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

Thursday, April 5th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 28th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 23rd, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 15th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The DVD Wrapup: Thor, Gintama, Novitiate, White Sun, Faces Places, Voyage, Paris Opera, Strangers, Moveable Feast and more

Thursday, March 8th, 2018

Thor: Ragnarok: Blu-ray: 4K UHD
Comic books are said to have existed in America since the publication of the hardcover book, “The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck,” in 1842. Newspaper comic strips and panels became a phenomenon in New York at the end of the 1890s, with “The Katzenjammer Kids” and “The Yellow Kid.” It wasn’t until the 1930s that comics in the print and visual media came of age, with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s “Superman,” which opened the door for a legion of superheroes to come. It’s been something of roller-coaster ride for comic books, strips and movies, ever since. Anyone born since the advent of the digital age might think that studios have always been buoyed by the fortunes of their comic-book franchises. Until recently, though, they’ve been anything but a sure thing. Expensive to make and subject to the whims of fickle fan bases, comic-book movies now flourish commercially because of the extraordinary emergence of modern theaters in foreign markets and audiences hungry for CGI thrills. Unlike comics, storylines are incidental to a movie’s performance.

Take Parmount/Buena Vista’s Thor series, for example. Thor (2011) and Thor: The Dark World (2013) barely covered their production and marketing nuts through domestic box-office receipts. It’s likely that above-average overseas numbers kept the franchise alive. It wasn’t until last year’s release of Thor: Ragnarok that business exploded on both fronts. While it probably didn’t matter much that critics universally approved of Taika Waititi’s interpretation of the legend, the pulled quotes looked impressive on ads. Thor originated – in comics, anyway – in Marvel’ “Journey into Mystery,” released in August 1962. (The Norse god also found a place in the DC Universe, thanks to Jack Kirby’s brief defection to Marvel’s rival, in the 16th issue of “Tales of the Unexpected.”) Chris Hemsworth has played Thor in the three big-screen editions, as well as a trio of wildly popular Avengers installments. Two more are already on the drawing board.

Even though I’ve watched the Blu-ray editions of Thor and Thor: The Dark World, and perused the bonus features, it took me a while to figure out what precisely was going on in Thor: Ragnarok. Comic books used to be simple, if only because they were created to appeal to children and adults, with similarly short attention spans. Recent immigrants also found them useful as a tool to learning English. If you have a few hours to kill, check out the Wikipedia entries related to Thor’s appearances in the print and electronic media since 1962. They take up as much, or more digital space as that devoted to most American presidents. It’s there that anyone as unfamiliar with the word, “Ragnarok,” as I was, probably would look first. (I assume that the vast majority of all proper nouns in sci-fi are fabrications and sometimes don’t bother.)  In Norse mythology, Ragnarök refers to a series of foretold events, including a great battle, expected to result in the deaths of the gods Odin, Thor, Týr, Freyr, Heimdallr and Loki. The occurrence of various natural disasters, and the subsequent submersion of the world in water, would be followed by the emergence of a new world and Genesis-like rebirth of humanity. (It’s also the name of an internationally popular online role-playing game.)

As Thor: Ragnarok opens, Our Hero has been imprisoned by the fire demon Surtur (Clancy Brown), on Muspelheim, a planet the other side of the metaphysical universe from Asgard. Before returning to home, where the beginning stages of the apocalypse have begun, Thor must defeat Surfur and claim the holy crown stolen from Odin. Back on Asgard, where Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is posing as Odin (Anthony Hopkins), Thor learns from Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) that Odin passing his final day, in exile, in Norway … what, you thought Burbank? While Thor gathers strength from his final visit with his father, he is disturbed to learn it’s already carved in stone that his first-born child, Hela, is entitled to the crown. When the so-called Mistress of the Darkness (Cate Blanchett), who’s been part of Marvel’s greater media universe since 1964, is freed from her own imprisonment, she wastes no time regaining control of Asgard. She does so by destroying Thor’s hammer, obliterating Odin’s army and the Warriors Three (Tadanobu Asano, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi), and resurrecting her undead legions, which include her giant wolf companion, Fenris, and executioner, Skurge (Karl Urban). Heimdall (Idris Elba) returns from exile, as well, to serve Hela as a warrior, while also protecting vulnerable Asgardians.

Thor and Loki are expelled. Instead of dying, though, they land on the garbage planet Sakaar, which is surrounded by wormholes. After they are captured by a Valkyrior (Tessa Thompson), Thor is sold to the planet’s Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) for gladiatorial purposes and Loki once again elects to serve the opposing team. As fate would have it, Thor is pitted against his old pal, Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), the original bull in a china shop. the Incredible. Long story shorter, they eventually will form an alliance and return to Asgard, where the final battle to save humanity will transpire on the Bifröst bridge, which connects the nearly spent planet to Midgard (Earth). As verbose as that summary makes it sound, Thor: Ragnorak is replete with imaginatively conceived action and snazzy comic-book graphics. Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost’s extremely complex, yet surprisingly funny script complements Waititi’s playful directorial conceits, which previously were observed in Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), What We Do in the Shadows (2014), Boy (2010) and Eagle vs Shark (2007). The combined budgets of those pictures probably were less than what Waititi spent to license Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” which also was inspired by Norse mythology and sets part of the tone in Thor: Ragnorok. The Blu-ray and 4K UHD looks terrific. Audio commentary, with Waititi, and 11 rather short featurettes are bundled on the separate BD disc.

Gintama: Blu-ray
Although the roots of manga can be traced to the anthropomorphic characters found on 12th Century scrolls, Japanese comic books and cartooning followed a path similar that taken by newspaper strips, serials, comic books and magazines in western countries. Manja really boomed in post-World War II, after censorship was outlawed and artistic creativity was encouraged. Osamu Tezuka’s “Mighty Atom” (a.k.a., “Astro Boy”) and Machiko Hasegawa’s “The Wonderful World of Sazae-san” led the charge into markets divided by age and gender. The earliest commercial Japanese animation dates to 1917, with the characteristic anime style emerging in the 1960s. It wasn’t until the early-1980s that anime found a second home in the U.S., however. The live-action feature, Gintama, is adapted from a long-running manga, Gin Tama, written and illustrated by Hideaki Sorachi, and serialized in Shueisha Publishing’s Weekly Shōnen Jump anthology. It’s been adapted three times as a feature film, twice in animated form, and, last year, in a truly wacky and sometimes wonderful live-action format. Populated with characters and subplots that wouldn’t be out of place in Guardians of the Galaxy, Gintama is set in an alternate Edo-period Japan, where an alien race has invaded the country and taken control. In doing so, the invaders forced the powerful samurai to lay down their swords. Once feared as the White Demon, former samurai Gintoki Sakata, now works as an everyday handyman. That changes when a master swordsman tasks him with finding a cursed Benizakura sword to keep it from falling into the wrong hands. There’s no scarcity of swashbuckling sci-fi action and offbeat humor, some of it aimed directly at the lowest common denominator of audience tastes. Gintama, which was partially financed by Warner Bros., looks pretty spiffy in Blu-ray, as well, but only offers three teasers as extras.

Novitiate: Blu-ray
Once a staple of any major studio’s repertoire, melodramas featuring Roman Catholic nuns and priests have become something of a vanishing species. Priests have become problematic because it’s no longer possible to cast one without audiences wondering if he might be there to address issues pertaining child abuse. It’s difficult to identify an important actress who hasn’t played a nun during her career. After the release of Sister Act (1992) and Dead Man Walking (1995), in which Whoopie Goldberg and Susan Sarandon played the yin and yang of American sisterhood, there wasn’t much more to add to the subgenre. In 2008, John Patrick Shanley’s extremely topical Doubt might have made a few pennies, thanks to chilling performances by Oscar nominees Philip Seymour Hoffman, as a priest suspected of abusing his school’s only black student; Meryl Streep and Amy Adams, as nuns who confront him; and Viola Davis, as the boy’s mother. In 2015, Best Picture-winner Spotlight made some money for Universal, but thanks only to robust foreign sales. Lately, though, documentaries have been left to do the heavy lifting.

Plug the keyword, “Nun/Catholic” into’s highly unscientific data base and 282 titles pop up. Subtract “Catholic” and it grows to nearly 1,800. Add “Convent” and it rises to 321. There’s room there for nuns who sing, fly, sin, lose their faith, regain it, wear habits, discard them and pray, although fewer than one might assume. Chronologically, they are loosely bookended by The White Sister (1923), starring Lilian Gish, and Novitiate (2017), with the similarly estimable Melissa Leo. The latter is a compelling period drama that received excellent reviews, but a mere handful of playdates. It isn’t difficult to see why, really. Margaret Betts’ debut feature is set in the early-1960s, just as the Second Vatican Council was about to introduce the Roman Catholic Church to the second half of the 20th Century. In the United States, at least, it was still a time when large families were encouraged to heed the calling of God by “giving” one of their children to the Church, as a priest or nun. In my extended family, it was both. Back then, there were as many other reasons for joining a seminary or convent as there are flavors of Baskins Robbins ice cream. Nuns wore habits and priests wore detachable collars around their neck. Celibacy wasn’t necessarily looked upon as something weird or an excuse for perverse behavior. That’s just the way it was.

In Novitiate, Margaret Qualley is extremely convincing as Cathleen Harris, a slightly withdrawn teenager being raised in a rural Tennessee town by her divorced mother, Nora (Julianne Nicholson). As an avowed agnostic, Nora rarely asks Cathleen to go to church, but, when they do, she’s strangely drawn to the priest’s homilies and mysteries of the Latin mass. Nora doesn’t sense anything is wrong when local nuns offer Cathleen a scholarship to the local parish school, which she knows is a vast improvement over the other options. What she doesn’t know is that it often serves as a feeder institution for convents, where many nuns were trained to serve the Church as teachers, nurses, social workers and missionaries. It wasn’t for everyone, so those who stayed usually knew what they were in for … expect when it came to celibacy, which can only be encouraged, not taught. Though still not officially Catholic, Cathleen decides that she wants to give herself over to Christ by accepting an invitation to join an order of cloistered nuns. Her mom isn’t thrilled by her decision, but she doesn’t know how to talk her daughter out of it, especially considering how badly her marriage turned out. In the dormitory, where the young postulants are allowed time to talk freely with one another. Like Cathleen, the girls are drawn to the convent by their love for God and a desire to return His love through prayer and silent meditation. Their conversations are filled with the same passion for Jesus Christ as their peers reserve for their boyfriends. They see nothing sad or freakish about their withdrawal from the material world or the restrictions imposed on them by Mother Superior (Leo). For now, at least.

The Reverend Mother is as old-school it was possible to be in the 1950s. Most of the girls’ time is devoted to prayer or chores that were to be performed in silence and to the letter. They were given set periods of time when they exchange greetings and small talk. Once they’re acclimated to the rules, Mother Superior schedules weekly confessionals, during which the novitiates confess their sins out loud – as minor as they might be – and open themselves not only to criticism, but also the recriminations of their peers. Because most of the girls are pure as the driven snow, they are required to dig deeply into their souls to find something resembling the stain of sin. Mother Superior takes advantage of their naivete to weed out the weaklings and discourage the stronger girls from testing her will. The abusive nature of the process isn’t presented as being necessarily bad or gratuitous, any more than the hazing of Marine recruits in Full Metal Jacket could be considered entirely without value. About halfway into the novitiates’ probationary period, Mother Superior is told by a representative of the archdiocese that her methods have become unsound and are not in keeping with the reforms of Vatican II. When another reprimand is issued, she is rocked to her core that the Church into which she married as a girl has forsaken her. Her greatest sin, however, is refusing to alert the novitiates that great changes were on their way and to anticipate the likelihood of being accorded more freedom. It isn’t a message everyone wants to hear. Novitiate can be viewed as a companion piece to Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013), Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents (2016), Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men (2010) and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus.

White Sun
A comprehensive familiarity of the decade-long Nepalese civil war – which ended in 2006 – isn’t necessary to enjoy Deepak Rauniyar’s sophomore feature, White Sun. A basic understanding of the overlying facts will suffice. That such a conflagration even occurred may come as a surprise to anyone who isn’t of Nepali or Indian ancestry, doesn’t read the New York Times, listen to the BBC World Service, or was a climber inconvenienced by the Maoist insurgency. Some 17,800 people were killed, including many non-combatants, and 1,300 are still missing, Sheer numbers, however, can’t do justice to the pain and heartache felt by survivors. White Sun plays out in a tiny mountain village, several years after a Comprehensive Peace Accord was signed and the monarchy was dissolved. Rauniyar does a masterful job condensing the disparate issues still affecting the citizenry into a comprehensive 89-minute narrative, leaving plenty of room for traditional drama, fractured romance, a smattering of humor and depiction of male chauvinism dictated by religion and custom. On the occasion of his father s death and funeral, Chandra (Dayahang Rai) returns to the village he left years earlier to join the Maoist rebels. His father and brother, Suraj (Rabindra Singh Baniya) sided with the losing royalist government, as did many of their neighbors. A small unit of Maoist guerrillas are still holding out on a mountaintop across a deep valley, but things are mostly peaceful. The first thing the politically disaffected Chandra notices is the lack of any of the structural improvements promised by the coalition government. The second is a growing debate over the disposition of his overweight father’s body, which barely made it through the window frame of his two-story home. Because the deceased insisted on a traditional religious funeral, the village priest was able to lay down strict conditions on its execution. Among other things, custom dictates that sons must carry their father’s body to the cremation site, which is alongside a swiftly flowing river deep in the valley.

The brothers’ estrangement becomes evident when Suraj drapes a Nepali flag over their father’s body and Chandra responds by pulling it off him. As the procession, which excludes women, makes its way down a steep hill to the riverside pyre, the brothers’ delicate truce completely erodes. By now, however, their disagreement includes the welfare of 10-year-old Pooja and a request by her lower-caste mother, Durga (Asha Margranti), for Chandra to sign a paternity statement that would allow her to attend school in a larger city. The precocious child has been led to believe that Chandra’s her biological father and became confused by the gossip raised by his arrival with Badri, a street orphan rumored to be his son. While Durga admits to cheating on her ex-husband, she’s quick to point out that Pooji wouldn’t have been born out of wedlock in the first place if Chandra hadn’t deserted her. Halfway to the river, Suraj abruptly decides to quit the procession, leaving Chandra with the corpse and a dozen old men who either are too weak to carry it or, because they aren’t related to the dead village elder, can’t even touch the corpse. By this time, however, Chandra is willing to veto the priest’s strict orders and seek help elsewhere. He first visits the home of a newly appointed government official, who lives nearby and owes his life to his former comrade. No matter, because the politician refuses to interrupt the party at his home to ask for volunteers. He turns to the local police, while Durga rounds up the local guerrillas, who still consider Chandra to be a brother-in-arms. Let’s just say here that things don’t work out as anyone planned and it takes the combined efforts of Pooji, Badri and other village children to accomplish what their elders couldn’t do. The lesson to be taken away from White Sun may be obvious, but it’s as compelling as ever: the only hope for mankind’s future lies in our children. The fine acting performances are complemented by cinematographer Mark O’Fearghail’s beautiful widescreen images of Himalayan peaks, mountain trails and goat paths, and Vivek Maddala’s evocative score.

Faces Places: Blu-ray
In its infinite wisdom, the Motion Picture Academy elects not to celebrate the winners of its Honorary Awards on the night of its gala ceremony. Host Jimmy Kimmel alluded to this slight in his introductions to Donald Sutherland, Charles Burnett, Owen Roizman, Agnés Varda and Special Achievement Award-winner Alejandro González Iñárritu by tweaking the academy (and/or ABC) for its concern over not wanting to bore the viewers at home. The producers should have thought of that when they decided to force Kimmel to introduce celebrities assigned to introduce other celebrities chosen to read the list of nominees in a category. Varda had already been handed her trophy in November by Angelina Jolie, during the Governor’s Ball. Faces Places, her delightful collaboration with French photographer/muralist JR, had yet to be shortlisted by the academy’s documentary branch or nominated for the Independent Spirit Award it took home last weekend. Last May, Faces Places won the Cannes festival’s Golden Eye, the first of many such prizes and critics’ nods it would receive going into the Academy Award deliberations. Of the five finalists – all deserving – Faces Places is the only doc that’s as entertaining as it is intellectually stimulating. (The winner, Bryan Fogel’s Icarus, exposed Russia’s systematic doping of athletes and attempted silencing of whistle-blowers.)

Faces Places combines elements of the buddy film and road picture, with a heavy dollop of nostalgia for disappearing ways of life in France. The extreme differences in their ages, height, shape and preferred artistic mediums would have argued against the success of any successful collaboration between 89-year-old Varda and 33-year-old JR. Overriding those differences, however, was their lifelong passion for images and how they are created, displayed and shared. The result was a far-reaching exercise in monumental, public, outsider and conceptual art – take your pick — that wouldn’t require a PhD or membership to the Louvre to appreciate. Together, the artists toured the countryside in JR’s specially appointed photo truck, meeting locals, learning their stories and producing epic-size portraits of them. They also stopped off at the port city of Havre. The photos, which were prominently displayed on the sides of houses, barns, storefronts, shipping containers and train cars, demanded of viewers that they recognize the humanity in their subjects and themselves. The most touching image, perhaps, is that of the elderly widow of a miner, whose company-built row house was about to be replaced by something more modern … which is to say, soulless and too expensive for her to afford. When it was plastered on the front wall of the building, it reminded passersby that the house and the woman were about to go the way of the local mining industry. Beyond its entertainment value, Faces Places could easily stimulate the imaginations of children in need of artistic inspiration. The Blu-ray adds a long interview with Varda and JR and three deleted vignettes.

The hurt caused by the untimely death of a loved one – due to an accident, natural disasters or suicide — is something that defies easy consideration in the arts. The absence of closure that derives from such unexpected events plagues survivors for the rest of their days, even if there was no way to prevent a car crash, hurricane or school takeover by a lunatic with an automatic rifle. Friends and relatives of people who take their own lives agonize over missing signs of distress or their failure to intervene when they arose. The uncompromising Hong Kong filmmaker, Scud (Utopians), tackles such difficult themes head-on in his alternately poetic, disturbing and surrealistic, Voyage. Because he does so in interlaced vignettes, it takes a while to understand what’s on Scud’s mind here. The movie opens in a remote part of Mongolia, suitable primarily for grazing sheep, during China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. A student from the city has been ordered to move to the yurt shared by a young shepherd and his wife, ostensibly to be re-educated in the progressive ways of the peasantry. Like Mao’s hugely divisive initiative, the student’s mission fails miserably. His death isn’t without a peculiar sort of beauty, symmetry and mystery, however. The rest of Voyage takes place in the present, as a relatively young psychiatrist embarks on a solo journey from Hong Kong, along the coast of Southeast Asia, to overcome his depression. On route, he records stories of people who departed this world prematurely, some of whom he treated professionally. Scud dramatizes the stories, with an eye to the victims’ immediate journey through the afterlife. In his interpretation of Chinese religious belief, people who commit suicide linger between heaven and Earth for a year, reassessing their lives before committing the same act once again. (Yes, like an infinitely more cruel take on the Groundhog Day theme.) Naturally, the lingering effects of unrequited love also figure into the situations portrayed here. Charlie Lam’s evocative cinematography captures the atmospheric factors in Scud’s musings, whether the vignettes take place in Hong Kong and Mongolia, or Malaysia, Australia’s Outback and Ayers Rock, Germany and the Netherlands. Scud doesn’t shy away from graphic depictions of homo- and hetero-erotic sexuality or full-frontal nudity. While none feel gratuitous, it could be too much for easily offended viewers. Anyone looking for something completely different could do a lot worse than accepting the challenge presented in Voyage. The Breaking Glass DVD adds an interesting making-of featurette – which frequently forgets to add subtitles to dialogue in Chinese and other languages.

Curse of the Mayans
Of all the world’s lost civilizations, few have been as effectively exploited in genre fiction as the Mayan. If their demise remains mysterious, the objects left behind have fueled the imaginations of scientists, artists, writers and conspiracy theorists in equal measure. Moreover, as part of their religious beliefs, the Mayans practiced human sacrifice. Remnants of the Mayans’ great architectural feats continue to be discovered in the Yucatan jungle, as are subterranean waterways and caverns that raise even more questions. Although the highly sophisticated culture began its decline 500 years before the Spaniards arrival in 900 A.D., the God-fearing, gold-worshipping conquistadors took care of what was left of it. A basic misreading of the Mayan calendar recently inspired several studios to embark on projects that prophesized the calamitous end of the world. That the apocalypse didn’t occur as anticipated hasn’t stopped screenwriters from speculating on what might have screwed up the calculations. Curse of the Mayans may be a minor entry in the subgenre, but its adherence to myth and spooky Yucatan settings make up for some cheesy plotting and underfinanced special effects. In the preface to Joaquin Rodriguez’ tale, we’re told, “According to the Mayan book of creation, the Mayan spoke of a species of lizard men who descended from the sky and captured their civilization.” Nine of them wreaked havoc on the population before being captured and imprisoned behind a thick wall in the underground caves. When American archeologist Alan Green (Steve Wilcox) senses that he’s stumbled upon the entryway to the cave, he makes veteran diver Danielle Noble (Carla Ortiz) an offer she can’t refuse to reassemble her team and join the expedition. The cover of the DVD already telegraphs the presence of a UFO – like the one in District 9 — and a monster that could be called, the Creature From the Turquoise Lagoon. Nothing truly surprising happens after the team is ambushed by a bunch of Frito banditos seeking money and nookie, but the incident whets our appetite for something exceedingly cruel and bizarre. Unfortunately, the budget didn’t provide for adequate lighting of the subterranean world and too many of the confrontations between the lizard people and the divers are lost in the darkness. The F-bombs dropped in the verbal exchanges tell me that Curse of the Mayans wasn’t intended for consumption by Syfy audiences. Without them, however, it would been a perfect fit.

The Paris Opera
The Phantom of the Opera doesn’t make an appearance in Jean-Stéphane Bron’s fly-on-the-wall documentary, The Paris Opera, but the hideously disfigured menace probably couldn’t have caused the venerable institution any more problems than it naturally experienced in the 2015-16 season. Besides coordinating the challenging day-to-day operations of a cultural institution founded in 1669 by Louis XIV, newly appointed director Stéphane Lissner was forced to contend with the potential for a labor strike, the possible threat of a terrorist attack, the defection of the Paris Opera Ballet’s director of dance, the last-minute illness of a lead baritone, a strategic reduction in ticket prices, opening-night-seating diplomacy and the casting of a massive bull for Schönberg’s “Moses and Aaron.” If Lissner had also been required to deal with a caped ghost demanding creative input, it might have qualified as the least of his worries. Bron’s cameras take us behind the scenes at the famed Palais Garnier, where drama unfolds every day, on and off stage. At 110 minutes, it would have been impossible to adequately cover everything that happens on the job, and anyone anxious for wall-to-wall coverage of singing, acting and dancing is likely to be disappointed. That’s handled in visits to rehearsal halls, dressing rooms and behind-the-curtains shots of a prominent diva having her perspiration swabbed by a dedicated assistant. Bryn Terfel and Millepied prepare for their upcoming performances in their street garb, while a talented intern takes mental notes on how he might handle such fame when it’s his turn to shine. The Paris Opera is one of three documentaries recently shot at Palais Garnier and its separate ballet school: Frederick Wiseman’s La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (2009) and Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai’s Reset. The bonus package adds commentary and an interview with Bron, as well as the short film, “Les Indes Galantes,” by director Clément Cogitore.

The Strangers: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
This weekend, a sequel to the surprise 2008 home-invasion hit, The Strangers, will be released into theaters around the world. The Strangers: Prey at Night stars Christina Hendricks (“Mad Men”) Martin Henderson (“Grey’s Anatomy”) and Bailee Madison (“Good Witch”) as an unfortunate family required to deal with the crazed trio of masked intruders — Pin-Up Girl, Dollface and Man in the Mask – this time in an abandoned trailer park. It is based on a screenplay written Bryan Bertino, who was solely responsible for the original, which gets a fresh polish from Scream Factory this week. The Strangers isn’t the scariest home-invasion flicks I’ve seen – Funny Games (1997, 2008), High Tension (2005), Wait Until Dark (1967), Them (2006), Knock Knock (2015) are better – but sympathetic performances by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, as an already unhappy couple, provide a sharp contrast to the nihilistic violence that necessitates the rekindling of their feelings for each other. Like any good home-invasion thriller, the familiar setting allows viewers to empathize with the ordeal of the innocent protagonists. The “Collector’s Edition” contains a new 2K remake of the theatrical and unrated versions of the film; fresh interviews with Bertino, Kip Weeks (Man in the Mask), Laura Margolis (Pin-Up Girl) and editor Kevin Greutert; ported-over interviews with cast and crew, and Bertino; and deleted scenes.

PBS: A Moveable Feast With Fine Cooking: Season 5
Nickelodeon: PAW Patrol: Sea Patrol
Like game shows, comedies, serials and mysteries, cooking programs began on the radio and transitioned to television in the 1950s. Broadcasts can be traced to World War II, when nutritionists helped homemakers adjust to food rationing and unexpected shortages. It took Julia Child’s wonderfully eccentric personality to convince Americans that French cuisine wasn’t limited to snails and frog legs. I’ve enjoyed listening to fine essayists describe their favorite meals in ways that made my mouth water, but, today, the genre is dominated by television-based chefs, who run the gamut from bland to fascistic. We can be as fickle in our choice of preferred hosts as we are about the food we eat. I’m reminded of this every couple of weeks, when a DVD containing a full season’s worth of a show’s episodes – or a profile of a famous chef or restaurant – lands on my doorstep. My favorite shows combine food preparation, dining and travel in equal measures. If I were to pick a particular host to watch on weekly basis, it would be Anthony Bourdain, for his edgy sense of humor and ability to put food into the cultural context of the places he visits. I’ve reviewed previous seasons of PBS’ “A Moveable Feast With Fine Cooking,” often citing the show’s tendency to appeal to yuppies and its cloying background music. I was drawn to the Season Five lineup, however, by the choice of regions, several of which I’ve also visited. Aussie host Pete Evans may best be described as the anti-Bourdain, in that you’re always expecting him to say, “G’day,” while flashing a Ken-doll smile. This season, though, the locations, food and guest chefs were allowed to speak for themselves. Full shows were dedicated to Santa Fe and Taos; Seattle; San Luis Obispo and Carmel, on California’s Central Coast; Dijon, Paris and Cadenet, France; Polesine Parmense, Livorno, Vercelli and Bologna, Italy; and Puerto Rico, before the devastation of Hurricane Maria. Thank goodness, the annoying dinner guests mostly stayed in the background and kept quiet.

Nickelodeon’s latest compilation, “Paw Patrol: Sea Patrol,” follows the gang as they gear up for some underwater crime fighting and problem solving. The six nautical-themed adventures from Season Four include two double-length tales and missions to save a shark, a frozen flounder a narwhal, rescue a baby octopus and support the town pier.

The DVD Wrapup: Darkest Hour, Coco, Tom Jones, Basket Case, Hangman, Godard+Gorin, Hallelujah Trail, Tyrus … More

Friday, March 2nd, 2018

Darkest Hour: Blu-ray
If, as expected, Gary Oldman takes home an Oscar for his spot-on portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, no one could blame him for pointing out, “It’s about time.” In 2011, he was a finalist in the same category for his take on master spy George Smiley, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Oldman deserved to be nominated, at least, for unforgettable performances in, among other pictures, Sid and Nancy, True Romance, Prick Up Your Ears, JFK, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the “Harry Potter” series. If the PM doesn’t appear in Christopher Nolan’s widely admired survival epic, Dunkirk – up for Best Picture and seven non-acting awards his shadow looms large over the evacuation and patriotic call to duty. In Joe Wright’s fly-on-the-wall Darkest Hour, viewers are made privy to the political and strategic machinations that preceded the launch and completion of Operation Dynamo. As it opens, Churchill is about to become the compromise candidate to replace Neville Chamberlain as the country’s Prime Minister. His enemies within Parliament and the War Cabinet fully expect the operation to fail, adding to blood left on his hands from the Brits’ defeat at Gallipoli, 24 years earlier. If the British army is devastated at Dunkirk, Churchill surely will be shoved aside by his opponents, including a dubious King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), who would agree to negotiations with the Germans, brokered by the Italians. Could the free world survive a pact with Hitler? It’s a moot point, of course. Buoyed by the support of the everyday Brits he meets in an impromptu subway ride, Churchill decides to buck the conservative opposition and go forward with Operation Dynamo. Oldman shines throughout Darkest Hour, delivering inspirational oratory, displaying an unexpected sense of humor and the tenacity required to rally the nation in its, yes, darkest hour. The picture is further enhanced by key performances in supporting roles by Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ronald Pickup and Stephen Dillane. Of Darkest Hour’s six nominations, the other likely winner is in the Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling category. The Blu-ray arrives with Wright’s commentary and, two shortish featurettes, “Into Darkest Hour” and “Gary Oldman: Becoming Churchill.” Frankly, I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite among the other actors who’ve played Churchill recently. They include such worthy thespians as Brian Cox (Churchill), Albert Finney (The Gathering Storm), Brendan Gleeson (Into the Storm) and Michael Gambon (Churchill’s Secret). The women chosen to play the estimable Clemmie Churchill — Kristin Scott Thomas, Miranda Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, Janet McTeer and Lindsay Duncan – are every bit as good.

Coco: Blu-ray
Lady and the Tramp: Signature Collection: Blu-ray
The odds-on favorite for Best Animated Feature Film is Disney/Pixar ‘s Coco. Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’ song, “Remember Me,” is also a finalist, but in a more difficult category. Coco’s success at the international box certainly isn’t going to work against it. Like Moana (2016), which also showcased Disney’s multi-cultural ambitions, Coco topped the weekend box-office rankings for three straight weeks. While I was surprised to learn that Moana raked in more American currency than Coco, there was nothing shocking in the latter’s boffo performance abroad. Almost 80 percent of Coco’s total $739.3-million haul came from the overseas market. (In Mexico, it opened almost a month ahead of its U.S. debut.) As Pixar/Disney’s most ethnically inclusive release to date – most of the surnames on the credit roll are Hispanic – it’s unusually faithful to Mexico’s cultural landmarks, music, fashions, topography and marketplace minutiae. (Look for piñatas shaped like Buzz Lightyear, Woody, Mike Wazowski, Destiny the Whale Shark and Mr. Ray.) The backgrounds are modeled after the colorful homes and traditional architecture of historic Guanajuato City, while other cultural totems recall Oaxacan folk traditions. The quest for authenticity even extends to the choice of sidekicks. Dante the Xolo is the second canine companion to a protagonist in a Pixar film, preceded only by Dug from Up. Mexican hairless dogs (a.k.a., Xoloitzcuintli) have existed in the Americas for an estimated 3,500 years. According to Aztec mythology, the god Xolotl created the breed from a sliver of the Bone of Life. He gifted Xolos to humans, provided they protect the dogs with their lives. In exchange, they would guide the dearly departed through the World of Death, toward the Evening Star in the Heavens. It’s the perfect companion for Coco’s protagonist, Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), an aspiring musician, who, on Día de Muertos, unwittingly finds himself in the World of Death, where his deceased ancestors are awaiting their ascendency to Heaven. The thing is, Miguel isn’t actually dead … or demonstrably alive, either. Only the dead recognize him as human. The charming trickster, Héctor (Gael Garcia Bernal), leads Miguel and Xolo to the estate of his great-great-grandfather, a gifted musician, Ernesto de la Cruz, and other relatives.

It’s complicated, so pay attention. The story begins in the village of Santa Cecilia, where Miguel’s great-great-grandmother Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach) is about to be abandoned by her impoverished musician husband, who fails to return home from a gig. Also left behind is 3-year-old Coco, who, as an adult, would marry a master shoemaker and forbid anyone in the household from making music. She’s still alive – barely – when 12-year-old Miguel decides to disobey the ban and become a singer and guitar player, like the hugely popular Ernesto de la Cruz (R.I.P.). One day, Miguel accidentally damages an heirloom photo of Coco and her parents, which sits at the center of the family ofrenda (shrine). The guitar her father is holding looks exactly like the one being clutched by Ernesto de la Cruz in a statue in the town plaza. The picture will come in handy when Héctor introduces Miguel to Ernesto (Benjamin Bratt) in the afterlife. Could he be a direct descendant of his hero? Anything’s possible in a Disney/Pixar movie? The other half of the gimmick plot involves getting Miguel back to the World of the Living and keeping the memory of his ancestors alive, so they can continue to inhabit the World of the Dead. Once they’re forgotten, it’s anybody’s guess where they’ll end up. Like I said, it’s complicated. If any of this sounds too morbid for consumption by children, parents should know that Coco largely plays out in a brightly Technicolored Land of the Dead, where the inhabitants remain active, outgoing and communicative. Also present are shape-shifting alebrije, modeled after the whimsical folk-art sculptures sold in Oaxacan markets. If we’re going to die, anyway, there are plenty worse places to go than the World of the Dead theme park.

Unlike other Pixar pictures, Coco’s musical soundtrack is full of uplifting songs and instrumental compositions. The bonus package overflows with featurettes and other goodies. It includes commentary, with director Lee Unkrich, co-director Adrian Molina and producer Darla Anderson; making-of featurettes; backgrounders; deleted scenes and sketches; tutorials; and “A Thousand Pictures a Day,” a more detailed look at the crew’s travels to Mexico to better understand the culture, characters, story lines and details that would be central to the movie they wanted to make. Coco also arrives in a 4K edition.

It’s fitting that Walt Disney Signature Collection edition of Lady and the Tramp should include the new featurette, “Walt & His Dogs,” in which His Eminence reminisces about his pets, alongside images from the Walt Disney Family Museum. In the 60 years separating the original Lady and the Tramp (1955) from Cruella (2013) and Coco, the folks at Disney have given birth to at least 51 real and animated canines, including Old Yeller, a Shaggy Dog, or two, and Air Bud. The number doesn’t include a couple hundred Dalmatians and any canines found in Pixar pictures. None of them are as beloved as Tramp (Larry Roberts) and Lady (Barbara Luddy), who meet cute and get exponentially cuter with each succeeding meatball and romantic ballad. Besides demonstrating how opposites attract, Lady and the Tramp represents the first Disney animated feature filmed in CinemaScope. The process necessitated extra work in the planning stages and the extension of action scenes to fill the wide, wide screen. It also was the first Disney animated feature to benefit from the casting of a “superstar” voice: the sultry torch singer, Peggy Lee. The “Signature Collection” Blu-ray doesn’t contain a lot of fresh bonus content. Most of it has been ported over from the Diamond Edition, released in 2012 and still recommendable. Some insignificant featurettes have been warehoused or added to the digital-only edition. Besides “Walt & His Dogs,” the fresh material includes “Stories From Walt’s Office,” “How to Make a Meatball and Other Fun Facts About Lady and the Tramp” and “Song Selection.”

Hangman: Blu-ray
If you’re the kind of person who would pay to watch Al Pacino read the phone book or, God forbid, “Trump: The Art of the Deal,” Hangman would be the movie that sorely tested such resolve. Based on a series of grisly murders – hangings, to be precise — Johnny Martin’s occasionally gripping procedural follows a killer who teases police by leaving clues that correspond with the letters in the time-killer guessing game, Hangman. It opened here in a handful of theaters during the final week of 2017 and, on VOD outlets a month earlier. It’s still scheduled to open in several European countries over the next couple of months. The last time people lined up to see a Pacino film probably was in 2003, to see Insomnia and The Recruit, which were preceded by Any Given Sunday (1999), The Insider (1999), The Devil’s Advocate (1997), Donnie Brasco (1997), Heat (1995), Carlito’s Way (1993), Scent of a Woman (1992), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), The Godfather: Part III (1990) and Dick Tracy (1990). What other actors have compiled a similarly impressive string of titles over a 13-year stretch? It seems like ancient history. Some mainstream critics compared the plot of Hangman unfavorably to Se7en, especially for its gruesome death scenes and autopsies. One damned it with faint praise, citing the proposition that anything in which Pacino appears deserves a look. (A corollary of the telephone-book theory.) Others simply dismissed it as a would-be thriller that isn’t worth the effort it would take to tie up all the loose ends. I’d like to think that I’m the kind of Pacino completist capable of separating the many recent schlocky performances – Misconduct (2016), Jack and Jill (2011), The Son of No One (2011) — from the truly worthwhile ones he’s reserved for television; Phil Spector (2013), You Don’t Know Jack (2010), Angels in America (2003) and the upcoming Paterno. In Hangman, Pacino’s primary contribution is an imprecise Louisiana accent that drifts between Southern, New Orleansian, Cajun and backwoods redneck. He plays retired homicide detective Ray Archer, who’s asked by criminal profiler Will Ruiney, (Karl Urban), to help him unscramble the clues left by the serial killer, with whom they appear to share a history. New York Times’ crime reporter Christi Davies (Brittany Snow), who’s at home on vacation, joins the detectives after witnessing the killer’s wrath during a ride-along. As if. Sarah Shahi (“Reverie”) plays the police captain who OK’d the arrangement and easily qualifies as the most ravishing cop in Louisiana, maybe even Hollywood. The Blu-ray adds the featurettes “Al Pacino: Insight From a Hollywood Legend” and “Hangman: In Their Own Words.”

Tom Jones: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Besides being a wonderfully entertaining and extremely innovative period comedy, Tom Jones (1963) has been credited with freeing British New Wavers from the gritty realism of kitchen-sink dramas, by introducing them to the same creative freedoms already being enjoyed by such iconic “Swinging London” figures as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Mary Quant, Jean Shrimpton and “The Avengers.” In its immediate wake would follow Darling (1965), The Pleasure Girls (1965), The Knack … and How to Get It (1965), Blowup (1966), Alfie (1966), Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966) and Georgy Girl (1966), all of which are still fun to watch. the Inspired by the about-face made by Tony Richardson and John Osborne in their adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel, “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling,” directors John Schlesinger, Richard Lester, Karel Reisz and Ken Loach decided to leave the kitchen sink behind and try something that’s entertaining. Instead of approaching the material in the traditional narrative manner, Richardson opened the film in the fashion of a silent film, with fanciful title cards and actors playing slightly over the top. Characters break the fourth wall by looking directly into the camera and addressing the audience. At one point, Albert Finney suddenly appears to notice the camera and covers the lens with his hat. John Addison’s Oscar- and Grammy-winning music keeps things upbeat with a harpsichord-heavy score that comments playfully on what’s happening on the screen. Walter Lassally’s hand-held cameras capture the intensity of the hunt scenes, from above the horses and riders and at saddle level. The orgasmic dinner scene is as fresh and funny today as it was 50-plus years ago. The Criterion Collection release features a new 4K digital restoration of the original theatrical version of the film, as well as the shorter 1989 director’s cut, both supervised by Lassally, with uncompressed monaural and stereo soundtracks; a conversation between Lassally and critic Peter Cowie on the film’s visuals; an excerpt from a 1982 episode of “The Dick Cavett Show,” featuring Finney; a new interview with Vanessa Redgrave on Richardson, to whom she was married from 1962 to 1967; a fresh interview with film scholar Duncan Petrie on the movie’s impact on British cinema; an archival audio interview with composer Addison; a new interview with the director’s-cut editor, Robert Lambert; and an essay by scholar Neil Sinyard. Tom Jones is a movie that begs repeated viewings, if only to break down individual scenes and put the pieces under a scholarly microscope.

Jean-Luc Godard + Jean-Pierre Gorin: Five Films, 1968-1971: Blu-ray
If all anyone knows of Jean-Luc Godard’s oeuvre is what can be gleaned from introductory courses in film history and watching such accessible classics as Breathless, Pierrot le Fou, Masculin Féminin and Week End, this ambitious collection from Arrow Academy probably wouldn’t be a good investment. To fully appreciate “Jean-Luc Godard + Jean-Pierre Gorin: Five Films, 1968-1971,” viewers should be conversant with Godard’s entire body of work – from his criticism in Les cahiers du cinema to the experimental 3D narrative essay, Goodbye to Language (2014) – as well as films made by other directors impacted by the political upheavals of the 1960-70s. There are plenty of things here to admire, but they won’t be easy to find at first glance. And don’t bother looking for Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina or Jean-Pierre Léaud, either. After finishing Week End (1967), Godard turned his focus to issues raised by French students and workers in their failed insurrection. His intention was to create a new kind of film, or, as he put it then, “new ideas distributed in a new way” … “film is not a gun, but a light which helps you check your gun.” He embarked on a collaboration with the young Maoist critic and journalist, Jean-Pierre Gorin. Both as a two-person unit and as part of the loose collective, Groupe Dziga Vertov, they crafted new frameworks for investigating the relationships between image and sound, spectator and subject, cinema and society. How Mao Zedong might have reacted to the films his revolution inspired may never be known.

The five titles represented here were shot on 16mm film and today benefit from a high-definition digital transfer. They include: A Film Like Any Other (“Un film comme les autres”), an analysis of the social upheaval of May 1968, consisting of two parts, each with identical image tracks, but differing narration; British Sounds (a.k.a., “See You at Mao”), an examination of the daily routine on a noisy British auto factory assembly line, set against musings on class-conflict and “The Communist Manifesto”; Wind From the East (“Le Vent d’est”), a loosely conceived leftist-Western that moves through a series of practical and analytical passages, into a finale based around the process of manufacturing homemade weapons; Struggles in Italy (“Lotte in Italia”), a discursive reflection on a young Italian woman’s shift from political theory to political practice; and Vladimir and Rosa (“Vladimir et Rosa”), sharply satirical reports from the trial of the original Chicago Eight, presided over by a tyrannical Judge Himmler. Godard frequently overlaps the visuals with voice-over narrations and readings, challenging viewers to pay attention without losing track of the other. Nearly a half-century of hindsight on the tumultuous 1960s, collapse of the worker/student coalition, capitalization of communism in Russia and China, and Godard’s own return to narrative cinema, provides viewers with even more room for debate. The true blessing here, however, comes in knowing that these films, previously seen only in dupes and bootleg videos, are now readily available to buffs, scholars and aspiring cineastes. The set also contains, “A Conversation With JLG,” a wide-ranging interview with Godard, by Dominique Maillet and Pierre-Henri Gibert; an offbeat commercial for a well-known aftershave; individual analysis; and a100-page full-color book, containing English translations.

Basket Case: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Scalpel: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Of all the vintage movies you’d think would be accorded a 4K restoration by the Museum of Modern Art, Basket Case probably would be at the bottom of the list. Somehow, I’d managed to avoid seeing Frank Henenlotter’s midnight-movie mainstay, in any format, since its release in 1982. Admittedly, I once felt obliged to review the Blu-ray version of either Basket Case 2 (1990) or Basket Case 3: The Progeny (1991) – can’t remember which one … maybe both – but I kept putting off my date with the original. The release of Arrow’s Basket Case: Limited Edition provided the perfect excuse. It’s a hoot. Made on a shoestring budget, estimated to be around $35,000, Basket Case follows ordinary guy Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck) on a his very first trip from Upstate New York, to the Big Apple. He’s accompanied by his hideously deformed brother, Belial, who fits neatly in the wicker basket he carries around Times Square. Even before the first shocking reveal, viewers will have figured out that Belial and Dwayne were conjoined twins, separated against their will as young boys. Instead of dying, as expected, Belial managed to survive in a blob-like state. The boys were nurtured by their aunt and loved each other. After her death, the pair decided to locate and punish the hacks responsible for their botched separation. Complications arise when Dwayne warms to a pretty receptionist – despite a wig that doesn’t quite fit her head – and Belial’s jealousy kicks in from a distance. He lashes out at anyone in their fleabag hotel whose curiosity prompts them to lift the cover of the basket. Even by 1983 standards, Henenlotter’s special effects are laughably primitive: perfect for grindhouse parody, but suitably horrific for midnight crowds. If the writer/director had another million dollars to spend, Belial probably wouldn’t have been nearly as adorable. The MoMA’s 4K restoration is from the original 16mm negative and uncompressed mono audio. It adds fresh commentary with Henenlotter and Van Hentenryck; “Basket Case 3½,” a contemporary interview with “Duane Bradley”; “Seeing Double: The Basket Case Twins,” with Florence and Maryellen Schultz, the movie’s twin nurses; a new making-of featurette, containing interviews with producer Edgar Ievins, casting-director/actress Ilze Balodis, associate producer/effects artist Ugis Nigals and Belial performer Kika Nigals; “Blood, BASKET and Beyond,” with co-star Beverly Bonner; “Belial Goes to the Drive-In,” with film critic Joe Bob Briggs; outtakes; “In Search of the Hotel Broslin”; “Slash of the Knife” (1972), a short film by Henenlotter; “Belial’s Dream,” an animated short by filmmaker Robert Morgan; “The Latvian Connection”; “Basket Case at MoMA”; stills galleries; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sara Deck; and, first-pressing exclusive, a collector’s booklet with Michael Gingold. Henenlotter would go on to make two “BC” sequels, Brain Damage, Frankenhooker, Bad Biology and documentaries Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore, That’s Sexploitation! and Chasing Banksy.

Also from Arrow Films comes Scalpel, an obscure genre picture from 1977 that was marketed as horror, but more closely resembled a mashup of sci-fi, medical and Southern gothic conceits. At the time of its release, reconstructive plastic surgery was limited to victims of serious accidents, fires and combat wounds. Cosmetic surgery was reserved for celebrities whose vanity didn’t allow for imperfections. It explains the film’s opening scene, in which plastic surgeon Phillip Reynolds (Robert Lansing) is forced to defend his work as something other than quackery. Although he appears to live comfortably, Reynolds’ greed surfaces after learning that his daughter, Heather, has been bequeathed $5 million in her grandfather’s will. Peeved by the old man’s slight, he immediately plots his revenge. Heather (Judith Chapman) hasn’t been seen since she ran away from home, following the suspicious death of her boyfriend. The will stipulates that she collect the money in person and within six months of her grandfather’s death. All too conveniently, Reynolds is presented with a veritable godsend, in the person of young woman whose battered body he finds lying in the street, in front of his car. Jane Doe’s face had been used as a battering ram by the bouncer of a local nightclub, but there’s nothing wrong with the rest her. Anyone who’s seen more than one of these switched-identity dramas can predict what will happen in the ensuing 70 minutes, or so. Writer/director John Grissmer, in close collaboration with cinematographer Edward Lachman, finds several different ways to snatch Scalpel from the jaws of generic mediocrity. Likewise, the mossy Georgia locations were perfect for a movie with pretentions of being a Southern Gothic. Television veteran Lansing plays the crazed-by-greed card with great relish, while, as Heather/Jane, Chapman skillfully navigates the tricky twists of a double-double-cross. The Arrow package contains both the original, slightly tinted version of the film and a color-corrected update; commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith; new crew interviews; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by the Twins of Evil; and, first pressing only, a collector’s booklet with new writing on the film by Bill Ackerman. In 2015, Arrow released Grissmer’s only other directorial effort, Blood Rage (1987), in three differently edited versions. All of them starred Louise Lasser (“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”) as the frazzled mother of differently wired twin brothers, played by Mark Soper (“Knot’s Landing”). Sounds familiar.

Gate II: Return to the Nightmare: Blu-ray
The Sect: Blu-ray
The real joy in watching vintage titles in Blu-ray rejuvenations typically comes in discovering currently popular actors in roles they probably would love their fans to forget. Sometimes, their burden is lifted a bit by having changed names since breaking into the business. One of the stars of Gate II: Return to the Nightmare – the delayed sequel to Tibor Takács and Michael Nankin’s The Gate (1987) — is Pamela Segall, a talented actress whose voice, at least, is recognizable to fans of “King of the Hill,” “Bob’s Burgers,” “101 Dalmatians: The Series” and “Recess.” As Pamela Adlon, though, it’s her voice that’s instantly recognizable for her work in “Californication,” “Better Things” and collaborations with Louis C.K. While I initially failed to put a name to the face in Gate II, my curiosity prompted me to check its page. Sure enough … I wonder if anyone at Scream Factory asked Adlon/Segall if she would add her recollections to the bonus package. Gate II picks up a couple of years after a conduit to hell was opened in The Gate. Terry Chandler (Louis Tripp) re-summons the demons (a.k.a., minions) unleashed in the original, this time to grant his wish for his father’s return to sobriety. It isn’t until three of his acquaintances interrupt one of his conjuring sessions that everything begins to go haywire. What happens next demonstrates what can happen when the wishes of fools are granted, without regard for the consequences. A minion who bares a resemblance to Ray Harryhausen’s Cyclops is captured against its will and tormented by two of the teenage intruders. The next day, at school, Segall’s Liz apologizes to Terry and asks if she might join him in one of his sessions. Not surprisingly, things go absolutely bat shit when the minion’s larger and more violent relatives escape the underworld. The Blu-ray adds “Return to the Nightmare: A Look Back at Gate II,” with director Takacs, screenwriter Nankin and special-visual-effects creator Randall William Cook, and “From the Depths.”

For me, the surprise revelation in The Sect (a.k.a., “The Devil’s Daughter”) comes in learning that the pretty young teacher, who discovers a cistern in the basement of her new home that leads to hell, is the sister of Jamie Lee Curtis. Not only was Kelly Curtis born two years earlier than her scream-queen sister, but she’s also three inches taller, frequently asked to go blond and hasn’t acted in nearly 20 years. There’s nothing wrong with her performance here, so it’s possible to surmise she grew tired of chasing bit parts in television series … or saying “no” to producers asking her to join Jamie Lee in going topless. In The Sect, she stars as Miriam, an American teacher relocated to a part of Germany plagued by a satanic cult that murders and tears out the hearts of anyone who betrays it. One afternoon, Miriam accidentally hits an elderly pedestrian, Moebius (Herbert Lom), standing in the middle of the road. Inexplicably, Mariam takes him to her house to recuperate. Moebius takes the opportunity to drug her and implant a “hallucinogenic insect” in her nostril … a what?. Soon, Miriam’s life is taken over by nightmares, involving a diabolical cult leader, Damon (Tomas Arana), her pet rabbit and a dark well filled with mystical water. It was directed by Michele Soavi (The Church); written and produced by Dario Argento (Suspiria); and scored by Pino Donaggio (Dressed to Kill). The package adds enjoyable interviews with Arana and Soalvi.

Black Eagle: Special Edition: Blu-ray
When this straight-to-video actioner was released in 1988, fans of martial-arts flicks couldn’t possibly have known that the second-banana who nearly steals the show from reigning ninja enforcer, Sho Kosugi, would soon become famous as “The Muscle From Brussels.” Jean-Claude Van Damme was only five years removed from a successful kick-boxing campaign and wasn’t even ready to decide how he wanted his name to be spelled in credit rolls. Director Eric Karson (The Octagon) was called in at the last moment to salvage Black Eagle, for which Kosugi (Enter the Ninja) was the primary draw. Kosugi’s Ken Tani is an all-purpose CIA operative who’s called to Malta from Afghanistan, where he was fighting with the mujahideen against Soviet troops. When an American F-111 Aardvark, equipped with a new laser-guidance system, crashes into the Mediterranean, it attracts the attention of Soviet spies in the area. The CIA has already wasted one undercover agent in its efforts to thwart the enemy and calls in Tani to send the Russkies’ trawlers back to their Black Sea ports. Now, here’s where Black Eagle begins to go sideways: Tani refuses to accept the assignment, unless he’s allowed to salvage a promised vacation with his sons, by having the agency bring them to Malta. In doing so, the CIA is giving Tani an opportunity to split his time battling KGB agents – including JCVD’s ripped-and-ready Andrei – and hanging out with the two boys. Nothing could go wrong with that scenario, right? While Kosugi and Van Damme come together three times in hand-to-hand combat, the skirmishes are far too brief and made to look curiously even-handed. That’s because neither fighter would agree to being outmatched by the other on screen, even though the elder was the film’s designated fight coordinator. In an interview included in the package, Karson recalls having to split them up when things became too spirited between them. Even so, JCVD demonstrated his ability to perform splits while fighting and showing off for a pretty Soviet attaché, during a knife-throwing competition. His ability to perform lightning-fast kicks was also on display. Clearly, he was a star waiting to be born. Kosugi’s fine, as well, but their fighting disciplines don’t quite match up. Subsequently, their scenes together feel artificially short. It might have been fun to watch the slinky CIA babysitter (Doran Clark) engage in a Cold War cat fight with her hot KGB counterpart (Dorota Puzio), but, alas, it wasn’t to be. Tani’s sons are played by Kosugi’s real-life offspring, Shane and Kane. The package offers a 93-minute theatrical version and 104-minute uncut extended version of the film, deleted scenes, a collectible mini-poster and featurettes, “Sho Kosugi: Martial Arts Legend,” “The Making of Black Eagle,” “Tales of Jean-Claude Van Damme” and “The Script and the Screenwriters.”

The Hallelujah Trail: Blu-ray
Birdman of Alcatraz: Blu-ray
Five on the Black Hand Side: Blu-ray
Great Balls of Fire!: Blu-ray
There are a few good reasons to check out Olive Films’s Blu-ray edition of The Hallelujah Trail (1965), but none of them include watching Burt Lancaster and Lee Remick struggle in their attempts to lampoon Old West clichés embedded in the firmament of Hollywood mythmaking. Neither is well-suited for the assignment. Employing a faux-documentary format to crack wise on what’s clearly a parody – albeit, one photographed in Ultra Panavision 70 format – the 165-minute roadshow attraction almost negates John Sturges’ previous contributions to the genre in The Magnificent Seven (1960), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) and Escape from Fort Bravo (1953). Almost, but not quite. Considering that the Mirisch Corporation and United Artists also were able to lure screenwriter John Gay (Separate Tables), cinematographer Robert Surtees (Ben-Hur), costume designer Edith Head (The Sting) and composer Elmer Bernstein (Thoroughly Modern Millie), it’s safe to say that Sturges was rewarded handsomely for making The Hallelujah Trail look like the real deal, at least. They earn their pay. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to excuse the film’s typically hideous portrayals of Native Americans – Martin Landau and Robert J. Wilke play Chief Walks-Stooped-Over and Chief Five Barrels – and demeaning take on Remick’s followers in the women’s-temperance movement. Lancaster and Jim Hutton’s cavalry leaders have been assigned the task of ensuring safe passage of a wagon train full of whiskey through Indian Country, to Denver. Brian Keith plays the greedy businessman who’s financed the delivery to taverns expected to run dry before winter. If that happens, the region’s miners could pull up their stakes and leave. Remick and Pamela Tiffin conspire against the wagons full of “demon rum” reaching Denver, while the Indians, of course, can’t wait to hijack the cargo of “fire water.” Dust storms and a strike by Irish Teamsters further complicate the proceedings. Hilarity ensues … not. I wonder if Mel Brooks was inspired by The Hallelujah Trail’s many miscues to make his infinitely more entertaining Blazing Saddles. If so, Sturges’ efforts weren’t in vain.

Lancaster fared far better in his portrayal of convicted murderer Robert Franklin Stroud, in John Frankenheimer’s Birdman of Alcatraz, also part of this month’s dispatch from Olive. If its portrayal of the surly amateur ornithologist stretches artistic license nearly to the breaking point – the movie should have been called “Birdman of Leavenworth” — the inaccuracies probably wound up helping a half-century’s worth of tour guides and shuttle-boat captains make their livings off tourists anxious to get a close look at the long-shuttered penitentiary. The Motion Picture Academy did its part by bestowing nominations on Lancaster, Telly Savalas, Thelma Ritter and cinematographer Burnett Guffey. The answer to the key question left unresolved in the movie – Why wasn’t Stroud, whose research was widely respected outside the prison, released on bail after 54 years in stir? – might have made him a far less sympathetic character than Lancaster’s performance allowed. (The star later claimed that authorities were concerned he might sexually abuse children.) Convention also dictated that Karl Maulden’s “Warden Harvey Shoemaker” be drawn as a composite of several different wardens that Stroud knew. None of that detracts from Birdman of Alcatraz’ inherent value as a vehicle for entertainment or Alcatraz’ appeal as a Bay Area landmark. For those unfamiliar with Lancaster’s star quality, it should prove to be a revelation, leading to sampling such triumphs as Elmer Gantry, From Here to Eternity, The Train, The Leopard, Atlantic City and Local Hero. Audio commentary is provided by Kate Buford, author of “Burt Lancaster: An American Life.”

Upon its release in 1973, Oscar Williams and Charlie L. Russell’s politically charged family dramedy Five on the Black Hand Side was all-too-conveniently lumped together with other blaxploitation flicks. While that approach might have seemed appropriate from a marketer’s point-of-view, it failed to account for the film’s absence of exploitative material – violence, nudity, vilifying “the Man” — and a willingness to find common ground between mainstream black parents and their dashiki-wearing children. Because it was adapted from Russell’s off-Broadway play, which launched in 1969, a certain stagebound quality seeped into the settings and performances. A tight budget couldn’t have helped, either. (Tyler Perry’s early career was likewise built on theater pieces recorded, as is, for instant adaptation to film. Williams’ direction is far more relaxed than Perry’s ever was, allowing for stage settings in a realistic apartment, the building’s roof, a barber shop and beauty parlor.) Leonard Jackson plays the domineering head of a middle-class African-American family. His home is his castle and his wife, son and daughter are his vassals. He’s only able to let down his hair, so to speak, at the barber shop, where he resents Black Power advocates in his chair and working alongside of him. After being handed a list of demands ahead of their daughter’s wedding, his wife (Clarice Taylor) is talked into compiling a list of her own, as well as adopting a new, more empowered look and attitude. Naturally, he bristles at her effrontery. It inspires her friends to lead a boycott of the shop, which is targeted more at the patrons’ wives than the barbers themselves. It remains an open question as to whether he’ll agree to compromise before the African-style wedding. If the ending feels a bit too pat, it serves well as a theatrical crowd-pleaser.

It may surprise casual fans of rock and country music to learn that Jerry Lee Lewis is still alive and kicking. As proof, the living legend was among the celebrities asked to share their condolences and admiration for evangelist Billy Graham, who died last week, at 99. “Billy was a great man that I admired, loved to watch when I had the chance, and always enjoyed talking the Bible with him,” said the man alternately known as “The Killer” and “rock & roll’s first great wild man.” In fact, his gospel roots run deep. Well before Lewis auditioned for Sun Records, in Memphis, his mother enrolled him in Southwest Bible Institute, in Waxahachie, Texas, so that he would be exposed exclusively to God’s music, as opposed to that favored by the devil. After he played a boogie-woogie rendition of “My God Is Real” at a church assembly, however, Lewis’ association with the school promptly ended. In Jim McBride’s wildly uneven, if frequently engaging biopic, Great Balls of Fire!, Lewis (Dennis Quaid) visits his evangelist cousin, Jimmy Swaggart (Alec Baldwin), who cautions that his real choice is between heaven and hell. “Well, if I’m goin’ to hell,” he says, “I’m gonna go playing the piano.” The movie doesn’t take viewers much farther than 1959, after his first hit records and shocking third marriage to his “first cousin twice removed,” Myra Gale Brown, well played by Winona Ryder. Lewis would survive the boycotts and lost income from cancelled concerts and plummeting record sales. He enjoyed several comebacks and re-discoveries by new generations of artists, even as his over-the-top behavior continued. That movie is still waiting to be made.

Milos Forman’s cinematic interpretation of the groundbreaking Broadway musical, “Hair,” holds up surprisingly well after 40 years … 50, if you include the original production. Originally billed as “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical,” it can be enjoyed today as a vehicle for nostalgia or as a wistful period fantasy. Most of the songs are still fun to sing out loud, alone in the shower or in a car, as well. Forman’s achievement in Hair, the movie musical, is redirecting the viewer’s point-of-view to that of Claude Hooper Bukowski (John Savage), a stranger in a strange world, prepared to die in a senseless, unwinnable war, even after being introduced to marijuana, LSD, free love, midnight swims in Central Park and other stimulants suited to a reconsideration of bred-in-the-bone patriotism. At the time of the film’s 1979 release, the Vietnam War was long over; LSD and marijuana had given way to more addictive drugs; no one wore headbands or bellbottoms, anymore; and Ronald Reagan’s ascent to the presidency was a foregone conclusion. The squares were in control of the country and the counterculture was thoroughly corrupted by Wall Street and Madison Avenue interests. Hair’s potential for success couldn’t be taken for granted. Unlike so many other adaptations of Broadway productions, Hair didn’t feel stagebound or cramped by space and time. Forman opened it up by tinkering with key plot points, eliminating songs from the Broadway score, changing the order in which they’re performed, and adding up-and-coming actors to a production that, on stage, only required great voices. (Several of the songs are lip-synched in the movie.) Twyla Tharp’s choreography is worth the price of a rental, itself. For some reason, Olive is sending out Hair as a DVD, which looks darn good, but isn’t Blu-ray. Oddly enough, it’s still rated PG, despite the prevalence of sex, drugs, rock-’n’-roll and some nudity. It isn’t anything that anyone over 13 hasn’t seen in movies, video games and real life, but newcomers should be aware of the ratings quirk.

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: 4K UHD/HDR
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life: 4K UHD/HDR
It will be interesting to see how fans of the first two “Tomb Raider” movies react to Alicia Vikander assuming the role previously played by Angelina Jolie, whose outward appearance is completely different than that of the lithe Swedish Oscar-winner (The Danish Girl). The heroine of the video-game series has had her look and background altered several times in the last 20-plus years, so it isn’t likely gamers will mind Vikander’s presence … if they even bothered to attend the movies. Anyone who wants to be reminded of Jolie’s interpretation, before checking out Roar Uthaug’s reboot, is invited by Paramount to pick up Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life in their 4K UHD/HDR iterations. In the 2001 original, the voluptuous protagonist was introduced as a character born into wealth and provided with the best education. She travels the world in search of priceless gems, lost crypts and long-forgotten empires. In the movies, both of Lara’s parents have died and she doesn’t appear to have any firm allegiances, except to herself. In the original, she competed with the Illuminati to join the halves of the Triangle of Light, before all hell breaks lose in the solar system. In “The Cradle of Life,” Lara reluctantly joins forces with an old flame (Gerard Butler) after she loses control of a glowing orb, once owned by Alexander the Great, to the acquisitive leader a Chinese crime syndicate. The orb holds clues to the whereabouts of Pandora’s Box, which, we learn, is hidden inside the Cradle of Life, somewhere in Africa. It is protected there by cryptids – Bigfoots — that appear in and out of wet patches on dead trees. It’s there she will do battle with a nasty bioterrorist (Ciarán Hinds), who wants to rule the world. The combination of action, fantasy, sci-fi and sex appeal made some money for the studio, before Jolie decided to exit the franchise. In the reboot, Warner Bros. is hoping that Vikander will capture the same lightning in a bottle as Gal Gadot did for Wonder Woman.  It is primarily based on the 2013 video game of the same name by Crystal Dynamics. The Blu-ray versions that accompany the 4K disc contain the same bonus features that came on earlier editions.

The Coming War on China
If the continuing controversy surrounding control of the Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea, doesn’t ring a bell, you may want to spend a few minutes of Internet time familiarizing yourself with the situation. If the ITV documentary, The Coming War on China, is to be believed, this largely submerged chain of 100 small islands, atolls, shoals and coral reefs could become the flashpoint for World War III. In 2013, China began a concerted effort to establish artificial islands throughout the Spratly archipelago, prompting a momentary frenzy among American media outlets, otherwise transfixed by the comings and goings of the Kardashian family. According to the CIA’s handy “World Factbook,” the islands are strategically located near several primary shipping lanes in the central South China Sea. They’re surrounded by rich fishing grounds and, potentially, gas and oil deposits. Here’s the rub, the Spratlys are claimed in their entirety by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, while portions are claimed by Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. Small numbers of military forces from those countries occupy 45 of the islands. The United States and the Philippines have forged three treaties that could force a direct confrontation with China. In The Coming War on China, writer/director John Pilger (The War You Don’t See) reminds viewers that this situation escalated under the watch of then-President Barack Obama. Ironically, he argues, the winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize presided over a massive increase in nuclear spending and a strategic “pivot to Asia” that someday could force China’s hand. His successor, Donald Trump, has chosen to turn Americans’ attention to North Korea, a pipsqueak nation that only recently developed a nuclear threat of its own. If it seems odd that our trading partners in China haven’t shown much interest in containing their communist neighbor, Pilger uses charts, maps and data to illustrate how Obama managed to slip a noose around the massive country. The noose is comprised of hundreds of U.S. military sites – large and small, official and clandestine — stretching from Japan, South Korea, Guam and Okinawa, to Australia, India and Burma.

Kim Jong-un knows that the U.S. could destroy his country in a heartbeat, but he’s betting it won’t tighten the rope on its neighbor, a country that we couldn’t defeat in a land war or in a financial standoff. Still, with a president as unpredictable and temperamental as Donald Trump at the controls, anything’s possible. The Coming War on China offers a perspective on U.S./Chinese relations gleaned from history dating back nearly 200 years, to the Opium Wars, Chinese Exclusion Act, Boxer Rebellion, the Yellow Peril and recognition of Taiwan over the PRC. Pilger points to a letter written to President Harry Truman by revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, promoting trade and other common interests. Like a similar telegram sent in 1946 from anti-colonial leader Ho Chi Minh — requesting the assistance of the U.S. government in its negotiations with France – it was ignored. Apparently, a unified Asia inspired by Jeffersonian principles was a greater threat to post-war American imperialism than seeing a handful of individual countries go red. Truman convinced himself that any threat could be contained with military action, the threat of an atomic holocaust and the help of officials corrupted by American greenbacks. The strategy might have succeeded if those dollars had been channeled directly into the hands of the peasantry, instead of tyrants and their wives. China and Vietnam, while still technically communist, have found ways to make capitalism work for them. The Coming War on China was filmed over a two-year span, at five potential hotspots in Asia and the Pacific, using rare archival footage and remarkable interviews with witnesses who aren’t always aware of their foot being in their mouth. These include former residents of Bikini Atoll, where the U.S. tested weapons of mass destruction, with little regard for their future well-being. Today, across the bay from a resort-like American outpost in the Marshall Islands, three generations of survivors live in abject poverty and squalor, battling the lingering effects of radiation poisoning. Military administrators have known about the problems faced by residents of the survivors’ colony for many years and, while acknowledging their urgency here, admit to Washington’s refusal to fix any of them. On Okinawa, a citizenry outraged by rapes committed by U.S. forces stationed there has demanded more input into who’s in control of the island. Pilger uses interviews with less-than-credible Pentagon war planners, scholars, analysts and members of the PRC’s new political class to inform viewers of the fragility of our China policy and growing dependence on a first-strike nuclear solution.

Copyright Criminials: The Funky Drummer Edition
Even though Benjamin Franzen’s Copyright Criminals: The Funky Drummer Edition originally aired in 2010 on PBS’ “Independent Lens,” the documentary doesn’t look or sound remotely outdated in 2018. It asks the question central to the decades-long argument over what differentiates “sampling” — borrowing lyrics or riffs from already recorded music – from outright theft, especially as practiced by hip-hop artists. The debate began in the 1950s, when white singers recorded sanitized versions of early rock, blues and R&B hits – “Hound Dog,” “Tutti Frutti” and “Ain’t That a Shame” being prime examples – and continued through the 1960-70s, when George Harrison and Led Zeppelin were accused of conscious and unconscious plagiarism. When rap and emceeing transitioned to the more melodic hip-hop, emerging artists were largely forgiven for paying homage to their forebears by borrowing riffs, upon which they built songs of their own. When hip-hop no longer could be dismissed as a fad, and digital technology emerged as an enabling force, the original creators decided that it was time for them to be paid for their contributions. Rick James sued MC Hammer for sampling and repeating the prominent opening riff of “Super Freak,” in “U Can’t Touch This,” while former Turtles Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman went after De La Soul for appropriating a 12-second segment from “You Showed Me,” for use on “Transmitting Live From Mars.” As the title suggests, Copyright Criminals: The Funky Drummer Edition puts a tight focus on Clyde Stubblefield (James Brown’s drummer and “the world’s most sampled musician”), as well as commentary by another highly sampled musician, funk legend, George Clinton. Franzen maintains a balance between the creative and legal sides of the recording industry, while offering plenty of instructive examples. The double-DVD includes “The Art of Sampling With Cee-Lo Green,” “The Funky Drummer in the Studio With Chuck D,” “Eclectic Method Uncut Audio-Visual Remixes,” “Fair Use Explained: Four Featurettes by the Center for Social Media,” extended interviews with Chuck D, De La Soul and Clyde Stubblefield and lots of other goodies.

PBS: American Masters: Tyrus
PBS: Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities
PBS: Dinosaur Train: Big Pond Adventures
Smithsonian: Designing Dogs
In any discussion about the contributions of Asian immigrants to American culture – the creation of an Asian-American History Month, perhaps — the story of Tyris Wong would be of foremost interest. Like so many others, it begins in poverty in post-dynastic China and his uncertain status upon arrival at Angel Island, due to the still-enforced Asian Exclusion Act. He traveled with his father across the Pacific – forever leaving his mother and sister behind — but was stuck on the island by himself for months. Finally, he was summoned by his father to Sacramento and, later, Los Angeles, where Wong’s innate artistic talent rose to the surface and he was encouraged to enter an arts programs. He found work at Disney Studios, where his lush pastels and naturalistic brush strokes were put to good use on Bambi. (Next time you watch the movie with kids, focus on the impressionistic backdrops inspired by classical Song Dynasty art.) In the wake of the bitter 1941 animators’ strike, which lasted five weeks, Wong was fired from Disney. Although credited as one of several background illustrators, his full contribution to the film went largely unacknowledged for several decades. After leaving Disney, Wong worked for Hallmark Cards and Warner Brothers Studios, as a production illustrator, until his retirement in 1968. Wong’s passion for art and design kept him busy for the remaining 48 years of his life. He built, painted and flew kites, while also adding his signature strokes to plates, ceramics, posters and menus. It’s truly beautiful work. Pamela Tom’s intimate 2015 documentary, “Tyrus” – broadcast as part of PBS’ “American Masters” series – emphasizes his ability to bridge cultures through art, without ignoring the forces of racism that tried, but failed to hold him down.  It ends with a welcome, if belated celebration of Wong’s contributions to Disney, with an exhibit of his paintings. Featurettes include “Tyrus Visits Angel Island,” where he discovered wall carvings made during his forced stay there, and “Tyrus and His Artwork.”

Last February, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos caused a social-media panic – one of several prompted by members of President Trump’s clown-college Cabinet – with a statement she released after meeting with several presidents of historically black colleges and universities. If she had watched the PBS special, “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” DeVos could have avoided the controversy. In her statement, she praised them for being “real pioneers when it comes to school choice. … They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.” While that might be a demonstrable point of view, De Vos failed to acknowledge how little choice has been accorded several generations of African-American students when it came to earning diplomas and launching meaningful careers. She ignored the fact that it wasn’t until the early 1960s that blacks were able to attend institutions of higher learning in the South and, in some cases, the court orders could be only implemented with the positioning of U.S. marshals and National Guardsmen on the campuses. It would take several more years for Southern colleges to recruit black athletes or even compete against schools that fielded an African-American player. The first students to break the color barriers had to demonstrate great courage and be of impeccable character. Scholarships were difficult to come by, as well. Before the Civil War, only three black colleges were established, and they were sponsored by Northern churches. Several more came on line after the conflict, but it wasn’t until the Second Morrill Act of 1890 that 17 segregated states were required to establish a separate land-grant college for blacks, if they were being excluded from the state’s existing land-grant college. In 1944, the United Negro College Fund was incorporated to raise and provide funds for scholarships at 37 private HBCU institutions. Since adopting the motto, “A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” more than $2.2 billion has been raised and more than 350,000 minority students have graduate from the schools. The PBS Black History Month special should be considered required viewing for incoming education secretaries, as it examines the impact these institutions have had on American history, culture and national identity. As filmmakers Stanley Nelson & Marco Williams assert, “These institutions have nurtured some of the most influential Americans of our time, from Booker T. Washington to Martin Luther King, Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois to Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison to Oprah Winfrey, Alice Walker to Spike Lee to Common. … HBCUs were also a place of unprecedented freedom for African American students and a refuge from the rampant racism that raged outside the campus walls.”

In “Dinosaur Train: Big Pond Adventures,” PBS Kids invites viewers 3 to 6 years of age to “dive into eight action-packed adventures at the Big Pond. with the Pteranodon family. Watch Buddy and Tiny work together to catch fish, find out what happens when Mr. Pteranodon and Larry accidently miss the last train home, and see Buddy and Don discover fossilized tracks that are millions of years old.” The Jim Henson Company production allows kids to apply scientific thinking, while discovering new types of dinosaur species, compare and contrast dinosaurs to today’s creatures and embrace the living sciences of paleontology and natural science.” The set is 88 minutes long.

Like the animators at Disney/Pixar, average folks have been cross-breeding dogs for centuries, not always on purpose. Humane Society kennels are full of mutts and other mixed-breeds cast-offs that ceased to impress their owners at one stage of their development or another. The Smithsonian presentation, “Designing Dogs,” chronicles the never-ending search for the perfect canine and looks at the world of hybrid, purebred and rescue dogs. These animals represent crosses between two purebred dogs of different genetic backgrounds. One of reasons people are drawn to purebreds is to assure that common traits are passed down to subsequent generations of the breed. Hybrids can be a bit of a crap shoot, with some characteristics transferred and others lost. By now, potential owners of hybrids have a pretty good idea of how the dogs will turn out and if they will match their vision of canine perfection. Puggles, Schnoodles, Yorkipoos, Labradoodles and Pomchis are popular now, but there are dozens of other cross-breeds, with names that run the gamut from descriptive to fanciful to ridiculous.

The DVD Wrapup: Florida Project, Daddy’s Home 2, The Hero, Thirsty and more

Wednesday, February 21st, 2018

The Florida Project: Blu-ray
Until the mass migration by white middle- and working-class Americans to the suburbs after World War II, one of the most enduring themes in American culture was the depiction of poor and hunger people struggling to survive in the shadow of great wealth and luxury. In one of his best-remembered bits, Lenny Bruce wondered how Moses and Jesus would react if, during a surprise visit to New York, they stopped at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where then-Cardinal Francis Spellman was conducting Mass. “Christ says to Moses, ‘We went through Spanish Harlem, where there were 40 Puerto Ricans living in one room. What were they doing there, when this man has a ring worth $10,000?” Today, the homeless are found sleeping in the parks and under bridges in major cities from San Francisco to Manhattan, smf in the doorways of boutiques, salons and restaurants that cater to one-percenters. In most cases, the social safety net extends no further than the city limits. Look closer, though, and pockets of need can be found in the darnedest places. In 1964, Walt Disney World Company surreptitiously began acquiring the parcels of land around Orlando for what was then dubbed the Florida Project. Uncle Walt wanted to create a recreational mecca for the Americans – an estimated 75 percent of the population — who lived east of the Mississippi River and rarely visited Disneyland. He also wanted that property to be buffered from the same clutter and commerce that had attached itself to the original Disneyland like remora fish to a shark. The virtual moat would have to be wide enough to force visitors to pay for gas, lodging, food and souvenirs from companies licensed by Disney. And, for a while, he was successful. The moat couldn’t hold forever, though. By setting his closely observed humanist drama, The Florida Project, within the shadow of Disney World, Sean Baker (Tangerine) describes how a community of homeless, underemployed and frequently lawless single parents has taken root on one of the commercial strips leading into Uncle Walt’s greatest fantasy.

From its freshly painted lavender façade, tidy grounds and spacious parking lot, it would be as difficult for passersby to know what goes on inside the doors of the Magic Castle Inn & and Suites as it is for audiences during the first few minutes of The Florida Project. It doesn’t look like a welfare hotel, teeming with unattended kids, quick-buck artists and single moms who sometimes turn tricks to pay the rent, but that’s pretty much what it is. Kissimmee’s Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway is lined with low-rent hotels, trinket shops and fast-food restaurants that cater to tourists looking for bargains before heading into the park. The names of the hotels are close enough to legitimate Disney attractions that unsuspecting visitors aren’t likely to suspect that Florida welfare agencies also use them as temporary shelters for homeless families. Oscar-nominated Willem Dafoe plays Bobby, the conscientious manager of the Magic Castle, whose limits are frequently pushed by the kids’ shenanigans, as well as the bad behavior of their parents, which he monitors from a bank of video screens. Dafoe’s terrific, as always, but he’s forced to hold his own against child actors so irresistibly and convincingly mischievous – not harmless, but not evil, either – that viewers might have nightmares about them moving in next-door to them. As the film’s de facto protagonist, Mooney, 7-year-old Brooklynn Prince is a force of nature and as good a reason to rent or stream The Florida Project as Dafoe. When Baker envisioned the kids’ roles here, he flashed to the original Little Rascals, with Mooney stepping in for George “Spanky” McFarland and Darla Hood, depending on the situation. As hard as we try to empathize with Mooney’s mother, Halley — well-played by newcomer Bria Vinaite – she’s clearly trapped in a cycle of poverty” and could easily drag Mooney into it with her. You wouldn’t Halley to move in next to you, either. Even so, Baker refuses to abandon his characters to their own peculiar devices. There’s plenty of humor in The Florida Project, but it’s dark and kind of scary, too. The Blu-ray adds bloopers and outtakes, as well as a worthwhile collection of interviews.

Daddy’s Home 2: 4K UHD HDR
When the original Daddy’s Home grossed $150 million at the domestic box office and another $92 million in foreign sales, there was nothing any of the critics who hated it could do, except pray they wouldn’t have to review the inevitable sequel. The bro’s-will-be-bro’s comedy may not have been as despicable as others that tried and failed to replicate the riotous success of holiday staples Home Alone and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation – both written by John Hughes — but it didn’t come close to equaling previous work turned in by Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg. Sure enough, 23 months after the original was released, on December 25, 2015, came Daddy’s Home 2. Just as predictably, while the reviews were overwhelmingly negative, the picture performed just fine for Paramount. If it didn’t match the original’s box-office numbers here and abroad, the ratio of expenses to returns couldn’t have disappointed the studio. Even though my expectations for director Sean Anders and co-writer John Morris’ follow-up were pretty low, I was pleasantly relieved by the sequel’s energy and warmth, if nothing else. And, while I wouldn’t recommend it do anyone who hasn’t experienced the insanity that comes with Christmas with the kiddies, especially in families divided by divorce, it provides several legitimately funny moments. For those, I credit the addition of Mel Gibson and John Lithgow to the cast, as grandfathers with diametrically opposed personalities, and serving as counterweights to Ferrell and Wahlberg’s overly familiar schtick.

In the interim between original and sequel, former rivals Dusty and Brad have become good buddies, happily sharing custody of the children. Dusty has re-married, this time to a self-absorbed writer, Karen (Alessandra Ambrosio), with a worldly teen daughter, Adrianna. Brad, Sara (Linda Cardellini), Dusty and Karen attend a school play, where Megan (Scarlett Estevez) reveals to the audience that she doesn’t like bouncing between homes to celebrate the holiday twice. So, Brad and Dusty agree to do a “Together Christmas.” Grandparents Don (Lithgow) and Kurt (Gibson) arrive almost simultaneously at the airport, insinuating themselves into the festivities. Not thrilled with the setup, Kurt rents a cabin large enough to accommodate both broods. You can probably imagine how things will turn out from here and wouldn’t be far from wrong. To my mind, the best gag comes when Brad decides to impress the gang by cutting down the perfect “Together Christmas tree.” Naturally, he chooses a cellphone tower disguised to resemble an evergreen. In doing so, a jolt of electricity knocks him for a loop, sending his chainsaw flying dangerously through the air. After Dusty revives him, Brad is charged $20,000 for the destruction of the tower. They decide to use it, anyway. One thing leads to another and … oh, yeah, hunky John Cena arrives out of nowhere to rescue Adrianna from the nuthouse. The very decent 4K UHD is bundled with a separate Blu-ray, upon which the five rather short featurettes, a gag reel and deleted/alternate/extended scenes are contained.

Same Kind of Different as Me: Blu-ray
The Star: Blu-ray
Despite a cast and production values far superior to those typically found in faith-based movies, Same Kind of Different as Me didn’t come close to matching ticket sales for Heaven Is for Real, God’s Not Dead, Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie and The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything, among many others in the same genre. Any optimism inspired by hefty first-Friday audiences — enhanced by early group sales – diminished quickly after receipts for the following two days and weekend inexplicably plummeted.  I’d hate to think that fans of so-called Christian entertainment are less attracted to stories about redemption through community service and helping the homeless than to end-times dramas, silly cartoons, Medea and movies designed to re-affirm their own beliefs, but why else? If Jesus had tailored his message to attract Israelites who lived comfortably and didn’t mind the presence of Roman legions or money-changers in the temple, Christianity would probably have been a non-starter. Go figure. Here, Oscar-nominated Greg Kinnear (As Good as It Gets) plays wealthy Fort Worth arts dealer Ron Hall, who, after getting caught cheating on his wife, Deborah (Oscar-winner Renée Zellweger), elects to save his marriage by joining her in her ministry, which includes feeding the city’s homeless. They include a deeply embittered and violent former sharecropper, Denver Moore, played by two-time Oscar nominee Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond), who tests the faith of everyone around him. Rounding out the list of award-winners is Jon Voight (Coming Home), who, as Ron’s father, embodies the stereotype of the Texas good-ol’-boy bigot who loves his guns more than he does humanity.

The turning point of the movie comes when Deborah learns she has terminal cancer and will miss out on seeing the results of her good work at the church, soup kitchen and surrounding neighborhood. In 2006, Ron Hall and Denver Moore co-wrote a book, with Lynn Vincent, describing how Moore’s and the Halls’ life journeys intersected. They would go on to create similar ministries throughout the country and raise millions of dollars to feed and shelter the poor. Now, I’m not trying to say that the performances of the four major stars are Oscar quality here, but they are good enough to compensate for any miscues by freshman co-writer/director Michael Carney or in the adapted script by first-timers Alexander Foard and Hall. Even so, Same Kind of Different as Me is a highly inspirational, deeply personal and definitively Christian effort. The Blu-ray adds commentary, deleted and extended scenes, interviews and making-of featurettes.

By contrast, a CG-animated feature that recounts the Nativity from the point of view of the animals, including a pint-size donkey named Bo, did very well in its theatrical run. The Star takes the basic New Testament account and injects humor into the lead-up to the birth of Christ that apparently was sorely missing in the bible. In his first feature, Oscar-nominated Timothy Reckart (Head Over Heels) took a script that had been gathering dust at Henson Company since the late 1990s and turned it around in less than two years. In doing so, he decided to make the kind of spiritual, yet silly film that would be “accessible to a broader audience.” Huh? Bo (Steven Yeun), yearns for a life beyond his daily grind at the village mill. Finding the courage to break free, he teams up with Ruth (Aidy Bryant) the loveable sheep and Dave the wacky dove (Keegan-Michael Key). Along with three wisecracking camels (Tracy Morgan, Tyler Perry, Oprah Winfrey) and some eccentric stable animals, they follow the same star that’s leading the three wise men to Bethlehem. The Star is produced by Affirm Films, a company under Sony that produces and distributes mainly conservative Christian films. There must have been some real money behind it, because, in addition to the aforementioned actors, the voicing cast includes Gina Rodriguez, Zachary Levi, Kelly Clarkson, Anthony Anderson, Ving Rhames, Gabriel Iglesias, Patricia Heaton, Kristin Chenoweth and Christopher Plummer, and songs by Mariah Carey, Fifth Harmony, Kelsea Ballerini, Kirk Franklin and A Great Big World.

Nayak: The Hero: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
An Actor’s Revenge: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Satyajit Ray, one of the greatest of all 20th Century filmmakers, wrote and directed Nayak: The Hero towards the end of his early realist period, which began so auspiciously a decade earlier with The Apu Trilogy and The Music Room. If it isn’t considered to be one of his masterpieces, it still has plenty to offer lovers of the Indian cinema. The simplicity of its premise disguises the urgency of subplots dealing with the toxic adulation of celebrity, rise of feminism and persistence of the caste system on the subcontinent. In it, Bengali matinee idol Arindam Mukherjee (Uttam Kumar) is going by train from Kolkata to Delhi – a 24-hour trip, dictated by a lack of space available on planes – to receive a prestigious acting award (the only kind he’ll accept, anymore). During a respite from giving autographs to worshipful passengers, he’s approached by a magazine editor, Aditi (Sharmila Tagore), who’s pushed by a friend to seek an interview. The magazine is written, edited and published by women, without pandering to any fascination with movies and their stars. He’s amused by her lack of interest in his movies and invites her to tea. Arindam doesn’t agree to an interview, but, later, as he begins to warm up to her, she begin taking notes surreptitiously. Other well-heeled passengers playing key supporting roles are a wealthy businessman and his family; an ambitious advertising man, willing to pimp out his pretty wife to close a deal; an elderly former movie star, who disapproves of the trappings of fame; children, giddy over being in Arindam’s presence; and several overly solicitous attendants and waiters.

If Ray had been so inclined, he could have added a mysterious death and, instead, turned Nayak into an adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express,” called “Murder on  the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.” Instead, we’re allowed to observe what happens when Aditi gets under the star’s skin through pointed questioning, causing him to relive his past in sometimes painful flashbacks. They recall his early decision to sacrifice his ideals by turning his back on the theater; being deceived by a legendary actor in his prime; avenging the insult much later, when the same actor comes begging for a job; and allowing himself to be seduced by an aspiring actress, also seeking a part. Before the train pulls into the Delhi terminal, Arindam will be forced to look himself in the mirror and determine what, if anything, to take from his revelatory journey. In real life, both Kumar and Tagore were well-established actors, who’d probably grabbled with similar questions. The pristine Criterion Blu-ray adds a 2008 interview with Tagore; a new visual essay on Ray, featuring film scholar Meheli Sen; an essay by author Pico Iyer and a 1980 tribute to Kumar by Ray. By the way, anyone who discerns similarities between Nayak: The Hero and The Darjeeling Limited (2007) – including music in Wes Anderson’s soundtrack – should know that they are anything but coincidental.

Also from Criterion Collect this week, Kon Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge (1963) takes a completely different look at the art and agony of a revered thespian. The great Japanese actor Kazuo Hasegawa plays Yukinojo Nakamura, a popular oyama (a male actor who not only performs female roles, but also lives the female role offstage as well) in a 19th Century kabuki troupe. While in Edo, he chances upon an opportunity to avenge the deaths of his parents, who, 20 years earlier, were driven to insanity and suicide by a trio of greedy merchants. By coincidence, two of the three thieves are in the audience during his bravura performance, with the beautiful Namiji (Ayako Wakao), the daughter of their sickly compatriot. To exact his revenge, Yukinojo, who’s also a master swordsman, decides to seduce Namiji and get them to betray each other. Namiji is the shogun’s favorite concubine, but she falls for the burly oyama, nonetheless. He’s then befriended by an attractive man-hating pickpocket (Yamamoto Fujiko), who, likewise, has strong feelings for Yamitaro the Thief, who’s also played by Hasegawa. Yamitaro’s primary role here is to serve as an observer of Nakamura’s scheming and comment on it. Everything plays out on the extra-wide kabuki stage, which gives Ichikawa plenty of room to work his magic through brilliantly colorful visuals and spectacularly atmospheric false backgrounds. The fights are staged in kabuki fashion, as well. It’s worth noting that Ichikawa originally created An Actor’s Revenge as a tribute to Hasegawa on the occasion of his 300th film. It is based on Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Yukinojô henge: Daiippen dainihen, which, 30 years earlier, starred Hasegawa in the same dual role. Both were inspired by a garish newspaper serial, originally written by Otokichi Mikami and revised in 1965 by Ichikawa’s wife and frequent collaborator, Natto Wada. The Blu-ray sparkles, thanks to a 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; a 1999 Directors Guild of Japan interview with Ichikawa, conducted by critic and filmmaker Yuki Mori; the learned opinions of critic, filmmaker and festival programmer Tony Rayns; and an essay by critic Michael Sragow.

Last week, Andrey Konchalovskiy’s Holocaust drama, Paradise, was favorably reviewed in this space. Had I known that I’d be considering a movie by his younger brother so soon afterwards, I might have held off my thoughts for a few days. As is my wont, I enjoy pairing movies with common elements and the work of siblings easy qualifies. Konchalovskiy and Nikita Mikhalkov have separately enjoyed moments on the red carpets leading to the Academy Awards, Cannes, Venice, César, Golden Eagle and various other awards ceremonies. Mikhalkov is best known here for Burnt by the Sun (1994), Close to Eden (1991), Dark Eyes (1987) and A Slave of Love (1976). His latest period drama, Sunstroke, wasn’t shown here upon its release in 2014. It won a few Golden Eagle awards, in Russia, but nothing special. It is set in both 1907, while the sun still shone on the monarchy and the bourgeoisie, and 1920, at the height of the Red Terror, during which troops loyal to the Tsar were severely punished. Sunstroke opens at a makeshift prison compound, where officers have been told to wait patiently for Moscow’s decision regarding their fate. Most have come to believe that their Bolshevik captors fully intend to send them home in a few days. No one is being beaten or tortured – as has been reported in other camps – and there’s even time for a soldier with a camera to attempt a group portrait. The arrival of a stern female Bolshevik, dressed in black leather, suggests that those days are numbered.

Soon enough, Mikhalkov focuses our attention on a single prisoner, Poruchik (Martinsh Kalita), whose memory of better times takes us back to a leisurely steamboat trip, up the Volga, full of fancily dressed passengers and children having a grand old time. Poruchik’s uniform is as white as it good possibly be and his sword appears never to have been tainted by human blood. On the journey, he is struck dumb by the appearance of a mysterious beauty (Viktoriya Solovyova), listed in the credits merely as Strange Woman. Upon their arrival at the first major town, they depart the steamboat and enjoy a blissful night in each other’s arms. The next morning, she leaves him the vaguest of goodbye notes, before hopping on the first boat heading upriver. When Poruchik realizes that he’s been left high and dry, he spends the rest of the day in the company of a boy who knows his way around the docks and gives him hope of catching up with Strange Woman. It’s easily the most satisfying section of Sunstroke, even if it foreshadows the sadness to come. After flashing backwards and forward in time, the prisoners are told they will finally be allowed to leave, on a large less-than-seaworthy barge. Or, will they? Either way, Mikhalkov ties up past and present in a largely satisfactory way. The problem, however, is that the abrupt transitions leave too many of the other questions unanswered and plotlines hanging. The film looks gorgeous, however, and that has to count for something.

It wasn’t until I watched Thirsty all the way through that I realized the musical biopic – “post-queer musical biopic,” if you will – tells the real-life story of self-described “girly-boy” and drag entertainer Scott Townsend (a.k.a., Thirsty Burlington). Unlike many such performers, who lip-synch the songs of the women they’re impersonating, Burlington is a very capable singer. For as long as he can remember, Townsend’s favored his predominantly feminine side and, growing up, paid the price by being bullied unmercifully in the projects of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The only time his alcoholic mother (Deirdre Lovejoy) complained was when little Scott decided he would save himself some agony at school by cutting his long, black hair and eyebrows. She merely thought he’d done a sloppy job of it. From an early age, Townsend displayed a gift for singing showtunes (“Jesus Christ Superstar”) and pop songs by such kitschy artists as Captain & Tennille. Recognizing the lad’s untapped talent, an uncle invited Scott to join his group on the Jerry Lewis Telethon. After getting through one number without a problem, he alienated the crowd by assuming the female point-of-view in the follow-up.

The singer he was born to impersonate – in song, dress and makeup — was Cher … an iconic staple of every drag revue on the planet. It won him a place with a local troupe, as Thirsty, as well as a loyal following. The only stumbling block he faced early on came from his boyfriend’s desire for a manly-man lover, not one who preferred looking like a woman. Thirsty is enhanced by plenty of singing and dancing. Indeed, director Margo Pelletier cushions several of the early bullying scenes by modeling them after the fights in “West Side Story.”  Cole Canzano and Jonny Beauchamp, the young and teenage versions of Townsend, are quite convincing, as is Lovejoy. Clearly, though, Thirsty was made on the cheap and it suffers, as well, from a non-linear narrative. The DVD adds commentary, cast interviews, an “All That I Am” music video and Pelletier’s original storyboards. In Thirsty’s real act, she supplements Cher, with impersonation of Sonny Bono, Judy Garland, Little Edie Beale and Townsend’s own drag persona.

The Girl Without Hands: Blu-ray
Based on a lesser-known fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, The Girl Without Hands conveys more information with a few well-chosen brushstrokes than dozens of other animated features I’ve seen lately. Writer/director/cinematographer/editor Sébastien Laudenbach employs an economic, yet visually striking style, using characters and backgrounds painted on paper in bold calligraphic lines and unexpected colors. In an interview included in the package, he allows that the technique allowed him to complete the project in far less time than usual, while telling a fully realized story. As it goes, an impoverished miller sells his daughter to a shape-shifting Devil (Philippe Laudenbach) for an endless stream of gold. Protected by her purity, la jeune fille (Anaïs Demoustier) escapes, but only after her father cuts off her hands. Walking away from her family, she encounters the goddess of water, a gentle gardener and the prince (Jérémie Elkaïm), who brings her to his castle and impregnates her. The prince is away, at war, when the baby arrives, and the announcement sent to him is so muddled by the Devil’s handiwork that the mother feels forced to flee with her infant son to the distant mountains. She awaits heavenly intervention to overcome the Devil, praying it doesn’t come too late.

Rise of the Footsoldier: Part II
Just as Chicago’s infamous Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre inspired dozens of movies and television shows over the next 80-something years, the slaughter of three drug dealers on December 6, 1995, near the village of Rettendon, in Essex, has become part of British gangland lore. It’s known by various names, including the Rettendon Murders, Range Rover murders and Essex murders, while, by my count, inspiring nine separate film accounts, including prequels, sequels, spinoffs and rip-offs. Two local hoodlums were each given three life sentences for the murders, which they deny committing, with a recommendation that they serve a minimum of 15 years. There are three films in the Rise of the Footsoldier franchise. (Essex Boys and Bonded in Blood being the other two series.) The newly released second installment followed the original to DVD by eight years. It features the lone surviving member of the gangs, Carlton Leach (Ricci Harnett), has he tries to numb the pain of his friends’ loss through drugs and the desire for revenge. He’s also found a path to salvation that lies in climbing the ranks of the criminal underworld he had abandoned. Once at the top, he plans to use his power to destroy his friends’ killers once and for all. It’s easier said than done. I haven’t had to watch all nine films – thank God, for small favors – but the ones I have seen are hyper-violent, unpleasantly loud and probably not terribly accurate, none of which should discourage action junkies. I lost count of how many time the c-word is deployed, but it must be near 50. And, yes, I realize the word carries far more weight here than it does in England. Still, viewers with sensitive ears are forewarned. Besides starring in the first two of three “ROTFS” entities, Harnett directed and wrote this one.

Irish actress Valene Kane uses her cute overbite to its best advantage as a CIA whistleblower, Riley Connors, living in exile in Colombia. After two hard years, Riley’s old partner Bill Donovan (Charlie Weber) shows up with an offer she’s too gullible – they once were lovers — to refuse. If Kane helps the agency recover millions in ill-gotten money being laundered through Colombian banks, she’s told the agency will allow her to return to the U.S. with a clean record. While tracing the money’s paper trail isn’t difficult for Riley, she doesn’t foresee becoming a moving target for the criminals, corrupt agents and former boyfriend. It’s a pretty standard actioner that benefits from being shot on location in Colombia, but suffers from a tight budget. As straight-to-DVD movies go, it isn’t bad.

Doomsday Device
Previously known as “Pandora’s Box,” Doomsday Device went straight-to-Syfy in Australia and straight-to-DVD or VOD everywhere else. In it, an odd-couple pair of FBI agents are on the trail of several elusive crooks, who have stumbled upon an ancient Japanese artifact of enormous power. A rich businessman is willing to pay a fortune for it, so the agency puts the investigation on the front burner. When cops or rival crooks come close to taking possession of the box, whoever is holding it at the time opens the cover and unleashes a shitstorm of violent meteorological events. It’s at this point that I said, “Whoa!” That’s because the cloud spewing lightning bolts and molten boulders towards Earth looks exactly like doomsday clouds in the last half-dozen Syfy disaster flicks I’ve seen, including last month’s Shockwave. I expect better from my cheesy disaster pictures and so should you.

The DVD Wrapup: Ballad of Lefty Brown, Wonder, Blades, Seijun Suzuki, Fellini, Hellraiser, Paradise and more

Thursday, February 15th, 2018

The Ballad of Lefty Brown: Blu-ray
Hell or High Water: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
Set in the desolate plains of Montana, before the arrival of the railroad, The Ballad of Lefty Brown is an ode to the traditional revenge Western. When famed frontier lawman and Montana’s first elected senator Eddie Johnson (Peter Fonda) is brutally murdered – assassinated, to be precise — his longtime sidekick and friend, Lefty Brown (Bill Pullman), vows to avenge his death. The trouble is, Lefty is more than a tad over the hill and he’s outgunned by some ornery desperadoes. Along the way, he joins company with a boy (Diego Josef) infatuated with dime novels and ready to come of age as a man. As written, directed and produced by Jared Moshe (Dead Man’s Burden), The Ballad of Lefty Brown gets bogged down by too many diversions and lofty references to classic Western tropes. On balance, though, there’s more good reasons to pick up a copy of the Montana-set movie than wait until it turns on cable. They include David McFarland’s emotive wide-screen cinematography; Jonny Pray’s dead-on period costumes; Eve McCarney’s well-researched production design; and excellent supporting performances by Kathy Baker, Tommy Flanagan, Jim Caviezel and Joe Anderson. The best reason, though, is to watch Pullman, one of the most versatile and consistently interesting actors of his generation. In the last three weeks, alone, I’ve watched him play very different roles in Lefty Brown, Battle of the Sexes, Walking Out and LBJ, in which he played Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough. Two years ago, he played a President in Independence Day: Resurgence and will portray former New York Governor and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, in the upcoming Dick Cheney biopic, Backseat. What next, Pope?

It would difficult to find two less interchangeable terrains than those that provide the settings for The Ballad of Lefty Brown and Hell or High Water, and still be part of the same American west. The former takes place on the eastern edge of the northern Rockies, with rolling hills, blossoming clouds, spectacular vistas and badlands best traversed on horseback. The latter unspools several hundred miles due south, on land flat as a table top, with crystal blue skies and lonesome roads fit for high-speed getaways from bank robberies. The one thing both these fine Westerns – one traditional, the other modern — share is cowboy boots and hats, and looking great in hi-def. Now, David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water – one of the surprise hits of 2016 – has become available in 4K UHD, with Dolby Vision High Dynamic Range (HDR). It only makes a good thing great. A pair of brothers, one recently released from prison, goes on a spree, robbing banks for two completely different reasons. On their tail are the irresistibly cranky Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), and his laconic Native American partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), who, in a few weeks, will no longer be required to put up with the old man’s race-baiting and teasing. “HorHW” was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and Globe, as was Bridges and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. The nominations could just as well have gone to co-stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster. And, it’s well worth a second or third look in the new format. It accentuates Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography, which finds the beauty in a part of Texas – eastern New Mexico, to be precise — that it isn’t known for its scenery. The combo package adds special features, “Enemies Forever: The Characters of Hell or High Water,” “Visualizing the Heart of America” and “Damaged Heroes: The Performances of Hell or High Water,” footage from its red-carpet premiere and filmmaker Q&A.


Wonder: Blu-ray
Based on a best-selling novel of the same title, Wonder is the kind of heart-tugging drama that Hollywood does best, except when the geniuses decide that the source material can’t stand on its own merits and requires a bit more mawkish sentimentality to jerk audience tears. This is especially true of movies featuring children with birth defects, cancer or learning disabilities. Because Wonder’s central character, Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), has a congenital facial deformity so pronounced that he fears leaving home schooling behind and entering a regular middle school, it immediately recalls two movies that also got it right: David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980) and Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask (1985). Although Auggie’s disfigurement isn’t nearly as pronounced as the ones affecting the protagonists of those two movies, and probably wouldn’t have triggered the kind of bullying the boy endures at the prep school here, it makes the intended point. Auggie may be painfully shy – he wears an astronaut’s helmet whenever possible — but he’s also an excellent student, kind, generous and blessed with a wonderfully glib sense of humor. If, as Principal Tuchman (Mandy Patinkin) asserts, Beecher has a no-tolerance policy toward bullying, Auggie’s nemeses would have been expelled after the fateful post-Halloween hazing. Instead, it continues throughout the school year.

Co-writer/director Stephen Chbosky does a nice job maintaining an even keel here. The bullying never overwhelms the humanity built into the script and Tremblay isn’t required to play to the cheap seats to wring superfluous tears. There’s also plenty of room for Auggie’s parents and sister– Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic — to deal with their own issues, without injecting cheap melodrama into the mix. Most of the time, it doesn’t even look as if they’re acting. The PG-rating shouldn’t be perceived as an excuse for adults to avoid watching Wonder with their kids of middle-school age, and older. There’s nothing saccharine or soggy about it. As is generally the case whenever Hollywood tackles subjects that concern special-interest groups, Wonder took a bit of heat from activists for not casting an actor with a craniofacial disorder and neglecting to emphasize the fact that more harassment derives from social-media trolls and strangers than people in daily contact with the target. OK, but that’s not the point of the book and what’s in the movie, as made, beats the alternative, which is for Hollywood to ignore such issues, entirely. (When the outcry over blaxploitation grew too loud, the studios stopped making movies for African-American audiences and, by extension, hiring actors of color.) The Blu-ray adds a very good five-part making-of documentary; commentary with Chbosky and Palacio; two background featurettes; and a ”Brand New Eyes” music video.


Brotherhood of Blades II: The Infernal Battlefield: Blu-ray
Blade of the Immortal: Blu-ray
As I’ve mentioned previously, I don’t consider myself to be an expert on martial arts, Samurai and wuxia movies from the Pacific Rim nations, which is why I defer to experts as often as I do. Still, after watching dozens of genre pictures from the region in the last 10 years, I know what I like and am perfectly willing to learn from critics who specialize in them. That’s the case with Lu Yang’s Brotherhood of Blades II: The Infernal Battlefield. Most of the reviews I’ve read not only are wildly positive, but favorably compare the prequel to the original, as well. That must have come as a relief to everyone involved in “Blades II,” because a sequel to the original is said to already be on the drawing board. The trilogy would be patterned after the Infernal Affairs series. It starts in 1619, in the blood-soaked aftermath of a battle between united Manchurians tribes and the troops of the Ming dynasty. Shen Lian (Chang Chen) is one of the few survivors, and he saves the life of Lu Wenzhao (Zhang Yi), who is about to be beheaded. Eight years later, a few months before the events of the first film, Shen is now a captain of the elite imperial guards known as the Jinyiwei, and Lu is his friend and superior officer, spending much of his time groveling to the all-powerful eunuch, Wei (Chin Shih Chieh), for a promotion. When a government official is murdered, Shen is forbidden from investigating the crime. Instead, he is sent to assassinate dissident Bei Zhai (Yang Mi), an artist whose work he has been collecting. It doesn’t take long for him to uncover a conspiracy, for which, if successful, he will be blamed. Like any true warrior caught in a trap, Chen knows to trust his sword and fighting skills above anyone or anything else. Not surprisingly, the artist holds keys to the door leading to the truth. The story allows for much exciting swordplay, a compelling romance and intrigue. It benefits, as well, from beautiful locations and set design.

In 1991, Japanese auteur Takashi Miike saw the release of his first two features, both on video. If they’ve ever seen the light of day in the U.S., no one bothered to mention it to anyone at Amazon. That’s probably the case with most of the movies he’s directed in the ensuing 16 years. Based on the manga of the same title, Blade of the Immortal could hardly be a more appropriate way to turn the corner on his 100th credit. I wouldn’t say that it makes Sam Peckinpah, Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino look like pussycats, but we haven’t seen body counts like this since Flags of Our Fathers. We’re back in Japan’s shogunate period, when a samurai named Manji (Takuya Kimura) is severely wounded in a battle in which he’s the only man left alive. A disheveled crone comes from out of nowhere to salve his severed hand with Sacred Bloodworms of the Holy Lama. Not only do the worms serve their purpose by re-attaching the limb, but they make him immortal. It is, of course, both a blessing and a curse. Although wounds by swords, axes and arrows cannot kill him, Manji is forced to live with his past sins and continues to be tortured by the death of his little sister, Machi (Hana Sugisaki).

Fifty years later, Manji crosses paths with another young girl, Rin (also Sugisaki), who is a dead-ringer for Machi. (The character reminded some critics of 13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, in True Grit.) He agrees to teach Rin some tricks of the trade, so she can help him avenge her family’s death at the hands of master swordsmen Anotsu (Sôta Fukushi) and his band of killers, the Itto-ryu. There are plenty of other samurai looking for Anotsu, including another immortal and a kick-ass woman warrior (Chiaki Kuriyama), who favors brightly colored silk robes and platform shoes. The final showdown involves dozens, if not hundreds of samurai, with all sorts of exotic cutlery at their disposal. In short, Blade of the Immortal is a hoot. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and interviews. The bonus package includes the “Manji vs. 300” featurette, a Takuya Kimura interview, cast interviews and poster gallery.

Line 41
For decades, most of the great movies we’ve seen about World War II have focused on great battles, individual heroism and group sacrifice, primarily from the American and British point of view. Except for Adolph Hitler and the Nazi officers and functionaries introduced to us at the Nuremburg Trials, the soldiers, pilots and U-boat crews were compliant drones, easily manipulated by Der Fuhrer’s bombast and revenge for perceived injustices in the Versailles Treaty. The Japanese were even more faceless. Unlike their Axis partners, Japanese were depicted as being so loyal to their emperor that the did things westerners considered to be completely nuts, such as flying fighter planes armed with torpedoes into American ships and remain in hiding in caves until Hirohito personally alerted them to the war’s end. It was OK with the Pentagon, CIA and White House if Hollywood was limited in what filmmakers could show and tell audiences about how wars are fought and what American boys looked like after being fatally wounded or severely wounded. Images from the liberated death camps were widely distributed and horrific, of course, but thousands more were held back by military censors. In 1981, Das Boot broke new ground by forcing European and American audiences to stare at the faces of ordinary German sailors struggling with the likelihood of death. We sympathized with them, fully knowing Nazi wolf packs had killed thousands of Allied sailors. Even so, Lothar-Günther Buchheim, author of the 1973 anti-war novel upon which Wolfgang Peterson’s film was based, dismissed it as “another re-glorification and re-mystification” of the World War II U-boat war, German heroism and nationalism. He called the film a cross between a “cheap, shallow American action flick” and a “contemporary German propaganda newsreel from World War II.” Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was almost universally praised for its unflinching depiction of the hellish violence that greeted Allied forces on D-Day. Some groups were appalled by the graphic violence and sight of American boys lying on the beach in pieces or drowning from the weight of their backpacks. It forever changed the way filmmakers would depicts scenes of war and improvised triage units. For better or worse, the Internet has opened the floodgates on photographs and films long hidden from public view in archives, museums and private collections.

That’s a long way of saying that movies now arriving from Eastern Europe, especially, mostly forgo re-enactments of combat and, instead, tell highly personal stories of survival, resistance, cowardice and despair. Hardly a month goes by when my pile of DVDs to review doesn’t contain a half-dozen, of so, movies and documentaries about WWII. Paradise and Line 41 arrive from Film Movement, a distributor that routinely finds and releases such films. The Russian-German co-production Paradise tells the story of Olga (Yuliya Vysotskaya), a charismatic Russian countess, fashion editor and member of the French Resistance, into whose orbit two different Nazi monsters fall. The first, Jules, is a Vichy collaborator assigned to investigate Olga’s role in harboring Jewish children. She freely offers to trade sex for clemency, but Jules is killed before that can happen, perhaps by the Resistance. Olga is taken to an unnamed concentration camp, where the conditions are every bit as bad as the one in Son of Saul, but escape routes are non-existent. The newly arrived camp commandant, Helmut (Christian Claus), is an SS golden boy, assigned by Heinrich Himmler (Victor Sukhorukov) to end rampant theft and corruption. Before he became captivated by Hitler’s rhetoric, however, Helmut enjoyed a care-free, bourgeoise lifestyle and was a graduate student in Russian literature. He even met Olga while on vacation in Italy. Upon discovering that she was in the camp, he offers her a job cleaning his headquarters. Sexual favors are implied, but not shown. With the war nearing its end, Helmut knows that the promise of a “German Paradise” to which he was attracted isn’t likely to come to fruition. He could attempt to escape to Switzerland with Olga or avoid interfering in her fate. But Paradise is Olga’s movie and her future isn’t anyone’s business but her own. While Vysotskaya is clearing the drawing card here, Americans may be more impressed by the presence of co-writer/director Andrey Konchalovskiy on the list of credits. They’ll remember the Moscow native’s name from the English-language Maria’s Lovers (1984), Runaway Train (1985), Duet for One (1986) and Tango & Cash (1989), if not his Silver Lion Award for The Postman’s White Nights (2014) and Silver Lion-nominated House of Fools (2002), in Russian. Aleksandr Simonov’s monochrome cinematography also is worthy of attention. The DVD package adds Luka Popadic’s WWII-set short, “Red Snow” (2013).

Tanja Cummings’ debut documentary Line 41 serves as virtual companion piece to Marina Willer’s Red Trees, which was reviewed here a few weeks ago. In it, Willer traces a family’s journey as one of only 12 Jewish families to survive the Nazi occupation of Prague, finally settling in Brazil. She convinces her father that it’s finally time to return to the Czech Republic to help document their life before, during and after the war. In Cumming’s film. Holocaust and Lodz Ghetto survivor Natan Grossmann wasn’t so fortunate. His parents died during their arduous stay in the ghetto and he lost track of his brother, whose fate has haunted him ever since. For 70 years, Grossman repressed his desire to return to Poland to investigate the 1942 disappearance. Cummings follows him around modern-day Lotz, which still contains enough physical reminders of his life there to make Line 41 a frequently emotional experience. Along the way, Grossman meets people he knew as a boy and Jews who returned there after the war. What makes Line 41 stand out from other such docs, however, is the inclusion of Jens-Jürgen Ventzki, son of the former Nazi Head Mayor of Lodz and a true villain. Ventzki could hardly be more contrite, candid or helpful, as the investigation into his own family’s dark secrets overlap with Grossman’s efforts.

Federico Fellini’s Orchestra Rehearsal: Special Edition: Blu-ray
To get the most pleasure from Federico Fellini’s Orchestra Rehearsal, it’s important to put it into historical context. Don’t worry, it won’t take long. Released in 1978, its production followed the massive disappointment and headache that was Fellini’s Casanova, a movie he didn’t want to make about a character he didn’t like. Ironically, “Casanova” followed in the wake of Amarcord, a highly personal picture that wasn’t just admired by audiences and critics, it was cherished and still is. It’s important to recall, as well, the political climate of the times, especially in Italy. Any residual glow from the Italy’s Economic Miracle and la dolce vita period disappeared completely with the wave of kidnappings and violence that led to the assassination of Prime Minister Aldo Moro, by left-wing fanatics, and murder of director Pier Paolo Pasolini, either by the Mafia or right-wing homophobes. Anti-intellectualism was rampant, as was labor unrest. The disruptive force of the social and political turmoil informs Orchestra Rehearsal, as does Fellini’s appreciation of the healing power of music. Although it’s been rarely exhibited since its release, Orchestra Rehearsal continues to prompt lively debate among critics, academics and buffs. It stems from the belief that the film, which some consider to be a divertissement, represents the first time Fellini delivered a movie that takes an overtly political stand. At 71 minutes, Orchestra Rehearsal also begs the question as to whether it’s a long short or short feature. It’s supposed to look like a documentary made for television, which is where it was first shown, but the musicians are played by actors, who couldn’t play a lick.

Maybe, though, the best part about Orchestra Rehearsal is that it can be enjoyed simply for its distinctly Fellini-esque conceits, starting with the cavalcade of bizarre looking characters and faux-historic setting. Some of the musicians are happy to be interviewed, while others bristle after learning they won’t be paid for their input. Besides the general grumpiness on display, the musicians appear to take their work seriously and have strong opinions about the personalities of their instruments. The dialogue simultaneously makes wonderful sense and nonsense. The Conductor (Balduin Baas) is Germanic autocrat – perhaps, modeled after Herbert von Karajian – who berates the musicians every time he hears a false note. The musicians’ union rep is there to make sure they take every second of their allotted breaks, which, of course, further incenses the Conductor. (Fellini wasn’t a fan of union-mandated rules, either.) During lunch, while the Conductor is explaining his passion for music and sadness over the passing of the good old days, the musicians have worked themselves into an anti-authoritarian frenzy. Things get much crazier before the music finally soothes the savage beasts. Orchestra Rehearsal marks the last collaboration between Fellini and composer Nino Rota, who wrote all the scores for Fellini’s films from 1952 (The White Sheik) to 1978. Soon after providing Fellini with one of his most beautiful themes, Rota died. The Arrow Films package is enhanced by a 2K restoration from original film elements and a 1.0 mono sound; Richard Dyer’s comments on Rota and the collaborations; “Orchestrating Discord,” a visual essay on the film by Fellini biographer John Baxter; a gallery featuring rare press material on the film from Don Young’s Felliniana collection; a reversible sleeve, featuring two original artwork options; and an illustrated collector s booklet, with new writing by Adrian Martin.

Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years, Volume 1: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
The marketing tagline for this wonderful collection of genre features by Seijun Suzuki, from his tenure at Nikkatsu’s B-movie factory, is: “Youths On The Loose And Rebels Without Causes In The Unruly Seishun Eiga Youth Movies of Japanese Iconoclast Seijun Suzuki.” And, that sums it up pretty well. In a 2016 essay for the Japan Times, Mark Schilling explains why these and other “youth films” found audiences at home but didn’t find outlets in the west. “With only a few exceptions, these films assume a familiarity with the insular world of the Japanese high school … that outlanders are unlikely to possess, with unrequited crushes on indifferent or abusive guys, that don’t translate smoothly to London or Los Angeles.” Or, perhaps, western audiences had already been inundated with what were then known as juvenile-delinquent movies, (By 1961, they were made passé by West Side Story.) Suzuki must have studied James Dean’s three features, because his ghostly presence is palpable throughout the genre quintet, only now making their home-video debuts outside Japan. Who could have blamed him? Eventually, Suzuki’s reputation would spread beyond Japan with such cult classics as Tokyo Drifter (1966), Fighting Elegy (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967), now available through Criterion.

The films collected in the Arrow package reflect Suzuki’s desire to test Nikkatsu conventions and clichés, as well as Japan’s post-war youthquake. “The Boy Who Came Back” (1958) marks his first collaboration with Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Akira Kobayashi and Jo Shishido, with Kobayashi cast as the hot-headed hoodlum fresh out of reform school, “who struggles to make a clean break with his tearaway past.” The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass (1961) is a tale about a student who hooks up with a down-at-heels travelling circus troupe. Teenage Yakuza (1962) stars Tamio Kawaji as the high-school vigilante protecting his community from underworld extortionists. Based on Toko Kon’s novels about young love, The Incorrigible (1963) and Born Under Crossed Stars (1965) represent Suzuki’s first films set in the 1920s era, later celebrated in his highly regarded “Taisho Trilogy.” All of the titles contain plot points that Americans would have found to be incredibly cheesy in the 1960s. A half-century later, however, we’re able to see how they establish a context for scenes comparable to anything in Hollywood and European romances. That’s thanks to performances by Yumiko Nogawa, Midori Tashiro and Masako Izumi that are as affecting as any turned in by Natalie Wood, Tuesday Weld, Ann-Margret or Carol Lynley at the same time. Older actresses, playing geishas, mothers and office workers, also are afforded meaty roles. The Arrow Blu-ray package includes an authoritative introduction to the films by critic Tony Rayns and 60-page illustrated collector’s book, featuring new writing by critic and author Jasper Sharp.

Hellraiser: Judgment: Blu-ray
Drag Me to Hell: Collector’s Edition: Blu Ray
After taking a shot at directing a pair of live-action fairytale features — Hansel & Gretel (2002), Jack and the Beanstalk (2009) – longtime Hollywood makeup-affects designer Gary J. Tunnicliffe felt compelled to write and direct Hellraiser: Judgment. It is the 10th film in the Hellraiser series to which Tunnicliffe has been attached, one way or another, since Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth. And, yes, Pinhead is back, as well. The aptly named antagonist, introduced in Clive Barker’s novella, “The Hellbound Heart” (1986), is a leader of the Cenobites, humans who were transformed into creatures that reside in an extradimensional realm and travel to Earth through a puzzle box called the Lament Configuration, to harvest human souls. An early icon of torture porn, Pinhead has since ventured into other realms of pure evil, even changing his appearance over the years. Paul T. Taylor is the third in a short line of actors to take on one of the most recognizable of all of screen monsters. It’s likely that the producers wanted to re-ground the characters and take the series closer to its roots. At 81 minutes, it feels more transitional than additional, introducing new characters and targets for Cenobitic abuse. The Digital Age has produced so many new avenues for evil that Pinhead is at a loss to keep up with them. He tags behind a trio of police detectives hunting a bible-obsessed serial murderer, as well as his own coterie of acolytes: Auditor (Tunnicliffe), Assessor (John Gulager), Chatterer (Mike J. Reagan), Butcher (Joel Decker) and Surgeon/Stitch Twin (Jillyan Blundell). Things get messy, fast, so newcomers should be prepared for stomach-churning images, created by brilliant makeup-effects work. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and outtakes, a gag reel. If there is to be another sequel, fans would be a happier lot if Dimension spent slightly more money on it than it has in the past

In its first theatrical go-round, Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell had the misfortune of going up against Pixar’s Up and, in weekend No. 2, the instant comedy classic, The Hangover. Even so, it ended its 2009 domestic run with a very decent $42.1 million return – against a $30 million production budget – with another $48.7 million in the foreign markets. Typically, home-media numbers remain unreported, but good news travels fast in Hollywood. In its first two weeks, the DVD/Blu-ray combo sold 459,217 copies, generating $7.98 million in sales. That total rose to $13.9 million in domestic sales, alone. It explains why Scream Factory has put together a “Collector’s Edition,” only eight years removed from the first release. In it, Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is an up-and-coming loan agent, who’s forced to decide between renewing a mortgage on a home owned by a decrepit gypsy crone or calling it in, to please her greedy boss (David Paymer). Naturally, Christine makes the wrong decision. It results in a curse that demands she appease the satanic spirit that bestowed it in three days or she’ll literally be dragged into the fiery pit of Hades. It threatens to destroy her relationship with her boyfriend (Justin Long), a hard-earned job promotion at the bank and her sanity. Sam and Ivan Raimi’s story is alternately scary, gory, disgusting, hilarious and punctuated with several bombastic jump-scares. If the new edition does well, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a Drag Me to Hell sequel was in the works. The two-disc package includes the theatrical and director’s-cut versions, which benefit from new HD masters of both versions, from the 2K digital intermediate; several ported-over interviews; fresh featurettes, “To Hell and Back”; an interview with actress Alison Lohman; “Curses!,” an interview with actress Lorna Raver; “Hitting All the Right Notes,” with composer Christopher Young; and a stills gallery.

Act & Punishment: The Pussy Riot Trials
Everybody remembers the Russian rock group Pussy Riot and its members’ willingness to take on Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church … don’t we? Or, was it just another passing fancy on the part of the media, attracted more to the band’s name than its message? Most of us only have room in our craniums for one rock-’n’-roll scandal at a time and, admit it, that one left our radar screens five minutes after three of the women were sentenced to two years in prison. Yevgeni Mitta’s comprehensive documentary Act & Punishment: The Pussy Riot Trials takes a different tack from Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (2013) to get to relatively the same place. For one thing, the doc opens by putting the actions of the three defendants — and dozen, or so, people who performed non-musical tasks – into the context of a history of Russian feminism and political resistance that goes back to Medieval times, as well as the role of the “holy fool” in art and literature. By 2015, band members looked back on the experience in much the same way as Johnny Rotten recalled the Sex Pistols’ hysteria: Oy! They focus here on their longstanding ideas about art and philosophy, and core belief that changes can made even in a corrupt and phony democracy. The group doesn’t perform regularly, anymore. To its credit, though, Pussy Riot anticipated the two-peas-in-a-pod relationship between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, when it released the song and video, “Make America Great Again,” a month before the presidential election here. The video depicts a dystopian world in which Trump, played by one of the band members, has won the presidency and enforces his values through beatings, shaming and branding of victims by stormtroopers. As the thugs torture their victims, Pussy Riot sings, “Let other people in/ Listen to your women/Stop killing black children/Make America great again.” Somehow, it failed to sway the electorate.

Digital technology and the Internet have pushed to the foreground ideas advanced 80 years ago by German philosopher and social critic Walter Benjamin, in his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” It hangs over all the interviews collected in Manuel Correa’s short, but provocative documentary, #artoffline. Like most such intellectual arguments, however, it’s likely to be of little interest to the great unwashed. In Benjamin’s essay, he proposes that fine art was diminished by the ability of publishers to reproduce flat, two-dimensional images of paintings and sculptures that exist in their own three-dimensional world. It allowed anyone with a library card to forgo first-hand observation and still consider themselves to be a connoisseur. This, without taking account texture, contours, shrinkage and expansion of images, and their emotional pull. In a way, Correa argues, Benjamin anticipated the bizarre phenomenon of museums today overrun by tourists taking still and moving pictures of great works of art, sometimes without actually studying them … except, perhaps, when setting up a selfie. Likewise, when people began using their phones to take photographs of everything from sunsets to train wrecks, did it change the nature of photojournalism? Reviews of movies and books in Rotten Tomatoes, Amazon and IMDB create the allusion of criticism, no matter how vapid or disingenuous they may be. While I would tend to agree with that argument, the philosophers, artists and curators assembled for #artoffline beg to differ with Benjamin. They believe that endless reproduction liberates art from a muddled art market and the undemocratic exhibition circuit. A couple of critics wonder whether the continued prominence of physical art is “nostalgic fetishism.” In the era of the Internet and virtual reality, the demand for authenticity has become irrelevant. There was a time, not so long ago, when museums forbade the use of cameras in galleries, specifically for pictures that required flash units, arguing they could damage the paintings. (Or, maybe, to maintain sales of postcards and art books.) It would be wonderful if museums instituted no-camera days, if only for the sake of art lovers who seek refuge from technological overload.

Teenage Cocktail
For more than a year, now, John Carchietta’s sexy cross-genre thriller has been a VOD staple for Netflix. It has been promoted as being suspenseful and steamy, within genres dedicated to dramas, independent dramas and independent movies. In fact, Teenage Cocktail is likely to disappoint anyone looking underage nudity and barely-legal shenanigans. In fact, it’s more of a cautionary tale for teenage girls and their parents than an exploitation flick. Recent transfer Annie (Nichole Bloom) is having trouble adjusting to the mean girls at her new high school. It isn’t until she befriends the free-spirited Jules (Fabianne Therese) that she begins to feel comfortable. Jules not only guesses correctly that Annie might be interested in some mild girl/girl experimentation, but she also introduces her to the financially lucrative business of Internet voyeurism. Their webcam performances barely attain the level of soft-core titillation, but, as Sly Stone once observed, “different strokes for different folks.” Anxious to leave town after classmates discover their act, the girls raise the stakes by taking on an outcall customer (Pat Healy), who doesn’t appreciate being blackmailed after a night of play. It culminates in an attack foreshadowed in the opening scene. Teenage Cocktail accurately depicts what most parents fear could happen to their naïve kids when they spend too time on the Internet behind closed doors. Bloom has since become a regular on “Shameless” and “Superstore,” while Therese can be seen in the VOD release “American Pets.”

Richard Turner’s rise to the top ranks of close-up magic and sleight-of-hand would be fascinating, even he didn’t have the one thing that separates him from almost everyone else in the business: being blind. Even more remarkable is his desire for audiences to take his performances at face value, as they would any sighted magician. He feels the same way about people he meets in real life. To this end, Turner has refused to carry a cane, learn Braille or use a service dog, as does his sister, who lost her sight to the same degenerative disease. Neither is he introduced as “The Blind Magician” or promoted as “handicapped.” He didn’t even tell his wife, Kim, about his condition before they were married, fearing she might not go through with it or begin to treat him differently. The irony is that Turner probably wouldn’t have picked up a deck of cards, in the first place, if he hadn’t begun to lose his sight, at 9, and could still read a bit. The tactile routine of shuffling and manipulating the cards was therapeutic and, even today, he’s rarely without a deck in his hand. Turner has been accompanied for most of the last 18 years by his son, Asa Spades Turner, who’s only left his father’s side to attend college. It explains why Luke Korem’s inspirational documentary, Dealt, focuses less on the mechanics of his art – he doesn’t consider himself to be a magician – than his journey through a life. Dealt only stops being fun when Korem shows Turner seeking his black belt against sighted opponents, who, as instructed, take no mercy on him, or appearing to denigrate people who choose to use dogs, guidance software and other tools. It isn’t until the very end of the film, when Turner loses Asa’s ever-present support, that he re-evaluates his ironclad position on support tools. It only makes us feel better about him. The deleted scenes are also worth watching, as they further soften Turner’s hard edge, by showing him mentor kids and aspiring magicians; swapping stories with visually impaired magician, Chad Allen, author of “audio comics” and a motivational speaker; chatting with his sister; and, yes, learning to shoot a pistol at a target range. The featurette, “Magicians & Mechanics” is useful, as well.

Do It Like an Hombre
At 34, Santiago-born Nicolás López (Aftershock) no longer can be considered the wunderkind of Hispanic genre cinema. He’s been making and writing about films since he was 15 and sold a lot of tickets as a writer, director and producer of horror flicks. Let me preface my remarks on Hazlo Como Hombre (“Do It Like an Hombre”) by pointing out that the likeable, if dreadfully old-fashioned coming-out romcom last August became the fifth most viewed film in Mexican box-office history. It even made $2.5 million in a very limited domestic run here. The Pantelion/Lionsgate release describes what happens to the longtime friendship of Raúl (Mauricio Ochmann), Eduardo (Humberto Busto) and Santiago (Alfonso Dosal), when one of them confesses to the others that he’s gay. He does so in one of the movie’s many PG shower scenes – each one containing a drop-the-soap gag – causing Raúl to go all Mike Pence on Santiago and threaten to use gay-conversion therapy on him. Eduardo is content being the trio’s hipster metrosexual. Complicating the issue is the fact that Santiago is close to marrying Raúl’s sister, Nati (Aislinn Derbez), who can’t figure out why he isn’t interested in sex, anymore. Her pregnant best friend, Luciana (Ignacia Allamand), is married to Raúl and is caught in the middle. It’s easier to see the commercial appeal in “Do It Like an Hombre” by understanding the popularity of the five extremely cute and funny stars. Imagine the Jonas Brothers as the three male leads, with Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez playing Nati and Luciana, exchanging BJ and anal-sex jokes. No matter how retrograde the setup, the movie would still draw a crowd. The overlong featurette is lamer than anything in the movie. Check out Derbez, especially, who could make the same leap to stardom in the U.S. as Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz. Her two-episode spin on Netflix’s “Easy” was incendiary.

Resolution Song
Some movies are based on a foundation so unstable that they’re always in danger of collapsing under pressure of close scrutiny. Antonio James and writer Deborah Capstone’s Resolution Song is the kind of faith-based drama whose good intentions can’t overcome its one-dimensional characterizations. Veteran tough guy Lester Speight plays Marcus, the self-righteous head of a family that eats together every night and prays before each meal. Even so, Marcus won’t tolerate any form of sass or dissent, however mild, from his wife (Torrei Hart), mother-and-law (Ella Joyce), son (Cedric L. Williams) and daughter (Brittney Ayona Clemons), none of whom deserve his violent outbursts. It doesn’t take long to figure out that something is boiling under the family’s tranquil facade, beyond their fear of Marcus’ outbursts. The son, Levi, is a promising singer-songwriter, whose work in a local church choir causes him to work closely with his white next-door neighbor. Brianna (Kennedy Lea Slocum) is blessed with a heavenly voice and cursed with having to take care of a father (John J. York) who gave up on life after he drove his wife away from home and precipitated the tragedy weighing so heavily on Levi’s family. He doesn’t appear to have a job, subsists on peanut butter and wears a toupee that looks like a mop. The nature of the tragedy becomes clear when Levi invites Brianna to dinner – there’s never any real food at her home — and his mother and father freak out so completely that the kids feel threatened. And, that’s where the fault in Resolution Song’s foundation lies. How could two families so at odds with each other exist within 15 feet of each other, for so long, without police intervention? Common sense would demand that one of the families move to a place where they wouldn’t be reminded of the tragedy every day, and the teenage children wouldn’t be tempted to hook up, despite their parents’ hang-ups. But, the Lord moves in mysterious ways, especially in faith-based movies in which His son’s teachings only come into play when the shit finally hits the fan. That said, Speight’s portrayal of a father with severe rage issues is dead-on; Joyce’s take on the bible-quoting mother-in-law is a stabilizing force throughout; and the kids earn our empathy. The redemptive power of the music made by the choir validates the title.

Where’s Daddy?
That African-American men comprise a disproportionately large percentage of the nation’s prison population isn’t open to question in Rel Dowdell’s hot-button documentary, Where’s Daddy? In some jurisdictions, at least, the unbalance is compounded by a judicial system that demands that delinquent fathers be jailed if, for whatever reason, they can’t immediately come up with the money owed. The film also examines custody issues, social implications, cultural concerns and the emotional impact of navigating the child-support system as an African-American father. The documentary is set in Philadelphia, which explains the participation of local authorities, including Bishop James D. Robinson, clinical psychologist Dr. Kathleen Walls, Roc-A-Fella platinum-selling rap artist Freeway, Philadelphia Eagles Pro Bowl receiver Fred Barnett, writer Mister Mann Frisby and comedian J’Vonne. The examples include men thrown in jail after the ex-spouse falsely accuses them of child abuse; ex-wives who use child-support money on their own needs and desires; children poisoned by their mother’s contempt for their father; imbalance of parental responsibilities; and the use of court-ordered visitation rights as negotiating tools for personal gain. I can only assume that the men’s stories were vetted ahead of time and the experts are legit. It isn’t made clear if the problem is specific to Pennsylvania courts or it’s more widespread. Where’s Daddy? does allow for cases in which the father is a deadbeat, but not beyond the point of redemption. The Breaking Glass DVD adds a Q&A from the film’s premier at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, audience reactions, a deleted interview with barber/stylist Richard Taylor; and musical outtake from Jason Aro.

Codename: Diablo!
For as long as movies have been made, male directors have always found room for actresses with freakishly large breasts. The more extreme the bosom, the dumber the roles the women have been asked to play. For a long time, Mae West was the exception that proved the rule, but every succeeding generation, it seems, has produced a bra-buster to call its own. In time, Deep Throat raised the ante on such soft-core auteurs as Russ Meyer (Up!) and Andy Sidaris (Malibu Express) to the point where they had to retire or sell their wares to premium-cable outfits, like Cinemax. Their stars, including Kitten Natividad, were forced to choose between hard-core porn or accepting gag roles in mainstream comedies, like Airplane! Lately, the pendulum of porn has begun to swing back to women with natural breasts of small to average sizes. Still, it isn’t likely that large breasts will ever go away, on stage or in the movies. Dre-YS’ extremely lame Codename: Diablo! is the latest boobs-ploitation DVD to come my way – from who knows where – and, no matter how many comparisons to Meyer’s oeuvre are made on the jacket, it doesn’t even come close to matching the entertainment value of Up! and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. The cartoonishly endowed Lilly 4K, Mary Madison Love, LRA and Martina Big play superspies fending off a small army of enemy agents wearing scuba gear, from their fins to the snorkel on their masks. Most of it takes place on a small yacht and the ladies’ breasts are kept in place by bras seemingly made of duct tape. It’s as ludicrous as it sounds. It’s in the bonus package that Dre-YS gets to the heart of the fetish, showing the gals on a shooting range, firing semi-automatic weapons … in high heels and bikinis. There’s also outtakes from a mud fight and shower scene, in which they wear wetsuits to maintain their dignity. Some trash is too weird to ignore.

Hey Arnold! The Jungle Movie
Having once encountered a hedgehog in the wilds of my sister’s backyard, in France, I can attest to fact that they’re cute little critters, whose spines aren’t nearly as dangerous to humans as those belonging to porcupines, to whom they’re unrelated. Neither are they, by any stretch of the imagination, hogs. They’re protected in some parts of the world and considered a nuisance in others. The Pennsylvania Dutch tradition of Groundhog Day can be traced to Roman times, when February 2 was celebrated as Hedgehog Day. (It also serves as Badger Day.) The closest most North Americans have come to a hedgehog is Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggywinkle and Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog game. It they’re able to predict meteorological trends, it isn’t apparent in Lionsgate’s new animated feature, Hedgehogs. Released in its native China in July 2016, as “Bobby the Hedgehog” and “Spiny Life,” Huang Jianming’s Hedgehogs follows Bobby (Anthony Padilla), a reckless hedgehog that lives in an idyllic community, where all the hedgehogs consume a “yummy fruit” that keeps them happy and full. In a food fight with a badger (Ian Hecox) over the treat, Bobby is hurt and ends up in the big city, suffering from memory loss so severe he doesn’t even know he’s a hedgehog anymore. Bobby meets Hubert (Jon Heder), a large, friendly pigeon who declares him a feather-less, flight-challenged bird. Hubert creates wings for Bobby to fasten to his body, but learns the genetic truth from the badger, who advises him to beware the encroachment on his kind’s habitat by human exterminators. ThinkMan (Chevy Chase) believes they carry disease and has ordered their elimination. So on, and so forth. The bright and lively animation should keep younger viewers entertained, if not their parents. Anyone seeking zoological accuracy should visit a zoo, instead.

It may seem odd for a feature-length continuation of Nickelodeon’s groundbreaking cartoon series, “Hey Arnold!,” which ran from October 7, 1996, to June 8, 2004, to reappear on November 24, 2017. Apparently, Craig Bartlett intended “The Journal” to be made and shown shortly after the show’s final regular episode. Because a 2002 theatrical feature underperformed at the box office, however, the poo-bahs at Nickelodeon decided against giving Bartlett the closure he desired. Social media junkies decided the time was right and demanded the re-boot. It’s newly available on DVD.

PBS: Queen Elizabeth’s Secret Agents: The Rise of the First Secret Service
PBS: American Experience: The Bombing of Wall Street
Comedy Central: Broad City: Season 4
PBS: NOVA: Extreme Animal Weapons
PBS: Nature: The Cheetah Children
PBS: We’re Going on a Bear Hunt
PBS: Garfield: Nine Lives
PBS Kids: Ocean Adventures/Outer Space Adventures
Nickelodeon: Blaze and the Monster Machines: Heroes of Axle City
On many PBS stations, the three-part mini-series, “Queen Elizabeth’s Secret Agents: The Rise of the First Secret Service,” is being packaged with second-season episodes of “Victoria.” For those PBS subscribers keeping score at home, Elizabeth (a.k.a., the Virgin Queen, Gloriana and Good Queen Bess) was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, his second wife, who was executed two years after the future queen’s birth. Afterwards, Elizabeth was declared illegitimate, so as to allow for the accession of her half-brother, Edward VI; his cousin Lady Jane Grey (“The Nine-Day Queen”); his half-sister, Mary; and, finally, Elizabeth, the last Tudor monarch. It’s said that Elizabeth was only able to rule for 45 years because of the foresight of her spymasters, William Cecil, his son, Robert, and Sir Francis Walsingham. The queen inherited a lot of enemies, including the Pope, militant priests, Spanish royalty and her half-sister, Mary. She would make new ones of her own, including the Duke of Norfolk, on the way to 14 separate assassination attempts. Leeds historian Dan Jones co-wrote and co-presents the series, with Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb. They’re joined by several other historians and academics, brought in to amplify on the dramatizations. It also combines paintings of the historical figures in question and exquisitely preserved archival material. Among the locations are Gwydir Castle and Caernarfon Castle, in Wales, and Chichester, West Sussex. Anyone who watched V for Vendetta and wants to know more about Guy Fawkes, the Gunpowder Plot and the sinister mask favored by contemporary anarchists will want to check out Chapter Three.

This played out centuries before the ascendency of FBI publicity hog J. Edger Hoover and post-WWII establishment of the CIA. Before that, America’s spy networks went largely unsung. AMC’s terrific mini-series, “TURN: Washington’s Spies,” related the story of the Culper Ring essential to victory in the Revolutionary War. Before Allan Pinkerton used the detective agency that bears his name to bust labor unions and step on the civil rights of left-wing and labor activists, he served as head of the Union Intelligence Service, credited with foiling a plot to assassinate president-elect Abraham Lincoln, who later hired Pinkerton agents for his personal security during the Civil War. His decisive role has been depicted in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, PBS’ “Mercy Street” and Comedy Central’s “Drunk History.” The “American Experience” presentation, “The Bombing of Wall Street,” re-examines an incident in American history that, if it happened today, would have sent the media into a feeding frenzy. Instead, it’s barely recalled. That’s largely because the killers were never specifically identified, caught and prosecuted/framed – an Italian anarchist group is still suspected of pulling off the massacre – as was the case of the Haymarket and Los Angeles Times bombings. The Wall Street bombing occurred at 12:01 pm on September 16, 1920, in the Financial District of New York City. The blast killed 38 and injured hundreds of passersby, most having nothing to do with stocks and bonds. It helped launch Hoover’s career initiatives, while sparking a bitter national debate about how far the government should go to protect the nation from acts of political violence. It continues today, of course. The doc is based on Beverly Gage’s “The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror.”

I wonder if Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson spent a lot time watching “Laverne & Shirley” growing up, because, apart from the Milwaukee setting, the same comic dynamic is at play in “Broad City.” While guy pals played by Hannibal Buress, Arturo Castro and John Gemberling easily recall Lenny, Squiggy and the Big Ragoo, Ilana Wexler and Abbi Abram’s single-Jewish-gals-and-the-city lifestyle would get them arrested in Brewtown, then and today. Their off-color language and crude sexual imagery, alone, would make their co-workers at the Shotz Brewery blush. In Season Four of “Broad City,” New York becomes a full partner to Ilana and Abbi in storylines that reflect the city far more than in previous seasons. (“L&S” and “Happy Days” were tapped 2,000 miles away from Wisconsin,) Even when the girls take a road trip to Florida to help Ilana’s mom (Susan Essman) and aunt (Fran Drescher) clean out deceased Grandma Esther’s apartment, they can’t leave New York behind, for long. The season opens with a kooky homage to Peter Howitt’s 1998 urban fantasy, Sliding Doors, taking viewers back to the day the characters serendipitously met. It ends with a nod to Rear Window, as the girls witness what they perceive to be a murder, through binoculars, on top of the Empire State Building, and investigate it in the same slapstick way Lucy and Ethel might have, back in the day. In other episodes, they encounter bedbugs, Shania Twain, Sandra Bernhard, Ru Paul, Wanda Sykes, Steve Buscemi and Jane Curtin, and take a vividly animated stroll through the city, tripping on ’shrooms. The two-disc package adds deleted/extended scenes and backgrounders.

From “NOVA” comes “Extreme Animal Weapons,” which questions why some species carry build-in armaments and defenses that no longer are commiserate with the dangers they face in the wild. It investigates why bull elks continue to be burdened with giant 40-pound antler racks and how tiny rhinoceros beetles are similarly hindered by horns bigger than their body. Tusks, horns and claws that once served legitimate purposes now can slow an animal down and even impair its health and nutrition. Why isn’t the same evolutionary process that continues to provide protection for lobsters, dogs, bees and snakes re-adapting to serve the needs of other creatures who’ve outlived their natural enemies. As usual, after “NOVA” producers investigate the riddle, they come up with theories of their own. In creatures as varied as dung beetles and saber-toothed tigers, shrimp and elephants, the same hidden factors trigger an arms race, which, once launched, unfold in exactly the same pattern. Join scientists as they crack the secret biological code that underlies nature’s battleground.

I know that producers of wildlife documentaries sometimes recycle their best footage and outtakes to give subsequent films a fresh look, without spending the amount of money it takes to re-capture the same material. As thrilling as it is, I wonder how many more times I’ll have to watch the same great white shark juggle and devour a seal, while airborne, several feet above the surface of the waters off Cape Town. One ocean looks about the same as the others … ditto savannahs, mountain ranges and jungles, so who’s to know? I only bring this up because the “Nature” presentation, “Cheetah Children” recalls at least two other documentaries I’ve seen on the same subject. For nearly two years, wildlife cameraman Kim Wolhuter shadowed a cheetah family on foot through the forested hills of Zimbabwe, where they capture the cubs’ remarkable journey from infancy to adulthood, and their mother’s dedication to raising them. The cubs are incredibly cute and a riot to watch, right up to the moment that mom drags a freshly killed beast to their den and they forget their table manners, or become targets for larger predators. I doubt that cheetahs would get the same kick watching human babies experience the same rites of passage.

PBS has picked up the distribution rights to Channel 4’s animated adaptation of Michael Rosen and illustrator Helen Oxenbury’s hugely popular 1989 children’s book, “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.” It follows siblings Stan, Katie, Rosie, Max, Baby and Rufus the dog, all of whom decide one day to go on an adventure through whirling snowstorms, oozing mud and dark forests in search of bears. And, of course, they find one. Along the way, young audiences will enjoy the onomatopoeic poetics (“swishy swashy,” “squelch squerch”) and Oxenbury’s lovely water-color images. Apparently, the producers needed to stretch the material to fill a half-hour viewing window and chose to add a gloomy bit about their grandfather’s unexpected passing. It’s still charming enough to recommend, however.

PBS is also re-releasing “Garfield: Nine Lives,” a made-for-television adaptation of Jim Davis’ book of illustrated short stories, showcasing the “nine lives” of the beloved comic strip character Garfield. The first airing was in 1988 and it’s been available in all sorts of formats and platforms ever since. The 10-segment anthology begins with “Cave Cat” and ends in outer space, with Garfield playing an astronaut in a jam. Meanwhile, PBS is sending out a pair of collections, “Ocean Adventures” and “Outer Space Adventures,” comprised of episodes cherry-picked from various PBS Kids titles. Some have appeared in previous collections, so be sure to check out the menus, first.

Nickelodeon’s “Blaze and the Monster Machines” is a CGI-animated series that focuses on learning and having fun through the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematic) curriculum. “Heroes of Axle City” contains four high-speed tales, including the double-length episode, “Race to the Top of the World.” The others are “Tow Truck Tough,” “Light Riders” and “Rocket Ski Rescue.” Nickelodeon currently has nearly a dozen shows for pre-schoolers in production, with six new series set to debut through 2018.



The DVD Wrapup: Only the Brave, LBJ, Suburbicon, Aida’s Secrets, Clouzot’s Inferno, Jackie Gleason and more

Thursday, February 8th, 2018

Only the Brave: Blu-ray
Joseph Kosinski’s stunningly effective Only the Brave is the rare disaster movie guaranteed to leave its audiences not just in tears, but in mourning for the victims, their families and community at large, as well.

Anyone who’s lived in the path of a wildfire and lingered long enough to watch it move with the wind can attest to its ferocity, speed and unpredictability. After identifying the hollow feeling that comes with surrendering to the fire’s power, most witnesses will admit to being hypnotized by the beauty of its stories-high flames and the sparkling plumes of sparks dancing to the inferno’s roar. Even from a safe distance, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the skill and courage of the firefighters called to battle the monster barreling down on homes. Only the Brave, based on the tragic, true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, opened in theaters while an epidemic of wildfires was scorching wide swaths of property in northern California, causing more than $9 billion in insured property losses, alone, and leaving 44 people dead. Only a few weeks later, strong Santa Ana winds would trigger a new round of wildfires, this time to the south in Ventura County, forcing more than 230,000 people to evacuate, with the six largest fires burning over 307,900 acres and more than 1,300 structures. Despite numbers like these, Californians have learned to adjust to the threat of such disasters – including the mudslides that invariably follow them – just as people in the upper Midwest accept the inevitability of sub-zero temperatures in January and folks in Tornado Alley anticipate killer tornadoes. What’s never expected is the death of a firefighter engaged in protecting property and rescuing residents. In December, an engineer for Cal Fire, based in San Diego, died while battling the Thomas fire in the Fillmore area of Ventura County. It’s no exaggeration to say that Cory Iverson’s death shocked and saddened millions of people, not just in southern California, but everywhere volunteers risk their lives for those of people they’ve never met.

Only the Brave introduces us first us to Prescott’s highly trained and previously tested Hotshot unit, which was comprised of 20 men. In time, we get to know some of the members’ backgrounds and families. We already know that 19 of them were killed in the line of duty when the massive Yarnell Hill Fire – practically in the backyard — unexpectedly changed directions and overran their position. It is based on the book, “Granite Mountain,” which tells the highly personal story of the lone survivor, Brendan McDonough, well-played here by Miles Teller. McDonough is portrayed as a no-account local, who volunteers for the team as a last resort to losing his family and winding up in prison or dead of an overdose. It’s mostly through his eyes that we become intimately acquainted with firefighters played by battle-hardened Josh Brolin, Taylor Kitsch, Alex Russell, Ben Hardy, Geoff Stults and James Badge Dale, among more than a dozen other actors. Jeff Bridges plays the unit’s sage supervisor, while Jennifer Connelly, Andie MacDowell, Jenny Gabrielle, Rachel Singer and Natalie Hall make sure we know how the lives of the wives, children and mothers of these men are impacted by the work. It doesn’t appear as if writers Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer were required to take much poetic license with facts of the terrible incident or wring any more empathy from viewers than it already warrants. They balance the arduous process of training with humor that derives largely from McDonough’s hazing, while keeping the sometime thorny personal stuff in perspective, as well. As was the case with Deepwater Horizon, the fire, itself, carries Only the Brave the rest of the way, through a blend of digital and practical visual effects, and thunderous sound. A true 4D experience would have added some forced-air heat into the mix. If the movie failed at the box office, it wasn’t because of anything Kosinski failed to do. Claudio Miranda’s cinematography nicely captures the natural tinder box of the American Southwest and some spectacular nighttime footage. Ironically, perhaps, Bridges’ lavish home north of Santa Barbara survived the Thomas fire, but not the mudslide that followed a month later. The actor, his wife and their dog were rescued from the muck by a fire department helicopter. Only the Brave contains several worthwhile extras, including Kosinski and Brolin’s commentary; deleted scenes; a music video of Dierks Bentley’s “Hold the Light”; and a trio of featurettes.

LBJ: Blu-ray
For the outspokenly liberal Rob Reiner, the temptation to depict a real POTUS in action, especially after watching Donald Trump’s first few months in office, must have been far too great to overcome. His opinion of Lyndon Baines Johnson and his presidency has changed dramatically since the 1960s, when he was an easy target for antiwar protesters and black-power advocates who blamed him for everything bad that was happening in the country. While it’s clear that LBJ bore the brunt the blame for the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the CIA made it no easier for him to see the truth there than it did for the rest of us. Even if he wanted to pull out, it isn’t likely that Congress or mainstream pundits would go along with his wishes. Johnson probably should have encouraged Hubert Humphrey to disown the administration’s wartime policies before the Democratic Convention, in Chicago, but party leaders underestimated Richard Nixon as much as Hillary Clinton devalued Trump’s ability to overcome his self-inflicted wounds. That facet of Johnson’s tenure in office isn’t anywhere to be seen in Reiner and screenwriter Joey Hartstone’s LBJ, which pretty much ends when thoughts of re-election begin. What carries the movie is Woody Harrelson’s masterful impersonation of the president, with a tight focus on his ability to schmooze friends and allies, alike, over dinner, in the Oval Office and occasionally sharing anecdotes from his formative years, while taking a dump. Harrelson is especially adroit in recalling Johnson’s hilariously stern instructions to his tailor, complaining about a tightness in his trousers just south of his “bunghole.” To my mind, Reiner’s greatest miscalculation came in overestimating the interest of fellow boomers in watching another capable actor take on LBJ, so soon after Bryan Cranston’s Golden Globe- and Emmy-nominated turn in Jay Roach’s adaptation of Robert Schenkkan’s play “All the Way.” In 2014, in Selma, Tom Wilkinson also played Johnson. Even further back, Randy Quaid won a Globe and was nominated for an Emmy for NBC’s “LBJ: The Early Years” (1987). In another four years, he would be played by little-known Tom Howard in Oliver Stone’s JFK. In between came such authoritative books as “The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years,” by Joseph Califano Jr.; Robert A. Caro’s four-edition, “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” series; and Doris Kearns Goodwin’ “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream.” Compared to the LBJ revealed in those books, even the best impersonations of the man amount to little more than parlor tricks. Jennifer Jason Leigh is unrecognizable as Johnson’s closest confidante, Lady Bird. Richard Jenkins, Bill Pullman, C. Thomas Howell and Michael Mosley are also good in key supporting roles. As JFK and RFK, Jeffrey Donovan and Michael Stahl-David effortlessly depict how miserable working with the Kennedys must have been for a good ol’ boy from Texas. Special features were MIA.

Suburbicon: Blu-ray
In “Welcome to Suburbicon,” the half-hour featurette that accompanies George Clooney’s latest turn in the director’s chair, almost all of the cast and crew members interviewed point to Suburbicon’s “darkly comic” script as their motivation for agreeing to appear in it. As much as I love watching darkly comic movies, especially those written and directed by the Coen Brothers, I found it difficult to be entertained by Suburbicon, for the simple reason that I couldn’t find anything particularly funny in it … light, dark or in between. Drama, yes … irony, yes … humor, not so much. The Coens wrote the screenplay years earlier with the intention of having Clooney playing a key role in the movie. For some reason, they decided to dump the script in a drawer and pursue other projects. When Clooney’s production company was scratching for a new project of its own, he remembered Suburbicon and received the Coens’ blessing to produce it. Clooney then called on Grant Heslov, with whom he co-wrote The Monuments Men and Good Night, and Good Luck, to revise and update the script. It’s easy to see the Coens’ fingerprints on the story, as it takes place in a seemingly idyllic Eisenhower-era suburb, where the events that inform the story aren’t supposed to happen. A series of murders elicits some skittish laughter, but it’s overwhelmed by the ugliness of the racism on exhibit next-door. Suburbicon is based on events that took place in the planned community of Levittown, Pennsylvania, in 1957. With its look-alike houses, green lawns, micro-gardens, post-stamp porches, fences and concrete driveways, residents had every reason to believe they were sharing a facet of the American dream their immigrant parents couldn’t have possibly foreseen, and the GI Bill made it affordable.

It only took one African-American family to move into Levittown to prove that white middle-class Americans would fight to keep the dream to themselves. They didn’t feel the need to don pointy white hoods to protect their anonymity, either. Here, at the same time as protests over the black family’s presence grow louder and the potential for violence mounts, their next-door neighbors find themselves entangled in circumstances that would shock the hoodlums unhappy with the perceived decrease in the value of their homes even more. Gardner Mayes (Matt Damon) is the prototypical 1950s’ suburban male, except for the fact that he’s in love with the sister of his disabled wife, both of whom are played by Julianne Moore. There’s something fishy about the break-in in which the wife is killed and his son is overcome by chloroform, but it isn’t readily apparent. Before long, Gardner is playing house with his sister-in-law and making plans to move to Aruba, after the lump-sum life-insurance payment is made. The bigger problem comes when the crooks (Glenn Fleshler, Alex Hassell) who broke into the house attempt to extort more money from Gardner and an insurance investigator (Oscar Isaac) shows up at his door to punch holes in the claim. Because the son, Nicky (Noah Jupe), eavesdrops on everything going on in the house, he’s able to suss out a two-pronged conspiracy long before anyone else does. It puts him in mortal danger, as does his friendship with the boy next-door (Tony Espinosa). The neighbors don’t like the fact that they play together, either. Everything that follows would require a spoiler alert, which I am loath to do. There’s nothing wrong with cast, which also includes top character actors Karimah Westbrook, Leith M. Burke and Gary Basaraba. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Clooney and writer/producer Heslov; “The Unusual Suspects: Casting,” a closer look at the actors who bring life to the film’s key roles; and “Scoring Suburbicon,” which explores Alexandre Desplat’s music.

Walking Out: Blu-ray
The possibility of leaving Montana to make a movie must be as difficult for Alex and Andrew Smith to consider as setting a film outside New York was for Woody Allen and Sidney Lumet, at least until it became beneficial to them financially. Like aspiring novelists, filmmakers are routinely advised to shoot what they know best, whether geographically or emotionally. The twins grew up in a region of west-central Montana blessed with lush forests, monumental mountain peaks, verdant valleys, snow-fed rivers, diverse flora and fauna, deep-seated traditions and close to the bright lights and schools of Missoula. The boys’ father died when they were 6 and their mother, Annick, became a successful writer, documentarian and producer – Heartland (1979), A River Runs Through It (1992) – leaving them with plenty of time to pursue “a classic Little House on the Prairie experience. (We) were able to play in the woods and subsist out there. We didn’t have a TV and I think that helped a lot.  … My mom was a cinefile and we would go into town every weekend.” In 1990, alongside her longtime companion — western author and educator William Kitteridge — Annick co-edited “The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology,” with more than 230 stories, poems, reminiscences and reports written by 140 men and women with special interest in the state. Alex and Andrews’ credits are pretty much limited to collaborations on The Keening (1999), The Slaughter Rule (2002), Winter in the Blood (2013) and the newly released, Walking Out. Of the latter, critic Matt Soller Seitz opined, “The movie would fit nicely in a film festival comprised of works with a similar theme, including Legends of the Fall and The Revenant and older wilderness dramas like Jeremiah Johnson and Bend of the River.” To that list, I would add The Call of the Wild and 127 Hours. Despite universally glowing reviews, festival exposure, a compelling story, fine acting, terrific cinematography and spectacular settings, Walking Out was accorded a release limited to 32 theaters. Adapted from a Hemingway-esque short story by outdoors writer David Quammen, it describes what happens when the estranged son of an off-the-grid Montana rancher is invited to join him on a hunting trip in the high country. Because the peaks are covered in snow and nighttime temperatures are forbidding, this wouldn’t be a walk-the-park bonding experience.

As a prototypical city boy, David (Josh Wiggins) is more interested in video games and texting friends back home than the prospect of tracking down a mythic moose or elk, just to make his dad, Cal (Matt Bonner), feel as paternal as his own father was to him. Even so, David humors him by participating in a preliminary bird hunt and agreeing to the more difficult trek, which some viewers will correctly guess is ill-advised and a tragedy-in-waiting. Sure enough, a terrible accident happens at a most inopportune time. They’ve stumbled upon a recently killed bear cub – possibly by a wolf – half-buried in the snow. It soon becomes apparent that the cub’s mother and brother are still maintaining a vigil nearby, which only spells trouble for the intruders. When a terrible accident cripples Cal, David is left with only one option: summon the strength to carry his father on his back, for many miles and through ankle-deep snow. Even though David isn’t portrayed as being a wimp, the odds of his success aren’t good. Even if he did reach the nearest home, the harsh conditions would make it difficult for him to retrace his steps and lead a rescue party to Cal. Fortunately, David was exposed to weightlifting at school and this afforded him a leg up, at least. With their heads practically touching, they’re able to remain alert by re-introducing themselves to each other through stories and important lessons taught to Cal by his dad (Bill Pullman). I don’t think many people will see the ending coming, but it fits with everything that’s led us there. If I were to hazard a guess as to why Walking Out, itself, wasn’t given more of a chance for survival, my first inclination would be that any marketing campaign outside red-state territory would face roadblocks in the form of talk-show hosts, reporters and PETA advocates, whose sentiments would be with the vengeful Momma Bear. Neither would many urban media reps consider hunting to be a viable rite-of-passage or bonding exercise in 2018. So, why bother? Although I wouldn’t categorize Walking Out as a date movie, I think that viewers who can get past the hunting scenario, which isn’t terribly graphic, will discover an old-fashioned story of survival, exceptionally well-told and well-executed, by filmmakers whose affection for the American wilderness – its pleasures and hazards – is palpable. The DVD adds some behind-the-scenes material.

Aida’s Secrets
One of the most discussed films at the just completed Sundance festival was Tim Wardle’s disquieting documentary, Three Identical Strangers, about identical triplets separated at birth and reunited 19 years later, in 1980, completely by accident. It’s a great story, but one that’s haunted by the suicide of one of the brothers, 15 years later, and the circumstances that caused them to be separated and adopted into families of very different economic backgrounds. The growth and maturation processes were monitored, filmed and documented, under the guise of normal adoptive follow-up, to serve the interests of a psychologist who wanted to test the influences of nature versus nurture. It isn’t clear when Three Identical Strangers might be released into theaters – if only to qualify for awards consideration – but anyone fascinated by that summary should check out Aida’s Secret, another picture that demonstrates how easy it is for unsuspecting siblings to be turned into victims because of decisions made before they were born. Alon and Saul Schwarz’ extremely moving documentary begins in the immediately aftermath of World War II and rather quickly leads to an emotional reunion nearly 70 years later. Neither does the mystery end there. Izak Szewelwicz was born inside the Bergen-Belsen displaced-persons camp in 1945 and, at 3, was sent to Israel for adoption. His mother Aida was refused entry to Israel, but is allowed to immigrate to Canada.

She would visit Izak in Israel occasionally, without telling him that he had a younger brother, Shepsel, who was blind and raised by his birth father in a different city in Canada. His father rarely spoke about his experiences during the war or the circumstances of Shep’s birth. The brothers would have plenty to discuss when they finally met in 2013. Among other things, Shep had no idea their mother was still alive and living in a nursing home in Quebec. Even though Aida was delighted to reconnect with Shep, she was far less than forthcoming about the details of the boys’ separation. (Why weren’t both boys sent to Israel, “for a Jewish education,” for example.) In fact, a slip of the tongue suggests to Izak, Shep and the filmmakers that a third brother might be alive and living in Canada, as well. Another question with possibly devastating consequences involves the mother’s true ethnic and religious background. Aida’s Secret wouldn’t have been possible or, at least, nearly as interesting, if it weren’t for the exhaustive search through records and archives in Germany, Amsterdam, Canada and Israel. Serendipitously, a researcher recalled seeing an album of photographs taken at the camp – little known outside Germany — which gave the brothers’ reason to think that they may not, in fact, share the same father. The filmmakers are there when the DNA-test results are announced. By this time, however, the filmmakers were pushing the limits on their production deadlines, leaving one or two more questions unanswered. The good news comes in seeing Shep being able to fulfill a lifelong dream of visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem and gaining the love and support of a newly expanded family. Although friends of Aida recount bits of background she had shared with them, it’s clear she took some of her secrets to the grave.

Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton
Award-winning documentarian Rory Kennedy’s list of credits includes films that have taken on some of the world’s most pressing issues, including AIDS, immigration, torture, the collapse of South Vietnam, the threat of nuclear disaster and the problems faced by children being raised by mothers with mental impairments. The prospect of spending an untold number of hours in Hawaii, profiling one of surfing’s greatest competitors, innovators and bad boys must have seemed like a gift from the gods. Laird Hamilton is best known as the greatest big-wave surfer of all time, routinely taking on swells of 35 feet and moving at speeds exceeding 30 miles per hour. He’s also successfully ridden nearly vertical waves of up to 70 feet high, reaching speeds up to 50 mph. To accomplish such seemingly impossible achievements, Hamilton and his closest cronies invented tow-in surfing and equipment modifications unimaginable when Bruce Brown introduced the sport/lifestyle to ho-daddies from Maine to Malibu in The Endless Summer (1966). If Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton too often feels like an extended “60 Minutes” segment — without the annoying “gee-whiz” moments that make seasoned reporters sound like groupies – there’s much to recommend it. Hamilton’s life story is unquestionably fascinating. If he hadn’t caught a few breaks along the way, he might have ended up selling Maui Wowie to tourists or joining the pro circuit to cover alimony and child support. His against-the-grain arrogance, take-every-wave credo and competitive drive are legendary. One of Hamilton’s strengths is that he looks the part of a champion surfer, and has played them in movies, on television and as a model. He’s cognizant of the fact he’s made enemies out of friends and has acted at times like a complete dick. Kennedy doesn’t back away from such perceptions. What sells “Take Every Wave,” as something other than an easy-on-the-eyes character study, however, are the many scenes in which he’s shown taking extraordinary chances on big waves and the grandeur of sport, itself. Alice Gu and Don King’s cinematography – some images were collected for previous projects – are nothing short of breathtaking. I only wish that MPI had made it available in Blu-ray or 4K.

Victor Crowley: Return to His Swamp: Blu-ray
Day of the Dead: Bloodline: Blu-ray
The Aftermath: Blu-ray
It’s difficult to say why the producers of the Hatchet franchise elected to make a midcourse correction, by naming No. 4 after its antagonist. Perhaps, Kane Hodder demanded top billing for his ax-wielding sadist, Victor Crowley, this time around, or they felt finally decided that Hatchet is too generic for a series with plenty of steam left in it. (Last year’s Leatherface was the first of seven Texas Chainsaw Massacre installments to rely solely on the name of its primary character.) In the 10 years since the series kicked off, creator/writer/director Adam Green has been an extremely busy fellow. In addition to adding three chapters to the saga, Green has acted in a couple dozen pictures and television shows, including his own horror sitcom, “Holliston,” for FEARnet; created biographical talk-shows “Adam Green’s Scary Sleepover” and “Horrified”; launched the “Movie Crypt” podcast, with Joe Lynch; added the films, Grace, Frozen, “The Diary of Anne Frankenstein” segment for Chillerama, Digging Up the Marrow and Tales of Halloween; formed the metal band Haddonfield; appeared at numerous conventions and signings; and wrote “The Jarvis Tapes” for “Friday the 13th: The Game.” With that many items on his plate, it would have been a safe bet that Victor Crowley: Return to His Swamp, if not sucked, exactly, then turned out to be an underwhelming addition to the franchise. Instead, as most sequels go, it’s a reasonably entertaining and often quite funny parody of genre clichés, with enough gore thrown in to keep fanboys happy. After a 10-year hiatus, swamp-thing Crowley is accidently resurrected by the recitation of a voodoo chant played on an iPhone that drops from the heavens after a plane crashes into Louisiana’s Honey Island Swamp. Among its passengers are Andrew (Parry Shen), lone survivor of Victor’s last massacre; the media and publicity crew supporting him on the publicity tour for his new book; and always-welcome scream queen Tiffany Shepis. Already on the ground is a movie crew, hoping to convince Andrew to join their production. If anyone steals the show here, it is the super-cute pixie, Laura Ortiz (The Hills Have Eyes), whose kooky voice will keep her employed in Hollywood far longer than her acting. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Green, Shen, Ortiz and Dave Sheridan; a technical commentary with Green, cinematographer Jan-Michael Losada, editor Matt Latham and makeup FX Artist Robert Pendergraft; “Raising the Dead … Again,” an interview with Green; and a lengthy behind-the-scenes featurette.

Reflecting on the possibility of life after death, the late, great George A. Romero once said, “I’m like my zombies. I won’t stay dead!” If that turns out to be the case – and I hope it does – let’s hope he’s allowed to return in a movie several times more imaginative than the most recent remake of his 1985 undead thriller, Day of the Dead. It isn’t a bad movie, as straight-to-VOD genre flicks go, but it doesn’t do much more with the original conceit than update the characters’ hair styles, clothes and the models of the cars they drive. As was the case the first time around, a small group of military personnel and survivalists dwell in an underground bunker, as they seek to find a cure for the “rotters” virus. A double-row of fences lines the perimeter –why aren’t they electrified? – effectively keeping the local zombie population from overrunning the facility. Inside, a drop-dead gorgeous scientist – aren’t they all? — is working on an anti-zombie vaccine, while quickly running out of the pharmaceuticals necessary to keep a patient alive and her research going. It means leaving the encampment and venturing forth into the world dominated by hungry brain-eaters. Somehow, they’re able to complete their mission, but without noticing that an old friend, Max, has hitched a ride on the undercarriage of the armored truck. Several years earlier, while still alive, Max (Johnathon Schaech) had developed a serious crush on the scientist, Zoe Parker (Sophie Skelton), even going so far as to carve her name into his forearm. During a party in the lab, Max follows Zoe into the morgue, where a keg of beer is being kept on ice. Before he’s able to rape her, however, a zombie raises himself from the slab on which he’s being stored and kills Max before he can do any damage to her. The incident does serve to ruin the party, though. Max, who’s supposed to remind us of Bub, from the original, is unique among the zombie horde, in that he still carries a torch for Zoe, thinks for himself and is nimble enough to climb into air ducts and pursue his prey on his hands and knees. Once he’s caught and caged, however, Zoe hopes to study the plasma of her would-be rapist to discover what makes him tick at a different frequency than that of his peers. Unfortunately, director Hèctor Hernández Vicens (The Corpse of Anna Fritz) and writers Mark Tonderai (Hush) and Lars Jacobson (Baby Blues) fail to develop their concept any further without resorting to clichés. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “Day of the Dead Bloodline: Reviving the Horror,” with interviews and making-of material.

Shot in 1978 and released in 1982, The Aftermath looks very much like the kind of movie a high school AV club might make if they could afford the services of Sid Haig – a founding member of the Hollywood Heavy Hall of Fame – and Z-list star Lynn Margulies, noteworthy for being Adam Kaufman’s girlfriend when he died of lung cancer in 1984. The props and costumes might as well have been manufactured by students taking classes in home economics, woodshop and theater arts, and the weaponry could have been purchased at Toys“R”Us. Apparently, Steve Barkett’s DIY spectacular has achieved cult status among science fiction and horror buffs who favor exploitation films that are so bad they’re good. The Aftermath easily fits that bill. It opens on board a spacecraft that could have served as the model for the Satellite of Love on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” The astronauts no longer receive communications from Earth and, upon their return, learn that the U.S., at least, has been largely destroyed by an apocalyptic nuclear catastrophe and subsequent zombie apocalypse. It must have happened quickly, because the first humans they meet who don’t want to eat their brains are lying on deck chairs along a SoCal beach, deteriorating from exposure to the sun’s radioactive rays. Almost immediately, the astronauts learn that the few surviving humans are being rounded up by a Manson-like cult leader, Cutter (Haig), who kills the male prisoners, rapes the women and enslaves the children. After rescuing Sarah (Margulies) and her son, Captain Newman knows the world can’t heal unless Cutter is destroyed, which is easier said than done. Along the way, writer/director/star Barkett breaks all sorts of genre rules, including depictions of children being killed. The Aftermath does reward exploitation geeks with enough unintended humor to keep their chatrooms buzzing for days, however. I can’t imagine anyone else finding much here to warrant anything but a brief look. Even so, the folks at VCI Entertainment have given the Blu-ray release an upgrade worthy of a Criterion Collection title, with featurettes ported over from the laserdisc edition, other short films of the same caliber and discussions with Barkett, who’s since acted in such gems as Dinosaur Island and Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfold, for which he also supervised special effects.

Zombies could exist for a good long time on the blood and viscera expended during Christopher Lawrence Chapman’s twisty, if confounding thriller,Inoperable. Genre star Danielle Harris (Stakeland) stars as Amy Barrett, a young woman who one minute is stuck in traffic leaving Tampa ahead of a killer hurricane, and the next is lying on a bed in a hospital that, upon closer inspection, appears to be abandoned. As Amy attempts to find a doctor or nurse who might be able to explain why she’s in the hospital, the ones she encounters act as if she doesn’t exist. This adds a ghostly element to the proceedings, which is OK, as far as it goes. Soon, however, she’s being chased through the labyrinthine hallways, by monsters posing as doctors looking for a cheap meal. Amy then comes across another woman, JenArdsen (Katie Keene), and a guard, who do prove to be human, and are chased by the same demons, wielding scalpels, surgical saws and drills. (The difference in their heights and physical stature make them look like Mutt & Jeff.) As was the case in Day of the Dead, Chapman makes good use of the hospital’s heating ducts, and watching the leggy Keene wriggle her way through them in her super-tight mini-dress and heels is almost worth the price of a rental. The other angle exploited by Chapman involves the time loops that keep Amy guessing as to whether the storm has yet to arrive, and she’s in her car imagining things, or if it’s already passed and she’s doomed to remain in a hospital populated by ghosts and ghouls. The premise isn’t bad, but, after a while, the effort it takes to figure out what’s going on inside Amy’s head isn’t worth it.

Woody Woodpecker
A few years ago, the media were awash with stories about the possible re-emergence of a woodpecker believed to have gone extinct many decades ago. Sightings of ivory-billed woodpeckers are so rarely reported that birders refer to them as “The Grail Bird” or “The Lazarus Bird.” Even when an ivory-bill sighting is reported, experts assume locals have staged the appearance to lure birders to the Mississippi-fed bayous of eastern Arkansas to spend money. Evidence caught on film and tape recorders has been inclusive, at best. The reports reminded me of Woody Woodpecker, an anthropomorphic cartoon character I dearly loved as a kid. Woody was created in 1940 by Walter Lantz and storyboard artist Ben “Bugs” Hardaway, who had previously laid the groundwork for two other screwball characters, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, at Warner Bros. Woody’s personality and design evolved over the years, but his cackling laugh was an original. Among the actors who’ve voiced the character are Mel Blanc and Lantz’ wife, Grace Stafford. Woody was put out to pasture in the 1970s, but has since been resurrected on television, video-game platforms, cassette collections and even a cameo in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. His eponymous first feature is a live-action/CGI comedy that surprised me by not completely playing down to the kiddie audience or attempting to get away with a bargain-basement script, as has been the case with other cartoon-character revivals. In Woody Woodpecker, Lance Walters (Timothy Omundson) is a high-powered lawyer from Seattle, but, due to some ill-advised words about the environment, loses his job. He used this an opportunity to check out some land in B.C., which he inherited and wants to develop for a quick-flip. He asks his snooty fiancée, Brittany (Thaila Ayala), to join him on the wilderness excursion.

They will be joined unexpectedly by Lance’s son, Tommy (Graham Verchere), from his first marriage. Without access to the Internet or a television, Tommy is fully prepared to have a miserable time. It isn’t until he becomes fast friends with an anarchic acorn woodpecker, Woody (voiced by Eric Bauza), does he start to enjoy his lakeside sojourn. Then, he meets a local girl who lends him a guitar and invites him to join her band. The conflict comes when Woody objects to Lance’s plans for the garish house and does his best to pre-empt its completion, and Lance hires a pair of poachers to capture the annoying bird. Sensing that acorn woodpeckers are as rare as his ivory-billed cousins – they aren’t – the poachers hope to make a killing by selling him to a rich collector. Mayhem, as usual, ensues. Watching a CGI Woody navigate his way through a live-action world won’t be easy for older viewers and the bird-poop gags wear thin pretty quickly. It shouldn’t matter to kids, though. While Woody Woodpecker is opening on video here, a theatrical release is anticipated in South America, where the character and bombshell actress Ayala are extremely popular. The DVD contains three extra features and bonus cartoon. “Guess Who? The Evolution of Woody,” traces the history of the character, looking at how the design changed and how the character’s tone morphed from his earliest incarnation; “The Making of Woody Woodpecker,” provides comments from the cast and creative team; and “Working with Woody,” which focuses on the design of the character for the film, taking into account how the animated version looked, while thinking about how to bring him into a 3D world.

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Gruesome Twosome: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The annals of Hollywood history are replete with stories about movies taken away from their directors and re-edited – a.k.a., “butchered” – by producers anxious to get something back from their investments or simply to say “basta” to recalcitrant artistes. Erich von Stroheim’s Greed and Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil are textbook cases of the dubious practice. And, while we’re never likely to see the former two titles as intended, the 1998 restored cut of Touch of Evil demonstrates just how misguided those heavily edited versions can be. There’s reason to hope that Welles’ famously unfinished The Other Side of the Wind (1970) finally will see the light of day later this year, on Netflix, thanks to the persistent efforts of, among others, producers Frank Marshall and Filip Jan Rymsza, and executive producer Peter Bogdanovich. It recalls the fate of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s unfinished L’Enfer (“Inferno”), which still stands as one of the most ambitious and experimental projects of its time. In 1964, the acclaimed French director of Les Diaboliques and Wages of Fear began work on an impressionistic thriller designed to plumb the dark depths of unreasonable jealousy and its consequences. Set at a swank lakeside resort in Auvergne region, L’Enfer would have starred Romy Schneider, then 26, as the harassed wife of a controlling hotel manager (Serge Reggiani). Despite huge expectations, major studio backing (Columbia Pictures) and an unlimited budget, the production collapsed after three weeks under the weight of arguments, technical complications and illness.

In Arrow Academy’s new edition of “Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno” — Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea’s 2009 documentary and partial reconstruction – we’re made privy to a large, long-hidden cache of original rushes, screen tests and on-location footage. It sheds light on Clouzot’s original vision through interviews, dramatizations of un-filmed scenes and the director’s own notes. The experimental psychedelic imagery – in black-and-white and color – predates the visuals in Roger Corman and Jack Nicholson’s The Trip by three years. Clearly the doc’s primary appeal is to Francophiles and film nerds, which is OK. In 1994, Claude Chabrol adapted Clouzot’s screenplay for his own version of L’Enfer, starring Emmanuelle Béart and François Cluzet. The Arrow Blu-ray includes a discussion with French cinema expert Lucy Mazdon on Clouzot and the troubled production; “They Saw Inferno,” a featurette including unseen material, providing further insight into the production; a filmed introduction by and interview with Bromberg; a stills gallery; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Twins of Evil; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing by Ginette Vincendeau.

It doesn’t take long for Arrow to go from the sublime to the ridiculous, in “The Gruesome Twosome: Special Edition: Blu-ray,” an early exercise in splatter, slasher and grindhouse tomfoolery from ”Godfather of Gore,” Herschell Gordon Lewis. Despite its questionable historical value, Gruesome Twosome – it could have been re-titled, “The Little Wig Shop of Horrors” – the restoration begs the question as to how bad a movie must be to be eliminated from consideration for such benevolent treatment. Even after restoration, Gruesome Twosome looks as if it had been left spinning on a loop, for days, before the drive-in’s projectionist returned from his days off. Before the movie begins in earnest, two Styrofoam heads, adorned with wigs, are shown discussing what’s about to unfold on screen. Lewis added this completely unnecessary preface to bring the running time to the minimum 70-minute length. As the story goes, the owner of a wig shop cons coeds – as women students were then referred – into inquiring about a room for rent. While taking the tour, the unsuspecting visitor is pushed into the basement, where the owner’s demented son scalps her. The pelt then will be processed into another wig in Mrs. Pringle’s inventory. It continues until a wily amateur sleuth (Gretchen Welles) risks her own blond tresses to discover the horrible truth. But, wait, there’s more! The package includes the bonus feature, A Taste of Blood (1967), which is essentially a cheesy updating of the Dracula legend. The Blu-ray, which can be enjoyed as low-camp, also adds introductions and archival commentaries by Lewis; the funny featurette, “Peaches Christ Flips Her Wig!,” in which the San Francisco drag performer and filmmaker discusses “Gruesome Twosome”; “It Came from Florida,” with filmmaker Fred Olen Ray discussing the state of Florida filmmaking; “H.G. Lewis vs. the Censors,” on the pitfalls of being a pioneer in the blood-and-guts business; and a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by The Twins of Evil.

Just Charlie
Like so many other films targeted for consumption by audiences already conditioned to accepting LGBT-themed entertainments on their own terms and merits, Just Charlie presents something of a litmus test to straight viewers. Director Rebekah Fortune (Deadly Intent) and writer Peter Machen, in his feature debut, ask them to consider how they might react to the same predicament faced by the perfectly normal family in the movie. It’s nothing terribly out of the ordinary, in the prevailing scheme of things, anyway, but some parents might treat their child’s coming-out as Chicken Little did when an acorn fell and hit him on the head. Not long after teenage soccer star Charlie Lyndsay (Harry Gilby) receives a note from a pro team expressing its interest in his future, he decides that it’s become too difficult for him to disguise his long-held belief that he’s a girl trapped in the body of a boy. It isn’t until his parents came home unexpectedly one night and catch him dressed up in his older sister’s clothes, that his secret is revealed to them. After doctors and teachers affirm Charlie’s dilemma, his father decides that he’s undergoing a manifestation of puberty and can be bullied into getting back to normal. His mother and sister have far less trouble accepting his decision. Knowing Charlie’s devotion to soccer, his atypically compassionate coach invites him to join a girl’s squad, but not before he proves his value and determination to them. The more comfortable Charlie becomes in his new role, the harder it is for his father to adjust to it. He’s thrown out of the house by his wife, just weeks before their daughter’s wedding. The filmmakers then decide to throw another rather sizable monkey wrench in the proceedings, leading to a climax designed to pull the rug out from under unsuspecting viewers. Just Charlie took home the Audience Award at 2017’s Edinburgh International Film Festival. Anyone who thinks the story might be a stretch out to check out the revelatory story of 10-year-old Desmond Napoles (a.k.a., “Desmond is Amazing”) on the Internet.

Also from Wolfe Releasing, Sebastian is an appealing, if undemanding romantic drama written, directed and produced by James Fanizza, who also plays one of the two lead roles. The story, while tailored for gay audiences, is flexible enough to fit any combination of straight or LBGT dynamics. Fanizza plays a standard-issue Toronto yuppie, Alex, whose Argentinian/Canadian boyfriend, Nelson (Guifré Bantjes-Rafols), asks him to show his visiting cousin, Sebastian (Alex House), the town, while he’s away on business. Nelson is either unrealistically trusting or very stupid, because Sebastian bears a passing resemblance to Javier Bardem and exudes testosterone like cheap cologne. Although Alex momentarily fights the urge not to cheat on Nelson, he isn’t strong enough to resist Sebastian for any longer than a couple of hours. Knowing that Sebastian, who’s been studying in the U.S., plans to return to Argentina at approximately the same moment as Nelson’s plane will touch down in Toronto, imagines getting away with the affair. What he doesn’t count on is Nelson arriving a day early and forcing his hand on deciding where his intentions lie. Sebastian wouldn’t be the first Argentinian to rearrange his travel plans for love. The only real complicating factor comes when Sebastian announces that no Argentinian worth his salt would dream of stealing a cousin’s lover or allow lust to tarnish a relationship with a close aunt (Leah Doz). Even so, we’ve all seen enough of these kinds of movies to know in which direction the characters are likely to go.

Reset: Blu-ray
Extraordinary Mission: Blu-ray
Supervising executive producer Jackie Chan’s name is featured prominently on the jacket of Reset, a frequently bewildering sci-fi thriller directed Korean helmer Yoon Hong-seung (a.k.a., Chang), who may have bitten off more than he could chew, even with Chan holding the spoon. By playing fast and loose with such standard genre conceits as time-travel and parallel universes, Yoon hopes that audiences won’t be savvy enough to see where the wrinkles in time turn into gaps big enough to navigate a truck. Reset unfolds in a near-future, where time travel and the transfer of living tissue through time is becoming a reality. Here, the sci-fi concepts are facilitated by the discovery and use of wormhole portals to parallel universes, if only for two hours at a time. So far, it’s worked on chimpanzees unable to verbalize what happens when they make the temporal leap. Single mother Xia Tian (Yang Mi) leads a research team on the verge of a major breakthrough, when her son Doudou is kidnapped and held for ransom by the mysterious Cui Ho (Wallace Huo), who demands she turn over her research, which is contained in a glowing blue capsule. Why so soon? Who knows? Anyway, even though Xia Tian complies with the demand – barely — the fiend finds a reason to kill the boy. Stealing an idea from Back to the Future, perhaps, she pushes aside the chimp and leaps into the portal to see what she can do to alter the outcome. With every failed attempt to rescue Doudou, Xia Tian returns to the present and starts the process over again. In doing so, she creates multiple versions of herself in the parallel universe, and they’re all obsessed with saving the boy. If that weren’t confusing enough, the kidnaper sets off a bomb in the research tower that threatens to destroy the research and the scientists in residence there. In the nick of time, Xia Tian recovers the capsule. In attempt to avoid first-responding police, however, she climbs to the roof and jumps into a sky-high refuse chute. When she momentarily lets go, the capsule becomes lodged on a surface upon which loose garbage is raked into a bottomless pit by giant metal claws. It’s a cool scene, no matter how contrived the tick-tock drama may be. No reason to go much further here, except to say the five Xia Tians do come together at one point to combine their resources to save Doudou. Fans of insane Chinese action flicks – as opposed to normal-crazy specimens – might have an easier time deciphering Reset than I did.

As dramatized in Dante Lam’s Operation Mekong (2016), the war for control of the drug trade along the border shared by China and Myanmar has escalated to the point where Chinese filmmakers are able to point to it as a serious domestic problem, instead of one merely affecting countries traditionally supplied by cartels operating in the Golden Triangle and Golden Crescent. When Mao Zedong led the Communist Party, drug use and other vices were strictly prohibited and punishable by death. At the time, Americans stationed in Vietnam kept operators in the Triangle busy enough to ignore China’s highly exploitable market. That changed, of course, after Mao opened the borders to international trade and capitalism provided young people with money to spend on luxuries and vices. Today, the number of addicts has skyrocketed, at the same time as Chinese factories have become major suppliers of chemicals that fuel the crystal-meth trade in North America. Lam was inspired by the actual Mekong Massacre, which occurred in 2011. Two Chinese commercial vessels were ambushed while traveling down the river, near the borders of China, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. Thirteen sailors are executed at gunpoint, and 900,000 methamphetamine pills were recovered at the scene. It’s believed that the pills were planted on the victims’ ships to confuse authorities.

While several of the culprits were executed and a joint regional task forces was formed, the attack pointed to China’s growing appetite for heroin and cartels’ need to control the trade routes. The movie made it seem as if the problem was solved by patriotic Chinese law-enforcement agencies, but no such luck. Alan Mak, Anthony Pun and writer Felix Chong’s less jingoistic Extraordinary Mission takes a different tack in approaching the same issue. A drug-related crime causes a big-city police chief to assign his crack undercover cop, Lin Kai (Huang Xuan), to infiltrate a cartel whose tentacles reach into the Golden Triangle. He cleverly works his way through the ranks, finally reaching the top tier in Thailand. In a business in which no one really trusts anyone else, the Big Boss  (Duan Yihong) naturally tests Lin with a hot dose of top-shelf heroin. He also gains the trust of Eagle’s daughter, who is every bit as dubious as her father. Before attempting to take down the cartel, Lin discovers a one-time associate being held in chains in a filthy cell. Lin’s quest will take him back to China, where corruption threatens to reverse any gains he made in Thailand. The final half-hour is highlighted by a extended Hong Kong-style chase scene that has to be seen to be believed. It’s worth recalling that Chong, Mak and Pun collaborated on Infernal Affairs, one of the best HK police thrillers.

Accident Man: Blu-ray
24 Hours to Live
Based on a character conceived by Pat Mills for the short-lived UK comic book, Toxic! — created as a rival to the hyperviolent 2000AD — Accident Man is populated by a rogues’ gallery of assassins so despicable that its protagonist, Mike Fallon (Scott Adkins), becomes the default anti-hero for his clever dialogue, cool leather jacket and face that, unlike his fellow hitmen, wouldn’t stop a freight train. Not knowing how or why his victims are chosen for execution – intricately staged to look like accidents – also gives him an edge on his male and female compatriots, who hang out in the same pub and swap stories about their kills. Because each assassin has a unique modus operandi, they rarely compete for assignments carefully doled out by the sleazy middleman, Milton (David Paymer). Even though Fallon appears to be well-liked and respected, he isn’t immune to back-stabbing. When his pregnant girlfriend is raped and killed in a home-invasion, police are quick to pin the blame on a pair of junkies who are found dead before they can be arrested and tried for the crime. After surveying her apartment, Fallon comes to the inescapable conclusion that she was murdered in a manner that points to two of his business associates. What he can’t figure out is why anyone put out a contract on her. She belongs to Greenpeace, but, so what? To find the answer he must force his cronies to break the assassin’s code of silence. It won’t be easy, but all roads lead through Milton. There’s nothing remotely subtle in Jesse V. Johnson’s direction or the adaptation, to which Adkins also contributed. The gags carry the impact of a sharp jab to the nose and the fight scenes are choreographed with an eye towards giving viewers the maximum bang for their buck. Much of the fun derives from simply observing the interaction between the mugs at the bar, played by Amy Johnston, Brooks Johnston, Michael Jai White, Tim Man, Perry Benson, Ray Park, Stephen Donald, Ray Stevenson, Nick Moran and Ross O’Hennessy. After the Toxic! Folded, Accident Man ended up at Dark Horse, and was optioned to be made into a film in 1997. It finally made in 2017.

Ethan Hawke is a fine actor, who frequently appears in mediocre movies, presumably to afford taking roles in the independent films that don’t have the money to pay him what he’s worth. That appears to be the case with 24 Hours to Live, an extremely loud and confusing thriller in which he plays a mercenary ex-Marine, who accepts a lucrative gig from an old military buddy (Paul Anderson) but is killed after having sex with the Interpol agent (Qing Xu) he’s supposed to assassinate. (Not sleeping with your target may be one of the cardinal rules taught at assassins’ school, but it’s also the one most frequently broken in movies.) Travis doesn’t see it coming. Neither does he expect to be resurrected and given 24 more hours of life to complete the assignment, with a digital timer sewn into his forearm to remind him of its urgency. Much, if not all of what happens in veteran stuntman Brian Smrz’s sophomore feature takes place in and around Capetown, South Africa, which, perhaps, explains what attracted Hawke to the project. In the time he has left to him, Travis puts him in the middle of enough action to keep the Capetown police busy sorting out for the next year. Also killing time here are Rutger Hauer, Liam Cunningham and Nathalie Boltt.

Time Life: The Jackie Gleason Show: In Color
PBS: Finding Your Roots: Season 4
Nickelodeon: Jojo Siwa: My World
Nickelodeon: Shimmer and Shine: Beyond the Rainbow Falls
Nickelodeon:  Rugrats: Seasons 3 & 4
Jackie Gleason was still one of the biggest attractions on television – literally and figuratively – when, in 1964, he decided to move production of “The Jackie Gleason Show” from New York City, where it had been mounted since 1952, to Miami Beach. He said that he wanted to play golf year-around and what the Great One wanted, the Great One gets … until 1970, anyway, when CBS yanked it for skewing too old. At the time, Miami Beach was referred to as “the sun and fun capital of the world” and everything about the show looked brighter in color. (Although CBS was a pioneer in color broadcasting, it took its time adding it to its roster of programs.) Since “The Jackie Gleason Show” went off the air, it’s been difficult to find reruns or collections of the complete episodes on video cassette or DVD. Time Life has remedied that with a boxed set of 27 episodes in color, including seven “Honeymooners” sketches that haven’t been seen in nearly 50 years. The single-disc “The Jackie Gleason Show: In Color” serves as a teaser for the larger package, not yet available in retail. It contains four never-before-released episodes, featuring guest appearances by Milton Berle, Red Buttons, George Carlin, Nipsey Russell, Phil Silvers and Florence Henderson, as well as three unreleased “Honeymooners” sketches, with Gleason, Art Carney, Sheila MacRae and Jane Kean. They’re still funny. It’s also a blast watching the supersize entertainer dance around the stage as if he were in the ballet. The big drawback here is the absence of dance routines by the June Taylor Dancers and more than a few regular skits, sketches and songs.

The surprise PBS hit series, “Finding Your Roots,” entered Season Four with a full head of steam behind it, and the first episode didn’t disappoint. Former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and Larry David, who impersonated him on “Saturday Night Live,” trace their lineage from 1940s Brooklyn to Jewish communities in Europe. Other guests whose ancestral mysteries were solved last season were Carmelo Anthony, Ava DuVernay, Téa Leoni, Ana Navarro, Questlove, Christopher Walken, Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen, William H. Macy, Scarlett Johansson, Paul Rudd, John Turturro and Amy Schumer. It’s kind of like a game show, in which the prizes come in the form of knowledge.

Like most American adults, I couldn’t pick JoJo Siwa out of a lineup in which Honey Boo Boo, the Olsen Twins and the ghost of JonBenét Ramsey also stood. Fortunately for the wee performer, she has a vast army of fans, who’ve followed her from her “Dance Moms” breakthrough and YouTube contributions, to the Nickelodeon special, “Jojo Siwa: My World,” which was taped last summer at Mall of America. It also contains 15 minutes of bonus content, in which the singer/dancer recounts the events in her still-young life that brought her to a such a huge performance venue and Nickelodeon stardom.

Also from Nickelodeon, “Shimmer And Shine: Beyond the Rainbow Falls” follows Shimmer, Shine and Leah as they embark on magical adventures, in which they’ll explore wondrous locales and meet exciting new friends. Whether they’re recovering a magical Genie Gem, searching for Zac in the forest or rescuing Zeta from a wild whirlpool, the animated characters are always ready to work together and lend a helping hand. The Season Three episodes include “Rainbow Zahramay,” “The Darpoppy,” “Hairdos and Don’ts,” “Flower Power,” “All That Glitters,” “Waterbent” and “Whatever Floats Your Boat.”

Paramount must have listened to the complaints of fans who were unhappy with the quality of previous releases of “Rugrats” episodes, which were available streamed or on Burn-on-Demand status, neither of which are up to standards set by DVDs. The series premiered in 1991, as the second Nicktoon after “Doug” and preceding “The Ren & Stimpy Show.” When production initially halted in 1993, after 65 episodes, popular demand forced Nickelodeon to order new episodes and feature-length movies from Klasky Csupo Animation. “Rugrats” focuses on a group of toddlers, most prominently Tommy, Chuckie, twins Phil and Lil, Angelica and Susie, and their day-to-day lives, usually involving common life experiences that become adventures in the babies’ imaginations. Their parents, of course, remain clueless. In Season Three, Phil and Lil take on new personas; Susie and Angelica head to summer camp; Chuckie is diagnosed with “Rhinoceritis”; and Stu relives a camping nightmare he had when he was 34. It also features the critically acclaimed episode, “A Rugrats Passover.” In Season Four, fans won’t want to miss the classic Rugrats family vacation, meet Spike’s babies or laugh along as Phil and Chuckie discover the joys of dresses.

The DVD Wrapup: Last Flag, Westfront 1918, My Art, Viva L’Italia, Gothic, Viva Espana and more

Friday, February 2nd, 2018

Last Flag Flying: Blu-ray
At first glance, the best reason for picking up Last Flag Flying are the names on the promotional material. The Amazon Studios production was directed by Richard Linklater (Boyhood), adapted from a novel by co-screenwriter Darryl Ponicsan (Cinderella Liberty) and stars Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne. (Good enough for me, anyway.) Last Flag Flying also got extremely positive reviews. But Linklater’s heartfelt story about whether honor and the bonds of brotherhood still matter, played in no more than 110 domestic theaters, earning  just under a million dollars before shipping off to ancillary markets, where money figures are kept close to a studio’s vest. When it was released, just ahead of Veterans Day, many pundits predicted Last Flag Flying might produce an Oscar nomination, or two, but it was ignored … not “snubbed,” ignored. That’s what happens when a picture underperforms in the marketplace for no good reason. Thirty years after they served together in Vietnam, former Navy Corpsman Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Carell) re-unites with his old buddies, ex-Marines Sal Nealon (Cranston) and Reverend Richard Mueller (Fishbourne), to bury his son, a young Marine killed in the Iraq War. After their arrival at Dover Air Force Base, where the caskets of America’s dead warriors are shipped, Shepherd is made privy to details about his son’s death that make him reconsider plans for his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. Ponicsan’s 2005 novel was inspired, in part, by the government’s 18-year policy, begun in the first Bush administration, forbidding photographers and videographers from covering the unloading and warehousing of flag-draped caskets, as if it were embarrassed by the sacrifices made by the dead men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan. The author decided to make a statement about that practice – since rescinded – and the lies told soldiers, parents and millions of other patriotic Americans to justify the expansion of the war on terrorism into Iraq and losses suffered in it.

In doing so, Ponicsan called upon characters introduced in his 1970 novel, “The Last Detail,” adapted three years later by Hal Ashby and Robert Towne, to play 30-years-older versions of themselves. That picture was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Jack Nicholson), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Randy Quaid) and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material From Another Medium. Linklater decided not to reprise the same characters, insisting that Last Flag Flying was a “spiritual sequel” to The Last Detail, in which Nicholson’s Signalman First Class Billy “Badass” Buddusky leads a detail assigned to escort Seaman Larry Meadows (Quaid) to Portsmouth Naval Prison to serve an unconsciously long sentence for a petty crime. Despite the loose connection, some of the same railroad tracks used to transport Meadows to Portsmouth were borrowed to carry the casket bearing Shep’s son to Portsmouth for the no-frills, non-military burial. Like Ashby, Linklater not only sought actors who could handle the film’s dramatic elements but also add a humorous touch for the more light-hearted and profane moments. The balance is maintained throughout the picture, which asks several still relevant questions about our government’s tendency to lie first and let investigative journalists sort out the facts later. The question of whether honor and brotherhood carry expiration dates is answered satisfactorily, as well. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, outtakes, interviews and a featurette on shooting on Veterans’ Day.

Westfront 1918: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Kameradschaft: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Two truly great movies about the inescapable horrors of war were released almost simultaneously in the spring of 1930. Both argued against the use of violence to settle disagreements between nations, using the trench warfare on Germany’s western front as a symbol for the futility of attempting to do so, anyway. Tellingly, Adolph Hitler’s government banned both movies from being shown, arguing that they advanced pacifism over manly tests of strength; falsely represented Germany’s role in the war as cowardly; and could hamper the ability of belligerent nations from conscripting soldiers and waging war. If only a work of art were that powerful. Of the two pictures, Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front is the better-known today, if only because it became the first talkie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture and has better withstood the test of time. Moreover, Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of the same title was considered required reading for tens of thousands of American high school students. (Last year, in his belated Nobel Lecture, Bob Dylan cited it as being of one of his primary literary influences.) The lesser known film, G.W. Pabst’s Westfront 1918, probably received little exposure here, outside New York; was adapted from a less popular book, “Four Infantrymen on the Western Front,” by Ernst Johannsen; and only recently was restored, from a master positive from the BFI National Archive Collection and missing scenes re-inserted using a duplicate negative from the Swiss firm, Praesens-Film. The original camera negative has been lost.

Westfront 1918 was Pabst’s first sound film, arriving only months after his Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl and The White Hell of Pitz Palu hit theaters. It is a mercilessly realistic depiction of the nightmare that scarred a generation of German, French and British soldiers, who entered the war for honorable reasons and lost them in the stalemate of trench warfare. Because it is set toward the end of the conflict, Pabst was able to replicate the frustration and fatigue that plagued soldiers who’d been enduring miserable conditions for several years already. The Americans had only recently entered the conflagration, avoiding much of the action in the trenches. He also followed a few key characters while they were home on leave or on the lam, during which they could see how the war had devastated civilians. Unless compromises were made, food was nearly impossible for non-combatants to acquire on the open market. One soldier finds his wife in bed with the son of the town butcher, whose shop is downstairs from their apartment. Westfront 1918 delivers images of war and battlefronts that recall comparable scenes in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. They include epic sweeps across the treeless vistas and trenches surrounded by coils of barbed wire and bomb craters, and fortifications drenched in rainwater and filled with exhausted men afraid to raise their heads, for fear of being used as target practice. It’s worth noting that “All Quiet on the Western Front” was released before the Production Code was instituted, allowing Milestone to show graphic images of death and dismemberment. The splendid Criterion Collection benefits from a high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; a fascinating French television broadcast of French and German World War I veterans, reacting to the film, in 1969; a 2016 interview with film scholar Jan-Christopher Horak; a new restoration demonstration, featuring Martin Koerber and Julia Wallmüller of the Deutsche Kinemathek; and an essay by author and critic Luc Sante.

In a similarly humanistic mine-disaster drama, Pabst’s Kameradschaft (1931) almost serves as a sequel to Westfront 1918. Here, though, former German soldiers put their historic differences with their French neighbors aside long enough to help rescue miners trapped 2,000 feet below the surface of a shared border. Although still divided by memories of relatives and friends lost in the trench warfare, the German workers immediately volunteer – no real debate was necessary – to risk their own lives in solidarity with fellow miners. They’re even able to convince their boss to free up equipment to be used in the mission. After Pabst depicts their trucks crashing through the gates at the border, he gets down to the business of staging a rescue that stands up nearly 90 years after it was first shot. Once again, Pabst and cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner capture the horror of being stuck hopelessly so far underground, as well as the relief on their faces when their German comrades arrive. The same is true for the townsfolk gathered above them. Although the scenes that take place inside the mine look extremely real, they were, in fact, they were shot on sets meticulously designed by Erno Metzner and Karl Vollbrecht. It isn’t until late in the story that we learn that the border separating the two countries had been redrawn after the war and was a cause of constant resentment by the German citizens. Moreover, the imaginary line extends to the miners’ level, where a shaft has been gated to reflect post-war realities. The likelihood that the line would be redrawn in the not-too-distant future is clearly implied. Kameradschaft (a.k.a., “Comradeship” and “La Tragédie de la mine”) is based on the Courrières mine disaster in 1906, where rescue efforts after a coal-dust explosion were hampered by the lack of trained mine rescuers. Expert teams from Paris and miners from the Westphalia region of Germany came to the assistance of the French miners. Even so, 1,099 men and boys lost their lives. Even less of Kameradschaft was available to restorers than Westfront 1918, and the finished print is missing a couple of segments. The Blu-ray adds a new interview with German film scholar Hermann Barth on the film’s production; a 1988 interview with editor Jean Oser; a 2016 interview with Horak on the historical context of the film; and an essay by Sante.

Rendel: Dark Vengeance: Blu-ray
In a comic-book world dominated by American writers and illustrators, it’s nice to discover a foreign-born superhero who measures up to some of the toughest hombres our artists have created in the service of all that’s good, just, holy and commercially viable at the global box office. The fact that Rendel: Dark Vengeance is of Finnish origin – the first superhero feature to emerge from that country, apparently — is duly noted in all the articles and publicity I’ve read about the movie, after its arrival at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. Although Rendel bears a passing resemble to DC Comics’ Bat-Man and Marvel’s Punisher, the character is an original creation of graphic designer and art director Jesse Haaja, who came up with the idea for a homegrown vigilante character nearly 20 years ago, while still a schoolboy. Clad in tight black leather from head to toe, Rendel is motivated by revenge and hatred for those responsible for ordering the murders of his wife and daughter. They are members of a criminal organization, VALA, led by the merciless Mr. Erola (Matti Onnismaa), a corrupt industrialist, and his hoodlum son, Rotikka (Rami Rusinen). Under his alias, Rämö, Rendel (Kris Gummerus) had learned that VALA is testing potentially toxic vaccines on children in Third World countries, under the auspices of legitimate relief agencies, in preparation of a larger rollout in Europe through underground sources. Erola profits whether the vaccines succeed or fail. Rendel is born after Rämö is awakened from a nightmare by a mysterious woman, Marla (Alina Tomnikov), who whispers to him, “Every single member of VALA must die.” The only true superpower Rendel possesses is an ability to withstand and inflict great pain and punishment to those assigned to eliminate him. The cool leather outfit helps him survive, as well. Rendel unleashes his own special brand of justice against VALA, threatening to put an end to the distribution of the vaccine. As the blood spills and the money burns, however, VALA recruits a group of mercenaries to do what others seemingly can’t. Needless to say, Haaja wasn’t able to command the kind of budget Hollywood accords its creative teams. He made do with lighting and set designs that emphasized the story’s dark and brutal underpinnings and characters whose roles weren’t dependent on a long and complicated backstory. Lovers of comic-book action should still get a kick out of watching Haaja’s fresh take on a familiar genre. Even though he only has three shorts on his drawing boards currently, I’d be very surprised if someone in Hollywood hasn’t already noticed what he was able to do with a small budget and unlimited ambition. My only question is, where are these dark avengers hiding when we really need them?

My Art
I was having trouble coming up with a way to interest readers in Laurie Simmons’ almost painfully self-aware, last-shot-at-glory drama, My Art, when I finally recalled the link I’d missed at the beginning of the film. When Lena Dunham appeared in a short, expository cameo, it should have alerted me to the likelihood that My Art may not be a strictly fictional endeavor, just as “Girls” evolved from its creator’s personal history, attitudes and hang-ups. A few minutes later, when several examples of the protagonist’s art work are displayed, I flashed on Dunham’s breakthrough feature, Tiny Furniture (2010), which featured some of the same miniature props. Later, putting 2 and 2 together, it finally dawned on me that Simmons not only is Dunham’s real-life mother, but the work that her character — 65-year-old Ellie Shine — is creating during a working vacation in Upstate New York resembles pieces Simmons has already exhibited. I might also have recognized Grace Dunham, Simmons’ other artistic daughter, who also co-starred in Tiny Furniture. It was far easier to get through My Art without making the connections earlier. By accepting a wealthy friend’s invitation to housesit her almost-too-perfect home and sprawling estate, Ellie hopes to gain the inspiration and tranquility she needs to complete a project important to her. Never mind that the conceit probably would be dismissed as a novelty act by a pretentious artist, who’s grown tired of teaching for a paycheck, anywhere outside New York. She’s accompanied only by her dog, Bing, who’s lost control of the muscles in his rear legs and needs Ellie as much as she needs him. (It doesn’t look like a trick you could teach a stunt dog.) At first, the artist is irritated by the familiarity of the property’s overly friendly gardeners – one an inactive actor — who occasionally intrude on her musings. Soon enough, however, Ellie sees how they might fill a void in her video installation, which involves mimicking famous actresses in their most popular roles. It’s kind of like the photographs of Cindy Sherman, except in digitally captured homages to classic motion pictures. For the scenes to work, Ellie requires the presence of costumed male actors, with whom to share dialogue. Newfound friends, played by Robert Clohessy, John Rothman and Joshua Safdie, nicely fill the bill in scenes from Morocco, Some Like It Hot, A Clockwork Orange, The Misfits and other TCM favorites. “You can never be Clark Gable, I can never be Marilyn Monroe,” Ellie tells a doubtful co-star. “I just want to see what it looks like.” What it looks like is a prime example of how Hollywood casting directors actually know what they’re doing and rarely make mistakes. The biggest problem for me was Simmons, herself, however. By playing what I assume to be an idealized version of herself, My Art comes across as a vanity project. I couldn’t help wondering how Jill Clayburgh would have interpreted the character, if only she had lived long enough to do it. Parker Posey, Barbara Sukowa, Blair Brown do well in supporting roles.

Tyler Perry’s Boo 2! A Madea Halloween: Blu-ray
If it’s true that only a fool argues with success, how does one explain the propensity of mainstream critics to continue to review every new installment of Tyler Perry’s “Medea” saga as if it’s going to surprise them by being good or believe that Perry’s constituency gives a flying fig about their opinions. Despite reviews that bordered on the contemptuous, Tyler Perry’s Boo 2! A Madea Halloween was as close a sure thing as there is the industry in mid-October. And, while it may not have raked in the same amount of money as previous releases, “Boo 2” nearly doubled its production budget – it was shot in five days — without having to waste a whole lot of money on marketing costs. This Halloween, Brian’s daughter, Tiffany (Diamond White), wants to attend the frat party being held at a haunted campground. (Last year’s party caused the fraternity to lose its party privileges.) The 18-year-old gets permission from her mother, Debrah (Taja V. Simpson), but Brian (Perry), Madea (Perry), Joe (Perry), Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis) and Hattie (Patrice Lovely) aren’t anxious to authorize her partying with a Murderers Row of movieland slashers, splatterers, serial killers, demons and horny boys. Hilarity ensues, of course, when the old-timers visit the campsite themselves. “Boo 2” reportedly was thisclose to getting a R-rating – it didn’t – but not for anything its target audience would find remotely offensive. The Blu-ray adds outtakes, deleted scenes and featurettes “Caddy Whack Boo” and “Why We Love Joe!” I’ve seen worse.

Napping Princess: Blu-ray
Legend of the Naga Pearls: Blu-ray
The alternative title of Kenji Kamiyama’s first stand-alone feature – Napping Princess, after it was changed from “Ancien and the Magic Tablet,” alludes to his heroine’s remarkable ability to nod off almost at will and enter the fantasy kingdom, Heartland. For a little while, at least, Morikawa Kokone is Princess Ancien, a precocious little girl of royal birth, able to unravel mysteries related to the challenges she faces in both Heartland and non-fantasy world. Heartland, it seems, is a vertical kingdom that revolves entirely around cars. In fact, the royal residence sits high above the factory that churns out the automobiles that Ancien watches from her lofty perch, barely moving, in a permanent state of gridlock. The princess carries a “magic tablet” she uses to give life to various machines, including a blue toy bear named Joy, and a transformative motorcycle, Heart. The king disapproves of this, however, and orders Ancien confined to her tower. To combat his chief nemesis, Colossus, a gigantic monster of molten metal, the king builds a force of giant robots. For her part, Ancien enlists a biker named Peach to assist her in the ultimate battle. (I was reminded of the seaborne beast in Cloverfield.) Meanwhile, the king’s chief adviser, Bewan, conspires against him. The other half of Napping Princess is set in is 2020, three days before the opening of the Tokyo Olympics. Brina Palencia, the same actress who voices Ancien, in English, also takes on Kokone, whom the princess resembles. Kokone is finishing up her school term and, when she isn’t dozing off, considering where to go to college. She lives with her single father, Momotarō, in Okayama Prefecture. He’s a gruff and eccentric car mechanic of few words, who has a jacket similar to that worn by Peach, as well as a robotic bear, motorcycle and cracked tablet similar to those seen in Kokone’s dreams. Her mother perished in an accident while she was young and Momotarō’s silence on her death leaves her suspicious of what else he isn’t telling her. In the leadup to the Olympics, Momotarō is framed and arrested for stealing technology from a powerful corporation. Kokone and her childhood friend, Morio, take it upon themselves to save him, basing their investigation, in part, on clues she remembers from sojourns in Heartland. It requires them to travel to Tokyo, where her father is being held by authorities. If the plot sounds a tad too complex for younger viewers, Kamiyama offers plenty of entry points and diversions for them to stay involved in the story. The main thing working in Napping Princess’ favor is that most American viewers won’t be able to differentiate it from the wonderful animated features generated by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. Afterwards, fans of anime and Japanimation will get more from the bonus features than newcomers. They include a subtitled interview with Kamiyama; his introduction at the Japanese premiere; the cast’s greeting at the premiere; a featurette on capturing Okayama’s scenery; and quintessentially goofy interview show that looks as if it were shot in a spare room of a convention center.

Unlike other Chinese fantasy adventures, Legend of the Naga Pearls isn’t rooted in ancient myths and legends, or the heroics of warriors chronicled by dynastic historians. The blend of real-life and CGI-generated characters recalls Disney, while the story is consistent with Chinese folklore. In an animated sequence that wouldn’t look out of place in a “My Little Pony” adventure, Yang Lei introduces the central conflict in the largely family-family film: a battle between the Winged People and Humans for the control of the idyllic city of Uranopolis. The Humans prevailed, but without eradicating the Winged People, whose crippling loss was the ability to fly. The story then transitions to live-action and the introduction of protagonist Ni Kongkong (Darren Wang), who, after being bullied and disfigured as a child, grows into the self-appointed role of “prince of thieves.” The title refers to a collection of magical pearls that have ensured the future of the Winged People, but, after the war, fell into the hands of Humans. Xuelie, a royal descendant of the Winged People, commits himself to finding the omnipotent pearls and restoring his peoples’ powers and status in the fictional world of Novoland. Ni (Darren Wang) and constable Raven (Zhang Tianai), a deceptively strong and beautiful woman of winged ancestry, want to track down the pearls, if only to return balance to their universe and prevent another terrible war. In a conceit that could irritate adults and delight children, Ni is accompanied wherever he goes by a cartoon pangolin, Oka, whose superpower is emitting brown-tinged farts that can be directed at their enemies. Here, some writers have detected a possible reference to Disney’s Aladdin – the pangolin, not the farts — with Aka sitting in for the monkey, Abu, and Raven for Princess Jasmine. The CGI-dominated segments of Legend of the Naga Pearls are splendidly drawn – possibly with a 3D version in mind – and the real-life locations are easy on the eyes, as well. Costumes, set design and other technical merits are also strong.

Class of 1999: Blu-ray
Gothic: Blu-ray
Mark Lester and screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner’s potentially prophetic Class of 1999 extends a conceit that originated way back in 1955, in Blackboard Jungle. They ask viewers to imagine how a student body comprised of punks and hoodlums might react to a disciplinary policy administered by robotic teachers modeled after RoboCop and the Terminator. Not only are the robots programmed to teach, but their software also directs them when to kick ass to maintain order. Lester had mined the same vein, eight years earlier, in Class of 1984. The physical similarities between the two high schools argue that the only things that have changed in 15 years – Hollywood time – is that the students have grown more out of control and the physical plants no longer are fit for teaching. If the story is entirely predictable, Class of 1999 is enhanced by terrific makeup effects, robotics and costume design. Pam Grier’s breasts double as rocket launchers … do I have to say more? Lester also was able to recruit Malcolm McDowell, Stacy Keach and the excellent character actor, John P. Ryan (It’s Alive!). The only student who’s particularly memorable is Joshua John Miller, who also played the pee-wee psycho in River’s Edge. The Blu-ray includes commentary with Lester and interviews with Lester and co-producer Eugene Mazzola; screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner; special-effects creators Eric Allard and Rick Stratton; and director of photography Mark Irwin.

The other January release from Vestron’s fine Collector’s Series, Gothic, is Ken Russell’s fever-dream depiction of the stormy night at Lord Byron’s residence, on the Swiss side of Lake Geneva, when two of English literature’s greatest horror novels were born: Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” and Dr. John William Polidori’s “Vampyre.” In 1985, when Gothic was released, Russell’s name above the title was as much of a trademark as Technicolor or Dolby. Still, commercial considerations demanded that Russell’s instincts not be as scandalous as those demonstrated in The Devils, Savage Messiah and Lisztomania, a decade earlier. Had this leopard really changed his spots or would those evil instincts return to inform Gothic, as well? I’m happy to report that they did. Although the details vary, it was at the Villa Diodati, in the summer of 1816, that the exiled Romantic poet (Gabriel Byrne) and his personal physician (Timothy Spall) hosted the 18-year-old author and her future husband, Percy Shelley (Natasha Richardson, Julian Sands), and her ditzy, star-struck stepsister, Claire Clairmont (Myriam Cyr). The weather not being conducive to enjoying the lakeside accommodations, they remained indoors, taking turns reading German ghost stories, translated into French from “Fantasmagoriana.” Byron then proposed they “each write a ghost story.” Neither of the resultant novels fit that description, but they’ve obviously stood the test of time. Mary’s night is spent fighting off nightmares and frightening hallucinations, possibly brought about by too many drops of the doctor’s laudanum in the wine served before, during and after dinner. If Russell actually had tempered his natural tendency to push the limits of the medium, newcomers to his work wouldn’t know it from the more grotesque imagery and salacious behavior on display here. After the laudanum kicks in, Gothic wanders well far off the beaten path. Special features include vintage commentary with Lisi Russell, in conversation with film historian Matthew Melia; isolated score selections and an interview with composer Thomas Dolby; and new interviews with Sands, screenwriter Stephen Volk and director of Photography Mike Southon.

The Sunshine Makers
Red Krokodil: Directors Cut: Blu-ray
Timothy Leary wasn’t even out of his teens when lysergic acid diethylamide was first synthesized by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, on November 16, 1938, at the Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland. It wasn’t until five years later, when Hofmann accidentally ingested an unknown quantity of the chemical, that LSD’s psychedelic properties were revealed. It was introduced as a commercial medication, Delysid. for various psychiatric uses in 1947. In the 1950s, CIA officials began testing LSD as an agent for mind control and chemical warfare on government employees, military personnel, doctors, prostitutes, mentally ill patients and other civilians, usually without their subjects’ knowledge. In the harrowing six-part Netflix docudrama series, Wormwood, Errol Morris describes what happened after CIA biological-warfare scientist Frank Olson was covertly dosed by his supervisor and, nine days later, plunged to his death from the window of a hotel room in New York City. The agency convinced reporters that his death was a suicide, but Morris, working at the behest of family members, effectively argued that Olson’s was anything but self-motivated. Among the test subject who experienced more pleasant trips were novelist Ken Kesey, Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, gangster James “Whitey” Bulger and actor Cary Grant. Well before the CIA was forced to acknowledge its role in the top-secret tests, LSD’s potential as a recreational drug was openly promoted by Kesey, San Francisco rock groups and Harvard psychologists Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (a.k.a., Ram Dass). The unauthorized production and dissemination of LSD was prohibited in 1967, ensuring a rise in interest in the drug by the uninitiated and rise of highly lucrative underground distribution networks. That much is common knowledge … although young people today might consider it to be ancient history.

Although cocaine supplanted LSD has the designer drug of choice it the 1980s, it has never really gone out of vogue as a recreational drug. Then, too, scientists are more interested than ever in researching its therapeutic and medicinal powers. Cosmo Feilding-Mellen and writer Connie Littlefield’s informative and surprisingly light-hearted The Sunshine Makers may not equate Stanley Owsley, Nicholas Sand and Tim Scully with Hollywood anti-heroes Barry Seal and Pablo Escobar, but the FBI and other law-enforcement officials sure did. The science nerds had anticipated the popularity of LSD by creating a pharmaceutical apparatus to produce millions of tabs of relatively pure Orange Sunshine acid and a distribution network that presaged the Colombian and Mexican cartel. While racking in the dough, they justified their criminal enterprise by convincing themselves they were doing God’s work … freeing the minds and libidos of American youth. The Sunshine Makers also introduces us to some of their financiers, traffickers and girlfriends/accomplices, through flashback segments and interviews conducted before Sand’s death last April. It also features fresh input from the law-enforcement agents who chased them around the country and put Sand and Scully, at least, in prison. The Sunshine Makers shouldn’t be confused with William A. Kirkley’s Orange Sunshine, which focused on the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a group of surfers and hippies that became the largest supplier of LSD during the ’60s and ’70s, selling Sand and Scully’s products.

After the prohibition of LSD was imposed and arrests mounted, underground chemists and dealers opened the distribution stream to drugs that were laced with speed and other pollutants. Pressure also mounted to produce stronger, more addictive and increasingly more dangerous products for the consumption of users, not limited to flower children and Deadheads. Ecstasy proved to be a relatively safe alternative to crystal meth, opiates and other mind-altering substances, but, since it didn’t come with instructions, could prove fatal. Domiziano Cristopharo and Francesco Scardone’s exceedingly disturbing Red Krokodil portrays the effects of one such pain-killing drug on one pitiable survivor of a Chernobyl-like disaster. His substance of choice is desomorphine, commonly known in its homemade form as “krokodil.” The drug, formulated at about the same time as LSD, didn’t become popular in Russia until a crackdown on heroin production around 2010 and new restrictions on the sale of codeine-containing medications. Its street name comes from the similarity of an addict’s skin, damaged by the drug use, to crocodile leather. The sole non-hallucinatory character in Red Krokodil is Him (Brock Madon), a man seemingly in his 20s, who suddenly finds himself alone in a large city devastated by a nuclear bomb. His physical decay, due to a massive intake of the drug, is mirrored in his mind, where a frightening reality mixes with unpleasant fantasies. Adding to the horror of degradation is the setting: a small apartment overlooking the ruined city. Like Him’s clothes, it has been befouled by feces, garbage and other debris. Anyone who had trouble sitting through the second half of Requiem for a Dream won’t make it through 10 minutes of Red Krokodil. Also scary is the score, which was composed by London-based musical collective, the Heliocentrics. Kids, don’t try this drug at home.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes: Special Edition: Blu-ray
There’s no question that this 1978 musical parody of mid-century horror tropes and B-movie clichés holds an esteemed place in the modern history of motion pictures. Although it was universally lambasted by mainstream and alternative critics, alike – while at the Chicago Reader, Dave Kehr opined, “Self-conscious camp, the lowest artistic category known to man” — and featured actors, sets and special effects that weren’t even up to snuff 40 years ago, it encouraged a generation of filmmakers to cut every corner necessary to make films outside the Hollywood pipeline and create their own distribution channels. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes may have been shot on 35mm film, but its arrival at the dawn of the camcorder and video-cassette age inspired amateur auteurs and actors to exploit the new home-entertainment platform for their own purposes. There’s no reason to regurgitate the plot here … suffice it to say that John De Bello did for tomatoes what Hitchcock did for seagulls. It spawned three direct sequels, a cartoon series for Fox, a couple of books, comics, three different video games and a 1999 homage in Greek filmmaker Panos H. Koutras’ immortal “I epithesi tou gigantiaiou moussaka” (The Attack of the Giant Moussaka). Plans for a remake have occasionally been forwarded, but why spend good money on a lousy re-boot when you can upgrade the original every five years, or so, on the latest video platform. MVD Rewind has done just that with its spanking-new Blu-ray “Special Edition,” which features a newly remastered 4K digital transfer of the film; high-definition Blu-ray and standard-definition DVD pressings; original 2.0 Mono Audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray); commentary from co-writer/director DeBello, co-writer/co-star Steve Peace and ”creator” Costa Dillon; three deleted scenes; seven featurettes of varying length and historical value; ”Gone with the Babusuland,” the original 8mm short that inspired Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, with optional audio commentary; “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,” the original 8mm short film, with optional audio commentary; a production design photo gallery; collectible poster; radio spots; original theatrical trailer; and Easter eggs. I can’t wait for the definitive 4K UHD edition to be announced by Criterion Collection.

The Cat O’ Nine Tails: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Following the success of Dario Argento’s debut feature, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, distributor Titanus asked the writer/director to deliver a follow-up in short order. That film, The Cat O’ Nine Tails, was granted a greatly enhanced budget and heralded in its U.S. marketing campaign as ”nine times more suspenseful” than its predecessor, which had received some positive reviews here only a few months earlier. The additional money allowed for the casting of higher profile non-Italian actors than Tony Musante and Suzy Kendall, as well as risking an English-language dialogue track. Importing Karl Malden and James Franciscus, and Germans Horst Frank and Catherine Spaak, to fill the most visible roles gave the movie the lift it needed to overcome a narrative that feels a tad rushed, even now. The story, itself, leans toward American genre norms. (At one point, it even borrows dialogue directly from Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep.”) Even so, The Cat O’ Nine Tails represents giallo at its most accessible and purely entertaining, which is to say that the ratio of violence to nudity favors the garroting and knife play, over gratuitous, if welcome sexuality. Before a break-in occurs at a secretive genetics institute, blind puzzle-maker Franco Arno (Karl Malden) overhears men in a nearby car discussing a scheme to blackmail one of the institute’s scientists. After learning about the resultant crime and murder, he teams up with intrepid reporter Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus) to crack the case. Before long, bodies begin to pile up and the two amateur sleuths find their own lives imperiled in their search for the truth. To further dissuade the brilliant gamester, Franco’s young niece, Lori, is put directly in harm’s way by the conspirators. If the sum of the individual clues – nine, to be precise — doesn’t amount to a completely logical ending, well, it hardly matters. “Cat” swiftly led directly to the third and final entry in Argento’s so-called ”Animal Trilogy” of giallo thrillers, all of which were brilliantly scored by Ennio Morricone. Triva buffs might recognize 10-year-old Cinzia De Carolis (Lori) from Antonio Margheriti’s otherwise forgettable Cannibal Apocalypse (1980). The Arrow Films release offers a 4K restoration from the original camera negative; separate HD and SD discs; new commentary by critics Alan Jones and Kim Newman; fresh interviews with co-writer/director Argento, De Carolis, co-writer Dardano Sacchetti and production manager Angelo Iacono; script pages for the lost original ending, translated into English for the first time; a reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Candice Tripp; double-sided fold-out poster; four lobby card reproductions; and a limited edition booklet illustrated by Matt Griffin, featuring an essay by Argento and new writing by Barry Forshaw, Troy Howarth and Howard Hughes.

Viva L’Italia: Blu-ray
Although statues of the great Italian general, politician and nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi can be found in many American cities, his contributions to his country’s reunification and liberation from tyranny may be the least studied of all revolutionaries by students here. The same can be said of Roberto Rossellini’s excellent Viva L’Italia, which chronicles the 1860 Expedition of the Thousand to conquer Italy’s disparate kingdoms under the banner of Victor Emmanuel II. The epic story opens with the violent quelling of an uprising in Sicily, but quickly moves north to Quarto, near Genoa, where Garibaldi has assembled a motley corps of volunteers and arranged for them to sail to Marsala. It’s where the Bourbons rule the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and their constituents might be ready to revolt. Vastly outgunned and outnumbered, the 1,000-man army gathers steam and hundreds more volunteers and weapons with every new victory. Garibaldi’s enlightened leadership and strategizing leads to a plebiscite that brings Naples and Sicily into the Kingdom of Sardinia, the last territorial conquest before the creation of the Kingdom of Italy, on March 17, 1861. Rossellini was commissioned by the government to make Viva L’Italia (a.k.a., “Garibaldi”) as part of the country’s centennial celebration. He approached the assignment as he had The Flowers of St. Francis, presenting the main character in neo-realist mode, as though he were making “a documentary made after the event, trying to figure out what happened,” he allowed. “I tried to lace myself in front of the events of a century ago, the way a documentarist would have done who had the good fortune to follow Garibaldi’s campaign with his camera.” Apart from the expository dialogue and strategizing, what makes the film extraordinary are the battle scenes, which appear to have been shot from the perspective of the general’s binoculars, capturing wide swaths of contested territory from a perch overlooking the action. From that distance, the movements of combatants resembled those of red, black and brown ants attacking a watermelon left behind by picnickers. Renzo Ricci, who had just finished working with Michelangelo Antonioni on L’Avventura, delivers an appropriately understated portrayal of Garibaldi. The nicely restored Arrow Blu-ray adds the shorter American version; a new interview with Rossellini’s assistant on the film, Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust); ”I Am Garibaldi,” a visual essay by Tag Gallagher, author of “The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini: His Life and Films”; and a reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips. The first pressing adds illustrated collector’s booklet containing new writing on the film by filmmaker and critic Michael Pattison.

Belle Epoque: Blu-ray
Jamon Jamon: Blu-ray
Red Squirrel: Blu-ray
Vacas: Blu-ray
Tierra: Blu-ray
The latest shipment of Blu-ray upgrades from Olive Films contained five truly exceptional Spanish movies from the 1990s. Apart from being distinctively different modern classics, each offers early glimpses of some of today’s most celebrated European actors. In Fernando Trueba’s period rom/com/dram Belle Epoque (1992), a Spanish army deserter, perhaps anticipating the Civil War, finds himself at the doorway to a lovely country villa, without many options open to him or allegiances. Soon, however, he wins the trust of the owner, whose four lovely daughters are about to pay him a visit. It creates a scenario in which he falls in love with all of them and they with him. Although the farmer envisions him as a future son-in-law, his sexually aggressive daughters’ designs on him are more immediate. The very different young women are played by Miriam Díaz-Aroca (High Heels), Ariadna Gil (Pan’s Labyrinth), Maribel Verdú (Y Tu Mamá También) and future Oscar-winner Penélope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), while Jorge Sanz (The Girl of Your Dreams) is the lucky deserter. All are uniquely suited to their parts. Belle Epoque would deservedly win that year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Trueba would go on to direct such international hits as the animated Chico & Rita, musical-documentary Calle 54 and World War II com/dram The Artist and the Model. It’s been 25 years since I last saw the film and it still holds up.

Eighteen-year-old Cruz made her feature debut that same year in Bigas Luna’s sexy Silver Lion-winner, Jamon Jamon, alongside another future Oscar-winner, Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men), Jordi Mollà (Lucky Star), Anna Galiena (The Hairdresser’s Husband) and Stefania Sandrelli (The Conformist). It traces the romantic entanglements of the beautiful and pregnant underwear-factory worker, Silvia (Cruz); her momma’s-boy lovers and heir to the factory fortune, Jose Luis (Mollà); a male underwear model, jamon delivery man and would-be-bullfighter, Raul (Bardem); Conchita (Sandrelli), the family matriarch and Raul’s lover; and Silvia’s ravishing mother (Galiena), who, when she isn’t running a roadside bar, turns tricks in the back room. (Jose Luis pays her to suckle her breasts). Through a series of Machiavellian plot machinations, Conchita will seek to tear apart the relationship between her wealthy son and the working-class Silvia, while seducing the underwear model for her own gratification. Meanwhile, Silvia and Raul fall in lust for each other, forcing Jose Luis to grow an extra pair of huevos. Melodramatic, surreal (a duel using ham legs is a highlight) and oozing with sexual tension, Jamón Jamón is soap opera at its grandest. In both films, Cruz turns in performances that anticipate her rise as one of the finest actresses of her generation.

Julio Medem (Sex & Lucia) is represented by three new Blu-ray releases: Vacas (1992), The Red Squirrel (1993) and Tierra (1996). His debut feature (“Cows”) is set in Spain’s lush, mountainous Basque Country, between 1870-1935. It chronicles a bitter rivalry between male members of the Mendiluze and Iriguibel families, stretching from the Third Carlist War through the Spanish Civil War. Their deep-seated hatred for each other dates back to a war-time act that left brave Carmelo Mendiluze (Kandido Uranga) dead on the battlefield and the cowardly deserter Manuel Iriguibel (Karra Elejalde) crippled but alive. Years pass and animosity between the families still overshadows the lives, loves and futures of younger members, who don’t want anything to do with it. The rivalry plays out in log-chopping contests, midnight liaisons and a strategic escape to the United States. All along, the patriarch of one of the families (Txema Blasco) paints surrealistic portraits of cows and invents contraptions designed to kill marauding boars. Vacas’ tragic outcome is both inevitable and as painful to observe from afar as the deterioration of Spain in the Civil War.

The Red Squirrel opens with a serious motorcycle accident that keeps suicidal Jota from jumping off a bridge, as he administers to the pretty young rider, Lisa (Emma Suárez), whose only lasting injury is the loss of her memory. Reinvigorated by his ability to keep her from drifting into unconsciousness, Jota (Nancho Novo) decides to claim Lisa from the hospital as his live-in girlfriend. She agrees to go along with the ruse, taking an early exit to go on a camping vacation together. The clues to Lisa’s identity and background slowly reveal themselves through hypnosis, involuntary flashbacks and visual references to her past, including a red squirrel. Things get creepier as her memory returns and her new life begins to intersect with the one she just left. Suárez would go on to win awards for her work in Agustí Vila’s family drama, The Mosquito Net (2010), and Pedro Almodóvar’s 2016 “return to female-centric storytelling,” Julieta (2016), while Nova would excel in Medem’s Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1998) and Gerardo Vera’s period drama La Celestina (1969), alongside Cruz. Three years later, Medem would reteam Suárez, Novo, Blasco and Carmelo Gómez, in Tierra (“Earth”), which is a different kind of strange entirely. Gomez plays Angel, an exterminator recently released from a mental hospital, who’s hired to rid a small Spanish town of tiny grubs in the soil. The local wine-making industry has found these pests responsible for giving their product a distinctive “earthy” taste that has divided wine connoisseurs. Angel becomes involved with two beautiful and very different women (Suárez, Karra Elejalde), enrages their lovers and angers a local Gypsy clan by accusing them of stealing money from him. Can either of these women accept the fact that Angel travels with a “ghost” of himself, or that he routinely speaks with residents recently killed in lightning strikes? Tierra echoes themes advanced in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987), but in a less melancholy way.

None of the packages contain bonus features contained in previous versions. Still, for lovers of Spanish cinema, all five titles are must-sees.

PBS: Masterpiece: Victoria Season 2: UK Edition: Blu-ray
PBS: NOVA: Bird Brain
Nickelodeon: Nella the Princess Knight
For those who simply can’t get enough of the British royal family, 2017 was a very good year. In addition to the anticipation leading to Prince Harry popping the question to his American sweetie pie, Meghan Markle, they had two very different versions of his great-great-great-great-grandmum Queen Victoria to savor. In the Oscar-nominated Victoria & Abdul, Dame Judi Dench reprised her portrayal of the queen in Mrs Brown, in 1997, this time advancing the calendar to the celebration of her Golden Jubilee. Stephen Frears’ handsomely staged comedy/drama depicts the real-life relationship between the monarch and her Indian Muslim servant Abdul Karim. The unlikelihood of such a friendship occurring only made the movie that much more compelling. Last January, the eight-part ITV mini-series, “Victoria,” began its run on PBS, as part its “Masterpiece” franchise. It was received here with great ratings and positive reviews. In December, as well, Netflix’s “The Crown” began it’s second-season run, focusing on Queen Elizabeth’s role in the Suez Crisis in 1956, through the retirement of the Queen’s third Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, in 1963, following the Profumo scandal, and the birth of Prince Edward in 1964. Two more seasons have already been green-lit. In England, “Victoria” has already completed its second season, which was followed by a Christmas special. It explains why the DVD/Blu-ray collection of Season Two episodes is being made available, even before PBS has aired the fourth part of its seasonal run. (Because PBS doesn’t insert commercials into its shows, apparently there’s no loss of revenues. Affiliates can even offer the Season Two package, usually at the full retail price, to subscribers.) I don’t know how the “UK Edition” differs from the PBS series, but affiliates have the option of trimming for content or to squeeze in Pledge Month pitches. As any faithful viewer could have predicted, the second series follows the still young Victoria (Jenna Coleman) as she struggles with managing her role as Queen and seeing to the needs of her husband and children. For his part, Prince Albert (Tom Hughes) is acclimating himself to his own duties, especially when it comes to filling in for his recuperating wife. There’s no question they’re in love, but don’t be surprised if a certain Green-Eyed Monster pops in for a cameo. As Victoria’s reign continues into the 1840s, her kingdom experiences constitutional challenges and scandals at court, the rise of the Chartist movement, the devastating Irish Potato Famine and revolutions in Europe. The Blu-ray adds more than 25 minutes of behind-the-scenes featurettes.

The premise behind the “NOVA” presentation, “Bird Brain,” is that our feathered friends are no dumber than the average bear and, as such, smarter than most politicians. But, regular “NOVA” viewers would already know that. Birds have the same advanced problem-solving skills we usually assume are unique to humans. Parrots plan for the future; jackdaws “read” human faces; and crows solve multi-step puzzles with pebbles, sticks and hooks. The birds shown here reveal skills that even 3- or 4-year-old children have difficulty mastering, including putting off collecting one reward to get a bigger one later. Watch as scientists test avian aptitude and challenge our basic notions of intelligence.

Also newly available on DVD from PBS are “Slavery and the Making of America” on the financial benefits of a moral outrage that led to war; the “Frontline” report, “Putin’s Revenge,” which explains how President Trump has been trumped by his fickle friend in Moscow; “VA: The Human Cost of War,” takes a broad look at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs … it’s successes and failures; the “American Experience” documentary, “The Gilded Age,” on how prosperity served to uplift and divide the country at the end of the 19th Century; and “Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street: Season 1,” the latest in a long line of mouth-watering cooking shows on the network. From Smithsonian comes “Black Wings,” on the history of African-American aviators who took to the air, where color doesn’t matter; and “The Real Mad Men of Advertising,” which follows the evolution of advertising from the 1950s through the 1980s, via interviews with the industry’s top ad executives, and through classic ads and commercials.

Nickelodeon’s unconventional princess, Nella, is bringing action-packed adventures into the home-theater arena with her first DVD release. Fans can join the 8-year-old Brit on daring quests, as she transforms into a princess knight and courageously defends her kingdom. Whether she’s searching for a lost invitation or rescuing a phoenix, Nella stands up for what’s right. “Nella the Princess Knight” features eight episodes from the show’s first season: “Knighty Knight Dragons,” “Inside and Seek,” “Sir Clod,” “Up All Knight,” “Princess Nella’s Orc-Hestra,” “The Blaine Game,” “Big Birthday Surprise” and “That’s What Best Friends Are For.”

The DVD Wrapup: In Search of Fellini, In Her Name, High School Sinks Into Sea, Jigsaw, Argento’s Opera, Red Trees and more

Thursday, January 25th, 2018

In Search of Fellini
The Witches: Blu-ray
I can’t remember the last time I was so charmed by a movie that was dumped into limited release, received mixed reviews and could be lost in the shuffle of January releases that receive little fanfare. Maybe, though, I can help draw attention to In Search of Fellini if I point out the romantic fantasy’s “Simpsons” connection. (Everybody loves “The Simpsons.”) In Search of Fellini was adapted from a one-woman play co-written by Nancy Cartwright, who, since 1989, has been the voice of Bart Simpson on Fox’s trail-blazing animated series. Before that, however, the Ohio native joined an acting class taught by Milton Katselas. He recommended that she study Federico Fellini’s La Strada, which starred Giulietta Masina as the street urchin sold by her mother to circus strongman Zampano (Anthony Quinn) to be his comic foil. Cartwright recalls performing “every imaginable scene” from the movie in her class and spending several months trying to secure the rights to produce a stage adaptation. Like the protagonist in In Search of Fellini, she visited Italy with the intention of meeting Fellini and requesting his permission in person. Although she never met the Maestro, Cartwright kept a journal of the trip and later co-wrote the play upon which it was based. (Performed in Los Angeles in 1995, it won a Drama-Logue Award.) It’s been her dream to turn it into a film ever since then. In Taron Lexton’s feature debut, Cartwright is portrayed by the Latvian-born blond, Ksenia Solo (Black Swan), as Lucy. By opening up the play, Lexton not only was able to shoot in cities visited by Cartwright in her quest, but also replicate key scenes from Fellini’s movies, ranging from a lone horse wandering through empty Italian streets at night, to a grand, gilded orgy from Fellini’s Casanova (1975). Here, Lucy is a naive 20-year-old artist and would-be actor, who, after being propositioned at an audition, escapes that cold reality of show-biz life in a theater showing La Strada. Her resemblance to Masina, as much as the story, compels Lucy to take a crash course in Felliniana, via VHS cassettes. Coincidentally, her mother (Mario Bello) has been diagnosed with an incurable illness, which she tries to conceal from her daughter. Her aunt (Mary Lynn Rajskub) encourages her to pursue her dream of meeting Fellini in person, in Italy. While there, she experiences the highs and lows of solo traveling in a foreign land. First, she meets a sweet and handsome young man, who, under the right circumstances, would make an ideal companion. Then, she’s assaulted by a classic Latin bounder. Although Cartwright didn’t meet Fellini on her trip, Lucy is given reason to believe that he might turn up around any corner in Rome. It’s a stretch, but a little bit of magical realism goes a long way. I can understand how some critics might think that Lexton stuffed too many disparate elements into a 93-minute package and, stylistically, it’s all over the place. As a sucker for all-things-Fellini, however, I had no trouble buying into Cartwright’s almost-true fantasy. It also was a pleasure watching Ksenia Solo spread her wings in a lead role. Anyone who enjoyed Gary Winick’s Letters to Juliet (2010), also partially shot in Verona’s historical district, should rush to find a copy of In Search of Fellini. The DVD adds interviews and Cartwright’s commentary.

Fellini’s name may not be attached to Arrow Video’s restored edition of The Witches, but his fingerprints can be found on all five of the vignettes in the wildly uneven, but still entertaining 1967 anthology. The concept advanced by producer Dino De Laurentiis was for several of Italy’s most celebrated directors and screenwriters to create short films in which his wife, Silvana Mangano (Bitter Rice), plays a strega. They’re not your average, garden-variety witches, mind you, but Mangano makes them all bewitching in her own captivating way. Luchino Visconti (Ossessione) and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini (Bicycle Thieves) open the film with “The Witch Burned Alive,” about a famous actress and a drunken evening that leads to unpleasant revelations; “Civic Sense” provides a lightly comic interlude from Mauro Bolognini (The Lady of the Camelias), but with a dark conclusion; in the delightfully surrealistic “The Earth as Seen From the Moon” combines the considerable talents of comedy legend Totò with those of Pier Paolo Pasolini (The Decameron) for a tale of matrimony and reincarnation; in “The Sicilian’s Wife,” Franco Rossi (The Woman in the Painting) concocts a story of revenge and its ultimate consequence; and, finally, in “An Evening Like the Others,” Vittorio De Sica (Shoeshine) merges a bittersweet homage to Italian comic books with a lament over the loss of passion in marriage. An impossibly young Clint Eastwood plays the business-obsessed husband of a not-at-all frumpy middle-age woman, who can’t help wondering how things might have turned out between them if reality were more like Hollywood musicals of the 1940s. Like Clark Kent, Mangano removes her character’s glasses whenever the unhappy wife transitions from plain to hot. The Eastwood/Mangano segment is worth the price of a rental, itself. In the U.S., Eastwood was still known for playing Rowdy Yates, on “Rawhide.” By the time “Witches” was released in Europe, however, his portrayal of the Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” had made him a highly bankable star. The movie wasn’t shown here until 1969, the same year as Eastwood co-starred in “Paint Your Wagon,” contributing three less-than-memorable songs. The Blu-ray features a fresh 2K restoration from original film elements, produced by Arrow Films; a worthwhile commentary by critic and novelist Tim Lucas; an interview with actor Ninetto Davoli, recorded exclusively for this release; an English-language version of De Sica’s episode; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys; and an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Pasquale Iannone and Kat Ellinger.

In Her Name
Unless I’ve missed something, the true story upon which this riveting French/German legal thriller is based hasn’t garnered much press coverage on this side of the pond. All the better for American audiences, for whom Vincent Garenq’s In Her Name (a.k.a., “Kalinka”) will feel as fresh as any other real-crime drama currently being shown in theaters or on television. The case, we’re told, kept France enthralled for more than 30 years. I believe it. The film is so compellingly rendered that viewers unfamiliar with the story will be left guessing until the final moments as to whether justice will finally be served or the antagonist, a German doctor, will once again escape punishment for defiling teenage girls under his treatment. The narrative begins in the early 1970s, in Morocco, as French accountant André Bamberski (Daniel Auteuil) confronts his wife, Danièle (Marie-Josée Croze) and her lover, Dieter Krombach (Sebastian Koch), midway through an afternoon tryst. The affair would continue for about a year after the couple moved back to France – with Krombach not far behind – causing the Bamberskis to divorce, with the custody of their two children to be shared. Flash forward eight years and Bamberski is next shown saying goodbye to his son and daughter, Kalinka and Nicolas, as they’re about to depart for a summer vacation with her mother and Krombach in Germany. Before long, Bamberski is informed that Kalinka, now 14, died in her sleep, after an exhausting day of swimming with friends. Krombach doesn’t immediately admit to injecting the girl with an iron supplement, to accelerate tanning, and giving her a sleeping tablet, only hours before she died.  Bamberski can’t imagine how an otherwise healthy teenager could die in her sleep, with or without the injections. His suspicions are validated when the autopsy belatedly is sent to him in France and, after being translated, is as revealing for what’s left out of the report as for what’s in it. Describing everything that happens over the course of the next 30 years would require more than a few spoiler alerts. Suffice it to say that the well-connected doctor somehow was allowed to observe the autopsy and probably encouraged officials to destroy key evidence, including the girl’s sex organs. Bamberski made a big enough stink about the autopsy that German officials felt compelled to conduct a show trial, at least. He would receive a series of slaps on the wrist that not only allowed him to continue practicing in Germany, but also be accused of rape in other instances. When French authorities fail to convince their German counterparts to extradite the doctor, Bamberski begins his decades-long crusade to keep the case alive and Krombach continually on edge. The obsessive campaign for the truth and justice will cost him a small fortune and the love of his son and girlfriend, as well as a discernible portion of his sanity. Will he be vindicated? Europeans, already well familiar with the story, already knew the answer to that question when In Her Name opened in 2016. Only a handful of American viewers will already know the outcome. Fans of true-crime documentaries won’t want to miss Auteuil’s anguished portrayal of a man so committed to his dead daughter’s memory that he risked everything, just so “she can rest in peace.”

My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea: Blu-ray
From now on, no compilation of the 10- or 20-best movies about high schools will be complete without mention, at least, of Dash Shaw’s wonderfully inventive My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea. If you haven’t heard of it, by now, blame the vagaries of modern film distribution. Shaw adapted the animated feature from his graphic novel of the same title. After the teen-disaster flick made the rounds of the festival circuit, eliciting excellent reviews, it was released in only a handful of theaters. This, despite an all-star voicing cast — Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, Reggie Watts, Maya Rudolph, Susan Sarandon, John Cameron Mitchell – and the potential for a positive word-of-mouth campaign. Try to imagine Fast Times at Ridgemont High or “Freaks and Geeks,” by way of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Titanic, and you’ll be halfway there. “Sinking” is set in a generic public high school, populated by dozens of archetypal students, teachers and administrators. The school’s pecking order is roughly that of the characters in The Breakfast Club, only in macrocosm. At the lowest end of the food chain are Dash (Schwartzman) and Assaf (Watts), sophomore buddies who decide to elevate their station by joining the staff of the Tides High school newspaper, which is facing the same fate as most mainstream papers in the digital age. Its irritable editor, Verti (Maya Rudolph), demands that the newcomers come up with stories capable of getting the student body in the reading habit. Instead, the boy’s increasingly divergent personalities cause a major rift at the paper. Verti wants something sexy to tear teenagers away from their iPhones, which is OK with Assaf, but not the more traditional Dash. Cut adrift from the paper, Dash discovers a cover-up of the school’s likely inability to withstand an earthquake. It was built on landfill, on the edge of a cliff, but still managed to pass every seismic inspection. It doesn’t take long before a temblor strong enough to knock the building off its foundation occurs, causing it to slide down the cliff and into the sea. Miraculously, the school’s infrastructure survives the disaster mostly intact, allowing for survivors to maintain hope for rescue, but only if they can reason their way to a solution. Or, to put it metaphorically, Dash advises: “We must make our way to the senior floor and then graduate … to the roof!” Among the obstacles they face are marauding sharks, ruptured elevator shafts and their own anxiety. As the friends race to escape, they are joined by a “popular” know-it- all (Dunham) and the lunch lady (Sarandon). Shaw’s mix-and-match animation makes it easy for viewers to suspend their disbelief as the students’ situation grows increasingly dire. So, does the dizzying soundtrack by Rani Sharone (American Ultra). Only 75 minutes long, “Sinking” is the right length to sustain the conceit, without running out of gags, metaphors or its welcome. Special features include Shaw’s commentary, several animated shorts and a spotlight on the film’s unique artwork.

Jigsaw: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
Cloverfield/10 Cloverfield Lane: Blu-ray, 4K UHD HDR
Although the latest addition to the Saw franchise somehow managed to shed its brand identification during its seven-year hiatus, Jigsaw had no problem attracting old fans and newcomers to the series’ eighth installment. In 2010, producer Mark Burg announced that the seventh chapter, Saw 3D, would be the last. Even so, Lionsgate quickly expressed interest in continuing the still-lucrative series. That can be explained by comparing a combined $77 million in production costs to nearly a billion dollars in worldwide ticket sales. That figure, of course, doesn’t take into account money from DVD/Blu-ray/VOD returns, video games, comic books and theme-park attractions. Not bad for a movie that’s never scored higher than a 50-percent approval rating in Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic polls and dropped to 9 percent for Saw 3D in RT. To be fair, the average CinemaScore grade is “B.” Believed dead for, lo, these many years, villain John Kramer/Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) appears to have returned to the scene of his terrible crimes. A cancer survivor and civil engineer with a genius for creating implements of torture and death, Kramer targets individuals who’ve shown a disregard for life or whose behavior endangered others. The new series of killings bear his unique stamp, even if police are reluctant to admit Jigsaw might still be alive. Neither are viewers completely sure of who’s pulling the strings on the ingenious traps and leaving behind the cassettes. Otherwise, it’s the same-old, same-old. Australian siblings, Michael and Peter Spierig (Daybreakers), worked from a script by Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg (Piranha 3D). The Blu-ray/4K UHD extras include the seven-part documentary, “I Speak for the Dead: The Legacy of Jigsaw,” “The Choice Is Yours: Exploring the Props” and commentary with producers Mark Burg, Oren Koules and Peter Block. Fans of extreme gore will appreciate the added clarity of the 4K UHD presentation.

Unless close attention is paid to Easter eggs and an augmented-reality game related to Cloverfield mythology, the only thing connecting all three chapters of the Paramount/Bad Robot franchise – “Cloverfield Station” (a.k.a., “God Particle”) has been slated for April but could wind up on Netflix – appears to be producer J.J. Abrams’ guiding hand. There’s also the 2008 “Cloverfield/Kishin” manga and cross-media tie-in and viral-marketing websites. “Cloverfield Station” reportedly takes place in a stranded space station that’s lost the ability to connect with Earth. There’s no way to know if the monster in Chapter One or John Goodman’s space worms in “10” will make cameos, but don’t bet against it. It’s said that Abrams had plans for individual spinoffs of the modestly budgeted, yet profitable originals, but Paramount may not be interested in pursuing them. Until then, fans with 4K UHD machines are invited to check out those pictures in the enhanced technology. This raises one big question, at least. Cloverfield is a found-footage film that benefitted from the grainy visual presentation that would have been discovered in the aftermath of such a disaster. You wouldn’t want the upgrade to make the cassette’s contents too clean … and they aren’t. It’s fun to see future stars Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller and Odette Annable in key roles. The 10 Cloverfield Lane Blu-ray, released last June, already was very good technically and now offers Dolby Atmos sound and HDR performance. The generous bonus packages have been ported over from the Blu-ray editions.

Dario Argento’s Opera: Blu-ray
If your taste in horror is a bit more Italianate than the monsters of Cloverfield – reptilian and human – or the torture porn of Jigsaw, Scorpion Releasing has added a dollop of vintage giallo to this week’s menu, with Dario Argento’s 1987 thriller, Opera. It should not be confused with Argento’s 1998 misfire, The Phantom of the Opera, or the severely edited version of Opera that might have sneaked out of the lab before Orion Pictures capsized and sank into bankruptcy, in 1991. Scorpion’s newly restored Blu-ray neatly captures the grandeur of the Parma Opera House and brilliant color palette typically employed by Argento to jack up the gore factor in his genre flicks. He based the movie and one of its lead male characters on his experiences directing a failed production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Macbeth.” Part of the fun derives from the various superstitions and curse associated with the Scottish Play, some of which may have impacted the production of the opera and movie. Opera, which did well in markets outside the U.S., opens with an accident that prevents the company’s diva from performing in the avant-garde production. Her young and inexperienced understudy, Betty (Cristina Marsillach), impresses the opening-night audience, even while a Phantom-like figure adds some real drama to the opera. Later, the fiend breaks into the apartment Betty shares with her boyfriend, Stefano’s (William McNamara), overpowering the singer and forcing her to watch him being killed. Horror buffs should recall the poster image of the killer taping a row of needles beneath each of her eyes, ensuring that she witnesses every horrific detail. Although the masked assailant unties Betty and flees the apartment, he’s far from done with her. He has a history with her family and fully intends to make her miserable. Argento takes full advantage of the historic setting, moving his camera nimbly from proscenium to ceiling, backstage to balconies. A subplot involving several trained crows is equal parts scary and funny. Interview (21:41, HD) with Dario Argento (recorded in 2016) finds the director in an upbeat mood, labeling “Opera” as one of his best films. The helmer recounts production inspiration, with Argento looking to bring a sense of Verdi’s “Macbeth” to the screen, though with a lot more ravens, which were difficult to control, with one bird even biting Argento’s lip. The feature’s technical achievements are examined, including elaborate cinematography needs, including a camera rig built inside an opera house that simulated raven flight (BTS footage is supplied to show how this was done). Argento shares his musical influences at the time, his difficult relationship with star Cristina Marsillach, and how certain special effects were pulled off. The Blu-ray adds lively interviews with Argento and McNamara.

Red Trees: Blu-ray
Marina Willer’s visual essay on her family’s survival, displacement and reinvention under the harshest of circumstances stretches the traditional boundaries of documentary filmmaking. Its impressionistic approach is suggested in the title, Red Trees, which refers to how her Austrian-born father discovered he was colorblind. (At 10, Alfred Willer was made aware of the fact that the leaves he drew on trees were red, not green, and disappeared ahead of a flaming background.) The focus is on her father and grandfather, who survived the German occupation of Prague, only because they possessed a secret non-military formula that the Nazis desired and their chemists were too busy creating implements of destruction to replicate. Alfred’s father, Vilem, had discovered a way to synthetically produce citric acid, which, at the time, was used as food preservative. Fortunately, the Nazis were convinced that Vilem carried the formula in his head and, therefore, was too valuable to kill. That fact that he was married to a woman who wasn’t Jewish didn’t hurt. The Willers constituted one of only 12 Jewish families in Prague to survive the war … barely. The family fled Czechoslovakia for a new life in Brazil, a rapidly developing country that welcomed the talents Jewish immigrants brought to it. Alfred marveled at the country’s tightly knit multicultural fabric and, after mastering Portuguese, contributed his own accomplishments to the mix as an architect. The more impressionistic aspect of the film details the sentimental journey daughter Marina encouraged her father to embark upon in the Czech Republic. Like so many other survivors of wartime madness, Alfred had rarely shared recollections of the period with loved ones. They were simply too traumatic and close to the surface to discuss. Upon his return to Prague, the good and bad memories came flooding back and he finally was able to share them with Marina. Very few words are needed to describe the powerful impact of the wall of the Pinkas Synagogue, where the names of the Czech Jews murdered by the Nazis are inscribed, or their return to Vilem’s factory, where machinery has stood idle for decades and the boots and coats of long-dead laborers still hang from the ceiling of the changing room. The only footage of concentration camps was taken at nearby Theresienstadt, which the SS used as a showcase for visiting dignitaries and Red Cross workers. In fact, thousands of Jews were murdered at Theresienstadt, which also served as a transit center for captives on their way to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. The past is brought vividly to life by the voices of Alfred, who bears a striking resemblance to Leonard Cohen, and narrator Tim Pigott-Smith. Marina was assisted in her quest by Oscar-nominated cinematographer César Charlone (City of God) and co-writers Brian Eley and Leena Telén. Not being a typical Holocaust documentary, Red Trees opens itself to criticism from viewers who might wonder why images of death, depravity and brutality are missing from the narrative and, perhaps, the degree to which Vilem may have collaborated with the enemy to save his family. Prague, itself, often stands out as more of tourist destination than a place that today might be too comfortable with its past. Clearly, though, Alfred has a fascinating story to tell and it was only through the determination of his daughter to know her father that his memories were unlocked. Finally, Red Trees demands that we consider what the many thousands of immigrants seeking new homes today could bring to their own adopted countries.

Chasing the Dragon: Blu-ray
Western viewers may be at a disadvantage here, in that the events depicted in Chasing the Dragon are as familiar to longtime residents of Hong Kong as the Miami mayhem described in Brian DePalma’s Scarface. Hard-core criminals and sociopathic killers once terrorized those cities, while providing fodder for writers of television shows and movies. If the perpetrators of violence occasionally came off as being more charismatic and enviable than the cops chasing them, well, that’s always been the nature of the beast. Carefully choreographed firefights at discos, car chases and martial-arts massacres are sexier than procedurals and sell more tickets than documentaries. Duh. It explains why I didn’t pay much attention to the facts obliterated by the balls-to-the-wall action in Jason Kwan and Wong Jing’s recollection of Hong Kong’s drug wars in the 1960-70s. I don’t suppose anyone on the island bothered themselves with the accuracy of the portrayal of Al Capone, in either version of “The Untouchables” or Scarface, either. That’s exactly what troubled some of the hometown critics after watching what they considered to the filmmakers’ overly sanitized portrayals of real-life drug kingpin Crippled Ho, by Donnie Yen, and the notorious police detective Lee Rock (a.k.a., Lui Lok), by Andy Lau. At this point in their career, the pundits surmised, neither of the superstar actors wanted to portray criminals as anything less than intermittently sympathetic anti-heroes, battling mutual enemies. As is the case with so many Hong Kong films today, Chasing the Dragon is a virtual remake of previous hits. In 1991’s To Be Number One, Ho was portrayed as a Godfather-esque figure, while a young Lau memorably played the same crooked police officer in the Lee Rock trilogy (1991-92). In real life, both characters were linked by their arrival in Hong Kong as immigrants and the proximity of their homes on the mainland. They meet here when Ho and his friends are arrested in a brawl with local gang member and, after recognizing them as homeboys, Rock saves them from an unwarranted beating by British police. Having a powerful cop in his corner allowed Ho’s criminal acumen to blossom and, once established, they would become allies in the island’s heroin trade. In Chasing the Dragon, all four of the earlier movies have been merged into one, with the additional enemy of a corrupt and brutal British cop. (That wouldn’t have passed muster in movies made before the transfer of power.) There’s plenty of action to go around here, along with a story that occasionally pulls at the heartstrings.

Jesus Meets the Gay Man
The Revival
100 Men
Typically, there’s nothing funny about the way bible-thumping evangelists and other opportunists treat gays and lesbians in sermons, political rhetoric and in the media. The targets of their poisonous claims have only recently been able to stand tall and openly challenge their misreading of scripture. Beyond holding pride parades, signing petitions and pressuring entertainment executives to tell their stories accurately and more frequency, gays and lesbians have made their presence known at the ballot box. It’s still difficult to use humor as a shield against bigotry and intolerance, however. It would be nice to think that progressive Red State preachers might find a way to use Jean-Claude Lafond’s funny and observant documentary, Jesus Meets the Gay Man to bridge the gap between fundamentalist Christians and the “LGBTQIA” community … yes, the acronym keeps growing. Lafond asks the same question untold thousands of Christians ask themselves each day, when confronted with ethical dilemmas and moral quandaries: what would Jesus do? He expands the question to include, “What would Jesus do if, upon His return to Earth, he encountered an openly gay man, lesbian etc.” Lafont does so in comic sketches, song-and-dance numbers, gags, interviews and animations. He also employs common sense and critical thinking. If the sketch comedy isn’t as polished as that performed by Monty Python, Second City or on “SNL,” it’s only because Jesus Meets the Gay Man’s was less than what most televangelists spend on their dry-cleaning each week. Even so, there are more hits than misses, and none of the humor is designed to disparage church-going believers. The DVD adds two hours of interviews and deleted scenes.

There’s nothing terribly funny in director Jennifer Gerber and writer Samuel Brett Williams’ The Revival, but it delivers a powerful punch as a deliberately provocative story about a rural Southern pastor confronting his sexual identity. The cover art appears to promise a faith-based drama in which one or both male characters in the photograph succumbs to the other’s sexual entreaties and/or is talked into committing to conversion therapy. A tall, black cross stands between them … usually, a sure sign that religious message contained therein would satisfy Vice President Mike Pence’s concept of family entertainment. The Revival, adapted from Williams’ play, is far more complex and potentially divisive than that, however. That’s because it’s a performance-driven story whose progressive message gets murkier as the climax approaches. David Rysdahl and Zachary Booth deliver impressive performances as Pastor Eli, the mousy minister of a failing rural congregation, and Daniel, the rough-hewn stranger who one day shows up after church for a free meal. Eli’s deceptively timid wife, June (Lucy Faust), is pregnant and worried that her husband is spending too much time trying to save the soul of a single interloper, instead of inspiring the members of his late father’s dwindling ministry. When she receives a photo of the two men in flagrante delicto, she forces the backsliding Eli to make a concrete decision on their future together, quick. Williams’ script paints him into a corner that a Harvard Divinity School graduate, like Eli, should have been able to see coming and escape before he became trapped. As it is, there’s no credible solution to Eli’s dilemma and the one forwarded in The Revival will infuriate the half of the potential audience that applauded the preacher’s earlier acceptance of his sexuality. Conversely, the explicit sexual material could turn off the conservative audience it’s trying to reach. In the commentary, Gerber and Williams admit to a certain ambiguity here that, they hope, might encourage positive debates in church groups. It can only accomplish that if The Revival gets that far, however. The DVD also adds deleted scenes and an alternative ending.

The title, 100 Men, reminds me of the half-dozen, or so, romantic comedies I’ve seen in which a guy puts together a list of women he’s dated and intends to contact before getting married, dying or dealing with a venereal disease he may have passed along to them (“Lovesick”). Another variation on the theme informed Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, in which a recently dumped guy (Bill Murray) receives an anonymous letter from a former lover, informing him that he has a son who may be looking for him. With the assistance of a freelance sleuth, who lives next-door, he embarks on a cross-country search for his old flames. In 100 Men, Paul Oremland presents a personal overview of his life as a gay man, by tracking down and chatting with men he’s met through sex. In the process, he finds himself exploring four decades of changing attitudes toward homosexuality. Because he’s lived in cities around the world, the documentary offers a bit more diversity of experience than if he’d stayed put in San Francisco or WeHo.

Nasser’s Republic: The Making of Modern Egypt
When Islamic radicals invaded the American Embassy in Teheran, taking dozens of employees hostage, the news media seemed at a loss for historical perspective. Eventually, viewers and readers were informed of widespread hostility that could be traced to Iran’s 1953 coup d’état, which was a covert Anglo-American operation that led to the overthrow of prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and re-establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty. Instead of pursuing democratic and societal reforms, Mohammad Reza Shah used oil profits to create a state that favored wealthy Iranians and his western allies, while vigorously cracking down on dissent. It opened the door to the embassy to followers of exiled Muslim cleric, Ruhollah Khomeini, who fanned the flames of revolt from abroad. The roots of anti-Americanism in the Arab world go even deeper and are every bit as misunderstood. Michal Goldman’s illuminating Nasser’s Republic: The Making of Modern Egypt is the first film aimed at American audiences about Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of the Arab world’s most transformative leaders. As the Cold War raged, Nasser and Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru made headlines here for their ability – or lack thereof – to leverage their resources and strategic importance to the U.S. and Soviet Union in pursuit of their newly independent governments’ goals. Since their deaths, it’s been easier for the media to ignore – or, oversimplify – the undercurrents of dissent, despair and revolution in the Middle East, Africa, Arabian Peninsula and Indian subcontinent. If the events leading to the Iranian Revolution, Palestinian Intifadas, Arab Spring and Syrian Civil War caught westerners by surprise, it’s only because no one had bothered to draw parallels between the Boston Tea Party and the many insurrections and intifadas triggered by the same desire for freedom from tyranny. Goodman spent four years following Egypt’s contribution to the Arab Spring listening to peasants and professors, secularists and Islamists describe Nasser’s contributions to Egyptian independence and prosperity, while also debating the legacy of a world leader who died at 52, with many of his dreams unrealized.

Shockwave: Countdown to Disaster
The Sword and the Claw: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Video nerds are always on the alert for movies that are “so bad it’s good.” Now that the VOD and straight-to-Internet marketplaces have filled the niches once held by straight-to-video and straight-to-DVD flicks, a new segment has emerged. Let’s call it, “too cheesy for Syfy” or, if you will, “too sappy for Lifetime.” Shockwave: Countdown to Disaster’s director Nick Lyon and co-writers Blaine Chiappetta, Rafael Jordan and Ari Novak have previously contributed such epic “straight to …” titles as Earthtastrophe, Stormageddon, Cowboys vs Dinosaurs, Puppy Swap Love Unleashed, Poseidon Rex and Timber the Treasure Dog. It isn’t easy to find financing for unpromising subgenre films, let alone getting them made, so every picture that succeeds in making it past the post-production stage should be considered a triumph. I would be remiss if I neglected to point out, however, just how pathetically illogical and goofy Shockwave really is. It opens somewhere in a Middle Eastern war zone, where terrorists have kidnapped a pair of American scientists – or some such – and threaten to set off a mega-weapon if their demands aren’t met. When American soldiers intercept the convoy, the terrorists make good on their pledge. So far, so good … but we’re only 10 minutes into the movie. The newly triggered “seismic super weapon” was designed to burrow into the earth and do what millions of children around the world have attempted to accomplish: dig a hole from one side of the planet to the other. In the U.S., the futile exercise used to be called, “digging a hole to China.” When massive volcanic storms, earthquakes and tornadoes are reported in major cities around the world, geophysicist Kate Ferris (Stacey Oristano) tries to convince the Department of Defense the shockwaves are the direct result of the unleashed weapon cutting a path through the planet’s crust, mantle and toxic inner core … twice. Somehow, Kate is able to make it to the Sierra Nevada, where her husband and daughter are doing seismic research unrelated to the attack, and sense a disaster on the horizon. As is usually the case in such entertainments, a small, dedicated group of amateurs and volunteers is the only thing preventing the destruction of the planet from a monster, weapon and/or the intransigence of government officials. They needn’t have bothered.

Typically, a 1975 action-genre flick from Turkey – actually, the rare Greek-Turkish co-production – shouldn’t qualify for inclusion in an item about movies that are so bad they’re good, but The Sword and the Claw is the real deal. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. One sage critic described it as, “Conan the Barbarian meets the Three Stooges meets Dolemite, with more lo-fi bloodshed, pop-art visuals, and bizarro dubbing than the boundaries of reality can handle.” I can’t top that summary. Turkish genre legend Cuneyt Arkin plays Süleyman Sah/Kiliçaslan, the son of a murdered king whose hands were cut off by the assassins. The unwitting heir to the crown was raised by a pride of lions and taught to survive as a feral beast. As is the wont of superheroes everywhere, he acquires superpowers linked to appendages he acquires along the way. Here, they’re mechanical lion’s claws, not unlike the Wolverine’s razor-sharp fingers. He dedicates himself to overthrowing the regime he doesn’t realize killed his father. (He was born after being hidden in a forest by his mother.) He accomplishes this by teaming up with the king’s former bodyguard and launching an all-out assault against the pretender. The Sword & the Claw is truly a unique experience. It further benefits from a fresh 4K transfer from the only 35mm theatrical print know to be in existence; action trailers from the AGFA vault; the 1981 Korean kung-fu thriller, Brawl Busters, starring Black Jack Chan, featuring a new 2K scan from an original theatrical print; and reversible cover art, with illustrations by Alexis Ziritt.

A Dog and Pony Show
Perhaps, the only fitting punishment for Harvey Weinstein for his atrocious behavior towards women – besides being flogged by his accusers during commercial breaks at the Oscars ceremony –would be forcing him to watch A Dog and Pony Show on a never-ending loop until he succumbs to madness. No offense is intended towards director Demetrius Navarro or anyone else involved in the live-action, talking-animal comedy, whose meager budget even precluded animating the lips of the circus and barnyard characters. I can’t imagine the average 4-year-old noticing the difference, but, for parents roped into watching it with their kids, the experience borders on the tortuous … that, and the fart jokes. It’s the story of Dede, a famous performing circus dog that gets left behind when her show leaves town. She’s discovered by Billy, a lonely city kid who’s just moved to a nearby ranch. Can the vain and arrogant dog get along with the farm’s eccentric critters, including a sleep-deprived rooster, a gassy cow and a hypochondriac horse? Then, there’s the bumbling thieves from a rival circus, who recognize a star attraction when they see one. So, how does Weinstein fit into this review? He reportedly was responsible for blackballing the movie’s female lead, Mira Sorvino – a magna cum laude graduate from Harvard University and Oscar-winner for Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite (1995) – from projects helmed by Terry Zwigoff (Bad Santa) and Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings). In reviewing movies in which she’s appeared since the blacklisting began, I’ve wondered why such a talented, well-credentialed actress – you can add beautiful, articulate and extremely likable to that description – could be stuck playing as many unmemorable roles as she has in the last 15 years, or so. Even Sorvino didn’t know the answer to that, until Jackson admitted buying into Harvey and Bob’s smear campaign. She could have walked through every scene in which she appears in The Dog and Pony Show, but, instead, Sorvino brightens this very dull movie every time she appears in it.

PBS: NOVA: Killer Hurricanes/Killer Floods
With the possible exception of President Trump’s dangerous pissing match with North Korean despot Kim Jung-um, there was no bigger story in the media than effects of severe weather on Americans, especially. Some learned scientists have blamed it on global warming, while more skeptical observers dismiss the hellish series of disasters as coincidence. A few moronic pastors have even credited God with using floods, volcanos, earthquakes, hurricanes and other unusual meteorological disturbances as punishment for society’s acceptance of same-sex marriage. In a series of episodes dedicated to the question of whether these catastrophes are getting stronger, more frequent and deadlier, producers of PBS’ “NOVA” have discovered that our planet has been shaped by meteorological and geological phenomena infinitely more powerful than what’s being experienced today. In “Killer Hurricanes,” they dig into nautical archives and other personal accounts to solve the riddle of an 18th Century superstorm in the Caribbean that left 20,000 dead bodies in its wake. It remains the highest known death toll of any single weather event. To reconstruct its epic scale and investigate what made it so devastating, “NOVA” joins historians and storm sleuths, as they track down clues in eyewitness chronicles, old ruins and computer simulations. Their evidence points to a terrifying, 300-mile-wide storm, with wind speeds probably exceeding 230 miles an hour and 25-foot-high surges that demolished everything in their path. Nor was the Great Hurricane of 1780 an isolated incident in the annals of recorded history. We can expect more to come.

Researchers have speculated that the flood that prompted Noah to build an ark large enough to replenish the world’s population of wildlife and domesticated animals may have some basis in scientific fact, as well as biblical mythology. They also think Moses’ ability to lead his people across the Red Sea could be credited to the coincidence of a mighty earthquake – the same one that doomed Atlantis – and the tsunami it triggered caused the waters to recede long enough to expose the sea’s floor. In “Killer Floods,” the “NOVA” team travels to the Channeled Scablands of eastern Washington, where the level prairie gives way to gargantuan rock formations, house-sized boulders, a cliff carved by a waterfall twice the height of Niagara and potholes large enough to swallow cars. The scientists depict catastrophic Ice Age floods more powerful than all the world’s top-10 rivers combined. They also uncover the geologic fingerprints of other colossal mega-floods in Iceland and on the seabed of the English Channel.

Trump: The Art of the Insult
When conspiracy theorist and mockumentary maker Joel Gilbert ventures too far away from easily parodied rock musicians and takes on liberal politicians, as he did in the scabrous anti-Obama documentary Dreams from My Real Father, he goes from amusing to dangerous at lightning speed. I enjoyed his far-fetched Elvis Found Alive (2012), which, at first, was marketed as a documentary, as was Paul McCartney Really Is Dead (2010), then reclassified as mockumentary. Non-fiction is easier to produce if a filmmaker isn’t required to back up his assertions with facts. The only relevant fact explored in Trump: The Art of the Insult is the inarguable assertion that the future POTUS used childish insults, insensitive ridicule and nonsensical nicknames to convince voters that he might be able to stand up to Vladimir Putin and the liberal establishment better than his Republican opponents and “Crooked Hillary.” Anyone who attempted to challenge his opinions with meaningful arguments, facts and scientific data was immediately lampooned and belittled by the former host of the fake-realism show, “The Apprentice.” Here, Gilbert twists the title of Trump’s best-selling, if not terribly reliable book, “The Art of the Deal,” into the eye-catching, if even less credible, Art of the Insult. By comparison to Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Jim Jeffries, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and other creatively abusive entertainers, Trump has always been a fraud. Still, you can’t argue with success, and all Gibson had to do in Art of the Insult was piece together enough video clips from the debates, campaign trail and media coverage to fill 95 minutes of screen time. Trump emerges as a marketing genius and performance artist, who, despite being a Manhattan billionaire and pervert, captured the hearts of middle America. Gilbert didn’t have to do much research or put in much hard work to prove that point.

The DVD Wrapup: Matinee, Crooked House, Jawbone, Cook Off!, Blue World Order, Into the Amazon, Tuxedo Park and more

Thursday, January 18th, 2018

Matinee: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Now that two certified lunatics have their fingers on “the button,” I wonder if kids, today, are being prepped for the possibility of a nuclear strike. I haven’t read any reports of people stockpiling goods or hurriedly digging holes in their backyards for bomb shelters, as was the case during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s possible that Americans not only have convince themselves that cooler heads will prevail, as they did then, or they no longer can be conned into believing that ducking underneath a desk and covering their heads could protect anyone from becoming toast. Fifty-five years ago, however, that’s all the hope American school children were given. In Joe Dante’s wonderfully nostalgic Matinee (1992), kids living in Key West, Florida – 90 miles from Cuba, where Soviet missiles were being pointed directly at them – were allowed to take a break from ducking-and-covering exercises long enough to enjoy a movie about a man who turns into a giant ant after a botched X-ray exam at the dentist. Like other black-and-white creature features of the period, “Mant” combined post-war paranoia with a natural fear of the unknown. With a large percentage of the island’s male population already in the air or on the sea, preparing to intercept Soviet vessels carrying ICBM missiles to Cuba, the last thing Key West residents needed was the extra layer of excitement provided by the tub-thumping exploitation director Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) and his girlfriend/actress, Ruth (Cathy Moriarty). They arrived just as fighter planes were taking off for possible war, in a Cadillac full of gimmicks designed to heighten the horror experience. In a nod to director/producer William Castle’s The Tingler, Woolsey installs vibrating gizmos in the theater’s seats; assigns Ruth to put on a nurse’s uniform, sit in the lobby and collect signatures waiving liability for any nervous breakdowns; places equipment behind the screen to blow dry-ice vapors at the audience; and hires a local juvenile delinquent to wear an ant costume and appear in the audience when patrons are freaking out from the buzzers in their seats. In Dante’s capable hands, it’s the perfect recipe for mayhem. If that weren’t enough to keep viewers of the movie-within-a-movie occupied, however, he and writer Charles S. Haas (Martians Go Home) added a romantic coming-of-age angle for the young stars, Lisa Jakub, Kellie Martin, Simon Fenton and Omri Katz. All that baggage might have sunk the ship, if it weren’t for Dante’s ability to keep it afloat, by blending fact and fantasy with excellent performances by Goodman, Moriarty, theater owner Robert Picardo and the young actors. (Also look for cameos by Jesse White, John Sayles, Dick Miller and Naomi Watts.) Shout!’s “Collector’s Edition” adds several new featurettes and interviews, including those with Dante, Moriarty, Jakub, production designer Steven Legler, editor Marshall Harvey and DP John Hora. Also included is “Mant!,” a full-length version of the film, with an introduction by Dante; deleted and extended scenes; and other vintage material.

Crooked House
As one of those all-star confections that have Agatha Christie’s name etched on every frame, Crooked House probably would have been a better fit for PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery!” than as a limited release in theaters. In fact, it aired first on Britain’s Channel 5, on December 17, 2017. The temptation to piggy-back on the advertising and publicity surrounding Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, sent out a month earlier by Fox, must have been too much for Sony to resist, however. Logically, the strategy should have worked, even if “Orient Express” is the better-known title, by far. Ironically, many American and British critics found the adaptation of Christie’s twisty 1949 whodunit, directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner (Sarah’s Key) and co-written by Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), to be the superior production … and, not merely on a dollar-for-dollar, pound-for-pound basis of comparison. As is usually the case in Christie entertainments, a murder occurs in a relatively closed environment and everyone close to the victim falls under suspicion. This time, the scene of the crime is a splendid mansion in a sprawling estate not far from London. (Locations include the Maughan Library at the city’s King’s College, Bristol’s Tyntesfield mansion and Hampshire’s Minley Manor.) The poisoned business tycoon is Aristide Leonides, a Greek immigrant with a rags-to-riches story that might include some spying for the CIA. Private detective Charles Hayward (Max Irons) is lured by his former lover (Stefanie Martini) to identify her grandfather’s killer before investigators for Scotland Yard turn up dirt on the family. Hayward encounters three generations of the dynasty, including a semi-retired actress, Magda (Gillian Anderson); the old man’s much-younger wife, Brenda (Christina Hendricks), a onetime Vegas showgirl; and shotgun-toting matriarch Lady Edith de Haviland (Glenn Close). Leonides’s eldest son, Philip (Julian Sands), hated his father for passing him over to run the family business and for refusing to take interest in a new play he’d written for Magda. His creepy younger brother, Roger (Christian McKay), has proven to be much better at squandering the family fortune, than saving it. Terence Stamp plays Chief Inspector Taverner, who objects to Hayward’s interference in the investigation, which soon will include a poisoned nanny, sabotaged treehouse and suspicious will. Unlike other Christie adaptations, the film’s climax should come as a shock and surprise to most viewers. The Blu-ray includes the featurettes, “Agatha Christie: A Timeless Fascination,” “Whodunnit?: The Characters of Crooked House” and “Elegance & Innovation: The Design of Crooked House.”

Movies about boxing and the men and women who partake in the sweet science have come and gone with great rapidity over the last 100 years. When compared to other subgenres, however, they have fared much better than most. Even the bad and mediocre ones tend to have something worthwhile to offer viewers. That’s because almost everything about the sport is intrinsically dramatic … from the matches to the gangland connections and career trajectories of the fighters. While the addition of heart-wrenching romance and other histrionics isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the typical Hollywood production will shortchange the fighting, in favor of melodramatic clichés and tropes. It isn’t easy to stage a boxing match and make it look credible. And, yes, Rocky is the exception that proves the rule. From England comes Jawbone, one of the best no-frills boxing movies I’ve seen in a long time. Sadly, though, even the marketability of heavyweight actors Ian McShane, Ray Winstone and Michael Smiley couldn’t persuade distributors here to take a shot on Thomas Napper’s feature debut. The real star of the show, however, is writer and lead actor Johnny Harris, for whom Jawbone is his Sylvester Stallone moment. In it, the journeyman television actor plays former youth boxing champion Jimmy McCabe, who, after hitting rock bottom, returns to his childhood boxing club, still run by Bill (Winstone) and corner-man Eddie (Smiley). At first, Harris seems more than a little bit punch drunk. He’s being evicted from the housing-project apartment he shared with his mother and doesn’t appear to know where he’ll find his next meal. Although Bill and Eddie wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Jimmy fall off the wagon, they give him a final chance, anyway. The fastest way to a payday is through an unlicensed match in foreign territory — the West Midlands — arranged by an old friend and gangster, played with ultimate cool by McShane. A local promoter assumes that McCabe will merely provide a punching bag for his undefeated fighter, but the invader surprises everyone with his guts and stamina. And, while a terminal illness involving a key character delivers an emotional punch, halfway through Jawbone, it’s Harris’ performance in and out of the ring that keeps our eyes pinned to the screen. Even if there were space in the 91-minute film for a fixed fight or fairytale romance, they wouldn’t add anything more worthwhile to the story than is already there. Paul Weller, a former member of Jam and Style Council, composed and recorded an evocative original soundtrack for Jawbone. British boxing legend Barry McGuigan and his son, the esteemed trainer Shane McGuigan, served as boxing consultants. Jawbone has been nominated in seven categories by the British Independent Film Association, including Best Actor and Best Debut Screenplay for Harris. He and Napper are finalists in the BAFTA category, Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer.

Cook Off!: Blu-ray
Even if there’s no good reason to add a freshness label to movies released on DVD-Blu-ray – or medical alert, for that matter – the long-delayed delivery of Cook Off! begs a couple of interesting questions, at least. Cathryn Michon and Guy Shalem’s mockumentary landed on VOD outlets last November, nearly 11 years after its debut at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, in Aspen. The cast is comprised of veterans of the L.A. improvisational-comedy scene, including members of the Groundlings, Off the Wall and “Reno 911!” While vaguely familiar to viewers, then, the faces of Wendi McLendon-Covey (“The Goldbergs”), Melissa McCarthy (“Mike & Molly”), Gary Anthony Williams (“The Soul Man”), Niecy Nash (“Claws”), Diedrich Bader (“Veep”), Mindy Sterling (“Con Man) and Jennifer Elise Cox (“Idiotsitter”) will immediately ring bells today. I should have smelled something fishy with the appearance of Marcia Wallace (“The Bob Newhart Show”), who passed away in 2013, but spent more time wondering if Gavin McLeod (“The Love Boat”) was still alive. He is. The thing is, though, Cook Off! isn’t all that bad. While it may not be in same league as Best in Show, Christopher Guest’s hilarious sendup of the Westminster Kennel Club Show, Cook Off! offers more than its fair share of laughs at the expense of the same sort of American archetypes. Here, the targets of Michon, McLendon-Covey and W. Bruce Cameron’s scattershot script are finalists in the Van Rookle Farms Cooking Contest, which offers $1 million first prize. Michon, who wrote the source novel “The Grrl Genius Guide to Life,” plays Sharon Solfest, a hot blond hoochie-mama who sells Lutheran-approved sex toys to women in her Minnesota home town. Strangely chaste, herself, she’s saving her most precious possession for Lars (Williams), a gregarious black man she describes as “the most Swedish guy in Minnesota.” It’s pretty clear, however, that Lars is saving his virginity for a dude. Sharon’s sister, Pauline (McLendon-Covey), also qualified for the finals. She is a nursing-home dietician who specializes in a lactose-free version of creamed corn. McCarthy steals the show with a concoction that is created from ingredients that come in cans and boxes. Two years before “Mike & Molly,” her star quality was already on full display. Also funny in smaller parts are Louis Anderson, as mayor of the sponsoring city, Blue Earth; Wallace and McLeod, as the celebrity judges; Little, as the costume mascot, Mister Muffin; and Markie Post (“Night Court”), as the food-channel announcer. As ragged as it is, Cook Off! should provide fans of the actors, at least, more than a few moments of pleasure. The Blu-ray adds several deleted scenes and outtakes; and the featurette, “Cook-Off!: The Ultimate Food Fight.”

Blue World Order
With Billy Zane on board, how could any post-apocalyptic sci-fi action picture go wrong? A lot of different ways, really, but none of them here can be laid at the feet of the Titanic star and Straight-to-Video Hall of Famer. If Blue World Order co-directors Ché Baker and Dallas Bland had a few more million dollars on hand, it might have been easier to recommend to American fans of Ozploitation flicks. As it is, Blue World Order more closely resembles a pilot for a series on FX or Syfy, than a free-standing adventure. On October 19, 2022, an attack on an international web of bio-power plants spews irradiated bacteria around the northern hemisphere, killing most adults. Meanwhile, a massive electromagnetic pulse has wiped out all the planet’s children, with the exception of Molly (Billie Rutherford), the daughter of Jake Slater (Jake Ryan).  After two years in the wilderness, Ryan and his now-comatose daughter team up with the bumbling misfit, Madcap — Stephen Hunter, who played Bombur in The Hobbit – who concocts a plan to shut down the spread of the virus and destroy a tower, which sends intermittent signals to control the actions of infected survivors. Naturally, Zane leads the gang of rebels that controls the tower and is determined to capture Jake and Molly to see how they’ve managed to stay alive. Australian favorites Bruce Spence (Road Warrior) and Jack Thompson (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence) liven up the proceedings, as well.

PBS: American Experience: Into the Amazon
PBS: American Experience: The Secret of Tuxedo Park
PBS: American Masters: This Is Bob Hope …
PBS: Great Performances: Havana Time Machine
PBS: Nature: Nature’s Miniature Miracles
They don’t make presidents like Teddy Roosevelt anymore … former presidents, either. Anyone who watched Ken Burns’ comprehensive bio-doc, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” already knows what the elder Roosevelt cousin contributed to the American presidency, democracy and psyche. The “American Experience” presentation “Into the Amazon” expands on an eight-week period in TR’s life that is as fascinating as any chapter in his biography. In 1914, the former president joined Brazilian explorer and naturalist Candido Rondon in a journey that would take them to the heart of the rainforest to chart an unexplored tributary of the Amazon, the Rio da Duvida. The crew included his son, Kermit, a physician and a representative of the American Museum of Natural History, as well as 16 porters and oarsmen. The adventurers set out on December 9, 1913, at the height of the rainy season and a mere two years after a would-be assassin’s bullet narrowly missed his heart and became lodged in his chest. That wound would become relevant when TR suffered a cut on his leg, after jumping into the river to prevent two canoes from smashing against the rocks. Already in a weakened state, Roosevelt soon contracted a tropical fever that resembled the malaria he had experienced, while in Cuba, 15 years earlier. By the sixth week of the trek, he couldn’t walk. The infection in his leg required the physician’s constant attention. TR insisted that Rondon continue the poorly provisioned expedition without him, but Kermit persuaded him to continue. Anyone who’s seen The Lost City of Z already knows how challenging such a mission could be, then and now. Indeed, “lost” Amazonian tribes are still being identified. The two-hour “Into the Amazon” not only captures the intricacies of the expedition, including tensions between the leaders, but also takes viewers on a visual journey on the same river.

More than 70 years after the end of World War II, we’re still being introduced to unsung heroes and discoveries that changed its course. Alfred Lee Loomis is one such man. An attorney, investment banker, philanthropist, physicist, inventor of the LORAN Long Range Navigation System and a lifelong patron of scientific research, Loomis created a laboratory and think tank where the allies’ top minds could work and exchange ideas, without having to anticipate budget cuts and other governmental interference. In 1940, as German bombs rained on London, Winston Churchill bypassed the Pentagon and took his country’s advances in radar technology straight to Loomis, who provided the money necessary to mass-produce the devices and install them in airplanes. MIT director Lee DuBridge would observe, “Radar won the war; the atom bomb ended it.” PBS’ “American Experience: The Secret of Tuxedo Park” describes the positive consequences of such trans-Atlantic cooperation, while also giving viewers a tour of Loomis’ Tuxedo Park mansion, which attracted such great minds as Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, James Franck and Enrico Fermi.

Being profiled in an episode of PBS’ “American Masters” series is an honor that’s unique in the mass media. At two hours, the producers have plenty of time to touch all the bases in an important American performer’s career, with easy access to archival material and the cooperation of relatives, peers and historians. I wonder what the subject of “This Is Bob Hope …” would say about having to wait more than three years to be accorded the same treatment as his friend and partner, Bing Crosby. During his eight-decade career, Hope was the only performer to achieve great success in every form of 20th Century mass entertainment: vaudeville, Broadway, movies, radio, television, popular song and personal appearances. “American Masters” explores the entertainer’s life with unprecedented access to his personal files and clips from his classic films.

It’s possible to enjoy “Great Performances: Havana Time Machine” as an extension of Wim Wenders’ great musical documentary, Buena Vista Social Club, which introduced Americans to Cuban artists who’d almost completely disappeared from view in record stores here and on the island. If the element of surprise is missing, the music performed remains revelatory. Raul Malo, the wonderful lead singer of the Mavericks, explores his Cuban heritage alongside such musicians as Eliades Ochoa, Ivette Cepeda, Roberto Fonseca and the Sweet Lizzy Project. Once again, Havana provides a lovely background for the collaborations and history lessons. “Time Machine” begs the same question raised in “BVSC,” however: When is America going to get over itself and lift a boycott that’s punishing innocent Cubans far more than the country’s Communist Party elite?

PBS’ “Nature” series goes to the ends of the Earth to find rarely seen animals and capture them photographically in their natural environments.   “Nature’s Miniature Miracles” chronicles the epic survival stories of the world’s smallest beings. These tiny “heroes” have developed extraordinary skills through evolution and achieve amazing feats. They include the wee sengi, considered the cheetah of the shrew world; a hummingbird who travels thousands of miles, twice each year; a small shark that walks on land; and an army of baby turtles, as they instinctively race from their sandy nests to the safety of the open ocean.

The DVD Wrapup: 68 Kill, Bad Day for the Cut, Friend Request, Tiger Hunter, CERN, Conduct!, Macon County Line and more

Wednesday, January 10th, 2018

The January doldrums are upon us, when Hollywood attempts to attract audiences in smaller cities and towns to movies ballyhooed in the run-up to awards season, but whose exposure has been limited to critics, guild members and viewers in select cities, as they used to call New York, Los Angeles and Toronto. Traditionally, movies that did well at the Golden Globes and in Oscar nominations could expect a bump at the box-office in January and run-up to Valentine’s and Presidents’ days. Lately, prestige films that miss the cut in the polls, critics’ lists, nominations and awards presentations might not be accorded even a wider theatrical release in non-select cities. But by advancing the streaming and DVD/Blu-ray windows, distributors now can take advantage of the pre-holiday marketing halo and avoid spending another fortune in advertising revenues. It might take current box-office faves Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Justice League, The Greatest Showman and Pitch Perfect 3  longer to reach the small screen. (The Last Jedi didn’t open in China until this past weekend, and Jumanji  has yet to show in several prominent countries. Neither have The Shape of Water, Call Me by Your Name, I Tonya, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.)

Genuine awards hopefuls Dunkirk, Victoria & Abdul, The Big Sick, Blade Runner 2049, Mother! (Jennifer Lawrence), Girls Trip (Tiffany Haddish), Wind River, Mudbound and Get Out are available in the aftermarket. Meanwhile, distributors are holding their collective breath until January 23 – Academy Award nominations — to announce their plans for VOD and DVD/Blu-ray dates. Any way one slices this half-assed system, the only winners are the fortunate few thousand industry insiders – as well as their relatives, friends and neighbors — who are sent “for your consideration” screeners and never have to set foot in a theater to see how pictures are supposed to look.

January is also prime time for studios to dump disappointments and question marks into theaters, before a fast turnaround on video. Occasionally, an overlooked gem will sneak into circulation – last year’s The Founder and Split, for example — but it won’t be because anyone saw it coming. I’ve found a few titles that fit that description.

68 Kill: Blu-ray
If 2018 is going to be the year that women in film begin fighting back, Trent Haaga’s breakneck thriller 68 Kill would be a grand place for them to draw inspiration. AnnaLynn McCord plays Liza, an alpha female who tricks her ineffectual, if adorable boyfriend Chip (Matthew Gray Gubler) into participating in a scheme to steal tens of thousands of dollars – $68,000, to be precise — from the safe in her sugar-daddy landlord’s bedroom. Chip could use the money, but clearly isn’t ready for the heist to go sideways or for Liza to relish the ultra-violence as much she does. Although Liza demands that he personally eliminate a pretty young witness, Violet (Alisha Boe), Chip decides instead to put his bloodthirsty lover temporarily out of commission and head for the hills with the money. It doesn’t take long for the hapless Chip to fall in love with the deceptively fragile flower. Violet has plans of her own for the money, and disappears. After seeking the assistance of a hard-boiled goth cashier at a local gas station, Chip is lured into an evil more diabolical trap, this one devised by a half-dozen meth heads with guns, zits and bad teeth. Just when he thinks he has control of the situation, Chip loses whatever edge he might have had to a pair of female tweakers, whose girlhood heroines probably included Juliette Lewis’ Mallory Knox, in Natural Born Killers, and Amanda Plummer’s Honey Bunny, in Pulp Fiction. Neither does Troma veteran Haaga (Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV) give up on the possibility Violet or Liza might return, looking for the money, which is hidden somewhere in the bowels of a low-rent trailer park. Based on a novel of the same title by Bryan Smith, 68 Kill could be accused of overplaying the gratuitous-violence card, if it weren’t for the juxtaposition of the women’s psychotic behavior and Chip’s inability to stand on his own two feet for more than a couple minutes at a time. It leads to some shockingly abrupt narrative shifts, as well as much inky black humor, mostly at Chip’s expense. It’s also sexy, without a great deal of forced nudity. That so much of the action takes place in trailers and mini-marts is only to be expected.

Bad Day for the Cut: Blu-ray
Newcomer Chris Baugh is the latest writer-director to join the short, but growing list of Irish genre specialists to watch. In the consistently involving Bad Day for the Cut, Nigel O’Neill plays a hard-working farmer whose only enjoyment in life comes from downing a pint or two at the local pub, breathing new life into broken-down cars and allowing his widowed mother to spoil him in the home they share. One night, after falling asleep in his makeshift garage, Donal interrupts a home invasion that leaves his mother dead on the floor of the living room. He’s seen the perpetrators, but they get away before he can identify them or get their license-plate number. No sooner has his mother been laid to rest than Donal is ambushed by a different pair of hooded thugs, who blow their attempt to hang him from the barn’s rafters. It gives him an opportunity to take one of them out for good. Donal doesn’t recognize his attackers this time, either, but is able to wring some valuable information from the thoroughly inept survivor, Bartosz (Józef Pawlowski), and whatever can be gleaned from the dead man’s phone. Still, Donal can’t imagine why anyone would want to murder his mother or him. Donal’s investigation will take him to Belfast in a garish red camper van he’s just restored. It is also where Bartosz’ sister, Kaja (Anna Próchniak), is being held against her will by the same white-slavers who forced the young man into participating in the botched hanging. By this time, Donal and Bartosz are cooperating in their separate quests. The only spoiler I’m willing to spill here comes in revealing that the original break-in was anything but random and the mystery can be traced to the bad old days of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland. The prostitution angle is also crucial to the story, but mostly as connecting tissue and a catalyst for extreme violence. Also terrific in Bad Day for the Cut is Susan Lynch, whose character could hardly be more menacing or tough. As such, she’s another formidable woman with whom to be reckoned in 2018.

Friend Request: Blu-ray
Even before Facebook became a ubiquitous presence in the lives of millions of Americans, serious questions were raised about trusting the identity of people hanging out in on-line chatrooms, posing as one thing, while being something else entirely. Middle-age male predators preyed on underage teenagers of both genders, until police figured out how to identify the perverts and initiate well-coordinated stings. When Facebook was launched in 2004, membership was limited to students at Harvard and other high-end colleges. As it expanded, students began to fall prey to some of the same scams as that perplexed AOL and other services. If anything, though, the new community of “friends” was more educated and able to see through the ruses. Conversely, this allowed some of them to conceive ever-more-devious schemes, while burglars monitored their “friends” movements to plan break-ins. While Munich-born writer/director/actor Simon Verhoeven carefully avoids aggravating FB lawyers in Friend Request, he extends the discussion by warning viewers against “unfriending” people whose identities they have been given reason to question. The story updates the source technology in Ringu, without eliminating any of the menace. Friend Request begins with a harried college professor upbraiding his class for downloading a suicide video that the deceased student had posted on the Internet. When he asks if anyone has any information about the death, the camera introduces us to Laura Woodson (Alycia Debnam-Carey), a dead-ringer for Piper Perabo. In a flashback, Laura is shown accepting an invitation to befriend the class’ goth outsider, Marina (Liesl Ahlers), who everyone else avoids. Marina is talented artist whose macabre illustrations come to life in nightmarish animations. When things get too weird for Laura, Marina turns on her other friends on the site. Suddenly, they begin dying in horribly grotesque ways. Videos of their deaths appear on the website, complete with terrifying animations. One thing leads to another, and we’re back in the classroom, where the professor is grilling the students. Friend Request may not be the most original movie of the season, but most of the scares are genuine and the international cast of actors takes their roles seriously. Originally titled “Unknown Error,” the film was later renamed internationally to avoid confusion with Levan Gabriadze’s Unfriended (2014). In Germany, Friend Request was titled “Unknown User” to avoid confusion with the Filipino-language Unfriend (2014). Verhoeven’s version took its good-natured time opening in the U.S., possibly to distance it further from Unfriended, which appealed to the same audience demographic. The Blu-ray adds “Friend Request: The Social Nightmare,” in which brief interviews are intercut with scenes from the film. BTW: Verhoeven is the son of writer/director Michael Verhoeven (The Nasty Girl) and Senta Berger (The Quiller Memorandum), but no relation to the Dutch filmmaker, Paul.

The Tiger Hunter: Blu-ray
At a time in our history when the President of the United States has turned his back on the Statue of Liberty and demands that Congress allocate funds to build a fence to prevent “huddled masses” of color from breathing freely, it’s nice to find a movie that makes a quiet, yet emphatic case for tolerance and inclusion. This isn’t to say that Lena Khan’s debut feature sugarcoats the debate over illegal immigration or oversells the idea that America wouldn’t be what it is if it weren’t for men and women from foreign countries, not all of whom were welcomed with open arms. The Tiger Hunter is about a highly educated young Indian, Sami (Danny Pudi), who’s promised an engineering job in Chicago, but loses it when the company decides to downsize without warning. Inspired by his late father, who became a hero by saving a village from a killer tiger, Sami decides not to let the setback crush his spirit. Instead of being able to afford a nice apartment and send money home to his mother, he moves into a cramped flat with eight other men struggling to realize the American Dream. He also would love to convince his sweetheart’s demanding dad that he’s worthy of his trust and her hand. In a nice change of pace, the characters have left their political, religious and ethnic differences behind them in India and Pakistan. When Sami’s supervisor steals his idea for a countertop microwave oven and sells it to the Boss (Kevin Pollak) as his own – this is 1979, when such gizmos were rare – his friends rally behind him to find a way correct the misrepresentation. Khan keeps the atmosphere light by introducing the romantic throughline, which requires Sami to ask a wealthy co-worker (Jon Heder) if he can use his family’s mansion to impress his girlfriend (Karen David) and her father (Iqbal Theba), who are in the U.S. interviewing potential suitors. Plenty of things could have happened to turn The Tiger Hunter into a needlessly dramatic exercise in America-bashing, filled with racial jibes and unpleasant bickering. According to interviews in the hourlong making-of featurette, the movie’s individual stories and vignettes mirrored the experiences of their friends and relatives, who moved to the U.S. and the UK to realize their dreams. As such, The Tiger Hunter is sweet, without being saccharin, and can be enjoyed by anyone able to trace their roots to the Old Country, wherever that might be. Although Indian and Pakistani actors aren’t prevalent on American screens, the ones who appear here should be familiar to fans of “Community,” “Glee,” “Galavant,” “Outsourced,” “The Grind” and “House Arrest.” Sadly, it’s theatrical release was limited to 42 theaters. It deserves to be given a fair chance in video.

Austrian-born filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter is a new-school documentarian, whose borders stretch to the ends of the Earth and who employs techniques that combine visual artistry with existential questioning of fact-based subject matter. He is perhaps best known here for Our Daily Bread (2005), which changed the way viewers looked at the production of food and explained why it doesn’t taste the way it should. In 1999’s Pripyat, Geyrhalter became one of the first filmmakers to enter Chernobyl’s evacuated zone, a dozen years after the meltdown. In addition to discovering a technological graveyard, he interviewed people who returned to one of sthe most unlikely places on the planet to support life. In Elsewhere (2000), he directed camera teams that travelled to different extreme locations each month, searching for places untouched by the millennium hysteria. My favorite, Homo Sapiens (2016), quietly surveys post-apocalyptic landscapes in a pre-dystopian world. Outwardly, CERN is a far more traditional undertaking. The 75-minute, made-for-television documentary takes us to the human ant farm known as the Large Hadron Collider, a circular city of 2,500-plus scientists, physicists, mathematicians and technicians, from dozens of different countries, buried 100 meters below a northwest suburb of Geneva. Operated by the world-renowned research organization, CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), the 27-kilometer-circumference tunnel is the world’s largest laboratory for particle physics. In laymen’s term, the facility’s primary mission is to re-create the so-called Big Bang and understand how the universe evolved. They do it by circulating proton beams through the 27-kilometer ring in both directions.  According to LHC’s main engineer, Steve Myers, this is like “firing two needles across the Atlantic and getting them to hit each other.” Among other things, the World Wide Web began as a CERN project named ENQUIRE, initiated by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 and Robert Cailliau in 1990. After establishing the scale and mission of the facility, he introduces viewers to some of the men and women whose job it is to keep this massive gray beast running. They attempt to define the work they do in terms that even college dropouts might understand, but the explanations flew by me as if they were, well, needles fired across the Atlantic. It was like watching “The Big Bang Theory,” translated into Mandarin Chinese. Those viewers who have no problem understanding what makes the geniuses in that show tick, however, might very find CERN to be very entertaining. The existential angle can be found in one scientist’s description of a conversation he had with Pope John Paul II, when he visited the facility. He asked the pontiff if the work being done by CERN contradicted Church doctrine. The answer should be of interest to fundamentalists of all stripe.

Conduct! Every Move Counts
To the same degree that I don’t understand particle physics, neither can I fathom the mysteries of classical music and how all the individual parts come together to make such beautiful sounds. Growing up, the job of conducting a symphony orchestra always seemed to require little more than looking imperious in a tuxedo, bowing grandly, being able to read music and wave a baton simultaneously, and occasionally stare down the one musician out of a hundred who needs a bit more encouragement. The more I began to appreciate repertoire, however, the easier it was to disabuse myself of such a stupid notion. I don’t suppose that a composer’s job can be said to be comparable to herding cats, but it requires an ability to keep dozens of moving parts working in unison like a fine Swiss watch. The showmanship evolves over time. In his first feature-length documentary, Götz Schauder chronicles the lofty ambitions of 24 young conductors from around the world, all invited to Frankfurt to compete in the prestigious Sir Georg Solti Conductors’ Competition. Having seen Solti in action with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – and edited our classical-music critic’s articles for years — it doesn’t take much additional background to gauge just how high the bar has been set for the competitors. (A little more information on the Hungarian-born pianist and conductor might have helped laymen, however.) The first thing that struck me in Conduct! Every Move Counts was the initial tension between the experienced musicians and the whippersnappers attempting to make them align their sensibilities to the unheard music in the conductors’ heads. Otherwise, the intensity of the competition approximates that which informs documentaries about chess, Scrabble, ballroom dancing, poetry and math. Great professional and amateur athletes possess the same inner drive and passion for their chosen disciplines.  Each candidate is accorded 20 minutes to work with an orchestra he – or the single she, Alondra de la Parra — has never met and impress an intimidating panel of judges … again, all men. “Conduct” follows five conductors: the 20-year-old Aziz Shokhakimov, from Uzbekistan; Parra, the rising star New Yorker, via Mexico City; Englishman James Lowe; Andreas Hotz, from Germany; and Japan’s Shizuo Z. Kuwahara, who conducts with his bare hands. Unlike most competition docs, not all of them will make it past the first cut, let alone the final list of three. Some tension occurs as two also-rans stick around long enough to check out the rehearsals and final performance of the finalists. Naturally, they think they were cheated and are every bit as surprised to learn that they weren’t. “Conduct” probably could have benefitted from another 10 minutes of exposition, during which the art of conducting could be deciphered for casual fans of classical music.

Macon County Line: Blu-ray
Now that the archivists at Shout!Factory have committed Macon County Line to Blu-ray, I wonder how long it will take the company to re-release Jackson County Jail in hi-def, as well. In 2011, it was packaged with Caged Heat! as part of the company’s “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” and “Women in Cages” series of double- and triple-features. Although all the selections resemble each other in certain Corman-esque ways, a discernible amount of individuality manages to peek out from behind the gaudy cover art. Macon County Line, which starred Yvette Mimieux and Tommy Lee Jones, is set in the same kind of Deep South hellhole where Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were gunned down in Easy Rider. It could have been influenced just as easily by Two-Lane Blacktop, in which James Taylor and Dennis Wilson drag-race their way across the U.S., in a gray-primer ’55 Chevy, taking on all comers. Then, too, Macon County Line also borrows liberally from “Route 66,” a great TV series, in which Martin Milner and George Maharis wandered around the country in a vintage Corvette, taking odd jobs to pay for gas and allowing themselves to be seduced by beautiful women. Today, however, its biggest selling point may be the novelty of having been written by Max Baer Jr. (“The Beverly Hillbillies”), who also plays an extremely credible redneck sheriff, Deputy Reed Morgan. Based on a true story, Macon County Line is about two young brothers from Chicago, who are about to be inducted into the service. As they make their way south-by-southwest, Chris and Wayne Dixon (Alan and Jesse Vint) pick up an anchorless young woman, Jenny (Cheryl Waters), who’s on her way to Dallas. When the Dixons’ convertible breaks down in the middle of nowhere, they barely have enough money to pay for gas, let alone a new fuel pump. The owner of the garage (Geoffrey Lewis) jerry-rigs the pump, so that the car might make it as far as the next big city, but not much further. When it breaks down again, they’re practically in the front yard of the sheriff (Baer) who gave them a hard time at garage. This time, however, it coincides with a clumsy home invasion, during which the deputy’s wife (Joan Blackman) is raped and murdered. Without a stitch of evidence, the former Jethro Bodine picks up a rifle and tracks down the Yankee outsiders. The ending isn’t nearly as predictable as it might seem from that summary.  In fact, it’s downright poignant. Despite a shoestring budget that precluded anything remotely fancy, cinematographer Daniel Lacambre (Humanoids from the Deep) finds and exploits every inch of atmosphere from the rural location. The actors also contribute fine performances to the proceedings. That includes 13-year-old Leif Garrett, a future teen heartthrob who’s given a harsh lesson in 1960s racism by his dad, Morgan. The Blu-ray adds a fresh interview with editor Tina Hirsch (“The West Wing”), commentary with director Richard Compton and the featurette, “Macon County Line: 25 Years Down the Road.”

My Little Pony: The Movie: Blu-ray
I wonder how many parents noticed the PG-rating accorded My Little Pony: The Movie and scratched their heads over what might have caused the nincompoops at the MPAA ratings board to react so harshly to “mild action” and a story with fewer objectionable parts than most Disney pictures. Or, so says the Parents Guide on the website. PG may not be the new NC-17, but really … My Little friggin’ Pony? No matter what one thinks of the silly plots and fantastical characters, the franchise has stood the test of time as a harmless pastime for very young fans, many of whom profit from the lessons taught by miniature horses during the animated adventures. I could understand the rating if it were linked to the barely subliminal marketing of toys and other products to impressionable youngsters. If that were the case, however, none of Disney’s films would pass muster. Neither would releases from Nickelodeon and PBS Kids. The main character in this, the second My Little Pony: The Movie in 30 years, is Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong), who, once again, is asked to explore the Power of Friendship that comes with her title. The new guest antagonist is Tempest Shadow (Emily Blunt), a disenfranchised pony who has become calloused and driven. Another antagonist, Storm King (Liev Schreiber) is just as important to the narrative as allies Princess Celestia, Princess Luna and Princess Candence. Along the way to restoring Equestria to its former luster, the movie provides lessons in loyalty, honesty and persistence. The Blu-ray adds a deleted scene, an “Equestria Girls Short,” “Baking With Pinkie Pie,” “Making Magic With the Mane 6 and Their New Friends,” “The Journey Beyond Equestria,” “I’m the Friend You Need” and “Hanazuki: Full of Treasures.”

The DVD Wrapup: Chavela, Teacher, Shadowman, Shock Wave, Laugh-In and more

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2018

It can be said of Chavela Vargas, near-mythic singer of Mexican rancheras that she spent most of her 93 years on Earth struggling to achieve the kind of success today’s prefabricated singers achieve by the time they’re old enough to drive. Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi’s emotionally-charged documentary, Chavela, describes her journey from obscurity to prominence on the world stage, through painstakingly referenced video footage, recordings, interviews and photographs. Born Isabel Vargas Lizano, she left her native Costa Rica at 14 to pursue a career making music. Like Edith Piaf, Chavela found her first audiences in the streets, singing a distinctively Mexican form of the blues. In her youth, she dressed as a man, smoked cigars, drank heavily, carried a gun and was known for her characteristic red jorongo, a full-length poncho worn for special occasions. She adopted an androgynous persona, in part, because the canción ranchera was identified almost exclusively for its masculine points-of-view and Mexican audiences wouldn’t approve of a female singer drowning her sorrows in alcohol and refusing to articulate whether her heartbreaks were caused by men or women. Neither did she perform with the accompaniment of a mariachi band, preferring the support of a guitar or two. Chavela, who died in 2012, was in her 40s when she developed a fan base composed of fellow artists and intellectuals – among them,  Juan Rulfo, Agustín Lara, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Dolores Olmedo and José Alfredo Jiménez — and international tourists attracted to the Champagne Room of the Acapulco restaurant, La Perla.

In the late 1970s, Vargas partially retired from performing due to a long battle with alcoholism, which she described in her 2002 autobiography as “my 15 years in hell.” After getting sober, with the help of natural healing agents introduced to her by an Indian family that took her in, Vargas returned to the stage in 1991, performing at a bohemian Mexico City nightclub called “El Hábito.” Many fans of her recorded music, including Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, had assumed that she had succumbed years earlier. When he learned that Chavela was performing in Mexico, Almodóvar arranged for his personal muse to headline sold-out concerts in Madrid, Paris and New York’s Carnegie Hall. Although she had long dreamed of singing in such venues, her “overnight success” came late in her life. In her autobiography, Vargas also came out, which opened the door to a new demographic. As wonderful as the music is, many viewers will be struck as much by home-movie footage of Kahlo and Rivera, and Vargas’ recollections of their friendship. The DVD adds the directors’ commentary and a pair of Q&A’s, a 1981 interview with Vargas and a concert performance of “Paloma Negra.” (Her version also was featured in Frida.)

The Teacher
One of the rites of passage for parents of school-age children comes in recognizing the role politics play in the classroom, at PTA meetings, sports and other extracurricular activities. As is the case with every American institution, it doesn’t take a lot of time to distinguish between leaders and followers, volunteers and stragglers, winners and whiners. Teachers who attempt to distance themselves from the fray sometimes are caught short when a parent does an end-run and goes directly to a principal with a perceived grievance. In some schools, mostly public, the teachers and administrators hold the procedural edge over the parents, while, in tuition-based systems, it’s the parents with the most money and political clout who hold sway. It may seem like a typically American way of doing business, but Jan Hřebejk and writer Petr Jarchovský’s Slovak-language dramedy The Teacher, suggests otherwise. It is set in 1983, at a Bratislava middle school where Communist Party politics carry more weight than educational initiatives and parental input, combined. Like so many other dark parables that have emerged from the former Soviet bloc countries since the mid-1990s, The Teacher describes how certain theoretically egalitarian Socialist institutions were transformed into places where favoritism, corruption and spying were rewarded over achievement and ethical behavior.  The Czech director and writer, who previously collaborated with Jarchovský on the Oscar-nominated “Divided We Fall” (2000), doesn’t waste any time raising questions we can patiently wait to have answered later in the narrative. The biggest one emerges almost immediately, when new teacher Mária Drazdechová (Zuzana Mauréry) asks each boy and girl to stand up, introduce themselves and tell her what their parents do for a living. Wait, what? Was this standard operating procedure for teachers behind the Iron Curtain?

Turns out, Ms. Drazdechova moonlights as a high-ranking official of the Communist Party and she already knows more about the teenagers’ parents than they’re willing to admit on Day One of the school year. This includes defections, divorces and other perceived faults. In some cases, fellow students voluntarily fill in the gaps left in their classmates’ introductions. Clearly, the teacher has an ulterior motive for bringing the students’ parents into the picture. As the school year progresses, she divides the classroom between the students whose parents can be blackmailed into helping her out with errands, housecleaning and other random services, and those who fall short of her expectations. Drazdechova uses their cooperation as a factor in determining grades and approving participation in sports. Three strikes and they’re out. Her demands are anything but subtle. After one of the students, an aspiring gymnast, fails to meet Drazdechova’s standards and is denied the privilege of training and competing, she attempts to commit suicide. It leaves the director of the school with no choice but to call an emergency parents’ meeting to measure their outrage, if any. It plays out like any PTA meeting, anywhere, where things of greater importance than bakes sales and car washes are to be discussed. Parents already aware of Drazdechova’s abuses of power take sides, while others complain about being left outside the loop. Finally, though, the administrator will force the parents to make the decision for her, by presenting them with a petition intended to be presented to her superiors. That, of course, is when things get problematic. No one wants to attach their signature to a piece of paper that could find its way into the hands of people who control everything that’s important in their lives. If the teacher survives the inquiry, not only could their kids’ grades suffer, but the parents’ status at work and in the party could take a hit, as well. On the other hand, how could party apparatchiks justify ignoring the obvious and keeping Drazdechova in the classroom? The parents’ personal dilemmas are sketched out in darkly comic vignettes that have to be seen to be believed. Some American moms and dads might be able to relate to them, however.

Not having lived in Manhattan during 1980s, I was at a bit of a disadvantage when it came to the subject of Oren Jacoby’s fascinating documentary, Shadowman: street artist Richard Hambleton. I’ve recently been asked to review a small flood of bio-docs on the works of Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Banksy, Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Julian Schnabel, as well as films about the concurrent emergence of graffiti art and hip-hop, a decade earlier. My interest in Hambleton was sparked, in part, by an auction held last May, when Basquiat’s 1982 painting, “Untitled,” created with oil stick and spray paint, and depicting a skull, sold for a record high $110.5 million. Not bad for an art form once dismissed as vandalism. From all indications, Hambleton was every bit Basquiat’s equal, at least when it came to media attention and notoriety. So, why hadn’t I heard of him? Shadowman celebrates Hambleton’s successes and contributions to the international art community, without ignoring the fact that he became his own worst enemy when it came to profiting from his talent and vision. It was this trait, more than any other, that set him apart from his peers. Hambleton’s earliest public art, “Image Mass Murder,” could be found on sidewalks and stairways in his native Canada, New York and a dozen other cities in the U.S. and Canada. They resembled the chalk outlines police draw around the bodies of crime victims, to which a splash of red paint was added. The “crime scenes” often had the desired effect of startling or distressing passersby, who demanded police investigations. Hambleton’s next major project involved painting hundreds of silhouette figures on street-facing walls and alleys around lower Manhattan. In a city being ravaged by violence, his Shadowmen frightened pedestrians, who, from a distance, couldn’t ascertain whether the silhouette belonged to a hoodlum peeking out from behind a street corner, a watchman, an innocent bystander or simply was an illusion caused by artfully spilled paint. Others compared the silhouettes to the eerie death shadows found on the streets and sidewalks of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, after people were vaporized by the radiation delivered by the atomic bombs.

After he became identified with the Shadowman project, Hambleton produced a related series of “shadow” work, in which the characters resembled cowboys competing in a rodeo or the iconic Marlboro Man, often astride a horse. This time, the figures were painted on canvas and other material that allowed them to be hung in galleries and sold, without the aid of a jackhammer and crane. The artist, whose work would appear on both sides of the Berlin Wall, was profiled in mainstream magazines and made the late-night rounds with Warhol. It took its toll in the form of drug addiction and the debilitating effects of scoliosis and kyphosis. He defied potential patrons by refusing to turn the commissioned canvases over to them until they were completed, which, in his mind, they rarely were. Although he withdrew from society, consorted with junkies and was frequently homeless, Hambleton didn’t stop working. During his 20-year absence, he sometimes used paintings as currency among friends and completed a series of seascapes and color “landscapes,” known as the Beautiful Paintings. They were exhibited in 2007, at about the same time as his collaborations with Giorgio Armani were displayed as part of Fashion Week activities. Still, if his intention was to avoid the further commodification and branding of street art, as occurred after the deaths of Hambleton’s closest contemporaries, Haring and Basquiat, he succeeded. “At least Basquiat, you know, died,” Hambleton reflects in the documentary, during a scene shot in 2014. “I was alive when I died, you know. That’s the problem.” He succumbed to skin cancer on October 29, 2017, at 65. Shadowman is a compelling documentary about a perplexing and largely underappreciated artist and man. It is informed by archival images and interviews with curators, artists and people who knew him during the difficult years.

Love Beats Rhymes
In 1999, Jim Jarmusch’s genre-bending drama, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, successfully merged eastern philosophy and martial arts, with western gangster tropes and hard-core hip-hop culture. It may not have been the first movie in which these outlaw cultures overlapped – the mob frequently did battle with ghetto superstars in blaxploitation titles – but it was one of the first to exploit the interconnectivity of violent male cults, underground rituals and music usually reserved for so-called gangsta’ flicks. In it, Jarmusch introduced Wu Tang Clan co-founder RZA as a composer, actor and spiritual muse. If his hip-hop melodrama, Love Beats Rhymes, doesn’t break much new ground creatively, it demonstrates that RZA can direct a rom-dram that aspires to crossover success, while relying on others for its words (Nicole Asher) and most of the soundtrack’s music, beats and rhymes. I doubt he would consider popular entertainments to be his forte, however. In her acting debut, Azealia Banks plays an aspiring rapper in a crew dominated by her unfaithful lover, Malik (John David Washington). Even so, after a competition that recalls the ones in 8 Mile, Coco’s mic-dropping performance is noticed by a big-time producer, who wants to hear two more examples of the group’s sound before committing to a contract.

At the same time, Coco is pushed by her mother, Nichelle (Lorraine Toussaint), to pick up the credits she needs for an accounting degree, which could save her daughter from waiting on tables and washing dishes in her soul-food restaurant. It may not be the likeliest of scenarios, but Coco decides to take a poetry class at the Staten Island college as an elective. It is taught by the imperious Professor Nefari Dixon (Jill Scott), a former hip-hopper who’s come to detest rap and its influence on African-American youth. She treats Coco like a doormat for not acquiescing to her opinion. Things get worse when Dixon’s soft-spoken British teaching assistant, Derek (Lucien Laviscount)), invites her to a poetry slam, organized by her husband, Coltrane (Common). After she’s chosen as a judge, Coco repays the favor by giving Derek’s rhymes a low score. It causes a rift between them, but they continue to see each other. It isn’t until Coco discovers the clandestine sexual relationship he’s having with the professor that she truly begins to understand his continued disdain for rap and Dixon’s resentment of her, personally. It doesn’t help that Coltrane appears to be enabling their budding romance. In fact, the whole argument about rap not being poetry – and, therefore, an inferior art form – feels more than a little bit antiquated, considering the presence of RZA, Method Man, Common, Scott and Banks on the list of credits. It might hold water in an academic context, but not in real-world conditions. Not being aware of the difference between a couplet and a cutlet, or what differentiates iambic pentameter from a haiku, would hardly disqualify a rapper from turning their rhymes into hundred-dollar bills. The romances don’t ring true, either, but they rarely do in commercial rom-drams, where chemistry beats logic every time. If Loves Beats Rhymes finds an audience among students who need some encouragement to advance their educations, without sacrificing their musical tastes, I’d say that RZA has accomplished a great deal here.

Shock Wave: Blu-ray
Here’s another Asian movie that looks as if it were inspired directly by a popular western feature or series. In the last month, alone, I’ve traced the roots of movies from China and Korea to the Pink Panther series and La Femme Nikita. Writer/director/cinematographer Herman Yau has been churning out music videos and crime fare from his Hong Kong base since 1987. For obvious reasons, his latest revenge thriller, Shock Wave, immediately reminded me of The Hurt Locker, even though bomb-disposal units have been a staple of war and action movies, including The English Patient, Lethal Weapon 2 and Speed, for many decades. The scene in which Officer J.S. Chueng (Andy Lau), superintendent of Hong Kong’s crack Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit, is called upon to defuse a bomb that could have been dropped on the city in World War II might as well have been directed by Kathryn Bigelow. The tension builds in precisely the same way it did whenever Russell Crowe approached an IED or booby-trapped vehicle, sucking us into the drama, as if there really were a chance Crowe’s Sergeant First Class William James could be written out of The Hurt Locker in its first half-hour. It takes a great deal of skill to convince an audience to suspend disbelief long enough to believe that an actor being paid upwards of $25 million could die before his first love scene or car crash. That’s why we continue to pay good money to see movies whose outcomes were telegraphed six months earlier in in long-lead teasers and trailers. If all the bombs in Shock Wave were neutralized with the same level of expertise and tension as the one unearthed at a construction site in downtown Hong Kong, it would have been better movie. It probably wouldn’t have been as commercially successful as Shock Wave turned out to be, but explosives experts in the audience would have left the theater in a happier state.

As the story goes, Officer Cheung joined the bomb squad after blowing his cover in an underground sting operation that might otherwise have resulted in the deaths of dozens of innocent people. In doing so, however, he made an enemy for life in the criminal who trusted him. Time passes and Cheung is required to defuse an increasingly complex series of bombs, while deciphering the hidden clues the could identify the perpetrator. Everything leads to Yau’s coup de grace, a scene so outlandishly conceived that, if it’s pulled off successfully, will make everyone forget the more carefully choreographed sequence with the WWII bomb. Without spoiling anything substantial, it comes when the mob boss whose brother was arrested in the earlier sting decides to punish Cheung by trapping hundreds of motorists inside the busy 1.6-mile Cross-Harbor Tunnel, which links the main financial and commercial districts on both sides of Victoria Harbor. Naturally, the mob boss demands that Cheung bring his brother to the tunnel and stand by while he murders innocent motorists and sets up the explosives he’ll need to blow up the foundation and cause the tunnel to be crushed by the weight of the water above it. What makes the plan preposterous is … well, everything. I suppose the same was said about 9/11, though. And, yes, what happens next is extremely memorable … for a day or two, anyway. Fans of extreme Hong Kong genre fare should find plenty in Shock Wave to like. Others will probably wish they saved their money for the Lethal Weapon series to arrive in 4K UHD. The DVD adds a decent making-of featurette.

Babes With Blades
Standing 4-feet-9 and weighing 92 pounds, British multi-hyphenate Cecily Fay would appear to be an unlikely candidate for martial-arts superstardom. Any woman as conversant as she is with artistic movement and fighting swords, however, isn’t likely to be deterred by conventional notions about size. With an extensive background in ballet and gymnastics, the 16-year-old Fay decided to take a shot at tai chi, which was being offered at the London Contemporary Dance School as an elective. She appreciated the connection between philosophy and performance, but sought a martial art that was more combative and involved cutlery. Eventually, she met a master of Malay silat, who promised to reward her hard work with lessons in the rare Silat Melayu sword discipline. In 1997, Fay teamed up with record producer Jon X and formed the Morrighan, as singer and main writer/composer. After breaking into film in the 2001 made-for-TV documentary “Gladiatrix,” she was hired to perform stunts in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The petite brunette would go on to find work as a stunt double, actress, fight choreographer, costume designer and composer. Besides looking incredibly hot in a leather bodice and bikini, Fay has also founded the all-women performance troupe, Babes With Blades. Something tells me that Babes With Blades, the movie, bears a resemblance to the stage act, as it serves primarily as a showcase for troupe members. The movie’s plot borders on the ridiculous. Dig: “On the dark streets of Draiga, a mining colony occupied by the Visray Empire, lives Azura (Fay), the last of a fearless warrior race known as the Sarnians. After witnessing her once-beautiful home turned into a lifeless husk, Azura must fight to the death in the gladiatorial ring to stay alive. Meanwhile, a group of freedom-fighters form a resistance, seeking to protect their families from the oppressive and cruel rule of the Visray Section Commander Sorrentine. Unbeknownst to Azura, the fate of all humans on Draiga is about to rest in her hands. Can she survive long enough to save her colony?” Does it matter? It’s the action sequences, after all, that count in Babes With Blades and the 96-minute movie is full of them, as are the bonus features. With Quintin Tarantino teasing plans for a third Kill Bill installment, it would behoove him to check out Fay’s chops – pun intended – inBabes With Blades.

No Solicitors
Any movie that dares to star Eric Roberts as “the country’s leading brain surgeon” is either trying to pull the legs of potential viewers or has greatly overestimated whatever cachet is left from his 31-year-old Oscar nomination for Runaway Train. Or, maybe not. Since that terrific action picture was released, Roberts has registered an incredible 472 acting credits at, with nearly 40 unreleased titles still in one form of post-production or another. A charter member of the Straight to Video Hall of Fame, the 61-year-old actor has a real shot at passing the 600-picture barrier before he retires. I can’t imagine that he spent much time on the set of John Callas’ No Solicitors, a tongue-in-cheek cannibal flick that would love to be mentioned in the same breath as Paul Bartel’s Eating Raoul, Bob Balaban’s Parents, Kevin Connor’s Motel Hell and John Waters’ Serial Mom, but falls way short of those efforts. Unlike the hyper-prolific Roberts, Callas’ last credit of substance came in 1988, as director of Lone Wolf. In the interim, Callas produced live-action trailers for feature films and commercials, while also serving as a consultant and novelist. Here, Roberts plays the widely respected Dr. Lewis Cutterman – get it? – head of a seemingly normal suburban family that welcomes solicitors into their home to break bread with them. After some leading dialogue, the guests are drugged and chained to gurneys in the basement. Cutterman will harvest their organs, as needed by desperate patients, while his wife, Rachel (Beverly Randolph), eliminates evidence by cooking the leftover parts for dinner. Their adult children, Nicole and Scott (Kim Poirier, Jason Maxim), are growing into the family business, by learning how to separate guests of their precious organs, without killing them. Mostly, though, they taunt and torture them. The humor in Callas’ script is overwhelmed by the graphic nature of the amputations, which, even if we know they’re accomplished with special visual effects, might as well be real. The camera lingers on them far longer than is necessary, serving no useful purpose except to turn stomachs. And, yes, there is a big difference between shocking viewers and alienating them, even those attuned to torture porn.

Hell Night: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Released at about the same time as films in the slasher/splatter/stalker subgenres were approaching critical mass, Hell Night stands today as a reminder that excessive and gratuitous violence and nudity weren’t always determinants in the success of a horror picture. There probably were plenty of male viewers hoping for a glimpse of little Regan MacNeil’s grown-up Blair’s breasts, but they’d have to wait a couple more years for that to happen. If nothing else, it might have helped them erase the memory of her 1977 cocaine bust and her participation in Roller Boogie (1979). That career move would come two years after the release of Hell Night, a movie that probably could have gone out with an PG-13 rating, instead of the more promising “R.” The breakthrough came in her third women-in-prison epic – the first two being TV movies Born Innocent (1974) and Sweet Hostage (1975) – the highly respected Chained Heat, alongside old pros Sybil Danning, Edy Williams, Monique Gabrielle, Marsha Karr and Stella Stevens, and continued soon thereafter, in the less-admired Savage Streets and Red Heat, co-starring Sylvia Kristel. For a future Mr. Skin Hall of Famer, Blair remains remarkably chaste throughout Hell Night. She plays an above-it-all sorority pledge, Marti, forced to spend the night in a presumably haunted mansion with rich-boy Jeff (Peter Barton), party-girl Denise (Suki Goodwin) and surfer Seth (Vincent Van Patten). Suki picked up the slack by remaining in her Frederick’s of Hollywood bra, panty and stockings ensemble throughout Hell Night. The fun begins after fraternity president Peter Bennett (Kevin Brophy) revisits the mansion’s sordid past and possibility that deformed twin killers remain hidden within its walls. Because he doesn’t really believe the siblings are still alive, he instructs his underlings to trick out the mansion with scary accessories. Soon enough, the killing begins for real. By today’s standards, though, it’s pretty tame. What saves Hell Night is director Tom DeSimone’s imaginative staging, both on location at Redland’s Kimberly Crest Estate and on a soundstage in L.A. The DVD and Blu-ray features include a new 4K scan of the film, taken from the “best surviving archival print”; fresh interviews with Blair, Barton, Van Patten, Goodwin, Brophy and first-victim Jenny Neumann; and commentary with Blair, DeSimone, producers Irwin Yablans and Bruce Cohn Curtis. Blu-ray exclusives include new interviews with DeSimone, Curtis and writer Randolph Feldman; “Anatomy of the Death Scenes,” with DeSimone, Feldman, makeup artist Pam Peitzman, art director Steven G. Legler and special-effects artist John Eggett; “On Location at the Kimberly Crest House,” with DeSimone; “Gothic Design in Hell Night,” with Legler; an original radio spot; and photo gallery, featuring rare stills.

Time Life/WEA: Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Second Season
PBS: Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World
PBS: Frontline: Mosul
PBS: Frontline: War on the EPA
PBS: Frontline: North Korea’s Deadly Dictator
PBS: Mindfulness Goes Mainstream: Techniques
When Time Life released its complete, six-season boxed set of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” episodes last year, it came with a price tag many newcomers to the show and casual fans probably considered to be prohibitive. The company has begun to release full-season packages on an a la carte basis, with interviews that appeared in the set. At a full list price of $39.95, Season Two would be an excellent place to start. By then, mid-course corrections from the first stanza had taken hold and the ball was rolling at full speed. First-season regulars Judy Carne, Henry Gibson, Goldie Hawn, Arte Johnson, Jo Anne Worley and Gary Owens were joined by Alan Sues, Dave Madden, Chelsea Brown, “Fun Couple” Charlie Brill and Mitzi McCall, Dick “Sweet Brother” Whittington, J.J. Berry, Byron Gilliam and Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham, whose trademark “here come da judge” routine was incorporated into the show’s regular bits. Another reason to favor “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Second Season” over other options is the steady stream of unlikely guest stars, some of whom appeared only for a few seconds. In the season-opener alone, the list includes then-candidate Richard M. Nixon, Hugh Hefner, Mayor of Burbank John B. Whitney, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Bob Hope, Jack Lemmon, Sonny Tufts, John Wayne and Barbara Feldon. The nature of the taping process precluded all the celebrities appearing with the hosts and cast members simultaneously, although some of the gags extended into the next episode, or two. Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Hubert Humphrey, credits his loss, in part, to Nixon’s willingness to join the show’s parade of guests in the “sock it to me” routine. Markham sat in the mock courtroom, dispensing justice with a large rubber gavel to the noggin for emphasis. Markham was cast only after Sammy Davis Jr. imitated his act on “Laugh-In” in Season One and it sparked interest in the original judge. Prior to that, Markham hadn’t appeared on television or in the movies since 1947.

October 31, 2017, marked the 500th anniversary of Augustinian monk Martin Luther’s delivery of his “Ninety-five Theses” to his bishop, Albrecht von Brandenburg. Historians still find room to argue whether he nailed it to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany, or employed standard delivery systems. No matter, because the simple fact remains that Luther’s “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” led to a general rethinking of the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings and doctrine. It was, however, the Church’s practice of selling indulgences to shorten a soul’s time in Purgatory that struck a chord with common folks. In Thesis 86, Luther asked, “Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers, rather than with his own money?” The unstated answer, basically, was “Because we can … and, by the way, how dare you question the infallibility of the pontiff?” PBS’105-minute special presentation “Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World” (a.k.a., “A Return to Grace: Luther’s Life and Legacy”) traces the roots of the Protestant Reformation, not only to that moment in history, but also to Luther’s earlier decision to disobey his father by leaving law school and entering St. Augustine’s Monastery, in Erfurt, on July 17, 1505. He hadn’t intended to upset the Church’s applecart all that much, but, in its intransigence to address logical bedrock concerns, the reigning pope opened the door to a revolution that continues today. The film is narrated by Hugh Bonneville (“Downton Abbey”) and stars Padraic Delany (“The Tudors”), whose impersonation of Luther makes him look somewhat daffy. One of things I discovered about Luther was his devotion to nonviolence, which, 400 years later, would prompt American preacher Michael King to change his name to Martin Luther King. He would give his son the same name, adding a designation for “Senior” and “Junior” at the same time. I didn’t know that, within the course of a decade, Luther moved from a tolerant position on Judaism to one that was so virulently anti-Semitic that Hitler found it useful in the promotion of National Socialist values. Over time, the show contends, Protestant religions splintered into numerous denominations, many of whose followers wouldn’t recognize Luther’s core principles if the “Ninety-five Theses” if they nailed to their garage doors.  Originally, “Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World” was exhibited in private showings across the country — in churches and movie theaters – as a conversation starter and teaching tool. I found a rather different biography of Luther and his problem with indulgences – among other things – on the Catholic Answers website.

PBS is also distributing three provocative and timely “Frontline” investigations: “Mosul,” “War on the EPA” and “North Korea’s Deadly Dictator.” Director Olivier Sarbil’s wartime documentary provides an extraordinary, inside look at the brutal, nearly year-long battle to drive ISIS out of Iraq’s second largest city, which some military commanders have described as the deadliest urban combat since World War II. “Inside Yemen,” a second film on the disc, examines the undeclared war in that country, between northern rebels and the Saudi Arabian Air Force – backed by the U.S. — and the high price paid by its civilians. “War on the EPA” wants us to ponder the question, “What is Scott Pruitt doing running the EPA?” and why does he want to reverse a half-century of progress on environmental issues and hand our precious resources over to corporations and other exploiters of the Earth? The third program asks, “Who killed Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, and what does the murder reveal about the North Korean leader and his regime?”

The three-disc, 165-minute PBS presentation, “Mindfulness Goes Mainstream: Techniques,” explains how one of the oldest methods for cultivating inner calm and stability – meditation – has now been proven by modern science to have a very positive impact on our health and quality of life, especially as we’re being bombarded by stressful impulses and demands. It explores this “revolution” and the power of meditation to transform our lives. The DVDs feature all the programs in the “Mindfulness Goes Mainstream” series, plus 20-minutes of bonus footage. Jon Kabat-Zinn and Chade-Meng Tan conduct the lessons.

The DVD Wrapup: The Year’s Top Titles, plus True Love Ways, Killing Gunther, Rock Docs, Unabomber and More

Thursday, December 28th, 2017

Titles that received a limited release in theaters or none at all make up my year-end list of DVDs and Blu-rays. Some are restored classics, while others are genre specimens that got lost in the crowd.

100 Years of Olympic Films: Criterion Collection: And, the gold medal goes to …
The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: Finally, the truth …
The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille: Archeology, Hollywood-style …
The Eagle Huntress: Girl power in Mongolia …
Good Time: You’re not the only one who missed it …
The Lure/Glory/The Treasure: Gems from Poland, Bulgaria, Romania …
Certain Women: Criterion Collection: Precious Western miniatures …
The Sissi Collection: Germany before the wars …
The Marseille Trilogy: Criterion Collection: Pagnol’s Chez Panisse …
Maurice/The Wedding Banquet: LGBT before LGBT was cool …
The Lovers: How to mess up a good affair …
The Lost City of Z: Jungle fever, for real …
A Quiet Passion: A rose for Emily …
Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer: Gere acts his age …
Feed the Light: H.P. Lovecraft in Sweden …
The Autopsy of Jane Doe: The unkindest cut of all …
Three Sisters: The China tourists never see …
Apocalypse Child: Coppola leaves something behind in Philippines …
Toni Erdmann/ The Forest for the Trees: Maren Ade takes two bows …
Daughters of the Dust: Dash’s masterpiece restored …
The Story of Sin: Borowczyk’s epic love story …
Film/Notfilm: Beckett by way of Buster …
Canoa: A Shameful Memory: Under the volcano …
The Brand New Testament/The Ardennes: Belgium takes its bow …
Bad Lucky Goat: Hoofing it around Jamaica …

True Love Ways
The title for Mathieu Seiler’s truly chilling psychosexual thriller, True Love Ways, harkens back to Buddy Holly’s achingly romantic hit single, which was recorded four months before his tragic death on February 3, 1959. It can be heard on the radio of the car Séverine (Anna Hausburg) is driving through a thick German forest, as she attempts to escape a kidnapping scheme devised by her ineffectual boyfriend, Tom (Kai Michael Müller). She’s also been haunted by nightmares that presage her ordeal to come. To win Séverine back, Tom has cut a deal with a slick conman, Chef (David C. Bunners), he’s met at a bar. Chef concocts a plan to abduct Séverine – who, in the right light, resembles a young Emmanuelle Béart – and alert him to the perfect time to rush in and “be her Tarzan.” Unbeknownst to Tom, Chef and his buddies are making a snuff film in the very same villa in which Séverine has sought refuge from Chef’s crew, tailing her in a black car. Sensing imminent danger, she hides underneath the mattress of a bed that will be used as the staging ground for the murder and necrophilic rape of another blond damsel in distress. This would be a swell time for Tom to swing into the bedroom on a long vine – a la Tarzan – and rescue his no-longer-bored lover. Instead, after realizing what Chef really intends to do to her, Séverine engages in a lengthy game of cat-and-mouse, during which she’s captured, locked in a cellar and nearly raped by one of his men. It’s at this point that she picks up a hatchet and turns the tables on her tormentors, ultimately succeeding in escaping into the forest, where another game of cat-and-mouse begins. Tom won’t be nearly as fortunate. Seiler’s decision to shoot True Love Ways in black-and-white evokes the period when all the great thrillers and existential dramas were filmed sans color and audiences had to use their imaginations as to how certain horrors might affect them in real life. Cinematographer Oliver Geissler’s use of mirrors also adds to the victim’s sense of desperation. Besides Holly, the Swiss-born writer/director (Der Ausflug) appears, at least, to pay homage to Alfred Hitchcock, Alain Resnais, Ingmar Bergman, Jim Jarmusch and Géla Babluani (13 Tzameti). If that makes True Love Ways sound a tad high-falutin’, potential viewers should know that its arthouse conceits stray just south of being pretentious. Anyone looking for a rape/revenge fantasy with lots of blood and gore might be disappointed, although there’s a scene of carnage that should satisfy all tastes. Originally released here on VOD and streaming outlets, it’s now available on DVD through Synergetic Distribution. It deserves to find an audience that crosses genre lines.

Killing Gunther: Blu-ray
Hollow Creek
Anyone drawn to Taran Killam’s directorial debut, Killing Gunther, by the prominence of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name on the DVD/Blu-ray’s cover, should know that the former Governator’s first appearance in the gangster mockumentary comes 67 minutes into the 92-minute picture. Is it worth the wait? Most viewers, I think, would say, “no.” Arnold completists and fans of the actors probably would stick with what essentially is an extended “Saturday Night Live” bit, if only to see if he can pull writer/director/producer/star Killam’s butt out of the fire. Almost. Killing Gunther is a spoof set in the world of contract killers. A group of young, raw and undisciplined assassins hire a documentary crew to produce undeniable proof that they’re the ones responsible for killing the most infamous hit man of all time, Gunther (Schwarzenegger), and deserve first dibs on his contracts. No dummy, Gunther is on to them before they can say, “Oops, missed,” and makes their lives miserable by turning the hunters into the prey. The killers, who wouldn’t be mistaken for assassins in an “Austin Powers” movie, think they have Gunther cornered a dozen times before he’s shown on screen. Instead of masters of daredevilry and stealth, the killers are revealed by the camera crew as being little more than buffoons. Killam, who took time off from his “SNL” gig to make Killing Gunther, looks reasonably credible as a secret agent, at least. Bobby Moynihan, Hannah Simone, Allison Tolman, Aaron Yoo, Amir Talai and Paul Brittain … not so much. The director/etc.’s real-life wife, Cobie Smulders, plays a retired assassin and former girlfriend of both Blake (Killam) and Gunther. Although plenty of action transpires during the film’s first hour, things really pick up once he makes his presence known. As far-fetched as it gets, Arnold gets off some funny lines and the gunplay is reasonably entertaining. Curiously, his last three movies have opened on the Internet, with only a limited run accorded to them afterwards. His last substantial role came in 2013, in Kim Jee-woon’s excellent border thriller, The Last Stand. The Blu-ray adds a blooper reel and two deleted scenes.

I don’t know what inspired Schwarzenegger to join the cast of Killing Gunther, but Burt Reynolds’ “special appearance” in Guisela Moro’s debut feature, Hollow Creek (a.k.a., “A Haunting at Hollow Creek”) can be attributed to his generosity towards a former student. Reynolds makes a couple of brief cameos, during which he commands the screen, but nothing that directly impacts the narrative. Moro probably needed all the help she could get, bringing in a movie that looks this polished on a budget estimated to be in the $500,000 range. Not only did the Argentine immigrant write and direct Hollow Creek, but she also produced and stars in it. The kidnapping thriller suffers from weak depictions of police work, some too-convenient plot twists and inconsistent acting. At 116 minutes, it could have used a tighter edit, as well. Even so, Hollow Creek doesn’t lack suspense or atmosphere. Steve Daron plays Blake Blackman, a writer of horror novels, who retreats to the mountains of West Virginia with his mistress, Angelica (Moro), for inspiration. It doesn’t take long before Angelica begins to be visited by ghosts of boys we assume were kidnapped and killed by some local fiend. After checking out police reports and missing-persons posters, she sees one in the back of old Chevy at a filling station who appears to be signaling to her. Angelica follows the car to a gated property outside town, where her snooping leads to her being abducted by the crazed-hillbilly owners and locked in the basement. Oh, yeah, she’s pregnant. Naturally, inept local cops finger Blake for the disappearance, wasting time that could have been used looking for her and other kidnap victims. It isn’t until several months pass that the next major clue is discovered. Is it too late? Stay tuned. For a first feature, what’s lacking in execution is more than made up for in promise. Hollow Creek is the kind of woman-centric thriller that would have looked good as Lifetime Original, where it could have found an audience and an experienced editor.

The Adventurers: Blu-ray
If Stephen Fung’s mostly European-set actioner, The Adventurers, looks familiar, it’s probably because it appears to borrow freely from Blake Edwards’ original The Pink Panther, Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Ocean’s 11, Guy Hamilton’s Diamonds Are Forever, Jules Dassin’s Topkapi and John Woo’s Once a Thief. Fung also appears to be reaching out to international audiences by adding Jean Reno to a largely Asian cast, as a dogged French detective, Pierre, determined to prevent the recently paroled jewel thief, Zhang (Andy Lau), from committing another headline-making heist. Zhang doesn’t waste much time and effort attempting to convince Pierre that he’s seen the light and is planning to return to China to find honest work. Instead, he immediately teams up with hacker Po Chen (Tony Yang) and driver Red Ye (Shu Qi) to swipe the Wings of Destiny jewels from a chic Cannes auction. If they succeed, it won’t be because Pierre isn’t monitoring the auction with sophisticated surveillance equipment, because his eyes are constantly glued to the slick crook. The Wings of Destiny are part of a set that includes the Eye of the Forest and Rope of Life, which were the object of the Louvre robbery for which Zhang was imprisoned.  He wanted to complete the heist for a fatherly gangster, Kong (Eric Tsang), who’s holed up in Prague. Zhang goes there after the Cannes job to finish the job and learn who sold him out. He also discovers that the final piece of the jewelry puzzle is currently in the possession of tycoon Charlie Law (Sha Yi), who lives in a castle down the road. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

Rock docs on DVD
England Is Mine: Blu-Ray
D.O.A.: A Right of Passage: Special Edition: Blu-ray
L.A.M.F.: Live at the Bowery Electric
Frank Zappa: Summer ’82: When Zappa Came to Sicily
Before he became the frontman of the Smiths and a poster boy for anti-depressants, Morrissey was known around Manchester as Steven Patrick Morrissey, a morose young man who possessed great talent and intellectual curiosity, but had the devil’s own time getting his thoughts off the pages of his notebooks and into the lyrics of his songs. England Is Mine is representative of a subgenre of music-based bio-pics that describe an artist’s childhood trials, heroes and insights, without taking the next step into adulthood and commercial success or failure. The biggest problem with Mark Gill’s debut feature isn’t Jack Lowden’s compelling portrayal of the enigmatic singer/songwriter/author, but that he was given so little ammunition with which to do battle with a character whose chronic depression is contagious. That’s because Gill and co-writer William Thacker were handcuffed by Morrissey’s refusal to authorize the project or license any of his music and words. The only full concert performance is a cover of the New York Dolls’ version of the Shangri-Las’ “Give Him a Great Big Kiss.” Nice, but hardly representative of his future output. Gill capably transmits Morrissey’s difficulties in social and work situations, as well as a pathological reluctance to enter into collaborations with other local bands. Working-class Manchester, itself, plays an important role in the drama, just as it did in such down-and-dirty productions as “Shameless,” “Queer as Folk,” Velvet Goldmine, Control and 24 Hour Party People. Katherine Pierce does a nice job as the supportive high-school friend Steven dumps in favor of punky artist Linder Sterling (Jessica Brown Findlay). As future Smiths’ collaborator Johnny Marr, Laurie Kynaston is only around long enough to let fans know the Morrissey’s next chapter is about to open … without us.

Lech Kowalski and Chris Salewicz’ tortured rockumentary D.O.A.: A Right of Passage tells several stories simultaneously. The first one chronicles the rise of punk rock in the U.K., with a tight focus on the Sex Pistols’ tumultuous 1978 tour of the United States, which introduced the band’s confrontational style to Americans who had yet to embrace it. The second story involves the excruciating breakup of the Pistols, which led ultimately to the deaths of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. Another one traces the creation of “D.O.A.,” and the roles played by High Times magazine, its renegade founder, company bean-counters and the largely anchorless filmmakers. And, finally, there’s a nearly feature-length making-of documentary, that explains why such a compelling document almost never saw the light of day. Mixing this with footage of other contemporary bands, fashion trends and punks of all shapes and colors, the filmmakers captured a grainy, stained snapshot of the punk movement at its peak – including a disturbing interview with a nearly comatose Vicious and atypically nurturing Spungen — along with discussions the filmmakers and concert footage of the late 1970s’ music scene. “D.O.A” is one of several recently restored rockumentaries that cover the same musicians and period. The Pistols didn’t stay together very long, but they were a godsend for mainstream headline writers, rock journalists, photographers and government censors. The Clash, whose music had far greater impact on rock, especially in the U.K., garnered much less attention outside the rock press. Still the restoration of concert footage adds greatly to the film’s nostalgia value. Everybody, except the band members, appears to be having a great deal of fun. Besides ”Dead on Arrival: The Punk Documentary That Almost Never Was,” the bonus package adds a 12-page booklet with liner notes written by John Holmstrom, founding editor of PUNK Magazine; reversible artwork; photo gallery; and collectible two-sided poster.

L.A.M.F.: Live at the Bowery Electric is a concert film, enhanced by bonus interviews with musicians Walter Lure (Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers), Clem Burke (Blondie), Tommy Stinson (Replacements) and Wayne Kramer (MC5), all of whom, early in their careers, were identified with the domestic punk scene. Guest stars include Cheetah Chrome (Dead Boys), Jesse Malin (D-Generation) and Liza Colby (The Liza Colby Sound). “L.A.M.F.” is the album recorded by Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers in punk-era London, after they accompanied the Sex Pistols, Damned and Clash on the aborted Anarchy Tour. Comprised of former members of the New York Dolls, the Heartbreakers were lauded by the young U.K. punks, and went on to record the high-octane, if technically flawed “L.A.M.F.” album, which, after being re-mixed several times, is considered a classic. The live DVD recording is an extension of the remastered, 40th-anniversary edition of “L.A.M.F.” and the reissue of an extended four-CD box set (and triple-vinyl) of the album’s many mixes and demos. It also coincides with surviving Heartbreaker Lure taking his “L.A.M.F.” show on out the road again, this time with the Sex Pistols’ original bassist Glen Matlock, Social Distortion’s Mike Ness on guitar and vocals, and Blondie’s Clem Burke.

In the feature documentary, “Summer 82: When Zappa Came to Sicily,” filmmaker and Zappa fan Salvo Cuccia tells the behind-the-scenes story of Frank Zappa’s star-crossed 1982 concert in Palermo, the wrap-up to a European tour that ended in public disturbances and unwarranted police intervention. Cuccia had a ticket to the concert but never made it to the show, which coincided with a religious major festival. Thirty years later, collaborating with members of Zappa’s family, he re-created the events through a combination of rare concert and backstage footage; photographs; anecdotes from family, band members and concertgoers; and insights from Zappa biographer and friend Massimo Bassoli. The story is also a personal one, as Cuccia interweaves the story of Zappa’s trip to Sicily with his own memories from that summer. Far more entertaining are the intimate moments Zappa shared with band members in rehearsals, soundchecks and performance. When the family returns to Sicily, cameras followed them to a dilapidated house once occupied by their grandfather and great-grandfather, before immigrating to the U.S; a street naming ceremony; concerts by students at a local high school; formal reception with mayor; and dinner with members of the Sicilian branch of the Zappa family. The concert footage is sandwiched in between all the meet-and-greets.

The Apartment: Limited Edition: Blu-Ray
I never thought of Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s carefully blended romantic dramedy, The Apartment, as a holiday picture, but, re-watching it this week, it deftly describes the flipside of Christmas for people who have no one they love with whom to share it. This would describe Jack Lemmon’s hapless C.C. Baxter, who’s working his way up the corporate ladder by lending the key to his apartment to senior executives for their extra-marital liaisons. His neighbors assume that he’s the playboy of the western world, when, in fact, he spends his nights there alone. On Christmas Eve, when he finally does manage to summon the nerve to bring a fellow boozehound (Hope Holiday) home for a shag, Baxter finds his bed already occupied by a woman his boss (Fred MacMurray) left behind in a self-induced coma, from an overdose of Seconal. To make matters worse, he recognizes the unconscious woman as Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the bubbly elevator operator at work, who broke Baxter’s heart when he learned of her affair with personnel director J.D. Sheldrake. Instead of being gifted with the proposal of marriage Sheldrake has promised her – and at least four other women in the office – the cad handed Fran a hundred-dollar bill he had in his pocket. If she accepted it, Fran would have had to accept the fact that she was little more than a prostitute in both their eyes. Baxter and his physician neighbor save her life, without also solving her immediate dilemma. It leaves the door open for one more disappointment in the newly promoted bureaucrat’s sorry existence. If that sounds too much like a holiday bummer, Wilder has already lifted our spirits with scenes of a raucous office party and a bar where Baxter commiserates with a besotted department-store Santa and dances cheek-to-cheek with the aforemention floozy, whose husband is spending the holidays in a Cuban jail. The balance of humor, drama and romance was so artfully rendered by Wilder and Diamond that The Apartment somehow cleared the Production Code censors, despite depictions of infidelity and adultery. Several prominent critics at the time weren’t as charitable, accusing Wilder of exploiting the script’s prurient aspects and making male characters act like sharks in sharkskin suits. Hollis Alpert of the Saturday Review dismissed it as “a dirty fairy tale.” Imagine that, predatory males in positions of power preying on single subordinates with promises of advancement and marriage. Mr. Weinstein, meet Mr. Sheldrake.

There’s so much else too learn from Arrow Video’s new 4K restoration of the multiple Academy Award-winning picture, especially if one takes the time to listen to the analytical commentary track by historian Bruce Block. Arrow adds a 150-page hard-covered book, with new writing by Neil Sinyard, Kat Ellinger, Travis Crawford and Heather Hyche, illustrated with rare stills and behind-the-scenes imagery; a vintage interview with Wilder; featurette on the 4K restoration; a new appreciation and select-scene commentary by film historian Philip Kemp; “The Flawed Couple,” a video essay by filmmaker David Cairns on the collaborations between Wilder and Lemmon; “A Letter to Castro,” an interview with actress Hope Holiday; and original screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond (BD-ROM content). Oh, yeah, The Apartment ends on New Year’s Eve.

The Bad Kids
Twentynine Palms, California, is a high-desert town that serves as both the gateway to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center and Joshua Tree National Park. You can see the lights of Palm Springs at night and fall asleep to the whirr of the wind turbines that dot the Coachella Valley like so many Candy Buttons. Despite the presence of a couple of better-than-decent restaurants and watering holes, most of the nearly 150,000 visitors to the Oasis of Mara — location of the original 29 palm trees planted by the Serrano people – drive right through town on their way to somewhere else. What they don’t see is what matters in The Bad Kids. About 13.6 percent of families and 16.8 percent of the population live below the poverty line, including 25.3 percent of residents under 18 and 10.0 percent of those 65 or over. It’s the last two statistics that hang like a dark cloud over Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe’s alternately heartbreaking and optimistic documentary, set at the Black Rock Continuation High School for students who’ve fallen so far behind in credits that they have no hope of earning a diploma at a traditional high school. Black Rock is one of 500 such alternative schools for at-risk students in California. They serve as final waystations for so-called “bad kids” likely to fail or drop out whenever the next personal calamity strikes. I don’t like the title, The Bad Kids, but understand that it’s more provocative than “Kids Struggling to Overcome Poverty and Parental Neglect in a High Desert Shithole.” Most of the students we meet already have experienced serious problems related to drugs, crime, unplanned pregnancies, sexual and physical abuse, and absentee parents. The only thing positive about life in Twentynine Palms – unless you’re a rock climber, bicyclist or Gila monster – is the proximity of resorts, hotels and tribal casinos always on the lookout for dependable workers willing to start their careers on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. The school’s charismatic, supremely dedicated and empathetic principal, Vonda Viland, continually has to remind troubled students that graduates have a huge advantage over dropouts when it comes to finding worthwhile employment, anywhere, and a college or junior-college diploma is better than one from Black Rock. Even so, the problems endured by the students are many and varied. Each one presents a unique challenge for Viland and the teaching staff. The filmmakers take a fly-on-the-wall approach to the subject matter, probably using lipstick cameras and other unobtrusive technology. They’re with the kids and principal at the crack of dawn, when some of the kids refuse to leave their beds, and follow them home to deal with the turmoil of daily life, including raising infants, dealing with loneliness, abusive stepparents and hunger. Working together over the past two decades, Fulton and Pepe’s best-known credit is 2002’s Lost in La Mancha, a documentary on Terry Gilliam’s doomed feature, “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.”

National Bird
Executive produced by Wim Wenders and Errol Morris, Sonia Kennebeck’s enlightening documentary National Bird introduces us to three former members of the U.S. military’s secret drone war, who’ve gone public with their concerns about civilian casualties and our government’s underwhelming reaction to them. Also on hand are an apologetic Air Force officer and lawyer for those facing espionage charges. More poignantly, we also meet surviving members of an Afghan family blown to bits by American rockets, directed to the target by coolly detached drone operators, who failed to see the baby being carried by one woman and other children. I can’t recall if the footage of the attack we’re shown – and dialogue we hear — is real or simulated, based on official records. Regardless, it’s nasty stuff. We’ve seen similar stories to the ones told here, but not quite as intimately presented.

Like the America’s Cup, Olympics boxing and tournament bridge, chess is something most Americans ignore unless one of our own competitors is involved.  I don’t know about bridge, but I can easily recall years when sailing, boxing and chess made front-page news, and not only in the New York Times. Norwegian documentary filmmaker Benjamin Ree delivers the captivating story of Magnus Carlsen, who was bullied as an introverted 13-year-old boy, yet grew up to become a grandmaster and reigning World Chess Champion. A prodigy, Carlsen earned his grandmaster title at the age of 13. While some might the miss the idiosyncratic behavior of Bobby Fischer, Carlsen can lay claim to being young (27), a Matt Damon look-alike and as normal as one can be when engaged in such a taxing intellectual pursuit. Last February, Carlsen even made a special guest appearance on “The Simpsons,” in an episode where Homer’s chess history is revealed. In a 2012 “60 Minutes” profile, he was described as “the Mozart of Chess.” During it, Carlsen’s shown competing against 10 formidable players simultaneously, with his back turned to their boards. I wonder how he’d fare at the World Series of Poker

At a bang-bang 72 minutes, Brackenmore feels like a short film that wants to be a feature, but its creators either ran out of money or ideas as to how to differentiate it from the cult horror classic Wicker Man and Ben Wheatley’s largely unseen Kill List. Either way, it could have benefitted from another 10 minutes of exposition and 20 more minutes of hair-raising psychodrama. Chris Kemble and J.P. Davidson’s supernatural thriller simply ends — albeit, with a piercing scream and streams of blood — without exploring any of the intriguing options introduced along the way. As a child, Kate (Sophie Hopkins) survives an automobile accident that was, in part, precipitated by a mysterious radio signal that freaks her out and causes her father to take his eyes off the road long enough to miss a turn, killing Mom and Dad in the crash. Years later, Kate is summoned back to the southern Ireland hamlet of Brackenmore. An uncle she didn’t know existed has died and left her some property in his will. So far, so good. Even before she can empty her suitcase, however, everybody in town appears to know Kate’s arrived and makes her a target for malicious pranks. It doesn’t much longer for her to discover Brackenmore’s dirty little secret, which involves pagan rituals and sacrifices. After attending one such fiesta with a handsome suitor (D.J. McGrath), Kate is attacked in her bedroom by a creep wearing a friar’s outfit and white mask. She dispatches him with a knife and, thereafter, is treated as if she killed the Emerald Isle’s last remaining leprechaun. At the same time as the local yokels are breaking the windows in her car and taunting her with severed goats’ heads, others in the community refuse to allow her to sell the house and return to London. Satanic iconography appears on the walls of her room and a visiting boyfriend is tortured before her eyes. Before you know it, the closing credits are rolling. Brackenmore isn’t a total waste. The lakeside scenery’s gorgeous and the lead actors are pretty good. If only there was more to like.

Beware the Lake
Tabitha, who resembles Eliza Dushku in her “Buffy” phase, has just moved to the Pacific Northwest, in Elgin Cahill and co-writer Wendy Winterbourne’s evil-cheerleader thriller, Beware the Lake (a.k.a., “The Lake”). She’s played by newcomer Anja Knebl, who’s made up to look like she may be of Romanian Gypsy stock and is the polar opposite of the blond girls who dominate her high school’s social hierarchy. After moving to her new home with her mother, who doesn’t speak English, Tabitha attracts the attention of a helpful teenage neighbor and his brother, Mason, an atypically friendly jock. (At 27, Jonathan Lipnicki can still get away with playing boys 10 years younger than he is.) The head cheerleader believes that she’s the only one who can lay claim to his attentions, which makes Tabitha a target for hazing by the girls in the popular clique. They convince her to join them at a girls-night-out at the nearby lake. Before they get there, however, they add a roofie to her drink. After the drug begins to kick in, the cheerleaders drive off, leaving Tabitha wading in the lake in her bra and panties. As if that weren’t a mean enough trick to play on the poor thing, one of the girls calls a couple of pervy boys who might be interested taking in advantage of her situation. When she resists their advances, one of them chokes Tabitha to death and tosses her body back in the lake. Guess what happens next. That’s right, Tabitha’s spirit connects with an Old Country sorceress, who conjures a way for her avenge her death, in spades. Beware the Lake could have benefited from being considerably less predictable and a tad naughtier. If the filmmakers had wanted to have some fun, they could have exaggerated the built-in Sasquatch angle and included the beast in the film’s denouement.

Essex Spacebin: Blu-ray
The Middle Finger: Blu-ray
Over the course of 40 years, Troma has produced, acquired and distributed more than 1,000 independent films. Lloyd Kaufman, president of Troma Entertainment and creator of the Toxic Avenger series, has always found new and different ways to exploit the lowest common denominator in the video industry, with a song in his heart and smile on his lips. It was easy to distinguish Troma products from other purveyors of exploitation fare because its name either appeared in the titles — Tromeo & Juliet, Troma’s War – or was identified by a trademark character or theme: Toxic Avenger, Sgt. Kabukiman, Class of Nuke ’Em High. With each new advance in technology, Kaufman stuck his toe deeper in the video and digital waters. Hence, 1,000 films, which could be purchased or rented through traditional channels, or downloaded and streamed over the Internet through, Troma Direct and subscriber-based Troma Now. Earlier this year, Kaufman addressed Net Neutrality and the filters put on independent films by the “cartel of conglomerates” dominating the streaming media. “Amazon Prime recently announced that their service will ‘no longer allow titles containing persistent or graphic sexual or violent acts, gratuitous nudity and/or erotic themes (‘adult content’) to be offered as Included with Prime or Free with Pre-Roll Ad,” he said in a grammatically challeged open letter. “WTF? All the movies The Troma Team and I have produced over the past 43 years contain ‘persistent or graphic sexual or violent acts, gratuitous nudity and/or erotic themes,’ yet are presented by the New York Museum of Modern Art, the American Cinematheque, the Kennedy Center in DC, Oxford, and more.” (Italics mine.) Censorship takes different forms in the digital age and one way to stunt the growth of upstarts is to narrow the distribution stream. Nonetheless, Troma perseveres by providing its fans, customers and subscribers as unique a market as anyone in the industry. The titles speak for themselves. This month’s output includes The Thingy: Confessions of a Teenage Placenta, which I’ve already reviewed, Essex Spacebin and The Middle Finger.

Compared to the self-explanatory “Thingy,” the former and latter titles constitute family-friendly entertainment, which is only to say that graphic sexual and violent acts are trumped by tongue-in-cheek humor, outrageous characters and gross-out gags. I can’t remember seeing a bare breast or penis. In Essex Spacebin, Lorraine’s tale begins as a young girl, when she encounters a dapper gentleman on a beach who explains his quest to find the key for the “stargate,” a portal which connects our world to a different universe. It picks up years later, with Lorraine now an obese senior marketing executive for a fried-chicken shop. She’s still obsessing over her search for the stargate, which now includes communicating with a Rasta vagrant/alien, covering herself with aluminum foil, being splashed with milk and orange juice, and stealing televisions. It’s totally nonsensical, but not without sly touches of Essex charm … or lack thereof. In The Middle Finger, an awkward teenage nerd sinks into despair when he’s held back from school and his friends have gone off to college. After being bullied and tied to a fence, Dennis is visited by an otherworldly being who transforms him into a reluctant superhero. Not only is he incapable of mastering those powers, but his head has been turned into a giant hand giving the finger. It’s sophomoric, to be sure, but kind of funny. The Blu-ray adds a “Making of the Helmet” featurette, commentary, outtakes and music videos.

One Million B.C.: Blu-Ray
Released in 1940, Hal Roach Studios’ One Million B.C. shares many narrative similarities to Hammer’s One Million Years B.C., which arrived 26 years later. Both feature cave dwellers in skimpy garb, warring tribes, ferocious beasts, dubious paleontological and geologic timelines, a volcano and a couple of certified legends operating behind the camera. Indeed, the principle difference between the two movies is the reception accorded the two leading ladies. The career of pretty, blond and barely out of her teens Carol Landis enjoyed a solid boost from her portrayal of Loana in the original, opposite newcomer Victor Mature, unheralded Lon Chaney Jr. and Conrad Nagel. In terms of unabashed sex appeal, however, Landis’ Hayes Office-approved costume couldn’t hold a candle to Raquel Welch’s form-fitting leather-and-fur combo — described as “mankind’s first bikini” – which set the standard for dorm-room art, until Farrah Fawcett’s poster came along, a decade later. Unlike Landis, Welch’s star turn as Loana overshadowed everything else in One Million Years B.C., including Martine Beswick, who was no slouch in the sex-appeal department. Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation impressed the kids in the audience, but it went unrewarded by Academy voters. By contrast, the Roaches’ version was the top grossing movie of 1940 and nominated for two Oscars, for its special effects and musical score. The optically enlarged “slurpasaurs” seen in One Million B.C. include a pig in a rubber Triceratops suit, a man in a Allosaurus suit, elephants with fake tusks and fur, an armadillo with glued-on horns, a baby alligator with a glued-on Dimetrodon sail (Gatorsaurus), a rhinoceros iguana, a snake, a coati, a monitor lizard and an Argentine black and white tegu. Scenes involving the creatures and other special effects would be recycled in dozens of future action and fantasy flicks set in prehistoric times.

Hal Roach hired D.W. Griffith, then living Back East, to oversee certain aspects of the production, including the selection of “proper writers, cast, etc. and to help me generally in the supervision of these pictures.” Although Griffith eventually disagreed with Roach over production delays and went back home, Roach later insisted that some of the scenes in the completed film were directed by him. (This would make the film the final production in which Griffith was actively involved.) Cast members’ accounts recall Griffith directing only the screen tests and costume tests. When Roach promoted the film in late 1939, with Griffith listed as producer, he asked that his name be removed. Even so, the UCLA Film Archives and VCI/MVD Visual restoration of One Million B.C. succeeds in making it as watchable today as it probably was in 1940, although on a significantly smaller scale. The scratches and other artifacts typically seen on genre fare from the period are missing and the dinosaur costumes aren’t compromised by the hi-def Blu-ray presentation. Kids, today, might be too hip to admit to enjoying such old-fashioned fare, but, if watched with parents or grandparents, it could provide a couple hours of mindless fun. I watched the movie with film historian Toby Roan’s commentary track engaged and didn’t feel the need to watch it again for review without it. In one form or another, I’ve already watched the same movie a hundred times. Another 80 minutes didn’t kill me.

Discovery: Manhunt: Unabomber: Blu-ray
HBO: Camelot: Broadway Version
Pop culture quiz: which came first, the hoodie or the Unabomber? Few desperados can be said to have sparked a fashion trend, but that’s happened when the wanted poster was hung in post offices around the country. The man who would soon be known around the world as Ted Kaczynski did more for hooded sweatshirts and aviator shades than Tommy Hilfiger, Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren combined. If nothing else, he reclaimed hoodies from Rocky Balboa wannabes and hip-hoppers, making them one more thing for mainstream society to fear. Discovery Channel’s eight-part mini-series, “Manhunt: Unabomber,” recalls the rise of the serial bomber, who emerged from the bowels of academia to become one of the FBI’s most-wanted fugitives. It also focuses on the agency’s 17-year manhunt, with special attention paid to the tenacity and imagination of FBI profiler Jim “Fitz” Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington), who pioneered the use of forensic linguistics to identify and capture criminals as brilliant and egomaniacal as the certified math genius, Kaczynski (Paul Bettany). In the list of 100 notorious cases published on the FBI’s website to mark its 2006 centennial, readers were asked, “How do you catch a twisted genius who aspires to be the perfect, anonymous killer: who builds untraceable bombs and delivers them to random targets; who leaves false clues to throw off authorities; who lives like a recluse in the mountains of Montana and tells no one of his secret crimes?” How, indeed. One way was to play to his ego, by breaking precedent and allowing his 35,000-word manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future” — claiming to explain his motives and views on the ills of modern society – to be published in the New York Times and Washington Post. There was the last-ditch hope someone might recognize the unknown suspect’s use of language, syntax, source material and hatred for the status quo. It worked. The other task faced by the FBI was getting Kaczynski, once captured, to plead guilty to his crimes, so that he couldn’t beat them out of a conviction. As a procedural, “Manhunt: Unabomber” works pretty well, encapsulating nearly two decades of intense investigative and criminal activity into 340 minutes of theatrical content. The padding can be seen in the depiction of Fitzgerald’s family life and the dissolution of his marriage to Ellie Ftizgerald (Elizabeth Reaser); an affair with a forensic-linguistics specialist (Lynn Collins); and taking considerable poetic license with the facts of the case. I caught one gaping hole in the narrative, dealing with an early, if easily dismissed suspect, and I wasn’t really looking for goofs. Even so, Greg Yaitanes’ mini-series doesn’t lack for suspense in its depiction of a violent chapter in modern American history. The Blue-ray adds a few short featurettes, “Criminal Profiling,” “Who is the Unabomber” and “Deciphering the Manifesto.”

In 1982, HBO had only recently begun transmitting programming on a 24/7 basis to subscribers and was still searching for the killer app that would propel it into in the forefront of cable-delivered entertainment and convince viewers to pay even more for television services that, for 30 years, had been free. First and foremost, of course, was the elimination of commercial breaks. The second was a commitment to presenting material not typically available on the networks, including uncensored comedy showcases, concerts and sporting events, especially boxing, which was being phased out by broadcasters. One idea was HBO Theater, which would bring Broadway hits to the masses. Lerner and Loewe’s “Camelot,” which debuted in 1960, had enjoyed an 873-performance run on the Great White Way, winning four Tony Awards and spawning several revivals, foreign productions and the 1967 film Camelot. The original cast album was America’s top-selling LP for 60 weeks. How much of its continuing success could be credited to the Jacqueline Kennedy’s revelation that the album was the slain president’s favorite bedtime listening – JFK and Lerner were classmates at Harvard – is anyone’s guess. One of the musical’s more noteworthy revivals and tours began at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theater, on November 15, 1981. It was recorded, with only a few minor tweaks, for airing a year later, on HBO. Once again, Richard Harris heads an all-star cast, with Meg Bussert as Queen Guinevere and Richard Muenz as Lancelot. The New York Times’ television critic John J. O’Connor commented, “Richard Harris, reported to have been ill and notoriously out of sorts during the taping, is a memorably majestic and troubled king. He skillfully elevates a serviceable musical to surprisingly moving drama.” The DVD adds the original Broadway Playbill (DVD-ROM) and bios of Lerner, Loewe and Harris.

The DVD Gift Guide 3: 100 Years Olympics Films, One Day at a Time, Monterey Pop, 4K UHD/HDR Action Editions, Coens, Nutcracker, Stronger, mother!, Leatherface… and more

Wednesday, December 20th, 2017

100 Years of Olympic Films: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The Olympics movement has come a long way since the IOC reinstituted the Games in 1896, in Athens, only a hop, skip and very long jump from Olympia, where the ancient Games were held from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD. The site has been partially reconstructed and, if you’re in the neighborhood, is well worth a visit. Held annually in honor of Zeus and other gods, the Games began with a foot race among young women competing to be anointed priestess for the goddess, Hera, while a second race was run to determine a consort for the priestess at religious ceremonies. During the Games, a truce was enacted so that athletes could travel to Olympia in safety. In 394 AD, the Nicene Christian emperor of Rome, Theodosius I, banned all festivals in the territories that were considered by the church to be pagan. Archeological evidence indicates that some games were still conducted, though. We’ll never know if doping, bribery, misplaced patriotism and fear of nuclear disaster concerned Theodosius, but those are issues confronting IOC officials and fans heading to South Korea in February. It also explains why the Criterion Collection’s epic box set, “100 Years of Olympic Films,” is such an irresistible gift idea, even at prices ranging from around $220 to $395 list price for DVD and Blu-ray editions. Besides being extremely entertaining to watch, the archival films serve as a reminder of what the world could be like if politicians paid more attention to athletics and the arts than building arsenals and putting up fences. If the Olympics could bounce back from two world wars, there’s no reason to think peace isn’t be possible in our time. “100 Years of Olympic Films” spans 41 editions of the Olympic Games, from 1912-2012, in 53 surprisingly comprehensive and impeccably restored movies. They aren’t simply newsreels shown before  features, either. The feature-length films were made under the auspices of the IOC, to be shown to audiences around the world unable to make the trips to venues. The earliest ones feature camerawork of the point-and-shoot variety, with special attention paid to dignitaries, awards ceremonies, galleries and parades, in which winter Olympians carried their skis, skates, brooms and sticks, and participants in equestrian events arrived on horseback. As recording devices became more portable, the individual contests were captured with more fluidity and imagination. In addition to the impressive 10 features contributed by Bud Greenspan, the set includes such documentary landmarks as Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (Berlin 1936), Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad (Tokyo 1964), Claude Lelouch and François Reichenbach’s 13 Days in France (Grenoble 1968), Carlos Saura’s Marathon (Barcelona 1992) and Visions of Eight (Munich 1972), with segments directed by Ichikawa, Lelouch, Miloš Forman, Yuri Ozerov, Arthur Penn, Michael Pfleghar, John Schlesinger and Mai Zetterling.

In the first chapter, “Stockholm 1912,” Hawaiian swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, smiling broadly after finishing first in a race, and Native American Jim Thorpe, accept laurel wreaths and the medals he would be forced to relinquish for playing two seasons of semi-professional baseball before competing in the Olympics. (In 1983, 30 years after his death, the IOC restored the medals.) Other legends shown in action during early chapters are “Flying Finns” Paavo Nurmi and Ville Ritola, Eric Liddell (Chariots of Fire), and Johnny Weissmuller and three-time figure-skating champion Sonja Henie in their pre-Hollywood days. In 1936, Carl Junghans’ Youth of the World (Garmisch-Partenkirchen 1936) and Riefenstahl’s brilliant two-part Olympia: Festival of the Nations/Festival of Beauty would mark a turning point in coverage of the Games, both artistically and as a platform for Adolf Hitler to demonstrate the superiority of Aryan athletes and advance his propaganda machine. (African-American sprinters Jesse Owens, Ralph Metcalfe and Mack Robinson, high-jumper Cornelius Johnson and middle-distance runner John Woodruff spoiled that part of Der Fuhrer’s party.) The 1936 Summer Games were the first to be televised and broadcast live, while radio broadcasts reached 41 countries. While most of us are aware of Owens, Metcalfe and Robinson’s accomplishments, Riefenstahl’s ability to keep us guessing as to the results of other events, held 80 years ago, is truly remarkable. World War II forced the cancellation of the 1940 and 1944 Olympics, picking up again in 1948 in St. Moritz and London, whose economy was still devastated. Neither Germany nor Japan were invited to participate, and the USSR remained ideologically opposed. (The joined the festivities in 1952, after re-evaluating their propaganda value.) The opening ceremony and over 60 hours of coverage were broadcast live on BBC television and color was added to the cinematographers’ repertoire.

The Olympics popularity catapulted from there and licensing fees turned the IOC into as much a corporate beast as any of the sponsors trying to affix their logos on anything that moved. The films, too, would take on the tenor of the times, evolving into works of art that included original music soundtracks and other conceits. For this set, however, scores for the silent films were composed by Maud Nelissen, Donald Sosin and Frido ter Beek, while Marathon added an evocative score by Alejandro Massó and contributions by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Angelo Badalamenti. As the chapters unwind, some viewers might mourn the disappearance of such old-fashioned challenges as the men’s tug of war, rope climbing, synchronized calisthenics and gymnastics, horse racing on ice, and hockey played with wooden pucks, but no helmets, masks or side boards. Splashes of unintended humor can be found throughout the early films. During a 1912 hockey game between the U.S. and Canadian, an onscreen intertitle advises, “In the audience were several women in masculine garb. They found it more convenient than skirts.” By 1928, Nurmi was refusing to be photographed, while most other athletes enjoyed the exposure, if only to say, “Hi, mom,” which didn’t require a separate text-block. By its very composition, “100 Years of Olympic Films” not only showcases the evolution of athleticism and equipment, but also the development of sports cinematography. By the late 1920s, cameras were able to bring viewers closer to the action and slow-motion was introduced to capture dives in midair and treacherous turns on the bobsled run. The boxed set represents the culmination of a monumental archival project, encompassing dozens of new 4K restorations sponsored by the IOC. The early black-and-white footage could hardly be more pristine. Chapter breaks come between events, so, if you’ve tired of, say, race walking or hand-shaking, they’re easy to skip. The package adds a lavishly illustrated, 216-page hardcover book, featuring notes on the films by cinema historian Peter Cowie. Instructive featurettes also appear on some discs.

One Day at a Time: The Complete Series
When “One Day at a Time” began its midseason run on December 16, 1975, it was the first of Norman Lear’s groundbreaking sitcom that didn’t quite fit the mold. His fingerprints were all over “All in the Family,” “Sanford and Son,” “Maude,” “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons,” even if the shows’ roots could be traced to the British sitcoms, “Till Death Us Do Part” and “Steptoe and Son.” The short-lived “Hot l Baltimore,” adapted from an off-Broadway play by Lanford Wilson, was deemed too hot for ABC’s prime-time audience and only lasted 13 episodes. “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” became a hit in syndication, only after the networks passed on the parody of soap operas and middle-class consumer culture. Although Lear was credited with developing “One Day at a Time,” it was created by Whitney Blake and Allan Manings, a husband-and-wife writing duo, who started as actors in the 1950-60s. Blake based the series on her own life as a single mother, raising her three children — including future actress Meredith Baxter — after her divorce from her first husband. In most sitcoms of the period, unmarried women spent their time serial dating or commiserating with their friends about the losers they met. “One Day at a Time” featured a single, divorced mother, Ann Romano (Bonnie Franklin), and her two daughters — the rebellious Julie (Mackenzie Phillips) and smart-aleck Barbara (Valerie Bertinelli) – who move from Logansport, Indiana, to an Indianapolis apartment complex, in search of a new life. As difficult as it sometimes was, Ann wanted to afford the girls the kind of freedoms her parents denied her, growing up in a dead-end town of less than 19,000 people. At first, CBS suits insisted on Ann having a male friend, at least, but, in the second season, Richard Masur was replaced by a frisky female confidante and comedic foil, played by Mary Louise Wilson. That didn’t last long, either. By then, however, Lear was able to focus on the core cast, which now included the macho-man building superintendent. Schneider (Pat Harrington) rolled his cigarette packs in the sleeve of his T-shirt, wore his tool belt like a holster and fancied himself to be a real catch. Like the characters in “Seinfeld” and other sitcoms set in apartment buildings, he didn’t feel it necessary to knock or buzz before entering their apartment and making himself at home. As popular as he became, in my opinion Schneider served the purpose of being the token white-ethnic-male stereotype. The show would last nine years on CBS, with or without my eyes on it. What I completely misjudged the first time around was the sitcom’s appeal to a generation of married or otherwise single working women who totally identified with Ann, whether her dilemmas related to raising teenage hellions or struggling to sort through the bozos courting her affections. While I had yet to encounter many, if any women in similar straits, Lear was inspired by friends, including his daughter, who provided scenarios for the moral dilemmas that challenged Bonnie each week. The Shout! Factory boxed set includes all 209 episodes of the series – a DVD first, apparently – as well as the 2005 reunion special; “This Is It: The Story of ‘One Day at a Time’”; and a new interview with Phillips and actor Glenn Scarpelli.

The Complete Monterey Pop Festival: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
While the arrival of yet another iteration of the musical documentary, Monterey Pop, would hardly appear to qualify as news, this Criterion Collection releases represents a step up, even from the company’s stellar 2009 Blu-ray edition. Director D.A. Pennebaker personally supervised the new 16-bit 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed stereo soundtrack, as well as upgraded high-definition digital transfers of Jimi Plays Monterey and Shake! Otis at Monterey, and another separate disc of outtake performances and bonus material, featuring the Association, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Blues Project, Byrds, Country Joe and the Fish, Electric Flag, Jefferson Airplane, Al Kooper, Mamas and the Papas, Laura Nyro, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Simon and Garfunkel, Tiny Tim and the Who. The rock festival concept was generated in the spring of 1967 by musician John Phillips, record producer Lou Adler, festival co-producer Alan Pariser and publicist Derek Taylor. The idea was to establish rock-’n’-roll as a form of art to be taken as seriously as jazz and folk music, both of which were already recognized as such by festivals in Monterey, Big Sur and Newport. Another idea was to introduce bands from southern and northern California to audiences who’d yet to sample them. It grew to include musicians from New York, Chicago and England. It is recalled, as well, for the first major American appearances by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Who and Ravi Shankar; the first large-scale public performance of Janis Joplin; and the introduction of Otis Redding to white folks. Instead of having his team of cinematographers merely point their cameras on the musicians, on stage, Pennebaker had them seek out interesting faces in the crowd – including fellow artists — and nascent hippies on the fringes of the facility. In this way, Pennebaker laid the foundation for Michael Wadleigh’s even grander coverage of Woodstock. The three-disc Criteria package also arrives with alternate soundtracks for all three films, featuring 5.1 mixes by recording engineer Eddie Kramer, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio; commentaries by Pennebaker, Adler and music critics and historians Charles Shaar Murray and Peter Guralnick; new interviews with Adler and Pennebaker; “Chiefs” (1968), a short film by cameraman Richard Leacock, which played alongside Monterey Pop during its inaugural theatrical run; archival interviews from 2002 with Adler, Pennebaker and Phil Walden, Otis Redding’s manager; a photo-essay by photographer Elaine Mayes; Monterey International Pop Festival scrapbook; marketing material; an artists’ index; and a 72-page booklet, with essays by critics Michael Chaiken, Armond White, David Fricke, Barney Hoskyns and Michael Lydon.

Transformers: Blu-ray, 4K UHD/HDR
Interstellar: Blu-ray, 4K UHD/HDR
Terminator 2: Judgement Day: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
Paramount has decided to test the 4K UHD/HDR waters with new upgraded editions of its Transformer quintet: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Dark of the Moon (2011), Age of Extinction (2014) and, already available, The Last Knight (2017). The upgraded editions look and sound stunning in UHD/HDR – Ultra High Definition/High Dynamic Range — especially the bright yellow Bumblebee and other computer-generated characters and images. Their depth is impressive, as is the addition of theater-quality Dolby Atmos audio tracks. There aren’t any new bonus features, but commentaries and other material from previous Blu-ray editions have been ported over on separate discs. Critics may have already noted their displeasure with certain of the films, qualitatively, but fans will delight in the noticeably upgraded 4K UHD/HDR audio and visual presentation.

The studio is also trotting out Christopher Nolan’s 2014 sci-fi thriller, Interstellar, in the same advanced format. The sci-fi epic looks great, even on my system, which is hardly state-of-the-art. Listen to Nolan sell it, though, “4K Blu-ray with HDR is an incredibly exciting new home-video format that allows a much closer re-creation of viewing the original film print,” he observes. “The deeper color palette comes closer to matching the analogue colors of film and we’ve restored the original theatrical mixes for this release. If you can’t re-watch these films in the theater, this is the best experience you can have in your own home.” Couldn’t have said it better, myself.

Not to be left behind, Lionsgate is releasing its 4K UHD edition of Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) on the day after Christmas. Arnold Schwarzenegger returns in this explosive action-adventure spectacle, which James Cameron may have made in anticipation of such high-end technology. In the sequel, Arnold’s out-of-date Terminator is one of the good guys, sent back in time to protect John Connor (Edward Furlong), the boy destined to lead freedom fighters of the future, from T-1000 (Robert Patrick), the most lethal Terminator ever created. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), John’s mother, has been institutionalized for her warning of the nuclear holocaust she knows is inevitable. Together, the threesome must find a way to stop the ultimate enemy and rescue the franchise from premature extinction. Newly added is “T2: Reprogramming the Terminator,” a 55-minute documentary, including interviews with Schwarzenegger, Cameron and Furlong.

The Godfather Trilogy Collection: Limited Omerta Edition: Blu-ray
In celebration of the 45th anniversary of The Godfather, Paramount has re-re-released the beloved trilogy in a new, lightly colored four-disc Blu-ray package. Technically, “The Godfather Trilogy Collection: Limited Omerta Edition” is identical to the highly regarded “Coppola Restoration,” released in 2008. Besides different packaging, it adds a handful of cardboard and magnetic trinkets. Considering that Paramount has been in the forefront of the 4K movement, I wonder how much consideration was given to releasing a UHD package this year. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see one arrive next Christmas, though. So, caveat emptor. Bonus content includes a fold-open collection of five attached cards, each with a color image from a key sequence from The Godfather. On the flip side is text entitled “Anatomy of a Scene,” which recreates the shooting script for the sequence depicted on the front. Another set of collector’s cards feature character portraits and movie stills on the front, with character quotes on the rear. A perforated magnetic sheet holds a number of phrases, whose words can be removed and shuffled on a refrigerator. On a smaller cut-out at the bottom of the box are 10 “Godfather” trivia cards with the question on the front and the answer on the back.

Nutcracker: The Motion Picture: Blu-ray
Upon its release in 1986, critics weren’t terribly impressed by Carroll Ballard’s interpretation of the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker, the production of which was designed by Maurice Sendak in collaboration with Kent Stowell, the company’s artistic director. They seemed to be overly disappointed by the fact that Ballard failed to incorporate the wonderful cinematography on display in his first two directorial efforts, Black Stallion and Never Cry Wolf. Considering that the holiday staple was shot on a pair of sound stages on Warner Bros.’ Burbank lot – on a reportedly miniscule budget — that would have been a lot to ask of him. It isn’t likely that the producers thought they were sending out the definitive adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” Nearly every little girl in the country – and more than a few little boys – has experienced “The Nutcracker,” in one form or another. Ballard probably could have chosen from a dozen other productions, but the Seattle company already was showcasing the Stowell/Sendak collaboration, as part of its standard repertoire, and it fit his notion of how special visual effects could be used to support the story and dancers in a unique way. Sendak had previously adapted “Where the Wild Things Are” for the stage. in 1979, and   designed sets for the Houston Grand Opera’s productions of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and the New York City Opera’s production of Janáček’s “The Cunning Little Vixen,” both in 1981. Nutcracker: The Motion Picture, like the Stowell/Sendak stage production, is presented as Clara’s coming-of-age story. It depicts Clara’s inner conflicts and confusion as she approaches adolescence, as well as the beginning of her sexual awakening. The film emphasizes the darker aspects of Hoffmann’s original story and the significance of dreams and the imagination. That aspect must not have bothered the MPAA panelists, who gave the movie a “G,” even as they pointed out the dark and potentially disturbing subtext. Freudians might have suggested a “PG,” instead. The dancing is very good.

The Coen Brothers: The Iconic Filmmakers and Their Work
British film journalist Ian Nathan’s admittedly “unofficial and unauthorized” evaluation and celebration of the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre focuses primarily on their work as directors of such wonderfully eclectic entertainments as Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Fargo, Barton Fink, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Inside Llewyn Davis, A Serious Man, No Country for Old Men, True Grit and Hail, Caesar! Packed with stunning images from the Kobal Collection Movie and TV Archive, the book also highlights the brothers’ involvement, as writers, in recent films like Bridge of Spies, Gambit and Unbroken. If I were to guess, I’d say that the ideal recipient for this book would younger readers whose gateway to the Coens’ work has been provided by Fargo and The Big Lebowski, thoroughly offbeat comedies that have only gotten more popular with age. They might, then, want to work their way backwards through the easily accessible Raising Arizona and Blood Simple, before tackling the more obscure and personal projects. “The Coen Brothers” publisher is London-based Aurum Press.

Ella at Zardi’s
Divas Live: The One and Only Aretha Franklin
Trane 90
This being the centennial of Ella Fitzgerald’s birth, it’s only fitting that the great singer’s career be feted not only with a series of albums re-mastered digitally and on vinyl, but also a collection of 21 songs no one even knew existed until they were discovered 60 years later, gathering dust in the Verve archives. “Ella at Zardi’s” was recorded on February 2, 1956, at Zardi’s Jazzland, in Hollywood. Planned by Norman Granz to be the label’s inaugural release, it was shelved in favor of the now-classic studio album, “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book,” which was put to wax a week later and kicked off a best-selling, signature series of “Song Book” releases. Here, Fitzgerald is backed by a stellar trio, composed of pianist Don Abney, bassist Vernon Alley and drummer Frank Capp. The intimate setting allowed for some lively give-and-take between the artist and audience members, many of whom worked in the recording industry. Ella, who’s in tip-top form, appears to be enjoying the casual nature of the session and easy rapport with the musicians. Among the songs taped that evening are Duke Ellington’s “In a Mellow Tone,” Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” the Gershwins’ “S Wonderful” and “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” and Jerome Kern’s “A Fine Romance.” There isn’t a weak moment in the entire set, even if she does admit to fudging some forgotten lyrics. Released on CD and streaming sites by Verve/UMe it’s the perfect gift for anyone who appreciates jazz and great song stylists, and as a companion to Verve/UMe’s “Ella Fitzgerald: 100 Songs for a Centennial,” which is studio based.

Aretha Franklin has crossed so many genre borders that each new album should come with a copy of her passport. Previously unreleased on DVD or CD, “Divas Live: The One and Only Aretha Franklin,” was recorded at Radio City Music Hall for the inaugural “VH1 Divas” showcase, in 2001, and to support the channel’s Save the Music Foundation. The all-star tribute to the undisputed Queen of Soul — only one of her titles – featured appearances by Mary J. Blige, Jill Scott, Backstreet Boys and Kid Rock, and spirited renditions of “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” “Chain of Fools,” “Natural Woman,” “Think,” “Rock Steady,” “Respect,” “Freeway of Love” and, wait for it, “Nessun Dorma.” It arrives via MVD Visual.

Another can’t-miss gift for jazz lovers, especially those just beginning a collection of essentials, is “Trane 90,” released to commemorate the 50th anniversary of John Coltrane’s untimely death, in 1967, at 40. Although the selections are limited to material recorded in or before 1962 – the beginning of his historic “free jazz” period — the material here documents his formative years and emergence as a band leader and soloist. It traces Coltrane’s career from his earliest recordings, as a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s early 1950s combo, which pioneered the post-swing bebop style; playing behind Johnny Hodges, a mainstay of Duke Ellington’s band; as a key, if somewhat unreliable member of Miles Davis’ late 1950s groups, famous for introducing “cool jazz”; and as a leader of his own ensembles, in the 1960s. The material collected in the Acrobat import crosses label borders and adds some unpublished material to the mix, as well.

New to DVD/Blu-ray
mother!: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
No movie polarized critics and audiences more than Darren Aronofsky’s truly chilling mother! And, by polarization, I mean that it impressed critics and antagonized audiences in almost equal measure. Even before the film was introduced at this September’s Venice Film Festival, the ever-challenging Aronofsky (Black Swan) felt it necessary to explain his intentions to audiences. In a written statement, the writer/director quotes the author of “Requiem for a Dream,” a harrowing novel he adapted into an amazing film, against great odds: “I imagine people may ask why (mother!) has such a dark vision. Hubert Selby Jr. taught me that through staring into the darkest parts of ourselves is where we find the light.” If the movie opens in the light, its inexorable journey into the heart of darkness will confound, sicken and thrill audiences, sometimes simultaneously. The Venice audience divided its reaction between jeers and cheers, while, according to Aronofsky, British audiences found it to be hilarious. They might have benefitted from the featurettes included in the DVD/Blu-ray/4K UHD that go a long way toward explaining what was on Aronofsky’s mind. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem play Mother and Him, a married couple living in a rural mansion that’s being rebuilt after a fire nearly destroyed it, leaving only a crystal heart in the ruins. Mother stays busy putting the finishing touches on the interior, while Him is struggling to crack a writer’s block that has kept him from starting his next book of poetry and killed their sex life. The differences in their age and energy levels is likely adding a extra layer of tension between them, as well. One night, Man (Ed Harris) unexpectedly shows up at their doorstep with a hacking cough and burning desire to connect with Him. It’s an intrusion on their privacy, but Him warms to Man’s adulation and their exchange of ideas. The next day, Man returns to the country home, this time with his wife, Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), who exudes unbridled sexuality and forcefully suggests that their hostess follow suit. This unnerves Mother, but things don’t get really and truly weird until the arrival of Younger Brother (Brian Gleeson) and Oldest Son (Domhnall Gleeson), estranged siblings who somehow knew how to find their parents and whose arguments over Man’s estate turns into a violent confrontation, leaving one of them dead. The body’s barely cold when a dozen or so mourners begin showing up at the door, expecting to be welcomed inside for a wake no one had planned. Mother puts up with their nonsense until the mourners start swarming all over the house, even managing to destroy a sink that was only recently installed. She demands they leave. Somehow the chaos surrounding the unauthorized wake invigorates Him, lifting the dark cloud over his head and allowing him to finish the book. It also did wonders for their sex life, because Mother is pregnant. Once the book is published, another crowd of admirers descends on the house. This time, they occupy every nook and cranny of the multistory dwelling, destroying everything Mother’s been able to accomplish and picking up the pieces for souvenirs.  Once they’ve stolen everything worth stealing, even the infant child becomes fair game. What happens next might seem inevitable – especially to fans of Nathanael West’s great Hollywood novel, “The Day of the Locusts” – but it’s no less unnerving to Mother and viewers. Aronofsky still has a couple of tricks up his sleeves, though.

I probably should have inserted a spoiler alert somewhere in the previous paragraph, but nothing short of a link to the annotated screenplay could ruin the many surprises awaiting viewers in mother! It is a cornucopia of horror, dread and dark humor. From the moment the desperately ill Man is invited into the house by Him, and he ignores Mother’s edict on smoking indoors, viewers should prepare to fasten their seatbelts. Even going into the movie half-blind, I was impressed by Aronofsky’s ability to mold a home-invasion thriller that bears comparison to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games … both of them. We completely empathize with Mother as her house and husband are overwhelmed by his increasingly demanding admirers. Clearly, though, Aronofsky was digging for something deeper than mere horror. His pre-Venice statement cites his growing unhappiness with the general state of the world, hastened by a steady stream of alarming news reports and anecdotal evidence of mass hysteria. At the same time, he condemned those of us who attend to our chores unaffected by such annoyances and the “endless buzzing of notifications on our smartphones.”  (OK, here comes the spoiler alert.) If that weren’t enough, Aronofsky later explained, “Jennifer Lawrence is Gaia, or Mother Earth, while her house represents the world … a living, breathing organism being destroyed by its inhabitants. Him is God. Out of boredom, he creates Adam and Eve (the couple), who proceed to destroy both Gaia’s creation and His study (the Garden of Eden), which holds God’s perfect crystal (the apple). Their quarrelling sons are Cain and Abel. They also bring worshipers to praise God.” The invaders’ carelessness causes the pipes to burst into a Great Flood. “God impregnates mother, who gives birth to the Messiah … (triggering) a chaotic sequence followed by a disquieting communion and Revelations.” (End, spoiler alert,) I only bring that up because some viewers likely would benefit from knowing what to expect, philosophically, before things get too thick and weird for them to stick with the story. While the biblical allegory is valid, it probably scared the crap out of Lawrence’ loyal fan base. (Reportedly, the $7.5 million opening weekend was the weakest in her career.) I was more impressed with the director’s ability to create an original thriller that’s legitimately thrilling and, beyond that, hugely disturbing. Home invasions happen all the time and for reasons far less valid than those presented by Aronofsky. Although critics were largely supportive of mother!, it flunked the CinemaScore test. Only 19 features have ever received an “F” from audiences surveyed post-screening and one of them is mother! Moreover, it only grossed $18 million in total worldwide receipts, a number that should, but doesn’t shock me. The marketing campaign was weak and the buzz non-existent outside the arthouse and festival community. Lawrence deserves consideration for an Oscar nod, but numbers like that don’t often translate into nominations, let alone awards. In another surprising move, Aronofsky delivered the movie without a musical score and shot it in 16mm, as is his wont. Even so, the 4K UHD translation, via DolbyVision and Dolby Atmos, maximizes the chills for home-based viewers. It might as well be The Shining. The Paramount package adds featurettes “Mother! The Downward Spiral,” which goes into depth on the three-month rehearsal process and 2½-month shoot, and “The Makeup FX of Mother!

Stronger: Blu-ray
Judging from the tepid commercial response to Stronger and Patriots Day – despite their topicality and mostly positive reviews – it’s possible that the moviegoing public is suffering from an overdose of Boston-centric movies. That, or an overexposure to Mark Wahlberg or terrorism-survival stories. Wahlberg may not have appeared in Stronger, whose protagonist is played by Jake Gyllenhaal, but the marketing campaigns ahead of Patriots Day’s theatrical and DVD/Blu-ray debuts likely impacted the one originally planned for David Gordon Green’s drama. The Boston Marathon-related movies were filmed at the same time, on several of the same locations and share a character, Jeff Bauman, who lost both legs in the bombing. In Peter Berg’s picture, Bauman (Dan Whelton) isn’t given the same prominence, but, in Stronger, he’s the protagonist. Indeed, Bauman and Gyllenhaal threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Fenway Park on the Marathon Monday game of April 18, 2016. The list of movies set in or around Beantown, since Good Will Hunting, anyway, includes, but isn’t limited to Spotlight, Daddy’s Home 2, The Departed, Manchester by the Sea, The Equalizer, The Town, Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Black Mass, Ted, The Heat and, of course, The Boomtown Saints. Besides the presence of Wahlberg, the Affleck brothers, Matt Damon and/or Fenway Park, the pictures all share wildly divergent interpretations of Boston accents. The best of the lot, perhaps, Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle, got everything right, but was released at a time when most of the cast of Good Will Hunting was still in diapers. It proved to be a tough act to follow. Gyllenhaal’s Jeff Bauman is a working-class Bostonian, who was standing near the finish line of the 2013 marathon, cheering on his girlfriend, Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), when the blast occurred. The wounds he suffered caused both of his legs to be amputated above the knee. After regaining consciousness, Jeff was able to help law enforcement officials identify one of the bombers and hasten the pursuit of the killers. Although his own battles had just begun, Bauman came to personify the slogan, “Boston Strong.” John Pollono’s screenplay was based, in large part, on Bauman and Bret Witter’s eponymous book. From the point of view of this non-Bostonian, anyway, the problem with Stronger is that the truly inspirational stuff doesn’t come until two-thirds of the way through the story. Before Bauman accepts his fate and dedicates himself to the hard work it took to walk again on prosthetic limbs, viewers without a personal stake in the Boston Strong fervor must endure ugly depictions of his lumpenproletarian relatives.

Anyone who saw Ben Affleck’s terrific adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel “Gone Baby Gone” already knows how denizens of the Dorchester neighborhood are looked upon by people in more prosperous zipcodes. They barely function without the assistance of alcohol and unemployment checks. They’re quick to fight and distrust outsiders, sometimes for good reason. They’d rather give away their season tickets to the Bruins or Red Sox than cooperate with police. Their dialect requires subtitles and did I mention that they drink, smoke and cuss too much? I don’t know where Bauman lived at the time of the bombing, but his family members fit that description to a T. If they possess more than one redeeming quality – besides loyalty to each other and their sports teams – Green didn’t search too hard to find it. In the hands of Miranda Richardson, Jeff’s loathsome mother, Patty Bauman, is every bit as unsavory as Amy Ryan’s insult to motherhood, Helene McCready, in Gone Baby Gone. Because Erin grew up in a more affluent part of Boston, she’s looked upon as an interloper and potential threat to family unity. When we meet them, Erin is between breakups with Jeff. His passion for the Red Sox causes him to be routinely late for dates and appointments. Nonetheless, Jeff’s obsession with Erin causes him to be at the marathon’s finish line that fateful day. Her feelings of guilt bind her not only to his recovery efforts, but his intolerable family.  Patty’s idea of being supportive is contacting her heroine, Oprah Winfrey, and arranging for an interview with Jeff, which he’s refuses to do. A half-hour less time with the Bauman clan would have been a godsend for viewers. Stronger doesn’t pick up until Jeff reconnects with Carlos (Carlos Sanz), the man who helped save his life after the bombing and wanted to check in on him. Carlos, who lost his sons in the Middle East conflicts, introduces the very good question of what differentiates a true hero from an innocent bystander fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the villain. Even if his relatives have convinced him that he’s Boston Strong, he doesn’t consider himself to be a hero. Neither does he much like enduring his rehab classes or waving a flag at the Bruins’ playoff opener. Carlos turns his head around in a hurry. His ability to put everything in perspective allows Green to prevent a disaster.

And, that’s really the point of Stronger. If the picture had done better business, I suspect that Gyllenhaal and Richardson would have a fighting chance at some nominations. As the enablers, Lenny Clarke, Clancy Brown, Kate Fitzgerald, Patty O’Neil, Richard Lane Jr. and Nate Richman are almost too convincing. The Blu-ray adds “Faith, Hope and Love: Becoming Stronger,” a half-hour featurette documenting both Bauman’s real-life story and the filming process.

Also available from Lionsgate on VOD and streaming outlets, after a brief theatrical run, is Boston. The documentary traces the history of the Boston Marathon from its humble origins, starting, in 1897, with only 15 runners, to the inclusion of women runners, in 1972, through the tragedy in 2013. Beyond that, the focus of director Jon Dunham (Spirit of the Marathon) is the emotional comeback effort that began in the wake of the bombings and the pursuit and investigation that followed them. The event, we’re reminded, has been shaken time and again by world events and social change, but has always evolved to run another year.

Blood Money: Blu-ray
Anybody old enough to recall the legend of D.B. Cooper will have an advantage over viewers who might assume that Blood Money sprang fully blown from the imaginations of freshmen writers Jared Butler and Lars Norberg. Otherwise, the idea of a crook parachuting into a dense forest from a plane, with $3 million tethered to his body in Hefty bags, might sound too preposterous to take seriously. That, however, is what happened in 1971, when a non-descript fellow who identified himself as Dan Cooper hijacked a plane on its way to Seattle, demanded a ransom and parachutes, and after they were delivered to him on the ground, parachuted into the darkness from a rear exit. If he lived to tell his tale – or spend the money – no one’s been able to verify it. In fact, it’s more likely that Cooper died before he had an opportunity to do either one. If the forests of the Pacific Northwest could shelter Bigfoot, why not a man who likely had Special Forces training and a working knowledge of the terrain. Still, the FBI only recently ended its 40-year investigation, with a handful of weak leads and tentative suspects and none of the bills uncovered. An annual “Cooper Day” celebration has been held at the Ariel General Store and Tavern, in Aerial, Washington, one of the possible drop zones, each November since 1974. His face has appeared on T-shirts and other souvenirs items, as well. As directed by Lucky McGee (All Cheerleaders Die), Blood Money is less plausible than the mythology surrounding D.B. Cooper, but close enough for cable television, VOD and straight-to-DVD exhibition. Here, three friends on a wilderness excursion and rafting trip stumble upon several bags full of freshly minted hundred-dollar bills, floating down a river in Tennessee. We know that a black-garbed criminal, Miller (John Cusack) was able to parachute out his lightplane before it crashed into a hillside, losing the bags in his punishing descent and landing, and they apply the losers-weepers/finders-keepers rule to the bounty. It takes a while for Miller to get his bearings and locate their trail, which any Boy Scout could find in the dark. The two male students (Ellar Coltrane, Jacob Artist) make it even easier for him, by bickering over who has dibs on Lynn (Willa Fitzgerald). Although she’s slept with both men, Lynn wants to keep her options wide open, Once Miller catches up to them, all bets are off. As unlikely as everything is in Blood Money, Cusack is fun to watch and Fitzgerald (“Scream: The TV Series”) looks as if she might have a future as a scream queen. Cinematographer Alex Vendler takes full advantage of the beautiful scenery surrounding Tennessee’s Ocoee River. McGee appears to have watched Deliverance, without quite grasping how John Boorman was able to turn James Dickey’s backwoods thriller into a horror show for the ages. The featurette, “Blood Money Uncovered,” offers interviews and footage documenting how the river-rafting scenes were achieved.

Leatherface: Blu-ray
For those keeping score at home, Leatherface is the eighth entry in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise – unless one counts the 2003 short, “Jason vs. Leatherface,” and 1983 video game – and the second prequel (a.k.a., origin story) to Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel’s 1974 original. Like the sequels, the prequels aren’t religiously faithful to movies that preceded them, except for similar openings and, of course, chainsaws. Five of the eight installments were shot in Texas, one in Louisiana and the other in California. Leatherface was made in Bulgaria, with the help of an Eastern European crew. I was surprised to find indie mainstays Stephen Dorff and Lili Taylor in lead roles, but no more than when I learned that Dennis Hopper starred in the first sequel; Viggo Mortensen, in the second; Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey, in “Next Generation”; R. Lee Ermey and Jessica Biel, in the remake; or Alexandra Daddario, in “3D.” Everybody has to eat and a gig’s a gig. Award-winning French filmmakers Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury (Inside) were called in to direct Leatherface. According to Taylor, “When they told me they wanted to do something that was a cross between Terrence Malick, like Badlands, and The Virgin Suicides, I thought ‘I’m there,’ because what I love is this stuff that’s happening with people pushing a genre as far as they could push it.” I’m not sure Sofia Coppola and Malick would be thrilled to hear that their work inspired Leatherface, but, even in Bulgaria, one takes praise no matter the direction it comes. The movie opens in typical fashion, with a pretty young thing being lured to the Sawyer homestead, where she’ll be slaughtered like a pig. This time, though, the victim is the daughter of Sheriff Hal Hartman (Dorff), who has to be restrained from killing Verna (Taylor), who’s just forced her youngest son, Jedidiah to join in the family ritual of using a chainsaw to murder strangers. Despite her protestations, Hartman quickly takes the boy into custody as revenge, sending him to a mental institution. Ten years later, Jed (Sam Strike) will escape the facility with three other psychos and a nurse they take hostage. They’re prevented from reaching the Mexican border by Hartley, who chases Jed and the lovely nurse (Vanessa Grasse) back to the homestead, where the carnage continues. Bustillo and Maury aren’t stingy with the blood, gore and special makeup effects, so I don’t think that fans of the franchise will be disappointed. It’s worth noting, however, that executive producer Hooper passed away on August 26, a few weeks before Leatherface’s premiere on DirecTV. Special features include “Behind the Mask: The Making of Leatherface,” six deleted scenes and an alternate ending.

The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis
In the 1970s, many South and Central American countries were controlled by right-wing juntas, not at all reluctant to use torture and the very real threat of death to keep dissenters and leftists in check. They also would kidnap the babies of parents they intended to murder and present them as gifts to supporters anxious to adopt. Thousands of students, educators and intellectuals who leaned to the left of center politically were rounded up, tortured, killed and buried in mass graves. Some were escorted to a troop carrier, from which they’d be thrown into the sea. One method the governments used to keep their presumed enemies on edge was to reward informants – neighbors, waiters, co-workers — some of whom used the betrayal for personal gain. In Andrea Testa and Francisco Márquez’ The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis, you can cut the paranoia with a knife and spread it on a cracker. In a mere 78 minutes, they’re able take a bureaucrat who was just awarded a gift box from his boss, instead of a promotion, and turn him into a man who would risk his family’s livelihood by alerting a pair of strangers to their imminent arrest and likely execution. Diego Velázquez (Wild Tales) plays the title character, who’s practically blackmailed by a long-ago girlfriend into making the choice between helping “the masses” or doing nothing. She reminds him of a poem he wrote 20 years earlier that, if it were to be found and published, could easily be construed as a paean to Che Guevara or Vladimir Lenin. Sanctis only has a few hours to act on the information given him and it will require him to suck up his courage and find the strangers without incriminating himself or anyone else. The way Testa and Marquez stage his movements through Buenos Aires while everyone else in the city appears to be sleeping, Sanctis might as well be Joseph K in Orson Welles’ adaptation of Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.” They decided against positioning police and soldiers on every street corner, preferring to insinuate the presence of unseen eyes and ears everywhere he goes. It’s extremely effective.

Hidden Kisses
Movies about the difficulties that gay teenagers face at school aren’t particularly rare, anymore, especially in countries where such films aren’t automatically branded “R,” “NC-17” or “M” by a ratings board determined to prevent squeamish of parents from complaining to their representatives in Congress about subjects they deem reprehensible. It’s why the MPAA instituted its ratings system, in the 1960s, and is so reluctant to modify it, today. Hidden Kisses, which was made for European television outlets, concerns the ordeal endured by 16-year-old Nathan, as the new kid in a French high school. It takes very little time before he makes meaningful eye contact with another male student, Louis, in one of their classes together. A few nights later, while attending a party, they sneak away from the crowd to become better acquainted, eventually working up the courage to share a kiss. Very soon, a picture of two boys embracing goes viral on Facebook, with Nathan’s face being the only one that’s recognizable. It opens the floodgates to a shitstorm of ridicule, rejection and bullying. Louis, who has a girlfriend, is able to pretend he wasn’t the other boy in the photograph. As Nathan continues to be bullied, Louis finally begins to feel guilty about his reluctance to protect his friend. When Nathan’s cuts and bruises become evident to his father, the typically homophobic cop is forced to take a stand neither of them expected he’d have to make. Meanwhile, Louis’ girlfriend and parents begin to sense what’s really been bugging him. His father, too, is forced to take a difficult stand. Which of the very different fathers will come through the way we want? Didier Bivel and writer Jérôme Larcher have already stacked the deck a bit, by showing Louis and his father going at each other in preparation for a regional boxing tournament. They seem more sympatico, but who knows? There’s no point in spoiling the resolution to their mutual dilemmas, except to say that it satisfies in a way that might not be acceptable to Standards & Practices executives at American networks, where, traditionally, naughty boys and girls are expected to pay for their sins, in one way or another. Because cable outlets don’t have to play by those rules, it would be nice to think that one of them might pick up Hidden Kisses as a statement for tolerance and against bullying. And, there’s nothing in it that would prevent teens from watching it with their parents, either.

PBS: NOVA: Ghosts of Stonehenge
PBS: NOVA: Killer Volcanos
Stonehenge may have become something of a tourist trap lately, but that doesn’t mean archeologists have solved enough of its mysteries to turn it into just another cool place to take selfies. The deeper one digs into the possibly sacred soil, the more questions are raised as to its origins, purpose and the fate of its builders. Was it an ancient cathedral, burial place, observatory or computer? Over the years, the evidence suggests all or none of the above. Over the last decade, fresh answers have come from an ambitious program of research, including the first scientific study of human remains — thousands of fragments of cremated men, women, and children — buried at the site 5,000 years ago. They were dug up once already in the 20th Century, but replanted when funds ran out for the project. In the “NOVA” presentation “Ghosts of Stonehenge,” archaeologists analyze the bones and piece together tantalizing details of the elite families who presided over Stonehenge. Remnants of huge feasts that fed the laborers at the site have come to light, including evidence that they traveled from the far corners of the British Isles to raise the stones and celebrate the winter solstice. Yet Stonehenge’s place as a centerpiece of ancient culture was not to last.

In another “NOVA” investigation, an expert team of scientists searches for the signature of a volcanic eruption powerful enough to have blasted a huge cloud of ash and sulfuric acid into the atmosphere. “Killer Volcanos” spotlights the search for the mystery volcano that plunged the globe into a deep freeze and inflicted famine on medieval Europe.

The DVD Wrapup: Trip to Spain, Lucky Goat, Viceroy House, Victoria & Abdul, Manolo and more

Friday, December 15th, 2017

The Trip to Spain: Blu-ray
I wonder how much, if at all, estimable Brit director Michael Winterbottom was influenced by Louis Malle’s indie sensation My Dinner With Andre – or, for that matter, Andy Kaufman in My Breakfast with Blassie – before embarking on the first BBC mini-series, The Trip. In Malle’s film, quintessential New York City raconteurs Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory meet for dinner at a fancy restaurant to reconnect after one of them disappeared for a few years. The don’t particularly like each other, but they manage to share two hours in each other’s company, engaged in the lively art of conversation. Dinner was so convincing that many, many viewers assumed that their conversation played out in real time and was wholly improvised. In fact, it was scripted, rehearsed and shot in a chilly Virginia restaurant that was closed for the winter. It still holds up to scrutiny, however. In The Trip (2010), British actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story) are asked by the Observer to tour the finest restaurants in the Lake District and document the experience. Their goofy exchanges, impersonations and kvetching only occasionally detract from the magnificent scenery. It would inspire a pair of sequels, The Trip to Italy (2014) and, now, The Trip to Spain, both of which follow the same format and conceits. Each time, Winterbottom whittled the roughly 180 minutes of television content to standalone features of about 110 minutes, for foreign consumption.

Typically, the lesser-known Brydon is invited to accompany Coogan only after the “I’m Alan Partridge” star’s girlfriend, Mischa (Margo Stilley), cancels at the last minute. Once on the road, they while away the time riffing on each other’s careers, romantic lives, families, hotel accommodations and the music being played on the car’s tape deck. Phone calls to their agents and loved ones back home reflect all the anxieties, despair and bravado one would expect from actors who are never quite sure what they’ll be doing in six months, let alone six years. The real fun comes when Coogan and Brydon compete over movie trivia, complemented by spot-on impressions of stars, ranging from Michael Caine and Sean Connery, to Woody Allen and Al Pacino. At times, they engage in these exercises at the expense of fellow diners. They’re easier to take from afar. Not so, the restaurants and scenery, which are better than advertised. While The Trip to Italy covered territory from the Piedmont region, down the western coast to Amalfi and Capri, paying special attention to the haunts of Percy Bysshe Shelley. This time around, the lads spend their time together in northern Spain, skirting the coastline and dipping south for a photography session at the windmills of Cervantes’ La Mancha. Once again, the dining and scenic beauty border on the indescribable. (My daughter and I just returned from a similar excursion and the movie brought back some tantalizing memories.) Coogan and Brydon have aged noticeably since their first trip and their concerns are those of middle-age family men. Even so, fans of the first two films will want to climb aboard for a third adventure.

Bad Lucky Goat
True Born African: The Story of Winston ‘Flames’ Jarrett
Although dozens of documentaries have been made about reggae, Rastafarianism and the ganja trade, only a handful of narrative features from Jamaica are worth the effort it would take to uncover. The best, by far, is Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972), which introduced the island’s music, economic disparity and dreadlocks culture to the world. Rockers (1978), Countryman (1982) and Dancehall Queen (1997) made some noise outside Jamaica, but not enough to turn the focus away from docs about Bob Marley and the roots of Rasta. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that Samir Oliveros’ Bad Lucky Goat is the best Jamaican movie since The Harder They Come. It contains all of the elements common to movies set on the island, including a bangin’ soundtrack, reefer, Rasta men and beautiful settings, but it’s what happens to the compelling characters that really counts here. It concerns a pair of incompatible teenage siblings, who, after colliding with an impressively horned and bearded goat on the coastal highway, are required to deal with life-and-death issues not normally associated with life in Port Paradise. After engaging in a nonsensical squabble over a mix tape, Corn and Rita borrow the truck used to transport tourists from the airport to the family’s hotel on the northern coast. Not being the island’s most conscientious driver, Rita isn’t paying attention when the black critter steps from the brush onto the road, seriously damaging the truck’s front bumper. Frightened that the poor beast might belong to someone who would blame them for the goat’s carelessness, they decide to weigh it down with stones and drop it into the sea.

They find a mechanic willing to replace the bumper that afternoon, but for a price just north of their ability to afford it. Figuring that the recently deceased animal had yet to begin decomposing, they pull its carcass out of the water and sell it to a local butcher, keeping the head as a souvenir. Riding past a roadside barbershop, with the head facing into traffic on the handlebar of their motorbike, a customer recognizes the disembodied creature as one of his own. It sets up a parallel chase, with Corn and Rita scratching to come up with the rest of the money needed to pay the mechanic, while the goat’s angry owner is hellbent on exacting justice on Corn, who’s riding the motorbike. Besides the stop at the butcher shop, the teens visit a Rastafari drum maker, a disreputable pawn-shop owner, a witch doctor and the local police headquarters. When Corn is finally grabbed by the thuggish farmer – who probably makes more money from selling ganja than selling goat-milk yogurt – Rita sets out to rescue him. Bad Lucky Goat probably could have been shot just as easily in any other part of the world, where a goat might cross a road unexpectedly, but Jamaica provides the perfect setting for a story that requires teenagers to embark on an odyssey of reconciliation and not have to rely on their parents to get them out of the fix. Oliveros also adds some magical realism as the movie nears its conclusion. The coastal locations are supplemented by scenes shot high in the Blue Mountains. It’s exotic without being completely foreign to viewers already familiar with reggae music, dreadlocks and other aspects of Jamaican culture. The DVD adds the short film, “Miss World.”

If, however, you haven’t tired of documentaries tracing the roots of reggae and Rastafarianism, there’s Nic Nakis’ True Born African: The Story of Winston “Flames” Jarrett, one of the true OG’s of the genre and religion. After moving to the impoverished Jones Town area of Kingston with his mother at the age of 5, Jarrett was taught to play guitar by Jimmy Cliff and Alton Ellis. He joined Ellis’s backing band, the Flames, in the early 1960s. After his mentor moved to the UK, Jarrett formed the Righteous Flames, which, in 1969, recorded for Lee “Scratch” Perry. In the 1970s, tired of recording for others without receiving adequate payment, Jarrett self-produced much of his output, releasing it on his own Attra, Human Rights and Humble labels. By this time, he had become an ardent Rastafarian. In “True Born African,” he recalls Haile Selassie’s 1966 visit to the island, where he was greeted as a living god. We travel to his old neighborhoods in Jamaica, a reggae festival in California and his new home in Seattle, sharing stories about the music and the philosophy that have kept him going for six decades. At 77, Jarrett is a spry old bird, with a ready smile and vibrant memory. Nakis adds plenty of concert footage, as well.

Viceroy’s House
Victoria & Abdul: Blu-ray
British filmmakers never appear to tire of reliving the tumultuous series of events surrounding India’s struggle for independence and their government’s role in the Partition, which claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. Ever since the almost simultaneous release of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, HBO’s “The Far Pavilions,” ITV’s “The Jewel in the Crown” and David Lean’s A Passage to India, several more movies and mini-series have traced the parallel dilemmas faced by the colonialists, forced to abandon their exalted place in the British Raj, and the Indians who either served them or plotted their demise … sometimes both. The dramas introduced mixed-race and mixed-faith relationships, amid the Brits’ fears of sabotage, violence and being forced to relinquish the lush life they enjoyed (“Indian Summers”). The contrast in lifestyles was accentuated by examples of torture, racism, economic deprivation and other injustices, sometimes exacted on the families of men who served valiantly in the British military. In Viceroy’s House, director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) brings to life a pivotal historical moment that re-shaped the world. Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) and his liberal-minded wife, Edwina (Gillian Anderson), have just arrived in Delhi, essentially to turn out the lights on the Raj and hand over the keys to the palace to whomever is chosen to govern the newly independent India. The palace’s five hundred employees are unified in their devotion to duty, but divided by their religions as to how the residence and country should be administered. Mountbatten is determined to maintain a united India, even as it becomes increasingly apparent that violence will force the Partition and not even Mohandas K. Gandhi can stop it. Meanwhile, in the staff quarters, a love story is reignited between Jeet (Manish Daya), a Hindu, and Aalia (Huma Qureshi) a Muslim beauty he met while comforting her imprisoned father (Om Puri). Alas, her hand has already been promised to another man. Besides Mountbatten, the separate interests are represented by General Lionel Hastings Ismay (Michael Gambon) and Cyril Radcliffe (Simon Callow); Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi); Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani); and Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith). As familiar as it is, Viceroy’s House is well-mounted and impressively acted.

Victoria & Abdul may be take place a half-century before the Partition, but it would be impossible not to recognize the seeds of discontent sown before and during the reign of Queen Victoria (Judi Dench). Based on a remarkable true story, Stephen Frears’ opulent historical drama describes the unlikely friendship that developed between Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a young Muslim clerk, who’s unexpectedly instructed to travel from India to England, to participate in the Queen’s Golden Jubilee ceremony. In a very real sense, “A&J” serves as a sequel to John Madden’s Mrs. Brown (1997), in which Dench delivered another splendid portrayal of a monarch who most of were taught to think of as a crusty old tyrant. Frears and writer Lee Hall were inspired by the book by Shrabani Basu, which, in turn, was based on volumes of Queen Victoria’s handwritten notebooks and journals, in Urdu, discovered in 2010. As soon as the queen began to demonstrate an interest in Indian culture – she had to be reminded that she was empress over all India, not just protector of British interests – her son, staff, aides and advisors turned on the newcomers as if he were a carrier of the plague. They even went so far as to threaten Victoria’s standing as Queen, if she went ahead with plans to beknight her Muslim “Munshi” (spiritual adviser and teacher). Their contempt and overt bigotry is palpable whenever the Queen is off-camera. They even despise Victoria’s willingness to find something inspirational in the culture of a subordinate nation. Eddie Izzard’s portrayal as Bertie, Prince of Wales, is so convincingly hateful that the future king might as well be Jack the Ripper. Michael Gambon and Simon Callow have meaty roles in both pictures. Dench was just nominated for a 12th Golden Globe and SAG award, which makes me think she’ll be a frontrunner for a second Oscar nomination as Queen Victoria. (Her sole Academy Award win came as Best Actress in a Supporting Role, playing Elizabeth I, in Shakespeare in Love. She claimed the first of her two Globes as Victoria, in Mrs. Brown.) Because Oscar loves the Brits, it’s also likely to give serious consideration to Frears, Hall, Izzard, costume designer Consolata Boyle and production designer Alan MacDonald, who died on August 30, at 61. The Blu-ray adds a pair of short making-of featurettes

The Unknown Girl
The Dardenne brothers have become such a force in international festivals and arthouses that it’s borderline shocking to learn how difficult it’s become for American cineastes to find each new film, while the buzz is still hot, at least. Only the pictures with real Oscar and BAFTA potential get picked up immediately and held until December for limited release, in anticipation of nominations and critics’ polls. A Palme d’Or nod, of which the Dardennes have several, is no guarantee of wider exposure. While The Unknown Girl, for example, debuted at the 2016 Cannes festival, the Palme d’Or candidate only now is being sent out on DVD by MPI Home Video. The Liege-set drama was released briefly here, but it would have required a special kind of GPS to locate the theater(s) at which it played. Maybe, just maybe, the word-of-mouth emanating from Cannes wasn’t loud enough to reach American ears. After the festival, the brothers had originally planned to make only some very minor changes. That changed after consultation with friends, critics and their editor, who urged more extensive cuts. They made an additional 32 new edits to the film, which is now 7 minutes shorter than its original version. The new one was unveiled at the Institute Lumiere, in Lyon, in June 2016, and subsequently played the Toronto and New York festivals. This time, however, early reviews were mixed.

Typically, the searing story of guilt and redemption is set in a working-class neighborhood in the Walloon city, whose migrant population has grown considerably in recent years. One evening, after work hours, a young doctor decides not to answer the door buzzer at the small clinic where she works. Too many of these late-night calls are based on complaints she considers to be frivolous, or illegal, and could be handled better in a hospital’s emergency room. This time, however, the person at the door was an unidentified African woman who’s found dead shortly after by the side of a river. After examining the building’s security tape, police suspect that she was seeking refuge, instead of medical treatment, and, in either case, she was under no obligation to respond. Even so, Jenny (Adèle Haenel) is consumed by the thought that she is to blame for the woman’s death. It’s the kind of crime that police would only pursue with diligence if the victim were white and, in fact, she’s buried in an unmarked grave even before they can determine her name or next of kin. Jenny embarks on an obsessive crusade to do just that. At first, she runs into a brick wall. Slowly, but surely, Jenny’s able to determine that the woman was turning tricks that night and one encounter turned ugly. Later, her car is stopped on the road by an angry African man, who, in no uncertain terms, warns against her pursuing her inquiries. The police and potential witnesses urge essentially the same thing. The Unknown Girl plays out like a procedural, with unexpected flashes of rage and threats of violence. The redemption comes in such an unexpected form that it almost slides right past our eyes. It reflects the Dardennes’ dedication to realistic depictions of life among people whose unspectacular circumstances rarely warrant coverage in newspapers or films.

Heartworn Highways/Heartworn Highways: Revisited
If one cared to trace the history of country music over the last 50 years, one of the touchstone points of reference would be James Szalapski’s Heartworn Highways, which, in 1976, anticipated the emergence of such singer-songwriters Steve Earle, Steve Young, Gamble Rogers, Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark, Charles Daniels, John Hiatt, David Allan Coe, Richard Dobson and Townes Van Zandt. They represented the next seismic shift after the Countrypolitan, Outlaw Country, Cosmic Country and California Country movements of the 1960s. They wore out the pavement between Nashville and Austin, hoping to capture the same lightning in a bottle that sparked Kris Kristofferson’s career, after Janis Joplin recorded “Me and McGee” and it became her biggest hit single (posthumously). The song had already been recorded 10 times, but Joplin’s version found the cross-genre niche sought by the everyone in town. (Emmy Lou Harris’ 1977 take on Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” had a similar effect.) Heartworn Highways captured a moment in time, when such singer-songwriters envisioned themselves to be troubadours, flying below the radar of mainstream record labels, radio and the Grand Ol’ Opry. Whenever possible, they sang, partied and traveled together. Szalapski visits a convivial Van Zandt at his trailer, in what is now downtown Austin, along with his girlfriend Cindy, his dog Geraldine, Rex “Wrecks” Bell and Uncle Seymour Washington (a.k.a., “The Walking Blacksmith”). He locates Daniels, playing before fans at a high school gymnasium, and Coe (a.k.a., “The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy”) performing at the same Tennessee prison that once served as his temporary home. The DVD, newly re-released by FilmRise, adds bonus songs and material from a Christmas party at Clark’s house.

But, that was then, and FilmRise’s Heartworn Highways: Revisited represents the now. Released 40 years after Szalapski’s film, it reunites Young, Coe and Clark (who died last year, at 74), while focusing on such new-generation troubadours as John McCauley, Jonny Fritz, Bobby Bare Jr., Josh Hedley, Justin Townes Earle, Shovels & Rope, Langhorne Slim, Robert Ellis, Andrew Combs, Shelly Colvin, Nikki Lane and Phil Hummer. They are at approximately the same age as those musicians shown in Heartworn Highways. If anything, Nashville and mainstream radio networks have become harder nuts to crack for emerging talent. Although Wayne Price’s doc doesn’t dwell on it, the saving grace for these artists has been the arrival of satellite and streaming networks dedicated to the Americana and roots subgenres, as well as Internet services that provide outlets for their music and videos. If they haven’t yet been invited to the Opry, there’s no reason to think they won’t ever be summoned. Although Szalapski died in 2000, Price followed his blueprint to a T. And, that’s a very good thing. The DVD features bonus interviews, sometimes accompanied by music. (And, yes, the testosterone level on both albums is pretty high. In the former, at least, it probably couldn’t have been avoided.)

Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards
Michael Roberts’s wonderfully titled bio-doc derives from a comment made by legendary fashion designer Manolo Blahnik, when asked how he got his start in the business. Growing up in Santa Cruz de la Palma, in the Canary Islands, he made shoes out of candy wrappers for lizards that he caught in his family’s garden. Although his parents steered him in the direction of a diplomacy major, which bored him terrifically, he moved to Paris to study art at the École des Beaux-Arts and Stage Set Design at the Louvre Art School, all the while working at a vintage clothing shop. In 1968, he moved to Swinging London to work as a buyer at the  boutique Zapata and wrote for L’Uomo Vogue, an Italian men’s version of the magazine. His turning-point moment came in a meeting with Diana Vreeland, the editor-in-chief of U.S. Vogue, while he was travelling in New York. After presenting his portfolio of fashions and set designs, Blahnik recalls Vreeland looking him “straight in the eye” and saying, “Young man, make things, make accessories, make shoes.” The rest, of course, is fashion history. Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards explains how an extraordinary dedication to the craft led to his name becoming synonymous with high-end women’s footwear – not so much for men’s shoes – and a legion of well-heeled fans. They include celebrities, stylists, industry icons, heiresses, trophy wives and their teenage children, and very accomplished prostitutes. References to his work in HBO’s “Sex and the City” probably sold as many shoes as Michael Jordan did, at approximately the same period of time. After opening his first store in London, in 1973, and coming of age in the world’s fashion capitals, Blahnik now has shops and department-store concessions in over 20 countries and retains full control of the business, still creating every style, even hand-carving the wooden forms himself. The film features a who’s-who of fashion and celebrity types, including Anna Wintour, Rihanna, Paloma Picasso, Iman, Naomi Campbell, Rupert Everett, Karlie Kloss, Isaac Mizrahi and André Leon Tally. Blahnik remains resolutely coy about his personal life throughout most of “Manolo,” so anyone looking for insight about his sexuality or the secrets of celebrity podiatry may come away disappointed, as some critics were. Those allergic to hyperbolic and fawning interviews could react negatively, as well. Most everyone else who’s ever subscribed to Vogue or Bazaar, and admired an imaginatively designed shoe on a red carpet or in a film, will be delighted.

Pulp: Special Edition: Blu-ray
A year after Michael Hodges delivered the quintessential British crime thriller, Get Carter (1971), he reunited with Michael Caine for his sophomore feature, Pulp. Although gangsters play a prominent role in it, Pulp is more of a comic sendup of noir and giallo tropes and clichés, especially the linkage between sex, death and beautiful women. As is the case in so many other noir classics, who-dun-it matters far less than what happens between the first and final murders. Caine plays Mickey King, author of such down-and-dirty paperback detective novels as “My Gun Is Long” and “The Organ Grinder,” and pseudonyms that include “S. Odomy.” And, no, he isn’t at all proud of his success. Out of the blue, King is offered an abnormally large sum to ghostwrite the autobiography of a mystery celebrity. The intrigue begins even before the writer boards the ferry to Malta, where he’ll meet the subject of the book. On the bus taking him to the embarcadero, a man named Miller (Al Lettieri) introduces himself as an English professor. He assumes Miller is the mysterious contact, until discovering him dead in his bathtub after a hotel room mix-up. (Any movie co-starring Lettieri is OK with me.) Once ensconced on the historic island, King begins to get the distinct feeling that someone doesn’t want him to hook up his subject, who turns out to be retired Hollywood movie star Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney). Gilbert, like George Raft and Frank Sinatra, is famous for portraying movie gangsters by day and hanging out with real-life mobsters at night. Gilbert may be dying from cancer, but it doesn’t prevent Rooney from stealing the show in every scene in which he appears. His improvisations may not have endeared Rooney with Powell, but the anarchic performance almost made up for his terribly offensive portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).

It will take a while before the assassin(s) is/are revealed in the 95-minute picture, but, in the meantime, viewers are encouraged to enjoy Powell’s loving depiction of life on Malta, the many pretty boys and girls, and offbeat performances across-the-board. If the actress playing femme fatale, Princess Betty Cippola, looks familiar, it’s only because, two decades earlier, Lizabeth Scott was an A-list star mentioned in the same breath as Lauren Bacall, Rita Hayworth, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino, Lupe Vélez and Lana Turner. Her most previous film appearance came 15 years earlier, opposite Elvis Presley in Loving You. She had been slandered in the gossip press and decided to pursue a singing career, with the occasional guest-starring role in a TV series. Although she lived to the ripe old age of 92, she wouldn’t make another movie after Pulp. She’s joined by Nadia Casini (Starcrash), Lionel Stander (“Hart to Hart”), Leopoldo Trieste (Cinema Paradiso) and Luciano Pigozzi (Blood and Black Lace). The Arrow Video release benefits from a 2K restoration from original film elements, supervised and approved by director of photography Ousama Rawi; new interviews with Hodges, Rawi, assistant director John Glen and Tony Klinger, son of producer Michael Klinger; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Nathanael Marsh; and a collector’s booklet containing new writing by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. BTW: if all one knows about Get Carter derives from suffering through Stephen Kay and David McKenna’s misconceived Americanization of the story, starring Sylvester Stallone, do yourself a favor and give the Powell/Caine version a try.

Houston Astros: 2017 World Series Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
2017 World Series Champions: Houston Astros: Blu-ray
When Hurricane Harvey made landfall at Rockport, Texas, on August 26, 2017, the last thing on the minds of most people living in the Houston area was the Astros’ chances of reaching the playoffs, let alone the World Series. If the team did make it, fine … if not, the residents had bigger problems. In the immediate wake of the storm, the team’s three-game series against the Texas Rangers, scheduled for August 29-31, was relocated to St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field. A couple of days later, at the waiver-trade deadline, GM Jeff Luhnow acquired veteran starting pitcher and Cy Young Award-winner Justin Verlander from Detroit to bolster the starting rotation. All he did was win each of his five regular-season starts, yielding only four runs over this stretch. The Astros finished 101-61, with a 21-game lead in the division. Verlander carried his success into the playoffs, posting a record of 4-1 in his six starts. As anyone who watched the post-season games can attest, the Astros’ pitching wasn’t the only reason they won their first World Series in franchise history. Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Marwin Gonzalez, Dallas Keuchel, Justin Verlander and George Springer had something to say about it, as well. As was the case a year earlier, when the Chicago Cubs captured their first crown in a century, the seven-game series lived up to the hype. On the day the Astros beat the Dodgers in the decisive seventh game, it could have rained all night and no one at Minute Maid Park would have cared. Although I probably wouldn’t recommend giving either of these Shout!Factory boxes to SoCal fans who bled Dodger blue that night, fans in eastern Texas, at least, should welcome “Houston Astros: 2017 World Series Collector’s Edition” and “2017 World Series Champions: Houston Astros.” The former includes “Regular Season Highlights,” “Clinching Moments,” “Postseason Highlights” and “World Series Parade,” while the “Collector’s Edition” adds a bonus disc of the pennant-clinching ALCS Game Seven; four audio options (the TV feed, Astros radio, Dodgers radio and Spanish-language radio); and a SleeveStats insert, with game trivia and official stats.

The Brits have a great word for the kind of people who no one seems to miss when they turn up missing in Dan Pringle’s debut feature, K-Shop. “Yob” is a slang term that denotes an aggressive and surly youth, whose loutish behavior only gets worse with each succeeding drink. Yobs and Yobbettes represent the country’s troubling “binge-drinking culture,” which is further identified by fights, beatdowns, uncontrolled vomiting, passing out in the streets around nightclubs and pubs, and the ever-popular terrorizing of immigrants. An offshoot of the soccer hooliganism that has plagued Europe for years, it is considered one of the greatest problems facing a society in which heavy drinking has always provided a temporary cure for joblessness and underemployment. K-Shop is set in and around Bournemouth, a resort town on the south coast of England, where Pringle captured images of yobbo behavior on film and incorporated them in the film. The other thing to know about the movie is that it borrows liberally from Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” minus the singing. After his father is killed in an altercation with drunken thugs outside the family’s kebab shop, Salah’s world is plunged into darkness. Instead of finishing his studies and finding work that doesn’t require slicing meat off a vertical spit rotating over a gas flame, the young man is forced to work long hours doing just that. Things probably wouldn’t be so bad if a nightclub catering to intemperate drinkers hadn’t opened directly across the street from the shop, ensuring a steady stream of yobs and yobbettes whose stomachs have regurgitated early meals and need refilling. Knowing that Salah is of Middle Eastern or Pakistani background, they consider him to be fair game for their verbal abuse. One night, when a fight with an angry customer goes wrong, he finds himself with a dead body on his hands. Having no faith in the authorities, Salah disposes of the body in the one place he knows best: the kebabs. You can probably guess what transpires next. As befits a contemporary horror film, Pringle uses every trick in the book to convince us – viscerally, at least – that real actors are being sacrificed for the sake of his art. (Don’t watch K-Shop if your plans for the evening include late-night stops at your local gyros or shawarma stand.) Although no one truly gets away with their crimes here, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Salah’s actions are justifiable and we might do the same thing, if sufficiently provoked. If anything, the supporting actors may be a tad too credible in this regard.

All Saints
Anyone interested in seeing how good a faith-based, family-friendly movie can be when the proselytizing is kept to minimum and Christ’s message is able to cut through the gratuitous moralizing and evangelism. I’ve watched as many of these films as anyone not paid to do so and have noticed a decided improvement in overall production values and storytelling. Some genre specialists can’t help themselves, though, when it comes to churning out holier-than-thou entertainments for captive audiences. Steve Gomer and Steve Armour’s inspirational drama All Saints arrives at a time when the President, his chief advisers and Supreme Court have decided that the Statue of Liberty’s welcome is limited to Russian oligarchs, jet-set celebrities, models and movie stars. All others stay put. It also relates directly to the current situation in Myanmar, where Christian and Muslim minorities face daily persecution for their beliefs and the country’s leaders – including a Noble Peace Prize-winner – assume that no one else in the world is watching. All Saints counted be more topical and representative of traditional American and Christian values. It is based on the true story of salesman-turned-pastor Michael Spurlock (John Corbett) and the tiny Tennessee church he was assigned to shut down, before the arrival of a group of Karen refugees from Southeast Asia found relief under its eaves. Although few in number, the parishioners treat Spurlock as if he were the Grim Reaper, which, in a sense, he was. Neither were the Anglican-taught Karens welcomed with open arms. Back home, they were farmers and fighters. In Tennessee, they can only find work at a chicken-processing plant, while, at night, they tend a small garden on church property. One night, during a rainstorm, Spurlock receives a “message from God” to plant seeds for the salvation of His people. The only salvation both the parishioners and devout Karens could benefit from together would be a way to pay the mortgage on the church before it is foreclosed upon. One way to satisfy the parishioners, Karens and church elders, he decides, is to make full use of church property by opening it to planting and selling the produce to local markets and those catering to Asians in Nashville. Even his wife, Aimee (Cara Buono), and son, Atticus (Myles Moore), are skeptical of his plan. Most wary, though, is a cranky old geezer, Forrest (Barry Corbin), who’s tried farming and knows how difficult it has become to reap a profit. The Lord, as usual, works in mysterious ways. When it isn’t raining on the garden, it’s pouring buckets. All Saints is full of Christian messages, none of which are deeply hidden, and the ending will have some viewers praising God. Others can simply enjoy a good story, well told. The bonus features introduce us to the real people behind the characterizations and their personal testimonials.

The Rift: Dark Side of the Moon
Serbia isn’t the first country I’d expect to produce a sci-fi thriller with pretensions of existential and religious significance. Why not, though? Considering that it’s a Serbian/South Korean/Slovenian co-production – targeted at the English-speaking market – it’s no surprise that The Rift: Dark Side of the Moon has something of a cobbled-together look to it. The film follows a team of CIA and Serbian agents – led by Liz Waid (Katarina Cas) and John Smith (Ken Foree) – as they attempt to secure the remains of a satellite that crash-landed somewhere in the eastern part of the country. When the team finally reaches the crash site, they discover the satellite has vanished and the only clue is a trail leading to an abandoned silk factory nestled near the forest line. As they approach they approach the building, shots are fired at the team from locals guarding something hidden inside it. Upon further investigation, they find an astronaut’s suit on a table, presumably with something inside it. One of the team members, a former astronaut, recognizes the suit as belonging to another astronaut on the same aborted lunar mission. That man disappeared into thin air … very thin air. Turns out, villagers believe the newly arrived entity is the son of God – or, perhaps, a son of God — and that it has been sent there in anticipation of the Second Coming. Now that we’re in Stanley Kubrick territory, director Dejan Zecevic raises the ante by depicting the ill-fated moon mission and mysterious purple-rimmed hole in the time/space continuum that presented itself there. Back on Earth, things get even stranger as people already dismissed as dead come back to life as malevolent forces. This phenomenon extends to agent Waid’s terminally ill child, back in Belgrade. That’s a lot of metaphysical baggage to pack into a 90-minute vehicle, and it doesn’t all fit into the trunk. Even so, sci-fi buffs might find something here to enjoy. The horror is provided by the ax-wielding residents who go to great lengths to protect their own personal Jesus.

Valley of Bones
With some careful pruning of scenes shot inside a strip club, Valley of Bones might have made a dandy little thriller for the Syfy channel. While Dan Glaser’s film suffers from the same budgetary problems that limit the network’s feature-length movies, Valley of Bones benefits from not having to depend on the cheesy special effects that propel the action in such Syfy original movies as Sharknado, Magma: Volcanic Disaster and Mongolian Death Worm. The dinosaurs are long dead and are expected to stay that way. Neither is life on Earth imperiled by UFOs, global warming or plague-carrying teenagers. No, the suspense is provided here by humans. As it is, the R-rated Valley of Bones opened in 300 theaters over the Labor Day weekend, making a paltry $107,393.  The R-rating promises less than it delivers on DVD, as well. Still, it could have been a lot worse. Filmed largely on location in the badlands of North Dakota, it stars Autumn Reeser (“The O.C.”) as the passionate paleontologist, Anna, who served time in prison from digging up artifacts on federal land. She is about to lose her right to explore ranch land once open to her and her late husband, thanks to oil and natural-gas interests. When word reaches her of the discovery of T-Rex’s tooth on private land, she begs the owner to be given one last opportunity to restore her reputation and make a few bucks. The problem is that the tooth was found by a recovering meth addict with unpaid debts to a Mexican cartel, and he has no intention of being cut out of any deal. She reluctantly teams up with the bounder, McCoy (Steven Molony), who leads Anna, her late husband’s brother (Rhys Coiro) and her estranged son (Mason Mahay) to the place in the boonies where he found the tooth. Sure enough, they unearth a complete skeleton, which the meth head offers to the cartel leader (Mark Margolis) in exchange for his freedom from debt. The action picks up from there, with a fiery ending assured.

Cops and Robbers
In Scott Windhauser’s gimmicky and wholly unconvincing hostage drama, Cops and Robbers, a negotiator (Michael Jai White) and bank robber (Quinton “Rampage” Jackson) play cat-and-mouse with each other, while a dozen, or so, employees, customers and fellow crooks weigh the odds of making it out alive. They’ve already watched helplessly as a supervisor and police detective are pistol-whipped by Jackson’s unnamed character and the thug’s cohorts are dismayed by his refusal to get out while the getting is good. Then comes a string of surprises and coincidences so unlikely as to be almost laughable. They all lead to an ending that would be satisfying, if anything that came before it was logically presented. Straight-to-video hall-of-famer Tom Berenger plays a lead detective whose only reason for being cast probably was to have a recognizable actor play a dirty cop. Jackson is completely credible as the kind of crook who would kill someone for the simple pleasure of watching him die.

Architects of Denial
This documentary begins as another convincing argument against the Turkish government’s century-long denial of its role as the instigator of the Armenian genocide. By now, however, the only people who appear to agree with the Turks’ ridiculous stance are American politicians who are afraid of pissing off their strategic partners in Ankara. No matter how much new evidence is discovered and presented for the perusal of our so-called statesmen, they refuse to put “genocide” and “Turkey” in the same sentence. And, as long as lobbyists grease the palms of our representatives and our military presence is required in the Middle East, no Turkish government will be made to face the music. What is new and equally disturbing in David Lee George’s Architects of Denial are reports of the ongoing persecution of Armenians in oil-rich Azerbaijan and threats to invade neighboring Nagorno-Karabakh, which is largely populated by Christians. First-person accounts of the violent attacks on Armenians in Baku, among other cities in Azerbaijan, echo those of reports from the 1915 genocide and other attacks sanctioned by the Turkish government since World War I. Among those non-Armenians interviewed are Julian Assange, George Clooney and a former FBI agent with first-hand knowledge of both the atrocities in Azerbaijan and the seducing of American congressman and -women who sit on committees responsible for monitoring the situation there. When confronted with the evidence and asked for comments, the weasels have nothing to say in their defense and put their aides between them and the cameras, lights and microphones.

Wolf Warrior 2: Blu-ray
IMAX: Mysteries of China: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
As many Chinese action pictures as I’ve watched in the last 10 years, there hasn’t been one quite like Wolf Warrior 2. In its predecessor, Wolf Warrior, Wu Jing (a.k.a., Jacky Wu) played a Chinese special-forces soldier, blessed with extraordinary marksmanship, who’s confronted by a group of deadly foreign mercenaries hired by a vicious drug lord to assassinate him. Unlike most other exports, the martial artistry in “WW” plays second fiddle to the type of fighting featured in such American franchises as Sniper, S.W.A.T., The Marine and, yes, even Rambo. The mercenaries included former soldiers from western nations, not simply Asian fighters controlled by the isolated mafia boss or CIA operative. It made about $100 million in the global marketplace, which, considering that very few of those dollars came North America, wasn’t bad. “WW2,” which moves the action to the Horn of Africa, where the Chinese government is heavily invested with money and personnel, took in – get this – a nifty $867.6 million in foreign sales and another $2.7 million on only 53 U.S. screens. What distinguishes it in my mind, at least, is the presence of Chinese military forces – not many, but they’re good – in the rescue of sailors from Somalian pirates and, later, Chinese-run factories captured by guerrillas of the ISIS variety. I’m not all sure that such a situation has ever confronted the Beijing government, as it has American leaders, but the barbarity shown African and foreign workers is considerable. With the UN reluctant to commit to the rescue, it’s left to Feng Leng (Wu) to lead the assault against the guerrillas, directed by Frank Grillo, and mercenary thugs. In days gone by, American Green Berets, French Foreign Legionnaires, Rambo and John Shaft might have been called in to protect the fruits of western imperialism. Today, of course, it’s the Chinese imperialists who matter most in much of Africa. There’s no question as to who’s wearing the white hats in this particular fight, however. And the action continues non-stop throughout the movie. Chinese-American actress, model, singer/songwriter and martial artist Celina Jade (a.k.a., Celina Haron) provides the love interest here … when she isn’t kicking some ass herself, that is. The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Folks who find a 4K UHD television monitor under their tree on Christmas morning should be cognizant of the fact that the dang thing will only work as advertised if it’s also accompanied by a compatible disc player, receiver and HDMI cables. Not to worry though, as this ancillary equipment is far more reasonably priced than the technology required of 3D Blu-ray units. There’s also a growing number of 4K UHD titles and premium services dedicated to the format. Shout!Factory is one of the distribution companies that has stuck its feet into the 4K waters, through its partnership with Giant Screen Films, a supplier of large-format movies to museums and other institutions. Mysteries of China joins previous releases, Journey to Space, Humpback Whales, Flight of the Butterflies, Rocky Mountain Express, Wonders of the Arctic and The Last Reef: Cities Beneath the Sea. Because the movies were originally shown in large-format 3D, they’re in the 40- to 50-minute range – easier on the eyes – and oriented toward viewing by school groups and families. To fully cover all the Mysteries of China (a.k.a., “Mysteries of Ancient China” and “China: The Rise of Empire”), the film would have had to be several hours longer than it is. Instead, it focuses on the amazing story behind the discovery of the terracotta army of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a united China. In 1974, farmers in Shaanxi province came upon artifacts while digging a well less than a mile east of the Qin Emperor’s tomb mound at Mount Li. They reported the find to Chinese authorities, who carefully uncovered the vast collection of terracotta sculptures, depicting Qin’s armies, whose purpose was to protect the emperor in his afterlife. Later digs would locate funerary art of horses, chariots, acrobats, strongmen, musicians and politicians, as well as the skeletal remains of workers who took their secrets to a mass grave. The 4K UHD format reveals the vast size of the dig – three football fields – and intricacy of the pieces.  The film makes use of 8K footage shot specifically for this project, high resolution CGI models and new scans of stock footage from feature films, such as The First Emperor. If nothing else, Mysteries of China serves as an excellent starter kit for people new to the format. Bonus material adds a 10-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, with producer/director Keith Melton.

One of Us
The recent passing of Charles Manson, the capo di tutti capi of American cult leaders, led some observers to point out that there may still be as many as 3,000 such groups currently operating in the United States. I’m not sure that I would trust the government to parse the difference between a true cult and your run-of-the-mill post-hippie commune, but it’s an impressive number, nonetheless. One of Us appears to have been directed and written by folks — Blake Reigle, and Andrea Ajemian and Blaine Chiappetta — whose knowledge of cults comes from depictions in Lifetime movies. The leader is a well-groomed control freak, whose idea of mind control is forcing yoga lessons on his female followers and making them work in a coffee shop in the mountains above Riverside, California. Otherwise, the beautiful women wear togas and sheep masks for ceremonies. Naturally, the local cop is on the cultists’ payroll and those who choose to leave are threatened with torture or death. It’s hard to see what the leader might be concealing from view, however. When a friend goes missing, investigative reporter Mary (Christa B. Allen) springs into action by travelling to the San Jacinto Mountains town of Idyllwild, California. She has no trouble infiltrating the cult, led by Brent (Derek Smith), although the other followers aren’t anxious for the competition. When Mary’s sister (Ashley Wood) comes nosing around, the cultists smell a rat in their midst. (Investigative reporters usually don’t require the help of siblings.) Anyway, the scenery is nice and there isn’t much here that would corrupt a teenager. As usual, the DVD jacket promises more than it delivers.

Halloween Pussy Trap Kill! Kill!
In the last eight years, Jared Cohn has directed, written and acted in more than 25 films and videos, largely of the exploitation persuasion. Among the titles are Little Dead Rotting Hood, Bikini Spring BreakUnderground Lizard People and Hulk Blood Tapes, none of which have enjoyed much of a theatrical run, if any. I’m guessing that Halloween Pussy Trap Kill! Kill!’s title owes less to the Russian riot-grrrl group, Pussy Riot, than the Russ Meyer classic, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Even so, Cohn’s horror thriller features an all-grrrl band, Kill Pussy Kill, which makes Hole sound like the Supremes, and whose fashion sense is limited to thrift-shop rejects. For some reason, the movie opens in Islamabad, Pakistan, where an American special-forces team is ambushed by Islamic militants and a couple of them lose their heads in the process. (Don’t ask what they’re doing there, five years before 9/11, but a little bit of poetic license goes a long way here.) Flash forward a few years and the band is performing before a crowd of meth heads, one of whom decides to sexually assault a member, before being admonished by a wheelchair-bound man in a mask. On their way to a gig, the band decides to make a pit stop at a gas station that was already old when the Oakies made their way into California. Naturally, the van won’t start when they’re ready to pull out. Enter, Richard Greico, looking like Mickey Rourke’s younger brother, as the gas-station attendant. He offers the ladies – and I use that term advisedly – lodging in a shack tricked out for an adventure in torture porn, as conducted by an unseen “evil genius dead set on revenge” (voiced by Megadeth’s Dave Mustain).  For one of the women to survive, she’ll have to kill at least two of the others. The real freak show is going on outside the view of the captives, though. (A hand grenade is tossed at a group of trick-or-treaters.) I can understand how Greico might be willing to take any job that comes his way, but what former child star Margaret O’Brien is doing in a movie titled Halloween Pussy Trap Kill! Kill! is a mystery to me.

CBS: Zoo: Season Three
PBS: NOVA: Secrets of the Shining Knight
PBS: Cook’s Country: Season 10
Nickelodeon: Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Final Chapters
When I was sent the Season Three collection of episodes of “Zoo,” I wasn’t even aware the show even existed, let alone for three summers. Now that I’ve watched it, I wonder if might have done as well, or better, on Syfy … like the aforementioned Valley of Bones. Not that three seasons on CBS is anything to dismiss, even as a summer replacement. The blend of action, science-fiction nuttiness and attractive actors seems to be a perfect fit for a cable outlet, especially as it can appeal to those adolescents, teens and adults disinclined to watch PBS and the History Channel. As “Zoo” opened, animals around the world are attacking humans in troubling numbers. A multidiscipline team comprised of American zoologist Jackson Oz (James Wolk), Kenyan safari guide Abraham Kenyatta (Nonso Anozie), Los Angeles reporter Jamie Campbell (Kristen Connolly), quirky veterinary pathologist Mitch Morgan (Billy Burke) and a French intelligence agent Chloe Tousignant (Nora Arnezeder) has been recruited to keep the attacks from reaching pandemic proportions. By the end of the first 13-episode season, mutated animals have taken over the streets of cities everywhere. Later, in Patagonia, a special-forces team comes across a human who has mutated into a monster and kills almost everyone. (The pretty one is spared.) Oz’s team captures the mutant beast and returns it to Mitch’s lab for further study. By the time Season Three rolls around, another group of scientists, the Shepherds, has joined the narrative and managed to make the war between man and animals even worse. Time passes and zones have been designated for humans and hybrids, alike. Sadly, even larger, more ferocious and less easily controlled creatures are turning up, demonstrating that the Shepherds’ plans have backfired. CBS announced the cancellation on October 23, so theoretically there’s still time for another network to collect the assets and put it back in production. It happens all the time, now.

No trip to Chicago is complete without a visit to the Art Institute. And, no visit to the Art Institute is complete without a tour of the George F. Harding Collection of arms and armor. It features numerous examples of full- and half-armors, finely etched helmets, firearms with carved ivory stocks, back- and breastplates with gilded figures, chainmail and other exotic items. It’s as popular an exhibit as any in the museum, and that says a lot about its appeal. Producers for the “NOVA” presentation, “Secrets of the Shining Knight,” visited the Institute as part of their research. In it, viewers are given an opportunity to learn how armors – shining and otherwise – were crafted, as well as the significance of the various styles and how they evolved over time. Tests are conducted as to their ability to withstand penetration by knives, jousting sticks, arrows and bullets fired by very long muskets. “NOVA” challenged blacksmith Ric Furrer and master armorer Jeff Wasson to recreate parts of an elite armor that was originally manufactured in the Royal Workshop founded by King Henry VIII. We trace their successes and setbacks from start to finish, as they rediscover centuries-old metalworking secrets, then put their new armor to the ultimate test against a period musket.

While other foodie entertainments have begun to broaden their horizons by traveling around the world to find interesting cuisine and meet people who cook for a living, fun or to feed their families, the team behind “Cook’s Country” prefers to wait for the world’s great dishes and recipes to America’s Test Kitchen, in Rupert, Vermont. It also features the best regional home cooking in the country, relying on a practical, no-nonsense approach to food preparation. Family-oriented recipes are scientifically re-imagined for the modern home cook, while utensils and brands are also put to the test. In Season Ten, Bridget Lancaster and Julia Collin Davison are joined by new test cooks Ashley Moore, Bryan Roof and Christie Morrison. The titles of the episodes are almost as mouth-watering as the recipes: “Pork and Pierogi,” “Spicy and Sour for Supper,” “Smoky Barbecue Favorites,” “Smothered and Dowdied,” “BBQ Thighs and Fried Peach Pies,” “Ribs and Mashed Potatoes Revisited,” “Bourbon and Broccoli Hit the Grill,” “Straight From So-Cal,” “Southern Discoveries,” “Cast Iron Comforts,” “Plenty of Garlic and Parm,” “When Only Chocolate Will Do” and “The Italian-American Kitchen.”

Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Final Chapters” encapsulates the show’s final hurrah on Nickelodeon, way back in 2012. Join the turtles as they battle an enormous army of monsters led by that time-traveling tyrant, Sevanti Romero. Then, rejoice at the return of their intergalactic Salamandrian friends — Mona Lisa and Sal Commander – only to be required to go to war with scourges of the universe, Newtralizer and Lord Vringath Dregg. But wait, there’s more. Our heroes are transported to an alternate universe, where they assist the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi escort the holy child, Kintaro, to the Temple Castle of the Sky Buddha. We also fast-forward to the future, where the world is nothing more than a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and it’s every mutant for themselves. Lone-wolf warrior Raphael and the now-bionic Donatello are the only ones who have the guts to find the ever-elusive Oasis.

The DVD Wrapup: Letter From An Unknown Woman, Despicable Me 3, Crucifixion, Maurizio Cattelan, A New Leaf, Silent Night and more

Thursday, December 7th, 2017

Letter From an Unknown Woman: Blu-ray

Letter From an Unknown Woman is an old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama I might have watched for a few minutes on television long ago and abandoned in favor of a baseball game. Black-and-white films, no matter how opulent or romantic, never looked the way they were supposed to on television. Even when Laserdiscs and TCM came, analog sets couldn’t do justice to the director and cinematographer’s shared vision. Scratches were left in disrepair, just as fuzz and other artifacts clung to prints as if intended. The digital revolution made restoration miracles possible, transforming tired old movies into the classics they actually are. High-resolution screens made everything even better. Even so, I might not have accepted the challenge of watching Letter From an Unknown Woman – its title is as inviting as a warm beer or cold cup of coffee – if I hadn’t already seen the Criterion Collection editions of Max Ophüls’ La ronde, Le Plaisir, The Earrings of Madame de … and Lola Montès, all of which were made after he returned to Europe after World War II. After absorbing the lessons dispensed in the bonus features, it was easy to appreciate this widely admired film from his surprisingly unproductive Hollywood sojourn. Now, at least, I knew what to look for in the upgraded Olive Signature release. The first thing I noted was Joan Fontaine, whose unadorned beauty escaped me in other films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Suspicion. The 30-year-old actress plays the same woman, Lisa, at three different stages in her life, looking radiant in all of them. Indeed, she reminded me very much of Laura Linney, who, at 53, still looks as if she could play recent graduates.

Ophüls directed Letter From an Unknown Woman from a screenplay by Howard Koch (Casablanca) and 1922 novella by Stefan Zweig. It opens with the famous concert pianist and world-class cad Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) offering ominous goodbyes to his servant, who’s just handed him a letter from Lisa, written on her death bed. It is intended to remind him not only of the unknown woman’s place in his life, but also the shit he’s put Lisa through without giving her a second thought. They had met three times previously, none of them fixed in his memory. During their second encounter, Lisa and Stefan fell in lust with each other, treating Vienna as their personal love nest. After lying to her about returning after a concert tour, Lisa delivers the son he won’t know exists until its too late to do either of them any good. The third time they meet, years later, their eyes meet across a concert hall, which she exits in near panic. Even though he’s enchanted by her, Stefan doesn’t recognize the mother of his child. Lisa is married to a wealthy older man, who accepts the boy as his adopted son, but her obsession with Stefan drives her into his uncaring arms for the last time. Now, however, his absence of feelings for Lisa backfires on him, leading years later to a duel with her husband. It’s here that the movie sharply deviates from Zweig’s book, but in a patently Hollywood sort of way. In 1992, Letter from an Unknown Woman was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. The pristine 4K restoration of the black-and-white presentation makes it easy to identify Ophüls’ trademark touches, including a gliding camera, baroque imagery and lush atmospherics. The Blu-ray adds commentary by Ophüls expert Lutz Bacher; “A Deal Made in a Turkish Bath,” an interview with Oscar-winning documentarian Marcel Ophüls; “An Independent Woman: Changing Sensibilities in a Post-War Hollywood,” with Professor Dana Polan; “Ophülsesque: The Look of Letter From an Unknown Woman,” with cinematographers Ben Kasulke and Sean Price Williams; “Letter From an Unknown Woman: Passion’s Triumph,” a visual essay by film scholar Tag Gallagher; and an essay by critic Molly Haskell.

Despicable Me 3: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Howard Lovecraft and the Undersea Kingdom: Blu-ray
It isn’t difficult to see why Universal’s Despicable Me / Minions franchise continues to grow – globally, at least – while other animated series have begun to run out of juice. Besides the fact that youngsters relate easier to protagonists their own size, the Minions think, act and move like kids on a 90-minute sugar rush. Neither does the creative team at Illumination Entertainment force viewers to be overly concerned about the kinds of things that drive critics crazy: unwieldy plots, disjointed action sequences, annoying sound effects and cookie-cutter characters. It’s as if directors Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin and Eric Guillon, alongside writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, live across the street from public elementary schools and study the behavior of unruly children during recess and lunch breaks. By capturing that level of anarchic energy, they’ve been able to play directly to the munchkins in all of us. Throw in a dastardly villain, or two, and supporting characters whose only purpose is to take some weight off the Minions’ barely-there shoulders, and you have a movie that relates to audiences around the world. And, that’s kind of the point. Although the third installment performed better at the domestic box office than the 2010 original, it gave up $100 million from tally registered by the 2013 sequel. The thing is, though, the budgets for the four films in the franchise have remained within the $70 million to $80 million range, which is nothing compared to those allotted the Shrek and Cars sequels. Like Minions, Despicable Me 3 surpassed the billion-dollar barrier on the strength of foreign revenues of $823.4 million and $767.8 million, respectively. And, of course, those figures don’t take into account DVD/Blu-ray/VOD, toys, video games and theme-park attractions. Not that the story makes any conceivable difference, it’s worth noting that Felonious Gru (Steve Carell), who’s now an agent for the Anti-Villain League, is summoned by his long-lost twin brother, Dru (also Carell), to the land of Freedonia. (No, not that one.) Dru and Lucy (Kristen Wiig) have just foiled a plan by supervillain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker) to steal the world’s largest diamond. The former child star grew up to become obsessed with the character he played in the ’80s and is hell-bent on world domination. Dru and Lucy’s failure to seize the diamond and neutralize Bratt prompts their ouster from the AVL and the subsequent loss of most of their Minions, when they refuse to return to the dark side. Dru will help Gru deal with Bratt and the diamond, but for reasons that are substantially less than honorable. Suffice it to say that Bratt is a far more formidable foe than they imagined, but not infallible. The denouement leaves the door open for Despicable Me 4 and Minions 2. Besides the reference to Duck Soup, the triquel pays homage to the Pink Panther series. The Blu-ray adds a deleted scene, introduced by Dana Gaier (Edith Gru); the Mini-Movie, “The Secret Life of Kyle”; several background and making-of featurettes; a sing-along and music video; and visitors guide to Freedonia.

It would be difficult to imagine a less likely candidate to be the subject of an animated feature than a character based on the boy who grew up to be H.P. Lovecraft, but that’s exactly what Canadian comic-book writer Sean Patrick O’Reilly has given us in Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom and Howard Lovecraft and the Undersea Kingdom. They represent two-thirds of the graphic-novel series created by Bruce Brown and Dwight L. MacPherson, and inspired by the author’s Necronomicon. The volume is a fictional grimoire – a textbook of magic – that appears in Lovecraft’s stories, as well as the books and movies of his followers. In 1897, young Howard (Kiefer O’Reilly) is taken by his mother to see his father, Winfield (Tyler Nicol), who is locked away in an asylum. (This representation is based on fact.) His doctors say Winfield is too deranged to meet with them, but Howard wanders off, anyway, to find his cell. Mixed into his father’s ravings are instructions as to where to find his copy of the Necronomicon and reasons why it must be destroyed. After going against his father’s wishes by reading it, Howard slips through a portal leading to another dimension. The journey to the Frozen Kingdom of R’yleh is fraught with danger, in the form of monsters and other threats to his safety. Fortunately, Howard befriends a hideous creature he names Spot, who helps him through the mess. A year after “Frozen Kingdom” concludes, with the defeat of the evil King Abdul Alhazred, the second part of the trilogy begins. In it, O’Reilly demands that Howard pass through the portal leading to “Undersea Kingdom” and conquer the demons that have captured his family and are holding them hostage. Additionally, Howard must take back the Necronomicon and prevent the impending wrath of Cthulhu. Lovecraft buffs will recognize these references, even if Winfield is a dead ringer for Edgar Allan Poe and Howard looks as if he stepped out of a cartoon by Charles Addams. Working against the movie is animation that wouldn’t pass muster in 1985, let alone 2017, and a family-friendly approach that’s meant to introduce young readers to Lovecraft, but effectively sucks the goosebumps out of his work. Somehow, O’Reilly was able to lure a voicing cast that includes Christopher Plummer (Go), Mark Hamill (Star Wars), Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator), Ron Perlman (Hellboy) and Doug Bradley (Hellraiser) to supplement members of his family.

The Crucifixion Blu-ray
Although it wouldn’t be fair to say, “If you’ve seen one exorcism, you’ve seen them all,” the movies about demonic possession I’ve watched all bear an undeniable likeness to William Friedkin’s still frightening, The Exorcist (1973). Likewise, the documentaries describing the ancient rite and the Vatican’s role in preserving it. Fact is, all the world’s prominent religions have established procedures for expelling evil forces from a possessed person’s body, once the typical manifestations are recognized, and some priests have even been able to identify the specific fallen angel they’re attempting to extract from the poor soul’s corporeal body. Even today, people of extreme faith will blame Satan for such physical and mental deviations as hysteria, mania, psychosis, Tourette’s syndrome, epilepsy, schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder. Novelist and screenwriter William Peter Blatty based The Exorcist on a widely reported case of suspected possession, which occurred in 1949. Because the Vatican has kept careful records of exorcisms authorized by the Church, and fans of The Exorcist have bought into the mythology, journalists and other skeptics have been unable to routinely dismiss reports of such cases. The coverage has given screenwriters a leg up while scratching for ideas for movies involving demonic possession, exorcisms and houses built over gateways to hell. Also based on an actual case, The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), kick-started the possession subgenre, just as The Amityville Horror (1979) and Poltergeist (1982) benefited from advances in special effects to raise the bar on haunted domiciles. Early buzz surrounding The Crucifixion could be traced to screenwriters’ Carey and Chad Hayes’ success with The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2, producer Peter Safran’s links to those films and the Annabelle series, and French director Xavier Gens’ previous genre hits, Frontière(s), Hitman and Divide.

The Crucifixion is closely based on the botched exorcism of Maricica Irina Cornici, a mentally ill nun at the Romanian Orthodox monastery of Tanacu, in Vaslui County, Romania. She was killed during a days-long exorcism conducted by 29-year-old priest Daniel Petre Corogeanu, who, with the help of four other nuns, chained her to a cross with her hands and feet bound, and her arms at a perpendicular angle to her body. They carried her into the church on the crucifix and prayed over her writhing body for three days. Finally, they stuffed a towel into Sister Maricica’s mouth to temper her outbursts. It killed her. An autopsy determined that she died of dehydration, exhaustion and a lack of oxygen. The case was widely publicized in the Romanian media and, following a lengthy trial, the perpetrators were convicted of her murder. To this fact-based foundation, The Crucifixion adds an overly enthusiastic American reporter, Nicole (Sophie Cookson), who somehow convinces her editor that readers of the New York Sentinel will welcome an investigation into the faraway case. The Hayes’ script calls for Nicole to be an atheist, in addition to a dedicated seeker of the truth. Because viewers won’t have any trouble predicting what happens to her during the course of the narrative, The Crucifixion suffers from predictability and a heavy reliance on jump-scares to maintain the drama. On the plus side, the decision to shoot the movie on location in Romania’s picturesque countryside pays real dividends. Appropriately, then, Cookson is the only actor who looks out of place in the rustic setting and an easy target for the demons’ wrath and curses of local Gypsies, who, of course, are feared and reviled by the locals.

Of Horses and Men
When it comes to movies from Iceland, it’s best not to take the summaries found on the back covers literally. That’s because it’s nearly impossible to capture in words the twists and turns the story is likely to take or the quirky personalities of the characters you’re about to meet. The common elements in all the Icelandic movies I’ve seen is a keen attention to the island’s diverse scenic beauty, the mortifying effects of chronic alcoholism and the toll taken by having to cope with too many hours of sunlight and darkness every six months. While Baltasar Kormákur (101 Reykjavík) is probably the best known and most representative of the country’s filmmakers, relative newcomers Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson (Heartstone), Erlingur Thoroddsen (Rift), Grímur Hákonarson (Rams), Dagur Kári (Noi the Albino), Óskar Jónasson (Reykjavik-Rotterdam/Contraband) and Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson (Paris of the North) have followed nimbly in his footsteps. Written and directed by Benedikt Erlingsson, Of Horse and Men focuses on the symbiotic relationship between humans and animals in an Icelandic farming village, miles away from the nearest convenience mart. Along the way, a few Swedes, Spaniards, Germans and Russians are introduced to interact with the locals. Of Horses and Men opens with a vignette so replete with dark humor and conflicting emotions that you’d think it would overwhelm everything that follows it. Horse lovers from near and far await the appearance of erudite Kolbeinn (Ingvar E. Sigurdsson) as he rides his splendid white mare to a local inn, employing the “flying pace” gait unique to native Icelandic steeds. Not realizing the mare’s in heat, their journey home is interrupted by a black stallion so randy that it can’t be contained by a mere gate in the fence. When it catches up to Kolbeinn’s horse, which is patiently awaiting the coupling, all he can do is hang on for dear life while they do what comes naturally. This takes place in full view of the startled innkeepers – one of whom appears to be jealous of the mounted mare – and binocular-bearing tourists. What happens next is totally unexpected, heart-breaking and a necessary element of the continuing narrative. It’s followed by several interrelated segments that seemingly unspool from the point-of-view of the horses, although their demeanor is largely ambivalent. In a very real sense, it mirrors the disregard shown the characters by the surrounding ocean, mountains and pastures. Of Horses and Men was Iceland’s official submission to the Oscars’ 2014 Best Foreign Language Film category. It didn’t make the cut. Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson’s amazing cinematography, which was able to capture the intimacy of life in the hamlet, without compromising the majesty of the setting, is nothing short of brilliant.

M.F.A.: Blu-ray
Now that celebrity rape has supplanted date rape as a hot-button topic for debate and trigger for activism, there’s the temptation to treat the events portrayed in M.F.A. as old news, instead of unfinished business. It’s the likely position of director Natalia Leite (Bare) and writer/co-star Leah McKendrick (“Makeup Call”) that the rich and famous bozos being accused of sexual abuse are no different than the frat boys and jocks who’ve never been taught that “no means no.” Because M.F.A. debuted last march at SXSW, it would be a stretch to draw more parallels between the movie and L’affaire Weinstein. It’s now possible that what started as a feminist exploitation flick – femploitation, if you will – might benefit from the continuing parade of headline-grabbing revelations. As far as I can tell, though, M.F.A. only played a few festivals before going into the VOD, Internet and DVD/Blu-ray marketplace. Although she cut her teeth on movies starring and/or directed by her parents — Clint Eastwood (True Crime) and Frances Fisher (The Stars Fell on Henrietta) — 24-year-old Francesca Eastwood only began climbing the Hollywood ladder for real in 2015, with a supporting role in Final Girl … that is, unless one counts gigs on the short-lived reality show “Mrs. Eastwood & Company” and being chosen Miss Golden Globes, in 2013, by the HFPA. Even so, Eastwood is arguably the most recognizable actor in Leite and McKendrick’s revenge/vigilante thriller. In it, she plays a graduate student in the art department of a small SoCal college. Timid and only a middling artist, Noelle accepts an invitation from a fellow student to attend a party. Even before her first beer loses its bubbles, she’s given a quick tour of his bedroom and thrown to the bed, turned on tummy and viciously raped. I’m not sure if a male director could have caught the same degree of anguish and embarrassment on Noelle’s face as the jerk quickly pulls up his trousers, leaves the room and she’s forced to perform the “walk of shame” ritual before the party guests. When Noelle confides in her neighbor, Skye (McKendrick), and the school’s social worker, she’s basically told to suck it up and try to forget about the incident. Police had ignored Skye when she complained about being raped in the same way, as did another woman who was attacked at a frat party by three football players. A group of campus women meet on the scourge of date rape, without offering Noelle any solace or advice, except to use nail polish that can distinguish when a drink has been spiked. Without giving anything away, Noelle then embarks on a mission to avenge her rape and those of the other women. With each ensuing murder, Noelle grows stronger as an independent woman and artist. As such, M.F.A. feels a lot like a cross between Death Wish and Ms .45, but without the same sustained bite. There’s also a palpable absence of the kind of tension that accompanies the best vigilante thrillers, including Francesca’s father Clint’s Dirty Harry. Still, it isn’t like we’ve seen the last of the Ms. Eastwood, if only genre flicks. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and interviews.

Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back
Angry Inuk
Karl Marx City
The War Show
Gun Runners
In no artistic discipline is it more difficult to separate the charlatans from the visionaries than the one associated with cheese-and-wine gallery openings, tony auctions and hyperbolic coverage in the Sunday New York Times. Learned men and women have probably debated the question of what makes a painting, sketch or sculpture “art” since the first Homo sapiens began decorating the walls of caves with naturalistic renditions of bison, aurochs and deer, instead of handprints and graffiti left by their former tenants, the Neanderthals. And, while every succeeding artistic movement since the Renaissance has been met with doubt and derision, it wasn’t until the Dadaists, Abstractionists and Pop Artists that collectors and curators raised the ante in this high-stakes game of chicken. Maura Axelrod’s provocative documentary, Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back, leaves the question of what is and isn’t art to the eyes of the beholder, while seeming to argue that any manmade creation that raises the pulse and/or ire of those same beholders should be considered artistic, at least. And, once the price tag for such works enters the five-figure range – and more — it doesn’t matter what they’re called. Italian hyperrealist Maurizio Cattelon has been delighting and confounding observers of his work, ever since 1989, when he hung a sign reading, “Torno subito” — “Be back soon” – on the door of the gallery hosting his first solo exhibition, citing an absence of ideas for the show. If politicians were as candid about their own lack of substantive thoughts, the world would be a better and more peaceful.

The art world, though, abhors such vacuums, so, when, a few years later, Cattelan declared himself open for business, it beat a path to his door. If the artist was happy to finally be recognized, it wasn’t always visible in his alternately disruptive, disrespectful and self-deprecating work. Unlike the site-specific public art of Christo (“Wrapped Reichstag”), topiary and stainless-steel art of Jeff Koons (“Puppy”), monumental sculptures of Richard Serra (“Tilted Arc”) and architecture of Frank Gehry (Walt Disney Concert Hall), which are easy on the eyes, at least, Cattelon’s most notorious pieces thumb their noses at art establishment. Axelrod’s film offers more than the usual number of specimens for our perusal, as well as allowing for contrasting opinions of curators, critics, peers, ex-girlfriends and passersby. Among the most controversial are his sculpture of Pope John Paul II, struck down by a meteorite; a rendering of Adolf Hitler, in the scale of a young boy, kneeling in a pose of supplication; an effigy of a serene and barefoot John F. Kennedy, lying in state; sculptures created from taxidermized horses; Pinocchio floating facedown in a fountain on the rotunda of the Guggenheim/New York; and a functioning 18-karat-gold toilet that some might compare to Marcel Duchamp’s porcelain urinal, “Fountain.” (Or, the plumbing in the Presidential Suite of the Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh, for that matter.) Everything in the film is pointed toward Cattelan’s eye-popping 2011 retrospective at the Guggenhein, which filled the entirely of its atrium. Fans of Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop are the target audience for “Be Right Back,” but anyone who’s ever pondered the question, “What is art?” – especially teens and art students – will find something of value here.

Those of us who routinely fall asleep in front of our televisions are consciously or subliminally exposed to hundreds of infomercials and PSAs pleading for donations to one cause or another, using distressed animals or starving children as bait for their emotional appeals. No effort is made to present the downside of such generosity, if any, or demonstrate how donations might not make it to those who need the money most. It takes dogged reporting and incorruptible accountant to determine if donors and victims are being ripped … not the television station on which the PSAs appear. Among the more memorable of these tear-jerking commercials is the one depicting the annual seat hunts in southeastern Canada, during which impossibly cute baby harp seals – “whitecoats,” if you will – are clubbed to death and stripped of their pelts. Only a monster could be left unmoved by the sight of the trails of red blood left on the white snow after the individual beatings. All it took for viewers to donate money was the face of a baby seal staring back at them and predictions of when its pelt might be headed. Thanks to commercials, the Newfoundland “hunts” are far more stringently monitored and controlled by the Canadian government. Moreover, sales of clothing and other byproducts made from the seal have been prohibited in many western countries. Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s provocative documentary Angry Inuk begins where those infomercials left off by demonstrating how the boycotts and embargoes continue to impact Canada’s Inuit population – not the club-wielding white men — which traditionally has relied on the seal hunt for food, clothing, commerce and rites of passage. The people we meet here don’t participate in the harp-seal culling, which takes place hundreds of miles from their homes. Even so, the boycotts and sanctions directly impacted what they could command for the skins of ring seals, oils and other by-products. Sales also plummeted in reaction to a reduced demand for coats, boots and gloves made from the skin. It got to the point where the money a hunter received didn’t even cover gas for his snow mobile, let alone food, fuel, clothing and other household necessities not provided by the hunts. With no other source of income, residents have been forced to move to villages and cities, where, at best, they could make a subsistence living or be closer to government safety nets. Arnaquq-Baril describes how a new generation of Inuit, conversant with social media and armed with a burning desire to protect their families and threatened customs, are directly challenging what they believe is a disingenuous campaign by anti-sealing groups. Among others things the activists stress that the northern Inuit don’t slaughter the harp seals and, even if they did join the hunt, the animals have never been designated an endangered species. We follow a group of students to meetings of the European Union, which initiated bans on skins and other products after being confronted by delegates from Greenpeace, PETA and other well-financed groups. They handed out fliers and pamphlets, while their opponents provided delegates with dolls and trinkets before each debate/ The larger question, however, pertains to how much abuse should governments be allowed to inflict on Inuit and other First Nation communities, who already are suffering from the effects of unchecked global warming, limitations on whaling, the proliferation of oil rigs, effects of pollution on fish and wildlife, and, now, plans for humongous storage bladders to contain oil before it can be piped south or loaded onto tankers. They can’t afford to hire lobbyists to cajole or bribe politicians, let alone compete with images of fuzzy baby seals on televisions around the world.

Another new documentary from Film Movement/Bond360 echoes issues raised in The Tower and other films and mini-series set in East Germany before the re-unification. In Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s truly chilling Karl Marx City, disturbing facts about everyday life in the “workers’ paradise” are related like contemporary versions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Epperlein grew up in the titular city, renamed after World War II for the author of “The Communist Manifesto” and “Das Kapital.” The Socialist Unity Party of Germany (a.k.a., Communist Party) conceived Karl-Marx-Stadt as a showcase of productivity, prosperity and the supremacy of the East German proletariat. Almost immediately after the Wall began to crumble, the name was changed back to Chemnitz and statues demolished. Epperlein grew up there, but moved to the U.S. when the ban against traveling to the west was lifted. In 1999, her father mailed her a cryptic farewell note, burned all his photos and letters, then hanged himself from a tree behind the old family home. He was 57. Karl Marx City not only is a personal investigation into a family tragedy, but also into a regime that mistook repression and paranoia for equality and freedom. Soon after the GDR collapsed, Epperlein’s father received a series of anonymous letters that threated to expose him as a former undercover Stasi agent. Dismissed by the family at the time, the accusations would serve as a starting point for her search for the truth, whatever it turned out to be. The film, which resembles a black-and-white espionage thriller from the early 1960s, features interviews with her mother and twin brothers, plus visits to the Stasi archives in Berlin and Chemnitz. She meets historians, scholars, former spies and informers, and experts on suicide. Even though Stasi headquarters was looted, she was given access to dossiers, films and recordings pertaining to her father and life in her neighborhood, growing up. They’re simply the tip of a very large and dangerous iceberg.

Until it became too dangerous for most western journalists to cover the war in Syria from the front lines, the escalation of hostilities was laid out in clearly defined chapters. At first, it was taken for granted that the cruel and corrupt Assad regime would fall in line with other governments overturned in the Arab Spring of 2011. Westerners long accepted Bashar al-Assad’s role as a despot, agent for state-sponsored terrorism and protector of war criminals, without fully appreciating his ability to leverage the support of the Syrian middle- and upper-classes, Iran’s Shia state and Russia’s expansionist agenda to his advantage. The longer the Americans and European nations waited to develop a plan either to eliminate Assad or support the resistance, the easier it became for Assad’s military to contain the uprising to urban centers outside Damascus. Knowing that Vladimir Putin would ignore the vicious barrages of rebel-held centers and starvation of trapped citizens, Assad was able to consolidate his hold on war-weary Syrians and imprison anyone suspected of opposing it. Frustration caused resistance groups to splinter and fight amongst each other, leaving a vacuum easily filled by ISIS and other Sunni fanatics. The crisis caused by the large number of refugees seeking shelter in Europe, was far easier for the media to cover. What will happen now that ISIS has been displaced remains to be seen. Obadiah Zytoon and Andreas Dalsgaard’s shattering documentary, The War Show, closely follows that outline of events in Syria, but from a point-of-view unlike that of other films about the Arab Spring. Like so many other Syrians, Zytoon embraced the calls for democracy and felt confident they would spread like wildfire in Syria. As a radio host in Damascus, she was surrounded by young people caught up in the sudden ability to protest, with and without masks or shawls. I doubt that Zytoon took videos of her close-knit group of friends, thinking beyond the fall of Assad and their reactions to newfound freedom. Instead, the college-age youths serve as our eyes and ears on the ground in The War Show, which begins with such hope and ends in tragedy and despair. In between, the friends move from Damascus to Zytoon’s hometown of Zabadani and Homs, the latter practically levelled in rocket barrages and airstrikes by Syrian and Russian warplanes. They even make time to spend a day or two at a secluded beach, their pets in tow. The film’s emotional turning point comes when the abandoned puppy they adopted is killed after straying on a busy road, and Zytoon sees it as an omen of bad things to come. The War Show pays special attention to the role of women in the movement and fear of cameras exhibited by soldiers and militants, alike. Early on, the director asks a young girl why she shows her face: “I’m not demonstrating to be suffocated. I’m demonstrating to breathe,” she replies. The film divides the ensuing events into seven sections (“Revolution,” “Suppression,” “Resistance,” “Siege,” “Memories,” “Frontlines” and “Extremism”), one more depressing than the chapter before it.

The fifth new doc from Film Movement/Bond360 also adds fresh perspective to a familiar story. Ever since the mid-1960s, when Kenyan men began to dominate foot races from 800 meters to marathons, the sports media have descended on the Great Rift Valley – otherwise, noted for international arms trading – to uncover their secrets. (In 2008, Pamela Jelimo became the first Kenyan woman to win a gold medal at the Olympics.) Before establishing formal training facilities and dietary regimens, it was a commonly held belief that living at a relatively high altitude and running to school or work every day was the prime factor. Anjali Nayar’s inciteful film, Gun Runners, goes a bit further than most of ABC Sports’ trademark up-close-and-personal features might, focusing on a pair of world-class marathon runners, whose stories include time spent among the bands of warriors that terrorize the North Kenyan countryside, stealing cattle, raiding villages and running from the police. As part of a government-sponsored program to disarm combatants in conflicted regions, boyhood friends and Julius Arile and Robert Matanda agreed to trade their AK-47s for running shoes they didn’t have. Taking time away from their families and crops proved to be a sacrifice not only for the runners, but for the villagers whose dreams included sharing the riches from Arile and Matanda’s accomplishments. When they didn’t come, the men allowed themselves to be exploited by politicians, whose promises were as empty as their pockets. Nayar’s camera is able to follow Arile’s progress on the comeback trail from injury and competition at the regional, national and international level. Joan Poggio’s cinematography contributes greatly to Gun Runners’ success.

On Wings of Eagles
Too often, stories of true-life courage and sacrifice leave viewers with only a few lines of information as to what finally happened to the protagonists, or their cause, in advance of the final credits. Although I can remember how Chariots of Fire ended, I can’t recall if viewers were told how British Olympians Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams filled the rest of their years, away from the track. A year after the 1924 Paris Games, Abraham broke a leg while long jumping, effectively ending his competitive career. It led him to return to his studies as a lawyer, but, for the rest of his life, he would remain involved in sports and Jewish causes. In the 36 years since Chariots of Fire was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning four, I’m amazed that no one attempted to chronicle Liddell’s post-Olympics life. I say that because, for all its flaws, Stephen Shin and Michael Parker’s On Wings of Eagles (a.k.a., “The Last Race”) inspired me to learn more about this truly amazing man and his inspirational story. Without Chinese financing, Liddell’s story probably would have remained more of a question mark than hero, and the movie would still be stuck on Square One. Although he represented the UK at the Games, the “Flying Scotsman” was born in China to Scottish missionary parents, and died there 43 years later. In some circles, this qualified him as China’s first Olympics champion and someone well worth memorializing. After his moment of glory, Liddell returned to the city of his birth, Tianjin, to follow in his parents’ footsteps as a teacher, coach, Sunday School superintendent and ordained minister. In 1941, life in northern China had become so dangerous for foreigners that the British government advised its nationals to leave. Florence Liddell, who was pregnant, would leave for Canada with their two daughters to wait out the war, while her husband and physician brother-in-law returned to positions at a rural mission station in Xiaozhang.

As fighting between the Chinese army and invading Japanese forces reached Xiaozhang, the Japanese took over the mission station and Liddell (Joseph Fiennes) returned to Tianjin. Two years later, Liddell and members of the mission were sent to an internment camp in the city now known as Weifang. The Japanese called it Courtyard of the Happy Way” (or, in Chinese, Campus of Loving Truth), As portrayed in On Wings of Eagles, it was anything but “happy” or “loving.” Even so, Liddell became a leader and organizer at the camp, where food, medicine and other supplies would become increasingly scarce for everyone. If he had been Roman Catholic priest, instead of a Protestant minister, the Vatican might have financed the production and used it as testimony for Liddell’s legitimate shot at sainthood. By all accounts, he was just that kind of man: always sacrificing his food and comfort for others and never losing track of his Christian beliefs and principles. He agreed to compete in foot races against the camp’s boss, even though he was desperately undernourished, having given the allotments of food he received from the Chinese to his fellow prisoners. Criticism I’ve read argues that the Chinese financial backing ensured that the religious angles would be played down, in favor of a portrayal that demonstrated his willingness to stand up to the brutal Japanese officials and sacrifice to save the lives of local children. Liddell succumbed to a brain tumor, just months before the camp was liberated. A monument still stands at the former Weihsien Internment Camp. If the proselytizing is kept to a minimum here, there’s no doubt that Liddell was a man of God and devout Christian. I can’t imagine that the Japanese camp supervisors were anything but monsters, who worshipped the emperor as a living God who sanctioned anything done in his name, even torture, rape and murder. The bigger problem, especially for admirers of Chariots of Fire, is the production, itself, which relies on a weak script, too many composite characters and events, and some not-ready-for-prime-time acting. It’s possible that Hollywood producers were scared off by Liddell’s staunch Christian beliefs – he refused to participate in Olympics races scheduled for Sunday, if you recall – and the potential for controversies based on the number of times Jesus Christ’s name did or did not pop up.

A New Leaf: Blu-ray
Five years after her former partner in comedy, Mike Nichols, stunned Hollywood with his adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – and, a year later, The Graduate – Elaine May was handed the reins of a dark comedy based on Jack Ritchie’s short story “The Green Heart.” Critics also heaped praise on A New Leaf, but, in doing so, felt it only fair to point out to their readers that they didn’t know how much of the credit belonged to the star/screenwriter/director and how much should go to editors who re-cut her original three-hour film to 102 minutes. Not only was Paramount head of production Robert Evans unhappy over the cut’s length, but also May’s seeming disregard for her budget and the studio’s deadline. Reportedly, neither the director’s cut of the film nor the original shooting script have ever been made publicly available. While the same thing has happened to other fledging filmmakers, most have accepted the kudos without exposing the ruse. May was given a couple of other opportunities to redeem herself in the eyes of studio bigshots. Like A New Leaf, The Heartbreak Kid (1972) received high praise from critics and still is considered one of the top 100 comedies of all times, depending on who’s doing the polling. It also did better at the box office. Shot in 1973, but not released until 1976, May’s talky buddy drama Micky and Nicky – starring John Cassavetes and Peter Falk – suffered an almost identical fate to A New Leaf, creatively and commercially. A full decade would pass before she was once again allowed to go to the plate as writer/director. Plagued with similarly crippling budgetary and deadline problems, Ishtar laid a very expensive egg for Columbia. It took a long time for the dust to clear, but, upon further review lots of folks, including stars Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman and Charles Grodin, have found positive things to say about the high-profile adventure/comedy. Although she wouldn’t get another directing job until the 2016 “American Masters” salute to her former partner, Nichols did ask her to adapt screenplays for The Birdcage (1996) and Primary Colors (1998).

In A New Leaf, a never-better Walter Matthau plays Henry Graham, a playboy from a wealthy patrician family, who has run through his entire inheritance and is completely unequipped to provide for himself. His childhood guardian, Uncle Harry (James Coco), refuses to give him a dime. Henry considers suicide, but, instead, takes the advice of his valet, who suggests he immediately marry into wealth. With a $50,000 loan from Uncle Harry to tide him over, Henry has just six weeks to find a rich bride and repay the money, otherwise he must forfeit all his property to his uncle. May is wonderful as the painfully shy and beyond-klutzy botanist, Henrietta Lowell, who agrees to marry him, just days before the deadline. The other half of Henry’s plan is to eliminate his new problem – Henrietta – and inherit her wealth. Not surprisingly, Henry’s strategy doesn’t play out as he envisioned it would. If Paramount had left well enough alone, A New Leaf would have been significantly darker and the ending less quasi-romantic. As it is, however, it’s a terrific entertainment. Olive Films previously released A New Leaf on DVD/Blu-ray in 2012, sans bonus features. The new Olive Signature edition features a fresh restoration from a 4K scan of original camera negative; audio commentary by film scholar Maya Montanez Smukler; featurettes, “The Cutting Room Floor: Editing A New Leaf,” with assistant editor Angelo Corrao, and “Women in Hollywood: A Tragedy of Comic Proportions,” with director Amy Heckerling; an essay by critic, editor and film programmer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas; and Ritchie’s “The Green Heart.”


Silent Night, Deadly Night: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Once Upon a Time at Christmas
Rarely has a hit-and-run genre flick generated as much controversy and outright contempt than master showman Charles E. Sellier Jr.’s Silent Night, Deadly Night did, upon its 1984 release on the same weekend as A Nightmare on Elm Street. If the splatter classic wasn’t the first horror movie to exploit the holiday connection – that honor probably belongs to Bob Clark’s influential Black Christmas – its marketing campaign likely was the first to draw the collective ire of parents, the PTA, Siskel and Ebert. If the poster and commercials didn’t include an ax-wielding Santa, however, it existence might have come, gone and been forgotten in the wake of Wes Craven’s far superior blood bath. Once the furor broke out and a parents’ group organized a boycott and picketing, TriStar Pictures pulled its ads and attendance dropped significantly. A year later, “SN/DN” would be re-released by a different distributor, sparking a franchise consisting of six feature films, action figures, clothing, stockings, Christmas ornaments and numerous re-releases on home video. The latest is a Blu-ray “collector’s edition,” restored from the original vaulted film Scream Factory, with new bonus material and a limited edition, with an action figure and a poster. For the record, “SN/DN” relates the story of Billy Chapman (Robert Brian Wilson), who, at 5, was cautioned by his seemingly catatonic grandfather about St. Nick’s propensity for punishing naughty little boys. On the drive home, his parents will be brutally murdered by a desperate criminal in a Santa suit. Billy and his brother are sent to an orphanage run by a sadistic nun. One Christmas morning, he’s horrified by the unexpected appearance of Santa. After being dragged to see the bearded geezer, Billy punches him and escapes to a corner of his room. Years after surviving that nightmare, Billy finds work in a toy store. His transformation to serial killer is sparked by having to don a costume to play Santa for a party. It’s his cue to “punish the naughty,” in various unsavory ways. Scream Queen Linnea Quigley delivers an unforgettable portrayal of one of Billy’s victims. The set adds more bonus features than you can shake an ax handle at, including an extended unrated version of the film; interviews with writer Michael Hickey, co-executive producers Scott J. Schneid and Dennis Whitehead, editor/second-unit director Michael Spence, composer Perry Botkin and actor Robert Brian Wilson; a new interview with the great scream queen Linnea Quigley; “Christmas in July,” in which locations used in the movie are revisited; new and vintage commentaries; “Santa’s Stocking of Outrage”; and classic marketing material.

In Once Upon a Time at Christmas (2017), British writer/director/producer Paul Tanter (White Collar Hooligan) delivers a Santa and Mrs. Claus in the form of a one-eyed lunatic (Simon Phillips) and a curvy, bat-swinging blond (Sayla de Goede). This serial-killing couple is splattering blood all over the holidays in a small town in upstate New York, staging one gruesome rampage per night. Though the victims seem random — a mall Santa, a smooching couple, a quiet family — high-schooler Jennifer (Laurel Brady) and clever cop Sam (Jeff Ellenberger) begin to unravel the sinister pattern behind the slayings.

“The Shattered Faberge Egg,” the novel upon which Natasha Kermani’s debut feature is based, is set in beautiful and historic Asheville, North Carolina. Nestled at the gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains, it could never be mistaken for Clarksdale, Mississippi, a town that’s flat as a board and noteworthy today primarily for being home to the Delta Blues Museum. It’s where screenwriters Paul Leach and Nicholas Celozzi set Shattered, a movie that hinges on prejudices, deep-seated fears and dark secrets peculiar to prominent families in the Deep South. Unfortunately, the film suffers from not being shot in a location south of the Mason-Dixon Line, where you can cut the humidity with a knife and kudzu grows on anything that stands still for more than five minutes. According to producer Marie Pizano, the team had 18 days to make Shattered and it was easier and less expensive for it to be made in California. As such, it looks like every other underbudgeted movie shot within a 40-radius of Hollywood & Highland. The only concessions to the Delta are some brief establishing shots of cotton fields and ramshackle homes, and a blues band whose leader looks like Joseph Buttafuoco. (Apparently, all the African-American musicians were busy that day.) No one breaks a sweat, even when they’re playing tennis in trousers and long-sleeved shirts, and a Southern accent isn’t heard. In it, Kate Stenson (Molly Burnett) dreams of an enviable life as the quintessential Southern bride. She marries Ken Burnett (Tom Malloy), the son of the town’s powerful mayor (Ray Wise) — a controlling father who will do anything to protect his reputation. Kate has two children with Ken — a biological daughter, and an adopted son, Logan — but Kate’s seemingly perfect existence begins to fray when she discovers that Logan suffers from severe mental-health issues. Just as Shattered begins to look as if it might turn into a demon-seed thriller, something terrible happens to the boy and the entire flow of the movie changes direction. Kate’s journey to uncover the true story of Logan’s genetic line reveals dark secrets that can destroy the entire Burnett legacy. But wait, there’s more. Once all of the cats are out of their respective bags, Shattered takes another abrupt turn, taking us into Lifetime movie territory. Some viewers will argue that the uplifting ending justifies the mistakes made getting there – including the mixed-race Logan, who looks as white as the Burnetts’ biological daughter, Emma – but others, who only judge a DVD by its cover, are likely to feel cheated.

All Male, All Nude
Body Electric
On Showtime’s few-holds-barred series “Shameless,” characters played by Steve Howey and Cameron Monaghan dance for tips at a rowdy gay nightclub in Chicago. Although all the dancers have their own reasons for doing so, the common denominator is money. Unlike the dancers in Magic Mike, whose primary audience is comprised of women who get off on the highly choreographed routines and fantasy of making it with a beefy cowboy, firefighter or Top Gun pilot, the strippers in Gerald McCullouch’s documentary, All Male, All Nude, forgo rip-away pants for jeans and jock straps that don’t stay on for very long. It’s The Full Monty for real. Four decades after the Village People introduced gay-nightclub iconography to Middle America, with the crowd-pleasing “Y.M.C.A.,” the only time people dress in such costumes to dance is on Halloween … or in movies like Magic Mike. All Male, All Nude reminds me of Jerome Gary’s 1985 documentary, Stripper, which introduced viewers to exotic dancers who owed less to Gypsy Rose Lee and Blaze Starr than to Jane Fonda’s “Workout” and Flashdance. (Eight years earlier, Gary produced Pumping Iron, which Stripper and All Male, All Nude also resemble.) The women’s routines combined acrobatics, ballet, contortionism and rock music, all designed to extract dollar bills from the stacks of money in front of men sitting around the proscenium stage. Graduates of the Vancouver School of Stripping then added pole, lap and table dancing to their resumes, effectively eliminating the “tease” from “striptease” and removing the traditional burlesque stage show. Today, pole-dancing is taught in aerobics and yoga classes. Not so much, lap dancing.

Movies in which strippers and strip clubs play key roles in the narrative not only became a staple of Cinemax and other early premium-cable services, but in such mainstream dramas and comedies as Dressed to Kill, Erotica, Showgirls, Striptease and Dancing at the Blue Iguana. All Male, All Nude, takes us to Atlanta’s Swinging Richards, purportedly the country’s only all-male, all-nude, gay strip club … not that women aren’t welcome, as well. The format isn’t all that different than that employed in a half-dozen episodes of HBO’s “Real Sex,” “Blue Iguana” and Strippers, which split their time between the bar area, backstage and the alley, where it’s quiet enough to smoke cigarettes and be interviewed. The club resembles the one depicted in “Shameless,” where the dancing also provides a showcase for the men’s muscular bodies and extraordinary penises. We’re introduced to a half-dozen dancers – gay, straight and bi- — who discuss their motivations, work conditions and customers. Some are married with children, while others are saving money for an advanced degree in college or a cool new car … just like exotic dancers the world over. Once again, the only common denominator is a willingness by all parties to accept or spend money to be entertained. Unlike “Shameless,” the dancers in McCullouch’s film don’t sneak into the shadows to service customers with the occasional blow job … just cigarettes. While Atlanta allows full-frontal nudity, it closely regulates the interaction between dancers and customers, right down to where tips can be placed (elastic garters above the bicep, only). The dancers all pay a straight fee for the right to dance at the club, with money deducted for special V.I.P. services and tips for the deejay and bouncers. I don’t know if celebrity dancers – typically porn stars – are imported to boost admissions and booze sales, as is common in gentlemen’s clubs. The downside of the job is represented, as well. At 57 minutes, All Male, All Nude doesn’t overstay its welcome or overstate its mission. And, no, the men’s naughty bits aren’t digitally disguised or edited by camera angles. The DVD adds several background featurettes and music videos.

While Marcelo Caetano’s debut feature, Body Electric, steers well clear of being a comedy, the overall mood is celebratory and carefree. That isn’t the usual vibe associated with films in the LGBTQ genre, where one form of conflict or another not only is expected, it also reflects the realities of life within a contentious society. The lack of conflict, while welcome, finally leaves us slightly off-balance. At 23, Elias (Kelner Macêdo) is an openly gay man who works as an assistant designer and supervisor at a small textile workshop, and, in his free time, enjoys exploring his sexuality and intimate friendships. Even so, Elias is limited by his circumstances at work, where he’s been asked to maintain a distance between labor and management.  He wants to have as much fun as possible, but can’t do it if he can’t hang out with the cool kids. Something will have to give, somewhere, but, at 23, those kinds of choices are too difficult to make in swinging São Paolo. Caetano describes Body Electric as “a poem that celebrates the diversity of bodies and the beauty that exists in every action of the body […] that sings the encounter of the bodies and the value of community.” In a sense, it pays homage the diversity of beauty, race and sexuality present within Brazil’s largest city. In another twist, Caetano doesn’t limit the associations made by Elias during the course of the narrative, crossing all of the boundaries of typical L-G-B-T-Q typecasting. Straight and lesbian women share screen time with characters who are gay, transvestites, transgenders and questioning, as Elias apparently is. Once the management/labor hurdle is cleared, everyone is playing on the same level field. The doesn’t necessarily make for great drama, but it will leave most viewers with a smile.

Trumping Democracy
If, like several my closest friends and relatives, you spend an inordinate number of hours watching MSNBC and have eliminated Fox News from your programming guide, Thomas Huchon’s Trumping Democracy is a documentary that not only will get your juices flowing, but also put you off your feed for days to come. In a nutshell, it describes how multi-billionaire Robert Mercer, a major shareholder in Breitbart News, took control of then-candidate Donald Trump’s loosey-goosey campaign and molded it into a lean, mean war machine against Hillary Clinton and other Democratic candidates. The secretive computer scientist and AI pioneer inserted Breitbart editor Steve Bannon into the campaign as its manager – paying his salary, so Trump didn’t have to put it on his books – and the unctuous Kellyanne Conway as a key adviser and current counselor to the President. A polling company attached to Mercer’s operation first identified the constituency willing to pull Britain from the European Union and found parallels to the large number of American voters becoming alienated from both political parties and mainstream candidates. By exploiting their inability to distinguish Trump’s natural hyperbole from outright lies, Mercer’s minions effectively flooded social media with fake news – a term they would usurp and turn on the Democratic opposition – and right-wing PACs with cash. Anyone who doesn’t already believe someone like Mercer isn’t the puppet master controlling the President’s strings – and those attached to Bannon — probably would avoid Trumping Democracy like the plague. Political junkies should, however, find Mercer’s methodology as instructive as it is frightening. His ability to corrupt Facebook, through “dark posts” and other fabrications, is either the work of genius or fascism, depending on which side of the fence one stands. “In the darkness of the web, democracy was ‘trumped’ by data,” the doc successfully argues. Experts include psychometric scientist Dr. Michal Kosinski, PhD Psychology (University of Cambridge); David Carroll, associate professor of media design at the School of Art, Media and Technology at Parsons the New School for Design; Rosie Gray, Whitehouse Correspondent, The Atlantic; and Brendan Fischer, director, Federal & FEC Reform at the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C.-based non-partisan nonprofit. In November, Mercer announced he would step down from Renaissance Technologies and sell his stake in Breitbart News, which either means he has terminal cancer or is resting up for the 2018 midterm elections. Bannon has returned to Breitbart News, where he can manipulate Trump without being called to task for his crypto-Nazi beliefs.

Digimon Adventure Tri.: Confession: Blu-ray
In this, the third in a series of six feature length movies in the Digimon Adventure Tri series, infected Digimons continue to threaten both the human world and digital world. There is also a new threat when a mysterious message appears one night over all electrical devices stating that “the Digimon will be released again,” which creates mass panic. There is one possible solution: triggering a “reboot” which would reset the Digital World. But the reset comes at a high price, as the Digimons would lose all memories of their human companions. Special features include the English-premiere panel at Anime Expo 2017.

DVD Gift Guide II: Red Skelton, Bob Hope, Der Bingle, Hitchcock, Homicide, Agatha Christie, Jean Rouch, MST3K, Curtiz, Logan Lucky, Animal Factory, Woodshock and more

Thursday, November 30th, 2017

The Red Skelton Hour: In Color: Deluxe Collection
Thanks for the Memories: The Bob Hope Collection: Deluxe Box Set
Bob Hope: The Ultimate Movie Collection
Holiday Inn: 75th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Because our grandparents and great-grandparents already seem to have everything they need, they get shorted when gifts are being handed out around the Christmas tree. The challenge of picking out presents grows greater every year, it seems. After all, how many sweaters, robes and slippers can a person possibly own? Why not give the gift that never gets older that it already is: nostalgia. No matter how many channels there are, the ones dedicated to shows seniors might recall with fondness are limited to TCM, PBS and niche services on premium networks. While it’s possible that they already enjoy watching reruns of “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons” as much as their boomer and millennial offspring, I’d be surprised if they wouldn’t cherish the opportunity to revisit variety shows from the 1950-60s, hosted by and featuring entertainers they haven’t seen perform in decades. Shows dedicated to singing, dancing, comedy and holiday cheer disappeared from network television at about the same time that talk-show guests stopped wearing tuxedos and cocktail dresses and network execs figured out that it was more profitable to pull Charlie Brown, Rudolph and Frosty out of hibernation, than stage a gala attraction. A perusal of the website offers a plethora of suggested titles, in boxed mega-sets and more affordable themed packages, featuring the stars of yesteryear. There was a time when Boomers would no sooner agree to spend an evening at home watching Bob Hope or Red Skelton than they would consider inviting mom and dad to a Grateful Dead concert. Now, the tables have turned. Watching the shows included in “The Red Skelton Hour: In Color: Deluxe Collection” and “Thanks for the Memories: The Bob Hope Collection: Deluxe Box Set,” I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the bits I once dismissed as being hopelessly square, over-scripted or oppressively wholesome. While I enjoy a good dick joke as much as anyone, I haven’t met an old-timer who feels comfortable watching comedians who pepper their material with language they once attributed to sailors, or can handle the decibel range of the bands booked alongside flavor-of-the-month celebrities only their grandchildren might recognize.

Like most of the big stars of television in the 1950s, Red Skelton and Bob Hope hadn’t reached puberty before they started busking for loose change on street corners. Skelton was only 10 when he parlayed his comedic and pantomime skills into jobs on a traveling medicine show and showboat, before joining the burlesque and vaudeville circuits. From age 12, Hope earned pocket money by entertaining passersby with his singing, dancing, jokes and impressions. Hope and his partner Lloyd Durbin were discovered in 1925 by Fatty Arbuckle, who found them work with a touring troupe called Hurley’s Jolly Follies. The skills honed on the streets of Vincennes and Cleveland laid the foundation for jobs on the stage, in radio, the movies, nightclubs and television. “The Red Skelton Hour” wasn’t originally shown in color, largely because CBS didn’t want to invest money in the still-nascent technology. It didn’t take long for consumers to begin clamoring for programming that justified their investment in color sets. Time Life’s “Deluxe Edition” is twice as large as the basic 11-disc package, leaving room for 65 hours of comedy, singing, dance and sketches with Red’s beloved characters. It includes the best of his early years on TV, featuring appearances by Jackie Gleason, Johnny Carson and John Wayne; 31 never-before-released color episodes, featuring Milton Berle, Martha Raye and Mickey Rooney; the complete final season, with Jerry Lewis, Jill St. John and Phyllis Diller; a full-length biography with rare home movies and interviews; his farewell specials, including a Christmas show; and a memory book, providing a closer look at how his characters came to life.

Hope not only is represented this year with “Thanks for the Memories,” with 38 hours of specials on 19 discs, including his historic shows entertaining the troops around the globe, but also Universal Studios’ “Bob Hope: The Ultimate Movie Collection,” which features 21 of his funniest films. The titles range from debut features The Big Broadcast of 1938, College Swing, Give Me a Sailor and Thanks for the Memory (1938), to Where There’s Life (1947), The Paleface (1948) and Sorrowful Jones (1949). Among his co-stars were Lucille Ball, W.C. Fields, Dorothy Lamour, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Paulette Goddard, Jane Russell and, of course, Bing Crosby. The set adds the PBS documentary, “American Masters: This is Bob Hope,” and several newsreels from the 1940s.

Universal has also dusted off the cold-weather chestnut, Holiday Inn, in a 75th-anniversary Blu-ray edition. If the film is known today primarily for introducing the Academy Award-winning “White Christmas” and providing a brand name for a chain of motels, it was originally designed as a showcase for holiday-themed songs by Irving Berlin and the singing/dancing prowess of Crosby and Fred Astaire. The inclusion of “White Christmas,” which was written with an entirely different movie in mind, was almost an afterthought, as was “Easter Parade,” published first in 1933. In the film, Crosby sings “White Christmas” as a duet with actress Marjorie Reynolds, though her voice was dubbed by Martha Mears. In the script as originally conceived, Reynolds, not Crosby, would sing the song. Both fabulously successful, “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade” would inspire movies under the same titles, in 1954 and 1948, respectively. The Blu-ray adds commentary by film historian Ken Barnes, with the taped material from Astaire, Crosby and music arranger John Scott Trotter; the featurettes, “A Couple of Song and Dance Men,” “All-Singing All-Dancing” and “Coloring a Classic”; and “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn: The Broadway Musical.”

Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Collection: Blu-ray
Universal Studios Home Entertainment has released so many collections of movies by Alfred Hitchcock that it’s running out of superlatives to describe them. “Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Collection” was preceded by “The Masterpiece Collection” and “The Essentials Collection,” as well as packages from Diamond Entertainment and Warner Bros. Some of the movies and featurettes are repeated, so consumers are urged to carefully study the list of contents before making a purchase. Otherwise, it’s difficult to go wrong with anything by or about the Master of Suspense. “Ultimate” includes digitally restored versions of Saboteur, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds, Marnie, Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy and Family Plot. Not all were created equally, but even a flawed Hitchcock is better than a thriller by almost anyone else. Among the stars are James Stewart, Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Paul Newman, Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, Tippi Hedren, Sean Connery and Kim Novak. The set contains more than 15 hours of insightful bonus features, an exclusive collectible book, 10 episodes of Hitch’s television anthologies and the six-minute-plus trailer for Psycho.

Homicide: Life on the Street: The Complete Series
Ever since the general acceptance of streaming, binge viewing has become the spectator sport of choice for couch potatoes and fans of quality television. Weekly series aren’t likely to disappear any time soon, but the opportunity to watch an entire season of a hot show, such as “Orange Is the New Black,” or every episode of an old favorite, like “Cheers,” in what amounts to a single sitting, can be too tempting to resist. Of all the packages released this year, Shout!Factory’s “Homicide: Life on the Street: Homicide: Life on the Street” is the can’t-miss title of 2017. Not only was it one of the most influential crime dramas in the history of series television, but it also provided David Simon with a launching pad for “The Corner,” “The Wire,” “Generation Kill,” “Treme,” “Show Me a Hero” and “The Deuce,” none of which resembled any series before them. “Homicide” broke the mold by offering viewers no-nonsense, procedural-type glimpses into the lives of a squad of inner-city detectives, giving full weight to minorities and women in roles not limited to heroin kingpins and prostitutes. Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show) based the series on then-reporter Simon’s book, “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.” Another thing that differentiated the series from other crime shows was the producers’ willingness to adjust stylistic conceits when viewers reacted negatively to hand-held camerawork, jump-cut editing and the repetition of the shots in key scenes. In addition to all 122 episodes from the original series, the set includes commentaries on select episodes; interviews with members of the creative team, an hour-long documentary about the making of “The Subway”; a panel discussion with exec-producers Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson, supervising producer James Yoshimura and Simon; “Law & Order” crossover episodes; and the 2000 finale, “Homicide: The Movie.”

Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express
The Best of Agatha Christie: Volumes 1, 2
When in doubt, studio executives in England and the U.S. tend to go with the tested and true over the experimental and offbeat. It explains why Agatha Christie’s chestnut mysteries continue to be reheated with such regularity and with few concessions to modernity over previous interpretations. Kenneth Branagh’s recent re-adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express may not have set box offices on fire or impressed critics, but international audiences pushed receipts to $162.3 million, against a production budget of $55 million. That isn’t too bad. It even prompted Fox to announce a sequel, based on the 1937 novel, “Death on the Nile,” re-teaming writer Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) and director/actor Branagh, the 15th man to play detective Hercule Poirot in a direct adaptation. (Why not Helen Mirren for a change?) Just in time for holiday gift-giving, Acorn Media has released “Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express” and samplers of other Christie favorites originally shown on Britain’s ITV and PBS. The 2010 iteration of “Orient Express” starred David Suchet, who played the suave Belgian detective 70 times between 1989 and 2013, as well as Inspector Japp in “Thirteen at Dinner” (1985). Suchet was renowned for extensively researching the personality and character of each role he plays. To prepare for the role of Hercule Poirot on “Agatha Christie’s Poirot” (1989), he carefully read every description Christie ever wrote about the character, and adopted a soft French accent. In “Orient Express,” Poirot investigates the murder of a shady American businessman stabbed in his compartment on the famous train while it is blocked by a blizzard in Croatia. Suchet was joined by Sam Crane, Toby Jones, David Morrissey, Jessica Chastain, Eileen Atkins, Susanne Lothar, Barbara Hershey and Hugh Bonneville.

The Best of Agatha Christie: Volume One” is comprised of “And Then There Were None” (2015), in which 10 strangers are invited to an isolated island, only to be picked off one-by-one; “Five Little Pigs” (2003), in which Poirot is asked to clear the name of a woman, executed 14 years earlier, in the murder of her husband; and “Death on the Nile” (2004), in which a wealthy British heiress, honeymooning on a Nile cruise ship, is stalked by a former friend, whose boyfriend she had stolen before making him her new husband. Cast members include Charles Dance, Aidan Turner, Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Emily Blunt, J.J. Feild, Judy Parfitt, Rachael Stirling, Toby Stephens and Aidan Gillen. “The Best of Agatha Christie: Volume Two” (2016) is highlighted by “The Witness for the Prosecution,” about a young man attempting to clear his name in the death of his lover. In “Three Act Tragedy” (2011), when guests at successive dinner parties mysteriously drop dead, Poirot teams up with an old friend to find the killer. In “Hallowe’en Party” (2011), Poirot is asked by a crime novelist to investigate the macabre murder of a young girl at a children’s costume party. Here, besides Suchet, the stars include Zoë Wanamaker, Timothy West, Martin Shaw, Kim Cattrall, Billy Howle, Toby Jones and Andrea Riseborough. Bonus features on “Witness” add “From Page to Screen,” with Sarah Phelps explaining what inspired her adaptation of the 1925 story and subsequent play; “Post War Fashion,” in which costume designer, Claire Anderson, and cast members discuss the historical inspiration for the costumes; “Anatomy of a Murder,” in which lead makeup artist Samantha Marshall shares about creating a murder scene for the screen; “What Makes Christie Resonate Today,” with cast and crew members; and share about what makes Agatha Christie popular across the globe, and “Filming on the Front: When the Somme Came to Liverpool.”

Eight Films by Jean Rouch
Film Movement Film Club
Even if film buffs on your lists are unaware of French documentarian Jean Rouch’s work, they’re likely to appreciate an introduction through Icarus’ terrific retrospective, “Eight Films by Jean Rouch.” From 1946, when he made his first film in Niger, until his death in 2004, the Paris-born explorer, civil engineer, ethnologist and film director made more than 100 movies, most on African subjects, including six of the seven newly restored titles that are the focus of this boxed set. (One is a biodoc and the other a vérité walkabout through Paris.) Beginning in 1955, with his most controversial film The Mad Masters, through 1969’s darkly comic, Little by Little, they represent the most sustained flourishing of Rouch’s practice of “shared anthropology” – perhaps, inspired by Robert Flaherty’s partially staged docs — a process of collaboration with his subjects. They’re nothing like the documentaries and newsreels that emerged from colonial and post-colonial Africa in the period. For one thing, the white faces of the colonialists are in the distinct minority and the violence that came with liberation is secondary to images of social change and individuals caught up in the upheavals. He also made documentaries and feature films about France, including Chronicle of a Summer (1960), with the sociologist Edgar Morin, and Paris Vu Par … (1965), made with several New Wave directors, including Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer. There are sections of Moi, Un Noir (“I, a Negro”) that could have provided a template for films made by writer/director Ousmane Sembène — the “father of African film” – and, perhaps, the characters in Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come. The other titles are Mammy Water, The Human Pyramid, Jaguar, The Punishment, Jean Rouch: The Adventurous Filmmaker and The Lion Hunters, which follows a tribe on its ritual hunts over the course of seven years. It makes Donald Trump Jr.’s big-game expeditions look even worse than they already do.

Several years ago, when the Film Movement Film Club was still in its infancy, I gave a gift subscription to my father. Every month, he received an award-winning movie from one festival or another, usually months earlier than they were offered for public consumption. I can’t remember if I gave the service much of chance for survival – the movies were relatively obscure – but it did, and the selections have improved in quality and quantity. The service can now be streamed or delivered in the mail. Among the movies I’ve watched and admired in the past few months are Afterimage, Harmonium, Moka, Glory and After the Storm. There have been dozens of others, including some that competed for Oscars. Gift boxes are also available, divided by language, themes and festivals.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXXIX
The Violent Years: Blu-ray
Bat Pussy: Blu-ray
MST3K’s XXXIXth entry not only marks the end of an era for the show, but also for lovers of the kinds of movies lampooned by the crew of the Satellite of Love. In addition to a pair of typically schlocky movies — Girls Town and The Amazing Transparent Man – the package adds the show’s final episode, featuring Mario Bava’s 1968 spy film Diabolik (a.k.a., “Danger: Diabolik”), which starred John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell, Terry-Thomas, Michel Piccoli and Adolfo Celi. Even with the editing of naughty bits, it may have been the best of the bad movies shown on MST3K. More significant, however, is the featurette,“Showdown in Eden Prairie: Their Final Experiment,” which looks back on the making of the final episode. Mike and the bots finally get their chance to escape Pearl Forrester’s clutches, after she buys a joystick from Radio Shack and uses it to send the orbiting screening room into a dive and make its inhabitants nauseous. When the joystick breaks, the ship goes into a death spiral toward Earth. “The Last Dance” adds 76 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage from the production’s final days. The fourth disc, “Satellite Dishes,” includes the host segments from 11 episodes whose rights remain elusive to Shout!Factory. “Behind the Scenes: Daniel Griffith on Ballyhoo” is an 18-minute interview with the guy who created many of the featurettes on MST3K sets. Otherwise, Girl Town (1959) is noteworthy for a cast that includes Mel Torme, Mamie Van Doren, Charlie Chaplin Jr., Harold Lloyd Jr., Paul Anka and Robert Mitchum’s son, James. Mamie plays a girl framed for murder and sent to a reform school run by nuns. There isn’t anything positive to say about The Amazing Transparent Man, a sci-fi flick in which a mad scientist devises a way to make an escaped convict invisible, so he can steal radioactive materials he needs to conduct more experiments. Instead, he robs a bank. As is the show’s wont, a short film on railroad safety has been included on the disc.

Even if the pre-Netflix editions’ of MST3K were to disappear – a fate I doubt will be realized – it probably would take a hundred years to exhaust the supply of cheeseball flicks that are being discovered by companies devoted to saving and restoring them for posterity. AGFA (American Genre Film Archive) and Something Weird have combined efforts to provide the world with a Blu-ray edition of The Violent Years (1956), William Morgan and Edward D. Wood Jr.’s 65-minute commentary on juvenile delinquency of the female variety and parental indifference to their daughters’ unladylike behavior. Playboy model Jean Moorhead plays Paula Parkins, a spoiled-rotten blond bombshell who leads her degenerate teenage hellcats down a path of gas-station hijackings, coed pajama-party orgies and cold-blooded murder. Unfortunately, too much time is wasted in the pronouncements of a self-righteous judge (I. Stanford Jolley), whose advice to the defendant is to get right with God. While behind bars, Paula manages to get pregnant without having sex with a male character. Her response to both is, “So, what?” It’s a mess, but far from unwatchable. And, yes, there’s a cameo by Wood in drag. The Blu-ray benefits from a new 4K scan from the original 35mm camera negative; the amusing commentary of Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case) and Wood biographer Rudolph Grey; trailers of sexy European imports from the 1950s from the Something Weird vault; and a bonus movie, Anatomy of a Psycho, from a new 2K scan of an original 35mm theatrical print. It describes what happens when the brother of a condemned hoodlum vows to punish everyone he considers to be responsible for the perceived injustice. One of the co-stars is Ronnie Burns, the handsome adopted son of George Burns and Gracie Allen. Also from AGFA/Something Weird is a movie once described as the worst porno parody ever made and a bona-fide “boner-killer.” After its initial 1973 release, Bat Pussy disappeared until the mid-1990s, when the sole known print was found by chance in the stockroom of an adult bookshop in Memphis. That no one noticed it was gone speaks volumes about its quality. Apparently, the citizens of Gothum City are under attack by smut peddlers and only one hero can help: Bat Pussy. As played by Dora Dildo – probably not her real name – the superheroine hangs out in her secret headquarters, until her “twat begins to twitch,” warning her of imminent crime. She then jumped onto her Hoppity-Hop balloon to foil the grotesque sex schemes of unhappily married hillbillies, Buddy and Sam. The new 2K scan is from the only surviving 16mm theatrical print. It adds a commentary track with Lisa Petrucci and Tim Lewis of Something Weird; crime-smut trailers and shorts from the Something Weird vault; liner notes by Lisa Petrucci and Mike McCarthy, the savior of Bat Pussy; the bonus movie, Robot Love Slaves, scanned in 2K from an original theatrical print; and double-sided cover art with illustrations by Johnny Ryan.

Go, Johnny, Go!
Free to Rock: How Rock & Roll Brought Down the Wall
When rock ’n’ roll was in its infancy and still learning to duck walk, Hollywood didn’t waste any time in exploiting what was then considered by many to be a fleeting craze. What doubters expected to replace it with was never revealed, because it never went away or fell out of favor with teenagers. Blackboard Jungle (1955) has been cited as the movie that first put Hollywood in the rock-’n’-roll business, even if Bill Haley was heard, but not seen. Unless one counts an appearance in the rarely, if ever shown 1955 documentary, The Pied Piper of Cleveland: A Day in the Life of a Famous Disc Jockey, Elvis Presley’s debut would come a year later in Love Me Tender. Other idols of Top 40 radio appeared as performers or actors in such enticing titles as Rock Around the Clock, Don’t Knock the Rock, Rock Rock Rock!, The Girl Can’t Help It, Mister Rock and RollCarnival Rock, Jamboree!, Shake, Rattle & Rock!, The Big Beat and High School Confidential! Even if the guitars weren’t plugged in and lyrics were lip-synched, it was fun to watch the musicians in action, as they are in Go, Johnny, Go! (1959). Produced by and starring legendary deejay Alan Freed, who soon would fall from grace in the payola scandal, it tells the story of a disc jockey who creates a teen idol (Jimmy Clanton), practically out of thin air. The story isn’t nearly as noteworthy as the contributions of Chuck Berry, Ritchie Valens, the Cadillacs, the Flamingos, The Cadillacs, Jackie Wilson, Eddie Cochran, Sandy Stewart, Jo Ann Campbell, Harvey Fuqua and Jimmy Cavalio and the House Rockers. Like most, maybe all the aforementioned movies, the lineup is thoroughly and naturally integrated. In something of surprise, Berry sings and acts. The Sprocket Vault restoration — from the original negative — is pristine. Commentary is provided by Richard M. Roberts, Randy Skretvedt and Brent Walker.

While Republicans continue to insist that Ronald Reagan single-handedly brought down Berlin Wall and evil Soviet empire, he had plenty of help. Pope John Paul II certainly had more influence on working-class Catholics in Poland and other Iron Curtain countries than the American president, as did the executives of media companies whose networks tantalized the citizens of imprisoned nations with rock music and reruns of “Dallas.” If there was anything that scared the crap out of the communist leaders of East Germany and the USSR, it was the threat presented by rock-’n’-roll and how it affected the fashions, hairstyles and attitude of western youths, who appeared to be under the music’s spell. As Emmy-winning documentarian Jim Brown points out in Free to Rock: How Rock & Roll Brought Down the Wall, Soviet leaders were so wary of the impact of rock music on its young people that they believed Elvis Presley was stationed in West Berlin to corrupt them. Not a bad idea, really, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone in Eisenhower’s Pentagon hip enough to come up with such a uniquely subversive idea. Brown traces the evolution of Russian rock from its banishment in the 1950-60s, through the end of the Cold War and on to the jailing of Pussy Riot members. Such bands as Flowers, Kino and Plastic People of the Universe sparked a revolutionary youth movement that openly defied the communist government, survived the KGB crackdowns and fueled a desire for freedom. Interviews with Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Latvian President Vike-Freiberga, KGB General Oleg Kalugin and NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow attest to the impact of music on disaffected youth. They’re interspersed with images from concerts finally allowed by Soviet authorities and interviews with musicians from the west and east. The 10-year production benefitted from the funding and support of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Grammy Museum Foundation, and the Stas Namin Centre, in Moscow.

Saving Christmas
Actor-turned-filmmaker Tom DeNucci has followed an unusual career path since going behind the camera on the 2013 thriller, Self Storage. None has enjoyed a theatrical release – here, at least – but direct-to-DVD and VOD releases no longer carry the same stigma they once did. After three hardcore genre pieces, DeNucci somehow found his way into the lucrative children’s arena with last year’s Arlo the Burping Pig and 2017’s Saving Christmas and The Santa Files, both starring 88-year-old Ed Asner. He also co-starred in Christmas All Over Again (2016), alongside an adorable mutt. DeNucci’s upcoming heist picture indicates that he hasn’t entirely abandoned the genre game, but anyone who’s shown a talent for churning out family and holiday-theme movies is going to find work in the lucrative market segment. Here, middle-schooler Danny (Jack Brunault) is a tech wizard, who, as the picture opens, still believes in Santa Claus. This will be his family’s first Christmas without their dad, which makes Danny determined to cheer up his little sister, Jennifer (Lindsay Blanchard), who, still grieving, has become a doubter. Bullied by a popular boy from school because of his “childish” belief, Danny vows to use his scientific know-how to prove the existence of the holiday icon. It won’t be easy, even after he discovers that his community’s toy company may be an outpost of Santa’s North Pole empire.

Books & other stuff
Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film
Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood
You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet: Interviews With Stars From Hollywood’s Golden Era
Owned: Property, Privacy, and the New Digital Serfdom
The Screen Classics division of the University Press of Kentucky has emerged as reliable publisher of books on film intended for scholars and general readers, alike. The series includes critical biographies, film histories and analytical studies, focusing on neglected filmmakers and important screen artists and subjects. That covers just about everything, I suppose. In the wake of a well-received biography of Gene Kelly come “Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film,” “Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood” and “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet: Interviews With Stars From Hollywood’s Golden Era,” two are long-overdue biographies and the other a series of casual interviews intended for consumption by newspaper readers.  Born in Hungary in 1888, the 38-year-old Curtiz had already directed 64 films in Europe when he was invited to Hollywood by Warner Bros. He directed 102 films during his Hollywood career, mostly at Warners, where he directed 10 actors to Oscar nominations. Curtiz’ first Hollywood credit was a gangster melodrama, The Third Degree, which received a positive review in the New York Times. His final few films included King Creole, one of Elvis Presley’s best movies, and The Comancheros, with John Wayne, who took over the director’s seat when Curtiz became too ill to continue. In between, he directed such entertainments as The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Sea Hawk (1940), Casablanca (1942), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945) and White Christmas (1954). Before leaving WB, he tackled swashbuckling adventures, westerns, musicals, war epics, romances, historical dramas, horror films, tearjerkers, melodramas, comedies and film noir masterpieces. Writer and film scholar Alan K. Rode is the author of “Charles McGraw: Film Noir Tough Guy,” host and producer of the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs, and director-treasurer of the Film Noir Foundation.

If anyone under the age of 50 were to be asked to look at publicity photographs of three silent-screen stars seductresses, they might be able to identify Clara Bow and Theda Bara, although not without some hesitation. It’s likely that the picture of Barbara La Marr would remain unidentified, even though she starred in such movies as The Picture of Zenda, The Eternal City and Thy Name Is Woman, and made headlines for her tempestuous lifestyle. In “Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood,” Sherri Snyder not only explains why La Marr’s practically unknown today, but also the genesis of the book’s intriguing title. Hint: when she was 17, a year after being kidnapped by her older half-sister and a companion, a Los Angeles judge declared her “too beautiful to be alone in a big city” and ordered her to return home. (She reportedly was arrested at 14 for underage burlesque dancing.) When La Marr returned to L.A., she was ready to take the city by storm, as a dancer, party girl, serial bride, adulteress, scenario writer, actress and drug addict. She died at 29, three years after her final screen credit, a victim of tuberculosis, pain-killer abuse and exhaustion. (The Yakima native once said that life was too short to waste any of it by sleeping.) Cool, huh? Writer/actress/model Snyder portrays La Marr in a one-woman performance piece. “A Walk Through Time: Channeling Hollywood.”

In “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet,” James Bawden and Ron Miller return with a new collection of interviews with elite Hollywood stars, including Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Esther Williams, Buster Keaton, Maureen O’Sullivan, Bette Davis, Janet Leigh, Walter Pidgeon, Lon Chaney Jr., Boris Karloff and Vincent Price. Although the interviews first appeared under their bylines in various mainstream publications, we’re assured that the pieces have been updated and revised for more in-depth coverage. Many were written before press agents began to dictate terms for interviews and profiles, and parcel out favors to prominent publications. As such, readers are accorded up-close-and-personal reflections, often in the comfort of a star’s home. The authors previously collaborated on “Conversations With Classic Film Stars: Interviews From Hollywood’s Golden Era,” which has just been released in paperback by the same publisher.

Owned: Property, Privacy and the New Digital Serfdom” isn’t so much filled with holiday cheer than timely information on the changing nature of intellectual property, now that President Trump’s FCC is about to hand over the reins to the Internet to our country’s richest, greediest and least trustworthy media conglomerates. “Owned” explains how the increasing implementation of smart technology has given these corporations new opportunities to claim ownership over things we took for granted belonged to consumers. As one of the cover blurbs argues, “’Property in the digital age is getting strange. You can own things you can’t see or touch, like Bitcoins. But your ownership of things you can, like your car and your phone, has never been less secure. ‘Owned’ is an essential guide to how not to get owned by the things you think you own.” What better time and place to consider such dire warnings than Christmas morning, after the presents are opened. The author, Joshua A.T. Fairfield, is a professor of law at Washington and Lee University, where he is an internationally recognized law and technology scholar of digital property, electronic contract, big data privacy and virtual communities.

Master Models: ‘Star Wars’ Scenes
Master Models: ‘Star Wars’ R2-D2
With the hype machine in overdrive, promoting Star Wars: The Last Jedi ahead of its December 15 opening, it might be a good time to get ahead of the parade of merchandise that fans and parents will be asked to consider ahead of the holidays. Disney rarely leaves a stone unturned in its marketing campaigns, so, I suspect, the deluge has only just begun. Occasionally, though, material not specifically authorized by the Mouse House slips through, and some of it is well worth checking out. Becker & Mayer Books, for example, has already published Master Models kits that allow fans to learn the secrets behind the effects and innovations in three action-packed scenes: Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader’s duel on the smoldering mining planet of Mustafar, in Revenge of the Sith; the trench run on the Death Star, in A New Hope; and Kylo Ren and Rey’s lightsaber fight in the forest of Starkiller Base, in The Force Awakens. They can be re-created in papercraft dioramas, including one with LED lighting. The easy, step-by-step instructions help turn the included punch-out pieces into keepsake replicas. Master Models’ R2-D2 kit helps buffs relive the character’s heroic adventures and build a foot-tall paper model of the wee droid. It includes die-cut pieces, with metallic-ink printing, push-button lights, a paperback book, a sound chip and detailed instructions. They complement the recently re-published “Star Wars: The Blueprints,” by J.W. Rinzler, an intricately detailed coffee-table book that we discussed here a couple months ago.

New arrivals

Logan Lucky: Blu-ray
When news of a daring midrace robbery at the Charlotte Motor Speedway finally breaks on a North Carolina television station, the anchorman cleverly labels the caper, “Ocean’s 7-Eleven.” Although Danny Ocean probably wouldn’t be caught dead at a NASCAR event or convenience store, the reference not only pinpoints where the getaway truck is discovered in Steven Soderberg’s irresistible Logan Lucky, but also his connection to the popular series of heist films, the last three of which he directed. (He’s currently producing “Ocean’s Eight,” featuring a cast of A-list actresses, for release next June.) Any further comparison between Ocean’s hand-picked crew of world-class thieves and the motley crew of Southern reprobates assembled by the notoriously unlucky Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde Logan (Adam Driver) simply wouldn’t hold water. The insanely complicated heist, which takes place during the running of the Coca-Cola 600, is, however, choreographed with the same precision, fragility and comic timing as any of the jobs planned by Frank Sinatra or George Clooney. It also bears an uncanny resemblance to Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 adaptation of the Jim Thompson novel, The Killing. The Logans are unlucky in different ways. Clyde had his hand blown off in the war, while Jimmy’s bum leg kept him from pursuing an NFL career and, later, caused him to be fired from his job on a construction site underneath the surface of the speedway’s 1.5-mile track. Before he’s handed his walking papers, though, Jimmy discovers a system of pneumatic tubes that deliver currency from concession stands to a counting room and impenetrable underground safe. He’s already overheard the code number of a locked door that separates the construction from the track’s circulatory system, but needs help with other aspects of the plan. For that, Jimmy turns to Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), a bulked-up safecracker currently doing time in a West Virginia prison, and his dim-witted brothers, Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson). Riley Keough and Katie Holmes must have studied reruns of “Hee-Haw” to play Jimmy’s sister and ex-wife, respectively, while little Farrah Mackenzie steals the show as the crook’s pageant-obsessed daughter. If that makes Logan Lucky sound as if it’s just another indictment of Southern culture on the skids, you should know that it stops well short of being a parody based solely on tired cracker stereotypes. The screenplay is attributed to Rebecca Blunt, believed to be a pseudonym for an unidentified writer or, perhaps, Soderbergh. The ever-inventive filmmaker decided to cut out the middle man, by creating a new company, Fingerprint Releasing, to serve as a distribution “conduit” that aims to connect filmmakers and exhibitors. He raised the money he needed to make the picture through selling off foreign distribution rights and post-theatrical rights to premium-cable outlets and other ancillary interests to cover prints and marketing. With nearly everything prepaid, and no hefty distributor fees coming off the top, even a modest $15-million opening would be a win. While the critics were overwhelmingly positive, Logan Lucky’s primary competition, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, attracted the larger share of its target demographic over an atypically slow August weekend. The only bonus feature is a pair of deleted scenes, one of which features a tabletop tap dance by legendary hillbilly outlaw, Jesco White.

False Confessions
After Love
Whenever a major movie star accepts a role on the Broadway stage, ticket sales tend to go through the roof. If the play is any good and reviews were positive, producers may be able to survive the absence of the A-lister by adding another familiar name to the marquee. With less surefire properties, though, the added expense usually isn’t worth the risk. The lines outside Paris’ Odeon Theater, where Isabelle Huppert was starring in Marivaux’s “Les fausses confidences,” probably were similar to those at New York’s TKTS Discount Tickets Booth, in Times Square, over the Christmas holiday. Considering her recent run of superb performances in Elle, Things to Come, Valley of Love and Louder Than Bombs, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that more than a few of Huppert’s American fans made the trip to Paris, just to watch her light a fire under the 280-year-old drama. As is so often the case, some astute television executive took advantage of the occasion by recording False Confessions for posterity, as well as the enjoyment of contemporary viewers. Instead of merely placing cameras and microphones in strategic locations and recording what’s taking place on stage, however, director Luc Bondy shot the TV presentation during the day, using the same actors and Odeon Theater settings that were being employed at night for the plays. (He died in mid-production and was replaced by his wife, Marie-Louise Bischofberger.) The only concession to film comes when the interactions take place on a balcony overlooking a Paris street and in the Luxembourg Gardens. The costumes and hair styles also were updated. A DVD was released only a few days before it aired on French television. Huppert commands the screen as Araminte, the wealthy widow who unwittingly hires a secretary (Louis Garrel), pre-approved by her trusted servant (Yves Jacques) as someone able to weasel his way into her heart and check book. Manon Combes plays Araminte’s friend and confidante, who falls hard for the imposter. Bulle Ogier delivers a memorable turn as Araminte’s cranky mother, who suspects the young man’s intentions and wants to push her daughter into the arms of an elderly count (Jean-Pierre Malo). Apart from some Shakespearian twists and turns, False Confessions probably would require too much work on the part of American viewers to fully enjoy. But, Huppert makes the effort pay off.

John Cassavetes proved that arthouse audiences would happily endure a couple of hours watching a husband and wife yelling at each other and nearly coming to blows, before suddenly remembering the pleasure that comes with makeup sex. It helped, of course, that he could count on the services of a Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel or John Marley to deliver the goods. The Cassavetes touch is exactly what’s missing in Belgian filmmaker Joachim Lafosse’s After Love, a story about a once happily married couple, no longer willing to make the compromises necessary to stay together, even for the sake of their two charming daughters. The problem boils down to Boris’ inability to find work as an architect and Marie’s increasing weariness over covering the mortgage, bills and groceries. They agree to split, but Boris is too broke to afford a place of his own to crash and, for some reason, Marie won’t allow him to accept a job rehabbing her wealthy mother’s home. Instead, they argue in front of the girls and sleep in separate rooms. After an hour of bickering, we begin to feel as frustrated and angry as the kids caught in the middle of this turmoil. Bérénice Bejo and Cédric Kahn are credible as combatants, but aren’t supported by a script that adds depth to their characters. It’s always nice to see Marthe Keller – co-star of Marathon Man, Black Sunday and Bobby Deerfield, in 1976-77 — who is still radiant at 72.

Woodshock: Blu-ray
Like too many other first features by artists who’ve made a reputation in other creative disciplines, Woodshock suffers from being too ambitious. Co-writer/directors Kate and Laura Mulleavy, known primarily for their distinctively ethereal fashion line, Rodarte, have followed designer Tom Ford (A Single Man) and Agnès B (My Name Is Hmmm …) by creating a movie that takes cues from their dreamy non-cinematic concepts and memories of growing up among the redwoods on California’s central coast. As such, Woodshock contains scenes in which the gigantic trees of upstate Eureka could double for backgrounds in a glossy magazine fashion spread. The characters, however, lack the kind of personal information that wouldn’t be missed in a Vogue spread, but are essential in a narrative feature. Kirsten Dunst’s deeply troubled protagonist, Theresa, sometimes appears to be channeling Justine, the palpably depressed bride she played in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. Married to a logger who’s conflicted by the demands of his job, Justine works at a medical marijuana dispensary that appears to double as a clearing house for terminal cases seeking the means for euthanasia. She recently assisted her cancer-ridden mother commit suicide by concocting a mixture of pot and an unidentified toxic liquid. She spends the rest of the movie wandering around her mother’s house in a haze, occasionally tripping through the redwoods and being scolded by her boss, Keith (Pilou Asbæk), for being tardy or inattentive. As her depression worsens, Justine appears to play Russian Roulette with her stash of spiked joints, as well as playing God with friends who either want to get high or die. We know why the terminally ill characters are in contact with Justine and Keith, but not what makes the principles tick. Credit for the alternately meditative and spacy cinematography goes to Peter Flinckenberg (Concrete Night). Woodshock adds an EPK-like making-of featurette, with interviews. FYI: The Mulleavys designed some of the ballet costumes, at least, in Black Swan.

Rememory: Blu-ray
Not so long ago, the premise behind Rememory would be deemed sufficiently far-fetched to relegate it to the sci-fi ghetto on Netflix or Amazon. A closer examination would argue for Mark Palansky’s promising sophomore feature to be given a duel listing, with the accent on police procedural. Given recent scientific advancements, how difficult would it be to imagine a time in the not-too-distant future when our brains were able to record and store memories in the same way that VCRs and DVRs capture television programming? Those recollections could then be transferred verbatim to a computer disc or some other kind of interpretive gizmo. Here, Martin Donovan plays Gordon Dunn, a visionary scientist whose lifeless body is found in his office, shortly after unveiling just such a device. After a patient’s thoughts are downloaded onto a computer, they can be transferred to a glass plate, not unlike the slides used in high school chemistry cl asses. Besides the killer, several people have a vested interest in discovering what Dunn might have seen before his death and recorded into the machine, which is missing. They include investors and a human guinea pig (Anton Yelchin), whose memories could reveal criminal activity related or unrelated to the crime, itself. Dunn’s wife, Carolyn (Julia Ormond), retreats into her rural house and cuts off contact with the outside world, until a mysterious man played by Peter Dinklage shows up with a bottle of vintage whiskey. He’s an architectural model builder, who, years earlier, survived a wreck that killed his rock-star brother (Matt Ellis). Still plagued with guilt, he’s especially sorry that he can’t remember the final words his brother mumbled as he died. Although Palansky sometimes has trouble holding things together, Rememory features another sterling performance by Dinklage and bears some resemblance, at least, to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Brainstorm (1983). The package adds commentary with Palansky and Dinklage, and the 32-minute backgrounder, “The Memories We Keep.”

Deathdream: Blu-ray
Bob Clark, who was killed in an accident caused by a drunk driver in 2007, is the rare director of exploitation fare whose more dubious achievements – Black Christmas, Porky’s II: The Next Day, Rhinestone — were redeemed by a movie universally considered to be one of the great holiday films of all time, A Christmas Story. Based on material from Jean Shepherd’s collection of short stories, “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash,” A Christmas Story took a while to find its audience – unlike Clark’s passable coming-of-age comedy, the original Porky’s, which was a huge hit – but, once it did, the nostalgic family comedy bypassed cult status to become a legitimate classic. (In December, Fox will broadcast a live rendition of the Broadway production, “A Christmas Story: The Musical.”) I only mention this to remind readers of Clark’s contributions to U.S. and Canadian culture, beyond the newly re-released Deathdream, one of many entertainments inspired by the W.W. Jacobs short story, “The Monkey’s Paw.” Although it was made in Florida, Deathdream (a.k.a., “Dead of Night,” “The Night Walk” and “The Night Andy Came Home”) is considered to be, at once, an early example of Canuxploitation and indictment of the effects of PTSD on Vietnam vets. According to the authoritative website, it was made after Toronto-based Quadrant films had success distributing Clark and writer Alan Ormsby’s debut, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972), to drive-ins throughout the Great White North. Deathdream opens in a Floridian facsimile of Vietnam, where Andy Brooks (Richard Backus) is shot and killed in a firefight. His mother, Christine (Lynn Carlin), refuses to believe he’s dead, even after an Army chaplain arrives at their home to deliver the bad news. Sure enough, hours later, Andy is seen catching a ride home with a patriotic truck driver, whose body will be found the next day drained of blood. Still, everyone’s happy to see him when he walks through the door of the family home. Not surprisingly, Andy’s not the same good-natured young man who left home to serve his country months earlier. In fact, he’s a dangerous cross between a vampire and a zombie. As long as he’s able to acquire fresh transfusions of blood, Andy will be able to pass for human. If not, he’ll begin decomposing before our eyes, thanks to the early gore effects of Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead). Blue Underground has restored the film in 2K, from the 35mm negative in its most complete version to date. It adds separate commentaries with Clark and Ormsby; a recollection with co-star Anya Liffey and Ormsby, her former husband; interviews with Backus, Savini, composer Carl Zittrer and production manager John Bud Cardos; alternate opening titles; still galleries; a student film by Ormsby; and collectable booklet, with new essay by critic Travis Crawford.

No Gods, No Masters
The last thing most Americans would choose to watch in their spare time is a three-part, 180-minute documentary on the tumultuous history of anarchy and the international body of men and women who devoted themselves to making it a reality. While no governments ever fully collapsed behind anarchic and libertarian uprisings, alone, I was surprised to learn how close these movements came to loosening the stifling grip of the ruling class, oligarchs, totalitarians and bourgeoisie on the necks of workers and peasants around the world. Besides the assassinations and bombings that changed the course of history in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, fear of a greater spread of violence probably eased the acceptance of unions in the U.S. and Europe by industrialists. They also pushed steadily for equality of the sexes, unfettered love, civil rights and the suffrage movement. Lenin and Stalin were no more anxious to see a rise in anarchism than were Calvin Coolidge, FDR and Franco. Lately, self-proclaimed anarchists took advantage of the growing disparity in wealth and growth of an underclass to stage violent protests wherever members of the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund gathered. Their anger only increased when the Obama administration refused to punish Wall Street interests for their role in the 2008 economic collapse and end a war in the Middle East that brought death and destruction to combatants and civilians, alike. With President Trump rushing to overturn every piece of progressive legislation enacted since the Carter administration, the time may once again be ripe for radical action. If so, the investment in time watching the first English translation of Daniel Gurin’s No Gods, No Masters: An Anthology of Anarchism could be considered three hours well spent. The series is broken into chapters, “The Passion for Destruction (1840-1906),” which explores how anarchism emerged from the horrendous social conditions facing workers at a time when industrialization was, paradoxically, providing better hygiene and social standards for the upper class; “Land and Freedom (1907-1921),” on the differing strains within the anarchist movement during the peak of its popularity; and “In Memory of the Vanquished (1922-1945),” which traces the appropriation of anarchism by communists and of anarchist symbolism by European fascists. It offers a vast array of unpublished documents, letters, debates, manifestos, reports, impassioned calls-to-arms and reasoned analysis of the history, organization and practice of the movement, as well as writings by Emma Goldman, Kropotkin, Berkman, Bakunin, Proudhon, and Malatesta.

Death Laid an Egg: Blu-ray
Released in 1968, on the eve of the golden age of giallo, Giulio Questi and writer Franco Arcalli’s wildly idiosyncratic Death Laid an Egg set a high bar for the emerging genre. Boiled down to its essentials, the bright, erotic and experimental thriller stages a traditional battle of the sexes against the background of a socio-political satire. A love triangle develops between three people who run a high-tech chicken farm: Marco (Jean-Louis Trintignant), his wealthy wife Anna (Gina Lollobrigida) and their secretary, Gabrielle (Ewa Aulin). Having sacked the workers and gone fully automated, the business now produces record profits. Beneath the glossy surface, though, run parallel streams of criminality, perversity and horror. Marco spends his weekends playing kinky games with prostitutes, before murdering them. He hopes to eliminate Anna and make off with her money, as well, but is required to compete with the company’s publicist (Jean Sobieski) for Gabrielle’s hand. A freak accident at the lab produces a mutant strain of headless, wingless chickens – this was before Buffalo wings — that Anna and the company’s stockholders see as a lucrative new profit center. Marco, the murderer, is repulsed by the new development and plots to subvert the process. Death Laid an Egg advances several giallo conceits, including the killer’s black gloves, a jazzy opening montage and disorienting score by Bruno Maderna. Questi had set the table for the movie’s inventive style with the bizarro Western, Django Kill … If You Live, Shoot! (1967). Arcalli would go on to share credits on 1900, Once Upon a Time in America and Last Tango in Paris. The Cult Epics Blu-ray adds a lobby-cards gallery and Maderna’s isolated score.

Animal Factory: Special Edition: Blu-ray
If Edward Bunker hadn’t existed, it’s unlikely that any Hollywood screenwriter could have invented a character quite like him. (The same could be said about Danny Trejo, I suppose.) A career criminal who once held the dubious distinction of being the youngest-ever inmate in San Quentin State Prison, Bunker was inspired by Caryl Chessman (“Cell 2455 Death Row”) to begin writing stories about his experiences and observations. The advice didn’t begin to pay dividends until the early 1970s, when his first novel, “No Beast So Fierce,” was published and rights to it were optioned by Dustin Hoffman, for the movie Straight Time (1978). Two years after being paroled, in 1975, Bunker’s second novel, “Animal Factory,” was published to favorable reviews. It would take another 23 years for the book to be adapted to film, this time by co-producer/director Steve Buscemi and co-writer John Steppling. In the meantime, he appeared in a couple dozen pictures – Reservoir Dogs, Tango & Cash, Best of the Best – co-wrote the screenplay for Runaway Train and served as a consultant on Heat and other genre flicks. He befriended Trejo in California’s Folsom Prison in the late 1970s and they since worked together on Runaway Train, Heat and Animal Factory. Despite a terrific performance by Hoffman, Straight Time, failed to attract the audience it deserved. Animal Factory, which was shot in a decommissioned prison in Pennsylvania and received excellent reviews, didn’t do any better. It stars Edward Furlong as Ron Decker, a troubled youth who’s sentenced to a five-year bit in a maximum-security prison on a marijuana-dealing beef. (It would subsequently be doubled for bad behavior.) Standing a sliver under 5-foot-6 and possessing the kind of hangdog look that would make him a prime target for sexual predators, Decker is taken under the wing of Earl Copen (Willem Dafoe), an experienced con who’s conversant with the ins and outs of prison life and has the respect of the various gangs. After surviving several close calls, their father/son relationship is severely tested by Ron’s increasingly cocky behavior. What separates Animal Factory from a dozen other very good prison pictures is its authentic dialogue, raw look and the tombstone eyes of the prisoners, many of whom were convicts recruited from other facilities. The professional actors did their homework, as well. Mickey Rourke is nearly unrecognizable as a prison-weary drag queen; Tom Arnold is frightening as a would-be rapist; Mark Boone Junior and Chris Bauer look as if they had been one of the guys discovered at an open call in a prison yard; Trejo is Trejo; Bunker looks as if he never left the joint; and Seymour Cassel and Buscemi might as well have been on the payroll as a guard and bureaucrat. The Arrow Video release adds an interview with critic and noir historian Barry Forshaw, covering Eddie Bunker’s varied career; vintage commentary by Bunker and Trejo; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jacob Phillips; and a collector’s booklet containing new writing on the film by Glenn Kenny.

Misery: Collector’s Edition: Blu Ray
No stranger to Blu-ray, Rob Reiner and William Goldman’s nifty adaptation of the Stephen King novel, “Misery,” really needs no further introduction in its Scream Factory incarnation. Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) remains as scary as ever, while the stranded novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is every bit as vulnerable as in Misery’s various other VHS, DVD and Blu-ray editions. The difference here is that it’s been given a fresh 4K scrub from the original film elements and new interviews with Reiner and special-makeup-effects artist Greg Nicotero. Previous bonus material includes commentaries with Reiner and Goldman; “Misery Loves Company,” featuring interviews with Reiner, Kathy Bates, James Caan and Frances Sternhagen; and the featurettes “Marc Shaiman’s Musical Misery Tour,” “Diagnosing Annie Wilkes,” “Advice for the Stalked,” “Profile of a Stalker,” “Celebrity Stalkers,” “Anti-Stalking Laws.”

Operation Petticoat: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Father Goose: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
After a brief delay, due to a technical glitch, Olive Films has released the wartime comedies, Father Goose and Operation Petticoat, as part of its limited-edition Signature Series. Unlike Blu-rays of vintage titles typically released by the company, Signature titles includes bonus featurettes, interviews, commentaries, newsreels and critical essays. The pressings are limited to 3,500 copies. Besides the period and military settings, Father Goose (1964) and Operation Petticoat (1959) share the presence of Cary Grant, who, in 1966, at 62, would retire from acting. In Blake Edwards’ Operation Petticoat, Grant plays the commander of the U.S. submarine Sea Tiger, which was commissioned and nearly destroyed after the attack on Pearl Harbor and declaration of war. After being sunk by a Japanese plane, the sub is raised, given a partial two-week overhaul and sent to a repair station, 400 miles away, limping out on one bad engine. Besides the crew, five American nurses are brought along for the ride. Just before New Year’s Day, the Sea Tiger is docked in Australia for retrofitting. Due to a shortage of traditional Navy gray paint, the primer is created by combining existing supplies of red and white paint. Temporarily, at least, the entire craft is a bright pink, with a topcoat of gray scheduled for application shortly thereafter. Tony Curtis plays a procurement officer, whose skill for acquiring requisitions will remind viewers of Milo Minderbinder, who would appear two years later in Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” Joan O’Brien and Dina Merrill play Edwards-ian nurses engaged in a comedic tug of war with the officers. The Blu-ray is enhanced by a new high-definition digital restoration; commentary by critic Adrian Martin; “That’s What Everybody Says About Me,” with Jennifer Edwards and actress Lesley Ann Warren; “The Brave Crew of the Petticoat,” with actors Gavin MacLeod and Marion Ross; “The Captain and His Double: Cary Grant’s Struggle of the Self,” – with Marc Eliot, author of “Cary Grant: A Biography”; Universal Newsreel footage of Grant and the movie’s premiere at the Radio City Music Hall; archival footage of the submarine USS Balao, which doubled as the USS Sea Tiger in Operation Petticoat; and an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara.

In what would be his second-to-last film appearance, Grant plays a boozy beachcomber on an idyllic island hideaway, coerced into service as a lookout for the Allies during World War II. He will soon be joined by seven mischievous schoolgirls and their prim and proper teacher (Leslie Caron), left stranded on a nearby island following an enemy attack. Trevor Howard plays the Navy commander Frank Houghton, who becomes the proverbial thorn in Grant’s side. Some observers believe that the scene in which Grant teaches Caron how to fish with her bare hands qualifies as big screen’s first “wet T-shirt” moment, although far less revealing than Jacqueline Bisset’s famous scene in The Deep, a dozen years later. Father Goose won an Academy Award for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. The limited edition adds a 4K scan of original camera negative; commentary by film historian David Del Valle; “Unfinished Business: Cary Grant’s Search for Fatherhood and His Oscar,” with Marc Eliot, author of “Cary Grant: A Biography”; “My Father,” in which Internet pioneer Ted Nelson discusses director Ralph Nelson; Universal Newsreel footage featuring Caron; and an essay by critic Bilge Ebiri.

Lifetime: Girl in the Box
PBS: Masterpiece: Poldark: The Complete Third Season: Blu-ray
PBS: The Gene Doctors
PBS: Craft in America: Borders and Neighbors
PBS: POV: Swim Team
PBS: Vermeer, Beyond Time
Based on a frightening true story, Lifetime’s “Girl in the Box” is based on the 1977 kidnapping of 20-year-old Colleen Stan by Cameron and Janice Hooker, as she was hitchhiking from Eugene, Oregon, to a friend’s house in northern California. For the next seven years, the young married couple kept Colleen locked in a coffin-sized box, hidden beneath their bed, for up to 23 hours a day. When not imprisoned, Colleen was forced into becoming a live-in slave, child-minder and victim of Cameron’s perverted sexual inclinations. First-time writer/producer/director Stephen Kemp’s re-creation the young woman’s ordeal comes as close to “torture porn” as one could expect for a Lifetime movie, even one produced originally for Canadian television. The case received plenty of attention around the world and has inspired scenarios for numerous network crime series, books and movies. Coming so soon after the kidnapping and conversion to radical politics of Patty Hearst, Colleen’s predicament prompted media experts to describe it as another example of Stockholm syndrome, which causes abductees to empathize and sympathize with their captors. Eight months after she was kidnaped, Colleen signed a contract agreeing to serve as the Camp’s slave for life. To prevent her from attempting to escape, they also brainwashed her into believing that activities in the house were being monitored by a large, powerful organization called “The Company,” which would torture her and harm her family if she tried to flee captivity. Colleen eventually was allowed to leave the house without supervision and even visit her parents. “Girl in the Box” is enhanced by convincing performances by Addison Timlin (“Californication”), Zane Holtz (“From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series”) and Zelda Williams (“Dead of Summer”). The latter is the daughter of Robin and Marsha Garces Williams, who named her after Princess Zelda from the “Legend of Zelda” video-game series.

Season Three of the “Masterpiece” mini-series, “Poldark,” opens by tying up loose ends from the violent conclusion to Season Two and unraveling more strands holding together the ongoing BBC/PBS soap opera. Being 1794, war and the revolution in France hang like dark storm clouds over the Cornwall coast. Despite Ross’ declaration of love after the beating Demelza endured at the hands of George Warleggan’s thugs, their marriage is as fragile as it ever was. Also, hanging over the early episodes are questions about the paternity of Elizabeth Warleggan’s son, Valentine; the intentions of her newly arrived cousin, Morwenna (Ellise Chappell); and motivations of Demelza’s brothers Drake and Sam (Harry Richardson, Tom York). When the ships carrying Captain Blamey and Dr. Enys are reported missing, Ross leads a small raiding party to France to rescue Enys. George will test fate by using his stockpile of grain as a weapon against starving miners and farmers and Demelza gives birth to a baby girl. And, that’s just for starters. At the conclusion of the third-season finale, it was announced that Poldark will return for a fourth year. The Blu-ray adds 30-plus minutes of behind-the-scenes coverage.

PBS’ “The Gene Doctors” delivers reasons for optimism to parents of the estimated million-plus babies born annually with a hereditary disease, which are often fatal. Until lately, doctors could only treat the symptoms of these ailments. Now a pioneering cadre of gene doctors, is starting to target root causes. Through intimate stories of families whose lives are being transformed, “The Gene Doctors” takes viewers to the frontlines of a medical revolution.

In “Boarders and Neighbors,” this season’s theme for PBS’ Peabody Award-winning documentary series, “Craft in America,” the relationships and influences that Mexican and American craft artists exert on each other’s work and their cultures are explored. Visits with more than 25 weavers, ceramic artists, papermakers, jewelers, muralists and altar makers, reveal just how porous the borders separating these cultures are.

In the “POV” presentation, “Swim Team,” we’re introduced to the parents of a boy on the autism spectrum who take matters into their own hands, forming a competitive swim team, recruiting other teens on the spectrum and training them with high expectations and zero pity. Watch the extraordinary rise of the Jersey Hammerheads, capturing a moving quest for inclusion, independence and a winning life.

Images from Johannes Vermeer’s paintings have become permanent part of our collective imagination and are instantly recognizable as masterpieces. In French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Cottet’s splendid bio-doc, “Vermeer, Beyond Time,” we learn that this wasn’t always the case. Vermeer died in 1675, at 43, overwhelmed by poverty, physically weakened and humiliated. Soon afterward, his paintings were sold to cover his debts. It took another 200 years for his work to be appreciated for its sensitivity, unique light and interpretive genius. The film explores Vermeer’s family life, including his conversion to Catholicism, his artistic contemporaries and the wider world of the short-lived Dutch Golden Age of the 17th Century.

The DVD Wrapup: Good Time, Hitman’s Bodyguard, Tavernier’s Journey, Valerion, Lemon, Jabberwocky, Mick Ronson, Harmonium and more

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017

IMG_0174Good Time: Blu-ray
It’s been eight years since critics predicted great things from Josh and Benny Safdie’s semi-autobiographical dramedy, Daddy Longlegs (a.k.a., “Go Get Some Rosemary”) impressed audiences at Cannes and, two years later, was nominated for three Indie Spirit Awards, taking home the prestigious John Cassavetes Award. Audiences weren’t given much access to it, except in DVD. Between then and now, the Safdies focused their energy on several festival-favorite shorts (“The Black Balloon”) and documentaries (“Lenny Cooke”), and Heaven Knows What, a harrowing feature that revisited the same territory assayed in Panic in Needle Park (1971). Released in 2014, it once again impressed festival judges and critics, without making a dent at the box office. Their race-against-the-clock crime thriller, Good Time, followed the same route to theaters, but, this time, was able to parlay the presence of Robert Pattison into a decent run at a few hundred theaters here and abroad. The actor has come a long way from his tenure as Edward Cullen, in the “Twilight” series. Like Kristen Stewart, his co-star and love interest in “Twilight,” Pattison’s taken on several challenging roles — The Childhood of a Leader, Cosmopolis, Maps to the Stars, The Lost City of Z – at least partially intended to challenge the public’s impressions of what he’s capable of accomplishing on screen. Good Times may be his most impressive transformation to date. Tuesday, Pattison’s performance was honored with a Indie Spirit nomination, his first, along with nods for Best Editing (Ronald Bronstein, Benny Safdie), Best Supporting Actor (Bennie Safdie), Best Supporting Actress (Taliah Lennice Webster), Best Director (Benny and Josh Safdie).

Pattinson stars as Connie Nikas, a bonehead hoodlum from Queens, who embarks on a one-night odyssey through New York’s criminal underworld in a desperate attempt to rescue his mentally retarded brother, Nick (Benny Safdie), from a heavily guarded ward in hospital. After extracting Nick from a court-ordered therapy session earlier in the day, Connie brings him along on a bank robbery that the dimwitted young man is singularly ill-prepared to handle. They get away with a duffle bag full of money, without anticipating that the teller might have spiked the bills with dye packs. When one explodes in their getaway car, Nick completely freaks out. One blunder leads to another and he is arrested and sent to Riker’s Inland, where the other inmates aren’t nearly as compassionate towards his limitations as Connie has been. A fight ensues, leaving Nick in a Manhattan hospital and a $25,000 bond hanging over his head. Brotherly love dictates that Connie raise the bail money or, failing that, bust him out of the hospital. Instead, he mistakes an alcoholic parolee for Nick, escaping with him into the New York night once again to come up with the money to cover the bail. This time, though, finds shelter with a 16-year-old waif, Crystal (Taliah Webster), who hooks him up with a manufacturer of LSD and aspires to nothing greater than being a gangster’s moll. In some ways, the brothers in Good Time remind me of George and Lenny, in “Of Mice and Men.” Apparently, the original screenplay – co-written by Josh Safdie and frequent collaborator Ronald Bronstein – was written more as a buddy comedy than a dark and scary thriller, whose urgency is magnified by a pulsating score by Cannes-winner Daniel Lopatin (The Bling Ring). In an interview with Charlie Rose, Benny Safdie said that he and Pattinson prepared for their roles by working in-character at a car wash in Queens. That rings true, as well. The disc adds the featurette, ”The Pure and the Damned”; a music video; and commentary with the Safdies, producer Sebastian Bear McClard, and actors Taliah Webster and Buddy Duress.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard: Blu-ray
Capping what was designated by Box Office Mojo as the worst August in two decades and worst summer in more than 10 years, the all-action buddy flick The Hitman’s Bodyguard brought smiles to faces at Lionsgate with three No. 1 postings in a row. The $30-million investment returned $75.5 million at the domestic box office and another $101.2 million in foreign sales. Shot on multiple locations in the Netherlands, England and Bulgaria, Patrick Hughes and Tom O’Connor’s extensively re-conceptualized story – from dramatic thriller, to comedy/romance — looks as if it might have cost twice that much to make. It stars such international favorites as Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Salma Hayek, Elodie Yung and Joaquim de Almeida and features car/boat chases galore. Neither Jackson nor Reynolds is required to stretch very far from their well-established personae, the former clocking 122 expletives in 118 minutes and the latter struggling to maintain his cool in the face of his client’s life-threatening antics. As their constantly tested love interests, Hayek and Yung aren’t asked to do much more than look good – OK, great – while waiting for their boyfriends to grow up and occasionally beating up bad guys. Ryan plays the titular bodyguard, whose reputation took a substantial hit when a high-profile client was assassinated by a gunman, situated at a distance so far away from the target that he could have escaped to Brazil before anyone located the shell casings. Jackson is the world-class hitman whose testimony at the International Criminal Court, at The Hague, is necessary to convict a notorious Eastern European leader of war crimes. Part of the deal involves the freeing of his girlfriend (Hayek) from prison in return for his cooperation. The ongoing gag involves Jackson’s Darius Kincaid continually attempting to out-maneuver Reynold’s by-the-book Michael Bryce in their danger-fraud trip from Manchester to The Hague. If there’s one thing that Kincaid enjoys doing more than showing up his former rival, it’s offering advice to him about his tenuous relationship with the Interpol agent (Yung) who hired him. The Hitman’s Bodyguard reportedly was made from a script included on the 2011 Black List of unproduced screenplays. Originally intended as a drama, it underwent a “frantic” two-week rewrite when the decision was made, at the last minute, to turn it into an action comedy. The Blu-ray adds several short making-of featurettes, outtakes and deleted/extended/alternate scenes.

My Journey Through French Cinema: Blu-ray
The Film Critic
Bertrand Tavernier’s My Journey Through French Cinema is a documentary for film buffs who miss sitting in a café or bar, discussing the movie they’ve just seen with friends who aren’t shy about sharing their opinions or having opinions worth sharing. Although the introduction of wine and snack bars to arthouses multiplexes has provided a comfortable place to extend the cinematic experience, it’s gotten far too easy watch the movies we want to see on high-definition monitors, at home, and try to stay awake before the screen goes dark. Given that most Hollywood movies defy further analysis and most post-mortems are limited to, “So, what did you think?,” it’s nice to hear smart people talk about movies as if they still matter … because, they do … somewhere. Tavernier’s life in film began when he was a boy and his family moved from Lyon, where they provided a refuge and a salon for the anti-Vichy intelligentsia, to post-war Paris. With the Nazis gone, Tavernier was able to haunt re-opened theaters and devour movies by such American directors as William Wellman, Henry Hathaway and John Ford. He almost made it through law school, but invested too much of his time at the Cinémathèque to succeed at the bar. Instead, he located the first step on the ladder to a film career and climbed every rung, until he convinced himself that he was qualified to make the leap from crusading critic and press agent for important artists, to co-writer/director of The Clockmaker of St. Paul, an adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel that won prestigious prizes at the 1974 Berlin International Film Festival. Of all his titles, the one most likely to strike a chord with American audiences is ‘Round Midnight (1986), for which jazz great Dexter Gordon received a Best Actor nomination. At a none-too-brisk 200 minutes, “My Journey” overflows with recollections, opinions, observations, conversations and criticism, not just about the French cinema, but its various influences and inspirations. It’s also loaded with clips chosen to amplify his points. Naturally, Francophiles and graduate students will find “My Journey” infinitely more provocative than most viewers, even those capable of picking Jean Gabin, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Lino Ventura and Eddie Constantine from a police lineup in a B-movie. The Cohen Media Blu-ray adds a tentative preview of a follow-up series for French television.

It’s been said of movie critics that they spend so much time in darkened screening rooms or at a lonely desk, staring into a computer screen, that they have no real conception of how life plays out in the real world. While that may sound a tad harsh, ask your friendly local critic how much time they have to themselves between the start of awards season and the day their lists of 10-best and 10-worst films are due. The movie-reviewers’ dodge has changed considerably since the mainstream media started jettisoning scholarly types as if they were so much ballast on a hot-air balloon. Outside of New York and Los Angeles, screening rooms, themselves, are giving way to streaming codes, discs and the instant analysis of tweets and texts. Only a relatively few writers actually get paid for their thoughts, devaluing their opinions, no matter how astute or entertaining. Even so, there’s no denying the hard work and passion that go into the countless reviews that pop up on the Internet each week, even if the elimination of copy editors sometimes makes it difficult for readers to get through them. It’s for that reason that Argentine filmmaker Hernán Gerschuny’s uneven debut feature, The Film Critic, feels so anachronistic. It follows Victor Tellez (Rafael Spregelburd), a world-weary Buenos Aires critic who’s grown weary of being disappointed by every new release and writing negative reviews to justify his pitiful existence. (Or, being tortured by his editor for not cutting a popcorn movie an occasional break.) Because he prefers to think in French, instead of his native Spanish, he self-diagnoses himself as suffering from ennui and maladie du cinema. And, yes, in plain English he’s, a bit of a pill. In a decent twist that doesn’t really find its grip until halfway through the movie, Tellez falls for a woman, Sofia (Dolores Fonzi), who’s his polar opposite in almost every way possible. More Sandra Bullock than Catherine Deneuve, she might as well be a refugee from an old-fashioned Lifetime rom-com. If it were possible for Tellez to simply live in the moment, he might enjoy the ride. Instead, he agonizes over his good fortune as if he’s just seen the latest head-scratcher by Terence Malick and he only has 20 minutes to write his review.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
Once again, I’m at a loss to explain what’s right or wrong with a movie – in this case, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets — that’s based on a long-running comic-book series I’ve never seen and, in any case, was published in French, before being translated into several other languages I don’t understand. Neither was I aware of the animated French-Japanese television series, “Time Jam: Valerian & Laureline,” likewise based on Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières’ comic strip, “Valérian and Laureline,” which ran from 1967 to 2010 and spawned several graphic novels. The TV series first aired in France in 2007, racking up 40 episodes before disappearing into the wild blue yonder. Nor can I recall much of Luc Besson’s Fifth Element (1997), parts of which were inspired by key elements in the comic strip. The only thing I know for sure about Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is that it cost a shitload of money to make and market – at $200-plus million, the most expensive French film to date – and only returned $40 million at the U.S. box office. It did better overseas, but not well enough to cover the total nut. It was recorded in English to avoid just such a debacle. The one positive thing I’m willing to say with any certainty is that the money spent on special effects and CGI technology was well spent. Brilliantly colorful backgrounds, sparkling pearls, azure skies and neon-lit marketplaces compete for our attention with purposefully drab steampunk machinery, while the 200 different alien species resemble a Who’s Who of fanciful characters from franchises ranging from Star Wars, Star Trek and Guardians of the Galaxy, to Barbarella, Cowboys & Aliens and Avatar. They all really pop in 4K UHD. Prior to the date production began, Besson wrote a 600-page book describing each of the characters. He insisted that cast members read it, so they could adjust their performances to the alien character with which they were interacting. Unfortunately, viewers unfamiliar with the mythology aren’t nearly as well-equipped to handle the on-screen traffic jam and convoluted throughlines. In the 28th Century, special operatives Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are charged with maintaining order throughout the human territories. Under assignment from the Minister of Defense (Herbie Hancock), they embark on a mission to Alpha, an ever-expanding metropolis where species from all over the universe have converged over centuries to share knowledge, intelligence and cultures in a peaceful and collegial manner. A dark force inside Alpha’s core threatens the peaceful existence of the City of a Thousand Planets, and Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe. That’s all. Some of the fun derives from watching Ethan Hawke, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Rutger Hauer and Benoît Jacquot deliver their lines in silly costumes and industrial-strength makeup. No amount of makeup could hide the beauty of Pearl royalty, as played by model/actors Aymeline Valade and Sasha Luss. Frankly, though, I suggest to newcomers to the story that they check out episodes of “Time Jam: Valerian & Laureline” or chapters of the comic strip available on the Internet, before attempting the movie. The Blu-ray and UHD packages include the hour-long “Citizens of Imagination: Creating the Universe of Valerian,” 14 separate enhancement pods and a photo gallery.

Co-writer/director Janicza Bravo describes her first feature, Lemon, as a dark, absurdist comedy about failure. (Although her name sounds as if she might be from Eastern Europe, Bravo is a black native of Panama, who currently lives in Brooklyn.) Her husband/collaborator, Brett Gelman, plays an acting coach, Isaac Lachmann, who, like a continually malfunctioning automobile, is a lemon waiting to be recalled by the factory for a complete overhaul. It’s the kind of role Steve Martin played at the start of his career – The Lonely Guy, Pennies From Heaven, The Jerk – but, in doing so, didn’t make audiences so uncomfortable that they might consider leaving the theater in tears. While it’s not difficult to sympathize with Isaac’s growing inability to connect with his blind, unfaithful girlfriend of 10 years (Judy Greer) or having to endure Passover Seder with his oppressively stereotypical family, it doesn’t take long for him to remind us of his less-empathetic qualities. They include berating acting students, as if his paying jobs weren’t limited to public-service-announcements for terrible diseases, and imposing himself on people totally unprepared for his complete lack of social graces. When Isaac begins dating a black woman of Caribbean background (Nia Long), Bravo introduces us to a family that’s the Jamaican equivalent of her protagonist’s dysfunctional clan. We’re no more comfortable in their company than we were watching Isaac react to his family’s atonal sing-along to “A Million Matzoh Balls.” Clearly, Lemon isn’t for everyone. It should appeal, however, to anyone who’s aspired to be an actor and taken classes from someone who thinks he’s Stanislavski, but begrudges the good fortune of students who find work in the movies or television. In such offbeat television series as “Married,” “Another Period” and “Blunt Talk,” Gelman has played variations of the same character so often that it’s possible to wonder how close to the bone his portrayal of Isaac might be. The excellent supporting cast includes Michael Cera, Gillian Jacobs, Jeff Garlin, Shiri Appleby, Megan Mullally, Rhea Perlman, Fred Melamed, David Paymer and Conrad Roberts. The bonus material includes deleted/extended scenes and interviews with Bravo and Gelman.

Jabberwocky: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Released in the direct wake of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the final season of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” Jabberwocky suffered in the media from comparisons to those ground-breaking entertainments and a generally held misconception that Terry Gilliam’s directorial feature debut was an extension of the Python empire. Although it starred Michael Palin and featured appearances by Gilliam, Terry Jones and Neil Innes (“The Seventh Python”) – alongside a veritable Who’s Who of post-war British comedy – the humor in Jabberwocky wasn’t intended to be savored in segments, as was the case in the series and “Holy Grail.” However outlandish it could be, the 105-minute film had an easily recognizable beginning, middle and end. Described as a “giddy romp through blood and excrement,” Jabberwocky was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem of the same title, which was included in his 1871 novel, “Through the Looking-Glass.” Although the verse defies translation, Gilliam and co-writer Charles Alverson (Brazil) imagined a scenario in which an impoverished barrelmaker’s apprentice, Dennis Cooper (Palin) commits himself to making himself worthy of the less-than-lovely Griselda Fishfinger (Annette Badland). He leaves for the city, but not before his elusive beloved throws a potato at him, which he keeps as a cherished memento. The residents are paralyzed with fear over the appearance of a monstrous creature, the Jabberwock, that Gilliam says was inspired by Godzilla and chickens, in equal measure. Unable to find work, Dennis stumbles into the chambers of King Bruno the Questionable’s beautiful, if stupid daughter (Deborah Fallender). She mistakes him for the winner of a jousting contest called to determine the knight most qualified to battle the Jabberwock. Instead, the Princess decides to dress him in the guise of a nun and send him out to the countryside, where the peasants mistake him for Satan. It’s only by accident that he’s able to slay the beast.

The king delivers on his promise, but, in doing so, forces Dennis to decide between the Princess and a substantial dowry, or going home to live an uneventful life with an obese peasant girl who might end up rejecting him, anyway. In an interview included in the Criterion set, Gilliam says he perceived the kingdom to be the anti-Camelot, with a king who’s an oafish lout; a Princess whose beauty can’t disguise her unsuitability as royalty; a castle that’s on the verge of collapsing; a hero who wants nothing valuable in return for his courageous act; merchants and clerics who take pride in being greedy and corrupt; wretched peasants who don’t look as if they were culled from crowd scenes in Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella; and tournaments in which losers’ blood drenches the spectators, independent of their rank in society. Although Jabberwocky failed to find a ready audience in its theatrical run, it succeeded as a cult favorite on video. Made on an impossibly tight $500,000 budget, it finally began making the kind of money it deserved. The director-approved Blu-Ray edition features a 4K digital transfer from a restoration by the BFI National Archive and the Film Foundation; a 5.1 surround mix, supervised by Gilliam and presented in DTS-HD Master Audio; vintage commentary with Gilliam and  Palin; a new documentary on the making of the film, featuring Gilliam, Palin, Badland and producer Sandy Lieberson; an interview with Valerie Charlton, designer of the Jabberwock, featuring her collection of rare behind-the-scenes photographs; a selection of Gilliam’s storyboards and sketches; and an essay by critic Scott Tobias.

Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story: Blu-ray
It’s been nearly two years since David Bowie left this mortal coil for points unknown and the vacuum left behind still sucks, in all sorts of ways. Less noticed has been the 24-year absence of guitar virtuoso and original Spider From Mars, Mick Ronson. Jon Brewer and Scott Rowley’s extremely compelling rockumentary, Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story, goes a long way toward establishing his place in the pantheon of unsung collaborators and extraordinary sidemen. But don’t take my word for it, listen to Bowie’s narration in this celebration of the Kingston-Upon-Hull native’s life and art. Like so many such partnerships, the Bowie/Ronson connection was as much an accident as anything else. After failing to make a name for himself in London, Ronson returned to Hull, where a former mate found him marking out a rugby pitch as part of his duties as a Parks Department gardener. The musician was scouting talent for an early version of Bowie’s touring band and an electric guitar was needed for a gig on John Peel’s national BBC Radio 1 show. It didn’t take long for Bowie to recognize Ronson’s ability to play guitar, piano, violin, arrange and eventually score music that helped propel Bowie into the stratosphere, with “The Man Who Sold the World,” “Hunky Dory,” “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” and ended with the infamous “Farewell Concert,” in 1973. It would take the Spiders’ breakup for fellow rockers, critics and audiences to understand what Ronson meant to Bowie’s early success. Business relations within the Spiders were abysmal, as was top-down communication. While attempting to spark a solo career, Ronson collaborated with such established artists as Bob Dylan, Ian Hunter, Lulu, Lou Reed, David Cassidy, Roger Daltry, John Mellencamp, T-Bone Burnett and Morrissey. It didn’t translate into much money, but the hardest blow was still to come. During a short visit to his sister in London, Ronson was diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer. He survived the original prognosis by a year, long enough for a final high-profile performance at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, in 1992, where he played on “All the Young Dudes,” with Bowie and Hunter, and “Heroes” with Bowie. “Beside Bowie” gives credit where it’s due, through archival backstage footage, Mick Rock’s photography and substantial interviews with Hunter, Reed, Lisa & Maggi Ronson, Angie Bowie, Rick Wakeman, Glen Matlock, Cherry Vanilla, Earl Slick and David Stopps. Bowie fans are encouraged to give their albums another spin, this time to savor Ronson’s contributions. The disc adds several extended interviews.

Kôji Fukada’s complex family drama, Harmonium, is intended as a companion piece to his 2010 dark comedy, Hospitalite, which could only be seen at a handful of festivals or on a Film Movement DVD. Irony fairly drips from the titles. Harmonium came about only after Fukada determined that “Fuchi ni tatsu” — literally, “Standing on the edge” — didn’t carry the same nuance when translated. Harmony is a favored trait of Japanese families and a harmonium plays a key role in both the narrative and household of the protagonist. It’s the discordance that’s generated by the truth that drives Harmonium, however. Outside of the fact that the husband, Toshio (Kanji Furutachi), and his wife, Akié (Mariko Tsutsui), don’t seem to have much in common anymore — most obviously, religion – their life revolves around their daughter, who’s kept busy rehearsing for a recital. Things begin to change, almost imperceptibly, when an old friend of Toshio’s appears out of the blue and not only is given a job at the machine shop in the garage, but also a room in the house. At first, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), is as quiet as the proverbial church mouse. We know that he’s spend the last several years in prison, but not the reason. Yasaka makes headway by mentoring the girl on the harmonium, then providing an ear for Akié’s religious views. His attentiveness serves as an aphrodisiac, even if she’s reluctant to give in to her desire. Again, out of the blue, something happens to drastically change the course of the drama. Even when the story is advanced by seven years, or so, and Yasaka is physically removed from the surroundings, his memory shrouds the second half like a raincloud. Fukuda keeps a firm hand on the wheel throughout this emotionally draining transition. By allowing some sunshine to sneak past the cloud’s dark edges, the audience is always kept guessing at where we’re being taken. The package adds an interview with Furutachi and Fukada’s short, “Birds.”

The Villainess: Blu-ray
I don’t know how the Korean producers of Jung Byung-gil’s hyperviolent thriller, The Villainess, were able to avoid crediting Luc Besson and La Femme Nikita as the inspiration, at least, for their story. The script also appears to borrow plot points from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, without acknowledging its influence. The possibility of an imprisoned woman being turned into a killing machine to serve the whims of a government agency or criminal organization might be considered too generic a concept to warrant attribution. No matter, because once the protagonist begins kicking serious ass – in a scene straight out of a first-person p.o.v. shooting game — The Villainess doesn’t leave much time for idle conjecture. Kim Ok-bin (Thirst) easily holds her own against the martial-arts chops of Anne Parillaud, Bridget Fonda, Uma Thurman, Maggie Q and Peta Wilson, all of whom have played what essentially is the same character. The biggest difference might be Kim’s ability to wield a hatchet with the same skill as a bushido blade or high-powered rifle. As the story goes, after Sook-hee (Kim) witnessed her father’s murder, as a child, she was raised by gangsters to be a skilled fighter and a ruthless killer. Then, days after her marriage to her boss and mentor, he’s also murdered. Her desire for revenge leads to that exciting opening, when Sook-hee storms into the rival gang’s headquarters and, corridor after corridor, wipes out several dozen men in identical dark suits. The slaughter only gets her into the inner sanctum, where the rival boss’ bodyguards offer a more formidable defense. After all is said and done, she emerges with three tiny scratches and in police custody.

The government agents who’ve eavesdropped on Sook-hee’s rampage sense an opportunity to get at the gang, using its own secret weapon. She is taken to a government training facility, where the sexy Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyung) offers her a deal she can’t refuse: if she works for the KIA for 10 years, they’ll let her go free to live her life. The other contributing factor is she’s pregnant and wants to be able to raise the child in peace. If The Villainess too frequently strains credulity and logic, there’s enough balls-to-the-wall action around every corner to satisfy any action geek. There are times when the wire work borders on the miraculous. The Blu-ray adds only a pair of short making-of featurettes.

Time to Die
How this terrific Mexican Western managed to avoid detection on the radar screens of genre buffs for the better part of a half-century is a mystery to me. My first guess would be that American distributors, audiences and critics simply didn’t take movies from south of the Rio Grande seriously, unless they were made by Luis Bunuel in his period of exile from Spain. Hundreds of Hollywood Westerns, many very good, have been set partially or in whole in Mexico. Many others have been made in Durango and other rugged locations. Until recently, it was easier to rely on the same kind of moronic I-don’t-have-to-show-you-any-stinking-badges stereotypes designed to make gringos feel better about stealing so much of Mexico from the Mexicans and minimize the country’s culture. It continues today, of course, but more superb Mexican movies and filmmakers are finding their way north than ever. Even so, how is it possible that a Western scripted by Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel García Marquez and novelist Carlos Fuentes could be ignored? Four years after serving as AD to Bunuel on The Exterminating Angel, Arturo Ripstein made his solo directing debut on Time to Die, which was produced by his father, Alfredo (El crimen del padre Amaro). As good a movie as it is, Ripstein didn’t consider it to be a landmark work. In an interview contained in the bonus features, Alex Cox (Repo Man) suggests that the director may have felt there were too many obvious homages to classic Westerns and directors identified with the genre, or that he didn’t want to place too much weight on his first film.

In most ways, Time to Die is a simple drama, based on classic themes, which just so happens to take place in a part of the country not all that dissimilar to parts of the American Southwest once owned by Mexico. In it, legendary horseman and gunslinger Juan Sagayo (Jorge Martínez de Hoyos) returns to his home town, by foot, after spending 18 years in prison for killing a man, Trueb, who deserved the punishment, instead. When Trueb’s son, Julian (Alfredo Leal), hears Sagayo has returned to town, he demands they face each other in a duel to avenge his father’s death. Julian’s younger brother, Pedro (Enrique Rocha), begins to doubt Sagayo is an honorless killer after meeting and spending time with him. Then, Pedro hears from his fiance’s father that Trueb had provoked Sagayo, until he was forced to preserve his honor as a man. Furthermore, he points out that Julian inherited most of his father’s worst traits, which he’s now using against Sagayo. The events that play out in the final reel are unpredictable and smack of a fatalism not common in American Westerns or, for that matter, gangster films. Film Movement’s 2K restoration of Alex Phillips’ evocative black-and-white cinematography expertly brings out the loneliness and frustration in a man who only desires peace and to be reunited with his former lover. He didn’t deserve to be sent to prison for 18 minutes, let alone 18 years, and shouldn’t have to pay a debt that he doesn’t owe to his tormenter’s sons. In addition to Cox’s introduction, the disc offers commentary by Ripstein and Rocha.

Candy Apple
Made for $100,000 in 2015, Dean Dempsey’s 79-minute debut feature, Candy Apple, is as hard-core as indie pictures get these days. Transgressive would be one way to describe it, but so would rambunctious, audacious, off-putting and spellbinding. It’s one of the very few movies whose trailers demand to be seen before any commitment to a rental or download. Candy Apple is set in a Lower Manhattan hellhole that is quickly being gentrified out of existence, and the characters might have been inspired by Hubert Selby Jr. and Lou Reed. The lead character, played by the heavily tattooed double-amputee, Terry “Texas Trash – played by Dempsey’s real-life father, of the same name — makes Charles Bukowski and Ratso Rizzo look like Donnie Osmond. Sound appealing, so far? Having burned his bridges out west, Trash moves in with his adult son, Bobby (Dempsey), in his small apartment on the Lower East Side. Bobby is reluctant, but committed to helping the former junkie, while trying to stay focused on his own creative pursuits. Both men harbor dark secrets about themselves and support their decrepit lifestyles through illegal means. Ultimately, they’re required to balance desire with responsibility – such as it is – in a darkly comedic fashion. The thing to know about Hard Candy is that Dempsey elected to cast the picture with amateurs playing themselves in a narrative that sometimes parallels their own lives. “The only one who has done any acting is the guy who eats cereal off my character.” Despite having an arm and leg amputated after a collision with a train, the fledgling actor Trash fronts the band, Texas Trash and the Trainwrecks. (The FB page is hilarious.)  The cast also includes transvestite actor Neon Music (Scumbag), Cory “Whorse” Kimbrow-Dana (Werewolf Bitches from Outer Space), Sophia Lamar (Violet Tendencies), and performance artist Kembra Pfahler and the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. Anyone who’s gotten this far here probably will enjoy the hell out of Candy Apple.

Satan’s Cheerleaders: Blu-ray
The Thingy: Confessions of a Teenage Placenta: Blu-ray
There really isn’t much to recommend these cross-generational examples of irredeemably bad exploitation flicks … except, in the case of Satan’s Cheerleaders, at least, the dubious joy that comes with recognizing familiar actors in movies they may once have considered to be beneath them. If that sounds as if I’m being cruel to Yvonne De Carlo, John Carradine, Sydney Chaplin, Jack Kruschen and John Ireland, well, I assume their paychecks didn’t bounce. The picture opens with a group of cheerleaders, who might have gotten lost on the way to auditions for Debbie Does Dallas, inexplicably practicing their routines for the big game on a beach in Malibu. While there, they attract the attention of the star football player (Lane Caudell), his pissed-off coach (Joseph Carlo), their delightfully clueless adviser (Jacqulin Cole) and a gang of rival cheerleaders. They threaten the other girls with TP’ing their high school campus, which only serves to perturb the pervy janitor and Captain Kangaroo look-alike (Kruschen), who provides the link to a satanic cult recruiting virgins. Before that happens, though, he sneaks a peak at the girls while they’re taking a shower. It could have inspired a similar scene, three years later, in Porky’s, although I can’t imagine Bob Clark admitting to the theft. After the girls have vacated the locker room, the janitor sneaks in to put a curse on the blond cheerleader’s clothes. He also sabotages the car carrying the squad to the game, arriving just minutes after it breaks down. Instead of fulfilling his promise to get them there on time, he drops them off at the home of the local sheriff and wife, who have a direct line to Satan. None of the girls qualifies as a virgin, so the blond (Kerry Sherman) has an edge over the sheriff’s cabal, by having already been introduced to the dark side with the janitor’s curse. Or, something like that. When the cheerleaders escape the clutches of Ireland and De Carlo, they make the mistake of confiding in their cronies, played by Carrandine, Chaplin and other poor souls. Schlockmeister writer/director Greydon Clark pulls the kind of ending out of his ass that has to be seen to be believed. If that sounds like fun, be sure to save room for Clark’s commentary and a photo gallery.

Trying to find a redeeming quality in a Troma pickup like The Thingy: Confessions of a Teenage Placenta (a.k.a., “The Miracle of Life”) is like searching for a fully functioning conscience in the White House. Even if such a thing exists, you’d have to sift through too many layers of dirt to find it. In his introductions to such fare, Lloyd Kaufman provides all the caveats most potential viewers would need to separate the merely curious from the truly depraved. That candor, of course, is also what’s separated Troma from its competitors and imitators for most of the last 35 years. Made in Belgium by newcomers Joël Rabijns and Yves Sondermeier, “The Thing” concerns a muscle-bound blond (Pascal Maetens) who suffers a miscarriage, but decides to raise the afterbirth as a normal human being. Like a miniature version of the Blob, the placenta, Luke, slithers through a world of hurt, buoyed by his intelligence, faith and sensitivity. As he struggles for his place in a world of drunks, junkies, whores, bodybuilders and bullies, viewers will begin to see the humanity in Luke and lack thereof in everyone else in the picture. Eventually, he comes to a crossroads, where he’s required to choose between holding on to his gentle ideals or becoming the merciless soldier his mother always wanted him to be. Anyone able to sit through the first 24 minutes without relinquishing their half-digested popcorn should be able to go the distance … should, being the operative term. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, the featurettes “Am I Really That Ugly?” and “Ham,” and typically outrageous Troma marketing material.

Lifetime: High School Lover
The Tower
Atheist America

At the ripe old age of 39, James Franco already has logged 146 acting credits – 13 still waiting for completion – and dozens more as a writer and director. Granted, many of them are for shorts and documentaries, but they require time and dedication some professional would otherwise dedicate to hobbies, traveling and family. He already was an accomplished actor when he returned to school for his BFA in English from UCLA, and then received two MFA degrees — both in writing — from Columbia and Brooklyn College, and a third MFA, in film, from New York University. He’s taught acting and enjoys painting. Among the 18 credits he accumulated in 2017, Franco played brothers Vincent and Frankie Martino, in the HBO mini-series “The Deuce”; directed and starred in the star-studded comedy about acting, The Disaster Artist; and made his second appearance in a Lifetime movie in as many years, “High School Lover.” If someone told me that he’s been slated to replace 77-year-old Alex Trebek, as host of “Jeopardy!” upon his retirement, I wouldn’t be shocked. Neither was I particularly surprised to see him playing the father of a 17-year-old girl (Paulina Singer), who falls for a predatory actor (François Arnaud) that’s 10 years her senior. She does so against the advice of everyone except her star-struck friends, who bask in her reflected glory. Her father tries to intervene before the relationship turns into a dangerous obsession for everyone involved, but that logic doesn’t apply in the movies or real life. At 39, it isn’t inconceivable that Franco would be credible as the character, especially considering he’s a director and a decade older than his current wife (Julia Jones). What is surprising is that the father-knows-best throughline could have been recycled from a dozen, or more, other Lifetime originals and his character normally would be have been filled by someone who hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar, Golden Globe, Emmy, Un Certain Regard, SAG, MTV Video, Razzie, and numerous critics’ awards … or, for that matter, already has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In his previous Lifetime credit, “Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?,” Franco also played a director and served as executive producer.

It took a while after the re-unification of East and West Germany for screenwriters to begin making movies and mini-series about life in the hard-line communist state and how politics split family members who elected to survive within the system and those who quietly pursued democracy, if not necessarily capitalism. I’ve seen several such series, all of which resemble each other in their condemnation of party apparatchiks who wouldn’t recognize Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin if they rose from the dead and grabbed their asses. Even so, like parents everywhere, those represented in Christian Schwochow’s “The Tower” caution their children against making their feelings known to the wrong people … of which, there were many. The two-part, 180-minute TV drama, made in 2012, was based on a novel by Uwe Tellkamp. It chronicles life and politics in Dresden between the dark days of 1982 and 1989, when demonstrations – and Soviet indifference – pushed Stasi-backed elements toward democracy and the tearing down of the wall. The key conflict here is between a hypocritical surgeon in a state-run hospital and his open-minded son, who strives to be respected for what he is and wants to be, not follow his parents’ shallow footsteps. The melodrama gets a bit thick at times, but not oppressively so. It’s the depiction of how the government maintained control over highly educated professionals and intellectuals – here, doctors and writers – that is especially effective. Similar titles include “Deutschland 83,” “Good Bye Lenin!,” “The Lives of Others” and “Barbara Weissensee.”

Once upon a time, atheist spokeswoman Madalyn Murray O’Hair regularly appeared on late-night talks shows to chat up her beliefs – or lack thereof — and represent the loose threads in the fabric of American life. This all changed when televangelists took over cable television and Ronald Reagan exploited their power to win re-election. By vilifying the non-believers and proving themselves to be as fallible as other sinners, the money-grubbing reverends opened the gates to atheists unafraid to challenge religious leaders at their own game. (Perverted Catholic priests share the blame for this.) “The Atheist Experience,” produced in Austin, reputedly is the only TV show dedicated to atheism in the United States. (Bill Maher might dispute that point.) It is delivered via public-access cable in a call-in format every Sunday afternoon. Two atheists debate religious callers for one hour, on camera, while most other Texans are working off hangovers, plotting against abortion providers or waiting for the Cowboys game to start. The debates between believers and skeptics can be funny, touching and shocking in turn, and they’re interspersed with footage of the very public religious displays common in Texas.