Author Archive

The DVD Wrapup: Inferno, Handmaiden, Light Between Oceans, Black Girl, Man Who Fell to Earth, Monster, Takashi Miike, Korean War … More

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

Inferno: Blu-ray
One way to tell that a movie franchise has run out of gas is when its third installment comes in a distant second to a Tyler Perry holiday-themed comedy in its second week in release. Madea may be a freak of nature, but who would have predicted she could outdistance Tom Hanks and Ron Howard’s next adaptation of a best-selling novel by Dan Brown? In 2006, The Da Vinci Code did extremely well domestically and around the world. Its 2009 sequel, Angels & Demons, made significantly less money on both fronts, if not enough to discourage Sony/Columbia from anticipating Brown’s next novel featuring Harvard “symbologist” Robert Langdon. Tellingly, though, Inferno would only be allowed a production budget less than half the $150 million spent on “D&A.” Howard isn’t capable of making a movie that’s less than entertaining and the commercial success of Sully is proof of Hanks’ continuing box-office appeal. Neither does Inferno lack for excitement or gorgeous scenery. The problem, for me, anyway, is a story that links the death of cyber-billionaire Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) – possibly modeled after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg — to Dante Alighieri’s 14th Century poem “The Divine Comedy,” a death mask of the poet and a modified rendition of Sandro Botticelli’s “Map of Hell.” Zobrist’s plan to combat overcrowding and diminishing resources involves either killing off two-thirds of the world’s population or preventing it from reproducing … take your pick.

The poop hits the revolving blade when the crackpot scheme grabs the attention of the World Health Organization and a mysterious international mercenary force, the Consortium (represented by Sidse Babett Knudsen and Irrfan Khan, respectively). As the movie opens, Langdon is in a Florence hospital, slowly exiting from a coma that erased his memory, but left him with horrifying visions he later recognizes as being related to “Map of Hell.” The film’s least convincing character, Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), helps him escape an assassination attempt before becoming his traveling companion and confidante. (At 5-foot-3, the lithe 33-year-old brunette neither resembles a doctor nor a badass sidekick.) David Koepp’s screenplay keeps us guessing throughout Inferno as to which characters Langdon can trust and the ones trying to kill him. On the plus side, the action carries us, along with Langdon and Brooks, from Florence to Vienna, Budapest and Istanbul’s magnificent Hagia Sophia and Basilica Cistern. If Nostradamus had compared notes with Dante, viewers are led to believe, we might have been able to avoid 9/11, the 2008 Depression and the Trump presidency. The DVD, Blu-ray and UHD package adds nearly a half-hour’s worth of extended and deleted scenes; the featurettes, “Visions of Hell,” “Inferno Around the World,” “A Look at Langdon,” “This Is Sienna Brooks” and “The Billionaire Villain: Bertrand Zobrist”; and Ron Howard’s “Director’s Journal.”

The Handmaiden
I’ve rarely completely agreed with the academy members who decide which foreign-language entries deserve, first, to make the short list of nominees and, later, the five finalists. The list of excellent films overlooked by the host countries and nominating committee should make Oscar blush. Even when reforms are instituted the voters invariably miss the mark. But, hey, what do I know? In my opinion, and those represented in the year-end polls of a dozen-plus critics’ groups, Park Chan-wook’s intricately plotted psycho-thriller The Handmaiden deserved to be included in both lists. So, there. Inspired by Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel, “Fingersmith” — a “third slice of engrossing lesbian Victoriana,” by the Welsh author — Park changes the setting from 19th century London to Korea, which, in the 1930s, was subject to Japanese colonial rule. Like the novel, an orphan raised in family of thieves is hired by a phony aristocrat to infiltrate the household of a wealthy young Japanese heiress. The devious Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) has persuaded the lovely, if terribly naive Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) to take on Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) as her handmaiden and confidante. The pretty young con artist is instructed to convince Her Ladyship to ditch the older gent to whom she’s betrothed — the pervy Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) – and run away with the faux count. Clearly, his intentions are far from honorable. That scenario, however, is only the first of three presented by Park (“The Vengeance Trilogy”) and co-writer Jeong Seo-kyeong (Lady Vengeance), as variations on Waters’ original Victorian theme. In the next two, the double-crosses not only are wickedly difficult to predict, but fun to watch transpire, as well. Consistent throughout, however, are the steaming-hot moments when Sook-Hee teaches the sexually naive Hideko what to expect on her wedding night. She proves to be a remarkably quick study, but not in the way Fujiwara anticipates. Park tweaks the narrative further to add ironic humor and other kinky notions to the mix, making the 144-minute story almost feel like a hot breeze from the tropics. Typically, The Handmaiden’s production values could hardly be any higher.

The Light Between Oceans: Blu-ray
The title of Derek Cianfrance’s tear-jerking follow-up to Blue Valentine and The Beyond the Pines refers to the movie’s fictional location: a lighthouse on fictional Janus Rock, an island a half-day’s journey from the coast of western Australia, where where the Indian and Pacific oceans meet. Based on a 2012 novel by M. L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans was largely shot at New Zealand’s Cape Campbell, but the images recorded further south, in Tasmania, are the most striking. Back from four years of fighting in World War I, an emotionally stressed Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) takes a job tending the gas-lit lamp in the lighthouse on the desolate, if quite habitable island. He’s warned about the dangers posed by such absolute isolation, but, after the horrors of trench warfare, he needs some time away from people. On one of his infrequent visits to the nearest town, Tom becomes captivated by the younger, far more spirited Isabel (Alicia Vikander), who’s in desperate need of a man in her life. (This is 1919, remember.) A determinedly ethical sort, Tom will only agree to live with her on the island if they are married, which is jake with Izzy. They enjoy each other’s company and relish the opportunity to start a family. After two miscarriages, though, it doesn’t appear to be in the cards.  One day, Tom spots a dinghy floating toward shore with a body in it. On further inspection, they discover that the man in the boat is dead, but clutching a very alive and hungry baby girl. When Tom suggests reporting their find to mainland officials, Izzy insists that it’s act of God and they should be entitled to keep the little bundle of joy.

A while later, as they’re about to have Lucy christened at a church on the mainland, Tom spots a woman, Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz), kneeling in front of a grave. It bears the names of Frank Roennfeldt and his baby daughter, Grace Ellen, who were lost at sea on the day the Sherbournes found Lucy, in April, 1923. Wracked by feelings of guilt, Tom secretly leaves a message in the German woman’s mailbox, assuring her that the baby is alive and in good hands. There’s no need to spoil surprises that can be seen from a mile away, except to say that many viewers will be seriously torn when Tom’s note prompts Hannah to seek further investigation into the disappearance. At 133 minutes, Cianfrance’s pacing may feel a bit too leisurely for some viewers’ tastes, but it allows time to explore questions about love, heartbreak, joy, secrecy, guilt and the impact of those emotions on people we have no reason to distrust. Anyone looking for an old-fashioned weeper will find it in the lovingly photographed The Light Between Oceans. The Blu-ray adds commentary with the director and his college mentor, film-studies professor Phil Solomon; the 16-minute featurette, “Bringing the Light to Life”; and “Lighthouse Keeper,” a closer look at finding just the right shooting location for the film.

Black Girl: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
At a time when the debate over immigration policies has reached the boiling point, here and in Europe, Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl arrives on Blu-ray to remind us that a passport and visa have rarely ever protected outsiders from bigotry and greed. Released originally in 1966, six years after Senegal severed its colonial ties to France, it tells the heart-breaking story of a young woman who leaves Dakar as a governess to a bourgeois French family, but arrives in Antibes to serve as a slave for the Madame. Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), a proud African woman from an impoverished section of the capital, couldn’t have anticipated how much her life would change after stepping off the boat from Dakar. The family’s three children were nowhere to be seen and, in their absence, Diouana would be required to do cook, clean, do the laundry and take Madame’s abuse, from morning until night. Her earnings are withheld for no good reason and the Madame forbids her from dressing up to perform her chores. Worse, promises of free time to explore France and shop together in fashionable stores, are ignored by Madame (Anne-Marie Jelinek) as soon as Diouana empties her suitcase. “For me, France is the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom and my bedroom,” she says in a first-person voiceover. “It’s the black hole I see when I look out the window at night.” Monsieur (Robert Fontaine) appears to be somewhat sympathetic, but is no match for his wife’s inexplicable behavior. Sembène, a popular novelist and Marxist who studied film in Moscow after laboring as a longshoreman in France, doesn’t completely explain Madame’s change in heart, except to imply that it comes with the territory … once a colonist, always a colonist. The final straw comes when one of the boys returns home and Diouana is expected to act as maid, nanny and playmate. Black Girl is informed by flashbacks to better times in Dakar, when poverty didn’t prevent her from falling in love and showing off in the clothes and shoes handed down to her by Madame. Her final act of rebellion is open to wide interpretation today, but, in the mid-1960s, it probably reflected on the inability of some post-colonial states – as well as the men and women who served their white masters — to enjoy the fruits of independence, after being drained of their valuable natural resources and tribal heritage.

Only 65 minutes long, Black Girl is believed to be the first feature made by a sub-Saharan filmmaker. Sembène’s 1963 short subject, Borom Sarret, is also included in the Criterion set. Like Black Girl, it reveals the writer/director’s admiration for Italian Neo-Realism and the French New Wave. It describes a day in the life of a “cartman,” Le Charretier (Ly Abdoulaye), who struggles to provide for his wife and child by transporting people and goods through Dakar’s shantytown for whatever money can get. His customers represent a cross-section of life there, including a woman about to deliver a baby, people transporting construction material and man who’s carrying his dead child in a blanket and needs a ride to the cemetery. Le Charretier’s horse is only slightly less broken down than his wooden cart, which is distinguished by a loudly squeaking wheel. When a nicely dressed gentleman hires the driver to take him to the part of the city where wealthier residents reside, Le Charretier advises him about the prohibition on using horse-drawn carts in the swank neighborhood. The man waves off the warning. Sure enough, a black cop stops the driver and writes a ticket for disobeying a law that was left behind by the French, who once populated the neighborhood. Instead of merely giving Le Charretier a summons, the cop ensures the cartman won’t be able to afford to pay the fine by confiscating the wagon. He ignores the passenger, who, having reached his destination, slips away without paying for the ride. Dejected, Le Charretier once again returns home emptyhanded. This time, however, his wife gives him the baby and tells him to wait for her to put food on table, “the only way she can.” The package includes the hour-long documentary, “Sembène: The Making of African Cinema,” and other background featurettes.

The Man Who Fell to Earth: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Lair of the White Worm: Blu-ray
Jack Frost: Blu-ray
By 1975, when Nicolas Roeg chose him to play the title character in The Man Who Fell to Earth, David Bowie had already transitioned from his Space Oddity/Ziggy Stardust persona, to one that merged American soul and early British glam-rock influences. A student of avant-garde theatre and mime, Bowie’s acting instincts were incorporated into his live performances, exquisitely captured by D.A. Pennebaker in his 1973 performance film, “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” That he was a logical candidate to play the orange-haired alien, Thomas Jerome Newton, who splashes to Earth in a remote lake in the American Southwest, was one of the few choices not in question about Roeg’s sci-fi drama. Newton had come to Earth from a drought-stricken planet in search of water, leaving his family behind him. After somehow managing to find a fashionable hooded coat to wear into the nearest town, Newton sells a couple of the gold rings he’s brought with him to finance his plan to build a spaceship and transport water to his home planet, before his wife and children perish. He must have done his homework, because one of his first calls is made to a patent attorney, Oliver V. Farnsworth (Buck Henry). In exchange for an equity share Newton’s company, World Enterprises Corp., Farnsworth is able attain patents for nearly a dozen gadgets previously unknown to corporate America. Among them is a disposable camera that develops its own film. The inventions make Farnsworth a very wealthy lawyer and Newton a tycoon who flies below the radar of the media. After registering as a guest in a dusty Gallup hotel, the dapper alien makes the mistake of accepting a ride in the elevator to an upper floor. He faints and begins bleeding from his nose. Fortunately, hotel maid Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) revives him and carries his emaciated body to his room.

She’s easily impressed by his limousine and British accent, while Newton is pleased to be with someone who makes few demands on him – apart from questioning his ability and desire to watch a dozen TVs simultaneously – while alleviating his loneliness. Meanwhile, a debauched college professor and rocket-fuel technician, Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) is hired by WEC to help create the interplanetary water tank. Before the task is completed, however, Newton is kidnapped by a mysterious Mr. Peters (Bernie Casey), who appears to be rouge CIA agent on loan to a rival company. Newton, now an alcoholic, is held in abandoned building for decades, during which Clark and Bryce grow old together and Newton continues to look as young as he did when he came to Earth. Beneath the camouflage of his normal-looking epidermis, however, lies a very different creature, indeed. As wondrously inventive as The Man Who Fell to Earth turned out to be, Paramount executives decided to re-edit it to fit their own limited imaginations and temper some of sex scenes. Until recently, Roeg’s completed version of the film was limited to imported tapes and discs, while “Papa” John Phillips and Stomu Yamashta’s soundtrack disappeared completely. Nine years ago, Criterion released its well-regarded version of The Man Who Fell to Earth, but it’s since gone out of circulation. The new Lionsgate/Studio Canal edition includes supplements in DVD and Blu-ray, including fresh interviews with Candy Clark, writer Paul Mayersberg (Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence), cinematographer Tony Richmond, Roeg, costumers May Routh, photographer David James, filmmaker/superfan Sam Taylor-Johnson and producer Michael Deeley; a featurette on the creation and fate of the original soundtrack; and a 1977 Bowie interview, recovered from French TV. Recollections of shooting at various New Mexico locations in the 166-minute interview featurette are especially fascinating.

No two British filmmakers did more to put a cap on the era of “kitchen-sink realism” than Roeg and Ken Russell, with, in 1970, Performance and The Music Lovers, respectively. Suddenly, home-grown movies were being made for the express purpose of tickling viewers’ senses, funny bones and libidos, instead of rubbing their noses in the country’s post-World War II doldrums, especially those pertaining to working-class families. While Roeg traveled to the far corners of the Earth to make movies that were, at once, stimulating, exotic and disturbing, Russell spent the decade reimagining the lives of great artists, such as Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky, Franz Liszt, Rudolph Valentino and Gustav Mahler; adapting “Tommy” and “The Boy Friend” for the screen; and rewriting the clerical history of 17th Century France, in “The Devils.” Russell gained a reputation for being able to shock and infuriate critics, clergy and historians, in equal measure to mainstream viewers who paid good money to have their limits tested. He would veer away from making biographies in the 1980s, even as he continued to provoke audiences and critics. Released in 1988, The Lair of the White Worm was loosely adapted from Bram Stoker’s final novel, based on the legend of the Lambton Worm. Stoker set the story around the River Wear, in Derbyshire, North East England. In it, young John Lambton skips church one Sunday to go fishing in the Wear. He doesn’t catch anything until the church service finishes, at which point he lands a small eel-like creature with nine holes on each side of its salamander-like head. John declares that he has caught the devil and decides to dispose of his catch in a nearby well. After he joins the Crusades, John forgets about the creature.

Seven years later, he returns home to find his father’s estates and nearby farms almost destitute because of the worm. Russell updates the legend to more contemporary times, relocating it to Staffordshire, to take advantage of scenic Thor’s Cave, which makes a perfect hiding place for the beast. Peter Capaldi plays a Scottish archaeology student, excavating the site of a convent at the Derbyshire bed-and-breakfast run by the Trent sisters, Mary (Sammi Davis) and Eve (Catherine Oxenberg). When he unearths a large skull, which appears to be that of a snake, he believes it may be connected to the local legend of the “d’Ampton worm,” said to have been slain by an ancestor of current Lord of the Manor, James d’Ampton (Hugh Grant). The mysterious Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe) steals the skull and abducts Eve, intending to offer her as the latest in a long line of sacrifices to the snake god. In Russell’s hands, Lady Sylvia is a sexy MILF who dresses like a dominatrix and lures boys and young men to her lair, where she sucks them dry with her giant fangs and feeds them to the worm. He employs nasty jump scares to introduce the creature, as well as some blasphemous religious imagery. The Lair of the White Worm is not a movie you’ll want to watch while tripping on acid. In her day, Donahoe was among the top-10 hottest actresses working in film and television. During her two-year tenure on “L.A. Law,” she took part in the first of the so-called “lesbian kiss episodes” on American television, planting one on lawyer Abbie Perkins. Here, she’s both incendiary and dangerous. The Blu-ray package adds commentaries with Ken Russell and former wife Lisi Russell, in conversation with film historian Matthew Melia; a featurette on the special effects; interviews with editor Peter Davies and Sammi Davis; and a “Trailers From Hell” chapter, featuring producer Dan Ireland.

I’m not sure it’s fair to mention Michael Cooney’s direct-to-video Jack Frost within spitting distance of movies by Russell and Roeg, but all three were made by Brits and could be stretched to fit certain genre conventions. It’s also been repackaged to include a classy new audio/video upgrade, several new background and making-of featurettes, cover art and interviews. The similarities end there, however. Before putting his writer/director/producer’s hat on for good, Cooney owned video stores and was a presence on late-night television. Like everyone else who’s watched more than a dozen genre-specific movies, he came to believe that he could make a better movie than they ones his customers were renting. He didn’t, but Jack Frost was entertaining enough to qualify for cult-classic and so-bad-it’s-good status. In it, a vehicle carrying serial killer Jack Frost to his date with Old Sparky collides with a tanker containing hazardous genetic material. It turns him into a snow- covered mutant, determined to terrorize Snomonton, “The Snowman Capitol of the Midwest,” and exact revenge on the town’s sheriff (Christopher Allport), who ended his cross-country killing spree. The bulbous freak uses icicles to impale his victims and, in the case of a pre-American Pie Shannon Elizabeth, commit rape … before turning her bath water into a giant ice cube. It’s every bit as goofy as it sounds.

The Monster: Blu-ray
In his three produced screenplays, writer/director/producer Bryan Bertino has shown a knack for taking simple genre conventions and turning them into movies with identities of their own. In 2006, his vacation-home-invasion thriller, The Strangers, hit pay dirt with an 8-to-1 return on investment at box offices around the world. The 2014 found-footage flick, Mockingbird, failed to get a theatrical release, opening, instead, on VOD outlets before going into DVD/Blu-ray. Bertino’s latest, The Monster, effectively combines elements of the child-in-peril and bogeyman-in-the-woods sub-genres in the service of a story that also manages to tug at the heartstrings of more sensitive viewers. Zoe Kazan is extremely convincing as an alcoholic single mom, Kathy, whose license to raise a child should have been revoked before she got pregnant. Her pre-teen daughter, Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) grows up fast in a household where she frequently is required to protect her mom from her own worst instincts. Lizzy is happy to learn that she’s been invited to move to her father’s house, which is where they’re headed when Kathy is forced off the main highway in the rain and detoured onto a lonely country road that cuts through a forest. Stop me, if you’ve heard this one before. While bickering with Lizzy, Kathy hits something she believes to be a wolf, seriously damaging the car. After calling for a tow truck, she gets out of the vehicle to check if the animal’s still alive. Just as naturally, the animal has disappeared. No matter, because another beast is lying in wait for stranded motorists, tow-truck drivers and ambulance personnel, and this one isn’t messing around. Bertino doesn’t rush the reveal, literally preferring to keep his characters and viewers in the dark, only hinting at the danger to come. When the monster makes its presence known, however, it’s 50/50 whether more viewers will be frightened or underwhelmed. A side benefit of Kathy and Lizzy’s terrifying encounter with the monster can be seen in their increasing willingness to trust each other’s instincts and work as a team, things that had been missing in their relationship. The enclosed EPK “Eyes in the Darkness” sheds a bit of light on the creation of the monster and what it actually looks like.

USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage: Blu-ray
Among the unforgettable scenes in Jaws is the one in which Quint drunkenly recalls surviving the sinking of the USS Indianapolis and subsequent horror of being attacked by sharks while drifting in the Philippine Sea awaiting rescue and life-saving provisions. It’s likely that most members of the audience weren’t aware of the tragedy and some even assumed the screenwriters had invented the story. Apart from a couple of excusable factual errors, it was only too true. Since then, details of the sinking have been revealed in a 1991 made-for-TV documentary and several short films, some featuring first-hand accounts by survivors. An attempt by National Geographic to locate the doomed cruiser and film the wreckage is expected to take place later this year. Quint’s monologue only revealed the most harrowing details of the ship’s final voyage, though. Of almost equal interest is the historic top-secret mission just completed by the USS Indianapolis – it delivered the enriched uranium and other parts crucial to the bombing of Hiroshima to Tinian island — and the shabby treatment accorded Captain Charles B. McVay III, who barely survived the attack and ordeal at sea. In desperate need of a scapegoat to blame for the Navy’s own mistakes, his superiors in Washington court-martialed McVay, convicting him of “hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag,” a bogus, but convenient charge. Strapped with an inadequate budget to properly tell all three stories, USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage tries its best to honor both the living and dead sailors. If it falls short, it’s only because director Mario Van Peebles was required to take narrative shortcuts and make concessions on the production side. Nicolas Cage’s portrayal of McVay is low-key, yet informed by his passion for the project. Tom Sizemore, Thomas Jane and Matt Lanter probably are the most recognizable actors in supporting roles. I appreciated Van Peebles and screenwriters Cam Cannon and Richard Rionda Del Castro’s attempt the show the role played by African-American sailors in the war effort, but learned later that liberties were taken here for dramatic effect. So, what else is new? It’s about time that anyone in Hollywood went even this far to dramatize such an essential piece of WWII history. The 33-minute featurette, “The Making of USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage,” is well worth the effort to check out.

The Harrow
Not having grown up on a farm, I had to look up “harrow” in the dictionary, just to see what to expect here. It read, “a cultivating tool set with spikes, teeth or disks and used primarily for breaking up and smoothing the soil.” As such, I foresaw yet another genre flick featuring deaths by farm implements. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I’d just seen a trailer for Pitchfork and wondered how much more agricultural horror I could stand. In fact, as The Harrow progressed I kept wondering when the blood and gore would kick in and the expository stuff would fade into the background. The story, after all, involves a Southern drifter, Miller (Tom McKay), who lives in seclusion in an abandoned 100-year-old slaughterhouse, while restoring antiques and performing other tasks for the owner. The hooks once used to hang and drain the carcasses of animals still are attached to a makeshift conveyor belt and on the walls of the abattoir. Oozing with portent, it is the perfect setting for a thriller. Miller is haunted by a vision of Gale (Maggie Geha), his dead lover who was murdered a decade ago. When Gale’s daughter, Ruth (Sonya Harum), arrives, hoping to discover what happened on the fateful night she died. Miller is extremely uncomfortable with her presence, but she eventually wears him down. The truth, in Kevin Stocklin’s debut feature, plays out in flashbacks, while the fitful relationship between Miller and Ruth takes on a palpable aura of suspense of its own. This may come as bad news to gore geeks, but fans of Gothic dramas should find something in The Harrow to like. The DVD adds two of Stocklin’s short film, “Eve” and “The Position,” as well as a Q&A from the Big Apple film Festival.

Flight 313: The Conspiracy
Even when a major star is attached, such investigative thrillers as Erin Brockovich and The Insider can only succeed if the science doesn’t overwhelm the drama — and vice versa — and the dialogue isn’t dominated by legalese and research-speak. Flight 313: The Conspiracy (a.k.a., “A Dark Reflection”) has only one star that might be well-known outside the U.K., Marina Sirtis, who will be forever recognized as counselor Deanna Troi, on various “Star Trek” spinoffs. It is a dramatized sequel to writer/director Tristan Loraine’s 2007 documentary, Welcome Aboard Toxic Airlines, which, among other things, accused the airline industry of covering up knowledge of a defect in modern jetliners that exposes passengers and crews to unfiltered air, pulled directly from the engines, known to become contaminated with neurotoxins, carcinogens and other hazardous chemicals. Loraine, a former commercial pilot, has been investigating this 50-year-old problem ever since friends and co-workers registered claims of short- and long-term health problems, due to “aerotoxic syndrome.” Studies have since been conducted by governmental and scientific bodies disputing the cause of such ailments and, of course, the aviation industry has long denied its existence. In Flight 313: The Conspiracy, the journalist wife (Georgina Sutcliffe) of a wrongfully suspended air traffic controller embarks on an investigative journey that reveals a disturbing succession of cover-ups, regarding air quality on flights, dating back to 1954. Sir Charles Jaspar (Nicholas Day) has tasked his company’s CEO (Mark Dymond) with the responsibility of keeping his business and his wife, Maggie (Sirtis) out of the investigation. Loraine does what he can to make the picture entertaining, but, without a concrete conclusion or settlement rendered, the tension is short-lived.

Antarctica: Ice and Sky
With a man in the White House who’s as obstinately anti-science as he is fiercely pro-commerce, it’s important for knowledgeable people to fight the good fight against ignorance and political recalcitrance. Although data can be manipulated to fit most any agenda, the preponderance of evidence argues in favor of battling global warming before things get worse than they already are. By that time, however, President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago “club” could be under three feet of water and he’d still be blaming the liberal media for distorting his vision of reality. Antarctica: Ice and Sky pays homage to Claude Lorius, a French glaciologist who’s participated in 22 polar expeditions, beginning in 1955. At the time, Antarctica was essentially untouched by scientific research and experimentation. Since the International Geophysical Year opened the door for multinational research, the ice-covered continent has practically become a suburb of Buenos Aires, Santiago and Hobart, Tasmania, as well as a popular bucket-list destination. At 22, Lorius volunteered to spend a year in Antarctica, practically writing the book on scientific study under hellishly frigid conditions. Foremost among the methodology was pulling cores from the ice pack and reading them like the rings on a tree stump. Not only could the scientists discern periods of atypical warmth and cold, but also the fallout from natural and manmade disasters. Air bubbles created many centuries ago revealed secrets, as well. Global warming and climate change weren’t on anyone’s radar when Lorius dedicated his life to glaciology and fell in love with Antarctica. When it became clear to him that the changes were caused largely by unnatural forces, he became a crusader for the unpopular truth. Luc Jacquet, whose March of the Penguins became a global box-office sensation, weaves archival and contemporary footage into a documentary that’s, at once, informative, entertaining and cautionary. As a contemplative memoir, too, Antarctica: Ice and Sky is extremely compelling.

Guardians of Oz
Outside the U.S., the computer-animated adventure/fantasy Guardians of Oz was known as “Wicked Flying Monkeys,” which would be a great name for rock band or circus act in Las Vegas. Targeted at younger viewers, though, that title might be a bit too on-the-nose for anyone whose lasting memory of “The Wizard of Oz” wasn’t Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow,” but being frightened to death by the winged monkeys dispatched from the Wicked Witch’s castle to harass and capture Dorothy and Toto. While still plenty nasty, the animated monkeys in Guardians of Oz aren’t nearly as intimidating as those in the 1939 live-action classic. The story picks up after the Wicked Witch of the West is melted by a bucket of water and Dorothy is sent back to Kansas. Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, decides to revive the Wicked Witch, but remove her powers by storing them in a magic broom. Glinda then gives the broom to Dorothy’s friends, Tin Woodman, Cowardly Lion, and Scarecrow, and they become its guardians. Evilene, the Wicked Witch, conspires with her flying monkeys to retrieve her broom. After Evilene transforms his father into a chicken, a friendly monkey named Ozzy joins forces with the Guardians to make the kingdom safe once and for all. Guardians of Oz was conceived in Mexico by Anima Estudios (“Top Cat”) and produced with India’s Discreet Arts. The animation looks modern and not remotely cut-rate, as might have been the case even 10 years ago. Kids not quite ready for the original might benefit from first checking out Guardians of Oz.

The Passing Season
Co-writer/director Gabriel Long’s freshman feature, The Passing Season, is an indie drama about a hockey player forced to come to grips with the likelihood that he’ll never sip champagne from Lord Stanley’s Cup or even make it to the NHL. (And, no, it wasn’t made in Canada.) Understandably shattered when he’s told by his coach that he’s being cut, Sam (Brian J. Smith) decides to leave town in a hurry, only stopping for one last booty call with his girlfriend, Lindsey (Elizabeth Alderfer), who he keeps in the dark about his plans. He returns to his hometown, where his high school pals still enjoy getting hammered night after night and he’s something of a local hero. To keep busy, Sam agrees to help a friend refurbish his house, which he hopes to put up for sale when the time’s right. Despite his buddy’s generosity, Sam can’t resist the temptation to hook up with his girlfriend. It’s a disaster, of course. Although he’s a bit young for a midlife crisis, Sam struggles to put his life back on even keel, although he’d settle for getting back together with Lindsey. Because Long hasn’t been able to sell us on Sam’s worthiness as an adult, we’re as perplexed as she is by his desire to get back in her life.

A Month of Sundays
It’s a lot easier to find Australian actors portraying American characters in Hollywood movies than it is to find excellent Australian pictures starring the same talented men and women. It has almost nothing to do with the quality of the films or production values, either. Among those who made the grade Down-Under, before being lured Up-Over are Hugh Jackman, Cate Blanchett, Margo Robbie, Mel Gibson, Emily Browning, Rose Byrne, Liam Hemsworth, Heath Ledger, Miranda Otto, Joel Edgerton, Judy Davis,Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths, Eric Bana, Bryan Brown, Rachel Ward and Geoffrey Rush. The list goes on. Many of them return home on a regular basis to appear in “smaller” homegrown pictures and on stage, where they don’t have to fake an American or British accent and regional variations, thereof. Anthony LaPaglia has been working in the U.S. for so long, he might as well have been born in Oshkosh, instead of Adelaide. Until the excellent 2001 crime drama, Lantana, set in Sydney and its woodsy suburbs, I didn’t recognize his roots, either. The compelling coming-of-middle-age story, A Month of Sundays, was shot in LaPalgia’s hometown, which very much resembles hometowns here and the U.K. Adelaide real-estate agent Frank Mollard (LaPaglia) is stuck in deep personal and professional rut. He’s tired of selling properties owned by the recently or soon-to-be deceased and is having trouble recovering from his recent divorce from Wendy (Justine Clarke), an actress who grew apart from him after achieving sudden fame on a TV medical drama. He connects easier with his surprisingly nonchalant boss, Phillip (John Clarke), than his overly sensitive teenage son.

One day, he enters into a misdirected phone conversation with an elderly woman, Sarah (Julia Blake), who insists he’s her son. Despite the fact that his mother died a year earlier, Frank is so comforted by their conversation that he plays along with her confusion. He uses his job as an excuse to pay a visit to the retired librarian, whose middle-age son, Damien (Donal Forde), looks at Frank as if he’s trying to steal his inheritance by selling the house to an order of cloistered nuns. Instead, he’s in search of the kind of motherly advice he never sought from his own mom. Writer/director Matthew Saville probably assumed that the audience for A Month of Sundays would be old enough to appreciate the reflexive moments shared by the autumnal characters and wait patiently for them to work out their dilemmas. It’s not the kind of movie anyone in Hollywood is interested in producing, anymore. It’s also a departure for Saville, a television veteran whose memorably offbeat first feature, Noise (2007), involves a young cop whose ability to solve a terrible series of murders is complicated by self-doubt and a sudden attack of tinnitus. His condition reduces his ability to hear, while also magnifying the sound of everyday noises. His second feature, Felony, written by and starring Edgerton, was psychodrama involving three very different Sydney cops forced to decide what ethical lines can be crossed to achieve justice in an accident involving an off-duty police officer and a child, without destroying more than one person’s life. In all three of his films, Saville elicits moving performances from mostly homegrown casts.

Takashi Miike’s Black Society Trilogy: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Before the general release of the torture-porn classic Audition – inarguably, one of the most unsettling movies ever made — Takashi Miike was a largely an unknown quantity outside Asia. He had, in fact, directed more than 30 films over the course of the previous eight years, most of them extremely violent straight-to-video flicks that in America would have been dismissed as grindhouse or drive-in fare. After word-of-mouth turned Audition into a cult sensation, genre buffs around the world rushed to see such brashly energetic entertainments as The Happiness of the Katakuris, Ichi the Killer, Sukiyaki Western Django, Detective Story, Zebraman and the Dead or Alive trilogy. If he continues to defy the expectations of mainstream critics and late-arrivals with the unevenness of his period, mange/anime and yakuza pictures, cultists have been far more forgiving. The films included in Arrow Video’s “Takashi Miike’s Black Society Trilogy: Special Edition” represent the director’s first foray into the theatrical arena. Even if Shinjuku Triad Society (1995), Rainy Dog (1997) and Ley Lines (1999) could be stand alone as non-serial releases, they work best as a series of pictures that capture the feelings of isolation, paranoia and rage that existed within the small population of Chinese and Japanese/Chinese living in Japan. To combat the discrimination they faced as outsiders, the Chinese formed underworld Triads that were as violent and exploitative as the yakuza. Set in the bustling Kabuki-cho nightlife neighborhood of Tokyo, Shinjuku Triad Society follows a mixed-race cop (Kippei Shiina) struggling with private issues while hunting a psychotic criminal (Tomorowo Taguchi) who traffics in children’s organs, especially those of kidnapped Chinese youths. Shot entirely in Taiwan, Rainy Dog concerns an exiled yakuza (Show Aikawa), who, one fateful day, is introduced to the son he never knew existed and has a price put on his head by the same Chinese gang he’s served as an assassin. Ley Lines moves from the countryside to the city and back, as three Japanese youths of Chinese descent seek their fortune in Tokyo, only to run afoul of a violent gang boss (Naoto Takenaka). The narratives are alternately profane and profound, gut-churning and empathetic. The settings shift from brothels and flophouses, to fancy restaurants and villas. If it ever stopped raining on the characters, I didn’t notice it. The neon-lit puddles frequently fill with droplets of blood as the violence in the street escalates to open warfare. The special edition is enhanced by high-definition digital transfers of all three films and original uncompressed stereo audio. The bonus features include new interviews with Miike and Aikawa; commentaries for all three films by Miike biographer Tom Mes; original theatrical trailers for all three films; a reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Chris Malbon; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the films.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: American Experience: The Battle of Chosin
Battle for Incheon: Operation Chromite: Blu-ray
PBS Kids: Odd Squad: The Movie
Before the embarrassing loss of South Vietnam to communist forces and a series of smaller wars and invasions that ended rather shabbily, thanks mostly to poor decision-making in Washington, the title of “Forgotten War” was worn by the Korean conflict, which lasted from 1950-54. Despite the heroics of American, South Korean and UN forces, all we succeeded in doing was keeping the Chinese- and Soviet-backed North Korean military from attempting to re-invade the South. The situation has yet to be resolved. After the glorious defeat of fascist and imperial governments in World War II, the American people didn’t know how to react to a stalemate. There would be no parades or displays of appreciation. Congressional approval for a Korean War Veterans Memorial only was confirmed on October 28, 1986. It’s in West Potomac Park, southeast of the Lincoln Memorial and just south of the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall. It was a long time coming.

PBS’ “American Experience: The Battle of Chosin” provides us with several very good reasons to remember the Forgotten War and salute the men who nearly were slaughtered, en masse, because General Douglas MacArthur, Commander-in-Chief of the United Nations Command, decided to turn victory into defeat by provoking Chinese leaders to intercede on behalf of the North Korean communists. After the successful invasion at Inchon, American and Allied soldiers pushed the invaders back to the 38th Parallel and beyond. MacArthur decided it might be fun to keep on going, to the Yalu River, where 85,000 Chinese soldiers awaited orders to attack a much smaller force of UN soldiers and U.S. Marines. The general had arrogantly insisted that Chairman Mao Zedong wouldn’t elect to cross the Yalu and, if he did, China wouldn’t put up on good fight. What he didn’t take into account was Chairman Mao’s legitimate fear of a full-fledged invasion of his country by the United States and his willingness to promote communism with the same vehemence previously directed at Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces, now ensconced in Taiwan. If Mao did make the move, however, MacArthur was perfectly willing to use nuclear weapons on China. As such, he directly challenged the authority of President Truman to wage the “police action” as he saw fit, and that didn’t include risking a third world war. “The Battle of Chosin” describes in harrowing detail how our men survived long enough – with no food, sleep or uniforms warm enough to withstand sub-zero temperatures — to retreat to a more defensible position, below the Chosin Reservoir. Among those interviewed are survivors of battle, historians and military experts.

MacArthur’s instincts were 100 percent correct when it came to the initial invasion of South Korea, already almost completely in the hands of communist troops. John H. Lee’s Battle for Incheon: Operation Chromite, a huge hit in South Korea, describes the essential role played by a South Korean special-forces unit that infiltrated the North Korean army command center in Inchon 14 days ahead of the UN landing. The joint Central Intelligence Agency/military-intelligence reconnaissance effort, codenamed Trudy Jackson, was led by U.S. Navy Lieutenant Eugene F. Clark. After landing at Yonghung-do, an island in the mouth of the harbor, the unit relayed intelligence back to the fleet commanders on the tactical characteristics of the harbor, which is notorious for swift currents and major tidal surges. They also were ordered to secure a lighthouse crucial to the landing’s success and provide information on bombing targets inland. Lee’s direction emphasizes the dangers inherent in such a risky mission, while also pumping up the support provided by MacArthur (Liam Neeson), who went out on a limb to defend it. Although the fact-based action is often quite good, the North Korean government has described the film as “ridiculous bravado from ignorant lunatics.” Whoever wrote that might consider applying for a job with Variety or the Hollywood Reporter, where such criticism could apply to most action films made here.

The PBS Kids series, “Odd Squad,” follows the exploits of a kid-run organization that solves peculiar problems using math skills. “Odd Squad: The Movie” describes what happens when a rival agency, Weird Team, arrives in town with a gadget that fixes any odd problem, effectively putting it out of business. After the agents are forced to go back to their lives as regular kids, they use math and teamwork to uncover the gadget’s inability to fix the problems it masked. Olympia and Otis join forces with Olive and Otto to stop Weird Team and save the world from destruction. Special guests include Sean Cullen, Rizwah Manji, Sue Galloway, John Lutz, Keith Powell, Hannah Simone and Jack McBrayer

Lady Libertine/Love Circles: Blu-ray
42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection Vol. 19
When, in the mid-1980s, Gérard Kikoïne made the transition from hard-core porn to such soft-core “love stories” as Lady Libertine and Love Circles, for non-French companies, it was because the government had imposed prohibitively heavy fees on the thriving industry. At the same time, in the United States, distributors of erotic films to cable-TV networks and video outlets could hardly keep up with the demand. Kikoïne was hired to produce erotic titles for Playboy Productions, which, at the time, was churning out fare that could pass for R-rated in theaters. Kikoïne took a few more liberties with such taboo visuals as full-frontal nudity and pubic hair, but nothing comparable to what’s seen on the Playboy Channel today. (Most grown women had yet to see the benefit, if any, of waxing or shaving their pubes to resemble Barbie dolls.) While almost anyone with a camcorder could create the kinds of movies shown afterhours on Cinemax, Kikoïne was accorded budgets that allowed for elaborate sets, period costumes and travel to exotic locations … or reasonable facsimiles thereof. The sex was integrated organically within the context of a recognizable narrative and the female actors, at least, were world-class beauties. The lavishly staged Lady Libertine was adapted from the Victorian novel, “Frank and I,” by Bill Adler. As such, there’s nearly as much S&M as horizontal sex. In the 1880s, a rich nobleman from London, Charles de Beaumont (Christopher Pearson), adopts a cross-dressing teenage orphan (Jennifer Inch) after learning Frank/Frances had escaped from a brothel. The count already has a lover, Maud (Sophie Favier), who contributes to the teenager’s home-schooling, such as it is. (When, some years later, Favier went legit and became a well-known TV host, she unsuccessfully sued the distributor to prevent the release of the DVD.)  Charles is an extremely jealous host, so, when his charge shows signs of hooking up with a suitor closer to her age, he’s forced to make a choice between youth and experience. (Inch would quickly find work as Ruby Gillis, in the CBC/Disney presentation, “Anne of Green Gables.”)

Also included in the package is Kikoïne’s more contemporary Love Circles: An International Odyssey, which is cut from the same cloth as the Emmanuelle series. An update of “La Ronde,” it traces a series of chance meetings between men and women from Paris to Rome, Cannes to Hong Kong, and Los Angeles to New York City. The commen element is a pack of cigarettes handed from horny dude to willing babe. It works pretty well as an erotic fantasy, if nothing else. There’s an entertaining interview with Kikoïne and separate introduction to Lady Libertine at the Fantasia Film Festival. In 1989, he would direct Anthony Perkins in the Jekyll/Hyde-on-crack thriller, Edge of Sanity.

Impulse Pictures’ “42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection Vol. 19” features 15 more “classic” 8mm loops, re-mastered from original film prints, with such titles as “Truck Girls,” “Lesbian Lust,” “Angie’s Dream” and “Pom Pom Power.” Among the stars in this go-round are Linda Shaw, Vanessa Del Rio, Merle Richards and a slew of unknowns, who, like Sophie Favier, wish they’d made better decisions back in the day. Liner notes are provided by “porn archaeologist” Dimitrios Otis

The DVD Wrapup: Girl on the Train, Whole Truth, Dancer, Death Race 2050, Train to Busan, Fox and his Friends, Something Wild,and more

Thursday, January 19th, 2017

The Girl on the Train: Blu-ray
Since I didn’t read Paula Hawkins’ worldwide bestseller before watching The Girl on the Train, I allowed myself not to compare what I might have loved about the book, contrasted to the decisions made by the filmmakers. These include everything from debatable casting choices to relocating the action from London to Ardsley-on-Hudson, New York, and refocusing the point-of-view to that of a single protagonist, Rachel (Emily Blunt), instead of her sharing it equally with Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and Megan (Haley Bennett). The whole movie was new to me. Devastated by her recent divorce, Rachel spends her daily commute fantasizing about Megan and Scott (Luke Evans) the seemingly perfect couple she sees most days from the window of her train. They live in a house with a million-dollar view of the Hudson River and always appear to be cuddling, making love or sharing the chores. Her perception changes in a flash when she witnesses something that jolts her to the core – it’s a real Rear Window moment – and she decides to insinuate herself into two interrelated marital dramas … three, when you take into account that one of the spouses is her ex-husband. The trouble with trusting Rachel’s point of view implicitly is that her former husband, Tom (Justin Theroux) really did a number on her and she’s since become a barely functioning alcoholic, prone to blackouts and misremembering events in her recent past. She’s also developed a morbid preoccupation with Tom’s newborn daughter. One of things that caused her to turn to the bottle was an inability to conceive a child. Another was Tom’s decision to cheat on her with their New Age-y real-estate agent, Anna. Because this is a movie and not real life, the female half of the “perfect couple,” Megan, not only lives a few doors down from Tom and Anna, but she also is their nanny.

One day, after Scott reports Rachel missing, Rachel wakes up from a night of heavy drinking with vague memories of something nasty having happened in a tunnel not far from the couples’ homes. She’d already begun stalking Anna, so, in her fog-shrouded mind, anything was possible, including being completely innocent. Detective Sergeant Riley (Allison Janney) immediately suspects Rachel of having something to do with the disappearance, but, without a dead body, all she’s guilty of being a pest to Tom and Anna, and someone capable of harming their nanny or kidnapping their baby. She also makes Scott miserable by suggesting that Megan may have run away with her shrink (Edgar Ramírez) after being impregnated by him. Working from a workmanlike script by Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary), director Tate Taylor (The Help) pretty much remains faithful to the novel, or so I’m told. My biggest problems with the movie derives from an early confusion of blond actresses and a subsequent lack of interest on my part in the plight of their characters and their marriages. Eliminating their points of view from the narrative made Anna and Megan seem more distant to me. (Or, am I prejudiced against pretty blonds living in nice homes?) Things picked up rapidly after Taylor refocused his attention on the mystery of what happened to Megan and what’s really behind Rachel’s blackouts. Blunt ultimately convinces us of Rachel’s worth and commitment to sobriety. Despite the book’s popularity, The Girl on the Train fell well short of blockbuster status. A relatively modest budget and overseas box-office returns might have helped push it into the black, however. There’s no reason to think it won’t do better in VOD and DVD/Blu-ray/UHD. The bonus package includes deleted and extended scenes, Taylor’s commentary and a couple of perfunctory making-of featurettes.

The Whole Truth: Blu-ray
Once it became clear to me that Keanu Reeves is playing a defense attorney in The Whole Truth, I began to worry that his character might turn out to be a mere shadow of Kevin Lomax, the bedeviled lawyer in The Devil’s Advocate. The movie was shown first on VOD, before being granted a limited release last October, so it could have been a real stinker. Reeves has fooled me before, however. Thanks to his freakishly youthful genetic makeup, Richard Ramsey doesn’t look a day older than Lomax did in 1997. Apart from the physical resemblance, though, the two lawyers play in completely different ballparks and “Devil’s Advocate” director Taylor Hackford was given far more to work with than Courtney Hunt, in her theatrical follow-up to the terrific 2008 drama, Frozen River. Another red flag was raised by screenwriter Nicolas Kazan choosing to write The Whole Truth under the pseudonym Rafael Jackson. It represents his first screenwriter credit since the 2002 Jennifer Lopez vehicle, Escape, and 1999 Robin Williams bomb, Bicentennial Man. Here, Ramsey is a hotshot Louisiana lawyer, hired by the widow (Renée Zellweger) of a more successful attorney (Jim Belushi) to defend their son against charges of murdering his father. Ever since the incident, the bright young man (Gabriel Basso) has remained mute, thus compounding the degree of difficulty for Ramsey.

Even if the verdict isn’t likely to surprise anyone who’s watched more than few episodes of “Law & Order,” the movie offers a few decent twists, at least. The Whole Truth wisely dispenses with the commonly held notion that all judges south of the Mason-Dixon Line are buffoons, bigots, fascists, crooks or combinations thereof. Judge Robichaux (Ritchie Montgomery) may be a wee bit eccentric – it’s a Louisiana courtroom, after all – but he’s atypically fair. He’s more interested administering justice in a swift and uneventful manner than grandstanding. That’s a rare thing. Then, too, there’s the re-emergence of Zellweger’s re-emergence in a key role. Because it was released last spring in several overseas markets, The Whole Truth, not Bridget Jones’s Baby, represents her first movie role in six years. While the cosmetic work she’s had done on her face takes some getting used to, she’s far from unrecognizable or unattractive. Now 47, Zellweger looks her age and can still pull off the role of the sexy widow, who’s harboring a secret. Then, too, there’s Oxford-born Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Free State of Jones), who does a nice job as the daughter of a respected African-American judge and Ramsey’s spunky second-chair. Kazan/Jackson’s script wisely spares viewers any race-based throughlines. Even so, if the story, itself, offered a few more unexpected twists and turns, it would be easier to forgive Reeves his frequently one-dimensional performance.

Come and Find Me: Blu-ray
In his directorial debut, writer Zach Whedon (“Southland”) has crafted a paranoid-thriller that probably could have gotten lost in theaters, but fits pretty well on the small screen. (Small comfort for opening on VOD outlets, I suppose.) Although, at 112 minutes, Come and Find Me tests our ability to suspend disbelief in the central mystery, Aaron Paul (”Breaking Bad”) makes us care very much about the sudden disappearance of David’s hot blond girlfriend, Claire. He’s a L.A.-based graphic designer who falls for a free-spirited photographer (Annabelle Wallis) who he meets – cute, of course — in their shared apartment building. No sooner do we warm to the couple than Claire simply disappears from David’s life, almost as if she never existed. Heart-broken and deeply concerned, he desperately searches for clues that don’t really exist. After discovering some rather ordinary-looking photos she had taken, David decides to ascertain where they were shot and ask people there if they recognize Claire. It doesn’t take long for David to learn that she was leading a double life and it involved guns, muscular guys with Slavic accents and spooks in look-alike black suits. An acquaintance breaks into his apartment, punching holes in the drywall in search of God-knows-what. Everyone David meets encourages him to forget about Claire, or else. But, where would be the fun in that. Instead, he uses their obsession with a missing roll of film as leverage to get closer to the truth about Claire. The deeper he digs, the more dangerous things get for him in the gorgeous mountains, surrounding Vancouver. Even if things stop making sense after a while, Whedon keeps things from getting boring with shootouts, chases and missed connections.

Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050: Blu-ray
In the annals of exploitation cinema, Roger Corman and Paul Bartel’s 1975 action/satire Death Race 2000 holds a special place. Originally created to take advantage of advance publicity for the futuristic combat-sport fantasy, Rollerball, it is one of the most influential of all AIP/New World titles, pre-dating Mad Max, The Gumball Rally, the WWE superstars and Hunger Games. Robert Thom and Charles Griffith’s adaptation of a short story by Ib Melchior (The Time Travelers) hit home with a generation of teenagers and young adults who’d given up on peace, love and good vibes and were steeling themselves for a bleak, dystopian future … not that the word, “dystopian,” was part of the vernacular. If the apocalypse has yet to qrear its ugly head, as prophesized in Death Race 2000, the conditions for total annihilation could hardly be riper. Without completely discounting the previous “DR2K” prequels, sequels, remakes and ancillary products, Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050 strikes me as being a closer representation of the anarchic spirit that propelled the original drive-in classic.

In 2050, the United States is controlled by an all-powerful corporate government ruled by a dictator (Malcolm McDowell), not unlike the character he played in Rob Zombie’s 31 or, for that matter, Donald Trump. Once again, race fans are so invested in its outcome that they’re willing to sacrifice themselves at various points in the cross-country race, so their favorite driver can amass points. The reigning champion and fan favorite, Frankenstein (Manu Bennett), is anxious to retain the crown, but is continually thwarted by his rebel-spy co-pilot (Marci Miller). This time, the scenes of a ravaged American terrain were shot in and around Lima, Peru. The setting looks distressingly real. Corman may have allowed the production a slightly larger production budget, but it wasn’t enough to mask the purposefully cheesy production values and makeshift props. The race cars haven’t improved much, either. Even so, Death Race 2050 can be enjoyed as a throwback to the days when drive-in theaters ruled and viewers stopped paying attention after the first six-pack was downed. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and features, “The Making of Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050,” “The Look of 2050,” “Cars! Cars! Cars!” and “Cast Car Tours.”

Dancer
If the Ukrainian-born “bad boy of ballet,” Sergei Polunin, isn’t as well-known outside of dance circles as Baryshnikov, Nureyev or Godunov, it’s because he didn’t have to risk everything by defecting to the west for his art. The west came to him. The lifting of the Iron Curtain denied the American media the ability to capitalize on artists’ and athletes’ desire to find wealth and happiness outside Eastern European. If it weren’t for the occasional Cuban baseball player making the 90-mile leap to the Major Leagues, the word “defect” would be limited to spies and Chinese exports. Just because I wasn’t familiar with Polunin before watching Steven Cantor’s incisive bio-doc, Dancer, doesn’t mean he lacks mainstream recognition in the United States. In 2014, his video collaboration with photographer and music director David LaChapelle, based on Irish singer-songwriter Hozier’s “Take Me to Church,” went viral, not only introducing millions of the fans to Polunin, but also to a distinctly masculine merging of ballet and modern dance. In June, 2010, he became the Royal Ballet’s youngest ever principal. Less than two years later, though, Polunin shocked the dance world by announcing his resignation from the company. “The artist in me was dying,” he said. If it precipitated the media’s characterization of the multi-tattooed Polunin as a “bad boy,” or rebel, they didn’t take into account the fact that he’d already spent most of young life training, rehearsing and performing under the most rigid circumstances imaginable, mostly without his parents and away from home.

From ages 4 to 8, he trained at a gymnastics academy in his hometown, Kherson, then part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. He would spend the next four years at the Kiev State Choreographic Institute, while his father worked in Portugal to support the family. At 13, he was invited to join the British Royal Ballet School, sponsored by the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation. Several months after leaving the company, he agreed to dance as a principal dancer with Russia’s Stanislavsky Music Theatre and Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, and as a guest dancer with other international companies. Still not satisfied, Polunin soon would develop a reputation as being flighty and undependable. Apparently, he now has his sights set on Hollywood, where Nureyev (Valentino), Baryshnikov (The Turning Point) and Godunov (Die Hard) enjoyed a modicum of success. Dancer makes a solid case for Polunin being an artist of extraordinary talent and intelligence, worthy of our patience and understanding. Moreover, at 27, he’s far from washed up. The documentary includes the dance video and details of the dancer’s life and career.

The Free World
The presence of Boyd Holbrook, Elisabeth Moss and Octavia Spencer is a good-enough reason to check out The Free World, the uneven directorial debut of sophomore screenwriter Jason Lew (Restless). Holbrook (“Narcos”) plays Mohamed Lundy, a brooding ex-con who discovered Islam in prison after convincing fellow inmates and guards, alike, that he wasn’t raised to be anyone’s bitch. Exonerated of his guilt in a terrible crime, Mohamed finds work in an animal shelter, where the caged beasts might as well be sitting in a cell on Death Row. Apart from his sympathetic boss (Spencer), the wounded dogs are his only friends. Naturally, it doesn’t take long for trouble to come to Mohamed. A brutal cop arrives at the shelter to drop off his wife’s mutt, which he’s beaten within an inch of its life, just to piss her off. The cop recognizes Lundy and taunts him to provoke a fight, but “Mo” refuses to take the bait. A couple of nights later, the wife, Doris (Moss), shows up at the pound looking for her dog, her clothes stained with blood and as desperate to survive as a cornered animal. Worried that someone is lying in wait for her, Mo takes her to his furniture-deprived apartment for safekeeping. We’ll learn soon enough that the blood once belonged to her now-late husband and she’s the subject of an intense police dragnet. Because her trail disappears at the shelter, Mohamed is targeted for harassment by the merciless Detective Shin (Sung Kang), who believes he knows where Doris is hiding. He does, of course, but Mo’s apartment has already been searched and he’s given Shin no reason to intimidate him. Doris may not be terribly bright, but she’s impressed by Mo’s dedication to his religion and how it changed him. When she makes the kind of dumb mistake that could lead the police back to the apartment, Mo decides that the time has come to head for the border, with the assistance of another convert to Islam. Lew doesn’t exactly clear a direct path to Mexico for his characters. Instead, it’s littered with improbable obstacles designed to test Mo’s strength and faith. If Lew’s story is too contrived to be believable, the movie is salvaged by the leads’ excellent performances and some good fights.

Train to Busan: Blu-ray
As if South Koreans didn’t have enough on their minds, considering that North Korean despot Kim Jong-un could launch a nuclear attack at any moment, the hugely popular thriller, Train to Busan, added the zombie apocalypse to the mix. Yeon Sang-ho’s first live-action feature imagines what could happen if someone infected with the plague stumbled upon a bullet train to escape a nationwide viral outbreak. It takes a while for the passengers, who boarded at an earlier stop, to figure out what’s happening in the car in which the diseased woman is nursing a bite wound on her leg. The situation worsens exponentially as the infection quickly spreads from car to car. Finally, the passengers in a single car are left to battle the undead legions inside the train and at every stop on the way to the Safe Zone. Yeon heightens the tension with almost non-stop action and gore, as well as a handful of clearly drawn characters we hope won’t end up having their brain bludgeoned by a baseball bat or errant bullet. Naturally, Train to Busan’s box-office success overseas ensured that a Hollywood remake would soon follow. Where they’ll find a bullet train here is anyone’s guess. The package includes behind-the-scenes and making-of featurettes.

Honky Holocaust: Blu-ray
B.C. Butcher: Blu-ray
Bubba the Redneck Werewolf
For at least one generation of horror and slasher buffs, Charles Manson is the gift that keeps on giving. Even while ensconced at San Quentin and Corcoran State Prison, he was rarely far from the public’s eye. His face appeared on T-shirts almost as often as Che Guevara and Mickey Mouse and the tabloid papers never tired of inventing ways to feature stories about his prison activities and parole efforts of jailed gang members. His bizarre magnetism was such that visitors conspired with guards and fellow cons to import contraband, such as drugs and cellphones, into prison on his orders. When, on New Year’s Day, Manson was rushed by ambulance to Mercy Hospital, in downtown Bakersfield, the news stirred a feeding frenzy in the media and scared the crap out of locals afraid that he might escape in his hospital gown into the Central Valley night. He didn’t, but imagine the scope of the manhunt if he had. Honky Holocaust, Troma’s latest assault on western culture, is built on the outlandish premise that Manson’s Helter Skelter strategy had played out as planned and his merry band of followers is finally ready to come out of hiding, fit and ready to save mankind from an apocalyptic race war. Writer/director Paul M. McAlarney tweaks the Helter Skelter scenario by killing off Manson a decade underground and creating a society dominated by militant blacks, who aren’t likely to be intimidated by a couple of dozen middle-age freaks with automatic weapons. Manson’s daughter, Kendra (Maria Natapov), is the first to realize that, among other things, her father’s plan failed to take into account the possibility that Angela Davis would be elected president in 1984; that dollar bills would someday feature the likeness of renegade slave, Nat Turner; and whites (referred to derisively as “albies”) would be relegated to slums and ghettos, in a reversal of Jim Crow segregation. Even so, a race war of sorts does break out in the streets of San Francisco, but it duplicates all the worst elements of Blaxploitation movies in the 1970s. As indigestible as Honky Holocaust is, it can’t be said that it’s devoid of deliciously Tromatastic flourishes. I can imagine Quentin Tarantino surveying the movie and seeing some of his own handiwork on display. It’s definitely not for the squeamish or politically correct. The Blu-ray includes an introduction by Troma boss Lloyd Kaufman and director Paul McAlarney; a behind-the-scenes “Honkumentary”; “exterminated” scenes; a photo gallery; McAlarney’s exclusive video takes; “Troma Now! Xtreme Edition”; Radiation March; and Tromatic trailers.

Troma is distributing Kansas Bowling’s B.C. Butcher, which barely qualifies for mention in the same breath as Honky Holocaust or The Toxic Avenger. The best things that can be said for it are that it lives up to its tagline, “The first slasher film to be set in prehistoric times!,” and that Bowling, who was 17-years-old when she began to make B.C. Butcher, learned from the experience. Her music videos, included in the Blu-ray package, are already better than anything in the movie. For the record, though, the story involves a tribe of cavewomen, modeled after Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C., who, after exacting a cruel form of justice on one of their own, is stalked by a laughably deformed monster. If only the gals had listened to the tribe’s blind soothsayer and made a beeline for the bayou. Shot on a shoestring, or less, it features cameos by Kato Kaelin and Rodney “The Mayor of Sunset Strip” Bingenheimer; narration by Kadeem Hardison; and a performance by the Ugly Kids. The bonus package adds an intro by Kaufman; amusing commentary with Bowling and Kaufman; an interview with the savvy-beyond-her-years director; and promotional material. I’d love to see what Bowling could do with a larger budget and a shot at a series on MTV or Syfy.

Bubba the Redneck Werewolf wasn’t churned out by the Troma factory, but it might as well have been. Overflowing with gags that Larry the Cable Guy and Jeff Foxworthy wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot-long rod and reel, it tells the story of local laughingstock Bubba (Fred Lass/Chris Stephens), who longs to win back the heart of his high school sweetheart, Bobbie Jo (Malone Thomas), but needs some help. When the Devil (Mitch Hyman) comes to Broken Taint, Florida, Bubba begs to be transformed into a hairy-chested macho man. Instead, the next morning, he wakes up as a macho wolfman, in constant need of a shave. To demonstrate his new-found heroism, Bubba engages malicious bikers, cryptic hobos, gaseous gypsies and, yes, a zombie hoard. Based on the comic book series of the same name, Bubba benefits from the humorously matter-of-fact attitude adopted by the local yokels toward their hirsute dog catcher.

Fox and His Friends: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Retake
Lazy Eye: Extended Director’s Cut
I can’t recall when the term, “queer cinema,” became an acceptable way to describe films of specific interest to the LGBT and sometimes Q community. Probably around the same time that other minority groups reappropriated slurs traditionally employed by bigots for their own purposes. As the mainstreaming of the queer cinema continues apace, the arrival of the Criterion Collection edition of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends reminds us of filmmakers whose non-polemical storytelling predated Stonewall or paralleled the rise of the gay liberation movement. A short list would include Shirley Clarke, Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Ken Russell, John Schlesinger, Luchino Visconti, Toshio Matsumoto and John Waters. At a time when William Friedkin’s The Boys in the Band was being hailed and condemned, in almost equal measure, for its depiction of archetypal characters confronting their sexual identity, the work of these arthouse directors had already exited the genre closet and entered a world in which porn and self-pity didn’t necessarily inform the narratives. Ten years after the release of The Boys in the Band, Friedkin’s crime thriller, Cruising, about a serial killer targeting homosexuals, especially those associated with the leather scene, would inspire an outcry that forced Hollywood to rethink its approach to gay-themed movies. Tellingly, perhaps, it took 17 years for a major studio to adapt Édouard Molinaro’s hilarious Franco-Italian farce, La Cage aux Folles, as The Birdcage – rated “R,” for language and turn it into a huge hit, thanks to director Mike Nichols, screenwriter Elaine May, and stars Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.

By the time that Fox and His Friends was introduced at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, Fassbinder had already established a reputation as a leading light in the New German Cinema and provocateur of the first order. Many of the films he made in the early- to mid-1970s were inspired by the melodramas made in Hollywood by Hamburg-born Douglas Sirk. They explored societal prejudices about race, sex, sexual orientation, politics and class, while also tackling the “everyday fascism of family life and friendship.” In some ways, Fox and His Friends resembles a Sirkian tragedy, based on George Bernard Shaw’s play, “Pygmalion.” An atypically svelte Fassbinder plays Franz Biberkopf, a penniless gay man who performs in a traveling circus as Fox the Talking Head. One day, after his boss is arrested and the act is closed, Franz is cruised by a classy older man, Max, who introduces the rough trade to younger friends, Eugen and Philip. At first dismissive, their ears perk up when Max shares the news of Franz’ recent lottery win of a half-million marks. (The money for the ticket was stolen from a florist, who made the mistake of turning his back on his flirtatious customer.) Franz is beguiled by Eugen’s polish and willingness to show him a good time in Munich’s gay demimonde, for so long as he’s picking up the tab, anyway. To avoid undue embarrassment, Eugen (Peter Chatel) plays Professor Henry Higgins to Franz’ Eliza Doolittle. It also opens the door for Eugen’s father, a bookbinder, to hit up his son’s lover for an investment in his failing company. Franz jumps at the chance to join the ranks of important industrialists, even as Eugen’s cheap shots and frustration become more pointed. When the money finally evaporates … well, you might be able to guess the rest. The Blu-ray adds interviews with fresh interviews, vintage TV appearances by Fassbinder and essays.

Fassbinder, who committed suicide in 1982, at 37, said this about “Fox and His Friends: “It is certainly the first film in which the characters are homosexuals, without homosexuality being made into a problem. In films, plays or novels, if homosexuals appear, the homosexuality was the problem, or it was a comic turn. But here homosexuality is shown as completely normal, and the problem is something quite different. It’s a love story, where one person exploits the love of the other person, and that’s the story I always tell”.

In a nutshell, that explains how America’s queer cinema has evolved in the last 20 years, from narratives almost exclusively associated with the pain of accepting one’s sexuality and coming out to friends and family, to comedies, dramas and melodramas in which being gay is almost incidental to the story. The latest examples I’ve seen are from Breaking Glass Pictures, a distribution company that’s become a key player in several niche categories. In Nick Corporon’s Vertigo-inspired Retake, a lonely, middle-aged gay man, played by Tuc Watkins (“One Life to Live”), picks up a male prostitute on Santa Monica Boulevard, hoping to convince him to join him on a trip to the Grand Canyon. The offer sounds lucrative, if potentially dangerous to Adam (Devon Graye), who’s no stranger to taking risks for money. The Hitchcockian quid pro quo would require of Adam that he not ask Jonathan any personal questions and to help re-create memories from a road trip he took with a former lover, years earlier. Adam’s game for an adventure, so long as it doesn’t involve airplanes. His assignment is complicated, though, by Jonathan’s tendency to become temperamental when challenged or disappointed. And, that’s where things could get scary. Retake largely takes place in the Mojave Desert — beautifully shot by Collin Brazie – where the shabbiness of the motels and other roadside attractions is overshadowed by spectacular sunsets and mountainous horizons. The rootsy soundtrack fits right into the story, as well. The DVD arrives with cast and crew commentary, interviews, making-of featurettes, Q&A’s and Corporon’s short, “The Passenger.”

Tim Kirkman’s Lazy Eye also takes place in and around Joshua Tree, albeit a little further off the beaten path. At about the same time as Dean, a graphic designer in Los Angeles, notices a sudden change in his vision, a lover from 15 years earlier contacts him unexpectedly in hopes of rekindling their relationship. Dean’s been scouring the Internet for anything to do with Alex’s whereabouts, but to no avail. He invites Alex to a vacation house in the desert, near Palm Springs, but saves his deepest secrets for the day after they enjoy a long-delayed roll in the hay. Much of the movie’s 87-minute length is consumed by bickering and making up, as is the case in most other indie romance/dramas. At this point in their lives, both men are looking for a bit more permanence and stability than that afforded them in the urban bar scene, where they first met. Finally, Lazy Eye asks us to question the wisdom of hooking up with old flames, especially at a time when sexual-identity issues have re-invented traditional notions about love and marriage. Some viewers will find the picture to be too talky by half and a few of the symbolic touches – suicidal mice! – a bit hard to take. Even so, the lovely desert landscapes provide timely diversions for viewers’ lazy eyes and the characters’ problems are recognizable and credibly rendered. The disc adds a deleted scene, blooper reel and film festival Q&A. Kirkman’s previous credits include The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, Loggerheads and Dear Jesse.

Something Wild: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Although its redemption-through-marriage conclusion wouldn’t pass muster today, Something Wild deserves to been seen by anyone interested in the evolution of the independent-film movement and, especially, the impact of the Actors Studio on the international cinema, since the early 1950s. The intense urban drama was directed by Jack Garfein, who, at 25, was invited to become a non-performing member of the Actors Studio, where he would serve as mentor to a who’s-who of future stars. A survivor of 11 different concentration camps, 16-year-old Garfein was among the first five Holocaust survivors to arrive in the United States after the war. An extremely quick study, he would in short order become proficient in English and an essential member of New York’s exploding post-war theater scene. Something Wild, starring his then-wife and student Carroll Baker, represents Garfein’s second and final motion picture. In it, Baker plays a student who’s brutally raped on her way home from a train platform in the Bronx. At first, Mary Ann tries to shake off the pain and trauma caused in the attack, but, soon, they overwhelm her. While contemplating suicide on the Manhattan Bridge, she’s pulled from the brink by a mechanic, Mike (Ralph Meeker), who happens to be walking across the span at the same time. Mary Ann agrees to take Mike up on his offer of food and shelter in his threadbare basement apartment. After a long sleep, she decides that it’s a better place to recuperate than under the too-watchful eyes of her parent and the flophouse to which she escaped after the rape. (Her next-door neighbor is a floozy, played by Jean Stapleton.)

Unfortunately, Mike’s tendency to come home drunk and belligerent at night has an adverse effect on Mary Ann’s recovery. Worse, Mike decides that saving her from suicide entitles him to holding her as a prisoner in his basement lair. Their deeply personal discussions and intensely choreographed arguments are straight out of the Actors Studio handbook. When push comes to shove, Mary Ann will be required to make a choice between the lesser of several evils and a shot at happiness. Not everyone will buy into her decision, but, at least, the ending isn’t as ambiguous as that of Garfein’s previous film, The Strange One, a commentary on American race relations that didn’t have one. Something Wild is interesting, though, for reasons other than the passionate storytelling or stylized performances, which, long ago, became the standard for American actors. Few movies have be able to capture the extremes of New York’s visual and tonal palette as vividly and succinctly as is accomplished here composer Aaron Copland, veteran cinematographer Eugen Schufftan and Saul Bass, whose strikingly angular title sequence — a montage of glistening skyscrapers, fluttering pigeons, dense traffic and bustling pedestrians – will stand in direct contrast to the loneliness felt by Mary Ann. (Copland would re-arrange music from the score for the concert performance, “Music for a Great City.”) The Criterion package includes a fresh interview with an almost giddy Baker; a filmed conversation between Garfein and critic Kim Morgan; an interview with film scholar Foster Hirsch on the roots and impact of the Artists Studio; and an illustrated leaflet, featuring an essay by critic Sheila O’Malley.

Long Way North: Blu-ray
Surf’s up 2: WaveMania
In a short time, Shout! Factory Kids has amassed an extremely healthy catalogue of animation titles, some vintage and others brand new. Rémi Chayé’s understated directorial debut, Long Way North follows collaborative work on the award-winning The Painting and The Secret of Kells. No one would mistake these French exports for blockbuster titles from Pixar, DreamWorks or other American studios, but easier access to animation from Europe and Japan, especially, has broadened many of our horizons. Long Way North can be fairly described as a girl-power adventure, set in 1882, in which a young Russian aristocrat, Sacha, risks her life to save her family’s reputation. Her grandfather was a world-famous explorer, who is believed to have discovered a water passage linking the Atlantic to the Pacific, but vanished in his quest to plant Russia’s flag at the North Pole. Prince Tomsky, a new advisor to the Tsar, becomes her instant enemy by disparaging Oloukine as a failure, who wasted a fortune in pursuing impossible dreams. After failing to convince the prince of the value in mounting an expedition to discover the truth, Sacha sets out on her own to recover evidence of granddad’s accomplishment. Although CGI technology almost certainly was used to animate Long Way North, the soft lines and pastels will remind some viewers, at least, of hand-painted cel animation. The package adds a 39-minute behind-the-scenes featurette; a half-hour interview with Chayé and producer Henri Magalon; still galleries; and animatics.

It’s been 10 years since fledgling Sony Pictures Animation rode the wave of anthropomorphic penguin flicks with Surf’s Up. The gentle spoof of such surfing documentaries as The Endless Summer and Riding Giants, as well as North Shore, it featured the voices of Shia LaBeouf, Jeff Bridges, Zooey Deschanel, James Woods and Jon Heder. If, at $100 million, Surf’s Up didn’t hit real pay dirt in its original theatrical release, DVD and soundtrack sales likely benefitted from positive reviews and being nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. The direct-to-video, computer-animated mockumentary, Surf’s Up 2: WaveManiae may be a far more modest production, but it’s likely to benefit from a brand association with WWE Studios. Since 2002, the company has expanded its reach from action pictures into holiday-themed and children’s animation, including Scooby-Doo! WrestleMania Mystery and The Flintstones & WWE: Stone Age SmackDown! Here, Cody Maverick (Jeremy Shada) convinces an infamous big-wave-riding crew known as the Hang 5 (voiced by WWE Superstars John Cena, The Undertaker, Triple H, WWE Diva Paige and Mr. McMahon) to let him join them on their journey to a mysterious surf spot known as the Trenches. It’s where, legend has it, they’ll find the biggest waves in the world. Jon Heder and Diedrich Bader return as Chicken Joe as Tank “The Shredder” Evans.

xXx: 15th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
If the producers of Paramount’s upcoming xXx: Return of Xander Cage had wanted to pound home their point any harder, they could have tweaked the title to read: “xXx: Return of Vin Diesel” or “xXx III: Come Back Back Vin, All Is Forgiven.” As was the case when Diesel and director Rob Cohen opted out of the first The Fast and the Furious sequel, the law of diminishing returns threatened to hobble what would become a monster franchise, but only so long as Diesel shared the lead with Paul Walker. Diesel and Cohen also chose to sit out 2005’s tepidly received xXx: State of the Union, preferring to light a fire under the “Riddick” series. While the modestly budgeted Pitch Black and made-for-TV The Chronicles of Riddick: Into Pitch Black (2000) had established Diesel as a legitimate action star, the decision to pump another $80 million to the cost of 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick produced the opposite effect. The 2013 reboot, Reddick, benefitted from a return to fiscal sanity, but probably not enough to ensure anything but a straight-to-DVD future – or refocusing the video-game and animated shorts — with a less prestigious cast. Diesel’s disembodied voice, as the sentient plant, Groot, in Marvel/Disney’s Guardians of the Galaxy, will re-echo in this spring’s sequel, as Baby Groot.

Xander Cage (a.k.a., codenamed xXx, for the tattoo on the back of his neck) is a rebellious extreme-sports enthusiast and adrenalin-junky, whose irreverent attitude toward life and patriotism has inspired comparisons to a quintessentially American James Bond. He listens to heavy-metal music and is drawn to dangerous women (Asia Argento, among them). In his first scene, Cage steals a Corvette from a politician, drives it off a high bridge to avoid a roadblock and B.A.S.E. jumps into the passenger seat of his getaway car. He is coerced by NSA Agent Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson), who fails to see the humor in such stunts, into infiltrating the Prague-based underground group Anarchy 99. It is led by Yorgi, a former Russian soldier (Marton Csokas), who, like Cage, harbors a grudge against society and authority. From this point on, the story gets more than a little bit convoluted. Just when it seems as if Cage’s cover is about to be blown, Gibbons pops up, as if out of thin air. Neither are we ever sure who’s working for whom or whether Cage’s first priority is taking out Yorgi or profiting from the assignment. Unlike the sequel, which starred Ice Cube as xXx operative Darius Stone, it can fairly be described as an action/parody, with the accent on action. (Stone reprises the role in xXx: Return of Xander Cage.) The amped-up Blu-ray edition adds the new featurette, “Origins of a Renegade,” with stars from the upcoming sequel; deleted scenes; 10 vintage featurettes; commentary; and music videos.

The Babymooners
The advance marketing material for The Babymooners suggests that freshman co-writer/director Shaina Feinberg was “clearly influenced by old Woody Allen films” in the creation of this video letter to her unborn son. If only. I’d suggest that the influence of early Mumblecore or Ed Burns was more noticeable. Shania exhibits her neuroses by asking passersby if they think having a baby will negatively impact her creativity or if being noticeably pregnant makes her less attractive. The reply to the first question: I’m a defense lawyer and didn’t have time left for creativity, anyway; to the second: I’m not attracted to your cartoon-mouse face now, so probably not. The series of vignettes includes dealing with a newly sober husband (co-collaborator Chris Manley), interviewing her standard-issue Upper West Side parents, a boring Shih Tzu mix puppy, an overly anxious shrink and her views on daytime television. The title refers to “a relaxing or romantic vacation taken by parents-to-be before their baby is born.” Is that really a thing? No matter, when they get to the cabin reserved for a brief “babymoon,” everyone’s in for a surprise. It’s pretty much the only vignette that rings true.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Searching for Augusta: The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne
PBS: Pearl Harbor: Into the Arizona
The IT Crowd: The Internet Is Coming
PBS: WordWorld: WordWorld: Let’s Make Music!
Like most good mysteries, the PBS documentary “Searching for Augusta: The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne” began with a question. After watching the HBO mini-series “Band of Brothers,” which was adapted from a book by Steven Ambrose, director Mike Edwards (Yellow Roses) and military historian Martin King decided to follow up on the brief mention of a black nurse, “Anna,” who treated wounded soldiers in a Bastogne aid station, during the Battle of the Bulge. Locating a Congolese/Belgian woman dubbed the “Angel of Bastogne” turned out to be a more difficult task than seemed possible at the beginning of their search. Given the ferocity of the conflict, it was difficult for them to parse fact from fiction, especially when it concerned civilian aid workers. It was also possible that “Anna” was, in fact, Belgian nurse Renee Lemaire, who was killed during a German air raid on Christmas Eve, 1944. For their purposes, the trail leading back to “Anna” ended where the Allies march into Germany began. To their surprise, word of mouth proved to be more accurate than the research of historians. The unassuming heroine, Augusta Chiwy, was “discovered” in a nursing home, around the corner from her last known address. Like so many other World War II veterans, Chiwy chose to keep what she’d seen and done during the war to herself. The daughter of a Belgian veterinarian, from Bastogne, and his Congolese wife, Chiwy was born in 1921 in the then-Belgian Congo. She returned to Belgium at the age of 9 and, in 1940, went to Leuven to be trained as a nurse. Racial discrimination prevented her from finding work through normal channels. It wouldn’t be the first time. Despite their wounds, some American soldiers from the Deep South refused to be treated by a dark-skinned nurse. (In similar circumstances, many diehard Nazis refused the treatment of nurses they believed to be racially inferior to them.) “Searching for Augusta” ends with Chiwy receiving the honors she so richly deserved, but never sought. It’s a terrific story.

Do you get queasy watching shows in which archeologists, anthropologists and historians traipse through sacred burial grounds or peat bogs, looking for clues to our shared existence? It depends, of course, on whose long-dead ancestors are being disturbed. The Giza Necropolis of ancient Egypt and catacombs of Rome and Paris have served their countries’ tourist industries well, providing museums with mummies, sarcophagi and other artifacts, as well as postcard images of amusingly arranged skulls and bones. Native Americans have begun reclaiming precisely numbered bones lying around in research centers, contributing almost nothing to science. The PBS show, “Secrets of the Dead,” does a good job balancing history and curiosity, as do the producers of documentaries for National Geographic. Thanks to miracles of modern technology, anyone who can afford an underwater-drone camera or deep-water submersible – James Cameron, for example – can tour sunken ocean liners, submarines and warships, in search of souvenirs and clues as to their demise. Since the discovery of skeletons isn’t likely after all this time, viewers don’t necessarily look upon these wrecks as underwater cemeteries. Even though the activities described in PBS’s “Pearl Harbor: Into the Arizona” were performed in the name of preservation, it struck me as coming a tad too close to being sacrilegious. The submerged battleship, which is slowly being eroded by natural forces, has been memorialized as the final resting place of 1,102 of the 1,177 sailors and Marines killed on USS Arizona during the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. The ashes of survivors frequently are strewn on the waters above the bridge. Using a remote-controlled underwater camera, researchers hoped to map and study the ship’s ruins before they can collapse on themselves. Survivor Donald Stratton was invited to monitor and serve as guide to the investigation, so, by inference, if he didn’t object to the intrusion, why should we? It’s fascinating, of course, but the closest most viewers will come to being creeped out will be the opening of a hatch that leads to an officer’s quarters and guest bathroom for their lady friends. Conditions allowed for the preservation of uniforms, a made bed, silver buttons and porcelain shaving gear. In 2012, in “Killer Subs in Pearl Harbor,” “NOVA” producers chronicled the search for conclusive evidence of the presence of Japanese mini-subs off Pearl Harbor on that fateful day. The recovery of bodies became an issue in that instance, as well.

Following hot on the heels of “IT Crowd: The Complete Series,” “The IT Crowd: The Internet Is Coming” really does wrap up the truly offbeat British series, which aired here on IFC and Netflix for four years. Completed three years after the culmination of the series, “The Internet Is Coming” was intended to part of a six-episode fifth season. Due to scheduling problems, it was shortened to a 50-minute, during which most of the loose ends were tied. An American version of the show never made it past the pilot stage. Having learnt from their boss, Douglas Reynholm (Matt Berry), that the secret of his success is wearing women’s slacks, Moss (Richard Ayoade) buys a pair for his wardrobe … such as it is. They somehow make him brave and creative. Meanwhile, Roy (Chris O’Dowd) is annoyed that tiny Troy the Barista (Gareth Morinan) is making his coffee too milky and they argue, after which Troy falls in front of a van. At the same time, Jen (Katherine Parkinson) is filmed accidentally throwing coffee over a homeless man. Both incidents are captured on camera and posted on the Internet, turning Jen and Roy into global pariahs. Roy also accompanies girlfriend Alice (Rachel Parris) to her grandfather’s funeral but overdoes the pepper spray to simulate tears of grief. It only works too well. Douglas then attempts to control the damage to his company on TV’s “The Secret Millionaire,” but blows his cover. Moss devises a plan to market the pepper spray and turn his colleagues into heroes. All in a day’s work for the geek squad at Reynholm Industries. The DVD adds interviews and featurettes.

In PBS Kids’ “WordWorld: Let’s Make Music” for beginning readers, Duck encourages Shark to dance in his show, “The Dancing Duck Bonanza.” Shark can’t do much more than flop around the stage, however. Later, Sheep is preparing a big musical show of his own. While singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” in front of his friends, Duck gets a case of stage fright. Can Sheep and Ant help Duck overcome his stage fright? Put on your dancing shoes and stay tuned. The new DVD contains eight stories from the award-winning problem-solving and word-building series.

The DVD Wrapup: Deepwater Horizon, My King, Hickey, Fritz Bauer, Murderlust, Brad Paisley, Since MLK, Broad City … More

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

Deepwater Horizon: Blu-ray/4K Ultra HD/DVD
Typically, I don’t enjoy reliving disasters on film, whether they’re of the natural variety or manmade. By the time a movie gets released, we’ve absorbed enough actual reporting on the event to make most dramatizations superfluous, if not downright exploitative. Judging from largely unimpressive box-office numbers for recent movies based on such tragedies, I’m pretty sure that the public has grown weary of the instant-replay approach, as well. The producers of Deepwater Horizon had their work cut out for them, because the manmade catastrophe played out in three distinct stages, all extremely well-covered in visual and print media: 1) the explosion and inferno that leveled the oil rig and left 11 workers dead; 2) the ecological and economic calamity caused by the 87-day leak; and 3) the legal wrangling that began even before the spill was capped. The producers decided to focus directly on the series of events that led to and immediately followed the blowout, as well as the courage and fates of the oil workers. Because we’re already aware of the huge financial penalties and settlements agreed to by BP, Transocean and other corporate entities, director Peter Berg and screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand were able to build toward the dramatic struggle to escape the disaster by, first, making sure we’re able to distinguish the heroes from the villains, when the shit hits the fan. Instead of relying on courtroom testimony and source reporting from the New York Times, as credited, the filmmakers elected to frame the day’s events around Mark Wahlberg’s character, chief electronic technician Michael “Mike” Williams. Hours before he steps onto the doomed off-shore platform, 41 miles off the southeast coast of Louisiana, the amiable engineer has already demonstrated his dedication to his family and job, along with a willingness to help a fellow employee (Gina Rodriguez) figure out what’s wrong with her vintage Mustang. The guessing game will be recalled throughout the length of the movie, even as their ability to escape the inextinguishable blaze is most gravely tested. (Wahlberg and Berg previously collaborated on Lone Survivor.)

A brief exchange with a worker departing the platform by helicopter raises the first red flag for Williams. He’s told that a key test to ascertain whether the semi-submersible rig would be able to begin extracting oil from a depth of 5,000 feet below sea level, on schedule, had been bypassed on the orders of company supervisors. His concern is shared by Transocean rig supervisor James “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell (Kurt Russell), who’s portrayed as having forgotten more about drilling than anyone on board the Deepwater Horizon would ever know. That includes BP managers Donald Vidrine and Robert Kaluza (John Malkovich, Brad Leland), and Transocean’s Captain Curt Kutcha (Dave Maldonado), who, as the first indications of trouble begin bubbling up far below them, was escorting company executives to the control room. Williams is conversing with his wife (Kate Hudson), via Skype, when the first explosion shut down communications. Harrell, who’s just reluctantly OK’d some crucial test results, is taking shower when the blast occurred. For the next hour, or so, it won’t matter who’s at fault for the disaster, because all that counts is reaching the lifeboats. The explosions and fires are re-created with such verisimilitude that at-home viewers will almost be able to feel the heat radiating from their television screens. The Dolby Atmos soundtrack and audio effects complement the visual presentation. While the rancorous legal battles that followed the disaster are merely alluded to in Deepwater Horizon’s opening and closing segments, it’s fair to say that the audience’s mind will already be predisposed to despise the cost-conscious oil companies, whose on-board representatives escaped the jail time we’re sure they deserve. The corresponding ecological disaster is represented in a frantic cameo by an oil-drenched pelican that manages to fly into a control booth and scare the crap out of the computer team … us, too. Even so, the massive oil spill and its residual damage to beaches, sea life and local businesses remains fresh in our minds and would take a completely different movie to dramatize. The Blu-ray/4K Ultra HD/DVD adds the 51-minute featurette “Beyond the Horizon”; 27-minute, “The Fury of the Rig”; 18-minute “Deepwater Surveillance”; and Berg’s shout-out to oil and construction workers, “Work Like an American.”

My King
In relationship dramas, screenwriters frequently allow viewers to detect fissures in a marriage long before their characters acknowledge that something has gone horribly wrong and divorce may be the only solution. The clues don’t necessarily have to be as blatant as infidelity or a growing lack of interest in intimate relations. Sometimes, it’s as subtle as a look of skepticism or alarm captured on the face of a supporting character, when a sour note is struck in a dinner conversation or stroll in the park. Typically, viewers are instinctually drawn to pull for the doomed marriage to succeed — the couple is played by actors we gladly paid to see, after all — right up to the moment when the rug is pulled out from under them. A good story demands we take sides or hope against all hope for reconciliation. French filmmakers don’t always make it easy for viewers to come to easy conclusions. Maïwenn Le Besco, who simply goes by her first name when directing, convolutes the disintegration process even further in My King by mixing flashbacks and flash-forwards as a narrative conceit. We’re first introduced to Tony (Emmanuelle Bercot) on a ski run, moments before she suffers an injury that will require surgery and months of rehabilitation. What we don’t know is whether the fall was accidental or a cry for help. Soon enough, Maïwenn turns back the clock to the time when Tony makes a play for the narcissistic Georgio (Vincent Cassel), a restaurateur with a taste for models and cocaine. She’s coming off a bad first marriage and he’s game for a woman with something more to offer than a mirror to his own neuroses.

Georgio’s impetuous behavior is balanced in Tony’s mind by his passion for her. Their wedding may be a barrel of laughs, but her brother, Solal (Louis Garrel), and sister-in-law, Babeth (Isild Le Besco), can’t disguise their suspicions. Maïwenn keeps us off-balance by then flashing ahead to the rehabilitation hospital, situated on a beautiful lake, where she endures the daily ritual of intense physical therapy and trying to overcome a tendency to feel sorry for herself. The flashbacks return to critical points in the marriage – including the first discovery of infidelity and birth of their son, Simbad – where one, or both, of them could have acknowledged what we’ve known for more than an hour and bailed out of it. As one character shrewdly points out, “You leave people for the same reason that attracted you in the first place.” Georgio can be a real dick, but we like Cassel too much to want to see an early exit. Tony’s descent into depression and addiction to pharmaceuticals is difficult to watch, but the flash-forwards suggest she’ll turn out OK. Maybe not, though, if she continues to succumb to Georgio’s charms. There are times when Maïwenn (Polisse) appears to be channeling John Cassevetes, and other confrontational artists, and the French concept of amour fou begins to wears you down. By the end of My King, however, we know Tony and Georgio as well as we’ve known any movie couple. The actors are that good. The challenge is to stick with them long enough to forge a relationship of our own with these occasionally very disagreeable people. The package adds an outtakes/blooper reel; deleted scenes; and a short film, directed by Maïwenn, “I’m an actrice.”

The People vs. Fritz Bauer: Blu-ray
Almost a half-century after his death, German judge and prosecutor Fritz Bauer has become something of a celebrity. Lars Kraume’s The People vs. Fritz Bauer is the third dramatized account in three years of how the Stuttgart-born Jew fought the East and West German judicial bureaucracies – at the time, largely populated with former Nazis — to bring war criminals to justice and make the citizenry aware of the scope of the Shoah. His work has also been chronicled in recent documentaries. Why now? Beyond the 50th anniversary of the 1963 Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, which Bauer (Burghart Klaussner) helped initiate, it probably has something to do with the now common knowledge that the he risked prosecution, himself, for being homosexual. Although he was arrested in 1933, as a member of the anti-Nazi Social Democratic Party, and sent to Heuberg concentration camp, his stay there could have been much longer if it were known that he was gay. Two years later, after Bauer was released, he emigrated to Denmark and then, in 1943, moved to Sweden after the former was occupied by German troops. Bauer returned to Germany in 1949, as the postwar Federal Republic was being established, and once more entered civil service in the justice system. When, in the mid-1950s, he became District Attorney of Hessen, his efforts to prosecute former SS officials and camp guards intensified. It put him in direct conflict with some of the same government officials in a position to protect such individuals, including Adolf Eichmann. In The People vs. Fritz Bauer, we’re shown how his staff’s inability – or unwillingness – to locate known war criminals – weighed on him. He knew that government officials had evidence of his dalliances with young men, while on vacation in Denmark, and were willing to use it to discredit him if he put too much pressure on them. They also hoped he would admit to attempting suicide, when he was found unconscious in his bathtub by his chauffeur. “I have a pistol,” Bauer argues. “If I want to kill myself, there won’t be any rumors.”

It was about this time when he received a letter from a German man, living in Argentina, informing him that his daughter was dating Eichmann’s son. Capturing one of the architects of the Final Solution was Bauer’s goal, but he was afraid that his superiors in German intelligence, Interpol or the CIA would alert Eichmann ahead of any attempt to capture him, causing him to disappear, again. He also knew that Eichmann, if put on trial, would be able to blackmail ex-Nazis in positions of power in Konrad Adenauer’s government, thus jeopardizing judicial prosecution. Bauer decided to risk arrest on charges of treason by dealing directly with Israel’s Mossad, which demanded secondary evidence of Eichmann’s location before acting. (His contributions to the capture of Eichmann were kept under wraps for many years after his death, in 1968.) As exciting as the race for justice is, Kraume damages his story by inventing a composite character, Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld), in whom Bauer confides information on the Eichmann letter. The younger, married attorney is emerging from his own personal closet at a most inopportune time, ignoring sound advice from his mentor. (Apparently, wearing the same unusually patterned socks was an indicator of one’s homosexuality.) Because everything else in the movie is fact-based, it’s difficult not to fall for the dramatic conceit involving Angermann. Its clumsiness detracts from the rest of the story. If Bauer’s story is of interest to you, I suggest that you also check out Giulio Ricciarelli’s 2014 drama, Labyrinth of Lies, and the 2000 documentary Paragraph 175, in which historian Klaus Müller interviews survivors of the Nazi persecution of homosexuals.

Hickey
University of Michigan graduate Alex Grossman’s theatrical follow-up to the video short, “Urban Meyer Spoof” is the coming-of-age comedy, Hickey. In it, a college-bound senior must choose between attending MIT, where he could dream of someday winning a Nobel Prize, or a southern California university closer to the co-worker he dreams of someday dating. Some teenagers would kill to be accepted by U.S.C. or U.C.L.A. – pretty good fallback schools — but not our boy, Ryan (Troy Doherty). It’s the kind of knotty dilemma typically associated with hopeless romantics who take their cues from movies like The Graduate and Say Anything … Ryan also is convinced that his mother (Janie Haddad Tompkins) wouldn’t survive a week without having him around to pamper. Carly Alvarez (Flavia Watson), the almost impossibly cute apple of his eye, doesn’t play coy games or act remote around Ryan. It’s just that she’s an aspiring musician with her sights set on pop stardom. Carly also appears to be holding out for a shot at the company’s devious district manager, Brady Krane (Alex Ashbaugh), who’s been conspiring to close the underperforming electronics shop. Brady gives the sales team a day to turn things around, which, while impossible, is just enough time for Ryan to save the store and win Carly’s heart. As unlikely as it sounds, he lures customers from a nearby medical-marijuana dispensary to Cy’s with the promise of free pizza. A more logical plan would be to dig up the kind of muck scumbags like Brady enjoying wallowing in when no one’s looking. And, guess what happens. If Hickey sounds as if it were written for a much younger John Cusack type — circa, High Fidelity, Tapeheads or Say Anything … – you’d be on the same wavelength as everyone else who’s likely to see it. Unfortunately, Doherty hasn’t quite reached that point in his acting career and Grossman would have needed a much larger budget and a bit more experience to lure an actor in the same league as Cusack, who was 23 when we played the boombox-hoisting senior, Lloyd Dobler. Nonetheless, Hickey offers plenty of bright moments and the cast is nothing, if not enthusiastic. And, besides, any movie that finds a prominent role for Tommy “Tiny” Lister can’t be all bad.

Murderlust
Apart from the tantalizingly pulpy cover art, the most entertaining thing about this newly resurrected serial-killer thriller is writer/producer/composer/actor/shooter James C. Lane’s commentary track. In it, he describes just how challenging it was to make a D.I.Y. thriller in the waning days of the analog age on a chicken-scratch budget. Among other things, he admits to using an ASC handbook as a primer in amateur cinematography and applying guerrilla tactics to location scouting. And, for the most part, he succeeded beyond all expectations. The unintentionally straight-to-VHS Murderlust lists Donald Jones (Schoolgirls in Chains, The Forest) as the director, but Lane’s testimony makes it sound as if it’s his baby and nothing short of an undiscovered gem. It isn’t, but that’s not really the point. Largely unseen since its VHS release in 1987, Intervision Pictures has accorded Murderlust the kind of digital facelift usually reserved for vintage horror flicks making their debut in Blu-ray. As such, it’s safe to say that more money was invested in restoring the picture than Lane spent making it. This suggests that the collector’s market may be faring better than any other segment of the DVD marketplace.

The movie’s antagonist, Steve Belmont (Eli Rich), is employed at a SoCal race track as a security guard, but is always on the verge of being fired for being late and insubordinate. He rarely pays his rent on time and treats his landlord/cousin like a doormat. Even so, Belmont is a well-respected member of his church, where he teaches Sunday School and hopes to be put in charge of its Adolescent Crisis Center. Once a month, Belmont is driven by misogynistic urges – due, in large part, to women ridiculing his impotency – to pick up a prostitute or unsuspecting date and strangle her. Afterwards, he drives his victims into the desert and dumps them into hole. When the bodies are discovered, the press dubs Belmont, “The Mojave Murderer,” a moniker he doesn’t seem to mind. In his commentary, Lane boasts of researching the known habits and personalities of serial killers, and that part of the story rings true, at least. Blessedly, we’re largely spared the blood and gore that typically accompanies violence against women in the slasher genre. I suspect that the money Lane might have spent on special makeup effects was invested, instead, on aerial shots provided by a leased helicopter. That works pretty well, too.

By sacrificing the ugly stuff, however, Murderlust became far less valuable to distributors of drive-in and grindhouse fare. Thus, the delayed straight-to-video release. The package arrives with a second Jones/Lane collaboration, Project Nightmare, a sci-fi affair involving two men who find themselves lost in the wilderness, absent a single clue as to how they got there and why they’re being stalked by a paranormal force. Here, the relatively primitive special effects merely serve to distract us from a plot Rod Serling would have immediately rejected for “The Twilight Zone.” It also is accompanied by Lane’s commentary.

Sad Vacation: The Last Days of Sid and Nancy
It wouldn’t be fair to dismiss Spanish documentarian Danny Garcia’s Sad Vacation: The Last Days of Sid and Nancy as redundant, as it might reflect poorly on his previous, very good rockumentaries, The Rise and Fall of the Clash and Looking for Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders. The story of the untimely, if entirely predictable demise of former Sex Pistols bass player Sid Vicious and his domineering co-dependent lover, Nancy Spungen, has been told several times over the past quarter-century. They were centerpiece characters in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy; Julien Temple’s The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle and The Filth and the Fury; an episode of the cable series, “Final 24”; Lech Kowalski’s D.O.A.; Alan Parker’s Who Killed Nancy?; and Phil Strongman’s book, “Pretty Vacant: A History of Punk.” (In 1977, Roger Ebert wrote a screenplay for an ill-fated movie about the Sex Pistols, with Russ Meyer, Malcolm McLaren, Johnny Rotten and Vicious as co-conspirators. That, I would have gladly paid to see. The script can be found at rogerebert.com.)

Although Spungen might have purposely committed hare-kiri or accidentally fallen on Sid’s recently purchased knife, she most likely was killed by her barely conscious lover or their heroin dealer, the pear-shaped actor (Trees Lounge) and raconteur Rockets Redglare. Vicious, already charged with her murder, which occurred on October 12, 1978, died of an overdose on the night he was granted bail, four months later. The heroin, it’s been reported, was procured by his mother and longtime enabler, Anne Beverley, who may have thought she was granting his final wish by assisting in his suicide. Sad Vacation: The Last Days of Sid and Nancy mostly benefits from being shot in and around New York’s famously seedy Chelsea Hotel, where the doomed couple lived in squalor after Vicious left the Sex Pistols. Spungen’s troubled path through life – she died at 20 — probably was etched in stone when, at 3 months, she was prescribed a liquid barbiturate by a pediatrician asked to quell her screaming fits. Her first unsuccessful suicide attempt came when she was 14 and had run away from her private high school.

By 15, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Two years later, she moved from Pennsylvania to New York City, where she worked as a stripper and prostitute, and hung out with rock musicians. Nancy met Vicious in London, where she was pursuing a different punk rocker. After he left the Pistols, she took over the reins as manager, girlfriend and junk buddy. Spungen has been compared to John Lennon’s Beatles-busting muse, Yoko Ono, it never stuck. The best thing any of the witnesses interviewed by Garcia could say was that she sometimes was funny. Among them are insiders, roadies, friends and members of other bands, such as Sylvain Sylvain (New York Dolls), Walter Lure (The Heatbreakers), Kenny Gordon (Pure Hell) and Cynthia Ross (The B-Girls). The movie is sufficiently sordid to be of momentary interest, but, unlike Garcia’s profile of the late rock guitarist Thunders – another drug casualty — nothing much is revealed.

Brad Paisley: Life Amplified World Tour, Live at WVU
There’s no one hotter in the world of country music than Brad Paisley. Starting with his 1999 debut album, “Who Needs Pictures,” the West Virginia native has released 10 studio albums and a Christmas compilation, all of them certified “gold” or higher by the RIAA. He has scored 32 top-10 singles on Billboard’s country-airplay chart, 19 of which have reached the top spot. Paisley’s sold over 12 million albums and won three Grammy Awards, 14 Academy of Country Music Awards, 14 Country Music Association Awards and two American Music Awards. Not for nothing, he’s also a member of the Grand Ole Opry. At the ripe old age of 44, Paisley appears to be as popular with college-age fans as those who have followed him for most of the last 16 years. That much is obvious in Brad Paisley: Life Amplified World Tour, Live at WVU, his first live-concert DVD, which was shot in front of more than 30,000 people at a West Virginia University “pep rally.”

Frankly, I’m more a fan of old-school country music and Americana than the high-octane country-rock on display here. Considering the hyper-enthusiastic reception that he received in his home state, however, I’ll concede I’m in the minority on that count. His showmanship and guitar chops are on full display on such songs as “Crushin’ It,” “American Saturday Night,” “Water,” “Online,” “Perfect Storm,” “Celebrity,” “Letter to Me,” “This Is Country Music,” “Mama Tried,” “I’m Still a Guy” (with Chris Young), “She’s Everything,” “Mountain Music” and, of course, a spirited sing-along version of John Denver’s “Country Roads.” When he isn’t playing, he might be autographing a young fan’s guitar or a screaming girl’s hat. The DVD was impeccably shot by director Daniel E. Catullo III (Rush, Rage Against the Machine, Dave Matthews Band), using 20 cameras, and recorded on Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound. The package includes a separate CD recording, with only 13 of the 20 songs on the DVD.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise: Blu-ray
Fifty years ago, you probably could count on one hand the number of colleges that offered majors in African-American history or related studies. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., in 1968, black students at many public and private schools demanded that such courses be established, diplomas awarded and efforts be made to recruit many more students and teachers of color. West Virginia-born Henry Louis Gates Jr. was one of the students – others are interviewed here — who took advantage of Affirmative Action directives and completed his BA degree in history at Yale University, summa cum laude. It isn’t difficult to imagine what King would have to say about recent demands for “ethnocultural” dorms and “safe spaces,” where the advancing of opposing viewpoints is forbidden. Gates’ four-part PBS documentary series, “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise” recognizes the sudden shift away from integration, but doesn’t dwell on it.

The series does, however, suggest that early hopes raised by the election of Barak Obama were effectively dashed by widespread frustrations caused by political and judicial intransigence, the militarization of police departments and an economy whose recent upswing hasn’t made a dent in eliminating the African-American “underclass.” Gates isn’t reluctant to incorporate personal experience into discussions with leading scholars, celebrities, politicians, athletes and other people of color, who’ve shaped the past 50 years. Neither does he ignore the role street-generated music, art and dance played in the uniting of black communities negatively impacted by Reagan administration policies, police brutality and the crack-cocaine epidemic. His take on controversies surrounding the Clarence Thomas appointment and first O.J. Simpson verdict are almost maddeningly even-handed. While viewers who’ve been paying attention to such things over the past 50 years may not discover anything new in “And Still I Rise,” their children and grandchildren surely will find something new and enlightening here to savor.

Nickelodeon: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir: Be Miraculous
Comedy Central: Broad City: Season 3
NBC: The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson: Johnny And Friends Featuring Jerry Seinfeld
History: Swamp People: Season 7
PBS: American Experience: Command & Control
PBS: NOVA: Treasures of the Earth
PBS Kids: Super Why!: Puppy Power
If women and girls have largely been reduced to subordinate roles in comic-book-inspired movies and video games, they’ve found a home in CGI-animated TV series featuring mixed-gender superheroes and villains. This is especially true in anime- and manga-informed shows targeted specifically at the “Hello Kitty” and post-“My Little Pony” demographic. Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir: Be Miraculous is a French action/adventure series produced by Zagtoon and Method Animation. It features two Parisian teenagers, Marinette Dupain-Cheng and Adrien Agreste, who transform into the superheroes Ladybug and Cat Noir, respectively, to protect the city from such supervillains as Hawkmoth and his evil butterflies. Besides compilations of televised episodes, the international franchise now includes plush toys, action/fashion dolls, backpacks, wigs, clothing, jewelry, accessories, interactive toys and books. The Shout! Kids DVD includes seven episodes from the Nickelodeon series, bonus features and a French language track.

Broad City” began its life in 2009 as an Internet series, inspired by the real-life friendship of Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson. Their slacker characters, Ilana and Abbi, struggle to make a living in New York City, juggling menial jobs, underappreciated boyfriends, dope runs, clubbing and crashing parties. The gal pals not only excel in being rude, lewd and obscene, they’re also scatologically incorrect. They’re frequently shown conversing by telephone, while sitting on the toilet, or comparing their menstrual cycles. The men in their lives tend to be social outcasts, as well. The post-feminist vibe is enhanced by wardrobe choices that run the gamut from unapologetically trashy to thrift-shop chic. In Ilana and Abbi’s minds, at least, they look divine. Exec-produced by Amy Poehler, “Broad City” debuted on Comedy Central on January 22, 2014, and has since expanded its fan base from niche to borderline mainstream. A fourth season begins later this year. The third-season package adds expanded and deleted scenes and background material. The girls capped the season with a two-episode story that finds them on an El Al flight to Israel. It’s filled with Jewish singles, who are expected to pair off, get married and have many children. (Someone has to fill those disputed settlements on the West Bank.) By the time the plane lands, they’re duct-taped to the fold-down seats used by flight attendants, to be handed over to security police as possible terrorists.

Anyone young enough to believe that Jerry Seinfeld emerged fully formed as a sitcom actor – “Seinfeld” has been in reruns since the late 1990s, after all – might be interested in checking out Time Life/WEA’s “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson: Johnny And Friends Featuring Jerry Seinfeld.” It contains three appearances on the late-night mainstay by the up-and-coming standup comedian, several years before anyone thought he had a future in prime-time. In the mid-1980s, only a few standups had made the transition from stage to screen in something other than guest appearances. The show-about-nothing concept wouldn’t have lasted a minute in a pitch meeting, if Jerry hadn’t established an on-stage persona as the consummate observer, by then. That he was invited to sit alongside Carson after his bits only solidified Seinfeld’s status as a rising star. Three episodes may not sound very generous, but the DVD has been cannibalized from longer complete-series sets and other packages. For around $10, you also get full shows, with other noteworthy guests (Arnold Schwarzenegger, an 18-year-old Andre Agassi, Shelley Winters) and optional commercials.

How the History Channel has been able to mine seven seasons’ worth of episodes from its “Swamp People” franchise is well beyond my ability to predict success or failure on cable TV. From my easy chair, it makes “Duck Dynasty” look like “Dallas.”  I don’t have anything against the annual “culling” of alligators from the swamps of southern Louisiana or the Cajun hunters, whose families, we’re reminded at the start of each new episode, have been making a living from it for most of the last 300 years. Alligators aren’t in the same league with Bambi, when it comes to irresistibly cute critters, at least, and their population continues to grow, even after being protected by the Endangered Species Act from 1973 to 1987. I’ve eaten alligator stew and owned wallets made from the scaly skin. Fact is, though, except for a about five minutes of explosive activity each show, this is pretty boring stuff. And, if it weren’t for their elaborate tattoos, the hunters would be as devoid of charisma as the carcasses being tagged and measured at the end of each day’s search. Still, seven seasons and counting ain’t chickenfeed. The new season features new cast members and flooded bayous, which give the gators more room to hide and feed during the 30-day season. Do we pity the hunters? Not much. Still, the swamps of Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River Basin are as beautiful in their way as any other wilderness setting featured on cable reality shows. There’s also an abundance of wildlife, from which the Cajuns profit during the remaining 11 months of the year. Now, if they ever decide to build a show around “noodling” for gators … that truly would be entertainment.

It’s amazing to learn some of the alarming things that can happen when you aren’t paying attention. Watching the “American Experience” presentation, “Command & Control,” I was made aware of a near calamitous explosion that occurred in 1980, inside a missile silo situated on a military base in central Arkansas. The “accident” claimed the life of a serviceman, but tens of thousands of people living downwind of the Damascus facility could have died or been exposed to near-fatal doses of radiation. Based on Eric Schlosser’s 2013 book, “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety,” the PBS report is as frightening as any other political thriller adapted from a NYT best-seller. That’s because the control-room panic that resulted from a simple accident – an errant socket punctured a fuel cell after being dropped 80 feet during a maintenance drill – revealed serious deficiencies in our nuclear-safety network and an inability to determine if the Titan II’s warhead could be triggered by a fire or fall. The military’s standard cover-your-ass response to the near-tragedy proved to be as disheartening – and disingenuous — as anything else revealed in the follow-up investigations. In fact, dozens of other “Broken Arrow” accidents have been recorded before and since Damascus, without being reported to overseers and the press.  The disc adds an extended theatrical version and a report on a terrifying 1961 incident, when a B-52 bomber carrying two powerful hydrogen bombs caught fire and disintegrated in midair.

Once again, PBS’ “NOVA” goes to great lengths and, here, depths, to explain how our planet was formed and the ways humans have profited from unlocking clues to the mysteries set in stone during the act of creation … or, if you will, Creation. “Treasures of Earth: Gems, Metals and Power” is a three-part primer on the ways extraordinary circumstances, which took place deep below the Earth’s crust, conspired to elevate humanity from the Stone Age to the stars. In the segment dedicated to gems, we not only learn how various treasures were formed, but also some uses beyond the embellishment of jewelry. It also tackles questions surrounding the depletion of resources and unintended consequences that bring new perils and demand enlightened solutions.

The action in PBS Kids’ “Super Why!: Puppy Power” centers around a dog-adoption fair in Storybrook Village. When the Super Readers discover that Whyatt’s new friend, Woofster, needs a new home, they take it upon themselves to find a family to adopt the orphan and make him part of the team. The collection is comprised of four puppy-packed stories and “tons of new furry friends.”

The DVD Wrapup: Middle School, Operation Avalanche, Blair Witch, Red Skelton and more

Thursday, January 5th, 2017

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life
Among the many doors opened to adolescents by the movies of the late, great John Hughes was the one that led to an awareness of hypocrisy among their parents, teachers and the institutions they were brought up to trust. Separating the lies that protected kids from the ugly truths of life, from the ones invented to make adults feel better about themselves, could be a full-time job. The question: Why? The answer: Because I said so. As if having to deal with acne weren’t sufficient cause for anxiety, the teenagers in Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink were required to make sense of the first stirrings of sexual maturity and a sudden deep-seated desire to break away from the pack. A driver’s license afforded such freedom, but what about kids two or three years short of that goal? What they didn’t understand was how tortuous puberty could be on their parents, who wanted desperately to connect with their children, and teachers expected to handle problems they brought to school with them every day. With a few notable exceptions, authority figures – dads and principals, especially – continue to be portrayed as clueless buffoons, at best, and, worse, dangerously inept. Thank goodness for grandparents.

Where I grew up, kids were only required to make the transition from grade school to high school. Since then, however, they’ve been required to repeat the hellish procedure twice. Whoever thought middle schools were a good idea, probably also saw purgatory as a place only slightly less pleasant than heaven. The title, Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, pretty much sums up the feeling most kids have about the period when they’re forced to come into direct contact with boys and girls their age, but not necessarily from the same neighborhoods or social, ethnic and financial conditions. In Hughes’ movies, it’s possible for characters from disparate backgrounds to conclude – occasionally under duress – that opposites not only can attract, but reveal an entirely new world of possibilities. Then, when high school beckons, the cycle begins anew. If nothing else, it’s good practice for, college, the military, work and in-laws. In 1984, when Sixteen Candles was released, kids of middle-school age were drastically underrepresented in the media. Today, of course, they can’t be avoided, especially on cable television networks dedicated to the ’tween demographic. Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, Steve Carr’s theatrical follow-up to the inexplicable box-office hit, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, is based on a series of YP novels co-authored by the freakishly prolific James Patterson (“Kiss the Girls”) and Chris Tebbets.

Although the screenplay takes several liberties with the story laid out in the book, Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life focuses on displaced sixth-grader Rafe Khatchadorian (Griffin Gluck) – any resemblance to Yossarian, in “Catch-22”? – who works out his frustrations in a highly personal sketchbook. After principal Ken Dwight (Andy Daly) is alerted to it by the class bully, the comically villainous bureaucrat takes offense at the irreverent illustrations and references to his overly strict Code of Conduct and obsession with standardized tests. He not only destroys it, but exiles Rafe to the remedial class. Fellow bad apples Leo (Thomas Barbusca) and Jeanne (Isabela Moner) agree to exact revenge on Dwight through a series of outrageous pranks that younger viewers should enjoy immensely. The principal uses the pranks as an excuse to expel students whose test scores could hurt the school’s performance and spoil his chances for a promotion. He also makes the mistake of firing the only teacher (Adam Pally) who willingly stands up for the students. Meanwhile, at home, Rafe’s behavior prompts his mother (Lauren Graham) to seriously consider a suggestion made by her boorish fiancé (Rob Riggle) that he be sent to military school. Co-conspirators include Rafe’s precocious sister (Alexa Nisenson) and the school’s disgruntled janitor (Efren Ramirez). If Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life won’t make anyone forget Hughes’ contributions to the teen-movie genre, neither should its PG rating cause kids to dismiss it out of hand. Special Features include deleted scenes, a gag reel, a “Wedgie Wheel” and making-of shorts.

Operation Avalanche
Along with the many conspiracies surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy, the ones involving the moon landing remain nearly as tantalizing today as when the rumors first caught fire four decades ago. It’s possible that fewer people now believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was solely responsible for the assassination than when the Warren Commission came to that conclusion less than a year after the terrible event. I’ve never doubted the lunar landing, but plenty of other people remain suspicious. In the last 12 months, alone, two new movies have been released, questioning the possibility that the CIA collaborated with Stanley Kubrick to stage a reasonable facsimile of the Apollo 11 landing and moonwalk. The working principle behind Antoine Bardou-Jacquet’s Moonwalkers and Matt Johnson’s Operation Avalanche – as it was in Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 (2012) and William Karel’s Dark Side of the Moon (2002) – posits that Kubrick was either directly or inadvertently involved in the CIA conspiracy. (Peter Hyams’ 1977 Capricorn One was based on a faked landing on Mars.) The grain-of-truth in all such conspiracy theories can be found in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was being produced in England at the same time as our astronauts were preparing for their historic mission. With JFK’s promise of landing an American on the moon by the end of the decade ringing in their ears, government authorities knew that a failure could cost us political and scientific cachet at the height of the cold war. If putting a space capsule into lunar orbit was a given, the ability to safely land and recover the astronauts was anything but guaranteed.

Theoretically, Kubrick’s use of cutting-edge front-projection technology on “2001” provided the basis for a backup plan. In Operation Avalanche, a team of nerdy undercover CIA agents is sent to NASA headquarters, posing as a documentary film crew. Two of the them had already infiltrated Shepperton Studios, fruitlessly investigating the possibility that Kubrick was using stolen NASA technology on “2001.” The agents then were called upon to find a suspected Soviet mole within the NASA program. Their cover allowed them plenty of access within NASA. It leads to the agents using what they learned at Shepperton to create a film that could replicated the actual landing. It was accomplished with repurposed equipment, the advice of mineralogists and archival newsreel footage. Thinking they were being interviewed for the documentary, NASA employees happily contributed their knowledge to the ruse. Now, if disaster struck, the faked landing could be seamlessly substituted for the video feed emanating from the capsule. JFK’s legacy could be preserved and heightened secrecy protocols would buy time for the next mission. Johnson (The Dirties) maintains a credibly period feel, while also injecting a large dollop of darkly ironic Cold War humor into the mix. Operation Avalanche, which couldn’t have cost much to make, benefits from not having to create anything Kubrick hadn’t already come up with a half-century earlier.

Blair Witch: Blu-ray
Has it really been 20 years since a trio of film students vanished into Maryland’s Black Hills Forest, while researching the legend of the Blair Witch for a documentary? For critics who’ve since been required to sift through 20 years’ worth of found-footage flicks, prompted by the stunning response to The Blair Witch Project, the filmmakers’ blessing became their curse.  decades have sometimes felt like an eternity. Though a handful of wannabes have come close, none has quite been able to replicate the movie’s success, which benefitted from an amazing backstory. While it’s true that the original was shot in eight days, on 16mm film, with a cast and crew dominated by first-timers, it would be a stretch to continue to maintain that it only cost between $20-25 million to make. Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez acknowledge that Artisan Entertainment, which acquired the movie rights for $1.1 million, invested somewhere between $500,000 and $750,000 into the completed product, while also spending an additional $25 million to market it. With a worldwide box-office take of almost $250 million – not counting video and other ancillary revenues — The Blair Witch Project set a new standard for returns on an investment. Myrick and Sanchez made the process look so easy that dozens of other filmmakers would spend the next two decades trying to replicate (or parody) their success. Technically speaking, the found-footage subgenre was launched in 1980, by Ruggero Deodato’s exploitation classic, Cannibal Holocaust. It was deemed to be too extreme for general consumption, however. The Paranormal Activity, REC, VHS and Cloverfield franchises have their admirers, but none raised the bar on the scares-per-dollars-spent ratio set by The Blair Witch Project. The ill-advised, if inevitable sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, recorded a still-not-bad $47.7-million gross worldwide, discouraging the rights-holders to attempt a third chapter until five years ago. That was when frequent collaborators Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett (The Guest, You’re Next) began planning Blair Witch for Lionsgate. It owes far more to the original than the sequel and is scarier than 90 percent of all other found-footage films.

Made on a frugal $5-million budget, Blair Witch may have made some money in its theatrical release, but marketing costs almost certainly made it a close call. I suspect that most diehard fans of The Blair Witch Project resisted the lure of having their hearts broken again, by choosing, instead, to wait for the DVD/Blu-ray release. Many will be pleasantly surprised by it. Cleaner, glossier and somewhat less shaky, Blair Witch extends the story 20 years, with the discovery of another video tape, this one purporting to contain a fleeting glimpse of the vanished videographer, Heather. For her much younger brother, James (James Allen McCune), this is all the evidence he needs to round up a posse of otherwise unoccupied Burkittsville youths – B.C. for Maryland, to keep under the radar — to spend a night or two in the forest chasing bogeymen. This time around, though, the young men and women James recruits are armed with tiny ear-mounted cameras, so as not to miss a single sighting or clue. (Had they deployed motion-sensitive cameras around the perimeter of their campsite, instead, they might have been able to capture images of whoever was hanging stick figures from the limbs of nearby trees.)  There’s no reason to spoil any more surprises, except to point out that the film’s climax benefits from an elaborately reconstructed “haunted house,” designed by Thomas S. Hammock. The Blu-ray adds Wingard and Barrett’s commentary; the exhaustive making-of featurette, “Neverending Night: The Making of Blair Witch,” which, at 106 minutes, is longer than either version of the movie; and “House of Horrors: Exploring the Set,” a 16-minute behind-the-scenes tour of the “haunted house.”

Jackie Chan Presents: Amnesia
I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess as to why so many newly made Chinese movies are direct re-makes or re-interpretations of films that were released less than 20 years ago or are in their third, fourth or fifth iterations. The story of legendary martial-arts teacher Ip Man, for example, has been told and re-told a dozen times since 2008. Before that, his role in contemporary Chinese history was limited to being Bruce Lee’s mentor, in two films and a TV series, including Oscar-nominee, The Grandmaster. It’s possible that every new advance in production and exhibition technology is sufficiently great to encourage filmmakers to remake their hits, which, in turn, can be exported to action-crazy audiences overseas. Stringent content guidelines give Chinese films – like those from Bollywood — a leg up in countries where government censors limit or forbid gratuitous displays of nudity, sex and violence. Since 2003, the year China expanded its market to foreign exhibitors, the growth of China’s movie business has been so rapid, it’s even captured the attention of ever-watchful Communist Party authorities, who now are demanding their share of the windfall. That year, for example, the country’s box-office revenue totaled just $121 million, less than some films make here in a week. By 2015, box office revenue had grown to more than $7 billion. So, maybe, the decision to re-imagine the 1998 spy-vs.-spy thriller, Jackie Chan’s Who Am I?, as Jackie Chan Presents: Amnesia (a.k.a., “Who Am I 2015”) was based more on economic opportunity than any creative mandate.

The original might very well have been inspired by Robert Ludlam’s most enduring protagonist, Jason Bourne, in that Chan plays a commando on a mission so secret that the CIA orders him killed after it’s completed. After falling from a sabotaged helicopter, the mercenary suffers a blow that induces amnesia, leaving him unable to comprehend who he is and why he’s been chased. When his rescuers ask, “Who are you?,” he answers, “Who am I?,” which they translate as Whoami. In “Amnesia,” which isn’t about amnesia, at all, Ken Lo (Kill Zone 2) plays a bicycle courier who develops prosopagnosia (face blindness) after witnessing a murder and being pushed off a bridge by gangsters. He narrowly escapes death, but is left unable to recognize his pursuers, even if they were standing next to him. Neither does he know what’s in the parcel he was handed by the slain businessmen. He steals a car to escape the cops and thugs chasing him, stopping only once to pick up a comically sassy hitchhiker (Xingtong Lao), who almost simultaneously helps and hinders the courier. The charisma-challenged Lo and rising star Zhang Lanxin (Chinese Zodiac) handle most of the fighting, of which there’s far too little.

Projections of America
It’s surprising how little we Americans know about World War II, beyond Pearl Harbor, D-Day, a few key battles and horrors of the Holocaust. The information the government chose to share with our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents — before, during and after the war — was scripted as if it were a Hollywood melodrama, with clearly drawn heroes, villains, leaders, followers, survivors and victims. (FDR might as well have declared, “You can’t handle the truth.”) Peter Miller’s illuminating documentary, Projections of America, describes an ambitious wartime project designed to serve much the same purpose as the far better known Why We Fight series of short films. Led by Frank Capra, Why We Fight was comprised of seven propaganda films commissioned by the United States government to justify to American soldiers their involvement in the conflicts overseas and to persuade the American public to oppose isolationism. They also would chronicle the Allies’ progress in defeating the Axis war machine. They’re still being shown in history classes and film studies. So little is known about the Projections of America series, commissioned by the United States Office of War Information, that its existence doesn’t even warrant a Wikipedia page of its own. That’s the 2017 definition of obscurity. Led by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Robert Riskin (It Happened One Night), best known for his collaborations with Capra, the filmmakers and photographers in the OWI’s overseas branch produced 26 short documentaries to be shown in areas recently liberated by the Allies. Apparently, Nazi/Vichy-produced propaganda did a pretty good job convincing Europeans that the United States didn’t always practice what it preached and should viewed as just another invasion force, seeking land and riches. Anti-American propaganda accentuated union-busting efforts, legally sanctioned segregation, police thuggery and the disparity of economic opportunity, as portrayed in Hollywood movies of the 1930s. (Why are all of the characters wearing tuxes and gowns, while laid-off workers can’t feed their families?) The films in the Projections of America series would paint a far rosier picture of America than Joseph Goebbels’ propagandists.

The first featurette, “Swedes in America,” was hosted by Ingrid Bergman. After the fall of Mussolini, Italians were presented with a film from this series featuring conductor Arturo Toscanini, who fled fascist Italy for the U.S. It featured a performance of Verdi’s “Hymn of the Nations,” updated to include the national anthems of the U.S. and Soviet Union. Irving Lerner and Joseph Krumgold’s “The Autobiography of a Jeep” adopts the point of view of one of the groundbreaking military vehicles, which had been designed specifically to handle rough terrain, shallow rivers and towing artillery. Other films blatantly exaggerated the American idyll, by showing happy negroes strumming guitars and dancing; visually charismatic cowboys and healthy cattle, grazing in lush meadows far from the god-forsaken reservations set aside for Native Americans; by overlooking internment camps for Japanese-Americans (that propaganda was reserved for folks on the home front); and showing factories operating at working at full-steam, only a few years after police and thugs hired by the owners joined hands to terrorize union organizers and weary strikers. Even so, Republican politicians argued that filmmakers’ vision of a pluralistic, democratic, multi-ethnic America was far too idealistic, if not downright socialistic, and demanded that more attention be paid to the radicals perpetrating such silly notions. The resultant scrutiny anticipated HUAC hearings to come, red-baiting and the blacklisting of some of the same people who produced propaganda in the name of democracy and the American way. The DVD adds a Q&A with Miller, cinematographer Antonio Rossi and editor Amy Linton. John Lithgow does his usual fine job narrating the doc.

TV-to-DVD
CBS: The Red Skelton Hour: In Color: Unreleased Seasons
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Graveyard of the Giant Beasts
PBS: The Mind of a Chef: Ludo Lefebvre: Season 5
PBS: USO–For the Troops
PBS: American Masters: Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future
Color television has been an essential part of most people’s lives for the last 50 years, at least. Looking back, it’s difficult to imagine why CBS, one of the early pioneers of the format, literally pulled the plug on its early “colorcasts” and, from 1960 to 1965, broadcast almost exclusively in black-and-white. Red Skelton, an advocate for color throughout the 1950s, was able to air some 100 episodes in color before CBS ended its investment in television manufacturing and went gray. The episodes included in the three-disc collection, “The Red Skelton Hour: In Color: Unreleased Seasons,” have been culled from previously released 11- and 22-disc sets in the Time Life/WEA catalogue. Priced in the neighborhood of $20-25, the general release is far more affordable than the mega-collections, which include more bells and whistles in the mix. Otherwise, the new package offers 550 minutes of vintage entertainment – in living color, if you will — featuring such stars as John Wayne, Milton Berle, Phyllis Diller, Mickey Rooney, Tim Conway, Martha Raye, George Gobel and Vincent Price and Red’s trademark characters Clem Kaddidlehopper, Freddie the Freeloader, George Appleby and seagulls Gertrude and Heathcliff. The abridged package also includes interviews with Bobby Rydell and Vicki Lawrence. Skelton’s schmaltzy persona probably wouldn’t pass muster today, but, back in the day, he was among the most beloved performers in any medium. Each show allowed for an opening monologue; a musical interlude, with A-list guests, the David Rose orchestra and a dance troupe; and a series of comic sketches, in which the guests interacted with Red’s characters. The casual approach to the scripted bits frequently allowed for the actors to interrupt themselves with laughter. “The Red Skelton Hour” would fall victim to CBS’ infamous youth movement, during which shows that appealed to Middle America were jettisoned for those with more advertiser-friendly demographics. Skelton briefly sought refuge at NBC, but, by then, his ship had already sailed.

Once again, PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead” demonstrates just how little we know about the world beneath our feet. “Graveyard of the Giant Beasts” takes us to an open-pit mine in Colombia, where revelations beyond the imagination of any Hollywood screenwriter have changed what we know about the period after the dinosaurs disappeared and recovery from the horrific meteor blast began. Somehow, cold-blooded crocodilians and snakes survived the disastrous changes in climate and flourished when things returned to normal. With fewer natural predators hunting for food in and around the swamps, the inhabitants could continue growing so long as nature allowed. Fossils found in the mining operation suggest that competition for prey and open water caused gigantic crocodiles and snakes to feed off each other. Among the discoveries shown in the documentary is a fossil of a 43-foot-Titanoboa snake whose death may have been caused by a crocodilian that proved to be too large to fully digest. The scientists also study the ability of such creatures to crush their prey with a single bite or sudden constrictive attack. Even 58 million years removed from the fossilized event, the re-creations are terrifying.

The fifth season of PBS’s tantalizing “The Mind of a Chef” serves as the perfect complement to Laura Gabbert’s similarly mouth-watering documentary, City of Gold. In the first two episodes, renowned chef Ludo Lefebvre shares his love of contemporary Los Angeles cuisine, sometimes in the company of critic Gold, looking as if they just left a pickup basketball game, down the street. Other episodes explore Lefebvre’s French roots and how they inspired his ability to become a star in today’s food-obsessed world. His visits to French bistros and the kitchens of his mentors clearly demonstrate what make the country’s cuisine different than all others, as well as the importance fresh, seasonal ingredients.

For nearly 50 years, the USO was synonymous with Bob Hope, who, as a comedian and showman, brought a taste of home to American military personnel  stationed in every far-flung corner of the world. The shows were extensions of Hope’s vaudevillian roots, featuring singers, dancers, variety acts, a full orchestra, celebrities and beautiful women representing Hollywood, Las Vegas, Broadway and Atlantic City. PBS’s “USO–For the Troops” reminds us that Hope’s annual television specials represented the tip of the USO iceberg. It takes viewers behind the scenes and inside the work the USO performs, year in and year out, to lift the spirits of American service personnel and strengthen the ties that connect them to their families, their homes and our nation. We learn that President Truman deactivated the USO after World War II, but ordered its return for the Korean War. It’s remained a permanent fixture ever since then. It also reveals how the organization dealt with segregation in World War II and the protests surrounding the Vietnam War, at home and in Southeast Asia.

The “American Masters” presentation, “Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future,” re-introduces the acclaimed Finnish-American architect to viewers who, no doubt, have seen and admired his work, without knowing his name. His visionary buildings include the St. Louis Gateway Arch, General Motors Technical Center, New York’s TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport, Yale University’s Ingalls Rink and Morse and Ezra Stiles Colleges, Virginia’s Dulles Airport and modernist pedestal furniture, such as the Tulip chair. The producers accompany his son, as he showcases the architect’s body of “neofuturistic” work, which exploded the constraints of the past to create a robust and daring American aesthetic.

The DVD Wrapup: American Honey, Snowden, Man Called Ove, Orphan Killer and more

Thursday, December 29th, 2016

American Honey: Blu-ray
Even though Kent-native Andrea Arnold was awarded the 2005 Academy Award for her live-action short film, “Wasp,” not many American viewers saw her widely acclaimed follow-up features, Red Road and Fish Tank. She would veer away from the grit and grime of life among marginally employed Brits, into the more refined precincts of Bronte country, for Wuthering Heights. Arnold’s adaptation striped the novel of certain literary elements to focus on those aspects that lent themselves to more darkly cinematic and sensory interpretation. Even though American Honey was filmed on location in smallish towns throughout the Midwest – Walmart country, if you will — Arnold brought to the Cannes favorite a familiarity one might not have expected. That’s because, apart from hiring Shia LeBeouf and Riley Keogh for key roles, she committed herself to casting actors who she discovered on the street or virtual unknowns. The strategy worked well in Fish Tank, with housing-estate resident Katie Jarvis, and, in Wuthering Heights, with mixed-race iterations of Heathcliff (first-timers Solomon Glave, James Howson). Independent Spirit nominee Sasha Lane – around whom everything in American Honey revolves — was initially approached by Arnold during spring break at Panama City Beach, Florida. Also of mixed-race background (African-American/Maori), she more than holds her own alongside LeBeouf and Keough, in a role that requires as much acting as intuition and personal recall. When we first meet her character, Star, she’s living in Muskogee, dumpster-diving with her younger sister, foraging for that night’s dinner and whatever might be left for their dog and useless stepdad. On the way home, they encounter a van full of teenagers, who arrive on the scene like a car full of clowns in a Fellini movie or the mime troupe at the end of Blow-Up. The exuberance and playful mischief on display immediately remind Star of the things missing in her own life. Likewise, the leader of the pack, Jake (LaBeouf), senses in Star a kindred spirit to the members of his team of itinerant door-to-door hawkers of magazine subscriptions.

As soon as she can sneak out of her house that night, she dumps her younger siblings on a woman – possibly their estranged mother or an aunt – who’s boot-scooting her brains out at a hangout for faux-cowboys, stoners and other local losers. While, none of the young people on the sales team looks as if they’d survive 10 minutes behind the counter of a McDonald’s, they’re right at home selling magazines. Energized by hip-hop, cigarettes and pot, they’re making a semblance of a living pretending to be college students, while selling subscriptions to families unlike the ones they left behind months or years earlier. Their supervisor, Krystal (Keough), is a tough, but strangely nurturing taskmaster, who stays behind at whatever Motel 8 they’re staying, arranging accommodations for the next stop and dealing with the parent company. She sometimes conducts business in a trashy Confederation-flag bikini and clearly views Krystal as potential rival for her boy-toy, Jake. Star has all the earmarks of an earner, however, and that’s more important to her. Star is initially teamed with the abundantly tattooed Jake, who, as they say, could sell ice cubes to Eskimos. She braces at his fabrications, but senses that she’ll be able to find ways to use her own acting skills to secure subscriptions, if not outright gifts from male admirers. Arnold’s narrative, which takes almost three hours to unwind, is far more picaresque than anything else. The romantic interludes are fleeting, at best, and there’s very little drama invested in the story … beyond our fear that Star might try to sweettalk a murderous trucker or rapist. The extra minutes allow viewers plenty of time to get to know the other kids in the van, as well as one or two of their potential customers. You might even recognize the teens as part of a crew that worked your own suburban neighborhood, pitching magazines at inflated pre-Internet prices to overly sympathetic homeowners. If anything is going to hurt American Honey’s chances with academy voters, it’s the length. At 163 minutes, it’s a long haul. Even so, everything from the street-savvy acting and dialogue, to the evocative cinematography and pulsating soundtrack, demands that we stick with Arnold’s vision. Otherwise, I would hope that due consideration is given Lane, LaBeouf, Keough, Arnold and her frequent DP, Robbie Ryan. The Blu-ray contains brief interviews with the actresses Lane and Keough.

Snowden: Blu-ray
Like a lot of other people, I greeted the prospect of spending another two-plus hours on the saga of whistle-blower Edward Snowden with a been-there/seen-that ambivalence. Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’ 2014 Oscar-winning documentary on the former National Security Agency contractor, had already covered much of the same territory as Oliver Stone’s Snowden would dramatize. The back-and-forth debate over Snowden’s rationale for going public had reached ad nausea status, in my mind, anyway, even before the documentary was released. And, yet, there remained several extremely legitimate reasons to watch Snowden. The most obvious is the continuing visibility of Snowden in the debate over the Kremlin-sourced leaks that appear to have swayed the recent presidential campaign, even if it were by one or two votes. His detractors inside the Beltway would love for us to believe that Snowden is offering his expertise to Putin’s gang, even if there’s no reason to believe that he would be treated any differently by Donald Trump. Candidates and politicians on both sides of the aisle have denounced him as a traitor, while also using data he leaked to condemn unfettered spying on American citizens of non-Islamic persuasions. Such uniformity of opinion among the country’s military, political and industrial elite should always be held up to public scrutiny. If NSA eavesdroppers weren’t able to immediately identify the source of those and other damaging leaks – and determine why they only appeared to benefit Republicans – what’s the upside of being able to listen in on everyone from your local neighborhood mullah to Ma and Pa Kettle. Snowden, himself, admits to wasting time testing the amorous intentions of his girlfriend … a task his superiors also were doing. (Maybe they use FX Networks’ sexy spy-vs.-spy series, “The Americans,” as a training film.)

Snowden does an excellent job depicting exactly what it is the computer jockeys at the NSA do, whether for good, evil or just plain fun. It also nails the arrogance and sense of entitlement that accompanies employees of our government as they climb the latter to their desired stations in life. Their ability to succeed always trumps the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Stone also makes palpable the tightening of the noose around Snowden’s neck in the days before he makes the ultimate decision to leave the country and tell his story. By emphasizing Shailene Woodley’s role in his decision-making, the co-writer/director also adds the kind of humanistic throughline – the media couldn’t help itself, portraying her as merely the stripper girlfriend – that’s been missing in any discussion of Julian Assange’s culpability in the WikiLeaks scandal. As usual, Stone coaxes stellar performances, not only from Woodley and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but also from such supporting stalwarts as Melissa Leo, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Timothy Olyphant, Ben Chaplin Tom Wilkinson, Keith Stanfield and Scott Eastwood. Typically, no matter how severe the implications on personal privacy, Americans fall back on the bromide, “If you’re not guilty of anything, there’s no reason to be afraid of government or police surveillance.” By demonstrating just how invasive government snooping can be – reversing the Skype portal on the PC in your bedroom, for example – Stone deftly personalizes what’s at stake for all of us. If Snowden doesn’t leave you feeling more paranoid than when you began watching it, you weren’t paying attention. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “Finding the Truth” and a post-screening Q&A with Stone, Gordon-Leavitt, Woodley and Snowden, via an Internet link.

Coming Through the Rye
At one time in the not-too-distant cultural history of the United States, reading “Catcher in the Rye” was as much a rite of passage as registering for the draft, buying that first car or surviving your first hangover. The book probably hit home harder with adolescents who aspired to attend good colleges, while suffering from undefinable feelings of alienation and angst in post-World War II America. The novel’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield, helped teenagers identify a deep-seated yearning for rebellion against conformity and group-think and deal with complex issues arising from innocence, identity, belonging and loss. When traditional role models and religious doctrine proved lacking, a large number of disillusioned American youths turned to Caulfield as a kindred spirit. Some even began sporting his trademark red hunting cap, complete with ear flaps. A few years later, in “Catch 22,” Yossarian would serve a similar purpose, as would Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, Jack Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise, and the characters who came to life in Bob Dylan’s post-protest songs. Coming Through the Rye is inspired by writer/director James Sadwith’s own youthful obsession with “Catcher in the Rye,” right down to the personal journey he made to track down the elusive novelist in rural Cornish, New Hampshire. Movies in which troubled individuals seek the personal guidance of their idols practically constitutes a subgenre of its own, typically concluding with the protagonist’s disappointment over discovering the Emperor’s nakedness or stumbling upon enlightenment on his own. The time is the late 1960s, and Jamie Schwartz (Alex Wolff) is consigned to a Pennsylvania prep school, not so different from the one that Holden Caulfield fled in Salinger’s novel. For his senior project, he decides to turn the book into a play he hopes to produce as his senior project.

Humiliated when his roommate shares with his buffoonish buddies Schwartz’ proposal letter to Salinger, whose endorsement he desires, Jamie convinces a local girl, Deedee (Stefania LaVie Owen), to drive him to New Hampshire to find the mysterious author and argue his case in person. The road trip is eventful in ways that viewers should find irresistibly relatable, especially if they remember the details of Caulfield’s personal journey. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Deedee proves to be significantly more worldly than Jamie. There’s no need to expand on the events that lead to their almost-inevitable encounter with Salinger or how that goes. Anyone who sees Chris Cooper’s name and photograph on the DVD cover will know that the Academy Award winner (Adaptation) isn’t there to play a cameo role as the high school dean. His mere presence provides an anchor for the various coming-of-age throughlines and Jamie’s neurotic search for acceptance among his peers. To that end, Wolff and Owen are nothing less than charming. As someone whose television projects have won or been nominated for three dozen Emmy Awards and Golden Globes, Sadwith recognizes a cliché when he sees one coming and manages to avoid them – or face them head-on – whenever one threatens to diminish the story. Coming Through the Rye was a popular addition to the festivals in which it was invited and critics gave it high marks, as well. Sadly, it apparently found its way into a only small handful of theaters, before going into DVD. Rated PG-13, it’s the kind of rom/dram that Boomer and post-Boomer parents should enjoy sharing with teens, especially those with a literary bent. The rural locations – Virginia for N.H. – are easy the eye, too.

A Man Called Ove: Blu-ray
For all the even-money favorites that have won an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category, there typically are three or four excellent movies that didn’t make the short list or were passed over by the nominating committees of their home countries. This year’s entry from Germany, Maren Ade’s offbeat comedy/drama Toni Erdmann, made the short list and is considered the frontrunner to be nominated and take home the statuette. This year’s list of distinguished snubs includes Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary, Fire at Sea; Israel’s Sandstorm; Paul Verhoeven’s Elle; Pablo Larrain’s Neruda and Pedro Almodovar’s Julieta. Sweden’s longshot entry, A Man Called Ove, not only made the first cut in the foreign-language category, but also is among the seven titles shortlisted on the hair-and-makeup list. Hannes Holm’s adaptation of Fredrik Backman’s best-selling novel no doubt benefited from a campaign strategy engineered by Edward Arentz, managing director at Music Box Films, a Chicago-based company that’s enjoyed considerable good luck in the past, even with snubbed pictures. Its catalogue boasts such outstanding films as the shockingly unnominated The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo trilogy, also from Sweden, and the widely admired Tell No One, Ida, Monsieur Lazhar, Potiche, The Innocents, Le Weekend, Meru and The Deep Blue Sea. Music Box’s The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared – likewise from Sweden — was deservedly nominated in last year’s hair-and-makeup competition. Finding any audiences at all, apart from festival crowds, is more than half the battle for foreign films hoping to make a dent in the American arthouse circuit and, increasingly, the VOD and DVD/Blu-ray market. Music Box wisely played the company’s Scandinavian card by previewing “Ole” at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival and creating buzz in theaters in the Upper Midwest, where many viewers didn’t require subtitles to understand. Comedies usually rate longshot status in the foreign-language category – ditto, Best Picture – any attention at all is appreciated by distributors.

A Man Called Ove fits neatly in the ever-popular “grumpy old man” pigeonhole. An age-appropriate Rolf Lassgård (“Wallander”) plays the title character, a crusty geezer who’s still grieving the loss of his wife when he’s unceremoniously laid off by his longtime employer. His best friend and occasional nemesis has been levelled by a devastating stroke, forcing Ove to handle the petty annoyances that kept them busy as property managers in their housing development. Naturally, he sees no other recourse than to loop a noose around his neck and hang himself in the living room of his tidy home. Just as naturally, Ove’s decision goes unfulfilled, due to defective ropes and a dedication to duty that requires him to answer the door to residents in need of assistance. If these interruptions don’t exactly force him to reconsider ending his life, they take his mind off his mission long enough for Holm to find ways to make him feel needed, again. Most of the credit belongs to a comically needy new arrival, delightfully played by Iranian-born Bahar Pars (When Darkness Falls), her hapless Swedish husband and their irresistible daughters. Ove isn’t particularly anxious to help his pregnant neighbor, but he’s driven to distraction by her pathetic attempts to handle a stick shift and make proper use of household tools. If that doesn’t make A Man Called Ove sound very different to such American favorites as Grumpy Old Men, About Schmidt or Grand Torino, it’s only because all movie curmudgeons share certain characteristics, including a need to feel useful and a bleeding heart when it comes to kids in desperate need of a male role model. It also benefits from flashbacks to the time when he and his wife first met – cutely, natch – and their differences, while distinct, served their marriage. The Blu-ray adds featurettes “The Ove in Us All: A Talk with Hannes Holm, Rolf Lassgård and Bahar Pars”; “Makeup Gallery” and “Makeup Time Lapse”; a Q&A with the director and cast at the Scandinavia House, in New York.

The Orphan Killer: Blu-ray
Just in time for Jesus’ birthday, fans of extreme horror, torture porn and gonzo/slasher movies must have been overjoyed by the nearly concurrent releases of special-editions packages of Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer, Driller Killer, Rob Zombie’s 31, Phantasm Remaster/Ravager, Jack Frost, Creepshow 2, Hellraiser and Black Christmas. My copy of Reel Gore Releasing’s kindred The Orphan Killer must have gotten lost in the Christmas rush, because it only arrived for review this week. Originally released in 2011, it received enthusiastic reviews from some niche critics, even though it wasn’t all that easy to find. Clearly, one-man-band filmmaker Matt Farnsworth (Iowa) hoped to interest investors in a franchise focused on a masked killer, who, at first glance, appears to be a composite of every masked, ax-wielding, mouth-breather killer who’s walked the earth since Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees joined the genre menagerie nearly 40 years ago. Here, the title character, a.k.a. Marcus Miller (David Backus), copped a bad attitude after his parents were slaughtered in a home break-in and he was sent to an orphanage with his baby sister, Audrey (Diane Foster). They are separated when Audrey is adopted and Marcus is locked in an attic by sadistic nuns, convinced that it will prevent him from bashing in the head of another naughty little boy. This is all revealed in flashbacks scattered throughout the narrative … such as it is.

As bad luck and worse timing would dictate, the adult Audrey is back at the orphanage supervising a religious pageant when Marcus decides to get his revenge on her for leaving him behind to deal with his tormenters. Naturally, Marcus is required to kill every student, nun and priest he happens upon before his sister completes the obligatory and entirely welcome shower scene.  Blessedly, it’s at this point that Farnsworth begins to tweak the genre tropes and clichés he’s invested in The Orphan Killer, by demonstrating how adept Audrey has become at enduring extreme pain – a crown of barbed-wire thorns, no less – and giving as good as she gets. For once, the scream queen is allowed the privilege of standing up to her attacker, without having to rely on a male cop, boyfriend or girly contrivance. As gory as things get, Farnsworth allows his senses of humor and irony to come into play. Foster’s role here isn’t limited to being a pin cushion for her insane brother’s pleasure. She also served as co-producer, alongside Farnsworth, just as she had on Iowa and the subsequent anti-drug documentary, Dying for Meth. As the blond who refuses to die, however, she’s extremely credible. The Blu-ray adds the informative video diary, “Behind the Murder,” a death-metal music clip and slideshow.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: After Stonehenge
PBS: NOVA: Great Human Odyssey
PBS: Frontline: Terror in Europe
PBS: Frontline: Confronting ISIS
Three thousand years ago, at the same time as the Egyptians (and their slaves) were building the pyramids, some only slightly less amazing things were happening in Bronze Age Britain. Unlike the pyramids, however, proof that they existed wouldn’t be discovered until several millennia later. Until five years ago, the mysterious ring of standing stones at Stonehenge hogged the attention of British archeologists, tourists, Druid wannabes and alien-astronaut theorists. The charred remains of an ancient, post-Stonehenge settlement remained hidden just below the surface of Must Farm Quarry, in the Fens region of southeast England. The fascinating PBS documentary, “Secrets of the Dead: After Stonehenge,” chronicles the race against time being run by a team of archeologists, scientists, historians and specialists, as they shed new light on the discovery. The remains of the ancient site began to emerge from the quarry five years ago, but, due to its delicate nature, experts have largely been working in secret. Among other things, researchers have attempted to re-create the fire that destroyed a prominent structure, leaving a distinct pattern of charred building material. They’re also tracing non-native metals, used in tools and weapons, to mines known to have existed on the continent. Almost on a weekly basis, “Secrets of the Dead” explains how farmers, construction workers and meteorological phenomena reveal things to archeologists who then can deploy modern technology to answer questions they didn’t even know to ask.

Every so often, too, scientists will stumble upon a skull or bone fragment that completely changes what we think we knew about our prehistoric ancestors. I’ve always wondered how only a handful of fragments have managed to survive the elements this long and where the millions of others pieces might be buried. I’m still waiting for answers. The special two-hour “NOVA” presentation, “Great Human Odyssey,” employs recent DNA breakthroughs to trace the journeys made by tiny bands hunter-gatherers, as they spread to every corner of the planet. It also attempts to answer how they acquired the skills, tools and talent to thrive in every conceivable environment on Earth? With unique glimpses of today’s Kalahari hunters, Siberian reindeer herders and Polynesian navigators, we discover amazing skills that hint at how our ancestors survived and prospered long ago.

The “Frontline” presentations, “Terror in Europe” and “Confronting ISIS” demonstrate how difficult it is for investigative reporters to stay ahead of breaking news events as they try to make sense of the global war against terrorism, global warming, natural disasters, crime and corruption. Even as an alliance of military forces closes in on the ISIS strongholds in northern Syria, the organization’s tendrils are extending across Europe and taking different forms as strategies evolve. U.S.-led efforts to degrade and destroy ISIS progress apace. Otherwise, terrorist attacks might be a daily occurrence, instead of an occasional tragedy. The setbacks that occur throughout Europe shouldn’t mask the advances we’ve made toward hitting the central nervous system of bigotry, hate and religious intolerance.

The DVD Gift Guide 2: Da Cubs, Hellraiser, Downton Abbey, Bill & Ted; Bob Hope, Klown and more

Thursday, December 22nd, 2016

2016 World Series Champions: The Chicago Cubs: Blu-ray
Chicago Cubs 2016 World Series Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The nation’s longest-running soap opera ended this fall, after many generations of drama, romance, comedy, misplaced expectations, broken hearts, dismally small audiences and finally over-the-top ratings. It ran for more than a century, spanning the first isolated radio broadcast, in 1921, and the era of Internet streaming. Millions of fans lived and died without closure. It would come on a rainy early-November night in Cleveland, itself no stranger to heartbreaking losses, in an extra-inning baseball game fraught with tension and mixed emotions. Anyone who hasn’t already guessed that the subject of this review is the Chicago Cubs’ World Series championship – ending a 108-year drought — need never consider auditioning for “Jeopardy!” or any sports game show. For those diehard fans on your gift list who’ve yet to come down from the clouds, the only presents they’re likely to tear open and immediately demand to sample are Shout! Factory’s 2016 World Series Champions and Chicago Cubs 2016 World Series Collector’s Edition, available in Blu-ray and DVD. If the Cubs hadn’t met consensus expectations this year, it would have been a far greater blow to its inexplicably loyal followers — a list that includes Hollywood celebrities, politicians, blue- and white-collar workers, bleacher bums, men, women and kids — than anything that’s happened since the infamous 1969 flop. No one who followed the club via WGN that year has ever recovered from the team’s blowing a 17½-game lead in the standings to the Mets in the last quarter of the season.

Owner Tom Ricketts’ money, GM Theo Epstein’s brains and manager Joe Maddon’s cunning combined to make players Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Jake Arrieta, Dexter Fowler, Jon Lester and Ben Zobrist’s trip to the Fall Classic nearly inevitable. The Indians, however, made it a battle by taking a 3-1 series lead, forcing the Cubs to the Ivy-covered wall. It’s all here: the games, play-by-play broadcasts, comprehensive highlights, exclusive access and interviews. The less costly option, “2016 World Series Champions: The Chicago Cubs” features regular-season and World Series highlights, “clinching moments” and the World Series parade. “World Series Collector’s Edition” boasts footage of “every inning, play and heart-stopping moment” of the 2016 World Series, in its entirety, as well as key post-season games. The set adds eight complete broadcasts, including all games from the World Series and bonus material from the post-season “and beyond.” Enjoy it while you can, Cubs Nation. Fame is fleeting, disappointment is eternal.

50 Years With Peter Paul and Mary
In hindsight, 1963 probably wasn’t the most memorable year for pop music. Among Billboard’s multi-week chart-toppers were such forgettable adult-contemporary hits as the Village Stompers “Washington Square,” the Singing Nun’s “Dominique,” Rolf Harris’ “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport,” Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki,” Andy Williams’ “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” Al Martino’s “I Love You Because,” the Rooftop Singers’ “Walk Right In” and Steve Lawrence’s “Go Away Little Girl.” Bobby Vinton’s version of “Blue Velvet” remained at No. 1 for eight weeks, before being resurrected two decades later in David Lynch’s offbeat thriller of the same title, reprised by an unfortunate torch singer played by Isabella Rosselli. It was a great year, though, for the contemporary-folk trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, who scored a pair of No. 1 hits on the AC charts, with “Puff the Magic Dragon” (two weeks) and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” (five weeks), and a No. 2 with his “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Recorded in 2014, “50 Years With Peter Paul and Mary” is a documentary that celebrates the impact of the pre-eminent trio on the American music scene and countercultural revolution of the 1960s. Their recordings of Dylan’s socially relevant songs helped make the “mystery tramp” a very rich young man. An original song based on a children’s story, “Puff the Magic Dragon” enjoyed a bizarre afterlife when rumors began to circulate claiming that it contained hidden references to marijuana use, and soldiers in Vietnam named deadly weapons after the dragon. The 78-minute film includes more than two dozen songs, in addition to the interviews and archival clips. And, yes, it is exceedingly giftable, especially to Baby Boomers who still own acoustic guitars they haven’t touched in decades.

Hellraiser: The Scarlet Box Limited Edition Trilogy: Blu-ray
Serious collectors of modern horror have been given several reasons to rejoice this year, with Arrow Films/MVD’s continuing stream of “Limited Edition” packages of vintage films, the latest being “Hellraiser: The Scarlet Box.” Not all of the reclaimed titles are as familiar as Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street, whose success triggered an avalanche of genre pictures released in the 1980s and relegated to drive-ins and shoebox multiplexes. Most arrived before the explosion in niche media and were left to the mercy of mainstream critics, who could barely disguise their unhappiness at being forced to sit through such gruesome fare. Decades later, fans and buffs have joined genre specialists in lauding the lasting entertainment value in movies that overcame miniscule production and marketing budgets, bargain-basement effects, over-the-hill stars, unrecognizable supporting casts, studio interference and outraged parents. Arrow’s stewardship of such movies demonstrates that it, along with several other likeminded companies,  takes the frequently dismissed titles seriously and is willing to invest money in director’s-cut editions, audio/visual upgrades, the porting over of featurettes, creation of new bonus material and compilation of marketing and publicity memorabilia. Roger Ebert may have awarded Hellraiser a half-star kiss-off, but it was embraced by genre buffs for its outrageous special makeup effects, imaginative demons and not-so-subtle S&M. It made 20 times its $1-million production budget, thus ensuring hope for franchise status.

The 1987 British release was written and directed by Clive Barker, upon whose novella, “The Hellbound Heart,” it was based. It involves the resurrection of bad-brother Frank (Sean Chapman), who had opened the door to an alternate dimension and had his body torn to pieces by creatures known as Cenobites. Years later, his good brother, Larry (Andrew Robinson), moves into Frank’s abandoned house with his daughter, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), and naughty wife, Julia (Clare Higgins). An accident causes some of Larry’s blood to spill on the attic floor, which somehow triggers Frank’s resurrection. To complete his resurrection, he requires more blood, which Julia provides in the form of innocent visitors.  Meanwhile, Kirsty discovers an ancient puzzle-box that attracts the Cenobites, all of whom have horrific mutilations and/or body piercings, and wear fetishistic black leather clothing. Pinhead, one of the great monsters of genre history, is one of the leaders of the Cenobites. “Hellraiser: The Scarlet Box Limited Edition Trilogy” includes 2K restorations of Hellraiser, Hellbound: Hellraiser II and Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth; “The Clive Barker Legacy,” a fourth disc with Barker’s short films and documentary; the 200-page book, “Damnation Games”; and numerous interviews and making-of featurettes. The movie remains shocking, but fun, in a sadomasochistic sort of way.

It’s been said that the current trend in extreme body piercings and modifications can be traced to the popularity of Hellraiser, which wallowed in them. I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. Hellraiser is included, along with several other Arrow, Scream Factory, Criterion, Mondo Macabro, Grindstone Vestron/Lionsgate and MPI volumes, in Steve Jay Schneider’s “101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die.” The thick, if compact book – perfect for bathroom reading — takes an in-depth, chronological look at the genre, with essays and stills. No subgenre, nationality or deformity is ignored. It’s also very affordable.

Department Q Trilogy
Klown Forever

Admirers of the kinds of Scandinavian crime mini-series that get remade for consumption by subtitle-averse Americans should relish this collection of movies, featuring the morose Danish detective Carl Morck, his assistant and best/only friend, Assad, and their diligent secretary, Rose. Carl (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) has been assigned to duty in the cold-case department of the Copenhagen PD after an ill-planned raid on a suspect’s home leaves one cop dead, another one crippled and Morck guilt-ridden and depressed. He treats the assignment as a demotion, of course, but Assad eventually convinces him of the importance of tackling unsolved cases with the same dedication as that reserved for active investigations. The films included in Department Q Trilogy are based on best-selling stories written by Jussi Adler-Olsen. Released about a year apart from each other, The Keeper of Lost CausesThe Absent One and A Conspiracy of Faith set box-office records in Denmark and deserve the attention of viewers who’ve enjoyed such originally Nordic thrillers as “The Killing,” “Wallander” and “The Bridge.” Mikkel Nørgaard’s “The Keeper of Lost Causes” kicks off the series with the reopening of a case that Carl’s supervisors all assume was a suicide or accident, because she was last seen on a ferry with her autistic brother. The team comes to believe differently, as the victim’s body was never found and her political activity was sometimes controversial. Nørgaard’s 2014 “The Absent One” tackles the unsolved murder of twins at a prestigious prep school and the resurfacing of a witness missing for 20 years. Hans Petter Moland’s “A Conspiracy of Faith” involves a series of killings that appear to be linked to a religious fanatic and a more-recent kidnapping of a preacher’s young son and daughter. The investigations lead detectives to places so dark and frightening you’d think they existed here, not in the fairytale kingdom of Denmark. The DVDs include making-of featurettes.

I was surprised to learn that Nørgaard also directed Klown Forever, Klown and 42 episodes of the hilariously offbeat “Klown” television series, from which the movies were adapted. (He also helmed four episodes of the terrific political drama, “Borgen.”) All three comedies focus on the lives of the main characters, Frank (Frank Hvam) and Casper (Casper Christensen), who let their worst instincts get them into all sorts of trouble with their spouses, friends and acquaintances. As such, the “uncomfortable” humor that informs “Klown” has frequently been compared to Larry David’s aggressively non-PC behavior in “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” I would also suggest Rowan Atkinson, whose nebbish character, Mr. Bean, inspired a hit British TV show and spin-off movies. Niche distributor Drafthouse Films, which imported Klown in 2012, also is handling the sequel, Klown Forever. In the sequel, Casper decides to leave Denmark to pursue a solo career in Los Angeles, where he’s living large in the Hollywood Hills. Missing his BFF and creative partner, with whom he’s publishing a book about their friendship, Frank decides to visit him. It doesn’t take long for the horndog Casper to regret inviting the socially awkward Frank to his babe-magnet home. Long story short, Klown Forever is darker than the original in ways that some sexually cautious Americans might find offensive. Look for cameos by Isla Fisher and Adam Levine. The package contains deleted scenes and three hilarious episodes from the TV show. Apparently, Warner Bros. has slated an English-language remake of Klown, starring Sacha Baron Cohen.

PBS: Downton Abbey: The Complete Limited Edition Collection: Blu-ray
PBS: Masterpiece: Mr. Selfridge: The Complete Series
PBS: Masterpiece Mystery: Inspector Lewis: The Complete Series
There once was a time when collections of PBS/BBC series were kept out circulation in video for months and sometimes years after their original airings. I think that it had something to do with the prices it could charge institutions, versus what the consumer marketplace would bear. The great acceptance of VCRs and DVRs made that practice obsolete, based primarily on the improvement of playback quality and competition from British distributors. Extreme popularity creates great opportunities, however, and Downton Abbey: The Complete Limited Edition Collection is a perfect example of how PBS has joined the crush of companies that have come to believe that more is more and more is never enough for rabid fans of beloved series. Arriving in a package the size of a toaster, the Limited Edition includes all six seasons (53 episodes) in the original, unedited UK versions; five all-new hours of bonus video and seven more hours of extras; a hardcover book for storing all 22 discs; a working pull-bell (just like Lady Mary used to summon Anna); six cork-backed coasters; and an exclusive, photo-filled booklet, “The Costumes of Downton Abbey,” with a foreword from the show’s executive producer, Gareth Neame. Less-inclusive Blu-ray packages are priced to sell, as well. Complete-series collections, based on the original UK episodes, of Mr. Selfridge and Inspector Lewis also were released in October. Unbeknownst to many American audiences (and subscribers), PBS routinely edits British imports for naughty bits and length, when Pledge Month pitches cut into the shows. It shouldn’t, but it does. The remedy comes in the form of these boxed sets, which represent the UK versions.

ABC: Two Guys and a Girl: The Complete Series
If it’s remembered at all, the late-1990s sitcom “Two Guys and a Girl” will be recalled as the show that changed its original title, “Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place,” when the setting was changed from a restaurant to wherever it was the characters were working or sleeping. Of its three continuing stars — Ryan Reynolds, Richard Ruccolo, Traylor Howard – only Reynolds (Deadpool) would enjoy much forward trajectory. In 2005, Howard caught a sweet gig on USA’s “Monk,” as Tony Shalhoub’s extremely tolerant assistant, but, since then, nada. Even so, at one time, “TG&G” averaged more than 10 million viewers. Today, that would be considered cause for rejoicing. When, in 2001, ABC moved it from Wednesdays to Friday, some 4 million of those viewers failed to follow it. The series focused on the lives of twenty-somethings Pete, Michael and Sharon, who, naturally, worked at a Boston pizza joint for the first two seasons … just like, surprise, the show’s creator Kenny Schwartz, while in college. After the first successful season, the producers decided to jettison David Ogden Stiers, Jennifer Westfeldt and Julius Carry, replacing them with recurring characters played by Suzanne Cryer, Jillian Bach and Nathan Fillion. More impressive was a list of guest stars that included Carmen Electra, Jon Cryer, Nomar Garciaparra, Fred Willard, Adam Carolla, Conchata Ferrell and bands Blink-182, Barenaked Ladies and Dan Finnerty & The Dan Band. The 11-disc set features all 81 episodes of the series, as well as its alternate, Internet-determined finale.

The Hunger Games: 4K Ultra HD/Blu-ray/Digital HD
It’s anybody’s guess as to whether this Christmas buying season will be the one that lights a fire under sales for 4K Ultra High Definition televisions and DVR units. (I just gave in to the temptation.) While the launch of Blu-ray 3D was greeted with consumer aversion to high prices and equipment limitations, the switch to 4K hardware isn’t nearly as prohibitive. I was given an opportunity to test my system with UHD copies of The Hunger Games, whose third chapter, “Mockingjay” was split into two parts. I assume that fans of the hit mega-series have already either purchased copies of it in DVD or Blu-ray – to savor the bonus package, if nothing else — so I’ll refrain from reprising the plot summaries. If the difference in resolution wasn’t visually overwhelming, it was at least noticeable, as was the “immersive, object-based audio,” although it would be more pronounced on a more expensive system than mine. The new releases accommodate Blu-ray 2D and digital HD formats. There are plenty of good reasons not to make the switch – shortage of product, for one – but, unlike the televisions, 4K units usually accommodate Blu-ray and DVD.

Bill & Ted’s Most Excellent Collection: Blu-ray
For most of the last 100 years, the San Gabriel Valley city of San Dimas was known primarily for its many orange and lemon groves. Until the 210 Freeway extension was completed, the sleepy burg was relatively removed from the urban sprawl that had devoured groves further west and soon drag upscale commuters to area. Before that, however, San Dimas served as a destination for rabid fans of the “Bill & Ted” series, in search of the dudes’ high school and Circle K, where all the magic happened. In fact, most of the original comedy was shot in and around Phoenix, as in Arizona, although it was difficult to tell. In 2010, when the city celebrated 50 years of incorporation, its slogan was “San Dimas, 1960-2010 — An Excellent Adventure.” It could just as easily been “San Dimas, 1960-2010 — Center of the Universe,” as B&T referred to it. (Porn star Andy San Dimas, who was born and raised in Maryland, is said to have borrowed her screen name from references in the movies.) “Bill & Ted’s Most Excellent Collection,” from Shout! Factory, is built around hi-def copies of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), but the set’s biggest draw is a bonus package with six new additions to the vintage material also included. Star Alex Winter and producer Scott Kroopf provide fresh commentaries on both pictures, as do writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon. There’s “Time Flies When You Are Having Fun!,” an extensive documentary looking back at a “Excellent Adventure,” with Keanu Reeves, Winter and several other members of the cast and crew, “Bill & Ted Go to Hell,” which revisits “Bogus Journey,” with the same lineup. It adds eight featurettes from previous editions, stickers and guitar pick.

The Bob Hope Specials: Thanks for the Memories
The folks at Time Life/WEA don’t necessarily wait for holidays to arrive to release their collections of classic television programming. Every year, however, they like to remind DVD owners of their catalogue of boxed sets, which includes such evergreens as the newly updated “The Carol Burnett Show: The Lost Episodes: Collector’s Edition: Official TV Release” and “Hee Haw: The Collector’s Edition”; and holdovers “The Wonder Years: Complete Series,” “The Tonight Show Vault Series, Collection Volume 1-6, Starring Johnny Carson” and “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.” The newest entry is “The Bob Hope Specials: Thanks for the Memories” collects comedy-variety specials the entertainer did for NBC-TV, beginning in 1950 and spanning five decades … or, as Hope might remind, 10 presidential administrations, from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton. The six-disc set features Bob’s first studio special “in living color,” with guests Jack Benny, Bing Crosby and Janet Leigh; “The Bob Hope Chevy Show,” with the entire cast of “I Love Lucy,” plus James Cagney and Diana Dors; a spoof of “Star Wars” and other sketches with Tony Bennett, Perry Como, James Garner, Mark Hamill, Dean Martin, Olivia Newton-John, Barbra Streisand, Tuesday Weld and the Muppets; the murder-mystery parody, “Joys (A Comedy Whodunit),” with nearly 50 guest stars, Charo, Milton Berle, Dean Martin, Don Rickles, George Gobel, Alan King, Don Knotts, Groucho Marx, Vincent Price and Freddie Prinze; 30 years’ worth of bloopers; the 1967 USO tour to 22 bases around Vietnam, Thailand and the South Pacific, in 15 days, with special guest Raquel Welch; highlights from more than 25 years of specials in “Bob Hope’s World of Comedy”; a look at Bob’s personal relationships with American president, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman; his 90th birthday celebration; and the exclusive bonus feature, “Shanks for the Memory,” with historic clips of Bob with Bing Crosby, presidents and pros on courses around the world, and special appearances by President Gerald Ford, pro golfers Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus.

Roseanne for President
Eric Weinrib, who’s worked with Michael Moore, recorded for posterity comedian Roseanne Barr’s failed 2012 run for POTUS, as the Green Party’s candidate. Four years later, she might have proven to be a more formidable candidate than Jill Stein – the Alf Landon of quixotic progressive causes — against Hillary Clinton and fellow TV star Donald Trump. Neither would have stood a chance in a debate against the standup comedian, whose monstrous ego equals their monstrous egos, but, as the fictional Roseanne, was embraced by the same voters who’ve drifted away from the Democratic Party and would have voted for Mickey Mouse (or Bernie Sanders) against Hillary. Although Weinrib mined some funny material from Roseanne, she never lets us forget that she’s extremely serious about wanting to advise voters on the corrupt practices of mainstream politicians and the need for extensive government reforms. Not surprisingly, perhaps, she also was extremely fixated on repealing laws prohibiting the sale and use of marijuana, which is happening, anyway. Neither is she reluctant to pepper her discussion with profanity and derogatory remarks about Stein, who barely recognizes her campaign, and such liberal icons as Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow. As a way to prove her pro-environment credentials, Roseanne chose to conduct most of her politicking via Skype, while puttering around her house in an apron, leaving the hard work to campaign manager Farheen Hakeem. In fact, though, it could have been perceived as something an elitist celebrity would do to avoid having to commune with the hoi-polloi. If the 2016 race weren’t such a shit storm, Roseanne for President, might be more appealing. As it is, only loyal fans of Ms. Barr are likely to stay the distance here.

Goat
Typically, in bros-will-be-bros comedies about anti-social behavior in fraternities, the brunt of the gross-out humor is reserved for freshmen, overserved sorority girls and humorless authority figures. Andrew Neel’s Goat adopts a more sobering approach to the increasingly troubling tradition of hazing and other manifestations of entrenched privilege. Hazing, racism and sexism aren’t limited to the Greek system on campus, of course. It is practiced by athletic teams and marching bands, as well. Here, 19-year-old Brad (Ben Schnetzer) survives a severe post-graduation-party beating by unknown assailants, only to be greeted by similarly brutal behavior from upperclassmen culling the weak candidates from the strong among the incoming pledge class. His brother, Brett (Nick Jonas), already is a member of the fraternity and ostensibly could be called upon to protect Brad, if things turn nasty. The tradition of ritual bullying was so ingrained at this frat that Brett let most of it slide, however. At first vaguely humorous, the hazing escalates well beyond the point of brotherly shenanigans. If Neel’s caricatures of neo-fascist upperclassman sometimes feel exaggerated, so, too, were the Greek characters in Animal House … it worked to our advantage, in that case. The overriding question asked in Goat surrounds the amount of torture is necessary to turn impressionable pledges into lockstep “brothers,” committed to preserving a code of silence and traditions that encourage date-rape, ritual humiliation and drunkenness. OK, now I’m exaggerating … not all fraternities are guilty of such atrocities. Whatever contributions co-writer David Gordon Green (George Washington) made to the story likely helped to soften the sharp edges and turn Goat into a movie high school seniors — their parents, too — might want to consider watching before taking the next step to adulthood. James Franco makes a cameo as a gung-ho ex-frat boy.

31: Blu-ray
The timing could hardly be better for Rob Zombie’s new industrial-strength horror flick, 31, in which five carnival workers are required to survive 12 hours locked in warehouse with bunch of insane killer clowns. While it’s highly unlikely that Zombie orchestrated the recent rash of sightings of potentially felonious clowns around the country, he probably wouldn’t deny the subliminal marketing opportunities they represent. It’s more likely that Zombie, whose parents were carnies before things turned ugly for them on the midway, was drawing from memory in the characters he developed for 31. When their van is hijacked, Charly, Venus, Panda, Levon and Roscoe are brought to a large building, where three geezers in Louis XIV garb explain the game to them. How Zombie convinced Malcolm McDowell to play Father Napoleon-Horatio-Silas Murder, alongside Sister Dragon and Sister Serpent (Judy Geeson, Jane Carr), is anyone’s guess.

The hostages are pitted against the six clownish “Heads”: Sick-Head, Psycho-Head, Schizo-Head, Death-Head, Sex-Head and Doom-Head. They’re allowed the luxury of cutlery and power tools, at least. Like previous Zombie vehicles, 31 overflows with gore, blood and violence. His fans wouldn’t have it any other way. Even so, he had to take the crowd-funding route to finance 31, which didn’t exactly shatter any records at the handful of theaters in which it played. As usual, Zombie enlisted members of his repertory company: Michael “Red Bone” Alcott, Elizabeth Daily, Ginger Lynn, Sheri Moon Zombie, Lew Temple, Torsten Voges, Jeff Daniel Phillips and Meg Foster. Reportedly, 31 had to be cut three times to obtain an R rating from the MPAA. Considering what was retained, though, it’s easy to see why some people feel that the ratings board’s stance on violent-vs.-sexual content is a joke. The Blu-ray adds commentary and a feature-length length making-of piece, “In Hell Everyone Loves Popcorn: The Making of 31.”

Criticsized
Critics may not be among the world’s most endangered species, but, as legitimate targets for revenge go, I’ve seen a lot worse. Typically, it takes the form of a maligned artist naming evil characters or nasty-tasting dishes after the reviewer who’s slammed their work. In Theatre of Blood, Vincent Price played a failed Shakespearean actor, who brutally settles the score with the critics he blames for ruining his career. In Bitter Feast, a celebrity chef exacts revenge on a food blogger who torpedoes his future. In Carl T. Evans’ Criticsized, the serial killer taunts police investigators who’ve failed to recognize the rather obvious clues that lead to a director whose work is routinely slammed by vitriolic critics. Or, perhaps, the culprit is a fan who resents being labeled a moron for admiring his films. Once the cops do figure things out, the killer has already begun to broadcast his crimes on the Internet, thus enflaming public opinion against the department. If it sounds like the plot to an episode of “Law & Order,” well, maybe it was.

Road to the Well
Children of the Mountain
Freshman writer/director Jon Cvack’s quirky thriller, Road to the Well, tells the story of three old friends who are reunited after a strange and seemingly random murder. The black humor derives from watching how far and how quickly a man’s life can deteriorate, after arriving late to his birthday party and discovering his live-in girlfriend being orally pleasured by his boss. Hours earlier, the boss had told him that he was being transferred to the boonies of northern California and now he knows the reason why. It happens on the same day that Frank (Laurence Fuller) is reunited with his childhood friend, Jack (Micah Parker), a charismatic conman and possibly a drug mule, who doesn’t spend too much time in one place. Jack suggests they drive north together, but not before he hooks Frank up with hooker acquaintance, Ruby (Rosalie McIntire). While they’re making out inside his car, they’re attacked by a hooded, knife-toting punk, who kills Ruby, puts her body in the trunk and leaves Frank standing in underwear holding the murder weapon. It’s at this point that the mild-mannered clerk takes Frank’s advice and heads to their hometown, where, theoretically, nothing worse can happen. And, yet, it does. Cvack’s story benefits from the introduction of wickedly offbeat characters and a lumpen friend, who takes his fashion cues from Michael “Meathead” Stivic, in “All in the Family.” Intrigue follows Frank and Jack to the High Sierra, where they plan to bury Ruby’s body, but encounter another loony character. Road to the Well may be far from perfect, but I hope it’s good enough to lead Cvack’s Kickstarter supporters to believe their money wasn’t wasted on him.

Priscilla Anany’s fact-based narrative, Children of the Mountain, would almost be too sad to watch – or recommend — if we didn’t already know that solutions to the protagonist’s terrible problems would, in real life, been available to her. Set in contemporary Ghana, it is the story of Essuman (Rukiyat Masud), pregnant by her lover, Edjah (Adjetey Anang), and looking forward to life as a family. Inconveniently, she lives next door to the woman Edjah abandoned, and it prompts the close-quarters hostility that breaks out between them. Essuman’s sense of pride and privilege is deflated, however, when her son is born with a cleft lip and palate. Had the baby been born near a hospital staffed by adequately trained physicians – or Internet access to specialists — it might have proven to be a temporary inconvenience for mother and child. Instead, she lives in a village where superstition and prejudice trump science. The father insists that the baby couldn’t be his, while other women say she’s cursed with a “dirty womb.” Nuku’s deformity can be repaired with surgery and such charities as Facing the World provide facial reconstructive surgery to children whose parents are unable to receive treatments in their own countries. Instead, by the time Essuman seeks help from legitimate sources in the nearest big city, she is told that a Craniofacial Team has just left for another African city. If that weren’t enough of a burden to bear, Essuman soon will learn that Nuku has cerebral palsy and Down’s syndrome. Desperate and alone, she’s forced to rely on witch doctors, corrupt preachers and uneducated street healers. She’s also encourage her to abandon the child or take him to the mountains, where the souls of sick children are said to wait. Anany drew in part on the life of her aunt and on the writing of a friend whose child was born with Down’s syndrome. A postscript offers reason for some optimism in related cases.

Maximum Ride
Based on a bestselling series of YA novels by James Patterson, a proposed adaptation of Maximum Ride at one time seemed a natural companion to the films adapted from the “Twilight” books and other supernatural entertainments for ’tweens and teens. Studio projects were in place, but a sudden glut of movies and TV shows featuring mutant heroes and villains likely precluded another expensive roll of the dice. Jay Martin’s much-delated adaptation looks anything but expensive, although I suspect he did what he could with what he was given. Maximum Ride tells the story of six DNA-enhanced orphans, whose ability to sprout wings and fly was engineered by a diabolical scientist, who keeps them in cages. Lanky Canadian beauty Allie Marie Evans plays Max, the leader of the flock, who’s made it her responsibility to protect her fellow captives from his brutal half-human/half-wolf creations, known as Erasers. The orphans don’t want to believe that they were spawned in a petri dish and truly lack human parents. Their curiosity drives them to escape and hack the scientist’s computer to discover the truth. It’s then that Erasures are let loose and Max must come to their rescue. Think of Maximum Ride as a cross between X-Men and Black Swan and you’ll have an idea of what it could have been.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Nature: Giraffes: Africa’s Gentle Giants
PBS: Nature: My Congo
It’s ironic that the life of one of the world’s most identifiable and popular wild animals, the giraffe, is still something of a mystery. Unlike rhinos and elephants, their diminishing numbers in the wild have only recently begun to be noticed outside the zoological community. According to Dr. Julian Fennessy, co-founder and co-director of Giraffe Conservation Foundation, giraffe populations in Africa are down by 40 percent in just two decades and for many of the same reasons that elephants and rhinos have become endangered. One of the possible solutions Fennessy has forwarded is the idea of moving a herd of rare Rothschild’s giraffes away from Ugandan poachers and oil-drilling operations, across the Nile River to a safer location in which to breed. Let’s hope that getting the sky-scraping beasts there – no small trick – was the greatest challenge he will face. Parents really ought to make a point of watching “Giraffes: Africa’s Gentle Giants” with their children.

The same applies to the splendid “Nature” episode “My Congo,” which argues against the notion that within the troubled African nation beats a heart of darkness. Instead, when viewed through the eyes of a repatriated wildlife cameraman, it represents the end of the rainbow. Despite the number of years he spent living and working in Europe, Vianet D’jenguet always carried fond childhood memories of the Congo. He had filmed in many locations across Africa, but never in his homeland, which overflows with spectacular wildlife and great natural beauty. Of course, any such return was fraught with danger due to cross-border skirmishes and ongoing civil wars that have driven tens of thousands of people from their homes. In this first-person account, D’jenguet visits sites that evoke happy family memories, tours a famous chimpanzee sanctuary, films a variety of animals and birds in vast national parks, and makes his way through a remote jungle in search of his roots

The DVD Wrapup: Streep Sings, Obama’s Date, Seagal Kills, Noir Classics, Roma, Driller Killer and more

Thursday, December 15th, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins: Blu-ray
Anyone who watches Florence Foster Jenkins and opines, “That’s a role only Meryl Strep could play,” would only be half right. As terrific as Streep is, playing the most innocently delusional opera diva of the twentieth century, her characterization was equaled months earlier by perennial César Award candidate Catherine Frot, in Marguerite, a movie inspired by the same American singer. The Florence Foster Jenkins Story, made by German writer-director Ralf Pleger, who specializes in musical docu-dramas, has yet to be released in the United States. In any language, it’s a wonderful tale. During World War II, Jenkins was one of a handful of New York socialites whose contributions to the classical-music scene allowed it to survive the drought in charities not related to the war effort. The only stipulation was that the heiress be allowed to perform in public every so often. Her generosity was such that the people who benefitted most from her largesse held back their astonishment, grimaces and laughter whenever she performed. Critics weren’t invited and audience members unaware of her vocal limitations would be shushed if they wondered out loud whether she was in on the joke. She wasn’t.

In addition to Streep’s safely under-the-top performance, Florence Foster Jenkins benefits from Stephen Frears’ steady hand on the reins and a humorous Nicholas Martin screenplay that allowed plenty of room for Alan MacDonald’s production design and Consolata Boyle’s period costumes to shine. “She was a supreme performer, so her clothes were gorgeously outrageous,” Boyle emphasized, in interviews. “They were high camp, but with a softness, so she drew people in. And she had no embarrassment about how she looked.” It shows. Martin’s script also includes a throughline in which Jenkins’ real-life accompanist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), depicts what life must have been like for a closeted gay artist in mid-century New York. Hugh Grant came out of semi-retirement to play Jenkins’ supportive, if unfaithful husband and manager, St. Clair Bayfield, an aristocratic English actor determined to protect his wife from the truth. It’s no easy trick and Grant uses all of his considerable charms to pull off the ruse. He fears that the jig may be up when he isn’t allowed to control ticket sales to her a sold-out 1944 Carnegie Hall showcase, to which critics can’t be barred. Remarkably, Streep recorded her own singing for the soundtrack and Helberg does his own piano playing. I wouldn’t be surprised if Streep, Grant and Boyle all received Academy Award nominations, in addition to the Golden Globe nods. By the way, the only recording of Jenkins’ singing – depicted in the movie – still is a best-seller at the Carnegie gift shop.

Southside With You: Blu-ray
No matter what one thinks about Donald Trump, it’s never been easy to look at the future First Lady with anything but sympathy and bewilderment. Until her presence was no longer needed on the campaign trail, the Slovenian native served mostly as an expensive ornament to the billionaire candidate. Then, when he secured the nomination, she disappeared for the next three months. Derided by Internet wags for all sorts of reasons — some fair, most dubious — Melania potentially could become the least visible First Lady in modern history. Trapped in a New York penthouse, she already seems to be Donald’s bird in a gilded cage, preferring, he says, to stay home with their 10-year-old son than take up residence in the White House. Right now, it’s impossible to imagine anyone making as compelling and sensitive a movie about their relationship as Richard Tanne’s Southside With You, which merely covers the Obamas’ contentious first day together as couple. Or, if Melania might someday be portrayed with the same sensitivity as Natalie Portman invests in her portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy, in Pablo Larraín’s Jackie. There was good reason to fear that writer/director Tanne’s debut feature would turn out to be something as schmaltzy, uncritical and inaccurate as the average Lifetime movie of the 1990s. (They’ve gotten better.) Instead, Southside With You not only underplays the first sparks of romance, but it expands what we know of Barack Obama’s experience as a community organizer.

Tika Sumpter (Ride Along) presents Michelle as a proud and accomplished black woman, not without a sense of humor, working at a Chicago law firm where she might be more valuable as a “two-fer” than a litigator. In his portrayal of the future president, relatively unknown Parker Sawyers (Snowden) comes across, first, as an almost frivolous, borderline arrogant young man, whose lack of concern for first appearances is apparent in his sloppy attire, ramshackle automobile and cigarette addiction. It isn’t until he appears before a meeting of black Chicagoans, seething over yet another slap in the face from the city’s lock-step aldermen, that Barack’s natural charisma and commitment to social change surfaces. Michelle doesn’t immediately fall head over heels, but his change in demeanor and purpose makes her look at him through different eyes … and it feels absolutely real. Tanne meets the challenge of convincing us that love could blossom from such an occasionally awkward first day in each other’s presence, even as Michelle insists it isn’t really a date and their jobs preclude after-hours socializing. Frankly, I was surprised he could pull it off.  The Blu-ray adds animated illustrations pulled from the story.

Morgan: Blu-ray
If the sci-fi/action thriller, Morgan, could have benefitted immensely from a less-generic title, its biggest handicap was having to follow Alex Garland’s similarly themed Ex Machina so quickly into theaters. Like the humanoid played by Alicia Vikander in that picture, the title character in Luke Scott’s debut feature is an engineered being. It looks and acts human, but is gender neutral, androgenous and prone to violent outbursts when her circuits overload. After five years of accelerated growth, Dr. Lui Cheng (Michelle Yeoh) and the scientists who created and nurtured Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) have become extremely protective of “her.” They are even willing to forgive a savage attack perpetrated on a fellow researcher (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who pushes her buttons too hard. By contrast, the company that’s financing the experiment treats Morgan as an “it,” whose temperament could prove troublesome in the corporate marketplace. The executive in charge (Brian Cox) assigns risk-assessment agent Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) to investigate the incident and return with a report based solely on the facts. Her objectivity is greeted with skepticism by the emotionally engaged staff members, who treat Morgan as if she were an errant child. It’s the untimely appearance of an arrogant psychologist, Dr. Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti), that likely will be the determining factor as to whether Morgan’s circuitry will continue to be modified or terminated. To say that Shapiro’s brain is outmatched by Morgan’s synthetic instincts would be an understatement. The confrontation leads to a wild-west finale that feels out of step with what’s come before it, but, in fact, may have been the only endgame for Scott. The scenery provided by locations in Northern Ireland and British Columbia recalls the bucolic setting of Ex Machina and looks great in hi-def. In addition to the usual making-of featurettes, the bonus package includes some discussion of our shared A.I. future.

End of a Gun
Steven Seagal may never win an Oscar, but he’s been nominated for several Razzie Awards, winning one for directing On Deadly Ground. As a pioneer in the lucrative video-original market, the action star has made the kind of fortune that trumps his detractors’ jokes and jibes. He’s also made a mark on reality television by serving as a fully commissioned deputy with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, in Louisiana, and Arizona’s Maricopa County. He’s a citizen of the United States, Russian and Serbia, who, like our president-elect, considers Vladimir Putin “one of the great living world leaders.” He represents the Russian firearms manufacturer ORSIS and has considered running for governor of Arizona. If that doesn’t qualify him for a Cabinet post in the Trump administration or ambassador to Russia, what would? Certainly, not the release of his new kick-ass feature, End of a Gun, which verifies that the 64-year-old black belt in aikido hasn’t lost more than a step or two in the last 20 years.

Here, he plays an ex-DEA agent living in Paris, but longing for retirement in Key West. After coming to the rescue of an exotic stripper, Lisa (Jade Ewen), her abusive boyfriend/pimp/dealer mistakes the gravelly voiced intruder for a well-meaning geezer. Within moments, the punk is dead. The next day, Lisa convinces Decker to help her steal two-million euros from the trunk of her dead lover’s car, which has been impounded by police. Apparently, they’re in no hurry to search the vehicle for clues to dead man’s identity, so Decker only is required to flash his fake badge to get past the impound guard and steal the money. Leaving involves a bit more violence on his part, but not enough for Seagal to work up a sweat. We quickly learn that the dough belongs to a Houston crystal-meth magnate who demands that his Parisian stooges get it back. In doing so, they are required to kidnap Lisa and use her as bait to hook Decker, who gets some help from a sympathetic friend (Ovidiu Niculescu) in the Paris PD. For what’s it’s worth, End of a Gun was co-written/directed by Seagal’s frequent collaborator, Keoni Waxman. Fans won’t have to wait very long for their next project, Contract to Kill, which hits the street on February 28. All told, Seagal has appeared in six movies in the past 12 months.

Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story: Blu-ray
Not to be confused with Stagecoach, the John Ford Western, Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story, was shot in British Columbia and substitutes Trace Adkins for John Wayne … hardly a fair trade, even if the country singer frequently looks as if he was rode hard and put up wet. This isn’t his first cinematic rodeo, though, and Atkins would make a credible cowboy in anyone’s movie. That said, the stagecoach robbery that opens the movie was staged by director Terry Miles (Lonesome Dove Church) as if he’d been inspired by the Monty Python sketch in which John Cleese plays the masked highwayman, Dennis Moore. Adkins’ Nathaniel Reed hung up his guns after the holdup, preferring to work a farm with his wife Laura Lee (Michelle Harrison), who’s no shrinking violet when it comes to gunplay. Reed (a.k.a., Texas Jack) is facing foreclosure on the farm by the local bank, as well as the unexpected threat from U.S. Marshal Calhoun (Kim Coates), who blames Reed for losing an eye, years earlier, in stagecoach heist. After a gun battle, during which Laura Lee is supposedly killed, Reed joins former partner Frank Bell (Claude Duhamel) and Sid Dalton (Judd Nelson) on a new series of stagecoach robberies, with Calhoun and his blond bounty hunter Bonnie Mudd (Helena Marie) in hot pursuit. Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story will be best appreciated by Western completists and members of the Trace Adkins fan club.

No Pay, Nudity
The titillating title refers not to amateur night at a strip club, but a stipulation in ads found in casting magazines seeking actors willing to disrobe, gratis, for the sake of their art. Most of the over-the-hill actors we meet in Lee Wilkof and writer Ethan Sandler’s surprisingly compelling comedy/drama, No Pay, Nudity, have answered such ads at various times in their careers. I say “surprisingly,” because everything about the packaging argues against it being anything more than another straight-to-DVD disappointment. Still, it would be difficult to ignore any movie with a cast that includes such veteran actors as Gabriel Byrne, Nathan Lane, Frances Conroy, Donna Murphy, Valerie Mahaffey, Ellen Foley, Jon Michael Hill, Loudon Wainwright III and Joe Grifasi. Anyone who loves the theater and appreciates the sacrifices of the men and women who appear on stage should find something to savor in No Pay, Nudity. Byrne plays Lester Rosenthal one of half-dozen, or so, thespians who meet each day at the Actors Equity office in Manhattan, as if they were longshoremen waiting at the union hall to be picked for a day’s work. While none is likely to hear the call, each has a story to tell or complaint to lodge, knowing that their audience wasn’t likely to walk out on them.

Lester’s first big mistake was souring on a steady gig on a popular soap opera. He thought it would catapult him to bigger and better assignments on stage and in the movies. When his agent stopped returning his calls, however, he turned to the bottle and refused to listen to the suggestions forwarded by his estranged ex-wife and daughter. If he’s lucky, Lester will be asked to play the lead role in “King Lear,” in a theater in his Ohio home town. It may not be Broadway, but it’s Lear and a paycheck. The longer it takes for that to happen, though, the more Lester resents the success of his friends and closer he comes to a diagnosis of cirrhosis of the liver. Lane is excellent as an actor who became so tired of dealing with incompetent directors that he effectively killed his career by punching one out. The ending may seem a bit too tidy, but, at least, it’s happy.

Brother Nature
Like “Saturday Night Live,” from whose cast many of the actors here were chosen, the Lorne Michaels-produced Brother Nature is a fitfully funny summer-vacation comedy. Borrowing, perhaps, the basic premise behind the Meet the Parents franchise, it stars former cast member Taran Killam as Roger, a strait-laced political aide who plans to propose to his dream girl, Gwen (Gillian Jacobs), at her family’s Oregon lake house. All of the Turleys are eccentric in their own way, but future brother-in-law Todd (Bobby Moynihan) takes the cake. If Brother Nature had been made before the untimely death of Chris Farley, he probably would have been Michaels’ choice to play the full-time camp counselor, who wants nothing more than to become bros-for-life with Roger. As the boyfriend of Gwen’s sister, Margie (Sarah Burns), and an avid outdoors enthusiast, Todd consistently pushes Roger toward activities he isn’t likely to enjoy, including fishing and water-skiing. He knows that the easiest way to win the hearts of Gwen and Margie’s parents — Jerry (Bill Pullman) and Cathy’s (Rita Wilson) – is to participate in Turley-family rituals and at least pretend to enjoy himself. Among them is catching and releasing the same ugly lunker with each passing season. Directors Matt Villines and Oz Rodriguez, also veterans of “SNL,” do what they can with the tepid script, co-written by Killam and “SNL” writer Mikey Day. Cameo appearances by Kenan Thompson, Aidy Bryant and Mike O’Brien also will make Brother Nature mandatory viewing for “SNL” fanatics. (Killam was unceremoniously dumped from the show, before the new season launched, but just landed a sweet gig on Broadway with “Hamilton.”)

Stevie D
It would be unfair and misleading to dismiss Stevie D as a vanity or calling-card project for aspiring multi-hyphenate Chris Cordone. True, his credits here include writer, director, producer and star, playing both the antagonist and look-alike protagonist. The title character is a Los Angeles mobster’s spoiled and possibly demented son, who accidentally kills the son of a higher-ranking gangster in a spat over a sexy bartender at a strip club. Naturally, the rabidly aggrieved father of the victim demands eye-for-an-eye retribution from Stevie D’s dad. He isn’t given much of a choice in the matter. His loyal aide, Lenny (Kevin Chapman), suggests hiring actor Michael Rose, who he’s just seen in a commercial, to play the role of doppelganger and possible target for revenge, if a peace settlement can’t be arranged. Given an offer he can’t refuse, Rose decides to play it for all it’s worth. This includes standing in for Stevie D in the wooing of Daria Laurentis (Torrey DeVitto), the extremely gorgeous aide to his father’s lawyer. Rose has his work cut out for him, because Stevie D managed to creep her out within minutes of their first meeting. Daria can’t know the details of the ruse or why two thugs are following them around town while they’re on dates. (Neither does Michael.) And, yes, Stevie D is furious to learn that his doppelganger is moving in on what he considers to be his personal property. Writer/director Cordone’s navigates this slapsticky scenario with relative ease, while actor Cordone is credible as antagonist/protagonist. If the two-hour Stevie D were significantly shorter, it would be easier to recommend. The problem is that Cordone probably fell in love with his baby and couldn’t bear the thought of cutting off an arm or a leg.  Still, an “A” for effort.

The Asphalt Jungle: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Sudden Fear: Blu-ray
In this racket, no two words get thrown around with as much imprecision as “film noir.” There’s a lot more to it than shadows, light and some hard-edged dialogue. More than six decades after their theatrical release, The Asphalt Jungle and Sudden Fear – recent recipients of impeccable 2K restorations — remain essential examples of the genre and splendid entertainments, to boot. Adapted from the 1949 novel of the same name by W. R. Burnett, The Asphalt Jungle describes a nervy jewel heist from the point of view of the street-criminals recruited by the no-nonsense mastermind, Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), who couldn’t wait for more than a few hours to get back in the game after being released from a seven-year bit in prison. Armed with a sure-fire plan to steal a fortune in unset gems from a warehouse in an unnamed Midwestern city, Doc requires a small handful of professional “operators” — a “box man” (safecracker), a driver, and a “hooligan” — to pull off the crime, as well as enough financial backing to hire the team and collect the equipment they’ll need to bust the safe and escape. A bookie named Cobby (Marc Lawrence) not only is able to put Doc together with the specialists – played by Anthony Caruso, James Whitmore and Sterling Hayden, respectively – but also the corrupt lawyer, Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), willing to finance the job. You can probably guess which of the links in this chain is the weakest. Inconveniently, for the criminals, the local police commissioner (John McIntire) is unhappy with the detectives in his vice squad and demands they put pressure on their mid-level snitches, some of whom pay them off to avoid arrest. A tip here and a loose lip there provides the cops with the break they’ll need to link Doc to whatever it is that’s going to happen in their backyard in the near future.

In a sense, Huston and screenwriter Ben Maddow are laying out parallel procedurals, in which blue-collar lawmen and crooks go about their business while the filmmakers do their jobs. Unlike more regularly cited noirs, The Asphalt Jungle plays down the cherchez la femme angle, preferring to keep the dames in subordinate, if still interesting roles. Marilyn Monroe nicely plays Emmerich’s young mistress – his invalid wife (Dorothy Tree) is bed-ridden – while Jean Hagen is laying low at the pad belonging to Hayden’s hoodlum character, while the cops are putting the heat on the dime-a-dance joints. The Criterion package adds commentary from a 2004 release by film historian Drew Casper, featuring archival recordings of actor James Whitmore; new interviews with film noir historian Eddie Muller and cinematographer John Bailey; archival footage and audio excerpts of writer-director John Huston discussing the film; an episode of the television program “City Lights,” from 1979, featuring Huston; an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien; and the amazingly candid 1983 documentary profile of Hayden, Pharos of Chaos, shot in and around the tricked-out barge he was living on in the Netherlands. In it, the actor drinks heavily, smokes lots of hashish, reads passages from books about the sea and describes the highs and lows of his career.

David Miller’s Sudden Fear, from Cohen Media, offers a substantially different take on noir. Deemed a “rediscovered masterpiece” of the genre, it stars Joan Crawford as a successful Broadway playwright, living in San Francisco, who marries a younger actor (Jack Palance), willing to abandon his career to build the foundation for a long con. Myra should have smelled a rat when Blaine, an actor she once fired, bumps into her on a train from the Apple to the west coast. By the time they reach the San Francisco Bay, they’re practically married. Blaine probably would have been able to pull off the gigolo act a bit longer, if it weren’t for two things: learning that her will leaves most of her fortune to a foundation and very little to him; and the arrival of a former lover, Irene (Gloria Grahame), who knows what he’s up to and is perfectly willing to blow the whistle on him, if she isn’t cut into the deal. When Myra overhears Blaine and Irene laying out the scam, she uses her literary wiles to turn the table on them. The plan is so diabolical that Myra almost pulls out of it at the last moment. It’s one of the tropes that makes noir so much fun to watch. The screenplay by Lenore J. Coffee and Robert Smith was based upon the novel of the same name by Edna Sherry. Oscar nominations were accorded Crawford, for Best Actress in a Leading Role; Palance, as Best Actor in a Supporting Role; Charles Lang, for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White; and Sheila O’Brien, for Best Costume Design. San Francisco would have qualified as Best Supporting Location, if such a prize were available. Crawford’s only occasionally over-the-top portrayal of a woman in distress shouldn’t be missed. It adds commentary with film historian Jeremy Arnold.

Roma: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Released back-to-back in the early 1970s, The Clowns, Roma and Amarcord are three of Federico Fellini’s most overtly nostalgic films, with the latter two titles collecting memories – and fantasies – of growing up in the coastal town of Rimini and moving from there to Rome, as a young man (Peter Gonzales). In all three, the maestro abandoned plot and linear narrative, in favor of a less constrictive, more poetic approach to storytelling. In Roma, he alternates the arrival narrative with one about creating a movie about the city amidst the political and cultural turmoil of the late-1960s. In this way, he’s able to contrast Roman life in wartime Fascist Italy with its counterpart in then-present Rome. Most striking about the wartime scenes are the raucous gatherings of neighbors and strangers – mostly poor or working class – in street restaurants, a variety show and a bomb shelter. There’s a brothel for the people who probably can’t spare the money and one for those who can. In the contemporary setting, workers building a subway inadvertently discover a chamber covered with ancient frescoes, all of which are threatened when the polluted air from the streets wafts through its brick walls. Fellini is shown conversing with hippies and radical students, who ask him not to romanticize the “eternal city,” which is experiencing social upheaval and a growing chasm between the rich and poor.

The most Fellini-esque portion of Roma is a fantasy fashion show, featuring runway models in outlandish clerical garb and a papal audience. There’s an invasion of motorcycles and a horse loose on a crowded freeway, where a truck carrying livestock – deadstock, actually – is lying on its side. It’s a remarkable portrait of a city and its people, some of the most luminous – Marcello Mastroianni, Anna Magnani, Gore Vidal, Alberto Sordi, Feodor Chaliapin Jr.– appear, as themselves, in cameos. Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love probably owes a lot to it, even if no one could touch Fellini for sheer extravagance and sense of place. In addition to the 2K digital restoration, the Blu-ray set adds commentary, with Frank Burke, author of “Fellini’s Films”; deleted scenes; new interviews with filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, on Fellini’s lasting influence, and poet/friend Valerio Magrelli; images from the Felliniana archive of collector Don Young; and an essay by film scholar David Forgacs.

Disorder
When American movies combine a reluctant, but dedicated male bodyguard with an extremely troubled, yet intoxicatingly sensuous woman-in-peril, the tension between them usually explodes by the end of the second reel, clearing room for an ill-advised sexual coupling. That’s what happened in Ridley Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me, which paired Tom Berenger and Mimi Rogers, and in The Bodyguard, between Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston, to cite just two of many titles. Audiences expect it and studio execs are overpaid to give it to them. In European films, this isn’t always the case. French writer/director Alice Winocour’s much anticipated follow-up to Augustine and Mustang, on which she shared a writing credit with Deniz Gamze Ergüven, is a bodyguard movie with a difference. In Disorder, an Afghanistan War veteran (Matthias Schoenaerts), still suffering from PTSD, is assigned to work security at a party hosted by a Lebanese arms negotiator and his wife (Diane Kruger) at their luxurious villa on the French Riviera. Vincent performs his duties with a hyper-vigilance that the borders on paranoia. The next day, he’s asked to return to the mansion and watch over Jessie and their young son, Ali, while the businessman is away on business.

Once again, Vincent treats the assignment as if he were walking point on a patrol, hoping to sneak up on an unseen enemy. It gives Jessie the creeps, but his wariness pays off during a trip to the beach, where her limousine is attacked by hooded thugs. Things grow even more suspenseful from there. There are several points in Disorder when Winocour could have jacked up the tension between them with suggestive glances, brushed bodies or a wary embrace. Not here, not yet. Vincent knows that the enemy has yet to be vanquished and, even though he’s barely enjoyed a moment of sleep, plans to stay the course … as do we. In the meantime, Vincent is led to wonder how much Jessie knows about her husband’s work and what she might be hiding from him. She, in turn, grows increasingly concerned about the effects of sleep-deprivation on a walking time-bomb. The audience is rewarded with one of the most thrilling and ultimately surprising payoffs I’ve seen in a long time. Simply put, Schoenaerts and Kruger are two of the most interesting and underappreciated actors working both sides of the Atlantic.

The Driller Killer: Limited Edition Steelbook: Blu-ray
Black Christmas: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Dreamscape: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Creepshow 2: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Phantasm: Remaster: Blu-ray
I don’t know if Abel Ferrara’s 1979 shocker, The Driller Killer, was the first to introduce the electric drill into the toolbox of implements used to murder characters in horror films. Three years earlier, Marathon Man had introduced the concept of torture by dental implement, which sent me scurrying out of the screening room in a fit of sympathetic pain. I didn’t react the same way while watching the death-by-drilling scene in Body Double, which was shot voyeuristically, from a distance. The notoriety of The Driller Killer, which I had yet to see, increased exponentially after it was made a charter member of Britain’s “video nasty” club. The Arrow Video upgrade of the shot-on-16mm movie goes a long way toward demonstrating how much more was going on in Ferrara’s mind than what was revealed in the cruddy iterations blown up to 35mm and shown on drive-in screens and other imperfect venues. More than anything else, it was a movie about an artist driven insane by the inescapable sights, sounds and trials of life in Lower Manhattan, decades before it was gentrified. At the time, Ferrara called Union Square home and it provided him with derelict locations and access to underemployed and amateur actors. Like Travis Bickle, in Taxi Driver, and Nada and Billy, in Blank Generation, struggling artist Reno Miller (Ferrara) snaps after too much exposure to an environment in which depravity rules and poverty limits all expectations. At the same time that he is missing deadlines on commissioned work, dodging unpaid bills and supporting two lesbian roommates, Reno is being plagued, as well, by the inescapably abrasive No Wave music being rehearsed well into the night in the basement next-door. The winos and bums, who also call the neighborhood home, become the first victims of Reno’s rage-driven power tool. The madder he gets, the wider he casts his net for new victims. If The Diller Killer has been relegated to the pigeonhole labeled “horror,” it’s primarily because it’s less easy to categorize black comedy whose social and cultural commentary are driven home by a power drill. Either way, it works. And, Ferrara’s ability to capture the same dead-end milieu on film – based on the screenplays of regular collaborator Nicholas St. John — would be demonstrated in such gritty exploitation pictures as Ms. 45, The Addiction, China Girl and King of New York. Arrow’s Limited Edition SteelBook edition features original artwork (2500 copies); new commentary by director and star Ferrara, moderated by biographer Brad Stevens; a new interview with Ferrara; “Willing and Abel: Ferraraology 101,” a visual-essay guide to the films and career of Ferrara, by author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas; “Mulberry St.,” Ferrara’s 2010 feature-length documentary portrait of the same New York location; and a collector s booklet, featuring new writing by Michael Pattison and Brad Stevens.

Released in 1974, still the infancy of the slasher sub-genre, Black Christmas has withstood the test of time to become one of the most influential and copied movies of all time. If some of the gags and camerawork look exceedingly derivative today, it’s only because they originated in Bob Clark’s Canucksploitation classic. A few days before Christmas, an unknown and largely unseen intruder sneaks into the attic of a university sorority house. Inside, Barbara (Margot Kidder), Jess (Olivia Hussey), Phyl (Andrea Martin) and Clare (Lynne Griffith) are pulled away from their holiday party by a frighteningly obscene phone call. Barbara laughs it off, until she hears an unmistakable death threat over the snorting, screams and gurgles. From that point on, no one in the house is safe, including boyfriends. Despite all the violence, Clark infuses a lot of tension-breaking humor into the narrative. Black Christmas (Silent Night, Evil Night) would be a direct influence on John Carpenter (Halloween) and any director considering using the convention of a killer calling from inside the house or filming the action from that point-of-view. Black Christmas wasn’t greeted with open arms by critics and pundits, but the same can be said of reaction to his sexploitation Porky’s series. A decade later, Clark would redeem himself with the family-friendly A Christmas Story, a wonderful holiday comedy that would sneak up on everyone. The Scream Factory Collector’s Edition benefits from a fresh 2K scan of the negative (1.85:1), a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and DTS-HD Master Audio Mono; more than a dozen ported-over featurettes; and a couple of new ones, in which co-stars Art Hindle and Lynne Griffin recall the film’s production.

Dreamscape is a respectable psychological thriller, released in 1984, whose stellar cast suggests that it harbors pretentions of belonging in an arthouse. Multiple Oscar nominees Max von Sydow, Christopher Plummer and Eddie Albert support Dennis Quaid – fresh off his portrayal of astronaut Gordon “Gordo” Cooper, in The Right Stuff – who plays Alex Gardner, a young man of fantastic psychic abilities. The brash young man has dropped off the radar after playing lab rat for a top dream researcher, Doctor Paul Novotny (Von Sydow) and his drop-dead gorgeous assistant, played by a brunette edition of Kate Capshaw. After a period of time spent using his “gifts” to manipulate women and pick winners at the horse track, Alex is coerced into returning to the lab to test a machine that would allow someone with his talents to enter the dreams of others. Coincidentally, the President (Albert) is suffering from severe nightmares that have begun to affect the way he conducts business. Jealous of his fellow psychic’s prowess, another one of Novotny’s subjects (David Patrick Kelly) goes to work for a presidential aide (Plummer), who wants to get into POTUS’ head for nefarious reasons of his own. Things get really weird when the two young men perform dream linkage and confront the demons inside the President’s head. The new featurettes here include “The Actor’s Journey,” an interview with Dennis Quaid; “Dreamscapes and Dreammakers,” a retrospective including interviews with director Joseph Ruben, co-Writer David Loughery, actor David Patrick Kelly and members of the special-effects team; “Nightmares and Dreamsnakes,” about the monsters, with Kelly and Craig Reardon; and a conversation between producer Bruce Cohn Curtis and co-writer/producer Chuck Russell.

The horror anthology, Creepshow 2, followed the original by five years. Stephen King probably could have supplied enough source material for a release every 12 months, but he was probably busy re-writing the bible in the mid-1980s and couldn’t spare the time. The surprisingly successful Creepshow contained five stories, all written by King and directed by George A. Romero. In “2,” King shared the writing credits with Romero, who passed along the director’s baton to Michael Gornick (“Tales From the Darkside”), for the three new segments. In “Old Chief Wood’nhead,” three young hoodlums face retribution-in-kind from an unlikely source after looting a remote hardware store. It is owned by George Kennedy and Dorothy Lamour, who are famous locally for forgiving the debts of their Indian customers, but are defenseless against these monsters. In “The Raft,” a group of pot-smoking teens travel to a chilly spring-fed lake, hoping to get in a swim before the owners pull in the raft. In the boys’ rush to get to the raft and practice their breaststroke on their girlfriends, they miss the icky film on the water that’s devouring unsuspecting ducks. Somehow, when it senses the presence of human prey, the blob floats speedily toward the raft, where the teens are now trapped. “The Hitch-Hiker” describes what happens when an unfaithful wife rushes to beat her unsuspecting husband home, but gets into an accident after the lit joint in her fingers slips to floor. Assuming the hitch-hiker she’s hit is dead, Annie (Lois Chiles) splits the scene. Horror fans will already know that the corpse (Tom Wright) has a life of its own. Wrapping around the episodes is an animated story featuring the Creep (Tom Savini), who delivers bundles of comic books to rabid fans of Creepshow comics.

Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm series has become one of the most prolific in genre history, with a final installment released in October, 18 years after the last one.  It began in 1979, with strange things happening at the Morningside Cemetery. While Jody Pearson (Bill Thornbury) attends the funeral of a recently departed friend, his younger brother, Mike (Michael Baldwin), observes a tall mortician (Angus Scrimm) tossing the heavy, unburied coffin into a waiting hearse. Mike returns to the cemetery that night and breaks into the mortuary, where he discovers deadly, spectral creatures inhabiting the embalming cellar and comes face-to-face with the sinister Tall Man. After barely managing to escape with his life, Mike enlists Jody and their close friend, Reggie (Reggie Bannister), to investigate whether the fiend is reanimating corpses and why. Originally released in 1979, it can lay claim to inventing gags and gadgets that would be borrowed in other genre specimens. Restored in 4K hi-def, Phantasm: Remastered adds commentary with Coscarelli, Baldwin, Scrimm and Thornbury; deleted scenes; the featurette, “Graveyard Carz”; and vintage interviews with Coscarelli and Scrimm. The final chapter, Phantasm Ravager also is being sent out on Blu-ray by Well-Go. It brings back several of the original cast members, including Scrimm, who died last January, at 89. It, too, arrives with several making-of shorts, interviews, deleted scenes, bloopers, commentary and a car-centric featurette.

Sins of our Youth
Way back in 1986, Tim Hunter (Tex) and writer Neil Jimenez (Where the River Runs Black) created a sensation with River’s Edge, an alarming drama about a new generation of teenagers too wasted on booze, pot and bored to respond to tragedies staring them in the face. While killing time on the banks of the Sacramento River, a group of slackers somehow manages to ignore the naked corpse of a strangled friend in a patch of weeds only a few feet away from them. Even those inclined to notify the police were talked out of doing so by classmates who feared the shit storm that was sure to follow such a revelation. For many parents, River’s Edge provided a first, ugly glimpse into what would become known as Generation X in the long-prophesized Teenage Wasteland. I was reminded of that movie while watching Gary and Edmund Entin’s similarly disturbing, if not nearly as accomplished teen drama, Sins of Our Youth. Set in the suburbs overlooking the Las Vegas basin, it is the story of four teenagers who accidentally kill a younger boy, while shooting off assault weapons they’d borrowed from the closet of a friend’s father. They’d been drinking all night and wanted to use the weapons to demolish a Christmas display they’d stolen from a nearby home. Santa Claus and his reindeers stood a better chance of surviving the attack than the poor boy who ducked behind the display when the bullets started to fly. He only wanted to return a cellphone to one of the boys who’d left it behind at one of their hangouts, but failed to telegraph his approach with any authority.

The shooters’ natural reaction was to deny their culpability in the crime, while also scrambling to decide what to do with the corpse. They didn’t understand the legal ramifications of their act or feel any moral obligation to reveal the location of the boy’s body, at least. The one plan they come up with is so absurd that it barely lasts the course of a night. Instead, they attempt to make themselves feel better about themselves by returning to school the next day and waiting for the next shoe to drop, which likely would be the marshalling of a search party for the boy. All it takes for a chain to break is for one of its links to weaken and, of course, that’s what happens in Sins of Our Youth. The ending may be too melodramatic by half – it’s Christmas Eve, after all, so why waste the symbolism? – but it’s nothing we see coming or being conveniently staged. Lucas Till, Joel Courtney, Mitchel Musso and Bridger Zadina are all very good, but it’s Ally Sheedy who almost steals the show as one the boy’s less-than-exemplary mother.

The Falls: Covenant of Grace
Girls Lost
Of all the unexpected successes in recent television history, the five-season run logged by HBO’s “Big Love” must be near the top of the list. Imagine the initial response of programing executives when presented with the idea for a mini-series based on the shorthand premise, “A (atypically handsome) polygamist and his relationship with his three (atypically pretty) wives.” (Parenthesis, mine.) And, yet, it worked in every conceivable way. Actually, some ground might have already been broken with the 2004 release of C. Jay Cox’s Latter Days, which made the jump from the gay-and-lesbian festival circuit to a theatrical release. The sudsy rom/dram/com concerned a well-scrubbed Mormon missionary who falls in love with his neighbor, a promiscuous Los Angeles waiter named, of all things, Christian. Although not a huge success, it helped raise the profile of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rob McElhenney, Erik Palladino and Wes Ramsey. Ten years later, a one-man-band filmmaker, Jon Garcia, launched a straight-to-DVD mini-franchise, The Falls, through Breaking Glass Pictures. In it, Mormon missionaries played by Nick Ferrucci and Benjamin Farmer fall in love while on their mission. Elders Chris Merril and R.J. Smith travel to a small town in Oregon, which, while not far away from home, presents many of the same challenges that college roommates experience in their freshman years. They share a passion for their faith, even though its forbids the kind of intimacy they seek from each other’s company. A year later, The Falls: Testament of Love advanced the story five years, with Chris and R.J. reuniting for a friend’s funeral and addressing the factors that led to their separation, including the Church’s discipline and Chris getting married and having a child. The third and likely final installment, The Falls: Covenant of Grace, finds Chris newly divorced, but still an active member of the LDS. He lives in Salt Lake City with his daughter Kaylee, while R.J. has become a successful writer, in Portland. Chris takes a weekend trip to visit R.J., but their re-ignited relationship is dampened by the Church’s ban against baptisms for children of same-sex couples. When Chris’ mother unexpectedly dies, R.J. and his father fly to Utah for the funeral. They initially receive a frosty welcome from Chris’ father, Noah (Bruce Jennings), a member of the Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who disapproves of same-sex relationships. Once again, the protagonists are asked to weigh their devotion to their faith and families, against the power of their love. More to the point, will Chris stand up to his father and force him to face the same dilemma. Stay tuned. The Falls trilogy clearly could have benefitted from much larger budgets and more experience on Garcia’s resume. Even so, it successfully addresses important questions within both the LGBT and religious communities, while also showcasing fresh acting talent. It’s a unique and refreshing change of pace within a genre that’s rapidly finding new audiences. The DVD adds director’s commentary, deleted scenes, a Q&A with cast and crew, a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Based on a young-adult novel by Jessica Schiefauer, Girls Lost employs fantasy to take on issues pertaining to teen bullying and gender identification. Alexandra-Therese Keining’s imaginative Swedish-language drama describes how three girls’ friendships are tested after taking refuge in the garden planted by Bella’s late mother and tending to a very special flower. Tasting the vanilla-flavored nectar immediately changes them, by granting a wish that allows them to experience life as “one of the guys.” It works only too well, of course, but only so long as the spell lasts. Happiness for teens struggling with ostracism, sexuality and gender fluidity is a sometimes thing, in the best of cases, and magical realism only takes the characters so far. Girls Lost tackles such issues with a clarity and sense of purpose generally lacking in studio-produced pictures here, if only because such honesty could result in an automatic R-rating from the homophobes in the MPAA ratings board. In Sweden, on the other hand, the film was cleared for audiences above the age of 11.

Kampai! For the Love of Sake
Several years ago, a friend with better-educated taste buds than I’ll ever possess invited me to a sake tasting being staged for his benefit at a fancy Japanese restaurant in Las Vegas. I’d already enjoyed a tequila tasting at an upscale Mexican restaurant – not the same day, if you must know – and looked forward to the experience. In both cases, I marveled at the subtle differences in taste and texture from one flight to the other, backgrounds of the distillers and learning which brands complemented various foods. It was easily comparable to any wine tasting I’d attended in northern California and, of course, the personal attention was greatly appreciated. Now, at least, I know what I’m missing when I can’t afford to buy a shot of sake or tequila from the top shelves of the posh restaurants. Mirai Konishi’s debut documentary, “Kampai! For the Love of Sake,” feels a lot like an industrial film – a good one – that honors the labor and traditions of the craft, but doesn’t dwell on the sensory pleasures of the end products. It also devotes a lot of time to the devastating effects of the last great earthquake and tsunami on the business. “Kampai!” journeys from rice paddies in Japan, to breweries and tastings around the globe, as it chronicles the experiences of three passionate exponents of the increasingly popular beverage: Philip Harper, a British ex-pat who has become Japan’s first foreign master brewer (a.k.a., toji); John Gauntner, an American journalist known as the Sake Evangelist; and Kosuke Kuji, a fifth-generation Japanese brewer determined to shake up the industry. They’re all terrific ambassadors for industry and proponents of modernity and ecumenism in the ancient art. You’ll never look at your Rice Krispies the same way, again.

TV-to-DVD
Discovery: Harley and the Davidsons: Blu-ray
Nickelodeon: Legend of Korra: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
AMC: Fear the Walking Dead: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
A&E: Streets of Compton
Nickelodeon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Earth’s Last Stand
Having grown up in Milwaukee, I approached Discovery’s fact-based mini-series, “Harley and the Davidsons,” with more than the usual amount of trepidation I reserve for productions shot in Romania, when Wisconsin would have served just as well. If Harley-Davidson holds an iconic place in the annals of American industrial history – not to mention, pop culture – imagine what it means to the people in Milwaukee, which has been abandoned by most of the beer companies that made it famous. Today, it benefits greatly from revenues related to high product demand, factory tours, museum admissions, annual pilgrimages and, presumably, T-shirt sales. Presented as an inspirational, all-American family saga, the three-part series dramatizes the origins of the motorcycle manufacturer from its inception to the introduction of the Knucklehead model, prior to World War II. Michiel Huisman, Bug Hall and Robert Aramayo deliver credible portrayals of as Walter Davidson, Arthur Davidson and their childhood friend, engineer Bill Harley, who risked their entire fortune and livelihoods to launch the budding enterprise. The accuracy of the depiction of the battle for motorcycle supremacy between H-D and Indian ranges from fictional to highly dramatized, which is par for the course. Even so, most of the people likely to tune into “Harley and the Davidsons” will be happy with the reproductions of motorcycles and prototypes from the era, as well as exciting re-creations of races that may or may not have happened. The mini-series did very well for the cable network, so a second season isn’t out of the question. It could cover the post-war boom in motorcycle riding and outlaw clubs, the near-devastating sale to penny-pinching AMF, its popular resurgence and spectacular brand recognition. The Blu-ray includes a behind-the-scenes featurette and “Biketacular,” a special 44-minute showcase of impressive bike builds, through history.

Paramount’s “Legend of Korra: The Complete Series” would make an ideal gift for loyal Nickelodeon viewers who came late to the animated fantasy series or have been ridiculed by fellow anime geeks for missing it altogether. It was created in 2012 by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino as a sequel to the network’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” which aired from 2005 to 2008. The series is set in a fictional universe, in which some people can manipulate, or “bend,” the elements of water, earth, fire or air. Only one person, the “Avatar,” can bend all four elements and is responsible for maintaining balance in the world. The series follows Avatar Korra, the reincarnation of Aang from the previous series, as she faces political and spiritual unrest in a modernizing world. I was surprised by the number of well-known actors who worked on the show: James Remar, Anne Heche, Lisa Edelstein, Henry Rollins, Aubrey Plaza, John Michael Higgins, Lance Henriksen and Eva Marie Saint, among them. The package comes with a booklet containing pages from the four “Art of the Animation” books released for each season.

Last season, “Fear the Walking Dead” ended with Travis (Cliff Curtis), Madison (Kim Dickens) and their blended family struggling to escape Los Angeles, before being succumbed by the dreaded Zombie Apocalypse. The 15-episode Season Two opens with the dysfunctional unit aboard the yacht owned by mysterious businessman Victor Strand (Colman Domingo), who has ideas of own about where to find a safe port. Until then, however, the family faces many of the same dangers it thought were left behind on dry land. That’s because, when the military’s Operation Cobalt dropped napalm on various SoCal locations to cleanse it of the Infected, the intended targets also fled to the sea. (Not swimming, per se, but floating with malice aforethought.) Audio commentaries accompany several episodes, along with a disc devoted to deleted scenes, “Flight 462” webisodes, a Q&A with cast and creative Team from Paleyfest LA 2016, “Inside ‘Fear the Walking Dead’” and “The Making of ‘Fear the Walking Dead.’”

A&E’s three-hour documentary mini-series, “Streets of Compton,” picks up several years after the events dramatized in Straight Outta Compton left off. Instead of focusing directly on the creation and ascendency of NWA, Mark Ford charts the city’s transition from idyllic L.A. suburb to gang-infested dead end, where drugs, violence and corruption filled the vacuum left by the departure of factories, businesses and middle-class white homeowners, after the Watts riots of 1965, and subsequent crack epidemic of the 1980-90s. For success stories, Ford not only cites NWA, but also Venus and Serena Williams, comedian Paul Rodriguez, actor Anthony Anderson, producer and musician Lil Eazy-E, singer Kendrick Lamar and superstar rapper, The Game, who truly can be said to be a child of the mean streets. For those interested in contemporary civics and pop culture, “Streets of Compton” should qualify as a must-see.

The latest compilation of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” episodes, carries the ominous title of “Earth’s Last Stand,” which pretty much applies to what’s at stake in most such collections. Now, the team is back in the Big Apple, catching up with old friends and new enemies, such as the Mighty Mutanimals, Mondo Gecko, Karai, Tiger Claw, Bebop and Rocksteady, Stockman-Fly and newcomer Shinigami. Them too, there’s former reporter April (Mae Whitman), who may be a female ninja now, but may be suffering from identity issues. The episodes include “The Ever-Burning Fire,” “Earth’s Last Stand,” “City at War,” “Broken Foot,” “The Insecta Trifecta,” “Mutant Gangland” and “Bat in the Belfry,” which takes viewers up to the end of the first half of the current, fourth season.

Christmas All Over Again
Star Paws
A Frozen Christmas
Tween-agers may not catch all of the references to Groundhog Day and A Christmas Carol in Christy Carlson Romano’s directorial debut, Christmas All Over Again, but they probably won’t need any introduction to its stars. It’s Christmas Eve, and Eddie (Sean Ryan Fox) hopes a new pair of Breezy 3000 sneakers will catch the eye of neighbor girl Cindy (Amber Montana). He even plans to wear the bright red shoes to the wedding the next afternoon of his father and his soon-to-be stepmother (Romano). Alas, when morning comes, there isn’t a single present under the tree. Things change during the rest of the day, but nothing that will alter the loop in which he’s trapped. Desperate, Eddie turns to a mysterious shoe-store owner (Joey Lawrence), who helps him understand that true joy doesn’t come tied up in a bow. Todrick Hall (“Straight Outta Oz”) plays a younger version of Breezy, after whom the precious shoes have been named. I doubt that Christmas All Over Again will reach the status of holiday classic, but kids might like it. The DVD adds four “Minuscule” bonus episodes, taken from an animated French Disney Channel TV series that looks at the life of insects from a ground-level perspective.

Star Paws tells the occasionally animated story of a team of space-dwelling dogs in search of the scientific wherewithal to travel back in time to thwart an evil cat’s attempts to take over the galaxy. General Ruff must beat Adventure Cat and his army of evil kittens to a giant dinosaur bone, which has been lost in the space/time continuum since the Jurassic Era. Some interesting information about dinosaurs is presented during the course of the saga, but not enough to justify Star Paws’ level of technical incompetence and sheer laziness. (There’s even a Tony Danza joke that won’t make sense to anyone under 40.)  The movie’s most obvious problem comes in watching dogs, cats and chickens “speak” without moving their lips or beaks. The dinosaurs’ movement are as repetitive as a record that will continues to skip to the same groove every few seconds if left untended. It’s hard for me to imagine a child of any age not wondering how it’s possible for animals to communicate without so much as a peep. Or, why they’re sitting stock-still, as if they’ve just completed a meal and find no reason to compete for their owners’ attention, anymore.

Don’t be confused with the word, “Frozen,” in the title or, even, the animated wraparound that opens the DVD, “A Frozen Christmas.” That’s because it bears no resemblance to the modern Disney classic and the wraparounds take up no more than 10 percent of the available screen time. The rest of the DVD is dedicated to a disembodied voice narrating holiday stories, while a selection of undulating images from seasonal gift wrapping and wallpaper fill the screen. It’s colorful, but no more appropriate than the Yule-log videos you can download from the Internet for pennies. A segment in which gingerbread cookies dance to hip-hop music could be used to torture terrorist suspects.Star Paws, at least, offered some factual material on dinosaurs.

The DVD Wrapup: Secret Life of Pets, JT Leroy, Just Eat It, Howard’s End, Quiet Earth, Henry, Phantasm and more

Friday, December 9th, 2016

The Secret Life of Pets: Blu-ray
When homeowners began to install video surveillance devices in every room of their house, the idea was to spy on babysitters and nannies who might be neglecting or abusing a child or, perhaps, catch a burglar in the act of ransacking a home. At some point, though, a pet had to have been caught tearing up the pillows on a couch or acting out when a mail carrier got too close to the front door. After admonishing their dog or cat for behaving as if they had a choice in the matter, the next logical step was to send a tape to the producers of “America’s Favorite Home Videos.” They probably needed a break from watching kids hitting their dad in the nuts with a Wiffleball bat. In 1992, three years after the show launched its 27-year run on ABC, host Bob Saget presented the VHS release, “America’s Funniest Pets,” which may or may not have inspired the uproarious animated feature, The Secret Life of Pets. Even before Alan Funt’s radio-based “The Candid Microphone” crossed over to television as “Candid Camera,” in 1948, the ability to monitor the behavior of our kids, nannies, pets and, of course, spouses, was an idea too juicy not to contemplate. Today, of course, anyone with wi-fi and a video-surveillance system can watch their pets cavort on their computer at work. Somehow, it took almost a quarter-century for an animation studio – in this case, Universal’s ambitious Illumination Entertainment division — to merge the core elements of “America’s Funniest Pets” and Pixar’s Toy Story franchise into a spanking-new entertainment franchise. Emboldened by the success of Despicable Me and Minions, IE wisely invested its financial resources in The Secret Life of Pets, a 3D computer-animated buddy/adventure/comedy about what happens when our pets are left to their own devices. The A-list cast of voice actors probably had something to do with the stunning box-office appeal as well.

In it, a Jack Russell Terrier named Max (Louis C.K.) shares a compact Manhattan apartment with his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper). While she is at work, Max hangs out with other pets in the building: the obese and lazy tabby, Chloe (Lake Bell); hyperactive pug, Mel (Bobby Moynihan); laid-back dachshund, Buddy (Hannibal Buress); and parakeet, Sweetpea. When Katie adopts Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a large and shaggy mongrel from the pound, all hell threatens to break loose behind her back. Enraged by Max’s effete attitude, Duke attempts to abandon his roommate in an alley, where, to his chagrin, they are both attacked by a gang of alley cats led by the hairless Sphynx cat, Ozone (Steve Coogan). The cats remove both dogs’ collars and leave them to be caught by Animal Control, opening the possibility that Duke will be put down for repeat vagrancy. In a clever turn, they are rescued by a rabbit named Snowball (Kevin Hart), the leader of the Flushed Pets Gang, which is comprised of sewer-dwelling animals who resent humans for their tendency to abandon their little friends when they tire of them. Max and Duke pretend to despise humans, but flunk the initiation test by refusing to allow a one-fanged viper to bite them.

After the dogs escape the sewers, things really get complicated. Their odyssey includes a trip to Brooklyn, on a ferry; a raid on a sausage factory; a visit to Duke’s last happy residence; a traffic mishap on the Brooklyn Bridge; and a plunge into the East River in an Animal Control van. They’re rescued at the last second by Gidget (Jenny Slate), a white Pomeranian with a crush on Max; characters voiced by Albert Brooks and Dana Carvey; and a repentant Snowball. Not surprisingly, perhaps, The Secret Life of Pets finds all the animals back home, their owners none the wiser. Director Chris Renaud (Despicable Me) joins the fun by playing Norman, a taxi-driving guinea pig who keeps getting lost. Sharp eyes will detect numerous references to previous Illumination titles, Universal brands and other cherished cartoon animals. The PG rating warns parents of pre-schoolers of scenes that contain “mild violence and peril” and a squished viper. The Blu-ray extras add a dozen, or so, informative making-of and background featurettes, sing-alongs, mini-movies and a visit from Brian the Minion.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story
While literary hoaxes come and go, some are better than others. Because so many readers around the world were touched by the house-of-mirrors story cooked up by a novelist purporting to be a street urchin named JT LeRoy, the drama continues to reverberate today, a decade after the hoax was uncovered. Jeff Feuerzeig’s intriguing documentary, Author: The JT LeRoy Story, is one of several books, films and crime-show episodes that have borrowed aspects of the case to discuss the literary and criminal ramifications of such chicanery, and the possible motivations of the perpetrator. In 2006, a New York Times article revealed that the15-year-old male author, LeRoy, was, in fact, a 35-year-old woman born in Brooklyn. Laura Albert adopted the pseudonym to facilitate her conceptualization of the troubled teenager, whose life played out in the highly realistic memoirs “Sarah” (2000), “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things” (2001) and “Harold’s End” (2004). As a teen, Albert had called suicide hotlines for help, choosing to speak with counselors as a boy. One doctor encouraged Terminator, who later became known as JT LeRoy, to collect her thoughts on paper. Pseudonyms are hardly a new or novel literary device and, if the books hadn’t been marketed as autobiographical, the controversy might have been nipped in the bud. Instead, Albert’s deception extended to dealings with her publishers and a production company interested in adapting her short stories for film. She also invented a flesh-and-blood alter ego, who could stand in for her at signings and other literary gatherings, and accepted freelance assignments from prestigious publications in LeRoy’s name.

Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy was supposedly born in West Virginia to an abusive truck-stop prostitute. The androgynous teenager’s own backstory included prostitution, drug addiction and vagrancy in California. The poetically written novels initially struck a chord with readers who identified with the character’s total immersion in a lifestyle dictated by punk rock, drugs, gender confusion, pervasive societal bigotry, homelessness and inescapable violence. They would resonate, as well, with outsider artists who saw in LeRoy a younger version of themselves. His/her list of admirers included musicians Billy Corgan, Liz Phair, Courtney Love, Winona Ryder, Gus Van Sant, Asia Argento, David Milch and Tom Waits, all of whom reached out to the author in taped phone conversations, e-mails and faxes … remember those? LeRoy’s growing appeal caused a demand by fans and publishers for public appearances. Knowing that her bubble would burst if the truth was revealed, Albert conspired with Savannah Knoop, the half-sister of her guitarist boyfriend, Geoff, to fulfill the obligations typically associated with stardom. Unlike the overweight and plain-looking novelist, the 25-year-old aspiring fashion designer could have passed for Andy Warhol’s emaciated little brother. In addition to a hideous blond wig, Knoop wore dark googles over sunglasses and non-gender-specific clothes. Wherever LeRoy/Knoop appeared, so did a red-wigged Albert and her shaggy-haired boyfriend – a millennial Sonny & Cher, if you will — to supplement her words with angst-filled songs. Close proximity to the writer allowed Knoop to sound informed when quizzed by reporters and autograph seekers.

Ironically, the New York Times article was published after Albert had revealed her identity to Corgan and a couple of other artists in positions to advance her career, while maintaining her public persona. A year later, a Manhattan jury found Albert liable in monetary damages for the tort of fraud, because she had signed her nom de plume to the movie contract. She was ordered to pay $110,000 to the production company, covering the option contract; $6,500 in punitive damages; and $350,000 in legal fees. The Author’s Guild released an amicus brief supporting Albert and opposing the jury’s decision, because of the impact it might have on writers in the future. (In 2009, after an appeal, a settlement was reported.) By this time, Albert had proven to herself and others that her talent wasn’t limited to the JT LeRoy brand. She appears as herself throughout Author: The JT LeRoy Story, recalling the various twists and turns of her personal story and, if anything, looking better than ever. For her part, Knoop took advantage of newfound notoriety to publish “Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy.”

The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger
Anyone familiar with the prolific artist, philosopher, writer, storyteller and “radical humanist,” John Berger, will naturally be attracted to the multi-sourced cinematic exercise, The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger. Segmented according to seasonal changes affecting the French Alpine village, Quincy, it features a series of unabashedly brainy, yet accessible conversations with the Booker- and Guardian Fiction Prize-winner. Anyone drawn to the DVD solely by the presence of co-director and longtime friend Tilda Swinton – an arthouse mainstay, newly re-minted as a star of action and comic-book flicks – shouldn’t bother. She doesn’t kick anyone’s ass or appear in costume. When Swinton isn’t behind the camera, she engages Berger in friendly conversations that, invariably, lead to an exchange of philosophical points of view. She freely admits to having “an indissoluble bond of kinship” with Berger, with whom she acted in the 1989 film “Play Me Something,” based on one of his short stories. While they’re chatting in the kitchen of his rustic home, they peel and core apples for a delicious-looking crumble. In the other segments, Berger combines ideas and motifs from his work with the texture and history of his mountain home. Berger’s wife Beverly, who mainly remains in the background here, passed away during the shoot, leaving a void that’s palpable. Among Berger’s more familiar works are the 1972 BBC series and essay on art criticism, “Ways of Seeing”; the Booker Prize-winning novel, “G”; and collaborations with the Swiss director Alain Tanner on La Salamandre (1971), The Middle of the World (1974) and Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976). An original score by Simon Fisher Turner helps unite the segments, also directed by Bartek Dziadosz (“The Trouble with Being Human”), Colin MacCabe (“Ways of Listening”) and Christopher Roth (Baader).

Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story
There’s a subset of documentaries that attempt to prove that modern men and women can survive in this materialistic society without succumbing to such luxuries as processed food, shopping malls, red meat, electricity and, yes, even toilet paper. Such well-meaning exercises in guilt-inducement focus on the western world’s obsession with gluttony, convenience and conspicuous consumption. Canadian filmmaking couple Grant Baldwin and Jenny Rustemeyer are obsessed with waste. The Clean Bin Project (2010) follows a “regular couple” who engage in a quasi-comedic contest to determine who can swear off consumerism and produce the least amount of garbage in an entire year. Their Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story addresses the same problem in a different way. This time, Grant and Jenny commit themselves to only consuming food that’s been discarded from farms, retail outlets and the overstocked refrigerators and shelves of friends. Grant gives new meaning to what it means to be reduced to dumpster diving to survive. To his dismay, he discovers an alarming amount of food thrown away not only because it’s approaching its expiration date, but also because it doesn’t meet the aesthetic demands of supermarket chains and picky consumers. Some is donated to agencies that provide food to poor people, but the demand for certain non-essential commodities simply doesn’t exist. One estimate puts the amount of food products disposed of in landfills, as opposed to being shipped to sub-Sahara Africa, at nearly 50 percent. They also discover that overproduction can’t be blamed on any one company, agency or agri-business conglomeration. As was the case with Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me, a large dollop of humor helps the medicine go down. Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story is further informed by interviews with TED lecturer, author and activist Tristram Stuart, author Jonathan Bloom, food/agriculture scientist Dana Gunders, farmers, retailers, charitable organizations and consumers.

Howards End: Blu-ray
The re-release of Merchant Ivory Productions’ Howard’s End on Blu-ray, six years removed from Criterion Collection’s impeccable hi-def upgrade, reminds us once again of the great vacuum left by the loss of producer Ismail Merchant and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, as well as the subsequent retirement of director James Ivory. For at least one generation of movie lovers, the company’s adaptations of classic novels defined the term, “prestige picture” … or, if you will, period costume dramas. It did so on budgets that today would be reserved for genre films by untested directors. Howard’s End was the third adaptation of an E.M. Forster novel committed to the screen by Merchant Ivory, after A Room with a View (1985) and Maurice (1987), and the third, along with David Lean’s A Passage to India, to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. (Maurice’s screenplay is credited to Ivory and Kit Hesketh-Harvey.) All of Merchant Ivory’s films are renowned for their attention to period detail, respect for the source material, world-class acting and beautiful locations. That baton has been passed to the British mini-series – “Downton Abbey,” “Poldark,” “Wolf Hall,” among them — we see here on PBS’ “Masterpiece.” The Merchant Ivory catalogue looks more sumptuous with every new technology.

Howards End is a romantic drama, based on Forster’s 1910 novel surveying class relations in early 20th-Century England. It does so by focusing on three families connected only by proximity and the occasion of intimacy: the Schlegel sisters, Margaret (Emma Thompson) and Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) who represent the enlightened bourgeoisie; the rich and largely uncultured Wilcox family (Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, James Wilby); and the white-collar middle-class Basts (Sam West, Nicola Duffett). When Ruth Wilcox dies, her estranged husband, Henry, is flummoxed to learn that she’s left her interest in the Howards End property to the less-frivolous of the Schlegals. To everyone’s surprise, Henry falls in love and marries Margaret, without acknowledging her hidden ownership of the country home. In response, Helen Schlegel turns to a married family friend – the lowly bank clerk, Leonard Bast – for comfort. Their brief, if fruitful encounter reverberates throughout the rest of the story, causing all sorts of acrimony and recriminations relating to Margaret’s “honor” and the Wilcox fortune. It’s wonderful stuff that translates well to the screen.

Thompson, Jhabvala and set/art designers Luciana Arrighi and Ian Whittaker took home Academy Awards, while Merchant, Ivory, Redgrave, cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts, costume designers Jenny Beavan and John Bright, and composer Richard Robbins were among the finalists. Cohen Media’s new two-disc set ports over some of the supplements from the Criterion release while also offering some new bonus material, including commentary with critics Wade Major and Lael Lowenstein; a 2016 conversation between James Ivory and Laurence Kardish, former senior curator of film, MOMA; a 2016 interview with Ivory and Redgrave at this year’s Cannes Film Festival; “On Stage Q&A,” with Ivory and critic Michael Koresky at Lincoln Center; an EPK short from 1992; featurettes “Building Howards End” and “The Design of Howards End,” with Luciana Arrighi and Jenny Beavan; and a 12-minute testimonial to Merchant, by Ivory. Technically, it’s difficult to recommend one Blu-ray package over the other. The 2016 release benefits from a new 4K restoration, culled from the film’s original camera negative, and some fiddling on the aspect ratio.

The Quiet Earth: Blu-ray
In the 1950s, people around the world woke up every morning wondering if this would be their last day on Earth. Several powerful countries were conducting nuclear tests, without the benefit of knowing whether clouds of irradiated dust were harmless, deadly or somewhere in between. Pregnant women were cautioned against drinking the milk from cows that may have grazed on poisoned grasses, while schoolchildren were laughably led to believe that they could avoid death by ducking under desks and covering their heads. As if Americans weren’t sufficiently frightened by the concept of mutually assured destruction, Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, “I Am Legend,” gave them good reason to fear surviving the nuclear holocaust. The premise was strong enough to support would three motion pictures. The 1959 “Twilight Zone” episode, “Time Enough at Last,” demonstrated how a survivor’s good luck could reverse itself in a heartbeat. That year also brought Stanley Kramer’s sadly cerebral good-bye to mankind, On the Beach. After the Cuban Missile Crisis came and went, we were allowed to think that cooler heads would ultimately prevail, but only if Barry Goldwater was denied the presidency. Between Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” and George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” a new generation of Americans was given something to fear besides submarines carrying nuclear warheads. The current epidemic of dystopian and post-apocalyptic movies wouldn’t begin for another 30 years, or so. That’s a long and winding way of introducing Geoff Murphy’s 1985 The Quiet Earth, a largely ignored post-apocalyptic thriller that almost no Americans outside of large cities have seen.

Only one New Zealand film, Smash Palace, had made any kind of a splash here and, after Alien and Blade Runner, Americans had developed a taste for much more expensive sci-fi fare. The Quiet Earth simply didn’t qualify. It appears to have been based as much on Ranald MacDougall’s 1959 thriller, The World, the Flesh and the Devil, which starred Harry Belafonte, Inger Stevens and Mel Ferrer, as Craig Harrison’s 1981 genre novel. In it, experiments with a radical new power source — a band of solar energy that would circle the planet — go awry and appear to wipe out all signs of life. All clocks have stopped at the biblically relevant time of 6:12 a.m. and only a handful of corpses are visible. Zak (Bruno Lawrence), a scientist who worked on the project, somehow survived the experiment. At first, of course, he’s frightened by the reality of his situation. Given time, however, Zak decides to take advantage of the situation by stealing fancy cars, declaring himself King of the Quiet Earth, enjoying the trappings of wealth and trying on women’s lingerie. Without giving too much away, Zak eventually will come in contact with a hippie girl and Maori truck driver, who demonstrate the hardiness of humanity, while also confirming that there’s nothing more destructive than a love triangle. Except for some metaphysical hocus-pocus, the enigmatic ending to The Quiet Earth reminded me of the ending to On the Beach, with a lonely Ava Gardner watching the last submarine disappear under the waves. The Blu-ray offers commentary by Neil deGrasse Tyson and critic Odie Henderson, and a detailed essay on the film by Professor Teresa Heffernan.

Neither Heaven Nor Earth
Clément Cogitore’s unsettling wartime drama, Neither Heaven Nor Earth, combines the haunting mystery of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock with the cliff’s edge tension of Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s documentary, Restrepo. Here, French Army Captain Antares Bonassieu (Jérémie Renier) and his squad are assigned to monitor the remote Wakhan valley of Afghanistan, on the border of Pakistan. In the early stages of the war against Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, its narrow passages were believed to provide a staging ground for cross-border attacks on allied troops and rival warlords. From their mountain-top outposts, the French also are within walking distance of the last Afghan village before the border and the shepherds who went about their own business in the valley. No one on either side of the conflict trusted the others particularly, but compromises based on mutual security and bribes often were negotiated.

The French soldiers may not engage the enemy every day, or even weekly, but the men’s vigilance and determination to get home in one piece are palpable throughout the film. One day, without a single shot being fired, animals and men from all sides start mysteriously disappearing. The French demand answers from the Afghans, who, in turn, suspect the warring forces of slipping into the village and terrorizing the residents. Captain Bonassieu is as confused as everyone else, but, as a realist, demands concrete answers to a mystery that may be steeped in metaphysics, religion or superstition. They all come into play here at one point in the investigation or another. A French chaplain is called in to contain the speculation, but ends up echoing mysticism found in the Koran. If Neither Heaven Nor Earth is not your typical war story, it’s largely because Afghanistan has historically resisted classification as a typical war zone. Alexander failed to tame it at a time when Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion. Bonus features include Cogitore’s commentary and short film, “Among Us”; and Film Movement’s “Why We Selected” statement.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer: 30th Anniversary: Blu-ray
When I was a mere lad, working at the Chicago Tribune and drinking at the Billy Goat, I’d frequently walk past one of the concrete pillars keeping Michigan Avenue from collapsing on the network of streets below it known collectively as Lower Wacker Drive. It’s provided an extremely cool setting for car chases and chance encounters in such entertainments as The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Adventures in Babysitting, The Fury, Code of Silence and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Anyone considering shooting a movie in Chicago, about real people who live and work in Chicago, at least, ponders ways of using Lower Wacker as a location. The Goat’s entrance was only a few feet away from the pillar upon which the flyer for Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer had been posted years earlier, and, ironically, where a key scene was shot. Once spotted, the flyer was impossible to ignore. The glowing opinions of esteemed critics might have confused some passersby into thinking the movie was showing at an arthouse, up the stars and down the street. Below the blurbs and stars, however, the reflection of the antagonist’s face, staring into a mirror, argued otherwise. It belonged to Michael Rooker, now a veteran character actor, but, then, one of many struggling to make a name for themselves in Chicago’s burgeoning off-Loop theater scene. Co-writer/director John McNaughton, himself a struggling artist, had taken one look at Rooker during the casting process – in the garb of a janitor on his way to work — and knew he had his serial killer. What he didn’t know was how much of an impact his ground-breaking first feature would have on a genre that had become bloated with poorly drawn slashers, stalkers and sociopaths.

By chronicling a week in the lives of two very sick Chicagoans, and refusing to pass judgment on their acts before the closing credits rolled, McNaughton brought something frighteningly new and different to the table. The first four tableaux were based on real life murders the self-admitted serial killer, Henry Lee Lucas, claimed to have committed. Indeed, McNaughton arranged the shot of a nude corpse to mirror the same position of a victim in a case involving Lucas. In another reversal of form, he refused to provide the audience with a litany of excuses for how such a good boy had turned out so bad. Henry wasn’t the product of a broken home, abusive foster parents, societal ills or being bullied as a child. McNaughton demanded of us that we perform the duties normally reserved for the state’s attorney, judge, jury and executioner. His refusal to tack a “happy ending” or positive resolution to the end of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer – along with the graphic violence – left audiences as perplexed as the MPAA ratings board, which remained adamant about its decision to brand it “X.” (Along with Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Pedro Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!,  it’s credited with forcing the MPAA to replace the X rating with slightly less restrictive NC-17.) As it is, three years would pass before the movie’s debut at the 1986 Chicago International Film Festival and its inclusion in the 1989 Telluride Film Festival, where half of the audience walked out.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer pulled in $600,000 in its first theatrical run — six times its production budget – before making a killing (pun intended) in video rentals, sales and re-releases. MPI previously released the film on Blu-ray in 2009. Dark Sky Films has restored the film in 4K resolution from its original camera negative and magnetic soundtrack, adding new extras to existing featurettes. They include “In Defense of Henry: An Appreciation,” with director Joe Swanberg, film critic Kim Morgan, film professor Jeffrey Sconce, exploitation expert Joe Bob Briggs and Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris ; “Henry vs. MPAA: A Visual History”; “Henry at the BBFC,” an interview with “Nightmare USA” author Stephen Thrower; “It’s Either You or Them,” an interview with artist Joe Coleman”; “In the Round: A Conversation with John McNaughton”; and a booklet, with an essay by Stephen Thrower. Features ported over from the earlier hi-def release are McNaughton’s commentary and an interview with the director; “Portrait: The Making of Henry”; deleted scenes and outtakes; the original trailer; still gallery; and storyboards. The making-of material reminds us of the chilling effects working on a film, like “Henry,” can have on the actors – co-stars Tom Towles and Tracy Arnold, and murder victim Lisa Temple — and behind-the-camera crew.

If There’s a Hell Below
Anyone who longs for the days when “paranoid thrillers” were as commonplace as any other subgenre shouldn’t have to wait too long for a new wave of conspiracy-based pictures to crash on our shores. The difference between today’s conspiracies and the ones depicted in such fictional entertainments as The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, Klute, The Conversation, All the President’s Men, Z, Missing, Blow Out and The Pelican Brief, is that one needn’t be paranoid, anymore, to believe that a government agency is listening in on their phone calls, inventing lies to advance a political agenda or trying to deprive them of their constitutional rights. The evidence of such plotting can be found in the handful of newspapers that still believe that supporting investigative teams is as important as running comic strips, bridge columns and horoscopes. When the FBI’s top-secret COINTELPRO program was exposed, in the 1970s, the findings confirmed nearly every conspiracy theory forwarded by radical groups over the past 20 years. Oliver Stone’s Snowden might have done better at the box office if the story of the NSA’s illegal surveillance techniques hadn’t already played out in the mainstream and niche media, and Laura Poitras’ non-fiction Citizenfour. The same applies to Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate, in which WikiLeaks fugitive Julian Assange is played by Benedict Cumberbatch. The much-admired film made even less money than Snowden. It’s tough for screenwriters and activist directors to top the facts already laid out on “60 Minutes” or a dozen other TV newsmagazines, late-night comedy shows and “Saturday Night Live.” The hideous presidential campaign we’ve just endured was one long paranoid thriller, during which lies and innuendo were as widely accepted as facts as news reports to the contrary. Tens of millions of voters not only bought into the lies, but they also spread falsehoods of their own.

It’s against this background that Nathan Williams decided to test the resiliency of the paranoid thriller with the low budget If There’s a Hell Below, co-written with his brother, Matthew. In it, an employee of a national security agency lures a reporter for an alternative paper in Chicago to a desolate section of the Pacific Northwest, where the paucity of rain has created an amber wave of grain that stretches as far as the eye can see. Debra (Carol Roscoe), a “senior information processing engineer,” has promised to give Abe (Conner Marx) a thumb drive ostensibly containing state secrets. Before that can happen, though, Debra must make sure that Max is the reporter he claims to be and can be trusted with the data. She instructs him to drive into the country, which is curiously devoid of farm implements. Besides some abandoned sheds and silos, the only sign that anyone lives nearby is a wind farm as ominous in its own way as the black helicopters in “The X-Files.” Debra tells him where to go and when to turn, but it isn’t likely that any of roads are on a map. Just when it seems that the exchange will be made, Debra spots a black SUV in the near distance, parked and apparently ready to follow them. Before long, the chase is on, and we’re none the wiser as to what she’s hiding and who might be driving the SUV. That’s all I can reveal, except to say that Williams does a nice job maintaining the tension and keeping us interested in the story. Neither is the ending as predictable as it might sound from this summary. If If There’s a Hell Below’s setting recalls the crop-duster chase in Hitchcock’ North by Northwest, it’s a testament to Williams’ imagination and Christopher Messina’s splendid cinematography.

Call of Heroes: Blu-ray
Looking for action? If you don’t mind reading subtitles, Benny Chan’s new wuxia epic, Call of Heroes, could be your ticket, as it reveals the influences of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, any number of spaghetti Westerns and action director Sammo Hung’s unmistakable handiwork in the fight scenes. It stars Louis Koo (Drug War), Eddie Peng (Cold War II), Wu Jing (Shaolin) and Sean Lau Ching-wan (Overheard 3). Set in the period between the end of the Qinq Dynasty and establishment of the Republic of China, when warlords vied for power, Call of Heroes describes what happens after the government orders soldiers stationed in a rural village to move to the front lines, leaving it ripe for takeover by the sadistic son of warlord Cao Shaolun (Koo), who immediately kills three random people. While Sheriff Yang Kenan (Ching-wan) prepares for the convicted psychopath’s execution, his father’s aide Zhang Yi (Jing) arrives with the threat of a massacre. Instead of acquiescing to Cao and the fearful populace, the sheriff enlists the help of wandering warrior Ma Feng (Peng), who should remind viewers of Toshiro Mifune. They must organize a militia of peasants to defend the jail and keep the village out of Cao’s hands. Chan isn’t reluctant to borrow tropes from the Hong Kong action cinema, but he seems more interested in tweaking them for maximum effect. Made for the equivalent of $32 million, Call of Heroes delivers more than the usual number of grandiose sets, including an entire town. The Blu-ray adds several short making-of featurettes.

Never Open the Door: Blu-ray
Even over the long Thanksgiving-holiday weekend, city folks staying in secluded cabins in the woods should know enough to refrain from opening the door to strangers. This advice pertains, as well, to unexpected late-night visitors who look as if they might be in desperate need of assistance. Anyone who’s watched more than a few horror movies in the last 40 years knows that nothing good can come from such kindness, especially when out of cellphone range. No sooner is the turkey fully devoured in the opening minutes of Vito Trabucco’s Never Open the Door than Tess (Jessica Sonneborn) admits a wounded man, after he practically breaks down the door trying to attract the attention of someone inside. The stranger immediately spews her with blood and passes out on the floor. With his last ounce of strength, he advises the poor woman, “Never open the door.” Yeah, no shit. The rest of the movie requires of the couples that they go completely off their rockers, each one fearing they’ll be the next to die or be transformed into something unspeakably evil. Tess, bless her heart, decides this would be a good time to shower off the gore, instantly providing some viewers, at least, a reason to stick around for another 45 minutes of the film’s 64-minute length. Joe Provenzano’s nifty black-and-white cinematography imbues the proceedings with a 1950s “Twilight Zone” vibe, especially in its spooky final scene. The Blu-ray adds several interviews and making-of pieces that are almost as long as the movie.

Curse of the Man Who Sees UFOs
Typically, when I come in possession of a documentary with a title like, Curse of the Man Who Sees UFOs, the first thing I do is turn the box around and check out the running time. Based solely on the cable shows I’ve seen dealing with “ancient astronauts” and people who’ve been abducted by aliens, the prospect of watching anything over an hour fills me with dread. Director Justin Gaar deserves lots of credit in my book for getting me to sit through his truly offbeat doc and a bonus feature that purports to show the lights of UFOs dancing over Monterey Bay. Christo Roppolo claims to have seen UFOs since childhood and, as an adult, has collected hours of footage of strange crafts shooting across the skies of Central California. The camera clearly shows the light from unseen objects blinking and occasionally racing overhead. They occasionally reveal interesting pigments, as well. All I know is that Monterey isn’t all that far from Vandenberg Air Force Base, where rockets are tested and satellites are shot into orbit, and it’s less than an hour’s flight from Area 51. So, why not? The thing is, Roppolo really, really believes that he’s seen UFOs and occasionally uses a flashlight to blink back at them. His vehemence often translates into the kind of colorfully profane outbursts that would scare the crap out of people who’ve never lived in California. Gaar looks beyond his subject’s case for UFOs, turning the film’s focus towards Roppolo’s love for film, music and horror movies. Roppolo also reveals passages in his life that help explain how he managed to find some comfort in the possibility that a UFO might someday land in his backyard and carry him away to a planet where being eccentric isn’t a curse.

The Devil’s Dolls: Blu-ray
Padraig Reynolds’ tres, tres gory The Devil’s Dolls (a.k.a., “Worry Dolls”) begins where most direct-to-video horror flicks end … with a blood-stained electric drill, a mutilated cop and dead antagonist. Neither does the writer/director (Rites of Spring) waste any time attempting to hide the root cause of the violence we’ve just witnessed, although anyone expecting to see killer Barbies in action may be a tad disappointed. I suspect that the original title was changed to avoid any potential confusion with Charles Band’s depraved 2008 thriller, Dangerous Worry Dolls, which benefitted from being set in a women’s prison. Besides inhabiting the same subgenre, Reynolds’ dolls bear very little similarity to Band’s dolls. Typically, worry dolls are slipped under the pillows of people who want to pass along their concerns to an inanimate object. Here, though, none of the characters are logging many hours of sleep. After the serial killer is eliminated by a cop named Matt (Christopher Wiehl), a box full of worry dolls is found in his workroom and put in the back seat of the police car. Before it can be deposited in the evidence room, Matt’s snotty little daughter, Chloe (Kennedy Brice), mistakes the box for a present and claims it for her personal use. She decides to make some money by giving the dolls a makeover and selling them as lucky charms in her mom’s gift shop. Instead of absorbing the buyers’ worries, the cursed amulets turn the shoppers into monsters. Soon, the peaceful Mississippi town becomes the setting for a chain of random and brutal murders. The local voodoo queen (Tina Lifford) – she’s black, of course, and lives in a shack in the deep boonies — is the only local resident privy to the dolls’ curse and, of course, police ignored her earlier warning. Despite what must have been an extremely modest budget, The Devil’s Dolls exhibits decent production values and credible special effects.

Kiss Me, Kill Me
Me, Myself and Her
Shot in West Hollywood and populated with LGBT characters, director Casper Andreas cautions potential viewers against thinking Kiss Me, Kill Me will fit only one pigeonhole. The prolific actor/writer/director (Going Down in LA-LA Land, The Big Gay Musical) and writer David Michael Barrett (Bad Actress) aren’t even sure if the word, “gay,” is spoken in what they hope will be considered a traditional noir thriller. Good luck, on that. Kiss Me, Kill Me wouldn’t be the first picture to fill that niche, in any case. A dozen years ago, four pictures featuring the gay P.I., Donald Strachey, were adapted from the popular mystery series written by Richard Stevenson. Apart from festival dates and the occasional theatrical debut, the movies went straight to DVD. It’s possible that LGBT audiences in 2016 have been given sufficient cause to de-segregate their viewing habits. Unless I’m mistaken, all four letters in the acronym are represented in Kiss Me, Kill Me. Unable to make up his mind between his current boyfriend, Dusty (Van Hansis), and ex-lover, Craigery (Matthew Ludwinski), successful Hollywood producer, Stephen (Gale Harold), is required to make a difficult decision when push comes to shove at a party. After an embarrassing confrontation, Dusty splits for the nearest 24-hour convenience store, with the unfaithful Stephen just a few steps behind. A violent incident inside the store leaves Stephen dead and Dusty, who’s blacked out, the prime suspect … at least, in the mind of the salt-and-pepper police investigators. Except for the WeHo setting, mystery fans aren’t likely to find anything particularly new or genre-bending in Kiss Me, Kill Me, which, probably, is what the filmmakers intended. A trumpet-heavy soundtrack immediately recalls Mark Isham’s work in Trouble in Mind and Short Cuts. Brianna Brown, Allison Lane and D.J. “Shangela” Pierce also turn in nice performances. The DVD adds commentary with Andreas and Barrett, interviews, background, red-carpet footage from FilmOut San Diego, a music video and the Kickstarter video pitch.

Last December, Todd Haynes’ Carol was being touted by critics and industry insiders as one of top contenders for Oscar nominations. Set in New York City during the early 1950s, it tells the story of a “forbidden love affair” between an aspiring photographer (Rooney Mara) and an older woman going through a difficult divorce (Cate Blanchett). Carol, based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, received six Oscar nominations, none of which were for Best Picture or Best Director. Maria Sole Tognazzi’s romantic com/dram, Me, Myself and Her, is built on a substantially different foundation, but the similarities are telling. At a time when Italy was weighing the question of legalizing same-sex marriages, Me, Myself and Her focused on a monogamous lesbian relationship that had avoided serious roadblocks until it hit the five-year mark. As the picture opens, Marina and Federica live together in the kind of posh apartment usually reserved for otherwise middle-class characters played by award-winning actresses. The voluptuous and self-confident Marina (Sabrina Ferilli) traded a career in the movie industry for the challenge of running a successful health food restaurant. The skittish Federica (Margherita Buy) is a respected architect with a marriage behind her and a grown son. Marina left the closet years earlier, while Federica is reluctant to admit that she’s strictly-clittly. When Marina inadvertently outs her partner in a magazine interview – she’s a dead ringer for Catherine Deneuve, in her 50s – Federica experiences a full-blown identity crisis, even going so far as to rekindle a romance with a younger man she met years earlier on a ski trip. If the betrayal crushes Marina, the tryst saddens Federica in ways that can only lead to the logical ending, circa 2016. (In the 1950s, the Production Code would have ensured a different ending.) Unlike Carol, which included a scene with partial nudity and caressing, Me, Myself and Her is sexy, but tame compared to other Italian romances. It’s the outstanding performances by Buy (Mia Madre) and Ferilli (The Great Beauty), who has one of the cinema’s great smiles, that will sell the movie outside Italy.

TV-to-DVD
OWN: Greenleaf: Season One: Blu-ray
HBO: Jennifer Lopez: Dance Again
PBS: Frontline: The Choice 2016
PBS: Frontline: A Subprime Education
PBS: NOVA: School of the Future
PBS: Time for School
If Tyler Perry’s success has taught us anything, it’s that programming targeted at African-American audiences has a better chance of holding on to viewers if it adds a taste of old-time religion to the mix of scandalous behavior, hypocrisy, scandal, romance and music. “Greenleaf,” which contains large dollops of all three elements, is the second scripted drama on the Oprah Winfrey Network, after Ava DuVernay’s “Queen Sugar.” The various storylines revolve around the antics and agonies of Memphis’ powerful Greenleaf family and their sprawling megachurch. The series, which has been renewed for a second season, was created by “Lost” and “Six Feet Under” writer Craig Wright and executive produced by Winfrey, Wright and Clement Virgo (“The Book of Negroes”). Religion isn’t a passing notion in “Greenleaf.” The righteous characters have been washed thoroughly in the blood of the lamb and the sinners know a reckoning will come, even if it’s in the sweet by-and-by. Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David) and Lady Mae Greenleaf (Lynn Whitfield) are the patriarch and matriarch of the Greenleaf family. In the first episode, their estranged daughter — preacher-turned-journalist Grace “Gigi” Greenleaf (Merle Dandridge) – returns home after a 20-year absence, following the mysterious death of her sister, Faith. Much to the chagrin of her teenage daughter, Sophie (Desiree Ross), Gigi decides to stay in Memphis to investigate the death of her sister and begin working in Greenleaf World Ministries. In turn, Sophia begins picking up bad habits from her preppy classmates. Winfrey plays Mavis McCready, who, besides being Lady Mae’s sister, owns a blues club and serves as Grace’s confidante. Along with faith and prayer, the early episodes feature storylines involving rape and police brutality. Special features include “The Oprah Winfrey Conversations,” bloopers and featurettes “Creating Greenleaf” and “Greenleaf Musicians.”

Jennifer Lopez: Dance Again” originated as a New Year’s Eve special for HBO on December 31, 2014. Shot over a six-month period, it combines spectacularly staged musical performances with “intimate” documentary footage and interviews with Lopez and her closest friends. The biggest challenge, we’re led to believe, is keeping track of her two young children and parents, who accompany Lopez on her first world tour. On it, they visit 65 cities on five continents, traveling 100,000 miles and reaching an estimated million fans. Someone was assigned the chore of tallying the minutes of music produced (11,250), sequins sewn (500,000) and wardrobe changes (162). sequins and 162 wardrobe changes. It will be interesting to see how “Dance Again” holds up against Showtime’s two-hour presentation, “Madonna: Rebel Heart Tour,” beginning this weekend.

I’ve been too depressed to pick up a newspaper or watch CNN ever since the results of the presidential election were announced. It’s easier for me to believe that the moon is made of green cheese than Donald Trump will soon be president. Hillary Clinton was no prize, but, compared to Trump, she looked like the second coming of Eleanor Roosevelt. Oh, well, it won’t be long before the president-elect shows his true colors and the people who voted for him begin to wish Obama had sought a third term. First shown at the end of September, the “Frontline” presentation, “The Choice 2016,” is about as relevant today as yesterday’s horoscope. The
two-hour investigative biographies draw on dozens of interviews from those who know the candidates best, including friends and family, advisors and adversaries, and authors, journalists, and political insiders. Sadly, too few voters studied reports like this before casting their ballots.

As part of PBS’ “Spotlight Education” initiative, “Frontline” aired two films examining the realities of education in America. In “A Subprime Education,” correspondent Martin Smith revisits the show’s investigation of for-profit colleges, which aired in 2010 as “College, Inc.” The colleges say they’re expanding access to education and preparing students for success, but Smith finds that, in many cases, they’re just collecting money and leaving students in debt, without degrees and unprepared to face the job market. It puts a tight focus on the implosion of Corinthian Colleges and includes “Omarina s Story,” about how a program to stem the high school drop-out crisis has affected one girl’s journey.

Once the envy of the world, American schools are now in trouble. Test scores show our kids lag far behind their peers from other industrialized countries, and as the divide between rich and poor grows wider, the goal of getting all kids ready for college and the workforce gets harder by the day. The “NOVA” presentation, “School of the Future,” questions whether the science of learning — including new insights from neuroscientists, psychologists, and educators reveal – can reveal how kids’ brains work and tell us which techniques are most likely to engage and inspire their growing minds?

PBS’ “Time for School: 2003-2016” is a “longitudinal documentary project” that attempts to put a human face on the global education crisis. It does so by following five children in five poverty stricken countries — India, Brazil, Kenya, Afghanistan and Benin — from their first days of school through the next 12 years, as they try to get a basic education. Lax child-labor laws, early marriage and the chaos of war prevent legions of young people from getting an education. The stories are told primarily from the point of view of the children and their families.

The DVD Wrapup: BFG, Pete’s Dragon, Baked in Brooklyn, Weng Weng, T.A.M.I./T.N.T. and more

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

The BFG: Blu-ray
Pete’s Dragon: Blu-ray
With great numbers already recorded for Disney’s Moana, it’s difficult to look back at the last two years and imagine studio executives not being completely thrilled about what they’ve accomplished. Several releases have exceeded or threatened to hit the billion-dollar barrier and critical response has generally been friendly, even for those titles with lower financial expectations. The BFG, a co-production with Amblin Entertainment, and the live-action re-imagining of Pete’s Dragon, opened nearly back-to-back with Finding Dory this summer in theaters around the world. Dory became a monster hit, while the other two pictures were disappointments to the folks who analyze box-office returns. Each entered its opening weekend with the support of critics, although the value of reviews in mainstream outlets, one way or the other, seems to have seriously diminished in the last 10 years. Of the two, it’s safe to say that expectations for The BFG far exceeded those for Pete’s Dragon. That’s based on an estimated production budget of $140 million, Steven Spielberg’s presence in the director’s chair, brand recognition from the beloved children’s book and a delightful adaptation of Roald Dahl’s words by Melissa Mathison (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial), who died of an illness that was diagnosed only as production neared its completion. Of a total gross of $176.8 million, only $55.4 million derived from domestic sources. Certainly, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the movie, which, in fact, is very well made and entirely representative of previous work by the all-star cast and crew. I suspect that advertising that made the giants look big, but not terribly friendly, might have scared off some pre-tweens or their parents. Knowing ahead of time that a gnarly-looking giant kidnaps a 10-year-old girl from a London orphanage – do such places exist, anymore? –regardless of the fact he isn’t interested in putting her on the menu, might have been an unsettling prospect for some kids. Parents unfamiliar with the book may have misconstrued the meaning of the title, seeing “Big Frigging Deal,” instead of “Big Friendly Giant.” At first, that’s how I read it.

Once Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) and the BFG (Mark Rylance) reach his funky abode in Giant Country – off the British mainland — he explains that she must stay with him for the rest of her life. He’s afraid she’d reveal the existence of giants and open the habitat to military attack or, worse, tourism. Sophie, an insomniac, doesn’t believe he can control dreams, so, after reading her to sleep, contrives a nightmare in which a failed escape attempt causes her to be eaten by another giant. When one of Unfriendly Big Giants, the Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), senses the presence of a human guest, he pays the BFG a visit. Sophie avoids detection, but demands they travel to Dream Country, where they can catch happy dreams and spread them to poor kids in London. They also forge a nightmare for Queen Elizabeth II, hoping it will inspire her to order the British Army to remove the unfriendly giants from her queendom. Penelope Wilton’s depiction of Her Royal Highness is wonderful, as are the contributions of Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall as her maid and butler. If your kids love fart jokes — of course, they do – The BFG will keep them giggling for weeks. The 2D Blu-ray includes the featurettes, “Bringing The BFG to Life,” with Dahl’s daughter, Lucy, screenwriter Mathison, executive producers Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall and Kristie Macosko Krieger, and other members of the cast and crew; “The Big Friendly Giant and Me,” in which Barnhill links characters in the book to their counterparts in the movie; “Gobblefunk: The Wonderful Words of The BFG,” a tutorial on giant-speak; “Giants 101,” in which Clement and Bill Hader (Bloodbottler) introduce us to the bad giants, along with movement-choreographer/motion-capture performer Terry Notary; and the bittersweet “Melissa Mathison: A Tribute.” Typically, 3D fanciers will have to wait a while for that version to arrive (ditto, 4K). BTW: the animated feature from 1989, Roald Dahl’s The BFG, was re-released earlier this year and it’s quite good.

David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon deserves to do a lot better in VOD/Blu-ray/DVD, as well. Of its $141.8 million worldwide gross, $75.5 million of it was earned here. The difference being that its production costs were $80 million lower and Disney won’t have to split the proceeds with other companies. In addition to changing the time-frame, location and certain aspects of Peter and Elliot’s relationship from the 1977 feature, Lowery’s biggest conceit here is adding a layer of short, green fur to the dragon. When asked about the decision, the co-writer/director (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) explains that he’d rather have “the kind of dragon you really want to give a hug to” than a “Game of Thrones”-type dragon, which he described as “cool, but scaly and cold.” It takes some time to get accustomed to the fur, but kids may not see the difference in this more canine-like creature. Here, Elliot reveals himself to Pete (Oakes Fegley) after the boy’s parents are killed in a car accident in the middle of a vast forest. (The movie was shot in New Zealand, which hasn’t been completely stripped of old-growth trees.) Together, Pete’s able to live off the land and get along without such things as haircuts and shirts. At night, they share a cave deep in the wilderness, where the dragon’s fur provides comfort for them. It isn’t until several years later that that Pete and Elliot are forced to deal with the real world. Bryce Dallas Howard plays forest ranger Grace, who grew up listening to stories of mysterious flying beasts told by her father (Robert Redford). She didn’t put too much stock in them until discovering Pete watching her tagging redwoods for her husband’s (Wes Bentley) logging company to avoid … or something like that. The boy’s description of his friend and guardian squares with her dad’s recollections and, together with his granddaughter (Oona Laurence), Grace joins in the effort to save the dragon natural habitat. Unfortunately, one of the loggers finds out about Elliot’s existence and, in a nod to King Kong, perhaps, decides to beat her to the punch by capturing the beast for profit and bragging rights. Pete’s Dragon more closely resembles a Disney adventure from yesteryear than the kind of superhero extravaganzas that fill the megaplexes today. Still, it should appeal to kids and their parents in need of some rainy-day entertainment. The Blu-ray adds bloopers, deleted scenes, the featurettes “Notes to Self: A Director’s Diary,” “Making Magic” and “Disappearing,” Lowery’s commentary with co-writer Toby Halbrooks and actors Fegley and Laurence, and music videos from the Lumineers and Lindsey Stirling.

Baked in Brooklyn: Blu-ray
Urban myth and yuppie romance both come into play in Rory Rooney and screenwriter David Shapiro’s diverting Baked in Brooklyn, not to be confused with Gustavo Ron’s My Bakery in Brooklyn or Tamra Davis’ 1998 stoner comedy, Half Baked, which it more closely resembles. Josh Brener, the half-pint computer genius in “Silicon Valley,” wasn’t required to alter his small-screen personality much to play the laid-off consultant, David, who turns to dealing pot via the Internet when the money crunch begins. Even a dog trained to detect drugs might be inclined to give the unassuming nerd a pass, if he tried to smuggle a kilo of grass through an airport in his solar-powered knapsack. That’s probably what Alexandra Daddario’s babelicious Kate thinks, as well, when he sings his sad song to her after meeting-cute at a party. Kate has a long-distance boyfriend, but finds something sufficiently comforting in David to ask him to be her BFF-without-benefits and his third roommate. David’s goth sister hooks him up with her decidedly non-geek dealer friend, Ace (Michael Rivera), who’s adapted Amway sales techniques to the marijuana trade. David’s brainstorm involves offering to supply small quantities of grass to strangers he meets on social media, so long as they’re reachable by bicycle from his Brooklyn pad. Not surprisingly, the business takes off like a rocket ship. Success, however, makes David as nervous as the prospect of someday making out with Kate. (Daddario’s bedroom scenes with Woody Harrelson, in “True Detective,” were nothing short of incendiary.) To calm his nerves during transactions with a rouge’s gallery of customers, David begins to ingest nerve-relaxants by the handful. They also help him make it through his sometimes acrimonious dealings with Ace. Naturally, David’s obsessive attention to business causes him to neglect his friends, all of whom remember the definition of “hubris” from their English lit courses and apply it to him. Despite a certain predictability, Brener never strays out of character long enough to become unrecognizable. Compared with other stoner comedies, Baked in Brooklyn is pretty tame. That doesn’t mean, however, that viewers who aren’t completely wasted can’t find things to enjoy in it.

Ants on a Shrimp
PBS: A Chef’s Life: Season Four
By the time that René Redzepi reached the ripe old age of 35, his two-Michelin-star restaurant, Noma, in Copenhagen, had already been voted the best restaurant in the world four times in the annual San Pellegrino Awards competition, sponsored by the British magazine, Restaurant. Before making a long-term commitment to Denmark, Redzepi spend some time working in the similarly honored kitchens of Spain’s El Bulli and the French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley. Not content to rest on his restaurant’s laurels, Redzepi accepted the challenge of creating a 14-course menu for the high-end dining room of Tokyo’s Mandarin Oriental hotel. Three years earlier, he had had run a pop-up restaurant at Claridge’s, in London. Redzepi is credited with reinventing Nordic cuisine, through his use of freshly foraged ingredients, including a signature dish that consists of raw langoustine sprinkled with ants. Thus, the title of Maurice Dekkers’ food-porn documentary, Ants on a Shrimp. Curiously uninvolving, the film spends almost two-thirds of its time in the preparation for opening night and a third in the creation of delicacies fit for the world’s elite diners, and almost none on the dining experience, itself. As is typical in these sorts of documentaries, Redzepi is portrayed as a perfectionist, who demands the same of his employees, who traveled with him to Japan for the experiment … or, to be precise, ordeal. Perfection is an elusive goal, especially when it comes to food. Watching a chef attempt to translate his concept of perfection to a kitchen full of highly capable, if frequently frustrated assistants is like standing by powerless while a stranger berates their child in a store. Things really pick up when Redzepi leaves the hotel and visits the kind of places that will allow him to realize his desire to be “not just a tourist, but an informed traveler.” In addition to creating ways for his staff to study Japanese etiquette and basic language skills, he goes on trips to the mountains to forage for unique tastes and markets to learn about local ingredients and practices. Nothing’s easy, however, when it comes to putting what he’s absorbed into practice. If a dish doesn’t suit his palate — deep-fried fish sperm, for example — it won’t make the cut. I wanted to see the looks on the faces of the diners when they were presented with the individual courses and took those crucial first bites, but, alas, Ants on a Shrimp ends before that can happen. Foodies will certainly find something to love here. Others will have trouble getting past the idea of chowing down on a prawn the size of a lobster, with bugs sprinkled on its tail.

PBS’ Peabody Award-winning “A Chef’s Life: Season Four” is equal parts cooking show, tutorial on traditional Southern ingredients and soap opera, starring chef and author Vivian Howard. She’s famous in culinary circles, at least, for forsaking a career in New York City to return to her roots in the rural North Carolina town of Kinston. Her restaurant, the Chef and the Farmer, promotes cuisine that will be familiar to natives and promotes destination dining to outsiders. The most interesting thing about the new DVD to me, anyway, is her straight-forward approach to dishes and ingredients that need defending outside the South. Among them are rabbits, catfish, mayonnaise, sunchokes (a.k.a., Jerusalem artichokes), cabbage, watermelon and hocks. A negative Internet review momentarily puts her off her feed. (If it was on Yelp, the writer probably was looking for a free meal or other considerations to retract it.) The soap-opera aspect comes from involving viewers in her personal life (twins), her race to meet a cookbook deadline and the departure of her sous chef. Howard deserves credit for promoting community and incubator farming, addressing the complaints raised by meat-is-murder protesters at a culinary convention and admitting defeat when a recipe experiment fails. The presence of her mother and neighbors in the kitchen adds to the credibility of Howard’s trad menu,

The Intervention
One of the things that differentiates sitcom stars from their big-screen counterparts is a willingness to kill some of their time between seasons working on indie projects for friends that demonstrate an ability to deliver performances not supported by canned laughter and pratfalls. More often than not, however, these movies take the straight-to-DVD/VOD route to their fans. A common variation on the practice is ensemble casting, which gives equal time to a larger number of actors and a more relaxed atmosphere to the off-camera experience. Clea DuVall’s The Intervention seemingly fulfilled both considerations. In it, a group of 10 thirtysomething friends is invited to spend a few days relaxing, drinking and reminiscing in a large home near Savannah. By the time the movie’s over, they also will have wasted an inordinate amount of time and energy bickering, boozing, breaking up and swapping mates. If that description of The Intervention doesn’t immediately remind you of The Big Chill, you probably haven’t seen it. The difference is that this group of yuppies has been called together by Annie (Melanie Lynskey) primarily to intervene in the tortured marriage of Ruby (Cobie Smulders) and Peter (Vincent Piazza). The other variation involves a lesbian subtext, involving Jessie (DuVall), Sarah (Natasha Lyonne) and the obsessively bisexual Lola (Alia Shawkat), the much younger companion of Jack (Ben Schwartz). Also along for the ride are Rick (David Bernon) and Matt (Jason Ritter). Annie’s intervention doesn’t go as planned, primarily because she doesn’t have the guts to confront the dysfunctional couple. And, so it goes. Fans of the individual stars may enjoy seeing them outside their natural television habitats, but others will probably find it overly familiar by half. Also noteworthy here is the film score by Sara Quin of the Canadian duo, Tegan and Sara. Du Vall and the identical twin sisters have collaborated on several music and online videos.

The Search for Weng Weng
The closest most Americans have gotten to the Philippine cinema – location shoots for Apocalypse Now don’t count – is the series of women-in-prison films made by Jack Hill, Jonathan Demme and Cirio H. Santiago for Roger Corman. The actors we remember from those exploitation classics are Pam Grier, Sid Haig, Jeannie Bell, Roberta Collins and Judith Brown. Low-budget as they were, the movies made for New World Pictures looked like Gone With the Wind compared to most of the stuff churned out by Eddie Nicart largely for consumption by domestic Philippine audiences. It would be impossible, even today, for anyone whose seen such action/adventures asThe Cute… the Sexy n’ the Tiny, For Y’ur Height Only, D’Wild Wild Weng, Agent 00 and The Impossible Kid of Kung Fu to have forgotten the islands’ biggest box-office draw, Weng Weng. Standing a mere 2 feet, 9 inches, Weng Weng might have begun his career as a novelty act, but, after reaching leading-man status, he would be invited by then-First Lady Imelda Marcos to Malacañang Palace and named an honorary secret agent by General Fidel Ramos, who presented the actor with a custom-made pistol. He was a familiar guest on TV shows, at film festivals and awards ceremonies. Weng Weng stopped making movies – and money — after his popularity waned in the mid-1980s. Andrew Leavold, co-writer/director of The Search for Weng Weng, once owned and managed Trash Video, the largest cult video-rental store in Australia. As such, he was quite aware of the actor’s place in the Philippine film industry. What puzzled Leavold was what happened to Weng Weng – who didn’t identify with being a midget or dwarf, just small– after he stopped appearing in movies. He’d heard most of the stories, but needed to verify them for himself. It took him three visits to the islands and more than 40 interviews with the people closest to him, including his only surviving relative, brother Celing de la Cruz, to separate truth from myth. Fans of exploitation flicks will savor The Search For Weng Weng not only for its portrait of the artist as a small man, but also for Leavold’s exploration of the country’s cinematic history.

It’s All So Quiet
Esteros
If Dutch auteur Nanouk Leopold’s austere drama had required a theme song, he couldn’t have picked a more representative tune than “Play It All Night Long,” Warren Zevon’s backhanded ode to redneck culture. In it, the late, great rock-’n’-roll poet observed, “There ain’t much to country living/Sweat, piss, jizz and blood. …” It’s All So Quiet fills the bill on all counts. Loosely based on Gerbrand Bakker’s International Dublin Literary Award-winning novel, “The Twin,” It’s All So Quiet follows a long-single dairy farmer, Helmer (Jeroen Willems), in his 50s, as he prepares for the death of his bedridden father (Henri Garcin) and, perhaps, a final opportunity to express himself in ways forbidden to him, so long as he remained under the stern old man’s roof. You may read into that what you will. As the movie opens, the close-mouthed Helmer is confronted not only with the imminent death of Vader, who is confined to his upstairs bedroom, but those of other elderly neighbors, and the retirement plans of closest friend, identified simply as Melkrijder, after his occupation. Wim Opbrouck plays the burly milk-truck driver who pays daily visits to the farm, but is about to give up the route and move in with his sister. Leopold (Wolfsbergen, Brownian Movement) leaves a lot of emotional baggage unspoken between the men. The same applies to the much younger farmhand, Henk (Martijn Lakemeier), who Helmer’s hired to help with the chores while he paints and cleans the first floor for the first time in decades.

The younger man’s presence raises the specter of Helmer’s long-dead twin brother, who we’re led to believe was Vader’s favored son and, had he lived, might have allowed the farmer some space to distance himself from his father’s once-iron fist. In the final film appearance before his untimely and unexpected death, at 50, Willems reveals the emotions behind his character’s dilemma with a quiet certainty that a statue might envy. Outside of central Europe, It’s All So Quiet’s was largely limited to festivals and the occasional arthouse. It would be an ideal picture to watch in a theater in Wisconsin, Minnesota or Iowa, where family farms have yet to be completely swallowed up by agribusiness concerns. Outside of Milwaukee, Madison, Iowa City and Minneapolis/St. Paul, however, you can probably count the number of compatible theaters on the fingers of one hand. It would make a terrific double-feature with Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam’s brutal 2011 drama, Bullhead, which was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category. It somehow turns the illicit cattle-hormone trade in Europe into the basis for a battle between a pugnacious slaughterhouse worker (Matthias Schoenaerts) – himself addicted to steroids – and gangsters with a 20-year grudge against him.

There’s no disguising the source of tension between Matias and Jeronimo (Ignacio Rogers, Esteban Masturini) in the Argentinian rom-dram, Esteros, which expands the 2015 short, “Matias and Jeronimo.”  In Papu Curotto and Andi Nachon’s debut feature, the boys who experienced their sexual awakening in the previous film reunite as adults. We learn that Matias’ disapproving father had caused them to separate, when he took a job in Brazil, and, in the interim, he’s walked the straight-and-narrow path. When, 10 years later, Matias returns to Argentina for Carnival, he’s accompanied by his girlfriend, Rochi (Renata Calmon), a charming young lady who doesn’t see the train about to hit her. In the kind of reunion that can only happen in the movies, Rochi’s desire for matching zombie makeup brings them both in contact with Jeronimo, who, in the interim, has fully acknowledged his homosexuality. At first, the resolutely glum Matias attempts to dampen the sparks that still crackle between them. It isn’t until Curotto switches the setting to the untamed wetlands of the Santiago del Estero del Ibera nature reserve that Matias loosens up enough to face his personal dilemma head-on. Esteros doesn’t push any particular social agenda, except to argue by example that LGBT-themed movies don’t have to exist in a ghetto created by inadequate budgets, compromised production values and actors only familiar to niche audiences. I’ve seen the same evolution in LGBT movies made in western Europe. Special features include interviews with the director and cast, and a stills gallery

American Guinea Pig: Bloodshock: Blu-ray
All movies come with a warning label, whether it’s in the form of the MPAA’s “advisory ratings” or the artwork and blurbs that appear on posters and DVD jackets. They all require some reading between lines and a healthy disregard for marketing hyperbole and the sometimes-hypocritical stance of the board. The warning attached to American Guinea Pig: Bloodshock can be found in the title, itself. Only serious students of hard-core horror are likely to decipher its meaning, though. Casual fans of the genre probably should avoid it altogether. The “Guinea Pig” in the title refers to a series of films made in Japan in the 1980s, so viscerally disturbing and unabashedly gory that one of them fooled no less an expert than Charlie Sheen into thinking it was an actual snuff film. It wasn’t, but the company making the manga-based series already was under investigation by Japanese authorities for their realistic depiction of torture. The scrutiny persuaded producer Hideshi Hino to cease and desist production, nearly 15 years before the subgenre acquired a name and subgenre of its own: torture porn. In 2002, a now-defunct German company collected six of the films, a making-of documentary and the previously unreleased “Making of Devil Woman Doctor.” Three years later, Unearthed Films released the first truly complete box set with all six features, both documentaries and Slaughter Special, along with bonus features and the manga on which Mermaid in a Manhole is based. The “American” in American Guinea Pig: Bloodshock alerts the cognoscenti that the baton has been passed to a new generation of genre specialists, whose mastery of special makeup effects was enhanced by CGI technology. In 2014, Unearthed Films’ founder and screenwriter Stephen Biro resurrected the concept with American Guinea Pig: Bouquet of Guts and Gore. In it, two kidnaped women wake up strapped to beds in a room full of men wearing assorted masks and armed with 8mm and VHS cameras. The two women are then sedated and dosed with LSD, before being dismembered, disemboweled and fileted by a big guy in the Baphomet mask. No kidding.

The “Bloodshock” in American Guinea Pig: Bloodshock pretty much telegraphs what viewers can expect to see in Chapter Two in the new series. It’s the name given the financially lucrative process dreamed up by the film’s sadistic and probably insane doctor. It involves the harvesting of a torture victim’s blood, while serotonin, adrenaline and endorphins are being pumped through his circulatory system. Each time he is dragged from his padded cell, the levels of torture are increased to maximize the substances’ content in the blood that’s drawn. Ostensibly, patients in need of a quick pick-me-up could benefit from transfusions of the purloined blood. Things really get nasty when the male victim (Dan Ellis) discovers a female victim (Lillian McKinney) in the cell next to his and they find exciting new ways to boost their own endorphins. It all takes place in an abandoned mental facility. This time around, Biro dusted off the director’s chair for effects wizard Marcus Koch (We Are Still Here, 100 Tears), who added his own special sauce to the recipe. As if being treated to the sight of the male victim’s tongue being sliced off and sutured in the first 10-minute sequence wasn’t sufficiently nauseating, a making-off video describes how it was accomplished, along with other atrocities. The entire package includes commentaries with Marcus Koch and Stephen Biro, and actors Andy Winton, Gene Palubicki and Alberto Giovannelli; Biro’s introduction; production videos; footage from the Days of the Dead festival Q&A; interviews with Koch, Biro, Ellis and McKinney; featurettes “Bloodshock: Deconstruction” and “Bloodshock: Behind the Scenes”; a soundtrack CD; and booklet.

T.A.M.I. Show/The Big T.N.T. Show: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Peter Green: Man of the World
Lovers of classic rock and R&B haven’t lived until they’ve seen video footage of a very young Joan Baez — wearing a conservative dress, stockings and heels — belting out “You’ve Lost That Living Feeling,” accompanied by Phil Spector on piano and a full orchestra behind them. She’d already established her folk credentials by opening with “100 Miles” and “There But for Fortune,” so the idea probably sprung from the forehead of the inventor of “wall of sound” record production. The reigning queen of folk music is preceded on Shout Factory’s combined T.A.M.I./The Big T.N.T. Show Blu-ray by the Lovin’ Spoonful and Ray Charles and followed by The Ronettes and Roger Miller, who looked a bit shocked by the screams from the teenyboppers in the audience. If it seems as if the shows might have been booked by Ed Sullivan, if he’d been tripping on LSD, you wouldn’t be far off the mark. Take a closer look at these supremely restored concert events and you’ll see the missing links between Alan Freed’s inaugural Moondog Coronation Ball and Woodstock. Of the two events, the 1964 T.A.M.I. Show is the better known, if only because its highlight moment comes when Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones attempted to follow an electrifying performance by James Brown. Keith Richards admitted later that choosing to follow Brown and the Famous Flames was the biggest mistake of the Stones’ careers, because no matter how well they performed, they could not top him. The other acts represented a Who’s Who of current chart-toppers, including Chuck Berry, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Lesley Gore, Jan and Dean, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Supremes and Barbarians. Back in the day, Top 40 radio didn’t differentiate between white, black and Latino performers and frequently ignored genre boundaries.

The film was shot by director Steve Binder and his crew from “The Steve Allen Show,” using a precursor to high-definition television called “Electronovision,” invented by Bill Sargent. It was marketed for pay-per-view presentations in theaters across the country, as well as a movie released by teen-friendly AIP. The acronym, “T.A.M.I.,” meant both “Teenage Awards Music International” and “Teen Age Music International,” depending on who one asked. “The Big T.N.T. Show” is a 1966 sequel to “T.A.M.I.” and, if anything, more wildly eclectic. Shot before a live audience at the Los Angeles’ Moulin Rouge club – uniformed cops in the aisles and blacks relegated to the rear rows – the show also featured emcee and band leader David McCallum (a.k.a., Illya Kuryakin), Petula Clark, Bo Diddley, Roger Miller, The Byrds, Donovan and The Ike & Tina Turner Revue, who, despite Tina and the Ikettes’ atypically conservative outfits, absolutely killed it. The Blu-ray adds reminiscences from Petula Clark, John Sebastian, musician/photographer Henry Diltz and Binder; “The Big T.N.T. Show: An Eclectic Mix,” with more snippets of the same interview sessions, albeit with a focus on the different styles of music in the concert; and booklet of essays and photographs. The faces and fashions on display in the audience look like a casting call for “Hairspray.” (Keep an eye out for Frank Zappa, in the audience, and Teri Garr and Toni Basil among the go-go dancers.)

Along with Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson and Roky Erickson, the great blues guitarist and singer Peter Green may be best remembered today for going off the deep end on LSD and disappearing from view while the rest of the rockin’ world passed them by. Wilson has recently demonstrated how well he’s recovered from his ordeal, by returning to the recording studio and stages around the country. Erickson, too, has stepped back from the edge of the abyss. Barrett died in 2006, of pancreatic cancer, without fully recovering from mental illness and contrails of drug abuse. After replacing Eric Clapton in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Green went on to form Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, one of the essential blues-inspired rock bands of the second British Invasion. In addition to delivering superb interpretations of American blues classic, Green wrote and recorded “Black Magic Woman,” which would become a huge hit for Santana, as well as the ethereal instrumental, “Albatross,” and brilliantly layered, “Oh, Well.” Steve Graham’s thoroughly researched and interview-heavy rock-doc, Peter Green: Man of the World, goes a long way toward answering the 40 years’ worth of questions raised by fans and critics about his disappearance from Fleetwood Mac and how it impacted the band’s successful transition into superstardom. The film gives equal time to Green’s drug use and subsequent spiral into schizophrenia, discussing, as well, electroconvulsive therapy that prolonged his illness and extended absence from the music scene. He would make a tentative comeback in the mid-1990s, but also invest his energy into art and photography. “Man of the World” contains more than the usual amount of archival footage of live and studio performances, stills and original in-depth interviews with Fleetwood, McVie, producer Mike Vernon, Noel Gallagher, John Mayall, road manager Dennis Keane, biographer Martin Celmins, Carlos Santana and Jeremy Spencer. A visit to Green’s collection of vintage guitars is a highlight of the bonus package.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Willie Velasquez: Your Vote Is Your Voice
PBS: NOVA: Super Tunnel
PBS: NOVA: 15 Years of Terror
Despite the outcome of the race for the White House, the League of United Latin American Citizens found reason for optimism. After parsing the numbers, the nation’s “largest and oldest Hispanic organization” announced that Latino turnout increased over 17 percent since 2012, “a trend that LULAC feels will continue for the foreseeable future.” That news would have been greeted with approval by the subject of the PBS documentary, “Willie Velasquez: Your Vote Is Your Voice,” a Mexican-American civil-rights pioneer who died in 1988, at 44, after launching more than a thousand voter-registration drives in 200 cities. This was accomplished through the nonpartisan Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, an initiative that “forever changed the local and national political landscape.” Hector Galán’s film was broadcast over PBS affiliates a month before the national elections. It’s impossible to determine if it had any impact on higher voter turnouts –the fear of a Trump presidency pretty much took care of that – but it would be nice to think that such inspirational portraits of Hispanic leaders would keep the ball rolling. A Mexican-American butcher’s son from San Antonio, Velasquez spent two summers as an intern in Washington working for San Antonio’s pioneering Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez. After that, he returned home to help found the Mexican-American Youth Organization and become a key player in the formation of the Raza Unida Conference. It wasn’t until he turned his focus onto voter registration, though, that he could see progress in the fight against the remnants of Jim Crow and the gerrymandering of political districts with significant Latino populations. Enough obstacles remain to make this documentary relevant today as a teaching tool and source for inspiration.

The “NOVA” documentary, “Super Tunnel,” takes viewers on a journey below the streets of London, where the $23-billion Crossrail transit system is being constructed by 10,000 workers, alongside portions of what is considered the world’s oldest subway. Not to be confused with the Chunnel, which runs under the English Channel, the Super Tunnel adds 26 miles of tracks bisecting some of the city’s most historic districts. The problem comes, of course, in avoiding damage to buildings situated above the construction sites and keeping the existing “tube” intact. Crucially, the workers must drive one of their gigantic 1,000-ton tunnel-boring machines through the earth, passing within inches of escalators and an active subway tunnel, without the passengers on the tube platforms below ever knowing they are there.

Also from “NOVA” comes “15 Years of Terror,” an investigation into the progress being made by U.S. counterintelligence agents in the struggle to anticipate terrorist attacks and prevent recruitment of new fighters by ISIS computer jockeys. Internet trolls also are attempting to understand what happens in the minds of terrorists and intercede to stop the next attacks, sometimes by making the leading proponents of jihad targets for drone strikes.

Alpha and Omega: The Big Fureeze
The Wild Life
Lionsgate’s animated DVD franchise, “Alpha and Omega,” continues apace with “The Big Fureeze,” the seventh entry in a series that began in 2010 with the big-screen feature, Alpha and Omega. That one featured an all-star voicing cast that included Justin Long, Hayden Panettiere, Dennis Hopper, Danny Glover, Christina Ricci and the ubiquitous Larry Miller. It was set in Canada’s Jasper National Park, where wolves Kate and Humphrey have known each other since puppyhood, but exist on opposing ends of the Western Pack’s social structure. Kate was the energetic Alpha daughter of the pack leader, while Humphrey is the good-humored Omega. If Kate agreed to accept an arranged marriage with Garth of the Eastern Pack, the packs unite in peace and prosperity. Love intervened in favor of Humphrey. Six sequels later, Kate and Humphrey have a litter of three wolf pups to tend. When they disappear in a fierce winter storm, looking for food, Stinky, Claudette and Runt — along with Brent the bear cub and Agnes the porcupine – set out bring them home safe and sound. For what it’s worth, “The Big Fureeze” is the first sequel to have original co-writer Steve Moore back at the word processor. Nevertheless, at a brisk 47 minutes, this one is strictly for the kiddies.

Originally titled “Robinson Crusoe,” Lionsgate and nWave Pictures’ feature-length adventure, The Wild Life, re-interprets the Daniel Defoe classic from the point of view of the island’s animal population. Things are going along swimmingly for the colorful critters until a seriously disheveled sailor washes ashore during a furious storm. Parents concerned about Defoe’s detours into cannibals, murders, slave trading and the Christian proselytizing should know that there’s nothing here your average pre-schooler can’t grasp. Instead, a chatty parrot named Mak, who dreams of escaping the island to see what else is out there, uses Crusoe’s arrival as inspiration to get going. His posse includes a goat, a chameleon, a porcupine and a tapir, each with little quirks of their own. The DVD adds “Meet the Characters,” “Tips for Your Trip” and “The Wild Life Musical Adventure.”

The DVD Wrapup and Gift Guide: One-Eyed Jacks, Hell or High Water, Kubo, Mia Madre, The Land, Holiday Horror, Poldark and much more

Thursday, November 24th, 2016

One-Eyed Jacks: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Re-watching One-Eyed Jacks, after many years, in its pristine Blu-ray incarnation, and listening to the testimony included in the Criterion Collection’s bonus package, I was reminded of another movie that was tortured by studio edicts, yet turned out to be pretty good, anyway: The Magnificent Ambersons. First-time director Marlon Brando and then-sophomore director Orson Welles share many attributes, but being in the same league at the helm of a classic motion picture isn’t one of them. Both movies were taken away from the directors at the insistence of executives who demanded changes to make them more acceptable to mainstream tastes and, in the process, were “butchered.” Welles’ presence can be felt throughout The Magnificent Ambersons, anyway, and not just as the story’s narrator. As the star of One-Eyed Jacks, as well as its original director, Brando delivers a performance so distinctively nuanced –it runs the gamut from bizarre to brilliant – that it’s been indelibly etched into the memories of everyone who’s seen it. Ditto, his delivery of the lines, “Get up you scum sucking pig! I want you standing when I open you up,” “You may be a one-eyed jack around here, but I’ve seen the other side of your face” and “Get up, you big tub of guts!” to Kid Rio’s adversaries. Neither is it likely that the directors’ original visions ever be shown intact, unless the discarded footage is discovered in a salt mine in Kansas or abandoned cinema in the Amazon Basin.

Even so, as remains the case for Welles’ near-masterpiece, there are a dozen other good reasons to pick up the pristine Criterion Collection editions. This is especially true of the newly released Blu-ray of One-Eyed Jacks, a Western that broke all the rules and is always ripe for critical reevaluation. Pressing the case are a supporting cast that includes Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, Sam Gilman, Timothy Carey, Katy Jurado, Pina Pellicer, Elisha Cook Jr. Pina Pellicer, as well as longtime Brando compadres Karl Malden, Larry Duran and Wally Cox, who didn’t make the cut; a back story that includes Stanley Kubrick, Sam Peckinpah, Elvis Presley, Henry Fonda and Billy the Kid; spectacular Mexican desert and California coastal locations, as captured by the since-abandoned VistaVision format; its many unsubtle Freudian implications; and One-Eyed Jacks’ distinction as the missing link between John Ford and Sergio Leone, between the acknowledge Hollywood classics and revisionist Westerns that have dominated the genre ever since. Moreover, adapted from a novel by Charles Neider, it’s built on a terrifically entertaining story. The 4K digital restoration was undertaken by Universal Pictures, in partnership with the Film Foundation and in consultation with filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray. It adds an introduction by Scorsese; excerpts from voice recordings Brando made during the development of the film’s script; video essays on the film’s production history and on its potent combination of the stage and screen icon Brando with the classic Hollywood Western genre; and an essay by film critic Howard Hampton.

Hell or High Water: Blu-ray
Because you never know who’s going to get shafted when Oscar nominations are announced, I’m kind of hoping that pundits and Golden Globes voters don’t forget David Mackenzie and Taylor Sheridan’s contemporary Western, Hell or High Water. An August release, it could easily get lost when ballots are cast. Everybody loves Jeff Bridges, so it would be difficult to ignore his turn here as a retirement-age Texas Ranger handed a doozy of a goodbye assignment. I hope that voters can look beyond it long enough, however, to appreciate the job done by Chris Pine (Star Trek) and Ben Foster (3:10 to Yuma) as sibling bank robbers raised in Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy and Jim Thompson territory. Based on his screenplay for Sicario, Sheridan clearly appreciates the splendid isolation and vast emptiness of the desert Southwest, where daily life hasn’t changed all that much in the last 150 years. Pickup trucks have replaced horses, for the most part, but there remains an uneasy relationship between cowboys and lawmen, cattle and oil pumps, ranchers and the bankers holding their mortgages. These elements come into play here when brothers Tanner and Toby are told that a patch of oil might lie under their late mother’s iron-flat property and it will belong to the bank if they don’t pick up some quick money.

In a decision that smacks of Lone Star irony, Toby convinces ex-con Tanner to only rob branch offices of the bank salivating over the prospect of picking up some oil leases. Their success attracts the attention of the Texas Rangers, who assign good-ol’-boy Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) and his half-Commanche/half-Mexican partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), who patiently puts up with Marcus’ purposefully offensive banter. In that sense, at least, Hell or High Water pits two sets of brothers/partners against each other in a low-tech game of cat-and-mouse. Giles Nuttgens’ highly evocative cinematography pairs well with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ high-lonesome soundtrack. Mackenzie, a Brit, must have been a cowboy in a past life, because he nails the ethos on the head here. Certainly, he’s found the beauty and character in a largely barren landscape that most people either take for granted or ignore. The Blu-ray adds the worthwhile featurettes, “Enemies Forever: The Characters of Hell or High Water,” “Visualizing the Heart of America,” as well as a post-screening Q&A and red-carpet reception. (Taylor Sheridan, Ben Foster and editor Jake Roberts have been nominated for an Indie Spirit Award.)

Kubo and the Two Strings: Blu-ray
If Laika Entertainment doesn’t enjoy the same brand recognition outside the animation community as Pixar/Disney, DreamWorks, Aardman, Tokuma Shoten, Studio Ghibli or Blue Sky, it has a batting average any established studio would envy. The Oregon-based stop-motion studio’s first three features – Coraline, The Boxtrolls, ParaNorman – were nominated for Oscars. (It also participated in the success of ABC Family’s “Slacker Cats” and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride.) I wouldn’t be surprised to find its latest, Kubo and the Two Strings, among the finalists for this year’s competition. The epic action/fantasy was directed by the company’s president and CEO, Travis Knight, whose affiliation with the company began in 1998, as an animator, when his father, Phil, co-founder of Nike, made his initial investment in Portland’s Will Vinton Studios. It took a few years for things to settle down at the studio, which was also doing commercial work at the time, but, once it dedicated itself to features, Laika found its natural footing. Set in ancient Japan, Kubo and the Two Strings tells the story of a boy with a vivid imagination and a gift for paper-folding, who lives on a high cliff perched above the same restless sea that claimed his mother. Kubo (Art Parkinson) has an eye patch hidden beneath his bangs, disguising a wound he claims was made by his grandfather. When he accidentally summons an evil warrior spirit seeking vengeance on his family, Kubo is forced to embark on a quest to solve the mystery of his fallen samurai father and his mystical weaponry. Knight attributes the film’s distinctly Asian look to such inspirations as Japanese origami, ink-wash paintings, woodblock prints, Noh theater, Edo period doll making, ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) and 20th Century graphic artist, Kiyoshi Saito. Fans of Ray Harryhausen’s skeletal warriors will find something to cheer here, as well. The all-star cast of voice actors includes Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, Rooney Mara, Brenda Vaccaro, Minae Noji and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. Among the subjects covered by Knight and his team in the bonus making-of featurettes are the film’s Japanese inspiration, “Mythological Monsters,” “Braving the Elements” and “The Redemptive and Healing Power of Music.” Knight adds commentary and an epilogue.

Homo Sapiens
The title, Homo Sapiens, is a tad misleading, but only because the documentary pays homage to the discarded landmarks of mankind, without also showing the men and women responsible for them. That’s because, for all intents and purposes, they no longer exist. At best, they’ve escaped the dystopian landscapes by moving somewhere more hospitable to the whims of beings who’ve spent most of the last 100 years developing weapons that assure mutually assured destruction. Anyone who’s studies video footage taken of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone from distances of 10, 20 or 30 years of the nuclear-reactor disaster will know what to expect from Nikolaus Geyrhalter (Our Daily Bread, Pripyat) here. Using only the organic sounds of nature as narration – birds, the wind, rain trickling through the holes of abandoned factories, auditoriums and cathedrals – his largely static camera lingers on empty spaces, ruins, ghost towns increasingly overgrown with vegetation, crumbling asphalt … absent any sign of human life. As such, the Austrian documentarian wants us to ponder the fragility and finite nature of human existence at the end of the analog age, as well as planned and unexpected obsolescence. Absent any identification, viewers are left to guess the locations of the ruins. Some aren’t hard to name, though: the skeleton of a roller-coaster swallowed in waves raised by Hurricane Sandy; decaying movie palaces in Detroit; trashed multiplexes in Japan; a place in Argentina that has been swallowed up by a salt-water lake, which then receded, leaving a sea of white salt; the mosaics on the Buzludzha Monument in Bulgaria; the irradiated buildings of the Fukushima and Chernobyl nuclear plants; an island off Japan that nearly was mined out of existence. It may take a while to accustom one’s self to Geyrhalter’s artistic conceits in Homo Sapiens, but patience is rewarded with poetry.

The Childhood of a Leader
Psychiatrists and criminalists have compiled an extensive list of behavioral traits that, when combined, can predict whether a bad little boy will grow up to become a sociopathic killer. Watch enough reruns of “Law & Order” and you’ll begin to wonder if those skeletons of unfortunate little animals in your son’s bedroom suggest a career as a zoologist or someone who could become the next Jeffrey Dahmer. Determining whether a naughty boy will grow up to become a world leader with sociopathic tendencies is another question altogether. Who knows what horrors could have been averted if a psychiatrist had veto power on the candidacies of Hitler and Mussolini and ascendancies of Franco, Stalin, Pol Pot and Kim Il-sung. Americans will elect a sexual deviant or megalomaniacs to lead them, as long as he promises to make them great. Brady Corbet’s clunkily titled directorial debut, The Childhood of a Leader, profiles one very naughty little boy whose coming of age parallels the rising tide of fascism in Europe, after World War I.  It’s the opposite of the kind of high-concept film that only takes a few words or sentences to synopsize. Set amidst the turmoil of World War I and its aftermath, The Childhood of a Leader takes place primarily within the confines of a French villa of an American diplomat (Liam Cunningham) assigned to negotiate the terms of the Versailles Agreement. When he’s away from home, his European-born wife (Bérénice Bejo) passes the time shopping, dining out and bullying the villa’s employees. Their young son, Prescott (Tom Sweet), is a dead-ringer for Little Lord Fauntleroy. As such, he constantly is forced to remind his parents’ adult friends that he’s a boy. Instead of attending a local school, where he’s likely to bullied, Prescott is being home-schooled by his father’s presumptive mistress (Stacy Martin), who he tortures with his obstinate behavior and grabby fingers.

His parents can’t tolerate the boy’s behavior, which includes interrupting meetings and receptions in the nude, but, likewise, have exhausted the limits of non-corporal punishment. Add to this pathology the boy’s tendency to eavesdrop on conversations between the duplicitous and short-sided diplomats, determined to break the backs of the defeated German populace. We know how that turned out. Prescott wasn’t drawn specifically to remind us of Hitler, Franco or Mussolini, although he shares certain behavioral traits. He’s also too young and too American to have joined them in a leadership position in a similarly fascist regime. Scott Walker’s thunderous, Bernard Herrmann-inspired score discourages viewers from sweating such details. Corbet and co-writer Mona Fastvold’s intriguing debut, The Sleepwalker, was a psychodrama about siblings from a dysfunctional family. Frankly, I’m not sure who they thought would be the natural audience for The Childhood of a Leader, except Twilight fans attracted by Robert Pattinson’s name on the poster or admirers of Bejo, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Artist. (Pattinson plays a worldly diplomat whose sound advice is superseded by the American negotiator’s desire to return to the U.S.) The Indie Spirits judges just nominated The Childhood of a Leader and director Brady Corbet in the Best First Feature category.

Hands of Stone: Blu-ray
As great a boxer as Roberto Durán was in his prime, winning five world-title belts in four different divisions, his reputation will forever be clouded by two words he denies saying: “No más.” Supposedly, they were uttered as the then-reigning welterweight champion abruptly forfeited his1980 rematch with challenger Sugar Ray Leonard. No one is likely to remember that he would continue to fight, without embarrassing himself further, until an automobile accident forced him to retire 21 years later, at age 50, or how much of his prize money he’s given away to street urchins in his native Panama. I’ve lost count of the movies about boxing I’ve seen since I started writing about DVDs and Blu-ray releases. Most of them are as predictable as a cold day in Chicago in January. Even the ones that do stand out – Creed, Million-Dollar Baby, The Fighter, — are formulaic in one way or another or owe too great a debt to Raging Bull. Venezuelan writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz’ comprehensive biopic, Hands of Stone, isn’t without its occasional cliché, trope or neglected fact. For the most part, though, it’s a genuinely entertaining profile of a boxer who was one of the most electrifying fighters of the last 50 years. Considered to be more of a brawler than a stylist, what he lacked in charisma – compared to Leonard (Usher Raymond), anyway – he more than made up for in power. Thus, the title of the movie. Jakubowicz owes a huge debt of gratitude to fellow Venezuelan Edgar Ramirez (Joy, “Carlos”), a terrific actor who really looks at home in the ring, and Robert DeNiro, who plays Hall of Fame trainer Ray Arcel. Unlike other recent assignments, DeNiro appears dedicated to honoring his character’s legacy and helping the picture make an impression in the Spanish-speaking world, if not the U.S., which has always been partial to Leonard. Also good is Rubén Blades, as Duran’s financial backer; Ana de Armas, as the loyal wife; and Ellen Barkin, as Arcel’s wife. The Blu-ray adds making-of and background featurettes, including material on Duran’s contributions to Panamanian affairs.

Mia Madre: Blu-ray
You never know when and where John Turturro is going to turn up in a movie. He not only plays gangster Frankie Carbo in Hands of Stone, but also threatens to steal the show from Margherita Buy in Nanni Moretti’s heart-tugging drama, Mia Madre. This, despite the fact that her marvelous portrayal of a director/mother/director constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown earned the 54-year-old actress a fifth David di Donatello Best Actress award. Turturro provides the comic relief in a film whose protagonist, I suspect, takes everything way too seriously for most American tastes. Turturro’s Barry Huggins is an actor recruited to attract English-speaking audiences to a movie about workers protesting layoffs proposed by a new boss. Turturro drives director Margherita nuts by forgetting his lines, improvising others and becoming frustrated by the day-to-day trials of filmmaking. After-hours, however, Huggins can be extremely charming. It’s a quality that Margherita makes little time to appreciate, having dedicated her free time to sitting alongside her hospitalized mother, Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), as she prepares to die or go home. She also invests a bit too much of her time in the care and feeding of a college-age daughter, who isn’t particularly interested in pursuing a career as a Latin teacher, as mom has decreed. If that weren’t enough, Ada’s chosen to burden herself further by ending her marriage. Mia Madre was inspired by incidents in the life of writer/director/co-star Moretti, who also drew from personal experience for the Palme d’Or-winning The Son’s Room. His own mother, Agata, died in 2010, as Moretti was finishing We Have a Pope. Like Ada, Agata was a teacher of classical languages. The car Margherita drives belongs to Moretti; his parents’ books line the walls of the film’s interiors; and Lazzarini wears clothes Agata wore in hospital. The gravity of such personal references wore me down after a while, but there’s no doubting the sincerity of Moretti’s desire to address questions surrounding human transience, how we process loss and the healing power of humor. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes; the 42-minute featurette, “Just a Movie: On the Set of Mia Madre”; four minutes of Turturro riffing on his character; and “The Torture of an Actor,” which deals with the question of how actors feel when their director is another actor and keeps handing out “suggestions” throughout multiple takes of a scene.

The Land
It’s been quite a year for Cleveland, the much maligned city on the southern shore of Lake Eire. While the weather still stinks most of the year and the football team does, as well, the city’s NBA franchise brought a professional-sports championship home for the first time in a half-century and the Indians appeared in a World Series for the first time in almost 70 seasons. The Republican National Convention was held in the revitalized downtown district, largely without incident, opening the gates for Donald Trump’s successful, if ignoble race against Hillary Clinton.  Like most cities worth their salt, it has an international film festival to call its own. And, while the city would hardly qualify as Hollywood Mideast, a handful of genre films has used Cleveland as a backdrop for depictions of urban crime and offbeat comedy. Craig Moss’ The Charnel House and Paul Schrader’s Dog Eat Dog opened in November; Tom Nagel’s ClownTown and Charles Moore’s Madtown, in September and March respectively; Chris Kasick’s Uncle Nick recalled the Indians’ dime-beer night disaster; and Steven Caple Jr.’s The Land demonstrates that Cleveland has a thriving skateboarding and hip-hop scene. Newly released to DVD, it follows the tradition of being made by people who grew up there and hires local actors in key roles. The Land tells the story of four teenage boys who devote their summer to escaping the streets of Cleveland to pursue a dream life of professional skateboarding. It’s interrupted, however, when they boost a cache of party drugs and peddle them to revelers as if they belonged to them. Instead, the drugs belong to a local drug “queen-pin,” Momma (Linda Emond), whose hippie attire belies a cold heart. Before long, the lads find themselves in over their heads so deep, they’ve put the lives of themselves and their families in peril. The appealing cast is led by Cleveland rapper Colson Baker (a.k.a., Machine Gun Kelly), Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Moises Arias, Rafi Gavron and Ezri Walker. Erykah Badu contributes a cameo and songs, including a duet with executive producer Nas. The soundtrack adds songs by Nosaj Thing, Pusha T & Jeremih, Ezzy and other familiar rappers. The Land isn’t completely devoid of clichés, but the pacing is good, as is the skating.

Sneakerheadz
Chuck Taylor All-Stars may be enjoying something of a comeback as the anti-Nike sneakers, but the only way a pair would be valuable is if they carried the DNA of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain or Michael J. Fox, who wore Chucks in Back to the Future. Freshmen documentarians David T. Friendly and Mick Partridge’s Sneakerheadz describes how athletic footwear evolved from the dark ages – which lasted into the 1960s – to the point where boutique sneakers autographed by Michael Jordan and other athletes are traded on eBay for tens of thousands of dollars. The emergence of athletic shoes as fashion statements coincided with mainstream acceptance of hip-hop, graffiti and skateboard culture, as well as the corporate footwear wars that raised the ante on endorsements. The trend became a craze when lines began to appear outside shoe stores – some now dedicated exclusively to sneakers – on days when every new release of an Air Jordan model, the most recent being the AJ 31. Sneakerheadz is informed by the testimony of designers, manufacturing executives, collectors, speculators and traders. Left until nearly the end is the downside of the craze. As Nike and its competitors began capitalizing on it by introducing new editions of its shoes and encouraging its designers to make them as cool and desirable as possible by jacking up the retail prices. It encouraged gang-bangers to use violence to steal them from unfortunate wearers, whose only crime was requesting a pair for a birthday or Christmas. Neglected completely is the controversy sparked by strikes in Indonesia, Vietnam and China, where workers complained of sweatshop wages and conditions.

The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection: Blu-ray
Gregory Peck Centennial Collection: Blu-ray
I can’t think of a more sure-fire gift idea than Universal’s Blu-ray set, “The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection.” The temptation, of course, is to suggest it for older movie lovers on your list, but I’ve never met anyone – of any age – who hasn’t fallen in love with the on-screen antics of Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo, even if the unfunny Marx brother, Zeppo, requires more explanation than the essential role played by straight-woman Margaret Dumont. This “restored edition” features the only five movies in which all four brothers performed together: The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and, of course, Duck Soup. Commentaries are provided by film scholars Anthony Slide, Jeffrey Vance, Robert S. Bader and Bill Marx (son of Harpo), F.X. Feeney and Leonard Maltin. Duck Soup is accompanied by “The Marx Brothers: Hollywood’s Kings of Chaos” and vintage “Today Show” interviews with Harpo, Groucho and Bill Marx. No matter how often you watch them, the movies always reveal something delightfully new.

As the title of Universal’s “Gregory Peck Centennial Collection” points out, 2016 is the centennial year of the great, La Jolla-born actor’s birth. A five-time nominee for the academy’s Best Actor in a Leading Role prize, Peck finally took home Oscar’s bacon in 1963, for his unforgettable performance in To Kill a Mockingbird, the first half of this double-feature. In 1968, he would be honored with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. In the infinite wisdom of American Film Institute voters, Peck’s Atticus Finch was named the No. 1 Screen Hero of the last 100 years, while the movie – adapted from Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-winning novel – ranked No. 2 on the list of 100 Most Inspiring Movies of All Time and the 25th Greatest Movie of All Time, in its TV special, “100 Years, 100 Movies, 100 Heroes & Villains.” In Cape Fear, Peck plays a different small-town lawyer, this one forced to put his loved ones at risk in order to trap a criminal (Robert Mitchum) he’d helped send to prison years earlier. Based on a novel by John D. MacDonald, Cape Fear remains a unnerving experience. For his 1991 remake, Martin Scorsese convinced Gregory Peck, Martin Balsam and Robert Mitchum to re-appear in key roles. The Centennial set arrives with the feature-length documentary, “A Conversation With Gregory Peck,” “Fearful Symmetry: The Making of To Kill a Mockingbird,” Peck’s Best Actor acceptance speech, the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award ceremony, an excerpt from “Tribute to Gregory Peck,” “Scout Remembers,” commentary with director Robert Mulligan and producer Alan Pakula, “100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics,” “The Making of Cape Fear” and production photographs.

Horror for the holidays
Rabid: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Dead Ringers: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg emerged at a time in the mid-1970s when horror and sci-fi had yet to merge in any meaningful way and the splatter/slasher sub-genre was in its infancy. He knew that Frankenstein was equal parts horror and science-fiction, as was Kurt Neumann’s original version of The Fly, which he would revisit 18 years later with a budget that allowed him to take advantage of contemporary makeup, technology and set design. Cronenberg also understood the fright and anxiety that accompanied everyday medical and dental procedures, bodily transformation surgery and infections. His early films fit into the pigeonhole reserved for visceral “body horror.” Influential Canadian journalist Robert Fulford nearly killed Cronenberg’s career before it reached takeoff velocity by attacking Shivers in the national magazine, Saturday Night. Since the film was partially financed by the taxpayer-funded National Film Board of Canada, the headline read, “You Should Know How Bad This Movie Is: You Paid for It.” The money dried up faster than blood on a barroom floor. Fortunately, budding producer Ivan Reitman had faith in his fellow Canadian and found the money to make Rabid, which combined vampirism, zombies, viral disease and experimental skin grafts. Reitman also ratified his friend’s decision to cast Marilyn Chambers – the Ivory Snow cover girl, turned porn star – as a pretty, young blond who develops a blood-craving thirst and misplaced vagina after emergency surgery for a motorcycle accident.

It was a risk few, if any, producers have been willing to take, before or since Rabid. (Former Playboy bunnies don’t count.) She wasn’t required to display any more skin than, say, Cybill Shepherd, in The Last Picture Show, and easily held her own in the acting department. Because government and medical authorities refuse to admit a problem exists, the virus spreads rapidly. (The delivery system is so bizarre and cruel that describing it would spoil the fun.) The Scream Factory makeover begins with a 2K scan from the negative at Cronenberg’s preferred aspect ratio (1.66:1); new audio interviews with Jill C. Nelson, author of “Golden Goddesses: 25 Legendary Women of Classic Erotic Cinema, 1968-1985” and Chambers’ personal-appearances manager Ken Leicht; an interview with co-star Susan Roman; separate commentaries with Cronenberg and William Beard, author of “The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg”; archival interviews with Cronenberg, Reitman and co-producer Don Carmody; the featurette, “From Stereo to Video,” a video essay by Caelum Vatnsdal, author of “They Came from Within: A History of Canadian Horror Cinema”; marketing material; and a stills gallery.

Following by two years the commercial and critical success of The Fly, Cronenberg based Dead Ringers on the true story of twin gynecologists Stewart and Cyril Marcus, who were found dead in their apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The cause of the deaths was, at first, determined to be withdrawal from barbiturate addiction, but other reasons were later forwarded. Inspired by the novel “Twins,” by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland, Cronenberg created a world of obsession, seduction, betrayal, misplaced love and addiction that played better in arthouses than the megaplex. The horror trope exploited here is the mad-scientist conceit, with experimentation on women patients and the invention of surgical tools the Marquis de Sade would have been proud to claim for himself. Beverly and Elliot Mantle (Jeremy Irons) have been fascinated with sex and women’s reproductive organs since childhood. Even before they graduated from college, the brothers invented a mechanical devise that made gynecological examinations significantly easier. They would continue their experimentation with tools of their trade – one more medieval-seeming than the other — until Beverly had gone mad from drug abuse and what he believed to be unrequited love. Anyone who thinks their dentist’s office resembles a stainless-steel torture chamber, will be made just as queasy by brothers’ surgical theater … male viewers, as well as women.

The madness extends to their relationship with a patient, actress Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold), whose trifurcated uterus makes her a freak of nature and, as such, of particular interest to the Mantles, who also consider themselves to be outsiders. Before Claire’s arrival, the more confident brother, Elliot, would pass along his sexual conquests to the painfully withdrawn Beverly without their knowledge. All he was required to do was related exactly what happened on the dates. Claire intuits Elliot’s game and jealousy over her being able to reach something in Beverly’s psyche that he thought belonged to him. Into this already creepy scenario, Cronenberg adds a layer of visually poetic eroticism that may be too twisted for some viewers’ taste. Not only did Dead Ringers score year-end honors with mainstream critics in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Canada, but it also impressed niche judges in France and Portugal and at the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films. Irons and Bujold earned all the accolades they received. Also impressive are Howard Shore’s evocative score, Peter Suschitzky’s chilly cinematography and split-screen magic, and Carol Spier’s exquisitely sterile set design.  Viewers can choose between the high-definition transfer of the film (1.78:1 aspect ratio) or 2K scan at the director’s preferred aspect ratio (1.66:1). A new commentary with writer Beard and old one with Irons; fresh interviews with actress Heidi Von Palleske, artist/actor Stephen Lack, special-effects artist Gordon Smith, director of photography Peter Suschitzky, and reclaimed chats with Irons, Cronenberg, producer Marc Boyman and co-writer Norman Snider; and a vintage behind-the-scenes featurette.

C.H.U.D.: Special Edition: Blu-ray
C.H.U.D II: Bud the Chud: Blu-ray
Return of the Living Dead 3: Blu-ray
I Drink Your Blood: Blu-ray
In 1984, just as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were finding their footing in the sewers of New York, Douglas Cheek’s unpretentious creature-feature C.H.U.D. – also set there — was released to no great acclaim into drive-in theaters across America. Ramon, the 40-foot-long star of Lewis Teague and John Sayles’ Alligator, had been vanquished four years earlier, turning the city’s plumbing system into a Darwinian swamp. The TMNT phenomenon caught on, while C.H.U.D. needed some help from “The Simpsons” to develop a cult following. In it, the corpses of missing homeless men, women and pet dogs are being stockpiled underground by once-human monsters – not unlike the creature from Black Lagoon – who’ve been infected by toxic waste illegally stored in Gotham’s netherworld by Wilson, an insane Nuclear Regulatory Commission official. City officials are hesitant to sound the alarm when the disappearances are brought to the attention of police by A.J. “The Reverend” Shepherd (Daniel Stern) and photographer George Cooper (John Heard), who’s been shooting homeless “undergrounders” for a pet project.  Once the C.H.U.D. monsters – its stands for Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers or Contamination Hazard Urban Disposal – begin to extend their rubbery reach through manhole covers and even the shower of Cooper’s naked girlfriend (Kim Greist) the impending disaster can’t be ignored. Wilson suggests sealing the sewers, opening gas lines and asphyxiating the C.H.U.D.s, despite the inherent danger to the city. The ending isn’t particularly coherent, but it’s an ending, nonetheless. Arrow Video’s C.H.U.D. benefits from a new 1080p restoration from original film elements; commentaries with director Douglas Cheek, writer Shepard Abbott and actors Heard, Stern and Christopher Curry; new interviews with the crew and the music composers; the theatrical cut and extended version; a deleted shower scene; behind-the-scenes gallery; newly commissioned artwork by Dan Mumford; and a collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film.

In another five years, C.H.U.D. II: Bud the C.H.U.D. would open on VHS to even less acclaim than the original. It is built around the idea that enzymes taken from the sewer-dwelling creatures could be used to make hyper-effective killing machines for the army. The Pentagon has ordered military scientists to kill the project, but one of the super-soldiers – Bud the C.H.U.D. (Gerrit Graham) – has been hidden away for possible reanimation, later. A trio of bumbling teenagers steal and accidentally reawaken Bud, who hopes to form a C.H.U.D. army of his own. It results in a slapstick monster mash. There are a couple of things that make C.H.U.D. the more watchable of the pair, both newly released on Blu-ray. The former’s cast included established actors Heard (Cat People) and Stern (Diner), as well as early appearances by Greist (Manhunter), Curry (Starship Troopers), John Goodman (True Stories), Jay Thomas (“Mork & Mindy”) and Jon Polito (Miller’s Crossing). The concern shown New York’s homeless population – contrasted to official disregard – also was admirable. The sequel’s main attractions are the bathing suit worn by Tricia Leigh Fisher, daughter of Eddie Fisher and Connie Stevens; Graham’s over-the-top Bud; and contributions, however, Robert Vaughn (who died last week, 83), Larry Linville, Jack Riley, Norman Fell, June Lockhart, Rich Hall and Bianca Jagger. The Lionsgate/Vestron edition of C.H.U.D. II contains commentary with director David Irving; featurettes “Bud Speaks!” with Graham, “Katie’s Kalamity,” with Fisher, “This C.H.U.D.’s For You!,” with special-effects artist Allan Apone; and a stills gallery.

Lionsgate’s collector’s edition of Return of the Living Dead 3 focuses on two teenagers who get caught up in a secret government program to use Trioxin from previous films to develop a cadre of zombie-like “super soldiers.” If that sounds like the C.H.U.D. II scenario, minus the sewer connection, well, great minds tend to think alike. Colonel John Reynolds (Kent McCord), Colonel Peck (James T. Callahan) and Lieutenant Colonel Sinclair (Sarah Douglas) oversee the reanimation project, which, of course, doesn’t go as planned. After the zombie are subdued and quarantined, those responsible for the disaster are transferred. Colonel Reynolds’ son, Curt Reynolds (J. Trevor Edmond), and his punk girlfriend, Julie Walker (Melinda Clarke), have already borrowed his father’s key card to access the lab and spy on the experimentation. So, when Julie is killed in a motorcycle accident, Curt takes her to the lab to see if he can use the Trioxin to re-animate her. It works, but a girlfriend zombie is no easier to control than a “super soldier” zombie, and it causes problems of a very different sort for Curt. Coincidentally, the couple ends up in the sewer system, as well, where they encounter a vagrant (Basil Wallace) who takes them in and hides them. If the ending is extremely off-the-wall, it’s fun to watch super-sexy Clarke (“The O.C.”) in action, wearing peek-a-boo costumes that might have been designed by Jean Paul Gaultier for her later turn as professional dominatrix Lady Heather on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” Like the previous “ROTLD” sequel, this one bears almost no resemblance to George Romero’s 1968 zombie and should be viewed as part of a completely separate five-part franchise. It contains commentaries with Clarke, director Brian Yuzna and special-effects supervisor, Tom Rainone; featurettes “Ashes to Ashes,” a conversation with Yuzna and screenwriter John Penney, “Living Dead Girl,” interview with Clarke, “Romeo Is Bleeding,” an interview with actor J. Trevor Edmond (“Beverly Hills, 90210”), “Trimark & Trioxin,” interviews with production executive David Tripet and editor Chris Roth, “The Resurrected Dead,” with special make-up effects designers Steve Johnson and Chris Nelson; a storyboard gallery; and still gallery.

Grindhouse Releasing has revived the 1971 drive-in “classic” I Drink Your Blood, a clumsily made gorefest that holds the distinction of being the first movie branded X by the MPAA ratings board, simply on the basis of its violent content. Clearly feeding off the fearful public reaction to the Manson Family killings, and reports of a rabies plague in Iran, David E. Durston’s micro-budget chiller describes what happens when a van full of hippie Satanists arrives in a small New York town that’s practically deserted and, at the time, actually was a ghost town. The group, led by the longhaired Horace Bones (East Indian dancer, Bhaskar Roy Chowdhury), takes refuge in an old rat-infested hotel. When two members of the group rape a local girl, her crusty grandfather later shows up at the hotel with a shotgun. The hippies rough up the old man, give him LSD and set him free in mid-freakout. The old man’s scene-stealing grandson, Pete (Riley Mills), decides to carry out his own revenge. In a twist that might have presaged Christopher Bond’s 1973, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” the grandson shoots a rabies-infected dog and injects its blood into the meat pies baked in the local bakery and consumed voraciously by the cultists. The results aren’t quite as predictable as one might think. Like the meat pies, I Drink Your Blood – or, to be more precise, “I Eat Your Blood” – shouldn’t be attempted on an empty stomach. The extensive bonus package includes a restored version of the original uncensored director’s cut; four deleted scenes, including the original ending deemed too disturbing for 1970s audiences; audio commentaries by Durston and Bhaskar, and co-stars Jack Damon and Tyde Kierney; on-camera interviews with future scream queen Lynn Lowry, Kierney and Damon; a new interview with Durston; original theatrical trailer and radio spots; extensive gallery of stills and poster art; rare film of Bhaskar performing “The Evil King Cobra Dance”; the very strange 1964 zombie flick, I Eat Your Skin, with an interview with second-unit director William Grefe; and Blue Sextet, Durston’s long-lost psychedelic skin flick presented for the very first time on home video; liner notes by horror journalist David Szulkin; and an embossed slipcover.

The Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast
Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXXVII
Herschell Gordon Lewis (a.k.a., Godfather of Gore) died last September 26, at the ripe old age of 90. Although his filmmaking career effectively lasted little more than a dozen years – 1961-72, then his 2002 Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat, 2009’s The Uh-Oh! Show and 2016’s Herschell Gordon Lewis’ BloodMania – his quick-and-dirty exploitation pictures influenced two generations of filmmakers, including John Waters, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino and James Gunn. Among other things, Lewis could take partial credit, at least, for introducing the splatter subgenre and merging nudity and violence in ways that anticipated the sexual revolution, biker culture, mainstreaming of porn and subsequent slasher sub-genre. When he wasn’t doing that, the Pittsburgh native and Northwestern graduate taught college-level communications and advertising courses, managed radio stations, directed TV commercials, started a production company, wrote about advertising and public relations and served a three-year bit in prison for fraud. In between those activities, in 1961, he began his collaboration with exploitation producer David F. Friedman on several nudie-cuties, before entering the drive-in-friendly gore market two years later. At various times, Lewis produced, directed, wrote, shot, scored and appeared in his nearly two-dozen films. It was in Blood Feast that Lewis pulled a cow’s tongue out of an actress’ mouth on camera, effectively changing the horror landscape forever. At a MSRP of $229.95, Arrow Video’s 17-disc box set “The Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast,” may cost more than the budgets of some of his pictures. You get a lot of bang for your buck, though.It contains 14 of his “most essential” titles, including nine Blu-ray debuts: Blood Feast, Scum of the Earth, Two Thousand Maniacs!, Moonshine Mountain, Color Me Blood Red, Something Weird, The Gruesome Twosome, A Taste of Blood, She-Devils on Wheels, Just for the Hell of It, How to Make a Doll, The Wizard of Gore, The Gore Gore Girls and This Stuff’ll Kill Ya! None of them fits the generally accepted definition of “good,” but some are worse than others. All have one redeeming quality, at least. It adds brand-new introductions to the films by Lewis, as well as hours of extras, including newly produced interviews and featurettes, commentaries and short films. Two more Blu-ray discs feature 1.33:1 versions of Blood Feast, Scum of the Earth, Color Me Blood Red, A Taste of Blood and The Wizard of Gore. A separate DVD contains “Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore” and there’s a 28-page H.G. Lewis annual, stuffed full with Lewis-themed activities and archival promotional material.

And, what would Thanksgiving be without a box load of turkeys from Mystery Science Theater 3000. Volume XXXVII features two episodes from the Comedy Central era of the show and two from Sci-Fi Channel. One is hosted by show creator Joel Hodgson and three by Mike Nelson. If it weren’t for the crew’s catty commentary, none would have escaped the dust bin of cinematic infamy. For that matter, neither would half of the rom-coms made in Hollywood in the last 10 years. The Human Duplicators is a 1965 color film, starring Richard Kiel, Hugh Beaumont, George MacReady, Dolores Faith and George Nader. Kiel plays an alien sent to conquer Earth conquer by producing duplicates of certain humans. The fragile ceramic-like heads of the duplicates are an especially amusing touch. Released in 1983, Escape 2000 (a.k.a., “Escape From the Bronx”) is a 1983 color film, starring Henry Silva and a bunch of Italian actors no one west of the Straits of Gibraltar will recognize. A small band of heroes must fight their way through the ruins of the Bronx against an evil corporation bent on exterminating them. Sadly, Snake Plissken does not make a cameo.

From 1964, The Horror of Party Beach is a black-and-white cheapo film with cheesy monsters, bikini-clad twisters, surf bums and a rock band, the Del Aires, dressed like the pre-LSD Beach Boys. The main attraction for 2016 audiences in Invasion of the Neptune Men is watching Sonny Chiba play a heroic protagonist named Space Chief, as he fends off cone-headed aliens from Neptune. Highlights include Mike Nelson’s Noh Theater host segment and the return of Krankor, from Prince of Space. And, yes, H.G. Lewis was well-represented on MST3000.

The Vincent Price Collection III: Blu-ray
The third and, perhaps, final collection of collaborations between Vincent Price is a mixed bag of horror, sci-fi and performance artistry. Master of the World is a departure, in that it represents the work of Jules Verne, not Edgar Allen Poe, and affords a look at what AIP was capable when it decided to expend more money on a project than usual. Screenwriter Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man) combined two Jules Verne stories –“Clipper of the Clouds” (1886) and its sequel “Master of the World” (1904) – for this cautionary tale about the hazards of killing for peace. In 1868, an American scientist and his team become hostages of fanatical pacifist Robur (Price) who uses his airship, Albatross, to destroy military targets on Earth. Among those detained is a government worker played improbably by Charles Bronson. The upgraded edition of the 1961 adventures includes commentary with actor David Frankham, “Richard Matheson: Storyteller” and memorabilia. Roger Corman directed Price a year later in Tower of London, in which Richard III is haunted by the ghosts of those he has murdered in his attempt to become the King of England. Bonus features here include interviews with Corman and his producer brother, Gene Corman, and two episodes of “Science Fiction Theatre,” both starring Price.

In 1970’s Cry of the Banshee, Price finds himself in Elizabethan England, playing a wicked lord who massacres nearly all the members of a coven of witches. In doing so, he earns the enmity of their leader, Oona (Elisabeth Bergner), who calls up a magical servant, a “banshee,” to destroy the lord’s family. Not only was this Price’s final foray into Gothic horror, but the title sequence was designed and animated by future Python Terry Gilliam and it marked the film debut of Stephen Rea. It adds commentary by film historian Steve Haberman and “A Devilish Tale of Poe,” an interview with director Gordon Hessler. The disc contains both the 87-minute long AIP theatrical cut and the 91-minute director’s cut.  From 1963, Diary of a Madman is adapted from Guy de Maupassant story about a French magistrate, who, after visiting a doomed prisoner, becomes the human host for the evil spirit haunting the man. It adds the commentary of film historian Steve Haberman.

Made for television in 1970, “An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe” is a one-man show dedicated to one of the greatest writers of suspense we’ve had. Price reads “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Sphinx,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” He does so in costume and with a flair that reveals his classically trained roots. It adds a fresh interview with director Kenneth Johnson and commentary track from Haberman.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Masterpiece: Poldark Season 2: Blu-ray
History: Texas Rising/Sons of Liberty Double Feature
PBS: Nature: Super Hummingbirds: Blu-ray
PBS: American Experience: Tesla
In the sudsy world of prime-time soap operas, the other American broadcast networks can barely compete with PBS and its uniformly top-shelf acting, spectacular locations, splendid costumes and production values. Granted, most of them were made in the UK, where quality isn’t taken for granted, but American dollars help finance them. Neither are nudity and violence promoted as enticements for viewers to sample a series, as is the case even with the best of our premium-cable offerings. For the last several weeks, one PBS affiliate in Los Angles has decided to counterprogram against HBO and Showtime with a triple-bill of “Masterpiece” mini-series, “The Durrells in Corfu,” “Indian Summers” and the second season of “Poldark.” The other local PBS outlet airs such mini-series as “Father Brown,” “Shetland” and “Vera,” on Sunday night, and “Luther,” “The Fixer” and “Prisoners of War,” on Mondays. Thank God, for DVRs, dedicated apps and Blu-rays.

The arrival of “Poldark” last year took some of the sting, at least, out of losing “Downton Abbey.” I don’t know if it’s sapped many television-tourism dollars from north Hampshire, Oxfordshire and Yorkshire, but the Cornwall coast on display in “Poldark” has the benefit of crashing waves, dramatic rock formations and wide sandy beaches, perfect for strolling, horse riding and surfing, although there’s wasn’t much of the latter in the 1700s. Instead, Season Two picks up with struggling mine owner Ross (Aidan Turner) preparing to go to trial for murder and his rival, George Warleggan (Jack Farthing), planning to ruin him once and for all. It just wouldn’t do for the title character to disappear after the first episode of the second season, so count on Demelza to ride to her husband’s rescue. Indeed, the flaming redhead is given plenty more to do in the coming episodes, including dealing with Ross’ infidelity and desires of her own. Affairs of the heart drive several other soapy storylines, before, guess what, Ross once again ends up on trial, this time for giving material support to smugglers. The original BBC edition retains some sexuality excised for the PBS release.

The History Channel’s 2015 period mini-series “Texas Rising” and “Sons of Liberty” are presented as a double-feature edition. Both take liberties with the historical record, choosing action over accuracy. On cable television, such mythologizing is rarely considered to be a crime. The 10-part “Texas Rising” picks up immediately after the defeat of Texan revolutionaries at the Alamo. The bad news is carried by lone survivors Emily D. West and Susana Dickenson, to TRA headquarters, where General Sam Houston (Bill Paxton) leads the insurrectionists. They vow to “remember the Alamo,” while the Mexican army commanded by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (Olivier Martinez) recuperating from the strain of battle. While Houston’s seeming lack of enthusiasm for revenge is challenged by his subordinates, we know that an ill-considered attack would amount to suicide. Also covered here are the origins of the Texas Rangers and the role played by President Andrew Jackson (Kris Kristofferson). Less prominent are the perspectives of Mexicans, Native Americans and slaves. The cast includes Dean Morgan, Ray Liotta, Brendan Fraser, Crispin Glover, Rob Morrow, Jeff Fahey and Cynthia Addai-Robinson. The three-part “Sons of Liberty” mini-series focuses on the years 1765-76, prior to start of the Revolutionary War. Such American and British officers and strategists as Samuel Adams, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Paul Revere, George Washington and British General Thomas Gage are central characters. The creation of the Colonial Congress, the Declaration of Independence and the eventual outbreak of the war also are depicted. Among the more recognizable stars are Ben Barnes, Marton Csokas, Rafe Spall, Henry Thomas and Dean Norris.

There’s almost nothing more amazing in nature than a hummingbird. In PBS’ “Nature: Super Hummingbirds,” high-speed cameras allow us to appreciate just how special they are and how they serve the environment. The photography slows their flight down to the point where we can easily discern their feeding habits and methodology, as well as study the aerodynamics of flight, nest building and their unique beaks at work. While there’s plenty of science on display here, it’s the magical beauty of the hummingbird in flight that sells the show.

If any American scientist got a raw deal in life, it was Nikola Tesla. A Serbian-American inventor, electrical and mechanical engineer, physicist and futurist, he was best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating-current electrical system. While the technology he developed revolutionized the way we’ve all lived and worked for the last hundred-plus years, his fame was eclipsed by Thomas Edison, for whom he worked, and Guglielmo Marconi, who stole his ideas, including some that would open the door to today’s wireless world. PBS’ “American Experience: Tesla” introduces us to the man and scientist who died before he received the credit he deserved for electrifying the world.

The DVD Wrapup: Finding Dory, Jungle Book, Shirley Clarke 4, Better Call Saul, Christmas Stuff and more

Thursday, November 17th, 2016

Finding Dory: Blu-ray
The Jungle Book: Blu-ray 3D/2D
As someone whose first screensaver turned my computer into a digital aquarium, parsing the differences between Finding Dory, Finding Nemo or SpongeBob SquarePants, isn’t something I care to spend time doing. If there’s a fish in the movie, I’m likely to enjoy it. The only critical knocks I’ve seen against Finding Dory were prompted by a perceived diminishment, however slight, in Pixar’s trademark gags and a story that bears too much resemblance to the original. Even so, the aggregate score on Metacritic.com stands at a lofty 77 and, last month, the worldwide box-office tally passed the billion-dollar barrier. One of the rotating screen savers provided by Windows 10 is an underwater scene, with a regal blue tang in the foreground, promoting Saving Dory. In life, as it is in cartoons, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Despite the 13-year gap that separates the two pictures, in movie time it’s only been a year since Nemo’s journey to the Sydney dentist’s office and Dory’s and Marlin’s frantic quest to find him. Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) is still struggling with her short-term memory loss. Nemo (Hayden Rolence) is happily growing up beside his father, Marlin (Albert Brooks), attending school and enjoying life Down Under. Dory is plagued by flashbacks of being separated from her parents, in the distant waters off California’s Morro Bay. Accompanied by Nemo and Marlin, she sets out on an adventure to find her family. Demonstrating, once again, that nothing good comes easy, the trio is separated when they reach the California coast, where the disembodied voice of Sigourney Weaver attracts them to the Marine Life Institute.

It’s there that Dory is netted by researchers after getting tangled in a plastic beer-can holder. In quarantine, Dory finds a new companion in Hank (Ed O’Neill), a seven-tentacle octopus – a heptapus, if you will — who joins her in exchange for a tag directing the bearer to an aquarium in Cleveland. It’s here, as well, that Dory finds other distant reminders of her past life, as well as other aquatic specimens destined for relocation to the city once referred to as the Mistake by the Lake. A Hollywood ending – two, actually – ensures that viewers will come away from Saving Dory happy and anxious for another sequel. It arrives on Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD in a couple of different combo packs, one featuring a 3D version and the other a Blu-ray 2D, only. It contains supplements on the primary disc and a second bonus disc. In addition to the commentary, with director Andrew Stanton, co-director Angus MacLane and producer Lindsey Collins, and more than 50 minutes of deleted scenes, the best of the relatively short making-of features is “The Octopus That Nearly Broke Pixar,” a closer look at the challenges and process of creating “the most complicated character” Pixar has ever made … a why Hank had to be a heptapus. “Living Aquariums” is a collection of four themed digitally animated “fish tanks,” designed for ambient enjoyment, including “Sea Grass,” “Open Ocean,” “Stingrays” and “Swim to the Surface.”

It hasn’t taken long for Disney to offer 3D-compatible viewers an opportunity to take full advantage of their advanced hardware, by sending out a “Collector’s Edition” of The Jungle Book in both Blu-ray formats, DVD and Digital HD. (A UHD edition probably isn’t all that far behind, either.) The live-action adaptation of Disney’s 1967 animated classic – via Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 collection of stories — takes full advantage of its leafy settings and craggy waterhole for 3D opportunities that are plentiful and convincing. Fans of the original are likely to have a more difficult time adjusting to the revisions in the movie’s musical soundtrack than with anything to do with the visual elements. The story remains extremely compelling. Adding to the package’s value, as well, are several new features not included in the previous release. Besides the carryover  content, there’s “The Bare Necessities: From the Jungle to the Bayou,” in which top New Orleans musicians, along with Bill Murray, record “The Bare Necessities”; “The Return of a Legend,” in which composer Richard Sherman, alongside director John Favreau, pens and performs new lyrics for “I Wan’na Be Like You”; “The Jungle Effect,” a brief juxtaposition of on-set footage and the digitally enhanced finished product; “The Jungle Book Around the World,” with scenes from the film presented in several different languages; and “Developing Kaa,” an animatic constructed to help develop the scene in which Mowgli meets Kaa.

The Magic Box: The Films of Shirley Clarke. 1927-1986: Project Shirley Volume 4: Blu-ray
There’s a place reserved in heaven for those who care so passionately about cinema that they would devote their entire careers to the preservation of movies almost no one would miss if they disappeared or were forever relegated to a shelf in a long-forgotten vault. Moreover, if it weren’t for companies willing to compile and distribute those lovingly restored films, they might languish in someone else’s vault, available only to scholars and cineastes who know where to look for them. It’s one thing to put together a feature-length collection of “lost” silent comedies or melodramas, starring the great stars of yesteryear, but where’s the profit in breathing new life into footage too obscure to register on the radar screens of academics and buffs, alike. “The Magic Box” represents the culmination of Milestone Film’s exhaustive “Project Shirley,” an eight-year-long effort to explore the films and life of an extraordinary woman, Shirley Clarke. Not all the contributions to the fourth and final volume, “The Magic Box: The Films of Shirley Clarke, 1927-1986,” are as well-known or historically significant as previous entries in the series, The Connection, Portrait of Jason and Ornette: Made in America, which dealt with outsider artists and underground culture. Most fall into the categories of home movies, experimental and performance films. The other is a documentary profile as close to mainstream as Clarke tended to get. Produced for Boston’s PBS affiliate, WGBH, “Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel With the World,” harkens to a time when a poet laureate could fill an auditorium for a reading and be welcomed at the White House simply because they’d accomplished something wonderful. A poet might be asked to read at the inauguration of American president or serve as a cultural ambassador-at-large. In 1955, Frost even appeared on “Meet the Press.”

Today, of course, Noble laureate Bob Dylan can’t even rouse himself to travel to Stockholm to accept his prize and, perhaps, deliver a speech that would shake young people out of their lethargy and deplore the bloodlust of religious fanatics and war mongers. (To this end, Dylan need only perform “Masters of War.”) Clarke finished her Academy Award-winning profile of Frost, a four-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, just prior to his death at age 88. She followed him to speaking engagements at Amherst and Sarah Lawrence and record scenes of his life in rural Vermont and personal reminiscences about his career. He is also seen receiving an award from President Kennedy and touring an aircraft carrier. Before committing her life to film, Clarke pursued a career in dance. It can be seen in the performance (“Bullfight”), experimental (“Savage/Love”) and workplace (“Skyscraper”) films and outtakes collected here. Producers Dennis Doros and Amy Heller deserve a lot of credit – they’ve already been honored for previous restorations – for sticking with the Shirley Clarke Project for eight challenging years. Working with Clarke’s daughter Wendy, as well as restoration teams at Wisconsin Center for Theater and Film Research, Museum of Modern Art Film Department, National Archives, the Anthology Film Archives, the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the Academy Film Archive, and Metropolis Post, they’ve given us a PhD-worthy study of a largely unsung artist.

The Killing of America: Blu-ray
As appalled as most Americans are by the deluge of crimes committed by mentally unstable men and boys with access to assault rifles, handguns and explosives, such outbursts of rage and intolerance have plagued the country for almost as long as we’ve existed as a sovereign entity. The difference between what’s happening today and the footage shown in Seldon Renan and Leonard Schrader’s provocative 1982 documentary, The Killing of America, is the willingness of the perpetrators to murder groups of children, as well as people with whom they carry political grudges. The video evidence of mass psychosis proved to be so startling that, after its initial screening, was pulled from distribution, exhibition on television and sale in the U.S. It was condemned as exploitive and obscene by critics in the mainstream press, even though none of the footage was faked or altered. In essence, the material was culled from video taken at crime scenes, but left on the cutting-room floor of editing bins for being too shocking or revealing. Uncensored autopsies also provided evidence of the ravages of unchecked violence. Cops are shown killing people for reasons that couldn’t be justified by guidelines or reason, but typically left unchallenged. We’re introduced to serial killers and assassins – through original reporting and police interrogations — some of whom are perfectly willing to discuss their motivations.

Schrader and his wife, Chieko, created The Killing of America as a wakeup call for a society that had grown numb to repeated atrocities or felt impotent when it came to reversing the trend. John Hinckley Jr.’s failed assassination attempt on President Reagan prompted calls for stronger gun-control laws, even at the highest levels of government. Two decades later, NRA lobbying efforts would succeed in reversing all the gains made in the wake of two assassination attempts on President Ford’s life, the murder of John Lennon and Hinkley’s insane love letters to Jody Foster. The film’s message, deemed too controversial in 1982, remains even more relevant today, with a President-elect backed by the NRA and Washington’s pro-death lobbyists. Included in The Killing of America package is the longer, even more shocking Japanese version of the film. It was modified to include views of an America that could be considered majestic, beautiful and peaceful – from above, anyway – before rubbing viewers’ noses in the muck. It ends with the Central Park memorial for John Lennon, where the participants pledged to strive for peace, love and understanding, as a white dove flew over their heads, supposedly representing Lennon’s spirit. If at times, The Killing of America comes off as a “snuff film,” it can be attributed to a time in the exploitation genre when it would have had to compete with pseudo-documentaries in the Italian cinema’s “mondo” subgenre. Severin Films presents the still-disturbing doc fully restored, uncut and loaded with exclusive bonus features, including audio commentary with Renan, interviews with Renan, editor Lee Percy, historian Nick Pinkerton and a documentary on “mondo” movies.

Cardboard Boxer: Blu-ray
If an actress is looking for a shortcut to an Oscar nomination, she’s encouraged to consider one of three classic parts: nuns, prostitutes or deaf women … or, ideally, a hearing-impaired nun who moonlights in a brothel. Male actors have been allowed a greater range of characters from which to choose, although priests frequently have gotten a leg up in the nomination game. Sadly, depictions of pedophile clergy are what’s being noticed most today by voters. One role that gives actors of both genders an opportunity to stretch is that of the homeless person, struggling to stay alive on the mean streets of our great cities. For many years, Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp set the standard for characters who couldn’t hold a job and lived hand to mouth. Red Skelton, Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason created characters in the same mold. In fact, homelessness wasn’t recognized as a problem that should concern Americans until the 1980s, when lawmakers closed mental-health facilities to save money in their budgets. Nick Nolte deserved Oscar consideration for his portrayal of a suicidal vagrant in Paul Mazursky’s uproarious Down and Out in Beverly Hills, itself an American remake of Jean Renoir’s 1932 comedy, Boudu Saved from Drowning. Mare Winningham, played a homeless single mother in God Bless the Child; Will Smith, a homeless dad, in The Pursuit of Happyness; Samuel L. Jackson, a mentally ill resident of Central Park, in The Caveman’s Valentine; Jamie Foxx, as a homeless street musician in The Soloist; and Richard Gere, playing against type in Time Out of Mind.

In Cardboard Boxer, Thomas Haden Church plays Willie, a fairly generic homeless man who sleeps in a cardboard box in Los Angeles’s notoriously dangerous Skid Row district. We’re made aware of his hidden talent when a couple of suburban teenagers offer him money to fight another homeless man for cash. Here, freshman writer/director Knate Gwaltney is referencing the “bum fight” craze, during which homeless men were similarly pitted for the amusement of Internet voyeurs and bored yuppies. I suspect that lawsuits have put a damper on the practice, but it fits Gwaltney’s vision here pretty well. Although we don’t know where Willie learned out to fight, we do know that he’s an otherwise gentle soul who finds a reason to live after he discovers the discarded diary of a troubled young girl in a dumpster full of smoke-damaged furniture. In a strange twist, he needs help reading the parts of the diary written in cursive script. He befriends a wheelchair-bound veteran, Pinky (Boyd Holbrook), who offers to read the passages to him, in exchange for some help getting to a pawn shop to pawn his Purple Heart. Also central to the story is a cab driver, Pope (Terrence Howard), who keeps watch over the men on the street and demands an end to the fights. There are times when Cardboard Boxer seems ready to collapse under the weight of its various subplots, but Church’s credibility is never in question and Gwaltney uses Downtown L.A. to its best advantage.

Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Lone Wolf and Cub: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
One of the most enduring mysteries of life involves the meaning of dreams. In addition to analyzing them, researchers have also spent countless hours attempting to pin down whether we dream in color or black-and-white. The answer to that riveting question appears to depend, in large part, on whether those surveyed grew up watching color or black-and-white television. It may sound logical, but doesn’t come close to explaining the Technicolor brilliance of the images in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. At the ripe old age of 80, the Japanese master probably had absorbed several decades’ worth of B&W imagery before color film became commonplace. Before embarking on a career in film, however, Kurosawa had trained as an artist. He would storyboard his films as full-scale paintings, many of them of such stunning beauty and precision they could hang in a museum … and, since his death in 1988, have been displayed in galleries. Such was the case with Dreams, a collection of eight stories inspired by various aspects of his rich and full life. Some are more compelling than others, but each is wonderful in its own way. The colors add a vibrancy that is tangible. This is especially true in “Crows,” in which Kurosawa’s “I” (here, Martin Scorsese) not only converses with Vincent van Gogh in the fields of Arles, but takes a surrealistic stroll inside the mind of the Impressionist painter. Colors are used metaphorically in the cautionary environmental parables, “The Peach Orchard” and “Mount Fuji in Red.”

In “Sunshine Through the Rain,” a boy’s forbidden witnessing of a wedding procession of masked “foxes” is greatly enhanced by the tonal gradations of greens, browns and yellows in the enchanted forest. The segment does open up when the boy stands in a meadow, where actual foxes frolic, under a giant multicolored rainbow, seeking redemption for his effrontery. By contrast, the muted colors of “The Tunnel” echo the solemnity of a company of dead soldiers being reviewed by their very much alive commander, who’s required to explain why they must to return to the darkness of the afterlife. Likewise, in “Blizzard,” a whiteout forces mountaineers to contemplate the likelihood of death, until they’re rescued by a snow spirit, and, in “The Weeping Demon,” the dystopian imagery couldn’t be made any more dour. Where Dreams opened with a wedding procession that threatened the boy’s life, the closing segment, “Village of the Watermills,” includes a raucous funeral procession that celebrates it. The symmetry of these events, along with the Noh influences, help us contemplate Kurosawa’s lifelong vision, as well as his conceits. As enjoyable as it is to watch after 25 years, it’s worth recalling that critics failed to agree on its importance within his canon. As often happens, however, the distance provided by time offers pundits, peers and fans the luxury of perspective. Reverential interviews with two generations of international filmmakers certify Kurosawa’s influence on world cinema, as do the recollections of his closest aides. There’s also a lengthy making-of featurette, in which “The Tunnel” is examined with an eye to detail and the maestro’s ticks and recipes for success.

Although Kurosawa’s oeuvre includes masterpieces in several different genres and themes, American audiences know his samurai films best. That’s changed a bit since the advent of the DVD revolution, but not much. A second new offering from Criterion, Lone Wolf and Cub, demonstrates just how elastic the genre could be and still provide enjoyable and influential viewing. It was based on a manga series created by writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima, which, since 1970, has been adapted into six films starring Tomisaburo Wakayama, four plays and a television series starring Kinnosuke Yorozuya. Lone Wolf and Cub chronicles the story of the Shogun’s chief enforcer and executioner, Ogami Ittō, whose arsenal includes a dōtanuki battle sword and variety of less-conventional weapons that can be assembled and utilized in a matter of seconds. Disgraced by false accusations made by the Yagyū clan and consequent murders of his wife and servants, Ittō is forced onto the hell-bound path of the ronin assassin. The only other survivor of the massacre is his newborn son, Daigorō. After giving the child the “choice” of accompanying his father on his vengeful missions or accepting ritual death, Daigorō is put into a tricked-out wooden cart and wheeled around the country like any other baby. As he grows, Daigorō absorbs his father’s methodology and warrior’s code.

If this sounds preposterous, even by manga standards, compare the popularity of Lone Wolf and Cub – championed in the U.S. by Frank Miller, Max Allan Collins and Justin Lin — to the enduring acceptance of Kan Shimozawa’s Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman and its spinoffs. Criterion’s boxed set contains the original six films, as well as Shogun Assassin, the English-dubbed reconstruction of the first two films, LW&C: Sword of Vengeance and LW&C: Baby Cart at the River Styx. The original six films are sourced from brand new 2K digital restorations and spread over two discs. Shogun Assassin is presented as a bonus feature. The supplemental features on the three discs in the collection include original trailers; “Shogun Assassin’ (1980); the French documentary film “L’ame d’un Pere, L’ame d’un Sabre” (2005); new video interviews with manga novelist and screenwriter Kazuo Koike and biographer Kazuma Nozawa; and an illustrated booklet featuring an essay and film synopses by Japanese pop culture writer Patrick Macias. It should be noted that the violence is extremely graphic, if not particularly realistic, and incidents of rape and partial nudity are not uncommon. As the series unfolds, Itto becomes more and more invincible and the buggy begins to resemble a miniature war wagon. That said, the stories and conceit do grow on you.

Private Vices, Public Virtues: Blu-ray
It’s entirely possible that I was out sick – or merely snoozing – the day our European-history teacher synopsized the Mayerling Incident, a series of events that led to the deaths of the 30-year-old heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his 17-year-old mistress, at the Imperial hunting lodge in the Vienna Woods. The deaths, which occurred in 1889, remain a mystery to this day. Three guesses have been bandied about for most of the last 125 years by royal gossips, police, historians, authors and screenwriters: Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, and his lover Baroness Mary Vetsera were the victims of a double murder, equal partners in a double suicide or the perpetrators of a murder/suicide, with one dying long after the other was killed. Hapsburg Dynasty functionaries were so anxious to destroy evidence and put their own spin on the deaths that nothing conclusive could be determined, even after several exhumations and forensic examination. Last year, Vetsera’s letters of farewell to her mother and other family members, previously believed lost or destroyed, were found in a safe-deposit box in an Austrian bank, where they had been deposited in 1926. The historical upshot: if Rudolf had been elevated to the crown, as expected, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip may not have bothered shooting his cousin, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, sparking World War I.

Miklós Jancsó’s highly controversial fantasy/drama Private Vices, Public Virtues was inspired by the Mayerling Incident, but only to the extent that its protagonists bear the names of Crown Prince Rudolf and Mary Vetsera. If anything, the 1976 film served as a metaphor to a time in central Europe, only a few years earlier, when the heady aroma of freedom caused young people to thumb their noses at their elders and repressive Communist Party leaders. Sexual libertines and feminists promoted their own agendas, if only for a brief period of time. By setting the debauchery and tragedy in the late-1800s, Jancsó probably thought he could deflect the controversy sure to rise from the extensive nudity and non-traditional sexual couplings. Sadly, it didn’t. After its Cannes debut, Private Vices, Public Virtues would be treated like a pariah, even within arthouse circles. Forty years later, it can be viewed as a bacchanalian fantasy or Habsburgian Woodstock – for once, the male nudity equals that of the female characters — that recalls the work of Fellini, Pasolini, Tinto Brass and Walerian Borowczyk. The revelries are well-staged and the production values top-notch. This first Blu-Ray edition, from Mondo Macabro, is uncut and restored from the original negative. It comes with extensive interviews with cast member Pamela Villoresi, film historian Michael Brooke and writer Giovanna Gagliardo.

TV to DVD
Better Call Saul: Season Two: Blu-ray
While it’s probably true that proponents of quality television wouldn’t have to had to watch the entirety of “Breaking Bad” to enjoy its spinoff prequel, “Better Call Saul,” there would be no way to appreciate Season Two without first absorbing Season One. That might sound obvious, but the same basic rule hasn’t applied to other prime-time dramas, which could be joined mid-run, mid-season or even mid-show. The show’s protagonist, ethically challenged Albuquerque attorney Jimmy McGill, a.k.a. Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), didn’t make his first appearance in “Breaking Bad” until midway through the second season. “Better Call Saul” begins in 2002, seven years before Walt and Jesse hired the “best criminal lawyer in town” to defend Badger, who had been apprehended by the DEA. In the first season of “Better Call Saul,” we watched Jimmy establish his reputation – largely via ads on late-night television and handouts – as a lawyer willing to do almost anything to get a client exonerated. Jimmy isn’t invincible, but he tries hard. We also met his far more legitimate, if completely paranoid brother, Chuck McGill, who’s a partner in a major New Mexico law firm, and future love interest, attorney Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn).

Jimmy enters the big leagues when he outfinesses his brother’s firm over who should represent residents of the Sandpiper Retirement Home and a corrupt county treasurer who embezzled $1.6 million. All of which leads to Season Two, during which Jimmy and Kim are forced to deal with the ramifications of success and respectability. Former Philadelphia cop Mike Ehrmantraut (veteran bad ass Jonathan Banks), now a parking-lot attendant, is also given a juicy storyline that will extent into “Breaking Bad.” The reclusive Chuck is lured from his man cave by his partners to oppose some of his brother’s more devious moves, but it comes at a price. As sleazy as he might be at times, Jimmy has a good heart and works hard for his clients. Bonus extras include cast and crew commentaries on all 10 episodes, a gag reel and a table-read for the “Switch” episode. Special Blu-ray features add “Jimmy and Kim: A Complicated Relationship,” “The Takedown,” “In Conversation: Jonathan Banks & Mark Margolis,” “Constructing Davis & Main,” “Landing FIFI” and the bonus scene, “HSC: Beaches ‘n’ Peaches,” as well as commercials “Davis & Main Mesothelioma,” “Who Stole My Nest Egg?!,” “Davis & Main Sandpiper” and “Your the Greatest!”

Christmas in November
Bob Hope: Hope for the Holidays
It’s A Wonderful Life: Platinum Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Lifetime: The Spirit of Christmas
UPtv: A Dogwalker’s Christmas Tale
Shared Rooms
There once was a time, not so long ago, when Christmas wasn’t Christmas until the first of many airings of It’s a Wonderful Life and the annual Bob Hope holiday special, whether it was from a war zone or a festive soundstage at NBC’s Burbank studios. In my opinion, the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol, starring Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, still trumps all the other versions, with the possible exception of the 1962 made-for-TV “Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” but that’s just a personal choice. Another generation of viewers might point to “Rudolph, the Red-Nose Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” as shows they return to year after year. Time Life/WEA’s “Bob Hope: Hope for the Holidays” is one of several DVDs extant that focus on the beloved comedian’s holiday specials and star-studded USO tours. From what I can recall, “Hope for the Holidays” represents the penultimate such show, 1993’s “Bob Hope’s Bag Full of Christmas Memories,” made when he was 90 … the approximate age of some of the Phyllis Diller jokes. It originally was included in the boxed set, “Bob Hope: The Ultimate Collection.” The setting, we’re told, is Bob and Dolores Hope’s Toluca Lake home, but I wouldn’t bet a lot of money on that. As usual, they invited friends from the world of entertainment and sports to celebrate and reminisce about vintage seasonal sketches, which date back to the December 24, 1950, with “The Colgate Comedy Hour,” whose guests included opera star Lily Pons, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bob Cummings, New York Mayor Vincent Impellitteri, the Boys’ Choir from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and Charles Sandford and his Orchestra. The guest list for the 1993 show included Naomi and Wynonna Judd, Loni Anderson, Barbara Eden, Joey Lawrence, Ed Marinaro, Lynn Swann, Loretta Swit and a couple dozen cameos, via archive footage. A compilation of Bob’s monologues from his many holiday tours for the USO is also included.

The story behind Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is almost as fascinating as the one told in the movie. It had an uneasy gestation period and took its own good-natured time reaching classic status or turning a profit. Adapted from Philip Van Doren Stern’s 1939 story, “The Greatest Gift,” it opened to mixed reviews and lousy box-office, but five Academy Award nominations. Its lone winner was a Technical Achievement Award, which honored RKO Radio Studio’s Special Effects Department for the development of a new method of simulating falling snow on motion picture sets. The next year, the FBI issued a memorandum pointing out the possibly communist-inspired themes in the movie. It wasn’t until It’s a Wonderful Life fell into the public domain, in the mid-1970s, that it became a true staple of the holiday season. Although royalties were still paid to certain rights holders, the movie was shown repeatedly on network affiliates and independently owned stations. Today, NBC is licensed to show the film on U.S. network television, limiting its exposure to two airings during the holidays. Colorization also became an issue in 1986, when the first of three versions was released by Hal Roach Studios. Capra changed his mind on the technology when his investment in Colorization Inc. was returned and he lost artistic control over the process. A third colorized version was produced by Legend Films and released on DVD in 2007 with the approval of Capra’s estate. In addition to both the B&W and colorized versions, the Platinum Edition features two bonus materials, “The Making of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’” and “A Personal Remembrance,” a special tribute to Frank Capra, narrated by his son Frank Capra Jr.

The proliferation of distribution points for original programming has resulted in a surplus of holiday-themed movies that can be repackaged as made-for-DVD movies or repeated endlessly on cable channels, such as Lifetime, UPtv, Disney and Hallmark. For the most part, they’re as provocative as the average Christmas card and as nutritious as white bread. While most are targeted at so-called family audiences, others add romantic hooks that wouldn’t offend a Sunday School teacher. That’s OK … there’s no shortage of R-rated holiday-themed movies in the marketplace for less-sentimental viewers. Lifetime’s “The Spirit of Christmas” fits most of the qualifications required of a made-for-cable movie, but, even so, I was surprised by how diverting I it is. Kate (Jen Lilley) is an ambitious New England attorney, assigned by a real-estate company to appraise the value of Hollygrove Inn, a grand Victorian home that has been in the Forsythe family for generations. It doesn’t take her long to figure out that the place is haunted by Daniel (Thomas Beaudoin), a dandy who was murdered 90 years earlier, on Christmas. Daniel can be a playful fellow, but he’s cursed with the need for mourning his lost love, Lily (Kati Salowsky). Kate volunteers to use modern detection techniques to solve the crime. Even if you can guess the rest, director David Jackson and writer Tracy Andreen minimize the clichés by maximizing the charm.

Letia Clouston and Jake Helgren’s “A Dogwalker’s Christmas Tale” doesn’t offer much that’s particularly new, but dog lovers might want to take a chance on it. What it boils down to is a tale of redemption involving a spoiled college student, Luce Lockhart (Lexi Giovagnoli), who is forced to take a job over the holidays after maxing out her credit cards. While walking the dog of a rich developer, she learns that the local canine campus will soon be turned into a spa. This doesn’t bother Luce, until the folks at the dog park explain what the space means to them personally. She joins forces with an overamped veterinary student desperate to quash the development, but it must be accomplished by Christmas.

Now that gay and lesbian couples have won the right to get married and start families, it won’t be long before the LGBT genre begins to overflow with the overly sentimental holiday movies that resemble the stories that are made for mainstream cable networks. With only a few small variations, same-sex spouses and parents will be confronted with the same challenges and dilemmas as men and women in traditional marriages and they’ll deal with them in much the same way. Writer/director Rob Williams already has one seasonal title under his belt, Make the Yuletide Gay (2009). Shared Rooms is a feel-good rom-com, set between Christmas and New Year’s Day, a period typically reserved for familial angst and the anxiety that derives from unrealized expectations. Married couple Laslo and Cal (Christopher Grant Pearson, Alec Manley Wilson) take in a gay teen relative (Ryan Weldon), who shows up on their doorstep after being kicked out of his home. Sid and Gray (Justin Xavier, Alexander Neil Miller) have a casual online hookup that unexpectedly deepens and Julian and Dylan (Daniel Lipshutz, Robert Werner) confront their secret mutual attraction when a boarder is taken in and they’re forced to share a bed for a week. The intertwining stories come together at a New Year’s Eve party, not unlike Garry Marshall’s New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. Among the issues discussed in an upbeat manner are gay parenting, disembodied hookups, rehab, dealing with exes and gay youth being rejected by their families.

The DVD Wrapup: Star Trek/Wars, Indignation, Private Property, Morris From America, Viktoria, Mes Aynak, Initiation and more

Friday, November 11th, 2016

Star Trek Beyond: Blu-ray
Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens Blu-ray
If you dig deep enough into the Pulp Fiction bonus package, you’ll find a deleted scene in which Mia Wallace tells Vincent Vega: “My theory is that when it comes to important subjects, there’s only two ways a person can answer. For example, there’s two kinds of people in this world, Elvis people and Beatles people. Now Beatles people can like Elvis. And Elvis people can like the Beatles. But nobody likes them both equally. Somewhere, you have to make a choice. And that choice tells me who you are.” Having interviewed diehard fans of Star Trek and Star Wars, I suspect that the same is true for the rival sci-fi/adventure franchises. If pure numbers mean anything in such a comparison, it’s probably relevant to point out that Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens outgrossed Star Trek Beyond on the worldwide stage, $2.07 billion to   $341.9 million. The domestic/foreign ratio of 45/55 percent is roughly the same for both films. If Beyond is the weakest of the three “rebooted” editions domestically, it falls between Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness in overseas markets. Comparing the production budgets for the latest entries shows that Episode VII cost $245 million, while Beyond ate up around $185 million. It’s practically impossible to figure in the exact cost of [rints & advertising these days. Among other things, digital technology has virtually eliminated the costs associated with film prints, and the so-called Fanboy/Fangirl Effect also impacts the bottom line of franchise pictures. (“Beyond” benefited, as well, from a lucrative marketing and merchandising arrangement with Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.) Identifying and cultivating a new generation of franchise loyalists is as essential as it is difficult to maintain. Critics appeared to endorse both films, with “Force” scoring an excellent 82 rating on Metacritic versus a very positive 68 Metascore for “Beyond.” In the case of franchise and comic-book pictures, though, an aggregator of reviews on niche sites likely would more helpful than the opinions of mainstream pundits.

If these holiday-ready set demonstrate anything conclusively, it’s that distributors of DVD/Blu-ray/VOD titles are way ahead of consumers and equipment manufacturers on the technological curve, at least when it comes to promoting the visual and audio potential for home theaters. Unlike Ultra High Def and Blu-ray 3D units, technologically advanced pictures, like Star Trek Beyond and the upgraded edition of Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens, are priced to sell right now. Disney made fans wait seven months for the Collector’s Edition everyone knew would arrive by Thanksgiving, giving them time to save their quarters and silver dollars for a new high-end set. Paramount decided not to test the patience of “Trek” loyalists, choosing, instead, to give them the whole meal at once. Complicating things, as usual, are the side deals distributors cut with retailers to offer “exclusive” bonus features. The fold-open DigiPack/Collector’s Edition of “Episode VII” can be purchased in a single all-inclusive box, representing Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray 2D, DVD and Digital HD, as well as a bonanza of new supplements. This, in addition to carryover material from the last release and singular packaging. The release, it should be noted, omits a new Atmos or DTS:X soundtrack, relying, instead, on the previous iteration’s DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 lossless soundtrack. New material includes audio commentary with director J.J. Abrams, who opens with a passionate recounting of seeing the original film for the first time and the franchise’s influence on cinema; three newly added deleted scenes; and three new featurettes, “Foley: A Sonic Tale,” “Dressing the Galaxy” and “Sounds of the Resistance.” Tech-savvy fans will have to wait a bit longer for the UHD version of the movie, as well. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the Collector’s Edition, though.

While it’s possible to settle for the basic Star Trek Beyond package, with Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD/UltraViolet and Atmos sound, some consumers will be tempted by separate a 4K Ultra HD edition; Blu-ray 3D; 4K/3D Gift Set, exclusively through Amazon; and two-disc sets, whose individual packaging, features and collectibles have been created for sales at Wal-Mart, Target or Best Buy. Do your homework and you won’t be disappointed when you get home. In the same way that some glossy magazines will distribute different covers of the same edition, hoping to snag collectors, it’s possible that Paramount is counting on Trekkies to buy several different packages, hoping they’ll be valuable one day. Maybe, if it also limited the production run, the gambit would work. Too much of the same good product won’t make it any more lucrative in 20 years, though. Fortunately, “Beyond” can stand on its own as a vehicle for fast-paced action, solid story-telling and character continuity. The biggest difference this time around, really, is the introduction of director Justin Lin (Fast and the Furious), who was handed the baton by Abrams when he was entrusted with “Star Wars: Episode VII,” and a distinct feeling of loss, knowing that Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin are no longer with us. Otherwise, after docking at Starbase Yorktown, the crew of the USS Enterprise — halfway into their five-year mission – once again is called upon to venture into dangerous uncharted territory to rescue stranded allies. The Enterprise is destroyed in an ambush by a ruthless enemy with a deep hatred of the Federation, leaving Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew stranded on a remote planet with no means of communication. With the crew separated and the villains’ true intentions only slowly coming to light, their mission becomes a fight for survival that could result in countless dead. The supplemental material adds deleted scenes; a gag reel; and the featurettes, “Beyond the Darkness,” “Enterprise Takedown,” “Divided and Conquered,” “A Warped Sense of Revenge,” “Trekking in the Desert,” “Exploring Strange New Worlds,” “New Life, New Civilizations,” “To Live Long and Prosper,” “For Leonard and Anton.”

The commemoration of “ST50” continues with the release of the Smithsonian Channel documentary, “Building Star Trek,” set against the backdrop of two projects: rebuilding the bridge and restoring the original USS Enterprise model. Astronauts, engineers and writers, as well as the series’ stars, come together to explore the visionary universe of “Star Trek.” It serves as a companion DVD to History Channel’s “50 Years of Star Trek,” released last month.

Indignation: Blu-ray
Philip Roth has written 31 books, of which 8 have been adapted for the big screen and another for television. Compared to Stephen King or William Shakespeare – there, I mentioned their names in the same breath – that’s not a terribly impressive number. There’s no telling how many times the rights to his other novels have been purchased, without being turned into feature films, but it’s probably a sizable number. Comedies Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint probably did OK at the box office, at a time when adults who read books also went to the movies, if only to see what the Philistines in Hollywood did to them. Far less successful were The Human Stain; Elegy, which was adapted from “The Dying Animal”; The Humbling; American Pastoral and, new to video, Indignation. With the exception of the 1984 “American Playhouse” presentation of “The Ghost Writer,” it wasn’t until 2003 that anyone attempted another film adaptation. The Human Stain underperformed, despite a list of credits that included director Robert Benton, screenwriter Nicholas Meyer and actors Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Gary Sinise, Anna Deavere Smith, Kerry Washington and Margo Martindale. It received several very positive reviews, but was deemed a hard slog for mainstream audiences. In Elegy, Ben Kingsley is terrific as a professor of literature and a student of American hedonism, who falls hard for a 22-year-old student, Consuela (Penelope Cruz), who doesn’t understand the toll jealousy takes older men. Patricia Clarkson, Dennis Hopper and Peter Sarsgaard are also very good in it. Even with Al Pacino, Greta Gerwig and Nina Arlanda working at the top of their game, Barry Levinson’s The Humbling could only be found at festivals and on DVD. A Pulitzer Prize for Fiction probably won’t be enough encouragement for anything more than a limited run of Ewan McGregor’s recent adaptation of American Pastoral.

New to DVD/Blu-ray this week, Indignation is based on Roth’s 29th novel of the same title. It is set in 1951, a period in American history when a student deferment could mean the difference between staying alive and being killed in the Korean War. Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), the son of a kosher butcher and not atypical Jewish mother, is about to make the jump from Newark to Ohio’s Winesburg College – yes, named after the novel — which is far enough from New Jersey to keep his overprotective parents from moving into the dorm with him. Instead, he’ll be rooming with the only two Jewish underclassmen who’ve decided not to join the fraternity where most Jewish students congregate. Marcus is a conscientious student and confirmed atheist who bristles at the mandated chapel services and overall conservativism of the WASP-y administrators, who spy on the students and make snap judgments based on race and religion, not that there are any black students. (After graduating from high school in Newark, Roth attended college at Bucknell, in central Pennsylvania.) Marcus is thrown for a loop, when on his first date with an alluring shiksa goddess, Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), he unexpectedly receives his first blow job. He doesn’t know quite how to handle the gesture or Olivia’s blasé attitude to an act some young men consider to be a hard-earned stepping stone to adulthood. (“This will come as a great shock to young people,” Roth has quipped, “but, in 1951, you could make it through college unscathed by oral sex.”) When Marcus makes the mistake of taking his roommates’ sexist comments to heart, it sets off a series of events that is the opposite of comedy. Also very good here are Tracy Letts, as the uptight Dean Caudwell, and Linda Emond, as Marcus’ unconsciously toxic mother. Featurettes include “Timeless: Connecting the Past to the Present” and “Perceptions: Bringing Philip Roth to the Screen.”

Private Property: Blu-ray
How can a movie just disappear … not just from view, but everywhere? That’s the story behind Private Property, a deliciously pulpy crime drama that was released in 1960 and vanished very soon thereafter, thanks, in large part, to the condemnation of the Legion of Decency and lack of a Production Code seal. Television specialist Leslie Stevens’ directorial debut – he had adapted Gore Vidal’s play, “The Left Handed Gun,” for Arthur Penn and Paul Newman – could hardly be confused with …And God Created Woman or Baby Doll. It describes the actions of a matched pair of a vagabond criminals, when tested by nearly irresistible temptation, in a way that’s explicit, without being lurid, and cruel, without being gratuitous. Even as crime fiction, Private Property leans closer to the paperback prose of Jim Thompson’s “After Dark, My Sweet” and “The Killer Inside Me” than Raymond Chandler’s intricately plotted storytelling in “The Big Sleep” or James M. Cain’s “Double Indemnity.” Fact is, if Thompson had been asked to adapt “Of Mice and Men” and set it in southern California, it would look a lot like Private Property. Two drifters, Duke and Boots (Corey Allen, Warren Oates), wander off the beach somewhere near Malibu – far less crowded and expensive than it is today – to a gas station, where the owner senses they’re trouble. It’s there that the boyos first lay eyes on the bleach-blond bombshell, Ann Carlyle (Kate Manx), and hit up a traveling salesman for ride into town, following her all the way to in her swank Beverly Hills home.

It isn’t difficult to see how Boots is Steinbeck’s Lennie Small to Duke’s George Milton. As the alpha male, Boots desperately hopes to ingratiate himself into the arms of Ann, pretending to be a gardener in need of a few bucks. She’s nice enough to set him up with a little work and the kind of increasingly personal conversation that he hopes will lead to something intimate. Ann loves her salesman husband, but he pays more attention to his job than his lovely wife, even in bed. The intruders hole up in the unoccupied home next-door, which provides a grandstand view of her swimming pool. Duke has promised Boots that the next desperate woman they find will be his, but he’ll have to be patient. A lummox and likely sexual deviant, Boots is played to a T by Warren Oates, who, in 1960, was on the brink of becoming one of the leading character actors of his generation. Watching him, you can almost see the molten lava rising to the surface of his twisted psyche. In Allen’s hands, Duke is all sublimated rage and Playboy-sanctioned lust. Stevens, a protégé of Orson Welles, was married to Manx at the time and the film was shot in and around their home. Shooting was completed in around a week’s time, for just under $60,000. Private Property has been given a fresh 4K restoration from previously lost film elements rediscovered and preserved by UCLA Film and Television Archive. It adds a new video interview with still photographer and technical consultant Alex Singer and essay by Don Malcolm.

Morris From America: Blu-ray
Here’s a movie I didn’t see coming. Writer-director Chad Hartigan surprised me before, with the minimalist drama, This Is Martin Bonner, about two very different adult men desperate to make a mid-life correction before it’s too late. It didn’t get much attention outside the festival circuit, but, then, what does these days? In Morris From America, Hartigan manages to avoid all the ways in which a movie about a precocious 13-year-old African-American boy and wannabe gangsta rapper (YouTube star Markees Christmas) can go wrong, especially if the filmmaker is white and the story is set in Germany. Morris’ father, Curtis (Craig Robinson), has taken a job as a soccer coach in Heidelberg, where his son’s classmates expect him to play basketball (he doesn’t) and kowtow to their not-so-understated racism. Curtis is as hip a dad as any motherless child could want, but his job interferes with his ability to monitor Morris’ journey through puberty. Sensing the boy’s vulnerability, the slightly older Katrin (Lina Keller) adopts him as a younger brother, protective one minute and cruel the next. He also gets advice from his German-language tutor, played by Carla Juri (so good in Wetlands), who also has trouble deciding what insights about the boy she should share with Curtis and what are best left unmentioned. Every minute the movie goes on, Morris feels less and less like a fish out of water. Katrin encourages her older boyfriend, a deejay, to put the boy on stage with him for an improvised number, while also introducing him to some of the same bad habits he might have gotten into if they’d stayed in New York. It’s where Morris From America approaches the coming-of-age crossroads, but pulls back before the protagonist finds himself at childhood’s end. Robinson is terrific as Curtis, who, at first, wants to be his son’s best friend and confidante, but also learns a thing or two about parenting as the movie reaches its satisfying conclusion. Aside from raunchy R-rated hip-hop poetics and underage partying, Morris From America probably could have found an enthusiastic audience among kids in their mid-teens. I wonder if anyone tried very hard to find it. The package adds commentary, a deleted scene, audition footage, bloopers and a backgrounder.

Band of Robbers
Like Jeff Nichols’ Indie Spirit-winning adventure, Mud, Adam and Aaron Nee’s ambitious crime-caper, Band of Robbers, borrows freely from Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” It even goes so far as to name its principle characters after those invented by Twain, albeit1,500 miles from the Mississippi River, in the American Southwest of today. Kyle Gallner and Adam Nee, play adult versions of childhood friends, Huck and Tom. Huck’s just been released from prison and would prefer going straight to joining Tom and some of their doofus buddies in a heist so improbable that it could have only been inspired by an author whose imagination knew no limits. While Huck was cooling his heels in stir, Tom was very slowly climbing the latter in his local police department. His real dream, though, is to reunite the gang and finally uncover the path that leads to a treasure in gold. Just as they’re about to hit the safe in a pawn shop, Tom is assigned a pretty young partner, Becky Thatcher (Melissa Benoist), who’s destined to gum up the works. The Nees have also found a spot for Injun Joe (Stephen Lang) in the narrative, building some clever gags about his Native American roots, such as they are. As promising as the conceit is, however, Band of Robbers could have benefitted from a larger production budget and a bit more time to think things through. Still I wouldn’t deny it an “A” for effort.

The Hospital 2
A horror-movie distributor knows it’s struck gold when a supermarket chain bans the film from its stores or, even better, a relatively obscure country bans it out of hand.  That’s precisely what happened to the sleazy torture-porn vehicle, The Hospital, in the UK and Bulgaria, respectively. Three years later, the sequel has arrived to test the ethical stance of purveyors of DVDs that wear their exploitative hearts on their sleeves for the world to see. The Hospital 2 only makes passing reference to the abandoned facility whose haunting had less to do with the pissed-off ghosts of former patients than the obese psycho-killer-in-residence, Stanley Creech, who prompted the spirits’ anger. Here, the action moves to a shelter, run by some truly sick individuals who torture the abused women and stream the sessions around the world on the Internet. It’s almost as if co-writer/directors Jim O’Rear and Daniel Emery Taylor made a quick study of the earlier film’s fans and declared, “If it’s sadism, fake blood, sexual perversity and overweight actors they want, let’s give it to them, again.” There is one actor, Betsy Rue, who is in tip-top shape, but, she, too, spends a great deal of time running around the house is blood-covered underwear. To borrow a tired phrase that could be used to describe most low-budget atrocities, “It is what it is.” The DVD adds interviews, bloopers, a video diary and featurette on the historic house – haunted, too – in which The Hospital 2 was filmed.

Viktoria
The Almost Man
Of all the god-forsaken places one could find themselves in the decade before the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Bulgaria was right up there with Albania and East Germany as places where the sunshine of freedom went to die. Judging from the characters we meet in Maya Vitkova’s emotionally wrenching debut feature, Viktoria, Bulgaria hasn’t exactly been a barrel of laughs since then, either. The film is divided into three distinct segments, with one of three related women put on center stage in each part. In a nearly affectless performance, Irmena Chichikova plays a young woman, Boryana, whose dream of escaping the oppressive country and traveling to Venice is thwarted by news of her pregnancy. Boryana tries every conceivable way to force a miscarriage, but her bureaucrat husband, Ivan (Dimo Dimov), wants the baby to arrive on Mother Nature’s timetable and keeps a close eye on her. In a conceit that some viewers might consider to be overripe with symbolism, baby Viktoria arrives without a belly button or umbilical cord. Communist Party functionaries latch on to the event with far more enthusiasm and wonder than poor Boryana, who sees the government declaration of Viktoria being the Baby of the Decade as just one more lock on the door of her prison. Fortunately for the baby, Ivan and Boryana’s chronically dour mother, Dima (Mariana Krumova), happily take advantage of the government’s gifts of a new apartment and better jobs within the Communist Party. Flash-forward nine years and Boryana’s more alienated from her family than ever. Viktoria (Daria Vitkova), on the other hand, has formed a weirdly paternal relationship with the party chief, who soon could be out of a job. Since she isn’t tethered to the old system, symbolically or otherwise, the girl wrings the miracle-child game for all it’s worth. Another flash-forward brings Viktoria (Kalina Vitkova) closer to the age of her mother when she became pregnant. The fact that Viktoria’s beloved grandmother is likely to die soon raises the rare maternal spark in Boryana, who no longer can keep her daughter from exploring horizons of her own … or provide any realistic excuse for not realizing her own dream. Like so many other movies from Eastern European filmmakers, Vitkova isn’t reluctant to throw in the kind of fantastical touches that will keep westerners, at least, guessing as to their deeper meaning. As the picture nears the 155-minute mark, Viktoria’s audience may be looking for something other than symbolism – milk, blood and distant lights, among them – to get them closer to the finish line. Still, an auspicious debut from a promising new filmmaker.

Also from Big World Pictures comes The Almost Man, a Norwegian dramedy that feels very much like the kind of American picture in which you might find Adam Sandler, Vince Vaughn or Jason Segel in the protagonist’s role. The title character is a rapidly aging man-boy, Henrik (Henrik Rafaelsen), who knows that he’ll have to grow up someday, but keeps on delaying the inevitable. His redheaded girlfriend, Mia, is pregnant with a baby who will be more mature at birth than her daddy is at 35. Henrik and Mia’s relationship appears to be based on acting like horny teenagers whenever the mood strikes, which, recently, has been less and less often. She’s grown tired of sharing his affections with his similarly dopey pals, whose idea of a good time is snapping towels at each other’s penises in the shower room. Finally feeling the paternal urge, Henrik takes a new job and moves into a prefab duplex with Mia. Even at a brisk 75 minutes, writer/director Martin Lund keeps us guessing as to whether Henrik’s experiment will work.

Saving Mes Aynak
Timothy Leary’s Dead
One Nation Under Trump
As if there isn’t enough bad news coming out of Afghanistan, along comes Brent E. Huffman’s eye-opening documentary, Saving Mes Aynak, another sad tale of exploitation versus preservation. Afghan archaeologist Qadir Temori is in a race against time to save a 5,000-year-old archaeological site from imminent demolition by Chinese mining interests. The last time such a cultural catastrophe occurred in the region, the Taliban regime destroyed the majestic Buddhas of Bamiyan in an act of religious fanaticism. This time, however, the atrocity is being financed by state-owned China Metallurgical Group, which bought mineral rights for the equivalent of a paltry $3 billion. It is believed that $100 billion worth of copper is sitting under Mes Aynak, a Bronze Age community that was a stop on the Silk Road before it became an outpost for early Buddhist thought and culture. There’s no way that Temori and an international team of archaeologists will be able to salvage even a quarter of the ruins and artifacts before they’re rendered into dust by giant earth-moving machines. Nothing they uncover that is not portable will be preserved. It’s assumed that current and future Afghan leaders have already been sufficiently bribed and the U.S. isn’t about to intercede in another losing cause there. Saving Mes Aynak, a co-production of Kartemquin Films and German Camera Productions, is being used in an information campaign timed to coincide with the release on DVD – through Icarus Films here — and free public screenings in Afghanistan. The mine also is likely to produce an environmental disaster and become an easy target for Taliban terrorists who reside in the eastern mountains. During the production, the team was protected by 200 armed guards. That number has been reduced as the government has turned the screws on the mission. The DVD adds more interviews, deleted scenes and featurettes on the digs and the early discoveries.

Twenty years after his death, Timothy Leary remains one of the most interesting and influential figures of his time. That, he also was one of the century’s most self-indulgent and self-promoting goofballs – unable to stay out of the spotlight for more than a few days – worked against his earlier scholarship and investigations into the role psychedelic drugs could play in curing some of society’s more troublesome ills. The title of Paul Davids’ wide ranging documentary, Timothy Leary’s Dead, is, of course, taken from the Moody Blues’ song, “Legend of a Mind.” In between the release of that song and his actual death, attributed to prostate cancer, in 1996, Leary became the object of nearly constant surveillance and harassment by various police agencies. In a very real sense, he also became the poster boy for the non-clinical abuse of LSD as a recreational drug, something he argued against since the mid-1960s. If there was a more delusional group of radicals than Leary and his celebrity entourage, it was the Weather Underground. The domestic terrorists convinced themselves that breaking him out of prison would convince dopers and other flower children that blowing up buildings might be as much fun as attending a Grateful Dead concert. Once he found refuge in Algeria with the Black Panther Party-in-exile, however, it became abundantly clear that acid and revolution didn’t mix very well. Everything in Timothy Leary’s Dead leads to the death-bed scene. Leary had come to grips with his death sentence by suggesting that he would merely be traveling to the next frontier. He asked that his final moments be made available over the Internet and his brain waves be monitored, for as long as possible. Towards the end, he also became obsessed with cryogenics. While he asked that his body be cremated, friends pitched in to have his ashes jettisoned into space, along with the those of Gene Roddenberry and a couple dozen other final frontiersmen. I don’t normally hand out Spoiler Alerts, but, in this case, it should be noted that Davids borrows a notion, possibly from Re-Animator, that Leary demanded that his head be removed immediately after death and saved in a box filled with ice. It’s plenty creepy, especially considering that it’s possible to imagine the face springing to life with a final, “Th-th-th-that’s all folks!” The DVD adds commentary and indecipherable charts.

Given the outcome of the presidential election, it’s entirely possible that you’ll see a DVD titled One Nation Under Trump on a VOD menu. For some reason, this clip job’s street date was Tuesday, November 8, Election Day. Maybe someone thought Jim Gufferson and BC Furtney’s so-called documentary might have undue influence on the American electorate. In fact, there’s nothing revealed in the film that you haven’t already seen at one point or a thousand over the last two years on the campaign trail.

Fire Song
Hara Kiri
For his debut feature, Adam Garnet Jones, a Canadian of Cree and Métis ancestry, has elected to take on issues that would test the limits of filmmakers with far more experience. If being gay weren’t still an issue in tight-knit First Nation communities, Fire Song could have been marketed as a drama about the difficulties of a rural youth leaving home and getting a leg up on adulthood in a place where the challenges don’t involve overcoming a sibling’s suicide, getting his distraught mother’s life back in order, breaking a cycle of alcohol and poverty, and avoiding the bad decisions of his peers. The film’s protagonist, Shane (Andrew Martin), is an Anishinaabe teenager in northern Ontario, who wants to keep his girlfriend (Mary Galloway) happy without having to commit to having sex with her. That’s something he’s reserved for his boyfriend, David (Harley Legarde-Beacham), the semi-closeted grandson of a tribal leader. His mother’s family wants to take the money he’s set aside for college and use it to fix a leaky roof, something his uncle is too lazy to do on his own. There’s more, but why pile on? It says a lot about Jones’ innate filmmaking skills that the story moves as fluidly as it does and doesn’t get bogged down in the most difficult throughlines. Indeed, the boys’ gay dilemma almost comes off as a red herring, at times. Fire Song benefits greatly from being shot in the alternately gorgeous and gritty Anishinaabe community, which sits on the banks of a large lake and marshes with plenty of places for “two spirit” (masculine/feminine) lovers to get lost. The cast is comprised exclusively of First Nations actors and, I suspect, the crew was similarly populated. When paired alongside Jack Pettibone Riccobono’s docu-drama, The Seventh Fire, set on a poverty-stricken Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota, you might be excused for thinking that Native American filmmakers finally are laying claim to their own stories.

Henry Alberto’s debut feature, Hara Kiri, is another film that straddles the categories typically reserved for LGBT and indie audiences. SoCal skate punks August (Jesse Pimentel) and Beto (Mojean Aria) are united by a distinct lack of direction in life and willingness to push the envelope on anti-social behavior. They fit right into the Venice Beach scene, but, apart from a missing gear or two between their ears, have brains that someday could be used for something other than mischief. It’s possible that they’re lovers, too, but we’re given reasons to believe they aren’t exclusive to any single gender. After giving the subject some thought, they’ve decided to kill themselves in a suicide pact. We’re invited to go along for the ride, which takes them from the morning of their penultimate day on Earth to the next sunrise, which they’ve set aside for the final act. That, of course, presupposes that they’ll be able to pull it off, alone or together. In Alberto’s debut picture, the climax is always in doubt. The DVD adds alternate and deleted scenes, audition clips and a Q&A with Alberto and Pimentel.

The Initiation: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The natural audience for Arrow Films’ resurrection of the underwhelming 1984 slasher flick, The Initiation – besides Daphne Zuniga fetishists – is the one dedicated to collecting every coeds-in-jeopardy and sorority-bloodbath title extant. The nudity has already been accorded Mr. Skin Hall of Fame Nudity status, which, based on the new Blu-ray release, makes it time for an update. Zuniga plays a college freshman, who, as a girl, witnessed “the beast with two backs” gyrating on her mom’s bed and decided to stab the one didn’t belong to her dad. Flash-forward a dozen years, or so, and Kelly is about to be initiated into a sorority known for kinky swearing-in rituals. Coincidentally, we learn, a riot has broken out at a mental hospital near the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex. Not surprisingly, one or more of the patients will find their way to the post-initiation party being held in her family’s multi-story department store, whose doors are locked from the outside by a devious sorority sister. Chaos ensues. If you’re guessing that Zuniga will wind up being the “final girl,” you’d only be half right. The Initiation has been given an excellent hi-def restoration from original film elements, as well as new audio commentary by The Hysteria Continues; fresh interviews with actor Christopher Bradley and Joy Jones; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Justin Osbourn; and a collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by critic James Oliver.

Boonville Redemption
The first thing some folks are likely to notice on the cover of the end-of-an-era Western, Boonville Redemption, is the almost bizarre juxtaposition of two of the names over the title. They belong to Christian conservative and Gospel Hall of Fame member, Pat Boone, and the outspoken liberal political activist and former president of the Screen Actors Guild, Ed Asner. The last time these two octogenarians agreed on anything more controversial than the time of day, it probably had to do with … well, it’s hard to imagine them seeing eye to eye on anything. Eighty-year-old Diane Ladd, who’s been honored for her work in such disparate entertainments as Wild at Heart, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, “Touched by an Angel” and “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” fits easily between her polarly opposed co-stars. I’m not sure how much time Boone and Asner shared on the straight-to-DVD/VOD film’s Western-town set at the Paramount Ranch, in Agoura. One plays a country doctor who dispenses bromides, as well as pills, while the other is a grumpy judge, riding a circuit in northern California, in 1906. You can probably guess which one plays which. In fact, though, the faith-based Boonville Redemption has something in it to appeal to most viewers, even liberals. (The Dove Foundation reviewers recommend it ti audiences 12 and above.)

At the center of the drama is 13-year-old Melinda (is Emily Hoffman), a hard-luck kid who was born out of wedlock and is scorned by the old farts in town for her non-WASPy features. She’s especially despised by her step-father, Mason (Richard Tyson), who’s managed to intimidate all the other men in town with his willingness to engage in violence and exploit the political clout of his father. He also boasts of forcing Boonville’s younger women to engage in sex with him. Melinda’s mother, Alice (Shari Rigby), appears to have married the bully to escape the stain attributed to her lover, who disappeared years earlier. No one dares tell Malinda what “really happened” to her father and, so, she’s left to investigate the circumstances on her own, or in the company of her only friend, an orphan boy nicknamed “Shakespeare,” for reasons that will become evident. It isn’t until they embrace prayer that the truth slowly begins to emerge. Even then, however, it seems almost as common a recommendation as someone suggesting aspirin for a headache. As isn’t the case in most faith-based movies, the “Redemption” in the title reveals itself in a largely organic and satisfying manner. Director Don Schroeder (“No Greater Love”) and freshman writer Judy Belshe-Toernblom deserve credit for dealing with issues not typically addressed in faith-based movies in such straight-forward ways.

Snowtime!: Blu-ray 3D
Stick Man
Here are a pair of holiday-themed movies for kids, whose animation is more sophisticated than that usually reserved for such seasonal fare and whose stories can be enjoyed by cross-generational audiences. From Quebec comes Snowtime!, a remake of La Guerre des Tuques (“The Dog Who Stopped the War”), a live-action French-Canadian kids’ pic that topped Canada’s box office in 1984. During Christmas holidays, the children of a small village split themselves into two groups, build a huge snow fort and begin preparing for a week-long snowball war. The youthful rivalry reveals lingering tensions among some group members, while also helping members see each other differently than they had before. This is particularly true for the leaders of the two groups, Luc (voiced by Angela Galuppo) and Sophie (Lucinda Davis), who find themselves torn between admiring each other from a distance, yet leading their own group to victory. Snowtime!’s allegorical isn’t deeply buried under a snowbank: peace is tough and tedious; war is the easy solution. Other voices are supplied by Sandra Oh and Disney Channel star Ross Lynch. The song, “L’hymme,” is performed by Céline Dion and Fred Pellerin. The film is available in DVD, Blu-ray 2D and 3D.

Stick Man” is adapted from British author Julia Donaldson and artist Axel Scheffler’s children’s book of the same title. In it, an anthropomorphic twig becomes separated from his family in spring and is required to embark on an Odyssean adventure to return home in time for Christmas. If he is to be reunited with his family, Stick Man will require the assistance of all sorts of interesting characters, including Father Christmas.  The 27-minute animated film was directed by Jeroen Jaspaert and Daniel Snaddon, and produced by the team responsible for the Oscar-nominated shorts, The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom. It features the voice talents of Martin Freeman, Jennifer Saunders and Rob Brydon.

Nurse Diary: Beast Afternoon
42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection Vol. 18
It’s been a good while since Synapse released its last entry in the Nikkatsu Roman Porno series, which, besides kinky soft-core porn, is distinguished by titles that defy easy description or comprehension. The new DVD entry, Nurse Diary: Beast Afternoon, arrives in the wake of news that the venerable Japanese studio has re-booted the series and is sending out five new films, to be shown in theaters and cable TV before being introduced into DVD. They will be made according to the traditional Nikkatsu recipe, which may have been dictated by Roger Corman: low budgets, seven-day shooting schedules and a sex scene every 10 minutes – but it’s too early to say whether the formidable pubic-hair ban of yore will be honored … not that contemporary actresses have any left after bush trimming. Between 1971 and 1988, Nikkatsu released 1,133 films in the genre, some launching the careers of mainstream directors and stars. Yojiro Takita, who won a best foreign-language Oscar in 2009 for Departures, directed several Roman Porno and Shintoho-pink productions in the 1980s, including Molester’s School Infirmary and Groper Train: Wedding Capriccio. Released two years after his 1980 debut with Zoom In: Rape Apartments, Naosuke Kurosawa’s Nurse Diary: Beast Afternoon is interesting primarily for demonstrating an active imagination at work within the strict confines of the Roman Porno formula.

Here, a doctor develops a new scientific breakthrough in female psychotherapy with the discovery of the “Dream Ring,” a device that is inserted into a woman to record her thoughts and dreams. One night, the doctor and his assistant end up dead, hanging by ropes from the rafters of their lab. Later, a woman suffering from “genophobia” (the fear of sexual intercourse) is admitted to the Tachibana Clinic for observation. Another group of doctors, led by the horny lesbian researcher, Ayako (Maiko Kazama), have the “Dream Ring” device implanted inside Reiko (Jun Miho). The ring of a jingle bell triggers wildly erotic and violent dreams and nightmares. The clinic doctors have more sinister reasons to test this device on Reiko, however. A stranger, dressed all in black, follows her around, as well. It lends the film an air of science-fiction and early J-horror. The DVD arrives with notes by Jasper Sharp.

Ironically, the same technology that caused the demise of soft-core Nikkatsu products also pushed hard-core peep shows to the wayside here. In Japan, VCRs and cassettes opened the floodgates to harder material, while, in the U.S., the same hardware allowed consumers to enjoy erotica at home. Impulse Pictures doesn’t waste much time releasing new entries in its “42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection” series, which has just reached “Volume 18.” This collection of 8mm loops features 15 “classic” shorts, with non-ambiguous titles like “Partners,” “Dutch Treat,” “Silky Tongues” and “Twice is Nice.” Among the adult film stars represented in No. 18 are Linda Lovelace, Seka and Linda Shaw. Liner notes are provided by “porn archaeologist,” Dimitrios Otis.

TV-to-DVD
AMC: Into the Badlands: Season 1: Blu-ray
PBS: L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables
PBS: BBQ With Franklin
Apparently, AMC’s loyal viewers were looking for some martial-arts action to fill the gap left when the dead stop walking and its other hit mini-series are on hiatus. After a six-episode inaugural run on the cable network, Into the Badlands has been renewed for a second 10-episode season, set for 2017. Loosely based on the Chinese tale Journey to the West, it describes the journey of a warrior, Sunny (Daniel Wu), and a boy, M.K. (Aramis Knight), who must overcome several obstacles each week on their way to enlightenment. Sometime in the distant future, civilization as we know it has ceased to exist. Billions perished in wars and nations collapsed before a feudal society emerged, where the strongest rose to wealth and power. This area is known as the Badlands. It is uneasily divided among seven rival Barons, who control the resources necessary to sustain daily life, including opium poppies. Each Baron has armies of trained assassins, known as Clippers, at their disposal … literally. And, to make things even more fun for martial-arts junkies, guns have been banished. For once, women and minority actors have been accorded key roles, even those requiring combat. Veteran bad-asses Stephen Lang and Lance Henriksen are prominent in Season One, as well. Being on basic cable, nudity and profanity are taboo. The set adds featurettes on various aspects of the show’s mythology and action sequences, and a digital comic.

Unbeknownst to me, L.M. Montgomery’s 1908 children’s classic “Anne of Green Gables,” and subsequent books featuring the adventures of Anne Shirley, have been adapted for movies, radio, television, the stage and Internet dozens of times in the last 100 years. Fans of the series flock to Canada’s Prince Edward Island, where the Green Gables farmhouse is located, in Cavendish, and Bala’s Museum, in Ontario. Canada Post has issued two separate sets of stamps commemorating Montgomery’s work. The latest typically charming iteration stars Ella Ballentine, as Anne, and Sara Botsford, and Martin Sheen as Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. The late-middle-aged brother and sister live on a farm they have named Green Gables. They are expecting an orphan boy to help with the chores, but, when Anne arrives, they have to reassess their plans. Meanwhile, the little red-haired girl with the irrepressible personality and temper makes an impact on everyone she meets.

Who doesn’t love a great meal of barbecued meat? OK, there are some vegetarians who haven’t jumped on the chuck wagon, but anyone with a predilection for cooking it themselves will want to join pit master and James Beard Award-winner Aaron Franklin for the mouth-watering PBS series, “BBQ With Franklin.” In it, he visits BBQ joints large and small, each with their own secret formula for perfection. The great thing about BBQ is seeing how many different ways it can be prepared and the fierce regional loyalty they inspire. The 10 episodes include “Brisket,” “Sausage.” “Whole Hog,” “The Pits,” “Fire & Smoke,” “Poultry & Sauce,” “Direct Heat & Mesquite,” “Competition,” “Pickin’ Beef” and “Leftovers.”

The DVD Wrapup: Sea of Trees, Uncle Nick, Imperium, Men & Chicken, Judge Archer, IT Team and more

Thursday, November 3rd, 2016

The Sea of Trees: Blu-ray
Now that California has become the fifth state to allow terminally ill residents to request life-ending medication from their physicians, is it beyond the realm of possibility that it might permit them to use the Golden Gate Bridge as the delivery system, instead of drugs? Anything’s possible, I suppose, especially in California. One insurer, at least, reportedly already has denied a cancer patient further coverage of chemotherapy treatments, suggesting she take advantage of the new law. It would be willing to pay for the formal authorization by her doctors and the drugs prescribed, but nothing else. Imagine the savings for our impoverished health-care providers. I considered the possibility of such madness after watching Gus Van Sant’s critically maligned The Sea of Trees, which is set in Japan’s Aokigahara rain forest, at the northwest base of Mount Fuji. It is where dozens of people each year travel to commit unassisted suicide, many for reasons that aren’t related to health issues. Famously haunted by the lingering spirits of the yūrei of those left to die, the vast forest is patrolled by park officials, who merely point to signs that advise visitors to reconsider their choice. Negative word-of-mouth from a media screening at Cannes was so intimidating that its backers decided to limit distribution to a small handful of screens here – significantly more elsewhere — probably hoping that Oscar-winner Matthew McConaughey and nominees Naomi Watts and Ken Watanabe might be able to impact the VOD/DVD aftermarket. Stranger things have happened, but not many.

To be fair to Van Sant, dozens of inarguably worse movies have been released by Hollywood and indie distributors already this year, with some even finding their way to major international film festivals. In The Sea of Trees, an American man, Arthur Brennan (McConaughey), travels to the Suicide Forest to relieve himself of extreme guilt feelings related to his failing marriage to Joan (Watts) and her possibly terminal illness. After finding a suitable place to die, he encounters a disheveled Japanese man (Watanabe), who wants to kill himself as well, and both men begin a journey of self-reflection and survival. The movie’s biggest problem, I think, is that the grandeur of the setting frequently overwhelms the melodramatic handling of the Brennan’s marital woes. The struggle to survive in the forest overnight, during a rain storm, may have had the same effect on the philosophical musings of the two guilt-ridden men. Why fight death, after, when you’ve already welcomed it into your life? Ironically, perhaps, Gramercy/Focus/Universal’s low-budget chiller, The Forest, found Natalie Dormer in the same location, searching for her twin sister, who is believed to have committed suicide there. In The Forest (there’s two, actually) and in a couple of others set in Aokigahara recently, the nefarious spirits of the dead are given more of an opportunity to influence the narrative than in The Sea of Trees. The yūrei aren’t completely absent from Van Sant’s film, but, he doesn’t seem to have been particularly interested in horror. The making-of featurette, “The Sea of Trees: A Story of Beauty and Tragedy,” is included.

Uncle Nick: Blu-ray
The cover art on the Uncle Nick package alerts us to the likelihood that the movie contained therein has something to do with Christmas, with the wonderfully lumpen comic-actor Brian Posehn (“The Sarah Silverman Program”) sitting in for Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa or Randy Quaid’s Cousin Eddie, in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. While it’s obvious that director Chris Kasick and writer Mike Demski (“Attack of the Show!”) probably created Posehn’s lewd, drunken Uncle Nick from the DNA of those memorable characters and other ghosts of holidays past, a parallel storyline has nothing to do with Christmas. After shopping for gifts at a local liquor and hardware store, Nick shows up early at the fancy lakeside home of his brother, Cody (Beau Ballinger), his rich wife, Sophie (Paget Brewster), quizzically flirtatious niece, Valerie (Melia Renee), and nerdy nephew, Marcus (Jacob Houston). He intends to spike the punch and get a head start on everyone else, especially his ditzy sister, Michelle (Missi Pyle), and her doofus husband, Kevin (Scott Adsit).

Savvy viewers could set their clocks to the series of social abominations committed by Nick over the course of the evening, including sharing booze and cigarettes with the kids, sending selfies of his penis to Valerie, berating his brother for sponging off Sophie and trying to make Sophie feel bad about being rich. Being diehard fans of Cleveland sports teams, the filmmakers pay due homage to one of the lowlights in the city’s checkered history: the dime-beer-night promotion at Municipal Stadium on June 4, 1974, which turned so riotous that it caused the Indians to forfeit the game to the Texas Rangers. (It would be trumped five years later by the Disco Demolition Night riot, July 12, 1979, at Chicago’s Comiskey Park.) Uncle Nick is thus broken into inning-by-inning chapters, whose flashbacks reflect the incrementally bad behavior at the game and party. It’s an interesting device … sometimes more interesting than what’s happening inside the house. Fans of Posehn and such off-brand cable-comedy shows as “Mr. Show with Bob and David,” “The Sarah Silverman Program,” “Human Giant,” “The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret” and “Reno 911” should have a field day with Uncle Nick. A barf-o-meter is included in Blu-ray supplemental package.

Imperium: Blu-ray
On April 19, 1995, a rental truck packed with explosives was detonated in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, leaving 168 people dead and hundreds more injured. The immediate knee-jerk reaction by most Americans, I suspect, was that this horrifying crime was perpetrated by the same sort of Islamic terrorists who had denoted a similar device in a truck parked under the North Tower of the World Trade Center, two years earlier, killing six people and injuring more than a thousand. Instead, within two days, right-wing extremists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were identified, arrested and charged in the attack. The former was executed in 1999, while the latter remains in prison. Like the true believers we meet in Daniel Ragussis’ Imperium, the former U.S. Army roommates were inspired by what they believed to be illegal government repression of the survivalists living at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the deadly siege on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. In the 20 years since that attack, the Internet has served as a clearing house for groups, previously not thought directly linked by their hatred for the government, to swap conspiracy theories, learn how to make explosives, trade hate literature, music and Hitler memorabilia, and coordinate actions.

In what at first glance seems to be an illogical casting decision, Ragussis chose wee Daniel Radcliffe to portray FBI agent Nate Foster, who’s based former undercover agent and counterterrorism expert Mike German. He’s recruited by Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette), who monitors such things, to infiltrate a white-supremacist group that she believes is connected to a network of hate organizations holding several containers full of radioactive material. It’s worth noting, however, that Radcliffe, formerly known as Harry Potter, is of the same height and stature as Edward Furlong, who was so scary in American History X. After convincing a group of bonehead Nazi wannabes of his hatred for non-Aryans, he’s introduced to members of other groups far more capable of committing a heinous assault on a big-city utility. Even though Foster is a thorough investigator, there are times when taking a by-the-book approach could cost him his life. His ability to think on his feet makes things interesting and exciting for viewers and everyone around him. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Ragussis and German; cast and crew interviews; and the featurettes “Living Undercover” and “Making Imperium.”

My Love, Don’t Cross that River
Boiled to its essence Jin Mo-young’s thoroughly enchanting My Love, Don’t Cross That River is a romance for the ages and a reminder that love can be eternal … or as close to it as we’re allowed on Earth. Jo Byeong-man and Kang Kye-yeol, have been inseparable companions for 76 years. Being several years younger than her husband when they were introduced to each other, Kang admits to initially being shy and intimidated in his presence. All these years later, they dress in matching outfits, finish each other’s sentences and laugh at each other’s jokes. At the beginning of the film, Jo and Kang are a surprising spry 89 and 98 years old. They show few signs of slowing down as they navigate the rocky paths, hills and streams of their gorgeous rural property. Around a year into the production, Jo developed a serious cough and begins to look his age. No one, except Kang, appears to be concerned enough to bundle him up, put him into a car and take him to the local clinic for a check-up, at least. The closest we get to an early prognosis is Kang explaining to her children that a doctor has concluded that he’s too old to benefit from drugs or stop-gap treatment, so let him hack his lungs out.

Still, it’s possible to wonder if Jin might have considered handing him a bottle of codeine-laced cough syrup and worry about journalistic ethic later. My Love, Don’t Cross That River ends the way it has to end, though, with one of the subjects mourning the passing of the other. Here, as the title suggests, it’s handled with extreme dignity and poetic finality. Even after 86 minutes, we don’t know a great deal about the details of this wonderful couple’s time together. We do know they loved each other and, for reasons of their own, were willing to share their joy and pain with us, and that’s enough. The DVD arrives with Christian Bruno and Natalija Vekic’s short doc, Ed & Pauline, a portrait of the creative collaboration between uber-critic Pauline Kael and fellow movie lover Ed Landberg. In the 1960s, they transformed a small storefront theater in Berkeley into a church for cineastes. As a married couple, however, they were a bust. It recalls a time before Kael was a dominant force in movie criticism at the New Yorker and art films were a rare and endangered species outside New York.

Ugly, Dirty & Bad: Blu-ray
Men & Chicken: Blu-Ray
The Apostate
Now that I’ve seen Ettore Scola’s uncharacteristically uproarious and dark comedy, Ugly, Dirty & Bad, I have a pretty good idea where Paul Abbott might have come up with the narrative structure for the raunchy TV series “Shameless,” in both its British and America iterations. Although Abbott is said to have based the story and characters on his own dysfunctional family and adolescence in rough-and-tumble Burnley, Lancashire, they’re cut from the same cloth as Scola’s film. At the lazy, drunken and dishonest heart of all three is a worthless father, Frank Gallagher, in “Shameless,” and Nino Manfredi, as the despicable Giacinto Mazzatella, in Ugly, Dirty & Bad. So much, though, for idle speculation. Mazzatella lives with his wife and brood of around 18 children, grandchildren, in-laws, his TV-addicted mother and for a third of the movie, at least, his much younger mistress. The seriously overcrowded home is in a hilltop shantytown, located almost in the shadow of the Vatican and homes of people who benefitted from Italy’s post-war “economic miracle.” All the people in the house are distinguished by one or more unappealing personality trait, physical characteristics or financial challenges. The old man lost his sight in one eye from an industrial accident, for which he was compensated with a million lires. A miser, Mazzatella knows that his family would kill him for what they considered to be their share of the money. He hides it in the house or on his person, even going so far as to sleeping with a shotgun. When he brings home his fat prostitute mistress and lavishes her with gifts, food and clothes, the family members do conspire to get rid of him. These are people, we’re told, are “miserable people, living miserably.” The only person in the shantytown considered to be even remotely successful is a pretty teenage girl who poses for pinup magazines and gets lifts home from men who drive Mercedes. She makes her mother proud. Ugly, Dirty & Bad doesn’t offer much of anything hopeful or redemptive to the characters, beyond the ability to survive on the edges of society on their own terms. Neither, though, does he ridicule or slander them. In this way, the movie turned Italian neo-realism on its head. The Film Movement Classics package includes commentary by Richard Peña, professor of film studies, Columbia University and a collector’s booklet with an essay by film scholar, Ronald Bergan.

From Denmark comes Anders Thomas Jensen’s outlandish and frequently disturbing slapstick comedy, Men & Chicken, described by one wag as a dark hybrid of the Three Stooges and “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” And, that’s as good a description as any of what awaits viewers. Mads Mikkelsen, once again playing hilariously against type, and David Dencik (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) are paired for the fourth time in a Jensen film, this time as personality-challenged siblings who are appraised of their actual genealogical roots in their late father’s videotaped will. Seeking more information, they travel to the small Danish island of Ork, where they stumble upon three additional half-brothers. Each of them has a hereditary harelip and lunatic tendencies, probably from living in a dilapidated mansion overrun by barn animals. At first, the outsiders engage in a competition of wills. Eventually, though, they’re accepted into the secretive clan. More than that, I can’t reveal. To say that Men & Chicken won’t fit everyone’s tastes is something of an understatement. For anyone looking for something completely different, though, it will come as a godsend. The Drafthouse Films release contains a lengthy booklet, featuring behind-the-scenes photos and concept art from the film’s production, as well as a brief essay from Jensen.

More absurdist than dark, Uruguayan director Federico Veiroj’s The Apostate describes the confounding pursuit of the baptismal certificate a Spanish man needs to officially renounce his Roman Catholic faith. Rather than simply stop attending Mass and partaking in the sacraments, aimless graduate student Gonzalo (Álvaro Ogalla) wants to justify his decision to church leaders, by decrying all the usual things lapsed Catholics decry when considering their religious options. The clerics with whom he meets consider his opposition to Church dogma to be sufficiently sound to make him a candidate for redemption. The higher he climbs on the Church’s hierarchical ladder, the more his quest for a simple sheet of paper comes to resemble that of Yossarian in “Catch-22.” The Apostate touches on the conflict between tradition and modernity within the Catholic Church, using Gonzalo as an example of a sinner – sleeping around, mostly – who has no use for the Church, but abides by its ludicrous protocols, anyway. Despite the subject matter, The Apostate doesn’t demand much more of viewers than they open themselves to the possibility that they’ll find one man’s religious crisis to be entertaining. The “deluxe edition” of the Breaking Glass DVD includes Veirjo’s two other full-length features, “Acne” and “A Useful Life.”

Men Go to Battle
Most of the recent movies set around the Civil War have necessarily dealt with slavery and its effects on individuals and society at large.  Zachary Treitz’s feature debut, Men Go to Battle, deals far less with the politics and violence surrounding the issue, or the preservation of the union, than with the reality of life for young Northern farmers destined to become fodder for Southern cannons. In 1861, Francis and Henry Mellon (David Maloney, Timothy Morton) are struggling to keep their Kentucky property from drying up and blowing away, even as rumors of war swirl around them. When the homestead becomes too small for their divergent personalities, Henry takes off one night to take advantage of the security and benefits of army life. When the war begins for real and the generals put their men directly in harm’s way, Henry is so stunned by the carnage that he decides to walk home and keep going. What distinguishes Men Go to Battle from other movies set during the war is cinematography and pacing that recalls the more pastoral scenes in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. Treitz also does a nice job realistically depicting the interaction between hard working men and women, and their children, in social situations.

Carnage Park: Blu-ray
Last Girl Standing
By now, it’s safe to assume that most, if not all aspiring filmmakers under 30 have seen enough pulpy movies made or influenced by Quentin Tarantino, the Coens or Robert Rodriguez – and, by extension, grindhouse classics of the 1970s – that the genre DNA has become encoded in their bloodstreams. What excites niche critics most is the discovery of newcomers willing to find to tweak, twist and tickle tropes and clichés whose origins can be traced back to the silent era. After Bob Dylan was named Nobel Laureate last month, it became fashionable for pundits to point out how much his songs owe to such early blues and country giants as Charlie Patton and Jimmie Rogers, not to mention such acknowledged masters as Woody Guthrie and Blind Willie McTell. An open secret for 50 years, his ability to steal from the best is something we’ve always loved about Dylan. In turn, singer-songwriters have been borrowing from Dylan ever since he was signed to Columbia by John Hammond. I only mention this because reviews of Michael Keating’s truly freaky, if completely derivative Carnage Park reference Tarantino, the Coens and Rodriguez as if viewers couldn’t figure out it out for themselves. A few even refer to Peter Watkins’s 1971 faux-documentary Punishment Park, which, itself, owes its existence to Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1932 shocker The Most Dangerous Game. Here, it’s 1978 and a bank robbery gone wrong forces two criminals to take a hostage, the young-but-resilient Vivian (Ashley Bell), as they go on the run. Things go from bad to berserk when Vivian and her captors wind up in the crosshairs of a deranged ex-military sniper (Pat Healy), who ensnares them in his deadly game of cat and mouse. The sniper, who wears a gas mask and carries an M-16, has carved a theme park dedicated to torture and death out of his vast Southwestern enclave. He would love to add a few more trophies to his underground boneyard. If there’s nothing particularly new in the premise, what makes Carnage Park fresh are 1) the presence of the delightfully unimposing Bell (The Last Exorcism), a scream queen for our time, 2) Mac Fisken’s frequently spectacular desert cinematography, and 3) Keating’s ability to keep us guessing as to who’s going to be killed next and how it will be accomplished. In five productive years – Ultra Violence, Ritual, Pod, Darling – he has proven himself to be the real deal.

Benjamin R. Moody’s paranoid thriller, The Last Girl Standing, deviates from the well-trodden path, as well. It opens with a scene of ritualistic carnage that would serve as the climax for most other slasher flicks. The “final girl,” Camryn (Akasha Villalobos), dispatches with the masked-and-horned fiend, but is severely traumatized by the murder of her closest friends. Flash-forward five years and Camryn finally feels well enough to get a job at a dry-cleaning shop, if only as therapy, and to test her stability. No such luck. It doesn’t take long before she begins to feel as if she’s being stalked by something or someone evil. To calm her tortured nerves, Camryn agrees to move into a house owned by a co-worker and his tightknit group of friends. They sympathize with Camryn’s plight, but eventually tire of her frequent outbursts, which they consider to be PTSD-induced hallucinations. On the other hand, her release from the booby hatch might simply have been premature. Not even a return to the scene of the crime and exhumation of the killer’s body bring closure. Camryn now believes that the killer will invade the house and leave her alone and in shock, once again. Is this even possible? Moody does a nice job maintaining tension in a story whose highpoint may have come before the opening credit roll.

Judge Archer
Reign of Assassins
The Lost Bladesman
Bruce Lee: Tracking the Dragon
Around here, it seems as if every week is a good week for new martial-arts pictures. While none of them have been created equally, each has its own reason for existing and, given the enduring nature of Asian myth and legend, they make the history of the American West look like a blink of the eye. Then, too, there’s the diversity in set and costume design, weaponry and fight choreography. If Bruce Lee served as the catalyst for bringing wuxia, kung fu and other fighting disciplines into the late 20th Century, the titles covered here demonstrate the enduring allure of the past. Xu Haofeng, writer/director/stunt-coordinator of Judge Archer, may be a newcomer to the game – his third screenplay became The Grandmaster, a collaboration with Wong Kar-Wai and Zou Jingzhi Zou – but he prepared for the transition by studying hand-to-hand combat, researching martial-arts history, lecturing on film direction and writing novels. Judge Archer is set in the early part of the 20th Century, a time of great social, political and economic upheaval in China. Warlords, their soldiers and other practitioners of the martial arts would find their control of underground activities challenged by police and opponents with access to guns and explosives. The story follows a young man (Song Yang), who escapes from his village after being cruelly beaten up and witnessing the rape of his sister by the local landlord. He takes refuge in a monastery, where his talents are honed and he’s trained to take over the position of the Judge Archer. Less a promotion than a death sentence, the arbitrator adjudicates conflicts between the various academies, each one of them serving a different warlord. The intricacies of the plot don’t always gel, but it’s fun to watch the dizzying array of fighting styles and weapons on display. Judge Archer also features a tad more sexuality than usual, as well.

Reign of Assassins, a wuxia directed by Su Chao-pin and co-directed by John Woo, may be set during the Ming Dynasty, but it feels as if it could very easily be adapted to an old-fashioned Western. Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is a skilled assassin dedicated to returning the mummified remains of a mystical Buddhist monk to their resting place, before they can be stolen or purchased for their magical powers. Along the way, Zeng falls in love with Jiang (Jung Woo-sung), whose father was killed by her gang, but is unaware of her past. He has secrets of his own, which will be revealed when the Black Stone Gang realizes where their missing accomplice is laying low. (The press material suggests we think of it as Face/Off meets Mr. and Mrs. Smith.) The gang endeavors to recover the monk’s remains and teach Zeng a lesson in humility. The film’s cast includes actors from Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong and China, as well as Woo’s daughter, Angeles, as Eater Bear. (The names of the gang members are a hoot.) The action recalls the heyday of the 1990s, when fantasy and creative wire work combined to enchant audiences drawn to historical epics.

Written and directed by Alan Mak and Felix Chong, collaborators on the Infernal Affairs trilogy, The Lost Bladesman is loosely based on Luo Guanzhong’s historical novel, “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.” Once again, ancient China is in a state of turmoil. To unify the country, General Cao Cao (Jiang Wen) takes the great warrior Guan Yu (Donnie Yen) prisoner, in the hope of convincing him to turn his back on the general’s enemy, Liu Bei (Alex Fong). As leverage, Cao Cao has taken Guan Yu’s lover, Qi Lan (Betty Sun), hostage, as well. Once the smoke clears, Cao Cao makes promises to Guan Yu that he has no intention of keeping. The double-cross prompts an exciting mix of wild battle scenes and furious duels, all choreographed by Yen. Guan Yu frequently is required to take on hordes of opponents, typically with only a spear or ax at his disposal. He’s one very bad dude.

Whenever I receive a DVD purporting to offer something new on the life and films of Bruce Lee – gone, lo, the past 43 years – I wonder how cheesy the clip job is going to be. Lee didn’t have the largest inventory of films from which draw and the ones available to most documentary makers are weathered almost beyond recognition. It explains why I was so surprised by John Little’s unusual take on the subject, Bruce Lee: Tracking the Dragon. More than anything else, it reveals the time, effort and money invested in a product most people are probably going to dismiss out of hand. Little does nothing more than visit and report what he finds from the locations of scenes shot for The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, The Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon. It’s a device that Scream Factory has repeatedly employed as a bonus feature in its Blu-ray packages of upgraded horror flicks. Besides being fun to watch, it allows fans to revisit what’s left of the locations and witnesses. Many of the sites Little visits remain largely unchanged nearly a half-century later. At monasteries, ice factories, the Colosseum, mansions, outdoor landmarks, dojos and on urban streets, Little is able to present a comprehensive review of Lee’s legacy. The clips are clean, useful and don’t look as if they were transferred from World War II surplus film stock. He also was able to interview co-stars, crew members, hotel and factory workers, and witnesses to the productions. Fans will love it.

Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror: Blu-ray
Razors: The Return of Jack the Ripper
The Trail of Dracula
Giallo specialist Andrea Bianchi (Malabimba: The Malicious Whore) was working against type when he took on the gory zombie thriller, Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror. The experiment was less than successful, but not completely devoid of rewards. The action starts when a nutty professor opens the cover to an Etruscan tomb and is rewarded for his enterprise by being killed by one of its undead inhabitants. Coincidentally, a mixed group of clueless jet-setters takes up residence in the estate’s opulent castle, where they become easy targets for the zombie horde. Bianchi adds some kinky sexual interludes before the ghouls’ attack, including a too-close relationship between a sexy mom (Mariangela Giordano) and her needy 12-year-old son (played by 25-year-old dwarf actor Peter Bark). Burial Ground isn’t likely to show up on any expert’s list of top horror films. It remains, however, a creep show worthy of any buff’s attention. The Severin Blu-ray adds “Villa Parisi: Legacy of Terror,” a featurette on the historic house location; “Peter Still Lives,” a festival Q&A with Bark; “Just for the Money,” an interview with actor Simone Mattioli; “The Smell of Death,” interviews with producer Gabriele Crisanti and actress Mariangela Giordano; and deleted/extended scenes.

Because Jack the Ripper may be as familiar to American moviegoers as Billy the Kid and John Dillinger are to European audiences, it takes something new and different to capture our collective attention. Typically, it arrives in the form of a new suspect in the infamous Whitechapel murders, which took place between April 3, 1888, and February 13. 1891. The royal connection has been explored, as has the dubious theory that the monster moved to the United States and picked up here where he left off in London. Ian Powell and Karl Ward’s appropriately dark and dreary, Razors: The Return of Jack the Ripper is based on premise that seems reasonably fresh, at least. A half-dozen screenwriting students, gathered in a dank Islington warehouse (the Elektrowerkz nightclub), are assigned by their hot-shot teacher to come up with an idea for a new horror franchise. One of them, Ruth Walker (Kelby Keenan), comes to class with a box of knives and razors she’s been led to believe once belonged to the killer. The warehouse is said to have been built over a smelter that police of the period used to destroy confiscated weapons, so why not? When the box disappears, the bad craziness begins. This includes ghosts of victims past and a new series of murders. Not bad, but don’t try to watch “Razors” on your iPhone, because it will look like a blackout during the blitz. It also suffers from some narrative lapses. The DVD adds the featurettes, “Lights, Camera, Speed!” and “Behind the Walls,” as well as clips and interviews, and commentary with the directors and cast.

The Trail of Dracula takes 75 minutes to trace the path the vampire king took from folkloric nightmare to prominence in the 20th Century’s most powerful and popular medium. Some of the world’s foremost experts on the Dracula legend open with scholarship surrounding Vlad the Impaler and their influence on Bram Stoker’s celebrated novel, then discuss landmark stage productions and classic movie adaptations. Vintage interviews with Bela Lugosi, John Carradine and Christopher Lee add some life to all the talk of the undead, as do clips from later cinematic iterations. “The Trail” feels very much like the kind of extended featurettes now appearing in Arrow Video Blu-ray packages, but I didn’t recognize it as such. The bonus package is pretty good, too, starting with 94 minutes of Dracula-themed movie trailers, audio interviews with Lee and Francis Lederer (Return of Dracula). It adds video interviews with director Werner Herzog (Nosferatu the Vampyre) and actor Udo Kier (Blood for Dracula).

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in Concert: Blu-ray
Gypsy: Blu-ray
Leonard Bernstein’s Candide in Concert: Blu-ray
If the idea of bringing Broadway musicals to Blu-ray doesn’t sound particularly novel or revolutionary, consider how few live stage performances of landmark productions have been recorded for posterity on hi-def. Typically, we get film adaptations of important works, but rarely without revisions being made for the medium. For Academy Award consideration, if nothing else, original songs are added or deleted and actors more familiar to movie audiences replace Broadway or West End cast members. This has been going on for generations, only occasionally bringing loud protests from audiences. Way back in the early 1970s, when such things were still possible, producer Ely Landau launched a series of completely faithful film adaptations of 14 important stage plays under the American Film Theatre banner. They were contracted to be exhibited in 500 theaters in 400 cities, with admissions based on subscriptions to the entire series. Landau wanted to reach American audiences who rarely get to see the seminal works of theatre, as interpreted by Broadway’s greatest actors and directors. Among the titles were “A Delicate Balance,” “The Homecoming,” “The Iceman Cometh,” “Three Sisters,” “The Maids” and “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.” Directors and stars included Tony Richardson Peter Hall, John Frankenheimer, Harold Pinter, Laurence Olivier, Katharine Hepburn, Paul Scofield, Lee Marvin, Jeff Bridges, Robert Ryan, Fredric March, Brock Peters, Stacy Keach, Gene Wilder, Zero Mostel, Alan Bates and Jessica Tandy. The “subscription only” conceit probably had as much to do with the series’ failure as a general unfamiliarity with too many of the plays. Still, when Kino International announced it would release individual titles on DVD, in 2003, and a boxed set, in 2008, it came as welcome news to lovers of English-language theater.

This week, Shout! Factory launched its new home-entertainment series, Shout Broadway, with live-performance renditions of Gypsy, Leonard Bernstein’s Candide and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. If they’re missing the cast members who made them famous — “Gypsy” was first performed on Broadway in 1959, after all – the actors who do perform here are uniformly excellent and familiar to most Americans. Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s “Gypsy,” one of Broadway’s most memorable productions comes to life in 2015’s stunning West End production, starring Imelda Staunton, Peter Davison and Lara Pulver. The colorful and catchy production of “Leonard Bernstein’s Candid in Concert,” about an innocent young man’s journey through a life filled with colorful characters and unexpected life obstacles, stars Tony Award-winners Patti LuPone and Kristin Chenoweth. “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in Concert” is represented by the 2001 concert presentation of Broadway’s black-humored thriller of revenge, razors, murder, and meat pies. It features LuPone, Tony-winner George Hearn, and Neil Patrick Harris and adds a making-of featurette, with Sondheim. “Sweeney Todd” and “Candide” were previously released on standard-definition DVD.

Meathead Goes Hog Wild
Have you ever begun to watch a movie — at home or at a festival — and, after 15 minutes of boredom, decided to hit the stop button or sneak into another screening down the hall? Then, when you read the reviews, it’s as if the critics watched a completely different movie. By giving up early, it seems, you missed the good parts. I felt like hitting the stop button on Meathead Goes Hog Wild when I gave up hoping the unnamed protagonist would do something to justify my investment in time. In another five minutes, however, things changed dramatically. It was as if a different director had taken the helm and righted the ship’s course. Made for something on the order of $6,000 in Kickstarter funds, and what the trio of co-writer/co-director/co-producers — Kevin Cline, Zach Harris, Sean Pierce — could squeeze out of their piggy banks, Meathead Goes Hog Wild is an urban revenge fantasy not unlike Taxi Driver and Falling Down. Cline plays the unknown protagonist, a slacker whose wealthy suburban roots are revealed early in the narrative. We empathize with him when he returns home to say goodbye to his family’s terminally ill dog and discovers that his parents have ignored his wishes by putting Care packages filled with household staples and cash in the backseat of his car. Despite his protestations, he’s about to lose his job at the local mom-and-pop butcher shop for his slovenly appearance and inappropriate interaction with customers. When the owner refuses to accept his apology, the young man cuts off his straggly hair and swears vengeance. Considering how few resources he has, however, this would not be easy. Even so, the movie suddenly has become interesting. The newly bald avenger decides to break into the shop and steal a supply of meat, which he neatly repackages and tries to hand out to needy residents of Chicago’s predominantly African-American Near West Side (I guessing). Not acquainted with the saying, “Beware of geeks bearing gifts,” the wannabe Santa is stunned by how few people refuse the free meat. During the course of the evening, he also is attacked, robbed, shot at, used as bait for a cheating husband and accused of mocking a gang’s graffiti signatures. The protagonist is so scrawny and clueless that we change our mind about him entirely. What impressed me most about “Meathead” is how well the creative team captures a hyper-sanitized vision of Chicago at night, from a brightly polished El station to streets free of garbage, standing water and potholes. (Spike Lee accomplishes the same effect in his movies.) If “Meathead” had cost $60,000 or $600,000 to make – still bargains – I might not have arrived at the same conclusion. At $6,000, though, it’s a small miracle.

Don McLean: Starry Starry Night
My Way
Morphine: Journey of Dreams
“American Pie” is the kind of classic tune that millions of amateur troubadours have sung along to over the past 45 years, but very few professional artists have attempted to cover. Madonna recorded an abridged version of it, along with two music videos, as did Mott the Hoople. The song is so closely associated with Don McLean’s personal history, however, that few artists will touch it. And, that’s a very good thing, because a lot of Baby Boomers consider the song a part of their personal songbook, as well. Last year, McLean’s original working manuscript for “American Pie” sold for $1.2 million at Christie’s auction house. His first televised special, Don McLean: Starry Starry Night, has been a PBS Pledge Month staple for the last 10 years. The DVD is newly available to civilians, as well. Recorded in Austin’s Paramount Theater, it features “Vincent,” “It Was a Very Good Year,” “Castles in the Air,” “Crying,” “Singing the Blues” and, of course, “American Pie,” as well as interstitial interviews. Nanci Griffith joins him on “And I Love You So” and “Raining in My Heart.” It has now been visually upgraded with concert footage from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.

The story behind Dominique Mollee and Vinny Sisson’s kooky rockumentary, My Way, is so Hollywood perfect that there were times when I thought it might have been scripted by the fabulists at MTV’s “Real World” or “Road Rules.” We follow the all-women rock band, fronted by Rebekah Starr and Estonian tambourine player Annika, as they travel from a rural Pennsylvania town to L.A., with stops along the way to sell their CDs and perform at the occasional dive bar. When they aren’t out hustling their product, bickering or looking for the nearest watering hole, the members stand before the camera to record their confessions and observations of life on the road. Their goal is to shot music videos that showcase all their attributes. Although Starr abhors sexist labels and being ogled by horndogs – she left the corporate world because of her distaste of the toxic workplace environment — it’s impossible to ignore the fact the women are drop-dead gorgeous … all of them. And, they’re extremely competent musicians, to boot. Although more poppy than punk, their songs bear the imprint of Hole, the Go-Go’s, Bangles and a dozen different Brit power-pop bands. If anyone is attempting to resurrect the Monkees today, I’d suggest they consider the pre-packaged RSB. The sad fact, though, is that the music business is a cruel way to make a living and it’s getting tougher. By focusing  their appeal to serious fans of hard-core rock, they’ve effectively eliminated the kids who actually spend money on their favorite acts … Taylor Swift being the prime exemplar of what sells today. Also testifying are rock legends Steven Adler (Guns N’ Roses), Rikki Rockett (Poison) and, inexplicably, Ron Jeremy, who plays a character in one of their videos. My Turn would have benefitted from the opinions of Courtney Love, Joan Jett and Ann or Nancy Wilson. The DVD adds extended interviews and full-length videos.

Morphine: Journey of Dreams is yet another rockumentary about a highly regarded band that woulda, coulda, shoulda become a bigger attraction, but couldn’t break through the clutter of the 1990s’ music scene. A big hit in Boston and cities with a substantial audience for alternative rock ’n’ roll, Morphine limited its own appeal by creating a “low rock” niche. The trio’s unique and mesmeric sound echoes the Velvet Underground and bands not afraid to cross genre boundaries and write lyrics that are worth the effort it takes to decipher. Witnesses include the trio’s surviving members — saxophonist Dana Colley and drummers Billy Conway and Jerome Dupree — plus the late Mark Sandman’s girlfriend, and peers Joe Strummer, Steve Berlin and the ever-quotable Henry Rollins. The in-concert material speaks for itself. The DVD adds 40 minutes of extended interviews, Colley’s journal readings and Sandman’s photographs.

Midnight Run: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
In 1988, when the coast-to-coast buddy film Midnight Run was released, no one in Hollywood was convinced that Robert De Niro had the necessary chops to play one of the male leads in a comedy. He had been disguised beyond easy recognition in Brazil and Rupert Pupkin, in The King of Comedy, could hardly be mistaken for a comedian. A hard-boiled skip-tracer, maybe; a funny hard-boiled skip-tracer, who knew? Charles Grodin, playing the crooked bookkeeper DeNiro’s character is committed to find and return, had already displayed his sly comic charm in several supporting roles, but rarely in the lead position. Even if Midnight Run more than broke even at the box office, it didn’t do the kind of business that would inspire anyone to repeat the experiment. A decade later, De Niro made people laugh in Wag the Dog, Jackie Brown and Analyze This. Meet the Parents served as the palette cleanser fans needed to remove the bad taste left from The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle. With the exceptions of Silver Lining Playbook, American Hustle and Joy, it can be argued that he’s been phoning it in ever since. Dirty Grandpa, anyone? The release of Midnight Run: Collector’s Edition into Blu-ray serves as a reminder not only of the magic that comes from perfect casting, but also the importance of well-matched supporting characters, including Yaphet Kotto, John Ashton, Dennis Farina and Joe Patoliano and a budget that can afford location shoots in Arizona, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Michigan, Manhattan, Las Vegas, Idaho and New Zealand. It benefits from a 2K scan from the Inter-postive; hi-def interviews with De Niro (sort of, anyway), Grodin, Pantoliano, Ashton, Kotto and writer George Gallo; and a vintage making-of featurette.

TV-to-DVD
Channel 4: The IT Crowd: The Complete Series
PBS: Masterpiece: Durrells in Corfu: Blu-ray
A&E: 50 Years of Star Trek
AMC: Hell on Wheels: Season 5, Volume 2: The Final Episodes
BBC/PBS: India: Nature’s Wonderland
BBC Earth/PBS: Forces of Nature: Blu-ray
PBS: Simple Gifts: The Chamber Music Society at Shaker Village
PBS: Craft in America: Teachers
Nickelodeon: Paw Patrol: Pups Save Christmas
When desktop computers became ubiquitous appendages to office workers here and around the world, it soon became apparent that an entire class of employees would have to be created to service both machines and humans. Because IT staffers held the keys to a company’s fluid operation, and were ridiculed as geeks and nerds, it sometimes seemed as if they held fellow employees in contempt (“Have you tried turning it off and on again?”) and punished them in ways that weren’t always apparent. The Channel 4 sitcom, “The IT Team,” confirmed such notions in hilarious stories and throughlines. Here, the support team was comprised of bitter slacker, Roy (Chris O’Dowd), socially inept Moss (future Conchord, Richard Ayoade) and their new boss, computer illiterate Jen (Katherine Parkinson). The show also focuses on the bosses of Reynholm Industries: Denholm Reynholm (Chris Morris) and later, his son Douglas (Matt Berry). The British series ran four seasons, from 2006 to 2013. An American adaptation was planned, but never came to fruition. The DVD adds commentary with writer/director Graham Linehan on select episodes, deleted scenes, outtakes; interviews, original opening-sequence animatic, “Kalypso” by Sweet Billy Pilgrim and the rarely seen episode, “The Internet Is Coming.”

The world was a much larger place, when, in 1935, Louisa Durrell announced that she and her four children were moving from Bournemouth to the Greek island of Corfu. Her husband has died some years earlier and the family is experiencing financial problems. A Homeric battle ensues as the family adapts to life on the island which, despite a lack of electricity, is cheap and an earthly paradise. The family of five had already been uprooted from India to England, after the death of patriarch Lawrence Samuel Durrell, and money was tighter than she expected it to be. Compared to England, island life promised to be idyllic … practically free … except when it wasn’t. The “Masterpiece” mini-series, “Durrells in Corfu,” was adapted from youngest son Gerald Durrell’s memoirs, “My Family and Other Animals” (1954), “Birds, Beasts and Relatives” (1969) and “The Garden of the Gods.” He portrayed his mother Louisa (Keeley Hawes) as the family’s well-meaning but slightly eccentric matriarch. Women can’t be too eccentric for PBS audiences. Much of the show’s first six-episode season deals with the family adjusting to the new environment and the sometimes-difficult Greek residents. Gerald’s obsession with animals and Margo’s roller-coaster romances add quite a bit of spice to the proceedings. ITV has already committed to a second season.

The History documentary 50 Years of Star Trek is a celebrity-enhanced look back at a half-century of Trekiana, based on memories of things past and their importance in the pop-cultural universe. Only those neophytes who haven’t heard about the series’ premature demise and subsequent resurrections will find anything revelatory in the discussions with cast, crew, creators and critics. Dyed-in-the-wool Trekkies will gravitate toward Leonard Nimoy’s last interview and the celebrity testimonials. Kevin Pollak, Nerdist podcast co-host Matt Mira, history professor John Putman, actress Jeri Ryan, NASA engineer Bobak Ferdowsi and make-up effects artist Doug Drexler sat down at the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles to talk about Trek. It arrives on the same day as Star Trek Beyond.

I don’t if the folks at AMC planned for “Hell on Wheels” to last as long as the time it took to complete this country’s first transcontinental railroad. That’s how it played out, however. “Hell on Wheels: Season 5, Volume 2: The Final Episodes” completes the journey undertaken by former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) on Nov. 6, 2011. and his work on America’s first transcontinental railroad. The final push to finish the monumental undertaking brings with it a reckoning for Bohannon and the men standing in his path: the bloodthirsty Swede, the mercenary Chang and the rapacious Thomas Durant. While the railroad’s completion is certain, who and what will survive the golden-spike ceremony remains in question, with no one more at risk than Cullen Bohannon. With plenty more rail to be laid in the U.S. and Canada, the show might never end, despite “The Final Episodes” distinction.

India isn’t the first place that comes to mind when travelers plan trips based on safaris, birding or eco-tourism. There are so many other things to see and do in the subcontinent that it hardly seems time- or cost-effective to go off the beaten to ind exotica. In any case, in many places, the animals come to you. The BBC’s wondrous two-part mini-series, “India: Nature’s Wonderland,” travels from the mountainous north, where the holy waters of the Ganges originate, to the verdant hills and forests of the distant south, where elephants graze among the tea bushes. Wildlife expert Liz Bonnin, actor Freida Pinto and mountaineer Jon Gupta are our guides to this vast land, bringing within feet of potentially dangerous elephants, Asiatic lions and tigers, once hunted to near extinction. The hosts also attend celebrations and dances held each year to celebrate animals they fear, respect and worship. And, of course, babies are well represented: rhinos, turtles, lions, hornbills, caciques, elephants and macaques.

In four episodes, the BBC and PBS co-production, “Forces of Nature,” describes how and why so many of Earth’s wondrous sights, global communities and habitats are created by the forces of the universe that seem random and arbitrary, but are anything but that. Exploring motion, shapes and colors, the series connects things like snowflakes and the largest human-made towers to the laws of science and nature. The documentary take us from Florida’s coastline to Papua, New Guinea, inside of a volcano, to the icy seas of Greenland and beyond to learn how complex forces shape our planet: Why is water blue? How can a shape defy gravity? Why do bees make hexagonal honeycombs? It also describes how forces that began at the beginning of time create meteorological phenomena today.

Each year on Memorial Day weekend, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center takes up residency in one of the country s most beautiful historic sites: Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Kentucky, where a vibrant Shaker community once flourished. The “Live From Lincoln Center” went on the road with the ensemble for the first time in its 40-year history, taking its cameras, trucks and a 15-member crew into the heart of rural America for “Simple Gifts: The Chamber Music Society at Shaker Village.” Performed for a riveted audience in a converted tobacco barn, the concert celebrated American music with unparalleled intimacy and intensity, climaxing with Aaron Copland’s iconic “Appalachian Spring,” which incorporates a traditional Shaker theme at the heart of the work. The film draws parallels between the interrelatedness of art and craftsmanship, the beauty and hardships of the frontier, and the quest for transcendence in American life.

PBS’ “Craft in America: Teachers” highlights artists committed to sharing their skills and passion for craft with students of all ages. It features Navajo weavers Barbara Teller Ornelas and Lynda Teller Pete, at Idyllwild Arts; glass artist Mark Mitsuda, at Punahou School; and glass artist Therman Statom and ceramic artist Linda Sikora, at Alfred University School of Art and Design. The award-winning documentary series is a journey to the artists, objects, techniques and origins of American craft.

Paw Patrol: Pups Save Christmas” is the latest collection of episodes from the hit Nickelodeon show, which features daring rescues by canine crusaders. Kids are invited to join Ryder, Chase, Everest and the rest of the gang as they embark on snow-filled adventures to help Santa save Christmas, rescue penguins, polar bears, Sports Day, Skye Pups and Danny Pups.

The DVD Wrapup: Hunt for Wilderpeople, Skiptrace, Nerve, Vampire Ecstasy, Gored, Dark Water, The Id, Norman Lear and more

Friday, October 28th, 2016

Hunt for the Wilderpeople
I’ve complained before about the lack of attention given to uniquely entertaining indie movies by distributors, even after being greeted with near-unanimous approval by audiences and critics at festivals. Indulge me while I endorse another film that has broad audience appeal but could easily get lost in the VOD-DVD shuffle. Set in a supremely scenic corner of Peter Jackson’s backyard (a.k.a., New Zealand), Taika Waititi’s coming-of-age Hunt for the Wilderpeople follows a state-raised Maori boy who’s nearly run out of options when it comes to being taken in by foster families and non-penal shelters for abandoned kids. Rotund, lazy and belligerent, Ricky (Julian Dennison) is handed over to a middle-age couple living on the edge of the “bush” – a term not at all representative of the environmentally diverse Tongariro National Park – at the center of the country’s North Island. After a rough start, Ricky quickly finds himself at home with the loving Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata), the cantankerous Uncle Hec (Sam Neill) and mutts Zag and Tupac. When news of Bella’s unexpected death reaches Auckland, Ricky knows that he’ll be transferred to another facility and that Uncle Hec probably won’t go out of his way to prevent the militaristic marshal (Rachel House) from taking him away. The adventure begins when Ricky takes refuge in a forest thick enough to protect him from anyone not named Hec and Zag.

After Hec sprains his ankle, he finds himself at the mercy of the bush and his deceptively out-of-shape “nephew.” To his surprise, Ricky turns out to be a terrific companion. Fearless and a veritable encyclopedia of American gangsta’ culture, he’s also able to provide food and shelter for both of them. Meanwhile, though, the authorities have decided that Hec must be an abusive guardian and Ricky is in harm’s way. The manhunt is complicated by the combined wiles of the desperadoes and the oddball characters they encounter along the way. There’s nothing here that’s predictable or pre-ordained by cinematic tropes. Neill’s experience (Jurassic Park, “The Tudors”) provides a nice counterbalance to Dennison’s fresh take on Ricky’s impertinence and unbridled enthusiasm. The natural wonders of New Zealand – parts of the “LOTR” saga were filmed here, as well – provide an uncommonly diverse background for the story. If Waititi’s name sounds familiar, it’s for his peculiarly Kiwi entertainments as Eagle vs. Shark, “Flight of the Conchords” and What We Do in the Shadows. He’ll get his shot in the Major Leagues with – surprise! – the next chapter in the comic-book epic, “Thor: Ragnarok.” Let’s hope he doesn’t lose sight of the little picture. (BTW, the only thing preventing “Wilderpeople” from getting a PG is some coarse language and hand-to-hand combat with huge wild boars.)

Skiptrace: Blu-ray
American fans of Jackie Chan action-comedies, especially those of the Rush Hour, Shanghai Noon and Tuxedo persuasion, will want to check out Skiptrace, a sprawling romp in which Johnny Knoxville takes over the buddy role previously reserved for Owen Wilson, Chris Tucker and Jennifer Love Hewitt. I don’t know if “Jackass” or Bad Grandpa got much play in China, but there isn’t anything here that requires Knoxville to stick a roman candle in his anus or take a flying leap off a ski jump on a tricycle. Chan plays Bennie, a top Hong Kong detective whose partner is killed in mob hit orchestrated by a heavily protected character nicknamed, “The Matador.” Knoxville plays American gambler Connor Watts, who’s on the lam from Russian gangsters out to settle a score credible only as a plot device. Conveniently, Connor holds the missing link Bennie needs to connect with the Matador. Mostly, the setup allows director Renny Harlin to shoot in China, Hong Kong, Siberia, Macau and Mongolia, or reasonable facsimiles thereof. This, plus the presence of Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing, WWE Diva Eve Torres and 6-foot-1 Finnish singer/songwriter Sara Maria Forsberg, lends Skiptrace a faux James Bond aura. The Blu-ray adds Harlin’s commentary and the featurette, “When Jackie Met Johnny.” And, how’s this for trivia: Chan and Harlin were set to film a fight scene for the abandoned film, “Nosebleed,” on the roof of the World Trade Center the morning of the 9/11 attacks. Instead, the shoot was rescheduled for the next day, so Chan could come up with a new stunt using a window-washing lift. Or, maybe, just maybe, the CIA tipped him off to the impending doom. All conspiracy theories are welcome here.

Nerve: Blu-ray
In Rebel Without a Cause, a game of chicken was staged to determine whether Jimmie or Buzz was the baddest dude at Dawson High School. Theoretically, Buzz won the “chickie run” by staying in his car the longest. By deciding to bail out before his car could fly off the cliff, into the Pacific, however, Jimmie lost the game, but saved his life. If collared by the police, the spectators might have been held as accomplices to any charge of manslaughter registered against James Dean’s archetypal alienated teen. The same game would be staged in other movies, but none as memorably well as the one in Nicholas Ray’s classic story of alienated youth in post-war America. The most significant difference between the games of chicken played in “Rebel” and Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s not dissimilar teen drama, Nerve, is that the dares are meted out via social media, where the viewers are separated into groups of interactive Players and Watchers. The stakes, however, are every bit as high. An industrious, but terribly withdrawn high school senior, Vee (Emma Roberts), is pressured by friends to join the popular online game Nerve, in which Players are rewarded with cash for passing each succeeding test. They range from kissing a stranger, Ian (James Franco), in a restaurant, to risking her life in increasingly dangerous games of chicken.

Vee turns out to be a natural competitor and supportive partner to the more seasoned Ian. If the ending is predictable – or, to be more precise, inevitable – the tests roll out in a satisfying manner. It’s conceivable that games like Nerve already exist on social media and Watchers have served as accomplices by egging on Players or already suicidal peers. I doubt that Nerve was specifically intended to be a cautionary tale, as was Rebel With a Cause. Neither do I think it could play as well across different generations. It did pretty well in its theatrical run and should find an audience, as well, among teens attracted to the interactive features – viewers can choose between being Players or Watchers – and youthful cast of television veterans. They include Miles Heizer (“Parenthood”), Emily Meade (“The Leftovers”), Kimiko Glenn and Samira Wiley (“Orange Is the New Black”), Josh “The Fat Jew” Ostrovsky (“3AM”) and Machine Gun Kelly (“Roadies”). Juliette Lewis plays the token adult. The Blu-ray adds 15 character “pods”; outtakes; games; and profiles.

The Last Film Festival
By one account, at least, some 4,000 film festivals are staged annually around the world. Several of them are held in cities so far off the beaten path that they may not have more than one or two screens, including the pull-down job at the local high school. The Last Film Festival asks us to consider how bad a movie would have to be to be rejected by 3,999 of them. Or, conversely, how desperate the organizers would have to be to accept an atrocity titled “Barium Enigma.” Dennis Hopper, in his final role, plays the film’s producer, Nick Twain, who knows how bad it is, but is committed to promoting it because of the presence of his teeny-bopper mistress, Chloe (Katrina Bowen). He assumes that the fix is in and “Barium Enigma” will sweeps the awards presentation. If so, no one told the O’Hi Festival’s organizer, Harvey Weinstein (Chris Kattan), who also is the tiny Ohio town’s undertaker. Nick is chagrined by the lack of attention surrounding his picture, alternately blaming his young agent (Joseph Cross), missing star (Agim Kaba), aging diva (Jacqueline Bisset), ambitious mayor (JoBeth Williams) and a mysterious stalker (Leelee Sobieski). The premise and cast might have lent itself to ensemble piece directed by Robert Altman (A Prairie Home Companion) or David Mamet (State and Main), in which celebrities rub shoulders with star-struck rubes. Co-writer/director Linda Yellen (The Simian Line) is said to embrace an improvisational filmmaking style, but the anemic script – co-authored with Michael Leeds (The Simian Line) – provided too weak a foundation for meaningful ad-libbing. The Last Film Festival has its moments, but too few for such a rich premise and too far in between, even for a 90-minute production. Because Hopper died during the shoot, in 2010, at 74, it must have tested Yellen’s mettle to cobble together a releasable picture. Hopper completists will want to see it, if only to watch him interact with top-shelf actors. The DVD adds interviews with cast and crew.

Vampire Ecstasy/Sin You Sinners: Blu-ray
With the possible exceptions of Russ Meyer and David F. Friedman, no name was more closely associated with American sexploitation flicks of the mid- to late-20th Century than Joseph W. Sarno. In the early 1960s, Sarno recognized the early stirrings of the sexual revolution – currently being depicted in Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” — and made pictures about wife swapping, swinging in the suburbs, sexual identity and psycho-sexual anxiety. As the floodgates opened after court rulings involving I Am Curious/Yellow and Deep Throat, his work would transition from grindhouse to soft- and hard-core pornography Although he made Suburban Secrets in 2004 – six years before his death, at 89 – his filmmaking career basically ended in 1990, with a series of pictures completed under the pseudonym Irving Weiss. The Vampire Ecstasy/Sin You Sinners package represents the first entry in a new series from Film Media/Film Movement. Newly restored to high-definition from the original film elements, Vampire Ecstasy (1973) is Sarno’s initial soft-core foray into gothic horror. When a trio of beautiful young women journey to their ancestral home to claim an inheritance, they fall prey to a coven of witches intent on reincarnating the deceased daughter of their vampire leader. It was shot inside and around an actual German castle, which came complete with a dungeon for rituals that required nudity.

Sin You Sinners (1963), the earliest available film in Sarno’s catalogue, isn’t in nearly as good a shape as Vampire Ecstasy, and its cautious approach to nudity has an almost historical quaintness surrounding it. The actors look as if they might have been recruited that day from a Times Square burlesque theater and were asked to bring their sleazy costumes with them, however tattered. The plot involves a medallion forged in a voodoo ritual, capable of sustaining an exotic dancer’s seductive qualities. When her jealous daughter and employer hatch plots to steal the amulet for themselves, it sets off a chain of events that ends badly for the dancer. The Blu-ray includes an interview with Sarno and producer, Chris Nebe; commentary on Vampire Ecstasy with Nebe; a featurette, “A Touch of Horror,” in which Sarno describes adapting his style to the horror genre; and liner notes by film scholar Tim Lucas.

Gored: A Love Story
Anyone who’s ever attended a bullfight, if only to cheer for the bull, will find something compelling in Ido Mizrahy’s Gored: A Love Stoy, a documentary that neither glamorizes the controversial Spanish pastime nor condemns it out of hand. It is the story of Antonio Barrera, reputedly the “most gored bullfighter in history,” a man who grew up surrounded by manifestations of the culture and tradition. He knew from an early age that  the blood sport would provide his only path to fame and a comfortable life for his family. Despite the fact Barrera has been impaled 23 times in the ring and undergone 17 surgeries, Mizrahy takes his quixotic quest seriously. And, while his bravery is unquestionable, it’s easy for viewers to wonder what would possess an already wounded bullfighter to return to the ring to give an audience its money’s worth. Gored follows Barrera from Spain to Mexico, and back, as he approaches the reality of retirement. It contains home-video footage of the bullfighter as a boy and interviews with family members and fellow bullfighters. Much of the footage will be impossible for people who care about animals to watch, unless they’re looking for evidence to build a case against the sport. Aficionados probably will be able to see beyond the gore far enough to support their love for it.

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict
For most of the last 100 years, the Guggenheim name has been synonymous with the collection, curation, exhibition and preservation of modern and contemporary art, sculpture and architecture. Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s fascinating documentary, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, describes how one member of the extended family used her comparatively modest inheritance not only to collect art in Europe and America, but also to nurture the creativity of a who’s-who of Bohemian artists, writers and thinkers whose talent might have withered on the vine for lack of interest by mainstream benefactors. Her life, while clearly comfortable, didn’t lack for disappointments and tragedy. Guggenheim’s father, Benjamin, died in the 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic, and her artist daughter, Pegeen, committed suicide. She existed as an independent woman, with a notoriously voracious sexual appetite, in world dominated by powerful and self-centered men. She promoted and collected the work of Samuel Beckett, Man Ray, Constantin Brâncuși, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp, Jackson Pollock and William Congdon, among many others. In 1943, at Duchamp’s instigation, she curated an exhibition wholly dedicated to women artists. Exhibition by 31 Women was comprised of works by such underrepresented artists as Djuna Barnes, Leonora Carrington, Buffie Johnson, Frida Kahlo, Louise Nevelson, Dorothea Tanning, Xenia Cage, her sister Hazel and daughter Pegeen … even Gypsy Rose Lee. In 1948, she was invited to exhibit her collection in the unoccupied Greek Pavilion of the Venice Biennale and, in 1949, she established herself in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, on the Grand Canal. Before her death in 1979, she gifted her home and collection to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, to be used for teaching purposes and tourism. All name-dropping and gossip aside, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict should be considered must-viewing for anyone who’s ever stood in line to get into an exhibit of Modern art or took Art History 101. The DVD adds extended interviews.

Schneider vs. Bax
Apart from having just watched Alex van Warmerdam’s ninth feature, Schneider vs. Bax, I’m not at all familiar with the Dutch writer/director/actor’s oeuvre. Most often compared to the Coen Brothers, van Warmerdam’s eccentric works have been become additions to major festivals around the cinematic world. His follow-up to the much-admired Borgman is a slow-burn thriller and comedy so dark that it’s almost impossible to tell when it’s sneaking up on you in the shadows. It’s even harder to guess what van Warmerdam is trying to say about the violence dished out by his characters. On the morning of his birthday, a hitman named Schneider (Tom Dewispelaere) gets a call from his boss, Mertens (Gene Bervoets), demanding that he fulfill a contract to take out Ramon Bax (Van Warmerdam), a debauched writer living in a small bungalow surrounded by a veritable forest of reeds in vast Lowland marsh. Mertens doesn’t provide a reason for the hit, allowing only, “It’s an easy job. With a little luck, you’re back home before noon.” This suits Schneider, because his wife and daughters have planned a party for him that afternoon. It may have seemed easy to Mertens, but, when Schneider arrives at the wetlands preserve, nothing goes as planned. Among other things, Bax is visited by a half-dozen friends and acquaintances, including his estranged daughter and randy father. Normally, the grumpy writer would share a line or two of cocaine and some shots with his visitors, before kicking them out of the house. Today, however, having already been tipped off to Schneider’s approach, the extra bodies are a nuisance. Their dangerous game of cat-and-mouse progresses at a glacial pace, even when Schneider figures out that he’s been double-crossed and decides to proceed, anyway. The actors’ deadpan approach to the material adds yet another layer of tension to the mix. Schneider vs. Bax is said to convey certain Dutch tendencies, but I could imagine it being remade – ideally, by van Warmerdam – in the Everglades. The bonus features include the delightful short film, “House Arrest,” a director’s statement and “Why-We-Selected” statement from Film Movement.

Fight Valley
I don’t know about you, but I attended the kind of high school where, every so often, a couple of girls would get so worked up about one thing or another – not always boys –and walk into the nearest alley to duke it out. For the males in the crowd, the highlight always came when one or both of their blouses fell to the pavement. Typically, it was at this point that the girls figured out that nothing good could come from going on any further. They’d give the crowd the finger, indicating that the show was over, and go home. Fear of retribution by gangs had yet to become a concern for girls or boys. None of us could imagine a day when the novelty of women’s professional wrestling would evolve to the point where girls with a chip on their shoulders could earn a living kicking the crap out of each other, for real, in MMA and UFC competitions or, for unreal, in the WWE, or, for glory, in the Olympics. These days, progress is in the eye of the beholder.

These things came to mind while watching Rob Hawk’s no-holds-barred Fight Valley, a bargain-basement version of Fight Club, featuring several highly trained and totally buff women who’ve competed at the professional level. When 22-year-old Tory Coro (Chelsea Durkalec) is found dead in a dumpy neighborhood where fighters go to earn money, her sister, Windsor (Susie Celek), moves to town to begin her own investigation. A rank amateur, Windsor would train with Jabs (Miesha Tate, a former bantam-weight champ), who teaches her how to survive in the valley as they prepare to come face-to-face with Tory’s killer. In addition to Tate, Fight Valley’s street cred is provided by UFC “superstars” Holly Holm and Cris Cyborg, WBO lightweight champion Amanda Serrano, Belgian standout Cindy “Battlecat” Dandois and Serena DeJesus, an “inspiring autistic MMA fighter” dubbed the Southpaw Outlaw. And that’s just the women. The DVD adds preproduction choreography; final fight-scene choreography; a Philadelphia diner “Meet & Greet”; New York premiere with Q&A; drone footage; and deleted scenes.

The Midnight Swim
While they share no other similarities, I can’t help but think that the depiction of three sisters in Sarah Adina Smith’s directorial debut, The Midnight Swim, bears an uncanny resemblance to those in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters and, by extension, Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” It probably has more to do with Smith’s editing of Shaheen Seth’s empathetic cinematography than anything else, but the balance of intimacy and estrangement are what keeps The Midnight Swim from sinking to the depths of the film’s very likely haunted Spirit Lake. Lindsay Burdge, Jennifer Lafleur and Aleksa Palladino play look-alike siblings, who gather at the family home on the lake their mother, an environmental activist, disappeared into during a deep-water dive. While reacquainting themselves with each other’s eccentricities, June, Annie and Isa must come to grips with their mother’s legacy, estate and a local legend that could be tied to her death. It involves seven sisters who vanished into the same lake, one after the other, never to be seen again, dead or alive. Given the women’s New Age-y predilections, they are open to the possibility of a “River of Forgetting,” flowing through the lake like a current of spirituality, or the summonsing of the mythical Seventh Sister, through incantation. If the path leads to re-incarnation, so much the better. One of the women’s ex-boyfriends adds his homespun wisdom, when asked, while the youngest sister annoys everyone by recording everything on her video camera. If Smith had chosen to add a ghostly dimension to the proceedings – or a sea serpent, for that matter — viewers might have had something to grasp besides the characters’ almost non-existent backgrounds and personal motivations. Without it, The Midnight Swim feels too much like the kind of chick-lit musings best savored while waiting for a yoga class to begin. There are far worse things to ponder, I suppose.

Dark Water: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Exorcist III: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The Thing: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The Return of the Living Dead: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Hideo Nakata and Hiroshi Takahashi’s 1998 adaptation of Koji Suzuki’s 1991 thriller, “Ringu,” introduced western audiences to the supernatural traditions of Japanese horror fiction and its modern manifestation, J-horror. Ringu, its sequel Ringu 2 and a pair of excellent English-language re-interpretations by Gore Verbinski and Nakata, himself, would open the door for Walter Salles’ 2005 ghost story, Dark Water, starring Jennifer Connelly, Tim Roth and John C. Reilly. Nakata and Yoshihiro Nakamura’s original version of Dark Water, adapted from Suzuki’s “From the Depths of Dark Water,” went largely unseen here, despite the popularity of The Ring. It may have been held back from distribution to clear the way for Salles’ English-language version. Arrow Video fills that void with a splendid Blu-ray “special edition,” which benefits from a new hi-def digital transfer, the original making-of featurette, a half-dozen informative interviews, a new cover design and commemorative booklet. Dark Water follows Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki), a single mother struggling to win sole custody of her only child, Ikuko. When they move into a new home within a dilapidated apartment complex, Yoshimi begins to experience startling visions and unexplainable sounds, calling her mental well-being into question and endangering not only her custody of Ikuko, but perhaps their lives as well. Almost the entire movie takes place during a steady rainfall. Once again, the ghost of a “dead wet girl” plays a key role.

No film franchise, based on an undeniable classic, has experienced as tortuous an afterlife as the one represented here by Scream Factory’s The Exorcist III: Collector’s Edition. The 1977 sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic, was reviled by everyone involved in the production, with the possible exception of Warners’ accountants, who squeezed some undeserved profits from unsuspecting audiences and video sales. The saga of Exorcist: The Beginning (2004) is almost as horrifying as the movie itself. A television series of the same title began this season on Fox. The second sequel, “Exorcist III,” was written and directed by William Peter Blatty, who based it on his novel “Legion,” which is to William Friedkin’s original what Mrs. Butterworth’s is to maple syrup. Blatty would have been happy to adapt “Legion” as it was written, minus the misleading reference to The Exorcist. Instead, the geniuses at Morgan Creek Productions demanded he add an exorcism to the final reel, a new and old character, and more graphic violence. It opens 15 years after the events related in the original, with George C. Scott replacing Lee J. Cobb, as Police Lieutenant Kinderman, and Ed Flanders sitting in for William O’Malley, as Father Dyer. For all that time, Kinderman has been haunted by the death of his friend Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), who magically reappears here as Patient X.

The true embodiment of evil in “III” is Brad Dourif’s demonic serial killer, who identifies himself as the long-dead Gemini Killer and mimics his M.O., even from behind bars. In an investigation that defies all logic, he pushes all of Kinderman’s buttons. Because reviews and revenues for “III” reflected the bad vibes generated by the producers’ demands, it comes as some relief that the restoration team at Scream Factory was able to take what little unused footage was available and re-create something more in keeping with Blatty’s original vision. Both are included here, along with a vintage featurette; deleted scenes/alternate takes/bloopers; the deleted prologue; vintage interviews and behind-the-scenes footage with Blatty, Scott, Miller, Flanders, Grand L. Bush, executive producer James G. Robinson, production designer Leslie Dilley, Larry King and former surgeon general, C. Everett Koop; a new audio interview with Blatty; fresh interviews with cast and crew, including Dourif and composer Barry DeVorzon. Both versions are scary in different ways.

John Carpenter’s 1982 re-imaging of John W. Campbell Jr.’s novella, “Who Goes There,” which had already inspired Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks’ 1951 The Thing from Another World, wasn’t an immediate hit when it was released nearly simultaneously with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Blade Runner. It didn’t take long, however, before word-of-mouth caught up with the chilly sci-fi thriller and showcase for state-of-the-art special effects. It would influence a generation of aspiring filmmakers in the crossover genres and unleash a flood of ancillary products. Thirty-five years later, Antarctica has become a popular destination for tourists and all manner of scientists, as well. The alien organism discovered by Norwegian researchers here and in the 2011 remake wouldn’t stand a chance against an army of tour guides and killer penguins. The Scream Factory “collector’s edition” is enhanced by a 2K scan of the inter-positive, supervised and approved by director of photography Dean Cundey, and 4.1 sound created from the original 70mm six-track Dolby Stereo soundtrack. New HD material includes commentaries with Cundey and star Kurt Russell; the featurettes, “The Men of Outpost 31,” “Assembling and Assimilation,” “Behind the Chameleon,” “Sounds From the Cold,” “Between the Lines” and “The Art of Mike Ploog.” Separate discs of vintage SD featurettes, commentary and marketing material also are provided.

On his first day on the job at a medical supply warehouse, Freddy (Thom Mathews) unwittingly releases the gas in a canister left over from a secret U.S. military operation, involving the suppression of zombies. After the cadaver stored in the canister springs back to life, it’s subdued in the tradition way by characters played without irony by Clu Gulager and James Karen. To be safe, they convince a local mortician to destroy the infected body parts in his crematorium. The smoke from the chimney carries the gas over the adjacent cemetery, which is being deluged by rain. The particles re-animate an army of corpses, who arise from their graves with a ravenous hunger for human brains. Fortunately, a group of wonderfully punky teens is partying among the headstones, just waiting to be eaten. “The Return of the Living Dead: Collector’s Edition” revisits and restores Dan O’Bannon’s horror/comedy – genuinely scary and very funny — which paid homage to George Romero’s drive-in classic, without also being a parody. (The story behind the legal wrangling that stalled “Return” is fully explained in the bonus package.) The two-disc collector’s package adds a pair of new commentary tracks; the two-hour retrospective, “More Brains”; nearly two-hour “workprint” version; and more than two hours’ worth of fresh interviews, including a half-hour with O’Bannon. The SD package has also been ported over from previous editions. Anyone who watched these four collections back-to-back – along with other recent packages from the niche distributors – should qualify for post-graduate credits in film history and theory.

The Id: Blu-ray
A Better Place
SIN: Self Induced Nightmares
Tales of Poe
Girl in Woods
One of the most formidable of all psycho-horror tropes involves the abused children of insanely overprotective parents, who, when they emerge from behind locked doors as adults, are ill-prepared to deal with the everyday hassles and temptations the rest of us take for granted. In Psycho IV: The Beginning, we were allowed a glimpse into the traumatic childhood events that would shape Norman Bates’ murderous psychosis. It is the only film in the series in which Norma Bates (Olivia Hussey) was shown alive. Director Thommy Hutson and screenwriter Sean H. Stewart’s feature debut, The Id, describes what happens when fifty-something Meridith Lane (Amanda Wyss) decides that she’s had enough of her wheelchair-bound father’s tyranny and breaks out of her shell. For viewers, who despise the old man (Patrick Peduto) from minute-one, her re-awakening as an independent woman could hardly come at a more opportune time. Sadly, as was the case with Norman Bates, the damage done by years of abuse proves to be permanent. For decades, she’s survived on memories of a teen fling, severely aborted by the ogre-in-residence. When, out of the blue, her white knight calls and appears at her door in slightly tarnished form, we’re afforded a vision of true madness. Although Peduto is quite convincing as the geezer, The Id belongs to Wyss, who will forever be known as Freddy Krueger’s very first murder victim in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Even at 55, the still-attractive Manhattan Beach native looks youthful in flashbacks and frightfully overwrought when tested, wearing a red dress suitable for a late-1970s prom. The Id hasn’t been accorded much attention outside the horror websites since it was voted Best Thriller at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival. It deserves a shot a success in Blu-ray/DVD/VOD, if only with genre buffs. It includes a featurette, “Needs, Wants & Desires: Behind the Scenes of The Id”; commentary with Hutson and Wyss; deleted and alternate scenes; behind-the-scenes and audition footage; and a photo gallery.

In his debut, A Better Place, Dennis Ho introduces us to a young man, Jeremy, whose overly protective mother kept him locked up at home, not because she’s a sadist, but for the protection of people who aren’t aware of his special talent and make the mistake of bullying him. Instead of home-schooling the boy, he might have been better served enrolled at the Mutant Academy reserved for X-Men. Jeremy (Stephen Todt) possesses the uncontrollable ability to transfer the pain and injury he endures from outsiders to the persons his attackers love most. It isn’t much of a superpower, but it’s the only one the meek and mild youth has. When his mother passes away under suspicious circumstances, Jeremy knows that he must venture into the real world. Just as he meets a sweet young thing, waiting tables at the local diner, he’s confronted by the kind of bullies his mom protected him against … and vice-versa. The rest of the story isn’t as predictable as it might sound. Besides the singing waitress (Mary Ann Raemisch), Jeremy finds an unlikely ally in a sexy older woman, who’s schtupping the town’s corrupt mayor and horny reverend. Ho weaves a decidedly Christian through-line into the story that isn’t particularly Evangelical or distracting.

The horror anthology SIN (Self Induced Nightmares) brings together some of Europe’s leading genre specialists in the service of seven short films that range from reasonably entertaining to downright clever, if universally bloody. They’re spun by a mysterious woman writer, who is mistaken for a blind date by an unfortunate stranger. Dan Brownlie’s “Bear Scary” is arguably the most memorable in that it features a stuffed toy that makes Ted look like Smokey the Bear. Three ever-popular tales of Edgar Allen Poe have been compiled by directors Bart Mastronardi and Alan Rowe Kelly in the surprisingly ambitious Tales of Poe. They take some liberties with “The Tell Tale Heart,” “Cask of Amontillado” and “Dreams.” but not many and nothing egregious. The primary selling point here is a cast a scream queens that includes Debbie Rochon, Bette Cassatt, Amy Steel, Caroline Williams, Lesleh Donaldson, Adrienne King. The men are represented by ex-Village Person Randy Jones, Joe Zaso, Carl Burrows and Michael Varrati. They probably would have been a perfect, even without makeup or costumes. It adds deleted scenes, a NYC Horror Film Festival interview and behind-the-scenes featurette.

Jeremy Benson’s babe-in-the-wilderness thriller, Girl in Woods, offers Juliet Reeves London the kind of showcase she needs to have her name recognized as someone other than “Uncredited” on IMDB.com. She plays Grace, a fragile young woman who loses her fiancé to a tragic accident no more than a day after he proposes to her. Lost somewhere in the middle of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Grace becomes increasingly desperate – and delusional – the longer she’s forced to go without her medication. The victim of severe childhood trauma, she’s tortured by enemies real and imagined. By the end, viewers will be confusing the two, as well.

Be Somebody
Because I don’t follow anyone or anything on Twitter and wouldn’t have recognized the  newly defunct Vine from a stick of licorice, I wasn’t aware that the star of Be Somebody is bona-fide social media phenomenon and has been since he was 14. Now, at the ripe old age of 18, Matthew Espinosa has made his feature-film debut as Justin Bieber-like superstar Jordan Jaye, who, despite his success and fame, only wants to live like a regular teenager … or so we’re told. He gets an opportunity to do just that while escaping from a pack of rabid teeny-bopper fans. He finds refuge in the person of small-town, high school art student Emily Lowe (Sarah Jeffery). Not only does she not recognize Jordan, but she’s also completely unimpressed by his story. Did I mention this is a fantasy? In keeping with Be Somebody’s PG rating, they get past their differences long enough to embark on an unexpected journey of friendship, affection and self-discovery. Working from a snappy script by Lamar Damon (Slap Her, She’s French!), Joshua Caldwell (Layover) has crafted a romantic fantasy that should appeal to younger teen and ’tween girls. Even though Espinosa is said to have 20 million followers on social media, not enough of them bothered to show up for Be Somebody’s limited release engagements to justify something more grand. It wouldn’t be the first time that a studio executive bought into the myth of Internet stardom.

TV-to-DVD
Fox: The Passion Live
PBS: American Masters: Norman Lear: Blu-ray
History: Ancient Aliens: Season 9
PBS: Art 21: Art in the Twenty-First Century: Season 8
PBS: Royal Wives at War
Hallmark: When Calls The Heart: Year Three
Although Tyler Perry gets top billing in this musical interpretation of “The Passion,” fans of Medea shouldn’t expect to see his trademark character turn up unexpectedly at the Last Supper, serving grits and gravy. In fact, Perry’s only responsibility here is to narrate the 2,000-year-old story of the last hours of Jesus Christ’s life on Earth through passages from the Bible – adapted by Peter Barsocchini (“High School Musical”) — and introduce singers Seal (Pontius Pilate), Trisha Yearwood (Mary), Michael Whitaker Smith (disciple), Chris Daughtry (Judas Iscariot), Jencarlos Canela (Jesus), Shane Harper (disciple) and Prince Royce (Peter), who perform in contemporary dress. The Fox special was an American adaptation of a Dutch television special of the same name, which has been broadcast annually since 2011, and was, in turn, a localized version of the BBC’s 2006 special “Manchester Passion.” The soundtrack includes songs recorded by Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Creed, Evanescence, Train, Hoobastank and Tears for Fears, among others. This epic event was broadcast live from some of New Orleans’ most familiar locations – it’s Perry’s hometown and a symbol of urban resurrection — while featuring a procession of hundreds of people carrying a 20-foot, illuminated cross from outside the Superdome to the stage at Woldenberg Park on the banks of the Mississippi River.

It goes without saying that Norman Lear remains one of a small handful of television producers who can truly be called visionary. He not only changed the programming Americans watched in prime-time, but he also had a profound effect on what adult viewers expected of the medium, itself. “All in the Family,” “Good Times,” “Sanford and Son,” “The Jeffersons,” “Maude,” “Mary Hartman/Mary Hartman,” “Fernwood Tonight” and “One Day at a Time” owned broadcast television in the 1970s and early ’80s, with “a.k.a. Pablo” representing the flop that proved the rule. He left the television racket in the mid-1980s to deal with personal matters and get involved in feature films. As a political activist, he founded the advocacy organization People for the American Way in 1981 and has actively supported First Amendment rights and progressive causes ever since. He owns a copy of the Declaration of Independence and, in his late 60s, started a second family with a new wife and twins. For “American Masters: Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” the show’s producers were given unprecedented access to Lear, personal archives, family, friends and collaborators. Their work coincided with the publication his memoirs, “Norman Lear: Just Another Version.”

As difficult as it is to believe the hypotheses forwarded by the researchers on History Channel’s “Ancient Aliens,” it’s just as hard to imagine how the producers managed to find enough material to make it through nine seasons. The theories may be undeniably provocative and entertaining, but again … nine seasons? Sure, why not? If the not-so-ancient aliens on “Duck Dynasty” can fool viewers for the same number of seasons, who’s to say that the subjects of “Ancient Aliens” aren’t every bit as credible? The season’s menu includes “Forbidden Caves,” “The Great Flood,” “Alien Resurrections,” “Alien Messages,” “Mysteries of the Sphinx,” “Secrets of the Mummies,” “Aliens Among Us,” “Aliens and the Civil War” and “The Alien Agenda.” Most begin with a grain of truth, before zooming off into the ozone, just like “Duck Dynasty” and most other reality-based shows.

Season Eight of PBS’ “Art in the Twenty-First Century” once again provides unparalleled access to the most innovative artists of our time, revealing how they engage the culture around them and how art allows viewers to see the world in new ways. Instead of being organized around an artistic theme, as is usually the case, the 16 featured artists are grouped by their unique and revealing relationships to the places where they live: Chicago, Los Angeles, Mexico City and Vancouver.

After Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936, public confidence in the British monarchy almost completely subsided. A popular and charismatic king was suddenly gone, choosing his twice-divorced mistress over his Crown and country. His ashamed family drove him into exile, but nobody had faith in his successor, George VI, a nervous man with a crippling stutter. Hitler saw in the former King a man with whom he could work. Now, the PBS docudrama Royal Wives at War returns to the original words and opinions of the two women at the heart of that battle — the Queen Mother (Emma Davies) and Wallis Simpson (Gina McKee) — to discover the truth. Drawing together new evidence found in their letters, memoirs and biographies, director Tim Dunn and writer Lindsay Shapero unravel the story of a feud between, later the Duchess of Windsor, that lasted from their first encounter in the chilly winter of 1933 right up to their deaths.

From the Hallmark Channel comes “When Calls the Heart: Year Three,” a five-disc DVD set comprised of the two-hour holiday movie, “It Begins With Heart” (a.k.a., “A New Year’s Wish”); “Troubled Hearts,” which combines episodes “Troubled Hearts” and “A Time to Speak”; “Heart of a Hero,” a combination of episodes “Heart of a Hero” and “A Gentle Heart”; “Forever in My Heart,” with episodes “Forever in My Heart” and “Heartbreak”; and “Hearts in Question,” with “Hearts in Question” and “Prayers From the Heart.”

The DVD Wrapup: Through the Looking Glass, Café Society, Our Kind of Terror, Buying Democracy and more

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

Alice Through the Looking Glass: Blu-ray
Not having done my homework ahead of watching Alice Through the Looking Glass on Blu-ray, I just assumed that Tim Burton had directed the sequel to his and Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. In fact, I wasn’t relieved of that notion until I started looking into the movie’s production background for this review. Burton stayed on as producer, but handed off the baton to relative newcomer James Bobin, whose name has been affixed to Muppets Most Wanted and The Muppets and television’s “Flight of the Conchords” and “Da Ali G Show,” which might explain the presence of Sasha Baron Cohen, as Time. Although the drop-off at the international box office was huge — $1.025 billion for “Alice,” to $287.1 million for “Looking Glass” – I don’t think any of the blame can be laid at the feet of the director, returning screenwriter Linda Woolverton, composer Danny Elfman or Lewis Carroll, for that matter. If anything, “Looking Glass” was a far more difficult film to market. Somewhat darker than “Alice,” it has rarely been adapted for the big screen and didn’t have a history with Disney. Inconveniently, as well, “Looking Glass” opened almost simultaneously with news of Amber Heard’s filing for divorce from Johnny Depp and, five days later, obtaining a temporary restraining order against him. I suspect, though, that anyone who enjoyed Burton’s “Alice” will want to take a chance on “Looking Glass,” anyway.

In it, the grown-up Alice Kingsleigh has returned to London after long and arduous voyage to the Orient – as eastern Asia was once known – only to learn of her father’s death and that her unctuous ex-fiancé, Hamish Ascot (Leo Bill), has taken over her father’s company. He plans to have Alice sell him the ship in exchange for her family home, which her mother (Lindsay Duncan) sold to him to retain her standing in society. Unable to make a choice, Alice hides from Ascot’s guards in her late father’s study. As the guards are threatening to break down the door, Alice’s butterfly friend Absolem (Alan Rickman, in his final voiceover role) disappears through a magical mirror that leads back to Underland. There, Alice is greeted by such old friends as the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), the Tweedles (Matt Lucas), the Dormouse (Barbara Windsor) and the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry). They inform her that Tarrant Hightopp, the Mad Hatter (Depp), is in poor health because his family has gone missing following the attack of the Jabberwocky. The queen persuades Alice to convince Time – the demi-god human/clockwork hybrid, who dictates passages in Underland using a Chronosphere — to save the Mad Hatter’s family … in the past. She cautions Alice that if her past self sees her future self, everything will be history. The wondrous adventure takes her through various time/space/shape continuums, before she can return home to save her father’s ship. The Blu-ray overflows with bonus material, including music videos, making-of and background featurettes, hidden Easter Eggs, character profiles, commentary and deleted scenes.

Café Society: Blu-ray
If, as was the case in the 1970-80s, such writers and directors as Paul Mazursky, Michael Ritchie, Neil Simon, Herbert Ross, Elaine May, Nora Ephron, Mike Nichols, Francis Veber, and Larry Gelbart were still competing for the same adult audiences, Woody Allen wouldn’t stand so alone in the American filmmaking firmament. Neither would his detractors feel as if they have to make excuses for buying tickets to see his annual film. Café Society is a lot like his previous five romantic dramedies and fantasies — Irrational Man, Magic in the Moonlight, Blue Jasmine, To Rome with Lovee, Midnight in Paris – in that they almost guarantee audiences of a certain age that they won’t regret venturing out to the local arthouse to take advantage of early bird or seniors discounts. It’s not only because his films are devoid of gratuitous nudity, profanity, zombies and fart jokes, although that would be reason enough for some folks. Perhaps, it’s because the people he recruits represent a cross-section of today’s most accomplished and interesting actors and that the scenarios and gags aren’t intended to appeal to the lowest possible audience denominator. I wouldn’t mind seeing what he could do with a sequel to Bananas, Sleepers or Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask, but that boat sailed a long time ago.

Café Society, which performed twice as well at the overseas box office, is set in the 1930s, when a young Bronx native, Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), decides that he doesn’t want to work in the family jewelry business until he gives Hollywood a shot. Conveniently, his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell) is one of the most powerful talent agents in town and, after blowing Bobby off for a few weeks, finds some menial errands for him to do. Phil introduces Bobby to his secretary Veronica, nicknamed Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who is tasked with helping him settle into Hollywood. In a contrivance only Allen could pull off without it seeming ridiculously calculated, Bobby falls in love with Vonnie’s unpretentious approach to life, but is rebuffed by her allegiance to her secret lover – guess who – who promises to divorce his wife, but doesn’t deliver on it. Fast forward a few years, after Bobby has returned to New York and accepted a job with his gangster brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), running a high-end nightclub. It’s here that Bobby meets divorcée Veronica Hayes (Blake Lively) and they begin the process of settling down. Of course, Allen arranges to have Vonnie and Bobby meet once again, not terribly unlike the way Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman would reunite a few years later at Rick’s Café Américain. The best thing about Café Society isn’t the story of Bobby and Vonnie, however. It’s the period re-creations of how the posh set waits out the Depression in Hollywood and Manhattan, which are as glamorous as any MGM musical from the same period. Typically, the Blu-ray is short of bonus features, limited to an “On the Red Carpet” featurette and photo gallery.

What We Become: Bluray
If it weren’t for the distinction attributed to Bo Mikkelsen’s debut feature that it’s “the first post-apocalyptic zombie movie” made in Denmark, I’d probably dismiss What We Become as a direct lift of the first few episodes of “Fear the Walking Dead” and leave it at that. The setting doesn’t feel particularly Scandinavian or even reveal anything a Swede or Norwegian might consider to be fodder for a Danish joke. (They’re what passes for humor in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin.) Set in a typically suburban neighborhood north of Copenhagen, the typically middle-class Johansson family assumes that one summer day is going to pass just as they always do in that part of the world. What they can’t possibly foresee is the Zombie Apocalypse – can anyone? — which looms right around the corner. It begins with TV reports of a serious virus spreading through a section of its viewership area. The Johannsons don’t begin to show their concern until an elderly neighbor reports the death and subsequent disappearance of her husband, who, as usual, was perched in front of the TV. They don’t even panic when armed men in Hazmet gear suddenly appear in the neighborhood warning residents to stay indoors and wash their hands.

It’s when the armed men begin to cover the windows of secured homes with sheets of plastic, however, and infected neighbors are hauled off, never to be seen again, and food supplies dwindle, that the Johannsons and their uninvited guests do, indeed, panic. When, unexpectedly, the soldiers pull back to an area separated from the neighborhood by fences, a few residents risk death by checking out the ruckus. It’s then that the extent of the Zombie Apocalypse becomes apparent. Mikkelsen does a good job ratcheting up the fear factor from paranoia to full-blown panic. The only thing that differentiates What We Become from the dozens of other zombie flicks we’ve seen, however, is the degree of danger he’s willing to impose on the youngest Johannson daughter (and her pet rabbit) and her older brother, who’s just fallen in love with the new babe on the block. Still, I’d be more impressed had Mikkelsen chosen to make the movie according to Dogme 95 specifications.

Our Kind of Traitor: Blu-ray
If, at 85, John le Carre is going to keep writing novels, someone in England is going to find the money to adapt movies and mini-series from them. Thank goodness. In the last five years, we’ve seen Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, A Most Wanted Man, “The Night Managermini-series and Our Kind of Traitor, with a mini-series remake of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold set for next year. Less cloak-and-dagger than a game of musical bank accounts, Our Kind of Traitor describes a subterranean world in which brazen Russian oligarchs and gangsters ruthlessly control financial institutions once known for their stability, anonymity and conservative principles. Why settle for numbered accounts in Swiss bank accounts – whose security no longer can be guaranteed to tyrants and other miscreants — when you can convince a respectable putz to buy a bank for you? As we learned from Iran-Contra and other Reagan-era shenanigans, the CIA and MI6 frequently tag along with the gangsters and cartels to facilitate operations of their own design. Here, a British professor, Perry (Ewan McGregor), is vacationing with his wife, Gail (Naomie Harris), in Marrakesh, where he befriends a boisterous Russian gangster, Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), who senses that his usefulness to the mob has run its course.

After a few games of tennis, Dima asks Perry to do a favor for him. He wants him to deliver a USB drive to MI6 agents, who might consider allowing him to defect in exchange for a list of names and account numbers of British politicians helping Russian oligarchs launder money through London. All Perry has to do is hand the drive to MI6 agent Hector (Damian Lewis) and get back to business as usual. There is, as usual, a hitch. If the intelligence agency is going to accuse British politicians of corruption, Hector demands more information from Dima. He asks Perry to pay one more visit to his new friend, who demands protection for his family if he’s going to keep cooperating. The exchange is arranged to coincide with the signing of an important banking agreement. Once again, easier planned than done. What director Susanna White and writer Hossein Amini’s Our Kind of Traitor lacks in suspense, it makes up for in a bravura performance by Skarsgård. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a making-of featurette and interviews with cast and the creative team.

The Best Democracy Money Can Buy
Here’s another documentary that Republicans will avoid like a heat-seeking, Zika-carrying mosquito. That’s because The Best Democracy Money Can Buy spells out exactly how our democracy has been corrupted by politicians and election judges bought and paid for by our wealthiest citizens. When Donald Trump says, “This election is rigged,” he’s right. It isn’t the media that’s corrupt, however. Nor is it the entity that’s stealing votes. Trump “henchman,” Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State, claims that his computer program has identified 7.2 million people in 29 states who may have voted twice in the same election. Sound familiar? In fact, most of these purged suspects are minorities–mainly Democratic voters – whose first and last names are among the most common in the country: Jose Gonzales, Albert Jackson, anyone name Kim, for example. Men and women serving their country overseas also are targets for fraud. What the election judges fail to take into account when disqualifying a voter are middle names and such suffixes as Jr., Sr., III etc., which would explain the seeming discrepancy. Add them together and the number of voters Donald Trump and his buddies claim have voted in different states on the same day soars into the millions. Or, to put it another way, millions of people with the same first and last names have been denied the right to have their ballots weighed. And, that’s presupposing that people of color were allowed to vote in the first place, given draconian ID procedures that create unconscionably long waits, but only in heavily Democratic districts. And, no, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy isn’t just another Michael Moore production, although he’s promised to release a doc of his own this week. Rolling Stone investigative reporter Greg Palast uses a mock-noir approach to deliver his evidence, consulting such celebrity gumshoes as Ice-T, Richard Belzer, Rosario Dawson, Willie Nelson and Shailene Woodley. The search takes Palast from Kansas to the Arctic, the Congo and to a swanky Hamptons dinner party held by Trump’s sugar-daddy, John Paulson, a.k.a. “JP The Foreclosure King.” The DVD adds extended interviews and reports from Azerbaijan, Congo and Liberia. It’s as disspiriting as it is fascinating.

Child’s Play: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Waxworks Compilation: Blu-ray
Count Dracula’s Great Love: Blu-ray
One of the most popular and enduring horror franchises in history, the series inspired by Tom Holland and Don Mancini’s Child’s Play is scheduled to spawn a sixth sequel next year, Chucky 7. Its immediate predecessor, Curse of Chucky, was released on VOD on September 24, 2013, and DVD/Blu-ray two weeks later. Having branched out into comic books and video games, Chucky is as recognizable a brand name as Cabbage Patch Kids, which he resembles. Actually, the character’s full name, Charles Lee Ray, was derived from those of notorious killers Charles Manson, Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray. As they are wont to do, parents’ groups protested the violent nature of what ostensibly was a toy, and blamed a murder or two on its influence. In the original, newly released into a dandy Blu-ray from Scream Factory, the toddler-size doll is possessed by the mind and soul of the Lake Shore Strangler (Brad Dourif), a Chicago mass murderer obsessed with black magic. After the killer is shot by a cop and left for dead in a toy store, he utters a voodoo incantation that causes lightning to strike the store and trigger the curse. It manifests itself after a single mom (Catherine Hicks) scrapes together enough money to purchase a burn-damaged Chucky doll from a street peddler. It’s an immediate hit with her son, who’s been pre-sold on the doll in television commercials. (Mancini has said that Child’s Play began as a satire on toy marketing and merchandising for children, before being re-written as horror.) The rest is mayhem. The idea of turning a child’s toy or ventriloquist’s dummy into the antagonist of a story typically is traced to Richard Attenborough and William Goldman’s chilling 1978 Magic and episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” In fact, the subgenre probably originated in 1925, with Tod Browning’s The Unholy Three. The first Child’s Play isn’t nearly as schlocky as some of us might remember it to be. The writing is sharp and the scenario is as credible as these things get. I can’t vouch for its sequels. The Blu-ray package adds new commentary with Holland to go along with previous tracks with actors Alex Vincent and Hicks and designer Kevin Yagher, producer David Kirschner and screenwriter Mancini. A second disc offers a dozen making-of and background featurettes, interviews and marketing material.

I suppose it’s worth recalling that movies about wax museums didn’t originate with the 2005 Paris Hilton vehicle House of Wax. In fact, they can be traced to Paul Leni’s 1924 Waxworks and Michael Curtiz’ 1933 The Mystery of the Wax Museum. In Anthony Hickox’s 1988 horror/comedy, Waxwork, newly released into Blu-ray, with its 1992 sequel, Waxwork II: Lost in Time, which alludes briefly to “Alice in Wonderland.” In a relatively familiar scenario, an evil magician creates a wax display of famous monsters and murderers and invites a group of unsuspecting young college students to view the collection. When they overstep their boundaries, however, the students find themselves trapped in the deadly tableaux. The original stars Zach Galligan, Deborah Foreman, Miles O’Keefe, Michelle Johnson and David Warner and features the special effects of Bob Keen (Event Horizon). In the sequel, Mark and Sarah (Galligan, Monika Schnarre) have managed to escape the deadly wax museum before it was destroyed. Amazingly, one deadly wax hand escaped destruction, as well, and follows Sarah home. It murders her stepfather before she can destroy it. (Disembodied hands also constitute a subgenre, starting with 1946’s The Beast With Five Fingers.) When Sarah is accused of the murder, she and Mark must travel back in time to stop the still-present evil. The Blu-ray includes commentary with Hickox and Galligan, as well as the new feature-length film, “The Waxwork Chronicles,” an isolated score and audio interview with composers Roger Bellon and Steve Schiff, an archived making-of piece, still galleries and music video.

Paul Naschy was to Spanish-language horror movies what Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were to Hammer Films and Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were to Universal’s classic monster flicks. Last week, we cited Naschy’s triple-character turn in A Werewolf in the Amazon, which was made several decades past his prime. It’s no coincidence that Javier Aguirre’s 1973 Count Dracula’s Great Love (a.k.a., “Cemetery Girls,” “Dracula’s Virgin Lovers” and “The Great Love of Count Dracula”) resembles the Hammer Dracula films that began with The Horror of Dracula, albeit with considerably more T&A. After their carriage breaks down and their driver is killed in a freak accident, a group of young women is forced to spend the night in a strange and isolated former sanatorium, owned by the secretive Dr. Marlow (Naschy). While three of the four women are quickly attacked by Marlow/Dracula’s undead servants, the Eternal One reserves the beautiful virgin Karen (Haydée Politoff) to be his bride and redeemer of his long-dead daughter. There’s nothing subtle about Spanish horror and The Horror of Dracula is no exception. Even so, Dracula completists will savor this “unclothed” addition to their collection. The Vinegar Syndrome package is comprised of a fully restored edition from its uncut international negative and featuring a never released feature length audio commentary track with star Naschy and Aguirre; new interview with actress Mirta Miller; an English dub and original Spanish-language soundtrack; stills gallery; eight-page booklet by Mirek Lipinski; and reversible cover artwork.

A Beautiful Now
To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine, once again, I think that the problem with writer/director/producer Daniela Amavia’s freshman feature comes down to this: “Daniela, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of five little millennials don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” As is so often the case with indie debuts, the elevation of sticky personal relationships to universally relatable drama can be a dubious exercise. In A Beautiful Now, a passionate dancer, Romy (Abigail Spencer), has come to the point in her professional life where pursuing a career in the arts is swiftly becoming a losing proposition. She hasn’t lost more than a step or two artistically, but can’t help hearing the padded toe steps of the next generation of dancers approaching from a mile away. At one particularly delicate juncture, Romy decides that the best way to solve her dilemma is to lock herself in her bathroom with a handgun and make sure that a handful of estranged friends (Cheyenne Jackson, Collette Wolfe, Elena Satine, Patrick Heusinger and Sonja Kinski) is gathered outside the door either to empathize with her or be made to feel eternally guilty. Amavia uses flashbacks to convince us of Romy’s promise as a dancer, as well as the importance of certain pivotal moments in her personal life. Outside the door, the friends recall their own relationships, especially those shared with Romy. The setup harkens to The Big Chill, minus the football games, Motown hits and accomplished characters, and that’s what’s missing in A Beautiful Now: something to make us feel better about sharing our time with these people. Still, there’s just enough substance here to give Amavia more hope for the future than Romy.

The Missing Ingredient: What Is the Recipe for Success?
Among the many things that make New York great are the institutions that endure the vagaries of time, fashion, trends and hype. These include restaurants, some of which didn’t survive the 2008 Depression. All big cities have restaurants that have stood the test of time. Very few of them have been the subject of documentaries. Of the films that describe what it takes to make a high-profile restaurant great, yet vulnerable to failure, the best are The Restaurateur, A Matter of Taste, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, King Georges, Spinning Plates and Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven. Excellent docs about hot-dog joints, delis and food trucks also abound, but are of a decidedly different texture. Michael Sparaga’s The Missing Ingredient: What Is the Recipe for Success? assumes we know what makes a restaurant great, especially the quality of the cuisine, attention to detail, commitment of the kitchen and wait staffs, and ambience. Sparaga is as interested in defining what makes restaurant an “institution,” which is something else altogether. To do this, he focuses on two New York restaurants, neither of which would be known outside the five boroughs, unless a viewer chanced on one of them on a visit. Before it closed in 2010, Gino’s was known for 65 years as an Upper East Side bar, restaurant and “club” where the elite from New York’s political, business, athletic and cultural worlds felt comfortable enough to dine regularly and get drunk before going home. Its red sauce was legendary, as was its trademark red wallpaper, comprised of 314 nearly identical zebras. The reviews weren’t always salutatory, but that wasn’t the point.

Pescatore, a Midtown staple on Second Ave since 1993, is the other restaurant profiled in “Missing Ingredient.” It has served its fair share of celebrities, but has remained best known as a neighborhood attraction in a part of the city that promotes the latest trends and positive reviews in the Times and glossies. General manager Charles Devigne recognized the fickleness of his customers and decided to do something radical – sacrilegious, even – to re-define the bistro and attract a more stable clientele. His controversial decision to borrow one of Gino’s iconic features – the zebra wallpaper — inspires Sparaga’s exploration of the undefinable quality that transforms a simple eatery into an institution. Instead, it gave him an opportunity to re-interview the same quintessential New Yorkers from whom he sought opinions on the closing of Gino’s. To say it misfired for Devigne is like dismissing the controversy over the introduction of anew recipe for Coca-Cola as a tempest in a teapot. In New York, even the simplest gesture can be blown into an earth-shaking contretemps that demands comment, no matter how little anyone outside the cognoscenti cares. Frankly, most interest in “Missing Ingredient” will be by reserved for New Yorkers who’ve heard of Gino’s and Pescatore and felt a certain kinship to the people who dined, drank and worked there. Parsing the restaurant economy is interesting, as well, but only to those who understand its dynamics.

Last of the Mississippi Jukes
The South’s juke-joint tradition extends well beyond the introduction of electronic jukeboxes in the 1940s and the great migration north of field hands, sharecroppers and care givers. More likely than not, the word “juke” derived from the Gullah word joog, meaning rowdy or disorderly. They could be found at rural crossroads, near where plantation workers and sharecroppers struggled to make a living. They were barred from most white establishments by Jim Crow laws and were gouged as a captive audience by club owners. Robert Mugge’s excellent 2003 music documentary, Last of the Mississippi Jukes, explores the fading traditions of rural juke joints, as well as their urban counterparts in Jackson, the state capital. The blues, as we know it today, was first played by itinerant musicians in juke joints, largely in the Delta. It would travel north, to Memphis, first, and then Chicago and Detroit. The two Mississippi venues featured are Jimmy King’s Subway Lounge, which, for three decades, operated in the basement of the black-owned Summers Hotel, in Jackson, and actor Morgan Freeman and attorney Bill Luckett’s Ground Zero Blues Club, in Clarksdale. The story is told by blues historians Dick Waterman and Steve Cheseborough, by surviving club owners, local politicians and musicians. Among the latter are Alvin Youngblood Hart with Sam Carr and Anthony Sherrod; the House Rockers and the King Edward Blues Band; Bobby Rush, Chris Thomas King, Vasti Jackson, Patrice Moncell, Eddie Cotton, Greg “Fingers” Taylor, Lucille, Abdul Rasheed, Levon Lindsey, J.T. Watkins, Dennis Fountain, Pat Brown, George Jackson, Steve Cheseborough, Casey Phillips, Jimmy King, David Hughes and Virgil Brawley, who provide the musical backdrop to the painless history lesson. The doc has been updated to report on the status of clubs visited in 2003.

75th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor
As we approach yet another landmark anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it’s difficult to imagine anything new being learned about the terrible historical event. The fact is, however, that every new advance in marine technology, micro-photography and industrial forensics gets us closer to long-submerged facts. The title “75th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor” is tad misleading in that it’s a compilation of previously released programming from History Channel, including “60th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor.” These shows are “Deep Sea Detectives: Japanese Sub at Pearl Harbor” (2003), “History: Other Tragedy at Pearl Harbor” (2001), “Live From Pearl Harbor Highlights” (2001), “The Letter From Pearl Harbor” (2011), “Unsung Heroes of Pearl Harbor” (2001), “Tech Effect: Pearl Harbor” (2004) and “What Went Down: Pearl Harbor (2009). The shows haven’t lost their ability to inform and entertain, even if much of the narration is repetitive. The most newsworthy of the reports describes how the first salvo in the war came from American sailors who destroyed a miniature Japanese submarine approaching the harbor an hour before the air attack. A deep-sea submersible locates the wreckage, substantiating eye-witness accounts from the seamen that more than 60 years were treated as rumors or outright fabrication. I wish the producers had added updates to these reports, especially what’s happened to the sub since its discovery. There’s also previously classified material on the nearly derailed Operation Forager, the invasion of Saipan. They owe it to the veterans, some no longer with us, who were interviewed for the shows.

TV-to-DVD
Amazon Prime: Doctor Thorne
Freefall: Guilt: Season 1
Esquire/ITV: Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands: Blu-ray
Diehard fans of the late, lamented “Downton Abbey” won’t have their appetite completely sated by the elegant British import, “Doctor Thorne,” but, like the PBS/ITV sensation, they can take some solace in knowing it was written by the estimable Julien Fellows. He also introduces all four chapters of the story, which Fellows adapted from the Anthony Trollope novel. Ostensibly, it follows the life of penniless Mary Thorne (Stefanie Martini), an orphan who grows up with her much admired uncle, Doctor Thorne (Tom Hollander), and her relationship with the Gresham family at nearby Greshamsbury Park estate. The Greshams have fallen victim to personal vices and ill-considered financial dealings, so, when it comes time for them to marry off their handsome eldest son, they expect him to pick the wealthiest of all eligible bachelorettes (Alison Brie). When he falls, instead, for the family’s servant girl, Lady Arabella Gresham (Rebecca Front) makes sure she’s banished from the household. What Trollope allows early on, and almost none of the other characters, except Dr. Thorne, are aware, is that Mary stands second in line to inherit a fortune left by the disreputable Sir Roger Scatcherd (Ian McShane). First in line is Scatcherd’s gluttonous son – Mary’s half-brother – who refuses to forgive the Greshams’ debts, unless she agrees to marry him, instead of Frank Gresham. If all of that information sounds like a giant spoiler, you should know that almost all of it is revealed in Chapter One, at Sir Roger Scatcherd’s deathbed. Thorne’s commitment to maintain his brother’s secret complicates the proceedings almost beyond repair … or until the final chapter. Again, as was the case with “Downton Abbey” and most other period pieces from England, most of the fun comes in the set and costume designs, terrific acting and splendid estates at which the exteriors were shot. The package includes several making-of featurettes and interviews.

If you’ve never heard of the British export, Guilt, it’s probably because you’ve never heard of the Freefall cable network, formerly ABC Family. The more often these operations change their names, the less likely we are to find shows we want to watch. “Guilt” isn’t the kind of story you’d expect to find on a “family” service, but, while a tad salacious, it likely would get a PG-13 if it had to pass the MPAA board. Grace Atwood (Daisy Head) finds herself in a mess when her best friend, Molly Ryan (Rebekah Wainwright), is murdered, and she blacked out from drugs at nearly same time and in the same room as the killing. Grace’s sister, Natalie (Emily Tremaine), is an American practicing law in London. She pledges her allegiance to Grace, but is flummoxed at every turn. One of those turns takes Natalie to a high-end brothel, where Grace and most of her girlfriends worked as prostitutes, hosts or cocktail waitresses. By the time the trial begins, there are several prime suspects, besides Grace, and other characters plotting various forms of revenge. At 10 episodes, the story is allowed to play out in due course and without much overcrowding. My guess would be that Guilt would have found more eyes on BBC America or a similar network. Hard to tell if it will be renewed. Billy Zane plays a champion defense attorney, looking very much like fellow Greek, Telly Savalas.

Beowulf is the legendary hero and king of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem that has befuddled English majors for generations. It took Hollywood a bit longer to find something worth salvaging in the ancient 8th Century text. It came in 1999, with Christopher Lambert in the title role. He would be followed in the part by Gerard Butler, Chris Bruno, Ray Winstone and hunky Kieran Bew. The monster, Grendel, has only been as formidable as the special-effects budgets have allowed. Still Beowulf fits right into the current craze for comic-book superheroes and epic fantasies. “Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands” does away with Grendel, but isn’t remotely short of monsters, trolls and demonic warriors. The story picks up 20 years later with Beowulf returning to his homeland of Herot, in the Shieldlands, to pay his respects to deceased king Hrothgar (William Hurt). Past jealousies mean Beowulf gets a frosty welcome, especially from Hrothgar’s wife, Rheda (Joanne Whalley), and son, Slean (Ed Speelers). The town is being attacked by a creature and Our Hero is accused of murder. The political intrigue gets thick after a while, leaving viewers waiting to grasp, besides ferocious critters battling buff swordsmen. The mini-series’ 12 episodes are available for download on Esquire, as well as this attractive Blu-ray.

The DVD Wrapup: Infiltrator, Blood Father, Violent Cop, Sherpa, Les Cowboys, Hills Have Eyes and more

Friday, October 14th, 2016

The Infiltrator: Blu-ray
If it weren’t for the likelihood that American audiences already know as much about Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel as they’ll ever care to learn, Brad Furman’s compelling drug-war drama, The Infiltrator, might have managed to break even at the box office. Instead, fine performances by Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”) and Diane Kruger (“The Bridge”), as undercover U.S. Customs agents Robert Mazur and Kathy Ertz, will pretty much go for naught. Enough is enough, already. Although Escobar makes a brief cameo, the primary antagonist here is Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), a Chilean-born gem trader who connects with Mazur when the cartel runs out of places to stash its ill-gotten gains. One of those is the thoroughly corrupt Bank of Credit and Commerce International, which agrees to accept cash deposits in return for a percentage of the money laundered. At various times, the BCCI’s clientele included depositors representing the Abu Nidal terrorist group, the CIA, Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega, Bangladesh leader Hussain Mohammad Ershad and Liberian strongman Samuel Doe. Because we’ve been inundated recently with such Escobar biopics and mini-series as Netflix’s “Narcos,” Telemundo’s “El Señor de los Cielos” and Andrea Di Stefano’s Escobar: Paradise Lost – with takes by John Leguizamo and Javier Bardem still to come — The Infiltrator almost feels like an afterthought. Endless repeats of Scarface on cable TV have contributed to the surplus of knowledge on cocaine trafficking, as well. Perhaps, in anticipation of this logjam, Furman and screenwriter Ellen Brown Furman chose to balance the bloodshed and blow, as described in Mazur’s book, with a solid romantic angle designed to divert our attention away from the tiresome details of the smuggling industry.

The heroes of Operation C-Chase were Customs Service agents, after all, and their motivation was to deprive the cartel of the fuel that fanned the flames of so-called narco-terrorism. If the Colombian cartels weren’t brought down in this or any other U.S. operation, the arrests and trials were able to temporarily inconvenience Escobar and other smugglers and re-direct millions of drug dollars to other covert missions, including the Iran-Contra Affair. It’s worth recalling that Al Capone was brought down by his failure to pay his fair share of income taxes, not in a hail of bullets, like the characters he inspired: Al Pacino’s Tony Montana and Paul Muni’s Tony Camonte. Cranston never looks as comfortable in his undercover guise as John Leguizamo, playing Mazur’s street -smart partner, Emir Abreu. Much of the drama, then, derives from whether Mazur will succumb to such perks as lap dances from strippers (remarkably, he doesn’t) and the temptations that come from making the staged relationship with a beautiful partner look real. Mazur is happily married to Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey) when he’s assigned the blond beard (Kruger), who looks great in borrowed jewels and furs, but resists the temptation to be compromised by them. It’s difficult to tell if Evelyn’s doubts about her husband’s relationship to his partner was a plot device or based on real life. When it comes time to reel in the fish, Mazur’s boss (Amy Ryan) wrings some money out of the budget to afford a first-class wedding, to which all of Bob’s BFFs in the cartel and bank are invited, only to be betrayed … much to Mazur’s consternation. The Infiltrator stands out as a platform for Cranston, primarily, not as the kind of tick-tock thriller or romance-under-fire more easily marketed to crossover audiences from “Breaking Bad.” Fans of movies set at the juncture of underworld commerce and law enforcement, however, aren’t likely to be disappointed. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a making-of featurette and EPK interviews.

Blood Father: Blu-ray
I know that Jean-François Richet’s action-thriller Blood Father was released in some U.S. theaters in mid-August, but you couldn’t prove in by anything in the box-office reports found on IMDB.com or BoxOfficeMojo. It even received mostly above-average marks from the dozen, or so, mainstream critics listed on Metacritic.com. Even so, it quickly disappeared from view. The quick turn-around into DVD/Blu-ray/VOD belies the movie’s excellent pedigree. Richet delivered excellent work in the 2005 John Carpenter remake, Assault of Precinct 13, and two-part French gangster flick, Mesrine. It was adapted for the screen by author Peter Craig (The Town, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay) and Andrea Berloff (Straight Outta Compton) and impeccably shot in the wilds of New Mexico by regular Richet collaborator, Robert Gantz. The imaginatively cast supporting roster includes Erin Moriarty, Diego Luna, Dale Dickey, William H. Macy, Michael Parks and Miguel Sandoval. Daniel Casillas and Rick Stratton’s tattoo work is nothing short of frightening. That, of course, leaves the star and protagonist, Mel Gibson, who’s been in Hollywood’s doghouse for at least the last 10 years for his derogatory comments about women, police, blacks, gays and Jews, as well as residue from being raised in a Sedevacantist (traditionalist) Catholic household led by a right-wing Holocaust denier and outspoken critic of Vatican reforms. Hollywood was willing to forgive most of those sins, as long as he was a box-office sensation, and, as they say, a credit to the industry. When, on July 28, 2006, Gibson allowed the booze in his system do the talking for him during a Malibu police stop, he became the punchline for a thousand jokes on late-night talk shows and persona non grata everywhere else. Since then, he’s starred in Jody Foster’s instantly forgettable The Beaver and Martin Campbell’s Edge of Darkness and made appearances in Machete Kills, Get the Gringo and The Expendables 3.

His first directorial credit in 10 years comes attached to the upcoming World War II biopic, Hacksaw Ridge, set to open in a couple weeks. Curiously, perhaps, the preview trailer for Hacksaw Ridge, which precedes Blood Father on the DVD/Blu-ray, doesn’t carry Gibson’s name, merely “From the Academy Award winning director of Braveheart.” Ouch. In Richet’s thrill-a-minute picture, Gibson plays the father of a long-missing daughter, Lydia (Moriarty), who only returned home after accidentally shooting her hoodlum boyfriend (Luna) in a failed hostage-taking incident sanctioned by La Eme (Mexican Mafia). Gibson’s Link is an ex-con, ex-biker and ex-alcoholic, who’s living in a trailer in the middle of the desert, working as a tattoo artist. No sooner does Lydia wake up from a long nap than the trailer is besieged by La Eme assassins, whose faces are tattooed with a veritable spider’s web of ink. Link and Lydia somehow manage to escape the first assault, but are followed around the Land of Enchantment by gangsters, bikers and anyone interested in collecting a $30,000 reward for Lydia’s return. (That part doesn’t make a lot of sense, except as an excuse for some high-speed motorcycle action.) Richet knows how to direct action and that’s what makes Blood Father worth a look by fans of the genre and Gibson, who hasn’t lost more than a step or two in the last 10 years. It’s rated R for some naughty language and substance abuse, but nothing more potentially harmful to teenagers than that. It adds deleted scenes and a making-of featurettes.

Violent Cop: Blu-ray
Boiling Point: Blu-ray
The significance of the Film Movement releases of Violent Cop and Boiling Point begins and ends with their being the first two directorial efforts of Japanese Renaissance man Takeshi (Beat) Kitano, who, before becoming the country’s foremost action star, was a successful standup comic and TV host. Based on the nature of Japanese comedy and variety shows in the 1980s – parodied in Lost in Translation — the transition from hosting an over-the-top TV variety show to starring in yakuza movies would be comparable to Paul “Pee-wee” Reubens taking over the Dirty Harry franchise from Clint Eastwood. In fact, when lead actor Kitano was asked to assume directorial responsibilities from Kinji Fukasaku, the movie was a comedy. He insisted that the script be rewritten to remove the gags, so that he could distance the character from his television persona. After re-watching Violent Cop recently for an interview, he said, “Frankly, I couldn’t bear to watch it. It’s like being forced to watch yourself when you were a kid. I felt so embarrassed.”

Kitano needn’t be any more embarrassed than Jerry Lewis, whose first experience as a multi-hyphenate was The Bellboy, or Woody Allen for What’s Up, Tiger Lily? and Take the Money and Run. In the beautifully restored edition of Violent Cop, Kitano plays a rogue cop who often uses extreme violence and other unethical methods to get results. It’s shocking, to be sure, but in the highly stylized fashion that has marked mass-market yakuza films for decades. While investigating a series of drug-related homicides, Detective Azuma discovers that his friend and colleague, Iwaki (Sei Hiraizumi), is supplying drugs from within the police department. After Iwaki is murdered and Azuma’s sister is kidnapped, he leaves no stone unturned in getting retribution.

Boiling Point, which followed hot on the heels of Kitano’s 1989 directorial debut, is another yakuza picture, this time probably a bit more difficult to grasp for western audiences. That’s because its primary conflict involves a junior-league baseball team and lackluster player, Masaki (Masahiko Ono), who makes the mistake of defending himself against a gangster who bullies him at a local gas station, where he works. The thug loses face after being hurt in the confrontation and, despite a round of apologies from management and staff, demands from his boss that he be allowed to avenge the insult. The incident leads Masaki from the baseball diamond into the underworld of the yakuza and a lifestyle that doesn’t square with the image of teamwork, accommodation and almost overreaching formality that characterizes Japanese sports. Kitano has been a frequent critic of Japanese society and the use of baseball as a metaphor would have struck a chord with mainstream viewers. Like Violent Cop and most of Kitano’s succeeding features, Boiling Point isn’t for the faint of heart. Action junkies won’t mind the violence and other garish touches, though. The Blu-ray packages are available separately, with lengthy making-of featurettes and informative essays.

Sherpa
There’s been no scarcity of excellent documentaries lately about mountaineering and the challenges of scaling the world’s highest peaks. Lightweight digital camera equipment has allowed filmmakers to follow along on these dangerous mission, recording triumphs and tragedies as if they were staged in a soundstage or on location in Colorado. The same 1996 climbing tragedy described in Jon Krakauer’s harrowing best-seller, “Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster,” inspired the ABC-TV movie “Into Thin Air: Death on Everest,” the IMAX large-format doc Everest and Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest, all spectacular. Between May 10-11, eight people died after being caught in a blizzard while ascending or descending from the summit. Krakauer had already been assigned to report on the overcrowding on Mount Everest, caused by the growing number of commercial expeditions, and the risks involved for everyone from the climbers to the Sherpa guides, whose expertise was never in greater demand. The deaths didn’t, however, discourage mountaineers of varying degrees of experience from paying the tens of thousands of dollars required to make the trek to base camp and beyond. A shot taken from a helicopter in Jennifer Peedom’s documentary Sherpa shows a long line of climbers heading for the summit, one right after the other, like ants on their way to a picnic. The guides call it “gridlock.”

For the Sherpas who live in the Himalayas year-round, the boom in expedition tourism came as mixed blessing. The income was welcome, of course, but the overcrowding was taking a toll on the natural environment and health of the guides, who were making the roundtrip to the 29,029-foot summit more often than ever. Used oxygen tanks and the frozen corpses of dead climbers were becoming an eyesore, as well. Peedum’s team was already on the mountain shooting a documentary from the point of view of the Sherpas and their families – the guides now included women — when an even greater tragedy struck. On April 18, 2014, an ice avalanche occurred on the Khumbu Icefall, killing 16 Nepalese guides. Beyond he human toll, the cameras were able to capture the angry confrontations between the guides, foreign expedition leaders and Nepalese government officials regarding wages and benefits, working conditions and enforceable protocols. Tempers had flared a year earlier, when a foreigner insulted a guide in language the Sherpas considered disrespectful to the mountain they know as Chomolungma. After the debate, it was decided that the mountain would be closed to climbers for the season. The 2015 season was cancelled, as well, due to avalanches in the wake of the April 2015 Nepal earthquake, killing 21 on the mountain. Sherpa goes a long way toward placing the guides’ contributions to the success of foreign climbers – including Sir Edmund Hillary’s long-ignored partner, Tenzing Norgay – in their rightful perspective. It adds an interesting making-of featurette, which includes material taken of families in a nearby village.

Len and Company
In Tim Godsall and Katharine Knight’s debut feature, Len and Company, the title character (Rhys Ifans) is a seen-it-all rock-star so disenchanted with the current scene that he barricades himself inside his spacious rural retreat in Upstate New York and refuses to be civil to anyone who makes the mistake of caring about him. This includes his estranged, college-age son, Max (Jack Kilmer); a pop-star protégé, Zoe (Juno Temple); and ex-wife, Isabelle (Kathryn Hahn). He seems to have warm feelings for a shy local kid, William (Keir Gilchrist), who does odd jobs around the house and makes sure his studio is wired correctly. We know that Len has a few crossed wires of his own, because, when we meet him, he’s snorkeling in an outdoor swimming pool that doesn’t look as if it’s been cleaned since Esther Williams was inducted into the Swimming Pool Hall of Fame, in 1967. Max drives to the property from New York, hoping that Len would do him the courtesy of listening to his band’s demo tape and giving it an honest critique. Assuming it will be just another example of art-school bollocks, he refuses to even listen to it. Despite his dislike for pop music, as opposed to his love for cashing in on its popularity, Len produced Zoe’s last hit album and made her a bigger star than she already was. She hopes that Len will find it in his heart to cheer her up from the teeny-bopper blues and maybe prevent yet another accidental-on-purpose OD on pills. Needless to say, he’s pissed off by her visit.

He even manages to upset William, when, in a fit of pique, Len berates him for attempting to add chlorine to the pool. He retaliates by pulling out the studio wiring and burying it in the woods. Nice guy. It isn’t as if we haven’t already encountered disgruntled Baby Boomers artists, so delusional they consider themselves to be more amusing and creative after they stop taking their meds. We’ve been given little to no evidence of Len’s contributions to mankind and lose patience with him at about the same time Godsall offers him a way out of his – and our – misery. If it weren’t for our familiarity with Ifans’ previous, more likeable work, we’d have given up on Len and Company before redemption became an option. Actually, we care more about the well-being of the supporting characters, no matter how Len turns out. Kilmer allows us to feel the pain of being the unwelcome son of a narcissistic genius, who may well be jealous of his offspring’s decency and ability to emote. I’d sit through 102 minutes of anything in which Temple appears, even HBO’s “Vinyl.” The 27-year-old daughter of producer Amanda Temple (Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten) and director Julien Temple (London: The Modern Babylon, The Filth and the Fury), brightens any screen on which she appears. Everyone else is pretty good, as well.

Les Cowboys: Blu-ray
Am I the only person who sees the title, Les Cowboys, and immediately thinks it might be the third installment in a City Slicker trilogy, with John C. Reilly sitting in for Jack Palance? Probably. Instead, it is a serious attempt by the prolific French screenwriter Thomas Bidegain — Rust and Bone, A Prophet, Saint Laurent – to comprehend what’s going on in a world that stopped making sense after 9/11. In doing so, Bidegain borrows the template created by John Ford and Frank S. Nugent for The Searchers. When Alain Balland’s teenage daughter goes missing from their rural community in the southeast corner of France, he grabs his young son, Kid, and hits the road to find her. Kelly (Iliana Zabeth) had vanished while the Stetson-sporting Alain (François Damiens) was singing “Tennessee Waltz” at the region’s annual Country Festival. He and his wife, Nicole (Agathe Dronne), assumed the girl was too busy doing line-dances or taking target practice to completely disappear from view. Her friends offer no excuses in her defense or clues to her whereabouts. In the absence of a thorough police investigation, Alain learns that Kelly split for points unknown in the company of her Arab boyfriend, Ahmed (Mounir Margoum), whose existence was unknown to the family. A few days later, a letter informs them that she’s voluntarily gone full-blown Muslim and they needn’t worry about her. Not surprisingly, this doesn’t satisfy Alain, who grabs Kit and follows a trail that leads to northern Africa. This is 1994, so the level of paranoia isn’t nearly as high as it will be seven years later.

A few years pass until Alain is tipped to the possibility that a clue to Kelly’s whereabouts – and that of the granddaughter, whose existence has been hidden from him — might be found in Belgium. To his chagrin, Kid and Nicole decide not to accompany him on what’s probably just another wild-goose chase or an imposition on Kelly’s chosen lifestyle. Sadly, Alain’s killed after falling asleep behind the wheel on a lonely stretch of highway leading to Brussels. By now, terrorist attacks in New York, London and Spain have transformed the world and Kid can’t help but pick up the baton of his dad’s obsession. He travels to Afghanistan as a Red Cross volunteer, but can’t help flashing Kelly and Ahmed’s photographs to locals on the off-chance she will be recognized. Instead, Kid is taken under the wing of an American mercenary (Reilly), who seems as comfortable in the battle zone — negotiating with warlords to solve problems — as he would have been, back home, on the range. From this point on, spoilers lie. Suffice it to say that there are plenty more revelations and surprises to come. Les Cowboys’ overriding message eventually comes down to something Reilly’s L’Américain tells Kid about the necessity for carving one’s own path through life and respecting those chosen by others. It sounds simple, but, if the aftereffects of 9/11 have taught us anything, it’s that intolerance and bigotry aren’t limited to any one religion, ethnic group or nationality. Despite its surface resemblance to The Searchers, Les Cowboys is a uniquely satisfying movie that can stand on its singular vision and the imagination of an outstanding filmmaker in his directorial debut. The Cohen Media Blu-ray adds an extensive making-of featurette.

Approaching the Unknown
Frankly, I didn’t pay much attention to Approaching the Unknown when it joined the stack of DVDs scheduled to be review in future columns. I didn’t recognize the face of the astronaut on the cover and wasn’t anxious to spend another 90 minutes lost in space. I should have noticed the names of Mark Strong and Luke Wilson and put the DVD on the top of the stack, but the rust-brown coloring caused them to blend into the dark background, above an unfamiliar title that didn’t exactly pop out at me from the cover, either. Strong is an extremely versatile British actor, who’s excelled in such high-profile projects as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Body of Lies, Sherlock Holmes, Kingsman: The Secret Service and The Imitation Game. Here, he plays astronaut William D. Stanaforth, who’s volunteered for a one-way mission to Mars to lay the groundwork for colonization of the red planet. One of the reasons he’s been chosen to serve as the mission’s advance man is the system he created to use dirt to produce water. After making an ill-advised stop at a space station, where he is greeted by fellow astronauts who are only slightly more welcoming than the creature in “Alien.” After that, his ship begins to misbehave and his efforts to fix the problem only add to the misery. His mission controller (Wilson) wants Stanaforth to return home, but he is having none of it. For the rest of the journey, he’s pretty much reduced to tinkering with machinery, contemplating infinity and hallucinating. In this way, Approaching the Unknown will remind sci-fi buffs of The Martian, Gravity, Interstellar, Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Arriving so closely on the heels of The Martian and Gravity, though, Mark Elijah Rosenberg’s drama was doomed to a limited theatrical release and low-key re-entry to DVD and VOD. And, that’s really too bad, because Strong’s performance is comparable to any of the ones in the aforementioned titles and the deep-space visuals – likely collected from or inspired by the spectacular images captured by the Hubble telescope – keep the 90-minute film from wearing out its welcome or feeling derivative.

Broken Vows
Before re-reading some articles on Fatal Attraction, I didn’t know that there was a scientific term – two, actually – for the malaise that was driving Glenn Close’s lovesick character, Alexandra Forrest. There are plenty of words to describe the behavior of Michael Douglas’ dangerously randy protagonist, Dan Gallagher, with “horndog,” “dickhead” and “Bill Clinton wannabe” coming immediately to mind. Poor Alex suffered from a disorder commonly known as “erotomania” and “de Clérambault’s syndrome.” In the 1971 psychological thriller Play Misty for Me, Jessica Walter’s wigged-out stalker, Evelyn Draper, gave director/star Clint Eastwood more problems than any of the bad guys in the Dirty Harry franchise. I don’t know if either of those two shots across the bow for marital fidelity actually discouraged anyone from cheating on a spouse with someone who might be crazy, but, I suspect, they did. If Bram Coppens’ debut feature, Broken Vows, from a screenplay by James Agnew and Sean Keller, won’t be confused with Fatal Attraction or Play Misty for Me, it might convince one or two bachelorettes, at least, to limit the number of cocktails they imbibe on their girls-go-wild weekend. Here, Jamie Alexander (“Blindspot”) plays Tara, a fetching lass celebrating her impending marriage in New Orleans. After way too many drinks and some prodding from her bridesmaids, Tara makes a play for the handsome bartender, Patrick (Wes Bentley), who’s game for what she imagines will be a one-night stand. No harm, no foul … just some last-minute payback for a fling enjoyed by her fiancé, Michael (Cam Gigandet), years earlier. Imagine Tara’s surprise when Patrick shows up a day or two later at the home she shares with Michael, assuming that she feels the same way about him as he does for her. Nothing Tara says or does convinces him of her affection for Michael and her intention to marry him. It causes Patrick to shift into full Alexandra Forrest gear, even going so far as to call all the vendors providing services for the nuptials and telling them they won’t be needed, after all. It gets worse, but not in ways that are likely to surprise fans of stalker pictures and psycho-thrillers. As a first effort, though, Broken Vows isn’t bad, just overly familiar.

Ovation!
This high-spirited dramedy about play within a play represents Henry Jaglom’s 20th feature and the sixth starring his red-headed muse, Tanna Frederick. The backstage-as-center-of-the-universe conceit incorporated by Ovation! reminds me of Robert Altman’s final theatrical film, A Prairie Home Companion, which chronicles the last week in the broadcast life of America’s favorite radio/variety show. And, yes, except for the A-list cast playing beloved on-stage characters and backstage hands, it looks and sounds very much like what we imagined life on Garrison Keillor’s radio home might be like. Jaglom doesn’t enjoy the luxury of being able to recruit an all-star cast, typically making due with an ensemble cast of actors with whom he’s familiar and comfortable. His son and daughter Simon and Sabrina, have also been given meatier than usual assignments here. Frederick’s Maggie Chase is one of the stars of a play being staged in a financially challenged theater on the west side of Los Angeles. Although we aren’t permitted more than one or two glances at the audience or performance, we’re told that the play is receiving standing ovations after each show. The cast has grown weary of being promised definite word on the fate of the theater and is concerned when Maggie is offered a TV gig by mainstream star Stewart Henry (James Denton). Although both have regular companions, they spark immediately in a post-performance meeting. Besides the mysteries surrounding Maggie’s decision and the fate of the theater, there’s no scarcity of intrigue involving the various cast and crew members, agents, producers and directors. It includes an abusive relationship that disturbs everyone within shouting distance of the couple, the high anxiety exhibited by a Tarot reader and other shenanigans. I’m not sure that I buy the simplistic depictions of the abusive behavior of two male cast members, but Jaglom finds interesting ways to neutralize them. He also creates a tidy resolution for the other mysteries. If you love the theater the way Jaglom does, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll enjoy Ovation!, too.

Der Bunker: Blu-ray
German newcomer Nikias Chryssos’ truly creepy debut feature, Der Bunker – not to be confused with Adolph Hitler’s final resting place – made the rounds of fantasy and other genre festivals before taking the path of least resistance to Blu-ray/DVD. That shouldn’t stop horror buffs from checking it out before arranging their Halloween playlists, however. In it, a young man known to us only as Student answers an ad for a quiet room to let, in a remote place, so that he can complete an important project. As he approaches the door to the underground bunker, we intuitively know that Student (Pit Bukowski) isn’t going to get much work done. Father (David Scheller) immediately attaches himself to the young man, telling silly jokes and acting as if he were a partner in the project. Mother (Oona von Maydell) demands that he sit down in their kitchen for something she insists is dinner. Lurking off-screen is Klaus (Daniel Fripan), a stereotypical dimwit whose home schooling includes paternal bullying and maternal breastfeeding. When Father declares that Klaus is being groomed to be “president,” it becomes unclear as to which of the family members is more retarded, to coin a perfectly appropriate description. To this end, the parents coax Student to take over tutoring Klaus. Father suggests he learn the capitals of the world, first. The results are darkly comical. Things begin to turn really weird after Klaus – and, by extension, Student – fails his father’s first pop quiz. Student is so distressed by the boy’s punishment that he decides to coach him in the art of cheating. It doesn’t take long before he also discovers Mother’s trick to get her big baby boy to sleep. That she isn’t embarrassed when she spies Student checking her out only adds another layer of intrigue. And, yes, things get even stranger from there … not in a gory sort of way, but disturbing nonetheless. Chryssos is able to build and maintain tension through Matthias Reisser’s claustrophobic cinematography and a color scheme that reflects the feeling of being trapped underground. It only changes toward the end, when an opportunity for escape opens up and it’s indicated in neon red hues. Weighing in at 85 minutes, Chryssos isn’t given much time to make a lot of freshman mistakes. The Blu-ray adds a good making-of piece and deleted scenes.

The Inhabitants
Observance: Blu-ray
Phantom of the Theatre
The Invoking 3: Paranormal Dimensions
The Devil’s Forest
The primary selling point for the haunted B&B thriller, The Inhabitants, is the Rasmussen brothers’ shared writers’ credit on John Carpenter’s 2010 disappointment, The Ward, which starred Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer and Danielle Panabaker. Co-writers/directors Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen then collaborated on the haunted-sanitarium chiller, Dark Feed. It received some decent marks on niche sites, but others suggested the brothers stick to writing. The Inhabitants tells the story of Dan (Michael Reed) and Jessica (Elise Couture), a couple who buy the March Carriage House, a historic New England bed-and-breakfast whose up-keep became too expensive for the previous owner and her wacky aunt to afford. The sale’s due-diligence period must have expired before the couple discovered the inn’s history of depraved ownership, which dates back to the Salem witch trials. This, combined with all of things that go bump in the night in the first month of their occupancy should have told Dan not to leave his wife home alone when he left town on a business trip. Instead, he fulfills the requirements of the Idiot Plot by letting her fend for herself in a house only a moron wouldn’t realize is haunted. Sure enough, by the time he returns home, Jessica is in a catatonic state and the dog is missing. The Rasmussens also decided to add a hidden room loaded with surveillance equipment of the type used for making sex tapes to be sold on the Internet. A collection of ancient surgical implements harkens back to a time when the house was used as a midwifery and several of the town’s children died while being supervised by a woman presumed to be a witch. The Inhabitants was shot in color, but it might as well have been black-and-white for all of the nearly indistinguishable imagery, caused by a suspicious electrical blackout.

If, in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Jimmy Stewart had been confined to wheelchair in an apartment haunted by malevolent spirits, it might look a bit like Joseph Sims-Dennett’s freakishly atmospheric Observance. The filmmaker’s influences might also have included Polanski’s The Tenant and, for its deployment of eerie sonic effects and listening devices, Coppola’s The Conversation. That’s not to suggest that the Aussie filmmaker’s sophomore feature is completely derivative, but these influences seem pretty clear. Parker (Lindsay Farris) is a young man who recently lost everything in his life he holds dear, including money. To make ends meet and keep his mind off his troubles, Parker reluctantly returns to work as a private investigator. His assignment is to observe a pretty blond (Stephanie King) from an abandoned apartment in a derelict building across the street. Like Stewart, he uses a high-power lens to keep track of her inside her apartment. He also has tapped her phone and is able to ask a friend to translate the intelligence for clues of what, he does not know. Neither is his employer concerned when he witnesses some possibly illegal exchanges between the woman and an unknown man. The Employer is so determined that Parker completes his mission that he offers additional pay for additional days on the job. Parker suspects that the Employer is the same man who’s paying visits to the woman, but, again, to what end? It’s at about this time in the proceedings that things begin to go sideways for Parker. The haunting takes the form of an infection that causes him to cough up a dark, bloodlike fluid and have hallucinations of near-past tragedies. Still, if he wants to be paid, he must remain on the investigation, which, after several days, moves outside for a while. More suspenseful than scary, Observance is best when the atmospherics are used to advance the action, instead of the indeterminate narrative. A precede is included on the DVD/Blu-ray.

Considering that the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the People’s Republic of China makes the bluenoses at the Hays Office look like libertines, it’s a wonder that Raymond Yip’s Phantom of the Theatre could be made. That’s because it goes against the same ban on promoting superstitions and aberrations that kept Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters: Answer the Call and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, among other pictures, to be refused access to Chinese audiences. The question is addressed in the film when filmmaker Gu Weibang (Tony Yang) is cautioned by a crew member about censorship relating to supernatural content. He responds, “What aberrations? The Book of Rites clearly states that ‘all beings die and return to the ground.’ That is how a ghost is defined. Even our ancestors acknowledge ghosts.” Even so, some Pacific Rim critics have suggested that Yip voluntarily pulled back on the horror and special effects, replacing them with a sometimes ponderous romantic through-line. The theater that provides the setting here was destroyed in a deliberately set fire 13 years earlier, killing a family troupe of acrobats who gave a command performance for a local warlord. The once grand playhouse has reopened to accommodate the film shoot, despite the presence of the ghosts of the acrobats. The supernatural movie within a movie will star a promising young actress Meng SiFan (Ruby Lin). No sooner does production begin than the leading man and producer each spontaneously combust. But, even in this ghost-filled theater in pre-World War II Shanghai, the show must go on. If Yang’s story was been hobbled by censorship, Phantom of the Theatre can be recommended for the ghosts that remain and its splendid re-creation of the rebuilt theater and period costumes.

In 2013, Jeremy Berg’s supernatural thriller, The Invoking, was accorded some positive reviews on genre websites and prizes at a couple festivals. How it evolved into the low-budget anthology series The Invoking 2 and The Invoking 3: Paranormal Dimensions is a mystery to me. The dots between them don’t appear to connect in terms of creative talent, producers or distributors, except for the participation of Ruthless Pictures in the similarly developed All Hallows Eve franchise. Lee Matthews (The Horror Network) is cited on IMDB.com – if not the final credit roll — as writer and director of the nine chapters of “Invoking 3.” Each short film purportedly was shot at the location of disturbing paranormal events, involving Grim Reapers, evil poltergeists, satanic forces and conjured spirits. They could be film-school projects, for all I know. The chills in these micro-budget efforts derive largely from scary makeup effects and bizarre masks.

We’re advised on the cover of The Devil’s Forest (a.k.a., “The Devil Complex,” “The Devil Within”) that the movie is based on true events. Doubtful, but let’s say it was. In it, documentarian Rachel Kusza (Maria Simona Arsu) travels to Transylvania with a film crew to collect evidence that the Hoia Baciu forest is haunted and possibly complicit in a dark history of strange occurrences, ghost sightings and countless cases of missing people. After entering the forest, they were never seen or heard from again. After searching for the film crew for two years, Rachel’s teacher, Howard Redman (Tom Bonington) found the crew’s camera buried in the snow. Before taking his own life, Redman uploaded the footage to the internet. He needn’t have bothered. The found-footage reveals little besides sinister looking trees and dirty snow. Apparently, the forest judges the people who enter it and decides which ones are allowed to leave. Some movies have that effect on viewers, too.

Carrie: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
She Who Must Burn
The Hills Have Eyes: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Vamp: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Looking back on Carrie with the benefit of Scream Factory’s sterling 40th-anniversary Blu-ray edition fresh in my mind, it’s easy to see why Brian De Palma’s revenge fantasy freaked the hell out of a generation of Baby Boomer audiences. Everything was changing in the marketplace and viewers were just getting accustomed to such things as tent-pole pictures, demographic-specific marketing campaigns, the virtual end to platform releasing and wide acceptance of horror films in which teens are butchered simply for doing the kinds of things teenagers do late at night in cars. Hollywood’s relative inattention to the genre gave new-breed filmmakers the opportunity to be subversive and scary, while giving kids what they wanted to see. In Carrie, De Palma respected his audience enough to include dozens of references to the work of important directors and classic movies, while also taking advantage of the freedoms afforded by the extinction of the Production Code and protections provided by the MPAA film-rating system. Because Carrie was the first Stephen King novel adapted for the big screen, viewers really didn’t know what to expect. Critics, by and large, kept the movie’s secrets to themselves and “spoilers” didn’t travel around the globe at the speed of light. I have to believe that Carrie is still capable of shocking viewers new to the movie 40 years later. What viewers who haven’t seen it since 1976 may not recall are early non-television appearances by John Travolta, Amy Irving, William Katt, Nancy Allen, Betty Buckley, P.J. Soles, Michael Talbott and Edie McClurg. Sissy Spacek was familiar only to those who’d seen her terrific performance, alongside Martin Sheen, in Terrence Malick’s debut feature, Badlands. For their work here, Spacek and her terrifying on-screen mother, Piper Laurie would be nominated for Oscars, notably for what many in Hollywood must have considered to be a genre picture. Not for nothing, Carrie also demonstrated how telekinesis could be used a defense to being bullied at school and at home. In addition to the bonus features carried over from previous iterations and formats, the two-disc Collector’s Edition Blu-ray boasts a 4K Scan of the original negative and restoration; fresh interviews with Nancy Allen, Betty Buckley, William Katt, Piper Laurie, Edie McClurg and P.J. Soles, screenwriter Lawrence Cohen, editor Paul Hirsch, director of photography Mario Tosi, casting director Harriet B. Helberg and composer Pino Donaggio. Also new is another segment in Scream Factory’s “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds,” during which viewers to take a tour of the film’s locations, then and now.

Every time zealots from the Westboro Baptist Church picket the funeral of a soldier killed in action, an AIDS victim or religion whose teachings it abhors, an atheist is born … maybe more. Piper Laurie’s character in Carrie might have been inspired to join the WBC if she hadn’t been crucified by cutlery by her telekinetic daughter. Veteran Canadian filmmaker Larry Kent must have had the same church in mind when he conceived the unusually pointed anti-hate thriller She Who Must Burn. In it, a women’s-care clinic is shut down after its doctor is shot to death by anti-abortion protester, Abraham Baarker (James Wilson), who was arrested soon after. Undeterred, the doctor’s assistant, Angela (Sarah Smyth), relocates the clinic to her home, which then becomes the target of the fanatics, who mistakenly believe she’s performing abortions. Even assisting battered women leave their abusive spouses or counseling pregnant teens is grounds for retribution by the assorted Baarkers and their followers. Assuming they have the Constitution on their sided, the Baarkers push their luck once too often causing local lawmen to finally get off their asses. This may not sound as if She Who Must Burn movie fits under the heading of horror, but there’s monsters aplenty among the church members, who would even set a “sinner” on fire to punish her … again, not unlike Carrie. Evans has built a career around addressing social ills through genre themes. By not turning the Baarkers into gargoyles or overly exaggerated characters, he refuses to allow the horror of hate to be compromised or ignored.

If one takes into account Wes Craven’s stylish, if pseudonymous 1975 porno, The Fireworks Woman, The Hills Have Eyes stands as his third feature and second horror flick, behind The Last House on the Left. It must not have been easy for Craven to find financing for a follow-up to a film so graphically violent that it caused the critic for the New York Times to walk out in disgust after 50 minutes. (By contrast, Roger Ebert gave it 3½ out of 4 stars.)  That it was loosely based on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring demonstrated that Craven was interested in something other than torture-for-torture’s-sake. Five years would pass before the release of The Hills Have Eyes, which, Craven allowed, was inspired by the legend of Sawney Beane and his loathsome family (a wife, eight sons and six daughters), who roamed the highlands of Scotland’s East Lothian County, near Edinburgh, in the early 1400s. Standing in for those lush hills are the scrub-brush wastelands of Apple Valley, Mojave and Victorville, Clalifornia. It resembles the high-desert landscape north of Las Vegas, where the station wagon and trailer belonging to the white-bread California family from Cleveland, breaks down on their way to Disneyland. Unfortunately, the AAA TripTik failed to warn them of the feral varmints who inhabit the hills surrounding their unexpected bivouac and feast on interlopers. The rest of the story is best left to your imagination … or nightmares. Even if Craven doesn’t disguise the influence of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre on The Hills Have Eyes, it’s different enough to stand on its own as a pioneer in the torture-porn, revenge and cannibal-clan subgenres. The Arrow Video 4K restoration from original film elements was supervised by producer Peter Locke and adds postcards; a reversible fold-out poster, featuring new and original artwork; limited edition booklet, with new writing on the film by critic Brad Stevens and a consideration of the “Hills” franchise by Ewan Cant, illustrated with original archive stills; audio commentary with Wes Craven and Peter Locke; “Looking Back on The Hills Have Eyes” making-of documentary, featuring interviews with Craven, Locke, actors Michael Berryman, Dee Wallace, Janus Blythe, Robert Houston, Susan Lanier and director of photography Eric Saarinen; “The Desert Sessions,”  a new interview with composer Don Peake; the alternate ending, in HD for the first time; marketing material; an image gallery; original screenplay (BD/DVD-ROM Content); and reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Paul Shipper.

In his review of Vamp, Ebert compared it to “a vampire version of After Hours, Martin Scorsese’s great 1985 film about a long night in the big city when everything went wrong.” (Director Richard Wenk acknowledges the influence in an interview here.) He didn’t particularly care much for the story, so chose, instead, to linger on the thoroughly arresting performance by Grace Jones as an undead stripper. Thirty years later, Vamp can be enjoyed not only for her over-the-top dance and costume, but for Billy Drago’s albino thug, Dedee Pfeiffer’s cute-as-a-button stripper, Gedde Watanabe’s nerdy sidekick and Sandy Baron’s sleazy club owner. Chris Makepeace and Robert Rusler play the fraternity pledges who promise the brothers far more than they can deliver in the way of party favors. Vamp also benefits from Elliot Davis’ atypical nighttime cinematography, Alan Roderick-Jones’ imaginative set design and Greg Cannom’s special-makeup-effects work. The Arrow Video upgrade is enhanced by a high-definition digital transfer; original mono audio; “One of those Nights: The Making of Vamp,” a new documentary featuring interviews with director Richard Wenk, cast and crew members; behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage; a blooper reel; image gallery; Wenk’s delightful 1979 short, “Dracula Bites the Big Apple”; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by the Twins of Evil; and a booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Cullen Gallagher.

Francesca: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
It’s easy to get the impression from an interview included in the Francesca Blu-ray package, from Unearthed Films, that Argentinean co-writer/director Luciano Onetti hates the term “neo-giallo” as much as loves, respects and emulates old-school giallo, right down to the lurid colors, disembodied red gloves playing a piano and grain in the film stock. His first, 67-minute crime drama Sonno Profondo (a.k.a., “Deep Sleep”) got some attention at several niche film festivals, as did the 13-minute-longer Francesca, which doesn’t suffer much from being seen on the smaller screens. As the story goes, it’s been 15 years since the disappearance of little Francesca, daughter of the renowned storyteller, poet and dramatist Vittorio Visconti, and the mystery remains fresh in her home town. Today, the community is stalked by a psychopath bent on cleansing the city of “impure and damned souls,” apparently prompted by various chapters in Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” Police detectives Moretti and Succo know that they can’t solve the current string of murders unless they solve the mystery surrounding Francesca’s fate. You can bet they’re related one way or another. The narrative, which is presented almost entirely from the first-person perspective of its villainous lead character, probably would have benefitted from another 10-15 minutes of exposition. Still, fans of giallo should find Francesca worth the effort of finding. The special edition adds a DVD, a disc dedicated to the atmospheric soundtrack, an essay, a “hidden” scene and alternate opening, interview with Onetti and making-of piece.

A Werewolf in the Amazon Collection
Knowing how much Brazilian exploitation specialist Ivan Cardoso owes to José Mojica Marins (a.k.a., Coffin Joe) explains almost everything on display in Camp Motion Pictures’ truly outrageous “A Werewolf in the Amazon Collection.” Just as Coffin Joe was considered to be the “Dario Argento of Brazil,” Cardoso’s contribution to genre filmmaking was “terrir,” (a Portuguese portmanteau of “terror” and “rir,” “to laugh”), which combined classic horror tropes and homages to such innovators as Alfred Hitchcock and Roger Corman, with elements of the sexy chanchada comedy style. His movies delivered on their promise of mixing T&A with parodies of the most widespread Brazilian stereotypes. They take some time getting used to, of course, but so did giallo and women-in-prison flicks made in the Philippines. This new-to-DVD compilation is comprised of A Werewolf in the Amazon (2005), with Fangoria Hall of Famer Paul Naschy playing both the evil vivisectionist Dr. Moreau and his trademark character, the Wolfman; noir-inspired The Scarlet Scorpion (1990), in which the playboy crime-fighter Anjo takes on his arch-enemy Escorpião Escarlate, who kidnapped a respected fashion designer (Andrea Beltrão); The Seven Vampires (1986), concerning a botanist researching a dangerous carnivorous plant and a bumbling detective investigating a plague of mysterious attacks at a upscale nightclub; and The Secret of the Mummy (1982), which describes what happens  when Professor Expedito Vitus discovers the tomb of Runamb, the Mummy, and unleashes a murderous rampage. Unrestored, the latter pair look as if they were produced in 1922, instead of the 1980s. Even so, they’re far from unwatchable. The boxed set adds “A Marca do Terrir,” a short-film collection featuring Cardoso’s 16mm “Nosferatu in Brazil” and the experimental featurette, “O Sarcofago Macabro”; a mini-poster; and liner notes by film critic Justine Smith.

Beep: A Documentary History of Game Sound
Being Canadian
Among the many things we take for granted in life are the sounds we hear emanating from video games, pinball and slot machines and other electronic entertainments. They don’t exactly fit the traditional definition of music and are rarely hummable. As we’re reminded in Beep: A Documentary History of Game Sound, percussive sounds have always played a role in popularizing arcade and casino games. They were of the bells-and-whistles variety, chiefly used to alert winners and passersby of a jackpot. It encouraged others to join in the fun, even if the odds against winning a stuffed animals or coins was miniscule. The introduction of Pong and other video games changed the way manufacturers considered sound. At first, the bleeps, bloops and gurgles provided little more than ambient background noise. As increasingly sophisticated software allowed more memory to be dedicated to sound, the synthesized notes, mutes and loops more closely resembled movie soundtracks and electronic-music scores. Individual sounds could be attached to specific characters, scenarios, actions and movements, while also branding a game. That’s a layman’s explanation for what’s discussed in Karen Collins docs in clips from more than 80 interviews with game composers, sound designers, voice actors and audio directors from around the world, as well as imagery from groundbreaking games and hardware platforms. While undeniably interesting and comprehensive, at 153 minutes “Beep” almost certainly will wear out its welcome for casual gamers and non-geeks after the first 45 minutes, or so. A documentary about the history and evolution of Muzak, elevator and lounge music would have the same lulling effect. For others, the two-DVD set features an extended director’s cut; the featurette “Big in Japan:A Japanese Special”; a tribute to Ryu Umemoto; and a tutorial on getting into the business.

If the next President of the United States decides to build a 30-foot-high wall on our border with Canada to keep more comedians from entering this country, legally or illegally, America would be a less happy place to live and Canada might be able to maintain a stable entertainment industry. I don’t know how many of Hollywood’s funniest comedians and writers can trace their roots to the Great White North, but it probably is higher than the number of Polynesian islanders playing football in the NFL and colleges here. Robert Cohen’s entertaining documentary, Being Canadian, is less concerned with the nature of humor in the Canadian psyche than “what it means to be Canadian.” This is a question that perplexes Cohen far more than any of the people interviewed here, including Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Jason Priestley, Conan O’Brien, Eugene Levy, William Shatner, Seth Rogen, Mike Myers, Dan Aykroyd, Alanis Morissette, the Trailer Park Boys and a dozen celebrities you wouldn’t guess are Canadian. What I took from the film about our quaint neighbor to the north is if Cohen absolutely, positively had to know what it means to be Canadian, he probably spent too much time in L.A.

The Legend of Frenchie King
42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection Vol. 17
Neither Brigette Bardot nor Claudia Cardinale was a stranger to period action pictures when they teamed up on the 1971 spaghetti Western, The Legend of Frenchie King, which, true to form, was shot in Andalucía, Spain, where Sergio Leone had staked a claim years earlier. Bardot had teamed with Sean Connery on the Louis L’Amour adaptation, Shalako, while Cardinale had famously appeared in Once Upon a Time in the West. Bardot would soon retire from making motion pictures, while Cardinale is still performing. Along for the ride was Michael J. Pollard, who was still riding on the fumes left over from his performance in Bonnie and Clyde. Bardot and her sisters have formed a team of train robbers, dressed as men. Cardinale and her brothers own a ranch that promises to produce a gusher of black gold in the near future. Much to the amusement of the local cowhands and sheriff, the ladies engage in a wild cat fight until they figure out how to parley their strengths to profit from the oil. (They also enjoy the brothel workers’ weekly bath in a nearby river.) It’s goofy, alright, but watching two of the 1960s’ most prominent “sex kittens” together is a real hoot, even 45 years later.

Impulse Pictures’ 42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection series must have struck a chord somewhere, as it’s just turned the corner on Volume No. 17. The 15 newly re-mastered 8mm shorts may not be flawless, but they’re probably as clean as they’ve ever been. (I use the word “clean” advisedly.) This time around the stars include Seka, Sharon Kane and Linda Shaw. They all look so young and fit. (Viagra was still 20-some years from reality.) Liner notes are by Dimitrios Otis.

TV-to-DVD
AMC: Feed The Beast: Season 1
PBS Kids: Caillou: Caillou the Courageous
Nickelodeon Favorites: A Very Nick Jr. Christmas
It’s difficult to recommend a series, in this AMC’s Feed the Beast, that hasn’t been renewed or been allowed to tie up loose ends. Fans of David Schwimmer and James Sturgess may not have been aware of the existence of the underpublicized show and want to check it out, anyway. Based on the Danish series “Bankerot,” it involves brothers-from-other-mothers Tommy Moran and Dion Patras, both of whom appear to carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. Dion (Sturgess) isn’t out of prison for more than a couple hours, before he’s picked up off the street by a fat gangster who carries a pliers around as his weapon of choice. Dion owes him a ton of money for burning down his father’s restaurant while flying high on coke. Tommy isn’t exactly ecstatic to see his friend walk into his life again, because his wife was in the restaurant at the time and failed to escape. Their son is so traumatized that he stopped speaking to anyone, including his teachers. Dion is a chef extraordinaire and Tommy is a master sommelier, so the only hope of raising the money is by opening a fancy new Greek restaurant in a Bronx neighborhood waiting to be gentrified. There’s more. Feed the Beast probably was too convoluted to maintain a steady audience. Miss one episode and you were lost forever, Anyway, the acting’s good, so there’s that.  The cooking displays are truly mouthwatering.

Growing up can be fun, but, let’s face it, there are things no child should be expected to experience before puberty, at least. These would include televised presidential debates, hot dog eating contests and watching Pete Rose analyzing a baseball game on Fox Sports 1. To prepare for such real-world shocks and disappointments, today’s preschoolers can get a head start by watching shows such as PBS Kids’ “Calliou” or picking up the occasional DVD compilation, like “Calious the Courageous.”  The 55-minute package includes seven stories on overcoming such fears as spiders, shadows, roller-skates and climbing.

The six-episode collection, “Nickelodeon Favorites: A Very Nick Jr. Christmas,” is a sampler of holiday- and winter-themed shows from some of the network’s favorite series and characters. Among them are Blaze and the Monster Machines in “Monster Machine Christmas,” Shimmer and Shine in “Santa’s Little Genies,” Dora and Friends in “Shivers the Snowman,” Bubble Guppies in “A Very Guppy Christmas” and Wallykazam! in “Wally Saves the Trollidays” and “Snow Place Like Home.”

The DVD Wrapup: Innocents, Swiss Army Man, Purge: Election Year, Diary of a Chambermaid, The Wailing, Homestretch and more

Friday, October 7th, 2016

The Innocents: Blu-ray
For most of its 1,050 years as recognizable entity, Poland has stood at the crossroads of European history. It’s rarely been a particularly comfortable place to be. In September, 1939, the country was invaded almost simultaneously by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Before the dust cleared and an Iron Curtain on freedom fell, at least 5.6 million ethnic Poles and Polish Jews perished at the hands of the invaders, 90 percent of the deaths being non-military in nature. The Warsaw Uprising of 1944 left 150,000 civilians dead. Another 320,000 were deported to Siberia. In the 50 years between the fall of Poland and raising of the curtain, most of what Poland could offer the world culturally emanated from an émigré community frustrated by the broken promises at Yalta and oppressive Communist Party censors. Movies dramatizing the horrors of occupation and heroes of the resistance were left largely to filmmakers working in the west. Those made internally were weighted toward a Moscow-approved view of reality. They included Wanda Jakubowska’s 1948, The Last Stage, which was shot on location at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp and employed Holocaust survivors as actors. Largely unseen here until 2009, when Facets Video distributed the Polart edition, The Last Stage remains one of the most disturbingly accurate Holocaust movie ever made, even considering the pro-Soviet propaganda at its close. Since 1990, the free cinema of Eastern European has become one of the most vital movements of them all. Among titles with direct connections to Poland are Agnieszka Holland’s Europa Europa and In Darkness; Roman Polanski’s The Pianist; Andrzej Wajda’s Korczak and Katyn; and Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, which was shot in several Polish locations. Released in 2014, Pawel Pawlikowski’s post-World War II drama, Ida, told the story of Anna, an orphan brought up by nuns in the convent after being left there by Polish neighbors during the occupation. Eighteen years later, on the eve of taking her vows, Anna is instructed by Mother Superior to meet Wanda, a Communist Party functionary and atheist, who’s Anna’s only living relative. After Wanda tells Anna about her Jewish roots, both women embark on a journey not only to learn more about their family’s tragic story, but also to look inward and question engrained beliefs. Intricately conceived and full of surprise revelations, Ida was awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Likewise set largely inside a convent, this time in December 1945, Anne Fontaine’s deeply engrossing The Innocents (a.k.a., “Agnus Dei”) is the based-on-fact story of French Red Cross doctor Mathilde Pauliac (Lou de Laage), who, while treating the last of the French survivors of German concentration camps in Poland, is summoned to a Benedictine convent by a distraught nun. Although not authorized to leave the medical outpost, as it’s surrounded by Red Army troops, Mathilde reluctantly agrees to follow her to church outside town. When she arrives, she finds one of the younger sisters in labor and promptly delivers the baby via C-section. The silence and shame that accompanies the infant’s birth would suggest that the nun had been impregnated by the devil – or, perhaps, the Holy Ghost — and no word of it should leave the convent’s walls. Instead, as the strict Mother Abbess (Agata Kulesza) and similarly rigid Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) explain, the nun was one of seven nuns that had been impregnated by Soviet soldiers who had forced their way into the monastery. The women had survived the German occupation, only to be raped by their “liberators” from the east. Although Mathilde agrees to minister to the pregnant women, some refuse pre-natal care out of personal shame, a reluctance to being touched below their habits and the bizarre belief that they somehow shared the blame. All of them have been emotionally and spiritually traumatized. Eventually, with the help of a “worldly” French-speaking nun, Mathilde wins the confidence of the pregnant women, if not the elders. The overriding question then becomes what happens to the children born out of wedlock and the “tarnished” nuns. Despite the nuns’ continuing chorus of prayers, no one knows how God wants the situation to be resolved, of course … the Mother Abbess would probably veto it, anyway. After the horrors of the war, it’s difficult to believe God ever paid much attention to what was happening in Poland. Meanwhile, Mathilde is faced with crises of her own. Working from screenplay by Sabrina B. Karine, Alice Vial and Pascal Bonitzer, Luxembourg-native Fontaine (Gemma Bovary, Coco Before Chanel) has crafted a spiritually informed drama that respects the faith of the nuns, while questioning the motivations of people whose notions of morality are suspect, at best. Finally, too, it asks us to re-consider our beliefs about motherhood, religion and heroism. Like Ida, The Innocents is a story about, but not strictly for women, which, sadly, I can’t see being made in Hollywood. I can only hope it’s remembered when Oscar voting begins in January. The Music Box Blu-ray arrives with a pair of interviews with Fontaine, one hosted by Holland.

Swiss Army Man: Blu-ray
When in doubt, fart. Ever since Mel Brooks broke the flatulence barrier in Blazing Saddles, the almost always gratuitous addition of a fart to a scene has induced laughter among viewers, young and old. And, it isn’t limited to gross-out flicks anymore, either. Any time two or more unrelated characters share an elevator or friends take a road trip, a fart is sure to follow. Neither are animated pictures exempt. Of all the things the MPAA ratings board based its R-rating for Swiss Army Man – the Citizen Kane of flatulence-informed films – excessive farting wasn’t one of them. And, yet, the film’s many fart gags reportedly caused several audience members at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival screening to take an early powder. Blessedly, co-writer/directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert elected not to add Smell-O-Vision to the sensory mix. Early buzz on Swiss Army Man accurately described it as Weekend-at-Bernie’s-meets-Cast Away. In it, Paul Dano plays Hank, the sole survivor of some kind of terrible disaster or accident, living on a deserted stretch of beach. Finally, he decides that suicide is a better option to such a solitary existence than waiting for a passing ship to rescue him. Just as the rope tightens around his neck, however, Hank spies the only slightly bloated corpse of another man (Daniel Radcliffe) being washed upon the shore. After toying with “Manny” like a kitten with a baby bird, Hank discovers an aspect of the decomposition process not commonly acknowledged in television dramas and movies, but well known to morgue attendents. The post-mortem passing of gas can be shocking, but it’s hardly unusual or harmful. Apparently, though, Manny has a natural-gas reserve not unlike those being fracked in North Dakota. Being bored and resourceful, Hank discovers a plethora of ways to exploit Manny’s gifts. Some are off-putting, while others genuinely hilarious. Meanwhile, Radcliffe remains in character throughout the indignities. If this was all there is to Swiss Army Man, the story could be reduced to an episode of “South Park.” Instead, the Daniels, as the filmmakers sometimes call themselves, find ways to turn their creation into the strangest of buddy pictures, complete with romance, hallucinations, wildlife and a poignant climax. Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull and Robert McDowell contributed a soundtrack that sounds improvised, but adds an emotional tug not typically associated with movies this unusual. Dano and Radcliffe have evolved over the past few years into actors who defy stereotypes at every turn and demand that their work be seen. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Kwan and Scheinert, production designer Jason Kisvarnay and sound mixer/“fartist” Brent Kiser; deleted scenes; a pair of making-of featurettes; and a lengthy Q&A with the filmmakers, featuring Glenn Kiser moderating at the Dolby Institute. It focuses on a grant “Swiss Army Man” received from Dolby for sound design and production.

The Purge: Election Year: Blu-ray
Defying most of the laws of box-office physics, each new installment in the Purge series has earned more money than its predecessor. Typically, after the second or third installment in genre franchises, producers start weighing the pros and cons of going straight-to-DVD/VOD. After all, why waste money on distribution and marketing when a fan base has been established and its loyalty has been assured? Budgets have risen only marginally, while critical response has grown more favorable. The Purge: Election Year was widely expected to be the third chapter in a trilogy that began in 2013, with a home-invasion scenario, starring Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey. Then, a year later, The Purge: Anarchy focused on a three groups of people caught outside in Los Angeles on Purge night, when all crimes are legal and forgiven. “Election Year” takes the action to Washington, D.C., where a senator who wants to abolish the 12-hour event becomes an assassination target. It has been two years since former police sergeant Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) stopped himself from a regrettable act of revenge on Purge Night and, now, he’s head of security for presidential candidate Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell). It’s the same woman, who, in 2022, helplessly witnessed her family get murdered by a Purger. Roan believes Purge Night, which now attracts hooligans from around the world, is nothing more than a scheme to enhance the wealthy and erase the poor. As a way to counter that argument, the organizers agree to remove the prohibitions against killing government officials above a certain ranking. It becomes Griffin’s duty to protect her not only from the riff-raff celebrating “Halloween for adults,” but also from those who would go to extreme lengths to preserve the ritual slaughter. The setup allows for a maximum amount of action and surprises in the allotted 110-minute time, with the addition of several non-governmental characters and references to bullying and intolerance that seem to have been inspired by the Trump campaign. Fans also are given reason to believe a fourth installment could be on its way. The Blu-ray includes deleted scenes, a short backgrounder and character spotlight on the return of Leo Barnes.

Into the Forest: Blu-ray
If more dystopian movies were written and directed by women, they might look less like Mad Max and more closely resemble Patricia Rozema’s deliberately paced and emotionally engaging Into the Forest. If there was a zombie in it, I missed it. Based on Jean Hegland’s word-of-mouth best-seller, published in 1996 in paperback by tiny Calyx press and in hardback, two years later by Bantam, Into the Forest has been described as a feminist drama. It can, however, be enjoyed as a struggle for survival by two teenage girls, who must learn to cope without their parents and conveniences of modern civilization they’ve taken for granted since birth. Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood play Nell and Eva, sisters who find themselves stuck in an isolated house in the forests of northern California after a nationwide power outage … or, perhaps, a more permanent disaster. Having lived in the sparsely populated region most of their life, the girls aren’t completely unprepared for roughing it for a couple of weeks while the electricity and gasoline supplies are restored. Long-term solutions, however, aren’t as easy to find. Nell is an extrovert, who’s natural inclination is to party until the cows come home, while Eva has resorted to dance therapy to get over her mother’s recent death, to cancer. (Their father dies in a terrible accident, while cutting down a tree.) As time goes by, they’ll be required to deal with declining food, gas and water supplies, destructive animals, inclement weather, solitude and thieves. They probably could attempt to move into the nearest city, 30 miles away, but there’s no telling what’s happening there. Months pass and their home succumbs to the meteorological realities of life and decay in a rain forest. When Eva is impregnated by an acquaintance determined to steal their last jerrycan, Nell must adjust to being her sister’s ob-gyn, psychiatrist, provider and source of warmth and protection. With Google unavailable, Nell must rely on the family encyclopedia for information. Anyone who’s read the novel and is familiar with Rozema’s resume — I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, When Night Is Falling, Mansfield Park – wouldn’t expect her to provide an easy way out to the sisters, like a sudden power surge or unexpected arrival of the National Guard. Into the Forest further benefits from Daniel Grant’s lush cinematography and superb acting by Page and Wood, two of our finest young actresses. The Blu-ray adds Rozema’s commentary and a making-of featurette.

Diary of a Chambermaid: Blu-ray
One definition of chutzpah would be a filmmaker re-adapting a classic book that’s already been successfully interpreted by such masters as Jean Renoir and Luis Bunuel. The prolific French writer/director/actor Benoît Jacquot (Farewell, My Queen, 3 Hearts) has that kind of chutzpah, in spades, so it’s important that he bring something more to Octave Mirbeau’s 1900 book, “Diary of a Chambermaid,” than a tonal shift from black-and-white to color. The class-conscious novel takes the point-of-view of a resentful maidservant, Mademoiselle Célestine, whose job Jacquot equates to a form of indentured servitude, created to simplify the decadent lives of wealthy men and women. One of them fetishizes her boots to the extent that he is found dead one morning with one of them stuffed in his mouth. While some of Celestine’s bosses may be better than others, none is free of the turpitudes of bourgeois society. If the poor and laboring classes aren’t any better when it comes to morals, at least they have an excuse. As Célestine, Léa Seydoux easily stands up to our inevitable comparisons with Paulette Goddard and Jeanne Moreau, whose portrayals were shaped by the restrictions of the time – 1946 and 1964 — or personal quirks of the director. After excelling in such high-profile pictures as Spectre, Mission:Impossible – Ghost Protocol, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Farewell, My Queen, Midnight in Paris and Lobster, Seydoux is as hot as anyone in the business, right now. Here, Célestine braces at the humiliating submission to Madame Lanlaire’s onerous terms of employment, her husband’s constant groping and the handsome gardener Joseph’s virulent anti-Semitism. She knows her only alternative might be a job in a brothel, which, of course, is just a different sort of slavery. As a period piece set largely in northern and coastal France, Diary of a Chambermaid could hardly be more eye-catching. It was nominated for César Awards in the categories of Best Costume Design, Best Production Design and Best Adapted Screenplay (with Hélène Zimmer). The gorgeous Blu-ray includes an extensive making-of featurette, with a tight focus on Jacquot’s approach to the material.

Amazonia
Heart of the World: Colorado’s National Parks
It’s difficult to imagine how such a delightful and visually arresting picture as Amazonia failed to land a single 3D screen upon which it could exhibited to school groups and families looking for some G-rated entertainment. The French/Brazilian live-action co-production tells the story of how a domesticated capuchin monkey, Sai, survives a plane clash in the rain forest and learns to fend for himself in an environment so foreign to him it might as well be Mars. A terrifically energetic and expressive actor, Sai literally is required to learn how to feed himself, avoid predators, survive an unexpected journey down a raging river and ingratiate himself with the jungle’s primate population. Natural hams, capuchins are captivating whether they’re performing for tips in the company of an organ grinder or using their wits to crack open nuts and fruits. Here, though, Sia must share the spotlight with the production team, which logged several years of hard work and filled barrels of sweat, no doubt, traipsing through the rain forest with equipment and provisions. The newly available DVD isn’t available in 3D or Blu-ray, but the visuals don’t look as if they were staged to make objects pop off the screen or scare the kiddies. It’s simply good fun. It includes an informative making-of featurette and a few cute animated shorts.

Colorado may be best known these days as the marijuana-consuming capital of North America, but, after that distinction wears off, it will still be famous for its spectacular natural beauty and diversity of its geologic resources. That will never change. The travel documentary, Heart of the World: Colorado’s National Parks, focuses on a half-dozen of the state’s most scenic national parks and monuments, each one worthy of a separate excursion during the course of one’s lifetime. The beautifully photographed film carries us through all four seasons and hundreds of centuries of geologic time. Even if the three hour-long episodes sometimes repeat scenes, interviews and information, while giving off an unnecessarily promotional air, there are too many things to love about Colorado to lower the film’s score for boosterism.

Eva Doesn’t Sleep
If all the average, post-Baby Boomer American knows about Eva Peron derives from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s acclaimed musical “Evita” and movie based on it, Eva Doesn’t Sleep will beg all sorts of questions that will require a visit to Wikipedia. It’s worth the effort. The musical argues rather successfully that Peron – an entertainer before becoming then-Colonel Juan Perón’s mistress and wife – triggered the cross-pollination of celebrity and politics in the mid-20th Century, and Madonna was the perfect person to play her in the movie. Eva’s rise from illegitimacy and poverty appealed to Argentina’s poor and working class, as did her familiarity as model, radio and movie star. Eva met Juan Peron at an earthquake-relief “festival” he organized to entertain survivors and raise money for recovery efforts. They clicked immediately, no doubt sensing how each other’s strengths could be merged in his pursuit of higher office and her desire to appeal to the masses, one way or the other. She proved to be a quick study. In 1946, now-President Juan Peron acknowledged her growing role in the country’s famously mercurial political arena by handing her the bill he had just signed, granting women the right to vote. Before her untimely death in 1952, at 33, the cancer-ridden Evita was given the official title of “Spiritual Leader of the Nation.” The weeks-long outpouring of love and grief by everyday Argentines made headlines around the world. He planned to construct a monument that would make Lenin’s mausoleum in Red Square look like a shoebox casket for a child’s dead pet. Before that could happen, though, Peron was overthrown in a 1955 military coup, causing him to leave the country without her extensively embalmed body in tow. Eva Doesn’t Sleep blends fact and conjecture in its attempt to make sense of what happened to her body and why the militarists and other ruling-class Argentines implemented plans to wipe all mention of the Perons’ activities from the country’s official memory.  In 1973, Perón was allowed to return to Argentina, from Spain, and become president for the third time. After he died in office a year later, his third wife, Isabel, succeeded him, becoming the first female president in the Western Hemisphere. Isabel had Eva’s body returned to Argentina and briefly displayed beside her husband’s, before being interred in the Duarte family tomb in Buenos Aires’ La Recoleta Cemetery.

In the largely unseen Eva Doesn’t Sleep, Pablo Agüero (Salamandra) uses newsreel footage to illustrate the public reaction and turmoil that followed Evita’s death. Far more intimate are the episodic segments that dramatize the highly personal feelings of individuals in close contact with the embalmed body. Gael Garcia Bernal (Amorres Perros) plays Admiral Emilio Massera, who can barely disguise his glee after learning of Evita’s death. He despised the populist initiatives she championed and place she held in the hearts of the public. Twenty years later, Massera would play a key role in the military coup that deposed Isabel Peron and the ensuing disappearance of some 9,000 dissidents and potential foes of the junta in the “Dirty War.” Spanish actor Imanol Arias (The Liberator) portrays Madrid-based professor of anatomy Dr. Pedro Ara, who was called in to embalm the body. His work was occasionally referred to as “the art of death” and that’s exactly how Aguero approaches the potentially creepy tableaux. Even more macabre is the interchange between an officer and his driver (Denis Lavant) assigned the duty of transporting a wooden box carrying the embalmed body to a secret location in Europe. After the driver is left alone with the makeshift coffin, he dares to lift the cover to determine the value of the cargo. The officer understands the significance of their mission and why it must be kept secret. After several nips of alcohol from a canteen, the young man and his seen-it-all superior bond over their respective wounds and their almost absurdly close proximity to death and history. Finally, Aguero demonstrates Evita’s legacy with a depiction of the kidnapping and assassination of former President Pedro Eugenio Aramburu Silveti in 1970, by leftist Montoneros guerrillas. His regime was ruthless in its pursuit and persecution of Peronists left behind after the 1955 coup. During the interrogation of Aramburu, he justifies the abuses he authorized and the disappearance of Evita’s corpse. Although not shown, the Montoneros would demand the return of the body before they would release his corpse. Eva Doesn’t Sleep probably could have been dramatized very easily on stage, accompanied by projections of archival images. As it is, Aguero’s story is a haunting reminder of the lengths men in positions of power will go to preserve their status, however temporary, and stand in the way of true democracy.

Joshy: Blu-ray
Laid in America: Blu-ray
Despite the large number of coming-of-age movies targeted directly at American teenagers, it’s amazing how many adult characters never made it past that milestone in life and how the “bromance” subgenre has emerged to address the problem of premature adulthood. With the borderline clichéd ensemble comedy Joshy, Jeff Baena (Life After Beth) gives us a half-dozen more reasons not to care much about chronically pampered yuppies and their rituals. One of them, Josh, played Thomas Middleditch (“Silicon Valley”), is about to be married and accept some of the responsibilities, at least, of adulthood. Before that can happen, his fiancé (Alison Brie) commits suicide. Aware that she had been struggling with depression, Josh tries not to take it personally. Her parents (Paul Reiser, Lisa Edelstein), though, are perfectly willing to blame him for her well-disguised illness, if only to assuage their feelings of guilt. Four months later, a half-dozen of Josh’s bros decide that a “cleansing the palate” is in order and decide to meet at the cabin in Ojai, where they’d intended to have his bachelor party. Even if none of the guys appear to have much in common, besides a desire never to grow up, the conditions are ripe for Joshy to evolve from bromance to soul-baring weekend reunion picture, a sub-genre inspired by the popularity of The Big Chill. Despite the presence of such familiar television actors as Adam Pally (“The Mindy Project”), Nick Kroll (“The League”), Brett Gelman and Jenny Slate (“Married”), Lauren Graham (“Gilmore Girls”), Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Rec”) and Jake Johnson (“The New Girl”), Joshy was accorded only the most limited of releases. I suspect that’s because viewers have tired of seeing the same actors playing characters similar to the ones here. Or, perhaps, they anticipated a backlash to the many reunion pictures that promise laughs but contain more angst and kvetching than hijinks. The guys pick up some girls at a local bar/casino, but only the married one scores. He appears to regret the liaison in the morning, but takes his time informing her of the complication. The young woman (Jenny Slate) has been down this road before and isn’t about to let it ruin her birthday weekend. She shares a hot tub with the rest of the guys, but everyone keeps their clothes on. (These are serious actors, after all.) Strippers are booked, of course, but the guys can’t work up anything resembling an erection. The discovery of a BB gun prompts some childish target practice. The only laughs in a surprise visit by the owners of the cabin (Joe and Kris Swanberg) derive from some toddler-in-jeopardy moments. Everyone here can and has done better work on TV and in ensemble movies. There’s a commentary track with Baena, Middleditch and producer/actor Adam Pally.

Neither does Laid in America advance the boys-will-be-boys conceit very far beyond the Dude, Where’s My Car visual reference on the cover. Fans of YouTube “sensations” KSI and Caspar Lee are the target audience for this teen comedy, which includes the obligatory inflatable sex doll, happy-to-oblige dominatrix and oddball pairing of a desirable blond and nerdy virgin. KSI (a.k.a., Olajide “JJ” Olatunji), 23, has more than 14 million subscribers on YouTube and was named the UK’s “most influential creator” in 2015. The South African Lee has more than 6 million subscribers on YouTube. It explains why they decided to bypass a theatrical release and sell the movie via downloads or DVD/Blu-ray. In the extremely broad comedy, Duncan (KSI) and Jack (Lee) are exchange students with just one night left in the United States to fulfill their bucket-list dream of losing their virginity to a beautiful young woman … although, as the deadline approaches, their criteria lessen. Bobby Lee (“Mad TV”), as a wannabe Korean gang-banger, steals every scene in which he appears, along with his gal-pal (Alexis G. Zall). Angela Kinsey (“The Office”) also manages to elevate the proceedings. Laid in America’s single bonus feature features KSI and Caspar Lee hosting an in-depth, day-by-day, behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie. Among other topics, the hosts and additional cast and crew discuss the differences between shooting a film versus shooting for YouTube, specific scene details, locations, character details, cast and performances.

The Hunting of the President Redux
Only the most diehard Republican could argue with any integrity that a small, but influential cabal of conservatives has conspired to make life hell for Bill and Hillary Clinton. The current Democratic candidate for the presidency opened herself up to ridicule in 1998, when she defended her philandering husband by pointing to a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” rooted in backwater Arkansas politics and extending to such tomfoolery as the Whitewater, Troopergate and Travelgate scandals; unfounded speculation surrounding the suicide of deputy White House counsel Vince Foster; and the then-president’s unwillingness to acknowledge his affairs. Like the Benghazi brouhaha, none of these so-called conspiracies amounted to hill a hill of beans. Sadly, the constant barrage of rumors, accusations and gossip found a ready audience in the mainstream media, which had been embarrassed when the National Inquirer and other tabloid rags beat them to key revelations in the O.J. Simpson murder trial and other juicy stories. In Nickolas Perry and Harry Thomason’s adaptation of Joe Conason and Gene Lyons’ exhaustively reported book, “The Hunting of the President,” the facts are laid out alongside the rumors and profiles of the key accusers, one more grotesque than the next. The film was nominated for the WGA’s Documentary Screenplay Award. Turns out, the rumors had a longer shelf life than the book and documentary. When it became clear that Hillary would emerge as the Democratic candidate and many of the same non-truths were resurrected by the right-wing media, Perry and Thomason decided to update their film with fresh interviews of the people featured earlier. The result is a litany of mea culpas and embarrassed faces, from Little Rock to Washington. They freshen an already interesting and compelling documentary, especially if one is predisposed to buy into the Clintons’ side of the endless debate. As was the case of the original film, though, what’s lacking is any reasoned discussion of Bill and Hillary’s willingness to shoot themselves in the foot by lying as their first line of defense and building a wall around themselves when attacked. It’s a strategy that continues to trip up Hillary. It remains to be seen if she would have benefited more from cutting Bill loose after l’affaire Lewinsky or defending the indefensible with an eye toward maintaining his fan base in the presidential campaigns of 2008 and 2016.

The Wailing: Blu-ray
When stripped of context, a total domestic gross of $786,633 may not sound like a huge amount of money. Put under a microscope, however, it’s easy to see how Na Hong-jin’s classy horror film, The Wailing, may signal the arrival of another important writer/director from South Korea. It’s difficult to imagine many viewers, besides fellow countrymen and genre buffs, willing to invest 156 minutes of their time in so unsettling a movie. Moreover, at its widest exposure, The Wailing could only be seen on 35 screens. Well Go USA Entertainment has done a terrific job exposing Pacific Rim artists and titles to American audiences hungry for stories that don’t look as if they’ve been put through the studio meat grinder, suffocated by bean counters and forced to run the gamut of film festivals before scoring distribution or a DVD/PPV debut. I don’t know how much money was invested in Na’s film, but it couldn’t have hurt that 20th Century Fox was one of three companies involved in production. (It also handled the domestic South Korean distribution.) In it, residents of the little town of Goksung are gripped by fear when a mysterious Japanese stranger arrives almost simultaneously with an outbreak of a terrible disease or epidemic of demonic possessions. After the almost buffoonish Inspector Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) reaches the boundaries of accepted police work, he’s forced to consider more traditional methodology and explanations, including the presence of a ghost or demon. The Outsider (Jun Kunimura) has been seen devouring decaying animals in the forest and flashing bright red eyes at people who get too near to him, so why not? In one riveting scene, Jong-goo takes a police acolyte and a local shaman to the Outsider’s shack in the woods and begins investigating. It’s there that the young cop discovers a hidden room filled with photographs of and personal items belonging to the victims. Outside, the shaman attempts to prevent the owner’s pit bull from breaking its chains and attacking him. The dog isn’t stilled until the Outsider returns home and takes him for a walk, leaving the investigators stunned and empty-handed. The Wailing takes a turn in the direction of The Exorcist when Jong-goo’s adorable daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) not only begins to exhibit symptoms of the disease, but also demonic possession. And, yes, her portrayal of the poor dear is frighteningly credible. As if the Outsider weren’t a sufficiently distressing presence in the village, another potential suspect, the ghostly Woman of No-name (Chun Woo-hee) appears in Goksung, serving as either a beautiful red herring or the real killer. Na adds some humorous touches to the narrative, besides Jung-goo’s chipmunk cheeks, but we’re never quite sure what to think of them. The gorgeously shot film looks great on Blu-ray, which contains only two short making-off pieces.

The Homestretch
Coming Out
By now, I think it’s safe to say that the presidential debates will remain free of any serious discussion of such crucial domestic issues as homelessness, poverty and the twin disparities of income and punishments accorded corrupt bankers and people forced to shoplift diapers and food for their children. The Republican candidates managed to completely ignore the question of global warming (or, if you prefer, climate change) by agreeing that it doesn’t exist, while Democrats have always been better at pointing out problems than fixing them. Anne De Mare and Kirsten Kelly’s essential documentary, The Homestretch, stands as a reminder that homelessness isn’t limited to adults or people who’ve given up hope of ever finding meaningful work, again. Neither are the faces of homelessness and poverty limited to those ravaged by long-term drug addiction, alcoholism and mental disorders. Co-produced by Kartemquin Films, The Homestretch follows three homeless teens as they fight to stay in school, graduate and build a future. Roque, Kasey and Anthony are representative of the estimated 1.6 homeless teens struggling to overcome problems related to parental abuse, drugs and complete lack of ambition and hope. With unprecedented access into the Chicago Public Schools and emergency youth shelters, De Mare and Kelly were able to navigate a landscape of couch hopping, transitional homes, street families and a school system stretched to the limits by budgetary constraints and political imperatives. The filmmakers didn’t think it necessary to devote a great deal of time showing us such manifestations as smoking crack or shooting heroin, panhandling or committing crimes to make ends meet. Instead, the emphasis is on the battle to find ways to provide at-risks kids a leg-up. The devotion of the adult volunteers is almost thrilling to watch, even when they hit roadblocks. It’s also impressive to watch the teens take such positive steps as participating in extracurricular at school – Roque memorizes “Hamlet” in Spanish and English — and cheering each other on for their successes. Of course, it’s impossible for any fly-on-the-wall documentary to ignore recidivism, bad behavior and ignoring the advice of psychiatrists. The real message seems to be that money well spent, along with the participation of sincere and dedicated adults, can overcome problems typically blamed on lack of governmental oversight, heartless bureaucracies, political meddling and societal indifference. It isn’t easy and nothing’s guaranteed. Still, I’d recommend forcing any candidate for public office to attend a screening of

When I saw the title, Coming Out, I assumed the Wolfe Video release would be a throwback to the many dramas and documentaries of the 1990s and early-2000s that focused on the agony, if rarely the ecstasy of exiting the closet and confronting friends and family with the reality of sexual identification. Queer cinema has come a long way in the last 10-15 years and it hardly seems necessary to dwell on the past. I’m not sure what filmmaker Alden Peters expected to experience when he decided to come out to his friends and family and record their responses to his revelation … probably a mixed bag of emotional outpourings. His project was inspired by the cruel outing and subsequent suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, who had been surreptitiously filmed in his dorm room while having sex with another man. The video was leaked on the Internet by his roommate, who wanted to use it as evidence to get someone new to share the room. Instead, it was shown to others in the dorm as comedy. Clementi’s death brought national attention to the issue of cyberbullying and the struggles facing LGBT youth. Unfortunately, it also prompted several American teenagers to commit suicide after being taunted about their homosexuality. It’s possible that none of the teens was aware of the support network available to troubled LGBT youths embarking on the often difficult passage. Peters, currently enrolled in New York college, decided to film the entire process, as he breaks the news to everyone who is important in his life, and he even goes back and discusses their feelings and reactions again a few days later when the news had sunk in. Anyone expecting the usual amount of Sturm und Drang is likely to be pleasantly surprised by the lack of drama that greeted Peters’ individual announcements. Instead, everyone who hadn’t already assumed he was a gay, expressed their approval of the decision. It turned out that all of his anxiety going into the project went for naught. Granted his family and friends weren’t predisposed to be shocked, in any case, but the responses lent Coming Out an atypically light-hearted and comforting air. The 70-minute documentary adds interviews with psychiatrists and organizers of support groups on social networks.

My Many Sons
Sports fans are a notoriously fickle lot. If their team is winning, all manner of bad behavior by players and coaches is likely to be tolerated. If it’s losing, however, even the smallest infraction could bring calls for sanctions and public humiliation, if not imprisonment. Bobby Knight, a living legend in Indiana, could throw chairs across a basketball court, berate officials and abuse players verbally and physically without registering a peep from fans and alumni. It wasn’t until his behavior embarrassed university officials not completely obsessed with Hoosier basketball that he was dumped. Penn State still can’t decide what it thinks about the role played by football coach Joe Paterno in the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Florida State’s unwillingness to penalize star athletes for committing serious crimes has made front-page news in the New York Times. Now that the media have been shamed into finally blowing the whistle on athletes and coaches for crimes great and small, pressure has increased on parents, alumni and fans to decide where to draw the line on excessive behavior. These are the things that passed through my mind when considering the merits of My Many Sons, the story of basketball coach Don Meyer (Judge Reinhold), who temporarily passed Knight to become the winningest basketball coach in NCAA history. It’s a truly inspirational biopic, especially in its portrayal of Meyer’s ability to continue coaching, despite battling terminal cancer and becoming wheelchair-bound after a nearly fatal car wreck. Like Knight, Meyer was an unabashed taskmaster willing to crush a player’s ego – including that of his son – if he didn’t perform to his exacting standards. Of all the things he could have demanded from his team and the student bodies of the small colleges he served, these were the top three: everybody takes notes, everybody says “please” and “thank you,” and everybody picks up trash. Working in his favor was the fact that Meyer refused to recruit players who might have been inclined to commit rapes, drink until they puked, abuse the athletic department’s 800-line and skip classes. Still, in practices and in games, he could be merciless. My Many Sons may indeed be an unusually heart-warming story of character, relationships, loyalty and turning young boys into men, but, for most of its 97-minute length, it’s also an uncritical endorsement of bullying kids to maintain a winning program. On the plus side, director Ralph E. Portillo (Angels Love Donuts) and first-time screenwriter Carol Miller stick to the facts of Meyer’s official biography, without embellishing either the good or bad aspects of his career and family life.

Fender Bender: Blu-ray
The Demolisher: Blu-ray
6 Plots
Mark Pavia’s unapologetically retro thriller, Fender Bender, is easily recommendable to anyone longing for the days when a masked maniac could prowl the highways and byways of small-town America and stalk, with the intention of slaughtering, innocent teenagers for reasons known only to him. While, admittedly, the slasher subgenre isn’t exactly my cup of blood, Fender Bender opened with a jump-scare that scared the crap out of me and convinced me to stick around for the next 85 (out of 91) minutes. The premise, not that a slasher flick necessarily needs one, involves a creep known to us only as The Driver (Bill Sage), who tools around the country in a souped-up sedan, stopping long enough in any one town to identify his prey, bump into the rear end of her car and invade her home, based on information gleaned from the exchange of insurance information. That Driver doesn’t pull any punches becomes clear when he takes out an attractive MILF (Cassidy Freeman), only hesitating long enough for her to get out of her bath and try to go to sleep. His next stop is a town in New Mexico – Santa Fe or the outskirts of Albuquerque – where he allows his car to make contact with the rear fender of a one driven by Hillary (Makenzie Vega), a 17-year-old girl newly alerted to her dick boyfriend’s infidelity. Although the accident isn’t her fault, Hillary’s parents ground her for pissing them off once too often. Guess what happens, then, when Mom and Dad take off for a weekend trip to the nearest Indian casino? That’s right. And, of course, Hillary invites some friends to keep her company after the second jump-scare. If everything in between transpires according to Hoyle, Pavia does come up with an ending most viewers won’t be able to predict half-way through the movie. Clearly influenced by the work of John Carpenter (Halloween), Pavia does a nice job paying homage to the master. The Scream Factory’s first made-for-cable movie adds a “Retro VHS” version of the film; a 40-minute “Slashback” reel, containing vintage trailers; director’s commentary; producer’s commentary; a behind-the-scenes featurette; and marketing material.

Gabriel Carrer’s highly stylized and almost stiflingly atmospheric revenge thriller, The Demolisher, also pays homage to the masters of slasher porn, while experimenting with frequently annoying audio and visual conceits. Because cable repairman Bruce (Ry Barrett) feels responsible for the beat-down given his ex-policewoman wife, Samantha (Tianna Nori) by a gang of extreme thugs. He wanders around the mean streets of Toronto, donned in modified Robocop gear, looking for the hoodlums and beating the crap out of them. Out of uniform, he isn’t as tough. Halfway through the dialogue-deprived story, Bruce begins to imagine that a different young woman, Marie (Jessica Vano), instigated the violence against Samantha and goes after her. Turns out not to have been a good idea. The story’s moral could be that a mask and leather outfit doth not a superhero make. The Demolisher pretty much left me cold, but it found plenty of admirers on niche websites and among Canucksploitation buffs. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette, deleted scenes and a Filmmakers Q&A at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival.

First released in 2012, in a small handful of foreign markets, the claustrophobic Australian teen horror, 6 Plots, arrives on these shores with only one fairly tired plot attached to it and a half-dozen happy-shiny young actors. The story involves a mixed group of seven youngsters, all friends, whose lives revolve around partying and, presumably, surfing to their hearts’ content. They hope to stream one of the parties across the Internet, but things don’t work out that way. After one night of mild debauchery goes awry, six out of the seven wake up encased in boxes, unable to escape. The seventh, Brie (Alice Darling), is accorded the responsibility of racing the clock to save her six friends, based on clues provided by a digital puppet master. The victims were allowed to retain their smartphones. The curious thing, perhaps, is that the boxes aren’t buried as much as hidden in precarious Melbourne locations. Brie mustn’t contact parents or authorities, or they will all die. If the premise isn’t bad, the execution is pretty weak. A making-of featurette explains how fragile the concept really was.

It’s a Rockabilly World
The Tubes – Live at German Television: The Musikladen Concert 1981
The popularity of rockabilly music has ebbed and flowed since its heyday, some 60 years ago. It some ways, it originated as a hillbilly answer to zoot-suit finery and the ecstatic response to black swing and R&B, during and after World War II. As Brent Huff’s delightful popumentary It’s a Rockabilly World suggests, the unique nature of rockabilly culture derived from young men’s addiction to cars, hair grease and cigarettes, while the girls emulated the pinup models who lifted the spirits of our fighting men in World War II. At first, it was strictly a working-class phenomenon, unrelated to Britain’s imitative Teddy Boy and Teddy Girl sub-culture. As American rock grew outward from its rockabilly and R&B roots in the 1960s, the Beatles and other Brit rock groups remained faithful until psychedelia took hold. It wasn’t until the American rockabilly band Stray Cats scored some hits that the kids here and in England realized how much fun it was to emulate the 1950s scene and began a revival that continues today, here and around the world. The universality and topicality of the movement is on full display in the documentary, shot at conventions in Las Vegas and other locations. It has expanded to include adherents of shockabilly, schlockabilly, gothability and punkabilly, with the common denominators being tattoos, throwback hairdos, extreme cosmetics and a love of dance. The passion for cars no more went away than the hair grease. The conventioneers we meet do tend to be purists when it comes to their overall look, but inclusivity does seem to be encouraged.

Any Tubes performance video without “White Punks on Dope” and “Don’t Touch Me There” already is suspect. That said, “The Tubes – Live at German Television: The Musikladen Concert 1981” – on DVD for the first time – is a technically sound and visually arresting reminder of the high-concept band at its most magnetic. The concert was staged in the studios of Radio Bremen, Germany, to support the band’s “The Completion Backward Principle” album and European tour. The personnel lineup includes Fee Waybill, Roger Steen, Bill Spooner, Rick Anderson, Vince Welnick, Michael Cotton and Prairie Prince, as well as dancers/showgirls. The funny/cool thing about the Tubes was that newcomers listening to an album might be completely unaware of the group’s highly theatrical stage act, which combined quasi-pornography with wild satires of media, consumerism and politics. As musicians, there were few tighter ensembles.

TV-to-DVD
History: American Experience: The Presidents Collection
PBS: Spillover: Zika, Ebola & Beyond
PBS Kids: Wild Kratts: A Creature Christmas
It probably is an appropriate time to re-release PBS’s award-winning “The Presidents Collection,” if only as a reminder of the great diversity of personalities of the men – temporarily, at least – who’ve served as the nation’s chief executive and commander-in-chief. The series documents each of the presidents, starting with George Washington, and following in chronological order to Barack Obama. Each president’s segment begins with the narrator giving a brief dossier on each one, from their political affiliation, family and notable traits. The segments then highlight the history behind each administration, linking each one to the following. While only a few can be said to be comprehensive, all of them reveal quirks, passions, personality traits and conceits that shaped these mostly rich, accomplished and overwhelmingly Protestant men. It also puts the profiles into the context of their times. Anyone who thinks Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are unique for their idiosyncrasies is encouraged to check out some of the oddballs who’ve made it to the White House.

PBS’ “Spillover: Zika, Ebola & Beyond” tells the terrifying tale of how vulnerable we are to diseases once limited to animals and insects, but now can easily be transmitted to humans through overcrowding, poor sanitation systems and fear of the unknown. The Ebola epidemic served as a red flag to scientists and medical personnel for its mysterious spread and severe consequences. Now, researchers are on the hunt for deadly diseases, hoping to stop them before they spill over and spread out of control. It’s not a question of if another outbreak will strike, but when? And will we be prepared?

Wild Kratts: A Creature Christmas” gets the holiday-DVD ball rolling with this hourlong movie. It’s Christmas time and the Wild Kratts are taking a break to celebrate. They are beginning to open their presents when the alarm sounds. The villains, Zach Varmitech, Gaston Gourmand and Donita Donata are kidnapping all the baby animals to turn them into Christmas ornaments. The Wild Kratts’ celebration will have to wait as spring into action to save their friends and get them home for the holidays.

The DVD Wrapup: Blood Simple, Cat People, Shallows, Neon Demon, Sirk X 2, Warcraft, Kamikaze ’89 and more

Friday, September 30th, 2016

Blood Simple: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
I don’t know how many rookie baseball players have hit a grand-slam home run in their first Major League appearance. Neither would I care to hazard a guess as to how many NHL players have pulled off the hat trick their first time on the ice or the number of NBA rookies who’ve tallied a triple-double in their debuts. A few probably, but not many. For most of the last 100 years, Orson Welles has stood out as the one filmmaker who changed the game in his first feature, Citizen Kane, even though his reputation as “boy genius” preceded his arrival in Hollywood. Before Blood Simple hit the festival circuit in September, 1984, at Deauville and Toronto, it’s safe to say that Joel and Ethan Coen couldn’t get arrested in this town. On the advice of Sam Raimi, they knocked on doors in Los Angeles, New York, the Twin Cities and Austin, hats in hand, trying to interest someone, anyone in checking out their two-minute teaser for the film. It’s what filmmakers did in the days before Kickstarter. Any money they raised went straight to their headquarters in Texas, where a cinema community was in its infancy and a few dollars went a long way. Even so, these future game-changers were so unknown that their star, M. Emmet Walsh, whose work they admired in Straight Time, demanded to be paid in cash, after each day’s work. His unnerving portrayal of the double-dealing private detective, Loren Visser, would be honored by IFP/West members with the inaugural Independent Spirit Award for Best Actor. (Joel Coen tied Martin Scorsese for Best Director and the picture was nominated for Best Feature, Best Screenplay and Barry Sonnenfeld’s cinematography.) Backed by the strong support of critics and positive word-of-mouth, Blood Simple grossed $2.15 million – not an insignificant sum for an indie — in its first theatrical go-round. More to the point, the Coens had effectively created a sub-genre of its own to accommodate the film’s singularly dark humor, troubling audio effects, unexpected violence, hip musical score and inventive cinematography. The critics labelled it “neo-noir,” because the story appeared to be influenced more by pulpy crime paperbacks of the 1950s than Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and the camerawork favored that of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Wim Wenders’ The American Friend. In the interview section of the new Criterion Collection edition, the Coens admit to the film’s resemblance to the novels of Jim Thompson, but insist they hadn’t read any of them in their preparations for Blood Simple. Among the neo-noirs that soon followed in its wake were James Foley’s as After Dark, My Sweet, Dennis Hopper’s The Hot Spot, John Dahl’s Kill Me Again, Stephen Frears’ The Grifters, The Last Seduction and Red Rock West, David Lynch’s Lost Highway, Oliver Stone’s U Turn, Carl Franklin’s One False Move Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan, Michael Oblowitz’ This World, Then the Fireworks.

The Blu-ray edition of Blood Simple benefits immensely from the new digital transfer, which was created in 4K 16-bit on a Scanity film scanner from the original 35mm camera negative. The restoration was supervised by the Coens, Sonnenfeld, producer David Diliberto, documentarian Lee Kline and colorist Sheri Eisenberg. It borders on the spectacular, especially in scenes that tended to fade into black on VHS and DVD. Consequently, too, the neon signs really pop out of the shadows, as do such sound effects as the mosquito zapper in an early scene between Walsh’s decidedly hard-boiled, but not at all noble P.I. and Dan Hedaya’s wonderfully paranoid honky-tonk owner. It’s their exchange of damning photographs and soiled cash that sets off the series of double-crosses, outright blunders and failed communication to come. Although her character couldn’t be mistaken for such femme fatales as Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner or Ava Gardner, Frances McDormand’s naïve hick, Abby, satisfies the traditional noir notion of “cherchez la femme.” Thirty-plus years later, Blood Simple is every bit as entertaining – disturbing, too – as it was in 1985 and far more satisfying for those of us who first saw it on VHS or on television. The supplemental features on the Criterion disc include a collection of original trailers; new video interviews with actors McDormand and Walsh; a filmed conversation with the Coens and Sonnenfeld; new filmed interviews with composer Carter Burwell and sound editor Skip Lievsay; and an illustrated leaflet, featuring Nathaniel Rich’s essay “Down Here, You’re on Your Own” and technical credits.

September has been a banner month for Criterion collection. In addition to Blood Simple and the long-awaited Blu-ray edition of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s essential Dekalog, scrutinized by Ray Pride earlier this week, in his column Pride, Unprejudiced, the company has released impressive new editions of Kenji Mizoguchi’s pre-war romance, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939), which balances light melodrama with a serious critique of social inequality in Japan; Carol Reed’s pre-WW II spy-vs.-spy drama, Night Train to Munich, which predated England’s entry into the larger European conflict and stars Paul Henreid, Rex Harrison and Margaret Lochwood; and Jacques Tourneur’s original 1942 horror thriller, Cat People, which would be remade 40 years later by Paul Schrader.

Newly restored on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Kieslowski’s death, the Criterion edition of Dekalog has been released in coordination with a limited U.S. theatrical run. It adds longer theatrical versions of the series’ fifth and sixth films; A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love; archival interviews with the director; new and vintage interviews with cast and crew; Annette Insdorf’s discussion of the series’ formal and thematic patterns; a new essay and capsules by Paul Coates; and excerpts from “Kieslowski on Kieslowski.” At a full list price of a shade south of $100, the generous package would make a fine holiday gift for anyone interested in making or watching great movies. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum  is enhanced by a new video interview with critic Phillip Lopate and an illustrated leaflet, featuring an essay by film scholar Dudley Andrew.

Night Train to Munich adds an archival video interview with Bruce Babington, author of “Launder and Gilliat” – writers of “Night Train” and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, which it resembles — and Peter Evans, author of “Carol Reed.” They discuss the movie’s production history and socio-political environment from which the film emerged, alongside an illustrated leaflet featuring an essay by critic Phillip Kemp. Far more bountiful is the supplemental package attached to Cat People, which should be considered mandatory viewing for horror buffs of almost any age. It includes an original trailer; a new video program, featuring cinematographer John Bailey; Kent Jones’ documentary, “Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows”; an archival episode of the French television program “Cine,” with footage from an archival interview with director Jacques Tournier; commentary by film historian Gregory Mank; and an illustrated leaflet, featuring Geoffrey O’Brien’s essay “Darkness Betrayed.” I enjoyed watching both versions back-to-back and comparing them based on how each reflects the standards of the periods in which they were made.

The Shallows: Blu-ray
Having taken a powder from big and small screens after the cancellation of “Gossip Girl,” Blake Lively staged something of a comeback this summer in Woody Allen’s period comedy Café Society and Jaume Collet-Serra’s creature feature The Shallows. Of the two, the latter required of the 5-foot-10 blond beauty the least number of costume changes and makeup adjustments. That’s because The Shallows takes place almost exclusively on or near a giant rock in the middle of a secluded bay, somewhere in the tropics. Lively plays Nancy, a skilled and adventurous surfer who’s dropped off at the pristine beach by a local resident and expects to spend the next couple of days catching waves in blissful solitude. Her idyll is disrupted slightly by the presence of a couple of dudes already in the water, with whom she’s required to share small talk, but they turn out not to be proprietary and there are plenty of waves for everyone to share. As befits her sport and the climate, Nancy’s attire consists almost entirely of a modest bikini, wetsuit top and multipurpose watch that allows here to calculate distances and the timing of tidal flows. When Nancy’s wave-mates decide to call it a day, she makes the mistake of holding out for one last set. In its place arrives a huge great white shark, for whom the shallow waters and coral formations serve as a reliable feeding ground. After biting the human interloper on the leg, the shark develops a ravenous appetite for human flesh. Like the North Vietnamese sniper in Full Metal Jacket, the female shark responds to Nancy’s every attempt to swim to a nearby buoy or the beach, which, absent the wound, would easily be within her reach. Her only companion on the rock is a bird she names Steven Seagull, also stranded with a damaged wing. With high tide approaching and blood still leaking from a makeshift tourniquet, what’s a girl to do? All I’ll say in the way of a spoiler is that Lively and the CGI shark perform every task Collet-Serra (Non-Stop) asks of them in highly credible fashion. And while the setting is beautiful, Nancy’s feeling of abject helplessness and solitude are palpable. OK, it’s not Jaws, but the jump-scares are legitimately frightening and were far less expensive to produce. The bonus package contains deleted scenes and four very good making-of featurettes. The Shallows is also is available in 4K UHD.

The Neon Demon: Blu-ray
Nicolas Winding Refn is the kind of fearless young filmmaker who doesn’t appear to be fazed by negative reviews in the mainstream media, boos at press screenings at Cannes and miniscule box-office returns. Born in Copenhagen and raised by filmmaker parents partly in New York, where he was dismissed from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts for throwing a table into a wall, Refn has pointed to surrealistic Alejandro Jodorowsky and splatter classic, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, as primary influences. Both are on display in The Neon Demon, a surrealistic horror for anyone who’s ever wondered what motivates fashion designers to dress beautiful teenage models as if they were circus clowns from another dimension or why magazine editors lap up every new atrocity and feed them to readers who wouldn’t wear the clothes, shoes and accessories on a bet. Celebrities, maybe, but no who actually pays for them. Elle Fanning (Trumbo) was 16 when she was cast as Jesse, a prototypically skeletal blond who arrives in L.A. one day, out of the blue, like just another Alice Kingsleigh approaching Wonderland. Almost immediately, she impresses a prominent agent (Christina Hendricks), who finds her gigs with an artsy-fartsy photographer (Desmond Harrington) and eccentric clothing designer (Alessandro Nivola). Jesse’s instructed to tell anyone who asks that she’s 19, instead of 16, presumably to allow them to shoot the waif in provocative poses.

As the new girl on the block, Jesse’s presence reminds the other models that their expiration date is quickly approaching and the lifts and tucks won’t last forever. The horror kicks in when her primary rivals, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), take on several of the primary characteristics of vampires and her only friend, Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist, initiates the sexual advance we can see coming from a mile away. It doesn’t work, but Ruby alleviates her disappointment at the funeral home where she also works. Things only get nastier from there. If The Neon Demon proves anything here, it’s that Refn probably could do as good a job staging and sound directing runway fashion shows as anyone already in the business. (Cliff Martinez’ electronic soundtrack serves as a distinctly different supporting character.) Although Refn claims to be color blind, the brilliance and intensity of his palette in both “Demon” and Only God Forgives could hardly be more invigorating. In this regard, comparisons to Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, set in a similar milieu, wouldn’t be too far-fetched. Both directors demand a great deal from their audiences, who welcome the challenges in anticipation of the moments of genius. That’s why I don’t think it’s fair to judge Refn by the largely negative reaction to his last two films. His Pusher trilogy, Bronson, Valhalla Rising and Drive received excellent reviews, even as they pushed the limits on stylized violence and action. Neither is he ever at a loss for visual references to his favorite films and directors. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Refn and Fanning, a featurette on the musical score and short backgrounder.

Two Films by Douglas Sirk Double Feature: Blu-ray
Several years before Douglas Sirk embarked on a series of still-celebrated Hollywood melodramas, in collaboration with producer Ross Hunter and Universal Studios, he made a pair of black-and-white pot-boilers that remain pretty entertaining: A Scandal in Paris and Lured. If, today, they don’t fit the pigeonhole the German-born director’s been assigned by enamored critics and academics, based on All I Desire, There’s Always Tomorrow, Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life, they remain interesting for several other sound reasons. First is the marriage of solid story-telling and appealing visual qualities necessary for any enjoyment of the somewhat shaggy narratives. Another is the presence of debonair leading man George Sanders, who frequently played scoundrels and villainous characters, but wasn’t limited to them. In fact, he was almost comically versatile, able to play incognito crime-fighters, the Gay Falcon and the Saint, and characters worthy of Academy Award consideration, such as Addison DeWitt, in All About Eve. At 6-foot-3, Sanders was comfortable in roles ranging from cad to sea captain, without being limited by historical periods or fear of being strictly typecast. (In addition to being a fine actor, Sanders is fondly remembered by movie buffs for being married to and divorced from Zsa Zsa and Magda Gabor and for making good on his promise to commit suicide when he got old and bored with life.)

In Lured, the most obvious attraction – now, if not in 1947 – is the presence of Lucille Ball as a brassy American dame, Sandra Carpenter. The feisty redhead went to London to work in a show, but now finds herself stuck working as a taxi-dancer in a cheapo London nightclub. When a fellow entertainer disappears after a date with a mysterious suiter, Sandra volunteers her services to Scotland Yard Inspector Harley Temple (Charles Coburn), who suspects she fell victim to the so-called Poet Killer or, perhaps, a white-slave trader. Whoever is making the women disappear connects with them through ads placed in the personal columns, then taunts police with clues that reference images in the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, of all writers. Adapted from Robert Siodmak’s 1939 French thriller Pieges, Lured (a.k.a., “Personal Column”) was shot in a Hollywood studio. A few outdoor inserts showing a foggy Thames River gave it a decidedly, if not definitively noir texture. Among the other cops and suspects are Boris Karloff, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Alan Mowbray and George Zucco. Commentary is provided by film historian Jeremy Arnold.

A Scandal in Paris is loosely based on the ghost-written memoirs of French criminal-turned-criminalist Eugène François Vidocq (1775-1857), a fascinating character whose exploits also influenced the writings of Victor Hugo, Edgar Allan Poe and Honoré de Balzac. A voice-over narrator describes how Sanders’ Vidocq was literally born behind bars and, from his cradle, could study the stars through the barred windows. The constellations and galaxies would come to represent the freedom that comes with escape and life on the lam. Whenever things got too weird and dangerous on the outside, Vidocq returned “home” to the prison and friends he left behind him. After one such escape, Vidocq and his Sancho Panza, Emile (Akim Tamiroff), embark on a picaresque series of encounters with people who ranged from aristocrats to felons, often while sitting on a stolen white horse. When he tired of the grind of stealing jewelry from elderly women and planning bank heists with his cronies, Vidocq embarks on a second career as a police investigator, private detective and forensics expert. Once again, the obvious studio-made texture is enhanced by the razor-sharp B&W cinematography and fairytale set design. Also on hand are Carol Landis, Signe Hasso, Gene Lockhart, Alma Kruger and Alan Napier, who, 20 years later, would play butler Alfred Pennyworth to Adam West’s Batman. The Blu-ray adds commentary by Wade Major, film critic with NPR affiliate KPCC-FM and co-host/producer of the IGN DigiGods podcast.

Kamikaze ’89: Blu-ray
Although the still-active Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog are the most widely known representatives of the New German Cinema, which flourished from the late 1960s into the 1980s, the artist who most personified the movement’s rebellious, anti-establishment spirit was Rainer Werner Fassbinder. His transgressive approach to the theater and cinema prompted observers to label him the NGC’s enfant terrible, as well as its most prolific and challenging creative force. Before Fassbinder’s suicide on June 10, 1982, at 37, he completed 40 feature-length films, a pair of television series, 3 three short films, 4 video productions, 24 stage plays, 4 radio plays and 36 acting roles. It explains why some of his creations are more accessible than others. Outside of Europe, Fassbinder’s best-known work probably is the acclaimed 15-hour television mini-series, “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” an adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel of the same title. Wolf Gremm’s rarely seen Kamikaze ’89 represents Fassbinder’s last acting appearance in a feature film. He plays Jansen, a respected cop living in a dystopic future, where a mysterious organization known as the Combine controls all media. After its headquarters receives several bomb threats, the post-punk detective is tasked with investigating possible threats to the nefarious conglomerate. Here, the near-future setting is 1989 Germany, which has become the richest of nations and all economic, social and political problems have been solved through heavy-handed measures. Even though the use of alcohol has been prohibited, the boredom that sometimes accompanies perfection has produced an environment so boring that it drives its citizens to drink. To compensate, the conglomerate’s boss, Blue Panther, sponsors such events as televised laughing contests to control the minds of the people. Based on Per Wahloo’s post-Utopian novel ”Murder on the 31st Floor,” in which Jansen so unnerves the authorities – he wears a simulated leopard-skin suit and similarly hideous bright red shirt — they become more concerned with preserving the secret of the “thirty-first floor” than with discovering who is threatening the company. Some of the best moments in this chaotic tale come when Jansen’s relaxing in the clandestine Cop Bar, which combines elements of nightlife from Blade Runner with every neon-lit strip bar in made-for-Cinemax movies. It’s goofy, alright, but Fassbinder fans aren’t likely to mind even the really crazy stuff. The soundtrack is by Edgar Froese, of Tangerine Dream, and bonus features include commentary by producer Regina Ziegler, the 60-minute documentary, “Rainer Werner Fassbinder: The Last Year,” John Cassavetes’ Kamikaze ’89 radio spots and a collector’s booklet with an essay by critic Nick Pinkerton and a mini-essay about the film’s soundtrack, written by Samuel B. Prime.

Also included in the Film Movement package is Ziegler’s feature-length documentary A Wolf at the Door, about the last years of her husband-collaborator, Gremm. Diagnosed with cancer and given one year to live, Gremm elects to fight the spread of the disease with every ounce of his stamina. He goes along with all of the usual therapies, while also exploring the alternative recommendations of various specialists in Europe and the United States. Although he’s in severe pain throughout the ordeal, morphine patches allow Gremm to function at home and on poignantly nostalgic trips to Majorca, Las Vegas, Death Valley, San Francisco and Miami. Ziegler’s attention to the details of her husband’s therapy, treatments and mental well-being are remarkable, as is her ability to capture them in such an objective, even-handed manner. Miraculously, Gremm’s life is extended by another two years, at least.

City of Gold
Laura Gabbert’s mouth-watering documentary City of Gold follows Pulitzer Prize-winning food and dining critic Jonathan Gold around Los Angeles, mostly discovering new and ever-more-diverse ethnic restaurants for the Times’ middle- and upper-class subscribers, so they don’t have to leave their well-padded nests. At the same time, Gabbert shadows the writer as he expounds on his eclectic tastes and diversions, visits with relatives, shmoozes restaurateurs and foodies and attends staff meetings at the newspaper. As is its wont, the then-fat publication hired him away from the LA Weekly, where, five years earlier, his lively populist writing made him the first food critic to be awarded journalism’s top prize. (Now, even as the Tronc-owned paper shrinks, you sometimes need a roadmap to find it.) If, today, Los Angeles is considered to be one of the top culinary destinations in the country, it’s not because of the celebrity-haunt restaurants on the city’s West Side or formal downtown dining rooms. Instead, as noted in the film, it’s because of the dizzying array of places – including strip malls, food trucks and pushcarts – that ply the regional cuisine of dozens of countries around the world. Typically, the owners of these establishments don’t have the wherewithal to publicize their businesses or reach out beyond their native customers and neighbors. One restaurateur recalls wondering what all of the white faces were doing in his place all of sudden, before being informed of Gold’s review in that morning’s paper. The stories behind the dishes also serve as history lessons on the current ethno-geography of Los Angeles and the city’s culinary micro-economy. It’s possible, as well, to sense the intensity of the heat coming off of the chili peppers served in his favorite dishes. Anyone unfamiliar with Gold’s work might wonder why he would betray traditional critical anonymity for the sake of someone else’s film. In fact, Gold would be recognized almost immediately, anyway, if only because of his straggly hair, frequently unkempt attire and profile only matched by Alfred Hitchcock or Orson Welles. He doesn’t alert restaurateurs of his plans or take pictures of his food with an iPhone, as do the Yelpian masses. More than anything else, though if it weren’t Gold’s writing, which is as tantalizing as the food, few people would traipse 20-30 miles out of their way to sample the tacos made in an East L.A. food truck.

Edge of Winter
Co-writer/director Rob Connolly puts an unusual spin on the horror genre’s tried-and-true cabin-in-the-woods storyline, by taking what’s typically a source of hair-raising apparitions and heebie-jeebies and turning it into an innocent bystander. In Edge of Winter, a recently divorced and laid off dad hopes to score points with his sons by taking them on a winter camping trip to a secluded lake in The Middle of Nowhere, Ontario. The kids don’t know what to expect, exactly, and appear to have been negatively affected by the secrecy surrounding the divorce. For his part, Elliot (Joel Kinnaman) lets them engage in such traditional bonding activities as driving his truck through the woods and using his shotgun to kill bunny rabbits. The boys aren’t all that into it, but it’s a start. It isn’t until the oldest son drives the truck into a snow drift and falls into a semi-frozen lake that things turn weird. Elliot becomes completely unhinged after hearing that his wife is planning to move out of state with her boyfriend and plans on taking the boys with her. He turns the cabin into a psychological fortress, to the point that he refuses to acknowledge the protocols of humanitarian behavior in the frozen wilderness. The arrival of two hunters, merely seeking shelter and warmth, triggers emotions that turn Elliot into the kids’ worst nightmare.

Warcraft: Blu-ray
Highlander : 30th Anniversary [Bluray
While I can’t comprehend the “World of Warcraft” phenomenon any more than I’ve been able to grasp the significance of “Dungeons & Dragons,” “Game of Thrones” or “Lord of the Rings,” I was struck by the similarities between the Warcraft movie adapted from the video game franchise and the recent History Channel docudrama series, “Barbarians Rising” (reviewed below). The rebel hordes that challenge the Roman legions, for example, could easily be mistaken for the warriors portrayed in Blizzard’s incredibly popular “real time strategy” game. Neither are the costumes all that different from any those created from leather, faux animal pelts and tin foil for other sword-and-sandals and pirate extravaganzas. Then, too, Hannibal’s elephants must have seemed as bizarre to the Romans as the gryphons in Warcraft (a.k.a., Warcraft: The Beginning). The intensity of the hand-to-hand combat is similar, as well. It all makes sense when you consider how video games are based on actual events in world history and retranslated for kids addicted to them. Even after watching Duncan Jones’ and Charles Leavitt’s epic fantasy/adventure, Warcraft, I can’t come up with a better summary than the one provided on the Blu-ray/DVD jacket, “The peaceful realm of Azeroth stands on the brink of war as its civilization faces a fearsome race of invaders: orc warriors fleeing their dying home to colonize another. As a portal opens to connect the two worlds, one army faces destruction and the other faces extinction. From opposing sides, an unlikely set of heroes are set on a collision course that will decide the fate of their families, their people and their home. So begins a spectacular saga of power and sacrifice in which war has many faces, and everyone fights for something.” Obviously, those already consumed with the game and its various extensions are the target audience for Warcraft. That it underperformed at the domestic box office shouldn’t be held against those who made it look as wild-and-woolly as it does. The special effects are terrific, as are the other relevant production values. Warcraft fared fair better in overseas markets, especially China, so it isn’t likely we’ve seen the last in the series just yet. The Blu-ray package offers deleted/extended scenes, a gag reel and the featurettes “The World of Warcraft on Film,” “The Fandom of Warcraft,” “Warcraft: Bonds of Brotherhood,” “Motion Comic,” “Warcraft: The Madame Tussauds Experience,” “ILM: Behind the Magic of Warcraft,” the 2013 teaser and origin story.

And, in the same way that the warriors in Warcraft, “Barbarians Rising” and Conan the Barbarian, for that matter, might have been modeled on the ancient Barbarian tribes, so, too, could the entire “World of Warcraft” universe have emerged from Gregory Widen’s multiplatform Highlander franchise, which preceded Blizzard’s brainstorm by eight years. The coincidental arrival of Lionsgate’s Highlander: 30th Anniversary Edition benefits from a nifty 4K restoration of the film completed by StudioCanal, as well as the inclusion of vintage features reprised from the 25th anniversary package, including deleted scenes, commentary with director Russell Mulcahy and interviews. In it, during a fierce sword battle in the 1500s, Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert), a simple Scotsman known as a poor fighter, is mortally wounded, but does not die. MacLeod learns from the mysterious Ramírez (Sean Connery) that he is of a race of immortals. These rare knights, not to be confused with vampires, one supposes, never age and never reproduce. They can only meet death by the blade of another of their kind. Leaping back and forth through the centuries, MacLeod once again meets the evil Kurgan (Clancy Brown) who nearly killed him 500 years earlier. All mythology aside, however, the spectacular Scottish Highlands locations are what set Mulcahy’s original apart from the other installments and other sword-and-fantasy pictures. (Sequels would be filmed in Romania, British Columbia, Argentina and Lithuania, along with more physically accessible parts of Scotland.) Like so many other cult favorites, Highlander was considered, at first, to be a box-office dud. Even then, however, it would benefit from overseas revenue and buzz from the VHS and Laser Disc releases. (The Queen songs didn’t hurt, either.) I wonder how many fans of Starz’ time-travel romance, “Outlander,” see in Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) a female counterpart to Connor McLeod. Incidentally, a Highlander remake is on the boards for 2017 or 2018.

Lady in White: Blu-ray
Blood Diner: Blu-ray
Chopping Mall: Blu-ray
PHOBE: The Xenophobic Experiments
In 1988, it must have been difficult for a distributor of genre films to sell a supernatural thriller, based on a legitimately ghostly legend from Upstate New York, that wasn’t dominated by blood-stained cutlery and butchered teenagers, preferably nude or in their underwear. It was a time when a PG-13 rating — as was fairly accorded filmmaker Frank LaLoggia’s Lady in White — must have seemed like the kiss of death. Critics gave it mostly positive reviews, but, by then, the approval of the mainstream press also could make it a non-starter. LaLoggia based his film on a long-standing urban legend he heard while growing up in the region about a mother whose daughter disappeared, apparently at the hands of a predatory young suitor. The White Lady roams the lake front, searching for the missing girl. The supposed residence of the White Lady, a demolished hotel built in the 1800s, has become a popular tourist attraction. In Lady in White, a wide-eyed boy played by Lukas Haas (Witness) becomes caught in the mystery after being attacked by the presumed serial killer and witnessing the nightly ritual of a ghost in the translucent form of a slain child. That his story isn’t totally discredited by friends, family and police only adds to the drama. Haas’ Frankie Scarlatti is surrounded by immigrant relatives, who ultimately provide a safety net for him when he’s most threatened. The scares derive from plot devices that will remind viewers of movies that carry such names as Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, Tobe Hooper and Walt Disney. Lady in White was LaLoggia’s second feature, after Fear No Evil. He made another feature, Mother, in 1995, before retiring to Italy. It probably has something to do with the difficulty in financing pictures. Two decades before Kickstarter, LaLoggia’s cousin, Charles, raised production money from 4,000 investors, many of whom live in and around the small town of Lyons in Upstate New York that doubles for the fictional Willowpoint Falls in Lady in White. The excellent bonus package adds commentary with LaLoggia, behind-the-scenes footage with an introduction by LaLoggia, deleted scenes, a promotional short film, media spots, a behind-the-scenes photo montage, an extended photo gallery and party site for teenagers and three separate versions of the movie: the theatrical cut, a director’s cut and an extended director’s cut.

Blood Diner and Chopping Mall don’t resemble Lady in White in any way, shape or form, other than 35mm. They represent the kind of low-budget films that were popular in the mid-1980s and stealing screens in drive-ins, especially, from less exploitative stuff. I don’t know if the Vestron releases made any money, but they’ve been accorded an afterlife based on cult status, alone. Originally, Jackie Kong’s Chopping Mall was intended to be a long-delayed sequel to the Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 1963 film Blood Feast, which featured an ancient Egyptian love goddess and numerous hacked-up teenage girls. (The “godfather of gore, died Monday, at 87.) Kong (The Under Achievers) and writer Michael Sonye (Commando Squad) decided to take the horror/comedy route, instead. Here, Michael and George Tutman (Rick Burks, Carl Crew) are the owners of a successful health-food restaurant, which serves dishes made from body parts left over from their nightly human-sacrifice rituals. They do so at the behest of the re-animated brain and eyeballs of their Uncle Anwar, who was executed before he could complete the job he never got to finish: the resurrection of the goddess Sheetar from the limbs and organs of his victims. As such, it fits the definition of being so bad, it’s good … kind of. It features lots of T&A, funny Third Reich references, insane amounts of gore and a twisted sense of humor. The punk rock and doo-wop soundtrack isn’t bad, either. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Kong and executive producer Lawrence Kasanoff; the isolated score, featuring select audio commentary with composer Don Preston; interviews with Kong, the rare woman director in the horror genre, actor Carl Crew, DP Jurg V. Walther, FX creator Bruce Zahlava and writer Michael Sonye. There’s also an archival interview with crew member and Hollywood Book & Poster owner Eric Caiden.

The future may belong to robots, but, even today, they’re far from infallible. In Jim Wynorski’s 1986 Chopping Mall, all it takes is lightning bolt to reprogram the R2D2 wannabees that provide overnight security at the Park Plaza Mall. Instead of targeting burglars and other trespassers, the robots use their laser beams to take out anything that moves. These include four couples that have lingered past closing time to make out in a mattress store. Because all of the exits are blocked or locked, the characters are at the mercy of the androids. It’s said that Chopping Mall was inspired by Trapped, a 1972 made-for-TV movie in which six vicious Doberman guard dogs terrorize James Brolin, who was knocked unconscious by a mugger and missed by the human guards in their final sweep. Producer Julie Corman’s participation ensured that everything would be done on the cheap and there would be just enough topless interludes to keep the drive-in crowd interested. Wynorski, who was just getting his feet wet in the exploitation game, found several interesting ways to get around the budget limitations and keep it fun. They include cameos by Corman regulars Paul Bartel, Mary Woronov, Dick Miller, Gerrit Graham and several voluptuous scream queens. (The explosion of Suzee Slater’s head may be the movie’s highlight.) Otherwise, Chopping Mall is pretty tame and only occasionally funny. The Blu-ray bonus package overflows with commentaries, interviews and backgrounders on the robots and Chuck Cirino’s terrific electronic soundtrack.

The 1995 DIY cult sensation PHOBE: The Xenophobic Experiments has been released on DVD in remastered form for the first time. Like so many other do-it-yourself efforts, it’s remarkable mostly for being completed in the first place. Over the course of a year, aided by a dedicated team of friends, volunteers and “fellow film rebels,” Ontario filmmaker Erica Benedikty wrote, produced, directed and edited the sci-fi action thriller, allegedly for only $250. (Others put the figure at $5,000, figuring in donated equipment.) There are times when “Phobe” looks as if it were financed with S&H Green Stamps, donations and buckets of blood, sweat and tears. Roman candles and Lightsabers were substituted for more sophisticated effects. In it, an escapee from a military experiment on another planet arrives on Earth to plant some sort of egg. A mullet-coifed space cop follows the creature here, battling it in a forest dangerously close to Niagara Falls. Benedikty not only was able to complete PHOBE, but also hold an opening night screening, other showings (cable access and YouTube count for something) and dream that it would be discovered. This DVD qualifies as a real coup. It comes with commentary by writer/director Erica Benedikty, moderated by Paul Corupe (canuxploitation.com) and Peter Kuplowsky (Laser Blast Film Society); Benedikty’s first feature-length movie, Back in Black; a documentary on the creation of the film and its continuing legacy; a Q&A with cast and crew, following a home-town screening in St. Catharine, Ontario; original FX shots from 1995 broadcast version of “Phobe”; outtakes; a performance of the theme by Gribble Hell.

Slugs: Special Edition: Blu-ray
I can’t think of more succinct high-concept premise for a horror story than the one used to describe this outrageous 1988 creature feature: “Killer slugs on the rampage in a rural community.” True, the same pitch could be recycled to include anything from ants to elephants, but the sight of dozens of slimy, licorice-black critters emerging from faucets, toilet bowls, sewers, garden hoses and body orifices, simultaneously, is almost too gruesome to bear. And, yes, they sport sharp little fangs capable of doing great harm to human flesh. (Coincidentally, much of Slugs was shot on location in Lyons, N.Y., which, in 1988, also filled in for the town in Lady in White.) Apparently, the onslaught began when water slugs migrated from the nearby lake at breeding time, into the city’s sewage system, which once served as a toxic dump. Of course, they did. Spanish director Juan Piquer Simón (Pieces) adapted the movie from the 1982 horror novel, “Slugs,” by Shaun Hutson. In addition to massive amounts of slime and gore – it originally was rated X – there was enough T&A to satisfy any drive-in customer, back in the day. The meticulous Arrow Video hi-def restoration is accompanied by commentary with writer and filmmaker Chris Alexander; interviews with actor Emilio Linder, special-effects artist Carlo De Marchis and art director Gonzalo Gonzalo; an interview and locations tour with production manager Larry Ann Evans; a 1988 Goya Awards promo reel; original theatrical trailer; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Wes Benscoter; and fully-illustrated collector’s booklet with new writing Michael Gingold.

Subterranea
Arriving on Blu-ray/DVD without any hint of fanfare, Subterranea, is the kind of off-the-wall movie that deserves to be discovered by fans of experimental psycho-dramas and dark, low-budget thrillers. Based on a 1997 concept album by British neo-progressive rock band IQ – itself inspired by Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser — Mathew Miller’s debut feature follows a man known only as The Captive (Bug Hall), who, after being forced to live his entire life within a darkened cell, is released into the world for the first time with nothing but the clothes on his back. Never having seeing the light of day or another human being, the Captive’s first fully conscious impressions are provided by the roar of a subway train and the helping hand of a homeless man, Remy (Nicholas Turturro). The only thing that isn’t a mystery is his memory of the voice of the man he knows only as The Provider, who kept him fed and captive for all those years. With no more walls to contain him, the Captive faces an entirely new world that’s full of unlimited and threatening horizons. Finally, he discovers that he’s the cornerstone of an orchestrated social experiment, devised by the Provider, and he’s inherited enemies and allies he couldn’t have known existed. Although a lot of disbelief needs to be suspended, Subterranea will reward those willing to go along for the ride. Characters played William Katt, Amber Mason and Lily Gladstone know more about the Captive than he knows about himself. The deleted scenes and featurettes included in the package will help viewers put together some of the missing pieces.

A House Is Not a Home
While watching Christopher Ray’s haunted-house thriller, A House Is Not a Home, I was reminded of a quip made Eddie Murphy, about moving into a new home on Long Island and the possibility that it might be haunted by its former owner, a cranky old Jewish man.       “Boo! … Get off my lawn! … Boo-ooo! I’m under the bed now! …. Or, maybe I’m not. Who knows? Maybe. I could be. Who cares? … I could be under the bed.” He went on to point out something that’s all too obvious to jaded viewers, “I was watching movies like Poltergeist and Amityville Horror. Why don’t the people just get the hell out of the house? You can’t make a horror movie with black people in it. … You’d see (them) runnin’ down the street … the movie’s over!” Murphy’s theory was well known to Ray and male lead Gerald Webb before they started shooting their movie. The sentiment is echoed, as well, by the son of transplanted urbanites Ben and Linda Williams the morning after a scary first night in the house. Instead of splitting immediately, the Williams elect to ignore the bumps in the night and tough it out. Ben and Linda have decided that the best way to get a fresh start on their troubled marriage is to buy a big ol’ house in the suburbs. Yeah, that always works. It doesn’t take long for us to figure out that the house has a mind of its own and it wants Ray, an architect, to make some changes. By the time the Williams figure out what’s happening, it’s too late to leave. But, they have to try, anyway. Although things got a bit too dark and smoky for my little DVD to decipher with any precision, there was plenty of hocus-pocus on display to satisfy fans of the haunted-house subgenre. I don’t think it’s unfair to mention that Ray’s resume includes such Syfy gems as Mega Shark vs. Kolossus, 3-Headed Shark Attack and Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus. The writing team of James and Jon Kondelik (Airplane vs. Volcano) and Victoria Dadi (2012: Ice Age) had some beauts on their resume, as well. So, clearly, A House Is Not a Home could have turned out a lot worse. Filling out the cast are Aurora Perrineau (Jem and the Holograms), Bill Cobbs (A Night at the Museum), Richard Grieco (“21 Jump Street”), Diahnna Nicole Baxter (“Scandal”) and Eddie Steeples (“My Name is Earl”).

Beyond Valkyrie: Dawn of the Fourth Reich
What would a World War II movie be without a cameo, at least, by Tom Sizemore? No, I don’t want to think about it, either. In addition to a key role in Saving Private Ryan, Sizemore kept extremely busy in the past few years acting in films encompassing every genre imaginable and even more sub-genres. For a guy who many deemed to be unemployable a dozen years ago, he’s doing very well. The thing about most of these low-budget, fact-based movies is that a little bit of history goes a long way. In Beyond Valkyrie: Dawn of the Fourth Reich, for example, Allied intelligence officers are aware of the plot to kill Hitler and other high-ranking Nazi leaders inside his Wolf’s Lair field headquarters, near Rastenburg, East Prussia. They’ve assigned a special-ops team to extract the man destined to lead post-war Germany. (I missed that part in Tom Cruise’s Valkyrie.) The assassination plot ultimately collapses, however, leaving the team stranded in the middle of enemy-held territory. After a series of easily spoiled coincidences, the team finds itself preparing for another top-secret mission, this time with a Soviet special-ops team, led by Major Aleksandr Kulkov (Pasha D. Lychnikoff). This time, the combined Allied unit – including the requisite beautiful spy, Julie Engelbrecht – is tasked with finding a train loaded with gold bars and preventing it from unloading the ill-gained booty onto a submarine heading for Argentina. Naturally, there are a lot of violent confrontations between Gestapo troops and the combined unit. And, of course, the Nazis can’t hit the broadside of a barn with their machine guns, while the good guys can’t miss, even with handguns. Nonetheless, director Claudio Fäh (Sniper: Reloaded) is able to make the most of a flawed script, small budget and Bulgarian locations.

Justin Hayward: Live in Concert at the Capitol Theatre
If the Moody Blues aren’t always mentioned in the same breath as other British Invasion bands, it isn’t because they were considered inferior to the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Who, or a johnny-come-lately to the scene. It’s just that, by 1967, when their concept album, “Days of Future Past,” was released, the Moody Blues had effectively merged rock, pop and orchestral music into something called “art rock,” which gradually evolved into “progressive rock.” The sub-genre wouldn’t flourish until the mid-1970s and, by that time, the band was ready for a long hiatus. On the strength of its first batch of albums – loosely linked to psychedelia, with its ode to Timothy Leary on “In Search of the Lost Chord” – the Moody Blues entered the pantheon of classic-rock acts, doomed to reprise the same favorites on endless reunion tours. Based on filmmaker David Minasian’s latest collaboration with Justin Hayward, “Live in Concert at the Capitol Theatre,” that’s OK with me. Hayward’s elegant voice is in fine shape on this lovingly produced film, which mixes the hits with new compositions, and never sounds old or dusty. The bonus videos include “The Wind of Heaven,” written with the director.

Confessions of Isabella
The most interesting thing about Trina McGee’s DIY drama, Confessions of Isabella, isn’t her ability to wear five different hats simultaneously – director, writer, co-star, producer, composer – but the long list of Hispanic and African-American actors she enlisted to work on it. If Hollywood truly is looking for a Rainbow Coalition of young faces to add diversity to its movies, all they have to do is find McGee’s phone number. It isn’t as if it wouldn’t be difficult to locate. Her own list of credits includes 59 appearances on “Boy Meets World” and several visits to Bill Maher’s previous employer, ABC’s “Politically Incorrect.” Here, Isabella (Alexya Garcia) is a young Latina dancer attempting to make a name for herself in the hip-hop scene. She gets the opportunity when she hooks up with producer Antonio (Alejandro Bravo), who promises her the moon but follows through on none of them. He also cheats on her with every new ingénue that enters his studio. Big shock. Antonio also owes a hip-hop musician money and/or recordings, neither of which he’s likely to deliver. Along comes McGee, as a homeless woman with stringy gray hair, who sympathizes with Isabella and offers a solution of her own that, turns out, only makes things worse. Neither is she served well by a fortune-telling dishwasher at a local diner who essentially tells her to follow her heart … advice she could have gotten from a fortune cookie. Oh, yeah, Trina also appears on the trailer for Marcello Thedford’s upcoming Sins of the Guilty, as star and writer. The scenes in the preview look suspiciously familiar to images just seen in Confessions of Isabella. And, yet, as insufficiently entertaining as it is, McGee’s film could serve as inspiration for minority filmmakers to never give up on their dreams, no matter how unlikely it seems to find distribution.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Masterpiece: Indian Summers: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
History: Barbarians Rising
Even though Season Two of “Indian Summers” is still unspooling on PBS affiliates here, rabid fans of the fine British mini-series can avoid the weekly interruptions by picking up the Blu-ray compilation and binging to their hearts’ content. The good news is that one needn’t be a student of British colonial history or, even, an admirer of previous mini-series, “The Far Pavillions” and “The Jewel in the Crown,” to enjoy this elegantly soapy production. The bad news came with the announcement of its cancellation after only two chapters in a planned five-season arc. Given the expenses involved and declining ratings in England, it isn’t likely to find any backers for an extension. It’s our loss. The second stanza picks up three years after the events that closed the first season. The British socialites and colonial officials who vacation in Simla, in the foothills of the Himalayas, are still able to pretend that their reign won’t end in 12 short years, even as they can see the dark clouds of war forming over Europe. Cynthia (Julie Walters) is still in charge of maintaining decorum and tradition at the newly integrated – sort of, anyway – social club, while also promoting the chances of Ralph Whelan (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) to ascend to the rank of Viceroy on the imminent retirement of Lord Willingdon (Patrick Malahide). His seemingly loyal Indian aide, Aafrin (Nikesh Patel), is facing pressure from his associates in the Independence Party to betray Ralph, but is conflicted by his love for Ralph’s sister, now married to bullying banker Charlie Havistock (Blake Ritson). Even J.R. Ewing couldn’t have scripted the twists and turns from there any better than Paul Rutman (“Vera”) and his writing team. The former summer capital of British India has modernized to the point where the producers decided to stage the series in the lush hills of Penang, Malaysia. Its beauty helps explain the sense of entitlement enjoyed by the Brits at work and at play. New cast members in Season Two are Art Malik, as the pompous Maharajah, and Rachel Griffiths, as his Australian concubine; Arjun Mathur, as the terrorist, Naresh Banerjee; and James Fleet, as the almost fatally horny Lord Hawthorne. The excellent Blu-ray package adds a decent making-of featurette.

In its attempt to combine education and entertainment, the History Channel mini-series “Barbarians Rising” took a somewhat different tack than what is usually applied to such endeavors. The series not only is told from the point of view of the various rebel leaders who challenged the rule of the Roman Empire – a.k.a., Barbarians — it also presents brief commentaries from modern scholars and historians, and supplements both with computer-generated maps. Imagine watching Starz’ “Spartacus,” HBO’s “Rome” and Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” and “Julius Caesar” and having the narratives interrupted every 10 minutes, or so, with the opinions of retired generals, educators and, yes, even, Jessie Jackson, or a cool graphic device. It isn’t a bad way to keep viewers interested in ancient history, really, although the battles do tend to resemble each other after a while. I suppose that history majors and Latin teachers will find plenty of nits to pick, as well as the occasional unforgiveable omission and flat-out whopper. It’s significantly better than leaving our history lessons to Hollywood screenwriters, which is usually the case these days. Among the recognizable actors in key roles are Tom Hopper, Steven Berkoff, Kirsty Mitchell, Steven Waddington and Nicholas Pinnock.

The DVD Wrapup: Free State of Jones, Beauty & Beast, Bettie Page, Pele and more

Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

Free State of Jones: Blu-ray
At 139 minutes, Gary Ross’s frequently exhilarating, sometimes grueling Free State of Jones dramatizes one of the most unlikely and virtually unknown – outside Mississippi, anyway – chapters in Civil War history. Unlike Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave and the recent re-adaptation of “Roots,” viewers averse to sadistic violence and racial epithets weren’t required to gird their loins for what was to come. Ross (Seabiscuit) cobbled Free State of Jones from three separate stories, based on original research, concerning Mississippi farmer Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) and the loose coalition of deserters and escaped slaves he led from a dense swamp along the Leaf River, in southeast Mississippi. Their revolt was sustained by local residents, whose property and livestock had been confiscated as a tax to support Confederate troops, and disdain for a newly passed law that allowed plantation owners to avoid military service if they owned 20 slaves or more. (An additional family member was exempted from service for each additional 20 slaves owned by the planter.)  After making the 200-mile trek home from the Siege of Corinth, in the northeastern corner of the state, Knight was jailed for desertion by Confederate authorities, who also ordered the burning of his homestead and farm. After his escape and retreat to the swamp, Knight would be led to an enclave of escaped slaves and eventually be joined by several hundred deserters. Even after the union victory at Vicksburg, there were enough Confederate troops in southeast Mississippi to keep the guerrilla force from joining the Yankee juggernaut. Ross’ re-creation of Knight’s swampy Southern Unionist encampment, along with depictions of skirmishes launched against Confederate supply wagons from the thick cover, are painstakingly rendered. He also does a nice job portraying Knight’s ability to quell a mini-revolt by white soldiers, who resisted his insistence that they fight alongside the blacks as brothers in arms and share whatever provisions available to them. When news that the war had ended reached Knight, he couldn’t have known that the peace would be as difficult to sustain as their insurrection.

If Ross had decided to wrap up the story here and merely allude to the perils of Reconstruction, Free State of Jones could have ended naturally and entirely satisfactorily, without further testing his viewers’ ability to maintain their attention for what amounts to a half-hour postscript. The story already had been interrupted occasionally by flashforwards to a court case, begun 85 years later, involving the great-great-great grandson of Newton and his common-law wife Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a freedwoman and student who helped him survive the swamp ordeal. Since he is of one-eighth black descent, the light-skinned descendant was arrested under Mississippi’s miscegenation laws, prohibiting his interracial marriage to a white woman. While interesting and historically relevant, the through-line feels forced and disruptive of dramatic flow. Likewise, the final chapter pertaining to the Reconstruction period almost demands that we see it as an apology by Hollywood’s liberal establishment for D.W. Griffith’s revisionist portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan, in The Birth of a Nation. This time, any notion that Klansmen are heroes or defenders of traditional Southern values are destroyed by accounts, far closer to reality, by atrocities against the freed slaves who fought alongside Newtown. In one or two instances, Ross appears to be referring directly to scenes shots by Griffith, showing Klansmen riding to the rescue of damsels in distress and against black farmers and homesteaders. Again, its value as a corrective is diminished by its length and tacked-on feeling. Even so, there’s plenty of good stuff to be learned here about a subject – some Mississippians still consider it to be a fable, unworthy of revisiting – about which most of us are ignorant. If Free State of Jones failed at the box office – as it did — the blame should be attributed more on Civil War fatigue than anything to do with the story, production values, acting or, even, its length. The nicely rendered Blu-ray adds the excellent documentary featurette, “History of Jones County,” which features real local residents and descendants discussing the history, intercut with numerous clips from the film.

Beauty and the Beast: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Because a new demi-generation of children arrives, like clockwork, every five years, or so, Disney has never required much of an excuse to re-release its classics to whet their appetites for quality entertainment and those of adults in need of a break from the demands of parenthood. In the late 1990s, the studio faced a challenge with the widespread acceptance of DVD, a format that suffered little from ravages of age and overuse. As kids grew more savvy and demanding, Disney would offer a full menu of new and recycled bonus features, as well as interactive activities. Blu-ray added its own highly defined reason for existing, as did, five years ago, Blu-ray 3D. The only thing that Beauty and the Beast: 25th Anniversary Edition doesn’t provide consumers is a new reason for 3D adaptors to rejoice, a marketing decision that hardly qualifies as a snub. That will be corrected soon enough, probably when the cycle begins again, with the release of a 4K UHD/Blu-ray 3D/DVD/Digital HD combo. The Signature Collection edition of Beauty and the Beast needs no further introduction beyond mentioning the fresh featurettes added to a vintage array of bonus material. It includes four versions of the movie: the Blu-ray release of the original theatrical film; an extended version, with the “Human Again” song sequence; a sing-along version, new to home entertainment; and the original work-in-progress version, which will be available digitally and on Disney Movies Anywhere. One of the new bonus extras invites fans to gather around a piano with composers Alan Menken (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin), Stephen Schwartz (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pocahontas), Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (Frozen), and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Disney’s upcoming Moana and “Hamilton: An American Musical”) as they sing and share how they’ve personally been inspired by the film’s award-winning music. Others focus on how Walt Disney sought to adapt this famous European fairytale at various times before his death, in 1966; an update on Paige O’Hara, the voice of Belle; behind-the-scenes access into the recording booth with the cast; 25 Fun Facts, hosted by Gus Kamp and Kayla Maisonet; and a sneak peek at Disney’s upcoming live-action re-telling of Beauty and the Beast, arriving in theaters in 2017.

Cell: Blu-ray
Here’s another movie that, on its surface, would appear to have everything going for it, but couldn’t escape VOD hell on its long-delayed release. Stephen King’s novel “Cell” was published in January, 2006, and, ever since, has been the subject of fanboy speculation and Internet chatter. Eli Roth (Hostel) originally was attached to the project, then scheduled for a 2009 release. “It should feel like an ultra-violent event movie,” he said. A couple of years later, Roth decided that his vision of Cell and that of the Weinstein Company were two completely different things and he should move on to more personal projects. At the end of 2009, King announced that he had completed a screenplay, but, get this, “changed the ending based on negative feedback from readers of the book.” Another three years would pass before John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson signed on to play Clayton Riddell and Tom McCourt respectively. It wasn’t until June 10, 2016, that Cell debuted on streaming services. As these things usually go, Cell is a perfectly acceptable rainy-day diversion … easy to watch, just as easy to forget. King might have been inspired by the sight of dozens of people in any given place, walking and talking, exchanging thoughts and information of use only to them, their ears glued to wireless gizmos. Only a few of the cellphone junkies, if any, considered the possibility that their phone would turn on them and cause brain tumors, as alarmists warned. In King’s mind, however, it couldn’t have been a very large leap from listeners contracting tumors to their turning into brain-eating zombies, instead, triggered by a loud, pulsating signal via the cellphone network. The protagonist, Riddell, only escapes because the batteries on his phone were dead. In his personal mission to find and save his wife and son, Riddell encounters many zombies (a.k.a. phoners) – some aimless, others guided by mysterious sounds — and a smattering of people who shared Riddell’s exemption, including McCourt and a teenager played by Isabelle Fuhrman (“Masters of Sex”). While Riddell has difficulty finding his wife and son, but he does discover the source of the signal, which might have been inspired by the annual Islamic gathering at Mecca. Tod Williams’ flat and listless direction, combined with some lackluster performances, make the ending anticlimactic. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Williams and the making-of featurette, “To Cell and Back.”

Under the Sun
If North Korea didn’t possess weapons of mass destruction and a will to deploy them, the country depicted in Under the Sun might be forgiven as a terrible joke. Even the most straight-faced mockumentarian couldn’t have invented a scenario as strange as the one delivered by Russian director Vitaly Mansky, under the strict supervision of government officials. The idea was for Mansky to document an “ordinary” Pyongyang family, whose charming 8-year-old daughter, Lee Zin-mi, has been chose for induction into the quasi-military Children’s Union. It’s a great honor, of course, and the children have prepared for the events by memorizing dances and hosannas to Kim Jong-Un on the Day of the Shining Star, the nationally celebrated birthday of former leader Kim Jong Il. It hardly seems possible to escape images of Jong-Un, Jong-Il and Kim Il-Sung, whether they’re in the form of monumental statues in public squares or mass-produced photographs hung in every classroom and household in North Korea. The country is frighteningly regimented, but Mansky plays it straight, letting the pictures speak for themselves. What’s truly bizarre is the micromanagement of his movie by handlers who simply can’t leave well enough alone. Not only do they orchestrate coverage of Zin-mi’s induction ceremony, but go so far as to falsify the jobs of her parents and micromanage the décor of their tidy apartment. The handlers aren’t ham-fisted or impolite, however. They go about their jobs as if it’s a perfectly normal and expected part of the filmmaking process. Just as it’s impossible not to feel sorry for the people we meet here, it’s just that difficult to figure out if they’ve been brainwashed beyond the point of redemption or how bad their lives might be when the cameras were turned off.

Masks: Blu-ray
SIN: Blu-ray
The Exotic Dances Of Bettie Page: Blu-ray
The first and foremost thing to know about Andreas Marschall’s modern giallo is that it’s built on a template created by the great Dario Argento, for Suspiria. It takes more than little bit of chutzpah to futz around with a true classic of the form, but that’s one attribute filmmakers rarely lack. Indeed, Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson are already booked to star in Luca Guadagnino’s remake, set for release in 2017. The actresses also were featured in Guadagnino’s erotic drama, A Bigger Splash, recently released on DVD. Marschall’s film re-sets the story from Dance Academy Freiburg to a private drama school, in Berlin. While the cast is almost entirely Germanic – Argento enlisted Yanks Jessica Harper and Joan Bennett — he does borrow the musical conceit of surrounding the action with a jarring soundtrack, not unlike the one originally contributed by Goblin. Here, an aspiring actress, Stella, played by first-timer, Susen Ermich, realizes her dream by being accepted to the Matteusz Gdula-Institute. In the 1970s, the school´s founder, Matteusz Gdula (Norbert Losch) practiced a learning style that promised to let students shine by driving them to their mental limits. The method was banned after mysterious deaths occurred during his lessons. They weren’t forgotten, though. No sooner does she arrive than Stella begins to hear thing go bump in the night and they appear to emanate from a closed door that leads to the abandoned, forbidden wing of the school. Several extremely gory deaths later, disturbing secrets are revealed. Because it was shot digitally, Masks isn’t able to replicate the garish Technicolor splendor achieved by Argento using the three-strip Technicolor process. (The maestro reportedly asked cinematographer Luciano Tovoli to watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, so that he could model Suspira’s color scheme after it.) The Blu-ray from Reel Gore Releasing recalls Strand’s 2014 hi-def edition of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, which also paid homage to the masters of classic Italian giallo horror. Curiosity is probably the best reason to check out Masks, whose limited edition includes a CD of the original soundtrack, a collectible Blu-ray/DVD slipcase and sleeve, a 24-page booklet, a behind-the-scenes featurette, deleted scenes, a music-video clip and slideshow.

From Cult Epics arrives SIN, an hourlong triptych from Nico B, a Dutch filmmaker known for his 1998 underground horror production “Pig” and the biographical “Bettie Page: Dark Angel.” Conveniently, he’s also founder of the L.A.-based distribution company, which also handles the work of Walerian Borowczyk, Tinto Brass, Jean Genet, Fernando Arrabal, Rene Daalder, Abel Ferrara, Radley Metzger and Irving Klaw. “SIN” is comprised of three episodes, ostensibly staged in the 1920-40s, where each story describes the “duality” of a female protagonist: the belly/frolic dancer (Angelita Franco), the sculpture model/nun (Caroline Pierce) and the legless aristocrat/nurse (Dahlia Dark). Inspired by early 20th Century erotica and surrealistic filmmaking, Nico B explores the subliminal curse of destiny we call sin. They’re shot in Super 8 silent film, with a soundtrack by Claude Debussy. The limited edition BD/DVD combo features original artwork and a booklet with storyboards by artist Brian M. Viveros. The new HD Transfer adds nude color outtakes, teasers and several
Super 8 short films by Nico B.

So much has been written about Bettie Page that it hardly seems necessary to add any more, except to alert fans to a new release. Cult Epics’ newly restored Blu-ray collection, The Exotic Dances of Bettie Page, does a wonderful job cleaning up imperfections that have attached themselves to these short 8mm films, shot by Irving Klaw and previously compiled 25 years ago. It was about that time – 40 years past the long-retired model’s underground prominence — that Page’s cultural significance was upgraded from fetishist’s dream to mainstream pop icon … Bettie Boop, in the flesh. Since the dances themselves would barely warrant a PG-13 rating these days, the most revealing thing here is the quality of the images, which have been given a sharp 2K HD transfer from the original masters. (A comparison between the VHS, DVD and Blu-ray editions can be found on YouTube.) Also included are more risqué selections from the Bettie Page Kamera Club, a photo gallery, “Bettie Page Uncovered: The Private Life and Photographs,” a 2016 Q&A with her nephew and an O-ring silver print.

Dead End Drive-In: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Like so many other good exploitation flicks, Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Dead End Drive-In comes tantalizingly close to making lucid points about the future of mankind, using sex, drugs, booze, rock ’n’ roll, violence, hot rods and pyrotechnics to address sticky societal concerns. The Ozploitation classic was released in 1986, in the rather long wake of Peter Weir’s The Cars That Ate Paris, George Miller’s Mad Max trilogy, Ian Barry’s The Chain Reaction, Richard Franklin’s Roadgames, John Clark’s Running on Empty (a.k.a., “Fast Lane Fever”) and non-Aussie cousins Alex Cox’s Repo Man, Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 and Ron Howard’s Grand Theft Auto, among many other high-octane specimens. Australia and the United States share many things in common, including the twin passions of open road and speed. The juvenile delinquents of the 1950s embraced the motto, wrongly attributed to James Dean, “Live fast, die young, have a good looking corpse.” Better that than be burned to a crisp by a Soviet ICBM missile. By the 1970s, Ozploitation specialists found other things about which to worry. They included shortages of gasoline, anarchic punks in fast cars and an invasion of immigrants from Southeast Asia. In the not-so-distant dystopian future described in Dead-End Drive In, the Australian economy has crumbled and violent gangs have taken control of the streets after dark. To counter the endless wave of violence, government authorities have decided to lure youthful offenders into drive-in theaters by offering reduced ticket prices for the unemployed. Once inside, their cars are disabled and the kids are trapped inside a concentration camp of their own device.

They occupy their time drinking, getting into fights, stealing parts from other disabled cars and getting their hair spiked or colored in makeshift, unisex salons. At night, they get to watch Trenchard-Smith’s action movies on an unending loop. Ned Manning and Natalie McCurry play Crabs and Carmen, the captive couple with the most to lose – a souped-up 1956 Chevy convertible — while Peter Whitford portrays the manager of the drive-in who’s in cahoots with corrupt cops. Complicating matters for the prisoners is a bus load of Asian immigrants dropped off at the facility by police, who hope to instigate a race riot. Donald Trump couldn’t have imagined a worse fate for outsiders than the one contrived by the hoodlums who outnumber them 10-to-1, at least, and have crafted weapons out of discarded car parts. The punks convince their girlfriends that they’ll be raped by men in turbans if they don’t join their ethnic-cleansing campaign. If nothing else, though, the distraction allows for Crabs’ escape attempt and terrifically staged chase inside the perimeters of the drive-in between tow trucks and police vehicles. Lawrence Eastwood’s post-apocalyptic production design was nominated for a 1986 Australian Film Institute award. (Sadly, designers on genre films are widely ignored here by awards committees.) Once again, Arrow Video outdoes itself with a fresh 2K restoration from original film materials, Blu-ray, audio commentary by Trenchard-Smith, and a pair of ancient documentaries, “The Stuntmen,” Trenchard Smith’s portrait of Grant Page (Mad Max, Road Games) and other Australian stunt performers, “Hospitals Don’t Burn Down,” the director’s 1978 public information film, and a fully-illustrated collector’s booklet containing writing on the films by Cullen Gallagher and Neil Mitchell.

The Real MVP: The Wanda Durant Story
Pele: Birth of a Legend
Although these inspirational biopics are from different distributors, they both feature sports superstars and the family members that stood behind them and obscurity when the going got tough. From Lifetime Television, The Real MVP: The Wanda Durant Story dramatizes the struggle of a single African-America mother to raise two sons – one of them, Kevin, would reach the zenith of professional basketball — while working nights as a postal employee and, during the day, as an unlicensed hair stylist in her Washington, D.C., kitchen. Cassandra Freeman does a nice job as Wanda Durant, who sacrifices mightily to provide her sons with every opportunity to succeed, including encouraging them to participate in a community program and AAU ball. Kevin’s choppy ascent from the prep ranks to stardom in the NBA – with a brief stop at the University of Texas – is covered, of course, but it’s Wanda that we’re encouraged to care about most. Her son’s on his way to the Golden State Warriors, where’s he’ll help them regain the championship, while mom gets to bask in his reflected glory.

Likewise, Pelé’s stardom can be traced directly back to the encouragement and sacrifices of his father and mother. Raised in poverty in the slums of São Paulo, Brazil, Edson Arantes do Nascimento couldn’t even afford a proper ball or shoes. His father, an ex-footballer, is shown here teaching his son how to score goals with mangos. His mother worked as a maid, bringing home leftovers and hand-me-downs. Pelé led ragtag Bauru Athletic Club juniors to three consecutive São Paulo state youth championships before being recruited, at 15, by scouts for Santos FC. He finished the 1957 season, his second, as the league’s top scorer. A year later, Pelé became the youngest player to play a World Cup Finals, the youngest scorer in a World Cup Final and the youngest player to win a World Cup Winner’s Medal. It’s also where Pele: Birth of a Legend leaves off, assuming that everyone else in the soccer-obsessed world already knows the rest of the story. Vincent D’Onofrio and Colm Meaney add a bit of international flavor to the proceedings. The DVD adds a couple of background featurettes.

Rodeo & Juliet
While Thadd Turner’s contemporary oater, Rodeo & Juliet, isn’t much different than dozens of other family-friendly romances, it does have something the others don’t. In the role of the beautiful country girl who moved to the big city to escape a romantic dilemma, but then returns 20 years later with her snooty big-city daughter in tow, is Krista Allen. In addition to being one of the most beautiful women on the planet, the 45-year-old actress is one of the very few who’s won the admiration of fans of soap operas, sitcoms, dramas, feature films and soft-core porn. Granted, a lot of water has passed underneath the bridge since she last doffed in her top in the “Emmanuelle in Space” series, but casting agents tend to have long memories when it comes to an actress’ world-class body. Good for her. Even though Rodeo & Juliet earned the blessing of the Dove Foundation, it isn’t particularly faith-based or overtly religious. Allen’s Karen embarrassed her father and fiancé (Tim Abell) after leaving them at the altar, years earlier. In the meantime, she’s become a successful author of romance novels. After her dad dies, Karen is called back to the ranch, which is deep in debt. The last place her daughter, Juliet (Nadine Crocker,) wants to spend the summer is in the boonies, but it isn’t long before she falls for a cool dude, Monty (Zeb Halsell), in a cowboy hat. Turns out, he’s the nephew of the jilted ranch hand, who’s persona non grata for insisting that the old man’s will left him half the ranch. The only drama comes when Karen finds out that Monty is teaching Juliet how to ride the ranch’s prized horse, Rodeo, to the local barrel-racing championship. Rodeo & Juliet isn’t the most compelling drama I’ve seen lately, but fans of Lifetime movies and barrel racing should like it.

Elephant Kingdom
This animated feature from Thailand tells the story of a brave elephant, Rock (voiced by Cary Elwes), who commits himself to rescuing his wife, Melody (Alexa PenaVega), after she’s kidnapped by the powerful human king (Patrick Warburton, who else?). Coming to Rock’s aid in Elephant Kingdom is a colorfully offbeat troop of young pachyderms, including Rally (Carlos PenaVega), Pugsley (Mikey Bolts), Wingman (Garrett Clayton) and the human queen (Ambyr Childers). Director Melanie Simka (Frog Kingdom) specializes in English-language adaptations of imported animated fare. Movies about pastel-tinted elephants have become a staple of Thai entertainment, harkening back to the country’s rich folklore tradition.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War
PBS Kids: Kate & Mim-Mim: The Mimiloo Zoo
In the wake of the success of Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust drama, Schindler’s List, it comes as something of a surprise to learn that the story of Waitstill and Martha Sharp didn’t find a sponsor. The compassionate American Unitarians displayed similar courage in the face of the Nazi death machine, even though their mission began thousands of miles from the European crucible. In other hands than those of co-directors Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky, the 90-minute PBS documentary, Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War, might have made a powerfully inspirational feature film. As it is, however, Burns’ dedication to the non-fiction platform assured that the documentary would find a home at PBS and could be mentioned in the same breath as Spielberg’s salute to German industrialist Oskar Schindler. In fact, Schindler and both Sharps are listed among the “Righteous Gentiles” honored by the State of Israel for risking their lives during World War II to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis. The Sharps’ heroism differs from that demonstrated by Schindler in that they were recruited by Unitarian Service Committee to move to Prague, from their New England home, leaving their children behind in the U.S., to help specifically designated individuals to emigrate to the west. Although the foundation for the mission had already been laid by American and European clergy anticipating the German threat to freedom, the Sharps would spend two dangerous years making the network work, employing both legal and extralegal strategies. Contrary to what the U.S. government would openly acknowledge about the status of Jews in the period before we entered the war, the Sharps witnessed atrocities first-hand. Sublimating their emotions made them better at what they did best. John le Carré or Graham Greene couldn’t have improved on their story. There are surprises around every turn and intrigue in such unexpected places as the Sharps’ marriage. Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War is informed by interviews with the Sharps’ children, people saved by them and members of the Unitarian community. To say that their story has been underreported – one book, by Susan Elisabeth Subak – is hardly an exaggeration.

Kate & Mim-Mim: The Mimiloo Zoo” is comprised of six amusing tales and a bonus video called “Mimiloo’s Creatures.” In the PBS Kids’ show, the popular lead characters are joined by friends Lily, Gobble, Tack and Boomer, as they encounter an amazing assortment of curious creatures including baby humming turtles, a unicorn, lemmings, and mitty kats. Exploring themes of friendship, adventure and problem solving, “Kate & Mim-Mim” encourages children to use their imaginations and work together, believing no problem is ever too big to solve. The holiday special, “Kate & Mim-Mim: A Christmas Wish” arrives in another two weeks, with winter-theme stories and a bonus music video.

The DVD Weekend: Popstar, Civil War, Bigger Splash, King Jack, Standing Tall, Marguerite, Marauders, Tower Records, Vaxxed, Raising Cain and more

Friday, September 16th, 2016

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping: Blu-ray
It’s possible that Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer — collectively known as Lonely Island – wrote their occasionally very funny music mockumentary, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, thinking it could re-create the commercial, critical and pop-cultural success accorded This Is Spinal Tap. If so, they probably should have set their sights on someone less prone to self-parody than the ever-ridiculous Justin Bieber, who is more worthy of a three-minute sketch on “Saturday Night Live.” The great thing about Rob Reiner’s 1984 comedy was that viewers couldn’t always be sure when the band was making fun of heavy metal music, the musicians themselves, their fans or the industry. They still can’t. It isn’t unusual to hear a cut from Spinal Tap’s fictional “Smell the Glove” album on SiriusXM’s Underground Garage channel, played alongside the Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop, the Ramones and Patti Smith. Any memory of the songs on the “Popstar” soundtrack vaporizes within minutes of hearing them. Although the title references Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, Popstar also recalls Madonna’s self-absorbed performance in Truth or Dare, the posthumous Michael Jackson salute This Is It, Katy Perry: Part of Me, Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience, One Direction: This Is Us and Justin Bieber’s Believe. Generally well-reviewed critically, if not a commercial success, Popstar follows white-rapper Conner 4Real (Samberg) as he experiences the ups and downs of the pop-star life, especially after his second album “Connquest” is a flop and he is forced to do whatever he can to stay in the spotlight. This includes the possibility of reuniting with his old boy band, the Style Boyz. In addition to Samberg, Schaffer and Taccone, the featured cast includes Sarah Silverman, Tim Meadows, Bill Hader, Imogen Poots, Joan Cusak and Maya Rudolph, with smaller and cameo roles filled by, among others, Emma Stone, Justin Timberlake, Kevin Nealon, Adam Levine, Akon, Arcade Fire, DJ Khaled, Jimmy Fallon, Mariah Carey, Mario Lopez, Michael Bolton, Pink, Ringo Starr, RZA, Seal, Usher, 50 Cent and, even, Martin Sheen. If “Popstar” begins to feel like an “SNL” reunion show after a while, it shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s enjoyed short films by Lonely Island (“Dick in a Box”) on the sketch-comedy series. Producer Judd Apatow probably had more to do with rounding up the all-star lineup than anyone else, but it’s Samberg who keeps the ball rolling for 86 minutes. Clearly, his fan base, Emmy nominations and Golden Globe for “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” weren’t enough to produce a hit. The good news comes in the Blu-ray bonus package, which adds commentary with Schaffer, Taccone and Samberg, deleted scenes, a gag reel, music videos, interview outtakes and humorous featurettes “How to Donkey Roll,” “Big Boy Freestyle,” “Frog Jizz,” “Shooting Hoops,” “Turn Up the Beef” backstory, “Sex Tape and “Fun at CMZ,” all of which demonstrate how short-form parody can be just as effective as feature-length mockumentaries … unless you’re Christopher Guest.

Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War: Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray
Metalstorm: The Destruction Of Jared-Syn: 3D Bluray, Bluray
Anti-American sentiment may be rampant around the world, but international audiences didn’t let their political beliefs keep them from endorsing Captain America and the Avengers on film. After cashing a check of nearly $408 million at North American turnstiles, Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War went on to record another $744.5 in international sales, easily smashing the billion-dollar barrier. Domestically, it became the 23rd film to cross the $400-million mark and the fourth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to hit that target. At 147 minutes, there’s more than enough action here to sate the appetite of any comic-book and superhero buff. What qualifies co-directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo’s follow-up to Captain America: The Winter Soldier as something a bit more thought-provoking than the average genre specimen, though, is a story that demands that viewers face the fact that war ain’t pretty and murder is murder when it comes to the unintended victims of war. The Pentagon calls the slaughter of innocents, family members and bystanders “collateral damage,” but, in any non-military court, the charge probably would be involuntary manslaughter, at least. As was the case with the “pilots” we met in Eye in the Sky and Good Kill, the weight of remorse over collateral damage has begun to weigh heavy on the heads of the Avengers, as well as their superiors and leaders of the United Nations. Government pressure to rein in the Avengers drives a deep wedge between Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), causing a rift that turns the two friends into bitter enemies. Vision (Paul Bettany), Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Iron Man sign off on the pullback deal, while Captain America and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) refuse. With much of the group now under UN control, it’s sent in to interfere with a mission Captain America, Falcon and others have undertaken to track down Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a.k.a. James “Bucky” Barnes. The brainwashed assassin is believed to be behind a bombing at the United Nations conference in Vienna, in which the father of the man known as the Black Panther” (Chadwick Boseman) is killed. As alliances are formed and torn apart by writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who also penned “CA:TWS,” their “CA:CW” sometimes requires a scorecard to keep track of the players and their allegiances, as well as the introduction of new and old characters. Let’s just say, it defies easy summarization. It certainly isn’t lacking in action. I haven’t seen the 3D version, but have to assume it holds up to close scrutiny. The supplemental material adds “United We Stand, Divided We Fall: ‘The Making of Captain America: Civil War,’” a two-parter in which cast and crew look back at the story’s comic-book origins and discuss its thematic depth and relevance, as well as nearly every aspect of the production process; “Captain America: The Road to Civil War” and “Iron Man: The Road to Civil War”; a sneak peek at the next Marvel film, “Doctor Strange”; deleted and extended scenes; a gag reel; and commentary with the directors and writers.

As cheesy and derivative as any other low-budget sci-fi adventure from the early-1980s, Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn looks as if it were made from props borrowed from Mad Max 2 (1981) and costumes left over from a Star Wars or Indiana Jones parody. Directed by the prolific schlockmeister Charles Band, “Metalstorm” is set on the desert planet of Lemuria, where a miner and his daughter, Dhyana (Kelly Preston) fall prey to the evil dictator Jared-Syn (Mike Preston). Dogen (Jeffrey Byron), a brave peacekeeping ranger, is recruited to save Dhyana and the rest of her planet from Jared-Syn, his son, Baal (R. David Smith) and the hideous Cyclopean warlord, Hurok (Richard Moll). The only person who knows where Jared-Syn’s hiding is an aging, burned-out seeker named Rhodes (Tim Thomerson). It can be fun, but only in the campiest sort of way. The 3D isn’t very effective, either.

A Bigger Splash; Blu-ray
Anyone who enjoyed Luca Guadagnino’s romantic 2009 drama, I Am Love, should find a lot to like in his feature follow-up, A Bigger Splash, if only for another intriguing performance by his muse, Tilda Swinton. Here, she plays a middle-age rock star, Marianne, recuperating from an operation on her larynx on a sun-drenched island located between Sicily and Tunisia. She’s joined there by her long-time lover, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), who’s played a key role in keeping her from slipping back into depression and succumbing to various addictions. We worry that Swinton’s milk-white skin might take a beating from the hot Mediterranean sun, but, soon enough, Marianne will face more immediate problems than skin cancer. Her bombastic producer and former lover, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), has invited himself to spent a few days in the company of Marianne and Paul, accompanied by his beautiful and overtly sexy daughter, Penny (Dakota Johnson). We’re given some reason to believe that Harry and Penny may be something other than blood kin, but, when she begins making a play for Paul, it’s also possible she’s serving as wingman for her father, who clearly would like to reignite old passions with Marianne. Fiennes is terrific as the self-absorbed hedonist, Harry, a life-of-the-party type with a million stories about the musicians with whom he’s worked. Far less outgoing, Paul is almost defenseless against Harry and Penelope’s charms. Guadagnino dials up the tension a few more clicks by adding the occasional yard snake to the mix, as well as undocumented African trespassers hoping to use the island as a stepping off point for Sicily and points further north. What happens next in the two-hour-plus erotic thriller may not surprise viewers familiar with Jacques Deray’s 1969 La Piscine, which starred Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Maurice Ronet and Jane Birkin and was set in Saint Tropez, but others should find the patiently crafted drama to be highly intoxicating and far from predictable. (A Bigger Splash also bears a passing resemblance to Francois Ozon’s 2003 Swimming Pool.) The acting, which is terrific, is matched by the beauty and romantic allure of Pantelleria Island.

King Jack
Take Me to the River
The Automatic Hate
While critics, producers and exhibitors use the New York Times, Huffington Post and trades to debate the future and possible demise of the cinema — as they do every time the question is raised by a celebrity filmmaker with an opinion to share — exciting unsung artists emerge from the shadows of every festival season with pictures that demand to be seen, admired and discussed. In a perfect world, the films’ post-festival lives would be accommodated by megaplexes and multiscreen arthouse complexes anxious to promote fresh talent on a dormant screen or two. The same could be said of the surplus of excellent documentaries, foreign and other special-interest titles. In this less-than-perfect world, however, it’s nice to know that so many video-on-demand and pay-per-view outlets have sprung up lately to pick up the slack, before distribution on DVD/Blu-ray. The trick for consumers, as always, is separating the wheat among the chaff and encouraging their friends to do the same thing. Fans of horror and sci-fi, especially, have been doing this for some time, to the advantage of the genre and its aspiring stars. No one that I’ve read is contending that the genre film is dead or that we’ll ever experience a drought of fine indie fare. Only that we may have to enjoy the cream of the crop somewhere other than the big screen … sad, but hardly fatal. Coincidentally, three such pictures arrived in the mail this week on DVD, all of them dealing with issues of interest to teens, young adults and parents with uncompromising fervor.

Felix Thompson’s debut feature, King Jack, is as good a coming-of-age drama as I’ve seen in a long time. It won the 2016 Independent Spirit Awards’ Someone to Watch prize and a narrative prize at last year’s Tribeca festival. Set in a generic small town, it describes the efforts of a 15-year-old boy to escape the burden of being the target of unwarranted persecution by neighborhood bullies. Jack’s older brother, an auto mechanic, was a star athlete and all-around cool guy, but, a pejorative nickname hung on the boy by his long-gone father gave local jackasses a convenient scab to pick. Already smarting from an unsettling putdown, Jack (Charlie Plummer) is enlisted by his mom to shepherd a cousin around town while the boy’s mother recuperates from a breakdown. The kid, Ben (Cory Nichols), is shorter, fat and has the kind of hangdog look that attracts bullies like mosquitos to a picnic. At first, of course, Jack treats Ben with the same regard shown to him by his tormentors. The event that sets the story in motion is a confrontation with his nemeses, during which Jack picks up a stone and plugs the instigator in the head, leaving an embarrassing scar. From then on in, Jack and Ben are required to stay one or two steps ahead of the gang or take the brunt of retaliatory violence. It allows Thompson the opportunity to introduce a few diversionary elements to the narrative, including several sympathetic female classmates, the discovery of things the cousins share in common and willingness of his brother to put their antagonistic behavior aside and stand up for the boys. Recognizing that his mom, Karen (Erin), has a million other things on her plate, Jack doesn’t burden her with his suffering until it becomes too obvious to ignore. King Jack, distributed by Well Go USA Entertainment, is enhanced by credible performances across the board, a recognizable small-town setting and an extremely well-balanced cast of characters. It deserves to be seen.

Film Movement is responsible for Take Me to the River and The Automatic Hate, both of which serve roughly the same audience and address issues that rarely get an airing outside the indie circuit. In the former, Logan Miller plays Ryder, a California teenager, whose homosexuality is no longer a secret to his parents (Robin Weigert, Richard Schiff), but could pose a problem at the family reunion to which they’re headed in rural Nebraska. While Ryder isn’t opposed to coming out at the affair, his mom advises him against it. Turns out, though, that his mother’s kinfolk take Ryder’s decidedly non-redneck attire as an affront to their manhood and immediately begin to picki on him. Yes, mom should have insisted he wear Levis, a Cornhusker T-shirt and Jordan sneakers to the affair, but she foolishly underestimated the capacity of Red State residents to despise anyone different than themselves. The younger cousins take a shine to Ryder, however, after he agrees to keep them occupied with stories and games. When one little girl runs home from the barn pointing to blood on her dress, her parents and grandparents can only surmise that the older boy molested her and should be run out of town on a rail. While it’s far more likely that the 9-year-old tripped and fell, or, as Ryder’s mom argues, had an early visit from her monthly friend, the Nebraskans begin a guerrilla war, of sorts, on the Californians. Freshman writer/director Matt Sobel could easily have driven the story off the rails, by pushing the limits on homophobic behavior. Instead, he opens up the story to include Ryder’s ability to separate himself from the madness and his mother’s sublimated memories of growing up in such a repressed environment. Even as we wait for a horror story to emerge from the drama, Sobel finds ways to keep the focus on loftier goals. The DVD adds commentary with Sobel, Weigert and Miller and interviews.

Justin Lerner’s sophomore effort, The Automatic Hate, also ventures into family dysfunction, but with more literary ambitions. Joseph Cross plays Davis Green, the son of academics who’s chosen to ignore their goals for him and become a chef. One night, a pretty young blond, Alexis Green (Adelaide Clemens), shows up at the home he shares with his dancer girlfriend (Deborah Ann Woll) and announces to him that she’s his first cousin and would like to know him better. Davis had no idea that his father (Richard Schiff, in another excellent performance) had a brother, let alone cousins, and is vehemently discouraged by him and his dying grandfather from looking into Alexis’ claim. After some digging through the family archives in grandpa’s basement, though, Davis decides to find Alexis and discover the truth in her assertion. In an interesting twist, Alexis and her sisters run a thrift job in a nearby town, which also serves as a dispensary for the family’s medical-marijuana crop. The women take an instant liking to Davis, but remain cautious about introducing him their iconoclastic father, Josh (Ricky Jay), a rough-hewn farmer not too far removed from his hippie roots. Josh almost immediately sees through the ruse, also warning Davis against investigating the cause of split between the brothers. Even so, the cousins use the occasion of their grandfather’s death to arrange for a family reunion. It’s a doozy … right out of Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill. It, too, though, is almost overshadowed by an ill-advised romantic entanglement prompted by the emotions stirred by the shocking discoveries and emotional strain caused by more than 20 years of missed familial opportunities. The Automatic Hate gets pretty heavy, at times, but Lerner is able to relieve it with humor and displays of raw sentimentality. The DVD adds deleted scenes, commentary and a frightening short about racial disharmony in the UK and its effects on a pre-teen girl.

Standing Tall: Blu-ray
Marguerite: Blu-ray
The first of two excellent Cohen Media releases to be considered this week is Standing Tall, a ferocious coming-of-age drama that opened the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and went on to win two Césars. In chronicling the formative years of the feral youth Malony Ferrandot (Rod Paradot), from 6 to 18, co-writer/director Emmanuelle Bercot (On My Way) and writer Marcia Romano (Under the Sand) severely test the time-honored observation of Boys Town founder Father Flanagan’s, “there’s no such thing as a bad boy.” Abandoned by his mother (Sara Forestier) into the custody of a children’s magistrate, Florence (Catherine Deneuve), Malony is constantly in and out of juvenile court. Prone to outbursts of rage when things don’t go his way, he’s only happy when he’s in a stolen car, trying to impress his passenger with is daredevil driving. While his good-for-nothing mother pops her head into his life at various times, the boy’s real family is Florence, his caseworker Yann (Benoît Magimel), school supervisors and the one or two boys with whom he gets along. When he is sent to a stricter educational center, he forms an unlikely relationship with the daughter, Tess (Diane Rouxel), of one of his teachers. Their relationship doesn’t immediately translate into redemption and the boy’s natural inclinations toward violence keep him from a life outside the gates of the reform schools and penal institutions. The difference between the French facilities and their American counterparts is equal to the space between Boys Town and the reformatories described by Brendan Behan in “Borstal Boy.” The boys are given cigarettes in lieu of punishment and their teachers possess the patience of saints. Finally, at nearly the two-hour mark, Maloney is given one last opportunity to take charge of his life and break the cycle that began when his mother lost her ability to control him. Paradot’s performance would be remarkable, even if it weren’t his debut, and Deneuve and Magimel are perfectly cast, as well. The Blu-ray adds a lengthy interview with them and Bercot, as well as deleted scenes and commentary.

The connective tissue between Standing Tall and Marguerite, besides their French pedigree, is the contribution of writer Romano. It describes the amateur singing career, such as it was, of Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York heiress who dreamed of becoming an opera singer, despite having a terrible singing voice. Meryl Streep deftly portrayed the title character in Stephen Frears’ critically acclaimed biopic, which opened almost concurrently with Marguerite here. Neither made a dent in the box office, but are well worth finding for the serio-comic portrayals by two of the cinema’s finest actresses. The slightly older American actress’ name comes up whenever it’s Oscar season, of course, while Catherine Frot’s performance has already been honored with a César for Best Actress in the similarly inspired role. Here, co-writer/director Xavier Giannoli (Superstar) elected to name his protagonist Marguerite Dumont, after the actress (Margaret Dumont) who never caught on to the fact that she was the brunt of so many of Groucho’s jokes in the Marx Brothers’ comedies. Although she possessed a voice that could stop a racehorse in mid-stride, Marguerite loved the operatic repertoire, collected musical memorabilia and frequently sponsored charitable events, where the cause was more important than the sound of her voice. Because the era of the Victrola and recorded music had yet to spread to her estate, near Paris, Marguerite could pretend, at least, that she was worthy of playing a grand concert venue. In deference to her wealth, generosity and status, the audiences at her chamber events went along with the ruse without betraying their true opinions to the diva. She’s buoyed by the tongue-in-cheek praise she receives from a prominent critic (Sylvain Dieuaide), who has his own reasons for joining Marguerite’s philandering husband (André Marcon), pompous singing coach (Michel Fau) and protégé (Christa Théret) in keeping the 800-pound gorilla at bay. Most of the fun here is derived from Giannoli’s attention to post-war detail and the diversity of the cultural scene. I haven’t seen Streep’s portrayal of Jenkins, but I can’t imagine it being much better than the one turned in by Frot. That’s the highest of praise, in my book. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and an interview with the director.

Marauders: Blu-ray
It’s been more than 20 years since Michael Mann’s excessively violent, if exceedingly stylish thriller, Heat, raised the ante on all future bank-heist movies to come, large and small. Henceforth, all such pictures would feature crooks trained to pull off the robberies with the precision of a special-forces unit attacking a terrorist enclave in enemy territory and nearly the same volume of fire power. It may even have inspired the bloody shootout, two years later, outside of a Bank of America branch office in North Hollywood, during which the bank robbers were killed and 11 officers and 7 civilians were wounded. The criminals wore body armor and carried AK-47 assault rifles. The ferocity of the shootout wasn’t lost on a generation of police and screenwriters, who’d already been inspired by Heat. In Marauders, the offenders borrow the shock-and-awe tactics of Hitler’s blitzkrieg strategy, as well, by hitting the facility quickly, ruthlessly and with no apparent concern for the well-being of customers, employees or guards. Moreover, the masks they wear would frighten an army of trick-or-treaters. If only the rest of the story were as straight and to the point as the opening salvo. For the first time in quite a while, Bruce Willis provides substantially more of himself to a low-budget thriller than a cameo and his name on the posters and cover arts. He does so as the Daddy Warbucks-like owner of Cincinnati’s Hubert National Bank, from which tens of thousands of dollars are stolen in a seeming heartbeat. Other branches are hit in similar fashion. Steven C. Miller worked with Willis previously on Extraction, if for far less screen time, while Marauders represents Michael Cody’s first screenplay. I suspect he received some help from Chris Sivertson, who’s previously given the world two versions of All Cheerleaders Die. The overly complicated screenplay ties the robbers to Hubert in a rather far-fetched way, and, in turn, the FBI and police officers in charge of the investigation. Agent Montgomery (Christopher Meloni) is still haunted by the torture killing of his wife and escape from prosecution of the primary suspect. Adrian Grenier plays Agent Wells, assigned to work as liaison between Montgomery and a local policeman (Richie Chance), whose corruption helps pay for treatment of his cancer-ridden wife. Action fans, at least, won’t require a scorecard to keep track of the players and or care much about who does what to whom. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Miller and cinematographer Brandon Cox; a featurette, “The Making of ‘Marauders’”; deleted/extended scenes; and interviews.

All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records
Back in Time
The title of director Colin Hanks and writer Steven Leckart’s exhaustive documentary, All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records, invites us to imagine a conspiracy or financial scandal attributable to corruption or greed. In fact, though, Tower Records fell victim to the same digital revolution that’s put a dent into brick-and-mortar stores selling books, shoes and tickets to destinations far and wide. The music industry bought a temporary buffer against the inevitability of the digital future by crushing Napster and a few other underground file-sharing services and individual traders, but it only looked venal in the process. In the end, the fear demonstrated by the record labels in legal battles only confirmed the imminent arrival of a technology that would revolutionize the way we listen to music as much as the Victrola and Walkman put together. At 38, the son of Tom Hanks and his first wife, Samantha Lewes, grew up within hollering distance of the first Towers Records store, in Sacramento. In 1996, when he briefly appeared in his father’s feature debut, That Thing You Do!, the landmark store on the Sunset Strip was still a mecca for music lovers and musicians, and it became his personal hangout. “Tower Records was a place to meet your friends, your co-workers or a place to meet new friends who shared a common love of music, literature and all things cultural,” Hanks has said. “I’ve been able to find just as much interesting, exciting music through the Internet and iTunes. The personal interaction is not the same, and I’m not walking out of a store with a physical thing, so there’s definitely an element that is lost, for sure.” Beyond the laid-back approach to selling records embodied by the company, the documentary demonstrates how the founders made employees feel as if they were part of larger family and maintained it for many years. The first Sacramento store caught the second wave of rock-’n’-roll commercialism, inspired by the Beach Boys, Beatles and Motown, when album sales overwhelmed those of 45s and kids would have lived in listening booths, if they hadn’t been eliminated. All the company had to do, whether launching a new store on the west coast, New York or Japan, was open the doors and let connoisseurs and buffs feast on a vast collection of albums, books, magazines and other goodies. It didn’t help when used-CD stores began to pop up like mushrooms to take advantage of the format’s forever-clean sound and recordability on PCs. Inevitability, though, record sales would dry up and streaming services provided services, selection and prices even Tower couldn’t match. Individuals were able to create their own playlists without the help of a middleman or PhD in pop studies. “All Things Must Pass” is informed by interviews with company founders, executives and employees, as well as longtime customers and musicians who frequented the stores, including Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl, David Geffen and Chuck D. You’d think it would be sadder, but we still have the music and memories.

For me, anyway, a little bit of Back to the Future nostalgia goes a long way. Only a few weeks after watching DeLorean: Living the Dream, which put a tight focus on the actual car in No. 1 and its restoration, I received a second, more polished documentary, Back in Time, which not only expanded on the DeLorean angle, but also contains interviews with Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, James Tolkan, Lea Thompson, Christopher Lloyd, Huey Lewis, Michael J. Fox and several studio executives and techies. Director Jason Aron’s film isn’t as reverential as it might sound, but that doesn’t mean diehard fans of the trilogy won’t love it.

Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe
Yes, this is the same documentary that was scheduled to be shown at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, but whose invitation was withdrawn when a controversy erupted over the film’s message, motives and methodology. It didn’t help that co-founder Robert De Niro had a personal reason for endorsing the film and defending its inclusion. Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe was directed by first-timer Andrew Wakefield, who wrote the study printed in the Lancet that started the controversy between vaccines and autism. The British medical journal later redacted the 1998 article and, in 2010, Wakefield lost his medical license as a result. The British gastroenterologist accuses the Centers for Disease Control of destroying data on a 2004 study that showed a link between the MMR vaccine (mumps, measles, rubella) and autism. The documentary is well enough produced to convince viewers already pre-disposed to believe anti-government conspiracy theories that the CDC and pharmaceutical interests might risk the health of millions of Americans for profit and prestige. Most viewers, though, won’t have any trouble seeing the holes in the argument. Wakefield conveniently ignores the case made by those who see the proven benefits in using the MMR vaccine and question his statistics. The arguments of those who can remember the scourge of polio and introduction of vaccines to prevent it are ignored, as well. It’s understandable that parents of autistic children have been drawn to his theories, based solely on the coincidental timing of an onset of the disease and a vaccination. Vaxxed plays directly on the personal guilt feelings of these parents and the medical community’s inability explain the causes of autism. The California Legislature was so unimpressed with arguments that it voted to require parents to vaccinate their children before they’re allowed to enroll in public schools. Most of us are happy it did so.

See the Keepers: Inside the Zoo
IMAX: Wonders of the Arctic: 4K UHD/3D Blu-ray/Blu-ray
IMAX: The Last Reef: Cities Beneath the Sea: 4K UHD/3D/Blu-ray
Who hasn’t wondered what goes on behind the scenes at a zoo or circus, when the animals aren’t on display and their keepers aren’t part of the show. See the Keepers: Inside the Zoo may not provide the most sophisticated take on the subject of what goes on when no one’s looking. If anything, it has a homemade, do-it-yourself feel that endears viewers to workers who barely make minimum wage for the privilege of doing what some of them might do for free, as docents or retired volunteers. As we learn in this visit with four different zookeepers at the Memphis Zoo, their contributions to our enjoyment are immense. After all, there aren’t many things worse than visiting a zoo and being confronted by undernourished and sickly animals, losing their fur and absent any gleam in their eyes. The keepers here take it personally when one or more of their charges isn’t in tip-top shape when the gates open each morning. Viewers also are introduced to the big cats, giraffes, penguins, snakes and Komodo dragons up close, on the other side of the zoo exhibits.

With its recent slate of new releases, Shout! Factory continues its drive to convince consumers of the value of 4K Ultra High Definition and Blu-ray 3D. They’re still reputed to be the next big thing in home-theater technology, but have yet to catch fire. (They still cost too much for average consumers.) Fortunately, Wonders of the Arctic and The Last Reef: Cities Beneath the Sea look great in all of the most popular formats. The former showcases the ongoing mission to explore and come to terms with the future of Arctic, above and below the ice, for human and animal residents. Underlying all is the crucial role that ice plays in the northern environment and why it demands to be saved.

From the Academy Award-nominated creators of the Broadway show “STOMP” and the award-winning film Wild Ocean, The Last Reef is an inspirational large-format and 3D experience, capturing one of nature’s more vibrant, diverse and endangered wonderlands. Shot on location in Palau, Vancouver Island, French Polynesia, Mexico and the Bahamas using groundbreaking 3D and ultra-high-def cinematography, The Last Reef takes viewers on a journey to explore the connection between our cities on land with the complex, parallel world of the coral reefs beneath the sea.

Raising Cain: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Apart from resurrecting a noteworthy Brian DePalma psychodrama, which features a stellar performance by John Lithgow (yes, I realize that’s redundant), the Shout! Factory “collector’s edition” of Raising Cain spotlights exactly how Blu-ray can simultaneously serve the filmmaker, consumer and distributor by making a good thing better. Instead of merely releasing a remastered edition of the creepy 1992 thriller with the usual array of featurettes, deleted scenes and commentary options, Shout! Factory took the filmmaker’s reservations about the original to heart and found a way to realize both his original vision and the studio-preferred re-edit. It did so at DePalma’s urging, after he watched a version of “Raising Cain: Recut,” which had been posted on Indiewire in January 2012. Geoff Beran, moderator of the blog De Palma à la Mod (and ultimate fanboy), used previously deleted material to change the point of view of the narration, essentially turning the story inside-out. “It’s what we didn’t accomplish on the initial release of the film,” DePalma said in his note to Beran, adding, “It’s what I originally wanted the movie to be. Could you contact the company releasing the Blue-ray and tell them I think it’s important they include it with the new release? If you need me to talk to some at the company just give me a number and a name.” And, that’s exactly what he did. It’s possible that Beran was inspired by Paramount’s and Francis Ford Coppola’s various remixes of The Godfather trilogy, one of which, at least, put “I” and “II” in linear order and added some missing elements. “Raising Cain: Recut,” though, was strictly a labor of love.

Either way he sliced it, though, Raising Cain would tell the story of twin brothers, Carter and Josh, one good and the other evil, so warped by their father’s psychological experiments that they would commit heinous crimes in their pursuit of new human specimens for him to study and manipulate. Lolita Davidovich plays Jenny, the good twin’s wife and working mother of their toddler daughter, upon whom Carter dotes. Jenny inadvertently sets off a terrible series of events when she hooks up with an old boyfriend (Steven Bauer) in a public park, in plain view of potential peepers. To reveal anything more would spoil the fun for viewers of either version. Suffice it to say that DePalma pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, as is his wont, while also referencing several familiar thematic touchstones. In addition to the original cut, which isn’t at all bad, and “Recut,” the Blu-ray package adds interviews with actor Lithgow, Bauer, Gregg Henry, Tom Bower, Mel Harris and editor Paul Hirsch; original marketing material; the featurette, “Changing Cain: Brian De Palma’s Cult Classic Restored”; and a video essay of “Recut.”

The Purging Hour
The Neon Dead
With a new edition of the found-footage classic, The Blair Witch Project, set to open in theaters around the world today, this time from frequent collaborators Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett (V/H/S, The Guest), it once again is possible to separate the real-dealers from the many imitators in the sub-genre. Although I’ve yet to see Blair Witch, I’ve sampled a few of the early positive reviews and am sure that the veteran filmmakers will take advantage of a budget several times greater than the original cost of $60,000. It’s also worth noting that Blair Witch wasn’t rushed into the production, simply to capitalize on the sensation, as was Joe Berlinger’s roundly panned Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. In fact, Wingard reportedly was able to work on his film for five years, before anybody even knew it was being made. I only mention this in reference to The Purging Hour because the deck now clearly has been stacked against the success of every other new found-footage project. Not only are they destined to be compared to “TBWP,” but also Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, V/H/S and the Quarantine/Rec series. Also made for a pittance, Emmanuel Giorgio Sandoval’s The Purging Hour describes what might have happened during the first 24 hours of a family’s stay in their new house in the mountains of California. No sooner can the Diaz family change their mailing address than they disappear into thin air, leaving only some bloody remains. Years later, personal home footage has anonymously shown up on the “dark web,” purportedly clearing up the cold case. This rough camcorder footage fills most of the movie, interspersed with documentary-style interviews with town residents and friends of the family. The film’s 80-minute length isn’t enough to compensate for the hum-drum nature of the interviews and postponement of any real action.

Torey Haas’ first feature, The Neon Dead, benefits from his visual-effects background, but naturally is hamstrung by a budget estimated to be $17,000. In it, a recent college graduate (Marie Barker) hires two free-lance paranormal exterminators (Greg Garrison, D. Dylan Schettina) to combat a monster infestation in her bathroom. It isn’t their primary work, so a certain amount of ineptitude is to be expected. It explains how, instead of eradicating the beast, the exterminators unleash veritable flood of undead guests. It turns out the ghouls are under the command of the deadly Guy Smiley, who has links to the demon realm and has set in motion plans to take over the world. The makeup and special effects work pretty well, primarily through the use of funhouse colors and oddly shaped features. On a dollar-for-dollar basis, the entertainment value is surprisingly high.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Masterpiece: Churchill’s Secret
PBS: Frontline: Business of Disaster
Little House on the Prairie: Legacy Movie Collection
PBS Kids: Odd Squad: Creature Encounters
Transformers: The Movie: 30th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
PBS may be best known for presenting classy mini-series, in-depth documentaries and quality children’s programming, but it occasionally offers a stand-alone drama, such as the “Masterpiece” production, “Churchill’s Secret.” In it, Michael Gambon plays Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of England, who, at 79, suffered a serious stroke after a state dinner, and had to disguise his condition to keep the wolves in his own political parties at bay and not show weakness to England’s foes. Charles Sturridge and Stewart Harcourt’s adaptation of the Jonathan Smith novel, “The Churchill Secret KBO,” basically covers the period between June 23, 1953, and his October speech before a Conservative Party convention in Margate. Two months later, Churchill would be well enough to meet with President Eisenhower, in Bermuda, but, otherwise, it was pretty much touch-and-go. The citizens of both countries were none the wiser. American viewers probably would find this to pretty dry stuff, if it weren’t for Gambon’s typically brilliant portrayal of the irascible patient. It also benefits from Sturridge’s tighter focus on the two principle care-givers in his rehabilitation period: his protective wife, Clementine (Lindsay Duncan), and the fictional nurse Millie Appleyard (Romola Garai). Before arriving at Chartwell, the Churchill estate in Kent, Appleyard had no idea who her patient would be or the challenge facing both of them. Churchill has suffered a second stroke and may not last the weekend. The other interesting segment involves the squabbling that goes on when his son, Randolph, and surviving daughters gather to brighten his spirits … or not. The recent medical emergency experienced by Hillary Clinton reminds us that American politicians – JFK and FDR come immediately to mind — can be every bit as circumspect about their health as anyone else, even knowing the stakes of maintaining such secrecy. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and interviews.

The PBS “Frontline” presentation, “Business of Disaster,” reveals how victims of natural disasters, even those with insurance, are preyed upon by companies and government agencies whose mandate it is to protect them from further harm. The film focuses on the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, which left thousands of people homeless and unable to collect the money they needed to rebuild or relocate. It isn’t that the money wasn’t there for them, however. Too much went to insurers, who counted on subcontractors to lowball victims, and company executives who demanded obscene profits to protect their bottom lines. On visits to disaster areas, politicians promised much in the way of relief, knowing Congress wasn’t about to allot the money to make everyone well. The findings are truly horrifying and should be a source of shame for everyone involved. That such injustices follow in the wake of every natural disaster tells us that shame is for suckers.

Michael Landon probably wasn’t the first person to recognize the appetite of post-Vietnam Americans for television shows that didn’t challenge their conservative values or ridicule their faith in God and the American Dream. After his tenure on NBC’s “Bonanza,” Landon could pretty much write his own ticket and he foresaw the vacuum in such programming. Based on the popular series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, recalling her childhood in the northern Midwest during the 1870-80s, “Little House on the Prairie” could easily be mistaken for what today is categorized as faith-based programming. In fact, “Little House” explored many topical themes besides religion, including adoption, alcoholism, poverty, handicaps and prejudice of all types. It also took on drug addiction (morphine), leukemia, child abuse and rape. Landon made sure that the drama was balanced by comedic and romantic moments. The “Little House on the Prairie: Legacy Movie Collection” is comprised of three movie adventures that ran on NBC after the series was canceled and Landon was working on other projects. In “Look Back to Yesterday,” Albert displays courage in the face of a serious illness that threatens his scholarship to medical school. “Bless All the Dear Children” follows Laura and Almanzo as they race to find their missing baby daughter. In “The Last Farewell,” the residents of Walnut Grove unite to defend their town against a railroad tycoon who holds the deed to the township and wants to turn it into an open-pit mine.

PBS Kids’ “Odd Squad: Creature Encounters” is the latest DVD compilation from the Fred Rogers Company. It features five “odd” stories from the popular series, including a special extended adventure called “6:00 to 6:05.” When it comes to dealing with bizarre situations and unusual creatures, the agents of the Odd Squad are always ready for the challenge. This time, viewers can join agents Olive and Otto as they interrogate a mummy, a unicorn and a robot that escaped from library books; work to find a powerful weapon capable of defeating the Hydraclops; and travel back in time to prevent dinosaurs from destroying headquarters.

Like the animated TV series, the feature-length spinoff, The Transformers: The Movie, was based upon Hasbro’s Transformers toy line, which itself was inspired the Diaclone and Microman toy lines, originally created by Japanese toy manufacturer Takara. It arrived in 1986, between the second and third seasons of the syndicated show here. For those of you who’ve been sleeping under a rock for the last 30 years, or are childless, the story goes like this: For millennia, the heroic Autobots, led by Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), have been at war with the evil Megatron (Frank Welker) and his Decepticons over control of their home planet of Cybertron. However, an even greater threat: Unicron (Orson Welles), a colossal converting planet that devours everything in its path and is heading right for Cybertron. The only hope is the Autobot Matrix of Leadership. Other voices are provided by Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy, Eric Idle and Robert Stack. The Shout! Factory Blu-ray is presented in a fresh 4K transfer and adds the 46-minute featurette, “Til All Are One: Looking Back at ‘Transformers: The Movie’,” with interviews and information about the film; “Transformers: The Restoration,” about scanning and restoring the feature; “Rolling Out the New Cover,” an interview with artist Livio Ramondelli; commentary with director Nelson Shin, story consultant Flint Dille and star Susan Blu; and several short pieces covered from previous video editions.