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The DVD Wrapup: Damsel, Hired Hand, Siberia, Toybox, Guardians, Cold Water, Lost Child, Rock HofF, Pyjama Girl, Miniaturist … More

Thursday, September 20th, 2018

There’s no way to accurately categorize David and Nathan Zellner’s beyond-revisionist Western, Damsel, without also considering such descriptive terms as offbeat, dark, absurdist, feminist, slapstick and surrealistic. Its bloodline may lead back to Blazing Saddles (1974), but the story probably owes as much to Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) and the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit (2010). Damsel opens at a lonely stagecoach stop in southeastern Utah’s desolate Goblin Valley, where two guys straight out of “Waiting for Godot” are waiting for stages going in opposite directions. One is a completely defeated preacher (Robert Forster), who utterly failed in his mission to convert the native population to Christianity. Relieved to being going home, he patiently answers questions about the Old West from the younger drifter, before taking off his clothes, handing him his tattered bible and disappearing into the distance. (God knows how they got here, in the first place.) Just as mysteriously, we’re taken to a saloon in a more populated city. An affluent easterner, Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattison), is engaging in some serious square dancing with the lovely Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), who’s given him a locket with her portrait inside it. Samuel takes this as a commitment to marriage. Another unexpected transition brings us to a beach on the rugged Oregon coast, where Samuel lifts a large box off a rowboat. It contains a miniature horse, Butterscotch, that he plans to give to Penelope as a wedding gift. (Substitute a piano for the horse and the scene recalls Jane Campion’s The Piano.) First, though, he’ll have to rescue Penelope from the men who, in his mind, have kidnapped her. Samuel is so convinced that she’s a damsel in distress that he’s arranged, in advance, for a local minister to marry them, as soon as possible. Some viewers will recognize the alcoholic Parson Henry (David Zellner), as the drifter who would assume the identity of the mad preacher at the stagecoach stop in the desert.

When they finally connect, in a town seeming populated by escapees from a mental institution, Samuel’s first job is to get Henry clean and sober. Then, they load provisions – including a small cage, containing a live chicken — on Butterscotch’s back for their trek into the Oregon wilderness. Without giving anything else away, the odd couple’s once-simple mission quickly turns treacherous, with the lines separating heroes, victims and villains completely blurred. Anyone who’s seen the Zellners’ Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014) won’t be shocked by any of the things that happen to Samuel, Penelope, Henry and Butterscotch in the next hour, or so. Based on a true story, embellished to the point that’s become an urban legend, “Kumiko” imagines what really happened to a young Japanese woman, Takako Konishi, who, in 2001, was found dead in a field outside Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. The media insinuated that Takako had grown increasingly frustrated by searching for the ransom money buried in the snow, near the end of Fargo (1996), and committed suicide. Apparently, the battered VHS cassette, upon which the trouble young woman watched and re-watched the movie, hadn’t made it sufficiently clear to her that Fargo, itself, was based on an urban legend and there was no money to fine. Even before “Kumiko,” it’s said that the Austin-based brothers’ films required the patience of a festival fanatic to completely embrace. All the principle actors in Damsel are excellent – especially Wasikowska, as the fiercely independent frontierswoman — as are the cinematography by Adam Stone (Mud) and the evocative score, by the Octopus Project.

The Hired Hand: Blu-ray
More than 45 years before the release of Damsel, the term “revisionist” had only infrequently been attached to American Westerns, the way “Spaghetti” and “Euro” had become synonymous with look-alikes shot in the badlands of Spain and featuring anti-heroic protagonists. The loosening of the Production Code may have prompted a reconsideration of guidelines applied to Westerns for most of the last 50 years, but the differences between good and evil hardly changed. It took John Wayne’s against-type turns in True Grit (1969), The Cowboys (1972) and The Shootist (1975) for Americans to fully embrace the characters Clint Eastwood would play in High Plains Drifter (1973) and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). Elsewhere in town, the times had begun to change even more dramatically, with the emergence of young, independent filmmakers – mavericks, free-thinkers — who were being given opportunities to put up or shut up with studio money behind them. Their pictures wouldn’t be easy to market, but, at least, the ice was finally beginning to crack. In the wake of Easy Rider’s great success, Universal decided to give Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper another chance to catch lightning in a bottle. Both jumped at the prospect of reconceptualizing the American Western, without obvious ties to John Ford, Howard Hawks or, for that matter, Sergio Leone, and independence from studio meddling. If their films were going to succeed at the box office, they’d have to attract younger viewers, less concerned with cattle drives and the color of a cowboy’s hat, than the poetry found in western sunsets and wide-open vistas, honest depictions of death and dying, the de-villainization of Native Americans and Mexicans, and finding a place for women to rise or fall on their own terms. young-adult audiences without studio interference. For Hopper’s The Last Movie, the interference came as soon as it hit Lew Wasserman’s desk at Universal and he demanded a complete re-cut, even after it won a prestigious prize at the Venice International Film Festival. Hopper refused to comply, and the movie disappeared into the fog of Hollywood history. At first glance, Fonda’s The Hired Hand more closely resembled a traditional Western. His willingness to allow the personalities of Alan Sharp’s exquisitely drawn characters’ to evolve slowly, over the course of the movie, made it a horse of a very different color, though. The same applied to Fonda’s organic integration of Bruce Langhorne’s evocative, non-traditional score; Vilmos Zsigmond’s brilliantly conceived lighting and cinematography; Frank Mazzola’s arthouse editing techniques; and Lawrence G. Paull’s naturalistic set and production designs.

Fonda considered it to be a “counter-Western.” Critics praised and dismissed it in equal measure, some referring to it as a “hippie Western.” After being deemed a commercial failure, Universal sold The Hired Hand to NBC-TV, where it was butchered to conform with established genre norms. This, even after Fonda edited 20 minutes of footage to make it fit a 90-minute package. Arrow Academy’s pristine Blu-ray presentation not only restores Fonda’s original vision, but it confirms The Hired Hand’s importance in the advance of the “revisionist Western.” Fonda not only directed the movie – a decision his father, Henry, advised against – but he also starred as Harry Collings, a settler who deserted his wife, Hannah (Verna Bloom), and child for seven years to explore the American Southwest with his best friend, Archie (Warren Oates). After a murderous act of revenge in a two-bit town, Collings abruptly decides not to follow Archie to the gold fields of California, as originally planned. Instead, they return to Collings’ New Mexico homestead, where, instead of being welcomed back with open arms, Collings has been consigned to hired-hand status … without benefits. While this is OK with the easy-going and hard-working Archie, Collings is infuriated by gossip that Hannah routinely slept with previous hired hands. She not only confirms the rumors, but emphatically rips her no-longer-dead spouse a new one for challenging her right to satisfy her sexual urges. (This is one of the sequences trimmed in the NBC version.) Collings has no alternative to accepting her decision and toiling hard enough to convince his wife that he’s back for good and should be freed from the dog house. That matter settled, Archie decides to take another shot at reaching the beaches and gold fields of California. The past comes back to haunt Collings when he learns that Archie has been kidnapped by an old nemesis (Severn Darden), who has a score to settle with both men. To save his friend’s life, Collings elects to break his vow to Hannah, by risking his life and the family’s livelihood. I wouldn’t go so far as to compare the men’s bromance to the forbidden relationship in Brokeback Mountain, but there are similarities in their verbal-and non-verbal interactions. It almost goes without saying that things won’t work out as Collings expects they will, ensuring an ending that probably would have been frowned upon by enforcers of the Production Code and studio heads. It easily qualifies as being “revisionist,” in the same way as were the climaxes of Robert Altman’s far more widely recognized McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) – also shot by Zsigmond — and Sam Peckinpah’s tortured Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973).

The Arrow release also contains commentary by Fonda; “The Return of The Hired Hand,” a 2003 documentary containing interviews with Fonda, Zsigmond, Langhorne and Bloom; deleted scenes; “The Odd Man,” Charles Gormley and Bill Forsyth’s 1978 documentary portrait of Scottish screenwriters, including Sharp; a short introduction by Martin Scorsese; a 1971 audio recording, with Oates and Fonda at London’s National Film Theatre; a stills gallery; artwork by Sean Phillips; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Kim Morgan. In a rare instance of cinematic synchronicity, The Hired Hand and The Last Movie were fully restored and given a high-gloss finish almost simultaneously. Hopper’s film is being given a limited theatrical release, before its arrival on Blu-ray later in the fall.

Siberia: Blu-ray
Observing Keanu Reeves’ hard-ass pose on the cover of Siberia, I assumed that the new thriller would be an extension of his action-packed “John Wick” franchise or the martial-arts actioners — 47 Ronin, Man of Tai Chi — that preceded it. The first indication that Siberia was something different came when his character, diamond trader Lucas Hill, gets the crap kicked out of him by the overserved Russian bozos he’d berated for dropping trou to impress their waitress, Katya (Ana Ularu). Instead of kicking their asses inside the restaurant, Hill allows himself to be ambushed by the two large men, who render him unconscious in the parking lot. If Katya’s shift hadn’t ended soon thereafter, Hill’s fashionable coat and shoes wouldn’t have prevented him from freezing to death. While the scene may confuse and disappoint Reeves’ diehard fans, it sets up the potential for an adulterous romance with the sex-starved waitress, while his wife, Gabby (Molly Ringwald), must satisfy her longing by Skype. Hill is in Siberia to look for his business partner, Pyotr, who, he suspects, has stolen the valuable blue diamonds he’s promised to a Russian gangster and replaced with counterfeits only an expert could detect. A couple of other guys are interested in the gems, besides the archetypal Boris (Pasha D. Lychnikoff), but I can’t say with any certainty how they fit within the overall scheme of things. Unable to locate Pyotr, Hill’s presence in St. Petersburg is demanded by Boris, who believes that he will deliver the goods. In a very silly scene, the two men perform the blood-brother ritual made popular in countless Hollywood Westerns.

The blood-letting represents the point in the story when Siberia turns from benignly boring to downright offensive, as Katya is forced to perform oral sex on Boris, while Hill’s getting serviced – involuntarily, at least — by his blood brother’s girlfriend. It not only drives a wedge between the two lovers, but it also demonstrates how much control Boris has over Hill. The scene will shift one more time to Siberia, where the gangsters will exact their vengeance on Pyotr, Hill and anyone else who gets in their way. The confrontation provides the only real action in the picture and comes 100 minutes into it. It’s also where several loose threads are left to be tied … but aren’t. In an interview included in the bonus package, Reeves says that Siberia has long been a pet project for him and, as producer, he hand-picked director Matthew Ross (Frank & Lola) and screenwriter Scott B. Smith (A Simple Plan) to craft the idea into something exciting and exotic, neither of which Siberia is. While some of the exterior shots of St. Petersburg are compelling, the scenes supposedly set in Russia’s Outback look as if they could have been staged anywhere with lots of trees. Manitoba may be a nice place to visit in the summer, but, here, it falls short of resembling the Siberia described in anti-communist wet dreams and PBS nature programming. Knowing that the release of Wick 3: Parabellum is only about nine months away, Reeves’ fans probably will be able to find something in Siberia to satisfy their appetite … perhaps his make-out scenes with Ularu, who could easily pass for a Bond Girl.

The Toybox: Blu-ray
If watching 40 years’ worth of movies based on novels, short stories and screenplays by Stephen King has taught us anything, it’s that houses and cemeteries aren’t the only inanimate objects that can be possessed by evil spirits. As difficult as it is to believe that Christine and Maximum Overdrive might have been inspired by a nightmare King suffered after watching Disney’s 1968 hit family comedy The Love Bug, how else to explain the coincidence of thrillers featuring cars and trucks “with minds of their own”? Likewise, if those pictures hadn’t attracted an audience, we might have had to wait another 30 years for Tom Nagel’s anthropomorphic-RV thriller, The Toybox, and that would have been a shame. What’s next, a movie about a malevolent craft-services truck capable of poisoning the food served to actors on location? I hope so. In The Toybox, which has only been accorded the most tentative of theatrical releases, recent widower Charles (Greg Violand) has purchased a vintage motor home, without checking out its pedigree. He thinks that a road trip might help repair the fissures that have separated him from family members since he left home, years earlier. It also would fulfill a promise he made to his wife after they reconciled, just before her death. Charles’ oldest son, Steve (Jeff Denton), his wife, Jennifer (Denise Richards), their daughter and family dog, are excited about the excursion. His youngest son, Jay (Brian Nagel), is less than enthusiastic, falsely blaming his dad for every calamity in his life. Even before the family sets sail, viewers will have witnessed the RV’s evil spirit in action, as it gobbled up a little boy lured to its door only hours earlier. Most of its menace is being held in reserve for later, however, when Charles picks up Samantha (Mischa Barton) and her brother, whose car broke down on the side of the highway.

Charles agrees to take the stranded motorists to the nearest gas station, but not before he makes a detour to see some cliff drawings. Things begin to get creepy when Samantha discovers human hair clogging the bathroom drain and rotted food in the refrigerator. (Hard to imagine the old man missing the stench in the fridge or neglecting to load it with water and other provisions.) It isn’t until the truck speeds off into the desert on its own volition – ending up stuck in a ditch — that the poop really hits the fan belt. The passengers begin to be picked off individually, in the most gruesome ways … and, no, the child and dog aren’t spared the RV’s wrath. Apparently, its previous owner was a serial killer, who used the van as his personal torture chamber. Once that’s established, the only question that remains is which of the film’s two stars, Barton or Richards, will be the “final girl.” I doubt if Nagel had a lot of money to spend on the production. The desert setting and beat-up truck couldn’t have cost much, and the lead actors probably didn’t demand much money for a shoot that wouldn’t require much of their time. Likewise, the screenplay, directorial and producing duties were shared by the Nagels, Denton and producing partner Jeff Miller (The Burning Dead). Even so, The Toybox is one of those low-budget pictures whose execution trumps the limitations posed by budget constraints and over-familiarity with genre tropes. Tension builds with every new killing and it doesn’t dissipate when the extremely convincing evil force reveals itself. The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes featurette.

The Guardians
Rarely have the effects of war on the home front been depicted with such clear-eyed objectivity and empathy for the women and children left behind than in Xavier Beauvois’ The Guardians. Inspired by prize-winning French author Ernest Pérochon’s 1924 novel, the epic drama opens in 1915 in France, far enough away from the front lines that the soldiers could safely take trains home while on leave. (I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that European combatants were allowed time away from the front lines to keep their affairs in order.) Because so many families still lived on farms, the men would return to situations that sometimes had changed drastically over the course of four years. Economic deprivation impacted rural life in different ways, as did the daily casualty reports. Just as the war became increasingly mechanized – horses and mules replaced by trucks and tanks – so, too, did agriculture. Here, it’s the women of the Paridier farm, led by matriarch Hortense Sondrail and her adult daughter, Solange – played by real-life mother and daughter, Nathalie Baye and Laura Smet – who are called upon to keep everything going. Solange’s husband, Clovis (Olivier Rabourdin), has also left her in charge of his diminutive, if practically useless daughter from his first marriage, Marguerite (Mathilde Viseux-Ely). During his first return home, Hortense’s oldest son, Constant (Nicholas Giraud), a reflective former schoolteacher, encourages his mother to hire one of the seasonal workers, a hard-working 20-year-old orphan, Francine (Iris Bry).

Through no fault of her own, Francine’s security as a valued employee will eventually be jeopardized by an ill-advised affair with Hortense’s second son, Georges (Cyril Descours). Hortense intends for Georges to save himself for Marguerite, a plan complicated by the young man’s lust for Francine, his sense of entitlement and misplaced jealousy over the antics of some American soldiers, who purchase produce, milk and moonshine from the farm. Clovis will be captured by the Germans and sent to a POW camp, while Georges experiences PTSD after being wounded. Yes, The Guardians is an epic soap opera, as well as an epic drama, which continues for another two years after the Armistice. Once again, Baye distinguishes herself as one of the great actors of her generation. Beauvois’ greatest achievement here, besides keeping all the balls he’s juggling in midair, is the depiction of pre-mechanization harvests, with tableaux borrowed from Jean-François Millet’s 1857 painting, “The Gleaners,” and colors from Van Gogh’s “Wheat Stacks with Reaper” and “Noon: Rest from Work.” Caroline Champetier’s cinematography – the film was shot in France’s Haute-Vienne distinct — is little short of breathtaking. The package adds useful interviews, a Q&A and audition footage,

Cold Water: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Early in his career, French filmmaker Olivier Assayas was asked to participate in a series of films that reflected their creators’ experiences as teenagers coming of age during the tumultuous 1970s. Although the project didn’t work out as planned, Cold Water was one of the films to emerge from it. Long unavailable outside festival screenings here, it draws from Assayas’ own youthful experiences, growing up outside Paris. Cold Water tells the story of star-crossed lovers Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet) and Christine (Virginie Ledoyen), for whom life with their authoritarian parents has become intolerable. Their form of rebellion takes the form of committing petty crimes, disrespecting their teachers, smoking hashish and partying until the cows come home. After Christine is arrested for shoplifting record albums with Gilles, who escapes, she’s sent to a rehabilitation facility for girls. Gilles is expelled from school for attempting to sell the albums in class. Completely alienated from society and her parents’ flirtation with Scientology, the teens reunite at raucous party in an abandoned villa. After doing their part to destroy the house, they agree to hitchhike to a place in the country, where some old-school hippies have established a commune. Without money, warm clothes or provisions, they spend their last fateful night together in a ruined roadside building, next to a swiftly flowing river. If Cold Water lacks a bit of narrative structure, the compensation comes in the vividly realized party scene and a palpable undercurrent of nihilism that, a couple of years later, would inform the international punk movement. In the early 1970s, however, French intellectuals, radicals and workers were still recoiling from the false promise of the 1968 rebellion. Teenagers were left with virtually nothing with which to identify, except American and British rock-’n’-roll and rejecting their parents’ hypocrisy. Not all of them, however, could handle the burden of their own demands for freedom. The Criterion package adds new interviews with Assayas and cinematographer Denis Lenoir; an excerpt from a 1994 French television program, featuring Assayas, Ledoyen and Fouquet; and an essay by critic Girish Shambu.

Lost Child
After 15 years away from home and suffering from PTSD, U.S Army veteran Janella “Fern” Stearns (Leven Rambin) returns to the Ozark Mountains’ home she left to escape the horrors of life with an alcoholic mother, abusive father and crushing poverty. She had no intentions of sticking around after attending her father’s funeral, but she hopes to prevent her younger brother from succumbing to drug addiction and crime. First, however, Fern must find him and, having already checked the local jail, she’s at a loss as to where to look nextq. Suffice it to say that he really, really doesn’t want her to find him. After moving into her family’s cabin in the woods, Fern comes face-to-face with some of the backwoods’ spookiest boogeymen. Among the things that go bump in the night outside her cabin are an arsonist hoping to burn it down to recover recyclable metals; a couple of hermits; a boy who appears out of nowhere and whose memory bank appears to have been wiped clean by some disastrous occurrence. After squeezing a name out of him, Fern discovers that the boy’s polite, adept around the house and skittish as a colt. She hopes to find a home for Cecil (Landon Edwards) through a social-services agency manned by an old boyfriend. It’s at this point, however, that she discovers a local legend about a malevolent life-draining spirit that arrives in the form of a child, known as the Tatterdemalion. Although guilty of nothing, the child’s terrible power only manifests itself when he enters a house not already marked by a triangle of nails over the door. Fern’s already experiencing symptoms of the curse – not dissimilar to those associated with her PTSD — and Cecil demonstrates traits associated with the legend. Could the explanation be that obvious, however? Well, yes and no. There’s really no reason to summarize the plot any further, except to say that Fern’s search for answers produces some horrifying results, as well as a bit of hope for a cure of her own. Lost Child bears easy comparison with Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (2010), which also was set in the Ozarks, among folks whose hard-scrabble lives are defined by folklore, clannish behavior and lies. The disc contains behind-the-scenes material and interviews with cast and crew.

Watch the Sky
In his first theatrical feature, documentarian Alexander Murillo appears to have bitten off quite a bit more than he was able to chew. Watch the Sky is an alien-dread thriller for kids in their early teens, some of whom might wonder why the filmmaker didn’t stick with the movie’s one solid theme and throw out the Spielbergian stuff designed to appeal to their parents., Shawn Neary (Miles Muir) and his older brother, Michael (Karson Kern), recently lost their mother and are struggling to adjust to life with their father, Steve (Luke Albright), a cop, and stepmother, Shannon (Renee O’Connor). Obsessed with space and the possibility of extraterrestrial life, Shawn has convinced his girl-crazy brother to help him launch a weather balloon, with a camera attached to a space-shuttle model, into the heavens. After a significant amount of time passes, Shawn’s radio receiver begins to register signals from thousands of feet away. It doesn’t come as a great surprise to the boys, because they’ve been monitoring the unusually busy night sky and are ready for something miraculous to happen. Meanwhile, their father has been busy investigating the mysterious disappearance of an elderly man, whose wife witnessed him getting covered in slime and rapidly dragged through a cornfield, as well as the bloodless slaughter of dozens of cows in the region. It coincides with the arrival of a convoy of military trucks to a local facility, where Steve’s request for answers is emphatically ignored. Much time is wasted as outraged farmers search their orchards for clues and a roiling CGI cloud is observed passing over the local high school. By the time we return to Shawn and Michael, they’ve not only found the deflated balloon and shuttle camera, but they’ve also encountered space creatures attracted to its signals. Again, no one should be surprised to learn that they resemble classic drawings of the Roswell alien. Then, Watch the Sky just sort of ends. The DVD adds a gallery of behind-the-scenes photos.

Horrors of Malformed Men: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Pyjama Girl Case: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Arrow Video has quickly become one of the go-to places for genre and subgenre movies that received virtually no distribution in the United States, but still enjoy cult status in Europe, Japan and among adventurous buffs. Even though I have sampled most of the company’s releases, however, I wasn’t prepared for Teruo Ishii’s Horrors of Malformed Men, which gives new meaning to the word, “unhinged.” Not only does the controversial 1969 release continue to defy easy encapsulation, but it represents aspects of early J-horror that are familiar only to genre scholars. Drawn from the “fevered imagination” of Edogawa Rampo, Japan’s pioneer in ofero-guro literature – loosely defined as “erotic, grotesque nonsense” — Horrors of Malformed Men asks western viewers to consider how Ken Russell, Jesus Franco and Alejandro Jodorowsky might have adapted “The Island of Doctor Moreau” for the screen. Although it was banned in Japan for nearly four decades, supposedly for being insensitive to the handicapped, Horrors of Malformed Men may have offended censors as much for its ability to exploit semi-nudity, sadism, madness, misogyny and vivisection simultaneously, in a package that looks neither cheap nor tawdry. In it, medical student Hirosuke Hitomi (Teruo Yoshida) slips out of the asylum in which he has been wrongfully confined – alongside dozens of topless loonies — and immediately is drawn to a lullaby being sung by a mysterious young woman who just happens to be in the neighborhood. While the woman, a performer in a traveling circus, doesn’t recall the origin of the song, she’s able to narrow it down to a seaside community in northern Japan. Hitomi is vaguely familiar with the location, but he doesn’t know why. Inexplicably, the woman is murdered before she’s able to remember anything else.

On the train north, Hirosuke reads a newspaper article about the funeral of a recently deceased nobleman, with whom he bears an uncanny resemblance. After digging up the man’s body and confirming a mark carved onto the soles of both men’s feet, Hirosuke easily convinces family members that he’s the resurrected heir to the Hitomi fortune. The family members are comforted by the reappearance, because the only other living heir is the certifiably insane patriarch, who’s living on an island off the coast and, as we’ll soon learn, is creating a fantasy kingdom of “malformed” men and women.” He’s also able to convince the nobleman’s wife and mistress of his false identity. That’s because the amnesiac medical student was, in fact, separated from his twin brother soon after his birth and handed over to an uncle who runs a circus. Although the lullaby prompted him to return to his rightful home, Hirosuke won’t be able to uncover the greater truth until he’s able to confront his father on the island, which is where the film’s madness truly lies. Digging any deeper into the depravity that awaits Hirosuke there would only spoil the fun for everyone else, so I’ll close my summary here. I will say, however, that anyone who makes it to the end of Horrors of Malformed Men will want to add the works of Rampo Edogawa to their library, alongside those of H.P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood, Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King. The Blu-ray set adds commentaries by Tom Mes and Mark Schilling, from the previous Synapse DVD release; the featurettes, “Masahiro Kakefuda: Malformed Movies,” “Malformed Memories” and “Ishii in Italia”; an image gallery; and booklet.

Also from Arrow Video, The Pyjama Girl Case serves as a reminder that, while giallo was a product of Italy, its tropes and conventions knew very few borders. As far as anyone knows, Flavio Mogherini’s stylish crime thriller is the only giallo made largely in Australia. Not much is lost in the change of venue, though. This film was inspired by a sensational real-life murder case, which happened in Australia in 1934, but updated to take advantage of the sexually provocative fashions worn by the actresses, including Dalila Di Lazzaro (Flesh for Frankenstein). The picture opens with the discovery of a young woman in an abandoned car on the beach. She was shot in the head, partially burned to hide her identity, and dressed in distinctive yellow sleepwear. The Sydney police are stumped to the point that the body is put on public display, to help them identify the victim. As was frequently the case in gialli intended for wide distribution, a recognizable non-Italian actor – in this case, Ray Milland (Dial M for Murder) – was hired to fill one of the prominent roles. Here, the police agree to consult retired Inspector Timpson, an old-school cop who will remind viewers of Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Columbo or William Conrad’s roly-poly P.I. Frank Cannon. Unbound by standard procedural restrictions, Timpson pieces together the sad story of Dutch immigrant Glenda Blythe. He won’t make it to the end of the movie, but his contributions open the door for parallel investigations. The primary differences between The Pyjama Girl Case and previous gialli are the absence of multiple killings and the culprit’s direct point of view. This doesn’t make the movie any less interesting, though. The Blu-ray package includes new audio commentary by Troy Howarth, author of “So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films”; new interviews with author and critic Michael Mackenzie, actor Howard Ross and editor Alberto Tagliavia; an archival interview with composer Riz Ortolani; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Chris Malbon; and a collector’s booklet, featuring new writing by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.

Scream for Help: Blu-ray
Normally, I try to find one or two positive things to say about the movies that get reviewed in this space. That’s because no one sets out to work on a movie that’s going to be trashed or nitpicked to death, and budget constraints and studio meddling can wreak havoc on any filmmaker’s dream project. That said, however, I’m still scrambling for the words to adequately describe how disappointing an experience it was to sit through Scream for Help, director Michael Winner and writer Tom Holland’s attempt to exploit the demand for slasher, splatter and T&A in mid-’80s genre fare. In it, 17-year old Christie Cromwell (Rachael Kelly) uncovers her stepfather’s half-baked plot to murder her wealthy mother (David Allen Brooks, Marie Masters) and marry his slutty mistress (Lolita Lorre). What her stepfather fails to grasp, however, is that his lover and her greaseball boyfriend (Rocco Sisto) are planning to kill him once the woman’s estate is finalized. Considering that Winner had already made such salvageable entertainments as Death Wish, The Sentinel and The Big Sleep, and Holland would go on to write and direct Fright Night, Child’s Play and The Langoliers, I can’t understand why they decided to take the Amateur Night in Dixie approach to Scream for Help. Every aspect of the production – from its Dear Diary narration, to Christie’s attempts to save her mom and lose her virginity, to the temp-sounding score and misogynistic violence – comes off as a feature-length audition tape for everyone concerned. To be fair, I suppose, it’s worth noting that Holland uses the featurette, “Cruel Intentions,” to explain how Winner – who died in 2013 and isn’t around to defend himself – mishandled his script, eliminating all the dialogue that would have put everything that goes wrong in Scream for Help into some kind of meaningful context. He reminds us that Joseph Ruben’s The Stepfather, released three years later, would borrow the same concept and do well enough at the box office to warrant two sequels and a 2009 remake. Ironically, Brian Garfield, who wrote the book upon which Winner’s Death Wish was based, was also accorded a story credit for The Stepfather, along with one-timer Carolyn Lefcourt and the Edgar Award-winning novelist Donald E. Westlake, who penned the screenplay. The Blu-ray package adds a second newly recorded interview, this one with Brooks, and a commentary track with Justin Kerswell (“The Slasher Movie Book”) and Amanda Reyes (“Are You in the House Alone? A TV Movie Compendium”), that took its time kicking into gear on my screener. Another caveat: the opening credit roll lists Led Zeppelin keyboardist John Paul Jones as composer, then amends that to “musician: solo synthesizer” in the closing credits. Every other musical cue in the movie sounds generic.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: In Concert: Encore 2
Depending on how one feels about long-winded speeches made by rich and successful rock musicians for the benefit of similarly rich and successful artists and label executives, “The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: In Concert” can be enjoyed for the a la carte introductions, acceptance speeches, tribute performances and/or climactic jam sessions. Take your pick and leave the controversies over who’s been snubbed at the door. This two-disc Blu-ray set features 44 unabridged performances from the 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 induction ceremonies. Among the highlights are Canadian power trio Rush, performing fiery classics “Tom Sawyer” and “The Spirit of Radio”; Red Hot Chili Peppers leading a searing all-star jam session of “Higher Ground,” anchored by Slash and Ron Wood; Heart going “Crazy on You,” before being joined onstage by fellow members of Seattle rock royalty from Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains; Alice Cooper ripping into ferocious versions of  “Eighteen” and “Under My Wheels,” before closing the set with Rob Zombie on “School’s Out”; Neil Young inducting Tom Waits; Donovan is joined onstage by John Mellencamp for “Season of the Witch”; and moving post-humous tributes to bluesmen Freddy King and Albert King.

PBS: Masterpiece: The Miniaturist
Television’s Lost Classics: Volume One: Blu-ray
Acorn: Murdoch Mysteries: Home for the Holidays
PBS: L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables: Two Movie Collection
ID: An American Murder Mystery
PBS: Frontline: UN Sex Abuse Scandal
PBS Kids: Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Family Fun Collection
Set in 1686 Holland, PBS’ “The Miniaturist” chronicles the marriage of country girl Petronella Oortman (Anya Taylor-Joy) to rich, powerful and handsome Amsterdam merchant Johannes Brandt (Alex Hassell) to pay off her family’s debts. Not only has the young woman never met her future husband, but he’s also nowhere to be found when she crosses the threshold of her cavernous new home. Before he arrives, Nella is made to feel obligated to her cold and pious sister-in-law, Marin (Romola Garai). The sumptuous home holds many secrets, some intended to stay within its walls and others crying out to be exposed by Amsterdam’s elite. This early exchange probably won’t mean much to viewers, as they’re watching it, but it presages almost everything that transpires over the next three hours: after Marin shows Petronella to her bedroom, which overlooks a bustling thoroughfare along a canal, she says, “This used to be my room, but it had the better view, so he gave it to you”; when Nella protests, Marin replies, “You misunderstand. The view is of you. Amsterdam must see that Johannes Brandt has a new wife.” The title is explained after Johannes buys his bride a large dollhouse as a wedding gift. It is almost an exact replica of her new home. After Nella orders some miniatures to fill the rooms, she continues to receive lovely packages, containing tiny representations of life within its nine rooms and its mysteries. As the mini-series continues, the gifts are as predictive as they are beautifully rendered. Based on the popular novel by Jessie Burton, “The Miniaturist” features exceptional acting and period-perfect set, costume, hair and furniture design. All of it is explained in the bonus features and interviews with Burton, director Guillem Morales, his actors and production staff.

VCI Entertainment’s “Television’s Lost Classics” series begins with nicely restored volumes of dramatic teleplays starring John Cassavetes. The first, “Crime in the Streets,” is from “The Elgin Hour,” which was broadcast live on ABC on March 8, 1955. It was written by Reginald Rose (12 Angry Men), directed by Sidney Lumet (Network) and co-starred Robert Preston, Mark Rydell, Glenda Farrell and Van Dyke Parks … yes, that one. “No Right to Kill,” with Cassavetes, Terry Moore and Robert H. Harris was part of CBS’ “Climax!” series and was presented by Chrysler on Aug. 9, 1956. It is based on Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” Original commercial messages are included, as well as a delightful bonus blooper reel from the “Defenders” and “The Nurses” series. “Television’s Lost Classics: Volume Two” is comprised of rarely seen pilot episodes, including “Case of the Sure Thing,” which starred Reed Hadley, Louise Currie and Milburn Stone, and introduced the series “Racket Squad” (1951); “Cool and Lam” (1958), directed by Jacques Tourneur as a light-hearted, detective yarn, featuring characters first created by Erle Stanley Gardner; “The Life of Riley” (1948), featuring Lon Chaney Jr., Rosemary DeCamp and John Brown; and “Nero Wolfe” (1959), starring Kurt Kasznar, William Shatner and Alexander Scourby. A bonus blooper reel is hosted by James Arness.

The CBC series “Murdoch Mysteries” has begun to grow on me. It’s either a sure sign that I’m getting old and soft, or the charming juxtaposition of unabashedly square characters and gruesome crimes.  “Home for the Holidays” interweaves stories about how the various characters spend a Christmas holiday. Dashing detective William Murdoch (Yannick Bisson) and his wife Dr. Julia Ogden (Hélène Joy) travel to British Columbia to spend time with his eccentric brother and stodgy wife. Instead of a relaxing holiday, they end up investigating a murder at an aboriginal archaeological site. Back in Toronto, constables Crabtree (Jonny Harris) and Higgins (Lachlan Murdoch) attempt to impress their sweethearts before a skiing outing. Inspector Brackenreid (Thomas Craig) and his wife invest in a money-making scheme run by a charming fellow named Ponzi. Guest stars include Kate Hewlett, Jake Epstein and Megan Follows.

Also arriving from the Great White North in time for the holidays are the three movies in PBS’ recent re-adaptation of L.M. Montgomery’s beloved 1908 novel, “Anne of Green Gables.” The first two made-for-TV films – “Anne of Green Gables” and “The Good Stars” – are paired in a single package from PBS Distribution, while the third, “Fire and Dew,” comes separately. The trilogy concludes with Anne Shirley (Ella Ballentine) earning a spot at Queen’s College, in Charlottetown, on the south shore of Prince Edward Island. When Anne departs, however, adoptive guardians Matthew (Martin Sheen) and Marilla Cuthbert (Sara Botsford), who live at Green Gables farm, feel a sudden emptiness in their lives. Meanwhile, in Charlottetown, Anne is overwhelmed by loneliness, the bustle of city life and the pressure of intense competition, especially from Gilbert Blythe (Drew Haytaoglu). Is Anne finally ready for adulthood. Stay tuned.

What would the television industry do without mass murderers, serial killers, sociopathic predators, war criminals, gangsters and, by extension, their victims? The sensational nature of their cases supplies cable and broadcast networks with a rich bounty of source material, most of which has already been vetted by police investigators, PI’s, prosecutors, defense attorneys, journalists, witnesses, neighbors, co-workers and just about anyone willing to stand in front of a camera and offer their two cents worth of frequently worthless testimony. Even without an arrest, conviction or acquittal, the stories behind the crimes are at least as compelling as those invented for prime-time television or courtroom shows. The ID network’s “An American Murder Mystery” is representative of shows lumped together under the umbrella of fact-based and reality. In the titillating three-disc collection, its producers reopen the files of seven cases that continue to rivet TV viewers to their screens. They include the mysteries of Casey Anthony, Scott Peterson, Jon Benet Ramsey, Drew Peterson, Jodi Arias, Chandra Levy and Natalie Wood. (The common denominator being the whiteness of the suspects and/or victims.) The pursuit of justice may be an endlessly fascinating subject, but, as these episodes reveal, botched investigations and human error are endlessly frustrating.

As if war and other forms of human suffering weren’t sufficiently horrifying, the misery is compounded by reports of re-victimization, this time perpetrated by the people assigned to protect the defenseless innocents and helpless bystanders. PBS’ “Frontline” takes on the worst of the worst in “UN Sex Abuse Scandal.” Over the past 15 years, the United Nations has recorded more than 1,700 allegations of sexual abuse by its peacekeepers in conflict zones around the world, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Kosovo, and from East Timor to Haiti. The episode investigates how and why the problem of sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeepers has persisted, despite the UN’s efforts to stamp it out, and why the UN has a record of only 53 convictions. The report is based on firsthand accounts from survivors, witnesses and officials.

PBS Kids’ “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” is the first TV series inspired by characters introduced in “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” It stars 4-year-old Daniel Tiger, who invites young viewers into his world, combining songs and life lessons. “Family Fun Collection” is comprised of eight episodes, in which Daniel and his dad work together to build a playhouse and take a walk through the neighborhood to admire the colors of the autumn leaves along the way. Next, the entire Tiger Family heads out on a road trip to Grandpere’s house. Finally, Daniel, Dad, Prince Wednesday and Prince Tuesday go sledding on a big hill, and Daniel tries ice skating for the first time.

The DVD Wrapup: Goldstone, Westwood, That Summer, Irish Surf, Wyeth, Barbershop, Jess Franco, Mambo Cool, Watcher, Rolling Stone at 50 … More

Thursday, September 13th, 2018

Goldstone: Blu-ray
When a movie is set in the Australian Outback, it tends to take on the characteristics of an American Western. It doesn’t matter if there isn’t a horse or steer in sight, because the usual laws don’t apply in a land where kangaroos outnumber human beings and, it’s said, everything else wants to kill you. That includes a terrain as austere, unforgiving and treacherous as Death Valley or, if one knows where to look, as serene and majestic as Monument Valley. The contrasts were cogently observed in the recent PBS documentary series, “Outback,” which surveyed North West Australia’s sparsely populated Kimberley region. It includes pristine beaches, where the saltwater crocodiles roam; rugged ranges, where cowboys herd cattle by helicopter; thundering waterfalls; hidden gorges; dazzling sunrises and sunsets; and, of course, vast expanses of sand, dirt and rock. If John Ford were still alive, he might have found Australia the ideal location for his epic Westerns, although European invaders used far different methods to control the indigenous population than those he depicted in Cheyenne Autumn and The Searchers. Among the revisionist dramas in which the divergent Australian terrain is employed as a character, with its own personality and demands, are Ned Kelly (1970) The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) Quigley Down Under (1990) Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) The Proposition (2005) Mystery Road (2013), Strangerland (2015), Sweet Country (2017) and, newly released on DVD/Blu-ray, Goldstone (2015).

In Ivan Sen’s follow-up to the award-winning thriller, Mystery Road, aboriginal police detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) arrives in the frontier town of Goldstone on a missing-person inquiry. What seems like a simple investigation opens a web of crime, corruption, trampling of indigenous people’s land rights and human trafficking. Apparently, everything that happens in the flyspeck town is monitored by the boss (David Wenham) of the monstrous open-pit mining operation, whose fences were built to keep secrets in, as much as to keep trespassers out. As was the case in the Old West, the men who owned the biggest ranch or mine controlled everything that went on in town, and everyone who did business there. Typically, it took the arrival of an incorruptible outsider to change the balance of power. It doesn’t take long for Swan to figure out that young women from Southeast Asia are being flown to an airstrip on the mine’s property and driven to a tavern/brothel just outside its barbed-wire perimeter. The girls cooperate because they owe money to their madam, Mrs. Leo (Cheng Pei-Pei), and must pay her back, before she’ll return their passports. The brothel is located so far away from what passes for civilization that the intense heat, lack of cover, poisonous critters and, of course, lack of water make escape nearly impossible.

The missing girl’s connection to the brothel and, by extension, the mining operation, is so obvious that no one in town is much interested in helping Swann. And, yes, that includes the district’s wet-behind-the-ears constable, Josh Waters (Alex Russell); the town’s self-serving mayor, Maureen (Jackie Weaver); and the most influential member of the aboriginal community (Tommy Lewis). The latter is important because the mine owner hopes to expand into tribal territory. Naturally, the tribe’s spiritual leader, Jimmy (David Gulpilil), doesn’t want to see any more of his ancestors’ legacy despoiled and voices his displeasure with the plan. It isn’t until Jimmy takes Swann on a bit of a walkabout to a hidden ancestral holy place – a “row-about” would be more accurate – that the detective understands what’s at stake here and why he’s been called to Goldstone. The next day, Jimmy is found hanged. If Swann doesn’t get Josh to change sides and convince one of the working girls, Mei (Michelle Lim Davidson), to talk, he won’t last much longer, either. Not only was Sen responsible for writing and directing Goldstone, but he also is single-credited as cinematographer, editor and composer. The Blu-ray adds way-too-short interviews with cast and crew members.

Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist
Like too many other creative people, Dame Vivienne Westwood will forever be known for things she accomplished when she was a mere sapling, looking for attention. Obituary writers will be quick to point out that as a British fashion designer and boutique owner, she was largely responsible for dressing such rabble as the Sex Pistols and, with the band’s manager, Malcolm McClaren, bringing punk and new-wave fashions into the mainstream. In effect, Westwood picked up the torch carried, 10 years earlier, by Mary Quant. Instead of mini-skirts and hot pants, though, Westwood became famous for turning an everyday object, used by the musicians to keep their clothes from falling off their scrawny bodies, into a fashion statement. If the safety pins, studs, spikes, tears and graffiti gave her designs an improvisational look, her creations were anything but accidental. Before long, modified versions of the punks’ loudly ridiculed attire found its way into the closets of socialites, celebrities and wannabes. Twenty years later, Gianni Versace would famously reinvent the look for Elizabeth Hurley, whose red-carpet gown literally was held together by large, golden and presumably expensive safety pins. It might have been the only thing, besides British citizenship, she’d ever share with Johnny Rotten.

Lorna Tucker’s debut documentary, Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, does a nice job describing how Vivienne met Malcom and collaborated on a series of Kings Road boutiques that set the tone for bands hoping to create brands for themselves. It goes on to show what Westwood’s been up to since their partnership broke up, in the early-1980s. In addition to being awarded an OBE – sans knickers — Westwood, then 50, met and married her third husband, Andreas Kronthaler, an Austrian who is 25 years her junior. Their creative partnership is fully documented in Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist. In the 2006 New Year’s Honors List, Westwood advanced from OBE to DOE, “for services to fashion,” and has twice earned the award for British Designer of the Year. Much of the film is dedicated, as well, to the designer’s commitment to social and environmentalist causes, to which she’s contributed large sums of money, countless hours of time and publicity material. If, at times, it bogs down in the ephemera of fashion-industry nonsense, “Westwood” benefits from her firebrand personality, still-vibrant fashion sense and abhorrence of things that bore her, including sitting for interviews.

That Summer
In 1972, photographer Peter Beard and former First Sister-in-Law Lee Radziwill came up with the idea of making a documentary about the “rapid vulgarization” of East Hampton, Long Island. This was before the Hamptons became the summer-spot-to-be for free-spending New York scenesters, their nannies and dogs. Gridlock on the two-lane Montauk Highway had yet to become a weekly predicament for visitors and locals, alike, and middle-class beachgoers still could afford an occasional trip to the beach. Göran Hugo Olsson’s That Summer opens four decades later with Beard and Radziwill recalling that season in the sun, largely spent at far eastern tip of Long Island in a retreat owned by that renowned outdoorsman, Andy Warhol. The photographs capture the leisure-time activities of a motley crew of celebrities, including Warhol and the Factory crew, Mick and Bianca Jagger, Truman Capote and other luminaries. The scene shifts to Grey Gardens, where Radziwill hoped to get her Aunt Edith “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale and cousin Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale to provide memories of Lee and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s father, John Bouvier III. A successful Wall Street financier and notorious playboy, “Black Jack ” treated East Hampton as his personal playground for many years. The Beales weren’t terribly interested in talking about anyone except themselves, however, even if the cameras were manned by Beard, Albert and David Maysles (Salesman) and Jonas Mekas (The Brig). Apart from its occupants no one had been inside the 28-room house for five years and even the garbage collectors refused to brave the overgrown shrubbery and ruined furniture. Once Radziwill convinced them that no harm would come to them, Big Edie and Little Edie utilized their on-camera time squabbling, exchanging bon mots, performing impromptu musical numbers, gushing over their cats and resident raccoons, and complaining about the legal actions being taken by county health and housing officials to have the estate condemned. Aristotle Onassis had already poured money into refurbishing the mansion, but it’s difficult to see where the it went.

Long story short, Radziwill and Beard abandoned the project shortly thereafter, with the 16mm film being lost until only recently. (It’s believed that Radziwill confiscated it.) In 1975, the Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer returned to East Hampton to expand on their previous visits with the Beales, this time without any intention of focusing on how the various Bouviers spent the summers of their youths. Grey Gardens was greeted by extremely positive reviews, but very little exposure. It was seen by many as a freak show, in which two women with borderline personalities were encouraged to show off their eccentricities as a symbol of upper-crust rot or simply to amuse viewers. (Today, of course, anyone with the same royal lineage would host their own reality show, staged on the rotting veranda of their ocean-view home.) Perceptions began to change, however, when, in 2006, a full-length musical adaptation of Grey Gardens opened on Broadway, winning several Tony awards. In 2009, an HBO film starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore used flashbacks to recall Little Edie’s life as a young woman of promise and describe the actual filming/premiere of the 1975 documentary. In 2006, the Maysles made available previously unreleased footage for a special two-disc edition of Grey Gardens for the Criterion Collection, which included a new feature, The Beales of Grey Gardens. The Beales have ben referenced, as well, in dozens of television shows (“RuPaul’s Drag Race,” “Sex and the City”), fashion spreads, record albums (Rufus Wainwright’s “Poses”) and, even, “The Comedy Central Roast of Joan Rivers,” which featured a joke by comic Mario Cantone about Joan and her daughter, Melissa, starring together in a TV-movie version of “Grey Gardens.” That would have been a hoot.

Between Land & Sea
If Brian Wilson and Mike Love sat down today to update the Beach Boys’ breakout single, “Surfin’ Safari,” they would have to consider revising the lyrics to include a few spots unknown to surfers in 1962. Portugal’s Nazaré break, Tahiti’s Teahupo’o, Tasmania’s Shipstern’s Bluff, the mid-ocean Cortes Bank, Half Moon Bay’s Mavericks and Maui’s Jaws have replaced Huntington, Malibu, Rincon, Laguna, Cerro Azul and Doheny as meccas for world-class surfers looking for waves less ridden. Bruce Brown’s seminal documentary, Endless Summer (1966), introduced the sport to barneys, bennys and hodads around the world, causing traffic jams on waves immortalized in “Surfin’ Safari.” Brown revisited many of the same spots in The Endless Summer II (1994) and other 16mm docs . Extreme surfing didn’t enter the sports lexicon until the release of Dana Brown’s Step Into Liquid (2003) and Stacy Peralta’s Riding Giants (2004), both of which added tow-in surfing to the mix. They were followed by Sunny Abberton’s quasi-sociological, Bra Boys (2007); and Rory Kennedy’s Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton (2017). In the recent tradition of Half Life Scotland (2008) and North of the Sun (2014), Ross Whitaker’s intriguing year-in-the-life documentary, Between Land and Sea, takes viewers to a place where wet suits are tested by conditions that will make viewers’ teeth chatter.

Whitaker’s film was shot in and around Lahinch, in County Clare, near the spectacular Cliffs of Moher, on Ireland’s rugged western coast. It explains how such an unlikely spot evolved into a prime surfing destination and how the sport has revived the sleepy beach town’s economy and spirits of inhabitants. It’s possible that some of the same Irish children we met in Step Into Liquid, being taught to ride by a three American brothers, grew up to become the big-wave surfers, teachers and entrepreneurs to whom we’re introduced in Between Land and Sea. Surfing in Ireland no longer qualifies as a novelty. The big waves attract pros from around the world and the locals are as dedicated to surfing as anyone else on the planet. The film also takes into account what happens to surfers as they raise families and approach middle age as citizens of a larger community. Kennedy’s profile of top pro Laird Hamilton does much the same thing, focusing, as well, on his twisty business affairs and the toll that unprecedented success has taken on a former beach bum. Here, the surfers interviewed have side jobs that include farming and selling paraphernalia to tourists. Besides some terrific wave-level cinematography, Between Land and Sea benefits from the lovely countryside and openness of the Lahinch residents.

Revolution: New Art for a New World
PBS: American Masters: Wyeth
Artists, filmmakers, musicians and other creative types have historically considered themselves to be in the vanguard of revolutionary movements and campaigns for social change. Unfortunately, once they’ve exhausted their usefulness to the new regimes and begun to demand freedoms promised them, they’re among the first to be harnessed, harassed and purged. Tyrants on both sides of the political fence are as guilty of repressing artists as the leaders they deposed. No better example of this hypocrisy can be found than in the rise of 20th Century communist dictatorships in Russia, China, North Korea and Cuba. Adolph Hitler, who fancied himself to be a painter of substance, didn’t worry much about offending his critics in the arts. He simply labeled their work “degenerate” and had it stolen, destroyed or hidden from view. He and Stalin shared many of the same tastes in art that glorified the state, while condemning anything that portrayed their political views in a negative light. Directed by Margy Kinmonth (Hermitage Revealed), the feature-length documentary, Revolution: New Art for a New World, encapsulates a momentous period in the history of the fledgling USSR and the Russian Avant-Garde, beginning with the Bolshevik uprising of 1917. Drawing on the collections of major Russian institutions, contributions from contemporary artists, curators, performers and personal testimony from the descendants of those involved, the film brings the artists of the Russian Avant-Garde to life. The film discusses all aspects of visual art, including photography, painting, propaganda posters, graphic design, sculpture, cinema, dance and theater, while covering artists as diverse as Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky, Alexander Rodchenko, Dziga Vertov, Pavel Filonov, Petrov Vodkin, Marc Chagall, Varvar Stepanova, and Gustav Kluzis. Kinmonth describes how these artists contributed to the utopian vision of the revolutionaries, but soon would be ordered to conform with the one-party state and Lenin’s belief that art should conform to “monumental propaganda.” After Stalin rose to power, artists who didn’t buy into the party’s bias toward Socialist Realism either were given a one-way ticket to Gulag labor camps or chose to leave the country. “Revolution” also describes how curators risked their careers by hiding works of art that offended Stalin and now can be viewed in Russian museums. Bonus features includes more than 20 minutes of additional bonus footage and deleted scenes.

In the so-called free world, we know that censorship, condemnation and authorization take different forms, most of them dictated by the whims of the marketplace. Those whims include the opinions of critics, the appeal to celebrities and socialites, and flavor-of-the-month trends. One day, a painting might only be worth the price of a meal or carafe of wine. A few years later, the same work of art – and everything else in the artist’s studio – would bring a small fortune, with lines forming outside museums and galleries to see those pieces not in private hands. As we learn in PBS’ provocative bio-doc, Wyeth, the process sometimes reverses itself. This happens when an artist’s work is deemed “too popular” and some of the same critics and trend-setters who brought it to the attention of the masses turn on the artists and their collectors. That in a very small nutshell describes the public fate of painter/illustrator Andrew Wyeth, one of four subjects in the “American Masters” series for PBS, “Artists Flight.” (The others are sculptor-painter Eva Hesse, painter Elizabeth Murray and painter-illustrator Jean-Michel Basquiat.) Unlike most other artists, Wyeth was encouraged to join the family business – creating art – by his father, N.C. Wyeth. According to his grandson, Jamie Wyeth, himself a successful artist, “N.C. [was] an illustrator who was sort of the flagship of illustration back in the mid-century.” His father’s favorite subjects were the land and people around him, both in his hometown of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and at his summer home in Cushing, Maine. “I paint my life,” he was fond of saying. One of the best-known images in 20th Century American art is his painting “Christina’s World” (1948), which depicts a woman lying on the ground in a treeless field, looking up at a gray farm house on the horizon. When it was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art, Wyeth was only 31 years old. The model’s enigmatic presence prompted critics to describe it as an example of “magical realism,” a characterization markedly hipper than ordinary “realism.” This and other well-publicized sales served to sour his reputation among his peers and patrons of the arts. Abstractionisms was in vogue in the 1950s and there was no room left for “illustrators,” “regionalist” and mere realists. Having one’s work compared to that of Norman Rockwell, I supposed, was the ultimate insult. The documentary also covers the other great controversy in his life: the “Helga Pictures,” a series of more than 240 paintings and drawings of German model/muse/neighbor Helga Testorf, created between 1971 and 1985. The voyeuristic portraits supposedly were kept secret from their spouses, friends and curators, and Testort was promised her nude body wouldn’t be put on public display. That pledge didn’t last long. Still spry, Testorf is interviewed in “Wyeth,” which takes full advantage of the beautiful places that inspired the artist and his family.

Cholesterol: The Great Bluff
The other documentary on this week’s list of new releases represents a sub-genre of non-fiction films, in which everything we’ve been led to believe about advances in medicine, nutrition and science is fair game for members of the denial community. It’s nothing new, certainly, but the media’s demand for controversial content – however, unreliable and untested – has overwhelmed the ability of the scientific community to keep up with it. The most prominent example, of course, is the debate over global warming. Anti-vaccine campaigners have also stated their cases to parents afraid that their child will beat the odds by being damaged by active agents in the immunization process. By relying on the testimony of celebrities and anecdotal evidence, anti-vaxxers have scared enough parents to cause headaches for school and public-health administrators. The result has been outbreaks of measles, whooping cough and polio, diseases once assumed to be under control. It would be a lot easier to write off the activists if the government, pharmaceutical, medical and insurance establishment didn’t make it easy for them to flourish. “60 Minutes” wouldn’t have five years, let alone 50, if all it presented were celebrity puff pieces and author interviews. Its bread and butter derive from investigative pieces that betray the greed of corporate executives and willingness of government officials to accept money from lobbyists whose ethical restraints are non-existent.

Cholesterol: The Great Bluff is one of those documentaries whose arguments sound valid, but whose veracity is questionable, based on most journalistic standards. Anne Georget’s film argues that the widely accepted link between cholesterol and heart disease is tenuous and that its persistence results from a mix of bad science, entrenched interests and pharmaceutical profits. If the film hasn’t found much traction apart from an airing on Canadian television, and the reaction to it has been minimal, the same can’t be said about the debate over the demonization of saturated fats, the rise and fall of hydrogenated oils, and the introduction of several generations of miracle drugs, not all of which have panned out as expected. Who to believe? The best place to start, of course, is by asking your family doctor and pharmacist about the questions you’ve heard about prescription drugs. The problem here is the willingness of doctors, researchers and med-school administrators to accept money from industry reps to support research, or to participate in expenses-paid junkets to gatherings at luxury resorts, in return for listening to sales pitches. (Just like time-share hustlers.) There’s plenty of reliable – and suspect – information on the Internet to survey, as well. I take statins and other pharmaceuticals to reduce my blood pressure, and they appear to work. I’m not ready, yet, to go against my doctor’s advice simply because the makers of a documentary encourage me to do so.

The Seventh Sign: Blu-ray
It’s been a while since the only thing standing between mankind and the Apocalypse – the real one, not the zombie version – was the determination of Demi Moore to bring a child into the world. Whether the baby is the demon-seed of Satan or the re-arrival of Jesus Christ remains open to question throughout most of The Seventh Sign’s 97-minute runtime. The 1988 thriller might have been better served if it had been titled “The Seventh Seal,” but someone in an executive office probably thought audiences would confuse it with Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 drama, starring a medieval knight played by Max von Sydow and Death, portrayed by Bengt Ekerot. While both movies are informed by passages from the Book of Revelation, they are otherwise quite different from each other. (I’m trying to imagine Moore engaged in a fateful chess match against the pale, black-cowled personification of Death.) Carl Schultz’ film opens with manifestations of the plagues some theologians believe will precede the Second Coming. A mass death of fish and crustaceans occurs in the waters off Haiti; a freak freeze devastates an ancient village in the Middle East; and earthquakes are felt around the globe. At each location, a mysterious traveler, David Bannon (Jürgen Prochnow) appears, carrying a sealed envelope.

The Vatican tasks Father Lucci (Peter Friedman) with investigating these events, though he’s cautioned that they are all either hoaxes or have other explanations. Meanwhile, Moore’s Abby Quinn is eight months pregnant and afraid of experiencing another miscarriage. Her husband, Russell (Michael Biehn), is the defense lawyer representing Jimmy Szaragosa (John Taylor), a mentally handicapped man dubbed the “Word of God Killer,” after claiming he killed his incestuous parents because they disobeyed God’s law. His scheduled execution would coincide with the birth of Abby’s baby … so, you figure it out. In another case of incredible timing, Bannon arrives in California during the final weeks of her pregnancy, moving into a spare room at the Quinn’s abode. Abby, who can’t help but stick her nose into her tenant’s belongings, becomes suspicious when she comes across some ancient Hebrew writing and one of the seals. Her curiosity leads her to a local rabbi, whose son not only can translate the text, but also is game for some adventure. The rest I can safely leave to your imaginations. Moore, who, at the time, was a rising superstar in Hollywood, may be completely unsuited for the role of Mother of God/Satan, but she’s the only actor who stands out here as someone worth our time. Otherwise, The Seventh Sign is crumbly around the edges of Clifford and Ellen Green’s flaky narrative and Schultz’ paint-by-numbers direction. The Scream!Factory Blu-ray includes fresh interviews with actors Biehn, Friedman and Taylor, Schultz and the Greens.

Barbershop: Blu-ray
Barbershop 2: Back in Business: Blu-ray
Beauty Shop: Blu-ray
MVD adds three irresistible titles to its recently launched Marquee Collection, with Blu-ray editions of Barbershop, Barbershop 2 and Beauty Shop, all produced by Chicagoans Robert Teitel and George Tillman Jr. Even with the success of Soul Food behind them, Teitel and Tillman found it difficult to court studio money for Barbershop, which, in hindsight, seems like the ultimate no-brainer. In 2002, studios were reluctant to finance pictures targeted at primarily African-American audiences, with predominantly male actors and minority production teams. Despite the success of Waiting to Exhale (1995), Set It Off (1996), How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998), The Wood (1999) and The Brothers (2000), Hollywood economics argued against expecting big returns, even on budgets that rarely crossed the $10-million barrier. While limited to $7.5 million (Soul Food) and $12 million (Barbershop), the pictures returned $43.5 million and $75.8 million, respectively. Unlike today, the foreign box-office was written off before anyone bothered to try selling it overseas. Perseverance paid off for Teitel and Tillman in the form of a legitimate franchise comprised of three Barbershop films, Beauty Shop and a television series … two, if you include Showtime’s “Soul Food,” which ran from 2000-2004.

In the original, Calvin (Ice Cube) decides to sell the Chicago barbershop he inherited from his father. He and his friends spend the rest of the movie trying to raise the money to buy it back. In the sequel, Cube, Cedric the Entertainer, Sean Patrick Thomas, Eve, Troy Garity, Michael Ealy and Leonard Earl Howze are joined by Queen Latifah, a stylist at the beauty shop next door. In Beauty Shop, Latifah’s Gina Norris has moved to Atlanta, where she hopes to sell cutting-edge hairstyles to Southerners with conservative tastes. When her egotistical boss (Kevin Bacon) delivers one criticism too many, Gina leaves his salon to open a shop of her own, taking the shampoo girl (Alicia Silverstone) and a few key clients (Andie MacDowell, Mena Suvari) with her. Gina buys a rundown salon and inherits an opinionated group of headstrong stylists (including Alfre Woodard), a colorful clientele and a sexy upstairs neighbor (Djimon Hounsou). The individual Blu-rays add several featurettes, deleted scenes, commentaries, outtakes, bloopers and vintage marketing material.

Diamonds of Kilimandjaro: Blu-ray
Golden Temple Amazons: Blu-ray
In the nearly 60 years that Jesús “Jess” Franco wrote and directed movies, it’s unlikely that he allowed his name to be attached to two pictures more ineptly conceived and produced than Diamonds of Kilimandjaro and Golden Temple Amazons, although it remains unclear where his contributions began and ended. Both pictures are set in dense jungles, where Amazonian and native African warriors, compete with European plunderers for gold, diamonds and the soul of a topless orphan girl, who swings from vine to vine, but can barely muster a passable imitation of Tarzan’s yell. In fact, most of the women featured in the film – white and black – perform without the benefit of pectoral support, even when riding into action on horses. Clearly, this was vintage Franco … even if everything was suspect. This includes the stock shots of elephants and hippos, and a monkey named Rocky who couldn’t act if its supply of bananas depended on it. Both movies argue that they were made in the mid-’60s by college freshmen who couldn’t see beyond the parade of breasts and occasional glimpse of female pubic hair. Their official release dates were in the mid-’80s, when more was expected of exploitation flicks. That said, Diamonds of Kilimandjaro and Golden Temple Amazons can be enjoyed by people whose search for the ultimate Movie So Bad It’s Good never ends. Both appear on Blu-ray for the first time.

Mambo Cool
There’s nothing remotely glamorous, cool or intriguing about the drug addicts we meet in Chris Gude’s morbidly fascinating Mambo Cool. Over the course of 62 minutes, he introduces viewers to lumpen junkies and small-time crooks living in prisons of their own making. It’s set in the back alleys of Medellin, where some of them once dealt the drugs whose residue they now scrape from the floor and keep their minds occupied with new ways to trap rats that are smarter than they’ll ever be, again. The only time the lead characters come to life is when they’re allowed to partake in their other drug of choice: the mambo, which is provided by Cuban musician David Oquendo. Jose Ignacio Pardo and Felipe Loaiza’s artistically dark and forbidding cinematography disguises the likelihood of Mambo Cool having originally played out on the cramped, compartmentalized stage of a theater. The interaction between the addicts – or, lack thereof – reminded me of the junkie jazz musicians waiting listlessly for their man, Cowboy, in Shirley Clarke’s The Connection (1962). It’s difficult to recommend either movie to mainstream audiences, but anyone looking for a walk on the wild side might want to check them out.

Lifetime: Watcher in the Woods
HBO: Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge: Blu-ray
BBC/PBS: The Great British Baking Show, Season 5 UK Season 3
PBS: NOVA: Animal Mummies
PBS: NOVA: Rise of the Superstorms
Nickelodeon: SpongeBob SquarePants: The Legend of Boo-Kini Bottom
Nickelodeon: PAW Patrol: Halloween Heroes/Mighty Pups
Melissa Joan Hart’s re-adaptation of Florence Engel Randall’s 1976 novel, “The Watcher in the Woods” – previously filmed, by Disney, in 1980 – appears, at first glance, to be a curious choice for Lifetime, unless one considers that the former star of “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” and her mother, Paula,  had already directed/produced the holiday-themed “Santa Con” for the network and Anjelica Huston would fill in for Bette Davis as the creepy Mrs. Aylwood. The story involves a family moving into a large country home, lorded over by a woman harboring a deep, dark decades-old secret. Although suspense is built into the narrative, Hart fails to take advantage of it. Reportedly, the Harts ran out of money before the scary stuff could be souped-up on CGI, allowing the “watcher” to deliver the goods. Instead, the special-effects are less effective than the first-love through-line involving Tallulah Evans (Son of Rambow) and Nicholas Galitzine (The Beat Beneath My Feet), who plays the son of the house’s caretaker. The production benefits from its Welsh location and a home in which Agatha Christie once penned her mysteries. As tame as it might be for hard-core fans of Halloween fare, “The Watcher in the Woods” could very well appeal to younger teens, whose taste in horror isn’t set in stone.

I’d feel better about HBO’s eight-part documentary series, “Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge,” if it hadn’t been commissioned, in part, by magazine founder Jann Wenner as a 50th-anniversary present to himself. To one degree or another, Rolling Stone has been a fixture in the lives of Boomers, Boomlets, Gen X’ers and millennials, ever since it committed its resources not only to coverage of rock-’n’-roll, but also politics, race and sex. “Stories From the Edge,” which was directed by Oscar-winner Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) and Emmy-winner Blair Foster (“George Harrison: Living in the Material World”), combines a plethora of archival photos, film and graphics, with the recollections of past and current journalists. They include Ralph J. Gleason, Baron Wolman, Annie Liebovitz, Jon Landau, Ben Fong-Torres, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Greil Marcus, William Greider, P.J. O’Rourke and Cameron Crowe, all of whom provide entertaining anecdotes and much-needed context. It goes deep on Howard Kohn and David Weir’s exclusive inside report on the Patty Hearst’s kidnapping; Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman’s coverage of 1970s politics and personalities; Michael Hastings’ brutally candid profile of “Runaway General” Stanley McChrystal; and the magazine’s tentative embrace of punk, boy bands, rap and hip-hop. Like Wenner, the film is obsessed with such gods and goddesses of midcentury rock as John Lennon, the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and Rolling Stones. The final chapter discusses the negative impact of Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s discredited article on a gang rape at the University of Virginia that never happened. In the canonization process, Gibney and Foster make excuses for or completely ignore Wenner’s transition from San Francisco-based scene-maker to New York media mogul; his willingness to kill negative reviews of his friends’ albums; the disappearance of his wife and business partner, Jane, after the first two chapters; the dramatic drop in circulation and cheesy strategies for regaining teen readers; later plans to sell the magazine; a marketing campaign that denigrated the magazine’s bedrock audience; and his divorce and coming-out as gay in 1995. Still, there’s enough solid material here to keep cross-generational audiences interested during most of the doc’s four hours. Boomer parents and grandparents probably will dose off occasionally, however.

After “The Great British Baking Show” (a.k.a., “The Great British Bake Off”) developed a cult following in the United States, it became necessary for distributors of DVD compilations to square what exactly constitutes a season on British television and a season here. It explains why the new Season Five collection, carries the caveat of representing Season Three (U.S.) I once tried to explain the math, but got lost in the different configurations of episodes, spin-offs, contestants and judges. This time around, 12 amateur bakers head for the competition tent in the British countryside, hoping to be named the best by judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, alongside hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins. Each episode has a Signature Bake, to test creativity and baking ability; a Technical Challenge, to make basic recipes with minimal instruction; and the Showstopper Bake, to display depth of skill and talent. It’s possible that the season’s final episode didn’t make it into the DVD package – and, no, I don’t know why – so fans of the show might want to check out the streaming versions, if they think they’ve missed something.

Anyone who thinks that people only recently began traveling on public transportation with “comfort animals” owes it to themselves to watch the “NOVA” presentation, “Animal Mummies.” It describes how ancient Egyptians prepared for their journeys to the afterlife by having their pets and other animals mummified and placed next to them in their tombs. Hi-tech imaging is now revealing what’s inside the bundles that archeologists previously believed contained the remains of children who died at birth. In addition to the usual arrays of dogs and cats, they’ve discovered mummies of baboons, bulls, crocodiles and cows, in the tens of thousands, buried in Egyptian catacombs.

With Hurricane Florence lurking off the North Carolina coast, there’s hardly a better time to check out the “NOVA” report, “Rise of the Superstorms.” It revisits summer 2017, when three monster hurricanes swept in from the Atlantic, one after another, shattering storm records and killing hundreds of people. The shows dives into the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. How can scientists better predict the severity of such storms, and what does the 2017 season tell us about the likelihood of similar storms in the future?

Last Halloween, Nickelodeon offered fans of “SpongeBob SquarePants” something a bit different from the usual undersea fun. “The Legend of Boo-Kini Bottom” adopted the stop-musician visual style of such classic Rankin/Bass TV specials as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1964) and “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” (1985). I don’t know why the company decided on a such a seemingly primitive technique, but it probably was something new to the show’s pre-teen audience. In it, the infamous Flying Dutchman (Brian Doyle Murray) returns to town, bent on scaring the square-pants of its residents. This includes SpongeBob, who thinks scary things are funny. The Flying Dutchman, named after the ghost ship of the same name, is a green-glowing spook who haunts the seven seas, ostensibly because his unburied corpse was used as a window display. The special finds Bikini Bottom decked out for Halloween: Sandy’s tree dome is a mad scientist’s lab, with a giant remotely operated Acorn Monster; Mr. Krabs’ restaurant is “The Horrors of the Chum Bucket,” displaying scenes of Plankton torturing food; and Plankton’s restaurant is “The Horrors of the Krusty Krab.” It only takes 23 minutes to find out how many souls the Flying Dutchman can deliver to Davy Jones’ Locker. I would have expected something a bit longer.

Nickelodeon’s “PAW Patrol: Halloween Heroes” is comprised of seven vintage episodes, all based on a holiday or seasonal theme: “Pups and the Ghost Pirate,” “Pups Save a Ghost,” “Pups and the Ghost Cabin,” “Pups Save a Bat,” “Pups Fall Festival,” “Pups Save the Corn Roast” and “Pups Save a Show.” The animated children’s series follows the PAW Patrol, a group of hero pups who go around solving the problems that the people of Adventure Bay face daily. “Mighty Pups” previews an upcoming 44-minute special episode of “PAW Patrol,” now in its fifth stanza. For the time being, it’s only available at Walmart stores, otherwise the release date is October 4. The pups gain superpowers after a meteor lands in Adventure Bay. When Mayor Humdinger and his nephew attempt to steal the meteor and gain control over the city, the pups use their new powers to save the day.

The DVD Wrapup: Hereditary, Ghost Stories, Found Footage 3D, Beast, Venus, This Is Our Land, The Big Take, Brothers, Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji, Sid Caesar, Good Karma Hospital … More

Thursday, September 6th, 2018

Hereditary: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Ghost Stories: Blu-ray
Found Footage 3D: Blu-ray
Truth or Dare
With another new awards season always around the corner, it will be interesting to see if Avi Aster’s widely acclaimed debut thriller, Hereditary, gets the same respect accorded Jordan Peele’s freshman flick, Get Out, in last year’s campaigns. Both films merge suspense with family drama, relying much less on jump scares than the horror of thoroughly dysfunctional human relations. Get Out caught the attention of Oscar voters with its hyperextension of race-related preconceptions and prejudices – guess who’s coming to dinner, indeed – and boffo box-office results. Hereditary would have to get by solely on the usual attributes: wonderful acting, a terrific story, genuine scares, excellent production values and highly positive reviews. It also made some money. In AFI graduate Ari Aster’s slow-burn debut as writer/director, a seemingly normal family falls under the curse of its recently deceased matriarch, who, unbeknownst to them, was the leader of a demonic backyard cabal. Sounds far-fetched, sure, but the patiently rendered drama benefits from not having to rely on jump scares and grotesque visual effects. In an extreme example of either creative or coincidental casting, Toni Collette plays Annie, the daughter of a woman who suffered from the same dissociative-identity disorder as her character in Showtime’s “United States of Tara.” Her son, Peter (Alex Wolff), and daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), will be affected by mysterious life-threatening occurrences, as well. Meanwhile, Annie’s husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), is forced to put himself in harm’s way by serving as a buffer between his increasingly unpredictable wife and the children. One of the ways Annie’s madness manifests itself here is in her inability to focus on her art, creating miniature replications of her home and other sites. The first indication that something is wrong is when characters in the models appear to take on a life of their own. The tension rises exponentially as the fragments of her mother’s cursed legacy begin to fall into place. While it isn’t easy watching children suffer for things they can’t possibly understand or control, it forces us to share the pain. Hereditary has been characterized as a merger of “arthouse horror” (The Witch, The Babadook), classic psychological horror (Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now) and intense family drama (Ordinary People, In the Bedroom), while also eliciting edge-of-your-seat thrills. The 4K UHD presentation dials up the excitement by adding another layer of audio/visual thrills, via 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby Vision HDR, as well as deleted scenes, the featurette, “Cursed: The True Nature of Hereditary,” and a photo gallery.

Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s similarly effective Ghost Stories began its life on London’s West End, where it must have looked extremely different than the movie version. Nyman plays Professor Philip Goodman, a lecturer, TV celebrity and paranormal debunker, as well as an atheist and rationalist, driven to expose hoaxes and frauds. His motivation, in part, stems from his father’s fundamentalist religious beliefs, which were used as implements of psychological torture. The film’s basic conceit was spelled out, literally, in the UK marketing campaign, where the title of the film contained a curious typo: “Ghost Storeis.” The tagline, “The brain sees what it wants to see,” was added for readers whose built-in auto-correct function caused them to rejigger the letters. One day, out of the blue, Goodman receives a letter from a famous debunker – long believed dead – inviting him to his caravan. Even though the old man doesn’t have many good things to say about Goodman’s work, he asks him to investigate three cases that have perplexed him for years. The first involves a night watchman (Paul Whitehouse) at a facility that once served as a facility for mentally ill women and now actually appears to be infested with their malevolent spirits. In the second, a young man (Alex Lawther), who survived a terrible vehicular accident, lives in what can easily be described as a haunted house, complete with waxen facsimiles of his parents. He then travels to a seaside estate to meet a filthy rich banker (Martin Freeman) plagued by encounters a poltergeist, which he identifies as the spirit of his unborn child. Upon his return to the old man’s caravan, Goodman is visibly shaken by what he’s witnessed and how it might relate to his own life. One last surprise is left in reserve.

Over the course of the last 30 years, more than a dozen English-language horror films – alone – have carried the title, Truth or Dare, in one form or another, including Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991), which was pretty scary in its own right. Nick Simon’s newly released made-for-Syfy Truth or Dare (2017), preceded Jeff Wadlow’s theatrical feature of the same title by only a few months. They all share the same basic premise: a group of young people comes together over dinner, at a party, on a weekend retreat, in a house or cabin disguising dark secrets; they are required to answer deeply personal questions or accept potentially lethal challenges; and, of course, terrible things happen to good people. In Simon’s movie, the college-age men and women agree to spend the weekend inside a large home, where, years earlier, a game of T-or-D resulted in several grotesque deaths. In way too short a time, they begin responding to challenges that appear to be inspired by a malignant paranormal force within the walls of the house. As the dares become less personal in nature, and more cruel, Truth or Dare devolves rather quickly into the realm of torture porn.

Found-footage movies ran their course when The Blair Witch Project (1999) regurgitated itself as Blair Witch (2016) and was greeted with the same enthusiasm as yet another sequel to Godzilla. In the self-descriptive Found Footage 3D, an aspiring filmmaker is hired to document the creation of the ultralow-budget “Spectre of Death.” Its backers are promoting the project as “the first 3D found-footage horror film,” knowing full well that audiences have become jaded and won’t be fooled by such schlock again. The production is taking place in a remote cabin not far from Austin, which is the stomping ground of Lone Star horror-meisters Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), who’s also one of this film’s producers. Inevitably, the fictional specter from “Spectre of Death” reveals itself in the behind-the-scenes footage. If the filmmakers can’t isolate the dark spirit, it could find its way into the real world. Or, so we’re asked to believe. The good news is that the 3D process employed here doesn’t require an expensive television or special lenses to work, just the enclosed cardboard-and-cellophane glasses that have always worked and cost pennies to manufacture, if that. The bonus package adds a pair of commentaries, interviews, making-of material, outtakes, deleted and extended scenes. A Blu-ray 2D version is enclosed, as well, but what would be the point?

(In an exchange of responses, multi-hyphenate filmmaker Steven DeGennaro insists that a scene I commented upon in a previous edition of this review —“I lost patience with “FF3D” when the fictional director thought it would be a good idea to punish his leading lady’s insubordination by punching her out in front of the others. It was a shade too real for my taste.” — actually was in the deleted/extended/outtakes section of the package. Although, I stand by my memory, I’ll give him the benefit of a doubt by deleting the comment. I will say, however, that the offending scene was so disturbing that it altered my impression of the movie … deleted or not. As writer/director/sound editor/producer/editor, it’s possible that he was too wedded to the sequence to realize how the inclusion
of the scene in the bonus features might be perceived in the #metoo climate by viewers. There’s no law that requires a director to include all deleted scenes in the bonus package, even to show viewers how politically correct he was to eliminate it. And, no, I didn’t review a pirated or early edition. I reviewed what I saw.)

The British island of Jersey, just off the Normandy coast, serves both as home and prison for Beast’s troubled protagonist, Moll, played by the wonderfully talented Irish redhead, Jessie Buckley. As a teenager, Moll made the mistake of embarrassing her patrician mother, Hilary (Geraldine James), within the insulated community of wealthy Brits. As punishment, she’s condemned to earning money as a tour guide and bearing the brunt of Hilary’s tyranny. Even when her mother throws a gala birthday party for Moll, she uses it as an occasion to announce that her other daughter is pregnant with twins. To add insult to injury, the birthday girl is asked to fetch champagne from the cellar to celebrate the news. In a fit of pique, Moll crushes broken glass in her hand, flees the party, gets drunk at the local disco and leaves the club with a guy who almost certainly will force himself on her. Before that can happen, though, the island’s other black sheep – this one with flaxen hair – threatens the ruffian at rifle point. Pascal (Johnny Flynn) explains the gun by pointing out the pail full of poached rabbits in the back of his Jeep. Moll not only buys the excuse, but she also allows herself to be used as an alibi witness when police question the boy about a missing girl. Pascal becomes the prime suspect when she’s found dead some time later. By then, however, he manages to alienate Hilary and her son, who took it upon himself to investigate his sister’s boyfriend. (Being a native Norman, of “noble birth,” he fails to endear himself with Hilary when, after getting mud on her rugs, he declares that her family is living on his land.)

For all of Pascal’s deep-seated menace and mysteries, he’s a likable guy and someone we’d like to see as Moll’s savior. For that to happen, though, he must avoid being lynched by the bigoted locals; stop telling lies to Moll; and convince us of his innocence. Beast thrives as much on the uncertainty as it does on the island’s beauty, which masks an ugly core of intolerance and greed. Writer/director Michael Pearce grew up on Jersey and based the story on a series of crimes that occurred during his youth. Buckley, who’s spent much of her early career in stage musicals, exudes a feral quality here that goes away when she washes and combs her curly red mane. Neither Buckley (“War and Peace”) nor Flynn (Clouds of Sils Maria) should have any difficulty landing key roles in projects demanding fresh young talent.

Until Americans put aside their fear of and prejudices against members of the LGBTQ community and its perceived agenda, audiences will have to rely on Canada and Europe for movies that deal realistically with issues affecting everyone. Caitlyn Jenner and RuPaul have contributed more to the mainstreaming of transgender and queer culture than activists who’ve led the good fight since the Stonewall riots, only to be ostracized by politicians, condemned by religious leaders and ignored in the media. Even so, film festivals overflow with movies that no longer are fixated on such fundamental themes as accepting sexual identity, surviving AIDS/HIV and dealing with exclusionary treatment by families, religious leaders and government entities. Wolfe Releasing, Broken Glass Pictures, Strand Releasing and IFC/Sundance are among a handful of distributors that skim the cream from the festivals and make the titles available to DVD/Blu-ray and VOD audiences here. Montreal-based Eisha Marjara’s Venus crosses so many genre boundaries that the fact that its protagonist is a transgender woman is almost immaterial to its appeal. Every bit as important to the narrative are the dynamics within Sid’s Punjabi family and how they react, first, to their son’s transition – hint: not well – and, second, to the news that they have a grandson … hint: much better. In fact, Sid (Debargo Sanyal) is, at first, less willing to accept the reality of his fatherhood than they are. Several years after Sid decided to leave home and live his life a woman, she discovers that she’s being stalked by a kid on a skateboard. One day, the 14-year-old shows up at her door to announce that Sid is her birth father.

Ralph (Jamie Mayers) discovered this biographical tidbit while reading his mother’s well-hidden journal, which pointed to a short, but fruitful liaison with Sid in high school. In fact, Sid was more interested in her brother, but he was unable to admit it. She kept Ralph’s parentage secret for all this time. Once Sid accepts this reality, he asks Ralph to maintain his mother’s secrecy, until such time as Kirsten (Amber Goldfarb) can resolve her own feelings about shared parenthood. In a twist that could easily backfire on him, he decides to tell Mamaji (Zena Darawalla) and Papaji (Gordon Warnecke) about their new half-Indian grandson, whose maturity and tolerance are enhanced by a natural curiosity about new things in his life. Instead, they’re thrilled, especially when the light-skinned Ralph enthuses over Mamaji’s cooking and shows a desire to learn more about his Asian heritage. Meanwhile, Sid has her hands full with her handsome boyfriend, Daniel (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), who’s reluctant to leave the closet, but anxious for Ralph’s mother to learn about the boy’s almost daily visits.

When Daniel accidentally encounters Ralph’s stepfather and the boy acknowledges both men, without spilling the beans, he realizes how tenuous Sid’s legal standing might be. In a rarity, Sid’s sexual identity isn’t used as a narrative battering ram or a device to demean any of the characters. With the grandparents’ acceptance of Ralph, they are forced to come to grips with the reality of having a daughter. If anything, the boy is more conflicted by having to share his birthparents with the other men in his life. The humor and drama flow naturally from these complications, minus the sturm und drang that usually accompany such films. Neither are gratuitous displays of nudity added, simply to appeal to the prurient interest of some viewers. In the interviews included in the bonus package, Sanyal describes how excited he was to learn that Papaji would be played by Warnecke, who, a million years ago, it seems, debuted in Stephen Frears and Hanif Kureishi’s My Beautiful Laundrette, playing Daniel Day Lewis’ business partner and lover.

This Is Our Land
Lucas Belvaux’s taut political drama is a thinly veiled dramatization of the machinations that contributed to Marine Le Pen’s ascendency within France’s far-right-wing National Front and in head-to-head battles with future presidents Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron. If This Is Our Land doesn’t completely unravel the complexities of French elections for us, at least it demonstrates how far name recognition will carry a candidate whose extreme politics resemble those espoused by her more famous father and a certain orange-haired blowhard currently residing in our White House. This Is Our Land is most relevant to American viewers for depicting the rise of a movement based on exploiting latent nationalism, cultural identity, unbridled immigration, crime, unemployment and economic woes. Indeed, it’s possible to argue that Le Pen was one more deadly terrorist attack away from victory. Marine followed in the rather large footsteps of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the Front National and ran in the French presidential elections in 1974, 1988, 1995, 2002 and 2007. Her stand-in here is Agnès Dorgelle, played by multiple César Award nominee, Catherine Jacob. This Is Our Land doesn’t spend a lot of time on Dorgelle, however. Instead, it tells the story of an apolitical nurse, Pauline Duhez (Émilie Dequenne), living in northern France, who is talked into joining Dorgelle’s Patriotic Bloc party and running for mayor by a Machiavellian doctor, Philippe Berthier (André Dussollier), who wants nothing more than to hold on to the office in the absence of his candidate. No, I didn’t get it, either.

Even after a tight vetting process, party operatives manage to overlook Pauline’s romantic relationship with an old boyfriend — extreme right-wing militant, Stéphane Stankowiak (Guillaume Gouix) – who coaches her sons’ soccer team. A single mother, she’s far less interested in his politics than his kindness toward her children. Stanko, as he’s known, is quite well known to Berthier, who had earlier recruited his merry gang of thugs for some dirty work. The doctor recognizes how Pauline’s links to a person who kidnaps immigrants, beats them with a hose and photographs them in a cage might damage her mayoral campaign and, by extension, tar Dorgelle. Stanko convinces Pauline of his innocence in the more beastly crimes and vows to lay low for a while. Still, Berthier demands she break up with him and puts party operatives on Stanko’s tail to prevent him from hurting the campaign. His past comes back to haunt him, however, in a way that no one could have predicted. This Is Our Land turns out to be an extremely well-acted cautionary tale that describes how badly things can go for a naif who underestimates the ruthlessness of political animals and their fanatical puppets. The film might confound American viewers, but, in France, supporters of Le Pen’s National Front argued the film’s release was timed to influence the first round of the 2017 presidential elections and that Jacob was cast because of her resemblance to Marine Le Pen.

The Big Take
Anyone who enjoyed such twisty, Hollywood-based crime dramedies as Get Shorty and The Player – and, who didn’t? – might want to take a chance on Justin Daly’s The Big Take, which slipped into release this week without any fanfare whatsoever. An introduction by one of the lead characters practically tells the whole story, “Some people in Hollywood would kill to have their movie made. I just did.” The rest of the picture plays out in one long flashback. It opens with the nifty execution of a blackmail plot against a slightly over-the-hill movie star, Douglas Brown (James McCaffrey), who’s slipped a mickey during a meeting with his agent at a loud Tinseltown nightclub. Out cold, Brown is rushed out of the club by the same lummox, Vic Venitos (Slate Holmgren), who pitched him a screenplay in the elevator, but, in return, received only a rude rejection. The next morning, Brown’s awakened by a nearly naked German-speaking blond, whose face he can’t place. She hands him a large envelope, left at the foot of the driveway, containing a note demanding $200,000 in return for hard drives containing evidence of an incident that takes place while he was unconscious. Because Brown fears the footage could ruin his career, he turns to the agent, Jack Girardi (Bill Sage), for advice. Naturally, after checking with the nightclub owner, they think it’s wise to bypass the police and call in an amoral P.I., Frank Manascalpo (Dan Hedaya), who, for a large fee, promises him positive results.

Meanwhile, Vic has interrupted his “partner” with the happy news that Brown has agreed to pay $200,000 – not saying how, or why – to begin production on the script. The screenwriter, Max O’Leary (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), is being entertained by his Russian girlfriend, Oxana (Oksana Lada), a stripper with bad taste in clothes, but fierce loyalty to him. It takes Frank almost no time to trace the blackmailer’s letter to a typewriter belonging to O’Leary, to whose bungalow he immediately pays a visit. It’s at this point that everything that could possibly go horribly, hilariously wrong with the various schemes begins happens. It starts with Brown, Girardi, Manascalpo, O’Leary and a seen-it-all cop, Detective Aborn (Robert Forster), completely misreading the letter’s intent and failing to associate it with the lummox, who only wants to see the screenplay turned into a movie with his name listed as producer.  Manascalpo breaks into O’Leary’s home, only to be told that he isn’t aware of a blackmail plot – he isn’t – and leaving himself open to being attacked by Oxana. Throw in two of the P.I.’s best female operatives (Zoe Bell, Tara Westwood), who can’t understand why O’Leary is dodging responsibility, either, and the plot thickens to the point where the initial scheme is dwarfed by the magnitude of the aftershocks. The only viewers able to accurately predict the ending, I suspect, will be those who recall O’Leary’s introduction.

You shouldn’t have to turn to an encyclopedia – or Google, for that matter – to figure out why things happened the way they did in the movie you just saw. With the number of historically-based pictures coming from China lately, however, it behooves viewers to keep a reference tool handy. Considering how little we were taught about the recent history of China in our schools, it’s a wonder anyone watching Kiefer Liu’s Brothers could tell the difference between the Kuomintang and the Red Army, or the precise dates of the Chinese Civil War the movie depicts. I was off by 20 years. Then, again, Brothers wasn’t made for the enjoyment of DVD/Blu-ray enthusiasts in the west, as are some of the historical epics about long-ago wars in dynasties past. Brothers is set in 1936, during the first half of the Chinese Civil War, which began in 1927 and ended in 1937, then picked up again in 1946, finally concluding in 1950. It was interrupted by the Second Sino-Japanese War, which is more commonly known as World War II, but lasted slightly longer when the Soviets came to the party. The film adopts the adage about civil wars pitting brother against brother and builds this sometime bewildering drama around it. It opens with the homeless Bingsheng Wang (Peter Ho) being sent to jail for shooting a gangster who’s bothering his younger brother, Tiejin Chen (Ethan Li). A decade later he’s released, hardly recognizable to his brother as a flesh-and-blood fighting machine. No sooner do they finish a reunion dinner and down a line of shots than they’re arrested for beating the crap out of an antagonist in the alley behind the restaurant. Instead of being sent to jail, the police hand them over to the Kuomintang authorities, who give them uniforms, load them onto a truck and send them to the front.

On the way, however, Bingsheng literally kicks Tiejin off the back of the vehicle, so that he can escape into the forest and mountains. The next time they meet, a few years later, the brothers are accomplished warriors, fighting on opposite sides of the war. A tragedy is averted when Bingsheng stops pounding on Tiejin long enough to recognize him as his “little brother,” who’s no longer so little. It’s at this point that Kuomingtan soldiers become indistinguishable from Red Army forces — except for their helmets – and political considerations are replaced by innate survival instinct. Liu considers his audience by adding a small red flag to the handle of Tiejin’s sword and scary-looking scars to his brother’s face and lots of tattoos everywhere else. Tiejin is escorting a group of female musicians across a war zone infested with enemy troops, all of whom are anxious to rape anything that even closely resembles a woman. The ones who escape being ravaged become targets for artillery shells and snipers. Strangely enough, both armies appear to be populated by barbarians and criminals in military drag. Our ability to keep things straight is hindered, as well, by Liu’s decision to shoot everything in the studio, using green-screen backgrounds, and filtering the visuals through a comic-book filter, a la Sin City and 300. Still, it’s pretty entertaining … in a video-game sort of way, anyway. A making-of featurette explains the process in a way almost anyone can understand.

Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji: Blu-ray
Released in 1955, this samurai adventure represented director Tomu Uchida’s return to the Japanese studio system, after spending more than a decade working in Manchuria. In 1943, he joined the Japanese-run Manchukuo Film Association, which was established to produce films for Chinese audiences. After the invasion of northeast China by Soviet troops, the company’s assets – including Uchida – were handed over to Communist Party of China and its Northeast Film Studio. By the time Uchida was able to return home, his past successes had been forgotten. He had to call in favors with one-time contemporaries Yasujiro Ozu and Hiroshi Shimizu, who agreed to act as production advisors on Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji. Although the tragicomic yarn was lauded by Japanese film critics, and such peers as Ozu and Akira Kurosawa, the Edo-period drama found little traction outside the country. This can be blamed on the blossoming of the national cinema, as represented on the international festival circuit by Ozu (Tokyo Story), Kurosawa (Rashomon, Seven Samurai), Masaki Kobayashi (Black River), Teinosuke Kinugasa (Gate of Hell), Hiroshi Inagaki (The Burmese Harp) and Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu) … and, lest we forget, Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla. All these filmmakers dealt with contemporary issues, historical fiction and horror in ways that resonated throughout post-Occupation Japan.

By comparison, Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji could be lumped together with more commercial genre fare. Today, however, movies that once were designated as entertainment for the masses are lauded for their storytelling, visuals, action sequences and humanistic attitudes. Beyond that, however, “Bloody Spear” is a terrifically entertaining picture. It follows samurai Sakawa Kojūrō (Teruo Shimada) as he makes his way to his lord’s palace, in Edo, with his two servants, Genta (Daisuke Katō) and Genpachi (Chiezō Kataoka). Kojūrō is a kindly master, but his character totally changes when he consumes alcohol. Genpachi is a lancer, while Genta serves as the more conventional manservant. Both are under strict orders to keep Kojūrō away from the sake. Because the master desires company when he drinks, this isn’t an easy task. Along the way to Eto, the trio encounters a policeman in pursuit of a thief; a precocious child, who mimics the spear carrier; and a woman who is to be sold into prostitution. One critic described the assemblage as being “weirdly reminiscent of ‘The Canterbury Tales,’ as Kojūrō and his servants re-encounter many of the same travelers at every inn along their route.” The most exciting fight scene takes place when the master takes umbrage at comments made by other samurai towards his drinking buddies. It ends with Genpachi demonstrating how effectively a lance can be against overconfident swordsmen. The nicely restored Arrow Academy Blu-ray – in B&W – adds new commentary by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp, who points out that U.S. censors forbade filmmakers from using Mount Fuji as a background device, because it could be construed as a symbol of Japanese nationalism; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Corey Brickley; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by critic and filmmaker James Oliver.

Sid Caesar: The Works
Acorn: The Good Karma Hospital: Series 2
While it might be a tad early for holiday gift-guide suggestions, I can’t
think of a better one right now than Shout!Factory’s brilliantly packaged, “Sid Caesar: The Works.” For much of the last 50 years, critics and historians have relied on a relative handful of examples of the comedian’s work from “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour” to make the case for bestowing genius status on him. Like Ernie Kovacs, Caesar invented fresh news ways to turn television into medium for sketch comedy, satire and sight gags. Otherwise, TV comedy was pretty much limited to adding a visual element to popular radio shows. This truly was something completely different from what became known as situation comedies. Caesar didn’t work his magic alone, however. His writing team included such enduring talents as Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart, Neil and Danny Simon, Woody Allen, Mel Tolkin, Aaron Ruben, Sheldon Keller, and Gary Belkin, whose ideas he turned into magic. His company of comic actors included Broadway veterans Imogene Coca, Nanette Fabray, Howard Morris (“Uncle Goopy”), Bill Hayes, Reiner and singer Judy Johnson. Sketch parodies of popular movies and TV shows would set the standard for Mad magazine, Mad TV, Second f, the Groundlings, National Lampoon, “Saturday Night Live” and the gang responsible for The Kentucky Fried Movie. “Sid Caesar: The Works” is a comprehensive collection of the best work of Caesar and his teams, beginning with and featuring many interviews and extras, including the 2014 Paley Center For Media tribute, with Brooks, Reiner and Billy Crystal; the feature film, “Ten From ‘Your Show of Shows’” (1973), with “The Bavarian Clock,” a spoof of From Here to Eternity and an uproarious takeoff on “This Is Your Life”; the 1967 reunion special; excerpts from the documentary, “Caesar’s Writers”; “The Chevy Show, Featuring Sid Caesar”; “Mel Brooks: In The Beginning: The Caesar Years”; and the 1983 episode of “Nightcap,” with Caesar, Brooks, Reiner and hosts Studs Terkel and Calvin Trillin. Even the stuff that isn’t necessarily supposed to be funny here is hilarious.

The blurb on the cover of “Good Karma Hospital” anticipates the show’s demographic, describing it as, “The prime-time love child of ‘Call the Midwife” and Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” I might have added “St. Elsewhere,” but, then, how many people under 40 would get the reference? The focus of the ITV medical soap is an idealistic young doctor, Ruby Walker (Amrita Acharia), who becomes disillusioned with her life and a broken relationship, and she decides to leave the UK. Seeing an advertisement for a hospital job in south India, she travels there hoping to make a fresh start. She lands at the Good Karma Hospital, an under-resourced and overworked cottage hospital, run by an eccentric English ex-pat, Dr. Lydia Fonseca (Amanda Redman). Other principle players are Lydia’s boyfriend, bar owner Greg (Neil Morrissey); the newly widowed and still depressed, Paul (Philip Jackson); Ruby’s standoffish colleague and potential love interest, Dr. Gabriel Varma (James Krishna Floyd); uptight hospital administrator, Dr. Ram Nair (Darshan Jariwala); his downtrodden son, A.J. (Sagar Radia); and compassionate nurse, Mari (Nimmi Harasgama). The mini-series, which has been renewed for a third season, is shot on location in a gorgeous beachside community in Sri Lanka’s Southern Province, where’s there’s a ready supply of impoverished residents, sunbaked ex-pats and clumsy tourists. One of the highlights of Season Two is an uneasy reunion between Ruby and her father, owner of a tea plantation, who abandoned her mother when she was still a baby. As soapy as it gets sometimes, “Good Karma Hospital” is a lot of fun.

The DVD Wrapup: American Animals, Book Club, Woman Walks Ahead, Bound, Mind Game, Shadowbuilder, Poetic Trilogy, Boss N-word, Crazy Six, My Life With James Dean … More

Thursday, August 30th, 2018

American Animals: Blu-ray
Not all art thieves are as cool as Steve McQueen in the Thomas Crown Affair; as endearing as George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon in Ocean’s 12; as slick as Roger Duchesne, in Bob le Flambeur; as delightfully hapless as Peter Ustinov, in Topkapi; or, even, as misguided as the lovestruck glazier in The Theft of the Mona Lisa. Most aren’t the least bit sympathetic. Typically, the stolen paintings, jewel-encrusted daggers and ancient artifacts wind up in safes or on shelves in the homes of unscrupulous collectors. Art lovers and museum-goers are the innocent bystanders in thefts perpetrated by gangsters, tomb raiders and grave robbers. Even so, the intricacies of such crimes make them perfect for exploitation by screenwriters. Unlike movies about zombies and superheroes, any plot that details the purloining of valuable objects requires a modicum of research and imagination, after all. As entertaining a film as American Animals is, it’s simply impossible to find anything remotely positive to say about characters who conspire to steal something as close to the hearts of Americans as original editions of John James Audubon’s extraordinary “Birds of America.” The best that can be said is that the ineptness of the doofuses involved in the theft inspired writer/director Bart Layton (The Imposter) to make a crime drama as compelling – and frequently outlandish– as American Animals. If, however, the Southern-fried bozos damaged any of the treasures during their ill-conceived caper, had accidentally killed the librarian they tazed, or had managed to hand them off to a fence who could profit from making them disappear, the movie would be more depressing than entertaining. (I suppose that the same can be said of most crime-based pictures, though.) Among the books and manuscripts stolen on December 17, 2004 from the Special Collections Library at Transylvania University, in Lexington, Kentucky, were an 1859 first edition of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection”; an illuminated manuscript from 1425; a two-volume set of the 15th Century horticultural masterpiece, “Hortus Sanitatis”; 20 original Audubon pencil drawings; and “A Synopsis of the Birds of North America.”

Because the narrative frequently jumps between interviews with the amateur thieves portrayed in the movie and staged depictions of their crime, there’s hardly any need for a spoiler alert in reviews of American Animals. They pulled it off; no one was killed; the art wasn’t damaged; and they paid the price for their ill-considered act. In 2003, Lexington high-school buddies Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) and Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) were bored students, looking for something to jump-start their young lives. After visiting the Transylvania library, a lightbulb – however dim – went off over their heads. Upon closer inspection, it was determined that the primary deterrent would be librarian Jean “B.J.” Gooch (Ann Dowd). Most of their preparation apparently involved watching such Hollywood heist flicks as Reservoir Dogs, from which they borrowed their aliases, Ocean’s 11 and Snatch. Now a quartet, they gang also wore costumes that might have been inspired by1955 version of The Ladykillers. It isn’t clear if, as depicted, one of the young men went to Amsterdam to meet with a fence (Udo Kier), prior to the crime, or if he merely pocketed the money set aside for expenses. Clearly, though, their decision to research the value of their haul at a New Year auction house raised the red flag that led to their ultimate demise. As Layton points out, none of the thieves was inspired by poverty or a tendency toward felonious behavior. They were simply disenchanted with pursuing a college degree, saw an opportunity for what they perceived to be an easy payday and took it. While the story had already been outlined in a 2015 Vanity Fair article, Layton was able to take advantage of the release of the thieves from prison to get their perspective on the incident. He borrowed a few tricks from his excellent 2012 documentary, The Imposter, which centered on the mystery surrounding a young Spanish man’s claim of being a Texas teen, who’d disappeared three years earlier. The American Animals Blu-ray arrives with commentary by Layton and cast members; a deleted scene; production featurettes; and a stills gallery. The fate of the men who committed the crime isn’t revealed until the closing credits.

Book Club: Blu-ray
Oprah Winfrey may not have invented book clubs, but her commendable desire to spark a discussion about noteworthy titles sparked a new interest in reading among her viewers, many of whom had previously limited their consumption of novels to potboilers and bodice-rippers. Launched in 1996, its impact was immediately felt on best-seller lists, library rentals and used-books stores. The media bowed to her genius and, once again, proclaimed her Queen of the World. The idea wasn’t particularly new, however. In her short story, “Xingu,” published in 1916, Edith Wharton satirized the Lunch Club in her fictional Hillbridge, which, she observed, was comprised of “indomitable huntresses of erudition,” who gathered monthly “to pursue Culture in banks.” Instead of contenting themselves with discussing literature, though, the ladies’ time together was consumed by petty disputes and adhering to the social graces of the time. In Bill Holderman’s 2018 directorial debut, Book Club — co-written with freshman scripter Erin Simms and possibly inspired by Helen Hooven Santmyer’s 1982 best-seller, “…And Ladies of the Club” – we’re introduced to four women who’ve have participated in a monthly book club for 30 years. Santmyer’s soapy novel spanned the years 1868-1932. Book Club describes what happens when characters played by Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen agree to read and discuss E.L. James’ steamy exposition of an S&M courtship, “50 Shades of Grey” (2011). Not having read the book that triggered the print and film trilogies, I can’t say why four highly educated, successful and attractive women would get so hot and bothered by a story that, at least in the 2015 film adaptation, barely warranted the R-rating the prudes at the MPAA ratings board bestowed on it.

After feigning their shock at the idea of being handcuffed to a bedpost, the women begin to weigh the current state of their current relationships and sex lives. Only Fonda’s character, a prominent hotelier, appears to be enjoying any semblance of the latter, although it consists primarily of hit-and-run trysts with younger men. The pursuit of a judicial career has weighed heavily on Bergen’s character, while the children of Keaton’s newly widowed character (Alicia Silverstone, Katie Aselton) have begun to treat her as if she’s ready to be deposited in a nursing home. Steenburgen’s problem has more to do with the lack of emotional interest shown to her by her newly retired husband (Craig T. Nelson). At this point, it’s worth noting that none of the women looks anything less than gorgeous and easily would qualify as a GILF, as defined in the Urban Dictionary. After introducing the women’s crises, Holderman pretty much jettisons the “50 Shades” plot device to concentrate on the women’s frequently funny efforts to get their grooves back. This also allows room for Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, Ed Begley Jr., Wallace Shawn and Richard Dreyfuss to enter the picture as suitors and potential lovers … not that anything comes easy for them in this regard. With a powerhouse lineup of stars and exemplary production values – the cosmetics budget for both the female and male actors must have been astronomical – it would have been difficult for women viewers, especially, not to find reasons to endorse the movie. As much as I hate to say it, though, Book Club probably would have been in better hands if Nancy Meyers (Something’s Gotta Give) had stepped in, either to doctor the script or add some muscle to the narrative as director.

Still, there’s no arguing with success at the box office. Even going up against juggernauts Deadpool 2 and Avengers: Infinity War, Book Club performed ahead of expectations, thanks to a loyal audience base that was 80 percent women, 88 percent over 35, and 60 percent over the age of 50. The domestic take was just north of $68.5 million, against a budget estimated to be about $10 million. (Did the stars work for scale?) Consider this, too: its cast includes four Oscar winners (Keaton, Fonda, Steenburgen, Dreyfuss) and two Oscar nominees (Bergen, Garcia). Moreover, Keaton, Fonda and Bergen have each dated Warren Beatty at some point in their lives, as has Johnson’s ex-wife Melanie Griffith. Johnson and Griffith’s daughter, Dakota Johnson, starred as Anastasia Steele in the “Fifty Shades” trilogy. Even as we cheer for 72-year-old Keaton and 62-year-old Garcia to hook up, it’s worth recalling that they played nephew and aunt in The Godfather: Part III. I’d be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention the many infuriating examples overly conspicuous product placement, which include plugs for the two later chapters in the “Grey” trilogy and cameos by the author and her husband.

Woman Walks Ahead: Blu-ray
While it wouldn’t be wise for a student to take the facts as presented in Woman Walks Ahead as gospel, its heart is the right place and the tragedy of the Plains Indians is depicted with the reverence it warrants. Unlike most of the Westerns made in the last 100 years, the facts-to-errors ratio in Susanna White’s gorgeously shot film – New Mexico for South Dakota – is within an acceptable range. Steven Knight’s story is based on Brooklyn portrait artist Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain), who, in the late 1880s, journeyed to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, in Dakota Territory. Here, her sole goal is to paint portraits of Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes), the leader of the Hunkpapa Lakota. In real life, Weldon was already a strong advocate of Native American rights and the portraits were incidental to her work with the spiritual leader of the Sioux Nation. Even so, in Woman Walks Ahead, she’s portrayed as something of an innocent abroad. While feisty and unimpressed by the racist diatribes of Indian Agent James McLaughlin (Ciarán Hinds) and U.S. Army Colonel Silas Grove (Sam Rockwell), she’s looks as out of place on the reservation as any refined Easterner would be in the still very Wild West. Unlike Weldon in real life, Chastain’s character gradually learns of the threat to the Plains Indians posed by the Dawes Act of 1887, which was created to grease the expropriation of vast portions of the Great Sioux Reservation. It would open the land to white settlers and ensure statehood for North Dakota and South Dakota. The Indian population would be squeezed even tighter into reservations devoid of game, arable land and schools.

In Woman Walks Ahead, Weldon’s activism not only sparked by the miserable treatment of Indians by military and government officials, but also her ability to see through their lies when tribal leaders are invited to vote on provisions of the Dawes Act. Until she convinces Sitting Bull to intervene, the results of the election are a foregone conclusion. Because Greyeyes is substantially younger and more handsome than Sitting Bull was at the time, the movie leaves open the possibility of a love connection being made between the protagonists. When they aren’t squabbling over the ground rules for the paintings, they flirt tentatively, then openly, soon becoming close friends and allies. This doesn’t go unnoticed at the fort, where the non-Native Americans consider Weldon to be Sitting Bull’s “whore” and their enemy. Chastain and Greyeyes make a terrific team. Her characterization grows more credible with every new test of her character and resolve. The only possible glitch in Greyeyes’ portrayal comes in his youthful appearance – at 59, Sitting Bull looked like a man who’d spent most of his life outside, in harsh conditions – although Chastain doesn’t much resemble photographs of Weldon, either. Sitting Bull already was 13 years removed from the Battle of the Little Bighorn and had toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Weldon’s arrival coincides with the rise of the Ghost Dance Movement and McLaughlin’s decision to arrest Sitting Bull, largely to prevent him from leaving the reservation for Wounded Knee Creek, where the dancers were gathering and would be slaughtered. The movie implicates an Indian marksman, acting on McLaughlin’s orders, in the assassination of the chief. In real life, he was shot at much closer range and under the cover of a disturbance created by his own people. Either way, it’s a tragedy that wouldn’t be fully rectified for another 100 years. If Woman Walks Ahead is enhanced by fine acting all around and Mike Eley’s evocative cinematography, its graphic depictions of genocidal practices and racist slurs are practically unbearable to watch. Learning about Weldon – another woman largely ignored by historians – is a big plus, though. The Blu-ray adds commentary and a making-of featurette with White, as well as deleted scenes.

Bound: Blu-ray
I can’t remember if my first exposure to Bound was in a theater, screening room or on VHS. It got a bit lost among the many neo-noir crime dramas released in the 1990s and the Wachowski “brothers” were were barely known outside of a couple of Hollywood zip codes and members of the gaming and comics communities. They were only a couple of years removed from running a house painting and construction business in Chicago, while also writing for Marvel Comics. Immediately before writing and directing Bound, they’d collaborated on a screenplay for Assassins, which, to their dismay, was rewritten by director Richard Donner and Brian Helgeland. The experience led to their decision to always direct what they wrote, which is exactly how Bound was born. Today, of course, the Wachowskis are widely known and admired for creating the Matrix trilogy and other challenging sci-fi/fantasy fare, but also for transitioning from Larry and Andy to Lana and Lilly. That part of their personal story wouldn’t be known outside the rumor mill for several more years. One person interviewed on a featurette in Bound’s Blu-ray package insists that their attention to detail in Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon’s incendiary sex scenes was influenced by their evolving attitudes toward LGBT issues. If so, it flew right over my head. Twenty years later, Bound is full of indications that Wachowskis had more on their minds than a contemporized homage to Hollywood’s noir tradition. In a 1998 interview, they said that the film is about “the boxes people make of their lives,” and that it is not only gay people who “live in closets.” The highly memorable sex scenes were choreographed by feminist writer and sex educator Susie Bright, who also appears on the commentary track.

The Wachowskis were fans of Bright and sent her a copy of the script with a letter asking her to be an extra in the film. She was especially impressed by the fact that it was about women enjoying having sex and not apologizing for it. Bright recalls an early screening in San Francisco, at which a lesbian-heavy audience loudly reacted with approval to cues and symbolic motifs that went over the heads of people like me. Tilly’s hypersexual Violet shares an upscale Chicago apartment building with her mafioso boyfriend, Caesar (Joe Pantoliano). Violet meets Gershon’s Corky, an equally hot ex-con in plumber’s drag, who’s entering the door to the apartment next-door to fix the pipes. Violet sets up a rendezvous by dropping an earring into the drain of her kitchen sink. Corky is more than happy to extract it from the elbow joint, for free. Just as they’re about to get cozy, Caesar arrives home early. He buys their story and insists on paying for the work. Not long afterwards, Corky and Violet get it on for real. They also cook up a scheme to steal $2 million in laundered mob money that’s sitting in a safe in Violet’s apartment. It won’t be easy to pull off – Caesar’s bosses already mistrust him, for good reason — but the women are motivated by their desire to break out of their boxes and leave Caesar in their wake. Bound is as violent as it is sexy. Both aspects are enhanced by the Olive Films Blu-ray upgrade and several minutes of additional material in the director’s-cut version. If you’ve already watched Bound in a previous iteration, I recommend watching the featurettes ahead of a second viewing or listening to the vintage commentary track, with the Wachowskis, Tilly, Gershon, Pantoliano, Bright and editor Zach Staenberg. Also good are featurettes “Modern Noir: The Sights & Sounds of Bound,” with director of photography Bill Pope, editor Zach Staenberg and composer Don Davis; “Femme Fatales,” with Gershon and Tilly; “Here’s Johnny!,” with Christopher Meloni; “The Difference Between You and Me,” with professors B. Ruby Rich and Jennifer Moorman; “Part and Parcel,” with titles designer Patti Podesta; and an eight-page illustrated booklet, featuring an essay by critic Guinevere Turner.

Mind Game: Blu-ray
Masaaki Yuasa and Kôji Morimoto’s wondrously eclectic Mind Game is a must-see for anyone who assumes that the past, present and future of Japanimation can be traced to the drawing boards at Studio Ghibli and artists hoping to fill the vacuum left behind by the (temporary) retirement of Hayao Miyazaki. Based on a manga by Robin Nishi (“Soul Flower Train”), the genre-scrambling anime debuted here briefly at the 2005 New York Asian Film Festival, then pretty much disappeared until a sighting at the 2016 Nashville Japanese Film Festival. In between, Mind Game was screened at various international gatherings of animation buffs and, apparently, on Netflix. At the time of its release, western viewers and critics were discovering the wonders of anime in such delights as Princess Mononoke (1997), Spirited Away (2001), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and Ponyo (2008), thanks, in large part, to distribution deals with Disney and GKIDS. I suspect that the reason Mind Game wasn’t accorded the same exposure as Miyazaki’s features is its distinctly non-Ghibli look and characters. Neither is it a film that will appeal to family audiences. Its messages aren’t delivered by princesses, anthropomorphic creatures or fairies; the language can be coarse; the female protagonist’s unusually prominent breasts are a subject of much discussion; fetishes are explored; the pacing is frenetic; and characters die or are murdered. In fact, death is an essential part of the film’s narrative.

The movie’s protagonist, Nishi, is inspired by the author of the underground comic upon which Mind Game was based and some elements of the story are said to be autobiographical. If so, he’s led a roller-coaster life. Cutting to the chase, the story hinges on Nishi’s death at the hands of Yakuza thugs – one of them, “the Maradona of Osaka” –into whose path he stumbles after reuniting with Myon, the girl he fell in love with in second grade and, years later, continues to carry a torch. She’s being chased through the subway by mob enforcers demanding money owed to loan sharks by her scoundrel father. After the violent encounter in the coffee shop, Nishi’s path through the afterlife is diverted by a return visit to the restaurant, this time with a very different outcome. After dispatching with the gunman, Nishi grabs Myon and her sister and escapes in his muscle car. During a high-speed chase through city streets, right out of The Fast and the Furious, the car careens off a bridge, finally landing in the belly of a whale. They’re greeted there by a hermit, living in an undigested shipwreck, surrounded by sex toys and memorabilia from his boyhood. He treats his guests to a meal inspired by the fare at a “New York sushi bar.” Given a second chance at life, Nishi reminisces about “things that I regret leaving behind in the outside world.” Among them are the porn tapes he didn’t have time to hide from his mother and the neighborhood animals that will go unfed in his absence. The rest of Mind Game passes by in a virtual dream state, combining inky, hand-drawn animation with flashes of live-action imagery and flyovers of Japanese villages and great cities, from Paris to Osaka.

The question that hangs over the nearly 103-minute adventure is whether Nishi will be able to leave the whale’s belly and find another portal to heaven, or he’ll be allowed to return to Earth with Myon and Yan a changed man. No longer a “loser,” he’ll be driven to live each moment to the fullest. The artists help viewers keep the wildly disparate elements straight by frequently changing the color palette to denote shifts in time, tone and cinematic influences, from Hollywood blockbusters, to Ghibli’s and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry delicate watercolors, and bargain-basement anime . One artist makes a cameo in the guise of a cigarette-smoking fish. The film’s music, produced by Shinichiro Watanabe and Seiichi Yamamoto, spans the globe, as well, opening with a Brazilian samba and including storms of percussive noise. I hesitate to consign Mind Game to the list of animated features lumped together as psychedelia, but I was reminded a bit of Yellow Submarine and some of Ralph Bakshi’s more colorful fantasies. It’s very much its own creature, though. To fully appreciate the filmmakers’ intentions and influences, repeat viewings are advised, as is a perusal of bonus features that include commentary on individual scenes.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf: The Poetic Trilogy, 1996-2012: Blu-ray
Naming a series of films, The Poetic Trilogy, practically dares viewers to find something in them that justifies the conceit, whether it’s a lyricism that retains the ethereal form of a poem or spontaneity based on sudden impulses … like jazz. While a narrative poem, such as Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman,” easily translates into prose, a folk ballad or film, most others simply deliver sensory prompts useful in setting a scene, creating a character or suggesting dialogue. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl (2010) used animated sequences to interpret parts of Allen Ginsberg’s eponymous  poem, while employing actors to depict events in his early life, including the now-celebrated Six Gallery reading of the poem, the blossoming of the San Francisco Renaissance and Beat Generation, and the 1957 obscenity trial. Animation often provides a useful shortcut when interpreting poetic images. That, however, is not what Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf had in mind when he envisioned The Poetic Trilogy. As difficult as it is to translate poetry into film, it’s just that difficult to describe how Makhmalbaf managed to turn cinematic images into poetry, as light and ethereal as a sonnet. The Arrow Academy release features the deceptively folkloric dramas, Gabbeh (1996) and The Silence (1998), and an interpretive documentary, The Gardener (2012), none of which have been easy to find here, even in arthouses.

Gabbeh opens with an intricately woven Persian rug “floating” down a swiftly flowing stream. It belongs to an elderly couple, who stopped to wash the ceremonial gabbeh (rug in Farsi), which depicts a heart-rending story of love and loss. We know this because, while the couple argues over who will put on the boots used to get the rug clean, a radiantly veiled woman suddenly appears to narrate the tale, in which she plays an intricate role. The interpretation provided by Gabbeh (Shaghayeh Djodat), describes a seemingly unconsummated romance with a handsome horseman, also replicated on the carpet. Makhmalbaf not only connects Gabbeh to her dashing would-be lover, but also to the elderly couple’s personal history. In addition to being extremely lyrical, the story provides the filmmaker with several opportunities to expand upon sensory impulses that recall paintings by René Magritte. At one point, an old man literally grabs colors from nature and uses them to amplify his own story. Imbued with Sufi subtext, The Silence features a blind Tajik boy, Khorshid (Tahmineh Normatova), who earns rent money for his mother (Goibibi Ziadolahyeva) by tuning instruments and running errands for a man who turns blocks of wood and metallic string into music. Because his grandmother once led him to believe that the Koran forbids listening to music not specifically designed to glorify Islam, the boy puts cotton in his ears as he wanders past shops and coffeehouses. His acute sense of hearing cuts through the buffers, though, causing his daily walks to school and work to be delayed by the sonorous music of a musician wearing an ornamental sheepskin Cossack hat. Desperate to prevent their landlord from evicting his family, Khorshid summons the courage to ask the musician for money. Instead, the man offers the services of his band to convince the tightwad to cut the boy’s mother some slack. Finally, while strolling through a bazaar filled with drummers, the boy’s innate sense of rhythm conjures an atonal version of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 that’s nothing short of magical.

The Gardener is an imaginative documentary-within-a-documentary, in which Makhmalbaf, and his son, Maysam, travel to the Bahá’í World Centre on Mount Carmel, in Haifa, to ponder questions related to the role world religions play in the contemporary world. The Bahá’í Faith, which originated in Iran 170 years ago, is a borderless religion with 7 million followers. It is, however, banned in many Islamic countries and, in Iran, its members have been tormented and persecuted for many decades. This, despite the fact it teaches the essential worth of all religions, as well as the unity and equality of all people. The film is staged among the shrine’s spectacularly beautiful, immaculately tended and artistically conceived Monument Gardens. They provide unique backdrops for Makhmalbaf and Maysam’s spirited discussions on their own beliefs and the possibility that God has given up on humanity. As he witnesses the blissful looks on the faces of refugees from war-torn nations, the father listens closely to the advice of a gardener, who sees God’s glory and wisdom manifested most profoundly in flowers, fruit trees and other greenery. Meanwhile, the son visits the three most significant religious sites in Jerusalem … and, not incidentally, the catalysts for much violence and suffering. One of the devices the gardener uses to reflect on the garden’s beauty is a medium-sized, borderless mirror. It creates a parallel universe comprised exclusively of brilliantly colored and harmonically arranged blossoms. Makhamlbaf invites the gardener to bring the mirror with him to Haifa’s seashore to view the waves from the same perspective. As simple as it is, the mirror provides profound visual experiences … and, yes, poetry in motion. The Silence and Gabbeh benefit from 2K restorations, from the original camera negatives, as well as 1080p) presentations of all three films and original Persian soundtracks, with uncompressed LPCM audio. The package adds commentary on Gabbeh by critic Godfrey Cheshire; “Poetry in Motion,” an in-depth conversation between Makhmalbaf and critic Jonathan Romney; “Mohsen With Closed Eyes,” an imaginatively conceived interview with Makhmalbaf on The Silence; stills and a collections gallery; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Scott Saslow; and an illustrated booklet, featuring new writing by film academic Negar Mottahedeh and Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

Boss: Blu-ray
Anyone born after the trial of O.J. Simpson might be stunned to learn that an American movie released in 1975 not only was originally titled, Boss Nigger (a.k.a., “The Black Bounty Killer”), but also was marketed and advertised as such. Critics referred to the title freely in their reviews, some of which were extremely positive. The N-word, as it’s now known, is used repeatedly in the blaxploitation vehicle – more often than in Blazing Saddles (1974) and any of Quentin Tarantino’s films – which was directed by a white filmmaker, Jack Arnold (Creature From the Black Lagoon), and written and co-produced by former football star Fred Williamson, a black man, who also starred in it. It wasn’t the first or last movie that used the word in its title. Williamson also starred in The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972) and The Soul of Nigger Charley (1973), and The Six Thousand Dollar Nigger (1978), follow suit. Four early one-reelers also used the word in their titles. In almost all these cases, the titles of the video and television versions were necessarily neutralized. Like Cleavon Little’s Sheriff Bart in the Mel Brooks satire, Williamson’s eponymous character follows a circuitous path to assuming the position of sheriff in a western town without one. As a bounty hunter, Boss already had a license to “hunt white folks for a change.” When he and his comic sidekick, Amos (D’Urville Martin), ride into the town of San Miguel, they infuriate the locals by imposing a $20 fine each time they use the n-word in their presence. The first to be penalized is the town’s banker, while the next is the mayor. Neither does Boss endear himself to the constituency by hooking up with the town’s white schoolteacher (Barbara Leigh), a former Southern belle who can’t resist his charms. Despite being continually insulted and denigrated, Boss and Amos defend the town and its womenfolk against a vicious outlaw gang led by Jed Clayton (William Smith) and his notorious gang, who blackmail the town for supplies to be safe. Boss is very much a product of its time. The trailers promoted its “Get whitey” theme, while also promising plenty of action. A scene in which an outlaw threatens to trample a boy, who’s gotten in the way of his horse, is downright harrowing (and explained in a making-of featurette). The climatic showdown between Williamson and Smith also holds up. The Blu-ray package adds an informal “Conversation with Fred ‘The Hammer’ Williamson,” which is as much about football as his acting; “A Boss Memory,” with producer Myrl Schrelbman; and “Jack Arnold Tribute,” by producer Myrl Schrelbman.

Crazy Six: Blu-ray
Blast: Blu-ray
Autumn in New York: Blu-ray
Bram Stoker’s Shadowbuilder: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The MVD Rewind Collection has enjoyed a busy summer, launching two new labels – the MVD Marquee Collection and MVD Classics – designed to differentiate its lines and bring out more cult and independent films on Blu-ray. Titles in the Marquee grouping, a release says, “might be a little too new to be considered ‘cult,’ but old enough to be ‘catalogue,’” Some will be new to Blu-ray and others will be re-releases of titles that have gone out of print and are being brought back. MVD Classics collection will consist of titles that “kinda fall in between the MVD Rewind Collection and the MVD Marquee Collection and might be a little too obscure for those labels.” Not all the latter will be released on Blu-ray.

Released in 1997 and filmed in Bratislava, Slovakia, Marquee’s Crazy Six exploits the fact that the promise of democracy in former Eastern Bloc countries had begun to fade and criminals have begun to take advantage of corrupt leaders and easy money. The families we meet here are vying for control of the lucrative underground weapons and technology trade. Crazy Six (Rob Lowe) and Dirty Mao (Mario Van Peebles) are the unlikely leaders of two rival mob families, which form an uneasy alliance to overthrow Raul (Ice-T), the head of one of the largest crime cartels in Europe. But when the mission goes awry, Crimeland turns into a deadly battleground, with prominent gangsters all going for the jugular. Standing between the criminals and anarchy is the cowboy-hatted lawman, Dakota (Burt Reynolds), and an ex-junkie European chanteuse, Anna (Ivana Milicevic), whose sultry presence dilutes some of the film’s wackier conceits. While genre specialist Albert Pyun only manages to make Lowe look wildly out of place as a crack-smoking gangster – his career would rebound soon enough – he elicits compelling performances from Reynolds and Milicevic.

Also from Marquee comes Pyun’s 1997 terrorist thriller, Blast, which purports to depict a terrorist attack planned to disrupt the 1996 Summer Games, in Atlanta, but was quietly thwarted by FBI agents, lifeguards and a janitor. While police and other security forces are paying attention elsewhere, a well-oiled team of heavily armed terrorists led by the brutal Omodo (Andrew Divoff) breaks into a swimming venue, taking the American women’s team hostage. Omodo is perfectly willing to sacrifice the pretty young swimmers one-by-one – they’re conveniently left shivering in their suits – to advance his nebulous cause. (Sharp eyes might detect a pre-American Pie Shannon Elizabeth among the hostages.) What he doesn’t take into consideration is the facility’s janitor, a former Tae Kwon Do champion, who knows its layout better than anyone. Totally unprepared for an assault of this magnitude, a desperate President orders the F.B.I. to enlist the services of Interpol counter-terrorism expert, Leo (Rutger Hauer), who coordinates rescue efforts via video monitors with the trapped janitor. The only thing missing is a cameo by Bruce Willis. Blast’s biggest problem comes in the viewers’ awareness of a domestic terrorist’s successful attack on a crowd gathered at Centennial Olympic Park in 1996. The bombing killed a spectator, wounded 111 others and caused the death of a bystander by a heart attack. More interesting than anything in Blast was the subsequent investigation of the cowardly bombing, which lasted seven years, but began with the tarring of a genuine hero, Richard Jewell, in the media. In 2003, Eric Robert Rudolph was charged with and confessed to the Olympics bombing, as well as others at two abortion clinics and a gay bar.

And now for something completely different from MVD’s Rewind Collection, Autumn in New York (2000). It’s the kind of weeper Hollywood has routinely churned out since 1912, when the Franco-American Film Company became the first of many studios to adapt Alexandre Dumas’ novel, “Camille.” Here, Richard Gere plays a 50ish Manhattan restaurateur and “consummate playboy,” who, in another Hollywood fantasy, finds true love in the company of a charming and radiantly beautiful 22-year-old, portrayed by a 29-year-old Winona Ryder. A one-night-stand begets a relationship they hope will be permanent, but both know will be cut short by a serious illness. Among the things that happen in the interim are a temporary breakup and a surprise reconnection with the illegitimate daughter (Vera Farmiga) he’s never met. By the time the inevitable tragedy occurs – no spoiler alert needed – Gere’s character has become a very different man. Unlike Love Story (1970), whose characters were similar in age, if not social backgrounds, Autumn in New York failed to break even in its domestic release. It may have been saved by foreign box-office receipts, but not by much. Co-stars Anthony LaPaglia, Elaine Stritch, J.K. Simmons, Jill Hennessy, Sam Trammell and Mary Beth Hurt survived the debacle to work again another day, as did screenwriter Allison Burnett. If anyone took the heat for the bad reviews and disappointing revenues, it was Joan Chen, whose directorial career came to a screeching halt. Two years earlier, the Shanghai-born actress had garnered excellent notices for her debut at the helm of the Mandarin-language drama, Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl. After Autumn in New York, the first Hollywood film to be directed by an Asian woman, zilch. Maybe, with the success of Crazy Rich Asians, she’ll get another chance.

Released straight-to-DVD in 1998, Bram Stoker’s Shadowbuilder benefits from a head-to-tail makeover by the folks at the MVD Rewind Collection. Originally dismissed as an attempt to feed off the popularity of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as well as the growing interest in Canuxploitation flicks, Jamie Dixon’s directorial debut takes advantage of his special-effects background, while also being handcuffed by a tight budget. Not having seen Shadowbuilder in its original iteration, I can only surmise that the upgrade to Blu-ray makes it look significantly better than it did in 1998. And, the story really isn’t half-bad, compared to most genre fare finding distribution today. The always-good Michael Rooker plays a priest determined to cripple a plan by a smoky demon to eliminate a child who’s been divinely marked for sainthood. The priest shows up in time to destroy worshipers gathered in an empty warehouse, but not soon enough to prevent the devil’s minion from escaping into the city’s sewer system. Travelling underground, the demon eventually resurfaces in Grand River, a peaceful little Canadian town in which the boy (Kevin Zegers) lives with his mother (Leslie Hope). Papers left behind at the site of the massacre, lead Father Vassey to Grand River, where the creature is consuming the human blood it needs to replenish its strength. As usual, one thing leads to another and the priest sets up a final confrontation in a quaint Catholic Church. Although even his best friends probably couldn’t recognize him, Ontario actor Andrew Jackson makes a perfectly respectable monster, whose inky black tentacles and powerful puffs of smoke deliver quite a punch.  The MVD “Special Edition” adds a new, 33-minute-long making-of featurette, a backgrounder on the visual effects, an interview with Zegers. reversible artwork and a collectible poster.

Brainscan: Blu-ray
While extremely dated, Scream Factory’s upgraded edition of John Flynn and Andrew Kevin Walker’s cyber-thriller, Brainscan (1994), should provide 96 minutes of nostalgic fun for anyone who can remember when computer games required a CD-ROM. Edward Furlong (Terminator 2) plays Michael, a lonely teenager obsessed with interactive video games, movie monsters and other nerdy pursuits. After ordering a game advertised in Fangoria, Michael and his only friend, Kyle (Jamie Marsh) discover that its interactive component requires them to perform the evil biddings of “The Trickster” (T. Ryder Smith) or face the consequences. The high-tech wizardry penetrates his subconscious, where Trickster’s dark impulses lead him through a deadly maze of murder, deception and desire. Pursued by homicide detective (Frank Langella) and prodded by the cyber-villain, Michael is torn between the worlds of good and evil, life and death. The Trickster makes sure that the boys find it difficult to discern the boundaries separating reality and fantasy. Amy Hargreaves (“13 Reasons Why”) plays the girl-next-door, who somehow forgets to close the curtains in her bedroom, even when she senses that Michael’s watching her undress through binoculars and recording it on his camcorder. The Blu-ray adds new commentary with AD Tara Georges Flynn; interviews with screenwriter Walker (Se7en), Smith, special-makeup-effects supervisor Steve Johnson and effects artists Andy Schoneberg and Mike Smithson, and composer George S. Clinton; the behind-the-scenes featurette, “Trickin’ With Trickster”; a deleted scene; behind-the-scenes footage; marketing material; and a stills gallery.

My Life With Jam Dean
Brotherly Love
Even if it fails to meet certain criteria traditionally associated with screwball cesomedies, I can’t think of a better way to describe the French export, My Life With James Dean. It describes what happens when a freshman filmmaker, Géraud Champreux (Johnny Rasse), is invited to showcase his film, “My Life With James Dean,” at a theater in a small town on the Normandy coast. His trip gets off to a bad start when he realizes that he’s left his laptop at home and a boy steals his cellphone, leaving him dependent on the kindness of strangers. Worse, his host, Sylvie van Rood (Nathalie Richard), is AWOL and the theater’s two employees aren’t aware of any special screening. When the projectionist does find the explicitly gay film, which isn’t about the American actor, it’s shown to an audience of one elderly woman. What she thinks of the movie is never made clear, nor is it easy to see why such a graphic film would be exhibited here, especially in the off-season. The tall, handsome projectionist, Balthazar (Mickaël Pelissier), on the other hand, is so moved by what he’s seen that it prompts him to exit the closet in which he’s been living. While Géraud’s room reservation was made, at least, the kooky receptionist (Juliette Damiens) seems determined to make it as difficult as possible for him to relax. The next morning, a sincerely apologetic Sylvie connects with the filmmaker, explaining that her roller-coaster relationship with her girlfriend had taken yet another turn for the worse and she’d simply forgotten him. Balthazar also shows up, pledging his willingness to do anything – anything – to make Géraud’s stay happier. With his star/lover making himself scarce to him, Géraud decides to take him up on the offer. This sets up another row of dominoes, which will fall in several unexpected directions, most of them amusing.  If the movie-within-the-movie is described as sexually explicit, the movie itself isn’t any more graphic than La Cage aux Folles. The only questionable moment comes when Balthazar reveals something personal that could change everything, including our perception of the protagonist.

Brotherly Love is the movie adaptation of Salvatore Sapienza’s Lambda Literary Award-nominated novel, “Seventy Times Seven.” I wish the title weren’t altered to appeal – I’m guessing – to viewers looking for something more stimulating than a bible lesson, however relevant. “Jesus instructed us to forgive those who have wronged us seventy times seven times,” is the message Vito Fortunato (writer/director Anthony J. Caruso) delivers to the boys in his high school religion class. Fortunato is an out-gay seminarian, in the final stages of being ordained a brother in the Catholic Church. He may not advertise his penchant for partying and cruising, but he doesn’t keep his proclivities hidden very deeply from his immediate supervisors and fellow seminarians. Before committing to breaking the Church’s laws every time he puts on his vestments, Fortunato agrees to spend some time at a Catholic AIDS Care Center in Austin. Although he isn’t shown doing any good deeds there, Fortunato receives all sorts of advice and support from priests and brothers who’ve asked themselves the same questions. At the same time, he falls for an appealing landscaper, Gabe (Derek Babb), who encourages Fortunato to fish or cut bait. Most of this is played for laughs by characters who fit the description of likeable stereotypes and reference every gay icon and cultural touchstone that can fit into its overlong 118-minute length. Sapienza’s novel is set in the early 1990s, when the AIDS epidemic forced clergy to provide real answers to tough questions posed by parishioners dealing with the crises in their lives. Twenty-five years later, priests are still confronting the same basic issues. The answer to one of them, “Can a man of faith be true to his God and sexual identity, and still wear the collar?,” has now been clouded by sexual-abuse scandals within the Church and the devious ways it’s dealt with them. Caruso’s decision to star in Brotherly Love, which he also directed and wrote, probably was forced by budgetary considerations. It can be argued that it served to trivialize issues that probably were handled differently in the book.

PBS: Garfield’s Halloween Adventure
PBS Kids: Ready Jet Go! Jet’s First Halloween
I don’t know when “Garfield in Disguise” morphed into “Garfield’s Halloween Adventure,” but it probably came about when holiday spending began to soar into 10-figure numbers. (Last year, it reached an estimated $9.1 billion.) Between candy, costumes and haunted houses, consumers dished out an average of $86.1, which was up more than $3 from 2016. These Halloween-themed DVDs arrived before commercial expectations for 2018 could be predicted, with others hot on their trail. The Halloween special, “Garfield in Disguise,” first aired in 1985, near October 31. It won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program and was adapted into an an illustrated children’s book. As “Garfield’s Halloween Adventure,” it’s become a perennial treat. In it, Garfield and Odie put on their pirate costumes to get as much Halloween candy as possible. After a successful night trick-or-treating, Garfield spots even more houses across the river. Once they get there, though, they wind up in a haunted house, where real ghostly pirates are expected to arrive any minute. The DVD also includes “Garfield Goes Hollywood,” during which Jon, Garfield and Odie win a local TV talent contest and head to Hollywood for the finals.

Having debuted on October 24, 2016, PBS Kids’ “Ready Jet Go! Jet’s First Halloween” is a far fresher commodity. In the two-parter, Sydney, Sean and Mindy make a list of everything they need to do to give Jet a classic Halloween experience, including carving jack-o-lanterns, dressing up in costumes and trick-or-treating through the neighborhood. Celery takes the kids on a quick trip to space to see what causes a lunar eclipse, while a neighbor briefs them on the Red Moon phenomenon.  Carrot and Celery turn their garage into a haunted house. Jet and Sunspot even make Mindy’s Halloween wish of seeing a witch fly across the Red Moon on a broom come true. Produced in cooperation with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “Ready Jet Go!” is aimed at kids

The DVD Wrapup: 1st Reformed, Bleeding Steel, Higher Power, Black Water, Porcupine Lake, Tingler, Strait-Jacket, Tideland, Wild at Heart, Jack Ryan, Terror, Hillary, Outback, Blacklist, Walking Dead … More

Thursday, August 23rd, 2018

First Reformed: Blu-ray
Paul Schrader’s films have always been informed by his upbringing in a strict Calvinist family, in a community, Grand Rapids, that serves “as home base for the Christian Reformed Church of North America.” He graduated from Calvin College — also located in Grand Rapids — with a minor in theology. He found his true calling, though, while studying at Columbia University, where he began making up for lost time by watching the movies his parents denied him until he was 18. He went on to earn a M.A. in film studies at UCLA Film School, where he also spent a lot of time removed from the real world, in screening rooms. A protégé of Pauline Kael, Schrader paid his dues as a film critic, while also producing screenplays with his brother, Leonard (The Yakuza). Before writing and directing his most autobiographical film to date, Hardcore, he wrote or co-wrote Mean Streets, Obsession, Rolling Thunder and Blue Collar, which he also directed. Hardcore opens in Grand Rapids, where George C. Scott plays a devout Calvinist and businessman. When his Jake VanDorn learns that his teenage daughter has disappeared from a church trip and likely has been absorbed into Los Angeles’ sexual underworld, he follows the lead of John Wayne in The Searchers and attempts to rescue her, whether or not she agrees to it. The movie was based on a story Schrader had heard as a high school student. It involved a Grand Rapids teenager, who went missing and eventually was found to have appeared in an adult movie. In a very real sense, Hardcore spanned Schrader’s youth and some of his experiences in Los Angeles, which also informed Mean Streets. He conceived of VanDorn’s ordeal as being both a test of faith and a mission from God. Travis Bickle was on a mission from something else.

First Reformed is set in a religiously minded community of New Englanders caught between traditional beliefs and the commercial realities of megachurches and politically connected preachers. Ethan Hawke plays the       Reverend Ernst Toller, who, as a young man, served as a chaplain in Vietnam and, later, lost his son after he pushed him to enlist in the Iraq War. His wife divorced him soon thereafter. He presides over a historic Dutch Reformed congregation that’s about to celebrate its 250th anniversary, but, otherwise, survives mostly as a tourist attraction – it once served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, to Canada – subsidized by the larger megachurch, overseen by the Reverend Joel Jeffers Church (Cedric “The Entertainer” Kyless). As hard as Toller labors over his sermons and a journal of personal thoughts, the pews in his church are practically empty. One Sunday, after services, a pregnant parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), asks Toller for help with a problem in her marriage. After spending time in jail in Canada, Mary’s radical-environmentalist husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), has returned to Snowbridge depressed, angry and determined to do something that will draw attention to the cause. Michael wants Mary to get an abortion, because he does not want to bring a child into a world that will be rendered almost uninhabitable by climate change and pollution. Toller advises against such an extreme action, and he thinks he may have made some headway with the couple. Instead, Michael’s spiel makes more of an impression on Toller than the other way around. How, he asks, can any Christian – especially a minister – stand by idly while industrialists and governments profit from destroying God’s glorious gift to mankind? It’s a fair question, as were the ones asked 40 years earlier of priests during the Vietnam War and during in conflicts in Central America.

The next time Toller hears from Mary, she asks him to provide Michael with more counsel. When he arrives at their home, Michael’s nowhere to be found. In his absence, Mary takes the liberty of showing Toller a suicide belt that her husband has hidden in the garage. The next thing he knows, Michael has texted him a message asking him to meet him in a nearby park, where he wants the minister to bear witness to his suicide and report it to Mary and the police. Naturally, Toller’s shocked and saddened by Michael’s death. Unexpectedly, though, it forces him to question his own dedication to God’s bounty. He also wonders about the kind of passion that would lead a vital young man and soon-to-be father to draw attention to his cause by killing himself. As he ponders the question, Toller sinks deeper into an addiction to alcohol. If that weren’t bad enough, he has also begun tests for a serious digestive problem, which could be cancer. After doing some research on the Internet, he recognizes a local industrialist and major church benefactor as one of the world’s leading polluters and a likely target of the suicide bombing. When he learns that the man will be speaking at the consecration of his church, Toller starts to believe that Michael has left the suicide vest behind as test of his resolve. Mary remains at his side long enough to make him consider other options. No need to spoil anything else about First Reformed. If this scenario seems more than a little bit unlikely, it would be difficult to walk away from the movie without asking some of the same questions Michael asks Toller, especially those pertaining to mankind’s obligation to God. It’s powerful stuff and the actors make it seem real. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Schrader and the incisive featurette, “Discernment: Contemplating First Reformed,” which includes interviews with Schrader and Hawke.

Bleeding Steel: Blu-ray
Higher Power: Blu-ray
At the ripe old age of 64, with 56 of those years spent making movies and performing stunts, Hong Kong’s gift to the world, Jackie Chan, shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, 2017 and 2018 will go down as his most prolific period since the early 1970s, when he worked in more than two dozen action pictures, several of them without being credited for it. While it’s true that Chan’s most recent credits include some voice-over assignments, there are scenes in Bleeding Steel that would defy any attempt by an outsider to guess his age. The best one takes place high atop one of the Sydney Opera House’s shelled roofs. Even from the comfort of one’s own couch, the high-altitude skirmish is capable of triggering vertigo. Beyond that wonderful set piece, however, and a couple of typically spectacular fight scenes staged on firm soil, is a movie that can’t decide if it wants to be a sci-fi thriller, a la Terminator and Star Wars – one of the villains resembles a Sith lord – or the most far-out Hong Kong action picture in memory. Bleeding Steel opens with special forces agent Lin Dong (Chan) speeding his way across town, split between his desire to bid a final farewell to his ailing daughter and an order from headquarters to escort bioengineering expert, James (Kim Gyngell), to a high-security facility. Choosing the latter, Lin loses most of his team in an ambush, led by a seemingly invincible bioroid warrior, Andre (Callan Mulvey), desperate for the immortality serum James has invented. After a thunderous explosion, he lands in a hospital unconscious, as well.

The movie then leaps forward 13 years, to 2020, with Lin now working odd jobs in Sydney and the coincidental release of a book about a mutated human girl with heightened physical powers and an artificial heart. Out of nowhere arrive a pair of ultra-kinky Amazons – also bioroids, one suspects – who attempt to coerce the writer into revealing his sources for the book. When that doesn’t happen and things in the hotel room turn nasty, Lin arrives in the nick of time to save him.  Meanwhile, though, while working in a Sydney ice-cream parlor (don’t ask), the former Hong Kong cop breaks up a fight between racist Aussie schoolgirls and a Chinese university student, Nancy (Nana Ouyang), who surprises herself with her ability to fight off her preppie adversaries. Something in the way she moves reminds Lin of himself. When Nancy’s subconscious kicks into high gear, 13 years of deep-seated memories come to the fore. They somehow alert the bioroids to her presence, ensuring a series of car chases and the battle royal at the Opera House. Did I mention the spaceship hovering over Sydney like a leftover prop from District 9? If not, it’s only because I have no idea what co-writer/director Leo Zhang (Chrysanthemum to the Beast) and co-writers Erica Xia-Hou and Cui Siwei were thinking when they added it to the screenplay. No extras, but Chan reprises the song from his 1985 gem, Police Story, for the end credits.

Compared to Matthew Charles Santoro and co-writer Julia Fair’s visual-effects extravaganza Higher Power, everything that happens to Chan in Bleeding Steel is completely logical and everything in the narrative makes sense, including the spaceship. Both are listed as science-fiction thrillers, which is as accurate description, but only as far as it goes. From what I can tell, the backers of Higher Power made no effort to distribute the film any further than a screening at the theater Fair manages on Bainbridge Island, Washington, and maybe a couple of others.  Box Office Mojo puts the total domestic gross at $528. I doubt that anyone within 20 miles of those theaters knew Higher Power was playing nearby, unless the screenwriter invited them. It reportedly was made for a mere $500,000 – a number I seriously doubt – which would mean that precious little money was left over for publicity. The blurbs on the Blu-ray cover are limited to “From the producer of Transformers and G.I. Joe” and “Visual effects artist of 300, Fantastic Four and X-Men Origins.” Left unsaid is the fact that Higher Power is Santoro’s first film as a director and, while the VFX are fine, everything else about the movie betrays an unsteady hand. The plot description could fit dozens, maybe hundreds of science-fiction pictures released over the course of the last 100 years: an ordinary man is faced with the task of saving the world from destruction. Apparently, Earth is imperiled by a star in the Milky Way, which is about to collapse into a black hole. It is believed that it will emit a ray of energy so powerful that it will destroy us. OK, but do we have to wait another hour for that to happen? A mad scientist (Colm Feore) attempts to deal with the dilemma by executing a planetwide DNA scan to find a man or woman who matches his criteria. Voila. The match arrives in the form of a former alcoholic and widower named Joe (Ron Eldard), with a chip on his shoulders and two estranged daughters (Jordan Hinson, Marielle Jaffe). Joe is injected with chemicals that give him electromagnetic powers, including visual properties not unlike those accorded the Transformers. If the threat of total destruction weren’t enough to persuade Joe to cooperate with the scientist, he orders his thugs to harass his daughters. The rest of the story – most of it – is a demonstration of special visual effects in the service of what I can only surmise is a “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” experience. I wouldn’t know. I haven’t seen the 4K UHD edition, but it almost certainly is more visually dynamic than the Blu-ray.

The Ninth Passenger
If ever a movie was made to be exhibited on “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” it’s The Ninth Passenger, a cross-subgenre thriller whose two halves appear to have been written, directed and conceptualized separately, by two people who’ve never met each other. The first involves seven college-age men and women, who converge on luxurious yacht one afternoon, for the sole purpose of getting drunk, high and laid. All the men have professed to their dates that they either own the boat or are booger buddies with the man who does. Only one of them wouldn’t be telling a lie. He’s trying to juggle two of the women, one he just met and the other, a jealous sort who he’s been dating and is feeling neglected. The women have chosen to go along with the lies, if for no other reason than the men aren’t half-bad looking, there’s an open bar and endless lines of cocaine. It’s a pretty cool place to party. The eighth passenger, Brady (Jesse Metcalfe), is a guy who snuck onto the yacht before any of them had arrived and remained busy below decks searching for something he believes the owner has hidden there. Naturally, the unwelcome guests interrupt his plans. Before long, the men will be forced to acknowledge the truth to their disappointed dates, and Brady will reveal himself to others, claiming to be a mechanic. So far, so good, if all one is looking for his some barely legal skin and lots of sophomoric humor.

The plot thickens considerably when the boat slips from its moorings and begins drifting away from the pier. It provides as good an excuse as any for the men to suggest to their date that they spend a couple of carefree hours on the water, canoodling. Then, almost exactly half way through The Ninth Passenger’s runtime, something goes bump in the night and the lights and power shut down at once. It signals the end of one movie and beginning of the next, with the titular ninth passenger being as silly-looking a monster as I’ve seen in years. The seaborne creature is somehow able to climb aboard the boat and wander around, looking for something to eat. A dinghy has already departed the yacht, headed for a nearby island. Once there, they discover a laboratory – linked to the ship’s owner — whose walls and floor are streaked with blood. The rest of the story is reasonably predictable, if no less ridiculous. The funniest thing are the monsters, who resemble duck-bill platypuses that have been crossed-fertilized with daffodil pollen and the semen of a Creature From the Black Lagoon. One of the passengers defends himself with a speargun, which would be fine, if his trigger finger weren’t so quick and his aim terrible. Co-writer/director/actor Corey Large never appears to have a firm understanding of what separates horror and comedy from missed opportunities, or a convincing way to explain the genesis of the monsters. As stupid as this might sound, I wonder how The Ninth Passenger might have looked if the producers of Sharknado had been called in at the last minute to rescue it, perhaps, even, finding a role for Tara Reid.

Black Water: Blu-ray
Pasha Patriki and Chad Law’s underwater-escape thriller reminds me so much of the Escape Plan movies that I began to wonder if the filmmakers slept through an airing of one or both of them on cable TV and absorbed the plots subliminally. Instead of featuring reasonable facsimiles of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Black Water stars fossilized versions of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, whose collaborations include Universal Soldier (1992), Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009), Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012) and The Expendables 2 (2012). None of the actors is completely over the hill, but they probably could see the top from the craft-services truck. The foolishness begins with Van Damme’s deep-cover operative, Wheeler, waking up in a prison cell somewhere that he can’t identify.  He makes contact with the prisoner next door, Marco (Lundgren), who encourages him to try to recall the last thing he remembers. Flashing backward, only a day, he recalls waking up in nicely appointed motel room, alongside the unforgettably beautiful spook, Melissa Ballard, played by Courtney B Turk, who’s almost exactly half the actor’s age. Even though she’ll disappear for quite a while after the bedroom scene and subsequent skirmish in the parking lot, Turk logs about as much screen time as headliner Lundgren, who could have phoned in his role via Skype. After dispatching a couple dozen machine-gun toting thugs outside the Alabama motel, Van Damme is chased by operatives searching for a thumb drive containing top-secret information. Once cornered, Wheeler is taken to a CIA “black site” on a submarine, parked in a convenient location nearby. His cell is located alongside the one occupied by Lundgren’s Marco, who appears to be content catching up on his reading while in stir. Wheeler isn’t as fortunate, as his keepers – still unknown to him – demand he provide the drive. The longer they torture him, however, the more time they allow him to conjure an escape plan and pick up something sharp to help him kill guards and unlock doors and cuffs. Turns out, the interrogation is being handled by brass from both the CIA and FBI, who can’t decide if Wheeler’s a traitor hoping to sell the drive to the highest bidder or a patriot. What do you think will happen? The guards listening in on the interrogation begin to wonder what kind of game their superiors are playing and choose sides.

One of them, Jasmine Waltz, who plays the glamorous FBI agent Cassie Taylor, has a background that’s more interesting than anything else in the picture. Besides acting (sort of), Waltz has earned paychecks as a model, cocktail waitress, dancer and reality-show contestant. She’s also a graduate of a maximum-security school for wayward girls. The Las Vegas native shares with Kim Kardashian the distinction of having re-leaked her own leaked sex tape; punched Lindsay Lohan is a snit over a shared boyfriend; and being outed as one of David Arquette’s lovers during his separation from Courtney Cox. In Hollywood, that kind of notoriety will get you a star on Hollywood Boulevard quicker than a supporting role in a sitcom.  In any case, when Wheeler accomplishes what everyone in the audience knows he will, she’s one of the agents, who, with Lundgren, help spring him. With all the leftover submarine sets lying around in warehouses across America, I’m surprised the producers couldn’t find one a tad more claustrophobic than the sub in Black Water. The interrogation might as well be taking place in Langley. Of course, freeing Wheeler and exposing the real backstabbers is only two-thirds of the battle. They still must get off the submarine, just as Stallone did in Escape Plan 2. It will be interesting who gets jailed at Guantanamo Bay first, Sly or JCVD.

Show Yourself
Some of the best titles are wasted on films that never see the light of a theater’s arc lamp or only register on the Richter scales of towns on the festival circuit. Billy Ray Brewton’s intriguingly named Skanks in a One Horse Town! – note the exclamation point — is a live video recording of the similarly titled stage musical about three Studio 54 patrons, who — thanks to Steve Rubell’s “magical disco ball” — travel back in time to the Old West. The sleepy town in which they land, Deep Hole, is threatened by a local railroad baron with the arrival of a disruptive steam train. Among the celebrities impersonated in the musical are Meat Loaf, Conway Twitty and Anita Bryant. Although it sounds a bit like the long-running San Francisco musical revue, “Beach Blanket Babylon,” I’m not sure if the drag musical/documentary has ever played anywhere beyond Birmingham, Alabama, the 2014 Slamdance festival and the Internet. According to David McMahon, writer/director/producer of Skanks, a later behind-the-curtains documentary, the creators were influenced by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy’s delightful comedy, Waiting for Guffman: As we edited Skanks, it became clear that we were in some way trying to defy the Guffman-esque expectations people have of community theater.” I wish Brewton had included Skanks in a One Horse Town! as a bonus feature on the DVD edition of Show Yourself, his far more conventional follow-up.

Shot in the scenic Los Padres National Forest, an hour’s drive from L.A., Show Yourself is a ghost story that takes advantage of modern technology and old-fashioned solitude. It stars Ben Hethcoat as Travis, a young actor taking a few days removed from the grid to scatter the ashes of his best friend, Paul (Clancy McCartney), who recently committed suicide. Although he couldn’t bring himself to deliver a eulogy, Travis accepted the responsibility of returning to their boyhood haunt to perform the last rites. Not long after he arrives at the family cabin, things begin to get strange … not scary particularly, but spooky. Travis overcomes his nerves by calling his agent on his cellphone and remaining in Skype contact with his drinking-partner brother and ex-girlfriend, an unsympathetic two-timer, whose cluelessness in their friend’s suicide isn’t terribly credible. As the heeby-jeeby moments mount up, it becomes increasingly clear that Paul’s ghost will show up in due time. The first one comes after Travis scatters a couple handfuls of ashes in a pond in which they used to swim. Suspicious knocks on the door of the cabin also disturb him. Even so, he drives to a camping spot, higher in the mountains, where the inevitable encounter occurs. Sadly, it’s more dramatic than scary. It works, though. Finally, through flashbacks, we learn how the friends became estranged and how much was left unsaid between them when Paul died. Brewton takes full advantage of the high-altitude setting.

Porcupine Lake
Speed Walking
In Ingrid Veninger’s heartfelt coming-of-adolescence drama, Porcupine Lake, two 13-year-old girls – the cautious summer-resident, Bea (Charlotte Salisbury), and precocious townie, Kate (Lucinda Armstrong Hall, waste no time becoming fast friends and cuddle buddies. If this were a coming-of-age movie and the girls were 17, it’s likely that they’d be on more equal footing, with the visitor from Toronto initiating the first embrace. As it is, however, Bea hasn’t yet experienced her first menstrual cycle and her curiosity is sparked by Kate’s willingness to meet her eyes in a chance encounter and her offer to help sell hand-made trinkets in front her parents’ restaurant/service station. After that, they’re practically inseparable. Because Bea’s mom and dad are a divorce waiting to happen, they give her a lot freedom to hang out at Kate’s trashy home, with her brother, his reprobate friends and a mom who long ago stopped caring about appearances. Her family is so dysfunctional, in fact, that Kate has convinced herself she was adopted. If Veninger rushed Bea and Kate’s attraction to each other, she allows their friendship to blossom naturally, by sharing secrets, swimming in the lake in their undies and swapping valuables. When the crisis point arrives, it’s triggered by an incident that has nothing to do with their friendship, but everything to do with their families’ dysfunctions. Porcupine Lake is played by Port Severn, a lovely town about 100 miles due north of Toronto, if only as the crow flies. The movie might remind viewers of Pawel Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love (2004), which introduced Emily Blunt to feature audiences. First-timer Salisbury and Hall (“Neighbors”) are wonderfully natural actors and don’t look as if they might be adult women, playing 13-year-olds. The DVD adds the feature-length making-of doc, “The Other Side of Porcupine Lake,” audition videos and interviews with the cast and crew.  For those who care about such things, the Canadian ratings board gave Porcupine Lake a 14A, while, in Sweden, the age designation was 11.

Speed Walking is another coming-of-adolescence movie, dealing with similar issues and emotions, but in the rural harbor town of Kerteminde, Denmark. The sexuality is a bit more open and obvious here, but most of it involves adults reacting to the liberalization of pornography laws in the mid-1970s. Everything revolves around 14-year-old Martin (Villads Bøye), an undersized towhead approaching Confirmation. His closest friends, also blond, are Kim (Frederik Winther Rasmussen) and Kristine (Kraka Donslund Nielsen), who probably have already passed the invisible gateway to adulthood and can’t wait for Martin to join them. In the meantime, however, he’s preoccupied with the death of his mother, his father’s nihilism, his brother’s peculiarities and the first signs of impending puppy love, coming from two distinctly different directions. Everything else will have to wait until after Confirmation ceremony, which is as big deal among Protestants as First Holy Communion is to Catholic kids. Speed Walking was directed by Niels Arden Oplev, who very capably directed the first adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009). Again, for those who care about such things, the film was classified 11 in Denmark and 16 in Germany. It probably would get a R-rating here. The title derives from the after-school sport at which the boys excel, but has become tiresome.

The Tingler: Blu-ray
Strait-Jacket: Blu-ray
Horror buffs will rejoice at news of this week’s double-barreled release of William Castle’s exploitation classics, Strait-Jacket (1964) and The Tingler (1959). The former was directed by the master showman from a script by Robert Bloch (Psycho), and starred Joan Crawford, who was only one picture (The Caretakers) removed from her comeback role in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? At 58, Crawford was barely able to pull off playing the protagonist, an ax-murderer in her mid-40s, let alone the 20-years-young version of herself. Bloch may have been inspired by the old rhyme, “Lizzie Borden took an ax/And gave her mother 40 whacks/When she saw what she had done/She gave her father 41,” except with “husband” substituted for “mother” and “her father” with “his girlfriend.” Crawford plays the Lizzie Borden wannabe Lucy Harbin, who’s just been released from a 20-year stay in a facility for the criminally insane. Her deceptively prim daughter, Carol (Diane Baker), who witnessed the killings, suggests that Lucy might feel a bit more grounded if she invested in some cosmetics, a new dress and a brunette wig. And, they do just that. And, while Carol tries mightily to make Lucy feel at home, “Mommy, Dearest” returns the favor by hitting on her boyfriend. (She even goes so far as to stick her fingers in his mouth.) As could have been predicted, though, nasty things begin happening around the house, including, yes, ax murders. Castle and Bloch leave plenty of room for conjecture as to the identity of the killer, but don’t expect any spoilers here. George Kennedy (“Dallas”) makes one of his first non-TV appearances in Strait-Jacket, as does Lee Majors, in the thankless role of Lucy’s husband.

For many years, I ranked The Tingler among the scariest movies I’d ever seen. I can’t remember watching it in a theater with seats tricked out with vibrators or nurses in attendance, but they would have been superfluous to our enjoyment of the thriller. After watching it again, for the first time in several decades, I can understand why I might have reacted the way I did to the eponymous creature. It’s likely that Castle’s unexpected shifts from black & white to color, and some trippy visual effects, also affected me … as intended. Does the movie still hold up? Well, Vincent Price continues to delight as the scientist who discovers the relationship between instances of extreme fright in humans and a lobster-like critter that hugs the spines of its victims and is nourished by those fears. Doctor Chapin also discovers that loud screams will cause the Tingler to release its prey. Later, after the parasitic creature is extracted and placed in a cage that isn’t strong enough to contain it. Skipping ahead, the Tingler finds its way into the projectionist’s booth of an adjacent movie theater, reveals its silhouette to the audience and drops to the sticky floor below. Instead of panicking, Chapin urges the patrons to scream at the top of the lungs when they feel something creepy, which is exactly what happened in theaters equipped with vibrators in seats upon its release. (Our third-tier theater couldn’t afford such luxuries and we flipped flattened popcorn boxes at the screen, instead.”) One thing I missed when I was a kid is that Chapin’s assistant (Darryl Hickman) recognizes the acidy chemical makeup of the Tingler’s venom as resembling the compound then being tested on American servicemen and intelligence officers as a truth serum. That drug was LSD and, although the hallucinogenic experience in the movie produced nightmare visions, a more refined form of “acid” would, seven years late, fuel the Summer of Love. Because none of this was widely known at the time, it adds some nostalgic fun to the story.

What really makes these Blu-rays special, though, are bonus packages that goes way beyond what is expected of such things. New featurettes on Straight-Jacket include “Joan Had Me Fired,” an interview with short-lived co-star Anne Helm; “On the Road with Joan Crawford,” a treatise on diva behavior by publicist Richard Kahn; new commentary with authors/film historians Steve Haberman, David J. Schow and Constantine Nasr; and ported-over material, “Battle-Ax: The Making of Strait-Jacket,” “Joan Crawford Costume and Makeup Tests,” and “Ax Swinging Screen Test,” theatrical trailers and a stills gallery. Special features with The Tingler are new commentary by author/historian Steve Haberman; “I Survived The Tingler,” an interview with co-star Pamela Lincoln; “Unleashing ‘Percepto’,” an interview with publicist Barry Lorie; along with vintage featurettes “Scream for Your Lives! William Castle and The Tingler,” Castle’s drive-in “Scream!” promo, an original “scream” scene, the original 1959 recording for theatre lobbies and a stills gallery. Movies used to be so much fun.

Tideland: Blu-ray
Only those viewers willing to sacrifice a couple hours of time to experience the work of a mad genius are likely to benefit from Arrow Video’s repackaging of Terry Gilliam’s 10th feature, Tideland (2005). Co-writer/director Terry Gilliam (Time Bandits) admits as much in the short introduction to his seriously twisted adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s celebrated cult novel. (He once described “Tideland,” as “Alice in Wonderland meets Psycho through the eyes of Amélie,” and, if you catch the references, the description is pretty much on target.”) Tideland also made me think of how The Wizard of Oz might have turned out, if Dorothy’s house had overflown Munchkinland and landed in a suburb of hell. The protagonist here is 9-year-old Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland), who was raised in a remote part of Texas by a heroin-addicted rock-star father, Noah (Jeff Bridges) – she helps him shoot up – and a schizophrenic mother, Queen Gunhilda (Jennifer Tilly). When her mother dies, Noah and Jeliza-Rose re-locate to a seemingly abandoned farmhouse, where, we’re led to believe, he was raised. Noah quickly overdoses, leaving his daughter in the company of an eccentric family of ghosts, lorded over by Janet McTeer. The location reminded me of Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World,” Edward Hopper’s “House by the Railroad” and similar motifs found in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, which also was shot in the golden splendor of a wheat field in summer. Jeliza-Rose doesn’t appear to have much problem adjusting to the solitude of her decaying home and its environs. She discovers a cache of vintage dresses, hats, wigs, shoes and makeup and befriends a hyperactive boy (Brendan Fletcher) living there. Meanwhile, Noah’s cadaver slowly decays on a bed upstairs. Yes, Tideland is every bit that strange. Even so, Gilliam creates images and settings so imaginative they demand to be seen and savored. The Arrow Blu-ray adds commentary by Gilliam and co-writer Tony Grisoni; “Getting Gilliam,” a 45-minute documentary on the making of Tideland by Vincenzo Natali; a making-of featurette; “Filming Green Screen,” with commentary by Gilliam; interviews with Gilliam, producer Jeremy Thomas and actors Bridges, Ferland and Tilly; deleted scenes, with commentary; B-roll footage; a gallery; a reversible sleeve, featuring two choices of original artwork; and illustrated collector’s booklet, with writing on the film by Neil Mitchell.

Wild at Heart: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
A bit of a mystery surrounds the delayed release of the “Collector’s Edition” of David Lynch’s doomed romance, Wild at Heart (1990). Just as Amazon began filling orders for the Blu-ray last May, Shout!Factory announced that it was delaying the general release until August 21. Since no big stink has been raised in the meantime, it’s safe to assume that the problem was indiscernible to the untrained eye or hear … mine included … perhaps something missing on the soundtrack or main menu. Anyway, it’s here and looks great. Too bad, it isn’t available in 4K UHD. Despite its winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes, critics hardly knew what to make of its excesses, fantasies and depictions of unhinged sexuality and violence. In fact, many of them loathed it. The only Academy Award nomination it received was for Best Supporting Actress (Diane Ladd), but, in hindsight, it can be argued that Lynch, Nic Cage, Laura Dern (Ladd’s daughter), Willem Dafoe and cinematographer Frederick Elme (Blue Velvet) deserved one, as well. I imagine that most of the people who would naturally be attracted to Wild at Heart – or any of Lynch’s works — have already watched it in theaters or on video, at least once. It’s also reasonable to assume that it would offend the same number of viewers – if not critics and scholars – as in 1990. Maybe, though, they’d find it easier to separate the inky-dark humor from the perverse violence and sex. For the uninitiated, though, Lynch’s adaptation of Barry Gifford’s novel describes a possibly insane mother’s attempt to extinguish her daughter’s incendiary love affair with a career criminal, Sailor (Cage), who thinks he’s the reincarnation of Elvis Presley. The young woman, Lula (Dern), can’t help but remind Sailor of Dorothy, in The Wizard of Oz, and her mother, Marietta Fortune (Ladd), of the Wicked Witch of the West. Through Marietta’s various sexual entanglements with members of the Dixie Mafia, she’s arranged to have Sailor killed. Dafoe plays the maniacal assassin, Bobby Peru, assigned to do the deed. They meet in a speck of dust town in Texas, called Big Tuna. The Shout Select Blu-ray adds a new interview with Gifford, more than an hour of deleted scenes and ported-over featurettes from previous editions.

Jack Ryan 5-Film Collection: Blu-ray, UHD 4K/HDR
In advance of the August 31 launch of the Amazon Prime original series, “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan,” starring John Krasinski, as the up-and-coming CIA analyst, and Wendell Pierce, as Admiral James Greer, Paramount has released “Jack Ryan 5-Film Collection” in 4K UHD/HDR. You can watch the movies in the order of their original release or chronologically, based on Ryan’s age. It includes The Hunt for Red October (1990), the underwater thriller, with Alec Baldwin, Sean Connery and James Earl Jones; Patriot Games (1992), the IRA thriller, with Harrison Ford now in the catbird seat; Clear and Present Danger (1994), in which Ryan/Harrison and Willem Dafoe take on Colombian cartels and bloodthirsty American advisers to the president; The Sum of All Fears (2002), in which Ben Affleck, as Ryan, must stop a terrorist plan to provoke a war between the U.S. and Russia; and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014), an origin story, with Chris Pine as the young covert CIA analyst, Ryan, uncovering a Russian plot to crash the U.S. economy. By far the most successful financially was John McTiernan’s “Red October,” while critics gave slightly higher marks to Phillip Noyce’s “Games” and “Danger.” I didn’t find any new bonus features, in addition to those ported over to the Blu-rays in the boxed set. A la carte versions of the quintet, in 4K UHD/HDR, won’t be available until December 31, 2018. Given the age of the first three films in the package – also the best – the 4K presentation is a slight improvement of the Blu-rays. The HDR audio is noticeably more dynamic, though.

AMC: The Terror: The Complete First Season
PBS: Hillary
PBS: Outback
NBC: Blacklist: The Complete Fifth Season
AMC: The Walking Dead: The Complete Eighth Season: Blu-ray
More movies and television series have depicted the banishment of Victor Frankenstein’s Creature to the North Pole than have documented the doomed Franklin Expedition, which ended with two British ships trapped in the Arctic ice pack and all hands lost to the elements and disease. Far better known, too, is the fate of Ernest Shackleton’s final visit to Antarctica, which also ended badly. Here, Captain Sir John Franklin (Ciarán Hinds), leads the expeditionaries, who, in 1845, departed England aboard two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, committed to mapping an unnavigated section of the Northwest Passage. Largely mythical, the passage was believed to connect open waters on the Atlantic and Pacific sides of North America. In winter, of course, it would be completely frozen and bereft of sunshine. AMC’s nine-part mini-series, “The Terror,” is based on a 2007 novel by American author, Dan Simmons. Ironically, the book was published less than a decade before explorers would, for the first time, locate the substantial remains of both ships in the same region it described. News of the discoveries didn’t get in the way of a good psychological thriller, however. If the sheer horror of being stranded in a desolate land, in constantly freezing weather, for two years, weren’t sufficiently dramatic, the mini-series throws in a gigantic polar bear that terrorizes the sailors when they attempt to mount missions to known towns hundreds of miles to the south of the ice pack. Members of the small Eskimo community nearby believes the bear to be an evil spirit incapable of being killed and dedicated to their destruction. Meanwhile, life on the ships goes on with all the twists, turns and back-stabbings normally associated with such shows. Not all of it is terribly exciting, but, given the little we know about the expedition, it’s possible to hope for a partially happy ending, at least. Some of the actors who should be familiar to American viewers are Jared Harris (“Mad Men”), Tobias Menzies (“Rome”), Paul Ready (“The Tunnel”), Ian Hart (Harry Potter) and Nive Nielsen (The New World). The icy cinematography made me shiver, even though I live in California. The DVD/Blu-ray adds some interviews and making-of material. Improbably, a second season of “The Terror” is on the drawing boards, on a different ocean and closer to World War II.

Sir Edmund Hillary shared with Franklin a lineage that could be traced to the Age of Exploration – or Age of Discovery, if you will — the period in European history when overseas exploration began to grow in popularity. Technically, it began in the late 1400’s and lasted through the 1700’s, when exploration became synonymous with colonialism and imperialism. In reality, however, the very human desire to explore, discover and conquer has never diminished. No one personified this passion more than Sir Edmund Hillary, the subject of an eventful, if sometimes rather dry profile of one of the great explorers of our times. The six-part PBS series, “Hillary,” follows the New Zealander’s life and career from his early days as a a bee-keeper, aspiring mountaineer and war veteran, through his glory years as a widely admired explorer, climber, philanthropist, family man and hero of the British Commonwealth. In 1985, he accompanied lunar explorer Neil Armstrong on an excursion, via a small twin-engine plane, to the North Pole. In doing so, Hillary became the first man to stand at both poles and on the summit of Everest, soon to become known as the Three Pole Challenge. The mini-series concludes in 1977, when Hillary led a jetboat expedition, titled “Ocean to Sky,” from the mouth of the Ganges River to its source. In 2007, a year before his death in New Zealand, at 88, travelled to Antarctica as part of a delegation commemorating the 50th anniversary of the founding of Scott Base. Unlike many journalists and western historians, “Hillary” doesn’t ignore the concurrent accomplishment of Tenzing Norgay, Sir Edmund’s Sherpa “guide” and co-conqueror of Everest/Sagarmatha. Writer Tom Scott draws the detailed story from his personal conversations with Hillary, which took place before Hillary’s 2008 death. Look-alike actor Andrew Munro stars as Hillary, while Dean O’Gorman plays fellow Kiwi mountaineer George Lowe, and Amy Usherwood plays Lady Louise Hillary.

At a time when people with money to burn can walk in footsteps of Franklin, Hillary and other noteworthy explorers, it’s easy to assume that the world’s oceans provide the last remaining places on Earth to discover, the three-part PBS special, “Outback” begs to differ. The vast, forbidding and largely overlooked terrain generically known as the Australian Outback is only now being challenged by non-Aboriginal explorers and mining interests. In a landscape so ancient that, in parts, it predates life on Earth, are found animals superbly adapted to the territory’s harsh and beautiful extremes. Over the course of a year, the show’s producers journeyed alongside the people and animals of Australia’s Kimberley region, in North West Australia. It is a vast, rugged and remote wilderness that’s bursting with character, natural beauty, animal and aquatic life and undiscovered riches. It also includes a portion of coastal Australia, where salt-water crocodiles threaten anything that dares trespass on their habitat. Some of it has been opened to tourism, but, so far, not enough to do much harm.

AMC’s stunningly successful series, “The Walking Dead,” will embark on its ninth season on October, which plenty of time for laggards to catch up with things in “The Complete Eighth Season” DVD/Blu-ray package. The series centers on sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), who wakes up from a coma to discover the Zombie Apocalypse has come to Georgia. He becomes the leader of a group of survivors, attempting to sustain themselves, while avoiding attacks not only by “walkers,” but also by other groups of less virtuous humans, known as the Saviors, led by Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). They enslave other survivor communities and and force them to pay tribute to him. As Season Eight opens, Rick and his comrades have penetrated Negan’s compound, armed to the teeth and protected behind a staggered vehicular shield-wall. The Saviors are larger, better equipped and ruthless, but Rick and the unified communities are fighting for the promise of a brighter future. The battle lines are drawn as they launch into a kinetic, action-packed offensive. The compilation goes behind the scenes with three audio commentaries (episodes 803, 804 and 816) and featurettes, “Carl Grimes: Leaving a Legacy,” “In Memoriam” and “The Price of War.” It also includes six extended episodes not seen in the original broadcasts.

The release of “Blacklist: The Complete Fifth Season” allows fans and newcomers plenty of time to binge, in advance of Season Six, which doesn’t begin until January. NBC has bumped the show to Fridays at 9 p.m. (Eastern and Pacific), but it will air without hiatuses until season’s end. Season Five opens with Raymond Reddington (James Spader) in the process of rebuilding his criminal empire. His lust for life is ever-present as he lays the foundation for this new enterprise, one that he’ll design with Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) by his side. Liz finds herself torn between her role as an FBI agent and the temptation to act on her more criminal instincts. In a world where the search for Blacklisters has become a family trade, Red hopes to reclaim his moniker as the “Concierge of Crime.” The bonus material adds deleted scenes, commentaries, a gag reel and a featurette saluting the show’s 100th episode.

The DVD Wrapup: Avengers, Ninko, Escape, Aim for the Heart, Yellow Birds, Affairs of State, Gregorio Cortez, 200 Motels, Done to Your Daughters?, S.F. Brownrigg, Muppet Babies, BBC Earth … More

Thursday, August 16th, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
If I were asked to summarize Avengers: Infinity War for someone who’s been in a coma for the last 20 years, or so, I’d compare it to a crossover sequel to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and The House of Frankstein (1944), which featured a mad scientist, played by Boris Karloff; J. Carrol Naish, as his hunchback assistant; Glenn Strange, as the Monster; the Wolf Man, played by Lon Chaney Jr.; and John Carradine as Count Dracula. Early drafts of the story reportedly involved more characters from the Universal Monsters stable, including the Mummy, Ape Woman, Mad Ghoul, and the Invisible Man. The studio attempted to capture lightning in a bottle twice more, in House of Dracula (1944) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). In the 37-year-long span bridging the release of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Leech Woman (1960), Universal’s stable would grow to include a couple dozen more creepy characters. The differences between the protagonist/antagonists of the Universal Monsters movies and the superheroes in Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC Extended Universe owe everything to comic-book origins, advanced digital and CGI technology, and lavish budgets unimaginable in the 1930s.

Stanley Kramer’s epic comedy, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, not only featured such familiar actors as Edie Adams, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Dick Shawn, Phil Silvers, Terry-Thomas, Jonathan Winters, Spencer Tracy and Dorothy Provine, but cameos and supporting roles filled by 60 other well-known and beloved comedians. There would have been more, but United Artists had to draw the budgetary line somewhere. In it, a car driven by “Smiler” Grogan (Jimmy Durante), an ex-convict wanted by police in a tuna-factory robbery 15 years ago, careens off a winding mountain road near Palm Desert. Just before he dies (literally kicking a bucket), Grogan tells the horrified motorists who come to his rescue about $350,000 buried in Santa Rosita State Park, near the Mexican border, under “… a big W.” After the men break their promise to collaborate in the search and share the money, they go off on their separate ways – with their wives and a mother-in-law – to beat the others to the treasure. Tracy is wearily wonderful as the cop who’s been on Grogan’s trail for years and who orders police units in the vicinity to monitor the movements of the Good Samaritans. Not an easy task, as it turns out. The movie was a huge hit and won several awards.

Avengers: Infinity War made a ton of money, too, especially overseas, where fully two-thirds of its total $2.045-billion haul originated. And, looking ahead, it’s entirely possible that “Infinity Wars,” Black Panther and Deadpool 2 – all based on comics by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee – could end up competing for the dubious honor of carrying home the first Oscar as Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film. There’s no question that the second sequel to The Avengers is an exceedingly entertaining and frequently exciting cinematic experience. But, as Time magazine’s Stephanie Zacharek observed, “[It] isn’t really a beginning, but more of a middle or an end with a new piece of yarn attached. You need to have seen and internalized every one of the previous 18 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies to fully get it.” That might have presented a problem for the folks at Marvel/Disney studios, if they hadn’t already taken it into consideration and targeted its marketing directly at audiences that actually have “seen and internalized every one of the previous 18 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies.” I can’t imagine anyone jumping into any MCU picture without having first watched more than a half-dozen installments of Avengers, Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, Black Panther or Guardians of the Galaxy as comics or films. The film is directed by Anthony and Joe Russo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and was written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Captain America: The First Avenger). It features an ensemble cast, including Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana and Chris Pratt. Not as many as “Mad World,” a lot of folks.

Josh Brolin is largely unrecognizable as the film’s antagonist, Thanos, who’s appeared in previous MCU segments, but without the actor’s name attached to the character. Here, the Titan despot’s mission is to collect all six of the Infinity Stones, which would allow him to impose his will on all of reality and “re-balance the universe.” Having acquired the Power Stone from the planet Xandar, Thanos and his lieutenants intercept a spaceship carrying the last survivors of Asgard. As they extract the Space Stone from the Tesseract, Thanos subdues Thor, overpowers Hulk and kills Loki. The more stones Thanos collects, the more powerful he becomes. The corpses pile up like kindling in this extremely dark segment of “Infinity War.” When the Avengers and Guardians get involved, the mood lightens noticeably. Even the titanic battles are staged with an eye for laughs … or, at least, entertainment. By the time the smoke clears – 149 minutes, give or take — plenty of room is left for an already planned third sequel. For anyone still sitting on the fence as to upgrading to 4K UHD, the release of “Infinity War” provides a very good reason for making the leap. The difference in audio/visual quality between the Blu-ray and 4K UHD editions is substantial, and there’s nothing wrong with the Blu-ray. The experience is more vibrant, immersive and enjoyable. The bonus features, stored on the Blu-ray disc, include “The Mad Titan,” focusing on Thanos; “Beyond the Battle: Titan,” on the climactic struggle on Thanos’ ruined world; “Beyond the Battle: Wakanda,” which describes how the epic battle in Africa was staged; deleted and extended scenes; a gag reel; and commentary, with the Russos, Markus and McFeely.

The Suffering of Ninko
The elegant ukiyo-e woodcut print on the cover of Norihiro Niwatsukino’s debut feature, The Suffering of Ninko, provides only a hint at what to expect on the DVD inside the box. Neither do the pictures and text on the back cover do it much justice. Set in Japan’s Edo period, the story begins in a Buddhist monastery, where the novice monk Ninko (Masato Tsujioka) is working his tail off to prove to his superiors just how worthy he is to advance within the order’s hierarchy. He would love to be able to demonstrate his virtue and spiritual purity, as well, but he suffers from a terrible burden. Whenever he leaves the monastery to gather alms, he’s mobbed by women desirous of his sexual healing. His charms aren’t wasted on those fellow monks so-inclined, either. His dilemma, of course, involves his desire to remain chaste and focused while being assaulted by women for whom clothes are only a temporary encumbrance.  After a troubling encounter with a naked woman wearing a Noh mask, he sets out on a journey to purify himself of these sexual advances and haunting fantasies. One day, he arrives in a village decimated by the rapacious mountain goddess, Yama-Onna, (Miho Wakabayashi), who’s seduced and killed all the young men. The village chief begs Ninko to join forces with a ronin, Kanzo (Hideta Iwaishi), to eliminate the sorceress. Now, if this hot-monk scenario sounds as if it would make a terrific comedy in the pinku eiga tradition – Japanese for soft-core porn – you’d be right. Niwatsukino has other things in mind, however. One of them is to create an erotic fantasy in a less exploitative tradition. By setting The Suffering of Ninko in the 16th Century, he’s able to alternate live action and folkloric storytelling with ukiyo-e and a mandala-style animated sequence. While there’s plenty of nudity on display, it never feels gratuitous or excessive … or, maybe, it is and I was OK with it. The inevitable confrontation between the innocent monk and corruptive demon is enhanced by Edo-inspired shunga erotica, animations and a lovely rendition of Ravel’s “Bolero,” played with traditional Japanese instruments.

The Escape
In Dominic Savage’s not fully realized woman-on-the-verge drama, The Escape, the gifted English actress Gemma Arterton — Bond Girl Strawberry Fields, in Quantum of Solace (2008) – plays a housewife in a London suburb, who, you guessed it, is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her plight isn’t something we haven’t seen before in movies and television shows ranging from Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Montenegro (1981) to “Desperate Housewives.” On the surface, it would appear as if Tara is living the perfect life. Her husband has a good job, they have a swell house, the requisite number of kids and enough money for occasional luxuries. Sound familiar? So, will this: Tara’s husband, Mark (Dominic Cooper), is obsessed with his job, self-absorbed and frequently insensitive; the house has begun to feel like a prison; the kids never stop demanding her time and presence; and she doesn’t have the energy left to enjoy the “good life” that Mark’s income affords her. One day, at a used book kiosk, she discovers an album of medieval tapestries that trigger her imagination. When Mark accuses her of paying more attention to the book than to his needs, and the kids are crying uncontrollably, Tara purchases a one-way ticket to Paris, where she can pretend, at least, that her problems are behind her. If The Escape were a tad less predictable, Tara wouldn’t hook up with the first guy she meets in a museum — the tapestry she loves is on exhibit there — and converses with him as if they were college kids attempting to make an impression on each other. I won’t spoil the ending, except to say it isn’t likely to satisfy many viewers. In fact, they might find it offensive. There’s nothing wrong with Arterton’s performance, though. She makes us feel Tara’s pain and frustration, as well as the relief that comes when she arrives in Paris, checks into her hotel and realizes that she’s able to breathe freely for the first time in years, if only temporarily.

The Yellow Birds
I haven’t read the novel upon which Alexandre Moors adapted his sophomore feature, The Yellow Birds. After reading a few summaries and reviews, though, I doubt that the movie captured the essence of what Kevin Powers wanted to convey. The original screenplay by David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) was rewritten by R.F.I. Porto, who collaborated with Moors previously on Blue Caprice. According to the author, himself a veteran of the war in Iraq, the novel is an invention of his imagination, based on his experiences there and on the home front, as well as questions about this country’s feigned dedication to the soldiers fighting the war. Those are foremost in the minds of the movie’s protagonists, too. The novel was very well received by critics and named a finalist for a National Book Award. Books about the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and, now, Syria, have fared better than the movie adaptations have at the box office. It’s almost as if the same Americans who’ve stopped paying attention to the war in Powers’ novel have also decided that movies based on the conflict aren’t worth their attention, either. They will, however, buy a veteran a beer and thank him or her for their “service.” When it comes to demanding an end to the fighting and dying, however, the folks back home have very little to say.

But, back to the movie. The Yellow Birds is set in a war-ravaged section of Iraq, where every patrol and reconnaissance mission could be expected to end badly for someone. Soldiers Brandon Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich) and Daniel Murphy (Tye Sheridan) forge a deep bond of friendship and trust, because, in part, they both hail from the same part of the country. Bartle, who’s three years older than Murph, is troubled by a promise he made to Murph’s mother (Jennifer Aniston) before their deployment. She asked him not only to protect her 18-year-old, but also tell her the circumstances of his death, if it comes to that. The men share a strong relationship with Sergeant Sterling (Jack Huston), who’s anguished by his role in the fighting. After Murphy is wounded, he develops a crush on the nurse (Aylin Tezel) he credits with saving his life. She represents the only good thing that’s happened to him during his tour of duty and, when she’s taken away from him, he falls apart. Back on duty, Murphy is separated from his platoon, leaving his buddies and viewers to wonder whether he’s gotten lost, killed, captured or gone AWOL. When the search ends in Iraq, the drama picks up back home. The Yellow Birds is such an unrelievedly sad movie that it made me wonder if Murphy’s disappearance is based on something in the book or real life, or if the screenplay upped the ante on cruelty just to bring something different to the drama. It was that hard to watch. The actors, including Toni Collette as Bartle’s cynical mother, deliver convincing performances, however. Daniel Landin’s cinematography (Morocco-for-Iraq) also manages to convey a side of the war that’s rarely touched in such movies.

Only a writer/director with an overabundance of chutzpah would attempt to build his first feature on a foundation of such visually disparate elements as the Spaghetti Western, neo-noir crime drama, graphic-novel imagery and attitudes cribbed from the Tarantino/Rodriguez brain trust. The musical soundtrack makes similarly audacious leaps, as well, from folk songs to Ennio Morricone’s leftovers. Pickings isn’t unwatchable, by any stretch of the imagination. The actors are game for whatever Usher Morgan throws their way and the barroom setting keeps them from wandering too far beyond the limits of his overly hard-boiled dialogue. In Morgan’s debut, Elyse Price plays a single mother and bar owner – it’s called Pickings – somewhere in small-town Michigan. A tall Southern blond, Jo Lee Haywood, runs the pleasantly appointed establishment with her emotionally fragile elder daughter, Scarlett (Katie Vincent), and sisters Doris (Michelle Holland) and May (Lynne Jordan). (Her other kids are much younger, but no less spunky.) Gangsters, presumably from Detroit, covet Pickings, and decide to make a move on it. Because they aren’t aware of Jo Lee’s underworld past, the extortionists are taken by surprise by her unwillingness to cooperate with them. They’re also taken by surprise by her brother, Boone (Joel Bernard), who dresses like Timothy Olyphant’s character, in “Justified,” and brings spaghetti-sauce to the story. With every new wave of ridiculously stereotypical Italian gangsters that arrives at Pickings, demanding a piece of it, Morgan changes the color palette, sometimes draining the color entirely from their faces. What worked in Sin City, however, gets diluted in the mix of gimmicks here. The DVD adds Morgan’s commentary, deleted scenes, a music video and a couple of short featurettes.

Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart
Movies featuring serial killers are as common here as movies about the Zombie Apocalypse and teenagers coming of age. Not so, in France and most other countries in the world, where the media haven’t been as inclined to portray sociopaths as potential antagonists in movies and television shows, and audiences aren’t as titillated by the intricacies of their crimes. France has had more than its fair share of serial killers and mass murderers, though. They include Henri Désiré Landru, who inspired the character of Monsieur Verdoux, played by Charlie Chaplin, and Baron Gilles de Rais, a 15th Century Satanist reputed to have murdered 400 children. Cedric Anger’s engrossing thriller, Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart (2014) tells the story of notorious serial killer Alain Lamare (here renamed Frank Neuhart), who exclusively targeted young women, while simultaneously trying to start a love affair with his married cleaning lady (Ana Girardot). In a truly mordant twist, while Lamare (Guillaume Canet) is terrorizing an agricultural region north of Paris in the winter of 1978-79, he’s also serving the state as a gendarme tasked with apprehending the killer. Lamare starts his reign of terror by running girls on scooters off the road and speeding away into the night. After ditching the stolen cars, he’s sometimes called to the scene of the crime. His methodology will evolve into something more blunt and obvious, such as picking up young women still clueless enough to hitchhike during a crime wave, driving to the nearest field and shooting them in the head. When Lamare does show something resembling remorse, he assuages his guilt by self-flagellation, wrapping his arms with barbed wire and bathing in a tub full of ice. Anger co-wrote the screenplay for André Téchiné’s In the Name of My Daughter (2014), which also starred Canet (Tell No One), from a book on the “Oise killer” by Yvan Stefanovitch and Martine Laroche. In addition to the film’s thriller aspects, it also serves as a decent procedural, demonstrating how a department might even be able to exploit false leads in the successful pursuit of a monster in their ranks. Americans who dread experiencing French cinema, as much as they are repulsed by snails and frog legs, shouldn’t have any problem digesting Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart, subtitles and all. It’s simple, direct, familiar and light on dialogue. It’s also worth noting, perhaps, that Anger is a former critic for Cahiers du cinema and writer/director of The Killer and The Lawyer, genre pieces that weren’t accorded distribution here, despite good reviews at festivals.

Affairs of State: Blu-ray
It would be difficult for a filmmaker to approach the subject of electoral politics with any more cynicism than the real-life politicians, operatives and scenarios they hope to depict on the big screen. It’s as if an entire generation of aspiring campaign workers, fund-raisers and analysts studied All the President’s Men, all of them coming away with the same message: cover your tracks, so you won’t get caught. Somehow, the buffoons hired to run Donald Trump’s corrupt, if ultimately successful presidential campaign failed to learn the lesson. Not only did they leave tracks that led directly to their doors, but, if Special Counsel Robert Mueller has his way, most of them will also get caught. It explains why nothing that happens in Eric Bross and Tom Cudworth’s political power trip, Affairs of State, seems remotely implausible. Outlandish, yes … impossible, no. David Corenswet plays an aspiring campaign aide, Michael Lawson, who will do almost anything to advance from the ranks of muckraking journalists to a job with the rare candidate who shares his ideals. His lesbian roommate, Callie Roland (Thora Birch), uses the skills she honed as a journalist to become an ace private investigator, with a special interest in the private lives of candidates. Her research will help him land a job on the staff of an ace campaign strategist, Rob Reynolds (Adrian Grenier), who possesses fewer scruples than any of the Watergate burglars. Before that can come to pass, however, Michael will be required to sexually satisfy wealthy Republican donor, Mary Maples (Faye Grant), and Sen. John Baines’s second wife, Judith (Mimi Rogers), who’s as insatiable as he is. Michael also will become involved with the conservative presidential candidate’s troubled daughter, Darcy (Grace Victoria Fox), who once attempted to stab her stepmother. Callie chastises Michael for joining forces with the sleazeball campaign strategist, but also agrees to accept money to do undercover work for him, herself. Eventually, Michael, Rob and Callie all will pay for their sins, even as the ship of state steams its way to another ignoble port. For the most part, Bross keeps Affairs of State light and sexy enough to satisfy fans of Lifetime movies – at 62 and 61, Rogers and Grant remain remarkably hot – as well as fans of prime-time network sitcoms. Vladimir Putin doesn’t make an appearance, but, perhaps, Bross is saving that for a sequel.

The House of Tomorrow: Blu-ray
To fully appreciate and enjoy writer/director Peter Livolsi’s quirky debut film, The House of Tomorrow, it helps to have a basic knowledge of American architect, systems theorist, inventor and futurist Buckminster Fuller and what his work meant to a generation of environmentalists, green-power advocates and forward-thinkers in the 1960s. Not only did Fuller introduce the geodesic dome to a generation of communards, hippies and rich eccentrics, but he also helped popularize the concept of Spaceship Earth. Since 1982, millions of visitors to Walt Disney World Resort have been exposed to a physical manifestation of Spaceship Earth theory, in the form of the huge geodesic sphere that serves as the symbolic structure of Epcot Center. Although it contains a popular dark-ride attraction, it’s provided visitors with opportunities to expand their knowledge of Whole Earth philosophy. “The most important fact about Spaceship Earth,” Fuller wrote, in 1968, “(is that) an instruction manual didn’t come with it.” In The House of Tomorrow, Ellen Burstyn (Requiem for a Dream) plays Josephine Prendergast, a gray-haired disciple of “Bucky” Fuller, who lives in wonderfully designed and fully furnished geodesic dome, with her orphaned grandson, Sebastian (Asa Butterfield). The fully functional and impressively appointed house is used as a learning center for students in schools in and around Minneapolis-St. Paul. Asa is home-schooled by his grandmother, who attempts to keep the boy as unaffected by mainstream cultural values, processed food and commercial influences as possible. The brainwashing has been successful.

Asa’s life changes dramatically when, during a home tour, he’s introduced to the Whitcomb family. Alan Whitcomb (Nick Offerman) is an open-minded minister, who leads youth-group activities at a local church. Since his divorce from his alcoholic wife (Michaela Watkins), Alan’s worked hard to keep his disaffected son, Jared (Alex Wolff), from rejecting his transplanted heart, and keeping his sexually precocious daughter, Meredith (Maude Apatow) from ruining her future. If they occasionally bristle at his admonitions, they also acknowledge his good intentions and authority. Jared and Asa strike up a very tentative friendship, based on a mutual love for hard-core punk music, while Meredith takes a shine to Asa for his uncommonly gentle demeanor and innocence, which derives from never being further from his nanna than she deems safe. In effect, he’s the original clean slate. After Asa gets into an argument with Josephine over her politically correct dictates and obsession with “Bucky,” he moves in with the Whitcombs. Although, their influence isn’t completely corruptive, Asa enthusiastically forms a punk band with Jared and allows himself to fall for the slightly older Meredith in an increasingly non-Platonic way. The biggest obstructions to a happy ending to “House” are health crises faced by Jared and Josephine in the first half of the movie. Livolsi keeps a fairly tight grip on the generational fissures that produce the drama here. Because it plays off clichés associated with the 1960s and 1990s, “House” – based on a 2010 novel by Peter Bognanni – “House” should appeal to a broad audience of parents, teenagers and former subscribers to the Whole Earth Catalogue. It arrives with a lengthy discussion between Burstyn and Livolsi, a post-screening Q&A from the New York movie premiere and audio commentary by cast and director.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties: Blu-ray
John Cameron Mitchell and Philippa Goslett’s inventive rom/com musical, How to Talk to Girls at Parties, doesn’t benefit at all from a title that may remind potential viewers of such mid-aught mediocrities as Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! (2004), How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), “How I Met Your Mother” (2005) and How to Lose Friends & Alienate People (2008), none of which it resembles. If anything, it bears a closer relationship to Mike Nichols’ sci-fi curiosity, What Planet Are You From? (2000). It would have taken more than the three weeks that How to Talk to Girls at Parties was available in theaters – 103, to be exact – for fans of Mitchell’s previous indie features, Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), Shortbus (2006) and Rabbit Hole (2010), to realize that he had anything with it. Or, that it was based on a short story by acclaimed fantasist Neil Gaiman (Stardust). Or, that beyond Elle Fanning and Alex Sharp, the cast included such standouts as Nicole Kidman, Ruth Wilson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Matt Lucas, Tom Brooke, Elarica Johnson, Joey Ansah and Joanna Scanlan. Oh, I get it, now. Too many Brits … regardless of the fact that so many of them appeared in “Harry Potter.” As the story goes, an alien touring the galaxy breaks away from her group and meets two young inhabitants of “the most dangerous place in the universe: the London suburb of Croydon.” It’s 1977 and a shy suburban London teenager, Enn (Sharp), enjoys sneaking out with his mates to after-hours punk parties. One night, they stumble upon a bizarre gathering of sexy teenagers, who seem as if they are from another planet … which, of course, they are. Enn falls madly in love with Zan (Fanning), the rebellious alien teenager, who, despite her allegiance to her strange colony, is fascinated by the lad. Together, they embark on a delirious adventure through the kinetic punk-rock world of 1970s London. Among the bands they watch is the Dyschords, managed by a chain-smoking woman, Boadicea (Kidman), who changes costumes and wigs with great frequency. Inadvertently, they trigger a series of events that will lead to the ultimate showdown of punks vs. aliens. The brilliantly colorful Blu-ray includes commentary with Mitchell, Fanning and Sharp; a making-of featurette; and deleted scenes.

Destined to Ride
It isn’t often that you encounter a G-rated film whose appeal isn’t limited to kids under 8-years-old and their parents, who pretend to be interested in it. Destined to Ride is as wholesome as you’d expect a film with a G-rating to be, but the MPAA is curiously stingy with the designation. (Meanwhile, several Disney films that feature scenes designed to teach kids how to deal with death and the loss of parents, maintain their G-rating, as if entitled to it.) Here, Lily (Madeline Carroll) suddenly finds her normal life – cheerleading, gymnastics etc. — turned upside down, when she is forced to leave her friends to spend the summer on a remote ranch with her free-spirited aunt (Denise Richards). Her widowed father (Joey Lawrence) is too busy to focus on Lily’s well-being and she’s left with no choice but to make the best of a bad situation. She is surprised to meet an unlikely group of friends, whose lives revolve around their horses, and accept her without reservations. Talk about G-rated, they even teach her how to square dance. When her aunt is threatened by an unfriendly neighbor, Lily knows it is up to her and Pistachio — the horse she’s grown to love — to save the ranch and to find her destiny along the way. In doing so, she utilizes all the girl power available to her and a new BFF. The scenery is nice and the drama of a horse race with real stakes add to the enjoyment.

The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
There could hardly be a better time to discover – or re-discover, as the case may be – one of the best Westerns made in the last 50 years. It also happens to be one of the best chase movies made in the same period. Based on the book, “With His Pistol in His Hand,” by Americo Paredes, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez’ current relevancy derives not as much on the debate over illegal immigration as the historic racism that informs every discussion over who should be allowed to cross the Rio Grande to do work Americans wouldn’t be paid well to do or is escaping violence back home. Ever since Texas was successfully wrested from Mexico, in 1848, Tejanos of Hispanic and Mestizo heritage have been discriminated against by white Americans with the same ferocity as that reserved for Africans in the south and Chinese in the west. It is estimated that at least 597 Mexicans and Mexican Americans were lynched between 1848 and 1928, and laws were passed to the exclude them from public institutions, businesses, homeowners associations and schools. Thanks to the Civil Rights Movement and Chicano Movement of the 1950-60s, conditions have improved for many, if not all Americans of color. The ugly debate over how to deal with illegal immigration on our southern border – triggered by the inflammatory rhetoric employed by Donald Trump in the Republican presidential primaries – has revived traditional prejudices and tensions. When director Robert M. Young and co-writer Victor Villaseñor put their heads together on the screenplay for The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, their approach to depicting racism, injustice and exclusion was framed as a historical drama, inspired by a corrido (folk ballad) still sung in the Rio Grande Valley. In 1982, Edward James Olmos was known primarily for his portrayal of El Pachuco in the stage and film productions of Luis Valdez’ play, “Zoot Suit.” He had also turned in memorable performances in Wolfen and Blade Runner. He would star in, produce and promote this, the rare movie made for Hispanic audiences that didn’t involve gangs.

It is set in 1901, when Gregorio Cortez and his brother, Romaldo (Pepe Serna), worked as tenant farmers on the Thulemeyer ranch, outside of Kenedy, Texas, halfway between San Antonio and Corpus Christi. After learning that Gregorio had acquired a mare from a Mexican resident of Kenedy by way of trade, Karnes County Sheriff W.T. “Brack” Morris (Timothy Scott) went to the ranch to check out rumors of a recent theft of a horse in his jurisdiction. A faulty translation by a deputy led to a misunderstanding between Morris and the Cortez brothers. When Morris moved to arrest Gregorio, Romaldo got between the two men. After the sheriff shot his brother, Gregorio shot and killed Morris, clearly in self-defense. (Mexican horse thieves, guilty or accused, could be lynched for no other reason than their ethnicity.) The deputy raced back to town to round up a posse, while Cortez headed to the ranch of Martín and Refugia Robledo, several miles north of Kenedy. At the Robledo home, Gonzales County Sheriff Robert M. Glover (Michael McGuire) and his “posseman” Henry Schnabel exchanged shots with Cortez, leaving the two lawmen dead. The fugitive walked nearly 100 miles to the home of a friend, Ceferino Flores, who provided him a horse and saddle. Cortez then headed due south, toward Laredo. The ensuing 10-day manhunt, with as many as 400 men, was led by Sherriff Frank Fly (James Gannon) and Texas Rangers Captain Rogers (Brion James). A train was used to bring in new men, fresh horses and other supplies.

The story is told through the filter of a reporter, Blakely (Bruce McGill), who is given exceptional access to key lawmen. The material he filed via telegraph provides readers with the points of view of sheriffs, deputies and Rangers who had a big ax to grind with Cortez, specifically, and Mexicans, in general. In fact, Texas newspapers were openly racist in their coverage of the tragedy, some going so far as to wonder why Cortez hadn’t already been arrested and lynched. When he is finally captured – betrayed by an acquaintance for the reward – the drama turns to the Gonzales County jail, which is still standing, and courtroom. Cortez narrowly avoids being pulled from his cell and lynched by a mob led by Ned Beatty, of all people. Remarkably, not everyone bought the official line handed out by newspapers, politicians and law-enforcement officials. Defense attorney B.R. Abernathy (Barry Corbin) delivers an impassioned, well-reasoned argument for Cortez having acted in self-defense and within his rights. He was convicted, but the fight continued for another dozen years. It’s no secret that the verdict was subsequently overturned, and Cortez was eventually, if not immediately pardoned. In addition to excerpts from Blakley’s dispatches, Young weaves instrumentals based on “El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez” into the narrative, reserving a performance of the full song until the end. Rugged Western landscapes are elegantly shot by Reynaldo Villalobos, as are the chase scenes, which obviously were captured on the run. What, you haven’t heard of The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez before now? The blame lies on backers and distributors who had no faith in the movie’s ability to coax Hispanic viewers into theaters, a theory proven false in the four-walled L.A. release, but bungled badly in the New York showcase. Its failure is explained in featurettes found in the pristine Criterion Collection release, including new interviews with Olmos and Chon A. Noriega, author of “Shot in America: Television, the State and the Rise of Chicano Cinema”; a cast-and-crew panel from 2016, featuring Olmos, Young, Villalobos, producer Moctesuma Esparza and actors McGill, Serna, Tom Bower and Rosana DeSoto; and an essay by film scholar Charles Ramírez Berg.

200 Motels
In his prime, Frank Zappa could take such mundane objects as brown shoes, pumpkins and dental floss and spin a symphony of electronic sounds around them. His iconoclastic sense of humor was superseded only by a passion for making music – rock, R&B, classical, jazz, doo-wop — that couldn’t be formatted for the convenience of deejays and music executives … until “Valley Girl,” anyway. The name, Spike Jones, may not mean a lot to young people today – even those with an interest in Zappa’s work – but their mutual ability to merge social commentary and satire with deceptively intricate composition made them two peas in pod. Their bands were comprised of musical misfits, who not only were required to play their instruments brilliantly, but also provide sound effects, wisecracks and wear costumes when called upon by the maestro. Zappa may have looked like a freak, but he disavowed the use of mind-altering substances. That fact, alone, confused audiences and critics, alike, upon their first exposure to 200 Motels. It was too easily characterized a “psychedelic,” simply because the emerging video technology allowed co-directors Zappa and Tony Palmer to experiment freely with all sorts of sensory impulses. Zappa boiled down the movie’s theme to four words, however, “Touring makes you crazy,” explaining that the idea for the film came to him while the Mothers of Invention were on the road, visiting the cities and staying in places that all began to look like fictional Centerville after a while.

See if this makes any sense to you: 200 Motels opens with Larry the Dwarf (Ringo Starr) descending onto a television soundstage, carrying a steaming genie lamp. When the German announcer (Theodore Bikel) asks him why he is dressed as Frank Zappa, Larry responds that Frank forces him to dress up to have sex with a nun (Keith Moon), playing the harp. The announcer, who’s actually an American named Rance Muhammitz, states that Larry’s statements are part of the score to 200 Motels, a movie that occurred as a fantasy while the Mothers of Invention were touring. As the band, which includes Mark Volman, Howard Kaylan (a.k.a., Flo and Eddie), Ian Underwood, Aynsley Dunbar and George Duke performs, Muhammitz elaborates on the ways in which touring makes innovative people crazy. The band members’ main concerns are the search for groupies and the desire to get paid, neither of which are sure things on the road. The story, interspersed with performances by the Mothers and the Royal Symphony Orchestra, continues as the band members wreak havoc in Centerville, a typical American town with its Rancid Boutique, Cheesy Motel, Fake Nightclub, Redneck Eats Cafe, groupies and an honest-to-goodness Main Street. 200 Motels was shot on videotape, at Pinewood Studios, London, in five days, at the beginning of February 1971. It’s been cited as the first British-made example of the videotape-to-film process.

Walking Tall: Special Edition: Blu-ray
When it comes to remakes of long-ago genre hits, the majority can be written off as redundant, pointless or merely unnecessary. Profits are never guaranteed. While it might be fun to watch Lady Gaga attempt to make audiences forget the performances turned in by Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand in previous editions of A Star Is Born, I’m not looking forward to watching Bradley Cooper direct himself in the role once played by Fredric March, James Mason and Kris Kristofferson. For every hit foreign movie successfully transplanted in American soil (La Cage aux Folles/The Birdcage), recast with a substantially different actor (The Nutty Professor) or updated to take advantage of shifts in technology or popular vices (Scarface), there are a dozen remakes that were non-starters from Day One: Straw Dogs (2011), The Last House on the Left (2009), Death Wish (2018) and Walking Tall (2018), none of which lived up to the reputation of the original versions and could be streamed for less than the price of a ticket to the remake. The 1973 version of Walking Tall (1973), which was inspired by a one-man-gang named Buford Pusser, was part of a wave of surprise genre flicks, in which a single man stood up for his sense of right and wrong against formidable odds. Among the others were Billy Jack (1971), Death Wish (1974), Dirty Harry (1971) and Straw Dogs (1971), although the latter two titles weren’t necessarily considered to be genre pictures. They’ve all been either remade or recycled in a sequel factory. Rod Lurie’s Straw Dogs even went so far as to directly lift the poster art from Sam Peckinpah’s original.

The image of “The Rock,” as he was then still known, carrying a wood fence post on the cover of the 2004 adaptation of Walking Tall told potential ticket-buyers and DVD renters all they needed to know about what they could expect. It would still be a few years before Dwayne Johnson dropped his WWE nickname entirely and become one of Hollywood’s most popular and bankable stars. Here, though, his character, Chris Vaughn, still had to retain some of the qualities that made Pusser a populist hero. Although the setting has shifted from rural Tennessee to the scenic Alaskan countryside, the basic touchstones remain the same. The protagonist is a decorated U.S. Special Forces veteran, who returns to his hometown to find it overrun by crime, corruption and addicted teenagers. The center of all vice activity is a legal, if mob-controlled casino, which doubles as a strip joint, brothel and drug dispensary. It’s run by one of Vaughn’s former pal, Jay Hamilton (Neal McDonough), who rakes in the money from the casino, while the mobsters handle the other stuff. The script begins to fall apart when, after Vaughn is invited to visit the casino by his old friend, one of the craps dealers switches the dice to favor the house. A child could spot the ruse and Vaughn decides that he won’t be played for sucker, by trashing the slot machines and busting up all but one of the bouncers. After landing in the hospital, he’s given a reason to finish the job after his nephew nearly OD’s on crystal meth. Once again, the sheriff sides with the Hamilton, who presses charges.

Naturally Vaughn gives the kind of rousing final argument that will get him elected sheriff and nearly killed by the mobster and bad cops he wants to eliminate. He might as well be back in Afghanistan for all the fire power used against him. Oh, did I forget to mention, Vaughan also is given the opportunity to rescue a former girlfriend (Ashley Scott) from a life of depravity, by encouraging her to quit her job as a lap-dancer and join the ranks of the decent folks in town. The action is pretty well rendered, if excessive, but Johnny Knoxville (“Jackass”) adds plenty of comic relief. Hollywood’s several versions of Pusser’s life and career smacked of revisionism. By changing the name of the protagonist, the filmmakers were allowed the luxury of compacting the campaign to eliminate him and forgo the assassination of Pusser’s wife … not for lack of trying were Vaughn’s relatives spared. The circumstances surrounding Pusser’s election are fudged, as is the scope of the threat by the Dixie Mafia. In an odd coincidence, Pusser once wrestled professionally under the name, Buford the Bear, before grapplers were expected to be rock stars, as well as athletes-in-disguise. In this Walking Tall, viewers are allowed the freedom of thinking that Vaughn and his loved ones “lived happily ever after.” The same couldn’t be said of Pusser, whose fatal automobile accident, some say, was an assassination. Neither does the highly personable Rock/Vaughn bear a close resemblance to the first movieland Pusser: Joe Don Baker, an actor who looked as if he ate nails for breakfast and washed them down with kerosene. (Pusser looked as if was a lineman on a Packers team coached by Vince Lombardi.) That’s why I’d probably think better of Walking Tall if its producers had revised the title, along with the protagonist’s name. They probably didn’t think the Rock was ready for prime time. He would soon prove them wrong. The DVD adds commentaries by Johnson and Bray, with contributions by editor Robert Ivison and DP Glen MacPherson; a stunts featurette; deleted scenes; bloopers; an alternate ending; and photo gallery.

What Have They Done to Your Daughters? Special Edition: Blu-ray
In 1972, director Massimo Dallamano broke new ground in giallo with the deeply disturbing and unusually graphic What Have You Done to Solange? Two years later, he followed it up with an even darker semi-sequel, What Have They Done to Your Daughters?, which is equal parts giallo and poliziottesco and as garishly violent and sexy as these sorts of films got. (Hard core inserts were shot, but not used.) A third installment in Dallamono’s so-called “schoolgirls-in-peril trilogy” was on the drawing boards when he died in an automobile accident. Considering the carnage and sexuality on display in the first two films, I can’t imagine what a third entry would have had to show to top them. In his book, “Italian Crime Filmography, 1968–1980,” Roberto Curti described “Daughters” as the best of the giallo and poliziottesco hybrids. If recent releases of giallo films by Arrow have whetted your appetite for more, put “Daughters” and “Solange” on your reserve list.

The mystery begins when a teenage girl is found hanging from the rafters of a privately rented attic … naked, pregnant and violated. It is not a pretty sight. Even so, a photograph of the body is published in a tabloid, before she can even be identified. When the photographer is arrested, pieces of the puzzle begin falling into place. Dogged Inspector Silvestri (Claudio Cassinelli) and Assistant District Attorney Vittoria Stori (Giovanna Ralli) are assigned to the case, the scope of which grows substantially when they discover that the dead girl was part of a ring of underage prostitutes, who cater to perverts of some wealth and station. As the police begin to zero in on the killer’s motivation, at least, a cleaver-wielding, motorcycle-riding killer begins taking out potential witnesses. Although he makes the case more complicated, the clues he leaves behind help accelerate the search. Especially curious is why a killer would emerge from the shadows so early in the investigation, when her death is presumed to be self-inflicted? The answer to that question will surface when the names on the girls’ client lists are revealed and the depth of the men’s depravity forces a full investigation. In addition to Arrow’s splendid restoration work, the package benefits from new commentary by Troy Howarth, author of “So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films”; “Masters and Slaves: Power, Corruption & Decadence in the Cinema of Massimo Dallamano,” a fresh video essay by Kat Ellinger, author and editor-in-chief of Diabolique magazine; “Eternal Melody,” an interview with composer Stelvio Cipriani; “Dallamano’s Touch,” an interview with editor Antonio Siciliano; and unused hardcore footage shot for the film by Massimo Dallamano, using body doubles; an image gallery; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Adam Rabalais; and illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Michael Mackenzie.

From the Grindhouse to Your House
S.F. Brownrigg Grindhouse Double Feature: Ultimate Edition: Blu-ray
American Guinea Pig: The Song of Solomon: Blu-ray
Laserblast: VHS Retro Big Box Collection: Blu-ray
Return of the Living Dead, Part II: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Lady Street Fighter: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Unborn: Blu-ray
If the description of What Have They Done to Your Daughters makes it sound too high class for your tastes, or not sordid enough, check out these hard-core titles. A good place to start would be VCI Entertainment’s “S.F. Brownrigg Grindhouse Double Feature,” featuring early splatter specimens, 1974’s Don’t Open the Door (a.k.a., “Don’t Hang Up”) and 1973’s Don’t Look in the Basement. Those are two of the five movies Brownrigg directed before disappearing giving up big-screen ambitions in 1986. The others are Scum of the Earth (1974), Keep My Grave Open (1977) and Thinkin’ Big (1986). In the 1960s, he also enjoyed the distinction of having worked on the sound for The Naked Witch, The 7th Commandment, Strange Compulsion, High Yellow and Zontar: The Thing from Venus, and edited Attack of the Eye Creatures (1965). It’s said that Brownrigg wanted to make a sequel to Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), but, thank goodness, it wasn’t to be. As for the business at hand, however. In Don’t Open the Door, pretty, blond Susan Bracken plays a dutiful grand-daughter, who goes home to take care of her elderly grandmother, but, once there, she finds herself trapped inside the big, largely empty house with a homicidal maniac. The sicko hides behind the house’s interior walls and he communicates with her via an internal telephone connection. Despite the fact that the setup would have made more sense 20-30 years later, when wireless phones became commonplace, it’s pretty effective. Brownrigg amped up the sound in such a way that the phone’s initial ring is as explosive as a cherry bomb. Don’t Open the Basement is significantly more cheesy and exploitative, as it takes place in hospital for the criminally insane, where, as an experiment, several inmates have been allowed to act out their psychotic delusions. When a new staffer (Rosie Holotik) arrives at the residential-looking hospital without warning to the attending nurses, the patients direct their twisted attention at her. This causes the nurses to wonder if she might have ulterior motives, besides wanting a paycheck. The 2K restorations probably cost VCI more money than it took Brownrigg to complete both films. The package adds a new commentary on DLITB, with film historian David Del Valle and genre director, David Decoteau (Puppet Master III: Toulons Revenge) and other tantalizing VCI trailers.

From Unearthed Films comes The Song of Solomon, a nasty piece of business that has nothing to do with romantic verses in the Old Testament – as far as I could tell, anyway – and everything to do with attempting to make the ancient rite performed in The Exorcist look like the extraction of a wisdom tooth. Both are painful to watch, but the exorcism in The Song of Solomon looks as if it was being conducted by blind priests using gardening tools. After my confusion wore off, I realized that the Blu-ray jacket conveniently left off the fact that it was the third installment in writer/director Stephen Biro’s “American Guinea Pig” series of torture-porn releases, which includes American Guinea Pig: Bouquet of Guts and Gore and American Guinea Pig: Bloodshock (directed by Marcus Koch). It represents DIY filmmaking at its least refined. Here, after Mary (Jessica Cameron) witnesses the brutal suicide of her father, she becomes possessed by the devil. While Satan’s wrath is being unleashed outside the walls of her home, the Church has sent several inept priests to eliminate the demon from deep inside her body. While it apparently has something to do with the Antichrist and biblical prophecy, I’ll be damned if I know what it is. Even though the narrative makes no logical sense, the extremely gory special effects exude a crude charm. Their creation is described in lengthy interviews with special-effects artist Marcus Koch, DP Chris Hilleke and writer/director Biro. Other aspects of the production are detailed by actors Cameron and Gene Palubicki, who also composed the music. There are behind-the-scenes featurettes, outtakes, a photo gallery and a pair of commentary tracks. It’s a good thing Biro owns the DVD label.

The latest entry in Full Moon’s “VHS Retro Big Box Collection” series is Laserblast, a work of seriously undernourished sci-fi from 1978 that is said to be one of the favorite movies of the MST3K crew. It’s easy to see why. Even if the SOL crew had been shown the movie a dozen times, the astronerds couldn’t possibly have run out of funny things to say about it. Laserblast opens somewhere in the Mojave Desert, where a green-skinned man with a laser cannon attached to his arm is minding his own business. A spaceship that could have been built for a Buck Rogers serial lands nearby, dispatching a pair of aliens who resemble deshelled tortoises. The aliens then depart, leaving behind the laserblaster and medallion that allowed him to operate it. A lonely teenager (Kim Milford) discovers the gun and pendant and begins to blow things up real good. As Billy revels in the power of the weapon, he begins to change, his skin taking on a green hue and his mind becoming more and more malevolent. As the tainted teen becomes more powerful and lethal, it’s up to the local authorities and the aliens to stop him before he begins to do some real damage. Besides Milford, who died only 10 years later, Laserblast co-stars such familiar faces as Roddy McDowall, Keenan Wynn, dweeb icon Eddie Deezan, Gianni Russo (a.k.a., Carlo Rizzi), burly Dennis Burkley and Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith, a semi-legendary porn star, groupie and tragic figure. It also boasts the first feature-length score by Joel Goldsmith (son of composer Jerry Goldsmith), who also died before his time. The special box set contains the remastered Blu-ray; an alien figurine in a collectible blister pack; and new commentary by director Charles Band and composer Richard Band, who sound as if they’re auditioning for MST3K.

The success of Dan O’Bannon’s zombie sendup. Return of the Living Dead, was something of a happy accident, in that it came about only through much legal wrangling and a complete reimagining of the original script. To distance “Living Dead” sequels from those in George A. Romero’s own “Dead Trilogy,” O’Bannon (Dark Star, Alien) added a healthy dollop of comedy, as well as the zombie’s brain-eating conceit. He is noticeably missing from the 1988 sequel to the 1985 sequel to Night of the Living Dead, Return of the Living Dead, Part II, which was, itself, rendered unnecessary by Troma’s Toxic Avenger (1984). Here, a barrel of toxic gas falls off the back of a military truck, landing in a culvert near a cemetery. Mischievous neighborhood boys discover the barrel and open it, unaware of the evil contained within. A deadly green vapor escapes and turns living people into brain-eating zombies and causes the dead to rise from their graves to do the same. Otherwise, with the exception of a Michael Jackson impression, it’s pretty much the same-old, same-old.

Any resemblance between James Bryan’s Lady Street Fighter (1981) and Kazuhiko Yamaguchi’s Sister Street Fighter (1974) is pretty much limited to the gender of the protagonist. Otherwise … well … in the opinion of critic Jim McLennan of the authoritative Girls With Guns website (“Home of the Action Heroine”), “This is legitimately terrible. This is among the worst films I’ve ever seen. And I speak as someone with over 25 years of watching really bad films.” I’ve seen worse, but I would hesitate to recall one, for fear of bringing back bad memories. The folks at American Genre Film Archive (AGFA) aren’t all that particular, however. They treat their babies with TLC, no matter how ugly they are. Here, an Eastern European beauty, Linda Allen (Renee Harmon), flies to Los Angeles to track down the mobsters who tortured and murdered her sister. They were trying to recover a tape with information that would be incriminating to them. Linda’s investigation locates a pimp, who may or may not be the murderer she is seeking. At 73, minutes, how much could go wrong? Plenty. A new 2K transfer of this trash-action “classic” adds a bit of zip to Harmon’s outfits. Look for appearances by Trace Carradine, “the most elusive Carradine brother of all” and Liz Renay, a onetime Las Vegas “showgirl” and “moll” of L.A. gangster Mickey Cohen. The Blu-ray adds commentary with the uncredited director James Bryan and members of the AGFA team; some truly far-out trailers from the company’s vault; liner notes by Annie Choi, of Bleeding Skull; and the bonus movie: Revenge of Lady Street Fighter, the unreleased sequel that looks exactly like the original.

Produced by Roger Corman and directed by Rodman Flender (Idle Hands), the 1991 evil-baby thriller, The Unborn, contains several more redeemable moments than other pictures listed here, but not many. It was more than a little bit influenced by It’s Alive and Rosemary’s Baby, without finding the glue that kept those movies together. Brooke Adams plays Virginia Marshall, a woman who’s struggling with fertility issues and depression, and has experienced miscarriages, as well. Desperate to conceive, she is directed to a doctor that other women say has worked miracles for them. Sure enough, she becomes pregnant. Before long, however, she begins to experience rashes and spasms in her tummy. The same symptoms occur with friends in her Lamaze group. Virginia’s husband, Brad (Jeff Hayenga), downplays the problems, arguing that pregnancies can be difficult, but worth the aggravation. Apparently, their pediatrician graduated from the Joseph Mengele School of Medicine and there’s a very good reason why Brad demands that she carry the fetus to term. Despite some genuinely creepy moments, The Unborn is to derivative and predictable to be truly effective. What it does have, though, are appearances by Lisa Kudrow and Kathy Griffin that qualify as being longer than the blink of an eye. Kudrow’s twitches are more pronounced than they would be later, but, I suspect, that’s what the director wanted of an aide who leads male patients to the masturbation chamber. Griffin is as loud and in-your-wife as ever. British musician Gary Numan (“Cars”) composed the musical soundtrack, his first, for the movie.

National Lampoon’s Van Wilder: Unrated: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Yes, I’m fully aware of the fact that I reviewed National Lampoon’s Van Wilder – sometimes called the “Party Liaison Edition” — in an upgraded Blu-ray format, when it was released in early May of this years. And, no, I don’t know why Lionsgate waited only another three months to send out it’s Blu-ray/4K UHD combo package. So, just for the record, I can report that the most significant upgrade here is the Dolby Atmos Track on the 4K UHD disc. Most of the featurettes included on previous editions have been ported over to the Blu-ray disc contained here. I doubt if fans of the movie will want to go out of their way to upgrade to the combo package, if they’ve already purchased the most recent Blu-ray release. Those with newly acquired 4K UHD units and much older DVD editions should consider it, though.

Disney Junior: Muppet Babies: Time to Play PBS/BBC Earth: Kingdoms of the Sky: Blu-ray
PBS/BBC Earth: Earth’s Natural Wonders: Life at the Extremes: Season 2: Blu-ray
PBS: 10 That Changed America: Season 2
Parents, don’t let the title confuse you. A VHS compilation, “Muppet Babies: Time to Play,” was released in 1994, at a total length of 48 minutes. That’s the one you may still remember from your youths. If, perchance, you still have a pristine copy lying around, see what it’s worth on eBay. It might surprise you. The DVD edition of “Muppet Babies: Time to Play!” – complete with an extraneous exclamation point — is something new and reasonably different. A couple of other VHS collections were released at about the same time, but nothing since then. The hesitation can likely be traced to licensing rights to musical and visual material included in the individual episodes that may have grown too expensive to renew. No such problem will arise with Disney Junior’s new reboot of the original 1984-91 animated series, because licensing issues are something the company no longer will abide. As opposed to the traditional animation of the original show, the new series uses CGI animation. It’s still targeted to children ages 4–7, with each episode consisting of two 11-minute stories. If it means anything to parents, Tom Warburton, creator of Cartoon Network’s “Codename: Kids Next Door” is the series’ executive producer, while former “SpongeBob SquarePants” writer Eric Shaw serves as the story editor. In any case, the new 92-minute compilation – not including bonus material — retains several of the younger incarnations of the classic Muppet characters, adding Baby Kermit, Baby Piggy, Baby Fozzie, Baby Gonzo, Baby Animal, “Miss Nanny” and the first appearance of Summer Penguin. In addition to four double-episodes, there’s 10 “Show & Tell Shorts” and 6 music videos. The “Show & Tell Shorts” give the individual character a chance to shine by themselves. The music videos are taken from six of the story songs.

I don’t care how many of those “100 Places to Visit Before You Die” lists you peruse, there’s no chance in hell – or on BBC’s “Earth” – that any of us will visit most or, perhaps, a small fraction of the spectacular places explored in “Kingdoms of the Sky” and “Earth’s Natural Wonders: Life at the Extremes.” And, for the most part, that’s a good thing. Try to imagine a list of “100 Places to Visit Before You Die” that might have been compiled by your grandparents and consider how many of them might now be worth the effort of visiting. Most of them have been corrupted by commercialism, trampled by tourists or turned into foreign-language versions of an American mall. Mount Everest has become a high-altitude dumping ground for the refuse of wannabe mountaineers too lazy to pick up after themselves. Depending on the season, Venice is unaffordable, disgustingly polluted or infested by filthy pigeons and tourists, like yourself. Likewise, San Francisco is unaffordable and, besides, an open-air Porta Potty for predatory panhandlers. New York, Acapulco, Rio de Jaineiro … fuggedaboutit. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t visit these cities in your lifetimes … just not to expect the kind of experiences your grandparents might have enjoyed. Watching the BBC’s travel and nature programming from the comfort of one’s home – especially on Blu-ray — is the best way I’ve found to visit places I should visit before I die, qbut won’t. It’s also the most environmentally safe, price-conscious and comfortable. And, besides, there’s no way for civilians to appreciate nature’s bounty in the same way it’s captured by crack teams of explorers, researchers, cinematographers and sound crews willing to wait, sometimes for months, to capture just one of the many images of animals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, insects, fish, plant life, scenery and, yes, people available to viewers in these Blu-rays. And, they do it in conditions that most of us couldn’t endure or afford.

Over the course of an easy-on-the-eyes 159 minutes, “Kingdoms of the Sky” reveals the extraordinary animals and remarkable people who make a home on the highest and most formidable mountain ranges of the world. The segments focus on the Himalaya, Rockies and Andes, which have largely defied mankind’s efforts to degrade and exploit them. “Earth’s Natural Wonders: Life at the Extremes, Season 2” is divided into three hourlong segments: “Surviving the Extreme,” “Surviving with Animals” and “Surviving Against the Odds.” They take us to locations that exist on a breathtaking and massive scale, from vast mountain ranges to   impenetrable rainforests and dazzling tropical islands. How many of them will remain untamed in the next 50-100 years is anyone’s guess.

The PBS documentary series, “10 That Changed America” reintroduces Americans to places many of us have already visited – or pass every day — but rarely have been able to fully appreciate. The first season covered 10 homes, parks and towns that changed our nation in ways not covered by school curriculum. In the second season, we’re invited to explore the stories behind 10 familiar monuments, streets and “modern marvels” – 30, in all — and the historical moments that inspired them. If nothing else, the series reminded me of how much I didn’t know about things I’ve taken for granted for most of my life. These would include the roads that were built over paths that connected towns, forts  or trading posts in colonial times and bridges that continue to stand while more modern spans collapse, killing motorists and pedestrians. I didn’t think I’d be able to sit through the 168 minutes contained in DVD package, but I was happily surprised to discover how much I learned.

The DVD Wrapup: Bye Bye Germany, John From, Marrowbone, Wildling, Dead Shack, Bitter Money, Big Fish & Begonia, Street Mobster, US Fest, No Offense … More

Friday, August 10th, 2018

Bye Bye Germany
This is one of those wartime stories that’s too good not to be true … or, at least, inspired by a true story. Bye Bye Germany takes place at approximately same time as the events depicted in George Clooney’s The Good German, if several hundred miles to the southwest of Nuremburg, in a similarly devastated Frankfurt. The trials were continuing, as was the hunt for Nazi collaborators and war criminals hoping to escape detection, before heading to South America or the United States to make rockets and fight the red menace. Here, a group of Holocaust survivors is awaiting their opportunity to leave Germany, for Palestine, Canada or the United States. It wasn’t as easy to escape the ravages of war and residual anti-Semitism as most people today think it was. According to a postscript added to Sam Garbarski and Michael Bergmann’s compelling dramedy Bye Bye Germany — based on Bergmann’s semi-autobiographical novels “Die Teilacher” and “Machloikes” — approximately 4,000 German Jews returned “home” after the defeat of the Nazi regime. Many of them, we’re also told, remained at a loss as to how to explain their conflicted choice to their children and Jews who had already found new homes elsewhere. One of the them is David Bermann, a native Frankfurter played very effectively by Moritz Bleibtreu (The Baader Meinhof Complex). Bermann organizes a tight-knit group of survivors, all of whom are living in a camp for displaced persons and struggling to raise the money necessary to say, “bye, bye Germany.” Not unlike the characters in Ocean’s 11, all the men bring a specific skill to the table. Bermann’s family ran an emporium for fine linens that was among the city’s swankiest stores, until Jewish businesses were seized, and their owners were arrested. Because he still considers himself to be an expert in the schmatte game, Bermann arranges for his band of peddlers to access French linens on the black market and sell them to the relatives of German soldiers killed in action, whose names and addresses he found listed in the obituaries and notices on bulletin boards. A natural-born comedian and hustler, Bermann teaches his pals some of the skills necessary to prosper as a door-to-door salesmen, offering fine bed linens nicely wrapped in amusing pitches. It’s the former trait that causes him problems with U.S. authorities.

Bermann’s request for a license to do business in the occupied zone is denied by military investigators, who suspect that he was a collaborator. His case officer, Sara Simon, played with icy resolve by Antje Traue (“Berlin Station”), wants to know why has two passports, in different names, and how he came to be invited to Hitler ‘s mountain retreat. They’re good questions, especially considering that everyone else in his family was killed in a death camp, and his answers almost sound as if he cut them from whole cloth. As his story goes, Bermann’s stereotypically fat and deceptively jolly boss at a labor camp, Kleinschmitt (Joachim Paul Assböck), was an SS officer with direct links to Berlin headquarters. After winning a do-or-die comedy competition in the camp, Bermann was invited – well, ordered — to cheer up Der Fuhrer at his retreat. Because the Nazis maintained such precise records of its prisoners and victims, Bermann could easily be mistaken for a collaborator. Special Agent Simon even goes to the trouble of bringing Kleinschmitt into her office – presumably on his way to the gallows – to see how Bermann would react to seeing him, again. As typically happens in such scenarios, Simon begins to warm to the personable schmatte peddler – a visit to his family’s ransacked store helps certify his integrity – and he, to her. It’s at about this time in the narrative that the gang’s profits are stolen by a black marketeer, who fears that Bermann’s laddies are infringing on his territory. If the uneasy blend of comedy and drama occasionally threatens to get away from Garbinski (Irina Palm), Bye Bye Germany succeeds on the strength of the ensemble cast and the appeal of a wartime story that’s truly unique. The DVD arrives with the short film, “Strings.”

To Auschwitz and Back: The Joe Engel Story
Like the characters in Bye Bye Germany, Holocaust survivor Joe Engel spent several years in camps for displaced persons, before finding a home in the United States. Although the documentary To Auschwitz and Back isn’t nearly as polished, cinematic or deeply researched as other films we’ve seen on the Holocaust, it would fit neatly alongside Schindler’s List or Shoah on any shelf reserved for films on the subject. Born in Zakroczym, Poland, in 1927, Engel was taken from his parents by the Nazis, at 14, and forced to live in the Warsaw Ghetto. He never saw his parents again, as they were among the first group of Jews transported to the death camps. In 1942, Engel was sent to Birkenau and, soon thereafter, Auschwitz, where he was placed in a bricklaying school. Although the decision saved him from the gas chamber, Engel witnessed many of the worst atrocities committed there. Three years later, as the Red Army advanced through Poland, he was loaded on a train with other camp survivors to meet their fate in Germany. Somehow, Engel escaped from the boxcar prison, avoided his pursuers and joined a resistance group of about 200 that, among other things, attacked police stations.

After the war, Engel returned to Poland, where he learned that his sister had survived and was living in Belgium, and that two brothers also were alive. Through a refugee agency in the camp, he managed to contact an aunt in the United States, and she finally provided the affidavit that allowed him to immigrate. One day after arriving in New Orleans, on the first ship carrying refugees to the South, he was given a ticket to Charleston. After scraping for work, he was able to open a dry-cleaning business, which supported Engel and a couple of nephews until his retirement, several decades later. (One of the nephews, Michael Engel, now a dentist, convinced director Ron Small to make the film and appears in it alongside his uncle.) Now 90, Engel has spent much of his life in the U.S. ensuring the Holocaust is never forgotten. He’s recalled his experiences for students at local schools and universities, as well as his favorite bench in a public park. With the assistance of the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s film and photographic archives, Small has created a 47-minute film that weaves oral history with archival material in the service of a documentary that is as painfully graphic as any I’ve seen. Still, it’s Engel’s spirit that triumphs over evil here. I won’t be surprised if someone in Hollywood attempts to expand To Auschwitz and Back –which took only two days to film and two more to edit — into something a bit more theatrical. It couldn’t possibly be more dramatic.

John From: Blu-ray
Rarely does a week go by without one or two coming-of-age films arriving in my mail box. This week, there were nearly a half-dozen, and not all of them from American directors, for whom the subgenre offers a convenient refuge from creative blockage. Portuguese co-writer/director Joao Nicolau (The Sword and the Rose) exploits the de rigueur boredom and alienation of a pair of teenage girls, wasting most of their summer vacation watching the world go by on the porch of a Lisbon apartment. Their parents have given up attempting to amuse the girls, who alleviate their boredom by primping for parties and toying with the feelings of the boys who hang out downstairs. Tired of exchanging e-mails, they correspond by trading notes secreted inside a light fixture in the complex’s elevator. It’s a clever touch. Their general state of ennui evaporates rather abruptly one morning, when they notice a newly arrived tenant feeding his little boy on his terrace, a floor below them. Obviously much older, Filipe (Filipe Vargas) represents the kind of handsome single dad – a photographer, too – who convinces teenage girls that older men aren’t all as clueless as their fathers … it’s the flip side of the MILF phenomenon. It doesn’t take long before Rita (Julia Palha) and Sara (Clara Riedenstein) discover that Filipe is responsible for an exhibition of photographs he shot while living among native tribes in Melanesia, as well as the collection of masks and other artifacts. After stealing a feather from one of the headdresses on display, Rita goes out of her way to make Filipe’s acquaintance and endear herself to his son. I never got the impression that Rita’s attraction to Filipe was any more sexual than it would be with any pedagogical figure who introduced them to a world they never knew existed.

In this case, his art connected Rita with people whose lives are infinitely more interesting – to a middle-class girl stuck in a big-city high-rise, anyway — in a faraway corner of Papua New Guinea, where cannibals and crocodiles vied for the same food. (Michael Rockefeller was drawn to the same magnet.) Without losing a beat, or hopping on a plane, she literally goes native, by adopting the facial makeup, clothing and customs of the people in the photographs. Her sudden transformation brings John From to life, by adding a wonderfully new and exotic color palette, rhythms not associated with modern pop music and genuine passion for something new and different. Rita also becomes entranced with the John Frum religion, associated with the post-World War II cargo cults. There isn’t much more left to reveal without ruining the fun for everyone. I don’t know why John From failed to find distribution here. Respected critic Jonathan Rosenbaum discovered it while judging a film festival in Madrid and made it one of his top-10 choices for 2016. As for the actors, Palha has already carved a niche in Portuguese- and Spanish-language television series, while the red-haired Riedenstein is completing her second feature. I hope we get to see more of them here.

Marrowbone: Blu-ray, 4K UHD/HDR
Set in a corner of rural America that time appears to have forgot, Marrowbone (a.k.a., “The Secret of Marrowbone”) was, in fact, shot in Spain by first-time director Sergio G. Sánchez, who previously penned the English-language tsunami thriller, The Impossible (2012), and Spanish-language horror, The Orphanage (2007). In it, four siblings move from England to America with their mother to escape a troubled, if murky past. When she dies unexpectedly, they vow to stay together in the Marrowbone family’s decaying mansion, which may or may not be haunted, infested with demonic raccoons or about to be foreclosed upon by a devious lawyer, Porter (Kyle Soller). In her final hours, the mother (Nicola Harrison) demands of the oldest son, Jack (George MacKay), the she be buried in the house’s yard and news of her death be kept secret until he’s 21. If not, the lawyer could take over the property and, perhaps, turn it over to the children’s abusive father. Like almost everything else in the movie, Porter’s overall purpose in recovering the mansion is left mysterious … except for his obvious contempt for Jack, who stole his girlfriend, Allie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a neighbor and keeper of the town’s dust-encrusted records. Even more mysterious is the bullet that is shot through an upstairs window, when one of the girls is peering through it, and the subsequent six-month period of lost time, when something evil happens to Jack. Again, we don’t know what it is – or could be – until much later in the movie. As you can imagine, anything I could reveal about Marrowbone’s second half – beyond the ghost, raccoons and lawyer’s lack of scruples — would require a series of spoilers so thick with capital letters and asterisks that they would render any summary incomprehensible. In fact, though, most of the movie’s enjoyment derives from its many chilling twists and unrevealed secrets, including an ocean and shoreline that don’t come into play until later in the story. The palpably ambiguous and Gothic-lite atmosphere is expertly maintained throughout by Sánchez’ cinematographer Xavi Giménez (Agora), composer Fernando Velázquez (Crimson Peak), production designer Patrick Salvador (Automata) and actors, who also include Charlie Heaton (“Stranger Things”), Mia Goth (A Cure for Wellness) and youngster Matthew Stagg (“War & Peace”). It adds deleted/extended scenes, a making-of featurette and effects reel.

Measure of a Man
I wonder who decided that it would be a good idea to go with Measure of a Man, when the title of Robert Lipsyte’s YA source novel, “One Fat Summer,” was better in every way possible. My first guess would be that someone feared taking on the nation’s growing legion of “fat activists” head-on, merely for the crime of pointing out the protagonist’s least attractive feature and forcing him to come to grips with it before he can come of age. Hey, stranger things happen every day in a politically correct world gone wild. Somehow, though, it’s hard to imagine anything being gained by changing Measure of Man into “One Fat-Acceptance Summer.” Being overweight may be Bobby Marks’ most obvious handicap – pardon the characterization – but it isn’t what’s really eating him.  In the summer of 1976, the 17-year-old’s vacation has already been ruined by his parents’ unwillingness to put their differences on hold for more than a few days. His older sister/ally finds refuge in the arms of a cool boy a bit older than her, leaving her decidedly non-cool brother in the lurch. The only friend he has in the resort is a teenage girl, who likes Bobby (Blake Cooper) for who he is and how he thinks, without deducting style points for his physique and unruly red hair. She’s decided to spend most of the summer away from the Rhode Island retreat, in New York, dealing with a cosmetic problem of her own. The leader of a wolfpack of local bullies senses his weakness and begins using Bobby as his personal punching bag.

Then, when he finally gets up the gumption to get a summer job, the only one available to him is tending the gratuitously large yard of a mansion owned by a tightwad tycoon, Doctor Kahn (Donald Sutherland), who, as Mike Ditka once said about George Halas, “throws nickels around like they were manhole covers.” Worse … whenever the old man decides to dock his pay for doing sloppy work – his opinion, only – Bobby is forced to listen to the blowhard share a lifetime’s worth of bromides and clichés about the value of being meticulous. But, c’mon, if Bobby can’t lose weight jogging to Doctor Kahn’s estate and toiling in his garden under the midday sun, it’s only because he chooses to relieve his anxieties at the nearest Dairy Queen or director Jim Loach (Oranges and Sunshine) and screenwriter David Scearce (A Single Man) have clogged his sweat glands. Measure of a Man overcomes such complaints by putting its rather large heart on full display throughout its 100-minute length. We sympathize with Bobby for all the right reasons and appreciate the filmmakers’ ability to tie everything together in a tidy bow near its end. The only truly sour note hit is an attack by the town bullies that is far too cruel and graphic within the context of a summer dramedy. Judy Greer and Luke Wilson are welcome additions to the cast, even in the smallish roles of Bobby’s parents. As usual, Sutherland threatens to steal the show in every scene in which he appears, while also lending the movie its title.

Wildling: Blu-ray
Pyewacket: Blu-ray
In a pair of interviews conducted in advance of Wildling’s April 13, 2018, debut on VOD and digital HD outlets, Bel Powley argued that what her character Anna, experiences in the movie “is symbolic of what every girl goes through when she becomes a woman.” As a baby, Anna was kidnapped in the woods by a creepy fellow she calls “Daddy” (Brad Dourif), who locks in her in the attic of his home and controls her every waking moment, until she reaches puberty at 16. It doesn’t qualify as torture exactly, until she begins to display the first signs of impending womanhood. That’s when Daddy attempts to “treat her illness” with injections of a special drug, while simultaneously protecting her from an evil force, lurking in the forest. After observing how the chemicals are destroying Anna’s body, Daddy attempts to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head.

Finally freed from her prison, Anna agrees to move in with Sheriff Ellen Cooper (Liv Tyler) and her protective younger brother, Ray (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), and attend the local high school. As the after-effects of Daddy’s injections wear off, Anna’s body begins to develop normally … for a teenage werewolf. She also begins to re-experience nightmares that had ended earlier in her childhood. One day, she even begins chasing a deer through the forest. She’s prevented from stepping on a tripwire, holding back a spiked weapon, by a one-eyed man (James LeGros) decked out in head-to-toe wolf-skin and fur. It’s from this point forward that Anna is forced to deal with the reality of being what’s been characterized as a “post-feminist werewolf,” capable of protecting herself from bullies, rapists and lynch mobs. By now, Daddy has been released from the hospital, fully intent on preventing Anna from accepting her destiny as a wildling. In his debut as co-writer/director of a theatrical feature, Fritz Böhm maintains a high level of suspense and horror throughout the film’s 92-minute length, when the secrets of Anna’s birth and abduction are revealed. I suspect that freshman co-writer Florian Eder contributed a bit more to the feminist angle than Böhm, however. Wildling received high marks from genre and mainstream critics, alike.

In, Pyewacket, writer/director Adam MacDonald (Backcountry) uses an extreme example of typical mother-daughter angst as a foundation for another good thriller, this time set in the woods of Ontario. The central characters are Leah (Nicole Munoz), a Goth teen with a strong interest in the occult, and her mother, Mrs. Reyes (Laurie Holden), who’s been a nervous wreck since the death of her husband, a year earlier. When Leah gets into a spot of bother at her high school, it gives Mrs. Reyes an excuse to move to a home in the woods one hour away from all the bad memories of her marriage. Inconveniently, it’s also an hour away from Leah’s school and friends, which becomes a rather large bone of contention between them. At 24, Muñoz is every bit as convincing as a teenager as Powley is in Wildling, at 26. Leah’s already gotten a tattoo of a pentagram on her hand, so it comes as little surprise when she starts collecting incantations from a book of spells to sic the spirit of the Pyewacket on her mom’s ass. Long story short: her long trips into the woods to summon the legendary witch produce the usual array of unexpected results. It sets off a series of events that Leah is unable to control.

Dead Shack
By now, it takes quite a bit more than some clever dialogue, jump scares and the imaginative application of special-effects makeup to interest me in a zombie flick. To paraphrase Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady,” “I’ve grown accustomed to their faces.” Like Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, Warm Bodies, ParaNorman and Fido, Peter Ricq’s darkly hilarious and exceedingly gory Dead Shack finds its grove early and stays on track for most of the next 85 minutes. As far as I know it wasn’t released in the U.S. and the only recognizable star is Lauren Holly, whose biggest hits came early in her career, but has continued to work steadily ever since. Decked out for most of the movie in a zombie-proof outfit, fashioned from thick, full-body leather, and a metal helmet, possibly inspired by Aussie outlaw Ned Kelly, she’s unrecognizable. The rest of the cast members possibly could be picked out of a lineup in Canada, but it hardly matters. The tentative protagonist here is Jason (Matthew Nelson-Mahood), a handsome teenage boy who joins his friend Colin’s family for a weekend of fun in the Canadian wilderness. Colin (Gabriel LaBelle) is the kind of half-pint jokester who’s adept at making everyone around him uncomfortable, while also getting them to laugh at his antics. His older sister, Summer (Lizzie Boys), probably wouldn’t mind hooking up with Jason at some point during the weekend, but, for the time being, she’s content to play hard-to-get.

In a bit of twist, the truly irresponsible characters here are Colin’s divorced father, Roger (Donavon Stinson), and his younger, trophy girlfriend, Lisa (Valerie Tian), both of whom intend to get hammered and stay hammered throughout the trip. While the he adults are doing just that, the kids explore the densely forested neighborhood. They come to a house that could hardly look more ordinary. Upon further inspection, they spy the Neighbor Lady (Holly) feeding a pair of local hoodlums to her “zombie family” members, who normally remain caged in a closet. The kids immediately run back to their cabin to tell Roger of the strange goings-on next store. By this time, however, he’s so wasted that their report makes him laugh so hard that he can’t help but check it out for himself. What happens next, and throughout the second half of the movie, is a series of encounters that Ricq (“Freaktown”) has choreographed to take full advantage of the kids’ naivete when it comes to killing zombies and the Neighbor Lady’s desire to collect fresh meat for her “children.” If it’s difficult for a filmmaker to repulse and amuse audiences simultaneously, Ricq manages to pull it off with little seeming effort. I don’t know if he would have benefitted much from an infusion of money or higher-profile actors. I doubt it. The DVD comes with a lengthy making-of featurette.

Bitter Money
As is usually the case when President Trump gets the urge to play King of the World, his legislation-by-Twitter edicts ultimately hurt the people who can absorb their impact least. That is certainly the case with tariffs that will cost more jobs than they can possibly save and deprive working-class men and women of incomes they can’t bear to lose. One of POTUS’ pet peeves is the balance of trade with China. In Wang Bing’s grueling documentary Bitter Money, we’re introduced to some of the people at the bottom rung of the economic ladder, who work for the Chinese equivalent of pennies-an-hour to make deeply discounted clothing sold at Walmart, Costco and stores trying to dump Ivanka Trump’s newly deceased clothing lines. (Coming soon to a Dollar Store near you, minus the labels.) Bing’s fly-on-the-wall approach is ideal for exposing just how horrifying life can be for the estimated 300,000 workers, many of them migrants from rural areas in surrounding provinces, who’ve moved to Huzhou to find jobs in the 18,000 clothing factories there. The cameras follow a dozen of these workers, or so, both at work, where they may labor for more than 12 hours a day, and, in their off-hours, as they hang around shabby dorms drinking, dreaming of home, worrying about getting paid and trying to decide whether their jobs are worth keeping.

The camera observes them carefully, moving from one conversation to another, and along a line of constantly pulsating sewing machines. Bing doesn’t have to make grand statements about the monotonous, mind-numbing nature of the work. Nor does he point out egregious lapses in safety regulations or unhealthy environments. He doesn’t have to do anything more than keep the cameras rolling. The real tragedy comes in knowing that these people are unlikely to return home any time soon with enough money to ensure a better life for their families. When the tariffs kick in, and the outsourcing moves to sweatshops in Bangladesh and India, the government won’t be able to provide for their welfare … even if it wanted to do so. During America’s Great Migration North, at least, whites and blacks from the rural South were able to send money home, while keeping some for themselves. The same happened after World War II, when displaced people from Europe were invited to fill factory jobs here. Illegal immigrants for Mexico battled for the same privilege in the fields owned by insanely greedy growers. Not so in China, at least for unskilled and basically uneducated workers we meet here, as well as in Bing’s other documentaries. (Most of them go unseen in the PRC.)  If Bitter Money doesn’t leave much room for hope, it demonstrates the strength and perseverance of people whose lives we touch every time we shop for bargains in back-to-school and Black Friday sales.

Big Fish & Begonia: Blu-ray
Digimon Adventure tri: Coexistence
Elena of Avalor: Realm of the Jaquins
The Boxcar Children: Surprise Island: Blu-ray
Up until recently, there really wasn’t anything to be gained from comparing animated features made in Chinese to those created by Japanese studios. Until the short-lived retirement of Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli dominated sales of animated features from Asia to the rest of the world, along with every new episode in Kunihiko Yuyama’s “Pokémon” series and Mamoru Hosoda release (Wolf Children). It carved a foothold in the U.S., marketplace, with such titles as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo. In 2016, Makoto Shinkai’s animated romance/fantasy/drama Your Name rose to No. 8 on the chart listing the highest-grossing traditionally animated films, based on worldwide sales. The latest entry in Akiyoshi Hongo and Keitarô Motonaga’s Digimon franchise, Digimon Adventure tri: Coexistence, has just been released, as well. It is the fifth of six feature-length movies in the “DAt” series, which pits inhabitants of the Real World with those in Digital World. A flying cat, Meicoomon, and its teenage-girl partner, Mochizuki Meiko, are in the forefront of the battle to save the world from total destruction … as usual. It’s taken a while for Chinese animators to compete on an even basis with Japanese and American studios, but they’ve made noticeable inroads lately. That’s good news for everyone.

Last year, Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun’s epic fantasy, Big Fish & Begonia, joined the computer-animated Monkey King: Hero Is Back (2015) at the top of the Chinese charts. Its 12-year journey to the big screen began in May 2004, when Zhang and Liang produced a short flash animation, also called “Big Fish & Begonia,” which was received favorably enough to encourage them to develop it into a feature-length film. Subsequent lapses in financing caused it to be shelved twice, at least. The success of Monkey King: Hero Is Back and other animated films based on Chinese legends brought new money to the table and, ultimately, record numbers and extremely positive reviews. The story was inspired by a myth from the ancient Taoist classic “Zhuangzi,” as well as other time-honored Chinese tales, such as “Classic of Mountains and Seas” and “In Search of the Supernatural.” As the story goes, a mystical race of beings dwells in the lower reaches of the ocean, controlling the tides and the changing of the seasons. One of these beings, a restless 16-year-old girl, Chun, decides to experience the human world as something more than a mere observer. (Blimey, another coming-of-age flick!) She’s allowed to do so, but in the guise of dolphin. Trapped in a vortex, she is saved at the last minute by a human boy, who drowns during his heroic act. Consumed by guilt, Chun commits herself to giving the boy his life back, again. As protector of his soul, Chun must defeat those who stand in her way, including members of her own family. Big Fish & Begonia is quite a bit more complicated than that brief description makes it sound, but not so elaborate that it would scare off general audiences. Moreover, the intricacy and beauty of the artwork was praised as being in the same league as Ghibli products, along with its empowered teenage-girl protagonist, environmental themes, fantasy sequences and anthropomorphic animals. Special features on the gorgeous Shout Factory Blu-ray include a making-of documentary, music videos and the short film which inspired the movie.

Debuting in 2016 on Disney Junior, “Elena of Avalor” spun off from the popular animated series, “Sofia the First,” to become Disney’s first Latin American princess. Combining multiple Latin American cultures, “Elena of Avalor: Realm of the Jaquins” combines four music-filled episodes of the show, in which the crown princess (Aimee Carrero) soars through a hidden gateway into Vallestrella, which is the mysterious, dazzling domain of the jaquins … flying jaguars.  On the way there, she accidentally clears the way for evil siblings Victor and Carla Delgado (Lou Diamond Phillips, Myrna Velasco), who hope to unleash an evil forest sprite, who, they believe, can help them take over Avalor. Elena now must find the jaquins’ legendary Sunbird Oracle to succeed in her mission. The disc also features 10 bonus shorts. Also along for the ride are Noël Wells, Cheech Marin, Jane Fonda, Jenna Ortega, Christian Lanz and other veterans of Coco and Disney programming.

Somehow, my influences growing up didn’t include American first-grade teacher Gertrude Chandler Warner, who, in the 1920s, wrote the first of a series of books under the umbrella title, “The Boxcar Children.” It tells the story of four orphaned children, Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny, who create a home for themselves in an abandoned boxcar in the forest. They eventually meet their grandfather, who, unlike reports to the contrary, is a kind and wealthy man. When the children agree to live with him, he moves the beloved boxcar to his backyard, so the children can use it as a playhouse. In subsequent books, the children experience many adventures and mysteries in their neighborhood or at the locations they visit with their grandfather on breaks from school. While only the first 19 of the more than 150 stories in the series were written by Warner, all of the books would carry the byline, “Created by Gertrude Chandler Warner.” Based on a 2007 online poll, the National Education Association named the original book one of its “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children.” In 2012, School Library Journal ranked it among the all-time “Top 100 Chapter Books” for children. Even so, it took 90 years for “The Boxcar Children” to be adapted for the screen, with Martin Sheen, J. K. Simmons, Zachary Gordon, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy and Jadon Sand voicing the principle characters. A sequel, “The Boxcar Children: Surprise Island,” is now available in DVD/Blu-ray. In it, Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny spend the summer on their grandfather’s private island. The kids think they’re alone, until they come upon Joe (Dane DeHaan), who is friendly, helpful and inexplicably living on their island.

Sunset Society
Like the late, great Carrie Fisher, whose participation in the “Star Wars” franchise may continue for an eternity, the similarly late, great Ian Fraser Kilmister (a.k.a., “Lemmy From Motörhead”) will live forever in the hearts and minds of metalheads everywhere. And, like “Star War” nerds, they’re never going away, either. Lemmy has already appeared posthumously in as many movies as Fischer, who shuffled off this mortal coil 364 days after the British rock icon. The newly released Sunset Society and Return to Return to Nuke ‘Em High may not win the same respect from critics as Star Wars: The Last Jedi and upcoming Star Wars: Episode IX, but the closest Fisher came to the Academy Award she deserved was being included in the show’s annual In Memoriam montage, alongside her mother, Debbie Reynolds, who died a day later. Alone or alongside Motörhead, Lemmy has failed to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, something he deserves, as well. A life-size statue of the singular rocker and collector of Nazi memorabilia stands on the patio of the Rainbow Bar & Grill, on the Sunset Strip, while statuettes of Princess Leia in full slave drag go for a small fortune on eBay. I suppose that I could stretch this comparison thing out for a few more sentences, at least, but why bother?

Phoebe Dollar and Rolfe Kanefsky’s low-budget Sunset Society depicts a clandestine gathering place in Hollywood, where heavy-metal vampires can drink whiskey, play cards and swap body fluids with their soon-to-be-eternal groupies. Lemmy plays Ace, the club’s Big Kahuna, who fears exposure to the media spotlight as much as he avoids direct exposure to sunlight. In an attempt to keep a lid on his organization, Ace enlists the help of Frankie (Ron Jeremy), Sophia (Phoebe Dollar) and Mr. Cross (Robert Donavan) to prevent a hooker from selling a do-it-yourself DVD, showing real vampire activity on the Sunset Strip, on the open market. Meanwhile, Dagger (Dizzy Reed), a disgruntled vampire, desperately wants to return to the realm of living, breathing humans. Head-bangers will relish the lively mix of blood, sex, animation and rock-’n’-roll, even during Sunset Society’s more amateurish moments … of which there are many. Everyone else … not so much. The DVD adds a featurette on the Lemmy statue being unveiled at the Rainbow Bar and Grill; a photo slideshow; and some tasty previews from Cleopatra.

Transporter 3: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Adrenaline junkies must be among the earliest of early adopters to the 4K UHD format, because they currently appear to be the primary target of studio sales initiatives. Lionsgate’s Transporter 3 serves as a prime example of a shot-on-film action picture that doesn’t benefit as much from the visual upgrade, as it does from the addition of an explosive Dolby Atmos soundtrack. Movies that were shot digitally and, then, transferred to Blu-ray/4K UHD, look and sound markedly more robust than their standard-DVD counterparts. If the movies in Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen’s “Transporter” franchise – which includes a television series and reboot, without Jason Statham — haven’t broken any records in their theatrical runs, here and abroad, it’s likely that all of them have done well in their video afterlives. For the record, Frank Martin (Statham) is a highly skilled driver known only as “The Transporter.” He will deliver anything, no questions asked, always on time, and he is known as the best in the business. Rule Number 1: “Once the deal is made, it is final”; Rule Number 2: “No names,”; and Rule Number 3: “Never open the package.” In Chapter Three, Martin is commissioned to transport Valentina, the kidnapped daughter of a Ukrainian government official, from Marseilles to Odessa on the Black Sea. Along the way, he’s required to battle thugs, who want to intercept the “package,” while avoiding the alluring charm of Leningrad-native Natalya Rudakova, a red-headed beauty who looks exponentially more sensational than she acts. At some point, the two are connected by bracelets designed to explode if they get too far away from each other. Frankly, I lost track of the characters’ motivations after about 15 minutes and stopped caring 15 minutes after that. That doesn’t mean, however, that I stopped watching the movie. Director Olivier Megaton (Taken 2) managed to reel me back in, both times, with truly exciting and imaginative chase and fight scenes, and the scenery of the Ukraine, Romania, Hungary and Marseille. All of the featurettes from the original Blu-ray have been ported over to the combo package.

The US Festival: 1982 The US Generation
In 1982, when The US Festival: 1982 The US Generation was first filmed, I was still recovering from my move from sunny SoCal to the winter and summer wonderland that Chicago wasn’t then and may never be. (OK, the festivals now make summer tolerable, at least.)  I recall hearing about a festival being held in someplace called Glen Helen – which, at the time, was a sunbaked regional park near San Bernardino, without an exit ramp to call its own – at which musical performances would be the sideshow to tents manned by Apple employees pimping first- and second-generation computer products. For the next 36 years, the only times I recalled Glen Helen, at all, came when passing the concert venue on the way to Las Vegas or stuck in traffic approaching the, yes, exit ramp. It’s taken all that time for the film based on the festival to make it to a handful of screens around California, television and DVD. As much as I could have lived without the countless hosannas to concert promoter Bill Graham and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, I began to feel nostalgic for a music festival that, while hellishly hot, came off exactly as planned … maybe better. What I didn’t know is that Wozniak financed the event with his own money and Graham delivered some of the top acts of the time, some of whom were still feeling the bad vibes emanating from Altamont and Woodstock. (As historic and remarkable as the Woodstock hoedown was, it wasn’t much fun for the acts and hippies who forgot to pack rain gear, food and other things they couldn’t live without for three or four days.) Glenn Aveni’s documentary is enhanced by sparklingly-shot performances by The Police, Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac, Santana, Jackson Browne, The Cars, The Ramones, Talking Heads, Ramones, Grateful Dead, Pat Benatar and The B52s. Squabbles over video rights prevented some of the other acts from being shown on the doc, but the ones that are here are in top form. It’s also fascinating to watch the transformation of the regional park into a first-class concert venue, with amphitheater seating (standing, mostly) for several hundred-thousand people and enough portable toilets to serve the lot of them. The interviews with participants – vintage and newly recorded –are interesting, even if they tend to be redundant and, in some cases, self-serving. They include archived chats with Johnny & Joey Ramone, Carlos Santana, Sting, Ric Ocasek, Danny Elfman and Fred Schneider, plus newer ones with Wozniak, Mick Fleetwood, Eddie Money, Marky Ramone, Kate Pierson, Stewart Copeland and Mickey Hart. If anything, the US Festival serves as the legitimate precursor to Coachella.

Street Mobster: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Within minutes of Street Mobster’s first head-on rush into the kind of violent confrontations that would distinguish A Clockwork Orange and Mean Streets – all released within months of each other, in the early 1970s – anti-hero Isamu Okita tells us, “I like fighting and girls, but not gambling.” Okita (Bunta Sugawara) probably would enjoy gambling as much as his other vices, but he constantly loses money playing cards and other Japanese games. We also learn that he was born on the same day Japan lost World War II, to a prostitute/junkie mother who he smacked around as a kid and drove to an early death, in a ditch. After two stints in reform school, he ends up running his own street gang in an area controlled by the powerful Takigawa family. After coercing young women into taking jobs in brothels and stabbing several mobsters in a public bath, Okita gets his post-graduate degree in criminal studies in a real, grown-up prison. The game changed drastically while he was away, however, and the rough-and-tumble stuff no longer was tolerated by the chieftains of the crime syndicates. Even so, upon his return to Kawasaki, he senses a vacuum in the vice rackets, so popular with the lower castes. Ironically, when Okita re-enters the prostitution racket, one of the first women he meets is Kimiyo (Mayumi Nagisa), who he had raped and forced into the sex trade.

If he narrowly escapes the reunion with his life, at least he comes manages to assuage her anger and turn her into an ally.  He and his men enter an uneasy truce with the rival Yato gang, but it implodes under the weight of Okita’s ego and rage problems. That much information, alone, should be enough to hook genre buffs and fans of extreme Japanese cinema. (Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer comes to mind.) Street Mobster was Kinji Fukasaku’s contribution to Toei’s six-part Gendai Yakuza series of unrelated films by different directors, all starring Sugawara. By 1972, modern yakuza films had pretty much reached the end of their run in Japan, where mobsters had become as slick and oily as mainstream business executives and the politicians they corrupted. A year later, though, Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity series looked back at the mob’s post-war years, telling stories that didn’t hinge on the eccentricities of a single character, as was the case with Street Mobster. By the end of the decade, he was focusing his attention on samurai and sci-fi flicks. His final project was the highly controversial “teen-death game” drama, Battle Royale, which provided a blueprint for “The Hunger Games” and a half-dozen other such survivalist movies. Because American distributors feared Battle Royale could inspire Columbine-like tragedies, it wouldn’t be released officially in the U.S. for another 10 years. (It took 30 years for Street Mobster to be released here.) The Arrow release contains commentary by Japanese cinema expert Tom Mes; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Chris Malbon; and illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by Jasper Sharp.

Acorn: No Offense: Series 1
Acorn: Murdoch Mysteries: Season 11
One way to determine if a television series might be worth sampling is to check out the names of the executive producers attached to the project. Stephen Bochco, Jerry Bruckheimer, Tyler Perry, David E. Kelley, Norman Lear, Shonda Rhimes and Dick Wolf are among an elite group of American producers whose names are their bond when it comes to predictability popular programming. The same holds true with the shows we’ve enjoyed from the BBC and ITV and are starting to see from Europe via the miracle of streaming services such as Acorn, MHz and Britbox. If the name Paul Abbott doesn’t ring a bell, the titles of the shows he’s written for or created certainly will: “Coronation Street,” “Cracker,” “Shameless,” “Reckless,” “Touching Evil,” “Clocking Off” and “State of Play.” Like the UK version of “Shameless,” his latest series, “No Offense,” is a sometimes extremely dark dramedy set in working-class Manchester. In the first season of the truly offbeat police procedural, Detective Inspector Viv Deering (Joanna Scanlan) – described as a cast-iron cop, with a tough-love approach — leads a motley team of investigators at the fictional Manchester Metropolitan Police Department. Detective Constable Dinah Kowalska (Elaine Cassidy) misses out on a promotion to Detective Superintendent due to a mistake, but she proceeds to uncover a link between a murder, the body of a drowned woman and the disappearance of a third girl. The team soon realizes that someone is killing girls with Down syndrome, and, while working on different cases, attempts to solve the case as more girls come into danger. Although the prime suspect is killed while fleeing arrest, suspicion soon falls on a far more unexpected person, with links to the department heads. As was the case with “Shameless,” the characters are quite unlike those to whom American viewers have become accustomed through the sanitizing lens of broadcast television. They do, however, resemble the eccentric cops and civilians we met on “NYPD Blue” and “Hillstreet Blues.” A second season has already aired in England, with a third soon to follow.

Also, from Acorn Media, but of Canadian persuasion, comes the 11th season compilation of “Murdoch Mysteries” episodes …  18 of them, plus bonus material. This was my first introduction to the CBC series, so I didn’t know quite what to expect. Frankly, at first glance, I assumed it would end up being something more in line with Hallmark Channel’s “When Calls the Heart,” another period series, set in Canada, with lead characters, who outwardly, at least, lead prim and proper lives, with both the male and female characters as buttoned-down as their Edwardian fashions. In the popular Hallmark show, crimes are solved by Mounties, sometimes with the assistance of an enlightened citizenry. “Murdoch Mysteries” is set a few thousand miles to the east, in the bustling metropolis of Toronto, during roughly the same period. Instead of Mounties, the crimes – some rather grisly – are investigated by a clean-cut, if surprisingly appealing group of detectives, who couldn’t be more Canadian if they carried hockey sticks, instead of batons. The primary conceit isn’t all that different than the one that informed “The Wild Wild West,” however. Detective William Murdoch (Yannick Bisson), of the Toronto Constabulary, solves many of his cases using methods of detection that were unusual at the time, sometimes completely unknown. They include fingerprinting (“finger marks”), blood testing, surveillance, and trace evidence. As the series evolved, Murdoch’s methodology advanced closer to technologies accepted much later in the century. Season 11 opens with Murdoch languishing in jail, accused of murder, and Constable Crabtree (Jonny Harris), Inspector Brackenreid (Thomas Craig) and Detective Watts (Daniel Maslany) racing to prove his innocence. His main squeeze, Dr. Julia Ogden (Hélène Joy), remains in hiding from the corrupt forces that have taken over Station House No. 4. Once that injustice is settled, the season progresses with cases involving poisoned wine, high-speed transportation, botched organ transplants and anti-Semitic riots. Along the way, such historical figures as Helen Keller, Alexander Graham Bell, Robert H. Goddard and Theodore Roosevelt are introduced to give Murdoch an opportunity to absorb their knowledge.

The DVD Wrapup: Final Portrait, Overboard, Dark Crimes, Iron Brothers, Streets of Vengeance, Piranha II, Star Wars Rebels, Myanmar … More

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

Final Portrait
At approximately the same time as the celebrity press began swooning over Antonio Banderas’ portrayal of the 20th Century’s most recognized artist, in National Geographic’s docudrama, “Genius: Picasso,” publicists for Stanley Tucci’s Final Portrait – adapted from James Lord’s memoir, “A Giacometti Portrait” — were struggling to catch a break anywhere they could find one. Of the two projects, it would be difficult to praise one presentation without at least acknowledging the other’s significance as well. At least two major retrospectives of both artists’ work have been held under the same roofs in the last two years, in Paris and Qatar. In 2015, Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’)” and Giacometti’s bronze sculpture, “L’homme au doigt (Pointing Man),” sold for record sums, at a Christie’s auction, in less than a half-hour’s time. (The “Giacometti” exhibition currently at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim is the first major museum presentation dedicated to the Swiss-born artist in the United States in more than 15 years.)

Although known almost exclusively as a sculptor, Final Portrait focuses on the creation of one of Alberto Giacometti’s hauntingly distinctive paintings, “The Portrait of James Lord.”  The American journalist/critic first met Giacometti at the Café des Deux Magots in February 1952. As Lord recalled later, he was ‘instantly mesmerized’ by the artist. He became friendly with Alberto and his brother Diego, as well as their circle of friends and associates, and was a frequent visitor to Giacometti’s studio on the rue Hippolyte-Maindron in the 14th arrondissement. Lord kept a journal that was to become the basis of a definitive biography of the artist, on which he worked for 15 years. A couple of years later, Giacometti drew several pencil portraits of Lord, two of which are in the collections of the Musée Picasso in Paris and the Fondation Pierre Gianadda in Martigny. Final Portrait picks up on their relationship in 1964, when they run into each other in a Paris restaurant and Giacometti asks him to sit for a portrait in his studio “for a couple of days.” Lord complies, not knowing that two days would turn into nearly three weeks and require several expensive cancellations of flights home.  At one point, Lord recalled in his book, “A Giacometti Portrait,” published in 1965, “He looked at me for a minute before beginning to paint, then said, ‘You have the head of a brute.’ Surprised and amused, I replied, ‘Do you really think so?’ ‘And how!’” he exclaimed. “‘You look like a real thug. If I could paint you as I see you and a policeman saw the picture, he’d arrest you immediately!” If Armie Hammer, who plays Lord in the film, doesn’t fit that description, the author certainly did. The portrait was exhibited in 1965 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In 2015, it sold at Christie’s for a sliver under $21 million.

If Final Portrait had been released in December here, instead of April, Geoffrey Rush’s name might have been included among the favorites for a Best Actor nomination. (He might qualify for 2019, but, unlike elephants, academy members always forget.) Not only does Rush bear an uncanny resemblance to the artist, but the tantrums and other idiosyncrasies on display appear to have been lifted directly from Lord’s book. He recalled: “As each sitting started, Giacometti always said, ‘It’s helpless! I don’t know why I’m even trying,’ or ‘It’s impossible! I can’t make portraits … no one can.’” Although Lord was driven almost to despair by the length of the process and thought the artist, who died on January 11, 1966, at 64, was neurotic and a bit mad, he also surmised that Giacometti “is trying to grapple with pure sensation. He’s trying to capture something that actually precedes perception, and that takes you into a very strange place.” From my vantage point, I’d say that Tucci and Rush nailed it. At the 2017 British Independent Film Awards, James Merifield’s production design took home top honors. (Because of production costs, the artist’s studio had to be re-created in London, with CGI used to make it look like Paris.) The Giacometti Foundation, in Paris, assisted the production, on the condition that any artworks created for the film would be destroyed after it was completed. Also crucial to Tucci’s cinematic portrait are carefully drawn depictions of the three persons closest to the artist: Diego Giacometti (Tony Shalhoub), who shared his older brother’s passion for designer and sculpture; his wife and frequent model, Annette (Sylvie Testud); and his mistress, Caroline (Clémence Poésy), a prostitute and sometimes model. (In “Genius: Picasso,” Poésy played Françoise Gilot, the artist’s lover and artistic muse, from 1943 to 1953, and mother of two of his children, Claude and Paloma.) It should go without saying, by now, that Final Portrait isn’t for people whose favorite paintings hang on the walls of the hotel rooms in which they’ve stayed. An appreciation of the inner-workings of the artistic mind and methodology is essential. In an interview that accompanies the DVD, Tucci says that he’s especially attracted to men and women who make great sacrifices for their art, whether they’re chefs (Big Night), writers (Joe Gould’s Secret) or struggling actors (Imposters).

Overboard: Blu-ray
Although Anna Faris and Eugenio Derbez’ performances in Overboard won’t make anyone forget Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn in the 1987 original, they were good enough to attract a record audience to the Pantelion Films release. If a domestic haul of $50.3 million, with foreign receipts adding another $40.9 million, doesn’t make the remake sound like a blockbuster, it’s worth recalling the Pantelion bills itself as Hollywood’s first major Latino studio and the “new face of Hispanic Entertainment.” The “synergistic partnership” between Pantelion, Lionsgate and Grupo Televisa has been churning out new releases at an increasingly rapid rate, since 2011’s From Prada to Nada. Derbez also starred in its previous domestic champ, Instructions Not Included, which, in 2013, raked in $44.4 million in the United States and $99 million more worldwide. A year later, Derbez was recognized by Variety as the most influential Hispanic male in the entertainment industry. Here, co-stars Eva Longoria, Josh Segarra, Mel Rodriguez, Cecilia Suárez, Adrian Uribe, Mariana Treviño and Fernando Luján helped draw Hispanic audiences to theaters, even though Overboard is set in the Pacific Northwest, with British Columbia standing in for Washington and Oregon. As directed by Rob Greenberg (“Frasier”), and co-written by Bob Fisher (“Sirens) and Leslie Dixon, who received sole writing credit on Garry Marshall’s original, Overboard does a reasonably good job of reversing the roles originally handled by Hawn and Russell. Derbez plays Leonardo, a selfish, spoiled and wealthy playboy from Mexico’s richest family, with Faris as Kate, a working-class single mom of three, who’s hired to clean Leonardo’s luxury yacht. After unjustly firing Kate and refusing to pay her, Leonardo accidentally falls overboard while partying on the deck of the yacht. He wakes up on a beach on the Oregon coast, suffering from a hangover and amnesia. Kate reconnects with Lorenzo while he’s recuperating in a local hospital. To get revenge for being stiffed, she convinces Leonardo that he is her husband and, after taking him to her home, immediately puts him to work. At first, Lorenzo’s about as useful as a lawnmower with Popsicle sticks for blades. Eventually, though, he finds the kind of work usually reserved for Mexican immigrants – legally or illegally – and discovers a far different side of life than the one to which he’d become accustomed. Lorenzo also becomes a valuable part of Kate’s household. Naturally, the billionaire’s family will find their lost sheep and his memory will return to him as if it had never been lost. Overboard can’t end, however, until Lorenzo is forced to choose between his greedy father — who wants him to take the reins of the family business — and his newfound family, which simply wants him to come home and play a normal, everyday dad. Rated PG-13, Overboard is only as good as it had to be to attract a general audience, not limited to Hispanics drawn to Derbez and other actors familiar from roles in telenovelas. If Farris isn’t nearly as adorably quirky as Hawn in her prime, she wisely avoids trying to fill her shoes by being her cute, blond self. The Blu-ray adds commentary with co-writer/director Greenberg, co-writer/producer Fisher and producer Benjamin Odell, and the featurettes “Chemistry Is Comedy,” “Culture Clash” and “Captains of the Ship: Bob & Rob.”

Dark Crimes: Blu-ray
A while ago, people began wondering about the relative lack of visibility surrounding Jim Carrey, an entertainer whose prolonged absence causes a vacuum large enough to draw attention to itself. Then, several months ago, the madcap comic started turning up on talk shows, again, as if he’d never disappeared, and in such made-for-TV tributes as “The Carol Burnett 50th Anniversary Special” and “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling.” In fact, Carrey’s plate was overflowing with predatory lawsuits, personal issues and anti-vaccination controversies unrelated to his show-business career. Then, last fall, Carrey began drawing a series of political cartoons, attacking such Republican targets as President Donald Trump, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. His name also appeared on Showtime’s dramedy mini-series, “I’m Dying Up Here,” as creator, executive producer and occasional writer. It recalls the standup-comedy scene in 1970-80s’ Los Angeles, as dictated by a club owner whose resemblance to Mitzi Shore was undeniable, and contains barely fictionalized depictions of comedians who would kill to be acknowledged by Johnny Carson. The premium-cable network also began plugging “Kidding,” in which he portrays an icon of children’s television, Jeff (a.k.a., Mr. Pickles), who became a beacon of kindness and wisdom to America’s impressionable young minds and their parents. Unlike Fred Rogers, who likely inspired the character, Jeff’s world began to collapse around him when his family’s dysfunctions begin to interfere with the success of his branding empire. The show, created by Dave Holstein (“Weeds”), is being directed by Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), with co-stars Catherine Keener, Frank Langella and Judy Greer. It looks like the kind of role that Carrey was born to play.

Last month, without a decibel of fanfare, Lionsgate released into DVD/Blu-ray Dark Crimes, which is curious only because it stars Carrey as a Polish detective, Jacek, from the Wroclaw police department. Shot in Krakow, the film is based on the article “True Crimes: A Postmodern Murder Mystery,” by David Grann, published in the New Yorker, in February 2008. It follows the investigation and conviction of Krystian Bala, a writer implicated in the murder of a Polish businessman, whose body was found floating in a lake. For three years, all leads to police came up dry. Then, while reading Bala’s first novel, “Amok,” Jacek discovers clues linking the writer directly to the murder, and they aren’t very well disguised. In Alexandros Avranas’ adaptation of the story, Dark Crimes, the name of the narcissistic author has been changed to Kozlov (Marton Csokas), a Michael Shannon look-alike who beats his wife, Kasia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and is implicated in an underground sex club frequented by VIPs, military and police officials. Aki Kaurismäki’s longtime muse, Kati Outinen, plays a stern police official, who sees beyond Jacek’s idiosyncrasies. The rest of the cast is filled out by a couple dozen fine Polish actors. This isn’t the first time that Carrey’s played a character with decidedly dark and dangerous features. (The Number 23 comes immediately to mind.) Here, though, a passable Polish accent, a brush haircut, graying beard and good intentions can’t save Jacek from looking more than a tad out of place. Avranas’ deliberate pacing, combined with a lack of surprises, didn’t help the movie’s chances with North American critics, either. Carrey’s performance didn’t bother me all that much, considering the small-screen context, and the brooding skies of Krakow that add quite a sense of dread to the narrative. Viewers should know that Dark Crimes contains video footage of women, in S&M gear, who may or may not be sex slaves. It’s pretty rough stuff. The Blu-ray adds a 20-minute making-of featurette.

Iron Brothers
It’s been said that no city can consider itself great, unless it has a film festival to call its own. (Don’t ask me who said it and when, however.) Near as I can tell, the Famous Potatoes state has three film festivals, one is dedicated to horror, another to extreme sports and the third is curiously named, Twin Falls Sandwiches Film Festival, which specializes in independently made movies. The name derives from the organizers’ belief that, “Making films is a lot like making sandwiches. (Because) when all the right ingredients come together, the result is delicious.” The only reason I know that such an event exists in a state famous not only for its Russets, but also as a mecca for retired LAPD cops, white supremacists and anglers, is because Iron Brothers took home several top awards from the 2017 festival. They included the Audience Choice Award for Best Picture; Best Director, to Josh and Tate Smith; and the Ginny Award for Inspiration, Creativity & Imagination, to Smith Brothers Films. These honors notwithstanding, however, the old-fashioned Western from Random Media isn’t all that easy to find, outside such streaming services as iTunes and Amazon. In it, newcomers Tate and Porter Smith play brothers Abel and Henry Irons, flatlanders who somehow convinced themselves that they were cut out to be fur trappers in the wilds of Idaho and Wyoming. It probably would have made more sense for them to keep heading west, to California, where gold had just been discovered and winters weren’t nearly as ferocious. They share a small wooden shack, located in a valley carved out by a river, not unlike the mighty Snake, where fur-bearing animals aren’t nearly as plentiful as they expected them to be. When one of the brothers feels as if he’s being cheated by one of their regular customers, he takes out his anger on one of the men by shooting him with his flintlock rifle. His partners retaliate by killing the trapper’s horse, Lilly, and chasing him into a forbidding gully. He also makes the mistake of shooting a Shoshone hunter, who, he thinks, is about to attack him. When the brothers are reunited, with nothing to show for their efforts, it becomes immediately clear that they need to pack up and return home, without being scalped or lynched. With Shoshone warriors and traders on their trail, the Iron Brothers are forced to endure terrible weather, near-fatal wounds and hunger pangs, if they’re going to make it out of the mountains alive. Fortunately, Josh Smith’s cinematography fills in the blanks in a story that mistakes being attacked by Indians every 10 minutes with plot development, and expressions of brotherly love for scintillating dialogue. Still, as a freshman effort by sibling filmmakers on a tight budget, Iron Brothers has its fair share of commendable moments and, as they say, it could have been a lot worse. Just ask the folks in Twin Falls.

Streets of Vengeance: Blu-ray
After watching this pitch-perfect throwback to such sexy revenge-thrillers of the 1980s as Angel, Vice Squad and Ms. 45, I began to wonder why it had been sent to me by Olive Films, which has been releasing vintage classics through its Signature label, as well as interesting cult and genre pictures carrying its primary brand. Its recent titles include Bound, Cold Turkey, Odds Against Tomorrow, Mermaids, Joe and Birdman of Alcatraz, all nicely restored and packaged. Streets of Vengeance is the kind of movie that John Waters might have directed if he’d gone to UCLA — instead of staying in Baltimore — and made his bones in Roger Corman’s exploitation factory. Indeed, it’s difficult to watch Paul Ragsdale and Angelica De Alba’s follow-up to their Chicano-themed slasher debut, Cinco De Mayo (2013), without wondering how Divine might have added a certain je ne sais quoi to the production. The film’s protagonist Mila Lynn is played by Modesto-based model Delawna McKinney, who, on her Model Mayhem page, doesn’t look at all like Divine. In “SOV,” though, her super-slutty makeup and outfits turn her into a dead-ringer for the star of Female Trouble and Pink Flamingos … minus 200 pounds, give or take. Apparently, though, the initial concept of the film began as a question, “What if New Wave Hookers was an erotic thriller directed by Brian De Palma?” Gregory Dark’s hard-to-find porn classic was pulled from release – in the U.S., anyway — after the FBI figured out that co-star Traci Lords was underage at the time of its production. It wasn’t easy. And, yes, one or two of the characters in “SOV” appear to have been influenced by Lords, although, to be fair, so did hundreds of porn actresses in the 1980s. Here, Mila is a recently retired adult actress, whose plan to leave the industry is interrupted when she’s kidnapped by a militant misogynist sect that’s intent on ridding the world of women who they believe are using their sexual powers to destroy men. The group’s plans are thwarted when Mila kills her captor and, with the help of a tubby admirer (Anthony To’omata ), manages to escape. Emboldened, Mila recruits friends from the adult-entertainment community to form a ragtag militia and destroy remaining cult members, who’ve already murdered several strippers and sex workers. The fight scenes are pretty much what genre buffs would expect in a movie reportedly made on a budget in the mid-four figures. I would question that number, if only because co-stars Ginger Lynn Allen, Joanna Angel, Sophie Dee, Alexis Amore and Krystal Shay (a.k.a., KushBunny) could probably make that much money, each, dancing for tips on a weekend night in any club more upscale than Modesto’s Crocodiles Nightclub, where much of “SOV” was shot. Even so, they add quite a bit of spice to what could have been merely a bloody mess with tits. The Blu-ray extras add commentary with co-writer/directors Ragsdale and De Alba, and cinematographer Dan Zampa; and a separate disc with a making-of featurette, cast & crew interviews, outtakes, bloopers, photo galleries, music videos and trailers for “Slashlorette Party” and “Tough Guys.”

Piranha II: The Spawning: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
It’s funny how, after nearly 37 years in the video marketplace, James Cameron and Ovidio G. Assonitis’ sequel to Joe Dante and John Sayles’ Piranha (1978) has gotten significantly more watchable, if no less cheesy, threadbare and exploitative. Before considering Scream Factory’s “Piranha II: The Spawning: Collector’s Edition,” it’s worth remembering that Piranha was a classic of its kind, in that the spoof was given high marks by serious critics and executive producer Roger Corman went to so far as to admit that it was “my homage to Jaws.” Moreover, when Universal Studios considered suing New World for daring to tweak its blockbuster hit, director Steven Spielberg screened the movie and loved it. After the studio dropped the lawsuit, Spielberg described it as “the best of the Jaws rip-offs.” About Piranha II: The Spawning, the best Cameron could say was “this movie gets better halfway through, when seen at the drive-in with a six pack of beer.” He also commented, “I believe ‘The Spawning’ was the finest flying-piranha movie ever made.” Although Cameron’s first directorial effort would end rather abruptly, it’s said that he recycled the flying-piranha effects, in 1986, for the “face-huggers” in Aliens. H.R. Giger and Dan O’Bannon might have disputed the claim, but who knows? The flying piranha do look as if they might have been spawned in Giger’s aquarium, though. Cameron moved the setting from somewhere in mid-America, possibly Texas, to Jamaica. After a series of mysterious attacks on divers – including a pair of lovebirds, making out in a sunken ship — a savvy scuba instructor (Tricia O’Neil) determines almost immediately that bite marks on a swollen corpse don’t match those of any predatory fish in the area. Anne’s fears are downplayed by everyone on the tourist-dependent island, including her cop ex-husband, Steve (Lance Henriksen), and their son, Chris (Ricky G. Paull). The flying-fish reveal doesn’t come until the midpoint, when it’s determined – as was the case with the original – that the mutants were part of a military experiment gone bad. Once they start flying, however, no one is safe on land or on the water … or, in the audience, for that matter. By this time in the production, apparently, the Italian/American production team had decided that the reveal would be a good time to drastically cut the budget, to something closer to $145,000.  Next, executive producer Ovidio G. Assonitis felt it necessary to eliminate Cameron’s participation in the project. As much of an unholy mess as Piranha II became, it probably wouldn’t make anyone’s top-10 list of the worst movies they’ve ever seen. The new Blu-ray benefits from a 2K scan from the original camera negative; new interviews with actor Goldin and special-effects artist Brian Wade.

Disney XD: Star Wars Rebels: Complete Season Four: Blu-ray
PBS: Frontline: Myanmar’s Killing Fields
PBS: Nature: The World’s Most Wanted Animal
PBS: Nature: Shark Mountain
Nickelodeon: Rusty Rivets
In advance of Season Four, fans of “Star Wars Rebels” already knew that the animated Disney XD series would soon be coming to end. Disney’s “Star Wars Rebels: Complete Season Four” is now available to those who’ve been keeping track of the show via these annual compilations, along with a trove of bonus features. The good news arrived last week, at ComicCon, when Lucasfilm executive Dave Filoni announced that “The Clone Wars” is going to be brought back to life for one final season, in 2019, after five years away from the franchise empire. “Rebels” is the series that succeeded “The Clone Wars” as Lucasfilm’s flagship animated product, but, Filoni said, it turns out that the former was at one point quite similar to what the latter turned out to be. “We were trying to figure out what the character makeup of (‘Clone Wars’) was going to be and how we could produce a TV series based in the time of the Clone Wars, because the Clone Wars are so vast and would require literally thousands of clones battling thousands of battle droids,” he explained. “So, we were shooting around more of an original trilogy idea of a crew … two Jedi who worked with these smugglers and the black market.” Apparently, George Lucas convinced them to take another tack. Now, fans will be able to see how “Clone Wars” might have concluded, if the original creators had stuck with original makeup for the show.

As for Season Four, the two-episode opener completes the Mandalore subplot — one of the “Clone Wars” plot threads – as the rebels work with the Mandalorian Clan Wren to free Sabine’s father from the clutches of the Empire. When she learns that the devastating weapon the Empire is using against the Mandalorians is derived from her prototype, Sabin must decide whether to destroy it or find a way to turn it around on their enemies. Eventually, Ezra and the Ghost crew are called back to Lothal when a new Imperial threat rises. Action dominates the rest of the season, along with narrative machinations that tie up the series’ loose ends, while also connecting Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope. During its run, the “Rebels” was nominated for four Emmy Awards, including two consecutive nominations for “Outstanding Children’s Program.” Special features include six commentaries, featuring Filoni and other key participants; “Ghosts of Legend,” which explores the journey of the Ghost crew with members of the creative team; “Force of Rebellion,” in Filoni shares insights into the Force and its importance across the “Star Wars” saga; “Kevin Kiner: The Rebel Symphony,” with composer Kevin Kiner; and “Rebels Recon,” with cast and crew members providing entertaining and informative episode recaps.

PBS’ “Frontline: Myanmar’s Killing Fields” reminds us that, for many years, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was the primary symbol of resistance in the face of the oppressive military junta in control of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. She lived under house arrest in her Yangon (Rangoon) compound and was prohibited from communicating with the outside world. Even when the government stole elections and brutally put down peaceful protests, Suu Kyi found ways to reach out to her supporters As much as the government attempted to clamp down on information reaching the outside world, a small army of volunteers carrying hand-held cameras smuggled hard drives to clandestine broadcast agencies, which spread the word to world leaders who had put economic sanctions on the country. Then, in 2015, her party won a landslide victory, taking 86 percent of the seats in the Assembly of the Union, well more than the 67 percent supermajority needed to ensure that its preferred candidates were elected to top posts. Suu Kyi assumed the newly created role of State Counsellor, which is the equivalent to Prime Minister or a head of government. One year later, something terrible happened on the way to Suu Kyi’s beatification by a hopeful international media. Citing attacks on several border posts, allegedly by a newly formed Muslim insurgent group, Myanmar military and police renewed a major crackdown in the villages of northern Rakhine state. In the initial operation, dozens of people were killed and many more were arrested. Then came arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings, gang rapes, brutality against civilians, looting and the eradication of villages. The refugee crisis continues today. As was the case during the 2007 anti-government protests, led by Buddhist monks, citizen activists used handheld cameras to document the orchestrated campaign to target civilians, with state-sanctioned violence and mass murder. “Frontline: Myanmar’s Killing Fields” is informed by secret footage, assembled over several years, documenting the atrocities and plight of Rohingyans living in the world’s largest refugee camp, across the border in Bangladesh. It also investigates the role of State Counsellor Suu Kyi, who, until she was forced to comment on the situation, remained a beacon of hope and democratic ideals around the world. She took the position that both sides were to blame for the violence and Rohingyans may not qualify as citizens. Although it’s likely that Suu Kyi is straddling the fence to prevent another military takeover, her high profile in the west would suggest that she could make a stand against oppression and genocide. But, she hasn’t. (The show doesn’t get into the tens of thousands of Kachin, Kokang, Lisu, Han Chinese and Ta’ang refugees into China’s Yunnan province, where temporary camps have been established along the border separating the two countries. They’re not only fleeing persecution by Burmese troops and police, but also the violence instigated at least in part by rebel militias.)

Last week, Japanese Customs officials seized more than 7,000 kilograms of pangolin scales, worth $450 million. It represents the second largest seizure of its kind. The containers were said to have originated in Nigeria, where poaching has nearly devastated the pangolin population. A high-ranking Nigerian government official vowed to launch an investigation, while arguing that it was unlikely his country could have been the source, because the scaly anteaters are “near extinction” there. Yeah, no shit. The “Nature” presentation, “The World’s Most Wanted Animal,” explains what distinguishes pangolins from other endangered species, while also describing how environmental activists are striving to abolish the trade and convince hunters to find other ways to make money. Some estimates claim that Pangolin sales now account for up to 20 percent of the entire wildlife black market. They are hunted and eaten in many parts of Africa as one of the more popular types of bush meat, and local healers use the scales as a source of traditional medicine. They are also in great demand in southern China and Vietnam, because their meat is considered a delicacy, and some believe that pangolin scales have medicinal qualities. As doubtful as this may sound here, the people who purchase the large, protective keratin scales are the same ones who created a market for rhinoceros horns, shark fins and bear bile. (Ivory is poached for other reasons, but by many of the same customers.) Based in Namibia, conservationist Maria Diekmann is working to save the species from extinction. On an emotional journey, Diekmann travels to Asia to better understand the global issues facing pangolins, before joining forces with a Chinese megastar, Angelababy, to bring awareness to the plight of a scaly mammal of which most people have never heard.

Between National Geographic, Discovery Channel and PBS, it’s become impossible to tell the difference between the show I just finished watching on the hammerhead sharks of Cocos Island, and the one I saw three weeks ago during Shark Week, NatGeo’s “Cocos Island Expedition,” Howard Hall’s “Nature: Shark Mountain,” which I may have seen in its first DVD iteration, in 2006, or Hall’s IMAX doc, “Island of the Sharks” (1999). They all kind of look the same. My conclusion: Cocos seems to be a swell place to visit, but you really have to have your shit together to swim, kayak or dive into the waters that surround it. Located in the Pacific Ocean, approximately 342 miles from Costa Rica, Cocos has been designated a national park. It does not allow inhabitants other than Costa Rican park rangers, who probably spend their off-hours out of the water, searching for pirate treasures said to be buried there. In 2007, Cocos Island was named one of the best 10 scuba-diving spots in the world, by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, and a “must do” according to diving experts. It’s easy to see why. Surrounded by deep waters with counter-currents, the island is well-known for its populations of scalloped hammerhead sharks, rays, dolphins and other large marine species. The title of the “Nature” DVD derives from the thousands of sharks – some harmless, others dangerous — that hunt along the volcanic reefs. At any given time, divers could feel themselves alone, looking up at the bottom of their boat with nothing to interfere with their view. The next, they could find themselves in the shadow created by a school of hammerheads that numbers in the hundreds, swirling above them. It’s an amazing sight, especially because of the sharks’ distinctive shape. Filmmakers Howard and Michele Hall make excellent guides.

A recent addition to Nickelodeon’s lineup of shows targeted at pre-schoolers, “Rusty Rivets” was created to inspire an interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts. It does so by showcasing the accomplishments of two young inventors, Rusty and Ruby. Rusty uses the recurring catch phrase, “modify, customize, Rustify,” when personalizing inventions. Ruby changes the last word to “Rubify,” when she does the alterations. The first compilation begins with Episode One or Season One, but then hopscotches around the shows first 10 offerings. The set includes a “Paw Patrol” bonus episode, “Pups Save a Robo-Saurus.”


The DVD Wrapup: Night of Virgin, Lovecraft, Carpenter, Moss, Love After Love, Gravity Falls, Keeping Faith, Spiral … More

Thursday, July 26th, 2018

The Night of the Virgin
If I didn’t have a calendar on my computer – and it weren’t 110 degrees outside – I’d think that Halloween was barreling down on us, like a zombie bitch in heat. And, by bitch, I mean of the canine persuasion. This week’s selection of horror on DVD/Blu-ray is nothing short of thrilling.

Let’s begin with The Night of the Virgin, a nasty piece of work from Spain that brought back memories of Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999), a ground-breaking example of J-horror that advanced the sub-genre from the realm of ghost stories, folk tales and the nightmares of schoolgirls. Two years later, Miike would raise the bar even further with Ichi the Killer, The Happiness of the Katakuris and Visitor Q, all released within months of each other in Japan. It took a couple of years for Audition to find an audience here, but it has since gone on to influence an entire generation of filmmakers whose intention is to disturb viewers, as much as horrify them. Clearly, Roberto San Sebastián and writer Guillermo Guerrero have a way to go before their names are routinely mentioned in the breath as Miike or Guillermo del Toro. This hasn’t prevented some genre buffs from connecting the dots, however. In a sense, The Night of the Virgin is a perversion of such dark 1980s comedies as Blake Edwards’ Blind Date (1987), Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) and Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (1986), in which Bruce Willis, Griffin Dunne and Jeff Daniels find themselves overwhelmed by the personalities and peccadillos of women they’ve met. The Night of the Virgin also corrupts certain things we all take for granted when attempting to hook up with someone we meet on-line, through a dating service or in a social situation. The first is that the people with whom we connect are interested in many, if not most of the same things we are and, for the time being, anyway, are more interested in having fun than forming a lasting attachment. The second thing is that the odds are against meeting a vampire, serial killer or someone genuinely interested in harming us. When it comes to strangers meeting in the night, however, anything is possible. The genuinely frightening and darkly comedic The Night of the Virgin opens in a crowded upscale bar on New Year’s Eve. It’s where a socially awkward 20-year-old, Nico, is determined to break his cherry, if only because he’s tired of being harassed by his more confident friends. Because he’s not what most women would consider to be attractive — or gay men, for that matter — Nico is working at something at a disadvantage to the other singles attempting to get laid later in the night. After one potential candidate pukes on his shoes, Nico makes eye contact with an attractive middle-age woman across the bar from his perch. In their texts, his friends will refer to Medea (Miriam Martin) as “Grandma,” but, truth be told, she’s as attractive as any of the eligible bachelorettes half her age. Coincidentally, Medea has been scouring the male half of the crowd, looking for someone she assumes to be a virgin. Nico adamantly denies being any such thing, but the more worldly seductress knows better.

When Medea invites Nico to her pad for a nightcap, we assume that the apartment will be clean, uncluttered and, given her fashion sense, reasonably modern. Instead, it looks as if its floors, bathroom fixtures and kitchenware haven’t been vacuumed, scrubbed, dusted or polished since Generalissimo Franco kicked the bucket. Immediately after he closes the door behind him, Nico is cautioned not to step on the free-range cockroaches or disturb the tchotchkes, including a statuette of a Nepali fertility goddess. These are only two of the red flags that should have caused Nico to rethink his objective, but, being this/close to getting laid, his mind is only on one thing. Just as they’re about to achieve both of their goals, however, Medea’s ex-boyfriend, Spider, begins banging incessantly on the front door, threatening her guest with great bodily harm. Nico’s attempts to leave are thwarted by the absence of a fire escape, as well as neighbors who refuse to take his cries for help seriously – one drops a used condom on his head – and the absorption of his cellphone into Medea’s vagina (that’s right). By now, though, Spider has changed his tune, insisting that Nico immediately have sex with his former lover, so that she can satisfy the demands of her fertility goddess. San Sebastián keeps viewers off-balance by keeping his protagonist in the dark about Medea’s true motives here and overwhelming our circuit breakers with banging doors, barking dogs, crawling cockroaches, expended bodily fluids and other grotesqueries. He encourages us to share the young man’s horror and disgust, while vaguely sympathizing with Medea’s religious and cultural imperatives. If the picture could have benefitted from losing about 15-20 minutes of repetitive depravity – it’s a shade under two hours long – San Sebastián has wisely saved enough good stuff in reserve to nail the landing. But, don’t take my word for it. The Night of the Virgin has scored top prizes at more than a dozen niche festivals and garnered excellent reviews from genre buffs. I’m pretty we haven’t heard the last of San Sebastian and Guerrero, in Spanish or English.

Beyond Re-Animator: Collector’s Series: Blu-ray
H.P. Lovecraft’s Dagon: Collector’s Series: Blu-ray
Although H.P. Lovecraft is as dependable a brand within the horror genre, as Edgar Allan Poe, Clive Barker, Eli Roth, Sam Raimi, George Romero, Wes Craven and Stephen King, it wasn’t until the success of Stuart Gordon’s 1985 adaptation of his 1922 serial novelette, “Herbert West: Reanimator,” that the writer was completely rescued from cult anonymity. From 1963 until the release of Re-Animator, only 14 movies and episodes of TV anthologies bore Lovecraft’s name, including Sergio Martino’s Screamers (1979) and Daniel Haller’s The Dunwich Horror (1970), co-written by freshman scripter Curtis Hanson. Since then, 157 titles have been directly credited to Lovecraft’s influence, at least, with another 13 in various phases of the pre- and post-production process. The number does not include John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” (The Thing, Prince of Darkness, In the Mouth of Madness) and other movies indebted to Lovecraft, to one degree or another, but not credited to him. Since most of his books and stories are in the public domain – as are the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales – they’re pretty much up for grabs. Brian Yuzna, producer of Re-Animator, took over for Gordon at the helm of Bride of Re-Animator (1989) and Beyond Re-Animator (2003). A third sequel was planned, but money became scarce. Beyond Re-Animator is set in a prison, where mad scientist Harold West (Jeffrey Combs) has been cooling his heels for the past 13 years, working in the facility’s infirmary and experimenting on rats in his cell. After helping save the life of an inmate, West is invited to assist Dr. Howard Phillips (Jason Barry), who’s assigned to take over the medical operation. In one of those coincidences that only occur in the movies, Phillips encountered West years earlier, after one of his experiments went terribly awry and his sister was murdered by a flesh-eating ghoul.

While horrified, Phillips’ fascination with the re-animation process began after he picked up a vial of florescent liquid dropped by West as he was placed inside a police car. Now, having chalked up his sister’s death to scientific endeavor, Phillips is looking forward to collaborating with the madman, who can put plenty of human guinea pigs at their disposal. Throw in a sadistic warden (Simón Andreu), beautiful blond reporter (Elsa Pataky) and cellblocks overflowing with sociopathic prisoners and you have all the fixings for a hellacious prison riot. Unlike Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), however, the convicts who’ve stolen and injected West’s secret potion display signs of immortality. Even when they’ve been torn in half by a guard’s shotgun blast, they keep on coming. Yuzna keeps us guessing as to which of the convicts have injected the chemicals and the ones who still vulnerable to lead and cutlery. Having just watched Phillips and the reporter spend an evening rolling in the hay, as it were, it comes as something of a surprise when, decked out in a black bustier, matching panties and fishnet stockings, she dispatches with a trio of rapists in the cruelest way possible. Given the extensive use of special makeup effects, the riot is as gruesome as they come, but comically so. The bonus package that comes with Lionsgate’s latest addition to its Vestron Video Collector’s Series also includes Yuzna’s commentary; a recycled EPK featurette; new interviews with Yuzna, composer Xavier Capellas, Combs and S.T. Joshi, author of “I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft”; new art from illustrator Richard Raaphorst; a music video, “Dr. Re-Animator … Move Your Dead Bones”; and a stills gallery.

Considering all the positive attention paid to Guillermo del Toro’s Lovecraftian tale, The Shape of Water, it’s interesting to hear Stuart Gordon describe the trouble he had committing Dagon () to film. Gordon and screenwriter Dennis Paoli had been planning to make the film – based on Lovecraft’s “Dagon” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” – since 1985, while working on Re-Animator and after he and Yuzna helped Disney create the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” franchise. Apparently, no studio in town would touch a movie about “fish people,” including Charles Band’s Full Moon Pictures. Finally, he was able to make Dagon in the same country that Yuzna found financing for Beyond Re-Animator: Spain. The only significant hurdle he’d face involved being limited to employing a largely native support team. Considering how much the industry there had improved – thanks in large part to Pedro Almodovar – this didn’t pose much of a hassle, either. The real benefit to filming in Spain, though, was the discovery of Combarro, a tiny, centuries-old fishing village in Galicia that was perfect, as is, as a primary location. That didn’t prevent Dagon from being released straight-to-video, however.

The story begins with a quartet of early dot-com millionaires enjoying some time in the sun off the shore of the scenic village. Soon, however, ominous storm clouds develop on the horizon, pushing massive waves toward the village and causing the boat to crash on the rocks. Two of the passengers, Paul (Ezra Godden) and Barbara (Raquel Meroño), paddle their way to the village, while the others, Howard (Brendan Price) and Vicki (Birgit Bofarull), remain on board, awaiting rescue. Once on shore, Paul and Barbara are greeted by empty streets and an ominous fog. When they do locate the local priest, he sends them to a hotel whose rooms don’t look as if they’ve ever been serviced and the telephone doesn’t work. A bit later, while Barbara supposedly is trying to track down medical help, Paul spots a few more locals gathering outside the church. From his vantage point, they closely resemble amphibious zombies, walking slowly on all fours, or staggering around the square like, yes, fish out of water. The humanoid creatures are all too aware of Paul’s presence and appear to be working up an appetite for the strangers. Without spoiling too much of the fun, let’s just say that the “fish people” exist within the universe of Lovecraft’s cosmic entities – the Old Ones – and worship Cthulhu. The creature has been described as looking like an octopus, a dragon and a caricature of human form. The Hebrew Bible mentions the “fish-god” Dagon as a primary deity of the Philistines, with temples at Ashdod and elsewhere in Gaza, but the point has been argued by scholars for centuries. Despite being given up for dead in 2001, Dagon is a terrifically entertaining and frequently harrowing tale, enhanced by wildly inventive makeup effects and the village’s creepy nighttime fog and rain. The Lionsgate/Vestron package adds commentaries with Gordon and Paoli, and Gordon and star Ezra Godden; lengthy interviews with Gordon, Yuzna and author S.T. Joshi; a half-hour vintage EPK featurette; a conceptual art gallery, featuring the work of Richard Raaphorst; a storyboard gallery; and stills gallery.

In the Mouth of Madness: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Memoirs of an Invisible Man: Blu-ray
Someone’s Watching Me!: Blu-ray
Through the miracle of coincidence, Scream Factory has elected to release the horror/thriller In the Mouth of Madness in the same week as Lionsgate’s Lovecraftian double-feature, Dagon and Beyond Re-Animator. Its title is a play on Lovecraft’s novella, “At the Mountains of Madness” – which Guillermo del Toro has been attempting to adapt for years — and insanity plays as great a role in the film as it does in Lovecraft’s fiction. In fact, the narrator of the story is relating what happened to him before he was committed to a mental hospital. Horror buffs will find several other references and homages to the author, as well as a few linking certain plot points in Stephen King’s novels, stories and screenplays. The antagonist here is best-selling author Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), whose latest novel is driving his vast legion of readers insane … literally. One clear sign of the mass hysteria is the sudden willingness of fans to attack innocent citizens with axes. They also display bleeding eyeballs. Fearing that all of Cane’s readers are going mad and eventually will drain the company’s revenue stream, his publisher (Charlton Heston) sends special investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) to track him down. Drawn to the small New England hamlet that doubles for fictional Hobb’s End – not far from King’s Castle Rock, Maine, one supposes — Trent is convinced the epidemic is a publicity stunt gone awry. He’s joined by Cane’s strait-laced editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmn), who’s been ordered to join Trent on the mission.

Things really begin to get weird when Linda replaces the sleepy investigator behind the steering wheel and ghostly apparitions begin to appear to her. By the time he wakes up, Linda is severely shaken and Trent’s fresh as a daisy, happy they’ve reached their idyllic destination in one piece. When they finally meet with the author, though, the borders between fact and fiction completely disappear. Trent even comes to believe that Cane’s new book is dictating his own dissent into the mouth of madness, with monstrous characters coming to life at the author’s command. Linda hands him the manuscript, which has destroyed her sanity, and instructs him to take it back to New York. Instead, he destroys it. When he returns to New York, however, the publisher denies the existence of Linda and informs Trent that the new book is already in book stores and will soon be a movie. Sure enough, the dystopian tome is causing readers to go insane. After taking an ax to a man with googly eyes and a nosebleed, Trent is thrown into the booby hatch. He’s questioned by a leading psychiatrist (David Warner), who determines that Trent’s merely hallucinating the wild tale. Wrong. John Carpenter’s interpretation of Michael DeLuca’s long-gestating script shows him at top form, building suspense to a fever pitch and keeping viewers on edge with bizarro characters and unnerving audio prompts. In the Mouth of Madness is said to have done well enough to cover its production nut, but not much better than that. Critics were divided roughly in half. Like so many other vintage genre titles, though, this one appears to have gotten more entertaining over time. The Blu-ray benefits from a new 4K scan of the original film elements; new commentary with Carpenter and producer Sandy King Carpenter; a new featurette that revisits the film’s original locations; fresh interviews with Julie Carman and special-effects artist Greg Nicotero, including behind-the-scenes footage; “Home Movies From Hobb’s End,” with Nicotero; commentary with director Carpenter and cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe; and a recycled making-of featurette.

Much the same thing can’t be said about Carpenter’s 1992 comedy/thriller Memoirs of an Invisible Man, which was adapted from a 1987 novel of the same title by H.F. Saint. It’s as if H.G. Wells’ source novel never existed or that it was acknowledged as the inspiration for James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933) and Charles Lamont’s Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951). Paul Verhoeven didn’t bother to credit Wells on Hollow Man, either, even though the concept put the novelist less than one degree from Kevin Bacon. A Warner Bros. co-production, Memoirs of an Invisible Man didn’t take the most-direct route to the screen. Ivan Reitman was originally set to direct the film, but, when he and Chevy Chase couldn’t agree on the tone, Reitman demanded the studio choose between them. Two-time Academy Award-winning screenwriter William Goldman wrote several drafts of the screenplay, all of which were rejected. He conceived it to be a simple comedy, while the producers insisted that it “explore the loneliness of invisibility.” I don’t think the writers who were hired to replace him, Robert Collector and Dana Olsen, got the memo. In 1992, Carpenter was well between studio gigs. Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and Starman (1984) had underperformed and studio meddling made things ugly. How little control he had on “Invisible Man” is indicated by the lack of a director’s credit attached to the title, as was customary, and no apparent input on the musical score. Beyond that, it only scores a couple of technical points by making the character’s clothes invisible – unlike previous iterations, he didn’t need to remove his clothes — and everything he ingests, including food and cigarette smoke, stays visible within him. As the story goes, after a freak accident, Nick Halloway’s invisibility comes to the attention of a devious CIA official (Sam Neill), who wants him to serve as his own private weapon. Chase spends his time avoiding capture and attempting to score points with a lovely documentary producer (Daryl Hannah). Only middle-aged fans of the former “SNL” regular are likely to find something entertaining here. The package adds “How to Become Invisible: The Dawn of Digital F/X”; vintage interviews with Carpenter, Chase and Hannah; behind-the-scenes footage; and outtakes.

More of a curiosity than a milestone in Carpenter’s career, Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) marks his transition from obscurity to prominence within Hollywood’s studio-based economy. He had caught the attention of the indie crowd with Dark Star (1974) and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), and had co-written The Eyes of Laura Mars, but had yet to prove that he could complete a studio project – albeit a made-for-TV quickie – on time and in good enough shape for someone else to worry about post-production chores. That accomplished, the USC product was free to complete work on the micro-budget slasher flick Halloween (1978) and watch it become a stunning hit, a month before Someone’s Watching Me! aired on NBC. In it, model-turned-actress Lauren Hutton plays L.A. newcomer Leigh Michaels, a director of live-television shows, who’s well on her way to network stardom. Michaels has moved into an ultra-modern high-rise building, with all sorts of high-tech gizmos on hand. Her apartment faces another high-rise apartment building – a rarity in L.A. at the time – which is called home by a psycho-stalker with a powerful telescope. He somehow manages to enter Leigh’s unit and terrorize her with a steady barrage of phone calls. She also begins to receive unexpected gifts from a fictional company, “Excursions Unlimited.” (Philip Noyce’s 1993 erotic thriller Sliver also would re-jigger the reverse-Rear Window formula, by putting the stalker inside the same high-security building of his intended targets and observing their habits on a bank of computer monitors.) Unlike many countries in Europe, where the movie was released on VHS, Someone’s Watching Me! wasn’t accorded a video afterlife until 2007, when it was released here on DVD. If he had it to do all over again, Carpenter might have added a tad more skin and gore, but, as a TV movie, it can stand on its own merits. The Scream Factory Blu-ray release benefits from a 2K scan from the original film elements, in both 1.85:1 and 1.33:1 aspect ratios; a new commentary with author Amanda Reyes (“Are You in the House Alone?: A TV Movie Compendium, 1964-1999”); interviews with Adrienne Barbeau, who met her future husband on the shoot, and Carpenter regular Charles Cyphers; a “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds” featurette; and “John Carpenter: Director Rising.”

Among several other remarkable aspects of Daniel Peddle’s beautifully realized and tremendously moving coming-of-age drama, Moss, is the backstory of its titular star, Mitchell Slaggert. Although a childhood accident deprived the buff Georgia native of his goal of becoming a Marine, he realized the dream of thousands of other teenage boys by posing in his Calvins alongside Kendall Jenner in a high-profile modeling gig. If Slaggert was curiously unimpressed by being in the company of pop royalty, it’s because he has no idea who she was. “Well, I don’t watch her show,” he explained. Slaggert had been discovered near the campus of the University of North Carolina Wilmington by the same “street scout,” Peddle, who, a decade earlier, recognized Jennifer Lawrence’s untapped star quality. “He asked me if I wanted to model and it sounded too good to be true,” Slaggert told W magazine. Peddle had plans of his own for Slaggert, including playing the lead character in Moss, which would be shot not far from Wilmington. The title character lives in a too-small house situated deep among the thickets that border the inlets, estuaries and beaches along the Carolina coast, with his wood-carver father (Billy Ray Suggs) and a pet owl. That he lost his mother at birth appears to remain an occasional bone of contention between Moss, his father and grandmother, who lives nearby. Moss’ best and, perhaps, only close friend, Blaze (Dorian Cobb), is a frizzy-haired African-American drug dealer, living on a makeshift houseboat on the Cape Fear River.

On his 18th birthday, he peddles his canoe to Blaze’s pad, where they get high and shoot the breeze in the same way as teenage boys do, everywhere, when they have nothing better to accomplish. On his way home, Moss spots a young woman camping alongside the river, alone. He offers to trade her some freshly caught fish for a campfire upon which to cook them. After Mary (Christine Marzano) tells Moss that she’s a footloose 30-year-old refugee from the hustle and bustle of New York City, she reciprocates by offering him a magic mushroom. Even though they spend the rest of the afternoon and evening in a state of psychedelic bliss, she politely refuses to spend the night together in her tent. Instead, he crashes on Blaze’s houseboat, completely missing the birthday celebration planned for him by his dad and grandmother, who passes during the same night. Other things happen in the 81-minute film, but nothing quite so devastating as Moss blowing his chance to say goodbye to the woman who helped raise him. The forced juxtaposition of ecstasy and anguish forces Moss to come of age in an unanticipated rush of divergent emotions. Our pleasure comes in savoring the natural beauty of the region and languid pace of life in the company of someone who knows the region like the back of his hand. Moss immediately recalls such kindred movies as Mud, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Daughters of the Dust, in which unspoiled natural beauty and the trappings of civilization co-exist side-by-side, marking a culture in transition; and early scenes in Terrence Malick’s The New World that conjured pre-colonial Virginia’s forest primaeval. It’s a blessing to know how many of the locations are protected by government restrictions. The DVD adds a worthwhile making-of featurette.

The Great Game
You Will Be Mine
The Three-Way Wedding
Any American who can understand the intricacies of the French political system, especially with its seeming tolerance of extremist philosophies and divisions based on religious and ethnic differences, shouldn’t have any trouble enjoying Nicolas Pariser’s debut thriller, The Great Game. Neither should anyone who’s fully digested both the BBC and Netflix editions of “House of Cards.” All that’s important to understand here is the relative fragility of the ruling coalition and variety of viable political alternatives. By comparison, electoral politics in the U.S. are as sophisticated as elections held to determine student councils and homecoming courts. The Great Game opens mysteriously enough with a “chance meeting” outside a Parisian casino between a political “puppet master,” Joseph Paskin (Andre Dussollier), and seriously blocked novelist, Pierre Blum (Melvil Poupaud), who, years earlier, was associated with a notorious group of left-wing radicals. Blum hasn’t written anything substantial in a long time, so he’s naturally suspicious when the debonair white-haired “fixer” makes him an offer he can’t refuse. For a relatively large sum of much-needed money, Blum agrees to ghost-write a work of literary agitprop guaranteed to be published, publicized and read by opinion makers at the Elysee Palace. Paskin intends for the book to put enough pressure on a right-wing Minister that he’ll take out his frustrations on a well-established group of middle-age and mostly toothless radicals, living on a large communal farm. When the raid backfires, Paskin’s associates will already be in place to oust him. As predicted, the book becomes a best-seller. Instead of being able to retain his anonymity, however, Blum suddenly finds his life endangered by agents of the left, right or both. Ironically, he finds temporary shelter at the commune, where he experiences uneasy reunions with some old cronies, helps raise a barn and hooks up with Laura (Clemence Poesy), a young friend of his gallerist ex-wife (Sophie Cattani), who appears to have retained links to people still underground. Now, things get really nasty, in the same way as they did in “House of Cards.” Despite “The Great Game” being Pariser’s first feature, the often-unwieldly narrative hangs together remarkably well. Francophiles should love the Distrib Films release from 2015.

Film Movement has revived a couple of French titles, from almost a decade ago, which, as far as I know, never saw the light of day in U.S. arthouses or festivals. There probably weren’t enough screens available to accommodate them and, without the benefit of quotes from prominent U.S. critics and laurels to post, distributers of DVDs simply aren’t as likely to take chances with unknown quantities. There’s certainly nothing wrong with Sophie Laloy’s You Will Be Mine (2009), a coming-of-age drama that should appeal to LGBTQ audiences and older teens. Childhood friends played by Judith Davis and Isild Le Besco agree to share a flat in Lyons owned by the older girl’s parents. Marie (Davis) is a gifted young pianist, who’s been accepted at the prestigious Conservatoire de Musique Classique, while Emma is a medical student. When it comes to life experiences, Marie is as green as the grass that grows in the yard of her family’s modest rural home. Emma is as sophisticated as one would expect a woman her age to be, raised by absentee parents who enrolled in her private boarding schools. She’s as well-dressed and sophisticated as Marie is naïve and insecure. When she suffers a few early setbacks, including a near rape attempt at a party, she allows Emma to comfort her in a way that results in intimacy. Emma is thrilled by the closeness she believes has developed between them, while Marie is left confused and shaken. To compensate, she begins to shun Emma. She also enters into a sexual relationship with a male student, who’s nice enough, but not as grown-up, tender and, yes, devious as Emma. Her confusion and distress begin to affect preparations for an important audition. Viewers who assume Emma is a merely a sexual predator, taking advantage of a vulnerable friend, will be given an opportunity to readjust their opinions of her … or not. Davis and Le Besco are pitch perfect, preserving an air of mystery over intentions and blame.

Released in 2010, Jacques Doillon’s The Three-Way Wedding (a.k.a., “Le mariage à trois”) plays like a modern version of a classic French sex farce. It involves a series of seductions and alliances that ensue after a famous playwright (Pascal Greggory) invites the cast of his new play to his country estate. Among the guests are his enchanting, barely legal assistant (Agathe Bonitzer), his ex-wife (Julie Depardieu), her new lover (Louis Garrel) and a producer (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing). The older couple is anxious to get in bed with the youngsters, who begin to enjoy each other’s company. When his ex-wife and red-haired assistant both ditch the producer for the young actor, the producer lets the green-eyed monster get the better of him. At 104 minutes, the roundelay overstays its welcome by 10-15 minutes, but, again, Francophiles might not mind.

Love After Love
Allow me to preface my remarks by pointing out that in Love After Love’s limited theatrical and festival release, Russell Harbaugh’s debut drama scored an impressive 84 rating (out of 100) among the mainstream critics represented at and an 88 percent rating among “top critics” at Rotten Tomatoes. By contrast, the audience score at RT was 58 percent, which, considering the up-scale viewers surveyed, represents a steep drop. It’s easy to see why. The film describes what happens to an upper-middle-class family upon the death of the man whose strength, dignity and income provided the glue that held it together. With his sons unable to maintain its stability, the family begins to collapse under the weight of their oppressive behavior. Although the setup isn’t unusual, the discordance makes already unappealing characters nearly unbearable to watch. The single redeeming factor is a powerful performance by Andie MacDowell, whose character doesn’t deserve the aggravation. That’s my two cents and I’m sticking to it. Harbaugh introduces the family at a picnic staged while the father is still in good enough shape to enjoy a cigarette and not cough up a lung doing it. The next time we see him, he’s on his death bed, barely capable of raising his head. Harbaugh measures time with scenes depicting subsequent family gatherings at parties, funerals and holiday dinners, each more gratingly unpleasant than the one before it. Reportedly, Harbaugh attempted to capture the desired tone by screening films by John Cassavetes for cast members. He could just as well have followed them up with adaptations of plays by Eugene O’Neill. Absent actors of the caliber of Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Gena Rowlands and Cassavetes, however, much of the humanity that drives their characters’ dysfunctions is simply missing here. I don’t blame the actors, though.

MacDowell plays the patriarch’s still-radiant wife, who, while grieving, knows that she isn’t ready to commit to wearing widow’s weeds for the next 20 years, or so. Suzanne’s two adult sons — Nicholas (Chris O’Dowd) and Chris (James Adomian) – seemingly can’t get beyond the salad courses of their meals together without bickering, tearing into each other’s wives or girlfriends, or getting drunk enough to mistake an umbrella stand for a urinal. Things get even worse when Suzanne begins dating, again, and she makes the mistake of thinking that her sons– one of whom works for a book publisher, while the other aspires to be a standup comic — will respect her feelings long enough to not disrespect them. But, no such luck. It would be different if an emotionally distressed Suzanne was grabbing men off the street to compensate for her loneliness or lack of sexual gratification. Instead, they’re fine, upstanding gentlemen, who wouldn’t think of insulting Suzanne by bludgeoning her sons with a baseball bat to cure their insensitivity. If it had been Harbaugh’s intention to bring out the worst in the sons, with the intention of reeling them back into the family circle in the last reel, I could have reserved some patience for their redemption. As portrayed by the fine Irish comic actor Chris O’Dowd (“Moone Boy”), Nicholas not only cheats on his fiancé, but also on the women with whom he’s having affairs. Chris (James Adomian) shows some talent as a comedian … until his routines begin to hit too close to home and he gets weepy. This is the first meaty role MacDowell has undertaken in a long time and, when she’s on screen, she almost makes us forget about the assholes her character bore and raised and why they turned out so badly. Also appearing, in the thankless roles of the sons’ beleaguered female companions, are Romy Byrne, Juliet Rylance, Dree Hemingway and Francesca Faridany.

The Con Is On: Blu-ray
There were at least three sure signs that this star-studded heist comedy was going to be a stinker: 1) it sat on shelf for three years gathering dust, before being accorded a limited theatrical run and a quick trip to the wastelands of VOD and DVD/Blu-ray, 2) the director’s name changed from James Oakley, as it was in his previous film, The Devil You Know, to James Haslam in the interim; and 3) its title was changed from “The Brits Are Coming” to The Con Is On. A lot of things can happen between the time a movie goes into production and a distribution deal is cut. Rarely, if ever, does it get any better – or worse, for that matter – than it already was. The basic setup here involves a pair of international con artists, Harriet and Peter (Uma Thurman, Tim Roth), who are forced to cook up a jewel heist in Los Angeles to pay off a debt to a sexy gangster, Irene (Maggie Q). If that’s a lot of star power to pack into a single sentence, consider that the film also includes Alice Eve, Sofia Vergara, Parker Posey, Crispin Glover, Melissa Sue Anderson, Stephen Fry, Ashley Williams and Kevin Brown, whose faces will be familiar to anyone who’s watched a TV movie in the last 15 years. After squandering Irene’s fortune in a single drunken night, Harriet and Peter escape to Hollywood, where they conspire to steal a priceless jewel from Peter’s loopy ex-wife, Jackie (Eve), to repay the debt. After scamming a free room at the Chateau Marmot, Harriet and Peter conspire to steal Jackie’s gem, while her filmmaker fiancé is pre-occupied with trying to seduce the leading lady of his latest movie (Vergara). Along the way, they also encounter a drug-dealing nun (Dot Cosgrove) and a pedophile priest (Fry). I’m surprised the film’s world premiere wasn’t held at the Vatican Multiplex. After an almost promising opening, The Con Is On quickly disintegrates into an ungodly mashup of sight gags, slapstick and sexual innuendo. Nearly 50, Uma Thurman remains an extremely radiant screen presence, even as she towers over her partner, Roth, with whom she worked 24 years ago, in Pulp Fiction.

Operation Red Sea: Blu-ray
In the 1940- 50s, movies based famous battles in World War II and heroic acts by our soldiers and Marines became a mainstay of motion-picture viewing. Even if the names of battles and their locations were familiar, it was the rare war film that a military historian or veteran couldn’t pick to pieces. I don’t know how these pictures fared in foreign markets, but, given the state of the post-war art, I imagine that posters with uniformed images of John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda were as prevalent throughout Europe as “care packages.” The Chinese film industry has grown to the point where stories about the country’s overseas triumphs – rescue missions, attacks on pirates, interdicting drug traffickers – can be dramatized without resembling recruitment vehicles or calls for blind patriotism. Wu Jing’s Wolf Warrior series – No. 3 is already in production – put the spotlight on Chinese Special Forces teams operating in Southeast Asia and Africa. Dante Lam’s Operation Mekong was directly inspired by deadly attacks on two Chinese merchant ships, during which 13 crew members were killed and Thai policemen found 900,000 methamphetamine pills on board the ships. They were almost certainly plant by druged lords operating in the Golden Triangle to divert attention from their own activities. The government sent a crack team of drug investigators to discover the truth and arrest the perpetrators. Lam’s contribution to story involved merging the excitement of Hong Kong action flicks with police and military procedurals.

Lam’s hugely popular follow-up, Operation Red Sea, was inspired by the evacuation of the 225 foreign nationals and almost 600 Chinese citizens from Yemen’s southern port of Aden during the 2015 civil war. It didn’t receive a lot of coverage here, but that’s par for the course when Americans aren’t involved in one way or another. Screenwriter Feng Ji took that event and added a confrontation between the Chinese Navy’s elite Jiaolong Assault Team and a terrorist conspiracy to obtain nuclear materials. The naval force was already in the area, rescuing a cargo carrier from pirates, when the call came to head for the fictional country of Yewaire. Islamic-state fighters have complete control of the countryside, where the transaction is expected to take place, so the evacuation could be jeopardized by terrorists based in the port city, hoping to divert attention from the handoff. Lam’s sense of action cinema turns what was a peaceful evacuation into a battle royal, with the use of sophisticated weapons – a cruise missile and attack drone — by both sides and an airborne assault team dropped from an airplane. It reminded my of the many tank battles I’d watched in American movies, back in the day. Apparently, Operation Red Sea had the full cooperation of the government and was presented to Chinese audiences as a “gift” to commemorate for the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, as well as the Communist Party’s 19th National Congress. Described as being China’s “first modern naval film,” it made $226.7 million (U.S.), making it the sixth highest-grossing film of 2018. A post-script alludes to recent naval activity in the South China Sea, where several different countries claim territorial rights. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes.

The Windrider: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey: Special Edition: Blu-ray
If the American Film Institute ever gets arounds to bestowing a Life Achievement Award on Nicole Kidman – hey, it could happen – I sure hope that the highlights reel includes footage from Windrider. Filmed in far-western Perth, Australia, it is considered Kidman’s first adult role, with some nudity, simulated sex and a music video. At the ripe old age of 19, the Little Orphan Annie look-like already had Hollywood on her mind, although she wisely waited until production finished on Dead Calm and Flirting to make the big leap north. In the next two years, Kidman was accorded prominent roles in Tony Scott’s Days of Thunder, Robert Benton’s Billy Bathgate, Ron Howard’s Far and Away and Harold Becker’s Malice. In Windrider, she plays a punky rock singer, who falls for a world-class windsurfer, Stewart ”P.C.” Simpson (Tom Burlinson), after she witnesses a record-breaking stunt and he needs her to verify it. Simpson wants to convince the board of directors of his dad’s company to invest in an inland surfing park, instead of whatever else it is they intend to do with his money. Of course, they scoff at the proposal … until Kidman joins P.C.’s team. Everything then points to a major windsurfing competition, during which he plans to repeat his near-miraculous feat and get back in his father’s good graces. If it weren’t for the topless scenes, Windrider’s appeal would be limited to 14-year-olds. As bad as it is, though, Windrider isn’t any worse than the 1990 beach-volleyball epic, Side Out, or the Elvis-on-water musical, Clambake (1967). The MVD Rewind release includes commentary with director Vince Monton and writer Everett De Roche; a musical promo, featuring Kidman; an extended bedroom scene; a stills gallery; and mini-poster.

Last month, Arrow Video released Vincent Ward’s terrific coming-of-age drama, Vigil, which highlighted the almost mythic natural beauty of the Taranaki region of New Zealand’s North Island. It was the first Kiwi movie invited to screen in the competitive section of the 1984 Cannes Film Festival. This week, Arrow is releasing Ward’s bold and highly fanciful The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, a time-travel adventure that provided the director with a ticket to Hollywood (What Dreams May Come), if not unqualified fame. It, too, would be nominated for a Palme d’Or and win a bunch of awards in Australia and New Zealand’s annual year-end bakeoffs. It begins during the Black Death of 14th Century England, where people in a remote Cumbrian mountain village listen fearfully to tales of the gruesome plague that has engulfed the world. To stave off the infection, they rely upon the visions of a boy, Griffin (Hamish Gough), who has a reputation for having a kind of “second sight.” With the backing of the village’s most famous adventurer, Connor (Bruce Lyons), whom Griffin idolizes, a group of the townsfolk travel to a nearby cavern, where they hope to dig to the “good side” of the planet, where the pandemic is blinded by God’s all-powerful light. On the “evil side” of the Earth, the sun is shrouded by dark clouds and smoke. Thus the alternate B&W and color cinematography.

They bring copper ore with them to be melted down and cast into the shape of a cross, all the while racing against time and the coming of the next full moon. Their goal is to place a holy cross on the steeple of “the biggest Church in all of Christendom” as an offering for God’s protection. As the full moon is rising, the villagers break through the Earth’s crust, dig a tunnel to God-knows-where and locate a ladder that allows them to climb up and into late 20th Century New Zealand. The villagers marvel at the various technologies, never questioning what year it might be, believing that such things are only natural in great cities, where cranes and steam-powered shovels can be mistaken for dragons. But Griffin is haunted by a dark vision as the villagers come closer to fulfilling their quest. It’s a wonderful tale, well-depicted by Ward, although I sometimes wondered how Terry Gilliam might have handled the same material. The package adds an appreciation by film critic Nick Roddick, recorded exclusively for this release; a 1989 documentary profile of the director, made for New Zealand television; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Kim Newman and an introduction by Vincent Ward.

IMAX: National Parks Adventure: 4K UHD
IMAX: Dream Big: Engineering Our World: 4K UHD
Antarctica: In the Footsteps of the Emperor
As is the case with most new digital technology, the best results can only be achieved if a top-rate operator is in control of the best available equipment. It helps explain why the quality of the picture shown on video monitors in showrooms is so much better than what you might find on your own set, if your home-theater components aren’t up to snuff. Anyone who purchases a 4K UHD playback unit, without also upgrading their speakers, television or video monitor, is bound to be disappointed. If they attempt to save money by skimping on the appropriate cables and plug-ins, they’ll be just as unhappy. Similarly, not all 4K UHD entertainment is going to look as impressive as other movies, shows and documentaries. Compare a 4K UHD movie you’ve just purchased or streamed to the films released this week by Shout Factory, IMAX: National Parks Adventure and IMAX: Dream Big: Engineering Our World. Both were originally produced by MacGillivray Freeman Films for exhibition in IMAX, IMAX 3D and other theaters with large-format capability. Since the company was founded in the mid-1960s to accommodate the niche surfing/skateboarding audience, Greg MacGillivray and Jim Freeman have produced more than 40 documentaries, feature films and IMAX films. They’ve shot more than 7 million feet of 70mm film — the most in cinema history – and developed three cameras that work with the format: a high-speed (slow-motion) model; the industry’s first lightweight model; and the “all-weather” camera used while filming on Mt. Everest. Until very recently, the production technology has outpaced that necessary for playback. These look terrific. Narrated by Jeff Bridges, Dream Big: Engineering Our World (2017) celebrates the human ingenuity behind engineering marvels big and small, while demonstrating how engineers push the limits of innovation in unexpected and amazing ways. At first glance, it might feel a bit too dry for general consumption, but, the more broadly the producers define engineering, the more impressive the visuals become. This is especially true of the images taken above the Great Wall of China and the world’s tallest buildings. It extends to underwater robots, solar cars and smart, sustainable cities, revealing the compassion and creativity that drive engineers to create better lives for all.

As familiar as many of the images showcased in National Parks Adventure will be to fans of IMAX and other nature programming, the ultra-high-definition presentation brings out the magic even more succinctly than ever before. Robert Redford is here to remind viewers of both the majesty and fragility of our greatest natural resources, which may be more at risk today than at any other time in the last 100 years. Filmmaker Greg MacGillivray considers National Parks Adventure to be his most visually ambitious giant-screen film to date … a film that offers not only a sweeping overview of the national parks’ history, but that is equal parts adrenaline-pumping odyssey and soulful reflection on what the wilderness means to us all. Both films weigh in at slightly longer than 40 minutes. It’s been determined this is optimum length for visual comfort, when watching 3D on large-format screens. Apparently, our brains can only handle so much stimulation before they start going off on tangents of their own.

Delivered to us on Blu-ray, from MHz Choice, is the stunning and highly ambitious, “Antarctica: In the Footsteps of the Emperor,” which picks up where March of the Penguins left off 13 years ago. The difference this time is technology that allows divers to go below the surface of the ice, with the penguins and seals, for extended periods of time, as well as studying aquatic life never before recorded. Traveling aboard a French polar icebreaker in 2016, the team of explorers documents the marvels of the continent, both on the ice and under it, chronicling the effect climate change is having on the unique and diverse wildlife in this harsh environment. The story is told in three overlapping installments: “Antarctica’s Secrets” and “Antarctica: Living on the Edge,” which highlight the flora and fauna of the rapidly changing continent, and the feature-length, “In the Footsteps of the Emperor,” which focuses on the life cycle of emperor penguin. The standard hi-def photography rivals that in many 4K UHD films I’ve seen. The narration is geared more toward older teens and adults, than it was in the more family-oriented Match of the Penguins.

Disney: Gravity Falls: The Complete Series: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Acorn: Keeping Faith: Series 1
MHz: Spiral: Season 6
Talk about your basic kiss of death: several mainstream critics labelled “Gravity Falls” the “smartest” show on television before its untimely demise after two seasons. It is the one medium for which “smart” and “popular,” when used in the same sentence, don’t necessarily spell “success.” The Disney Television Animation product was, however, smart, popular and successful. So, why did it only last two seasons on the various Disney networks? My guess is that viewers tired of trying to guess when a new episode might appear and whether their VCR would record a repeat or something fresh. In the world of children’s programming on cable, especially, a season needn’t be contained within the usual 23-episode cycle or confined within a 52-week year. Shout’s “Gravity Falls: The Complete Series: Collector’s Edition,” for example, represents two seasons’ worth of programming. Those two seasons, comprised of 20 episodes each, aired irregularly from June 15, 2012, to February 15, 2016. Not only were viewers – who ran the gamut from kids to geezers – confused, but the uncertainly also challenged studio programmers and publicists. Finally, loyalty only went so far. For the uninitiated, twin siblings Dipper and Mabel Pines are sent to the small town of Gravity Falls, Oregon, to spend their summer vacation with their Great-Uncle Stan (a.k.a., Grunkle Stan). Upon their arrival, Stan enlists the kids’ help in running the Mystery Shack, a tourist trap that overcharges unsuspecting customers. While Dipper has a hard time getting used to his new surroundings, Mabel’s upbeat optimism comes in handy in her quest to find true love. It doesn’t take them long to realize that strange occurrences and weird creatures come with the territory in Gravity Falls. The discovery of an elusive book helps Dipper come up with answers to the town’s many mysterious questions. Meanwhile, Grunkle Stan guards a secret of his own. I’m not sure how the recent Disney product ended up at Shout!Factory, but it fits the company’s personality and marketing reach. Bonus features include commentaries on all 40 Episodes, with creator Alex Hirsch and cast and crew members; the retrospective featurette, “One Crazy Summer”; “The Hirsch Twins,” in which Alex and Ariel Hirsch recall their own summers growing up; more than an hour of deleted scenes and outtakes; “Between the Pines,” a behind-the-scenes look at the series finale; interstitial programming between Seasons 1 and 2; and promotional material.

It isn’t often that you come across a binge-worthy crime drama from Wales, especially one that originated in Welsh and was reshot for English-speaking audiences. The first such hybrid was “Hinterland,” which is available through Netflix, and, now, there’s Acorn’s “Keeping Faith,” featuring a terrific bilingual performance by Eve Myles (“Torchwood”). She plays Faith Howells, a fun-loving lawyer with a happy marriage and three children, living on the wee country’s southern coast. Faith’s maternity leave ends abruptly when her husband and legal partner, Evan (Bradley Freegard), takes a powder, without leaving a note. She has no reason to believe he’s in danger or engaging in an affair, until evidence of both possibilities begins to trickle in like so many droplets in Chinese water torture. Before long, too, she discovers that their firm is in serious financial trouble and its unethical role in the acquittal of a woman in a gangland murder could soon be revealed. Then, there’s the pressure being put on her by the dogged female chief of Laugharne’s tiny police force, who would like nothing more than to arrest and convict Faith on circumstantial evidence before anyone notices she’s been framed. The pieces of the puzzle don’t come together until very late in the game and, by then, we’re well-hooked. The wonderful Welsh locations, alone, are worth the price of an early look.

Originally released in France as “Engrenages,” the hard-hitting Parisian cop thriller “Spiral” has found a loyal audience around the world, via DVD, cable and streaming services. It differs from most other procedurals in its depiction of the self-serving nature of justice within its very special French bureaucracy of cops, prosecutors and judges. Likewise, the crimes, criminals and corruption reflect the cold, street-level realities of life among Paris’ multi-racial and multi-ethnic communities. Season Six begins with the discovery of a dismembered human torso in a pile of garbage in the 20th arrondissement. Police Captain Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) returns from maternity leave – a trend, perhaps — to reunite with her colleagues Gilou (Thierry Godard) and Tintin (Fred Bianconi), and together they tackle the complex investigation. The trail leads them to a northern suburb where Laure’s mentor Commissioner Herville (Nicolas Briançon) was transferred, and where the team will face off against institutional corruption and organized crime in a neighborhood devastated by poverty and delinquency. Meanwhile, a high-profile criminal trial causes all sorts of unexpected problems for bombshell lawyer Joséphine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot), and Judge Roban (Philippe Duclos) faces a rapidly escalating health crisis. There are times when “Spiral” resembles “NYPD Blue,” without the humor, but all of its cynicism and off-the-job tension retained. It is available through MHz Networks, MHz Choice, Amazon and Hulu.

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

Thursday, July 19th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 12th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 5th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 27th, 2018

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

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

Wednesday, June 27th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 21st, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 14th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 6th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 31st, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 24th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 15th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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