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The DVD Wrapup: Space Between Us, xXx, Starlight, Operation Mekong, Serial Mom, Brain Damage and more

Thursday, May 18th, 2017

The Space Between Us: Blu-ray
Apparently, Mars has become the Las Vegas of planets, at least in the eyes of screenwriters looking for a convenient place to add some tourist-appeal to their next sci-fi drama. By comparison to Neptune, for example, the Red Planet is close, potentially habitable, already mapped from space and explored by rovers, and visible from Earth. Several generations of novelists and filmmakers have explored it, as well, in works that have stirred the imaginations of audiences around the world. The problem now, of course, is that we’ve become so familiar with Mars that fantasists have had to reduce their dependence on little green men and other alien creatures as potential antagonists. Instead, they’re creating new ways for humans to make problems for themselves. Ridley Scott’s captivating drama of ingenuity and survival, The Martian, relied less on science-fiction for its conceits than raw data, visual evidence and empathy for its appeal. It made more than $600 million in global box-office returns, before sailing into the aftermarket. Indeed, there are exteriors in the largely Mars-based The Space Between Us that look as if they might have been ported over from The Martian. Its lack of success commercially and critically, however, probably can be traced to issues unrelated to space fatigue. Absent any of the bells and whistles that helped launch other recent sci-fi extravaganzas — 3D, IMAX, 3D IMAX — even The Martian faced an uphill climb. Neither were its chances enhanced by three release-date changes and a marketing campaign hobbled by mixed messages. Unlike Gravity, Passengers, Interstellar, Life, Approaching the Unknown and various franchise and comic-book adventures, The Space Between Us played like a teen romance that began and ended on Mars, but, otherwise, was earthbound. Its less grandiose scale reminded me of Duncan Jones’ underappreciated Moon (2009), a twisty lunar mystery about a lonely lunar engineer, played by Sam Rockwell, and his computer, GERTY, voiced by Kevin Spacey.

The intrigue begins when a seasoned NASA mission commander, on her way to Mars for a corporate colonization project, discovers in midflight that she’s pregnant. I can’t imagine how this potentially calamitous medical situation could have be missed by the team’s medical staff or come as a complete surprise either of the adults involved in the reproduction process, but it did. Shortly after landing, while giving birth to the first human born on Mars, the mother dies. In a potentially disastrous public-relations dilemma for the project’s sponsor, back home, Genesis CEO Nathaniel Shepard (Gary Oldman) and director Tom Chen (B.D. Wong) decide to keep the birth a secret from the media and invent a logical explanation for the high-profile woman’s death. Flash forward 16 years and the boy, Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield), is living what most viewers, I think, would consider to be a reasonably normal life … considering the circumstances. Watched over by a nagging android and astronaut Kendra Wyndham (Carla Gugino), Gardner’s assimilated naturally into the 15-member crew. Like any other adopted teenager, Gardner scratches around the space station for clues to his parentage, finally discovering a photo of his mother and a man the gangly 16-year-old closely resembles. He also has become addicted to Internet surfing and the social sites, upon which he’s befriended a similarly lonely teenage girl. Gardner’s led Tulsa (Britt Robertson) to believe that she’s corresponding with a bubble boy, limited to life in a Manhattan penthouse. Feeling that it’s time for him to broaden his horizons, Kendra helps Gardner hitch a ride on the next supply shuttle home. What she doesn’t know is how desperate he is to touch base with Tulsa and locate his father, based solely on the photo and an advanced computer search of similar backgrounds. Once he’s able to break free from corporate headquarters, he makes a beeline to Colorado, where he confounds Tulsa with his actual life story and convinces her to join him in his crusade. Their road trip to the beach communities of Southern California, is interrupted with an obligatory pitstop in Las Vegas, where Gardner’s life-threatening aversion to Earth’s atmosphere betrays him. The Space Between Us becomes a race against time and gravity. As far-fetched as it sounds, I think that teen and young-adult viewers would find a lot to enjoy here, especially in the sometimes awkward interactions between Gardner and Tulsa. The Blu-ray adds a decent alternate ending, deleted scene, a background featurette and commentary with director Peter Chelsom (Serendipity).

xXx: Return of Xander Cage: Blu-ray
As easily identifiable as Vin Diesel is as xXx operative Xander Cage, it’s worth remembering he’d been missing in action for 15 years before returning as the protagonist in the franchise’s second sequel, xXx: Return of Xander Cage. In xXx: State of the Union, the first sequel to 2002’s succinctly titled xXx, the lead kick-ass agent was played by Ice Cube. It didn’t do nearly as well as the original and a lot of people gave the franchise up for dead. With Diesel coaxed out of retirement for the triquel and a script that successfully forgoes logic for extreme action, a return to profitability seemed inevitable. And, while it underperformed domestically, it did well in the worldwide market, especially China, where it broke the $100-million barrier in six days. “Return’ opens with a smorgasbord of extreme-sports gags that a 25-year-old James Bond might envy. After scaling a dizzyingly tall broadcast antenna, high atop a mountain in the Dominican Republic, Xander base-jumps into the forest greenery below to avoid police. Once grounded, he skies down the mountain side, avoiding boulders, low-hanging branches and tree trunks. Then, he commandeers a skateboard and races down a winding road to the sea, where a group of rabid soccer fans is awaiting the transponder box needed to watch a World Cup match. The captivating set piece anticipates everything to come action-wise, while, back in the Estados Unidos, a smash-and-grab attack at a top-secret gathering of intelligence officials introduces viewers to the all-powerful Pandorada’s Box gizmo that, if triggered, could destroy humanity. When the wily invader succeeds in stealing the box, it disappears into the netherworld of high-tech hoodlums and corrupt spooks. Apparently, Xander is one of the few people on the planet capable of recovery the device and almost everyone in Washington thinks he’s deceased. It takes a visit from Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson), the NSA agent in charge of the xXx Program, to convince his former recruit to prevent a satellite-launched apocalypse. (Gibbons is the only character to appear in every installment of the franchise.)

The assumption is that the box is currently is in the hands of another former xXx agent, Xiang (Donnie “Ip Man” Yen), but he’s only one of several characters whose motivations are unclear. Xander agrees to lead the recovery mission, but only if he pick his teammates. It will be comprised of fellow extreme athletes played by Thai martial arts star, Tony Jaa (Ong Bak); Bulgarian gymnast/dancer, Nina Dobrev; lanky Bollywood model/actress, Deepika Padukone; scary Aussie tattoo freak, Ruby Rose (“Orange Is the New Black”); Chinese singer/actor Kris Wu; British UFC champ, Michael Bisping; “Game of Thrones” favorite, Rory McCann; Brazilian soccer phenom, Neymar; ex-NFL tight end, Tony Gonzalez. Dobrev’s master hacker, Becky Clearidge, desperately wants to kick some butts, but her talents are better suited to blocking the bad guys’ computer transmissions and making the impossible possible. Toni Collette is typically credible as a duplicitous CIA official and Ice Cube returns from the dead for a cameo. “Return” looks perfectly suited for 3D or UHD playback, so early adapters should look for it in those formats. Director D.J. Caruso (I Am Number Four), DP Russell Carpenter (Ant-Man) and the huge stunt team keep things moving at a breakneck speed for nearly all of the film 107-minute length. The Blu-ray adds “Third Time’s the Charm: Xander Returns,” a nuts-and-bolts supplement that examines Vin Diesel’s return to the series, new characters and cast members; “Rebels, Tyrants & Ghosts: The Cast,” on assembling the film’s international cast; “Opening Pandora’s Box: On Location,” on the various sets and shooting locations; “I Live for This Sh#t!: Stunts,” takes viewers behind-the-scenes for a look at making the action sequences; and a gag reel.

Starlight: Blu-ray
A few decades ago, when Iggy Pop was one of the odds-on favorites in everyone’s office dead pools, it would have been preposterous to think he might someday be the marquee attraction in a French art film, albeit as a guardian angel named La Conscience. And, yet, here he is. Iggy’s return to touring and recording is back on track, as well. He didn’t have to stretch much for his performance in Sophie Blondy’s Starlight, where he’s mostly limited to staring blankly into the camera from a blurred background. He wasn’t even required to wear a shirt or learn more than a few words of dialogue. Iggy’s spirit image merely appears at various times to members of a small circus company, reduced to performing before meager audiences in a community protected from the North Sea by a magnificent bank of sand dunes. Like the threadbare circus, itself, the performers are on their last legs. Two love triangles threaten to hasten its demise even further. The warring factions are comprised of ballerina Angele (Natacha Regnier), her clown lover Elliot (Bruno Putzulu) and the cruel, schizophrenic ringmaster (Tcheky Karyo), and the Gypsy fortune-teller Zohra (Beatrice Dalle), who’s also in love with Elliot. Although there are moments of Antonioni-inspired beauty, especially in the over-saturated black-and-white scenes at the beach and dunes, some of Starlight‘s more strident confrontations resemble outtakes from “Bum Fights” videos. I would have appreciated some bonus background features, but, alas, it is what it is. Iggy completists should get a kick out of it.

Borrowing from one of the hoariest of all hoary teen-movie plots — the revenge of the nerds — Peter Hutchings’ The Outcasts succeeds by taking advantage of the manic energy of its stars and a surprisingly smart screenplay by a pair of newcomers to the writing game. Casting specialists Dominique Ferrari and Suzanne Wrubel went to great lengths to create an unusually large cast of precisely defined characters, while also avoiding or fine-tuning the many cliches associated with the subgenre. Victoria Justice (“Vctorious” and Eden Sher (“The Middle”) play Jodi and Mindy, an amiable pair of scholastically oriented geeks, who, after becoming the targets of a nasty practical joke, spark a revolution of like-minded outcasts. The rebels include AV specialists, science-fair champs, debate-club wordsmiths, Girl Scouts, fatties, marching-band lifers, cosplay kids and honor-roll dorks. United, they present a formidable resistance to the tyranny of the “popular” kids. It also helps that the imaginatively conceived dialogue is delivered at breakneck speed by teens, who, conceivably, prepared by chugging Diet Mountain Dew spritzers and shots of Starbucks double-espresso. As archetypal as some of the characters are, Hutchings dispensed with the cardboard typically used to create stereotypical background elements, including parents and teachers. Each is allowed to retain a measure of humanity normally reserved for the protagonists. The “psycho Barbie” mean girls and brain-dead jocks may have been drawn with broad strokes, but they’re given opportunities to repent their sins. None of this would have worked if the costume and set designers hadn’t done their homework, or if the overtly moralistic resolution and requisite post-scripts underperformed. To my adult mind, the only noticeable drawback is a straight-to-Internet visual sheen more suited to YouTube webisodes than a movie that someday could be mentioned in the same listicle as Clueless or Election. That said, I doubt that anyone who grew up watching MTV sitcoms will object.

A Street Cat Named Bob
If parents can get over the fact that the protagonist of A Street Cat Named Bob is a slowly recovering drug addict, Roger Spottiswoode’s winning adaptation of James Bowen and Garry Jenkins’ international best-seller could easily qualify as an unlikely family entertainment. Unrated, presumably, to avoid a de rigueur “R” for drug references and language, it is the true story of a homeless London busker and the ginger feline who adopts him. Street musician James (Luke Treadaway), based on the co-author’s own experiences, struggles to control his addiction with methadone and chronic poverty by hawking magazines and performing catchy songs, with Bob on his shoulders, for spare change. In this way, A Street Cat Named Bob immediately recalls Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova in Once. Another unavoidable comparison is to The Soloist, in which a homeless, Juilliard-trained musician is discovered by a reporter who sees something remarkable behind the dirt and grime. Even so, it’s an uphill battle all the way. Spottiswoode has previously displayed a kinship with animal actors in Turner & Hooch and The Journey Home. Here, Bob isn’t required to perform any anthropomorphic gags or be anything but a strangely obedient pet and loyal friend. The only animal-centric conceit is having the camera observe certain things — a mouse, yarn, household items and the occasional canine threat — from a feline point-of-view. The gimmick is used sparingly, however, and, perhaps, relates to something in the book. The closing scene — no spoiler alert necessary — is as uplifting as movies about addictions and homelessness get. The songs are pretty good, as well. Solid support is provided by Ruta Gedmintas, Joanne Froggatt, Anthony Head and Beth Goddard. The DVD comes with a pair of background pieces.

Between Us
I doubt that Olivia Thirlby and Anna Kendrick share anything beyond dark hair, being short in stature, winning smiles, a similar age and tendency to be cast in roles that are interchangeable. Even in their 30s, they can get away with playing recent college graduates. The first word that comes to mind when they appear on screen is, “cute.” That’s fine, but five more inches in height would be better. Neither is likely to be cast as a femme fatale. That’s OK, too. Anna received an Oscar nomination, for Up in the Air, and has enjoyed success in a pair of monster franchises, Twilight and Pitch Perfect. Olivia was a member of Juno‘s terrific ensemble cast and stood out in the Sundance favorite, The Wackness. If their characters don’t always get their man, we sometimes wish they would steal someone else’s. None of that matters much in the overall scheme of things, but it’s what came to mind while waiting for something interesting to happen in Thirlby’s latest near-miss, Between Us. Its an urban rom/dram/com about longtime friends and lovers, who, for all the usual reasons, decide that it’s probably time to test fate by getting married. What that means here, of course, is that Henry (Ben Feldman) and Dianne’s hastily arranged wedding will fall apart, even before they can consummate the marriage … officially, that is. Their first night as husband and wife turns into a nightmare of accusations, recriminations and temptations that should have been considered before hiring a limousine for the ride downtown.

A similar thing happens in Richard LaGravenese and composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown’s rom/dram/com musical, The Last Five Years. In it, Kendrick plays a struggling actress, Cathy, whose marriage to the up-and-coming novelist, Jamie (Jeremy Jordan), falls apart just when it should be solidifying. Their story is told almost entirely through songs, using an intercutting timeline device that causes all of Cathy’s songs to begin at the end of their marriage and travel backwards in time to the start of their love affair. Conversely, Jamie’s songs take us in a forwardly direction, from the beginning of their romance to the end of their marriage. The individual arcs of their stories meet at the point when Cathy and Jamie are at their happiest. It’s an extremely complicated concept to pull off in a dramatic narrative, anywhere, but Anna’s an excellent singer and, I suspect, The Last Five Years worked better on the stage, where it originated.

But, where was I? Oh, yeah. Thirlby and Kendrick work so hard to convince us of their characters’ virtues that it’s difficult to believe that their partners would give up on them so easily. It’s almost as if they’re in the wrong movies. In Rafael Palacio Illingworth’s Between Us, Henry uses the wedding-day argument as an excuse to hook up with a free-spirited musician, Veronica (Analeigh Tipton), who admires his books, but looks as if she might have missed the last bus to the Burning Man festival. For her part. Dianne makes the last-minute decision to call a guy she just met on her job as a project coordinator, using the pretext of wanting to drive his sports car around town. Although she’s shocked to learn that he’s married — his wife is in the back seat when he arrives — their performance-artist friend, Liam (Adam Goldberg), is only too happy to pick up the pieces of her heart. Although Illingworth’s script offers a short-term resolution to the newlyweds’ dilemma, neither hookup comes remotely close to being a match made in heaven. Thirlby’s first big on-screen sex scene session — without a body double, anyway — was more cringeworthy than stimulating or erotic. (It might have been hotter if Goldberg had taken off his Doc Martins and greasy jeans.) Peter Bogdanovich and Lesley Ann Warren make an entertaining appearance as Henry’s parents.

On the Road, Somewhere
Guillermo Zouain and co-writer Wendy Muniz’ debut feature, On the Road, Somewhere (a.k.a., “Algun lugar“), follows three high-school buddies on a summer road-trip through the Dominican Republic, likely their last joint adventure before going their separate ways. I suspect that IndiePix Films would love for potential viewers to anticipate seeing a grass-roots version of Y Tu Mama, Tambien, but, at a brisk 71 minutes, there simply isn’t enough there to warrant comparisons beyond the obvious coming-of-age similarities. Even so, its good-natured amiability and scenic beauty recommend it to admirers of emerging Latino artists. (Zouain is a third-generation Dominican, of Lebanese descent, who emigrated to the U.S. in 2010.)  In it, Oliver (Arnold Martínez), Moises (Javier Grullon), and Hemingway (Victor Alfonso) need to arrive at the remote town of Pedernales, so that Oliver can say goodbye to his high school sweetheart, before she moves to New York. Moises is documenting the trip as a last tribute to his love of photography, before studying civil engineering in college, while Hemingway hopes to escape his oppressive family and become a writer in a society that doesn’t appreciate them. Complicating their mission is an automobile in desperate need of a new radiator. It forces them to rely on shared jitneys and an acquaintance with a motorboat. They encounter “nearly every character under the Dominican sun,” including a Haitian hitchhiker, a famous photographer, a political fanatic, an intriguing artist and voluptuous libertine. On the Road, Somewhere presents a different side of the D.R. than we’ve seen in action films (xXx: Return of Xande Cage), baseball-themed docs (Ballplayer: Pelotero), political dramas (Kill the Dictator) and cross-cultural romances (Sand Dollars). It’s the island’s natural beauty and cultural diversity that sell the picture.

Good Morning: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Japanese writer/director Yasujiro Ozu is known best for such observant postwar “home dramas” as Tokyo Story, Tokyo Twilight, Late Spring, Early Summer and An Autumn Afternoon. The Criterion Collection re-release of Good Morning provides ample proof, in case any was necessary, that Ozu’s comedies deserve our attention, as well. It is a loose remake of his own 1932 silent, I Was Born, But …, as well as his second film in color. The rebellious pair of children to whom we’re introduced in both movies could have been fashioned after the Katzenjammer Kids or the Little Rascals, and their friends run the gamut from typically polite and respectful, to anarchic … in a mischievous sort of way. Minoru and Isamu Hayashi stubbornly insist on becoming the next family in the suburban neighborhood to own a television, so they can watch sumo wrestling and baseball without leaving home. (It must have been a demand made by children around the world in 1959.) They even refuse to speak Japanese and eat their meals, until their father surrenders. Their impolite behavior is completely out of character for Japanese children of the period, so it’s especially interesting to see how their decidedly postwar parents deal with it. Good Morning‘s vision extends to the difficulties of multigenerational families living in small, pre-fabricated homes, so close together that one family’s living room practically leads into the kitchen next-door, and drunken grandfathers easily confuse one family’s front door for his own. The boys find ways to avoid having to deal with bullies at school, while, at home, mom learns how to cope with nosy and domineering neighbors, whose gossip can be as sharp as a knife.

The title, Good Morning, itself, offers a clue to Ozu’s overriding theme of changing norms in a society not quite ready to deal with them. The exaggerated repetition of polite greetings, expressions of gratitude, apologies, bowing and other courtesies — the “lubricant in Japanese society” — is hilarious, but only when we finally get the drift of Ozu’s running gag. He also shows how everyday commerce is evolving, by contrasting the efforts of a persistent street peddler who’s knows the territory and a neighbor who finally gets a meaningful job, as purveyor of consumer-electronics products to strangers. And, then, there’s the farting. Even if the unfettered flatulence is hard to detect, at first, it is one of the things that links generations in these households. Everyone lets one go every so often and giggles at their own impoliteness. The Technicolor may also be new, but not the director’s brilliant camerawork and subtle shifts in perspective, which most viewers won’t even notice. The Blu-ray benefits from a new 4K digital restoration from Shochiku Co., with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; the inclusion of “I Was Born, But .,.,” with a score composed by Donald Sosin; the surviving excerpt from “A Straightforward Boy,” a 1929 silent film by Ozu; a new video essay on his use of humor, by critic David Cairns; an interview with film scholar David Bordwell; and an essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.

Writer/director Phil Volken’s second feature, after the virtually unseen 2013 dramedy Garbage, is a better-than-average straight-to-DVD thriller that’s set in the Caribbean and involves a kidnaping at sea. A cocky American doctor brings his family to an idyllic island, expecting perfection and respect, but is not averse to flashing hundred-dollar bills when his demands aren’t immediately met. After renting a motorboat that probably is less than seaworthy — in lieu of waiting for a more tourist-friendly jet-ski to become unavailable at his resort — Kevin Reilly (Eion Bailey) decides to take his wife, Julie (Bethany Joy Lenz), and sickly young son to an island that’s just over the horizon. After a few pleasant hours in the sun, the outboard motor predictably fails to start, leaving them high, dry and thirsty for a couple days. Just in the nick of time, a fisherman arrives to rescue them. Not. Miguel (Barkhad Abdi) decides, instead, to kidnap mother and child, while extorting a million bucks from dad. Just as the exchange is set in motion, however, Miguel decides to launch a series of switchbacks that will alternately surprise viewers and make the kidnapper that much more odious. Neither do we anticipate the resistance to Kevin’s plight he’s accorded by local authorities and U.S. consulate officials, who sense that he’s a con artist. Again, though, an unlikely set of circumstances forces the American to take matters into his own hands and find clues leading to his family’s whereabouts in ways anyone with a laptop, Google maps and a chip on his shoulder could do. In a bit of a twist, Danny Glover plays a cop who seems more willing to frame Kevin than find his family. The DVD adds a making-of featurette.

Operation Mekong: Blu-ray
Until the arrival in my mailbox of Dante Lam’s all-action Operation Mekong, I don’t think I’ve seen a movie from China that so clearly lays out the country’s vulnerability to an out-of-control drug epidemic. I know the communist government takes such threats extremely seriously, because I’ve seen news footage of men convicted of all sorts of serious crimes, their hands tied behind their backs, executed within minutes of hearing their verdicts being read. When it comes to portrayals of vices and other social ills, government censors are as stringent as Hollywood’s Hays Office was, back in the day. Still, it makes sense that China would be facing many of the same concerns experienced in less-totalitarian countries. Its immediate proximity to the Golden Triangle and ready supply of contraband from Southeast Asia, along the Mekong and Lamkang rivers, came as a surprise to me. The recent explosion in personal wealth among a younger, more worldly generation of city-based workers would seem to play into the hands of purveyors of all manner of decadent pleasures. It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that British and Qing Dynasty forces went to war, partially over the legalization of the opium trade. (The Brits were all for it.) Its proximity to the poppy fields of Afghanistan also makes China vulnerable to trafficking along historic trade routes. On the flip side, China has become a source country for significant amounts of the ephedrine and pseudoephedrine exported to Mexico and subsequently used to manufacture crystal meth destined for the United States. While it’s hardly a secret — check out the Wikipedia entry dedicated to illegal drug use in the PRC — the still burgeoning mainland movie industry has focused more of its attention on historical epics, martial-arts thrillers and yuppie romances. (Hong Kong-based filmmakers still have their hands full with the triads.)

Operation Mekong was inspired by a 2011 attack on two Chinese commercial vessels on the narrow section of the Mekong River that extends from China’s Yunnan Province, through the Golden Triangle, and south to Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. It is believed that pirates, under the command of cartel leader Naw Kham (Pawarith Monkolpisit), boarded the vessels in an attempt to extort money and, then, executed 13 sailors at gunpoint. They planted 900,000 methamphetamine pills, presumably to make it look like the boats were used for smuggling drugs, and dumped the bodies overboard. The Mekong River Massacre was treated as a major national tragedy by the Chinese and an embarrassment by the governments of Laos, Burma and Thailand. Nine Thai soldiers belonging to an elite anti-narcotics army unit were implicated in the attacks, but disappeared after being identified. Naw Kham was arrested by Laotian officials and extradited to China, where he reportedly admitted his guilt, and was executed, 11 months later, with three of his subordinates. Operation Mekong‘s take on the joint police investigation and capture of Naw Kham is based on the official Chinese version of the story, which gives most of the credit to Gao Gang (Zhang Hanyu), head of the elite narcotics-control team, and regional intelligence officer Fang Xinwu (Eddie Peng). Even if Lam’s interpretation of the events more closely resembles Rambo, than, say, American Gangster, the elaborately staged chase sequences are right up there with the one in The French Connection. The DVD adds a comprehensive making-of package.

Willard/Ben: Blu-ray
Way back in the dark ages of the early 1970s, a pair of movies about killer rats caught the fancy of teenagers and young adults, effectively launching a subgenre in which household pests, bugs and reptiles recognized their collective powers and turned on humans, with a vengeance. If the critics weren’t impressed, i’s probably because so many good movies were being churned out by Hollywood “mavericks” and foreign auteurs that they resented having to cover flicks targeted at the drive-in crowd. (They’d change their minds when sharp young filmmakers emerged from the pack to re-invent those genres.) While Willard became a huge financial hit, Ben‘s claim to fame is having its theme song sung by a very young Michael Jackson in the closing credits and having it nominated for an Oscar as Best Original Song. (It won a Golden Globe in the same category.) For some reason, both films have been difficult to find, especially in the refurbished condition afforded them by the archivists at Scream Factory. The first thing to know, besides the killer-rats conceit, is that the protagonist of Willard is an unfortunate young man named Willard Stiles (Ben Davison) and Ben is named after the leader of the movie’s rat pack, and not the other way around.

In the former, Stiles lives alone in a crumbling house with his ailing, slightly addled mother (Elsa Lanchester). His boss (Ernest Borgnine) is a vulgarian, who stole his business from Willard’s father and is now working the young man to death in a menial factory job. Willard is on the verge of a breakdown when he makes a new friend, the aforementioned Ben, one of the many rats who inhabit the house. Not only can Willard communicate with the rodent, but he’s also able to command him to do his bidding, which includes carrying out his vengeance on the man who robbed him of his inheritance. Without giving away too much, Ben opens with a police investigation, led by Joseph Campanella, into the sudden invasion of militant vermin in Willard’s former neighborhood. Ben finds an ally in a lonely 8-year-old boy (Lee Montgomery), who facilitates the ensuing game of cat-and-mouse between the police and four-legged antagonists. Look for Meredith Baxter, Arthur O’Connell and Rosemary Murphy in key supporting roles. Ben suffers here from a substandard visual presentation forced by the unavailability of the original negatives and interpositives. The Blu-rays add an audio commentary and new interview with Davison and Montgomery, as well as vintage marketing material.

Serial Mom: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Watching the movie many of John Waters’ legion of fans considers to be his most widely accessible entertainment, Serial Mom, I couldn’t help but wonder how Divine would have portrayed its wicked protagonist, Beverly Sutphin. The obese cross-dressing mainstay of Waters’ early features had died in 1988 and his loss had a deep impact on the Pope of Trash. Kathleen Turner was chosen to play the homicidal housewife, reportedly after Susan Sarandon and Julie Andrews were considered for the part. It wasn’t the perfect fit Divine would have been, but Turner’s presence assured a larger-the-usual budget for Waters and an opportunity to play in theaters not strictly reserved for arthouse or underground films. It’s still a hoot hearing Turner and Mink Stole exchange vulgarities in the initial obscene phone call that reveals just how duplicitous Waters’ “Breck Girl gone crazy” could be. Along with her doting and largely oblivious husband, Eugene (Sam Waterston, also playing against type), and two children, Misty (Ricki Lake) and Chip (Matthew Lillard), Beverly enjoys the kind of suburban lifestyle only a writer of 1950s sitcoms could invent. Even so, little things trigger her sociopathic instincts: a fly on the butter, a teacher dissing her horror-fanatic son, her daughter’s two-timing boyfriend and the white pumps worn by Juror #8 (Patricia Hearst) after Labor Day.

Waters has always been a big fan of true-crime TV shows and once frequented the kinds of trials that alternately repulsed and captured the public’s attention, including the Hearst/SLA trials. He saw irony everywhere. In an interview included in the bonus package, he points out that the slow-speed chase that preceded Beverly’s arrest was staged only a few months before O.J. Simpson and Al Cowlings led a parade of CHP and LAPD squad cars from Orange County to his Brentwood estate in a white Ford Bronco. If Serial Mom isn’t as shocking as Pink Flamingos or Multiple Maniacs, it remains a movie that can be enjoyed by Waters’ old and new fans. NBCs recent limited series, Trial & Error, certainly owes a huge debt of gratitude to Waters, Beverly Sutphin and Serial Mom. Other faces to look for belong to Suzanne Somers, Traci Lords and Bess Armstrong. The Scream Factory package includes a lively conversation with Waters, Turner and Stole; “Serial Mom: Surreal Moments,” featuring interviews with Waters, Stole, Hearst, Lake, Lillard, casting director Pat Moran and production designer Vincent Pirano; commentaries with Waters and Turner; and vintage featurettes “The Making of Serial Mom” and “The Kings of Gore: Herschel Gordon Lewis and David Friedman.” Waters has indicated that he’s been forced into retirement by production costs that no longer allow him to make the edgy material he favors and still enjoy some financial return. His last release, not counting “Kiddie Flamingos” — a table read, by youngsters, of his classic — was 2004’s A Dirty Shame. The American cinema’s loss is the lecture circuits gain.

Brain Damage: Special Edition: Blu-ray
American Mummy: Limited Edition: Blu-ray 3D/2D
In the annals of exploitation and sexploitation cinema, Frank Henenlotter’s name may not pop up as often as Herschell Gordon Lewis, Russ Meyer, Doris Wishman, Ruggero Deodato, Jess Franco, Joe D’Amato, Roger Corman and John Waters, but what he lacks in quantity is made up for in notoriety. In addition to the Basket Case trilogy, Henenlotter is responsible for Frankenhooker, Bad Biology, Brain Damage and the documentaries Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore and That’s Sexploitation! Brain Damage is newly available in an elaborately conceived Blu-ray “special edition” from Arrow Films. It exists today as a classic example of bad taste in the service of hard-core horror, as well as an alternately shocking and hilarious anti-drug allegory from the this-is-your-brain-on-drugs era. The antagonist in Brain Damage is a parasitic creature that’s a cross between the monster in William Castle’s The Tingler (1959) and a lamprey eel. Aylmer (a.k.a., Elmer) is a phallus-shaped thingee that attaches itself to the base of its victim’s brain stem, excreting a hallucinogenic serum into the host, while demanding access to the brain cells of people with whom he comes in contact. After sucking a victim’s cerebellum dry, Aylmer reattaches itself to the brain stem of Brian (Rick Hearst), a handsome chap who’s become addicted to the serum. If these nauseating encounters weren’t sufficiently gut-churning, the Arrow edition of Brain Damage restores a scene so disgusting it completely redefines what it means to experience mind-blowing oral sex. It should come with one of those warning signs that used to flash on screens ahead of gory scenes in the glory days of cheapo horror flicks. Even by the low standards established in Corman and Jack Nicholson’s The Trip, 20 years earlier, Brian’s psychedelic visions must have looked ridiculously primitive to 1980s’ acid heads. That, however, is what makes the micro-budgeted movie so endearing today. The newly recorded backgrounders and making-of featurettes should be considered must-viewing for fans of exploitation films and Henenlotter’s strangely influential Basket Case (1982). The writer/director adds fresh commentary and a Q&A recorded at the 2016 Offscreen Film Festival. There are interviews with cast and crew members; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sara Deck; a limited-edition O-card with exclusive artwork and collector’s booklet with new writing on the film by Michael Gingold.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the makers of American Mummy had seen Brain Damage and were influenced by some of its more grotesque imagery. Neither would I be shocked to find out that the folks at Wild Eye Releasing had decided to retitle the 2014 release — formerly known as “Aztec Blood” – to piggyback on the hype being generated by Tom Cruise’s upcoming reimagining of The Mummy. Whatever works, I suppose. After a nearly 20-year hiatus, co-writer/director Charles Pinion (We Await, Red Spirit Lake) returned to action with this 3D account of the mayhem that follows the discovery of a gemstone-encrusted mummy, in a cave in New Mexico, by a group of university students. When one of them performs a primeval blood ritual over the mummy, it awakens the malevolent spirit of the Aztec Lord Tezcalipoca. Apparently, he’s intent on finishing his centuries-old reign of terror, beginning with the horny kids. How far he will get is anyone’s guess. I wasn’t able to screen American Mummy on 3D, so am unable to comment on its effectiveness. There’s plenty of carnage on display, however, as well as some T & A. Typically, they compensate for a decided lack of anything else in the movie’s favor. Still, I’ve seen a lot worse. There are some brief making-of pieces.

Disturbing the Peace
Wouldn’t it be great to wake up one morning to the news that peace has been declared in the Middle East and that Israeli and Palestinian leaders are encouraging their followers to pull back from a perpetual war footing? Yeah, I’m not holding my breath on that one, either. Too many war mongers on both sides of the wall dividing the West Bank have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo for peace to break out overnight. Still, occasional documentaries, such as Disturbing the Peace, offer reasons to believe that a reasonable solution to a 70-year conflict may still be possible in our lifetime. Launched in 2005, Combatants for Peace is an organization dedicated to fighting violence through nonviolence. It’s comprised of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian freedom fighters, who’ve come to the conclusion — after long stretches of time in uniform or behind bars — that talking and listening can be more formidable weapons than guns and bombs. After briefly sketching out the events that led to the current stalemate, directors Stephen Apkon and Andrew Young introduce us to men and women who’ve stood on the front lines and found reasons within themselves to try another option. One of the women was arrested after an aborted suicide mission and served six years in an Israeli prison. It took her at least that long to see the humanity in people she once targeted as enemies. Needless to say, their commitment to the CFP and openly promoting its goals wasn’t always greeted with sympathy or kindness. Disturbing the Peace may not represent the opinions of the majority of voters in Israel, but it’s nice to know that the minority hasn’t given up on a peaceful solution and that a lack of news coverage shouldn’t be mistaken for silence.

A Mermaid’s Tale
In the 180 years since the publication of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, “The Little Mermaid,” dozens of other writers have been inspired to adapt it for opera, musical theater, ballets, comic books, manga and anime, television and movies … short and long, animated and live-action. If there are only so many ways mermaids can be portrayed, physically, what they’re able to accomplish in and out of the water has few limits. In Dustin Rikert’s G-rated A Mermaid’s Tale, a 12-year-old newcomer (Caitlin Carmichael) to an oceanside town rescues a teenage mermaid, (Sydney Scotia), who’s become entangled in a fisherman’s net. Without saying as much, Ryan’s crusty grandfather (Barry Bostwick) blames the resident mermaids — in dolphin guise — for scaring off the fish that long supported the community. He has other reasons for discouraging Ryan from getting too close to Coral, but those will come out later, as well as a clever strategy to save the dying town. A Mermaid’s Tale‘s is limited by its budget, which, likely, was capped by the film’s expected audience of tweeners and their little sisters. It is enhanced by the sunny seaside location and bright talents of its supporting cast, including Jerry O’Connell and Nancy Stafford.

PBS: Africa’s Great Civilizations: Blu-ray
DirecTV: Ice: Season One
HBO Latino: Millie & the Lords
PBS: Nature: Viva Puerto Rico
PBS: Frontline: Out of Gitmo
A&E: Duck Dynasty: The Final Season: Last Call
PBS Kids: Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Tiger Family Trip
Nickelodeon: Bubble Guppies: Super Guppies
For many years, one of the greatest failings of the American educational system involved a complete disregard of sub-Saharan African history, from the earliest stirrings of human life in the Rift Valley of Eastern Africa to the colonial era. The slave trade was covered, of course, but rarely the circumstances that allowed it to thrive and long-term disruption of historical trends and boundaries it fostered. I remember being taught that African tribes often conspired with European traders to create a reliable supply of slaves, but it sometimes seemed as if we were doing the kidnaped men, women and children a favor by putting them on a boat and shipping them a thousand miles from home to work, for free, while plantation owners sipped mint julips on their verandas. That’s pretty much changed, thanks to demands made by African-American teachers, students and parents to set the record straight. Even so, an awareness of African history before the arrival of European and Arab traders and religious zealots is missing from most elementary and high school curriculums. The illuminating six-part PBS mini-series, “Africa’s Great Civilizations,” makes great strides toward closing that gap. Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. — a fixture in PBS documentary series — takes viewers on a journey through 200,000 years of African history — from the birth of humankind to the dawn of the 20th Century — focusing on the formation of city-states and cultures that withstood the winds of change or were condemned to be buried by the shifting sands. Naturally, most of us are aware of the great Egyptian civilizations and magnificent ruins that still stand. Gates reminds us that just as many ruins, temples and shrines can be found throughout the continent, if one knows where to find them. He describes how the constant demand for gold shaped the great civilizations and lured new ones to Africa’s shores. The same applies to the ebb and flow of imported religions, from the earliest Christian churches in Ethiopia, to the arrival of Jesuit missionaries and amazing sweep of the Muslim empire, as it made its way from Egypt to Spain. With more than 40 years’ worth of Black History Months already behind us, regular presentations of “Africa’s Great Civilizations” could go a long way toward explaining why the continent will remain an important part of our future.

Ice“ is a reasonably ambitious mini-series on a cable network I didn’t even know existed, before a screener copy arrived in the mail. The stylishly shot series follows the questionable affairs of the L.A.-based Green family, whose fortune was made in the diamond trade and jewelry business. It was created and co-written by the hyper-prolific Oscar-winner Ron Bass (Rain Man), along with an exhausting list of writers, directors and producers that includes “Game of Thrones” co-executive producer Vince Gerardis and Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer). The even longer list of stars and co-stars includes Cam Gigandet, Jeremy Sisto, Raymond Barry, Ray Winstone, Judith Shekoni, Ella Thomas and Donald Sutherland. Diamonds have been sold, stolen, swapped, smuggled and counterfeited for millennia. It’s been a staple in novels, movies and television shows, ever since such mediums have existed. The illegal trade in conflict diamonds from warzones in central Africa added a new wrinkle to the game, as did the dissolution of the Soviet Union and need by organized criminals and coke dealers to minimize the bulk of their assets. In the first episode, when the drug-addled Freddy Green (Sisto) stupidity kills an operative from a rival organization, his brother, Jake (Gigandet), is forced to trade favors with the ruthless Lady Rah (Shekoni) to keep him alive and the family business intact. The double- and triple-dealing that begins in Lady Rah’s penthouse will extend to Moscow, London, Amsterdam and Vancouver, although a dangerous mission to smuggle diamonds into Canada seems pretty far-fetched. The producers appear to have made a concerted effort to diversify the cast to attract the largest audience possible, considering limited reach and marketability. Likewise, the hip-hoppity music score sometimes seems out-of-sync with what’s happening on the screen. When that sort of disconnectedness kicks in, there’s always someone around to shoot or screw.

Writer/director/actress Jennica Carmona and her actor sibling, Jessica Carmona, were the driving force behind HBO Latino’s “Millie & the Lords,” a contemporary look back at the roots of New York’s Young Lords Party, from the vantage point of former members and young Puerto Ricans largely unaware of its existence. The well-meaning, if overly simplistic story ignores the Lords’ Chicago origins and participation in the pre-Jesse Jackson Rainbow Coalition — Black Panthers, Young Patriots, Brown Berets, American Indian Movement — and eventual dissolution due to government infiltration and sabotage. Instead, Carmona approaches the subject through the day-to-day struggles of Milagros Baez, a young Spanish Harlem resident whose self-esteem is on the skids. Something in her father’s past is preventing him from recognizing her stature as an adult and ability to make her own decisions. When a former YLP member returns to El Barrio to teach a refresher course in the group’s history, Mille and her fellow students are inspired to adopt its political and social ideals. The melodramatic aspects are heightened when local thugs target one of the students who’s decided that he wants nothing more to do gang-banging. It inspires Millie to further escape the cycle of violence and poverty that’s strangling her contemporaries. Even if its heart is in the right place, the Kickstarter-financed “Millie & the Lords” is hamstrung by poor production values and overlapping storylines.

The “Nature“ presentation, “Viva Puerto Rico,” takes viewers to the unincorporated American territory, located in the northeast Caribbean Sea, which is currently being drained of its limited financialza resources by the same Wall Street interests that drove the United States into a depression in 2008. With our current president re-opening the floodgates of corruption and corporate greed for the first time in eight years, prospects for recovery there don’t look promising. As narrated by Jimmy Smits, “Viva Puerto Rico” shows how an endangered economy might affect efforts to avoid the extinction of a myriad of species native to the island. First, though, we are given a good idea of what’s at stake. Puerto Rico is a tropical island infused with such unique natural wonders as the world’s deepest sea-trench, the longest underground cave system, a startlingly bright bioluminescent bay and rain forests that sometimes really do rain frogs. Among the people we meet are scientists dedicated to restoring three segments of Puerto Rico’s rich biological heritage — manatees, parrots and sea turtles — through breeding programs, rehabilitation, and protected zones.

Unlike his predecessors, George W. Bush and Barak Obama, President Trump is in no hurry to release or relocate suspected terrorists housed at Guantanamo Bay prison or permanently close the facility. Remaining mum on the promises he made during his campaign and tweeting fake facts about the recidivist tendencies of those “freed” by Obama. He conveniently ignores the fact that most of the prisoners were relocated during the Bush administration and more of those men returned to their old ways. He’s indicated that he not only wants to keep Gitmo open, but also try Americans accused of terrorism there. For now, at least, the proposal appears to have been placed on the back burner. PBS’ “Frontline: Out of Gitmo” tells the story of a Yemeni detainee released from the controversial prison after 14 years and sent to Serbia, of all places. For all practical purposes, he’s only slightly better off than he was in Cuba. Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel describes the challenges and complexities of releasing men who were never charged with a crime, but were once considered too great a risk to set free. The second half, “Forever Prison,” uses rare archival footage to tell the little known story of how the military base came to be used to hold people beyond the reach of U.S. law. It happened a decade before 9/11, when some 70,000 Haitian refugees fled their country, seeking asylum in the U.S. in the wake of a bloody coup.

Carl Hiaasen’s latest novel, “Razor Girl,” is hooked, in large part, to a family of fake redneck outdoorsmen, whose TV reality show is practically a carbon copy of the “Duck Dynasty“ clan, only exponentially funnier. A&E has made a fortune on the show, but decided to pull the plug on it earlier this year, after 11 seasons … not to be confused with 11 years, as its run began in 2012. Some observers believe that A&E buckled to complaints over Phil Robertson’s bigoted misinterpretations of Christ’s teachings and complaints over a culture war he claims was begun by yuppies and vegans, none of whom are known to carry shotguns or crossbows to back their beliefs. Ratings have continued to slide, ever since the Robertsons began to take themselves seriously as public figures and allow themselves to be used as political tools by conservative pols. I don’t think the numbers normally would warrant cancellation, but, frankly, good riddance. I haven’t paid much attention to “Duck Dynasty” since the first season. I’d pay to watch a Texas Death Match between the Robertsons and Kardashians, but voluntarily submitting to such torture became too much to bear. Still, final seasons always reveal something about the people involved and, well, why not? I was most surprised by two things: 1) how much the dialogue resembled that put in the mouths Beavis and Butt-Head, by Mike Judge & Co.; and 2) how little time the Robertsons spend fishing and hunting. Almost everything in the 15-show season seemed scripted by someone at A&E headquarters or edited to make the men in the family look as if they were going to shave their beards 10 minutes after the final wrap party. The women in the show are as articulate and funny as their husbands are made to look moronic. It led me to believe that the wives either were blessed with better writers or they’re in on the scam and can’t wait for those beards to come off, too. Until the end of July, the package is available solely at Walmart.

PBS Kids’ “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Tiger Family Trip“ is an extended story arc created for the Fred Rogers-inspired show for preschoolers. The story follows Daniel and his family on a journey to visit Grandpere, accenting the highs and lows of traveling with young kids. Songs, simple games and gentle reminders of the importance of a positive attitude are some of the takeaways families can expect from the special presentation. Other episodes feature Daniel going to a carnival, watching fireworks and setting up a lemonade stand with Prince Wednesday.

Nickelodeon’s hit series “Bubble Guppies: Super Guppies“ also is designed for the enjoyment of preschoolers and family members who want to help the kids with early lessons on science, math and reading. Music plays a key role in the learning process. The 114-minute package contains the episodes, “Super Guppies!,” “X Marks the Spot,” “Haunted House Party,” “The Unidentified Flying Orchestra” and “Police Cop-etition.”

The DVD Wrapup: Fifty Shades Darker, Things to Come, Chef’s Wife, Alena, Kiju Yoshida, Streets of Fire, Beaches and more

Thursday, May 11th, 2017

Fifty Shades Darker: Unrated Edition: Blu-ray
The thing that fans of E. L. James’ fabulously successful “Fifty Shades Trilogy” already know, but some people anticipating the Blu-ray release of James Foley and Niall Leonard’s Fifty Shades Darker may not, is that it’s essentially a two-hour trailer for next year’s Fifty Shades Freed. Ominous characters are introduced into dramatic throughlines that inevitably turn into cliffhangers, leaving those of us who haven’t read the books hanging in midair, with too many questions on our mind, not the least of them concerning the lack of sexual gratification in a series about hardcore S&M… or, even, pubic hair. Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson have swell bodies, as far as they go, but so do Barbie and Ken. While there were a few micro-flashes of waxed pubes in Fifty Shades of Grey, they’ve been culled from both the sequel and its “unrated edition.” Admittedly, the pre-Valentine’s Day openings of both films were intended to attract couples — women in search of romance, men hoping for an after-party at home — but isn’t it possible that a few female viewers, at least, might want to know if Christian Grey’s newly acquired three-day stubble was balanced by some “manscaping” below. As Fifty Shades Darker opens, Christian and Anastasia are estranged. She’s an executive assistant at a high-profile publishing house, while Christian is carrying a torch for his errant plaything. In less time than it takes for most folks to decide between fake butter and plain popcorn, they reconnect and he’s agreed to Anastasia’s list of demands. In another blink of the eye, she’s peeling off her britches in elevators and restaurants, and submitting to the tortuous pleasure of inserting beads into her hoohah for a night out on the town. (I would have preferred to see the look on his face if she demanded he stick a necklace of jawbreaker-sized beads up his butt… but, alas, Christian’s still the boss.)

To keep things from getting too monotonous for viewers, several shadowy figures from Christian’s dark past — including her piggy boss, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), sex-crazed stalker (Bella Heathcote) and his personal Mrs. Robinson, Elena Lincoln (Kim Basinger) — have been added to the cast of characters. They have no intentions of allowing the blessed couple to live happily ever after, but, again, the details will only be revealed in 2018. (At least the producers had the decency not to divide the final installment into two parts, as was the case with the Twilight saga.) With the able assistance of cinematographer John Schwartzman and composer Danny Elfman, Foley does a good job keeping things sparkly, posh and tastefully erotic, but the holes in Leonard’s screenplay — or, more likely author-producer James’ novels — give new meaning to the concept of “half-baked.” A helicopter crash in the wilderness surrounding the Mount St. Helens has the same emotional payoff as a fender-bender on Santa Monica Boulevard. The unrated-edition adds 13 minutes of new and extended material, including a pool-room scene and some bumping and grinding that probably concerned the ratings board. If “Darker” didn’t do nearly as well as the blockbuster original at the domestic and worldwide box office, it still made enough money for investors to anticipate next Valentine’s Day’s release. Also included in the 4K UHD and Blu-ray versions are the featurettes, “Darker Direction,” in which Foley explains how he intended to address fans’ unresolved expectations from Part I; “New Threats,” on characters Jack Hyde, Leila and Elena Lincoln; “The Masquerade,” on the gala masquerade benefit event at Grey Mansion; “Intimate With Darker,” a discussion about the “sensual and provocative world of Fifty Shades Darker, including a visit to the Red Room and Christian’s new toys”; “Writing Darker,” with James and Leonard; “Dark Reunion,” with the filmmakers and cast members, who returned for the sequel; deleted scenes; and a tease to Fifty Shades Freed.

Things to Come: Blu-ray
The Chef’s Wife
The attention paid to Isabelle Huppert for her Oscar-nominated, Globe- and Indie Spirit-winning performance in Elle not only was well deserved, but also long overdue. The brilliant French actor has been a finalist for Cesar awards in the top acting categories 16 times, winning twice, for Elle and La ceremonie (1995). The first of two Best Actress nods, at Cannes, came in a unanimous vote for her work in La pianiste (2001). Her 132 credits on include a 2010 guest appearance on “Law & Order: SVU,” three features still awaiting distribution here and six more either completed, announced or in post-production. At 64, Huppert shows no signs of slowing down or begging for scraps from tables reserved for flavor-of-the-month ingenues. Her latest import, Things to Come (“L’avenir”), is exactly the kind of drama American studios should be offering to the cream of our acting crop, but no longer do… except as Oscar bait. In it, Huppert plays a woman — yes, of a certain age — whose world is about to come crashing down on her. Nathalie is a philosophy teacher, who’s popular with her students and has seen her work published and assigned throughout France. She and her husband, Heinz (Andre Marcon), have been married for 25 years and their nearly adult children seem reasonably well-adjusted. Her actress mother (Edith Scob) looks as if she could die at any moment, but, at least, it allows for steady work as a corpse or murder victim on TV crime shows. Things begin to go sideways when students block access to her classroom during one of France’s many strikes, for God knows what reason. Then, at their daughter’s insistence, Heinz reveals to Nathalie that he’s been having an affair with one of his students and is leaving her. Her publisher decides to cut back on the number of manuscripts he’ll need from her and Mom goes completely off her rocker, calling paramedics for imagined ailments and refusing to eat when she’s taken to a nursing home. She even is required to take care of her mother’s lazy black cat, Pandora.

For the first time in memory, Nathalie finds herself adrift. She attempts to make the best of her newly rediscovered sense of liberation, but things keep getting her way. In an American adaptation of writer-director Mia Hansen Love’s fifth feature, Nathalie would be given a more grin-and-bear-it personality and openness toward trying such contemporary cure-alls as, medical marijuana, samba lessons or a recovery group for women who have “Shit Happens” tattooed above their broken hearts. Here, Love allows her protagonist — modeled after her own mother — the dignity of maintaining a stiff upper lip in public, while saving her weeping for private moments, in the company of Pandora. Heinz turns out to be a selfish and insensitive dick, who boxes up his wife’s books, along with his own, when he collects his property, and looks astonished when Nathalie boots him out of the house before Christmas dinner. (His girlfriend’s in Spain, so he’s lonely. Tough shit.) Love also gives her the opportunity to renew a friendship with a handsome former student, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), who’s decided to leave teaching and join a group of like-minded young intellectuals in the Alps. They publish philosophical tracts, pretend to be anarchists and make cheese. Again, it would have been easy for Love to design a May-September romance for the two platonic friends, but Nathalie seems more concerned with how her fat Parisian cat might adjust to the mountain greenery, if transplanted and left unbound. In another actress’ hands, Nathalie’s troubles might not amount to a hill of beans in our minds. Huppert is so recognizable as someone we might know — or have met somewhere down the line — that we are perfectly willing to stick around to see how things work out for her. And, that’s no small trick.

Like Huppert, Emmanuelle Devos (Kings & Queen) and Karin Viard (Polisse) are actresses — again, of a certain age — who don’t appear to have much trouble finding identifiable characters to play or fulfilling roles in worthwhile movies. Their names may not be instantly recognizable here, but anyone who’s seen more than a handful of French films in the last 10-15 years is well aware of their talent. Seeing them together, in even as bittersweet a comedy as Anne Le Ny’s The Chef’s Wife, is something of a special treat. Devos plays Carole, the wife of a successful chef, Sam (Roschdy Zem), but someone who feels undernourished in her role as dining-room hostess at the high-end restaurant. She consults a career counselor, Marithe (Viard), who is herself dissatisfied by her useful but mundane place within the bureaucracy. Almost by accident, the women become fast friends, making excuses for each other and finding reasons to go on treks in the country. When Marithe meets Sam, she’s immediately struck by something in him that Carole no longer feels. From this point forward, Marithe’s interest in finding her friend a job away from her husband’s dining room becomes an ethically questionable, if romantically strategic conflict of interest. When Sam begins to show an interest in Marithe, his work begins to slip. Things do get a little too crazy as the comedy turns more ironic, but in a pleasant enough sort of way. Besides the acting talent on display, the lovely Orleans settings weave a spell of their own. (The same is true for the Alpine and Brittany locations in Things to Come.)

Based on an award-winning graphic novel from Sweden — distributed here by Dark Horse Comics — Alena is a revenge thriller, based in the kind of posh all-girls school in which members of the popular clique get away with being mean and nasty to new kids in school. Said to be inspired thematically by Carrie and tonally by Let the Right One In, Daniel di Grado’s debut feature demonstrates once again that girls can be just as nasty as boys, especially when their position in their Stockholm school’s pecking order is threatened. A year earlier, something caused the title character (Amalia Holm) to be expelled from the public school she was attending. The academy’s reigning blond goddess, Filippa (Molly Nutley), takes an instant disliking to the deeply introverted Alena, especially when she demonstrates her unexpected prowess at lacrosse. As captain, Filippa mistakenly believes that she holds veto power over the coach’s decisions as to who makes the team, even if the rookie would be an asset to the squad. After picking on Alena unmercifully, Filippa forces the coach’s hand by going over his head to the school’s easily buffaloed administration. The queen bee’s icy exterior begins to melt when Alena’s talent wins the support of teammates. Before that happens, though, the mean girls order a presumably lesbian teammate to assault Alena in a vicious shower-room attack. It kicks the narrative into a completely different gear. By now, Alena not only has befriended the bohemian, down-to-earth Fabienne (Felice Jankell), but also is reacquainted with a darkly sinister girl from her previous school, Josefin (Rebecka Nyman). One is warmly sympathetic and supportive, while the other will act as her avenging angel. Di Grado sometimes loses his grip on the throttle here, especially when it comes to balancing the horror, violence and exposition. With a mere 83 minutes at his disposable, though, he’s able to recover quickly and get Alena back on track.

Justice Served
It takes a lot for the execution of a convicted murderer to make the front page of a newspaper, anymore. That’s happened twice, since February, when Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson announced his decision to go ahead with plan to set a new American record by executing 8 condemned men in a 10-day span. The reason it had to be done in such a hurry, he said, was because the state’s supply of a controversial lethal-injection drug was about to expire and the suppliers weren’t happy about having their products mixed together, as a deadly cocktail. The second time came after media witnesses reported that Kenneth Williams continued “coughing, convulsing, lurching, jerking” for a several minutes after being injected with the first drug, midazolam. Hutchinson disputed the reports out of hand, but probably was unhappier that stays of execution for some of the men were announced before he could set the record, probably held by the death-mongers in neighboring Texas. In Singapore, where Boo Junfeng’s gripping drama Apprentice is set, chief executioner Darshan Singh claims to have executed 18 people on one day, using three ropes at a time. Singh also boasted of hanging seven people within 90 minutes, without having to rely on any namby-pamby injections to speed the process. If it seems impossible that the city-state could harbor so many hard-boiled killers within its compact borders, it’s worth noting that its Death Row population isn’t limited to murderers, but also those convicted of drug trafficking, treason, abetting the suicide of a minor, piracy and gun-related offenses. Instead of lethal injections — somehow considered humane in the U.S. — Singapore culls its prison population in the old-fashioned way, inherited by the Brits: long-drop hanging. It’s unscientific, but generally effective.

In Apprentice, an ambitious young correctional officer, Rahim (Wan Hanafi Su), is assigned a position under Aiman (Fir Rahman), a veteran executioner at the 80-year-old Changi Prison. Aiman may be a tough taskmaster, but he respects the job and treats the condemned men with something resembling compassion. Like Aiman, we wonder what would possess a former soldier to take a job that most people would consider to be a punishment for doing something wrong. Boo takes his time peeling away the layers of mystery surrounding the personalities of these two men, who, we soon learn, are joined by a macabre coincidence. Aiman probably was the only person to be close enough to hear the final thoughts of Rahim’s father, a convicted serial killer, before the the door on the killing-floor was released. Apprentice doesn’t play out like a revenge thriller, though. Yes, the lives of Rahim and his sister were forever marked by the execution, but, so, too, were those of the families of the victims. As a former gang-banger, he understands that he could have shared the same fate as his father. The more he learns from Aiman, the more he comes to appreciate the man’s insistence on performing his grisly task with an obsessive desire to avoid grisly missteps. The condemned men already know exactly when they’re going to die — alone — and that no call from the governor or a Supreme Court justice is likely to save them for more than a few hours. What the executioner learns from his prized student is also important to the flow of the story. It’s said that Apprentice received an eight-minute standing ovation after its premiere at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. If shown in Arkansas, the governor probably wouldn’t recognize the irony in Boo’s portrayal of a system whose methodology seems less barbaric than the one in place within the sterile confines of his state’s execution chamber. Bonus features include commentary with the filmmaker; a short film, “The Casuariana Cove”; a directors’ statement; and a why-we-selected statement from Film Movement.

In Justice Served, Marvin Young (a.k.a., Young MC) approaches the same subject from a decidedly different direction. In it, three individuals, whose loved ones were victims of heinous crimes, are given the opportunity to confront the men most likely responsible for the deaths, but who avoided prison due to a technicality in the law. The trials, such as they are, take place in a compartmentalized warehouse somewhere in Arizona. The victims’ representatives, who were kidnaped and drugged to prevent them from knowing where they’re going, sit at a desk in a room divided by a glass wall. The “defendants” sit across from them, one by one, handcuffed to an electrified chair. Before either of them can figure out what’s happening, an ominous voice comes over a loudspeaker, saying, “My name is Justice. You are here to retry the case of (insert names and crimes here). The defendant’s chair is electrified. The electricity is controlled by the red button. Feel free to use it.” The survivors aren’t given much choice as to when to push the button, really, but it gives the loved ones a dubious sense of control. Things don’t go precisely according to plan, but close enough for a micro-budget production, supported by the efforts of film students. The DVD adds behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Young and cast members Lance Henriksen, Gail O’Grady, Denyce Lawton, Christina Rose, Lochlyn Munro and Chase Coleman, about their experiences working with the students and a first-time director.

VHS Massacre: Blu-ray
Beyond the Gates: Blu-ray
The Greasy Strangler 
While watching Kenneth Powell and Thomas Edward Seymour’s nostalgic documentary, VHS Massacre: Cult Films and the Decline of Physical Media, I was reminded of the many 20th Century technologies that not only are obsolete, but also virtually unknown to anyone born after 2001. The same thought occurred last month, while watching Rings, F. Javier Gutierrez’ updating of the Ringu series. In it, the famously cursed VHS cassette is inadvertently re-discovered inside a VCR, left abandoned in a thrift shop. The evil contained within the cassette spreads like wildfire only after the film within a film is digitized and goes viral, via social media. Distributed by Troma, VHS Massacre appears, at first glance, to be yet another homage to the weird and wonderful movies that flourished during the first wave of straight-to-video products. The popular acceptance of the then-new Beta and VHS platforms basically opened the door for distributors to forgo traditional routes and release movies shot on 16mm or 35mm film in cassette form. Although the doc focuses on low-budget horror, slasher and sci-fi fare, the straight-to-video business was kickstarted by cartoons and movies made for children and, of course, hard-core porn. In addition to the increased amount of footage stored on VHS cassettes, producers used the format to do an end run around stiff licensing fees demanded by Sony for its Beta products. Eventually, the technically superior format succumbed to the demands of the marketplace. The larger message delivered in VHS Massacre, however, concerns the adaptability of savvy young filmmakers to not only take advantage of the financial benefits of video, but also the insatiable appetite for intriguing new titles by mom-and-pop stores across the country.

The doc then describes how studios conspired with Blockbuster and other large chains to control the flow, prices and placement of newly released theatrical features at retail. With Pandora’s Box already opened, however, niche production studios and distributors began delivering exploitation, grindhouse and other sensational cross-genre material to premium-cable services — hence the straight-to-cable label — especially for the late-night crowd whose needs were filled by soft-core T&A and strategically edited porn. When the analog era gave way to digital, an entirely new paradigm was introduced. Technically superior and far more compact DVD players and products took off like a rocket, all but killing off VHS cassettes. Streaming allowed for the distribution of DIY and micro-budget fare, via the Internet and YouTube. And, once again, much to the chagrin of the studios, audience acceptance for these frequently outrageous products exploded, creating new economic models and younger audiences. Naturally, VHS Massacre benefits mightily from lots of clips and interviews. Among the witnesses called are Joe Bob Briggs (MonsterVision), Lloyd Kaufman (Toxic Avenger), Greg Sestero (The Room), Debbie Rochon (Return to Nuke ‘Em High), Deborah Reed (Troll 2), Mark Frazer (Samurai Cop) and James Nguyen (Birdemic). It also is fun to watch collectors scour the shelves of old video stores and warehouses for titles, some which have yet to be transferred to DVD. The doc adds an inciteful intro by Troma czar Lloyd Kaufman; commentary by the directors; deleted scenes; “Troma Now! Extreme Edition”; a full episode of “Monster Kill: Merminators from Space,” the new Web series by Powell and Seymour; and Troma trailers.

Jackson Stewart wasn’t even born when the straight-to-video movement began to take shape. Even so, his retro-horror thriller Beyond the Gates looks as if it might have been made for drive-in audiences in the mid- to late-1980s. (The higher resolution afforded by DVD and Blu-ray reveals its true date of origin: June 2016.) In a horror trope almost as old as the genre itself, two estranged brothers, Gordon (Graham Skipper) and John (Chase Williamson), reunite in the wake of their father’s bizarre disappearance to sift through his property for clues to what happened. Their search leads to his video-rental store, staked floor-to-ceiling with vintage VHS tapes, posters and cut-outs. Among the discoveries is an interactive VCR board game that, when synced to the cassette, opens a portal to a nightmarish alternate reality… conveniently located in the basement of the recently haunted family home. The puzzle can’t be solved until four keys are located on the premises, each one leading to another level and the gruesome death of an annoying acquaintance. The most obvious clue to Stewart’s intentions here is the prominent role played by horror legend Barbara Crampton, famous for her skintastic contributions to Stuart Gordon’s Re-AnimatorSpace TruckersCastle Freak and From Beyond, Jim Wynorski’s Chopping Mall, Brian De Palma’s Body Double and James Frawley’s Fraternity Vacation. The Blu-ray includes commentary track with Stewart, Crampton and other cast and crew members; a behind-the-scenes featurette; deleted scenes; and surprise appearance by Gordon, for whom Stewart once apprenticed.

Jim Hosking and Toby Harvard’s The Greasy Strangler is exactly the kind of depraved and disgusting exploitation flick that could have been made for quick-and-dirty exhibition, at any time between 1980 and 2017, but not as inexpensively or with as much clarity. The primitive makeup effects, moth-eaten clothes and threadbare locations suggest that it could have been made for a straight-to-cassette release, as well. Because they used a digital camera and editing equipment, however, the filmmakers were able to capture images — however unappetizing — that might have been lost in the shadows if they had been recorded on film. After an extensive festival run, The Greasy Strangler debuted on the Internet — reaching a potentially huge audience for very little money — and enjoyed an extremely limited theatrical run before that going out on DVD and Blu-ray. The gross-out horror-comedy got an additional boost when it caught the attention of the lofty New York Times. Its summarization of the story’s plot borders on the hilarious, especially considering the paper’s high-end readership. Father and son Big Brayden (Sky Elobar) and Big Ronnie (Michael St. Michael) conduct tours of phony disco-history shrines in down-and-out corners of Los Angeles. Together, they make junk dealers Fred and Lamont Sanford look like Fred Astaire and Edward Everett Horton, in Top Hat. When they aren’t walking around the house in their stained and ill-fitting underpants, Brayton and Ronnie favor outfits that wouldn’t be out of place at a clown convention. The slovenly man-child Brayton dotes on his elderly, foul-mouthed father, while also suspecting him of being the Greasy Strangler. The infamous serial killer is so-named, because he covers himself (and his prosthetic mega-penis) in layers of grease and animal fat. Before returning home from a kill, the Strangler visits local a car wash to shed the trademark disguise. After Brayden falls for Janet (Elizabeth De Razzo), a chubby gal he meets on the disco tour, Ronnie makes it his business to convince her of his son’s unsuitability and impress her with his giant cock. Obviously, The Greasy Strangler isn’t for everyone… or, maybe, anyone without a pre-disposition for such midnight-madness fare as EraserheadBasket CaseEl Topo or Pink Flamingos.

Kiju Yoshida: Love + Anarchism: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Lately, the good news surrounding re-releases of vintage Japanese films on Blu-ray focuses on genre titles, anime and obscure cult favorites, and bonus packages that add plenty of value to the presentation. For a long time, Criterion has pretty much cornered the market on the acknowledged classics of the Japanese cinema, which it’s now upgrading to Blu-ray. Any number of niche and mainstream distributors have sprung up, as well, to picking up the slack on new releases and novelty items. Arrow Films and its Arrow Academy subsidiary handle titles from both ends of the spectrum. Its latest contribution to the high side is the seven-disc “Kiju Yoshida: Love + Anarchism: Limited Edition,” which includes Heroic PurgatoryCoup d’etat and two versions of Eros + Massacre, a loose trilogy of films from the late 1960s and early 1970s, united by their takes on radical politics and cinematography that recalls the work of Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Goddard and Alain Resnais. A contemporary of Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses) and Masahiro Shinoda (Pale Flower), Yoshida started out as an assistant to Keisuke Kinoshita (The Ballad of Narayama) before making his directorial debut at age 27. Not many of his 20-plus features and documentaries have found a DVD home on this side of the Pacific. All three films collected here concern events in pre- and post-World War II Japanese history that few Americans, even college graduates, are familiar. As such, I don’t recommend tackling them without first listening to the introductions provided by Yoshida and David Desser. It’s well worth the extra effort.

Eros + Massacre is presented in both its 169-minute theatrical version and the full-length 220-minute director’s cut. It tells the parallel stories of early 20th Century anarchist Sakae Osugi and a pair of student activists from the 1960s studying his radical stances on politics and the free love movement. On September 16, 1923, in the chaos immediately following the Great Kanto Earthquake, Osugi and his lover-partner, Noe Ito, and his 6-year-old nephew, were arrested, beaten to death and thrown into a well by a squad of military police. The killing of such high-profile anarchists, along with a child, became known as the Amakasu Incident. It sparked surprise and anger throughout Japan, reverberating for many decades afterward, when left-wing violence was at its most extreme. One of the reasons for the severe shortening of the movie was the threat of a lawsuit over an invasion of privacy by a woman who was involved with Osugi and went on to become a prominent Japanese politician. Heroic Purgatory pushes the challenging cinematic language of Eros + Massacre even further, presenting a bleak dreamlike investigation into the political discourses taking place in the period. It focuses on an engineer, Shoda, and his wife, Kanako, whose lives are disrupted by the appearance of a young woman, Ayu, who claims that Shoda is one of the men who could be her father. The event causes Shoda to reflect on his past as a militant youth and the mysterious “Plan D,” which involved the abduction of “Ambassador J.” Eleven years in the future, Shoda and his wife will become the subject of a media frenzy.

Coup d’etat (a.k.a., “Martial Law”) takes a more mainstream approach to its subject: Ikki Kita, a right-wing intellectual, who, in the 1920-30s, advocated the dissolution of the Emperor system and Meiji Constitution. The picture begins with a young radical murdering an elderly gentleman out for a stroll in his quiet neighborhood. The victim is Yasuda Zenjiro, head of the Yasuda financial cartel. Shortly after, revolutionary writer Kita receives a communique from the assassin, Asahi, in which he claims to have acted on ideas presented in his “Outline Plan for the Reorganization of Japan.” Another disciple of Kita, Nishida Mitsuki, coordinates an uprising of military and naval officers, all determined to assassinate the Prime Minister and Minister of Interior. While Kita has no direct involvement in the plot, he is arrested and executed, anyway. The implementation of martial law led to Japan’s pre-war militarism. Released two years after the ritual suicide of the celebrated writer and prominent nationalist Yukio Mishima, Coup d’etat may have been informed by his sensational death and aborted coup attempt. It may also have influenced Paul Schrader’s approach to Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985). The Arrow Academy edition features meticulously restored versions of each film; background material; commentary; interviews; introductions; limited edition packaging, featuring newly commissioned artwork by maarko phntm; and an illustrated 80-page book, with new writing on the films by Desser, Isolde Standish (“Politics, Porn and Protest: Japanese Avant-Garde Cinema in the 1960s and 1970s”) and Dick Stegewerns (“Kiju Yoshida: 50 Years of Avant-Garde Filmmaking in Post-War Japan”).

Chicago Cubs: 2016 World Series: The Complete Game 7: Ultimate Edition
Cubs fans waited 108 years for an opportunity to win the World Series and it took a victory for the ages to bring one home. Chicago overcame a 3-games-to-1 deficit to conquer the Cleveland Indians in an extra-inning seventh game, delayed by rain, as if to ratchet up the drama. The Indians, after all, hadn’t tasted victory in the Fall Classic, themselves, for more than a half-century. In the eighth inning, the Indians tied the Cubs on a home run by Rajai Davis. Then came the rains and a 17-minute wait for series MVP Ben Zobrist to smack an RBI double for the lead and Miguel Montero to single in Anthony Rizzo for a 2-run cushion, forcing Cleveland to the end of its tether. Chicago Cubs: 2016 World Series: The Complete Game 7 is presented by MLB and Shout!Factory in its entirety, preserving the complete, unedited footage of the four-and-a-half-hour event. A couple of other Blu-ray editions have already been released — covering the season, playoffs and previous World Series games — so, it’s worth reading the fine print to see if the so-called Ultimate Edition is the ideal choice.

Streets of Fire: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
In 1984, Walter Hill was as hot a director of action films as anyone in the business. The string included Hard TimesThe DriverThe WarriorsThe Long RidersSouthern Comfort and his first blockbuster, 48 Hrs., which rewrote the book on buddy films, salt-and-pepper teams and comic-straight-man pairings. Although popular music had always played a role in his pictures, Hill had yet to shoot an in-concert performance. It required some on-the-job training and off-the-cuff improvisation, in addition to prepping the stylized fight scenes and aggressive-driving sequences that were more his purview. Some of his discomfort with the musical format is evident in Streets of Fire, but, so, too, are the innovative solutions he and cinematographer Andrew Laszlo devised for combining disparate visual elements from existing rock musicals with ideas borrowed from the brilliant color scheme of Francis Ford Coppola’s One From the Heart and neo-noir shadings in graphic novels. We’re told in the introduction that Streets of Fire is a “rock & roll fable… from another time, another place.” Hill and co-writer Larry Gross (48 Hrs.) were directly influenced, as well, by The SearchersMad MaxEscape From New YorkGrand Theft AutoThe Wild One and a song from Bruce Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” album that didn’t appear on the soundtrack. According to Hill, he wanted Streets of Fire to remind him of what, as a teenager, he thought would make a good movie: custom cars, kissing in the rain, neon, trains in the night, high-speed pursuit, rumbles, rock stars, motorcycles, jokes in tough situations, leather jackets and questions of honor.” It takes place in an urban environment that combines Chicago’s otherworldly Lower Wacker Drive, a Detroit in decay and Paramount’s almost surrealistically phony backlot, which was covered over by a giant tarp to facilitate day-for-night shoots. The production lucked out when an abandoned borax factory was located nearby and it had yet to be stripped of its salvageable parts. The overall creative strategy didn’t pay dividends at the box office, at the time, causing the studio to drop plans for sequels. Since then, however, Streets of Fire has gained cult status, at least, and remains extremely watchable in hi-def.

As a crowd of bobbysoxers and bebop boys gathers for a concert by rock diva Ellen Aim (Diane Lane, then 18), members of the Bombers motorcycle gang, led by the vicious Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe), prepare to storm the auditorium and kidnap the well-before-her-time singing sensation. In the madness that ensues, the bikers create enough of a distraction for Raven to get safely away with Ellen. We assume that his intentions are dishonorable, but, because the studio insisted on a PG delivery, it isn’t clear what evil things Raven has in mind. Even before the smoke has cleared, newly returned soldier Tom Cody (Michael Pare) rides into town on an empty subway car — not unlike Randolph Scott, sitting the tall-in-the-saddle — and agrees to his sister’s request to rescue Ellen, with whom he has a romantic history. In a surprisingly effective casting decision, suggested by Amy Madigan, he chooses the two-fisted, beer-guzzling McCoy as his sidekick. Joined by Ellen’s weaselly manager, Billy Fish (Rick Moranis), they come to Ellen’s rescue. Once again, however, because of concerns over ratings, the violence is less disturbing than anything in West Side Story. This cult favorite features a razor-sharp cast and original songs written by Jim Steinman, Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty and Benmont Tench, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Ry Cooder and Jim Dickinson, and Dave Allen, and performed by the Blasters, the Fixx, Maria McKee, Marilyn Martin and Dan Hartman. For Ellen Aim’s singing voice, record-producer Jimmy Iovine combined the voices of Laurie Sargent and Holly Sherwood, billing them as “Fire Incorporated.” Her backup group, the Attackers, was comprised of members of Sargent’s Face to Face band. Not surprisingly, Steinmen’s anthems, “Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young” and “Nowhere Fast,” sound as if they might have been intended for Meatloaf or Bonnie Tyler. The splendid Blu-ray package contains a separate disc devoted to new and vintage bonus material, including two feature-length making-of docs, interviews, music videos and promotional material.

The Godfather-Godfather II-Godfather Part III: Blu-ray
On April 29th, Francis Ford Coppola and stars of The Godfather gathered in New York’s Radio City Music Hall for a 45th anniversary reunion, marking the release of the first installment in the universally acclaimed trilogy… the first two segments, anyway. Coppola was joined by Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, James Caan, Talia Shire, Robert Duvall and an audience of 6,000 fans, as they watched back-to-back screenings of The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II (1974) on the closing night of the Tribeca Film Festival. Considering that most of the people in the audience had already seen the films multiple times and some had even memorized the dialogue, the highlight of the evening was a panel discussion, in which the participants recalled highlights and lowlights of the production, as well as personal anecdotes and memories of dearly departed cast members. I wish that Paramount had waited a few weeks to release its commemorative repackagings of all three titles, including The Godfather: Part III, an economically driven sequel that still splits critics and audiences. It would have been interesting for those of us who missed the reunion to see it included as a fresh featurette.

Savannah Sunrise
Shawnee Smith and Pamela Reed, who’ve both done excellent work in far better pictures than Savannah Sunrise, play polar-opposites confined to a car, traveling from Louisville to Georgia, on a firm deadline. Their road trip is prompted by the forced relocation of Loraine, whose pastor husband died several years earlier, but is only now exiting the home provided by church. Joy is a stereotypically harried modern woman, struggling to maintain a balance between responsibilities at home and work. That equilibrium is disturbed when Joy is handed a last-minute assignment with a deadline that conflicts with the long-scheduled road trip. Not wishing to display any signs of weakness to her uncaring boss, she insists that she can hit both targets simultaneously, and without breaking much of a sweat. Obviously, Joy hasn’t rented Planes, Trains & Automobiles, lately. It’s just as likely that sophomore director Randall Stevens (My Dad’s a Soccer Mom) and writers James Mitchell, Thomas Torrey and Gary Wheeler == two writers too many, by my count, for such a weak screenplay — haven’t studied the John Hughes classic, either. It doesn’t take long for the good-natured, if increasingly forgetful Loraine to throw Joy’s intricately timed itinerary into disarray. And, therein lies the problem. The G-rated distractions are so unlikely — a stowaway alligator, anyone? — as to defy credulity. The overriding message being delivered here is that women from dissimilar backgrounds can learn a lot from each other, especially when forced to do so by circumstances. For the sake of their mental and spiritual health, women with A-type personalities also are encouraged to get back to the basics of family life. Welcome to the world of faith-based entertainment, Joy. The Walmart exclusive DVD adds interviews and a making-of featurette.

Holy Hell
Although the aphorism, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” is most frequently attributed to the great American showman P. T. Barnum, its true origin is less certain. That doesn’t make it any less accurate or meaningful, today. Take the most recent presidential campaign… please. The disturbing CNN Films documentary, Holy Hell, not only confirms the modern applicability of the phrase, but it also suggests that some of us were born with the word, “damaged,” tattooed on our foreheads in invisible ink. In 1985, film school graduate Will Allen joined what, at the time, he considered to be a loving, spiritual community in West Hollywood, centered on the enigmatic spiritual leader they called Michel. Then 22, Allen was forced to leave home after his mother learned he was gay and his sister invited him to join the nearby alternative community and meditation group she had been attending. Fortuitously, Allen ingratiated himself with the onetime ballet aspirant and failed Hollywood actor — gay porn, too — by immersing himself in the documentation of Michel’s every move and thought. It took a while for Michel’s true colors to reveal themselves, but, when they did, Allen’s camera was there, too. With 22 years’ worth of footage at Allen’s disposal, Holy Hell could just has easily become just another ugly indictment of a religious conman addicted to narcissism, avarice and other people’s gullibility. Among the things that struck me about the film are the good intentions of the “community” of souls gathered under Michelâ’s umbrella and his ability to hypnotize these well-educated men and women into believing he was their rock and gateway to God.

Cult tragedies could hardly have come as news to these people, after all. They clearly enjoyed participating in his elaborately staged pageants and there’s no evidence presented that he appropriated their savings for personal gain. On film, Buddhafield (“pure land”) resembles a Club Med for the Prozac Generation. The problem only came to the fore when Michel’s misogynistic behavior became too obvious to conceal and the code of silence surrounding his extortion of sexual favors from the youngest male disciples began to crack. It was only then that Michel, like Jim Jones and David Koresh before him, put his followers’ loyalty to the test, picking favorites and pitting them against each other. Holy Hell mixes footage of the good times in California, Hawaii and Texas with interviews conducted among people who left the cult and reveal of full range of emotions. Allen also went back to places they lived as a community, but abandoned when the heat was turned on Michel. The scariest thing, perhaps, is the overwhelming visual evidence of Michel’s malevolent charisma — imagine a particularly evil looking Nureyev, in Speedos — that would frighten most children and pets. The bonus material adds unused footage, extended interviews and surreptitiously captured footage of Michel — now, Reyji — and his current followers, once again in Hawaii. As penetrating an experience as Holy Hell is, it’s possible to wonder why some members stayed with Michel and how he’s been able to finance the operation for more than 30 years.

Lifetime: Beaches
Discovery: Shark Week: Shark & Awe Collection
Netflix: Orange Is the New Black: Season Four
Comedy Central: Inside Amy Schumer: Season 4
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Nero’s Sunken City
PBS: Plants Behaving Badly
PBS: NOVA: The Origami Revolution
PBS Kids: All About Allergies
In the 30 years since the release of Garry Marshall’s adaptation of Iris Rainer Dart’s novel, “Beaches,” it’s been a property ripe for sequelization, re-adaptation and diversification. A sequel, based on Dart’s 1991 novel, “Beaches II: I’ll Be There,” was planned with Barbara Eden attached to it but never filmed. A Broadway-bound version made it as far as Chicago’s Drury Lane Theater, in 2014, before going into hibernation. Allison Anders’ recent remake, for Lifetime, covers two of the three bases, at least, by updating the protagonists’ WASP-Jew dynamic – Barbara Hershey-Bette Midler — to one that allows for a more au courant black-white vibe, with Nia Long and Idina Menzel (a.k.a., Adele Dazeem) in the lead roles. Here, Long’s spoiled rich girl, Hillary Whitney, first encounters Menzel’s artistically precocious CC Bloom at the street circus that borders Venice Beach. They go on to become lifelong friends, through thick and thin, even though they’re separated by beaches a continent apart from each other. (Or, in made-for-TV geography, different locations outside Vancouver.) Hillary, a single mom, struggles to make a mark of her own in her father’s law firm, while CC is scratching her way up the show-biz food chain. Their friendship is tested by a shared affection for a director (Antonio Cupo), but, they’re reunited by a more sinister force and the bonds of love. Lifetime’s “Beaches” doesn’t reveal the sure touch of Marshall’s hand at the wheel or the narrative edge of Anders’ previous successes, Sugar Town (1999), Grace of My Heart (1995), Mi vida loca (1993), Gas Food Lodging (1992) and Border Radio (1987). Apart from the dynamism of Menzel’s singing voice, Beaches is just another made-for-TV movie. For a while, anyway, it’s a Walmart exclusive.

Also available at the giant retail chain is “Shark Week: Shark Awe Collection,” a compilation of recent episodes from the programming concept that put Discovery Channel on the map, almost 30 years ago. Originally devoted to conservation efforts and correcting misconceptions about sharks, “Shark Week” eventually succumbed to the lure of demographic slumming with more exploitative material. In January, 2015, Discovery’s new president Rich Ross told reporters that shows like “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives” had “run their course.” An uproar raised by regular viewers and shark experts probably had more of an impact on programmers. The proof is in the pudding, however, and the episodes included in “Shark &Awe Collection” demonstrate a return to form. Indeed, they prove that when it comes to sharks, the truth is every bit as fascinating as fiction. Advances in DNA mapping now allows for the tracking of killer beasts, while deep-water technology has allowed for the discovery of new species and some considered extinct. The 22½ hours of material included in this collection, culled from the best episodes from 2015 and 2016, also serves as an anticipation-builder for the 2017 season, starting in July.

Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black: Season Four” picks up where Season Three left off, with the inmates splashing about in the nearby lake after the mass escape and Alex (Laura Prepon) facing a menacing prison guard in the greenhouse. Once those strings are tied up, administrators, guards and prisoners, alike, are required to deal with a substantial increase in the population, which threatens to change the balances of power in the facility. Piper also finds herself facing difficulties with the Dominicans, who, after she rebuffs them, launch their own mail-order-panty business, while also becoming de facto leader of a white-power group. Taystee becomes Caputo’s personal assistant and celebrity chef Judy King (Blair Brown), also finds ways to shake things up across the board. Everything leads to a confrontation between hunger-striking inmates and the prison’s newly militarized security staff. The shocking ending built anticipation for the Season Five opener, on June 9. Needless to say, it will be worth the wait. Special features on the three-disc Blu-ray release include a gag reel, a tour of the set and commentaries with cast and crew.

If the “Inside Amy Schumer: Season 4” package feels a tad lighter than previous compilations, it’s because the hostess with the mostest decided to cut back her load from 10 episodes to 9. More than a year ago, the most hilariously irreverent show since Dave Chappelle quit was renewed for a fifth season. Since then, Schumer revealed that while a fifth season would happen at some point, there were no plans for it to begin production in the near future. Based on the critical and commercial success of Trainwreck, she has turned her attention to movies, including this weekend’s Snatched, with Goldie Hawn, as well as the occasional comedy special, such as Netflix’s recent “Amy Schumer: The Leather Special.” Among other places she takes us in Season Four are a gun show, the set of “Game of Thrones,” the White House, a blimp, her gynecologist’s office and a clip show hosted by Andy Cohen. Guest stars include F. Murray Abraham, Sarah Chalke, Liam Neeson, Anthony Bourdain, Steve Buscemi, Selena Gomez, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Harvey Keitel and Ralphie May. The DVD adds behind-the-scenes material and interviews.

One of PBS’ most consistently intriguing series is “Secrets of the Dead” and the episode, “Nero’s Sunken City,” is particularly interesting. Anyone who’s traveled to Italy and passed through Naples can’t help but be aware of the still shaking Mt. Vesuvius and ruins of Pompeii. Far less known are the ruins of Baiae, an ancient Roman city lost to the same volcanoes that entombed Pompeii, but buried by the waters of the Bay of Naples. Nearly 2,000 years ago, from the first to the third century AD, Baiae provided Rome’s rich and powerful with the same comforts as the Hamptons offer Manhattan’s elite. It’s known today, if at all, as an underwater archeology site. For the first time, an international team of scientists, archaeologists and historians is meticulously mapping the underwater ruins and piecing together evidence that could lead to a better understanding of Baiae’s importance to Roman culture.

PBS’ two-part series, “Plants Behaving Badly,” examines how two groups of plants — orchids and carnivores plants — continue to exhibit the same fascinating behavior that attracted the attention of Charles Darwin 150 years ago. “Sex & Lies” allows viewers to revel in the ethereal beauty of orchids, while explaining how their exotic flowers are shaped for one purpose: to attract pollinators. Many use sex as a lure, impersonating a female bee or wasp. “Murder & Mayhem” examines the extraordinary behavior of carnivorous plants, which have fascinated scientists, curious children and filmmakers for decades. The reality is as interesting as fiction.

The unexpected “NOVA” presentation “The Origami Revolution” explores how researchers are using the centuries-old tradition of folding two-dimensional paper into three-dimensional shapes to spark a scientific revolution. The rules of folding are at the heart of many natural phenomena, we’re told, from how leaves blossom to how beetles fly. Now, however, engineers and designers are applying its principles to reshape the world around us and, even, within us, designing new drugs, micro-robots and future space missions. They are discovering how folding can be employed as a powerful tool to explore the limits of science.

Too often, parents don’t become aware of their children’s allergies until they display symptoms of distress, ranging from heavy sweating and running noses, to experiencing anaphylactic shock from an aversion to foods they didn’t know they had. Of course, kids are even more surprised — and frightened — to learn that something might be wrong with them. As part of Food Allergy Awareness Month, PBS Kids is releasing “All About Allergies,” a collection of episodes from its most popular series in which allergies play a key role, including those involving food and pets.

Digimon Adventure Tri.: Reunion
Frankly, the machinations of Digimon characters and their place in the anime universe bewilder me. I do know that Digimon Adventure Tri.: Reunion is the first entry in a trilogy — followed by “Decision” and “Confession” — celebrating the franchise’s 15th anniversary. The six-part series, streamed by several different services, serves as a direct sequel to the first two television series, Digimon Adventure and Digimon Adventure 02. It’s been six years since that summer adventure when Taichi and the rest of the DigiDestined crossed over to the Digital World and nearly three years since the final battle between Hikari’s group and Belial Vamdemon. Or, so I’ve learned. And, at some point, while the peaceful days went by, the gate to the Digital World mysteriously closed. When a Kuwagamon suddenly appears in Odaiba, its rampage leaves the town in ruins, and the people there in turmoil.

Alpha and Omega: Journey to Bear Kingdom
Otherwise known as “Alpha and Omega 8,” Journey to Bear Kingdom is a new computer-animated adventure-comedy produced by Splash Entertainment (Norm of the North) and distributed by Lionsgate. Apparently, the family-friendly series may be coming to an end, but who knows? Eight chapters is a long time in video years. Here, in a plot that sounds as if it might have inspired by the latest Underworld, all of the animals in the Eastern Forest are excited because Queen Bear and Princess Canue are coming to visit. But when evil Rogue Wolves threaten the royal bears, wolf pups Stinky, Runt, and Claudette leap into action. With courage, wits, and plenty of help from their wild and wonderful friends, the Alpha and Omega wolves rise to protect the queen and princess and save their forest home.

The DVD Wrapup: Salesman, Gold, Red Turtle, Rings, Tunnel, Age of Shadows, Saving Banksy, Saturday Night Fever and more

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2017

The Salesman
It can be argued, I suppose, that Donald Trump’s decision to ban citizens of Iran and six other predominately Muslim countries gave Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman an edge in the voting for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. After nominations were announced, Farhadi revealed that he wouldn’t test the executive order, preferring, instead, to demonstrate how short-sided and regressive a policy it was to treat all members of a religion as if they were terrorists. Toni Erdmann probably was the early favorite for the prize — after academy nominators snubbed Golden Globe-winner, Elle — but the President’s inadvertent interference steered sympathies elsewhere. Between those three very different titles, however, it would be difficult for me to pick a favorite. They’re all superb entertainments and could have been included in the Best Picture category, which, once again, fell short of the allowed 10 candidates, without stirring much debate. Certainly, Sandra Huller and Taraneh Alidoosti deserved being counted among the top five Best Actress finalists, alongside Globe-winner Isabelle Huppert. Working under the strictest of conditions, Farhadi has produced some of the most absorbing and humanistic dramas of the last decade with Fireworks Wednesday, About Elly, Oscar-winner A Separation and The Past. The emotions on display in A Salesman are far more universal than specific to life in Iran, as was the case in his previous films.

First, though, the title refers to the Arthur Miller play for which the male and female characters are rehearsing when the central act of violence occurs. A construction mishap forces Emad and Rana Etesami (Shahab Hosseini, Alidoosti) to pick up and move to a new apartment in a city, Tehran, where suitable housing is at a premium. A friend allows them to take over an apartment recently vacated by a woman whose many male guests caused a stir among her neighbors. He only allows that she was a woman who had many acquaintances, not a prostitute. One night, when Emad is away, one of those acquaintances — presumably — mistakes an unlocked door for an open invitation to walk in and pay for her services. Unable to wait, the man attacks her in the shower and causes her to be severely injured. He not only leaves her for dead, but the intruder also left behind the truck in which he arrived. The complicating factor in all this is the personal property left behind by the previous tenant, who promises to remove it, but never says when. Emad asks one of his students to help him track down the owner of the truck, so he can exact his own form of punishment, rather than involve the police, who, conceivably would blame Rana for inciting the rape by not locking the door. By not going to police, however, everything that can go wrong with Emad’s investigation does go wrong, mostly because he can’t control his temper while attempting to extricate the truth from a man who can’t afford to be exposed as either a rapist or patron of a prostitute. The same scenario could play out in an episode of “Law & Order,” without the grace notes Farhadi would add to it. The Blu-ray adds, “Conversation With Writer-Director Asghar Farhadi.”

Gold: Blu-ray
Although expectations have been lowered considerably since the days of the 49ers, prospectors continue to pan for gold in the rivers of California, some no more than an hour away from Los Angeles. During the drought years, access to the sandy riverbottoms increased as the waters shrank and ferocity decreased. Now that the rains have returned, erosion of the rocks in the High Sierra and, even, the San Gabriel range bordering much of L.A.’s urban sprawl, has revealed more traces of the ridiculously overvalued mineral. Nonetheless, for some, it remains the stuff that dreams are made of. In Stephen Gaghan’s whopping yarn, Gold, Matthew McConaughey and Edgar Ramirez play two such people: Nevada mining executive Kenny Wells and compositely drawn geologist Michael Acosta. Both men fulfill each other’s dreams, if not in the usual ways. Gold is based on the 1993 Bre-X mining scandal, in which a small Calgary-based firm supposedly discovered the mother lode — or a close approximation, thereof — in the jungles of Borneo, and the sparkle convinced key players on the Toronto Stock Exchange to invest billions of Canadian dollars into the company. Among them were three major pension funds. If the story sounded too good to be true — and, it was — the resulting scandal didn’t reverberate much further south than the 49th Parallel. It took almost 20 years for Hollywood prospectors to take notice of the scandal and realize that it could be adapted to a corporate retelling of The Treasure of Sierra Madre. First, though, screenwriters Patrick Massett and John Zinman were required to make it as American as possible, shifting locations to suit audience prejudices, and changing names to avoid lawsuits. For my money, they did a pretty good job of it. They also changed some of the motivations driving Wells and Acosta, allowing for some back-home romance (Bryce Dallas Howard), family tradition (Craig T. Nelson) and Wall Street shenanigans (Bruce Greenwood), as well as the ever-popular pull of a David-vs.-Goliath matchup and old-fashioned hubris thrown into the mix. A side scandal involving the family of then-president Suharto, of Indonesia, is reasonably accurate, too. That’s only part of what happens in Gold, but, therein, spoilers lie. Thailand doubles well as a facsimile of the Indonesian jungle, and the lead actors are, typically, excellent. Special features include commentary with director Stephen Gaghan, a deleted sequence, “The Origins of Gold,” “The Locations of Gold“ and “Matthew McConaughey as Kenny Wells.”

The Red Turtle: Blu-ray
It’s easy to sit through the entirety of Studio Ghibli’s Oscar-nominated The Red Turtle and not realize that it’s the first non-native film to be produced by the legendary Japanese animation studio. Never mind that the dialogue is limited to exclamations or the sounds of personal exertion. As the story goes, Ghibli and Wild Bunch executives sent Dutch animation artist Michael Dudok de Wit an email with two questions: could they could distribute his Academy Award-winning short film “Father and Daughter’ in Japan, where it took top honors at the 2002 Hiroshima International Animation Festival, and would he make a feature film for them? (Dudok de Wit’s 1994 animated short, “The Monk and the Fish,” also was nominated for an Oscar.) It turned out to be a natural fit. Dudok de Wit’s films are known for his trademark brushstrokes and familiarity with the ink and watercolors of Chinese and Japanese art. In 2014, following the retirement of co-founder and director Hayao Miyazaki, Ghibli announced it was temporarily halting production. Two months ago, it was revealed Miyazaki has come out of hibernation to direct a new feature film. Combined with The Red Turtle‘s success, the company appears to be back on solid footing. In the tradition of Robinson Crusoe and Cast Away, The Red Turtle is the story of a shipwrecked sailor — this time, with no backstory — who’s washed ashore a deserted island, mostly covered with bamboo trees, but with mountain views and fresh-water adjacent property. When he tires of those amenities, however, the castaway begins tying bamboo stalks together and plotting his getaway. It doesn’t take long before a mysterious force rises from beneath the surface of the ocean to knock the raft apart and send the sailor gasping for air. And, yet, he persists, constructing ever more sturdy rafts, but never making it very far from the island. Once its determined that the force destroying his vessels is a large red sea turtle, he decides to take desperate action. Soon thereafter, a woman castaway appears in the crashing waves, providing him with companionship and a reason to stay put. In the course of raising a family, Father, Mother and Son will experience many of the same things that happen to other families, but in far more extreme circumstances. The Blu-ray adds Dudok de Wit’s commentary; a feature-length making-of featurette; “The Secrets of The Red Turtle,” in which the director draws elements from the film; and a Q&A from AFI Fest.

Rings: Blu-ray
It’s said that collectors are willing to pay good money for VHS tapes in primo condition, especially those of the Disney persuasion. In Rings, a professor, Gabriel (Johnny Galecki), isn’t looking for buried treasure when he picks up a nostalgia-inducing VCR at a second-hand store. In fact, there doesn’t appear to have been any good reason for him to buy the antique, except to resuscitate a franchise that, after 12 years, should have been left to rest in peace. Naturally, Gabriel finds within the VCR a cassette containing the cursed footage introduced two decades ago in Hideo Nakata, Hiroshi Takahashi and Koji Suzuki’s Ringu and Ringu 2, and, a few years later, in Gore Verbinski’s English-language remake, The Ring. (Nakata would be recruited to helm The Ring Two.) The idea behind F. Javier Gutierrez’ update is that the curse — watch the tape and you have seven days to show it to someone else, or prepare for your funeral — now can be passed along digitally, in virally transmitted memes, instead of through outdated analog hardware. The first evidence we’re shown is on a plane heading for Seattle. A doomed passenger shows the tape to his seatmate, who’s only heard of the phenomenon, and, then, virally passes it along to other passengers, before the plane crashes.

Skip ahead a couple of years and Gabriel is teaching a course investigating the curse and recruiting students sufficiently nimble to pass it along to a subsequent generation of guinea pigs. They include incoming freshman Holt (Alex), who has promised his high-school girlfriend, Julia (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz), that they’ll stay in Skype communication each week until her Graduation Day. It isn’t until a Skype call is interrupted by what appears to be frat brothers, and Julia receives a weird message from a frantic woman on the same channel, that she begins to smell a rat. In less time than it takes to register for classes at most schools, Julia makes contact with Gabriel and becomes part of his experiment. Julia and Holt then are able to trace the origins of the curse, not to Japan, but a cemetery managed by a blind groundskeeper (Vincent D’Onofrio). Contortionist and stunt actor Bonnie Morgan returns from The Ring Two, this time, though, with a credit as Samara. Rings isn’t likely to impress anyone already familiar with the franchise. The critics hated it and it might only have made some money in the worldwide marketplace. The Blu-ray adds the featurettes, “Terror Comes Full Circle”; “Resurrecting the Dead: Bringing Samara Back”; “Scary Scenes,” in which cast members discuss reactions to horror movies and this film’s scariest scenes; and deleted/extended/alternate scenes.

The Age of Shadows: Blu-ray
Set in the 1920s, more than a decade after Japan’s brutal annexation of Korea, Kim Jee-woonâ’s action-thriller The Age of Shadows is a historically accurate account of the country’s resistance movement, largely led by students, and the dangers it faced when asserting a desire for independence. The death of the “pretend” Emperor Sunjong, in 1926, then would further galvanize resistance movements against an increasingly larger Japanese occupation force. On the day of SunJongâ’s funeral, some 240,000 students gathered in Seoul, filling the streets and scattering independence proclamations. The expansion of Japan’s war in China and Manchuria prompted the conscription of more than 5 million Korean men, to provide manual and military labor, while an estimated 200,000 women and girls, mostly from China and Korea, were forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military. Seventy years later, it seems as if we might be only a few short steps away from all-out war on the peninsula. Tellingly, the repressive post-war government of South Korea attempted to suppress student activists, but eventually failed, opening the county to a more democratic society and economic stature. North Korean leaders knew better than to give students the opportunity to rebel, choosing instead to promote a false sense of unity and prosperity. The young men and women we meet in The Age of Shadows don’t seem to be burdened by the sense of hopelessness that accompanies totalitarian rule. They have the support of the Chinese, Soviet Union (temporary, though it is) and emissaries of central European states willing to trade explosives and guns for valuable antiques.

Korean police captain Lee Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho) has been ordered by his Japanese overlords to pay special attention to members of his country’s resistance movement and, so far, he seems perfectly willing to sell out his own people in exchange for a favorable position within the department. When he’s unable to save a former classmate from being killed in a raid against radicals, however, Lee begins to reassess his priorities. Sensing an opening, the leader of the resistance, Jiang Che-san (Lee Byung-hun), begins the slow dance that could lead to having an ally in the police department. It could, just as easily, lead to disaster for both parties, especially when Lee is introduced a key resistance figure, Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo), whose antique shop is a front for a scheme to smuggle European-made explosives from Shanghai into Seoul. The Age of Shadows may have been inspired by events surrounding the 1923 bombing of Japanese police headquarters, in Seoul, but, by leaving out certain details, Kim was able to craft an air-tight cloak-and-dagger thriller. Even at 140 minutes, it never lags or feels bloated. The Blu-ray adds an interview with cast interviews and director Kim Jee-woon, whose credits include I Saw the Devil, The Good the Bad the Weird and the contemporary American Western, The Last Stand.

In Kim Seong-hun’s inventive disaster movie, Tunnel, a commuter survives the collapse of a miles-long tunnel under construction in the mountains outside Seoul. If part of the good news is that Kim Jung-soo is still alive and in cellphone contact with his wife and rescue workers, the bad news is that reporters will have the same access to him and probably drain the battery of his phone before he can reach them. The man’s only sustenance is two bottles of water and the birthday cake he was carrying home for his daughter. Soon, he will have to share them with a young woman who’s pinned in her crushed car and her sneaky Pug. Tunnel will remind some viewers of Billy Wilder’s prescient 1951 drama Ace in the Hole, in which a reporter played by Kirk Douglas turns the rescue of a man trapped in a cave into a media circus. (Perhaps, even, coining the term.) I don’t know if that was an intentional reference on Kim’s part or all such disasters have begun to resemble media circuses. At 126 minutes, Tunnel is about 20 minutes too long to sustain the conceit. Even so, Kim does a nice job keeping us from checking out watches.

Saving Banksy
Although graffiti is hardly a new phenomenon, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the defacement of subway trains in New York begged questions that weren’t asked of the soldiers who scribbled “Kilroy was here” on fences from Okinawa to Omaha Beach, or Simon & Garfunkel’s prophets, whose words were written on the subway walls and tenement halls, or the ancient brothel keepers whose advertisements can still be found in Ephesus and Pompei. When photographs of heavily decorated subway cars, overpasses and billboards began to be collected by publishers of coffee-table books and galleries, it became of matter of dollars and sense. While city officials searched for ways to prosecute the taggers and erase their graffiti, or prevent it from sticking to shiny surfaces, artists found advocates to protest the eradication of their work. Taggers were attacked by property owners and, in some cases, forced to reimburse the city for costs associated with its removal. God forbid, they should make the mistake of spray-painting over a local gang’s demarcations of territory. Meanwhile, the best of it was quietly being monetized by gallery owners, curators and investors who saw what happened to the value of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s graffiti art, when it made the transition from concrete to canvas. Colin Day’s provocative documentary, Saving Banksy, adds yet another wrinkle to the vandalism-vs.-art debate. The satirical creations of the British graffiti artist and political activist, known simply as Banksy, have become so celebrated that even the walls on which they appear have become valuable. When one of Banksy’s most visible specimens, “Haight Street Rat,” became something of a tourist attraction in San Francisco, authorities demanded that the owner of the bed-and-breakfast to remove, cover it or face a stiff fine. No matter that Banksy hadn’t sought the owner’s permission — presumably, anyway — or that it enhanced the neighborhood with its very presence, or that no one objected to the image of the stenciled rat, wearing a Che Guevara-style cap and clutching a Magic Marker. It had to go.

Brian Greif, former general manager of KRON-TV, came up with a compromise solution even the great King Solomon might have admired. In 2010, he persuaded the owner of the Red Victorian Bed and Breakfast to let him remove the 10 redwood-siding planks on which the rat was painted. Greif took the painting to art-restoration specialists, who mounted the slats on corrugated aluminum. He raised $10,000 to offset costs through a Kickstarter campaign, promising never to sell the work, even though other Banksy creations have sold at auction for more than $1 million and he was offered $700,000 for it. Instead, Greif attempted to donate “Haight Street Rat” to various museums. Without a letter of authentication from the artist, however, the institutions said they would not accept the work. Besides the possibility that giant rat might not have been a Banksy — not likely — curators were concerned that they could be accused of promoting vandalism. Day then introduces us to a dealer with fewer scruples than Greif. He’s profited handsomely from collecting street art that was worthless, until someone removed the portion of the wall or concrete slab on which it appeared, and delivered it to him. Many of Banksy’s pieces represent site-specific commentaries on current events, including a series rendered on surfaces in the West Bank, while others are intended to be ironic or satirical. Some pieces he’s acknowledged, so that groups could benefit from their value in the marketplace. The mystery behind their provenance suggests that Banksy isn’t a single person. Another paradox comes in knowing that street art, no matter its value, is considered fair game by rival taggers, vandals and building owners who prefer white wash to spray paint. Greif allows the rat to be displayed in galleries, but, “Our condition is that it has to be free and open to the public, and that there have to be programs to support street art.” Saving Banksy features interviews with artists Ben Eine, Risk, Revok, Niels ‘Shoe’ Meulman, Blek Le Rat, Doze Green, Hera Glen E. Friedman and Anthony Lister.

Counting for Thunder
Phillip Irwin Cooper’s surprisingly compelling adaptation of his one-man-show, Counting for Thunder, recounts the return home, to rural Alabama, of a struggling character actor, Phillip Stalworth (Cooper), tired of dealing with casting directors who think he’s too old to play characters his age and being rejected for parts that require a “Steve Carell type” because he looks too much like Carell. It’s Hollywood logic, to the Nth degree. When he isn’t working, Philip is at the beck and call of a diva who’s forgotten how to think for herself or perform everyday chores, like picking up the dry cleaning or collecting the mail. We’re told he has a girlfriend, as well, but their relationship has reached a dead end. When news reaches him of his mother’s cancer, Phillip has to convince his employer that she’ll probably be able survive his absence for a few days. Not surprisingly, a few days turn into a few weeks. That’s because Tina Stalworth (Mariette Hartley) takes her son’s advice and adopts a holistic approach to her treatment and, sure enough, the cancer goes into remission. Meanwhile, Phillip is required to deal with his father’s (John Heard) aversion to his “California ways“ pot brownies to relieve his mother’s pain, among them — and general crankiness over his choice of friends. Also hanging around are a thrice-divorced sister, who ignores Tina’s illness by insisting on chain-smoking around her, and a former high school jock who’s showing him an inordinate amount of attention. It won’t take long for the solitary home restorer, Joe (Peter Stebbings), to make Phillip recall the homosexual yearnings he felt as boy, but tabled when he moved to Hollywood. The only real question to be worked out here is when, exactly, Tina’s decision to quit chemo will backfire and the family can disintegrate naturally or come together as a stronger unit. That Phillip and Joe will hook up is handled as matter-of-factly as these things get. If that makes Counting for Thunder sound like a dozen other tear-jerking, coming-of-age and coming-out flicks we’ve all seen, I’m here to tell you that it’s anything but cliche. In addition to being the least condescending portrayal of life in a Southern family that I’ve seen in a long time, the various liaisons and hang-ups ring unusually true, as well. Cooper’s familiarity with the narrative allows for a natural unraveling of events and sensitive portrayals of the characters, all of whom he played in the one-man show.

Saturday Night Fever: Director’s Cut: Blu-ray
Arriving on the heels of Paramount’s 30th anniversary edition of Dirty Dancing, the 40th anniversary “director’s cut” edition of Saturday Night Fever begs certain comparisons to the Catskills-summer classic, as well as the 33-year-old Footloose and Flashdance. All of these gotta-dance entertainments were driven as much by compelling class-conscious stories as the dynamism of the performers. Not only did they change the way teens and young adults interact in nightclubs and high school gyms, but they also impacted the fashion scene and cadence of the hit parade. Every five or ten years, new anniversary editions are released, with newly discovered features, so the films must have some resonance with contemporary viewers, beyond the lure of undiluted nostalgia. Not being 17, or having kids that age, anymore, it’s impossible to know how any of them relate to teens whose musical tastes are more digital than analog and, for whom, dancing and choreography are two very different things. Judging from the amount of money invested in clubs and cocktails on any given weekend, in Las Vegas, alone, disco didn’t die with the infamous Disco Demolition Night promotion at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, on July 12, 1979, or the critical drubbing accorded Tony Manero’s return, six years later, in Staying Alive … co-written and directed by, lest we forget, Sylvester Stallone. From a distance of 40 years, however, I’d have to say that Saturday Night Fever‘s story holds up less well than the Bee Gees’ irrepressible songs, which retain a life of their own. Travolta’s no less electrifying as the kid with a dream as big as New York City, but that was only half the story, all along.

The interviews included in the bonus package remind us that “SNF” was as much about a place in time — Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, in the mid-1970s — as it was about dancing or disco. Tony’s dream of crossing the bridge into Manhattan — not the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which would only take him to Staten Island — gave him a decided edge over the mopes with whom he hung out. The same thing held true for his muse, Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), whose unmelodious accent could only emanate from one or two zip codes in the U.S. It’s unlikely that any of the other characters left the borough for fame or fortune. Last year, director John Badham collaborated with Paramount to restore the film in 4K, using the original negative and update the surround sound mix to further enhance the musical track. He also added scenes to the theatrical R-rated version that round out characters and plot, although they’re barely noticeable. I’d forgotten the scenes in the nightclub’s bar, with a pathetic stripper grinding away for bored patrons. In any case, the “R” was fairly earned for rough language and rougher sex. It also includes the original theatrical version, with Badham’s commentary and â “’70s Discopedia”; deleted scenes; and some vintage featurettes, “Catching the Fever,” “Back to Bay Ridge,” “Dance Like Travolta, With John Cassese┝ and “Fever Challenge”

3:10 to Yuma: 4K UHD/Blu-ray
The Expendables/The Expendables 2: 4K UHD: Blu-ray
Early adapters to the 4K Ultra High Definition format have only recently begun to be rewarded for their foresight and willingness to give another new technology a shot. It may not be as expensive an investment as 3DTV, but it isn’t cheap, either. Some companies are more invested in the process than others, so the inventory of UHD titles is far from reaching the point of critical mass. Nevertheless, the ability to play 4K discs on existing Blu-ray platforms is a real plus. If anything is going to sell UHD, it’s action/adventures in grand settings or comic-book fantasies with colorfully rendered special effects.

This week’s selections include 3:10 to Yuma, whose spectacular New Mexico and Arizona settings are worth the price of a rental, alone. It is James Mangold’s 2007 remake of Delmer Daves’ classic 1957 Western about an impoverished small-time rancher, Dan Evans (Van Heflin/ Christian Bale), who is persuaded to escort a vicious gunslinger, Ben Wade (Glenn Ford/Russell Crowe), from the nearly defenseless jail in tiny Bisbee, Arizona, to the nearest railhead. From there, the killer would be locked in a cage in the mail car and taken by train to Yuma for his trial and inevitable hanging. Getting Wade to Yuma will be no easy trick. Not only will his gang attempt to hijack Evans’ prisoner, but the threat of Apaches also hangs heavy in the air. Dan’s son, William (Barry Curtis/Logan Lerman), who tags along for the ride, initially is more impressed by the crook’s bravado than his father’s willingness to risk everything for an honorable payday. When it becomes clear that Ben’s gang — led by the sociopathic Charlie Prince (Richard Jaeckel/Ben Foster) — is hot on their heels, the killer’s taunts begin to wear heavy on Dan’s mind. No one in Bisbee is particularly anxious to risk their neck for a foregone conclusion. They’d prefer to settle the matter there and then. This Dan refuses to consider. Until the vastly different ending, Mangold hues closely to Halsted Welles’ original screenplay, which was based on a short story by Elmore Leonard. The primary and most obvious differences between the two recorded versions, though, is the addition of Phedon Papamichael’s stunning color cinematography and Marco Beltrami’s atmospheric score.  Despite the investment of creative energy and critical applause, 3:10 to Yuma did only so/so business at the box office. It gave studios another excuse to turn down proposals for Westerns, except for such dreadful hybrids as Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens and Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West. The 4K edition ports over featurettes included in the previous Blu-ray version: Mangold’s commentary, “Destination: Yuma,” “Outlaws, Gangs, & Posses,” “An Epic Explored,” “3:10 to Score,” “From Sea to Shining Sea” and “A Conversation With Elmore Leonard.” All are well worth checking out.

On the cover of The Expendables (2010), photoshopped photos of nine bad-ass mercenaries stretch from one side of the box to the other. On The Expendables 2, 11 armed and ready-to-boogey soldiers-of-fortune stand on a blanket of flames, left behind from some kind of an attack. On The Expendables 3, the number of glaring faces grows to 17. Some of the actors have come and gone, while others are new additions. Of the 37 faces, only one belongs to a woman — then-UFC champ Ronda Rousey — even though Chinese action star Nan Yu plays a prominent role in the first sequel. I’d love to see the budget breakdown on salaries for these prominent tough guys and such ringers as Kelsey Grammer, Antonio Banderas and Lauren Jones, whose claim to fame is being one of “Barker’s Beauties” on “The Price Is Right.” If none of the estimated budgets topped $100,000, it’s easy to see how the monetary flex point probably was on script development. With this many recognizable actors, all the screenwriters — Sylvester Stallone included — were required to do was string together as many of their catch phrases and references to previous films as would fit in a 120-page script, already crammed with enough fire fights to satisfy any weekend warrior. Significantly, perhaps, the body counts in the trilogy went from 188, in the original, to 482 and 480 in the sequels. Because Expendables 3: A Man’s Job was released in 4K UHD last year, ahead of this week’s upgrading of the first two episodes, it’s likely that enough units were moved to prompt optimism at Lionsgate. I thought that the reunion gag worked pretty well in No. 1, but less so in the sequels. I don’t get my rocks off on exotic weaponry and skull jewelry, however.  The vintage bonus material can be found on the Blu-ray editions, also included in the packages.

PBS: Nature: Yosemite: Blu-ray
PBS: Wild Weather
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Leonardo, The Man Who Saved Science
Nickelodeon: Rugrats: Season One/Season Two
The PBS “Nature” presentation “Yosemite“ probably was shot at the height of California’s recent drought, which ended sometime in mid-February, so, even a few months later, it feels like a distant memory. That doesn’t make the documentary any less relevant — or, easy on the eyes — just slightly out of date. The producers follow a year’s activities in the park, from season to season, and through the eyes of daredevil climbers and paragliders, rangers, environmentalists, campers, scientists and animals, large and small. It would be extremely difficult to make a film about Yosemite that’s less than spellbinding and “Yosemite” is far from mundane. At 60 minutes, however, it only scratches the surface of the park’s majesty and importance to the state’s eco-system. As a primer, perfectly suited for family viewing, it’s informative and entertaining.

The old saying, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it,” is probably as applicable today as it was when it was minted, in the late 1800s. While it’s become easier to track and predict meteorological phenomena and other extreme conditions, precision and prevention remain just beyond our reach. In PBS’ “Wild Weather,” scientists from around the globe deconstruct the processes through which such simple ingredients as wind, water, heat and cold interact to trigger such spectacular events as tornados, sandstorms, fiery whirlwinds and avalanches. They do this in the lab and in the field, literally out of dust, water and thin air. Dr. Nigel Tapper of Monash University, Australia, creates a massive dust storm so he can examine the microscopic moments when dust particles begin to bounce high enough into the stratosphere to interact with clouds. Engineers Jim Stratton and Craig Zehrung from Purdue University, use a high-powered “vacuum cannon” to fire homemade hailstones at over 500 mph. One thing leads to another and, voila, disasters happen.

Leonardo da Vinci was born a 500 years before the Internet, but the methods he used to formulate his theories, create great works of art and invent machines and gadgets that wouldn’t be practical for several centuries recall the way we browse the Web for own education and amusement. The “Secrets of the Dead“ chapter, “Leonardo, The Man Who Saved Science,” explains how Leonardo found the inspiration for some of his most important discoveries in manuscripts and drawings compiled as many as 1,700 years before his time and thousands of miles away from home. He knew that Italy wasn’t the center of the universe, when it came to scientific research and great ideas, at least, and searched tirelessly for ideas shared by the ancient Greeks, Islamic thinkers and his contemporaries. Once again, it would take countless more hours to develop a complete portrait of the man and his work — even leaving out the more prurient aspects highlighted in Starz’ “Da Vinci’s Demons” – but “Leonardo, The Man Who Saved Science” is as good an entry point as any.

It’s been almost 26 years since Klasky-Csupo animation studios combined resources with Nickelodeon Productions on “Rugrats,” a show as much for young parents as their children. For the better part of 14 years, the animated series chronicled the misadventures of four babies and their snotty older cousin, as they face things in life they don’t yet understand. In 2017, of course, children who grew up watching the award-winning show are old enough to turn their own youngsters on to “Rugrats.” The first two complete-season packages, once strictly available through Amazon and MOD purveyor CreateSpace, have been newly released through Paramount Home Entertainment.

The DVD Wrapup: Girl With All the Gifts, Girl From Brothel, Underworld V, Detour, Catfight, We Are X, Borowczyk, Three Brothers and more

Thursday, April 27th, 2017

The Girl With All the Gifts: Blu-ray
The more I learn about the business of distributing DVDs, Blu-ray and VOD, the less sense key business decisions make. Take, for example, Colm McCarthy and writer Mike Carey’s very representative horror flick The Girl With All the Gifts. Apart from being extremely well made and unusually thought-provoking, it features a performance by Glenn Close that almost has to be seen to be believed. Looking a bit like her cross-dressing butler Albert Nobbs – for which she won an Obie and received an Oscar nominated – but with an authoritative bearing not unlike her Nova Prime, in Guardians of the Galaxy, Close plays Dr. Caroline Caldwell, a no-nonsense biologist determined to find a vaccine for a zombie plague. The novelty of such casting, alone, would appear to be sufficient cause for an arthouse release. After debuting at last year’s Locarno, Stuttgart Fantasy Film and Toronto festivals – where it received excellent reviews — The Girl With All the Gifts was accorded little more than an Internet premiere, in January. Then, apparently, no one could figure out what to do with the darn thing. Here, 12-year-old Melanie (newcomer Sennia Nanua) is among a small group of children – “hungries” – who have been infected with a fungal infection that corrupts the brain, but remain able, more or less, to control their urges to stalk and devour uninfected humans. The rest act like zombies in “The Walking Dead” and a million other such undead entertainments.

Strictly monitored and restrained to wheelchairs, the children represent the control group Caldwell and other scientists are studying at a fenced-in British military base. When a sympathetic teacher (Gemma Arterton) gets too attached to Melanie, it threatens to throw an unpredictable variant into the research. Worse comes to worst when the full-blown zombies break through the fence and the child “hungries” are able to mix with the mob and escape the only home they’ve ever known. To achieve a realistically post-apocalyptic look, McCarthy flew a drone over the still-uninhabited ghost town of Prypjat, near Chernobyl, capturing images that would have been impossible to replicate on a spartan budget. Apparently, Close has wanted to appear in a zombie movie for a long time and her decision was influenced by her sister-in-law’s love of the sub-genre. Also effective are Dominique Tipper, Anamaria Marinca and Paddy Considine. The Blu-ray contains the making-of featurette, “Unwrap the Secrets of The Girl WIth All the Gifts,” with interviews with the director, writer, actors and composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer, all of whom discuss what it took to make an effective horror film on a barely-there budget.

The Girl From the Brothel
A few weeks ago, in my review of Lion, I digressed a bit on the subject of human trafficking and what happens to children who “disappear” from their homes and family. In the movie, as it was in real life, the protagonist, Saroo, was extremely fortunate to be delivered by police to a responsible Calcutta orphanage and placed with a loving family in Australia. Years later, of course, he tracked down his birth mother and sister in a tiny Indian village. Tens of thousands of other children in the same predicament as Saroo weren’t nearly as lucky. If I had known about co-writer/director/star Ilaria Borrelli and co-writer Guido Freddi’s The Girl From the Brothel (a.k.a., “Talking to the Trees”), I could have saved all of us some time. It not only serves as an indictment of the illegal trafficking of underage children in Southeast Asia, but, also, the corruption that allows it to enrich criminals, law-enforcement officials and desperately poor relatives of the victims. The indictment also extends to the tourists from around the world who support all forms of prostitution – legal and otherwise — in the region with their patronage. Here, Mia (Borrelli) is a Paris-based photographer with a drug problem, who flies to Cambodia to surprise her businessman husband, Xavier (Philippe Caroit), with her desire to adopt a child and embark on a more stable family life. In a plot device that is too convenient by half, Mia catches Xavier in a lowly brothel, being serviced by 11-year-old, Srey.  (Blessedly, the depiction is camouflaged and prurient only by implication.)

She decides, then and there, to rescue the girl and return her to the remote village from which she and her brother were kidnapped. To accomplish this feat, however, Mia is required to sacrifice herself to a highly placed government official. On their way out of town, Mia is shocked to learn that her precocious accomplice, Srey, has brought along a couple of friends and the theft of money from the pimp will ensure a countrywide police dragnet. Each of the girls comes from a different village and has a story of their own to tell. They are sharp enough to provide Mia with tips on how to avoid roadblocks and ingratiate themselves with locals. The journey is as scenic as it is harrowing, moving quickly from the teeming capital to fishing villages on the coast and jungles being stripped of their natural vegetation. Along the way, Mia learns everything she’ll ever need to know about survival skills and the worthlessness of Xavier. Borrelli also points out that not all of the girls’ parents and police are cut from the same cloth and some of them, at least, were ignorant of their whereabouts. I can’t decide if Freddi’s curiously New Age soundtracks adds or detracts from what’s happening on the screen.

Underworld: Blood Wars
In the generous supplement package included in the Underworld: Blood Wars package, the accents of German-born director Anna Foerster and Serbian costume Bojana Nikitovic suggest that they may possess some inside knowledge on the centuries-old blood feud between aristocratic vampires, known as Death Dealers, and their onetime slaves, the Lycans. How popular would Universal’s original Dracula have been if Bela Lugosi had affected a British accent, instead of relying on his native Romanian? Almost everyone else in the horror franchise’s fifth installment speaks in variations of the Queen’s English – as is also apparent in the bonus interviews – and it sometimes makes them sound as if they’re analyzing the intricacies of “War and Peace” or “Finnegan’s Wake,” instead of a supernatural gore fest. Lugosi probably wouldn’t recognize anything here, though, with the possible exceptions of the castles and fangs. At the ripe old age of 46, series MVP Kate Beckinsale looks even more stunning out of her body-hugging leather costume than in it. Younger stars Theo James, Lara Pulver, Clementine Nicholson, Daisy Head and Bradley James – all ridiculously buff and beautiful – seem happy to be along for the ride. Even if “Blood Wars” is an extension of all of the episodes that preceded it, an inordinately long preface allows newcomers to figure out what’s happening without much confusion. As the remaining vampires are on the verge of being wiped out by the Lycans, Selene (Beckinsale) is being hunted by the devious Eastern Coven leader Semira (Lara Pulver) and Lycan top dog Marius (Tobias Menzies). The former seeks justice for the deaths of Viktor and Marcus, while the Lycans intend to use her to locate Eve, the 12-year-old hybrid daughter of Selene and Michael Corvin, whose blood holds the key to building an army of vampire-werewolf hybrids. Semira lures Selena out of hiding by promising to grant her clemency, so she can train the Eastern Coven’s neophyte Death Dealers, but she’s betrayed by her rival’s ally and lover, Varga (Bradley James). Long story short: Selena escapes imminent death when Thomas and David (Dance, James) ride to her rescue. She ends up taking refuge with the peaceful Northern Coven – somewhere near Lapland – where all scores will be settled. The action is pretty good, if ultimately repetitive, with death meted out in numerous different ways. If “Blood Wars” failed to impress critics and paying customers – it was the lowest-opening chapter in franchise history – it does allow for a “new generation” extension, possibly as a straight-to-VOD/DVD entity or television series. Also included in the bonus package is a graphic-novel version of “Blood Wars,” which neatly sums everything up, without the clamor of the clanging swords, automatic-weapons’ fire and atmospheric music.

Detour: Blu-ray
In the movies, the best place to hire a hitman is the local strip club. In fact, the lower down the food chain one goes, the more time the characters spend in the company of gyrating dancers and topless waitresses serving watered-down drinks. It beats having to come up with intriguing dialogue and clever plots. In Detour, law student Harper (Tye Sheridan) enters into a pact with a heavily tattooed young man, Johnny Ray (Emory Cohen), who offers to kill his stepfather, Vincent (Stephen Moyer), whom he believes is responsible for the accident that sent his mother into a coma. The rest of the story plays out in manner not dissimilar to the split-level Sliding Doors (1998), this using a television broadcast of Edgar G. Ulmer’s infamous noir, Detour (1945), as connective tissue. Both involve the fate of Johnny Ray, who’s heavily in debt to an even more tattooed drug kingpin (John Lynch), who’s commandeered a motel on the old road between Las Vegas and L.A. The dealer is willing to trade the debt for Johnny Ray’s deliciously scuzzy girlfriend, Cherry (Bel Powley), who’s getting sick of being beat up by the guy who insists he can’t live without her. The other narrative allows for an alternate solution to Harper’s problem, this time without having to leave home. Writer/director Christopher Smith Black Death isn’t shy about using visual gimmicks to push viewers’ buttons. His best allies here, though, are Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl), who, even at 25, convincingly plays manipulative jailbait, and the deliciously sleazy Lynch. Detour has its moments, but they come and go without leaving much of an impression.

Catfight: Blu-ray
In the final episode of Season Eight of “Seinfeld” – “The Summer of George” – one of the parallel storylines describes how the males in Elaine’s life react when they sense that a fight between two women seems imminent. Typically, their behavior reflects a collective lack of intellectual growth among men, who, while in high school would behave like baboons in anticipation of a “catfight,” during which the girls were likely to lose a blouse or skirt. It was considered bad form for anyone, except a teacher or sibling, to break up these skirmishes. Catfight is also the title of Onur Tukel’s latest provocation, during which polar opposites played by Sandra Oh and Anne Heche relive an unresolved college grievance by kicking the crap out of each other and leaving one of them in a coma. They would wake up a couple of years later, in a hospital, unable to remember anything about how they lost everything and everyone they once deemed essential in their lives. Oh plays Veronica, a superficial upper-middle-class housewife, while Ashley is misanthropic and not particularly successful artist, obsessed more with her career than her life partner, Lisa (Alicia Silverstone), who wants to bear a child. Veronica and Ashely run into each other at a party, hosted by Veronica’s husband, during which their long-buried rivalry comes to the surface. After exchanging some cruel sentiments, they come to blows in a stairwell, leaving Veronica in the hospital in a two-year-long coma. She awakens to learn that her husband and son are both dead and her nest egg has been exhausted by medical bills. A year later, or so, the same thing happens again, this time in reverse. A third such engagement will occur, only, this time, neither woman has anything left to lose. The catfights in Catfight aren’t remotely sexy – although fetishists might disagree – and the ladies’ clothing remains mostly intact. What’s amazing is just how punishing the fights between these two big stars are made to look and for how long they last. If the first two punches are kind of funny, the next dozen or so are far from amusing. Some might wonder what kind of a madman could conceive of such fare and convince indie faves Oh and Heche to appear in it. A bonus featurette explains how the pugilistic realism was achieved.

The Marine 5: Battleground: Blu-ray
WWE superstar Mike “The Miz” Mizanin is back for a record third time as Jake Carter, a former Marine sergeant turned body guard and, in The Marine 5: Battleground, a stateside EMT. As such, he’s outlasted John Cena (12 Rounds), who launched the series, and the sequel’s star, Ted DiBiase (“Vengeance”). WWE Studios, which now also enlists its stars in the service of animated films – “Scooby-Doo,” “The Jetsons,” “The Flintstones,” “Surf’s Up 2” — tends to rotate the actors playing lead roles in its feature films. The same is true of its directors. The critics haven’t cared much for the studio’s live-action titles, but they must have done some business or why bother? This time around, Carter is assigned the responsibility of protecting a man who killed a leader of a local motorcycle gang. Trapped in the cavernous parking garage of an amusement park, Carter and his partner have the disadvantage of being outnumbered, out of communication with their supervisors and short on weapons. The man he’s protecting happens to be wounded, as well. In WWE movies, at least, a Marine should be capable of outlasting his villains, no matter the odds. And, of course, that’s exactly what happens. The supporting cast is stacked with such wrestlers as Heath Slater, Curtis Axel, Bo Dallas, Trinity “Naomi” Fatu, Joe Hennig, Taylor Rotunda, Naomi and Maryse “The Sultry Diva” Mizanin. Whoever invented the term, “It is what it is,” must have foreseen such movies as “The Marine 5.”

The Levelling
Set on a dairy farm in Somerset, England, after the devastating floods of 2014, The Levelling marks the long overdue return of Hope Dickson Leach to the filmmaking game, this time as a freshman writer/director. After graduating from Columbia, Leach learned the craft working as an assistant for Todd Solondz on Palindromes, as well as directing several promising shorts. She took several years off to start a family and reassess her role in an industry that values low-budget films, but not necessarily the people who make them. The Levelling is a far more direct and somber story than the occasionally satiric shorts she once delivered. It features excellent performances by Ellie Kendrick (“Game of Thrones”) and David Troughton (“Grantchester”), as a father and daughter forced to deal with unsettled issues in the wake of the death of her brother. In training to become a veterinarian, Clover Catto returns the family farm, only to find it in terrible disarray after the floods. Her father, Aubrey, refuses to believe that the shooting was anything but a terrible accident, even though all of the evidence argues for it being a suicide. Either way, a dairy farmer’s work doesn’t stop for mourning, funeral preparations, floods and familial discord. Among other things, the cows have to be fed, milked and birthed, and other obligatory chores don’t perform themselves. Neither do pastures and barns heal themselves when they’re damaged by the ravages of nature’s wrath. The frustrations caused by such unforeseen acts of God must have weighed heavily on Charlie (Joe Blakemore), before he picked up the gun. Repairing the father-daughter relationship is no less difficult for Clover, who, even as someone who works with animals, can envision a life removed from the mud, shit and dawn-to-dusk obligations of rural life.

We Are X: Blu-ray
Up until a few months ago, the only rock band I knew of named X was, and still is, as much a product of Los Angeles as Dodger Dogs and the Hollywood sign, and an excellent rockumentary, X: The Unheard Music (1986), has already been made about the pioneers of West Coast punk. That changed with the arrival of Stephen Kijak’s We Are X on the festival circuit, which I initially confused with Michael Haertlein and Jonathan Yi’s extremely wild documentary, Mad Tiger, about the New York-based Japanese art-punk ensemble Peelander-z. Unbeknownst to me, anyway, X Japan has been a major attraction in there for more than 30 years and has since taken its act to countries around the world, including the United States. It started as a power/speed/metal group, with heavy symphonic elements, but later would be highly influenced, as well, by the Western hair bands and prog rockers of the 1970s. X Japan is widely credited as being one of the pioneers of visual kei, a popular movement among independent and underground musicians working in the glam, goth, electronica and cyberpunk subgenres. It also has become famous for the power ballads it performs in sold-out auditoriums to the accompaniment of laser beams, flashing lights, smoke machines and hysterical fans. Under the enigmatic direction of drummer, pianist, composer, and producer Yoshiki, X Japan has sold over 30 million singles and albums. Sartorially, they make T-Rex look like the Four Freshmen. For all of the band’s success, however, it would be impacted by personal problems and the angst that goes with being hounded by fans and the media. We Are X is further informed by interviews with such admirers as Sir George Martin, KISS’ Gene Simmons, Stan Lee and Marilyn Manson. There’s footage from the concert to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Emperor Akihito’s ascension, as well as that from the Tokyo Dome and Madison Square Garden affairs. The Blu-ray adds extended interviews, Kijak’s commentary, backstage footage from rehearsals and concerts, as well as archival footage of such key moments such as the split of the band and their last concert and the death of one of the guitarists.

Robot Wars
Like too many other low-budget indies fortunate enough to find distribution, but only on straight-to-video platforms, a late title change caused Robot Wars to be released without much in the way of robots or wars on display. If I had known that going into the movie, I wouldn’t have wasted any time looking for them among the other cyber-stuff. This isn’t to imply that fans of first-person point-of-view flicks won’t find something to enjoy here, because that’s essentially what drives the narrative. In the near future, industrial espionage will be conducted by surgically altered spies able to infiltrate companies thought to be secure and photograph documents using an undetectable camera and data links implanted in their eye sockets. Here, a convict is offered a second chance at freedom, but only if he agrees to the procedure and help a team of thieves steal top-secret technology from a rival company. When the mission is compromised and their link to their sponsors is lost, the team is forced to transport their secreted prize through a lawless industrial sprawl populated with barbaric gangs and corporate death squads. Meanwhile, they discover the true nature of their mission and the true power of the device they now possess. The POV perspective makes the movie look and feel like a video-game. The DVD comes with a featurette.

In the Doghouse
When the children of divorced parents decide that it’s in everyone’s best interests to reunite mom and dad, they’ll use every trick in the book to accomplish the task at hand. Throw in a poodle with cognitive powers and mom might as well abandon all hope of hooking up with a guy who won’t break her heart after a few years of marriage. In Paul Rocha and writer Stephen Langford’s Dove-approved In the Doghouse, the kids have forgotten what caused the divorce in the first place – we’re never told — and play tricks on all of mom’s suitors to scare them off. Most of them are so hideously rendered that her ex even begins to look good to us. In a contrivance almost too absurd to mention, Wendy (Kim Hamilton) wins the lottery, alerting an ex-boyfriend to her good fortune. She’s already mentioned his name to a match-making friend, so it doesn’t come as much of a surprise when the bunko artist (Matthew Easton) shows up at her doorstep and she takes the bait. Now, the girls and Irving the Poodle are on the side of the angels and we still haven’t been given a good reason to cheer for the inevitable mother/father reunion. As these things go, In the Doghouse offers more than its fair share of funny moments, almost all of them at the expense of the poor saps a picture-perfect woman like Wendy normally wouldn’t date on a dare. Curiously, considering the prominence of his picture on the DVD jacket, Irving really isn’t given all that much to do in In the Doghouse.

Psycho Cop Returns: Blu-ray
She Kills: Limited Edition Blu-ray
Here are a pair of movies that easily qualify as being so bad, they’re not good, exactly, but funny … in a sick, thoroughly gratuitous sort of way. Released to video in 1993, Psycho Cop Returns is a sequel to the similarly nutso Psycho Cop, which also took the cassette route before being accorded cult status. Of more recent vintage, She Kills only looks like it was made at the height of the straight-to-cassette era. The more blotto the viewer is on generic-label beer, skunk weed or Drano, the more likely it is that he or she will make it to the end of the movies with no regrets. They’re that over the top.

For those who missed the original Psycho Cop, Officer Joe Vickers (Robert R. Shafer) isn’t nicknamed “Psycho” because everyone in the department’s bowling league is required to have one. No, he’s the real deal: a cop who believes that no law is too trivial to enforce and the use of lethal force is warranted, even when issuing tickets for jaywalking or citing noise violations at office parties, as is the case in Psycho Cop Returns. Neither is he keen on advising a perp of his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. “You have the right to remain dead,” he belatedly explains to one corpse. “Anything you say would be considered strange, because you’re dead. You have a right to an attorney, which you don’t need, because you’re dead.” The movie opens in a diner, where two office workers are discussing just how much fun they’re likely to have at that night’s bash. Overhearing their boasts, Officer Joe makes plans to pay the revelers a visit when the debauchery is likely to be at its height. Oh, yeah, have I mentioned that Officer Joe also appears to be an undead Satanist? For all the atrocities committed over Psycho Cop Returns’ 80-minute length, the gore is surprisingly inoffensive and the sex stops just short of actual penetration. Everything else is fair game. The folks at Vinegar Syndrome have gone way beyond the call of duty for this newly scanned and restored edition, adding a commentary track with director Adam Rifkin (Detroit Rock City); the 43-minute featurette, “Habeas Corpus,” offering interviews with Rifkin, editor Peter Schink, screenwriter Dan Povenmire and actors Robert R. Shafer, Miles Dougal, Rod Sweitzer, Nick Vallelonga, Barbara Niven and Melanie Good; “The Victims of Vickers,” with SFX artist Mike Tristano; and reversible cover artwork by Chris Garofalo. That represents an inordinate amount of effort invested in a movie whose punchline is a parody of the Rodney King beating.

She Kills opens with the camera following a beautiful blond a she strolls through a lush pasture, on the lookout for a spot where she’ll feel safe unbuttoning her blouse and letting the girls out for some good old country sunshine. She’s expecting to rendezvous with her fiancé, for whom she’s been saving her maidenhead, until that night’s wedding ceremony. It kind of reminded me of such risqué European erotica as Therese and Isabelle and I, a Woman, which took America by storm in the 1960s. Unbeknownst to our top-down heroine, Sadie (Jennie Russo), however, a sleazy biker is peering at her from the tree line. He’s a member of a gang appropriately known as the Touchers, but, before he can get his greasy hands on the virginal blond, her wimpy fiancé arrives. On their wedding night, the rest of the Touchers show up in the bridal suite to pre-empt the bedtime festivities. During the rape attempt, however, Sadie surprises everyone by defending her virginity with a wicked condition called “fire crotch.” (It looks as if she’s also been cursed to wear a merkin from hell.) A fortune-telling friend, Casparella, advises her to seek an exorcism, before all the men in town are burned to a crisp. The sadism on display could be considered cruelly gratuitous, if the gang members weren’t so cartoonish and the special effects so ridiculously cheesy.

Jess Franco’s Marquise De Sade
Along with Joe D’Amato, Tinto Brass, Henri Pachard, Gerard Damiano, Radley Metzger and Russ Meyer, Spanish multi-hyphenate Jesús “Jess” Franco was one of the grand ol’ men of porn – soft, hard, whatever – for most of second half of the 20th Century. For the most part, they learned how to make mainstream movies or docs before they got into the porn game and adapted to the changes that occurred in the 1960s, when most forms of erotica were legalized; during the commercialization of porn in the 1970s; the home-video explosion of the 1980s; and the gonzo boom of the 1990s. As long as they were making movies, they attempted to tell stories about women and men who might have escaped from an X-rated Harlequin romance novel and whose horizons stretched beyond the warehouse studios of San Fernando Valley. If the actors had blemishes, they didn’t show. Brass and Metzger’s films could double as travelogues for swingers. They’d shoot for hard-core audiences, while also leaving plenty of footage to cut for soft-core outlets. Moreover, they hoped viewers would stick with their movies beyond the first couple of staged couplings.

Franco’s pictures ran the gamut from cheapo/sleazo to literary. Movies based on characters and themes already familiar to potential viewers saved wear and tear on the imagination, while also suggesting the settings and costumes to be considered. Made in 1976, Jess Franco’s Marquise De Sade has carried several different titles over the last 40 years: “Die Marquise von Sade,” “The Portrait of Doriana Gray,” “The 1000 Shades of Doriana Grey” and “Female Vampire.” It more closely resembles Oscar Wilde’s literary classic “The Picture of Dorian Gray” than anything by the Marquis de Sade or Bram Stoker. Franco’s longtime partner and muse, Lina Romay, plays the lonely aristocrat Doriana Gray and her twin sister, who’s been locked away in an asylum. Though separated, they share a strange bond: while Doriana is repressed to the point of frigidity, she’s able to get off by channeling the sexual pleasure experienced by her insatiable twin. Not completely dissimilar to Wilde’s creation, Doriana’s youth is replenished with each new orgasm. The less often she climaxes, the older she looks. Frankly, though, I found it difficult to keep track of which sister was which … not that it matters, because Franco probably did, too. The DVD adds a making-of piece, with interviews, and a veritable cavalcade of Franco trailers.

Ophelia: Blu-ray
World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers: Blu-ray
Theatre of Mr. & Mrs. Kabal: Blu-ray
Goto Isle of Love: Blu-ray
Blanche: Blu-ray
Walerian Borowczyk: Short Films: Blu-ray
A few weeks ago, while reviewing Arrow Academy’s upgraded edition of Walerian Borowczyk’s Story of Sin, I mentioned that Chicago-based Olive Films would be sending a fresh batch of the Polish writer/director/animator’s long-forgotten pictures. They have arrived, alongside two other underseen gems: Claude Chabrol’s 1963 contemporization of “Hamlet,” Ophelia, and an abridged version of the star-studded 1964 anthology, The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers. Chabrol contributed a chapter to the latter film, as well, along with Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless), Ugo Gregoretti (Omicron), Hiromichi Horikawa (The Alaska Story) and Roman Polanski, who had just emigrated to France and asked that his segment be edited out of future releases. In Ophelia, André Jocelyn (Les Cousins) plays wealthy young provincial, Yvan, who becomes fixated on the idea that his mother, Alida Valli (The Third Man), and uncle, Claude Cerval (Belle de Jour), conspired to have his businessman father killed, so they could marry and sap his fortune. When Yvan’s paranoia becomes too much for his family and neighbors to bear, he begins wooing Lucy (Juliette Mayniel), the beautiful daughter of his parents’ groundskeeper. He convinces her to become the de facto Ophelia of his scheme. Chabrol adds enough visual and thematic references to the play to support Yvan’s suspicions, while Jean Rabier’s wintery black-and-white cinematography is sufficiently bleak to make us think that something is rotten in, if not Denmark, then Villepreux. Ophelia may have been a minor addition to Chabrol’s resume – and not at all Hitchcockian — but there’s enough there to keep his admirers happy for a couple hours.

Like so many other anthologies, The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers, is best savored in small bites, almost as palate cleansers separating the main courses of the artist’s oeuvre. Indeed, in the 50 years since the stories were compiled, the schemes depicted have been borrowed dozens of times and re-set in as many different locations around the world. What’s most interesting here is watching the hand-picked casts of top-shelf actors add touches of their own to the directors’ visions. Among them are Jean Seberg (Breathless), Catherine Deneuve (Indochine), Jean-Pierre Cassel (Murder on the Orient Express), Mie Hama (You Only Live Twice), Francis Blanche (Monsieur Gangster) and Ken Mitsuda (Sansho the Bailiff). Lending their considerable talents behind the camera are cinematographers Raoul Coutard (Breathless), Tonino Delli Colli (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), Asakazu Nakai (Ran) and Jean Rabier (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg).

The newly upgraded titles from Borowczyk’s still rather obscure body of work are Blanche, Goto: Isle of Love, Theatre of Mr. & Mrs. Kabal and “Walerian Borowczyk: Short Films,” the latter two demonstrating his mastery of animation. At mid-century, the differences between European and American animation were the equivalent of night and day, with the Euros favoring more angular characters and surrealistic situations, to the anthropomorphism that distinguished American cartoons. The almost bizarre creations of eastern European artists would find a ready audience of kids a couple of decades later, when Nickelodeon broke the mold on commercial animation. In the feature-length Theatre of Mr. & Mrs. Kabal, the henpecked Mr. Kabal, who’s prone to ogling young females through his binoculars, is never quite beyond the reach of the statuesque and domineering Mrs. Kabal. We all fell in love with “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” but it would have been impossible for non-Europeans to appreciate the debt – fully acknowledged in his introduction – owed the misanthropic Pole by the great Terry Gilliam. Watch these shorts alongside any episode of “Monty Python” and you’ll thank all that is holy that these two minds met somewhere along the line and melded into something that could be enjoyed as much by aesthetes as kids looking for something completely different. It’s there to be found in the shorts compiled by Olive/Arrow.

Borowzcyk also was celebrated for his ability to make historical dramas and period pictures that didn’t look as if they were shot in studio backlots and sets created overnight to resemble the interiors of castles, churches and cottages. His selection of classical and traditional music also fits the periods like an expensive leather glove. Blanche, based on the poem “Mazepa,” by Juliusz Slowacki, takes place largely in an actual medieval castle, somewhere in France, where an elderly baron, Michel Simon (L’Atalante), and his much younger bride (the director’s muse, Ligia Branice) welcome a visiting king, George Wilson (Les destinées), and his handsome page, Jacques Perrin (Cinema Paradiso), to their castle, setting in motion accusations of disloyalty and marital infidelity and turning what should be a fairytale into a nightmare.

Borowzcyk’s first live-action feature, Goto: Isle of Love (1968), must have come as a shock to the many admirers of his animation. Shot in consciously drab black-and-white, it depicts life on an island no other nation is interested in claiming. A meteorological disaster had destroyed everything worth exploiting and the coastline probably couldn’t support a tourist trade. At the time of its release, Borowzcyk could have modeled Goto after a half-dozen Eastern European countries, where the sun never seemed to be able to cut its way through the industrial smog, and creativity was treated as an affront to the state. My guess would be Albania, which, throughout most of the post-war period, was as isolated and colorless as North Korea is, today. In this tale of infidelity, revenge and repressed love, Pierre Brasseur (Port of Shadows) plays Goto III, an unstable and jealous dictator married to the beautiful Glossia (Branice). Unbeknownst to Goto III, Glossia is carrying on an affair with one of his guards (Jean-Pierre Andreani). Also lusting after the dictator’s wife is Grozo (Guy Saint-Jean), a petty thief who, by winning the confidence of Goto III, plans to win Glossia for himself. Several humorously telling scenes were shot inside a classroom, where the students’ primary duty is to memorize the island’s short history and be able to tell the difference between the three Gotos, from a painting whose perspective changes depending on where one sits. All four discs contain informative featurettes and interviews with cronies of the director and artists influenced by his work.

Three Brothers: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Assassin: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Red Queen Kills Seven Times: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Django, Prepare a Coffin: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Caltiki:  The Immortal Monster: Special Edition: Blu-ray
On top of everything else, Arrow has delivered an abbondanza of riches from Italy this week, representing several different genres, time periods and degrees of obscurity. Let’s move from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Of all the post-neorealist masters of the 1960s and 1970s, Francesco Rosi has remained among the most detached and ignored, at least by the folks who prioritize the films that get archived and restored for view by American cineastes with home-theater systems. Everything else made in Italy from the end of World War II to the wind-down of the giallo fantastique era, which coincided with the more politicized and humanistic work of Gillo Pontecorvo, Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Taviani brothers, Ettore Scola and Valerio Zurlini, has made the transition from screen to disc, it seems. A native Napolitano, Rosi was especially interested in chronicling the interaction between organized crime, politicians, the judiciary, police and everyday citizens too often caught in the crossfire. He also was known for adapting into film the writings of Carlo Levi, Primo Levi, Leonardo Sciascia, Gabriel García Márquez and Andrei Platonov, who provided the source material for Three Brothers. Americans would be more familiar with his gangland drama, Lucky Luciano (1973), with Rod Steiger, Vincent Gardenia and Edmond O’Brien in key supporting roles, than, say, the BAFTA-winning Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979) or the Silver Bear-winning Salvatore Giuliano (1962), a personal favorite of Martin Scorsese. Three Brothers reflects the changes that rocked post-war Italy on its way to the “economic miracle” of 1950-73. After the death of their mother, far-flung siblings played by Philippe Noiret, Michele Placido and Vittorio Mezzogiorno – a judge, union organizer and children’s advocate, respectively – return to their home village in southeastern Italy. They are of the generation of males, especially, who have blurred memories of the war, but left home as the country adopted a more urban, industrialized economic philosophy. If they returned home at all, it was for weddings, baptisms and funerals. Their elderly father is still alive, but it’s only a matter of time before he’ll happily join his wife in heaven. In the meantime, the brothers have decided that he should spend some quality time with his granddaughter, who’s perfectly suited for the job of grandpa-sitting. Unlike other such scenarios, in which the siblings would be expected to reopen old wounds, before exposing new ones, the brothers are more preoccupied with things happening hundreds of miles away from the heel of the Italian boot, in Rome, Turin and Naples. The judge is one of many law-enforcement officials targeted for assassination by La Cosa Nostra; tempers at the union activist’s factory are threatening to explode into violence; and the recent influx of refugees from Africa has sparked a social dilemma the government is ill-prepared to remedy. Television, newspaper and magazine reports won’t allow the men to bury their mother and comfort their father in peace. Three Brothers takes place, as well, after Italy’s “la dolce vita” respite and there’s no going back to it. The story, however, couldn’t have a more universal appeal. The Arrow Academy release is enhanced by a 2K restoration from original film materials; high-definition Blu-ray and standard-definition DVD presentations; a feature-length interview with Rosi; and a booklet featuring an essay by Professor Millicent Marcus, a 1981 interview with Rosi and a selection of contemporary reviews.

Even more obscure, perhaps, than Three Brothers is Elio Petri’s 1961 The Assassin (“L’Assassino”), a psychological mystery that starred Marcello Mastroianni, just as his career was beginning to explode. It also marked the emergence of Petri, who would go on to make Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, A Quiet Place in the Country, Lulu the Tool and Property Is No Longer a Theft. After gaining some attention at home in Mario Monicelli’s Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958) and Luchino Visconti’s Le Notti Bianche, Mastroianni would achieve international recognition in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), Antonio Pietrangeli’s Hungry for Love (1960), Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte (1961) and Pietro Germi Divorce Italian Style (1961). The Assassin has been described as Kafkaesque and Camusian, in that the protagonist, Alfredo Martelli, is arrested on suspicion of murdering his older, far wealthier lover, Adalgisa (Micheline Presle), but denies any culpability or knowledge of the crime. It’s not even clear if the police buy into their initial theory, allowing the art dealer to tag along in their investigation and even interview other potential suspects. We begin to sense that the police are so confident that Martelli’s guilty of something – and, worse, enjoying the spoils of his misdeeds – that he at least deserves to be harassed and cut down to size. The Assassin is interesting, as well, for presenting yet another side of life among the country’s privileged class. The pristine 2K restoration, in B&W, is complemented by an introduction, with historian Pasquale Iannone; a terrifically entertaining and informative interview with screenwriter, Tonino Guerra, who reminisces about collaborations with Fellini, Antonioni, Rosi, Monicelli, Vittorio De Sica, Andre Tarkovsky and Theodoros Angelopoulos.

Arrow has also kept busy packaging giallo titles from writer/directors not particularly known for their contributions to the subgenre. Last year’s “Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli” combined Death Walks at Midnight (1972) and Death Walks on High Heels (1971) into a single tidy package, before sending them out on their own last month. Likewise, “Killer Dames: Two Gothic Chillers by Emilio P. Miraglia” has been subdivided, with separate editions of The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971) and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972) newly released. I won’t go into much detail on them, again, except to say that, as well as being representative of various giallo tropes and turns, they are a lot of fun to watch. Even the interviews with cast and crew – especially the still sultry and sassy Erika Blanc — are entertaining. As the title of the package suggests, Miraglia wasn’t at all reluctant to mix gothic-horror conventions within a more garish Modernist framework. And, yes, the nudity is plentiful. Both movies look better than ever, too, no worse for the wear of being butchered by distributors anxious to make them fit the dictates of drive-in owners and TV censors.  The many fresh and vintage bonus features have been ported over, as well.

The venerable, if occasionally ridiculous series of Westerns that fall under the Django banner began in 1968, with Sergio Corbucci at the helm and the title character played by Franco Nero. Ten entries and nine Djangos later, Nero was expected to return to the series in Django, Prepare a Coffin, a prequel to original that was produced by the same company, B.R.C. Produzione S.r.l. According to, Nero is attached to an undated sequel, “Django Lives!,” being written by John Sayles, during which the aging protagonist is hired by a movie-production company to consult on a Western. Here, though, Django is still a youthful gunslinger who’s drifted into a frontier town in need of an executioner willing to do the bidding of a corrupt local politician. The doomed men have been framed, so that the politician and his cronies can repossess their land. After figuring out the scheme, Django arranges for the dead men to rise again and form a gang that’s loyal to him. Ultimately, though, the gunman is after the man, who, years before, had a hand in the death of Django s wife. The Blu-ray adds “Django Explained,” an overview of the character in general and this film in particular, by Spaghetti Western expert Kevin Grant, and a booklet with an essay by Howard Hughes.

More a curiosity that anything else, Caltiki: The Immortal Monster (1959) is a cross-genre thriller – and I use the term advisedly – that is noteworthy almost exclusively as a collaboration between two maestros of Italian cult cinema, Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava. They’d collaborated three years earlier on I Vampiri, with Freda giving up control of the production to the younger man about half-way through it to the slightly younger filmmaker. The same thing happened on “Caltiki,” which was listed as being directed by Robert Hamton. (It was felt, at the time, that Italian audiences wouldn’t buy a sci-fi/horror film made by an Italian.) I Vampiri, it should be noted, was the first Italian-made horror film of the sound era. Even so, the only thing that separates “Caltiki” from most of the pictures resurrected for the sake of ridicule by the “MST3K” crew is Bava’s contribution to it. Until I Vampiri and Caltiki: The Immortal Monster, he’d only directed documentary shorts and created special effects for and camera work for handful of other movies, including Hercules and Hercules Unchained. I’d encourage buffs to watch the making-of featurettes before committing to the feature, because the experts provide a pretty decent roadmap for viewers to follow to the significant, if primitive effects. For the record, though, “Calktiki” involves a team of intrepid archaeologists, led by Dr. John Fielding (John Merivale), who descend on the ruins of an ancient Mayan city to investigate the mysterious disappearance of its inhabitants several centuries earlier. Their search of a sacrificial pool awakens the monster that dwells beneath its waters … that’s right, the fearsome and malevolent god Caltiki, who takes the form of a blob. The explore manage to destroy it with fire – nearly, anyway — but foolishly hold on to a sample of regenerative blob. Meanwhile, the same comet that passed near our planet the last two times the Mayan civilization was threatened is on its way back for another swing around the sun. The package adds commentary by Bava historian Tim Lucas and Troy Howarth; “From Quatermass to Caltiki,” in which Kim Newman reviews the “evolution” of monster movies; the 86-minute full-aperture version; and the archived featurettes, “Riccardo Freda, Forgotten Master,” “The Genesis of Caltiki,” an introduction by Stefano Della Casa; and booklet insert.

PBS: Frontline: Battle for Iraq
PBS: Craft in America: Nature
One of the many things wrong with the American media is how little they seem to care about the wars in which we’ve become engaged, when compared to how much time is invested in the Oscars, baby giraffes, winter storms in places it usually snows in winter and, of course, the Kardashians. News executives insist that they’re only feeding us what we want to eat and covering wars isn’t cost effective, after the first few setbacks, anyway. And, that’s the problem, really. It’s easier and cheaper to buy news from war zones piecemeal, from freelancers, who aren’t entitled to such fringe benefits as life insurance. At the moment, some of the best reporting from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria is supplied by such foreign operations as the Guardian, CNN and the independent Vice News. The “Frontline” presentation, “Battle for Iraq,” was produced by Iraqi-born Guardian reporter Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who’s taken us closer to the action in Mosul than would seem advisable, even for someone who speaks the language. Before he reached the city limits, for example, he nearly was killed in an ISIS truck bombing. Things got even more dangerous from there, as he joined members of Iraq’s elite special-operations forces, known as the Golden Division. He also was able to sit down with a captured ISIS fighter, accused of helping carry out seven suicide attacks; film inside a hospital that’s struggling to cope with thousands of injured civilians; and interview residents of a refugee camp where there is a growing fear that life under the Iraqi army could be even worse than under ISIS.

PBS’ “Craft in America” helps viewers see the world through the eyes of artists, sculptors and craft workers, whose creations are reflections of the colors, textures, shapes, scents and tastes of the physical world. In “Nature,” the artists profiled express themselves through wood, glass, fiber and other materials that can be shaped or molded to approximate their interpretations of things we may see every day but rarely take the time to savor. And, there’s almost nothing abstract about it.

The DVD Wrapup: Founder, Punching Henry, Paris 05:59, Apocalypse Child, Donnie Darko, Woman of the Year, Tampopo, Handmaid’s Tale and more

Thursday, April 20th, 2017

The Founder: Blu-ray
As McDonald’s struggles once again to figure out how it wants to be perceived in markets in the U.S. and around the world, The Founder reminds of us of what made the concept so revolutionary in the first place. There’s a scene in John Lee Hancock’s appealing biographical drama in which Ray Kroc visits an early franchisee, where the operator has chosen to change the menu’s emphasis on hamburgers, fries and shakes and garishly promote its chicken entrees. The look on Kroc’s face made me think that he might take a cue from the New Testament and banish the blasphemers from his golden-arched temple, turning over tables and upending trash cans. Heaven only knows what he’d do if he returned to Earth, today, and visited my local McDonald’s, where, in addition to Big Macs, Quarter Pounders W/Cheese, World Famous Fries and Coca Cola, he could choose from a Premium Crispy Chicken Ranch BLT Sandwich, Braised Lamb, Premium Caesar Salads w/Crispy or Grilled Chicken, 16 different Snack Wraps, McCafé Hot Chocolate, McCafé Cappuccino, Fruit ‘N Yogurt Parfait and four varieties of McFlurrys. And, that’s not even half the items on the menu. My guess is that he’d prefer spinning in his grave than sampling an Angus Mushroom & Swiss on a “premium bakery style bun.” The thing that impressed the Midwestern shake-machine salesman (Michael Keaton) on his first tour of Mac and Dick McDonald’s bustling San Bernardino walk-up restaurant was the simplicity of the operation and how easily the concept could be transferred to new business partners.

Here, the lightbulb above Kroc’s head begins to glow while watching Dick (Nick Offerman) use a stopwatch to time every movement of his employees, from grill to window. He’s similarly impressed by brother Mac’s unbridled enthusiasm and devotion to the brand. Unlike today, customers didn’t have to think very hard about what they might want to order, although choosing between a soft and shake might require a few extra seconds. And, at 15 cents per burger, they could dine all afternoon on a buck. While Dick and Mac were content to satisfy the immediate needs of their customers, it didn’t take long for Kroc to concoct a blueprint for unlimited expansion through franchising. The Founder is roughly divided into two parts. One follows Kroc, as he struggles to expand the brothers’ brainstorm to fit his vision of golden arches stretching from sea to shining sea, while the second half shows him punishing his new partners’ lack of business acumen and killer instinct.  Instead, he sets the wheels in motion behind their backs. It isn’t often that a filmmaker allows audiences to reverse their opinions on the protagonist’s character – or lack, thereof — so drastically and in so short a time. For all their hard work and good intentions, the million-dollar checks the McDonald brothers received from Kroc for the use of their name and ideas proved to be small compensation for broken hearts. The Founder also spends some time with the two of the burger king’s three wives – Ethel (Laura Dern) and Joan (Linda Cardellini) – and hand-picked business partners, all of whom would help lead the company to unprecedented growth as both a real-estate interest and pioneer in super-sizing. Hancock and writer Robert D. Siegel don’t attempt to open that can of worms, though. Morgan Spurlock did that for them. The Blu-ray adds a post-screening Q&A with junket press.

Punching Henry: Blu-ray
I watch a lot of movies that debut at festivals, but wind up being distributed solely on DVD, VOD or the Internet. There are many reasons, mostly financial, for why they’re denied even a limited theatrical run. Among those is a reasonable expectation that they’ll be savaged by critics and fail to make back the money it takes to publicize the release. Expensive superhero pictures and cartoon fantasies don’t require the approval of mainstream critics to get past their opening weekends, while indies, docs and foreign-language films can’t survive without it. The studios can buy all the publicity they want by throwing elaborate schmooze-fests for the junket press and targeting easily impressed bloggers. Sometimes that strategy doesn’t work, either. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why someone didn’t take a shot on Punching Henry, a smart and funny dramedy about one guitar-strumming comedian’s rise from obscurity to accidental fame. It is immediately remindful of HBO’s similarly semi-autobiographical “Crashing,” IFC’s “Maron” and “Seinfeld,” which, during its first three seasons, was bookended by shots of Jerry doing bits in a nightclub, as well as musician/comedian/actor Martin Mull’s career trajectory. More than anything else, though, it is a virtual sequel to co-writer/director Gregori Viens and co/writer star Henry Phillips’ previous collaboration, Punching the Clown. After winning the Audience Award at the 2009 Slamdance Film Festival, it mostly vanished from view. The primary difference this time is a higher-profile cast.

Here, Henry is slowly recovering from being mistaken for another guitar-strumming comic, whose bigoted routines act might have kept audiences in Nazi-controlled Berlin in stitches, but not here … ever. Henry is being lured to L.A. by a TV producer (J.K. Simmons) who wants to make him a reality star. It isn’t a perfect gig, but it’s better than kicking around Trump country on weekend stands. His act involves singing observational and self-deprecating songs, while accompanying himself on guitar. They’re funny and mostly well-received, but, like Pete Holmes on “Crashing,” he suffers from a charisma deficiency. Fortunately, that’s exactly the kind of comic the producers of the reality show are seeking. When Henry arrives in L.A., almost everything that could go wrong, does. The mishaps range from having his car towed, and not paying attention to a phone message from police as to where to find, to failing miserably when attempting to inseminate the wife of an old lesbian friend (Stephanie Allynne, Tig Notaro). He also makes the mistake of looking a gift horse in the mouth, when, on tour, an on-stage accident turns into a hilarious Internet meme, accidentally reviving plans for the now-dormant TV show. Much of what we learn about Henry’s travails is dispensed during a podcast hosted by Sarah Silverman. Also appearing are Jim Jefferies, Doug Stanhope, Mark Cohen, Mike Judge, Clifton Collins Jr., Derek Waters and Nikki Glaser. I can’t find a single reason why someone who loves standup comedy might not enjoy Punching Henry. The DVD adds deleted scenes.

Apocalypse Child
This refreshingly different Filipino film, based on a local legend, is a perfect fit for those of us who repeatedly watch Apocalypse Now and Apocalypse Now Redux, whenever they pop up on TV; has memorized a dozen or more lines of dialogue and references them ad nausea to impress friends; watched Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse once, at least; and perused Eleanor Coppola’s “Notes: The Making of Apocalypse.” It’s also for anyone looking for a compelling family drama from a distant corner of the world. Mario Cornejo and Monster Jimenez’ Apocalypse Child is introduced thusly, “A critically acclaimed American movie about the Vietnam war was filmed in the area back in 1976, and legend has it that its famous director had an affair with a local girl of only fourteen years old. He returned to the States, and nine months later she gave birth to a baby boy.” It doesn’t take a genius to fill in the blanks, but the operative word here is “legend.” The film is set on the same Baler Bay beach that Kilgore declares, “Charlie don’t surf!” The other half of the legend suggests that, after Francis Ford Coppola and company departed, locals pulled a surfboard from the now-peaceful sea. It then was used by a generation of boys and girls, who later became champion surfers. A couple of decades pass and a young man named Ford (Sid Lucero) is a surfing instructor content to while away his days on the azure blue waves or in the arms of his pretty runaway girlfriend (Annicka Dolonius). He may or may not be the illegitimate son of the famed director. Either way, he doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to have his DNA analyzed and the results sent to the Napa Valley to be compared with that of his namesake. The question does come to a head, however, with the return of his childhood best friend, Rick (RK Baggatsing), now a local congressman, who threatens his idyllic existence with some ghosts from the past. Rick’s disaffected fiancé, Serena (Gwen Zamora), is both attracted to the rugged Ford and shocked by the rumor, which she has never heard. Cinematographer Ike Avellana takes full advantage of the location’s natural beauty, including that of the relatively tame sea. There isn’t any bombast here or recollections of the smell of napalm in the morning. It’s simply a wonderfully low-key story, based on an incident Eleanor might have missed in her book.

The flip side of spending a romantic holiday on a lovely deserted island in the tropics, is the horror that comes when shit invariably happens and there’s no one to call, even if it were possible to raise a signal. It could be storm clouds assembling in the distance, in advance of a hurricane, or an unannounced gathering of sharks off the pier, upon which a diving board has just been added. In The Shining, the horror emanated from a writer’s decision to move into a remote hotel for a long winter’s stay, only to realize that all of the other guests are ghosts. Allegedly inspired by true events, Isolation describes what happens when of a pair of lovebirds are invited to relocate to a guest home on a tiny Bahamian island, after complaining about the noise from construction work outside the hotel they originally booked. The island is far enough away from Nassau to require a boat trip of a several hours’ time to arrive and not even close to being in cellphone range. The house is well-stocked and cozy, even the water in the shower takes an eternity to get hot. On a stroll to the nearest white-sand beach, Creighton (Luke Mably) and Lydia (Tricia Helfer) encounter a full-time resident, William (Stephen Lang), of the island, who invites them for dinner, prepared by his wife, Mary (Claudia Church). We’ve already seen William attack a pair of trespassers with his nail gun and wonder what he might have in store for the newbies.

William look as if he might have made a ton of money flying marijuana or cocaine from Colombia, with a brief stop in the Bahamas to refuel and wait out the DEA surveillance. They enjoy a swell dinner, with fine ganga and whiskey, before stumbling back home to the guest house, which, in the interim, has been ransacked. Who you gonna call? No one. The next day, while trying to find a land line, the couple is greeted by a burly gent, Max (Dominic Purcell), who’s wandering around shooting snakes with a handgun … or, so he says. Before asking Creighton and Lydia to stay for dinner, Max and Nina (Marie Avgeropoulos) make a convincing case for William is a pirate and thief, who’s only squatting in the beach house. They buy Max’s theory on who stole their valuables and promised to Creighton out on his boat to muster a signal. In this closed-island thriller, viewers are asked to determine which of the other couples’ stories is true and who really to trust. Max and William both look as if they could supplement their incomes by hijacking expensive pleasure craft or yachts full of dope, while the women seem content to live off the spoils. To my mind, co-writer/director Shane Dax Taylor tips his hand a bit too quickly, as if to provide more time for the chase and bloodshed to follow. Still, some of the setups and dialogue are sufficiently creepy to inspire dread in viewers.

The Watcher
Like vampires and zombies, movies set in haunted houses never seem to go out of style. The best keep viewers guessing until nearly the end as to whether the hauntings are supernatural or quasi-religious in nature, showcases for the latest in jump-scares and special effects, or thrillers in which apparitions serve as red herrings for what’s really ailing the characters. Both Naciye and The Watcher maintained my curiosity, at least, for longer periods of time than I would have expected. In the former, Turkish writer/director Lutfu Emre Cicek (Mac & Cheese) uses flashbacks to establish plot points that lead us to believe the house in question is possessed by a malevolent spirit. Unaware of its history, a pregnant couple (Esin Harvey, Gorkem Mertsoz) moves into the house for some relaxation before the blessed event, only to wonder upon further inspection why the furnishings, closets and adornments suggest that someone is still living there or it was hurriedly abandoned for some unknown reason. We’re also encouraged to speculate on whether the woman hanging around in the shadows is a ghost or lodger who’s decided not to honor the sales agreement. Beware, the knitting needles. Either possibility leads to some unsettling speculation. Naciye stars Derya Alabora (A Most Wanted Man) as the elderly mystery woman/specter, capable of switching on a dime between kindly spinster and monster. The fact that the pregnant woman not only is due in a month, but unsure of which of her male associates could be the father, adds another pretty good reason for her to be a wit’s end. You don’t often see pictures like this coming from places outside the U.S., Korea and Japan.

Set thousands of miles west of the house in Naciye, Ryan Rothmaier’s debut feature, The Watcher, is built on the same foundation as Cicek’s film. Thinking they’ve just purchased their dream home, another young couple – in a rare casting decision, the man is black and the woman white – can’t wait to move into their spacious new home in the ’burbs. The listing neglected to mention that a heinous crime had been committed there years earlier. Before long, Emma (Erin Cahill) is freaked out by the sight of a face peering into her second-floor bedroom from a tree house, growing on the property. Not to worry, it’s only the very weird neighbor boy (Riley Baron), whose mother (Denise Crosby) is welcoming Emma and Noah (Edi Gathegi) to the neighborhood in the front of the house. To make things even stranger, packages filled with what appear to be housewarming gifts – but aren’t – begin arriving in the mail, along with warnings of even more dire things to come. And, if all that weren’t enough, there’s the nightly visits by a large raven-shaped figure, with very real claws. The Watcher appeared first on the Lifetime Channel, which isn’t known for its selection of horror originals. Considering the source, it plays very well outside the network’s target audience.

Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo: Blu-ray
Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau’s festival favorite begs the question as to whether it’s possible to fall in love – not merely in lust — with someone you’ve just met, fucked and shared at an orgy in a neon-lit basement. Actually, I can’t recall precisely how many men the title characters may, or may not have shared in the 20-minute-long opening scene of Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo. It’s after midnight in a gay sex club, in Paris, and the pulsating electronic dance music is turning the crowd of naked or leather-strapped guys to writhe as one. They aren’t there for the exercise, however. They’ve come to hook up with someone – seemingly, anyone – who returns their stare. The scene recalls similar gatherings in films made before the AIDS epidemic forced the closure of gay, bi- and straight sex clubs, glory-hole emporiums and bathhouses around world. The sex on display, while explicit, doesn’t feel particularly gratuitous or exploitative. I don’t know how many rehearsals or reshoots it might have required to look spontaneous, however. OK, that cover’s the movie’s most obvious talking point. It stars Geoffrey Couët and François Nambot as the two men who meet during the opening scene and are followed in real time for the remainder of its 92-minute length. The rest of Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo has reminded most observers of the walking/talking scenes in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Andrew Haigh’s much-lauded Weekend. After they leave the club and their eyes adjust to the far-less-stimulating lights of the post-midnight streets of northeast Paris, they decide to get to know each other better as friends, which, I presume, isn’t what usually happens post-coitus in such situations. Watching Théo & Hugo walk and bike around town in the wee hours, especially after the sensory overload in the first 20 minutes, is a tad jarring. As is the sobering revelation that Theo neglected to use a condom and Hugo is HIV-positive. Wisely, they agree to head for a nearby hospital to be tested and receive post-exposure prophylaxis. Can their budding relationship take such a jolt and survive? Stay tuned.

Donnie Darko: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Arriving a month after the 9/11 attacks, Donnie Darko presented a huge challenge to its distributors, Newmarket/Pandora. In addition to crossing a confounding number of genre bordaries, the original advertising campaign included visual references to a calamity involving a jet engine that descends from an empty sky and crashes into the title character’s home. It is central to any enjoyment of writer/director Richard Kelly’s film, so supplanting that image with one showing the face of the monstrous 6-foot-tall rabbit, Frank, forced potential viewers to guess whether Donnie Darkie was a horror flick, supernatural thriller, science fiction or some other variety of fish or fowl. Whoever or whatever he is, Frank appears to be wearing a frightening rabbit costume and silver mask possibly inspired by the fabled jackalope of the western plains. On October 2, 1988, Frank awakens the emotionally troubled Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal), leads him outside the house and informs him that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. At dawn, Donnie returns home to find a jet engine has crashed into his bedroom, leaving FAA investigators puzzled as to its source. It touches off an agonizing 28-day journey for the increasingly distressed teenager, whose more curious actions appear to be guided by Frank’s invisible hand. There aren’t many people or things in Donnie’s immediate orbit unaffected by the epidemic of bad craziness spreading through the middle-class suburban town. His bizarre actions don’t go unnoticed by high school bullies, paranoid teachers, admiring misfits and a similarly troubled new student, Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone). Immediately drawn to each other, Gretchen has recently moved into town with her mother, under new identies, to escape her violent stepfather. There probably isn’t anything I could reveal here that would completely spoil the surprises in Kelly’s narrative, which he’s summarized as ”‘The Catcher in the Rye’ as told by Philip K. Dick,” with Donnie standing in for Holden Caulfield. I can’t top that, so why try?

Donnie Darko barely avoided a straight-to-cable release, but not a puny $7.3-million worldwide gross in its severely limited and erratically timed theatrical released. It didn’t cost much to make, so there was some wiggle room left for profit. Its cult status was assured a year later, after positive word-of-mouth inspired genre buffs to give it a shot on VHS and DVD. It then attracted the attention of teenagers, who saw in Donnie’s alienation from society a reflection of their own angst. It has been released on Blu-ray three times, each one with more bonus features and some minor tinkering. The Arrow Films upgrade benefits from 4K restorations of both the theatrical-cut and director’s-cut versions and the original 5.1 audio (DTS-HD on the Blu-ray).  There are three separate commentary tracks, with cast and crew; “Deus ex Machina: The Philosophy of Donnie Darko,” a new documentary containing interviews with Kelly, producer Sean McKittrick, director of photography Steven Poster, editor Sam Bauer, composer Michael Edwards, costume designer April Ferry, actor James Duval and critic Rob Galluzzo; “The Goodbye Place,” Kelly’s 1996 short film, which anticipates some of the themes and ideas of his feature films; “The Donnie Darko Production Diary,” with optional commentary by cinematographer Steven Poster; 20 deleted and alternate scenes, with optional commentary by Kelly;
archival interviews with Kelly, actors Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, James Duval, Holmes Osborne, Noah Wyle and Katharine Ross, several producers; and cinematographer Steven Poster; three fan-based featurettes, “They Made Me Do It,” “They Made Me Do It Too” and “#1 Fan: A Darkomentary”; “Storyboard comparisons”; “B-roll footage”; “Cunning Visions” infomercials; a music video of “Mad World,” by Gary Jules; galleries; and an exclusive collector’s book, containing new writing by Nathan Rabin, Anton Bitel and Jamie Graham; an in-depth interview with Richard Kelly; introduction by Jake Gyllenhaal; and contemporary coverage, illustrated with original stills and promotional materials.

Woman of the Year: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Buena Vista Social Club: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Tampopo: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
While watching the new Criterion Collection edition of Woman of the Year, I tried to imagine some today’s A-listers trying to fill the shoes of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, if, God forbid, a remake were ever to be considered. Because the stars of George Stevens’ classic were 42 and 35 at the time of the movie’s release, such usual suspects as Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and Annette Bening would be ruled out for the Tess Harding role. Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern are pushing 50, while their “Big Little Lies” cohort, Reese Witherspoon, is too short. Logical choices to play Tracy’s manly-man sportswriter, Sam Craig, are even more limited. Mike Nichols’ 1988 comedy Working Girl gave off many of the same vibes as Woman of the Year, but in reverse, with Melanie Griffith’s spunky Tess McGill finally refusing to play second fiddle to the male chauvinist establishment represented by Harrison Ford’s Jack Trainer and Sigourney Weaver’s Katharine Parker, who represented the good-ol’-gal establishment, perfectly willing to waste their prime reproductive years for the sake of a seat in the board room. I don’t really know who could fill in for Tracy today, except for the likelihood that the actor probably would be British. Despite the contributions of Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosie the Riveter to the war effort, test audiences deemed Hepburn’s take on her renaissance-woman character to be overly confrontational and something of a ball-buster. In their minds, Sam was being lost in her long, lanky shadow and Tracy was too big a star for that to happen. (The fact that Tess’ tycoon father approved of Sam didn’t make things any easier for her when push came to shove.) According to the folks interviewed in the bonus package, the ending of Woman of the Year was subsequently changed to allow audiences to leave theaters with a smile, rather than a reason to argue on the way home. In it, Tess hopes to convince her estranged husband that she’s changed her tune, by sneaking into his bachelor pad and attempting to fix breakfast for him, albeit without stopping to shed her fur coat or put an apron over her designer ensemble She couldn’t make a bigger mess of the meal — or kitchen – if the recipes were written in ancient Greek. It’s hilarious. Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin’s terrifically smart and witty screenplay was honored with an Academy Award, and Hepburn was nominated for Best Actress. Woman of the Year also marked the beginning of the personal and professional union between Hepburn and Tracy, who would go on to make eight more films together. The digitally restored Blu-ray edition adds new interviews with George Stevens Jr., the director’s son; Stevens’ biographer Marilyn Ann Moss; and writer Claudia Roth Pierpont, on actor Katharine Hepburn. There’s also the 86-minute documentary, “The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute,” hosted by Hepburn, and an essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek.

At a time when the United States was still promoting the dubious notion that Cuba was the greatest threat to our democracy than all of our former wartime enemies combined, occasional groups of American musicians would defy the travel embargo to perform with Cuban musicians in cultural-exchange missions. As far as I know, none of the musicians was converted to godless communism and their instruments weren’t melted down for statues of Che Guevara. In 1996, virtuoso guitarist Ry Cooder was invited to Havana by British world-music producer Nick Gold to record a session in which musicians from Mali were set to collaborate with Cuban musicians. Long story short, the African contingent failed to obtain the necessary visa, forcing Cooder and Gold to punt. They decided, instead, to record an album of Cuban son music with local musicians, some of whom were household names before Fidel Castro came to power. For these veteran vocalists and instrumentalists, it was the day the music died. Not really, but the traditional jazz-inflected mix of cha-cha, mambo, bolero and other traditional Latin American styles was forced into hibernation for almost 50 years. Cooder would name the all-star orchestra the Buena Vista Social Club, after a popular danzón nightclub in Havana’s Marianao neighborhood that was closed in 1959, along with other clubs the regime considered to be segregated … even if the members were struggling Afro-Cuban musicians. In 1997, the studio album, “Buena Vista Social Club,” arranged by Cooder, Gold and Cuban bandleader and musician Juan de Marcos González was recorded and distributed by the niche World Circuit/Nonesuch labels. The album was awarded the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album and Tropical/Salsa Album of the Year by a Group at the 1998 Billboard Latin Music Awards. German director Wim Wenders would lure his friend, Cooder, back to the island a year later to re-create and film the original sessions with the same musicians, several in their 90s. Once again, the experience and result were wonderful. Wenders’ cameras followed the members around Havana – an eye-opener, for sure – and the orchestra to Amsterdam and New York’s Carnegie Halls, chronicling their observations along the way. In 2000, Buena Vista Social Club was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature. The Criterion Collection Blu-ray features a high-definition digital transfer, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack; commentary from 1999, featuring director Wim Wenders; a new interview with Wenders; “We Believe in Dreams,” a new piece featuring never-before-seen outtakes from the rehearsals for the Buena Vista Social Club’s Amsterdam concerts; a delightful interview from 1998 with musician Compay Segundo on his career and the Cuban music tradition; radio interviews from 2000 featuring musicians Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén González, Eliades Ochoa, Omara Portuondo and others; additional scenes; and an essay by author and geographer Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.

Criterion also is releasing one of the great foodie movies of all time – likely, the most entertaining foodie comedy – the Japanese “ramen western,” Tampopo. Juzo Itami’s 1985 film is the tale of an eccentric band of culinary ronin, who guide Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), the widow of a noodle shop owner, on her quest for the perfect recipe.  The genre-bending adventure pays homage to several different styles, from the Spaghetti Western to the silent comedies of Charlie Chaplin. It also satirizes the way social conventions distort the most natural of human urges: hunger. It does so, in part, by interspersing the efforts to make her café a success with the erotic exploits of a gastronome gangster and glimpses of food culture both high and low. Now that Americans have embraced ramen noodles for their taste, nutritional qualities and low-cost variations, our ability to enjoy Tampopo and savor its nuances probably has never been easier. The vastly underappreciated American/Japanese dramedy, The Ramen Girl (2006), in which Brittany Murphy’s character learns how to make noodles even Japanese admire, contains many references to Tampopo, including a cameo by Tsutomu Yamazaki, the male star of the earlier film. The Blu-ray is enhanced by a 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; “The Making of Tampopo,” a 90-minute documentary from 1986, narrated by Itami; new interviews with co-star Nobuko Miyamoto and ramen enthusiasts Hiroshi Osaki, Seiko Ogawa and American chefs Sam White, Rayneil De Guzman, Jerry Jaksich, and Anthony Bourdain; “Rubber Band Pistol,” Itami’s 1962 debut short film; a new video essay by Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos, on the film’s themes of self-improvement and mastery of a craft; and an essay by food and culture writer Willy Blackmore

The Handmaid’s Tale: Blu-ray
With the Hulu re-adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 best-seller, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” right around the corner, the timing of Shout!Factory’s Blu-ray edition of the original 1990 interpretation could hardly be better. Although it wasn’t a big hit with critics, Volker Schlöndorff’s The Handmaid’s Tale – from a challenging screenplay by Harold Pinter – probably will suit more viewers today than it did then. With a newly elected president, who many voters considered to be a male chauvinist pig, Robert Duvall’s portrayal of the story’s fundamentalist Christian dictator, Commander, will feel all too prescient. He is in control of the Republic of Gilead, a theocracy formed within the borders of what was formerly the United States of America after the “Sons of Jacob” launched a revolution and suspended the Constitution under the pretext of restoring order. Human rights are severely curtailed, especially those once instituted to level the playing field for women, who no longer are allowed to read.  The story is told in the first person by Kate/Offred (Natasha Richardson), one in a class of women – handmaids — still able to reproduce in an era of declining births, due to sterility from pollution and sexually transmitted diseases. The condition allows upper-crusters to control fertility and ensure that children born to handmaidens are placed in the homes of powerful men with infertile wives. When the Commander decides to take Kate for his handmaiden, he’s unaware of his infertility. When Kate finds this out on her own, she knows that he would blame and punish her his sperm deficiency. The Commander’s wife, Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway), who’s pretty sick of meeting his demands, as well, arranges for chauffeur Nick (Aiden Quinn) to impregnate Kate – or, give it his best shot, anyway – freeing them from their sexual obligations. Meanwhile, members of the resistance have infiltrated the compound and threaten to overthrow the dictatorship. Also prominent in the cast are Elizabeth McGovern and Victoria Tennant. The first 10-episode season of the Hulu mini-series is expected to be more faithful to the novel, while adding racial and religious minorities not included in either the book or first adaptation, because the Commander simply didn’t recognize their existence.  The only extra is an original trailer.

Tales from the Hood: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Before watching Scream Factory’s Blu-ray re-release of Rusty Cundieff and Darin Scott’s 1995 horror anthology, Tales from the Hood, I assumed it would be a laugh riot, on the order of I’m Gonna Git You SuckaDon’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood and In Living Color. While there’s plenty of comedy on the menu here, though, the film delivers a potent socially conscious message in each of the four urban-themed horror stories. They deal with police brutality, domestic abuse, institutional racism and gang violence, and are presented within a framing story of three drug dealers buying some “found” drugs from a scary funeral director, well-played by Clarence Williams III (“The Mod Squad”). He leads them on a tour of his establishment, introducing them to his corpses, who have tales of their own to tell. Among the more recognizable cast members are David Alan Grier, Wings Hauser, Paula Jai Parker, Corbin Bernsen, Roger Guenveur Smith, Rosalind Cash and Ricky Harris. The extensive bonus package adds “Welcome To Hell: The Making Of Tales From the Hood,” featuring interviews with Cundieff, Scott, Bernsen, Hauser, Anthony Griffith, special-effects supervisor Kenneth Hall and doll-effects supervisors Charles Chiodo and Edward Chiodo; Cundieff’s commentary; a vintage featurette; and stills gallery.

A Cowgirl’s Story
In the dozen-plus years that I’ve been reviewing DVDs in this space, I’ve followed several subgenres that hadn’t amounted to much until the direct-to-DVD era began. One of these can be reduced to two words: contemporary cowgirls. Dozens of movies and television shows have featured characters based on Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane and Belle Starr, even if the actresses chosen to portray them – Doris Day, Jane Russell, Barbara Stanwyck, Abby Dalton, Elizabeth Montgomery, Gail Davis, Mary Martin, Betty Hutton — bore no physical likeness to the Wild West heroines and villainesses, although Ethel Merman (“Annie Get Your Gun”), Robin Weigert (“Deadwood”) Jeanne Cooper (“Tales of Wells Fargo”) might have come the closest. Neither do Dale Evans or Gloria Winters (“Sky King”) fit the mold. No the models for characters in such recent “family friendly” neo-Westerns as the newly released A Cowgirl’s Story, Cowgirls ‘n Angels, Spirit Riders, Dakota’s Summer, Flicka: Country Pride, Flicka 2, Flicka: Storm Rider, Moondance Alexander, Montana Sky, Midnight Stallion, Coyote Summer, International Velvet and All Roads Lead Home appear to be 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, in National Velvet, 14-year-old Scarlett Johansson, in The Horse Whisperer; and 11-year-old Dakota Fanning, in Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story. Unlike most new-generation cowgirl flicks, they made their debuts on the big screen and the first two, at least, returned lots of money.  Timothy Armstrong’s A Cowgirl’s Story tells the story of 17-year-old Dusty Rhodes (Bailee Madison), entrusted to the care of her military-chaplain grandfather (Pat Boone), while her parents, both soldiers, are deployed in Afghanistan. (At 11, Madison also appeared in Armstrong’s Cowgirls ‘n Angels, which was afforded a very limited theatrical release before going into DVD.) Typically, in contemporary-cowgirl films, the protagonist is angry for one good reason or another and must come to grips with a no-nonsense relative or an elderly pedagogue in need of a reclamation project:  Keith Carradine, James Cromwell, Kevin Sorbo, Tim McGraw, Don Johnson, Patrick Warburton, Lance Henriksen, Kris Kristofferson, William Shatner and Ving Rhames, among them. In A Cowgirl’s Story, Dusty isn’t troubled or in need of redemption, but some of the kids at her new school definitely could use some equestrian therapy. She somehow convinces the girls in a prominent clique to form a drill team to perform at rodeos and shows to raise money for wounded soldiers. Dusty’s world is turned upside down when her mother’s helicopter is shot down in action and she goes missing. It’s at this point that the same kids who hazed her at the beginning of the school year rally behind her. Not all of the films listed above play the God card as quickly and repeatedly as is done here, and that includes Boonville Redemption (2016), in which Boone plays the town doctor alongside Diane Ladd, Ed Asner, Richard Tyson and young Emily Hoffman, who plays a small-town girl forced to come to terms with having been “born out of wedlock.”

Arctic Adventure: On Frozen Pond
The latest animated collaboration between Grindstone Entertainment Group and Lionsgate is Arctic Adventure: On Frozen Pond, a cute Chinese-made, English-dubbed adventure that nearly spans the globe. Anthony Padilla and Ian Hecox (YouTube’s “Smosh”) join Jon Lovitz (Hotel Transylvania) in this animated tale of brave frogs on a bold quest. For centuries, the Crystal Frog has protected the Frog Kingdom with its magic, but, when sneaky One-Eye plots to steal the artifact and become King, it’s up to Freddy and the Frog Princess to make the arduous trek to the Holy Land. Through forest, desert, river rapids and icy caverns, the bravery of the frozen warriors keeps this colorful saga “hopping.” Awarded the Dove Family Seal of Approval, “Arctic Adventure” includes the making-of featurette “Giving the Characters a Voice,” shot at the recording studio with Padilla, Hecox, Lovitz and Ambyr Childers.

PBS: Masterpiece: Home Fires: The Complete Second Season Blu-ray
PBS: American Experience: Ruby Ridge
Smithsonian: Hell Below
PBS: John Lewis: Get in the Way
The bad news first: “Home Fires,” the British World War II drama, now airing on PBS, has been cancelled by ITV. This, despite a write-in campaign by disappointed fans desperate to save the show from extinction. (In England, the second season ended last May.) “Home Fires” chronicles the lives of Women’s Institute members, in the rural Chelsea community of Great Paxford,, during the early days of the conflict that would become World II. As more refugees from the continent arrive in England, including soldiers and airmen already in training there, Great Paxford’s eclectic band of volunteer women find they must heighten their efforts to boost morale amidst the chaos and uncertainty enveloping the village. The series was inspired by the book, “Jambusters,” by Julie Summers. The second season opens on June 11, 1940, with the Battle of Britain looming and residents beginning to dread the arrival of each day’s mail. In other story threads, Teresa (Leanne Best) steps in to protect an Italian resident from the other people of the village; pastor’s wife Sarah (Ruth Gemmell) begins to feel alone after she gets some bad news about her husband, who’s on the front lines; Alison (Fenella Woolgar) gets the verdict on whether the charges of adultery will be upheld or dropped;  Claire and Spencer (Daisy Badger, Mike Noble) marry in secret; busybody switchboard operator Jenny (Jodie Hamblet) learns of this and tells Frances (Samantha Bond); accused homewrecker Laura (Leila Mimmack) faces the music; and abuse-victim Pat (Claire Rushbrook) befriends a kindly Czech soldier and enjoys her new life with no husband.

Newsreel footage and photographs shot during and after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor have become as much a part of America’s historical DNA as Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” Every year, on December 7, we mark that infamous event both as a memorial to those who died there, but also as a reminder of our inability to prevent just such a calamity from happening, in the first place. It was a cruel lesson. I wonder how many people under the age of 70 are aware of attacks by Nazi submarines along America’s eastern seaboard, three weeks after Pearl Harbor, carried out under the codename Operation Drumbeat. Even though shipping lanes between the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom had been targeted by German warships and submarines since the beginning of Hitler’s advances in Europe, Pentagon brass rejected the idea that Admiral Karl Donitz would dare penetrate the waters off America’s mainland. As such, we were as unprepared for Operation Drumbeat – and, later, Donitz’ “wolfpack” strategy — as we were for the attack on Pearl Harbor. The good news, of course, is that we recovered relatively quickly from those tragedies and mounted an increasingly successful offensive against Axis warships. This is only part of what I learned from watching Smithsonian’s intriguing six-part mini-series “Hell Below,” which describes the terrible toll of undersea combat. It is enhanced by archival photos and newsreels; interviews with historians and military experts; re-creations of battles and life inside subs; maps and other graphic devices; and, of course, dramatic narration and music.  If there’s anything that cable television has done well in the last 35 years is document the carnage, heroism, blunders, triumphs and execution of wars, dating back to the Crusades, but, especially, World War II. The really scary thing is learning just how close Hitler, if not Hirohito came to realizing his dreams – our nightmares – and forcing a land war on American soil. Maybe all the prayers worked.

Barak Goodman’s “Front Line” documentary “Ruby Ridge” describes just how difficult it is for American law-enforcement agencies to react to challenges by fanatics willing to die for their bent beliefs – and put their families in harm’s way, as well — just to serve as martyrs for future generations of fanatics. Before the deadly siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and catastrophic bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, in Oklahoma City, an 11-day confrontation between federal agents and the survivalist Weaver family, near Naples, Idaho, ended very badly for everyone involved. After patriarch Randy Weaver was discharged from the Army, he relocated to Iowa, where he and his wife, Vickie, had trouble making ends meet. While there, Vicki convinced her husband that the apocalypse was imminent and the family could avoid it by abandoning “corrupt civilization” and moving to a mountainous 20-acre property, outside remote Ruby Ridge, where they would build a cabin in the early 1980s. In that part of Idaho, it would have been difficult for a religious fundamentalist not to make contact with members of the Aryan Nation and other hate groups, if only because the picnics were fun and the gatherings gave kids the age of the Weaver children an opportunity to play together. Although Weaver claims to have never joined the Aryan Nation, he developed a friendship with a man planted within the group by the ATF to develop cases against members stocking weapons and explosives. In an attempt to save his ass, the informant told the feds that Weaver – a fellow gun nut – had supplied him with two illegally modified rifles. Weaver denied it, but his refusal to comply with the bench warrant led directly to the bloody confrontation that, when combined with Waco, inspired the Oklahoma City bombing by riled-up white supremacists.  An initial encounter of six marshals with the Weavers had resulted in a firefight and the deaths of Deputy U.S. Marshal William Francis Degan, 42; the Weaver’s son, Samuel, age 14; and the Weaver family dog. The subsequent siege of the Weaver residence, led by the FBI applying especially lethal rules of engagement, resulted in the further death of Vicki, 43, and family friend Kevin Harris, 24, as well as the wounding of Randy Weaver. More than a week later, Weaver and his three surviving children joined presidential candidate James “Bo” Gritz – Randy’s commanding officer during the Vietnam War – on the long walk down the mountain, where they surrendered to a force of between 300-400 agents and police. Not only would Weaver be acquitted of all criminal charges, but he and his daughters would reach a multimillion-dollar settlement with the government for their losses. One of the daughters is interviewed here, along with several law-enforcement officials.

When then-President-Elect Trump decided that it might fun to diss U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-Ga.) on his Twitter feed, in advance of this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, he incurred the wrath of more African-Americans than he did during his entire two-year campaign for the White House. It wasn’t enough that he had courted the KKK and other White Power advocates by not renouncing their support of his reactionary positions. He had reacted to Lewis’ stated belief that Russian hackers helped Trump steal the election by suggesting that the long-serving congressman from Atlanta should “spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart, not to mention crime infested, rather than falsely complaining about the election results. … All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!” What’s sadder was Trump’s ignorance of the true nature of everyday life in the city – for whites, blacks and all people of color – and his willingness to attack a civil-rights activist who was one of the original Freedom Riders and the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. As an early member and, later, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he had been beaten and arrested by police, and chastised for his non-violent beliefs by militants within his own organization. He paid a severe price for standing up to Gov. George Wallace’s storm troopers in the first Selma to Montgomery march, in support of the Voters Rights Act, and has lived long enough to watch actor Stephan James portray him in Ava DuVernay’s Selma. His career would come full circle twice again: first, on August 28, 2013, at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and, then, two months earlier, when he learned, to his horror, that the U.S. Supreme Court had decided to strike down a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Even if Wallace had been elected president in 1972, he couldn’t have pulled that one off. Kathleen Dowdey’s comprehensive biopic, “John Lewis: Get in the Way” was probably already in the can when Trump made his ill-advised tweet. While it’s possible he would have changed his tune if he had watched the film, it isn’t likely that he watches anything that’s not on Fox News. It is informed by interviews with a wide variety of activists, politicians, celebrities and two former presidents.

The DVD Wrapup: Lion, Toni Erdmann, Worlds Apart, Daughters of the Dust, Ludwig, Cathy’s Curse and more

Thursday, April 13th, 2017

Lion: Blu-ray
We hear so much about the kidnapping and virtual imprisonment of young women sold into slavery and prostitution that it’s easy to forget about the thousands of children stolen each year from their mothers at birth or grabbed from the streets of urban slums by traffickers and pimps. At the end of Lion, we’re alerted to the fact that upwards of 80,000 boys and girls go missing each year, while more than 11 million children live on the streets, just like the film’s protagonist, Saroo Brierley. He was one of the lucky few, who not only survived a great ordeal and but also were able to share their histories. Garth Davis’ thoroughly absorbing drama is based on Brierley’s memoir “A Long Way Home,” which chronicled his years-long search for the childhood home whose name he couldn’t pronounce or remember. After losing his older brother at the Burhanpur depot, two hours from his village, Saroo sought shelter in a compartment of passenger train he couldn’t have known would arrive, days later, in Kolkata, where he would become one of thousands of “lost children living and dying by their own wits. After nearly being snatched by sex traffickers, Saroo is taken by police to an orphanage, where, after a fruitless search for his parents, he was awarded to a loving family in Tasmania. It was as harmonious a union as such things get. Even before she learned his story, Sue Brierley put a map of India in his room and filled the house with Indian artifacts. She learned how to cook Indian food and only gradually introduced a western diet. His adoptive brother, Mantosh , a year younger than Saroo when he was adopted by the Brierleys, quickly revealed psychological problems that either were unknown to the agency or ignored. Twenty-five years after he left home, Saroo would use Google Earth to identify and return to his tiny rural village, where his mother and sister still lived and prayed every day for his safety. He learns, only then, the real reason his brother hadn’t come back to the depot that fateful night. In many western countries, an orphan’s ability to trace his/her biological parents has allowed for reunions, not all of them happy or mutually agreed upon. In Saroo’s case, the Brierleys not only encouraged him to trace his roots, but Sue would accompany Saroo on one of his visits to his first home.

Both the actors who play Saroo — Sunny Pawar, as the 5-year-old “lost boy,” and, later, Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) — are terrific. Sue Brierley couldn’t have been happier to learn that fellow Aussie Nicole Kidman would portray her in Lion. Also excellent is Priyanka Bose, an Indian actor who gained widespread attention on stage in South African playwright Yael Farber’s “Nirbhaya,” which was based on the 2012 Delhi gang rape. Rooney Mara is very good, as well, as Saroo’s American girlfriend, Lucy, who shares classes with him in Melbourne. She encourages his quest, but sometimes bears the brunt of his frustration over not finding answers quickly enough. In real life, Lucy is Lisa Williams, an Australian, who Saroo began dating because she had a fast internet connection at her apartment. Supposedly, his “eureka” moment occurred during a meal at the home of some Indian friends. The sight and smell of jalebi — a sweet he loved as a child – brings him to tears. After Saroo confides to Lucy that he is adopted, a friend suggests he use Google Earth to search for his hometown in India. Easier said than done … but ultimately the correct decision. The reunion scenes are likely to trigger tears in viewers’ eyes, as well. Lion turned a nice profit for Weinstein Company and its partners. The six Oscar nominations it received — Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Patel), Best Supporting Actress (Kidman), Best Adapted Screenplay (Luke Davies), Best Original Score – certainly won’t hurt Blu-ray/DVD sales. Ironically, American production companies rejected the story when Australian producers Andrew Fraser and Shahen Mekertichian refused to change the Australian setting to America. Duh. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a making-of gallery and “Never Give Up” music video, performed by Sia.

Films made about children appropriated by authorities and handed over to politically connected or wealthy families as orphans aren’t all that unusual. Lion’s happy ending is what sets it apart from other stories. Argentinian documentaries The Disappeared and Spoils of War describe the efforts made by the children and parents of victims of Argentina’s Dirty War (1976–1983) to investigate the truth concerning the murders of dissidents and kidnappings of an estimated 500 children born to women who would be killed by junta assassins.  In 1985, Luis Puenzo’s The Official Story, on the same subject, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The Magdalene Sisters and Sex in a Cold Climate are among several films about abuse at Ireland’s Magdalene Sisters Asylum, where some unwed mothers were forced to give their children up for adoption, while also being punished for their “sin” by working in the laundry. In Philomena, a journalist (Steve Coogan) picks up the story of a woman’s (Judi Dench) arduous search for her son, who was taken away from her decades earlier, and whose records were conveniently lost by the nuns in charge. Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner are said to be in pre-production on “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,” which recounts the story of a young Jewish boy in Bologna, in 1858 who, having been secretly baptized Catholic, is forcibly taken from his family to be raised as a Christian. A good movie could probably be made about the Native Americans forcibly converted to Mormonism – sometimes after being purchased as slaves and “adopted” by families as unpaid workers — and raised according to beliefs handed down by founder and prophet Joseph Smith. In 1823, Smith proclaimed that American Indians were a branch of a lost tribe of Israel, the Laminites, and the Mormon faith was meant to bring them salvation. The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 put an end to the sanctioning of such adoptions, but brought to the fore an argument over whether tribes can dictate what’s in the best interests of an adopted child. Barbara Kingsolver’s novel “Pigs in Heaven” deals with just such a case. The sex trade in Southeast Asia and India largely depends on the cooperation of impoverished villagers willing to sell their virgin daughters to traffickers for cash. Dozens of documentaries on the subject – and a movie and TV series, Trade of Innocents and Human Trafficking, both starring Mira Sorvino – have failed to dissuade western tourists from making the abuse of “lost children” profitable.

Toni Erdmann
It isn’t surprising that an American remake of Maren Ade’s thoroughly offbeat comedy Toni Erdmann is already on the drawing table, or that Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig’s names have been attached to it. In Alexander Payne’s not dissimilar About Schmidt (2002), Nicholson played a retired, recently widowed insurance executive who uses the excuse of his estranged daughter’s wedding to make amends for his emotional absence in her life. And, while mainstream comedies Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty have catapulted “SNL” alum Wiig onto Hollywood’s A-list, it’s her mold-breaking performances in such barely seen indies as Nasty Baby, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, The Skeleton Twins, Hateship Loveship and Welcome to Me that make her an ideal candidate to play the no-nonsense corporate executive forced to accommodate her father’s eccentric behavior. Wiig’s ballsy portrayal of a manic-depressive lottery winner, who finances her own “Oprah”-like talk show, suggests that she’s acutely aware of what made Sandra Hüller’s performance in Toni Erdmann so remarkable. The likelihood that the Hollywood remake might retain the original’s 162-minute length borders on zero, even if it were re-worked to fit the bounds of an easier-to-market PG-13, which would zap many of its funnier moments. (The R-rating accorded Toni Erdmann seemed generous, at least by the usual MPAA standards.) Hüller’s tightly wound Ines Conradi represents the interests of a German management-consultancy firm in Budapest. Negotiations have reached the critical stage, so the last thing she needs in her life is her prankster father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), showing up with his fake teeth and fright wigs. Because Ade has already demonstrated Winfried’s willingness to embarrass loved ones for the sake of a gag, we’re ready for anything to happen when he shows up unannounced not only at his daughter’s doorstep, but at her office, business receptions and dinners with her ex-pat friends. His favorite prank is to dispense gobbledygook advice to anyone willing to spend five minutes in the company of his alter ego, “Toni Erdmann.” Imagine a hybrid of Jerry Lewis and Dr. Irwin Corey – who died two months ago, at 102 – and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the title character’s shtick, which is as off-putting as it is hilarious. Indeed, it takes us almost as long to warm to Winfried as for Ines to figure out how to accommodate his whims. It’s what makes the extreme length – for a dark comedy, anyway – so easy to endure. Special features include commentary with Simonischek, Hüller and producer Janine Jackowski, and an AFI Fest Q&A with Simonischek, Hüller, Jackowski and co-star Ingrid Bisu. Apparently, a Blu-ray version of Toni Erdmann is available through Amazon on manufactured-on-demand basis, using BD-R recordable media.

The Mafia Kills Only in Summer
It would take four or five hyphens to classify Pierfrancesco Diliberto’s affectionately drawn comedy, The Mafia Kills Only in Summer, which manages to find the humor, romance, excitement, danger and mystery in one Sicilian boy’s formative years in the mob-controlled city of Palermo. Real events that took place in Sicily between the 1970s and the 1990s provide the background for a film that probably couldn’t have been set anywhere else in the world. No city located outside a warzone was more prone to institutional corruption, targeted bombings and assassinations than the ancient capital of Sicily, a city of roughly 855,285 souls. While most of its residents aren’t affiliated with La Cosa Nostra, very few have been unaffected by its lawlessness. It’s shown through the eyes of Arturo Giammaresi — Alex Bisconti, as Arturo bambino, and the director, as the adult — a sensitive and politically aware child whose story spans 20 years and includes a romance with a pretty little girl, Flora (Ginevra Antona/Cristiana Capotondi), who grows up to become a campaign manager in the embattled city. The bambini are separated just as they’re about to make a puppy-love connection and reunited when she needs a videographer to cover her candidate’s slightly odious campaign. The Mafia Kills Only in Summer is the rare movie that gets away with mocking some bad people — all the major political, judicial and criminal figures depicted are real – while extolling the virtues of the heroes who risk their well-being to clean up a system whose corruption has been accepted as a cruel fact of life by the populace. This includes former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti, with whom Arturo maintains a nearly lifelong obsession. (A comparison can be made to Andrew Bergman’s smart and funny The Freshman, in which a film-school student, played by Matthew Broderick, accepts a job with a mob chieftain, played by Marlon Brando, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Don Vito Corleoni, also played by Brando.) Because most of the Mafiosi involved in the crimes illustrated in the movie have since been killed or died in prison, the movie’s final conceit allows for a genuinely sentimental what-did-you-do-in-the-war ending.

Worlds Apart
Recent Academy Award-winner J.K. Simmons is featured on the cover of Christopher Papakaliatis’ topical drama, Worlds Apart, but enters the picture so late that it’s possible to wonder if his presence might be limited to a cameo, intended to tantalize American audiences. In fact, Simmons’ role turns out to be an essential portion of a triptych set against the backdrop of contemporary Greek life. Like the Athenian writer/director’s first feature, What If … (2012), it is informed by the country’s ongoing struggle to survive economic strife and crushing unemployment. Worlds Apart adds Greece’s current dilemma over issues related to becoming a first-stop refuge for immigrants escaping Syria’s civil war and sub-Saharan poverty. It is comprised of three separate narratives, each following a love story between a foreigner and a Greek. In the first, Tawfeek Barhom plays Farris, an immigrant street peddler who rescues a young Greek woman, Niki (Niki Vakali), from an attack and possible gang rape on an Athens street. One day, he recognizes her through the window of the bus taking her home from work. It allows him the opportunity to return the cellphone he recovered from the alley and embark on a tentative friendship. He returns each night to an abandoned jetliner at a decaying airfield outside the city, where dozens of illegal immigrants, some inarguably dangerous, have found shelter. It has become a target for right-wing Greeks who blame the refugees for a rise in crime. In the second narrative, Papakaliatis plays Giorgos, a department supervisor in a foreign-owned company that’s downsizing to squeeze every drachma from its Greek subsidiary. In addition to the problems he faces at work, Giorgos is fighting to keep his head above water paying the bills for family members, including a young son. One night, while drowning his sorrows in a bar, he meets and engages in a one-night stand with a cool Scandinavian blond, Elise (Andrea Osvárt), who kicks him out of her apartment after sex, because she “doesn’t like to sleep with men I don’t know.” It’s the perfect definition of a distinction without a difference. Naturally, Elise and Giorgos are further linked by the fact that she’s his new boss and has charged with initiating, however reluctantly, the severe cuts impacting his co-workers. Nonetheless, the sex is good and she eventually warms to his presence in the sack. In the third interrelated segment, Simmons plays a German ex-pat, Sebastian, who moves to Greece because he loves the country and his marks go further in an economy partially destroyed by his government’s ability to avoid paying debts accrued from the Nazi occupation. After a meet-cute encounter outside a neighborhood market, he and Maria (Maria Kavoyianni) come together on a weekly basis at the same place to chat and narrow the language gap. It’s sweet and innocent, for the most part, but aborted by a freak incident that tangentially links all three couples with the agony and ecstasy that is modern Greece. If some of the coincidences beg credulity, it’s all for a good cause. At home, Worlds Apart became the first movie to exceed 600,000 admissions since December, 2009, when Avatar opened. It was the top-grossing movie in Greece in 2015, surpassing Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Spectre. That has to count for something.

Daughters of the Dust: Blu-ray
Before this year’s Academy Awards nominations were announced, Hollywood insiders held their collective breath in anticipation of another year in which performances by African-American actors, writers and directors were overlooked or ignored, and protests erupted. Given the number of excellent pictures from which to choose, however, it wasn’t likely that the debate would continue for another season. The perceived snubbing of onetime favorite The Birth of a Nation was attributed to the revived controversy surrounding allegations that, while at Penn State, director Nate Parker and story collaborator Jean McGianni Celestin raped a fellow student and, at the time of his trial, Parker had exposed himself to another woman. He was acquitted of all four counts brought against him, while Celestin’s conviction for sexual assault would be overturned several years later.  Neither did more recent comments by Parker, stating that he would refuse to play a gay or stereotyped character, help the picture’s chances. The debate didn’t prevent Parker and The Birth of a Nation from receiving several nominations for Black Reel and Image Award honors or detract from the excellent reviews the film received. Eyebrows were raised, though, when accusations of sexual misconduct against Casey Affleck – later mediated and settled out of court – seemingly were ignored by Oscar nominators and voters. I wouldn’t care to predict how colorful the palette of next year’s Oscar slate will turn out to be, but it’s worth recalling that one of the greatest snubs in Academy Award history came a quarter-century ago in the organization’s total rejection of writer/director Julie Dash’s masterpiece, Daughters of the Dust, newly available in a splendid Blu-ray edition. Ironically, its snubbing is routinely ignored by reporters assigned each year the task of pointing out snubs and surprises in the voting. Arthur Jafa’s impressionistic cinematography, alone, would have warranted a nomination most years. Don’t take my word for it, though. Rent, purchase, download or stream a copy of the elegantly restored film — credit Cohen Media Group, in conjunction with UCLA – and experience it for yourself. Or, you could trust Beyoncé, whose visual interpretation of her album “Lemonade,” on HBO, featured several references to the film.

In addition to its standing as the first wide release by a black female filmmaker, Daughters of the Dust was selected in 2004 to join the Library of Congress’ National Registry of Film in 2004. Thanks to the kinds of articles and documentaries generally reserved for exposure during Black History Month, more Americans than ever before are aware of the Gullah (a.k.a., Geechee) culture that informs every aspect of Dash’s work. Her father was a Gullah from the Sea Islands of Georgia, as was her nanny, who performed certain rituals Dash would only later identify with a specific people and place. Daughters of the Dust tells the story of three generations of Gullah women in the Peazant family, on St. Helena Island, in 1902. It is narrated by the Unborn Child, carried by Eula, a married daughter in the Peazant family, who represents the first generation of black Americans born free. Several of the Gullahs we meet in the movie have already joined the Great Migration, while others will soon seek prosperity outside the agriculturally based South. Matriarch Nana Peazant, who can recall the arrival of the last illegal slave ship, Wanderer, in 1858, will remain on the island after this last family dinner on the beach, if only to maintain the graves of her ancestors and preserve traditions handed down from slaves of Ibo, Yoruba, Kikongo, Mende, Twi and Caribbean extraction. Dash had worked on Daughters of the Dust since 1975, while a student in Los Angeles, finally garnering the necessary $800,000 financing in 1988, from PBS’ “American Playhouse,” to launch full-scale production. Besides the historical and personal references, Dash’s incorporation of magical realism and Gullah creole dialogue make the film altogether unique and wonderfully poetic. The ecstatic response by critics and judges at the 1991 Sundance festival should have given Golden Globe and Oscar nominators sufficient cause to pay attention to film’s limited release 11 months later. Pleading ignorance wouldn’t have been a legitimate excuse to overlook Daughters of the Dust. Considering that it never played on more than 19 screens at the same time, an initial domestic box-office of $1.6 million is remarkable. The beautifully restored Blue-ray adds an interview with Jafa, who would go on to shoot Crooklyn, and be second-unit cinematographer on Eyes Wide Shut, Malcolm X and Selma; a Q&A with Dash; and an interview with Dash and Dr. Stephane Dunn.

War on Everyone: Blu-ray
At a time when police forces around the country are being besieged with complaints over incidents ranging from unwarranted stops and searches, to the questionable use of force against unarmed citizens, it’s probably just as well that John Michael McDonagh’s bad-boy action/comedy War on Everyone wasn’t accorded a theatrical release. I get that it’s designed as a parody of the cop shows of a bygone era, in which a pair of unorthodox dudes could get away with all sorts of mischief, as long as the bad guys paid for their crimes in the end. Here, Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Peña play a consciously malevolent reimagining of “Starsky and Hutch,” with hefty helpings of profanity, homophobia, racial slurs, beatdowns and sexist humor. The London-born filmmaker has already proven that he can handle hyperviolent action in The Guard, Calvary and his screenplay for Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly. A certain number of stylishly executed beatdowns in War on Everyone were only to be expected. It’s the piling on that draws the flag here. In it, Albuquerque police detectives Terry Monroe and Bob Bolaño meet their match in a scheme to steal a million bucks from an aristocratic Brit villain, Lord James Mangan (Theo James), and his lisping sidekick, Russell (Caleb Landry Jones). Not surprisingly, an inordinate amount of time is spent in a strip club that serves as Mangan’s cover. (Where would Hollywood be without the shorthand provided by titty bars?) The real problem comes in knowing that the sun has set on law-enforcement officials who think they can run roughshod over the citizenry – criminals, whores and other shady characters, among them – and not expect to pay for it, even in the popular media. The number of cops who can get away with being cool, ironic and studly, simultaneously, while committing such abuses, is pretty low, as well. Back in the day, the Production Code simply wouldn’t allow it. Paul Reiser plays their chief, who, while questioning their excesses, serves as an enabler. The Blu-ray adds, “Everyone Sounds Off: The Quirky Cast of War on Everyone.”

White Girl
After causing a bit of a stir and Sundance, White Girl suffered the same unkind fate as too many other red-hot indies when they come down from their Rocky Mountain highs. Only a few ride the wave all the way to awards season, while the majority are forced to settle for being picked up for release on DVD and VOD. There simply aren’t enough screens available to accommodate the large number of pictures that are seen and reviewed at Sundance, Telluride and, even, Toronto. Marketing costs are another hurdle altogether. Equal parts urban myth and urban cliché, White Girl forwards the age-old fable of the naïve college girl from the boonies, who moves to the big city and is immediately corrupted by its less savory elements. Rising star Morgan Saylor is extremely credible as Leah, a button-cute blond who no sooner unpacks the boxes in her new Queens apartment than she hooks up with a street-corner dealer, Blue (Brian Marc), mostly with the sole intention of getting high. It doesn’t take long for Leah to go from pot to cocaine and begin having rough-and-tumble sex with him, though. While that’s not particularly unusual, she also allows herself to be seduced by her boss at the job arranged through her school and become the middle (wo)man for cocaine (a.k.a., white girl) provided by Blue. Leah not only ends up getting hooked on the drugs she’s selling, but also the hot sex he provides and the thrill that comes with becoming a big shot at the nightclub she frequents with her insatiable friends. All sorts of complications arise from this situation, not all of them predictable. As nice a guy as Blue appears to be, at first, he answers to dealers who drive hard bargains and have a sixth sense for potential welshers. When Blue gets in trouble, Leah turns to a lawyer (Chris Noth) known for getting small-timers out of jail. His expertise comes at a stiff price, as well. By the time things sort themselves out, Leah has absorbed more about crisis management than she could learn in a classroom. In her freshman feature, Elizabeth Wood (Wade in the Water, Children) does a nice job capturing the contrasting vibes that electrify neighborhoods in the process of being gentrified, and the naivete of young people willing to cross boundaries without looking both ways, first. Leah’s increasingly high-stakes pursuit of hedonistic pleasures, we’re told, was inspired by Wood’s own experiences

After launching four well-received theatrical features on the LGBT festival circuit, it would nice if some deep-pocketed fellow gave John G. Young an opportunity to find success in the wider indie market. At this point in his career, money, or lack thereof, would appear to be an impediment to expanding his horizons. Bwoy is an example of bare-bones cinema that works, but probably could have been shot in three differently decorated phone booths, with a cellphone, with the same positive results. The deceptively simple premise also would fit a trifurcated stage. In Jamaican patois, “bwoy” is slang for boy, while “batty bwoy” is a pejorative term for a male who’s gay, bisexual or effeminate. Its use here is ironic, in the same way that the n-word once was deployed in titles during the blaxploitation era. In fact, Jamaica plays a crucial role in the advancement of the drama here. After suffering a great personal loss and the rupturing of his marriage, fortysomething phone-solicitor Brad O’Connor (Anthony Rapp) has come to the end of his tether. He’s finally decided to acknowledge his homosexuality, if only on the down-low, via the Internet. After a mind-numbing eight hours spent attempting to collect debts by phone, he ignores his patient African-American wife, Marcia (De’Adre Aziza), and heads straight for the man-cave in the basement of their Schenectady home. Brad is new to the online-sex game, where honesty and sensitivity are reserved for suckers. He gets no responses to his early postings, but plenty when he stretches the truth to fit the desires of respondents. Brad finds a playmate in Yenny (Jimmy Brooks), a handsome 23-year-old Jamaican, who quickly discerns the older man’s desire to serve as a father figure. After he breaks his cherry on Skype, things quickly evolve to the point where he become obsessed with Yennie and begins sending him money. No surprise, there. The story then takes a turn so unexpected that it reshapes the drama, opening it up for a bit of Jamaican sunshine to restore some needed light. The distance between New York and the Caribbean disappears in an instant. Despite the cramped quarters, the acting sells the story, which, in different hands, could have turned into a masturbatory trifle.

Dead or Alive Trilogy: Blu-ray
With 102 directing credits listed on his resume, Takashi Miike has undoubtedly been one of the world’s most prolific filmmakers of the past quarter-century, regardless of genre. The vast majority are feature-length and almost impossible to encapsulate in a few sentences. Miike may have begun his apprenticeship under two-time Palme d’Or winner Shôhei Imamura (The Ballad of Narayama, The Eel), but he is as close to being self-taught and self-motivated as anyone who’s made a career in the cinema dodge. While most of us were introduced to his work through his way-beyond-creepy Audition (1999), such divergent entertainments as Black Society Trilogy, Shinjuku Triad Society, The Happiness of the Katakuris, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, Over Your Dead Body, Zebraman and Ichi: The Killer have been given the red-carpet treatment by Shout! Factory and Arrow Video. For sheer gonzo excitement, it would be difficult to top his Dead or Alive Trilogy. Ostensibly, all three films — Dead or Alive, Dead or Alive 2: Birds, Dead or Alive: Final – are about gang wars pitting rival Chinese triads and Japanese Yakuza mobsters against a dogged enforcer, who could be a distant cousin of Wayne Newton and Don Ho. If none of the three titles is a direct sequel to the other, all of them star Riki Takeuchi and Show Aikawa. In Part One, Takeuchi plays the gangster Ryuuichi, who, along with his ethnically Chinese gang, is making a play to take over the drug trade in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district by massacring the competition. Detective Jojima (Aikawa), who sports a black trench coat, shades and a pompadour hairdo, uses his wiles and weapons to get the triads and Yakuza to thin out each other’s ranks, so that he can finish them off. It’s distinguished by perverse sexuality, stylized violence and clowns. In “Birds,” Aikawa and Takeuchi are together again, but as competing Yakuza assassins.  After a botched hit, the childhood friends flee to their home island and dedicate themselves to killing in the name of peace. In “Final,” Takeuchi and Aikawa are catapulted into a post-apocalyptic Yokohama that’s ruled by multilingual gangs, cyborg soldiers and a nutso mayor. They will butt heads, until the outrageously conceived finale, when they’re joined forever in a steampunk rapture. Miike’s raw display of unfettered imagination is nothing short of exhilarating. The special edition is enhanced by high-definition digital transfers of all three films; original uncompressed stereo; new interviews with actors Takeuchi and Aikawa, and producer/screenwriter Toshiki Kimura; new audio commentary for Dead or Alive by Miike biographer Tom Mes; archive interviews with cast and crew; vintage making-of featurettes for “DOA2: Birds” and “DOA: Final”; original theatrical trailers; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Orlando Arocena; and, first-pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet with new writing on the films by Kat Ellinger.

Ludwig: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
After watching Arrow Academy’s exquisitely restored edition of Luchino Visconti’s Ludwig (1973), I went on line to learn which monarch was crazier, Britain’s “Mad King” George III or “Mad King” Ludwig II of Bavaria, both of whose insanity has been documented in grandiose fashion on film. According to the TopTenz website, these men were only Nos. 10 and 7 on the top-10 list of wacko royals. (For those keeping score at home, the leading loony was Charles IX of France, who ascended to the crown only after all of the others in line for the job died.)  George III and Ludwig II had other things going for them, when lucid, but may best be recalled in posterity for the biopics made by Nicholas Hytner and Alan Bennett, Visconti and co-writer Enrico Medioli. Of the two films, The Madness of King George fared much better at the box office and awards ceremonies. Ludwig was the final piece in Visconti’s so-called German Trilogy, which also included The Damned (1969) and Death in Venice (1971). All of them dealt with one form of depravity, or another, including several things the MPAA tends to lump together as “aberrant sexuality.” In fact, though, when compared to the other films, Ludwig is rather tame. Even in the longer, preferred cut edition, the male nudity is either quite brief or shown from a distance. There isn’t any sex to speak of, either. That shouldn’t dissuade anyone from tackling the 238-minute cut, however. Ludwig remains notable, if only for Visconti and cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi’s celebration of such grand Bavarian locations as Roseninsel, Berg Castle, Lake Starnberg, Castle Herrenchiemsee, Castle Hohenschwangau, Linderhof Palace, Cuvilliés Theatre, Nymphenburg Palace, Ettal, Kaiservilla and Neuschwanstein Castle. The stigma attached to Ludwig when it was released derived from at least two severe edits demanded by European and America distributors, undertaken after Visconti had suffered a stroke. When it was first shown in New York, it ran 173 minutes. It would lose another half-hour on its way to the hinterlands. The nearly four-hour edition is complemented here by the television mini-series cut, which is at least as long. While no barn-burn, it benefits from some fine acting by Helmut Berger, as the king; Romy Schneider, as Empress Elisabeth of Austria; Trevor Howard, as composer Richard Wagner, a beneficiary of Ludwig’s foolhardy largess; Silvana Mangano, Wagner’s imperious wife Cosima von Bulow; and Gert Fröbe, as Father Hoffman. There’s also the splendid Alpine scenery, Piero Tosi’s Oscar-nominated costume design and a soundtrack that’s heavy on Wagner and Jacques Offenbach. Among the highlights for me were Ludwig’s truly bizarre entrances, by boat, through indoor swan pools. The limited edition features a 4K restoration from the original film negative; two viewing options, the full-length theatrical cut or as five individual parts; original Italian soundtrack and English soundtrack, available on home video for the first time; a new interview with Berger; “Luchino Visconti,” an hourlong documentary portrait of the director by Carlo Lizzani, containing vintage interviews with Burt Lancaster, Vittorio Gassman, Francesco Rosi and Claudia Cardinale; an entertaining interview with script collaborator, Suso Cecchi d’Amico; “Silvana Mangano: The Scent of a Primrose,” a half-hour portrait of the actress; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector s booklet containing new writing by Peter Cowie.

Sword Master: Blu-ray
Longtime fans of Hong Kong martial-arts epics will recognize Sword Master as a technically superior updating of the Shaw Brother’s 1977 wuxia pian, Death Duel. Fans of American Westerns and Japanese Samurai flicks are likely to find many similarities between those two films – adapted from a novel by Gu Long – and American genre films and TV episodes in which a retired gunslinger is required by circumstances to strap on his weapon one last time to defend his honor or die trying. In Derek Yee’s 2016 version, the Third Master of the reigning Hsieh clan (Lin Gengxin) has so grown weary of killing people in the defense of other people’s interests that he disguises himself as Ah Chi, a lowly servant in a brothel. His cover is blown when he’s stabbed several times by thugs attacking a prostitute, popularly known as Sweetie (Jiang Mengjie). Another wandering swordsman, Yan (Peter Ho), intends to prompt a duel with Third Master to test his own skill, but an impending war between various martial-arts houses poses a threat to both of the old-school warriors. It inspires a high-flying battle royal, with lots of cool wuxia action, likely supervised by producer Tsui Hark. While some critics have argued that the CGI and fairytale backgrounds occasionally detract from the swordplay, Sword Master is a lot of fun and easily accessible to wuxia beginners. The 3D edition of the film has yet to be released here. The Blu-ray comes with a making-of featurette.

Mad Families
Standing 6-foot-3, writer/director Fred Wolf has repeatedly proven that he can take a punch. He survived the early cancellations of talk shows hosted by Pat Sajak and Chevy Chase, becoming head writer of “Saturday Night Live,” throughout most of the 1990s. He’s also weathered the scathing reviews received as co-writer, with, among others, David Spade and Adam Sandler, of Joe Dirt, Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, both Grown Ups and the completely unnecessary direct-to-Crackle Joe Dirt: Beautiful Loser and straight-to-Internet Mad Families. For all the insults hurled at those movies by critics, Wolf was handed the director and co-writer’s reins of the slightly higher profile Drunk Parents, with Alex Baldwin, Salma Hayek, Joe Manganiello and Bridget Moynahan. Made with former “SNL” collaborator and Strange Wilderness  partner Peter Gaulke, it was scheduled for a March release, but appears to have been made available for free – legally or illegally, I don’t know — on Internet services. According to his mini-bio on IMDB, Wolf splits his time between Carmel and Santa Fe. If still true, Mad Families’ tanking probably won’t put a dent in his lifestyle. It’s set over a July 4 weekend at the Salt Stone State Park, whose campsites have been overbooked to the point where three families — Hispanic, African-American and Caucasian – are required to share one spot. It appears to be large enough to accommodate all three, but where would be the fun in that? Since none of them volunteer to split the scene, they agree to compete in a series of competitions to determine a winner. One requires the characters to participate in a contest to decide who can come up the best racist joke. There’s also an agonizing race around the pond. Several gags involve Charlotte McKinney’s ample bosom and short-shorts, while the drama derives from the Hispanic daughter and African-American son’s unannounced plans to be married. Charlie Sheen and Leah Remini headline a cast that also includes Finesse Mitchell, Naya Rivera, Barry Shabaka Henley, Juan Gabriel Pareja, Efren Ramirez and Danny Mora.

Dark Waters: Blu-ray
The Other Hell: Blu-ray
As is often the case with obscure genre titles distributed by such niche companies as Severin Films, the journey can be more interesting than the destination. Newly transferred into high def from their original 35mm negatives or prints, prime nunsploitation specimens Dark Waters (1993) and The Other Hell (1981) fit that description to a “T.” The only difference from such classics as Ken Russell’s The Devils, Gianfranco Mingozzi’s Flavia the Heretic, Jesus Franco’s Love Letters of the Portuguese Nun, Walerian Borowczyk’s Behind Convent Walls and Nigel Wingrove’s Sacred Flesh, is that they’re largely free of nudity and lesbian sex. (Yeah, I know, then what’s the point?)They are, however, loaded with sadistic violence, gore, spooky Catholic iconography, endangered babies, blood-stained habits and stylistically ominous cinematography. In the interview section of the Dark Waters Blu-ray, Naples-native Mariano Baino explains how his fascination with horror began at age 8, during a school visit to Rome. While there, he purchased a copy of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch-House” — presumably not in the Vatican gift shop – and became hooked on studying things on the dark side of life. Ten years later, he entered Rome’s Experimental Centre of Cinematography, where he was handed the tools to the trade. His short cannibalistic fantasy, “Caruncula,” attracted the attention newly wealthy Russian producer Victor Zuev, who offered initial financing for a feature, as long as it was made in post-Chernobyl Ukraine. While there, Baino encountered more setbacks in a month than many filmmakers face in a lifetime, from losing his studio space in a deal brokered by his corrupt production manager, to nearly having his cast and crew asphyxiated in the poorly ventilated Odessa Catacombs. In a nutshell, the plot focuses on a young Englishwoman, Elizabeth (Louise Salter), who returns to the island of her birth, both to investigate a convent her recently deceased father has been making payments to for years and visit a friend in residence there … before her mysterious death, at least. Apparently, the nuns are killing people at the behest of the Mother Superior, who looks as if she has just risen from the dead. She’s directed to a decaying library, hidden laboratories and a blind oracle/painter in the catacombs, who warns of demon cult and a Beast in the basement. The Blu-ray adds more than four hours of commentary to this Lovecraft-inspired ditty, with Baino; the featurettes, “Lovecraft Made Me Do It,” “Let There Be Water,” “Controlling the Uncontrollable” and “Deep Into the Dark Waters”; an intro; deleted scenes; a silent blooper reel with commentary by Baino; short films, “Dream Car,” “Caruncula” and “Never Ever After”; and a piece on the making of “Never Ever After.”

The Other Hell was made by Bruno Mattei, a director known affectionately as “The Italian Ed Wood,” for his ability to churn out exploitation flicks and “shockumentaries” that most of his peers would be embarrassed to make … unless they needed a gig. Mattei also enjoyed the distinction of having more pseudonyms than any working director on the planet. They include Vincent Dawn (Mondo Cannibal, Snuff Killer), Gilbert Roussel (Women’s Prison Massacre), J. Metheus (Emanuelle and the Erotic Nights), Jimmy Matheus (Libidomania), Jimmy B. Matheus (Cicciolina amore mio), William Snyder (Cruel Jaws) and Stefan Oblowsky (The True Story of the Nun of Monza, The Other Hell). Filmed mostly at Rome’s Convento di Santa Priscilla and Naples’ Cimitero delle Fontanelle, The Other Hell doesn’t look any worse for the wear of miniscule budgets and cut-rate production values. It opens with a nun searching for one of her fellow sisters in the lower levels of a convent. After making her way through the well-stocked ossuary, she arrives in what first appears to be a mad scientist’s lab, but is soon revealed to be a poorly lit embalmers’ chamber. It’s here that we’re treated to a lesson on how to embalm a sinful nun, the first step of which is to identify where the sin derived and thrust a knife into it. In this case, she’s told, the nun on the slab had been impregnated by Satan … so, you make the leap. The unsuccessfully aborted spawn is a monster with black body hair and demonic eyes, who suckles at the breast of the embalmed corpse of the convent’s former Mother Superior, which is stored in a closet. It’s just as yummy as it sounds.  A couple of priests are imported to investigate the rash of killings, with the younger, new-school cleric using modern methodology to find the source of the evil. While Mattei employs some fancy-schmancy effects and cinematography, the story rests on good old-fashioned stabbings, stigmata, Satanism, violence, graphic savagery, immolation and a severed head. The Other Hell stars Franca Stoppi, Carlo De Mejo and Franco Garofalo; was written by Claudio Fragasso (Rats: Night of Terror, Troll 2); and features a score “borrowed” from Goblin. It’s been newly transferred from a 35mm print allegedly discovered behind a false wall in a Bologna convent. The Blu-ray adds commentary with co-cirector/co-writer Claudio Fragasso, moderated by Freak-O-Rama’s Federico Caddeo; an amusing interview with Stoppi, who played Sister Franca; and “To Hell And Back,” archival interviews with Mattei and De Mejo.

House: Two Stories: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Released at the zenith of Hollywood’s slasher era, 1986, House is a haunted-domicile thriller that exploits another then-current conceit: the Vietnam veteran so traumatized by the war that he’s a hazard to himself and people around him. PTSD had officially been recognized by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980, but only as an anxiety disorder, not the more paralyzing “trauma- and stressor-related disorder” it would become. At the time, almost all slasher and splatter films were rated “R,” with plenty of gratuitous violence and nudity, if not always sex and pubic hair. The only problem facing director Steve Miner and producer Sean S. Cunningham – early veterans of the Friday the 13th franchise – was the fact that House, for all its well-earned thrills and chills, was a picture on the verge of being rated “PG-13.” The rating was added in 1984 to bridge the gap separating borderline attractions, such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins, and the clearly rougher Friday the 13th and Halloween. Short of adding of a shower scene or decapitation in post, it’s possible that a second F-bomb could have be added to the dialogue. Like Robert Mandel’s extremely clever thriller, F/X, whose “R” was attributed to crude language, House could hold its own in the jump-scare department, with some demonic creatures and nightmarish flashbacks experienced by the protagonist, played by William Katt.  Made for a modest $3 million, it returned $18.5 million at the domestic box office and spawned three so-so sequels, including House II: The Second Story, included in the Arrow set.

The original opens with a boy discovering the lifeless body of his aunt hanging from a ceiling fixture in the second-story bedroom of her Victorian-style house. Several years later, Roger Cobb (Katt), a horror novelist struggling to pen his next bestseller, inherits the creaky old mansion and moves in, despite the still-vivid memory of her death and, worse, the disappearance of his son at the same residence. Roger’s obsessive search for the boy destroys his marriage to Sandy (Kay Lenz) and his writing career. What the heck, he figures, the ghosts might even serve to untangle his writer’s block. Instead, the things that go bump in the night are either real live monsters or hallucinations. Meanwhile, his dreams take him back to Vietnam. That, or a Hollywood depiction of Roger’s time in-country. It’s not always easy to tell. Helping him escape his dilemma is the son of the blond bombshell across the street, who, while being babysat by Roger, stumbles upon portals to supernatural worlds protected by the house. Miner succeeds in tying up the loose ends and delivering a payoff that, if not terribly frightening, is entirely satisfying.

Two years later, the PG-13 onus has gone away, allowing co-writer/director Ethan Wiley the freedom to make a movie that teens could enjoy, as well as older horror buffs. “It’s an all new house with brand new owners,” read the ads for House II: The Second Story. Yuppies Jesse (Arye Gross) and Kate (Lar Park Lincoln) move into the same old Gothic mansion in which his parents died in 25 years earlier. (Why do people do that?) Not long afterward, his buddy, Charlie (Jonathan Stark), and his girlfriend, Lana (Amy Yasbeck), roll into town for a housewarming visit. While the ladies chill, Jesse and Charlie pore through the books and photo albums contained in the library and basement, discovering evidence that could lead to an Aztec treasure. It takes them to the grave of Jesse’s great-great-grandad (Royal Dano), where, they believe, a key piece of the puzzle can be found. The lads do what any clear-thinking yuppie would do: dig up Gramps’ casket, open the lid and lift out the crystal skull in the corpse’s hands. Surprise, surprise … Gramps’ previously lifeless hands grab Jesse’s arm, suggesting that we now have a zombie movie on our hands. Well, sort of. Gramps turns out to be a spry old geezer, after all, becoming Charlie’s booger buddy overnight. “House II” then turns into a comic adventure that combines elements of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future and One Million Years B.C. There’s nothing to gain by spoiling the fun, except to point out that George Wendt and John Ratzenberger play substantial supporting roles in the films, practically reprising their Norm and Cliff roles, in “Cheers.” Also showing up, in “House II,” is aspiring actor Bill Maher, as a music-industry weasel hoping to steal Kate away from Jesse. The restored Limited Edition package contains “The House Companion,” a 60-page book, featuring new writing on the entire franchise by researcher Simon Barber, alongside archival material; commentary with Miner, Cunningham, Katt and Wiley; “Ding Dong, You’re Dead! The Making of House,” a new documentary, featuring interviews with Miner, Cunningham, Wiley, story creator Fred Dekker, stars Katt, Lenz, and Wendt, composer Harry Manfredini, special make-up and creature-effects artists Barney Burman, Brian Wade, James Belohovek, Shannon Shea, Kirk Thatcher and Bill Sturgeon, special paintings artists Richard Hescox and William Stout, and stunt coordinator Kane Hodder; and a stills gallery.

Cathy’s Curse: Blu-ray
Lake Eerie
Fear Town, USA/The Slashening: Double Feature: Blu-ray
The Blackout Experiments
The Ungovernable Force
Crimson Nights
Dream Stalker/Death by Love
Once again, the good folks at Severin Films have performed yeoman’s work in rescuing and restoring a long-ignored genre gem: the 1977 Canuxploitation classic, Cathy’s Curse (a.k.a., “Cauchemars”). Although it looks primitive, especially by the standards set by such cruel-kids thrillers as The Omen, Eddy Matalon’s Quebec-set film demonstrated that credible special effects could done on the cheap and laughs could be had at the expense of unsuspecting victims. That it was completely taken for granted at the time of its release and, of course, butchered to fit time constraints was par for the course for non-studio products, as well. Even when viewed primarily as a precursor to the slicky made horror flicks of the later-1970s-80s, Cathy’s Curse is fun to watch. Matalon moved from France to Montreal to take advantage of the same tax breaks American and British filmmakers were exploiting in Toronto and Vancouver. Canada’s Capital Cost Allowance would be severely reduced in 1982, but the path had already been laid by such beauties as My Bloody Valentine, Black Christmas, Prom Night, Terror Train and Ivan Reitman’s Cannibal Girls (“The Picture With The Warning Bell!”). In Matalon’s film, co-scripted with Myra Clément and Alain Sens-Cazenave, a young girl is roasted alive in a car accident after being abducted by her cuckolded and, therefore, misogynistic father. Thirty years later, her grown brother (Alan Scarfe) returns to their childhood home with his mentally unstable wife (Beverley Murray) and daughter, Cathy (Randi Allen). Almost as soon as the movers pack up and leave, the dead aunt’s vengeful spirit possesses the child through a demonic doll. Curiously, she also inherits her grandfather’s sexist diatribes. Cathy’s dad can’t imagine his little angel being so cruel, so dismisses her participation in a series of nasty accidents to visitors and potential guardians. Two of the set pieces are especially juicy: when Cathy is introduced to neighbor kids, she persuades them to restage the accident in which her aunt and granddad were turned into toast; later, Cathy gets the old caretaker (Roy Witham) drunk, so that she can sic a menagerie of imaginary critters on him. It gets wilder from there. The new Blu-ray includes the 81-minute U.S. release edit and 91-minute director’s cut); “Tricks and Treats,” an interview with Matalon; “Cathy & Mum,” interviews with Randi Allen and costume designer Joyce Allen; commentary on the U.S. cut by BirthMoviesDeath critic Brian Collins and filmmaker Simon Barrett; and an introduction to Cinematic Void screening at American Cinematheque by Collins.

Lake Eerie shares a few things in common with other thrillers mentioned here, not the least of them being a house that’s revitalized after standing abandoned for a few decades. This time, though, the previous owner mysteriously vanished while on an archeological expedition in Egypt. As if the crazy lady next-door, who delivers muffins to the traumatized widow, isn’t sufficiently ominous, there are neighbors who won’t go near the place and a dark presence that speaks Egyptian and tracks sand all over the hardwood floors. (Although Egyptology does play a role in the narrative, I made up the last two plot points.) If the rest of the story is fairly predictable, we are given a brief glimpse of the always-welcome Lance Hendrickson. The music was supplied by the aforementioned Harry Manfredini (House).

The double-feature packaging of Fear Town, USA and The Slashening is noteworthy only as a reclamation project by Troma. Adding Blu-ray to the presentation does nothing to improve their stories – both directed by Brandon Bassham — but it’s an upgrade from the cheesy audio/visuals already on display to YouTube Red subscribers. “Fear Town” takes place on the fictitious St. Blevins Day holiday, when four boys looking to lose their virginity, a girl haunted by a dark secret, a lonely teenager and an escaped mental patient all meet at a party in the woods. (Exclamation points optional.) In “Slashening,” a slumber party is thrown by best friends Lucy, Eva, Ashley, Beth and Margot … but, as we all know, “MURDER NEVER SLUMBERS!!!!!.” The actresses must have had no-nudity clauses in their contracts, because, sadly, there isn’t any. Troma has enhanced the package with commentary on “Fear Town” and the company’s standard array of promotional features: “Radiation March,” trailers and teasers to more representative products.

Paul M. McAlarney’s The Ungovernable Force is extreme, even by the standards usually applied by Troma, whose films revel in gratuitous sex, violence and about everything else some viewers might consider to be offensive. Some might recall McAlarney’s previous stroke of genius, Hillbilly Holocaust, in which surviving members of the Manson Family leave their bunker, years after Charlie’s death, expecting to enjoy life in post-Helter-Skelter America. As crazy as it was, Honky Holocaust wasn’t completely lacking in entertainment value. I’m not sure the same can be said for The Ungovernable Force, whose links to Troma appear to begin and end with appearances by Debbie Rochon and Lloyd Kaufman, whose voice also was heard in “HH.” Here, A gang of misfit punks teams up with a local community of bums (a.k.a., homeless gentlemen) to defeat a fascist sheriff and his two deputies. The resistance leader, Sal Purgatory (Jake Vaughan), is experiencing the anxiety the comes with becoming an over-the-hill punk and sex-shop employee. The film takes aim at fascism, police brutality, sexism, classism, racism, homophobia and political correctness. The cast includes punk “icons” Steve Ignorant from CRASS, Nick Cash from 999, Steve Lake from Zounds, Mensi from Angelic Upstarts, Paul Russo from the Unseen and Tony Moran (Michael Myers, in the original Halloween). The soundtrack features Flux of Pink Indians, Paranoid Visions, the Kids, Raxola, Who Killed Spikey Jacket and Eskorbuto. No, I haven’t heard of them, either.

Rich Fox’s innovative horror documentary The Blackout Experiments introduces us to a real-life fad in which volunteers, chosen via Facebook, allow themselves to be subjected to all manner of psychological manipulation, abuse and degradation, in an empty commercial space “blacked out” with plastic tarp. After being blindfolded or gagged, the disoriented participants will be treated to forced nudity, verbal abuse, restraints, brief suffocation and waterboarding … just like all of those Taliban rascals. The immersive horror experience, one supposes, helps them locate places in the recesses of their subconscious mind that need a bit of work … either that, or get their rocks off in scary sexual situations.  We’re told that the experiments and footage are “100% real.” Like everything else on the planet, we’re also told that the experience can be addictive and some participants need to be weaned off it. The DVD adds deleted scenes, an interview with the Blackout creators and bonus footage.

If anyone deserves a star on a Walk of Fame, it’s sexploitation superstar Misty Mundae. She’s accrued 83 acting credits over the past 20 years — Spider-Babe, Play-Mate of the Apes, The Lord of the G-Strings, Dickshark, among themand has also dabbled in behind-the-camera work. For a long time, the East St. Louis native drifted between hard- and soft-core assignments, as well as appearing in genre fare. As Erin Brown, she also co-starred in the late-night Skinemax soap, “Lingerie.” In a plot that might have inspired this week’s episode of “Law & Order: SVU,” Sinful imagines Mundae as an infertile woman so desperate for a child that she’s willing to kill for the opportunity to steal the fetus growing inside the womb of a neighbor (Erica Smith). Since skin flicks tend to avoid any mention of pregnancy, then, Sinful is pretty ambitious. A lot of the star’s fans will be put off their feed by the prop fetuses, and the dialogue is frequently absurd. Even so, it’s easy to see that Mundae and Smith are attempting to elevate the drama beyond the limits of the genre. (Why bother?) It includes footage from Erica Smith’s audition; a seven-minute behind-the-scenes segment and six-minute interview with Mundae; two clips from the 2006 New Jersey International Film and Screenplay Festival, including a Q&A, in which Jeff Faoro (Shock-O-Rama Cinema) chats with Mundae and Smith; liner notes written by Merle Bertrand; and commentary with director Tony Marsiglia who discuses writing the screenplay, directing, the cast and the difficulties of shooting a film in five days.

Mundae can be found in the Crimson Nights (1999) package, but only if one makes it as far as the bonus features, in which she co-stars alongside scream queen Ruby LaRocca (Where the Dead Go to Die) in William Hellfire’s 24-minute Peeping in a Girl’s Dormitory (2000). There’s plenty more girl-girl action in the feature, in which Roberta Orlandi (“True Blood”) stars as Susan, a voluptuous woman who embarks upon a sexually charged rampage after being infected with a virulent strain of blood-born plague. It moves from victim to victim like a game of tag played by vampires. Unfortunately, the nudity and shower scenes are the only things Jeffrey Arsenault’s blood fest has going for it. The DVD arrives with a vintage peep show and trailers from the Seduction Cinema vault.

Knowing that the pair of films that comprise Intervision’s Dream Stalker/Death by Love double-feature were shot on video for release on VHS cassettes, it’s easier the cut them some slack. Otherwise, there’d be no reason to spend more than five minutes with either of them. In the former, a Sacramento model is haunted by the corpse of her motocross-racer ex-boyfriend. After rising from the dead, Ricky (Mark Dias) not only revisits Kitty (Diane Cardea) for a midnight quickie, but also to murder her new boyfriend and the undertaker who botched his posthumous makeup session. If, God forbid, a remake were attempted today on a cellphone camera, the visuals in both pictures would look significantly better. The dialogue, acting and cinematography, however, are different stories. Nothing could save them. The original director even took legal action to strike his name from the credits … or, so we’re told in the bonus interviews. Death by Love, at least, benefits from significantly more exposed skin. Producer/director/writer/star/contractor Alan Grant plays a babe-magnet sculptor whose girlfriends all end up dead with their throats ripped open. Meanwhile, he’s being spied upon by an unknown person and followed by a pair of cops. Almost none of it makes any sense and the production values are non-existent. As vanity projects go, however, it qualifies as being so bad, it’s funny. The package comes with featurettes “Remembering Ricky,” with Mark Dias; “Dirt Bike Dreams,” with executive producer Tom Naygrow; “Alan Grant Remembers Death by Love,” via Skype; and “Yvonne Aric and Brad Bishop Remember Death By Love,” via Skype.

For his first feature, Backgammon, Francisco Orvañanos had the great good fortune to rent, borrow or steal the kind of out-of-the-way mansion, in Maine, that other filmmakers and location scouts might wish they’d discovered first and kept word of it to themselves. The hilltop setting provides sparkling long-distance views of the ocean, interrupted only by an unspoiled pasture that angles gently to the rocky coastline and almost demands to be traversed barefooted. The house’s handcrafted fixtures would whet any sophisticated traveler’s appetite for fireside lounging, leisurely dinners and expensive cognac, served in antique crystal snifters. Sadly, most viewers will be left to wonder how such a heavenly spot could be wasted on such an insignificant story. Orvañanos had the right idea, at least. When Ivy League wimp, Lucian (Noah Silver) arrives at the mansion with college friends Andrew (Christian Alexander) and Elizabeth (Olivia Crocicchia), for a weekend vacation, they don’t expect to find Andrew’s kittenish sister, Miranda (Brittany Allen), and her Baudelaire-obsessed boyfriend, Gerald (Alex Beh), already ensconced there. Andrew and Elizabeth decide that five’s a crowd and split early, leaving Lucian to fend with the precocious painter and his flirtatious red-haired muse. Not having read the R.B. Russell’s novella, “Bloody Baudelaire,” from which Backgammon was adapted, it’s difficult to ascertain where the blame for the ensuing exchanges of dopey dialogue ought to be placed. By the end of the second evening, though, Gerald has lost all his nude paintings – for which Miranda modeled — to Lucien in a drunken card game, and completely disappears from view. Taking advantage of his absence, Miranda freely toys with Lucien, who appears to believe that either Gerald and/or his girlfriend are spying on them through a peep hole or hidden camera. Over time, the sexual tension dissipates like the air from a tire with a slow, but persistent leak … just like our curiosity over where Gerald might have gone. The scenery is nice, anyway.

Lonely Boys
Jules and Saul are best friends at loose ends. Both have recently broken up with their significant others and will soon lose their sources of income. One drinks and the other is trying to stop. They look alike and squabble like brothers. That’s really all we know about Jules and Saul, before being asked to empathize with their plights. Dan Simon, who plays struggling playwright Jules, directed and co-wrote Lonely Boys, with Patrick Davin (The White Russian) and Gregory Lay, who portrays the soon-to-be-divorced Saul. When low-budget indies are this incestuous, they tend to demand things of viewers they haven’t earned, in this case a reason to really care about the characters’ search for happiness. They’re surrounded by convivial and attractive women, but are so consumed with their own problems they eventually wear out their welcome with them, too. Things pick up when the guys leave Brooklyn and head to Connecticut for a beachside weekend and more failed opportunities to heal their wounds. At one point, just as Jules is about to break the ice with a pleasant brunette, he is stricken with an anxiety attack so intense that he’s forced to beg off. I suppose it was meant to be funny, but comes off as just one more inexplicable blunder. Even so, anyone undergoing withdrawal from the final episode of “Girls” might feel right at home with these archetypal millennials.

Claire in Motion
Annie J. Howell and Lisa Robinson’s follow-up to Small, Beautifully Moving Parts, which got some critical attention in 2012, serves the same purpose as a Richter scale as it measures the emotional stability of a woman who’s lost her husband, literally, to forces she and we never quite grasp. Betsy Brandt (“Life in Pieces”) is quite effective as the title character in Claire in Motion, a movie that’s less interested in solving the mystery than painting a portrait of a woman who suddenly realizes that her husband’s lover knows more about him than she does. Both Claire and her husband, Paul, teach at a college in Ohio. He’s in the art department, while she’s a math instructor. When Paul doesn’t come home one night, Claire’s head spins with possible reasons. She knows that he fancies himself to be an amateur survivalist, so she conducts her own search in a nearby forest, where he might have fallen off a cliff and his body could have disappeared from easy view. It isn’t until she goes to his office to retrieve his property that she meets his pretty blond “graduate assistant,” Allison (Anna Margaret Hollyman), who’s almost shockingly forthcoming with information about Paul. She points to a sculpture and drawings representing flight, which make Claire think he took up skydiving to understand more about it. (There’s a metaphor in there, somewhere.) When Allison also picks up on their son’s need to know more about his departed dad, she works with him on some simple sculptures. It’s sad to watch Claire come unglued over her own possible shortcomings, when all signs point to her husband going middle-age crazy and succumbing both to his vanity and the magnetism of a blond half his age. She’s better off without a guy who thinks he can hide out in a state park in frigging Ohio for a few weeks and, suddenly, he’s Robinson Crusoe.

PBS: Masterpiece: To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters: Blu-ray
PBS: Frontline: Divided States of America
PBS Kids: Wild Kratts: Panda-monium
Nickelodeon: Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir: It’s Ladybug
Unlike most BBC mini-series that wind up on PBS affiliates, the two-episode “Masterpiece” presentation “To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters” times in at two easy-on-the-eyes hours. Filmed mostly in ever-gorgeous Yorkshire, with the family’s home village of Haworth being used extensively, Sally Wainwright’s story offers an excellent representation of life around the moorland of scenic Penistone Hill in the 1840s. With the original Parsonage at Haworth not made available for filming, a dead-on replica of it was constructed there. The drama focuses on the relationship of the three Bronte sisters — Charlotte, Emily and Anne — and their artist brother, Branwell, at a critical juncture of the family’s history. With their father half-blind and Branwell struggling with addictions to alcohol, laudanum and opium, the sisters’ dreams of making a living as writers had yet to be realized. They dared not reveal the true identities of the pseudonymous brothers, Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell, but the time was drawing near when they might be required to do so. Wainright introduces the siblings as wildly imaginative children, their minds literally aflame with ideas. By the time they enter their 20s, the sisters’ precocious ambitions are weighed down by Branwell’s decline and their dad’s financial needs. Still, they can’t help but write and prey for a miracle. Finn Atkins, Chloe Pirrie and Charlie Murphy not only are able to capture the sisters’ strikingly different personalities, but they also mimic Branwell’s family portrait, from which he deleted his own image. The title is taken from a clergyman’s observation about Curren Bell’s ability to work in anonymity, “What author would be without the advantage of being able to walk invisible?” The Blu-ray adds background featurettes.

The two-part “Frontline” presentation, “Divided States of America,” examines how President Obama’s promise change and unity was derailed almost as soon as he was inaugurated, by the realities of race-based politics in Washington. As we now know, Republican congressmen vowed early on to cripple every initiative proposed by the White House, for as long as he would be in office, no matter how negotiable they might have been. The perception of Obama outside the capital changed drastically, as well, as he was blamed for his inability to deliver on pledges made during his campaign. Part Two examines racial tensions in America, the war for control of the GOP and the growing dysfunction in Washington, which led to the election of perceived outsider Donald Trump. Today, Trump is facing many of the same obstacles that stymied Obama, in reverse. It’s a provocative documentary, even as our memory of those hopeful days of yesteryear fade into despair.

This time around, in “Wild Kratts: Panda-monium,” kids are invited to join Martin Kratt and Chris Kratt as they learn about some of the amazing features of giant pandas, red pandas, golden pheasants and snowy owls. In these four adventures, the brothers save giant pandas from the evil Zach Varmitech, help to reunite a lost red panda and her mother and save animals captured in China from the villain Donita Donata.

Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir: It’s Ladybug” describes what happens when Paris is threatened by supervillains and our cartoon heroes are the city’s only hope! With the help of their magical pets, Ladybug and Cat Noir team up to outwit the forces of evil. Their biggest challenge, though, might be getting their alter egos Marinette and Adrien through junior high school.

The DVD Wrapup: Rogue One, Office Party, Three, Story of Sin, Actor Martinez and more

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: Blu-ray
If, like me, you were a tad confused about how Rogue One: A Star Wars Story would fit within the Star Wars mythos, especially since the franchise’s Mother Ship is currently between Episodes VII and VIII and two related novels, a soundtrack album and a video game also were being released in December. Moreover, “Rogue One” had been incorporated into YouTube’s “The Star Wars Show” and the ongoing “Lego Star Wars” series on Disney XD. Anyone who’s visited Disneyland lately can see the company’s commitment to the “Star Wars” franchise/brand by strolling past the former site of Big Thunder Ranch, which is giving way to a 14-acre mega-attraction, unofficially known as Star Wars Land. So, where does Rogue One: A Star Wars Story fit into the mix? In a nutshell, it is the first installment of the “Star Wars Anthology” series, set immediately before the events of the original Star Wars film. (Untitled “Anthology” standalones, including a Han Solo project, are set for 2018 and 2020.) Ironically, the story’s seed was planted way back in 1977, in the opening crawl of “Episode IV: A New Hope,” On it, quizzical audiences were advised that “Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star …” OK. Four decades later, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story would follow that group of rebels on their mission to steal the plans for the Death Star, or die trying, which, of course, didn’t happen. According to interviews included in the extensive bonus package, John Knoll, visual effects supervisor for the prequel trilogy at Industrial Light & Magic, pitched the idea for the film 10 years before its development began. After the Disney acquisition of Lucasfilm, in 2012, Knoll decided to re-pitch it, this time to his new boss, Kathleen Kennedy, who ran it up the flagpole at the newly combined company.

The first things longtime fans will notice is the absence of an updated crawl and an overture by a composer not named John Williams, although his aural fingerprints can be heard throughout the score. Buffs probably were already aware of the absence of Jedi in the cast of characters and the difference in narrative tone from the other episodes. Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) and co-writers Chris Weitz (Cinderella) and Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Indentity) have emphasized that “Rogue One” was conceived as a war story with a sometimes ambiguous moral code. Otherwise, almost everything that happens in the story would require a spoiler alert to summarize. Because the movie has passed the billion-dollar barrier, worldwide, I suspect that very few, if any diehard fans have yet to see “Rogue One.” So, let’s not ruin the surprises for the one or two people out there who’ve yet to enjoy them. Returnees should know that the Blu-ay presentation is excellent, from beginning to end and inside-out. The more sophisticated the home-theater setup, the better the experience will be.  That said, however, while “Rogue One” is available in 3D, new owners of 4K UHD players and monitors will be disappointed to learn that Disney/Buena Vista has decided, once again, to play the delay game. Collectors should know, as well, that Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Target and the Disney Store – surprise, surprise – offer the movie in exclusive packaging and slightly different bonus selections. None of the dozen making-of featurettes is longer than nine minutes, but they do add value to what already is a noteworthy addition to the franchise. I further suspect that commentary and longer featurettes will be added to the inevitable super-duper holiday edition.

Office Christmas Party: Unrated: Blu-ray
The unrated version of Office Christmas Party, which kept two directors and six writers from the unemployment lines, is five minutes longer than the theatrical edition (also enclosed), and eight, if you include deleted scenes. It contains a bit more of everything that warranted the original’s R-rating, but nothing terribly salacious. Among the things that offended the MPAA ratings board were several scenes with partial nudity, crude sexual references throughout, a scene in which a man drinks eggnog from a phallic-shaped portion of an ice sculpture, coarse language, a penis sculpted by a 3D-printing machine and more shots of “alcohol/drugs/smoking” than in all three Porky’s movies combined. In Germany, Norway, Netherlands and Sweden, however, anyone over the age of 12 was allowed entrance to the multiplex showing Office Christmas Party. Here, of course, kids under 17 would be required to drag along a parent or guardian or simply buy tickets for the PG-13 screening next-door. To be fair, though, most parents probably would agree with the MPAA on this one, especially in its unrated iteration. (Based on Office Christmas Party and Bad Santa 2, some impressionable youngsters might come to believe that holiday parties in Chicago really are this outrageous and degrading, and pray someday they get a job there, too.) All snarkiness aside, though, “OCP” is probably as good as things are going to get in the out-of-control-party subgenre, at least until someone dramatizes what goes on at a state dinner at Mar-a-Lago, with Bill Murray playing President Trump. The filmmakers were allotted a generous $45-million production money, most of which probably went to secure a cast of talented comic actors.

The setting is Chicago’s Zenodek company, a failing tech interest that takes up two floors in a Loop hi-rise. The office is run by Josh Parker (Jason Bateman) and party-hardy figurehead Clay Vanstone (T.J. Miller), who inherited the company from his fun-loving dad. His uptight sister, Carol Vanstone (Jennifer Aniston), was made CEO of the international corporation and has ordered Josh and Clay to spend the days leading up to Christmas, downsizing the Chicago office. She also demands that the annual holiday party be cancelled, along with bonuses, which Clay is loath to do. They might be able to save the company, but only if they can convince a major client, Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance), to send millions of dollars in business their way. Where better than at an orgy, where everyone will be on their worst behavior? Josh’s cohort, Tracey Hughes (Olivia Munn), has committed herself to sealing the deal, but it isn’t until Walter accidentally inhales a kilo of cocaine, mistakenly dumped in the snow-making machine, that the skids are sufficiently greased. Even so, when Carol’s flight is canceled at a snowbound O’Hare, she could still ruin everyone’s plans and holiday cheer. This includes an emergency run to a pimps-’n’-hos soiree, just down the street. Mayhem, of course, ensues. Directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck benefit from a supporting cast of funny actors: Kate McKinnon and Vanessa Bayer (“SNL”), Jillian Bell (“Workaholics”), Rob Corddry (“Ballers), Randall Park and Sam Richardson (“Veep”), Jamie Chung (“Gotham”), Da’Vine Joy Randolph (“This Is Us”), Andrew Leeds (“Bones”) and Jimmy Butler, of the Chicago Bulls. The Blu-ray adds commentary with the directors (on the theatrical disc); the background featurette, “Throwing an Office Christmas Party”; outtakes and alternate lines from various scenes; deleted scenes, not included in the extended version; and an alternate ending.

Three: Blu-ray
The Legend of Bruce Lee: Volume Two
Even by current standards, Johnnie To’s latest crime thriller, Three, is a departure from the norm. Set almost entirely inside the intensive-care unit of a bustling Hong Kong hospital, it pits a trio of completely different professionals against each other. Their paths cross in the emergency room after a desperate criminal is brought in with a bullet lodged in his head. The patient, Shun (Wallace Chung), shot himself to avoid being taken directly to jail after a blown heist. He knew he would be rushed to the hospital and given sanctuary until his gang was able to hear about his arrest and rescue him. Awaiting him is the headstrong surgeon Dr. Tong Qian (Zhao Wei), whose tireless pursuit of perfection has begun to backfire on her. She wants to remove the slug as soon as possible, but Shun violently resists her efforts. Waiting for Shun to be released is Chief Inspector Ken (Louis Koo), a dogged cop who sometimes ignores regulations to secure a conviction. The criminal has given the doctor a phone number to call, but Ken has forbidden her from doing so, in fear of a bloody escape attempt. As these three bump heads, everyone else is required to act as if nothing unusual is going on around them. It precipitates some unlikely interaction between bed-ridden patients, nurses and doctors on their rounds. The director compresses six hours of time into 90 tension-filled minutes, with a stunning slow-motion climax that Sam Peckinpah might have envied. Three works best as a diversion, akin to a parlor trick, as To makes us wait for the ending we all know is coming, but surprises us with its ferocity. The Blu-ray adds featurettes, “Making-Of: Master Director Johnnie To” and “Three Complex Characters.”

In the 40-plus years since the untimely death of Bruce Lee, filmmakers far and wide have stood in line to create biopics that have attempted to interpret/exploit his legacy. Most of them have distorted the facts to suit the tastes and gullibility of their audience. Others were made according the stipulations imposed by family members. It wasn’t until 1993, when Rob Cohen’s Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story became the first to acknowledge the influence of Wing Chun master Ip Man, that the real Bruce Lee saga began to emerge. Kar Wai Wong’s The Grandmaster and Donnie Yen’s Ip Man series – a new one arrives next year, we’re told – gave serious fans of martial arts a reason to cheer. Produced by China Central Television and exec-produced by daughter Shannon Lee, “The Legend of Bruce Lee” played out in 50 episodes on the CCTV network and was syndicated around the world. It starred Hong Kong actor Danny Chan and American actress Michelle Lang as Lee’s wife, Linda Lee Cadwell. Lionsgate compressed the series into a 183-minute straight-to-DVD film that satisfied almost no one. Released on November 1, 2016, the first volume of Well Go USA’s “Legend of Bruce Lee” times in at 451 minutes, while Volume Two covers the 480-minutes of Episodes 11-20. This one opens with Lee suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of an older master and his determination to combine disciplines to create a new system and school, based in Seattle. Lang’s part expands as Lee suffers a serious back injury – a rival fighter assaults him with a log … true story — and she devotes herself to his recovery. Because the series was designed to appeal primarily to the vast Chinese audience, it isn’t surprising that the overtly melodramatic and mythic elements dominate the narrative. Too often, the lame English dubbing – curiously, the non-Asian actors are made to sound like characters in an anime — interferes with the narrative flow. The fighting and training scenes are good enough to keep hard-cord fans interested, though.

The Story of Sin: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Property Is No Longer a Theft: Special Edition: Blu-ray
In revealing his list of the ten-best animated films of all time, Terry Gilliam described Walerian Borowczyk as “a twisted man whose films were infused with a unique cruelty and weirdness.” I’m sure he meant that as a compliment. His obituary in the New York Times opened with, “Walerian Borowczyk (was) an internationally known Surrealist filmmaker, described variously by critics as a genius, a pornographer and a genius who also happened to be a pornographer.” The Polish-born Borowczyk, who also spent much of his career in France, was all of that and, as we’ve begun to learn, a whole lot more. In 2015, Arrow Video released brilliantly restored Blu-ray editions of Immoral Tales, The Beast and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, three of his most notorious films, all packed with illuminating bonus material. Later this month, Olive Films is sending out “Walerian Borowczyk: Short Films,” Blanche, Goto Isle of Love and Theatre of Mr. & Mrs. Kabal. Apart from being a sexual provocateur, Borowczyk’s features are distinguished by their exquisite period look, attention to details and integration of classical music into situations one might think wouldn’t support it. The Story of Sin was released in France in 1975, the same year as The Beast opened in Poland. While the latter remains one of the cinema’s more outrageous re-conceptualizations of the “La Belle et la Bête” fantasy, Story of Sin is a thoughtful and beautifully constructed adaptation of Stefan Żeromski’s 1908 novel about a young woman’s picaresque quest to reconnect with the man who took her virginity and disappeared. As a boarder in the home of Ewa Pobratynska (Grazyna Dlugolecka), Lukasz Niepolomski (Jerzy Zelnik) promised to divorce his wife and make a proper lady of her. After being refused a divorce in Catholic Poland, Lukasz travels to Rome, ostensibly to seek an annulment, leaving Ewa behind to struggle making ends after being kicked out of her home. In Warsaw, Ewa is approached by friends and wealthy acquaintances of Lukasz, who provide her with information on his whereabouts and enough money to tempt her to follow them around Europe in search of him.

Finally, while still professing her love for Lukasz, who’s a bit of a conman, Ewa succumbs to life in the Victorian Era fast lane. Lessons are learned and lives are ruined. Borowczyk’s gift for period staging makes the journey – from sumptuous spas and resorts, to sordid brothels – a visual treat. As Ewa, the stunning Dlugolecka is required to spend much of her time in the nude, although almost all of it is presented in ways that cover her nether regions. Lovers of turn-of-the-century erotica surely will find much here to savor. In addition to a recent interview with the delightfully candid actress, the crisply restored Arrow edition offers a great deal of evidence to substantiate Gilliam’s admiration for Borowczyk’s animated films, nearly a dozen of which are included here. They’re wonderful. Also included are an introduction by poster designer Andrzej Klimowski; featurettes on Borowczyk’s career in Poland and innovative use of classical music; a reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Klimowski; and, in the first pressing, a fully illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new and archival writing, including an exclusive interview with the producer of Story of Sin, director Stanislaw Rozewicz, a text by art historian and one-time Borowczyk collaborator, Szymon Bojko, and excerpts from Borowczyk s memoirs, presented in English for the first time.

The inelegantly phrased title of co-writer/director Elio Petri’s Property Is No Longer a Theft can be traced to a slogan coined by French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in his 1840 book, “What is Property? Or, an Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government.” As a onetime committed Communist Party member – he quit in 1956, after the suppression of the Hungarian uprising – Petri would have been aware of the “property is theft” concept, which even was questioned by Karl Marx and German philosopher Max Stirner. Here, most of thieving is done in reaction to those capitalists who would argue that property is a gift, handed down by God himself. It’s a dark comedy, informed by giallo and radical politics of 1970s Italy. “Theft” is the final entry in Petri’s “Trilogy of Neurosis,” which also included the Oscar-winning Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and Lulu the Tool (a.k.a., “The Working Class Goes to Heaven”). The former tackled the corrupting nature of power, while the latter questions where a worker fits in a world in which he can’t even trust his trade union. Here, Total (Flavio Bucci) is a low-level bank clerk who’s allergic to money, even though it’s his job to handle it every day. His father raised him to believe that property was to be respected, if not worshipped. His mind is changed when he is refused a loan request, moments after a dishonest businessman blackmails his boss into giving him an exorbitant loan.

The customer, known only as the Butcher (Ugo Tognazzi), endears himself to bank employees by handing out packages of prime cuts of beef. If he pulls his money out of the bank, the boss knows it could ruin him. That kind of arrogance makes the Butcher the perfect target for Total’s newly invigorated anti-capitalism. After quitting his job, Total devotes himself to tormenting the Butcher, stealing his possessions one-by-one, starting with the man’s meat cleaver and mistress (Daria Nicolodi), who bears an uncanny resemblance to Morticia Addams. Eventually, the former clerk begins stealing from thieves, who go about their business without the benefit of a political agenda. (Total only steals property, not money.) “Theft” is enhanced by some hallucinogenic visuals and a complementary score by Ennio Morricone. The nice thing is that viewers need not be politically left of Bernie Sanders to get a kick out of it. The newly restored Blu-ray adds fresh interviews with Bucci, producer Claudio Mancini and make-up artist Pierantonio Mecacci; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Nathanael Marsh; and, with the first pressing, an illustrated booklet containing new writing on the film by Camilla Zamboni.

Youth in Oregon
It’s difficult to imagine a comedic premise – dark or light – more challenging than the one that informs Joel David Moore and writer Andrew Eisen’s Youth in Oregon. In it, Billy Crudup plays Brian Gleason, the son-in-law of 80-year-old Raymond Engersol (Frank Langella), who insists upon traveling from New York to Oregon to take advantage of the state’s Death with Dignity Act. Raymond doesn’t look particularly ill, but he’s already undergone one excruciating operation on his heart and doesn’t want to go under the knife again, even if the surgery could delay an inevitable second heart attack. Tellingly, he breaks the news to his incredulous family on his birthday. Raymond’s wife, Estelle (Mary Kay Place), wants to tag along, if only to help Brian try to talk him out of going through with the euthanasia. Brian’s wife (Christina Applegate) is unable to make the trip, because their daughter (Nicola Peltz) is experiencing boyfriend problems and leaving her alone is out of the question. Estelle plans to break the tedium by remaining high or unconscious on pills and booze. No sooner does Brian put the SUV in gear than Raymond puts on his favorite CD of bird songs. Already, viewers know that they’re in for a long ride, because the codger isn’t listening to their arguments – he’s already done all the necessary homework – and he’s intent on making amends with his estranged gay son (Josh Lucas) along the way. Brian also decides, while they’re in the neighborhood, to swing northward to Montana to visit his own college-age son, who informs them of his decision to drop out of school. He thinks that grandpa is doing the admirable thing and shouldn’t be talked out of it. There’s humor here, folks, but it’s the kind that sneaks up on you. The punch to the heart comes at the end, but not in the way we’ve been led to believe it will arrive. Needless to say, Youth in Oregon isn’t for everyone. As usual, Langella is terrific as a frequently unlikeable character in a difficult situation for himself, his family and the audience.

We Don’t Belong Here
If Peer Pedersen’s debut drama We Don’t Belong Here somehow landed on a double-bill with Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, management might consider handing out samples of Prozac and Zoloft with every bag of popcorn … if not complimentary whiskey and morphine. Then, at least, viewers could be on the same wavelength as the desperate characters in both movies. This isn’t to say that We Don’t Belong Here deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the O’Neill classic, just that you wouldn’t want to see it after being fired from your job or dumped by a lover. As usual, Catherine Keener is extremely convincing as the tightly wound matriarch of a very messed up family, living in a posh suburb of Boston. Also good is the late Anton Yelchin – in one of his final performances – as Nancy Green’s only son, Max, a recently institutionalized drug addict and survivor of a suicide attempt. His sisters Elisa, Lily and Madeline (Riley Keough, Kaitlyn Dever, Annie Starke) may not be as fragile as Max, but they also qualify as damaged goods. While her kids tread on wafer-thin ice, Nancy attempts to hold her shit together long enough to make it through a party for high-society hens at her home. Good luck on that one, mom. The cast also includes Maya Rudolph, as Nancy’s BFF and secret lover; Molly Shannon, Cary Elwes, Justin Chatwin and Michelle Hurd, as various dealers, enablers, shrinks and other unstable adults. Everything that could possibly go wrong, does. Trivia fanatics should note that Annie Stark is the daughter of actress Glenn Close and producer John H. Starke; Riley Keough is Elvis’ granddaughter; and Rudolph’s mother was singer Minnie Ripperton.

Actor Martinez
In the world of independent filmmaking, there are pictures that look unpolished because budgets were tight and the production team lacked the experience and/or equipment to slicken it to studio standards. And, lots of us like them that way. There are other indie films that push the boundaries of the experimental envelope and are less concerned with audience acceptance than that of their peers. Depending on the eyes of the beholder, they can either be wonderful or horrible. Mike Ott and Nathan Silver’s latest brainteaser, Actor Martinez, is exactly the kind of movie that finds lots of traction at festivals, but struggles to be seen and reviewed outside of them. Depending on which press release you believe, the filmmakers went to Denver to find an aspiring actor around whom they could build a faux documentary or they were hired by aspiring actor and full-time computer tech Arthur Martinez to collaborate on a film that would showcase his skills. Does it matter? Yes and no. At first glance, it’s the former. That’s because, at first glance, it looks like a mockumentary, with delusional characters who might have been recruited from a Salvation Army superstore. While articulate and dedicated to his craft, Martinez looks as if he could find plenty of work as an extra in a movie set in a factory or as a member of the star’s bowling team. That isn’t intended as an insult, just an observation. A world-class know-it-all, Martinez is allowed an inordinate amount of time arguing with the directors. When they decide to spike the action by bringing in a working actress (Lindsay Burdge), who was chosen because she looks like Martinez’ ex-wife, things really go haywire. Actor Martinez is very weird and, if intentional, borderline cruel. That ambiguity probably is what endeared it to festival audiences and a goodly number of critics. The DVD adds the short film, “Riot”; festival Q&A panels at the Denver and Tribeca Film Festivals; and deleted scenes. For the record, Martinez has since appeared in four short films.

Cooking at the World’s End
For gourmands who’ve graduated to the next level – planning vacations according to star ratings in the Michelin Guide — Cooking at the World’s End should qualify as a must-see. There are enough great restaurants in Spain’s easy-to-get-to locations to keep visitors satiated for year. Getting to Galicia, on the northwestern coast of the Iberian Peninsula, requires the kind of energy many non-European travelers could put to good use eating in great restaurants in Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia and the nearby Basque country, where four of the recently announced top-50 restaurants in the world are located. (Catalonia also had two winners.) Alberto Baamonde Bello’s documentary describes what began to happen when, in 2003, nine young Galician chefs combined their talents and knowledge to transform the cuisine of their region. Along with a new generation of producers and farmers, the Grupo Nove developed a theory of gastronomy grounded in traditions, attached to the land and the product, using radically new cooking techniques. Today, Grupo Nove is composed of 20 chefs and in a short period of time, has accounted for 8 Michelin stars, 19 Soles Repsols awards and international recognition. Among the people interviewed here are Pepe Solla, Xosé Cannas, Yayo Daporta, Beatriz Sotelo and Javier Olleros.

Delphine Lehericey’s sexually charged coming-of-age drama, Puppylove, has not, as far as I know, been shown in theaters in the U.S. It’s been exhibited at several prestigious festivals in Europe and been considered, at least, for awards there. It deals with situations not uncommon in Hollywood and indie films, but rarely depicted with the same visual integrity. Until Film Movement’s release of the DVD edition of the 2013 release, it’s likely that distributors didn’t see any upside in courting the same kind of controversy – however, marketable – that greeted such pictures as Lolita (both versions), Baby Doll, Pretty Baby and Blue Lagoon (both with Brooke Shields), The Crush, Birth, American Beauty, Hounddog and Fat Girl. In all of these films, underage actresses, their body doubles or characters were either seduced or compromised by older men. That taboo was reversed in the 1980s in such coming-of-age comedies as Class, My Tutor, Private Lessons, In the Mood and They’re Playing with Fire. Because statutory rape isn’t considered laughing matter or particularly romantic in most places outside California and France, standards were imposed on the industry here forbidding nude scenes in which underage actors are involved or present during production; depictions of rape or sexual-related violence, without the presence of parents and child-labor reps during the shoot; and use of adult body doubles in scenes involving underage characters in sexual situations. Even the porn industry has conformed with such laws, going so far as to display disclaimers and addresses of its records keepers. The studios will push the limits of the laws on occasion, but only sparingly and on the advice of counsel.

In Puppylove, Diane (Solène Rigot) is a 14-year-old loner, who juggles looking after her little brother, Marc, with a turbulent relationship with her single father, Christian (Vincent Perez). She prefers to dress conservatively and shuns makeup. Her polar opposite is Julia (Audrey Bastien), a newcomer to Diane’s school and neighborhood. She exudes independence, spontaneity and an adventurous spirit everything that Diane seems to be missing. They form a somewhat uneasy mentor/student relationship, based on a shared interest in the piano, substantiating each other’s alibis, pop music and dancing. While Diane is overtly hostile to her father’s advice and girlfriends, Julia appears to have set her sights on seducing him. Again, hardly an unusual setup in mainstream movies. The closer the girls become, the more willing Diane is to experiment with her inhibitions. We realize how dangerous this might be when she responds to the mostly innocent, if belittling harassment from male classmates by strolling into the boys’ locker room with only a towel to protect her modesty. It ceases to be amusing when she drops the towel and allows herself to be ogled by the startled adolescents. Lehericey ratchets up the sexual tension when, on separate occasions, the girls convince their parents to bring them along on weekend retreats. If we were experiencing Puppylove first as a novel, the depictions wouldn’t be nearly as upsetting. On the screen, however, the nudity alone is enough to give most viewers pause. It caused me to check out the ages of the actresses – not included in their resumes – if for no other reason than to ease my own misgivings about staying with the movie. (Both were in their late-teens or early-20s at the time of production.)  That said, I came away from the movie feeling that the sexual intimacy was treated honestly, as was the girls’ behavior. The men’s willingness to suspend their disbelief over their ages is never in question, either. (No obvious references to the continuing Roman Polanski saga were necessary.) The unexpected ending also worked. Francophile viewers should find plenty here to enjoy, but only if they’re not easily shocked.

Bob Dylan: In His Own Words
It’s only taken five months for Bob Dylan to make his way to Stockholm, where he finally received his Nobel Award in literature. He was in the neighborhood at the time, so, he must have figured, why not? It was a closed ceremony, as opposed to the one in which Patti Smith stood in for him, leaving the gathered media at a loss for his words. The one juicy detail revealed, by a photographer with a long lens, was that he arrived wearing a black hoodie and brown boots. Even at his most loquacious, the Bard of the Mesabi Iron Range has confounded reporters attempting to get more than a handful of words out of him, one or two of which might reveal something about his opinions on extemporaneous poetry to why he began to wear mime makeup on the Rolling Thunder tour. What you hear is what you get. It explains why I.V. Media’s Bob Dylan: In His Own Words – despite its many technical imperfections – will be must-viewing in the homes of Dylanologists. It includes 100 minutes of filmed interviews – some “rare,” others not — with Dylan, primarily when he was on the road outside the U.S. and probably had nothing better to do. Although never completely forthcoming, he gives them the benefit of answers that probably pleased their editors, anyway. And, he does so without appearing hostile, superior or purposefully ambiguous. At one point he even takes the time to sketch a portrait of the reporter interviewing him, and it’s quite good. The downside comes in the producers’ lack of concern over the viewers’ inability to cut throw background noise, the need for subtitles and identification of names and places. Most of them took place during the 1970-80s, but also included are the excellent Ed Bradley interview for “60 Minutes” and his bizarre acceptance speech at the Grammys. As usual, beginners probably will wonder what all the fuss was about.

Tank 432: Blu-ray
Veteran UK “camera operator” Nick Gillespie has chosen for his debut as writer/director a claustrophobic thriller, in which a small group British mercenaries, their hooded prisoners and a victim of gas poisoning are attacked by mysterious forces represented by a figure in the distance, wearing a gas mask. After taking refuge inside an abandoned M41Walker Bulldog tank, left standing in a field overlooking a lovely English valley, they discover to their dismay that the door is jammed and all but one wounded comrade are stuck inside the cramped, immobile vehicle. While Gillespie plays with themes of isolation, paranoia and combat insanity – the wounded soldier (Michael Smiley) taunts the tank as if it were a bull in a plaza de toros in Spain – viewers may stop caring about their fate. Tank 432 (a.k.a., “Belly of the Bulldog”) only begins to pick up speed when one of the men inside manages to hot wire it and kick it into gear. The fact that Gillespie apprenticed under executive producer Ben Wheatley (Kill List, High-Rise) should lure fans of the pressure-cooker subgenre, especially for its unforgiving atmosphere and well-sustained mystery.

The first credit registered under the name of Zurich-born filmmaker Alain Gsponer on is a three-minute animated short, “Heidi,” that asked the musical question: Does the image of Switzerland as “Heidiland,” which so many Swiss have helped to spread to the far corners of the Earth, correspond to any kind of reality?” His latest release is a feature-length Heidi that’s far more traditional and almost two hours longer. It’s the most recent of about 20 filmed and televised versions of Johanna Spyri’s beloved 1881 children’s novel, with the most famous being the 1937 musical, directed by Allan Dwan and starring Shirley Temple and Jean Hersholt. Gsponer’s adaptation stars 10-year-old Anuk Steffen, alongside the great Swiss-born actor Bruno Ganz (Wings of Desire) and a very credible herd of goats. It was shot on location in the Alps, mainly in the region of Grisons, including Bergün and Rheinwald, and has been dubbed into English. And, yes, Heidi easily qualifies as fun for the whole family.

The Best of Tim Conway
PBS: Dead Reckoning: War, Crime and Justice from WWII to the War on Terror
PBS: The Talk: Race in America
Smithsonian: Sports Detectives: Season 1
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the start of “The Carol Burnett Show” on CBS. It feels as if the folks at Time Warner/WEA and, before that, Columbia House and Gunthy-Renker, have been anticipating the landmark occasion for most of the last 17 years. The highlights and seasonal compilations first were made available through direct-response infomercials and, now, through Internet and retail outlets. “The Best of Tim Conway” appears to be the first stand-alone collection dedicated to the gifted comic actor’s contributions to the show, which has been in syndication on various cable outlets for most of the last half-century. Most fans of the show probably think Conway and his trademark characters were there from Day One. In fact, he was only made a regular performer, as opposed to an occasional guest, in Season Nine. Although the material featuring Conway in this 153-minute disc is funny, there isn’t enough of it to justify the title and, for no good reason, there are too many times when Conway isn’t part of what’s being shown on screen. That caveat noted, the highlights include Conway’s “Oldest Man,” as the world’s slowest head of a racetrack pit crew; “The Virgin Prince, in which he’s a “swishbuckling” hero with an appetite for flies and destruction; Conway’s take on the Lone Ranger; the hilarious Conway/Korman sketches, “The Dentist” and “Man’s Best Friend”; and “Mr. Tudball,” who takes leave of his senses while showing compassion for his dimwitted secretary, Mrs. Wiggins. The DVD includes outtakes.

With this week’s news of the Syrian government’s complicity in the deaths of dozens of men, women and children in a gas attack makes PBS’ “Dead Reckoning: War, Crime and Justice from WWII to the War on Terror” essential viewing for anyone who cares about how wars are conducted and what constitutes a crime against humanity. Before the Allied victory in World War II, such questions were rhetorical, at best. The willingness of Japanese and German leaders to condone and encourage even the most hideous atrocities against non-combatants and prisoners-of-war forced the victorious governments to seek justice in the name of the victims of the Holocaust and other mass murders. Most of the worst offenders were rounded up and forced to face the music for crimes that hitherto had no names. Others, like Adolph Eichmann and Claus Barbie, found new homes in South America, protected by local authorities and comrades still in governmental positions in Germany. Barbie worked for the CIA while he was being hunted by French police and Nazi hunters. Our fear of communism allowed Japan’s royal family to escape prosecution for its complicity in the crimes committed by insanely loyal Japanese soldiers and officers. Atrocities committed by Soviet troops in Poland were ignored, because they were on the winning team. As time passed and genocides continued around the world, it became increasingly more difficult to bring the monsters to justice. The world’s superpowers could barely agree on what constituted genocide, let alone which of their proxies should pay for atrocities committed in their interests. The World Court has tried leaders of insurgent movements in Bosnia and Africa, while others have evaded justice. The big shots who should have been held responsible for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam were cleared, leaving platoon leader Lieutenant William Calley Jr. to take the heat, which amounted to serving only three and a half years under house arrest. The documentary inquiry begs the question as to whether Syrian President Bashar Assad will ever be arrested and tried for the gassing of civilians and other crimes in the country’s civil war. If “Dead Reckoning” doesn’t break your heart, nothing will. He’s more likely to end up in a condo in Moscow or Tehran than on trial at the Hague.

The Talk: Race in America” is a two-hour documentary about a subject that, even two years ago, was easily ignored by the mainstream media, politicians and law-enforcement officials. Complaints about police brutality were nothing new and neither were accusations of unjustified killings of minorities in police custody. In most cases, the police were given the benefit of the doubt by grand juries and investigative bodies within the departments. That all changed in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by a lumpen auxiliary cop, George Zimmerman, who stood behind Florida’s stand-your-ground law and was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter. The verdict was largely seen as business-as-usual in a state where such miscarriages of justice happen all the time. When similar shootings of unarmed suspects began to happen in Missouri, Baltimore, Cleveland, South Carolina, Washington and Los Angeles, trigger-happy cops no longer were able to hide behind their badges, spawning the “Black Live Matter” was born. Citizens armed with cellphone cameras captured any behavior they judged to be suspicious, police were forced to wear cameras as part of their uniforms and ride in patrol cars equipped with them, as well. The title, “The Talk: Race in America,” refers specifically to the increasingly common conversations that began taking place in homes and communities across the country, between parents of color and their children. Sons, especially, were advised about how to behave if they were ever stopped by the police in driving-while-black situations or while strolling through predominantly white neighborhood where paranoia runs deep. African-American and Hispanic celebrities related stories of their own about being stopped while driving within minutes of the homes, even in ritzy neighborhoods. Growing up in fear of the people entrusted with protecting all Americans is a heck of a civics lesson.

Also timely is the Smithsonian Channel’s “Sports Detectives,” which might have joined the search for Tom Brady’s Super Bowl jersey if the theft had happened a couple of years earlier than last February. The reason O.J. Simpson’s cooling his heels in a Nevada prison isn’t because he killed his wife and a friend who made the mistake of following her home that fateful night, but for attempting to recover memorabilia he claims was stolen from him. The documentary series reminds us that these incidents were anything but isolated and rare. Some of the most coveted and valuable treasures from history’s greatest games and players are missing or misidentified. In Season One, private investigator Kevin Barrows and sports reporter Lauren Gardner travel the country in search of Muhammad Ali’s missing Olympic gold medal, Jim Craig’s “Miracle on Ice” flag, Dale Earnhardt’s first race car, the saddle worn by Triple Crown-winner Secretariat, Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game ball, a bat used by Lou Gehrig and other valuable items.

The DVD Wrapup: 20th Century Women, Silence, Just a Sigh, Art Bastard, Blow-Up, MST3K and more

Thursday, March 30th, 2017

20th Century Women: Blu-ray
Writer-director Mike Mills has said that the protagonist of his third feature — Dorothea, played so knowingly by Oscar-nominee Annette Bening – is based on his mother, a woman who probably couldn’t exist outside of a few zip codes on the west side of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Berkeley and Marin County. Mills was raised in the People’s Republic of Berkeley and 20th Century Women is set in a section of Santa Barbara commonly known as “The American Riviera,” and not just for its idyllic weather, lush hillsides and million-dollar views that start at $10 million. It would be misleading to describe Dorothea as a single mother who runs a “boarding house,” with her adolescent son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Set in 1979, they live in the kind of the old Santa Barbara domicile that qualifies as a fixer-upper, but most people would consider to be walk-in condition. Her boarders include a 24-year-old “free-spirited” punk photographer, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), whose recent bout with cervical cancer has brought warnings against conceiving children; William (Billy Crudup), a post-hippie handyman, whose abilities run from fixing cars and doing carpentry, to holding up his end of the bargain in countless one-night stands; and Julie (Elle Fanning), an introspective 17-year-old flower child, who, after sneaking out of the house she shares with her shrink mom, spends her nights in Jamie’s bedroom, where they share a Platonic relationship.

exc It’s her best performance since The Kids Are All Right, which 20th Century Women kinda, sorta resembles in a SoCal sort of way. She gets terrific support from Gerwig, Fanning and Crudup, all of whom represent specific types of people who might have sought refuge in laid-back Santa Barbara. America was morphing from Jimmy Carter’s reasoned, gospels-informed approach to governing into the I’m-in-it-for-me Reagan juggernaut, so where better to lay low? Mills’ revelatory post-script rings true, as well. The Blu-ray adds revealing commentary with Mills and the featurettes “Making 20th Century Women” and “20th Century Cast.”

Silence: Blu-ray
Even more than gangsters and pasta, the thread that runs through Martin Scorsese’s entire resume is the role played by conscience and religion in the decisions made by his diverse array of characters. Silence joins such obvious examples as Kundun, a film about the life of the Dalai Lama; The Last Temptation of Christ, which portrays Jesus Christ as a man, first, and deity second; and Mean Streets, in which an aspiring gangster (Harvey Keitel) struggles to reconcile his faith in the Church and the realities of the family business. A sharp eye will find characters dealing with issues related to faith in many other Scorsese films. Scorsese has said that he considers himself to be a lapsed Catholic – perhaps, even, excommunicated for his divorces – but not someone who’s rejected Christianity or the inevitably of sin and redemption. (He’s also publicly discussed his own practice of Transcendental Meditation.) Before Silence opened here, Scorsese screened it at the Vatican, before an audience that included 400 Jesuit clerics and their guests. The film is based on Shusaku Endo’s 1996 novel of the same title. Both are fictionalized accounts of the persecution of Christians and Jesuit missionaries in 17th Century Japan. As such, it immediately recalls James Clavell’s novel and mini-series, “Shōgun”; Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe; and Roland Joffé’s The Mission. Those Jesuits did get around. Anyone raised Roman Catholic has heard dozens of stories about Christian martyrs and the trials of missionaries as they attempted to convert people to the faith. By wearing a cross around your neck, you, too, could become a soldier for Christ and, as such, someone who would sacrifice their own lives in His name. No film that I’ve seen, outside of Sunday School indoctrination, has delivered the same message as succinctly and persuasively as Silence.

The story follows two 17th Century Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), who travel from the Portuguese colony of Macau to Japan to locate their missing mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). We’ve already been introduced to Ferreira as he’s being forced to watch the torture and slow deaths, through crucifixion, of newly converted Japanese. They arrive on islands in the Nagasaki prefecture during the time of Kakure Kirishitan (“Hidden Christians”), which followed the defeat of the Shimabara Rebellion of Catholics against the Tokugawa shogunate. They receive a warm welcome from the peasants desperate to receive the sacraments and be guided in the faith. At the same time, the priests must avoid contact with a samurai weeding out suspected Christians. The Inquisitor senses the arrival of the priests and hopes to draw them out by torturing villagers who reveal their beliefs by refusing to step on a fumi-e (a carved image of Christ). Even after Rodrigues advises them to do so, some peasants still can’t bring themselves to blaspheme the image. They are crucified on the beach, against the rising tide, and refused a Christian burial. The priests will go their separate ways, leaving Silence to focus – temporarily, at least – on Rodriguez’ continuing mission, arrest and the mental torture of watching peasants suffer for his refusal to renounce the Church. It would be easy for the shogun to kill Rodrigues, but not advance the greater glory of causing another priest to commit apostasy, like Ferreira, who’s bound to turn up sooner or later. Silence is an exquisitely made film, which benefits from being shot in a spectacular area of Taiwan and world-class acting. At 161 minutes, though, it’s probably too long slog for viewers who don’t care much for Roman Catholic history. (Opening with something from the Shimabara Rebellion, instead of the crucifixions, might have captured their attention.) It did very poorly at the box office and Scorsese was further rebuffed by nearly being shut out of the Oscars. (Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto received the only nomination.) The featurette, “Martin Scorsese’s Journey Into Silence” squeezes a lot of information into 25 minutes.

Just a Sigh
After spending the last few years languishing on a shelf, Jérôme Bonnell’s newly released romantic drama Just a Sigh should give fans of Gabriel Byrne a reason to smile, anyway. A bit too tentative for viewers expecting a large dollop of comedy with their love stories, its stillness and time-release intimacy reminded me of Before Sunrise. Alix (Emmanuelle Devos) and Doug (Gabriel Byrne) are traveling from Calais to Paris, in the same train car, a few rows separated from each other. They exchange furtive glances, but are blocked from an impromptu meeting when another traveler provides him with the directions he was hoping to get from her. Doug is an Irish professor in Paris to attend the funeral of a friend, while Alix is in the city to audition for a movie and, as fate would have it, attend the same funeral. After the service, mourners gather at a local café, where they share even more glances. This time, however, it’s possible to feel the heat being exchanged between them. After being cock-blocked by another well-meaning fellow, the two will-be lovers devise a way to get away from the crowd and meet in Doug’s hotel room. For a couple in their mid- to late-40s, Alix and Doug do a pretty good impression of love-struck teenagers. Possessed with an allusive beauty, Devos may not be a known quantity on this side of the Atlantic, but she’s a five-time César Awards nominee, winning twice for performances in In the Beginning (2009) and Read My Lips (2001). Byrne, of course, is a legitimate leading man of the old school. Even at the ripe old ages of 66 and 52, they make a fit pair and the love scenes are hot. The drama comes from Alix having used up the batteries in her cell phone, being overdrawn at the ATM and being unable to hook up with someone we assume is an old boyfriend. Still in mourning, Doug simply is trying to extend the moments of blissful intimacy, while she tries to decide whether she’ll make the last train back to Calais or wait to re-connect with her boyfriend. It’s possible that they’ll get together, again, but, as was the case in Before Sunrise, we’re left with no assurances.

Art Bastard
It’s been a long time between documentaries for journeyman editor Victor Kanefsky (Bloodsucking Freaks). His directorial credits are limited to Art Bastard and 1978’s Just Crazy About Horses, whose lasting memory is a graphic depiction of the mating habits of champion Thoroughbreds. Here, Art Bastard once again takes on the rituals of the rich and famous, this time through the eyes of a bitingly satirical artist whose unwillingness to compromise with the hidebound gallery and museum establishment has cost him dearly. Now 76, Robert Cenedella has challenged the system with his scabrously funny and fantastical paintings of life in New York City, especially within the realms of celebrity, politics and commerce. A student, protégé and friend of German artist George Grosz, Cenedella expresses his personal visions of contemporary American life in paintings that recall Pieter Brueghel, George Bellows, Marcel Duchamp, Honore Daumier and William Hogarth. I might throw into that mix Hieronymus Bosch and Mad magazine. About his work and unwillingness to go along with the commercial flow, he’s said, “You can bastardize everything else in your life, but if you compromise your art, why be an artist?”

His commissions include works for the Bacardi Corp., Absolut Vodka, a theater piece for Tony Randall and two paintings for the Le Cirque 2000 Restaurant in New York and Mexico City. He may be best known, however, for the controversy surrounding a 1988 one-man show at Saatchi & Saatchi’s New York headquarters, in which a painting of a crucified Santa Claus was removed before the show opened. In December, 1997, “Santa on the Cross” was displayed for the second time in public in a front window of the Art Students League of New York. It is the institution from which Cenedella was educated – after being expelled from the city’s High School for the Arts – and still teaches. Among those interviewed in this lively, 82-minute film are Cenedella’s wife, Liz; his sister Joan; TV critic Marvin Kitman, evidently a friend of his; Richard Armstrong, director of the Guggenheim Museum; art appraiser Paul Zirler; and Ed McCormack, managing editor of Gallery & Studio Magazine. In an unusual gesture, the end credits include a slide show of every painting used in the film – even those by other artists — complete with full identifications. Since the completion of Art Bastard, Cenedella was commissioned to create “Fín del Mundo,” a triptych that “captures the chaos surrounding Donald Trump’s march to the White House.” It’s worth looking up on the Internet, even if it didn’t prevent the clownish mogul from being elected.

Blow-Up: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
In 1966, Michelangelo Antonioni was already famous around the world for creating films about the alienation, neuroses and the “existential ennui” affecting Italians, who, while enjoying the fruits of the country’s transformation from a poor, mainly rural nation into a global industrial power, also sacrificed traditional values and historical identity. In his series on “modernity and its discontents” — L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), L’Eclisse (1962), Il deserto rosso (1964) — the characters represent an urban bourgeoisie unable to cope intellectually with its own good fortune. Although two of the three chapters of I Vinti (1953) were shot outside Italy — in Paris and London — Blow-Up was Antonioni’s first entirely English-language film and the first completely shot outside Italy. The interviews included in Criterion’s splendid supplemental package describe the director’s obsession with nailing the details of what a single day in the life of his successful London photojournalist and fashion photographer, Thomas (David Hemmings), might be like. He picked the brains of  London’s most prominent shooters, models, architects, designers, artists and scene makers, even going so far as to cast several of them — Reg Wilkins, Veruschka, Jill Kennington, the Yardbirds (Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Keith Relf), Janet Street-Porter, among others – and incorporate their art into the overall design. To create a feeling of hyperrealism, Antonioni spray-painted streets, trees, grass and houses to the shades and textures he desired. And, for all that, Blow-Up’s box-office success could be credited in large part to Thomas’ steamy session with Veruschka and the playful romp with aspiring teen models (Jane Birkin, Gillian Hills) in the rolls of background paper in his studio, which actually belonged to photographer John Cowan. Today, of course, that oh-so-controversial glimpse of pubic hair is ridiculously brief and about as sensual as the propeller Thomas purchases from an antique shop.

Antonioni uses Thomas to show us how “the experience of the protagonist is not a sentimental nor an amorous one, but rather, one regarding his relationship with the world, with the things he finds in front of him.” After spending the night inside a flophouse, where he has taken pictures for a book of editorial-art photos, Thomas fills the next 24 hours transitioning from Victorian London to Swinging London. Between fashion shoots, he chances upon a couple embracing on a grassy plateau in Maryon Park. It isn’t until he’s confronted by the woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), who demands the roll of film, that he begins to think that his photos might contain something more than a cheap voyeuristic thrill. Indeed, when they are developed, enlarged, hung from a beam in his studio and enlarged again, Thomas senses that he might have captured a murder in progress. Jane’s willingness to trade something of herself for the negatives convinces him of that. When he returns to the park, however, nothing is there, except some crushed grass. The idea here is that, “By developing with enlargers … things emerge that we probably don’t see with the naked eye. (Thomas), who is not a philosopher, wants to see things closer up. But it so happens that, by enlarging too far, the object itself decomposes and disappears.” Just when we think we have a grasp on what we’ve been shown, it disappears, as well. The same thing happens after Thomas wins the fight for the neck of Jeff Beck’s demolished guitar, only to realize when he leaves the nightclub that it’s a worthless piece of junk.

The more we learn about Blow-Up, however, the better it gets. The Criterion addition is enhanced by the restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; a new piece about Antonioni’s artistic approach, featuring photography curators Walter Moser and Philippe Garner, and art historian David Alan Mellor; “Blow-up of Blow-Up,” a fresh 52-minute documentary on the making of the film; a 2016 conversation between Garner and Redgrave; archival interviews with Antonioni and actors Hemmings and Birkin; and a book featuring an essay by film scholar David Forgacs. It must be said that Antonioni’s next English-language film, the widely reviled Zabriskie Point (1970), lost the handle on the American counterculture and 1960s radicalism almost from the first student demonstration. It did a nice job capturing the enigmatic beauty of Death Valley, though. Also in English, The Passenger was hailed as a masterpiece by many of the same critics who hated Zabriskie Point.

Arsenal: Blu-ray
The best and, perhaps, only reason to check out Steven C. Miller’s almost comically violent Arsenal is the over-the-top performance by Nicolas Cage, who appears to be channeling Mickey Rourke, Joe Pesci and Moe Howard simultaneously. Mumbling and wearing a wig even John Travolta might have considered to be too bizarre and obvious, Cage plays a Mississippi Gulf Coast gangster who spends most of the movie in a ramshackle titty bar snorting coke and barking instructions to his dreadlocked and musclebound associates. The target of Eddie King’s wrath is Mikey (Johnathon Schaech), a ne’er-do-well who looks as if he just was released from prison, where he spent the last 10 years pumping iron and getting tattooed. Mikey not only owes Eddie a pile of money, but he’s also lost the $10,000 given to him by his brother, J.P. (Adrian Grenier), to help him get back on his feet. Instead, he invests the bread in a bag of cocaine, which is promptly stolen by some other thugs. J.P. is a clean-cut god-fearing Biloxi developer, who, apparently, also serves the city as an auxiliary cop. Don’t ask. His contact on the force is Sal (John Cusack), whose undercover disguise wouldn’t fool anyone who isn’t a Hollywood costume designer. Mikey is such a world-class dirtball that he colludes with Eddie to extort $350,000 from J.P., by posing as a kidnap victim. J.P. doesn’t have that kind of money just lying around, so he enlists Sal in his mission to rescue his brother and do away, once and for all, with Eddie. Left unsaid in that summary – if not the movie’s title – is the amount of firepower Miller has invested in his story. The violence is frequent, aggressively loud, extremely bloody and largely gratuitous. This isn’t to say that fans of such excess won’t enjoy Arsenal, because the explosive action sequences are well-choreographed and as over-the-top as these things get. Anyone looking for the Nic Cage of Leaving Las Vegas, National Treasure and Snowden may want to take a pass, however. The Blu-ray adds Miller’s commentary; the “Building an Arsenal” featurette; and extended cast and crew interviews.

Zachary Shedd’s first feature as writer/director is adapted from a short film he made eight years earlier. Both share the title, Americana, which is the name of the movie within Shedd’s uneven, if somewhat promising debut. I’m not sure why either of these movies is called “Americana,” but that’s only one of the confounding things about a picture that essentially merges neo-noir mystery with atmospheric drama and forces viewers to contend with switchbacks, flashbacks, flash-forwards, withheld information, rampant paranoia and undernourished characterizations. It’s set in San Francisco, which is nicely photographed and adds all sorts of character to the story. It is not, however, a place where movies about people making movies within movies makes a lot of sense. The putative protagonist is Avery Wells (David Call), an accomplished film editor, who, after a shocking on-set incident two years earlier, moved into a remote mountain cabin to drown himself in booze and self-pity. Almost out of the blue, a producer shows up there to talk him into editing the film Avery’s vivacious blond sister, Kate (Kelli Garner), was starring in when she was killed. The person who murders her, we’ll learn, is linked to the victim of a fatal automobile accident, she may or may not have caused. The producer, Calib (Jack Davenport), we’ll also learn, has several ulterior motives for calling on Avery to work on his sister’s last film. For Avery to get back on track, personally and professionally, however, he’ll first be required to figure out the mystery behind Calib’s request and his feelings of guilt over his sister’s fate. That, my friends, is a lot of weight for a first-time writer/director to carry, while also trying to make a movie that looks great while straddling genre borders. (Somehow, in its second stop on the festival circuit, Americana was featured at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival, even though it wouldn’t appear to fit its defined parameters.) Still, an A for effort.

Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek
In the American South, historical sites are almost as common as the kudzu that took root in the 1930s and now blankets the hillsides and forests, from Louisiana to Georgia. They’re so prevalent that some politicians think nothing of selling the sites off to developers or removing the people who’ve lived there since the Civil War. And, yes, white politicians find it far easier to uproot African-Americans who stand in the way of “progress” than anyone else. Leah Mahan’s inspirational documentary, Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek, describes how a transplanted Boston teacher worked tirelessly, over the course of a decade, to prevent corporate interests from bulldozing his ancestral home and the graves of his ancestors. It was being done simply to accommodate the sprawling city of Gulfport, Mississippi, and its casino-, military- and tourism-based economy. In 1866, a group of emancipated slaves settled along about 320 acres formerly owned by Arkansas Lumber Company. Thomas and Melinda Benton acquired enough land to bring their holdings to 50 percent of the community. It straddled the 13-mile-long Turkey Creek, a freshwater marsh and coastal hardwood forest. It continues to be a haven for wildlife and migrating birds. Although the community predated the founding of the City of Gulfport, it was annexed in 1994 to allow for commercial development and expansion of the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the area, city planners used the disaster as an excuse to begin uprooting vegetation that helped preserve the watershed. In 2001, Derrick Evans left his teaching positions in Boston and moved back home to Turkey Creek. The documentary follows his efforts to rally support for the once-voiceless community, through the Turkey Creek Community Initiatives. After Katrina, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places and received assistance from the Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plain and Audubon Mississippi. The film has inspired other such community preservation projects and was featured on “The Daily Show.”

Fair Haven
Before watching Kerstin Karlhuber and co-writer Jack Bryant’s quietly effective drama, Fair Haven, I was under the impression that conversion therapy – a.k.a., reparative therapy – was acknowledged to be a cruelly ineffective way to “cure” LGBT youths of what their parents and church perceive to be a disease. Apparently, not. Here, Michael Grant (Where Hope Grows) is well cast as James, a young piano prodigy, who returns home, to his family’s apple farm, after a long stay at a Christian conversion-therapy retreat. His hard-ass father, Richard (Tom Wopat), not only has forced James to endure such torture, but he also insists that he give up the piano and work toward saving the farm. The 19-year-old might have been more inclined toward accommodating his dad if he hadn’t already blown James’ college nest egg to pay for his therapy and mother’s funeral. He becomes even more upset when Richard tells him that he’s turned down generous offers to sell the property and wouldn’t think of giving up the family homestead, even if it means James has to give up his dreams. He believes that the conversion worked and gets angry with his former boyfriend (Josh Green) when they bump into each other in town. He even agrees to date the pastor’s daughter (Lily Anne Harrison), who couldn’t be more pleased that James is available to her. We’re not convinced of his conversion, however. Even if we know how Fair Haven is likely to end, Karlhuber doesn’t insult our intelligence by creating shortcuts or employing clichés to help her get there. In fact, the flashbacks to therapy sessions leave room for debate – however futile – among the participants and their soft-spoken instructor (Gregory Harrison). Karlhuber makes good use of the lovely rural setting and veteran cast. Special features include behind-the-scenes material, deleted scenes and cast interviews.

Witchtrap: Blu-ray
When it came to making horror films, writer/director Kevin Tenney could be considered a natural. He shot his first Super 8 film in the 6th grade and left USC early to make Witchboard, a silly, if highly profitable thriller notable for the presence of former child star Rose Marie (“The Dick Van Dyke Show”) and former O.J. lover Tawny Kitaen (The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik Yak). In it, a female college student is harassed and later possessed by an evil spirit summoned through a Ouija-board experiment. Tenney’s third film, Witchtrap, doesn’t have anything to do with witches or Witchboard, and it was released straight-to-video. By 1989, video originals had come of age, so there wasn’t any real stigma attached to it. For years, it seems, the once elegant Lauter House has been plagued by strange and violent occurrences. Unexplained deaths and seemingly supernatural activities have scared away all perspective tenants and buyers. Its new owners are toying with the idea of turning the old mansion into a bed-and-breakfast, targeted at tourists who claim not to be afraid of evil spirits. First, however, a team of paranormal experts are brought in to identify the demonic forces and trap them in a gizmo especially designed for such purposes. Sure enough, the big, bad ghost takes the bait, but not before Linnea Quigley is killed in the shower by a malevolent nozzle. It’s a classic scene in a movie mostly devoid of real shockers. Vinegar Syndrome has restored Witchtrap in 2k from the 35mm Interpositive, totally uncut, with its long-censored gore fully intact. It adds lively group commentary with Tenney, producer Dan Duncan, cinematographer Tom Jewett and actor Hal Havins; video interviews with Tenney, Quigley, Jewett and SFX supervisor Tassilo Baur; audio interviews with SFX makeup artist Judy Yonemoto and composer Dennis Michael Tenney; “Book of Joe” a short film directed by Tenney, with an alternate ending; a production/promotional still gallery; and original cover artwork by Corey Wolfe.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXXVIII
Frontline: President Trump
Most longtime fans of MST3K probably have already heard the good news that the Satellite of Love will return to Earth orbit on April 14, with 14 new episodes of the series set to stream on Netflix. A record-breaking Kickstarter campaign, initiated by Joel Hodgson, raised $5.8 million from 48,270 backers, with an additional $600,000 in backer add-ons that allowed for two more episodes and a Christmas special. Comedian Jonah Ray will play Jonah Heston, the new host aboard the SoL, with the voices of Crow and Tom provided by Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn. YouTube heartthrob Felicia Day (“The Guild”) will play Kinga Forrester, Clayton Forrester’s daughter and one of the new Mads in charge of the experiments, alongside comedian Patton Oswalt, as Kinga’s henchman, TV’s Son of TV’s Frank. Rebecca Hanson, a Second City alum, assumes the role of Gypsy, as well as another of Kinga’s henchmen. Mary Jo Pehl, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy will cameo on the revival, reprising their roles as Pearl Forrester, Brain Guy (a.k.a., Observer) and Professor Bobo. The list of movies to be scorched has yet to be revealed, except to say that most of the selections will be of a more recent vintage than those in the original shows. If that doesn’t give fans something to live for this spring, nothing will. Meanwhile, the latest compilation of evergreen episodes arrives this week from Shout!Factory, presenting “the worst” in the subgenres: Cold War drama, Sword and Sandals, Juvenile Delinquents and Monsters. They include the irredeemably bad Invasion, U.S.A. (1952), Colossus and the Headhunters (1963), High School Big Shot (1959) and Track of the Moon Beast (1976), plus several featurettes.

PBS debuted its “Frontline” presentation, “President Trump,” on January 3, while the president-elect was picking his Cabinet and futilely attempting to coax celebrities to perform at his Inauguration. Trump was still basking in the glow of his historic victory, convinced that everyone in Washington was practicing their bows and curtsies in anticipation of the First Family’s coronation. If President Obama had warned him against expecting too much from Congress in the first few weeks and months of his administration, he’d ignored the advice. In three weeks, Trump would learn just how complicated things can get when an outsider promises to drain the swamp, without consulting the alligators and copperheads first. Those blissful days in January must feel like a distant memory right now. In fact, the information imparted in the six-part “Frontline” documentary series feels very much like ancient history. No candidate has been subjected to as much media scrutiny – or ridicule, for that matter — as Donald Trump and they still got the results wrong. “President Trump” does a good job backtracking on the events in the man’s life that endeared him to America’s great unwashed. It does so through interviews with advisors, business associates and biographers, who describe how Trump transformed himself from real estate developer, to entertainer, to president. It also explores the roots of the division and polarization in Washington that frustrated the Obama presidency and laid the groundwork for the election of a defiant outsider.

The DVD Wrapup: Julieta, Sing, Kind of Murder, Nightless City, Multiple Maniacs, Cinema Paradiso, 45RPM, Ali & Nino, American Princesses, Split and more

Thursday, March 23rd, 2017

Julieta: Blu-ray
While any new movie by Pedro Almodóvar is cause for celebration, Julieta stands out for several reasons. Upon its screening at Cannes, critics were quick to point out that it not only marked a return to the women-centric dramas for which he’s been associated for the entirety of his 40-year, 20-feature career. It’s also one of only a very few titles that he’s adapted from a literary source or shared a writing credit. Based on three stories by Canadian writer Alice Munro — “Chance,” “Soon” and “Silence,” from her 2004 collection “Runaway” – Almodóvar originally planned to adapt them as his first English-language screenplay, possibly starring Meryl Streep. He didn’t feel comfortable pursuing that,  and re-set the film for locations in Spain. If reviewers missed the director’s outrageous comedy and other trademark touches, loyalists savored his insider riffs on Spanish telenovelas, Hitchcockian tropes and film noir, as well as Julieta’s distinct visual style and complementary color palette. To this end, Almodóvar re-teamed with production designer Antxón Gómez, costume designer Sonia Grande, composer Alberto Iglesias and set designer Federico García Cambero. French cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu capably filled in for José Luis Alcaine. His muse, Rossy de Palma, also plays a prominent role. Emma Suárez won several Best Actress awards in Europe for her portrayal of the adult Julieta, a woman who experiences great romance and great despair in her lifetime, but not for reasons usually associated with such upheavals. Adriana Ugarte plays the younger Julieta, an aspiring teacher whose steamy encounter with a married fisherman, Xoan (Daniel Grao), on an overnight train to their homes, opened the door for the next 30 years of fate-driven events.

For example, coincidental to learning she’s pregnant from her one-night-stand, Julieta receives a letter from Xoan, who’s managed to track her to the address of her former school. Taking it for an invitation, she arrives at his bayside home in Galicia, within days of his long-suffering wife’s funeral. They have no problem rekindling their romance, even though Xoan’s former lover and confidante, Ava (Inma Cuesta), is still in the picture. Their daughter, Antia (Priscilla Delgado), will grow into her teens as a true daddy’s girl, but one with a curiosity about life outside the fishing village. Mother and daughter are devastated by news that Xoan has died in a terrible storm, possibly after a squabble over the continuing presence of Ava in his life. Years later, Antia is given reason to believe that the squabble – along with her being away from home, at camp – caused Xoan’s death and not his disregard for the power of the storm. While on a religious retreat in the Pyrenees, she decides to turn her back on her past and reject any contact with her mother, now living in Madrid. If the decision seems awfully rash, it sets up the emotionally charged second half of the story. Once again, as fate would have it, Julieta finally falls in love with another man, Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti), she meets at Ava’s funeral. They even make plans to move to Portugal, which she abandons after running into Antia’s childhood friend, Beatriz (Michelle Jenner), who delivers some alarming news to her. Not only does it cause Julieta to remain in Madrid, but also sink into a debilitating depression over feelings of guilt and abandonment. The tantalizingly ambiguous ending probably will encourage some viewers, at least, to refer to Munro’s stories. In this case, though, that’s a good thing. The lovely Blu-ray adds featurettes “Portrait of Julieta” and “Celebrating Director Pedro Almodóvar,” from a retrospective of his works at MoMA.

Sing: Special Edition: Blu-ray/UHD/3D/DVD
In their seven-year partnership, Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures have already launched four legitimate franchises in the highly competitive animated-features arena: Despicable Me, Minions, The Secret Life of Pets and, now, Sing. Feature-length sequels and triquels to these hit flicks have already been scheduled, as well as several related or stand-alone shorts (a.k.a., cartoons). They also appear to be moving ahead on a series of Dr. Seuss adaptations that began with The Lorax (2012). Made from a relatively modest $75-million production budget, Sing did very well both domestically and worldwide. The easiest way to describe the tuneful movie is to compare it to an “American Idol” for anthropomorphic animals. Matthew McConaughey voices Buster Moon, an eternally optimistic koala – more Mickey Rooney than Ryan Seacrest — who stages an elaborate singing competition to save his crumbling theater. To cover rent and utilities, Buster resorts to several funny, if less-than-honest schemes. The cast also includes fellow Academy Award-winners Reese Witherspoon, as Rosita, an overworked and underappreciated mother of 25 piglets; Scarlett Johansson, as Ash, a punk-rock porcupine with a beautiful voice behind her prickly exterior; Seth MacFarlane, as a small, suave mouse named Mike; Taron Egerton, as Johnny, a young  gorilla hoping to break free from his gangster family; and, among other artists, John C. Reilly, Tori Kelly, the Jennifers Saunders and Hudson, the Nicks Kroll and Offerman, Leslie Jones, Rhea Perlman and Laraine Newman. While kids should enjoy watching the animals perform, parents can sing along to the brief snippets from 85-plus hit songs, from the 1940s to 2016, performed by the voice actors or cover groups. (Songs performed by the original artists, at longer than abbreviated lengths, would have cost a fortune in licensing fees.) Co-director Garth Jennings previously directed the quirky comedy Son of Rambow and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, while first-time helmsman Christophe Lourdelet has worked on Minions, The Lorax and French-language delights The Rabbi’s Cat and A Monster in Paris. The Blu-ray edition adds character profiles; making-of and background featurettes; several music videos; and three entertaining mini-movies.


A Kind of Murder: Blu-ray
Adapted rather loosely from Patricia Highsmith’s third of 22 novels, “The Blunderer,” A Kind of Murder would have benefited greatly from sticking to the details of the 1954 thriller and resisting the temptation to tweak them for reasons known only to director Andy Goddard (Set Fire to the Stars) and first-time screenwriter Susan Boyd. They did a nice job changing the time frame to the early 1960s and even made Cincinnati environs look like New York. The costumes are appropriate for the period – JFK had yet to take possession of the White House – and a scene set precariously in a Greenwich Village bar avoids insulting the “beatnik” patrons and viewers’ intelligence. The problem is that the plot twists invented to make the movie more appealing to modern audiences don’t hold up to scrutiny by mystery buffs, who, ostensibly, are the target audience. Patrick Wilson and Jessica Biel play an unhappily married suburban couple, living in an almost oppressively modern house he designed not far from the city. In “The Blunderer,” Walter Stackhouse is a mild-mannered lawyer condemned to constantly adjusting to the whims of an overreaching shrew, Clara (Biel). In the movie, Walter is an architect and aspiring writer of crime fiction and Clara doesn’t become insufferable until she conjures a sexual dalliance between Walter and a sexy cabaret singer, Ellie Briess (Haley Bennett), who’s brought to a party at their home as a guest.

Clara makes him so miserable with her accusations of infidelity that he finally decides to confirm her fears by succumbing to Ellie’s not-at-all subtle advances. Clara’s failed suicide attempt puts a wrinkle in Walter’s plans to divorce her, but not before she’s found dead on a bus trip to visit her dying mother. In the mind of a single-minded police detective (Vincent Kartheiser), her death too closely resembles an unsolved murder he believes was committed by the wonderfully named, if oily bookshop manager, Melchior J. Kimmel (Eddie Marsan). After reading about the Kimmel murder in the newspaper, he clips the item as reference for a future novel. Its discovery by the detective effectively gives him all the evidence he needs to make his suspects’ lives miserable. While not terribly far from capturing the gist of “The Blunderer,” Boyd’s script forces her protagonist to make the kinds of mistakes that no mystery writer – even a novice – would commit. These include repeatedly allowing himself to be caught in lies any rookie flatfoot could detect and trusting too many people to make alibis for him. A deliberately noir-ish conclusion also begs credulity. Even so, A Kind of Murder is well-acted and sufficiently atmospheric to be recommendable as a rainy-day diversion. But, then, so would picking up any Highsmith book from the library or downloading it to a hand-held device. The bonus material includes interviews with the director and cast, as well as featurettes on capturing the right period feel.

The Nightless City
Here’s an interesting movie that came out of nowhere, absent any release information or reviews. Even now, all I know about The Nightless City is that its studio is listed as the eclectic Shami Media Group and that it’s available through MVD Visual. Sometimes, its reps know what I’ll enjoy watching before I do. That’s certainly the case here. In the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear incident, a hypersensitive photographer (Maya Murofushi) is so haunted by the surrealistic manifestations of the nuclear disaster and subsequent tsunami that she’s unable to sleep. Mariko decides to move to Sicily, the current home of a former lover (Giovanni Calcagno), Rocco, who might provide her the space she needs to her reset her inner alarm clock. If anything, her insomnia gets worse. By chance, Mariko discovers that she’s able to sleep at night whenever Rocco agrees to drive her around the city, which I assume to be Palermo. Refreshed, she picks up her camera and begins a series of photos relating to her dreams and memories of the disaster, as well as hyper-realistic photos of Rocco in bed, which she blows up to fill the apartment’s walls. I don’t know who shot the photographs, but they’re truly amazing. The thing is, just as Mariko’s life begins to return to normal, his gets turned upside-down, due to her need to be chauffeured around the city until the wee hours. Finally, his devotion is rewarded with the loss of his own job, if not his sanity. What I really liked in The Nightless City is the merging of art mediums – including Massimo Foletti’s cinematography and Lorenzo Esposito Fornasari and Lorenzo Feliciati’s music – to reveal the disassociation experienced by Mariko from the disaster. In this way, it reminded me of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 arthouse thriller, Diva, which blended several disparate artistic impulses in the service of wonderfully complex and super-hip crime story.  If you loved Diva, or only remember it for Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez’ performance of the first-act aria from the opera “La Wally,” you may want to take a chance with The Nightless City.

Ali & Nino
Anyone who’s able to find Baku on a map, without consulting Google, already is part of the target audience for Asif Kapadia’s Ali & Nino, an epic romance based on Kurban Said’s 1937 novel. Those of us who couldn’t pinpoint Azerbaijan on a map, let alone Baku, might need more convincing. For the record, the Republic of Azerbaijan is a crossroads nation in the South Caucasus, situated at the borders of Southwest Asia and Southeastern Europe. Rich with oil, it is bound by the Caspian Sea to the east, Russia to the north, Georgia to the northwest, Armenia to the west and Iran to the south. Baku is its capital. In 1918, multicultural Azerbaijan was under the control of czarist Russia, and mostly content with its wealth and religious diversity. That situation would dramatically change, twice, in the next two years. After the collapse of the Russian Empire and end of World War I, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic became the first modern parliamentary republic in the Muslim world. Twenty-three months later, after Vladimir Lenin declared that Soviet Russia could not survive without Baku’s oil, Red Army troops invaded the country. And, that was all she wrote for the next 70 years, when the dissolution of the USSR opened the door for another shot at independence. That’s all the information a non-Azerbaijani viewer needs to enjoy Ali & Nino on its merits. Those more familiar with the country’s history probably will find in undernourished, though.

Adam Bakri and María Valverde play star-crossed lovers, Ali Khan Shirvanshir and Nino Kipiani, a Muslim boy and Orthodox girl, who defy their parents’ wishes by deciding to marry. Ali killed a wealthy suitor after he attempted to kidnap Nino and marry her in Moscow. For this, a price was put on his head by the victim’s family. For once, then, religion isn’t the determining factor causing them to run off to mountains to begin their life together and raise a family. His Muslim relatives there like Nino and she adapts to their customs. It’s a lovely setup for a far more explosive second half, when Ali’s patriotism trumps Nino’s desire to stay in the mountains until the smoke clears. Once they reach Baku, again, it becomes clear that it will be impossible for them to live together in peace. Ali sends Nino to then-Persia, to live in a harem until their baby arrives and he’s able to contribute to the new government. The primary question then becomes whether they’ll ever be able to celebrate their belated honeymoon in Paris, as promised. Shot in Azerbaijan and Turkey, Ali & Nino is easy on the eyes. What’s missing is the passion that’s informed other romantic epics, including Doctor Zhivago, which the marketing team wants us to think it resembles. The political throughline, while historically accurate, feels too cut-an-dried, as well. The international cast includes Mandy Patinkin, Connie Nielsen, Homayoun Ershadi and Halit Ergenç, indicating that the producers thought they could draw an international audience. (Exec-producer Leyla Aliyeva is the daughter of Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan.)

Multiple Maniacs: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
In an interview conducted with John Waters for the release of this welcome special edition, which bears both the Criterion and Janus logos, the Pope of Trash recalls how almost all the art films he obsessed over as a teenage buff were released by Janus. To see it attached to one of his most scandalous entertainments, he offers, means that his career has truly come full circle. I don’t know if Waters has hung up his director’s megaphone just yet – he’s declared that “irony ruined everything” and it’s no longer possible to make independent films that cost $5 million – but he’s spent most of his time lately writing, lecturing and playing guest roles in other people’s projects. While the commentary track here argues against Waters having been totally defanged by time and competition, his nostalgic memories of the creation of his second feature, Multiple Maniacs, occasionally border on the sentimental. Delightfully blasphemous, it scores directs hits on the norms of life in suburban Baltimore and the rise of the politically correct left at the end of the 1960s. The centerpiece depravity in Multiple Maniacs is the Cavalcade of Perversion, a mobile midway attraction mounted by a troupe of misfits organized by Lady Divine (Pink Flamingos). Then and now, her presence mocked everything held sacred by the Hollywood studios and fashion-magazine editors. According to ringmaster Mr. David, the freaks include “assorted sluts, fags, dykes and pimps (who) know no bounds! They have committed acts against God and nature, acts that by their mere existence would make any decent person recoil in disgust!” They re-enact the Stations of the Cross, while Lady Divine goes on a rampage after being raped by a 15-foot lobster. Divine would famously trump this outrage a year later in Pink Flamingos, of course, but not before Canadian censors burned their print of Multiple Maniacs, rather than validate it with public condemnation. The restoration team offered to retain the period blemishes, artifacts and scratches, but Waters asked them give it the first-class sheen it wasn’t accorded on 16mm stock. The 4K digital upgrade, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, was supervised by Waters. The Blu-ray also adds entertaining interviews with cast and crew members Pat Moran, Vincent Peranio, Mink Stole, Susan Lowe and George Figgs, as well as an essay by critic Linda Yablonsky.

Juli Jackson’s debut feature, 45RPM, debuted as a work-in-progress at the 2012 Ozark Film Festival and, again, a year later, at the Little Rock Film Festival, before hitting the circuit for another two. I have no idea what distributors didn’t see in the delightfully unprepossessing rock-’n’-roll fantasy. In my opinion, someone really missed the boat. In spirit, at least, the micro-budget indie reminded me favorably of High Fidelity and Empire Records, both largely set in a record store, but mostly of Ace Atkins’ first novel, “Crossroads Blues.” In it, an ex-New Orleans Saint turned Tulane University blues historian searches for the fabled lost recordings of Robert Johnson — and a missing colleague – and, as they say, finds trouble at every turn. In 45RPM, Charlie (Liza Burns), an artist who seeks a connection between her work and her deceased father’s music, teams up with Louie (Jason Thompson), an obsessive record collector from Memphis. All they have to go on are a few vague memories of a record she listened to as a child and his extensive knowledge of obscure 1960s garage-rock. After a false start caused by Charlie misremembering the name of her dad’s band – Five Man Trip, not Five Man Trio – they visit every used-record store, small-town radio station and swap meet in central Arkansas looking for clues. The thrill of the hunt invigorates Louie, while a deadline back home causes Charlie to take out her frustration on him. If it feels forced on her part, the financial pressure is really the only source of drama throughout 45RPM, which was OK with me. Somewhere along the way, we’d also expect them to realize their mutual love/lust for each other and hit the nearest rest stop for sex. Instead, Charlie and Louis stick to the task at hand, which, again, is OK. The scenes and stops along the road are enhanced by a soundtrack full of songs by what I assume are active Southern blues/rockabilly/garage bands. The ending satisfies, even without Jackson having to add some fireworks to spice it up. The DVD adds a making-of featurette and uncompleted short film that inspired the feature.

Creature Lake
The Creature Below
The cover art for direct-to-videos is notoriously derivative, often ripping off marketing campaigns for infinitely better and demonstrably more successful movies. Rarely, though, have two genre pictures that are so similar been released in the same month than Wild Eye Releasing’s Creature Lake and Breaking Glass’ The Creature Below. One each, a woman in a bikini is shown emerging from a body of water, with tentacles protruding behind her back. On closer examination, the woman on the cover of the former wears a demonic grin beneath glowing eyeballs, while the woman on the latter appears to be standing on the lower jaw of a sea monster. The images are quite striking, if inarguably generic. Only one of them reflects what happens in the movie, however. That would be Drazen Baric and Damien Slevin’s debut feature, Creature Lake (a.k.a., “Gitaskog”), whose bathing beauty is, in reality, demonic and naked. If it is a hybrid of exploitation flicks that emerged from the found-footage and cabin-in-the-woods subgenres, it also owes something to The Creature From the Black Lagoon and Deliverance. Here, a bunch of urban bozos repairs to a remote Canadian lake for a weekend “sausage party.” A member of a First Nations tribe warns them against disrespecting the sacred waters, which are protected by a powerful spirit. Naturally, one of the men mistakes the naked woman beckoning him into the lake for an Indian maiden or garden-variety nymphomaniac, who must have been enjoying a swim when she chanced upon this bevy of horny hunks. Imagine their surprise when the fellow who jumped into the water first is sucked into the depths, never to be seen again. Somehow, they fail to put two and two together, until it’s too late. Creature Lake is just goofy enough to qualify as a guilty pleasure, which is more than can be said about most post-“Blair Witch” and -“Cabin Fever” efforts.

The Creature Below isn’t as easy to categorize, although parts of it resemble other sci-fi/horror pictures in which humans conduct experiments on sea creatures without regard to the ramifications of messing with Mother Nature. Anna Dawson plays Olive, an expert deep-sea diver and marine biologist who’s on a mission to research theories of the seaborne origins of life. The dive that opens the picture is interrupted by something that nearly kills her. Before Olive’s rescued, though, she grabs an egg. After being berated by her sponsor (Zacharee Lee) for destroying a precious piece of equipment, Olive smuggles the egg home with her, stashing it in the basement of the house she shares with her boyfriend, Matt (Daniel Thrace), and her nosy sister, Ellie (Michaela Longden). As the creature emerges from the egg and begins to grow, Olive forms an oddly symbiotic relationship with it. She discovers the creature’s bloodlust at about the same time the scientist realizes that Olive may have stolen evidence to prove his thesis. Ellie also becomes curious about what was growing in the aquarium downstairs. Olive’s experiencing horrific nightmares, as well. The trick becomes keeping her sister out of a danger, while protecting herself from her sponsor’s wrath. To this end, she receives help from an unexpected ally. Bonus features include a behind-the-scenes featurette, deleted scenes, a Frightfest Q&A and director Stewart Sparke’s very short short, “Rats,” about a young woman who finds her home plagued by mutant rats from outer space.

Sisters of the Plague
3 Sisters
Death Walks on High Heels: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Death Walks at Midnight: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Anyone who can’t find atmosphere in New Orleans isn’t breathing and Jorge Torres-Torres’ supernatural thriller nearly drowns in it. Josephine Decker, an impossible-to-pigeonhole actress with roots in the Mumblecore discipline, plays a seemingly sane woman who makes a tentative living leading tourists on haunted-house tours around the French Quarter. It isn’t until Jo’s desperately alcoholic father (Thomas Francis Murphy) moves into the house she shares with her girlfriend (Isolde Chae-Lawrence) that things really begin to get weird. The old man probably is hiding his culpability in the death of Jo’s mother and, in turn, her increasingly disturbing nightmares and hallucinations. She seeks the help of a medium, of which there’s a surplus in the Crescent City, who warns her to prepare for something beyond her control. It turns Sisters of the Plague into the kind of possession drama that could play in arthouses, but has trouble exiting the LGBT festival circuit. Torres-Torres (Shadow Zombie) and co-writer Jason Banker (Toad Road) leave a lot to the imagination, but the atmosphere is thick enough to hold it together for 80 minutes.

Ireland isn’t a bad place to look for atmosphere, either. Dáire McNab’s modern giallo, 3 Sisters, shifts the points-of-view with a frequency that makes it difficult to tell where his camera is pointing at any given time and why. (The police investigation, autopsy and burial of the first victim is shown from the POV of the corpse.) The one thing we know for sure is that someone is murdering the members of a Dublin family, one by one, and without waiting for the blood to dry between killings. In addition to the POV tricks, the camera bounces from intimate, in-your-face close-ups, to shots captured on security cameras. It takes a while to get fully adjusted, but adventurous viewers will find value in the effort. No sooner is the uncle of the title characters found in a pool of his own blood – possibly from a self-inflicted wound — than one of the sisters is brutally murdered in her home. The victim’s sister/housemate Sarah (Gillian Walsh) discovers the body and, unable to face staying the night there, seeks refuge with her ex-boyfriend, Dylan (Elliott Moriarty). As they tentatively rekindle their extinguished romance, the killer lurks menacingly in the background, targeting the third sister. As it also turns out, the patriarch of the family is dying of cancer. Sarah, Dylan and an almost comically brusque police detective discover almost simultaneously that she stands to inherit a small fortune when the father dies. As the 87-minute mark approaches, it’s difficult to say how much satisfaction McNab is going to give his viewers when/if he reveals the killer and what will happen to him. We miss the gaudy colors associated with giallo, but everything else is there, including Italian cult favorite Giovanni Lombardo Radice (Cannibal Ferox, House on the Edge of the Park). The DVD adds deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.

For a more traditional giallo experience, a good place to start would be Luciano Ercoli’s Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight, from the early 1970s. Less known than Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Sergio Martino, Ercoli only directed a handful of films before retiring on a substantial inheritance, or so the legend goes. He lived another 38 years without making another one. There’s nothing wrong with his “Death Walks” duo, though. We reviewed them here last year, when Arrow bundled immaculately restored versions of them as “Death Walks Twice.” Both star Spanish-born model/actress/bombshell Nieves Navarro, who embodied all the traits with female giallo superstars. In “High Heels,” she plays an exotic dancer terrorized by a black-clad assailant determined to steal her murdered father’s already purloined gems. She flees Paris to evade her knife-wielding pursuer, but England offers only temporary refuge. In “Midnight,” Navarro portrays Valentina, a model who, during a drug-fueled photoshoot, witnesses a brutal murder in the apartment opposite hers. Naturally, the police fail to find anything amiss, forcing her to play amateur sleuth to unravel the mystery. The separately sold discs carry over featurettes and interviews that were included in the boxed set.

Cinema Paradiso: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Creeping Garden: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Sometimes, good things do get better. The hyper-eclectic MVD Entertainment Group has just added Arrow Academy to its roster of companies whose products it distributes in the U.S. It is a division the U.K.’s Arrow Films, which does such a nice job with restorations of specialty and genre titles, including the aforementioned Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight. The new imprint will release “definitive and prestige-edition films by revered maestros of cinema from across the globe, including filmmakers such as Federico Fellini, Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick, Fritz Lang, R.W. Fassbinder, Roberto Rossellini and Jean-Luc Godard.” Typically, the digitally upgraded titles will come loaded with newly produced commentary, featurettes and interviews. Its “Cinema Paradiso: Special Edition” and “The Creeping Garden: Limited Edition” packages are a very good start. One of the most honored films of the last 50 years – foreign language or otherwise – Cinema Paradiso (1988) has only been available in stripped-down versions of the theatrical cut or bonus-free DVD editions of the extended director’s cut. Writer/director Giuseppe Tornatore initially said that his intention for the picture was to serve as an obituary for traditional movie theatres and the movie industry in general, in the post-war era. If, upon completion, that was all Cinema Paradiso turned out to be, it might have branded as an Italian version of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. Instead, especially at the 174-minute length, it stands as a loving homage to the cinema, as told through the eyes of Salvatore “Totò” Di Vita (Salvatore Cascio/Marco Leonardi/Jacques Perrin), now a successful film director, but, as a boy, an apprentice to the projectionist, Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), at the local cinema. When Toto, whose father was killed in the war, returns home for Alfredo’s funeral, he’s flooded with memories filled with love and regret. Noiret’s performance was worth the price of admission, as was Ben Johnson’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Sam the Lion, The Last Picture Show. The Arrow package includes the 124-minute Cannes Festival theatrical version, as well 174-minute Director’s Cut, which incorporates more of Salvatore s backstory. Restored from the original camera negative, it’s further enhanced by uncompressed original stereo 2.0 Audio and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio options; commentary with Tornatore and Italian cinema expert, Millicent Marcus; “A Dream of Sicily,” a 52-minute documentary profile of the director, featuring interviews and extracts from his early home movies, and set to music by the Ennio Morricone; “A Bear and a Mouse in Paradise,” a 27-minute documentary on the genesis of Cinema Paradiso, featuring interviews with the actors who play Toto and Noiret; a discussion of the emotionally charged “kissing scenes” sequence; a 25th-anniversary re-release trailer; and collector’s booklet, by Pasquale Iannone, illustrated with archive stills, behind-the-scenes images and posters.

And, now, for something completely different from the same place: The Creeping Garden is a visually stunning documentary that explores the extraordinary world of, believe it or not, “plasmodial slime mold,” as revealed through the eyes of the fringe scientists, mycologists and the artists who work with them. In recent years, this curious organism has become the focus of much research in such areas as biological-inspired design, emergence theory, unconventional computing and robotics. Like so many other scientific endeavors, much of the research shown on film borders on science fiction. In fact, as I began watching The Creeping Garden, I thought it was a genre flick, with actors in lab coats describing yet another pre-apocalyptic threat to humanity. Soon enough, though, the film transports us from the laboratory into the primitive lifeform’s natural habitat, studying them using amazing time-lapse macro-cinematography to reveal hidden facets of the world around us. As fascinating as the science can be, what sells The Creeping Garden are the images that come alive before our eyes. It was co-directed by the artist/filmmaker Tim Grabham and author/critic Jasper Sharp, with an original soundtrack composed by Jim O Rourke (Sonic Youth). The package adds commentary with the directors; a short film on biocomputer music, which allows a two-way musical dialogue between man and slime mold; “Return to the Fungarium,” a featurette revealing further treasures of the facilities at Kew Gardens; “Feeding Habits of Physarum,” a featurette on the feeding preferences and dislikes of slime molds; three Cinema Iloobia shorts: Angela Mele’s animated slime molds; a separate soundtrack disc,
rearranged by O’Rourke; and an illustrated collector’s booklet containing writing on the film by Jasper Sharp. As usual with Arrow packages, be aware that some features are limited to the first-edition pressings.

Apocalypse Kiss
The Quiet Hour
Even if Lloyd Kaufman is given an extended cameo in Apocalypse Kiss, as POTUS, Troma isn’t distributing Christian Jude Grillo’s pre-apocalyptic genre-bender. Michael Berryman makes a brief appearance as an evil corporate mogul, as well, but that doesn’t mean Apocalypse Kiss resembles The Hills Have Eyes, either. The critics seem to agree that it bears a surface resemblance, at least, to a cut-rate version of Blade Runner. If only. Besides directing “AK,” which apparently has been sitting on a shelf for three years, Grillo (Booley) also is credited as writer, composer, editor, production designer, set decorator, VFX coordinator, camera operator and part of the casting team. Far more prominent than Kaufman and Berryman are aspiring scream queens Carmela Hayslett and Tammy Jean, as lesbian lovers who murder horny rich guys by luring them into sure-fire sex traps; D.C. Douglas, as Adrian, the Red Harvest Killer, who’s jealous of the newcomers; and Tom Detrik, as government security agent Jerry Hipple, who blames Adrian for the death of his wife, but accepts his assistance against the lesbians. All the while, killers and victims, alike, are unaware the world is about to reach an abrupt catastrophic ending. This allows for generous helpings of gratuitous T&A and dystopian violence. The DVD adds the featurettes, “The Making of Apocalypse Kiss” and “Make Your Own Damn Space Station,” with Lloyd Kaufman; commentary with cast and crew; and fake commercials from the future.

Here’s another sci-fi drama in which the vehicles that bring aliens to Earth hover in the clouds, this time looking like wasp or hornets’ nests hanging on the branch of a tree. They’re here to harvest the planet’s resources and kill anyone who gets in the way. In her first feature, Stéphanie Joalland borrows a conceit from Arthur C. Clarke’s “Rendezvous With Rama” that allows her to forgo giving her aliens a physical presence. It’s enough that we know they’re there and are slowly sucking the life out of Earth. Survivors are allowed to leave their homes for two hours each day, during which the farmers we meet can tend to their crops, livestock and the solar panels that keep them safe. It also gives marauding bands of cannibals time to attack the survivors. The action here centers around an Irish family stranded in a farmhouse in County Tipperary. Nineteen-year-old Sarah (Dakota Blue Richards) and her nearly blind brother have just buried their father in the front garden. The loss leaves them vulnerable to attack, at least until Sarah can master the finer points of self-control. When a stranger named Jude (Karl Davies) appears from the wilderness, dressed like a soldier and hobbled by a bullet in his leg, she’s forced to decide if she can trust the outsider or assume he’s a cannibal and put another round in him. Because the story is less sci-fi than narrative drama, viewers are encouraged to wonder how they’d perform under similar circumstances. And that, after all, is what genre fiction is all about, anyway.

Death Passage
In this urban-legend thriller from Down Under, American backpackers Maya, Amelia and Toby meet a pair of Aussie rascals at the beach. A bonfire provides the setting for a retelling of the local legend of Lemon Tree Passage – Death Passage’s original title — where the ghost of a motorcyclist warns young drivers to slow down … or else. Naturally, the visitors want to experience such an amazing supernatural phenomenon for themselves. After witnessing the ghost firsthand, they realize that they’ve been caught in the clutches of a malevolent force that possesses the area and threatens to turn the final days of their vacation into a living nightmare. Part of the suspense comes from knowing that the Americans are isolated and in danger, 10,000 miles from home, and the ghost may be the least of their problems. Australian horror flicks tend to take place on lonely roads in rural locations, where things have plenty of space to go bump in the night. The DVD package adds behind-the-scenes material, blooper footage and an alternate ending.

The last time most of heard anything about Deborah Kampmeier was 10 years ago, when, in her second film, Hounddog, she directed 12-year-old Dakota Fanning in a scene that involved a rape. Nothing unsavory was shown, but the possibility that her parents and Hollywood heathens would allow an America’s princess to be on the same set as a fictional rapist precipitated a feeding frenzy among bluenose politicians and other would-be censors. The furor killed the picture, months before critics could sink their teeth into it and may have done irreparable harm to her career. It certainly didn’t hinder Dakota. In her first film, Virgin (2004), a precocious Baptist teenager (Elizabeth Moss) finds herself pregnant, with no memory of having had sex, and determines that she is carrying the child of God. It received several favorable reviews and showed promise for Kampmeier’s future. Split’s opening has been reserved for VOD outlets and DVD, but she’s already in pre-production on another 2017 release, so, maybe she’s on the comeback trail. Split is an intensely dramatic, decidedly feminist story about a young actress and exotic dancer, Inanna (Amy Ferguson), who attempts to expand her horizons by joining an all-woman acting troupe. It’s about to stage an emotionally grueling indictment, in the Athenian tradition, of the violence perpetrated on women by men. At first, Inanna is overwhelmed by the outpouring of pain by the other women, whose inhibitions clearly disappeared years earlier. Very quickly, Inanna falls in love with and marries the womanizing artist who’s creating the masks the actors will wear during the play. In short order, though, she discovers to her horror that practically everything she loved in Derek (Morgan Spector) disappeared on their wedding night, including the desire to have sex. Instead, he becomes secretive and abusive. Finally, after much trepidation, Inanna finds the strength to claim her independence and sense of self-worth by accepting the play’s theme and support of the other actresses. While it makes a very strong statement on an issue that couldn’t be more topical, Split could be accused of sending a mixed message about victims of abuse enabling their attackers. It should be noted, as well, that Split contains a lot of nudity – full-frontal and otherwise – but almost none of it could be considered gratuitous within the context of the story. Neither is it reserved for women of a single Hollywood-approved shape, size or color. In several ways, Split reminds me of Susan Streitfeld’s Female Perversions (1996) and specific storylines in the HBO mini-series “Big Little Lies.”

Ascent to Hell: Blu-ray
Co-writer/director Dena Hysell sets the stage for the horror to come in Ascent to Hell by flashing through photos of victims of industrial fires, including the ones involving sweat shops with locked staircases and exits. I suspect that most, if not all of them were taken at the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory inferno, which, in 1911, claimed the lives of 146 garment workers. Is it sacrilegious to build a horror film on the ruins of such a tragedy? Maybe so, but, as the closing credits roll, we’re encouraged to cut the producers of Ascent to Hell a break through reminders of more contemporary disasters. In it, Kate (Azura Skye) is a residential real estate agent told by her boss to sell a commercial property with a shocking history. It might as well have been named after the Asch Building – now Brown Building — still standing at 23-29 Washington Place, in New York’s Greenwich Village, where Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire occurred. By 1916, New York University had taken over 8th Floor, where so many people died or leaped to their deaths. Today, tourists are directed to the building’s top floors as part of sightseeing excursions targeted at fans of haunted houses and ghosts. Hysell makes sure we know whose side he’s on, by characterizing potential developers as heartless yuppies who couldn’t care less about the building’s legacy. Neither are they impressed by Kate’s disclosure of the community’s efforts to create green zones around it. Yes, these are bad people, who deserve everything they’re about to receive as they survey the uppermost floors, where reminders of the long-ago tragedy are still there to be seen. Genre buffs don’t need a spoiler alert to know what’s going to happen to them on the least-renovated floor. Hysell pulls it off pretty well, I thought.

Splatter Disco
RoboCop 2/3: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women: Comic Book Collectors Edition
Battle of the Worlds: Comic Book Collectors Edition
Night of the Living Dead: Comic Book Collectors Edition
Few filmmakers have done more with less than writer/director Richard Griffin — Creature from the Hillbilly Lagoon, Pretty Dead Things, Necroville, Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead – one of the true auteurs of extreme exploitation. It’s fair to wonder what he might be able to accomplish with even a Corman-sized budget and support team. Released in 2007, Splatter Disco is said to have had a more sustainable budget than usual, but you’d be hard-pressed to figure out where the money went. I suspect that it was invested in a cast that includes exploitation specialists Lynn Lowry (Model Hunger), Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead), Trent Haaga (Bonnie & Clyde vs. Dracula), Sarah Nicklin (A Darker Fifty Shades: The Fetish Set) and Debbie Rochon (Killer Rack). The acting is several notches above what’s evidenced in most of Griffin’s pictures, including The Disco Exorcist, which came later, but isn’t a sequel. On the cover of the After Hours re-release, a blurb declares that Splatter Disco is “The First Splatter Musical,” which would come as news to the producers of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”  Here, the owner of the fetish club Den O’ Iniquity has his hands full dealing with an unhappy wife, dying father, censorious citizenry and a psycho killer targeting his staff and clientele. As abhorrent behavior goes, Splatter Disco falls short of John Waters’ 2004 fetish-fest, A Dirty Shame. Most the club’s patrons resemble squirrels in pajamas. It arrives with commentary with Griffin, behind-the-scenes featurette, an alternate scene and “trailer vault.”

What is it they say about not missing your water …? Watching bad public-domain movies absent the commentary provided by the orbiting critics of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” can be a real drag. Even movies that are so bad they’re good require some witty repartee to break up the monotony occasionally. The only thing new about the Comic Book Collectors Editions of Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, Battle of the Worlds and Night of the Living Dead, which still holds up on its own merits, is the cover art. It made me think that there might be a graphic-novel adaptation of the movie inside, along with the movie. But, nooo. The gimmick isn’t bad, but collectors should consider if the reasonable $9.99 price tag warrants a second or third purchase of a movie already in their collection. Maybe, but only if they were available exclusively in a limited-edition series.

RoboCop 2 and RoboCop 3 are perfect examples of what can happen to the legacy of a genuinely entertaining and completely original movie when a studio is bleeding red ink and desperately needs a hit. After three years and a successful release into video, RoboCop was still a hot property. Sequels hadn’t worn out its welcome, yet, and special effects were only getting better. RoboCop 2 suffered immediately from the exit of director Paul Verhoeven and addition of Hollywood veteran Irvin Kershner. Frank Miller’s original version of the script was deemed unworkable and everyone with an opinion to spare felt it necessary to chip another two cents into the mix. Along the way, much of the humor that informed the original was lost, as well as the fresh take on a venerable genre. The half-man/half-robot conceit remained valid, but the MegaCop vs. MegaCorp theme wasn’t as relevant to post-Reagan audiences. Even so, there’s plenty of action to be enjoyed and the “Thank you, for not smoking” gag still works. The second sequel transplanted Detroit to Atlanta, which looked even less Midwestern than the Dallas locations in the first two chapters. The widely rumored game of musical chairs – including the addition of director Fred Dekker (The Monster Squad) and John Burke in the title role — failed to spark any interest in younger audiences and it tanked. Here, Our Hero was forced to decide, once and for all, if he was on the side of the corporation or the people being rousted by OCP. It might have worked better if RoboCop was sent to Kuwait, instead. The Collector’s Editions do add value in the form of fresh 2K polishes and new commentary tracks, interviews, making-of featurettes and galleries. Shout!Factory, as usual, takes its job of giving new life to old product very seriously here and delivers accordingly.

SpacePOP: Princess Power
The Swan Princess: Royally Undercover
The latest animated series to make the leap from the Internet to DVD is “SpacePOP,” which, according to Andy Heyward, CEO of Genius Brands, “is like Spice Girls meets Star Wars.” Ask any parent of a pre-teen girl and they’ll tell you that any movie with a princess in it is going to attract their attention, whether it’s Disney’s Moana, Tangled and Frozen, or such kindred royals as Princess Barbie, Anne Hathaway’s Princess Amelia “Mia” Thermopolis Renaldi, Princess Leia, Princess Mononoke, Kristin Chenoweth’s Princess Skystar (in this fall’s “My Little Pony: The Movie”) and Princess Alise, in The Swan Princess: Royally Undercover. A kids’ sensation on YouTube, SpacePOP: Princess Power extends the brand from three-minute webisodes to a 72-minute feature. It describes what happens when the evil Empress Geela takes over the Planets of the Pentangle and five teen princesses disguise themselves as pop-music musicians. Their band, SpacePOP, may remind some parents of the animated TV series “JEM and the Holograms.” Their mission is to spread the message of freedom, friendship, joy beauty and fashion through music … kind of like Kanye and Kim. In doing so, they join the resistance to take down the Geela, free their parents and liberate the people of the Pentangle.

The Swan Princess: Royally Undercover is the seventh addition to a franchise that began in 1994 with an animated musical fantasy, based on the ballet “Swan Lake.” It featured the voice talents of Jack Palance, John Cleese, Steven Wright and Sandy Duncan, and was directed by a former Disney animation director, Richard Rich. It didn’t do very well at the domestic box office, for several pretty good reasons, but rallied to spawn six  direct-to-video features. Here, when mysterious visitors arrive in the Kingdom, Lucas, Princess Alise and their friends go undercover on a secret spy adventure to see if they can be trusted. They will need all their superior detective skills, as well as some cool gadgets, to solve the royal mystery and save the Kingdom. Both films are being distributed by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Smithsonian: Million Dollar American Princesses: The Complete Series
Smithsonian: Polar Bear Town: Season One
PBS: Nature: Snowbound: Animals of Winter
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Van Gogh’s Ear
PBS: American Masters: Mike Nichols
PBS: Military Medicine: Beyond the Battle Field
Nickelodeon: Super Shredder: Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Hallmark: When Calls the Heart: The Heart of Faith
In the not-so-distant past, newspapers supplied all of the information TV viewers needed to choose the shows they wanted to watch and the times they would be broadcast. The popular acceptance of cable television forced newspaper to expand their grids and listings to the bursting point. Today, schedules for original programming on dozens of legitimate cable, satellite and streaming services are largely relegated to the scrolls and grids provided to subscribers. The problem for viewers and critics, alike, is all the work it takes to separate the wheat from the chaff, making sure the best are seen and the worst ignored. I’m fortunate to receive boxed sets of DVDs carrying entire seasons’ worth of programming. It wasn’t until I received the Smithsonian Channel’s multipart, “Million Dollar American Princesses: The Complete Series” – distributed through PBS — that I became aware of a show that extended the “Downton Abbey” experience, without endlessly repeating favorite scenes, interviews and BBC spinoff shows. Elizabeth McGovern, who played the American heiress married to Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, whose estate was in desperate need of the money provided by her dowry. Who better, then, to introduce us to some of the American women who, in effect, traded their inheritances for titles and, sometimes, love. Who knew, right?  The seven-part series takes us from the late 1800s, when daughters of America’s new industrial millionaires marry into the money-strapped British aristocracy, to the 20th Century, when a new kind of American Princess wields power not through wealth, but through character, style, wit and sexuality. Through the decades, these women bring dramatic change to the European aristocracy and eventually the world. The series also tells the stories of such headline-making women as Peggy Guggenheim, Consuelo Vanderbilt, Jennie Jerome, Grace Kelly, Gloria Swanson, Winnaretta Singer, Rita Hayworth, Clara Ward, Barbara Hutton, Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy and Nancy Astor. Each is different and singularly interesting.

Another Smithsonian offering, the Season One package of “Polar Bear Town,” describes what happens every fall in Churchill, Manitoba, when a thousand bears migrate directly through town on their way to Hudson Bay. Tourists from all over the world come to see it for themselves and it’s up to veteran guides and conservation officers to protect the bears and the people.

Winter’s hard on everyone, especially animals stuck in places where the only relief available is what they create for themselves. In the “Nature” presentation, “Snowbound: Animals of Winter,” wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan introduces us to some of the world’s most iconic snow animals, from the penguins of Antarctica, to the bison of Yellowstone, polar bears and the Arctic fox. He also burrows beneath the ice to show us how some animals are able to survive months of hibernation and other adapt in ways unfamiliar to us.

Too many times, Hollywood’s version of the truth doesn’t come close to squaring with the truth presented as evidence by prosecutors, defense attorneys and forensics experts. This notion was summed up best, of course, in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, when Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young) advised Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It isn’t a particularly novel concept in Europe, either. For most Americans, including those of us who would fly to Amsterdam on a whim, just to visit the Van Gogh Museum, Kirk Douglas’ portrayal of the artist in Lust for Life is close enough to pass for fact. In 1991, Maurice Pialat’s beautifully rendered Van Gogh confounded some audience members by suggesting that the artist did not cut his ear entirely off, but, instead, took some nasty swipes at it. It wouldn’t be Pialat’s only debatable decision. Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo was more interested in drawing a psychological portrait of Van Gogh, as he stared into a shattered mirror. So, the argument leading into PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead: Van Gogh’s Ear” not only was how much of his ear was lopped off, but also what happened between that moment and his arrival at Dr. Felix Rey’s office for treatment. The accepted scenario argues that he walked into Arles’ red-light district, where he delivered a portion of his ear –or lobe — to a prostitute named Rachel, probably nicknamed Gaby, in a handkerchief. Narrator Jeremy Paxman joins Provence-based “art sleuth” Bernadette Murphy as she nears the end of her career-long mission to solve the mystery of what happened on that fateful night of December 23, 1888. What she discovers is no less exciting than anything described in the movies.

The most overworked word in the Hollywood vernacular, by far, is “genius.” Anyone with more than one blockbuster movie or hit TV series is a borderline genius, at least, while a franchise or spin-off ensures genius, especially for producers and directors. Very few of them are, however, even if they have the papers to prove it. Mike Nichols was a genius. As a third cousin, twice removed, of Albert Einstein, he had the pedigree to prove it. In April 1939, when the Nazis were arresting Jews in Berlin, 7-year-old Mikhail and his 3-year-old brother, Robert, were sent, alone, to the United States to join their father, who had fled Germany months earlier. His mother eventually joined the family, escaping through Italy, in 1940. Thirteen years later, as a student in Chicago, he became an announcer for classical music station WFMT-FM, where he would launch the pioneering folk-music program, “The Midnight Special.” It’s still on the air. In some sections of the city, Nichols’ greatest accomplish might still be his work with Compass Players, the predecessor to Chicago’s legendary improvisational troupe, the Second City, whose members included Elaine May, Shelley Berman, Del Close, Nancy Ponder and director by Paul Sills. In 1958, the comedy duo, Nichols and May, took New York by storm. As we are reminded in PBS’ “American Masters: Mike Nichols” – directed by May — his trajectory never stopped rising. He excelled as a director, actor, writer and producer, winning an Oscar, a Grammy, four Emmys, nine Tonys and three BAFTAs. On each step of the ladder, Nichols changed the way things were done before him. Among those interviewed are Renata Adler, Bob Balaban, Alec Baldwin, James L. Brooks, Tony Kushner, Dustin Hoffman, Neil and Paul Simon (separately), Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep and Robin Williams. Mostly, though, it’s Nichols’ alone, on a stool, reminiscing.

Until wars are fought by robots, drones and malware, soldiers’ wounds will continue to be treated by doctors, surgeons, nurses and therapists whose abilities may always be two or three steps behind an enemy’s demonic desire to kill, maim and otherwise neutralize their opponents. One of the fascinating things about PBS’ “Mercy Street” is learning how the art of healing and treating wounded Civil War soldiers advanced, if ever so slowly, to the point where significant numbers survived amputations and prosthetics were introduced in the recovery process. Just as World War I was a proving ground for the weapons that would be commonly used in World War II, and the Korean War opened doors to the horrors of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, each new conflagration presented unique challenges to medical professional on the ground and in hospitals back home. The most diabolically effective weapon used against coalition troops in Afghanistan and post-Saddam Iraq became armor-piercing IEDs – Improvised Explosive Device – which were as simple to construct and detonate as they were harmful to those riding in convoys.  The same applied to easily portable RPGs — rocket-propelled grenades – which could take out tanks and helicopters with equal ferocity. The only good news came in the ability of doctors and medics to stabilize the wounds long enough for casualties to be rapidly transported to well-equipped Combat Support Hospitals, which, in 2006, replaced the Korean War MASH units that played an important role in the development of the triage system. From there, survivors could be quickly transferred to hospitals in Germany and the U.S. for intensive care. In PBS’ “Military Medicine: Beyond the Battle Field,” ABC newsman Bob Woodruff traces the stories of veterans, surgeons, researchers, rehab experts and families, from battlefield to military hospitals, from hi-tech research centers to rehab facilities, to homes and workplaces, where a new generation of wounded warriors are given a chance to live a productive, if vastly different life, away from combat. In January, 2006, while covering the ongoing insurrection in Iraq as co-anchor ABC’s “World News Tonight,” of Woodruff was critically wounded by a roadside bomb. The documentary is informed, as well, by Woodruff’s remarkable recovery. It also allows him to pass along what he learned about treatments for traumatic brain injuries, which not only afflict wounded soldiers, but also athletes and victims of car accidents.

In Nickelodeon’s “Super Shredder: Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo are pitted against “their strongest, most dangerous, most deadliest enemy ever,” the Super Shredder. After recovering from wounds inflicted in a fight with Master Splinter – and being injected with mutagen — the metallic fiend has bowed vengeance against Splinter and the Turtles. To protect their beloved sensai, the Turtles prepare for a final showdown by enlisting the help of April O’Neil, Casey Jones, Karai, Shinigami and the Mighty Mutanimals. If successful, they could put an end to Oroku Saki’s reign of terror forever. The episodes span Season Four’s “The Super Shredder” and Season Five’s “End Times.”

Hallmark has never made it easy for fans of “When Calls the Heart” to easily tell the difference between the episodes shown and television and those sent out on DVD. Don’t bother looking for “The Heart of Faith” in the synopses provided by various Internet sites, because you aren’t likely to find it. A perusal of the small print of the back of the package informs anyone who takes the time to look for it that “Heart of Faith” originally was shown last November, as “The Heart of Christmas.” In fact, the title PPV subscribers should look for is, “When Calls the Heart Christmas.” It’s a subtle change, but enough to confuse search engines. I suspect that “Heart of Faith” was attached to encourage faith-obsessed newcomers to buy a Christmas special in spring, without reading the synopsis or noticing the wee decorated tree in a photo on the box’s bottom-right corner. The story opens with Rosemary and Lee’s return from their honeymoon and completion of their new row house. It’s next to Elizabeth, who’s busy helping her students mount a nativity play. A traveling peddler, Sam, is mistaken for Santa by the kids and, by Jack, for a thief. Meanwhile, the pageant is threatened when word arrives that the supply train has derailed. Without costumes for the play, food for the feast and presents for the kids, Christmas will be just another day in December. It takes a lot of faith, spirit and cooperation to show Hope Valley what the holiday is all about.

Surrender Cinema: Ultimate Pleasure Box
What could be more fun for admirers of the soft-core erotica that’s made Skinemax a late-night pastime for insomniacs and post-pubescent boys than a collection of 12 sci-fi flicks from Surrender Cinema’s heyday. Unlike such original Cinemax series as “Erotic Confessions,” “Hot Line,” “Passion Cove,” “Lingerie” and “Co-Ed Confidential,” now being repeated ad nausea on the network, the films included in the “Surrender Cinema: Ultimate Pleasure Box” probably would have opened on the drive-in circuit, before going straight-to-DVD or premium cable. With that option closed to distributors by the mid-1990s, they became a staple of late-night cable in the U.S. and Canada. Typically, the skin was limited to T&A, but the occasional limp penis and bush would slip through. Now, of course, actresses have their pubes lasered to extinction at puberty or are allowed the slightest of landing strips. Some of them even were allowed to leave their original breasts unenhanced. Thus, such easily forgettable movies as The Exotic Time Machine, Femalien and their inevitable sequels and trailers qualify as nostalgia. There’s also The Exotic House of Wax, Hidden Beauties: The Awakening, Lolida 2000, Dungeon of Desire, Virtual Encounters, Pleasurecraft and Virgins of Sherwood Forest, featuring such immortal stars as Jacqueline Lovell, Holly Sampson, Regina Russell, Brandy Davis, Gabriella Hall and Nikki Fritz. Long may they wave.

The DVD Wrapup: Fences, Elle, Passengers, Solace, Film/Not Film, Robert Flaherty, Drunk History and more

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

Fences: Blu-ray
It’s possible to enjoy Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer-, Tony- and Drama Desk-winning play, Fences, without knowing anything about the playwright or his Pittsburgh Cycle (a.k.a., Century Cycle) of 10 plays chronicling the evolution of the African-American experience throughout the 20th Century. You could watch it simply to savor Viola Davis’ Oscar-winning performance or Washington’s interpretation of Troy Maxson, a could’ve-been baseball star, who, at 53, is supporting his family as a garbage collector for the city. The stories behind Fences’ long journey to the screen and Wilson’s rise to prominence as a distinctly American voice in the theater are definitely worth a closer look. Nine of the 10 plays in Wilson’s cycle are set in Pittsburgh’s predominantly blue-collar Hill District, which, while economically depressed, seemingly offered a secure mid-century home for a cross-section of African-American residents and recent immigrants. Even so, everything that happens in Fences is colored by Troy’s resentment over being passed over by the Major Leagues for reasons he believes range from his prison record and advanced age, to being black, which is the one he prefers to blame. His resentment is equaled by his pride at having pulled himself up by the bootstraps to be a self-sufficient family man. Troy conveniently overlooks the $3,000 stipend the government awarded his brother (Mykelti Williamson) for a traumatic head injury he suffered in the war, but was redirected to pay for the Maxsons’ modest house. Rose Maxson (Davis) is proud of her husband, but often bears the brunt of Troy’s disapproval of his trumpet-playing son from a previous marriage, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), and weekly visits for “loans.” Then, there’s the perceived disrespect shown him by their headstrong teenage son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), who’s been given an opportunity to play football at a college in North Carolina, but, for mostly selfish reasons, Troy vetoes. Rose isn’t given the opportunity to add her two cents to the debate, mostly because her husband has convinced himself that those two cents already belong to him. The voice of reason is supplied by their good-natured friend, Bono (Stephen Henderson), who he met during their time together in prison and works alongside him on the truck. The title, Fences, derives as much from the walls that failed to contain Troy’s Negro Leagues home runs, as the wooden barrier Rose has asked Troy to build around their house, but will only complete when and if Cory buckles to his demands.

In 1987, when “Fences” was first produced on Broadway, Wilson rejected prospects for any movie adaptation that wasn’t directed by an African-American. In its infinite myopia, Hollywood was unable to come up with one until producer Scott Rudin asked Washington to reprise on film his Tony-winning portrayal of Maxson in the 2010 revival of the play and direct it. Davis, Williamson, Hornsby and Henderson also agreeed to repeat their roles. A few eyebrows were raised when playwright-screenwriter Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) was hired to build on a draft written by Wilson before his death in 2005. Finally, though, Wilson was given sole authorship of the adapted screenplay, as well as an Academy Award nomination, while Kushner is credited as co-producer. It explains why Fences sometimes feels as if it were transplanted directly from the stage and the establishing exteriors are limited to a few shots of Troy and Bono working in the streets of Pittsburgh, his visit to downtown headquarters to be promoted to driver and a shot of kids playing stickball. The movie never feels stagebound or contrived, however. Wilson’s genius for turning conversations into poetry is as evident as ever. It’s worth noting that Washington has committed to a deal with HBO to bring the other nine plays in the Pittsburgh Cycle to the premium-cable network as producer, one a year, for the next decade. The featurettes, which could have benefitted from being longer, include “Expanding the Audience: From Stage to Screen”; “The Company of Fences,” a closer look at reuniting the stage cast for the film and a few new faces; “Building Fences: Denzel Washington; “Playing the Part: Rose Maxson,” an examination of Viola Davis’ character and her performance; and “August Wilson’s Hill District.”

Elle: Blu-ray
Not having seen La La Land – its release on Blu-ray/4K/DVD is now set for April 25 – it would be impossible for me to say with any certainty if Emma Stone’s performance was more deserving of an Academy Award than Isabelle Huppert’s, Elle, an honor for which they were both nominated. By splitting its Best Actress contest into light and dark categories, the HFPA allowed its members to accord both women their due respect and avoid any fruitless debate. In hindsight, of course, it’s easy to see how Huppert was the perfect choice to play the emotionally damaged, but fiercely resilient title character. Among the names floated ahead of Paul Verhoeven’s decision to stage Elle in France, instead of the United States, as planned, were Nicole Kidman, Sharon Stone, Julianne Moore and Diane Lane. He wanted Jennifer Jason Leigh to be considered by the producers, as well, but, “She’s an artistic presence and we were looking for names.” While Marion Cotillard and Carice van Houten then were mentioned, the combination of rape, rough consensual sex and nudity would be enough to scare any A-list actress away from the project. Huppert was the obvious choice all along, I suspect, but she wouldn’t be any easy fit in an English-language adaptation of Philippe Djian’s French-language novel, “O …” Nevertheless, at 64, Huppert is still a highly prolific and popular star in Europe, as well as an arthouse draw here. Moreover, throughout her 45-year career, she’s portrayed several female characters caught in desperate straits – beautiful and short in stature, but never fragile — and has looked as comfortable acting nude as clothed.

In Elle, her Michèle Leblanc dusts herself off after being raped and pummeled by a ski-masked intruder, clearly distressed but curiously unwillingly to bring in the police to conduct an investigation or immediately turn to anyone else for comfort and support. She goes to work, as usual, at the video-game company she runs with a close friend, Anna (Anne Consigny). We soon will learn just how conversant Michèle is with manifestations of abhorrent violence: the video games sold by her company contain nightmare visions of rape, while, as a girl, her abusive father was imprisoned as a mass murderer. A haunting photograph of the very young Michèle, staring blankly at the camera in her underwear, had been widely disseminated in France and, even decades later, she and her mother are harassed by strangers with long memories. As determined as Michèle is to not be reduced to being a victim, she does show signs of cracking. In addition to racing a deadline at work, Michèle is forced to deal with a needy ex-husband with a much younger girlfriend; a jealous lover, who’s married to her closest friend (and, likely, onetime lover); and an aimless son, trapped in a relationship with an abusive girlfriend and pregnant by another man. That’s a lot of turmoil for an actor to imbue in a character, especially one as chic as the bourgeois Michèle. Her opportunity to take control of her predicament – and turn the tables on her attacker — comes in another shocking home invasion. Huppert skillfully navigates her character through a perfect storm of diverse emotional impulses, looking disheveled and vulnerable one minute and fashionably buttoned-down the next. In the interviews included in the bonus package, Verhoeven says he intended Elle to be considered “a protest against genre” and easy pigeonholing as either a victim or avenging angel. Then, in the closing scene, the tables are turned on her in a completely unexpected way. Special features are “A Tale of Empowerment: Making Elle” and “Celebrating an Icon: AFI’s Tribute to Isabelle Huppert.”

Passengers: Blu-ray
For the Love of Spock
Ghost in the Shell: Movie: Blu-ray
Far be it for me to make excuses for a major studio, but Sony/Columbia clearly drew the short straw when its big-budget sci-fi picture Passengers was forced to open a week after Buena Vista’s even more expensive sci-fi adventure, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, just ahead of the long Christmas holiday. Even if the two movies’ narratives could hardly be more different, they both were largely set on space vessels in galaxies far, far away. And, while “Rogue One” promised fun and excitement for three generations of filmgoers, Passengers carried a distinctly mature vibe with it into megaplexes. Director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) and screenwriter Jon Spaihts (Doctor Strange) imagine a time, several hundred years down the road, when Earth has become so crowded and unlivable that 5,000 people from around the globe willingly board a giant luxury liner – yes, the Titanic in outer space – for the 120-year-long voyage to the idyllic, corporate-owned colony, Homestead II. In addition to the thousands of passengers, the spacecraft is carrying 255 crew members, all of whom have been placed in a state of suspended animation for the duration. Again, in keeping with the Titanic’s first and final voyage, the ship’s protective energy shield is damaged in a collision with an asteroid. The ship’s computerized repair system corrects most of the damage, without being thrown off course or destroyed. It isn’t until one of the passengers, mechanical engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), is awakened from his induced slumber, 90 years short of the spacecraft’s scheduled arrival. Jim spends the next year living in splendid isolation, with only a few maintenance robots and Arthur the android bartender (Michael Sheen) providing company. (Here, Tyldum admits to freely borrowing the bar’s look and lighting from the Gold Room bar in The Shining.)  Instead of committing suicide, Jim takes a gigantic moral leap by picking out another passenger to make his ordeal easier. Given a choice of 5,000 pods from which to choose, Jim decides to disrupt the slumber of Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), a blond beauty who looks as if she knows how to party.

It takes a while before Aurora warms to Jim and they begin to partake in the luxuries the ship offers. It takes even longer for her to learn that her predicament is anything but accidental. By then, however, the ship is starting to malfunction. Coincidentally, another pod failure awakens Gus (Laurence Fishburne), a chief deck officer and veteran space traveler. Together, they discover multiple failures in the ship’s systems that will eventually cause the ship to break down if not fixed. It opens the door for a thrilling series of precarious repair efforts that might remind viewers of Gravity. We wouldn’t be at all surprised to watch one or both of the protagonists float off into deep space, with a broken tether hanging from their space suit. The reason I don’t think young audiences here didn’t flock to Passengers – it did very well in the overseas market – is that the action that occurs in the final third of the movie comes after a bit too much courting, romance, moralizing and jogging around the ship’s interior. There’s also the incongruity of Lawrence’s many costume changes, which might have been appropriate if a character played by Elizabeth Taylor had been awakened from hibernation, not a reporter on a 250-year-long assignment (don’t ask). That said, sci-fi buffs should enjoy the amount of thought and hard work that went into the set design and scientific touches. The best occurs when Aurora is swimming in the pool in her suite – which extends from the ship’s outer shell, like the one in Playboy suite in the Las Vegas Palms resort – and a mechanical glitch knocks out the ship’s gravitational control. It causes the water to swallow up Aurora and knock her around as if she were a goldfish in a plastic bag. I also loved Sheen’s turn as the android bartender, whose computerized memory holds the recipes for thousands of cocktails and the languages of all the passengers. He also has the temperament of a professional, who’s heard all the jokes a dozen times and still manages a chuckle. The bonus package adds a great deal of background and making-of material, as well as deleted scenes, outtakes and interviews.

So much hoopla was raised in the media by last year’s 50th anniversary of “Star Trek” that anyone who wasn’t a card-carrying, costume-wearing Trekkie could be excused from wanting to see anything franchise related, at least until it begins again this spring with “Star Trek: Discovery” and “Star Trek Equinox: The Night of Time.” The title, For the Love of Spock, suggests yet another fan-driven salute to everyone’s favorite Vulcan, cobbled together after Leonard Nimoy’s death on February 27, 2015, at 83. Instead, Adam Nimoy’s compelling bio-doc celebrates the life and career of his father, without obsessing on his alter-ego, Mr. Spock, or playing down the character’s importance in his life. Originally, the film was going to focus on Spock – he’d already directed “Leonard Nimoy’s Boston” for the city’s PBS affiliate, WGBH — but his father died, Adam decided to expand the scope of the project. In addition to dozens of clips, interviews, home movies and testimonial, For the Love of Spock explores the son’s frequently troubled personal relations with his father. If these reflections sometimes disrupt the rhythm of the nearly two-hour film, they demonstrate, once again, that no one’s perfect. Fellow Bostonian Barry Newman describes the struggles they faced breaking into the business in the 1950s, while making a meager income doing odd jobs and appearing in bit parts on TV series. Nimoy shares his own anecdotes about the road to “Star Trek,” which began when he worked on Gene Roddenberry’s “The Lieutenant.” This leads to the give and take that preceded the launch of “Star Trek,” including the problems involved in shaping Spock’s trademark ears. Also testifying are William Shatner, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Neil deGrasse Tyson, J.J. Abrams, Jim Parsons, Mayim Bialik, Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana and Simon Pegg, among several others. The DVD adds “Leonard Nimoy’s Boston”; a Kickstarter gallery; a Tribeca panel; “Trivia Time,” with Jason Alexander; an on-set visit with “The Big Bang Theory” cast; Adam Nimoy’s commentary and the Tribeca Teaser.

There already are two Blu-ray editions of Ghost in the Shell: Movie extant, as well as various sequels and television offshoots. The difference in Starz/Anchor Bay’s new edition is its “Mondo X SteelBook” packaging, which is nice, as far as it goes, but doesn’t make original the adaptation of the Japanese anime/manga classic any better than it already was. What the release does do, however, is anticipate Paramount’s life-action adaptation, starring Scarlett Johansson, as the Major; Michael Pitt, as Kuze; and Juliette Binoche, as a new character, Dr. Ouelet. In the anime, it’s 2029 and a cybernetic government agent, Major Motoko Kusanagi, and the Internal Bureau of Investigations, are hot on the trail of the Puppet Master. It’s a mysterious and threatening computer virus capable of infiltrating human hosts. The movie, which combines CGI with standard animation, questions human existence in the fast-paced world of the information age. Not everyone is excited about the “whitewashing” of “Ghost in the Shell” and protests have already been lodged about reports on the dubbing and use of visual effects to make white actors look Asian. But, who knows what it will turn out to be. What hasn’t been kept secret, especially as fanboy bait, is news that Johansson will appear nude, as is her character in the original. If you haven’t seen Ghost in the Shell: Movie already, I recommend checking out the Blu-ray.

Solace: Blu-ray
The cover of Solace appears to promise a mano a mano battle between characters played Anthony Hopkins and Colin Farrell, although it’s impossible to tell from their expressions who’s the protagonist and who’s the antagonist. The only hint we’re allowed is the subtitle, “How do you stop a killer that can read your mind?” Given only that much evidence, I couldn’t wait to find out who’s mind was being read and which one these somber-looking characters was capable of doing it. About two-thirds of the way through Afonso Poyart’s 101-minute drama, I began to wonder if the producers had failed to inform the Brazilian director (Two Rabbits) that they’d hired the two-time Golden Globes-nominated actor – Lobster, In Bruges – and he was waiting in the dressing room for his call. I had just watched Passengers, in which the fifth-listed actor, Andy Garcia, appears in the last 15 seconds of the movie and doesn’t have any lines. When Farrell does make his appearance in Solace, it’s like a breath of fresh air in a room wrapped tightly with plastic sheeting. Hopkins, who couldn’t deliver a poor performance if he tried, has already established himself as a former FBI consultant, John Clancy, who used clairvoyance and psychometry to solve crimes. He’s being beckoned from an uneasy retirement by his friend, Joe Merriwether (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and newbie agent Katherine Cowles (Abbie Cornish), who are in desperate need of help in capturing a serial killer, whose gifts include clairvoyance, clairaudience and claircognizance. They’ve kept the killer several steps ahead of the FBI, which is only now reaching out to him. Like Hannibal Lector, Clancy wants to see the case files before making a commitment. They suggest he anticipates doing battle with the master and has been setting traps to make such a confrontation happen. The problem is that far too many other seemingly unrelated things happen before the two psychically gifted men meet finally meet and are given very little time to tie up loose ends. In fact, it isn’t until the killer spells everything out for him that we’re left to wonder if he isn’t such a bad guy, after all. Legend has it that the original script for Solace was picked up by New Line as a sequel to Se7en (1995), tentatively titled “Ei8ht.” Several years after that didn’t happen, the stand-alone version of Solace – now owned by Warner Bros. – was bought by Relatively, which went bankrupt and sold it to Grindstone and Lionsgate for a limited release and DVD/Blu-ray. The faces on the cover have to count for something, after all. The disc arrives with Poyart’s commentary and an eight-minute making-of featurette.

The Forest for the Trees
Film Movement originally released The Forest for the Trees on DVD in 2006, as a Film of the Month Club selection. The company has since expanded upon the original subscription concept, which was based on making festival favorites available to viewers with little or no access to such events. It is wisely re-releasing The Forest for the Trees to piggy-back on the heat generated by Maren Ade’s third feature, Toni Erdmann, which was nominated in the Best Foreign Picture category by Academy, Globes and BAFTA voters. It will be released by Sony Classics on April 11. The Forest for the Trees, which was Ade’s film-school graduation project, follows mousy country girl Melanie Pröschle as she weathers the same rocky shoals faced by countless other teachers when they enter a classroom for the first time. She left her parents and boyfriend behind, thinking that big-city life would be exciting enough to compensate for their absence. In her first staff meeting, Melanie sets herself up for a huge fall by promoting her plans for a progressive curriculum and ability to bring a “warm breeze” of fresh ideas to the school. Naturally, the kids in her classroom are as brash and rowdy as any depicted in an American movie, including “Blackboard Jungle” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.” Eager for some kind of companionship, aside from the attention of a creepy co-worker her age, Melanie orchestrates a “chance meeting” with her neighbor, Tina (Daniela Holtz). As friendships go, however, Tina’s runs as hot and cold as tenement shower. The butt of jokes at school and a thorn in Tina’s side, Melanie decides that enough is enough and she’s due a fantastical escape. Ade based the movie on stories her parents, both teachers, had shared with her. The incorrigible father in Toni Erdmann also was modeled after her father. The short film added to the DVD is Paul Cotter’s “Estes Avenue.”

Film: Blu-ray
Notfilm: Blu-ray
Most Internet biographies of Nobel Prize-winning author Samuel Beckett introduce him as an avant-garde Irish novelist, playwright, theatre director and poet. They quickly mention, as well, that he lived in France for most of his adult life and wrote in both English and French. Anyone who isn’t already familiar with “Waiting for Godot,” his monumentally influential “tragicomedy in two acts,” probably was searching for a different Samuel Beckett. Buried deep within these biographies, if at all, is mention of Film, his only known screenplay. Commissioned by Barney Rosset, of Grove Press, as part of a larger project matching playwrights and the cinema, it was filmed in New York City in July, 1964. (Rosset had also solicited scripts from Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet, to no immediate avail.) and In his first and only visit to the U.S., Beckett spent two weeks of a hellishly hot and humid Manhattan summer quietly observing the production and offering advice when solicited by first-time feature director Alan Schneider. While it debuted at the 1965 Venice Festival to acclaim, Film’s New York release prompted wildly divergent opinions from film and theater critics. The best reason for anyone who isn’t a PhD candidate to pick up the excellent Milestone restoration is the presence of 68-year-old Buster Keaton, who, at the time, was occasionally asked to appear in straight and comic roles on television, movies and the stage, but was broke, terminally ill and largely stayed busy playing imaginary games cards with long-dead studio moguls. He quickly accepted Schneider’s offer. As the 20-minute film opens Keaton’s “Man” is a lonely figure, a handkerchief over his face, skittering alongside a large brick wall in a barren patch of land on the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge. His destination is a furniture-less apartment, where, after he silently scrambles to control the cats and dog that sneak into the room as soon as he shoves them out the door. The Man commences to rip up photos of what may be his mother, himself and turn-of-century ancestors, before he is finally forced to confront his own face in a mirror. In an interview with a reporter for the New Yorker, Beckett said, “It’s a movie about the perceiving eye, about the perceived and the perceiver – two aspects of the same man. The perceiver desires like mad to perceive and the perceived tries desperately to hide. Then, in the end, one wins.” OK, but Film is worth the effort of finding just to see Keaton perform, again, in a serious work of art.

The Blu-ray adds a restored edition of Schneider’s definitive 1961 television adaptation of “Waiting for Godot,” which starred Zero Mostel and Burgess Meredith, for NET’s “Play of the Week,” as well as outtakes from cats-and-dog sequence. Also from Milestone comes film-restorationist Ross Lipman’s 2015 documentary, Notfilm, an exhaustive kino-essay on the making and meaning of Film. At 128 minutes, it is six times longer Beckett’s movie. Without it, however, I don’t think that an appreciation of Film would be fully attainable, especially for those of us without a degree in film theory or contemporary literature. Through clips, interviews, anecdotes and analysis, Lipman is able to frame Film within the context of western culture at a pivotal time in the mid-20th Century, while also deconstructing it as a cinematic treasure. Among the first sources interviewed by Lipman was in his seven-year restoration process was maverick publisher and First Amendment champion Rosset, who discovered reels under the sink in his kitchen. He then turned to Beckett’s biographer, James Knowlson; film historian Kevin Brownlow; Film actress Billie Whitelaw; Keaton’s friend and Film actor James Karen; and critic Leonard Maltin, who visited the set as a star-struck 14-year-old Keaton fan. Other featurettes include “Street Scene: A Lost Scene Reconstruction, from outtakes; audio Recordings of Beckett, Kaufman, Rosset and Schneider; “Buster Keaton and Film,” James Karen in conversation; “Memories of Samuel Beckett: An Afternoon with James Knowlson,”; “Jean Schneider: Memories of Alan Schneider”; “Jeannette Seaver: Beckett and Godot”; “Photographing Film/Photographing Beckett,” Steve Schapiro and I.C. Rapoport in conversation; a photo gallery; and “The Music of Notfilm,” with downloadable MP3 recordings by Mihály Víg.

Canoa: A Shameful Memory: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
45 Years: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Most of what Americans remember about the 1968 Summer Olympics, held in Mexico City, between October 12-27, involves the black American medal-winners – the Australian sprinter who came in second also supported them — who raised their black-gloved fists and lowered the heads during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” They did so in solidarity with civil-rights activists back home, who were being targeted by law-enforcement agencies in the wake of riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and growing influence of militants in the Black Power movement. In response, IOC president Avery Brundage suspended Tommie Smith and John Carlos from the U.S. team and banned them from the Olympic Village. It triggered a huge furor in the U.S., based largely on the photographic images displayed on front pages of newspapers across the country and, likely, the globe. Ask any Mexican of a certain age and they’re likely to say that the thing they remember most about the Olympics were the widespread protests leading up to Games, under the banner of the Mexican Student Movement. They prompted the country’s right-wing government to impose strict restrictions on speech and assembly, as well as a visible military presence.

Ten days before Opening Ceremonies were scheduled to begin, army and police snipers were ordered to open fire on a gathering of some 10,000 protesters in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, in the Tlatelolco section of Mexico City. Early government reports put the death toll at between 20-28 people, with hundreds wounded and 1,300 more arrested. The foreign media, which had yet to reach Mexico City to cover the Olympics, were unable to verify the extend of the massacre and accepted the lowball figures from partially complicit U.S. authorities there. Most of the Mexican media reported that the students provoked the army’s violent response with sniper fire of their own, from the apartment buildings surrounding the plaza. Witnesses and other non-government observers estimated that at least 300 students and bystanders were killed or made to disappear. The Games went on as planned, with visitors from around the world largely ignorant of the actual carnage. It would take another 32 years and toppling of the longtime ruling party for an impartial investigation and accurate tally of casualties. It supported the eyewitness reports.

Eight years later, Felipe Cazals and writer Tomás Pérez Turrent’s Canoa: A Shameful Memory would become the first Mexican movie to dare challenge official accounts of the summer of student protests and comment on the deep schisms within mainstream Mexican society and the Catholic Church, which, itself, was split between hard-liners and the priests espousing liberation theology. As far as I know, the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition of the movie offers American viewers their first glimpse of the winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 1976 Berlin International Film Festival. It’s about time. Canoa: A Shameful Memory employs a Brechtian narration conceit to re-stage the 24-hour period that led to and followed the savage attacks on five innocent hikers, two weeks before the Tlatelolco massacre in the capital. The tragedy occurred in the impoverished rural village of San Miguel de Canoa, about 120 km southeast of Mexico City, in the shadow of La Malinche. News of the protests in the capital and universities around Mexico had reached villagers through politically slanted television reports and the fiery rhetoric of the local priest (Enrique Lucero), who not only calls the demonstrators godless communists, but also the physical embodiments of Satan on Earth. He demands from the easily bullied parishioners that they maintain a militant vigilance against outsiders, while simultaneously picking their pockets of whatever centavos they have. It is into this highly charged atmosphere that five employees of the Autonomous University of Puebla – employees, not students – arrive in the village, by bus, on a rain-soaked evening. The only shelter afforded the young men, who were turned away from the church and jail, is the home of a resident who freely shares his disdain for the priest. Before long, word is passed via a public loudspeaker that Satan’s envoys have, indeed, arrived and are about to plant the “communist flag” at the church’s altar, defile their animals and steal snacks from the village store. After a lynch mob is mobilized, four of the five outsiders and the man who opened his door to them are beaten, slashed and shot to death. Ambulance drivers are denied access to the village, before military police are called to quell the violence. Meanwhile, the priest who fomented the lynching – a dead ringer for Peoples Temple founder Jim Jones — stands in the background, acting like the cat that ate the canary.

Canoa: A Shameful Memory is most effective in its characterizations of the dirt-poor peasants, whose misplaced pride and religious convictions turn them into mindless killers. Cazals builds tension by shifting the camera’s perspective from the hikers’ points-of-views, to the church, bar and homes of the villagers. Cinematographer Álex Phillips Jr. is especially adept at finding whatever light is available – the mob’s torches, bare lightbulbs –and using it to illuminate the horror, without rubbing our noses in it. I don’t know if Cazals would consider himself to be a student of Costa-Gavras’ documentary-style indictments, but “Canoa” feels as if it were made with Z, State of Siege and The Confession in mind. Although there aren’t as many bonus features attached as most Criterion titles, the conversation between Cazals and Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), describing the effect the movie had on a new generation of Mexican filmmakers, is fascinating. A new introduction by Guillermo del Toro and essay by critic Fernanda Solórzano also are included.

It’s only taken nine months for “45 Years” to be given the Criterion treatment, after a perfectly decent Blu-ray release by Paramount last June. The difference between them, I suspect, lies in a bonus package that includes the original Sundance Select theatrical trailer; “The Making of 45 Years,” with clips and fresh interviews with director Andrew Haigh, Tom Courtenay, Charlotte Rampling, producer Tristan Goligher and editor Jonathan Alberts; commentary with Haigh and Tristan Goligher; a new video interview with author and poet David Constantine, who discusses Haigh’s adaptation of his short story; and an illustrated leaflet featuring an essay by critic Ella Taylor. The title refers to the 45 years of marriage Geoff and Kate soon will celebrate, as well as his sublimated memory of the woman he loved and lost before he met his wife. A letter addressed to Geoff from Germany informs him – and Kate, who’s only heard of the woman – that her body has been discovered in a glacier, somewhere in the Swiss Alps. Not only that, but, even after 45 years in the deep freeze, her body is in perfect condition. Geoff’s reaction to the discovery makes Kate wonder if she’s been playing second-fiddle to a ghost for all that time or he’s just experiencing a particularly disturbing senior moment. It’s a neat premise and Rambling and Courtney are terrific.

To Tell the Truth
A Boatload of Wild Irishmen
When is a documentary not a fact-based reflection of the truth? When it’s propaganda. OK, but is it possible for a documentary to also be propaganda? In the same way that history is said to be written by the victors, the difference between documentaries and propaganda depends on whether the ox is being gored or doing the goring. These and other questions are raised in Calvin Skaggs’ two-part To Tell the Truth, which, in “Working for Change,” explores the evolution of the non-fiction genre through social documentary films, from 1929 through 1941, and, in “The Strategy of Truth,” examines the uses of documentary/propaganda during World War II. The latter allows us to wonder how the Third Reich would have treated Colonel Frank Capra, mastermind of the U.S. Army’s “Why We Fight” series, if Germany had won the war. After the Nazis were defeated, Allied forces hunted down Triumph of the Will director Leni Riefenstahl and virtually assured that she would be ostracized from the international film community. In “The Strategy for Truth,” we’re shown how Capra’s 1944 follow-up, “The Negro Soldier,” was used to soften African-Americans’ reluctance to serve in an officially segregated and, frequently, downright racist military, typically in service, custodial and maintenance jobs. He also hoped the film would convince white Americans of the patriotism of black soldiers and positive role they’re already playing in the war effort. Although it was an undeniably impressive piece of work, it’s foundation was built on sand. Among the people interviewed are Alec Baldwin, the late Agnes Varda and Kevin Brownlow. It adds John Huston’s wartime contributions, “Anatomy of a Jeep” and “Let There Be Light,” which was suppressed for 30 years. It’s also worth noting that many of the progressive filmmakers who participated in the U.S. Office of War Information’s propaganda campaign would be thanked by being blacklisted and banished from Hollywood.

Several generations of film students knew Robert Flaherty as the “father” of the modern documentary film. Revisionist historians probably would argue that the director of “Nanook of the North,” “Moana,” “Man of Aran” and “Louisiana Story” is the father of modern reality-based programming. That, however, would have us stipulate that “reality based” and the manipulation of known cultural and historical facts for the purposes of mainstream entertainment are synonymous, which they most assuredly are not. The whimsically titled “A Boatload of Wild Irishmen” makes the case for the latter, while explaining why his films are as relevant and emulated today as they’ve been for most of the last 90 years. Flaherty is said to have opened Pandora’s box by demonstrating how filming the everyday life of real people could be molded into dramatic, entertaining narratives. If the events and dialogue shown on the big screen didn’t take place in precisely the same order as they were captured by the camera, it wasn’t because Flaherty hadn’t studied them for countless days and hours ahead of time. And, if the ethnographic details were fudged, who back home in the U.S. would know it. Certainly not, paying customers. The title, A Boatload of Wild Irishmen, refers to the Aran Island fishermen he convinced to go to sea in a stiff gale and risk their life attempting to make it back to shore unscathed. Mac Dara Ó’Curraidhín and writer Brian Winston’s 2010 warts-and-all documentary is best when drawing a portrait of a Hollywood original and old-school adventurer who lived the kind of life others only read about in books or observed in newsreels during double-features.  The film benefits from much archival footage, clips and interviews with people who either are related to people in the documentaries or remember when they were being made. Joseph Boudreaux, who played “the Boy” in 1948’s The Louisiana Story, may not have appeared in another movie, but he’s lived long enough to re-live some of the hunting and fishing scenes staged by Flaherty for Ó’Curraidhín.

The Gospel of Mark
Every once in a while, some ambitious producer decides that it might be fun to make a series of movies based on stories from the Old Testament or New Testament gospels. This doesn’t include the individual Hollywood biblical epics that Cecil B. DeMille churned out for holiday viewing for more than 30 years or such politically and spiritually charged stand-alones as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. In the mid-1960s, Dino De Laurentiis announced that The Bible: In the Beginning …,” directed by and starring John Huston as Noah, would be the first in a series of feature films based on the books of the Bible. When Fox lost $1.5 million on the deal, however, it abandoned any plans for sequels. Imagine if God had simply pulled the plug on humanity after Sodom and Gomorrah, instead wasting good fire and brimstone on it, and waited for something cheaper and more malleable to come along in its place? Thirty years later, a group of producers led by former Jimmy Carter aide Gerald Rafshoon commissioned a series of seven classic Old Testament stories — employing top-shelf actors, directors and composers – even going so far as to build a production facility in Ouarzazate, Morocco. They established a worldwide distribution network, taking advantage of new cable- and satellite-delivery systems. It has since been recycled several times over in DVD and other cable networks. The Gospel of Mark is the third of four films from a consortium of production companies with experience in the Christian subgenre. The others are The Gospel of Luke/John/Matthew. The simplicity of the idea is practically inspirational. Each depicts the life and toils of Jesus Christ, as written in the gospels. Narrated in English, they adhere to the New International Version of the scripture, while the actors speak in Aramaic. (You’d have to lip read Aramaic to understand it, though.) Each installment shares David Batty, as director; Selva Rasalingam, as Jesus; Karima Gouit, as Mary; Leila El Fadili, as Mary Magdelene; El Housseine Dejjiti, as Judas Iscariot; and so on and so forth. No screenwriters are credited and it’s entirely possible they used the same Moroccan facilities as the ones built by Rafshoon. I was impressed by how effective the concept worked as cinema and entertainment. The casting of Middle Eastern and Northern African actors and extras adds verisimilitude missing in past religious epics. The featurettes include “Deconstructing a Scene,” “Building Jerusalem,” “Composing the Gospels,” “Filming the Gospels” and “Narrating the Gospels.”

Beyond Redemption: Blu-ray
Return of Kung Fu Trailers of Fury: Blu-ray
It took a while for me to figure out where Beyond Redemption, the debut feature by stuntman-turned-director Bruce Fontaine, was set and why all the Asian characters were speaking undubbed English. That’s because Vancouver isn’t the first place that comes to mind when organized crime comes to mind … great food, welcoming Canadians and cruise-ship depots, sure … but Triads?  In the 2011 National Household Survey, it was determined that 27 percent of Vancouver’s “visible minority” community – or, roughly, 163,000 people – were of Chinese ancestry. Apparently, many of the city’s wealthy Asian immigrants winter in places other than British Columbia, so the number fluctuates. In the 1980s, Canadian martial arts expert Fontaine made a name for himself as a western gweilo villain and stuntman in Hong Kong cinema. He’s since returned to B.C. to train actors working in western Canada’s film industry. In Beyond Redemption, undercover cop Billy Tong (Brian Ho) fights his way into the inner circle of a street gang that’s kidnapped the daughter of a Triad boss and is in danger of becoming collateral damage in a police sting … or something like that. Frankly, the only things that work in Fontaine’s film are the action sequences. With so many first-rate martial-arts exports now available on DVD and PPV, though, it’ll take more than a few good fights to compete with Hong Kong as a reliable producer of such products. But, then, they probably said the same thing about Vancouver and Toronto before they were turned into Hollywood North and New York North. The package adds short studies of two fighting scenes.

Anyone interested in seeing just how far the Hong Kong film industry has come since Bruce Lee turned it into a prime source for action flicks should pick up “Kung Fu Trailers of Fury” or the newly released “Return of Kung Fu Trailers of Fury.” The sequel adds 35 more original trailers from the Golden Age of Martial Arts Cinema, starring such legends as Angela Mao, Bolo Yeung, Don Wong, Chang Yi, Bruce Li, Leanne Liu, Lo Lieh and, yes, even Chuck Norris. According to the marketing material, it’s “another invincible collection of treachery, brutality, swordplay, wirework, darting daggers, flying fists and the most insane fighting styles ever unleashed on celluloid,” with “insane” being the operative adjective. Considering that the plots of these movies were as nonsensical as the action was fun to watch, the extended previews contain most of what made the movies watchable in the first place. The Blu-ray makes them look better than they have in 40 years, but no less off the wall. Among the titles represented are Yellow-Faced Tiger, Bruce and the Iron Finger, Revenge of the Shaolin Kid, The Avenging Boxer, Snuff-Bottle Connection, Hell’s Windstaff, Thundering Mantis, The Legendary Strike, Kung Fu Killers, Crazy Horse & Intelligent Monkey and Shaolin Invincible Sticks. Audio commentary is provided by writer Ric Meyers (“Films of Fury”), Frank Djeng (New York Asian Film Festival), martial arts instructor Greg Schiller and Ric Stelow, of Drunken Master Video

Firestarter: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Drive-In Massacre: Blu-ray
By 1984, when Firestarter was released into theaters, seven of the eight novels Stephen King had written under his own name – as opposed to Richard Bachman — and five of his short stories had been adapted for the screen. His first book “Carrie,” had been turned into a supernatural horror film that launched or expanded the careers of Sissy Spacek, Nancy Allen, William Katt, Amy Irving, and John Travolta, and confirmed Brian DePalma’s promise as a potential successor to master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock. Like Spacek’s telekinetic Carrie, Drew Barrymore’s Charlene ‘Charlie’ McGee has been gifted/cursed with psychic powers she sometimes has trouble controlling. In an extreme stretch of narrative logic, the cute 8-year-old has inherited ESP and the ability to start fires – pyrokinesis, if you will — from her parents, Vickie and Andy (Heather Locklear, David Keith). While in college, they had participated in a controlled trial of a mind-expanding drug, like LSD, coming out of it with telepathic and other psychic abilities. When Charlie’s powers first manifested themselves, they were fairly easy to contain. Before long, however, her pyrokinesis grew far more powerful. Andy was able to teach his daughter how to extinguish the fires she started, but her ESP failed to predict that agents from the federal Department of Scientific Intelligence (a.k.a., “the Shop”) would murder Vickie while kidnapping the child. Andy is able to short-circuit the agents’ efforts to bring Charlie into the Shop, causing them to seek refuge with an anti-government farmer and his wife (Art Carney, Louise Fletcher) who provide them with a vehicle to a secluded cabin on a beautiful North Carolina lake. When they make the mistake of telegraphing their location in a letter to the New York Times, Captain Hollister (Martin Sheen), sends Agent John Rainbird (George C. Scott) to capture them and stop the release of state secrets. Father and daughter are kept in separate living units until the pony-tailed, half-Cherokee Rainboard allows them to escape. Inexplicably, he hates Charlie and vows to kill her. The final fiery showdown – none of which is beholden to computer graphics – provides a showcase for some of the industry’s top stuntmen and pyro technicians. Throw in a juicy musical score by Tangerine Dream and Firestarter is a guilty pleasure for the ages. The Shout!Factory Collector’s Edition adds commentary with director Mark L. Lester; a 53-minute making-of featurette, featuring interviews with Lester, actors Freddie Jones, Drew Snyder and stuntman/actor Dick Warlock, and Johannes Schmoelling of Tangerine Dream; a visit to Schmoelling’s studio and performance of “Charlie’s Theme”; and a stills gallery.

Released in 1976, at the dawn of the slasher era, Stu Segall’s Drive-In Massacre is less a a guilty pleasure than an extremely cheesy one. Even so, buffs and completists probably will want to check it out as a historical document, if only to see how things were done when no one in Hollywood wanted to touch the genre. As the title suggests, a sword-wielding serial killer is slaughtering young men and women at a SoCal drive-in theater, seemingly for the crime of demonstrating their affection for each other in public. The killings are gruesome, if not particularly credible, and the usual drive-in hijinks are limited to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it topless scene. The primary suspects include the drive-in manager, who hates everyone and everything involved in the exhibition business; his unpaid maintenance man, who once labored as a geek in a carnival; a drooling voyeur; and various suspicious characters who come out of left field when the action begins to lag. The Ozploitation classic, Dead-End Drive-In wouldn’t arrive for another 10 years, so, I guess, you can say Drive-In Massacre was ahead of its time. Believe it or not, the movie was restored from the original camera negative, recently discovered in the ruins of the Sky View Drive-In, near Oxnard. The bonus features include commentary with Segall; and interviews with star/co-writer John F. Goff, actor Norm Sheridan and Segall.

Child Eater
Because writer/director Erlingur Thoroddsen is from Iceland, we’re free to wonder if the boogeyman at the heart of his nifty first feature is used by parents around the world to scare their children into behaving properly at night or it’s strictly an American invention. Trolls condemned to live under bridges around the world probably serve the same purpose as bogeymen, but, today, the only beings who live under bridges are homeless people, so, where do they go? Child Eater expands upon a short film of the same title that Thoroddsen took on the festival circuit in 2012. Its bogeyman has a name and a history, but, likewise, is used by parents to scare their children. As the legend goes, a fellow named Robert Bowery owned a petting zoo in the 1970s, but he was forced to close it when he was diagnosed with macular degeneration. On the last day of its operation, it was discovered that all the children visiting the zoo had their eyes ripped out. Ever since, adults have used the story to convince children not to stray too deeply into the forest. In the present day, a curious kid named Lucas (Colin Critchley) and his parents have moved into a house next to the old zoo. Soon, the boy begins telling stories about seeing a scary looking man wandering around the property, and he bears a striking resemblance to the eyeless Bowery. Then, one night, when his parents have hired a babysitter, Lucas simply disappears into the night. Frightened that she’s blown the gig, Helen (Cait Bliss) picks up a flashlight and follows his footprints into the zoo. Child Eater benefits from cinematographer John Wakayama Carey’s ability to shoot at night and not lose the characters in the darkness and an early scene in which a little girl from a quarter-century earlier is shown holding her own severed eyes, innocently delivering the line, “He hurt me.”

Stevie Ray Vaughan: 1984-1989: Lonestar
Texas blues-rocker Stevie Ray Vaughan bought his ticket to Rock ’n’ Roll Heaven on August 27, 1990, when he decided to hitch a ride from Wisconsin to Chicago on one of the four helicopters reserved for Eric Clapton and his entourage. They’d just finished a two-show gig at Alpine Valley and the night sky was heavy with fog. The chopper with Vaughan aboard failed to navigate a 150-foot ski hill and crashed into it, 50 feet below the summit. Legend has it that Clapton gave up his seat to make room for his friend and fellow guitar god, but he’s since denied that was the case. The incisive bio-doc Stevie Ray Vaughan: 1984-1989: Lonestar picks where Sexy Intellectual’s previous documentary, Rise of a Texas Bluesman: Stevie Ray Vaughan: 1954-1983, left off. His debut album, “Texas Flood,” had finally been released to widespread praise and solid sales, and his name was being mentioned in the same breath as Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Elmore James. Typically, though, one out-of-the-chute success doth not a career make. Vaughan’s demons laid in wait ahead of him and he drove himself and bandmates to the point of exhaustion to avoid losing forward momentum. The 108-minute “Lonestar” is enhanced by rare film footage; exclusive interviews with many close friends and confidantes; contributions from industry professionals and music writers who documented Vaughan’s career as it unfolded; seldom seen photographs; and more concert footage than usual for these unauthorized docs.

Comedy Central: Drunk History: Season 4
PBS Kids: Super WHY!: Triple Feature
PBS Kids: Wild Kratts: Triple Feature
Among the many highlights of the fourth season of Comedy Central’s “Drunk History” is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s narrating of the story of Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the infamous duel that not only shaped a young nation, but also Miranda’s smash Broadway musical. The trick here is, of course, recounting it while three sheets to the wind. Not drunk are the actors mouthing the narrators’ words, whether or not they make sense. Here, Alia Shawkat plays Hamilton and Aubrey Plaza is Burr. Other founding fathers are portrayed by Tony Hale, David Wain and Bokeem Woodbine. Among the other luminaries featured are Timothy Leary (Thomas Lennon), Marilyn Monroe and Ella Fitzgerald (Juno Temple, Gabourey Sidibe), Carry A. Nation (Vanessa Bayer), Andrew Jackson (Michael Cera), Charles Ponzi (Jesse Plemons) and Julia Child (Michaela Watkins).

In “Super WHY!: Triple Feature,” Whyatt and the Super Readers embark on entertaining and educational adventures set in such classic fairytales as“Humpty Dumpty,” “Hansel & Gretel” and “Jack and the Beanstalk.” The three previously released DVDs are bundled together onto two discs, logging in at 280 minutes. Young viewers can learn from helping Cinderella get ready for a party at the prince’s castle, by spelling D-R-E-S-S and using an alphabet map to aid Hensel and Gretel in their search for the witch’s house. In total, the Super Readers go on 10 journeys designed to help them with the critical skills they need to learn to read.

In “Wild Kratts: Triple Feature” kids are invited to Join Martin and Chris Kratt as they meet amazing animals from around the world. Here, three previously released DVDs – “Predator Power,” “Lost at Sea,” “Rainforest Rescue” — are bundled together onto one 205-minute disc. Among the eight stories included are “Stuck on Sharks,” “Mimic,” “Little Howler,” “Raptor Roundup,” “Speaking Dolphinese,” “Blowfish Blowout,” “Rainforest Stew” and “Shadow: The Black Jaguar.”

The DVD Wrapup: Moana, Brand New Testament, Weissensee Saga, 100 Streets, and more

Thursday, March 9th, 2017

Moana: Blu-ray
Seventy-five years ago, at the behest of President Franklin Roosevelt, Walt Disney embarked on a good-will mission to South America. FDR knew that America would soon be forced to intercede in the war in Europe, at least, and Adolf Hitler and Francisco Franco had already made political and financial inroads there. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck had already won the affection of tens of thousands of people there and Disney was greeted warmly everywhere he went. His absence from the Burbank studio coincided with the bitter walkout by animators unhappy over broken promises and the firing of a key ally. The Good Neighbor Policy excursion south not only allowed for a cooling-off period, during which federal mediators worked out a settlement, but it also led to the Oscar-nominated package pictures, Saludos Amigos and Three Caballeros. The sponsors allowed Disney to bring along a group of roughly 20 composers, artists, writers and technicians, whose observations directly informed both of the movies, which debuted in South America and Mexico before their American premieres. It’s paid dividends ever since, especially through the popularity of José “Zé” Carioca, a dapper, cigar-smoking parrot who’s served the same branding purpose as Jiminy Cricket. Today, it isn’t unusual for Disney/Pixar creative personnel to be flown to countries that will provide the settings for animation projects. In 2011, directors John Musker and Ron Clements (The Princess and the Frog) fell in love with the idea of a project based on Polynesian mythology and the heroic exploits of the demigod Maui. They pitched the original treatment for Moana to Pixar-Disney Animation boss John Lasseter, who recommended they go on research trips to Fiji, Samoa and Tahiti.

Over time, Moana was reshaped from a story focused on Maui to one that chronicles the historic migrations of Polynesian people and their symbiotic relationship with the ocean. They decided to set the film at the end of the last great mass exodus, about two thousand years ago, on a fictional island in the central Pacific Ocean, not unlike Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. The protagonist became Moana, the daughter of a chief, and she would be voiced by Hawaiian teenager Auli’i Cravalho. Dwayne Johnson, whose mother is of Samoan background, was hired to voice the repurposed Maui. In another critical decision, Disney recruited a variety of experts on Polynesian history and culture to ensure authenticity and pre-empt what had become almost pro-forma accusations of cultural insensitivity in earlier features. Throughout the production process, revisions to everything from language and characterizations, to hair styles,, tattoos and ancillary products, were suggested and made. The result is a wonderfully entertaining family movie whose Oceania influences are reflected in the color palate, music, dance, dress, physical backdrops and customs.

As the story of Moana now goes, a small jade stone that is the mystical heart of the island goddess Te Fiti is stolen by the demigod Maui, who was planning to give it to humanity as a gift. As he makes his escape, he is attacked by the lava demon Te Kā, causing the heart of Te Fiti and Maui’s power-granting magical fish hook to be lost in the ocean. A millennium later, Moana Waialiki is chosen by the ocean spirit to receive the heart, but drops it when her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), comes to get her. He insists the island provides everything the villagers need, but, years later, fish become scarce and the island’s vegetation begins dying. After Tui forbids Moana from going “beyond the reef” to find more fish, her grandmother, Tala (Rachel House), encourages the precocious princess to trust her ancestral instincts and take to the sea to save their people. She sets out with her pet rooster, Heihei (Alan Tudyk), to find Maui, recover the hook and heart, and make Te Fiti happy, again. It could just as easily been Jose, Jiminy or Tink. The extensive bonus package adds the short films, “Inner Workings” and “Gone Fishing,” with Maui; the deleted song, “Warrior Face”; “Voice of the Islands,” on the filmmakers’ trip to the islands and islanders’ trips to Burbank; rapid-fire Q&As with the talent; deleted scenes; commentary with the directors; and several making-of featurettes.

The Brand New Testament: Blu-ray
The Ardennes
Belgium may not be the largest country in the world, or even northern Europe, but its contributions to cinema are substantial. Among the names and titles that have been honored at festivals and awards ceremonies over the past 40 years, or so, are Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (Rosetta, L’Enfant), Chantal Akerman (Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels), Marc Didden (Brussels by Night), Robbe De Hert (Blueberry Hill), animators Nicole van Goethem (A Greek Tragedy) and Raoul Servais (Harpya), Stijn Coninx (Daens), Erik Van Looy (The Alzheimer Case), Nic Balthazar (Ben X), Lieven Debrauwer (Pauline and Paulette), Michaël R. Roskam (Bullhead) and Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde (Man Bites Dog). And, while most of these films would hardly qualify as mainstream entertainments, it should be noted that Belgian bad-ass Jean-Claude Van Damme starred in Mabrouk El Mechri’s JCVD (2008), one of the most engaging and intelligent martial-arts/action flicks made anywhere west of Pacific Rim. If Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte had followed the lead of Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel and ventured into a cinematic collaboration, like Un Chien Andalou, the result might have looked something like Jaco Van Dormael’s feature debut, Toto le héros (1991), which won the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. In it, 8-year-old Thomas Van Hasebroeck is convinced that he was exchanged with his neighbor, Alfred, the day of their birth during a fire in the hospital. As a result, Thomas comes to believe he is living the life God intended for Alfred, and vice versa. He resents Alfred’s good fortune and spends most of own life seeking revenge for the perceived injustice. Once seen, it lingers in the memory like a brilliantly colored dream that combines mystery, fantasy, drama, action and comedy. Van Dormael’s 1996 follow-up, The Eighth Day, features an unexpected friendship that develops between an unhappy salesman (Daniel Auteuil) and a young man (Pascal Duquenne) with Down’s syndrome, who’s just escaped from a mental institution. His 2009 drama/fantasy/romance Mr. Nobody examines the life of Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto), a 118-year-old man who is the last mortal on Earth after the human race has achieved quasi-immortality. The English-language story is told through the different lives Nemo would have led, had he made different choices as a 9-year-old boy, waiting at a train station. It starred Jared Leto, Sarah Polley and Diane Kruger. Kiss & Cry (2011) is an experimental fantasy featuring miniatures and dancing hands.

Anyone familiar with Joan Osborne’s 1995 hit record “One of Us” will immediately recognize the conceit in Van Dormeal’s his delightfully playful surrealist fantasy, The Brand New Testament. The song asks, “What if God was one of us?/Just a slob like one of us/Just a stranger on the bus/Tryin’ to make his way home …” In the film, God has taken up residence in an apartment in Brussels he shares with his meek and disengaged wife (Yolande Moreau) and 10-year-old daughter Ea (Pili Groyne), to whom he is emotionally and physically abusive. God (Benoît Poelvoorde) is a grumpy sadist who created humankind specifically to have something to torment. He manipulates reality via a personal computer, which, one day, Ea manages to hack and provide everyone on Earth the day and hour of their deaths. She escapes the apartment through a washing machine that provides a worm hole to the outside world. Jesus, materializing in the form of a religious statue in the kitchen, encourages his sister to defy their father by gathering a motley crew of disciples and writing a brand-new New Testament. Her six apostles include a one-armed woman, a sex maniac, a killer, a woman who has been left by her husband, an office worker and a gender-dysphoric child. Catherine Deneuve’s love-starved housewife is the funniest and most absurd vignette of them all. Meanwhile, in his blundering attempt to corral his daughter, God is cursed by having to play by the same maniacal laws he imposed on humans living outside his apartment. It wouldn’t be fair to spoil any more of the surprises, except to point out that they are consistent with our dependence on personal computers and the plot isn’t any more blasphemous than “One of Us.” In Van Dormael’s hands, it’s a celebration life and love. The Music Box package adds interviews with the director and making-of material.

It’s easy to draw comparisons between Robin Pront’s directorial debut, The Ardennes, and David Mackenzie’s Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water. In each, a pair of brothers – one a hot-headed ex-con – embark on a crime spree intended to fund what turns out to be an impossible dream of going straight. The violence, which is harsh and explosive in both pictures, is diluted somewhat by one of the brothers’ relationship with a woman who decided over time to modify her own behavior. The settings could hardly be any more diverse, however. While Mackenzie’s drama played out against a bleak and wind-swept background of the American Southwest, The Ardennes is set in the gritty working-class neighborhoods of Antwerp, as well as the dense forests of Belgium and Luxembourg. Brothers Dave and Kenneth (Jeroen Perceval, Kevin Janssens) are reunited on Kenneth’s release after four years in prison, following a failed home invasion. While Kenneth is anxious to dive headfirst into the drug-centered existence that ensnared him in the first place, both Dave and his brother’s former girlfriend, Sylvie, have adopted clean lifestyles. When Kenneth begins to sense that Sylvie was unfaithful to him while he was away, he goes on a tear that threatens to pull everyone into a maelstrom of violence and death. Tonally, at least, The Ardennes will remind viewers of Michaël R. Roskam’s Bullhead. Many of the same actors and producers — Jeroen Perceval, Bart Van Langendonck — involved in that crime drama play key roles here. Even if the narrative doesn’t always keep pace with the action sequences, the imaginatively staged shootouts, fistfights and emotional eruptions should please fans of such things. The Film Movement DVD adds commentary and an interview with director Pront and Janssens; a making-of featurette; a short film by director Robin Pront, “Injury Time”; a director’s statement; and the distributor’s “Why-We-Selected” statement.

100 Streets: Blu-ray
Fans of such British TV series as “Luther,” “Rebus,” “The Inspector Lynley Mysteries,” “Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands,” “Hollyoaks” and “EastEnders” are the target audience for 100 Streets, a trio of interconnected stories that play out within an economically and racially diverse section of London. The title suggests that it’s an extension of screenwriter Leon Butler’s debut short, “One Square Mile: London.” In the first segment, Idris Alba plays a retired rugby star, Max, whose womanizing has caused him to be kicked out of the home he shared with his estranged wife (Gemma Arterton) and children. His massive ego prevents him from giving them the space they need to heal from his abuses. Eventually, the green-eyed monster of jealousy will force Max into the same corner as Othello. If that’s too obvious a comparison, Alba makes the most of it, at least. Ken Stott (“The Vice”) plays a retired actor who sees something in a local gang-banger and drug dealer (Franz Drameh) that’s invisible to everyone else in the boy’s circle. Even as Terence and Max’s wife, also a semi-retired performer, attempt to turn Kingsley into an actor, his street cronies vow to keep him in the game. The third story involves a cabbie and soccer coach (Charlie Creed-Miles), who made a mistake years earlier that could block his and his wife’s efforts to adopt a child. Meanwhile, an unavoidable accident puts him into a depressive state that threatens his marriage. 100 Streets may not be the most original of stories, but the actors give it their all … which is plenty.

Cold War 2: Blu-ray
Upon its release in 2012, Sunny Luk and Longmond Leung’s Cold War was promoted as the second coming of international hit, Infernal Affairs, which spawned a prequel, sequel and Martin Scorsese adaptation, The Departed. While, it didn’t have the same desired impact, Cold War left enough people wanting more to warrant Cold War II. Fans of the original will recall how a van carrying five highly trained Hong Kong police officers and equipment was hijacked by criminal/terrorists demanding a huge ransom. Thanks to an informant inside the department, the hijackers always managed to stay one step ahead of the police. A power struggle at the highest level of the police hierarchy suggests there’s plenty of room for intrigue. Left unresolved at the end of the thriller were the identity of the mole and whereabouts of the van. Cold War II picks up a while after the events of the original, which ended in a successful rescue operation, with the kidnapping of the wife and daughter of Commissioner of Police Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok). The ransom demand this time involves the release of an imprisoned hijacker, who has connections of his own within the department. Lau’s former rival, the retired commissioner M.B. Waise Lee (Tony Ka Fai Leung), is called upon to rein in the ringleaders and determine, once and for all, who’s in control of Hong Kong. And, of course, there’s the unresolved matter of the mole. Despite a bit too much talk and posturing, the action sequences are sufficient reason to recommend Cold War II to admirers of the original. An EPK-style behind-the-scenes featurette is included.

Trespass Against Us: Blu-ray
To completely understand and appreciate Adam Smith’s ferocious theatrical debut, Trespass Against Us, a wee bit of knowledge about England’s “travelling people” is necessary. Although all three groups play by their own set of rules and answer to family before law-enforcement authorities, they believe in a God-given right to navigate the highways and backroads of the U.K., camping illegally on public or private land and causing mayhem wherever they weigh anchor. The original Rom Gypsies aren’t as prominent in Britain as they are on the continent; Irish Travelers, comprise an itinerant ethnic group (a.k.a., pavees, pikeys and tinkers) that maintains a set of religious, cultural and familial traditions; and Scottish Highland Travelers, known as Tinkers for their origins as itinerant tinsmiths, no longer mend household utensils for income.  Although hundreds of thousands of gypsies were slaughtered in World War II, Roms and Travelers don’t appear to be protected by any politically correct guidelines. No ethnic group is more widely and freely slandered, although some filmmakers have attempted to give them a fairer shake than others: The Man Who Cried, The Red Violin, Black Cat/White Cat, I Even Met Happy Gypsies, Time of the Gypsies, The Field, Into the West and Trojan Eddie. Like The Harder They Come, whose English-language dialogue and patois demanded the addition of subtitles. Trespass Against Us not only could benefit from subtitles, but footnotes, as well. Conversations are peppered with Shelta or Cant, dialects that bear enough of a resemblance to English as to be confusing, if not indecipherable to outsiders and moviegoers.

Michael Fassbender plays Chad Cutler, the second generation in a small band of Irish Travelers living in a slum of their own creation somewhere in the scenic west of England. His father, Colby (Brendan Gleeson), is the rough-hewn patriarch of the clan, which enjoys a parasitic relationship to their upscale neighbors. He enjoys nothing more than telling tall tales around the campfire and reminding his grandchildren not to believe anything they learn at school. Even so, Chad and his wife (Lyndsey Marshall) are adamant that their children get an education. While Chad envisions a more conventional future for the kids, he’s limited to a life of crime, kicks and car chases … lots of them. The drama comes when he attempts to wrest control of his brood from his father and brothers, without being completely disowned by them. Smith and screenwriter Alastair Siddons don’t always succeed in balancing drama with action, but it’s lots of fun to watch … in a Tarantino-ish sort of way. Finally, though, apart from Chad’s wife and children, there’s no one in Trespass Against Us that stands out as being particularly sympathetic. The Chemical Brothers’ score is a big plus.  Special features include “Blood Bonds: On the Set of Trespass Against Us” and “Heartfelt,” in which Smith discusses his collaborations with the Chemical Brothers.

Tupac: Assassination: Battle for Compton: Blu-ray
Last month, in this space, I commented on Michael Dorsey’s Murder Rap: Inside the Biggie and Tupac Murders, a documentary largely based on interviews with lead LAPD detective Greg Kading and other witnesses. At, at least, the title of Kading’s book, “Murder Rap,” adds the misleading “Investigations by the Detective Who Solved Both Cases.” As self-serving as the documentary is – for Kading and the department — it couldn’t help but be of interest to true-crime enthusiasts and fans of the hip-hop legends. In Tupac: Assassination III: Battle for Compton, Richard Bond makes a rather different case, using some of the same evidence, testimony and sources. Bond’s entry in only shows documentaries related to Tupac and events that led up to and followed the attack in Las Vegas. It goes to great lengths to explain why, after 20 years, the investigation has bogged down to a crawl and isn’t likely to pick up any time soon. Reporters, lawyers, cops, gang-bangers and other people close to the story describe just how bolloxed up the investigation got after police in three cities – Los Angeles, Compton and Las Vegas – decided it wasn’t in their interest to solve the crimes. The depth of corruption in L.A. and Compton – at one time, Death Row Records controlled the suburb – matched the ability of street gangs to operate with impunity. It also was matched by the greed of participants hoping to derail their gravy train. As the mafia has demonstrated, making witnesses disappear is the easiest way to ensure a mistrial or not-guilty verdict. Finally, too, Bonds appears to be making the case for treating the murders – however devastating to their fans – as sideshow events to a much larger conspiracy. At just short of two hours, “Battle for Compton” may be exhausting, but rarely tiresome.

New Life
In what could easily be described as a family-friendly adaptation of Love Story or Terms of Endearment, Drew Waters’ debut as a co-writer/director is a three-hanky weeper that takes a paint-by-numbers path to an uplifting ending. New Life opens with a love-at-first-sight moment between kids who live next-door to each other and continues through long-distance relationships, diverting flirtations, marriage, pregnancy, sickness, recovery and I’ll bet you can guess what comes next. Jonathan Patrick Moore (Christian Mingle) and Erin Bethea (The Redemption of Henry Myers) make a very cute and credible couple, no matter how formulaic New Life gets. The worst faux pas, however, is forcing American supporting actress Kelsey Formost to affect a French accent even Pepé Le Pew wouldn’t buy. Old pros Barry Corbin, Bill Cobbs and Irma P. Hall add a sentimental aura to the proceedings, as well.

The C Word
At a time when the Trump administration is on the brink of opening the floodgates built to protect Americans from industrial, chemical, medicinal, food- and water-borne toxins, Meghan O’Hara cautionary documentary, The C Word, could hardly be more relevant. Most of the information dispensed in the film has been available on the Internet, in documentaries and books, but, here, the immediacy of the message carries a sense of urgency and timeliness. Apart from narrator Morgan Freeman, the voice of authority belongs to French physician and neuroscientist David Servan-Schreiber, author of “Anticancer: A New Way of Life,” a New York Times best-seller that has been translated into 35 languages. In it, he discusses his two successful battles with a malignant brain tumor – the first, at 31 — and the treatment program he put together to help himself beyond his surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. He would succumb to brain cancer on July 24, 2011, but not until 20 years after his first diagnosis. While it’s probably true that everything we eat, drink, touch and breath can potentially cause cancer, Servan-Schreiber’s treatments and research demonstrated that much less exposure to the carcinogens, even after surgery, can temporarily thwart its progress, at least. O’Hara’s clever mix of animation, graphics, clips and interviews makes the 90-minute film pass quickly and painlessly. The DVD adds several ancillary featurettes.

Here’s another borderline-mainstream film about a gay teenager that likely will be pigeonholded among new releases of gay/lesbian videos, but easily could find a ready audience among arthouse audiences. Neither a coming-out or first-kiss drama, Departure tells the story of a family in crisis about things other than romances between same-sex couples. In it, an English mother (Juliet Stevenson) and her teenage son (Alex Lawther) spend a week preparing for the sale of their lovely summer home in the Languedoc district of France. Beatrice is having a difficult time dealing with the imminent dissolution of her loveless marriage to his father, Philip (Finbar Lynch), and it’s interfering with Elliot’s pursuit of an enigmatic local, Clément (Phénix Broassard). A budding poet, Elliot doesn’t appear to be the kind of boy to whom the older, more robust Clément would be attracted. With his mother back home in Paris, dying of cancer, however, Clément not only values his sincerity and companionship, but he also warms to Beatrice’s unquestioning approach to their friendship. While Clément isn’t oblivious to Elliot’s advances, he puts up an ambivalent front during their time together. This includes lazy interludes at the local reservoir, swimming, sunning and sharing confidences. At the cottage, Clément helps Beatrice put together the family’s memorabilia, while also performing chores and, yes, sharing confidences. Predictably, perhaps, as their stay in the country nears its end, both mother and son are compelled to confront their desires for Clément, as well as the growing storm in their family’s dissolution and clandestine betrayals. Stevenson, an atypically attractive actress, is best known here for her appearances in Bend It Like Beckham and imported British mini-series. She provides a touch of class as the almost tragically vulnerable Beatrice. Lawther, who impressed as the young Alan Turing in the film, The Imitation Game, is excellent, as well. Largely unknown outside France, Broassard does a nice job as the object of their attention. The bucolic Languedoc locations also add to Departure’s appeal. Freshman writer/director Andrew Steggall interviews his stars in the bonus package.

Co-writer/director Amit Gupta’s debut feature is a what-if tale, adapted from a novel by Welsh poet, author, playwright and TV presenter Owen Sheers. (In 2011, Sheers also became the first writer-in-residence at the Welsh Rugby Union.) Resistance explores the possible ramifications of a failed D-Day invasion and successful crossing of the Channel by German forces. It’s set in a remote village in the Olchon Valley in the Black Mountains of south-east Wales, where a group of women awake one morning to find their husbands missing and the village occupied by a small unit of German soldiers. Almost everything that happened to the battle-weary troop after D-Day is held back from viewers, as the bulk of the fighting presumably occurred elsewhere. Michael Sheen plays a resistance leader who pops up every so often to assure us the men haven’t been slaughtered or abducted by alien. Otherwise, everything’s quiet on the Welsh front. The story really belongs to the women and their dealings with the soldiers, who seem more interested in waiting out an armistice than intimidating the residents or scrubbing the countryside for partisans. As such, Resistance offers a substantially different take on the dynamics of occupation than we’ve seen in movies driven by fighting and cruelty. Given what we know about the punishments meted out by Nazi forces on villagers believed to be supporting resistance fighters, however, the movie doesn’t always ring true, especially as they begin to feel an affinity with the women and friendships grow. Excellent performances by Andrea Riseborough (Birdman), Iwan Rheon (“Game of Thrones”) and Tom Wlaschiha (Game of Thrones) allow us to suspend our disbelief, if only for 92 minutes.

Pig Pen
This unrelievedly bleak portrait of a 13-year-old runaway, Zack (Lucas Koch), plays out like a dark underground horror flick, until it becomes clear that the horrors on display in Pig Pen are extremely real and probably more prevalent than anyone cares to believe they are. The sadly alienated child of a pill-popping mom (Nicolette le Faye), Zack is thrown out of their home by her sadistic boyfriend, dealer and would-be pimp (Vito Trigo). He instructs the boy not to come home until he’s earned – in one of the worst ways possible – at least $50 to pay for his mother’s habit. While on his own in the streets of Baltimore, Zach encounters all sorts of the usual riff-raff, as well as a couple of homeless folks who take pity on him. When he returns home to rescue his mom, he’s forced to confront the monster who’s devoured her soul and hopes to do far worse to him. Co-writer/director Jason M. Koch (7th Day) pretty much limits the narrative to what’s revealed in those few sentences, but anything more would be overkill.
The potential hazards of online dating have been exhaustively considered and described in police dramas on TV and countless straight-to-video releases. Apparently, these warnings continue to be ignored by young women, especially, who believe their intuition provides a better defense against unhappy endings than healthy doses of skepticism and caution. But, then, where would the slasher genre be without desperate dumbasses? In Chip Gubera’s imprecisely titled,, no sooner do Jack (Ben Kaplan) and Kristy (Morgan Carter) meet on-line than they embark on a weekend getaway to the woodlands of rural Missouri. Things start out innocently enough, until they’re introduced to their hosts, Jesse (R.A. Mihailoff) and Momma Meyers (Jewel Shepard), who are right out of Central Casting. Mihailoff, some might recall, played Leatherface, in Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, while, back in the day, Shepard was a highly visible princess of soft-core porn (Christina, Mission: Killfast). The newly introduced lovebirds’ timing could hardly be any worse, as a serial killer is on the loose and all signs lead to the backwoods inn and the torture chamber contained within it. But, you knew that already. isn’t much, but fans of hillbilly horror – and/or Ms. Shepard — might find something to like.

Bloodrunners: Blu-ray
Try to imagine Francis Ford Coppala’s The Cotton Club being remade on a bargain-basement budget, with Ice-T as the speakeasy’s bandleader/host and more corrupt cops than the average episode of “Boardwalk Empire.” Now, consider that Ice-T’s character not only is a vampire, but ruler of a nest of undead prostitutes and traffickers in bottles of moonshine blood. (“True Blood,” anyone?) Not a bad concept, really, but co-writer/director/editor/cinematographer/designer Dan Lantz probably should have sold Bloodrunners to someone with enough money to do a vampires-vs.-cops picture right. Shooting Bloodrunners on a digital 4K camera only serves to enhance the shortcuts taken in the construction of otherwise credible nightclub set and costumes. And, apart from Ice-T and a few of the vampires, the acting is well below standard, even for genre fare.

Man Down: Blu-ray
When he isn’t making a spectacle of himself, Shia LaBeouf routinely demonstrates how capable an actor he is. His amazing performance in American Honey is proof enough of that. In Dito Montiel’s thoroughly disjointed Man Down, LaBeouf’s battle-scarred Marine, Gabriel, starts out as a loving husband and father, who enlists after 9/11 with his childhood friend Devin (Jai Courtney), and, after surviving boot camp, lands in the thick of battle in Afghanistan. While there, Gabriel and Devin are involved in a bloody encounter with insurgents that also claims the lives of civilians. From this point forward, Gabriel and Montiel’s well-meaning narrative both begin to unravel. After their tour of duty ends, Gabriel and Devin return home to an America that’s suffered a catastrophic attack and is unrecognizable to them. Oh, yeah, his wife and son have disappeared and may be in the possession of terrorists … or, perhaps, the demons in his head. Montiel, who worked with LeBeouf previously on A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, is making a statement on the continuing PTSD epidemic among veterans, but it only becomes clear when an info card is flashed before the final credits. Otherwise, it too often resembles just another crazed-veteran flick. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Montiel and military advisor Sergeant Nick Jones Jr.

MHz: The Weissensee Saga
MHz: Corp + Anam
MHz: A French Village: 1945: Season 6
PBS: City in the Sky
PBS: American Experience: Oklahoma City
Time Life: Mama’s Family: Mama’s Favorites Collection
WE: Kendra on Top: The Complete Fourth and Fifth Seasons: Uncensored
Nickelodeon: Paw Patrol: Pups Save the Bunnies
Americans who’ve fallen in love with “Masterpiece” and other programming from the UK, thanks largely to PBS, BBC America and Acorn TV, owe it to themselves to check out MHz Choice and the DVDs of series carried globally by MHz Networks. This week’s releases attest to the quality of programming available to viewers who don’t mind reading subtitles. For example, “The Weissensee Saga” is the kind of sweeping family saga of conflicting loyalties, betrayal, love and hope that we’ve come to expect from the BBC. What’s remarkable about the three-season-long series is that it’s set in East Berlin, in the decade before the Wall was brought down and unification of East and West Germany began. It stars Uwe Kockisch as Hans Kupfer, a high-ranking Stasi official whose oldest son followed him into the internal spying operation and the other a policeman. Kupfer’s wife (Ruth Reinecke) is loyal to her husband and her country, even in the face of evidence that he’s made contact with an old flame (Katrin Saß). The singer also loves her country, but has been marginalized by her willingness to stand up to party officials who use communism as shield for human-rights abuses and fear-mongering. In a coincidence that would strain credulity if it weren’t so well-handled, the cop (Florian Lukas) falls in love with the singer’s daughter (Hannah Herzsprung) after she’s arrested for an aborted attempt to flee to the West. Meanwhile, rising Stasi star Falk Kupfer (Jörg Hartmann) – far more rigid in his neo-fascist beliefs than Hans — has begun to establish a network of spies, informers, backstabbers and dupes, using their own frailties and liberal opinions against them. We also watch their children grow into young adults, with stories of their own to follow. Americans might be surprised by the depiction of East Berlin as city that doesn’t look particularly devastated from post-war neglect and citizens as suspicious of the west as Americans were of Soviet Union. The views of hardliners and dissidents are aired fairly, as are the divides within the Kupfer family. Not surprisingly, the most joyous episode dramatizes the events that followed stunning announcement that border crossings no longer would be policed and citizens of both Germanys could come and go as they pleased. An American version of “The Weissensee Saga” would end there, probably, but there’s still a year’s worth of tumult, intrigue and revelations to go in the series. In one way, at least, it’s a perfect complement to FX’s “The Americans,” in which a pair of Soviet spies embrace socialism, while enjoying a typically middle-class American lifestyle.

From Ireland comes the superb Gaelic-language crime series, “Corp + Anam” (“Body and Soul”), which exposes the seamy side of life in a city large enough to have a couple of TV channels, but still small enough to retain a sense of small-town charm and intolerance. The worst of it is filtered through the lens of dogged television crime reporter Cathal Mac Iarnáin (Diarmuid de Faoite), who, while something of a loose cannon, usually gets to the bottom of things. His intense pursuit of the truth has destroyed his relationship with his wife (Maria Doyle Kennedy) and children. His ethically challenged reporting also causes problems at work, where he frequently locks horns with his too-cautious news editor. In the first season, alone, Mac Iarnáin pursues cases of health-service neglect, Internet pedophilia, teenage recklessness and police corruption. I, for one, wasn’t aware of the prevalence of Gaelic in everyday and official discourse.

In its sixth season, the blockbuster French drama, “A French Village,” arrives at the point where France has been liberated and the citizens of Villeneuve are coming to grips with ensuring peace and the slippery slope of reconciliation. In the wake of the occupation this not only means getting back to work and repairing the damage caused by bullets and bombs, but also identifying and punishing Nazi sympathizers, Vichy collaborators, traitors and opportunists. Resistance leaders have returned from the shadows to exact justice on everyone they determine to have betrayed them. Within the Resistance, of course, the political struggles became just another extension of the war, with Gaullists, communists, socialists and non-allied freedom fighters all struggling to capture the high ground. Common criminals, black-marketeers and blackmailers have also come to the fore. Not having been forced to survive an occupation or play by rules set by a collaborationist government, much of Season Six may seem dry or overly complex. They might be more interested in learning how the newly liberated French citizens consider the American soldiers left behind to counter possible Nazi insurgencies and ensure stability. As much as the French welcomed liberation, some partisans considered them to be enemies of their political beliefs and, as such, capitalist tools. Their relations with French women, some of whom are shown profiting from commerce and romantic alliances with the soldiers, also caused resentment. It isn’t something Americans are likely to have read about in history books, but it’s interesting, nonetheless.

Implicit in any discussion of the PBS documentary series “City in the Sky” is the worrisome question, “If we can’t keep our cities and infrastructure from falling apart and malfunctioning on solid earth, how can we expect our cities in the sky from remaining safe and aloft?” It certainly isn’t something passengers care to ponder at great length. We have enough to worry about while standing in interminable lines at the TSA checkpoints. Consider that, at any one time, there are as many as a million people airborne somewhere in the world, with 100,000 flights crisscrossing it every single day at variants of 30,000 feet. In the series, viewers set off around the world to uncover the invisible global networks and complex logistics that make it all possible. The segments — “Departure,” “Airborne” and “Arrival” – bring us into the cockpits of planes traveling at night, in storms and landing at airports that weren’t constructed to accommodate the needs of today’s travelers, carriers and freight haulers.

Domestic terrorism didn’t begin or end with the terrible bombing of the Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, on April 19, 1995, which killed 168 people and left 675 more injured. People rushed to blame the same Arab terrorists who had attempted to bring down the World Trade Center, two years earlier, but it soon became clear that the attack was timed to coincide with the ATF assault on the Branch Davidian compound and Ruby Ridge standoff. The ripple effects continue to be felt today, as white supremacists sense an opportunity to eliminate gun laws entirely and re-write the Bill of Rights to reflect right-wing values. PBS’ “American Experience: Oklahoma City” traces the events that led Timothy McVeigh to that day and recounts the stories of the survivors, first-responders, U.S. Marshals, FBI investigators and journalists who covered the events. The film provides an in-depth and provocative exploration of the white supremacist, extremist militia movement that rose to prominence in the early 1990s and still makes news today.

It’s difficult to tell how Time Life finally is able to distinguish between complete-series collections of such hit shows as “Mama’s Family” and “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” and more tightly focused “best of” and “favorite guest” packages. There’s also individual season sets for fans to consider. The latest, “Mama’s Family: Mama’s Favorites Collection” contains 37 unedited episodes on six discs, hand-picked by Vickie Lawrence and struck from the original broadcast masters. They include “Mama on Jeopardy,” “Mama Goes Hawaiian,” “Found Money,” “Pinup Mama,” “Bubba’s House Band,” “Soup to Nuts,” “Country Club,” “Mama Buys a Car,” “The Wedding” and “Mama’s Boyfriend.” By contrast, the company’s 24-disc and substantially more expensive “Mama’s Family: The Complete Collection” weighs in at 3,052 minutes, including 12 hours of bonus features.

It’s been 10 years since Kendra Wilkinson left Hugh Hefner and the Playboy Mansion in her rear-view mirror. This week, the former cheerleader and celebrity concubine (a.k.a., “girlfriend”) plead her case before her Instagram fans, arguing that she no longer wants to be labeled a “Playboy girl,” because “Comparing me now to that 18-year-old girl, then, is apples ’n’ oranges.” To avoid further confusion, Kendra attached to the post a mildly erotic shot of her stepping into a swimming pool. I assume that this flurry of activity was intended to coincide with the release of “Kendra on Top: The Complete Fourth and Fifth Seasons: Uncensored.” It isn’t clear if the show will be renewed by WE tv, but clearly it’s running on the fumes. In Season Four, producers were able to milk lots of sympathy for Kendra by playing the Hank card. (The former NFL player had an ill-advised affair with someone he may or may not have known is a transvestite.) It doesn’t take long – a couple of tequila shots, to be precise – for her to hook up with pinup boys she met on other reality shows, leaving her baby in Hank’s hands while she’s partying in London, New York and Seattle. In Season Five, Hank appears to have taken a powder, which is exactly what Kendra is seeking on a trip to Sundance.  Meanwhile, her evil mother threatens to write a tell-all book, and her estranged brother, Colin, wants to meet with her. There’s lots of other boring stuff, but fans – you know who you are — probably will eat it up.

The top-rated Nickelodeon franchise, “Paw Patrol,” ramps up for the holiday season with the seven-rescue compilation, “Paw Patrol: Pups Save the Bunnies.” They include the double-length mission to save Adventure Bay’s Easter-egg hunt, “Pups Save the Bunnies,” “Pups Get Growing,” “Pups Save the Mayor’s Tulips.” “Pups Save a Stinky Flower,” “Pups Save the Songbirds” and “A Pup in Sheep’s Clothing.”

The DVD Wrapup: Moonlight, Doctor Strange, Arrival, Before Trilogy, Chronic and more

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

Moonlight: Blu-ray
It’s the nature of the Hollywood beast that memories of Sunday night’s misnaming of La La Land as Best Picture won’t be forgotten. Comedian Steve Harvey, who misread the name of the 2015 Miss Universe winner and barely lived to tell about it, was kind enough to tweet Warren Beatty Monday morning, offering his condolences and support. Beatty will have a much easier time living with his faux pas than PricewaterhouseCoopers accountant Brian Cullinan, now relieved of future duties, who was too busy tweeting to notice the impending shitstorm. If I were in charge of next year’s Oscar ceremony, this first two people I’d invite to open an envelope would be Beatty and Harvey, who, in 2012, appeared as himself in Medea Goes to Jail. This time, at least, there’s no question that Moonlight and La La Land were worthy candidates for top honors. This, of course, hasn’t always been the case … Crash, anyone? The controversy could actually serve to raise awareness of both pictures, especially among East Coast viewers who nodded off after the dreaded three-hour barrier passed. Indeed, the biggest beneficiary of the debacle could be Lionsgate, which owns the home-video distribution rights here, along with those to Manchester by the Sea, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Lion and 20th Century Women.

Moonlight tells three interrelated coming-of-age stories, all involving Chiron, a Miami youth trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty, drug addiction, intolerance and despair. In the first chapter, “Little,” we’re introduced to the desperately shy and withdrawn child, nicknamed Little (Alex Hibbert), as he takes refuge from bullies in an abandoned building. He’s rescued by Juan (Oscar-winner, Mahershala Ali), a Cuban crack dealer, who takes the close-mouthed Chiron to the house he shares his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe). After being fed dinner and allowed to spend the night, Chiron begins to warm to Juan. The next morning, he delivers Chiron back to his emotionally abusive mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), whose home is as disheveled as his is tidy. Sensing that Chiron could use a well-meaning father figure in his life – in Miami, drug dealers aren’t necessarily excluded from such roles — Juan teaches Chiron how to swim, while also advising him to make his own path in life. The boy also befriends Kevin (Jaden Piner), a cocky classmate who sees something in Chiron the bullies want to punish.

In the second chapter, “Chiron,” our now-teenage protagonist (Ashton Sanders) continues to be bullied, but now with the added intimation of being a “faggot.” Although Juan has died in the interim, Chiron continues to spend his nights with Teresa. His crack-addicted mother now supports herself through prostitution and whatever money she can wrangle from her son’s benefactor. Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) and Chiron notch up their friendship with a first sexual dalliance, shared on a moonlit beach. The next day, Kevin kowtows to a gang of thugs by betraying his friend in the cruelest possible way. Chiron refuses to reveal the identities of his attackers or take any more crap from his mother. His startling response to being pummeled by his only friend ensures that Chiron has turned the corner into early adulthood … at least, as far as the law is concerned. The third chapter, titled “Black,” after the nickname given Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) earlier by Kevin, opens a decade later, outside Atlanta, with the young man fully assimilated into the life inadvertently introduced to him by Juan. After experiencing a portentous dream, Chiron decides to seek personal redemption by confronting his mother in a drug-rehab facility and responding to a mysterious late-call from an apologetic Kevin (André Holland), now working as a chef in Miami. Things get pretty deep in “Black,” but not in any predictable way.

Moonlight is based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s semi-autobiographical text, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” written in 2003 to cope with his own mother’s death from AIDS. Never produced, it was ten years before Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) – who grew up only a few blocks from McCraney, in Miami’s poverty- and crime-wracked Liberty City projects – was pushed to begin work on a second film. The characters are informed by people who influenced both men at various times in their lives. If Moonlight feels hyperreal, it’s because McCraney and Jenkins endured many of the same powerful forces as Chiron and Kevin. The gay subtext shouldn’t dissuade anyone from picking up the movie, even if some observers have put Moonlight into the pigeon-hole reserved for LGBTQ title. McCraney and Jenkins’ points are made in ways that are no more graphic than anything in Brokeback Mountain, which won important awards and made money for Focus Features and Universal Studios Home Entertainment. Moonlight took statuettes for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Ali) and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was a finalist, as well, for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Harris) and Best Achievement in Directing/Cinematography/Film Editing/Music Written for a Motion Picture. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Jenkins and the informative featurettes “Ensemble of Emotion: Making Moonlight,” “Poetry Through Collaboration: The Music of Moonlight” and “Cruel Beauty: Filming in Miami.”

Doctor Strange: Blu-ray 2D/3D
A lot of people who care deeply about such things, as well as a few of us that don’t, thought 2017 might have been the year when a movie based on a comic-book superhero would be shown some love in Oscar voting.  There appeared to be enough room in the Best Picture category for Deadpool to sneak into the expanded mix, which had a slot open for just such a longshot. But, nooooo … it wasn’t to be.To their credit, Golden Globe voters nominated Deadpool as Best Motion Picture: Musical or Comedy and Ryan Reynolds, as Best Actor in the same category. Looking ahead, fans of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy are hoping the upcoming sequel will surpass expectations prompted by the crossover success of the 2014 original, which was a runner-up in the Best Achievement in Makeup/Hairstyling and Visual Effects categories, traditionally reserved for green-screen epics. Suicide Squad did take home an Oscar this year in the ridiculously abbreviated list of candidates in the Makeup/Hairstyling, while Doctor Strange was nominated for Visual Effects. Meanwhile, genre and mainstream critics praised Scott Derrickson’s interpretation of surgeon Stephen Strange’s origin story for its introduction of Eastern mysticism to the Marvel Cinematic Universe bible and his ability to navigate the comic’s cross-dimensional conceits. Visually, Doctor Strange frequently merged Chinese-box mechanics with the surrealistic architecture of Inception’s dream scenes. If the narrative spends a bit too much time laying the foundation for future installments, the stunning action sequences justify such forward-looking plans.

The problem, of course, is that Disney/Marvel has so many projects circling the airport right now that the studio probably couldn’t absorb the loss, if more than two or three of them crashed and burned in the interim. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an abrasively arrogant neurosurgeon, who, like Dr. Gregory House, is only interested in helping patients whose conditions challenge him. If he can be a world-class prick, in and out of the surgical theater, Strange would still be the first person called by the Vatican or White House to remove a bullet or tumor from the spine of a pope or president. While being appraised of a possible next patient, while driving very rapidly in his sports car, Strange takes his eyes off the road long enough to miss a turn and go careening off the side of steep hill. He survives the crash, barely, but not without the loss of the physical and neurological tools necessary to do his work. It isn’t until his therapist alerts him to the miraculous recovery of Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), a construction worker who’s overcome his injuries to the point where he can once again live a productive life, while standing on his own two feet. After much cajoling, Panghorn points Strange in the direction of Nepal, where sorcerers Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) teach the mystic arts to very select students at the secret compound, Kamar-Taj.

The Ancient One demonstrates her powers to the skeptical Strange, revealing the hidden seams connecting the astral plane and Mirror Dimension. After he begs her to take him under her wing, she begins to recognize similarities in personality between Strange and her black-sheep student Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who recently led an invasion of Kamar-Taj, killed the librarian and stole an ancient text. The Ancient One prepares Strange to do battle with Kaecilius to protect Earth against invaders from other dimensions, using a spell generated from three buildings called Sanctums, found in New York City, London and Hong Kong. By comparison, the story behind Kal-El’s journey from Krypton to Earth, and subsequent emergence as Superman, is as simple as a nursery rhyme. After all the mumbo-jumbo is dispensed with, however, the action becomes non-stop and wonderfully complex. The Blu-ray package adds more than an hour’s worth of interesting background featurettes; a humorous short, in which Thor copes with life away from the battlefield in a contemporary American setting; deleted and extended scenes; a gag reel; and commentary with Derrickson.

Allied: Blu-ray/4K
More than anything that happens in the movie, itself, Allied will go down in pop-cultural history as the catalyst for precipitous change in Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s surprisingly fragile marriage. The cause was, at first, attributed to an on-location romance – since denied – between Pitt and leading lady Marion Cotillard. The irony didn’t escape anyone whose primary memory of the 2005 spy-vs.-spy caper, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, is the role its pairing of Pitt and Jolie played in breaking up the fairy-tale marriage of Pitt and America’s Sweetheart, Jennifer Aniston. In that picture, a bored married couple is surprised to learn that they are assassins hired by competing agencies to kill each other. In the far more sober-minded Allied, one of the married spies is ordered to eliminate a threat to the Allied cause, by killing a treasonous spouse. In Hollywood, what goes around, always comes around. There are better reasons to appreciate both pictures, but not if you’re a fan of TMZ and the Enquirer. Cotillard has publicly denied the rumors, while Jolie has used the gossip rags to present an indictment against Pitt that practically defies belief. At one time, sparking or defusing speculation about on-location liaisons were within the prevue of a studio publicist, who was paid to find the most favorable spin for his boss. Today, studio publicists spend most of their time preparing press releases, arranging junkets and deferring to personal publicists and freelance specialists able to trade favors with the tabloid and gossip press and set rules limiting access to the talent. I can’t remember Pitt doing much press in support of the Allied – things had gotten far too ugly in the divorce proceedings – but Cotillard dutifully made the rounds of the talk shows, dutifully knocking down rumors in lieu of promoting the old-fashioned wartime romance. It’s too bad, because the movie needed all the positive spin it could get, especially going into the intensely competitive holiday season.

If, while watching Bob Zemeckis and writer Steven Knight’s Allied, viewers immediately are reminded of Casablanca, it’s no accident. The designers in charge of costumes, exteriors and set designs borrowed freely from perceived period ambience and pressure-cooker relationships established in Michael Curtiz’ beloved classic. Pitt plays Max Vatan, a French-Canadian pilot and spy, who is parachuted into Vichy French Morocco, where he’s assigned the less-than-onerous task of pretending to be married to deep-cover assassin Marianne Beauséjour (Cotillard). Apart from his Quebecois accent, they make a convincing pair. When the mission is successfully completed and they’re extracted to England, Marianne and Max get married for real. She delivers their child during a German air raid and prepare to live happily ever after … if only. One day, Max is called into the offices of the British S.O.E. (Special Operations Executive), whose head man informs him of reports that his wife is a German operative, still reporting to Axis spies planted in England. Naturally, Max denies any such thing is possible. Even so, their marriage is covered under the “Intimate Betrayal Rule,” which demands of married spies that they execute their spouse, post haste, if proven to be a double-agent. If the execution isn’t carried out, both could be arrested, tried and punished for high treason. Max decides to risk his life in a covert mission to German-occupied France to determine the truth for himself. It’s at this point that the suspense begins to take hold. One of the things that’s made Casablanca so enduring was a collection of supporting characters nearly as memorable as Rick and Ilsa. Here, Lizzy Caplan is the closest thing to a recognizable face and, so, Pitt and Cotillard are forced to carry the load. Allied doesn’t look too bad on the small screen, if only because we’ve gotten used to watching such vintage dramas on TMC. The Blu-ray adds an hour’s worth of featurettes, the longest of which is 10 minutes long.

The Before Trilogy: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Just as investors and participants were required to make a giant leap of faith when committing to Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making Boyhood, backers of what became known as the “Before Trilogy” were challenged to ignore disappointing results for the first chapter and accept the possibility the Austin-based writer/director could turn things around. In 1995, Linklater’s reputation was based largely on the cult popularity of indie faves Slacker and Dazed and Confused, neither of which resembled the walk-and-talk Before Sunrise in any recognizable way. “(It) was a little European art film that was never going to be a mainstream success,” Linklater recalls. “But, it was generally well-reviewed and, I felt, people got it. That’s where (the trilogy idea) started: the people who liked it, liked it. Most people … didn’t notice it.” In it, characters played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke meet on train from Budapest to Vienna, becoming fast friends while chatting in the dining car. Because Jesse has a plane to catch the next morning, Céline decides to hop off the train to Paris and hang out with him in Vienna for the next several hours. Before they go their separate ways, however, they agree to meet six months later at the same railroad station and pick up where they left off. Neither has enough money to afford a hotel room or much in the way of food or drink. What they have, even for so brief a time, is each other and that’s more than enough. In fact, what happens to Jesse and Céline roughly approximates the fantasy every youthful backpacker carries with them when hitchhiking through Europe on holiday. Linklater was influenced by a similarly magical encounter with a woman he met years earlier on a train in Pennsylvania. He’s said that the purposefully ambiguous ending of Before Sunrise serves as a litmus test for viewers, forced to decide for themselves if the lovers will reunite, as planned, or blow it off.

Before Sunset (2004) picks up nine years later, when Jessie is signing his semi-autobiographical novel at the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore, on Paris’ Left Bank, and Céline makes a surprise appearance at the end of his reading. The obvious question hanging between them is whether one or neither of them returned to Vienna for the rendezvous. (It’s also on the minds of the reporters and readers, who, likewise, were left hanging at the end of the novel.) They hadn’t exchanged addresses, so were unable to reschedule their meeting for a more convenient date. In the interim, Jesse has gotten married and fathered a son. Céline spent a couple of years in the U.S. before moving back to France to become an advocate for the environment. Not so coincidentally, Jesse has another plane to catch, this time in only a few hours, giving Linklater an opportunity to upgrade their story in real time.

Released in 2013, Before Midnight finds Jesse, Céline, their twin girls and his son from his first marriage on vacation on the Peloponnese peninsula of Greece. He’s a successful novelist and she’s chomping at the bit to take a job with the French government. Jesse would prefer to move to Chicago, for reasons that seem more than a little bit selfish to Céline. Despite the idyllic location of their summer residence and friendly relationship with smart and witty friends there, the couple is facing the very real prospect they no longer are in love and, by extension, are no longer young. Neither is their predicament remotely unique. We’ve enjoyed sharing a few days with them and might even envy their ability to converse so easily and sound as intelligent as they do. It’s nice that, after 18 years, Jesse and Céline are still as attractive a couple as when we met them on the train to Vienna. The director-approved 2K restoration makes all three chapters look as if they were filmed back-to-back, instead of nine years apart. It adds several new and vintage interviews with Linklater, Delpy and Hawke; behind-the-scenes footage; audio commentary on Before Midnight; “Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny,” a feature-length 2016 documentary by Louis Black and Karen Bernstein; “After Before,” a new documentary by Athina Rachel Tsangari about the making of Before Midnight in Greece; a new conversation between scholars Dave Johnson and Rob Stone about Linklater’s work; an episode of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” featuring host Terry Gross, Linklater, Delpy and Hawke; “Linklater // On Cinema & Time,”  a new video essay by Kogonada; and an illustrated leaflet, featuring an essay by critic Dennis Lim.

Many horrifying things about Australia’s historic mistreatment and neglect of its Aboriginal population are revealed in John Pilger and Alan Lowery’s heart-breaking documentary, Utopia. And, yes, the title reflects the ironic notion that one of the most hellish regions of the Northern Territories, possibly in the entire world, could be considered to be an idyllic place to live. The most mind-blowing revelation, perhaps, comes when we’re taken to Rottnest Island, off the coast of Western Australia, now a popular holiday destination and nature reserve. Throughout most of the 1800s, and until 1931, this “heaven on Earth” served as a penitentiary and reform school for Aboriginals convicted of crimes, ranging from murder to theft. Some 3,700 indigenous men and boys were imprisoned there during the life of the establishment, with an estimated 369 of them buried there in an unmarked graveyard. With no signs or warnings posted to discourage them, generations of tourists have been encouraged to consider the hallowed ground as a playground and throughway for nature walks. Even worse, perhaps, buildings once used to “warehouse” prisoners now provide holiday accommodations, as part of the Rottnest Lodge. Imagine the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre Monument converted to accommodate a “Westworld” resort and condos and you’ll get an inking how Aboriginals feel about what passes for fun on Rottnest Island. It wasn’t until 2015, after numerous protests from local Aboriginal activists, that the Rottnest Island Authority agreed to create a memorial recognizing the events, deaths and unmarked graves and begin work on the Wadjemup Burial Ground.

It is only one of many examples provided by the producers of Utopia of how Australia’s unofficial apartheid continues to negatively affect the native population, while also whitewashing and twisting the reality of the country’s racist history in textbooks and tourism campaigns. Utopia further investigates government policies on epidemic levels of poverty, disease, pedophilia, suicide and illiteracy. In several “60 Minute”-like interviews, the producers offer government officials — many of whom freely acknowledge the failures of reform efforts — offer little cause for optimism. Out of sight, out of mind. In conclusion, Pilger points out that the indigenous people of Australia – unlike those in most other developed countries – have routinely been denied the right of self-determination and autonomy in places they’ve historically lived, farmed and developed, according to their own beliefs and standards. If a mining company finds an exploitable commodity in an area largely populated with indigenous people, the government finds a way to do so, without giving anything back to the natives. As bad as conditions continue to be on American Indian reservations, some autonomous tribes, at least, are legally allowed to steal white people blind in Las Vegas-style resorts and casinos. Aboriginal communities aren’t able to benefit from outsider-owned casinos in territories where poverty and unemployment are rampant.   The DVD adds another 90 minutes of extended interviews.

In Mexican writer/director Michel Franco’s first English-language film, Chronic, Tim Roth delivers an emotionally gripping portrayal of an in-home nurse, David, who works primarily with terminally ill patients. Away from them, he’s awkward and reserved. In their presence, however, he’s dutiful, efficient and intimately concerned with their comfort and well-being as they approach death. The reasons behind David’s devotion to his patients’ every need – no matter how unpleasant – are never made crystal clear. It leaves us wondering if he’s an Angel of Mercy, an Angel of Death or a penitent, working off his sins in the most humbling manner possible. One family interprets his overreaching concern as being somehow perverse. They threaten to sue him for sexually abusing their invalid father, who, before his stroke, satisfied his obsession with gay porn without them knowing about it. Knowing how close the patient is to death and incapable of amusing himself, David helps his him surf the web for anything that might take his mind off his pain. On the other hand, Sarah Sutherland, who plays Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ perpetually morose daughter, in “Veep,” brightens up whenever her college-age character is in David’s presence. His obsession with her is left vague. Franco’s uncompromising portrayal is facilitated through the objective lens of a nearly static camera and fewer than 100 shots. He’s approached the characters in After Lucia, Daniel and Ana, and After Lucia in much the same way. Chronic was accorded a Best Screenplay award at Cannes and nominated for Best Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards ceremony. (Roth was a finalist for Best Actor.) The DVD adds an interview with Franco.

We Are the Flesh: Blu-ray
For his first feature, We Are the Flesh, Mexican multihyphenate Emiliano Rocha Minter benefits from the kind of Arrow Films presentation usually reserved for classic horror and other cult treasures. Anyone coming to the Blu-ray package based solely on previous Arrow releases is in for a shock, however. While, someday, We Are the Flesh may rightly be accorded cult status, it’s of more interest today to extreme arthouse junkies and admirers of the post-surrealist theater espoused by Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, New York’s Living Theater, Jerzy Grotowski at the Theater Laboratory in Poland and Peter Brooks’ experiments with the Royal Shakespeare Company, including “Marat/Sade.” It also hues closely to the avant-garde and surrealistic films of Luis Buñuel and Alejandro Jodorowsky, both of whom lived and worked in Mexico. If all that that name-dropping sounds a tad pretentious, check out what critic Virginie Salévy – founder and editor of Electric Sheep, an online magazine “for lovers of transgressive cinema” – has to say about We Are the Flesh, in her 36-minute visual essay: “In a similar spirit to his illustrious predecessors, (Minter uses) incest, cannibalism, orgy and slaughter to build an extreme sensory experience that brutally shakes up audiences’ aesthetic and moral preconceptions, forcing them into new forms of perception.” I guess the same could be said of Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust and Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox, but We Are the Flesh can’t be lumped together with old-school exploitation fare. In what appears to be a post-apocalyptic world, a young brother and sister, desperate for food and shelter, find both in the cavernous lair of a depraved hermit. They earn their keep by constructing a makeshift womb out of discarded wood, metal, rope and duct tape. Inside it, the older man, Mariano (Noé Hernández), hopes to create his own version of Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” The tables will turn several times during the 79-minute head trip. The set also adds interviews with Minter and cast members Hernández, María Evoli and Diego Gamaliel; Minter’s short films, “Dentro” and “Videohome”; a stills gallery; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork; and an illustrated collector s booklet, with an essay by critic Anton Bitel and a note from the producer.

Kiyoshi “No Relation” Kurosawa returns to the psychological J-horror arena here,after such classy non-genre pieces as Tokyo Sonata, Journey to the Shore and the action/thriller Seventh Code. Based on a mystery by Yutaka Maekawa, Creepy lives up to its title by combining horror, detective work and suspense into a twisting, 133-minute package. A year after a botched hostage negotiation with a serial killer turned deadly, ex-detective Koichi (Hidetoshi Nishijima), and his wife move into a new house and a new job in academia. Sure enough, his former assistant, Nogami (Masahiro Higashide), turns up, asking for help in an unsolved six-year-old case, involving a family that disappeared into thin air in a nearby town. Meanwhile, Koichi has his hands full at home, with a suspiciously belligerent neighbor, whose schoolgirl daughter and invalid wife might be missing links in the missing-persons investigation. As coincidences go, it’s a doozy. Eventually, the pressure that comes with solving two major crimes simultaneously pushes Koichi’s calm demeanor to its limits and he joins the list of suspects. Kurosawa employs all sorts of visual and aural tricks to push our buttons. And, yes, Creepy is very creepy, indeed.

Slaughterhouse: Blu-ray
Deadtime Stories: Blu-ray
Thirty years ago, it would have been difficult not to dismiss Lester Bacon’s Slaughterhouse as being just one more generic slasher flick, inspired by the success of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Today, in its impeccable 2K Vinegar Syndrome upgrade, it practically looks inspired. The setting is an old-fashioned rural hog farm and slaughterhouse, whose owner, Lester Bacon (Don Barrett), no longer can compete with the larger, assembly-line meat-packing plants dominating the industry. Lester and his morbidly obese son, Buddy Bacon (Joe Barton), are desperate to maintain ownership of the property, despite overtures by a rival company. Buddy, who displays an unhealthy fondness for his swine, has been instructed to keep an eye out for trespassers and eliminate them with extreme prejudice. Instead of industrial spies, Buddy’s first victims are teenagers, who, instead of being satisfied with necking and smoking pot, choose to antagonize the livestock. They become the first of several teenagers, cops and other innocent bystanders to wind up hanging from a meat hook, awaiting slaughter. Perhaps, you can guess the rest. Roessler, whose only further contribution to the American cinema was as a PA on Dead Girls Don’t Tango (1992), wisely gets a headstart on the impending horror by giving viewers a first-hand lesson in basic slaughtering techniques. To say it’s not for the squeamish is an understatement.

From this point on, audience members know only too well what could happen to any poor sot caught trespassing or investigating the teens’ disappearance. That Buddy carries a “bone-crusher” cleaver wherever he goes only adds to the aura of impending dread. Slaughterhouse (a.k.a., “Pig Farm Massacre,” “Maniac” and “Bacon Bits”) benefits from being filmed in and around actual meat-processing plants, with more porcine actors than usual, and production values that are so cheesy they’re part of the fun. While either seedy locations look as if they were created specifically for Roessler by professional set designers, they were, in fact, chanced upon by his staff. As such, Slaughterhouse remains a solid representative of the bargain-basement horror and teenagers-in-peril terror that dominated drive-in and grindhouse screens in the 1980s. Besides an entertaining commentary track with Roessler, producer Jerry Encoe and production designer Michael Scaglione, there’s a decent video interview with lead actress and future stunt specialist Sherry Bendorf Leigh; a new “Epilogue: 30 Years After the Slaughter”; several making-of featurettes; archival interviews and local news coverage from the theatrical premiere; outtakes; a shooting-script gallery; and vintage publicity material.

Deadtime Stories” is a 1986 anthology series with a D.I.Y. look that makes it interesting, even 30 years later. Made on a super low budget by college students looking for a challenge, instead of a career path, it re-contextualized a trio of classic fairy tales by changing the time frames and adding a sense of terror diluted over time from the original European folk tales. The wraparound gimmick here involves a lazy adult babysitter, whose nephew demands a bedtime story before he’ll agree to fall asleep. Marketed in England as “Freaky Fairytales,” it conjures visions of Little Red Riding Hood, being stalked by a werewolf while jogging; “Goldi Lox” and the three felonious bears; and a medieval world populated by blood-crazed witches, evil experiments and captive maidens. Most of the participants quickly disappeared into the anonymity provided by VHS purgatory, while a precious few others emerged unscathed. Among them are future TV fixtures Scott Valentine (“Black Scorpion”) and Cathryn de Prume (“Shameless”), and Oscar- and Emmy-winner Melissa Leo (“Treme,” The Fighter, Frozen River), who were interviewed specifically for the Scream Factory Blu-ray package. It also includes
commentary and a fresh interview, “I Like the Grotesque,” with co-writer/director Jef Delman; an alternate cut of the first story, “The Black Forest”; deleted scenes; and a stills gallery.

Contract to Kill: Blu-ray
I don’t know if Steven Seagal elected to open Contract to Kill in a handful in a handful of theaters to qualify for Oscar consideration or simply to avoid the onerous “direct to video” label. Either way, the only real effect of the decision apparently was to give critics at such mainstream publications as the Los Angeles Times and Village Voice an opportunity to spew some pent-up venom. If the Academy ever decides to include a category for Best Direct-to-Video Movie Made in Romania, Seagal may have a fighting chance at getting an Oscar. To his credit, the more movies Seagal and his go-to director Keoni Waxman pump out, the more actors and behind-the-camera workers find jobs in their chosen profession. Fact is, Seagal’s loyal fans know what they like and where to find it. The opinions of critics matter very little to them. In Contract to Kill, the ancient Black Sea city of Constanța stands in for Istanbul and Mexico, where Muslim extremists are working with the drug cartels that control the routes the terrorists need to infiltrate the United States. Seagal plays former CIA/DEA operative John Harmon, reactivated to prevent the alliance from realizing its goals. To this end, he recruits former associate Zara Hayek (Jemma Dallender) and drone-flying martial artist Matthew Sharp (Russell Wong). In the interviews included in the bonus package, Seagal and Waxman both emphasize their intention was to return to an old-school actioner from the actor’s glory days. The problem, of course, is that the 64-year-old Seagal is only able to pull off the basic martial-arts stunts with any authority. His love scene with the considerably younger and smaller Dallender (I Spit on Your Grave 2) is laughable, as are the cosmetic refinements used to maintain a semblance of his middle-age persona. No matter, Seagal is already working on four more projects and, like President Trump, is booger buddies with Vladimir Putin. How many people in Hollywood can say that?

Seagal may not be physically present in Elite, but his fingerprints can be found on nearly every frame of Mark Cantu’s straight-to-video actioner. The picture opens with a deadly ambush of eight Special Forces commandoes by foot soldiers of a Mexican cartel. Two years later, newly promoted U.S. Navy investigator Abbey Vaughn (Allison Gregory) takes it upon herself to find the drug lord responsible for the attack. After Vaughn finds herself in over her head inside a bar favored by cartel stooges, she’s required to accept the assistance of former ELITE-team leader Lt. Sam Harrigan (Jason Scarbrough), who’s gone to seed since the ambush. He cleans up pretty quickly, though, allowing for some fast-paced, if completely illogical action. Not surprisingly, Benitez’ tentacles extend from the Mexican border to Washington, D.C.

Babyface: Blu-ray
Released at the dawn of the golden age of porn, Alex deRenzy’s Babyface is a prime, if nearly isolated example of a hard-core film in which the story isn’t subordinate to the sex. Unlike Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones, Babyface wasn’t contingent on a single concept or gag (no pun intended). It had a discernible beginning, middle and end, and the sex was portrayed, at least, to be almost entirely consensual. The production values were quite good and, with the exceptions of some blemishes in the fifth reel, hold up very well in the newly scanned and restored 2K edition. Parts of it are legitimately humorous, as well. A San Francisco dockhand, Dan (one-hit-wonder Dan Robert), allows himself to be seduced by a teenager, Priscilla (Lyn Cuddles Malone), who lost her innocence well before she met the hulking stud. Unaware of her promiscuous nature, Priscilla’s mom leads a cop (NFL star Otis Sistrunk) to the warehouse in which her daughter and Dan are wrapping up their liaison. After taking a beating, Dan washes up on the shore of a Sausalito houseboat community, where he’s tended to by a pair of women who wrangle men for a brothel dedicated to fulfilling women customers’ fantasies, as well as their libidos. A rock goddess, played by Kristine Heller, engages in a hot and surprisingly funny gang-bang scene that presages a similar encounter, three years later, in Insatiable. He fits right in with the other dudes (Paul Thomas and Joey Silvera, among them), of course, and things go swimmingly until Priscilla’s mom (Molly Seagrim) discovers where he works and endeavors to eliminate his manhood. The female talent includes Amber Hunt, Angela Haze, Desiree West, Linda Wong, Sandy Penny and Marion Eaton. The Vinegar Syndrome set has been restored from long-lost 35mm vault elements and includes a lengthy audio interview with Seagrim; deRenzy’s short, “Parochial Passion Princess”; and reversible cover artwork.

The DVD Wrapup: Hacksaw Ridge, Manchester, Arrival, Bad Santa 2, Tharlo, Chabrol X 3 and more

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

Hacksaw Ridge: 4K/Blu-ray
When a Hollywood movie is said to have been based on a true story, it’s safe to assume that the actions of the protagonist were embellished to make the character more heroic or saintly. In his multiple Oscar candidate, Hacksaw Ridge, director Mel Gibson was faced with the opposite problem. The real-life story of U.S. Army medic Desmond Doss — the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor – was too good to be true, even for the movies. If anything, the truth behind Doss’ actions during the Battle of Okinawa, in World War II, had to be scaled back, so that viewers wouldn’t think they were pumped up for dramatic effect. In Gibson’s first directorial effort since 2006’s Apocalypto – or, to be more precise, since he disgraced himself after being stopped in Malibu on suspicion of driving while drunk – the number of men Doss saved or rescued was limited to 75, when it probably was much higher. Left out, as well, was a similarly courageous action that occurred a few hours late, in which the seriously wounded PFC crawled off his stretcher and gave it to an even more critically wounded soldier. Awaiting the litter bearers’ return, he was struck by a sniper’s bullet. Then, too, even before Doss’ infantry unit reached Okinawa, while serving on Guam and the Philippines, he was awarded a Bronze Star Medal for aiding wounded soldiers under fire. In an interview contained in the bonus package, Gibson concedes that even alluding to these heroic acts in Hacksaw Ridge might have been too much for audiences to buy and he’s probably right. If Doss’ amazing story came as news to most viewers, it’s only because he preferred to maintain a low profile throughout his life. He even turned down soldier-turned-actor Audie Murphy, when the Medal of Honor-winner attempted to secure the rights to his biography. His only concession to fame was a 1959 appearance on Ralph Edwards’s “This Is Your Life” and that might have come as a surprise to him, as well. It wasn’t until 2001, when a fellow Seventh Day Adventist convinced Doss that such a movie might serve the interests of the church, that the long, arduous long process could begin in earnest.

The easiest way to describe Hacksaw Ridge is to compare it favorably to Letters From Iwo Jima, Saving Private Ryan, The Big Red One and The Thin Red Line, movies in which the hell of war isn’t played down in favor of melodramatic backstories, a character-based scheme (Kelly’s Heroes) or suicide mission (The Dirty Dozen). After Gibson documents the problems Doss overcame in order to serve his country, without also having to carry a gun, ignore the Sabbath or eat meat, Hacksaw Ridge is all action, all the time. Squeamish viewers might be tempted to look away, at times, but they’d be in the minority. Oscar nominee Andrew Garfield is extremely credible as the soft-spoken American patriot, who’s willing to serve his country in the heat of battle, without also relinquishing his constitutional rights or reacting to peer pressure and persecution with violence. Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight’s screenplay does take some liberties with the film’s portrayal of Goss’ family life, but only to demonstrate what led to his commitment to non-violence. For once, too, the romantic throughline — Teresa Palmer plays his wife, Dorothy — doesn’t feel tacked on or contrived. The Aussie-heavy cast includes Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Rachel Griffiths, Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh. Garfield and Vince Vaughn represent the token Yanks. It should be noted, as well, that Hacksaw Ridge is well represented in the technical categories, with nominations for editing, sound mixing and sound editing. The excellent 4K UHD and Blu-ray editions provide plenty of evidence for the worthiness of those honors. The comprehensive, feature-length featurette, “The Soul of War: Making Hacksaw Ridge,” pays homage to Gibson’s ability to re-create the battle scenes on a patch of farmland in New South Wales, on a modest $40-million production budget. It also includes material on Goss, casting, stunts and special effects; deleted scenes; and a Veterans Day greeting from Gibson.

Manchester by the Sea
If Casey Affleck doesn’t walk away with an Oscar for Best Lead Actor, as expected, it will only be because of past allegations of sexual harassment, which he’s denied. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, who wrote and directed Manchester-by-the-Sea, is slightly less likely to be honored with a statuette or two, but a La La Land juggernaut could sweep everyone away. Casey Affleck is terrific as Lee Chandler, an understandably moody loner, working off his penance for past sins as the custodian for an apartment complex outside Boston. When his older brother unexpectedly dies, Lee is stunned and perplexed to learn that he’s been anointed legal guardian of his 16-year-old nephew. While Patrick (Lucas Hedges) isn’t a bad kid, life has dealt him some bad cards and his defense mechanisms are solidly in place. Years earlier, Patrick was abandoned by his mother (Gretchen Mol), whose alcoholism and depression got the best of her. For his part, Lee had lost his children in a fire that he blamed on his own negligence, but was ruled an accident. His hysterical wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), deserted him at about the same time as he lost his will to live. Lonergan makes sure that viewers won’t be tempted to slash their wrists after the first reel by surrounding Patrick with friends from his high school hockey team, rock band and couple of horny girlfriends. Lee isn’t nearly as fortunate. He had no intention of ever moving back to working-class Manchester, where his demons are waiting around every corner. Neither is he ready to deal with the mood swings of an otherwise normal teenager, forced by circumstances to become a man overnight. As fragile as their relationship is, Lonergan allows us to anticipate a time when Lee and Patrick will feel compelled to hug it out and leave us smiling. When that doesn’t happen, exactly, we still feel good about their chances. Although Manchester-by-the-Sea provides a scenic backdrop for the drama, its brutal winter weather adds another layer of agony to the story. When Patrick is told that his father’s body can’t be buried until the spring thaw, it has the same effect as frostbite on exposed fingertips. Affleck knows the area and its blue-collar residents as well as anyone, so everything from the accents to the beer guts and bad haircuts feel authentic. First-time viewers should know going in to Manchester-by-the-Sea that the narrative is driven by frequent flashbacks and crucial information is revealed in each one. The Blu-ray adds a “conversation” with director/writer Lonergan, in lieu of a commentary; an EPK featurette, in lieu of a more comprehensive making-of feature; and six minutes’ worth of deleted scenes.

Arrival: 4K UHD/ Blu-ray
Without diminishing the originality of Arrival one bit, it would be difficult for fans of sci-fi movies not to make comparisons between it and such pictures as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Contact, in which breakthroughs in communications open the door to understanding. Compared to what happens in these films, deciphering the Rosetta Stone was a piece of cake. At least, the ancient Egyptians thought enough about the inscribed trilingual stele to leave it in a place where it could be discovered by scholars, instead of used as fill at a dilapidated Ottoman fort near the town of Rashid in the Nile Delta. If one of Napoleon’s aides-de-camp hadn’t uncovered it while repairing the defenses at Fort Julien, in 1799, we might never have learned how to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs. Two centuries later, in more thoughtful Hollywood movies, scientists and linguists struggle to translate communications between aliens and humans, without the benefit of a Rosetta Stone, before someone in a military uniform decides to blow it to smithereens. It would be helpful if someone in deep space would respond to the images and sensory hieroglyphics beamed from Earth to the heavens from communications centers around the globe. So far, as far as we’ve been told, no one has. Instead, we make do with such advanced sci-fi entertainments as Arrival, in which the forces of enlightenment are pitted against the forces of ignorance, fear and brute strength in a race to make sense of infinity. In very real way, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival merely connects the dots leading from The Day the Earth Stood Still, past the planet Spielberg and on to a digital universe that allows filmmakers to create alien beings that don’t look as if they were products of a Japanese toy factory or Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. It’s modern, without also being particularly revolutionary.

Villeneuve (Sicario) and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (The Thing) – working from a story by Ted Chiang – allow viewers to consider the possibilities raised by the simultaneous arrival of a dozen egg-shaped extraterrestrial vehicles, hovering a few feet above the earth in as many disparate locations around the world. We’re encouraged do so with the same curiosity, bewilderment and sense of wonder as that evidenced by linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who’ve been escorted to a makeshift military camp in Montana by U.S. Army Colonel G.T. Weber (Forrest Whittaker). It’s located a few minutes’ drive from one of the low-hovering UFOs, which is being monitored by CIA agent David Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) and a small of army of computer jockeys. Halpern looks upon Banks and Donnelly with the same impatience and aura of superiority as intelligence agents usually reserve for residents of Guantanamo Bay, while Weber stands between them as a buffer between blind certitude and fervid curiosity. It takes a while before the scientists are able to board the ship and even longer before making contact with a pair of “heptapod” aliens, dubbed Abbott and Costello. Scientists and militarists in China and Russia are also monitoring the spacecraft, grasping with the question of how much data to share with their rivals and how interpret the meaning of such words as “weapon” in English, Russian, Chinese and Heptapodian. To reveal much more of the story would spoil the fun for viewers, who also are asked to decipher a plot device that merges ESP with the space-time continuum. Arrival is a movie that rewards patience and paying close attention to narrative detail. Viewers are encouraged to ponder deeper questions, such as the aliens’ motivations and our place in the universe, but I found it easier to simply focus on the central linguistic mystery. The bonus featurettes add plenty of information on the formation of the “xenolinguistics” specifically created for the film; sound design; musical score; editing process; and “principles of time, memory and language.” The 4K/Blu-ray presentation isn’t particularly enhanced by the purposefully cloudy backdrops and non-descript laboratory scenes, but the artificially lit scenes inside the spacecraft work well. Like Hacksaw Ridge, Arrival received nominations for editing, sound mixing and sound editing.

Bad Santa 2: Unrated: Blu-ray
The good news for fans of the original Bad Santa comes in knowing that, after a 13-year hiatus, Willie Soke (Billy Bob Thornton), Marcus (Tony Cox) and the Kid (Brett Kelly) have returned for Bad Santa 2. You’ve probably already guessed the bad news: almost no one else involved in the hit comedy joined them. That includes director Terry Zwigoff, writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa; executive producers Ethan and Joel Coen; and actors Lauren Graham and the late Bernie Mac and John Ritter. In 2003, foreign receipts comprised 21.5 percent of the Bad Santa’s $76.5-million haul. Of Bad Santa 2’s $17.8-million worldwide take, 0 percent of the money came from overseas. Why bother, right? So, what does the sequel have going for it? Thornton, Cox and Kelly, are every bit as nasty as they were in the original; Kathy Bates is delightfully evil, as Willie’s detestable mom, Sunny; Christina Hendricks looks great, even in winter gear; and the unrated version is raunchier, more profane and vile than the R-rated theatrical cut. This time, the action moves to Chicago – or Montreal-for-Chicago – where Marcus has been apprised of a sting involving the proceeds of a Christmas season’s worth of charitable donations. It isn’t until Willie and Marcus reach the Windy City, however, that the source of the information is Sunny, who’s gone undercover at the Salvation Army. The Kid follows them to Chicago, if only to provide a bit of humanity and non-toxic humor to the mix. Hendricks is a decent substitute for Graham, even if it’s impossible to believe her character would allow herself to be touched by, let alone shag, Willie. (Sadly, if Hendricks wants to reach the next level, she might have to put her physical assets on display as a sexy, non-comedic character, like Honey Bruce, in Lenny, for which Valerie Perrine was accorded an Oscar nomination.) The true winner here is Kelly, who gained 50 pounds to reprise the role of the Kid (a.k.a., Thurman Merman). Portrayed largely as a doofus, the Kid emerges as the character who, in the end, melts everyone’s heart, including those of viewers. The unrated version is only available on Blu-ray and 4K UHD, which also include the rated version of the film and the exclusive bonus feature, “That’s My Willie,” an original animated series. Additional bonus materials include “Thurman Then & Now”; “Just Your Average Red Band Featurette”; “Jingle Balls,” an adult version of the classic holiday song; a gag reel; alternate opening and ending; and deleted scenes.

Beauty and the Beast: Blu-ray
As the countdown continues toward the release of Disney’s live-action adaptation of its animated classic and subsequent Broadway musical, Beauty and the Beast, it’s worth reminding a generation of admirers that the story’s roots extend far beyond the studio’s Burbank headquarters. The company deserves kudos for all sorts of things, but giving credit where its due isn’t always one of them. No one there felt it necessary to mention Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s source fairy tale, “La Belle et la Bête,” published in France in 1740, or Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s abridged version, published in 1756. Walt Disney also borrowed ideas from Jean Cocteau’s magical translation, released in 1946 and available in a splendid Criterion Collection. (For all I know, then-Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg was inspired by CBS’s cult-favorite, “Beauty and the Beast,” which ran from 1987-90 and starred Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton.) While the Cocteau version may be a bit too sophisticated for tykes, whose first experience with the fairy tale is in the Disney versions, it should be considered a must-see for fans in their teens and older. They might also be interested in Christophe Gans’ 2014 live-action fantasy, La Belle et la Bête, which stars Léa Seydoux and Vincent Cassel in the lead roles. Not quite as poetic as the 1946 iteration, or as welcoming as the Disney version, Gans’ take is very much in the European tradition, with grandiose sets and amazing costumes.

When her widowed father, Le marchand (André Dussollier), loses his ships in a storm, Belle is the only member of her family to embrace their new, humbler life in a country cottage. Her sisters and brothers lounge around dreaming of the life they’ve lost. When one of the lost ships makes it back to port and the merchant attempts to retrieve his earnings, Belle’s ungracious sisters demand of their father that he return home with jewels and dresses. Belle only asks that he bring back a rose. In another wicked twist of fate, however, her father loses his ship and its cargo to a cruel opportunist, Perducas (Eduardo Noriega), who holds his debts. On his way back to the cottage, the old man spies a crumbling castle full of strange doglike creatures and overgrown with roses branches. It belongs to the Beast, who offers food and shelter to the stranger, but bristles when he picks a rose without asking permission. The Beast gives him one day to say goodbye to his family and return to the castle for his punishment. The guilt-ridden Belle sneaks off to take her father’s place in the bargain, unaware that she has given her brothers, who are beholden to evil Perducas, a clue to the castle’s location. In the resulting tumult, Belle will learn to appreciate the Beast’s generosity and attempt to free him from the curse that turned him into a monster. It’s tres, tres romantic. The movie can be enjoyed in French, with subtitles, or credibly dubbed into English. It adds extended interviews with Gans, Cassel and Seydoux.

It’s the rare film about Tibet that isn’t tightly focused on Buddhism, the Tibetan diaspora and current Dalai Lama, or protests over the Chinese annexation of the country. It’s rarer, still, to find a movie that’s made in Tibet, by a Chinese or native-born filmmaker. Last year, Zhang Yang’s fascinating documentary, Paths of the Soul, followed a group of Tibetan villagers, who left their families and homes in Nyima to make a “bowing pilgrimage” — laying their bodies flat on the ground after every few steps — along the 1,200-mile road to Lhasa. Stunningly photographed over the course of an entire year, with non-professional actors and no script, it offered glimpses of contemporary life in the capital and the impact of modernity on the ancient culture. Tharlo is the fourth feature by Pema Tseden, a Tibetan novelist and filmmaker, who was born on the foothills of the Himalayas in rural Qinghai province. Tseden first wrote the story of the titular monastic shepherd (Shide Nyima) as a novella, but decided to adapt it to film when it was approved by the famously capricious Chinese censorship board. Tharlo experiences the vicissitudes of life in the high country when forced to obtain an ID card by bureaucratic police officials, but not before he entertains them by reciting the Mao Quotations by memory. (During the Cultural Revolution, communist authorities demanded such demonstrations of patriotism from native Tibetans.) In the mountains, the shepherd’s long ponytail was all the identification that was required of him.

After making the trek to the nearest city, Tharlo’s directed to a photographer who, among other things, stages pictures of costumers in front of large-scale photographs of the Lhasa temple, Tienemein Square and the Manhattan skyline. Before she takes Tharlo’s picture, though, she insists he get a shampoo from the makeshift salon, across the street. The young and attractive hairdresser, also of Tibetan heritage, takes a shine to the shepherd (and the “kid” he’s brought with him), even inviting him to a local karaoke joint, where they warble songs that span the generation gap. The lighthearted tone ends abruptly when Yangtso (Yangshik Tso) convinces her new friend to cut off his ponytail. It doesn’t have the same effect on Tharlo as Delilah’s shaving of Samson’s locks, but close enough. Sadly, when he returns to his flock, nothing is the same for Tharlo or his pastoral way of life. As spectacular as the Himalayan backdrop can be, Tseden decided that region’s natural beauty would detract from the story’s realism. Besides choosing to give Tharlo a more austere look, by shooting in black-and-white, he also managed to relate the entire 123-minute parable in 84 meticulously composed shots, many of them showing mirrored reflections of the characters. This is the case as we watch Tharlo’s reaction to having his head shorn by Yangtso. In real life, Nyima was identified by a ponytail, which he’d grown for 17 years previous to accepting the role. So, some of the emotional distress seen in Tharlo’s face is real. The six-panel digipack includes Tseden’s original novella, “Tharlo”; a music video cued to the shepherd recitations; and a post-screening Q&A with the writer/director.

Sophie and the Rising Sun
It’s probably just a coincidence that the DVD release of Sophie and the Rising Sun coincides with 75th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of the executive order that authorized the internment of 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent during World War II. It isn’t likely, either, that Monterey Media anticipated the lynch-mob mentality currently infesting President Trump and his brain trust, such as it is. The timing couldn’t have been more appropriate, though. Based on the 2001 novel by Augusta Trobaugh, Sophie and the Rising Sun is set in the autumn of 1941, in the tranquil fishing village of Salty Creek, South Carolina. It opens with the discovery of the badly beaten body of an Asian man, left behind when a cross-country Greyhound passed through town. That he’s unconscious and without identification immediately raises a red flag in a Southern community depleted of draft-eligible men and traditionally wary of anyone whose color isn’t white. While he’s recuperating, the man tends the garden for his nurse, Anne Morrison (Margo Martindale), an atypically liberal widow. Turns out, the man they assume to be Chinese is of Japanese extraction, born in California with a decidedly green thumb. After news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor breaks and Ohta’s secret is revealed, he becomes an easy target for every redneck with a desire to avenge the sneak attack with a cowardly act of their own.

In turn, the town’s hyper-virtuous flowers of Southern womanhood begin spewing the venom usually reserved for the town’s “colored” residents on Ohta and Anne. Swept up in the hysteria, as well, is Sophie Willis (Julianne Nicholson), a widowed neighbor of Mrs. Morrison. One day, while fishing for blue crabs in the marshy inlets outside town and taking time to paint, Sophie and Ohta strike up a friendship based on their mutual appreciation of art. News travels fast in a small town, so, when they’re spotted together, she’s accused of consorting with the enemy, who’s as American as they are. When Mrs. Morrison senses that her patient’s days are numbered in Salty Creek, she suggests he move into a fishing cottage in the boonies. For a while, Sophie and Grover feel sufficiently safe to pursue a romantic relationship. Their sense of security isn’t destined to last very long, however. Blessedly, the bittersweet ending stops well short of tragedy. Sophie and the Rising Sun was adapted for the screen by Maggie Greenwald, who disappeared into TV purgatory after making the highly respected, if little seen indies The Ballad of Little Jo (1993) and Songcatcher (2000). The deceptively tranquil rural setting is expertly captured by cinematographer Wolfgang Held, a documentary specialist with an eye for painterly landscapes. The bonus material includes deleted scenes and an interview with Greenwald.

Tie the Knot
Anyone who’s ever wondered what Tara Reid does when she isn’t playing April in every new chapter in Syfy’s epic Sharknado saga may care to check out Tie the Knot, an early candidate for this year’s movie with the most ethnic clichés and least number of laughs per 90 minutes of screen time. Sharknado must be very popular among Indian viewers, because there’s no other reason for the eternally youthful blond to be in a romantic comedy for cross-cultural audiences or, for that matter, on a plane heading for Mumbai. Tie the Knot is Indian actor Shuja Paul’s debut feature. It tells the story of Sonia (Karishma Ahluwalia), a leading surgeon who’s been tricked into returning to Mumbai, so that her parents can badger her into dating an Indian man … presumably, any Indian man. Inexplicably, they rely on the local equivalent of to satisfy the perceived needs of their highly educated and beautiful daughter.  Not surprisingly, Sonia is introduced to more frogs than princes in her parents’ quest to turn over every lily pad in the western shore of the subcontinent to find a son-in-law. That the L.A.-based surgeon, who has the least discernable accent of any Indian actor this side of Bollywood, is prepared to sacrifice her own happiness to make her parents happy, is par for the course in movies designed to appeal to mixed audiences. A third of the way through Tie the Knot, top-billed Reid disappears until it’s time for her to ride to the rescue on her new friend’s wedding day. Naturally, too, it coincides with the mandatory Bollywood dance sequence. It isn’t Tie the Knot’s most outrageous plot contrivance – that occurs in the surgical theater – but it’s close. Meet the Patels and Bride and Prejudice are two movies that have a better hold on the Indian matchmaking process and are far funnier.

Seasons: Blu-ray
Given the revolution in digital filmmaking technology, a producer of nature films either would have to be incompetent or uncommonly unimaginative to make a bad documentary on the world’s endangered flora and fauna. Fortunately, that isn’t the case for Seasons, from the filmmakers already responsible for the imaginatively rendered docs, Winged Migration and Oceans. Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud have remained in the forefront of the genre since 2001, when Winged Migration was nominated for an Academy Award and returned $32.2 million at the global box office. Thematically, Seasons is probably their most ambitious of the three. Using a quasi-narrative format, it chronicles the gradual shrinking and subsequent depopulation of the European wilderness, from the close of the Ice Age until modern times. It wasn’t an easy task. The evolutional domestication of food-providing animals and near eradication of natural predators made their mission especially challenging. To re-create Ice Age conditions, the production team had to re-locate to the frozen of tundra of Lapland, while Poland’s Bialowieza Forest provided a backdrop for bison and other primary habitats. Various national parks throughout France were used to show how deer, wild horses and pigs, lynx, wolves and birds went about their daily business, before, during and after humans came to dominate the landscape. (Horses, for example, are depicted both as naturally wild creatures and the servants of aristocrats and farmers.) Amazing footage was captured in limited spaces with the assistance of “imprinters” – previously known as trainers or wranglers — who worked closely with the animal actors, so they would perform in as organic and natural way as possible, without resorting to genetically coded instincts to kill each other. The technicians put cameras on drones, scooters, ultralights, hot-air balloons and cables to allow the animals to run at top speed or be viewed from unusual angles. Cinematographers hid behind camouflaged barriers to be able to photograph birds and squirrels nesting inside and on the branches of trees. The result is a 97-minute documentary that is hypnotically beautiful and deceptively educational. The Seasons package includes a making-of featurette that’s as lengthy as the documentary, itself, but every bit as fascinating.

Blood on the Mountain
West Virginia, a traditionally Democratic state, gave Donald Trump all the ammunition he needed to deliver on inherently contradictory promises he made to mine owners, union members and everyday people whose lives depend on the viability of the coal industry, as well as safeguards imposed on it to prevent tragedies. Although the Republican presidential candidate won big, most of the races for state and federal offices went to Democrats. Go figure. If Hillary Clinton had watched and studied Mari-Lynn C. Evans and Jordan Freeman’s searing documentary, Blood on the Mountain, she might have found a way to convince voters that concerns over the loss of mining jobs and destruction of the environment aren’t mutually exclusive. While she may not have carried the state, Clinton could have raised questions that residents of the Mountaineer State will ask of their President allows mine owners to turn back the clock on 100 years of progress. Tellingly, one of his first decisions was to nominate Wilbur Louis Ross Jr. – the “King of Bankruptcy,” whose fingerprints are visible throughout the documentary – as his Secretary of Commerce. Ross founded the International Coal Group after several companies declared bankruptcy in the early 2000s, in lieu of paying legal settlements and penalties. The United Mine Workers of America protested the reorganizations, as they led to drastic cuts in health-care benefits and pensions for the existing employees, and prompted layoffs when ICG sold two of its union mines to Massey Energy Group. ICG retained its stake in two other non-union mines under favorable financial circumstances. Massey’s name comes up with regularity in Blood on the Mountain, as a company willing to blame coal miners and environmental “terrorists” for the loss of jobs and benefits. (If Obamacare is butchered by the Republican-controlled Congress, it’s possible that miners will lose their health insurance and/or coverage of pre-existing conditions.)

The 2006 Sago Mine Disaster, in which 12 miners died, occurred at a property indirectly owned by International Coal Group. The New York Post’s Roddy Boyd reported that Ross “had been intimately involved with the company that owned the West Virginia mine where 12 miners perished — and he knew all about its safety problems, former executives charged.” The article also reported that the mine had 12 roof collapses in 2005, and that the U.S. Department of Labor data showed 208 citations for safety violations in that same period, including 21 times for build-up of toxic gasses. Blood on the Mountain, which adds even more fuel to the fire, was released after the election, so it doesn’t dwell on the consequences of either candidate taking the state’s Electoral College. Evan and Freeman look much further back in regional history, at a time when every politician in the state was corrupted by industry money and union leaders followed suit. The documentary also shows what happened when miners decided that enough was enough and went on strike, only to be pitted against scabs, police and troops determined to keep the mines running at all costs. Blood on the Mountain isn’t as one-sided as this synopsis might make it seem to be. Institutionalized corruption is a demonstrable fact of West Virginia life, as are the tactics used by owners to crush the union and profit from the layoffs of workers. An overflight of southeastern West Virginia makes it abundantly clear how much damage has already been done to the land and the potential for disaster if the dams holding back toxic coal slurry suddenly break. If that happens, it’s a safe bet that the President will blame Obama, Hillary and the media, instead of his own mismanaged administration.

The King of New Orleans
If memory serves, the producers of HBO’s “Taxicab Confessions” only recorded their encounters in New York and Las Vegas, where there were more than enough oddball passengers willing to sign away their rights to the crazy things captured by the lipstick cameras hidden inside the cars. If they had decided to take the show to the City That Care Forgot, it might have looked a lot like The King of New Orleans. At first, second and third glance, I thought the seemingly improvised film was a non-scripted documentary. Veteran character actor David Jensen (Free State of Jones) plays longtime Big Easy cabbie, Larry Shirt, who’s seen it all in a city where anything can happen. New Orleans is a bigger place than most outsiders think it is and Larry visits places tourists and outlanders are warned against going. He stocks a cooler full of beer for his customers and native fast-food cuisine for himself and whatever homeless person is fortunate enough to get his leftovers. He spends his breaks with fellow cabbies, telling stories and discussing the Saints’ chances for a Super Bowl bid. One of his recurring passengers, Bobby Cohn (Richard Brien), has just been kicked out of Harvard and must deal with his parents’ disappointment in him and his own negative self-image. The King of New Orleans is set before and immediately after Hurricane Katrina, which allows for interaction with passengers who are victims of the tragedy and lookie loos more interested in having their photos taken in front of a condemned house. Allen Frederic, Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah shared the directing duties, while Brian Friedman is credited with the screenplay. Anyone who’s spent more than a weekend in New Orleans, though, may have a tough time parsing fact from fiction. And, in this case, that’s a very good thing. If you like The King of New Orleans, you might also enjoy Chicago Cab, which began its life in 1992 on a Windy City stage, as “Hellcab.”

3 Classic Films by Claude Chabrol: Blu-ray
Cohen Film Collection’s love affair with the films of French suspense maestro Claude Chabrol continues, this month with a triple-feature of thematically divergent thrillers, starring a trio of superb actresses. One of the prime instigators of the French Nouvelle Vague, Chabrol rode the wave from 1958-2009, creating lean and keenly observed entertainments that were frequently mentioned in the same breath as “Hitchcock” and a few he preferred to forget. With 73 directorial credits to his name and more than 50 for writing and acting, Chabrol’s batting average is far higher than that of most of his peers. The three titles collected here are representative of his work in the 1990s, when he made eight narrative films that were somewhat taken for granted by critics and audiences, as well as a pair of documentaries.

In Betty (1992), Marie Trintignant plays a seriously withdrawn wife and mother, who sacrifices her comfortable bourgeois lifestyle when it begins to interfere with her alcoholism. After signing the papers agreeing to a divorce settlement, Betty makes a beeline for a hole-in-the-wall bar, where she allows herself to be picked up by a doctor who’s hooked on booze and heroin. They drive to a restaurant whose menu is dominated by rabbit dishes. When the host escorts the doctor into a room, where, we’re told, he’s getting his daily fix, Betty picks up her head long enough to notice that everyone has their eyes on her. It’s kind of like what happens in “Cheers,” when a stranger enters and the regulars are given a few moments to decide if he’s someone whose name they’ll all want to know. Just before Betty passes out, she makes the acquaintance of an older woman and fellow drunk, Laure (Stéphane Audran), who appears to be attached to the restaurant’s owner, Mario (Jean-Francois Garreaud). They take Betty to a fancy Versailles hotel, where Laure maintains a suite with an extra bedroom and welcomes the company. After routinely curing their hangovers with a bit of the hair of the dog that bit them the night before, they head for the restaurant … where, in fact, everyone does know their names and sad tales, to boot. This can’t go on forever, obviously, so it comes as no surprise when one boozehound turns on the other in the cruelest of possible ways that doesn’t involve violence. That’s it, really. Based on a novel by Georges Simenon, Betty represents something of a parlor trick on Chabrol’s part. He wondered if it might be possible to make an engrossing picture, during which we learn a lot about one or more characters, but the protagonist’s actions aren’t hooked to a recognizable plot or denouement. Trintignant’s almost aggressively enigmatic portrayal of her far less than sympathetic character proved it can be done.

L’Enfer (“Hell”) is a 1994 psycho-drama that Chabrol adapted from a project begun 30 years earlier by Henri-Georges Clouzot, but was left unfinished. Unlike Betty, L’Enfer has a plot that couldn’t be easier to discern. The protagonists are Paul and Nelly Prieur (François Cluzet, Emmanuelle Béart), an attractive couple that runs a popular lakeside inn in southern France. The antagonist is the same green-eyed monster that sits on the shoulder of insecure older men, whose sexy wives appear to be flirting with handsome, younger men, but probably aren’t. It isn’t as if Paul isn’t given the occasional hint that Nelly might be cheating – accepting an invitation to water ski with a guest who owns a boat – but most viewers, I think, would guess that she’s faithful to her increasingly mistrustful spouse. Others might assume that any woman as hot as Béart is guilty of something and probably deserves what’s going to happen to her. Because the story spans several summers, Chabrol is able to turn the screw of jealousy into his mind incrementally. We do wonder why Nelly stays with the jerk, but Paul’s also depicted as being exceeding charming, when he isn’t bouncing off the walls. Waiting for the volcano to erupt could hardly be made to feel more excruciating. The Blu-ray adds commentary by Wade Major and Andy Klein

Cluzet appears in a supporting role in Chabrol’s 50th film, The Swindle (1997), a caper flick in which the heavy lifting is left in the capable hands of Isabelle Huppert and Michel Serrault. “Betty” and “Victor” make the rounds of conventions in France and Switzerland, scamming middle-class professionals who mistake the affections of a con artist for true love. Once the hook is set, the 30-years-older Victor swoops in to memorize credit-card numbers and bank-account info, then steal a check or two and just enough money so that the victim will think he splurged at the casino or on a bottle of champagne for his date. Hubris arrives in the form of a naïve financial courier, Maurice (François), that Betty latches onto during a break from the convention circuit. Victor is apprehensive about the potential score, until he learns that Maurice is carrying a small fortune in Swiss francs in the attaché case attached to his wrist. Even a small fortune can be an overwhelming temptation to a savvy criminal, nearing the end of a long and arduous career, so he allows Betty to call the shots for a while. Maurice has been assigned by his handlers to deliver the money to Guadeloupe, a former French colony in the Lesser Antilles. Along the way, however, he either figures out that Betty is about to swindle him or she lets him in on the deal, so they can cut Victor out of the scam. It’s also possible that Victor, who’s practically clairvoyant when it comes to opening numeric locks, will stab both the supposed lovers in the back and steal all the money. There are other variables, of course, but those are the most obvious schemes. Once Victor and Betty reach the tropics and meet the men to whom the money belongs, the cold reality of their dilemma hits them over the head, like a blackjack in a Dick Tracy comic. Chabrol, who also wrote the screenplay, keeps everyone guessing until the very end of the 101-minute movie. Besides the Caribbean, the settings include the ancient spa destination of Aix-les-Bains, France, and Switzerland’s scenic Lake Sils. It adds commentary by Major and Klein, and an informative discussion with Cluzet and New York Film Festival director Kent Jones.

Five Nights in Maine
One of the new clichés of screen, stage and TV involves the drama that typically erupts when the widowed spouse of a young adult is called upon to deliver the urn containing the loved one’s ashes to parent(s) who disapproved of their marriage in the first place. To achieve takeoff speed, it’s almost essential that the husband/wife, husband/husband, wife/wife couples also were of different races and estranged from their families in one way or another. Five Nights in Maine provides an ideal example of the subgenre, whose roots can be traced to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and similarly confrontational fare. Writer/director Maris Curran adds a higher degree of difficulty to the proceedings by having the widower, Sherwin (David Oyelowo), be an African-American from the South and the grieving mother-in-law a fire-breathing Yankee lady, Lucinda (Dianne Wiest). She would love to blame him for Fiona’s death, but can’t because it occurred in a traffic accident. Lucinda, who’s dying of cancer, was so nasty to Fiona during her last visit that she vowed never to return to her childhood home. Talk about a boxcar full of baggage, Five Nights in Maine is it. Although it isn’t without a decent dramatic twist or two, Five Nights in Maine is recommendable mostly as an opportunity to watch two of our finest actors working at full speed and in total control of their gifts. Fiona (Hani Furstenberg) is mostly shown in happier times, via flashbacks. When the action moves outdoors, the Maine countryside does its job admirably.

The Great & the Small
I’d be lying if I pretended to understand the motivations of the characters in Dusty Bias’ offbeat sophomore feature, The Great & the Small, or said that I felt compelled to re-watch it, because, in both cases, I didn’t. Even so, from what I could deduce, the pluses outnumber the minuses, especially in the acting department and fans of the key players probably will want to check it out. Relative newcomer Nick Fink (“Glee”) convincingly plays a young petty crook, Scott, who graduates to felonies at the behest of his no-count boss, Richie (Ritchie Coster). Although Scott frequently looks as if he’s been sleeping under highway overpasses and in unheated basements since graduating from high school, he has winning smile and tries to be helpful to Richie and their marks. When he isn’t breaking into the homes of middle-class families on vacation and relieving them of their valuables and appliances, Scott is struggling to win back the heart of his ex-girlfriend, Nessa (Louisa Krause), a working single mom. He isn’t much good in the babysitting department, but her child doesn’t demand much of him, either. His payment for services rendered is a romp in the sack. Otherwise, nada. Melanie Lynskey, who’s been in more indie films lately than any actor whose name comes to mind, is fine as a forlorn teacher who warms to Scott as the child she lost somewhere in the past. Meanwhile, a too-folksy-by-half police detective, Dupre (Ann Dowd), is on Scott’s trail. The likelihood that Scott will find redemption, with the help of one or all three women, is pretty high.

Psychomania: Blu-ray
I can’t recall if anyone condemned the producers of Psychomania (“The Death Wheeler”) for inspiring the Academy Award-winning British actor George Sanders to commit suicide, after completing what turned out to be his final picture. He had prophesized his own death years earlier, after all, but it’s entirely possible that a desire not to be around when the picture opened was as much to blame as Nembutal and “boredom.” Sanders plays the manservant to a wealthy medium, Mrs. Latham (Beryl Reid), who practices the occult arts and keeps frogs around the house to freak out her guests. Her son, Tom (Nicky Henson), is the leader of a Triumph-favoring motorcycle gang, the Living Dead, notorious primarily for being comprised of seriously reckless drivers. Mrs. Latham has convinced Tom that anyone who willingly commits suicide, with the firm intention of returning from the dead, will have eternal life. To test the theory, Tom steers his motorcycle off a bridge. Accordingly, his friends bury him in a sitting position on his beloved motorcycle. The prophesy comes true, of course. After Tom comes roaring out of the grave, his fellow gang members can hardly wait to off themselves. When red-headed gang member Abby (Mary Larkin) balks at killing herself, she risks losing Tom and the respect of her peers forever. It’s at this point that Shadwell (Sanders) and Mrs. Latham step in to put an end to the nonsense, breaking the curse and ridding Surrey of zombie bikers, if not witches turned into frogs. Psychomania was directed by Hammer Horror veteran Don Sharp (The Kiss of the Vampire), who made it look better than it had any right to be. The Arrow Video Blu-ray package includes a fresh and funny interview with star Nicky Henson; the 2010 featurette, “Return of the Living Dead,” featuring interviews with Henson, Mary Larkin, Denis Gilmore, Roy Holder and Rocky Taylor; “The Sound of Psychomania,” with composer John Cameron; “Riding Free,”  with Harvey Andrews, singer of the film’s “folk anthem”;  “Hell for Leather,” an interview with Derek Harris, owner of Lewis Leathers, the firm that provided the distinctive outfits the biker gang wore in the film; “Restoring Psychomania,” a short piece documenting the heroic efforts to rescue a color presentation from black-and-white separation master source elements; and an illustrated insert booklet.

Underground Kings
Fatal Instinct
Originally conceived as a web series from creator Skye Dennis (Myra’s Angel), Underground Kings has been reconfigured as a feature film set in Philadelphia’s netherworld of corrupt cops, gangsta hoodlums and aspiring comedians, of all things. The action begins in Harrisburg, where undercover cop Jayson Wylie (Dennis) is shot and left for dead in a botched drug bust. His partner, Noah Carter (Kevin Savage) and DEA agent Daniel House (Mark Kochanowicz) are already pissed off over the overdose of the agent’s wife and suspect a setup. Meanwhile, back in Philly, police Lt. Jack Wilcox tips off crime boss Walter “Smooth” Davis to be aware of the shit storm heading his way. Underground Kings is one of those not-ready-for-prime-time actioners that require a scorecard to distinguish between the players. This best thing about it is a realistic-looking cast, whose members dress, talk and act as if they’ve played similar roles in better productions. The episodic structure works against maintaining an even flow throughout the picture.

At 90 minutes, on the button, Luciano Saber’s police drama, Fatal Instinct, contains just enough twists, turns and action to fill an hour-long television show … commercials included. After that, the story runs out of gas and the mystery stops being mysterious. Once again, a serial killer/rapist is terrorizing the streets of Los Angeles and only a hard-boiled cop, enduring marital problems and the possible loss of his children is capable of ending the murderous spree. The most interesting thing about Fatal Instinct, perhaps, is seeing Krista Allen and Paul Michael Robinson reunited, possibly for the first time since their Skinemax days on the “Emmanuelle in Space” series.

PBS: American Masters: Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise
Lifetime: Heaven Sent
Netflix: Grace and Frankie: Season Two
PBS: Alzheimer’s: Every Minute Counts
In her 86 years on Earth, Maya Angelo lived as full a life as any 10 persons put together. Not just any 10 men and women, but 10 highly motivated and accomplished artists, dancers, novelists, poets, activists, teachers, scholars, speakers, actors and mentors. The two hours allotted by PBS for the “American Masters” presentation, “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise,” provides barely enough time to cover the length and breadth of her many accomplishments. Most of what we know about Angelo can be traced back to the 1969 publication of the first of her seven autobiographical books, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” She was 41 at the time and it only covered the first 17 years of her life. She didn’t sugarcoat a single word or incident. After hearing her stories many times over, author James Baldwin introduced Angelou to cartoonist Jules Feiffer and Random House editor Robert Loomis, who challenged her to put pen to paper and record them for posterity. What most interested me in the documentary were the accounts of her rise from being the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco, a 17-year-old single mother and worker in the sex trade, to prominence as a singer and dancer, who specialized in calypso. Angelou performed in a Las Vegas showroom, toured Europe with a production of the opera “Porgy and Bess,” danced with the Alvin Ailey company and contributed to an off-Broadway revue that inspired the 1957 film, Calypso Heat Wave, in which she sang and performed her own compositions. In 1960, after hearing Martin Luther King Jr. speak, she helped organize Cabaret for Freedom, to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. A year later, Angelou performed in Jean Genet’s avant-garde play “The Blacks,” alongside Abbey Lincoln, Roscoe Lee Brown, James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett, Godfrey Cambridge and Cicely Tyson. She would spend the next several years living in Africa with her son, Guy Johnson, before returning to a far more politically energized United States. In 1967, before she sat down to write “Caged Bird,” she hoped to be named permanent understudy to Pearl Bailey, in the all-black Broadway production of “Hello, Dolly,” but the star vetoed David Merrick’s decision, reportedly saying, “Oh, no … I ain’t gonna have this large old ugly girl be my understudy.” The recollection brings a tear to Johnson’s eyes. After being nominated for a Tony, composing songs with Roberta Flack and co-starring in “Roots,” Angelou would turn to academia and more writing. That only covers the first captivating third of material covered in “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise.” Among the witnesses testifying on her behalf are Bill and Hillary Clinton, Common, Louis Gossett Jr., Cicely Tyson, Alfre Woodard and, of course, Oprah Winfrey. Baldwin and Feiffer appear in taped interviews.

Add perky blond actor Mallory James Mahoney to the list of irresistible curly-haired, half-pints who’ve inherited the mantle once worn by Shirley Temple, Alisan Porter (Curly Sue) and Aileen Quinn (Annie). In the Lifetime movie, “Heaven Sent,” Mallory plays an “8-year-old runaway from heaven” who pops up in the home of Billy and Maire Taylor, a no-longer-happy couple on the verge of signing divorce papers. After a heart-breaking loss, their lives and careers went in two different directions. In the hands of veteran faith-based director Michael Landon Jr. (“When Calls the Heart”), the likelihood of Billy and Maire (Christian Kane, Marley Shelton) not getting back together after 90 minutes of sugar-coated melodrama is practically zero. Which is OK, because it’s Mallory’s showcase and no one is going to take it away from her. There are, however, two complicating factors: the make-out artist at Maire’s office (Ryan McPartlin) and Donatello (Ernie Hudson), a celestial bounty hunter commissioned to track down the winged tyke and bring her home. And, yes, prayers are answered along the way. As these things go, Heaven Sent is reasonably entertaining and no more contrived than any other holiday movie on the network.

The Netflix-original sitcom, “Grace and Frankie,” probably would have found a convenient timeslot on network television, if anyone had cared to offer it to any or all four leading broadcast outlets. Any pitch that includes such popular actors as Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston would certainly grab the attention of executives in desperate need of a hit. I wonder if their interest would have stayed as high, knowing that the two male protagonists had decided to divorce their wives and move in together. Cable and streaming services aren’t nearly as beholding to timid advertisers and uptight censors as the networks. Still, the show’s openness on the subject of same-gender couplings isn’t any more provocative than the gags and double-entendres that informed “Will & Grace,” in its day, or Fran Dresher’s autobiographical “Happily Divorced” on TV Land. Going the streaming route makes it easier to work in a throughline involving Frankie’s line of organic-yam lubes and some pot smoking. At the start of Season Two, a serious health scare puts a kink in Robert and Sol’s wedding preparations and that, of course, causes a frenzy in Grace and Frankie’s household. Fans of the series also will welcome the arrival of Sam Elliott as Grace’s love interest. A gag reel is included in the package.

The informative PBS production, “Alzheimer’s: Every Minute Counts,” arrives at a time in our collective history when the President and Republican-controlled Congress are salivating over the prospect of finally being able to reward their benefactors in the medical and insurance industries, by gouging poor and middle-class taxpayers. Unless a cure is found soon, the threat posed by Alzheimer’s disease could bring about a crisis in our social and economic systems. The hour-long investigation follows several families dealing with Alzheimer’s. One or two have the parent in their home full-time. Another has had to put the mother in an expensive private-care facility, without the benefit of health insurance, Obamacare or Medicare. It examines the issue from different perspectives, including that of nursing-home industry.

Air Bound
Down on the Farm
Absent pullout quotes from critics or the names of widely known stars, it’s difficult to promote straight-to-DVD titles, such as the animated adventure, Air Bound. Bannered over the top of the box is “FROM A PRODUCER OF SPIDER-MAN & IRON MAN.”  That’s right, “a producer.” To be precise, Avi Arad is an Israeli-American businessman, who, took over Marvel Entertainment and founded Marvel Studios in the mid-1990s, when the company was in desperate financial trouble. His role in the superhero movies probably was limited to cutting the deals that allowed the use of the characters in those movies, but licensing is more important these days than green-lighting a logical screenplay. While Arad’s standing in the production of the upcoming tentpole pictures, Borderlands and Ghost in the Shell, is significantly more active, it’s difficult to monetize or promote ahead of the release. So, “a producer,” it is. I can’t tell you what the distinction means for Lionsgate’s Air Bound, which might benefit more from having Jon Lovitiz’ name above the title, alongside those of three voice actors mostly familiar to YouTube subscribers. That, and the Dove “family approved” seal on the cover. Kids won’t care a lick about anything except the cute and colorful flying mice, whose presence actually anticipates what they can expect to see on the DVD. In a nose-on example of typecasting, Lovitz provides the voice for a character named Winston the White Weasel. Winston and his clan of wicked varmints are threatening to harm a family of mice living on Dream Island. At 94 minutes, Air Bound may be on the long side for very young viewers, but they probably know where to find the pause button. The set also includes a making-of featurette and four amusing “Minuscule” cartoons.

Kostas Macfarlane and Lisa Baget’s animated feature, Down on the Farm, also carries a five-star blessing from the folks at Dove, as well as the name of exploitation mainstay Bill Oberst Jr. (Stressed to Kill). Here, Oink the Flying Pig and Boink the Owl have been entrusted with solving the mystery surrounding the disappearance of a bale of hay from the farm. The suspects represent a cross-section of barnyard buddies. There’s got to be a featurette-worthy story in the background of someone named Kostas Macfarlane.

The DVD Wrapup: Edge of 17, Gimme Danger, Cameraperson, Tree Of Wooden Clogs, London Town, Coffin Joe, King Cobra and more

Thursday, February 16th, 2017

The Edge of Seventeen
When Stevie Nicks wrote the song after which Kelly Fremon Craig’s coming-of-age comedy-drama was named, she was addressing the grief that resulted from the death of her beloved uncle, Jonathan, and the murder of John Lennon, during the same week of December, 1980. It probably didn’t have much to do with the angst, optimism and anxiety that comes with entering the final year of one’s childhood or experiencing the first genuine pangs of love or pain as young adult, as most of us assumed. “And, so, with the slow graceful flow/Of age/I went forth with an age old/Desire to please/On the edge of seventeen …” And, yet, the song applies so well to the many ambiguous and sometimes contradictory emotions on display in Craig’s emotionally testing The Edge of Seventeen. Onetime Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) plays Nadine, the kind of teenage misfit who might have felt right at home in The Breakfast Club. She lost her father to a heart attack, at 11, and still falls back on it as an excuse to blow off homework, at 16. Her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) is no match for Nadine’s tantrums and taunts. She dresses less to impress than to repel the cool and popular kids who gravitate toward her largely supportive older brother, Darian (Blake Jenner). The real dilemma comes when her only friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), who she met when they both were ugly ducklings, turns into a beautiful swan and begins to date Darian. Nadine treats it as the worst sort of betrayal, but, on the edge of 17, cupid plays by his own rules.

Woody Harrelson co-stars as the archetypal supportive teacher, Mr. Bruner, who understands what it means to be an outsider, while also counseling patience and fortitude. Nadine thinks nothing of disturbing his lunch hour, which he prefers to spend reading and relaxing. Naturally, Mr. Bruner serves as the combination father-figure/sounding board she won’t allow Darian to be. He listens patiently to her complaints, but clearly would prefer if she got on with her life. Another significant part of Nadine’s problem is an inability to decide what kind of boys are worthy of her attention. While there is a fellow student who would be an ideal friend and companion, she’s seems more interested in rolling the dice on dating sites on the Internet. Nadine is alternately funny, confounding and tragic, as is The Edge of Seventeen. Craig’s first solo writing credit, 2009’s Post Grad, starred Alexis Bledel, Zach Gilford, Michael Keaton, Jane Lynch and Carol Burnett, and received mixed reviews. The Edge of Seventeen exited last year’s Toronto International Film Festival as one of the pictures to watch on the road to awards season. I’m surprised Steinfeld and Craig were shut out of the Academy Awards and Indie Spirits. (Steinfeld earned a nod in the Golden Globes’ genre-divided Best Actress category.) Despite so-so box-office returns, I think that The Edge of Seventeen deserves to be seen by the same people who embraced Easy A, Mean Girls, Pretty in Pink, 16 Candles and Breakfast Club. I was impressed, as well, by Haley Lu Richardson, whose smile says as much about her character as any line of dialogue. The Blu-ray adds an actor/filmmaker roundtable and a gag reel.

Gimme Danger
In his introduction to this nostalgic rock/doc profile of the proto-punk band, the Stooges, Jim Jarmusch declares that the Motor City maniacs comprised “the greatest rock ’n roll band of all time.” It is an honorific typically associated with the Rolling Stones, but could apply as well to the Beatles, Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, Velvet Underground, Nirvana and the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, among several other ensembles, depending on how one defines greatness, rock ’n’ roll and band. It’s as debatable a distinction as being the greatest cheesecake or tattoo artist of all time. It’s as meaningless as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – Donald Trump has one, but not Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino and Robert Redford — or induction into the Rock ’n’ Roll of Fame, absent Captain Beefheart, Love, Mitch  Ryder and the MC5. Gimme Danger makes Jarmusch’s case with an eloquence and overall lack of hyperbole rarely associated with Iggy or the Stooges, alone or together. If the Stooges can now be ranked among the greatest bands of all time, it’s not because it was recognized as such in the late-1960s and early-1970s, when the same was being said of the Beatles and Stones. Back then, Iggy made it difficult for people to love the Stooges. Beyond doing disgusting things on stage in the name of his art, hard drugs took their toll on the musicians, the music and audiences. “We started looking dirtier and skinnier and more and more used,” Iggy recollects, in the film. “Upsetting people because of me wherever we went.”

In their reviews of Gimme Danger, several critics bemoaned the absence of material from Iggy’s solo period, which produced such killer albums as “The Idiot” and “Lust for Life.” The fact is, however, Jarmusch’s specific and stated focus was on the band’s roots, music, evolution, trials, dissolution and resurrection. Dave Alexander (bass), and brothers Ron (guitar) and Scott Asheton (drums), would still be unknown if it weren’t for Iggy and Iggy either would be dead or just another burnout if it weren’t for his comrades. They were in the right place at the right time, alongside the MC5, and discovered by the right guy, Danny Fields. Jarmusch’s lengthy interview with Iggy is almost shockingly cogent and informative. He also elicits prime interview material from band members, industry types, relatives, fans and other survivors, supplemented by archival concert footage from their heyday, the 2003 Coachella reunion and belated induction into the Hall of Fame, in 2010. (The band’s absence was so egregiously wrong that board members finally couldn’t ignore vox populi any longer.) Anyone who wants to learn more about Iggy’s solo period can check out Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, in which Ewan McGregor plays a character based on Iggy, as well as the MVD catalogue of vintage concerts.

The Witness
Few crimes have triggered the outrage of the American public as the murder of Kitty Genovese, which occurred early in the morning of March 13, 1964, in the Queens neighborhood of Kew Gardens. The case almost immediately became synonymous with urban apathy and bystanders’ fear of getting involved in a violent crime. According to original reporting in the New York Times, 38 people who heard the victim’s screams or saw her wounded body from their windows elected not to call the police or help their dying neighbor. The story has been adapted for dramatization in movies, television shows, songs, books and plays ever since then. It was taken for granted that the article was solidly reported by elite Times reporters and, in a city fully cognizant of the rise in violent crime, citizens might not have cared to get involved. Kitty Genovese’s name became as familiar to Americans of her generation, and beyond, as those of Sirhan Sirhan and Ethel Kennedy. Years later, reporters would attempt to reconstruct the events that led up to the murder and everything that happened afterwards, with a special interest in separating legend from truth. The Witness director James D. Solomon (“The Bronx Is Burning,” “The Conspirator”) began his inquiry with the intention of creating a screenplay. It wasn’t until Kitty’s brother, William Genovese, agreed to collaborate with Solomon on an investigation that not only would shed new light on the murder, killer and accepted story, but also introduce viewers to a multi-faceted woman, neighbor, sister and daughter. The Witness is as compelling a documentary as you’re likely to find on any subject. The reporting is excellent and cooperation with witnesses and family members exceptional. As an indictment of the press, even at its most respected outlets, The Witness could hardly be more telling. (Left unstated is the fact that the current 24-hour news cycle has made such rushes to judgment commonplace.) This is one case in which a documentary is a more effective way of telling a difficult story than any narrative film. That William is confined to a wheelchair, after losing his legs to a land mine in Vietnam, added an additional degree of difficulty to the investigation. The DVD adds a post-screening Q&A and interview with Genovese.

Cameraperson: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The Tree of Wooden Clogs: Special Edition: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
In documentaries, more so than in features, the cinematographer is practically anonymous. Everybody knows Michael Moore, but who can recall the name of the person holding the camera outside the Capitol,on Fahrenheit 9/11, while congressmen scurried to avoid his questions and a soldier explained to him why he’d go AWOL, rather than do another tour of duty? That was Kirsten Johnson, who provided the same service for Academy Award-winner Laura Poitras (Citizenfour, The Oath), Oscar-nominees Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (The Invisible War), Ted Braun (Darfur Now) and Katy Chevigny, her co-director on Deadline. Anytime a camera operator follows a director into a warzone for a documentary, they become as much a target for an errant bullet as the combatants, bystanders and other journalists. Tim Hetherington, who shared a Oscar nomination with Sebastian Junger, for Restrepo, was killed in Misurata, Libya, while filming the conflict there. Johnson’s intimately personal documentary, Cameraperson, is a finalist for an Independent Spirit Award. It was shortlisted for an Academy Award, but didn’t make the cut. Johnson was given permission to repurpose snippets of film she’d shot for other people to craft a cinematic memoir. “These are the images that have marked me and leave me wondering still,” she says, in a voiceover introduction. If the images didn’t necessarily fit the other directors’ vision for his or her documentary, Johnson was able to use them to create something wholly her own.

The collage/tapestry format reminds me of Godfrey Reggio’s “QATSI” trilogy, with its essays of visual images and sound that chronicle the destructive impact of the modern world on the environment. Here, the emphasis is on the people she’s met and filmed, many of whom found themselves in harm’s way and somehow survived their ordeal, or fell victim to inadequate health care. She also photographed her mother, as she gradually succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease, and revisits a Bosnian family that suffered greatly in the war, but whose testimony didn’t make the final cut of Pamela Hogan’s “I Came to Testify,” for PBS. The Criterion Collection edition adds “Editing Cameraperson,” featuring Johnson, producers Marilyn Ness and Danielle Varga, and editors Nels Bangerter and Amanda Laws; “In the Service of the Film,” a roundtable conversation with Johnson, producer Gini Reticker and sound recordists Wellington Bowler and Judy Karp; excerpts from two 2016 festival talks with Johnson, including one between her and filmmaker Michael Moore; “The Above,” Johnson’s 2015 short film about a mysterious U.S. military surveillance balloon that floats on a tether above Kabul, for no known reason expect to make insurgents nervous;  and an essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda and reprinted writings by Johnson.

In his introduction to the Criterion edition of Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs, Mike Leigh makes his case for being “one of the greatest of movies.” Watching the neo-realist epic today, nearly 40 years after won the Palme d’or at Cannes, it’s almost too easy to agree with his observation. Inspired by stories told by his grandmother, Olmi chronicles a year in the lives of four large peasant families, living in a communal farmhouse located in the Bergamo province of far northern Italy at the end of the 19th Century. No detail was too insignificant for Olmi and his handheld camera, including the decision to have the “actors” speak in the native dialect. Throughout the film’s 186-minute length, children are born, crops are sown and reaped, animals are slaughtered, couples are married, stories and prayers are exchanged by the adults and children. At the time of its release, the New York Times’ critic, Vincent Canby, summed up the negative criticism, which no longer seems remotely relevant: “Like Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, Mr. Olmi’s film is almost too beautiful for its own good. In lesser films — and I’ll probably be castigated for including some of Flaherty’s work in this category — such density and clarity of image have a way of obscuring harsh subject matter or rendering it sentimental. Beauty is full of peril for the film maker. It can make reality seem exotic by putting it at a distance.” Others wished that Olmi had delivered more of a political statement, amplifying the arguments of the occasional Marxist agitator and criticizing the role of the Church in the peasants’ lives. Again, irrelevant today.

Although the landlord’s physical presence is infrequently noted, his ability to destroy lives with a single capricious decision is palpable throughout, but, most specifically, the few scenes involving the titular poplar tree. More subtle is the inherited belief held by all of the adults, except the Catholic priest, that the children of peasants belong in the fields, alongside their parents, and not in school. Olmi’s humanistic approach to the everyday drama in his characters’ lives is what continues to make The Tree of Wooden Clogs such an essential viewing experience. It also serves as an inadvertent prequel to Bernardo Bertolucci’s five-hour-plus 1900, which surveyed the class struggle in 20th Century Italy. The Criterion edition features a sublime 4K restoration, created in collaboration with the Film Foundation at L’Immagine Ritrovata and supervised by Olmi, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; an alternate Italian-language soundtrack; Leigh’s introduction; the featurette, “Ermanno Olmi: The Roots of the Tree,” an hour-long 1981 episode of “The South Bank Show,” featuring an interview with Olmi on the film and a visit to the farm where it was shot; a new program, featuring cast and crew discussing the film at the Cinema Ritrovato film festival in Bologna, Italy, in 2016; interviews with Olmi from 1978 and 2008; and an essay by film critic Deborah Young.

The Crooked Man
Stake Land 2: The Stakelander: Blu-ray
The production wing of Syfy has been so busy cranking out original series and movies with such tantalizing titles as Sharknado 5 … Earth O, Terror Birds and 2 Lava 2 Lantula, it’s easy to forget that it’s capable of mining the occasional nugget of something resembling gold. Because I didn’t check out the fine print first, I didn’t know that The Crooked Man was a made-for-Syfy movie. In fact, it wasn’t until I performed my usual post-screening research that it hit me. To describe it as being surprisingly good would sound as if I’m damning it with faint praise. In fact, The Crooked Man’s as good a Syfy movie as I’ve seen in a long time, not counting the so-bad-it’s-good qualifications of the original Sharknado. Director Jesse Holland and co-writer Peter Sullivan’s The Crooked Man allegedly is based on an urban legend involving the English nursery rhyme, “There Was a Crooked Man.” It stipulates that anyone who stumbles upon a certain website and completes singing the four-line song as written there will summon the Crooked Man and become his next victim. Here, a group of pre-teen girls calls up the site when their sleepover needs a jump-start and, sure enough, the demon shows up with the intention of killing a little girl and setting up another one to take the fall.

As punishment, Olivia (Angelique Rivera) is committed to a mental institution until she turns 18. Upon her return home, the town experiences a series of look-alike suicides. Viewers already know the deaths are anything but self-inflicted and they all can be traced back to the sleepover. Even though most of the town’s residents still think Olivia is dangerously crazy, there comes a point when the coincidental deaths add up to something more sinister. The surviving girls, now young adults, put their heads together with that of a cop, who also has a connection to the sleepover, to figure out how to stop the Crooked Man forever. The solution isn’t as predictable as one might think, given previous Syfy movies, but what really makes the movie work is a serial killer who not only is crooked, but shakes when he walks, like Jello in an earthquake. He also bears a passing resemblance to Freddy Krueger. I don’t know too many adults who would be spooked by The Crooked Man, but younger teens are likely to re-consider attending any sleepover that involves conjuring evil spirits.

Stake Land II: The Stakelander wasn’t made specifically for Syfy, but it debuted there, anyway. If the vampire-apocalypse thriller is a bit more realistically violent than other pictures the channel runs, anyone familiar with the original Stake Land will already know if it’s appropriate viewing for the kiddies who haven’t already been desensitized by “The Walking Dead.”  The sequel reunites Martin (Connor Paolo) and his mentor, Mister (Nick Damici), after the younger survivor’s home and family are destroyed by a revitalized Brotherhood and the albino vamp queen, Mother (Kristina Hughes). Martin finds himself alone in the badlands, searching for Mister and battling various undead enemies along the way. When they finally get together, it’s as opponents in cage fight. Naturally, the future of what’s left of humanity hangs in the balance.

Judy Collins: A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim
Originally slated for one of those pledge-month orgies on PBS, “Judy Collins: A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim” is now available on DVD. Collins and Sondheim first were mentioned in the same breath when she recorded “Send in the Clowns,” which he wrote for the 1973 musical “A Little Night Music.” It became a hit for Collins at a time when she was emerging from the folksinger pigeonhole and broadening her audience base. Sondheim would later thank her – with a wink and smile — for making the song his first top-10 hit. The show, which already had toured several cities, was recorded last May at Denver’s Boettcher Concert Hall, with the Greeley Symphony Orchestra. Collins, who was in top form, took the audience through Sondheim’s remarkable treasure-trove of music, interweaving Broadway memories with personal anecdotes and a few non-Sondheim favorites, including a John Denver medley … hey, it’s Colorado.

Somewhere in the Middle
Sometimes, young and overly creative directors make the mistake of assuming viewers will recognize their ambitions as the various conceits roll out before them on the screen. Lanre Olabsi’s sophomore feature, Somewhere in the Middle, which arrives a decade after his family-reunion drama, August the First, is something of a three-ring circus, in that the narrative is non-linear, told from three separate perspectives (maybe four) and is the product of a yearlong improvisational process. If the story that informs the urban rom/dram/com actually were able to bear that much weight, Olabsi might have been able to pull off the hat trick. Alas … In it, four young lovers become involved in each other’s lives, as one marriage disintegrates into several intertwined affairs, all of which are likely to end poorly. Billie (Cassandra Freeman) and Kofi (Charles Miller), we are led to believe, are a typical Buppie couple living large in New York City. They are experiencing some kind of problem in their marriage, but we aren’t made absolutely clear as to what it might be. From his perspective, her unhappiness appears to derive from Billie being a successful businesswoman, whose circle of friends no longer includes him. From her perspective, however, her love for Kofi is no match for her sexual attraction to a pretty subordinate, Alex (Louisa Ward), who, after a few drinks, responds to her advances. After a loud argument in their apartment, Alex agrees to allow Billie to move into her small apartment.

Meanwhile, Kofi tentatively hooks up with Sofia (Marisol Miranda), a woman who’s portrayed as being either a nymphomaniac or desperately seeking meaningful companionship. Improbably, Sofia bumps into Kofi at the home/office of his brother, a psychiatrist. A few days later, before Kofi and Billie had separated, they run into each other again at a book store. After re-introducing herself, she unsuccessfully attempts to hook up with the fellow she knows only as a lawyer. Sofia hands Kofi her number, which he promptly throws away. Not one to give up easily, she stakes out the bookstore on the off-chance he might show up there, again, which, of course, he does. It doesn’t take long before they wind up in the sack, twice, causing Kofi to panic and run off both times. Ultimately, we’ll learn a bit more about Billie and Alex, whose relationship doesn’t make any sense at all. One or two more coincidences later and Somewhere in the Middle concludes on a bittersweet note. Just because I was unimpressed by the narrative devices doesn’t mean Olabasi wasn’t on the right track in attempting to make a statement or two about love and obsession. And, there’s nothing wrong with the acting or production values, either.

King Cobra: Blu-ray
It would be difficult to exaggerate the bad craziness that’s characterized the porn industry, ever since Deep Throat became a cause célèbre and Harry Reems’ conviction on obscenity charges was overturned, way back in 1976. Such behind-the-scenes entertainments as Inserts, Boogie Nights, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Rated X, Lovelace, The Canyons, About Cherry, This Girl’s Life and The Look of Love attracted A-list actors, writers and directors to tell stories that championed free speech, humanized the participants and toyed with Shakespearian tragedy. Justin Kelly’s true-crime drama, King Cobra, is one of only a few movies to explore the gay-porn industry, using mainstream actors and distribution routes. Casper Andreas’ Going Down in LA-LA Land and Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s The Fluffer might have crossed over a bit further if their budgets were even half those devoted to the other titles. Christian Slater and James Franco are quite convincing as rival producers of gay Internet porn in the mid-2000s. They work from studios in their own homes and stream their products directly to customers anxious to break away from the VHS/DVD cartels. King Cobra head, Stephen (Slater), has found his meal ticket in Brent Corrigan (Garrett Clayton), a fresh-faced “twink,” barely out of high school, who’s ready to graduate from posing in masturbatory photos to starring in sex scenes.

Meanwhile, a few miles away, Viper Boyz’ less-prominent boss, Joe (Franco), is, like Stephen, living with his star, Harlow (Keegan Allen), who survived an abusive childhood, before washing out of the military. The older men use their stars as sexual playthings, as well as prime sources of income. Stephen lies to prevent Brent from learning exactly how much money he’s worth to King Cobra, while Joe keeps Harlow in the dark as to how much in debt the company is. (He gets the hint when the DodgeViper Joe bought for him is repossessed.) Finally, when Brent finally does learn how badly he’s being screwed, he decides to make it on his own. Unfortunately, the contract Brent signed with King Cobra demands several more appearances of the lad, while preventing him from working under his nom de plume with another company. Joe would love to pair Brent with Harlow, but Steven refuses to budge. Bad idea. King Cobra features plenty of sex, but nothing that feels gratuitous or particularly graphic. It may be far from perfect, but, considering the obstacles facing such films, King Cobra is good enough. Alicia Silverstone and Molly Ringwald appear briefly in supporting roles.

London Town
It seems as if I’ve seen a dozen coming-of-age movies from England, whose story can best be described as, “my life was saved by the Clash.” The so-called “Only Band That Matters” represented different things to different people, here and in the band’s home country, which, at the time, was torn by anti-immigrant violence, racist skinheads, high unemployment, an anti-Labor government and disaffected youths. The Clash’s high-energy mix of punk, reggae and rockabilly countered the hate-filled pronouncements of the National Front and Tory politicians, with calls for anti-capitalist activism and multiculturalism. Just as the Sex Pistols had effectively put an end to the glam-rock movement, the Clash demanded of punk loyalists that they stop pogoing long enough to get involved politically. Derrick Borte and screenwriter Matt Brown’s rock-’n’-roll fantasy, London Town, introduces us to 15-year-old Shay (Daniel Huttlestone), whose family is coming apart at the seams. His dad (Dougray Scott) is in the hospital, unable to pay the rent and bills associated with his meager business interests. His mom (Natascha McElhone) is living in a squatters’ flat with several other unemployed artists. And, Shay is left at home to take care of his younger sister. One day, on a train into the city, he finds a kindred soul in Vivian (Nell Williams), a punk princess who opens doors for him in the music scene. In a fairly tricky plot twist, Shay makes the acquaintance of the Clash’s electrifying frontman, Joe Strummer (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). They will meet again, this time in a jail cell, after a “white riot,” to solidify their unusual friendship. As far-fetched as this scenario gets, it’s all done in good fun and with the backing of a terrific period soundtrack. The DVD adds an interview with Rhys Meyers.

The Coffin Joe Trilogy Collection
For more than a half-century, Coffin Joe has been one of the singular characters on the international horror scene. Portrayed by prolific Brazilian director José Mojica Marins, now 80, Coffin Joe’s trademark top hat, black cape and long talon-like fingernails – finally cut after 30 years of growth — have been immortalized in films, TV programs, comic books and popular songs. It’s a bit difficult to pin down precisely how to describe what kind of monster he is. If Elvira, Svengoolie and Count Floyd had a bastard godfather, he might look very much like Coffin Joe as he delivers commentary on his films and those by other genre specialists. On screen, he’s portrayed as being an unholy undertaker, gravedigger, body snatcher and denizen of his victim’s dreams and hallucinations. He appears out of nowhere, knows everybody’s cards before they play them and is wholly misogynistic. Synapse Films has just released At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1963), This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (1967) and Embodiment of Evil (2008), all of which focus on Coffin Joe’s bloody and determined quest to find his perfect bride and father a son. His plans are undone at the end of each film, when, while pursued by authorities and haunted by his victims, he is seemingly killed. If the first two titles look as if they were made in the 1930s, it’s because “At Midnight” is considered to be Brazil’s first horror film and the industry was ill-prepared for the nuances and demands of the genre. At one point, on location, Marins’ crew reportedly refused to shoot a scene, because there wasn’t enough sunlight. Legend has it that the director forced his cinematographer to shoot the scene at gunpoint. (He later said the gun was a prop.) The Synapse editions of the first two titles look as well as they’re ever going to look, after fresh 35mm negative scans, supervised by Marins. Each package comes with a making-of featurette; an introduction and interviews; and pieces on the character’s place in Brazilian pop culture.

PBS: Mercy Street: Season 2: Blu-ray
MTV: Beavis & Butt-Head: The Complete Collection
Nickelodeon: Blaze and the Monster Machines: Race Into Velocityville
The success of Season One of the PBS original drama, “Mercy Street,” probably surprised a few observers of small-screen trends. The network has focused most of its attention on documentaries and other non-fiction projects over the last decade, so being able to launch a mini-series with the same potential for success as those imported from England must have been a real pleasure. Going into it, I wasn’t so sure. For one, hospital-set dramas and soap operas have provided the bread-and-butter for the broadcast networks for decades and are perfectly suited to conveniently timed commercial breaks. Second, I wasn’t at all sure that Josh Radnor (“How I Met Your Mother”) could convince viewers – and, by that, I mean me – that he would make a credible male protagonist and love interest, especially with a full beard. As the story evolved and other characters helped carry the load, however, Radnor’s Dr. Jedediah Foster grew on me. “Mercy Street” was inspired by memoirs and letters of actual doctors and female nurse volunteers at Mansion House Hospital, created during the Union occupation of Alexandria, Virginia. After the posh Mansion House hotel was confiscated from the Green Family, in November 1861, it became the largest of the city’s military hospitals, with 500 beds. Characters based on members of the actual Green family, including Emma’s Confederate spy fiancé, Frank Stringfellow, add intrigue to the serious business of healing and dying in the hospital, next-door to the Green mansion. The second season picks up after the aborted assassination attempt on President Abraham Lincoln. Among the newly introduced characters are detective Allan Pinkerton (Brían F. O’Byrne), sent to Alexandria by Lincoln to root out Stringfellow and other rebel plotters; Major Clayton McBurney III (Bryce Pinkham), an almost comically by-the-book hospital administrator, assigned to replace tipsy Dr. Alfred Summers; medical illustrator Lisette Beaufort (Lyne Renee), Foster’s old flame and competition for poor nurse Mary Phinney, who’s lying at death’s door; and Charlotte Jenkins (Patina Miller), a runaway slave and abolitionist, who, while helping “contrabands” adjust to freedom comforts typhoid victims in the camp and serves as a teacher to the children. The various storylines informing “Mercy Street” grow in complexity and strength as Season Two evolves. The Blu-ray adds several deleted and extended scenes.

I have no way of knowing if President Trump spent much, if any time with his three oldest children watching television in the 1990s. It can be argued that he devotes far too much time, now, watching Fox News, “Saturday Night Life” and Arnold Schwarzenegger hosting “The New Celebrity Apprentice.” Back then, a decade before launching “The Apprentice,” he probably had plenty of time away from work to share with Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric, watching shows about big-game hunting and investing their fortunes, and watching MTV. If so, it’s possible the President was subliminally influenced by an episode of “Beavis & Butt-Head,” titled “Right On,” in which the little rascals are invited to appear alongside conservative talk-show host Don Baker – Rush Limbaugh, as channeled by Gilbert Gottfried – to weigh in on the music-video craze. “They suck,” the boys agree, in their trademark chortle. “Yeah, they suck.” Baker had already lauded B&B, after they called in to agree with his stand on unfettered gun ownership, reinstitution of the death penalty and rock-’n’-depravity. In doing so, he observed, “Talking to you boys, I can tell our young people still have the moral strength and character to make this country great, again.” Substitute “America” for “this country” and the future commander-in-chief had a ready-made campaign slogan in his memory bank. If nothing else, he owes episode creator Mike Judge a cut of the money he made on the trucker caps purchased by his supporters, who, one imagines, cut their teeth on “Beavis & Butthead.” It was one of things I learned from watching the imperfectly packaged and haphazardly abridged, “Beavis & Butt-Head: The Complete Collection,” from Paramount. Longtime fans probably are already aware that it’s comprised of all nine discs of three previous Mike Judge DVD compilations, plus two discs of Volume Four, containing the revival episodes from 2011, and “Beavis and Butt-Head Do America” (1996). Music videos edited from their placement in weekly episodes appear on discs containing other bonus features. Sadly, the contents aren’t in any particular order and the set doesn’t include an index.

In the latest compilation of themed episodes from Nickelodeon’s “Blaze and the Monster Machines,” the orange-red monster truck, Blaze, and its driver, AJ, head to the racing town of VelocityVille to compete with his new race-car pals in the Hundred Mile Race. In the six episodes from Seasons Two and Three, guest voicing appearances include those by professional drivers Danica Patrick, Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott and Kasey Kahne. The stories feature all areas of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) teaching method.

The Babymoon
This is the second movie in a month that uses the “babymoon” phenomenon – we’re told – as a hook for a comedy/drama/whatever featuring couples trying to enjoy some R&R before the stork arrives and their lives, as they know them, are forever changed. The Babymooners was less about a vacation planned by expectant parents than an outpouring of neuroses. Newly released, The Babymoon, is set on a tropical isle, where rebels have infiltrated the staff of a resort hotel and a reality-show has-been, Trace (Shaun Sipos), ignores his radiantly pregnant wife, Hanna (Julie McNiven), to hit on other female guests and housekeepers. He also tries gain another 15 minutes of fame, by sucking up to a show-biz weasel in their midst (Mark DeCarlo). When Trace is kidnapped by a cabal of Che Guevara wannabes, it should have prompted Hanna to hop on a plane home and take her phone off the hook. Instead, she coaxes some locals into helping her rescue the cad. The only thing that rings remotely true here is McNiven’s pleasing screen presence and her character’s frustration with Trace. Even that fades, however, when, in an effort to confront the rebels, she risks a miscarriage by jumping aboard a zipline and soaring over the forest canopy. I could go on, but why beat a dead horse? And, yes, another Babymoon is expected to arrive later this year, starring Kelly McGillis, Kate Mansi, Brooke Burfitt, so, I guess, it’s officially a trend.

The DVD Wrapup: Loving, American Pastoral, Eagle Huntress, Come What May, Blush, Leonard Cohen and more

Friday, February 10th, 2017

Loving: Blu-ray
The horrifying story told in Loving may have been revelatory to many viewers, whose only knowledge of this footnote in history derived from feature articles and reviews that accompanied its Cannes debut and release last November. For others, such reminders of American apartheid are as fresh as yesterday’s news. The anti-miscegenation laws that allowed authorities to punish Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga) for being married in Washington, D.C., while living in Virginia, were shockingly common in Southern and Western states, even as late as 1967. If their home had been raided while the lawfully married couple was engaged in an act deemed sexual, they could have been imprisoned for that “crime,” as well. Instead, the Lovings were prohibited from cohabiting or traveling together in a state whose trademark slogan proclaims, however ironically, “Virginia is for lovers.” As unlikely as that sounds in 2017, it was the norm in the Jim Crow South, where racist judges based their rulings on such biblical wisdom as, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. … The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” Caroline County Circuit Court Judge Leon M. Bazile’s judgment was dated January 22, 1965, six years after the Lovings’ first conviction and two years before the U.S. Supreme would overrule his decision and other miscegenation laws still in effect. In fact, such statutes also forbade marriages, cohabitation and sex between whites and Native Americans, Filipinos, Asians and Hispanics. Ministers were prohibited from officiating such ceremonies. The ruling did not, however, eliminate racism in the United States.

Nancy Buirski, whose 2011 documentary on the case, The Loving Story, received a producer’s credit for Loving, which relies heavily on her research. To inform her Peabody Award-winning project, she unearthed archival footage, from the 1960s, which captured details of the Lovings’ personal lives, and interviewed the Lovings’ only surviving child, Peggy. (Richard died in 1975, at 41, when a drunk driver struck his car in Caroline County, Virginia. Mildred, who lost her right eye in the same accident, died of pneumonia in 2008, at 68.) Sometimes, when a theatrical film is adapted from a documentary, the results either distort or embellish the truth. Of Richard Friedenberg’s 1996 made-for-Showtime dramatization, “Mr. & Mrs. Loving,” Mildred Loving observed, “not much of it was very true. The only part of it right was I had three children.” Here, writer/director Jeff Nichols (Mud) based most of the dialogue on Buirski’s doc and cast actors who are dead-ringers for the Lovings. The sting of racism discrimination, even a half-century removed from their ordeal, is palpable throughout Loving. (Yet another version is in the works, “The Price of Love,” is in production, although I can’t imagine what new it could bring to the story.) Clearly, the State of Virginia wants to put the case as far back in its rear-view mirror as possible. Principal photography for Loving took place in Richmond, with location shoots in King and Queen County, Caroline County, Central Point and Bowling Green, where the actual jail and courtrooms still are in use. The Blu-ray adds Nichols’ commentary and featurettes “Making Loving,” “A Loving Ensemble,” “Loving v. Virginia” and “Virginia: A Loving Backdrop.”

American Pastoral
For some of us, coverage of the mass protests prompted by the inauguration of President Trump and his executive orders triggered memories of the political turmoil and violence that rocked the 1960s and early ’70s. Although the vast majority of demonstrators and activists were peaceful, a handful of self-declared anarchists decided to vent their anger on plate-glass windows, dumpsters and any graffiti-free wall they encountered. The 1969 Days of Rage confrontations, organized by the then-Weatherman faction of the SDS, may have attracted more media attention than the “black bloc” radicals who engaged police in Washington, Seattle, San Francisco and Berkeley, but the similarities were obvious to anyone who cared to look for them. (Thank goodness, President Nixon didn’t have the benefit of tweets to voice his displeasure of radical youths.) Based on Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same title, American Pastoral puts an unsettling twist on stories already told in Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty, Paul Schrader’s Patty Hearst and such documentaries as Berkeley in the SixtiesThe War at Home, Underground and Weather Underground. In some ways, American Pastoral also resembles Uli Edel’s powerful drama, The Baader Meinhof Complex, which chronicled the rise and fall of West Germany’s Red Army Faction. By and large, the most violent radicals were children of privilege, whose motivations were as Freudian as they were political. Much of director/star Ewan McGregor and writer John Romano’s American Pastoral takes place on an idyllic dairy farm outside blue-collar Newark, where Seymour “Swede” Levov also runs the glove-manufacturing business built by his father (Peter Riegert). Despite his nickname, Seymour is the archetypal Jewish prince and star athlete, who ignored his parents’ wishes and advice by marrying the Roman Catholic beauty queen, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly). With their newborn daughter, Merry, the family settled in the rural hamlet of Old Rimrock. By all rights, Merry (Dakota Fanning) should have grown into her teenage years as happy and contented as any of her privileged classmates.

Instead, she’s burdened by a severe stutter, which throttles her ability to express her political beliefs and growing disdain for the status quo, which she takes out on everyone in authority, including her parents. By the time she turns 16, Merry is spending her free time in New York City, ostensibly hanging out with students in the SDS. Her parents can’t control her outbursts or understand what’s made her so hostile to them. Soon enough, the town’s dual-purpose post office and gas station is rocked by a bomb that kills the owner after he raises the American flag. As the only logical suspect, Merry decides to go underground, effectively disappearing from the narrative for several years. The bomb was ignited as a statement decrying a foreign war and inequalities at home. Instead, it effectively altered the futures of two Old Rimrock families with no ties to the government beyond handing the mail and paying taxes. Roth laid most of the emotional baggage on the shoulders of his all-American son/husband/father, who spends the rest of his life in search of rational explanations for Merry’s decisions, where none exist. Coincidentally, his factory is situated at ground zero of the Newark riots, which threaten the livelihood of black and Hispanic employees the Levovs have treated as if they’re part of a larger family. Dawn eventually will write off both her daughter and husband, deciding that a facelift and lover will relieve her anguish. After a surprise meeting with Jerry Levov at a high school reunion, which coincides with his brother’s funeral, Roth’s alter-ego, frequent protagonist and narrator, Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), is able to fill us in on the details of Swede and Merry’s demise. (It occurs in the film’s opening moments, so no need for a spoiler alert.) Fans of “American Pastoral,” the novel, may feel as if too many liberties were taken in Romano’s adaptation. I found McGregor’s portrayal of a seemingly blameless parent at wit’s end to be extremely moving. I wonder how many parents, today, will lose Merrys of their own to outrage over decisions they feel powerless to change, except through violence. The extras include commentary by McGregor and the featurettes, “American Pastoral: Adapting an American Classic” and “Making the American Dream.”

The Eagle Huntress: Blu-ray
While Mongolia may seem as if it’s the end of the world, even for experienced travelers, it’s actually been fairly well represented in films and documentaries. Most of the credit for that belongs to the ever-fascinating legend of Genghis Kahn, of course, which has been re-enacted numerous times on the big screen. (Howard Hughes’ famously cursed The Conqueror, starring John Wayne as the powerful warrior, should never be confused with any Mongolian production after 1990.) The sparsely populated country’s great natural beauty, unique culture and its rich history have been shown to their best effect in such modern co-productions as Sergei Bodrov’s Oscar-nominated Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan, Andrei Borissov’s By the Will of Chingis Khan, Shin’ichirô Sawai’s The Blue Wolf: To the Ends of the Earth and Sea, Ken Annakin and Antonio Margheriti’s Genghis Khan: The Story of a Lifetime and Zolbayar Dorj and  U. Shagdarsuren’s Genghis: The Legend of the Ten. Roko Belic’s cross-cultural Genghis Blues was nominated for Best Documentary, while Luigi Falorni and Byambasuren Davaa’s The Story of the Weeping Camel was entered as the country’s Best Foreign Language candidate. Davaa’s critically lauded The Cave of the Yellow Dog didn’t make the finals, but is well worth the effort to find. An episode of National Geographic Television’s “Monster Fish,” “Mining Mongolia,” probably lured a few anglers to the isolated Lake Baikal watershed, where the world’s largest trout species, the taimen, lurks. Like “Weeping Camel” and “Yellow Dog,” Otto Bell’s adventure/documentary, The Eagle Huntress, should remind Boomer parents of Disney’s “True-Life Adventures.”

It follows Aisholpan, a 13-year-old girl, as she trains to become the first female in 12 generations of her Kazakh family to become an eagle hunter. In Mongolia, men traditionally have trained golden eagles to hunt for animals that provide food, pelts and clothing to family members, as well as meals for the birds. After seven years in service, the eagles are freed into the wild. Bell’s first instinct was to shape The Eagle Huntress as a classic father/daughter bonding story. It would, however, evolve into a movie about female empowerment and breaking down traditional borders. Because Aisholpan had grown up around eagles and the rewards of hunting, it seemed perfectly natural for her to follow her father in the family business. If the elders frowned upon her pursuit, Aisholpan’s father took it seriously enough to introduce her to the hazards, as well as the joys, of training birds and hunting prey. At one point, the girl is lowered down the face of a steep cliff in the Altai Mountains, by rope, to remove a chick from its nest. She impresses her father by using hypnotic gestures to make the task painless for her and the eagle. The crowning point of the story – besides training an eagle to capture a fox – is the annual competition for eagle hunters. The scenery captured on the Steppes and mountains is nothing short of spectacular, enhanced by long crane shots and drones able to follow the eagles on their dizzying dives and swoops. Daisy Ridley supplies narration in spots, but the dialogue is largely in the native Kazakh tongue. The Blu-ray adds Bell’s commentary and a worthwhile making-of featurette.

Burn Country
Although documentaries frequently provide the inspiration for narrative films, it isn’t often that the same person who made the doc writes and directs the adaptation for its theatrical run. Switch-hitting works far better on the baseball diamond than in feature films. Ian Olds’ curiously uneven thriller, Burn Country, is a perfect example of a movie so full of good and bad ideas, several prompted by his experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, that they stumble over each other trying to get out. Olds’ prize-winning docs, Occupation: Dreamland (2005) and Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi (2009) told stories about life during wartime that were, at once, deeply chilling and painstakingly intimate. “Fixer” explores the 2007 kidnapping of Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo, along with the highly regarded Afghan guide and interpreter, Ajmal Naqshbandi, and their driver, Sayed Agha, by Taliban insurgents. Mastrogiacomo was released after five high-ranking Taliban were released, but his Afghan companions were beheaded when other demands weren’t met. Olds modeled the protagonist of Burn Country (a.k.a., “The Fixer”) after Naqshbandi. After being exiled from Afghanistan, Osman (Dominic Rains) is offered a place to stay in the northern California home of an American journalist’s mother, Gloria (Melissa Leo). She is a cop in the scenic rural hamlet, which alternately resembles a refuge for unreconstructed hippies and a hideout for Manson Family diehards.

After Osman accepts an entry-level job at the local paper, writing the police-blotter report, he becomes entangled in a web spun to entrap outsiders who stick their noses too deep into the residents’ business. His first mistake is to hook up with a freaked-out longhair, Lindsay (James Franco), who appears to straddle the seemingly opposing camps, but currently is persona non grata in both of them. Osman’s time in war zones has convinced him that, in the aftermath of horror, “a hole has opened in the earth” that can sometimes expose truths not seen in daily life. Even so, he’s a fish out of water when it comes to fringe-dwelling Americans drawn to free love, majestic scenery, unlimited supplies of dope, open-air stages for experimental theater and an off-brand mysticism reminiscent of rites practiced in The Wicker Man. Olds has previously collaborated with Franco on such diverse projects as The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Saturday Night, Francophrenia (Or Don’t Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby Is) and the upcoming Zeroville. He likes to work free-form, so it’s hard to say how much of Burn Country was scripted or improvised. As messy as it gets sometimes, the central mystery is pretty compelling, especially when Leo’s on-screen.

Nerdland: Blu-ray
Fans of the outrageous animated comedy, Sausage Party, should find something to like in Chris Prynoski and Andrew Kevin Walker’s equally raunchy Nerdland. It follows the exploits of Hollywood wannabes, screenwriter Elliot (voiced by Patton Oswalt) and actor John (Paul Rudd), who, as they approach their 30th birthdays, know that their days are numbered in Tinseltown. They appear not to notice that they’re living in squalor and their sex lives are limited to late-night dates with a duct-taped inflatable doll. Their pursuit of fame, however fleeting, leads to a nightmare vision of SoCal consumerism at its most sordid. Ironically, Elliot and John’s 15 minutes in the fickle spotlight of fame arrives completely by accident, when they witness a robbery being committed by a very wanted criminal and everyone wants a piece of them. That includes Sally (Kate Micucci) and Linda (Riki Lindhome), the buxom mall-workers who serve as the lads’ objects of lust. Other voices are provided by Hannibal Buress, Reid Scott, Mike Judge, Sally Kirkland, Laraine Newman and Molly Shannon. Nerdland isn’t as consistently funny as Sausage Party, but admirers of Rudd and Oswalt will already know where to find the laughs.

Life on the Line: Blu-ray
There was a time when the studios churned out workplace melodramas, in which natural and manmade emergencies inspire heroic actions by otherwise ordinary individuals. No matter the calamity, the star could be counted on to stick his thumb in the leaky dam, keep the dynamos humming and wheels of commerce greased. Typically, a love interest would be thrown into the mix to keep folks interested between lightning flashes and bridge collapses, but mostly the women were there to support the male protagonist and add some spice to the trailers and posters. By contrast, in Raoul Walsh’s hard-boiled truck-driver meller, They Drive by Night, there isn’t a token character or extraneous storyline. As such, it represents the high-end of the working-class-hero subgenre. Freelance long-haul drivers Humphrey Bogart and George Raft face all sorts of obstacles – bad weather, crappy roads, fragile vehicles, impossible deadlines, lack of sleep, corrupt cops and union thugs — while trying to make a buck delivering produce to distributors a night’s drive from California’s agricultural hubs. Ann Sheridan plays a damsel in distress, while Ida Lupino is the femme fatale. If the special visual effects are primitive, it was Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay’s exciting adaptation of A.I. Bezzerides’ novel and high-profile actors that put butts in the seats. Today, it’s the special effects that sell tickets, not the slapdash screenplays and interchangeable actors. I only bring this up here, because Life on the Line might have been a much better movie if David Hackl (Saw V) and his team of writers had screened They Drive by Night and other blue-collar melodramas from Warner Bros., in the 1940s, and studied the component parts. All the right ingredients for success are there. Not all of them fit where they’re put. John Travolta, who’s excelled at playing such characters throughout his career, plays the foreman of a crew of electrical-line workers hired to upgrade the equipment on a section of the nation’s increasingly fragile power grid. We watch in shock, early on, when Beau’s brother is burnt to a crisp while attempting to fix a snapped high-voltage transmission wire. Without saying as much, the terrible accident alerts viewers to the fact that the job is among the 10 most dangerous in America.

Beau’s team is on call day and night, especially in anticipation of severe meteorological events, and Hackl has no trouble conveying such perils of the job as lightning, live wires, faulty equipment and terrifying heights. Beau’s biggest problems here are caused by the private company that owns his section of the grid and has decided that fewer, less-experienced men can do the same quality work as before de-regulation changed the way everyone does business. High-line work is not something that lends itself to on-the-job training. Neither does it allow time for refereeing the romantic squabbles of crew members, one of whom, Duncan (Devon Sawa), Beau has forbidden to date his niece, Bailey (Kate Bosworth). Another lineman (Ryan Robbins), who suffers PTSD from his time in the war, is convinced that his wife, Carline (Julie Benz), is cheating on him and the distraction comprises the safety of the team. Sharon Stone even pops up from time to time, as Duncan’s broken and embittered mother. At 97 minutes, Life on the Line simply can’t accommodate the extra baggage, while also preparing the audience for the massive storm that is about to take out a large section of the grid. Only Travolta and crew stand between it and a citizenry that might lose access to the Internet for an hour or so. It doesn’t help that some of the subplots appear to be held together by the screenwriters’ equivalent of Gorilla Glue. Apparently, Life on the Line is the passion project of Chad Dubea, a former utility lineman and now CEO of T&D Solutions, a power-line-maintenance and construction company in Louisiana. In 2013, Dubea spent $250,000 to establish the Fallen Linemen Organization, which helps the families of utility workers killed in the line of duty. Dubea’s financial contribution to the production earned him an executive-producer’s credit. The Blu-ray package adds a music video by Fiona Culley, featuring Darius Rucker, and a behind-the-scenes featurette, with cast and crew interviews.

Come What May: Blu-ray
The release of Christian Carion’s excellent World War II refugee drama, from France, coincided with the influx of Syrians attempting to escape the war in Europe. The difference, of course, is that the distraught characters we meet in Come What May have yet to experience the cruelty of the German invasion, while the Syrian refugees we see on the news have been suffering for quite a while. In both cases, the refugees’ desperation, fear and determination can read on their faces. In May 1940, the German troops have just entered France. With the horrors of World War I still fresh in the minds of the adults in the far northern part of the country, the residents of Pas-de-Calais are faced with the choice of evacuating south, as recommended by civil-defense officials, or roll the dice on the Germans. Each of the villagers must make the decision for themselves, but the mayor and his wife (Olivier Gourmet, Mathilde Seigner) have decided that it is their responsibility to lead, rather than follow. The journey south is fraught with danger, even if the enemy is more interested in destroying pockets of resistance than tormenting refugees. Come What May also tells the parallel stories of a Belgian anti-Nazi activist, Hans (August Diehl), who fled his home minutes ahead of a raid by police looking for communists, and a Scottish member of the British Expeditionary Force, Percy (Matthew Rhys), who somehow got separated from his company near Arras and is on the wrong side of the Scarpe River. Able to converse in French, German and English, Hans and his 8-year-old son have been able to assimilate into the farming community Pas-de-Calais. When someone hears Hans speak German with Max, the snitch alerts police to the possibility that he’s a spy. He’s in jail when the first attack comes, separated from his son by a several miles. A young teacher, Suzanne (Alice Isaaz), takes Max under her wing when the caravan leaves the village ahead of Hans. In a clever conceit, the boy vows to leave messages for his dad on school blackboards in the towns they will pass. Hans and Percy’s journey south is considerably more dangerous. The lovely French countryside and a wonderful score by 88-year-old Ennio Morricone help make the nearly two-hour drama pass quickly. The Cohen Media Blu-ray contains commentary with Carion, who was inspired by stories he’d heard growing up; a making-of featurette; a behind-the-scenes piece with Morricone; and video interview with Carion and Richard Pena, former program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

As if being 17 weren’t difficult enough, in Israel or anywhere else, the protagonist of Michal Vinik’s Blush will also spend the next 81 minutes of movie time coming of age and coming out of the closet, almost simultaneously. Bored with school and alienated from her conservative parents, Naama Barash (Sivan Noam Shimon) spends most of her free time drinking, getting high and partying with friends. Moreover, her older sister has decided that this would be the right time in her life to go AWOL from her military duty – again — and move to a predominantly Palestinian village, where her boyfriend lives. Her father (Dvir Benedek) thinks that his daughters are conspiring to bust his balls, but that would be too simple. Naama finds temporary relief in the company of the new girl in school, Dana (Hada Jade Sakori), a bleach-blonde punker who introduces her to Tel Aviv’s nightclub, stronger drugs and a lesbian scene that appears to revolve around a deejay named Dracula. Not surprisingly, Naama falls hard for Dana after their first kiss and orgasm. Finally, when her sister does come home, Naama has someone older who takes her changes seriously and offers sound advice. It’s difficult to predict what’s ahead for the flighty teenager, except for a stint of her own in the army. Several critics have pointed out the similarities between Blush and Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color, and Vinik hasn’t denied them. In some ways, Naama also resembles such American teens as Ellen Page’s Juno MacGuff, in Juno; Emma Stone’s Olive, in Easy A; Hailee Steinfeld’s Nadine, in The Edge of Seventeen; and Shailene Woodley’s Kat Connors, in White Bird in a Blizzard. Hollywood studios are reluctant, though, to risk an R- or NC-17 rating, when it comes to movies of interest to teens. The package includes Summer Czajak’s short, “This Is You and Me,” a director’s statement and “why we selected it” statement from Film Movement.

Movies about priests seeking redemption for their sins – real and perceived – aren’t likely to find much of an audience in the U.S. or any other country where Roman Catholics have been shocked and disturbed by accusations of pedophilia, rape and cover-ups in their religious community. Like John Patrick Shanley’s intense 2008 drama, Doubt, Terrance Odette’s Fall leaves questions about a priest’s guilt, innocence and the possibility of resurrection largely up to viewers. That is not the case with such conclusive indictments as Spotlight, Deliver Us from Evil, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Calvary and The Club. They describe crimes of abuse almost too terrible to contemplate, while also condemning the Vatican for its feeble response to accusations. (It’s far more distressed by financial penalties and costly settlements.) The last thing I wanted to watch this week was another story about pedophilia and the clergy. Fall is set in a diocese on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls that’s literally dying before Father Sam’s eyes. He spends far more time conducting funerals and visiting rest homes than officiating over baptisms and First Holy Communions. The young adults left in the parish find it difficult to square their lifestyles and personal beliefs with things they were taught years earlier in Catechism classes. They’re getting weary, waiting for the Pope to wake up one morning and realize that it’s the 21st Century.

Veteran character actor Michael Murphy (Manhattan) was nominated for a Canadian Screen Award for his portrayal of the tortuously conflicted Father Sam in Fall. Even in hindsight, it’s difficult to imagine a better choice. Neither could there be a much better location for such downbeat drama than Niagara Falls in winter. Early in the film, Father Sam receives a letter that throws his uneventful life into turmoil. It triggers the murky memory of an encounter, 40 years earlier, with a boy. His inability to recall the nature of the incident troubles him to the point where he visits family members – the boy’s and his own – to get a fix on what may or may not have happened. It doesn’t go well. Even so, he’s able to tend to the flock, with a time-worn Christmas homily that barely reflects the turmoil within himself and the Church. That comes after the funeral of an elderly woman, whose son is gay and bitter over the Vatican’s condemnation of homosexuals, in general, and Father Sam’s specific reluctance to confront issues with which he probably doesn’t agree. Writer/director Odette provides some clues as to the mystery surrounding the priest’s past and present predilections, but avoids any firm answers. Thanks to Murphy, he’s able gets away with it. The real question, of course, comes in deciding for ourselves if we could forgive this priest for what in almost any other situation might be considered a redeemable indiscretion or no longer within the statutes of limitation. Special features include behind-the-scenes material, interviews and a CBC Radio panel discussion with cast and crew.

Look at Us Now, Mother
Anyone who’s witnessed the frequently volatile dynamics between teenage girls and their mothers knows that they tend to settle down after the daughter’s graduation from high school and she realizes that mom may not be such a drag, after all. It took filmmaker, television producer and writer Gayle Kirschenbaum a much longer time to make amends with Mildred, the Jewish Mother in extremis. The result can be seen in Look at Us Now, Mother, a frequently tortuous examination of a relationship that is only slightly less unnerving than Christina Crawford’s “Mommie Dearest.” At the core of Gayle’s lifelong frustrations is Mildred’s narcissism. From the age of 5, Mildred was in competition with her daughter for the attention of her husband and anyone with a camera pointed in their direction. She resented Gayle for not being born male and, two decades later, not having to give up her freedom in pursuit of a suitable husband, as she was compelled to do. Instead, Gayle chose to pursue artistic goals. Even as an adult, Gayle was taunted for having unruly hair, inadequate breasts, a “Jewish accent,” not being thin enough and refusing to get a nose job. Mildred, now in her 90s, looks as if she’s had only one or two fewer nips and tucks than Joan Rivers. Her mother’s obsession with her daughter’s proboscis prompted Gayle to make the 2007 documentary short “My Nose,” whose popularity led to the feature-length “Look at Us Now, Mother.” They appear to have buried the hatchet after the death of the family patriarch, during production, but the relationship still appears to be testy. Gayle admits to having problems in personal relationships with men and Mildred still professes not to remember abuses described in Look at Us Now, Mother. Curiously, none of the men in the family have much to say, or weren’t asked for their opinions.

Spirit of the Game
For more than 125 years, basketball and religion have existed side-by-side. Dr. James Naismith invented the game of basketball as part of his job at the Young Men’s Christian Association. In the early 1900s, he coined the phrase “muscular Christianity” to describe the use of recreation for religious purposes. Roman Catholic schools and the CYO, which was modeled after the YMCA, quickly identified the benefits of organized basketball programs, as well. Even today, it isn’t unusual to find a priest sitting alongside the players in a Big East contest. The entire conference is comprised of Catholic colleges without football programs. Being baptized Catholic is not, however, a prerequisite for being granted a scholarship. The same probably is true at most universities associated with a religious denomination. Spirit of the Game tells the story of the Mormon Yankees, an exhibition hoops team composed of young Mormon missionaries based in Australia, from 1937-1961. During this period missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints used basketball to build bridges in various countries and communities. Some of the players had already competed at the collegiate level – Utah State University and Brigham Young competed for the first time in 1906 – and the training would specifically pay off when the Yankees were asked to get Australia’s first Olympic basketball team ready for the 1956 Summer Games, which were to be held in Melbourne. The team also was asked to compete against squads from around the world in their preparations for the Olympics. Darran Scott’s film plays fast and loose with some aspects of the Yankees’ history, but, for the most part, sticks to the essentials. At the heart of the story, is 20-year-old Delyle Condie, a star on the University of Utah squad, who, after his fiancé calls off their engagement, spontaneously decides to quit the team and embark on his missionary commitment.

It’s possible that Condie was specifically assigned to Melbourne to add some sizzle to the Yankees, but Spirit of the Game doesn’t push the point. No sooner does Condie disembark from the ship than he’s coerced into joining a pickup game, with players who history tells us did or would comprise the Yankees. Even though the team had already developed a positive reputation in Australia, the movie missionaries are greeted by the natives as if they were sent there to accumulate wives and kidnap children. The Mormon president in charge of the district is portrayed as being hostile to the basketball team, as he believes practices and games take time away from knocking on doors and convincing folks to commit to being baptized in the LDS tradition. Scott doesn’t share the sales pitch with viewers, probably assuming they’ve already heard it, sold it or rejected it. Another comes in his depictions of the opposition and their trainees. The Aussie hopefuls are portrayed as being oafishly inept and reluctant to subscribe to Mormon codes pertaining to smoking, drinking and staying in shape. The French are drawn to resemble Snidely Whiplash, complete with ridiculous mustaches and an inclination to break the rules when pressed. During the peak of the Mormon Yankees’ popularity, 1955-60, the LDS Church in Australia tripled in size. Something must have clicked, because, during the peak of the Yankees’ popularity, 1955-1960, the LDS Church in Australia tripled in size. Today, the country fields an extremely competitive team and regularly contributes players to the NBA, while, since 1961, missionaries have been prohibited from forming teams. If Spirit of the Game succeeds in reaching its target audience, it will be because viewers are able to able overlook the clumsy presentation and laughable basketball on display. It’s a far cry from Hoosiers.  The only actors I recognized were Aaron Jakubenko (“Spartacus: War of the Damned”), as Elder Condie, and Kevin Sorbo (“Hercules: The Legendary Journeys”), his supportive father.

Ever wonder if the sins of a mother are visited on their children, unto the third and the fourth generation, as the bible says of fathers whose sins are an abomination unto the Lord? No, me either. Something like that did arise, however, while watching Sasha King and Brian O’Donnell’s debut feature, Akron. That’s because a terrible incident in the long-ago past of the protagonists’ mothers has come back to possibly destroy their sons’ future together. More than that I cannot say on Akron’s central dilemma, which, for once, has nothing to do with anyone being gay and in love. Benny and Christopher (Matthew Frias, Edmund Donovan) are freshmen at the University of Akron. They meet while playing in a pickup football game and, even in the rain, sparks fly between them. Christopher’s parents are pleased to learn of their son’s good luck and newfound happiness. Benny’s mom invites them to Florida, where she works as a yoga instructor. While lounging in a hot tub, she drops the bombshell that’s been hanging over the narrative since the first scene. Christopher’s devastated not only by the mother’s pronouncement, but also by Benny’s decision not to level with him in the first place. Things don’t get any better when the boys return to Akron. Can this relationship be saved or will it turn to rust, like everything else in the city? What’s nice is that Benny and Christopher’s problem isn’t unique to LGBTQ youths or anyone else. Neither does the red-state background require additional turmoil be visited on them. The DVD adds interviews and background material.

The surprise reveal in Piotr J. Lewandowski’s Jonathan also involves love, longing, guilt and family secrets. This time, the setting is a farm in a forested section of Germany, where handsome blond Jonathan (Jannis Niewöhner) is having a tough time keeping his volatile emotions under control. His terminally ill father, Burghard (Andre Hennicke), has been sabotaging his efforts to care for him or even to die with a modicum of dignity. Jonathan and his elderly aunt already have their hands full, working hard to keep the farm afloat. Finally, they decide to hire a hospice nurse, Anka (Julia Koschitz), whose presence gives Jonathan the time he needs to discover things about the old man he should have known years earlier. It may surprise viewers, who assume Jonathan is the gay character, when he and Anka fall in lust with each other. Things take another surprising turn when an old friend arrives and it serves as a shot of adrenaline to the sick man’s broken body. Jonathan’s best moments come in nature, with rays of sunlight bursting through the trees, and while watching Anka attempting to catch that night’s diner, wading in the stream topless. If nothing else, the movie teaches us that it’s never too late to come out of the closet.

Antibirth: Blu-ray
Wild Beasts: Blu-ray
Blood Mania/Point of Terror: Limited Edition: Blu Ray
There are a lot of things that can go wrong when an experimental or Internet-based artist makes the first big step into the world of feature films. Good things can happen, as well, but sometimes it’s easier to remember the mistakes. Danny Perez’ Antibirth has plenty of both to go around. Presented as a “psychedelic horror film,” it wallows in excessively rude behavior and the ugliness that tends to surround badly behaved characters. It’s difficult to find much to admire in anyone, here. Even so, patience will reward genre buffs in the form of a payoff that combines elements of Rosemary’s Baby, Jacob’s Ladder and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The setting for Antibirth is a god-forsaken city in the upper Midwest, possibly Detroit, which supports a motley community of derelict military veterans, generic stoners, petty criminals and conspiracy theorists. Natasha Lyonne and Chloë Sevigny play the self-destructive Lou and Sadie, local losers whose trailer-park sensibilities perfectly mirror the film’s low-rent production values. One night, after blacking out from too much partying, Lou begins to show signs of being pregnant. She doesn’t remember having sex in months, but getting pregnant doesn’t require more than a few minutes of physical intimacy or more than one partner being conscious. If she had been raped, the symptoms would suggest that it was at the hands of an alien.  As the pregnancy progresses, viewers might develop a distinct sense of dread over what might be delivered from Lou’s womb. She, however, appears to be too wasted to care, one way another. As Lou and Sadie kill time eating junk food and getting high in front of the television, the programming goes from cartoon craziness to totally insanity. It includes Teletubbie-like characters, televangelical yogis, gremlins and Vietnam-era soldiers. As Lou’s pregnancy progress, a conspiracy nut played by a shockingly plump Meg Tilly enters the picture, as a harbinger of horror to come.

And, if Antibirth doesn’t sate your appetite for truly bizarre genre fare, the Wild Beasts surely will. The concept is exponentially less complicated than the one that informs Antibirth, as well: when the water supply for a large city zoo becomes contaminated with PCP, the most dangerous animals go crazy and break out of their cages. Wild Beasts was the final film written and directed by Franco E. Prosperi, one of the creators of films in “Mondo” series of Italian shock-docs. At first glance, it looks like just another low-budget addition to the time-honored “nature strikes back” subgenre. As it evolves, however, it appears as if the Humane Society either was asleep at the wheel or simply not invited to the location shoots. Released in 1984, before the use of animatronic stand-ins became standard-practice, Wild Beasts could only have looked as realistic as it does if real animals – from polar bears, cheetahs and elephants, to rats, seeing-eye dogs and cats – were put directly in harm’s way during scenes of rampaging beasts, pyrotechnics and carnage. The idea here is to get the animals back in their cages, before the town’s populace is devoured. What transpires before either of those two things can occur is  just crazy enough to hold the attention of viewers who aren’t disgusted by the likelihood that some of the creatures were sacrificed in the service of schlocky cinema. I suspect that this might have negatively affected Wild Beast’s ability to find distribution here. Fans of Italian genre fare might recognize stars Lorraine De Selle (Cannibal Ferox) and Ugo Bologna (Nightmare City). Digitally remastered in hi-def for the first time, Wild Beasts arrives with featurettes “Altered Beasts,” an interview with director Franco E. Prosperi”; “Wild Tony,” an interview with actor Tony di Leo”; “Cut After Cut,” an interview with editor and “Mondo” filmmaker Mario Morra; “The Circus Is in Town,” an interview with animal wrangler Roberto Tibeti’s son, Carlo Tiberti; and “House of Wild Beasts,” a visit to the home of Franco E. Prosperi.

The common element in the Blood Mania/Point of Terror double-feature from Vinegar Syndrome is writer/producer/singer/star Peter Carpenter, who, the publicity material would have us believe was “one of the most enigmatic leading men of the era,” encompassing 1968-71. In addition to this “lurid double-dose of ’70s sleaze” the multi-hyphenate talent suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died two months after the scheduled, then delayed release of his fourth picture, Point of Terror. If he had survived – who knows? – Carpenter might have gone on to become the David Hasselhoff or Wings Hauser of his day. The advent of the video-cassette revolution was still several years away, so Carpenter’s reputation pretty much was limited to edited-for-television versions of these films. (They’re included in the limited-edition pressing, as well.) Carpenter, who may still be best known for playing Mountie in Russ Meyers’ Vixen, plays Craig Cooper who’s taken over the clinic founded by the bed-ridden pain-in-the-ass Dr. Ridgeley Waterman (Eric Allison). Cooper is being blackmailed over performing illegal abortions while a student in med school, so he considers accepting an offer made by Westerman’s amyl-snorting, nymphomaniac daughter, Victoria (Maria De Aragon), who would benefit financially from his assisted death. What she doesn’t know is that her father’s will bestows the bulk of his estate to her younger sister (Playmate Vicki Peters). When Cooper makes a play for Gail, Victoria comes down with a bad case of blood mania.

In Crown International’s Point of Terror, Carpenter headlines as Tony Trelos, a lounge singer whose act resembles a bargain-basement Tom Jones. One morning, after a show, Trelos wakes up on the private beach belonging to Andrea Hillard (Dyanne Thorne) and her wheelchair-bound husband, a record-label executive. After some chitchat with the Lana Turner-wannbe, Trelos convinces her to check out a set at the Lobster House. While he hopes for possible record contract, Andrea appears to be more interested in the bulge in his jeans and someone to help her get rid of her embittered spouse. She feels betrayed when the singer hooks up with her lovely stepdaughter Helayne (Lory Hansen) and decides to do something about it. The best thing about Point of Terror is the set design – or, what passes for it – which provides a lesson in tacky, post-Eisenhower Era modernism and middle-age-crazy fashion statements. Director Robert Vincent O’Neill’s color palette is more startling than anything in the movie. Both pictures have been newly restored from their original 35mm negatives. The package includes a commentary track with Blood Mania’s director Robert Vincent O’Neill, actresses Leslie Simms (both films) and Vicki Peters; a video interview and introduction with O’Neill; an interview with Simms; promotional galleries for both films; and reverse cover artwork.

The 9th Life of Louis Drax: Blu-ray
The Survivor: Blu-ray
Not even the presence of “Fifty Shades” hunk, James Dornan, Emmy-winner Aaron Paul (“Breaking Bad”), Indie Spirit and Emmy-nominee Molly Parker, Emmy nominee Oliver Platt, Oscar- and Emmy nominee Barbara Hershey and the (Max) Minghella imprint on the screenplay could ensure more than a limited release for The 9th Life of Louis Drax. Before taking on the task of adapting Liz Jensen’s best-selling novel of the same title, director Alexandre Aja had just come off the offbeat hybrid fantasy Horns, with Daniel Radcliffe and Juno Temple, and goofy international hit, Piranha 3D. If M. Night Shyamalan had affixed his name to the project somewhere, more viewers might have been attracted to the picture’s intricate blend of supernatural intrigue, eerie special effects and head-scratching mystery. The story begins on Louis Drax’s 9th birthday, when a lifetime of curious mishaps culminated in the boy’s near-fatal fall from the ledge of a steep cliff, into the Pacific Ocean. After being pulled from the water, Louis expires on an operating table. As he’s being wheeled into the morgue, however, the boy startles hospital workers by rising from the dead … literally. Being alive and being alert enough to recognize his surroundings are two different things, though.

Even when he was fully conscious, Louis tended to drift in and out of a dream state, while also acting out some dangerous fantasies. Platt plays the psychiatrist entrusted with discovering what makes him tick. Their sessions are confrontational and freakishly candid, as if there was a much older sociopath controlling Louis’ every response. Without giving anything away, I can safely say that the rest of movie alternates between what’s happening in Louis’ subconscious, as he recalls the events leading up to the fateful day, and the efforts of the adults around him to fix or elude blame for the accident. Meanwhile, his father (Paul) has disappeared, his mother (Sarah Gadon) fears for her life and the boy’s neurologist (Dornan) steps into a web being spun by a black-widow spider. Parker plays a dogged police detective, who suspects everyone involved of being guilty for something or other, while Hershey plays Louis’ paternal grandmother, who swoops in towards the end of the movie to unravel the threads leading to common wisdom. One way to determine beforehand whether or not you’ll enjoy The 9th Life of Louis Drax would be to recall your feelings toward Shyamalan’s film, especially those released between Signs and Split.

Although David Hemmings’ 1981 supernatural thriller, The Survivor, can be found on most lists of Ozploitation titles, it differs from the car chase and slasher flicks in a couple of significant ways. It was one of the first Australian films whose budget was allowed to pass the million-dollar barrier and a cerebral approach to the mayhem that was less in tune with Mad Max than The Last Wave and Walkabout, which also starred Jenny Agutter. The inferno ignited by the crash leaves everyone on board dead, except the pilot (Robert Powell), who walks away from the wreckage unscathed. Soon thereafter, a local psychic named Hobbs (Agutter) begins to communicate with the spirits of the doomed passengers. Hobbs helps the pilot recreate the horrifying event, while a priest played by Joseph Cotton – in his final film performance – has other reasons to follow the investigation. The Blu-ray adds extended interviews with producer Antony I. Ginnane (Patrick) and cinematographer John Seale (The English Patient); “The Legacy of James Herbert,” author of the source novel; “Robert Powell on James Herbert,” an on-location TV special with stars Joseph Cotten and Peter Sumner; archived interview with Hemmings and Powell; and Antony I. Ginnane trailer reel.

Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man: Blu-ray
Leonard Cohen: Live Broadcast Sessions, 1985-1993
If Bob Dylan hadn’t sent Patti Smith to accept the Noble Prize for literature in his place, there might have been a clamor for Leonard Cohen to be awarded it in a posthumous ceremony. Proof of his greatness can be found on the many DVDs and Blu-rays flooding the market, most only vaguely authorized, if at all. Lionsgate has done his international fandom a great favor of re-releasing Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, a beautifully rendered documentary, during which several musicians he has influenced pay homage to him in song. There have been three tribute CDs dedicated to his work, at least, but, in “I’m Your Man,” it’s possible to see love and heartfelt gratitude in the faces of musicians Linda and Teddy Thompson, the Handsome Family, Perla Batalla, Martha and Rufus Wainwright, Bono and the Edge, Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker, Beth Orton, Julie Christensen, Antony, Kate and Anna McGarrigle. The songs are sometimes interrupted by chats with Cohen and artists represented here, but not so often that it becomes a nuisance. The Blu-ray adds commentary with director Lian Lunson; a brief “conversation” with Cohen; and four additional performances.

I don’t know anything about how copyright laws work outside the United States, except what the MPAA tells me, but I suspect that they’re rather lax when it comes to material broadcast on television. Leonard Cohen: Live Broadcast Sessions, 1985-1993 features 18 live versions of Cohen classics, recorded in Norway in 1985, and again in 1988, and a further selection from Barcelona, Spain, in 1993. This represented an extremely productive period in Cohen’s career, with the release of “Various Positions,” “I’m Your Man” and “The Future.” The audio/visual quality is better here than in most of the concert videos I’ve seen from unauthorized sources. The songs are rendered in full-length versions, as well.

Dirty Dancing: 30th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Even if Dirty Dancing is celebrating its 30th anniversary on film, it’s worth remembering that the universe in which the story exists is 24 years older than that. It seems like an entire lifetime. More things in our culture changed between the summer of 1963 and August, 1987, than in the 30 years since its release into theaters. Some of that change was noted in the movie, itself, when resort owner Max Kellerman alluded to the fact that teenagers were more interested in spending their summers backpacking through Europe, than learning the merengue in the Catskills. Among other things, President Kennedy was still alive, the Vietnam War was still a police action, the Beatles were a blip on the cultural radar, Mary Quant had yet to rock the mini-skirt and LSD was still legal. Ever cautious, Max might have prohibited his dancers from teaching campers the twist, even though it was two years past its peak. Contraceptives wouldn’t be made available to married women in all states until 1965 or 1972 for unmarried women, like Johnny’s dancing partner Penny, in all 50 states. Roe v. Wade wouldn’t be decided until almost a full decade after Dirty Dancing opened. The 1969 moon landing had less impact on society than legalizing a woman’s right to control her own reproductive system.

All those things and more come to mind while watching the movie for the first, tenth or hundredth time. There are now two new 30th Anniversary editions of Dirty Dancing on the market. At a full list price of $64.99, “Dirty Dancing: 30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition” offers diehard fans – and you know who you are – such groovy bonus features as a Kellerman’s cottage room key chain for Baby’s room; an I-carried-a-watermelon wristlet wallet; a compact mirror; 108-page shooting script, with written notes and a letter signed by screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein; vintage Kellerman resort postcards; a Kellerman resort brochure/map; ”Do Not Disturb” door sign; dance-step cards; original theatrical mini one-sheet; and limited and numbered collectible packaging. The $14.99 edition share brand-new special features “Happy Birthday, Dirty Dancing,” with celebrity testimony; “Patrick Swayze: In His Own Words” and “Patrick Swayze Uncut”; and Eleanor Bergstein’s “Thoughts on a Lifetime of Dirty Dancing.” The vintage supplemental material adds outtakes/deleted/alternate/extended scenes; music videos; “The Dirty Dancing Phenomenon” and “The Rhythm of the Dancing”; original screen tests; interviews with Jennifer Grey, Eleanor Bergstein, Miranda Garrison and Kenny Ortega; and separate commentary tracks with Eleanor Bergstein, and with Kenny Ortega, Miranda Garrison, Jeff Jur, Hilary Rosenfeld and David Chapman.

Life, Animated
Even if this Oscar-nominated documentary has been in general release for a few months now, street dates are practically irrelevant when it comes to films that aren’t destined for a can’t-miss posting atop the new-releases listings. For non-fiction films, any publicity — any time — could be good for business. When Life, Animated made the cut in the Best Documentary Feature category, it gave publicists another excuse to call reviewers and pitch their product. Roger Ross Williams’ deeply affecting film must be considered a longshot for the top prize, but stranger things have happened. For one thing, Williams has already won an Academy Award, in 2009, in the Best Documentary Short Subject category, for “Music by Prudence.” For another, Life, Animated demonstrates the almost miraculously therapeutic power of movies. It tells the story of Owen Suskind, a chatty and energetic 3-year-old, who, one day, stopped speaking and sank into autism.

No developmental disorder renders parents more powerless than autism, which betrays few signs of its advance and offers even fewer avenues for recovery. It wasn’t until Owen reached 7 that he showed any signs of improvement. The only things that held his attention for any length of time were the animated Disney movies that he stared at for hours at a time. One day, his father, Ron, picked up one of Owen’s puppets — Iago, the wisecracking parrot from Aladdin — and asked, “What’s it like to be you?” Out of the blue, the boy responded using dialogue from the movie. It represented the first step toward a life that would include becoming a highly proficient artist and mimic, meeting the voice actors behind his favorite characters, addressing a conference in France and moving into an assistant-living complex. There would be setbacks, some almost too sad to bear, but the high points make for exhilarating viewing. In charting Owens’ journey, Williams combines vintage home-movie footage, with his own animations and short segments from his favorite Disney movies.

Epix: Graves: Season One
El Rey Network: From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series: Season Three
History: Frankenstein: The Real Story/The Real Wolfman Double Feature
PBS: Moveable Feast: Season 4
Nickelodeon: Shimmer and Shine: Friendship Divine
PBS Kids: Caillou: Playtime With Caillou
PBS/Nick Jr.: Teletubbies: Big Hugs
Who better than Nick Nolte to play an irascible former president, commonly dismissed as the worst to have ever occupied the Oval Office? Larry David? Perhaps, but he’s otherwise engaged, preparing for a ninth season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Nope, Nolte is perfect as President Richard Graves, a right-wing extremist who was elected (twice), in large part, because he was a cowboy. Now, 20 years after leaving the White House, the protagonist of Epix’s frequently spot-on comedy, “Graves,” has seen the liberal light and has decided to right the wrongs inflicted on 99 percent of the American populace by his administration and retool his legacy. Clearly, Graves is modeled on former presidents Reagan and George W. Bush, both of whom had cowboy credentials, but the policies he shaped might have been lifted from Donald Trump’s campaign playbook. Lately, though, he’s gone so far as to invite illegal immigrants to take advantage of the sanctuary being provided at his Santa Fe compound. He’s also advocated diverting tax dollars to cancer research, instead of carrying Republican 1-percenters on the federal dole. The show, which takes full advantage of its splendid New Mexico location, also benefits from a terrific supporting cast. It includes Sela Ward as a former First Lady with political ambitions of her own; Heléne Yorke, as his debauched daughter; Chris Lowell, as his alienated son, home from the war; Skylar Astin, as Graves’ adoring assistant; Callie Hernandez, as his multi-tattooed hippie muse; and Ernie Hudson and Nia Vardalos, as political advisors. The early episodes were larded with real-life political nerds – including the unctuous Rudy Giuliani – but that novelty wore out its welcome rather quickly. A second season is expected later this year.

Season Three of the El Rey Network original, “From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series,” continues to expand on the saga of the highly excitable Gecko brothers, the vampire goddess Santánico Pandemonium and the Fuller family. As it opens, Seth and Richie’s organization is infiltrated by an enemy fixated on destroying the Geckos, the Lords and all culebras. They attempt to persuade Santanico to help them fight various demons who have escaped from the ancient labyrinth of the Titty Twister. She, however, is being targeted by the ancient Xibalban queen, Amaru, who has taken on a familiar form of Kate Fuller. Meanwhile, Freddie and Ximena follow a trail of massacres to a deadly confrontation with Xibalban demon Brasa, who’s Amaru’s right-hand man. This is one show that demands of newcomers that they do their homework before jumping in feet first.

From the History Channel comes the double-feature package, “Frankenstein: The Real Story” and “The Real Wolfman,” both of which use historical, scientific and forensic data to trace the origins of these enduing legends. Doctor Frankenstein’s monster may have sprung from the brow of Mary Shelley, but efforts to raise the dead using spare body parts and electricity weren’t at all unusual in her time. “The Real Wolfman” examines the same legend of the Beast of Gévaudan that informed the French horror/thriller, The Brotherhood of Wolf, in 2001. As the story goes, a wolf-like creature prowled the Auvergne and South Dordogne regions of France during the years 1764 to 1767, killing about 100 people, often in bizarre circumstances.

In Season Four of PBS’s tantalizing “Moveable Feast,” we follow celebrity chef Pete Evans on a culinary journey across America, as he teams up with some of the country’s most innovative chefs — Curtis Stone, Sean Brock, Andrea Reusing and Brian Malarkey — to source the finest regional ingredients and create a multicourse feast for friends. The destinations include a majestic redwood grove, river oyster farm, a ranch in the foothills of Montana and the deck of the USS Midway. Learn cooking tips and techniques from chefs at Fine Cooking magazine. Special features include printable recipes for Thai-style deviled eggs, rye-berry succotash, low-country fish stew, honey-chipotle lamb ribs and Smith Island cake.

In the third DVD release for Nickelodeon’s hit animated preschool series, “Shimmer and Shine,” the genies-in-training encounter some fantastical new friends, including spunky mermaid Nila, Ice Genie Layla and Crystal Queen Empress Caliana. The episodes in “Friendship Divine” include “Zoom Zahramay,” “Mermaid Mayhem,” “A Tree-Mendous Rescue!,” “Freeze-Amay Falls,” “Lightning in a Bottle,” “All Bottled Up,” and “The Crystal Queen And Bling, Bling.”

In PBS Kids’ “Caillou: Playtime With Caillou,” the emphasis is on playing games and being active with family and friends. The episodes include “Caillou’s New Game,” “Caillou’s Leaf Pile,” “Rainy Day at the Beach,” “Soccer Trouble,” “Daddy’s Puzzles,” “What’s Ringette?” and “Sarah’s Kite.”

Big Hugs” is part of the popular “Teletubbies” series, which gives some parents the creeps, but kids love. (Facsimiles even showed up in an acid trip in the horror flick Antibirth, mentioned above.) The children’s show features whimsical characters who explore and learn amazing things about life, while on their adventures. In this collection, some of the show’s best loved characters find a magic door that leads them into a special world where a Big Hug awaits each of them. Join Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po as they splash in puddles, ride the Custard Train and watch Tummy Tales.

The DVD Wrapup: Queen of Katwe, Jack Reacher, Tyler Perry, Killbillies, Victoria and more

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

Queen of Katwe: Blu-ray
Harry and Snowman
Mira Nair’s inspirational and wonderfully uplifting Queen of Katwe straddles three subgenres generally reserved for the athletic and academic accomplishments of minority and underprivileged youths. Typically, such entertainments focus on Americans who succeed against great odds, but, here, the closest we come to native soil is the Disney logo before the credits. That Queen of Katwe is set almost entirely in Uganda, with a side trip to Russia, shouldn’t matter a whit to anyone looking for an escape from the bad news relayed by the talking heads on cable news. The unlikely story of 10-year-old Phiona Mutesi, who rose from poverty in the slums of Kampala to excel in the cutthroat world of international chess competition, fits neatly alongside such compelling David-vs.-Goliath, Cinderella and fish-out-of-water dramas as Stand and Deliver, The Blind Side, The Perfect GameThe Great Debaters and Music of the Heart, as well as uplifting chess-specific titles as The Dark Horse, Life of a King and Brooklyn Castle. Shot largely in Johannesburg and the protagonist’s home turf, Queen of Katwe describes exactly how difficult it was for Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) to overcome every obstacle thrown in her way by the poverty that enslaved her dirt-poor mother, elitist big-city chess clubs and her own bouts with self-confidence and illiteracy. It also pays homage to the understated heroism of her coach, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), another child of poverty and war, who, after graduating No. 1 in his college class, was unable to find work as an engineer. To make ends meet – barely — Katende returned to the same slums in which he was raised to coach soccer and begin the Katwe Chess Academy, as part of a sports-outreach program organized by Christian missionaries. Phiona’s 11-year-old brother, Brian, was attracted to the youth center by the promise of free porridge, but he stayed to learn the game.

Their mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), had lost her husband to AIDS when Phiona was 3 and another daughter, soon after, to an undiagnosed malady. Nakku couldn’t afford to keep the kids in school, so, while she and Phiona sold boiled maize from a saucepan on her head, in the market, Brian was pretty much left to his own devices. He encouraged his sister, then 9, to join him at the center, if only for the porridge. After Nakku created a scene by pulling Phiona from a chess game, Katende rushed to the market to plead with her to give the girl the same opportunity he got to break the cycle of dead-end poverty. Although she had never seen a chessboard before visiting the center – there was no word for the game in her native tongue — Phiona demonstrated an uncanny ability to recognize strategy and anticipate her opponents’ moves. After much trial, error and frustration, Phiona and two other boys were chosen to compete in Sudan, where she experienced modern plumbing and slept in a bed of her own for the first time. She would be chosen to represent Uganda at the 39th Chess Olympiad in Khanty-Mansiysk, Siberia. That’s not the end of the story, by any means, but, once she got rolling, Phiona, now 20, wasn’t about to be deterred from gaining an education and serving as a role model for kids like her. Nair and writer William Wheeler (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) reserve a recitation of Phiona and Katende’s accomplishments for a comprehensive wrap-up that leads into the closing credits, which begin at the movie’s two-hour mark. (Yes, it is a tad long.) In a sterling example of Mouse House synergy, the screenplay was adapted from an ESPN Magazine article and book by Tim Crothers, while the film was produced by Walt Disney Pictures and ESPN Films. Alicia Keys wrote and recorded the song “Back to Life” for the film and Walt Disney Records’ soundtrack album. The Blu-ray adds Nair’s commentary; 20 minutes of deleted scenes; a half-hour making-of featurette; a three-part feature on the film’s music; and “A Fork, a Spoon & a Knight,” Nair’s original short film on Katende.

The against-all-odds subgenre also includes horses standing one step away from the glue factory, before someone recognizes a hidden talent and rescues them. Harry and Snowman is just such a story and a bit more, besides. In 2008, Ron Davis directed Pageant, a crowd-pleaser doc about five female impersonators vying for the 2006 Miss Gay America crown. He returned to the pageant circuit in 2013, this time with Miss You Can Do It, a film that chronicled the challenges facing Abbey Curran, Miss Iowa USA 2008, before she became the first woman with a disability to compete at the Miss USA Pageant. In it, he also introduced eight other girls from around the country with various physical and intellectual disabilities, as they participated in the Miss You Can Do It Pageant, which Abbey founded in 2004. Harry and Snowman is, indeed, a horse of a different color. In 1956, Dutch immigrant Harry de Leyer attended an auction in Pennsylvania looking for horses that could be used for lessons at his Long Island school. Arriving late, de Leyer was left only one horse – a large whitish-gray gelding, previously used as a plow horse – to study. He purchased the slaughterhouse-bound Snowman for $80. It wasn’t until Snowman was sold to a doctor who owned a farm six miles away, for $160, that its real talent became apparent. It would leap the fences surrounding the new owner’s paddock – once, dragging a tire deployed as an anchor — and return to de Leyer’s stables. The doctor, tired of retrieving Snowman, decided to leave it there. He would sell the horse back to de Leyer for expenses accrued from boarding fees.

After two years of extensive training, it began competing on the open-jumper circuit as “The Cinderella Horse,” against pedigreed show horses that cost their similarly pedigreed owners tens of thousands of dollars. At the time, show jumping was sport reserved for socialites, who could afford to compete at its highest levels. It still is, except when jumping and dressage are televised from the Summer Olympics. Snowman became famous as a people’s champion, even allowing Johnny Carson to sit on its back. De Leyer (a.k.a., “The Fly Dutchman” and “The Galloping Grandfather”) had a story of his own to tell on such shows as “To Tell the Truth” and in Life magazine. As a boy, growing up during WWII, he helped rescue Allied paratroopers and carry grain through enemy lines. After immigrating to the U.S. with his wife, de Leyer worked on a North Caroline tobacco farm. After saving some money, he returned to the life of a horseman in New York and, later, Virginia. At 88, he’s still riding and coaching. Snowman was euthanized in 1974, at 26, after suffering from multiple internal ailments. There’s nothing fancy about Harry and Snowman, either. The story is told in as straightforward a manner as possible, through first-person interviews and archival footage.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back: Blu-ray/UHD/DVD
If Steven Seagal and Dolph Lundgren had been asked to star in this sequel to the 2012 action/thriller Jack Reacher, instead of Tom Cruise, it probably wouldn’t have been accorded a $60 million production budget and a worldwide theatrical run. It would have gone straight to DVD/Blu-ray, skipped the 4K upgrade and lived up to more reasonable expectations. For their parts, fans of novelist Lee Child’s best-selling series would be happy to see an actor more in keeping with the character’s stature – 6-foot-5, between 230-250 pounds – and critics wouldn’t feel it necessary to point out that almost nothing in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back makes any sense. Nothing makes sense in movies starring Seagal, Lundgren or, for that matter, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and they still make money. As capable an action star as Tom Cruise has proven to be, here and in the Mission:Impossible films, it’s likely that Child’s loyal readers have yet to forgive him for being short. Diehards might also wonder why Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz – co-creators of the touchy-feely series “thirtysomething” and “Once and Again” — were brought in to helm and polish Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Clue: Cruise is loyal to past collaborators and he scored big with Zwick and Herskowitz, on The Last Samurai. (Likewise, he’s teamed with writer/director Christopher McQuarrie on Jack Reacher, Valkyrie, Edge of Tomorrow, Mission:Impossible: Rogue Nation and the upcoming M:I 6.) The only decision here that might raise eyebrows, but shouldn’t, is the casting of Cobie Smulders, best known for her co-starring role on “How I Met Your Mother.” At 5-foot-8, the athletic Vancouver native has played Agent Maria Hill in The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and she’s no slouch here as Reacher’s military liaison, Major Susan Turner. The picture opens moments after the former major in the U.S. Military Police and full-time drifter single-handedly dismantles a human-trafficking operation. Curiously, perhaps, Reacher dispatches the bad guys off-camera, saving the kick-ass stuff until he hitchhikes to Washington and discovers that the woman holding his old job is awaiting court-martial for what we can safely assume are trumped-up charges of espionage and being an accomplice to the murders of two of her investigators in Afghanistan.

In the first of several preposterous plot twists, JAG prosecutor Colonel Bob Moorcroft (Robert Catrini) attempts to steer Reacher off the case by advising him that he and the army are being sued by a former prostitute, who claims that Jack fathered her daughter, now 15, Samantha (Danika Yarosh), and abandoned them. Never mind that Reacher has no recollection of having had relations with the woman, whoever she may be, let alone impregnating her. In 2001, or thereabouts, the likelihood of a working girl not requiring the use of a condom when having sex with a soldier was practically nil. Moreover, if such as suit were successful, every prostitute within shouting distance of a military base would follow suit, hoping to scam a fortune from Uncle Sam. Essentially, the conceit allows for the introduction of a character that normally wouldn’t have anything to do with Major Turner’s court-martial. His curiosity piqued, our modern-day Paladin is compelled to check out Samantha, a move that assures she will become a bargaining chip for the mercenaries in their pursuit of Reacher, who, by this time, has broken Turner out of a high-security prison on a military base. To discover the truth behind the conspiracy, the trio heads for New Orleans, where even more unlikely circumstances lie. The saving grace in all this mishigas is that Zwick doesn’t allow viewers much time to become bogged down in plot lapses and inconsistences in logic. Between having to protect Samantha and solving the mystery, without getting killed, Cruise and Smulders are rarely given a moment’s rest or time, even, to have a sex scene. And, that’s a very good thing, because there’s a 20-year difference in their ages and, in Blu-ray 4K, especially, he’s finally starting to show his age. The Blu-ray package adds 80 minutes of bonus content, including interviews with the cast and crew, background on Lee Child’s popular character, filming on location in Louisiana and creation of intense action sequences. Some configurations add an illustrated version of Child’s short story “Everyone Talks.”

Pinocchio: Walt Disney Signature Collection: Blu-ray
Like previous inductees to Disney’s top-end Signature Collection — Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Beauty and the Beast – the 1940 animated classic, Pinocchio, is a movie that needs no introduction. Neither do future designees Bambi, Aladdin, Fantasia, Peter Pan, The Lion King and Lady and the Tramp. As is the case for any Disney film released in a new audio/visual format, it behooves consumers to review the features included on previous editions they might already own and compare them to the ones added (and subtracted) from the most current release. So far, Signature Collections have reprised the Blu-ray audio/visual presentations from Diamond Edition releases, without adding the 3D or 4K Blu-ray enhancements many fans would love to own. It’s also worth checking out such niche sites as to learn of special editions only available, so far, through Best Buy and Target. That said, here are the latest enticements for collectors and newcomers, alike: “Walt’s Story Meetings: Pleasure Island,” with Pixar’s Pete Docter and Disney historian J.B. Kaufman as they explore artwork recently discovered in Disney’s animation research library; “Pinocchio” in which Uncle Walt discusses the making of “Pinocchio” through archival recordings and interviews; “The Pinocchio Project: When You Wish Upon a Star” follows music influencers Alex G, Tanner Patrick and J.R Aquino as they create their rendition of the film’s signature song for a new music video; the recently restored and scored 1927 short feature, “Poor Papa,” featuring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit; and “Classic Bonus Features” ported over from prior editions, with  deleted scenes, sing-alongs, storyboards and theatrical trailers. There’s also a Disney Digital copy of the film.

Tyler Perry’s Boo! A Madea Halloween: Blu-ray
Tyler Perry’s Madea on the Run: The Play: Blu-ray
Almost Christmas: Blu-ray
Of all the things asked of a certified film critic working for a mainstream publication, by far the most Sisyphean is being assigned to review any new movie by Tyler Perry. It isn’t necessarily because they aren’t particularly well made or that their readers aren’t interested. Most movies released between January and November by major distributors underachieve in one way or another. It’s vexing, as well, to know that Perry’s films – especially those starring Medea – are likely to succeed no matter what critics say about them. Not unexpectedly, Boo! A Madea Halloween was dismissed by the vast majority of all reviews cited on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. And, yet, in its first two weeks in theaters, it would crush such Hollywood hopefuls as Inferno and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back at the domestic box-office. Perry admits that the holiday-themed comedy, which took a mere six days to shoot, was conceived after watching Chris Rock’s Top Five. In it, Rock’s character is distressed to see movie goers lined up for a fictional Tyler Perry movie, “Boo!,” in which Medea fights ghosts in a haunted house. “A Medea Halloween” is a tad more complicated than that, but not much. Madea is asked by her son, Brian, to spend the night at his house, with Uncle Joe (all Perry) and Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis), so as to prevent her granddaughter, Tiffany (Diamond White), from attending a party at a local frat house with three of her BFFs. If they’re lucky, their underage status might dissuade the frat boys from roofie and raping them, but only if they chose to admit it. Eventually, the brothers must deal with Madea and her posse and hilarity will ensue. Or, not. “A Medea Halloween” isn’t completely devoid of belly laughs, but only fans of the Three Stooges, “Mama’s Family” and “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps” are likely to go ape over it. Special features include “Why We Love Madea!” and “Boo! From the Crew Montage.”

Tyler Perry’s Madea on the Run: The Play is one of several productions that began on the stage, in Atlanta or New Orleans, and toured the “chitlin’ circuit” (a.k.a., “urban theater circuit”) before ending up on the screen or video. Perry makes no effort to disguise the fact that what is being shown is exactly the same as what theater audiences saw, right down to the mics visible on the actors’ heads and responses of audience members. At one time, these movies suffered from inferior acoustics, a drawback that might have been cured with subtitles. Apart from the clunky mics and artificiality that naturally derives being stage-bound, most of the technical problems have been fixed here. Madea on the Run finds Our Heroine on the lam from police, laying low at the Bams’ house. Aunt Bam is recovering from hip-replacement surgery and fresh out of pain-killers and marijuana. It makes her more cranky than usual. The house gradually fills up with family and friends, all of whom have their own way to get on Madea’s last nerve. This time around, though, high-pitched Aunt Bam and her drug habit nearly steal the show from the characters played by Perry. Cassi Davis is a heck of a singer, as are most of the other cast members, and the songs are good. I enjoyed Madea on the Run a lot more than I thought was possible, probably because of the actors are able to overcome the many barriers imposed on them by being limited to a fixed stage and immobile cameras.

David E. Talbert’s Almost Christmas is a holiday-themed urban dramedy that owes less to Tyler Perry than it does to George Tillman Jr.’s Soul Food, Malcolm D. Lee’s The Best Man and The Best Man Holiday, and Lance Rivera’s The Perfect Holiday and The Cookout. (Before he died last July, Garry Marshall was Hollywood’s go-to guy in the sub-genre, logging the star-studded hits and misses, Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve and Mother’s Day.) Not surprisingly, perhaps, Almost Christmas divided the mostly white corps of mainstream critics, whose judgments don’t carry much weight in the minority community corps, anyway. Universal probably was far more interested in the opinions of the same First Weekend Club members whose early buzz helped Hidden Figures become a surprise crossover hit for Fox. Not that my vote counts for much, but I was entertained by Almost Christmas and would hope its appeal isn’t limited to “urban” audiences. Danny Glover plays Walter, the recently widowed patriarch of a large and noisy family, gathering in Birmingham for the first time since the death of their beloved wife, mother and grandmother. Considering the wildly divergent personalities of the siblings, it’s destined to be a bittersweet reunion, at best. Walter hopes their differences won’t erupt into the same cacophony of arguments, jealousy and posturing that accompanied such gatherings in the past. No such luck. It starts innocently enough with Walter comically trying to duplicate one of his wife’s favorite recipes … sweet-potato pie, if I’m not mistaken. It’s a messy disaster. When the daughters arrive, their first mission is to locate mom’s recipe tin, which she hid somewhere in the kitchen. Christmas won’t be Christmas without them. Anticipation for the annual feast served to quell the discord that continued to build as more guests arrived. Without the recipes, there may be no way to save Christmas. Never fear, the clichés are here to save it. For once, they don’t get in the way of the actors’ own personalities and charisma. The talented cast includes Gabrielle Union, Kimberly Elise, Omar Epps, Mo’Nique, JB Smoove, Jessie Usher, DC Young Fly, John Michael Higgins, Romany Malco and Nicole Ari Parker. The package adds commentary with Talbert, editor Troy Takaki and apprentice editor Gene Lewis Jr.; a gag reel; and several short featurettes.

Jim: The James Foley Story
I watched Brian Oakes’ Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated documentary on the same day that President Trump’s executive order, banning refugees from several Muslim countries, turned JFK Airport into a holding cell for people who had already been vetted by immigration authorities. Jim: The James Foley Story tells the heartbreaking story of the teacher and freelance war correspondent, from New Hampshire, who was captured in northwestern Syria on November 22, 2012, and beheaded by ISIS terrorists on August 19, 2014. Before being abducted, the Marquette graduate reported from the rebel-held city of Aleppo, which was the target of bombardments by Syrian government officials aligned with Soviet monster-in-chief Vladimir Putin. Foley’s reporting helped raise awareness of the horrifying human tragedy playing out in Aleppo, which would soon lead to the flood of immigrants into Europe. It’s possible that Foley made contact with some of the same Aleppo residents who would be banned by our monster-in-chief from entering the U.S. Jim: The James Foley Story is further haunted by the fact that he had been abducted a year earlier, as well, while covering the revolt against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. After 44 days of beatings and torture, Foley was allowed to return to the U.S. He spent the next couple of months resting, re-connecting with friends and family, and thanking the people who worked toward and prayed for his release. It wouldn’t be long before he caught the bug to return to the Middle East to cover the Syrian Civil War, which proved to be even more hellish than the Libyan uprising. Oakes, whose previous credits included Bobby Fischer Against the World, Inequality for All and Wordplay, probably didn’t know what he was getting himself into, either. After 110 minutes, there isn’t much we don’t know about Foley and his fatal obsession with “the truth”; the twice-visited anguish of his parents and siblings; his close relationship to fellow journalists in the line of fire; and how it felt to be surrounded by indiscriminate death and destruction. It would be nice to say that Foley’s suffering wasn’t in vain, but we know now that it probably was. Libya is still divided, Aleppo has fallen, Bashar al-Assad is still in power, ISIS has yet to be defeated, the refugee crisis gets more critical by the hour and American voters punished the refugees by voting for Putin’s good buddy, Donald Trump. Still, Jim: The James Foley Story is an essential addition to the growing list of documentaries dedicated to chronicling the collapse of the Middle East as we once knew it. Blessedly, the producers let us know ahead of time that the beheading, itself, won’t be shown during the film, thus relieving us of the sense of dread triggered by anticipating moments of true horror.

Addicted to Fresno
Yoga Hosers: Blu-ray
Director Jamie Babbit and writer Karey Dornetto are either great fun to work for or extremely generous with their producers’ money. How else to explain the lineup of talent attracted to their inky black hipster comedy, Addicted to Fresno, which was doomed to failure after the critics began trashing it at the kind of festivals created to promote such offbeat fare. The compound modifier used most often to describe the film was “mean-spirited,” especially towards the city that lent it its name and locations. Judy Greer and Natasha Lyonne play sisters Shannon and Martha – a sex addict fresh out of rehab and an unlucky-in-love lesbian, respectively – condemned to clean up after lodgers at the Fresno Suites hotel and convention center. Shannon’s addiction not only got her fired from a teaching job, but it also jeopardizes her freedom when a hotel guest, Boris, a failed Olympian, is accidentally killed during a relapse. Martha decides to help her sister avoid prison by volunteering to cover up the crime. First, though, they must figure out a way to get the corpse out of the hotel and into a hole in the ground or crematorium. As is the case in most movies involving an inconvenient corpse – including the disposal of Billy Batts, in Goodfellas – the farcical elements quickly begin to dominate the story. When Shannon and Martha fail to convince the owners of a pet cemetery (Fred Armisen, Allison Tolman) that the body they’re toting is a Great Dane, their woes are further complicated by a blackmail demand. Broke and desperate, they concoct a plan that involves a tub full of dildos, a female softball team and a bar mitzvah for a boy channeling the Beastie Boys. Adding some comic relief to the increasingly nasty affair are Aubrey Plaza, as the personal trainer who takes a shine to Martha; Malcom Barrett’s disgruntled hotel employee and potential boy toy for Shannon; Ron Livingston, an easily seduced therapist; and Molly Shannon as Boris’ wacky sister. Babbit and Dornetto have worked with the actors together or separately in such entertainments as But I’m a Cheerleader, “Portlandia,” “Community” and “The Life & Times of Tim.” The DVD adds deleted scenes.

Lyonne, who’s everywhere these days, also appears in Kevin Smith’s Yoga Hosers, part two of his Canada-based trilogy, which opened with the generally well-received Tusk and will be followed by Moose Jaws, none of which have been shot anywhere north of North Carolina or Ventura County. Yoga Hosers was not well received by critics or anyone else outside the Smith or Depp households for that matter. In it, two 15-year-old yoga enthusiasts named Colleen (Lily-Rose Depp, Harley Quinn Smith) join forces with a legendary man-hunter, Guy Lapointe (Johnny Depp), to battle Canadian Nazis who take the form of deadly Bratzi sausages. (Don’t ask.) Smith’s wife, Jennifer, plays Colleen M’s mother. Depp and Vanessa Paradis’ son, Jack, plays cool history teacher Ms. Maurice. Other recurring characters are played by Genesis Rodriguez, Haley Joel Osment, Justin Long, Ashley Greene and Harley Morenstein. They’re joined by Tony Hale, Tyler Posey, Stan Lee, Adam Brody and Jason Mewes. Beyond that, I’d be hard pressed to explain what happens in Yoga Hoser, except to point out the forced Canadian accents and a Goalie Golem.

Barney Thomson
Robert Carlyle’s darkly humorous directorial debut shares one thing, at least, with the aforementioned Addicted to Fresno: a corpse resistant to being buried or burned. Barney Thomson puts a contemporary spin and Glaswegian twist on the “Sweeney Todd” legend, beginning with the accidental death of a Glasgow barber, while scuffling with his tonsorially inept co-worker, Barney (Carlyle). Unable to think of a way to dispose of the body without being discovered, Barney seeks the advice of his outrageously dissipated mother, Cemolina, played by a scene-stealing Emma Thompson. Cemolina is full of nasty wrinkles, only some of which were caused by chain-smoking cigarettes. Barney’s bad luck is compounded by the arrival of Ray Winstone’s Cockney cop, Holdall, who has problems of his own when it comes to taking orders. He immediately suspects Barney of being an elusive serial killer, famous for mailing his victims’ body parts to family members in the mail. He isn’t, but that’s another twist in the story. Richard Cowan and Colin McLaren’s adaptation of Douglas Lindsay’s “Thee Long Midnight of Barney Thompson” keeps the surprises coming until the very end of the movie. The only real problem with the DVD is an absence of subtitles to translate the characters’ thick Glaswegian accents.

Out of (the) Darkness
Before I Die
Search as I might, I couldn’t find the “the” in the title of Out of the Darkness on the cover of the DVD sent to me as Out of Darkness. It wasn’t on the side panel or the non-shiny side of the disc, either. The “the” was clearly there, on the illustration accompanying the Amazon Video VOD release and the film’s page on On further inspection of the DVD packaging, I found the “the” in the smaller type, above the credits at the bottom of the backside of the box. Even knowing that that the mainstream-media establishment has effectively turned copy editing and proof reading into lost journalistic arts, this lapse was a doozy. Greed and shortsighted staff reductions have driven readers of novels to distraction with typos, misspelling and errors. Such a lapse shouldn’t prevent anyone from enjoying Shawn Justice’s faith-based drama – let’s call it, Out of (the) Darkness – but it does raise a red flag as to the care taken by its distributors not to confuse potential viewers … myself included. That said, the movie concerns a veteran of a foreign war, still in his 20s, who, upon his return home, finds himself alienated from his family and disconnected from the faith he once followed. Earlier in his life, Eli (Adam Elliott Davis) felt a calling from God that sparked a desire to become the Billy Graham of his time. His wartime experiences put the kibosh on those plans, however.  After being fired from his father’s company for incompetence and arguing with his wife (Sherry Morris) in front of their daughter, Eli pays a visit to the local pub, where he decides to get out of town. Eli misses a turn on a lonely mountain highway and careens over an embankment, landing deep in the forest. Disoriented, he neglects to follow the path of broken trees and car parts that might lead back to the highway. Instead, he heads deeper into the woods. Along the way, he encounters people who appear to be channeling Satan (John Lewis) and God (Graham Greene), during Jesus’ 40 days and nights of fasting in the Judean Desert. Out of (the) Darkness suffers from simplistic storytelling and a budget that forced Justice to make too many sacrifices, including adequate lighting at night. I would think that the faith-based audience is accustomed to such limitations, by now, and focuses more on the message than production values.

The Pacific Northwest is also the setting for the Brothers Freeman’s debut picture, Before I Die, which I’ve seen described as Christian horror. I’m not sure that in this case, anyway, faith-based and Christian are synonymous. Apparently trimmed from 142 minutes to a less grueling 105, I found it difficult to pay attention to the details of the story of Pastor Dan Bennett (Robert McKeehen), who uncovers a world of unholy trouble after moving his family to a seemingly idyllic small town. It’s far less than that, of course. The congregation appears to be cursed with strange spiritual obsessions, newly unearthed secrets and threats to the well-being of everyone involved. Before I Die may have made sense at its unedited length, but, at 105 minutes, it’s one long mystery without any clues.

Wax Mask: Blu-ray
Barely seen in the U.S. upon its release in 1997, Sergio Stivaletti’s wildly derivative Wax Mask recalls the glory days of Hammer Horror, Italian giallo and drive-in delights from William Castle and Roger Corman. If it didn’t gain any traction here, it’s probably because the economics of distribution had changed so drastically since the 1960s and the easy availability of vintage titles on VHS and cable made such throwbacks redundant. Today, however, the DVD/Blu-ray revolution has allowed distributors to restore even the most obscure titles to within an inch of their former luster – maybe less – while also adding interviews with the filmmakers and other featurettes. What’s interesting about Wax Mask is its pedigree. Written by Dario Argento (Phenomena) as a comeback project for Lucio Fulci (Don’t Torture a Duckling), it was finished by special-effects wizard Sergio Stivaletti and writer Daniele Stroppa after the director’s death in 1996. It freely borrowed elements from Mystery of the Wax Museum, House of Wax and Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. In 1900, Paris, a young girl witnesses the gruesome murder of a couple, whose hearts are ripped out by the clawed hand of a masked fiend. Twelve years later, in Rome, she’s hired as a dresser in a newly opened wax museum dedicated to re-creating heinous crimes in its dioramas. Things get weird when people start disappearing from the streets and the museum’s halls begin filling up with new figures. The Blu-ray adds featurettes on backstage and special-effects scenes.

Parents: Blu-ray
Poltergeist II: The Other Side: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Poltergeist III: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Blood Rage: Special Edition: Blu-Ray
Somewhere in the dark recesses of my analog memory bank, I managed to confuse Bob Balaban’s darkly comic 1989 suburban psychodrama, Parents, with John Waters’ darkly comic 1994 suburban psychodrama, Serial Mom. One is not a copy of the other, as the former is about a boy who can’t deal with the possibility that his seemingly normal parents, Nick (Randy Quaid) and Lily (Mary Beth Hurt), might be feeding him meat harvested from human beings. In the latter, Kathleen Turner is a serial killer, whose worst instincts are triggered by minor infractions of suburban decorum. In Parents, young Michael Laemle (Bryan Madorsky) lives in the horror of thinking his parents – or, whatever alien is inhabiting their bodies – are turning him into a cannibal. They do so in the nicest possible way, but still. The only people in whom Michael can confide are the school’s social worker (Sandy Dennis) and a classmate, Sheila (London Juno), who’s more than a head taller than he is and encourages him to search for clues behind his parents’ backs. Balaban and writer Christopher Hawthorne keep us guessing as to their motivations, as well. The Blu-ray package contains commentary with Balaban and producer Bonnie Palef; isolated score selections and an audio interview with composer Jonathan Elias; “Leftovers to Be,” with screenwriter Hawthorne; “Mother’s Day,” with Mary Beth Hurt; “Inside Out,” director of photography Robin Vidgeon; “Vintage Tastes,” with decorative consultant Yolanda Cuomo; and a stills gallery. (It was announced this week that a Blu-ray edition of Serial Mom will be released on May 9, just in time for Mother’s Day.)

The sequels to Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg’s hugely successful supernatural thriller, Poltergeist, didn’t do nearly as well as the 1982 original, critically or commercially. Considering the talent involved, the first installment’s $10.7-million budget was a steal for MGM. It would nearly double for Poltergeist II: The Other Side, which only enlisted the repeat services of principles Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Heather O’Rourke and Zelda Rubinstein. It made a bit of money, but not enough for MGM to consider wagering any more than $10.5 million on 1988’s Poltergeist III, three years later, with Tom Skerritt, Nancy Allen, Lara Flynn Boyle, O’Rourke and Rubinstein. The 2015 remake, Poltergeist, starring Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, cost more than three times that much to make, and, at best, may have broken even, thanks to foreign receipts. In “PII,” the Freeling family is forced by previous circumstances to move to a new home. The problem, of course, is that the same demons that plagued them earlier hone in on the family’s new abode, thanks to Carol Anne’s psychic GPS. The most noteworthy thing here is the presence of Will Sampson, as the Indian healer; Geraldine Fitzgerald, as Gramma-Jess; and Living Theater co-founder Julian Beck, as the Reverend Henry Kane. If Kane looked half-dead, it was because Beck was dying of stomach cancer during production and there was no need to disguise it. Anyone familiar with Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger will want to watch “PII,” if only to see how his designs are integrated into the creation of the monsters. In “PIII,” Carol Anne has been shipped off to Chicago, where she’ll live in a famous high-rise building with her aunt and uncle. Once again, the supernatural forces are close behind. Besides new 2K scans of the inter-positives, both packages feature new commentaries and interviews with cast and crew members.

Thirteen months ago, Arrow Video released a three-disc special edition of Blood Rage, which contained three different cuts of a routine slasher flick that could never be mistaken for a classic. The film was shot in 1983, perhaps under the working title “Complex,” but wasn’t released to theaters until 1987, as “Nightmare at Shadow Woods.” Loopy Louise Lasser (“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”) pulls out all the stops as the mother of twins Todd and Terry, one of whom kills a guy making out with his girlfriend at a drive-in theater, while his brother looks on in horror. Guess which one ends up in a mental institution for underage youths for committing the crime and which one gets to go home. Ten years later, the innocent twin escapes from the hospital, much to the consternation of everyone but his mother. Mayhem ensues. Genre buffs can still appreciate the mindless killings, gallons of spilt blood and T&A. Others will be less easily tempted. The two-disc edition contains a brand new 2K restoration of the ”hard” home-video version, transferred from the camera negative and featuring the original title card; high definition (1080p) and standard definition DVD presentations; commentary with director John Grissmer; interviews with producer/actress Marianne Kanter, actor Mark Soper, Lasser, special make-up effects creator Ed French, actor Ted Raimi; a featurette revisiting the original locations in Jacksonville, Florida; alternate opening titles; a still gallery; and a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Marc Schoenbach.

The Ecstasy of Isabel Mann
Here are two fine examples of European splatter flicks that can stand alongside their American counterparts, in or out of a large puddle of blood and gore. The title, The Ecstasy of Isabel Mann, immediately reminded me such late-night temptations as The Disappearance of Alice CreedThe Seduction of Misty Mundae, The Submission of Emma Marx and The Sexual Liberation of Anna Lee. Whatever ecstasy Isabel Mann (Ellen Mullen) experiences here can be compared to that of a vampire as it sinks its fangs into the neck of a willing victim. By all accounts, Dublin teenager Isabel Mann enjoyed a normal childhood, until entering her senior year of high school. Her mentally unstable mother disappeared years earlier, but, ever since, her father and siblings have filled the void admirably. It isn’t until Isabell comes home from a day in the forest, with her face and blouse smeared with blood, that viewers sense they’re in for wild ride. We learn that she’s been seduced by Alejo, leader of a gang of “day-walking vampires,” and now recruits fellow students for their nourishment. The disappearances from school alert the local constabulary to the likelihood of a serial killer having moved to town, but the brutal nature of the killings suggest that others are involved, as well. Meanwhile, Isabel’s own absenteeism and ability to avoid slaughter raise red flags in their minds. This isn’t to suggest, however, that The Ecstasy of Isabel Mann is strictly a vampire movie. Instead, the blood-letting is far less interesting than her coming-of-age as a monster – a pretty one, but a monster nonetheless — and being completely unprepared for the changes she’s experiencing internally and externally. Perhaps, if her mother were still around to help her navigate the shoals of womanhood, but … well, maybe she’s not that far away, after all. Four years ago, writer/director Jason Figgis impressed genre buffs and critics with the dystopian thriller, Children of a Darker Dawn, and “Ecstasy” proves that their instincts were correct. It’s scary, repulsive, thought-provoking and exhilarating in equal measure. The same adjectives can be used to describe Michael Richard Plowman’s highly complementary soundtrack. The bonus features include other Dublin Noir trailers, deleted scenes, a music video and Figgis’ commentary.

Somewhere between Ljubljana and the United States, the title of Tomaz Gorkic’s debut feature changed from “Idyll” to the less ironic, if substantially more provocative, Killbillies. Combined with the grotesque likeness of one of the film’s antagonists on the cover, the natural tendency is to think of what’s contained therein as a Rocky Mountain High sequel to Deliverance. Well, sort of. The movie opens portentously with a group of Slovenian fashionistas getting shit-faced in a dumpy bar on a mysterious distillation of mountain herbs. Sensing an easy conquest, one of the local boozehounds attempts to rape Zina (Nina Ivanisin) in the bar’s communal bathroom. Instead, the heavily banged brunette lands a quick kick to the thug’s nuts, incapacitating him for the next 70 minutes of movie time. The next day, models Zina and Mia are driven to a photo shoot high in the Slovenian Alps, where they’re taken captive by the DVD’s heavily scarred cover boy and, presumably, his even more bizarre-looking son, who wouldn’t have been out of place on that porch in Deliverance. The models, their makeup artist and the photographer are taken to the dungeon in the men’s prison-like house, which also contains a still to make the evil brew. The rest of Killbilly is an exercise in torture porn, culminating in a harrowing chase through a dense forest. Gorkic packs more surprises and artfully delivered action into 83 minutes than most filmmakers provide in movies half-again that length.

Silicon Cowboys
I don’t know about you, but I’ve learned everything I care to know about the birth and formative years of the PC, Apple and Internet. The worldwide success of The Social Network emboldened such eminent directors as Danny Boyle and Oliver Stone to try their luck with Steve Jobs and Snowden, which tanked. Both “Halt and Catch Fire” and “Silicon Valley” have done well enough to earn a fourth season renewal, and that’s techy enough for me. Jason Cohen’s exhaustively researched and surprisingly enjoyable documentary, Silicon Cowboys, tells almost exactly the same story as “Halt and Catch Fire,” right down to the fast cars, lawsuits and occasional divorce. Conveniently, the Compaq executives interviewed aren’t nearly as nerdy today, as they probably were 30 years ago. The battle for dominance in the PC marketplace is presented in an interesting manner, but, to me, anyway, it’s ancient history.

Murder Rap: Inside the Biggie and Tupac Murders
Two decades have passed since Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace (a.k.a., Biggie Smalls/ Notorious B.I.G.) were gunned down in the streets of Las Vegas and Los Angeles, respectively. Although allegations have been thrown around like hand grenades for most of those 20 years, no one has been brought to justice for the crimes. Michael Dorsey’s nearly two-hour documentary Murder Rap: Inside the Biggie and Tupac Murders is based on a book of the same title by former LAPD detective Greg Kading. Apparently, before taking his pension, Kading was assigned the task of clearing the tarnished department of wrong-doing in the murders. A huge lawsuit had been filed against it by the Wallace family and the LAPD couldn’t afford to lose one that size. Not only did he dig up enough evidence to save the city’s treasury from being drained, but he also came up with the most likely perpetrators and an explanation for both killings. Given the nature of gangland omerta, however, getting verification of the evidence probably would have been impossible, so the LAPD scotched any further investigation. Without an indictment, the documentary effectively loses its reason for existing as anything besides a true-crime show on television, narrated by Bill Kurtis. Without any of Tupac and Biggie’s music to accompany the revelations, the doc gets flatter and more repetitive as it nears the halfway mark.

4th Man Out
Here’s another movie that’s almost 20 years out of date … unless, I suppose, one lives in a red state, in which case, it might be au courant. In Andrew Nackman and writer Aaron Dancik’s first feature, 4th Man Out, a car mechanic in a small, working-class town exits the closet on the event of his 24th birthday, naturally shocking his unsuspecting, blue-collar best buds. They act like 4th-Graders who discover a gay skin mag in the school’s locker room, sparking a wildfire of misinformation and misplaced accusations in their unformed, prepubescent minds. While attempting to support Adam (Evan Todd), who’s handsome but dresses like every other guy in town, his friends toss around good-natured homophobic jokes to get around their obvious discomfort. I can’t recall anyone actually saying “Some of my best friends are gay,” but now they could fall back on the cliché and not worry about being called on it. Adam’s declaration is tested by friends who set him up with eligible young women, not knowing he’s been auditioning eligible young men at the same time. That sort of thing. Before the process becomes insufferable, though, Nackman tightens the reins on the awkward asides to reveal the humanity in Dancik’s script. How’s this for unsourced trivia: Alex Rennie, who plays “Paul the Stoner,” was at one time “an up-and-coming amateur boxer.” Alas, his career record stands at 1-17-5, with all 17 of his losses listed as TKOs. That and bus fare will get him a one-way ticket to Palookaville.

Conspiracy Theory
Space Clown
If the class dunce in all of our high schools formed a production company with the class clown and class nerd, their first production might look a lot like “Alien Engineers,” a TV reality show lambasted in Jake Myers’ occasionally funny, if pointedly stupid Conspiracy Theory (a.k.a., “Lake on Fire”). It’s no coincidence that “Alien Engineers” resembles every flaky conspiracy show since 1973’s “In Search of Ancient Astronauts,” an edited version of the German documentary “Erinnerungen an die Zukunft” (“Chariots of the Gods”), which examined the theory that aliens landed on Earth in ancient times and were responsible for many of mankind’s oldest mysteries … such as the Edsel, New Coke and the proliferation of Trump towers. In it, a group of conspiracy theorists, led by a skinny hipster named Bjorn (Ben Kobold), travel from Chicago to the UFO-infested badlands north of Las Vegas and Lake Mead. In addition to interviewing generally clueless tourists on the Strip, Bjorn chats with NASA engineer T.D. Barnes, who worked on special projects in Area 51; park rangers, who navigate the waters of the giant manmade reservoir; and an inarguably unstable woman, who, for the last six months, has camped out on the lake’s northern shore to monitor strange lights in the sky and below the surface of the water, where she believes an alien submarine is parked. As prove, Bjorn points to the tourist walkway above Hoover Dam, where statues of winged guardians and a mosaic of a millennial clock greet visitors. The host further argues that no human could have designed and built the massive dam, which will come as a surprise to the descendants of the thousands of laborers – 112 of whom died during construction – who were hired to build the damn thing (pun intended). The payoff comes about 70 minutes into the 89-minute parody of found-footage and conspiracy flicks with a special-effects shit storm. Considering its low-budget, DYI approach to the threadbare subject matter, Conspiracy Theory works better than anyone could have expected.

If aliens are still commuting back and forth to Earth, better that they look like Clarabelle than the bloated creatures laid out on slab in a Roswell morgue, after their UFO crashed in 1947. The extraterrestrial clown in Graham Skipper’s DIY sci-fi farce, Space Clown, more closely resembles “Rock’n Rollen” Stewart, who, before he was convicted on kidnapping charges, in 1992, was famous for holding up signs reading “John 3:16″ at sporting events around the world. Apart from some outdated special effects lifted directly from 2001: A Space Odyssey handbook, Space Clown demonstrates exactly how cruel, heartless, noisy and insufferable a bozo in a multicolored wig can be. It should not be confused with the Chiodo brothers’ 1988 cult classic, Killer Klowns From Outer Space

Tripp Rhame’s first feature, Bleed, is a mélange of classic horror tropes: ghost-hunting, a haunted prison, uninvited visitors to the protagonists’ new home in the country, twisted hillbillies and a troubled pregnancy. Fortunately for everyone involved, those tropes fall well short of being clichés. When newlyweds Sarah (Chelsey Crisp) and Matt (Michael Steger) invite their friends Bree (Brittany Ishibashi) and Dave (Elimu Nelson) to celebrate their new marriage, new house, and soon-to-be family, they are unexpectedly followed to the rural house by Sarah’s brother, Eric (Riley Smith), and his girlfriend, Skye (Lyndon Smith). When Dave remembers there once being a prison nearby, which burned down with the inmates inside, the intruders suggest a visit. To top it off, one of the ghosts bears a striking resemblance to Charles Manson.

After is another accomplished genre piece by a promising freshman writer/director, Ryan Smith. It debuted in 2012 and has been lying around largely unseen ever since. In it, two survivors of a bus crash, Freddy (Steven Strait) and Ana (Karolina Wydra), awaken from an unconscious state, only to realize that the residents of their small town are either missing or behaving like robots. A John Carpenter-like fog has descended on the community, finally revealing the cause of the devastation to the forced couple. What threatens to become a run-of-the-mill creature feature, evolves satisfactorily into a “Twilight Zone” romance. As derivative as that might sound, Strait and Wydra keep After from succumbing to clichés.

Rarely has the subject of polyamory been handled with so little sexuality, eroticism and nudity as it is in Zoe Eisenberg and Phillips Payson’s Throuple. It’s as if they were shooting for a PG-13, but realized that no one in their target audience would be interested in a kids-safe movie about multiply monogamous couples. Even if the yuppies introduced in Showtime’s “Polyamory: Married & Dating” were self-absorbed dweebs, at least they shed their clothes on a weekly basis. The closest anyone here comes to nudity is an innocently staged shower scene and a simulated BJ that wouldn’t fool anyone over 14. The best things Throuple has going for it are Hawaii’s naturally splendid beaches, coves and waves no set designer could improve upon in a million years. James and Lexi (Jordan Turchin, Ingrid Vollset), we’re told, are a “conflicted couple,” who’ve moved to a lush Hawaiian rain forest after starring in a series of YouTube exercise videos, in which they wear leotards and pretend to be making love. Their nearest neighbors are a recluse, who lives in a castle-like fortress, and a polyamorous “throuple” (Caitlin Holcombe, Mikaal Bates, Todd Litzinger) pre-occupied with digging a hole in the lava behind their house. Mostly, though, they amuse themselves by getting baked on pot and a beverage distilled from local vegetation. For some reason, Lexi spends most her time indoors, calling and Skyping friends on the mainland, while James hangs out with the neighbors, getting high and harvesting marine life from tide pools. When the possibility of same-sex liaisons is broached, Jack and Lexi turn curiously prudish. A chance meeting with their mysterious neighbor (Ayinde Howell) provides them with an opportunity to learn his secrets and the filmmakers with a hook upon which they can hang a suitable ending.

PBS: Masterpiece: Victoria Blu-ray
PBS:16 for 16: The Contenders
Americans can thank Britain’s ITV, BBC and Channel 4 for making them more aware of the history of the British aristocracy than the lives of all but a half-dozen, or so, American presidents. PBS has attempted to rectify this curious anomaly with “American Experience: The Presidents,” “The U.S. Presidency” and such occasional Ken Burns’ treats as “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” and “Thomas Jefferson.” Even so, it’s the networks’ co-financing and carriage of such “Masterpiece” gems as “Victoria,” and “Wolf Hall” that hold the public’s attention. That, and such nudity spiced mini-series as “The Tudors” and “The White Queen.” If “The U.S. Presidency” taught us anything in its mini-biographies of chief executives from George Washington to Barack Obama, it’s that the bat-shit crazy George III would have been a better fit for the White House than most of our duly-elected presidents, vice presidents and their largely forgotten opponents. That’s certainly true of “Victoria,” an eight-part mini-series, that some might consider to be an unintended sequel to Nicholas Hytner’s BAFTA-winning, The Madness of Henry VIII (1994). That’s because the king’s granddaughter might not have ascended to the crown at 18, if weren’t for several freakish occurrences that eliminated her father and uncles from consideration. As we learn here, as well, Victoria’s enemies in Parliament would attempt to tar the inexperienced and occasionally flighty young woman with the possibility of her possibly suffering from the same malady, possibly caused by the blood disease porphyria.

Created by British novelist Daisy Goodwin, “Victoria” depicts the first few years of the reign of Queen Victoria (Jenna Coleman) from her accession to the throne, through her intense friendship and infatuation with Lord Melbourne, to her courtship and early marriage to her 19-year-old cousin Prince Albert (Tom Hughes), and finally to the birth of their first child, Victoria. Apart from the frequently arcane maneuverings of the power-hungry twits in Parliament and the House of Lords, the story offers romance, upstairs-downstairs intrigue, heroes and villains, splendid set designs, amazing Yorkshire scenery and remarkable acting. The petite Blackpool native Coleman doesn’t look a bit like the photographs we’ve all seen of the doughty Queen Victoria, taken during the later years in her monarchy. Instead, she could be mistaken for a teenage Christina Ricci or Ginnifer Goodwin, while Hughes is a dead ringer for Adam Driver (“Girls”). Also very good are Rufus Sewell, as the honorable Lord Melbourne; Peter Firth, as the demonic Duke of Cumberland; Daniela Holtz, as the loyal Baroness Lehzen; and Adrian Schiller, as the devious head stewart, Penge. The package adds interviews and making-of material.

Also from PBS, in partnership with OZY Media, comes “16 for ’16: The Contenders,” a documentary series profiles some of the candidates and issues that mattered in the run-up to our quadrennial Election Day exercises in futility. Also-rans typically don’t fare well in this country, although points they made on the campaign trail often are latched onto by the winners. Among the 16 campaigns covered in the eight-part series are those conducted by Jesse Jackson, Barry Goldwater, Shirley Chisholm, Ralph Nader, H. Ross Perot, Geraldine Ferraro, Howard Dean and Michael Dukakis. Through freshly conducted interviews and flashback, we learn how previous elections are still influencing those today, sometimes in unexpected ways.

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

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 19th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 5th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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