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The DVD Wrapup: Incredibles 2, Superman, Midaq Alley, La Boyita, 7th Day, Longing, Breaking Brooklyn, Mara, Capra Goes to War, Sleepwalkers, The Circus, Native America … More

Thursday, November 8th, 2018

Incredibles 2: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Superman: The Movie: Blu-ray/4K UHD
It isn’t difficult to find a direct link from Superman to Mr. Incredible – or, if you prefer, from Clark Kent to Bob Parr – and it extends well beyond their trademark uniforms and insignias. If Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s creation hadn’t leapt from the pages of Action Comics #1—first published on April 18, 1938 – and captured the fancy of Americans of all ages, it isn’t likely that Superman: The Movie would have been released, 40 years later, and the family of superheroes in The Incredibles might look more like Batman than Kal-L, from Krypton. And, even that presupposes that Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s creation – alternately known as the Bat-Man, Caped Crusader, Dark Knight and World’s Greatest Detective – found an audience worth pursuing. Just as Superman and Batman found everlasting life in mediums other than ink and paper, so, too, have the Incredibles made the leap from one-off feature to potential franchise. Writer/director Brad Bird was in no hurry to make a sequel to his Oscar- and Annie-winning blockbuster and international sensation. In an interview included in Disney/Pixar’s outstanding Incredibles 2 Blu-ray/4K UHD package, Bird explains why he waited a studio-record 14 years to agree to a sequel. (It would have been 15 years, but Disney decided to push the release up to June 2018.) Without citing other superhero franchises that sagged creatively after being rushed into a sequel or prequel, Bird said he would only do a follow-up if he could come up with a story that was just as good as, or better than, its predecessor. Pixar had already advanced the narratives in Cars/Car2, Monsters, Inc/Monsters University and Finding Nemo/Finding Dory by switching protagonists, so the risk/reward ratio wasn’t worrisome from the creative point-of-view. Perhaps, Bird was inspired by a repeat viewing of Mr. Mom on a cable network, because that’s pretty much the conceit in Incredibles 2.

The Incredibles ended with the Parr family and other superheroes forced to adhere to certain restrictions, dictated by the Superhero Relocation Program. No matter how much good the characters did in the battle against supervillains, the collateral damage to the community’s infrastructure caused the citizenry to demand reforms. Banished to a place where conformity is the norm, Bon and Helen (a.k.a., Elastigirl) raise their growing brood in relative peace. Underminer, introduced late in the original story, returns early in the sequel with a plan to steal all the money from the Metroville Bank. Coincidentally, the Parrs are in town and illegally rush to foil Underminer’s destructive plot. While the crook gets away with the money, the Parrs and Lucius Best (a.k.a., Frozone) are able keep the city from being destroyed by his out-of-control mechanical mole. Even so, the government shuts down the relocation program, forcing superheroes to fend for themselves financially. Enter Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), owner of the DevTech telecommunications corporation, and his sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener), who admire superheroes and want to get their banishment lifted. They propose a publicity stunt to regain the public’s trust, featuring the charismatic Elastigirl. Bob agrees to stay home and mind teenage Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dashiell (Huckleberry Milner) and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile). “How tough can it be,” wonders Bob, who soon will require the help of Lucius (Samuel L Jackson). As Jack-Jack’s superpowers reveal themselves, the men find themselves completely at wit’s end. Meanwhile, Helen discovers that one of the Deavors, at least, is exploiting her good intentions, while conspiring with other villains to neutralize the Incredibles and other superheroes. The extended family, including Jack-Jack, fight back with ferocity and plenty of trademark Pixar humor. The PG-rated Incredibles 2 made a ton of money – make that, several tons – and set box-office records for animated features around the planet. Now, here’s the rub. At 118 minutes, Incredibles 2 is not only the longest Pixar movie to date, but it’s also the longest computer-animated movie feature, beating Cars‘ record as longest Pixar film, 157 minutes. Box-office returns argue against the length being an obstacle to most viewers’ enjoyment of the picture. The home-viewing experience is less immersive than in theaters, however, so time may not fly at the same velocity.

Meanwhile, there’s almost nothing new to be said about Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, except that it holds up remarkably well after 40 years of repeat viewings. The late Christopher Reeve remains terrific in the title role, as are the spot-on performances by Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando, Margot Kidder, Valerie Perrine, Glenn Ford and Jackie Cooper. John Williams’ score is amazing and John Barry’s set design is still a delight. If, at times, the special effects look seriously outmoded, by contemporary standards, they’re never a distraction. I can’t imagine a better double-feature for family viewing. The Dolby Vision HDR presentation freshens the overall look of the 40-year-old film, while the Dolby Atmos audio track makes it sound noticeably better than ever. Anyone who’s purchased the extended-cut and director’s-cut versions should know that the new volume contains only the theatrical versions of Superman. The bonus features have been ported over, as well. Watching Brando in the excellent making-of featurette is fun, as are the 58-minute Superman and the Mole-Men and Bugs Bunny spoofs.

The bonus features on Incredible 2 can be found on a separate Blu-ray disc. They include a new “Auntie Edna” mini-movie, in which Bob visits designer Edna Mode (Bird), hoping that a superhero suit might harness some of Jack-Jack’s energy; 10 deleted scenes, with introductions; several very good making-of and background featurettes, with interviews and demonstrations; “Strong Coffee,” a lesson in animation with Bird; “SuperBaby,” a hip-hop music video and documentary hosted by Frankie and Paige from Disney Channel’s “Bizaardvark”; commentary, with several different creators; the theatrical short, “Bao,” about an aging Chinese mom, suffering from empty-nest syndrome, gets another chance at motherhood when one of her dumplings springs to life as a lively, giggly dumpling boy; outtakes; and behind-the-scenes stories.

Midaq Alley: Blu-ray
There are two equally convenient ways to convince American viewers to take a chance on Jorge Fons and Vicente Leñero’s tightly woven urban drama, Midaq Alley (1994). The first derives from the fact that it was adapted from a novel by the Egyptian Nobel Prize-winner, Najeeb Mahfouz. Screenwriter Leñero (The Crime of Padre Amaro) transferred the narrative from the teeming back streets of Cairo, to the poor, working-class neighborhood, El Callejón de los Milagros (The Alley of Miracles), in downtown Mexico City. The second reason is the presence of 29-year-old Salma Hayek, who was about to make the cross-border leap from appearing in Mexican telenovelas, to starring in American indies. In another year, she’d be able use an incendiary performance in Robert Rodriguez’ Desperado as her calling card. Here, Hayek plays the neighborhood enchantress, Alma, daughter of a tarot reader, whose one true love, Abel (Juan Manuel Bernal), decides to try his luck in the United States before committing to marriage. She pledges to wait for him, while Abel promises to return home with his pockets bulging with dollar bills.

Instead, Alma is seduced by a debonair older man, who charts her ruin from the moment he lays his eyes on her. Abel’s traveling companion is Chava (Juan Manuel Bernal), whose cantina-owner father has just traded the affections of his longtime wife for a “platonic” love affair with a much younger man. Outraged, Chava attacks the man in a shower room, thus risking permanent estrangement from his father. He’ll return home with a wife and baby, who the grandmother embraces, but is snubbed by the old man. A third storyline involves Susanita (Margarita Sanz), a genuinely unattractive landlady so desperate for love that she’s willing to give her body and wealth to the first man who appears to confirm a prophesy revealed in a tarot reading. Before and after Midaq Alley, Fons’ career was largely focused on long-running telenovelas. At a none-too-brisk 140 minutes, the film sometimes feels as if it would have made a better mini-series than stand-alone feature. What’s there is just fine, though. Bonus features include a behind-the-scenes featurette; an introduction from Hayek and Fons; and a new essay by Cinema Tropical founder Carlos A Gutiérrez.

La Boyita
While American filmmakers have only recently begun to feel more comfortable addressing LGBTQ issues in mainstream movies, there are subjects that most still step gingerly around. This is especially true when it comes to children and the ambiguity of gender in their own lives and the people around them. Fortunately, the same reluctance hasn’t prevented the occasional foreign indie from looking at tough subjects through eyes of kids who haven’t the vaguest idea of what the letters in L-G-B-T-Q represent. Ma Vie en Rose (1997), Beautiful Boxer (2004), XXY (2007), 52 Tuesdays (2013) and La Boyita (2009) – then known as “The Last Summer of La Boyita” – are titles that made the rounds of festivals and occasionally found a booking in an arthouse. Even though Julia Solomonoff’s La Boyita has already been released in some markets, it remained on the festival circuit until 2016 and is now available on DVD here, through Film Movement. In it, a pre-pubescent girl, Jorgelina (Guadalupe Alonso), decides not to vacation on the Argentine coast with her mother and older sister, instead electing to go to her father’s ranch in the country. Not only wasn’t Jorgelina anxious to be ignored by her boy-crazy sister, but she also anticipated spending time with her old friend, Mario (Nicolás Treise), the son of farmhands. Solomonoff (Hermanas) teases viewers with hints that Mario is hiding a secret from Jorgelina and other kids her age. Even so, Mario also is in training to compete in an upcoming horse race and is a tenacious worker in the fields.

It isn’t until Jorgelina notices that her friend has bled on a fleece saddle blanket that she asks her father, a doctor, to check on Mario’s
“stomach aches.” He’s more interested in getting back in the saddle and going back to work, however. When the doctor asks Mario’s mother if the boy’s pediatrician had discussed the probability the he was an intersex child, she only looks out a window at her husband. I don’t want to spoil what comes next, but, by now, it’s pretty obvious. Not having enough money to meet with specialists, Mario’s mother decided that any decision could wait for a more opportune time, which never came. Her husband was left in the dark, as was Mario. His father takes the doctor’s news badly, practically blaming his son for his own condition. What won’t be spoiled here is how Mario and Jorgelina deal with the revelation, except to say that Solomonoff handles it with the appropriate degree of sensitivity and an awareness of her viewers’ investment in the story.

The 7th Day: Blu-ray
By 2004, when The 7th Day was released in Spain, 72-year-old Carlos Saura had almost completely committed his output to dramas, documentaries and performance films that unite music, dance and imagery. It was sandwiched between Salomé (2002) – which follows preparations for a flamenco adaptation of the biblical story — and Iberia (2005), a series of dances inspired by composer Isaac Albéniz’ suite of the same title. Among the many accolades Saura received at festivals and in year-end polls, his Mama Turns 100 (1979), Carmen (1983) and Tango (1998) were nominated for Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category. The 7th Day took many fans and pundits by surprise for its lack of cultural themes. It is set in an isolated village, Extremadura, where the Jiménez and Fuentes families have a violent history of land disputes, jealousy, envy and violence. The hatred between the two families surfaces in the 1960s, when Amadeo Jiménez (Juan Diego) abruptly backs out on his commitment to marry Luciana Fuentes (Victoria Abril). Feeling betrayed, Luciana expresses a vengeful wish on Amadeo within earshot of her madly devoted brother. Jerónimo (Ramón Fontseré) interprets his sister’s wish literally, resulting in the young man’s murder in an open field. Although Jerónimo is easily captured and sentenced to 30 years in prison, the bad blood results in the Fuentes’ home being torched, with the family matriarch still inside. The perpetrator isn’t apprehended. Even so, the remaining Fuentes siblings decide to move to another town.

Twenty years later, when Jerónimo is released on parole, he avenges his mother’s death by heading straight to Extremadura, where he attacks Amadeo’s brother, Jose (José Garcia), and is sent back to prison. When he dies, his brothers and sisters plot yet another act of revenge. That, however, is only half of the story, as conceived by screenwriter Ray Loriga (Live Flesh) and narrated by Jose’s eldest daughter, Isabel (Yohana Cobo), who experiences an excruciating love story of her own. When Jose’s wounds heal, his wife tries to convince him to move far away from the town and leave the vendetta behind him, before it’s too late. Likewise, Isabella can’t wait to relocate to a much bigger city, where she can realize her dreams and enjoy a more culturally vital environment. Whether Jose can tear himself away from the place where his family’s blood has been so violently spilled is always in doubt. Fate will once again push the question to the front burner, in an act of extreme violence and inexplicable cowardice. It mirrors some of the tragedies Saura has depicted on screen and the stage. Finally, The 7th Day comes down to yet another tale of star-crossed families: one haunted by uneasy ghosts, and the other looking toward an unknown future for relief. The ending reflects the tragic consequences of not being able to let go to the past and settle for an emotional stalemate. Sadly, vendettas based on blood oaths and squabbles over property and perceived slights have stifled peace and progress in rural Spain and other European countries show little sign of abating.

This bittersweet and completely unexpected Israeli dramedy reveals its surprises slowly, in an evenly paced manner that defies viewers to determine, early on, where the dram pauses and the edy begins. Writer/director Savi Gabizon returned to the big screen, 14 years after his previous string of popular films – Nina’s Tragedies, Lovesick on Nana Street, Shuroo – with festival-favorite, Longing. In it, Ariel (Shai Avivi), a gloomy factory owner, is told by a former lover, Ronit (Asi Levi), that he fathered a son, 20 years earlier. More perplexed than hurt or angry, the confirmed bachelor then learns that their son, Adam (Adam Gabay), was killed only a few days earlier, in a traffic accident. Ronit admits that she resisted the urge to tell him about her pregnancy, figuring correctly that he would have insisted on an abortion. At first, Ariel only agrees to attend the interment ceremony at a cemetery near the family’s hometown. Alone, due to unforeseen complications, he begins a conversation with a man who’s tending the grave of his teenage daughter, who committed suicide.

During their chat, Ariel begins to feel the first stirrings of fatherhood and it grows when the mortician asks him to stand in for his son’s mother and stepfather. After agreeing to stick around a few days, Ariel commits himself to learning as much about Adam as he can. The more he discovers, the murkier becomes his impression of how the boy lived his life and what he might become. The surprises include his expulsion from his school for stalking a teacher, Yael (Neta Riskin), and scribbling obscene poetry inspired by her on nearby wall; his considerable talent as a pianist; his participation in a failed drug deal; and his sexual relationship with an underage girl (Ella Armony), at whose home he once stayed. While stunned by the revelations, Ariel becomes curiously paternal, making excuses for Adam and examining the root causes of his behavior. Stranger, still, after listening to a story told by the other mourning father at the graveyard, Ariel agrees to a “ghost wedding” between the children – yes, such things exist — so they can be happily united in the afterlife. Selling that seemingly preposterous notion to families that have known Adam and the girl for as long as they were alive proves difficult, if not impossible, however. Gabizon’s deadpan approach to such a curious resolution may not result in big laughs, but the humor is deeply felt and endearing.

Breaking Brooklyn
Whenever I come across a DVD whose jacket features an image of a boy or girl striking a pose or popping a move, I can’t help but prejudge the movie contained therein. The “let’s-put-on-show,” “gotta-dance” subgenres extend at least as far back as Busby Berkeley’s Babes in Arms (1939), with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, and Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain (1952). For nearly 30 years, now, break-dancing and hip-hop have dominated the category. Even as the dancing became more daring and exciting, however, everything else in these movies became predictable and dull … for old-timers like me, at least. So, I didn’t expect much of anything new from Paul Becker’s Breaking Brooklyn, whose cover boy is 12-year-old Colin Critchley, who is white and demonstrably flexible. The thing that separates Paul Becker’s dance-filled drama from the pack is the estimable presence of Louis Gossett Jr. and Vondi Curtis-Hall, as veteran hoofers who’ve become estranged since their style of dance almost became extinct. Gossett plays Miles Bryant, a dance teacher and former performer struggling to keep his family-owned theater alive. Into his life comes Aaron (Critchley), a self-taught tapper, who also happens to be homeless, as is his older brother, Albee (Nathan Kress). Their father (Brian Tarantina) is a ne’er-do-well, who thinks dancing is for sissies. The let’s-put-on-a-show moment arrives when the theater is about to go under and the boys collaborate on a benefit to save it. For this to happen, they’ll have to convince Curtis-Hall to mend fences with Gossett’s character. Even if you can see Breaking Brooklyn’s ending from Queens and the Bronx, Becker finds fresh ways to make it work.  Madeleine Mantock, Liza Colón-Zayas, Kalani Hillike and Laura Weissbecker also contribute. The presence of the two old lions raises Breaking Brooklyn above the rest of the dancer crop.

Mara: Blu-ray
Final Score: Blu-ray
Although all aspiring screenwriters enter the profession with the kind of confidence that borders on arrogance, only a handful realize the dream of seeing their name at the end of a credit roll … even on movies that bypass theaters. In a neat coincidence, Jonathan Frank’s name appears on a pair of thrillers arriving within a week of each other on DVD/Blu-ray. The first, Mara, follows forensic psychologist Dr. Kate Fuller (Olga Kurylenko) as she investigates the deaths of people who were suffering from sleep paralysis before being terrorized by the eponymous demon. And, no, the nightmare-inducing monster isn’t related to Rooney or Kate Mara. In fact, maras are associated with wraith-like creatures in Germanic and Scandinavian folklore … a female demon who torments people in their sleep by crouching on their chests or stomachs, or by causing terrifying visions. In 2013, a Swedish film of the same title tackled the same legend, albeit with copious nudity and 21 fewer minutes in length. In Frank’s screenplay – directed and co-written by newcomer Clive Tonge – the badly contorted “sleep demon” here is played 6-foot-6¾ string bean, Javier Botet, who’s also appeared in Slender Man, It, The Mummy and The Conjuring 2. (He has a genetic disorder, Marfan Syndrome, which affects his body’s connective tissue and makes him attractive to the casting directors of horror films.) Fuller is assigned to the murder of a man who has been strangled in his sleep by his wife (Rosie Fellner) and the only witness is their 8-year-old daughter, Sophie (Mackenzie Imsand). The police, of course, are too lazy to connect the dots between the legend and the spate of killings in their district, so Fuller does the work for them, at great personal risk. Mara may own the record for the number of jump scares and explosive musical cues in a 98-minute movie. Instead of being used selectively, they punctuate nearly every scene, thus losing their punch after a half-hour, or so. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette, which doesn’t mention the Swedish movie.

Frank’s name is also attached to Scott Mann’s terrorist-abduction drama, Final Score, which is far less beholding to special-effects tricks for its thrills … not of the audio variety, at least. In a series of coincidences that only make sense in straight-to-video flicks starring former WWE superstars – or, 20 years ago, in a Bruce Willis vehicle – a group of Russian-separatist terrorists takes control of a soccer match in a crowded, soon-to-be-demolished British stadium. A former soldier, played by Dave “The Animal” Bautista, just happens to be attending the same contest with his niece, whose father was killed in Afghanistan under his command. Racked with guilt, but alert to his duties as a citizen, he attempts to prevent a powerful bomb from killing scores of spectators, while also saving the girl (Lara Peake). The whole one-man-army approach is ridiculous, of course, but Mann (Heist) does a nice job choreographing the tick-tock action, and Frank’s script – co-written with David and Keith Lynch – adds enough unexpected humor to complete the Die Hard-wannabe loop. The packed-stadium setting adds to the tension, while Ray Stevenson (Thor), Pierce Brosnan (The World Is Not Enough) and Stella Paris add to the fun.

Girls vs Gangsters
The Hangover wasn’t the first comedy that milked belly laughs from over-the-top bachelor parties – it was preceded by the early Tom Hanks vehicle, Bachelor Party (1984) — and China’s Girls vs Gangsters won’t be the last rip-off of Todd Phillips outrageous romp to fail. While only infrequently funny, Barbara Wong Chun-chun’s bachelorette-party comedy is inarguably risible. This isn’t to suggest that “GvG” is so bad it’s good, only that it sometimes resembles the car wreck you can’t resist watching. It’s fair to ask why I’m not comparing “GvG” to such bachelorette-party comedies as Rough Night and Bridesmaids, which attempted to out-raunchy the boys. Well, first and foremost is the presence of Mike Tyson and a tiger, although probably not the one that stole the show in The Hangover. The other reason is that it’s entirely possible that The Hangover was never shown in mainland China, because it didn’t meet the standards of PRC censors. Maybe it was available on bootleg DVDs, or in Hong Kong, but Chinese audiences are largely drawn to big-budget action, sci-fi and comic-book pictures, not comedies. So, almost no one in the audience would recognize the resemblance, anyway. In fact, viewers would more likely consider “GvG” to be a sequel to Wong’s extremely popular rom-com, Girls (2014).  After becoming engaged, Xiwen (Ivy Chen) is persuaded by her friend Kimmy (Fiona Sit) to hop on a plane heading for Vietnam, where another friend is planning the bachelorette party to end all such parties. Fellow BFFs Jialan (Ning Chang) and Jingjing (Wang Shuilin) agree to join them.

As was the case in The Hangover, a disastrous first night sets the tone for the rest of the weekend. After spending the evening in the company of a wealthy Vietnamese gangster, who also fancies himself as a pop star, three of the women wake up on a beach, virtually naked, and chained to a locked metal box. One has a tattoo of Elvis on her neck that wasn’t there when she passed through customs. They have no memory of how they got to the beach, let alone what happened to their clothes. They soon find themselves in a beachside cabin belonging to Dragon (Tyson), a half-Korean/half-black bodybuilder, who lounges around in boxing gear and offers to find someone to break the chains on their wrists. Instant of finding cute outfits befitting their bubbling personalities and western tastes, Dragon picks out some colorful trunks, which fit their petite bodies perfectly … from bust to mid-thigh. First, however, they’re scared out of their wits by his pet tiger, lounging the house’s walk-in closet. The rest of Girls vs. Gangsters involves the ladies’ quest to recover their memory and find their missing friend, who has problems of her own. While the actresses are almost impossibly cute and game, amid the slapstick, whining and scatological gags, the dialogue is hopelessly lame and, dare I say, condescending to their characters, who appear to belong to the PRC’s bourgeoise upper-crust. And, while I don’t think “GvG” will necessarily appeal to audiences drawn to Crazy Rich Asians (2018), I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie was being marketed in that direction. On the plus side, too, is Pakie Chan’s cinematography, which nicely captures the sensual appeal of post-war Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a., Saigon), which is a bustling urban center. The DVD adds an interview with the director and an English track. (The feature’s dialogue bounces between Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and English.)

Mr. Capra Goes to War: Blu-ray
Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Academy Award-winning director Frank Capra joined tens of thousands of Americans in enlisting for duty in the U.S. Army. At 44, Capra was past the age of conscription and already was an extremely successful filmmaker — It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take It with You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life — and president of the Screen Directors Guild. Although the Sicilian-born Capra probably would have proudly served his adopted country in any capacity, he received a commission as a major in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. For the next four years, his job involved heading a special section on morale to explain to soldiers “why the hell they’re in uniform.” (The Japanese sneak attack effectively ended America’s flirtation with isolationism.) The seven documentaries in the Why We Fight series weren’t intended to be perceived as propaganda. That description was reserved for films made for German and Japanese audiences, who may not have been aware of their governments’ official rationale for war. Before jumping feet-first into his assignment, Capra studied Leni Riefenstahl’s “terrifying” Triumph of the Will, even then considered to a masterpiece of propaganda. Capra knew he was facing a daunting task and, although he successfully recruited Hollywood specialists to his team, his budgets and resources were limited to what the government was willing to provide.

His strategy was to “let the enemy prove to our soldiers the enormity of his cause … and the justness of ours.” The films were informed by enemy speeches, films, newsreels, newspaper articles and lists of hostile actions by Axis powers. “I thought of the bible. There was one sentence in it that always gave me goose pimples: ‘Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’” As author/historian James McBride notes in his 35-minute precede and introductions to the individual titles in Olive Films’ Mr. Capra Goes to War, the director would be required to bend the truth, according to the winds blowing from the White House and Pentagon. While depicting the unquestioned heroism of Soviet soldiers and citizens, he wasn’t allowed to explain how Stalin’s fascism differed from Hitler’s fascism, if at all. (Not much, but he was on our side.) In “The Negro Soldier,” Capra and his associates were forced to overlook slavery, Jim Crow racism and lynching. Nonetheless, most of what the Allied soldiers saw in the Why We Fight films was based on verifiable facts and known military strategies by Axis powers. Depicting the ravages of combat, as well as the lives of soldiers on the front lines and the home front, five of the films in which Capra was involved are represented in this special hi-def edition, presenteds in cooperation with the National Archives: Tunisian Victory, Prelude to War, The Battle of Russia, The Negro Soldier and Your Job in Germany, which was written by Theodor S. Geisel (a.k.a., Dr. Seuss).

Art School Confidential: Blu-ray
PBS: Art 21: Art in the 21st Century, Season 9
To fully appreciate Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes’ niche-noir drama, Art School Confidential, it helps to understand the difference between students whose only commitment is to their chosen artistic discipline, not to a broader understanding of the humanities or sciences. While it’s possible to study things other than art, music, dance and writing, the emphasis is on mastering the creative process and using it to further one’s own goals. The fictional university portrayed in Art School Confidential is based on the Pratt Institute, which Clowes attended and served as the inspiration for the satirical comic of the same title. It includes such cynical advice as, “If you must go to art school, for God’s sake, make the most of it. … Seldom, if ever again in life, will you be afforded the chance to scrutinize such an array of losers in an environment that actually encourages their most pretentious inclinations,” and “”Remember, the only piece of paper less valuable than one of your paintings is a B.F.A. degree.” Clowes’ drawings also form the basis for Zwigoff’s depictions of students, instructors, administrators, gallery owners and dissipated graduates. Early in the narrative, a sophomore studies the faces of a fresh crop of students in a basic drawing class, overseen by John Malkovich, an actor who’s played more pretentious characters than almost anyone else in Hollywood.

After the young man rattles off his impressions – based solely on stereotypes and clichés – the film’s protagonist, Jerome Platz (Max Minghella), asks where he fits into the picture. The answer to that question will reveal itself in due course, both to Jerome and viewers. Jerome believes that the tiny East Coast college, Strathmore, can accommodate his stated ambition to become the world’s greatest artist, like his hero, Picasso. Unfortunately, Jerome’s portraiture isn’t admired by his fellow freshman as he highly as he thinks it deserves to be. Neither does he hesitate to pass harsh judgments on his classmates’ work, some of which is applauded by the instructor. The one thing he does come away with from the class is a dangerous obsession with a beautiful nude model, Audrey (Sophia Myles), who’s the daughter of a successful artist Jerome admires. It’s difficult to tell if Audrey’s a breath of fresh air in a stuffy environment or just another art-gallery groupie. Although she allows Jerome a peek into her world, he’s mortified to learn that Audrey is hooking up with a fellow student, Jonah (Matt Keeslar), whose work he despises and who looks as if he should be attending Notre Dame on an athletic scholarship. To set her straight, Jerome devises a scheme that may or may not have something to do with a serial strangler who’s terrorizing the campus. Desperate, he concocts a risky plan to make a name for himself and win her back. Anyone unfamiliar with Zwigoff’s previous work – Louie Bluie, Crumb, Ghost World, Bad Santa – may not get the overriding joke, but supporting performances by Jim Broadbent, Angelica Huston and Adam Scott add a silver lining to Zwigoff’s typically dark clouds. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a blooper reel and a Sundance featurette.

Some of the people making a living – meager, though it may be – in the world of art have been the subject of profiles in the PBS series “Art 21: Art in the 21st Century.” The Peabody Award-winning biennial program allows viewers to observe the artists at work, watch as they transform inspiration into art, and hear how they struggle with both the physical and visual challenges of achieving their visions. The documentary series provides a window into contemporary art that is ordinarily hidden from public view. Continuing the thematic focus introduced two years ago, Season Nine draws upon artists’ relationships with the places in which they work: Berlin, Johannesburg and the San Francisco Bay area. Eleven artists and one nonprofit art center make art, talk about it and wrestle with complicated histories, conceptions of gender and the implications of technology, migration and other issues not discussed in Art School Confidential.

Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers: Blu-ray
Every time a vintage horror film is re-released on DVD/Blu-ray, I check out the reviews that greeted it upon the time of its release. With certain notable exceptions, the movies adapted from Stephen King novels and stories generally have received unenthusiastic reviews, as well as the occasional failing mark. As is so often the case with remakes, even the titles that were severely attacked look better in hindsight than the movies that have washed ashore in the flood of straight-to-video/DVD titles. Sleepwalkers (1990), based on an original Stephen King screenplay, may fall well short of greatness, but it can be viewed today without the burden of asking the quality-vs.-quantity question that’s dogged the author throughout most of his career. Sleepwalkers is based on a legend, carried over from the Old Country, about nomadic, shapeshifting “energy vampires,” who feed off the lifeforce of virgin women. Though they normally maintain human shape, they can transform into their natural form — human-sized bipedal werecats — at will. They are more resilient than humans and have powers of both telekinesis and illusion.

In this small Indiana town, a newly arrived mother and son, Mary and Charles Brady (Alice Krige, Brian Krause), stalk a beautiful teenage virgin, Tanya Robertson (Mädchen Amick). Tanya values her chastity and Charles reveals his hand too soon, shifting his shape into that of a large cat, while attempting to seduce her during a picnic in a cemetery. Knowing that her son may have lost his best opportunity at stealing her life force and extending the ancient vampire lineage, Mary orders him to try again, this time without the courting ritual. It results in a rampage that can only be stopped by the intervention of a small army of pet-sized cats able to sense the presence of evil and attack when threatened. If Streetwalkers owes a debt of gratitude for the basic conceit to Jacques Tourneur and Paul Schrader’s Cat People, the special werecat makeup is right out of “Michael Jackson’s Thriller.”  This was director Mick Garris’ first of seven adaptations of King stories. Despite the negative reviews, Sleepwalkers made some money at the box office and in VHS. The Scream Factory package adds new commentary with Garris, Amick and Krause; “Feline Trouble,” an interview with Garris; “When Charles Met Tanya,” a conversation with Amick and Krause; “Family Values,” a chat with Krige; “Feline Trouble: The FX of Stephen King,” with special make-up-effects creator Tony Gardner and prosthetics designer Mike Smithson; and a ported-over behind-the-scenes featurette and still gallery.

Law Abiding Citizen: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Like every other revenge film made in the long wake of the original Death Wish (1974), Law Abiding Citizen encourages viewers to side with the vigilante as he terminates the people who killed his loved ones. We sympathize with his belief that the courts are more interested in protecting the rights of criminals and defendants than keeping innocent civilians safe. In the nearly concurrent Dirty Harry series, a vigilante cop stood in for a citizenry enraged by a judiciary too shorthanded to contest plea bargains and stand up to bleeding-hear liberals. For many years, the ACLU, overly aggressive defense lawyers and namby-pamby judges were considered to be more responsible for America’s rising crime rate than poverty, the proliferation of handguns, understaffed police forces, underpaid prosecutors, drugs and good old-fashioned greed. Presidential candidate George H.W. Bush’s use of a racist attack ad in the 1988 campaign – falsely blaming his opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, for furloughing convicted felon Willie Horton – fanned the fears of white voters already willing to condemn liberals for crime in the streets. (Thirty years later, President Trump used the same gambit in portraying Central Americans seeking asylum in the U.S. as criminals, terrorists and children who will leach off the country’s welfare system.)

In the twisty revenge thriller, Law Abiding Citizen (2009), F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) and writer Kurt Wimmer (Ultraviolet) adopted the basic plot device that propelled Death Wish, while adding attacks that could only be pulled off by a criminal genius. Viewers are kept in the dark about the CIA background of Gerard Butler’s Clyde Shelton, who, in the film’s opening moments, is bound, gagged and forced to watch the rape of his wife and off-screen murder of their daughter. That Shelton is allowed to live is either the ultimate act of torture or a major blunder on the part of the two men, who, after being arrested, were found guilty of the crime. What horrifies Shelton is having to watch prosecutors cut a deal with the man most likely to have committed the murders, in exchange for turning on his partner. One is given a sentence that allows him to walk away from prison after only a few years in stir, while the other dies in a mysteriously botched execution. Most viewers, I suspect, weren’t all that upset that the least guilty of the two home invaders was given a lethal injection, even if the chemicals that did the trick were switched to inflict maximum pain and agony. Neither were audiences – then and, presumably, now – terribly unhappy with the punishment Clyde inflicts on the greater fiend, Clarence Darby (Christian Stolte), after he walks out of prison a free man. It’s when Shelton decides to eliminate everyone who he believes is responsible for Darby’s plea deal and release that we’re asked to take a stand against killing tangentially involved prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and bystanders … innocent and otherwise. Normally, that would be a no-brainer, but we’re impressed by Shelton’s genius in coordinating a devastating killing spree from solitary confinement.

Jamie Fox plays the prosecutor Shelton blames most for the injustice, even though he didn’t want to present the plea bargain in the first place, wasn’t in favor of Darby’s early release and isn’t unhappy when he’s found dismembered in a warehouse owned by Shelton. Still, he was photographed alongside the killer on the courtroom steps after he’s released, and that’s enough to get the vigilante’s blood boiling. Now, viewers are left in the quandary created by our admiration for Clyde’s ingenuity and our positive feelings for Fox, his family and one or two of the other targets, including characters played by Colm Meaney, Leslie Bibb, Viola Davis, Bruce McGill and Michael Irby. It isn’t fair … but that’s Hollywood. Butler’s good, even when we’re distracted by his resemblance to fellow countryman Mel Gibson. The Blu-ray/UHD package includes archival featurettes, “The Justice of Law Abiding Citizen,” “Law in Black and White: Behind the Scenes,” “Preliminary Arguments: The Visual Effects of Law Abiding Citizen,” “The Verdict: Winning Trailer Mash-Up”; and an audio commentary with producers Lucas Foster and Alan Siegel. I’m not sure the 4K UHD upgrade adds enough to recommend it to fans who already own previous hi-def editions.

King Cohen: Blu-ray
Documentaries about the men and women who make movies for a living are beginning to pile up like movies about undead humanoids who devour the brains of living beings. Also beginning to pile up like the bodies left behind in the Zombie Apocalypse are documentaries about the people who make such horror flicks. King Cohen introduces viewers too young to remember such exploitation classics as Black Caesar, It’s Alive, Q: The Winged Serpent and The Stuff to the man who made them, as well as dozens of other drive-in faves, And, while it’s never wise to look too closely into the production of hot dogs, bologna and B-movies, chatting with an unabashed master of exploitation films can be enlightening and entertaining. King Cohen features all sorts of interviews with filmmakers and actors who helped Larry Cohen fulfill his visions. They include Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, J.J. Abrams, John Landis, Michael Moriarty, Fred Williamson, Yaphet Kotto, Rick Baker, Barbara Carrera and Mick Garris. Cohen chimes in with personal insights into the work, process and legacy of an auteur, with a resume that spans 50 years.

PBS: American Experience: The Circus
PBS: Frontline: Our Man in Tehran
PBS: Native America
PBS: Masterpiece: Poldark: The Complete Fourth Season: Blu-ray
PBS: Shakespeare Uncovered: Series 3
Discovery: Dating Game Killer
Smithsonian: The Obama Years: The Power of Words
PBS: Sesame Street: The Magical Wand Chase
Despite its European roots, there’s been nothing quite so American as the circus, and its red, white and blue roots extend all the way back to earliest years of the union. Today, the traditional circus is approaching endangered-species status, with no safety net underneath it. The recent four-hour “American Experience” presentation, “The Circus,” demonstrates how the entertainment institution’s rise paralleled that of the nation, as it enjoyed immediate acceptance by the public, expanded its reach to the edges of the frontier, made lots of money, subsumed its competition, imported talent from around the world and was an early-adopter of advanced technology. The larger-than-life ambitions of the impresarios matched the appetite of its audiences for thrills, chills, laughs and surprises. Then, the circus found itself in a jam, as competition for the eyes of paying customers was split between movies, organized sports and television. Ironically, the greatest obstacle to year-after-year growth was the same thing that attracted return audiences: the annual struggle to come up with new, different and promotable acts. The PBS mini-series explores the colorful history of the circus, from the first one-ring equestrian show at the end of the 18th Century, to 1956, when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey big top was pulled down for the last time. It does so through the intertwined stories of several of the most innovative and influential show-business minds of the late 19th Century, stopping short of the Feld family’s purchase of the business and short-term burst in popularity and high-quality acts. Operations closed in May 2017, a year after its trademark elephant act was retired. Old-timers who can still remember circus parades, tent raisings and midways will find “The Circus” to be wonderfully nostalgic, while younger family members probably will be full of questions about what they’ve just seen and what they’re missing.

The timely four-hour “Frontline” presentation, “Our Man in Tehran,” chronicles journalist Thomas Erdbrink’s 17-year stint in Iran. Now chief correspondent and Tehran bureau chief for the New York Times, he is one of the last western journalists living in the country. Over the course of four years, beginning in 2014, Erdbrink was given permission to travel with a crew from Dutch television around the country, meeting people and hearing stories about their lives and hopes and fears, in one of the most isolated, belligerent and misunderstood countries in the world. Fluent in Farsi and married to an Iranian photojournalist, Erdbrink visits Iranians from all walks of life to reveal the intricacies of their private worlds and the challenges of living under theocratic leaders. During the same period of time, optimism over the nuclear pact with the Obama administration and the lifting of sanctions was dampened by President Trump’s politically motivated re-imposition of sanctions and threats of war from Islamic leaders. One of the most interesting revelations comes in discussions with “Mr. Big Mouth,” one of the most impassioned spouters of anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric during rallies and marches. An unlikely friendship develops as he slowly adopts western ways and even allows his wife to get a driver’s license.

In 1995, CBS presented the six-hour-plus documentary mini-series, “500 Nations,” which charted the history of hundreds of Indian tribes, beginning in pre-Columbian times and ending with the Battle of Wounded Knee, in 1890. Co-produced by Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves), it was one of the first productions to present an all-encompassing and objective history of tribes that were almost completely eradicated by genocidal policies designed to ease the expansion west of European settlers and businesses driven by greed and gold fever. PBS’ “Native America” takes a very different tack in chronicling the scientific, spiritual and astronomical history of first-nation people. The series reaches back 15,000 years to reveal massive cities aligned to the fluctuations of the sun, stars and planets. An estimated100 million people were connected by social networks spanning two continents. Made with the active participation of Native American communities and filmed in some of the most spectacular locations in the hemisphere, “Native America” reveals an ancient and still thriving culture whose splendor and ingenuity is only now beginning to be fully understood and appreciated. The producers were given access to several of tribes’ most sacred shrines, ceremonies and petroglyphs not easily accessible to the public. It uses 21st Century tools, including multispectral imaging and DNA analysis, to uncover incredible narratives of America’s past, venturing into Amazonian caves containing the Americas’ earliest art and interactive solar calendar, exploring a massive tunnel beneath a pyramid at the center of one of ancient America’s largest cities and mapping the heavens in celestially aligned cities.

The fourth season of PBS’ highly popular “Masterpiece” mini-series, “Poldark,” opens in 1796, when mine owner Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner) is forced to enter politics to defend Cornwall and those he loves from an empowered MP George Warleggan (Jack Farthing). It takes him to the nation’s capital and into new perils. As Hugh Armitage (Josh Whitehouse) prepares to capture Warleggan’s seat as Truro’s MP, Ross fears that Hugh is challenging his marriage. Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) remains caught in the middle, even as she’s required to play peacemaker elsewhere. Meanwhile, the rising price of grain is a recipe for riot. Like any good prime-time soap, there’s plenty of loss, love, shifting alliances, illness and the continuing cycle of life. The Cornwall scenery doesn’t disappoint, either.

PBS’ “Shakespeare Uncovered” may not be for beginners – or dummies, either – but neither does it require an MFA or PhD to enjoy it. A familiarity with the plays and curiosity about what you might have missed the first or second time through them is enough. “Series 3” adds six chapters with new hosts, who weave their personal passions with history and analysis to tell the stories behind the stories in Shakespeare’s famous works. They include “Much Ado About Nothing,” with Helen Hunt; “The Merchant of Venice,” with F. Murray Abraham; “Measure for Measure,” with Romola Garai; “Julius Caesar,” with Brian Cox; “The Winter’s Tale,” with Simon Russell Beale; and Antony Sher, on “Richard III.” In addition to the expected array of historical backgrounders and academic analysis, “Shakespeare Uncovered” goes on location to the bard’s haunts and the settings for the works, while revisiting performances from stage performances and movie adaptations.

The thing that’s always bothered me about the dating shows that keep popping up in syndication is the likelihood that the screening process leaves something to be desired. Just as games shows don’t reveal the amount of taxes that lucky contestants will be required to pay on their winnings, relationship shows rarely update viewers on the dates that ended in visits to psychiatrists or police precincts. The ones that ended so badly they were funny were useful to producers – especially in DVD compilations of “uncensored” dates — while the ones that ended so badly that they were disastrous never did. The September 13, 1978, taping of “The Dating Game” provided an excellent case in point. What bachelorette Cheryl Bradshaw didn’t know about bachelor No. 1, Rodney Alcala, was that he had committed at least four prior murders and would add several dozen more to that total before he was arrested. If it weren’t for a healthy jolt of women’s intuition, Bradshaw’s dream date could have ended up on the police blotter. After chatting with the winning sociopath backstage, she decided to take a pass. A closer screening of contestants might have eliminated Alcala from consideration … but, maybe not. Discovery’s “Dating Game Killer” doesn’t dwell on the potential for such a horror occurring, but it makes for a dandy title. Even without it, Alcala’s story would be interesting to fans of real-crime series. The case revealed holes in the judicial system that allowed Alcala and other canny criminals to slip through safety nets already in place. With it, however, the dramatizations are extremely compelling. Guillermo Díaz (“Scandal”) plays the killer; Tanya van Graan (24 Hours to Live) plays the extremely fortunate bachelorette; and the always wonderful Carrie Preston (“Claws”), plays the mother of one of Alcala’s victims.

After Barack Obama was replaced in the Oval Office, it took nearly a year for him to speak out on what he felt were the injustices forwarded by President Trump, whose mission it’s been to remove all evidence that the previous administration existed. A few months before the midterm elections, however, he felt it necessary to step forward to counter Trump’s offensive. Obama’s speeches and commentary reminded Democrats of what launched him into our national consciousness, at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and what’s been missing since January 2017. The Smithsonian Channel’s “The Obama Years: The Power of Words” delves into the former-POTUS’ rhetorical gift and why it still matters. Interviews with historians and key figures in his writing process give rare insights into these iconic speeches, as well as the Obama presidency and the man himself.

Sesame Street’s 48th season began with the all-new primetime special, “The Magical Wand Chase,” filmed on location in three vibrant New York City neighborhoods. While taking her friends on a hot-air-balloon ride, Abby Cadabby, loses her wand to a curious bird, voiced by Elizabeth Banks. Without Abby’s wand, they can’t get back to Sesame Street. Pursuing the bird in their hot-air balloon, Abby and the gang visit new neighborhoods and discover new foods, music and languages. “The Magical Wand Chase” is deeply connected to the season’s respect-and-understanding curriculum, using the tapestry of the city to show kids that kindness is universal and new friends can be found anywhere. (It also marks the first time the show has shot a feature-length special on location since 1994.)

The DVD Wrapup: Spy Who Dumped Me, Elena Ferrante, Sun at Midnight, Elephant’s Journey, Retro Afrika, Never Goin’ Back, Believer, Dragnet, Valley Girl, Black Sails … More

Thursday, November 1st, 2018

The Spy Who Dumped Me: Blu-ray
Contrary to what the title might suggest, Susanna Fogel’s late-summer comedy is neither a spoof of the James Bond franchise nor a gender-reversal twist on Austin Powers, even though it features a pair of former “SNL” standouts. (Blessedly, despite the welcome presence of Jane Curtin, as Kate McKinnon’s mom, Lorne Michaels doesn’t appear to have had anything to do with The Spy Who Dumped Me.) Audrey (Mila Kunis) and Morgan (McKinnon) play a pair of 30-year-old BFF’s, who are thrust unexpectedly into an international conspiracy, thanks to a hunky ex-boyfriend. Audrey’s ex-, Drew (Justin Theroux), recently broke up with her via an out-of-the-blue text message. As she and Morgan are preparing to burn what’s left of the clothes Drew left behind him, he bursts into her apartment with a dozen guys wielding automatic weapons on his tail. In the kind of unexpected twist that keeps The Spy Who Dumped Me from being a non-stop comedy, the title character is killed in the shootout … or is he? Before Drew takes his last breath, he asks Audrey to fly to Vienna, from L.A., and give a sports trophy to someone named Verne, at a popular restaurant. Unfortunately, Drew dies before he can tell Audrey anything more about Verne or the significance of the trophy. Naturally, Audrey and Morgan’s rendezvous is the worst-kept secret in Central Europe. Another noisy shootout transpires when Audrey attempts to pass the trophy to the person she assumes is Verne – Sebastian, played by Sam Heughan, the handsome “Highlander” dude — and the girls are off on a merry romp are the continent, with stops in Budapest, Amsterdam, Prague and Berlin.

As the body count mounts, the search for clues hidden on Drew’s missing thumb drive becomes both extremely twisty and consistently entertaining. Credit for keeping viewers from sweating the improbable details largely belongs to McKinnon’s inspired riffing and improvisation, along with Fogel and co-writer David Iserson’s clever plotting and location-hopping. Production designer Marc Homes and cinematographer Barry Peterson also contribute mightily to the fun. Gillian Anderson and Paul Reiser also pop up at opportune times in the story. The Blu-ray adds the featurettes, “Covert Operations: The Making of The Spy Who Dumped Me”; “Gary Powell: The Action Behind the Film; “Makin’ Friends With Hasan Minhaj,” which should appeal to fans of the former “Daily Show” correspondent; deleted scenes and outtakes; and “Off Script,” which features a six minutes’ worth of ad libs. “Spy” opened on a weekend that Box Office Mojo described as having “the worst grosses for the eighth month of the year in 20 years.” It deserves a better shot on the small screen.

Elena Ferrante on Film: Blu-ray
Just because a successful author writes under a pseudonym and goes to great lengths to preserve their anonymity doesn’t mean that literary detectives won’t attempt to put a face to the name and a history to the face. If an aspiring author fails to capture the imagination of critics and public, the writer could call himself/herself Tarzan and no one would bother to investigate the ruse. Neither does an air of mystery, in and of itself, ensure sales of an unreadable tome. Seems obvious, but such mysteries have kept people guessing for centuries. More recently, the conceit has tweaked the interest of forensic book critics, who’ve tried to guess the real identity of “Elena Ferrante,” author of the Italian best-seller, “L’amore molesto” (1992). It took 14 years for the book to be translated into English and another decade for Mario Martone’s excellent adaptation, Troubling Love, to be released here on DVD, with Roberto Faenza’s The Days of Abandonment (2005). In the meantime, three more Ferrante books were published in Italy and the debate took on a life of its own. Her most widely known work is “The Neapolitan Novels,” a four-part series that began in 2012, with “My Brilliant Friend,” and was followed by “The Story of a New Name” (2013), “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” (2014) and “The Story of the Lost Child” (2015). The series follows the lives of two bright Neapolitan girls, Elena and Raffaella, from childhood to adulthood and old age, as they try to create lives for themselves in a poor and violent neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. An HBO adaptation of the first book – and subsequent 2017 play, by April de Angelis — is scheduled to begin here on November 18. Coincidental to the opening of the play was the publication of journalist Claudio Gatti’s presumed unmasking in the New York Review of Books.

Not that it matters outside the realm of literary salons, a handful of blogs and libraries, but Gatti surmised that Ferrante was, in fact, a Rome-based translator named Anita Raja. A year ago, team of scholars, computer scientists, philologists and linguists at the University of Padua analyzed 150 novels written in Italian by 40 different authors, including 7 books by Ferrante. They concluded that Raja’s husband — author and journalist Domenico Starnone — is the probable author of the Ferrante novels. “Ferrante” has repeatedly dismissed suggestions that she is a man, telling Vanity Fair in 2015 that questions about her gender are rooted in a presumed “weakness” of female writers and, of course, the inherent sexism of male critics, publishers and their camp followers. Again, no matter. In an article published in March 2017 on, Lauren Strain argued, “That a woman’s word is neither believed nor respected is hardly a surprise. But what’s been particularly nauseating about Gatti’s and other journalists’ efforts to ‘out’ Ferrante is that, if you’re even slightly familiar with her work, you’ll know that her whole output is an examination of the lives of women who are denied their right to self-determination.” Ferrante has also said, “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors” – a theory that might disturb publicists more than readers – and that anonymity is a precondition for her work. It didn’t prevent Time magazine from calling Ferrante one of the 100 most influential people of 2016, or the New York Times putting “The Story of the Lost Child” on its list of 10 best books of 2015. The controversy is discussed, at length, in a featurette contained in Film Movement’s long-awaited, “Elena Ferrante on Film,” featuring The Days of Abandonment and Troubling Love, now available for the first time in North America.

For the sake of brevity, both films can be lumped together in a subgenre reserved for women-on-the-brink dramas. The Days of Abandonment stars the estimable Italian actress, Margherita Buy (Mia madre), as the woman scorned. In a scenario that recalls Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (1978), Buy plays Olga, the 38-year-old mother of two, whose life is shattered when her husband splits. It prompts her to fall into a period of self-degradation, self-destructive behaviors and uncharacteristic violence. Her husband, Mario (Luca Zingaretti), has fallen for a much younger woman, Carla (Gaia Bermani Amaral), who served as his intern and exists as a living indictment of Olga’s inevitable slip into middle age. It isn’t a pretty sight, especially when friends attempt to lure her into places where she might meet a man willing to exploit her desperation, or, if nothing else, have a good time. Just before she reaches the end of her tether, Olga attempts to force herself on a downstairs neighbor, Damian (Goran Bregovic), who resembles Roberto Benigni, and plays a cello. If the incident ends in shame, it also opens the door for a surprising and entirely satisfying climax.

Troubling Love features another heart-wrenching lead performance, this time by Anna Bonaiuto (Il Postino). Delia is an artist living in Bologna, a northern Italian city that is extremely different than Naples, where she grew up. When we meet her, Delia is expecting – dreading? – a visit by her estranged mother, Amalia (Angela Luce). Instead, she’s notified of Amalia’s death by drowning. The official determination is suicide, but Delia isn’t convinced. She believes that Amalia was too full of life – as southerners define it – to end it in such a peculiar way: washing ashore, wearing only a lacy red bra. Delia decides to travel to Naples for the funeral and, while she’s there, reconstruct for herself the last few days and weeks of her mother’s life. (When she pays a visit to the lingerie boutique that sells the bra, Delia’s given a rude welcome.) Not surprisingly, perhaps, the investigation opens windows into her own past, especially incidents that she’d sublimated or completely forgotten, including her role in her parents’ breakup. The more people she meets, the less recognizable her mother becomes. At the same time, Delia gets phone calls from someone who wants to make her life even more difficult. Martone succeeds in drawing distinctions between Naples and Bologna, textually and in the southern city’s far more chaotic atmosphere. And, although Troubling Love is now 23 years old, the Blu-ray restoration makes it look as fresh and vital as “Abandonment.” The two-disc set adds a 32-page booklet, containing Elena Ferrante’s letters and script notes about the films (excerpted from “Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey,” published by Europa Editions); interviews with Martone, Bonaiuto and producer Andrea Occhipinti; interviews with “Abandonment” personnel; and the featurette, “Elena and the Books.”

The Sun at Midnight
Kirsten Carthew’s debut feature succeeds on so many different levels that it begs the question as to why it wasn’t accorded a meaningful theatrical run and the kind of media attention it deserves. Instead, after a tour of niche festivals, The Sun at Midnight (2016) is finally being made available to general audiences on direct-to-DVD outlets and streaming services. Filmed in Canada’s Northwest Territories, at the Arctic Circle, The Sun at Midnight describes an unexpected friendship between a 16-year-old girl and a Native hunter, who’s obsessed with finding a caribou herd that’s late to arrive on its annual migration. It’s where Lia (Devery Jacobs) has been sent by her father, in the wake of her mother’s death. He needs to leave Montreal for a mining job and the only place for his punky daughter to spend the summer is with her Gwich’in grandmother, in Fort McPherson. Lia isn’t welcomed with open arms by the girls her age in the largely aboriginal community. Frustrated, she hijacks a motor boat, which breaks down well before she reaches the nearest big city, Dawson, in the Yukon. Unprepared for a stay of more than a few hours on a nearby range of tundra and mountains that remain capped with snow, even during the long days of summer. Fortunately, she’s met on the shore by Alfred (Duane Howard), who hopes to hand her off to the men at a nearby hunters’ camp, which is equipped with a two-way radio. Instead, one of them attempts to accost the spunky teen, who hits him with a paddle and takes off to find Alfred, who knows that bears and wolves aren’t the only predatory animals on the range.

Because Alfred is familiar with Lia’s mother and grandmother, most of the walls that would normally separate them are already gone. He teaches her how to survive in the wilderness, by trapping rabbits and using a rifle to scare off four-legged hunters. Most of what he imparts to Lia on the history of her ancestors is limited to practical knowledge and anecdotal evidence of the Gwich’ins’ relationship to their harsh, yet beautiful environment. Soon enough, she will be tested on what’s she learned. As such, The Sun at Midnight overlaps three enduring subgenres: survival, coming-of-age and embracing one’s roots. None of it is forced or pedantic. Moreover, Carthew’s screenplay feels as organic as the surprisingly colorful terrain, nicely captured by cinematographer Ian MacDougall (Wrecker). Most of the dialogue is in English, but the discussions between relatives in Fort McPherson are conducted in an Athabaskan dialect. There’s a nod, as well, to the problems caused by climate change, including threats to the caribou migration that’s an essential part of Native culture. Although The Sun at Midnight isn’t rated, it easily qualifies as family fare.

Never Goin’ Back
With the terrifically inventive and entertaining BFFs-gone-wild comedy, Never Goin’ Back, native Texan Augustine Frizzell makes the leap from “indie actress” (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) to writer/director, whose “lone star” is suddenly on the rise. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because she’s the granddaughter of Lefty Frizzell, one of the most influential singer-songwriters in the history of country music, whose roots run deeper in Texas soil than all the Bushes combined. Augustine may be married to director David Lowery (The Old Man & the Gun), in whose films she’s frequently appeared, but Never Goin’ Back belongs to her. The escapades attributed to teen waitresses Jessie (Camila Morrone) and Angela (Maia Mitchell) are drawn from Frizzell’s memories of her own debauched youth and the kinds of friendships that live forever. “I was 15 when all this stuff was happening … but I was also living on my own, with my best friend and some roommates,” Frizzell recalled, in an interview published in the Observer. “We worked at IHOP, which is comparatively as shitty as the restaurant in the movie. We did a lot of drugs, we robbed a store, our house got robbed, all of it.” Then, at 18, she had her first child. Through it all, she had the support of her best friend and family, which explains why Never Goin’ Back is a comedy, instead of just another story about kids having to hit rock bottom, before either bouncing back into something resembling the mainstream or perishing in the flames of their misspent youths. Indeed, the film has routinely been described as “raunchy” and a gender-reversed version of Superbad (2006). It’s a comparison with which Frizzell doesn’t disagree. By the time we meet them, roomies Jessie and Angela have dropped out school in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex and are sharing a house with some garden-variety slackers, who support themselves by selling drugs … or, at least, trying to sell drugs. The house is about to get robbed, their rent’s due and their plan to work multiple back-to-back shifts is foiled by an inopportune bust. They weren’t planning on using the money to pay the rent, but to go to Galveston for a week and eat doughnuts. Despite the fact that Frizzell survived her own teenage years and is now beginning to profit from her experiences, Never Goin’ Back was never intended to appeal to parents who might need some reassurance about their own kids’ trajectories. It has more in common with fellow A24 titles, Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, Laggies, Lady Bird and American Honey, which suggest that expectant moms and dads shouldn’t anticipate an easy ride through parenthood. Sarah Jaffe’s musical soundtrack reflects the girls’ tastes and the filmmaker’s sense of irony, with a couple of ditties by Barry Manilow and Michael Bolton. The other interesting thing about Never Goin’ Back is its unwillingness to go into any depth on whether Jessie and Angela are lesbians, bi- or, simply, BFFs with benefits. Declaring one way or the other would force viewers to base their opinions of their behavior on information Frizzell clearly doesn’t think is any of our business. And, of course, it isn’t. The DVD adds a deleted scene; commentary with Frizzell, Mitchell, Morrone and producers Liz Cardenas and Toby Halbrooks; the featurette, “Art Imitates Life: Never Goin’ Back”; and a blooper reel.

An Elephant’s Journey
That a well-produced family film about an important subject — featuring recognizable stars and a gorgeous setting – could only find a home on DVD speaks volumes about the state of distribution today. (See previous review.) As far as I can tell, An Elephant’s Journey’s only exposure in theaters came in one-night stands intended to attract Christian audiences. This strategy has proven to be an effective way to get faith-based pictures in front of ticket-buying audiences, given to non-offensive material. In the case of Richard Boddington’s inspirational adventure, however, the faith-based message is subordinate to a story that deals with the elephant-poaching crisis in Africa and how a troubled boy can make the difference between life and death for an endangered friend. Rising Canadian star Sam Ashe Arnold plays Phoenix Wilder, a 15-year-old who recently lost his parents in an accident and is sent to South Africa to live with his Aunt Sarah (Elizabeth Hurley) and Uncle Jack (Tertius Meintjes). They live on a South African preserve, which is populated with animals Phoenix can only remember seeing in a zoo. One day, he accompanies his uncle and several other guides on a safari, where he eventually disappears into the bush. By the time Jack realizes that Phoenix is missing, the group has already returned home, where Sarah is fuming. Although Phoenix is justifiably frightened, he’s able to travel a considerable distance on foot. He comes upon an adult male elephant, caught in a net left behind by poachers hired by Blake von Stein (Louis Minnaar), a mercenary who trafficks in ivory and animals on consignment. After the boy frees the elephant from the net, they become fast friends. The rest of An Elephant’s Journey concerns both the rescue of Phoenix from the bush and the struggle to protect the elephant, his mate and their child from the poachers. Boddington’s story keeps Phoenix front and center in both narrative streams. In doing so, he matures before our eyes. The movie benefits greatly from the natural South African setting and non-condescending approach to the material. The poaching dilemma is real, and Boddington doesn’t sugarcoat it for family audiences. Hurley’s sincere presence doesn’t hurt, either. The production could have used a larger budget, but who knows if it would have helped secure greater theatrical reach.  The bonus material goes into a bit more detail on international efforts to prevent poaching.

Distant Voices, Still Lives: Special Edition: Blu-ray
12 Monkeys: Collector’s different Edition: Blu-ray
This month’s selection from Arrow Academy and Arrow Films includes two films that could hardly be more different from each other: Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995). Both are brilliant entertainments, but not in ways that might appeal to mainstream audiences. Of the two, Davies’ memory musical may be the more challenging, at least to American eyes and ears, while 12 Monkeys warrants repeat viewings, like most of the ex-Python’s other films, especially with the passage of time and experience. The primary reason that Distant Voices, Still Lives might seem foreign to Yanks is its depiction of how blue-collar families evolved in post-war England. At the same time that American workers were beginning to migrate from neighborhoods in the shadow of the factories in which they toiled, into single-family homes in the suburbs, hard-scrabble Brits were still waiting for their “economic miracle” to arrive. Many were forced to live on top of each other in terraced row houses – the architectural equivalent of sardine cans — walk to work and dull their existential pain at the local pub. When tightly knit families gathered to celebrate births, marriages and funerals – or, simply, whenever they felt like it — Davies recalls them breaking into song, without worrying about who’s watching.  The tunes, performed a cappella or accompanied by the family piano, had either been passed from one generation to the next or had helped get them through two wars. The songs recalled by Davies aren’t there to advance the narrative or embellish the dialogue. They are the narrative. The songs are colored by the 72-year-old writer/director’s childhood memories of, yes, “distant voices.” The film’s separate segments were shot two years apart, but with the same cast and crew. The first, “Distant Voices,” chronicles Davies’ earliest memories, as the youngest of 10 siblings in a working-class Catholic family, living under a domineering and occasionally violent father. The second, “Still Lives,” finds the children grown up and emerging into a brighter 1950s Britain. Distant Voices, Still Lives must have been an extremely nostalgic experience for British audiences. It’s interesting to think that, in another 10 years, members of these same families would be responsible for giving the world the Beatles, Rolling Stones, mini-skirts, geometric hairdos and the first stirrings of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The Blu-ray boasts a new 4K restoration, carried out by the British Film Institute; commentary and an interview with Davies; an interview with art director Miki van Zwanenberg; period documentaries; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jennifer Dionisio; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by critic Christina Newland and archived essays.

And, now for something completely different. In August, Arrow released Terry Gilliam’s largely incomprehensible and critically trashed Tideland (2005), in an edition that helped explain what went wrong and why, a dozen years later, it’s worth a first, second or third look. By the time 12 Monkeys was released, he’d recorded a string of hits and misses that, while demonstrating his artistic brilliance and vivid imagination, were too off-the-wall for mainstream audiences. His previous movie, The Fisher King, benefitted commercially from the presence of Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges, as well as a flock of positive reviews. The decent grosses helped convince Universal to take a shot on David and Janet Peoples’ adaptation of Chris Marker’s sci-fi short, “La Jetée” (1962). The studio limited Gilliam’s budget to $29 million and required him to hire an A-lister, or two. He got Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt and Madeleine Stowe, who are terrific here. Willis plays James Cole, a prisoner of the state in the year 2035, who’s told that he can earn parole if he agrees to travel back in time and thwart a devastating plague. The virus has wiped out most of the Earth’s population and the remainder live underground because the air is poisonous. Mistakenly transported to 1990, six years before the start of the plague, Cole is imprisoned in a psychiatric facility. There, he meets a scientist named Dr. Kathryn Railly (Stowe) and Goines (Pitt), the mad son of an eminent virologist (Christopher Plummer). After Cole is returned to 2035, he’s transported to the proper year and setting. (Faces repeat themselves, as well.) He discovers the graffiti of animal rights group, the Army of the 12 Monkeys, but as he delves into the mystery, he hears voices, loses his bearings, and doubts his own sanity. He must figure out if Goines, who appears to be mad as a hatter, holds the key to the puzzle. The flashbacks and flash-forwards could give viewers whiplash, so it pays to maintain a tight focus on Willis’ time-traveler. Despite mixed reviews, 12 Monkeys collected a tidy $57 million at the domestic box office and another $111.6 million in foreign sales.  The special edition sports a new restoration from a 4K scan of the original negative, approved by Gilliam; commentary by Gilliam and producer Charles Roven; “The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of 12 Monkeys,” a feature-length making-of documentary by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe (Lost in La Mancha); an image gallery; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gary Pullin; and an illustrated collector s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Nathan Rabin and archive materials.

Retro Afrika Collection: Gone Crazy/Fishy Stones/Umbango
At first glance, Gone Crazy, Fishy Stones and Umbango – from South Africa’s apartheid-era B-Scheme period — could easily be confused with the “race” films produced in the United States between 1915 and the early 1950s, for the consumption of black audiences. They were made by African-American filmmakers and featured minority actors, some of whom would crossover into Hollywood films after that de facto color line was broken. Oscar Micheaux, who was born in Metropolis, Illinois, in 1884 – you thought Clark Kent was the town’s only favorite son? – was the best known African-American writer/director/producer of his time, and his career spanned the nearly 45-year period. It would take another 40 years for his contributions to the medium to be acknowledged with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and posthumous awards from the DGA and PGA. South Africa has never been known for its movie output, except for providing locations for filmmakers from other countries. For many years, the only South African film that made a dent in the international box office was Jamie Uys’ comic allegory, The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980), in which a bushman encounters technology for the first time, in the shape of a Coca-Cola bottle. Due to an embargo against South African products, the film was released as Botswanan, despite having a South African director and being financed with South African government funds.  Compared to “Gods,” the newly released DVDs from IndiePix Films — in a distribution partnership with Retro Afrika Bioscope — might as well have been made at the dawn of “race” movies in the U.S. Nonetheless, there’s a good origins story behind Gone Crazy (1980s), Umbango (1986) and Fishy Stones (1990).

South Africa’s B-Scheme allowed for a government-subsidized production system for movies made in an African language, with an African cast, intended for African audiences. The movies avoided topical subjects and overt references to apartheid. Mostly, they paid homage to Hollywood B-movie titles, with plenty of action, broad comedy and melodramatic dialogue. A white, South African director, writer and construction executive, Tonie van der Merwe, was almost single-handedly responsible for an entire film movement. As he showed Hollywood genre and blaxploitation pictures to his 200 black workers on Saturday nights, he saw a business opportunity. The government had subsidized films for white South Africans since the 1950s under a so-called A-scheme, but there were no domestic movies for the black majority. Using his own money, as well as his own car, tractors and airplane as production props, he made Joe Bullet, an action movie about corruption in a soccer league. A cross between John Shaft and James Bond, the protagonist (Ken Gampu) fights evil with his brains, guns and karate chops. He wins the heart of a nightclub singer, Beauty (Abigail Kubeka), with his suave personality and cool demeanor. While the movie only lasted two nights in a theater, before the censors banned it, Van der Merwe would go on to collect some 400 credits during the B-scheme period.

Of the three films, Umbango is probably most noteworthy for being the first South African Western – Van der Merwe’s crews built the set in KwaZulu-Natal – with an almost all-black cast (there’s a shady white character, named Gringo) and in a native language. The film’s “white hats” are an ace horseman and gunfighter, Jack, and his buddy, Owen, who dream of staking a claim to some prime real estate nearby and building their own ranch. The men are accused of murder by a ruthless businessman, bent on avenging his dead brother. KK strong-arms the local sheriff into forming a posse of thugs to aid in his vendetta. It leads to a nifty gunfight. In Gone Crazy, a psychopath seeking revenge on a small-town mayor steals a bomb from a local research facility, planning to blow up the dam and drown the town. Two police inspectors, each working different angles of the case, team up to rescue a kidnapped professor and stop the madman before the bomb – a few sticks of dynamite, a blasting cap and clock, held together with a few strands of twine — can do its worst. In Fishy Stones, two amateur robbers rob a jewelry store. After a chase through the countryside, the men stash their loot in a clump of bushes, before they’re apprehended and thrown in jail. Two teenage friends will discover the cache of diamonds while on a camping expedition. Before they can realize their fortune, the boys are confronted by the crooks, who’ve escaped from the jail. All three pictures have been digitally remastered and re-released for the amusement and scholarly consideration of a new generation of African filmmakers and audiences.

God Knows Where I Am
Jedd and Todd Wider’s extremely sad and thought-provoking documentary, God Knows Where I Am, not only makes us care about a woman whose death wouldn’t otherwise have mattered to us, but it also considers what society owes people destined to self-destruct. It is the story of Linda Bishop, a well-educated New Hampshire mother, who suffered from severe bipolar disorder with psychosis, and died alone in an unheated New Hampshire farmhouse, in winter, alongside her diary. Without beating viewers over the head with actuarial data and psychiatric double-speak, God Knows Where I Am paints a detailed portrait of Bishop, through the memories of those who knew her, and tortured excerpts from the diaries. They are read by actress/co-producer Lori Singer in a voiceover performance that tears at the heart, while evoking the spirit of a woman determined to live or die on her own terms. Bishop wasn’t abandoned by relatives and friends who observed her slide into the depths of schizophrenia and were thwarted in their efforts to help her survive. She was intermittently incarcerated and homeless, inevitably being committed for three years to a state psychiatric facility. Patients’ rights legislation allowed Bishop to successfully fight her sister’s protective attempts to be named her legal guardian. She was free to refuse treatment and medication, and procure an early, unconditional release, despite the lack of post-release planning. Upon her release, Bishop wandered 10 miles down the road from the hospital, broke into an abandoned farmhouse and lived off rainwater and apples picked from a nearby orchard for the next four months. She was incapable of leaving the house or signal for help. Her body was discovered several months after she starved to death, with the diary she kept until the end. God Knows Where I Am is at once compelling and deeply disturbing. The question with which we’re left comes down to how someone whose mental illness keeps her imprisoned inside her own body is able to truly exercise free will when allowed to evaluate her own condition and dictate treatment?

Believer: Blu-ray
The first thing to know about Lee Hae-yeong’s non-stop thriller, Believer, is that it’s a Korean remake of Johnnie To’s exciting Hong Kong actioner, Drug War (2012), only 15 minutes longer. The other thing to know is that, for once, virtually nothing is lost in the translation. Both versions are worth a rental. Here, police detective Won-ho (Cho Jin-Woong) is determined to bring down a mysterious druglord, Mr. Lee, who uses many different associates to impersonate him in business transactions. The ruse keeps authorities from focusing on his real identity and tracking him down the right path. He catches a break when a factory is blown up and one of the two survivors – the other is a badly injured dog – agrees to work undercover to topple the man he blames for killing his mother. Rak (Ryu Jun-yeol) may be a low-level guy, but the explosion has left some room for the advancement of underlings within the ranks. Even so, Rak has to prove himself to all sorts of slightly demented and totally dangerous people, claiming to be relatives of Lee or reasonable facsimiles, thereof. All the while, his movements are monitored by drug-enforcement officers, who have plans A, B and C in place, in case an opportunity presents itself. The settings for these transactions – a new super-drug’s being introduced into the marketplace – may be luxurious, but Rak and Won-ho know that they’re basically dealing with greedy forms of pond scum. Once all of this is established, of course, senior police officials can’t help but get in the way of any further progress. Fortunately, several terrific set pieces have been built into the narrative, ensuring that viewers will stick with it to the enigmatic ending. It’s always worth mentioning that Korean action directors have become every bit as adept at churning out full-blown thrillers as anyone else, including American filmmakers, who still rely on tropes and clichés that exhausted themselves years ago.

Spontaneous Combustion: Blu-ray
By the time Spontaneous Combustion was released, in 1990, Tobe Hooper was struggling to regain the momentum he’d squandered from the success of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Poltergeist (1982). His protagonist in the sci-fi thriller would be played by Brad Dourif, who was 15 years removed from his Oscar-nominated performance, as momma’s-boy Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). He also was terrific as a mad preacher in John Huston’s adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s Southern gothic, Wise Blood (1979), a great picture that almost no one saw. He isn’t bad here, but, at 40, Dourif was nearly 20 years too old to convincingly portray Sam Kramer, the victim of a military experiment gone wrong. Many of his best years were yet to come, however, and he’s become a legitimate horror icon. The title condition results from his parents being placed in a capsule on the Nevada testing ground where the hydrogen bomb is being tested. Although his mother, who’s pregnant, passes the radiation test, she bursts into flame after delivering the boy. She had just passed Sam off to a nurse, who keeps him out of harm’s way. The same couldn’t be said of his father. Flash forward 20 years, or so, and the weird birthmark on Sam’s hand is transforming into something frightful. Meanwhile, people in his immediate orbit are combusting spontaneously all around him. When Sam checks himself into a hospital, some of the same people who monitored his birth are in place to make sure his pyrokinesis doesn’t become known to the general populace. Good luck, on that score. Upon its release, Spontaneous Combustion was rated “R,” primarily for some grisly images of crispy critters. Today, I can’t imagine it being scored worse than PG-13. Critically, unflattering comparisons were made to Firestarter, a 1984 Stephen King adaptation that received better reviews and made exponentially more money.

I Am Vengeance: Blu-ray
Former WWE superstar Stu Bennett is the latest pro grappler to take his act from the ring to the screen. Although he holds a degree in marine biology from the University of Liverpool, the 6-foot-5¼ behemoth instinctively knew that he was more suited to wrestling and bare-knuckle boxing than in studying the mating habits of North Sea mollusks. Even after watching Bennett “act” in I Am Vengeance, it’s clear that he probably made the right decision. In the role of an ex-Special Forces soldier turned mercenary, all he’s really expected to do is kick ass until there’s no one left to stand up to him. When his character, John Gold, learns of the murders of his best friend and his parents, he immediately heads for the pastoral town of Devotion, where a group of fellow Afghan vets has built a factory to manufacture powerful drugs, as well as a network through which to distribute them. Gold’s buddy was working with the former soldiers, until he discovered something about them that caused him to threaten their operation. When he gets to Devotion, Gold doesn’t even bother to fake his identity or disguise his mission. He simply calls out the assassins and begins to annihilate them. Along the way, Gold picks up a gorgeous junkie, Sandra (Anna Shaffer), who knows the layout of the factory, and Barnes (Fleur Keith), a local cutie whose restaurant is in danger of going out of business due to the town’s bad vibes. That’s about it, really. Veteran hard guy Gary Daniels makes a formidable foe for Gold and writer/director Ross Boyask (Warrioress) knew enough to point his musclebound gladiators in the right direction and get out of the way. Ample room is left for a sequel. The Blu-ray adds deleted and extended scenes.

A Happening of Monumental Proportions
In movies, as in life, everybody’s got to start somewhere. Some beginners hit the bulls-eye right away. Others aren’t so lucky. Freshman director Judy Greer and first-time writer Gary Lundy decided to break their behind-the-camera cherries on a dark ensemble comedy, A Happening of Monumental Proportions. In it, characters played by no fewer than a dozen recognizable stars cross paths for 81 minutes. Sadly, there’s only about 45 minutes’ worth of viable material in a story that almost demands to be judged by the challenge built into its title and the stars’ photos on the DVD’s cover. In a career that’s spanned 21 years and an amazing 130 acting and voicing credits, Greer probably was able to collect enough IOUs to cast A Happening of Monumental Proportions, twice-over again. As it is, she was able to recruit Common (Selma) to play the single father of a teenage girl, portrayed by Storm Reid (A Wrinkle in Time), both of whom are about to endure very humbling experiences. On the same day that Common’s Daniel is fired for something he couldn’t control, he’s expected to represent Patricia at her school’s Career Day. Little does he know that his boss (Bradley Whitford) has been asked by his son (Marcus Eckert) to participate, as well. The boy, Darius, doesn’t appreciate his father’s tendency to pull up their roots every year, or so, causing him to be bullied on an annual basis. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Patricia takes Darius under her wing, before he proves to be too clingy.

Everybody’s day starts out poorly, however, when the body of a maintenance worker is found lying on the pavement and is discovered by the school’s already uptight co-principals (Allison Janney, Rob Riggle), who want to hide the corpse from the kids. They contact paramedics (Katie Holmes, Nat Faxon), but are told that such problems don’t fall under their purview. Also experiencing personal problems are the school’s underappreciated music teacher (Anders Holm), who commiserates with Darius on the school’s roof, and Daniel’s flakey assistant (Jennifer Garner), with whom he shared a fateful moment of intimacy. John Cho plays a shop teacher named Ramirez, whose bleak observations on life make the music teacher and Darius even more depressed than they were. And last, but not least, Keanu Reeves appears out of nowhere to offer a typically Reevesian summation on what’s occurred over the past 81 minutes. A Happening of Monumental Proportions bites off quite a bit more than its audience can chew. The actors do what they can in the limited amount of time they’re given, but only a couple of the throughlines carry enough meat on them to keep things interesting. It will be interesting to see if Greer and Lundy try their hands at something a tad less challenging, the next time around, or they stick to acting.

Out of Time: Special Edition: Blu-ray
If the sweaty sexual couplings in Out of Time remind viewers of Body Heat (1981), the plot will be familiar to fans of the similarly moist Against All Odds (1984) and The Last Seduction (1994). As they say in the noirs, “Cherchez la femme.” In Carl Franklin’s twisty, if slightly overheated crime drama from 2003, Denzel Washington plays the chief of police on a two-bit Florida key, where everyone’s been corrupted by promise of easy money, whether its from the occasional bale of marijuana floating ashore or more traditional crimes, like extortion, fraud and murder. Although chief Matt Lee Whitlock thinks he knows what’s happening in his community, he makes the mistake of hooking up with a married woman, Ann Merai (Sanaa Lathan), who’s several times more devious than he is. He also blunders by attempting to steal money confiscated in a federal sting, under the even more watchful eyes of his soon-to-be ex-wife and strait-laced fellow cop, Alex (Eva Mendes), and a medical examiner (John Billingsley), who’s also set his sights on the confiscated loot. When a no-nonsense FBI agent demands the return of the money, it causes chaos among the Banyan Key irregulars, who’ve lost track of where it is, precisely. Meanwhile, Ann Merai and her ex-QB husband (Dean Cain) are found burned to a crisp in their home, with Matt named as beneficiary on a life-insurance policy that his lover took out when she was diagnosed with cancer. It makes him a prime suspect in Alex’s eyes. Washington is the only actor here who doesn’t seem to break a sweat in the heat. Unfortunately, his presence doesn’t leave much room for guessing who’s going to survive the worst of the bad craziness, either. Still, not a bad time-killer. The Blu-ray adds Franklin’s commentary; an ”Out of Time: Crime Scene” featurette; character profiles; outtakes; screen tests, with Lathan and Cain; and a photo gallery.

Dragnet: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
While I can’t imagine anyone who hasn’t watched the original “Dragnet” taking much away from Tom Mankiewicz’ feature-length parody, it still is capable of amusing those Boomers who got a kick out of the protagonist’s wooden mannerisms. For those who couldn’t pick Jack Webb out of a lineup that also included Tom Waits, O.J. Simpson, Billy Barty, Jerry Brown and Judge Judy, the highly prolific writer/producer/actor introduced an early version of Sgt. Joe Friday in the noir procedural, He Walked by Night (1948). A year later, “Dragnet” debuted on NBC, with the full cooperation of LAPD chief William H. Parker. In the interim, Friday moved from medical examiner to detective. In the 1987 Dragnet, Dan Ackroyd plays Friday’s similarly by-the-book, just-the-facts-ma’am nephew. Also named Friday, he’s an anachronism, even in the beat-them/ask-questions-later LAPD, which, in the 1980s, resembled an arm of the Marine Corps. He’s teamed with Tom Hanks’ Pep Streebek, an unkempt, wise-cracking undercover cop, who’s Friday’s polar opposite. The story finds Friday and Streebek on the trail of a motorcycle gang threatening the publishing empire of a sleazy playboy (Dabney Coleman), under the direction of anti-porn crusader/Satanist, Whirley (Christopher Plummer). After rescuing “the virgin, Connie Swail” (Alexandra Paul) from a sacrificial demise – her purity becomes a running gag — Friday makes the uncharacteristic mistake of calling out the hypocritical reverend in a restaurant frequented by city officials (Elizabeth Ashley, Bruce Gray) who are in cahoots with Whirley. It costs Friday his badge, but not his obsession with the case and preserving Connie’s virginity. Aykroyd’s nearly perfect as the squarest human being in Los Angeles, while Hanks’ schtick is still fresh and funny. Harry Morgan makes a welcome appearance as Joe Friday’s former partner, Gannon, which, of course, is the role he played in the TV series, from 1967-70. The Blu-ray adds “A Quiet Evening in the Company of Connie Swail,” a new interview with Alexandra Paul; fresh commentary with pop culture historian Russell Dyball; “Just the Facts!,” a promotional look at “Dragnet,” with Aykroyd and Hanks; and original marketing material.

Valley Girl: Collector’s Edition: Blu-Ray
Martha Coolidge’s endearing take on the Valley Girl aesthetic, arrived in the summer of 1983, hot on the heels of Frank and Moon Zappa’s satiric ode to L.A.’s Galleria Girls and Amy Heckerling’s fabulously successful teen comedy, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. As played by Sean Penn, Jeff Spicoli is an important link in the chain connecting Valley and surf cultures, largely because Val-speak was an extension of surf slang, designed to separate the real dudes from the ho-daddies. The Zappas’ hit song came about when, at a loss for lyrics, daddy Frank woke up Moon in the middle of the night and asked her to record snippets of conversations she had with friends at school and on shopping excursions. An age-appropriate Nicolas Cage played a fast-food worker in “Fast Times,” but his big break came a few months later, when he wowed Coolidge at an audition for Valley Girl. In it, he plays the punky, borderline hoodlum, Randy, who lives on the other side of the Hollywood Hills from female protagonist Julie Richman (Deborah Foreman). Their unlikely relationship provides the movie’s culture-clash throughline. Julie may be one of the more opened-minded young women in her clique, but her romance with the uninhibited Randy causes her friends’ tongues to wag and her jock boyfriend to turn into a territorial ape. Coolidge is best when she’s locating the haunts of her characters and inserting them organically into the story. The making-of featurettes are interesting for what they reveal about creating low-budget indies in the early 1980s. Besides having to scramble for money and the things it affords, certain other realities had to be considered.

For example, Coolidge was required by the film’s producers to show female breasts at least four times. They felt it would make the movie more appealing to younger males. On any other teen comedy, they might have been proven right. After the opening weekend, however, Valley Girl turned out to be less a date movie than a chick flick. It captured a moment in time when teenage girls were rejecting the anti-materialism of their hippie parents — represented here by Colleen Camp and Frederic Forrest – and using their overly generous allowances to create a counter-culture of their own, dictated by the women they saw in Tiger Beat and videos on MTV. Elizabeth Daily, Heidi Holicker and Michelle Meyrink provide the Greek chorus for Julie, while Cameron Dye does a nice job as Randy’s best bro. The Blu-ray is enhanced by a 4K remaster from the original camera negative; the retention of music from the original soundtrack; “Valley Girl in Conversation,” with Coolidge, Daily and Holicker; “Greetings From the Valley,” a short history of the San Fernando Valley, hosted by Tommy Gelinas of the Valley Relics Museum; extended interviews from 2003, with Cage, Dye, Forrest, Daily, Holicker, Camp, co-star Lee Purcell, producers Andrew Lane and Wayne Crawford, Peter Case of the Plimsouls, singer Josie Cotton and deejay Richard Blade; storyboard-to-film comparisons; archival commentary with Coolidge; original music videos from Modern English and the Plimsouls; “Valley Girl: 20 Totally Tubular Years Later”;  “In Conversation With Martha Coolidge and Nicolas Cage”; “The Music of Valley Girl”; making-of featurettes; and interviews with cast and crew.

Yessongs: 40th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Melanie: For One Night Only
Here are a couple of vintage in-concert performance features from artists who sold a lot of tickets and albums, way back in the Neolithic period of 20th Century rock-’n’-roll. Yessongs: 40th Anniversary Edition is a re-release of the feature-length concert film, captured during the progressive rockers’ 1973 Close to the Edge tour. (Prog-rock was a new genre in the post-psychedelic 1970s.) Yes drew its inspiration from music that traversed the spectrum from symphonic to improvisational and classic rock. It has sold more than 30 million albums worldwide. The film features their new line-up of the time: Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman and Alan White. Despite the band’s commercial success, it wasn’t until 2017 that Yes was recognized by induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as “the most enduring, ambitious and virtuosic progressive band in rock history.” Among the selections are “I’ve Seen All Good People,” “Roundabout,” “Close to the Edge” and excerpts from Wakeman’s “The Six Wives of Henry VIII.”

That singer/songwriter Melanie isn’t in the Hall of Fame shouldn’t be taken as an indication of her talent, perseverance, ability to sell out concert halls and move albums. All it means is that she’s in good company. Melanie (a.k.a., Melanie Safka) was one of only three women soloists who performed at Woodstock. Soon thereafter, she appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and at such festivals as Glastonbury, the Isle of Wight and Strawberry Fields. She was the first solo pop/rock artist ever to appear at Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera House and the Sydney Opera House. Today, she’s probably more popular in Europe than in her native U.S. Melanie: For One Night Only came about after the artist was invited by Jarvis Cocker to perform at the Meltdown Festival at the Royal Festival Hall, in London, accompanied by her musical children. The DVD of that concert was released in October 2007. Its highlights include “Brand New Key,” “Beautiful People,” “Peace Will Come,” “Hush A Bye,” “Ruby Tuesday” and “Alexander Beetle.”

Starz: Black Sails: The Complete Collection: Blu-ray
PBS: No Passport Required
Smithsonian: The Real Story: The Da Vinci Code
The great thing about movies and television series based on the Golden Age of Piracy is how well they’ve held up since D.W. Griffith’s The Pirates Gold was released in 1908. The one-reeler lasted only 16 minutes, but Griffith stuffed enough drama – and irony – into it to fill a feature-length film. Disney could do a lot worse than borrowing the plot for the already announced sixth installment of its Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Last year’s POTC: Dead Men Tell No Tales failed to make back its nut in domestic sales, while critics delivered a broadside assault designed, one suspects, to sink the series. Pirates have provided fodder for hundreds of other titles, ranging from swashbucklers and historical dramas, to “Veggie Tales” spinoffs and high-budget porn. For four seasons, the producers of Starz’ “Black Sails” took advantage of the freedoms offered by premium-cable networks to deliver the nudity, sex, profanity, extreme violence, gore and substance abuse that Hollywood’s Captain Blood and Jack Sparrow could only dream of unleashing on their audiences. And, they were rendered in ways cable subscribers considered to be artistic, tasteful and worth the added expense to their cable bill. It can argued, of course, that 18th Century prostitutes weren’t nearly as alluring as the ones we meet in “Black Sails: The Complete Collection,” but, then, neither were the pirates and soldiers. And, personal hygiene wasn’t a priority, either. The Blu-ray compilation includes all four seasons of the show, which wrapped up production in South Africa last year. “Black Sails” is set roughly two decades before the events described by Robert Louis Stevenson in “Treasure Island.” The writers took plenty of creative license with known historical events, while basing their key characters on actual men and women known to have sailed under the skull and crossbones. They include Anne Bonny, Benjamin Hornigold, Jack Rackham, Charles Vane, Ned Low, Israel Hands and Blackbeard. The sea battles were enhanced by CGI and the sword fights required stunt coordinators, but you knew that already. The thoroughly binge-worthy boxed set adds more than 20 making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes, covering all four seasons.

It isn’t likely that anyone will fill the shoes left behind by Anthony Bourdain, any more than Julia Child’s been eclipsed by the current crop of screamers, shopping-network hustlers and celebrity chefs. That’s because Bourdain wasn’t afraid to leave the comfort of the studio and visit places where food’s primary purpose is to sustain life and mirror cultural imperatives, not impress the shit out of paying customers and freeloading peers. He wasn’t afraid to share his opinions on things other than food or make enemies of chefs he didn’t respect. Until I received the seasonal compilation of “No Passport Required” episodes, I wasn’t aware of chef Marcus Samuelsson, who once accompanied Bourdain to his home country, Ethiopia, and whose own show is cut from the same template as “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown.” After being separated from their family in the Ethiopian Civil War, Samuelsson and his sister were adopted by Ann Marie and Lennart Samuelsson, a homemaker and a geologist, who lived in Gothenburg, Sweden. After becoming interested in cooking through his maternal grandmother, Samuelsson studied at the city’s Culinary Institute. He apprenticed in Switzerland and Austria, then came to the United States in 1994 as an apprentice at Restaurant Aquavit. He is the head chef of Red Rooster in Harlem. “No Passport Required” focuses on diverse immigrant communities and cuisines in cities across the U.S. In each hour, Marcus will travel to a different city and dive into a new food culture. At a time when President Trump wants to eclipse the American Dream for outsiders of color, Samuelsson explains how immigrants of all races and backgrounds contribute to the American mosaic, using culinary traditions to open doors and shape the way we eat today.

I couldn’t possibly tell you how much new information is proffered in Smithsonian Channel’s “The Real Story: The Da Vinci Code.” It seems to me to be a recap of information already presented in the buildup to the three movies based on Dan Brown’s best-selling novels. The same questions are asked and, if not answered, at least recapped and put under different microscope: did Da Vinci leave hidden clues to the whereabouts of the Holy Grail in his paintings; is there, indeed, a secret society protecting the bloodline of Christ and Mary Magdalene; have documents been hidden within the pillars of a famous French church; and did Da Vinci invent lock boxes that rival the Rubik’s Cube in mechanical complexity? The show’s producers have rounded up real-life code breakers, Renaissance scholars and professors of religion and linguistics to help put the pieces of the puzzle together.



The DVD Gift Guide I: Uni Monsters, Body Snatchers, Twilight 4K, Evil Dead, Trauma, Creepshow, Haunted Hill, Dude 4K, Saved by Bell, 3 Stooges … More

Thursday, October 25th, 2018

Now that Halloween, All Saints Day, All Souls Day and the Day of the Dead have merged into a three-day holiday for adults, and trick-or-treating has been reduced to an authorized after-school activity for kids, I think it qualifies for gift-guide status. Stores began stocking up for Halloween sales as soon as the last embers of Labor Day barbeques turned into ash. In a nod to the proper order of end-of-year holidays, I’ll try to limit my first Holiday Gift Guide to DVD/Blu-ray/4K packages related to Halloween themes. Most are safe for children and family viewing, none causes cavities.

Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection: Blu-ray
Boris Karloff Collection
Movies based on comic-book superheroes have become so prevalent that the viewers who comprise their core audience may not be aware of the pictures that got the ball rolling, way back in 1931. Unlike the comic books that inspired the Superman, Batman and Captain Marvel serials, movies and TV shows, the Universal monsters were based on characters introduced in classic works of literature. Based on evidence presented in pristine Blu-ray editions of the 30 movies collected in “Universal Classic Monsters” — from Frankenstein and Dracula and their spinoffs, to Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956) — the characters hold up extremely well in the waning days of 2018. The 24-disc boxed set adds a 48-page collectible book, with behind-the-scenes stories and rare production photographs, and is accompanied by an array of bonus material, including documentaries, the 1931 Spanish version of Dracula, experiments in 3D, featurettes on Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr. and makeup artist Jack Pierce, 13 commentaries, archival footage and theatrical trailers. The Blu-ray upgrade substantially raises the entertainment value for collectors, who already own Uni’s “Legacy Collection” sets, as well as newcomers accustomed to crystal-clear images and soundtracks.

Even more than Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price and Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff became the public face of cinematic horror from the dawn of the talkies, through the drive-in era and into television’s anthology period. Karloff was already in his mid-40s when he attained stardom as Doctor Frankenstein’s creature and, all appearances aside, his monstrous stature was achieved through makeup effects and costume wizardry. In reality, the Surrey native stood a mere 5-feet-11. Karloff distinctive voice carried him from the Canadian stage, to Hollywood, and, finally, into the realm of television commercial and animated features. While his most memorable performances are showcased in the “Universal Classic Monsters” set, Karloff adopted numerous other personae and worked for several other studios. Before being “discovered” by James Whale and cast in Frankenstein, he acted in 80 movies, among them, The Criminal Code, Five Star Final and Scarface. He would appear in another 120-plus movies and television shows, often as a dignified guest star or ominous-sounding host. The titles compiled in VCI Entertainment’s “Boris Karloff Collection represent four of Karloff’s final five appearances on film: Alien Terror (“The Incredible Invasion”), Cult of the Dead (a.k.a., “Isle of the Snake People”), Dance of Death (a.k.a., “House of Evil”) and Torture Zone (a.k.a., “Fear Chamber”). They were made as part of a package deal with Mexican producer Luis Enrique Vergara. Nearly confined to a wheelchair, Karloff’s scenes were directed by Jack Hill (Switchblade Sisters) and shot back-to-back in Los Angeles in the spring of 1968. The films were then completed in Mexico. All four were released posthumously, with the last, Alien Terror, not released until 1971, two years after Karloff’s death. More a curiosity than anything else, the DVDs aren’t in nearly as good of a shape as those in the Universal package, but that’s only to be expected.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Blu-ray
For almost 20 years, I lived in the town that provided many of exterior locations for Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, one of the most influential and effective sci-fi/horror films of all time. Although it was shot there in 1955, Sierra Madre hasn’t changed all that much over the course of 60 years. The town square, where the truck drivers collected the pods for delivery to towns throughout the then-agricultural San Gabriel Valley, still attracts genre-obsessed tourists. The shops that surround the square are virtually intact, as well. Sierra Madre is the rare Los Angeles County town that looks as if it might belong anywhere else but Southern California. Its trees turn colors in season, snow falls in the mountains that form the town’s northern border and parking meters are non-existent. In 1910, D.W. Griffith began producing movies there, using townspeople as extras. Alfred Hitchcock filmed segments of Family Plot (1976) in Sierra Madre’s Pioneer Cemetery, as did John Carpenter, for Halloween (1978), and David Lynch, for “Twin Peaks.” In Olive Signature’s terrific Blu-ray restoration of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the featurette, “Return to Santa Mira,” not only explores the Sierra Madre locations, but other L.A. spots used in the picture. Other bonus material focuses on the debate over how Siegel and screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring wanted viewers to interpret the pod people’s mysterious appearance in an average American town during the Cold War era. Commentaries are provided by film historian Richard Harland Smith, as well as actors Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter, and filmmaker Joe Dante. “The Stranger in Your Lover’s Eyes” is a two-part visual essay, with actor and son of director Don Siegel, Kristoffer Tabori, reading from his father’s book, “A Siegel Film”; “The Fear is Real,” with filmmakers Larry Cohen and Dante on the film’s cultural significance; “I No Longer Belong: The Rise and Fall of Walter Wanger,” in which film scholar and author Matthew Bernstein discusses the life and career of the film’s producer; “Sleep No More: Invasion of the Body Snatchers Revisited,” a new appreciation, featuring Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter, along with comments from film directors and fans, John Landis, Mick Garris and Stuart Gordon; “The Fear and the Fiction: The Body Snatchers Phenomenon,” new interviews with McCarthy and Wynter, and directors Landis, Garris and Gordon, in which they discuss the making of the film, its place in history and its meaning; an archival interview with McCarthy, hosted by Tom Hatten; “What’s in a Name?,” on the film’s title; a gallery of rare documents detailing aspects of the film’s production, including the never-produced opening narration to have been read by Orson Welles; an essay by author and film programmer Kier-La Janisse; and an original theatrical trailer. In a survey of the 50 best scary movies to watch this Halloween, released this week in Newsweek, the 1956 version of “Body Snatchers” was ranked No. 8, while Philip Kaufman’s also compelling 1978 remake came in at No. 40.

The Twilight Saga: The Complete Collection: 10th Anniversary: Blu-ray/4K UHD
It’s been 10 years since Catherine Hardwicke’s Twilight and HBO’s “True Blood” redefined what it means to be an American vampire in America, as opposed to, say, an American vampire in London or a European vampire in New Orleans. While the HBO series crossed most demographic lines – propelled by copious amounts of forbidden romance, abs and nudity – the movie “saga,” adapted from Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling series of YA novels, attracted teenage girls, young women and, for the first installment, at least, their male dates. Produced on an estimated budget of $37 million, Twilight grossed $393.6 million worldwide. Four years later, when The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 capped the franchise, the worldwide tally would hit $829.7 million, on a budget of $120 million. Domestic ticket sales were dwarfed by grosses overseas. (“True Blood” would enjoy a seven-season run.) Besides the suspense generated by Belle and Edward’s will-they/won’t-they romance, audiences were drawn to the Cullen siblings eternally youthful appearance, their vegetarian diet (washed down by animal blood), their willingness to risk their lives to save Belle from a clan of nomadic vampires and Edward’s uncommon chivalry. Neither did speculation on Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson’s off-screen relationship dampen ticket sales. To mark the anniversary, Lionsgate Home Entertainment and Summit Entertainment are releasing Twilight in a 4K UHD/Blu-ray/digital edition, with a new “Twilight Tour … 10 Years Later” featurette and other archived goodies. Extended editions of The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Eclipse and Breaking Dawn, Parts 1 and 2, are being re-released in Blu-ray. All five films feature Digital 4K UHD, with Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos audio. All he supplemental material has been ported over from previous versions. They are available in a combo pack or a la carte.

The Evil Dead: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Ash vs. Evil Dead: The Complete Collection: Blu-ray
Does this storyline sound familiar? All hell breaks loose when five college students rent an isolated cabin in the woods and inadvertently summon the devil’s legions. It should, because it’s been borrowed by dozens of writers and directors of low-budget, high-gore horror flicks since 1981, when Sam Raimi captured lightning in a bottle with The Evil Dead. The film’s distinguishing conceit involves the discovery of the Naturan Demanto, a Sumerian version of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, along with a tape recorder belonging to the archaeologist who inhabited the cabin. When it’s played, the archaeologist’s voice recites a series of incantations, resurrecting a mysterious, demonic entity. In the ensuing mayhem, only one of the students, Ash (Bruce Campbell), survives to tell the tale in the series’ two direct sequels, Evil Dead II (1987), Army of Darkness (1992); an indirect sequel, My Name Is Bruce (2008); a 2013 reboot, Evil Dead; a cable-television series, “Ash vs. Evil Dead,”; a half-dozen video games; several comic books; an off-Broadway musical; and references in a dozen rock songs and videos. Not bad for a movie that was rescued from purgatory by an endorsement by Stephen King and buzz campaign led by Fangoria magazine. There was some concern that the new 4K UHD version of The Evil Dead would offer too much resolution to a picture that was shot on 16mm and already blown up to 35mm. It isn’t a problem for my untrained eyes, anyway. The only extra is commentary ported over from a previous Blu-ray edition.

On Halloween night of 2015, the Starz network launched the comedy/horror mini-series, “Ash vs Evil Dead,” which advanced the franchise’s timeline approximately 30 years from the original three Evil Dead films. Developed for the premium-cable channel by Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi, and Tom Spezialy, it brought back Bruce Campbell to reprise his career-shaping role, as Ash Williams, the only survivor of the cabin massacre. Today, he works at the local Value Stop as a stock boy. Also working at the store is his friend Pablo (Ray Santiago) and the object of Pablo’s affections, Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo). Ash has been cooling his heels since returning from 1300 AD, at the end of Army of Darkness. At the start of Season One, he’s living in a trailer with his pet lizard, Eli, and is reduced to drinking alone in bars. In due time, however, Ash will be required to save world from the Evil Dead, who return to the present through the pages of the Necronomicon. (It is a fictional textbook of magic and the occult, invented by H.P. Lovecraft and borrowed by his followers.) Lucy Lawless plays Ruby, a mysterious believer who’s convinced that Ash is responsible for the recent outbreak of evil. Season Two opens with Ash, Pablo and Kelly’s return to Ash’s hometown in Elk Grove, Michigan, where they meet up with his father, Brock (Lee Majors), who criticizes him for running away after the events that transpired three decades ago.

Ruby claims she’s have hidden the Necronomicon inside a corpse at the town morgue. No sooner is the book retrieved by Ash and his pals than it winds up in the hands of two teenage car thieves. From this point onward, “AvED” becomes almost impossible to follow, let alone summarize. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. The battle for control of the book is joined by time-travelers, shape-shifters, Deadites, clones and an ancient prince of hell, Baal. In Season Three, Ash reunites with an old stripper acquaintance, Candace Barr (Katrina Hobbs), who, nine months after a drunken tryst, delivered his appropriately named daughter, Brandy. Needless to say, Brandy’s existence comes as news to Ash. When Ruby and her demon horde learn her identity, they attempt recruit her to their side of the battle. Ash’s weapon of choice is a chain saw that he attaches to the stump at the end of right arm and wields with deadly accuracy. Although nudity isn’t a prominent fixture in the series, gratuitous violence breaks out around every corner. And, while it isn’t for viewers with weak stomachs, it is imaginatively rendered. A wide range of commentaries and behind-the-scenes featurettes accompanies the seasonal discs.

Trauma: Blu-ray
Any DVD that promotes itself with a pull quote from, arguing that the movie contained therein is, “The most controversial extreme horror offering in recent memory,” better deliver on the promise, or face the wrath of genre trolls on the Internet. That’s because anyone likely to take Trauma up on its implied dare probably has already watched such prime examples of transgressive horror as Cannibal Holocaust, A Serbian Film, Martyrs, The Human Centipede, Eden Lake, I Spit on Your Grave, Saw, Audition, Guinea Pig: Flower of Flesh and Blood, American Guinea Pig and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, as well as their sequels, prequels and spin-offs. With Trauma, rising genre superstar Lucio A. Rojas (Zombie Dawn) not only holds his own against such august company, but also adds a few new twists of his own. Born in 1978, while the ruthless General Augusto Pinochet was still in power, the Chilean filmmaker is well aware of the horrors perpetrated by the junta’s embrace of Operation Condor. In the 1970s, several South American dictatorships set new standards when it came to torture and inhumane behavior toward people perceived to be their enemies, potential enemies and the children of their enemies. The Tower of London had nothing on the torture chambers overseen by the military leaders of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Chile, all of whose atrocities were sanctioned by Henry Kissinger and American CIA operatives. Tossing your political opponents and dissidents out of cargo planes, 40 miles from the nearest shore, is a tough act to follow, but it was only one tactic used by the governments. Trauma opens with a flashback to that horrific period in Chilean history – 1978, to be exact – as an agent of the Pinochet regime, forces his son to participate in the interrogation, torture and rape of a female political prisoner.

Nearly 40 years later, the boy (Daniel Antivilo), Juan, has grown into a full-blown sadist, terrorizing residents of his rural village and visiting the sins of his father on his own son, Mario (Felipe Rios). Together, they’ve run roughshod over the mountainous region, where the locals look at them with the same level of fear as that once reserved for Frankenstein’s monster. They’re too intimidated, even, to warn unsuspecting tourists of their crimes. That’s exactly what happens when an outwardly cosmopolitan group of young women – possibly of the lesbian persuasion – make their presence known in the village, by seeking directions to a relative’s country villa. While the locals know what’s lying in wait for them, they resist the urge to involve themselves in it … another political reference. And, sure enough, just as the women are beginning to kick up their heels, dancing provocatively in front of an open window, Juan and Mario break into the house demanding they perform for their amusement. The men look as if they’re perfectly capable of inflicting the kind of damage on the women as Juan had witnessed as a boy. Even when one of them manages to grab his gun, viewers know that it’s likely to backfire or be out of bullets. Police arrive the next day, but, except for one cop, are no match for Juan and Mario’s madness. Juan loses interest in the older women after he kidnaps a little neighborhood girl, who is taken to his personal dungeon. Instead of heading for the hills asap, the survivors risk their lives, again, to rescue the girl. The aura of dread that pervades nearly every second of Trauma is tough to take. Not only do we identify with the women, but we’re also convinced that manmade monsters, like Juan, exist in real life. The Artsploitation release looks even more sinister in Blu-ray.

Patient Zero
Austrian filmmaker Stefan Ruzowitzky came to attention of American audiences when his World War II drama, The Counterfeiters, won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It describes an actual plan, devised by the Nazis, to use Jewish prisoners skilled in engraving and forgery to produce enormous amounts of authentic-looking British and American currency. They intended to dump the impeccably forged dollars and pound notes into the revenue streams of Allied countries to undermine their economies. Ruzowitzky’s next three theatrical features – two thrillers and a family adventure – couldn’t have been more different from The Counterfeiters if they starred talking cartoon animals. They didn’t find much traction here, however. Mike Le’s screenplay for Patient Zero was featured in the 2013 Hollywood Blacklist of “most liked” unmade scripts of the year. I’m not sure what Ruzowitzky saw in the story that hadn’t been accomplished in such Zombie Apocalypse thrillers as 28 Days Later …, Day of the Dead and a dozen other movies in which survivors of a deadly pandemic attempt to save humanity, while hidden in an underground bunker. The variation in Patient Zero is the nature of the epidemic, which is a viral super-strain of rabies that turns human beings into, well, zombie-like creatures with an appetite for flesh and blood.

Uninfected soldiers hunt packs of the adrenaline-fueled creatures, searching for the first person to have contacted and spread the virus. Researchers have narrowed the first incidence down to a Halloween night in Saint Paul, Minnesota, a moment that the two of the captured victims, at least, seem to share. We know this because, after being bitten, medical investigator Morgan (Matt Smith) realizes he is asymptomatic and can communicate with the infected prisoners. Unlike zombies, rabies sufferers retain the ability to speak – when they aren’t grunting and flailing about – and recall key dates in their lives. An infected prisoner played by Stanley Tucci, of all people, can do better than that, however. As a former professor, he’s able to challenge Morgan on scientific points and debate something resembling ethics. Natalie Dormer, who remains uncharacteristically clothed throughout Patient Zero, play the obligatory British scientist, Dr. Gina Rose. She’s willing to stand up to crazed American soldiers anxious to torture the infected prisoners when they fight back and refuse to cooperate with Morgan. Zombie Apocalypse completists should find something to enjoy in Patient Zero, even if it’s only the rarely applied rabies gambit.

House on Haunted Hill: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Creepshow: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Trick ‘r Treat: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
From the aptly branded Scream Factory comes a triple-feature of golden oldies – or, if one prefers, moldy oldies – suited for Halloween viewing. They may not be as welcome in a trick-or-treater’s bag of goodies as a handful of mini-Almond Joys, but they sure beat a few kernels of candy corn.

The 1999 re-boot of William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill received a satchel full of negative reviews from mainstream critics old enough to have seen the 1959 original at a kiddie matinee. I doubt, however, that they were the film’s intended audience … then, or today. Some old-timers might recall that master showman William Castle, his own self, introduced “the Amazing New Wonder EMERGO: The Thrills Fly Right Into the Audience!” and promised “The 13 Greatest SHOCKS Ever Seen!” If the on-screen thrills weren’t sufficiently terrifying, EMERGO caused a plastic skeleton to float over the audience’s heads during a pivotal part of the movie. The best the marketing team for William Malone’s update could come up with is “Evil loves to party” and “It’s going to be a long night.” It’s interesting to note that the premise of the 1959 version called for an eccentric millionaire, played by Vincent Price, to offer five strangers $10,000 each to stay the night in a spooky old mansion. Inflation being what it was in the intervening 40 years, the ante was raised to $1 million apiece. Here, Geoffrey Rush sits in for Vincent Price, as the twisted theme-park mogul, Stephen Price. He’s hosting a birthday bash for his wife (Famke Janssen) at an abandoned institute for the criminally insane. Among the guests are characters played by Taye Diggs, Ali Larter, Bridgette Wilson, Peter Gallagher and Chris Kattan. The odds against any of them collecting the money are pretty slim. The Blu-ray benefits from a 2K scan from the original film elements; new interviews with William Malone, composer Don Davis and visual-effects supervisor Robert Skotak; previously unseen storyboards, concept art and behind-the-scenes photos, courtesy of visual-effects producer Paul Taglianetti; commentary with Malone; deleted scenes; and vintage featurettes, “A Tale of Two Houses” and “Behind the Visual FX.”

Directed by horror maestro George A. Romero and scripted by Stephen King – whose screenwriting credits were then limited to Carrie, Salem’s Lot and The ShiningCreepshow was substantially more successful than House on Haunted Hill or Trick ’r Treat with audiences and critics. (King even starred in one of the segments.) The comic-book-themed anthology was comprised of five “tales of terror.” The first, “Father’s Day,” deals with a demented old man (Jon Lormer) returning from the grave to get the cake his murdering daughter (Viveca Lindfors) never gave him. (Ed Harris and Carrie Nye also appear.) “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” is about a not-too-bright farmer (King) discovering a meteor that turns everything into plant-life, including himself. In “Something to Tide You Over,” a vengeful husband (Leslie Nielsen) buries his wife (Gaylen Ross) and her lover (Ted Danson) up to their necks on the beach. Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau and Fritz Weaver star in “The Crate,” about a creature that resides in a large box under the steps of a college. “They’re Creeping Up on You” stars the distinguished actor, E.G. Marshall, as an ultra-rich businessman who gets his comeuppance, via unusually large, imported cockroaches. The brilliantly illustrated 4K remaster, was sourced from the original camera negative, with color correction supervised and approved by director of photography Michael Gornick. It also features new commentaries with Gornick and composer/first assistant director John Harrison and construction co-ordinator Ed Fountain; a fresh roundtable discussion on the making of Creepshow with John Amplas, Tom Atkins, Tom Savini and Marty Schiff; interviews with costume designer Barbara Anderson, animator Rick Catizone, sound re-recordist Chris Jenkins and Gornick; a look at Mondo Macabre’s posters for the movie, with co-founder Rob Jones and gallery-events planner Josh Curry; a look at some of the original props and collectibles, with collector Dave Burian; a vintage commentary with Romero and special-makeup-effects creator Tom Savini; behind-the-scenes footage; deleted scenes; still galleries; and a return visit to locations used, in “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds.”

By the time Trick ’r Treat was released onto DVD, in 2009, it had already spent two years on the festival circuit and the anthology trend had exhausted itself. Even so, it won several awards in genre competition and stands up reasonably well, today. As the title suggests, all five of the interrelated segments take place in the same neighborhood on Halloween night. Writer-director Michael Dougherty (Krampus) didn’t spare any fake blood or pre-fab gore in the R-rated thriller. It kicks off with a segment in which a high school principal (Dylan Baker) moonlights as a masked serial killer. Anna Paquin plays a college-age virgin, whose search for a lover takes a gruesome turn. A couple learns what can happen when a jack o’ lantern is blown out before midnight. A group of teens carries out a cruel prank with disastrous consequences, while a cantankerous hermit (Brian Cox) battles a mischievous trick-or-treating demon. The Scream Factory upgrade features a 2K scan of the original film elements supervised by Dougherty; a half-dozen new making-of and background featurettes; interviews; a fresh 2K scan of the original 16mm elements of Dougherty’s short, “Season’s Greetings”; art and photo galleries; “Monster Mash,” a story from the “Trick ’r Treat” graphic novel; shorts; vintage commentary with Dougherty; a piece on holiday legends; deleted and alternate scenes; and a school-bus scene FX comparison.

Torso: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Blood and Black Lace: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Deadbeat at Dawn: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
For those with more continental tastes, it’s tough to beat a good giallo for suspense, violence and sexual situations … the genre’s holy trinity. Upon its wide American release, in 1974, Torso was compared unfavorably to Sergio Martino’s previous thrillers, The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key. This probably had as much to do with the ham-handed editing done to the movie by American censors as Martini’s execution of grindhouse violence against women and prevalence of soft-core sex and nudity. The newly released Arrow Blu-ray edition re-stores the movie – a.k.a., “The Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence” – to its original giallo sheen and texture. After setting up a series of murders involving female students, prostitutes and their customers, in Perugia, Martini follows a group of college-age women to a villa overlooking the college town, where they can study for final exams in peace, as well as sunbathe in the nude and test each other’s sexual proclivities. Somehow, the killer discovers their hiding place and follows them there. After unceremoniously slaughtering three of the four young women, the killer initiates a suspenseful game of cat-and-mouse with the “final girl,” Jane (Suzy Kendall). Although she doesn’t look a minute under 35 – the actress’ proper age – Jane is an American exchange student, who finds herself trapped inside the mansion with a severely sprained ankle, three hacked-up corpses and the mysterious black-clad killer, who favors red-and-black ascots as his weapon of choice. If, at 92 minutes, Torso’s climax arrives a bit too abruptly, at least the killer is accorded a psychological excuse for his pathology. Torso has been given a fresh high-def transfer from the original negative and is presented in both its uncensored English and full-length Italian director’s-cut version. The set adds the featurettes, “Murders in Perugia,” an interview with co-writer/director Martino; a poster and still gallery; and an introduction by Eli Roth.

Giallo fans might find it a tad unusual to find a new Blu-ray edition of Mario Bava’s landmark 1964 thriller, Blood and Black Lace, released so soon after Arrow’s excellent 2016 restoration. Apparently, though, hard-core buffs complained about the aspect ratio, which didn’t conform with Bava’s original vision. VCI Entertainment has come back with an edition in the wider aspect and a different bonus package, highlighted by separate commentary tracks from Kat Ellinger – who avoids repeating observations made in the 2016 edition – and David Del Valle and C. Courtney Joyner. The 27½-minute featurette, “American Cut vs. European Uncut,” goes step-by-step through the more graphic sequences of the film, offering the censored American version followed by the bloodier European version. Also included are a photo gallery and seven minutes taken from composer Carlo Rustichelli’s score. In a nutshell, the story follows a vicious killer, who stalks and murders the elegant models of the popular Christian Haute Couture fashion house, in Rome. The owner of the house, the affluent widow Contessa Cristina Como (Eva Bartok), attempts to maintain order, but after the body of the first victim, Isabella (Francesca Ungaro), is discovered, everyone panics. The experienced Inspector Silvester (Thomas Reiner) begins sniffing around and realizes that, in addition to selling designer clothes, the house may have provided a distribution point for drugs. Among the suspects are the Contessa’s lover and business partner, Max (Cameron Mitchell), and Isabella’s roommates, Peggy (Mary Arden) and Nicole (Arianna Gorini).

Although pioneered by John Waters, Kenneth Anger and Andy Warhol, DIY filmmaking didn’t blossom into full flower until the introduction of camcorders, Apple and Avid editing technology, and straight-to-video distribution streams. The results weren’t always pretty, or terribly cinematic, but some of the movies showed promise for the future of the medium and filmmakers. If anything, DIY movies are easier and less expensive to make than they were in the 1980s and there’s very little problem getting them shown on YouTube and other streaming operations. What they’ve never been, however, is polished. It’s part of their charm. I’m not at all sure what prompted Arrow to pick up writer/director/actor Jim Van Bebber’s micro-budgeted indie, Deadbeat at Dawn, which combines elements of every juvenile-delinquent, kung fu and doomed-romance movie ever made, from West Side Story and Rebel Without a Cause, to The Wanderers and Rumble Fish. Van Bebber finished Deadbeat at Dawn in 1988, after he dropped out of film school and used the leftover money to purchase film stock. By that time, however, he’d made numerous amateur films, usually of the action variety and featuring his friends, relatives and classmates. An excellent prep wrestler, the Ohio native also became proficient in the martial arts, which would come in handy when he made Deadbeat at Dawn. Today, gang wars are fought with automatic weapons, usually from the cowardly shelter of a moving car. The hoodlums in Deadbeat at Dawn engage in old-fashioned knife fights and mano-a-mano combat with fists, kicks and karate chops.

Van Bebber plays Goose, the leader of the Ravens, who are mortal enemies of the Spiders. (The film was shot in Dayton, but it could have been set in any Rust Belt city.) After a rumble in a cemetery that leaves the gangs’ leaders with serious knife wounds, Goose’s girlfriend convinces him to go straight. Almost immediately, however, Goose’s rival assigns two of his nearly braindead thugs to take him out. Instead, they viciously murder his girlfriend, a senseless act that triggers another cycle of violence … this one disguised as a truce. After merging to pull off an armored-car heist, the Spiders ambush the Ravens, with the intention of wiping them out. Goose susses out the betrayal, but not before most of his comrades are wiped out. This leads to a battle royal that spreads into a railroad yard. It’s pretty entertaining, if not particularly convincing … no worse, certainly, than most fight scenes shot for television and genre flicks in the 1960s. The 2K restoration enhances the quality of the 16mm original beyond anything Van Bebber could have dreamed, 30 years ago. The bonus package adds commentary with Van Bebber, actor Paul Harper, actor/artist Cody Lee Hardin and filmmaker Victor Bonacore; a retrospective documentary on Van Bebber and the “Deadbeat” legacy, by Bonacore; a 1986 behind-the-scenes documentary on a failed “Deadbeat” shoot; Outtakes; four newly restored short films; Van Bebber’s music-video collection; an image gallery; reversible sleeve, featuring newly commissioned artwork by Peter Strain; and a booklet, featuring new writing by Scott Gabbey and Graham Rae.

Prehysteria: Special Edition: Blu-ray
One year, our son wore a homemade dinosaur costume for his school’s party and trick-or-treating, which wasn’t easy in a neighborhood populated with yuppies in multi-unit apartments. It was a dandy. I was reminded of this by the Blu-ray release of Albert and Charles Band’s Prehysteria! Released on video only three weeks after Jurassic Park (1993) stormed the world’s box offices – and a month after Roger Corman’s R-rated Carnosaur beat Spielberg to the finishing line — the PG-rated fantasy/adventure served as the debut for the Bands’ subsidiary Moonbeam label, which was established to provide direct-to-video releases for children. In it, a sleazy museum curator, Rico (Stephen Lee), steals dinosaur eggs from tribe living in a rain forest, and brings them back to California. Frank (Brett Cullen) is an archeologist and single parent, who ekes out a living by growing grapes and selling fossils from his farm to the museum. In a mix-up, his kids, 12-year-old Jerry Taylor (Austin O’Brien) and his teenage sister, Monica (Samantha Mills), bring home the eggs and hatch several miniature dinosaurs, which they name after their favorite rock stars. As the tiny creatures grow into miniature dinosaurs, it becomes apparent to everyone involved that they’re neither house-trained nor particularly friendly. This works in their favor when Rico gets wind of the kids’ new pets, but it causes problems in Frank’s relationship with the curator’s assistant (Colleen Morris).  If the dinosaurs aren’t terribly realistic, kids in the target age group get by with less believable toys every day.

Snake Outta Compton
Schlock: Collector’s Edition, Special Edition: Blu-ray
Although Hank Braxtan’s outlandish parody, Snake Outta Compton, falls well short of being as risible as Sharknado, Birdemic and Showgirls, it straddles the lines separating movies that are so bad they’re funny and movies that are simply bad. The obvious nod here is to Snakes on a Plane (2006), a film whose most memorable moment comes when Samuel L. Jackson tells his fellow passengers, “Enough is enough. … I have had it with these motherf…ing snakes on this motherf…ing plane!” The craziness begins when a snake drops from a passing jetliner and lands on the windshield of police car carrying a salt-and-pepper pair of cops, straight out of Training Day. While the female snake doesn’t survive the collision, one of the eggs she’s carrying does. It’s picked up by a brilliant teenage scientist, Vurkel (Donte Essien), who’s a dead-ringer for Stephen Urkel, the kid from “Family Matters.” After the baby snake emerges from its egg, Vurkel zaps it with an enlarging ray he’s invented to boost the size of private parts. Naturally, the experiment works, turning a finger-length creature into a monster, able to climb tall buildings and devour humans with a snap of its jaws. The snake escapes from its tank during a scuffle involving Vurkel’s hip-hop roommates:Pinball (Motown Maurice), Beez Neez (Tarkan Dospil), Neon (Aurelia Michael) and Cam (Ricky Flowers Jr.). Somehow, the musicians get it into their collective noggins that they can score a record deal, if they can rid Compton of the beast. Towards the end, as the snake wraps itself around the city’s tallest building in pursuit of a redheaded gangsta wannabe (Arielle Brachfeld), fighter jets are called in to destroy it. Not possessing King Kong’s giant mitts, the snake is unable to protect itself. Snake Outta Compton might appeal to stoners, but, as it’s rated “R,” the kids who might be inspired to make creature features of their own won’t be able to watch it. Of course, they won’t.

A few months ago, I reviewed a limited-edition release of John Landis’ Schlock, which somehow found its way from Germany to L.A. Virtually the same package is now available through normal channels, via Arrow Video. While it easily qualifies as a movie that’s so bad it’s funny, Schlock occasionally hints at the potential for greatness of its writer/director John Landis, whose next four directorial credits would be The Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House, The Blues Brothers and Trading Places. In it, the mighty prehistoric ape, Schlocktropus, has emerged from hiding to embark on a full-scale rampage across a quiet southern Californian suburb. The police are baffled … the army is powerless … the body count is rising. But when Schlocktropus encounters a kindly blind woman (Eliza Garrett), who sees beyond his grotesque visage – perhaps in a homage to Frankenstein — the homicidal ape is presented with a chance at redemption. Shot over 12 days on a barely-there budget, Schlock not only launched Landis’ career, but also that of legendary makeup-effects artist Rick Baker. The Arrow package boasts a 4K restoration from the original camera negative; commentary by Landis and Baker; a new video interview with author and critic Kim Newman; “Birth of a Schlock,” a 2017 interview with Landis; an archival interview with cinematographer Bob Collins; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys; and an illustrated collector s booklet, with new writing on the film by Joe Bob Briggs.

Time Life: The Best of the Three Stooges
It being Halloween-planning season, I wonder how many parents of triplets have ever considered dressing their little trick-or-treaters as Larry, Moe and Curly. Or, in the event of quintuplets, Shemp and Curly Joe, as well. None, perhaps, but it’s still a cool idea. Back in the day, however, if any Stooges-obsessed dad had proposed such a thing, no mom in her right mind would go along with it. For more than a half-century, how one felt about the antics of Larry Fine, Moe Howard, Curly Howard and Shemp Howard pinpointed the differences between how men and women defined comedy. And, to answer your question before it’s asked, Joe Besser and Curly Joe DeRita’s contributions, while appreciated, are still largely discounted by purists. The same parents’ groups that lobbied against violence in comic books and the spread of rock ’n’ roll among white, Christian youths, tried mightily to temper the Stooges’ use of poking, smacking, slapping and bonking to prove their points. By this time, of course, the syndicated shorts had become staples of television stations in need of a quick, inexpensive ratings boost, and millions of kids savored every “nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.” Obviously, the aggrieved parents hadn’t taken into account the educational value of the “Swinging the Alphabet” segment, from “Violent Is the Word for Curly” (1938). It remains an unforgettable teaching aid. The latest collection of shorts from Time Life, “The Best of the Three Stooges,” includes all 87 of the Columbia Pictures two-reelers produced between 1934 and 1945, as well as 28 shorts featuring the independent work of Shemp, Joe Besser and Curly Joe DeRita, three feature films, a 2000 biopic (exec-produced by Mel Gibson), animated cartoons; a memory book and two DVDs featuring the nine-part “Hey Moe! Hey Dad!” documentary series, with rarely seen footage, home movies and photos.

The Big Lebowski: 20th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Get Shorty: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Neither of these wonderful comedies suffer from underexposure on DVD or Blu-ray. In fact, the only difference most previous owners and renters will notice from earlier editions will be the improved visual quality of Get Shorty – it’s been remastered from a new 4K transfer — and The Big Lebowski’s 4K UHD/HDR visual presentation and audio boost to DTS:X and DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1. Both movies look and sound better than they ever have, a fact that will only be relevant to fans with the appropriate playback units. The excellent bonus packages – on “Big Lebowski,” it’s on the enclosed Blu-ray disc – have been ported over from special editions released in 2011. Personally, I don’t think there’s much more to say about either film – including the worthwhile bonus material — except to note the improved technical values. And, in case any newcomers are wondering, I can vouch for the fact that Get Shorty and The Big Lebowski both hold up well after repeated viewings. The first season of Epic’s spinoff TV series, “Get Shorty,” was released on DVD in August.

Saved by the Bell: The Complete Collection
When it comes to boxed sets of television series, it always pays to read the fine print on the package, as well as the fan blogs. Such descriptives as “complete,” “ultimate,” “best” and “rare” are thrown around so carelessly that they become meaningless. The same applies for collections of songs and the work of individual artists, which tend to be divided by labels, studios and partnerships. The beloved teen sitcom, “Saved by the Bell,” went through so many permutations in its 11-year tenure, including “Good Morning, Miss Bliss,” “The College Years” and “The New Class” – that the new Shout!Factory compilation, “Saved by the Bell: The Complete Collection,” must be considered alongside the 2013 “Complete Collection,” released by Lionsgate. At the time, purists complained that it was a tad short of “complete.” Technically, the Shout compilation is missing “The New Class” spinoff, which ran for seven seasons and 143 episodes, from 1993 to 2000. Image Entertainment released all seven seasons of the show, in 2005, but they’ve since been discontinued and are out of print. “Saved by the Bell: The Complete Collection” includes 118 episodes from “Good Morning, Miss Bliss,” “Saved by the Bell” and “Saved by the Bell: The College Years”; both feature films; new documentaries, “Past Times at Bayside High: Making ‘Saved by the Bell’” and “Bayside’s Greatest Hits: The Music of ‘Saved by the Bell’”; vintage featurettes, “Saturday Morning: From Toons to Teens,” “It’s Alright: Back to the Bell” and “The First of Its Class: From Sit-Com to Icon”; audio commentaries; photo galleries; and a16-page episode guide. For now, it will have to do.

The DVD Wrap: Ant-Man/Wasp, Whitney, Boundaries, BuyBust, Down a Dark Hall, Reprisal, Gen Wealth, 8 Hours Don’t Make a Day … More

Thursday, October 18th, 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Blu-ray/4K UHD
With the elevation of Hope van Dyne to the superhero status once accorded her mother and her uneasy teaming with the newly domesticated Scott Lang, Ant-Man and the Wasp, can be enjoyed as both a screwball fantasy and palate-cleanser between weightier MCU episodes. That’s because the strong-willed Hope (Evangeline Lilly) has been asked by her father, Dr. Hank Pym/Ant-Man (Michael Douglas), to put aside her differences with the former thief (Paul Rudd) to rescue Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the quantum realm, the microverse into which she disappeared 30 years earlier. To accomplish this seemingly impossible task, they’ll be required to don the suits developed by Pym that transform them from mere mortals into shape-shifting superheroes. Hope has little use for Lang, who’s been cooling his heels in house arrest for his role in skirmishes between the Avengers and Team Captain America, in Captain America: Civil War (2016). (In Marvel mythology, Lang stole Pym’s Ant-Man gear to save his daughter, Cassandra, from a heart condition.) When he isn’t wearing the suit, Scott is a regular dad, with goofball tendencies, especially suit to Rudd’s schtick. While confined to house arrest, he’s torn between the responsibilities he’s assumed as both a superhero and a father. Mere days before his sentence is due to expire, Scott receives a message from the sub-atomic quantum realm that leads him to believe Janet is alive, but living on borrowed time. This comes as very good news to Pym and Hope, who, once estranged, are living in self-imposed exile. Got that? You can’t tell the players in the MCU without a scorecard.

Long story, short: Pym asks Scott and Hope to don the uniforms and risk their lives in the perilous rescue mission. Before that can happen, however, they must acquire a part needed to reactivate the “quantum tunnel” from black-market dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins). Burch, who’s come to understand the financial value of Pym’s research, double-crosses them. Even then, they’re required to overcome the efforts of Ava Starr/Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a molecularly unstable force  zapping Janet of her remaining energy, while convincing Pym’s former partner (Laurence Fishburne) to lead them to their lab, which Ghost miniaturized. Once this is accomplished, Ant-Man and the Wasp begins to resemble a delightfully conceived homage to Fantastic Voyage (1966), TRON and Innerspace (1987), with all the bells and whistles available to director Peyton Reed’s team of CGI technicians. Ant-Man and Wasp’s relationship also evolves into something fans of The Thin Man and Mr. & Mrs. Smith might recognize, with dialogue inspired, as well, by Elmore Leonard. This aspect, alone, increases the appeal of Ant-Man and the Wasp for adults. Naturally, room is left for a second sequel or prequel, as a stand-alone or an extension of The Avengers.  Depending on the store from which you’re likely to purchase the DVD/Blu-ray/4K/digital edition, Ant-Man and the Wasp is available in volumes that vary primarily in the elaborateness of their packaging and collectability. The digital and Blu-ray releases include several worthwhile behind-the-scenes featurettes; an introduction from Reed; deleted scenes, outtakes and a blooper reel. The digital release also features a look at the role concept art plays in bringing the various MCU films to life and a faux commercial for Online Close-Up Magic University. The excellent 4K UHD version is enhanced by a bone-crunching 7.1 Dolby Digital Plus audio track.

Whitney: Blu-ray
Although the tabloid press exploited Whitney Houston’s well-known troubles with the same relish it typically reserves for the Clintons, UFOs and OJ, the details revealed in Kevin Macdonald’s exhaustive bio-doc, Whitney, carry an unexpected punch. Comparison to the tragedy of Michael Jackson are inevitable, right down to the roles played by fathers and other family members, who leeched off her fame and enabled her addictions. Like Jackson, Houston’s demise can be traced to problems that began in childhood and were exacerbated by adults who recognized her God-given talent and were quick to take advantage of it. They encompassed race, class, religion and sexuality, as well as greed, predatory capitalism, a bad marriage and deep insecurity. While her mother, Cissy, and aunts, Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, were show-biz veterans, Whitney was allowed to make the same mistakes that have claimed the lives and careers of countless other gifted performers. In surprisingly candid interviews, Houston’s brothers admit to introducing her to marijuana and cocaine and, then, while entrusted with protecting her from outsiders, abdicating their responsibility to contain the damage. Her husband, Bobby Brown, is also interviewed here. While admitting to certain obvious mistakes, he refuses to discuss the addiction to drugs and alcohol that made her so desperate for help.

Neither is the fickleness of her fan base ignored. After propelling her almost instant rise to superstardom, they allowed themselves to be swayed by self-serving accusations that she’d sold out to commercial (white) interests. Just as quickly, they jumped back on her bandwagon. Whitney doesn’t neglect the gifts of music and personality that made her an international sensation. They’re obvious in every video clip. Macdonald was accorded exceptional access to home movies, news clips and other archival material in which her voice is showcased on pop, R&B and gospel material. The list of people interviewed also includes Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Clive Davis,  L.A. Reid, Debra Martin Chase and Kevin Costner, her co-star in The Bodyguard (1992). The saddest section of the film, perhaps, is reserved for Houston and Brown’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina, who probably should have been taken away from the couple when it became apparent that they were incapable of raising a child who wasn’t destined to follow in their footprints. Like her mother, who died on February 11, 2012, at 48, Bobbi Kristina would be found face-down in a bathtub at her Georgia home, on January 31, 2015. Six months later, the 22-year-old reality-show personality and singer died after being taken off life support. The disc adds commentary with producer Simon Chinn and Macdonald, as well as a Motion Photo Gallery, featuring images courtesy of Houston’s estate.

In what may be the most demographically incorrect comedy of the year, veteran geezers Christopher Plummer, Christopher Lloyd and Peter Fonda continually steal the spotlight from such talented co-stars as Vera Farmiga, Bobby Cannavale, Kristen Schaal and 15-year-old Scottish newcomer Lewis MacDougall. The only white-bearded old-timer missing is Donald Sutherland. This isn’t to say that the youngsters aren’t up to the challenge, however. These guys have been stealing scenes for 40 years, now, and any movie in which there’s generational conflict between old hippies, new agers and precocious teens is going to favor the characters who look the most comfortable in their roles. Farmiga plays Laura, a determinedly quirky single mother, who’s never met a stray animal she hasn’t tried to rescue and rehabilitate. Sadly, she can’t see beyond daddy issues so severe that she married a ne’er-do-well (Cannavale) cut from the same cloth as her reprobate father, Jack (Plummer). Not only has her son, Harry, been expelled from his Seattle public school for being completely out of step with the rest of the student body, but Jack is being kicked out of his retirement home for such “side issues” as growing killer marijuana on the facility’s grounds. There are private schools that cater to Henry’s idiosyncrasies, but they’re out of Laura’s price range.

Desperate, she agrees to rescue her father, who claims to be dying of cancer, in exchange for the tuition money. The rub is that Jack insists on being driven from L.A. to the Pacific Northwest, in a car whose trunk contains $200,000 in pre-packaged pot he intends to sell to customers – including laid-back codgers played by Lloyd and Fonda — on the trip north. Although Henry reluctantly agrees to run interference for his grandfather, Laura is kept in the dark until it’s too late to change direction. If an aura of overfamiliarity hangs over the narrative throughout most of the journey, the actors keep it from drifting into cliché. In a bonus making-of featurette, writer/director Shana Feste (Country Strong) acknowledges that Boundaries was inspired by people she’s known in her life and traumas she’s endured. That she was able to wring as much humor from her memories as she does here is admirable. Like Sutherland and Helen Mirren’s not dissimilar road-trip dramedy, The Leisure Seeker (2017), Boundaries works as well on the small screen, as it would have in theaters … if anyone had given them a shot beyond a limited release.

BuyBust: Blu-ray
Apart from the occasional natural disaster, the biggest news emanating from the Philippines in the last few years has been President Rodrigo Duterte’s declaration of an all-out war against drug pushers and virtual elimination of penalties for vigilantism. Since the policy was announced, on June 30, 2016, estimates on the death toll range from government’s 4,200 (April 30, 2018), to 12,000 by news organizations and activist groups, to 20,000 by opposition politicians. Included are dozens of children, untold numbers of innocent bystanders, and victims of everyday police brutality and vendettas. Apparently, the public has begun to rethink its enthusiasm for the slaughter, but it’s far easier to elect a tyrant than to remove him from office. It’s impossible to watch co-writer/director Erik Matti’s absolutely riveting thriller, BuyBust, without at least considering the ramifications of the draconian policy. If Matti had set his movie in any other Southeast Asian country than the Philippines, it would have been greeted as a genre picture that supplanted the usual clichés with non-stop, hard-core action. By the halfway point of the 127-minute shoot-’em-up, Matti’s subtext begins to reveal itself. Politics aside, however, Buybust can be enjoyed by action junkies and fans of Hong Kong-style cop thrillers. Manila is second to none when it comes to ideal settings for mindless violence and poverty-driven crime.

The petite Australian/Filipino superstar Anne Curtis (In Your Eyes) plays against type as the no-nonsense anti-narcotics operative Nina Manigan, whose entire squad was sacrificed in a drug raid compromised by dirty cops. Anxious to avenge the loss, Nina joins another group of specialists about to raid a cartel stronghold in the middle of a teeming Manila slum. She isn’t reluctant about airing her belief that one of the group’s leaders may be a traitor, but, as an outsider, she’s ignored. Sure enough, the intricately choreographed raid goes haywire in the most violent way possible. When the cartel’s elusive kingpin escapes, the firefight spreads through the barrio, where, inevitably, locals get caught in the crossfire. When a popular resident is killed, the citizens decide that they’re tired of being victimized by politicians and criminals. The rebellion forces the agents to fight their way out of the maze … or die trying. By confining the action to a claustrophobic staging area — at night, with carnival lights providing most of the illumination and shadows — Matti rachets up the kind of suspense that comes with not knowing from which direction the next bullet, blade or grenade is likely to come. And that includes viewers, as much as the on-screen combatants. The thing is, too, that the violence never feels gratuitous, unnecessary or forced, any more than it did in The Wild Bunch. Bonus features include a making-of featurette and panel discussion from the 2018 ComicCon.

Down a Dark Hall: Blu-ray
Blackwood Boarding School, the setting for Rodrigo Cortés’ modern Gothic thriller, Down a Dark Hall, exists in the same scholastic universe as the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning and Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It’s the school of last resort for five teenage girls, who’ve worn out their welcomes both at home and their previous high schools. To her surprise, Katherine “Kit” Gordy (AnnaSophia Robb) is wooed by a Blackwood teacher, Dr. Heather Sinclair (Jodhi May), as if she were a star athlete being recruited by Notre Dame or Stanford. Kit has no idea why anyone would want her to attend their school, but it’s far enough away from home to pique her interest. She’s greeted there by the compassionate teacher, Sinclair, and the school’s spooky disciplinarian, Mrs. Olonsky (Rebecca Front), and shown to her room. The next day, Kit meets the school’s dean, Madame Duret — Uma Thurman, in Morticia Addams drag — and the other four girls who comprise the student body. At first, the girls resemble dozens of other juvenile delinquents we’ve met in movies about troubled youths. Gradually, though, Cortés not only reveals each of the students’ well-hidden talents, but why they were chosen to attend such an elite institution, in the first place.

Madame Duret expects their individual strengths, as nurtured by the school’s similarly off-putting teachers, to compensate for any headaches they cause in the classrooms. And, indeed, they’re a handful. It isn’t until several not completely unexpected appearances by apparitions – yes, down a dark hallway – that Kit is prompted to explore the nooks and crannies of the mansion. Among the things she discovers is an uncanny similarity between the works of art being executed by her classmates and paintings already hanging on the school’s walls and music echoing through the hallways. Down a Dark Hall is based on Lois Duncan’s 1974 YA novel of the same title. Its PG-13 rating feels appropriate to the material, whose scares aren’t likely to raise goosebumps on anyone older than 17. That said, the Galicia-born Cortés has demonstrated his horror chops on Buried (2010), Red Lights (2012) and The Contestant (2007), and does a nice job here building the tension and allowing the young actors — Isabelle Fuhrman, Victoria Moroles, Taylor Russell, Rosie Day – to push the limits of their characters. The Blu-ray adds “Welcome to Blackwood: Venturing Down a Dark Hall” and a deleted scene.

Reprisal: Blu-ray
Don’t you hate it when you’ve just enjoyed watching a movie, only to discover that nearly every review on is red-flagged as being a piece of cinematic crap? I do. That, however, is why such concepts as “guilty pleasures” and “redeeming qualities” have found traction among viewers whose opinions aren’t always in synch with egghead critics. In the 11 films in which Bruce Willis has appeared since Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014), the only one green-lit on Metacritic has been M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, in which he made an uncredited role. The other 10 received scores that were consistently on the red end of the spectrum. I suspect that the critics polled were as disappointed with the former A-lister’s choice of projects as his performances in them. That, and a feeling of acute been-there/seen-it. Willis isn’t the only actor whose name has become associated with hit-and-performances in genre films destined for straight-to-DVD purgatory, but he may be the one who’s fallen the greatest distance. If, however, his name on a cover or poster helps a young filmmaker catch a break in the marketplace, well, that falls well short of being a crime.

Even if Willis doesn’t appear to exert much more than normal effort in Reprisal, an urban heist thriller that, in any case, belongs to Frank Grillo, I had no trouble staying with the Cincinnati-set flick. Some of the credit for that goes to Willis, who doesn’t look out of place as a retired cop who’s still addicted to crime-solving. In Brian A. Miller’s third collaboration with Willis, Grillo plays a bank manager – something he could never pass for one in real life – who’s haunted by a robbery in which a co-worker was killed by a curiously well-prepared lone gunman (Johnathon Schaech). Fortuitously, his neighbor, James, takes an interest in the crime and volunteers to help Jacob overcome his guilt and the suspicions of investigating officers. Together, they pin down the location of the gunman, whose pattern somehow manages to stymie the police and feds. If it weren’t for the inclusion of the thief’s seriously ill father and Jacob’s diabetic daughter, you could guess the rest. What elevates Reprisal over Willis’ previous collaborations with Miller — The Prince (2014) and Vice (2015) – are two exciting shootouts, which take up lots of time and offer some unexpected twists. Miller also makes good use of Cincinnati, a city that looks great from above and offers all the advantages of, say, Atlanta, Memphis and Toronto. Playing a homemaker, ex-Miss USA Olivia Cuspo seems a tad too glamorous to settle for living in Midwestern city known primarily for it baseball team and chili. The Blu-ray adds interviews and making-of material.

Generation Wealth
In one way or another, all of Lauren Greenfield’s documentaries have dealt with excessive behavior that’s as American as apple pie, unchecked materialism and gluttony. The titles say it all: Thin (2006), Kids + Money (2008), Fashion Show (2010), The Queen of Versailles (2012), Bling Dynasty (2016) and, her latest, Generation Wealth, which is virtual summation of her life’s work. It complements Greenfield’s 504-page monograph of the same title, which was published last year by Phaidon Press. (Her other photo collections include “Girl Culture” and “Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood.”) For those of us who grew up without the financial privileges – and demands – of the Kardashians, Trumps, Hiltons and Kennedys, the images shared in Generation Wealth are nearly as freakish as anything by Diane Arbus: wealthy Chinese women being taught how to slice and eat a banana in polite company; 6-year-old beauty queens; a former porn star, who filmed her own a suicide attempt after money failed to buy her happiness; a former Harvard classmate who did buy happiness, but forgot to pay taxes on it; women addicted to shopping for expensive accessories; and the whims of Russian plutocrats.

Greenfield also reveals a major disclaimer along the way: one of the reasons that she’s been able chronicle the pathologies of the rich and famous is her own family’s proximity to America’s ruling class. She comes from wealth and continues to enjoy the benefits of a great education and access to many of the things savored by her subjects, and it informs her work. Moreover, the filmmaker doesn’t appear willing to deny her family members the same hideous lifestyle as the more fortunate students in “Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood.” Her sons, for example, followed in her privileged footsteps by attending Santa Monica’s famed Crossroads High School, whose student body is largely comprised of the sons and daughters of Los Angeles’ artistic, political and business elite. Nepotism is a hardly foreign concept for its graduates, no matter their GPA.  If Generation Wealth doesn’t cut nearly as deep as The Queen of Versailles – which demonstrates the power of hubris to level the playing field, even among the filthy rich – it does provide plenty of escapist envy that comes with watching rich people acting stupid.

Dust 2 Glory: Blu-ray
With his wild-and-woolly 2005 documentary Dust to Glory, Dana Brown took a break from his genetically encoded pursuit of perfect waves and endless summers, with a detour into the world of off-road racing, another pastime Californians hold near and dear to their hearts. His instincts led him to the annual Baja 1000 which, since 1968, has been run from Ensenada to La Paz, and is considered the Indy 500 and Le Mans of dirt racing. Even so, the event wasn’t all that well-known outside of Mexico and the American Southwest, where such outdoor motorsports can be practiced 52 weeks a year. That changed when ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” sent Jim McKay to cover the 1968 event – as well as Figure 8 stock-car racing and demolition derbies — and it began attracting such well-known gearheads as Mickey Thompson, Indy 500-winner Parnelli Jones, actors James Garner and Steve McQueen and drag-racer Don “The Snake” Prodhumme. At the time, dirt racing attracted roughly the same amount of attention outside California as surfing, before Dana’s dad, Bruce, introduced the sport to people outside Hawaii and SoCal in his breakthrough 1966 doc, The Endless Summer (1966). (OK, the Beach Boys helped, too.) In 1971, Bruce took a detour of his own, with On Any Sunday, which focused on the rough-and-tumble world of motorcycle racing. (It was financed by McQueen.)

The Baja 1000 doesn’t discriminate against motorcycles and dirt bikes, any more than it refuses entrance to converted dune buggies, ATVs, trophy-trucks and VW Beetles, which have proven surprisingly adept at finishing the course. In Dust to Glory, Dana Brown followed his father’s folksy approach by focusing on the courage, spunk and dubious sanity of men and women – young, old and in-between – who would challenge a dusty and boulder-strewn course that burros would avoid, especially in summer. In 2014, Dana also updated his dad’s motorcycle doc with On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter. The difference between these movies and Dana’s Dust 2 Glory is that the latter was made in association with off-road racing’s sanctioning body, SCORE International, and the BCII production company, which is developing shows on dirt racing for the fledgling El Rey Network. Unless there’s something sinister going on behind the scenes that isn’t mentioned in Dust 2 Glory, it doesn’t look as if Brown veered more than a few degrees off the path established by his father. The people we meet are interesting and open about their passion, without being extraordinary in ways that don’t involve building cars and racing. The cinematography, as usual, is outstanding. And, the rugged Baja 1000 course is as compelling a character as any in movies about sports. The Blu-ray adds interviews with Dana Brown and his father, who passed away last December, at 80.

City Slickers: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Billy Crystal was riding pretty high in the saddle when he starred in Ron Underwood’s charming fish-out-of-water comedy, City Slickers (1991), alongside Bruno Kirby, Daniel Stern and, of course, Jack Palance. He was coming off When Harry Met Sally (1989), Throw Momma From the Train (1987) and The Princess Bride (1987), and had co-hosted Comic Relief, hosted two Academy Awards ceremonies and risked overexposure as a frequent guest on late-night talk shows. If the rest of the 1990s weren’t all that kind to him, movie-wise, he would bounce back in 1999, with Analyze This, playing an insecure mob boss’ psychiatrist. (Last year’s Funny or Die video short, City Slickers in Westworld, is better than almost everything in City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold.) Putting comedians in unlikely situations and making their lives miserable, at least until the path is laid to a happy ending, had been a Hollywood staple since The Gold Rush (1925), when Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp found himself out of food and out of luck in the Klondike. In City Slickers, three longtime friends come to the collective realization that they’re not getting any younger and had better do something quick to recharge their batteries or be miserable for the rest of their lives. They decide to try their luck at a working dude ranch that turns disgruntled middle-aged dudes – and a woman (Helen Slater), who’s been stood up by her boyfriend – into reasonable facsimiles of cowboys.

Writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel don’t waste any time testing the collective chutzpah of Mitch (Crystal), Ed (Kirby) and Phil (Stern), by putting them on horses and shoving them into the middle of a cattle drive. The seen-it-all trail boss, Curly (Palance), looks as if he might have taught Rowdy Yates how to ride and rope and shoot, before retiring to the ranch. As befits a deeply chiseled old-timer in movies in need of adult supervision, Curly exudes instantly identifiable smarts and love for a way of life that no longer exists. After scaring the city slickers with his austere presence, he singles out Mitch to impart his wisdom. In addition to having to put up with the bullying of a couple of ranch hands young enough to be their sons, the wet-behind-their-ears wannabes are required to accustom themselves to sleeping under the stars, eating beans from a can and drinking coffee unenhanced by whipped cream and steamed milk. The other guests are a mixed bag of out-of-shape professionals and city folk, like themselves. Slater’s Bonnie Rayburn provides the boys excuses to act chivalrous and stupid, in equal measure. The big test comes when the weather turns bad, the rivers swell and the cows spook. Crystal’s highpoint arrives when Curly demands he help deliver a calf and, when its mother dies giving birth, serve as its surrogate nurturer. City Slickers was largely shot in northern New Mexico, which hasn’t changed much in the last 200 years, and is made very easy on the eyes via a new 4K remaster. Among the bonus features are commentary with Underwood, Crystal and Stern; deleted scenes; and featurettes “Back in the Saddle: City Slickers Revisited,” “Bringing in the Script: Writing City Slickers,” “A Star Is Born: An Ode to Norman” and “The Real City Slickers.” I would have enjoyed seeing Palance doing one-armed pushups, again, while accepting his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Maybe I missed it.

My Little Pony: The Movie: 35th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
I’m not at all sure how the packagers of “My Little Pony: The Movie: 35th Anniversary Edition” came up with 35 as the number to celebrate on the cover of this two-movie combo pack. It’s only been three years – and change – since “My Little Pony: The Movie: 30th Anniversary Edition” was released into DVD, ahead of the 2017 launch of Lionsgate’s animated musical/fantasy film, also titled My Little Pony: The Movie, which was based on the 2010 relaunch series, “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.” The 1986 original featured such voicing luminaries as Tony Randall, Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman, Madeline Kahn, Rhea Perlman and Cloris Leachman, while the sequel’s guest stars included Emily Blunt, Michael Peña, Liev Schreiber, Taye Diggs, Zoe Saldana, Kristin Chenoweth, Uzo Aduba and Sia. The series’ principal voice cast — Tara Strong, Ashleigh Ball, Andrea Libman, Tabitha St. Germain, Nicole Oliver and Cathy Weseluck – also contribute their talents. The first picture opens at Dream Castle, where the Little Ponies are preparing a festival to celebrate the first day of spring. From the Volcano of Gloom, the evil witch Hydia watches the event via her cauldron and, disgusted by the frivolity, tells her daughters that they must ruin it. Hydia’s daughters, Draggle and Reeka, are inexperienced at causing mischief and fail utterly at ruining the festival. The girls return to the Volcano of Gloom in disgrace. Desperate to please Hydia, they conjure a pool of sentient purple lava that gleefully buries Ponyland.

The sequel adds several new characters to the same basic conspiracy, in addition to songs. Just for the historical record: in the early 1980s, hoping to attract little girls to its line of toys, Hasbro borrowed from the toys-to-movies formula initiated by Transformers and Masters of the Universe, featuring He-Man and Skeletor. Its first girl-friendly action figure was My Pretty Pony, which was introduced to no great acclaim in 1981. The next year, the brand was changed to My Little Pony. In addition to the movie, the line of toys spawned two animated television series and merchandise. By 1992, the fad had petered out in the U.S., and Hasbro put My Little Pony on hiatus until 1997. It would be discontinued, again, in 1999, only to be revived successfully in 2003. It remains a big-seller here and around the world. Even so, in 2018, the number, 35, feels a bit arbitrary. No matter. The new four-disc package includes the original 1986 movie — on Blu-ray for the first time — and the 2017 sequel. It adds a deleted scene, an “Equestria Girls” short; the featurettes, “Baking With Pinkie Pie,” “Making Magic with the Mane 6 and Their New Friends,” “The Journey Beyond Equestria” and “Hanazuki: Full of Treasures”; and the music video, “I’m the Friend You Need.”

Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
During his hyper-productive, if sadly abbreviated 16-year creative career, Rainer Werner Fassbinder developed a reputation for being the enfant terrible of the New German Cinema. Outside Germany, his famously unruly personality and controversial pronouncements frequently overshadowed his contributions to the cinema, theater and television, as a writer, director, actor and provocateur. Before Fassbinder died of an overdose of cocaine and barbiturates, in 1982, the 37-year-old multi-hyphenate made 44 films and TV dramas and directed 15 plays. There were more credits, but who’s counting? The director to whom his work was most compared was Douglas Sirk, whose melodramas explored post-war American attitudes toward race, sex, sexual orientation, politics and class. Apart from any of his stand-alone films, Fassbinder’s work on German television has already stood the test of time. His 1980 masterpiece, “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” is a 14-part, 15½-hours-long West German television miniseries, adapted from the Alfred Döblin novel of the same title. It remains highly respected by filmmakers and critics, inside and outside Germany, even though, at first, it was difficult to find in clean, binge-ready editions. Fassbinder adapted novels by Daniel F. Galouye and Oskar Maria Graf for two-part television presentations: World on a Wire (1973) and The Stationmaster’s Wife (1977). But, in 1971, as his reputation was solidifying, a left-leaning German public-television network commissioned Fassbinder to make a working-class family drama, based on the lives of a group of skilled toolmakers and their families in Mönchengladbach and Cologne. Early in the series, the workers are arbitrarily denied a promised performance bonus. Following the death of their foreman, the productive assistant foreman, Franz (Wolfgang Schenck), applies to take over his position, but it’s given to an outsider.

The decisions, which the workers take as a slap to the face, will trigger two parallel storylines and impact all the characters introduced in the first of five episodes. Among them, are the resourceful worker, Jochen (Gottfried John), and his secretary girlfriend, Marion (Hanna Schygulla), who want to marry, but can’t see beyond their limited financial situation and the bad advice of friends and family. Jochem’s sister, Monika (Renate Roland), is unhappily married to the strict disciplinarian Harald (Kurt Raab), who we’ll witness slapping their daughter for laughing at the dinner table. Jochen and Monika’s father is retiree, who takes out his anger on everyone within earshot, even though its wasted on his kids, grandchild and wife, who patiently absorbs his outbursts, knowing they’re part of the burden of being a German housewife. When the series begins, the wonderfully drawn Grandma Krüger (Luise Ullrich) is living with her family, but, out of the blue, finds a happily compliant boyfriend, Gregor (Werner Finck), and move in together. Together, they turn an abandoned storefront into neighborhood kindergarten – unauthorized, though it is – for neighborhood kids forced to play in the streets. Marion’s elitist co-worker, Fräulein Erlkönig (Irm Hermann), chides her for falling in love with a “worker” – a word she spits out like a curse – but ultimately will fall under the sway of Jochen’s pal, Rolf. Another co-worker falls for Monika, and wants to rescue her from Harald, but doesn’t know how to pull the trigger. The workers’ supervisor is portrayed as a bureaucrat, who despises his employees, while his boss is far more pragmatic when it comes to finding new avenues for revenues.

Whatever it was that network executives expected of “Eight Hours” – probably a “kitchen sink drama,” in which proletarian ideals are continually trampled by the bourgeoisie – it wasn’t what Fassbinder delivered. Instead, the mini-series dodged expectations by depicting social realities in West Germany with an open mind and compassion for characters who find false hope in schnapps, but come to understand that their real strength lies in the bonds formed by family … at home, at work and those of their friends. Fassbinder’s evenly paced, non-exploitative approach didn’t sit well with the channel’s white-collar executives, one of whom decided that “the series wasn’t realistic enough.” Neither were right-wing pundits pleased with his humanistic treatment of workers, who saw strength in numbers when it came to negotiating issues at work. In an interview published in 1973, Fassbinder explained, “What distinguishes Jochen und Marion and Grandma and Gregor and a few of the others from what people imagine workers to be like — and from the image sold on TV and elsewhere — is the fact that these characters have still not been beaten down.” Despite the large number of viewers drawn to the mini-series, the network decided to cut the number of episodes from eight to five and discontinue production. In doing so, it denied Fassbinder the opportunity to further clarify his views on German society in the early 1970s and how compromise and utopian visions have shelf lives of their own. Even so, “Eight Hours” was awarded West German television’s Adolf Grimme Prize for its concept. The Criterion Collection edition represents the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation’s terrific 2K digital restoration of the 470-minute, five-part series. Special features include a 2017 documentary directed by Juliane Maria Lorenz, featuring interviews with actors Hanna Schygulla, Irm Hermann, Wolfgang Schenck and Hans Hirschmüller; a new interview with film scholar Jane Shattuc; a fresh English subtitle translation; and an essay by scholar Moira Weigel.

Lifetime: Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance
Lifetime: Her Stolen Past
Acorn: East West 101: Series 3
Acorn: Sando: Series 1
Throughout her lifetime and well beyond the grave, Princess Diana has proved a godsend for the mass media, which continue to feast on her popularity, tragedies and legacy.  She’s been featured on the cover of People magazine 57 times … more than any other person in history. The editors wouldn’t commit such prized real estate to a single person unless it made financial sense to do so. Given the numbers attracted to the magazine’s coverage of Diana, it made sense for other publications to follow suit. The publications and networks were doubly blessed when her sons came of age, however, and they no longer had to rely on recycled photos, gossip and tiresome slaps at Charles and Camilla. When the princes started making headlines of their own – misbehaving, dating, flying helicopters, serving in Afghanistan and generally looking royal – the floodgates opened once again. Prince William’s marriage to Kate Middleton was covered with such intensity that the press even conspired to make the Duchess of Cambridge’s maid-of-honor, Pippa Middleton, a celebrity worth of blanket exposure in her own right. She just delivered a baby boy, don’t you know. This month, the media also made a star out of an obscure royal – Princess Eugenie – who would have to survive a nuclear attack on England to ascend to the throne. The even more recent news that Meghan Markle, Prince Harry’s bride, is pregnant has thrown the celebrity press into overdrive. Truth be told, however, the former American television actress has a backstory that differs markedly from the rest of the twits who bounce between weddings, baptisms, funerals, charity events and sporting events for the benefit of people who collect tea cups, lace doilies and commemorative magazines. Menhaj Huda’s “Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance” is far from the worst of the royal biopics that have landed in my mailbox, if only because part of the charm of the subjects’ relationship is the difference in their backgrounds and the prince’s willingness to be tamed by the older, African-American divorcée. Fresh faces Murray Fraser (“The Loch”) and Parisa Fitz-Henley (“Jessica”) do a nice job approximating the couple in the various stages of their off-and-on relationship and handling the media’s despicable coverage of their courtship period. Sure, it’s schmaltzy, but nothing beyond what one might expect from such a commercial undertaking. Even Prince Charles and Camilla are treated fairly. Personally, I prefer the snarky cutting-edge approach adopted by the E! Network dramedy series, “The Royals,” which also features two male heirs to the throne, while adding a cougar queen and her conniving brother-in-law (who couldn’t be more gay if wore a rainbow-colored toupee), a desperately horny princess, trashy options for the princes’ attention and various other deviants. Sort of sounds like the Kardashians.

I ran out of fingers and toes trying to count the number of suspense/romance/inspirational novels Lynette Eason has written for various Harlequin lines, including the Love Inspired Romance and Family Reunion series. I quit at 47. Neither do I know why her name isn’t attached to the made-for-cable potboiler, “Her Stolen Past,” whose Amazon Prime Video summary is practically identical to the one on the Amazon Books site. Since the 2014 book seems as if it were tailor-made for Lifetime, I wonder how many other Eason properties have been adapted without credit. (None shows up on The plot is pretty straight-forward, really. After her mother is murdered in a parking-lot mugging, her daughter, Sonya (Shanice Banton), discovers a mysterious birth certificate hidden among her records. An Internet search reveals that the name on the certificate matches that of a baby kidnaped years earlier from a church event. Sonya hires private detective Brandon Hayes – young and handsome, of course — to help her investigate any possible connection her mother may have had to the still-missing girl and if it might tie into her murder. The answer to both questions is: duh. After meeting the victim’s parents and brother, who are surprisingly antagonistic toward them, Sonya and Brandon become targets for the presumable killer. The woman who arranged Sonya’s adoption also turns up dead. Despite some rather pedestrian acting and staging, “Her Stolen Past” offers enough satisfying twists to satisfy fans of Lifetime and Harlequin. Judging from the images on the book covers, the protagonist of “Her Stolen Past” wasn’t written as African-American, but the substitution of mostly black characters isn’t an issue here.

Acorn’s “East West 101: Series 3” reprises the final season of a terrific Australian police drama, which ran from 2007 to 2011. Dozens of such cops-and-crime shows are released on video every month, some of the best arriving from foreign shores via streaming services and on DVD. Unlike American producers, who still haven’t figured out how to develop shows in which Muslims are portrayed without fear or favor. The only one that I can recall, HBO’s “The Night Of,” did an excellent job of depicting the kinds of issues facing Muslim Americans every day, while describing how difficult it sometimes is for law-enforcement officials to do their jobs, while protecting the civil rights of citizens whose customs, culture and religion are foreign to them. Even though “The Night Of” won a bunch of Primetime Emmy Awards and other honors, HBO has yet to commit to a second season. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the show was adapted from a British series, “Criminal Justice” (2008). “East West 101,” which doesn’t feel at all dated, was set around the Major Crime Squad in metropolitan Sydney. The title refers both to the clash of cultures between the western and eastern worlds, and the fact that Sydney’s eastern suburbs are affluent and Anglo-Saxon, while the western suburbs are of a lower socio-economic status and have large Middle Eastern populations. The same divide exists within the MCS, which is comprised of several male detectives who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and carry substantial chips on their shoulders. As Season Three opens, crack Muslim Detective Zane Malik (Don Hany) is determined to hand in his resignation and start a new, danger-free life with his family. That plan is upended when his wife and son are involved in a hit-and-run accident and Malik becomes obsessed with finding the car’s driver. Evidence connects the crash to the sophisticated robbery of an armored vehicle, which occurred a short time earlier and left four dead. As the police, led by Superintendent Patricia Wright (Susie Porter), investigate the robbery, Malik clashes with former army officer Neil Travis (Matt Nable). Travis is quick to blame the attack on Muslim extremists, but Malik suspects there is more to the case … and, of course, he’s right. Corruption and greed aren’t limited to one race, either. The binge-worthy series adds deleted scenes and an intricate behind-the-scenes look at the central heist scene and shootout.

Also, from Down Under, comes Acorn’s “Sando: Series 1,” a traditional sitcom with plenty of unconventional characters. The central figure is Australia’s discount-furniture queen, Victoria “Sando” Sandringham, whose boisterous commercials for Sando’s Warehouse can’t be avoided by anyone with a television. They feature members of her wildly eccentric family and the lame jingles of her soon-to-be-ex-husband. The series opens with a flashback to the wedding of her daughter, who, just as the priest is about to read the vows, learns that Victoria had an affair with her fiancé and she’s pregnant with his child. Almost simultaneously, Victoria loses the support of her cost-conscious board of directors, who freeze her assets. Ten years later, Victoria’s poised to get her revenge, but needs the help of her estranged family members, who miss being in the spotlight, if for only 60 seconds at a time. Laughter ensues when Victoria moves back into the family estate, with her illegitimate, mixed-race 10-year-son in tow, to keep the business from collapsing. (The boy is far brighter than his dimwitted adult half-brother, who aspires to be a standup comedian or magician.) “Sando” is cut from the same cloth as “Kath & Kim,” a completely off-the-wall mother/daughter comedy that was adapted for American audiences with Molly Shannon and Selma Blair in the lead roles.

Also, newly available from the Anglo-centric Acorn Media are the PBS/Channel 4 adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” (2000) and “800 Words: Season 3, Part 1,” an Australian/New Zealand co-production about a Sydney journalist who moves with his family to a remote community in New Zealand. The series, which airs here on PBS, has yet to be accorded a fourth season.

The DVD Wrapup: Prayer Before Dawn, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far, Angels Wear White, Rodin, Schiele, Witch Files, 3rd Night, Official Story, Iron Mask … More

Thursday, October 11th, 2018

A Prayer Before Dawn: Blu-ray
At a time when anyone with a cellphone can make a movie and distribute it on the Internet for the world to see, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to discover something truly new and different. Thousands of movies about boxing and wrestling have been made by Hollywood studios, alone. Typically, the fighters are in pursuit of fame, financial independence or personal redemption for past sins. The best of them compete at the highest levels of the industry for awards and box-office glory. The rest of them have found audiences, simply by conforming to clichés, convention and tropes. Today, of course, boxing and wrestling aren’t the only games in town. Women no longer are a novelty in the ring/octogon and martial-arts aren’t limited to kung fu and other Asian-based pastimes. Not to be left out of the action, WWE Studios continues to churn out genre pictures that mix well-known commercial actors with wrestlers from the company’s stable of “superstars” and “divas.” It often does so in collaborations with existing production and distribution companies. By sticking to the same routines and storylines that dictate the results of Smackdowns and other televised matches, audiences aren’t required to invest much sweat equity into the outcomes of straight-to-DVD flicks and animated features starring such actor/athletes as John Cena, Shawn Michaels The Miz, Randy Orton, Kane, Maryse Ouellet, Naomi. The distance between these movies and such classics as Raging Bull, Rocky, Million Dollar Baby, Requiem for A Heavyweight, The Wrestler and Fat City is roughly the same as the gap separating most of the comedies starring “Saturday Night Live” alums and those created by Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Harold Ramis and John Hughes.

The only reason I mention this is because of the release on DVD/Blu-ray of Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s A Prayer Before Dawn, an unapologetically brutal and emotionally taxing drama about survival within the confines of a Thai prison. It reminds me of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson (2008), in which a prisoner played by Tom Hardy turned a seven-year sentence for bank robbery into a 34-year bit, spent mostly in solitary confinement. Hardy also played an MMA fighter, who’s pitted against his estranged brother (Joel Edgerton) and their alcoholic father (Nick Nolte), in Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior (2011). I’d hate to see A Prayer Before Dawn get lost in the everyday shuffle of DVD/Blu-rays whose covers only promise more of the same old thing. Like Bronson, the protagonist here is based on an actual person, Billy Moore, and his book, “A Prayer Before Dawn: My Nightmare in Thailand’s Prisons.” The excellent British actor Joe Cole (“Peaky Blinders”) plays Moore, a troubled British national who travels to Thailand to find steady work and a comfortable lifestyle. After finding work as a Muay Thai boxer and stuntman, he becomes addicted to yaba (a.k.a., the “madness drug” and “Nazi speed”) and is convicted of possessing stolen goods and a firearm. The prison to which he’s sent is entirely populated – or, so it seems – by hard-core Thai criminals, who prey on the weak and trade in contraband, including cigarettes, drugs and sexual favors. Many, if not most of the inmates are adorned with elaborate tattoos that cover them from head to foot.

As evidenced in previous Thai prison movies, in which western tourists are jailed for attempting to transport drugs at the behest of people they meet in Bangkok or Phuket, the Chiang Mai facility in A Prayer Before Dawn is accurately described as a “hellhole.” The prisoners sleep on the floor, as if they’re sardines in a can. Privacy doesn’t exist, and corruption not only is accepted, but it’s enforced by gang leaders, guards, black-marketeers and administrators. It takes time for the seriously addicted and routinely beaten Moore – who can only guess at what he’s being told by fellow prisoners and guards — to convince the prison’s boxing coach to give him a shot to prove himself in the ring. If he succeeds, he’ll be allowed to room with the other fighters, at least, and eat a higher quality of what passes for food there. He also finds something resembling love in the person of his black-market contact, an attractive “lady boy.” Anyone who can remember Brad Davis in Midnight Express (1982), will see a lot of Billy Hayes in Moore, although the former’s only hope for survival was to escape the Turkish prison. In A Prayer Before Dawn, Moore would be lucky to survive long enough to be released in due time, but only if he makes the kick-boxing team and his battered body can withstand the punishment … something the prison doctor doesn’t think is possible. Adding to the verisimilitude is Sauvaire’s decision to cast men who had served time in Thai prisons; put Cole through months of extensive training; and have him spend time with the real Billy Moore and his family in Liverpool before shooting started. The climatic fight was filmed in the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center in the Philippines. Because few, if any punches are pulled, A Prayer Before Dawn isn’t a movie that can be enjoyed, exactly … certainly not by anyone who winces at cuts and bruises in traditional boxing movies. It is, however, a powerfully effective drama about survival under the most extreme circumstances. The Blu-ray adds featurettes, “Locked Inside the Walls: Making A Prayer Before Dawn” and “Billy Moore: In His Own Words.”

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot: Blu-ray
The title of Gus van Sant’s sometimes difficult, but always compelling portrait of quadriplegic artist John Callahan is taken from one of his cartoons, in which a mounted posse surrounds an empty wheelchair, left in the middle of a desert. The sheriff says, “Don’t worry, he won’t get far on foot.” It also provided the title for his first autobiography, published in 1990. The biopic might have just as easily been, “Will the Real John Callahan Please Stand Up?,” after his second “quasi-memoir,” released in 1998. Seven years later, Dutch filmmaker Simone de Vries made a documentary on Callahan, Touch Me Where I Can Feel. Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot opens before the 1972 accident that severed his spine and nearly killed him. He was 21 when it happened and already addicted to alcohol for nine years. Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) wasn’t driving his Volkswagen Bug the night it crashed into a utility pole, going somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 miles per hour. His designated driver (Jack Black) had been drinking all day, as well, and wound up with little more than a scratch. The Portland native, who could never get over the fact that he was adopted as an infant, was left paralyzed from the diaphragm down and lost the use of many of his upper-body muscles. Fortuitously, he could extend his fingers and eventually, after much therapy, hold a pen in his right hand. To draw, he guided his right hand slowly across a page with his left, producing rudimentary, even childlike images. As he gained more control of his hands, Callahan’s sketches began to reflect his jaundiced view of how people in the mainstream population reacted to men and women with severe handicaps and vice versa.

When he finally found outlets for the cartoons – including Portland’s alternative Willamette Weekly – their inky black humor disturbed able-bodied readers more than those with disabilities. It gave him a reputation for being politically incorrect and a butcher of sacred cows. They were compared to the work of such irreverent cartoonists as Charles Addams, Gahan Wilson, Charles Rodrigues and Gary Larson. “My only compass for whether I’ve gone too far is the reaction I get from people in wheelchairs, or with hooks for hands,” Callahan said in a 2010 interview in the New York Times. “Like me, they are fed up with people who presume to speak for the disabled. All the pity and the patronizing. That’s what is truly detestable.” Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot focuses on the turbulent years between the accident and his first real tastes of success. Because the accident did nothing to quell Callahan’s thirst for destructive quantities of booze, the film also concentrates on his reluctant embrace of Alcoholic Anonymous, its 12-step program and the people in his weekly small-group meetings. As powerful as Phoenix’s portrayal is here, it’s Jonah Hill’s depiction of group leader, Donny, that many viewers will find to be the most nuanced and moving. Donny, who bears a resemblance to the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson, operates outside the usual parameters of AA, opening his opulent home up to addicts and people with terminal illnesses, including Udo Kier. Once Callahan finally commits to following the 12-step approach, Donny’s unorthodox prodding keeps him from backsliding. I hope Hill and Phoenix are remembered at awards time. Rooney Mara is also very good as the woman who teaches Callahan that love is still an option for him. The Amazon Studios release was accorded limited distribution and consideration by critics. In addition to his memoirs and cartoon collections, two animated cartoon series have been based on Callahan’s cartoons: “Pelswick, a children’s show on Nickelodeon” and “Quads,” a Canadian-Australian co-production. The Blu-ray adds the featurettes “Inside the Accident” and “Inside the Hospital.”

Angels Wear White
This involving crime drama appears to have eluded the usual efforts of Chinese censors, whose job it is to prevent citizens and foreigners from seeing the blemishes in a society tightly controlled by Communist Party officials. Typically, movies that depict corruption, decay and overt sexuality are banned from exhibition in the PRC, and the better-known filmmakers don’t even bother to submit them to the board. They’re required to find traction on the international festival circuit before being accorded exposure in arthouses outside China. It’s remarkable that Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White, which could be read as an indictment of pervasive social injustice, collusion between police and politicians, male entitlement and the sexual abuse of young girls, was chosen to represent the country at the 2017 Venice Film Festival and 2019 Academy Awards. Qu’s roots in Chinese independent cinema may have suggested to censors that the film’s avoidance of lurid and sensationalistic depictions of crimes, along with a decidedly arty approach to the acting and visuals, guaranteed that the action-driven masses would avoid it like the plague … just as audiences around the world tend to do. Moreover, Angels Wear White demands patience and a willingness on the part of viewers to accept the deliberately paced narrative and characters’ reluctance to do the right thing. A little understanding of the location’s history doesn’t hurt, either. The film’s protagonist, Xiaomi (Wen Qi) cleans rooms in an upscale “love motel,” located in a provincial seaside town, near Hainan. The island, one of several in the far southeastern province, is being groomed as major destination for adult tourists – not just Chinese — attracted to the tropical climate, beaches, water sports, golf and other activities, as well as as an escape from the teeming, polluted urban centers.

Angels Wear White looks as if it were shot in the monsoon season, when tourism is down and the tawdry beach attractions – including a giant statue of Marilyn Monroe, her skirts swept up, as they were in The Seven Year Itch– are being repaired or removed. On the one night she subs for co-worker Lili (Peng Jing) at the front desk, Xiaomi observes a high-ranking district commissioner, with two pre-teen girls in tow, checking into the motel. Through surveillance monitors, Xiaomi sees him force himself into their room. Instinctively, she records everything with her iPhone. For fear of losing her job, however, she says nothing. Meanwhile, 12-year-old Wen (Zhou Meijun), one of the victims, becomes increasingly despondent and unruly at school. Concerned for her mental health, Wen’s parents are given reason to believe that she might have been raped, while drinking, at a party. A medical exam confirms their worst fear. On “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” Olivia Benson would have cut through the bureaucratic bullshit like a fork through Jello. Here, though, everyone from the bribe-paying hotel owner, to the doctors and parents’ female lawyer (Shi Ke), knows that the game is fixed. Xiaomi is culpable for watching the wrong monitor at the wrong time; Wen’s mother instinctively blames the girl for being in the wrong room with the wrong person at the wrong time; and the lawyer is powerless in a system where easily corrupted men make the rules. (And, yes, Chairman Mao and his last wife, Jiang Qing, probably are spinning in their graves right now, over the direction the revolution is heading.) Again, Qu succeeds in delivering her message on how women and children have been marginalized in today’s PRC, without resorting to polemics or blanketly tarring all men. As Qu, whose Black Coal, Thin Ice won the Golden Bear Award at the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival, told a reporter for Singapore’s Strait Times, “When everything is up for sale, how can a young girl find the right answer for herself and move forward? This has all gotten a lot more complicated.” This is not to say, however, that such incidents are non-existent outside China. Just ask Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who was punished by  Republican lawmakers for coming forward about her rape.

Rodin: Blu-ray
Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden
The cavalcade of movies about the lives of painters and sculptors continues apace this week, with eponymous biopics of Belle Époque artists Auguste Rodin and Egon Schiele. In recent years, we’ve seen noteworthy biopics and documentaries on Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, JMW Turner, Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Eva Hesse, Maud Lewis, Séraphine de Senlis, Paul Cézanne, Johannes Vermeer and the above-mentioned John Callahan. French sculptor Rodin’s most productive period overlapped with the emergence of Schiele, the Austrian painter who died in in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, his career only beginning to take shape. Rodin was wealthy and his work was work well-recognized during his lifetime, while Schiele’s paintings only began to sell in the year he died. Jacques Doillon’s Rodin and Dieter Berner’s Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden both reflect the men’s very different personalities and that of their cities. If you already appreciate their work, both films should appeal to your sense of curiosity, at least. Otherwise, they might come off as dry as an untouched canvas. On the plus side, for some viewers, anyway, the models spend most of their time on screen posing in the nude or changing their period clothing … in the interest of art, of course.

Anyone who’s seen Isabelle Adjani in Camille Claudel (1988) or Juliet Binoche in Camille Claudel 1915 (2013) will already know a lot about what goes on in Rodin. The film opens in Paris, 1880, when the 40-year-old sculptor (Vincent Lindon) finally receives his first state commission, “The Gates of Hell,” which will include “The Kiss” and “The Thinker.” Constantly working, he splits his time with his lifelong partner, Rose (Séverine Caneele), and his gifted student and mistress, Camille Claudel (Izïa Higelin), who will become his creative assistant, muse and a talented sculptor in her own right. Things turn ugly when they begin to compete for credit, patrons and even models, and Auguste brings the demanding Rose into their household. Claudel’s tragic fall isn’t part of Doillon’s story, as it is in “1915.” What’s most entertaining is the time Rodin spends outside the studio, with such high-profile personalities as Victor Hugo, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Cézanne, Octave Mirbeau, Claude Monet and Adèle Abruzzesi, one of his favorite models. The Cohen Media Blu-ray adds the half-hour, “Sculpting Rodin,” which offers interesting interviews with Doillon and author Véronique Mattiussi.

Berner’s aptly titled Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden opens in 1907 or 1908, when Schiele was beginning to assert himself outside the shadow of his mentor, Gustav Klimt, and he began to explore the human form and human sexuality. Some of his work merged Klimt’s decorative eroticism with figurative distortions that included elongations, deformities and graphic sexuality. Schiele’s self-portraits and nudes also heightened his profile. Here, the artist’s private life frequently takes precedent over his painting, with depictions of Schiele’s sordid relationship with his sister, Gerti (Maresi Riegner); fascination with the exotic dancer, Moa Mandu (Larissa Breidbach); longtime affair with Klimt’s former model Wally Neuzil (Valerie Pachner); and marriage of economic convenience to Edith Harms (Marie Jung). In 1912, Schiele and Wally move to a studio outside Vienna, where his life is further complicated by his questionable arrest – at least, in Berner’s eyes — for seducing a girl below the age of consent and sketches of her deemed pornographic. Even though he avoids prison, he can’t avoid being drafted into the war or having his breakout year interrupted by the Spanish flu. Newcomer Noah Saavedra’s portrayal of the playboy painter is more convincing than the story’s timeline, which feels squished, even within the 110-minute framework.

The Witch Files
The cover of this surprisingly enjoyable addition to the teen-witch subgenre carries a sticker that advises, “Rated Tween.” It doesn’t quite substitute for an actual MPAA rating, but it’s difficult to see how The Witch Files would qualify as anything higher or lower than PG-13. I’d probably dial it down to PG, but I don’t get a vote. Broken down to its individual parts, it’s easy to see how writer/director Kyle Rankin (Night of the Living Deb) was influenced by such teen faves as The Craft, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Mean Girls, “Bewitched,” The Blair Witch Project and The Breakfast Club. This isn’t to say that it’s transparently derivative or exploitative, however. If anything, The Witch Files reminds me of a pilot for a television series on the CW, Paramount Network, Disney Channel or MTV. While spending a dull detention period together, an unlikely gathering of teenage girls discovers one of their cohorts may or may not possess supernatural powers. Intrigued, they follow her into the local woods, where she harnesses the energy of witches who were persecuted by villagers hundreds of years ago. Realizing they’re now able to make every desire a reality, the girls form a coven. Before long, they not only have the entire school under their control, but they’re able to shoplift and walk out on lunch tabs under the eyes of the proprietors. They’re even able to convince a salesman at a local dealership that he signed off on a contract for an expensive sports car, without collecting a penny. Naturally, the girls abuse their gift by using it to harm the students who picked on them and do other things that attract the attention of local police, one of whom (Padgett Brewster) has a personal interest in witchcraft. Holly Taylor (“The Americans”) assumes the lead role, as a reporter for the school newspaper that’s assigned her to capture footage of the coven’s activities. At 20, Taylor easily passes for a high school senior, whose nerdy glasses and willingness to stick her nose into other kids’ affairs might cause problems with the ruling clique. Britt Flatmo (Super 8), Tara Robinson (“Criminal Minds”), Tayla Fernandez (“The King of the Sun”), Autumn Read and Adrienne Rose White (“Quirky Female Protagonist”) represent a cross-section of the school’s female population, while Valerie Mahaffey (“Young Sheldon”) and Stephanie Atkinson (“Island Zero”) play typically befuddled moms. The movie’s male cast members play key supporting roles, but they are overmatched by the effervescence of the girls. Oh, yeah, one of the girls is even shown riding a broomstick.

3rd Night
In his debut as writer/director/producer/editor, Aussie filmmaker Adam Graveley could be excused for throwing into 3rd Night everything he learned in college, studying advertising and design, and making films for business clients in Perth. If a kitchen sink had been available, he might have been forgiven for throwing it into the production, as well. At 72 minutes, however, there wasn’t much room in 3rd Night for frills or extraneous exposition. It helps, then, that Gravely based his thriller on themes that are as familiar to viewers as a Bugs Bunny cartoon. In it, an attractive young couple decides to escape the turmoil of city life and buy a home in the middle of an orchard, on the fringe of the Western Australian bush. It only takes a few hours for Megan (Jesse McGinn) and Jonathan (Robert Hartburn) to sense that someone or something is watching them. (No one in this type of film appears to have heard of curtains or shades.) Neither does it take much time for their cat, Nook, to go missing in the orchard. Unbeknownst to the couple, a father and son team of poachers, participating in a “rabbit cull,” have taken up residence in the orchard and are living off the land. While it’s easy to suspect the hunters of mistaking Nook for one of Bugs’ far-flung relatives and having the cat for dinner, it doesn’t square with the opening scene, in which a girl is dragged into the trees and presumably murdered by someone or something lurking in the orchard. Neither would it explain the hunters’ own suspicion that they’re being watched or how a series of warning letters is being left inside the house. And, that’s a good thing, because, otherwise, Megan and Jonathan continue to do the same dumb things everyone in their situation does in movies such as 3rd Night, like jogging alone through the orchard, taking showers with the windows open and wandering around the property, unarmed, looking for clues. As the story approaches the 60-minute mark, though, Graveley rachets up the atmosphere of dread to the point where he’s able to pull a rather large rabbit out of his hat. The loose ends aren’t long enough to spoil the ending, which should surprise and satisfy most genre buffs.

The Official Story: Blu-ray
It could be argued that the re-release of Luis Puenzo’s still frightening political drama, The Official Story (1985) – co-written with fellow Argentine Aída Bortnik — was timed to coincide with the rise of right-wing and nationalist governments around the world and growing fear that the widespread repression of human rights, prevalent in the 1970s, could return without warning. It is one of several movies made in the wake of South America’s “dirty wars” that recounted the atrocities still fresh in minds of people who lost sons and daughters to the juntas’ executioners, were interrogated and tortured by CIA-trained police, discovered that their grandchildren were adopted by friends of government officials and learned the names of informers still living among them. It was preceded by Costa-Gavras’ State of Siege (1972) and Missing (1982), which described aspects of the dirty wars conducted in Uruguay and Chile, and was followed by  Héctor Olivera’s Night of the Pencils (1986), Jeanine Meerapfel’s The Girlfriend (1988), Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden (1994), Marcelo Piñeyro’s Kamchatka (2002), Gastón Biraben’s Captive (2003) and Juan José Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes (2009). In Brazil, post-junta reaction to Operation Condor and its own dirty war was reflected in Héctor Babenco’s Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), Bruno Barreto’s Four Days in September (1997) and Cao Hamburger’s The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (2006). Operation Condor was nominally intended to eradicate communist or Soviet influence in South America, and to suppress active or potential opposition movements against the U.S.-supported governments. Henry Kissinger’s “green light” opened the door for the arrests, torturing and disappearances of students, liberals, progressives, intellectuals, union leaders, as well as outright Marxists, left-wing activists and insurgents. Because so many bodies were dumped from planes over the ocean, or buried in mass graves, the final death toll may never be known.

The Official Story is set in Buenos Aires during the final year of Argentina’s military dictatorship. Some people who fled the country felt comfortable enough with recent moves toward democracy to return home, even knowing that their opinions could still land them in jail. Héctor Alterio and Norma Aleandro play Roberto and Alicia, a bourgeois couple for whom Operation Condor may as well have never occurred. He’s a successful businessman, who’s comfortable with current government policies, while she’s a history teacher who’s blissfully unaware of the bad things that happened in the last 10 years. Her latest class of students has committed itself to ignoring the usual curriculum and demanding a more honest discussion of the abuses in the dirty war. For whatever reason, Alicia has elected to accept “the official story,” which doesn’t include torture, rape and los desaparecidos (the missing). It isn’t until one of her closest friends, who’s spent the last several years in Spain, describes what happened to her while detained, that Alicia begins to question her opinions. On her way home from work one day, she passes by a demonstration by the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, which has become a weekly event in Buenos Aires, since 1977. The mothers and grandmothers of people who’ve vanished want to force the government to tell them where their loved ones have been taken and if they’re still alive. Because the government doesn’t want to bring any additional attention to the demonstrations – or spark more sympathy for their cause – it allowed the women to gather and wave placards, so long as they don’t stop moving. (Government leaders, already being pressed on economic stagnation and calls for elections, launched an invasion of the Falklands Islands, if for no other reason than to stir the patriotism of the Argentine public. It had the opposite effect.)

Prompted by her students’ forceful demands, Alicia investigates their charges at the offices set up by the dissidents. After much soul-searching, Alicia is persuaded by one of the marchers to look into the possibility that her 5-year-old adopted daughter, Gaby (Analia Castro), might have been taken from her birth parents before they were killed and awarded to Roberto for his loyalty to the junta. He vehemently and, at one point, violently denies the accusation. The closer Alicia gets to the truth, the closer Roberto comes to being reprimanded by his superiors. He also fears that they might lose their daughter to the grandmother or vengeful officials. Alicia doesn’t want that to happen, of course, but becomes concerned that any further action on her part might prove her husband right. And, as if to prove his point, Roberto begins to receive calls at home from people who refuse to tell him their names. Apparently, this was a common tactic used by police to warn people they didn’t trust against continuing whatever it is the government doesn’t want them to do. Even after the junta had officially relinquished control, anonymous threats continued. According to Puenzo, Analia’s mother was forcefully encouraged to pull her from the production … or else. The threat was taken seriously enough for the producers to announce through the press that production had been completed and only some mop-up work remained. In fact, production continued in secret until 1985. The Cohen/SPHE release adds an exhaustive set of interviews with the filmmakers and a featurette on the restoration process.

The Mother the Son and the Grandmother
This obscure first feature from Chilean multi-hyphenate Benjamin Brunet describes how a 27-year-old photographer returns to his hometown, to record its demise, but discovers a surrogate family of diehard stragglers. Cristóbal travels to Chaitén, on the southern coast of Chile, after it’s been destroyed by a volcanic eruption and subsequent flooding, caused by a mudslide. Searching for his childhood home, amid the ruins, he meets Ana, a strong-willed whose sick elderly mother, María, refuses to leave town to seek treatment. After Ana observes Cristóbal wandering around the devastated mining town, she asks María’s permission to provide him with food and shelter, however meager. In return, he volunteers to watch the elderly woman, freeing Ana to take care of business of her own. Although dangerously ill, María is still pretty spry. They take walks and discuss what happened to the town and the people who used to live there. Together, the trio form a tight, if temporary family. Brunet renders the relationship with great sensitivity and more than a little humor and reflection on his birth family. On the film’s website, The Mother the Son and the Grandmother is described as “docu-fiction.” (Chaitén is a real town, on the Gulf of Corcovado in southern Chile. In 2008, the Chaitén volcano erupted for the first time since around 1640. The residents were evacuated ahead of the ashfall and monstrous lahar that caused the Blanco River to overflow its banks and excavate a new course through the town. A few hundred people were able to return and eke out a living from the land.)

The Man in the Iron Mask: 20th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
As near as I can tell, Leonardo di Caprio has spent most of the last six years – apart from the time he spent making The Revenant – chasing supermodels around the planet, promoting environmental issues and producing … if producing qualifies as work. Never fear, because Di Caprio’s near-term dance card includes two projects with Martin Scorsese, another with Quentin Tarantino and an adaptation of Stephan Talty’s book, “The Black Hand.” While his fans anxiously await the release of these movies, they can sate their appetite with a golden oldie, The Man in the Iron Mask, based on characters from Alexandre Dumas’s “D’Artagnan Romances” and plot elements of “The Vicomte de Bragelonne.” Among the characters are the Four Musketeers: Athos (John Malkovich), Artemis (Jeremy Irons), Porthos (Gerard Depardieu) and D’Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne), all of whom are reaching their expiration date. Fresh off Titanic, DiCaprio handles the twin roles of the cruel, selfish King Louis XIV and his imprisoned twin brother, Phillippe, who’s spent the last 10 years inside the Bastille, with his head encased in an iron mask. Because of the king’s uncaring attitude toward his starving subjects, the natives have gotten restless. The Musketeers think it might be possible for Phillippe to replace his brother on the throne and put France back on the right track. First, however, they must convince D’Artagnan to quit his cushy job protecting the king and Queen Anne (Anne Parillaud), who’s fallen under his spell. While it sounds like fun, the reins were handed to veteran writer, first-time director Randall Wallace (Braveheart), who should have focused his energies on the screenplay, which bears almost no resemblance to period history or the book on which its based. Despite reviews that were mixed, at best, Leo’s young, female fans flocked to see The Man in the Iron Mask, which did much better in foreign markets than at home. The new Blu-ray edition benefits from a 4K scan of the original camera negative; fresh interviews with producer Paul Hitchcock and production designer Anthony Pratt; commentary with Wallace; and featurettes, “Myth and the Musketeers,” “Director’s Take,” behind-the-scenes material and alternate mask prototypes.

Starchaser: The Legend of Orin: Blu-ray
Heavily promoted at the time of its release as the first animated feature made in 3D, Starchaser: The Legend of Orin (1985) will look downright primitive to anyone whose first exposure to feature-length 3D was Robert Zemeckis’ large-format The Polar Express (2004). That film is credited as the first animated film to use motion-capture technology and the first feature-length film to be released in both 35mm and IMAX 3D. I’m not sure why “Starchaser” wasn’t released on Blu-ray 3D, as well as standard 2D. The only thing multi-dimensional here is the lenticular slip case, which is a far cry from the real thing. Upon its release, critics were quick to point out the story’s resemblance to Star Wars and characters who aped Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Darth Vader. Even so, they had kind things to say about the animation and certain story elements. “Starchaser” takes place on the planet Trinia, where human slaves are kept in the vast Mine-World at the center of the planet. The humans are herded by robot slaves and forced to dig crystals for the robot god, Zygon. When a slave boy, Orin, unearths a sword hilt, an elderly man appears, telling him that his people belong on the surface and that he can lead them away from servitude to robots. Orin escapes to the surface, where he befriends the smuggler Dagg Debrini and is thrown into a series of intergalactic adventures as he fights to bring down Zygon. And, so it goes.

PBS: POV: Dark Money
PBS: Frontline: Separated: Children at the Border
I Married Joan: Classic TV Collection #4
In deciding Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court held that corporations, unions and other organizations enjoy the same rights as individual citizens to contribute money to advocate for or against political candidates. In doing so, it opened the floodgates for anonymous donors to special-interest groups to spend as much money as they desired to sway elections, referendums and legislation. While “Super PACs” would be required to reveal individual donors and limit its contributions to campaign committees, regulated by the FEC, non-profit “dark money” groups are only required to file reports to the IRS, and not in any timely manner. And, while PAC money is limited to political action, expenditures by dark-money groups “must not have politics as their primary purpose.” Such a loophole allows a single individual or group to create both types of entities, combining their powers and making it difficult to trace the original source of funds. Given the current makeup of the Supreme Court, it isn’t likely that such rulings – obviously favoring conservative politicians beholding to obscenely wealthy individuals – will change anytime soon. PBS’ essential documentary presentation, “POV: Dark Money,” explains how “we the people” are impacted by the influence of untraceable corporate money on our elections and elected officials. It does so by taking viewers to Montana – a “frontline in the fight to preserve fair elections nationwide” — to follow an intrepid local journalist who’s working to expose the real-life impacts of the court’s Citizens United decision.

Although the situation along the border separating the U.S. and Mexico remains fluid, and ICE continues to devise new strategies to warehouse children separated from their parents, lessons can still be learned from the “Frontline” presentation “Separated: Children at the Border,” which aired at the end of July. Co-producer Marcela Gaviria has been investigating the treatment of minors at the border for more than a year. With on-the-ground reporting in Central America and at the border, the film explores how the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy – Barak Obama’s failed ideas, too — has played out. Among the children we meet is 6-year-old Meybelin, whose father fled El Salvador with her to escape violence. After crossing into America and turning themselves in to the Border Patrol, they were separated, with her father, Arnovis, deported, and Meybelin held in an Arizona shelter for 33 days before being sent back to him in El Salvador, where gang violence continues unabated.

There aren’t many people around anymore able to remember early-1950s shows like “I Married Joan,” one of several vintage titles in VCI Entertainment’s “Classic TV Collection.” There was nothing coincidental about the similarities between NBC’s “I Married Joan” and CBS’ “I Love Lucy,” which competed against each other from 1952 to 1955. (“I Love Lucy” had already begun its historic six-season run.) The show centers on Joan, a “scatterbrained” housewife, and her husband, Bradley Stevens, who was a staid and settled domestic court judge. The characters, played by Joan Davis and Jim Backus, differed from Lucy and Ricky in three obvious ways: 1) Davis was blond and Lucy, a redhead, 2) the Stevens lived in a single-story house, while, at the time, the Ricardos occupied an apartment in New York, and 3) unlike Ricky Ricardo, Brad’s dialogue was delivered in unaccented English … although it might have been fun to hear how Backus’ alter ego, J. Quincy Magoo, might have handled the same lines. Otherwise, Davis and Ball both were gifted comediennes – as women comics were once called – who’d already proven themselves in other mediums. The “scatterbrained” image didn’t prevent their characters from routinely outfoxing their husbands and coming out on top in most situations. While talented supporting characters helped advance the plots, none of them were as essential to the show as Fred and Ethel Mertz. The VCI Entertainment collection is comprised on 10 episodes from all three seasons. (The series was canceled in the spring of 1955, when Davis began experiencing heart trouble. It was one of the first shows to take advantage of off-network syndication for repeat airings. On May 22, 1961, the 48-year-old Davis died of a heart attack at her home in Palm Springs.)

The DVD Wrapup: Eighth Grade, No. 1 Fan, Jeannette, Moe Berg, 12th Man, La Familia, Molly, Sarno, Making a Killing, All Styles … More

Thursday, October 4th, 2018

Eighth Grade
For some teenagers, middle school and high school are a breeze. Socializing isn’t a problem and there are never enough clubs, teams and activities to join. For others, they’re torture. The ordeal feels as if it’s never going to end and even the promise of a stint in the wartime military comes as a relief to the bullying, cliques, zits and dateless weekends. The cruelest irony comes later, though, when the more fortunate ones have found work in jobs they think will last for a lifetime, only to discover that adult life is just like high school and all the same rules apply. All the personality types that made high school so unpleasant are found in business offices, politics, factories and, probably, at the Pentagon. And, in the current economic climate, the options are few and none … rebels without a cause need not apply. Unemployment is a bitch. Watching Bo Burnham’s hyper-perceptive dramedy, Eighth Grade, is like experiencing every awkward moment all over, again. In fact, it’s difficult to say if Burnham’s debut is targeted at kids, who will see themselves in the various characters and situations, or adults, who will cringe with embarrassment at memories of who they once were. In this regard, Eighth Grade could be a documentary.

Because today’s middle-school students have never known a world without the Internet, social media and texting, they’ve been catapulted into an arena once reserved for college students and adults. The kids we meet here willingly share their ideas, joys, struggles, anxieties and depression electronically with friends and strangers, alike. Not all the feedback is reliable, helpful or wise, of course. In an environment in which nearly every student has a cellphone and is glued to it like a permanent appendage, some Boomer parents may recall the scenes in Bye Bye Birdie in which all gossip is transmitted by rotary telephones, and they’re hard-wired to the wall. Texting is limited to Western Union telegrams and video screens are only be found in living rooms. (Remember when Paul Lynde asked the musical question, “Kids … what’s the matter with kids today?”) In Eighth Grade, Burnham doesn’t rely on embellishments, exaggerations or stereotyping to make his story work. Everyday reality provides all the drama the story needs. Neither did he feel the need the need to add a Jeff Spicoli surrogate for comic relief.

Burnham’s protagonist is, by all appearances, a perfectly normal 13-year-old in her final week of 8th Grade at a suburban middle school in New York. Unlike most movies about kids in their teens, the actress playing Kayla (Elsie Fisher) was the same age as her character during the film’s production. The cringe-worthy moments in Eighth Grade were still fresh in her mind and those of the supporting-cast members. In public, Kayla is so shy and withdrawn that she’s voted “Most Quiet Girl” in year-end “honors.” Her single father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), worries that her sullenness and negativity can be traced to something other than the age-specific orneriness girls usually reserve for their moms. In private, on her YouTube vlogs and Instagram page, however, Kayla is the complete opposite: chatty, self-assured and wise beyond her years. (Her acne seems to disappear, as well.) She dispenses advice to kids her age, as if she’s experienced all the hard knocks personally and lived to share them. During the week, Kayla attends a “shadow program” at a local high school, during which she experiences unconditional acceptance for the first time and gets a sneak peek at some of the things that excite, depress and appall kids at the next level. It’s worth noting that the 28-year-old Burnham began his own performance career on YouTube in March 2006, and his videos have been viewed more 234 million times. (How is this even possible?) He’s since appeared in three specials on Comedy Central and co-created and starred in the MTV television series, “Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous.” The Blu-ray adds commentary with Burnham and Fisher; the featurette, “You’re Not Alone: Life in Eighth Grade”; a music video; and deleted scenes. I’m not sure that Eighth Grade qualifies as family entertainment – teens hate to share embarrassing moments and potential talking points with adults – but it’s a film that demands to be seen by kids and parents, together or separately.

Number One Fan
The reliably terrific French actress Sandrine Kiberlain (Mademoiselle Chambon) plays the title character in this fresh and twisty crime drama about a middle-age fangirl, who experiences a dark and totally unpredictable relationship with the object of her obsession. For the past two decades, Muriel has followed the handsome crooner Vincent Lacroix (Laurent Lafitte) on his tours around Europe, but mostly crushes on him from afar. A beautician in a waxing salon, the tall and frightfully thin blond is notorious for making up tall tales and spending every waking moment catching up on Lacroix’s career. One night, out of the blue, the singer appears at her door to ask a favor. Lacroix has accidentally killed his girlfriend during one of their regular arguments and he needs her help to dispose of the body. He knows that her loyalty will preclude her from questioning his role in the woman’s death and alerting the police. Lacroix asks her to drive her car from Paris to Switzerland, but not to look at the rolled-up rug he’s put in its trunk. Once over the border, she is to go to his sister’s and hand over instructions. What could go wrong? Well, just about everything, if not in ways that could be expected from the moment the singer shows up at the divorced mother of two’s door. The first thing that runs counter to Lacroix’s plan is the immediate doubt expressed by two police detectives – a pair of feuding lovers – about his claim that his girlfriend simply disappeared. I won’t spoil anyone’s enjoyment of Number One Fan by explaining how the cops are able to link Muriel to Lacroix or how circumstances conspire to keep them one step ahead of them, without expending much energy. First-time writer/director Jeanne Herry is the daughter of actor Miou-Miou and the singer Julien Clerc, so she probably brought some first-hand insight to the project. (SPOILER ALERT follows …) Number One Fan likely was informed, as well, by the real-life story of Bertrand Cantat, the frontman of French band Noir Désir. In 2004, he was jailed after the death of his girlfriend, the actor Marie Trintignant. She was filming in Lithuania in 2003 and, while there, the pair had an argument. The blows he inflicted resulted in her death five days later. That may be too close a coincidence for the comfort of some viewers.

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc
Way back in the Pleistocene Age, when the Catholic Church wasn’t mired in scandal and lawsuits, Sunday school and parochial students were frequently asked to watch short films and slide shows about the lives of the saints. (And, no, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew wasn’t one of them.) This was years before “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and, for that matter, the songs “Spirit in the Sky” and “Jesus Is Just Alright,” turned the Lord’s only begotten son into a rock idol. The full, original version of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s brilliant 1928 silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, wouldn’t be re-discovered in a janitor’s closet at a Oslo mental institution until 1982. Based on the actual record of the 19-year-old heroine’s one-sided trial, Dreyer’s spare depiction forever elevated the future saint’s story of extreme faith and voluntary martyrdom from the realm of historical fantasy and French Catholic dogma. Bruno Dumont’s disarmingly unconventional musical, Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, opens in northeast France,

in 1425, at the height of the Hundred Years War. Eight-year-old Jeannette (Lise Leplat Prudhomme) is looking after her sheep in a pristine riverside meadow outside her village. One day, she tells her friend, Hauviette (Lucile Gauthier), that she cannot bear to see the suffering caused during the English occupation. Neither can she comprehend what individual acts of charity accomplish, since suffering never diminishes. She also wonders if Jesus has died in vain. A Franciscan nun, Madame Gervaise, urges Jeannette to abandon her concerns to divine Providence and nonviolent acceptance of suffering and evil. Jeannette will receive visions of the Archangel Michael (Anaïs Rivière), Saint Margaret (Aline Charles) and Saint Catherine of Alexandria (Elise Charles), instructing her to take up arms in support of Charles VII and recover France from English domination.

As Jeannette grows into the teenage Jeanne, the girls’ roles are assumed by Jeanne Voisin and Victoria Lefebvre. Now about 15, she wrestles with her inaction after receiving her heavenly call. Jeannette concludes as the 17-year-old Jeanne mounts up for the fateful journey that would lead to the lifting of the siege of Orléans. What makes Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc unique is Dumont’s decision to use songs to advance the narrative and amplify Joan’s commitment to the cause. The girls’ prayers and ponderings are adapted from the dramatic lyricism of Charles Péguy’s meditations, “The Mystery of the Charity” (1910) and “Jeanne d’Arc” (1897). They also accompany the joyous dances, playful gymnastics and romps in a stream that runs through the meadow. The eclectic musical backing blends electronica, Baroque themes and guitar-shredding hard rock. It takes some time to get comfortable with the conceit – some viewers won’t buy it, at all – but the actors are nothing less than convincing. If details in Dumont’s script could spark debate among historians and theologians, “Jeanette” is exactly the kind of unabashedly innovative interpretation of religious history that could encourage young people to embrace the Church or make them think twice before fleeing the scandals and hypocrisy. The DVD adds an informative Q&A with Dumont and deleted scenes.

The Catcher Was a Spy
The title character in Ben Lewin’s compelling period biopic is Moe Berg, a journeyman baseball player whose modest stats are dwarfed by his service to Allied cause in World War II. Although he played 15 seasons in the major leagues, almost entirely for four American League teams, Berg was used primarily as a backup catcher. Within the game, itself, he was known for being “the brainiest guy in baseball,” although legendary manager Casey Stengel once described Berg as “the strangest man ever to play baseball.” Both sides of the Harlem native’s personality are on full display in the movie based on Nicholas Dawidoff’s 1994 biography, “The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg.” Indeed, Berg’s baseball card is the only one display at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency. Here, Berg is played by the ever-reliable Paul Rudd, who’s surrounded by an all-star cast that includes Mark Strong, Sienna Miller, Jeff Daniels, Tom Wilkinson, Giancarlo Giannini, Hiroyuki Sanada, Guy Pearce and Paul Giamatti (son of the former baseball commissioner, A. Bartlett Giamatti). Berg’s first unofficial foray into the spy game came on a good-will tour to Japan, prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. After learning that war was imminent, he used the 16-mm Bell & Howell camera he carried with him — borrowed from MovietoneNews – to surveil Tokyo’s unusually busy harbor from the top of Saint Luke’s Hospital, in nearby Tsujiki. After the declaration of war, Berg surprised State Department officials with the amateur footage. A graduate of Princeton University and Columbia Law School, Berg spoke several languages and regularly read 10 newspapers a day. This, alone, made him an ideal candidate for the OSS. Also crucial was his ability to keep a secret, a skill alluded to in The Catcher Was a Spy by his refusal to acknowledge speculation of his sexuality … except when a rookie makes the mistake of calling him a “faggot.”

The question is deemed irrelevant in the execution of his primary mission: sneaking into Europe to meet and interview Axis scientist, to determine their progress in building an atomic bomb. Although Berg was instructed to kill a leading physicist if he refused to cooperate, he succeeded in creating a post-war path for defectors and scientists willing to provide crucial intelligence on the location of hidden laboratories, storage facilities and factories. As if to confirm Stengel’s assessment, Berg’s next nearly 30 years on Earth would be shrouded in mystery, seclusion and difficult relations with his siblings. Berg turned down the Medal of Freedom that he was rewarded after his retirement from the OSS. It was awarded posthumously, with his sister accepting on his behalf. More interesting than riveting, The Catcher Was a Spy is competently directed by Ben Lewin (The Sessions) and adapted by Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan). The Prague locations add credibility to the wartime settings.  Even so, the production only skims the surface of Berg’s story. I doubt that there was much money left for frills or further exploration of Berg’s heroism after the actors were paid. (Berg may not have been a practicing Jew, but it didn’t mean that anti-Semitism didn’t play a role in his isolation from the crowd. Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg’s nearly unmatched talent made him a larger target for bigots.) Considering what Steven Spielberg was able to accomplish in Bridge of Spies (2015), I can’t help but wonder what he might have been able to do with Dawidoff’s book, given a similarly excellent cast, a lot more money and another half-hour of screen time. The DVD adds several deleted scenes.

The 12th Man: Blu-ray
If we wait long enough, there’s a very good chance we’ll be able to watch movies about all the heroes of World War II, not just those from the United States. Just as The Catcher Was a Spy re-introduces Moe Berg to a generation of Americans for whom WWII must seem like ancient history, Harald Zwart’s The 12th Man relates the remarkable story of a Norwegian commando hardly known outside Scandinavia. In 1940, after the Nazi invasion of Norway, Jan Baalsrud (Thomas Gullestad) slipped into neutral Sweden, where he was convicted of espionage and expelled from the country. After having travelled through the Soviet Union, Africa and the U.S., he arrived in the UK, where he joined the Norwegian Company Linge. The unit’s most celebrated actions involved raids on the Vemork Hydroelectric Plant, which produced the heavy water necessary for German scientists to continue work on the atomic bomb (also referenced in The Catcher Was a Spy), and the attacks on the Thamshavn Line railroad that carried pyrites being extracted at the mine at Løkken Verk. In 1943, after a failed sabotage mission leaves 11 of his comrades dead or captured on an island in the far-northern Tromsøysundet strait, Baalsruud commits all his strength to delivering important documents to resistance fighters in Sweden. Having been swept overboard into the frigid waters off Tromsa, Baalsrud’s escape is further hindered by having his toe shoot off by a German pursuer. With other soldiers nipping at his heels, he risks turning into an ice cube by swimming 300 meters to Rebbenesøya island.

Wehrmacht troopers argue against braving the same elements, by pursuing the bleeding man any further. Their request is vetoed by SS officer Kurt Stage (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who refuses to believe the 12th invader is dead and fears that Baalsrud’s escape to Sweden could ruin his career. (It didn’t, but, after testifying at Nuremburg, he was hung by Yugoslav authorities.) Throughout Baalsrud’s 40-day ordeal, he has nothing to protect him from the elements, beyond the kindness of strangers. Even then, he is forced to contend with frost bite, gangrene, snow blindness and malnutrition. A maker of technical instruments, by trade, he wasn’t prepared for the ordeal. Who would be? There’s no reason to spoil Zwart’s depiction of Baalsrud harrowing journey, except to say that The 12th Man also testifies to the heroism of the Norwegian patriots who risked their lives to protect a stranger and get him to his destination. The film’s spectacular Arctic Circle locations mirror the terrain traversed by Baalsrud. (The route has become something of tourist attraction.) One of The 12th Man’s most astonishing scenes takes place near the borders of Norway, Finland and Sweden, where his Sami protectors use a huge herd of reindeer to help him sneak past a German watchtower. The strategy doesn’t work as planned, but the scramble to improvise is exciting to watch. The only previous dramatization of Baalsrud’s journey came in 1957, with Arne Skouen’s Nine Lives, which was nominated for an Oscar and voted Norway’s best film of all time.

La Familia
For as long as most people can remember, the news out of Venezuela has been bleak. Tens of thousands of mostly poor people have fled the country, seeking refuge in neighboring countries, and the humanitarian crisis threatens to cause turmoil throughout South America. (President Trump has already discussed a military incursion.) Without beating anyone over the head with polemics, Gustavo Rondón Córdova has crafted a film, La Familia, that allows viewers to draw their own conclusions. Set and shot in one of Caracas’ worst barrios, it opens with a group of boys in their early teens – if that – playing the kind of games that typically end in someone getting hurt. They should be in school, of course, but receive no encouragement or incentives to do so. All they have to do is look around them to understand that even a vocational- or trade-school education no longer guarantees a job and a living wage. The drama begins when an older gang member introduces a handgun into the mix. It destroys the balance among equals and results in a serious, perhaps fatal accident when one of the boys uses it to intimidate 12-year-old Pedro (Reggie Reyes), who has no intention of being robbed or pushed around. Because the instigator has been seriously wounded in the altercation, Pedro understands instinctively that his fate is now sealed. So, does his father, Andres (Giovanni García).

In a dog-eat-dog culture that demands eye-for-an-eye justice, they know that the boy’s older brothers will target him for retribution, and, if Pedro somehow manages to escape their wrath, unethical police routinely settle such matters by acting as judge, jury and executioner. Andres’ future within the community is doomed, as well. The hard-working laborer decides immediately to leave their home behind, if only to relocate to a place in the municipality of 7 million souls where he can work and protect Pedro anonymously. That’s easier said than done, of course. Besides scrambling for low-paying work at construction sites or private homes, Andres waits tables at night. If nothing else, it provides him with bottles of booze to sell in the underground marketplace. At first, Pedro bristles at his father’s demand that he tags along one his jobs. All he wants to do is defy Andres by sneaking back into the barrio to discover if his best friend is OK, which he isn’t. Then, something borderline miraculous happens. Pedro begins the redemption process by taking an interest in his father’s work and putting some sweat equity into his future. That doesn’t mean that Pedro won’t screw things up by returning to the scene of the crime, however. At 82 minutes, Córdova probably knew that La Familia couldn’t provide answers for his country’s core problems or assure viewers that everything will turn out OK for his protagonists. Instead, he decided to focus on closing the distance between a rebellious boy and the father who worked too many hours to make a positive impression on his son. Even if audiences are left wondering what will happen to them – and, by extension, their country — it’s a start. As usual, the Film Movement package includes a short film, “Les Miserables,” about a trio of corrupt cops, who are caught in the act of beating a suspect by a group of kids with a camera attached to their drone.

Molly: Blu-ray
Death Race: Beyond Anarchy: Blu-ray
Post-apocalyptic and dystopian-based movies have come and gone with increasing regularity over the last 50 years. That’s when Planet of the Apes (1968) – co-written by “Twilight Zone” creator, Rod Serling – raised the ante on the sci-fi worlds created by H.G. Welles and Jules Verne, as if in anticipation of the Hollywood fantasy factory. Ironically, it was Woody Allen’s futuristic romp, Sleeper (1973), that kept the subgenre going in advance of such now-classic titles as A Boy and His Dog (1975), Death Race 2000 (1975), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Deathsport (1978) and Mad Max (1979), none of which was dependent on space aliens for the threatened demise of civilization. Tank Girl (1995) not only took place in a post-apocalyptic environment, but it’s the rare sci-fi flick in which the story revolves around a female character (Lori Petty), with punk, riot grrrl, feminist and lesbian characteristics. In a world that allows time-shifting, Petty’s Tank Girl could easily have been the mother or grandmother of Chloë Grace Moretz’ Mindy Macready/Hit-Girl, in Kick-Ass (2010), and the protagonist in the newly released actioner from the Netherlands, Molly (2017). At first glance, red-haired Molly (Julia Batelaan) resembles the geek goddess of every high school computer nerd’s favorite wet dream. Molly wears unfashionable glasses and knee pads, has unruly hair and wears clothes she might have salvaged from a dumpster. More to the point, however, Molly’s tool belt is festooned with knives, swords and spiky things. Her backpack contains a hacksaw-like gizmo with a razor-sharp blade and she also wields a bow and arrow. And, while she’s proficient in all forms of post-apocalyptic cutlery and martial arts, her secret weapon is of a more sonic variety. When the evil showman and bookie, Deacon (Joost Bolt), hears rumors of a girl with superpowers, roaming the beach near his fort, he sends his Mad Maxian thugs out to capture her. Meanwhile, Molly has discovered a young child, living alone in a cabin in the wasteland, waiting for the unlikely return of her parents. Molly now must protect the child and fight off the marauders at the same time. When the girl is kidnapped, Molly reveals herself to the mad showman and risks her life to save her. The hand-to-hand combat reportedly was captured by co-directors Colinda Bongers and Thijs Meuwese in a single-take scene that lasts nearly a half-hour. Made on what must have been a miniscule budget, Molly makes full use of every penny invested in it. I doubt if a larger budget would have added much to the fun. The Artsploitation Films’ Blu-ray adds an extensive making-of featurette and deleted scenes.

The Death Race franchise, which began in 1975 under the watchful eyes of producer Roger Corman, exists in a post-apocalyptic universe all its own. The installments have arrived in the form of sequels, prequels, remakes, an unrelated (if curiously similar) video game, feature films and direct-to-DVD originals. Death Race: Beyond Anarchy is the fourth edition to be released under the direct imprimatur of Paul W.S. Anderson, as producer and some combination of writer and/or director. Corman is credited as producer and/or executive producer of four of the seven films – including the ill-fated 1978 sequel, Deathsport (a.k.a., “Death Race 2050”) — while his wife, Julie, is listed as exec producer of the 2017 Death Race 2050. Got that? “Death Race: Beyond Anarchy: Unrated and Unhinged” was supposed to have been released last January, along with three other Anderson-related titles, but was pushed all the way back to October 2. I have no idea why. The version submitted to the MPAA was “rated R for strong violence and language throughout, nudity and sexual content.” What the “unrated/unhinged” version adds is anyone’s guess, because both weigh in at 111 minutes and feature oodles of T&A, gore and violence. Just for the record, Danny Trejo returns as the ruthless bookie, Goldberg. After a failed attack on inmate and legendary driver, Frankenstein, Black Ops specialist Connor Gibson (Zach McGowan) infiltrates a super-maximum federal prison with one goal: enter the immoral and illegal Death Race and take Frankenstein down. Connor enlists the help of Baltimore Bob (Danny Glover) and Lists (Fred Koehler), and unexpectedly falls in love with bartending beauty, Jane (Christine Marzano). There are no guards, no rules, no track and no room for fear. Shot in Bulgaria, under the direction of Don Michael Paul (Sniper: Legacy), it’s reasonably well made and devotees of this sort of thing should find it exhilarating. The Blu-ray includes featurettes, “Inside the Anarchy,” “Time Served: Lists & Goldberg” and “On the Streets of Death Race: Beyond Anarchy” and commentary with Paul and McGowan.

Feral: Blu-ray
When are characters in indie horror flicks going to realize that creatures who live in the woods – four- and two-legged — aren’t all warm and fuzzy, domesticated or there for the convenience of nature photographers. Ramshackle cabins remain abandoned for good reasons. And that it pays to listen to the locals, who know that some of the legends are true and cellphone signals fade once you’ve left the highway. I don’t know how many movies about things that go bump in the woods have been made since Deliverance (1972) kind of, sort of kick-started the subgenre – evil hillbillies, helpless city slickers – but it clearly didn’t begin with Creature from Black Lake (1976), Rituals (1977), Don’t Go in the Woods (1981), The Evil Dead (1981) and The Forest (1982), and it most assuredly didn’t end with Cabin Fever (2002) or, even, Travis Z’s 2016 remake. Newly released into DVD/Blu-ray/VOD is Mark H. Young’s Feral, in which a diseased creature lies in wait for six medical students on a weekend holiday in the woods. One by one, they become infected with a “feral disease,” turning them into rabid, bloodthirsty being, and they begin to turn on each other. The group is comprised of nice-guy Matt (George Finn) and the sweet-natured Brie (Renee Olstead); her best friend, Alice (Scout Taylor-Compton), and Alice’s new lover, Jules (Olivia Luccardi); and alpha-male Jesse (Brock Kelly), who has brought along his own new girlfriend, Gina (Landry Allbright). A cabin in the woods is inhabited by a hermit (Lew Temple), who alerts the students to the danger facing them, but isn’t taken seriously. The only slight variation on the theme comes when the Final Girl(s) turn out to be lesbians. The special effects are appropriately grisly.

While Jason Goldberg (“Punk’d”) and Nick Kreiss’ cabin-in-the-woods thriller, Afraid, doesn’t involve zombies, it does borrow from other hoary subgenres: hidden cameras, found-footage, a fiendish voyeur. In it, a couple (Alanna Masterson, George Bryne) goes on what they hope to be a romantic weekend getaway. It turns into a nightmare when they discover they are constantly being watched. Viewers already know that, though, because Afraid is entirely shown from the point of view of surveillance camera footage. There’s a subplot involving a wireless connection that’s monitored, as well. It isn’t enough to save the movie, but completists shouldn’t be overly disappointed.

Pin Cushion
Judging solely by the evidence presented in British writer/director Deborah Haywood’s debut film, Pin Cushion, growing up weird in a small Midlands town is no picnic. In an interview with the Midland Movies blog, Haywood described it as “emotionally biographical” and “a dark fairytale love story between an oddball mother (Joanna Scanlan) and daughter (Lily Newmark) and how their moving to a new town affects their relationship.” The films that inspired Pin Cushion include Jane Campion’s Sweetie, Brian de Palma’s Carrie, Peter Jackson Heavenly Creatures and Todd Solondz’ Welcome to the Doll’s House. And, yes, Newmark’s Iona looks very much like Sissy Spacek in Carrie. Scanlan is extremely convincing as Iona’s mother and best friend, Lyn, whose eccentricities may be related to mental illness. Newmark’s transition from target to acceptance among the school’s ruling elite – are they friends or frenemies? — does nothing to improve Lyn’s ability to cope with short-term separation anxiety. The problem is that Pin Cushion, while quirky, isn’t particularly endearing. Haywood’s somewhat unusual decision to shoot parts of the film inside the same Midlands school at which she was bullied shows that she isn’t lacking in chutzpah and the same goes for Pin Cushion.

Making a Killing
It’s always fun to see what happens when actors known for performances in supporting and character roles get an opportunity to shine in lead parts or as equal partners in an ensemble cast. In Devin Hume’s contemporary noir, Making a Killing – based on a true crime — the instantly recognizable Mike Starr (“Mr. Mercedes”) plays Arthur Herring, the mayor, priest and mortician in a small town nestled in the mountains of New Mexico. A year ago, Arthur and his brother, Vincent (Jude Moran), agreed to safeguard a fellow mortician’s rare-coin collection, while he served time in prison on a molestation beef. When the greedy old coot is released and demands that his coins be returned, the brothers hatch an elaborate scheme to keep his treasure for themselves. Although the ex-con isn’t in Making a Killing all that long, Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future) makes his time on screen memorable. Things get complicated for the brothers when a cocky African-American investigator from the state capital (Michael Jai White) arrives in the quaint little town to check out a murder that no one, including the police, is particularly interested in solving. Meanwhile, Arthur doesn’t want to raise suspicions by immediately fulfilling a promise to his brother to use the money to move to Alaska. Naturally, this causes a rift between them wide enough for the investigator to exploit to his advantage. Adding to the intrigue is a cunning waitress, Connie (Aida Turturro), who also hopes to get between the brothers. Sally Kirkland, who, in 1988, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress (Anna), plays the ex-con’s devoted and possibly larcenous secretary. Considering that Making a Killing was set and shot in New Mexico, it’s nice to see that Hume found room in the story for Native American actors         David Midthunder and Brian McGill in visible roles. There are a few times when the modest budget makes its presence known, but, as modern attempts at noir go these days, Making a Killing isn’t bad. Be sure to stay tuned for the epilogue.

Saving Faith
It seems odd that Beijing Hualu Baina Film & TV would be listed among the distributors of Saving Faith, alongside such familiar names as Grindstone Entertainment Group and Lionsgate Home Entertainment. Presumably, movies made for Christian audiences in the United States would be banned outright or censored to the point where the family-friendly message is leeched from the narrative. I wouldn’t know. Saving Faith seems as if it’s harmless enough to pass muster, even in officially atheist China. Still, there’s nothing the Communist Party fears more than an insurrection by Christians, especially those in the far-flung provinces, where hundreds of thousands of Muslims recently were rounded up and sent to re-education camps. BHBF&T is a major company in the region and wouldn’t shell out a lot of money for a movie that’s lost its heart and teeth. One of the movie’s stars is Knoxville-born comedian Henry Cho, who is of Korean descent and a professed Christian. (Within the industry, his nickname is Mr. Clean.) So, maybe, the company is distributing Saving Grace in the southern half of the divided country. The story revolves around the efforts of Tennesseans Faith Scott (Jenn Gotzon Chandler) and her Uncle Donny (Donny Richmond) to save Clinton’s struggling Ritz Theater. Faith is a good-ol’-Southern-gal, while Uncle Donny is a former country singer who tired of being a road warrior. Forty years after the death of Elvis Presley, Uncle Donny maintains the same haircut worn by the King in his fat-and-sweaty period. To keep the property out of the clutches of a greedy local businessman, they commit themselves to putting on a big Christmas show, for which they hope to sell lots of tickets. To this end, Uncle Donny contacts his old pals Vince Gill and his wife, Amy Grant, “The Queen of Christian Pop.” The businessman will stop at nothing to prevent this from happening, however, so what’s needed is another Festivus, er, Christmas miracle. Victoria Jackson, Michael W. Smith, Jim E. Chandler, Jay DeMarcus and, of all people, skater Scott Hamilton all contribute to the inspirational, if highly predictable film.

Confessions of a Young American Housewife/Sin in the Suburbs: Blu-ray
Two years ago, Film Movement unveiled its acquisition of “classic titles” by the notorious sexploitation and erotica filmmaker, Joe Sarno. The relationship had already begun in 2014, when the New York-based company released A Life in Dirty Movies, a captivating documentary about Sarno and his wife, Peggy, and their attempt to make one last film, in Sweden, before his death in 2010. It must have sold well, because Film Movement and Film Media have since partnered to restore and release Vampire Ecstasy (1973) and Sin You Sinners (1963). The second installment included All the Sins of Sodom (1968) and Vibrations (1968). The newly restored and repackaged triple-feature, Confessions of a Young American Housewife (1974), Sin in the Suburbs (1964) and Warm Nights & Hot Pleasures (1964) is now available for the titillation of old fans and edification of those of us interested in the evolution of sexploitation and pornography in the 1960-70s. To this end, Sin in the Suburbs may be of the most interest to buffs. It was made at the dawn of the sexual revolution, when movies and television shows based on such novels as “Peyton Place” and “Valley of the Dolls” were gaining traction among mainstream audiences, and Russ Meyer and Radley Metzger were finding acceptance outside the underground. For Sin in the Suburbs, Sarno went so far as to research reports of wife-swapping, group gropes, secret sex clubs, key parties and rampant adultery in parts of America previously considered to be square and conformist. The film, which is largely devoid of T&A, depicts alternative sexual behavior with candor, while also telling a recognizable, somewhat moralistic story.  The slightly more graphic Warm Nights & Hot Pleasures follows three ambitious college graduates (a.k.a., coeds) – Hugh Hefner would have characterized them as prototypical “girls next-door” — eager to split the boonies and make their mark on Broadway. After renting a room from a model for men’s magazines, they’re immersed in a lurid world of wild parties, risqué men’s clubs and tattered casting couches. Soon, each woman must decide how far she is willing to go for some semblance of stardom. Because everything takes places 50 years before the #MeToo movement, the film’s prescience is worth noting. The men are appropriately sleazy and the women in dire need of a gift certificate for Frederick’s of Hollywood. (The lingerie looks as if it was ordered from a Sears catalogue.) Sin in the Suburbs includes commentaries by historian Tim Lucas, and with Joe and Peggy Sarno, producer and documentarian Michael Vraney (That’s Sexploitation!) and Frank Henenlotter (Frankenhooker).

Confessions of a Young American Housewife is noteworthy for a couple of different reasons. Released two years after the hard-core classics, Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door, made headlines, and a year after The Devil in Miss Jones, “Confessions” risked irrelevance by being decidedly soft-core (the absence of penetration of any orifice) and telling a story that demanded one’s attention. Unlike the other films in this package, “Confessions” was shot in color, as well. Already a genre star, Jennifer Welles plays recent widow Jennifer Robinson – Mrs. Robinson, if you will – who pays a visit on her daughter, Carole (Mary Mendum), who lives in a Manhattan apartment building with her husband, Eddie (David Hausman), and their swinger neighbors, Anna (Chris Jordan) and Pete (Eric Edwards). Initially, Carole fears that her vivacious 37-year-old mother will spoil the party, but she proves to be increasingly permissive. In fact, as hard as she tries, Jennifer is incapable of turning down the sexual overtures of her daughter’s friends. She even initiates a hookup with a grocery-delivery guy, whose wife just left him for another man. Normally, this would be more than enough drama to fill in the blanks between sex scenes in a hard-core movie. At 105 minutes, “Confessions” is 44 minutes longer than “Throat” and a half-hour longer than “Green Door.” The sex scenes are undeniably hot, if tame compared to the action in other “Golden Age” adult films. Somehow, Sarno gets enough from his actors – most of them already tested in XXX films and loops — to keep the reasonably compelling narrative moving in a forwardly direction. If I’m not mistaken, it would set a standard for other filmmakers in the Boogie Nights era. The Film Movement package adds a “mini-commentary” by Sarno; full commentary by Tim Lucas; and deleted and alternative scenes.

A Swingers Weekend
I don’t know if polyamory exists outside the R-rated borders of the premium-cable universe or if it’s simply a fancy word for swinging. One of things that differentiate swingers from the couples introduced in Showtime’s “Polyamory: Married & Dating” is that swingers consider their seemingly random sexual hookups — as practiced within groups of like-minded men and women — to be a lifestyle choice, while polyamorous families (a.k.a., pods) maintain monogamous relationships with more than one “spouse.” Wife-swapping, previously mapped in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), is something else entirely. Don’t quote me on any of that, because I only know what I hear on talk- and reality-based shows. Writer/director Jon E. Cohen’s debut feature, A Swingers Weekend – with fellow freshman co-writer Nicola Sammeroff – appears not to have a firm hold on either concept. The story opens at a posh lakeside house owned or leased by Lisa and Dan (Erin Karpluk, Randal Edwards), who’ve invited fellow yuppies TeeJay and Skai (Michael Xavier, Erin Agostina) for a weekend of mutually sanctioned wife-swapping. Their plans are upended when a third, previously invited couple, Geoffrey and Fiona (Jonas Chernick, Mia Kirshner), shows up unexpectedly. By not honoring the RSVP ritual, the intruders have messed with Lisa’s math. After an uneasy dinner, the guests pair for their first night of extra-marital bliss … not.  None of them seems particularly comfortable in their own skin – or pajamas – let alone in a bed with someone whose genitalia are unfamiliar to them. Predictably, each of the couplings turn out differently, with each of the men and women interpreting the results according to their own emotional needs. Of the six individuals, three of them enjoy the sex enough to wake up with a smile, and one finds it revelatory. The other two profit from other aspects of the arrangement. In due course, however, a full range of human emotions come into play, threatening to ruin everyone’s marriage. A Swingers Weekend’s greatest flaw, besides the misleading title and lack of nudity, is the discrepancy between the talent of the seasoned actors and the weaknesses built into the screenplay by inexperienced filmmakers. By the afternoon of the second day, genuine interpersonal dynamics are trumped by safe and predictable clichés and under-the-covers foreplay. Richard Pell’s music, the attractive ensemble cast – four out of six of them, anyway — and the lovely setting make A Swinger’s Weekend a better fit for the small- screen streaming and rentals.

Showtime: All Styles
Power Rangers: Choujin Sentai Jetman: The Complete Series
PBS: Mister Rogers: It’s You I Like
Sesame Street: Elmo’s World: Elmo Explores
Nick Jr.: Top Wing
Nick Jr: Snow Awesome
Angela Tucker’s debut feature, All Styles, is a dance drama about a young hip-hop artist, Brandon (Dushaunt Fik-Shun Stegall), who is rejected by his old crew for heading off to college before a major competition. Dissed from afar, Brandon assembles a ragtag crew of amateurs to face off against his former friends, all of whom have professional ambitions. A prize of $50,000 is at stake. Stegall is a veteran of “So You Think You Can Dance,” as are Hokuto “Hok” Konishi and Emilio Dosal. Heather Morris appeared in 95 episodes of “Glee” and was a back-up dancer for Beyoncé. It goes without saying that the dancing is quite a bit more entertaining than any mystery surrounding the outcome of the contest.

What I know about the “Power Rangers” universe wouldn’t fill a thimble and, judging from the Wikipedia page devoted to “Choujin Sentai Jetman,” I’d need another entire childhood to master the details. What I do know is that Shout!Factory has released the entire 51-episode series, which aired on Japan’s TV Asahi from February 15, 1991, to February 14, 1992. It is the last “Sentai” series, until “Ressha Sentai ToQger,” to not get adapted into a “Power Rangers” series. The boxed set, “Power Rangers: Choujin Sentai Jetman: The Complete Series,” is the first pre-“Mighty Morphin Sentai” series to be released in North America on DVD. The Japanese tokusatsu is the 15th entry in the long running “Super Sentai” series. Apparently, it was intended to be one of the first entries into what would become known as “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” but the heavy drama and adult-oriented content proved difficult to adapt to western tastes. Neither, reportedly, was Fox keen on a show about teenagers with avian powers.

PBS’ celebration of the 50th anniversary of “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” kicked off last March with “Mister Rogers: It’s You I Like.” The hourlong documentary – plus 30 minutes of bonus material added to the DVD — pays tribute to the beloved Fred Rogers and the nearly 900 episodes of his landmark children’s television program. The retrospective, hosted by Michael Keaton, takes viewers on memorable visits to Koko the Gorilla and to the Crayola crayon factory. Loving testimony is provided by Judd Apatow, Joyce DiDonato, Whoopi Goldberg, Chris Kratt, John Lithgow, Nicholas Ma, Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Sarah Silverman, Esperanza Spalding and Caroll Spinney.

From PBS’ “Sesame Street” collection, “Elmo’s World: Elmo Explores” provides a bright and lively update of the venerable series. Here, Elmo tackles 13 topics with his new friend, Smartie the Smartphone, and his old pal, Mr. Noodle. Pre-schoolers will enjoy learning along with Elmo about painting, cooking, homes, habitats, Father’s Day, skin, camouflage, recycling, instruments, books, seasons, siblings and colors, with two episodes of “The Furchester Hotel” and three classic “Elmo’s World” episodes: “Music,” “Pets” and “Drawing.”

Nick Jr.’s “Top Wing” introduces best friends and cadets-in-training at Top Wing Academy — Swift, Penny, Rod and Brody — where they learn what it takes to gain their wings and become rescue birds on Big Swirl Island. Swift is a blue jay and the fastest pilot at the academy; Penny, the only female in the group, is a penguin; Brody is a puffin, who takes a more grounded approach; and Rod, a rooster who’s is ready to fly around the island in his all-terrain vehicle. The four friends are joined by their mentor, Speedy, who helps the cadets on their different missions. “Top Wing” focuses on the importance of teamwork and the ability to successfully solve problems. The DVD is comprised of seven Season One episodes, “Time to Earn Our Wings,” “Race Through Danger Canyon,” “Rod’s Big Jump,” “Treasure Map Mission,” “Goose on the Loose,” “Shirley Squirrely Flies Away” and “Lunch Box Rescue.”

Also from Nick Jr, “Snow Awesome” takes pre-schoolers on winter adventures culled from the channel’s popular preschool series “Nella the Princess Knight,” “Sunny Day” and “Shimmer and Shine.”

The DVD Wrapup: Solo, Izzy, Mountain, Uncle Drew, Gotti, The Row, Sumer Nights, Seagull, Mountain, American Psycho, Day of Jackal, The Baby, Freaky Friday, Human Body … More

Thursday, September 27th, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Normally, any picture that records worldwide revenues of $393 million would be considered a success. Only in the Disney/Lucasfilms universe would such a number disappoint studio executives and provide pundits an opportunity to dismiss Solo: A Star Wars Story as a flop, with losses of more than $50 million. Apparently, with an estimated production budget of $275 million, the film would have needed to gross at least $500 million worldwide to have a chance at breaking even. By contrast, last December’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi performed extremely well, returning $1.33 billion in global revenues. According to the folks at Rotten Tomatoes, critics liked both movies more than audiences, whose responses were lukewarm. In July, Lucasfilm Animation released on DVD the fourth and final season of “Star Wars Rebels,” which ran on Disney XD. This, in addition to four years’ worth of novels, comics, video games and other downloadable content. Suddenly concerned that overfamiliarity with the “Star Wars” brand caused “Solo” to underperform at the box office, Disney CEO Bob Iger said in an interview last week that he takes complete blame for pushing the products “a little too much, too fast.” Looking ahead to next year’s release of J.J. Abrams’ “Episode IX,” he added, “I think we’re gonna be a little bit more careful about volume and timing. And the buck stops here on that.” Solo: A Star Wars Story’s problems probably began, however, with the much-publicized firing of the film’s original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie), and hiring of Academy Award-winner, Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind). Working alongside screenwriters Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan, it’s likely that Howard re-shot more than eighty percent of the movie, which describes how Han Solo befriended his future co-pilot, Chewbacca, and formed a lasting relationship. It’s also likely that audiences failed to respond to the little-known actor, Alden Ehrenreich (The Yellow Birds), chosen to play the swaggering airman.

As the film opens, young Han is an orphan desperate to escape – along with his girlfriend, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) – corruption, brutality and forced labor on the planet Corellia. In exchange for passage on an outgoing transport, they bribe an Imperial officer with a stolen sample of coaxium, a powerful hyperspace fuel. Qi’ra is caught by stormtroopers before she can board the ship. Han vows to return for her after he joins the Imperial Navy as a flight cadet. Three years later, Han’s insubordination has caused him to be expelled from the academy and ordered to serve as an infantryman. During a battle, he encounters a gang of criminals posing as Imperial soldiers, led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newtown). He tries to blackmail them into taking him with them on a mission to steal a shipment of coaxium from a speeding train. Instead, Beckett has him arrested for desertion and thrown into a pit to be fed to a beast – the Wookiee, Chewbacca – who, instead, is impressed by Han’s ability to speak his language. Together, they persuade Beckett to work together to escape their confinement. Beckett works for Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), a high-ranking crime boss in the Crimson Dawn syndicate. To Han’s delight, Vos’ top lieutenant turns out to be Qi’ra, who leads them to the accomplished smuggler, Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). Han challenges Lando to a game of cards, with the wager amounting to possession of Lando’s ship, the Millennium Falcon. Han’s navigational skills are on full display on the hazardous journey to Kessel, where they hope to steal the coaxium and sell it to Vos. Before that can happen, though, Han and Qi’ra encounter rebels committed to preventing the syndicates and the Galactic Empire from gaining greater domination over the galaxy. Han will play another fateful game of sabacc, once again for full possession of the Falcon. The ending leaves plenty of room for a sequel, or two, if Iger decides the risk is worth the effort.

Although Solo: A Star Wars Story overflows with action – chases, shootouts, combat – the movie’s greatest appeal is to Star Wars obsessives, who will enjoy identifying the dozens of references and homages to previous installments in the saga. The Kasdans’ screenplay also adds humorous elements to the narrative, which occasionally gets bogged down in myth building. The 4K UHD package arrives with a separate Blu-ray copy and disc containing bonus features. The 4K presentation handles the frequently dark and shadowy color palette quite well, and the audio gets a boost from the Dolby Atmos track. (The Blu-ray features a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 lossless soundtrack.) The supplemental package includes deleted scenes and featurettes, “Solo: The Director & Cast Roundtable,” “Kasdan on Kasdan,” “Remaking the Millennium Falcon,” “Escape From Corellia,” “The Train Heist,” “Team Chewie,” “Becoming a Droid: L3-37,” “Scoundrels, Droids, Creatures and Cards: Welcome To Fort Ypso” and “Into the Maelstrom: The Kessel Run.” Howard likely ran out of time in post-production to create a commentary track.

Izzy Gets the F… Across Town
Christian Papierniak, known primarily for directing the video-game series “NBA 2K,” makes his feature debut with Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town, which is a road picture in the same way that “Ulysses” was a road novel … in miniature. His stand-in for Stephen Dedalus here is the tall, blond, accident-waiting-to-happen, Izzy (Mackenzie Davis), who, like so many other overeducated Gen-Xers, followed their bliss to L.A., where it got lost in the smog. A musician by inclination and a caterer’s assistant out of necessity, Izzy currently is wearing out her welcome as a house guest of a pregnant friend (producer Meghan Lennox) and waiting for her car to be fixed by SoCal’s laziest mechanic. On the day in question here, Izzy wakes up in the Santa Monica apartment of a stranger, George (Lakeith Stanfield), who can’t recall how she got there, either. Confused and more than a little bit embarrassed, she can’t wait to return to her friend’s home, where’s she’s asked to find another couch to occupy. Desperately searching for a sign, as well as some sort of direction in life, Izzy naturally touches base with her Facebook account. To her great consternation, she learns that her ex-boyfriend, Roger (Alex Russell), and ex-BFF, Whitney (Sarah Goldberg), about to announce their engagement at a swank party across town. (In L.A., that’s a highly relative, quasi-metaphysical distance.)

Izzy has four hours and no easy way to get from Santa Monica to Los Feliz, which she mispronounces. She refuses to take the bus – not unusual for a West Sider — and appears to be unaware of the Metro Rail system, which would have gotten her there in 90 minutes, tops. That limits her choices to a bicycle, scooter, hitching rides and less-dignified modes of transportation. (Ironically, Izzy’s temporary lover, George, is a helicopter pilot, who could have cut the journey to five minutes, if she had bothered to take his number.) Along the way, she touches base with a half-dozen old friends and acquaintances, all of whom contribute a piece to the puzzle that is Izzy. Davis, who was so terrific as the punk techie in “Halt and Catch Fire,” is nothing short of riveting in the lead role. Brilliant supporting performances are turned in, as well, by Carrie Coon, Haley Joel Osment, Alia Shawkat, Annie Potts and Lakeith Stanfield. As the title might argue, Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town isn’t a picture that will appeal to viewers who aren’t drawn to festival and indie fare. Izzy’s personality, which corresponds to the Riot Grrrl soundtrack, might grate on them, as well. I dug it … sue me. The bonus features include an informative, nearly feature-length making-of featurette; commentary; and deleted scenes.

Gotti: Blu-ray
If pundits wasted the same amount of time speculating on nominees for Razzie Awards as they do pondering Oscar, Globe and Emmy finalists, they wouldn’t have to look much further than Gotti. I suspect that, in addition to Worst Picture, nominations will include Worst Actor (John Travolta), Worst Supporting Actor (Spencer Rocco Lofranco), Worst Director (Kevin Connolly), Worst Screenplay (Leo Rossi, Lem Dobbs), Worst Screen Combo (Travolta and his real-life wife, Kelly Preston) and, in a longshot bid, the Rotten Tomatoes Award: Razzie Nominee So Bad You Loved It! This isn’t to say, of course, that Gotti is as bad movies that suffered from anemic budgets, rushed deadlines, inexperienced actors and directors, and were released into a handful of theaters, before being sent out on VOD and Blu-ray. Razzies are weighted toward movies with adequate budgets, at least; the profiles of their actors, directors and writers; and anticipations of commercial success. Gotti qualifies on all counts … including being so bad that some viewers loved it. It isn’t completely unwatchable, but, at 112 minutes, Gotti is tough sledding.

Travolta appears to be giving it his all in his depiction of the Teflon Don … warts, rage issues and all. It’s a perfectly credible performance. For whatever reasons, though, the filmmakers continually contrast Travolta’s John Gotti Sr. with images of the real mafioso, not just in the closing credits, as would be expected. If it weren’t for some dead-on casting decisions – the actors look as if they’ve spent time in prison – Gotti could easily pass for a reality-based crime show on cable TV. The difference between this biopic and others we’ve all seen is the emphasis on the father-son relationship between John Sr. and John Jr., especially as depicted in a final one-to-one meeting in prison. The reason those scenes are tainted is the cooperation between the filmmakers and Gotti’s children, Victoria and John Gotti Jr., who reportedly were on set during most of the shoot as consultants and supplied family movies to “help with accuracy of their father’s portrayal.” Travolta was awarded the title role after the family personally asked for him. (An offer he couldn’t refuse?) The A&E documentary mini-series, “Gotti: Godfather and Son,” not only opened in the same week as Gotti, but it also received John Jr.’s support and cooperation. That includes segments from a 90-minute video of the last visit between a dying John Sr. and his son at the United States Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Mo., which is depicted in the feature film. For that reason and a dozen others, Gotti deserves all the Razzie nominations it’s likely to receive.

Uncle Drew: Blu-ray/4K UHD
When Cannes Film Festival organizers banned films without theatrical distribution in France from competing in its annual sop to esteemed cinema and celebrity worship, they inadvertently provided other high-profile festivals with all off the bargaining chips they’d need to attract top-shelf titles and filmmakers. Among the films that looked elsewhere for recognition were Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold the Dark, Paul Greengrass’ 22 July and two Orson Welles–related offerings: The Other Side of the Wind and Morgan Neville’s documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead. What would the Cannes poohbahs make of the credentials presented by Charles Stone III and Jay Longino’s Uncle Drew … not that they would have gotten that far? The entertaining hoops comedy was accorded a theatrical release – and did quite well, thank you – it is an extension of a successful five-year webisode campaign, featuring a character from Pepsi Max advertisements. Celtics star Kyrie Irving plays the title character, with additional contributions by such former NBA players as Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller and Nate Robinson; former WNBA player, Lisa Leslie; and comedic actors Lil Rel Howery, Erica Ash, J.B. Smoove, Mike Epps, Tiffany Haddish and Nick Kroll. Also making cameo appearances as themselves are Sal Masekela, John Calipari, Jon Hammond, Scoop Jackson, Pee Wee Kirkland, Earl Monroe, Chris Mullin, Bill Walton, George Gervin, Steve Nash, David Robinson, Jerry West, Dikembe Mutombo, NeNe Leakes, Rick Barry, Rick Ross and Ben Nethongkome.

Irving’s Uncle Drew is a former playground-basketball legend, whose reputation would have been sealed if, back in the day, his team hadn’t disbanded before the prestigious Rucker Classic, in New York. Years later, he’s recruited by Dax (Howery), a streetball-team manager, who has a score to settle with a rival, Mookie (Kroll), and his gold-digging girlfriend, Jess (Haddish). In ways far too complicated to summarize, Drew and Dax are somehow able to round up the old, gray-haired ballers – a blind man, a man in a wheelchair, a married pastor and his wife, and a retiree taught in the ways of kung-fu — and compete against Mookie’s team in the finals. If Uncle Drew is every bit as silly and illogical as it sounds, there’s no discounting its entertainment value. Stone’s previous hits have included Mr. 3000 (2004) and Drumline (2002), while Longino contributed the story and screenplay to Skiptrace (2016). The DVD/Blu-ray/4K UHD adds a “Dear Drew” animated short; seven deleted scenes; featurettes “Who is Uncle Drew? The Making of a Basketball Icon,” “Youngbloods of Comedy” and “Bucket Seats & Boom Boom Rooms: Uncle Drew’s Van”; and commentary with Stone.

The Row: Blu-ray
The cover of Matty Beckerman’s sophomore follow-up to Alien Abduction (2014) suggests that The Row will trod in the bloody footprints of such Golden Age slasher classics as Black Christmas (1974), The House on Sorority Row (1983), The Initiation (1984) and Sorority House Massacre (1986). Instead of beaucoup coed nudity, the R-rating has been attached to it for “bloody violence, language, drug and alcohol abuse, and some sexual content,” which is limited to bras and panties, during the sorority’s initiation ritual. The killings are grisly, but they’re held to splatter shots and the killer’s habitual staging of victims to look like dolls. In addition to the names and images of the actors playing vulnerable sorority sisters — Lana Kent, Mia Frampton, Sarah McDaniel, Tanya Mityushina – there’s “and Randy Couture,” a UFC hall-of-famer who normally is afforded higher billing. If there’s one thing that’s hard to buy about the role played by the heavily muscled and lantern-chinned action star here, it’s that he could be the father of the delicate freshman beauty, Riley (Kent), who plays a central role in the vengeful killer’s plans. While Riley is smart enough to understand the limitations of Greek life on campus, she’s easily led astray by the promise of endless parties, bottomless kegs of beers and handsome frat boys. What she doesn’t know about her mother’s history with the sorority she’s chosen to pledge could very well lead to her death, however. Normally, Couture’s Detective Cole would be monitoring Riley’s every move, but he’s got his hands full with a case that left a cop dead and several important questions unanswered. And, anyway, how much trouble could a potential All-America party girl get into in less than a week? That’s rhetorical … plenty. By attempting to squeeze two opposing narratives into an 85-minute movie – a father/daughter heart-tugger and investigation into a heinous crime — screenwriter Sarah Scougal (Albion: The Enchanted Stallion) ends up shortchanging both storylines. Not surprisingly, however, the party scenes and hazing rituals are afforded plenty of time to titillate male viewers. The Blu-ray adds director’s commentary and a making-of featurette.

Hot Summer Nights
Filmed several months before Timothée Chalamet assured his future as the Oscar-nominated star of Call Me By Your Name (2017), Hot Summer Nights would provide the 21-year-old New Yorker the kind of showcase for which most other young actors would kill. As it turns out, however, he wouldn’t need it. With high-profile appearances in Lady Bird, Miss Stevens and Love the Coopers already on the books, Chalamet’s ticket already was punched before Hot Summer Nights snuck in and out of release in July. In fact, freshman writer/director Elijah Bynum probably thought that the stylish coming-of-age story would serve as stepping board for his own career. Unfortunately, the genre is so oversubscribed with boys-to-men dramas that it’s tougher for a filmmaker to prove there’s more than one bullet in his gun. Here, Chalamet plays a troubled teenager, still mourning the untimely death of his father. Frustrated by his inclination to mope around the house and start fires, Daniel’s mother decides to send him away to live with his aunt on Cape Cod. Neither a “summer bird” nor a local, Dan easily maintains a low profile in the summer mecca for well-heeled tourists and their kids, whose idea of a good time doesn’t necessarily include spending every waking hour laying on a blanket in the sun or trying to catch a glimpse of a Kennedy. Hot Summer Nights takes place in the 1980s, well before the legalization of marijuana and on the cusp of the cocaine and AIDS epidemics. Things change when Dan hooks up with

Hunter Strawberry (Alex Roe), a charismatic drug dealer with a certain resemblance to James Dean … at least, in Dan’s voice-over narration. The boy turns out to be a natural salesman. His heightened self-esteem not only attracts the attention of the island’s hottest babe, McKayla (Maika Monroe), but also local hoodlums interested in maintaining their market share. Once that happens, Bynum makes sure we know that a storm is a’brewing, by adding the threat of Hurricane Bob to the mix. The climax may come off as being a tad elegiac, but it isn’t out of context. The disc adds commentary and a making-of featurette.

Scarlet Diva: Blu-ray
After re-watching Asia Argento’s semi-autobiographical Scarlet Diva — released in the U.S. 16 years ago to decidedly mixed reviews – I was interested in checking out what critics had to say about it, divorced from the writer/director/star’s widely publicized accusations against producer Harvey Weinstein. (And, of course, a charge made against her by a then-teenage lover.) In his review in the August 9, 2002, issue of the New York Times, A.O. Scott pretty much nailed mainstream pundits’ frustrations with the 2002 film, which struck a chord that wouldn’t be heard until 2018. “(Scarlet Diva) is, by conventional standards, a fairly terrible movie — crudely shot on digital video, indifferently acted (in three languages) and chaotically written (by Ms. Argento) — but it is also weirdly fascinating, a ready-made Eurotrash cult object. It is also, at times, curiously moving.” Scott concludes by observing, “So, if there is something comically self-indulgent in Ms. Argento’s direction, and in her performance, there is also evident bravery. The thesis of Scarlet Diva — that the cinema’s icons of young, female sex appeal are subject to constant abuse and exploitation and that they find both pleasure and anguish in such attention — is hard to dispute. Ms. Argento’s response, at once earnest and thoroughly calculated, is to take revenge by exploiting herself more thoroughly than anyone else could, turning sado-masochism, which is customarily played as a duet, into a solo performance.”

If an alarm wasn’t sounded, then, about the mistreatment of actresses by men hoping to use their power as an aphrodisiac, it’s because, 1) such complaints were routinely ignored and/or denied in the media, 2) actresses as flakey as Argento were rarely taken seriously, and 3) virtually no one saw the movie. Today, Scarlet Diva looks like a documentary. In it, Argento plays 24-year-old Italian actress Anna Battista, who’s emerged from the long shadow of her filmmaker father and become a legitimate star. Unwilling to avoid the obvious pitfalls of celebrity, Anna abuses drugs and booze, while associating with addicts, dealers and rock stars. For a while, anyway, it looks like fun. Like Argento, Anna faces her come-to-Jesus moment of truth in a posh hotel in Cannes, where she’s assaulted by a producer who promises her gigs with Robert DeNiro and Gus Van Sant, but only in exchange for a massage and sex. She’ll be ambushed by him, again, in Los Angeles. While I have to assume that industry insiders easily recognized Weinstein in the absurdly drawn producer, Paar (Joe Coleman), he wielded the kind of clout that easily trumped Argento’s innuendos. In Film Movement Classics’ Blu-ray edition, Argento delivers a pair of commentaries, vintage and up-to-date. In the latter, she not only implicates the former Miramax boss by name, but she also repeatedly refers to him as a “pig.” Neither does she spare old boyfriends, self-serving publicists and agents, and her drug-buddies. Newly restored in high-def, Scarlet Diva includes an interview with the filmmaker; a making-of featurette and “Looking into the Eye of the Cyclops,” with Joe Coleman; a 2018 theatrical trailer; and original release promos.

The Seagull
Mention Anton Chekhov or any other Russian playwright, for that matter, to the average filmgoer and their eyes will glaze over before you have time to change the subject. The fact is, though, Chekhov’s plays and stories translate easily into languages other than Russian and the strengths and foibles of his characters are shared by men and women everywhere. He lowered the boundaries separating drama and comedy, and allowed his characters to resolve their own dilemmas, without resorting to heroes and villains to do it for them. Even better, perhaps, all his exceptional works are in the public domain, so studios could even do away with screenwriters, if they so choose. It explains why 487 writing credits have been accorded Chekhov at Working from a screenplay by Stephen Karam (Speech & Debate), Tony Award-winner Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening”) has Americanized the dialogue, but, otherwise, maintained the Russian period setting of The Seagull. One summer, at a lakeside Russian estate, friends and family gather for a weekend in the countryside. While everyone is caught up in passionately loving someone who loves somebody else, a tragicomedy unfolds about art, fame, human folly and the eternal desire to live a purposeful life. The film’s greatest selling point is a sterling cast that includes Annette Bening, as the aging diva, Irina; Saoirse Ronan, as Nina, an aspiring actress and competitor for the attentions of her lover, Boris (Corey Stoll); Brian Dennehy, as Irina’s extremely ill brother; Billy Howle, as the maligned experimental playwright, Konstantin; and, in key supporting roles, Elisabeth Moss, Mare Winningham and Jon Tenney. The Seagull was filmed in Upstate New York in 2005, but only debuted this spring in Russian and the Tribeca Film Festival. The DVD adds a pair of group interviews and post-screening Q&As, as well as a making-of featurette.

Mountain: Blu-ray
In 1923, when mountaineer George Mallory was asked why he was so determined to climb Everest, he said, “Because it’s there.” Few people recall the words that followed that pithy rationale, “Everest is the highest mountain in the world, and no man has reached its summit. Its existence is a challenge. The answer is instinctive, a part, I suppose, of man’s desire to conquer the universe.” Today, of course, people with more dollars than sense cue up in long lines to reach a summit that’s already been conquered, but, in an instant, can turn on them. As far as we know, Mallory never accomplished his goal. In fact, his frozen body wasn’t found until 1999, where it was discovered by climbers on the mountain’s north ridge. We’re introduced to some of the world’s most accomplished and driven athletes in Jennifer Peedom’s Mountain, a breathtaking meditation on climbing and the magnetic attraction of risking one’s life for no apparent reason than “because it’s there.” Employing drones, Go-Pro cameras and helicopters, Peedom captured 2,000 hours of footage in 22 countries, including Antarctica, Australia, Canada, Italy, Tibet, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States. Chamber music accompanies Willem Dafoe’s narration — drawn from Robert Macfarlane’s philosophical tome “Mountains of the Mind” – as German-born cinematographer Renan Ozturk captures spellbinding views of mountains whose craggy peaks, vertical faces and icy ridges make Everest look like a walk in the park. Sometimes, too, climbing to the top of a mountain isn’t sufficiently challenging. Mountain captures climbers tight-rope walking across organ-pipe peaks in Monument Valley; riding bikes and skiing off steep cliffs; BASE jumping; and using “wingsuits” to fly from mountain tops, through canyons and, with luck, land feet-first in valleys far below. The pristine Blu-ray adds interviews with the filmmakers and a making-of featurette.

Occupation: Blu-ray
Except for the ridiculously stringent R-rating, the alien-apocalypse thriller, Occupation, would fit neatly alongside the better movies that find their way to the Syfy channel. The thing American audiences might have more difficulty accepting is the aliens’ decision to invade a rural village in New South Wales, instead of heading directly to Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., or Manhattan, as is usually the case. The same basic conceit was applied to District 9 (2009), which was set in Johannesburg, South Africa, and involved giant hovering spacecrafts. Luke Sparke’s picture isn’t quite as accomplished as Neill Blomkamp’s impressive debut feature, but it’s probably because of budget constraints that even forced him to rely on unpaid extras and volunteers from greater Murwillumbah, NSW. It’s so Aussie-specific, in fact, that the central event is a game of Australian Rules Football, with an announcer who couldn’t be mistaken for American if he tried. The “alien” crop being cultivated by enslaved locals is an East Asian fruit called the fingered citron (a.k.a., Buddha’s Hand). And, while the Australian military holds its own against the invaders, it’s the plucky locals who standup to the standard-issue aliens and easily detect their weaknesses. Occupation has been compared to a micro-budget version of Independence Day, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Our Daily Bread: Blu-ray
We reviewed Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s amazing dissection of industrial food production when it was released on DVD, in 2009, and, again, as part of Icarus’ “Six Films by Nikolaus Geyrhalter,” on Blu-ray. I consider Our Daily Bread to be an important enough documentary to mention once again, without further elaboration. Without adding dialogue or narration, Geyrhalter lays out exactly how high-tech, 21st Century food production and agriculture looks, at a time when quantity is valued over home-grown tastes, and uniformity trumps artisanal peculiarities. Neither is Our Daily Bread an indictment of GMOs and other crimes of corporate agriculture. Instead, it captures the rhythms and routines, sights and sounds of conveyor belts, machines and conveniences invented for the sole purpose of making it easier and more affordable to feed the masses, mostly in Europe. Geyrhalter pays as much attention to the raising and butchering of animals, birds and fish, as it does to the seeds-to-harvest production of fruits and vegetables. The film’s honest approach to mass production will shock and disturb carnivores and vegans, alike, but not without purpose. If we are what we eat, it’s important to know what makes us tick and how it got there. Then, the decisions we make will come easy.

Full Circle: The Birth, Death & Rebirth of Circle of Dust
Records Collecting Dust II
James Rhodes’ loud and occasionally disruptive documentary uses the story of the genre-defying ’90s industrial project, Circle of Dust, to explore the places rock musicians go when almost no one’s paying attention, no one expects to get rich and entry into the Hall of Fame is as unlikely as a No. 1 hit. Full Circle: The Birth, Death & Rebirth of Circle of Dust traces the career of visionary artist, composer, technician and producer Klayton — who would gain some modicum of recognition for his category transcending project, Celldweller — through 30 interviews and dozens of hours of VHS footage from his personal archive. At one point, Circle of Dust was more popular in “Christian alternative-metal” circles than in other genres, but it also shared an audience with mainstream industrial audiences, who were less interested in religion than in hard-core noise. The documentary then goes into the problems faced by Klayton as a pioneer and the collapse and reinvention of subgenres and bands. Full Circle: The Birth, Death & Rebirth of Circle of Dust isn’t for everyone who’s ever put a quarter in a juke box. It’s as niche-y as these things get and that, after all, what rock music is all about.

Records Collecting Dust II is, not surprisingly, the sequel to San Diego-based musician and filmmaker Jason Blackmore’s obscure rock-doc, Records Collecting Dust (2015). In the original, Blackmore visited the homes and studios of such underground-music cohorts as Jello Biafra, Chuck Dukowski, Keith Morris and John Reis to discuss their vinyl-record collections, personal influences and “holy grails of alternative music icons.” While that doc focused on the genre’s west-coast contingent, “RCDII” concentrates on hardcore heroes from the east coast, including Ian MacKaye, of Minor Threat and Fugazi; John Joseph, of Cro-Mags; Roger Miret, of Agnostic Front; Dave Smalley, of DYS and Dag Nasty; Amy Pickering, of Fire Party and Dischord Records; and a couple of other rockers. Their first inspirations are frequently surprising.

American Psycho: Blu-ray/4K UHD
I’d forgotten the controversy that accompanied the publication of Bret Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho,” in 1991. At the same time as academics and critics raved about its “transgressive and postmodern qualities,” feminists condemned it as misogynistic and a veritable handbook for the rape and murder of career women and prostitutes. Some booksellers reportedly wrapped their copies of the novel in anticipation of protesters drenching them with blood. Although co-writer/director Mary Harron and writer Guinevere Turner’s adaptation tempered the more grisly aspects of the book, women’s advocacy groups anticipated a picture that would elevate gratuitous violence over razor-sharp social commentary. Once the dust cleared, American Psycho turned out to be equal parts horror, social commentary and inky black comedy. The misogyny is built into the DNA of the super-slick protagonist. Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) and other male characters – comically egomaniacal Wall Street yuppies – who measure their penises by the handiwork of their business cards and ability to score reservations at New York’s trendiest restaurants. Women are viewed as sexual objects and status symbols. (They’re also homophobic, racist and elitist.) Only the sociopathic, narcissistic and petty Bateman hates women to the extent that he is driven to harm and humiliate them. Harron delivers the horror in the broadest possible strokes. Typically, his worst instincts are trigged by some perceived slight at work or over drinks – he isn’t shown on the trading floor – and he doesn’t reserve his outbursts exclusively for women. Neither does the script save its arrows for the obvious targets. It also takes shots at Reagan-era consumerism, greed and dismissal of all social responsibility. Finally, Bateman is so removed from the non-material world world that he can’t separate fantasy from reality, innocence from guilt … and, in a huge twist, neither can we. The 4K UHD edition of American Psycho benefits from a new Dolby Atmos track, which is separate from the Blu-ray version, and the addition of DolbyVision/HDR. In addition to the vintage supplements ported over to the 4K disc, there’s new commentary by Harran and an excellent, 48-minute-long recap of the period and its excesses by scenesters and crew members.

The Day of the Jackal: Special Edition: Blu-ray
In 1971, Frederick Forsyth shot to best-seller status with his debut novel, “The Day of the Jackal,” which was taut, utterly plausible and almost documentarian in its realism and attention to detail. Two years later, director Fred Zinnemann (High Noon) turned that gripping novel into a nail-biting cinematic experience. The tick-tock procedural recalled an actual attempt on the life of French President Charles de Gaulle, authorized by the far-right paramilitary organization, the OAS. The string of events, as depicted in the movie, differed from the 1962 plot, which ended in failure. Anyone who’s read a history book in the last 50 years won’t consider that to be a spoiler, however. Demoralized by the recent loss of Algeria and a botched assassination attempt, OAS leaders meet in secret to plan their next move. In a last desperate attempt to eliminate de Gaulle, they opt to employ the services of a hired assassin from outside the fold. The Jackal (Edward Fox) is charismatic, calculating and cold as ice. It takes exacting police work, international cooperation and not a small degree of luck to locate the elusive suspect before a Liberation Day parade, which the president insists on attending. I’ve watched The Day of the Jackal several times and it hasn’t lost its ability to keep me glued to the screen. The Arrow Video edition only adds more fun to the experience. It includes a new interview with Neil Sinyard, author of “Fred Zinnemann: Films of Character and Conscience”; two rare archival clips from the film set, and an interview with the director; an original screenplay, by Kenneth Ross (BD-ROM); a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Peter Strain; and a collector’s booklet, with new writing by critic Mark Cunliffe and film historian Sheldon Hall.

The Baby: Special Edition: Blu-ray
When it comes to horror, there’s nothing more disturbing than the exploitation of children for the sake of some cheap thrills and/or uneasy laughs. The exploitation of special-needs children is exponentially worse, as is the debasement of adults so developmentally challenged that they’re treated like infants. In The Baby (1973), the title character is a 21-year-old man who sleeps in a crib, eats in a high-chair, crawls, bawls and wears diapers. Naturally, the audience’s mission is to decide for themselves whether Baby (David Mooney) is faking his deficiencies, and will strike back when sufficiently provoked, or if he will be the subject of indescribable torture. In fact, as conceived by director Ted Post (Hang ’Em High) and writer Abe Polsky (Brute Corps), it’s quite a bit more clever than the obvious scenarios would suggest. In it, Anjanette Comer (The Loved One) plays Ann Gentry, an idealistic Los Angeles County social worker investigating the case of Mrs. Wadsworth (Ruth Roman), her deceitful daughters, Germaine and Alba (Marianna Hill, Susanne Zenor), and, of course, Baby. After some initial observation, Ann comes to believe that the man-child’s problems can be traced more to neglect and abuse than to mental illness. Because the family’s life revolves around Baby’s care, and they are dependent upon his disability payments, the women attempt to end Ann’s meddling in the most expeditious way possible.

When she manages to escape the Wadsworths’ clutches, with Baby in town, the movie changes direction in a most unexpected fashion. Creepy and overflowing with dread, The Baby is, by every stretch of the definition, a cult movie. Its appeal is greatly enhanced by Post’s direction, however. In one of the featurettes, and interviews, we learn that the action director — his other credits include Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Go Tell the Spartans and Magnum Force – he practically had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the production. He came recommended by Clint Eastwood and, perhaps, after a year’s pleading, he surrendered to the possibility of making some easy money in genre work. The Arrow Video set adds new commentary by film historian Travis Crawford; a retrospective with film professor Rebekah McKendry; interviews with Post, Marianna Hill, David Mooney and painting creator Stanley Dyrector; a reversible sleeve, featuring newly commissioned artwork by the Twins of Evil; and a collector s booklet, featuring new writing by Kat Ellinger.

Exorcist II: The Heretic: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Absurd/Anthropophagous: Blu-ray
The [*REC] Collection: Blu-ray
The Bride: Blu-ray
It’s another good week for fans of vintage horror films in shiny new hi-def packages. Only a couple of them need much in the way of introduction. Widely reviled by fans and critics upon its 1977 release — people at an early screening hurled objects at the screen — Exorcist II: The Heretic is one of the most notorious stinkers of all time. The only people who wanted to make a sequel to William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty’s masterpiece were studio executives who wouldn’t listen to reason. Among those whose talents were wasted are director John Boorman, Richard Burton, Louise Fletcher, Max von Sydow, Paul Henreid, James Earl Jones and Linda Blair. Only the special effects and production were accorded a modicum of praise. The Scream Factory re-release contains both a 118- and 102-minute version of the film, new 2K scans from original film elements; new commentaries with Boorman, consultant Scott Bosco, Blair, editor Tom Priestley and Mike White; and still galleries, with rare color and B&W stills, behind-the-scenes and deleted-scene photos, posters and lobby cards.

In the early 1980s, when director Joe D’Amato and writer/actor George Eastman weren’t churning out soft-core cannibal epics, they put their heads together on less-infamous entertainments, Antropophagus and Absurd. Both tested the patience of critics and censors averse to intensely grisly murders and actors who were less interesting than the severed heads, disgorged innards and shiny axes. Neither did they offer much in the way of nudity, which was one of the filmmakers’ calling cards. Still, they’re not without their cultish appeal. In the former, a group of tourists – including Mia Farrow’s sister, Tisa — become stranded on an uninhabited Greek island, where they are stalked by an insane killer, who’s slaughtered the town’s former residents. Designed as a follow-up to that delightful attraction, Absurd (a.k.a., “Horrible”) features Eastman as Karamanlis, a man with a rare blood disease that causes his wounds to heal quickly and prevents him from dying. He escapes from a laboratory in Greece, where a priest has taken care of him, and somehow manages to board a plane to America where he then proceeds to raise hell, ripping to shreds anyone who crosses his path. Once here, he becomes more demented with each new killing. The priest is now tasked with killing the thing he helped bring to life. Absurd’s notoriety stems primarily from being named one of the UK’s original 74 “video nasties,” which kept them from public view. In addition to typically entertaining interviews with Italian exploitation specialists, Absurd contains a bonus CD soundtrack.

Scream Factory is also responsible for bringing back Franc Roddam’s revisionist adaptation of Bride of Frankenstein (1935), this time with actors who look as if they were inspired by the editors of Vogue, instead of Mary Shelley. In The Bride (1985), Sting plays the cunning scientist and Jennifer Beals – fresh off her triumph in Flashdance – assumes the spousal role immortalized by Elsa Lanchester. Clancy Brown plays her intended mate, Viktor, who will recoil from her gothic feminism. The package contains commentary and an interview with Roddam, as well as an interview with Brown.

Likewise, Scream Factory’s The [*REC] Collection arrives in plenty of time for holiday gifting … take your pick of the most appropriate one. It contains all four installments of the found-footage thriller from writers/directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza. The first film, [*REC], which is quite good, centers on a reporter and her cameraman covering a firefighter intervention in an apartment building in Barcelona. As the situation escalates after some of the building’s occupants show animalistic and murderous behavior and they find themselves confined inside the perilous building. REC 2, REC 3: Genesis and REC 4: Apocalypse are variations on the same theme. Plenty of bonus features are included. (The films here were directly adapted by John Erick Dowdle for the English-language Quarantine series.)

The Punisher/Punisher: War Zone: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Comic-book vigilante, the Punisher – a.k.a., Frank Castle – doesn’t come immediately to mind in discussions about the Marvel/Disney’s hugely successful universe of superheroes. It’s not for lack of trying, however. The character’s been featured in several stand-alone comic-book franchises and has appeared in series written for other Marvel superheroes. He’s also appeared in animated television series. His luck on the big screen has been substantially less noteworthy, however.  There’s nothing cute, cuddly or traditionally heroic about Frank Castle, an ex-cop whose family was murdered by mobsters. Now legally declared dead, he strikes back from beyond the grave, killing mobsters wherever he can find them … 125 in five years, all told. In 1989, the character was played by Dolph Lundgren. The movie was shown in several foreign markets, but it went straight-to-video here. The Punisher (2004), which starred Thomas Jane as the title character, didn’t do nearly as well as Lionsgate expected, leaving plans for a sequel on the drawing boards. Nonetheless, it’s being re-released on 4K UHD, along with the Lionsgate 2008 re-boot, Punisher: War Zone, starring Ray Stevenson, which bombed. As directed by former martial-arts champion and stuntwoman Lexi Alexander (Green Street Hooligans), it overflows with highly stylized violence that could easily be categorized as mindless. Castle has dedicated his life to eradicating the kind of gangsters who murdered his family, for witnessing a mob hit. But when he unknowingly kills an undercover FBI agent, Castle falls into a crisis of conscience and decides to lay down his guns. Unfortunately, one of the last gangsters he thought he’d killed survived – albeit, so horribly disfigured he’s nicknamed Jigsaw — and seeks revenge on the wife and daughter of the slain FBI agent. The bloodletting may be unrelenting, but action junkies and sadists shouldn’t be disappointed. I can’t recall another woman director so adept at choreographing extreme violence, as Alexander, but it hasn’t amounted to much on her resume, unfortunately. Both 4K UHD releases contain plenty of bonus features that weren’t available in the original Blu-ray releases.

Disney: Freaky Friday
PBS: The Amazing Human Body
PBS: The Mayo Clinic: Faith, Hope, Science
PBS: American Masters: Basquiat: Rage to Riches
CBS: The Carol Burnett Show: 50th Anniversary Special
Acorn/PBS: Midsomer Murders: Series 20
If the title, “Freaky Friday,” rings a bell, it’s probably because it’s been as much a part of the Disney empire as any of the rides at Disneyland. In fact, I’m surprised Mary Rodgers’ 1972 source novel hasn’t been adapted for exploitation as a theme park attraction, where moms and dads can swap bodies, personalities and positions of authority – or, lack thereof — with their children for a few hours. Wouldn’t that be fun? The property’s worked wonders for two generations of fans, at least, with the fourth iteration arriving this week on DVD. This “Freaky Friday” is unusual only in that it contains eight songs from the stage musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, along with one new song to close the show and an introductory number, written by Cozi Zuehlsdorff, who plays teenage Ellie. The stage version’s Heidi Blickenstaff returns to star in the Disney Channel version as Ellie’s mom, Katherine. Although the musical didn’t really take off commercially, the blame can’t be laid at the feet of its stars. They are as good as Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster (1976), Shelley Long and Gaby Hoffmann (1995) and Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan, who were only required to act. Disney trivia buffs may recall another adaptation, “Summer Switch” (1984), starring Robert Klein and Scott Schwartz, which aired as part of the “ABC Afterschool Special” series. In it, brother Ben and father Bill inadvertently switch bodies as both are leaving for the summer, leaving the boy to negotiate Hollywood and Dad to attend summer camp. Here, though, a confrontation arises when Katherine won’t allow Ellie to join “The Hunt,” an all-night scavenger quest, with her friends. Upon wishing the other would change their ways, they magically swap bodies through the power of an hourglass. Laughter ensues. As is typically the case in Disney Channel musicals, the songs and choreography are first-rate. The disc adds a blooper reel; an audition tape; and a bonus track, “Not Myself Today,” one of two deleted songs.

If there’s one thing in our lives that we all take for granted – until something goes wrong, at least – it’s our bodies. The three-part PBS series, “The Amazing Human Body,” reminds us that the human body is the most sophisticated organism on earth and much about it remains a mystery, even to doctors and scientists. It uses cutting-edge graphics to reveal the surprisingly beautiful biological processes that keep us alive and ticking. It also shows us the ingenious ways the body develops, adapts and endures the abuses we heap on it. It should be considered family viewing.

In a virtual double-feature, Ken Burns’ “The Mayo Clinic: Faith, Hope, Science” demonstrates how one institution has dealt with imperfections of the human body since its founding, nearly 150 years ago. The hospital has stood as a beacon of hope for people from all walks of life and income brackets, when they need it most. Its commitment to citizens of Minnesota began in 1883, when a deadly tornado tore through the then-small community of Rochester and William Worrall Mayo and his sons took charge of recovery efforts, enlisting the help of the nearby Sisters of Saint Francis to care for patients. Afterwards, Mother Alfred Moes, the leader of the convent, told Dr. Mayo she had a vision from God that instructed her to build a hospital, with him as its director. She believed it would become “world renowned for its medical arts.” The two-hour film features the voices of Tom Hanks, Sam Waterston, Blythe Danner and Josh Lucas, as well as interviews with such former patients as John McCain and the Dalai Lama.

PBS’ “Basquiat: Rage to Riches” follows “Wyeth” onto DVD, as a segment of the “American Masters” mini-series, “Artists Flight.” Basquiat was a graffiti artist, posing as a rock star, in the early ’80s New York art scene. It took less than a decade for the accountant’s son from Brooklyn to go from an anonymous tagger, known as SAMO, to one of the most widely recognized artists of his generation. Today, his work resides in the top tier of the international art market, along with Picasso, de Kooning and Francis Bacon. 2018 marks the 30th anniversary of Basquiat’s untimely death from a heroin overdose. “Basquiat: Rage to Riches” features exclusive interviews with the artists’ sisters, Lisane and Jeanine, who previously haven’t spoken about their brother and his art for a television documentary. With striking candor, art world colleagues, including dealers Bruno Bischofberger, Larry Gagosian and Mary Boone, and Basquiat’s most intimate friends, lovers and fellow artists, draw a portrait of a handsome, charismatic and fragile personality. It also divulges the cash, drugs and pernicious racism that he encountered. The main weapon Basquiat used to fight prejudice was his art.

One of the sad facts of life in the television industry is that nothing goes on forever. Very few of the shows and series continue, let alone thrive, after being canceled, losing a star or switching networks. Viewer loyalty only extends so far and, after a certain point, endless reruns on cable only remind us of what we’re missing. The good news is that television is as good as it’s ever been and may be getting better. The willingness on the part of premium networks and streaming services to pay top dollar for talent and products has been a godsend to everyone involved. So, what’s missing? Variety shows, like the ones hosted by Ed Sullivan, Dinah Shore, Garry Moore, Perry Como, Jackie Gleason and Carol Burnett. For a while, the gap was filled by Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and other late-night hosts. That changed when producers decided to cater to publicists handling commercial movies and TV shows, flavor-of-the-month stars, top-40 acts and only the occasional comedian. The days when a standup comic’s future was assured by an invitation to sit alongside Johnny are long gone, except on Showtime’s “I’m Dying Up Here.” “The Carol Burnett Show: 50th Anniversary Special,” newly released on DVD, also reminds me that entertainers also benefitted from being asked to join Burnett, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner, Tim Conway and Harvey Korman in sketches that ranged from silly to inspired and played to the widest possible television market, not just select demographic groups. “The Carol Burnett Show: 50th Anniversary Special,” which aired December 3, 2017, attracted an audience of 15.4 million viewers. The two-hour special built on its lead in from “60 Minutes” and pulled within a million viewers of “Sunday Night Football” in the Eastern and Midwest time zones. The one-night event, which was filmed at the series’ original soundstage at CBS Television City, in Los Angeles, features Burnett, Lawrence, Waggoner and costume designer Bob Mackie. Special guests include Jon Batiste, Beth Behrs, Jim Carrey, Kristin Chenoweth, Stephen Colbert, Harry Connick Jr., Kaley Cuoco, Bill Hader, Steve Lawrence, Jay Leno, Jane Lynch, Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Amy Poehler, Tracee Ellis Ross, Maya Rudolph and Martin Short. The Time Life/WEA package adds red-carpet footage, backstage interviews, anniversary wishes from Carol’s friends and fans, and a tribute booklet with production photos, notes from her guests and a special message from the host.

The beloved ITV series, “Midsomer Murders,” returned to American television last May, for a 20th season, via the Acorn streaming service. The six new feature-length episodes are set in England’s most murderous county. Detective Chief Inspector John Barnaby (Neil Dudgeon) and Detective Sergeant Jamie Winter (Nick Hendrix) investigate mysteries involving homicides, blackmail, greed and betrayal in and around the cozy villages and behind the well-trimmed hedges of Midsomer County. The titles include “The Ghost of Causton Abbey,” “Death of the Small Coppers,” “Drawing Dead,” “’Til Death Do Us Part” and “Send in the Clowns.” A new pathologist, Dr. Fleur Perkins, is played by Annette Badland (“Eastenders”).

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

Thursday, September 20th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 13th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 6th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 30th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 23rd, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 16th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 10th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thursday, July 26th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 19th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 12th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 5th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 27th, 2018

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