops and special-forces types use the cover of a Category 5 hurricane to invade a U.S. Treasury facility on the Gulf Coast (of Bulgaria). The goal is to steal several truckloads’ worth of currency taken out of circulation ahead of the bills being shredded.  No one would expect such a brazen heist to take place while tornadoes, fierce winds and tide surges wreak havoc on the population. But, what better time? The problem, of course, comes in being able to pinpoint precisely when and where the next monster storm will hit and arrange for a delivery to made just before that happens. The plan’s mastermind would also be required to coordinate the movements of at least three different agencies. Once inside the mint, the gang can count on the cooperation of deep-cover officials and strategically placed computer geeks. Piece of cake, right? Only if you discount the loyalty of a dogged Treasury agent and a storm tracker with a vehicle able to withstand 300-mph winds and machine-gun bullets, simultaneously.

Set against a background of impenetrable noise and blinding rain, Hurricane Heist offers non-stop action and enough sophisticated weaponry and technology to invade Cuba. When the storm finally hits, its cyclonic gusts take full aim at a convoy of trucks leaving the mint and pursuers willing to die to prevent the recirculation of worn-out bills. Hurricane Heist combines key elements of Jan de Bont’s Twister (1996), Sam Peckinpah’s Convoy (1978) and Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) in the service of entertainment that goes great with a full liter of Classic Coke, a mountain of Junior Mints and a tub of popcorn, with extra butter. Of course, two of the female crooks are required to defend themselves while wearing cocktail dresses and heels, while the sharpshooting Treasury agent is allowed the luxury of combat fatigues and sensible shoes. If the bad guys couldn’t hit the side of a barn with a machine gun, the good cops can’t miss. Listen carefully and you’ll hear a shout-out to Timothy McVeigh written into the dialogue. He’s the American terrorist who detonated a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, in Oklahoma City, on April 19, 1995. The Blu-ray extras include Cohen’s commentary; deleted scenes; “The Eye of the Storm,” making-of featurette; a VFX reel; and informative “Hollywood Heist: A Conversation With Rob Cohen,” in which he looks back on more than 40 years of making films for mainstream audiences, sizing up the state of the Industry along the way.

Oh Lucy!: Blu-ray
Atsuko Hirayanagi’s kooky debut feature, Oh Lucy!, is a cross-cultural dramedy that has reminded some observers of Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express (1994), Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) and Michael Showalter’s Hello, My Name Is Doris (2015). In the latter, Sally Field plays a 60-year-old Staten Island resident, who, to quote Henry David Thoreau, is among “the mass of men (and women) leading lives of quiet desperation.” In these movies, Doris and Lucy have been granted the opportunity to avoid “going to the grave with the song still in them.” Here, Shinobu Terajima (Caterpillar) plays Setsuko, an emotionally stifled Tokyo office worker, who, if she’s lucky, will someday be accorded the kind of retirement party in which bosses and employees pretend they’re one big, happy family. It’s at one such function that Setsuko momentarily breaks out of her shell and bursts the bubble of a retiree who was enjoying the platitudes. She regrets her outburst almost immediately, knowing that she’ll be demoted or fired in the morning.  In Setsuko’s case, to borrow a phrase coined by Alexander Graham Bell, “When one door closes another door opens.” And, unlike so many of her fellow Japanese office workers, Setsuko makes the leap through that open door.

Knocking on her door is her flighty niece, Mika (Shioli Kutsuna), to whom she’s lent money for English lessons and has decided to blow off the class and move to the U.S. When Setsuko goes to the makeshift school for a refund, she’s embraced – literally and figuratively – by the instructor, John (Josh Hartnett), who gives her a blond wig to wear while exchanging generic American greetings with a Japanese gentleman wearing a black toupee. While it’s a weird way to learn another language, the wigs have a liberating effect on both students. As “Lucy,” Setsuko experiences feelings and desires she never knew she had. The problem comes when John abruptly quits the job and his more traditional replacement isn’t to Seduko’s liking.

It doesn’t take long before she realizes that John followed Mika to Los Angeles, and that the girl is probably pregnant. Seduko decides to take Mika up on her offer to visit the U.S., using an address on a postcard as her only signpost. Seduko’s sourpuss sister, Ayako (Kaho Minami), insists on coming along on the trip, if only to scold her daughter unmercifully. It’s at this point that Oh Lucy threatens to become “Seduko and Ayako’s Excellent Adventure,” which would have been OK with me, too. Instead, the sisters quickly discover that John is a penniless slacker and Mika has split for San Diego, which is where his wife and daughter impatiently await his next child-support check. Before they’re able to find Mika, Seduko, Ayako and John spend a restless night in a seedy no-tell motel, among the city’s biker bars and tattoo parlors. I wouldn’t call the ending, which takes place back in Tokyo, happy, exactly, but it is satisfying. Oh Lucy benefits greatly from its origins as a thesis film of the same title, film, which, in 2014, received N.Y.U. Tisch School of the Arts’ Wasserman Award. It went on to win more than 25 awards around the globe, including prizes at the Cannes Film Festival, Sundance and Toronto International Film Festival. The feature-length version was nominated at the 2018 Film Independent Spirit Awards for Best First Feature. Bonus features include deleted scenes and an interview at the New York Asian Film Festival with the Japanese-American filmmaker.

Freak Show: Blu-ray
Trudie Styler’s extremely moving and frequently quite funny debut feature, Freak Show, could hardly be more topical. It is inspired by the many teachers, administrators and parents across the country, who invariably rise to the bait whenever gender-fluid students are elected prom or homecoming queen. (We rarely hear about the lesbians and cross-dressing girls, if any, who are picked to be king.) Students have all sorts of reasons for thwarting tradition by voting for the Ts in the LGBTQ spectrum. I suspect that it has less to do with choosing the boy or girl who best represents the student body in such contests, than to thumb their collective noses at tradition and test the patience of teachers, principals and conservative classmates. Like tulips, every new spring brings with it a widely reported outcry over a cross-dressing prom king or queen, and gay and interracial dating at such events. You can set your watch to it. In Freak Show, British rising star Alex Lawther (The Imitation Game) is absolutely fabulous as Billy Bloom, a rich transfer student at an exclusive high school, who makes Johnny Weir and Boy George seem butch. There’s no question that Billy, whose supportive, if self-centered mother is played by Bette Midler, wants to make as big a splash as possible in his new surroundings. He wears clothes that wouldn’t be out of place at a drag show on the Las Vegas Strip and quotes Oscar Wilde whenever the situation merits narrative comment.

At first, Billy is treated by his fellow students as an escaped attraction from a Coney Island freak show … hence the title. As the bullies, jocks and mean girls raise the ante on their harassment, however, he gains the sympathy of kids who aren’t part of the ruling cliques. (One of the fallacies of high school life is that the so-called popular kids are always vastly outnumbered by the dweebs, outcasts and ciphers, who are too timid to call out their tormentors.) He accomplishes this with his irrepressible sense of humor and style. Among the kids who first warm to Billy are a star athlete (Ian Nelson) and a hipster girl he calls Blah Blah Blah (AnnaSophia Robb). The rest follow when he’s beaten savagely in the lavatory and taken to a hospital. It’s when he decides to run for the title of homecoming queen. His primary competition is a toxic cheerleader, Lynette (Abigail Breslin), who’s spent most of her 17 years on Earth anticipating being named queen. (It’s also likely to be the highlight of the rest of her life.) The rest of Freak Show offers enough surprises to keep skeptical viewers involved, including an unexpected rapprochement with his much-maligned father (Larry Pine). The movie was adapted from the popular 2007 YA novel by former club kid, James St. James. For those who don’t follow rock royalty, the director is better known as Mrs. Sting.

Our Blood Is Wine
By the time Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana, Georgians of the South Caucasus had been converting the juice of grapes into varietal wine for thousands of years. Not knowing its source, the bridegroom at Cana praised the master of the banquet for having saved the best wine until last. It became known as Jesus’ first miracle. The ancestors of the Georgian farmers and vintners we meet in Emily Railsback’s fascinating documentary Our Blood Is Wine have employed more traditional methods to create wines many imbibers consider to be miraculous. Accompanied by Chicago sommelier Jeremy Quinn, Railsback was afforded intimate access to rural family life in the Republic of Georgia as they explored the rebirth of 8,000-year-old winemaking traditions. The roots of Georgian viticulture have been traced back to 6000 BC, when farmers stored the fermented juice of the harvest in large clay vessels (kvevris) that are buried in the ground. When full, the vessels are topped with a wooden lid, covered and sealed with earth, until the wine is judged ready for drinking. The process endured until the formation of the Soviet Union, when communist officials decided that it was inefficient and could be improved by throwing all the different varieties of grapes into a big vat and adding sugar to hasten the fermentation. After the republic was established, Russia slapped an embargo on production and exports, while also accusing vintners of using counterfeit labels. Even so, some of the vintners managed to produce wine in clay pots for personal use. By using unobtrusive iPhone technology, Railsback records the voices and ancestral legacies of modern Georgians, with an eye out for varieties of grapes only grown and harvested in out-of-the way wine-growing regions (and forests). The revival received a boost when UNESCO added the ancient traditional Georgian winemaking method, using the kvevri jars, to its Intangible Cultural Heritage List. The DVD adds alternate scenes, traditional chants and songs, and a sketch and poster gallery.

The Midnight Man: Blu-ray
Devil’s Gate: Blu-ray
From IFC Midnight/Scream Factory comes the American remake of the Irish haunted-game thriller, The Midnight Man (2013). While it doesn’t necessarily improve on the original, Travis Zariwny’s film benefits from the inclusion of Lin Shaye, Robert Englund and rising scream queen, Gabrielle Haugh. On a snowy night in her grandmother’s sprawling mansion, teenager Alex (Haugh) and her best friend Miles (Grayson Gabriel) discover a mysterious box hidden away in the attic. Inside are instructions for the Midnight Game, a pagan ritual said to summon the players’ greatest fears. Because the movie opens with a flashback to a previous experience with the game, viewers already know to expect the kind of thrills and chills generally associated with movies involving Ouija boards and mysterious incantations. While the eponymous monster is sufficiently convincing for a straight-to-video release, it’s the performances by horror veterans Shaye and Englund that should attract genre buffs to Zariwny’s Americanization of Rob Kennedy’s Midnight Man. In a welcome surprise, the Scream package includes Kennedy’s stripped-down original. In it, an unsuspecting teenage girl, Alex (Philippa Carson), summons the mythical Midnight Man, while she’s babysitting for her granny. In addition to the title monster, Alex is tormented by an evil clown and her sporadically possessed grandmother. If it doesn’t stand up under scrutiny, Carson’s portrayal of a teenager left to her own devices is truly precious. Apart from her reactions to the demons tormenting her, Alex spends much of the movie’s first 20 minutes mugging for the camera and reacting in silly ways to her mother’s phone calls and other stimuli. It’s as if Carson were auditioning for a road-show revival of “Bye Bye Birdie” or “Grease.” Legend has it that Midnight Man is the first feature film in the history of Irish cinema to get a U.S. remake.

Another decent IFC Midnight/Scream Factory release is Devil’s Gate, an alien-invasion story that owes as much to horror as sci-fi. In it, FBI special agent Daria Francis (Amanda Schull) is assigned to travel to Devil’s Gate, a small town in the middle of Nowhere, North Dakota (Manitoba, really), to investigate the disappearance of Maria Pritchard (Bridget Regan) and her son, Jonah. Her prime suspect is the head of the household, Jackson (Milo Ventimiglia), who lives on a farm that hasn’t seen a harvestable crop in years. Jackson has already disposed of one stranded motorist, looking for a jump, and his general demeanor is that of a full-blown paranoiac. Sensing that Jackson may simply be a harmless looney, the local sheriff urges Francis to give him a pass. When she ignores his advice, he insists that she be accompanied by Deputy Conrad “Colt” Salter (Shawn Ashmore), who once considered Jackson to be a friend. Together, they manage to subdue the suspect, who cautions them against what they’re likely to find while searching the house … and, for good reason. Moreover, a mysterious force prevents Colt’s car from starting and reaching the sheriff by phone or walkie-talkie. Forced to remain in the farmhouse overnight, they’re terrorized by something emitting lightning bursts from cyclonic storm clouds. While the scene reveals the dynamics of the film’s central mystery, the visual effects come off as anticlimactic. The real suspense had been exhausted an hour earlier.

Altered Perception
The cover image on the DVD package containing Kate Rees Davies’ debut feature, Altered Perception, shows a syringe about to be inserted into the eye of a young woman … or, at least, hovering over the iris, which resembles a button that could be worn on the uniform of a Defense Department official. I suspect that it’s supposed remind potential viewers of a giallo, such as Dario Argento’s Opera, whose DVD carried a photo of a terrified woman being prevented from blinking by needles inserted in her eyelids. In fact, the only thing the two movies have in common is … well, nothing. In reality, though, the syringe is about as menacing as a drugstore eye-dropper. It’s used to dispense an experimental drug designed to alter perceptions during trauma and stress. If it works on humans, surely, it could be used to ease socio-political tensions that threaten world peace. So much for the horror angle. In fact, the story concerns the couples who’ve volunteered for the government’s poorly monitored trials on average humans. Viewers already know that something will go terribly wrong for one couple, at least, and that the people supervising the trials have no firm idea of when to pull the plug on them.

Like the monitors, whose deliberations we observe, the couples deal rather poorly with personal problems that could be handled better by a priest, lawyer or psychiatrist. Or, instead dropping DPT in the subjects’ eyes, they could simply offer them a hit of Ecstasy. I don’t mean to belittle the couples’ problems, but they have nothing to do with horror or sci-fi. Altered Perception is a relationship drama disguised as a genre flick. Among the cast members are co-writers Jon Huertas (“This Is Us”) and Jennifer Blanc-Biehn (The Night Visitor 2: Heather’s Story). She plays the wife of a man who only recently has become disturbed by her previous employment as a prostitute. Instead of lessening the tension between them, the drug exacerbates his jealousy and paranoia. A lesbian couple suddenly comes to loggerheads over the possibility that one of the women was raped by the other’s brother, and the victim is being blamed for letting him do it. The other couple is plagued by the wife’s insane jealousy an affair she imagines her husband is having with his secretary. The story reminded less of Opera than the soft-core relationships classic, Married People, Single Sex, which was pitched as “an erotic tableaux of sexual dysfunction.” The filmmakers’ points about the carelessness and malfeasance that accompany drug trials are more effectively made in text blocks that accompany the narrative.

Satellite Girl and Milk Cow: Blu-ray
The Steam Engines of Oz: Blu-ray
Any attempt to summarize what occurs in Chang Hyung-yun’s highly whimsical animated feature, Satellite Girl and Milk Cow, is bound to sound ridiculous. I’ve read several attempts to do just that and they all make the movie sound like an exercise in grammar-school surrealism, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I suppose. Bottom line, however, you’ll have to watch the movie to believe any of the setups and, even then, you might come away dizzy, as they take anthropomorphism to new extremes. This isn’t necessary a bad thing, either. Here goes: after circling the planet for a couple of decades, photographing the Korean Peninsula, a decommissioned satellite, KITSAT-1, picks up a lovelorn ballad on its antennae and descends to Earth to find the source of such sincere emotions. On its way down, however, KITSAT-1 is transformed into a mechanized teenage girl, Il-ho. Meanwhile, when singer-songwriter Kyung-chun suffers the heartbreak of being dumped by his girlfriend, he turns into a cow. This prompts Incinerator, a 20-foot-tall furnace that tracks down and devours creatures with lonely hearts, to make the cow its next victim. Aided by the wise and powerful Merlin – a wizard who has been turned into a roll of toilet paper – the characters are also required to dodge a wily porcine witch and other nefarious adversaries. Finally, the craziness makes way for a touching story about love, acceptance and identity. Kids are likely to be more taken by the scatological gags, which include Merlin’s magical incantation, “toilet paper kleenex popee popee.” The Korean production probably owes something to Japan’s Studio Ghibli, which has been turning out features just as fanciful for years. Satellite Girl and Milk Cow isn’t nearly as refined and coherent as the average Studio Ghibli release, but the industry is still learning how to run. The special features include Chang’s similarly bizarre 2007 short, “Coffee Vending Machine and Its Sword Short,” which resembles some of Klasky-Csupo’s early work for Nickelodeon. In it, a once-legendary swordsman, known as Murimjeilgeom, is reincarnated a coffee-vending machine. The newly steeled warrior, Jin Yeong-yeong, becomes infatuated with a girl, Hye-mi, who enjoys drinking wine. must discover his place in the new world he inhabits. He also is required to deal with a zebra assassin.

In all, L. Frank Baum wrote 14 best-selling children’s books about Oz and its enchanted inhabitants, as well as a spin off-series of six stories for early readers. After his death in 1919, author Ruth Plumly Thompson, illustrator John R. Neill (who had previously collaborated with Baum on his Oz books) and several other writers and artists continued the series. There are now more than 50 novels based upon Baum’s saga. In 2013, Canada’s Arcana Comics published Erik Hendrix, Sean Patrick O’ Reilly and Yannis Roumboulias’ graphic novel, “The Steam Engines of Oz,” which was just turned into an animated feature by O’Reilly. It is set a century after Dorothy first arrived in the fantasy land and much has changed. Emerald City is ruled with an iron fist by the Tin Man, who has banned magic, singing and other forms of entertainment. The heavily industrialized wasteland is protected by stormtroopers, while surrounding forests are populated with fierce creatures, winged monkeys and Munchkins preparing to take back the city.

The story’s anti-fascist overtones could easily put young fans of The Wizard of Oz off their feeds for a while, so parents shouldn’t blindly use The Steam Engines of Oz has a babysitter. It helps, as well, to be aware of the term, “steam punk,” which is how the movie has been described. Oz’s only hope rests with a young engineer, Victoria Wright, who’s in charge of keeping the city’s 19th Century power plant in operation. Because it’s considered to be such an important duty, Victoria has not been allowed to leave the underground, maybe since she was born. She’s tracked down by good witch Locasta and her flying monkeys, who convince her to abandon her responsibilities and join the resistance. The movie’s climactic showdown features a battle on the ground and in the air. The animatic techniques used here harken back to the early days of computer animation, possibly for budgetary reasons. It’s a tad disconcerting, at first, but the entertaining story makes up for the shortcuts.

The Great Silence: 50th Anniversary Restoration: Blu-ray
In the leadup to the release of The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino told reporters that his influences included The Thing (1982), “Bonanza” (1959), “The Virginian” (1962), “The High Chaparral” (1967) and his own Reservoir Dogs (1992). On the “connections” link on, more than three dozen direct links to other sources are cited, ranging from Citizen Kane (1941) and The Iceman Cometh (1973), to Annie Hall (1977). Tarantino has always been known as a walking encyclopedia of cinematic history and pop culture, so anything in his films that looks like a homage or direct reference probably is. One major influence that might have flown over the heads of Tarantino’s fans is the Italian “snow Western,” The Great Silence (1968), Sergio Corbucci’s follow-up to Django (1966), Navajo Joe (1966) and The Cruel Ones (1967). That’s because the ultra-violent flick was kept hidden from U.S. audiences until 2001, when a DVD version was released, and, again in 2012, when in it was shown in L.A. and New York. Reportedly, when The Great Silence was screened for Darryl F. Zanuck to determine whether 20th Century Fox would release it in the U.S., he reportedly was so offended by the movie that he refused to distribute it here. The company saw no problem, though, with handling it in Italy and several other markets. Zanuck wasn’t the only viewer disturbed by The Great Silence, especially its revisionist ending, which broke several unwritten rules of the genre and, according to Corbucci’s widow, Nori, was inspired by the recent murders of Che Guevara and Malcolm X. None of this is to imply that The Great Silence can’t be enjoyed simply as a gorgeously mounted Western that overflows with action, violence and great mountain scenery. It’s winter in the Utah high country and a gang of bounty hunters, led by Loco (Klaus Kinski), is racing the deadline of an amnesty that could take the rewards off the heads of a gang of “outlaws,” also hiding in the back country.

The bounty hunters have been killing the wanted men, instead of going through the hassle of delivering them to the corrupt government official who doles out the blood money, whether they’re dead or alive. As the killing spree continues, the mute gunslinger, Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), rides into town to make sure everyone plays fair and the citizenry is protected. Clearly, Loco and Silence will eventually face off against each other in mortal combat. The only question that remains is who will be left standing after the shooting starts. It’s a classic Western setup, absent a traditional Western solution. After 50 years, The Great Silence retains the power to shock and disturb casual fans and genre buffs in equal measure. It’s impossible not to be impressed by the work of cinematographer Silvano Ippoliti, Ennio Morricone’s own revisionist score and the acting of Trintignant, Kinski and Vonetta McGee, the rare African-American co-star in any Western of the day. The Film Movement package adds “Cox on Corbucci,” in which filmmaker and author Alex Cox surveys Corbucci’s career and how The Great Silence fits within his oeuvre; the surprisingly entertaining and informative 1968 documentary, “Western, Italian Style”; two never-before-seen alternate endings, including the option to play one of them with Cox’s commentary; an original and contemporary theatrical trailer; and “Ending the Silence,” a new essay by film critic Simon Abrams.

Smash Palace: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Premiering at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival, Smash Palace was Roger Donaldson’s second feature, following the success of Sleeping Dogs, a film which had heralded the arrival of a revived Kiwi cinema. (Both have been given a facelift by Arrow Academy.)  If the title refers to a gigantic junk yard and final resting place for ruined cars and trucks, it also will come to represent the disintegrating marriage of a former Formula 1 driver, Al (Bruno Lawrence), and his fish-out-of-water French wife, Jacqui (Anna Jemison). They met when she nursed him back to health following a career-ending injury. After they married, the couple returned to Al’s native New Zealand to take over his father’s wrecking-yard business and raise a family. As so often happens, the husband’s devotion to his wife is superseded by his all-consuming desire to design and build a race car capable of impressing the big boys in Europe. Compared to the life Jacqui led in France, Al’s patch of rural New Zealand must of have reminded her of Dogpatch, in the Li’l Abner comics. While Al does share his passion with their daughter, Georgie (Greer Robson), he neglects Jacqui’s occasional desire to leave the junkyard and attend a party or dance. He transfers that responsibility to his close friend, Ray (Keith Aberdein), a local cop for whom his wife develops something resembling a crush.

By the time Al figures out what’s developed between them, it’s too late. In an act of unsupportable sexual aggression, Al convinces Jacqui that she needs to leave home with Georgie or go mad. Eventually, the macho mechanic decides he can’t take sharing his wife and daughter with his friend and kidnaps the girl. Before taking her to the van he’s hidden in the woods, Al grabs his shotgun and pushes his truck over a cliff to misdirect his pursuers. Having become conditioned to the tragic results of such marital disputes, naturally we fear the worst for Georgie. Donaldson’s clever resolution to the stalemate demonstrates why he soon would be entrusted with such properties as The Bounty (1984), No Way Out (1987) and Cocktail (1988). The Blu-ray adds commentary by Donaldson and stunt driver Steve Millen; “The Making of Smash Palace,” a 51-minute documentary featuring interviews with Donaldson, actor Keith Aberdein and filmmaker Geoff Murphy; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips; and an illustrated booklet with new writing on the film by Ian Barr, a vintage review by Pauline Kael and the original press book.

Escape Plan: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
In what read more like an obituary than a weekend business report, the authoritative Box Office Mojo dismissed the October 17, 2013, superstar pairing du jour, thusly: “Escape Plan opened to $9.9 million this weekend. That’s more than this year’s solo outings for Sylvester Stallone (Bullet to the Head) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Last Stand), though that’s not saying much. Escape Plan would have been one of the biggest movies of the year, if it had been released in the 1980s, but, unfortunately, it’s 2013. The 80s nostalgia card has already been played in the two Expendables movies, as has the Stallone/Schwarzenegger pairing.” Considering that Arnold was just coming off an eight-year stretch as “The Governator” and probably was still feeling the sting of being caught cheating on his ex-wife, Maria Shriver, that might have seemed a bit harsh. Although Stallone was still getting by, appearing in sequels and adding his voice to animated features, the pairing must have reeked of desperation to younger audiences. The big surprise would come a couple of years later, when the reappearance of his trademark alter ego, Rocky Balboa, in Ryan Coogler’s Creed (2015), would be nominated for an Oscar in the Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role category. (Coogler would be handed the reins of Black Panther.) The Box Office Mojo report also pointed that “Escape Plan‘s audience was 55 percent male and 61 percent over the age of 30,” which represents one of the Industry’s least-favorite demographics. Nevertheless, speaking here for all white males over the age of 30, Escape Plan isn’t nearly as bad a movie as the numbers suggest. It offers plenty of goofy, illogical fun in an easily digestible package, especially in its 4K UHD iteration. None of the action is remotely feasible, but the presence of the old-school superheroes renders such concerns mute.

Stallone stars as Ray Breslin, a former lawyer who literally wrote the book on breaking out of prisons. He works freelance for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, identifying the weak spots of penitentiaries by entering them as an undercover inmate and escaping. When he’s pulled off the street and transferred to a previously unknown maximum-security facility, Breslin knows he may be facing his toughest challenge. Among other things, he’s never heard of the place, let alone where it’s located. Although he’s twice as old as most of his fellow prisoners, Schwarzenegger’s Emil Rottmayer is respected and feared in equal measure. In near record time, Breslin and Rottmayer hook up as kindred spirits and co-conspirators, under the watchful eye of Warden Hobbes (Jim Caviezel), his omniscient security cameras and comically uniformed guards. Due to a demonic double-cross, Hobbes already knows that his newest prisoner isn’t who he’s pretending to be, and he intends to beat him at his own game. The cells, which appear to be made of plexiglass, form a honeycomb pattern and are controlled by the unseen hands of computer jockeys. The prison might, indeed, be impenetrable and inescapable, but the prisoners are given curiously long periods of time to mingle and conspire to their hearts content. Still, the prison’s location on Earth would appear to preclude any potential breakout. But, nooooooo … A greater mystery is posed by the fact that someone has greenlit “Escape Plan 2: Hades” and “Escape Plan 3: Devil’s Station,” with Dave Bautista filling in for Arnold. Both are likely to receive theatrical releases in foreign markets, but open on VOD platforms and Blu-ray here. The 4K UHD package includes commentary with director Mikael Håfström (The Rite) and co-writer Miles Chapman (Road House 2: Last Call); deleted scenes; and featurettes “Executing the Plan: The Making of Escape Plan,” “Maximum Security: The Real-Life Tomb” and “Clash of the Titans.”

Frank & Eva: Blu-ray
I wouldn’t go so far as to describe Pim de la Parra’s 1973 soft-core “artsploitation” flick, Frank & Eva, as a classic anything, but it does have two things to recommend it, at least. Placed in its historical context, it represents the kind of erotica being produced in Europe by Radley Metzger, Dino Risi, Lucio Fulci and Tinto Brass on the eve of The Golden Age of Porn. The other noteworthy feature in Frank & Eva is newcomer Sylvia Kristel, who, within two years, would became an international sensation in Just Jaeckin’s Emmanuelle. In it, the wife of a French diplomat in Bangkok embarks on a voyage of sexual discovery in Thailand and the Seychelles. Kristal would continue to portray variations of the same character until 1993. In Frank & Eva, however, she plays a hot and sexy distraction for Frank (Hugo Metsers), an overheated playboy who can’t help but cheat on his even hotter and sexier wife, Eva (Willeke van Ammelrooy). Although they can’t seem to live with or without each other, Eva decides to try, anyway, by starting an affair with a mutual friend. There’s nothing particularly complicated or artistic going on here, but the stars appear to be enjoying themselves, with or without clothes. The Cult Epics Blu-ray adds new commentary by Pim de la Parra; the entertaining documentary, “Up Front & Naked: Sex in Dutch Films,” with Willeke van Ammelrooy; a Frank & Eva poster and photo gallery; a Sylvia Kristel poster gallery; and original theatrical trailers.

Genetically Modified Children
As has been pathetically clear, President Trump is obsessed with eliminating every progressive piece of legislation and regulation passed in the Obama administration, as well as environmental laws introduced in the Clinton and Bush years. He’s never really explained why he’s ordered his thoroughly corrupt EPA chief Scott Pruitt to re-pollute the planet and return to the days when air and water were unfit for human consumption. The closest he’s come to an explanation is to repeat ad nauseam, “make America great again.” The highly disturbing Cinema Libre documentary, Genetically Modified Children, describes what happens when American conglomerates and other multinational interests are allowed – indeed, encouraged by stockholders – to foist dangerous compounds on poor farmers in Third World countries and demand they utilize proven toxins on their crops. Anyone who thinks that current debate over GMOs is too difficult to understand or overstated ought to check out what people in less-protected environments are exposed to everyday. As a prime example, low-income tobacco farmers in South America are experiencing skyrocketing cancer rates, with even more devastating repercussions affecting their children. They include severe physical deformities and mental disabilities. Choosing between poverty or poison, Latin American growers have no choice but to use harmful chemicals, such as the herbicide glyphosate (Monsanto s Roundup) and Bayer s insecticide, Confidor, if they want to certify and sell their crops to Big Tobacco. As patent and regulatory laws continue to favor the profits of Monsanto and chemical companies, the tobacco makes its way into the hands and mouths of consumers worldwide in Philip Morris products. It’s entirely possible that the poisons used to harvest the crops have contaminated the farmers’ blood and are modifying the human genome, creating genetically modified children. And, perhaps, equally shocking, studies show that the tobacco industry spent $9.5 billion on marketing in 2016, but didn’t it feel it necessary to provide face masks, gloves or goggles for the impoverished Argentinians paid pennies to package the chemicals that grow the tobacco. As long as Trump and Pruitt are in office, they probably never will, either.

Disney Channel: Ducktales: Destination: Adventure
Nickelodeon: Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
Comedy Central: South Park: The Complete Twenty-First Season: Blu-ray
Smithsonian: The Real Story
Like most people, I tend to stop listening when someone opines, “There are only two kinds of people in the world, the ones who like X and the ones who prefer Y.” If only life were so simple. There is something to be said, however, about the validity of any debate over the predilections of people who prefer Mickey Mouse over Donald Duck, and vice versa. I’m in the latter camp and always have been. If the competition were strictly between the two principles, I’d give the edge to Donald 51/49. Throw in Huey, Dewey, Louis, Scrooge McDuck and Daisy, and there’s no contest. Webbigail “Webby” Vanderquack gets a thumbs-up, as well, if only for her new voice, provided by Kate Micucci (“Garfunkel and Oates”). In the latest compilation, ““Ducktales: Destination: Adventure”,” Uncle Scrooge has buried the hatchet with his nephew, after not speaking to each other for 10 years. When he agrees to watch the boys, Scrooge is inspired to take them on several new treasure-hunting expeditions, with Webby along for the ride. The destinations include an ancient tomb in Toth-Ra; the mountain peak of Mt. Neverrest; and a vacation island for Greek gods. As a bonus, the six-episode set also contains two vintage episodes from the final season of the original 1980s’ Disney Afternoon series, starring Alan Young as Uncle Scrooge. Micucci is joined by fellow voice actors David Tennant, Danny Pudi, Bobby Moynihan, Ben Schwartz, Tony Anselmo and, as Fenton Crackshell-Cabrera (a.k.a., Gizmoduck), Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Having already aired on Nickelodeon from 2005-2008, Paramount is celebrating the 10th-year anniversary of the demise of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” by compiling all 85 episode and releasing them in hi-def, which is the ideal platform for all animated titles. It tells the story of the young Airbender/Avatar, Aang, a successor to a long line of Avatars, who must master all four elements and stop the Fire Nation from enslaving the Water Tribes and the Earth Kingdom. “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is set in an Asiatic world, in which some people can manipulate the classical elements with a psychokinetic variant of the Chinese martial arts known as “bending.” It is presented in a style that combines anime with American cartoons and relies on the imagery of pan-Asian, Inuit and New World societies. The series spans the discovery of 12-year-old Aang in a frozen iceberg, through his mastery of all four elements, and from the battle at Ba Sing Se to the final showdown with the Fire Nation. The television series should not be confused with M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action feature film, released in 2010, which received caustically negative reviews, was criticized by cast members and aborted plans for a trilogy. (The fact is, however, the movie enjoyed an excellent opening weekend and total worldwide revenues of nearly $320 million, against an estimated production budget of $150 million.) The series was nominated for — and won — Annie Awards, Genesis Awards, a Primetime Emmy Award and a Peabody Award. A compilation of the sequel series, “The Legend of Korra,” was released in Blu-ray in December 2016. The nine-disc Blu-ray package adds commentaries, interviews (including one with Shyamalan), quite a few behind-the-scenes and making-of featurettes.

The episodes collected in “South Park: The Complete Twenty-First Season” could hardly be more topical. Nearly six months after the last one aired, we’re still talking about fake news. North Korea, the national opioid epidemic, home-improvement shows, volcanoes, bullying, Netflix, Facebook and tweets. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone shifted from the continuity-driven approach of Season 20, to a return to the shows that stood on their own. The events of one episode were sometimes referenced in subsequent episodes, and the rapidly deteriorating relationship between Cartman and Heidi gave the show one serialized storyline to explore over the course of the fall. Otherwise, most of the humor focused on the kids of South Park Elementary. As for extras, all that’s included is “#Socialcommentary” and a mini-commentary for each episode. On-screen tweets shed some insight into each episode, while Matt and Trey share a few brief comments about each episode.

Historians could spend their entire careers bursting bubbles blown by Hollywood myth-makers to inspire audiences desperate for heroes and inspiration. Only a few of them would make enough money to support themselves, however. If viewers wanted their bubbles burst, they’d be pushing for bond issues to build mega-libraries, instead of spending their earnings in megaplexes. In the meantime, the Smithsonian’s intDisney Channel: Ducktales: Destination Adventureriguing documentary series, “The Real Story” will have to suffice. The latest entries in its DVD catalogue include examinations of the theories presented as facts in Braveheart, True Grit and Live Free or Die Hard, popular entertainments that may or may not stand up to scrutiny. Mel Gibson and Randall Wallace’s Braveheart won Academy Awards in five of the ten categories it was nominated, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography. Gibson made William Wallace, the 13th-century Scottish warrior, an unforgettable Hollywood character. But how historically accurate is the film? The show’s producers examine new archeological evidence, reveal recently deciphered manuscripts and conduct forensic experiments to uncover the facts behind this mythic leader of men’s legend. And, while “The True Story” doesn’t spoil any of the fun, it made me wish that video cameras had been invented early enough to capture the ferocity of the actual battles.

The line that divides fact and fiction in the Old West is as long and wide as the Rio Grande and Colorado rivers. The difference between good and evil has also been left in the hands of Hollywood storytellers, who took certain indisputable truths – cows and horses have four legs, and bullets can kill people – and used them as a foundation for a monument to America’s past. Even if both adaptations of True Grit were based on the same novel by Charles Portis, the differences between them were numerous and clearly visible. (In the 1969 original, Rooster Cogburn wearts his eye-patch on his left eye, while, in the 2010 remake, it’s on the gunman’s right eye.) Jeff Bridges’ nomination marked the seventh time in Oscar history that one actor has been nominated for playing a role that had already earned another actor a top prize. “The True Story” explores a violent and unforgiving time in America’s history to determine how both of Hollywood’s Roosters and Matties would have   handled the actual hangings, shootouts and kidnappings that were part and parcel of life in the Wild West.

In Live Free or Die Hard, the fourth chapter in the high-octane action franchise, a mastermind cyber-criminal holds the world hostage by wreaking havoc via the Internet. Blessedly, Bruce Willis is still around to keep America great. While it’s an entertaining thriller, with all of the usual embellishments on display, its story may be the most plausible of the three episodes. Similar attacks have threatened our national security and continue to do so. The weaponry, however, is put to the test.

The DVD Wrapup: Annihilation, Kaurismäki, Borzage, Sweet Sweetback, Two of Us, Cold Turkey, Weinstein, Jackass and more

Thursday, May 31st, 2018

Annihilation: Blu-ray, 4K UHD HDR
ANNIHILATIONAlex Garland is a terrific writer-director who challenges the imagination and rewards viewers, for whom patience a virtue. Garland received sole screenwriter credit on 28 Days Later … (2002), Sunshine (2007), Never Let Me Go (2010) and Dredd (2012), while sharing the writing credit with Tameem Antoniades on the video games and “DmC: Devil May Cry” and “Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.” He also wrote the novels from which The Beach (2000) and The Tesseract (2003), were adapted. None of them enjoyed an easy stroll to the big screen. Those difficulties were a walk in the park compared to the difficulties the London-born author and filmmaker faced getting Ex Machina (2014) and Annihilation into theaters. Together, they represent two of the finest examples of Earth-bound science fiction — or, if you prefer, speculative fiction or cutting-edge fiction – to be produced sequentially, in memory. The former lost its U. S. distributor, Universal-Focus, after it was screened on December 16, 2014, as part of the BFI’s blockbuster “Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder” exhibit. A24, its new distributor, introduced Ex Machina three months later, at the South by Southwest Film Festival. Fearing the movie wouldn’t reach the desired demographic, the company elected to using the dating app, Tinder, as a marketing tool. A profile was created for the gynoid, Ava (Alicia Vikander), and matched with other Tinder users. It generated a text conversation that lead users to the Instagram handle promoting the film. It’s hard to say if the gimmick encouraged even a single user to check out Ex Machina. It wasn’t until the Comic-Con crowd and other sci-fi buffs launched a successful word-of-mouth campaign that carried Ex Machina into its DVD/Blu-ray afterlife and awards season.

Annihilation’s American release was threatened when, after a test screening, a financier and producer at Paramount voiced concerns that the film was – wait for it — “too intellectual” and “too complicated.” He reportedly demanded changes, including making the female protagonist’s character more sympathetic and changing the ending, to appeal to a wider audience. Producer Scott Rudin, who had final-cut privilege, shared Garland’s lack of interest in altering the film. On December 7, 2017, it was announced that a deal was struck allowing Netflix to distribute the film internationally. Paramount, then under new leadership, agreed to handle the American, Canadian and Chinese release, freeing Netflix to begin streaming the film in other territories about a month later. Despite all the hubbub and the imperfect arrangement, Annihilation stands a fair chance of reaping something resembling a profit in the DVD/Blu-ray/UHD/VOD marketplace. It certainly deserves to attract the same viewers who enjoyed Ex Machina.

Annihilation, based on Jeff VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach Trilogy,” isn’t the easiest movie to summarize. One way for potential viewers to get a fix on it would be to imagine how scientists and military leaders might react if the skies over the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone suddenly began to resemble the contents of a lava lamp. All post-meltdown research and what limited tourism that exists would be halted immediately, but, after a while, the Ukrainian government probably would want to know what’s up with the Shimmer, as the hallucinatory electromagnetic field is referred to in the movie. Annihilation follows a group of carefully chosen scientists – portrayed by Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny – as they enter the quarantined zone, Area X, which is distinguished by mutating landscapes, transmogrifying creatures and an ability to manipulate time. One ill-fated expedition has already ended in failure, so the “volunteers” are aware of the danger. Strangely enough, a year after the participants of the doomed mission had been given up for dead, one of them shows up at the home he shared with his biologist wife, Lena (Portman). In terrible shape physically and his memory wiped clean, Kane (Oscar Isaac) might very well be a mutated clone of his former self. When he and Lena are hauled into headquarters by military authorities, he’s put into an intensive-care ward and she’s quarantined with the team of women chosen to search for the Shimmer’s source. All that needs to be revealed about what they find inside Area X is that it’s brilliantly rendered, completely illogical from a scientific point of view and occasionally quite disturbing. (OK, one scary tidbit: a gigantic irradiated alligator ambushes the women as they approach a ruined swamp-side house … but that’s all.) One reviewer characterized the story as “Under the Dome meets Event Horizon” and I wouldn’t disagree. The film’s production values are second to none, especially on the 4K UHD edition, which captures the Shimmer in all its glory. The special effects and CGI are spectacular, but they never detract from the human story being told or its mysteries. Admirers of the movie will want to check out the three-part making-of package, which is more than an hour long and covers all the bases.

The Other Side of Hope: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Moonrise: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Just because a filmmaker has won important awards at every festival worth attending and his pictures are universally praised by critics who didn’t wake up one morning and decide they wanted to write a column on the Internet, doesn’t mean his latest gem will automatically be shown in more than 11 theaters here. The latest of many such cases in point is The Other Side of Hope, by Finnish writer/director Aki Kaurismäki, which has been rescued from obscurity by Criterion Collection. Kaurismäki may not be the most accessible in the world, but lovers of arthouse cinema deserve an opportunity to see it on a screen larger than the one on their phone. His wildly offbeat road movie, Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), can be enjoyed as much today as This Is Spinal Tap continues to be with fans of mockumentaries and heavy metal, and there’s no reason it can’t be enjoyed by the same audiences. If The Other Side of Hope demands more in the way of a viewer’s attention, patience and an awareness of current events, the payoff is well worth the effort. His characters tend to fit the stereotype established for them by the European neighbors: melancholy, unambitious, unkempt, often rude and prone to alcoholism. You’d probably be surly, as well, if you lived within shouting distance of the Arctic Circle and in constant fear that some mad Russian could decide to invade your beautiful country at the drop of a reindeer’s turd … again. The same can be said about Alaskans, I suppose. Kaurismäki’s characters are entirely recognizable as living, breathing human beings, just like people we knew growing up or see every day on our way to work. They are not comic-book superheroes or wannabes. Even so, Kaurismäki makes us care about these every-day jamokes in ways that Hollywood movies never do.

With the exceptions of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, there may not be another filmmaker in the world whose stories are founded on basic humanistic ideals; feature unexceptional, yet endearing characters; and grab viewers with their droll, minimalistic and entirely organic compassion and humor … and do so for so little commercial gain. Like La Havre (2011), which describes the friendship that develops between an elderly bootblack and an illegal underage immigrant from Africa, The Other Side of Hope concerns people in desperate need of a fresh start in life. This includes refugees from Syria and Iraq, and a middle-age Helsinki shirt salesman whose path they cross. After a quarrel with his wife, Waldemar (Sakari Kuosmanen) decides to sell his inventory to a shopkeeper and risk the money in a high-stakes poker game. After cleaning out the other players, he buys a non-descript strip-mall restaurant, whose customers drink more than they eat. He keeps its three employees on the payroll after they were stiffed by the previous owner. At the same time, Khaled (Sherwan Haji) shows up in Helsinki after an arduous journey from the ruined city of Aleppo, where most of his family perished. After entering the city illegally, buried in a pile of coal on a cargo ship, Khaled turns himself in to the police, who will process his application for asylum. At the refugee processing facility, he’s quartered alongside several other men and women who’ve just risked their lives to find work in a new home. On Khaled’s trek north, he lost track of his only living relative, a teenage sister, who disappeared in one of several border skirmishes. When the Finnish government denies Khaled’s application – somehow, it considers Aleppo to be a habitable city — he escapes from the facility, just ahead of the immigration agents assigned to transport him to the airport. After claiming a spot of his own to call home – behind the dumpster outside Waldemar’s restaurant –he impresses the owner with his willingness to fight for his right to stay there. Rather than call the police, Waldemar absorbs Khaled into the fabric of the struggling business, which is in the process of changing themes and cuisines to find one that fits the local clientele.

It’s here that The Other Side of Hope threatens to turn into a veritable laugh fest. It stops short of that by the constant threats to Khaled’s well-being from skinhead thugs and police, as well as the ongoing search for his sister. Kaurismäki doesn’t ignore the people in Khaled and Waldemar’s orbit, who otherwise might have been relegated to the background. Their concern for the protagonists’ struggles, and willingness to help them in any way they can, is in direct contrast to the behavior of the skinheads and cops, who represent two sides of the same coin. You can also discern a blurred cultural identity in the emotionless faces of the musicians we meet on the street and in the bars, and dancers who don’t look as if they’re enjoying themselves, particularly, but really are. Don’t be surprised if the movie begins to remind you of Jim Jarmusch early work, as they’re kindred spirits. In Night on Earth (1991), Jarmusch paid homage to the Kaurismäki brothers, Aka and Mika, by naming of the Finnish taxi driver and his sleeping drunken passenger after them. At a time when the plight of refugees and undocumented immigrants couldn’t be any more pressing, The Other Side of Hope also reminded me of A Better Life (2011), The Visitor (2007), La Promesse (1996) and Dirty Pretty Things (2002). La Havre and The Other Side of Hope form the first two legs of what the writer/director/producer is calling the Refuge Trilogy. (His Proletariat Trilogy consists of Shadows in Paradise [1986], Ariel [1988] and The Match Factory Girl [1990]].) The Blu-ray adds an interview with Sherwan Haji; footage from the 2017 Berlin Film Festival press conference for the film; “Aki and Peter,” a new video essay by Daniel Raim about the friendship between Kaurismäki and film critic Peter von Bagh; music videos to songs in the movie; and an essay by critic Girish Shambu.

Also included in this month’s stack of new releases from Criterion Collection is Frank Borzage’s Moonrise (1949), a small-town fable about violence and redemption that looks, walks and talks like a noir, but has melodrama written all over it. It stars Dane Clark as Danny Hawkins, a Southerner who has been haunted by and bullied over a terrible crime committed by his father ever since his execution. After being constantly taunted by classmates, Danny grew up wondering when his father’s sins might be visited on him. It comes during a fight with one of his prime tormentors, Jerry (Lloyd Bridges), as an adult. Danny inadvertently kills Jerry in a dispute over what amounts to ownership rights to a pretty, young teacher, Gilly (Gail Russell). Believing that his next likely residence will be the same Death Row cell once occupied by his father, he drags the body into the nearby swamp. It will go undiscovered until months later, when, during an annual raccoon hunt, a dog owned by his black friend, Mose (Rex Ingram), sniffs it out. By this time, however, Danny and Gilley have begun dating and she doesn’t suspect him of the crime. After the knife used in the fight turns up in the hands of a crippled mute, Billy Scripture (Henry Morgan), his guilt catches up with him and he freaks out over his deception of Gilley. Before he can iron out his hang-ups, he visits Mose, his grandmother (Ethel Barrymore) and his father’s grave. Finally, Danny’s fate rests in his own trembling hands. John L. Russell’s stark black-and-white cinematography greatly enhances pivotal scenes in the swamp and at a small-town carnival.

Borzage’s long directorial career was in a steep decline by the time he tackled Moonrise, which was adapted from a novel by Theodore Strauss. Twenty years earlier, however, he was one of Hollywood’s most valuable commodities. Influenced visually by German director F.W. Murnau, also working at Fox at this time, he developed his own style of lushly visual romanticism in a popular series of silent or partially silent films starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, including 7th Heaven (1927), for which he won the first Academy Award for Best Director, and Street Angel (1928) and Lucky Star (1929). starring the same two actors. He won a second Oscar for the pre-code drama, Bad Girl (1931) and received critical kudos for The Mortal Storm (1940), one of the few directly anti-Nazi Hollywood films released before the American entry into World War II. Moonrise would be his next favorably received picture, after which he took a 10-year hiatus. Borzage would only be credited for two more films, China Doll (1958) and The Big Fisherman (1959), before his death on June 19, 1962, at 68. In a conversation between author Borzage biographer Hervé Dumont and film historian Peter Cowie, that’s included in the crisply restored Criterion edition, a strong case is advanced for an upgrade in the director’s legacy. Also included is an essay by critic Philip Kemp.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song: Blu-ray
Even five years ago, Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray release of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) might have been considered little more than an interesting, if largely irrelevant reminder of a time when Hollywood began to understand the commercial value of African-American audiences and filmmakers. It wouldn’t last, of course, leaving dozens of black actors scrambling for work and viewers bereft of movies that spoke directly to them. Even so, Melvin Van Peebles’ angry action thriller influenced a soon-to-emerge generation of independent African-American writers and directors that included Spike Lee. “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song gave us all the answers we needed,” Lee observed. “This was an example of how to make a film (a real movie), distribute it yourself, and most important, get paid. Without ‘Sweetback,’ who knows if there could have been a […] She’s Gotta Have It, Hollywood Shuffle or House Party?” Even so, without a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby and an agreement with two theaters in Detroit, it may not have not have seen the light of day. Despite receiving an X-rating from the MPAA and facing other roadblocks, “Sweetback” grossed $15 million at the box office, which translates into about $90 million today. That’s the number that caught the eye of studio executives.

Although some critics and historians have credited “Sweetback” with initiating the blaxploitation trend, it really doesn’t conform to the working definition of the subgenre. It’s certainly no more representative of blaxploitation than Van Peebles’ nearly concurrent 1970 comedy, Watermelon Man, Gordon Parks’ Shaft, Ossie Davis’s Cotton Comes to Harlem or Gordon Douglas’ They Call Me Mister Tibbs! More frequently than not, the blaxploitation titles that followed were made by white directors and writers, who cardboard depictions of white gangsters and crooked cops made it easy to cheer for and validate the violence dished out by black anti-heroes, including vigilante pimps, pushers, prostitutes and fed-up cops. Audiences ate it up, until the lack of nourishing content and evolving storylines killed the goose who laid all the golden eggs. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, continued video evidence of unfettered police brutality and retaliatory attacks on police, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song hasn’t lost any of the urgency that fueled its popularity in 1971. After all this time, it remains one of the most iconic, notorious, and influential American films of the Black Power and Vietnam War period. Unlike the blaxploitation films to come, there was no “kill whitey” subtext and the behavior of the cops would be reprehensible in any context. Apart from being made “required viewing” for members of Black Panther Party, “Sweetback” neatly fit in alongside other period anti-establishment pictures, including Zabriskie Point (1970), Easy Rider (1969), Billy Jack (1971), Medium Cool (1969) and Punishment Park (1971). Its graphic nudity and unsparing sexuality did differentiate it from most other movies being exhibited at the time, however.

In it, Van Peebles plays the title character, Sweetback, a homeless boy raised by the proprietor of a Los Angeles brothel in the 1940s. Years after the 10-year-old orphan (Mario Van Peebles) is raped by one of the prostitutes, he earns his keep by entertaining customers in a sex show. One night, a pair of white LAPD officers come in to speak to his boss, Beetle (Simon Chuckster). A black man has been murdered, and there is pressure from the black community to bring in a suspect. The police ask permission to arrest Sweetback, blame him for the crime, but release him a few days later for lack of evidence. On the way to the police station, however, the officers arrest a young Black Panther named Mu-Mu (Hubert Scales). When Mu-Mu insults the cops, they take both men out of the car, undo the handcuff that connects them, and kick the crap out of him. In response, Sweetback uses the handcuffs, still hanging from his wrist, to beat the officers into unconsciousness. It sets off a manhunt that turns into a picaresque chase from L.A. to Mexico. A pair of cops are killed at a Hells Angels’ hangout, where the size of Sweetback’s penis causes a white biker chick to trade a roll in the hay for the assistance they need to escape police. Filmed from every possible angle and position, the chase reminds me of Franka Potente’s 80-minute race against time in Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (1998). “Sweetback” features a rousing score from a then-unknown Earth, Wind & Fire, as well as unorthodox visuals from cinematographer Robert Maxwell. Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray edition has been newly restored in 4K from its original 35mm camera negative, and includes commentary with film historian Sergio Mims; a 10-page booklet, with an essay by Travis Crawford; a “career interview” with the 85-year-old filmmaker; a half-hour interview with actress Niva Ruschell, who plays the prostitute who deflowers Sweetback and gives him his new name; a 36-minute Q&A with Van Peebles, taped at the 2013 Black Panther Film Festival; an undated making-of featurette; a “still gallery,” with vintage newspaper ads, reviews and stories that chart the “Sweet Sweetback” phenomenon; and original marketing material.

The Two of Us: Blu-ray
After 50 years, I don’t think I’d be spoiling anyone’s enjoyment of this wonderful film by calling it one of the very few feel-good movies set in Occupied France during World War II. Nor would I be giving much away by saying that The Two of Us’ curmudgeonly co-protagonist, zestfully portrayed by Michel could have served as the model for Archie Bunker, both being lovable bigots whose bark is considerably worse than their bite. Claude Berri, for whom The Two of Us is semi-autobiographical, at least, set the story at a time when everyone in France, including the Nazis, assumes the Allied invasion is imminent and, if it succeeds, freedom will once again be at hand. In Paris, this also means that the Gestapo is rushing to find, arrest and deport every surviving Jew to an extermination camp. The parents of 8-year-old Claude (Alain Cohen) decide they no longer can keep their true identities secret and arrange for refuge away from the city. To further protect their son, they send him to live in the Rhône-Alpes region of southeastern France with the elderly parents of Catholic friends, while they hide elsewhere. (Berri was similarly separated from other family members during the war.) Knowing Claude has an unpredictable streak and could easily say something to tip off authorities, they teach him the basics of Catholicism. Before he’s handed off to Pépé (Simon) and Mémé (Luce Fabiole), Claude is given a new last name, taught a few things about Catholic rituals and forced to memorize the Lord’s Prayer. Most importantly, he’s told to never let anyone see his circumcised “birdie.” The last one is more difficult than it sounds.

Because of Claude’s smallish stature and obvious city ways, he’s an easy target for school bullies, at least until he learns to stand up for himself. He goes to church, befriends a friendly farmgirl and protects his penis from being seen by Mémé at bath time. The only other problem facing Claude is Pépé’s outspoken anti-Semitism and loyalty to his former comrades-in-arms in the Vichy government. Grandfather listens to government-controlled radio broadcasts after dinner, while also explaining why the roundup of Jews isn’t such a bad thing. (There’s no evidence Pépé is aware of Hitler’s Final Solution or that he would betray the confidence of a Resistance fighter.) Claude is clever enough not to challenge his beliefs.

Instead of dwelling on the bigotry, however, The Two of Us becomes a bromance between an old man with a soft heart and a precocious child, who, despite, Grandpa’s flaws, worships him … and his beloved German shepherd. I kept waiting for something horrifying to happen, but, aside from the bullying, Berri allows his characters the dignity that comes with survival. The Two of Us paved the way for numerous other French movies about Jewish children during the Holocaust years, including Les violons du bal (1974), Les guichets du Louvre (1974), Au revoir les enfants (1987), The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008), Europa Europa (1990) and Hope and Glory (1987). René Clément’s Forbidden Games preceded The Two of Us by 15 years. If the name Michel Simon sounds familiar, it’s because he starred or co-starred in such classics as The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932), L’Atalante (1934), Port of Shadows (1938), La fin du jour (1939) and Beauty and the Devil (1950), frequently playing characters made to look as old and unkempt as Pépé. The crisp Cohen Media Blu-ray adds commentary with critic Wade Major; a brief archival piece with Simon reminiscing about coming out of an unwanted screen retirement to tackle the role; and a six-minute conversation between Simon and Jean Renoir.

Cold Turkey: Blu-ray
Laws against smoking in the workplace, hotels, restaurants, parks, beaches, passenger planes, theaters, rental cars, commuter trains and at the entrances to office buildings have become so pervasive that it sometimes seems as if no one smokes anymore. Two of the places young people are almost guaranteed to find smokers today are in Nevada casinos and the movies. One of the most memorable things about the TV series, “Mad Men,” and George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck was the number of cigarettes consumed by the characters. The MPAA ratings certificate is supposed to warn parents whenever a lot of puffing takes place and add a “smoking label” to the rating, but it’s a hit-and-miss policy. Anti-tobacco activists cite movies as a major influence in the acceptance or rejection of smoking by teens. Filmmakers have argued that the blanket elimination of cigarettes, cigars, pipes and vapes from their movies not only would make them less credible in the eyes of viewers, but its eliminates a convenient narrative shortcut. (In teen movies, for example, bad boys and sluts smoke, while good girls and jocks don’t.) By now, I find it difficult to avoid being distracted by chain-smokers, post-coitus puffs and ashtrays overflowing with butts. If a character extinguishes their cigarette in a lumped of mashed potatoes or a cocktail glass, it never fails to make me cringe. (I’m no purist when it comes to smoking, but I can still remember nibbling leftover pancakes on my dad’s breakfast plate, not realizing he was using it as an ashtray. The horror.) I wonder how Norman Lear’s first and only feature film, Cold Turkey – newly released by Olive Films on Blu-ray – will play to moviegoers born before and after 1966, when the government mandated warning labels on tobacco products. Where the incessant smoking in noir and foreign classics still may add a nostalgic or quaint air to Boomer viewers, it might turn off their children and grandchildren.

Borrowing a casting conceit from It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), perhaps, Lear brought together a couple dozen A-, B- and C-list actors, mostly from the television universe, to play citizens of an Iowa hamlet who are challenged to kick the habit, yes, cold turkey. Each actor had a specific reason for being included in the ensemble cast, other than mug for the camera or lure their fans to the theater. Knitting their individual personae into the fabric of Lear’s narrative sometimes resulted in missed stitches and frayed ends, however. In an ill-conceived publicity stunt, a tobacco company offers $25 million to any American town whose citizens sign a 30-day no-smoking pledge. When residents of Eagle Rock accept the challenge, the company’s PR man (Bob Newhart) spends the next month trying to sabotage the effort. Intense media coverage is assured by the presence of various broadcast-news personalities, all of whom are played exceedingly well by the comedy team of Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding. (As famous as they were for their radio and TV routines, Bob may be better known today as the father of comedian Chris Elliott and grandfather of former “SNL” regular, Abby Elliott.) The eloquent Reverend Clayton Brooks (Dick Van Dyke) hopes to use the reward to transform the town into the “jewel of the Heartland.” To ensure victory, all tobacco products are confiscated, and volunteers organize a militia to identify potential cheaters and discourage opportunists from creating a black market. The cast also includes Pippa Scott, Vincent Gardenia, Jean Stapleton, Graham Jarvis Tom Poston, Edward Everett Horton, Bob Newhart, Barnard Hughes and M. Emmet Walsh, among other familiar faces. Working from a novel by Margaret and Neil Rau, Lear allows plenty of room for his “liberal agenda” to emerge. Randy Newman provided the musical score, his first of many to come.

Paws P.I.
If your family’s taste in live-action comedy runs to the anthropomorphic animals, whose lips don’t move when they converse with each other, Paws P.I. might be right up their alley. (Somebody must be buying these DVDs, because a new one is released every month, or two.) Paws P.I. is latest canine-centric title from Grindstone Entertainment, which also has released such direct-to-video fare as “Wiener Dog Internationals,” “Army Dog” and “Bark Ranger.” Here, Peter Williams (Neal Genys) and his dog, Jackson (voiced by Jon Lovitz), are best friends. They enjoy hanging out and skateboarding around town. When Peter’s father, Connor (Eddie Mills), a down-on-his-luck private investigator, is hired by veterinarian Katherine Worthington (Celesta Hodge) to help prove that her aunt’s will was stolen by her corrupt uncle. Peter and Jackson join forces with his pretty neighbor, Madison (Selah Atwood), and her sassy poodle, Cleo, and a stuffy British parrot, Peabody (voiced by Circus-Szalewski). Together, the cross-species squad invades the uncle’s mansion, where they battle his bumbling henchmen and find the document. Paws P.I. has been approved by the Dove Foundation for all ages. Presumably, that includes pets, as well.

PBS: Frontline: Weinstein
MTV/Paramount: Jackass: Complete TV and Movie Collection
The “Frontline” investigation, “Weinstein,” debuted on PBS affiliates in early March, when most of the information collected was reasonably fresh and the former head of Miramax and Weinstein Company was still two months away from being arrested, processed and indicted on charges of rape, committing a criminal sex act, sexual abuse and sexual misconduct. (His guest appearance in coverage of the NYPD’s “perp walk” scene was right out of “Law & Order: SVU.”) Most of what’s documented here on Harvey’s proclivities, perversions and modus operandi is all too familiar, by now. At the very least, he should be put away for being a pig, bully and serial philanderer, no matter how a jury rules on the charges. After all, Weinstein probably still has enough money available to him to pull an O.J. Among the things that are new in “Weinstein” are an on-camera interview with actress Sean Young, who had previously given her account to print media; a new accusation from Suza Maher-Wilson, who worked on his 1981 film, The Burning; the first interview with Tom Prince, who served as the Weinstein Company’s VP/production and signed off on travel expenses for Harvey’s dalliances; and interviews with former U.K. assistant Zelda Perkins and model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez. Putting faces to names adds credibility to their accusations and those of other women, collectively referred to as Jane Does.

Looking for the perfect gift for any recent graduate disheartened by the slim prospects for meaningful work and substantial careers? (A tooled-leather briefcase or fancy pen-and-pencil set might be construed as being too optimistic.) Look no further than “Jackass: Complete TV and Movie Collection,” a tidy re-packaging of seasonal compilations and theatrical films already released a la carte by MTV/Paramount. If the “Jackass” gang could support themselves by shooting Roman candles out of their asses and riding shopping carts down steep hills, there’s hope for all unemployed graduates. As hilarious as some of the gags are, however, amateurs are advised not to copy them at home. The “Jackass” franchise, as represented in this 11-disc boxed set, includes seven movies and three seasons worth of TV episodes and bonus material, the theatrical release, Bad Grandpa, and its ancillary, Bad Grandpa .5, making-of featurettes, deleted scenes and interviews. It is what it is. I suggest placing wagers on how long it takes before disapproving friends and family members break down and enjoy themselves.

DVD Wrapup: Vazante, Early Man, Elis, Swung, Death Smiles, Of Unknown Origin, Swamp Thing 2, Little Women, MST3K Singles and more

Thursday, May 24th, 2018

Vazante: Blu-ray
For a while, slavery was Hollywood’s subject du jour, with four excellent movies dealing with our country’s Original Sin and resistance by abolitionists and insurgents: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Gary Ross’ Free State of Jones and Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation. While the barrage of racial slurs and depictions of torture, beatings and lynching tested viewers’ ability to absorb hateful stimuli, there was no question as to quality of the direction, writing and acting on display, or the films’ enduring relevance. I don’t know if the institution of slavery is a common theme in the cinema of Brazil, the last country in the western world to abolish it, in 1888. If not, Daniela Thomas’ searing period drama, Vazante, effectively opens the door to a broad discussion of the subject … historically and as still practiced today. In American movies about the Civil War and slavery, certain things are taken for granted, beyond the inhumanity of its practitioners. Plantation owners are typically depicted as wealthy and their primary cash crop is cotton. Their families’ genteel manners, adherence to so-called Christian values and posh lifestyles stand in direct conflict to the reality of life among their human chattel. Rarely are the individual backgrounds of the slaves, prior to being captured in Africa, examined. (Just as slave owners separated husbands and wives, they also avoided collecting men and boys who spoke the same language.) Without being at all academic or polemical, Vazante demonstrates just how different the lives of slaves and their owners could be in Brazil, where plantations were carved out of jungle and the country’s variety of resources dictated the terms of labor.

Instead of having to rely on cotton, tobacco or hemp, as was the case in the American South, the Brazilian economy evolved from being sugar-driven, from 1600 to 1650, to relying on gold and diamonds, from 1690 to the second half of the 18th Century, followed by ranching, agriculture, coffee and the mining of non-precious metals. When Portuguese colonists, most notably Jesuit aldeias (missions), exhausted the supply of indigenous labor, midway through the 16th Century, they invested heavily in the African slave trade. (See below …) The country’s proximity to Africa allowed for the collection of slaves from different parts of the continent than those destined for the Caribbean and U.S. They represent a greater number of tribes, languages and native religions. Once purchased, the captives’ duties would include building the roads to the farms, ranches and mines in which they would continue to labor. Each planter was allowed to import 120 slaves per year from Africa, and there was a law that stipulated 50 as the maximum number of lashes that a slave could take a day. Brazil’s immensity contributed to its emergence as the world’s largest importer of men, women and children from Africa. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that as many as 50,000 people are still being forced to work in Brazil’s meat and poultry sectors.

Vazante takes its title from a municipality in a lushly forested section of the state of Minas Gerais, in the north of southeastern Brazil. (It also translates as “surge” or “receding movement of the tide.”) Set in the 1820s, it opens with Antonio (Adriano Carvalho) leading a procession of slaves along a muddy path through the jungle, while his wife is experiencing the difficult delivery of their child at home. Upon his return, he learns that she’s died in labor and his plans for a family have been dashed. Confined to a decaying property in the company of his aging mother-in-law and numerous slaves, Antonio decides to carve a pasture, where he can redirect the farm’s resources to cattle ranching and milk production. Because of his frequent trips to collect cattle and supplies, he’s entrusted the day-to-day operation to a freed black man, Jeremias (Fabrício Boliveira), that he’s come to trust implicitly. It’s possible that Jeremias was born into slavery in Brazil, because the hierarchy within the plantation doesn’t favor new arrivals. The only work the new group has been trained to perform is diamond mining, and farming is as foreign to them as it would be to a lumberjack or accountant. A small rebellion brews when an uncooperative individual, whose language no one on the plantation understands, attempts to lead a mutiny. It’s quickly and forcibly put down by the overseer. Because of the scarcity of available white women in the mountainous region, Antonio decides to marry his wife’s niece, Beatriz (Luana Nastas), who’s yet to reach puberty. Although she understands what’s expected of her in marriage, Beatriz isn’t yet ready to relinquish her friendships with the black children. They include a handsome boy (Vinicius Dos Anjos) she’s known all her life. He’s the son of Antonio’s mistress (Jai Baptista) and, while technically a man, is too young to know when he’s playing with fire.

While Thomas has co-directed several film and television productions with Walter Salles, Vazante is her first entirely solo venture. Because historical fidelity was vital to her vision, she employed a team of historians and tribal experts to reproduce the lifestyles and clothing of the era. This included a group of non-actors who are descendants of the region’s former slaves. Thomas’ commitment to a slow-burn narrative wouldn’t have worked if it weren’t for Inti Briones’s gorgeous monochromatic cinematography, whose every frame demands to be savored. The explosive final scene anticipates Brazil’s pluralistic society to come, even as it demonstrates how difficult it might be to achieve. The interviews included in the DVD package add a great deal of information that otherwise might have been lost in translation.

(Hollywood filmmakers have treaded lightly on the Catholic Church’s role in facilitating slavery in the Americas, perhaps assuming Southern Baptists warrant most of the blame for defending it. I think there might be a good fact-based movie to be made on the clergy’s complicity with the practice and not just in Brazil or Mexico.

(In fact, the Catholic Church didn’t outlaw slavery from its missions in the Americas until 1843. At the time, Jesuits of Brazil were expelled from the country by Spanish and Portuguese emissaries because their priests were protecting Native Indians from slave-hunters’ raids and undermining the slave-based economy. Prior to the expulsion, the practice was justified by the priests’ insistence that their indentured laborers – black and aboriginal — be baptized and, therefore, closer the white man’s God.

(American Jesuits also treated conversions as compensation for the servitude of African laborers. Baptism, itself, was considered a reward beyond money. Even so, after the Vatican’s dictate, some priests profited from the sale of their slaves to Southern planters. The newly sainted Franciscan, Junipero Serra, justified his treatment of California’s aboriginal population they same way. The only movie I could find about him was The Story of Father Juniper Serra [1954], in which the Spanish padre was played Robert Warwick and Lyle Talbot portrayed another one. In the debate over Serra’s canonization, Pope Francis balanced his ability to convert countless “pagans” to Catholicism against his use of slave labor to build and sustain the territory’s missions.

(Native American activists argue that the Franciscans’ push northward from Mexico helped eradicate native culture from the region. It did so by relocating tribes from their native land and conscripting Indians into forced labor on the 17 missions stretching from San Diego to San Francisco. Those who voluntarily converted were spared some, but not all of the harsh treatment directed at those who refused. Disease, starvation, overwork and torture would lead to the decrease in California’s native population from more than 200,000 in the early-19th Century to some 15,000 at its end, mostly from disease. You’d think there was a movie in there somewhere … “Django Goes West,” perhaps.

(Is it possible that Pope Francis confused Serra’s legacy with that of Eusebio Francisco Kino, an Italian Jesuit, who established two dozen missions in northern Mexico and southern Arizona, between 1683 and 1711? He pissed off Spanish authorities and fellow missionaries by opposing slavery and compulsory hard labor in the silver mines. His story was told in Father Kino, Padre on Horseback (1977), with Richard Egan playing the saintly cleric. It’s probably worth noting, as well, that Roland Joffé’s 1986 period drama, The Mission, dealt directly with the enslavement of native Indians in Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, while Jesuit missionaries also figure in Martin Scorsese’s Silence, and Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe, albeit ones stationed in Japan and Quebec.)


Early Man: Blu-ray
The latest edition of the FIFA World Cup is just around the corner and the collective lack of enthusiasm shown by average American sports fans is palpable. For the first time since 1986, the United States side won’t be represented, leaving Fox Sports holding the bag for an expensive live-broadcast commitment and more than half of its potential audience lost before the opening ceremonies even begin. To cut its losses, the company has decided to call the games from its Los Angeles headquarters, using its B-team of announcers. Spanish-speaking fans probably would have monitored the games over Telemundo, anyway, so the strategic move can be justified as a bottom-line decision. The exclusive Spanish-language home of the World Cup in the U.S. will have all its commentators on the ground in Russia, with the biggest matches to be called, as usual, by four-time Emmy Award winner, Andres Cantor. “I just don’t know how else you would do it,” said Telemundo Deportes president Ray Warren. “Smelling the grass, the hot dogs, hearing the fans, three dimensions, weather … all of those things. And the full view and the full immersion in those moments. To me, that’s what sports is all about. So, we’re going to do that in as many places as is humanly possible.” If Fox attempted to shortchange its NFL fans by calling all its games in the studio, the decision would be reversed after the first exhibition games. Typically, though, serious American soccer enthusiasts, especially those with foreign roots and allegiances, will flock to sports bars and restaurants. It all begins on June 14, with the Russia-vs.-Saudi Arabia match.

I wonder how much of that lack of excitement diminished any pent-up anticipation over the release of Lionsgate/Aardman’s delightful animated history of British soccer, Early Man. Debuting against the Black Panther juggernaut didn’t help its box-office chances, which were already dampened by lack of World Cup buzz. It opened below mid-single-digit expectations, falling short of Shaun the Sheep‘s $4 million debut, back in August 2015. But, guess what? While its final domestic gross was just short of $8.3 million, Early Man’s non-U.S. tally was a crisp $41.1 million. Anyone looking for a terrifically entertaining way to kill a couple of hours waiting for Cantor’s first, “GOOOOAAAALLLLLL!!!,” could do a lot worse than gathering the family around the telly and popping Early Man into the DVD/Blu-ray box.

In typical Aardman stop-action fashion, it tells the fanciful story of how Dug (Eddie Redmayne), along with his boar sidekick Hognob (Nick Park), unite their Stone Age tribe against a mighty Bronze Age enemy. In this cross-epochal showdown, Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) intends to use to all resources available to it claim his rivals’ home. At the time, “footie” was barely a game, let alone a sport. Unlike the Bronze team, the Stone Age players had yet to devise a way to keep score and there were almost no established rules. The team’s uniforms resembled hand-me-downs purchased at a Viking or Visigoth thrift store and the balls were short of round. Somehow, though, the citizenry was able to afford the construction of stadiums and broadcast technology. In another familiar Aardman touch, the adorably weird animal characters range from woolly mammoths and other prehistoric critters, to a T-Rex-sized duck and Lord Nooth’s colorful message bird (Rob Brydon), who dutifully takes dictation, parroting back even the most inappropriate of messages.

To fully appreciate the gags, it helps to have a working knowledge of British football. An original title was “Early Man-United,” for example, which certainly would have been changed by the time the movie arrived here. It is a reference to the mighty Manchester United squad. Maisie Williams voices Goona, a tomboyish vendor and football enthusiast in the Bronze City, whom Dug befriends. Goona’s name is a play on “gooner,” a slang term for fans of Arsenal, Manchester’s chief rival. She’s unhappy because her favorite team excludes women, while the Stoners are open to anyone who can tell the difference between a ball and an egg. The deciding game may play out like most other David-vs.-Goliath contests in the movies, but everything else is unpredictably wacky fun. Early Man marks the first feature film that Nick Park will have directed by himself. On Chicken Run (2000) and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005), he directed alongside Peter Lord and Steve Box, respectively. One critic noted that “the result is a welcome return to a form of stop-motion that takes pride in the technique’s inevitable imperfections (such as thumbprints in the modeling clay), while putting extra care into the underlying script, with its daffy humor and slightly-off characters.”  Other voices are provided by Richard Ayoade, Timothy Spall, Miriam Margolyes and Johnny Vegas. The beautifully rendered Blu-ray package adds nearly 40 minutes of making-of featurettes.

Anyone whose knowledge of Brazilian sounds is limited to a few passages from “The Girl From Ipanema,” the score to Black Orpheus and some of the songs on Paul Simon’s “The Rhythm of the Saints,” should find Hugo Prata’s Elis to be an exhilarating entrée to the world-music genre. It’s also will introduce them to the compelling life story of Elis Regina Carvalho Costa, who some consider to be the greatest Brazilian singer of all time. Besides a dynamic portrayal of the artist by Andréia Horta (“Alice”) the biopic pulsates with invigorating Brazilian rhythms and energetic stage performances. Although Elis Regina, as she was popularly known, didn’t share the same difficult rise to fame as Edith Piaf, say, Elie compares favorably in spirit to Olivier Dahan’s La Vie en Rose (2007). The singer was born in 1945, in Porto Alegre, where she began her career at age 11 on a children’s radio show. In 1959, she was invited to Rio de Janeiro, where she recorded her first LP, “Viva a Brotolândia” (“Long Live Teenage Land”), and her second LP, “Poema,” employing a variety of popular musical styles, including samba and the bossa nova. In 1965, after being advised to refine her stage presence, Elis captured her first festival song contest, singing “Arrastão” (“Pull The Trawling Net”), by Edu Lobo and Vinícius de Moraes. When it was released as a single, it made her the biggest-selling Brazilian recording artist since Carmen Miranda. The second album, with Jair Rodrigues, “Dois na Bossa,” set a national sales record and became the first Brazilian LP to sell over 1 million copies. Most of her early history has been compacted here to bring the narrative to the point where Elis’ life becomes complicated by the men in her life and her fevered drive to divahood. No surprise there.

Here, her triumph at the TV Excelsior song contest, only comes after Elis has honed her interpretive skills and stage presence in smoky underground jazz clubs around Rio de Janeiro. Her first husband/manager was a notorious playboy, known for bedding his clients and looking out for No. 1. After shifting her representation to someone familiar with the boxing world, Elis increased her exposure at home, while finding an audience in Europe. At a time when the popularity of bossa nova was on the wane, Elis reluctantly agree to shift from traditional Brazilian instrumentation to a more electrified style that would become known as MPB (Brazilian Popular Music). She would also join the Tropicália movement, advanced by Gal Costa, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gilis. She recorded songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Milton Nascimento, João Bosco, Aldir Blanc, Chico Buarque, Guinga, Jorge Ben, Baden Powell and Rita Lee. Elis’ career reached a crossroads while in Europe, when, in response to a reporter’s question about Brazil’s right-wing government, she said that her country was being run by “gorillas.” This did not sit well with the ruling military junta back home, which made gorillas look like pussy cats. Her popularity kept her out of jail, but she was eventually blackmailed by the authorities into singing the Brazilian national anthem in a stadium show, and this drew the ire of leftists and anyone with relatives who’d been jailed and tortured for their opposition to the junta.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, Elis’ began to feel — incorrectly, it turns out — that she’d been completely abandoned by everyone from her husbands and management, to her core audience. She began recording songs that called for reform and denounced oppression. By this time, however, Elis was an emotional, self-destructive wreck. She died at the age of 36 in 1982, from an accidental overdose of cocaine, alcohol, and temazepam. More than 15,000 friends, relatives and fans held her wake at Teatro Bandeirantes, in São Paulo, with large groups of people singing her songs inside and outside the venue. More than 100,000 mourners followed her funeral procession to Cemitério do Morumbi. None of this would matter much to American audiences if it weren’t for an explosive portrayal of Elis’ life and career by Horta, a splendid actress whose works can sometimes be found on such HBO Latin America series as “Alice” and “Empire.” It prompted me to check out performances by Elis Regina, readily available on YouTube. They demonstrate just how well Horta nailed her character’s exuberant style, ready smile and audience-pleasing style. Otavio de Moraes is credited as composer, but the singing is pure Elis.


Who knew Glaswegians could be so kinky? That’s the question I came away with from Swung, a relationship melodrama that invites ridicule, but largely succeeds in translating Ewan Morrison’s 2007 novel of the same title. I say “ridicule” only because some critics have compared it unfavorably to the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, movies that not only invite ridicule, but demand it. In Colin Kennedy’s debut feature, David (Owen McDonnell) and Alice (Elena Anya) are a thirtyish Irish/Spanish couple, who’ve been living a reasonably happy life in Glasgow since David left his wife. Storm clouds arrive on the horizon when he loses his job and Alice is forced by her editor to come up with a story idea to save her magazine from ruin. At the same time as he’s struggling to find work, he’s also begun to obsess over his inability to maintain an erection. Alice is patient and sympathizes with David’s problem, which isn’t all that unusual these days. Mostly, she can hardly wait for him to complete his divorce proceedings. Then, she can be introduced to his daughter, without having to worry about saying or doing the wrong thing in her presence and incurring the wrath of David’s wife. They also might be able to realize her dream of moving to the country, where they can carrots … or is that just a euphemism for overcoming impotence? See what I mean about begging ridicule.

It’s at the exact point where David’s problems intersect with Alice’s search for an assignment that things get interesting. After she discovers his habit of making late-night strolls through his favorite porn sites, a lightbulb goes off over Alice’s head. Her idea involves the proliferation and validity of sites promoting swinging and polyamory. It doesn’t take much convincing for David to agree to join Alice on a couple of exploratory “dates.” When it comes time for them to swap partners, however, he gets cold … whatever. Her investigation leads Alice to the seen-it-all Madam Dolly (Elizabeth McGovern), who offers several inventive suggestions as to fixing David’s ED. And, they almost work. When Alice decides to up the ante by participating at an orgy at Dolly’s hotel, his jealousy threatens to ruin everything. The best thing about Swung is how well Kennedy handles the erotic scenes and sexual discussions, without making them seem prurient or gratuitous. Unlike the S&M in “50 Shades,” the characters are allowed to show all their naughty bits and sweat when they participate in group gropes. If the ending is a bit too pat, at least it doesn’t come out of left field.

I wonder if director Joshua Caldwell and writer Adam Gaines got together one night to watch Blow-Up, before putting the final touches on the screenplay for Negative. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the central mystery in the Antonioni classic appears to have influenced the central mystery here. Beyond that, however, there’s no comparison. In Negative, Katia Winter plays Natalie, a former spook who wouldn’t have been out of place in Atomic Blonde. We’re introduced to her in non-descript Chinese restaurant, where, off-camera, she kicks the crap out of a pair of greaseballs who’ve come out of nowhere to kill her. The next day, she’s hanging out in a Los Angeles park, where a struggling photographer, Hollis (Simon Quarterman), takes a picture of her from afar. Like Vanessa Redgrave in Blow-Up, Natalie follows Hollis to his apartment, where he’s already developed the photo – revealing absolutely nothing remarkable – and she demands the negative. (He’s the only shooter in L.A. who hasn’t upgraded to digital.) Before Hollis can pull a switcheroo with the film cannister and ask why she wants it, two more slicked-back thugs break into his darkroom to tear up the joint. By now, though, Natalie has grabbed the photographer’s hand and led him down the fire escape to temporary freedom. With a little bit of time to spare, they split for Phoenix – making an out-of-the-way pitstop at a shithole motel in Nowhere, Nevada — where her old MI-5 contact might be able to intercede in their situation. Instead, a drug cartel has put a price on her head and intends for one of its gun slingers to collect. It’s still difficult to tell what Natalie did to piss off the cartel or how the assassins manage to find here – nope, they don’t plant a GPS device on her car — but, by now, who cares? Somewhere between L.A. and Phoenix, Hollis grows a pair and actually is able to help Natalie avoid imminent doom. Even if Negative is too full of holes to add up to anything substantial, it’s fun to watch Winter kick ass. For once, the Swedish bombshell even gets to keep her clothes on while she’s doing it.

The October Flowers
I have a feeling that more money and thought were invested in poster and cover art for The October Flowers than anything else in the picture. While the one-sheets for the theatrical release range from serviceable to intriguing – yes, there’s more than one – the DVD cover convinced me that the movie inside was either a supernatural Japanese thriller or a sexy ghost story. Imagine my disappointment when The October Flowers turned out to be just another micro-budgeted idea-gone-to-waste. At 74 minutes, though, it isn’t very painful to watch. Newcomer Aiyana Irwin plays a young woman, Danielle, who inherits a non-descript suburban house from her grandmother. The part grannie left out of her last will and testament, however, is any mention of the ghosts with whom Danielle will be required to share the residence. Moffat wastes no time introducing Danielle to the many noisy, self-absorbed apparitions and poltergeists who wander through the house, at will, and relate to her the stories of how they died. The yarns tend to overlap each other, as do the ghosts. None of them is particularly scary, even if the spooks still wear their wounds like metals of honor. The only advice Danielle is given by her grandma’s loyal gardener is not to cut the flowers growing under the house’s eaves. To the surprise of absolutely no one, there will come a point in the next 70 minutes that Danielle will be tempted to do just that. Some of the interaction isn’t bad, but it suffers from dull deliveries and production values that do nothing to enhance the narrative.

Night Zero
Here’s another undernourished horror/thriller that, at 81 minutes, could have used an infusion of fresh ideas and scary moments. As Night Zero opens, an unidentified object from outer space crashes somewhere on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, causing an explosion that certainly will have something to do with the story. Before that can happen, however, viewers are required to suffer through 20 minutes of small talk and whining at a party being held to celebrate the departure of Sophie (Dawnelle Jewell) and Eric (Vincent Bombara) from George A. Romero’s adoptive hometown, to a new life in Boston. It isn’t until a cop in Hazmat gear bursts into the house that the couples realize that their personal problems don’t amount to a hill of beans when everyone else in town – descendants of the antagonists in Night of the Living Dead, possibly — has suddenly been reduced to eating flesh and sucking human blood. When the claustrophobia grows too great, the couples resort to taking matters into their own hands. Well before that happens, though, the continued bickering between them will make some viewers want to run into the street and take their chances with the undead.

Of Unknown Origin: Blu-ray
When it comes to movies about killer rats, two titles come immediately to mind: Willard (1971) and Ben (1971). Vermin have always played key roles in the horror genre, but, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” notwithstanding, rats have been deployed mostly to telegraph the approach of more ominous forces or as elements of torture. The unexpected success of Willard and Ben triggered a plague of killer-critter flicks that lasted until the slasher/stalker/splatter subgenre took hold. Released rather late in the game, a decade later, Of Unknown Origin suffered from thematic familiarity and a title that suggested sci-fi over horror. Now available in an upgraded edition from Shout Factory, George P. Cosmatos’ underappreciated thriller may be the best in the lot.

Instead of threatening mankind with a hoard of demonic creatures, Of Unknown Origin features a mano a mano, winner-takes-all battle between a yuppie and rat that’s determined to destroy his newly rehabbed townhouse. If there’s no good reason why the rat should so brazenly declare war against a harmless homeowner, it comes down to a series of challenges in which one “king of his castle” uses every means available to him to defeat an enemy who believes that the townhouse belongs to him. To succeed, the homeowner must abandon all sense of honor and humanity and accept the terms of war established by his formidable enemy. Peter Weller is perfectly cast as successful New York advertising executive Bart Hughes. Overworked, but ambitious, Hughes has been assigned the task of wooing a lucrative new client. With his wife (Shannon Tweed) and children away on vacation, he’s assured of a couple weeks alone, absent distractions. It doesn’t take long for the unusually large and matted rat to make its presence known. Instead of relying on the usual tricks associated with a rodent hungry for a piece of cheese, this rat’s tactics have as much to do with tormenting Hughes as ransacking his cupboards. At first, they include chewing through wires and cables; sabotaging the dishwasher; and knocking over picture frames and tchotchkes. Hughes does what any besieged homeowner would do, by consulting a handyman and placing spring-loaded traps in strategic locations. He even brings in a neighborhood cat.

They only serve to irritate the rat, who, we will soon discover, is protecting a nest of newborns in the basement. The more Hughes learns about his enemy, the more willing he is to destroy his castle in order to save it. (A Vietnam reference from the director of Rambo: First Blood Part II, perhaps?) Meanwhile, of course, Hughes has lost all interest in completing his tasks at work, content, instead, to bore his associates with trivia on rat infestations. Finally, he’s reduced to hand-to-paw combat with the unstoppable foe. When it isn’t scaring the crap out of you, Of Unknown Origin is genuinely entertaining. Based on Chauncey G. Parker III’s novel, “The Visitor,” its primary drawback at the U.S. box office may have been its Canadian financial and production roots, and its Montreal setting. A slightly snarky review on suggests, “Of Unknown Origin is not a bad little timewaster at all, and probably represents the absolute pinnacle of Canadian giant rodent cinema.” I think today’s viewers will put aside their anti-Canadian prejudices long enough to savor a long-ignored gem. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Weller and Cosmatos; interviews with screenwriter Brian Taggart, producer Pierre David and co-star Louis Del Grande, whose primary claim to fame may be his iconic turn in Scanners, playing the guy whose head explodes. And, yes, Newfoundland native, Playboy model and future queen of Skinemax fare, Shannon Tweed, is radiant in her brief theatrical debut.

The Return of Swamp Thing: Special Edition: Blu-ray
What do you get when you combine the central conceits of Swamp Thing and The Island of Dr. Moreau, with or without Marlon Brando and Val Kilmore? The Return of Swamp Thing, that’s what. It took seven years for Lightyear Entertainment to commit to a sequel to the surprise 1982 hit. In it, a half-man/half-plant mutation (Dick Durock) commits himself to stopping an evil scientist, Antone Arcane (Louis Jourdan), from using his lab’s research to create bioengineered weaponry, instead of a cure for world hunger, as intended. The title character was generated after scientist Alec Holland tripped and was set on fire, attempting to escape Arcane with a beaker of the formula. Adrienne Barbeau plays a government worker sent to Holland’s Louisiana lab to monitor the project’s progress. As a witness to Arcane’s treachery, she automatically becomes the mad scientist’s enemy and an ally to the revenge-minded humanoid. The movie, its sequel, a live-action television series and five-part animated series, all were based on a popular comic-book series from the DC universe. (A new live-action series is expected to debut in 2019 on the DC Universe streaming service.)

While Jim Wynorski’s 1989 sequel features repeat performances by Durock and Jourdan, the accent is on kooky comedy and PG-13 entertainment. Conspicuously missing are writer/director Wes Craven and Barbeau, whose topless swamp-bath scene made the original a must-see rental for teenage boys everywhere. Arcane somehow escaped death at the end of the first movie and has returned to the bayous to create creatures that are human/animal hybrids. When his estranged stepdaughter, Abby (Heather Locklear), arrives unexpectedly to interrogate Arcane about her mother’s mysterious death, he seizes on the opportunity to use her DNA in an anti-aging experiment with the “Un-Men.” When she escapes into the swamp, Abby is accosted by a creature that resembles an upright elephant. Naturally, Swamp Thing arrives just in time to prevent the pretty young blond from being raped by the monster. They form an alliance designed to put Arcane out of business for good and prevent the Un-Men from escaping into the bayous. The good news is that the special-makeup-effects used to create the hybrid creatures are surprisingly effective. The bad news is that Locklear, while cute as a button, couldn’t hold Barbeau’s bra as the Swamp Thing’s love interest. Her co-star, Sarah Douglas (Conan the Barbarian), would have filled in admirably in this regard, instead.

Genre specialist Wynorski does what he can with Neil Cuthbert and Grant Morris’ anemic script and what must have been a miniscule budget. (The rights to CCR’s “Born on the Bayou” might have broke the bank.) While the sequel tanked at the box office, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it made some money in VHS/DVD. The MVD Rewind Blu-ray benefits from a 2K high-def transfer; original 2.0 and 5.1 stereo audio; new commentary with Wynorski, Cirino, Rosenthal and Lightyear Entertainment executive Arnie Holland; a pair of vintage Greenpeace public-service announcements featuring Swamp Thing; original marketing material; a photo gallery; reversible artwork; and a collectible mini-poster.

Death Smiles on a Murderer: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Anyone unfamiliar with the work of the hyper-prolific Italian multi-hyphenate, Aristide Massaccesi – or Joe D’Amato, foremost among his many aliases – might consider watching the featurette “Smiling on the Taboo: Sex, Death and Transgression in the Horror Films of Joe D’Amato,” before tackling Death Smiles on a Murderer. Also recommended is “D’Amato Smiles on Death,” an interview conducted before his untimely demise at 63, in 1990. In a career that spanned just 30 years, Massaccesi is credited with directing 169 films of varying quality and serving as cinematographer on 167 titles, some of them quite respectable. There isn’t a genre upon which Massaccesi’s fingerprints don’t appear, ranging from giallo, pasta-delic Westerns and horror, to soft- and hard-core sex. No matter the name he chose to work under, it wasn’t difficult to detect Massaccesi’s influence somewhere in the movie. (He used the aliases as a smoke screen to discourage studios and producers from pigeonholing his work and denying him opportunities to pursue his more serious whims.) One of at least eight films he shot or directed for release in 1973, Death Smiles on a Murderer represents his first shot at gothic horror, although it also could be listed in the giallo column. Set in Austria, in the early 1900s, it stars the sexy Swedish import Ewa Aulin, (Candy) as Greta von Holstein, a beautiful young woman abused by her brother, Franz (Luciano Rossi), and left to die alone, in the delivery room, by her illicit lover, the aristocrat Dr. Von Ravensbrück (Giacomo Rossi).  Bereft with grief and guilt, Franz reanimates his dead sister using a formula engraved on an ancient Incan medallion. Greta then returns as an undead avenging angel, who focuses her wrath on several generations of Ravensbrück family members, as well as her manically possessive brother.

Because “Death” isn’t told in a linear fashion, it’s tough, at first, to get a handle on why someone who looks exactly like Greta turns up before one of her nemeses is about to die or be interred. Once the conceit is revealed, it isn’t difficult to follow. Of special interest here is the presence of Klaus Kinski, playing a spooky doctor, who, in a flashback, recognizes Greta’s pendant as something that supersedes science and medicine. As such, it will take more than a stake in the heart to put an end to the Von Ravensbrück curse. Arrow’s 2K restoration, the original camera negative, is excellent. The Blu-ray adds original Italian and English soundtracks; newly translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack; commentary by writer and critic Tim Lucas; a third featurette, “All About Ewa,” a newly-filmed, career-spanning interview with the Swedish star; a stills and poster collections gallery; and a limited-edition booklet, with new writing on the film by critic Stephen Thrower and film historian Roberto Curti.

Savannah Smiles: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Bridgette Andersen, the star of this surprisingly entertaining family comedy, began modeling and doing television commercials by the time she was 3 and, less than four years later, made the transition to small- and big-screen movies. Bridgette is said to have had a remarkably high I.Q., a penchant for memorization and was a freakishly quick study when it came to dance and acting. After playing the precocious title character caught up in a doomed-to-fail kidnap drama in Savannah Smiles, Andersen worked steadily for another six years, or so, in episodic- and made-for-television movies and feature films. Then, for the next nine years, nada. If you’ve already guessed that this is one of those child-actor stories that ends badly – not all of them do – you’d be right. And, for the same reasons as other such tragedies in the 1990s. According to Bridgette’s mom in a lengthy interview included here, she filled the lull in her career by running around with a Deadhead and becoming addicted to heroin. The Malibu resident stayed clean for a while, but she succumbed to an accidental overdose on November 17, 1996. I only mention this because, at some point in Savannah Smiles, viewers will all ask the same question: what happened to that cute little girl? Now, you know.

In it, Andersen plays the 6-year-old daughter of a politician too consumed by his re-election campaign to pay her much attention. After Savannah decides to run away from home – a note to her parents slides off her bed — she sneaks into a car used in a jailbreak. Its owner, Boots (Donovan Scott), could have found work as a stand-in for Curly in the Three Stooges, while the escaped con, Alvie (Mark Miller), was scheduled for parole the next week. Their collective I.Q. wouldn’t have come close to equaling that of the little girl. After some close calls, the crooks take shelter in an abandoned house, where you’d expect a “Ransom of Red Chief” scenario to be introduced. It’s to the credit of writer/co-star/producer Miller that Savannah finds another way to endear her to us. While waiting for word of a ransom agreement, an unexpected bond grows among Savannah, Alvie and Boots, creating an approximation of family life the men have never known and she’s always desired. Their relationship is tested as the police dragnet closes in on them and a trigger-happy sheriff treats them like Public Enemies No. 1 and 2. There’s no reason to spoil the ending, except to say that it’s cleverly designed and works. The rugged Utah setting adds a Western feel to the story and the leads get ample support from Pat Morita, Michael Parks, John Fiedler, Fran Ryan and Peter Graves. The MVD Rewind release benefits from an imperfect high-definition transfer from a 35mm print provided by the Library of Congress; “The Making of Savannah Smiles,” featuring Miller, Scott, Teresa Andersen (mother of Bridgette) and composer Ken Sutherland; ”Memories of Bridgette Andersen,” with new interviews with Teresa Andersen, Miller and Scott; ”The Songs and Music of Savannah Smiles,” featuring an interview with Sutherland; and a collectible mini-poster.

PBS: Masterpiece: Little Women
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Singles Collection
Nickelodeon: The Loud House: It Gets Louder: Season 1, Volume 2
Nickelodeon: Sunny Day
I don’t know enough about Louisa May Alcott or her classic novel, “Little Women,” to say with any certainty if the “Masterpiece” adaptation is an accurate representation of the book or it could have been improved. I do know that I enjoyed all 180 minutes of the mini-series, produced by a largely female cast and crew, and I can easily recommend it to parents whose daughters – its charm would be lost on most boys – have found time to read books, in between texting and taking selfies. Alcott’s books once were considered must-reading for girls facing the challenges of puberty and possibilities of womanhood. Loosely based on Alcott and her own three sisters, “Little Women” was published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. An immediate sensation, it spawned two direct sequels – “Little Men” (1871) and “Jo’s Boys” (1886) – neither of which, I’m told, featured vampires or sorcerers. The novel addressed three major themes of the times, “domesticity, work and true love,” all of which were crucial elements in a girl’s identity. Devotion to family, of course, also is an important aspect of the story, but, at the time, this might have been a given quality in well-established families. As the mini-series opens, four teenage sisters and their mother, Marmee – superbly played by Emily Watson – are living in a neighborhood loosely based on Concord, Massachusetts. Although their situation doesn’t look all that dire, it’s said that they’re living in “genteel poverty,” due to a financial setback experienced by the father, Robert March (Dylan Baker), who, before joining the Union Army and contacting pneumonia, was a scholar and a minister. The women are facing their first Christmas without him. Besides working to support the family, the older girls are beginning to deal with affairs of the heart and the potential for careers. As the story progresses, boyfriends and other men in the neighborhood will play larger roles in the story. Director Vanessa Caswill (“Thirteen”) and credited co-writers (with Alcott) Heidi Thomas and Rainer Stolle encourage viewers to pick favorites, cheer along with their triumphs and share their tears and laughter. The characters are so precisely drawn that it’s easy take sides. It helps, as well, that the young actors (Maya Hawke, Kathryn Newton, Willa Fitzgerald, Annes Elwy, Julian Morris, Jonah Hauer-King) aren’t as familiar to us as the adults, played by Watson, Baker, Michael Gambon Angela Lansbury. The Blu-ray adds a visit to Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House and Museum.

I’m not at all sure how difficult it’s been to find copies of the episodes collected in Shout! Factory’s “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Singles Collection.” The press material says that they were among the first to be released on DVD, but only on an individual basis, not in the 39 compilations the company started sending out in September 1, 2015. I also know that, as collectibles, they cost a small fortune. The new grouping of cheeseball non-classics includes The Crawling Hand (#106), The Hellcats (#209), Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (#321), Eegah (#506), I Accuse My Parents (#507) and “Shorts, Volume 3.” Among the bonus features new episode introductions by series creator Joel Hodgson; “Man on Poverty Row: The Films of Sam Newfield”; “Don’t Knock the Strock,” a portrait of the director of The Crawling Hand; and “MST Hour Wraps.” All five episodes are from the Joel Hodgson era, which means they were originally issued by Rhino and have been out-of-print until now. “Shorts Volume 3″ was a promotional disc, only available on mail order from Rhino. I found the commentaries provided by Joel Robinson and crewmates Tom Servo, Gypsy and Crow – as well as interstitials with Dr. Clayton Deborah Susan Forrester and TV’s Frank — to be as fresh, witty and entertaining as any I’ve seen recently in the compilations.

Gen-Xers, Millennials and Oughts may not find any correlation between Nickelodeon’s hit animated series, “The Loud House,” and a landmark show of the early-1970s, “An American Family,” but Boomer parents and grandparents will wonder if there’s a connection between them. The groundbreaking documentary, considered by many to be TV’s first reality series, recorded the daily life of the Louds, an upper-middle-class family living in Santa Barbara. Ultimately, it chronicled the break-up of the dysfunctional family via the separation and subsequent divorce of parents Bill and Pat Loud. Their son, Lance, is credited as being the first openly gay continuing character on television. The show produced several knockoffs, including Albert Brooks’ 1979 mockumentary, Real Life. The short answer is: probably not. “The Loud House” was created by animator and comic illustrator Chris Savino, who is said to have based it on his experiences growing up in a large family in Royal Oak, Michigan. Lincoln Loud is the only boy and middle child in a family of 11 children, 10 of whom are girls. They all display different characteristics, personalities and interests. The faces of parents Rita and Lynn Sr. aren’t shown until the show’s second season. The introduction of Howard and Harold McBride, the adoptive parents of Lincoln’s best friend, Clyde, have been lauded for being a positive representation of a married same-sex couple, the first to be featured in a Nicktoon. Despite the elimination of Savino from the show’s production team – he fell victim to charges of sexual harassment – “The Loud Family” has been renewed for a fourth season. Plans for a film based on the series have been put on hold. The second volume of first-season shows on DVD, “The Loud House: It Gets Louder: Season 1, Volume 2,” is comprised of 13 double-episodes.

Also from Nickelodeon comes a collection of four episodes from the first season of “Sunny Day,” which follow 10-year-old hairstylist and entrepreneur, Sunny. Along with the help of her best friends Blair and Rox, and her loyal and lovable puppy Doodle, Sunny takes on any challenge thrown her way. The characters in the series celebrate individuality and self-expression, while the show’s social-emotional curriculum highlights leadership, innovative thinking and teamwork. Each episode of “Sunny Day” features an array of content, from original music to the “Style Files,” a live-action tutorial based on Sunny’s creative hairstyles from the show.

The DVD Wrapup: Black Panther, Forgiven, Monkey King, Sweet Escape, Black Venus, It’s Alive and more

Tuesday, May 15th, 2018

Black Panther: Blu-ray/4K UHD
What were Stan Lee and Jack Kirby smoking when they named their new superhero after the militant organization founded by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton? Or… what were Seale and Newton smoking when they named the BPP after a comic-book superhero? Fact is, Marvel introduced the chief of the Panther Tribe of the African nation of Wakanda in Fantastic Four #52 in July 1966, months before the Black Panthers of Oakland unveiled plans to counter police brutality by “policing the police.”  Lee would call the timing “a strange coincidence,” even as the company debated changing its superhero’s name from Black Panther to Black Leopard. That brainstorm was briefly realized in Fantastic Four #119, dated February 1972, but the name was changed back to Black Panther by the time T’Challa was asked to join “Earth’s mightiest heroes” that November in Avengers #105. The character’s development is discussed at length in the featurettes, “From Page to Screen: A Roundtable Discussion” and “Crowning of a New King.”

Black Panther could be considered one of the great no-brainers of all time. In reality, Disney executives had room for a sliver of concern going into its international opening. Historically, foreign audiences have shown a reluctance to embrace movie with largely black casts. As recently as 12 Years a Slave, distributors in some countries promoted minority-themed films with posters featuring white stars. Steve McQueen’s intense drama still collected more money – 69.8% of total lifetime gross –from international sources. It’s also true that Black Panther/T’Challa had yet to crack the upper echelon of the superhero elite.  In 2008, Wizard magazine ranked him the 79th greatest comic book character out of 200 others named in the survey. In 2015, IGN Entertainment elevated Black Panther to No. 51 in their list of 100 greatest comic-book heroes, and No. 10 in its ranking of the top-50 Avengers. In 2013, Comics Alliance ranked the Black Panther as #33 on its list of the “50 Sexiest Male Characters in Comics.” If the same polls were conducted today, he’d probably crack the top five. The latest breakdown by Box Office Mojo shows that domestic revenues beat foreign sales at a 51.9/48.1 percent ratio, roughly dividing the $1.342 billion pot in half. That reverses a trend that’s consistently put international revenues ahead of domestic revenues, at least when it comes to popcorn titles. (The MPAA’s final box-office report for 2017 put the overall split at $29.5 billion/$11,1 billion, in the favor of foreign revenues.)

As pointed out in bonus featurettes, Disney/Marvel deserves credit for entrusting the property to a production team of largely African-American talent, untested outside the independent arena. Foremost among them are co-writer-director Ryan Coogler, whose feature credits were Fruitvale Station and Creed, and writer Joe Robert Cole, who wrote two episodes of FX Network’s “American Crime Story” and the little-seen 2011 thriller, Amber Lake. Earlier this year, DP Rachel Morrison made history as the first woman nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, for Mudbound. Despite having played such real-life American heroes as Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson and James Brown, star Chadwick Boseman was fortunate to be surrounded by such top-shelf talent as Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Martin Freeman, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and Andy Serkis. The same can said for such talented newcomers as Letitia Wright, as T’Challa’s precocious sister; Danai Gurira, as his bodyguard; and Danai Gurira, as a rival warrior. Kudos, all around. The other essential featurette, I think, is “Wakanda Revealed: Exploring the Technology,” which explains how some of the film’s most exciting and visually spectacular scenes were created. Other extras include a director’s introduction, deleted scenes, “Crowning of a New King,” “The Warriors Within,” “Marvel Studios, the First Ten Years: Connecting the Universe,” a gag reel, sneak peek at “Ant-Man and the Wasp” and director’s commentary. If given the choice and opportunity, go with the 4K UHD edition. It does make a difference.

The Forgiven: Blu-ray
Zuri, Forest Whitaker’s character in Black Panther, has been described as Wakanda’s version of Obi-Wan Kenobi. For his Oscar-winning turn as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, Whitaker played one of the worst dictators of the 20th Century. In The Forgiven, he plays Nobel Peace Prize-winner Bishop Desmond Tutu, who couldn’t be more different from the Ugandan despot and Wakandan elder statesmn. When the African National Congress assumed power in 1994, it wasn’t clear how South Africa’s new leaders would respond to the various human-rights abuses perpetrated by police and military officials, and serious crimes committed by anti-apartheid activists. Having to choose between universal amnesty and unfettered retribution not only could have prevented old wounds from healing, but also keep Nelson Mandela’s government from taking root. After parliament instituted a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Mandela chose Tutu to chair its proceedings. The Forgiven, Roland Joffé’s adaptation of Michael Ashton’s play, “The Archbishop and the Antichrist,” describes just how difficult the process would be. Eric Bana plays Piet Blomfeld, a composite character who represents one of the most extreme cases the TRC is likely to face. He’s being held in Cape Town’s Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison with other hard-core soldiers and militants not yet ready to commit to recanting their sins, let alone make amends to their victims, even in exchange for amnesty. Blomfeld, a former officer in the South African Defense Force and member of the neo-Nazi Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, is a potential witness to murders committed during the time of apartheid, particularly the disappearance and likely murder of the teenage daughter of Mrs. Morobe (Thandi Makhubele). When Tutu approaches Blomfeld

to ask about her daughter, the Afrikaner uses their time together berating the archbishop. At the same time, however, Blomfeld has made himself a ripe target for vengeful black prisoners and guards afraid that his meetings with Tutu might bear fruit. Although the outcome of The Forgiven is largely a foregone conclusion, the interplay between Whitaker and Bana is thrilling. One is a man of hate, while the other has been the country’s flagbearer for peace and reconciliation for decades. For Tutu’s mission to succeed, something approaching a miracle must happen to change Blomfeld’s mindset. It does, but not in the usual way such things happen in inspirational dramas.

The Sweet Escape
Sometimes, a foreign picture or indie will sneak up on me on DVD, making me wonder how it managed not to find distribution here. Twenty years ago, a movie that combined elements of Jacque Tati, King of Hearts, Apocalypse Now and the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” (“Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream …”) might have packed arthouses with audiences looking for something well off the beaten path. As far as I know, however, writer/director/star Bruno Podalydès’ disarming 2015 comedy/romance, The Sweet Escape, is only now making its U.S. debut on a DVD from Icarus Films. In it, Podalydès (Granny’s Funeral) plays a 50-year-old computer-graphics designer, Michel, who daydreams about flying an airmail plane, believing that going on a dangerous solo run will lead him to discover his true self. Michel previously took up the ukulele, believing that old novelty tunes might transport him to more exotic climes. His obsession with flying ends when co-workers gift him with a three-hour flight in a training plane. He thinks they’re making fun of his obsession.

To compensate for the sudden vacuum in his life, Michel (Podalydès) is inspired to take up kayaking. Not satisfied merely to drive to the nearest navigable river and take lessons, Michel purchases a do-it-yourself kit and constructs a kayak in the apartment he shares with his wife, Rachelle (Sandrine Kiberlain), who patiently allows for his idiosyncrasies. To master the complexities of kayaking, Michel reads every available book, including tips on navigation from Huey, Dewey and Louis. It’s at this point in such narratives that daydreamers usually find their comeuppance in the reality of their own limitations and return to their imaginary pursuits. This definitely is not the case with The Sweet Escape. Not only is Michel able to avoid putting his foot through the kayak’s floor on its first test paddle, but he takes to the water like a newborn duckling. With only a week available to him, Michel embarks on a waterborne excursion on a gently flowing stream in rural France.

Just as the crew of Martin Sheen’s patrol boat found unexpected places to explore along the Nung River, so, too, does Michel make the occasional pitstop. Among them are a seemingly enchanted B&B, where he’s allowed to pitch his tent – complete with all the Tati-inspired camping gimmicks that fit inside the kayak’s hold — and enjoy a good meal. Just as Alan Bates’ endangered soldier, Charles Plumpick, found shelter from the Huns in an asylum populated with endearing eccentrics, in King of Hearts, Michel is welcomed by a quirky collection of misfits at the inn. Foremost among them are two women – one of a certain age (Agnès Jaoui), the other (Vimala Pons) approaching 30 – still mourning the absence of lost lovers. Two very odd handymen (Michel Vuillermoz, Jean-Noël Brouté) complete the package. In return for his welcome company and comic relief, they introduce him to the recuperative powers of hand-picked cherries, duck confit and properly served absinthe. When a storm pre-empts his plans for “roughing it,” they share their beds with him. (In this fantasy, Rachelle exists in land far, far away.) No matter how far Michel makes it downriver, something always causes him to return to his new, extended family. Then, when he returns to his home and wife, he discovers a different reality. If it takes a while to pick up on the film’s peculiar rhythm, patience will soon enough be rewarded

The Monkey King 3: Blu-ray
Chinese filmmakers have been blessed with a catalogue of stories, myths and legends whose origins can be traced back hundreds of years before the Grimm Brothers began writing the fairytales that Walt Disney would plunder only a century later. The Monkey King legend, inspired by Wu Cheng’en’s 100-chapter novel, “Journey to the West” (1592), has been adapted several times over the course of the last 90 years, in China and abroad. It is considered by many historians to be one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels and the source of countless sequels, retellings and spinoffs. It’s also said, however, that the Ming Dynasty novelist and poet was inspired by a popular legend that first surfaced 1,000 years earlier. They’re based on the account of a pious T’ang Buddhist monk, Xuanzang (William Feng), who travels from China to India to search for Buddhist scriptures and dharma. The kinks in his plan are provided by his travelling companions, who include Monkey King Wukong (Aaron Kuck), historically referred to as Monkey Aware of Vacuity; the lustful pig demon, Bajie (Xiao Shenyang); and a sand demon, Wujing (Him Law). While chugging their way west, they’re confronted by a River God who picks up their boat and heaves it into the Womanland of Western Liang. Detached from the outside world by steep cliffs and an invisible dome, the colony is comprised of man-hating women.

Their Queen (Zhao Liying) is warned against getting too close to the treacherous intruders, but, after encountering them on her CGI stag, can’t help but fall for Xuanzang. Her protector (Gigi Leung) senses that their arrival might trigger an ancient prophesy, heralding the fall of Womanland, and immediately orders the men executed. Lovestruck, the Queen instead conspires with them to fake their deaths. Although the Monkey King makes a late entry in the story, his antics and acrobatics are worth the wait. With plenty of time left in the nearly two-hour adventure, director Cheang Pou-soi finds all sorts of diversions to keep viewers interested until the Queen and Xuanzang must decide to test fate in the name of love. Like such recent adventure/fantasies as Anthony LaMolinara and Zhao Xiaoding’s Once Upon a Time, Tsui Hark’s Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back and Rob Minkoff’s The Forbidden Kingdom, The Monkey King 3 and its predecessors will take some getting used to for Western viewers. Here’s an idea, though: if Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro want to tackle something other than another J.R.R. Tolkien retread, they should consider something from “Journey to the West,” which would be every bit as fanciful as “LOTR” and “The Hobbit,” and a potential east-west groundbreaker.

Black Venus: Special Edition: Blu-ray
When the screener disc of Arrow Films’ Black Venus arrived in the mail, I immediately assumed that it starred Laura Gemser, one of the queens of Italian sexploitation and star of Black Emmanuelle (1975) and Black Cobra Woman (1976). If the cover art had been included in the delivery, I couldn’t possibly have mistaken Gemser for Yahima Torres, the amateur who Abdellatif Kechiche chose to play his “Hottentot Venus.” Neither could I recall seeing Josephine Jacqueline Jones, a former Miss Bahamas, in her steamy portrayal of the same character in Claude Mulot’s 1983 softcore melodrama of the same title. While both are more or less based on a short story by Honoré de Balzac, Mulot’s film was produced and edited by Playboy Enterprises for its premium cable channel. (An uncut English-dubbed version was released on DVD in 2006.) The woman on the cover of Arrow’s Blu-ray is a much heavier woman than Gemser or Jones, with a protruding backside, decidedly larger breasts, close-cropped hair and an iron collar around her neck. Kechiche’s 2010 version of Black Venus is based more directly on the life of Sarah Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman who in the early 19th century was exhibited in Europe under the name “Hottentot Venus.” Kechiche (Blue Is the Warmest Color) elected to move the setting of his Black Venus, which wasn’t shown widely here, to a bit later in century. It allowed him to take advantage of the Victorian-era costumes, furniture and backdrops. As lavish a production as it is, and despite much fine acting, Black Venus is not an easy film to watch. The voyeuristic aspects of the story can’t help but make viewers, however sympathetic to Baartman’s plight, queasy. The facts aren’t any easier to stomach.

Here, Baartman (Yahima Torres) is a black domestic who’s been persuaded to leave South Africa with her boss, Hendrik Cesars (Andre Jacobs), with the promise of being able to sing, dance and play a stringed instrument for lots of money. Once they arrive, however, Cesars puts Baartman on display as a freak of nature … sometimes on stage, sometimes as a midway attraction. Although her act is pure fiction, it resembles bear-baiting, with the stocky slave occasionally going into the audience to scare the rubes. By the time we catch up with them, Baartman is beginning to resist Cesars’ inhumane demands, by insisting on more dignified clothing and treatment in her off-hours. Their act catches the attention of British abolitionists, who argue in court that her performance is indecent and that she’s being held against her will. Cesars convinces her to tell the court that she approves of the presentation, citing artistic license. She would later be sold to an animal trainer, Réaux (Olivier Gourmet), who introduces her to curious French socialites and academics. Georges Cuvier (François Marthouret), professor of comparative anatomy at the Museum of Natural History, examines Baartman to find proof that black Africans are the missing link between apes and Homo sapiens. By any name, it’s a theory founded on scientific racism. After leaving the stage, Baartman’s short life turns tragic, with further indignities to come. Kechiche’s depiction of her final years, some spent in a brothel, will leave most viewers spent emotionally and aghast at the arrogance of white Europeans. The Blu-ray adds a new appreciation of Black Venus and other Kechiche films, by critic Neil Young; and an illustrated booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Will Higbee, author of “Post-Beur Cinema: North African Émigré and Maghrebi-French Filmmaking in France Since 2000.”

It’s Alive Trilogy: Blu-ray
The Bloodthirsty Trilogy: Special Edition: Blu-ray
In 1974, the last place one might have expected to find a score by Oscar-winning composer Bernard Herrmann (for All That Money Can Buy, not Psycho) was in Larry Cohen’s evil-baby thriller, It’s Alive. Future Academy Award mainstay Rick Baker was also attached to the film, but his career had just begun, while Herrmann’s was coming to an end. (The special-effects and puppeteering wizard had just shared an Emmy for his work in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.) For his part, genre specialist Cohen was transitioning from writer to writer/director, with the blaxploitation classics Bone, Hell Up in Harlem and Black Caesar. After It’s Alive his focus would shift to such sci-fi and horror pix as Q, Full Moon High and A Return to Salem’s Lot. Still, he was hardly a household name in Hollywood. Herrmann had recently collaborated with Brian DePalma on the blatantly Hitchcockian thrillers, Sisters and Obsession, so it wasn’t that much of a leap for him to score It’s Alive. In fact, immediately after he finished recording the Taxi Driver soundtrack, on December 23, 1975, Herrmann viewed the rough cut of Cohen’s God Told Me To. Following dinner with the director, he returned to his hotel and died from a heart attack in his sleep. Not being one of Cohen’s most memorable works, it’s fair to wonder what contributed more to the composer’s sudden demise, the meal, wine or movie.

Richard Woodley’s subsequent novelization of It’s Alive alludes to the likelihood that the mother of the grotesquely deformed infant – visible on screen for less than a minute, in total – took an inadequately tested fertility drug to facilitate the conception of her second child. Immediately after taking its first breath, the child uses its fangs and claws to tear into the doctor and nurses in the delivery room. It eludes hospital security, leaving a trail of carnage as it heads for his parents’ home. Although a representative for the pharmaceutical company that supplied the fertility drug recommends killing the infant – rather than face a bevy of wrongful-death lawsuits – Frank Davis (John Ryan) and his wife, Lenore (Sharon Farrell), begin to develop a weird parental attachment to the little monster. Frank tries to prevent a mob of vigilantes from killing the baby, but, when it attacks the fertility doctor, the little tyke is killed by police. Soon, thereafter, we learn that another murderous kid has been delivered in Seattle.

In hindsight, you’d think that a sequel would immediately be put on the drawing board, and it was. Funny thing, though. In between the time Cohen pitched and completed production on It’s Alive, Warner Bros. brought in a new team of executives, none of whom were enthusiastic about it. The studio gave the film a one-theater showcase in May 1974, in Chicago, and a limited release five months later. Despite doing respectable business, the company shelved the picture in the U.S. for three years. It did boffo business in foreign markets, however, prompting another new set of WB executives to agree to Cohen’s request for a second opinion. Thanks to a completely new marketing campaign, It’s Alive went on to become a cult classic. It was followed by two sequels, It Lives Again (1978) and It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987) – included in the new ScreamFactory box — and a straight-to-DVD remake, It’s Alive (2009), which was disowned by Cohen. When WB decided to rush the sequel, Cohen was accorded an 18-day shooting schedule. It required him to divide post-production duties between It Lives Again and another theatrical project. By now, the number of evil babies has risen, sparking a curious debate between pro-lifers and abortion advocates, as to their fate. Frank Davis attempts to convince expectant parents, Jody and Eugene Scott (Fredric Forrest, Kathleen Lloyd) to protect their child from a lynch mob and turn it over to researchers. Naturally, a chase ensues.

It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive takes place a decade after the events of the first two installments and is largely set on a remote island, where the surviving babies have been quarantined. Michael Moriarty plays Jarvis, the father of one of the mutant children, to whom he pays a visit five years later as part of a scientific mission. The children have grown quickly into adults, with talents all their own. Jarvis’ son has fathered a child and wants nothing more than to return to the mainland and introduce the baby to its grandmother, Ellen (Karen Black). Before that can happen, though, Jarvis and the mutants are required to make a detour to Cuba. Oy vey! The trilogy arrives in Blu-ray, backed by 2K remasters from original film elements. Among the new bonus features are “Cohen’s Alive: Looking Back at the It’s Alive Films,” featuring interviews with the director, actors James Dixon, Michael Moriarty and Laurene Landon; “It’s Alive at the Nuart: The 40th Anniversary Screening,” with Cohen; a fresh interview with special-effects-makeup designer Steve Neill; and ported-over commentaries and marketing material.

Arrow Video’s “The Bloodthirsty Trilogy: Special Edition” is noteworthy primarily for its value to horror buffs and fans of Japanese genre fare. The films reflect the influence of Hammer Films, giallo and such American classics as James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932) on two generation of J-horror specialists. Even the titles of the films in Michio Yamamoto’s trilogy — The Vampire Doll (1970), Lake of Dracula (1971) and Evil of Dracula (1974) – betray the western influence. Although the emphasis is more on the supernatural than Old World bloodsuckers, a case is made for the likelihood that the vampires here aren’t native to Japan, at all. The gothic tone is emphasized by stormy nights, ghostly mansions, hellish prophesies and unexpected guests, who wonder what happened to friends who disappeared after visiting the spooky inhabitants. Kim Newman provides lively analysis of the trilogy, which arrives with a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matt Griffin, and a collector’s booklet, with new writing by Japanese film expert Jasper Sharp.

Bruce’s Deadly Fingers: Blu-ray
After Bruce Lee’s untimely death in 1973, at 32, purveyors of Hong Kong chopsocky flicks wasted little time before unleashing a flood of pictures exploiting his memory. Enter the Dragon had become a posthumous box-office smash, world-wide, and studio executives wondered how and when they could replace such a charismatic personality. At first, attempts were made to cannibalize the titles and footage from Lee’s four features – that’s right, four – and pad the concoction with stock footage. Among the titles were “Re-Enter the Dragon,” “Enter Three Dragons,” “Return of Bruce,” “Enter Another Dragon,” “Return of the Fists of Fury” and “Enter the Game of Death,” as well as clip-job biopics with Lee’s name in the title. Actors representing Lee were shot in shadow and inserted in existing footage. Some were asked to change their screen names to Bruce or variations of Lee. They included Bruce Le, star of Bruce’s Deadly Fingers, Bronson Lee, Bruce Chen, Bruce Lai, Bruce Li, Bruce Lei, Bruce Lie, Bruce Liang (a.k.a., Bruce Leung), Saro Lee, Bruce Ly, Bruce Thai, Bruce K.L. Lea, Brute Lee, Myron Bruce Lee, Lee Bruce, and Dragon Lee. If the actors resembled the Real McCoy and could use their fists of fury, so much the better.  One of Lee’s fight choreographers, actor-director Sammo Hung, satirized the Bruceploitation phenomenon in his 1978 film, Enter the Fat Dragon. The fad faded when Jackie Chan emerged as the leader of the pack in such kung fu comedies as Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master. It’s safe to say that the recent spate of Ip Man movies benefited greatly from his student’s legacy.

In Joseph Kong’s 1976 actioner, Bruce’s Deadly Fingers, crime boss Lee Hung (Lo Lieh) covets a perhaps mythical fighting manual, “Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu Finger Book.” Hung already considers himself to be a martial arts master, even bragging to his girlfriend that he would kick Lee’s ass if he were still alive. Even so, acquiring the book would put the cherry on Hung’s ice-cream sundae. One of Lee’s students, Bruce Wong (Le), returns to Hong Kong from the U.S., after receiving a letter begging him to return home before the book falls into the wrong hands. Before he’s able to begin his search, however, Wong’s required to free his sister – Lee’s ex-girlfriend — from the clutches of gangsters who believe she’s hoarding the book. Bruce’s Deadly Fingers is jam-packed with kung-fu action, illogical dialogue, ridiculous kills, the requisite amount of rapes and nudity, and other clichés, including an unpleasant scene in which a woman is tortured with a live reptile. The VCI Entertainment Blu-ray benefits from a new 2K transfer from the original widescreen 35mm film negative; a photo and poster gallery of this and other Bruceploitation films; trailers of Bruceploitation titles; learned commentary by author/director/actor Michael Worth; and interviews with some of the actors.

Landing Up
Sadly, while there are several believable characters in Daniel Tenenbaum’s Landing Up, the protagonist isn’t one of them. That’s a real problem, especially when the character is a young prostitute, attempting to survive in New York by hooking up with guys she spills drinks on in bars, then persuades to give her a place to crash and a few bucks. There’s nothing unusual about that setup, which we’ve seen a hundred times. It’s entirely possible, however, that Tenenbaum and writer/star/spouse Stacey Maltin didn’t do more than a few hours of research on working girls in the Big Apple or, if they did, it came after watching Pretty Woman and some Cinemax movies. For no good reason, other than the fact that she’s reluctant to spend the money she makes, Chrissie (Maltin) sleeps in the streets when she isn’t staying with her friend, Cece (E’dena Hines), and her junkie boyfriend, or passes out on the bed of a trick. The fact that Chrissie also has a phone-sex number isn’t known to us until well into the second half of the movie. The revenues from that enterprise, alone, could have afforded her and Cece an apartment in one of the boroughs, at least. She carries the money she earns in her purse, which, even outside New York, is an invitation to be robbed. Landing Up’s biggest mistake, though, is allowing Maltin to turn Chrissie into an all-American girl, with a cute face, good teeth, hearty laugh and wonderful personality. If she had watched a couple of episodes of Starz’ “The Girlfriend Experience” – or, better, Brent Owens’ Pimps Up, Ho’s Down — Chrissie might have turned out several shades more genuine. Her biggest dilemma comes when she finds a real boyfriend, David (Ben Rappaport), who’s moderately well-off, extremely nice, good looking and has an eye toward the future. When she isn’t staying over at his apartment, Chrissie competes with homeless people for cardboard and patches of concrete. Either way, she can’t make any money. When his vindictive roommate blows the whistle on Chrissie, David freaks out. Can this relationship be saved? Does it matter? Landing Up was Hines’ last movie. The promising young actress and step-granddaughter of actor Morgan Freeman was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in August 2015, at 33. Two weeks ago, a New York jury found Lamar Davenport not guilty on charges of second-degree murder. He was, however, convicted of manslaughter, based on defense claims that he was in a “drug-induced psychosis during the brutal slaying, brought on by his use of PCP.”

Desolation: Blu-ray
In their feature debut, director Sam Patton and writers Matt Anderson and Michael Larson-Kangas, have combined all the ingredients necessary for a first-rate thriller, but pulled it out of the oven only half-baked. Timing in at a far too brisk 78 minutes, Desolation would have benefitted from another 15 minutes of suspense or one or two more false alarms. At its best, Desolation is a compelling study of bonding between a grieving widow and her supportive BFF, and a mother and her 12-year-old son, all devastated by the untimely death of a loving husband, father and friend. Jaimi Paige plays Abby, the mother of Sam (Toby Nichols) and close friend of Jen (Alyshia Ochse). Together, they’re hiking to remote spots in the forests of Upstate New York that were favorite destinations of the dearly departed. After a swim in a scenic lake and trek to the top of a mountain overlooking it, they intend to spread his ashes and bury a few mementos. Unbeknownst to the two women, they’re being followed – OK, stalked – by a villain straight out of a 1970s slasher picture: a disheveled mute, wearing a black, hooded coat; dark slacks; combat boots; and shades with copper-colored reflector lenses. The Hiker (Claude Duhamel) carries a staff and says nothing when summoned from afar. Clearly, he isn’t there to protect them from hungry bears and rabid raccoons. By the time the Hiker makes his first aggressive move against the trio, he’s so familiar to us that his ability to shock has dissipated. Eventually, though, he’ll have to attack the campers and do something so shocking we’ll want to turn our heads. If only … Patton reserved that moment for an off-screen deliverance, leaving viewers to guess when Sam’s preordained date with destiny will arrive. By then, the results are a foregone conclusion. If Desolation is a letdown in suspense department, it rewards viewers with some truly lovely scenery and a couple of scenes in which Abby and Jen reminisce about better times and act like a couple of teenage girls at a cookout. It’s when the picture comes most alive. There’s no reason to think that the filmmakers’ sophomore outing won’t by an improvement on the debut.

The Manor
Low-budget genre films don’t have to be logical to be enjoyable. They shouldn’t, however, insult viewers willing to cut first-time directors some slack. Jonathon Schermerhorn probably should be allowed to share the blame for The Manor, considering that four writers are credited with the script and none of them are named Schermerhorn. The story opens with Jane, the mother of an 18-year-old mental patient, Amy (Christina Robinson), insisting that the girl be allowed to leave the hospital under her guardianship. The administrator (Rachel True) advises against the move, but she’s helpless to prevent it. Instead of driving straight home, however, mom (Tanja Melendez Lynch) drags Amy to the exquisite country home of a guy who appears to have suffered childhood trauma while being taught how to play chess by his dogmatic father. Jane has deluded herself into thinking that Amy is ready to reunite with her aunt and cousins, with whom she shared some laughs as a kid. That was before Amy experienced something so disturbing that it would cause her to experience hallucinations and nightmares for years to come. Not surprisingly, her family does Amy more harm than good. To complicate matters, the proprietor has also booked rooms for a trio of sociopathic hillbillies masquerading as hunters. One of them, at least, immediately commits his energies to raping Amy and her horny cousin, Blaire (Danielle Guldin). He’s not the only guest with the same ambition. A couple of hours later, a large group of hippies arrives to set up what appears to be a mini-carnival. Their leader, played by WWE veteran Kevin Nash, takes it upon himself to protect Amy from harm. When he hears the name of the demon that’s been tormenting her, he agrees that it’s not a hallucination and deserves to be feared. Nothing really makes literal sense in The Manor, but, maybe that isn’t its point and I missed the joke.

Bent: Blu-ray
Rugged Kiwi action star Karl Urban plays Danny Gallagher, a disgraced narcotics detective, who has just been released from prison for shooting another cop he couldn’t possibly have known was also working undercover. Hey, mistakes happen. Usually, a cop will get a pass for not being aware of the circumstances before trying to arrest a bad guy. If Danny had suspected that his partner would be killed in the same bust, he certainly wouldn’t have rushed the drug traficker’s boat. That would have made for a short and largely pointless movie, however. Instead, Bent becomes one of those flicks in which everyone within a 50-mile radius is crooked, including police, federal agents and forensics investigators. Turns out, while Danny’s partner wasn’t exactly dirty, he did owe a substantial debt to a bookie. To buy back the IOU, he borrowed money from someone who was just as bent as everyone else in the picture. Now, the dough has disappeared, and everyone thinks Danny has it. There’s enough action here to satisfy most tastes, as well as the requisite number of minutes spent inside a strip club. Sofia Vegara (“Modern Family”), who plays another corrupt agent, has said that her shower scene with Danny contains her first screen nudity. Technically, that might be true, but the glass door of the shower is so clouded with steam that she might as well be wearing a bikini. Andy Garcia, Vincent Spano, and John Finn also appear in key, if undernourished parts. The Blu-ray adds an interview with writer/director Bobby Moresco (10th & Wolf) and other cast and crew members, and a making-of featurette.

Disruptive Film: Everyday Resistance to Power, Vol. 2
The Secret Life of Lance Letscher
Divine Divas
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Finding Oscar
It’s Not Yet Dark
At some point in the last 30 years, or so, documentaries evolved from being strictly formulated vehicles for education, enlightenment and consensus building, into films that can stand on their own as entertainment, provocation and counterweights to the shortcomings of the mainstream media. Indeed, some of the best documentaries have provided the source material for studio-backed adaptations. If most American docs made during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl period came approached their subjects from the left, it’s worth remembering that propagandist non-fiction was advanced first by Leni Riefenstahl, to sell Hitler’s fascist agenda to everyday citizens wearing red Make Germany Great Again caps. I kid. Recently, the right wing’s efforts to discredit President Obama and Hillary Clinton on film have been feeble, at best. The 16 films from 11 countries that are included in Disruptive Film: Everyday Resistance to Power, Vol. 2 represent 50 years of political activism on film. Most were made before the introduction of lightweight, handheld digital cameras. The 8mm and 16mm films show their age, as do the causes being forwarded by activists. According to its founders, the overall aim of the Disruptive Film Project is to help construct an “alternative history of experimental, political nonfiction media, specifically from the perspective of the short film.” Curators Ernest Larsen and Sherry Millner put the two volumes together for political and educational purposes, “to offer film and media makers and scholars a chance to review unaccountably under-appreciated works of film, video, animation — from France to Chiapas, from Serbia to China, to Nigeria — works that propose various strategies of resistance to power.” If audiences weaned on the work of Errol Morris and Michael Moore find the selections a tad too primitive for their taste, they should know that Kartemquin Films – producers of such highly accessible docs as Hoop Dreams, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, The Trials of Muhammad Ali, Milking the Rhino – made its bones in the non-fiction game 10 years before Hoop Dreams, with films that look virtually the same as these. Its titles left little room for guess work, anyway: Women’s Voices: The Gender Gap (1984), The Last Pullman Car (1983), Taylor Chain: A Story in a Local Union (1980) and The Chicago Maternity Center Story (1976).;

Otherwise, the folks at FilmRise have pretty much cornered this week’s market on docs on DVD.

Sandra Adair has been Richard Linklater’s go-to editor since Dazed and Confused (1993), garnering an Oscar nomination in 2015 for Boyhood. Her first directorial credit came last year with The Secret Life of Lance Letscher, a warm psychological portrait of the celebrated Austin-based collage artist. Told through memories of trauma and triumph, the brilliantly colored film provides a doorway into the artist’s insights on creativity, the subconscious, work ethic and spirituality. It coincides with Letscher’s determination to craft a large metallic mural along South Congress Avenue, in one of Austin’s busiest commercial districts. The documentary features detailed images of more than a hundred of his collages, sculptures and installations.

Brazilian actress Leandra Leal didn’t have to travel very far afield for inspiration when she decided to make her directorial debut. Her feature-length documentary, The Divine Divas, recalls the grit and determination of the country’s first generation of transvestite entertainers. They performed at Rio de Janeiro’s Rival Theater, which, in the 1960s, was run by her grandfather. It was one of the first clubs to openly feature men dressed as women – an activity frowned upon by the military government — and the film catches up with eight of them, during a performance marking their 50th anniversary.

Winner of three 2015 Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special, “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” is Alex Gibney’s penetrating examination of the controversial religion, which, some insist, doubles as a cult and pyramid scheme. The HBO-produced film profiles eight former members of the Church of Scientology, exploring the psychological impact of blind faith and how the church attracts new followers and keeps hold of its A-list celebrity devotees. “Going Clear” is informed by exclusive interviews and never-before-seen footage featuring Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and John Travolta, as well as a comprehensive history and intimate portrait of the church’s founder L. Ron Hubbard. It came on the heels of Gibney’s Peabody Award-winning documentary Mea Maxima Culpa, an investigation into the Catholic Church.

Ryan Suffern’s Finding Oscar takes us back more than 35 years, to the Central American killing fields, when right-wing dictators and their enforcers were granted carte blache to eliminate anyone – and everyone – deemed to be an enemy of the state. Frequently, the victims included innocent men, women and children, many of whom were native Guatemalans. In 1982, a band of Guatemalan soldiers entered the tiny village of Dos Erres, hunting anti-government guerrillas. Finding none, they settled for raping and murdering the residents. More than 200 bodies, some still alive, were thrown into a well and buried. Only two young boys, one named Oscar, were spared, to be raised by soldiers who killed their families. Nearly 30 years after the tragedy, a dedicated team of forensic scientists, led by a young Guatemalan prosecutor, sought to bring justice to those responsible. First, they were required to find Oscar, who had moved to the United States and wasn’t aware of his familial roots or the massacre. Sadly, atrocities and mass graves were commonplace occurrences during much of the 20th Century. This story, at least, leaves hope for the future.

Frankie Fenton’s debut feature, It’s Not Yet Dark, tells the remarkable story of Simon Fitzmaurice, a young Irish filmmaker struck down in his prime by Motor Neuron Disease (ALS). He was diagnosed with the debilitating disease shortly after his second short film, “The Sound of People,” premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Once he became completely paralyzed, Fitzmaurice typed the script for My Name is Emily (2015), through the movement of his eyes and the iris- recognition software, Eye Gaze. This is also how he communicated while directing the film during its five-week shoot in August and September 2014. Narrated by Colin Farrell, It’s Not Yet Dark describes how such a seemingly impossible thing was accomplished, before succumbing to the disease last October. My Name is Emily is currently available through streaming services.

Also new from FilmRise is Amman Abbasi’s freshman film, Dayveon, which could easily be mistaken for a fly-on-the-wall documentary. It involves 13-year-old Dayveon (Devin Blackmon), who lives in poor town outside Little Rock with his older sister, Kim (Chasity Moore), her boyfriend, Bryan (Dontrell Bright), and their 3-year-old son. Dayveon’s older brother died recently in a gang-related shooting. His loss drove their mother mad and still haunts Dayveon. Left to his own devices, he soon falls in with the local gang members. If he can survive the initiation rites, he might live long enough to face the same fate as his brother.

Lifetime: Cocaine Godmother: The Griselda Blanco Story
PBS: Masterpiece Mystery!: Unforgotten, Season 2: Blu-ray
PBS: GI Jews: Jewish Americans in World War II
PBS: NOVA: Great Escape at Dunkirk
PBS: NOVA: Prediction by the Numbers
PBS: Frontline: The Gang Crackdown
Spike: The Shannara Chronicles: Season Two: Blu-ray
PBS Kids: Pinkalicious & Peterrific: Pinkamagine It!
Not knowing how much money Catherine Zeta-Jones was paid by Lifetime to portray the infamous drug lord Griselda Blanco, I’ll resist the temptation to describe her decision as a step up, down or sideways. With an Oscar, Tony, BAFTA already under her belt, it would be all too easy to quip, “How the mighty have fallen,” and dismiss “Cocaine Godmother: The Griselda Blanco Story” as an attempt to piggy-back on the proliferation of movies and mini-series based on Colombian drug cartels, their lifestyles and smuggling networks, and the law-enforcement officials who pursued them. Academy Award-winning cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (Pan’s Labyrinth) directs “Cocaine Godmother” in a serviceable, paint-by-numbers way that suits the cable network’s female-centric format and probably didn’t cost too much money to make. (Zeta-Jones told Parade magazine, “I didn’t want to make her likeable or acceptable in any way. But, I have to admire her having power and also abusing that power. She made it big in a very dangerous world.” That’s one way of sizing up a monster.) According to Molly McAlpine and David McKenna’s screenplay, which isn’t to be strictly believed, Griselda was pimped out by her mother as a child. She’s shown here taking a beating from Mommie Dearest for allowing herself to be cheated by a customer, who she went back and killed. At 17 or, maybe 30, depending on which bio one believes, Griselda made her way to Queens, New York, with a fake passport and a dispensable second husband. She worked for a dealer who admired her ability to forge documents, becoming his partner when she devised numerous ways to smuggle blow into the U.S. in the underwear and false-bottom suitcases of beautiful women, children and invalids.

After eluding capture there, she ended up in Miami in late 1970s. Griselda’s links to Escobar assured her a steady supply of cocaine and the money necessary to afford luxuries and a small army of assassins. It is widely believed that she directly ordered the killings of 200 people during Miami’s Cocaine Cowboy era. Likewise, her greedy sons took to the family business like flies to shit. “Cocaine Godmother,” one of three such projects on tap, tells her story from the perspective of the DEA agent who chased Blanco around the country for years, hoping to make an arrest. Considering that she only served a grand total of 10 years behind bars, before being sent back to Medellin, it hardly seems worth the effort. The movie’s biggest stumbling block is the casting of Zeta-Jones, a former A-lister whose roots extend east to Wales and Ireland, not south to Colombia and the rest of Latin America. Besides being too thin and beautiful to represent La Madrina, even with a minimal amount of makeup, Zeta-Jones’ accent isn’t always on point. It begs the question as to why a dozen other fine Hispanic actresses weren’t chosen for the part. (Answer: star quality.) Still, she doesn’t embarrass herself. Zeta-Jones has gone public about her struggles with depression and bipolar II disorder, which have caused her to take long breaks from her acting career. She’s enjoyed only sporadic success at the box-office in recent years – Reds 2 comes to mind — so, maybe, television is a better bet for her right now. Last year, the mother of two children with Michael Douglas, worked alongside Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon in the entertaining FX mini-series “Feud.” In it, she won critical praise playing actress Olivia de Havilland, a contemporary of co-protagonists Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.

A couple of weeks ago, in my review of the first season of the “Masterpiece Mystery!” presentation, “Unforgotten,” I suggested that the crime at the heart of the six-part series might have taken “Law & Order” only a week or two to solve. I didn’t really mind the padding, however, as the acting and writing were sufficiently compelling for binge viewing. The Season Two package is newly available on Blu-ray and on PBS affiliates, in hi-def. This time, the complexity of the murder and subsequent investigation might have warranted a seventh episode, simply to add some air to the extremely tight narrative. In the first go-round, police detectives were called to a construction site, where the skeletal remains of a young man are found under the footings of a house demolished 39 years after his murder. This time, bones and seriously damaged watch are found in a suitcase dug up from the silt covered-floor of a river by a dredging tool. Police use the damaged watch to help them identify the corpse and link it to several old codgers who begin acting strangely when called in for questioning. They’ve had several decades to get their alibis straight, and they’re all good.

Also on PBS, “GI Jews: Jewish Americans In World War II” tells the story of the 550,000 Jewish American men and women who served in World War II. Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Henry Kissinger are among the veterans who relate their war experiences, while also describing what life at home was like for the children of recent immigrants as they prepared to fight for their adopted country. Living in New York, where the Jewish population was high, was an altogether different experience from sharing a barracks with rednecks and other homegrown bigots who had never met a Jew and didn’t want to bunk alongside one, in any case. Neither were they encouraged to wear their dog tags into combat, because the stamped “H” could tip off a German captor and result in their execution. Their recollections of what some of the veterans found when they liberated the death camps makes for extremely powerful viewing.

Two new DVDs from PBS’ “NOVA” demonstrate the series’ ability to keep audiences guessing as to what the producers will next. “Great Escape at Dunkirk” picks up where Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour left off, by adding 50 years’ worth of insight into how the evacuation was able to succeed, against all odds. The show’s correspondents joined government-commissioned archaeologists and divers as they recovered the remains of ships and planes lost during siege and rescue. They also provide new evidence of the ingenious technology that helped save Allied forces from defeat by the encircling Germans at sea and in the air. “Prediction by the Numbers” examines how predictions based on mathematics and odds-laying underpin nearly every aspect of our lives and why some succeed spectacularly while others fail. The show is enhanced with entertaining real-world challenges that tackle the age-old question: Can we forecast the future?

PBS’s “Frontline” tackles “The Gang Crackdown” from the viewpoint of citizens of a Long Island town who would love to see President Trump make good on his promise to rid the U.S. of the scourge that is MS-13. A slew of killings linked to Central American-born gangbangers has prompted a crackdown that not only has led to the arrests of legitimate suspects in crimes, but also the jailing of innocent bystanders who ICE agents have mistaken for gang members. Justice hasn’t come easy for those whose only crime happened to be wearing the wrong color clothes to school or speaking Spanish in front of the wrong people. The constitutional protections afforded every other American don’t apply to people our great leader recently called “animals,” even those completely innocent of any crime. And, of course, no one in Washington or in law-enforcement feels compelled to blow the horn on such illegal detentions.

Self-inflicted wounds sometimes are the most difficult to heal. That appears to be the case with Viacom Media Networks’ decision to move “The Shannara Chronicles” from its first-season perch on MTV, to Spike in Season Two. While MTV’s youthful, largely female audience probably was the appropriate demographic for the fantasy/drama series, company executives misjudged the ability of the show’s hot actresses to keep male viewers tuned in. Consequently, the numbers didn’t add up for a third-season go-ahead. Unable to sell the New Zealand-based series – adapted from Terry Brooks’ “The Sword of Shannara” trilogy of fantasy novels – to another network, it was deemed expendable. Maybe. instead of punishing the fans for not migrating with the show, the executives who OK’d the move should have been deemed expendable.  For the record, though, the second season is newly available on Blu-ray. When it kicked off on Spike, chaos had overtaken the Four Lands, as a body called “The Crimson” began to hunt down magic users. As is the case with so many fantasy and Cosplay series, it’s often difficult to ascertain whether violence is downright medieval or futuristic.

In PBS Kids’ “Pinkalicious & Peterrific: Pinkamagine It!,” children are encouraged to join Pinkalicious and her brother, Peter, on adventures in the arts, creativity and self-expression. In the best-selling children’s book, a little girl named Pinkalicious wakes up to discover her whole body has suddenly turned pink, which makes her ecstatic, but isn’t without its downside. This collection is comprised of six stories that take place in Pinkville, “a pink-loving town with a touch of whimsy.”

The DVD Wrapup: La Belle Noiseuse, 50 Shades Freed, 4K Titles, Paradox, Manifesto, Dear White People, Butterflies and more

Thursday, May 10th, 2018

La Belle Noiseuse: Blu-ray
“Take My Word for It” might be a better title for this column, especially as it applies to movies that went to straight-to-video or streaming or are made by filmmakers yet to establish reputations. Jacques Rivette’s 1991 masterpiece, La Belle Noiseuse, doesn’t fit those categories, but, with its four-hour length and ready availability of an inferior 125-minute cut, La Belle Noiseuse: Divertimento, Cohen Media’s upgraded Blu-ray may benefit from any endorsement. La Belle Noiseuse (The Beautiful Troublemaker) won the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes and was nominated for a Palme d’Or. Roger Ebert called it “the best film I have ever seen about the physical creation of art, and about the painful bond between an artist and his muse.” The great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa named it one of his two favorite movies of the 1990s — with Takeshi Kitano’s Fireworks – calling it the best filmed display of a struggle of an artist doing his craft, as well as a movie he would have liked to have directed. The four-hour length didn’t bother them or most of the other mainstream critics who saw La Belle Noiseuse in its first release. Michel Piccoli plays the artist, Frenhofer, who, judging solely from his lovely countryside chateau/studio in Provence, did very well for himself before developing a crippling creative block a decade earlier. At the time, his wife, Liz (Jane Birkin), served as his principle model and muse. Although they’re still married and supportive of each other, something is missing in that part of their relationship.

When a young artist, Nicolas (David Bursztein), visits the reclusive artist with his beautiful, if slightly aloof girlfriend, Marianne (Béart), Frenhofer is inspired to return to a painting he long ago abandoned, using her as his model. Liz recognizes the spark and encourages Marianne to stick around. She’ll be asked to pose nude for long periods of time and in positions that will test her patience and strength. It would be easy for viewers to assume that sometime in the laborious process, Frenhofer will try to use patriarchal status to coerce her into having sex. While there’s plenty of contact between them, including the occasional shared cigarette, things don’t progress in that way. And, in the era of #MeToo correctness, we’re happy they don’t. This isn’t to say, however, that Marianne and Frenhofer don’t begin to develop a shared obsession for the work, “La Belle Noiseuse,” or that it doesn’t impact negatively on their relationships with Liz and Nicolas. It’s also reflected in the artist’s process, which Rivette depicts in painstaking detail. Like everyone else in the movie, except Frenhofer, viewers are left guessing as to how the final painting might look. The paintings and sketches to which we’ve been made privy are as disturbing as they are revealing of the artist’s tortured state of mind. La Belle Noiseuse is based on Honoré de Balzac’s short story, “The Unknown Masterpiece,” and inspired, as well, by elements of Henry James’ “The Liar,” “The Figure in the Carpet” and “The Aspern Papers.” The Blu-ray adds commentary by film historian Richard Suchenski; an archival interview with Rivette; and an interview with co-writers Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent.

Fifty Shades Freed: Unrated Edition: Blu-ray: 4K UHD
Here’s a spoiler you won’t read anywhere else: you can tell when Anastasia is truly angry at her demanding husband when she chooses to wear pantyhose, instead of the black thigh-highs she favors while being tortured by Christian, working at the office and hanging out in one of Seattle’s many coffee shops. It may be a small point, but in this, the final chapter of the “Fifty Shades” series, she’s given precious few ways to declare her independence. It’s about time. Few franchises have been more immune to the opinions of critics, who probably hoped they could clip this turkey’s wings before they would be forced to review the other two installments of E.L. James’s Teflon Trilogy. Like Ronald Reagan, whose presidency was compared to the chemical used to coat cookware, nothing negative sticks to the “Fifty Shades” franchise. Fifty Shades Freed is no different in this regard. Despite reviews that would make some filmmakers weep, admirers of the best-selling book pushed the trilogy past the billion-dollar barrier, based on global ticket sales. Consider this, as well: despite Metacritic scores of 46, 33 and 31, viewers’ opinions on CinemaScore rose from Fifty Shades of Grey’s C+, to the B+ shared by Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed. Grades for sequels rarely improve. The opening weekend audience for “Freed” saw the highest ratio of female-to-male audiences yet in the series, with women making up 75 percent of opening-weekend moviegoers and women under the age of 30 comprising 55 percent of that audience. It’s safe to assume that male viewers bailed on their dates after being dragged to the first part, disappointed by the lack of below-the-belt nudity and a realization they could never measure up to Christian financially or sartorially. (It’s almost impossible to maintain a two-day growth of facial hair, without shaving every so often.) Women, even those with an aversion to nipple clips and whips, apparently found the highly fictionalized romance to their liking. I wonder how many of them have graduated to Barbet Schroeder Maîtresse, Just Jaeckin’s The Story of O, Steven Shainberg’s Secretary or Radley Metzger’s The Image, all of which do a better job of depicting the pleasures of pain.

In Fifty Shades Freed, it doesn’t take Christian more than a couple of minutes to show his true shades of gray. His unwarranted jealousy surfaces at the wedding reception and continues throughout most of the film’s remaining 110 minutes. And, while he gives Ana every reason to doubt his fidelity – with his real-estate agent and, of course, Mrs. Robinson (Kim Basinger) – her anger at his callous behavior lasts only so long as it takes Christian to purchase an ever-costlier gift … like a private jet at their beck and call, an expensive sports car and top-shelf whips, dildos and butt plugs. (Unlike the novel, Ana isn’t depicted using the latter.) Christian buys a fabulous bayside mansion – seen in an earlier film – without even bothering to consult his better half. Neither does his sexy interior designer (Arielle Kebbel) ask Ana about her plans to gut the Old World interior and replace it with the latest look favored by subscribers to Architectural Digest. For once, though, Anastasia stands up for herself, by insisting the designer piss up a rope. Later, she’ll forgive Christian for berating her on a French beach for shedding her top to sunbathe, while every other woman has her ta-tas on full display. In “Freed,” Christian turns out to be nothing more than just another grumpy and overly possessive guy, who treats his wife like property. When Anastasia informs him of their accidental pregnancy, Christian freaks out and demands she get an abortion. It isn’t until an old nemesis, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), threatens to kill Ana and his sister, Mia (Rita Ora), that he pulls up his big-boy pants and rides to her rescue. Blessedly, it isn’t accompanied by Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero.”

The very capable director James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross) returns to the director’s chair, but he appears to have been handcuffed by a cliché-ridden script. I should have guessed that the screenwriter, Niall Leonard (“Wire in the Blood”), is married to author/producer James and that his only other big-screen credit is for Fifty Shades Darker. His background as a writer of television mini-series – some quite good — is pretty obvious. John Schwartzman’s cinematography enhances the Blu-ray and 4K UHD additions, as does Danny Elfman’s complementary score. From what I can gather, the difference between the rated and unrated versions of Fifty Shades Freed is the inclusion of a couple of brief scenes that were shown in the trailer, but, then, trimmed for the theatrical release. Bassinger appears in a couple of those very brief segments. The bonus package adds the self-explanatory deleted scene, “Hickey and Apology”; a 33-minute making-of featurette, “The Final Climax”; “Christian & Ana by Jamie & Dakota,” in which the actors discuss their characters; “An Intimate Conversation,” with James and actor Eric Johnson; and music videos, “For You (Fifty Shades Freed)” by Liam Payne and Rita Ora, “Capital Letters” by Hailee Steinfeld x Bloodpop, and “Heaven” by Julia Michaels. If James ever runs out of money, she’s left a bit of room for a third sequel.

Saving Private Ryan: Blu-ray/4K UHD HDR
Braveheart: Blu-ray/4K UHD HDR
Gladiator: Blu-ray/4K UHD HDR
Source Code: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Paramount’s impeccable 4K upgrade of Steven Spielberg and writer Robert Rodat’s Saving Private Ryan: Commemorative 20th Anniversary Edition couldn’t possibly improve upon the film’s gut-wrenching depiction of the Omaha Beach assault on D-Day. Nor does it enhance the heart-wrenching drama that accompanies the search for PFC James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon), the last-surviving brother of four servicemen killed in the Normandy invasion. How could it? Even so, Spielberg’s graphic portrayal of the slaughter – accented by sonic effects that made some viewers dodge imaginary bullets – could hardly be more impactful, no matter the video or audio format. What makes the new UHD edition of Saving Private Ryan an essential purchase for owners of the latest home-theater technology is a 12-bit Dolby Vision presentation that comes as close to replicating the big-screen experience as is currently possible. The Dolby Atmos audio track makes the sounds of war that much more frightening and the dialogue more legible. Two decades later, it’s fun to see how many of the cast members would go on to enjoy substantial show-business careers. It’s also worth recalling the controversy that erupted after Saving Private Ryan inexplicably lost out to Shakespeare in Love for the Best Picture Oscar. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning 5:  Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Film Editing and Best Director for Spielberg. Credit for the upset went to Miramax’s unprecedented promotional campaign and the faulty memories of academy voters, who had no trouble remembering their reactions to the December release of Shakespeare in Love, but who forgot what drove audiences to Saving Private Ryan five months earlier. The upset was one of the things that helped turn Harvey Weinstein into the notoriously untouchable bully he would become, until being cut down to size for sexual abuse two decades later. The separate 4K UHD disc doesn’t include any new bonus features. The Blu-ray-combo disc contains previously issued featurettes, interviews and commentaries.

And, while we’re discussing advanced technology, it’s worth noting ahead of time that Paramount is also about to re-release a pair of its monster hits from 1995 and 2001, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, in Blu-ray/4K UHD HDR. Unlike “Private Ryan,” both won the Best Picture Oscar they so richly deserved, along with a bunch of other trophies and nominations. All three are enhanced by the addition of 2160p/Dolby Vision and a new Dolby Atmos soundtrack. Fans who purchased earlier Blu-ray editions – including the subpar transfer of Gladiator, since repaired – should know not to expect any new bonus material on the 4K UHD. The already adequate featurettes have been ported over to the Blu-ray discs included in the package. Superfans will have to decide for themselves if the noticeably better audio/visual presentation – closer to the theatrical experience — is worth another investment in money and time. Most, I think, will say it is.

Also new to Blu-ray 4K UHD is Duncan Jones and writer Ben Ripley’s high-voltage action/thriller, Source Code, from Lionsgate. In it, Jake Gyllenhaal plays U.S. Army pilot Captain Colter Stevens, who wakes up one morning on a commuter train headed to Chicago. Because the last thing he can remember is being on a mission in Afghanistan, Stevens is completely disoriented and annoyed about his inability to figure out what’s happening to him. His traveling partner, Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan), is more amused by his confusion than alarmed. When Stevens looks at himself in the bathroom, he appears to be someone else: a school teacher named Sean Fentress. As he attempts to come to grips with this revelation, the train explodes, killing everyone aboard. This time, when Stevens regains consciousness, he’s inside a dimly lit cockpit, communicating with Air Force Captain Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga). She verifies Stevens’ original identity and insists he stay “on mission” to find the train bomber, before a second bomb explodes in downtown Chicago. Turns out, Stevens is trapped inside the “Source Code,” an experimental device designed by scientist Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright). In the computer-generated realm, he experiences the last eight minutes of another compatible person’s life within an alternative timeline. It’s tricky, but, once the gimmick is revealed, viewers shouldn’t have any problem playing along with it. It, too, benefits from a 2160p UHD and Dolby Atmos upgrade. It adds commentary with Jones, Ripley and Gyllenhaal, and “5 Crazy Details You Might Have Missed.”


Blood and Glory
If most sports movies are founded on certain clichés and tropes, it’s refreshing to find a guard-vs.-prisoners flick that breaks new ground. The first iteration of Robert Aldrich The Longest Yard (1974) certainly did, as it captured the anti-establishment fervor of the period. So did the rigged football game in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1972), which added a couple of Vietnam-era touches. Although John Huston’s 1981 soccer drama, Victory (a.k.a., “Escape to Victory”), pitted Allied prisoners of war – including Sylvester Stallone and Pele — against a team of German all-stars in occupied Paris, it was inspired by two European movies, released in the early 1960s. The Hungarian black-and-white drama, Two Half-Times in Hell, and Soviet Tretiy taym (a.k.a., The Last Game) honed much closer to eyewitness reports from an actual soccer game, known as the Death Match. During the German occupation of Kiev, several members of Dynamo Kiev formed a team with other bakery employees, playing in a league against teams supported by the Ukranian puppet government and German military. After they beat a team from a local German Air Force base, the league was disbanded and several of the team members were arrested by the Gestapo, with four reportedly executed. It’s entirely possible, as well, that the Death Match inspired the central conflict in Sean Else’s Blood and Glory, which is set in 1901, during the Second Boer War. The compelling, if all-too-familiar drama follows Willem Morkel, a Boer/Afrikaans farmer who is captured and sent to a British P.O.W. camp on St. Helena Island, halfway between Argentina and Namibia, in the Atlantic Ocean.

The prisoners are treated harshly, forced to break rocks from morning until evening, and fed poorly. While the guards are preoccupied, watching their mates partake in a game of rugby, one of the prisoners sneaks behind them to steal a uniform. He’s caught, of course, and sentenced to be executed. The film’s protagonist, a farmer named Willem Morkel (Stian Bam), offers a deal to the brutal Australian camp commander, Colonel Swannell (Grant Swanby). If the prisoners can beat the soldiers in a game of rugby, Swannell must agree to postpone the execution. If not, Morkel agrees to be executed alongside his fellow P.O.W. As is typically the case in these David-vs.-Goliath setups, the prisoners will have to be taught how to play the game and practice only after their work day is done. Swannell also ensures that the prisoners are undernourished, underequipped and unprepared to lose a key player when one mysteriously drowns. I’m sure you can guess the rest, except for the fact that the island’s British governor (Michael Richard) and his daughter (Charlotte Salt) are appalled by the mistreatment of their temporary Afrikaner guests by fellow Brits. Blood and Glory alludes to the possibility that South Africa’s national team, the Springboks, evolved from that game and one of the players went on to play for the South Africa National Rugby Union team. I couldn’t find anything to back up those assertions, however. Nonetheless, anyone who’s a sucker for such movies should enjoy this one.

Valentina’s Wedding
Lionsgate and Pantelion’s latest cross-border collaboration, “La Boda de Valentina” (Valentina’s Wedding) did pretty well in its opening weekend in 331 U.S. theaters. It would go on to collect nearly $2.8 million here, while raking in another $8.3 million worth of pesos in its concurrent international run. While the stars are largely familiar from Mexican telenovelas and English-language soaps, I don’t know if the distributors focused their marketing efforts on those viewers. Recent Pantelion titles I’ve reviewed are Everybody Loves Somebody, How to Be a Latin Lover, 3 Idiots and the animated feature, Condorito: La Película. None would be confused with high-brow fare, but arthouse audiences don’t watch soap operas … except on PBS. The title character is played by the very appealing Marimar Vega (Daniel and Ana), whose telenovelas include “Silvana Sin Lana Amor,” “Cautivo” and “Eternamente tuya.” Valentina has the “perfect” life in New York, with the perfect job and a perfect American boyfriend, Jason (Ryan Carnes). They plan on getting married, but Jason can’t understand why she refuses to do it in Mexico, surrounded by her family. It isn’t until her thoroughly dysfunctional and scandalous relatives demand that Valentina return to Mexico City, and pretend to be married to her ex-boyfriend, Angel (Omar Chaparro), do we fully appreciate why she’s keeping them at a distance. Naturally, as romcom conventions demand, she reluctantly agrees to return home and go along with the ruse, to protect her father’s political campaign. If you’ve already guessed that Valentina’s proximity to Angel will test her devotion to Jason, give yourself a pat on the back. When she asks Angel to show Jason around the capital, it’s also safe to assume that the two men either will kill each other or find bromance. By the end of the movie, one of the three characters will be left standing at the altar, but it wasn’t the one I would have chosen. Too bad. Coincidentally, perhaps, Vega’s next picture is “La Boda de la Abuela,” in which she plays a character named Ana, from another series of rom-coms.

The Devil Incarnate: Blu-ray
Widely considered to be the dean of Spanish horror films, in the Golden Era of European exploitation, at least, Paul Naschy (a.k.a., Jacinto Molina Alvarez) has been overshadowed here by the purveyors of Italian Westerns, giallo and cannibal epics. To the extent that Naschy is known outside Europe, it’s for his portrayal of the tormented werewolf Waldermar Daninsky, a character he introduced in Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror (1968) and reprised in a dozen subsequent sequels. Like his hero, Lon Chaney Jr., Naschy also played such horror mainstays as the Mummy, Jack the Ripper, Dracula, the Hunchback, the Frankenstein monster, Phantom of the Opera and, in The Devil Incarnate (1979), the ruler of all that’s dark and evil in the universe. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to John Belushi, the devil has decided to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, by impersonating a mere mortal to investigate what’s happening on Earth. He couldn’t have picked a more appropriate time or place than16th Century Spain, which was embroiled in the Spanish Inquisition. It was a time when the monarchy entrusted priests with the responsibility of maintaining Catholic orthodoxy and, in doing so, could easily be mistaken for emissaries of Satan. Together with a human companion, Tomas, Leonardo wanders through the countryside like Don Quixote, encountering all sorts of local gentry, nuns, knights and prostitutes, who are ripe to be plucked of their riches and virtue. Neither is Leonardo reluctant to delegate his authority to underlings willing to do his dirty work for him. Eventually, though, the devil finds he’s no match for the devious desires and unbridled greed of God’s earthly creations. Unlike most of Naschy’s horror films, The Devil Incarnate can stand on its own as a bawdy picaresque that doesn’t rely on makeup effects and gore for its appeal. Besides Naschy, it stars Sara Lezana, David Rocha, Ana Harpo, Blanca Estrada, and Irene Gutiérrez Caba. The Mondo Macabro edition, the first to be released on Blu-ray here, was created from a 4k scan of the original negative. It includes an introduction by Naschy; interviews with Rocha and sons Sergio and Bruno Molina; a tour of Naschy’s study and home; and commentary by Troy Howarth. The Mondo Macabro previews are almost worth the price of a rental, themselves.

The House That Dripped Blood: Blu-ray
House of Evil
Forty years after Amicus Productions quit producing genre films in England, it’s easy to confuse its output with that of Hammer Film Productions, which, by the end of the 1960s, was starting to lose market share. While they shared many of the same stars and themes, Amicus favored the anthology format. In this regard, The House That Dripped Blood fits neatly alongside Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Torture Garden, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and From Beyond the Grave. While some worked better than others on the big screen, the format does better on DVD/Blu-ray. The segments in The House That Dripped Blood not only share an overarching setting and other connective tissue, but they also were written by Robert Bloch (Psycho) or based upon his stories. The film is a collection of four short stories linked by the association of each one’s protagonist with the eponymous building, which existed for a time on a far corner of the Shepperton Studios lot. Their title and source are, “Method for Murder” (Fury #7, July 1962), in which a hack writer of horror stories (Denholm Elliott) moves into the house with his wife (Joanna Dunham), only to be haunted by visions of the psychopathic central character of his latest novel; “Waxworks” (Weird Tales #33, January 1939) features

a retired stockbroker (Peter Cushing) and his friend (Joss Ackland), who become fixated with a wax museum that appears to contain a model of a lady they both knew; “Sweets to the Sweet” (Weird Tales, Volume 39 #10, March 1947) with Nyree Dawn Porter playing a private teacher hired by a wealthy widower (Christopher Lee) to mind his strange young daughter (Chloe Franks); and “The Cloak” (Unknown, May 1939), in which a temperamental actor (Jon Pertwee) moves into the house, not far from where he’s shooting a vampire film, already occupied by a voluptuous vampire (Ingrid Pitt). The Shout Factory upgrade adds commentaries by film historian/author Troy Howarth and with director Peter Duffell and author Jonathan Rigby; a new interview with second assistant director Mike Higgins; the vintage featurette, “A-Rated Horror Film,” featuring Duffell and actors Geoffrey Bayldon, Ingrid Pitt and Chloe Franks; and original marketing material.

In addition to being the title of a 2017 Italian horror flick newly released into DVD, House of Evil practically defines the subgenre in which it exists, Evil Houses. In Marco Ristori and Luca Boni’s follow-up to Zombie Massacre 2: Reich of the Dead (2015), a young married couple is turning their back on city life by moving to a spacious mansion outside Florence. Eighty-five minutes doesn’t leave much room for exposition, so things begin to take a turn toward the weird almost immediately, with sightings of people who shouldn’t be standing in the field outside and the occasional ghost. Unbeknownst to the couple, their new home was the scene of a heinous crime and the perpetrator — or his spirit – doesn’t appear to have left the premises. As time passes, the husband, John (Andrew Harwood Mills), grows more and more distant from pregnant wife, Kate (Lucy Drive). Finally, when Kate’s best friend, Corrine (Désirée Giorgetti), and a seemingly innocuous local priest (David White), reveal the house’s sad history, House of Evil begins to resemble an all-too-obvious cross-fertilization of Rosemary’s Baby and The Amityville Horror. If it doesn’t break any new ground, at least it looks good and offers more than a few old-school chills.

Paradox: Blu-ray
When the teenage daughter of Hong Kong police negotiator Lee Chung-Chi (Louis Koo) goes missing in Thailand, her trail leads to an American gangster, Sacha (Chris Collins), who is operating an organ-smuggling ring in Bangkok. The 16-year-old went there to visit a friend after she informed Chung-Chi that she’s pregnant and Daddy Dearest had her boyfriend arrested. With his conscience weighing heavy on him, the cop travels to Thailand, where he’s confronted with a thick wall of political and governmental corruption. Fortunately, he’s met there by fellow Chinese cop Tsui Kit (Yue Wu) and his Thai partner, Tak (Tony Jaa), presumably the only two honest police officers in Southeast Asia. A series of clues not only leads Chung-Chi to the gangsters who hold his daughter’s fate in their hands — it hinges on the teetering health of a top city official — but he also finds himself in a position to expose the smuggling ring and take out Sasha. Any more information would qualify as major spoiler. The bottom line is that Paradox (a.k.a., “Kill Zone 3”) overflows with action – choreographed by Sammo Hung – and it’s more violent than usual. Wu and Jaa contribute as much of their considerable skills to the mix as Koo. If any of this sounds familiar, it might be because Paradox is the third installment in Wilson Yip’s “SPL” series, after Kill Zone and A Time for Consequences, or that it could describe a third sequel to Taken, with Koo sitting in for Liam Neeson. Yip also directed the “Ip Man” trilogy. The Blu-ray adds interviews and making-of material.

In Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto, an extremely versatile Cate Blanchett portrays 13 individual characters, recounting 12 artists’ manifestos in as many different disguises. In doing so, she recalls Anna Deavere Smith, in “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992”; Lily Tomlin, in “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe”; and Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, in which a half-dozen disparate characters embody a different aspect of Bob Dylan’s life. In the latter, Blanchett played Jude Quinn, an alias for the Dylan represented in D.A. Pennebaker in Don’t Look Back (1967). In retrospect, Manifest makes I’m Not There look like an episode of “Biography.” Originally a video installation, with all 13 sections playing simultaneously, on a loop, on 13 different screens, Manifesto was exhibited first at the Australian Centre of the Moving Image, in Blanchett’s hometown, Melbourne, alongside one of her two Oscars. It draws on the writings of Futurists, Dadaists, Fluxus artists, Suprematists, Situationists, Dogma 95 and other artist groups, as well as the musings of such individual artists as Claes Oldenburg, Yvonne Rainer, Kazimir Malevich, Andre Breton, Elaine Frances Sturtevant, Sol LeWitt and Jim Jarmusch. Blanchett performs these “new manifestos” as “a contemporary call to action,” while inhabiting the personae of a school teacher, puppeteer, newsreader, factory worker and homeless man, among others. On film, at least, it’s a tough slog. Extras include a conversation with Blanchett and Rosefeldt.

Went to Coney Island on a Mission From God … Be Back By Five: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Several years before Jon Cryer hit the jackpot playing Alan Harper in Two and a Half Men, he was still known primarily as the scene-stealing Duckie, in Howard Deutch and John Hughes’s Pretty in Pink (1986). And, truth be told, if it weren’t Cryer’s hilariously passionate dance to Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness,” he might only have been remembered for bit parts in sitcoms. Now, he’s as recognizable as anyone in Hollywood. In between those two career highlights, though, Cryer co-wrote and starred in Richard Schenkman’s intriguingly titled The Pompatus of Love and Went to Coney Island on a Mission From God … Be Back By Five, which was probably too long to fit on any exhibiter’s marquee. Today, both the independently made pictures probably would fall under the category of “bro’s will be bro’s,” but, in the mid- to late-1990s, they offered decent alternatives to big-budget studio films. “Went to Coney Island” spent two years on the festival circuit before being accorded a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theatrical release in 2000. It’s been given a fresh Blu-ray polish by MVD for its Rewind Collection, with a new introduction by the principles and vintage commentary, interviews, a making-of featurette, Schenkman’s short comedy, “The Producer,” and a mini-poster. The movie follows three childhood friends as they grow into men in one of New York City’s slow lanes. None is particularly successful, but Cryer’s character, at least, doesn’t have the added burden of an alcohol/gambling addiction and bipolar disorder. When Richie (Rafael Baez) mysteriously disappears, Daniel (Cryer) and Stan (Rick Stear) take it upon themselves to find him and report back to his mother. The invisible trail takes them to the Coney Island, which, in the dead of winter, more closely resembles a slum than an amusement park. Only a few attractions and restaurants are open, and they’re mostly populated by people who don’t want to be there. When they do find Richie, he’s been off his meds for some time and clearly off his rocker. Meanwhile, Stan’s bookie has run out of patience with him and is threatening bodily harm. Being an indie dramedy, “Went to Coney Island” doesn’t guarantee a happy ending. It does, however, deliver a well-acted story, with some clever dialogue and an unusual setting. Other recognizable contributors include Ione Skye, Frank Whaley, Dominic Chianese, Leslie Hendrix Judy Reyes and Peter Gerety.

Netflix: Dear White People: Season One
PBS: Nature: Sex, Lies and Butterflies
PBS: The Art of the Shine
Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Fourth Season
Nickelodeon: Bubble Guppies: Bubble Puppy’s Awesome Adventures
It isn’t likely that most viewers have been exposed to the Netflix series, “Dear White People,” let along Justin Simien’s feature film of the same title, upon which it’s based. It describes the day-to-day experiences of a diverse group of black students at a fictional Ivy League college that “isn’t as post-racial” as it considers itself to be. The Netflix series opens with a party thrown by the white, male staff of Winchester University’s satirical magazine, Pastiche. For some ungodly reason known only to themselves, the overindulged students think it might be fun to attend in blackface. Apparently, their intent was to protest the controversial campus radio show, “Dear White People,” hosted by black student Samantha White (Logan Browning), during which she points out the many racist occurrences on campus and how white people should respond to them. It also examines concerns about such timely issues as appropriation, assimilation, elitism and exiting various closets. Samantha is a bundle of contradictions, herself. They include having a white lover and being a rabble-rouser, when a little logic and patience might have worked better. She exasperates the turmoil caused by the party, which was banned by the African-American dean, but somehow managed to go on, nonetheless. After a popular black BMOC is held at gunpoint after another party, the overriding issue becomes police brutality. When the protests threaten the school’s tranquility, key benefactors threaten to pull $10 million from the minority-enrollment program. Sam must decide whether to continuing making waves or appease the school’s backers. “Dear White People” could have been a cliché-ridden mess, but it feels completely real and original. Season One episodes depict the growing furor through the eyes and personalities of other students. “Dear White People” plays out over 10 lively half-hour episodes. Season Two has already begun on the premium Netflix streaming service.

Watching PBS’ spectacularly photograpahed “Sex, Lies and Butterflies,” I was once again reminded how far we’ve come in the last couple of decades when it comes to learning about the wonders of science and nature. Take moths and butterflies, for example. Who can forget taking pop quizzes that, first, required students to spell “metamorphosis” correctly and, then, relate how it applies to the life cycle of butterflies and moths, naming each new stage of development. Given that most students already had a rudimentary knowledge of how such beautiful creatures come to be, it wouldn’t be the greatest challenge we’d faced in high school. Still, most of what we learned was gleaned from textbooks or collections of insects pinned to a board. Compare those memories to what’s revealed in a single 60-minute episode of “Nature,” whose producers were able to follow scientists on research missions around the world and eavesdrop on findings once impossible to imagine. In one visit to Africa, the scientists used hyper-sound and macro-filming techniques to study a concentration of moths being attacked by bats, guided to their prey by sonar. What they didn’t know going into the investigation was that the flying insects weren’t nearly as defenseless as we previously thought they were. Far from being sitting ducks, if you will, apparently they’re able to block the bat’s radar, using audio responses not unlike those employed by stealth weapons. Butterflies and moths have survived for more than 50 million years, and in a dazzling array of nearly 20,000 different species, so they must be doing something right. Also examined are their 360-degree vision, deceptive camouflage, chemical deterrents and ability to take advantage of high-altitude winds to travel from continent to continent in a relative flash. The Blu-ray presentation is splendid. The episode is narrated by Paul Giamatti.

Among the rites of passage that have pretty much disappeared over time are those related to boys and their grown-up shoes. Before Nike, Adidas and Puma began manufacturing footwear that would henceforth be deemed appropriate for all occasions, dads insisted that their sons learn how to spit-shine their shoes until they could pass muster in a lineup at boot camp. Some would even go so far as to purchase do-it-yourself kits, complete with buffing rags, brushes and daubers, cleaning soap, various creams and waxes, scraper, shoehorns, foot grips and polishes in several different colors … maybe, even, a couple of spare sets of laces. Unlike the stiff, black leather shoes we were forced to wear to special events, the ritual could be fun. The next step in a boy’s transition to manly footwear typically arrived with a surprise visit to a shoeshine parlor or “smoke shop,” where you sat on a chair high above the resident bootblacks and let a pro take care of business, with a snap of the buffing cloth and tap on the toe upon completion. A boy could learn a lot while waiting his turn for a shine – such institutions were replete with such adult toys as tobacco, cigars and condoms — but rarely in the company of his dad. At one time, it also was possible for hotel guests of both genders to leave their shoes outside their door at night and wake up to newly shined shows in the morning, next to the day’s newspaper. Today, it’s widely considered to be a lost and largely unnecessary discipline. Or, is it? The delightful PBS presentation, “The Art of the Shine,” argues against the total disappearance of shoeshine professionals, outside the occasional train station or casino lobby. It does so by visiting some of the men and women who still make their living from it. They include the brash street shiners of New York City, the masked shoe shine boys of La Paz, a survivor of the Sarajevo sniper war and old pros who now command $8 per shine in barber shops and boutique operations. Not surprisingly, perhaps, some of the men and women we meet gave up lucrative jobs and college degrees for the relative freedom of shining the shoes of a never-ending variety of customers.

Time Life/WEA has reached Season Four (1970–71) in its a la carte rollout of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” episodes. The regular cast now includes Henry Gibson, Arte Johnson, Alan Sues, Lily Tomlin, Johnny Brown, Dennis Allen, Ann Elder, Nancie Phillips, Barbara Sharma, Harvey Jason, Richard Dawson and Byron Gilliam. It opens with the inclusion of guest celebrity Art Carney and includes such goodies as a boxing match between Sammy Davis Jr. and Wilt Chamberlain; Goldie Hawn’s return, after winning an Oscar for Cactus Flower; Ernestine’s calls to Aristotle Onassis and Gore Vidal; and Don Rickles impersonating Arlene Francis, a then-famous game-show contestant that no one under 80 is likely to remember. Look for cameos by Joey Bishop, William F. Buckley, Truman Capote, Johnny Carson, Carol Channing, Tim Conway, Bing Crosby, Phyllis Diller, David Frost, Andy Griffith, Peter Lawford, Rich Little, Bob Newhart, Vincent Price, Carl Reiner, Debbie Reynolds, Rod Serling, Orson Welles and Flip Wilson. The package is comprised of seven DVDs, containing all 26 episodes, plus bonus interviews with Lily Tomlin and Arte Johnson. Sensitive souls should know that the term “politically correct” didn’t exist in 1970 and many of the jokes wouldn’t make the cut today.

The latest release of episodes from Nickelodeon’s “Bubble Guppies” puts a tight focus on “Bubble Puppy’s Awesome Adventures.” Voiced by Frank Welker (“Scoobie-Do!”), their “rambunctious pet” is Gil’s adopted pet puppy and best friend. He has orange and white fur, and a green collar with a yellow fish license. The third and fourth season episodes include “Temple of the Lost Puppy,” “Wizard of Oz-Tralia,” “The New Doghouse,” “Sheep Doggy” and “Bubble Kitty.”

The DVD Wrapup: In the Fade, Insult, In Between, Please Stand By, Kaleidoscope, Schlock, The Unwilling, Tremors, Capitalism and more

Thursday, May 3rd, 2018

In the Fade: Blu-ray

In Fatih Akin’s award-winning drama, In the Fade, we’re asked to share the grief of a woman whose husband and son are murdered in a racially motivated bombing so intense that police say they were burned beyond recognition. German-born Katja Sekerci (Diane Kruger) is married to a Turk – once convicted for selling hashish, not that it matters – whose business is in a part of Hamburg where the immigration community has been vulnerable to attacks by nationalist and anti-immigration groups. Just after she drops her son off at his dad’s office, Katja cautions a young woman against leaving her bicycle unlocked on the street. By the time she returns to pick them up, the bomb has already been detonated and the damage done.

The police promise to explore every possible avenue to identify the perpetrators, of course, and Katja provides their sketch artist with a remarkably accurate description of the woman she saw. Well before the investigators are willing to commit to a suspect, Katja assumes correctly that neo-Nazis were responsible. It wouldn’t be the first time Hitler’s bastard grandchildren used violence to terrorize guest workers. Thanks to the dead-on sketch, it doesn’t take police long to make arrests and hand prosecutors what they consider to be an airtight case against the woman and her husband.  In the film’s second of three chapters, however, their case springs a leak that allows a demonic defense attorney to introduce a slim shadow of doubt in the minds of the judicial tribunal. While the young neo-Nazi couple couldn’t even convince family members of their innocence, the judges bought into the defense’s claim that they were in Greece, enjoying the company of a member of that beleaguered country’s fascist party. A jury probably would have seen right through the ruse, but, in the judges’ minds, the prosecution hadn’t proven beyond a doubt that the defendants’ signatures on a ledger weren’t forged. It nullified fingerprint evidence, Katja’s memory and compelling testimony by the male defendant’s father. The outburst of joy shared by the defense team trips the same kind of wire inside of Katja that devastated the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman when O.J. Simpson celebrated his acquittal in open court.

In an interview contained in the DVD/Blu-ray’s bonus package, Akin articulates the dilemma faced by Katya and, by inference, all survivors of such man-made tragedies. What happens to a woman when her primary source of happiness and self-esteem – her husband and child – is stolen from her in little more than a heartbeat? For the rest of Katja’s life, when she looks at herself in mirror, she’ll see a victim in the place where a wife and mother once stood. Worse, perhaps, how can she strive to live a normal life, knowing that the people whose action triggered the greatest pain a wife and mother can endure won’t be penalized? Suffice to say that Akin provides Katya not only the opportunity to avenge the crime – and time to consider her options — but also the possibility of a successful appeal of the verdict. If Akin makes it clear that Katya can never be made whole again, he demands of viewers that they bear part of Katja’s burden, at least, by taking a stand on the option she chooses. Because we may be forced to make the same choice someday, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. Even though Kruger was named Best Actress at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and Akin was nominated for a Palme d’Or, neither made the cut in Academy Award competition. (In the Fade was named Best Foreign Language Picture by the HFPA.) It’s an extremely powerful movie, even if some of the narrative points could have been sharpened. The supplemental package includes “Behind In the Fade: The Story,” with Kruger and Akin, and separate interviews with the writer and director.

Aside: With each new mass murder of children in schools and terrorist attack in Europe, it becomes easier for jaded adults to compartmentalize the horror and write it off as something else we can’t control. The companies that manufacture the weapons that are purchased by teenage sociopaths risk nothing for such extreme manifestations of their greed and suicidal militants don’t concern themselves with opinion polls. The students who’ve been marching to call attention to their very real fears of being gunned down outside their lockers shouldn’t despair when our lawmakers do what they’ve always done when NRA lobbyists take them to lunch. Congress and state legislatures, but they shouldn’t despair if nothing comes of their efforts. Ballots can be as effective as bullets when it comes to getting some jobs done. As much as we empathize with the families of the victims, most of us will never feel the same pain or bear the same emotional burden as they do. That’s a good thing.

The Insult: Blu-ray
Like In the Fade, Ziad Doueiri’s provocative drama, The Insult, asks viewers to follow two proud men’s pursuit of justice to the point where the tether breaks and the court’s verdict is finally rendered meaningless. Set in today’s Beirut, where the scars of a long and bloody civil war are still visible, a Lebanese Christian and Palestinian refugee exchange insults that re-open scars that should’ve healed long ago. In the U.S., such verbal exchanges occur every day, especially in traffic jams and acrimonious political debates. Typically, even the worst insults are protected by the First Amendment and libel suits are rarely worth the cost it takes to file one. Here, auto mechanic Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) gets into a squabble with a construction foreman, Yasser (Kamel El Basha), over some water that dripped on him from Tony’s balcony. On closer examination, Yasser notices that the drainage pipe has been illegally installed and offers to fix it. Even though Tony slams the door in his face, Yasser tells his men to replace the gutter, as stipulated by law. Infuriated by the gesture, Tony smashes the plastic pipe to smithereens, causing Yasser to call him the Arabic equivalent of “fucking prick.”

At that precise moment, their argument ceases to be about an illegally installed drain pipe and who’s responsible for repairing it. Tony demands an apology for the insult, but Yasser isn’t about to relinquish the high ground. Worried about lost time and money, Yasser’s boss convinces him to apologize, however insincerely. Enflamed by a televised speech by the slain Christian leader Bachir Gemayel, Tony responds to Yasser’s advance by saying, “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out.” Yasser then punches the mechanic, cracking two of his ribs. This time, Yasser is arrested and charged with assault, which could prompt a small fortune in fines. Since Palestinians aren’t allowed to hold jobs that a Lebanese worker wouldn’t consider to be beneath him, Yasser could be ruined, whether he wins or loses. Frustrated, the judges pretty much throw up their hands, effectively absolving Yasser from any guilt. This doesn’t sit well with Tony, of course, and he accepts an offer from a highly placed lawyer, Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh), to appeal the case. His tactics include dredging up memories of 40-year-old atrocities and antagonisms barely suppressed since the civil war.

Because Yasser’s lawyer just so happens to be Wajdi’s daughter, Nadine Wehbe (Diamand Bou Abboud), it’s difficult not to sense how much of the disposition of the case is invested in their familial rivalry and potential for lost pride. As things heat up, the Palestinian and Christian spectators begin to hurl insults at each other that dwarf the “fucking prick” that set everything off. A reporter captures this on an iPhone, setting off fights in the streets of Beirut. Even the prime minister is rebuffed when tries to intervene. Doueiri and co-writer Joelle Touma, who collaborated on the underseen Lila Says, devise some interesting ways to pull this pot of hot water off the front burner before it boils over. Two of them involve out-of-court encounters between the two men, and they should come as a complete surprise to viewers. The Insult was Lebanon’s first-ever Oscar finalist in the Best Foreign Language Film category. The Cohen Media package adds the wide-ranging “Conversations From the Quad,” with Doueiri and Richard Pena.

In Between
Although I’m reluctant to compare Maysaloun Hamoud’s remarkable debut feature, In Between, to HBO’s “Girls” and “Sex and the City,” I will risk the guffaws if it means that some adventurous readers will take a chance on something new and very different. It follows three strong and independent-minded Palestinian women, who share an apartment in Tel Aviv, largely unburdened by the constraints of conservative parents and oppressive religious dictates. I say “largely” because one of them, Nour (Shaden Kanboura), who’s introduced early on as a graduate student from a small village, dutifully wears a hijab and is engaged to a fundamentalist who despairs of her roommates. The other two are equally fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, and dress in a way that makes them completely indistinguishable from their Jewish contemporaries. Ultra-chic lawyer Layla (Mouna Hawa) and lesbian disc jockey Salma (Sana Jammelieh), are part of a Palestinian cultural underground, which means they partake in drugs, alcohol and boogey until the cows come home. At first glance, it would appear as if Nour is there to spark debate and ridicule about her traditional ways and the juxtaposition between the roommates’ opposing views of propriety. The absence of such discord is as refreshing as it is surprising. It isn’t until Nour’s fiancé begins to show his true colors that the hypocrisies of religious life in modern Israel and Palestine are addressed.

They’re revealed, as well, when Layla’s seemingly perfect boyfriend refuses to introduce her to his conservative family. Salma makes the mistake of bringing home her new girlfriend, a doctor, for a dinner meant to introduce her to yet another clueless male suitor. When Salma’s Christian mother discovers them in a casual embrace, she brings it to the attention of her intolerant husband, who, after smacking her in the face, forbids his daughter to return to Tel Aviv. Her detention doesn’t last any longer than it takes for her parents to fall asleep. The region’s politics and discord are handled in the subtlest way possible. No one is required to pass through any roadblocks or be frisked by handsy Israeli soldiers. The nightclubs they frequent could be found anywhere outside the Middle East and there are no explosions or sounds of gunfire in the distance to remind us of the cold realities of life for Israelis and Palestinians in Tel Aviv. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot more of the lead actors, especially Hawa, whose exotic beauty and wild hairdos are almost unique in the Middle Eastern cinema. It will also be interesting to see if Hamoud will be able to make pictures that continue to surprise us with diverse characters and atypical situations. Bonus features include a behind-the-scenes featurette and short film, “Scent of the Morning,” by Hamoud.

Please Stand By
What do you think are the odds of a young autistic savant, with a “Star Trek” obsession, to find herself lost in a strange city and be rescued by a cop, who, like her, speaks fluent Klingon? Not great, I’ll admit, but of such unlikely coincidences are some delightfully offbeat dramedies born. Because autism isn’t one of those disorders that can be depicted in a one-size-fits-all performance, I’m willing to believe that Dakota Fanning did the research necessary to portray the “Star Trek” obsessive, Wendy, not only to her satisfaction but director Ben Lewin and writers: Michael Golamco, who adapted the screenplay for Please Stand By from his stage play. Patton Oswald’s too-brief take on the Klingon-literate cop is such a treat that it practically demands a sequel of its own. Wendy lives in an assisted-living facility in San Francisco, where the resident psychiatrist, Scottie (Toni Collette), has found a job that she can handle with few frustrations and convinced her to keep a notebook with all the tips she needs to get to and from work at the local Cinnabon, without crossing Market Street. Making eye-contact with other people is something that comes and goes, and she still gets temperamental when denied the ability to move back home with her sister, Audrey (Alice Eve), and her newborn daughter. As a lover of all things “Star Trek,” Wendy dedicates all her free time to winning a screenplay competition. To do so, she must get her epic 500-page script into the Paramount mailroom, no later than 5 p.m. four days hence. When a tantrum threatens to blow the deadline, Wendy decides to hop a bus to L.A. and hand-deliver it. Not surprisingly, the 400-mile journey presents more than a few miscues. Scottie and Audrey locate Wendy, thanks to the Klingon cop, but she comes close to blowing the deadline, anyway. If you think that it’s a foregone conclusion she’ll win the $100,000 prize, think again. Please Stand By won’t conform with everyone’s concept of a good time, but Fanning’s fans shouldn’t mind the contrivances and Oswald’s contribution is worth the wait.

Kaleidoscope: Blu-ray
There may be no more versatile actor in the world than Toby Jones, who, somehow, at 5-foot-5, stands out in any crowd of actors that surrounds him. Written and directed by his brother, Rupert, Kaleidoscope is a claustrophobic thriller that largely takes place within the head of a schizophrenic ex-con, Carl, who lives in a cramped apartment atop a crowded London housing estate. The less literally viewers take what happens to Carl in the first 15-20 minutes of the film, the more likely they’ll be to accept what happens to him thereafter. Carl has arranged an Internet date with a woman, Abby (Sinead Matthews), who is either out to steal his money or earn it on her back. With an accent that betrays her working-class roots, Abby is wonderfully exuberant and playful with Carl. It isn’t until she notices the surgeon’s saw below the sink and books never returned to the prison library that she begins to worry. So, do we. After Abby is locked in the bathroom and Carl returns from a quick trip outdoors, the apartment looks as if it were torn apart by burglars searching for an elusive prize or a damsel in extreme distress. Very soon, Carl’s mother, Aileen (Anne Reid) appears almost out of thin air, making him very nervous and defensive. Someone claiming to be Abby’s husband also knocks on the door of the apartment. Meanwhile, Carl is shown washing clothes that we’ve seen on Abby and carrying a large duffel bag around the estate. Clearly, screenwriter/director Jones wants us to believe actor Jones has committed a heinous crime and Aileen is interrupting his plans to dispose of the evidence. On closer investigation, though, nothing is quite what it seems to be inside the apartment or Carl’s head. Fortunately, the three central performances are good enough to warrant instant replays and repeat viewings. It pays to watch the bonus interviews and making-of featurette.

The Unwilling: Blu-ray
This nifty little horror/thriller (81 minutes) has been making the rounds of specialty festivals since 2016, probably in search of a distributor that knows how to market genre-straddlers and cares enough about its products to spend some money on them. Finally, however, The Unwilling was released straight-to-DVD/Blu-ray. There’s nothing wrong with Jonathan Heap’s cast, which includes Lance Henriksen, co-writer David Lipper, Dina Meyer, Jake Thomas, Robert Rusler, Bree Williamson, Austin Highsmith and Levy Tran. Henriksen’s name on the packaging, alone, should be enough to boost sales and downloads during the opening week. He plays the evil patriarch of a family whose members suffer from such things as OCD, narcissism, drug addiction and the great equalizer, greed. After the old man dies, they gather at his residence for the reading of the will. Shortly after their arrival, a strange antique box is delivered to the house and the son, David (Lipper), places it on the coffee table. David recalls seeing the chest in his father’s office as a child, but he doesn’t know what it contains. Six long needles protrude from the box, which appears to have a mind of its own. When the family members prick their fingers on them, a wish is granted. One seeks wealth and is rewarded with a gold bar that could be used in an expensive game of hot potato. Another one desires drugs to feed his habit and they kill him. Meanwhile, the house itself appears to be haunted by apparitions and other things that go bump in the night. Not all the loose ends are tied by the time the end credits begin to roll, but viewers shouldn’t be disappointed by the special effects and highly efficient acting. The package adds several interviews with cast and crew.

Once Upon a Time: Blu-ray
Epic Chinese fantasies have become an exportable product in the same way that American comic-book adventures now are one of this country’s most profitable commodities. They do very well in the movie-hungry PRC and are attracting niche audiences here theatrically and on DVD/Blu-ray. If Chinese authorities really wanted to retaliate against President Trump’s call for punitive tariffs on its products, they could add a fee to the sale of tickets to see Hollywood blockbusters there. MPAA and studio executives would scream bloody murder, of course, as would representatives of the Chinese exhibition industry. It’s taken years of tough negotiations just to get Chinese officials to raise the quota of foreign-made movies to 34. What’s sexier … a punitive tariff on Chinese steel and Mardi Gras beads or a retaliatory strike summer popcorn movies? Talks were going smoothly until Trump got a bug up his ass one morning and launched an ill-considered tweet storm. If talks fail, the studios could round up its A-listers and put on a charm campaign modeled after the NRA. Because cinematic exports from China are currently so marginal, any tit-for-tat tax would be meaningless. Such a scenario came to mind after watching Once Upon a Time, a big-budget CGI fantasy that attracted large crowds at Chinese theaters and is indicative of the progress being made in competing with American pictures. Such impressively staged epics aren’t the only kinds of movies that have improved over the last decade, or so. So, too, have historical and crime dramas made by filmmakers once forced to work outside the PRC or in Hong Kong. Censorship has limited the import and production of romances that are deemed to risqué for Chinese audiences. While the 50 Shades trilogy has done boffo business overseas and along the Pacific Rim, it’s been banned from exhibition in China and Malaysia. That hasn’t prevented pirates from circulating bootlegged copies, of course, and profiting from them.

All of that speculation is a roundabout way of delaying my comments on Once Upon a Time, a film that risks sensory overload and requires a Wikipedia scorecard to keep the characters straight. It is based on Qi Tang’s best-selling fantasy novel, “Three Lives Three Worlds, Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms,” which has already inspired a 58-episode maxi-series, “Eternal Love,” and an English translation titled “To the Sky Kingdom.” Being unfamiliar with the source material, it’s difficult for me to say with any certainty if I’ve grasped all the subtleties of the story. All I needed to know, really, is that it is the story of Bai Qian (Yifei Liu), a goddess and monarch from the Heavenly Realms, who, in her first life, was the disciple of the God of War, Mo Yuan (Yang Yang). After a devastating conflict, Mo Yuan’s soul was destroyed while sealing the ghost lord Qing Cang (Yikuan Yan). Seventy thousand years later, while Bai Qian is trying to prevent the Demon Lord from breaking free, she is sent to the mortal realm to undergo a trial to become a High Goddess. There, she meets Ye Hua (Mark Chao), with whom she falls in love and eventually marries. However, their love ends tragically. Three-hundred years later, the two star-crossed lovers meet again as deities, but all her memories have been erased. By the way, crown prince Ye Hua is 90,000 years younger than Bai Qian. That’s only a rough outline of what happens during the 109-minute course of Zhao Xiaoding and Anthony LaMolinara’s effects-laden movie. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette. Apparently, it was almost entirely made inside a studio where the color presentation, wire work and green-screen activity were closely monitored and tightly controlled.

Schlock: Blu-ray
Actors in gorilla costumes have been entertaining moviegoers ever since the 1918 silent film, Tarzan of the Apes. Even as the suits have become more realistic, knowing that there’s a human being inside impacts our enjoyment of a movie, TV show or comedy sketch. (David Warner’s impersonations in Karel Reisz’ Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment are still my favorite.) Adding a cigar, sunglasses or hat to the mix – as Ernie Kovacs did in his Nairobi Trio skits — only makes the gorillas funnier. In Schlock, John Landis’ 1973 debut as writer/director, he also donned a gorilla suit to play the title character, a long-slumbering “banana monster” who awakens after spending 20 million years in a cave below the surface of the San Fernando Valley. The beast can’t seem to decide if he wants to be cute and cuddly or a menace to humanity. With no more reason to exist than Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952), Schlock benefits greatly from Landis’ appreciation of timeless Hollywood genre clichés and B-movie tropes. After escaping from his hole in the ground below modern-day Agoura, Schlock falls in love with a blind teenager who thinks he’s a large dog. When she regains her sight and realizes her mistake, the girl’s horror sparks a massacre. He must be stopped. Not only did the personally-financed no-budget flick introduce Landis to Hollywood, but it also gave makeup artist Rick Baker his first big break. It didn’t take long for Landis to be handed the reins to Animal House and The Blues Brothers, and Baker would begin contributing to such blockbusters as The Exorcist, King Kong and Star Wars. Schlock has just been released on a limited-edition Blu-ray by the German distributor, Turbine Media Group, through its Facebook page. It offers several entertaining featurettes, including a lengthy dialogue with Landis and some fellow film nerds, in which he covers his early career in Hollywood and Europe, making Spaghetti Westerns.

Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell
For those of you who’ve grown weary of keeping score at home, Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell is the sixth entry in a franchise that began in 1990 and has also spawned a couple of TV series and several video games. As far as I can tell, the common denominators are star Michael Gross, as Burt/Hiram Gummer, and his invertebrate nemeses, the Graboids. For 25 years, Gummer has been the only thing standing between the subterranean worm-like creatures and Armageddon, or something closely resembling the end of the world. Here, Burt and his son, Travis Welker (Jamie Kennedy), find themselves up to their ears in Graboids and Ass-Blasters, when they head to Canada to investigate a series of deadly attacks. Arriving at a remote research facility on the frozen Arctic tundra, Burt begins to suspect that Graboids are secretly being weaponized. Before he can prove his theory, however, he is sidelined by Graboid venom. With just 48 hours to live, the only hope is to create an antidote from fresh venom. To do that, someone will have to figure out how to milk a worm. Yes, Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell is every bit as silly and stupid as it sounds. If one is in the mood for such brain-numbing entertainment, however, it probably will do the trick. The bonus material adds “The Making of Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell,” “Anatomy of a Scene” and “Inside Chang’s Market.”

For his first theatrical feature, Follower, Ryan Justice has elected to make a found-footage “thriller” about the dangers of living one’s life in the crowded fast lanes of social media. For no good reason that I can discern, Brooke and Caleb (Amanda Delaney, Justin Maina) are known far and wide for her work as a yoga and lifestyle guru, and his reputation as a celebrity boyfriend. As such, they intend to webcast their celebration of a special anniversary, which they’ve arranged to take place on a camping trip in the backwoods of Florida. The problem is, of course, that neither of them account for the possibility that they will be stalked by two of their followers, hence the title. Conveniently, Nick and Jake (Sean Michael Gloria, Nishant Gogna) are two aspiring filmmakers intent on making a documentary on how easy it is to track someone down through social media … and kill them. Pretty easy, I’d say. Another problem arises when the two couples are confronted by a group of swamping-dwelling cultists, wearing white togas and wielding mad cutlery. The cautionary tale about social-media surveillance doesn’t kick in until well after most viewers will have stopped watching.

Maya the Bee 2: The Honey Games: Blu-ray
With the world’s honey-bee population in danger of being snuffed out, it’s comforting to know that one century-long hive is thriving and shows no sign of being extinguished. The roots of Maya the Bee 2: The Honey Games extend all the way back to 1912, when Waldemar Bonsels’ 200-page book, “The Adventures of Maya the Bee” was published in Germany. It has since been re-printed in many other languages and revised to tone down the author’s more militaristic undertones. The first adaptation into film was German director Wolfram Junghans’ 1924 silent feature – it “starred” real insects — which was restored in 2005. In 1975, a 52-episode anime series aired on Japanese television and around the world. It wasn’t shown on American television until 1990, when it joined the Nickelodeon lineup. A second series was commissioned 1979, but it didn’t enjoy the same positive response as the original.  In 2012, Studio 100 Animation produced 78 episodes of 13 minutes in length. It was shown here on Netflix, until a parent noticed the outline of a penis etched on a log in the background of a scene and it was canceled. A 2014 film, rendered in 3D CGI animation, was based upon the 2012 series. There’s also been an opera, puppet musical, stage musical and video games based on “Maya the Honey Bee.”  Shout Factory’s straight-to-DVD/Blu-ray Maya the Bee 2: The Honey Games – co-directed by Noel Cleary, Sergio Delfino and Alexs Stadermann – borrows elements of The Hunger Games, after an overenthusiastic Maya accidentally embarrasses the Empress of Buzztropolis. Maya and Willy are required to accept the benefits of teamwork, if they’re going to save the hide. The package adds the featurette, “The Making of Maya The Bee 2: The Honey Games.”

Van Wilder: Unrated Version: Blu-ray
In its wisdom, Lionsgate has decided to re-release its rated/unrated Blu-ray edition of National Lampoon’s Van Wilder (a.k.a., “Van Wilder: Party Liaison”), a comedy that could be dismissed as sophomoric if the protagonist wasn’t a seventh-year student, who has no plans to graduate. At this point in his college career, Wilder (Ryan Reynolds) is content to be a full-service party planner, pimp, facilitator and all-around ne’er-do-well. That is, until his father learns that his tuition money is being flushed down the toilet and he decides to turn off the tap. Moreover, his behavior is embarrassing the school’s administration and a cute cub reporter at the school’s paper (Tara Reid) has been assigned an expose on how such a thing is possible. The simple answer would be: anyone who can afford to pay tuition can stay in school for has long as he or she maintains a certain grade average or continues to show forward momentum. If a lack of interest in claiming adulthood were all it takes to warrant an investigation, half of the nation’s graduate students and most our professional athletes would be eligible for the cover of Time magazine. Here, it’s simply a ruse to endear Wilder to the reporter, whose boyfriend is a complete dick. If Van Wilder is guaranteed to elicit laughter from each incoming class of college freshman, all most adults will be left with are some bulldog-testicle sight gags and two more minutes of risqué humor in the unrated version. They presumably include several extended flashes of coed boobs and poo-poo gags. While Reynolds’ career has survived Van WilderDeadpool 2 opens in a couple of weeks — poor Tara Reid, who’s very cute here, has had to settle for starring roles in the Sharknado series.

Capitalism: A Six-Part Series
Marx Reloaded
PBS: Spying on the Royals
Smithsonian: Civil War 360
One of the great fallacies of American life is a top-down confusion of the terms “democracy” and “capitalism.” Schools have done a pretty good job explaining how our democracy works and differs from other forms of government. What is overlooked is the role capitalism has played in the shaping of our democracy and maintenance of the status quo, from an early acceptance of slavery and discrimination against women and minorities, to the bailout of the banks after the 2008 Depression and current return to laissez-faire principles … or, lack thereof. From French television, “Capitalism: A Six-Part Series” delivers a college-level exploration of how the economies of the world’s most stable democracies work and how vulnerable they are to the whims … not of capitalism, but capitalists. Ilan Ziv’s documentary is neither an indictment of capitalism, nor an endorsement of communism or socialism. It traces the evolution of capitalism from the great thinkers who influenced Adam Smith, through the academics who interpreted “The Wealth of Nations” for future generations, and on to bankers who brought the world to its knees in 2008. What emerges most clearly, however, is the sad reality that capitalism couldn’t have survived and flourished without colonialism, slavery, greed, fear and corruption to prop it up. A bit more time devoted to the allure and failures of communism might have been useful, but the time devoted to a closer reading of Karl Marx’s theories is extremely useful. The 2014, pre-Trump documentary took two years to produce. It was filmed in 22 countries and features interviews with 21 of the world’s leading economists, historians, sociologists and political scientists. They include Milton Friedman, Noam Chomsky, James Kenneth Galbraith, Kari Polanyi Levitt, Lord Robert Skidelsky, Dr. Kwame Osei and Dr. Wang Ming. As someone who resisted taking any economics courses in colleges, I found “Capitalism” to be a surprisingly accessible and frequently eye-opening experience.

Also from Icarus Films, Marx Reloaded is a 2011 German documentary short, written and directed by the British writer and theorist Jason Barker, which appeared on several European networks and symposiums. It features interviews with several well-known philosophers and economists, who manage to put a human face on a figure known principally for his great beard and utopian vision. In fact, his critique of capitalism has stood the test of time and may be as relevant today as it has ever been. If that sounds ridiculous, especially in light of the collapse of Soviet-style communism in Europe and rise of market-based communism in China, it’s worth a second listen. In the United States, workers who rejected their unions now are forced to kowtow to the greed of plant owners whose roots in American soil have proven to be very shallow, while also having to listen to pundits extol the virtues of a robotic society. There’s certainly no dismissing Marx’s observations of commodity fetishism. At 53 lively minutes, “Marx Reloaded” asks questions that are becoming increasingly relevant in a world of haves and have nots. It arrives with Bob Godfrey’s short animated film, “Marx for Beginners,” adapted from a graphic novel by Mexican cartoonist Ruis.

Perhaps, because of Wallis Simpson’s American background, the abdication of King Edward VIII has been looked upon as an affair of the heart, pure and simple. We were more willing to forgive the couple for their political indiscretions before and after World War II, because they were considered harmless and fun to observe in social settings. They survived nicely for the next 25 years, largely on the fruits of the British Empire and the kindness of peers. The PBS presentation, “Spying on the Royals,” examines their story stripped of romanticism and schmaltz. Classified documents that have gone unseen for more than 70 years bring to light the secret story of the stunning events of 1936, detailing what could have devolved into the most controversial espionage operation in British history. As it is, the spying, wire-tapping and cooperation between intelligence agencies – in Britain, throughout Europe and the U.S. – went undiscovered by the press for decades. If the would-be monarch had, in fact, favored Adolph Hitler over the leaders of other European nations, it’s possible that German troops might have been allowed to invade England without a struggle. Edward might have been retained as figurehead leader of the country and rubber stamp for Nazi policies. That’s the worst-case scenario, anyway. As it was, the prince and duchess were uprooted from their live of luxury in Portugal – officially neutral, but a haven for fascists – and sent to the Bahamas to count coconuts and monitor the comings and goings of U-boats.

Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” was successful, in part, because it employed a bit of artistic chicanery, zooming and panning across still images of Mathew Brady’s photographs; having celebrities with lovely voices read excerpts from letters, diaries and journals written by soldiers, officers, politicians and spouses; and backing them up with music that triggered emotional responses from viewers. In the Smithsonian Channel’s similarly fascinating, if less riveting, “Civil War 360,” fresh insights into the conflagration are provided through the displays of historical objects, memorabilia and artifacts in the collections of the Smithsonian museums. Some have been put on display, while others have been deemed too fragile for exhibition. The three-part series explores famous and little-known aspects of the Civil War, from the perspectives of the Union, the Confederacy and the millions of enslaved people struggling for freedom. It is hosted by Ashley Judd, Trace Adkins, and Dennis Haysbert, all of whom had ancestors greatly affected by the war.

The DVD Wrapup: Hostiles, Moon Child, Violent Life, Backstabbing, Strings, Grease at 40, Joe, Ringo and more

Thursday, April 26th, 2018

Hostiles: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
Writer-director-actor Scott Cooper’s behind-the-camera career began auspiciously, in with the award-winning drama Crazy Heart in 2009. Jeff Bridges won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as a broken-down country-music singer in dire need of redemption, while Ryan Bingham and T-Bone Burnett’s “The Weary Kind” was awarded Best Original Song and Maggie Gyllenhaal was nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category. At the Independent Spirits’ beach party, Crazy Heart was named Best First Feature; Bridges won Best Actor; and Cooper was nominated for Best First Screenplay. It should have been a tougher act to follow, but Out of the Furnace (2013) and Black Mass (2015) proved his freshman success was no fluke. Based on a manuscript by Donald E. Stewart (The Hunt for Red October), who died in 1999, Hostiles presented Cooper with a larger-than-life challenge, not only because it’s a traditional widescreen Western shot almost entirely outdoors, but also because the independently produced and distributed picture was targeted from the get-go for awards consideration. We know that because it was put into limited release on December 22 and forced to compete for the eyes of critics, awards committees and big-city audiences during the year’s busiest week and against studio-financed marketing campaigns. It’s difficult to argue that Hostiles was snubbed by the Academy, but outstanding performances by Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike deserved more consideration than they got, as did cinematographer Masanobu “Masa” Takayanagi (The Grey). Cooper took full advantage of the most beautiful and rugged locations northern New Mexico and Arizona have to offer, including locations near Georgia O’Keefe’s Ghost Ranch. While good, old-fashioned American bigotry and genocide are on full display in Hostiles, Cooper’s balanced depictions of Native American customs, language, culture and, yes, cruelty to settlers and other tribes were lauded by the National Congress of American Indians for the film’s “authentic representation of native peoples.”

The picture opens with the slaughter of a family of homesteaders by a rogue band of Comanches. Pike’s Rosalee Quaid barely survives the attack, but she is deeply scarred by the loss of her husband and children. At approximately the same time, a short distance away, Army Captain Joseph J. Blocker and his men have captured an Apache family that escaped from detention at Fort Berringer, New Mexico. They resist the temptation to beat or hang the head of the family, which was less a threat to their safety than a stray coyote or angry prairie dog. Upon his return to the fort, Blocker is ordered – very much against his will — to escort the desperately ill Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to their tribal lands in Montana. Along the way north, Blocker’s platoon chances upon the Quaid’s burned-out cabin, where they find Rosalee grasping the dead body of an infant. Yellow Hawk and his son, Black Hawk (Adam Beach) volunteers to help Blocker track down the renegade Comanches, but he refuses the offer. His intransigence will soon cost him the life of one of his trusted soldiers and the use of another. When they reach Fort Winslow, Colorado, the camp commander asks Blocker to escort a disgraced sergeant (Ben Foster) to a fort further north, where he’ll be court-martialed and hanged for actions no longer approved by the army. Both men participated in the slaughter at Wounded Knee and other atrocities, so the sergeant begs for mercy and frontier justice. No dice. In addition to having to escort the Indians and angry captive north, the widow Quaid has decided to accompany Blocker all the way to Montana.

As if to demonstrate the Comanches don’t have a monopoly on shameless behavior, a ragtag group of miners kidnap Rosalee and Black Hawk’s wife, for the sole purpose of beating and raping them whenever the mood strikes. With Yellow Tail’s help, Blocker rescues the women, but not before they’re traumatized emotionally. Cutting to the narrative chase, Hostiles then provides Blocker and Yellow Hawk – who’s committed his own fair share of war crimes – to weigh their past actions, seek forgiveness for their sins and, for lack of a better term, bury the hatchet between them. They know they’ve reached the end of a bloody era and the fate of the West rested in the hands not of warriors, but lawyers, robber barons and thieves. Hostiles is a long picture and viewers looking for non-stop action may find their patience tested by the many contemplative parts that fans of revisionist Westerners will like better. When Cooper and Takayanag make the time to linger on the magnificent western landscapes, the beauty and goodness of nature overwhelm the follies of men. The final scenes, which include a bloody skirmish at a sacred burial ground, will leave audiences dizzy with mixed emotions. Viewers with 4K UHD units will especially appreciate Takayanag’s wide-screen cinematography, as Hostiles looks as if it were chosen by advocates of the format to showcase its benefits. The lengthy making-of featurette is well worth perusing, as well.

Moon Child: Blu-ray
Loosely inspired by a novel written by British occultist Aleister Crowley in 1917, Moon Child was invited to compete for the Palme d’Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, but it pretty much disappeared immediately thereafter. It isn’t that difficult to see why it could find distribution, really. Thirty years later, though, it’s easy to see how an adventurous distributor, such as Cult Epics, might take a chance on Agusti Villaronga’s mystical fantasy on Blu-ray. (A version duped from a European VHS tape was passed around a few years ago, but it was a mess.) Moon Focus’ focus is on 12-year-old David (Enrique Saldana), an orphan who’s been placed in a research facility for kids with extraordinary mental powers. There’s no reason to think that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, creators of the X-Men comic books, were inspired by Crowley’s book, but certain parallels can be drawn between the facility here and Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in X-Men. David has reason to believe that he’s the Child of the Moon, whose arrival has long been prophesized by shamans gathered at a central African watering hole. They agree that the boy will be of a pale-white complexion, possibly an albino, and his arrival will be telegraphed by something resembling a fire storm emanating from the full moon. The despotic administrators of the school have been made aware of the same prophesy and, as occultists, are anxious to make it work to their benefit.

They orchestrate the forced impregnation of a dimwitted female student (Lisa Gerrard) by the grandson (David Sust) of the expatriate mystic who delivered the prophesy to them. David’s ESP causes him to anticipate just such a scheme, which requires the couple to have sex on a table positioned under a hole in the ceiling, directly in line with the moon’s path. After Georgina and Edgar seal the deal, David convinces them to escape with him to Africa, where the shamans will either recognize him as the Moon Child or the baby being carried by the increasingly weak Georgina. Hoping to short-circuit David’s plan, the administrators ask a sympathetic teacher, Victoria (Maribel Martin), to follow the trio’s trail, by plane, as they make their way from oasis to oasis through the Sahara Desert. It isn’t likely that Georgina will ever be strong enough to return to the institute, but Victoria devises a plan to make the plane work in David’s favor and satisfy the shamans. At two hours, Moon Child probably could have benefitted from more time spent observing the students’ telekinetic powers and determining how they could be exploited by the administrators. Even so, Villaronga (In a Glass Cage) capably establishes a tone of sinister intent and mystery, while also taking advantage of some extraordinary African settings and music by the ethereal Australian band, Dead Can Dance. The Blu-ray has been remastered from original 35mm elements and adds a new interview with Villaronga, a lobby-cards gallery and isolated score by Dead Can Dance.

A Violent Life
Among the world’s storied organized-crime organizations, the Corsican mob has claimed a niche disproportionate to its numbers and the size of the island that its members call home. You could trace the history of today’s crime families back to Louis and Lucien Franchi, twin protagonists of Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 novella, “The Corsican Brothers,” but the book’s vendettas, greed and lusting for power probably didn’t originate in the authors imaginations. Some grudges have kept families on Corsica and Sicily feuding – like our Hatfields and McCoys –for much longer than 180 years. Besides their fondness for evening scores, Corsican criminals have gained a reputation for making sure that they get a cut of whatever illegal commerce passes through the island’s ports and markets, and their willingness to cut deals with crime families from the European mainland, Africa and the Middle East. Their notoriety has inspired filmmakers to use Corsican criminals in dozens of movies and TV mini-series, including MHz Choice’s “Mafiosa,” Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, Peter R. Hunt’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, the Japanese anime series, Noir, and Thierry de Perett’s Apaches. In some of them, Corsican assassins travel far and wide to perform onerous tasks for crime families of many different nationalities. In A Violent Life, Corsican native De Perett revisits the island’s violent nationalistic and separatist struggles of the 1990s. Jean Michelangeli plays Stéphane, an 18-year-old student who’s busted after agreeing to carry a bag loaded with weapons from the mainland on a ferry. During his incarceration in Bastia, Stéphane is radicalized by members of a nationalist splinter group, hoping to provide an alternative to the government’s commercial ambitions for the island, an established separatist organization and the traditional interests of organized crime. Stéphane isn’t accorded a position of authority within the fledgling nationalist group, but he gets caught up in the maelstrom triggered by the assassination of one of it leaders, during a wedding reception. Another fiery assassination, this time of a relative, demands of Stéphane that he remain in hiding – possibly forever – or stand up for his convictions, by returning to his home town for the funeral. I initially expected A Violent Life to more closely resemble Gomorrah or The Mafia Kills Only in Summer, but, like Corsica, itself, it is more French than Italian, favoring narrative over action. It’s well made, however, and more than a little bit suspenseful. I recommend watching it before sampling the more contemporary Apaches.

Last Seen in Idaho
Typically, when an actor plays the protagonist in a thriller they wrote and was directed by a spouse, the result is a movie that errs on the side of promoting the character’s virtues and dialing up the threats from less-than-credible villains on the way to a contrived ending. I expected as much from Last Seen in Idaho, which debuted on DVD this week and promised nothing more than an interesting title. Although there’s nothing particularly new here, Eric Colley’s no-frills direction nicely complements Hallie Shepherd’s taut script, providing ample room for suspense. Shepherd plays a financially strapped young woman, Summer, who works in an automotive garage frequented by shadowy characters. One night, she witnesses a murder and flees the scene, carrying a cellphone containing video evidence of the crime with her. Summer doesn’t get very far before she’s involved in a fiery crash that should have killed her, but leaves her in coma, absent any memories of the night’s events and the whereabouts of the phone. Not long after she awakens, she starts having shocking premonitions of a kidnapping and murder, both involving her future safety. And, yes, some of them are realized. Casper Van Dien, Wes Ramsey and Shawn Christian are among the men – some posing as undercover cops and lovers – who present threats to the safety of Summer and her ditzy sister, Trina (Alexis Monnie). The DVD adds a half-hour making-of feature, a shorter backgrounder on the action sequences and a blooper reel.

Backstabbing for Beginners: Blu-ray
If there’s one thing upon which most cynical Americans agree, it’s that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even if they’ve never heard of British politician Lord Acton, what he said in 1887 still rings true. What voters can’t seem to agree upon is whether it’s safer to retain the crook you know or elect someone new, whose inevitable corruption might work in your favor. Newspaper columnist Mike Royko condensed Acton’s observation to explain how things have always worked in Chicago. He proposed that Chicago’s official motto, Urbus en Horto (“City in a Garden”) be changed to Ubi Est Mea (“Where’s Mine?”). Unfortunately, both sentiments apply directly to America’s post-World War II foreign policy, which appears to be based on a belief that the easiest way to assure the support of foreign leaders is to allow them to “wet their beaks” by siphoning off a generous percentage of the money we send them in aid packages. If a tinhorn despot decides to steal more than we feel is due him – or threatens to shift allegiances to someone willing to raise the ante – it’s been easy enough to install someone who would play ball. Or, as happened in Cuba, politicized insurgents would find ways of dealing with blatant corruption on their own terms. We all know how that turned out.

Per Fly’s riveting diplomatic procedural Backstabbing for Beginners, which debuts on Blu-ray/DVD and DirecTV this week, describes how corporations and political leaders around the world wet their beaks in the UN’s humanitarian Oil-for-Food program when sanctions were imposed on Iraq after the first Mideast war. Cynical Americans assumed that Operation Desert Storm was intended less to contain Saddam Hussein’s power grab than to maintain the flow of moderately priced oil from the region to the U.S. and its allies. Reinstalling the royal Kuwaiti family and protecting Saudi Arabia’s rulers was the easiest way to do that, short of a full-blown invasion of Iraq. After he left the Defense Department, where he oversaw that war, Dick Cheney became Chairman and CEO of Halliburton Company, which profited mightily from business done with Iraq in the wake of Desert Storm. As Vice President to George W. Bush, Cheney made sure Halliburton was free to make its beak even wetter by controlling the supply lines to allied forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. None of this was lost on participants in Oil-for-Food, who found ways to rig the allocation of oil exports, send expired pharmaceuticals to Iraqi hospitals and overcharge for all imported products. Hussein not only received his cut, but he made sure that aid packages were divvied unevenly between Shiites and Sunnis, and different ethnic populations within his borders. In a nutshell, that’s what aspiring diplomat Michael Soussan (Theo James) discovers after being hired as an assistant to Pasha (Ben Kingsley), a seasoned diplomat and Michael’s boss at the UN.

It doesn’t take Michael long to smell a rat in the Oil-for-Food program or to find the nest of vermin directly under the nose of Pasha’s boss, Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Pasha should have known better than to hire an idealistic young diplomat whose father was killed in a terrorist bombing in Lebanon, but he lets hubris get in the way of pragmatism. He believes that he can convince Michael of the efficacy of compromising the Oil-for-Food program to benefit of everyone, including, eventually, the people who needed the food. If, he reasoned, the graft was eliminated, no one at the UN, Pentagon, Baghdad or on Wall Street would have any reason to keep it active. And, Pasha was probably right. On the other hand, the corruption was so onerous to other diplomats – including Jackie Bisset’s Christina Dupre – that they threaten to risk toppling the house of cards to advance reform and protect the Kurdish population, upon whose population Hussein had unleashed toxic gases. Michael is confronted with so much conflicting information that he nearly gives up trying to get to the bottom of things. When Pasha’s chief rival is assassinated, however, he decides to spill the beans to the Wall Street Journal, whose reporters perform the legwork necessary to expose the scheme. When one spigot is shut down, however, another is allowed to flow unchecked. Today, billions of dollars in aid money continue to disappear into Swiss and Panamanian back accounts. Although Backstabbing for Beginners is a tad dry and talky, it should appeal to fans of Syriana and The Constant Gardener. It includes the featurette, “The Truth Behind Backstabbing for Beginners.”

The Final Year
It’s difficult to imagine any liberal Democrat being able to sit through Greg Barker’s fly-on-the-wall documentary, The Final Year, without shedding a tear, or two, in anticipation of its inevitable ending. The film revolves around President Obama’s foreign policy team as they travel the world, attempting to solidify and “lock in” policies they believe will define their legacy, promote diplomacy over large-scale military actions and fundamentally alter how the U.S. government confronts questions of war and peace. The key players include such seasoned diplomats and dedicated politicians as Secretary of State John Kerry, U.N. ambassador Samantha Power, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes and national security adviser Susan Rice, with their boss appearing every so often to deliver pep talks and words of wisdom to young and old, alike. Even though the GOP presidential primaries have begun to swing in the direction of a Trumpian juggernaut, no one is ready to acknowledge what the Republican candidate’s team already knows: Hillary Clinton is vulnerable in traditionally Democrat strongholds, where voters have lost faith in their leaders and are willing to gamble on a man who openly flaunts their core beliefs. What the people we meet here can’t possibly know, even when it becomes clear that Trump has won the electoral college, is how much of their work in Obama’s name will be nullified in the coming months. Neither could anyone in Washington have imagined how truly inept Trump’s revolving-door replacements would prove to be, especially by comparison to the diplomacy on display here. The Final Year doesn’t reveal any greater truths than that, however.

War of the Planets
If this truly silly Italian sci-fi drama had been released in the early 1950s, instead of 1977, it might be remembered as a reasonably prescient precursor to Star Wars, “Star Trek,” 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barbarella and John Carpenter’s wonderfully do-it-yourself space-comedy, Dark Star. As it is, however, War of the Planets incorporates ideas from all these pictures – including Spock’s ears, Roddenberry-inspired uniforms and insignias – without adding anything more intriguing than a zombie twist at the end. How this public-domain extravaganza has managed to avoid being lampooned on “MST3K” is anyone’s guess. Distributed by Cheezy Flicks Entertainment, War of the Planets (a.k.a., “Cosmos: War of the Planets,” “Cosmo 2000,” “Cosmo: Planet Without a Name” and “Year Zero: War in Space”) is not only considered to be a remake of the Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965), but also the first of four films in Alfonso Brescia’s rapid-fire sci-fi series: Battle in Interstellar Space (a.k.a., “Battle of the Stars”), War of the Robots (a.k.a., “Reactor”) and Star Odyssey (a.k.a., “Seven Gold Men in Space”). The film begins with the crew of an Earth-based craft reporting explosions in space and asteroids flying by it. They are afraid that they are going to be hit, but their vessel’s computer, named Wiz, tells them that they were seeing the “refraction” of an event that took place millions of years ago. Meanwhile, a mysterious signal from deep space reaches Earth, disturbing all communications, and a UFO appears above the “Antarctic Sea.” Captain Alex Hamilton (John Richardson) and his crew are tasked with finding the origin of that signal, finally reaching a planet where a crazed and short-circuited robot has enslaved an entire population of humanoids by sapping their psychic energies. A fiery climax reminded me of how some bad little boys dispose of the toys they no longer want. Hint: firecrackers and lighter fluid.

Forever My Girl: Blu-ray
Movies that extol the redemptive powers of country music have become a subgenre of contemporary melodrama. Some moderately budgeted films, like Forever My Girl, carry a faith-based message and enjoy the backing of the Dove Foundation. Others tell stories about musicians whose lives hinge on making it big in Nashville, a task only slightly less challenging than being discovered at a soda fountain on the Sunset Boulevard. Almost everyone involved in the creation of Strings is making his feature-film debut, including recording artist Jason Michael Carroll, co-directors Patrick Dunnagan and Robert Wagner, and writer Adam Tarsitano. It’s a familiar tale, Jimmy Ford has grown weary of living the life of a rock-’n’-roll road warrior and hopes to change his luck in Music City. Rock and country music are practically interchangeable today, so all some artists require to make the transition is a change in shoes and hats. Despite his obvious talent and expectations, Ford will run into barriers unique to the commercial music mills in Nashville. Success proves elusive until Malinda Price (Katie Garfield), an up-and-coming singer, takes an interest in him. As their relationship blossoms, so do his musical prospects. Just as his career and personal life begin to take off, however, Ford is forced to face past issues. How he deals with them could make the difference between happiness and despair. T’was ever thus.

Bethany Ashton Wolf’s super-sappy Forever My Girl is based on Heidi McLaughlin’s first novel, of the same title. The romantic drama enjoyed a decent theatrical release in January, making enough money to cover its production costs and then some. This, despite a formulaic premise and a relatively unknown cast … and temperatures averaging between 110-115 degrees on the frequently stormy Georgia location. The movie opens as future country-music superstar Liam Page (Alex Roe) is about to leave his lovely fiancé stranded at the altar of his father’s church. We won’t know why he pulled such a cruel trick on Josie (Jessica Rothe) until much later in the film. Presumably, he decided that the pursuit of fame and fortune was more satisfying than marriage and small-town life. What he didn’t know is that she was carrying their bun in her oven.  Eight years later, Liam returns home for the funeral of a close friend. His reunion with Josie doesn’t go well. It should come as a surprise to no one that Liam will learn that he’s father of Josie’s delightfully precocious daughter, Billy, who shares his gift for music. His father tried to inform him of this blessed gift, but Liam was too preoccupied with his drug-and-booze-fueled career to answer phone calls and letters from home. Forever My Girl adds a twist or two – a helicopter trip to New Orleans that’s straight out of Fifty Shades of Grey — before conjuring a best-of-both-worlds outcome in which Liam is forced to re-consider what it takes to be a dad and superstar simultaneously. Despite some very negative reviews, however, it’s safe to surmise that fans of the book won’t be disappointed.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: In Concert: Blu-ray
When it comes to snubbing great artists and repeatedly recognizing the same tried-and-true acts – individually and as members of noteworthy bands — the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is right up there with the Academy Awards and Hollywood Walk of Fame. After a few years of clearly warranted inductions, the foundation began putting a premium on record sales and longevity over innovation and underground credibility, and label executives with chips on their shoulders could veto musicians simply to punish past bad behavior. When the foundation was established in 1983, there was no guarantee that rockers known for throwing televisions out of hotel windows and destroying the instruments on stage would agree to show up for gale induction ceremonies or donate memorabilia without being reimbursed in kind … as was the practice with the Hard Rock Café and, later, Planet Hollywood collections. Well, it didn’t take long before labels, agents and publicists convinced their acts of the financial benefits of appearing on the televised awards ceremony and happily accepting the trophies. Thirty-five years later, most of the more egregious snubs have been corrected and the Cleveland landmark is a major tourist attraction … just like the far-less-legitimate Hollywood Walk of Fame. One thing that’s remained consistent, however, is the enjoyment that comes from watching the live performances and jam sessions that accompany the frequently moving induction speeches and shots of stars in funky formal wear. From Time Life/WEA comes the latest edition of “The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: In Concert,” in DVD and Blu-ray, which covers ceremonies from 2014-2017. There’s something for everyone in this generous package, including fans of groups who probably could have waited a few more years for induction. Among the highlights are Bruce Springsteen joining belated inductees, the E Street Band, for the deep-cut classic, “The E Street Shuffle”; Pearl Jam delivering thundering performances of “Alive,” “Given to Fly” and “Better Man”; also from Seattle, Nirvana survivors Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic being joined on stage by Lorde, Annie Clark, Kim Gordon and Joan Jett; a long-exiled Yusuf Islam (a.k.a., Cat Stevens) performing a version of “Father & Son” that drew tears from the Barclays Center crowd; Journey performing “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart),” “Lights” and “Don’t Stop Believin’”; previous inductee Ringo Starr being welcomed into the hall as a single act, with a little help from Paul McCartney; Zac Brown doing a killer version of Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s “Born in Chicago”; and induction speeches by Coldplay’s Chris Martin, for Peter Gabriel; Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, for Deep Purple; Patti Smith for Lou Reed; Stevie Wonder, for Bill Withers; Fall Out Boy members, for Green Day; and Glenn Frey, for Linda Ronstadt.

Grease: 40th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray, 4K UHD HDRDoctor Detroit: Blu-ray
I don’t suppose there’s anything to infer from the almost simultaneous hit runs of pop musicals “Hair” and “Grease” on Broadway and, nearly a decade later, on film. Tonsorial architecture played key roles in both entertainments, demonstrating how much hairdos changed in little more than a decade. Brylcreem and hair spray gave way to a more natural, often shaggy look. Because mainstream America looked askance at all deviations from the norm, teenagers used extreme hairdos to declare their independence. The styles worn by the teenagers in Grease — Olivia Newton-John being the sole exception – looked prehistoric by the time the musical was adapted for the stage and screen. Hair only felt outdated when the military draft was eliminated and no one in the audience faced the same fate as Claude Hooper Bukowski and his surrogate, George Berger. Both musicals were honed at nightclub theaters, before reaching Broadway, and they’ve enjoyed dozens of revivals, re-mountings and reconsiderations ever since. More to the point, they remain exceptionally entertaining in their various iterations. In February, Olive Films released a no-frills DVD of Hair, while Paramount is celebrating the 40th anniversary of Grease with a 4K UHD HDR upgrade and enhanced Blu-ray, supervised by director Randal Kleiser. The bonus package is dominated by ported-over features, but it also includes “Grease: A Chicago Story,” which features new interviews with writer Jim Jacobs and original cast members of the Chicago show, itself revived in its original form in 2011; an alternate ending salvaged from the original black & white 16mm print, discovered by Kleiser; and alternate animated main titles. Both versions are markedly improved over previous Blu-ray versions. In addition, a “Grease Collection” is available in a Steelbook Locker, containing the 40th Anniversary Blu-ray of Grease, as well as Grease 2 and Grease: Live! on Blu-ray for the first time.

Arriving three years after The Blues Brothers, Universal expected Doctor Detroit to tap into the same audience that made the “SNL”-spinoff act an oddball sensation in-concert and on big and small screens. Several things worked against those expectations, though: 1) John Belushi’s death put a damper on the production and marketing plans; Dan Aykroyd’s unproven ability to carry the weight of a lead role; anticipation over the release of “Return of the Jedi” had already begun to build; and complete absence of positive buzz. Based on a Bruce Jay Friedman story, the adaptation whitewashed the original characters by making them pimps and whores with a heart of gold … white gold, that is. It effectively dulled the edge built into Friedman’s story. When fast-talking pimp Smooth Walker (Howard Hesseman) finds himself in hot water with Chicago crime boss Mom (Kate Murtagh), he claims that there’s a new player in the game: Doctor Detroit. There isn’t, but the ruse buys him the time he needs to find someone who can be molded into a bad-ass pimp and merciless enforcer. He arrives in the form of a nebbishy college professor, Clifford Skridlow (Aykroyd), who jogs to work and worships the chef at the local Indian restaurant. A night spent partying with Smooth and his girls convinces Skridlow that it might be fun to join the gang, even if he couldn’t tell the difference between a prostitute and a Girl Scout selling cookies. Meanwhile, he’s expected to fulfill his responsibilities to the school, which is run by his father (George Furth) and is in desperate need of a cash infusion. The setup ensures all sorts of slapsticky gags based on crossed wires and mistaken identities, none of them particularly funny. The best moments in Doctor Detroit arrive courtesy of a pair of set pieces choreographed to a James Brown rave-up and the festive atmosphere of a Pimps-and-Hos’ Ball. In my opinion, Doctor Detroit would have fared better if it had been handed to Ralph Bakshi and he adapted the original story more faithfully as an animated feature. As such, there would be no pressure on him to cast the working girls — Fran Drescher, Donna Dixon, Lynn Whitfield and Lydia Lei — as freshly polished graduates of a finishing school. The Blu-ray includes commentary with director Michael Pressman and pop culture historian Russell Dyball; a separate interview, in which Pressman details the development of the movie from serious novella to “a Dan Aykroyd comedy” and tactical revisions in the soundtrack. He shares a story about Glenne Headly’s deleted role, clarifies what the “The Wrath of Mom” sting was all about and talks extensively about his 1979 movie, “Boulevard Nights,” which was recently selected for preservation by the Library of Congress.

A Pistol for Ringo/The Return of Ringo: Two Films by Duccio Tessari: Blu-ray
One tell-tale sign that a Western is of the spaghetti or Euro variety, and not one made in the American west, is the presence of windmills more appropriate in an adaptation of “Don Quixote.” That, of course, and the slippery dubbing. There’s one such windmill, at least, in A Pistol for Ringo (1965), a movie that, despite its Andalucian locales, looks very much like it might have been shot in the American Southwest or Durango, Mexico. Alongside The Return of Ringo (1965), Duccio Tessari introduced another iconic hero to the genre, dominated by such brand names as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, Terrence Hill’s Trinity and Franco Nero’s Django. Here, Ringo (Giuliano Gemma, as Montgomery Wood) is a clean-cut sharpshooter, who, for much of movie, has been stripped of his gun. After wiping out an entire family of bad guys — in self-defense, of course – and being thrown in jail, Ringo cuts a deal with the sheriff. Ringo can earn his freedom by infiltrating a ranch taken over by Mexican bandits and freeing their hostages, one of whom is engaged to the lawman. It’s no contest. Ennio Morricone’s music adds to the fun.

In The Return of Ringo, which isn’t easily identifiable as a sequel, the title character has been transformed into a former Civil War captain named Brown. He’s forced to enter his home town incognito, because a different gang of Mexican banditos, led by Esteban Fuentes (Fernando Sancho), has seized control of it. To Brown’s consternation, he’s been declared dead and his wife, Helen (Hally Hammond), may be forced to marry the jefe. Both films set the foundation for a flood of Ringo flicks to come, perhaps, even, the animated Western, Rango. The refurbished Arrow Video package adds commentaries for both films by Spaghetti Western experts C. Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke; the 38-minute “Revisiting Ringo,” with learned and entertaining analysis by Tony Rayns; a pair of archival featurettes, “They Called Him Ringo,” with Giuliano Gemma, and “A Western Greek Tragedy,” with Lorella de Luca and camera operator Sergio D’Offizi; original trailers and promotional images; and a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranc.

Killer Klowns From Outer Space: Special Edition: Blu-ray
I don’t know if the folks at Arrow Video planned to release this special edition of the cult classic – or kult klassic, if you prefer — Killer Klowns from Outer Space in anticipation the phenomenal international success of New Line’s It. If so, their timing was impeccable. Unlike too many other killer-clown movies being sent out in the wake of It – including Him, a.k.a. “The Devil’s Warehouse” – the re-release of the Chiodo brothers’ movie can be justified for all sorts of reasons. Most of all, it’s entertaining. On a dollar-per-dollar basis, it can stand on its own against most pictures costing 10, 20 or 30 times as much to make. Next month, Killer Klown’s 30th anniversary will be celebrated at Los Angeles’ Montalban Theater with multiple performances, as well as fortune tellers, contortionist Bonnie Morgan (Rings), a Q&A with the cast and crew, and a screening with a live-score accompaniment from the Hollywood Chamber Orchestra, conducted by John Massari. Most movies of that vintage must settle for a re-release on Blu-ray and a few fresh featurettes. Moreover, the Chiodos are pursuing a series for cable. “We wondered, should we do a sequel to the first one or do we do a remake? We came up with a ‘requel’ – it’s a sequel and a remake. It follows the continuing adventures of new people who are experiencing this phenomenon of a Klown invasion, and, once in a while, you see some of the old guys pop up and hear their stories … find out what happened over the last 25 years.” That should be something. The Arrow Video edition has been restored from a 4K scan of the original camera negative and newly remastered stereo 2.0 and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. Among the extras: vintage commentary with the Chiodos; “Let the Show Begin,” a new interview with the original members of the American punk band, the Dickies; “The Chiodos Walk Among Us: Adventures in Super 8 Filmmaking,” a documentary highlighting the making of their childhood films, from the monster epics made in their basement to their experiments in college; fresh HD transfers of the complete collection of the brothers 8mm and Super 8 films; “Tales of Tobacco,” an interview with star Grant Cramer; “Debbie’s Big Night,” with Suzanne Snyder; “Bringing Life to These Things,” a tour of Chiodo Bros. Productions; deleted scenes and bloopers; and a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sara Deck.

Luis Antonio Rodriguez and Humberto Bocanegra’s 80-minute non-thriller, Him, is only likely to appeal to Killer Klown Kompletists, I’m afraid. When a businessman fails to keep his end of a deal with a mysterious emissary from hell, his warehouse becomes the property of the devil. When some young paranormal investigators decide to spend the night at the warehouse, they soon find that the rumors of its haunting by a mysterious clown “are not only real, but they can also be deadly.” Evil-doll completists might also find something useful here as they’re scattered around the warehouse as warnings of the devil’s presence.

Joe: Blu-ray
Just as presidential-candidate Trump prompted his blue-collar followers to attack protesters and journalists at his rallies, President Nixon encouraged patriotic construction workers to confront anti-war protesters in the streets of New York. The symbolic difference between the two groups of aggrieved patriots is represented in their choice of hats. Nixon’s legions were known by their “hard hats,” decorated with American-flag decals, while Trump supporters prefer red baseball caps with “Make America Great Again” embroidered on them. Back in the day, protesters preferred to let their “freak flags” fly in defiance of the status quo, and it made them easy targets. As a symbolic rebuke of Trump’s infamous “grab them by the pussy” comments, tens of thousands of protesters headed for the Women’s March on Washington wearing “pussy-power hats,” created by an army of knitters, crocheters and needlesmiths from coast-to-coast. With this in mind, I re-watched John G. Avildsen’s era-defining drama, Joe, for the first time in nearly 50 years. Employing an Us-vs.-Them scenario and dialogue that would be deemed prohibitively inappropriate today – on either side of the political divide — Norman Wexler’s script set viewers up for a confrontation between stereotypes so diametrically opposed to each other that they shouldn’t be able to co-exist in the same country. But, they did, in the same way that the cardboard villains in Death Wish would come alive, four years later. Credit for this belongs to the amazing portrayals of polar-opposite characters by Peter Boyle and Susan Sarandon, in their theatrical debuts.

If Wexler’s interpretation of Boyle’s Joe Curran now feels like a parody of blue-collar ideals and attitudes, the actor stops well short of caricature. He finds a kindred spirit in Bill Compton (Dennis Patrick), an advertising executive who makes Joe’s acquaintance at a neighborhood bar, boasting that he killed a drug-dealing hippie (Patrick McDermott). Pressed for facts by the intrigued hard-hat, Bill attempts to retreat from his boozy confession, saying that he was merely joking. When, a few days later, a news report confirms the rage-induced murder, they form an unlikely vigilante alliance. Before the incident occurred, Bill had determined that the long-haired pusher had kidnapped, brainwashed and forced the non-fatal overdose of his flower-child daughter, Melissa (Sarandon), on a smorgasbord of psychedelic drugs. After she learns of her father’s culpability in her boyfriend’s death, Melissa leaves the hospital prematurely. After confronting her parents, she splits the city for an Upstate commune. Joe and Compton search for her in the Village, finally locating a group of hippies who might know her whereabouts and plying them with drugs Bill stole from the pusher. An unlikely “orgy” leads to a confrontation in which the hippies are forced to give up the location of the commune. It’s where Joe and Bill will be given the opportunity to put up or shut up. If any of this sounds silly, I can assure you that it was taken very seriously by audiences and critics in 1970. Boyle and Sarandon would go on to become major Hollywood stars, while Avildson’s credits would include Rocky and The Karate Kid, and Wexler would pen Saturday Night Fever and Serpico. Absent any bonus features, viewers are allowed their own parallels to the 2016 presidential campaign and the current air of provocation.

Disney Z-O-M-B-I-E-S
Dead Justice
Cyborg: Blu-ray
Apparently, we live in a cinematic universe in which humans not only must learn to defend themselves against flesh-eating, foot-dragging zombies, but also how to co-exist with Disney Z-O-M-B-I-E-S. Just as there’s a huge difference between the plague-carrying mice now spreading death and disease throughout the American Southwest and Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse, there are significant differences between these legions of the undead and the ghouls terrorizing an Old West town in Dead Justice (a.k.a., “Cowboy Zombies” and “Walking Dead in the West”). They’re recognizable by the way they shuffle their feet, attack with their arms raised and pointing forward, and a hunger for human flesh that causes them to approach mortals in suicidal waves. The eponymous creatures who populate the Disney Channel’s “Z-O-M-B-I-E-S” are based on an unaired TV pilot, “Zombies and Cheerleaders,” purchased by Disney, and they could hardly be more dissimilar. Although their origin story resembles that of the protagonist in The Toxic Avenger, the characters more closely resemble those in Disney’s “High School Musical.” Fifty years after an explosion at a local factory covered half of the city of Seabrook with a toxic lime slime, the undead survivors have co-existed peacefully with human survivors in parts of the city separated by fences and other barriers. A cure for their condition arrived in the form of “smart bracelets” that allow zombies to quell their appetite for flesh and enjoy some semblance of normalcy.

Except for the strictly enforced segregation, Seabrook qualifies as the kind of idyllic suburban city Walt Disney intended Celebration, Florida, to be. This is the year that the Seabrook school board has decided to integrate the local high school, by transferring the zombie kids from their separate, unequal facility across town. To reduce the fear of the human kids, the school is maintaining its segregation of the computer class, pep squad and sports tryouts. When the aspiring zombie football player, Zed (Milo Manheim), makes a love connection with the fiercely determined human cheerleader, Addison (Meg Donnelly), all attempts to deliver a subtle, understated message about diversity, tolerance and equality will disappear. That’s because Addison has been hiding a deformity of her own from her friends and fellow students, suspecting that their bigotry will come to the fore and she’ll be ostracized. As anomalies go, Meg’s prematurely white hair isn’t really all that weird. Teenagers can be cruel, however, even on the Disney Channel. Not only have the zombies in “Z-O-M-B-I-E-S” been rendered more of less harmless, but they also can sing, dance, cheer and play football as well as anyone else in the school … better, in some cases. They’re also clean, happy, conscientious and friendly. If George A. Romero hadn’t died last year, Paul Hoen’s light-hearted “Z-O-M-B-I-E-S” might have killed him. The DVD package adds a blooper reel and deleted scenes; audition footage, with Milo Manheim and Meg Donnelly; “Survival Guide to High School,” hosted by Donnelly and Manheim; music videos; a dance tutorial, with Donnelly, co-star Kylee Russell and choreographer Christopher Scott; and glow-in-the-dark temporary tattoos.

Dead Justice is a traditional Western in most ways, except that the 1870’s town is being terrorized by the undead, instead of rampaging Indians, drunken survivors of a long cattle drive, kinfolk determined to spring a son or brother from the hoosegow, or outlaws waiting for the stagecoach to arrive. It is the 27th film to be shot on the Cowtown Studios Old West, in Arizona, and the town, indeed, looks as if it might double for a dude ranch attraction. Co-writer/director Paul Winters plays the town’s marshal, Frank Wilcox, who, along with a Buffalo Soldier from the 10th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army (Calion Maston), must galvanize a group of survivors to fight back when the living dead rise and seek the flesh of the living. They’re joined by an Apache chief, outlaw prisoner, preacher, a dwarf and a couple of bar girls. The zombie makeup isn’t bad, though, and the unusually diverse cast makes up for some of the structural missteps.

In 1989, Cannon Group’s dystopian martial-arts actioner, Cyborg, described what happens when, in the not-so-distant future, a plague cripples civilization. Known as the “living death,” its victims behave very much like zombies. Dayle Haddon plays half-human/half-cyborg scientist Pearl Prophet, a gorgeous blond capable of developing a vaccine. Her quest is cut short, however, after being captured by cannibalistic Flesh Pirates, who plot to keep the antidote for themselves and rule the world. It’s left to the saber-wielding mercenary (a.k.a., slinger) Gibson Rickenbacker – Jean-Claude Van Damme in an early starring role — to rescue her and save civilization. Cyborg is full of the kind of improbable action and despicable characters that would mark Albert Pyun’s tenure with Cannon. The post-apocalyptic sets serve nicely as backdrops for fights and hiding places for zombies. There’s also a terrifically entertaining fight staged in a salt marsh. The movie did well enough to inspire two sequels: Cyborg 2: Glass Shadow (1993), starring Elias Koteas and Angelina Jolie, and Cyborg 3: The Recycler (1995), a direct-to-video release, with Zach Galligan and Khrystyne Haje. The Shout Factory collector’s edition features a 4K remaster of the film; new commentary with writer/director Pyun; “A Ravaged Future: The Making of Cyborg,” featuring interviews with Pyun, actors Vincent Klyn, Deborah Richter and Terrie Batson, director of photography Philip Alan Waters and editor Rozanne Zingale; “Shoestring Fantasy: The Effects of Cyborg,” with visual-effects supervisor Gene Warren Jr., Go-Motion technician Christopher Warren and rotoscope artist Bret Mixon; and extended interviews from Mark Hartley’s documentary “Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films,” with Pyun and Blood Sport writer Sheldon Lettich.

Henry Miller: Asleep & Awake
Filmed when the author was 81, “Henry Miller: Asleep & Awake” opens the door to what must have been the coolest bathroom in America. Miller turned it into a shrine, celebrating his life, loves and many friendships with photos and drawings collected over the course of his travels and career. Graciously, in his unmistakably raspy voice, Miller points out the highlights of his improvised gallery decorated with images of philosophers, writers, painters, mad kings, women and friends … naked and clothed. He says that guests frequently disappear for an hour or more after paying a visit to the loo, just to study the memorabilia. Along the way, Miller’s muse, Brenda Venus, makes an unforgettable cameo. Director Tom Schiller also was able to get Miller to travel to his onetime home in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. This selection from IndiePix is part of a recent series of vintage releases currently available to subscribers via streaming and DVD platforms. It’s always nice to see a purveyor of arthouse titles join the fray. Recent offerings include Daniel Hoesl’s Soldate Jeannette; Paola Mendoza and Gloria LaMorte’s Entre Nos; Rayya Makarim and Ravi Bharwani’s Jermal; Anurag Kashyap’s That Girl in Yellow Boots; Joël Lévy Florescu and Michaël Lévy Florescu’s So Bright Is the View; and Syllas Tzoumerkas’ Blast. The ones I’ve seen are very good.

ITV/PBS: Masterpiece Mystery!: Unforgotten, Season 1: Blu-ray
PBS: Bill Nye: Science Guy: Blu-ray
PBS: Nature: Animals With Cameras
PBS: Impossible Builds, Volume 1
PBS: Survival Guide for Pain-Free Living
Digimon Adventure tri 4: Loss: Blu-ray
Currently holding a secure place on PBS’ Sunday-night lineup, “Masterpiece Mystery!: Unforgotten” debuted on Britain’s ITV in October 2015 and has already completed a second-season run. It was created by Chris Lang (“The Tunnel”), a former actor with two more mini-series already on the drawing boards for the network, besides a third stanza of “Unforgotten.” If it isn’t likely to make anyone forget “Prime Suspect,” “The Vice” or “Endeavour,” it’s a solid procedural that features two of British television’s most popular stars: Nicola Walker (“MI-5”) and Sanjeev Bhaskar (“The Kumars”). When the skeletal remains of young man are discovered, buried in a derelict building, first-responders immediately suspect that they might have been lying there since Roman times. A little more digging uncovers a rusty key for a sports car of more recent vintage. DCI Cassie Stuart and her partner, DI Sunil “Sunny” Khan, use its markings to identify the car to which it belonged, if not its owner. Once that question is answered, the detectives are led to a farm outside London, where they discover the car’s decaying frame, wheel covers and a bag containing a barely legible diary. A tad more sleuthing leads the team to four elderly suspects, each with something to hide. As their deceptions are discovered, the people they love most begin to wonder what else they might have done. It’s likely that same mystery would have been solved within one or two episodes of “Law & Order,” but Lang keeps the story moving in forwardly direction with explosive revelations, crude deceptions and great writing. The veteran cast, which includes Tom Courtney, Peter Egan, Trevor Eve, Gemma Jones and Ruth Sheen, does the rest. The UK version of “Unforgotten, Season 2” will be released on May 15.

At a time when President Trump and his Cabinet members are working hard to prove that all science is fake science and good things happen to dumb people, it’s nice to know that “Bill Nye: Science Guy” is here to disabuse our children of such notions. Nye has made it his personal mission to stop the spread of anti-scientific thinking around the world. In this behind-the-scenes portrait, Nye sheds his lab coat to take on those who deny climate change, evolution and a science-based world view. The former host of a popular kids’ show on PBS now is CEO of the Planetary Society, where he’s leading a project to launch LightSail, a satellite propelled by sunlight, while, in turn, fulfilling the legacy of his late professor and Planetary Society co-founder Carl Sagan. As Bill Nye: Science Guy, he also continues to inspire millennials to participate in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs. Also appearing are astrophysicist, author and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson and “Cosmos” co-writer Ann Druyan.

The “Nature” presentation “Animals With Cameras” may, at first, bring back memories of David Letterman’s monkey-cam, which, when affixed to the head of a hyperactive primate, came to symbolize the anarchic side of the host’s personality. He recently recalled the time the monkey bit comedian Sandra Bernhard by quipping, “Actually looking back, maybe it wasn’t that much fun.” Technically, there isn’t a world of difference between the original monkey-cam and the cameras worn by the animals – a cheetah, chimp, seal, bear, sheep dog, penguin, meerkat, chacma baboons and Chilean devil rays – which take viewers to places they’ve never seen and in real time. We follow them as they hunt, hide, evade predators and settle into their hidey-holes. It’s a simple concept, but one that’s thoroughly engrossing.

Impossible Builds” examines the creation of some of the world’s most technologically advanced and architecturally imaginative construction projects, from sub-aquatic homes to futuristic towers and pencil-thin skyscrapers. These are structures nobody thought could be committed to a blueprint, let alone built. Now, however, revolutionary technology and cutting-edge construction materials are being used on five improbable projects taking shape across the world. They include Miami’s curvaceous Scorpion Tower; six islands off the coast of Dubai, designed to remind visitors of Europe; and a floating villa with living spaces above and below the surface of the sea … where else, but Dubai.

Yoga is as commonplace today as doing sit-ups and push-ups was for several generations of GIs and high school weaklings. For 40 years, Peggy Cappy has been teaching yoga to students of all ages, abilities, shapes and sizes. In the PBS special “Survival Guide for Pain-Free Living,” Cappy and neuromuscular therapist Lee Albert demonstrate how easy-to-do stretches and other yoga moves can help relieve pain in your back, knees, hips and head, including chronic migraine headaches. The four-disc set features four separate yoga regimens that are easy – yeah, easy for you to say – and effective in controlling pain.

Digimon Adventure tri: Loss” is the fourth in a series of six feature-length movies produced by Toei Animation to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Akiyoshi Hongo’s Digimon franchise. They serve as a direct sequel to the first two television series, “Digimon Adventure” and “Digimon Adventure 02.” After the “reboot” and Meicoomon’s rampage, Tai and friends arrive in the Digital World. They reunite with their fellow Digimons, who have all lost their memories. As everyone discusses what they should do from here in the Digital World, Meicoomon suddenly appears and then disappears. Meanwhile in the real world, Nishijima receives word that Himekawa has gone missing. Special features include “The Evolution So Far,” in which Joshua brings fans up to date on the series.

DVD Wrapup: Commuter, Oscar, A Taxi Driver, Humor Me, Prince, Doris Day, Shakespeare Wallah, Pomegranates and more

Thursday, April 19th, 2018

The Commuter: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
As high-concept pitches go, “Liam Neeson on a train” is right up there with “snakes on a plane” and “MTV cops.” What else would any screenwriter need to know to fill the blanks? Nothing that it should take three separate screenwriters to formulate, probably. To make Neeson’s latest actioner, The Commuter, as needlessly complicated as it became, however, three was plenty. In a scenario that frequently recalls Jaume Collet-Serra’s 2014 thriller, Non-Stop – a.k.a., “Liam Neeson on a plane” — The Commuter finds the 65-year-old onetime Oscar-nominatee (Schindler’s List) playing a former cop, whose tortuous day at the office only gets worse on the ride home, when he’s forced to do battle with terrorists/extortionists/gangsters … take your pick. Since leaving the force, Michael MacCauley has been taking the same train to and from work in Manhattan, as an insurance salesman, every day for 10 years. On the same day that MacCauley is unceremoniously laid off, however, he’s approached by a mysterious fellow commuter, Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who inexplicably offers him $100,000 to locate someone on the train and put a tracking device in his or her bag. To convince him to cooperate, Joanna offers proof that his family is being held as collateral. Before disappearing from the train, she tells MacCauley that he should look for someone named “Prynne,” who may or may not have a connection with Hester Prynne, in “The Scarlet Letter.” Soon enough, dead bodies begin to turn up in unlikely places and MacCauley narrows his search to faces he doesn’t recognize for his 10 years of commuting. Alfred Hitchcock would have handled the same situation – innocent man in extraordinary circumstances — differently, but, with Neeson on board, action takes precedence over intrigue. The Commuter marks Collet-Serra’s fourth collaboration with Neeson — including Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night — so the action, while sufficiently convincing, might have been too familiar to ticket-buyers in a competitive post-holiday lineup. Ironically, last fall, the actor told a gaggle of critics gathered in Toronto that he had reached the age where action stars lose their credibility and would turn to less exciting kinds of films. He’s since recanted that pledge and suggested that he would be happy to reprise the character, Qui-Gon Jinn, in any new Obi-Wan spin-off film. The Commuter looks fine in Blu-ray and 4K UHD, even if the effects don’t demand too much of the format. There are a pair of making-of featurettes of the EPK variety.

A Taxi Driver: Blu-ray
At the risk of implying that I can’t tell the difference between two of Asia’s most popular actors, I approached Jang Hoon’s A Taxi Driver as if it were a comedy starring Jackie Chan. The broadly smiling face of the cabbie leaning out from the window of his light-green taxi, belongs to Song Kang-ho, but, at first glance, he sure looked like Chan. I should have recognized Song from Memories of Murder (2003), The Host (2006) and Snowpiercer (2013), among other South Korean hits. And A Taxi Driver does open with several scenes that would suggest it’s aiming for broad laughs. Based on an incident that occurred during the political upheaval that followed the assassination of President Park Chung-hee, on October 26, 1979, it describes the relationship that develops between a down-on-his-luck taxi driver, Kim Man-seob, and the German journalist who hires him on a secret mission. Part of the early comedy derives from their inability to communicate with each other and Kim’s desperate need for a larger-then-normal fare. It continues after the cab is blocked from approaching the city of Gwangju by soldiers. Kim finds a detour that would be better suited for a Jeep than a compact car, and it will need some repairs to get back Seoul. What the journalist, Peter (Thomas Kretschmann), neglected to tell Kim when he promised him 100,000 won, now becomes obvious, and it’s anything but funny.

Peter’s going there to cover confrontations between students and police over the power grab by Chun Doo-hwan, chief of the Defense Security Command. Even though Kim cautions Peter of the seriousness of the situation, he doesn’t want to lose the fare home, either. Together, they seek safe locations to film the riots and locate students to translate their conversations. They also interview students and residents who fear the truth of what will soon became known as the Gwangju Uprising might be buried by authorities, if the sole western reporter is prevented from collecting evidence. This is very serious stuff, indeed, and Song uses archival newsreel footage to convey the savagery of the soldiers and police against mostly defenseless protesters. When officials become aware of Peter’s assignment, they target him and Kim as much as the students. Finally, their escape from Gwangju, aided by a flotilla of little green cabs, adds a bit more humor. Somehow, Jang manages to maintain an uneasy balance between the film’s light and dark moments, including Peter’s ability to get the footage out of the country. Without the revelations and a return to a true democracy, South Korea might still be a dictatorship. Ironically, despite the movie’s commercial appeal, Chinese censors have banned A Taxi Driver, just in case viewers in Beijing see parallels between Gwangju and Tiananmen Square.

Humor Me: Blu-ray
Fans of “Flight of the Conchords” who simply can’t wait for the Kiwi duo’s upcoming hourlong comedy special on HBO to air – a concert tour was canceled last month after Bret McKenzie broke some bones in a fall – can fill half of the void with Humor Me. In it, the ever-hangdog Jemaine Clement somehow manages to lose, nearly simultaneously, his job as a playwright, his wife and son, and apartment. His Nate Kroll is trapped within a writer’s block so thick he would need a chisel and laser to cut through it. As a last resort, Nate begrudgingly moves in with his widowed father, Bob (Elliott Gould), in his New Jersey retirement community. Always quick with a joke, Bob uses humor to deal with all of life’s challenges, even if it requires him to fake the occasional heart attack. He arranges for his son to take a job with the property’s handyman, Ellis (Willie Carpenter), who needs Nate’s help like he needs a stone in his shoe. While at work, Nate stumbles on a group of senior citizens rehearsing a production of “The Mikado.” The ladies welcome the professional help, no matter how grudgingly it comes. One crisis leads to another, of course, pushing Nate and Bob’s relationship to breaking point. Naturally, fate intrudes at the last minute to ensure a happy ending. Humor Me benefits from the presence of such veteran entertainers as Gould, Annie Potts, Bebe Neuwirth and Ingrid Michaelson, a thirtysomething singer/songwriter who’s every bit as restless in the retirement community as Nate. Marking his directorial debut, Sam Hoffman (“Old Jews Telling Jokes”) has crafted an endearing father-son tale with the right mixture of laughs and melodrama to satisfy viewers in the same age bracket as the characters.

Elvis: The Beginning
Prince: The Only Ones Who Care
Heartworn Highways/Revisited
You’d think that after watching HBO’s four-hour documentary on the life and music of Elvis Presley, “The Searcher,” there wouldn’t be anything more to learn. You’d be wrong. Narrated by Jack Perkins, “Elvis: The Beginning” takes an up-close-and-personal approach to the first multistate tour taken by Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black. It followed a 4,500-mile loop, starting in Memphis and stopping for more than 200 one-night stands. At 19, Elvis was the baby of the group, still requiring the written approval of his parents to perform. In addition to appearing on the “Louisiana Hayride,” the band played drugstore openings, church halls, honky-tonks, high-school gyms and benefits for wounded GIs. Along the way, Elvis paid visits to local deejays and record stores, all the while impressing locals with his impeccable manners and good-ol’-boy charm. The screaming fans would come later. We meet an old girlfriend, or two, and people who connected with the young entertainers in one way or another on their musical journey. “The Beginning” fills in the blanks with dramatizations and material taped at the source. A later interview with Moore is also included. Judging from how youthful Perkins looks, I imagine that the show was created for a television show, possibly “Biography,” in the early 2000s. Even so, it provides a solid 82 minutes of fun.

Prince: The Only Ones Who Care” is a music-only celebration of one of the greatest rock stars of all time. It features more than 90 minutes of live performances, recorded from TV broadcasts throughout his career, and ranging from solo acoustic sets to full-band rave-ups, with dancers, backup singers and amazing costumes. He’s in great form. The performances appear to have been recorded on a VCR from such shows as “Saturday Night Live,” “The Arsenio Hall Show,” BET and “Today.” How the producers got the rights to the material is anyone’s guess, as it doesn’t look like public-domain or music-video clips. More recent live material is readily available on YouTube, including his spectacular sets at Coachella, Super Bowl and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Ceremony.

Last fall, when FilmRise re-released the original Heartworn Highways alongside Heartworn Highways Revisited, the only hitch came from knowing they’d be manufactured on demand, using DVD-R recordable media. If it wasn’t the optimum situation, it was quite a bit better than nothing. Now, the company has decided to send them out in standard delivery formats. For those unfamiliar with the documentaries, Heartworn Highways was made in 1976, before the “outlaw country” movement had grown to include such Austin- and Nashville-based singer-songwriters as Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, David Allan Coe, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell and John Hiatt. By the time it was released theatrically, in 1981, James Szalapski’s eye-opening film was regarded as an underground classic. Forty years later, “Revisited” lured Clark, Young and Coe to reprise their appearances, but, this time, in the company of such next-generation “outlaws” as John McCauley, Jonny Fritz, Josh Hedley, Justin Townes Earle, Shovels & Rope, Langhorne Slim, Robert Ellis, Andrew Combs, Shelly Colvin and Phil Hummer.

Doris Day: A Sentimental Journey
Some people will be surprised to learn that Doris Day, who hasn’t made a movie or starred in a television series since 1973, is still alive and presumably kicking in Carmel Valley, California, where she’s lived for nearly a half-century. In 1985, Day hosted “Doris Day’s Best Friends,” a show on the Christian Broadcast Network about celebrities and their pets, but it only lasted a season. She continues to spend most of her time caring for her pets and strays that find their way to her estate, as well as an advocate for animal-welfare groups around the world. At the time of her retirement, we learn in “Doris Day: A Sentimental Journey,” she was still one of the top box-office attractions in Hollywood. When her third husband, Martin Melcher, died on April 20, 1968, Day was shocked to learn that he and his business partner had squandered her earnings, leaving her deeply in debt. Moreover, he already committed her to various projects, including a CBS sitcom, about which she wasn’t keen. Clearly, it left a bitter taste in her mouth. For a woman who was frequently described as “America’s virgin” and a representative of all that’s chaste and holy in the pictures, Day led an uncommonly difficult life. Her career trajectory was altered as a teenager by a terrible accident, causing her to substitute singing for dancing. Her first marriage, to an abusive trombone player, took her off the road for a year, before she could dump him, return to Les Brown’s band and make her way to Hollywood. She doted on her son from that marriage, Terry, a record producter, who, some might recall, ran afoul of Charlie Manson. “Doris Day: A Sentimental Journey” was broadcast on PBS stations in 1991, with Roger Ebert serving as a narrator, and appearances by Kirstie Alley, Clint Eastwood, Rosemary Clooney Molly Haskell, Tony Randall, Kay Ballard, John Updike, Betty White and her biographer, A.E. Hotchner. The set also includes a surprisingly personal visit to Merv Griffin’s talk show, in 1975; an episode of “The Doris Day Show,” from 1968; and a collection of trailers, teasers and other publicity material from her heyday.

Shakespeare Wallah: Blu-ray
Among other attributes, Shakespeare Wallah represents the second collaboration of principals behind a long line of Merchant Ivory Productions. The first, The Householder (1963), combined the producing talents of Ismail Merchant, direction of James Ivory and writing of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, from whose novel it was adapted. “It is a strange marriage we have at Merchant Ivory,” Merchant once observed. “I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew and Jim is a Protestant American. Someone once described us as a three-headed god. Maybe they should have called us a three-headed monster.” Their 23 movies together, including Howard’s End, The Remains of the Day, A Room with a View and Heat and Dust and were far more heavenly than monstrous. Merchant and Jhabvala are no longer with us, but the production company has continued apace, with Call Me by Your Name, which was adapted by Ivory from the 2007 novel by André Aciman. His Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay made Ivory the oldest-ever winner in any competitive category. Released around the globe in the mid- to late-1960s, Shakespeare Wallah is based on the diaries of actor/manager Geoffrey Kendal, describing his family’s travelling Shakespeareana Company in post-colonial India. (Kendal became known there as Shakespearewallah, or Shakespeare-expert or Shakespeare-salesman.) In fact, the Kendals play loosely drawn versions of themselves in the movie … wonderfully.

Here, Tony Buckingham (Kendal) and his wife, Carla (Laura Liddell), oversee the troupe, which also includes their coming-of-age daughter, Lizzie (Felicity Kendal), as she falls in love with Indian playboy Sanju (Shashi Kapoor). Sanju’s affections are shared by Manjula (Madhur Jaffrey), a star in the increasing dominant Bollywood film empire. In real life, MIP-regular Kapoor married Felicity’s older sister, Jennifer Kendal. (They would make important contributions to the Indian film industry until her death, in 1984.) Until then, the Kendals made a reasonably decent living performing selections from the Bard’s canon — in traditional costume and in the king’s English – before prep-school and collegiate audiences, makeshift theaters in the boonies and for wealthy patrons of arts. Watching the duplicitous Sanju juggle his affection for the coquettish Lizzie and Bollywood diva, Manjula, frequently elevates the always delightful Shakespeare Walla to laugh-out-loud funny. The Cohen Film Collection release accords the black-and-white presentation a pristine 2K restoration, while adding lengthy conversations with Merchant, Ivory, Kapoor and Felicity Kendal, and with Ivory and Madhur Jaffrey, conducted by Mallika Rao from the Village Voice.

The Color of Pomegranates: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Watching Criterion Collection’s new, fully restored edition Sergei Parajanov’s 1968 masterwork, The Color of Pomegranates, made me wonder if anyone alive today will see the day when dreams can be recorded and played back on a video monitor, with the ability to rewind and pause images for psychiatric appraisal. It seems impossible today, but, in the 1960s, who could imagine owning a movie as amazing as The Color of Pomegranates and being able to watch it at home – let alone, a phone — whenever one wanted, without the scratches, splice marks and artifacts that attended 16mm film? “Pomegranates” plays out in a series of tableaux that blend the tactile with the abstract, reviving the splendors and hardships of Armenian culture through the story of the 18th Century poet-troubador, priest and martyr Sayat-Nova. Parajanov introduced the film as a poetic fantasy, an artistic form he knew would run counter to government-approved socialist realism. It employs iconographic compositions, rather than traditional narrative — some lasting no more than a few seconds – to chart Sayat-Nova’s intellectual, artistic and spiritual growth.

Soviet censors, unwilling to spend the time it would have taken to fully evaluate Parajanov’s vision, decided to ban the film, re-edit it and send the director to a prison camp. They even changed the title from “Sayat-Nova” to The Color of Pomegranates. This edition has been cobbled together from long ignored and hidden prints and restored to capture the brilliant color and audio scheme. Because everything about “Pomegranates” is noteworthy, viewers should make time for the supplemental package, which includes Mikhail Vartanov’s long-suppressed “Paradjanov: The Color of Armenian Land” (1969) and Martiros Vartanov’s “The Last Film” (2014); a new commentary, featuring critic Tony Rayns; a video essay on the film’s symbols and references, featuring scholar James Steffen; documentaries “Sergei Parajanov: The Rebel” (2003) and “The Life of Sayat-Nova” (1977); and an essay by film scholar Ian Christie.

Aloha, Bobby and Rose: Blu-ray
Made at a time when road pictures and buddy films defined what it meant to be a young person in a post-Vietnam and post-hippie America, Floyd Mutrux’s Aloha, Bobby and Rose successfully merged elements of Breathless, American Graffiti and Bonnie and Clyde into a drive-in tragedy. As the advertising blurb asserts, “Bobby has a ’68 Camaro. Rose has a five-year-old kid. On their first date, they become lovers and fugitives.” Paul Le Mat plays Bobby, an L.A. grease monkey who’s only a shade removed from hot-rodder John Milner, in American Graffiti. He talks one of his garage’s customers, Rose (Dianne Hull) – a single mother, who doesn’t get out much, anymore – into a night on the town in his totally cherry Camaro. After stopping at a liquor store for some liquid courage, Bobby thinks it might be fun to pretend to rob the cashier with the screwdriver he carries in his pockets. The store’s owner can’t see the screwdriver, however, and he mistakenly shoots and kills the cashier. Immediately sensing that their happy days are over, they gather a few things and head for Mexico.

In between, they run into the kinds of characters they might never have met back home in L.A., but who represent elements of Old West lawlessness. Anyone who’s seen Jean-Luc Godard or Jim McBride’s version of Breathless will know what to except when Bobby and Rose go on the lam. No reason to spoil the ending for anyone else, however. Although mainstream critics weren’t kind to “AB&R” on its release, in 1975, it turned a nifty profit for Columbia Pictures, based on a $600,000 budget. Today, it looks as if it might have been made for Roger Corman, instead of a major studio, and can be enjoyed accordingly. It features strategically spotted songs by Elton John, Bob Dylan, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Jr. Walker and the All-Stars, and The Temptations, and early appearances by Robert Carradine, Tim McIntire and Edward James Olmos. The Blu-ray adds fresh interviews with Multrux, LeMat and Carradine.

Enigma Rosso Blu-ray
I don’t know enough about Agatha Christie’s mysteries to draw parallels between Alberto Negrin’s giallo whodunit, Enigma Rosso (a.k.a., “Rings of Fear”), and characters featured in “A Caribbean Mystery” and “Nemesis.” Any linkage between Miss Marple and a movie as salacious as Enigma Rosso and Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done to Solange?, which it resembles, should be considered advisedly, though. I think it would be much easier to make a giallo out of a British cozy than for a writer of popular British mysteries to write a screenplay for Dario Argento or Mario Bava … which, of course, is neither here nor there. Here, when the brutally violated body of a young woman is found wrapped in plastic, Inspector Gianni Di Salvo (Fabio Testi) is drawn to dark deeds at an exclusive girls’ school, where the beautiful members of a group called the Inseparables are being targeted with sinister letters and attempts on their lives. Following a clue in the dead girl’s diary, he soon discovers a web of sordid sex and homicide. The culprit should come as a surprise to most viewers. The film also stars Christine Kaufmann, Ivan Desny, Jack Taylor and Helga Liné. The Blu-ray adds commentary with historian Nathaniel Thompson.

Sleeping Dogs: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Made in 1977, before New Zealand could boast of anything resembling a film industry, Sleeping Dogs became the first Kiwi export to make a splash in North American theaters. It marked director Roger Donaldson’s transition from television to films and Sam Neill’s introduction to the world at large as a future star. Sleeping Dogs is a paranoid political thriller based on “Smith’s Dream,” by C. K. Stead. The novel was inspired by the author’s involvement in the anti-Vietnam War protest movement in the early 1970s. According to Stead, “It brought the war home to New Zealanders by putting a Vietnam-type situation in a local setting.” In the movie, a dictatorial prime minister uses the pretext of a severe oil crisis to crack down on homegrown dissidents. The head of the secret police orchestrates a shooting of military personnel called in to quell a protest. The uproar allows him to impose martial law and use force against his opponents, who hardly represent a great threat to the nation’s democracy. For some reason, the authorities have pinned some of the blame, at least, on Neill’s character, Smith, an apolitical loner homesteading on a deserted island owned by the Maori. He’s arrested for a crime he had no idea had even taken place. It will take viewers a while to figure out that Smith has been set up by both sides. After his escape, police chase him from one end of the topographically diverse island to the other. An unexpected treat arrives in the person of Warren Oates, the great American character actor, who plays a U.S. Army veteran enlisted to play the obnoxiously macho adviser to a special anti-insurgency unit. The Arrow Films package adds commentary with Donaldson, Neill and Ian Mune; the featurettes “The Making of Sleeping Dogs (1977)” and “The Making of Sleeping Dogs (2004)”; and a nicely appointed insert booklet, which contains writing by Neil Mitchell and a reproduction of the film’s original press book.

Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years, Vol. 2: Blu-ray
The complete title for this, the third collection of films by Seijun Suzuki released by Arrow in less than a year, is “Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years, Vol. 2 — Border Crossings: The Crime and Action Movies (1957-1961).” It arrives two months after the similarly precise, “Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years, Vol. 1 — Seijun Rising: The Youth Movies (1958-1965)” and, by another six months, “Seijun Suzuki’s The Taisho Trilogy (1980-1991).” It represents a remarkable cross-section of pictures from one of Japan’s most important directors of genre flicks and studio-financed B-movies. They complement the titles released by Criterion Collection from the same period. Unlike the more action-oriented crime thrillers in “The Early Years” collections, “The Taisho Trilogy” entries are more reflective and overtly arty. Available for home-viewing for the very first time outside of Japan, “Volume 2” is less interested with the Yakuza and teen gangs shown in “Volume 1,” than with crimes related to vice – drugs, prostitution, gambling smuggling — and international intrigue. At the time, Japan is being buffeted by waves of great social change and they’re reflected in the genre pictures, just as American movies captured the tumult and contradictions of the Roaring Twenties, Prohibition and Great Depression.

The Sleeping Beast Within (1960) is a gripping crime thriller in which a newspaper reporter’s search for his girlfriend’s missing father leads him into the heart of the criminal underworld of Yokohama’s Chinatown. Its companion piece, Smashing the 0-Line (1960), follows the descent of two competing reporters into a scabrous demimonde of drug and human trafficking. In Eight Hours of Terror (1957), a bus making its precarious way across a winding mountain road picks up some unwelcome passengers. In Tokyo Knights (1961), a college student takes over the family business in the field of organized crime. The Man With a Shotgun (1961) marks Suzuki s first entry into the territory of the “borderless” Japanese Western, which combines traditional cowboy tropes with those of modern Yakuza films. It’s easily one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen. The “Limited Edition” (1,500 copies) adds audio commentary by critic and author Jasper Sharp; the always entertaining and informative Tony Rayns on the background to the “Crime and Action Movies”; a stills gallery; reversible sleeves, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys; and a 60-page illustrated collector’s book, with new writing by Sharp.

I Am Somebody: Three films by Madeline Anderson
Among the many distinct images to emerge from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950-60s are those of heavily armed and helmeted police and soldiers, many of the leading dogs, riding on horses and pointing fire hoses at unarmed African-Americans protesting for rights, wages and benefits that today are largely taken for granted. The troops aren’t there because they enjoy busting heads, although some of the racist cops clearly do. They were there to enforce laws instituted by the white establishment to prevent blacks, Hispanics and poor whites from attaining an equal station in life as their own. I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago, watching the PBS documentary “Delores,” in which police automatically were enlisted in the service of corporate farmers and agribusiness interests interested in maintaining a status quo of substandard wages, intolerable working conditions and segregation. The strikers and activists didn’t carry weapons and their demands have since proven workable and legitimate. The documentary triptych “I Am Somebody: Three Films by Madeline Anderson” is another documentary that combines horror with triumph. To get to the uplifting moments, viewers must endure lasting images of man’s inhumanity to man. And, in various forms, it’s still happening today. Too many people are making too little money – or living in hellish conditions – and too many obstacles stand in the way of reform, including armed police and soldiers sent to “Make America Great Again.”

The Icarus package is comprised of Anderson’s I Am Somebody (1970), which chronicled a strike by 400 black women, employed a Charleston hospital, who desired union recognition and a wage increase. They were met by National Guard troops, with bayoneted rifles and police. The strike and economic boycott were supported by Andrew Young, Charles Abernathy and Martin Luther King’s widow, Coretta Scott King. Integration Report 1 (1960) examines the struggle for black equality in Alabama, Brooklyn and Washington, D.C., incorporating footage by Albert Maysles and Ricky Leacock, protest songs by Maya Angelou, and a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. A Tribute to Malcolm X includes an interview with Malcolm X’s widow Dr. Betty Shabazz, shortly after his 1965 assassination. The extras include a “Smithsonian Oral History Interview” (2017), between Rhea L. Combs and Madeline Anderson, and “Celebrate Moe!” (2002), a film about Moe Foner for the Service Employees International Union. After completing “I Am Somebody,” Anderson found it difficult to find financing for topical documentaries. She returned to television to work for the Children’s Television Workshop, where she was an in-house producer/director for “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company.”

Honor Up: Blu-ray
Ostensibly a treatise on the challenges of maintaining a strict code of honor and loyalty among thieves, Honor Up is so full of gratuitous violence and ’90s-gangsta clichés that it feels as if it’s been locked in a vault for the last 25 years. It’s been compared to Paris Barclay’s 1996 spoof, “Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood,” but completely absent the laughs, satire and irony in the Wayans brothers’ script. Honor Up follows the exploits of a Harlem street hustler, OG — played by hip-hop entrepreneur Damon Dash – a strict adherent to the code and someone who remains loyal to the man who brought him into the game. He expects the same from his crew. Of course, the worst crime a gang member can commit is snitching on a comrade in arms to cover his ass. It marks that person as a rat and puts a target on his back.

Apparently, though, snitching can be as contagious as any other communicable disease, because, once it starts, it causes the foundation of the gang to crumble. Sensing their weaknesses, a dogged police detective, played by Nicholas Turturro, borrows into the gang’s infrastructure like a termite. When the OG smells a rat in his midst, the punishment is dramatized in slow motion, backed by operatic music. Co-writer/director Dash surrounds OG with characters played by rappers Cam’ron, Smoke DZA and Murda Mook, and a girl gang with Stacey Dash and Eishia Brightwell. If Honor Up was going to find any traction theatrically, which it didn’t, it would have been on the back of executive producer and merchandise maestro Kanye West. The only publicity the movie received, however, derived from a visit paid by Kanye and a post-partum Kim to a top-secret screening. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Dash and producer/actress Raquel M. Horn.

Killjoy 2: Deliverance From Evil
Like anything else that feels exhilarating before it gets too expensive to afford, making films can be addictive. At least, that’s what happens in Fernandel Almonor’s microbudget comedy about a guy, suspiciously named Oscar Micheaux III, who gets in trouble after spending his fiancé’s nest egg on his film. More precisely, the money was borrowed from his future father-in-law, who, if he knew the truth, would have allowed the loan shark, Little Idi (Tony Tambi), to cut off Oscar’s fingers. Before he can get back behind the camera, however, Oscar (David Haley) is required to work off the loan at his father-in-law’s Front Page Jamaican Grille, and to attend a 12-step program. The laughs in Oscar derive from some extremely broad insider gags – the program’s moderator is named Alan Smithee (Arthur Roberts) – and some agreeably Third World slapschtick. Some of the testimony offered at the Filmmakers Anonymous meeting certainly will ring true in the low-rent districts of greater Hollywood. Comparison to I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988) and Hollywood Shuffle (1987) may be a stretch, but only in execution, not in spirit. The cast also benefits from enthusiastic performances by Michelle Grant, Alvaro Orlando and Mykel Shannon Jenkins.

Despite reviews for Killjoy that redefined the term, scathing, the folks at Charles Band’s Full Moon Features decided to try their luck with urban horror, again, two years later, with Killjoy 2: Deliverance From Evil (2002). The series would go on to include five titles, over 16 years, not all of them interested in pursuing an African-American tradition. As before, the antagonist is a killer clown who can be summoned through voodoo incantations to rid the world of miscreants of color. This time, a group of juvenile delinquents – none of whom look a day younger than 30 – are required to serve their time working in a shelter in a dense forest, a place as foreign to them as Manhattan would be to a Hopi snake dancer. After one of them is shot by a local, the survivors seek refuge in the home of a voodoo sorceress, where they mistakenly summon the legendary clown-faced demon, Killjoy – yes, he has an unkempt Afro wig — who begins hunting them down one by one. Apart from some funny fish-out-of-water gags, Killjoy 2: Deliverance From Evil is largely devoid of laughs or thrills. The only actors whose careers survived their encounter with Killjoy are scream queen Debbie Rochon, Nicole Pulliam (“Fashion House”), Choice Skinner (“Black Lightning”) and Trent Haaga, who’s made a career out of playing the killer clown.

47 Below
When it comes to exploring and challenging the elements, the worst thing that can happen – short of death – is creating the impression that anyone proficient at Pilates or completing a 10K run is also capable of climbing the world’s tallest mountain or sailing around the world solo. Just because something has been made to look easy on TV doesn’t mean it is. Enticing photos of the human traffic jam leading to the summit of Mount Everest probably were as much to blame for the great disasters in 1996 and 2014 as changing weather conditions. In 47 Below, we join Australian doctor Geoff Wilson in his attempt to complete a coast-to-pole crossing of Antarctica, to honor a friend’s fight with breast cancer. In doing so, he transformed one of his equipment carriers into a “boob sled,” painted pink and designed to resemble a pair of, yes, breasts. Where Robert Scott, Douglas Mawson and Roald Amundsen were able to make the trek with the assistance of dog teams and other explorers, Wilson decided to do it alone, accompanied by a selfie camera and a kite that he attached to his body and the sled, allowing him to travel as fast as the wind took him … when it was blowing in the right direction, anyway. To survive, he had to battle ferocious blizzards, with winds exceeding 100 kilometers per hour, frostbite, deadly crevasses, loss of food and key equipment, and Antarctica’s terrifying isolation. Dogs would have provided some warmth and companionship, at least. If nothing else, the expedition raised $250,000 for breast-cancer research.

Hell’s Kitty
Rave Party Massacre
It isn’t often that stories that begin as YouTube webisodes are interesting enough to warrant a larger home on screens intended for feature films. After five minutes, or so, the seams begin to show, and the narratives run out of steam. Hell’s Kitty is an exception, if only for people who believe a pet can be possessed by the devil and make dating a hellish experience for its owner. Such is the case with aspiring screenwriter Nick Tana, whose obsession with his cat blinds him to the fact that friends, lovers and acquaintances are dying in its company. When relatives of the victims come to him asking questions, Nick scrambles to defend his pet. Typically, Hell’s Kitty would be a one-gag-per-episode experience, if it weren’t for some nifty editing. In the 98-minute feature cobbled together from the segments, it succeeds through the large number of cameos by familiar actors and lots of jokes only a dog lover would fully grasp. By the time Nick is convinced to have a kitty exorcism, most viewers will be sold on the picture, I think. Among the actors who pop up more than once are Nina Hartley, Michael Berryman, Adrienne Barbeau, Bill Oberst Jr., Doug Jones, Creep Creepersin and Lynn Lowry. It’s difficult to imagine they could be paid much, if anything for their contributions. Perhaps, they were compensated in cat nip.

The scariest thing about Rave Party Massacre (a.k.a., “Dead Thirsty”) is having to endure President George H. W. Bush’s proclamation of a New World Order before the United Nations on September 11,1990. Two years later, such talk would be greeted with derision and outright revolt, but it almost sounded reasonable before the first war with Iraq. In any case, it’s annoying.  On the eve of an abandoned hospital’s demolition, a large group of party-hardy yuppies gathers in its empty surgical theaters and waiting rooms to dance to EDM delivered at a pulsating 150-beats-per-minute. It’s 1992 and the president is about to be swept out of office by Bill Clinton. When Rachel (Sara Bess), Branson (Jared Sullivan) and other ravers are ushered into the illegal party, they are handed a hallucinogenic drug that inspires nightmarish visions and leaves them open to torture by malevolent forces. The party, itself, consumes only about 20 minutes of time, while the rest is chewed up in chases through empty hallways and listening to Rachel scream on a morgue platter. As for a massacre, well, it’s pretty much limited to a small handful of unfortunate revelers. The ending brings a decently conceived and reasonable plot twist, but it’s a bit late in the game for logic. The bonus package adds a director’s commentary, behind-the-scenes footage, set- design sketches and on-set interviews with cast & crew.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Season 11: Blu-ray
I’ll leave it to the fanatics, who financed the 11th season of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” through a successful Kickstarter campaign, to decide if the effort was worth it. I suspect that they would reply in the affirmative, but not without some debate over the relative merits of the individual components. This time around, hapless Jonah Heston (Jonah Ray) is trapped on the dark side of the moon and forced to watch cheesy movies by the evil, profit-obsessed mad scientist Kinga Forrester (Felicia Day) and her fawning henchman Max (Patton Oswalt). Jonah shares his thoughts on Satellite of Love’s movie menu with his wisecracking robot pals, Tom Servo (Baron Vaughn), Crow (Hampton Yount) and Gypsy (Rebecca Hanson). Also on board are guest stars Mark Hamill, Neil Patrick Harris, Joel McHale and Jerry Seinfeld. There’s no debate as to quality – or lack thereof – of the playlist of classically crummy B-movies, however: Starcrash, At the Earth’s Core, Reptilicus, Cry Wilderness, The Beast of Hollow Mountain, Avalanche, The Land Time Forgot, The Loves of Hercules, Yongary, Wizards of the Lost Kingdom I/II, Carnival Magic and The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t. Featurettes include “Special Features and Technical Specs” and “We Brought Back MST3K Documentary.”

The DVD Wrapup: Mohawk, Insidious IV, Proud Mary, Are We Not Cats, Fencer, Man From Earth, Mary Stark, Child in Time and more

Friday, April 13th, 2018

Mohawk: Blu-ray
I’d like to promote a gritty action adventure picture so small it didn’t even register a blip at Box Office Mojo. If Mohawk had been produced and released in the same general vicinity as Little Big Man, Soldier Blue, Black Robe or The Last of the Mohicans, writer-director Ted Geoghegan (We Are Still Here) might have found a niche among fine revisionist Westerns. As it is, he can be proud of almost universal raves in and kudos for showing a different side to Uncle Sam’s decades-long campaign to eradicate native Americans from their homes. Make no mistake: Mohawk is a genre film from start to finish. No one holds the high ground for very long. Now that the true horrors of American genocide are no longer hidden under layers of dust in museums and university archives, Geoghegan isn’t required to build a case for the revenge-minded Indians – the ones not killed in the smallpox epidemic if 1635, anyway – before they’re driven to war. Here, they are still being punished for backing the losing teams in the Revolutionary War and War of 1812 and refusing to buy into the American dream of dairy farms and white picket fences, stretching from sea to shining sea.

After a frontier outpost is overrun by Mohawks unwilling to relocate to Canada, it becomes incumbent on the survivors to capture them and either lead them to justice at a nearby fort or kill them on the spot. The disparity in fire power is represented by a British arms dealer’s efforts to trade hatchets for furs, while the Americans carry muskets, pistols and swords. The Mohawks’ greatest ally is their sibling relationship with the forest, but the advantage is shrinking with every new Yankee victory. After the fair-minded American officer is killed, his spot is taken over by a venom-spouting racist who never met an Indian he didn’t already hate. He makes the unilateral decision to torture and hang a young warrior, who shares a lover with the Brit. Made up (or tattooed) to resemble a ghost, Oak is played with gusto by Kaniehtiio Horn (“Hemlock Grove”), a 5-foot-8 Canadian Mohawk who’s pregnant and in love with both the captive and British arms trader. Carnage begets carnage, until there’s no one left to draw last blood. The costumes and makeup seem reasonably accurate throughout Mohawk and the action is staged, in part, at Syracuse’s Skä•noñh Great Law of Peace Center. While I wouldn’t care to hazard a guess as to the movie’s historical accuracy, Mohawk looks great and Geoghegan nimbly injects a supernatural angle that enhances, but never gets in the way of the cold-blooded action.

Insidious: The Last Key: Blu-ray
If any working actress could survive being cast as the title character in Helen Keller vs. Nightwolves (2015), it would be Lin Shaye. The genre-bending horror, which should never be confused with The Miracle Worker, “explores the true story that the government didn’t want you to know, about how Helen Keller really lost her eyesight and hearing.” The only way it could have succeeded at the box office was on a double-bill with “Grandma Moses’ Death Pact With the Art Mafia.”  Even then, however, only an actress with Shaye’s horror cred could avoid being burned at the stake by politically correct critics. In Adam Robitel and Leigh Whannell’s Insidious: The Last Key, Shaye once again reprises her role as parapsychologist Dr. Elise Rainier, who returns to her family home with her ghostbusting team of Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) to face the unrelenting demons that have plagued her – and subsequent home owners — since childhood. For the record: “The Last Key” is the second prequel in the franchise, which continues to make money for the Universal and Sony co-release. It takes her to her childhood abode, where Elise first made contact with the “Further” and Key Face, as well as ghosts she left behind when she escaped her possession. All these years later, she’s still drawn to the Further by a lonesome whistle in the basement. Elise is confronted there by a series of doors, some of which lead nowhere.

Once again, Elise is vanquished by Key Face, but, somehow, lives to tell about it. While not particularly scary, relying mostly on jump scares, “The Last Key” exudes creepy atmosphere throughout. If you’ve seen the previous three chapters, you’ll know what to expect in “The Last Key” and won’t be disappointed. If that doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, it’s only because I don’t have any brain cells already invested in the story. Shaye’s growing legion of admirers – where’s her star on the Walk of Fame, by the way? – benefit the most from her presence here. That, and some of the special makeup effects are pretty good. The first time I interviewed Shaye was after she scored a trifecta in the Farrelly Brothers’ gross-out trilogy, Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin and There’s Something About Mary as a disgusting old hag. And, while I wasn’t expecting a human gargoyle, per se, Shaye couldn’t have been more different in person. Despite more than 200 acting credits on, she’s been one of Hollywood more underappreciated actresses, supporting and otherwise, for 25 years. It doesn’t look as if she’s spend much time telling stories to the hosts of American talk shows, either. Shaye deserves her moment in the sun, however. The Blu-ray adds a quick refresher course on previous Insidious installments, several deleted scenes, an alternate ending and several making-of featurettes, including one devoted to the character, Elise.

Proud Mary: Blu-ray
I’ll admit to being among the small minority of Americans who’ve yet to see Black Panther. I have, however, enjoyed Marvel Knights: Black Panther, a motion comic from Shout! Factory that was presented as an eight-episode mini-series, in 2012. The character was a franchise waiting to happen. If Screen Gems had been able to read the tea leaves a bit more clearly, it might have held off releasing its throwback actioner Proud Mary until it saw how the African-American community reacted to a movie that features a black comic-book superhero. There were plenty of superheroes back in the era of blaxploitation flicks, but their domains were limited in scope and scale. Their chief superpower was limited to being smarter than the goombahs and corrupt cops who exploited the ghetto community, while their “superfly” costumes protected them from being considered square in an ocean of cool cats and swinging kittens. The approach worked in Harlem and the remote African kingdom of Wakanda.

Proud Mary may not be in the same league as Black Panther – as a commercial vehicle or fully realized story – but it features an excellent performance by Taraji P. Henson (“Empire”) and atmosphere to spare. Loosely based on John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands’ Gloria (1980), Proud Mary stars Henson as a ruthless assassin for a mob operation fronted by Danny Glover, with connections to a bunch of twitchy Eastern Europeans. When Mary shoots a sociopathic if protected mobster, to save a slick street urchin (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), she puts herself in mortal danger. Neither is it anything that would have been expected of her. They have good chemistry together, and it almost saves the rest of the picture from undernourished clichés. That, and a lot of madcap violence involving automatic weapons and hand-to-hand combat. The studio decided, instead, not to screen Proud Mary for critics and they reciprocated by trashing it. The Blu-ray adds featurettes, “Mary’s World,” “The Beginning of the End” and “If Looks Could Kill.”

Are We Not Cats
In John Waters’ largely ignored sex comedy, A Dirty Shame (2005), one of the points he makes is that a bizarre fetish need not stand in the way of love or romance. In a world in which it only takes two to tango, a partner in perversion shouldn’t be that difficult to find … if they know where to look. I don’t recall that any of Waters’ characters engaged in trichotillomania and trichophagia — the compulsive pulling-out of one’s own hair and eating it – but they wouldn’t be the strangest of compulsive activities that occasionally lead to romance in the movie. Xander Robin’s possibly autobiographical Are We Not Cats harkens to a time when New York’s punk, New Wave and dispossessed underground was represented on film by such films as Ulli Lommel’s Blank Generation, Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens and Desperately Seeking Susan, and Jim Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation. Things haven’t changed all that much for the young people who comprise New York’s hipster proletariat, as represented here by Eli (Michael Patrick Nicholson). Eli’s a friendly enough chap, but he lacks the drive and passion for life necessary to make a living in the Big Apple. Here, however, Eli’s having a particularly rough week. Not only has he been dumped by his girlfriend and fired from his garbage-route job, but he’s also been thrown out of his immigrant parents’ apartment. They received an offered they couldn’t refuse and decided to pull up stakes for Arizona. His mother invites him to visit, but he wouldn’t last a week in the desert sun.

Instead, Eli ends up sleeping in the back of the track passed along to him by his father, and now allows him to make a few bucks performing errands for the kinds of people whose work is always done off the books. On a delivery run upstate, Eli befriends a shady rock entrepreneur, Kyle (Michael Godere), and his kooky, blond-wigged girlfriend, Anya (Chelsea Lopez). When Kyle observes the chemistry growing between Eli and Anya, he warns him not to take everything about her at face value. After a very weird night together, it’s clear what Kyle meant about Anya’s hidden personality traits. In a shocking conceit that some viewers will find difficult to digest, Eli’s trichotillomania complements Anya’s trichophagia, but only to the point where tragedy overcomes the generally dark comic tone. Did I mention that Are We Not Cats isn’t for everyone? Its idiosyncrasies should appeal, however, to those who can identify the fine lines that separate comedy, horror and romance in the underground cinema. Nicholson and Lopez deserve a lot of credit for being able to keep their characters working within the line and not straying into caricatures.

The Fencer
If there’s a subgenre in which American filmmakers excel, it’s the sports melodrama. Hoosiers, Miracle, Brian’s Song, Rocky, Seabiscuit, Million Dollar Baby, Remember the Titans and Rudy topped one best-of list I found on the Internet, but there are hundreds, maybe thousands more titles that fit the generic mold. Several good movies have been made in which ping-pong, bowling, water polo and volleyball factor into drama, comedy or romance. Ridley Scott broke his directorial cherry in 1977 with The Duellists, in which a small feud between two Napoleonic officers escalates into a decades-long series of duels. Since then, however, it’s entirely possible that the only filmmakers who’ve taken fencing as seriously as Scott have been Klaus Härö and Anna Heinämaa. They’re the creative team behind The Fencer, the Finnish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Academy Awards. Newly released into DVD by Music Box Films, it does for swordplay what Stand and Deliver did for math, McFarland, USA did for cross-country running and The Great Debate did for, yup, debate. In addition to playing the David-vs.-Goliath card, The Fencer describes how a group of kids from an enslaved Baltic state took on better-equipped teams from around the U.S.S.R., giving their outcast coach an opportunity to stand up to Joseph Stalin’s goons … for a while, anyway. Härö, working from a script by fellow-Finn Heinämaa, has crafted a story that fits alongside the aforementioned titles as an inspirational drama, unabashed crowd-pleaser and hankie-optional tear-jerker. And, while it’s informed throughout by Cold War politics and repression, The Fencer doesn’t require a refresher course in European history to be enjoyed by American teens and adults, even if they couldn’t find Estonia on a map.

A prologue explains how, after 20 years of independence, Estonia was taken over, first, by communist forces; then, Nazi Germany; and, once again, by the Red Army. Each time, Estonian men were conscripted into the armies of their traditional enemies and put on the front lines in suicidal offensives. Those who survived the war found themselves in an emotional and philosophical limbo, caught between the Soviet Union and a resistance movement doomed to failure. The title character here, Endel Nelis, was conscripted into the German army in 1943 and, possibly, forced into the hastily assembled Estonian Waffen-SS division. (Others escaped to Finland, where they volunteered to join the Finns in their battles with the Soviets.) After escaping from Stalin’s secret police, Endel changed his identity to find work at home in a small country school. Although he was a competitive fencer before the war, Endel is reluctant to tip his hand as to his true identity. One of the chores he’s assigned is arranging athletic activities for the students. No sooner is he able to get the kids excited about a skiing expedition than the equipment is commandeered by Soviet forces occupying the town. It only adds to the emotional burden they’ve been carrying around like a backpack full of rocks.

When one girl catches Endel practicing fencing moves in the gym, she pleads with him to teach her the basics of the time-honored sport. He reluctantly agrees, unaware of how desperate her classmates would be to join the fun. To compensate for a lack of equipment, they make swords out of reeds they find in a marsh and share protective padding. Envious of Endel’s popularity, the school’s toady principal does everything he can to sabotage the fencing club. By then, however, a handful of the kids has been invited to the competition in Leningrad, where it would be difficult for Endel to avoid arrest, possible execution or a labor camp in Siberia. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the coach risks his freedom by sticking with his team. The principal makes sure Soviet officials are aware of his identity and decision to go to Leningrad. Even so, Endel is allowed the time to complete his coaching duties, before being hauled away by the police. The spotlight then turns back to the kids, who, in fact, are quite formidable. Härö also finds room for an us-against-the-world romance and a parents’ revolt against the hardline principal. Then, too, watching the faces of the students as they evolve into individuals with dreams and goals of their own, while coming together as teammates, is nothing less than thrilling. Oh, yeah, The Fencer is based on real people and actual events. The DVD adds several deleted scenes and a lengthy interview with Härö.

The Man From Earth: Holocene: Blu-ray
Normally, it would be easy to dismiss The Man From Earth: Holocene as a novelty sequel to a work of speculative fiction that enjoyed a modicum of success, after it was widely shared through geek-to-geek networks and found an afterlife on stage. Director Richard Schenkman claims that “Holocene” wouldn’t have come about if it weren’t for a groundswell of support from fans loyal to the source material, The Man from Earth, and, in turn, respect for midcentury fantasist, Jerome Bixby. And, therein, lies the tale that makes “Holocene” a compelling entertainment. Among other things, Bixby is credited with writing “Requiem for Methuselah,” which aired twice during the third and final season of “Star Trek.” The teleplay’s roots extend back even further than that, however. Some “Star Trek” scholars believe that it was based on ideas advanced in Forbidden Planet (1956), which, in turn, was inspired by Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Bixby’s final screenplay, for The Man from Earth, was conceived in the early 1960s and completed on his deathbed in April 1998. In 2007, it was turned into an independent film project executive produced by his son, Emerson Bixby, directed by Schenkman and starring David Lee Smith, William Katt, Richard Riehle, Tony Todd, Annika Peterson, Alexis Thorpe, Ellen Crawford and John Billingsley. It’s possible, as well, that Bixby cribbed the core conceit from his screenplay for It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), which – wait for it – is said to have inspired Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay for Alien (1979). What’s this mystically powerful idea? Selective immortality.

The Man from Earth’s plot focuses on John Oldman (Smith), a university professor, who claims to be a Cro-Magnon who’s secretly survived for more than 14,000 years. As his colleagues press him to explain his sudden departure from the university, Oldman reluctantly reveals that he relocates every 10 years to keep others from realizing that he does not age. Oldman asks his academic friends to challenge his claim, prompting a lively debate on subjects ranging from pure science to science-fiction and religion. Like a multi-millennial Leonard Zelig, Oldman always appeared to be at the right place at the right time, alongside the right people. He was a Sumerian for 2000 years and a Babylonian, who traveled east to become a disciple of Gautama Buddha. He brought these teachings to ancient Palestine, at the time of Jesus. He also dropped the names of Christopher Columbus and Vincent Van Gogh into the conversation. Atypically, for sci-fi, everything in the movie transpires within the walls of a rural home and the special-effects budget couldn’t have been more than a few bucks. It explains the easy transfer to the stage. The Man From Earth: Holocene picks up a decade later, after Oldman resurfaces at a different college, as comparative-religion professor John Young. While he’s well-regarded and something of a campus heartthrob, Young maintains a healthy distance between himself and his students. Thanks to the Internet, a group of his admirers trace his disparate roots to a widely discredited book written by one of the professors (Katt) who attended the going-away party and took Oldman’s story as something other than hokum. Knowing how such an amazing story, if proven true, could disturb easily freaked-out people, Oldman/Young tries mightily to keep his secrets just that … secret. One of the students, a Christian fundamentalist, takes exception to his professor’s account of history, and it leads to a Judas-like betrayal. Once again, “Holocene” relies more on words than action. Here, though, the tension isn’t heightened by a claustrophobic setting.

Bixby hadn’t envisioned a sequel, so “Holocene” takes liberties with the original concept. Indeed, Schenkman foresees the possibility of a TV series, not unlike “Kung Fu” or “Quantum Leap.” As it is, though, the sequel only found an audience through a festival screening and guerrilla distribution network, based on self-pirating the film via the Internet. According to Schenkman and producer Eric D. Wilkinson, they’ve received nearly $45,000 in donations via their site,, from fans and supporters around the world, including China. Besides Smith and Katt, “Holocene” features credible performances by Vanessa Williams, Michael Dorn, Sterling Knight, Akemi Look, Brittany Curran, and Carlos Knight. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Schenkman and Wilkinson; a 40-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, with cast and crew; a piece on the original score; a Q&A with Schenkman at the Dances With Films World Premiere; deleted/extended scenes; a ”Primal Kickboxing” instructional video; photo gallery; and original posters.

Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds: Blu-ray
Although the smash Korean action/fantasy Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds is officially based on Joo Ho-min’s popular webtoon (a.k.a., manhwa), it shouldn’t be difficult for western viewers to identify traces of Defending Your Life (1991), Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and Heaven Can Wait (1943). The guiding conceit, however, is provided by an ancient Buddhist belief that when a person of substance reaches the afterlife, they are judged 7 times over the course of 49 days, and “only the souls who pass trials relating to deceit, indolence, injustice, betrayal, violence, murder and filial impiety can be reincarnated.” Maybe, maybe not. If anyone deserved to bypass the seven trials, you’d think it would be the heroic firefighter Kim Ja-hong (Cha Tae-hyun), who saved the life of a little girl by using his body to break her fall from a high floor in a skyscraper inferno. After some natural confusion on his part – Kim can hear people lauding his heroic sacrifice – he’s guided to the afterlife by three guardians, who, themselves, aren’t very clear on the seven-trials concept. Even though Kim led an exemplary life, his reincarnation can be affected negatively by unforeseen repercussions from positive acts. In other words, celestial prosecutors can use the butterfly effect against the defendant … times seven. At 140 minutes, there’s plenty of time for a dazzling display of CGI-driven flashbacks and guilt trips, fantasy landscapes, demons and angels, gods and goddesses. If the appeal still is to fans of Pacific Rim cinema, I can see how kids here might be attracted to it for the same reasons they’re drawn to The Wizard of Oz. The background featurettes aren’t up to snuff, however.

Braven: Blu-ray
If the poster art for Braven is intended to remind browsers of Logan/Wolverine, of X-Men fame, it just could work. Jason Momoa stares out from the photograph, with a snow-covered mountain and dense forest in the background, a bow in his left hand, a quiver on his back and a fresh scar on the side of his face. Although his hair looks frozen in place, the sleeves of his T-shirt only extend to middle of the Polynesian tattoo on his forearm. On the cover of the DVD/Blu-ray box, the same photo of Momoa is used, with a handgun in his right hand, the bow and quiver erased, and, instead of a mountainous background, the forest is quite a bit denser. A cabin has been set on fire, apparently, by marauders on snow-mobiles. The differences aren’t terribly misleading or inaccurate, however. The Hawaiian-born, Iowa-raised Momoa may have struck the same sort of pose in marketing material for “Baywatch: Hawaii,” “Stargate: Atlantis,” Conan the Barbarian, “Game of Thrones,” “The Red Road,” “Frontier” and the “Justice League,” where he plays Aquaman. At a buff-and-tumble 6-foot-4, the camera didn’t have to add muscles where they don’t exist. If there’s any deception intended here, it’s to make the modestly budgeted Canadian indie look several million dollars more expensive than it probably was. But, Northwoods logger Joe Braven is only half the story here. The other half is provided by the spectacular scenery along Newfoundland’s coastline, all of which is extremely well utilized by stuntman-turned-director Lin Oeding, cinematographer Brian Andrew Mendoza and a trio of stunt coordinators.

When a truck transporting logs and heroin slides off the road during a severe snowstorm, the driver and his assistant find a temporary hiding place for the drugs in a nearby cabin. Inconveniently, for the traffickers, Joe and his father (Stephen Lang) have picked the same weekend to take advantage of the cabin’s isolation to chart the crusty old man’s future in anticipation of Alzheimer’s. Unbeknownst to them, as well, Joe’s daughter, Charlotte (Sasha Rossof), has stowed away in their SUV. When the bad guys can’t wait any longer, they decide to storm the cabin and eliminate the owners. If they had held off for a couple more hours, they could have walked into the shed unobstructed and carried away the stash. What fun would that be, though?  The shootout, which, yes, includes pinpoint-accurate archery and wolf traps, is extremely well choreographed and executed. At a brisk 94 minutes, hardly a moment is wasted for idle chitchat, time-consuming romance or needless exposition. Even when Joe’s bow-hunter wife, Stephanie (Jill Wagner) is introduced to the mix, the action never wavers or seems absurd. The story’s economic use of violence might remind some viewers of similar work by Sam Peckinpah and Don Siegel. It’s not as much of a stretch as you might think. The package adds the featurette, “The Braven’s Views.”

Gone Are the Days: Blu-ray
Despite the fact that he’s pushing 78, Lance Henriksen has more work on his plate than actors half or two-thirds his age. As one of the most recognizable, genre-defying hard-guys in the movies and television, the New York native has played more wildly different sorts of working-class heroes – and villains – than one can instantly identify. He’s excelled as astronauts (Alien) and vampires (Near Dark) and provided voices in several animated features. Typically, though, character actors don’t wait for their phones to ring on the days that awards nominations are announced. Even so, Henriksen’s portrayal of psychic FBI profiler Frank Black, in “Millennium,” garnered three consecutive Golden Globe nominations for Best Performance by a Lead Actor in a Drama Series. In Mark Landre Gould and Gregory M. Tucker’s atmospheric oater, Gone Are the Days, he plays a notorious outlaw, Taylon Flynn, who’s heading rather quickly toward his last roundup. Despite his bad health, Taylon saddles up for one last shot at redemption, by relieving one last bank of its money. Once inside the mining town, he discovers the daughter he abandoned decades earlier, working in a seedy brothel. Naturally, the brothel owner doesn’t want to lose one of his prized assets, so he enlists the local sheriff (Tom Berenger) to his cause. Gone Are the Days may not break any new ground, but it serves as reminder as to the genre’s continued vitality and ability to entertain.  Also on hand are Danny Trejo, Steve Railsback and Jamie McShane. The package adds a making-of featurette and cast/crew interviews.

My Friend Dahmer: Blu-ray
With a title like My Friend Dahmer, you’d think that Marc Meyers’ disconcerting drama would have a snowball’s chance in hell of being watchable. Jeffrey Dahmer’s crimes were so heinous and thoroughly covered by the media that it would have been difficult to find an angle worth revisiting. What would be the point, anyway? My Friend Dahmer is based on the graphic novel by Derf Backderf, who attended the same high school as the future serial killer and considered himself to be one of his few friends. And, by “friends,” I mean fellow students who adopted the terribly shy and awkward teenager as their personal plaything. The band nerds who comprise the Jeffrey Dahmer Fan Club here have no trouble convincing Dahmer (Ross Lynch) to do oddball things that would draw attention to himself and cause other students to shun him. While the hazing easily qualifies as bullying, Dahmer seems to welcome the companionship it provided him. The other boys might have been surprised to learn that Dahmer already fits the profile of a future sociopath. He collects bones and dissects roadkill, has dysfunctional parents (Anne Heche, Dallas Roberts) and lives in a world of his own creation. He fixates on a neighborhood jogger (Vincent Kartheiser), who appears like clockwork on the road outside his home. For all his weirdness, however, he’s a good student and not without ambition. Meyers lays out all of Dahmer’s pluses and minuses in as neutral a way as possible, using Backderf’s subsequently published sketchbook as a roadmap to the psychological profile. My Friend Dahmer climaxes at the point where Dahmer – angry after his mother pulls up stakes without alerting him – decides to take his first human life. Blessedly, we’re spared any depiction of the crime. My Friend Dahmer is the culmination of a comic- book project that began in 1994, shortly after Dahmer was murdered in prison, and has since grown to include the self-published 24-page “My Friend Dahmer” (2002) and a 224-page version, released in 2012. The Blu-ray adds an interview with actor Ross Lynch and behind-the-scenes slideshow.

Jasper Jones
This coming-of-age tale about life in a claustrophobic Western Australian town, circa 1969, is based on an award-winning novel by Fremantle writer Craig Silvey. It could just as easily been set in the American South, during the same period, without missing a beat. Because Jasper Jones addresses small-town crime, racism and intolerance in similar ways, several Down Under critics have compared it favorably to Stand by Me and To Kill a Mockingbird. In it, Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller), a bookish 14-year-old, finds himself caught in the middle of an investigation into the disappearance and probable murder of a teenage girl, Laura Wishheart, who was dating mixed-race 16-year-old Jasper Jones (Aaron McGrath). Even absent a body, all fingers in town are pointing in Jasper’s direction. We suspect that he didn’t commit the crime, if only because the evidence against him is too conveniently laid out. (If he were guilty, why would Jasper coax Charlie out of bed on that fateful night to help him deal with her lifeless body.) To protect Jasper, Charlie goes along with the scheme, first, and ask questions later. Complicating things for Charlie on a personal basis is his burgeoning relationship with the victim’s whip-smart sister, Eliza (Angourie Rice). The boys suspect that the killer is a reclusive swamp rat, Mad Jack Lionel (Hugo Weaving), who’s harboring secrets that may or may not have anything to do with the crime. It’s to Rachel Perkins’ credit that there’s sufficient room left in the narrative for compelling parallel storylines, involving prejudice faced by a Vietnamese immigrant family, and a reckless affair between Charlie’s mom (Toni Collette) and a local cop. Not everything is tied together with a neat little bow, but it’s easy to see how Jasper Jones became a big hit in Australia. Bonus features include interviews with director Perkins and stars Collette, Weaving, Rice and Miller; a short film “Death of a Unicorn,” narrated by Tilda Swinton; and director’s statement.

Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer
At its heart, Leslie Zemeckis’ exhaustively researched documentary, Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer, is the story of a Kentucky girl who ran away from home, joined the circus and, for the next 57 years, was one of its greatest stars. After being raised in poverty, and stints as a nurse and hoochie-coochie dancer, Mabel Stark became the first woman to train tigers, doing things with big cats in the center ring that few other performers dared. She headlined shows with Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey, survived multiple maulings and tempestuous marriages, and starred in Hollywood movies (Doctor Doolittle, Tarzan). At one time, Stark managed up to 20 tigers at a time, forming intimate bonds with each one, rather than using the whip. In 1968, her life ended tragically just outside of the Jungleland amusement park, in Thousand Oaks, California. The circus setting adds a lot of color to what might have been just another first-woman-to-do-such-and-such story. Her marriages, alone, could have inspired through-lines in a dozen soap operas. Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer does a nice job encapsulating American entertainment history as the circus moved from big tops to big-city arenas, with no room for midway rides or freak shows. By the time Stark left the circus for good, there were only a few traveling units. The archival material is enhanced by fresh interviews with historians and circus folk. The DVD adds several bonus features. And, yes, a theatrical feature is currently in the planning stages.

The City of the Dead: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Deep Red: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Full Moon High: Blu-ray
Sometimes, there’s nothing more comforting than a nearly 60-year-old exploitation flick that refuses to succumb to the clichés that cling to its surface like barnacles to a whale. On its surface, the only thing worth savoring in The City of the Dead (a.k.a., “Horror Hotel”) would be an early performance by Christopher Lee, who, in 1960, was well on his way to becoming a horror icon. Produced in England but set in the colonies, the British actors were required to speak with American accents throughout. The City of the Dead takes places in the fictional Massachusetts town of Whitewood, where a witch named Elizabeth Selwyn is about to be burned at the stake. Before that can happen, though, she confesses to being Satan’s host on Earth and curses the town’s inhabitants for generations to come. Flash forward a few hundred years and a comely student of Lee’s Professor Alan Driscoll has been encouraged to visit Whitewood for a paper she’s doing. Nan’s visit corresponds with Candlemas Eve, when local wiccans sacrifice a young girl to sate Satan’s appetite for virgins. Even in 1960, Venetia Stevenson probably wouldn’t be mistaken for a virgin, but she’ll do in a pinch. Two weeks later, Nan’s brother follows her path to Whitewood, which, by now, is surprisingly lively for a ghost town. If that scenario feels more appropriate for a horror anthology, it’s probably because the script was originally written by George Baxt as a pilot for a TV series – possibly “Thriller” — starring Boris Karloff. And, yet, thanks to the British cast and a fresh 2K polish, City of the Dead in none the worse for the wear and Lee, as usual, is a delight. The Arrow package adds the slightly shorter American version, “Horror Hotel,” which was released in 1963; a 45-minute interview with Lee, from the DVD release; a 17-minute behind-the-scenes featurette; interviews with directorJohn Llewellyn Moxey and Stevenson; commentaries by Lee, Moxey and actor/historian Jonathan Rigby; and an insert booklet with essays and production photos. For some reason, City of the Dead has resonated through the years with such bands as Iron Maiden, UFX, Kid Diamond, Rob Zombie and In This Moment, all of whom have borrowed snippets for songs and videos.

Arrow Video extends it Wonderful World of Giallo series – my words – another month with Dario Argento’s way-over-the-top fright fest, Deep Red (a.k.a., “Profondo rosso,” “The Hatchet Murders”), starring a totally cool David Hemmings, beguiling Daria Nicolodi, Gabriele Lavia and Macha Meril. It arrived four years after Argento’s “Animal Trilogy” changed the way the world looked at Italian genre filmmaking. As such, it represented a refinement of the genre, which previously had to overcome tight budgets and skeptical critics, and a stepping stone to Argento’s more supernaturally themed material. One night, musician Marcus Daly (Hemmings) witnesses the brutal ax murder of a woman in her apartment. Racing to the scene, Marcus just manages to avoid the perpetrator. Now moonlighting as an amateur sleuth, Marcus becomes ensnared in a bizarre web of murder, mystery and the macabre, where nothing is what it seems. The action is backed by a throbbing score from the progressive Italian rock band, Goblin, and a color scheme from a Technicolor wet dream. The two-disc Limited Edition is enhanced by the inclusion of the original version and shorter export edit of the film; six postcard-sized lobby-card reproductions; a reversible fold-out poster, featuring two original artworks, and reversible sleeve, with newly commissioned work by Gilles Vranckx; a booklet, with new writing on the film by Mikel J. Koven, author of “La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film,” and an archival essay by Alan Jones, illustrated with original archive stills; audio commentary by filmmaker and Argento expert, Thomas Rostock; an introduction, by Claudio Simonetti of Goblin; and several archival featurettes.

For a while there, genre parodies were almost as prevalent as the movies they spoofed. The best of them — Shaun of the Dead, Scary Movie and What We Do in the Shadows, among them – could stand on their own merits as entertainments for buffs and casual fans. Most best-of lists I’ve seen omit Lawrence Cohen’s Full Moon High, which, even upon its release in 1981, gave off cheap and outdated vibes. By using the 24-year-old I Was a Teenage Werewolf as its inspiration, Cohen appeared to be betting against the odds that kids newly enthralled by slasher and splatter flicks would find something amusing in tropes that no longer carried much weight. Knowing that the high-school experience, with its bizarre subcultures and codes, hasn’t changed all that much in the last 200 years, or so, Cohen simply lowered his sights to include viewers for whom whom Mel Brooks might as well have been Moliere. One indication that he wasn’t dumbing down the humor to reach the lowest common denominator, however, was his decision to cast Brooks regular Kenneth Mars (Young Frankenstein, The Producers) as the handsy Coach Cleveland. In such a target-rich environment, Cohen didn’t have to look too far more inspiration than that. Adam Arkin plays Tony, a star athlete whose horndog father (Ed McMahon) insists he accompany him on a business trip to Romania. Locked out of their room, while daddy’s romancing a pair of Transylvanian hookers, Tony is ambushed by a werewolf and inherits the full-moon curse. Skip ahead 20 years and Tony is every bit as fresh-faced, athletic and handsome as he was when he split town to avoid revealing his sickness to his friends. He pretends to be his own son, but there’s no way to fool an old girlfriend. Full Moon High may not be able to bear more scrutiny than that, however.

Up in Smoke: 40th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Cheech and Chong’s debut motion picture has been released, re-released and repackaged enough times for veteran stoners to have memorized lines and set up gags of their own as trip-wires for fellow potheads. For lots of Old Hippies, Up in Smoke is one of those movies that delivers new laughs no matter how many times they’ve seen it. It’s anyone’s guess, however, how well Lou Adler’s lucrative collaboration with Cheech & Chong will hold up at a time when pot is legal in a growing number of states, THC content can be adjusted to fit a smoker’s moods and no-smoke-toking threatens to put the Zig-Zag man into a retirement home. Paramount’s “Up in Smoke: 40th Anniversary Edition” carries over several featurettes from previous editions and anniversaries. It adds newly recorded interviews with the boys, reflecting on four decades of marijuana-enhanced memories. A special “Deluxe Edition” is also addition. If Adler’s name doesn’t ring a bell, he’s the geezer with courtside seats next to Jack Nicholson at every Lakers home game.

Condorito: The Movie
Tad, The Lost Explorer and the Secret of King Midas
I don’t know if the popular Chilean comic-strip character, Condorito, shares any avian DNA with the Disney’s Jose Carioca, but their respective ages and geographical proximity to each other suggest that they might. The anthropomorphic Condorito was created by René Rios Boettiger (a.k.a., Pepo) in 1949, seven years after Uncle Walt’s “dapper Brazilian parrot” was introduced throughout the Americas in Saludos Amigos (1942). While Carioca appears to be enjoying semi-retirement at various Disney parks around the world, Condorito is still going strong throughout Latin America. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Condorito: The Movie as much as I did. In the opening prologue, we learn that he’s a descendant of a “featherless condor” who saved humanity from an alien attack during pre-Columbian times, by stealing a powerful amulet that was used to enslave humans. The character leads a decidedly less heroic life, today, in the fictional village of Pelotillehue, where he’s something of a slacker. The aliens return in Condorito: The Movie to retrieve the amulet. When the aliens call Condorito to demand the talisman in exchange for anything he desires, he assumes it’s spam from wireless company. As a lark, he agrees to turn over the gem if they agree to take away his girlfriend’s overbearing mother, Tremebunda, which, of course, is just what happens. In one fell swoop, Condorito manages to alienate his girlfriend, Yayita, and promise to deliver an amulet he can’t find. And, even if he does locate it, the amulet would give the aliens the power to conquer the universe, so why bother? Condorito and his condor nephew, Cone, team up to find the amulet and rescue Treme without allowing the aliens to take over the universe. What’s a poor bird and his nephew to do? I was impressed by the first-class animation and sense of humor which occasionally shifts from kiddy-friendly to ribald.

From Spain, Tad, The Lost Explorer and the Secret of King Midas merges the dubious archeological skills of construction worker Tad Jones with the genuine ability of Sara Lavrof, as a renowned scientist and explorer. Imagine Indiana Jones and Lara Croft coming at their respective jobs from completely different skill levels. Two years after their last mission, Tad travels to Las Vegas to attend Sara’s presentation of her latest discovery: the papyrus that points to the existence and whereabouts of the Necklace of Midas. Their reunion will be clouded by an evil millionaire, who kidnaps Sara to find the necklace and gain infinite wealth. Along with his friends, the parrot (Belzoni) and his dog (Jeff), Tad will have to use his wit and limited stamina to rescue Sara, who could be anywhere. The animation isn’t bad. The story, however, sometimes gets bogged down attempting to balance elements designed to keep kids and adults interested.

Enzo d’Alo’s brilliantly colored take on Carlo Collodi’s classic novel, “Pinocchio,” finally arrives in the U.S., five years after it was nominated for top awards at the Annecy Cristal and European Film Awards ceremony. Reimagined for a new generation and bursting with songs, laughter and thrills, this witty adaptation includes new, rarely explored chapters of the story. Carved by the lonely woodcutter, Geppetto, who’s longing for a real son, playful Pinocchio is eager to do good and become human. Sadly, he keeps getting distracted from his quest. Constantly captured by con men, creatures and constables, he finds solace in the courtesy of the helpful souls who recognize the wooden puppet’s kind heart. Children already familiar with the Disney version might enjoy seeing how the rest of the world views the same lovable character.

PBS: Masterpiece: The Child in Time: UK Edition
Adapted from Ian McEwan’s Whitbread Award-winning novel, “The Child In Time” (1987), the 90-minute installment of “Masterpiece” provides a splendid opportunity to watch two of our finest actors work together under extremely difficult emotional circumstances. Benedict Cumberbatch and Kelly Macdonald play Stephen and Julie Lewis, a highly accomplished British couple with few, if any dark clouds on their horizons. The sunshine disappears in an instant, when, while shopping, Stephen momentarily takes his eyes off their 4-year-old daughter, Kate, who’s sat down on the floor next to the checkout line to read a book. The very next thing he knows, Kate is gone for good. Julie is quick to accuse her husband of negligence, berating him mercilessly. Two years later, Kate is still missing, and her parents are completely estranged. They will both admit to catching sight of a little blond girl in a yellow coat, running behind a fence or vanishing in a crowd. It’s heartbreaking to watch, but, sadly, nothing completely out of the ordinary in our culture. Director Julian Farino (“Ballers”) and adapter Stephen Butchard (“The Last Kingdom”) throw the couple a lifeline, but it comes so late in the game that’s there’s no guarantee they’ll recognize it when it comes. I haven’t read the book, but it’s easy to see how other things that happen in the Lewis’ lives serve to undermine their stability even further. They include inexplicable changes in the personalities of close friends, coincidental apparitions and fractures in the time-space continuum. A potential girlfriend for Stephen is introduced, then ignored, and a potential sighting causes him to invade the classroom of an innocent little girl, who shares facial features with Kate. The mental breakdown of a longtime friend is well handled, but difficult to understand. Confused viewers may find their only recourse is to find a copy of the book and read it cover-to-cover, which isn’t the worst solution in the world.

As time runs out on a busy week of viewing DVDs, I’m only able to mention the titles of other fine shows newly available to those of us with broken VCRs. Also from PBS, they are “The New York Cantors”; “Understanding the Opioid Epidemic”; “The Last Rhino”; the “Secrets of the Dead” presentation, “Scanning the Pyramids”; from “NOVA,” “Black Hole Apocalypse” and “The Impossible Flight”; PBS Kids’s “WordWorld: Let’s Eat” and “Wild Kratts: Madagascar Madness”; and the Smithsonian Channel’s “Victorian Rebel: Marianne North.”

The DVD Wrapup: All the Money in the World, Surge, Sweet Virginia, Basmati Blues and more

Thursday, April 5th, 2018

All the Money in the World
It’s entirely possible that the infamous and still debated kidnapping of Patty Hearst, by an easily impressionable collection of left-wing misfits, was inspired by the abduction of John Paul Getty III, in Rome, six months earlier. Both involved the heirs to great fortunes, whose stories were doubted by police and family members. While Hearst’s kidnapping inspired movies and mini-series, it’s taken forty-five years for the Getty III case to spark such high-profile projects as Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World and Danny Boyle’s “Trust,” currently on FX. (Two very good films were made about the 1983 abduction of brewing executive Freddie Heineken, in 2011 and 2013, as well.) All the Money in the World was adapted, in part, from John Pearson’s “Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty,” which includes significant content on the 16-year-old Getty’s ordeal. In it, Getty III is played by Charlie Plummer and, as a young boy, by Charlie Shotwell. In “Trust,” Harris Dickinson portrays Getty III. While the mini-series takes a more sensational approach to the family and the crime, the primary contrast is between the two fine actors who play the greedy oil tycoon: Donald Sutherland (“Trust”) and Academy Award-nominee Christopher Plummer. Key highlights of the kidnapping, investigation and police dragnet are also different. The contrast between the family’s chief investigator – played Brendan Fraser (“Trust”) and Mark Wahlberg – is striking, as well. The facts that remain the same are old man’s initial refusal to contribute to the ransom and the delivery of a portion of Getty III’s ear to a media outlet, forcing the old man’s hand. The boy’s mother, Gail (Michelle Williams), is the only Getty who comes off relatively unscarred in the movie version.

Scott deserves the highest praise for pulling All the Money in the World from the jaws of disaster. When Kevin Spacey was called out for sexual misdeeds, Scott decided not to ashcan the project, even though it was nearly completely filmed. He was able to get Plummer on board and reshoot scenes in which Spacey interacted with other characters. Fact is, the older and more patrician Plummer probably should have been Scott’s first choice, all along. While maintaining Getty’s dignity, Plummer easily conveys the moral and ethical decay whose stench can’t be disguised by wealth. Everything else about the production is first-class, even though it occasionally feels staid next to “Trust.” All the Money in the World contains several deleted scenes and featurettes, “Ridley Scott: Crafting a Historical Thriller,” “Hostages to Fortune: The Cast” and “Recast, Reshot, Reclaimed,” dealing with the eight-day reshoot to replace Spacey, including cast and crew response and the technical details and challenges of the process. (I can’t recall if the other scandal – this one, involving Williams being cheated out of her rightful pay for reshoots — is mentioned.)

Surge of Power: Revenge of the Sequel: Blu-ray
Some movies about comic-book superheroes look as if $200 million was allocated by the studio for special effects, stars and marketing, with very little left over for a decent screenplay. Antonio Lexerot and Vincent J. Roth’s way-beyond-campy Surge of Power: Revenge of the Sequel appears to have been made for $2 million – maybe even $200,000 – with most of the money going into the recruitment of a dozen, or so, familiar faces, and creation of some cheesy sci-fi sets and costumes. The story won’t make a lot of sense to people unfamiliar with the 2004 original, Surge of Power: The Stuff of Heroes, in which we’re introduced to Surge, the world’s first openly gay superhero. Like it, the sequel is a tongue-firmly-in-cheek spoof of superhero culture, with multiple nods to some of the most beloved touchstones of nerd culture over the past half-century. It’s for cosplay obsessives who plan their vacations around every new ComicCon. Here, Surge’s nemesis and supervillain, Metal Master (John Venturrini), attempts to reform, but his parents’ refusal to accept his sexuality keeps him in a tailspin. He heads to Las Vegas to steal some powerful crystals — “Celinedionium” — for evil mastermind Augur (Eric Roberts). Upon hearing about it, Surge (Roth) cranks up the old Surgemobile and points it toward Vegas to thwart Auger’s evil plan. Among the actors making cameos are Linda Blair (Exorcist), as Metal Master’s homophobic mother; to Nichelle Nichols (“Star Trek”), as one of the most powerful superheroes in this galaxy; Gil Gerard; Robert Picardo; Bruce Vilanch;  Lou Ferrigno; Dawn Welles; Martina Sartis; “Superman” favorites, Noel Neill and Jack Larson; “Seinfeld” Soup Nazi, Larry Thomas; Rebecca Staab; Kato Kaelin; such Vegas showroom stalwarts as fomer mayor Oscar Goodman, impersonator Frank Marino, “Pawn Stars” regular Mark Hall-Patton, Unknown Comic Murry Langston, singer/comedian Frankie Scinta, Elvis impersonator Jesse Garon and Cher impersonator Heidi Thompson; and a bunch more “celebrities.” Surge of Power: Revenge of the Sequel has already been followed by a podcast triquel, Surge of Power: Big City Chronicles. If I didn’t get the joke, it’s probably is because I haven’t attended a ComiCon in nearly 30 years … yes, before it became cool. It adds several featurettes.

Sweet Virginia: Blu-ray
Blessed with A-list actors and a proven writer-director in Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was accorded an opportunity to succeed commercially in ways that other recent small-town noirs – for lack of a better term— were denied. A couple of weeks ago, I was surprised by Eshom and Ian Nelms’ Small Town Crime, which generated vibes similar to “Three Billboards,” and shared terrific performances by John Hawkes. Jamie M. Dagg and the China Brothers’ similarly edgy Sweet Virginia was judged to be too insignificant to receive anything more than a single-screen theatrical release. I’m sure that all three of these dark-and-lowdown thrillers owe a debt of gratitude to the Coens’ Blood Simple, as well, but things are different now that VOD provides a primary distribution for such unpolished indies. Set in a tiny Alaska burg, but shot in Hope, British Columbia, whose forests, rivers and mountains provided backdrops for First Blood (1982), Sweet Virginia opens with the inexplicable murders of three local men, playing poker in a bar after hours. The next time we see the killer, Elwood (Christopher Abbott), he’s checked into a motel owned by Sam (Jon Bernthal), a onetime rodeo star whose bull-riding days are long over.

Sam is as quiet and withdrawn as Elwood is restive and unpredictable. Over dinner, they strike up a friendship based on Elwood’s father’s admiration for Sam’s rodeo exploits. The other things they hold in common are relationships with two of murdered men’s wives. Sam has carried on a long-term affair with Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt, while, as we learn rather quickly, Elwood was hired to kill the husband of their mousy friend, Lila (Imogen Poots), who provides the cherchez la femme angle. He even decides to throw in the other two victims gratis. An insurmountable problem arises when Lila learns that her husband has squandered their savings and she can’t pay Elwood. Clearly, the contract killer isn’t about to leave town without payment and, despite their incipient friendship, Sam now stands as the only roadblock between him and a possible solution to his dilemma. Dagg allows the tension to build at a pace that ranges from leisurely to explosive, with a few solid surprises thrown in to keep viewers guessing. It deserves to be seen.

Permanent: Blu-ray
As co-creator of the wonderfully offbeat HBO series, “Hung,” it was only natural for writer/director Colette Burson to take a shot at something bigger and, perhaps, more prestigious. Permanent appears to be a semi-autobiographical feature about a square-peg family in a round-hole community, somewhere in Virginia, in 1982. It overflows with the kinds of comic conceits that are able to carry a successful cable comedy over the course of a dozen commercial-free episodes. The same format  doesn’t necessarily work within the confines of a 93-minute feature, however, if only because too many wacky characters can spoil the broth. In Permanent, the family unit not only is dysfunctional, but also completely out of place within its time frame and setting. Rainn Wilson plays Jim Dickson, whose transition from military to civilian life isn’t going as smoothly as he imagined it would be. Dickson recently lost his job as a steward on Air Force One and he wants to earn a medical degree. While this explains his laughably imperious demeanor, it doesn’t make sense that Dickson would refuse to remove his hideous toupee to pass a swimming test that’s required by school administrators. (Don’t ask.) One would think that, in 1982, a military pension and proximity to world leaders would afford the family a comfortable life, at least until Jim gets his degree.

Instead, his wife, Jeanne (Patricia Arquette), is forced to take up waitressing to support the family, causing her feet and resentment to swell. (For some reason, Arquette either was asked to gain weight for the role or is wearing a fat suit as sad as Wilson’s wig.) Teenage daughter Aurelie (Kira McLean) must adapt to a new school, where she is immediately mocked for both her unusual first name and the perm she got from a beauty-school apprentice, because her mom was too cheap to pay for a professional hairdresser. Again, in 1982, it’s difficult to believe that a perm would cause her to be bullied by her new classmates or that girls her age could get away with equating her Little Orphan Annie hairstyle with being African-American. By now, Afros were common, as well, atop curly-haired Jews, Italians, Puerto Ricans and the occasional Swede. As small as the Virginia town may be, easy access to MTV, Teen and Seventeen magazines, and teen-oriented horror/slasher films, argued that being hip wasn’t determined by zip code. McLean’s spirited portrayal of a “new girl” who challenges the popular clique not only is refreshing, but it also carries the other silly stuff to their illogical conclusions. I suspect that McLean will enjoy a long, prosperous career. Some fine local talent scores high marks, as well. The Blu-ray adds deleted/alternate scenes and “Getting Permanent with Rainn Wilson.”

Basmati Blues: Blu-ray
While I’ve watched several excellent documentaries on genetically motivated organisms and agri-business interests that want farmers to become dependent on their non-perennial seeds, Basmati Blues is the first romantic musical I’ve seen on the subject. Dan Baron’s directorial debut isn’t the first to merge Hollywood storytelling with the singing and dancing of Bollywood – that might have been Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge! – but it succeeds better than most I’ve seen. That’s because its producers managed to cast Brie Larson in 2013, before she scored small, with Short Term 12, and big with Room. In it, she plays a western scientist, Linda, who, along with her father (Scott Bakula), has developed a genetically modified strain of rice that could radically change the way Indian farmers grow their most essential product. Their boss is played by Donald Sutherland, who does corrupt, greedy and unethical as well as any living actor. After one salesman embarrassed the company in India, he sends Linda to a remote corner of the subcontinent, where rice growers have been using the same methods for centuries. Lately, though, they’ve been confronted by pests and diseases as new as this morning’s papers. The perception of cultural appropriation and other white-savior conceits derives from Linda sweeping in from the Great White West and selling the farmers a bill of goods – based on a single season’s productivity — that will indenture them to the company for years to come. When she figures out the scheme’s ramifications, Linda is forced to re-convince the farmers that they made a mistake by taking her advice and they should join her revolt. In the meantime, she’s kinda, sorta fallen in love with a couple of the locals, with whom she jams, dances and sings. If Basmati Blues hardly qualifies as fresh, it benefits greatly from Larson’s winning performance and the Indian locations and actors. The Blu-ray adds several making-of featurettes.

The Railway Children
Edith Nesbit’s beloved children’s novel, “The Railway Children,” has been adapted for newspaper serialization, the stage, radio, screen and television for more than a century. Because of the continuing importance of trains throughout Europe, the story still naturally resonates more in the U.K. than it ever would in the U.S., where, until recently, our passenger railroads have been left to decay. Still, it shouldn’t be too difficult for American kids, reared on “Thomas the Tank Engine,” to understand and enjoy. In it, Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis are the railway children whose lives change dramatically when their father is mysteriously taken away by men in long coats. They move from London to a cottage in rural Yorkshire with their mother, where they befriend the local railway porter, Perks, and wave to passengers they recognize from their daily commute. The strangers will play a key role in the adventures the kids embark upon in their quest for answers to their father’s disappearance. This, the latest filmed iteration of The Railway Children, represents a joint York Theatre Royal and National Railway Museum production, which was staged in a venue near Kings Cross Station in London. The audience sits on bleachers that line a stage bisected by an improvised track, depot and moving train cars. It’s an interesting way to introduce kids to live performances, by actors who aren’t all that much older than they are. If, at first, the costumes and narrative feel a tad antiquated, it won’t take long for them to empathize with the railway children’s dilemma.

Netflix: 13 Reasons Why: Season 1
When teen-oriented movies and television shows, such as Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why,” find success taking on serious topics, like suicide, bullying, LGBTQ issues and sexual harassment, it’s a safe bet that one conservative watchdog group or another will demand changes that border on censorship. In turn, Hollywood offers to add warnings before the opening credits, during commercial breaks and content ratings that no one pays attention to anymore. (In 1972, the Italian-American Civil Rights League convinced the producer of The Godfather to omit the terms “Mafia” and “Cosa Nostra” from the film’s dialogue. By Godfather II, they were back in. In response to expected boycotts and protests, NBC taped a special preface for its “The Godfather Saga” broadcast, featuring Talia Shire, explaining that the “Godfather” stories were fictional and not “the story of an entire people, whose contributions are positive and tremendously valued by us all.” No shit.) In “13 Reasons Why,” based on the best-selling books by Jay Asher, sensitive teenager Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) returns home from school one day to find a mysterious box with his name on it, lying on his porch. Inside, he discovers a group of cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) — his classmate and crush object — who committed suicide two weeks earlier.

On tape, Hannah unfolds an emotional audio diary, detailing the 13 reasons why she decided to end her life. They are dramatized in flashbacks throughout the mini-series’ 13-episode season, now encapsulated on DVD. “Thirteen Reasons Why” weaves an intricate and heartrending story of confusion and desperation that feels extremely real, but which might come as a surprise to parents. The conservative Parents Television Council has asked Netflix to postpone the upcoming second season until “experts in the scientific community have determined it to be safe for consumption by an audience that is comprised heavily of minor children.” Previous controversies have prompted experts from the other side to argue that the opposite impact is the more likely response to such teen dramas. By putting a spotlight on these shows, they say, such complex issues as bullying, sexual assault, suicide and betrayal can be brought into the open and used to convince troubled teens that they’re not alone in the world and have options to suicide. The fact is that “13 Reasons Why” is an excellent presentation, directed by such estimable talents as Gregg Araki (White Bird in a Blizzard), Kyle Patrick Alvarez (The Stanford Prison Experiment), Carl Franklin (“House of Cards”), Tom McCarthy (Spotlight), Helen Shaver (Desert Hearts) and Jessica Yu (“Grey’s Anatomy”). Instead of censoring the show, I suggest that advisory groups invite parents and kids to watch “13 Reasons Why” together and engage in group discussions.

The DVD Wrapup: Last Jedi, Behind the Mask, Executioners, King of Jazz, Sacha Guitry, 1:54, Nicholas, Peyton Place and more

Wednesday, March 28th, 2018

Star Wars: Episode VIII: The Last Jedi: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
Being asked to write and direct an episode in the Star Wars series is high praise, even more so considering that the baton being handed off was carried by J. J. Abrams.  Even more impressive, perhaps, is Rian Johnson entrusted with one of the world’s most valuable and expensive entertainment properties after only three highly imaginative and favorably reviewed indies — Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper – and three episodes of “Breaking Bad.” No matter how confident Johnson might have been about his own abilities, the immensity of the challenge was the cinematic equivalent of a Triple A pitcher being called up to the big leagues and making his first start in Yankee Stadium. Or, if you will, passing your driver’s exam and being rewarded with the key to a Bentley. How did it work out for him?  With $220 million, Star Wars: Episode VIII: The Last Jedi delivered the second-largest opening weekend ever, behind only Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which debuted at $247.9 million in December 2015. When all the pennies were counted, Episode VIII recorded $620 million in domestic sales and a hair over $712 million in foreign receipts.

If Johnson didn’t throw the cinematic equivalent of a no-hitter in his first game at Yankee Stadium – some argue the numbers should have been greater — the opponents never really had a chance. As is the case with any new addition to a successful franchise, “Episode VIII” had its fair share of detractors. Because they paid for their tickets, they’re entitled to their opinions. I don’t think anyone at Disney was particularly concerned about the dissenting voices, though. I don’t profess to be an expert on the subject, but “Episode VIII” looked like a winner from Day One and so does the 4K UHD/Blu-ray edition, which arrives this week. The movie was originally shot on a combination of traditional 35mm, IMAX 65mm and various digital cameras with resolution levels ranging between 3K and 6K. The footage was later mastered to a 4K digital intermediate. It is the first episode in franchise history with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack. All of that should come as good news to fans with a sophisticated home-theater setup and pushed Disney to join the 4K UHD parade last August with Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. Although Johnson won’t be working on the third entry in the current trilogy – J.J. Abrams returns to helm “IX” — Johnson has been asked to create a new trilogy, to be set in a different corner of the “Star Wars” universe … not exactly a return to the minors.

The Skywalker saga continues here, as the heroes of “The Force Awakens” join the legends of yesteryear in an epic adventure that unlocks new mysteries of the Force. “The Last Jedi” opens with a fiery aerial battle between Resistance ships, commanded by General Leia Organa (the late, great Carrie Fisher), and a newly arrived First Order fleet. After X-wing fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) leads a counterattack that destroys a First Order dreadnought, counter measures are launched against a Resistance convoy. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who went to the dark side after clashing with Luke in the previous film, puts his Jedi forces to work when ordered to fire on the lead Resistance ship, carrying his mother. TIE wingmen destroy the ship’s bridge, anyway, incapacitating Leia. Disapproving of the passive strategy ordered by new leader Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), Poe helps First Order defector, Finn (John Boyega), droid BB-8 and mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) embark on a secret mission to disable the tracking device leading First Order fighter to Resistance targets. Whew. I’m exhausted just trying to summarize the first 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley), Chewbacca and R2-D2 arrive on the watery planet, Ahch-To – sacred to the Jedi — to recruit Luke to the Resistance. Disillusioned by his failure to train Kylo as a Jedi, and under self-imposed exile from the Force, Luke refuses to help. In fact, he believes that the Jedi should be rendered extinct. R2-D2, with an assist from Yoda’s ghost, finally persuades Luke to train Rey, setting up another battle royal between the Resistance and First Order. Things only get more complicated from there, so “The Last Jedi” would not be a good place for newcomers to jump head first into the by-now very deep franchise waters. Commentary on the Blu-ray disc adds Johnson’s sometimes gushing commentary; “The Director and the Jedi,” a 95-minute making-of documentary; “Scene Breakdowns,” comprised of interviews and behind-the-scenes footage; “Balance of the Force,” in which the director shares his thoughts on the mythology of the Force; “Andy Serkis Live! (One Night Only),” with raw, original footage of Serkis’ performance; 23 minutes of deleted scenes, some with optional commentary and director introduction; and a digital-only bonus feature, “Score Only Version of ‘The Last Jedi,” with John Williams’ iconic music over the entire film.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The more you know about slasher franchises from the 1980s, the more likely it is you’ll enjoy “Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon,” which contains more references and homages to classic titles than a Trivia Pursuit Horror Edition. Scott Glosserman and co-writer David J. Stieve’s 2006 film is a parody disguised as a documentary, in which the title character invites a camera crew to follow him as he systematically prepares for a killing spree. Besides joining Vernon as he picks out likely victims and crime scenes, host Angela Goethals (“24”) is invited to watch him apply his makeup and discuss his motivations and heroes. It explains the presence of Robert Englund, as his psychiatrist/nemesis, and cameos by Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger. Scott Wilson (“The Walking Dead”) plays Vernon’s lowkey mentor in murder. The more time passes, the closer things come to a bloodbath ending, which begs as many questions as it answers. For co-star Zelda Rubinstein (Poltergeist), “Behind the Mask” would be her last acting gig. The Scream Factory “Collector’s Edition” features a 2K remaster of the film; featurettes “Joys and Curses,” interviews with actors Angela Goethals, Ben Pace and co-writer/co-producer David Stieve; “Before the Mask: The Comic Book,” an interview with comic book artist Nathan Thomas Milliner; commentary with co-writer/director Scott Glosserman; commentary with Nathan Baesel, Angela Goethals, Britain Spelling and Ben Pace; a pair of making-of featurettes; and deleted and extended scenes.

The Executioners
At 55, Giorgio Serafini seems a bit too long in the tooth to be churning out low-budget subgenre fare. In The Executioners, however, he’s found a way to add something fresh to the tired home-invasion formula. When four young women go on a retreat to a secluded lakeside cabin, it doesn’t take them long to realize they’re not alone. A trio of muscular intruders, wearing masks made of Play-Doh, I think, terrorize their prisoners, waving guns around like fly swatters and forcing them to strip. In due course, the women turn the tables on the men, forcing them to do similarly nasty things to each other. The balance is tipped once again when the men’s crossbow-wielding boss arrives. A cat-and-mouse came ensues, as the women escape and return to rescue their friends. Things do get bloody, but it’s no more gratuitous than the nudity that enlivens the first 10 minutes of The Executioners. The real question being asked of viewers here is whether we approve of the women dishing out the same level of violence on their attackers, when they could just as easily call the cops. Duh. A final double-cross adds a clever twist to the proceedings, even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The Twilight People: Blu-ray
Even by the low standards generally associated with Philippine exploitation fare, The Twilight People is a disappointment. Released in 1972, it is one of several adaptations of H.G. Wells’ classic anti-vivisectionist novel, “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” and the second made by Eddie Romero, the Roger Corman of the South Pacific. Not to put too fine a point on it, but The Twilight People merges elements of The Island of Lost Souls (1932), The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and Romero’s infinitely better, Black Mama White Mama (1973), which was distributed here by American International Pictures. The primary difference between “BM/WM” and “TTP” is nudity … gratuitous and otherwise. (And, Pam Grier wasn’t required to wear a feline mask and make cat noises.) Otherwise, they both share a largely local supporting cast and crew, lush locations, military-grade weapons and such women-in-prison mainstays as Grier, Margaret Markov, Lynn Borden and Wendy Green. “Petticoat Junction” alumnus Pat Woodell was already in the islands – co-starring in The Big Doll House and The Woman Hunt – so she was an easy choice for “TTP,” as well. (The only member of the repertory company truly missing is Sid Haig.) Onetime teen heartthrob and Romero-regular John Ashley (Beach Blanket Bingo) plays Matt Farrell, an American who’s kidnapped while skin diving and taken to the lair of the evil genius, Dr. Gordon (Charles Macaulay). Matt was a necessary addition to Gordon’s diabolical experiment to create a race of super humanoids, by splicing animal cells to those of a human. The results are more hideous than super. The characters’ names tell the tale: Antelope Man, Bat Man, Ape Man, Wolf Woman and Panther Woman (Greir). Action ensues after Farrell and several of Gordon’s “experiments” seemingly are allowed to escape, with a group of mercenaries hot on their trail. Fans of early-1970s drive-in fare might find something here to enjoy, but not much. (Dimension Pictures added it to a double-bill with The Doberman Gang). The VCI Blu-ray features a pretty good, if sometimes inaudible interview with Romero and commentary by film historian Toby Roan.

King of Jazz: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
It may take a few minutes to get over the misnomer in the title of Criterion Collection’s heirloom musical King of Jazz, featuring Paul Whiteman and His Band. That’s because the orchestra, like most cinematic depictions of Jazz Age revelry, is almost completely devoid of musicians of color. Other than that, King of Jazz can be savored as a prime example of pre-Depression entertainment. Even so, I encourage viewers sensitive to such slights to skip ahead to the disc’s supplemental material, where jazz and film critic Gary Giddins adds context to the ambitious Universal project and Whiteman’s role in the history of popular music. In 1930, when the picture was released, the terms “hot jazz” and “symphonic jazz” were associated with a more theatrical form of swing, exemplified at the high end by George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” (Whiteman had commissioned the composition in 1924, as trademark piece for his orchestra.) Describing his inspiration, Gershwin said, “It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer – I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise. … I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.” The melting-pot conceit extends throughout King of Jazz, in blackout sketches, set direction and production numbers that were shot using the same overhead cranes employed later in the decade by Busby Berkeley. The highly saturated two-color Technicolor process adds a weirdly psychotropic tone unique to movies of the time, while the mono sound mix infused a kewpie-doll quality into the women’s voices.

The cherry on top of the sundae here is provided by the performers in Whiteman’s band, including violinist Joe Venuti; the Rhythm Boys, with a young Bing Crosby; rubber-legged dancer Al Norman; the Radio City Rockettes, then known as the Russell Markert Girls; the Brox Sisters; the Thomas Atkins Sextette; Kurt’s great-uncle, Delbert Cobain; sketch comics Walter Brennan and Slim Summerville; air-pump specialist Willie Hall; and singers Jeanette Loff, Jack Fulton and the Sisters G. Whiteman, who could double as Oliver Hardy’s stunt double, performs in a funny dance number enhanced by special effects. The Blu-ray benefits from a 4K digital restoration by Universal Pictures, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; audio commentary, featuring music and cultural critic Gene Seymour, and musician and bandleader Vince Giordano; Giddins’ introduction; an interview with Michael Feinstein; four video essays by authors and archivists James Layton and David Pierce, on the film’s development and production; deleted scenes and alternate opening-title sequence; a 1929 short film, “All Americans,” featuring an earlier version of the “Melting Pot” number; “I Know Everybody and Everybody’s Racket,” a 1933 short film featuring Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra, Ruth Etting and Walter Winchell; and two “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit,” cartoons from 1930, featuring music and animation from King of Jazz.

Sacha Guitry: Four Films 1936-1938: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
French polymath Sacha Guitry was 50 years old when he re-shifted his attention from the stage to screen. Although the son of celebrated actor Lucien Guitry briefly flirted with emerging medium in 1915, he found nothing in it to his liking. As he gained fame as a playwright and actor — often in boulevardier roles — he resisted calls to turn his attention silent movies and early talkies. Sometimes referred to as the Gallic Noël Coward, Guitry appeared in most of the 120 plays he wrote and, when the time was right, making as many as five films in a single year. The titles represented in Arrow’s “Sacha Guitry: Four Films 1936-1938: Limited Edition” were each adapted from his own, earlier works for the theater. Although critics tried to pigeonhole his work as stagebound, the artists and historians interviewed for the bonus package here beg to differ. They range from period pieces to contemporary romcoms, with a faux documentary thrown in for good measure. If there’s a common theme, it’s adultery. That the characters he plays also suffer from various degrees of misogyny didn’t surprise anyone who knew his history with women and actresses, some of whom he married. Despite some material that could test the patience of politically correct viewers, it’s a joy watching Guidry attack his characters’ challenges and oversized egos, using humor and wordplay as a double-edged sword.

The New Testament follows a holier-than-though physician, who is sabotaged by his own hypocrisy. My Father Was Right introduces us to a man, who, after being left by his wife for another man, 20 years earlier, raises his son to be wary of women. Let’s Make a Dream is another story of mistrust, between a husband, wife and their lovers. The history of one of France’s most famous streets is retold in Let’s Go Up the Champs-Élysées, featuring multiple performances from Guitry himself. Anyone unfamiliar with Guidry’s body of work today can chalk it up to changing tides of history. During the occupation, he directed and played in several films. Despite claims that he only worked with independent French producers and didn’t allow his plays to be performed in Germany, he maintained a lavish lifestyle that contrasted with the deprivation experienced by most French citizens. After the liberation of Paris, Guitry was arrested and sent to jail for two months. He wasn’t allowed to appear on stage or on screen until 1947. By then, however, his reputation was irrevocably tarnished. The bonus features on the Blu-ray don’t dwell on the wartime negatives. The limited-edition collection (2,000 copies) boasts original French mono soundtracks on all films; newly filmed introductions to the films by French cinema expert and academic Ginette Vincendeau, who also provides selected-scene commentaries; four video essays on different Guitry themes by critic Philippe Durant; interviews with writer/director Francis Veber and filmmaker Pascal Thomas; sound tests and theatrical trailer from Let’s Make a Dream; reversible sleeves, featuring newly commissioned artwork by Scott Saslow; and a limited-edition 60-page book illustrated with original stills, featuring new writing by Craig Keller and Sabrina Marques and credits for all films. Trivia alert: Al Hirschfeld’s first theatrical caricature — published by the New York Herald Tribune, in 1926 – was of Guidry, who was in New York performing in the musical comedy, “Mozart.”

Like so many other movies about teenagers coming-of-age-gay, 1:54 spends a lot of time on and around fields of play. The title refers to a record time in the 800-meter run, sought by the film’s protagonist, Tim (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), and antagonist, Jeff (Lou-Pascal Tremblay). As important as running is to the two boys, and as a backdrop for the overriding drama, however, it is only one subplot in a movie overflowing with conflicts. Tim was a star runner as a 12-year-old, with his mother as his coach. When she died, he gave up the sport and turned inward. In its place, Tim and a friend, Francis (Robert Naylor), focus on their interest in chemistry, pyrotechnics and each other. For some reason, their friendship disturbs some of the cool kids in the school, who torment them unmercifully. The rival runner is a first-class prick and the kind of homophobe, who, in another movie, might decide to exit his own closet by the time the story concludes. Not here, however. A tragedy inspires Tim to return to racing and confront Jeff, who objects to the added competition, especially when that competitor is gay. Writer/director Yan England, himself a runner, adds to the mix a concerned teacher, perplexed father, sympathetic gal pal and enough bullying on social media to piss off an evangelical preacher. That’s a lot of weight for a 106-minute movie to carry, but England’s message is targeted at teens who’ve been already been exposed to dozens of cautionary tales about bullying and intolerance. He’s screened 1:54 at several festivals and before students he says have seen themselves in the characters. They probably are a lot more forgiving of the movie’s extraneous melodrama than adult critics, who’ve had trouble seeing through the darkness.

Nicholas on Holiday
If the kids in Laurent Tirard’s family comedy, Nicholas on Holiday (2014), are a tad young to be thinking about coming of age anytime soon, there are plenty of other things to keep their pubescent minds occupied on a seaside vacation. Like Tirad’s Little Nicholas (2009), also co-written with Grégoire Vigneron (Astérix and Obélix: God Save Britannia), it is based on series of stories about the (mostly) endearing exploits of a precocious French schoolboy. The books, which depict an idealized version of childhood in 1950s France, were created by René Goscinny and illustrator Jean-Jacques Sempé, beginning in 1959. Nicholas’ parents and live-in grandmother aren’t particularly idiosyncratic, but Tirad’s given them more than a few amusing quirks, twitches and peccadillos. Nicholas’ friends are a motley crew of square pegs, who delight in smashing precisely crafted sand castles and devising schemes to subvert their parents’ plans for their futures.  Here, those plans include convincing Nicholas that he’s being set up for a future marriage with a painfully shy and awkward girl his age, Isabelle. It interferes with his plans to maintain a correspondence with his girlfriend back home, until Isabelle comes out of her shell and becomes his BFS … best friend for the summer. The easy interplay of silly characters and amusing storylines reminds me of Bob Clark and Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story (1983). If kids can get past the subtitles, I think they’ll really enjoy Nicholas on Holiday … parents, too.

Peyton Place: Part Three
PBS:  Dolores
PBS: Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: It’s a Beautiful Day
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: America’s Untold Story
PBS: The Very Best of Victor Borge, Volumes 1,2
It’s been eight years since Shout!Factory released the first two sets of episodes from ABC’s hit prime-time soap opera, “Peyton Place.” The first two packages contained the first 64 of the show’s 514 half-hour episodes, which aired twice or three times a week between 1964-69. By the time Shout! Factory releases “Part Four,” this summer, only about a quarter of the show’s episodes will have been released. The first color episode isn’t until No. 268. For those who weren’t born by the time the show aired, the TV series was informed by Grace Metalious’ scandlous best-seller, in 1956, and the nearly instant film adaptation, in 1957. The novel was set in a conservative New England town before and directly after World War II. It describes how three women are forced to come to terms with their identity, both as women and as sexual beings, with recurring themes of hypocrisy, social inequity and class privilege. And, in case you were wondering, that included incidents of incest, abortion, adultery, lust and murder. The movie, which had to be approved by the Hays Code censors, cleaned up the book to the point where Metalious decided to take her money and split Hollywood, for good. Maybe, it was after someone suggested that Pat Boone be offered one of the key roles. The film received nine Oscar nominations, including four honoring supporting performances. The updated TV series was even further sanitized. As was the custom of soap operas for most of the 20th Century, the really hot stuff was left to the imaginations of viewers. With “Peyton Place,” ABC hoped to bring the success of the British serial “Coronation Street” to America. Years later, its influence could be seen in “Dallas,” “Knots Landing” and, yes, even “Twin Peaks.” While today’s audiences may find it difficult to get excited about the watered-down storylines and less-than-scintillating fashions, they should enjoy watching familiar actors, fighting either to rejuvenate their careers or launch them into the movies. The most visible in Part Three are veteran leading lady Dorothy Malone and rising superstars Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal. Old-timers might also have fond memories of sexpot Barbara Parkins, Christopher Connelly, Tim O’Connor, James Douglas, Patricia Morrow, Ruth Warrick David Canary, Mariette Hartley, Ted Hartley and Leslie Nielsen.

At a time when student activists might be coming out of their shells and making noises that can’t be ignored – like so many cicadas, who spring to life every 13-14 years – it’s worth remembering a time when marches, boycotts and strikes were weekly events designed to stir the conscience of the nation. Some of us can remember the five-year-long national grape boycott, organized by the United Farm Workers, and how great it felt to savor the taste of one of nature’s greatest treats after so long an absence. Most people associate Cesar Chavez’ name with that struggle and others involving the plight of men, women and children forced to work in substandard conditions and for hideously low wages, largely to enhance the earnings of corporate farmers and supermarket chains. The PBS and “Independent Lens” documentary, “Delores,” reminds viewers of the contributions made by Stockton activist Dolores Huerta, who was a full partner to Chavez in the founding of the farmworkers’ union. She not only helped organize the Delano grape strike, in 1965, but was the lead negotiator in the workers’ contract that ended it. With unprecedented access to Dolores and her children, the film reveals the raw, personal stories behind the public figure. It portrays a woman both heroic and flawed, working tirelessly for social change even as her 11 children longed to have her at home. That her story hasn’t been told until now can be blamed on sexism within the union, reporters who simply assumed that Chavez was its guiding force and her willingness to stand behind him in the limelight. It’s a terrific story and easily could serve as inspiration to the teenagers, especially young women and minorities, who refuse to be characterized as puppets and bandwagon followers.

Last February 19th marked the 50th anniversary of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” a show that spoke directly to children – not at them — in a gentle, soothing and deliberately paced manner designed to convince them of their importance as people, friends, neighbors and citizens of a world in which they most assuredly belonged. There were plenty of things for children to watch in 1968, but few that weren’t loud, abrasive or sponsored by companies making sugar-covered cereal or gender-specific toys. Unlike other hosts, Fred Rogers didn’t wear cowboy outfits – no offense, Buffalo Bob – or speak gibberish to maintain their attention. Neither were there breaks for cartoons or silent shorts … again, no offense to the Little Rascals. Very little changed in Mister Rogers’ entrances and departures – trading his jacket for a cardigan and his loafers for tennis shoes – or his willingness to share the whys and wherefores of his decisions with the kids in his audience. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: It’s a Beautiful Day” commemorates the anniversary with a set of 29 vintage episodes, from 1979-2001, plus the series premiere. Neither he nor the show changed much with the times. Lessons on tolerance, respect and how to deal with anger and frustration never went out of style in the neighborhood. Among other things, Mister Rogers learns how to make paper by hand, tries out some unusual musical instruments, makes spinach egg rolls, watches a writer/illustrator of books at work and does some exercises. In the land of Make-Believe, King Friday, Lady Elaine, Daniel, Henrietta Pussycat and their friends experience the first day of school and learn the importance of playing. One quibble: the bonus episode is pitched as being “in original black-and-white,” but, unless my eyes are deceiving me, it’s been colorized. In June, Morgan Neville’s comprehensive bio-doc, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, will be released into theaters. It’s described as an exploration of the life, lessons, and legacy of the iconic children’s television host.

It’s always to watch shows like “Secrets of the Dead: America’s Untold Story Before Jamestown” that tell us things that, if true, make us reconsider things we all were taught as facts in school. That’s certainly the case with dinosaurs, whose history changes with every new fossil dug up in Patagonia or Alberta. This week, we learned that our bodies geologic age of the Earth has changed so often that it’s hardly worth memorizing, anymore. PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead” typically deals with events and things whose truth might have been revealed with a little more digging or better technology. In “America’s Untold Story Before Jamestown,” researchers have determined that the “interstitium,” the shock-absorbing tissue underneath our skin, gut and blood vessels, is an organ. Time to rewrite the SAT tests. PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead” typically deals with events and things whose truths might have been revealed with a little more digging or better technology. In “America’s Untold Story Before Jamestown,” researchers have determined that a “melting pot of Spanish, Africans, Italians, Germans, Irish and converted Jews” arrived in Florida in 1565, where they integrated almost immediately with the indigenous tribes. Slavery didn’t become an option until much later. The episode is divided into four chapters: “Struggle to Survive,” which employs archival material discovered in a private collection held by an ancestor of Pedro Menendez; “Men of God, Men of Greed,” by 1607, when Jamestown was founded, St. Augustine was undergoing urban renewal, but English colonists were ready to attack; “The British Are Coming,” in 1763, Spain ceded Florida to England in order to keep its valuable port of Havana, while the entire city of St. Augustine fled to Cuba and Mexico to avoid British rule … and, with it, slavery; and “The 14th and 15th Colonies,” in which the British divided Florida into two parts, the East and West, becoming the 14th and 15th British colonies … before 1812, when Florida became U.S. territory.

In the same way that Bob Uecker’s comedy isn’t limited to baseball fans, an appreciation of Victor Borge’s comedy and musical ability isn’t strictly reserved for aficionados of people who intuitively know the difference between J.S. Bach and P.D.Q. Bach. Funny is funny. Between 1949 and 1965, the pianist known as “The Clown Prince of Denmark” and “The Unmelancholy Dane” appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” 22 times. Borge divided his time playing major concert venues and appearing as a guest panelist on such game shows as “The Hollywood Squares,” “The Match Game” and “I’ve Got a Secret.” I don’t know when Borge’s association with PBS began, but, 18 years after his death, at 91, he’s as much a Pledge Month staple as David Foster and Joe Bonamassa. PBS has released “The Very Best of Victor Borge,” Volumes 1 and 2, which probably have been offered to subscribers at one time or another. Volume 1 includes seven television specials, live performances, snippets from early movies and TV shows, and a tribute to the maestro to mark his 80th birthday. Such bits as “Count Fall-Off-Of,” “Play Something on the Piano” and “The Mozart Opera,” classical performances of “Clair de Lune” and selections from “Carmen,” make it a must-have for any fan. Volume 2 adds eight more specials and such rarely seen routines as “Phonetic Punctuation,” “The History of the Piano,” “Inflationary Language,” “The Timid Page Turner,” “The Prodigy” and “It’s Now or Never,” as well as an audio CD with more musical performances.

The DVD Wrapup: Downsizing, Small Town Crime, Baal, The Church, Images, Daughter of the Nile, Ichi, ’Burbs… and more

Friday, March 23rd, 2018

Downsizing: Blu-ray
As much as I enjoy and admire the films of Alexander Payne, I’ve never once been tempted to visit his beloved Omaha or the extended borders of Cornhusker Nation. Sideways and The Descendants took him away from his native soil, but Omaha is listed as one of the filming locations for Downsizing, which must be reassuring to the state’s film office. It’s listed alongside Trollfjord, Tysfjord and Bergan, in Norway, which looks a lot more interesting and accommodating than anyplace in the Great American Midwest. The cruise up one gorgeous fjord by Matt Damon, Hong Chau, Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier convinced me to put Norway on my personal Bucket List. I wish I could say as much for Downsizing, a movie that many critics said would move me, but didn’t. I did like the concept, however. Facing financial challenges as an occupational therapist, Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey, (Kristen Wiig), decide to join a growing list of similarly distressed people who believe they would be better off if they were 5-inches-tall, living in world populated with other downsized humans. Everyday staples would be far more affordable, as would the occasional luxury item. Home repairs could be made with popsicle sticks and Elmer’s glue, and a thimble of water would sate the thirst of an entire family, with enough left to do the dishes. Overpopulation and famine would be reduced to bad memories.  When it comes time to downsize for good, however, Audrey, decides not to participate in the program. This comes as news to her husband, who, by this time, is a wee middle-aged man without a partner in life.

Paul makes friends with an unlikely collection of fun-loving Lilliputians, sharing the good life in a miniaturized hi-rise. Waltz plays a jet-set hedonist, while Kier is his obedient servant. Chau plays a Vietnamese political activist who was jailed and downsized against her will. Their common link is somewhat confusing to explain, so suffice to say they share an interest in saving the planet and protecting the downsized masses. It’s what takes them to Norway, where the first colony of short people sits at the end of a magnificent fjord, with no natural enemies except global warming. The bad news is that humanity is doomed. The good news is that the colonists have had plenty of time to come up with a long-term solution, devised by the project’s founders, Dr. Jørgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgard) and his wife, Anne-Helene (Ingjerd Egeberg). Downsizing doesn’t get more involving than a final choice between survival and love, and the solution to that dilemma is preordained. The humor is mostly invested in the excellent visual effects, but, at a certain point, our eyes reflect the reality that these are normal-sized characters in a fabricated environment. The novelty of the conceit wears out by the time we reach the fjord, whose majesty isn’t amplified by the optical gag. Neither will downsizing come as anything new to audiences. Payne’s humanistic tack provokes thought and concern over man’s fate, but, as speculative fiction, it delivers far less entertainment value than such sub-genre entertainments as The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), Fantastic Voyage (1966), Fantastic Planet (1973), Inner Space (1987), Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) and Ant Man (2015). Sadly, too, while mainstream critics nice things to say about it, Downsizing underperformed at the box office. The Blu-ray and 4K UHD add a half-dozen featurettes of varying interest.

Small Town Crime: Blu-ray
It’s nice to see John Hawkes, a fine actor blessed with one of the most distinctive faces in the business, finally be allowed to excel in a lead role, even if the vehicle, Small Town Crime, was accorded an extremely limited release and risked being dismissed as pulp fiction. Even if the name doesn’t ring a bell, Hawkes is instantly recognizable for his contributions to The Sessions (2012), Winter’s Bone (2010), Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), HBO’s “Deadwood” and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, as Frances McDormand’s rotten ex-husband. If the IFP had a Walk of Fame, he’d have a star on it. Here, Hawkes could hardly have been cast with any more precision than as the alcoholic ex-cop, who, after a bender, finds the body of a young woman along the side of a road. In the desperate hope for redemption, he commits himself to finding the killer. It’s hard to say how long Mike Kendall has been an alcoholic, but it came to a head on the night his partner was killed in a traffic stop, because he failed to have his back. Kendall is the kind of drunk who’s fun to be around, until he reaches the point where he picks fights with bouncers twice his size. His former buddies on the force want Kendall to stay as far away from the case as is humanly possible, but he’s unwilling to dismiss the theory that the victim was just another drug-addicted hooker who ran out of time and luck. He’ll cooperate with the police, but only as long as he’s able to maintain a parallel investigation.

Contacts made while Kendall was pickling his brain on cheap booze in strip clubs and biker bars come through with tips they probably wouldn’t share with the local police. No one can say with any certainty why prostitutes are being targeted, but audiences will recall one of the masked killers – Orthopedic (Jeremy Ratchford) and Tony Lama (James Lafferty) — tell a soon-to-be-dead victim she shouldn’t have “gotten greedy.” Just as Kendall is beginning to put the pieces together, however, Orthopedic and Lama re-surface to tie up their loose ends. They’re as bad-ass as any contract killers I’ve seen in a long time. Co-writer/directors Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms (Lost on Purpose) don’t waste a lot of time going from the discovery of the first corpse to the well-choreographed, if inevitable final shootout. Even so, they manage to cram several very cool conceits into Small Town Crime’s 91-minute runtime. They include Kendall’s 1968 Chevy Nova muscle car; a tough-talking pimp (Clifton Collins Jr.), who joins the ex-cop’s posse; and his African-American adoptive brother and sister, played by Anthony Anderson and Octavia Spencer. Robert Forster’s also good as the dead girl’s wealthy, revenge-minded grandfather. The high-desert wastelands outside Salt Lake City provide a terrific setting for pulpy crime. The DVD adds deleted and extended scenes; a pair of making-of featurettes; and commentaries.

The Vanishing of Sidney Hall: Blu-ray
The mystery implicit in the title of Shawn Christensen’s sophomore feature demands that we care enough about the titular protagonist that we won’t regret the investment of almost two hours of our precious time to its solution. Sadly, what worked for Who Framed Roger Rabbit doesn’t come close to saving The Vanishing of Sidney Hall. As sympathetic as Christensen’s brooding boy genius (Logan Lerman) is made to look here, he’s no Roger Rabbit. But, then, where would Roger be without the sultry Jessica Rabbit, alcoholic P.I. Eddie Valiant and a host of cartoon legends interested in him? In the hands of Christensen and co-writer Jason Dolan (Enter Nowhere), Hall not only is way too cool for school, but also a challenge for audiences to embrace. After he mocks his English teacher’s choice of books to read, an inspirational administrator (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) dares him to write a novel that’s better than the ones on her syllabus. And, of course, that’s exactly what Sidney does. Its “honesty” speaks to a generation of disaffected teenagers, much in the same way as “Catcher in the Rye” spoke to his father and grandfather’s peers. It even is a finalist for a Pulitzer. In another unlikely, if humanizing twist, the disaffected writer befriends the school’s troubled jock hero, Brett (Blake Jenner), and the ethereal blond, Melody (Elle Fanning), who lives across the street and leaves mash notes for Sidney in his mailbox. Like almost everything else Sidney touches in the next 10 or 15 years – presented unconvincingly in a non-linear format — these friendships turn to shit.

Sudden fame is a bitch, but, when it happens to an 18-year-old prima donna, it can be overwhelming. When all the usual temptations lose their luster, Hall falls back on self-loathing. The success of his second book makes him even more suspicious of his gifts. Eventually, he stuns his fans by vanishing from the pop-cultural grid and adopting a pet dog as his closest friend and confidante. Kyle Chandler (“Bloodline”) plays a character, known throughout most of the movie as the Searcher, who commits his every waking moment to tracking down Sidney. By the time they connect, he’s a drunken sot who hops boxcars for his transit needs, affects the reclusive personalities of J.D. Salinger and the Unabomber, and visits libraries and bookshops to burn novels he’s written in his own name and under pseudonyms. The Searcher offers Sidney an opportunity to redeem himself, but there isn’t much left to salvage. To his credit, Christensen does come up with an ending that ties everything together. There are several other good things worth mentioning in the movie, besides excellent performances by Lerman and Fanning. Michelle Monaghan plays Sidney’s long-suffering mother, an attractive MILF who’s devoted the best years of her adult life to a nearly catatonic husband and an ungrateful son. The Blu-ray adds “Making of The Vanishing of Sidney Hall,” with interviews, behind-the-scenes footage and scenes from the film.

Ichi the Killer: Blu-Ray
Ever since its release in 2001, Takashi Miike’s famously transgressive Ichi the Killer has tested the ability of genre buffs to digest extreme violence, undiluted depravity and inky-black humor. Based on Hideo Yamamoto’s manga series of the same title, it’s been banned from exhibition in countries ranging from Norway, Germany and Great Britain, to Malaysia. When it was introduced to critics at the Toronto and Stockholm International Film Festivals, the distributor handed out barf bags. At least one of them came in handy. One critic theorized that Miike (Audition) and writer Sakichi Satô (Gozu) created Ichi the Killer – in part, at least – as a litmus test for intellectuals who professed to abhor gratuitous violence, misogynist behavior and buckets full of gore, while heaping praise on such extreme entertainments as Natural Born Killers and Kill Bill. If anything, the blood and gore looks even more repellant in Well Go USA’s digitally restored 4k edition, approved by Miike himself. Coming at Ishi the Killer with fresh eyes, it took me a while to figure out that the photo on the cover didn’t belong to the title character. It’s of Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano), a notoriously sadistic yakuza enforcer whose search for his boss’ killer brings him into the orbit of the truly demented Ichi (Nao Ohmori).

As an extreme parody of the slick Tokyo gangster typically portrayed on film, Kakihara blows cigarette smoke through the vents cut into his cheeks and favors comically garish outfits. (He resembles the Joker, if Batman’s nemesis had been mutilated in the underworld revenge ritual known as the Glasgow or Chelsea smile.) Ichi is a meek and morally conflicted vigilante, who wears black body armor with the number “1” on the back padding and backstay boots with a vertical razor embedded in the heel. (Ichi means “one” in Japanese.) He may be reluctant to insert himself into a situation, but, when he does, it’s for keeps. Ichi’s early training in the martial arts explains how he’s able to dispatch with rooms full of hoodlums – the occasional sarcastic prostitute, as well — in mere seconds. It’s an amazing picture, but decidedly not for everyone … not even westerners who’ve come to love other manga-inspired films. Fans will appreciate the hi-def upgrade, which accentuates Miike’s eccentric color palette, and restoration to its original 128-minute length. One caveat, however: the new Well Go edition eliminates most of the worthwhile bonus features included in the 2010 Tokyo Shock release, except commentary with Miike and artist/writer Hideo Yamamoto. So, don’t trade or throw away your previous Blu-ray.

Daughter of the Nile: Blu-ray
In 2015, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s action-packed historical drama, The Assassin, was one of the world’s most honored pictures. The wuxia also was one of the year’s most beautiful and entertaining films. It was his first release in eight years and the seventh to compete at Cannes for the Palme d’Or. The story’s opulent setting and epic reach were unlike anything Hou had displayed in previous efforts – notably, Millennium Mambo (2001), Café Lumière (2003) and A City of Sadness (1989) –which were marked by elliptical storytelling, long takes and minimal camera movement. It’s taken 30 years for his far more contemporary Daughter of the Nile to make the journey to the U.S. in the video format it deserves. Set in Taipei, the title refers to a Japanese manga about a young woman who travels back in time to ancient Egypt, ending up lost between the past and present. Here, a different young woman and her brother float along the periphery of the Taipei underworld, where American fast-food joints provide a subsistence-level alternative for young people reluctant to commit to a life of crime. The siblings turn in different directions, while also dealing with spiteful elderly relatives uprooted by politics and war. Structurally, Daughter of the Nile feels as if it might have been inspired, in part, by Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. The sense of displacement felt by the young people is exaggerated by the negativity they face from native Taiwanese and their hugely successful adoption of western commercial models. Here, he shifted his focus from the rural countryside to the urban jungle. The Cohen Media Blu-ray adds commentary by film scholar Richard Suchenski and an authoritative interview with Asian film expert Tony Rayns.

Baal: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Like Daughter of the Nile, which represents the New Taiwanese Cinema, circa 1980-90, Volker Schlöndorff’s Baal (1970) is included among films categorized as New German Cinema, a movement that spanned the late 1960s and early 1980s. Both films have been extremely difficult to find in their video and digital iterations. Baal is a faithful, if contemporized adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s 1918 theatrical debut, informed by the political upheaval that tore through Europe and the U.S. in 1968. Nearly as prolific an actor as he was a director and writer, Rainer Werner Fassbinder is wonderfully unpleasant as the eponymous anarchist poet, who, after feeling himself expelled from bourgeois society, sets off on a schnapps-soaked rampage. Although it would be far too late to pull off and, in any case, both men are long dead, Fassbinder would have been the perfect choice to collaborate with Los Angeles poet/novelist Charles Bukowski on a biopic or debauched buddy film. Schlondorff presents Baal in 24 separate scenes, while employing several other distancing techniques in the Brechtian mode. Filmed largely outside the confines of a studio, the play’s theatricality is retained in the physical staging and line readings.

While Schlondorff hews faithfully to Brecht’s text, he juxtaposes the theatricality of the prose with handheld 16mm camera work, sometimes distorted by the application of a Vaseline-smeared lens. It gives the story of untamed rebellion a distinct sense of immediacy, while also shoving viewers’ faces into the reality of Baal’s brutal misogyny and drunken depravity. Schlondorff and Fassbinder are joined here by future New Wave stars Hanna Schygulla, Margarethe von Trotta, Marian Seidowsky, Günther Kaufmann, Harry Baer and Irm Hermann. Not that everyone was a fan of the adaptation. The widow of Bertolt Brecht, Helene Weigel, was so unhappy it that she removed from public release. In 2011, Brecht’s granddaughter allowed it to be restored and publicly shown. The Criterion Blu-ray features a newly restored 2K digital transfer, supervised by Schlöndorff, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; interviews from 1973 and 2015 with the director; a new conversation between Ethan Hawke and playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman about the play and adaptation; new interviews with Von Trotta and historian Eric Rentschler; and an essay by critic Dennis Lim. I wish that Criterion had been able to include Alan Clarke’s 1982 made-for-TV adaptation, starring David Bowie. It appears to be out of print, except for a recording of songs from the presentation.

The Church: Blu-ray
Gothic churches are cool places to stage horror movies, especially the ones that look as if they were built over mass graves or contain the caskets of priests or saints who dabbled in the dark arts. Getting permission to film a horror flick inside the famous ones isn’t easy, though. Originally, co-writer/director Michele Soavi and co-writer/producer Dario Argento planned to shoot The Church inside and around Nuremberg’s historic Lorenzkirche, of Nuremberg (Germany), and even did some test shots there. After learning of the film’s subject matter, however, they were forced to move to Budapest’s Matthias Church, whose history can be traced to 1015. Besides offering any number of places that passageways to hell could have been hidden, Matthias Church is the burial site of Béla III and Agnes of Antioch. I don’t think many viewers, outside Germany, noticed the difference. Loosely based on M.R. James’ short story “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas,” The Church opens in a medieval town suspected of harboring suspected blasphemers and devil-worshippers. After being slaughtered by Teutonic Knights, the victims of their unholy wrath were thrown into a pit. To keep the evil contained, a Gothic cathedral was built over the mass grave.

Flash forward a few hundred years and newly hired librarian, Evan (Tomas Arana), is unable to resist the temptation to break the seal of the crypt, which is embedded in a large cross on the floor of the church’s basement. It doesn’t take long for Evan and fresco restorer Lisa (Barbara Cupisti) to stick their noses into other mysteries hidden in the building’s various nooks and crannies. They are guarded by the Bishop (Feodor Chaliapin Jr.), who looks old enough to have heard the confessions of the knights, and automated mechanisms designed to trap intruders. If The Church doesn’t offer much that horror buffs will find truly new and different, it touches all the genre bases and looks great in Scorpion Releasing’s 2K restoration. Although it doesn’t fit the definition of giallo, fingerprints on the screenplay suggest otherwise: Argento (Suspiria), Soavi (StageFright), Fabrizio and Lamberto Bava (Demons), Franco Ferrini (Opera) and Dardano Sacchetti (Cannibal Apocalypse). Arana (The Sect), Cupisti (StageFright) and Chaliapin (The Name of the Rose) were joined in the cast by 14-year-old Asia Argento, whose character was left in the right place for a sequel. She contributes her recollections in an interview included in the bonus package, alongside one with Soavi.

Robert Altman’s Images: Special Edition: Blu-ray
For all his great success, Robert Altman released more than his fair share of movies that left mainstream audiences cold and critics frothing at the mouth. After a decade spent making genre shows for television, Altman tried his luck at theatrical features Countdown (1967) and That Cold Day in the Park (1968), neither of which impressed anyone. If M*A*S*H and McCabe and Mrs. Miller hadn’t succeeded, he might not have been allowed the opportunity to make such idiosyncratic gems as The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, California Split and Nashville, which are finding new life on Blu-ray. Like Brewster’s Millions, from the same period, Images has been as difficult to find in DVD and Blu-ray as it was in theaters, in 1972. After Nashville (1975), Altman’s career resembled a roller-coaster ride, with dozens of commercial and artistic highs and lows. Arrow Academy’s splendid new hi-def restoration – Robert Altman’s Images: Special Edition – convincingly argues today what critics and studio executives refused to say in 1972: it’s a terrific psychological thriller that demands to be seen by arthouse audiences, at least. The most likely reason it wasn’t successful is that it was marketed and reviewed as an Altman film – based on the popularity of M*A*S*H and McCabe and Mrs. Miller – but failed to resemble either one. The most obvious differences could be seen in the absence of overlapping dialogue and meandering ensemble interaction. Images was as close to a genre film as he would make – in this case, horror, of all things — building tension through mental illness and schizophrenia in the same way that Polanski, had previously done in Knife in the Water and Repulsion; Bergman, in Persona; Hitchcock, in Psycho; Losey, in Secret Ceremony; Nicolas Roeg, in Don’t Look Now; and he had attempted in That Cold Day in the Park.

In it, Susannah York plays a successful author of children’s books, temporarily living with her husband, Hugh (René Auberjonois), at a spectacularly beautiful estate in County Wicklow, Ireland. It’s autumn and, therefore, gray and wet on the Emerald Isle. Absent the usual rush of seasonal tourists, Cathryn relies on visual and auditory hallucinations for company. They include former and would-be lovers; nagging callers; a dog, or two; a unicorn; and at least one doppelganger. On top of these mysteries, Cathryn reads passages from a children’s fantasy, previously written by York. The estate house doubles as hunting lodge, which accounts for the rifles, shotguns and knives on hand. If this qualifies as a spoiler, it’s better than leaving viewers to their own devices in the confusion of Image’s first reel, which probably is what disturbed critics before its original release. Separating the living characters from the dead and imaginary ones is itself a task. Viewers won’t have to wait long for the narrative payoff, though. York does a great job interpreting Altman’s vision, as does Auberjonois, who’s the only member of the six-person cast that’s a regular member of the director’s coterie. Consider, as well, a production crew that includes cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and composers John Williams and Stomu Yamash’ta. In the bonus package, Altman offers scene-specific commentary, which is complemented by full-length commentary by Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger; an vintage interview with the director; a new interview with actor Cathryn Harrison; an appreciation by musician Stephen Thrower; and, first-pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Carmen Gray, and an extract from “Altman on Altman.”

The ‘Burbs: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
In 1989, the year The ’Burbs was released, Tom Hanks’ inevitable rise to superstardom was stuck in neutral. The early success he enjoyed in “Bosom Buddies,” Splash and Bachelor Party hadn’t been rewarded with can’t-miss assignments and it became impossible to tell whether he was being groomed as a comic actor, in the mold of the many “SNL” alumni spinning their wheels; the male co-protagonist in yuppie romcoms; the glib sidekick in buddy comedies; as America’s Dad; or the Jimmy Stewart of his generation. He could have sued his management team for lack of support and won big money. He finally hit the jackpot with the1988 body-exchange comedy, Big, which made him a natural candidate for top spots in Punchline, The ’Burbs and Turner & Hooch, none of which clearly defined who he was supposed to be, either. The blistering response to The Bonfire of the Vanities and Joe Versus the Volcano might have destroyed the careers of lesser rising talents, but those turkeys would be followed by an unprecedented string of monster hits, beginning with A League of Their Own and Sleepless in Seattle, and only stalling a dozen years later with the Coen Brothers’ The Ladykillers. By this time, however, Hanks had won over the critics and was able to “open” pictures whose legs proved not to be very long. He’s since worked with the best directors, writers and actors of his generation; tackled such prestigious television projects as From the Earth to the Moon and Band of Brothers; and shepherded indies That Thing You Do and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. He’s been nominated for five Best Actor Oscars, winning back-to-back trophies for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump. If his presence, alone, couldn’t carry such iffy pictures as A Hologram for the King, Inferno and The Circle, Hanks’ cachet did wonders for Sully and Captain Phillips. At 61, he’s also a popular guest on talk-shows and “SNL.” If, in a year or two, Hanks followed a cue from Cary Grant and retired from films, who could blame him? What does he have left to prove?

Looking back to the doldrums period, however, it’s likely that Joe Dante’s presence as director of The ’Burbs attracted more viewers than those drawn by Hanks. A graduate of the Corman School of Drama, Dante made a name for himself in the exploitation market with Hollywood Boulevard (1976), Piranha (1978) and The Howling (1981). Gremlins (1984) took his career to a new level, even if it was followed by the family-oriented action-comedies Explorers and Innerspace, and segments of the raunchy R-rated Amazon Women on the Moon (1987), all of which did well in the burgeoning video market. While Dante was the right choice to direct The ’Burbs, Hanks’ top-billing presented a different sort of marketing challenge. Casting Hanks, Carrie Fischer and Corey Feldman in the PG-rated comedy/thriller suggested it was family-friendly, even if the suburbs-as-hell theme argued against it. When a creepy family moves into a dilapidated house situated on a typical suburban cul-de-sac and it coincides with the disappearance of a resident played by Gale Gordon (“The Lucy Show”), Hanks, Bruce Dern and Rick Ducommun form a neighborhood militia. They get their opportunity to check out the house when their new neighbors — Brother Theodore, Courtney Gains and Henry Gibson – pile into their car for a day away from suburbia. (Feldman is there to provide stoner commentary, not unlike that delivered by a Shakespearian fool.) The rest is mayhem. Although ’Burbs didn’t hit paydirt upon its release, in some circles it’s considered to be a modern comedy classic. It has its moments, I suppose, but I enjoyed it for another reason. The movie was shot on a Universal’s Colonial Street backlot, which also provided settings for “The Munsters,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Leave It to Beaver” “Murder She Wrote” and All That Heaven Allows. The Shout!Factory Blu-ray has been rescanned in 2K and adds fresh interviews with Dante, editor Marshall Harvey and DP John Hora. Several other very good featurettes have been ported over from earlier editions.

Miss Kiet’s Children
How many parents have wanted to observe what goes on in their little angels’ classrooms from the perspective of a fly on the wall … or, in the case of Miss Kiet’s Children, a cinéma vérité camera? The older the child, the less adorable he or she would likely be, of course. Still, the opportunity to watch their children outside of their natural habitat would be tough to resist. Childless adults should find plenty to admire in Peter Lataster and Petra Lataster-Czisch’s award-winning documentary, as well, even at its nearly two-hour length. What differentiates it from other docs set in classrooms are the children themselves, many of whom have just arrived in Holland from countries torn by war, poverty and famine. Their teacher, Kiet Engels, is a study in heroic determination, infinite patience and remarkable dedication to a seemingly impossible task. The filmmakers stop short of portraying her as saint, but there’s probably an easy chair awaiting her in heaven. None of the kids could be picked out of a crowd as a recent immigrant. The difference can be seen in Engels’ interaction with the kids, who don’t know how to read and write Dutch. (Who, outside of Holland, can?) Some lack everyday skills and confidence, while others are occasionally quarrelsome and headstrong. As such, Engels also helps them learn to solve problems together and respect one another, which they mostly do. The Latasters’ camera remains objective and unobtrusive throughout. The finished documentary only demands of viewers that they observe the kids dispassionately, without relying on interviews or voice-overs to do the thinking for them. To avoid overcrowding and confusion, Miss Kiet’s Children focuses on four refugee children of different nationalities, although two of them, at least, speak Arabic when their teacher’s back is turned. One of the boys still finds it difficult to focus on his studies and sports without also recalling the trauma of having his fun interrupted back home by bombs and shelling. Each of the pupils is unique and worthy of our admiration, especially when their successes bring broad smiles to their faces. It begs the question as to why Congress would allocate billions of dollars to prevent immigrant children from realizing their full potential in American schools. The disc adds interviews with the filmmakers.

Lifetime: The Rachels
NOVA: Day the Dinosaurs Died
Hallmark: When Calls the Heart: The Heart of Homecoming
In a movie that combines the primary conceits of Heathers and Mean Girls, “The Rachels” tells a story that probably will be all-too-familiar to its target teen audience. The ruling clique of the film’s typically American high school is comprised of Rachel Nelson and Rachel Richards, who do everything in lockstep, including reading the announcements over the loudspeakers, as “the Rachels.” It’s easy to tell the difference between them, though. Madison Iseman is only about three years older than the alternately kind and calculating blond Rachel she plays, while 26-year-old Caitlin Carver plays the cool, cruel and calculating brunette Rachel. Both appear to have taken their acting cues from the Kardashians and characters in “The O.C.” and “Gossip Girl.” There used to be three Rachels, but one was jettisoned for not being able to maintain her weight and dress standards. Early on, we’re made privy to the events that lead to death of blond Rachel, after falling from a balcony at a school party. She had been talking to brunette Rachel, who appeared to be pissed off by a rare display of independence. The surviving Rachel has an alibi good enough to fool the cops, if not viewers. Still, to cover her tracks, she does everything in her power to memorialize her friend. The editor and photographer of the school yearbook smell a rat, however, and commit themselves to exposing brunette Rachel, who isn’t as popular as she thinks she is. It’s also possible that her alibi holds up. With an ending that’s clever, if not particularly credible, “The Rachels” is only as good as it had to be to please the programmers at Lifetime. I don’t think that teenagers will identify with the characters, even if they enjoy the bitchier moment.s  Ellen Huggins has already written two previous made-for-Lifetime movies, while, for director Michael Civille, it’s his first feature.

One of the things that binds pre-school children is a love of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. My son could spell “P-A-L-E-O-N-T-O-L-O-G-I-S-T” before he memorized the names of Snow Whites’ dwarves … or, in Disney textbooks, “dwarfs.” Most kids lose interest after a few years of elementary school, perhaps sensing correctly that there won’t enough jobs to go around once they get their PhD. The fascinating “NOVA” presentation, “The Day the Dinosaurs Died,” provides enough fresh information on the fate of the dinosaurs to possibly rekindle their passion for paleontology. It takes viewers to the site of the impact crater, off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan, where the seven-mile-wide asteroid collided with Earth 66 million years ago. We know that it triggered a chain of events that coincided with the end of the dinosaurs, but experts have long debated exactly what happened when the asteroid struck and how the giant beasts met their end, besides the giant cloud of dust that followed the collision. Now, scientists have uncovered compelling new clues about the catastrophe, from digs ranging from New Jersey to Patagonia. The show follows an international team of scientists that has drilled into the crater, recovering crucial direct evidence of the searing energy and giant tsunami unleashed by the asteroid. It’s a documentary that should captivate kids and adults in equal measure.

Fans of Hallmark’s limited series, “When Calls the Heart,” already know that the citizens of Hope Valley tend to celebrate holidays differently than residents of other mining towns on the Canadian frontier. In an episode that aired last December 25 as “The Christmas Wishing Tree,” but has been retitled “The Heart of Homecoming,” a Wishing Tree that promises to help everyone’s dreams come true is erected in the center of town. The residents put a wish on the tree, in anticipation of another person attempting to grant it. If the wish cannot be fulfilled, legend has it that the tree’s magic powers will make it come true. Elizabeth longs only for the return of her beloved Mountie, Jack, who’s been away six months while on duty in the boonies. Rosemary and Abigail do everything they can to convince Elizabeth to put a wish on the tree, even though she believes it’s selfish to take him away from his important assignment. Meanwhile, Abigail, Bill and the rest of Hope Valley work together to create a special Christmas parade to warm the town’s collective hearts and bring everyone closer together. Incidentally, Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries have announced they will unveil 34 original Christmas-themed movies in 2018. Last year’s combined total was 33 holiday films. Talk about exploitation.

The DVD Wrapup: I Tonya, Serpico, Assistant, Pastor Paul, Children of Corn, Starlight Ends, Birdboy, Sensitivity Training and more

Thursday, March 15th, 2018

I, Tonya Blu-ray
If Nancy Kerrigan hadn’t been assaulted by members of Jeff Gillooly’s posse before the 1994 U.S. figure-skating championships, it’s likely the tabloid press would have invented a rivalry between Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, leading into the Lillehammer Winter Games. The perceived difference in their economic backgrounds would have been too tempting to avoid. With Ukrainian hopeful Oksana Baiul waiting in the wings to steal their thunder, the Olympics showdown would have been something special. Instead, the competition devolved into a combined media circus and pity party. Kerrigan (a.k.a. America’s Sweetheart) suddenly was perceived as being a wounded swan struggling to regain her ability to fly, while Harding’s continued pursuit of gold was deemed unseemly, at best. When her free-skate program was interrupted by a shoelace problem – causing her to place 8th, behind Baiul and Kerrigan — her shame was complete. In fact, it was only beginning. Analysts couldn’t mention Harding’s accomplishments – she was the first American woman to successfully execute a triple axel in competition – without also mentioning the scandal. While I, Tonya doesn’t purport to provide a definitive answer to the lingering question of her culpability in the assault, it demands that viewers add much-needed context to Harding’s ordeal. Thanks to an Academy Award-winning portrayal of her harridan mother by Allison Janney, alongside razor-sharp takedowns of her former husband and his meathead pals, Tonya gets the fair shake she probably deserved when she was deprived of her ability to compete in the sport she loved, 22 years ago. This isn’t to imply, however, that director Craig Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers whitewash Harding’s deficiencies. In her Oscar-nominated performance, Margot Robbie reveals how such a naturally gifted athlete could become her own worst enemy.

Rogers says that he was inspired to write I, Tonya after watching a documentary about ice skating. In his interviews with Harding and ex-husband, they both recalled the events leading to the 1994 attack differently. He concluded, “That’s my way in: to put everyone’s point of view out there, and then let the audience decide.” Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) demands that we consider the possibility that Harding’s fate was predetermined at birth, as were the choices that led to disaster. Her mother, LaVona, noticed Tonya’s natural athletic ability at an early age. By the time her daughter was 4, she was spending every penny available to her from waitressing for skating lessons from a pro (Julianne Nicholson). Considering how expensive a coach and choreographer can be, it seems impossible that LaVona would have had enough money left from her cigarette budget to afford such a luxury. (By contrast, Kerrigan’s father was a welder who worked three jobs to finance his daughter’s training. Nancy didn’t start private lessons until she was 8.) Instead of allowing Tonya’s coaches the space to mold her into a polished competitor, LaVona assumed the role of skating mom from hell. In an extreme fit of pique, she’s even shown putting her cigarette out on the ice. Janney’s portrayal of LaVona is a diabolical work of art. She’s physically, verbally and emotionally abusive to her cute and talented daughter, and a bitter shrew to everyone else in their lives. By the time Tonya reaches puberty, she’s already absorbed too many of her mom’s self-centered traits.

In 1990, the 19-year-old skater sought relief from her fractured home life by marrying the 23-year-old Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who, like LaVona, hoped to exploit Tonya’s success. They would divorce in the leadup to the 1994 championships, while remaining in close contact. The attack was concocted after Tonya shared with Gillooly her perception that Kerrigan had an unfair advantage on her, based on her clean-cut image and other prejudices held by hidebound, politically motivated judges. Harding’s argument is that he took it from there. I found Gillespie’s portrayal of LaVona, Gillooly and Harding’s buffoonish bodyguard (Paul Walter Hauser) to be, at once, hilarious and offensive. The portrayal of Harding as a white-trash goddess also feels exaggerated, at times. Maybe, maybe not. Absent the opportunity to redeem herself on ice, Harding’s misery would be compounded – off-screen — by a leaked wedding-night sex tape, taking work as a professional boxer, wrestling manager, reality-show regular, mechanic, welder, painter and sales clerk. Kerrigan’s life hasn’t turned out to be a bed of roses, either. In a post-Olympic appearance at Disney World, Kerrigan made the mistake of dissing Mickey Mouse while on a “hot mic.” She lost endorsements and television deals, before her star was finally  eclipsed by a new, untainted generation of skaters and commentators. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Gillespie, deleted scenes and some short featurettes that explain how CGI was used to make Robbie look like an Olympics-quality skater.

Frank Serpico
Too often, the subjects of popular, fact-based movies find their images tarnished in documentaries that question the poetic license taken by Hollywood screenwriters. When, in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, reporter Maxwell Scott concludes, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” he knew that his stories wouldn’t undergo the indignity of fact-checking by editors or wise-ass filmmakers. Forty-five years after Al Pacino turned whistle-blowing New York cop Frank Serpico into an exemplar of virtue, Antonino D’Ambrosio’s entertaining bio-doc demonstrates how close Sidney Lumet and co-writers Waldo Salto and Norman Wexler came to capturing the true essence of the man. As such, Frank Serpico neither diminishes Serpico’s immense entertainment value nor questions Pacino’s Oscar-nominated portrayal. Turns out, Pacino and Serpico were two peas in a pod. In the documentary, the real-life Serpico tells his story in his own street-hardened words: from his Italian-American roots in Brooklyn to his disillusionment with the NYPD’s culture of corruption, to his riveting account of a dramatic drug bust and possible set-up that ended with him being shot in the face. Indeed, D’Ambrosio follows Serpico as he revisits places he hadn’t seen in decades, including former residences and the tenement hallway in which he was shot and left for dead by fellow cops. Again, Serpico’s tour confirms Lumet’s skill in utilizing New York’s nooks and crannies to tell a great story. D’Ambrosio also takes us to places Serpico has lived in the last 45 years, avoiding possible attempts on his life. He interviews former cops, not all of whom consider him to be a hero; a woman he lived with in Greenwich Village; his lawyer, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark; reporters; and friends from the film industry, including Luc Sante and John Avildsen. The doc features music by Jack White and a reading from Brecht, by John Turturro. The best anecdote recalls Serpico on the set of Serpico, yelling “cut” when he thought a scene being shot was inauthentic. Lumet kicked him off the set and never let him return.

The Assistant
A few months ago, Film Movement released the French thriller Moka, in which Emmanuelle Devos and Nathalie Baye matched wits as mothers on opposites of an investigation of a fatal hit-and-run. Critics, myself included, compared its twisty plot to those in movies by Claude Chabrol and Alfred Hitchcock, whose names are often mentioned in the same breath. A year earlier, Baye starred in The Assistant (“La volante”) – only now being released here on DVD, by Distrib Films – another thriller in which an aggrieved mother sets a trap to avenge the death of her son in a traffic accident. It, too, bears easy comparison to the maestros of suspense. Even so, neither film was distributed widely in the U.S. Americans who complain, “they don’t make pictures like they used to,” could do a lot worse than checking out these two fully realized thrillers, made by and for adults. Like Helen Mirren, Charlotte Rampling, Catherine Deneuve and only a very few American actresses past a certain age, Baye continues to be cast in roles of substance, sometimes playing characters younger than her 69 years. And, unlike peers Meryl Streep and Glenn Close, her best work isn’t held for release until the holiday season. Moreover, in Moka and The Assistant, Baye’s characters employ what used to be referred to as “feminine wiles” to attain their goals … and, by “wiles,” I mean sexuality.

Christophe Ali and Nicolas Bonilauri’s first collaboration since 2005’s Wild Camp opens with the accident that sets up the dominoes for everything else that happens in the film. With his wife in labor and rain testing the limits of his car’s windshield wipers, Thomas Lemans (Malik Zidi) accidentally strikes a pedestrian he was too distracted to see. While nothing can be done to save the young man’s life, Thomas and his wife, Audrey (Sabrina Seyvecou) make it to the hospital in time for the baby’s safe delivery. At this early point in the story, sharp eyes might notice that Thomas crosses paths with Baye’s Marie-France Ducret in a hallway outside the recovery room. They’ll meet again nine years later, when the newly divorced Thomas is formally introduced to Marie-France, who’s been hired for the position of substitute secretary/assistant. Although Thomas is too preoccupied to see the method in her madness, it takes very little guesswork for viewers to understand how their working relationship – as professional as it might be — could end badly. It doesn’t happen overnight, however. First, Marie-France must ingratiate herself with Thomas’ fellow architects and family members, especially his son, who, you’ll recall, was born on the same night as her son was killed. Fortunately, The Assistant doesn’t play out nearly as predictably as it might sound from that introduction, mostly because of Baye’s ability to grease the plot’s machinations.

Pastor Paul
At 67 minutes, Jules David Bartkowski’s no-budget dramedy, Pastor Paul, feels more like a fable about life in contemporary Africa than a fully realized feature film. Promoted as an example of New African Cinema – as opposed to the more genre-favoring Nollywood output – it uses Christianity and witchcraft to “conjure up and distort colonialist narratives of Hollywood films set in Africa.” Bartkowski plays Benjamin, an American tourist in West Africa studying the relationship between math and the rhythms of native drummers. As he’s watching the street musicians, local guerrilla filmmakers are watching him. They ask him to portray a white missionary priest, Pastor Paul, who gets so involved with his parishioners’ culture that he goes native … in a spiritual transference of religious traditions. After the production wraps, Benjamin comes to believe that’s possessed by a ghost. It causes him to seek the guidance of witch doctors and other traditional healers, whose treatments are accompanied by drums and dance. The ending comes a bit too abruptly for my taste, but the film’s portrayal of urban life, culture and living conditions in coastal Ghana and parts of Nigeria is compelling. TheDVD adds footage from Afropop concerts and interviews.

When the Starlight Ends
Adam Sigal’s directorial debut is the kind of romantic dramedy that not only strains credulity, but also forces viewers to care about a relationship we know is doomed from Day One. Still, there was something in the casting of When the Starlight Ends that gnawed on me for several days after I put the disc back in its jacket. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out where I’d seen the male protagonist before his assignment here, playing Jacob, a novelist so blocked creatively that you wonder what possessed him to choose writing as a profession, in the first place. Then there’s the impossibly cute and supportive woman, Cassandra, he married and continues to support him, until his churlish disposition convinces her to cut him loose. The rest of the movie is spent watching Jacob relive points in their marriage that caused the greatest strain on it and fantasize about how a recasting of characters might have resulted in a different conclusion. Whether these revised scenarios are stimulating enough to break his writer’s block and recover Cassandra’s love is the mystery that sustains the narrative. The only thing that’s clear is that she’s better off without Jacob.

It wasn’t until I made a quick pitstop at that I learned that the tortured hipster novelist was played by Scottish actor Sam Heughan, now widely recognized as the hunky Highland warrior, Jamie Fraser, in “Outlander.” Because When the Starlight Ends was probably completed before the show’s debut, in August 2014, it’s possible that Sigal underestimated the appeal of Heughan’s masculinity, including the muscular 6-foot-2½-inch physique that was fully revealed and exploited in “Outlander.” Instead, he resembles the late Anton Yelchin, who’s several inches shorter than Heughan and quite a bit less shaggy. Yelchin’s introspective personality would have made a better fit opposite Cassandra, played by Arabella Oz, who looks as if she just stepped out of an ad for organic hair-care products. In Hollywood, the surname, Oz, carries such weight that the perky newcomer likely is related to either Frank, Mehmet or the Wizard of Oz. It isn’t a name that most aspiring actresses would consider adopting as a career move. Even though Cassandra doesn’t look like the kind of woman who would put up with Jacob’s shit for five years – it must have seemed longer to her – I can see how Sigal might have been drawn to her innocence and charm. Also lending a bit of heft to the story are David Arquette and Sean Patrick Flanery. (Oh, yeah, the answer is, Doctor Mehmet Oz.)

Children of the Corn: Runaway: Blu-ray
As venerable genre brand names go, “Children of the Corn” is about as familiar as they get. If the sequels to the extremely profitable 1984 original haven’t lived up to its promise, well, that’s pretty much par for the course for horror sequels. Children of the Corn: Runaway is the 10th entry in a franchise whose previous eight either went direct-to-video or to Syfy. Usually, the best thing to be said about such movies is that they give jobs to young actors willing to work cheap, in exchange for a credit on their resume. Here, Ruth (Marci Miller) and her 13-year-old son, Aaron (Jake Ryan Scott), are drifting through the Midwest, trying to find someplace to settle, where the cornfields aren’t populated with feral children. Unfortunately, the one they choose is just another pancake-flat suburb of Gatlin, Nebraska, where the whole mishigas began. The gag here comes down to the fact that Ruth, one of the original Gatlin children, has been attempting to escape the influence of He Who Walks Behind the Rows ever since she left the cult. She probably would have had better luck in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah or Nevada, where cacti outnumber corn stalks. Sure enough, Ruth finds lodging in a haunted house and work in a garage owned by the only African-American mechanic between Omaha and Oklahoma City. He seems like a decent guy, but the locals still hate him for being black. It goes with the territory. As directed by John Gulager (Feast) and written by Joel Soisson (Piranha 3DD), Children of the Corn: Runaway is gory, without being particularly scary, and of primary interest to franchise completists. Miller is reasonably convincing as the single mom haunted by her nightmare past and determined not to lose her son to the same fiends. Anyone looking for fingerprints left behind by Stephen King will be disappointed. Gulagher’s dad, Clu, plays an old fart named Crusty. The Blu-ray set adds a deleted scene.

Sensitivity Training
Anna Lise Phillips is a seasoned Australian actress, who, in Sensitivity Training, immediately reminded me of Amy Madigan. With her barely combed blond hair and seeming lack of makeup, Phillips’ misanthropic microbiologist, Serena, is a woman who doesn’t let other peoples’ feelings get in the way of her professional goals. Like Madigan, she’s bulldog tough. Because Melissa Finell’s debut feature is more comedy than dramedy, forced therapy will dull Serena’s sharp edge, bring her in line with the rest of the movie’s world. It’s to Phillips’ credit that the transition feel forced or phony. If Sensitivity Training also recalls Peter Segal’s Anger Management (2003), it’s only in the initial conceit. Because Serena’s abrasive personality has begun to alienate co-workers and administrators, she’s been ordered to undergo sensitivity-training sessions. Instead of sitting in a circle, exchanging anecdotes with other rage-impacted professionals, Serena is assigned a full-time coach/therapist. With her blazing red hair, flashy clothes and sunny personality, Caroline (Jill E. Alexander) could hardly be any more different than Serena. With that much information, alone, most savvy viewers should be able to predict what’s going to happen to their relationship over the course of the next 80 minutes, or so. Finell’s decision to integrate a LGBT twist – and a cameo by Madigan — about halfway into the proceedings allowed her to kick-start the sagging narrative and save it from becoming too cliché-ridden. The evolving chemistry between Phillips (Animal Kingdom) and Alexander (“Silicon Valley”) also helps.

Chokeslam: Blu-ray
“GLOW,” the Netflix mini-series about a women’s professional wrestling league, didn’t debut until June 2017, several months later than the similarly themed Chokeslam opened in Canadian festivals. It’s unlikely that the films’ producers were aware of the concurrent projects. If they had been, however, it’s possible that the casting director of “GLOW” would have considered adding Amanda Crew to that production. The primary female component of “Silicon Valley” is every bit as credible as Alison Brie was in the Netflix series and more than six inches taller. Neither actress would be the obvious choice to play a “lady” wrestler – even as a WWE Diva — but, somehow, they manage to pull it off. Crew’s hardest job involves convincing us that in the 10 years since her character graduated from high school, she’s evolved into one of the planet’s most feared wrestlers: Sheena DeWilde. Even if Sheena’s bad temper is fueled by serious anger-control issues, a suspension of disbelief is necessary to validate the intersecting throughlines. The last time mousey deli clerk Corey Swanson (Chris Marquette) saw Sheena, she was turning down his proposal of marriage in front of the entire senior class. She wanted to conquer the world, while Corey only sought to build a nest for them in Regina, Saskatchewan. He’s spent the last decade in virtual seclusion, mourning the missed opportunity.

When an armed bandito in a luchadur mask attempts to rob the deli, Corey instantly recognizes him as a former star athlete at his high school. (The doofus tattooed the letters of name on his fingers, as well.) After Luke (Michael Eklund) is coldcocked by an elderly woman wielding a sausage, and Corey refuses to call police, they reminisce about the good old days, before their worlds turned to shit. Luke sparks Corey’s curiosity with news of Sheena’s plans to attend a 10th anniversary celebration at the school. Maybe, just maybe, she’s changed her mind about his proposal. Unfortunately, Sheena’s in the company of her manager/boyfriend, who’s always on the lookout for an angle to exploit. With Luke’s lamebrained help, Corey devises a scheme to keep Sheena in Regina long enough to rekindle her feelings for him. It’s every bit as unfeasible as it sounds. Even so, director Robert Cuffley (Ferocious) coaxes lively performances from a cast that includes real-life wrestlers Harry Smith (son of David “Davey Boy” Smith and Diana Hart); TNA/Impact’s Laurel Van Ness (a.k.a., Chelsea Green); former Canadian champion Lance Storm; and an extremely likeable Mick Foley. That Corey and Sheena will get together again is, of course, a foregone conclusion. How it happens is anything but predictable. Chokeslam may be a tad too sweet for the tastes of hard-core wrestling fans, but audiences in the Great White North probably wouldn’t want it any other way.

Birdboy: The Forgotten Children: Blu-ray
Monsters at Large
For a long time, it was easy to parse the difference between cartoons and animated features made in Europe, Japan and the United States. The first Japanese anime to reach our shores combined fantasy with science-fiction in portions easily digested by children. The most visible difference between European and American animation was in the angularity of the art, the misshapen characters and overtly surrealistic backgrounds. In 1990, with “Rugrats,” Klasky Csupo and Nickelodeon Network changed the way American kids watched cartoons. They dug the way the show’s infant characters dealt with their day-to-day lives – turning seemingly mundane occurrences into adventures – and the cluelessness of their parents. The collaboration would also produce “Aaahh!!! Real Monsters,” “Santo Bugito,” “The Wild Thornberrys,” “Rocket Power,” “As Told by Ginger” and “All Grown Up!” The transformation of graphic novels, Eurocomics and manga from print to film, facilitated by computer graphics, gave teens and adult buffs something new and darkly sinister to savor. Judging by the cover art alone, Pedro Rivero and Alberto Vázquez’ Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (a.k.a., “Psychonauts, The Forgotten Children”) would appear to have been influenced by Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant (1999) and the stop-motion features of Tim Burton and Aardman Animations.

Adapted from Vazquez’s graphic novel, “Psiconautas,” and the Goya-winning short, “Birdboy,” (2011), the hand-drawn Birdboy: The Forgotten Children is as dark and disturbing as any dystopian tale told in a live-action feature. My immediate confusion over the target audience derived from early appearances by anthropomorphic animals, sentient objects and magical golden acorns. In fact, the title character, Birdboy, is a drug-dealing orphan, sporting black wings and a black suit. His head is shaped like a ping-pong ball, with pupil-less abysses for eyes. His teenage friends, who were introduced as children in the short film, include his former girlfriend, Dinky, a mouse; Zorrito, a bullied fox; and Sandra, a rabbit who ignores the voices in her head telling her to do terrible things. Blocking their exit from the island and plans to rob a talking piggy bank are canine cops, a randy lapdog in a luchador mask, drug-addicted religious hysterics and a robotic alarm clock whose mechanical heart aches at the sight of his abused and discarded “brothers” (rusting cans in a landfill). A giant avian monster rises from the horizon like a harbinger of doom. By contrast to this hellish vision, glowing acorns provide buoyant bits of light to brighten the darkness, and flowers bloom from spilled blood. Although “Birdboy” is being distributed by Shout! Factory and GKids, it’s suited for teens and adults able to parse the difference between real and imagined horror and possessing an appreciation for sophisticated animation. The Blu-ray adds an interview with the filmmakers; the original “Birdboy” short film; and “Decorado,” another short film by Alberto Vázquez.

The horror in Jason Murphy and writer Anthony Steven Giordano’s Monsters at Large is perfectly suited for pre-teens just getting their toes wet in shallow genre waters. Alex (Matthew Kosto) is a high school student just trying to navigate everyday life, crushes, schoolwork, teachers, bullies and looking out for his little brother, Gavin (Trevor Dolden). After Alex’s best friend, Dylan (Auggie Pulliam), tells the boy a scary story, he begins having nightmares and visions of a shadowy creature. His inability to sleep is affecting Alex’s sleep, which in turn lands him in hot water with his science teacher (Stephen Tobolowsky). Fed up, Alex turns decides to confront Dylan’s monster and put his fears to rest. After successfully helping Gavin, Alex’s crew becomes known as ”Monster Busters,” now famous for their ability to extinguish imaginary monsters. When the real thing shows up in familiar CGI form, it tests the courage of the kids and patience of the adults, one of whom is played by Mischa Barton (“The O.C.”). Monsters at Large is a vast improvement over Murphy and Giordano’s previous kids’ flick, Robo-Dog. It carries the Dove Seal of Approval for All Ages and adds a behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Smithsonian: Bible Hunters
Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Third Season
The Wonder Years: The Complete Series
WE tv: Kendra on Top: Season 6
Nick Jr.: Regal Academy: The Grand Ball
With Easter just around the proverbial corner, the release of the Smithsonian/BBC investigation, “Bible Hunters,” is both appropriate and welcome. Released in the U.K. in 2014, the two-hour presentation wasn’t created to debunk New Testament beliefs or offer alternate theories. Typically, archeologist and historian Jeff Rose travels throughout the Arabian Peninsula in search of evidence about early humans and their migratory paths outside of Africa. As host of the mini-series, Rose follows the trail of academics, explorers and very wealthy collectors who uncovered ancient texts related to the bible. He prefaces the documentary by explaining how, in the 19th Century, literal interpretations of Holy Scripture began to give way to secular reinterpretations, based on scientific and historical discoveries that didn’t always coincide with Old Testament accounts. Revisionist theories prompted a rush to private libraries, museums, monasteries and souks throughout the Middle East and northern Africa, where biblical treasures might be found. Typically, what they found were collections of books, manuscripts and scriptures in disarray and complete disrepair. At one monastery, located deep in the Egyptian desert, ancient texts were used to heat the building. Others were scattered without regard for continuation or context. Even so, important writings were found in unlikely places, usually for sale to the highest bidder. While they weren’t easy to translate, important discoveries were made. The mini-series ends with the 1945 discovery of Gnostic texts and Gospel of Thomas. “Bible Hunters” is compelling both as history and as a mystery waiting to be solved.

This month’s selection of archival titles from Time Life/WEA is highlighted by “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Third Season” and 30th anniversary reissues of “The Wonder Years: Complete Series.” The a la carte release from last year’s complete-series collection is noteworthy for the mid-season arrival of Lily Tomlin and addition of lesser lights Teresa Graves, Jeremy Lloyd, Pamela Rodgers and Byron Gilliam. Regulars Jo Anne Worley, Goldie Hawn and Judy Carne left after the third stanza. The show’s turnstile of guest stars continued apace with visits from Michael Caine, Peter Sellers, Debbie Reynolds, Zero Mostel and Don Ho. Both versions of the “Wonder Years” re-release – the locker edition and slipcase box — contain all 115 compete episodes from the series’ six-year run, remastered and engineered “for optimal viewing.” They include show notes, with episode synopses; cast member reflections; “Current Events”; and the soundtrack of over 300 classic period songs as they were featured in the original broadcasts. Among the artists represented are Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, the Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel, Aretha Franklin, James Taylor and Joe Cocker.

The sixth season of WE tv’s “Kendra on Top” begs the question, “Who died and made the star’s mom, Patti, a celebrity?” That’s because almost everything that happened last year revolved around Mommy Dearest’s threat of writing a tell-all book about her daughter’s career, personal crises and her marriage to Hank Baskett, the Stedman Graham of reality TV. I haven’t heard about anyone lining up to purchase of said book, so, I assume, it’s yet to written and will continue to be a plot point in Season Seven, which begins in June. Also making appearances are Kendra’s useless brother, Colin, and their long-lost father. The loser shows up in Las Vegas, with his new wife, ahead of Kendra’s debut in the show, “Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man,” It’s interesting that the DVD no longer carries the word, “Uncensored,” on the cover. The truth-in-advertising police must have paid the distributor a visit.

Regal Academy” follows Rose Cinderella, a teenage girl from Earth who discovers a key that leads to a land where fairy tales come to life. After enrolling at the prestigious Regal Academy, she discovers that she is the granddaughter of headmistress Cinderella. At the school, five famous fairytale families come together to teach the next generation of princes and princesses how to become heroes. Among other things, Rose also learns how to use magic, while having adventures with her friends Astoria Rapunzel, Joy LeFrog, Travis Beast and Hawk SnowWhite. At “The Grand Ball,” Joy and Rose apply curse-breaking lipstick to kiss Esquire Frog and turn him back into a prince.